So I kickstarted Numenera, and as part of that, I received the short story collection Tales from the Ninth World by Monte Cook and Shanna Germain. Normally I don’t read fantasy though plenty of science fiction, horror and weird fiction (though I do read fantasy, but it is mostly sword & sorcery-stuff or books published before 1980, such as Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earth Sea) – and stories in Numenera are somewhere bordering fantasy and science fiction. Also I normally don’t read books written in established universes like the Warhammer-stories, Star Wars-stories or D&D-stories. Mostly because I can’t help suspect that it is just written to order, and without the vision that an author brings to his or her own stories. This is probably way to too simplified, as some authors are skilled enough to produce good stories and some do have an interest for writing in established universes (though I soon discovered, that ).
So with this in mind I usually would not have bothered with reading Tales from the Ninth Universe, but vacation was coming up, so I grabbed a bunch e-books and went on vacation.
The anthology consists of three stories each with a sense in the title (smell, taste, sound) signaling the exploration of the Numenera-setting, one by Monte Cook, one by Shanna Germain, and one co-written by the two. All three stories takes place in the Numenera-setting, they all assume some sort of familiarity with the setting, and they are not very good. I was mostly bored reading them, as they felt unfinished and focused on showing the setting, but not about exploring it or telling stories. Just showing the setting.
The first story, The Smell of Lightening, is about a boy growing up in a mysterious castle containing strange secrets, and among the palace’s peculiarities is the fact, that the building grows. The boy belongs to noble family, and his father is secretly delving into the secrets of the castle in order to harness its powers. Then one day arrives a young man masquerading as a servant, but he belongs to another secret order of explorers rivaling the father, and belonging the good guys’ order. Where the father views the building through a lens of magic and ritual, the explorer views it through science some what. The boy explores the castle along with the explorer, discovers a rift in reality, and later learns of his father’s behavior, and vows to stop his father. Mostly the story read as an outline for an even larger story. Much more time could have been spend exploring the premise and the situation, but it is instead just cut short. In a sense I feel I have read the story before, the premise of the ancient house with its many secrets and a lifetime spent exploring it have interesting predecessors, but here it just touches on the story, shows us elements from the Numenera-setting and goes nowhere.
The second story, The Taste of Memory, is about a scoundrel with some weird ability to hide in shadows and a mechanical bird with an addiction for colored inks from octopi-creatures that produces experiences. She returns to her home harbor town, runs into a mutant streetgirl, and she is suffering from her addiction, as she needs a fix. She encounters a fella with a cover story, and she follows the streetchild to a hidden place through a gate, where she confronts her mom, who has developed a new version of the drug. Then the fella tracks our protagonist, steps through the gate, and there the story ends. Once again it felt like reading a story cut short, and one that were exploring some elements in the Numenera-universe, but elements established somewhere else, and therefore not really introduced in the story (this is another reason for not reading stories in established universes, they skip parts of the world building, because they assume the reader is already familiar with these elements). Though better written than the first story, it sort of just ends after having made its reveal (Look! A new drug with new effects!).
The third story, The Sound of a Beast, is the worst of the three. Mostly it is a dull tour of the setting presenting various monsters and places with out narrator travelling with a band of companions and a hostage as they encounter monsters and bad weather (though the idea of rain as monsters is a fine one), which forces them to seek refuge in a tower, where the inhabitants are also monsters, and after a huge fight the story ends. As an evening of gaming this might be entertaining, but as a story it feels like reading a fictionalized report from a session, and it is dull. Again the story’s main focus is on showing the setting, and certain parts of the setting are left unexplained assuming some knowledge of the setting – or just forgetting to present it to the reader, had it not been that the story actively chooses not to explain the elements.
Generally the three stories were a disappointing read, and I am somewhat more cautious of what to expect from Numenera. I like the art of the setting, and the overarching idea of the setting is very interesting – and mostly what attracted me to Numenera in the first place – whereas the rules seems mostly to be one of the many new systems drawing ideas and mechanics from the many new indie/forge/story games and applying them to 90’s style systems, and I am slightly curious to see, if there is anything to the rules.