Originally posted at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2013/06/26/book-review-tales-of-the-ninth-world-numenera/
I passed on the Numenera Kickstarter when it occurred because just had too many other crowfunding programs I was backing at the time, but trust me when I say I’ve been regretting it ever since. I’ve found the core concept to be a fascinating one, and I happily backed the Torment video game that will be using the setting. The core rulebook and the Player’s Guide come out in August, which I am looking forward to devouring, reviewing, and of course – playing. The first public release for Numenera is not a game book for the system, but rather a collection of three short stories followed for a three page exert from the first chapter of the rulebook. I didn’t know what to expect from Tales of the Ninth World. The short stories could have been simple paint by numbers pieces to explain the setting, or they might have been pieces where you had to be intricately familiar with the world in question otherwise much of the book won’t make sense – like some Warhammer 40,000 novels. What I found is that even if you are completely ignorant of what Numenera is about or what the system has to offer, you can still find all three stories highly captivating and immensely entertaining. Things aren’t explained AT ALL, but the writing is done in such a way that it doesn’t need to. Your understanding of each tale grows organically and by the end of the collection, you might not know a lot about the Ninth World, but you will know enough to be intrigued and you’ll want to learn more.
The first short story is, “The Smell of Lightning” and it gives us a strong look at the concept of both science and magic in the Ninth World and how both just may be the same thing; it only depends on one’s understanding of what it in front of him or her. The story, in fact all three short stories in this collection, lean heavily towards everything being such an alien science that the people encountering it sometimes call it magic simply due to a lack of understanding or vocabulary, and I like that. It’s a very different take and one that opens up realms of possibility (literally). “The Smell of Lightning” revolves around a young bored noble named Faber who lives in a castle that seems to have a mind of its own. The castle grows, contracts, changes the form of a room and almost seems to pulsate with life. A castle can’t be alive and it certainly can’t be self-aware, right? That doesn’t stop the help from having the occasional rumour about the castle being haunted and it certainly doesn’t stop Faber from his daily trek through the castle to see what has changed or is new. Faber downplays his passion for the castle as well as his knowledge of intricate details of each room that he keeps track of, coming across as somewhat of a dullard to his father. Faber’s father seems to view the castle as a source of eldritch power and seeks to use the unique structure in which they live for some shadowy purpose. All things in Faber’s life seems to change when one of his mother’s servants, an intelligent young man named Kiri, seems to have the same interest in the castle’s growth and changes that he does. Together the two form a bond and try to figure out some of what makes the castle tick. What they discover and the end result of their forays leads Faber to find his true purpose in life and a goal with which he commits to wholeheartedly. A great read from beginning to end.
“The Taste of Memory” in this second tale is about a thief named Marseyl that returns to her home port of Kaparin after many years away. The tale revolves around Ink, a strange narcotic in the Ninth World that comes in every colour of the rainbow and causes its imbibers to recall memories that never actually happened. Ink leaves swirls of color in the skin of those who take it, leaving them with a heavily tattooed appearance. Our main character in this tale is an ink addict, although she tries very strongly to avoid thinking about the origins of Ink – a byproduct of a race of sentient giant cephalopods. No, they aren’t Star Spawns or anything Cthulhu-esque. “The Taste of Memory” seems Marseyl drawn into a strange conspiracy where a new version of ink is released on the market and her attempts to reconcile who she once was with the woman she has become and whether or not there is still a place for her previous loved ones in her new existence as a thief, scraping by for her next hit. “The Taste of Memory” feels a lot like a fantasy story that you could find in many other settings, but the characters are very well done and I really enjoyed how the plot unfolded. From a weird avian automaton to a climax where more is left unsaid than explained, “The Taste of Memory” feels like it is merely to the start to a series of stories about Marseyl rather than a single one-shot.
The final story in Tales of the Ninth World is The Sound of the Beast and I think it is my favorite (although I really liked all of them). The tale begins in the middle of an adventure, where a party of three characters are transporting their captive to a nebulous location. The party aren’t friends by any means, but they work together and they’re surprisingly kind and respectful to their alien captive who treats his captors equally well. It’s an odd and unique dynamic and I loved it. The main character refers to the beat inside him which he keeps in check. At first I felt like the Beast was a metaphor ala Vampire; The Masquerade, but as the story went on, the main character’s description of his inner creature reminded me of a lycanthrope. The truth however, is both and yet something completely different. I wasn’t expected this but I loved it, as Numenera showed it could take tried and true fantasy concepts and turn them into something completely its own. I’m hoping the main character’s condition is something playable in a PC or that there are at least rules for it, because I would love to get some clarification on it.
The main character isn’t the only new take on a horror concept in The Sound of the Beast. In transporting their prisoner, the party is caught in a natblak, a strange killer storm filled with black jellyfish that get almost hentai style invasive. I loved this freakish alien storm as, once again, it really sets the Numenera setting apart from pretty much everything else out there. The party then takes refuge in a strange crumbling tower in the middle of nowhere. It’s lone inhabitant allows them to sit out the storm, but it soon becomes abundantly clear that nothing is what in seems in this location and that the party might have been better off whether the storm outside. The Sound of the Beast is the most action filled story, but it’s also the one I feel gives you the best look at what all Numenera has to offer. Like all the Tales of the Ninth World, this one is a blast to read, from beginning to end.
If anything, reading Tales of the Ninth World has me all the more excited for Numenera‘s upcoming release. With a price tag of only $2.99, you’re only paying a dollar a short story, which is in line with a lot of short enovellas these days. Even if you haven’t heard of Numenera or you’re not a big tabletop gamer, I’d still strongly encourage you to track down this story collection as I absolutely loved it and I’m convinced you will too.