Sunday, August 30, 2015

Who Fears the Devil? The Complete Tales of Silver John (Planet Stories # 24)

Who Fears the Devil? collects all of Manly Wade Wellman's short stories about a character named Silver John.  The stories feature an interesting and original setting for folkloric/supernatural fantasy (contemporary Appalachia) and a character that's more memorable than the traditional swordsman/gunslinger.  Silver John is a wandering collector of backwoods songs, and travels from place to place with only the shirt on his back and a silver-stringed guitar.  He is more of an archetype in some ways than a character with real depth and history, but for short stories that are plot-focussed, that's okay.
The stories are well-written and avoid formula, but usually involve some sort of supernatural menace that Silver John's pure heart and guitar can banish.  Unlike most stories published in SF magazines in the 1950s and 1960s, there's a degree of continuity between the Silver John stories which I noticed and appreciated.  According to the editor's introduction, Wellman also published a handful of novels about Silver John, and, fascinating, there was a motion picture featuring the character (it flopped).

A Vindication of the Rights of Woman [Norton Critical Edition]

This is my first time reading Mary Wollstonecraft's classic 1792 feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.  Wollstonecraft's argument for equality boils down to a simple syllogism:  1)  God has invested all human persons with the capacity to reason;  2)  It is the duty of all human persons to be virtuous;  3)  Virtue is the function of the exercise of reason to know right from wrong;  4)  Virtue is a universal concept, not a relativistic one: the same standards apply to all persons, male or female; 5) Therefore, women must be educated to the same extent and held to the same standards of conduct as males.  Wollstonecraft goes to great lengths to support the fourth and fifth points, as those are the ones must vulnerable to attack in the time period to which she's writing.  She emphatically criticizes the concept that there are different virtues for males (such as "courage" or "aggressiveness") and females (such as "modesty" or "docility").  Women are often focussed, she writes, on frivolous things like fashion or gossip because they have, since birth, been taught that those are the only things they should concern themselves with.  If women were given the same education and expectation as males, she argues that there is every chance that they could fulfill a far more important and valuable role in society.  In other words, she anticipates the modern argument that much of the perceived difference between males and females is socially constructed and not due to innate differences in mind or body.  Wollstonecraft's argument could have logically been extended to challenge a whole host of concrete social inequalities between men and women in her time (such as voting rights, property laws, etc.) but she avoids going so far and extends the implications of her position only to education.

I have to admit that I found the writing to be turgid and repetitive, even if the general theme of equality is well-established.  The critical essays in the Norton edition are much better and quite interesting.  They indicate that Wollstonecraft's book was well-received when first published, as the concern for women's education and perceived obsession with clothing and love affairs was under examination.  However, after her death, her husband published a biography that was meant to be laudatory but that revealed details of her personal life that were seized upon by critics to undermine her political writings.  The essay by R.M. Janes is particulary good on this point.  Other good essays discuss the debt she owed to historian Catharine Macaulay and the influence she had on later feminists such as Emma Goldberg.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Realms Toowoomba Recap # 54 [RPG]

[2 Flamerule 1372 continued]

In Silverwood, Syd tells Daisy that he must enter the city. As he is still undecided as to whether he plans to travel with her to Startop Mountain or journey through the portal to Thay (a place he has been told he cannot bring Garry), he tells Daisy that if he does not return in three days she can take care of his animal companion until he finds them again. Daisy is quite excited at the opportunity to add a new animal to her small menagerie.

Back in Silverymoon, while Dolcetto, Myst, and Ralkin are out shopping, a visitor knocks on the door to Terrigo Multivar's residence. Fargrim answers and sees a slim, female kenku. The visitor announces herself as Karin Whitefeather and says she is here to return a quill-pen that Mellia allegedly left behind the night prior when she had a kenku elder sign a disclaimer. When she meets Mellia, Karin "accidentally" reveals that Ralkin failed to break into the High Palace and says that the city guard are looking for a male kenku fitting his description. Mellia has no difficulty seeing through Karin's pretence, and surmises that she and Ralkin must be rivals. Mellia tries to call Karin's bluff about the "forgotten" quill-pen by asking to speak to the elder kenku, but the sorceress loses her in the city streets.

Meanwhile, Markus renews his quest to win the famous Ninefangs blade at Blademaster Noboru's Academy. His first duel is against the Academy's fifth-ranked student, Sister Demuria, a woman who is so thoroughly cloaked that little can be seen besides her face. The Academy's Duelmaster, a priestess of the Red Knight, explains that in this duel one duelist will choose the type of sword that both will use, and the other duelist will choose the conditions for victory. By lot, Sister Demuria is given choice of weapons and chooses the greatsword; Markus decides his best chance of victory is setting the condition to be the first to disarm the other.

The two duelists are led into what appears to be a plain room with transparent, steel-hard walls. Sister Demuria removes her robes to reveal a lean, lithe body barely clad at all! A small crowd gathers to watch, including Kronk, the half-orc that Markus defeated last time, and El Capitan, who he lost to in turn. When the two duelists have taken their fighting stances and the Duelmaster has left the arena, the contest begins with a surprising equalizer: the floor magickally vanishes and plunges the duelists into deep water, while simultaneous a horizontal barrier of magickal force covers the surface of the water, preventing them from emerging!

Both duelists managed to gulp a quick breath before plunging into the water, and now the contest begins in earnest. Maneuvering in the water and fighting at the same time is difficult, and both duelists initially take defensive positions. After some tentative and inconclusive swordplay, Sister Demuria decides it is time to strike. She swings her greatsword in a wide arc towards Markus, but the nimble swashbuckler reacts even faster, and with a perfectly-timed strike knocks the blade out of her hands! With the contest ended, water drains from the arena and Markus is named victorious. He announces his plans to challenge the Academy's fourth-best student soon.

Elsewhere in the city, Ralkin visits several pubs and tries to spread a rumour about a master trapsmith being available in the hopes that he might find employment in the High Palace, but few seem interested in passing the news along. At the Emporium Arcanum, Dolcetto unloads several thousands of gold pieces worth of magickal items.

Back at Multivar's house, Fargrim overhears a conversation between the old wizard and a figure who turns out to be Mortimont! Mortimont hands Multivar a small pouch of diamonds in exchange for permission to travel through the mirror-portal with the others that evening. Fargrim tries to stealthily depart, but steps in a chamberpot and it shatters with a loud crash! When Multivar investigates, Fargrim tries to talk him out of allowing Mortimont to travel through the mirror-portal, but the old wizard is undeterred, saying that his coffers have been lower than he thought they were. Fargrim rushes to Mellia and the two discuss what to do. Mellia refuses to go along with Fargrim's suggestion about trying to frame Mortimont for a crime, but says that if they can delay his entry into the mirror-portal at the right time, he won't be able to enter until the next day and by then he won't be able to pick up their trail.

As the afternoon continues, eventually the entire group assembles in the courtyard in front of Multivar's house. Markus announces that he plans to stay in Silverymoon in order to continue the series of duels at the Academy. Mellia is disappointed at his decision to place winning a sword over rescuing his friend Cain, but she says the swashbuckler must do what he thinks is right. Syd, on the other hand, has decided to go through the mirror-portal in gratitude for the group rescuing him earlier. He sends a squirrel as a messenger to carry word to Daisy.

Various options are discussed by those assembled about what to do about Mortimont, including barring the door, selling him Fargrim's red axe, or trying to buy time by telling him the group is considering it. Before a decision can be reached, the group is shocked when Cain walks in! However, it is actually only Myst in disguise, utilizing the properties of a magickal scarf found in T'Klack's complex. Dolcetto announces that she has largely finished her calculations of the shares of gold and treasure that each adventurer is entitled to. By subtracting the value of claimed magick items from disbursed gold, several individuals end up in debt to the group.

As the sun fades away, Mellia sends her friend Hestia a magickal message stating that she will check in on Gideon in about a week. Mellia also tells Ralkin about Karin Whitefeather's malicious trick.

An hour before the group is scheduled to depart, Fargrim, standing just behind the front door, hears a carriage pull up. Peeking around a curtain, he sees Mortimont emerge along with two massive humanoid constructs: clay golems! When Mortimont pulls on the door bell, Fargrim puts on a surprisingly credible false voice and says that Multivar is unavailable and that no one is going through the mirror-portal that evening. Mortimont is on the verge of turning away when Fargrim's voice cracks, and the self-professed pastry-maker realizes he has been deceived. When Mellia and Dolcetto arrive, they insist that Fargrim let Mortimont inside, as it is not the dwarf's right to bar visitors that Multivar has invited.

Everyone assembles in the cramped and dusty room with the mirror-portal as they await the peal of the eleventh bell. Mellia and Mortimont agree on what order everyone will enter, and Mortimont says it is "good to see us all working together." He also promises that he will never again ask Fargrim to sell him his red axe, but that a time will come nonetheless when Fargrim offers to do so. Dolcetto graciously thanks Multivar for his assistance and for putting everyone up for in his home, and even hands the old wizard some coins as compensation for damage done. Soon, all anyone can do is wait anxiously for the mirror-portal to turn its face to what Multivar says is Aglarond. When it does, everyone jumps through and disappears.
Director's Commentary (July 15, 2018)

I loved coming up with the different features and surprises of the duels that Markus had to fight.  Each one added a whole different element for the contenders to deal with, and make for exciting, unpredictable outcomes.

This session starts a major story arc of the campaign, as the adventurers jump through the mirror-portal on a mission to rescue Cain.  I had to do a lot of planning to prepare for this part, but as you'll see, I'm pretty proud of the outcome.

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