Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

Phew. That…that was a long book. Similarly to what was done with George R.R Martin’s A Storm of Swords and A Dance with Dragons, Sanderson’s The Way of Kings was split into two separate books in its paperback form due to its extreme length. However, unlike with Martin’s works, a giant paperback edition does exist, and it was this that I endeavoured to read, resulting in possibly the most physically large book I’ve ever read cover to cover. However, this is only the first in Sanderson’s planned ten book epic, known as ‘The Stormlight Archive’, of which The Way of Kings is so far the only published instalment, with the as yet unnamed sequel coming next year. This novel was incredibly celebrated in the fantasy community, and I am pleased to report that it, in almost every way, lives up to the hype.

The setting of The Way of Kings, the planet Roshar, is easily the largest and best established of any of Sanderson’s novel to date. Sanderson has never been someone particularly focused upon world building, and although this doesn’t come near to something like Steven Erikson’s Malazan Books of the Fallen in scope, it’s still a vast and fascinating world begging for further exploration. That said, the novel is fairly focused upon two locations; a series of plateaus upon which a six year long war has been raging known as the ‘Shattered Plains’ and the great city of learning and medicine Kharbranth. One major difference between The Way of Kings and all of Sanderson’s work to date is that the magic system is relatively vague and ill defined, compared to the scientific and rigid approach to magic in Elantris, Warbreaker and the Mistborn trilogy. Although I was initially a bit put off by this (Sanderson’s approach to magic has always been one of my favourite things about him) I quickly learnt that this serves a purpose. It becomes clearer and clearer that the rules underpinning the magic of Roshar are there, but they are simply yet to be understood by its inhabitants, therefore meaning that it is little understood by the reader. I’m fully confident that future books will expand upon the magic system, which seems to involve the harnessing of a nebulous and ill-defined force known as the eponymous ‘Stormlight’ in several different ways. Of all of Sanderson’s novels so far, The Way of Kings is by far the most connected into the vast ‘Cosmere’ setting which unites all of his books. The mysterious Hoid who has appeared in all of Sanderson’s novel to date plays his biggest role yet in this novel, with epigraphs containing hints to events occurring on Sel (the planet of Elantris) and a few references to the ultimate villain of the Mistborn books. In fact, this novel even contains some extremely subtle cameos from other characters from those novels. However, as with all of his other novels, there is no need to have read the other books to understand The Way of Kings. That said, I’m extremely glad that I had done so, as the little references, hints and cameos are just unutterably cool for those of us who have started at the beginning.

The catalyst of the events of The Way of Kings is the assassination of King Galivar, the ruler of the Kingdom of Alethkar, allegedly at the hands of the mysterious, newly discovered people known as the Parshendi. Seeking vengeance, the new King Elokhar launches an assault upon the homeland of the Parshendi, the Shattered Plains, with the narrative picking up six years into this war. The Way of Kings is primarily centred around three narratives; the most prominent is that of Kaladin, a former soldier of high repute who, through events that are revealed throughout the novel, has been reduced to slavery. To cross the multitude of plateaus which comprise the Shattered Plains, some armies utilise ‘Bridge Crews’, who are forced into Parshendi arrow range to drop bridges for the rest of the army to use. The life expectancy of a Bridgeman is very short, and Kaladin sets about restoring dignity to those around him. We also see a lot of the story of Dalinar, brother of the assassinated King and head of one of the Alethkar armies. Dalinar has been receiving visions of Roshar’s ancient past, visions which put him at odds with the young King and the other army leaders, particularly the Machiavellian Sadeas. Finally, we have the narrative of Shallan, a witty and erudite young woman who is seeking the tutelage of the legendary Jasnah, sister to the assassinated King Gavilar and aunt to the current King, although her agenda is rather more complex than simple education.

Sanderson falls into his familiar pattern of slowly revealing snippets of interesting information about his world rather than relying on complex info dumps as in Steven Erikson’s Malazan novels or excessive exposition. Sanderson has always been about depth rather than breadth, but with this, his longest planned series so far, he seems to be allowing himself both. Sanderson makes an interesting move by including ‘interludes’ between sections of the book, short chapters which focus upon exotic and far flung locations on Roshar, giving us little glimpses into the, clearly well planned out, world upon which the series shall be set. These chapters give us an indication of what is to come, and do an excellent job of whetting the reader’s appetite for future novels in the series whilst retaining the focused plot structure which is one of Sanderson’s strengths. If you like your novels to run at a breakneck speed, this one won’t be for you however. The first and third Mistborn books were very fast paced, but Sanderson has elected for a slightly different approach here. A lot of this novel is establishing threats for future novels, and it’s clear that Sanderson is playing a long game here. Sanderson is such a focused and hard working author however that I place more faith in his eventual plan than I would for almost any other writer in the genre, a genre in which so many epic series stagnate as they go on, most notably Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time books, which it could be argued Sanderson rescued upon taking over. That said, if you’re hoping for a huge pay off at the end of this novel, you may be disappointed, as The Way of Kings doesn’t quite stand on its own the way The Final Empire, the first novel in the Mistborn trilogy, did.

Sanderson remains an incredibly competent writer, retaining his refreshingly straight forward narrative style that is one of his trademarks. That said, the world of Roshar is extremely well depicted, even better than Scadrial was in the Mistborn books. The primary locations of the Shattered Plains and Kharbranth are vivid and well depicted, but he also shows an excellent ability to conjure a strong sense of place very quickly. The locations we gain brief snippets of in the interludes, such as the idyllic Purelake and the rural land of Shin, are vividly depicted without an excess of tiring description. Dialogue has always been Sanderson’s strong suit, and he’s on good form here. Sanderson has a clear fondness for irreverent and witty characters, such as Elend Venture in the Mistborn novels and Lightsong in Warbreaker, and Shallan’s dialogue, particularly with the equally witty ‘ardent’, or priest, Kabsal, is a highlight of the novel.

Although the characters aren’t necessarily as ingeniously complex as those of George R.R Martin, they are all compelling and interesting figures to read about. We never discover the entirety of our POV character’s back stories, with revelations coming throughout and hints of interesting elements from their past held back from the reader, allowing us to grow attached to the characters whilst still wondering how well we really know them. However, there’s a touch too much introspection and self doubt in this novel, which sometimes doesn’t quite ring true. We know that the main character isn’t going to sink into despair and give up, so extended ponderings on their own uselessness can become somewhat wearying, but it never reaches the level of true awfulness of Linden Avery in Stephen Donaldson’s second Thomas Covenant trilogy. These are characters who have the potential to join the ranks of Gandalf, Rand al’Thor or Tyrion Lannister, and I cannot wait to see them again in a year when the sequel is set to be released.

As a little side note, I should point out that this novel has some of the most wonderful illustrations I have ever seen outside of the graphic novel format. Sketches of Roshar and the strange creatures which populate it punctuate the novel, and are simply beautiful. It’s a wonderful addition, and one I hope to see in future novels from Sanderson.

This is possibly Sanderson’s greatest novel to date, and a simply fantastic start to what promises to be a truly epic series. Who knows? Maybe in a few years ‘The Stormlight Archive’ could be the new ‘Wheel of Time’ or ‘Song of Ice and Fire’! It would certainly be well deserved. Having in recent  months read all of Sanderson’s proceeding works, it has been fascinating to trace his development from the promising, if somewhat uneven, Elantris to the accomplished grandeur or The Way of Kings. If you liked the Mistborn books, you’ll love this, and even if you haven’t read any Sanderson before, this is a great starting point. 

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Darksiders II: Argul’s Tomb DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

For anyone who bought Darksiders II new or, like I did, lucked out and ended up with DLC codes in their pre-owned copy, this review is pointless. Argul’s Tomb is worth your time. The question remains for everyone else though; is it worth your money?

There is a semblance of a story, but it’s difficult not to see how clearly cropped this was from the main game, where it would fit into the narrative much better. Ostegoth, the pipe smoking bull man who acts as a merchant in the main game, has summoned Death to an icy fortress, once the holdfast of the former ruler of the dead, Argul. Ostegoth sends Death into the fortress to destroy the source of Argul’s power, promising a great reward. The entire plot of this DLC is undermined by the fact that Argul is a clearly signposted optional boss of the main game, and had in fact already been killed by Death by the time I played. The dialogue does not reflect this; Death still questions as if he had never met Argul, and it is painfully clear that the dungeons and story of this DLC were originally intended for an extended Argul story arc before being sliced out to be sold later as DLC. I’m generally supportive of DLC, and find the popular gamer rage against it to be immature and petty, but I’m very iffy about this sort of thing. The story is therefore a complete waste of time, which is rather disappointing considering the surprisingly fun story which lies behind the Darksiders games.

If you were hoping for anything new or interesting in the gameplay department you will be disappointed. You are working entirely with the tools already available in the main game, and most of the enemies are basic clones of those from the main game given an icy makeover. The DLC gets off to an inauspicious start by opening with a shooting section; considering that I hated the shooting section of the main game I was pretty put out to find another one here. Gone is the ingenious dungeon design, the challenging and engaging enemy attack patterns; instead you are working your way down a linear path taking down waves and waves of enemies which do little more than charge at you repeatedly. Thankfully, the other two dungeons aren’t nearly so bad. In fact, one of them was so ingeniously put together that it reached Zelda levels of intricacy. These two dungeons make use of the ‘Voidwalker’, the portal gun basically. Although the puzzles aren’t particularly challenging, they are clever, and easily formed the high point of the DLC. The final boss of the DLC is also a lot of fun to fight, acting as certainly one of the best boss fights in the game.

The brief glimpses you gain of the outside is of a stunningly icy vista, so it’s a damn shame that you spend almost all of the DLC inside castles and caves. There’s potential for something visually interesting and distinct from the main game here, but that potential is squandered. I suspect that many of the snowy assets of the DLC were plundered from the prologue of the main game.

This is a disappointingly brief and unambitious DLC, but it’s not actively terrible. If you have a DLC code, go ahead and use it, but is this a DLC worth buying? I’m not sure that it is. If you must get this DLC I encourage you to wait until it goes on sale, I’m sure that it will within a year. 

Dust: An Elysian Tail for XBLA

Ok, to enjoy this game you’re going to have to get over one thing. The art style of this game is extremely reminiscent of the ‘furry’ style. For those who haven’t been around this funny old internet as much as I have, ‘furries’ are people who have a sexual attraction to anthropomorphic creatures, usually furry humans with pointy ears and tails and improbably huge breasts. ‘Furries’ are one of the most widely mocked and vilified sub-cultures online, although I find it hard to bring myself to care what they do; it doesn’t affect me what people choose to masturbate to. If you can get past the furry aesthetic, there’s a lot to like about this game, which seems somewhat doomed to fly under the radar as an underrated gem. I was particularly interested in this release due to it having been almost entirely the work of one man, Dean Dodrill. With the exception of voice acting, soundtrack and parts of the script, all of the work was done by Dodrill. I was interested to see whether one person could create a full gameplay experience, and am pleased to report that, by and large, they can.

The game opens with the eponymous Dust awakening in a glade, with no memory of his previous life, a talking sword named Ahrah beside him. The sword tells him to move on, but the sword’s guardian, the tiny flying Fidget, insists on joining him. Dust and his band move around the land, righting wrongs and helping the people, whilst the military campaign of the brutal General Gaius builds in intensity in the background, soon moving to the forefront of the tale.

The plot of Dust: An Elysian Tale is probably the most pleasant surprise in the game. An amnesiac hero, a squeaky voiced side kick, a talking sword, all played out in a land of talking animals? A recipe for utter horror. Instead, we get a plot which has clearly been given much thought, and although it’s not necessarily anything special, I was certainly invested in the characters and their fate. Bolstered by surprisingly good voice acting, the script manages to balance comedy and drama well. Some of the characters Dust  encounters on his journey are genuinely hilarious creations, and the more dramatic scenes are handled relatively well. If there is any flaw, it is that the motivations of its villain is rather opaque; I suspect that a sequel is planned, which may shed more light upon this.

Dust: An Elysian Tail is a side scrolling action RPG, with the content split pretty evenly between RPG and action gameplay mechanics. Those expecting serious depth in the mechanics themselves may be somewhat disappointed; the combat is pretty simple and will often devolve into button mashing, but it’s certainly fun enough. There’s a basic crafting system to keep things interesting, although the items you equip have no effect upon Dust’s highly stylised appearance, a gaming pet peeve of mine. The game is quest based, with two main towns acting as hubs. There’s a slight element of Metroidvania to the game, with backtracking and returning to previously visited locations encouraged. However, the rewards rarely match the effort required, so I doubt many players will be scouring the world for every chest as the developer probably hoped. This may read negative, but in reality it’s certainly not bad. It’s very competent,  but with few moments where the gameplay surprises you. There are very few moments which are truly bad however, with the lowest points in the game probably being the uninspired and frustrating boss fights, which are usually simple damage sponges rather than exhibiting interesting attack patterns.

The real high point of this game is in its presentation. The animations for Dust are breathtaking, rivalling those in Rayman Origins. The backgrounds have a wonderful, hand drawn feeling to them, making each location feel an absolute joy to explore. If there is any weakness in the presentation, it would be in the character design, which all feels a bit ‘Deviant Art’, but when the world these characters populate is so gorgeous it’s hard to care. The voice acting is, by and large, excellent. I suspect that many of the voice actors were amateurs, which far from taking away from the game, gives the dialogue a pleasant naturalism. The surprising high point is in the voice of Fidgit, your sidekick, who should be incredibly annoying, but is in fact a genuinely funny and charming companion. Sure, this game is pure style over substance, but when the style is this good it’s hard to care.

Dust: An Elysian Tail isn’t for everyone, but it is an incredibly achievement of singular determination. I certainly don’t regret my time with Dust: An Elysian Tail, but I’m not quite sure if I would necessarily recommend it to many others and its current price. When this pops up in the Microsoft’s XBLA sales, don’t hesitate, buy it. Before then, it’s probably worth holding off a while.

Darksiders II for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Lots of people saw the first Darksiders as a something which did little more than plunder gameplay elements from other, more innovative, games and smash them together into one. They’re not wrong, but I believe that these critics were missing the point. Darksiders II can be best described as The Legend of Zelda crossed with Devil May Cry, with some Prince of Persia thrown in, a smattering of Diablo, a dash of Portal, a bit of Shadow of the Colossus,  and a final sprinkling of God of War. Hell, there’s even a Mass Effect conversation wheel. By all rights, all of these disparate elements should create an absolute mess of a game; playing Bully: Scholarship Edition taught  me that attempting to be a jack of all trades will usually result in a ridiculous cluster of mechanics which don’t quite jell together and are all inferior to other games on the market. However, like the first Darksiders, the sequel does an admirable job of creating a coherent whole out of its many disparate influences. Darksiders II is not a pile of derivative drivel, but a post-modern masterpiece.

The lore and plot of the Darksiders universe is undoubtedly a bit…schlocky and esoteric. There’s a lot of cheese in Darksiders, but I’m not convinced that that isn’t intentional. Where the gameplay apes that of other incredibly popular games, the world of Darksiders at times seems to verge upon parody. Darksiders II doesn’t actually follow on from the plot of the original, but instead runs concurrently with it. In the lore of the Darksiders universe, a race known as the nephilim had begun a terrible war, outraged at the handing of Earth to the inferior humans. Four nephilim turned on and exterminated their kind for their crimes, and these became the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

In the first game, War, one of the horsemen, had been framed for breaking a pact between heaven and hell, leading to a war which results in the desolation of Earth and the death of humanity. In Darksiders II we no longer play as War, but instead take on the role of his brother, Death. Death seeks to clear his brother’s name, and to resurrect  humanity at a location known as the Well of Souls. The problem is, Death has no idea how to reach the Well, and so begins a journey through a variety of realms to find the answer he seeks. I found Death to be a surprisingly likeable protagonist, much more so than his predecessor War. There’s a bitter and sarcastic anger underpinning Death, although attempts to imbue him with any particular depth are not very successful. Other characters always tell Death that he carries the burden of guilt for turning on his people, but this guilt never really manifests itself. There’s actually nothing wrong with allowing the plot to simply be a fun silly ride, which is exactly what the Darksiders story is. I like the setting enough that I’m certainly interested to see it explored further in future games. Sadly, the plot is let down by an incredibly abrupt ending, which seems to suggest that the game was originally intended to be a bit longer (although the game as it stands is easily long enough.) It’s not a Mass Effect 3 level of disaster, more of a Halo 2.

Many games are built around just one or two core game mechanics, such as jumping in Super Mario Bros. or shooting in Call of Duty, but Darksiders II does a rather admirable job of doing well in a large number. It is fair to say that Darksiders II never exceeds its influences; for example, the platforming isn’t nearly as smooth as in Prince of Persia, the combat isn’t as deep as Devil May Cry and the bosses aren’t as epic as the Colossi, but it manages to be more than the sum of its parts. This game has better combat than Zelda, a wider world than Prince of Persia, more customisation options than Devil May Cry. There’s almost something innovative in the way the developers so seemingly shun innovation, creating something, which despite being an amalgamation of many different games, winds up being something which feels rather new and interesting. There really is nothing else out there quite like the Darksiders games. The addition of loot is a welcome one, and although the loot system is nowhere near as deep as in something like Diablo or Torchlight, it really doesn’t need to be, as anything more would distract from the overall experience. Excepting a truly dire section in which it tries to be Gears of War, the game thunders along nicely, never losing pace and constantly throwing new and interesting game play mechanics at us (all admittedly cribbed from other games, the Portal gun being a real highlight).

The game is made up several major hub worlds, each with a fairly distinctive visual style and vibe. These are, mostly, an absolute joy to explore, although the exploration aspect feels slightly curtailed from the first one. The first hub world, the Forge Lands, is a luscious and lovely location, an absolute joy to explore. The realms of the angels and demons are beautiful and badass respectively, but things stutter slightly at the Land of the Dead, which is (unsurprisingly) a bit on the dreary side. A high point is the voice acting, particularly the sneery Britishness of Death, but with plenty of other great performances all round, of particular note being James Cosmo, the Old Bear himself. Sure, a lot of them are over the top and silly, but so is the whole game, and it’s all part of the fun! The music, whilst not in any way catchy, is suitably atmospheric and does a great job of setting the scene.

One of the basic foundations of post-modern thought is that of self awareness, and the lie that is originality. There are plenty of games out there which are shallow and derivative, offering nothing new or of interest, perhaps relying on a silly gimmick (I’m looking at you Inversion). Darksiders II wears its influences upon its sleeve (the achievement for learning to create Portals is called ‘I can haz cake’ for God’s sake). It can be tough to pin down exactly where the Darksiders series succeeds where countless other ‘rip-off’ games fail, but I believe that it is in this very own self awareness, respecting it’s influences and shamelessly plundering from them to create something which, ironically enough, is utterly unique. 

English Passengers by Matthew Kneale

English Passengers is a historical novel, containing no elements of science fiction or fantasy. Great writers of fantasy and sci-fi such as Isaac Asimov and Steven Erikson have observed the close connection between historical literature and fantasy, and it is certainly true that really great historical fiction can trigger the same vibe as genre fiction, and this novel certainly felt that way at times. This novel excels in its ability to balance the making of sincere and important observations about English colonialism whilst also retaining a wonderful air of fun silliness. This is a hard balancing act to maintain, and Kneale succeeds with aplomb in English Passengers.

English Passengers tells the story of an expedition to Tasmania in 1857, led by the foolish ninny Rev Geoffrey Wilson, who has become convinced that the island in the location of the Garden of Eden. WIlson is accompanied by Renshaw, an idle botanist and Dr. Potter, a racial theorist obsessed with categorising and ranking the different races of man (he unsurprisingly places the Anglo-Saxon English as the greatest race.) To arrive at their destination, they charter a ship of sailors from the Isle of Mann, led by a Captain Illiam Kewley. Unbeknownst to them, the Manx sailors are in fact smugglers with a hidden cargo hold filled with illicit goods. A parallel storyline takes place decades earlier, starting in 1820. This storyline primarily deals with the tale of Peevay, a Tasmanian Aborigine, the mixed race child of the rape of an Aboriginal woman by a white escaped convict. The separate narratives begin to intersect as the novel goes on, with the disparate strands of the narrative coming together nicely.

The structure of the novel reminded me, oddly enough, of George R.R Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire novels. At the beginning of each section is the name of a character, and it follows that character for that section. There are around twenty POVs in the entire novel, but many are just for a single chapter, with the majority of the novel coming from the POVs of Wilson, Kewley and Peevay. Kneale takes this structure one step further than Martin, by placing each POV in the first person. This leads to one of the most impressive triumphs of the novel, the varied and interesting narrative styles adopted by each character. The most striking is that of the Aborigine Peevay, who uses English in a fascinating and interesting way, it not naturally being his first language. Kneale does an excellent job of undermining preconceptions about Aborigines; Peevay is, in his odd way, a much more intelligent and eloquent protagonist than the self righteous Reverend Wilson and the entertainingly blunt and pragmatic Captain Kewley.

This is fundamentally a novel about colonialism, with the central Garden of Eden narrative being little more than a pretence to visit Tasmania and to witness the horrific crimes visited upon the native Aborigines by the white settlers. Kneale’s outrage pours through with a biting potency, particularly in analysis of the avowed racist Dr. Potter. Kneale argues that, at the beginning part of the 19th century, colonialism was (flimsily) justified as the spreading of God and civilisation to those unfortunate enough to lack it. There was no inherent suggestion that non-white races were inferior, merely that their cultures were inferior, and that with sufficient education they could be raised to the level of culture seen in white civilisations. Although this is of course a ridiculous concept, and one which caused immeasurable harm to countless societies, it was not strictly speaking ‘racism’ in the sense that we know it, but more a puffed up sense of cultural and moral superiority. Kneale suggests that, around the middle part of the century, this view began to shift with several major publications suggesting that certain races are inherently superior to others, and that they will inevitably clash. These writers were said to have been major influences upon the ideology of Adolf Hitler, and it’s not difficult to see how. Although post-colonial fiction is certainly nothing new, Kneale takes a look at one of the many crimes of the British Empire which has been somewhat less explored than those that were committed in Africa, mainland Australia and North America.

Of course, this novel is far from a dry humourless exploration of human cruelty, but also a wonderful collection of incredibly amusing character portraits. The Manx smugglers in particularly provide some genuinely hilarious moments, constantly underestimated by their haughty English passengers, yet almost always holding the upper hand. If there’s one thing which Kneale clearly finds incredibly amusing it is self delusion. The first person narratives mean that each character usually views themselves as entirely justified and moral figures, with all those who conflict with them being in the wrong. People see themselves in a very different light to how others see them, and it never failed to amuse to shift from the POV of the pious Reverent Wilson to the irreverent irritated patience of Captain Kewley, who sees him as nothing more than a self righteous fool. This is exactly how a novel should be; I’m of the firm belief that a novel devoid of humour is a novel which fails, even when dealing with a serious and brutal subject such as this.

This is probably the best historical novel I have ever read, and certainly the most fun. Although this novel serves a serious moral purpose, it never sacrifices the readers enjoyment to convey this purpose, with the many moments of levity serving to throw the indignities and cruelty inherent in colonialism into sharp relief. 

Looking for Jake and Other Stories by China Miéville

I never fail to be impressed by China Miéville. There are few genuine literary innovators in the genre, and Miéville is arguably the best of them. Looking for Jake and Other Stories is his first collection of short stories, containing fourteen overall, most notably his novella The Tain. Since I haven’t revieweda book of short stories before, I’m going to experiment and take a quick look at all of them and briefly assess their successes and failures (but mostly successes).

Looking for Jake

The titular Looking for Jake established the primary theme which runs through the collection; London. The unnamed protagonist is combing a London which has suffered a  vaguely defined apocalypse to find his closest companion Jake. The bizarre apocalypse to have befallen London has a wonderfully ill-defined quality to it, and Miéville spells nothing out for us. Although I was impressed enough by this story at first, I do find it somewhat odd that this was the one chosen to headline the collection, as it’s arguably actually one of the weaker stories. Very similar themes to this story are re-explored in other stories in the collection, and to greater success. It’s still a treat to read however, and this means that it doesn’t fall into the common anthologising trap of setting such as high bar at the opening of the collection that nothing else manages to live up to it.

Foundation

Foundation is the only story which contains no element of the supernatural, but it is certainly very strange. It tells the story of a contractor and veteran of the first Gulf War, haunted by the atrocities he committed in Iraq. Miéville has long been a staunch human rights advocate and critic of military incursions in the Middle East by the West, and this is the most overtly representative of current events in the collection. Although other stories certainly reflect Miéville’s left wing leanings, in few is it as overt as in this one. It is interesting that Miéville’s sympathetic protagonist of the tale is the committer of the atrocity rather than the victim, reflecting that unrestrained military jingoism can destroy the lives of people on either side of a conflict.

The Ball Room

The Ball Room is probably the most straight forward story in the collection, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most fun. It’s a rather chilling little story about the ball pens found to entertain the children in department stores. The satire upon consumerism is somewhat heavy handed in this one, but it’s hard to get too wound up by it because it’s just such an entertaining read. I really won’t say much more about this one, as to say much more would be to give it away.

Reports of Certain Events in London

Now, this is a spot on example of the kind of innovation that makes Miéville such an impressive writer. The underlying concept off the story is that the author China Miéville has accidently received a package intended for a certain Charles Melville. The package contains a series of different texts, from committee minutes to letter, which Miéville presents in order to the reader. The different texts tell an interesting, somewhat Neil Gaiman-esque tale which is made all the more fun to read about for the intriguing way it is presented (I’m beginning to realise that Miéville has quite a lot in common with Mr. Gaiman.)

Familiar

This is one of the creepiest stories in the collection, and does an excellent job of undermining expectation. At the beginning of the story, the tale is told from the point of view of a witch who creates a familiar (an animal consort) to bolster his power. Disgusted by the grotesque creature that results, he dumps the familiar in a canal in London. The POV shifts at this point from the witch to the familiar, as it makes its way through London, growing as it does so. What is set up as a fairly standard Frankenstein-esque story , tutting at the hubris of creating life and playing god becomes something much more interesting as we are privy to the alien thought processes of the familiar. This is probably the strangest story in the collection, but certainly one of the most compelling and unique.

Entry Taken from a Medical Encyclopaedia

Miéville wrote a summary of a fictional disease for an anthology of fictional diseases for The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases which also contained contributions from writers such as Michael Moorcock and Neil Gaiman. It’s a fun and whimsical couple of pages, of which I shall say no more.

Details

Miéville wrote this one for an anthology inspired by H.P Lovecraft, and there is certainly something eerily Lovecraftian about this tale. A young boy is tasked by his mother to bring food to a mysterious woman who refuses to leave her flat and is also regularly visited by an odd motley group of people. This is one of those stories which, after reading it, reshapes how  you see the world for a time. It crawls into your head and refuses to leave, and I personally found it deeply unsettling. Miéville’s talents as a horror writer are on full display here.

Go Between

Go Between tells the tale of a man who, for several years, has been receiving strange instructions to deliver seemingly random items from location to location. The protagonist agonises as to what effect his deliveries are having, as he considers stopping the deliveries in case he supports a malignant cause, but fearful to stop in case he is aiding a good one. The concept itself is a compelling one, but it is the internal torment of a good man in an impossible situation which is so interesting to read about.

Different Skies

This story is about a lonely old man who purchases a bizarre and old fashioned window. After having it installed in his London flat, he realises that, in the middle of the night, it looks out upon a different sky to the others surrounding it. Forces beyond the window begin to torment him, and we are left with an interesting twist on the ‘group of nasty young kids torment a pensioner’ trope. This is a fairly straight forward fantastical reinterpretation, but it’s certainly a compelling and creepy story, if not one of the collection’s strongest.

An End to Hunger

This is another of Miéville’s overtly political texts, relating the relationship between the protagonist and a radical Turkish hacker named Aykan, who becomes obsessed with bringing down the website of a charity known as ‘An End to Hunger.’ This story reflects Miéville’s own disdain for shallow corporate gestures of charity, and he does an excellent job of buoying you along with his outrage. Of particular geeky fun is the fact that Akyan programs a revolutionary left wing gaming experience in a Nintendo 64 cartridge. That made me smile.

Tis the Season

This was originally written for the Socialist Review, and tells a satirical tale of a future in which holidays, most notably Christmas, have been privatised. Those unable to afford an ‘official’ Christmas can experience cheaper knockoff alternatives such as ‘XmasTym.’ This is the funniest story in the collection, as Miéville depicts a motley collection of amusing protest groups trying to bring back their beloved holiday. This is a nice hearty slice of satire as it should be; funny, yes, but with teeth.

Jack

I will confess that it was for this story that I bought this collection. Jack is set in New Crobuzon, the main city of the fantastical Bas-Lag setting of his novels Perdido Street Station, The Scar and Iron Council. I absolutely love this world, and want to read every little scrap of literature set in it. Although it is certainly brief, it was very nice to return to New Crobuzon for a spell. Jack tells the story of Jack Half a Prayer, a sort of Robin Hood figure of New Crobuzon who was ‘Remade’ with a giant praying mantis claw on one of his hands. He is a figure who appears fleetingly in Perdido Street Station and by Iron Council has entered into the realm of legend. This story doesn’t bring us any closer to the man himself, but does explore the legend without sacrificing the air of mystery which surrounds the character.

On the Way to the Front

This one…well, it honestly went a bit over my head. This story is told in graphic novel format, but due to the limitations of typical novel printing quality which mostly only needs to print words it can be very hard to tell what is going on. I’m far from an expert on graphic novels though, so I can’t really speak to its quality.

The Tain

This is the main selling point of the collection, and the most lengthy and complete story that it contains. The Tain in many ways bringing the collection full circle, returning to the idea of an apocalyptic London (although this is a different apocalypse to the one see in Looking for Jake). The Tain depicts a London that has fallen to an invasion of bizarre creatures known as ‘imagos’, and I won’t say anything more about where they have come from, but to say that it’s an interesting idea well executed. In many ways, this story combines elements from all the other stories of the collection (although from some more than others). The setting is reminiscent of Looking for Jake, it reshapes your perception of the world like Details and it reflects the political bent of Foundation.

 

Overall, this is an excellent collection, and would make a good starting point to Miéville (with the exception of Jack, that should be read after his other Bas-Lag books). To date, this is the only collection Miéville has published, and I eagerly anticipate the next one, which I’m sure is one day forthcoming.

Dying of the Light by George R. R. Martin

George R. R. Martin, before he was one of the most popular fantasy authors in the world, writer of the recently incredibly successful Song of Ice and Fire series, was mostly known as a purveyor of science fiction and horror. He wrote a large amount of his sci-fi, mostly short stories but with a few novel length tales, within one setting, which he coined ‘The Thousand Worlds.’ Since the publication of A Game of Thrones in 1996, everything changed and his earlier works were largely forgotten, which is a shame because his back catalogue contains some of the best science fiction of the 70s and 80s. Although I absolutely adore his ‘Ice and Fire’ novels, it’s a shame that Martin is extremely unlikely to ever get an opportunity to return to the ‘Thousand Worlds’ setting. With the likelihood that he will live to finish the Song of Ice and Fire series somewhat tenuous, it would be very optimistic to hope for a return to his first setting. Dying of the Light is set within the Thousand Worlds, and actually has the distinction of being Martin’s first published novel. I’ve been fascinated by Martin’s career for a while, and have been working my way through his entire back catalogue, but had waited a long time before embarking upon his first novel. The novel doesn’t have a great reputation, just take a look at the Amazon reviews, but I believe that a lot of this criticism is simply because it’s not more Song of Ice and Fire, and instead tells its own story in its own way.

The primary conceit of the Thousand World setting is that, after humanity had spread to the stars, a huge conflict led to the collapse of interstellar communications between planets. In this separation from other planets, some for longer than others, vibrant and bizarre cultures arose, sharing common myths due to their shared human heritage, but also moulded by the world they have settled on. For example, Martin’s early short story The Way of Cross and Dragon deals with a Christian world which has developed as bizarre take on the Christ myth, in which Judas Iscariot, a prostitute and tamer of dragons, had crippled Jesus and having repented, in penitence carries him around the world as the ‘legs of Christ.’ The Thousand World setting is a useful one, one which allows Martin pretty broad scope to create innovative and interesting cultures whilst still retaining the sense of cohesiveness lent by a shared universe. Dying of the Light requires no knowledge on the setting however, and stands perfectly fine on its own; the shared setting is really little more than the odd little nod here and there to planets and peoples from other stories which would simply seem like background information to a reader new to the setting. Dying of the Light takes place on Worlorn, a rogue planet, one which has escaped the orbit of a star and simply drifts through interstellar space. Worlorn briefly entered a bizarre five star system, dominated by a red giant star named ‘Fat Satan.’ In this time, due to a shared perceived religious significance, Worlorn became a ‘festival planet’, upon which fourteen different cultures built fourteen cities during the brief decades in which Worlorn was habitable. Dying of the Light takes place as Worlorn is leaving the star system which sustains it, with almost all of its inhabitants returned to their native civilisations. It’s a wonderfully evocative and original setting, set amongst the abandoned cities of Worlorn; the novel is lent an extremely melancholic feeling, but far from feeling overwrought and needlessly grim in the manner of the works of Stephen Donaldson, there is a quiet dignity to the inevitable passing of Worlorn. This is a rare novel which is fundamentally about sadness and loss, and yet remains extremely readable and compelling rather than self indulgent.

Dying of the Light tells the tale of Dirk t’Larien, who is summoned to Worlorn by his former partner Gwen. Seeking closure since their separation, after which he became a nomadic wanderer among the planets, Dirk comes to Worlorn and finds that Gwen has remarried. Sort of. See, Dying of the Light is fundamentally about one of the fourteen societies to settle on Worlorn, the High Kavalars. The High Kavalars are a militaristic society with similarities to the Dothraki of the Ice and Fire novels, with duels between members routine and commonplace. Each Kavalar male takes a ‘teyn’, a male life partner who is part husband and part brother. There is certainly a pretty clear homoerotic undertone to this relationship, but it’s a bit more complicated than that. A Kavalar can also take a ‘beteyn’, a female who becomes his property. Dirk finds that his beloved Gwen has become ‘beteyn ‘ to Jaan, a moderate Kavalar who treats her as a wife rather than as a favourite slave, and seeks to preserve the spirit of brotherhood and honour of Kavalar society whilst abandoning the less respectable habit of hunting humans like animals and treating all women as property. For this he is hated. Also in the mix is Garse, Jaan’s ‘teyn’ who is much less moderate than his partner. Dirk is thrown into a complex web of love and hatred between the three in their bizarre triad, and also comes into conflict with a group of ‘old fashioned’ Kavalars who do not even believe him to be human.

It’s a cool story, with some truly excellent moments and interesting characters. Unlike Martin’s most famous works, it’s relatively short (for a sci-fi novel anyway) and so doesn’t outstay it’s welcome. The story benefits from a tight and small cast of characters, interestingly taking the exact opposite approach to the sprawling cast of thousands who populate Westeros. This lends the story a real sense of pace and focus. The abandoned shells of the cultures that resided upon Worlorn are fascinating to read about, each reflecting differing parts of the human psyche which had reined free following the collapse of interstellar communications. The novel has some genuine philosophical depth, and a lot to say about the human condition, and manages to both evoke and deconstruct the concept of the noble savage.

Pretty much everyone agrees that Martin is a master of character and world building, but his basic talent as a damn good storyteller is often underappreciated. The man can just write really, really well, even at this early a point in his career. There’s nothing particularly flashy about his writing; he’s  not necessarily a literary innovator in the manner of China Miévelle of Iain M. Banks, but instead he excels with a simple style which doesn’t sacrifice philosophical or psychological depth for sheer readability. There are few writers in the genre who truly can handle both, and Martin is the best at it.

Probably the biggest flaw in the novel, surprisingly for Martin, lies in the characterisation. The protagonist Dirk t’Larien is likeable enough, but there really doesn’t seem to be anything to him. We know that Martin can do better, this is the man that gave us Tyrion Lannister for god’s sake. The same can be said for his great love Gwen, who falls into the classic sci-fi trap of being simply a female plot device to motivate the much more interesting male characters. The real interest lies with the Kavalars, particularly the fraught yet loving relationship between the reformer Jaan and the traditionalist Garse. The other Kavalars are fun to read about as well, although they aren’t necessarily particularly well developed. There are some fun moment for Ice and Fire fans as we can at times witness the gestation of his ideas; a bitter and angry warrior who is hideously burnt all along one side of his face was surely reworked into the wonderfully complex and sympathetic Sandor Clegane aka. The Hound in Ice and Fire. The focus of the novel isn’t on character, as it is in the Song of Ice and Fire, but on humanity itself, and the hubristic scale of human development.

Is Dying of the Light a little rough around the edges? Sure. It is a first novel, published a whopping seventeen years before A Game of Thrones. What is surprising is just how good it is, better than any first novel has any right to be. This isn’t much like A Game of Thrones, and if that’s what you’re after, look elsewhere, but if you just like a damn good slice of old fashioned sci-fi,  this is for you.

 

Warbreaker by Brandon Sanderson

Warbreaker has one of the strangest publication histories which I can think of. Sanderson, wanting to take a break between the end of one fantasy epic (the excellent Mistborn trilogy) and the beginning of the next (the ten book Stormlight Archive), decided to write another standalone novel, his first since his debut Elantris. Rather than going down the traditional publishing route, Sanderson published the novel for free, on his own website, one chapter at a time, allowing the fans to witness everything that went into his composition process. Eager fans were witness to Sanderson’s rewrites, edits and drafts as he eventually crafted the story into a finished and polished novel. Warbreaker was also published as an actual, physical book, which is how I read it being an old fashioned sort who likes the feel of a book in my hands rather than reading off of a screen. I was initially concerned upon picking it up that this bizarre writing experiment may have failed, and that the novel would fall short of Sanderson’s usual high standard. I am pleased to report however that Warbreaker stands up just fine, and is an enjoyable, solid slice of fantasy fun.

Typically of Sanderson, the world of Warbreaker is built around an interesting magical system. In Warbreaker, every human is born with a ‘breath’, which has them attuned to the world around them, particularly the vividness of colour. Individual people can stockpile large numbers of ‘breath’ by being gifted them by others, and the higher the number of ‘breaths’ someone wields awakens their senses to higher and higher levels from the ‘First Heightening’ all the way to the incredibly rare ‘Tenth Heightening.’ ‘Breath’ can be used to ‘awaken’ objects, and they can be given commands, such as ordering a piece of rope to garrotte a foe in battle. The ‘breath’ can then be reclaimed by the Awakener to return to their stockpile. It’s an interesting and original system, but can at times feel somewhat vague and tenuous compared to the almost scientific rigour Sanderson applied to Mistborn’s Allomancy. Some people in the world of Warbreaker, upon dying in a way which epitomises a particular virtue, are ‘Returned’ as God-like entities with no memory of their past lives, to live a life of opulent luxury  in T’Telir, the capitol of the land of Hallandren.

Warbreaker tells the story of two sisters, Siri and Vivenna, princesses of the neighbouring land of Idris. Vivenna is engaged to the head of the ‘Returned’, the God King Susebron, but unwilling to  lose his favourite daughter, the King instead sends his youngest daughter younger sister Siri to marry him. Siri’s journey into the heart of Hallandren and the discoveries she makes about the Returned and T’Telir politics is at the centre of the book, although there are plenty of other stories and POV characters which all intersect nicely into a densely plotted tale.

The novel has a slow start, and I must confess that for the first hundred or so pages I was feeling that this was Sanderson’s weakest work so far. In a manner similar to the Mistborn books, Sanderson does not follow a typical fantasy structure of expansion further and further into the constructed world. He focuses upon a single city, and peels further and further layers from the colourful veneer on the surface of Hallandren, delving into the truth behind the mythic events which shaped the nation. It’s an excellent structure, and one that works just as well over the smaller scale of a single novel in Warbreaker as it did in a trilogy in the case of Mistborn. Not every question is answered; Sanderson has stated a desire to one day write a sequel named Nightblood, and given his speed of writing I’d expect it in a few years or so, but Warbreaker was nonetheless conceived as a standalone novel and is easily taken as such. There are some vague links to Sanderson’s shared ‘Cosmere’ universe, but not much and nothing that would be noticed by any but the most eagle eyed of fans. Although I was initially concerned that the shifting in POVs would result in me constantly  wishing to return to my favourite characters, as I felt in Sanderson’s debut Elantris, this simply wasn’t the case here. Each POV is interesting to follow, with a distinct style to their stories.

Sanderson’s descriptive talents are sadly not quite on full display here however. T’Telir never feels quite as vivid as Mistborn’s Luthadel, or even the eponymous Elantris. It’s hard to get a real feel for the physicality of Warbreaker’s world, and whilst the characters and their adventures are a joy to read about, the setting does not achieve that transcendently fascinating quality that the best fantasy does. It is in the dialogue that Sanderson truly shines, particularly in the case of the wonderful exchanges between the witty and irreverent Returned God Lightsong, and his high priest Llarimar. Sanderson shows a hitherto unseen flair for comedy, adding another arrow to his literary quiver. There’s an excellent naturalism to the dialogue; there is a tendency in fantasy for dialogue to lean towards the overwrought and portentous, but Sanderson reserves such dialogue for moments which justify them. Although this novel is not as strong as the Mistborn books, it clearly exhibits Sanderson’s development as a writer. He really is just getting better and better.

Warbreaker excels in failing to contain a single character who I found annoying or didn’t want to read about. The two princesses at the centre of the narrative, Siri and Vivenna grow and develop from one-note figures to complex individuals forced by circumstance to embrace aspects of themselves that they had once shunned aside. The lazy God of Bravery Lightsong’s lack of faith in his own status as a deity is fascinating, and returns Sanderson to his recurring theme of faith and belief. Sanderson is one of the greatest defenders of faith I have ever read, and although it in no way shakes my own atheism, I feel that Sanderson has helped me to understand the nature of true and pure faith, without shoehorning the Judeo-Christian God into his novels. The ambiguous warrior Vasher, with his telepathic sword Nightblood, round out a fascinating pack of protagonists. Any one of these characters could have carried a novel on their own, and the inclusion of all of them in this work makes it feel utterly packed even if it is relatively low on incident; the actual plot is relatively slow paced.

Warbreaker is probably the most overlooked of Sanderson’s works, eclipsed by the enormous success of the Mistborn books and The Way of Kings, but it deserves a better reputation than it has. I’ll admit that the story doesn’t sound great on paper, with a goofy magic system and a plot which sounds predictable upon first hearing of it. I implore you to move past these preconceptions and give Warbreaker a go. It’s nothing revolutionary, but it’s a lot of fun and definitely worth a read if you’re a Sanderson fan, and even if you’re not. Hey, if you don’t mind reading off of a screen, it’s free!

P.S A quick warning to any who would be reading the UK Gollancsz publication of Warbreaker like I did; DO NOT READ THE BLURB. It casually tosses out a fact about a character’s past of great significance, one only revealed in the book at the very end. How this blurb was given the green light it beyond me, but AVOID READING IT AT ALL COSTS. 

Mass Effect 3: Leviathan DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

Mass Effect 3 is probably the most controversial game to be released this year. The fan loathing for the clearly rushed and poorly thought out ending was such that the games creators decided to release a free Extended Cut to improve it, and to clarify the confusing events that took place. The DLC schedule was naturally pushed back somewhat to accommodate this, and so we receive our first major single player DLC somewhat later than we expected. DLC for Mass Effect 3 is going to inevitably face an uphill battle for success; since DLC continuing Commander Shepard’s story is pretty much impossible whatever ending you wind up with, and I suspect Bioware are saving adventures with new characters for future games, the DLC has to be set during the run up to the end of the game. DLC for Mass Effect 1 and 2 felt as if it served a purpose; the actions you take in these bonus missions could one day influence the eventual ending of the trilogy, so they were worth playing as you know that they will have an influence on the conclusion to the story. Now that that story is concluded, we know that the events of the DLC can’t be too important as we all already know what the ending is. The question therefore is, does the DLC stand on its own as a solid chunk of entertainment, and do it’s revelations still excite interest even if we know that, ultimately, it has no real bearing on the story?

For me, yes. I personally found the narrative of this DLC utterly gripping, and I was thoroughly satisfied with its revelations about the Mass Effect universe. Hearing rumours of a vast creature which had once killed a Reaper, Shepard seeks the advice of scientists and researchers looking into this mythical ‘Leviathan’, and is drawn into a conspiracy of secrets and deceptions spanning millennia. It’s a fascinating set up, and it’s played very well. For people who may have lost some faith in Bioware’s story telling abilities after the fiasco that was the original ending should be reassured here.

However, there is little in the way of gameplay innovation. You will be engaging in plenty of shootouts, scanning lots of planets and encountering the same enemies you met countless times in the main game. The core gameplay of Mass Effect is pretty strong, if not it’s greatest strength, so it doesn’t necessarily really matter. There are very few DLCs which can significantly alter gameplay styles without the need to rebuild the game from the ground up, and Leviathan is no exception. There is a rather pleasant little addition of some detective work for Shepard on the Citadel as he explores a new location looking for clues. It’s very simple, and there’s no actual reasoning or deduction required of the player, and it’s in no way as deep as something like L.A Noire, but it’s a nice little addition. It was these quiet moments which I most enjoyed, in which you can let yourself take a breath and get nice and immersed in the wonderful and fascinating Mass Effect universe. I truly hope that Bioware expand upon this concept in future Mass Effect games, rather than continuing down the gung-ho guns blazing route that has seemed to be their developmental trajectory over the series. Imagine a game where you play as a C-Sec officer solving crimes on the Citadel? So, whilst there’s little new or innovative in the gameplay of this DLC, it doesn’t make the base game actually worse which is all you can really expect from  DLC gameplay wise in my opinion.

Where this DLC really shines is in its visual design and scope. I seriously expected to simply be dropped off by the Normandy on some new planet, shoot through some corridors and meet some new characters. Instead, we are given access to three new planets, giving this DLC a pleasantly galaxy spanning feeling. These locations all feel varied, and contain some of the best spectacles and most tense atmospheres in the series. I won’t give examples as I don’t want to spoil it, but there are some truly epic moments in this DLC. In the DLCs for Mass Effect 1 and 2 your squad companions were sadly mute due to the difficulty and expense involved in recording new dialogue for your team. I was therefore extremely pleasantly surprised to find that every  one of your squad mates has new dialogue, chiming in during the missions and even giving their input on the Normandy between them. This goes a long way to making this DLC feel like a complete package, and shows that Bioware didn’t cut any corners with this release. Perhaps this signals a shift away from the creative and design laziness which marred the main game, and also products such as Dragon Age II. It’s certainly a bit much to say that Bioware is back on top form, but it certainly signals that they are perhaps learning from their recent errors.

So, is Leviathan worth it? DLC is viciously hated by many gamers, as they cite brief, overpriced DLCs cynically stripped from the main game to exploit for cash later on. The DLCs of Assassins Creed II, Dragon Age and Batman: Arkham City are examples of how DLC  can go horribly wrong, but Bioware haven’t fallen into that trap here. Leviathan is a wonderful palate cleanser to get the bad taste of the original endings out of your mouth and let you fall back in love with the Mass Effect universe. If it had been part of the main game, it would have been my favourite part. 

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