Monday, September 11, 2017

The Red Knight and the Art of Making NPCs

The Red Knight
Book One of the Traitor Son Cycle
Written By Miles Cameron
$11.80 at Amazon

When making Non-Player Characters in Dungeons and Dragons, the question is really how much is too much? How many game stats do we need for the effective playing of such characters?

If you're an artist or have an artist friend willing to help out, portraits are a quick way to customize your NPC's.

If you're strapped for time though, having a list of names and associations with those names is another route. It's a route Miles Cameron takes in the Red Knight to describe many of the mercenaries who follow their nameless Captain, the Red Knight.

Some examples:

Sauce had won her name as a whore, giving too much lip to customers. She was tall, and in the rain her red hair was toned to dark brown. Freckles gave her an innocence that was a lie. She had made herself a name.

Ser Thomas: Bad Tom to every man in the company was six foot six inches of dark hair, heavy brown and bad attitude. He had a temper and was always the wrong man to cross.

Two Veteran archers - Kanny, the barracks room lawyer of the company, and Scrant, who never stopped eating.

Bent, the eldest, an easterner, and Wilful Murder...

Geslin was the youngest man in the company, just fourteen with a thin frame that suggested he'd never got much food as a boy...

The book is filled with such characters. Sometimes a few sentences of description, sometimes not even a single whole sentence.

Giving the characters something for the players and the Dungeon Master to latch onto, makes the keeping of said characters easier, even if you don't list out height, weight, hair, eyes, or even armor. This is probably much more important to keep in mind when dealing with characters that the players are not going to engage in anything more than banter in. Extra work that the Dungeon Master enjoys is never wasted work but is it work that you could be doing something else you enjoy, that will see game play?

Miles Cameron brings his wide cast of the crew to life with quick descriptions and it's a great mining pool for those Dungeon Masters who want examples of how the pros do it.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Three Hearts and Three Lions by Poul Anderson

Three Hearts and Three Lions
Written by Poul Anderson
$6.15 at Amazon

Three Hearts and Three Lions is another book by Poul Anderson that is recommended in the original Appendix N of the original 1st Edition Advanced Dungeons and Dragons game in the Dungeon Masters Guide.

Despite that, I'd never read it until now. It's a book fit to be placed in the same realm as the Red Book of The Illustrated Bulfinch's Mythology, the Legends of Charlemagne. While Charlemagne and his paladins are perhaps not as popular as King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, heroes such as Roland hail from the time of Charlemagne and one of TSR's green historical books focused on those paladins.

Being an older book, Three Hearts and Three Lions has many covers. The current one is serviceable enough, but my favorite would probably be the following:

Holger atop his black horse, the mighty swan behind him, his wood dwarf comrade at his side. The sense of motion with the clouds moving from left to right. It's a great piece.

Concerning writing, Poul Anderson is a writer worthy of reading just to study his word crafting. His descriptions are not overly long but provide a reader with detail enough to know where the characters are, what the character looks like, and what the mood of the land is. He tells in one book something that another author might have taken six to do so.

The main hero, Holger, is a 'modern' man who while fighting Nazis is grazed in the head by a bullet and awakens in another world. Poul doesn't spring everything on the reader at once. There is a build up of one scene to the next, each increasing the hero's awareness that he is not in his own time anymore, indeed, not even in his own reality anymore.

This time traveling hero bit borrows a little from the even older A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court: by Mark Twain and is even referenced in the book itself.  The adventures of 'modern' man in other worlds was a favorite device before it fell out of favor. Even authors like Robert E. Howard used it as a means of taking modern giants of the world into environs more fitting for their strength and powers.

Holger's trip to the fantasy realm is one of the troublesome issues in that he appears to be of this new world. The horse he spies upon awakening seems to know him. The arm and armor he spies fit him perfectly. His knowledge of the language of the world is quickly mastered. His knowledge of deeper issues comes and goes at times prodded to the surface by current happenings.

This book brings many bits to fantasy. Here the troll is not a mythic race like those of the Norse, able to use magic and arms and armor, but rather, a massive brute with a huge nose and black eyes with green skin. Its most fearsome power though is its ability to heal from any wound.

Here is also perhaps one of the earliest examples of Law and Chaos in war. Chaos is wild and free and often evil while Law being civilization and the uplifting of man. Even in his time, Nazis were known for what monstrous acts they'd committed, and Poul Anderson puts them firmly in the grip of Chaos, evil entities intent on ripping down the civilization of humanity.

We also get a taste of courtly love as Holger travels with a swanymay, Alianora, a young woman raised outside of the norms of humanity and kin more to the wood dwarves and spirits of the woods like the unicorn she rides. Being a swanymay, Alianora is capable of becoming a massive swan with powerful wings and a stinging bite.

She does this through a magical garment, gifted to her supposedly from the Valkyries, as opposed to being an innate shape changer.

The use of Chaos and its minions, like the timeless and fey elves, who aren't evil necessarily, but are bored and are capricious at best, are intent on spreading their world. For them, the sun and its light, for example, are anathema. Their own world lies in a subtle shade that protects them, and there is a distinct difference between the world of man and that of the Fey.

The arrival of Holger is during a time when Chaos is on the rise. A time when Chaos may make a great play for the world. A time when Giants stalk the land and when those whose inheritance may have a touch of the old blood, are stirred to action.

Holger's travels bring him against wild men of the woods, fey courts, and one of the most powerful allies of the Fey and of Chaos, Morgana of Avalon.

The novel ends with Holger knowing who he finally is and wielding his sword, Cortana, a blade made of the same material as King Arthur's Excalibur and Roland's sword Durendal. In the restored Holger, better known as Ogier the Dane, a hero who, like King Arthur, went to dwell on Avalon until he was needed, rides forth to save the world form Chaos.

Given how far removed modern readers are from the story, it's hard to emphasize how unique and enjoyable this book must be to someone who's spent years reading Games Workshop's various tales and their own Moorcock inspired tales of Chaos. How far Dungeons and Dragons have taken the rare and powerful paladins of older editions and made of them another class that's equal among the others with their own distinctions.

Given its age though, the novel's prose remains top notch and easily readable. If you're looking for a way to kill an afternoon and to wonder at where some of the foundations of modern fantasy come from, Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions fits the bill.

Monday, September 4, 2017

The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

The Broken Sword
Written by Poul Anderson
$6.15 Amazon Kindle
208 pages

Let loose the red tide! Let the men be heaped like reaped golden wheat! Fall back in this telling in one book what would take modern authors a dozen times more pages!

Poul Anderson, one of the original quoted Appendix N authors in the original Dungeon Master's Guide, brings a tale of Norse revenge across generations.

If you are a fan of the show Vikings, if you're a fan of Elric of Melnibone, of cursed swords, of dire destinies, or cruel, uncaring gods, or things that never were but fit into the tales of old lore, then you should read The Broken Sword.

Poul Anderson weaves together some things that we say now are not true, such as the winged helmets of the Vikings, as well as land conquest as England suffers the raids of the Vikings. Of the rise of the One True God against those gods who used to rule. It showcases many different elements of mythology into one where there are still differences, but the mythological world is shared.

The gods of old Ireland are half gods, the elves here, not mere mortals with long hair who are good with bows. The trolls here are ancient and elderly powerful creatures that are not mere brutes that only know how to howl, but how to plan, how to set forth on ships warded against the wild seas, of using weapons of massive stone and bone because their strength allows them to do so.

The elves here are masters of magic, they control the weather, they can heal, they speak with the dead and are all things cruel and capricious. But they are few in number and even as they are timeless, they are not immortal. So when the opportunity arises to steal a man-child and add his mortal strength to their own, they take it.

Sadly they take this man child from a family that has wronged natives of England, and one woman who survives grows powerful in the dark arts of Witchery and sells all including her soul to darker powers to cast dark fate against the family that slew her own.

Into this mix comes the elves who when they capture the man-child, replace him with a troll born changeling. A heartless brute who has sisters and brothers and who will find his destiny leading the trolls against the elves and their kin.

Here the elves and trolls share a weakness to iron, they share magics even if the trolls are not as advanced as the elves, the two are both moral-less entities that are unseen by men as their battles are not fought in the mortal world. They both dislike the sunlight...

Poul Anderson crafts the tale and moves through the lives of these twins, the elf raised Skafloc, a champion more elf than man, more inhuman than human, and his pale troll kin shadow, Valgard.
Their lives intersect in unknown ways as the witch sets her sights on Valgard, a non-human raised among men whose brutish lusts for battle and his desire for the women who manipulate him through the whole of the story.

So much happens in The Broken Sword, that Poul only hints at some of it. When Skafloc must seek to mend the Broken Sword, this cursed weapon forged long ago, a weapon whose fate spirals down time with such doom, that mighty Thor himself shattered it, Skafloc seeks out the heroes of Ireland. He sails with the lord of the Sea to the lands of Jotun where the sword is forged anew but the travel there and back is merely hinted at.

Even at the start of the tale, when we are introduced to how much of the culture of elves flows through Skafloc, we are given a description of Imric, the ruler of the elves, the one who stole Skafloc, fighting against "with a troop of exiled gods, grown thin and shrunken and mad in their loneliness but still wielding fearsome powers."

That in and of itself sounds worthy of more pages! Who were these old mad things that were once gods?

Other gods, more familiar, are still about. The Dark Prince himself, claims to have known Odin in the guise of Loki and liked not the one-eyed Lord. Odin, the master manipulator, the one who pulls strings, who would be a good fit for Merlin from Excalibur, weaves a fate to the son of Skafloc that is again, only hinted at here. The final fate of the gods, or mankind, or the Broken Sword itself? Vague prophecy but no finality.

And for this book? It works perfectly. It casts the net of the tale against a background much larger than what we see here. We are visitors to the tragedy that besets violence and only for a limited time. We see how the effects of the coming of a new religion forces out the old, we see those ancient powers still mighty, still magnificent in their own realms, know that their time is limited even as they themselves are timeless.

Poul Anderson brings us no glowing heroes. There are none here who escape without the reader seeing their faults. The elves, proud and haughty, the witch consumed by vengeance, the old gods striving to survive, the trolls, equally proud and equally haughty, the old glory of Ireland, the sorrow of the fauns who survived the passing of the old Gods of Greece and Rome... it's a tale that set forth so much more than modern readers, especially those who say enjoy A Game of Thrones, might even be aware of.

If you want to see where the roots of modern fantasy come from if you want a rousing Viking tale of old gods and cursed blades, The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson is the perfect fit.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Thousand Shrine Warrior: Book Three of the Tomoe Gozen Saga

Thousand Shrine Warrior
Book Three of the Tomoe Gozen Saga
Written by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Free on Kindle Unlimited

Thousand Shrine Warrior struck me as the best of the series. And for once, I'm not that thrilled with the old cover either!

Unlike previous volumes, this one is one told from start to end with no need for joining short stories. The book continues to use black and white illustrations to highlight parts of the story.

Tomoe Gozen has forsaken Bushido but remains a deadly swordmaster. Her skills continue to bring her into conflict with the world about her, but she approaches it with different eyes now.

Tomoe still wields her unique blade, identified by the craftsmanship, the sword of Okio, a renown master of weapon forging. A weapon so powerful and augmented, that it can affect those of the other world, those demons, and undead that stalks the fantasy land of Naipon.

This time around though, she wanders the land as a nun, a member of the Thousand Shrine sect. This allows her to go to any shrine and seek food and shelter from the elements. While she does not know all of the prayers, she is a master of her flute and it brings ease to the dying and wonder to the living. This suits her perfectly and makes her a wanderer in all but name.

On her travels, she runs into a young girl running away from drunken samurai in a small province. She quickly dispatches the drunkards but is then drawn further into the intrigues of the area. This brings her to the White Beast Shrine, where she drops off a near albino snake and meets the shrines master.

She learns of the strangeness going on and is thrust fully into the strangeness. She learns that the lord her is a near slave to Kuro the Darkness. When Tomoe uses her former status to gain an audience, she learns that Kuro is actually an ancestor or hers, but she later learns that Kuro is not only an undead ancestor, a cursed spirit but also possessed by a demon.

Things aren't what they always seem though, and Tomoe has to fight her way through various alliances, find old friends, meet new enemies, and ponder what her place is in a society that is not drenched in war and has little need for full armies of samurai.

Jessica Amanda Salmonson brings us a Tomoe whose enjoying her freedom, her ability to wander the land. Tomoe is getting old though, and the author brings something into play rarely done to a swordmaster, arthritis in the hands!

Thankfully when she's at White Beast Shrine, she meets the shrine keeper Bundori who knows how to create a salve that works like say, Tiger Balm or another ointment to ease the pain of sore knuckles. At this shrine, the strangest thing is the animals, most of which are shapeshifters who when Tomoe isn't around, take human form. They are described like elves of old being almost too beautiful to be contained in human form.

The nice thing about this element is that it gives the author more characters and provides some different opinions on what needs to be done about Kuro the Darkness. Things don't always work out as one would wish however and the disharmony caused by the disputes eventually convinces Bundori that he needs to continue his travels.

While Bundori's actions were not great in terms of what he could do, he does provide background elements that showcase that the shrine is more than just a place for nuns and travelers to rest. It must be maintained. It must remain free of blood and viscera. It is a place of power for him and one that Bundori feels he can hold against Kuro if things take a turn for the worse.

While the magic in the Tomoe series and the world of Naippon has been minimal, it's there in the background and elements of it sometimes poke out.

Among the samurai fallen on hard times, is Kuro's retainer, Ittosai Kumasaku, a man who fought for a general who fell. A man without a lord. Not willing to take on the role of monk though, he hires himself out to those who will take him for his value. Kuro doesn't do such and instead puts Ittosai to mundane drudge work that is ill befitting a samurai. He does it without fail although complaints are heard.

Jessica weaves an interesting world. Elementals falling in love with devils, divine children falling in love with mortals, ancestorial worship versus the evil things that the ancestors do in the modern world... all these things come to a head.

And I feel like one of those old commercials, "But wait, there's more!" In her past live as a samurai, Tomoe was a famed figure. An old general 'collects' such wives but as a nun, Tomoe is not going to relinquish her freedom easily and the general sends three of his mightiest warrior wives after Tomoe. These battles happen between Tomoe's other quest and make for a nice variety in the action and sequence of the story.

Tomoe Gozen ends up better than it started off as a series. Tomoe is a strong warrior but one with scars. She's fated to meet an old animal comrade who continues to fail in his life's karma and so, continues to come back in lesser and lesser forms, but perhaps with hope for the future. Her own destiny is cursed until she finds actual love, either in this life or the next, and she is wandering in a country where the need for warriors is winding down but is not over yet.

Who knows, with all of the other comebacks we've seen, perhaps there is hope for a Tomoe Gozen return? If Charles Saunders could bring Imaro out after decades and bring more volumes to that saga, anything is possible.

Monday, August 28, 2017

Usagi Yojimbo: The Hell Screen by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Vol 31
The Hell Screen
Written and Illustrated by Stan Sakai
208 b & w pages
$17.99/$12.16 at Amazon

It'd been so long since I'd checked in on the rabbit ronin that two volumes had come out! Thankfully Amazon had both in stock and both discounted so with a few clicks they were mine.

Stan Sakai has been writing and drawing Usagi for decades at this point, and he has the character and the setting well in hand.

This volume brings us the following:

The River Rising: Usagi is unlike many of the more traditional samurais. As the tale starts, he is knee deep in mud and rock enforcing a man made wall as rain bring torrential floods. As Usagi helps out the peasants who weep about their miserable fate, about the loss of so many of their men during the last war, the farmers suffer further.

Bandits make off with their food stores.

Usagi leaves the villagers to handle the reinforcement of the wall as he hunts down the thieves. Only the bandits aren't bandits. They are homeless rabble who are starving. They are thin, poorly garbed, possess no weapons and no training.

Usagi quickly gets them back to the village where they help the village survive the rains. But after the rains, Usagi himself is nowhere to be found. Which leave the villagers with the question of what to do with the bandits.

It's not quite up to the scene in the Batman movie with the Joker and his two boat plan, but seeing these people understand that the 'bandits' are just regular folk and offer them a place in the village is a touching scene that reminds us that the world isn't necessarily filled with villains as much as people who need help and a place to fit in.

Kyuri: So what happened to Usagi? It's important to note that Usagi's Japan is more fantasy than just the humans being animals. There are things like Kappa there as well. Usagi is no stranger to the Kappa having fought them in previous volumes.

Usagi sees one of the villagers being taken by a Kappa and follows it. Usagi is too late to save the villager but manages to follow the Kappa to its cave system where it escapes in the darkness. Descending further into the cave, Usagi finds a young Kappa and its mother, who swear that they are not allied with the savage or 'hairy' Kappa.

It's interesting that villagers who get seconds of screen time are given names, but the Kappa do not. The author throws a curveball at the audience as Usagi suffers a career injuring wound to his arm as the 'Hairy' Kappa uses its might to bring a stone against Usagi's sword arm and shatter the bone.

But this being Usagi's comic, he's saved from that f ate by the female Kappa who uses the healing arts that the Kappa is known for to save his arm. However, it does leave his sword arm weaker, and she warns him of this.

Kazehime: Stan has introduced many characters through his run of Usagi Yojimbo. Some of them make numerous appearances while others are introduced and are killed to showcase that the world Usagi lives in is not a pleasant one. In this case, the ninja Kazehime falls into the latter category. It's a poignant tale and it's one that Stan has hit on before and will hit on again. The Ronin who outlives those around him.

The Secret of the Hell Screen (Three Parts): This is the meat of this collection. Usagi comes across a temple where his old friend the Inspector Ishida. Like many of his longer tales, especially those involving Inspector Ishida, there are numerous elements at play here. There are several possible suspects, there are rumors of treasure, there are fallen samurai who've become monks, there is the terrible Hell Screen itself, a masterful piece of demonic art that shows the punishment of Emma's Hells. There are political forces at work trying to claim the land for hunting grounds as well as trying to fight against those claims.

In the three parts, Stan throws a few red herrings at the reader including the nature of the wounds suffered by those murdered but in the end, it takes more the simple deception for Inspector Ishida to be thrown.

The Fate of the Elders: Another reminder of what a harsh world Usagi lives in. In his standard method of encountering people on the road, Usagi comes across a son and mother. The mother is going to visit her husband. Only when Usagi gets to the mountain with the mother does he realize that she is going to stay and die there so make room in the village for her grand child. It's another sober moment in the Usagi setting and serves as a reminder that life is fragile.

The Hell Screen is another solid collection of ronin tales. If you've never read a volume before, check out the previews from Dark Horse Comics.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Usagi Yojimbo: Thieves and Spies

Usagi Yojimbo: Thieves and Spies
Book 30
Written by Stan Sakai
Published by Dark Horse Publishing
184 b & w pages
$17.99 ($12.10 at Amazon)

There are few comics I buy in physical media anymore. Storing comics is not an easy thing when you've been collecting for years. Usagi Yojimbo is one of those I still do buy. I've been bad at keeping up however and I missed both this and Vol 31, The Hell Screen. A few quick clicks from Amazon though and they quickly arrived and were quickly read.

Stan Sakai has written over one hundred and fifty issues of Usagi, not counting his side trips and alternative takes like Space Usagi. Unlike most traditional super hero comics from the big two, Stan takes the 'long' approach. Usagi ages. He meets people who sometimes perish immediately, and others he sees years later. It gives the series some depth that can sometimes be lacking in one of the Big Two's series when you have to wonder what universal change is going to negate a meeting, marriage or even character existence

We get the following tales in this collection:

The Thief and the Kunoichi: While this is a fantasy Japan filled with animals instead of people, Stan still slips in little bits of terminology such as 'The Hour of the Ox'.  Usagi himself though? He's still wandering and still running into people in trouble. In this case, it's Kitsune, the rogue, who in the middle of a heist, runs into Chizu, a ninja.

Usagi knows both of these women and is the peace maker between the two of them as Chizu is far more fatalistic in her approach to thieving whereas Kitsune and her prodigy, are more about the money.

Stan gives the readers a little taste of espionage as Chizu reveals behind a painting and hidden by a heat activated chemical, an agreement between merchants and lords to monopolize ginseng is afoot. Yes, that's right, ginseng!

I love that Stan uses mundane and standard items as a means of showcasing corruption and alliances on all levels. In the past, we've seen tales involving soy sauce for example. While Stan doesn't delve deeply into ginseng, the root and its healing properties have been used for other fantasy tales.

The One-Armed Swordsman: The One-Armed Swordsman is a popular trope of martial art films and stories. Stan has brought readers other honorary versions of such characters before, such as a 'Blind Swordspig' to stand in for a certain Blind Swordsman. In this tale, Usagi meets Mizuna Takashi, a warrior who lost his hand to a cruel samurai whose infamy spreads from his habit of cutting off the hands of those who raise their blades against him.

The Distant Mountain: Another look at a bit of Japanese lore. This time Stan gives us suiseki, the art of stone appreciation. Usagi helps a samurai guard a Toyama Ishi, a distant mountain stone. It takes its usual twists and turns and Usagi's sometimes grim humor comes out the winner in this one.

Death of a Tea Master: A swashbuckling foreigner in the courts of Japan wishes to see the art of Sepukku. The one called up for this duty is a tea master that Usagi knows. When the foreigner wants to see it again, Usagi steps in.

The Bride: Many tales of Samurai involve the loss of freedom to love who one wishes. This is true of the merchant class as well. In this instance, Usagi helps the daughter of a sake brewer escape death. Stan uses a few twists in the storytelling here as well showcasing that not everyone is as pleased to follow duty when other options are available.

For those who've never seen the art in a Usagi Yojimbo book, Dark Horse provides previews of most of their books. Thieves and Spies can be previewed here:

Thieves and Spies provides a quick glimpse into a fantasy Japan that never was. It provides a peak into the lives of heroes and the everyday people they meet. Stan's writing suffers a bit from the episodic manner in which the tales are told, as often Usagi just happens to be at the right place at the right time as opposed to actually seeking out purpose, but that's the nature of the beast. It's a character showcase when we get to see Usagi meet old friends and make new ones.

Thieves and Spies continues a tradition that has taken Stan over one hundred and fifty issue and here's looking forward to another one hundred and fifty.

Monday, August 21, 2017

The Golden Naginata (The Tomoe Gozen Saga Book 2)

The Golden Naginata 
The Tomoe Gozen Saga Book 2)
Published by Open Road Media Sci-Fi & Fantasy
Written by Jessica Amanda Salmonson
Fantasy/Samurai Genre

When Amazon had their 'prime day', I went in on the Kindle Unlimited. I've been unimpressed by the navigation tools that Amazon offers to get the most bang for your buck with that subscription service. Having said that, I did discover an old series, The Tomoe Gozen Saga, where all three books were available in the Kindle Unlimited Library.

The second book, like the first, uses a new cover. Again, I'm a fan of the old school cover:

The writing is better than the first volume, but Jessica still does a lot of telling instead of showing, or telling and then showing. For example think, "Tomoe had a bad dream" and then the explanation of the bad dream itself. Tomoe continues to be a powerhouse with few rivals. She travels not only in the mortal world but into the depths of Hell itself. Her fighting skills and stances on various subjects are often brought directly into conflict with her samurai training.

The book includes numerous illustrations which are handy if you're unfamiliar with the genre or the topic. These are small black and white images that occur at certain points in the text.

Tomoe is not a fan of marriage. Even though for many, marriage isn't something done for love, Tomoe has more concern with it affecting her ability to enter the battlefield. She resists so much that her relationship with her family becomes strained and it's not until someone else points out the dishonor she's bringing herself and the family that she relents into marriage.

Like the previous book, indeed, like many older books, this is a collection of linked short stories that taken together tells Tomoe's tale. Her search for the Golden Naginata itself is to help her in Hell. She needs a weapon of this heavenly quality to ensure her ability to fight against those who dwell in Hell. The author doesn't just give Tomoe an automatic win either.She has to quest to get it, can only use it for so long, and has to battle a heavenly 'good' creature, a Ki-Rin, in order to claim it. Along the way, she has other adventures and encounters including running into a younger version of herself.

This sets up an interesting dissonance. Tomoe is willing to forgo much in order to continue her adventuring but she is reluctant to engage in a duel with her younger counterpart because Tomoe is reminded of herself. In some ways, it dishonors herself as Tomoe would not have tolerated such a behavior.

Another interesting theme is that despite her swordskill, Tomoe is not very sociable and indeed, even when her sword skills are unmatched, she often winds up failing at things.

My favorite of the adventurers is Tomoe meeting several other 'rogue' adventurers like herself through a hungry ghost that seeks to avenge the death of his family. This ghost is able to reach out to Tomoe and the others because of the sword she yields. The others all also yield blades by this smith. It's a nice change of pace in how the characters meet and why they meet.

In terms of opposition, Tomoe encounters enough mortal enemies to make her the rival of any warlord, but she also battles in Hell against oni, she even meets Emma and his kinder side which tries to help the children trapped in Hell. Jessica also throws some different lore into the mix as Tomoe angers the Namazu or Giant Catfish under Jessica's version of Japan.

Few figures get a 'clean' pass. We have people worshipping deities, people following Buddism, people following Shinto, people having little to no actual religion. It's all mixed in together in a strange mesh as all of them have a hand in the reality that Tomoe finds herself living in.

Another one of my favorite bits? Tomoe fighting a Tengu. It's not that the Tengu is such a frightening match for Tomoe, but rather the humor the author uses. Tomoe clips the Tengu's wings and it falls into a  vat of blue dye and the Tengu remains blue throughout the rest of the tale. The Tengu seeks to have its young nephews play pranks and test Tomoe's patience, but Tomoe manages to convince the youngsters to instead torment their uncle since the older Tengu can't fly after them to punish them. Children being children, they are delighted with the idea.

Jessica avoids the use of 'good' and 'evil' as signposts for Tomoe and her culture. Instead, we have traits like pride, ambition, and hope. Ambition, especially in this era and time, are high on the list and Tomoe rises and falls based not only on her own abilities but with those she's allied with so that the greater events surrounding her pitch her about like a cork on the open sea. 

Despite having the Golden Naginata, Tomoe's final fate in the book is downcast and things are looking grim. Hopefully, the Thousand Shrine Warrior brings Tomoe back to a place where her swordskills shine enough that her dour personality can take a backseat again.

If you're a fan of fantasy elements in your Samurai, The Golden Naginata, despite some uneven writing and a change of cover, is a great place to start. If you're a Kindle Unlimited member, it's even free to read.