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Aug. 22nd, 2014

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In which I rant about Tieflings for no good reason

Yeah, okay, of all the dumb rants there are in the world this is one of the dumbest and worse it is several years out of date but it’s one of those things boiling over into nerdrage and the entire point of this blog is to have a place for nerdrage so it is serving its purpose.

So.

Tieflings.

Back in the wild world of AD&D 2nd Edition we had a thing called Planescape and it was good. Well, it wasn’t good. But it was better than most. And Planescape introduced a nice place called Sigil that was full of kind people who liked to stab — each other, other people, you know, in general, stab. Stabbing was a thing in Sigil. In Sigil were these people called Tieflings. Since Sigil was the center of all the Planes all based on the 9 D&D alignments it made sense that the occasional Demon or Devil or Fiend would wander on through, leave a couple of babies with the local whores and barmaids, and wander on their way. Could the demons help it if they were good looking? No, probably not.

Tieflings were the closest thing that Sigil had to a native population. Each one was weird in their own way. Grandpa was a Cambian and Mom was some sort of nasty half-fiend so you’re just this freak with giant bulging red eyeballs and vestigial wings that go fwip fwip fwip and your poker buddy has 6 foot tall curving horns and hooves. But no one cared because over infinite time in Sigil everyone was a damned Tiefling. One assumed any Tiefling sorcerer who fell through a Door and ended up in someone’s campaign was only adventuring to get back to their goddamn poker game where they had a full flush high they swear and they leaned back in their chair and now here they are fighting goddamn orcs what the hell is this garbage. Old Tieflings were guys who had fireballs in one hand and cigarettes in the other and weren’t interested in that sword in that magical horde because they could do a thing. They were cool guys.

I was one of those people who liked Tieflings. And yes, I know they are lame.

Tieflings were like this in 3rd edition and survived that way through the patch but then were watered down into non-existence. Instead of an interesting background of some demon passing through town now it is a Mysterious Ancestor who Tainted a Bloodline and now all Tieflings are Generically the Same. They were gutted of all their interestingness into bland sameness with a Spooky and Mysterious Past that was Spooky and Mysterious. And they are all weird in the exact same way and have absolutely no knowledge about plains or Evil Grandpa George the Demon or extra-planar games of chance.

And because not everything can be awesome, in D&D 5th Edition Tieflings are still a race with a mysterious tainted bloodline with a tail and flamey eyes all in the same way.

So screw that. I have declared an Official House Rule that all Tieflings are Different, Dammit. They might not be from Sigil — a summoning could have gone wrong, someone hung around with Great Evil too long, who knows. Something interesting. Something interesting happened that was more than a vague and unspoken spooky evil that is strange and spooky. Something awesome happened. And that’s the whole point of Backgrounds. Something. Awesome. Happened. And I have declared it So for all Tieflings.

Life is too short for boring bland evil backgrounds.

Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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Jul. 20th, 2014

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On the D&D5e Starter Set

Yesterday, we got together, went through character generation, and played several hours of the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Starter Set.  To paraphrase: I wasn’t a huge fan of 4th Edition because I am a habitual minis player and 4th Edition felt like a minis game.   I did love the board games – Wrath of Ashardalon and the like – because I love roguelikes and those games felt like the right balance between a roguelike and a ridiculous dungeon run.  4th Edition needed grids, minis, rulers, and careful measurements to play and combat bogged down.  It wasn’t the D&D I remembered so the books went largely unread and the game went unplayed.

D&D5e is not D&D4e. 

Character generation is good old fashioned D&D character generation.  Pick a race, pick a class, apply some bonuses, pick some weapons, fill out a form, and rock & roll.  I picked a Mountain Dwarf Fighter because smashing imaginary goblins with a two-handed maul is fun and because I love Violet from Rat Queens.  We all filled out our character sheets wrong in the same way – it’s the bonuses from the stats which count, not the stats themselves but because we were all trained by AD&D 2nd Ed we are still thinking the Fighter needs an 18/00 strength to be effective and, well…

Backgrounds shone.  We didn’t have many to pick from, this being the Starter Set, but I see a glorious future of entire splat books dedicated to backgrounds alone.  Two of us picked Soldier and one picked Criminal and we came up with some tenuous relationships between us.  Rolling randomized on tables to create character personalities came up with some mixed results but the concept of backgrounds works.

Combat is what we all care about.  Gone are the 5’ steps, the grid requirements, and the trappings of a minis game that starter in 3 and exploded in 4.  Combat was fluid and fast – we managed to get through 5 combats in less than three hours which might be a world speed record for D&D.  Granted, these are 1st level characters with 1st level character combats so they’re expected to be fast.  Goblins squish.  But there was a good balance of risk, reward, tension, and fast play to keep combat fun.  

The Advantage/Disadvantage system is a bit of genius.  It forces the players to think more tactically without the need of physical tactics.  Players want to get the drop on monsters to get those Advantages so they’ll work harder, think more, and work together to get those pluses while trying to stay away from situations which give them Disadvantages.  (For those not yet exposed to it, Advantages are when you can roll 2 d20s and take the best, and Disadvantages work the same way to the enemy’s benefit.)  This gives the combats more color and encourages teamwork. 

To understand the general tone of game play, go back to D&D 3rd edition and instead of shooting off into 3.5/Pathfinder, pull out everything that feels extraneous – most of the mechanics around Feats, measurements – and put in a more fluid saving throw, skill and combat system.  It is not AD&D 2nd Ed like people have claimed – there is no THAC0, the d20 is still king, it is still all rolling and adding – but there’s an essential AD&Dness mixed with the enormous improvements found in 3rd Ed to make 5th Edition.  It feels like Dungeons and Dragons.

It’s a super good game if you are in the mood for the kind of cheesy, ridiculous fun playing D&D brings.  And it has all the feel of murder hoboing without the overhead.

Will play again and will acquire the core books when they come out.

Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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Mar. 21st, 2014

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On Learning French On The Cheap

Off and on the last ten years I have tried learning French and not gotten far – except for this time, when I might have hit upon a winning combination that, if anything else, is working for me. 

First, Duolingo is an on-the-go free application that teaches Spanish, French, Portuguese, Italian and German in a manner quite like Rosette Stone.  It costs nothing and its coverage of a language is quite comprehensive.  However:

  • It tells you when you get something wrong but it never tells you why you got something wrong often leading to frustration.
  • It never teaches you any reasons behind the grammar it introduces.   It just introduces grammar complexity and laughs at you as you fail lessons.
  • Sometimes the translations are colloquialisms or verb tense changes without any warning.
  • It nags.  Meh.

Duolingo is terrible for learning a language from scratch since it leads to frustration and confusion but it’s fantastic for vocabulary drill.  Since vocabulary drill is the name of the game, it’s worth doing the minimum 10-15 minutes a day with the app – with something else.

Second, the podcast Coffee Break French is really good.  It’s really good.  I thought the JapanesePod 101 stuff was good but no, this is really good.  Instead of drilling vocabulary I get what Duolingo doesn’t cover:

  • Clear pronunciation instruction to get pronunciation correct.  Man, I sound like a horrific Canadian trying to speak French.  It’s sad.
  • Grammar instruction and explanation.  For example, Duolingo’s pronouns lessons became much easier once I heard a Coffee Break French lesson. 
  • Build block learning of vocabulary to build up full sentences.
  • Listening practice at full speed to full conversations. 

If you get super interested you can buy the supplementary materials but I have all the volcab drilling in the world from Duolingo.  It can be sucked down via iTunes.

Third, I bought a cheap, used French High School Textbook off Amazon for $13 (Vis-a-Vis Beginning French 4th Edition).  There comes a time, I found, when one needs to give it up and just look up the grammar rule in question and get a written explanation with examples.    

The last bit is just diligence.  I try to get ~20-30 minutes of French instruction shoehorned in every day.

So there you go!  Try it and have fun!

Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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Dec. 29th, 2013

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A Few More Upgrades

Still upgrading the blog and trying to drag it until the next year so I can just send blog posts to it via the Surface Pro.  

  • Removed the Social plugin in favor of the Jetpack equivalent, Publicize.  Slowly downgrading all old plugins in favor of Jetpack equivalents.  This hopefully removes the twitter double-post.
  • Installed Disqus comments.  I know they’re annoying but after years of trying to deal with commenting systems that weren’t actually horrible moved to something cloud hosted.  The thinking here is I can blame the cloud provider instead of myself.  If it turns out terrible I’ll go back to the regular WordPress commenting system.  It should have guest commenting turned on so it shouldn’t force anyone to make a Disqus account.

Nothing to see here.  Just move along.

Also, ha ha ha I have the proofreader plugin turned on so it smacks my fingers with a ruler whenever I use a passive tense verb conjugation.

Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

Dec. 27th, 2013

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On the Surface Pro 2

Hey look!  A return to blogging!  The blog is getting a slow but certain face lift.  But this isn’t about blogging, but about my new blogging device, a 128GB Surface Pro 2, which showed up under the tree on Christmas.  After 48 hours of heavy use of the device I’ve come to some nuanced conclusions about it and how it fits into the technological niche.  The tl;dr is that I am terribly fond of the device but it comes with some caveats.

This is also my first time blogging or writing of any sort on the device.  Let’s see how this goes!

The Good

  • Steam!

Steam runs.  Steam plays.  Steam downloads games.  Game run!  Games run well.  Unless your gaming tastes run to high performance FPS then Surface makes a surprisingly nice portable steambox.  I’ve downloaded and tested several games and they have all run flawlessly.

  • Windows Live Writer

Microsoft offers Windows Live Writer, a piece of fully featured WYSIWYG blogging software with tools to embed images, movies, maps, etc., for free.  It hooks to WordPress sites and has an enormous list of tools for formatting and laying out blog posts.  It runs without issue on the Surface Pro 2, turning the ultrabook into a portable blogging machine.  Who knew?

  • The Pen and Manga Studio 5

Easily the most impressive piece of software on the Surface Pro 2 so far has been Smith Micro’s Manga Studio 5.  The pen interface works perfectly with the art studio software turning the ultrabook into a full featured drawing tablet with velocity and pressure support.  It is no wonder web comic artists swear by Surface and drawing software.  The first time running the software with the pen is the first time I realized this little box was something completely unexpected. 

  • Netflix

Netflix is everywhere, on everything.  It’s embedded in my DVD player.  Today, Netflix players come with socks from Target.  But between the touch interface and the aspect ratio, Netflix feels natural on the Surface.  Not many other pieces of natively built in software stands out but Netflix did a nice job on their conversion of the client for Surface-oriented clients.

  • The Kickstand

The kickstand keeps the Surface Pro propped up at a comfortable writing height, especially on a table, a tray or a writing desk (full disclosure: it is currently on a writing desk).  It isn’t neck-crane difficult to see and it isn’t lying flat.  It sits at a natural height for doing serious work, and then collapses down again to be a lap or portable device.

  • The Type Keyboard

The type keyboard (not the touch keyboard) plugs into the bottom of the Surface, disconnects, acts as a cover, folds backward, and has highly accurate and responsive keys.  Although it is an expensive add-on, the type keyboard is worth it – it turns the Surface Pro into a device that both can be used for media and for actual Word/Excel work.

  • Flash

And it plays Flash.  If, say, your favorite web comic is loaded with flash files….

The Bad

  • Windows 8 is pretty terrible

As every technology magazine and blog has pointed out over the last year, Windows 8 is pretty terrible.  And it is pretty terrible.  It’s a well meaning mess that has no direction, no clear sense of self, and gets in the way between people and their computer.  Metro can be bludgeoned into shape by someone with the patience to read blog pages on usability but if you’re expecting it to be usable out of the box, it’s not usable out of the box.  It’s 8-12 hours of use to set up the hacks around the roadblocks it throws up to get it to work.

Don’t get me started on the insane security requirements and the “run as administrator” button.

  • The Touch Keyboard is also pretty terrible

The clicky-clicky type keyboard is superior in every way (see above).  The touch keyboard is garbage.   It rarely registers clicks, it slides around, and it feels cheap.  Avoid at all costs.  Get a type keyboard.

  • The Windows Store is sad

The Windows Store is full of sad widgety software which hardly works.  The store itself has hardly any pieces of software of note.  Most of the software doesn’t work right.  Windows has tons – TONS – of software.  Pretty much every piece of software available on WIndows 7 runs on Windows 8.  Steam games run.  Word and Excel runs.  Skip the store.

  • The inexplicably terrible experience with Youtube

I’m still not sure what is going on here, but Youtube hates the Surface Pro 2.  The apps in the Windows Store are worse than useless so one needs to run Youtube in the browser.  That’s not a dealbreaker by any stretch but I am so used to the super slick Google Youtube and Jasmine apps available on the iPad that not having a nice Youtube app feels like a travesty, especially in the face of the extremely well-done Netflix app.  Very strange.

  • Browsers

Well… the good news is, after several hours of cajoling, Google Chrome does work on the Surface Pro… kind of.  It’s support of touch controls are schizophrenic.  It has no idea how to draw the screen half the time.  Firefox does not work at all.  Don’t even think about Firefox.  I have not tried Opera. 

IE10 is not horrible and has terrific touch support but it is Bing centric.      

  • Windows Live Accounts

Yep.  You have to hook yourself into the Microsoft microcosm to use the Surface.  It did take my Gmail account so I didn’t need to suddenly manage yet another email account.  But having to create yet more accounts in yet more systems to do yet more things is annoying.

Overall

Microsoft sells the Surface Pro 2 as a tablet designed to compete with the iPad but the Surface Pro 2 is not a tablet, it’s an ultrabook.  One does not lie in bed and read a book with the Surface Pro 2.  It is too heavy to hold comfortably one-handed.  But it does everything a performant PC does and more.  If the expectation is one of a nice ultrabook with a touchable screen and an 8 hour battery life, it delivers.  If one is expecting an iPad or Galaxy Tab-like experience… it’s an ultrabook.

It’s filling a blogging/Steam playing/on the couch using niche in my life.  It’s been given a mouse, it runs twitter and social networking apps, it plays the Stanley Parable.  I can see how it isn’t for everyone and I can see how an iPad/Galaxy Tab is plenty for most people.  But like the XBox 360, Microsoft occasionally puts on an excellent piece of hardware laden with some terrible software – and if you can get through the software barriers there’s a gem inside.

Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

Nov. 3rd, 2012

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Review: Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas
Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At one point in David Mitchell’s amazing Buddhist science fiction novel “Cloud Atlas,” a character in the past comments on a character in the future he might or might not reincarnate into which you, the reader, knows is true (the action and the reincarnation) because you already read that passage about the character in the future because you’re reading from the future to the past and your brain explodes all over the wall in a big greasy lumpy mess you say “Maybe this is a good book.”

Six sections all written in the style of the section’s time period (the Canticle for Lebowitz section is arguably the strangest to read);

Six different stories from a South Pacific Travelogue to the transcript of a futuristic TV show all referring back to the events in the stories backward _and forward_ in time;

At least four character reincarnating with one ascending to Buddhahood and returning to suffering to help usher in a new era;

Big themes of the novel hidden in the structure of the novel itself;

A big puzzle of nesting stories where actions in one story impacts the others;

And an awesome science fiction novel for 33% of the story.

You might not bother to see the movie but you should read the book.



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Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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Oct. 7th, 2012

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Review: Debt: The First 5,000 Years

Debt: The First 5,000 Years
Debt: The First 5,000 Years by David Graeber

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I had a difficult time slogging through Debt. It shares a similar problem with Niall Fergeson’s completely unreadable “the Ascent of Money:” it mixes in the author’s politics and political leanings with history to give everything this weird political sheen (in this case left to Fergeson’s right.) In this case, Graeber’s book covers more facts than political lecturing but it’s bumped several stars for being overt.

However, Debt is a worthy read for anyone interested in the span of history from early Sumerian – Middle Ages. The sections on Babylonian debt-based society and the Roman slave society are especially strong; the entire chapter on the Axial Age and the move to coinage over debt to pay for mercenaries is good and solid read full of meaty “stuff.” The effect of the fall of the Roman Empire on the coinage left in circulation and how that contributed to the Dark Ages while the smaller communities returned to earlier debt and borrow strategies is also good. I liked the breakdown on how debt goes back to wife trading and wife purchasing with cows as demonstrated in Africa and moving from that to a more generalized market — the first people to ever price physical objects were, of course, thieves who needed to sell them for other things. And the most precious commodity is a human being.

Debt falls down in the Islam chapter and the China chapter, both which feel thin and full of conjecture. China has a big piece to play in the Cortez-dumping-silver-on-the-European-economy section but otherwise, it’s glossed over. The chapter on the rise of Islam and the role it plays is dry and nearly unreadable.

What I want to say about Debt is to skip the boring parts and read the interesting ones. Skipping to halfway through the book to the Axial Age chapter is a good strategy. Skip everything after the Middle Ages — Graeber hardly has interest in things like 18th century stock bubbles (although mentioned) and the rise of the East India Company. Saying, “Yeah this is a great book on ROME!” is good. Saying, “This is a great book on the history of monetary policy!” is not. It’s an okay introduction to the genesis of debt, a great discussion about ancient and near-ancient monetary policy, and a fairly terrible one on the modern day.

Not a waste of time, but not 5 stars either. A good 3.5 star book.



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Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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Jul. 8th, 2012

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Review: The Crying of Lot 49

The Crying of Lot 49
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I have a weekend to read!” I thought. “And Pynchon’s novels are all now on the kindle! What better than to spend a few hours reading an Official Classic of 20th Century American Literature ™!”

I have learned that:

- I’ll finally get off my butt and read Pynchon’s longer novels.
- A continuum of exists from Nabokov -> Pynchon/Vonnegut -> Davis Foster Wallace that neatly explains my reading habits.
- I will spend the next week looking for loops and horns.

Greatly enjoyed the quick, short read although it leeched all sanity out of my mind. Was a bit shocked how much it read like /Infinite Jest/ in tone and style as, for some unexplained reason, I was not expecting that at all. It’s a classic of literature! It’s on the kindle so it’s trivial to acquire. You should read it, too.



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Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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Jul. 6th, 2012

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Review: The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fantastic 2/3rds of a book and a flat 1/3rd of a book. If you quit at the 2/3rds mark, I’m fine with that because the last third falls flat.

Swerve is about the re-discovery of Lucretius’s “On the Nature of Things,” an Epicurian poem extolling an early Roman atheist worldview of a universe made of atoms descended directly from the Greek Epicurians. For the first third, Swerve dives into the literature movement of the Roman Empire, the nature and industry of hand-written books on scrolls, libraries, and a world of literacy in a time of hegemony. And then Rome fell apart bit by bit and the books were lost to mold, moisture, Christians with torches, and monks who didn’t care to make copies. The early Christian Saints clutched their chests and fell on their fainting couches about how Roman Literature in its beautiful literate manicured Latin, so much better than the crude Greek or Hebrew of the Levant, destroyed their souls and should never be read — wink wink — really don’t read it except you should. To no one’s surprise, people took the Saints seriously and it went from oh no we’re not reading that to NO WE REALLY AREN’T READING THAT and thus, books get lost and destroyed and neglected and used for kindling. Some of the books were copied and recopied in rotation in forgotten mountainous monasteries. On the Nature of Things was one of those.

The second third of the book is about the academics of early Renaissance Florence who fought precisely like academics do. Nothing is better than threats and slander and lies and assassination attempts over translations of Latin. Some of the books crept out, some of the books stayed in collections, but fundamentally these crazy academics established fonts and notation and procedure and pedantic lexicography and everything the modern world needs to analyze literature. These are good people, the crazy ones who go to the Alps to steal books from monasteries. It’s like an Umberto Eco novel except it all really happened.

So thus the book about the atoms and the atheism is returned to circulation.

This is all well and good. But the last third of the book stretches to make Lucretius’s poem important in the course of history. The arguments are tenuous at best. Galileo! Thomas Jefferson! Newton! I think there was a Kant reference stuffed in there. The argument isn’t very good because it was an whole body of literature, not just one poem, entering the literary market once again (histories, plays, philosophy, huge books of maps) that helped kick things along. Sure a book talking about atoms had some impact but wow, it felt overblown. This is unlike Fourth Corner of the World where the return of Ptolemy’s Geography had noticeable and traceable effect — before Geography, no maps; after Geography, maps — it’s unclear what the return of Lucretius’s poem actually had.

Again! Absolutely fantastic first two thirds of a book. Worth reading. Perfect in its awesomeness. Last third — merely good and sometimes bordering on okay. Recommend for the first two thirds, which is more than I can say for 90% of the history books I’ve ever read.



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Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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Jun. 11th, 2012

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Review: Sarum: The Novel of England

Sarum: The Novel of England
Sarum: The Novel of England by Edward Rutherfurd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I greatly enjoyed Sarum. All 1033 pages of it.

Sarum is the first Edward Rutherford book I tackled, although his New York book has stared at me with longing on a shelf for years. Starting at the end of the last Ice Age, Sarum follows the generational paths of five families through time to the modern day. The book hits all the strong beats: the building of Stonehenge, the Roman Invasion of Britain and their colonization, the Dark Ages, Saxon Britain, the Norman Invasion, the War of the Roses, the High Middle Ages and the Black Death, the coming of Protestantism and Queen Elizabeth II, the English Civil War, the conquest of India and the American Revolution, Trafalgar and Waterloo, the Great Wars of the 20th Century. Sarum left me with a great sense of breadth and time and gave me an appreciation for age and the passing of time. Everything starts and everything ends — cultures, religions, industry and business, technology, reigns great and small. That which felt eternal at the time it happened passed and soon became someone else’s archeology.

The highlights of the book are the grisly Stonehenge chapter (nearly a novella in itself), the building of the Salisbury Cathedral and the horrible chapter on the Black Death, followed by the Revolution and the Cavaliers in the Civil War. Of the five families, two are the main focus of the book: the horrible decedents of Tep, the river man who has always been there since before the Ice Age ended, and the Shockleys, decedents of a Saxon Thane whose fortunes rise and fall with England’s. For 1500 years those two families have back and forths, constantly crossing paths until finally joining in the 20th century. The other families (Caius Porteus’s decedents, the family of Nooma the Mason, and the Godefrei’s) play second fiddle — save in the Cathedral chapter — to the others.

Sometimes the chapters felt a little too short and that generation ended too soon but, generally, I read this book with Wikipedia and my (nonfiction) history of England open to flesh out some of the details where the book glossed over. Overall, I enjoyed the rich detail Rutherford supplies in with the every day lives of his inhabitants of Sarum to give grounding in the time period. No politics get injected in the background of historical period detail — it is told, straight, to help couch the feelings and motivations of the characters.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants to read some meaty historical fiction or to get an entertaining grounding in the history of Britain. Although some of the archeology in the early part of the book is a little wobbly now (book came out in 1987), the rest is solid and was backed by my reference books.

Five stars.



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Originally published at /project/multiplexer. You can comment here or there.

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