Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “August, 2015”

The Devil Delivered and Other Tales by Steven Erikson

The Malazan Books of the Fallen is one of my all time favourite series of books, but I haven’t read any of Steven Erikson’s other stuff until now. It’s interesting to see what he can do outside of the realm of fantasy and although I wouldn’t call this collection an unqualified success, it definitely has some interesting stuff and plays with some big ideas. As with the Malazan books, the biggest flaw is overambition, which is better than the opposite.

The Devil Delivered

The first story in the collection isn’t quite post-apocalyptic, taking place on the cusp of everything going to hell. Earth is on the point of collapse from a wide range of malaises, but the most striking is a handful of areas where the Ozone layer has been destroyed to such an extent that to spend too long out there is to die horribly. Such an area in North America had been regifted to the Lakota Native Americans, who have forged a new nation. Despite their hardships, a major and controversial company has invested in this fledgling country and it is clear that they hold secrets that the jealous NOAC, an American/Canadian alliance, will seek to take with military force. William Potts is a young man who is researching what is going on in the Lakota Nation, as he wanders the irradiated wasteland on a journey that can only be described as half journalistic, half vision quest.

The Devil Delivered plays with a lot of big ideas, most of which I haven’t even touched upon in my summary. Some of these ideas are fascinating and could comfortably support a short story on it’s own and the combined ideas would make a great novel, but it makes this short story feel too packed with ‘content’ and not enough with story. The Malazan books are occasionally guilty of the same thing, but Erikson did an admirable job of wrapping up most of the seemingly pointless plot strands by the end, but there just isn’t the time for that here. I know they say that you should leave your reader wanting more, but I ended up just slightly dissatisfied with The Devil Delivered, which is a shame because the future it was showing was a genuinely unique one for a variety of reasons. Sometimes authors return to their short fiction and expand them to novels and it’s usually not a great idea; I think this would be an exception.

Revolvo

Right…really not sure what to make of this one. Revolvo takes place in a bizarre unnamed Canadian city where the art establishment is supported by a complex and unwieldy tax-payer funded bureaucracy, taking the need for an audience out of the creation of art. Revolvo follows a small cast of characters who all converge at the end. We have Arthur Revell, a polite man with a strange affliction. There’s Andy, who thinks his pet octopus has it in for him. Next there’s Max, a young man from a wealthy family who seeks to join the higher echelons of the art world. There’s Sool Koobie, a literal Neanderthal with a taste for blood. Finally there is Joey ‘Rip’ Sanger, a pugnacious man who works to keep riff-raff off of the abandoned railways.

Not being Canadian or familiar with it’s art scene, I suspect that a great deal of Revolvo went over my head. The whole thing is incredibly surreal but quite enjoyable if you just enjoy the bizarre occurrences on your own terms, rather than trying to suss out exactly what Erikson is going on about. A broad message about the elitist and undemocratic nature of the art establishment seems clear, but there’s a lot of stuff which didn’t quite click for me. It’s actually structured rather like a Malazan book but in microcosm, in the way that a series of seemingly separate storylines converge into one massive blow out at the end. The conclusion of this story is a bizarre treat and Revolvo is enjoyable as a curiosity even if, like me, you don’t have a bloody clue what it’s supposed to mean.

Fishin’ With Grandma Matchie

Fishin’ With Grandma Matchie is probably the least ‘Erikson-esque’ story in the collection and possibly the most interesting. In many ways it reminds me of a Neil Gaiman story with a Canadian twist, which is no bad thing. Every summer Jock Junior and his family go to stay in the cabin of his Grandma Matchie. She is a strange, powerful and wise woman, seemingly for more ancient than she could be and takes Jock on a series of adventures, while Satan Himself lurks in the shadows.

The most striking thing about this story is Jock’s narration. It’s childlike, but also littered with slang and misunderstood words. As unreliable narrators go I’m fairly sure that I don’t trust anything that he says and even though Grandma Matchie may be the titular character, this is fundamentally a story about what’s going on in Jock’s head and how he percieves the world, making this a character study first and foremost. Detailed character work has never been Erikson’s main focus, so it’s interesting seeing him make a stab at it here. This is a slightly unfocused story, but that serves the narrative which is strange and brimming with imagination and vivid characters.

Overall, this is an interesting collection with some good stories in it. All three are ambitious and none of them quite hit the mark, making this collection perhaps feel like something of a noble failure, but one with plenty of things to enjoy nonetheless.

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The Unfinished Swan for PS4, PS3 and PS Vita

I completed The Unfinished Swan just after I finished Entwined, and even though their mechanics are completely different they’re both clearly games which could fit into the ‘art game’ category and seek to be profound in meaning. In every department that Entwined failed, The Unfinished Swan succeeds. It’s fun, charming and genuinely moving.

Monroe is a young boy who’s mother has just died. She was a painter and had left an unfinished painting of a swan. One night, Monroe is drawn into the painting into a white void. Only able to perceive the world around him by lobbing paint, Monroe pursues the swan and discovers more about the wonderful and sad world inside the painting.

The Unfinished Swan is a fairy tale, but one which touches on some very adult themes. The world inside the painting was ruled by a capricious and careless King, not actively malicious, but narcissistic and unthinking of the consequences for others as he pursues his goals. He’s not an evil figure, but a very human one and one that casts a long shadow over the story. The Unfinished Swan celebrates creativity, but also explores it’s darker side and the way that creatives can hurt those around them. I know it’s unfair to be constantly comparing this to Entwined, but my irritation with it is still fresh in my mind; Entwined had no message more than ‘togetherness is nice’, but The Unfinished Swan shows how you can convey profound meaning without alienating your audience. The Unfinished Swan is frequently funny and whimsical and seeks to engage you all across the emotional spectrum.

If I was being unkind, I would describe The Unfinished Swan as a slightly more involved walking simulator, because that is essentially what we’re looking at here. The core mechanic is the throwing paint to reveal the world, which is initially sparse but gets more detailed as you move on. You will use these balls to solve simple puzzles, with the different chapters of the game featuring some interesting mechanics. For example, the second chapter is set in a beautiful and empty city and you guide vines which you climb on by throwing paint to create paths. In the third chapter, you can create blocks by hitting three points with paint on an x, y and z axis. None of this is difficult; you’re there to soak in the scenery and atmosphere, but the added element of player agency makes it more engaging than a lot of walking simulators can be. It goes to show that even a tiny amount of player agency goes a long way. This isn’t a particularly long game, but it really doesn’t need to be; its welcome is not outstayed but it also doesn’t feel unsatisfying.

The Unfinished Swan looks absolutely lovely with a variety of different art styles featuring throughout. It is minimalist in most ways, with the general colour palette being blacks and whites, but there are moments of startling colour which feel like sensory overload after the starkness of the rest of the game. The music is atmospheric and effective and the voice acting excellent, with a lovely cameo turn from Terry Gilliam capping everything off. The Unfinished Swan is quite clearly a labour of love.

I was extremely impressed with The Unfinished Swan. This is the kind of game which makes other games in the genre look bad, offering a genuinely stirring experience as well as an interesting gameplay hook.

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Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris for PS4, Xbox One and PC

I never played the original Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light, so the sequel to the spin-off didn’t particularly appeal to me. I only played this game because it popped up on PS+ but I’m glad that I did; it’s a fun little game and one that has a lot more depth than it originally seems.

Lara Croft and rival archeologist Carter Bell are in an Egyptian tomb when Bell removes the mythical Staff of Osiris from a pedestal and in the process frees Set, an evil deity who seeks to dominate the world. At the same time, Horus and Isis are awoken to help them reassemble the scattered body parts of Osiris so that he may counter Set. This isn’t a game you’re going to be playing for the plot, because there isn’t much of one.

Despite not including it in the title, Temple of Osiris contains much more actual tomb raiding than most Tomb Raider games. Temple of Osiris is an isometric action game with RPG elements, as Lara and up to three other co-op buddies make their way through a series of tombs, solving puzzles and fighting strange monsters as they go. The combat is simple twin stick stuff, with some cool boss fights, but the focus is far more on puzzling, which is nice for those of us who are worried that the mainline Tomb Raider franchise is heading in a worryingly combat focused direction. The puzzles aren’t necessarily complicated, but they’re fun to solve. This is all helped by the fact that Lara just feels good to control, offering a responsiveness that reminded me of A Link Between Worlds. There are some issues, such as the isometric angle making some platforming sections a bit tricky, but overall it works well.

Outside of the core tombs required for the story is a hell of a lot of other stuff to do. There’s an overworld with plenty of side tombs and optional challenges and one of the cool things about it is the ability to change the weather and time of day to open up and close off other areas of the map. There’s a lot of loot to get in this game too, such as amulets which give Lara particular buffs or rings which affect her weapons. One of the coolest features is the way the dungeons change depending on how many people you have with you, ensuring that you’re always going to have a decent experience no matter your player number.

Temple of Osiris isn’t the prettiest game but it gets the job done. It can be a little difficult to tell what is going to instantly kill you, so perhaps a little more clarity could have been good. This is the kind of game that really would have suited being stylised in some way, perhaps cel-shading; as it stands, it all just looks a little bland. The voice acting is fine and the music forgettable, but there’s a good layer of polish over everything which counts for a lot.

Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris isn’t a mindblowing experience, but it’s a decent one nonetheless. If it’s sitting around in your PS+ library, it’s worth a go.

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Entwined for PS4, PS3 and PS Vita

Entwined is a game which threatens at times to become profound but doesn’t ever get there. In some ways, this feels like a parody of the ‘art game’ genre. These kind of games don’t necessarily rely on fun as an engagement tool, but they must provoke some kind of reaction. Entwined gave me very little to react to.

In Entwined you play as an orange fish and a blue bird as you make your way through nine levels. Each level begins with each creature being given a side of the screen, orange fish on the left and blue bird on the right. You control each creature with an analogue stick and must maneuver the creatures through gates with their colour. This starts out simple but gets quite tricky as everything speeds up and the gates begin to shift and move as you get closer. When you have done this enough to fill up a gauge, the bird and fish fuse and become a dragon creature, where you enter a more open area where you can fly freely and collect coloured orbs. You must then draw a line of rainbow and enter a portal to end the level.

Neither side of the gameplay in Entwined works particularly well. The first part of each level is too fiddly and challenging to end up feeling profound, but the arcade-y style gameplay simply isn’t fun. Getting through these parts was a complete chore. The open dragon areas were more promising, but far too limited, filled with invisible walls. The flying controls themselves are stiff, weighty and unsatisfying, utterly failing to give the feeling of liberation we are clearly led towards.

It’s a shame, because Entwined can be visually stunning. The opening parts of the level aren’t especially interesting, but the environments you fly around are simply gorgeous. With a decent control scheme these sections really could have been something. The music is good, but often doesn’t fit the rhythm of what you’re doing, making some of the trickier parts unnecessarily difficult.

Entwined is nothing special and you’ll find much better ‘art game’ experiences out there. It’s both shallow and boring and not worth your time.

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Black Swan Green by David Mitchell

Black Swan Green is probably David Mitchell’s most straightforward novel, but that doesn’t make it any less striking. Mitchell’s imagination is such that he generally creates fantastic settings or makes the real seem fantastical, such as the dreamlike Tokyo of number9dream, but Black Swan Green is a tale of normality that Mitchell nonetheless makes riveting.

It is 1982 and Jason Taylor is a 13 year old boy with a stammer, living in the sleepy village of Black Swan Green. Black Swan Green follows 13 months of his life, with each chapter covering a month, from January 1982 to January 1983. Along the way we experience Jason’s insecurity, budding poetry skill, growing interest in the opposite sex and bullying.

Black Swan Green doesn’t follow a traditional narrative as such, instead reading as 13 interconnected pieces of short fiction. This kind of fractured narrative is of course nothing new for Mitchell, in fact I may go so far as to call it his trademark. As with his other books, all of the separate parts form a cohesive whole when viewed together. Where Cloud Atlas looked at grand themes such as reincarnation, or Ghostwritten at the tiny coincidences that define our lives, Black Swan Green opts to focus on the life of a British teenage boy in the 1980s. Mitchell tackles a variety of topics as he goes, such as the Falklands War, small town bigotry and the nature of poetry and he looks at all with remarkable grace.

In the wrong hands, this is exactly the kind of book which could have been excruciatingly boring. Mitchell’s writing is just so evocative and elegiac that it’s nigh impossible not to get swept up in what’s happening, even if it’s fairly mundane. This book is funny too, with Mitchell being more than willing to look at the more ridiculous sides of being a teenager. There are these wonderful moments where Jason will ponder something fairly profound and then undercut it something hilariously crude. Jason may be an exceptionally empathetic and sensitive teenage boy, but he’s still a teenage boy.

Jason is a likeable character, but the supporting cast are well developed too. His contemporaries at school, both friends and bullies are vividly drawn. In fact, one is Neal Brose who fans of Ghostwritten might remember and it’s interesting to see how he ended up the way he is. There’s also a startlingly touching Cloud Atlas connection which actually moved me to tears. It’s utterly bizarre that David Mitchell has created his own expanded universe, but I love it. 

Black Swan Green sounded like it wouldn’t be my sort of thing, but I loved it. Every single Mitchell novel is a treat and I now only have one left, which I’m looking forward to tucking in to.

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Dying Light for PS4, Xbox One, PC and Linux

Dying Light is a much more interesting game than it first appears, but significantly let down by it’s stubborn refusal to abandon AAA gaming norms. The open world zombie genre is not a new one any more, but Dying Light manages to breath new energy into the genre, even if it’s not the masterpiece we see glimmers of.

The fictional Turkish city of Harran has been overwhelmed by the outbreak of a zombie virus on the eve of hosting a major Olympics-esque sporting event. The city is quarantined by the rest of the world, with aids packages arriving from the GRE (Global Relief Effort). After a GRE agent goes native in Harran with a file filled with sensitive information, Kyle Crane is hired and sent into the city. Initially simply using the local survivors to achieve his goals, Crane soon comes to suspect that the GRE are not telling the truth and begins to relate more and more with the locals he should be deceiving.

As a concept, the story isn’t particularly unique but certainly has potential. The execution leaves a hell of a lot to be desired though; the characters are flat, twists predictable and machismo overwhelming. If I were asked to demonstrate the most ‘AAA gaming’ story I know, this would be it. It’s strange, the whole plot seems based around choices; GRE or the locals, save this person or that person, this short term good for long term safety etc. I kept expecting the game to let me make a decision and then it…didn’t. That’s not to say every game needs a branching story; if anything it’s an overdone trope! The whole story seems so based around choices that I suspect that there was a branching story early in development which was scrapped; it would explain why Crane is such a blank slate of a character. I could be wrong, but regardless of the reason the story is fairly poor. There is some decent writing in the side quests, where the game lets itself be a lot sillier and stranger than it does in the main story, which makes me suspect that, as with a lot of this game, the talent for a good story is there but was held back by a rigid adherence to AAA tropes.

Dying Light’s big addition to the open world zombie genre are it’s traversal mechanics. Maybe things will change when Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst comes out next year, but for now I’m confident in saying that Dying Light has the best ever first person parkour in an open world game. It achieves that fine balance between being easy to use and allowing you to move swiftly and elegantly and not simply being an Assassin’s Creed style effortless autopilot. You can mess up and mistime jumps and you will die, but the whole thing works incredibly well. Running from zombies is a genuine thrill and you can upgrade Crane with new moves using the skill trees, giving you a palpable feeling of development, with my favourites being a grappling hook and the ability to hop on zombies’ heads as you run past. The parkour ties in really well with the mechanic which gives Dying Light its name; during the day time you’re relatively safe, but at night incredibly dangerous creatures come out and begin to stalk. They’re very difficult to take out in a fight, so you essentially have to run if one spots you. The twist is that all experience points are doubled at night and the longer you stay the larger EXP bonus you get at the end, offering a tantalising risk/reward balance. It’s a simple, clever system which works very well.

Not quite so edifying is the combat. It mostly consists of pressing the right trigger to swing a melee weapon with some simple dodging and power attack mechanics. It’s…fine. It works ok when taking down the odd zombie and there is a visceral and slightly embarrassing thrill to bloodily decapitating a rushing zombie just before it gets you. The problem is that combat should be a last resort, if you end up boxed in and unable to run, but large amounts of the latter half of the game involve monotonously slaying dozens of zombies before you can progress. The weapon crafting system may have been meant to alleviate the boredom, but fundamentally you either have heavy or light weapons and they pretty much handle the same. My only incentive to build better weapons was to make the fights go quicker. Much worse are the gun fights; the guns handle horribly, which would be fine if you only fought zombies, but there are a fair few encounters with other armed human enemies and Dying Light goes into FPS mode. The problem is that if Dying Light was an FPS it would be one of the most basic and dull that I’d played in years. Don’t be an FPS Dying Light, be an open world parkour zombie game, you’re good at that!

You can’t accuse Dying Light of being a slight experience. Dying Light pulls the Far Cry trick of coming to a conclusion before revealing an entire second map, so there’s a lot of game here. The story is lengthy and contains some great set piece moments, particularly the final mission which involves climbing a huge tower whilst being pursued by a zombie horde (even if it does all culminate in a spectacularly anti- climactic QTE). There are many side quests, and while some are simple ‘collect 5 herbs’ type deals, some are really interesting with their own narratives which often eclipse the main story. There are parkour and combat challenges if you’re into that sort of thing too. Dying Light follows the ‘Ubisoft’ formula in many ways (despite not being a Ubisoft game), but one area where it does do better is in the side quests, somewhere Ubisoft hasn’t done particularly well in lately.

Dying Light is a good looking game which runs smoothly. Harran is a cool setting, not really quite like any other open world settings I’ve been unleashed in before. We see a cool variety between the two halves of the map, something lacking when Far Cry games do the same thing. The first half is a shanty town, all rickety shacks and slums. The second is an older, more historical and beautiful side with taller buildings. This commitment to variety goes a good way to making each half feel valuable, rather than a way of artificially making the game seem bigger than it is. The voice acting is fine, although no one particularly stood out, least of all Crane himself. The music is interesting, with a combination of Vangelis-esque synths and Middle Eastern style vocals. Dying Light is refreshingly glitchless and the whole thing all works rather well.

Dying Light is a good game which shows glimmers of a great one. It is a compromised vision, trying to beat the biggest in gaming at their own…well, game. If it had stuck to the purity of its core principles, Dying Light would be a much more fondly remembered experience. Dying Light has two possible futures; in one, it is forgotten and fades into obscurity and in the other they take those core ideas and make a sequel which throws out the AAA crap and gets to the core of what made this game interesting. Fingers crossed for the latter.

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Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

First things first; Go Set a Watchman is not the sequel of To Kill a Mockingbird. It’s also not a ‘companion piece’ to use the oddly nauseating line being trotted out by the publisher. It is a first draft of material in the creation of a masterpiece and I rather think that it would have been better if it had stayed buried.

Go Set a Watchman follows Jean-Louise ‘Scout’ Finch as she returns to the town of Maycomb from New York as a young adult. More metropolitan than those around her, she is torn between an almost-engagement with an eligible Maycomb gentleman and her more free life in New York. Jean Louise’s life is thrown into disarray when she sees her heroic father Atticus attending a pro-segregation meeting, shattering the image she has held of him.

I’ll begin with the positives; there are moments in Go Set a Watchman that reminded me of just how good Harper Lee is. There are some wonderful flashbacks to Scout’s childhood which are delightful and there’s a spark and wit which is particularly evident in the first half of the novel; this began to make me believe that Go Set a Watchman wouldn’t be so bad. Lee’s prose is wonderful, crackling with energy and life. Things fall of the rails when the main plot gets going, with lengthy scenes of pro-segregationists arguing their case while Jean-Louise ineffectually tries to counter them. I’m not arguing that Harper Lee is sympathetic to their cause, but you can see why she abandoned this for the clarity of To Kill a Mockingbird. Some have criticised To Kill a Mockingbird‘s depiction of a white savior sweeping in and fighting racism and I can see how something like that would be problematic in this day and age. At the time though, Atticus Finch would be a necessary icon, a beacon of shared humanity. He may not be believable, but he’s not meant to be, he’s an idealised vision of what people could be.

Some have also claimed that Go Set a Watchman presents a more nuanced and realistic depiction of ingrained racism, but I’m not sure if that’s true. The novel uses Jean-Louise’s visceral reaction to the racism around her to further her character development and interesting relationship with her father, but in the process the actual victims of this racism are largely forgotten. There is one very powerful scene involving Calpurnia, the black housekeeper readers will remember from To Kill a Mockingbird, which undermines an idealised view of white/black relations, but it is far too brief and glossed over in favor of the relations between it’s white characters. Once again, I want to make clear that I’m not criticising Harper Lee herself; she clearly recognised these issues with Go Set a Watchman herself when she abandoned it in favor of the immeasurably superior To Kill a Mockingbird, but this novel risks tarnishing her legacy.

Atticus may be the character people always remember, but it’s always been Scout that made me truly love To Kill a Mockingbird. We get flashes of that person in the first half of Go Set a Watchman, but her character development in the second half is pretty poor. We’re asked to accept that the latent racism in Maycomb is a massive shock, one which makes her physically ill, which just doesn’t quite seem right. She winds up rather irritating by the end, viewing the racism which suffuses Maycomb as something most painful to her, not to…y’know, the actual victims. 

Go Set a Watchman may be worth a read purely as a curio, but it’s not worth much more than that. The best thing that can possibly happen is that this book fades from memory and Harper Lee’s legacy is not tarnished.

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Half the World by Joe Abercrombie

Half the World is the middle part of a trilogy and therefore the trickiest part to get right. Interestingly, Half the World bears a few similarities to the middle book in Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, Before They Are Hanged, with the focus shifting onto world building and establishment of greater conflicts to come. Half the World is very much a book of putting things in place for the finale, but it’s still an enjoyable read nonetheless.

Half the World follows two new protagonists, with Half a King’s protagonist Yarvi remaining as a major character. Thorn Bathu is the daughter of famed warrior Storn Headland and seeks to follow in her father’s footsteps, much to the disgust of the patriarchal military society of Gettland. When she accidentally kills a young man in training after being set up to fail, she is sentenced to death. She is spared when Brand, a young man who wants nothing more than to be a proud warrior of Gettland, comes forward to Father Yarvi and tells him the truth of what occurred. Yarvi spares Thorn and brings her with him for mysterious purposes. Thorn, Brand, Yarvi and a crew of characters old and new travel half the world to seek allies, as a war is coming and Gettland can not stand alone.

First things first, the story isn’t nearly so tight in Half the World as it was in Half a King. As mentioned above, it is more about getting everything ready for the conclusion, with a plot that sometimes feels more like a series of vignettes rather than a singular narrative. That’s not to say it’s bad or unenjoyable; this stuff is really interesting from a world building perspective with Thorn and Brand going on interesting internal journeys, but this is simply one of the perils of the genre. This is a darker book than the first, and reminded me more of The First Law than Half a King did and this comes with a whole new number of incredibly satisfying and tense scenes, something Abercrombie specialises in.

The actual prose is generally a fair bit better in Half the World, with a reduction in the cliches which surface a little too much in Half a King. I’m in awe of Abercrombie’s action scenes and I’m pretty confident at this point at saying he does the best in the business. One trick I’ve been seeing him use a lot in this book is the Stephen King/George R. R. Martin esque repeating of mantras by their characters, a simple technique which works on several levels and manages to hold the thematic links of the series together.

It’s interesting that Abercrombie didn’t keep Yarvi as the point of view character, but the reasons for this become clearer as the novel progresses. Brand and Thorn are worthy successors though, with Thorn in particular shining through especially vividly. She’s not a mile away from some of Abercrombie’s other tough as nails female characters, like Murcatto or Ferro, but this is a story of how someone becomes that jaded. She does very little that’s likable but is nonetheless difficult not to like. There are some lovely familiar faces from the first book and some good new ones too, creating a cast which is no bigger than it needs to be but packed with memorable characters.

Half the World is a really good book and leaves me really looking forward to jumping into the final one. It may very much be a ‘middle’ book, but it’s one of the better executions I’ve seen. I only have one Abercrombie book left until I’ve read all of them and I must say that I will be rather sad.

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Eternity’s Wheel by Neil Gaiman, Michael Reaves and Mallory Reaves

And so the InterWorld series comes to a close. Eternity’s Wheel, as with it’s predecessors, is enjoyable enough but was hamstrung by the fact that it felt like a side project and that full effort wasn’t being done justice to the excellent central premise.

FrostNight has been released and the entire Multiverse is slowly being wiped out. InterWorld is lost and Joey is on the run on his home Earth. He takes it upon himself to rebuild InterWorld,  to try to put a stop to FrostNight and the machinations of the Binary and HEX. To do this he must find new, undiscovered Walkers and gain the help of allies old and new to stand a chance against the forces arrayed against him.

This is an epic story, but once again everything felt truncated and perfunctory. Everything happens so quickly, but not in a way that keeps things exciting. The whole thing feels rushed as we’re introduced to characters and expected to invest in them with little time or effort. It’s not that this book isn’t entertaining, or that I was bored whilst reading it, it’s simply the frustrating sense of missed opportunity which pervades the entire book. The writing itself is good, with action scenes in particular being the best that they’ve ever been. The dialogue is snappy and the worldbuilding good, with the whole thing holding together rather well considering that three writers collaborated on this book.

Probably the best part of this book is the development of Joey as a character. His character arc has been predictable but satisfying; that predictability makes sense, with inevitability being one of the key themes of the series. Joey shifts from your standard YA protagonist to something more interesting here as he is forced to take the burden of command. Not to sound like a broken record, but we could have done with more of this, but the authors do well with what they have. The supporting cast are thinly dawn but likable, if not particularly memorable.

Eternity’s Wheel is a light, breezy read which is enjoyable enough but not something which lingers in the imagination. If you want something light and fun then this may be the ticket, but I can’t really recommend it for much more than that.

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The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett & Stephen Baxter

There aren’t many books still to come with the name Terry Pratchett emblazoned on the front and each one is a treasure. The Long Earth series has been a slightly uneven one, but The Long Utopia is thankfully the most coherent since the first, being the first novel in the series not to be focused on a big adventure into the unknown, telling a complete story instead.

Picking up a few years after the end of The Long Mars, Willis Linsays space elevator technology has been released and the great cities of the ravaged Datum Earth have become even less relevant. Lobsang, tired of contemplating existence on a massive scale, fakes his death to live life as a human, alongside his resurrected nun partner Agnes and an adopted child in a distant settlement known as New Springfield. Things aren’t as they seem, with strange and intelligent creatures being sighted which have hitherto never been seen in the Long Earth and bizarre changes to natural rhythms of the planet. Forces from across the Long Earth are summoned to investigate to get to the core of what is going on.

The weakness of this series has long been it’s propensity to run a series of parallel storylines which do not interact or intersect. They may be entertaining enough, but they make the books feel incoherent and vague; it’s difficult to pin down what exactly The Long War or The Long Mars are actually about. The Long Utopia isn’t like that, with all the subplots revolving around the core mystery of New Springfield, which is a much better approach. That central story is really enjoyable and I’m looking forward to seeing where the series ends up at the end.

The humour is a bit lacking in this one and it’s difficult to shake the feeling that we’re reading a book which is much more Stephen Baxter than Terry Pratchett. With Pratchett’s illness, I suspect that Baxter was doing the majority of the work here and although he does a good job, I prefer the sardonic and humane style that made Pratchett so special. The big ideas are big but don’t come alive necessarily due to the prose, but more because of the sheer imagination behind it.

The story is more epic than intimate, with even characters we’ve spent four books with not feeling particularly familiar, perhaps with the exception of Lobsang. Despite being our protagonist for four books now, I don’t feel like I particularly have a grip on Joshua Valiente, which may be intentional but does end up making this book feel a little impersonal.

The Long Utopia improves on the flaws of It’s predecessors and delivers the strongest entry in the series since the first. This series is never going to be considered among either author’s best, but it’s an enjoyable curiosity nonetheless and I’m looking forward to seeing how the whole thing wraps up.

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