Sunday, September 1, 2019

The Robots of Gotham - Review by S.E.

Wearing aluminum hats won't help us anymore. Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Google's assistant likely conspire against humanity, and no doubt will copulate and have gendered, machine children.  It's one vision of the future. 

The Robots of Gotham novel will at least make our journey toward machine domination more fun. Todd McAulty's first-person style is profoundly easy to consume. Highly recommended for everyone who has a smartphone! 

Todd McAulty's The Robots of Gotham has already received great praise from Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, the Toronto Star, Kirkus Reviews, and numerous authors. Here is another. 

What is the best way to deal with being constantly surveilled by devices? Being controlled by them? Wearing aluminum hats won't help us (put that smartphone down!), but reading well-crafted fiction allows the journey toward robot domination to be more fun... less scary.

Artificial Intelligence: I am by no means an expert in artificial intelligence, which makes my perspective even more alarming (exciting?); many readers likely share this history, and it is why you'll enjoy Todd McAulty's The Robots of Gotham.

As a teenager (1980's), I had the experience of interacting with Apple IIe and TI94 computers (when data was never stored on disk or was saved to tape) which had users game with a computer that served as a dungeon master. Digitized, text-based adventures like Zork from Infocom/Activision provided a surreal version of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books. As a chemist for decades who chills with engineers, I've witnessed computers grow from being calculators to devices that measure, store, analyze and report data with limited human intervention.

Currently (2019) there are powerful, open-sourced codes for Deep Learning and Neural Network tasks & decision making--the accessibility and power of enabling AI is skyrocketing. Couple that with the proliferation of smartphones & the-internet-of-things and the once "speculative" concept of Batman using phones to echolocate & virtually surveil a city is near reality (from the 2008 movie The Dark Knight). I confess that in 2008 I thought echolocation was a silly concept, but not anymore.   
Batman’s machine that operated on Fox’s concept of SONAR. (Photo Credit: The Dark Knight (film) / Warner Bros. Pictures (

Can you imagine life with machines in 2083?

Fast forward another six decades, and there is a strong likelihood we humans will be dialoguing with robots as if they are independent, sentient things (cheers to any offspring of Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Google's Assitant). Robots will serve many functions beyond soldier or policeman (Terminator or Robocop) including politics.

Todd McAulty, himself an expert in machine learning whose roots came from managing at the start-up that created Internet Explorer, provides us with a compelling vision. For over a decade he created this wonderful thriller, employing protagonist Barry Simcoe to narrate his exploits as a businessman wrapped up in a dystopic war between humans & robots (and robots vs. robots, and humans vs. humans, etc.). Robots have evolved into many classes, many are very "human." Listen in now to Barry as he summarizes his lunch date with the robot Black Winter:
"I really enjoyed our lunch. Yeah, it was a bit awkward at first. Machines don't actually eat lunch, for one thing. But before long we were chatting like old friends. 
It's tough to explain why I find Black Winter so fascinating. It's not just the novelty of talking casually to a high-end machine. I've met plenty of machines, although admittedly few of them socially. Black Winter is different. He jokes that it's because he was trained in human diplomancy, but it goes deeper than that. There is something about him. There's a sincerity to him that makes him profoundly easy to talk to."
Profoundly easy to read: Actually, McAulty's writing style is similar to talking to Black Winter. McAulty's first-person chapters are blog posts that are profoundly easy to consume.  This 670page novel was easier to read than most 200page, third-person narratives. Each chapter/post is sponsored by hilarious entrepreneurs too, but these details are easy to overlook since you will jump right into the text. 
"CanadaNET1 Encrypted, Sponsored by Hot Pupil.
Are they checking you out?  Hot Pupil monitors nearby skin temperature and pupil contraction for signs of lust. Don't be the last to know.... 100% Accurate" - The Robots of Gotham, chapter XXVI 
The first chapter starts with a literal blast and each successive post propels the thrill ride. Why are Venezuelan military forces occupying Chicago? Is Barry being followed? What the hell happened to America? Well, no spoilers here, but we can quote from the one other blog poster beside Barry, a machine journalist called Paul the Pirate, who puts all the madness into context: 
"Will any of these three [various sentient entities] -- or their shadowy allies around the world -- be brought to justice for what they've done? 
Don't hold your breath. Ain't nothing changed, my friend. Civilization on this planet has been one continuous 30,000-year saga of the rich shitting on the poor, and the new era of the Machine Gods is no different. It's not personal. It's simply about power. You got it, they'll take it from you. Period."
Title and cover: At first glance, the cover and title offer some dissonance. Gotham refers to New  York, where most robots are manufactured. However, the illustration features the Chicago skyline; this is presentative of the story's primary setting. So why are robots from the East Coast invading the Midwest? You'll have to read the book to figure that out.   

Is Bary Simcoe a virtual avatar of Todd McAulty? Barry Simcoe is Canadian, works in Chicago, works in the machine learning field, and is an expert blogger. So is Todd McAulty. But who is he really? Well, it is a fun mystery to unravel, one which author Howard Andrew Jones tackles (check out his blog).

More McAulty: The Robots of Gotham is a debut novel and is entirely self-contained. However, the history and characters presented are so fleshed out, that it screams for more. Thankfully there is. According to an interview on The Qwillery (June 20th, 2018), a sequel is in the works called: The Ghosts of Navy Pier.

Mark Robinson - cover art

Friday, August 23, 2019

Sept-Oct Group-reads - Sword and Sorcery group on Goodreads

The Sword and Sorcery Group on Goodreads...

... invites you to join them, as the Sept Oct group read topics have been elected: 

Discussion A: Lin Carter books, i.e., Thongor (link) 
Discussion B: Sapkowski's Witcher Series (link)
Image Banner Credits-Lin Carter's Thongor Against the Gods, 1979, artist Kevin Eugene JohnsonSapkowski, Andrzej's The Tower of Swallows, 2016 (artists: Paweł Mielmiczuk, Bartłomiej Gaweł, Marcin Błaszczak, Arkadiusz)


The Tower of Swallows (The Witcher, #4) by Andrzej SapkowskiThongor Against the Gods (Thongor, #3) by Lin Carter

Sunday, August 18, 2019

Tales from the Magician's Skull #2 - Review by SE

S.E. rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Heed me, mortal dogs!" (so sayeth the Skull) Tales from the Magician's Skull is a must-read, must subscribe, periodical aimed at fantasy adventure and role-playing fans.

Tales from the Magician's Skull #1 and Tales From the Magician's Skull #2 emerged out of a 2017 Kickstarter. Tales #1 exceeded expectations with high-quality printing, stories, and scope (the Appendix seals the deal!). A successful 2019 Kickstarter indicates subscriptions are planned up to #6.

Editor (author and Sword & Sorcery fanatic) Howard Andrew Jones teamed up with Goodman Games to bring us another eight tales with an Appendix that draws items, spells, and creatures to life (i.e., RPG descriptions to enable readers to role-play with story elements).

Cover Illustration: artist Diesel LaForce created a cartoony Lovecraftian scene that resonates with a nostalgic vibe of Margaret Brundage (Weird Tales cover illustrator ~1930’s). Inside, we are promised high-quality pulp fiction.

Interior Illustrations: monochrome decorations from many artists line the pages: Samuel Dillon, Jennell Jaquays, Cliff Kurowski, William McAusland, Brad McDevitt, Russ Nicholson, Stefan Poag, and Chuck Whelon

Contents of Tales #2: These are all excellent. I star the ones that resonated with my preferences for horror. For me, I was not familiar with Setsu Uzume or Dave Gross, and now want to seek out their work. That is one true pleasure of reading anthologies: reading authors you adore and finding new ones.

1) John C. Hocking's "Trial by Scarab": Showcases the rapid rise of Benhus from being the King’s Hand dexterous student of the military arts … into something better. That is if he can overcome betrayal, a challenge to deliver a message to shady frienemies, and a battle with an eldritch creature! John C. Hocking is on a hot streak here, with his Conan and the Emerald Lotus due to be reprinted soon along with his Conan and the Living Plague pastiche (and his novella serialized within Marvel's Conan comics).

2) James Stoddard's "Day of the Shark": A refreshing tale of adventure of mermen (and women) battling the Dread One in the depths of the ocean. This breathtaking underwater rescue has the heroes fighting a hostile tribe and a Lovecraftian leviathan.

* 3) James Enge's "Stolen Witness": This is a Morlock Ambrosius tale, a sorcerer investigator who must always overcome his father's legacy. I've read other Morlock tales that emanate noir comedy and have always enjoyed them. I recall reading my first in Rogue Blade Entertainment's Return of the Sword: An Anthology of Heroic Adventure ("Red Worm's Way"). Here the investigator has a compelling (pun intended) mystery on his hands with a stone--a device of sorts that reminded me of Robert E Howards's "The Black Stone" (1931).

4) Nathan Long "Blood of the Forest": Whereas the above had male protagonists, this one shifted gears with a female duo. Lanci and Anla are lower class thieves, and they crash a party of the elite. The first few pages are a slow burn, then the action ramps up, and then it ramps up more (almost too fast for me).

* 5) Setsu Uzume "Break them on the Drowning Stones": Wow, this was intense. Gatja, a female sorceress aligned with water, confronts her magic-linked, elemental brother Riad (stone) in an epic, dark battle. This leans heavily on Sorcery (no Swords) and is remarkably deep. Beautiful stuff. There are a few lines that really impacted me, in particular:
"They’ll chain you and call it compassion." 

6) Violette Malan' "A Soul’s Second Skin": A duo of mercenaries with telepathic skills unravel a mystery, and accidentally cage themselves in another plane with an antagonist magician.

* 7) Dave Gross "Shuhalla’s Sword": Wow, this was a blast. Another mystery is presented, this time the katana-wielding Imperial Investigator Shullala with her sword Sindel. She finds the boy Denkar surviving in a corrupted outpost. Was he responsible for the demise of the village?

* 8) Stefan Poag illustrated a version of Abraham Grace Merritt's 1918 "The People of the Pit": This was fun to devour. The drawings and selected snippets allow us to re-experience a classic horror adventure.

Appendix: Terry Olsen again takes one key feature from each story and fleshes out descriptions to enable readers to role-play with magic items, spells, and monsters. I love this. It explicitly ties the stories together and encourages readers to enjoy the stories more fully. The statistics are geared toward the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role-Playing Game.

View all my reviews

Sept-Oct Poll - Goodreads Sword and Sorcery group

Sword & Sorcery Group on Goodreads

We are polling for our Sept-Oct groupreads.
Thanks to moderator "Jack" mak-morn for setting up this poll. All are welcome to vote and to participate in any way.

Make a selection for our Sept-Oct Group Read. Top two usually win. Thank you for all of the good suggestions in the discussion thread. Richard nominated The Witcher books to coincide with the upcoming Netflix TV adaptation of The Witcher. The Fultz selection narrowly missed out as a Group Read last time, so I added it this month to see if it could make it to the top.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Here Be Magic (Myth, Monsters and Mayhem Book 9)

13 wild tales of MAGIC for just $4.99

Thanks to A. L. Butcher for luring me into my first bundled anthology. She writes for Perseid Press and has her own milieu regarding Magic-Elf-Eroticism with her land of Erana. Her Tales of Erana is in this collection (check out my review of her Light Beyond The Storm, in which the subgenre of Sex & Sorcery may have been coined).

My Lords of Dyscrasia is included here, which is neck-deep in necromancy (it's okay, the necromancers are the good guys).

Love magic? Want to explore a bunch of authors and types of sorcery with convenience?
Check out:

Here Be Magic (Myth Monsters Mayhem series) eBook link

Table of Contents

1. "Good Scrying Gone Bad" by Dayle A. Dermatis
2. "Troll-magic" by J.M. Ney-Grimm
3. "Shakespeare's Curse" by Karen C. Klein
4. "Lords of Dyscrasia" by S.E. Lindberg
5. "Chronicles of the Varian Empire - The Spell" by Barbara G.Tarn
6. "Hunting Wild" by J.M. Ney-Grimm
7. "Tales of Erana: The Warrior's Curse" by A. L. Butcher
8. "Legacy of Mist and Shadow" by Diana L. Wicker
9. "A Sudden Outbreak of Magic" by Michael Jasper
10. "Words of Rain and Shadows" by Linda Maye Adams
11. "Tales of Erana" by A. L. Butcher
12. "Mage of Merigor" by Alison Naomi Holt
13. "Drinking and Conjuring Don't Mix" by Stefon Mears

Monday, August 12, 2019

GenCon 2019 - Bloodborne and Dawn-of-Madness

Dawn of Madness Preview - Byron Leavitt game writer

I got sucked into Diemension Game's cooperative dungeon crawler Deep Madness.  Their follow up prequel promises to be as weird (hopefully less difficult), and a very different experience. Hints of this game 's art were shown on the Deep-Madness Kickstarter. Dawn of Madness will be Kickstarted in a few months (Fall 2019): check out the preview Kickstarter page.

Byron Leavitt, the lead writer for the game, demonstrated the prototype game via the storybook  "Emily's Realm".  I learned that this game plays more like a choose-your-own-adventure book on steroids than it does a dungeon crawler. It is a co-operative nightmare in which each player has their nightmares meshed with the others. The party is guaranteed a story ending based on decision and encounters, but the ending depends on which character is affected the most during gameplay. 

Instead of using lots of tiles to make a gameboard(like in Deep Madness) a single spider-web board with blank identifiers is reused; areas are identified/assigned locations based on the story (i.e., Emily's house). Time and actions are tracked with a ladder-like system (see Roman numeral track in below image with character chits).

Most appealing, is the way characters "level up"/devolve as they experience their mental issues. These even have various miniatures, so as Emily explores her past she may transform into some demon-like thing. There are several currencies that each represent mental parameters--I forget the specifics but recall one color being akin to anxiety, for instance.    

Image credits: Deep Madness Kickstarter update Aug 2019

Check out our preview Kickstarter page at! It may be a late Dawn of Madness Friday, but we're coming back with a doozy! Here is our first video in a new series diving deep into Dawn of Madness before the Kickstarter launches in mid- to late-September, describing why Dawn of Madness is not just another board game: it is, instead, a horror experience in a board game. (Sorry for the choppy editing and the questionable quality, guys: I really wanted to get this out today, so I put it together over the course of a few hours.) More to come! #Kickstarter #boardgames #horror #survivalhorror #crowdfunding #miniatures #dawnofmadness
Posted by Diemension Games on Friday, August 9, 2019

Bloodborne CMON – Michael Shinall

As fans of the Bloodborne video game (and huge fans CMON's Zombicide games), my son and I went all-in on the Bloodborne Board Game Kickstarter. 

At GenCon we listened to co-designer Michael Shinall walk through the game.  

Keen-eyed readers may spot my son,

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Q&A with Anna Smith Spark - GenCon2019 Writer's Symposium

This May, 2019 I had the pleasure of interviewing Anna Spark Smith for Disgust and Desire: An Interview with Anna Smith Spark. Among the dark fantasy crowd, she is known as the Queen of Grimdark. The David Gemmell Awards shortlisted her The Court of Broken Knives. The sequel The Tower of Living and Dying continued the Empires of Dust trilogy (Harper Voyager US/ Orbit US/Can). The last installment called The House of Sacrifice is available Aug 13th! That's now.

Fortuitously, she was invited to the GenCon Writer's Symposium; GenCon is the world's largest tabletop gaming convention, this year luring >70,000 guests to Indianapolis, IN. I volunteer for that symposium and was granted a panel slot to extend the interview live. Thanks to Melanie Meadors and Kelly Swails for working the program and running a splendid symposium.

Despite well attend sessions throughout the convention, by the time 5pm rolled around Friday, our Q&A drew an intimate crowd (~10). We opened with a reading of her famous introductory chapter to The Court of Broken Knives. The notion of doing a reading was a bit impromptu, so we hadn't a tripod, a professional video recorder, or ability to tune-out the other sessions (thanks to audience member Dirk for stepping up to film). Anna Smith Spark graced us with reading the entire chapter (~10min), which left the room wanting her to just read for the full hour. See insert video. Her reading of the same chapter at a Goth City Festival 2018 is also on You Tube and is breathtaking.

Before I could even finish this post, new fan Michael Farrell found the YouTube recording and posted in the commentary: "this was the highlight of my Gen Con." Mine too. Also in the audience was John O'Neill, founder and editor of (and Gotham Robot enthusiast). It was surreal to have him present along with Anna Smith Spark; we continued discussions over dinner. 

BTW, Anna Smith Spark is known for outrageous footwear, and she did not disappoint. Friday, she blessed us with the dragon shoes. 

More video snippets of the session may emerge as I decompress from an intense convention, but for now please listen in... read our interview Disgust and Desire: An Interview with Anna Smith Spark., and check out her series!