Frivolous Waste of Time

Sci-fi, fantasy and video games

Archive for the month “December, 2016”

Arcanum Unbounded by Brandon Sanderson

This may be one of the most gloriously silly book titles I’ve read all year. It’s almost aggressively geeky and I love it. It’s also perfectly appropriate for this book; the Cosmere is Brandon Sanderson’s fictional universe which unifies almost all of his fantasy novels. Yes, Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive take place on different planets, but those planets are in the same galaxy and a central theology and source of power underpins them both. These connections are getting more and more explicit, but are still fairly minor and easy to miss, for the time being at least. Arcanum Unbounded is a collection of all of Sanderson’s Cosmere short fiction so far. Each section is collected by the planet on which they take place, with a tantalising description of each one, giving us Cosmere geeks some satisfying morsels about each’s larger place in the universe. I’ve already reviewed a fair few of them, so I’ll just link to those.
The Selish System

The planet of Sel is the setting for Sanderson’s debut novel Elantris, but is one we don’t know particularly well, but Sanderson has promised to return to in the future. The first story in the collection, The Hope of Elantris, is a deleted scene of sorts from the main novel, detailing events taking place in an Elantrian children’s home during the climax of the novel. It’s been so long since I read Elantris that this didn’t really do much for me, but it’s a nice enough read all the same.

I reviewed the next story, The Emperor’s Soul, a frankly horrifying four years ago in my first year with this blog. Here’s the review:

https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2012/12/11/the-emperors-soul-by-brandon-sanderson/

 

The Scadrian Systrem

Scadrial is the setting for the Mistborn series and still arguably Sanderson’s most coherently developed setting. The first story, The Eleventh Metal is a short one which provides a bit of Kelsier’s backstory, showing him fairly new to his Mistborn powers and still training, before he committed to taking down the Lord Ruler. As with The Hope of Elantris, it’s a fun little side story which doesn’t add a huge amount, but it’s always nice to see a little more of Kelsier. Following The Eleventh Metal is Allomancer Jak and the Pits of Eltania which brings the events into the Alloy of Law era. This one is a huge amount of fun and a bit of an experiment. It is presented as a collection of serialised story from the adventurer Allomancer Jak, with droll footnotes from his long suffering Terris footman. We’re told not to trust much of what Jak tells us in his enthusiastic first person prose, but it does give us some interesting hints about the role of the koloss in the current era of Sacdrial. This is a funny, breezy and light piece of writing. A whole novel of this would get old quickly, but you can just tell how much fun Sanderson was having here so it would be nice to see him give this style a go again sometime.

Now, looking back through my archives I appear to have forgotten to review Mistborn: Secret History back when I first read it. To be fair, that makes sense though as almost the entire thing is a massive spoiler. It’s almost impossible to talk about without giving too much away. Suffice it to say that Secret History bridges the gap between the original trilogy and the Wax and Wayne follow ups, as well as providing a significant amount of tantalising hints about the Cosmere and Scadrial’s role within. It’s not just fan wank though, telling a genuinely interesting and entertaining story. One of the things I love about Sanderson is that, even when neck deep in his own lore, he never forgets to keep the prose itself snappy and entertaining. Exposition rarely feels like exposition. It’s a bit amorphous at times and isn’t paced particularly snappily, but it’s nature as an ‘interquel’ of sorts makes that somewhat inevitable. This is one of the most meaty stories of the collection and an absolute must read for any fans of Mistborn or the wider Cosmere.

The Taldian System

Taldain is the setting for White Sand, an odd instalment in the Cosmere canon. Written as one of Sanderson’s earliest books, he was unhappy with it and it remained unpublished. Sanderson’s draft is currently being adapted as a graphic novel, the first instalment of which released this year. I have read it, but I didn’t review it because I don’t really know how to talk about graphic novels the way I do with books and games. Arcanum Unbounded contains the first few pages of the graphic novel (in black and white), as well as an extract from the original draft. The White Sand graphic novel is good and does promise to be important for the Cosmere; it includes the origin story for Khriss, the character who writes most of the Ars Arcanum entries for the Cosmere books, as well as the introduction for the different systems in Arcanum Unbounded. As it stands, this Taldain section is more of a teaser for better stuff to be found elsewhere. There is a worthwhile story being told on Taldain, but it’s worth picking up the first volume of the graphic novel to get it.

The Threnodite System

Threnody is a hugely interesting setting that I hope Sanderson returns to one day. For now, all we have is Shadows for Silence in the Forests of Hell, which I reviewed earlier this year here. It’s very good (the story, not my review):

https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2016/02/27/shadows-for-silence-in-the-forests-of-hell-by-brandon-sanderson/

The Drominad System

As with the last system, the only story set here is the enjoyable Sixth of Dusk, which I also reviewed earlier this year:

https://frivolouswastesoftime.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/sixth-of-dusk-by-brandon-sanderson/

The Roshar System

Roshar is the setting for The Stormlight Archive and Edgedancer is the only completely new story in the collection and was therefore the main selling point. One of my favourite things about the series are the Interludes, semi regular short stories interspersed throughout the main narrative giving hints of things to come and characters who will play a larger role in later books. The real victory of these is that several function independently as their own short stories, or even novellas. Managing to embed a functional novella into a separate novel without disrupting the flow is something which doesn’t seem possible, but Sanderson pulls it off. One of the most memorable Interludes in Words of Radiance followed Lift, a mysterious and eccentric young woman who has been awakening to her powers as a Radiant in the West of Roshar, an area little seen in the main narrative. Edgedancer is, essentially, a sequel to that Interlude and follows what Lift got up to after she broke into the palace of Azir and accidently rescued it’s Emperor from the mad Herald Nale, who Lift knows as ‘Darkness.’

The real victory of this story, which sees Lift travel to the city of Yeddaw, supposedly in a bid to taste the ten varieties of filled pancake for which the city is famous, is that it doesn’t feel inessential. Side stories and novellas often fall victim to the ‘so what’ problem. If this is so important, then why isn’t it part of the main series? The events of Edgedancer feel relevant to the wider story of The Stormlight Archive regarding the return of the Radiants, the role of the Herald Nale and how Szeth fits into his plans. It’s also, (and this is important) a lot of fun. Fantasy is filled with authors who seem to be tired of writing, or see it as a grand burden, people like Martin, Rothfuss and Lynch. I’m not criticising those authors, they’re all brilliant, but you get the sense that they may have fallen out of love with their own series and the act of writing. Sanderson isn’t like this; you can just tell he loves writing and loved writing this story. His enthusiasm is infectious and helps make up for the fact that his work is never quite as polished as the other authors mentioned above. Lift strikes me as character people will either find endearing or irritating, but for me she falls into the former camp. There’s a genuine sense of tragedy behind the flippant and silly exterior and I’m sure we’ll find out more about her by the time she comes into prominence in the main series. Edgedancer may not be quite worth the price of entry alone, but it is another strong piece in a very strong collection.

Conclusion

The core stories of the collection are The Emperor’s Soul, Mistborn: Secret History, Shadows for Silence in the Forests and Hell, Sixth of Dusk and Edgedancer. The collection is worth it just for these if you haven’t read them. The other stories feel a bit less essential. I wouldn’t recommend touching Secret History or Edgedancer if you’re not familiar with their respective series, but the other three can be read entirely stood alone. Taken together, this is a hell of a collection and a perfect demonstration of Sanderson’s range and talent. As something to hold me over until the third Stormlight book, Arcanum Unbounded will do just fine.

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Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One is only five years old but already feels like something of a relic. It’s an optimistic and uplifting book with an unshakable belief in the power of nerds to do good. Events since 2011 have shaken my belief that being a nerd or a geek makes you more likely to be a good person, with events like Gamergate or the Sad Puppies unfortunately suggesting that ‘nerd culture’ isn’t what I thought it was. In this sense, Ready Player One feels like a sort of nerd utopia, where everyone is egalitarian and inclusive in their shared love of pop culture, as opposed to the polarised and exclusionary narratives which so often surround issues of diversity in ‘nerdy’ pop culture.

Ready Player One takes place in a not too distant future which has become dominated by the ‘Oasis’, a virtual reality experience where much of the Earth’s population spend all their time. Where the real world is riven with poverty, over-population, environmental collapse and massive inequality, the Oasis is a genuinely egalitarian place where anyone can live an exciting or creative life. The creator of the Oasis, James Halliday, had died five years before the start of the book, but in his will had set forth the hunt for the Egg. Somewhere in the Oasis, hidden behind three walls requiring three keys, in the greatest Easter Egg known to man and the discoverer of this Egg will bestow the finder with Halliday’s fortune and control of his company. This announcement changes the world, with many foregoing all else and hunting for the Egg full time, known as gunters. Halliday was obsessed with 1980s pop culture and so all the gunters become experts in 80s movies, TV shows, videogames and music in the hope that they will provide a clue. Our protagonist, Wade, is one of these gunters, although a fairly insignificant one, who stumbles upon the first clue for the Egg five years after the competition was first announced.

Your enjoyment of Ready Player One is largely going to be tied to your tolerance for reference based writing. Almost every major moment is a call back to some piece of 80s arcana or the other. Now, I’m not a child of the 80s. I’m a 90s kid baby. Re-write this with Pokémon, Tarantino and Nirvana and it’d be more my era, but I ended up spending a fair bit of this book feeling quite lost.  I have mixed feelings about all the references. I usually don’t like them; I found them really annoying in Charlie Jane Anders’ All The Birds in the Sky, but Ready Player One is a bit different because it’s entire plot is about references. It’s about nostalgia, so it doesn’t feel as calculated and cringeworthy here as it does elsewhere. I was expecting this to end up as a comment on the toxicity of nostalgia, of living in the past and refusing to embrace the new, but that never comes.

The main cast are a likeable, if straightforward bunch. There aren’t any standout characters, but they’re all enjoyable enough that you’re rooting for the good buys and booing the bad guys. The ‘adorable nerd’ thing doesn’t feel quite as relevant these days in a post Gamergate world. No one in the Oasis is whining about SJWs or posting Pepe memes, officially making it a vastly superior place than the real internet we have to inhabit. This isn’t a criticism of Ready Player One, far from it, but it definitely made me quite sad to see that genuine optimism and enthusiasm for ‘nerd culture’, which recent events have revealed to be, at best, non-existent, or at worst toxic and hateful.

Ready Player One is a likeable enough book, certainly the genre fiction version of a beach read. I read the vast majority of it across two lengthy train journeys, which seems like the right way to absorb something like this. I’m not sure that there’s much substance here, but it’s a fun enough ride regardless.

 

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Dishonored 2 for PS4, Xbox One and PC

Before writing this I looked back at my old review for the first Dishonored and was surprised by how negative it read. My memories of it are quite fond, but clearly something about it turned me off whilst I was playing. Dishonored 2 still contains a fair few of the foibles of the first game, but is overall a much stronger experience, supported by some truly brilliant level design.

Dishonored 2 takes place 15 years after the conclusion of the first game and assumes that you had the ‘Low Chaos’ happy ending, with Emily Kaldwin sat on her mother’s throne with her father Corvo at her side. Since the events of the first game, Corvo has been training Emily to defend herself in case any situations arise again  like those of the first game. Emily’s rule has been shaken by a series of murders across the Empire of Emily Kaldwin’s enemies by a murderer known as the ‘Crown Killer.’ Suspicion naturally falls upon Emily and her assassin father, but it seems a conspiracy is afoot to damage Emily’s reputation. The conspiracy comes to a head when the palace is invaded by Delilah Copperspoon, a witch who players may remember from the DLCs for the first game, who takes the palace claiming to be Emily’s aunt. With the help of traitors in Emily’s midst, Delilah seizes the throne and encases either Emily or Corvo in stone, with the player choosing who to play as for the duration of the game. The plot plays out the same however, with Emily or Corvo managing to escape the palace to head to Karnaka, a city on the Southernmost continent of Serkonos where the first murders by the ‘Crown Killer’ took place. On the journey, Emily or Corvo are visited (or revisited) by The Outsider, who places their mark upon them, granting them powers to help them undercover the conspiracy against Emily and, eventually, take down Delilah.

There’s a lot to like in Dishonored 2’s story, but I still felt a bit let down. The best storytelling in the series remains in the Daud DLCs for the original. I’ve only played as Emily so far (I’ll replay as Corvo at some point), but she’s a strong enough protagonist. I didn’t really get much sense for who she is as a person and the narrative opportunities inherent of playing a literal Empress hiding out among the poorest and most destitute in the furthest corner of her Empire isn’t really explored as fully as it should. The influence of this experience upon Emily and her approach to rule is touched upon, but it really should have been the emotional core of the story. As it stands, Dishonored 2 doesn’t really have an emotional core. The characters a likeable enough, but none are really given time to develop. Far too much world building is consigned to books and letters; these are fine as supplements, but I feel they’re a bit too central here. Dishonored 2 is an undoubtedly competent storytelling experience, but I kept waiting for a moment when the whole thing clicked for me and it never did. It’s a fascinating world that Arkane has created here, but it still feels a bit underused.

Mechanically things are largely unchanged. Emily does feel slightly different to play as than Corvo, but not drastically. The core mechanics were rock solid in the original and they’re rock solid here too. Teleporting all over the place never gets old. There are some little quality of life tweaks which I appreciated, such as the ability to easily quick save and quick load at almost any time. There are some stealth games which are more fun when things go wrong and you should just run with it, but I don’t think Dishonored 2 is one of those games. The ability to quickly reload after screwing up is a lovely little quality of life change. Possibly my biggest issue with the first Dishonored was the limited mana when it came to using your powers. I found myself regularly drained of the ability to use any powers. This happened far less in Dishonored 2. I don’t know if this is because your mana bar is larger, whether powers drain it less or simply that the potions which refill it are more plentiful, but it didn’t happen nearly as much as it did in the first game. Dishonored 2 is more about mechanical refinement rather than revolution, which is fine because that’s really all it needed.

The big step up can be found in the level design. Dishonored is at its best when in enclosed locations, mansions and palaces and the like. Prowling the streets is less fun and makes stealth far more a matter of trial and error. Karnaka’s streets are less annoying than Dunwall’s, but the best moments are still inside and the balance felt better tipped towards these sort of locations in Dishonored 2. The standout has been one of 2016 gaming’s big discussion points; The Clockwork Mansion. The Clockwork Mansion is the mansion of evil genius inventor Kiren Jindosh and is designed to change and transform with the pull of many different switches spread around the house, all powered by elaborate clockwork. This is the best level, but far from the only stand out. There are some wonderfully elaborate and devilishly complex locales which are a joy to explore. Hunting down collectibles is almost always boring, but Dishonored 2’s Runes and Bonecharms, found by equipping the possessed heart of the former Empress, are a joy to find. The first reason is that they’re actually useful; Runes are used to upgrade and unlock your abilities and Bonecharms provide passive bonuses. The second reason is that these Runes and Bonecharms are usually placed in interesting locations, locations which you’d almost certainly miss if you skipped the collectibles. Dishonored 2 nudges you towards fully experiencing its maps without making it feel like an obligation; a very tricky thing to pull off.

Dishonored 2 is a lovely looking game, even playing on my standard PS4. Karnaka is a location more to my taste than the rather drab Victorian London-esque setting of Dunwall. Karnaka feels a bit more Mediterranean, perhaps with elements of North Africa. There’s a visual flair to this game which makes prowling around it’s locations all the more immersive and exciting. The excitement of genuinely not knowing what weird thing you’ll see around the next corner is a huge draw, with no lacklustre locales like the original’s Flooded District. The voice acting is good, but hardly exceptional. It has a pointlessly all-star cast. Sam Rockwell plays a corrupt military commander, Pedro Pascal a gang leader and Rosario Dawson as the one who smuggles you out of Dunwall. They do a fine job, but no better than any professional voice actor would have done. We’re not quite as pointlessly star studded as Destiny (remember that Bill Nighy was in that game?), but the money spent on these big names would have been better spent on some more NPC voice actors, who recur over and over again.

Dishonored 2 is a major improvement on the first game, although I must say I still don’t really ‘get’ this series. I like it, but a lot of people love it and I just, well, don’t. Still, considering the quality of the first game’s DLC I’ll certainly be keeping my copy to see where they go next.

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