Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “July, 2015”

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North

This novel has been an example of a book with big sci-fi or fantasy themes making headways in mainstream literary culture, much like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Never Let Me Go. As much as I like books like this, they tend to pull back on the science element and focus on their stranger themes as metaphors or purely as plot devices to explore character. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I usually ending up wishing that these books would delve a little deeper into their sci-fi premises. The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August plummets head first into its fascinating premise and I loved it.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is kind of like Groundhog Day for an entire life. Harry August is the illegitimate child of a member of the aristocracy who leads a fairly ordinary life through most of the 20th century before succumbing to cancer and dying in the late 1980s. Then he wakes up, as a baby, born in the exact same conditions and before long the memory of the life that he has lived before re-appears. As the title may suggest, this book covers Harry’s first fifteen, varied lives. He is not alone, there are others with this strange power or curse (known as the kalachakra or Ouroborans) and they have bound together as the ‘Cronus Club’. There is danger coming however, with a young girl coming to Harry on one of his deathbeds and telling him that the world was ending and to pass the message down.

The story is not told in a linear fashion as we flicker regularly between the apocalypse main storyline and thematically linked chapters detailing key events from Harry’s earlier lives. This means that the main storyline doesn’t lose momentum throughout and the flashbacks making a nice vignette between the heavier main story stuff. Although the world is at stake, the central conflict is a personal one. There’s a sense of scale to this novel that’s a bit intimidating; decades are glossed over in sentences and North doesn’t like to waste time. We get what we need and no more; this is a remarkably disciplined novel, which is certainly a good thing as flabbiness is the sort of thing that could sink a book like this.

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August is told in an oddly impersonal and detached manner. This really works though as it perfectly captures Harry’s unique viewpoint on the world. Nothing is particularly shocking or surprising to Harry; he’s almost numb to what goes on around him and so moments of horror and joy are dispassionately noted and then moved on from. At times it can be a little off putting, with North often refusing to give us the emotional catharsis we want. What she does do is much cleverer and in the end it’s difficult not to appreciate what she’s done.

This is very much Harry’s book, but she does a great job of giving us a series of other, vivid figures, particularly among the other kalachakra. I was particularly impressed by an antagonistic figure who emerges later on and I definitely wouldn’t mind seeing some more of this world.

I find the mainstream success of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August baffling but gratifying. It combines big ideas with convincing characterisation and overall, just impressed me a whole lot. the-first-fifteen-lives-of-harry-august-feature

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number9dream by David Mitchell

This is my fourth Mitchell novel now and I’m getting pretty confident in calling him one of my favourite authors. I don’t quite like number9dream as much as Cloud Atlas, Ghostwritten or The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, but it’s still bloody good.

Eiji Miyake is a young man from the tiny Japanese island of Yukashima trying to find his estranged father in Tokyo. Filled with brash confidence, he soon finds the task to be much more difficult and dangerous than expected as he’s drawn into the brutal power struggles in the Tokyo criminal underworld. The story weaves between reality and fantasy as Eiji works to discover the secrets of his past.

There’s an ethereal dreaminess to this book that makes it quite difficult to work out what is and isn’t happening. There are some events which seem to be real but are so strange and heightened you wonder if they can be and Mitchell delights in pulling out the rug from under you. This is a bildungsroman primarily, being the story of Eiji’s journey to adulthood and it’s fascinating to watch him change. Similarly to with The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, number9dream is based in coincidence, but it owns this entirely.

The novel starts out in a somewhat intimidating stream-of-consciousness ramble, but gets more digestible as it goes on. As Eiji grows up, his thinking becomes clearer and we get a better idea about what’s going on. It never quite achieves the gorgeous balance of lyrical and grounded that Mitchell achieves in his later books, but it’s also very different to everything else that he’s written. Eiji is a likeable and believable protagonist, although the most memorable characters are probably the brutal and terrifying figures he encounters in the ranks of the Yakuza. I was already fairly sure that the Yakuza are not a nice bunch and number9dream confirms that rather well. The wider cast don’t stick in the mind as some in his other books, but moreso than any other of his that I’ve read this is a solo character piece, with Cloud Atlas and Ghostwritten’s multiple protagonists and lengthy sections of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet shifting away from its titular protagonist. This is a book about Eiji so how Eiji perceives people is far more important than those people themselves.

number9dream is an odd book which I’m still processing. I know I liked it, but it may take a re-read to determine whether I loved it. It lacks the instant punch of genius that his later books show, but it’s still an interesting read and one I’d certainly recommend._1586448_mitchell300

The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I’ve been lookng forward to this one for a while. It probably all started with Ocarina of Time, my obsession with exploring a massive fantasy environment. The satisfation and escapism this gives me is pretty much unparalleled in any other gaming genre. The Witcher series has typically been more focused, less open, with a tighter narrative and more tailored content rather than the scale of other games. In the Witcher 3, CD Projekt attempted to combine the two and damn it if they didn’t pull it off.

The Witcher 3 picks up a few months from where the last game left off, with Nilfgaard in the full sway of its invasion into the Northern Kingdoms and Geralt back in possession of his memories. Years after last seeing her, Geralt is reunited with Yennefer, his legendary sorceress lover in Vizima, now held by Emyhr, the Emperor of Nilfgaard. Geralt is told my Emyhr that his daughter Ciri, a girl who was once Geralt’s ward, who is also in possession with the power to jump between worlds, has reemerged after many years being pursued by the spectral nightmare known as the ‘Wild Hunt.’ Geralt journeys throughout the Northern realms to find the young woman who is like a daughter to him and discover why the Hunt seeks her.

There’s loads more going on too. The storytelling in The Witcher 3 is phenomenal. I could go on for ages about the variety, the scope, the wonderful range of memorable supporting characters, but the real reason is simple; Geralt himself. Feminist Frequency recently described Geralt as an example of ‘toxic masculinity.’ As much as I admire them and agree with them most of the time, on this topic they couldn’t have been more wrong. The Witcher 3 is, primarily, an emotionally driven story, with Geralt’s search for the woman who is, essentially, his daughter being the crux of the narrative. Geralt is capable of great sorrow and great joy, with the general approach being sardonic and mocking rather than stoic and tough. Geralt’s relationships with those around him are varied and fascinating, from the epic love story with Yennefer, to the boys club silliness with his fellow Witchers, to his grudging respect from a spymaster turned criminal boss, Geralt’s relationships with those around him are what drives the plot. It helps that he already knows most of the cast, either from the earlier games or from the original books. The Witcher 3 does have a looming ‘end of the world’ threat in the background, but it really isn’t about that, with the human relationships taking priority every step of the way. The Witcher 3 has convinced me to go back and read the books, something the first two games never quite managed to do and I don’t think I can pay its storytelling any higher complement than that.

The core mechanics from the earlier games return and adapt surprisingly well to the new scale. The combat is as deceptively complex as ever, the initially simple system of Arkham esque strong/fast attacks, blocks, dodges and counters being underpinned with a lot of extra things to think about. Particularly at higher difficulties, preparation is key, with certain potions and substances having advantages over particular enemies. Although you can hack and slash pretty comfortably at lower difficulties, you’ll have a hard time not keeping this stuff in mind elsewhere. The addition of what is essentially Detective Vision from the Arkham games in the form of ‘Witcher Senses’ does a great job of immersing yourself in the role as a Witcher, which is so much more than simply being a monster slayer. Things aren’t perfect; Geralt himself can be a bit difficult to maneuver, similarly to in games like GTAV. Horse riding works well most of the time but can be quite janky and awkward, with galloping over the beautiful terrain rarely being an option before you crash into something and slow down.

Probably my favourite addition is, somewhat ridiculously, the optional in game collectible card game of Gwent.  If a quest gave me the choice of cold hard cash or a Gwent card, I’d take the card every time. I won’t go into the rules here, but Gwent is simple enough to pick up and play but complex enough to develop strategies for and build an interesting deck. As well as being fun in it’s own right, I loved that Gwent sometimes integrated into other quests. For example, I was once sent to rescue someone from gangsters and the playful boss offered me the chance to play for his life rather than fighting all of his guards. It’s a simple thing, but the kind of little cleverness which sets this game apart. You also get to play as Ciri during set points in the story and she plays in an entertaining and different way. I wouldn’t mind a Ciri spin-off built around these.

The Witcher 3 has the best balance of scale and quest design since Fallout 3. It’s an accepted fact of game design that larger games generally must rely on more procedurally generated or simpler quest design; Skyrim’s Radiant Quest system or Dragon Age: Inquisition’s fetch quests for example. Well, somehow CD Projekt were able to bring the incredible and interesting quest design to a scale above and beyond anything they’ve done before. The side quests range from exciting and tense contracts to take down local monsters to involved political power struggles. There’s almost no quest without some kind of interesting wrinkle. Basic quests like horse races, fist fighting competitions or Gwent tournaments almost always spun off into something more interesting, meaning that right up until the end of the game I was still being surprised. As much as I love them, it would be difficult to make that claim for Skyrim or Dragon Age: Inquisition.

The Witcher 3 does have its moments of open world glitchiness, but not nearly as much as almost every other game of this scale. The Witcher 3 is stunningly beautiful, even on PS4 despite what the PC Master Race crowd may tell you. From the swampy mistiness of Velen to the bustling metropolis of Novigrad to the haunting beauty of Skellige, I never got tired of admiring the scenery. The characters are all convincing looking, with human feeling facial expressions letting us empathise. A few character designs are a bit overly sexualised, such as the odd unnecessary glimpse of Ciri’s bra and the amusing, if immersion breaking, frequent cameo appearance by the nipple of the sorceress Keira Metz. The monster designs are stunning though, being completely believable as real creatures in a functioning magical ecosystem. The voice acting is a triumph, with the main cast being excellent without fail. The music is lovely, with my favourites being the catchy tavern jig the plays during Gwent matches and the haunting and beautiful theme for the Isles of Skellige. The sound desgn is excellent and holds everything else together. There were moments in The Witcher 3 where I would just stop and watch the trees whipping in the wind, listening to the sound it makes, whilst the ethereal music backs everything else up. It’s stunning.

The Witcher 3 raises the bar on the genre and leaves other games with a bit of catching up to do. It’s not always perfect, but this is a game which set extremely lofty goals for itself and hits almost all of them. The flaws that we’ve come to accept as part of open world games aren’t present here; MMO style fetch quests just aren’t going to cut it after The Witcher 3. If you enjoy RPGs, this is the  comfortably the best of this console generation.  the_witcher_3_wild_hunt_prepare_for_impact-100564760-orig

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