The Backwards Mask
The Backwards Mask. Paul Brunette
Original Publication: 2011
Current Availability: eBook
Editor’s Note: This review originally appeared on RPG.Net in March of 2011, and is reprinted here and in the May/June 2012 issue of Freelance Traveller with the author’s permission.
Author’s Note: I think that one of the best ways to prepare yourself to run a game is to immerse yourself in its fiction, and thus get a real sense of its milieu. Thus, this series of reviews, which looks at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
This is one of a continuing series of reviews of Traveller Fiction, looking at some of the fiction that influenced Traveller, was influenced by Traveller, or is actually set in the Traveller universe.
In 1995, GDW put out two-thirds of a trilogy of fiction books focusing on The New Era. The third book was not published by the time GDW went of out of business, and was apparently lost forever, until it was published this year. Twice.
This twenty-second review covers The Backwards Mask, the third book in the TNE trilogy as conceived by the trilogy’s original author, Paul Brunette. Though it was not published back in 1995, it did exist. It’s floated around the ’net for a while and has now been cleaned up and officially released by Marc Miller through Far Future Enterprises.
(The other version of The Backwards Mask is one that Marc Miller commissioned from Matthew Carson before this was rediscovered. It’s also available from DrivethruRPG, and I’ll write a separate review of it after I’ve read it.)
The Backwards Mask picks up right where To Dream of Chaos leaves off. The Hornet is out in the Wilds, having dealt with problems of high-tech weaponry on the planet of Mexit. Now they just need to make it back home.
But, things are never that easy in The New Era. Another Coalition starship, the Cymbeline Victrix, has gone missing outside of the Area of Operations. When the Hornet tracks it to the planet of Vinooks, they find a number of mysteries, among them: the floating corpse of a liner ship whose captain has gone mad; the crew of the Cymbeline Victrix planetside, all surprisingly apathetic about rescue; and a planet with a tech level surpassing that of the Last Imperium that has somehow survived the collapse.
I won’t spoil the resolution of these mysteries, but I will make one comment about the ending of the book: despite being the final book in Brunette’s intended trilogy, this book has if anything a less conclusive end than the previous one. The mysteries and plots of this particular book are mainly wrapped up, with just one dangler—which is itself connected together with some new plots, leading to what perhaps would have been another trilogy of books in The New Era, stretching from 1203 on. Now, of course, they’re mainly a historical curiosity.
Genre & Style
As I’ve said in previous reviews of this series, the TNE trilogy of books are clearly “gaming fiction”. This one falls back into the model of the first: it's a largely picaresque book, with the crew of the Hornet having several encounters before they finally settle on Vinooks for the balance of the book.
However by this, his third book, Brunette’s writing is becoming increasingly polished. In his previous book I felt like he was stepping beyond the bounds of standard gaming fiction, writing more about characters, rather than just plot—but that he wrote way too long as a result. Here, his characters continue to feel more three-dimensional, but the writing is much tighter.
Overall, I felt like the plotting of the book was much tighter too. Though the plot is picaresque, everything fit together into a much more cohesive whole by the end of the book. I found the handling of multiple plots generally deft and thought that some of the alternate view points (particularly that of a hiver, as I’ll discuss more in a bit) interesting.
Finally, I’ll note that Brunette uses a nice frame for this book, that has the main character, Couer, remembering what happened from sometime shortly after the story ends. It’s more experimental than the rest of Brunette’s work and works fairly well.
Don’t get me wrong, Brunette doesn’t do anything particularly notable, but I feel like his writing is much more balanced here than in either previous TNE book. Beyond that the plot is interesting and kept me reading (and I’ll have more to say about that as well). As a whole, Brunette’s writing earns a solid “3” out of “5” for Style this time around, while the story is an interesting one with some intrigue and some surprise, and thus I’ve given it a “4” out of “5” for Substance.
Applicability to Mongoose Traveller
There are two or three sections in The Backwards Mask written from the point of view of a hiver. It’s only 5 or 10 pages total, but I thought they offered a great synopsis of how a Hiver thinks—and thus would be useful to anyone running a Traveller campaign. Heck, they made me want to introduce a Hiver into my game right away.
Since the book is set in The New Era, that’s probably the only element that’s going to be of particular interest to a Mongoose-era GM. However, if you're running in The New Era, The Backwards Mask is a great resource. Of all three of Brunette’s books, I felt like this one gave the best perspective of what The New Era really feels like.
The Wilds feel more wild and forsaken. Virus is more clearly a threat. The effects of the downfall of Imperial civilization are more obvious.
Overall, I give The Backwards Mask (version 1!) a great recommendation for those GMs running in 1200+ plus. GMs in the Mongoose era of 1105 will get considerably less out of it.
The Backwards Mask surprised me. It’s the best of Brunette’s three TNE books, so it’s great that it’s finally been made available. If you’ve read the previous volumes, you’ll probably want to read this one, to get some closure on the main characters.