A Simple Murder [Book Review]

A Simple Murder by Eleanor Kuhns

The story.  William Rees is a veteran of the Revolutionary War, a grieving widower, and an itinerant weaver.  When his son runs away from his sister’s care to join a community of Shakers near Durham, North Carolina, Rees leaves his wandering to attempt to reconcile with his son but becomes entangled in the murder of a young Shaker woman.

What I liked.  I like historical mysteries where the emphasis in on human psychology and old-fashioned sleuthing.  The Shaker community, called Zion, appears to be a collection of simple, God-fearing souls but of course in no time is revealed to be a complicated mess of human frailties and of course murder.  Kuhn clearly knows the period and frequently puts in as much color as she can to help bring the period to live.

What I didn’t like.  This is Kuhn’s first novel, but Rees seems to have just a bit too much backstory, with constant references to previous murders that he’s solved, including one where he was the prime suspect, old partners in solving crime, etc.  I don’t know if Kuhn has these other stories in the form of unpublished manuscripts or is laying the groundwork for a future prequel, but it felt forced in the story.  It did have the effect of explaining why a traveling weaver would be called on to solve a murder when there is a sheriff in the area whose job it would be in the first place.

In addition there’s a romantic subplot involving proto-feminist Lydia Ferrell whose relationship with Rees seems rushed somehow, as does Rees’ conversion from basically telling her to not speak in his presence to missing her presence every time they are apart.

Then there’s the murder itself.  It is not a complicated affair and I think most readers will at least pick up on the primary culprit without too much difficulty.  I actually talked myself out of believing who it was based on the clues because I expected some clever twist, some missed detail, that would point to someone else.

My takeaway.  I’m always looking for things to use in my own storytelling, and the notion of a bucolic, even boring community holding dark secrets is one that I did like about this book.  Kuhn treads into the water of having religious people revealed as hypocrites, but there are enough genuine, kind people (usually those on the fringe of the Shaker community) to make it not too blatant.

Buy, library, or skip?  I probably won’t be re-reading this book, but it wasn’t bad, so I’m  calling it a library check-out option.

305 Hostile Realms on the way

It’s been a while since I dropped any real money on hobbies.  The Numidians I’m working on were from November , as was the copy of The Pathfinder Bestiary.  So I was about due for something.

I thought long and hard about getting a new wargame.  I’m pretty set on RPG’s, have plenty of molds I’m not using, and about three dozen miniatures on the painting table.  I also decided to perhaps look at a new fantasy game.  You see, I’m mostly a Warhammer Fantasy Battles player to the point where you can take the number of times I’ve played other games, add them together and multipliy by three, and you still wouldn’t have the number I’ve played WHFB.  So I was thinking about something different.

The problem is, there’s not a lot in the way of fantasy wargames out there, which surprises me.  There’s upteen Napoleonic games, but little in fantasy despite the wide range of miniatures available.  Or rather there isn’t a lot that isn’t either a skirmish game (eg. Confrontation, Song of Blades and Heroes, or Malifaux) or a thinly-veiled Warhammer clone (e.g. No Quarter).  I like skirmish games, but I was looking for something to scratch my big-battle itch.  That got me down to two choices: Armies of Arcana or Hostile Realms.

Side note: I know about Hordes of the Things, the fantasy hack of the DBA rules.  I own it.  But my honest opinion is that HOTT isn’t that far removed from a skirmish game, given that you are usually battling with a dozen stands (40-60mm bases) with one to four miniatures on it.  Nothing against the game–it looks like fun and I appreciate the inherent flexibility.

Armies of Arcana, from what I can tell, seems very tooled for 15mm, which isn’t that big a handicap.  Hostile Realms is the fantasy hack of the Piquet system, which is (in)famous for its innovative ruleset.  That innovation (loved or loathed) was what won me over.  I wanted something really different from WHFB so that I’d have to start thinking differently about gameplay.  That was my problem with No Quarter (which is a free download and should definitely be looked at).  Yes, you get different monsters and the ability to tool up your own army list, but it plays very similarly to WHFB  and wouldn’t really push me in terms of new gamesmanship.

I’m not familiar with Piquet, as I said, but I’ll post a review of Hostile Realms after it arrives.  It should be here in about a week.

[Review] Pathfinder Bestiary

My wife presented me with a copy of the Pathfinder Bestiary for my birthday (by request).  For those unfamiliar, Pathfinder is Paizo Publishing’s attempt to keep the D&D 3.X edition (and all the supplement they created for it) viable by making essentially “3.75 Edition.”

Pathfinder RPG is the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide put together in one $50 brick, while the Pathfinder Bestiary is the Monster Manual.

Each monster (and there are purportedly over 350 of them) are given one page, most of which is taken up with the large stat block and explanation of special abilties.  The rest is the Paizo-style depiction of the monster and a small paragraph describing the creature.  I like the Paizo-style rendering of the monsters, some of which are distinct from D&D’s version, but the descriptions are pretty sparse.  They do give an italicized description of the monster for the DM to use, something that 4E’s Monster Manual lacks.

In the back, there’s are sections detailing advancing monsters (adding hit dice and abilities to make a greater or lesser version of a monster), adding templates (such as “fiendish” or “celestial,” but oddly lacking “dire”), and adding class levels.  The last was a big feature of third edition, spawning troll rangers and the like.

The Pathfinder Bestiary lends itself to comparisons to both the third and fourth editions of the Monster Manual. Clearly it cleaves much more closely to the former than the latter, and how you feel about those two books will probably shape your own opinions about the Bestiary.  There are a few things worth noting, however.

First, the descriptions of the monsters are more “PG-13” than “PG” sometimes.  Many of the monsters are described indulging in bestiality, cannibalism, and even incest.

Second, with the exception of the dragons, each monster has only one stat block.  This is a big difference from the Fourth Edition Monster Manual, which has multiple versions of each monster (e.g. a goblin warrior, blackblade, hexcaster, etc.)  Fourth Edition seems to be geared more towards having encounters with almost “warbands” of different monsters while Pathfinder still seems to hold to Third Edition’s inclination of having solo or small groups of monsters in each encounter.  You’ll need to do the legwork of adding class levels to the base characteristics if you want to flesh out your drow society or make an ogre chieftain.  (Or, I suppose, buy a Paizo supplement.)

On a more subtle note, the art in Bestiary, and Pathfinder in general, seems less influenced by World of Warcraft with its giant-shoulder-pad anime style illustrations and more dark-and-gritty leather straps with lots of daggers, what I think of as more “Verner Klocke” if you know your miniature sculptors.  If I can oversimplify things, it’s like this:

  • Third Edition: spiky shoulder pads
  • Fourth Edition: blocky shoulder pads
  • Pathfinder: no shoulder pads

I hope that makes sense.

In the end, I think books full of monstrous opponents, or supervillains, or NPC’s really serve their purpose when they inspire a DM/GM/CK/Judge.  This is one thing I think the Fourth Edition Monster Manual did when it gave sample groups of monsters; a DM could ask him- or herself, “in what context would my party encounter this group?”  Most of the monsters in the Bestiary are well known canards of D&D.  There are several new monsters, on loan from Necromancer Games, which add dashes of new flavor.  And while I want to like Pathfinder, because I like the idea of making more distinct PC’s and less stock “character builds,” the game still has the biggest problem of Third Edition–it’s front-end loaded.  I can sit down and crank out an evening’s worth of play in a fairly short period of time with 4th Edition.  It’ll take quite a bit of work to stat out the same with Pathfinder.