Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “April, 2014”

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Ok, I should be careful here, because last time I reviewed a Joe Abercrombie book he read it and tweeted out my comments on his sex scenes. Thankfully, I loved Best Served Cold so I pretty much only had nice things to say about it. So, for Mr. Abercrombie’s benefit…

THE HEROES IS A MASTERPIECE, BEST ABERCROMBIE EVER BEST FANTASY EVER BEST BOOK EVER. I CRIED THREE TIMES PER PAGE AND LAUGHED AT EVERY OTHER MOMENT. THE HEROES BOUGHT ME THROUGH THE FULL GAMUT OF HUMAN EMOTIONS JOY SADNESS MELANCHOLY HUMOUR ENNUI. MY LIFE WILL NEVER BE THE SAME.

Ok, is he gone? Cool. Well, actually, I really did like The Heroes a lot, but we don’t want it getting to Joe’s head do we?

The Heroes is the second First Law standalone book, although it’s significantly less stand-alone-y than Best Served Cold, which I imagine would have stood up pretty well even without having read he original trilogy. The Heroes feels much more like a continuation of the main series, picking up with minor characters from the original trilogy for a climactic battle in the North. Black Dow, King of the North after his betrayal of the Bloody-Nine at the end of Last Argument of Kings, has been waging war on the Union, with the two forces meeting in battle in a stretch of open land near the town of Osrung. The Heroes takes place over three days, focusing entirely on the battle itself. Our main protagonists with the Northmen are Curnden Craw, a Named Man who fights for Dow, one of the few honest men in the North, Beck, the son of the great warrior Shama Heartless who seeks glory in battle and Prince Calder, the Machiavellian son of Bethod, the former King of the North. With the Union we have Bremer dan Gorst, the King’s former bodyguard, dispatched to the North after failing to protect the King during the events of Best Served Cold. We also have Tunny, a comic relief war profiteer and Finree, the ambitious daughter of Lord Marshal Kroy.

With Best Served Cold and The Heroes, you can really see an author trying to challenge himself, to approach epic fantasy in a different way. The First Law book with the most typically ‘fantasy’ storyline was Before They Are Hanged, and in retrospect I think it is the weakest of the series that I’ve read so far. Where it’s become the norm to consciously reject Tolkein-esque tropes recently, with A Song of Ice and Fire being the most clear example, I can’t think of another author whose weaved that rejection so well into the actual structure of their works. By limiting himself to a three day scope, Abercrombie tells a different kind of story, one which doesn’t rely on the sense of epic which fuels so much fantasy, instead being significantly more grounded and gritty. This is also an extremely thematically tight book which, unsurprisingly, focuses on heroism. The question as to what makes a hero, what a hero even is and why anyone would want to be one is front and centre in this book, with every character grappling with this central question in some way.

The humour and brutal action are all there, with Abercrombie furthering developing his own vivid style. There are few authors like this in fantasy, with many going for the Brandon Sanderson approach of basic prose supporting the plot (which is not a bad thing at all, I love Sanderson), but Abercrombie is developing a voice of his own. The biggest irritation in The Heroes is Abercrombie’s slight propensity to repeat himself. There are only so many times that a character can muse on the ultimate horror and pointlessness of war without getting repetitive. Still, this is perhaps a necessary risk when writing a book as narratively and thematically tight as this one.

I really enjoyed the new crop of characters in The Heroes, as well as familiar faces from the previous books. I was particularly happy to see the return of Caul Shivers from Best Served Cold, having been a big fan of his character arc in previous books. Many of the main POV characters played minor roles in the previous books, and Abercrombie’s turnaround of these characters is fascinating to behold. The revelation that sneering bastard from the originals Prince Calder is actually quite likeable was as good a switch-around as the similar revelation George R.R. Martin made about Jaime Lannister in A Storm of Swords. Similarly, learning that Bremer dan Gorst is in fact a seething cauldron of rage and resentment was interesting as well. There is something of a lack of decent female characters, but given the setting that’s perhaps understandable. I just miss Monzacarro Murcatto, who’s seriously one of the best fantasy protagonists ever.

The Heroes is another great instalment in the First Law world and an interesting literary experiment to boot. Overall, I preferred the scale of the revenge epic Best Served Cold, which matched the epic with the intimate pretty much perfectly, but nonetheless it’s always a pleasure to dip back into Abercrombie’s brutal bloody world.download

The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde

Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books may be somewhat formulaic and repetitive, but they’ve never been boring…until now. After the enjoyable reinvention of the series in the previous book, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, The Woman Who Died a Lot feels very much like same old, with the loosely chaotic plot structure which started out endearing just becoming genuinely annoying.

Continuing the pattern of alternating between ‘BookWorld’ set stories and Swindon set stories, we’re back with the regular, non-fictional Thursday in Swindon. Still recovering from her assassination attempt from the previous book, Thursday is a shadow of her former self. Goliath are still active though, and continuing their attempts to build Thursday simulacra and, eventually, take over the world. Meanwhile, the Almighty has announced his plans to smite Swindon, with the only potential saviour being Thursday’s genius teenage daughter Tuesday and her attempts to build an ‘anti-smite’ shield.

In typical Fforde fashion, The Woman Who Dies a Lot has a lot of different plot strands being juggled at once, but unlike his earlier books he’s dropping the balls a lot, or maybe I’m just sick of juggling. This metaphor is getting a little strained. Easily my favourite storyline was the resolution of the Aornis/Jenny mindworm stuff from First Among Sequels, which is refreshingly emotional and intense, but very much to the detriment of everything else, which was business as usual. It’s still funny, but it’s more chuckles that guffaws. Fforde does feel rather on auto-pilot by this point and I felt that he’s taken a slight step backwards from One of Our Thursday’s is Missing.

One of the things I actually really liked about this book was the focus on Thursday’s family. Landen is a sardonic rock to Thursday, with the almost-Chronoguard general Friday taking after his mother. The unfathomable genius Tuesday is my favourite, particularly her attempts to still act like a normal teenager. Although the Next family has featured in every book, this is the first where they feel properly at the centre, which was nice.

Overall, The Woman Who Died a Lot is pretty comfortably my least favourite Thursday Next book. I’m honestly not sure if this is because it’s gotten worse, or if I’m suffering a sort of Fforde fatigue. That said, the still unreleased next book Dark Reading Matter sounds quite promising, so I’m still going to be sticking with Thursday for the time being.frontn7_400x559

BioShock: Infinite: Burial at Sea DLC for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC

I decided to review the two parts of this DLC as one, as it really does tell one whole story. Fittingly for being the last piece of the BioShock world developed by Irrational Games, Burial at Sea is a love letter to fans of the series, typing up the disparate plot elements of BioShock and BioShock: Infinite into a coherent whole, and creating an incredibly satisfying coda for the series.

After Elizabeth’s drowning of the Booker/Comstock’s at his baptism, one final Booker still exists, living out a life in the underwater objectivist city of Rapture, not long before its civil war and subsequent fall into chaos. This Booker is also a private investigator, and is visited by a new, sultry Elizabeth who hires him to investigate a missing girl named Sally.

To say anymore would be to give the game away. Suffice it to say, Burial at Sea is an absolute must for any fan of the BioShock series, offering a satisfying conclusion to both the original and Infinite, telling a story which is just as twisty and complex as the originals. It’s packed with shocking moments, and fascinating reveals about the BioShock multiverse. I really want to gush about particular plot points, but I’ll try to show some restraint.

For the first half of Burial at Sea, the gameplay is pretty similar to that of Infinite, but sadly slightly worse. I wasn’t a huge fan of Infinte’s frantic combat, but I enjoyed the large open areas and zipping around the skyrails. These fast paced mechanics just don’t work quite as well in the claustrophobic confines of Rapture. Happily, the second (and much longer) part of Burial at Sea shifts gears significantly, taking a more stealth oriented approach. It’s not perfect, and the usual irritations of inserting stealth into a game not specifically built around stealth are in abundance, but it’s still a step up from the frustrating chaos of Infinite.

Burial at Sea is a decent length when both chapters are combined, and as with the originals there are plenty of secrets to uncover as you pick over Rapture with a fine tooth comb. The audiologs are still fascinating, and Rapture remains one of gaming’s greatest locations to explore.

Speaking of Rapture, it sure is nice to be back. Infinite’s Colombia was beautiful, but Rapture always appealed to me more. It’s possible the greatest gaming setting of all time, and I just love spending time there. Sadly, the attractive prospect of exploring Rapture pre-fall isn’t capitalised upon, with most of the DLC contrived to take place in area already collapsed. The character models for minor NPCs are still decidedly hideous, but the new models for Elizabeth and other major characters are very nice. The voice acting is, of course, fantastic, with Courtnee Draper in particular cementing Elizabeth as one of the greatest game characters of all time. The return of BioShock figures such as Andrew Ryan and Atlas are made all the more exciting by the return of their original, excellent, voice actors.

Look, Burial at Sea isn’t like other DLC. If you care a single jot about this series, it absolutely has to be played. It brings the series full circle, and although 2K Games may attempt to churn out more BioShock games without Ken Levine, this may be remembered as the true end of the series. Let the circle be unbroken, and play Burial at Sea.images

Killzone: Shadow Fall for PS4

The pressures of adult life mean that it’s pretty common for me to wait till the end of the week to write reviews. This isn’t normally a problem, as most experiences are still fresh in my mind. Really positive experiences are naturally memorable, as are the overwhelmingly negative. The difficulty is when something was perfectly enjoyable, yet utterly forgettable. That’s where Killzone: Shadow Fall lies.

Shadow Fall is my first game in the Killzone series, so maybe there were hidden nuances in the plot I were missing. Many years before the game began, the war between the planets of Helghan and Vekta was bought to a dramatic close by the destruction of Helghan at the hands of the ISA, the Vektan military. As a sign of good faith, Vekta gave up half of their planet to Helghast refugees and built a huge wall between them to keep the peace. The protagonist, Kellan, is orphaned during the Helghast take-over of their half of Vekta, and raised by the ISA solider Sinclair. He trains through his childhood and teenage years to become a Shadow Marshal, an elite soldier. Tensions rise between the two forces in the meantime. As Kellan takes part in a series of missions for the ISA, he comes into contact with a Helghen/Vekta half-breed called Echo, who reveals to him that things aren’t as clear cut as they seem.

Starting with the positives, Shadow Fall has a pleasantly murky plot, where the boundary between the good guys and bad guys actually seems pretty irrelevant. One scene in particular where Kellan encounters Helghen civilians was genuinely quite affecting, and in a more interesting game may have led to some good developments, but Shadow Fall can’t quite escape the cycle of violence inherent to the genre. In some ways, it reminded me of Spec Ops: The Line, but it’s not nearly as brave as that game was. The creators of Spec Ops made the brave choice of making their gameplay less fun to reinforce their narrative, and a big-budget launch title FPS like Shadow Fall just can’t afford to do that, so everything eventually cycles back to shooty shooty simplicity. Kellan is bland even by FPS standards, but Echo was a good character, and would have made a significantly more interesting protagonist.

The gunplay is all very nice, and the weapons are satisfying to use. The main gimmick of Shadow Fall is a little robot buddy who is controlled using the PS4 swipe pad. He can lay down suppressing fire, bring up shields, stun foes and, best of all, be used as a zip line to quickly get around the battle field. The final mechanic is really fun, but not enough it done with it. You could have built a whole game around this free firing zip line mechanic thingy, but again Shadow Fall is too conservative to risk it. Shadow Fall is at its best when it opens up, with the claustrophobic corridor shooting sections standing as the weakest moments. It’s generally fun, but never memorable.

Shadow Fall does look lovely though, with stunning backgrounds and environments. The character models are distinctly dodgy, but other than that Shadow Fall is a good manifesto for what the PS4 will be capable of. The voice acting is fine and the music ratchets up the action quite nicely.

Shadow Fall is perfectly ok, but it does remind me why I don’t go near this genre often, and that I should never pay full price for one. It’s enjoyable for what it is, but I’m still looking forward to something a bit more substantial in future.  Killzone-shadow-fall-ps4-wallpaper-in-hd

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

I’m a big Brandon Sanderson fan, beginning as most did with the excellent Mistborn trilogy and moving on to Way of Kings, the first in his Stormlight Archive series not long after. Words of Radiance is the second book in the series, although at times it’s so dramatic that I felt like I was reading the penultimate part of a trilogy. It’s hard to believe that there’s going to be eight more books in this series. Hopefully the Stormlight Archive doesn’t end up suffering the middle book fatigue that so often plagues fantasy; in fact, Sanderson himself fell victim to it in The Well of Ascension, the middle and weakest of the Mistborn books. If the series stays at this level of quality throughout though, we could have the next truly great fantasy epic on our hands.

Like its predecessor, Words of Radiance mostly takes place on the Shattered Plains, as the Alethi continue their war of vengeance against the Parshendi following their assassination of King Gavilar several years earlier. Kaladin and the men of Bridge Four have been lifted from their horrific existence in the camps of Torol Sadeas, to stand as bodyguards to Dalinar Kholin and his family, following their rescue of Dalinar’s army after Sadeas’ betrayal on the plains. Meanwhile, Shallan and Jasnah sail to the Shattered Plains, bearing the news of their shocking discovery that the passive Parshmen slaves are in fact the dreaded Voidbringers of old. Each book in the Stormlight Archive tells the backstory of one character, and in Words of Radiance we discover the true horrors of Shallan’s childhood and the secret behind her possession of a Shardblade. Szeth, the Assassin in White, continues his bloody streak across Roshar, honing in on his next target, Dalinar Kholin.

There’s a lot going on in Words of Radiance, with hints of even more to come. It’s a huge book, but it never felt long, and I didn’t want it to end. The main story on the Shattered Plains is gripping, with a good balance of exciting action scenes, individual drama and a surprising amount of comedy. Some people may find it slow paced, but I honestly felt everything was interesting and added to the story. There’s no ‘Aes Sedai squabbling’ in Words of Radiance. The intriguing ‘Interludes’ from Way of Kings return as well, offering glimpses and hints of the wider world of Roshar, introducing characters who may play an important role in events to come in later books. Some of these interludes feel like distinct short stories, and some in particular would likely have stood alone just fine in a collection. I find it hard not to gush about this series; it’s pressing my buttons in a way which only A Song of Ice and Fire and The Malazan Books of the Fallen can rival.

One of the most interesting things about Sanderson’s work is that the bulk of it is set in one, unified universe, similar to Stephen King’s Dark Tower books, known as the ‘Cosmere’. Previous books have played it light with the links between books, with the recurring character of Hoid, here known as Wit, being the only real link. Way of Kings stepped it up a bit with a tiny appearance of characters from Elantris and the Mistborn trilogy, but by and large the Cosmere and all the wider cosmic stuff was there if you wanted it, but fundamentally non-essential. I’m not sure if that’s the case anymore. For avid readers like me, these links and connections are amazing, but I do wonder if perhaps Sanderson runs the risk of alienating new readers to this series. Hoid plays a very significant role in Words of Radiance, but most of all…well, read Warbreaker. Seriously, the single best moment of this book won’t make any sense if you haven’t read Warbreaker. Is it fair that Sanderson does this? Perhaps not. Do I as a reader enjoy it? Most certainly.

Sanderson’s readable, unpretentious style is solidly reliable, and Words of Radiance is one of those books that just flows off the page. He’s not doing anything interesting with language, it’s purely a vehicle for story, but there’s nothing wrong with that. One irritation is the weird bits of modern language which seep in, such as ‘awesome’ and, er, ‘poop’. To be fair, most of these moments are for comic effect, and I think Sanderson knows what he’s doing, but nonetheless it can be a tad immersion breaking.

Sanderson’s characterisation, his weakest skill in the earlier books, has come on leaps and bounds. Shallan, a character whose constant pithiness and sarcasm seemed somewhat overdone and false in The Way of Kings,suddenly begins to make sense in Words of Radiance. Kaladin is slightly less whiny, and gains an enjoyable new love/hate bromance in Adolin. Sanderson has achieved what Robert Jordan did in the early Wheel of Time books, and created a wide range of enjoyable and intriguing minor characters. The varying personalities of Bridge Four are as enjoyable as ever, developing and growing in interesting ways. The characters of the interludes stand as particularly intriguing, with Sanderson doing a hell of a lot with very little.

Words of Radiance is an excellent follow up, possibly even better than The Way of Kings. The third book, which I believe is focusing on Szeth, cannot come soon enough. Knowing Sanderson’s pace though, I won’t have to wait too long, and I believe he’s releasing a new Wax and Wayne Mistborn book as well. If Sanderson manages to avoid the middle of the series slump, we could have a classic on our hands.

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