Book review: The Lantern Bearers, by Rosemary Sutcliff

The Lantern Bearers, a 1959 historical novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, is officially a children’s book. It is also one of the best, most mature stories I have read in a long time, with a simple but powerful appeal. When it comes down to it, most stories – books, films, games – show us the world as we would like it to be. Some show us the world as their creators think it is. Some show us the worlds we fear. But every so often, one will show us* the world as it really is. And in TLB, I feel lucky to have read one of those rare gems.


Set in fifth-century Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasions that followed the Roman withdrawal from that island, TLB tells the story of one Roman who stays behind to make a stand. Instantly, that tells us something. Regardless (no spoilers!) of what will happen to the characters, we know how this war will eventually end. We know the Roman Empire, both as a whole and in Britain, will collapse. We know the Dark Ages are about to descend. And that sense of changing times is imprinted on every page of TLB. It propels the world. It propels the plot. It, notably, propels the characters – the subtitle of this book could be, “Times change, and people change with them.” The realism with which they do is one of the book’s greatest strengths. This, I felt as I read it, is how people would really behave.

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Musical Monday: “Baba Yetu” (Civilization IV), composed by Christopher Tin

This week’s song is another golden oldie: “Baba Yetu”, the opening theme to 2005’s Civilization IV. Soaring, hopeful, filled with joy — this is the perfect celebration of civilisation, of our achievements in science and art and engineering. Sadly, the official music video below (with its footage taken from the game’s intro movies) also highlights the other half of Civ, our talent for finding new ways to kill each other, but that’s another story…


Note that the official music video uses the version of the song from the “Calling All Dawns” album. Enjoy!


Book review: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is the latest instalment in what is, probably, my single favourite speculative fiction series – Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan Saga. For 26 years, Bujold has chronicled her hero, frail-but-driven princeling Miles Vorkosigan, as he grew from a teenager desperate to prove himself into a mature, confident adult. In CVA, she switches tack to focus on one of the series’ supporting characters – Miles’ cousin and sometime sidekick, Ivan Vorpatril. I’ve been looking forward to this book for a very long time, so how did it compare to my expectations?

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This is brilliant – video game characters drawn in traditional Japanese style

“Rickshaw Cart”, by Jed Henry


Ukiyo-e Heroes, an art series by Jed Henry, takes a simple concept (how would the heroes of classic video games look if they were drawn in traditional Japanese woodblock style?) and executes on it brilliantly.  I love, for instance, the above riff on Mario Kart. Mario is clearly recognisable, but his garb, expression, body language, and of course, his vehicle have all been reimagined to fit the theme; the dimunitive Toad has become a rather scrawny rickshaw driver; and to cap things off, Mario and Bowser are pelting each other with period versions of, respectively, a red shell and Blooper the ink-filled squid.


You can view the other images in the series — Metroid, Sonic, Mega Man, Zelda, and more — at Jed’s site or at the series store. Unfortunately, at this point, it seems the only downloadable product at the store is a black-and-white colouring book ($10), while hardcopies are significantly more expensive (prints start at $40; and woodblock prints produced by Jed’s collaborator Dave Bull are $135). I’ve contacted Jed to ask if he plans to make a high-quality digital artbook available for purchase. Until then, enjoy the images on the site!


EDIT: Jed informs me via email that he “[thinks] a book will be coming in the next year or so”, so stay tuned!

Korean and Japanese pop culture

… I soon found myself in a delighted mob of fans, many of whom had been lined up since 8:30 am. Some had handmade signs: I LIKE LUHAN MORE THAN FREE WIFI, said one. They were well behaved, queuing quietly without complaint, despite most events and kiosks being crowded beyond belief or comprehension. The exception? The beer stand, whose two disgruntled-looking vendors said had sold exactly two brews all day. That’s because the vast majority of attendees were too young to drink, and looked even younger.


This from the WSJ‘s Speakeasy blog, which takes an interesting look at the relative fortunes that Japanese pop culture — music, anime/manga, and to a lesser extent, games  — and its Korean counterpart have enjoyed in the West. I don’t know enough about the Korean Wave to comment on that aspect, but certainly the discussion of anime rings true to me. Worth a read if you’re interested in Asian popular culture.

Humble Bundle for Android #4: The Highlights (Waking Mars, Swords & Soldiers, Crayon Physics)

A screenshot of Waking Mars. Credit: Tiger Style


So I’ve had a few days to play around with the current Humble Bundle, Android #4– by way of introduction, this offers Android, PC, and Mac copies of five indie games (Splice, Eufloria, Waking Mars, Crayon Physics Deluxe, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP) on a pay-what-you-want basis. Paying more than the average (currently $6.61) will add another six games: Machinarium, Avadon: The Black Fortress, Canabalt, Cogs, Swords & Soldiers HD, and Zen Bound 2.


Of these, I’ve dipped very briefly into Eufloria, Superbrothers, and Machinarium, but I’ve preferred to spend my time with Waking Mars, Crayon Physics (which I’ve owned on Steam for a while), and Swords & Soldiers (both on Android and on Steam). Brief thoughts below…


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Musical Monday: “Ryoshima Coast” (Okami), composed by Hiroshi Yamaguchi

With Okami HD now out for PS3, this is a great time to showcase another one of my favourite songs from the game. Where the Shinshuu Fields were the hub for the game’s first half, the Ryoshima Coast is the hub for the second half; its beautiful music is the perfect match for its visuals. Enjoy!


For Persona fans: Atlus cosplay!

Mariel Van Norman as Himiko from Persona 4. Credit: Soulfire Photography


Here’s something cool for the Persona fans — Atlus has announced the winners of its Halloween cosplay contest. There are some pretty striking photos at that link — I’ve excerpted one of the Grand Prize winner above, but there are plenty more. Enjoy!

Starbase Orion Android/PC port to be Kickstarted next year!

Good news, fellow Android gamers! Starbase Orion, Chimera Software LLC’s Master of Orion-style strategy game for iOS, may come to Android next year. I sent an email to developer Rocco Bowling, and this was his reply:


I will be holding a KickStarter campaign early next year to help raise funds to port SO to Android and PC.  If it gets funded, it’ll get ported!


So keep an eye out for that campaign, folks!

Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 6: SHIVs, Stopgaps and Archangels

This entry is part 8 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

The battle of Melbourne, June 2015, dealt a bitter blow to XCOM.  It left us down two countries and five soldiers (four of them amongst our finest veterans), and painfully exposed the inadequacies of XCOM equipment against the aliens’ latest toys. The laser weapons and carapace body armour that had served us so well, just a month or two ago, now look like a joke against Cyberdiscs. The new faces joining the squad are under-levelled marksmen of dubious skill.


But XCOM is a game about fighting back against the odds. This update is the story of how my survivors – a lopsided bunch, with too many snipers and too few heavies and support troopers – make do.


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How to turn your DVDs into video files you can enjoy on an Android device

This year I’ve had a lot of fun rewatching many of the anime series I discovered as a teenager, usually on my Asus/Google Nexus 7, which combines portability, reasonable price, and an attractive screen. However, my anime collection is on DVD, so it takes a little bit of time to get shows off the disc and onto my tablet. Luckily, that’s all it takes – time! The process is easy, simple, and won’t cost you a cent (beyond the outlay of buying the DVDs, of course).

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Let’s Play XCOM: Enemy Unknown! Part 5: Pride Goeth Before a Fall

This entry is part 7 of 12 in the series XCOM: Enemy Unknown/XCOM 2

As Part 4 ended, things were going smooth as butter. XCOM’s soldiers were winning battle after battle, and coming home almost invariably in one piece. The strategic layer was under control, thanks to XCOM’s ample satellites and newly ample cash.


As June 2015 dawns, it seems fair to ask: what could possibly go wrong?

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Musical Monday: “Uncle Samurai” (Total War: Shogun 2: Fall of the Samurai), composed by Jeff van Dyck

While I was bitterly disappointed by Creative Assembly’s Fall of the Samurai, the stand-alone expansion to last year’s Total War: Shogun 2, its soundtrack was another matter. Series composer Jeff van Dyck turned in some of his best work to date, as seen in energetic battle theme “Uncle Samurai” (Uncle Sam + Samurai – geddit?). Enjoy!


Book review: The Scarab Path & The Sea Watch, by Adrian Tchaikovsky


The Scarab Path and The Sea Watch are respectively books 5 and 6 in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series. (You can find my review of book 1, Empire in Black and Gold, here; and my review of books 2-4 here. Start with the first book – individual entries don’t stand alone!)  While the two books feature different characters and take place on opposite ends of Tchaikovsky’s world, I’ve chosen to review them together because of how well they cast into relief the author’s strengths – and his weaknesses.


In a nutshell, Tchaikovsky’s strength is his imaginative setting. His brew of magic,  steampunk mad science, and creative, insect-themed fantasy races grabbed me from the very first page of book 1; that hold continues in #5 and #6, in which Tchaikovsky takes his characters to new and wondrous locales. Tchaikovsky’s weakness is his tendency to use that fascinating world as nothing more than a backdrop for generic fantasy plots, populated with largely generic fantasy characters.


This is where the difference between #5 and #6 becomes apparent. In #5,  Tchaikovsky plays to his strength and avoids his weakness. It is the closest he has come to a character-driven story – while there’s an exciting external conflict plotline, the heart of the novel is about two people trying to cope with the scars left by earlier books – and it works. The resulting sense of depth makes #5 by far my favourite in the series – even if I did giggle at one character’s overly melodramatic fashion sense.


Unfortunately, #6 didn’t live up to that. #6 has a strong middle section in which the characters explore their new surrounds, but my suspension of disbelief was badly marred by a ludicrously slimy early villain who did everything short of tying widows to lightning-powered train tracks. In general, #6 also feels far less character-driven, and far more action-driven, than #5 – in this regard it’s a throwback to the earlier books in the series, and that just isn’t something I enjoy as much as I did #5.


I concluded my review of parts #2-#4 by saying, “I do plan to check out the next book at some stage, and I hope Tchaikovsky learned his lessons.” I don’t think he did – or rather, he did for #5, only to seemingly forget them for #6. That leaves the series as interesting, original, readable beach/airport novels (almost literally – I read #5 and #6 during down time on my travels). Will they ever be more? After six books, I doubt it. But sometimes, a good beach novel is exactly what I need, and when I do, I will happily reach for Tchaikovsky #7.



Buy The Scarab Path (Book #5) from Amazon US

Buy The Sea Watch (Book #6) from Amazon US