Dungeon Crawls In Space Are More Fun To Play Than Read

Blackstone Fortress is a tie-in novel. OK, all Warhammer 40,000 novels are tie-in novels by definition, but some are more tie-in novels than others. Whereas many pieces of Warhammer 40,000 fiction take inspiration from the game universe and its various sources of lore, Blackstone Fortress by Darius Hinks is intentionally crafted to coincide with the release of a specific Games Workshop product.

The product in question is Warhammer Quest: Blackstone FortressWarhammer Quest, back in the day, was a sort of followup to the classic HeroQuest boardgames which had such memorable TV advertsHeroQuest itself was Games Workshop’s take on the “dungeon crawl” subcategory of boardgame, which for a long time HeroQuest was the most famed and widely-played example of until it fell out of print, Warhammer Quest superseded it and then also fell out of print, and then new games in the same vein like Descent or Gloomhaven and the like arose to fill the vacuum.

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Amazing Gary Jennings review has new home

Never read Gary Jennings myself, but I was greatly entertained by a former Ferretbrainer’s review of his work, which now has a new home here. Come for the weird take on history, stay (petrified in utter horror) at the incredibly squicky, rape-infused, and anatomically unlikely fetish fuel.

Star Wars As I Remember It

This is the first year in a while when we haven’t had a big Star Wars release around Christmas, Disney deciding to unleash Solo on us early – the combination of botched promotional marketing and market oversaturation killing off a range of the spin-off movies they were planning on doing. I’d already tended to associate Star Wars movies with Christmas anyway, since I recall seeing the original trilogy on television when I was little at around that time (thankfully the Star Wars Christmas Special didn’t make it across the Atlantic), so to fill the gap I thought I’d rewatch the movies and share my thoughts on the rewatch here.

For this first article, I decided to finally get around to acquiring Harmy’s “despecialised editions” of the original trilogy. These fan edits by a team headed by Petr Harmáček are about as close as you can get to Blu-Ray-quality versions of the original theatrical releases of the movies. The desultory 2006 releases of the original cuts – sourced from Laserdiscs and not even presented in anamorphic widescreen – felt like adding insult to injury to many fans offended by the tweaks made to the Special Editions, and Harmy is famously the one who stepped up and, using a range of sources, produced fan edits showing just how good the movies could look with a bit of effort. Subsequent incremental updates to Harmy’s editions have incorporated a range of commentary tracks, bonus features, and most significantly improvements to the main feature here and there as a result of more sources coming to light.

But is all this really necessary, and even if it were, is it equally necessary for each film in the original trilogy? Let’s dive in and consider that.

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Where Kayfabe Becomes Omerta

Writing a taut, action-packed crime thriller trilogy set in the world of professional wrestling is a work of genius. Paul O’Brien, author of the Blood Red Turns Dollar Green trilogy, is no random stranger to the business – he co-wrote Jim Ross’s autobiography, for instance – and his knack for creating drama that everyone can enjoy out of the inside workings of the biz is admirable. On top of that, he has the sense of flair and drama that any good wrestling booker or crime novel author needs to have – as well as the knack for pulling the wool over the reader’s eyes in an entertaining fashion only to astonish you when he yanks it off again and reveals the truth about matters. (To that extent, being able to “work” the crowd – get them to believe a ruse – is a skill common to both fields.)

In addition, O’Brien cunningly teases out the commonalities between the world of professional wrestling as it existed back in the pre-WWF days of the local territory system and the world of the Mafia as depicted in The Godfather and other such cultural touchstones. After all, in both worlds you have regional franchises governed by a fractious bunch who get along together only for the sake of the money, and just as the Mafia has its code of silence – omerta – wrestling has the concept of “kayfabe”, the work put in to maintain the illusion that the fights are all 100% real and not predetermined in any way.

The Blood Red Turns Dollar Green trilogy unfolds in a slightly alternate version of wrestling history. Whilst the old school territory system was overseen in real life by the National Wrestling Alliance, here it’s the National Wrestling Council, and the wrestlers and promoters here are similarly imaginary. This deviation from reality allows O’Brien to present a sort of juiced-up, hyperbolic version of the era; the NWA was nowhere near as Mafia-like as O’Brien’s NWC in its dealings and in general relations between the owners of regional promotions were a bit cozier than they are presented as being here. (They saved more of their bile for the various “outlaw” promotions who’d try to set up here and there independently of the NWA, thereby cutting into their profits.)

But by dialling up the viciousness, O’Brien in effect establishes his own kayfabe – not the kayfabe of the fights themselves, but the kayfabe of the fights behind the fights, an illusory depiction of the backstage business of the wrestling world which is more immediately entertaining and exciting than the reality ever could be – and that’s saying something, considering some of the wild stories of behind-the-curtain shenanigans in wrestling that circulate.

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Beastly Sincerity

In writing A Magick Life Martin Booth sets himself a challenge. Biographies of figures like Aleister Crowley can be difficult because he was one of those people who devote their lives to subjects which believers take extremely seriously, but which sceptics tend to simply find amusing and/or disturbing (depending on just how prudish their instincts are).

In the case of Crowley, the subject in question is occultism and ritual magic, including sex magic rituals. This is the sort of subject matter people tend not to have mild, moderate, wishy-washy opinions about. For occultists, Crowley is either a hugely important figure in terms of recent innovations in the subject (Thelemites follow his system to this day, yet more draw on it, and chaos magicians tend to see his work as a necessary precursor to the sort of postmodern take they utilise) or one of the worst disasters to ever befall the field. Those who do not lend credence to occultism still tend to pass judgement on it; “it’s creepy and culty and manipulative” say some, “it’s an amusing eccentricity” say others, “it’s the work of the Devil” say yet others, “it’s asinine self-aggrandising nonsense” say still others.

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Chilling Out In the Afterlife

Catherynne Valente’s The Refrigerator Monologues is a treat-sized bag of short stories set in a homebrewed but decidedly familiar superhero universe – specifically, the afterlife of said universe. The Hell Hath Club are a group of dead women who lunch together at the same infernal cafe, swapping their stories of how they ended up dead; it is these stories which are the titular monologues, offering a take on The Vagina Monologues with less genitalia (though not no genitalia) and more… well… fridging.

Valente happily admits the debts she owes to Gail Simone for documenting and shining a light on the whole “women in refrigerators” thing, but through these stories she does an excellent job of teasing out different levels of insight into the phenomenon. There is, of course, the straight up comics criticism angle, and if you know your comics – or, at least, are close enough to geek culture to have picked up some knowhow via osmosis and are happy to Wikipedia the rest – you should be able to figure out which characters Valente is analytically spoofing most of the time. Though her self-made superhero universe isn’t ragingly original, she does do an excellent job of erecting a scaffolding where Totally Not Harley Quinn, Totally Not Jean Grey and various other Totally Nots inspired by different companies’ franchises can coexist in the same world – and she also throws in just enough original ideas and twists to make her reimaginings of the stories come alive. (In this vein, my favourite is probably the way she’s able to do an undersea Atlantis realm which doesn’t rely on the old fallbacks of a) humans under a dome, b) merfolk who are basically just humans with water breathing and maybe fish tails, or c) Deep Ones.)

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What the Victorians Read One-Handed

First emerging in 1877, Henry Spencer Ashbee’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum (so titled in parody of the Catholic Church’s own index of forbidden books) has been republished under various names – mine is a late-1960s paperback copy entitled Index of Forbidden Books. Published under the pseudonym of Pisanus Fraxi, it is the first of a three-volume series he did chronicling the expansive body of erotica in his book collection. Were it a mere book catalogue, there’d be little interesting about it; fortunately, as a bibliophile who had also published a number of bibliographic works about less scandalous subject matter, Ashbee had very developed opinions about literature, books, writing, and for that matter sex, and he freely comments on the books cited here as well as offering synopses and extensive quotes.

To an extent this means we end up with more of an insight into Ashbee’s preferences than we might have expected; he certainly seems to have a lot of works on the subject of flagellation, and sufficiently developed opinions on the subject that it’s clear that he’s given it a lot of thought. However, Ashbee’s commentary and analysis isn’t just restricted to giving an overview of what got his Victorian rocks off – it also gives us an insight both into the sheer variety of erotic literature available to those who knew where to look in the time period, but also a snapshot of social attitudes surrounding it, as well as an insight into a realm where, in part because more or less all overt discussion of sex was forbidden, there seems to have been little barriers between subject matter we would today find completely innocuous and material which we still consider taboo.

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