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Archive for the month “July, 2016”

The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories by H.P. Lovecraft

There’s significant amount of stuff that I love that was inspired by the works of H.P. Lovecraft, perhaps chief among them being the stellar PS4 game Bloodborne, but I’d never got round to seeing where it all started. The brand of horror created by Lovecraft, for whatever reason, unsettles me and gets under my skin hugely effectively. The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories is a Penguin collection of 18 of Lovecraft’s best known tales. I’ll briefly mention all of them.

The first tale is Dagon, an early tale of Lovecraft’s which serves as a forebear to the so called ‘Cthulhu mythos’ featuring vast, unknowable beings utterly beyond human understanding. It’s a relatively straightforward tale about a man who encounters the eponymous Dagon and is driven mad. It’s fairly simple by Lovecraft’s standards, but it’s a great way to open the collection functioning as it does almost as a microcosm of Lovecraft’s setting. Next is The Statement of Randolph Carter, another relatively straightforward horror story that is actually rather fun. It’s central conceit, relating a radio conversation between a man descending into an eldritch tomb and the protagonist outside, is very effective, although the ending is a bit goofy.

Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family was one of my least favourite stories in the collection. I didn’t find it particularly interesting and it is also the first case of one of the least pleasant elements of Lovecraft’s writing; a pervasive racism throughout. I’m not one for retroactively holding writers to the standards of today; much of Othello would be considered problematic today, but in the context of the time of writing Shakespeare was being pretty damn progressive having a black protagonist at all. That said, Lovecraft’s racism extends beyond the casual and normalised bigotry of the time to a genuine hatred and contempt; we’re in Rudyard Kipling territory folks. Race mixing is something which horrifies Lovecraft and this story, an account of a lost missing link race of intelligent apes who interbred with humanity, revels in that horror.

The next story, Celephaïs, was the first one that I really loved. It tells the story of a man who visits incredible lands in his dreams every night, but particularly seeks the beautiful city of Celephaïs. As Kuranes, the protagonist, seeks the city he takes more and more extreme measures in the waking world. As well as being a wonderful exercise of imagination, Lovecraft’s exploration of how we seek illusion over reality is pretty interesting and perhaps rather relevant to fantasy fans! The following story Nyarlathotep introduces a recurring figure in the Cthulhu mythos, but is in many ways more poem than prose. It’s an interesting element of the collection, but I prefer the stories with a clearer sense of narrative. The Picture in the House is a very creepy little story and the first to involve a deeply sinister book, a recurring theme of the collection. It’s not the most complex story in the collection, but it’s quite a lot of fun.

The Outsider is one of a pair of stories which seem at least partially influenced by Frankenstein, although both are influenced by different elements of the story. This one tells of someone held their entire life in a strange castle who escapes to the outside world. It’s rather predictable, but another story which is enjoyably melodramatic. Lovecraft reins in this side of his writing later on, but I must admit I quite like the slight silliness to his earlier stuff. Herbert West – Reanimator is the second of the pair of Frankenstein inspired stories, in this case much more overtly, dealing as it does with the reanimation of the dead. Herbert West – Reanimator is significantly trashier than Frankenstein and is a little bit tongue in cheek. Of the lengthier stories in the collection, this story is far from the best but it may be the most fun. The Hound is a story of a haunting by a nightmarish dog after the disturbing of a grave. It’s not exactly a new concept and to be honest Lovecraft doesn’t necessarily do much to set this story apart.

The next story was one of my absolute favourites in the collection, The Rats in the Wall, a story which seems to be a fairly straightforward ghost story before revealing itself to be something far more grand and horrible. I would have happily read a full novel about the complex and nightmarish story implied in The Rats in the Wall. The Festival comes next and introduces to the collection the idea of cults worshiping ancient beings, which is a regularly recurring theme in Lovecraft’s work. It’s not explored as closely as in later stories, but it’s still a genuinely chilling read. He is a story about New York and it’s history, with an element of time travel. It’s mostly interesting in what it tells us about Lovecraft’s disgust for the city. Next up is Cool Air, a story which is somewhat reminiscent of Herbert West- Reanimator, concerning someone keeping themselves alive through extreme means. It’s a neat little story and the last shorter story before the collection focuses on Lovecraft’s longer pieces of work.

The next story is the title story and probably Lovecraft’s best known work, The Call of Cthulhu. The story concerns a man who discovers a cult worshiping a vast creature from the ocean from a race utterly alien and greatly older than man. They are so utterly unknowable that even to look upon them is to descend into madness. I liked this story a lot, although it wasn’t my favourite of the tales concerning the Great Old Ones. There is something about the figure of Cthulhu itself which is compelling, a physicality lacking in many of the other horrible creatures which populate Lovecraft’s pantheon. A recurring theme is that the protagonist themselves rarely directly encounter the beings, but hear from those that do. This means that The Call of Cthulhu has several layers of unreliable narration, leading the reader to question a lot of what they’re told.

I loved the next story, The Colour Out of Space, about a mysterious meteorite which lands in a farm and begins to corrupt the land around it. The sense of gradual decay is wonderfully depicted and very unsettling and leads together into a natural and terrifying crescendo. The following tale, The Whisperer in Darkness, is very caught up in the Great Old One mythology and is really fascinating from a world building point of view, as well as being a really enjoyable story in it’s own right.

The Shadow over Innsmouth is one of Lovecraft’s most celebrated tales and deservedly so, it was probably my favourite one. It follows a young man travelling the coast of New England who hears of the town of Innsmouth and the strange people who reside there. This is a sinister and nasty story with a foot firmly in the Cthulhu mythos. The town itself is wonderfully depicted and truly unsettling and it has an absolutely killer ending. I would suggest that if you were to read only one Lovecraft story (from this collection), it should be this one. The final story, The Haunter of the Dark, didn’t interest me nearly as much, but that is perhaps because it was in the unenviable position of following The Shadow over Innsmouth. Taking place primarily in a dilapidated church it conjures a strong atmosphere but the actual plot didn’t really grab me.

Overall though, I really loved this collection and I’m looking forward to using it as a jumping off point to reading more Lovecraft down the line. There are certainly off putting elements of Lovecraft’s work with his clear racism being particularly difficult to stomach. That said, I do believe that art is distinct from the artist and that whilst we should condemn Lovecraft as a man, we should not as a writer. Penguin Classics have released a couple more collections and I look forward to giving them a go.

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The Widow’s House by Daniel Abraham

It’s getting harder and harder to review this series as they’ll all so slickly competent and just plain good it’s difficult to find much to say about them. The Widow’s House is the fourth and penultimate book in The Dagger and the Coin series and sets things up nicely for the final blow out.

The Widow’s House begins with the awakening of Inys, the dragon discovered by Marcus Wester and Master Kit at the end of The Tyrant’s Law. The supposed war of Antean aggression is simply a proxy for a much older conflict and Marcus Wester sets out to support the efforts against the expansion of Geder Palliako. Geder himself has been crushed by Cithrin’s rejection and turns the full force of Antean might to capturing her, convincing himself that she must be part of the fictional Timzinae conspiracy against him. Cithrin herself is hiding out in her old home of Porte Olivia, using her wiles and limited resources to prepare the city for the inevitable Antean siege. Finally, Clara Kalliam has left Camnipol to shadow the Antean army, led by her son Jorey, to continue as a ‘loyal traitor’, sending insider Antean information to Cithrin and the Medean Bank. The spider priests continue to spread and war looks set to enflame the world.

I’ve mentioned before about how well Abraham has avoided the middle of a series slump and The Widow’s House does not simply feel like table setting for the finale, although it does do that as well. The pace is as snappy as ever, with no time wasted on journeys when the destination is the interesting part. As I said above, with a book as well put together as this there just isn’t much to say. Abraham knows what he is doing and is an incredibly safe pair of hands.

The introduction of Inys is my favourite element of The Widow’s House. He’s a somewhat tragic and unsettling figure, but also at times very funny and oddly human. Abraham undercuts what we expect about the appearance of an ancient powerful dragon in interesting ways, without losing the mystique and epic feeling which a dragon provides. The core cast all carry on fine, with the most interesting development going to Cithrin. She is known as the cause of Geder Palliako’s rage, making her a hated figure to many. She’s come a long way from the scared child fleeing Vanai with the wealth of the Medean Bank. The Dagger and the Coin is boosted along by a good cast of PoV characters, none of which feel like a slog to get through.

The Widow’s House brings us almost to the end of a really good series of books. I’m looking forward to reading the final book and then looking into Abraham’s other works, although I am also reading his Expanse books in collaboration with Ty Franck.

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Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright for Nintendo 3DS

I love that Fire Emblem, one of Nintendo’s historically underrated franchises, has had a resurgence of late. The much better than expected sales of Fire Emblem: Awakening have seen us given not one, not two, but three new Fire Emblem games. I was cynical about the split of Fates into three parts initially; I’m of the opinion that if any company tried to pull the two game Pokemon thing Nintendo have been doing for years they’d be rightly criticised for dodgy business practices. However, after playing Birthright I can see that this comfortably stands alone as its own game as well as leaving me hungry to jump right into Conquest.

All versions of Fire Emblem Fates follow Corrin, a young prince or princess of the dingy, militarily aggressive nation of Nohr. I’m going to refer to Corrin as female for this summary as she was in my game. Corrin has been kept in a Nohrian fortress all of her life, but upon coming of age is sent by the King Garon to investigate a fortress held by the rival nation of Hoshido, near their border. On that mission Corrin is captured by Hoshidan forces and brought to their capital, where she is revealed to be a long lost child of the Hoshidan royal family, kidnapped by Nohr as a child. The Nohrian forces led by Xander, Corrin’s adopted older brother, comes to take her back and the Hoshidans go into battle to defend her, led by her real brother Ryoma. It is here that Fire Emblem Fates splits into its three separate paths. Birthright follows the path of Corrin joining with her birth family, the Hoshidans and taking the war to Nohr to defeat King Garon’s imperial ambitions, fighting her adopted family along the way.

Birthright only tells one third of an entire story, so doesn’t necessarily feel particularly satisfying in its own right, particularly compared to Awakening. The supporting cast contains a few of the interesting eccentrics which Awakening did so well, but there really aren’t anyone has memorable as characters like Tharja, Donnel or Kellem. The characterisation in these games is at its best when it’s big, unsubtle and silly, with a few too many characters in Birthright attempting to be a bit more nuanced which doesn’t really work as the writing simply isn’t strong enough to support it. Easily the most interesting element is the betrayal felt by her Nohrian family that Corrin has chosen Hoshido. Birthright definitely has some cool moments, particularly towards the end, but all told this third of the Fire Emblem Fates felt very safe and conservative. That said, from all I’ve heard this is intentional as Conquest and Revelations move in more interesting directions and that Birthright in some ways lays some groundwork for the other games. I hope this is true because on its own merits there isn’t a huge amount of interest here.

Birthright is structured in a very similar way to Awakening, with Conquest apparently being more similar to the older Fire Emblem games. The core mechanics are essentially unchanged, with the beefed up support system from Awakening making a grand return. Building relationships between the characters remains one of the greatest joys of the game, with the return of children of characters being recruitable. The plot reasoning for this is iffy, but it’s undeniably satisfying populating your army with your offspring. I love turn based strategy games and Fire Emblem is among the very best. The core strategic weapon triangle combat is the same, although things are complicated slightly the addition of shurikens for the new Ninja class. Birthright has fairly simple mission objectives, with almost all being about killing the enemy forces, which is fine as there are some neat level designs. The core mechanics of Fire Emblem are so damn satisfying that there don’t need to be many changes. A neat addition are ‘Dragon Veins’, which Corrin and members of the Hosihdan royal family can activate in a map to alter the terrain, such as releasing toxic gas which weakens enemy stats, or creating a bridge to allow you to flank the enemy. It’s a really cool addition which adds a nice extra tactical layer on top. There is an ability to create your own castle between missions, which feels a bit undercooked and superfluous. There’s potential there that it would be nice to see expanded in future games, but it didn’t interest me here

There are a lot of quality of life changes, like adjustable difficulty modes and the ability to turn off the infamous permadeath. People have been describing this as the easy one, which makes me want to weep as I found it quite hard. That said, I did play it on the Classic permadeath mode, as it just wouldn’t feel like Fire Emblem without it and I refused to let anyone die. I like that I was able to adjust not only my own level of challenge but also my own style of challenge. Purists will bitch and moan but I don’t care, play however you like. Returning from Awakening is the ability to grind and level up outside the core missions. All of these changes make this the most accessible Fire Emblem yet, which is a good thing. Nothing is sacrificed or ruined from the old games and now more people can get into it; it’s a win-win situation.

Birthright is visually similar to Awakening, with impressive looking battles and a clear and uncluttered UI for the combat. The Hoshido characters are more influenced by Japanese culture than the more Western Medieval fantasy styles of the previous games. This means there are a lot of cool new looking classes with some really neat animations. The voice acting is generally decent, although I would have liked to see it used more extensively. I suspect that this may have been a pretty massive burden on the memory for a little 3DS cart, so I get why it’s not there, but it still felt like a bit of a shame. The music is good, although not quite as good as in some of the previous games. I like the amount of customisation available, from different angles to the battles and a range of difficulty options.

Fire Emblem Fates: Birthright is a good game which nonetheless left me a bit wanting. It didn’t grab me nearly as much as Awakening, particularly in terms of the characters and range of classes. I have heard many call this the weakest of the three Fates games, which I hope is the case as I leap headfirst into Conquest.

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