“Into the Dungeon” and “Into the Tower” by Hari Conner

This is a guest post by our friend Alexander McConnell. You should check out his blog at A Garden of Paper Flowers!

I grew up in a childhood where gamebooks rained from the sky. Stretching back nearly as far as my memory can travel, I have been picking paths, determining destinies, and choosing my own adventures. I can’t even tell you how many months of my life became dedicated to gamebooks after the very first time I read the words “YOU ARE LONE WOLF”. Before my greedy little child-claws wrapped around the cover of a D&D player’s handbook, Lone Wolf, Graystar the Wizard, and the Fighting Fantasy books were what temporarily quelled the already unquenchable need within me to play with magic.

I’ve traveled through the Cave of Time and returned to it. I have confronted the Warlock of Firetop Mountain. I have thrown down dark lords, learned great magic, and seen my alter egos through to comfortable retirement and mentorship. All this is to say, I know a thing or two about gamebooks. So, when I tell you that, for their respective audiences, Into the Dungeon and Into the Tower by Hari Conner rank as some of the very best I’ve played…well, that’s some high praise indeed.

The slimmer of the two adventures is the author’s first creation, Into the Dungeon. This is a delightful fairytale romp for players of all ages. I would not hesitate to recommend it to adventurers of any age. The scariest thing I encountered in its dungeon depths was a goopy ooze monster that had disguised itself as a crying child. This is not to say the book is childish or simplistic though, far from it! There are adventures aplenty to be found within. Dragons that can be tricked by telling them stories. Evil cursed princes, magic swords, daring escapes, traps, magic…true love is not found within, but put a pin in that. We may have some things to say about true love when Into the Tower comes up.

The game is played by choosing from a list of characters found at the front of the book or by rolling your own, similar to making a character from Dungeons & Dragons. I strongly recommend readers choose one of Conner’s premade heroes. I found that I became emotionally invested in my character when the author gave them a face and even a little bit of a backstory. Also, the pre-mades come with special endings that really bring a sense of satisfaction once you learn to navigate the dungeon. If you are curious, my chosen alter-ego was Lok the Scrapper. I liked the idea of being just a down-on-his-luck little guy, braving a cursed dungeon because it couldn’t be that much worse than the life they’d been living.

Each hero consists of four main attributes, a pool of health points and whatever mundane and magical odds and ends you can fit into your pack and pockets. Each of the heroes presented to you favors a certain attribute. My buddy Lok is the Dexterity hero, but there’s one for each. Though it is much less pronounced here in Into the Dungeon, the kind of attributes your hero favors subtly changes the kind of story they produce. Strength heroes produce stories of bravery and slaying evil monsters. Dexterity produces tales of quick thinking and nimble escapes. Intelligence produces tales of cleverness and mystery. And Charisma tells tales that are funny and charming, just as you might suspect. Inventory isn’t restricted and in Into the Dungeon, there is one thing that matters more than anything else: Gold!

Your total gold functions much like your score in an old Interactive Fiction game like Zork or The Amazing Cave. The higher your gold tally at the end, should you be so lucky as to see sunlight again, determines how rosy your character’s ending will turn out to be. Beware: your first successful run will almost certainly not satisfy you. You’ll need to explore again and again, trying for that high gold count, so your fictional alter ego can do what no young person today can do: buy a house.

Beyond just achieving a good ending, the author has also imported over an idea from more recent generations of videogames: these gamebooks have achievements! A list of reasonably rare to nearly impossible feats to achieve within the pages of the book is hidden on a back page past the ending page. This means for completionists, you have a hard and fast guide to one hundred percenting both these books.

Not all of the character’s special endings are locked behind simple gold either. Upon reaching the ending page the first time, you will be intrigued to see that many of the heroes gain special endings for recovering rare treasures from the depths of the dungeon. That was not Lok’s objective and since that was so, I never found them. So, I leave it to you, dear reader, to find those magic rings and swords and stranger things besides. It’s all waiting for you down there in the dungeon if your player character has either courage or wits enough to seek them.

Good luck.

For as fun as I found Into the Dungeon‘s wholesome old-school fairytale dungeoneering, it could not have prepared me for how much more excellent Into the Tower would prove to be. This is a far more mature gamebook. I mean that both in the sense that parts of it scared the living daylights out of me, earning it’s ages 14+ recommendation (for those in the know, I will say I encountered a beautiful woman at a ball in my first playthrough who brought me a most sinister gift.) But also in the sense that it is just so much more intricately developed and brilliantly realized.

Again, you can play as four designed heroes or roll your own. I know I stressed this before, but you must play the heroes Conner wrote. You will be missing out on so much if you don’t. The heroes this time do not have a face or a name, we know them only as The Sailor, The Libertine, The Acolyte, and The Thief. The most you ever see of them is the back of their heads, but what they have instead is deep heart and soul. On the selection pages, a greater degree of guidance on what kind of stories each of these heroes will tell is listed. You are also told how much of the greater story of Into the Tower each hero will reveal and how easy it will be for you to survive once you step into their boots.

The Sailor’s tale is about story and mystery. The Libertine brings drama and perhaps true love (see, I told you it’d come back around!) The Acolyte is about lore for the fantasy world itself. The Thief is listed as a quick start and as such, as of the writing of this review, The Thief is the only hero who I have not braved the Tower with. I wanted to provide all of you the broadest picture of this Gamebook as I could. Quick start felt like the wrong move.

Each hero again represents one of the four main attributes. You still have inventory, but Conner has now added Statuses to the character sheet. These exist to modify the narrative in an ongoing fashion that remind me of a lookup command in programming. You can turn to a certain page if your character has the All-Seeing Status for example and, the writer knowing you’ve encountered certain incredible things in the tower, can flavor the following passages very easily with the choices you made as a hero through this world up to that point. A simple and elegant solution. Lone Wolf books had this too, but it was much more clumsily handled. “Turn to page X if you have ever encountered Y in any story.” The Status system has the advantage of needing fewer words to explain each choice and spoils less of what those choices entail should you have not acquired such a status yet.

A word to the wise: even statuses that seem like they could only portend sinister things for your character can open up surprising avenues of adventure. I would invite a reader to play the gamebook in order to find out what happens. Try not to be too hasty about turning back to a previous choice just because things travel to strange, dark places. Some of the brightest joys in this book can be found just on the other side of those dark places.

This time, each hero is much more than a thumbnail sketch of a person and a collection of stats. Each hero gets a full multi-page backstory for why they would choose to go to the mad magical tower of the Spellbinder Princess. Their reasons are varied, but all are deeply personal and provide you with emotional stakes for braving the mind bending, soul rending perils of the highest levels in this tower, well above and beyond simple gold.

I will admit, The Sailor was my favorite. There’s a sort of wholesome melancholy to their quest to recover their mother’s magical violin and discover the mystery of what became of their vanished father that really spoke to me. But I strongly recommend people play this through not once, but many times. With all the heroes. The way the different narratives overlap is so unique and special, the world this game takes place in really begins to open up in surprising ways the more of these overlapping paths you venture down.

An example (spoilers ahead):

As The Sailor, I braved a river entrance to the castle that the tower of the Spellbinder Princess rests upon. Within the bowels of that castle, I discovered a prisoner who identified themselves only as Venny. They agreed to help me find a way deeper into the keep so I might begin to climb the tower only if I agreed to take on their quest to rid the world of a particular red box. My Sailor was a stalwart and kind fantasy hero, so of course I agreed. I went through that whole run, eventually scaling the tower, passing through magical realms hidden within, and coming face to face with the Spellbinder Princess. I discovered what became of my father, saved the world, even got my hands on that red box. I never saw Venny again, but I did as they asked and dumped the red box into the sea.

It was not until I played through again, this time as the Libertine, that I learned that this minor NPC was, in fact, The Libertine’s true beloved and a huge factor on why the Libertine was braving The Tower at all!

I can promise this is but one simple example. Each hero shades the world, the Spellbinder Princess, the Tower, and the Key. Each of their endings are worth experiencing and deeply satisfying.

In a very real sense, this book feels like four whole and completely satisfying fantasy novels sewn cleverly into one. The adventure is worth taking, each time you take it. Not only will you become wiser to the perils that await you in the Tower, but you will also enrich your understanding and appreciation for the events that led you here, as well as beings and creatures that people it. While many gamebook lines hint at roleplaying in the sense you find in Dungeons & Dragons and other such tabletop greats, that usually only comes in the form of flavoring a single character to your liking. It doesn’t matter how many times you play through a Lone Wolf book, you are only ever going to be Lone Wolf in that book. Into the Tower is the only gamebook I’ve ever played that successfully provides the reader a choice of who they want to be in a way that truly matters at a fundamental level.

If you seek adventure, if you’ve every yearned to step into the pages of a Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett tale, Into the Tower is probably as close to that as you can currently come. It reminded me once again of why I fell in love with playing with magic all those years ago.

Favorite Books We Read in 2014

It seems like a list of staff picks for the year should include a lot of books published in 2014, but what can I say, we are all slowly (hopelessly) playing catchup with the last few centuries of English Lit!

I’ve included in the list which sections we file them in at Pegasus; though some of these aren’t terribly common, so, as always, if you can’t find it on our shelves, please ask and we’ll order it for you! And if you don’t live locally, please remember to support your favorite independent bookstore.

Emma’s Picks

Conservation of Shadows by Yoon Ha Lee. SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY
The stories in this collection are a strange and unique mélange of math, honor, magic, music, Asian mythology, war, genocide, lexicography, weaponry, time travel, and spaceships. Lee’s style is poetic and almost-but-not-quite surreal and, sometimes, beyond my comprehension: in the good way, the way that promises that I will enjoy the second and tenth readings as much as the first. And yes, there will be a tenth reading, someday, because this is now one of my favorite books.

Graceling by Karen Cashore. YOUNG ADULT FANTASY
Katsa has the killing Grace, discovered when she killed a man with her bare hands at age eight. Now imagine how that would mess you up. Yeah? I love so many things about this book. I love that Katsa is not nice, I love the way she struggles to understand other people, I love the way her love interest is handled, I love the fact that she flatly refuses to get married and have kids like every other fantasy heroine ever. You can think of Graceling as Tamora Pierce upgraded.

Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. LITERATURE
I’m a Steinbeck fangirl. I am however glad I waited until the mood struck me before reading The Grapes of Wrath; I don’t think I could have appreciated it as a teenager. Here is my advice regarding this book. If you have not read it, read it. If you have read it, read it again. It may not be a pleasant read but it is a great one.

The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich. FANTASY
What? Steampunk that is actually well-written? Oh my. The first line of the acknowledgments immediately made me perk up—”Twelve years ago, I sat down to write a story about mathematics and murder and time”; and then I could not put the thing down until I finished at 12:45am. It delivered on its promise: with mathematics, and murder, and fractured time, and a beautifully understated bittersweet love story, and politics and spy intrigue in a fascinating alternate history.

Vitamin K2 and the Calcium Paradox: How a Little-Known Vitamin Could Save Your Life by Kate Rhéaume-Bleue. HEALTH
A fascinating book, if you’re into this sort of thing. In short, it explains the newest research on why taking calcium supplements for bone health increases your risk of heart attack and stroke. The science is fairly simple, the data is well-presented in this book, and the conclusion is convincing. Eat the butter, people. Eat the butter.

The Western Lit Survival Kit: An Irreverent Guide to the Classics, from Homer to Faulkner by Sandra Newman. LITERARY CRITICISM
If you are considering getting an English Lit degree, why not just memorize this instead? You’ll save time, you’ll laugh more, and you’ll still be able to chat knowingly about Restoration Drama when it comes up (as it does). I sometimes strongly disagree with Newman—and you probably will too—but I prefer literary criticism with personality rather than some ridiculous pretense of objectivity.

White House Interpreter: The Art of Interpretation by Harry Obst. LANGUAGES
The author is German-English interpreter who worked with seven U.S. Presidents. He does a brilliant job of mixing on-the-job anecdotes with non-technical descriptions of what an interpreter does, while throughout making the clear and illuminating point of why it is one of the most important jobs that is both desperately important and thoroughly overlooked (especially by Americans).

Wise Children by Angela Carter. LITERATURE
The sort of book which 99.9% of readers will find incomprehensible; the last .01% will adore. The “Wise Children” of the title are Nora and Dora Chance, twin sisters from a family of famous Shakespearean actors. The book is bawdy, hilarious, sad, gorgeous, crazy, nonlinear, wonderful.

Writing on the Wall: Social Media – The First 2,000 Years by Tom Standage. TECHNOLOGY
This is not, of course, really the history of what we think of when we say “social media”—MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, and so on. More accurately it’s the history of all pre-centralized media. Highly recommended for anyone who wants an unputdownable book of social history.

The Zaanics Deceit by Nina Post. SUSPENSE
When asked if I’d review this, I read the blurb and first page before agreeing. Hmm, I said to myself. It takes place in Istanbul and San Francisco, concerns a manuscript in an invented language, makes direct nods to King Lear, and begins with a heroine with an anxiety disorder remotely managing a diamond heist. Did the author peek inside my head and write a book just for me? Do I want to read more? YES PLEASE. This is The Da Vinci Code for people who like books that are well-written and witty.

Longer reviews of all these books, and many others, are available on my blog, This Space Intentionally Left Blank. –Emma

Eric’s Picks

All the Rain Promises and More: A Hip Pocket Guide to Western Mushrooms by David Arora. FIELD GUIDE
Simply the best field guide for identifying mushrooms I have ever come across.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disaster by John Krakauer. MOUNTAINEERING
I usually do not stay up past my bedtime to finish a book but this was such a powerful story that was so well told that I had to.

The Long Earth / The Long War / The Long Mars by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter. SCIENCE FICTION
Two very different authors write one very beautiful series together.

Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast: Washington, Oregon, British Columbia and Alaska by Jim Pojar. FIELD GUIDE
Clear photos, great descriptions, info on lookalikes…some of the reasons why I have four copies of this book.

Revival by Stephen King. HORROR
True to the King philosophy of enjoying the ride of life without worrying about what happens after death.

Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore. FANTASY
The author restored my faith in his work (after “Fool”) with this fantastic retelling of “Merchant of Venice” blended with “Othello”.

A Slip of the Keyboard: Collected Nonfiction by Terry Pratchett. FANTASY (ESSAYS)
Learning more about Alzheimer’s and fedoras were just some of the benefits from reading this raw collection.

Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of an Imaginative Life by Tom Robbins. MEMOIR
We thought we knew everything about Tom Robbins from his fiction but this autobiography shed a whole new light on a very interesting life.

Tiger Shrimp Tango by Tim Dorsey. MYSTERY
The 17th Serge A. Storms book is on par with some of the best in the series. Accidental virgins and Mentos galore!

Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival by Joe Simpson. MOUNTAINEERING
The author is only alive today because of his stubbornness, skill, strength, and a huge amount of luck.

Fred’s Picks

Cave and Cosmos: Shamanic Encounters with Another Reality by Michael Harner. SHAMANISM
This book on contemporary western neo-shamanic practices made me realize that shamanism was an open-ended system that could include Catholic saints as much as the spirit of a tree. I started shamanic journeying in earnest after reading this.

Coyote Medicine: Lessons From Native American Healing by Lewis Mehl-Madrona. SHAMANISM
A classic work on integration of modern medicine with Native American community healing. Full of beautiful and very funny stories, and very inspiring. I’m gradually getting all of his books.

Emissary Of Love: The Psychic Children Speak to the World by James F. Twyman. METAPHYSICS
Some believe that a new race of humans is developing on this planet, and this book makes a good case for it—as well as being an exciting travel story.

The Healing Light by Agnes Sanford. METAPHYSICS
Agnes stands right smack between Pentecostal Christianity and New Thought, too Christian for one and too New Age for the other. No one will own up to her, despite the fact that she was a powerful healer of bodies and souls. That’s why I like her.

Intuitive Self-Healing: Achieve Balance and Wellness Through the Body’s Energy Centers by Marie Manuchehri. ENERGY HEALING
One of many energy healing books written by western medical professionals, this is the best in class for this sort of book, giving practical exercises for changing your energy field. It was also a joy to read. I took two workshops with Marie as a result.

Lame Deer Seeker Of Visions by John (Fire) Lame Deer and Richard Erdoes. NATIVE AMERICAN HISTORY
Intense, mystical, ribald, deep, and very funny, this is no doubt the best book I’ve ever read written by a Native American.

The Magdalene Version: Secret Wisdom from a Gnostic Mystery School by Stuart Wilson and Joanna Prentis. METAPHYSICS
I have a strong focus on the Divine Feminine and this is the best of several books on Mary Magdalene that I read this year. It is a channeled book, but the teachings are coherent, powerful, and nicely placed half way between eastern and western traditions.

Pranic Healing by Choa Kok Sui. ENERGY HEALING
The first book that convinced me that energy healing could be learned out of a book. Detailed, but not too complex, written in a logical step by step style, this is one of my favorites on the subject.

Shamans of the World: Extraordinary First Person Accounts of Healings, Mysteries, and Miracles by Nancy Connor (ed.). SHAMANISM
A great introduction to many powerful shamans around the world, with much of the book told in their own words. I learned about many amazing teachers through this book, and proceeded to get more books on each of them.

You Are Psychic: The Art of Clairvoyant Reading and Healing by Debra Lynne Katz. METAPHYSICS
The best psychic development book I’ve read, giving simple exercises that when practiced do actually amp up your clairvoyance and other perceptual abilities. Full of common sense tips and interesting stories, it is a very good read even if you don’t want to become a ‘reader’.

Fred didn’t give me a note about these since he considered his spiritual reading more important, but he also read every single one of Susan Mallery’s Fool’s Gold romance series. –Emma

Jimmy’s Picks

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. LITERATURE
A book that blends its humor and tragedy so well you don’t know which parts you should laugh or cry at, or both.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. LITERATURE
I love Murakami. Even though this story might be less grandiose or surreal than most of his others, it packs a discrete wallop none the less.

The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester. SCIENCE FICTION
Timeless, classic science fiction at its very best. A futuristic cat-and-mouse chase showcasing Bester for all he’s worth.

Joyland by Stephen King. HORROR
Hearkens back to vintage King of the early fifties. Oh wait… He wasn’t writing then. Oh wait again… Maybe it was his doppelgänger.

Let the Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist. HORROR
A tense vampire story set in Sweden. It’s eerie and disturbing without verging into gratuitous territory. There will be blood.

The Necromancer’s House by Christopher Buehlman. HORROR
A tale full of darkness and wonder by an emerging new voice in the horror/fantasy genre.

The People in the Trees by Yanya Hanagihara. LITERATURE
One of the only books I actually read from 2014. I’m a sucker for books with unlikeable protagonists and beautiful descriptions. Check and check.

Y: The Last Man Volumes #1-10 by Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra. GRAPHIC NOVELS/SCIENCE FICTION
Multi-volume, post-apocalyptic, neo-soap opera-ish, globetrotting, medical thriller. One-sitting reading for sure.

The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror 2014 by Paula Guran (Ed.). HORROR
Catch up with some of the best writers in the genre working today. Standouts include: The Prayer of Ninety Cats, The Soul In The Bell Jar, The Good Husband, Phosphorous, and Termination Dust.

Honorable Mention

Magic for Beginners: Stories by Kelly Link. FANTASY
Emma read this first, then brought it in to work and foisted it on Jimmy and Eric insisting that they would also love it. We all do. Kelly Link will blow your mind over and over. If you like beautifully written, endlessly creative fantasy, check her out.