Friday, 24 March 2023

Riddles and Housekeeping in the Red Chamber

I have been reading the first volume of Cao Xueqin's 1760 novel The Story of the Stone, better known perhaps as The Dream of the Red Chamber. The translation is by David Hawkes, first published in 1973. It's one of the great classics of Chinese literature and a novel of manners; it even has its own field of study: Redology.

Anyway, Chapter 22 has a number of riddles, told as part of a game. I shall list these, with answers below under the picture - they all have fairly mundane answers, but Hawkes's translation, and the anthropomorphism of the riddles mean they could be used to describe divine messengers or elementals or other spirits.

  1. My Body's square
    Iron-hard am I.
    I speak no word,
    But words supply.
    [A useful object.]

  2. At my coming the devils turn pallid with wonder
    My body's all folds and my voice is like thunder.
    When, alarmed by the sound of my thunderous crash,
    You look round, I have already turned into ash.
    [An object of amusement.]

  3. Man's works and heaven's laws I execute,
    Without heaven's laws my workings bear no fruit.
    Why am I agitated all day long?
    For fear my calculations may be wrong.
    [A useful object.]

  4. In spring the little boys stand up and stare
    To see me ride so proudly in the air.
    My strength all goes when once the bond is parted,
    And on the wind I drift off broken-hearted.
    [An object of amusement.]

  5. At court levée my smoke is in your sleeve:
    Music and beds to other sorts I leave.
    With me, at dawn you need no watchman's cry,
    At night, no maid to bring a fresh supply.
    My head burns through the night and through the day,
    And year by year my heart consumes away.
    The precious moments I would have you spare,
    But come fair, foul, or fine, I do not care.
    [A useful object.]

  6. My 'eyes' cannot see and I'm hollow inside,
    When the lotuses surface I'll be by your side.
    When the autumn leaves fall I'll bid you adieu,
    For our marriage must end when summer is through.
    [A useful object.]

  1. An inkstone.
  2. A firework.
  3. An abacus.
  4. A kite.
  5. An incense-clock.
  6. A 'bamboo wife' - that is, one of 'those wickerwork cylinders which are put between the bedclothes in summertime to make them cooler'.

A brief piece of housekeeping for the blog - there's a number of posts I've written, on city or a region or a location, some moderately popular but without being tied to any given setting in particular and (generally) written to be quite self-contained. These are now under the label Translucent Polities, which seemed correct. Browse at your leisure.

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

The Sedentary Catacombs

When we say that the funerary customs of Assar-Ytite were egalitarian, it is important to clarify what we mean. Foreigners, even long resident respected merchants and publicly-feted ambassadors who died in that city would be required to pay for their own funerals and monuments in the cramped strip of ground set aside for that purpose. Likewise, the unransomed war captives who raised the great walls of the city and quarried the four reservoirs in the Houndstooth Hills - and ended their days in slit trenches. The cadaver of the executed criminal was thrown into a dedicated section of the city's midden, as was the criminal who died in the course of corporal punishment: the gods had clearly decided that the justice of men was insufficient for them. 

However, every burgher of the city, every cultivator, every weaver, every child-rearer, every coppersmith, every scribe, every priest and oracle, every citizen-soldier and captain of the host - every hereditary magistrate and anointed clansman was buried in the same place. 

If, that is, they could be. There were separate rites for the shipwrecked, the unreturned traveller, the devoured, the unrecovered war dead, the sorcerously befouled. These ceremonies were similar in form to those across the whole South-West: centred on the temple, formed of tearful addresses to the psychopomps and gods of the underworld, accompanied by sacrifices, dances and dirges. One famous chronicler of the last century has asserted that these are of a foreign origin - developed only with the growth of trade in the region. However, it is unlikely that so highly specific and focused a set of customs would be devoid of practices for when citizens died away from Assar-Ytite, even if they did come to be influenced by neighbouring beliefs. 

The dead of Assar-Ytite were buried in catacombs of the city: long tunnels dug into the rock, running under the tiled houses and arcaded plazas into the wilderness. Each corpse was dressed and placed on a throne - throne after throne stretching on either side of the long corridors.

After its customs, the city provided the burial place. The family (or the coffers of the season's magistrate) provided the throne. Naturally, thrones differed. Brick thrones were the norm for the poorest. Glazed tiles patterned the visible sections of the middle ranks. Carved stone was for those who could afford it. Panels of beaten metal were a common ornament on thrones of any rank, and almost every throne will bear a clay tablet with the name and rank of the dead. Further details of the deceased's life and prayers to the gods of the afterlife were seen only one the thrones of the upper ranks (or professional scribes). 

Curiously, plaster and paint - despite being commonly found in the temple precincts and clan quarters of Assar-Ytite - were not employed in the catacombs. 

The thrones of dead infants are the same size as those of adults. All but the smallest children would be placed sitting just as an adult, perhaps set in place by cloth-wrapped wooden blocks. The greater space accorded this offers on the body of the throne is typically given to a greater number of prayer tablets for the departed. 

Some thrones of unusual form have been seen in the catacombs: the anchorite oracle Yezerit was buried in an enclosed booth of common brick, with a ornamental hatch. Archoptala, the greatest astrologer of her century, who led the fifth calendrical revisions, was buried on a throne with a baldachin studded with quartz pins showing the constellations. The Adamant Twenty who died at Esaul Pass were buried together on a replica barracks bench, with their arms on the wall behind them and clutching the bowl for the evening rations in their hands. At one end of the bench was set the tall issue jug for barleywine.

The dead within the catacombs tend to be dressed as they were in life. There were exceptions: wounds are very deliberately covered by folds of cloth or daubs of pale clay. Fallen soldiers tend to be dressed not in real armour,  but carefully painted and fitted clay replica armour: exceptions are only found among the heroic or very wealthy dead. The manufacture of mock-armour seems to have been a good trade in Assar-Ytite. 

Unlike the reservoirs, the catacombs were dug out only by the labour of citizens. Tunnels ran far ahead of the number of thrones - ensuring that the work of the diggers did not disturb the dead - or allowing, perhaps, for the arrival of many new residents at once. 

Unsurprisingly, it was the young and spry who dug the tunnels, carried away the rubble and paved the floors with the slight slope and necessary drainage tunnel. It was not necessary for a citizen over their majority to serve the Year Given to the Dead in one chunk; indeed, it was considered positively outré to do so. There is even a case mentioned in surviving records of a magistrate issuing declarations of censure against a band of young men of the same age who worked in the tunnels all at the same time, chattering and chanting work-songs as if they were working at any common task. 

The Year Given to the Dead also allowed for recruitment to the societies of guardians, surveyors and guides of the tunnels. Different extended clan groups would, at a set phase of the moon, be allowed access to the catacombs to say prayers for the recently departed or maintain the tombs of famed ancestors. Entrances were flanked by images of the weeping serpent-goat Wahv, but that appears to have been the only formal signage within the tunnels. 

In the life of the city, there is no evidence of the catacombs being used as a shelter, or a sewer, or a smuggling route. The extramural refuse dumps beyond the Bitumen Yards show many centuries of eager use and a paved road leading to them, attesting to a robust waste removal service. 

There are no written accounts of the theft of grave goods, and, equally, there are no written accounts of the dead protecting their treasures, nor of dedicated sentries. 

Whether this means that such thefts did not occur, or that someone was very good at protecting the catacombs is, at present, unclear. 


"What if Conan skeleton but everyone?"


Thursday, 9 March 2023

Punth: Vorsprung durch Technik

I once wrote:

Punth was originally conceived as part of a larger world (see Ch. 7) - the Terrae Vertebrae of my blog. Other than in that Chapter and a few scattered other references, I have tried to make Punth able to be slotted into another fantastical setting. The Babel-myth elements and Near or Middle Eastern basis makes it perhaps an odd fit if you were to slap it down right next to, say, fantasy equivalents of Vietnam or the Tlingit lands - both in terms of culture and environment. However, I would contend that the meat of Punth is in the Codes and the position of the Qryth: the specifically Babel-like elements could be reduced, reformed or repositioned, as could the Near Eastern portions.

What I didn't touch on there is technology: can Punth prosper next to (say) the gunpowder-equipped Tokugawa Shogunate or the railways and telegraphs of American westward expansion or the radar stations and bomber wings of the victorious Allies? 

Terrae Vertebrae was written as being something like High-to-Late Medieval Europe. 'There's been Marco Polo, but not Henry the Navigator.' The Novopolis is the Italian city states making a lot of money and asserting their independence so that they can (as it were) eventually have a Renaissance, not the Italian city states mid-Renaissance. Punth-as-written can resist Crusaders, even magically-assisted ones. 

So, what if the Dwarves start letting everyone play with their Firesticks? Can Punth resist Pike-and-Shot armies?

Frankly - you decide. Even if you say 'No, they can't: a joint force of holy orders and the Ducal Tercios of Kapelleron pay a massive fee to the Hydraulic Dwarves and sweep into Punth' the notion of the Northerners holding territory for any real amount of time the other side of the mountains would be a fascinating story. 

Punth-as-written is inflexible: that's the Codes for you. It might have maintained institutions mimicking the structure and functions of research laboratories before Edison ever got going in Menlo Park, but Punth is never going to make a Newton or a Boyle or a Faraday. That the Qryth have an existing love of marksmanship and big crossbows won't make creating a corps of gunsmiths any easier. 

But I think there's a useful bit of fudging one can do to say that Punth achieves some measure of 'parity', even if (say) The League of Civic Etiquette has managed to create hot air balloons or telescopes or clockwork before them.

  1. Secrecy is difficult. Espionage would be damn difficult for Punth, but once they get get an idea of something, they would be pretty ruthless in acquiring it. (They might just buy it - Punth can be an attractive trading partner!)
  2. The Qryth are able, over time, and using the progress of the neighbours to uncover more and more about their ancestors' artefacts.
  3. The Roads to Nowhere. 'The first generation of Qryth extensively scanned Punth; doubtless somewhere beneath the sands is a great bounty of petroleum or the minerals needed to make DVD Players'. Punth isn't going to be the first place where powered flight occurs, but somewhere there's a rich seam of bauxite waiting to be exploited with far greater ease than most of their neighbours.
  4. As referred to on a recent post, Punthite 'Chemic workshops' exist. This is in addition to the possibility of heavily ritualised research labs referred to above. The loose outline of industrial society exists: the makers of 'Punthite Alum' are considered (possibly trained as) Chemical Technicians, not Craftsmen. There's probably some interesting Fordist-Taylorist strains to the Codes.
All that said, if Punth has taken to its heart the repeating rifle and the telegram - it probably isn't really Punth-as-written anymore. A Punth of post-Napoleon mass armies may be possible, but a Punth that can smoothly accept and issue Codes for each new vital technology is probably quite far from Punth-as-written.

I suspect technological progress would remain firmly in the hands of the Qryth - who might have to take on an ever-more intensely military role. Picture a Beau Geste-style French Foreign Legion fort assailed by the Qryth. Legionnaire Lefebvre, a long way from his native Nicquardy, must face quatremanu warriors - who have not just great big ugly fighting knives, but jezails that will fire through a brick rampart and put a hole you can put your foot in through a man's chest - who can carry, fire and feed the belt of a water-cooled machine gun all at once - and all he has is a single-shot breachloader and a bayonet and the battlemage has le cafard at the worst possible time....

This is to say, I think that the Qryth: A) Need to remain dominant in Punth and B) Need to remain a threat: if you can outpace them in an armoured car and pepper them with a Tommy-gun without consequence, the Sky Princes lose something. No, by the time you've got the armoured cars, they've managed to extract enough Radium to power Barsoom-esque aircraft. Best of luck to you in the biplane-sunglider dogfights!

Friday, 3 March 2023

Diplomacy, Protagonists, Macbeth, Tully and Caithness

A recent post at Monsters and Manuals set my mind going. I don't watch a great deal of television and would likely endorse the moral of the story that no-one reaches up from their deathbed to say 'I wish I'd watched more TV'. But more to the point: I grew up with - possibly even to a greater degree than television - games (and books more than either, but this was a jumping-off point). The early 2000s had their share of real-time strategy games, but I suspect that Age of Empires (and sequels/derivatives) loomed highest in my mind. There's two things that these do or did to my developing preferences and understanding of (faintly realist) fiction (in a variety of media). The notion of multiple players who may succeed and the process of organisation and resource management. 

Firstly, there is the notion that anyone can win. However advantageous it may be to start as the Julii in Rome: Total War the notion of an entirely Carthaginian Balkans or a Seleucid Iberia is not implausible. I've not played the Paradox grand strategy games (Europa Universalis, Victoria, Hearts of Iron) but they at least allow this to an even greater degree. There is not always a protagonist, no-one chosen for victory. The mind goes to the board game Diplomacy, with its particularly obvious balance of forces: every player starts with three armies or fleets - except Russia, whose size is as much hindrance as help. 

Hence, I suppose, the light scorn I thrust in the direction of the Song of Ice and Fire Tabletop Miniatures Game here (the paragraph beginning 'Even if...'). Eight nominal or near equals on Westeros: the notion that Tully interests are permanently shackled to Stark is irritating. You have to cultivate and maintain allies - you don't just plug their troops into your command structure and keep fighting. Am I really so incensed that I can't bring about GLORIOUS TULLY HEGEMONY? 

I take it this has activated some neurones.
(Found here, the best and clearest Westeros Diplomacy map I found online.)

Which brings one back round to television: I watched Game of Thrones for long enough to A) be aware of its flaws and B) Give up on it. Fun while at Uni and able to chat it over with housemates, but not worth revisiting. The finale has been dissected at length in a variety of forms, but a recurring theme is that it got to attached to big showy character moments, and neglected the underlying logic and social structures of its setting (EG, people writing here, here and here). Teleporting armies, curiously obedient subordinates, religion with no grip on the hearts of the faithful. 

Time is limited in an episode of television. Special effects are limited. Books have the room to put this stuff in; games demand it, as the price of moving an army north is part of the challenge. The cost of logistics, even if only sketched in, can be displayed. There are cheap jokes about all the walking in The Lord of the Rings, but footslogging is a reality of campaigning! 

More to the point, the treatment of non-protagonists. You're either the commander, the champion, or nobody. A butt of jokes, a burden. Costuming reinforces this: I accept that the Freys have an unenviable family resemblance, that their patriarch is a disagreeable fellow, that the rest of the nobility don't much care for them. But they are wealthy and use their leverage to the best of their ability: they should be near as armoured and colourful as any lord rather than dressing in leather the colour of mud and wearing unflattering coifs. They're nouveau riche, not swamp-dwellers - and 'Betrayed by Unappealing but Vital Ally' is more interesting than 'Stabbed in the back by a bunch of Obviously Shifty Bastards'.

Specifics aside, if you've opened a broadsheet's Arts and Culture section in the last decade, you've probably read something about the importance of who we make protagonists, or representation, or similar questions. It's the sort of idea discussed here by Palmer and Walton, who extend it to the question of protagonists and chart the decline of Tapestry books (do read that link!). It's something I've speculated on before, and Noisms moots in the post that started this all off 'it is almost as though [Television] were designed to destroy our capacity to develop a fully-fledged theory of mind.' Terrifying if true. 

Well, that's all wonderful. But do I want a literal 'World without Extras' in my fiction? I approvingly cited Diplomacy above, but only the great powers get a say there (and depending on how many can make it for a game, we might kick Italy out of that club. Guess the Risorgimento went down in flames!). I still have to acknowledge that there are limits to the size of a novel or the processing power of software. 

My mind goes to Macbeth. I have no particular objections to Macbeth and, frankly, it would mean very little indeed if I did. Macbeth starts the play as Thane of Glamis, he becomes Thane of Cawdor also. Macduff is Thane of Fife. Banquo is clearly a peer of Macbeth: I don't believe he is referred to as Thane in the text of the play, but both Holinshed's Chronicles (Volume 2 of the 1577 Edition) and Hector Boece's earlier History of Scotland (Book Twelve) a source for Holinshed, refer to him as Thane of Lochaber. The Thanes of Angus, Ross, Caithness, Mentieth and Lennox appear, with or without lines. 

Do I really suppose that Macduff would as willingly usurp Duncan I as Macbeth? Well, that's a question for the philosophers and theologians. Who, other than Orson Welles, knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Do I want a play which plausibly might end with GLORIOUS CAITHNESS HEGEMONY?

Flag of Caithness.svg
They do have a pretty cool flag these days.

I know full well that that wouldn't be Macbeth. But I would hope that the Thane of Glamis is dressed and staged in a comparable fashion to his peers. The rest of Scotland's nobility are not yet cowed by him*, driven into embarrassing spectacles - and useful or useless, you can't ignore Drunken Incompetent Regional Magnates. I'm leaving out much here - the world view of Shakespeare's England, to say the least. 

So, Macbeth may not be something that needs the above 'Diplomacy-perspective.' But there's room in my library for Portraits and Tapestries alike. The possibility that society will only start making (or praising, or honouring, or writing about, or otherwise considering to the exclusion of others) is a little unnerving. Compare this extended basketball analogy.

Perhaps we need some sort of Rawlsian Original Position. You might end up as any of these characters, so you should write something that at least considers any of these characters. Of course, the veil of ignorance doesn't always work quite as intended

*You thought that The Death of Stalin invented tense dinners of horseplay with moustachioed Dictators?

Thursday, 23 February 2023

The Rest of All Possible Worlds: The Majestic Vision and the Soul

A few terms:

As laid out in the Words of Procophon, those who subscribe to the Majestic Vision envisage a process of progression through the afterlife to a place of rest. The language of the Words is of course, rather different to modern languages in Calliste - literally older, and not from the same common Horatione family

Thus below, we have the various portions of the self - as referred to in the Words, in common, idiomatic parlance and titled under the way they might be referred to in a Schoolman's address in the vernacular. Depictions of the portions of the soul in secular contexts or discussed in later scholarship use the language of the Words.

The Majestic Vision's Halls of Learning are not, commonly, highly decorated spaces - beyond a few Beatific Flame motifs. Still, depictions of the soul are found in them. A small but well-kept Hall for a Reader from the School of Malicarn might have one main central room (perhaps high-roofed enough to have columns and side-aisles). A main entrance is at one end and a rostrum at the other. Behind a lectern at the rostrum will be lampstands and a bookcase with copies of the Words and other useful texts. Hall furniture is generally finely-made, if not outright elaborate. (Other common features might be a Reader's office, a porch, a series of study cells).

Any images - of Procophon and Cnoh, of various famous Schoolmen, or of the figures described below, are likely to be found on the walls of central room (if the rostrum is at the north end of the building, they will be on the east and west). Music and drama are not common in the various Schools, but recitations of certain texts (to various degrees of elaboration and ornamentation) is well-known. Popular, but not always meeting with Magisterial approval, is the 'recitation with images' where pictures, tapestries and painted screens are lit and displayed while a number of performers chant segments of some apt text - including, perhaps, the Distant Inheritance.

The Journey of Significance to the Distant Inheritance was first written by Magister Bulstrode of Tanguysland. It is a great allegory of the journey of the soul through the hereafter to a place of comfort, wealth, strength and belonging - featuring a party of travellers with their own unique characteristics getting into trouble with assorted bandits, bureaucrats, tricksters, obstacles and demons.  The plot begins with a man receiving news that he has come into an inheritance in a distant land. He requests leave of his aged master ('Master Cadaveri' or 'Sir Corpus' or similar) to go forth and pursue it.

Of course, relatively few people actually read Bulstrode's Distant Inheritance: it has been edited, abridged, localised, translated, illustrated, vetted, retold, serialised, adapted for recitation and glossed so often that it may be considered a specimen of folk tale, or possibly a highly specific sub-genre: 'a Distant Inheritance narrative from Myrchonog features an episode unique to the region, in which....'

Callistan art may depict the figures below in single portraits or in ensembles. Single portraits would be considered the basic, simple option: not necessarily lesser, but easier for a middle-of-the-road artist to get right, fitting to display in more spaces, less obviously prestigious. 

The applicability of all this to matters of magecraft is that the Majestic Vision has been the intellectual influence on Callistan society for centuries: older texts will refer to it frequently, as will self-consciously old-fashioned newer ones. The Great Bifurcation can't undo that.


Portions of the Soul-Entire

The Body

Frequently depicted in Callistan Art as .... an old man.

Referred to in the Words of Procophon as .... the Paleoangos

Referred to in common parlance as ....  Old Flesh

Personality in the Distant Inheritance .... Silent or senile.

The body that was, and shall be discarded. A minor figure in the narratives of the Majestic Vision, but omnipresent in artwork.

The Soul

Frequently depicted in Callistan Art as .... a deliberately plain everyman.

Referred to in the Words of Procophon as .... the Psyche.

Referred to in common parlance as ....  Ghost (often my Ghost, your Ghost, John's Ghost).

Personality in the Distant Inheritance .... Sincere but occasionally wayward protagonist.

That part of the soul with the greatest volition, the greatest connection to the human experience of decision-making

The Life-Image

Frequently depicted in Callistan Art as .... a (frequently nude) man in the prime of life, with major or long-lasting injuries marked in red on his body.

Referred to in the Words of Procophon as .... the Eikonosoma.

Referred to in common parlance as ....  Loyal Remnant

Personality in the Distant Inheritance.... Restless, Driven by appetite, Instinctive, Strong

The deeds of life upon the body are recalled by the travelling soul. Even if the soul is no longer embodied, ideas of body-like action persist in the form of the Life-Image. 

Embalmers and related trades will strongly suggest that a better Life-Image will be produced if their services are retained. 

A hand-coloured stylised monochromatic print of the Eikonosoma.
(Image is the 'Physical Instrument' Skill from the video game Disco Elysium).

The Shadow

Frequently depicted in Callistan Art as .... a hooded figure.

Referred to in the Words of Procophon as .... the Exoriaphoreus.

Referred to in common parlance as .... Shame

Personality in the Distant Inheritance .... Melancholy, Wry, Tempting

Despite being referred to as 'Shame,' The Shadow is all those things that a person has consciously rejected in themselves: not necessarily just base or vicious elements (though there is obviously the presumption by wider society that one should shun those impulses). 

For a celibate hermit, it might contain lust of the flesh; for an assassin, mercy; for a convert or other defector on grounds of principal, their former allegiance; for a former gambler, gambling. The thing rejected has to be a significant part of someone's self - not a season's fashion or an adolescent crush. 

The Social Being

Frequently depicted in Callistan Art as .... an older man clad in formal clothing (either a literal or figurative uniform), frequently with assorted medals or other honours. 

Referred to in the Words of Procophon as .... the Nomothete.

Referred to in common parlance as .... Glory (often 'Mister Glory', 'Sir Glory', 'Great Glory', &c.)

Personality in the Distant Inheritance .... generally proud and vain, though potentially quite personable and even protective. He varies the most with adaptation: possibly anxious and concerned with proprieties, possibly smug and self-satisfied, possibly boastful and hierarchical.

The part of the self that developed in response to or is enveloped by or even made by social laws and norms. Not purely meant to be a negative influence on the Soul, but clearly something of lesser relevance in the hereafter.

A popular belief is that the Social Being returns to monitor the deeds of their descendants, peers and those they have been generous towards. This meets with either the discreet silence of the Schools or the active condemnation of what is seen as ancestor worship. 

A hand-coloured stylised monochromatic print of the Nomothete.
(The 'Authority' Skill from the video game Disco Elysium).

The Sensibility

Frequently depicted in Callistan Art as .... a lantern-bearing angelically androgynous figure.

Referred to in the Words of Procophon as .... the Pneumaphos.

Referred to in common parlance as .... Soul's-sense.

Personality in the Distant Inheritance .... calm, hopeful, gentle but persistent. The most obviously affectionate portion of the soul. 

The sight of the soul: that which allows the Psyche to cast his sight forward up to the Majestic Vision. Not a mute quality, but one more associated with emotions than with precise speech.

The Forerunner

Frequently depicted in Callistan Art as .... a human-headed bird.

Referred to in the Words of Procophon as .... the Eidolon.

Referred to in common parlance as .... the Soul-Scout

Personality in the Distant Inheritance .... Musical, high-minded, mercurial, occasionally deployed as a deus ex machina.

The questing spirit, the spear-tip of the spirit - perhaps the most rhapsodised portion of the Soul-Entire, because in the Words and the records of the Schoolmen, it is by the motion of the Forerunner that miraculous power is wielded in this life. Of course, anyone trying to focus purely on this one spiritual muscle (as it were) is pursuing the Majestic Vision in such a way as would produce miracles.

Religion is somewhat out of focus in TRoAPW, but I felt like providing a little more detail to the Majestic Vision. Not an essential feature, but hopefully interesting all the same.

Friday, 17 February 2023

Produce of Punth

Following my own advice, I look to put down a little something about Punthite agriculture.

The majority of crops grown in Punth are quite like those found over the mountains in the North - be they varieties or outright different sub-species that prosper in the warmer, dryer climate. There are however some exceptions to this rule, a result of the tinkering done by the first of the Qryth that has resulted in that biome's particular set of circumstances. 

Some of their work merely produced larger, more nutritious, more resistant crops, accelerating the work that would normally take farmers (or nature, or the Divine) much longer. Sometimes, however, they produced far stranger cultigens. 


Awake, for morning brims in each bowl! Awake, for the service that brings plenty and the plenty that fuels service! Pour out the cup of correct ambition!

Phahk is grown largely in the hill country on the coasts of the Stained Sea. Phahk trees can grow as high as eight metres, have smooth red-brown bark and leaves that are usually a shade of slightly blueish green. It produces tawny or fulvous blossoms. 

After flowering, the tree produces thumb-sized berries, the colour of tortoiseshell. These are picked, sliced, dried, par-boiled and pressed. The resulting maroon syrup is diluted and drunk hot by the Qyrth as a form of stimulant: as wine is to brandy, coffee would be to Phahk*

Diluted Phahk is served in various concentrations. One part boiled and filtered water to One part Phahk is served to the Qryth in quantities like fortified wine; Three parts water to One part Phahk in quantities like wine or doppelbock; Five parts water to One part Phahk like strong ale. 

These are referred to as One-Over, Three-Over and Five-Over from the numbers generally shown on a Phahk service: 1/, 3/, 5/. Human beings can consume Phahk in small quantities safely but it is considered an acquired taste, as it is mouth-puckeringly tart. A good host provides ramekins of a smooth sweet custard or syllabub flavoured with fragrant herbs to go with it. 

When in the field, Qryth rations have been known to include a form of pre-prepared bottled Three-Over flavoured with aniseed, known as Campaign Phahk.


Let each function be marked. Let each mark be clear. Let clarity come from form and pigment. Let pigment be produced by the correct functions.

Along the main rivers of Punth, you will find occasional well-placed polders, blocks of colour in the dusty landscape. These are plantations of dye-shrubs. The dye-shrub grows no higher than two and half metres and requires plenty of water and care, but produces in the thick peel of its fruits and the thin curling sheets of its bark the ingredients needed for pigments. Punth architecture and custom tends to colourful symbols or decorations - this is where that comes from. 

A dye-shrub is not in appearance as colourful as fresh paint: the bark of a red dye-shrub looks about as red as a cinnamon stick until it is aged and ground.  The fruits are harvested in summer, the bark in winter and they produced different shades of the same colour. However, the processed peel is only seen by foreign buyers in winter and thus is referred to as 'Winter Red' or 'Winter Green', despite being harvested in Summer. Likewise, the processed bark is called 'Summer Blue' or 'Summer Orange'.

The dye-shrub is, however, largely produced for domestic consumption. Of far greater interest to Imperial or League merchants is the product of the mills and furnaces in Punth's chemic workshops, the fist-sized pearlescent clumps of 'Punthite Alum' that serves a superior mordant or dye fixative. 


The Beast feeds visibly. The Plant feeds invisibly. The Rock needs no strength beyond itself.  

The vast steeds and draft animals of the Qryth would take a vast quantity of regular fodder (to say nothing of more exotic dietary needs), and Punth is not provided with sumptuous meadows. Accordingly, a form of feed was developed for them, containing most of the substances that a Qryth mount requires in their diet. This is Twitchroot, named so for the quick and obvious responses it exhibits towards external stimuli, twisting gently to face the sun or shying away from a glancing blow. A common story in traveller's tales of Punth is watching an infuriated ox bash hard into a twitchroot - only to receive a blow from one of the plant's main limbs a few seconds later!

Twitchroot plants are faintly conical in structure, with between three and five thick roots visible entering the ground. Several limbs with thin needle-like leaves stand up straight from the top. The bulk of the plant is a sort of ochre, streaked with crimson, but the leaves are the colour of palm fronds. Twitchroot groves do not have to lie as close to the river as dye-shrub polders, but are still situated fairly close to watercourses or reservoirs. 

The bulbous roots are harvested one at a time. Each root has several large nodules on it: as long as the top nodule is left intact, the root will regrow. These nodules are heavy, almost melon-sized. They keep well in fairly cool conditions and are served to livestock roughly diced or mashed. Safely harvesting Twitchroot is done by splashing the sensitive uppermost branches with very cold water, which can stun the plant for an hour or so - allowing harvesters to produce the tough but slim saws needed to remove the roots.


For each man, two garment sets and two blankets. All else to be provided by the Servants of the People.

For every eight fields of flax grown in Punth, there is one field of the Sky-Princes' Flax.  This does produces broader leaved, taller plants. The cloth produced by these is whiter and finer than regular linen, requiring less bleaching and hackling.** Most importantly, however, it is free of several substances that the Qryth may be allergic to. Despite the first generation of Qryth's re-making of themselves and their descendants to better fit Terrae Vertebrae, the lottery of birth and bloodline does produce Qryth with greater sensitivities to the indigenous flora of Punth. The Sky-Princes' Flax is one way to avoid unpleasant rashes.

To a foreign cloth merchant, the linen produced by the Sky-Princes' Flax is merely a high-quality linen, of use only as a rarity (though it would rarely if ever be sold outside Punth). Most would probably take it to be merely a different grade of cloth or style of weave. A non-Qryth wearing the cloth next to the skin does stand a chance of an unpleasant but non-fatal reaction. Likewise, walking through a blossoming field of the Flax can cause more than the usual number of sneezes.


*I don't know if I care to speak ex cathedra on whether coffee exists in Terrae Vertebrae or not. I suspect the answer is 'not round here'.

**Again, I don't care to put the stamp of canon on it, but it's entirely in character for the Qryth to have produced genetically engineered crops but completely failed to re-create the mechanical cotton gin. 

Thursday, 9 February 2023

Return to Yoon-Suin

As you are probably more than aware, there's a second edition of Yoon-Suin in the works. This is going to contain the original text - cleared up and corrected, along with several 'fully-mapped adventure sites'.

There's many a review of the first edition out there already - I won't try and do that again. But it strikes me as worth putting down some notes on the first edition (hereafter Y-S1) as a book, an object.

Dimensions first. Y-S1 was (infamously?) landscape and of very different proportions to other RPG books - see the photographs below.

Y-S1 compared with normal paperback in contrasting colours.

This gave it plenty of room to show off tables. The main thing you read in Y-S1 is tables, scanning across an entry on teahouses in the Yellow City or river tribes to determine quite what makes the House of the Rosy Half-Hour or the Mauvewater tribe unique, what assets and personality they have. 

The only book I really have of a comparable size.

In some ways, one would almost like the Journal of Laxmi Gupta Dahl to be a separate item - a pamphlet you could give players, or peruse separately. Reading this cover-to-cover is arguably a mistake. Y-S1's bestiary should be read with a particular region's chapter. 

Those regions themselves go out from the Yellow City at the delta of the God River. Mentally, between the Hundred Kingdoms* and the Yellow City, there are the haunted, claustrophobic jungles of Lamarkh and Lahag - as if in order to go from Byzantium to the Italian city-states you had to pass through Aguirre, the Wrath of God. (I know that doesn't makes much sense. I can only imagine that as you travel, you listen to this.) It's a strange contrast - the utterly untamed next to the height of (slug-man) civilisation. However, returning to the contents one sees that the Chapter on the Hundred Kingdoms follows that on the Yellow City and the Topaz Isles. 

Away from Lahag, then, on up to the Mountains of the Moon - to the tea and opium plantations. Again, we see the tables shine here, laying out the variety of commodities that drift down to the city. As that atlas of the Soviet Union above makes clear, there's a great many crops and foodstuffs that a society needs - the strategy-game streamlining of food-wood-metal never quite tells you enough. The eye dances across columns showing what this particular temple could be - and you weigh the possibilities of the options - the NPC options that would obviously compete, the rumours that they might spout, the bizarre options that may or may not fit the tone you want.

Further contrasts.

It is not for me to tell you how to hold a book while you read it - but I cannot really picture spread Y-S1 flat on the desk. The book needs to be cradled, the heaviest part resting on the inside of your forearm. It is not heavy, but its dimensions do give it a slight propensity to flop. 

Illustrations are by Matthew Adams. They generally fit the tone, but - perhaps down to the greyscale, perhaps due to the mental weight of the tables - makes relatively little impact. They punctuate the text, and (quite suitably) don't try and set the image of Yoon-Suin in stone. 

Fonts are generally quite plain - with the exception of some titles, set in something a little fancier and twining. This focuses the mind on the exoticism and wonder of the Purple Land before getting down to brass tacks. 

There is no particular conclusion to all this, of course. You will struggle to find a copy of Y-S1 anytime soon. But here's a little record of the first edition before we see what new things await us in the second.


*Realised in the course of writing this that Para Bellum Games named a faction in Conquest this. No especial resemblance to Y-S1, of course. The evocative name is not a hard one to conceive. 

Sunday, 5 February 2023

Dynasties: The History Plays of Mike Walker

As referenced, both directly and thematically in recent posts, I have an interest in the history radio play sequences of Mike Walker (discussed somewhat previously). These chart the descent of a family line or an office; each play is either an hour or an hour and half long and each was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Details of each sequence and date of first broadcast will be shown below in the individual discussions of each sequence.

Why am I treating these as parts of one whole? Well, they come (sort of) from the same pen, were commissioned and distributed by the same company, deal with similar themes and topics in similar ways and contain a few cross-connecting references (Marcus Aurelius on cheese, 'Nettle tea with the stings still in', pigs not looking up...).

Why am I interested in these? What worth do they have? Well, firstly, I grew up listening to the radio. I'm fairly certain I heard The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy repeated on Radio 4 before I picked up one of Adams's novels. You can listen to the Radio while doing household tasks or exercising: audio material is ideal for travel - who wants to watch a good film on a tiny smartphone? Tons of decent creators of varying kinds got their start on the radio and some forms of comedy flourish better there. Certainly, the special effects are cheaper. 

Secondly, and as hinted in my Lazarus review, learning history seems to require these icons and images, however broadly drawn (see also Skerples on this). Grammar and Vocabulary come before Dialectic and Rhetoric, to employ the language of the Trivium (Cf. Dorothy L Sayers, 'The Three Tools of Learning'). The pupil learns names and dates and places as a scaffolding for a more complex building. The relatively low cost of radio allows Walker to do cover stuff that would be less likely to get money for television. These plays cover a fair amount of ground, ground that history lessons likely would not have the time to cover (we don't get The Bloody Tudors Again). In that sense, this is exactly the sort of thing a public broadcaster should be doing! 

(In the unlikely event that anyone reading this is doing so for educational advice, I would give these to a child of twelve and up - there's a certain amount of sex and violence, though it doesn't quite revel in it and by the nature of the medium it's not all that explicit.)

Thirdly, I enjoy these. It's that sweet spot of personal interaction and sweeping wider events, generally with a pretty decent cast. All dialogue, very little battle, sometimes with an odd framing device. Think of it as the award-winning bits of Game of Thrones, with a little connective tissue. Anton Lesser also makes a number of appearances, and because this is my blog and I wish to add some leaven of wit to proceedings, each entry below will discuss this.

Where can you find these? The BBC repeats them every so often, but given the international audience I get, that may not be so useful. I've found some of them for sale on Google Play's Books section for about the same price as a glossy new paperback. Audible also has them.


First broadcast 2003 - 2007. Subject matter - Rome from 48 BC to AD 476.

Series 1: 'Meeting at Formiae' [On Julius Caesar, circa 48 BC], 'The Arena' [Augustus - lived 63 BC -AD 14], 'Peeling Figs for Julius' [Caligula, lived 12-41]

Series 2: 'The Best of Mothers' [Nero, 37-68], 'The Glass Ball Game' [Hadrian, 76-138], 'Citizens in a Great City' [Marcus Aurelius, 121-180 and Septimus Severus, 145-211]

Series 3: 'Empress in the West' [Victoria, c.231 – c.271], 'The Maker of All Things' [Constantine the Great, 272-337], 'An Empire without End' [Romulus Augustulus, c.461-511]

(I shan't list here the missing links - there's an awful lot of Emperors unaccounted for!)

The first four episodes are based on Suetonius's Lives of the Caesars. Suetonius himself actually appears in 'The Glass Ball Game' - as an imperial secretary under Hadrian, a role he really filled. 

'Meeting at Formiae' is wonderful. A fictional meeting between Julius Caesar, Cato the Younger and Cicero at Cicero's villa, allowing them to attempt to thrash out their differences before civil war begins. There are occasional interjections from wives and daughters. Anton Lesser plays Marcus Tullius Cicero, Big Daddy Chickpea himself, with the correct level of wry humour and inner steel. Some suitably melancholy elements to the ending: I couldn't quite tell you why, but this has a quality of comfort food to it for me.

'The Arena' is the account of a young Augustus by the old Augustus, emphasising his callowness and vision - a deliberate contrast to the elder statesman we see in I, Claudius (et al.). The lives of Caligula and Nero are as violent and extravagant and decadent as you probably imagined (David Tennant plays Caligula). 

There's a few semi-magical elements (as well as an interpersonal emphasis) to 'The Glass Ball Game' which make it fall a little flat for me, but the slow circling of a problem in 'Citizens in a Great City' works rather well. I don't know enough about the period portrayed by 'Empress in the West', but it serves as a sort of snapshot of the time and the problems it faced rather neatly, if with a little high melodrama.

Constantine will always be overshadowed by Christianity, but 'The Maker of All Things' functions as an account of his political struggles with rival Emperors in the East and his own family. There's obviously an element of religious reference in there, but it's subtly woven in. 'An Empire without End' portrays Attila the Hun and the last Emperors in the West - the last being Romulus Augustulus (played by Tom Hiddleston). The portrayal of a stagnant and dwindling Rome is at least arresting, if brief.

Anyway, Caesar! was very good at covering ground - the foundation of Empire, the problems of maintaining it, the splintering and rebuilding. 


First broadcast 2010 - 2012. Subject matter - England (and much of France) 1154 to 1485.

Series 1: 'Henry II: What is a Man?', 'Richard I: Lionheart', 'John, by the Grace of God' [Skips Henry III]

Series 2: 'Edward I: Old Soldiers', 'Edward II: The Greatest Traitor', [Skips Edward III] 'Richard II: And All Our Dreams will End in Death'.

Series 3: [Skips/glosses: Henry IV] 'Henry V: True Believers', 'Henry VI: A Simple Man', [Skips/glosses over Edward IV and Edward V - like Shakespeare] 'Richard III: The Three Brothers'

Based in part on Holinshed's Chronicles - which also inspired Shakespeare.

Walker sensibly doesn't try and tread on The Lion in Winter's toes (claws?). 'What is a Man?' deals with Henry II's conflict with his eldest son, Henry 'the Young King'. It's a powerful setup for the rest of Series 1, with chest-beating competition and boar-hunting metaphors. The late David Warner plays Henry II, in a fine sarcastic mode. Richard I and John then cover some fairly familiar ground - brash Lionheart and cringing, ineffectual Lackland. Decent, but not exceptional - and doesn't turn into paens about Magna Carta. 

David Warner in a role rather different to Henry II.

The strong father - weak son pairing of Edward I and II is then repeated with Richard II, son of The Black Prince. This is kept from being too obviously repetitive story-wise by the framing: Roger Mortimer serves as protagonist of 'The Greatest Traitor', and the Richard II - Henry Bolingbroke contrast fills much of 'And All Our Dreams....'

Series 3 is stronger than Series 2. Luke Treadaway's Henry V is a calculating, cold type, manufacturing the heroism of Agincourt - in contrast to the Prince Hal of Shakespeare, whose colder elements are there (turning his back on Falstaff, hanging Bardolph) but even in (say) Branagh's initially cold 1989 portrayal he warms up by the St Crispin's Day speech. I haven't seen the recent The King with Timothée Chalamet, but the young Treadaway (later to play Richmond) is possibly in that same casting type.

Henry VI is married and championed Margaret of Anjou, played with awkward resolve and urgency by Aimee-Ffion Edwards. Carl Prekopp, with his distinctive voice appears in minor roles in 'True Believers' and 'A Simple Man' before emerging as Richard III.  I shall take this to be deliberate, rather than simply who was in the building on a particular day. Shakespeare's Richard is constantly with the audience, addressing them and winning them - is this a variant of that? In any case, Walker's Richard is less of a villain, circumstances (and the Duke of Buckingham) leading him into the throne (Cf. The Daughter of Time and The Dragon Waiting). Clarence's betrayal is far better contextualised than in Shakespeare - Cf. the section here entitled 'George, Duke of Clarence'. 

No Anton Lesser, I fear - he was off playing the Duke of Exeter.

The Stuarts

First broadcast 2013 - 2015. Subject matter - Scotland, then all the British Isles, then exile 1542 - 1789.

Series 1: [Skips the Stuart Kings Robert II, Robert III, James I through V] 'It came in with a Lass' [Mary, Queen of Scots], 'To Make the Plough Go Before the Horse' [James VI and I], 'A World of Fools and Knaves' [Charles I], 'This War without an Enemy' [Charles I].

Series 2: 'Charles II, Part One: Through the World in Various Fortune', 'Charles II, Part Two: The Long Lease of Pleasant Days', 'James II: The Storms of this Deceitful World'.

Series 3: 'William III and Mary II: To Have and to Hold', 'Queen Anne: Myself Alone', [Skips James Francis Edward Stuart, son of James II and VII, 'The Old Pretender', father of Bonnie Prince Charlie, 'the Young Pretender'.], 'Bonnie Prince Charlie: Who Dares to Be Free', 'Charlotte Stuart: The Last Stuart'.

Well, we already had the Henriad and The Lion in Winter. Time to do something new. The Stuarts is pretty bloody good, really. There's a decent account of Mary Queen of Scots's struggles with a Reformed Scotland while trying to be a Catholic monarch (Brian Cox plays John Knox). The standout element of the first series is likely Charles I - covering his personal rule and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms that followed it. Anton Lesser is on rare form as Thomas Wentworth, First Earl of Strafford - whose trial accords him excellent opportunities for nervy, righteous anger. 

Charles II's reign is broken into accounts of his life in exile and the success of the Restoration, leading to the reign of his brother and the Glorious Revolution. We get James II's view of things before William of Orange's - and you'll never listen to Lilliburlero the same way again. It's a sympathetic view of James II, coloured by his attempt at religious toleration. William III deliberately gets the Dutch perspective before the English, though one could do with a deal more of his rivalry with Louis XIV. 

The relationship between Queen Anne and Sarah Churchill goes on display - a few years before The Favourite was released, but I'm told Deborah Davis wrote her script in the late 90s (not sure if the episode was broadcast before or after the 2015 play). In any case, Walker tends to write his favourites as 'Close, but Not Necessarily Sexual' - which has the ring of truth about it to me: intimacy may be a rarer thing than sex for a monarch.

Bonnie Prince Charlie gets an entire hour and a half to himself - necessary to cover the '45 rising and the misery of exile. It works fairly well, but it makes Cumberland's army look too English (Highlanders backed the Stuarts; Protestant Lowlanders were less enthusiastic). Cumberland's Germanic efficiency is a little cliched for my taste, but contrasts well with the Romantic Charlie. I haven't really encountered Charlotte Stuart outside this series, but in any case her episode serves as a headstone for the Stuarts as a whole (and Bonnie Prince Charlie in particular).


First broadcast 2017. Subject matter - Russia, 1547 - 2017

Series 1: 'Ivan the Terrible: Absolute Power' (Ivan the Terrible was Ivan IV), [Skips: Feodor I] 'Boris Godunov: Ghosts', [Glosses: False Dimitry I, Skips: Feodor II, Vasily VI, Vladislav, Michael, Alexis, Feodor III, Glosses: Ivan V], 'Peter the Great: The Gamblers', 'Peter the Great: Queen of Spades' (Peter the Great was Peter I). [Skips/Glosses: Catherine I, Skips: Peter II, Anna, Ivan VI, Elizabeth, Glosses: Peter III]

Series 2: 'Catherine the Great: Husbands, Lovers and Sons' (Catherine the Great was Catherine II), [Glosses: Paul I], 'Alexander I: Into the Woods', [Skips: Nicholas I], 'Alexander II: The People’s Will', [Skips: Alexander III].

Series 3: 'Nikolai II: Three Hundred Years', [Glosses: Alexander Kerensky], 'Lenin: Tears', 'Joseph Stalin: The Last Bolshevik', [Skips: Malenkov, Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Cherenko, Gorbachev, Glosses: Boris Yeltsin, Dmitri Medvedev] 'The Shield and the Sword' [About 'VV'.]

'The Bear has Seven Dreams, and they are all of Bears.' Best get used to that expression, you'll be hearing it a lot [incidentally, you get some bloody odd results if you put that in Google].

Good strong first series here: Ivan the Terrible setting the model of a Tsar in a mix of brutal authority and religious charisma. It's pretty overbearing, honestly - and has at least one very well used sound effect. David Threllfall plays Ivan, and apparently possessed appropriate facial hair for the occasion. Jerome Horsey makes an appearance to tie in England to proceedings - that Ivan proposed marriage to Elizabeth I is interesting, if hardly a vital part of the story. Boris Godunov is introduced here before his own episode. Both episodes set up a backwards, vast and somewhat mystical Russia with Horsey as the outsider able to comment occasionally on things - but it never quite lets this become a point of attack, I think. The focus is on the Russian nobility and their clashes and the deaths of their families - all bad, to be sure, but not used as weapons against some idea of Russia (Cf. the Coda of this blog post).

All that gives way to Peter the Great who is (correctly) portrayed as a reformer, but he's also someone who can only make those reforms because he is a Tsar and happy to take power when the time comes (eg, from the Streltsy). Energetic, capable and possessed of vast appetites - this is unlikely a portrait of Peter the Great that you haven't seen before. Still, there is the wisdom of spacing out over two episodes his rise and his zenith - that second episode telling of the startling rise of Catherine I, his second wife, who would reign for two years after his death. That's a rather interesting contrast between the nature of Peter, his court and the woman Menshikov cultivates to influence him.

From one Catherine to another, Catherine the Great's story is of a woman married at an early age to Tsar Peter III - as played by Anton Lesser in spiteful vein. The title 'Husbands, Lovers, Sons' is apt: it is an account of Catherine II sandwiched between a series of relationships with men - those she despises, those she cooperates with and those she must rely on. As with Peter, there's an emphasis on reform - tempered towards the end by news of the French Revolution: so much for Voltaire. 

Napoleon follows on the French Revolution - but before then, Catherine's resentful son Paul I and her uncertain grandson Alexander I. French invasion is the final peril for Alexander - before then, he must confront the increasing instability of his father. Tying into the wider idea of a growing Russia is the nationalist bent of Alexander's resistance to Napoleon - eventually successful, of course. 

Which leads into 'The People's Will' - dealing with the assassination of Alexander II by the left-wing group of the same name in 1881. The liberation of the serfs by that very Tsar is both indicative of a changing Russia - and not enough for some. Contrast is made with the American Civil War.  A blend of procedural and flashback detail the fateful day in question, with points of view from the Tsar, the assassins, a visiting peasant and the investigating policeman.

Moving past Alexander III, we meet Nicholas II and the familiar events of the Russian Revolution. Agitation is suppressed at a cost by a diffident Tsar - then World War One breaks out. (The focus stays domestic - no scenes with Kaiser Wilhelm II). All familiar territory, but well-executed, and perhaps the most convincing portrayal of Rasputin I've encountered. Almost instantly, we cross over to Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - that is, Lenin. Who, returned to Russia by the Germans must struggle against the provisional government, division in his own party and his own personal relationships in order to bring about the Revolution. That very Revolution is the cause of his taking up more and more power to himself - Tsar-like in scope, if not manner. 

That is less so than 'The Last Bolshevik', Joseph Stalin. The framing of his episode is identical to that of Ivan the Terrible's. However, the difference is the threat Russia faces: this episode is set in 1941 shortly after the Nazi invasion of the USSR. Stalin hides in his Dacha as the country cries out for leadership in response. We track back through Stalin's rivalry with Trotsky, his unhappy marriage with Nadezhda Alliluyeva, his relations with the inner party - and, crucially, the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. 

Brian McCardie plays Stalin - Georgian is to Russian as Scottish is to English, apparently. Well, it works to illustrate the ethnic background of characters in a fashion a trifle more focused than The Death of Stalin. The presence of World War Two makes the whole business rather frantic - beating the Nazis is of some importance! All that said, I am a trifle queasy at something that makes itself look somewhat redemptive for Joseph Stalin, of all people: it ends on a note of stern resistance - 'Party and Army made One!' Now, purges, the assassination of Trotsky and the unnerving presence of Lavrenty Beria (The horror of the last largely unspoken - but perhaps known to the informed listener. The scene with Stalin's daughter Svetlana is particularly unnerving.) have been features of the episode, but the end still is rather triumphal.

No reference is made to the USSR under Stalin after that, really. We go straight from Uncle Joe to 'VV'. Now, readers of this blog are attentive, intelligent and highly attractive - and thus will have worked out who that is: yes, we skip right over Khrushchev and Gorbachov to meet Vladimir Putin. This feels a little odd, if not strictly out of place in a media landscape that can include TV dramas on Dominic Cummings or Boris Johnson and a radio drama on Donald Trump.

Accordingly, the final episode is a series of brief stories, the fictional element of which is emphasised by a female narrator. In a scattered order, we see Putin's childhood, life in the KGB, apprenticeship under Yeltsin, early presidency and ascendancy. Now, this was episode was broadcast in 2017 - after the Annexation of Crimea, but before the Invasion of Ukraine. (And before the Poisoning in Salisbury, which would have made this episode rather different: espionage high-jinks only look jolly at a distance). Naturally, territorial ambitions receive less attention than grappling with oligarchs and the conditions of post-Soviet Russia that allowed Putin's rise. 

Which is valuable information, to be sure - if, as we now know, incomplete. But Walker damn well knew that this was going to be an episode without straight answers. The nameless narrator asks VV about 'hacking the US election' and receives a none-answer - fittingly, frankly. 'Ah, President Trump. Hmm.', says VV - does Nicholas Murchie add the hint of a smile to his voice performance? 

If I say that this episode wouldn't get made today, I don't mean that to imply some imposed censorship. It would not get made in this manner, certainly - 'The Shield and the Sword' is somewhat more lighthearted than 'The Last Bolshevik' - and it would likely not get made at all: there is still too much to answer about Putin's life and decisions. A playwright would have to be quite a Kremlinwatcher to even attempt it. 

Castle of the Hawk

First broadcast 2021. Subject matter - Central Europe 1280 - 1913.

Series 1: 'Hawk Rising', 'Hawk Hunting', 'Hawk Wounded' [Rudolf I, Adolf of Nassau, Albert I - 1280-1310], 'Wallenstein' [Ferdinand II, 1618], 'Redl' [Franz-Joseph, 1913]

(Like Caesar! above, this skips an awful lot of both Habsburg monarchs, Holy Roman Emperors and rulers of Germany).

Castle of the Hawk is, I fear, the most disappointing of these. For one thing, it has no Anton Lesser. For another, there's a lot of ground uncovered, and not uncovered in the Caesar! sense where each episode sketches out a block of imperial history in the reign of one man. I can understand not wanting to cover Charles V and the great unity of Spain, Austria, Holland and much of Italy - that almost might demand a series in itself. But leaving out Maria Theresa is pretty strange - that would have made an excellent middle ground between the Thirty Years War and the First World War. 

The initial Hawk trio is about the rise of Albert I, called Albert the One-Eyed, full of suitable medieval intrigue and belligerence. It is largely told from the perspective of a Turkish advisor and spymaster to the Habsburgs - which feels like a slightly off-kilter decision. Such a person existing is not impossible; the final reveal that his true purpose was to keep Europe disunited for the Sultan seems like a more modern form of espionage than could be adequately expressed or maintained in the period. There's also a degree of cynicism about religion more reminiscent of Game of Thrones (and not in a good way) than Medieval Germany. 

Also, someone felt it necessary to rename Adolf of Nassau to Norbert of Nassau. Norbert, in the series, is portrayed as a pitiable, ineffectual dupe. Did they think we would somehow transfer a remote pity of Adolf of Nassau onto Adolf Hitler? Listeners are capable of telling apart Adolf of Nassau, Adolf Hitler and Adolphe Sax if needed, in the same fashion they can tell apart George III, George Washington and George H.W. Bush.

There have been a few other character meldings and meddlings, especially among Albert's sisters. But we leave that aside for now.

'Wallenstein' is pretty good, on the whole. The life and death of an ambitious mercenary general, used and using the Hapsburgs in turn. Count Tilly gets used as an awkward mouthpiece for prejudice and ignorance, which may or may not be true of the man, but certainly doesn't flow well. Everyone else is relatively subtle, and then he enters brash as anything and is still supposed to be a major player in the court and army. The odd musical sting using electric guitars is out of place but frankly the Thirty Years War needs the odd moment of swagger.

'Redl' is based on Colonel Alfred Redl's life, with an admixture of the Meyerling Incident. It's a treatment of the division and secrecy of the late Austro-Hungarian Empire. Redl himself committed suicide after passing information to the Russians, and the revelation of his treason - and his homosexuality. There's some related material abut the many nationalities of the Habsburg empire in the 1910s, but it doesn't quite go far enough - one tastes the sauce, not the entire dish. 

Medici: Gangsters, Bankers, Popes

First broadcast January 2023. Subject Matter - the Florentine Republic and Italy, 1434 - 1492

Series 1: 'Cosimo' [Cosimo de' Medici], [Skips: Piero de' Medici] 'Lorenzo the Magnificent' [Lorenzo de' Medici], 'Bonfire of the Vanities'.

['Bonfire of the Vanities' is listed as being written by Sian Ejiwunmi Le-Berre - but everything else is by Walker, and I assume the two discussed the overall shape of the series together. Can't recall other writers in the other series, but Walker has been willing to collaborate before - see Tumanbey.]

One series, and from the looks of 'Bonfire of the Vanities', that's all there will be: in that, a dying Lorenzo has a vision of future well-placed Medici scions (Pope Leo X, Catherine de' Medici, &c). Perhaps I'll be proven wrong - though I suspect that episodes on the French Crown or Papacy would be unlikely. Something on the end of Medici rule in the 18th century would be interesting.

Anyway, if you know anything about the Medici, you have an image of what this is. The subtitle gives it away. A blending of financial and political power, leading into the wealthy patronage of the Renaissance. The regular montage sequences with the ledgers work quite well. 

There's two elements that could be drawn out a little more - firstly, the sin of usury. Even if the prohibition against money-lending at interest was honour more in the breach than the observance, some element of personal grappling with the religious ideals of the time would have been interesting. This gets touched on to some degree in 'Bonfire of the Vanities', with Lorenzo outright calling himself a new sort of person to his wife, who remains 'Medieval', freer of religious custom. 

The transition also of 'influential banker' to 'ruler' is also smoothed over. I don't necessarily need a guide to the signoria, but I'd like a little hint that the nature of day-to-day responsibilities are changing, rather than another joke about this funny but talented rustic from Vinci.

Readers may wish to follow this series with these posts on Machiavelli.

Where to next?

Not for me to say, of course. Certainly, there are plenty of dynasties one could examine. If sticking in England, something on the successors of William the Conquerer - William Rufus, Henry I, Stephen and Matilda - would be good.

I should be interested in one on the Bonapartes. The life of Napoleon is fairly well covered, of course, but one can imagine a First Series doing 1) The Early Career of Napoleon, up to becoming Emperor, 2) The presence of his family during the zenith of his power - placing Joseph on the throne of Spain, for instance, or Jerome on the throne of Westphalia, 3) The Fall of Napoleon - playing the well known hits of Moscow, Leipzig, Elba, Waterloo, St Helena. A Second Series would presumably do 1) The brief life of the brief Emperor Napoleon II, contrasting with 2) The Childhood, rise, election as President and coup of Napoleon III finishing up with 3) The Second Empire and the Franco-Prussian War (and exile). Tsar has furnished us with a Napoleon I and a Talleyrand - Charlie Anson and Robert Blythe, respectively. Anton Lesser can play the Duke of Wellington, if you can't get Christopher Plummer.

"Welcome, gentlemen, to the Council of Lessers...."

Thursday, 26 January 2023

January '23 Miscellany

At time of writing, the Kickstarter for Yoon-Suin's second edition is still ongoing. But you probably knew that.


The Dragon Waiting, by John M Ford. Another second-hand find, another Fantasy Masterworks edition. No introduction by Neil Gaiman, but he did apparently review it in 1985.

So, this one's a little troublesome. There's a tendency in this little corner of the Blogosphere to talk about that reaction a reader gets when they find some very D&D-esque moment in a book published before 1975. (For my money, early Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser is the place to go.) Well, this was published 1983.

To continue: It is 15th century Europe - or Ford's strange variation on it, where Julian the Apostate died far later in life, allowing the various classical religions to live on in an atmosphere of state secularism. Yet all the same, Edward IV, Lorenzo the Magnificent, Louis XI and other historical figures exist with roughly similar roles to those they possess in reality. There is no Cathedral in York, but there is a Pantheon. The Hagia Sophia is the Kyklos Sophia - 'Circle of Wisdom'. The Dragon Waiting is subtitled 'A Masque of History', and this is so - historical figures in a series of masks and guises. But there are traditional alternate history elements - a still-potent Byzantine Empire with territory in southern France, for instance. Oh, and magic is real.

The Masterworks edition, image found on Goodreads.

[The Masterworks edition errs heavily by describing it on the back as 'an alternate world in which Byzantium was not extinguished in 1453'. Yes, but that's not the point of divergence!]

Hence, then, my remarks about 'D&D-esque' - medieval characters (including a wizard and a fighter and a doctor...) apparently worshipping pagan deities but with odd analogues to Christian structures. It's probably a personal failing that I was lightly vexed by this at first: "Why do we get identical Medicis and a very similar Florence despite the point of divergence! It doesn't make any sense!", but you have to get your mind out of the 'What if Napoleon won the Battle of Leipzig?' mode. Ford tells you upfront: this is a Masque of History. A 'Historical Note' in the front matter points out that section heading quotations are from Shakespeare's Richard III - itself famously a masque of history. The list of real-world personages are set in a section called 'Shadows as they Pass'. Approach it more like Philip K Dick's Man in the High Castle and less like Robert Harris's Fatherland.

So, that's the attitude in which you should approach it. Is it in fact worth taking all that effort to read it? Frankly, the question will be how entertained you are by Ford's characters and the background. Pastiche (not that this is a pastiche) can feel a little cold, not losing itself to laugh-out-loud comedy (as parody) or a deliberate message (as satire). Ford is playful, but you might find it a trifle arch - "Dante Alighieri's Commedia dell'Uomo? Oho, well played, Mr Ford." (Cue sensible chuckle.)

But that's not all, I'm glad to say. There's a world ticking away under a thin mask, fully realised and interesting. The integration of magic feels quite naturalistic (no fireballs); the pressure of a Byzantine Empire that has preserved this great diversity of faiths yet seeks dominance is well-sketched. There's travel involved (Florence to London) that takes an appropriate amount of time, and apt limits to the power and reach of a pre-modern state. 

The religious elements are not outright fanciful, either. There's an interesting feature with men belonging to all-male Mithraic cults and women worshipping Cybele - a whole 'men's mysteries/women's mysteries' thing that feels out of place (and therefore fascinating) in a (quasi-) Renaissance context - the sort of thing that would be interesting in the implicit setting here

Aside from this, there are sort of two responses to Medieval figures worshipping classical deities. First is to associate it with the sort of (Occidentalist?) Japanese video game where (as it might be) Sir Percival, Joan of Arc, Miyamoto Mushashi and Ulysses S. Grant are all (secretly?) devotees of Athena and fight Siegfried, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Mary Queen of Scots and Isaac Newton, who are champions of Hades. That's not entirely wrong for a book in which Richard the Lionheart worshipped Apollo and Saladin was a Zoroastrian, but it's not exactly right either.

Second is to observe that the division of the Medieval world into Christian and Pagan is fairly artificial: the Nine Worthies included Hector and Alexander the Great, Chroniclers tracked the foundation of Britain back to Troy and Chaucer's Knight's Tale invokes Theseus and Saturn. This is leaving aside, for instance, the flowering of Classical subjects in art produced under the patronage of the aforementioned Lorenzo de Medici. Again - this is a Masque. There is no great distress if (when?) the costumes come off.

That I've written all the above is hopefully indicative that there's at least something to chew on here. People agree with me - hence the website Draco Concordance (read the book first!) which tracks certain story elements (and made writing this a lot easier). Gene Wolfe called it 'The best mingling of history with historical magic that I have ever seen,' and in my research for this I was unsurprised to learn that Ford enjoyed Wolfe's work. There's more I could write about this - which is a good sign.


Baroque Dance Notation, more especially the Beauchamp-Feuillet notation: something an old friend introduced me to. I've been doing some reading on it since, from the odd place between supremely detailed art and academic history. Quite fascinating and beautiful, really. It would make a fascinating pattern for wall-paper. See here for more.


My avant-garde ideas on interior design aside, I imagine that there are a number of constructs or golems in TRoAP that use this as a pattern for motion. It has a likeness to the stuff in The Search for the Perfect Language that inspired the Polytaxists. Presumably the hyper-detialled Appendix P version of Inquisitor uses it. Or the Terpsichorean Sodality


The Vikings in Clown Trousers idea, illustrated. Just try getting Hollywood A-Listers into some of those outfits.


Lazarus & World of Lazarus

I reviewed World of Lazarus here and re-read bits of Lazarus in the process. I was arguably a little harsh to the latter in that post (though I left out my niche pointless Soleri gripe) - there's a decent techno-thriller element to them, with plenty of in-universe documents and messages and the like. Still, 'not always good' is more frustrating than 'definitely bad'.


The Medici: Gangsters, Bankers, Popes

Speaking of feudalism, corporations and a family mentioned in The Dragon Waiting, another trio of Mike Walker's history plays was broadcast on BBC Radio 4. His dynastic history plays are going to get their own post soon, but these appeared in January 2023 and so get a mention here. 

Wednesday, 18 January 2023

World of Lazarus: Some Thoughts

Lazarus, come forth.

I have been repeatedly disappointed by Greg Rucka and Micheal Lark's Lazarus. It always seemed to skirt the edge of being good and ended up as, well, adequate. Well drawn (if a little too close visually to something that a high-end television studio might produce), fascinatingly detached in its depiction of violence, suggesting a great deal. It's been running on-off since 2013: Green Ronin applied it to its Modern AGE system in 2018, publishing World of Lazarus. That's where I come in.

The premise is this: the year is X + 65. In the year X, the sixteen wealthiest families in the world signed the Macau Accords and divided up the globe amongst themselves. Nation states broken or eroded by crises and catastrophe folded relatively easily. A new age of feudalism begins: there is Family, there are Serfs and there are Waste. 

Why is this setting called Lazarus? Well, each family has a champion, enhanced by the technology of the new era. They are stupendously capable in combat and may survive injuries that would be death in the unaugmented. Accordingly, if you want to kill a Lazarus, apparently you need to dismember them: therefore, each Lazarus carries a large sword, or something of the sort. A Lazarus is one of the Family, and is quite possibly a propaganda icon. The series focuses on Forever, Lazarus of House Carlyle. 


At this point, some of you will be rolling your eyes. I sort of am myself. Would these amoral capitalists really set up a world where the term for their chief enforcers is Lazari? Is one of them also at work on the Icarus Project?

Allow me to suggest the following, springing in part from the 'Chimpanzees in Cambridge' debate. Most grand speculative settings have in them some key element that, simply, looks really cool to somebody regardless of how much sense it makes. There's exceptions here and there, I suppose - largely I should imagine alternate history, which occasionally produces literal histories of another world rather than a thriller set in another timeline - but the beautiful pearl is created by some speck of grit in the oyster. You can extend this further, if desired - how many historians writing detailed papers on barley production in Swabian monasteries got their start reading about Agincourt?

That's probably not too controversial a thesis. But I rather enjoy (and am not alone in enjoying) settings that hold together: where vast armies don't teleport, where horses need oats and curry-brushes and horseshoes, where rulers have to acknowledge laws and customs even if they wish to ignore or trample them. There's some tension with all that and wizards or dragons or psychics or laser swords or Lazari - and resolving that is an interesting problem! Likewise, not resolving it or failing to find an adequate fig-leaf is dissatisfying: some critiques of the latter seasons of Game of Thrones focused on this. 

And so this leads back to Lazarus. Sometimes it all clicks together and works wonderfully, sometimes it lapses into smallness - not quite the 'worst of all possible worlds' version of it this discussion in the LA Review posits, but still not great. It can dwell on the few members of a Family without much regard for the greater system around them (be they Serfs or other Families - Cf. treatments of House Tully or Tyrrell). Which is what engages me about the possibilities of an RPG for Lazarus


So, some thoughts on World of Lazarus

  • This isn't a review of the Modern AGE system from Green Ronin, but from what I can see it looks a touch unwieldy. Characters get Backgrounds, Professions, Drives, Specialisations and more - I'm used to something a little lighter. Where's the 52 Pages for assault rifles, smartphones and defibrillators?
  • Various modes of play are suggested based on a group of Wastes, Serf or Family - survival, service and intrigue being the centre of each. 
  • This said, the specimen Campaign seems rather railroad like, darting from Scene to Scene. Waste campaigns at least should have a rather more open form of play (A Hexcrawl through contested Morray/D'Souza territory in Columbia? Guerrilla operations against Vassalovka?), and Family constraints are limited (though subtle). 
  • An Appendix contains notes for how to play as Lazari. The variant where a Lazarus is a shared PC sounds best, and most like the depictions of Lazari as military assets or political footballs. 
  • There's a nice section on how an organisation a GM creates might grow and plot to advance itself. A component I can see myself using elsewhere. 
  • The two major families in the former United States - Carlyle and Hock, divided by the Mississippi - receive the most development. This is in part due to their place in the comics, and the contrast between Carlyle's 'Longitudinal Capitalism' and what we might term Hock's pharmaceutically assisted juche is pronounced. 
  • All the same, one finds a use for this evergreen image.
  • Sub-genre taxonomy enthusiasts! Worry not! World of Lazarus has you covered: Isn't this cyber punk? .... In cyberpunk, corporations are faceless, implacable......In Lazarus, the Families are anything but faceless. These sixteen dynasties make their political dramas and infighting aggressively personal.  
  • Grumble One: Why do so many of the Families dress in business casual? What sort of Neo-Feudal future is this?
  • Grumble Two: If you are including maps of a setting that is dynamically changing (EG, Rausling absorbing Bittner territory) those maps should be clearly dated. That those maps have the Americas at the centre is understandable (see above) if hardly comfortable.
  • Before the aforementioned absorption. 

  • A nice touch of the worldbuildng contained in Lazarus is that not all the families grew from big obviously sinister tech or pharma companies: sugar processing, entertainment, insurance and 'Elfsaga video game cartridges' enabled some of them to get their start.
  • There's some appropriate variations on the Family-Serf-Waste schemee in different territories: different terms used or attitudes taken. (EG, Carragher serfs refer to themselves as Workers and shun conspicuous consumption. This does not necessarily make their lives any less comfortable.)
  • Inamura's intensive use of robotics for labour feels, if not stereotypical, then uninspired (Japan = Hi-Tech). One notes the problems of an ageing Japanese population in the present day, though this seems like it would be corrected by one means or the other in X + 65.
  • Armitage is based in 'The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland-Made-One'; the head of Armitage eventually became the Duke of Lancaster and benefited by the marriage of his daughter into the Royal Family. The authors of World of Lazarus note: 'Armitage arguably benefited from a culture more readily familiar with its feudal roots and class system than almost any other Territory.' Hmmm.
  • The Armitage Lazarus is a Bond pastiche named Sir Thomas Huston, complete with Idris Elba references.
  • Minetta (apparently descended from a family associated with the Dutch East India Company) is described as 'the last true Capitalist power' for being more centred on trade than territorial dominance, and relatively laissez-faire internally. They are willing to work with 'local powers—be they warlords, junior signatories, religious leaders, or others', which explains how they've kept hold of Iran.
  • The effects of climate change are felt in Lazarus: indeed, 'The vast majority of the Meyers-Qasimi Serf population live in idyllic, microclimate-controlled safety in cities such as such as Tel Aviv, Riffa, Cairo, and Dubai'.
  • Speaking of which, a recurring security issue for Meyers-Qasimi is religious fundamentalism. The old world does not die so quietly.
  • Vassalovka was once a Lesser House in service of Sidorov, the initial signatory. The vastness of their territory means they have given up on enforcing a shared culture and a great deal of autonomy is given to Lesser Houses.
  • The impact of social media seems to be downplayed in Lazarus - perhaps unsurprisng in a setting dreamt up around 2012. Still, later material on Vassalovka does have a certain emphasis on Grief Farms and social media personalities. 
There's more I could note for your attention; I'm not certain it's super necessary to go over tech levels or what have you. Does World of Lazarus provide the information you'd need to write your own material in this setting? Yes. Do you really want to? Well, that's the question. I don't suppose I've sold it marvellously here. There's potential untapped. But I wouldn't tap it in this system.