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The New Death and others, by James Hutchings

Recently, James Hutchings of Teleleli and several other blogs contacted me with a request, probably common for bloggers of more note than I, but new to me: he asked that I review his anthology of poetry and short fiction, The New Death and others. I'm hardly alone here - there's quite a list of blogs that have posted reviews. I haven't read any of those reviews, and as I write these particular words, I am about a quarter of the way through the book. It's not long; the PDF is 94 pages. (But at 99 cents for an electronic copy, that sounds like quite the bargain! Oh, and full disclosure: my review copy was free.) Of course, you can get snippets of content written in much the same style from his blog; think of those entries as the slightly-less-polished teasers for the book.

I'm not sure how to describe Hutchings' style, except to suggest that it might be the alchemical union of Sheldon Allan Silverstein and Howard Philips Lovecraft: two styles that many have attempted to emulate. I also detect a soup├žon of Sir Terence; the gods appear often, and the particular tenor of pettiness that Pratchett imagines for many cosmic entities appears here. Please don't take from this that I regard the work as being in any way derivative; that's the exact opposite of my intention. The playfulness of the text is often gallows humor, which as Kainenchen would point out is merely redundant; around the middle of the book it transitions a bit further into sardonic political allegory, which is always a good time (presuming that you, like all right-thinking Americans, agree with me. Ahem.).

Before I get into the piece-by-piece breakdown, I want to mention that the stories and poems are arranged so that one longer piece might be followed by two shorter ones, and so on. It's solid pacing, is what I'm saying here. I'm specifically focusing on the pieces that are top-shelf gaming inspiration, because after all this is a gaming blog, but the pieces that aren't getting a mention still show the same standard of craftsmanship and wit. "Everlasting Fire," for example, is a long setup for a comic reversal, heavily laden with puns throughout. Also, several pieces are adaptations of classic works to rhyme and meter - while those might be good text props, I feel a little odd giving those a nod as gaming resources. That doesn't detract from their interest as remixed texts, though.

Gaming Resources

"The God of the Poor"
This story introduces several of the gods that show up in later piece, establishes the natures of these entities, and offers an addition to a divine portfolio that, frankly, would never have occurred to me otherwise.

"How the Isle of Cats Got Its Name"
This is pretty much wall-to-wall setting material, internally consistent and also fitting well with later pieces to sketch a whole setting in a few more tightly-focused works. It's almost like Hutchings was playing Microscope, except that I've been reading snippets about this setting in his blog since well before Microscope's publication.

"The Face in the Hill"
While the story's conclusion is not one you would necessarily want to apply to a roleplaying game, the image of the face in the hill is very cool, and the story's additional details on the face only make it easier and more compelling to use in a game.

"Prince of the Howling Forest" and "The Moon Sailed Sadly Through the Sky"
These are shining examples of the vignette-style content that I've lauded in the past. It is very much in the tone and form of formula texts in Dust to Dust; I could (speaking hypothetically here) insert it into the campaign whole-cloth. Alternately, "Prince of the Howling Forest" would work very well as the card text of a group of Magic: the Gathering cards, because ending each stanza in the same word would really pull the concepts of each card together in a player's mind.

"The Scholar and the Moon"
This has a lot of the vibe of Planescape to me, along with some Over the Edge, but in a way that's hard to define. Maybe even a little Fallen London. The city of Mayajat could be dropped into many fantasy settings without a word changed, as long as those settings are comfortable with some of the high-concept stuff going on here. It wouldn't work nearly as well in a setting where things are extraordinarily concrete; if pure simulation is your thing, that is, look elsewhere. If not, though, basically every setting detail that comes up here could be a good time.

This is followed by three pieces on the gods, particularly Love and Fame. A pseudo-Discworld could find some inspiration here, as I've suggested above, in the scathing sardonic wit of these two stories and a poem. I love a good Just So Story as much as the next reader, of course!

"The Name of the Helper"
This story, told in the style of Aesop's Fables (but set in a Caliphate), would fit in any setting with an Arabic culture as a morality tale. If your setting has a parallel of Harun al-Rashid, even better. (And really, it probably should.)

"The Bird and the Two Trees"
Ever wondered about the discourse of the flora and fauna for times when your PCs have the temerity to cast speak with plants or speak with animals? This story is here for you.

"The God of the City of Dust"
The city described here would be right at home in at least some visions of Athas, among other settings. It has a sense of desolation that puts me in mind of The Tombs of Atuan or Dying of the Light. It would make a really excellent entry in an episodic or hexcrawl campaign, without really requiring any adjustment. The actual plot of the story would also be a solid element to include in a setting's history. A better DM than I might be able to fit it into the campaign in a way that players can interact with.

This is about as pure a World of Darkness scenario as could exist. I'm inclined to interpret it as the bleak and broken heroism of that setting. I would be just fine with including the monster described here in my own nWoD chronicle.

"Diamanda and the Isle of Wives"
The island described here (not the Isle of Wives, but the homeland) is a very sword-and-sorcery kind of place; I can readily imagine Conan the Barbarian arriving here, having some adventures, and eventually leaving the place a smoking ruin (like y'do).  Diamanda could also be an excellent model for a hero or a villain, depending on the stage of her story you presented to the players. Finally, the machetes (Hutchings often refers to machetes as murder weapons) come across to me as awesome cursed magic items; I particularly like the physical description. It's solid, all the way around. Any stage of the timeline in this poem could work well as the premise for adventure, including making the whole poem part of the backstory.

As I've indicated, there's a lot of other content here, and I consistently enjoyed it. The pieces run quite a broad spectrum of structure, setting, and tone; if for some reason you don't like what he's doing with one piece, move on to the next one, because it's bound to be different. A mere ten full stories of raw gaming inspiration is probably worth your ninety-nine cents, though!

I have some notion that it is gauche for reviewers to issue full-throated praise. If you don't agree with this idea, ignore the rest of this paragraph; you won't have missed anything of importance. There are a few places where a comma gets dropped, and one where a paragraph indentation should have been, but wasn't. I didn't make a note of them on my first read, but I may do so later, since the note at the end of the text requests such.

My final conclusion is this: If you like fantasy and sf, then The New Death and others is ideal for you, so long as you don't have a lifelong grudge against humor (puns, parody, satire), fairy tales, twist endings in the final line, Just So Stories, or remixed versions of classic works of fantasy (HPL, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Lord Dunsany). If you do have a bizarre hang-up about one of these items, this book is still for you - just skip that one, he'll do something else in the next piece. If you hate all of those things, then I have to wonder how you came to read this blog.

Purchase it here!

Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B005Q8Q8DY

Smashwords: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/92126

Barnes & Noble: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/the-new-death-and-others-james-hutchings/1106579897

DriveThruFiction: http://www.drivethrufiction.com/index.php?manufacturers_id=4616 

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