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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


Lost, child? Don't be afraid. You can navigate by using the side bar to the right, under the picture of that curious fellow. Read about what has been written, and what is being written, by looking over the Blog Archive or "Things Lurking in the Dark." Be sure to check out the novella, "Unquiet Slumbers," posted in its entirety.

Monday, November 24, 2014

PROGENY, PART TEN

Katsuyama drove like he did everything else; hurling himself head first at breakneck speed, acting on impulse, a grin etched on his face.  We weaved between the traffic, racing stop lights, until finally we escaped the city and he could push the engine to its limits on the open road.  He was wearing his headphones under the helmet, and I could hear him singing some German punk song at the top of his lungs.  Singing was not his forte.  I sat behind him, holding on, the wind and the darkness whipping through my hair.  Had I been Quick I might have been in fear of my life, but I was already Dead.  I wondered what Kit's excuse for his fearlessness was.

High, thin clouds like shreds of ice cut across the moon, turning the white-peaked Alps silver.  As the kilometres shot by, we descended into the heavy German dark.  To my eyes, the night was a dazzling tapestry of colours, but I had no interest in the scenery.  My mind was anywhere but the present, divided between what lay ahead at the end of the road and what Kit Kat had told me in the hotel suite.

"I think I can tell you a bit more about your mysterious patron," he had said, hopping naked off the windowsill and scooping up his smartphone.  He flopped down beside me on the bed.

"What?  How?"

He shrugged.  "I had time to kill while you did your corpse thing, so I searched the Internet."

I raised an eyebrow, sitting up.  "I've spent years doing that, though.  I haven't found anything."

Kit flashed his toothy grin, like he'd just dined on canary.  "Ah, but you were looking in the wrong places Herr Blutsauger.  You had the French and English versions of his name.  I found his original."

Now he had my full attention.

"You've never bothered to research your own family name, have you."  It wasn't a question.  “With what Roman told us, I decided to start there.  And with this Night Palace.”

I nodded.

“Back in the 12th century, Frederick Barbarossa granted reichsgraf status to a lieutenant who helped him seize the throne.  The guy’s name was Harrau.  He was from Styria, originally.  With the title came land in the Black Forest…the place the Night Palace is at now.”

A tingle started pricking the back of my head, slowly crawling up my scalp.  I knew, of course, that Athena herself was nearly a millennium old, but for some reason the idea of Harrow personally knowing Barbarossa drove home the point of what I was dealing with.  I was good at chess, but Harrow had been playing it for at least ten centuries.

“I don’t think that Harrau was your guy, though.  He had two sons, see.  Towards the end of Barbarossa’s reign, the elder Harrau died, leaving the lands and title to his first son.  But suddenly—and their were rumours of poison involved—this son died and his younger brother claimed the estate.  He was called ‘Simon the Monk.’”

I nodded, leaning forward.  “That’s him.  Simon.  He’s used the name before.  It’s the one I first knew him as.”

Kit nodded.  “Unsavory reputation, that one.  He was a monk who broke his vows, and later there were whispers of witchcraft.  I couldn’t get exact dates but it looks like he ruled his lands for the better part of eighty years.  Quite a feat, back then.  But here’s the juicy part; a few years into his reign he changes his surname and that of the family to ‘Draegonne.’”

The cold tingle spread to my limbs.  “The family?  He had sons?”

Kit Kat shrugged.  “Not sure.  Actually it looks like he took in his brother’s kids after the poisoning.  Who knows?  Maybe you are descended from the brother and not old Simon himself.”

We entered the Schwarzwald, the forested peaks closing in around us.  The road writhed and coiled like a snake through the mountains.  Just past midnight, we reached the outskirts of Oppenau, a quaint medieval town of just over five thousand souls.  It looked like something out of a movie.  Kit raced under the old city gate, and then followed a narrow road past the ruins of an ancient abbey.  The minute I saw them, pale fingers of deja vu started plucking at my memory.  Had I been here before?

Near the abbey, Kit pulled to the side of the road and tugged off his helmet, shaking his mane of blue hair.  There was a sign there, in both German and English, showing the outlines of the Black Forest and the positions of various tourist attractions and historical sites therein.  Karlsruhe, Baden-Baden, Schoss Eberstein, Furstenberg, Staufenberg…nearly a dozen palaces and castles were listed.  But no mention was made of the Night Palace.  As far as the historical and cultural landmark society was concerned, it didn’t exist.
“How do you hide a palace?”  I asked aloud.

“I know where it is,” Kit said nonchalantly, and I was about to ask him “how” when he put his helmet back on and revved the engine.  I set the question aside, and we took the narrow road into the forest.


Click to enlarge

We seemed to constantly be exchanging roads for smaller and smaller ones, until finally we raced up a leaf-strewn path barely wider than a sidewalk.  Ancient trees leaned in on either side, their intertwined branches forming an arched corridor.  Razor blade shafts of moonlight cut through the canopy of leaves.  And then, suddenly, it was there.

Kit Kat killed the engine.

“My God…” I whispered, wide-eyed.  


Click to enlarge

Rising above the trees I could see the massive central dome of the Night Palace, and the smaller central domes of the towers around it.  The wind rustled the leaves, and somewhere, an owl called.  Just ahead of us was a massive stone gate.  I approached it very slowly.

“Damien,” Kit said behind me, nodding.  I followed the line of his gaze.  There were ancient graves scattered amongst the trees, and down a short path what looked like a mausoleum.  Something inside me stirred when I saw it, a flutter of excitement in my core.

Come, Damien.  Come.

I headed in the direction of the tomb.  Through the iron gates that sealed it, I could see a massive stone sarcophagus, a knight carved on the lid, wearing a helmet and bearing a sword.  My eyes went up to the weathered letters etched into the stone over the entrance.  DRAEGONNE.

“Do you think this is his resting place?”  Kit asked from behind me.  I nearly jumped out of my skin.

“It might have been,” I said.  “But I think Harrow is still back in the States, at Harrow House.  He insisted I come there first.”

“So you came here first, you rebel.”  Kit grinned.

I said nothing, turning back down towards the massive stone gate.  I climbed the flight of steps up beneath it, walking into a wide courtyard, my eyes immediately drawn to the palace itself.  How the fuck did you hide something like this?


Click to enlarge

It was a baroque masterpiece, a massive heap of pale grey stone adorned with arches and columns and those magnificent domes.  I realised immediately it was not abandoned…two iron lamp posts at the entrance flickered with gaslight, and from within the palace I could feel heat and heard the dull beat of human hearts.  Mentally, I compared the well maintained palace and courtyard to the rotting husk of Harrow House back home, wondering why Harrow would keep this place in such good repair while living in a ruin.  

“Well, what now?”

I glanced back at Kit and smiled faintly.  “We go inside.  We are expected, I think.”

Kit looked puzzled, and I started straight across the courtyard towards the front entrance.  Climbing the wide steps, I paused before the twin bronze doors, glancing around for a knocker.  There was no need.  One of the doors swung back, slowly, a tall, withered old man in black velvet looking back at me.  To my surprise, the old man went down on one knee, bones and sinews creaking painfully.  “Lord Draegonne.  The Night Palace welcomes you home.”

“I am nobody’s ‘lord,’” I replied, a bit embarrassed by the display and more than a little irritated that once again Harrow was two steps ahead of me.  he knew I was coming here.  He’d known for weeks, long before I had even heard of the place.

The old man rose to his feet.  “As you say, sir.”

“And you are?”

“Richter, sir.  It is my privilege to supervise the staff of the Night Palace.”  His wrinkled face cracked a yellowed smile.  “Everyone will be pleased that you have arrived.   I took the liberty of preparing rooms for you and your guest.”

So you have been watching me since Geneva.

“We were not planning on staying.”

“As you like, sir.”  The old man stepped back and gestured for us to enter.

Kit whistled through his teeth, the sound echoing around the room and soaring up to the dome.  I understood the sentiment.


Click to enlarge

Standing at the entrance, the main chamber of the Night Palace was a massive, open space of air and darkness. Beneath the great central dome, a pool sparkled in the moon’s rays streaming from above and the reflected glimmers of the firelight.  Twin statues, bearing braziers of flame, knelt on either side of the pool, and beyond them were openings to other chambers.  In the distance, my gaze followed the curves of two massive staircases sweeping upwards.  I took a few steps forward, my eyes dragged up into the moonlit dome.  Bats circled around inside it.

“Nice digs,” Kit Kat whispered beside me, repeating his comment from the hotel room.  

I felt cold, staring down into the pool.  “This kind of wealth comes with a price.  I am not sure I am willing to pay it.”

“Would you care for a tour, sir?  Ot perhaps some refreshment after your journey?”

I glanced at Richter.  “How long would it take to look around?”

“A few hours, sir.  I am at your disposal.”

“Lead on,” I shrugged.  I needed time to think, and following Richter around listen to him babble about the history of each stick of furniture and each objet d’art seemed a good way to buy myself time.  I let Kit Kat do the oohing and ahhing for me,  my eyes scanning the somber stone walls, trying to learn more about Harrow from reading them. 

There was everything you would expect from a palace, an echoing throne room, a ballroom, a chapel.  There was a grand dining room with forty chairs around the table, a surprisingly intimate parlour, elegant bedrooms and a sprawling library.  None of this was gothic, Hollywood stuff; but there was nevertheless a kind of shadow beneath the opulence, a dark twist in the bronze statues that made them look almost like slaves, a desperation in the faces of the portraits.  The Night Palace was impressive, certainly…but its walls seemed mortared with blood and pain.  And yet, passing through the massive kitchens beneath the palace, it struck me what the fundamental difference between this place and Harrow House was.  The Night Palace was still very much a house of the living…it was meant for the Quick to inhabit.  I had never been inside Harrow House, but its haunted and decayed exterior gave the firm impression that nothing living endured within its walls.

Two hours later, in the parlour, Richter served Kit a sherry, which seemed to amuse Katsuyama no end.  When he left us, Kit approached me as I leaned against the mantelpiece, staring into the flames.  “Whatever it is, it’s not here.”  I said aloud.

“What’s not here?”

“The answer,” I said softly.  “Whatever it is Harrow is playing at.”  I turned and gestured around.  “This…all of this, is the bait.  He knew I would come here first, he wanted it.  Let me see up close everything that he was offering me…reel me in before dropping the hammer.”

Kit nodded.  “Still, as far as bait goes…”  He grinned.  “What will you do?”

I frowned, looking up at him.  “There is only one thing I can do.  Go to Harrow House.  To him.  Find out what this is all about.”

Kit Kat considered this.  “Or you could run away.”

I laughed, darkly, more at myself than at him.  “I could, and God knows I should.  But it isn’t just the wealth…and that is what pisses me off the most.  How easily Harrow played me.  It’s not the money or the palace…it’s my family name over that tomb door.  He’s tempting me with the one thing he knew I couldn’t resist.”

“Which is?”


“History,” I sighed.  “Simon the Monk knows exactly how to give a fellow scholar what he wants.”










    

Thursday, November 20, 2014

PROGENY, PART NINE

Part Eight is here.

"I knew it the moment you walked through the door," Roman Drachen snarled, showing his fangs.  "I could smell the taint on you.  A Draegonne.  A Draegonne in the fucking Blood.  I ought to rip your head off right here, Fledgling.  You have no right to exist."

I had no idea what he was saying to me, and the shock of learning Simon Harrow was a distant ancestor was still ringing in my head.  I couldn't think.  As he came across the floor I bared my own fangs, my fingers curling into claws.  I didn't know why he was coming at me like this, but I wasn't going down without a fight.

"Oh boys," the one they called Kit-Kat interrupted, hopping off the surgery table he had been perched on and placing himself right between the two of us.  "If you are done whipping out your fangs to see who is bigger, why don't we all take a deep breath."  He glanced between us.  "Those of us who do breathe, I mean."

"Get out of my way," Drachen growled.

Kit gave him a sharp look.  "Have you forgotten that I brought him here to collect the debt you owe me?"  Now he turned his back to me and stared right into Roman's face.  "I would really hate it getting out that you backed out of your agreement with me.  What was that bit again about a Dragon's word being his bond?"

Roman's face darkened, but he froze, his shoulders straightening.  He jabbed his finger in my direction.  "You are not Blood, Katsuyama.  You don't know what that thing is."

Noetia stepped forward now, putting her white, long-fingered hands on Roman's shoulders.  "Kit is right.  We owed him a debt and he's collecting.  We can't break our word.  And besides," she cast a glance over her shoulder at me.  "This Fledge isn't a Dragon, he's a Raven.  Kill him and you provoke Aurelius and Athena.  We have enough on our hands with the Outcasts.  We don't need a Blood War."

Roman balled his hands into fists, and with a roar whirled around and buried one of those fists into a concrete wall.  The entire building shook.  I found myself relieved I wasn't on the receiving end of those blows.

Noetia narrowed her eyes at me.  "We will nurse this Familiar back to health for you, Kit.  No harm will come to him.  That repays our debt.  But he..." she paused and spat on the ground "...has to get out of here.  The very sight of him is offensive to us."

I shook my head.  "I am NOT leaving Stef..."

Kit turned and put his finger across my lips to silence me.  "Down boy.  Let me do the talking here."  He looked back and nodded.  "Deal.  You keep your end of the bargain by getting this Blood Doll on his feet, and I will make sure handsome here never darkens your doorstep again."

Noetia nodded.

Kit turned and took me gently by the arm.  "C'mon.  Your Boy Toy will be safe here.  They know how to deal with blood loss."

I stared at him.  "Listen, I really don't know who you are, but they just threatened to kill me.  You think I am going to leave my Familiar here with them?"  The tone in my voice made it clear I thought he had a screw loose.

The blue-haired boy grinned.  "You get even hotter when you are angry.  Love it."  

"Who..."

"Shush."  He tugged on my arm.  "Trust me."

I opened my mouth to protest, but my own weariness betrayed me.  I could feel the coming of the sun, the heat building in the air, a dull pressure on my skin.  With it came that awful lethargy.  I was tired and I was hungry, having boiled off a lot of blood rushing Stefan here.  Underneath that, the shocks of the evening filled my hand with quicksand.  I understood little and trusted less.  I had completely lost control and I knew it.  I needed to get out of there.  I needed rest.

Without a word, I followed him out the door, vowing to myself that if they hurt Stefan, I would come back and tear them to pieces.

Big words for such a little vampire.

Outside, in the street, the sky was a pale grey.  To the Quick it was a dim, murky light.  To me, it was a white hot blaze.  The walk back to the Hotel would be hell.

"Hop on," Kit told me.  He had climbed on to a motorcycle and was putting his helmet on.  "I'll get you home."

"You don't know where I am staying."

"That's why you are going to tell me," he laughed.  "Sexy, but not very bright."

I climbed on behind him, wrapping my arms around his waist.

Back at the Hotel, he crossed the lobby behind me, following me right up to the elevators.  Pushing the button, I shook my head at him.  "Where are you going?"

"With you," he smiled.  

"What makes you think I agreed to that?"

He laughed, stepping past me into the elevator the moment the doors opened.  "Because your Familiar is on ice and you are in enemy territory.  You need someone to watch you sleep.  Besides, you look hungry, and I figure I can spare a pint or so."

I stepped into the elevator beside him, half asleep and half blind.  "I don't get it.  What is in this for you?"

He shrugged as the doors closed behind us.  "At first, I was just curious.  You raced by me through the crowd like you were running for your life, so I followed.  Then I saw you with that kid.  You looked so--stricken.  So concerned.  It was adorable, and I am a sucker for a handsome face."  He winked at me as the elevator jerked to a stop and the doors opened again.  "But now?  Well, I am still a sucker for a handsome face, but you fucking scared the shit out of Roman Drachen.  I thought he was going to piss blood.  So now I am real curious what your story is."  

"I wish I knew," I muttered, fumbling with the key card to open the door.  We strolled into the suite and immediately he began shedding clothes, tossing his vinyl trench coat over a chair and tugging off his tight muscle shirt.  He let this fall to the floor.  Slowly, he turned in circles, half to take in the room and half to show off his naked torso to me.  He had narrow hips and wide shoulders, lots of definition and little muscle.  Blue leopard spots were tattooed on his sides, running over his ribs from just beneath his pectoral muscles to just above his hips.  They suited him somehow.  He just felt feline.

"Nice digs.  You must be loaded."

He grinned at me and crossed the floor to the bar, grabbing a tumbler and a bottle of vodka.  He didn't bother pouring, but carried both towards the bedroom.  Setting the bottle and the glass down, he flopped on the bed, pulling off his high-heeled boots and squirming out of his skin tight pants.  He wasn't wearing underwear.

The sun was hitting me hard.  I felt hot and dizzy, the way I felt after too much Scotch when I was Quick.  "What the hell are you doing?"  I asked, standing at the edge of the bed.

He grinned like the Cheshire Cat.  "How's a boy supposed to know where you like to bite?"  He smirked, running his finger slowly down his throat.  "Here?"  Then he ran the same finger over his wrist.  "Here?"  Finally, eyes glittering, he spread his legs and ran his finger along the smooth skin inside his thigh.  "I am hoping for here."

"I don't get you at all."

"You're getting me right now.  C'mon.  Take those clothes off and come eat."

I had no intention of playing his game, so fully clothed I climbed on to the bed and took his wrist.  Too hungry to say anything, I bit into the skin.  Kit-Kat let out a little gasp, and then made a sound like a purr, brushing his own fingers over his naked belly.  "Mmmmmm."

Kaleidoscope.  A village in Europe, a man in filthy rags pushing a cartload full of corpses.  A ballet studio in Paris, pale ballerinas whirling in gyres.  Soldiers with bayonets running blinding through canon fire.  Dozens of disjointed images rushed through his blood, pouring into me, flooding my brain.  And then there was the smell, overpowering, of incense and spice.  The sound of linen snapping in the breeze.  And through this images, following me around as I toured them, whirling tendrils of black smoke.  They seemed to gather and coalesce as they neared me, taking the shape of a large black cat with indistinct shadows whirling around it.  It looked up at me with burning green eyes...

I pulled away, startled.  I didn't know what I had just seen, but I was sure the cat had been looking right at me.  As I wiped the blood from my lips, Kit stared up at me from the bed, a wicked gleam in his eyes.  Something was wrong with me.  Something wasn't right.

Then I realised what it was.  My cock was rock hard and throbbing in my pants.

It wasn't just that...I could feel the hot rush of lust surging under my skin, almost like being a teenager again, when the hormones hit so hard you thought you might die if you didn't get your rocks off.  But this was wrong, this was impossible.  Since crossing over into Undeath I hadn't felt the slightest trace of sexual desire.  Sure, I could fake it...I could use the Blood in my veins to warm my skin and make it look pink, or to force an erection.  But it was never sex I wanted...it was blood.  Blood had replaced all my hungers, tying them up into one scarlet need.  This was not right.

And I was fucking out of my mind with it.

Before I knew what I was doing I had torn my own clothes off, seizing him by the wrists and pinning him down on the bed.  He laughed at me, scissoring his legs up and wrapping them tight around my hips.  I took him, hard, the headboard slamming against the wall.  We thrashed our way across the bed, tumbling to the floor.  I finished him bent over one of the leather chairs.  Then I exploded, shooting over his naked back.  To my horror it wasn't semen at all.  It was dark, crimson blood.

I backed away, feeling spent and giddy.  I fell on the bed.  Cleaning himself up he sprang up on me, straddling my chest.  "Feel better, Tiger?"

"That...shouldn't have happened.  I mean, I don't usually..."

He laughed again, leaning down to kiss the tip of my nose.  "I have that effect on people, living and dead."

"Who the fuck are you?"

"Kit Katsuyama," he grinned.  "Dad was a Japanese businessman.  Mom was a German airline stewardess.  Not much else to tell.  Certainly nothing to make Roman Drachen bug out like that.  So the question really is, who the fuck are you, Tiger?"

He snuggled up next to me, and despite myself, I started talking.  I told him everything, right from the beginning.  I have no idea how long I talked, but the light in the room steadily brightened as I did, and eventually the death sleep took me.  

My eyes snapped open to a darkened room.

Kit was still there, stretched out along the windowsill naked for all the world to see.  He dangled the half empty vodka bottle in one hand and sipped from the glass in the other. Looking out into the city night, his reflection was a ghost in the glass.  The room smelled of alcohol and sex and food.  An empty food service cart was out in the other room.

He turned his head towards me, and from that angle, his eyes caught the light and seemed to glow in the dark.  "Four hours and fifteen minutes," he said, sipping his vodka.

I sat up, staring.  "What does that mean?"

"396 kilometres along the A1 and A5.  I figure why the fuck not?  Your Blood Doll is gonna need a couple of days anyway."

I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and stood, approaching him.  In the window glass, where his reflection formed a twin for him, mine was nowhere to be seen.  "What are you talking about, Kit?"

"I Googled it.  The distance from Geneva to Oppenau.  I think we need to go check this Night Palace of yours out."














  

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

PRINCE LESTAT, A REVIEW



"...I assumed completely we were cursed and victims of the Blood as surely as mortals thought themselves to be the guilty victims of Original Sin..."

- Lestat, Prince Lestat


Early in her writing career, Anne Rice stopped writing novels and started writing scripture instead.

Her debut novel, 1976's Interview with the Vampire, is a classic. Rice's vampires, stripped of satanism and portrayed not as ravenous corpses but miraculously transformed humans, started the entire subsequent genre of vampire fiction as something distinct from horror.  Interview is the seed from which True Blood, The Vampire Diaries, Twilight, Forever Knight, Vampire: The Masquerade, and dozens of other works spring.  Even Buffy shows shades of Rice.  Gone from the vampire cosmos was the garlic and the crucifix, the turning into bats, the vampire's victims rising in three days as vampires themselves.  Now vampires exchanged blood to transform others, now they moved with blinding speed and had heightened senses.  Now they seemed to retain their "souls."

But it was never her reinvention of the species that made Interview a gripping read.  Interview was a painful, soul-searching work, the crucible into which a young mother poured all her pain over the tragic loss of her daughter to leukaemia   Through Louis, Lestat, and Claudia, Rice was grappling with life and death, love and loss, and taking the reader along with her.  Like all great fiction, Interview was emotionally honest.

And...it was a novel.

The same can not be said for 1985's The Vampire Lestat.  In this work, which is part of a pair of bookends with The Queen of the Damned, Rice consciously decides to stop writing fiction and take up mythology instead.  Fitting for an author who would later write two novels about Christ, in Lestat Rice gives us a "Jesus of the Vampires," a Brat Prince messiah who comes to overturn the old, static world of blood drinkers with a new Gospel.    Where Interview was all about asking the questions, Lestat was about revelation.  It had all the answers.  In it, Rice reveals a new vampire mythology, detailing their origin in the fusing of an Eqyptian queen and a bloodthirsty spirit.  They get all sorts of new powers, such as flight and causing things to burst into flame.  And gone, really, is any trace of real horror.  Their are glimpses of it--the stone-like Akasha and her king, the cruel fates of Mekare and Maharet--but mostly it is Jesus Christ Superstar with fangs.

Prince Lestat (2014) marks Anne Rice's return to vampire fiction after eleven years, and is considered by her a direct sequel to The Queen of the Damned.  In many ways it is the most "scriptural" of all her Vampire Chronicles (which is saying something in the wake of Memnoch the Devil), filled with endless chapters of "so-and-so begat so-and-so," a bewildering cast of characters, and its own lingo.  It requires two forwards and an appendix just to explain what the hell is going on.  None of this in and of itself disqualifies it from being a novel, but Prince Lestat comes dripping with agenda.  It takes about two-thirds of the book to get to it, but it all comes clear here;

"...we've waked from those nightmares of the Queen's Blood cult and the Children of Satan. We are finished with such things.  We are in thrall to no belief now except that we can know from the physical world around us...stop with the self-loathing.  Stop with the imagery of 'the damned...'  we are not Damned, we never were..."

Now, Anne Rice's on-again off-again relationship with Catholicism is well known.  She has herself has been quite vocal about it.  In her "on again" mode, she has devoted her talents and much of the last decade to three novels (one forthcoming) about Jesus, and already in the Vampire Chronicles we have seen her extensively explore religious themes (again, Memnoch the Devil).  Now, Rice is "off again," and a declared secular humanist, and Prince Lestat preaches the Gospel of that.  Lestat has come to deliver vampires from superstition, and Rice has come to deliver the readers of her tales as well.

Don't get me wrong...I am not here to condemn Rice for her secular humanism.  I am a secular humanist myself.  But I haven't talked about the plot of Prince Lestat because there really isn't much of one.  A mysterious presence called 'the Voice' is speaking to vampires around the world, trying to persuade the older ones to kill off all the younger.  In a repeat of The Queen of the Damned, the vampires of the world assemble to stop it.  That is pretty much it, and the climax?  Well, let's just say it was predictable. Herein lies my assertion that Rice isn't writing fiction; the "story" is completely irrelevant.  Strip away the pages and pages of her descriptions of gorgeous, unearthly vampires listening to gorgeous, unearthly music, wearing gorgeous, unearthly clothes, and you are left with a book urging you to set aside superstition and look to science for answers.  The whole thing is extended preaching.  Prince Lestat is only a 'novel' if the Bible is.

I don't think I am being wholly unfair in this; characters in Prince Lestat themselves actually refer to the 'Vampire Chronicles' as scriptures.  In the context of Rice's fictional world, the personal memoirs of Louis, Armand, Lestat, Marius, and others have formed a sort of vampire religion.  Clearly Rice is aware of the scriptural quality of her work.  My discomfort with Prince Lestat is the same bone I had to pick with Twilight--thinly disguised Mormon doctrine of be a good girl, wait until marriage, and after you have a child will be rewarded with rebirth into an eternal body.  I had the same gripe with The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.  I don't mind subtext in fiction, but when the fiction's main purpose is to preach a doctrine, I find it off-putting.

I've stuck with Rice over the years because Interview with the Vampire was unquestionably a great work.  It dealt with broad human themes that everyone eventually has to deal with.  But Prince Lestat is an editorial piece that only some readers will agree with, and the only way to really enjoy the book is if you do.  When Rice puts her mind to it, as she did in The Witching Hour or The Mummy, she can spin gripping stuff.  Prince Lestat feels more like a long-winded secular Sunday sermon.

No doubt Prince Lestat will please Rice's die-hard fans, but it isn't going to win over any new ones.  

NUMENERA; A REVIEW

1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.

2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.

3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Arthur C. Clarke, "Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination"




TOWARDS THE END OF THE 1960s, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were sharing a New York City cab.  Alongside Robert Heinlein, both were considered part of the Holy Trinity of science fiction writers, and often asked which of them was the best.  In the back of that taxi, the pair found an elegant solution, and the so-called "Treaty of Park Avenue" was drawn up between them.  Clarke would ever after insist that Asimov was the best, while Asimov would always insist his superior was Clarke.

Despite this, the two had their differences.  Asimov, for example, drew a firm line between "science fiction" and "fantasy."  The first, he insisted, was grounded in science and dealt with the possible.  The latter, centred purely in the imagination, dealt with the impossible.  But Clarke, perhaps in part as a play on Asimov's famous "Three Laws of Robotics" issued Three Laws all his own.  The first of these, I like to think, was a tongue in cheek jab at his friend and rival;  "When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong."  He finished with the famous and oft-quoted assertion that "sufficiently advanced technology" was indistinguishable from "magic."

No other role-playing game has ever embraced Clarke's point-of-view as deeply as Monte Cook's Numenera.



A bit like Clarke, by 2001 Cook found himself in a Holy Trinity of RPG designers.  Alongside Jonathan Tweet and Skip Williams he was tapped to design the d20 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, writing the Dungeon Master's Guide.  If you weren't familiar with his name from Champions or Rolemaster, or from his days at TSR writing books for the Planescape line, you couldn't be a gamer and escape it in the wake of the d20 system's ubiquity.  Despite my own antipathy for the system, I liked Cook's work in it.  His translation of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu might have been (to me) completely unnecessary, but he pulled it off brilliantly.  Likewise his take on White Wolf's "World of Darkness" was inspired.  By the end of the decade he was bit of an RPG "rock star," and it was no surprise that when he turned to Kickstarter to generate capital for a new project called Numenera, he raised more than 25 times his goal of $20,000.  Cook has that sort of name recognition and fan base, and Numenera is the perfect example of why he deserves it.

Depending on whether you lean towards Asimov or Clarke, Numenera is either a fantasy or a science fiction RPG.  Set a billion years from now, Numenera is about the peoples of the Ninth World.  At least eight previous worlds have risen and fallen back into obivion, each over a cycle of hundreds of millions of years.  Some of them left behind orbital satellites to bathe the world in a massive datasphere.  Some of them terraformed, and then re-terraformed, the planet.  Some of them were the centres of vast, interstellar empires.  Some of them mastered the fundamental laws of physics and played with them like toys.  Some of them created the nanotechnology that now invisibly swarms across the planet. Some of them explored other dimensions.  Some bioengineered new forms of life.  And several--if not most of them--were not even remotely human.



Now, inexplicably, humans have returned to the Ninth World, though no one can say from where.  Spread thinly across part of the planet in a quasi-medieval patchwork of kingdoms known as the Steadfast--and some in a wilder region known as the "Beyond"--the humans of the Ninth World dig through the ruins of the ancients collecting "numenera," a catch-all term for any and all of the wonders of the past.  They are guided by the Order of Truth, a "church" of sorts led by the Amber Popes and dedicated to improving the human condition by learning the secrets of the old worlds.

If you close one eye and look at Numenera from the right angle, this is all pretty generic fare.  Medieval kingdoms built on the bones of ancient, wondrous empires, bold adventurers combing dangerous, monster-filled ruins for treasures...we've seen this a thousand times before.  Even the three core character classes--the Glaive, the Nano, and the Jack--look pretty much the same as the Warrior-Mage-Rogue archetypes from other games.  Numenera looks the same as any fantasy RPG.  But shift a few steps an take a look again.  Suddenly Numenera starts to look like a post-apocalyptic future.  Move a bit further and it looks like weird horror.  From another angle, an almost Roddenberrian game of hope, wonder, and exploration.  It can be used any of these ways.  It is at its best when used in all these ways.

Which brings us back to Clarke's laws.  That desert hermit, mumbling to himself?  With hand gestures and incantations he can bring a rain of fire out of the sky.  Is he activating the clouds of nanotech machines swarming through the air?  Is it some form of pyrokinesis caused by a mutation in his brain?  Does he channel extradimensional energies?  In the end it is simpler just to call it what it is; "numenera," the same as the Doctor's TARDIS, the Monoliths from 2001, or the "killing words" of Dune.  This is tech so far beyond us it looks like magic.

So what is the game about, then?  How does it work?

Numenera is a game of discovery, where experience points are handed out for uncovering wonders rather than killing enemies.  It operates around a simple d20 roll and a difficulty scale running from 1 (ridiculously easy) to 10 (practically impossible).  When a character wants to attempt an action, the GM assigns a difficulty, and the player needs to roll equal to or above that difficulty x 3.  For example, a chasm might require a Difficulty 4 Might roll to jump across it.  Multiplying by three gives us 12, and the player needs to roll that number or higher.

What then about Difficulties of 7, 8, 9, and 10?  You can't beat those on a 20-sided die.

Characters have three core attributes; Might, Intellect, and Speed.  They also posses special abilities and skills.  Skills can lower a Difficulty one or two steps, reducing a Difficulty 5 task to 4 or 3.  Certain abilities and pieces of equipment can lower a Difficulty as well.  Or, the player can chose to use "Effort," spending points from his attribute pool to lower the Difficulty.  This can be risky, because your attribute pools serve as your "hit points" as well.  The amount of Effort you can spend, and how much you must spend, is ruled in part by your Tier (level).  A lower Tier character needs to spend more Effort to lower a Difficulty by a single step; a higher Tier character can spend less Effort to lower a Difficulty a step, and can lower Difficulties by multiple steps.  It is a simple, flexible, and very elegant mechanic.

Combat, incidentally, works the same way.  Your opponent has a level from 1 to 10, which determines the basic rolls you need to strike and defend against it (again, level x 3 modified by unique NPC features).  In Numenera, the GM never touches the dice.  All rolls are made by players.  Damage is fixed by weapon type (Light, Medium, or Heavy) and reduced by armour.  A roll of 17 adds +1 to damage, 18 adds +2, 19 adds +3, and 20 adds +4.  19s and 20s can trigger special effects as well.  Naturally, a character's abilities affect combat and damage as well.

One of the finest features of the game is that it is "player-facing."  The GM, as mentioned, never rolls dice.  Instead, Numenera uses a mechanic known as "intrusion."  The GM is allowed to make things "happen" that normally would be handled by a roll.  Do the palace guards hear the sounds of the player characters breaking in?  Does the ancient bridge collapse under the character's weight?  Does the device the character is carrying suddenly malfunction?  The GM can invoke any of these effects--any effect she needs to further the plot or make things more interesting--but for a price.  The character affected by the intrusion is given two experience points immediately...one to keep for himself, and one to award another party member for any reason.  Or, he can refuse the intrusion, and pay an experience point back to the GM.  Between this mechanic, and the ease with which NPCs and creatures can be extrapolated using the simple 1 to 10 scale, Numenera eliminates the heavy lifting other games saddle the GM with and lets her concentrate on moving the story along.

Character creation is another excellent feature of the game.  It basically works out to a simple sentence in which the player picks the noun, the adjective, and the verb; "I am a (adjective) (noun) that (verb)."

The noun is the easiest; it's the three "classes" I mentioned above.  There are the warrior Glaives, the mage-like Nanos, and the roguish Jacks.  Each gets special abilities to chose from each new Tier, as well as a base pool of points for Might, Intellect, and Speed.  Each archetype comes with options to personalise the character choice.  

The adjectives are things like "Charming," "Graceful," or "Strong-Willed" that bestow a package of bonuses, skills, flaws, equipment, and connections to the setting.

Finally, the verbs are things like "Bears a Halo of Fire," "Controls Beasts," "Explores Dark Places," or "Masters Weaponry."  These are professions, super-powers, or character motivations that grant a suite of additional abilities that increase each Tier, as well as a wealth of character shaping details and extras.  

Thus, a Numenera character might be "a Clever Jack that Works the Back Alleys," "a Rugged Glaive Who Howls at the Moon," or "an Intelligent Nano Who Commands Mental Powers."  These three lenses come together to create detailed and interesting characters.

What Cook gives us then is a streamlined and very modern "D&D" with an Arthur C. Clarke twist.  Much of what characters do--explore ruins, discover treasures, fight hideous creatures, navigate local politics--happens in other RPGs, but Numenera's focus never leaves the theme of wonder, of weirdness, of discovery.  Whether it is science fiction or fantasy depends on how the group approaches it, and it's unique setting allows the GM and players to shape the world to their tastes.  Already with a strong line up of supporting products, Numenera is a far future game with a bright future ahead of it.

Go see the Numenera page here.