Some time back I posted a brief review of the Archipelago Kickstarter reward chapbook. I was impressed, and joined the Archipelago crew at their chosen home, Patreon, becoming a Crew Member for the princely sum of $2 per month. This slightly higher rank than the run-of-the-mill $1-paying Bilge Rats allows for certain privileges, such as voting in the occasional Blood Pearl polls, through which one can guide the direction of certain stories. The main privilege of course is access to the excellent monthly magazine, every issue of which contains three installments set in the shared world of Archipelago.
Archipelago’s inaugural issue was in May 2017; since then it has been monthly. I initially hoped to cover a quarterly spread of issues, but I got distracted with other tasks. Things have not changed much, as may be obvious from my thin coverage and participation at Black Gate in 2018.
cell office is so remote and difficult to find among the winding multi-level corridors of the Black Gate basement that I’ve managed to escape eviction for not pulling my weight. I’m fortunate John O’Neill doesn’t usually bother to read the contributions from us underground dwellers (preferring to leave such editorial drudgery to a bot — also somewhat confusingly called John O’Neill), otherwise this article may just remind him to dispatch someone into the dungeon basement to root me out.
I resolved to write my review in two parts, each based on calendar year, thus buying myself some time to read the 2018 editions. That said, this particular article has been pending for months, so time to get cracking and let BG readers know what’s happening on the world of Archipelago!
If you scan the Archipelago Blog at Patreon, it’s obvious that the commitment to producing a quality supplement each month has at times seemed like a Sisyphean Task. If you’ve read the editorials in the print version of Black Gate and other magazines, you’ll be aware of just how hard it is to deliver quality on a consistent basis. Bravo to Archipelago for delivering on their commitment so far.
Reading the May to December 2017 issues was a mostly pleasant task. Each has three main parts detailing the ongoing stories in the settings of Archipelago’s founders; The Summer Isles by Andrew Leon Hudson, Roanoke by Kurt Hunt and Al‘Tahj by Charlotte Ashley. Each issue has the same cover, differentiated only by cover date.
I was a little disappointed by the first official issue of Archipelago, mainly because I accessed this innovative new magazine belatedly, via the Kickstarter Campaign. As such, the stories in issue one were hardly new as all three of them had been delivered as part of the Kickstarter reward.
This does not mean the Kickstarter reward chapbook was worthless, as it contained a number of other unique pieces. Any newcomer who did not participate in the Kickstarter will not have missed out on any of the core introductory stories, which are a must read to establish the setting and introduce certain principle characters.
I will not go into detail on these stories as I discussed them in my previous article. One minuscule note, something easily overlooked, was that the May issue had a September 2017 cover date.
An interesting general observation is that Issue One is a little less polished in terms of general layout. It seems to be a pretty common thread for first issues in general. Something would-be magazine publishers may wish to be careful of in terms of consistency of future look and feel.
The first episode of Andrew Hudson’s The Summer Isles ended on a cliffhanger. Episode two picks up where episode one left off. Although not specifically stated in the story, the year is around 1610 and His Majesty’s Ship Marvellous has just breached the portal to the world of Archipelago.
It is immediately clear that The Summer Isles is a misnomer, as the crew of Marvellous find themselves amidst icebergs, being buffeted by a ferocious storm. It is all they can do to try and retain steerage way and keep from being broken apart by an iceberg. The action does not let up and this chapter ends on another cliffhanger.
One small, rather pedantic, note with The Summer Isles:
Forecastle is how the word is written. While it may be pronounced fo’c’s’le and is perfectly acceptable to use the pronunciation during dialog, outside dialog the full word should be used. The same would apply for Topgallant Sails (t’gan’sl’) and so forth. That said I am sure Mr Hudson wished to set a mood and establish some vocabulary which is not immediately evident to anyone who has not read period nautical stories before.
Kurt Hunt takes a different tact with his second chapter of the Roanoke setting. Fast forwarding to 1611, the settlement of Haven has been established along with our heroine Elizabeth who has become a local expert on Archipelago Artefacts. John Dare and Samuel who had also been introduced in the first chapter step forward as major characters.
The power of the artefacts found in Archipelago was already hinted on within Charlotte Ashley’s Al’Tahj setting in the first issue. Elizabeth is tasked with investigating artefacts that have been found to establish their usefulness as well as to be wary of those that prove harmful. Dare and Samuel act as gatherers. Soon enough the lure of the power the artefacts ends in skulduggery.
Where issue one of Archipelago delivered chapter one of Messrs Hudson and Hunt’s story lines, Charlotte Ashley delivered an introductory story for her setting. Issue two of Archipelago thus starts her story arc off at chapter one and introduces the main character; Taban.
Moving even further into the future (to 1611) from when the Al’Tahj portal appeared near Mogadishu, we are quickly informed that a reasonably large colony has grown on the other side of the portal, along with an accompanying fleet of ships. In this brief chapter we are informed that Taban must board a ship called the Caraweelo ostensibly on a mission from the Suldaan.
Caraweelo is a far ranging ship that undertakes voyages deep into the uncharted extents of Archipelago. It has become a legend along with its famed captain, Aziza, a onetime playmate of Taban when they were children and the second major character of this story.
Overall issue two picked up nicely from where the introductory issue left off, leaving me eager to read more of each authors story.
One of the main connecting themes of Archipelago – other than of course that all three are on the same world, accessed via one of three known portals – is the Artefacts. Archipelago is rich in what from earth standards are magical artefacts. From the mundane to the exotic, simple to downright dangerous. Most are weird and of an unfathomable nature. These artefacts are what underlie the core of all three storylines, to differing degrees.
A famous line from Frank Herbert’s Dune is “He who controls the spice controls the universe.” This adage is as relevant for 1611 AD Earth, insofar as the portals (and by extension the artefacts) go. Each author explores their characters interactions with the artefacts in different ways:
The people of Al’Tahj who call artefacts Umering after Umur, the first person from Mogadishu who entered the portal and discovered their power (see issue one / Kickstarter reward) have had the most experience with these items and have learned how to “blood bind” with artefacts and thus gain a degree of control over them.
Elizabeth and company in Roanoke are aware of how dangerous artefacts can be, how a simple sliver can be lethal, and treat them with care. They have also learned how many can be put to use in all manner of ways, which greatly interests anyone involved in the arms race of that era.
Issue four is a slim volume weighing in at only 30 pages, which include those given to Afterword, Tip of the Hat, Copyright, About the Authors and Contents, notwithstanding the customary page with a small blurb stating what previously happened in each setting. All accounted for this leaves only 16 pages for storytelling.
Each authors’ chapter is however crammed with adventure and interesting turns. Andrew Hudson finally reveals the secret as to why The Summer Isles have their name and in so doing rescues the survivors of Marvellous from certain death by exposure and starvation. It is the first true artefact event in his story arc (after the portal of course) and smoothly shifts gear into the area the other authors have already been exploring.
Charlotte Ashley’s submission follows a linear progression as Taban literally learns the ropes onboard Caraweelo and meets various secondary characters in the crew. There are some secrets alluded to but the main purpose of this chapter, I believe, is to elaborate on character and setting details.
Kurt Hunt’s chapter is the big departure for this issue. Where before we have been following the relatively linear path of Elizabeth, John and Samuel, the first part of this chapter is not even set on Archipelago, rather on Roanoke Island, Earth side. We are introduced to a new character called Wat Dixon, who seems set up to be a major player.
I found myself wondering if he was specifically planned or was the result of a major contributor Tuckerism. Tuckerisms were awards granted to Kickstarter contributors, wherein depending on their contribution, a character of their own invention would be written into the story.
Taking orders from Governor Gates, who seems to have motives which may not quite be in full alignment with his brief from the crown, Wat enters the portal to establish exactly what is going on in New Haven and how the previous chapter’s skulduggery came to be.
All in all, while perhaps the slimmest volume so far, this issue delivers to expectation and leaves tantalizing clues for the reader.
Compared to August 2017, September is nearly twice the size in terms of story. Charlotte Ashley continues exploring Taban and Aziza’s relationship, with snippets from when they were young friends. Although a mostly linear progression, Ms Ashley leaves cunning clues that have a reader guessing at what precisely is to come.
Andrew Hudson’s chapter is the one to veer from the main story this time. Back in England, we are introduced to other characters and have a first sniff at artefacts that have made their way back from The Summer Isles.
Much of this chapter is set in the court of King James, where we meet a new character by the name of Sir Robert Maunsell – Treasurer of the Navy. The ship Titan has returned from The Summer Isles bearing treasures.This was one of my personal favorites, as my Tuckerized character came to play. As a cheapskate contributor this also unfortunately meant that he pretty much came and went. It was fun to read the name I invented and see how Andrew Hudson turned it into a believable character.
With royal blessing, The Summer Isles expedition receives its commission to commence full force, which bodes well for future adventures in that realm.
Kurt Hunt uses his chapter to explore day to day life in Haven, concentrating on John Dare and Samuel’s Monster Hunter crew. One gets the impression this is also a way to introduce a few small Tuckerism rewards as various secondary characters are named and given faces. Other than introducing new characters the chapter focusses on the manner in which the team goes about looking for artefacts.
For discovering The Summer Isles, Thomas Lawton has been rewarded with a Lordship, and made governor, of what has become known colloquially as Hy-Brasil. For now Lord Thomas Lawton takes a back seat as we come across new protagonist by the name of Jacob McCrea.
An explorer and adventurer, he has been tasked with exploring the icy realm beyond the boundaries of the magically warm and bountiful land of Hy-Brasil. The chapter is given to fleshing out Jacob’s past while also describing the nature of security either side of the portal which allows for only two designated ships to venture back and forth.
John Dare, Elizabeth and Samuel have set out in a boat to explore the myriad small isles near Haven. In so doing John stumbles across an event which shall change the way he views the world. Exploring thusly, they are not present when a flotilla arrives at Haven bearing soldiers and a major change for the inhabitants of the settlement.
Charlotte Ashley introduces a setting called Ciid Meadow and along with it some minor characters tasked with describing this strange, dangerous island. It is toward Ciid Meadow that Caraweelo is headed and indeed, the ship is spotted at the end of this short chapter. The fact that there is a settlement some distance from the Mogadishu portal underpins just how far into Al’Tahj the Suldaan’s ships have explored. Ciid Meadow in itself is a treasure trove of ideas for any beleaguered game master searching for something different to challenge players with.
Novembers supplement sees some necessary scene setting in The Summer Isles, as Jacob McCrea acclimatises and looks to round out his team with local recruits. With only six pages of text this time there is not a lot of space for detailed backgrounds and descriptions, yet Mr Hudson manages to cram a great deal of detail into the few pages he had at his disposal.
The Roanoke chapter is dedicated to Wat Dixon’s activities. The colony of Haven is once again in turmoil as various powerful factions exert their influence. Governor Gates’s factor in Haven, Lord De La Warr seems to be at loggerheads with Wat Dixon and once again Kurt Hunt has the reader guessing as the story twists and turns.
As the previous months supplement described Ciid Meadow and ended with Caraweelo being sighted, this months supplement details the events leading up to the ship’s arrival, as well as first impressions Taban has of the strange island. We are introduced to a close friend of Captain Aziza, Zilal, known to her friends as Lize. Taban also, through a little eavesdropping, comes to understand that Aziza had some serious issues and may be Umuring related.
Perhaps this is a good time to remind readers that the Kickstarter Reward included a short story by Charlotte Ashley called Bloodbound. While a stand-alone, entertaining piece, it can provide vital clues as to the nature of how the Al’Tahj setting has approached the artefacts or Umuring and turned them to their advantage.
The last issue in to be covered in this post is the December 2017 edition. I loved Andrew Hudson’s Summer Isles adventure. Jacob McCrea and co have departed Hy-Brasil on Titan. One thing that has become clear in reading these monthly magazines; On Archipelago, adventure is always close at hand, in most cases with it finding the characters and not the other way around. Readers of this review may by now have realised that I have tried to steer clear of spoilers, something I intend to keep doing. Suffice is to say this specific chapter really pleased me and once again provided some decent fodder to store away for future role playing game sessions I may run.
Everyone seems to be at sea in this episode, as Kurt Hunt returns to the roving adventures of John Dare, Elizabeth and Samuel who, in two joined boats, are exploring the myriad islands located near Haven. The three appear to have come, via their own individual routes, to the conclusion that they do not wish to return to Haven. During this chapter they are also witness to a zoological wonder which was fascinating to read and, just like in Andrew Hudson’s chapter, had me making mental notes of how I could apply it to my role playing campaign.
For the most part of this review I have touched on Al’Tahj last in each issue. This is in no way out of specific design, rather than Al’Tahj is the final story in any given issue. This is a special episode as it reveals much about Taban’s mission which has hereunto only been hinted at. We also get a far more forthright account of the political landscape on Al’Tahj and precisely how much influence the Saldaan exercises on the archipelago side of the portal.
As hinted to in my introduction, I wrote this review in two parts, with a large gap between. As such I found myself having to refer back to each magazine to refresh my memory. What was soon clear, due to the scope of storytelling Archipelago has undertaken, was that it wouldn’t be possible to completely cover each storyline. There are too many plot twists. I found myself having to cover each magazine individually, notwithstanding that the stories continue from one issue to the next.
The first year of Archipelago revealed much about just how complex a project the three authors have undertaken. Not satisfied with the inherent difficulty of writing in a shared world, in which have elements of their stories converge, they further stretched themselves by allowing Tuckerisms as well as allowing Patreon Supporters to vote on the direction a particular story line my take, often with unforeseen results!
Bearing the above in mind, I think it shows an outstanding effort by the authors to deliver, generally on time, a monthly magazine. I find myself eager to read the 2018 issues of Archipelagom which have been gathering dust (yes I printed them) on my shelf.
If you have not already done so, head over to Patreon and take a look at Archipelago. Even if you are not a huge fan of nautical adventure, the very weirdness of the world and compelling stories should make this something well worth looking into.
Tony Den contributes sporadic articles at Black Gate. He is eager to lay down some groundwork on some of the lesser known/forgotten fantasy series’ and magazines from the 1980s.