Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is manga’s answer to Dune

The Nausicaa boxed set. Source: Amazon

Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind is a magnificent science-fiction manga, richer and more complex than the movie of the same name. Both the manga (1982-1994) and the movie (1984) chronicle the adventures of Nausicaa, a courageous young princess and aviator who becomes the saviour of a devastated world. While the movie is better-known, the manga benefits from being able to explore its world and characters at greater length — and in greater depth.

The closest Western equivalent is Dune, in terms of themes, epic sweep, and at times, a penchant for the surreal. Both stories are concerned with ecology and the environment: the desert and its sandworms in Dune, a poisonous forest and its guardian insects in Nausicaa. Both stories involve prophecy, the fall of empires, and a vast, often geographically separated cast. What distinguishes Nausicaa is Miyazaki’s worldview: there are few truly wicked characters in his works. Even scheming, selfish characters often discover a hidden side. Instead, the true villains are hatred, anger, and sometimes, sheer stupidity.

The multi-layered story permits multiple characters to shine. Like Paul Atreides in Dune, Nausicaa is a messianic figure who rallies downtrodden tribes, benefits from prophecy, and forms bonds across species. Unlike Paul, Nausicaa is a pacifist, and her concern for all living beings — plants, insects, and humans of every nation — is her defining trait throughout the story. Meanwhile, the most interesting character is Princess Kushana, promoted from the movie’s villain to the hero of a parallel plotline. Where Nausicaa operates on the level of the mythic, Kushana concerns herself with temporal power. Where Nausicaa benefited from a loving family, Kushana has been hardened by vicious court intrigue. And where Nausicaa’s circle of concern touches the whole world, Kushana’s initially focuses on the men under her command. Kushana’s story arc makes her both a useful foil to Nausicaa and my favourite character.

The first page of Nausicaa. Source: Viz Media 2012 edition

Art occasionally difficult to follow. While factions are distinguished by garb (and in one case, by speech bubbles in a different font), I found similarly dressed minor characters difficult to tell apart. Meanwhile, action scenes often required me to page back and forth to work out what was going on. This is one area where the coloured, animated movie has an edge over the manga.

Recommended for science fiction fans. Epic, engrossing, and imaginative, the Nausicaa manga is available in English as a handsome two-volume hardcover boxed set (Viz Media, 2012).

Remembering Terry Pratchett, 1948-2015

I discovered Terry Pratchett when I was a teen.

I knew of him before then. I spent a lot of time in bookshops, haunting the fantasy & science fiction aisles, and the garish, glorious covers of his books stood out. I think I even played one of the spin-off adventure games. It wasn’t until The Last Hero, released in 2001, that I actually read one of his books. I’ve been a fan ever since.

Pratchett was very funny. I still laugh when I think about the unhygienic frying pan (containing one single nutrient, crying because it was all alone). As observed in many obituaries, he was also remarkably humane. Fantasy and science fiction are packed with unreasoning monsters — “always chaotic evil”, in the old parlance of Dungeons & Dragons. Not Pratchett. Everyone in his novels is a person: sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes bigoted or stupid, never mindless. Sometimes, Pratchett played this for laughs, as with vampires who’ve given up drinking human blood. Sometimes, it could underpin an entire story, as in the case of troll vs dwarf racism. And his talents extended beyond Discworld. Readers of this blog might be interested in Only You Can Save Mankind, a clever riff on Wing Commander (and video games more generally). What happens when the aliens decide they’ve had enough of being slaughtered by the player?

Individual Pratchett books were hit or miss. As a whole, his work was great. If asked to pick favourites, I would name two from Discworld: Guards! Guards! and Night Watch, written thirteen years apart. Both star the same character, veteran policeman Sam Vimes. When we meet Vimes in Guards, he’s a pathetic drunk, worn down by a thankless, dangerous career; amongst other things, Guards is the story of Vimes rediscovering his duty. Guards isn’t very deep, and it doesn’t delve into the serious themes that the later books do. It’s also, for me, the single funniest thing Pratchett has written, spoofing everything from secret societies to heroes who always win when the odds are a million to one. Night Watch, in which an older, tougher Vimes finds himself caught up in a revolution, is a different beast — topical, in light of the last few years, and far more serious. The Vimes of Night Watch wears a lilac to commemorate fallen friends; I thought it would be appropriate to use a picture of a lilac to accompany this post.

We are the poorer for Pratchett’s death. I find myself thinking of his take on the afterlife, and specifically, what happens (spoiler warning) to an old schoolteacher who tags along with a group of ageing barbarians. The deceased barbarians can look forward to Valhalla, the teacher knows, but he’s rather surprised when after dying a hero’s death, the Valkyries carry him away to the barbarians’ afterlife. I’m sure the Muses themselves would have showed up for Pratchett.

RIP, Sir Terry. By now, I bet you have the Muses crying with laughter.Lilac

What I’ve been reading

  1. An Elephant for Aristotle, by L Sprague de Camp (novel) A troop of horsemen from Alexander the Great’s army transport an elephant from India back to Greece. Unfortunately, this is one more historical novel whose premise is better than its execution. A long way from the author’s best book; it could really have done with the humour and charm that characterise his speculative fiction.
  2. Girl Genius (webcomic) – For the last couple of weeks, I’ve binged on this long-running “gaslamp fantasy”, whose heroes inhabit a world where seemingly every mad scientist trope is true (at one point, two characters agree that the best way to cure a third is to kill him… and then bring him back to life); the heroine herself is the heir to the maddest, baddest scientists there were. GG is colourful, imaginative, and often funny. It also labours under the weight of a rambling plot, with a new complication or cliffhanger every few pages. I suspect part of the problem is that GG is an ongoing, serialised work, and hence not constrained by the need for concision! Still, worth a look for speculative fiction fans.

The Milkweed Triptych, by Ian Tregillis

One of the best speculative fiction covers I’ve seen in a while. Sadly, the US publisher switched cover artists after the first book.
One of the best speculative fiction covers I’ve seen in a while. Sadly, the US publisher switched cover artists after the first book.

The Milkweed Triptych, by Ian Tregillis, comprises three novels: Bitter Seeds, The Coldest War, and Necessary Evils. Together, they form proof that a good author can outshine the most hackneyed premise.

The trilogy takes place in a world where Nazi Germany fields superpowered warriors and a desperate Britain responds with forbidden magic. In the hands of 99% of authors, the result would have been pulpy, campy, trashy. Not here. While the three books are quite different (in tone and even in genre1) from one another, they nonetheless form a clever, often dark, and surprisingly restrained story – and it is a single story; each book is one part of the greater whole, not a standalone.

Unfortunately, it’s hard to explain what’s so clever about the series without getting into at least mild spoilers. Here’s the spoiler-free version: the action, which is spectacular in both senses of the word, is just the tip of the iceberg. The world is well-drawn – I have seen utterly unconvincing works where the author dumped superpowers, or magic, or the paranormal into a real-world setting without the least bit of thought about how this would have affected history 2. Tregillis doesn’t make the same mistake – it helps that his prose and research are both generally good 3. And his characters are vivid. When one managed to find happiness after a lifetime of misery, I wanted to cheer. When a particularly unlikeable soul found himself the butt of the author’s black humour, I laughed. When the tension mounted, I was almost afraid to find out what would happen next.

Beyond that, I do recommend going in blind. Trust me – they’re good! I look forward to Tregillis’ next project, a “fantasy clockpunk trilogy that has an element of alternate history”.

  1. The third book is more of a conventional action/adventure story than the earlier two, right down to the generic “angry man with a gun” cover art. This has earned it a number of lukewarm reader reviews; I think it’s still pretty good, and it derives emotional heft from the first two books.
  2. The most egregious culprit I can think of, offhand, would be Daniel O’Malley’s The Rook.
  3. Based on other reviews, I understand that the author messed up several details of daily life in Britain. I also found the worldbuilding more convincing in book 1 than in book 2. Other than that, I thought the research in the first book, in particular, was excellent. The author nailed a very minor detail that I only picked up because I read some crunchy, specialist WW2 histories earlier this year.

From the archives: Storytelling in Star Control II: Playing space detective

Star Control 2 is a classic of the early 1990s, with a great sense of humour, robust gameplay, and unique, non-linear story progression — the player had to gather clues and do his or her own footwork in order to work out where to go next. That last was the subject of this piece, which I wrote back in December 2010. It became the site’s first hit article, with almost 7,000 views in one month, and I’m quite pleased with how it turned out. Enjoy! 

 

If you were a hero, tasked with saving the world from an overwhelming menace, how would you go about it? You would gather information about your foe. You would arm yourself with the best weapons possible. You would recruit allies to your banner. And while you might wish for these things on a platter, in order to find them, you would have to explore the world. You would seek out clues and piece them together, one hint leading you to the next, until you found what you were searching for.

 

No game captures this experience as well as Star Control II (SC2), the 1994 game from Toys for Bob (rereleased for free as The Ur-Quan Masters). SC2 cast you as a starship captain from a long-lost settlement, given command of a rediscovered ancient wonder weapon. As far as you know at the start of the game, your objective is simple: journey to Earth with your starship, rejoin the fleet, and help defend humanity against the alien Ur-Quan. And after one of the best opening plot hooks I have seen in a game, the stage is set for you to explore the galaxy in pursuit of that goal. Along the way, expect a fantastic storytelling experience, delivered through a combination of (a) top-notch writing and (b) gameplay mechanics that place the responsibility for uncovering that story in your hands.

 

Read on…

Book review: Rivers of London/Midnight Riot, Moon over Soho, & Whispers Under Ground, by Ben Aaronovitch

Rivers of London coverLast week, I read an urban fantasy novel, Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London (released in the US as Midnight Riot), about a modern London constable who becomes apprentice to the last sorcerer on the force. The very next day, I read its sequel, Moon over Soho. And the day after that, I read the third in the series, Whispers Under Ground. Three books in three days – they’re that good! And that addictive.

 

To start, I should get my one criticism of these books out of the way: their plots do not hang together very well, with Rivers of London being the most egregious offender. However, Aaronovitch writes with such exuberance that I can forgive him the wayward plots. What does he do right? That’s a longer list.

Continue reading “Book review: Rivers of London/Midnight Riot, Moon over Soho, & Whispers Under Ground, by Ben Aaronovitch”

Book review: Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones

Castle in the Air coverOnce upon a time, in the land of Zanzib, there lived a young carpet merchant named Abdullah. Abdullah’s life was safe but dull, and his only excitement came when he daydreamed himself to be a long-lost prince. Then one day, a man offered to sell him a magic carpet…

 

Castle in the Air is a 1990 children’s novel by the sadly deceased Diana Wynne Jones. It’s billed as a sequel to the better-known Howl’s Moving Castle, but it stands alone very well – I did fine despite having forgotten pretty much everything about Howl. In fact, Howl fans might be advised to approach this as a separate story – Amazon reader reviews suggest the two books are only tangentially connected.

 

Connection or no connection, this is a book that does well on its own merits as a light-hearted romp through a fairy-tale world. Castle in the Air is the kind of book where chapter after chapter, the hero escapes from the frying pan only to land in the fire. The surprise, and the fun, lie in discovering how he makes it out each time! It helps that the characters are so vividly drawn. We’ve seen Abdullah’s archetype – the dreamy lad whose wish for adventure comes true – a thousand times before, but Jones breathes life and charm into him all the same. Consider this description of Abdullah’s imaginary backstory: Continue reading “Book review: Castle in the Air, by Diana Wynne Jones”

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?

Continue reading “Book review: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance, by Lois McMaster Bujold”

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.

 

Resources

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

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

 

 

Anime’s reclusive cousin: what happened to light novels?

Japan is best known in western geekdom for her video games, anime, and manga, but from time to time, we see the novels (often illustrated YA “light novels”) that inspired some of these works. These usually come out in the West under the auspices of manga publishers: transhuman space opera Crest of the Stars, coming-of-age fantasy The Twelve Kingdoms, and high-fantasy spoof Slayers were released by the now-defunct Tokyopop, while economic fantasy Spice and Wolf (my review here) is published by Hachette’s manga/graphic novels imprint, Yen Press. (One exception is Moribito, published by Scholastic.) Yet in the West, these are nowhere near so well known as their adaptations – it’s reasonably common for science fiction, fantasy, and video game geeks to watch anime; rather rarer for them to read the source novels. Why?

 

I can think of several potential explanations:

 

Poor quality? At first glance, this is an unlikely culprit – the respective anime adaptations of Crest, Twelve Kingdoms, and Moribito are all excellent, at least as good as any live-action Western competition. If there’s a problem, it must be peculiar to the books – such as prose. The only one I’ve read, Spice, suffers from a weak localisation, and one Amazon review suggests that so does  Crest, but without further data I couldn’t say if the problem is more widespread. Still, a possibility.

 

Lack of Kindle availability? Ebooks have been a boon for mid-tier fiction, yet none of the books I mentioned above is available for Kindle! (At least in the case of Spice, its few illustrations are no excuse; they’re mostly black-and-white, which the Kindle screen can handle.)  I don’t think this is individually decisive, and certainly there are light novels that buck the trend by appearing on Kindle, but it surely can’t help.

 

Poor market positioning? I have not seen these books marketed at all beyond the manga crowd, despite their potential appeal to science fiction and fantasy buffs! The closest they’ve come has been the Spice novels, which use photorealistic dust jackets to conceal manga-style covers. This seems the most likely suspect to me – if sf/fantasy communities aren’t even discussing these books, even to say “they’re bad!”, that suggests the problem is awareness.

 

For whatever reason(s) it occurs, this phenomenon is too bad – not only do some of these works deserve to be better known, but I’d like to see the fruits of creative cross-pollination. And if any readers are familiar with these markets, I’d love to hear your insights. Either the problem is not so easy as I’ve made it sound – or else there is an opportunity here, waiting for somebody to grab it…

Book review: Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

 

Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark are respectively books 2-4 in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Shadows of the Apt series, and the quickest way for me to describe them would be “more of the same”. Together with book 1, they constitute a distinct story arc within the overarching series, and as #2-#4 in particular feel like one giant novel, I have chosen to review them in a group.  (You can find my review of book 1, Empire in Black and Gold, here.)

 

These books are “more of the same” in a literal sense: they follow the same protagonists along the same story arc begun in Empire in Black and Gold. They are epic fantasies, and they offer an imaginative world with some spectacular set-pieces. And they represent an improvement over the first book in one small but noticeable way – no more head-hopping!

 

Unfortunately, they also offer too much of the same in one key way. Where Empire’s plot was strong and tightly focused, its sequels introduce a common genre problem: sprawl. Over these books, the characters fan out across the world, meeting new faces, discovering new locations, and getting into subplot… after subplot… after subplot. I didn’t care for all of these, but I’m willing to concede that’s a matter of taste; besides, I loved one particular subplot, almost Miyazaki-like in its evocation of a brotherhood of aviators. The problem isn’t so much the quality of the subplots as their quantity: they slow down the story to a crawl, culminating in a weak book 3/early book 4.  It doesn’t help that the sequels fall into another genre trap, noticeable character plot armour, that the first book cleverly sidestepped.

 

In the second half of book 4, though, Tchaikovsky rediscovers his muse. The subplots come together, the action speeds up, the story arcs incubating since book 2 finally come to fruition, and the plot armour vanishes. And this is what redeems these books. At that magic moment in book 4, I went from dissatisfied to newly enthralled, and that momentum carried me through to the end.

 

Ultimately, these books aren’t quite what I’d hoped: compared to his debut, I think Tchaikovsky took two steps forward and one big step, labelled “PACING”, back. Nonetheless, they finish well enough to be worth a look for people who enjoyed book 1. I do plan to check out the next book at some stage, and I hope Tchaikovsky learned his lessons.

 

You can buy Dragonfly Falling, Blood of the Mantis, and Salute the Dark from Amazon US.

 

 

Book review: Empire in Black and Gold, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

The city states of the Lowlands have lived in peace for decades, bastions of civilization, prosperity and sophistication. They have been protected by treaties, trade and a belief in the reasonable nature of their neighbours.

But meanwhile, in far-off corners, the Wasp Empire has been devouring city after city with its highly trained armies, its machines, its killing Art . . . And now its hunger for conquest and war has become insatiable. Only the ageing Stenwold Maker, spymaster, artificer and statesman, can see that the long days of peace are over. It falls upon his shoulders to open the eyes of his people – as soon a black-and-gold tide will sweep down over the Lowlands and burn away everything in its path.

But first he must stop himself from becoming the Empire’s latest victim.

– Official blurb for Empire in Black and Gold

 

Empire in Black and Gold, the first book in the Shadows of the Apt series, is a promising epic fantasy novel by Adrian Tchaikovsky. While Tchaikovsky uses the genre’s basic building blocks – a formidable danger, an oblivious civilisation, plucky heroes between the two, and cool set-pieces – he creates something new and fresh by dragging those old tropes into the industrial age.

 

Tchaikovsky’s prose, characterisation, and plotting are solid. None of these will win any awards, but they get the job done. I cared about the protagonists – the beautiful swordswoman and her plain sister, the nerdy engineer and the laughing dandy, the ageing mentor and the few surviving comrades of his generation. I was intrigued by their antagonist, a spy/secret policeman. I wanted to know what happened next, and when I powered ahead, the prose mostly stood out of my way. Tchaikovsky does have a jarring habit of head-hopping (switching from one point-of-view character to another within the same scene), but I grew used to this after a while. Otherwise, his writing carries the book through both fight scenes and quiet moments.

 

Where the book shines is in the power of the author’s imagination; with seemingly every page, right to the very end of the book, I would find something new to delight me. Two things exemplify this. First, the fusion of magic and technology. Smoke-bellowing, tank-like battering rams pound city gates into the dust; winged infantrymen drop down amidst hot-air balloons; ballista operators shoot it out with fireball-throwers. It’s a breath of fresh air in a genre that, even after breaking out of D&D pseudo-medieval settings, is still stuck largely in a pre-industrial age. Second, its assortment of fantasy races: not elves and dwarves, but humans who took on the aspect of totem insects.  Winged, child-sized Flies are excellent couriers and scouts, Beetles are unglamorous but inventive, Spiders are attractive but devious, Ants share a telepathic link, and so on. This is the originality with which good speculative fiction is made.

 

Overall, Empire in Black and Gold isn’t the best fantasy book ever, but I had a lot of fun with its combination of (a) external conflict, (b) a weird and wonderful setting, and (c) decent execution. Recommended to genre fans, and I look forward to reading the rest of Tchaikovsky’s work.

 

You can buy Empire in Black and Gold from Amazon US here.

 

Book review: The Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge

The Children of the Sky, Vernor Vinge’s latest science-fiction novel, is the direct sequel to A Fire Upon the Deep (my review here). As such, I wouldn’t recommend starting the series with this book! That said, if you are familiar with Fire, I don’t think you need to re-read it – I enjoyed Children despite having read Fire so long ago, I only remembered its general premise.

 

Whereas Fire took place on two levels – a galactic storyline ran in parallel to events on the world of the Tines, the book’s featured alien species – Children takes place solely amidst the latter. Its plot was interesting enough to keep me reading, but I have a couple of complaints.  One, not only does the ending suffer from “middle book syndrome”, but the lack of resolution felt a bit strange to me in light of previous developments. If A, B, and C already happened, then surely <character>’s fate shouldn’t have been left open? Two, while Vinge normally writes effective villains – his future totalitarians in A Deepness in the Sky were far more chilling than lesser authors’ Space Nazis/Commies – he slips here. One villain in Children was so slimy, and in such a way, that it felt as though Vinge was trying too hard to manipulate the reader’s (my) emotions. (This character also represents something of a missed opportunity – had he been less black-and-white, I think that would have given one plotline a bit more heft.)

 

However, that one villain is the exception. Otherwise, Vinge’s characterisation and “micro”-level writing cement him in the top tier of space opera authors, and he particularly shines at depicting aliens. I could simply list what I like about his writing – clever concepts, lively dialogue, likeable aliens – but it would probably be more effective to point you to this excerpt from chapter one.

 

Notice how many things Vinge does right in that excerpt. He gives a clear sense of the characters’ personalities, right down to the doorman. He gives an especially clear sense of Tycoon’s personality, first through the environment Tycoon has created, then through others’ reactions, and finally through the introduction of Tycoon himself. He gives a good sense of the world, starting with the contrast between servants/merchants/royalty and the word “factory district”, and he gives a great sense of how humans might look through another species’ eyes. All that just from the first two and a half thousand words!

 

Of course, Vinge doesn’t fire on all cylinders for every page; that excerpt is probably one of the better scenes. But even if the book as a whole is probably “decent” or “good” rather than “great”, its best sequences are sheer delight. That delight is what I remember when I look back on The Children of the Sky, and that delight is what makes me recommend it, despite my complaints, to series fans.

 

You can buy The Children of the Sky from Amazon US here.

 

Book review: Spice and Wolf Volume 1, by Isuna Hasekura

Travelling merchant Kraft Lawrence dreams of amassing enough money to open a store in town – but for now, his life is dangerous and lonely, his home simply the back of his wagon. Meanwhile, for centuries Holo the wolf goddess ministered to a small village as its harvest deity – but now the villagers have a jealous new God, and new methods of farming. Neither needed nor wanted, Holo decides to return to her distant birthplace, and which travelling merchant should be around for her to hitch a hike?

 

Spice and Wolf is a series of Japanese light novels – I think the closest Western analogy is “young adult novels with a handful of illustrations” – following the adventures of the duo. It’s perhaps better known in the West for its two-season anime adaptation (the first novel overlaps with episodes 1-6 of the anime), whose first season I watched when it came out a few years ago. However, my enjoyment was marred by poor fansubs, and so when I saw the first novel available in English, I grabbed it. I’m happy to report it met my expectations.

 

The heart of the book is the dynamic between the two main characters. Holo is teasing, gluttonous, sometimes temperamental, undoubtedly difficult – but also shrewd, loyal, and usefully for the duo, able to supernaturally sort truth from lies. She has enough of the capricious deity in her to make her feel convincingly alien; not enough to prevent her from being sympathetic. Lawrence is the more level-headed of the two, a hard-working, kind-hearted Everyman. Their banter is a delight to read – and so is how, when the chips are down, they come through for each other.

 

Plotwise, the book stays true to Lawrence’s occupation: this has to be the only fantasy novel in existence about currency trading. Conspicuously absent are dark lords, evil emperors, conquering armies, and other staples of the genre. The world is pseudo-Medieval Europe, with little in the way of magic or intelligent non-humans – so far, Holo is the only example of either category. Both appear done reasonably well*, with especial kudos for the original subject matter of the plot – I’d like to see more along those lines! The prose is a bit clunky, but I stopped noticing after the first chapter or so. I do like the slightly archaic feel of Holo’s dialogue, compared to Lawrence’s – it’s consistent with their respective ages. Lastly, a note about the cover: it’s racier than the book’s contents. Luckily, taking off the dust jacket reveals the original Japanese manga-style picture of a fully clothed Holo, which could be useful in avoiding misunderstandings!

 

Ultimately Spice and Wolf: Volume 1 is a short read, but it’s a very enjoyable one. As one of the few (maybe the only?) “economic fantasy” novels I’ve seen, it occupies a severely underused niche; even defining it more broadly as a novel about “everyday life in a fantasy world” still makes it fairly unique. Add interesting, likeable characters, and the end result is a book that should appeal well beyond fans of the anime. Recommended.

 

You can buy Spice and Wolf, Volume 1 from Amazon US here.

 

* With the disclaimer that I don’t know enough about real-world medieval trade to spot any inaccuracies.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

 

Book review: Fatherland, by Robert Harris

Berlin, 1964. Germany crushed Britain and Russia, won the Second World War, spent the next two decades locked in a cold war with the United States. Hitler’s 75th birthday is approaching, just in time for a new detente with the US. And German detective Xavier March has just been called in to investigate the discovery of a body in an exclusive neighbourhood, which will kick off events further-reaching than March could have dreamed…

 

I found Robert Harris’ novels about Cicero and the Roman Polanski film based on another of his books (The Ghost Writer) enjoyable but nowhere near great. But his first novel, Fatherland, showed me why the man is a bestseller.

 

Fatherland’s characters won’t win any awards for originality. Xavier March himself – middle-aged, at a career dead-end, estranged from his ex-wife and son, cynical about the Nazi Party – is straight out of central casting. The rest of the cast falls into equally familiar archetypes, from spunky journalist to Nazi brutes. And I suspect a veteran thriller reader would be able to say the same about the plot – even as a novice to the genre, a number of Fatherland’s plot developments felt awfully familiar, and I was even able to guess one of the major twists.

 

The real star is the dystopic setting. “The Nazis win WW2” is the most hackneyed of alternate histories, and I have a couple of niggles with Harris’ timeline, but none of that detracts from the book. Harris brings his setting to life with skilful detail, sometimes through March’s observations, sometimes through casual remarks, sometimes through well-written and interesting infodumps. We see March’s fellow Germans cringe from his SS uniform, we see the values of Nazi society reflected everywhere from the personals ads of March’s newspaper to the “crimes” investigated by some of his colleagues, we see how March’s devoutly Nazi son loves touring Berlin to admire Albert Speer’s post-war architecture, we hear rumours of the atrocities committed by March’s counterparts in the Gestapo. And this is more than background colour. The setting, plot and characters, stock though they might individually be, combine to create a work of chilling power.

 

It is that chill which makes Fatherland so effective. This is not a feel-good book, except in the sense that it should make you grateful that history unfolded the way it did. But even knowing its biggest reveal before I started (this has to be one of the few spoiler-free reviews of Fatherland on the internet) did nothing to diminish the bleak horror when it did unfurl. And guessing much of its ending hasn’t prevented the book’s final moments from lingering with me. A worthwhile read.

 

 You can buy Fatherland from Amazon here

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

Book review: The Mistborn Trilogy, by Brandon Sanderson

THE MISTBORN TRILOGY

Brandon Sanderson

 

After really enjoying a short story by Brandon Sanderson, “Firstborn”, I had high hopes for another set of his works, the Mistborn trilogy (comprising Book 1, Mistborn; Book 2, The Well of Ascension; and Book 3, The Hero of Ages). Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

 

At its core, the Mistborn trilogy is a Traditional Fantasy Series. While there are no elves, dwarves, or orcs, there are superpowered teenage heroes and sinister dark lords. What distinguishes it is the bunch of clever twists that Sanderson adds to the formula. As such, he is strongest as an “ideas guy”. This is visible in the way the first book overlays bits of the heist genre onto the fantasy template; the alternatives to the stock fantasy races; the magic system that’s almost RPG-like in its depth; the little and not-so-little plot twists; and more.

 

Unfortunately, Sanderson is not very good at the nuts and bolts of writing*. He is not very good at scene construction (with the exception of action scenes), he is not very good with prose, and in particular, he is not very good with dialogue, which often sounds stilted and didactic. Almost any of the speculative fiction authors I’ve read in the last few years – to name a few, Bujold, Kay, Lynch, Morgan, Abercrombie, Vinge, Powers, Martin, maybe even Erikson – could beat Sanderson at the micro level. This also hurts his characterisation – for example, I found it hard to remember which member of the heist crew was which, and I ended up skimming one important character’s chapters in book 2 because I found his conversations so inane.

 

Going book by book, the first novel is the best. The magic system is fresh, the plot is tight, and the fights are well-spaced and thrilling. The second book is the weakest by far. While it starts with an interesting premise (what happens after the superpowered teenage heroes succeed?), it suffers from an acute case of the Idiot Plot as said heroes spend the book blundering, moping about their love lives, and generally making a hash of things. The third book falls in between – while a lot better than the second, the sprawling subplots and the increasingly draggy fight scenes are a far cry from the first book.

 

Ultimately, while the first book in particular is worth a look if you do like Traditional Fantasy Series, the novels can’t do justice to the nifty ideas they contain. While there are plenty of worse speculative fiction authors, there are also plenty of better ones, both at the pulpy and at the Great Novel ends of the spectrum. And while Sanderson’s weak prose is not the sole culprit, it’s certainly a major one**.

 

You can buy Book 1, Mistborn, from Amazon here.

 

* Or at least he wasn’t at the time he wrote this series. I have heard his prose subsequently improved, but not having read any of his other novels, I cannot attest to whether this is true.

 

** As such, this trilogy would have worked much better in a visual medium. This also explains why I prefer Sanderson’s short fiction – short stories are briefer and idea-driven, which plays to his strengths.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

 

Guiltless Pleasures: Conan the Barbarian

For some viewers, Conan the Barbarian (1982) is something to watch while intoxicated: entertaining but not good. While I agree it’s flawed, I think it deserves better than to be thrown into the “guilty pleasures” bucket.  True, the movie is not finely nuanced, morally ambiguous, or character-driven. Its revenge-centred plot is as simple as they come. There is never a moment’s doubt as to who is the hero or who is the villain. It’s often melodramatic, it’s gory, and it doesn’t even resemble the original short stories.

 

What rescues the movie is its ambition – it tries so hard to be a serious, gritty, low-fantasy epic. It doesn’t quite succeed, for the reasons I named above, but it comes close enough to nail the feel of what it would be like to live in such a world. Conan’s foes – slavers, witches, demonic snake cults – imply how cheap life would be, both through their nastiness and through the suddenness with which they intrude. The visuals hint at an untamed world in other ways – the wilderness is vast and harsh, the cities are worn, teeming, chaotic. The soundtrack, stirring and bombastic during battle, gentler when Conan and sidekick are travelling, is worth the price of admission all by itself. The various bodybuilders cast in the movie – led by Arnie, the living, breathing embodiment of physical power – fit perfectly into the setting. Even all that fake blood serves a point – this is not a dainty world. The movie’s final image, a brooding, older Conan sitting on a throne, promised a sweeping story arc just waiting to be told.

 

We never saw the rest of that story. Instead, we ended up with Conan the Destroyer (now that would be a guilty pleasure, if I thought it were any good) and now the new Jason Momoa vehicle, which I haven’t seen but which the critics hate. There have been other good fantasy movies in the last 30 years, but none of the ones I’ve seen have brought a world to life quite as well as the original Conan the Barbarian. This was a movie that excelled at worldbuilding, and for that reason, I feel no shame for holding it up as an example of the genre.

Guiltless pleasures: John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice series

Formulaic movies. Shallow novels. Glitchy video games. Not the most promising material. Yet even these will have their fans. Some will have differences of opinion. Some, in between gales of laughter, will mumble: “So bad it’s good!” And some will grin shamefacedly and mutter about guilty pleasures. I have my fair share of works that fall into categories #1 and #2, but I am always short of examples to offer when the subject turns to guilty pleasures. And that is because, for me, they’re something of a contradiction in terms. A work of entertainment will succeed for me if it hits the right notes across several categories – in the case of books, these would be “story”, “characterisation”, “worldbuilding”, “themes” and “prose quality”. If I’m enjoying it, then that implies it must have at least some redeeming features. And if I can point to some place where it “objectively” does well, then there is no guilt.

 

My best example here is John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice series (aka World War 2.0), a time travel/alternate history trilogy about a multinational fleet from the dystopic 2020s that gets hurled back to World War II, in the process inadvertently gutting the US fleet en route to the Battle of Midway. At first glance, the books are just trashy airport novels. The action is gory, the characters are paper-thin – to the point where a major character can die in between books – and the plotline is lubricated with a constant stream of Axis and Soviet atrocities, making it all the more satisfying when the Nazis do find themselves on the wrong end of cruise missiles. The author himself has been quoted as saying that the books “improve with altitude”. Yet for all this, I loved books 2 and 3, back during my student days – much more than I enjoyed many a more highbrow book. Surely this is the very definition of a guilty pleasure?

 

But that’s not the whole story. First, the latter two books in the series are good trashy airport novels. If the raison d’etre of an airport novel is to have a gripping plot, then those two deliver in spades – twists, turns, rising tension, thrilling finales. And second, the pulpy action is underpinned by some pretty intelligent thought experiments. When the modern coalition soldiers encounter their 1940s Allied counterparts, the racism, sexism and homophobia of the era come as a tremendous culture shock. Conversely, the “contemporaries” are at times, appalled by the ruthlessness their descendants have picked up in the course of fighting their shadowy war. The alternate history itself always struck me as well-thought out*, from the micro level (even given the blueprints, the Allies can’t build F-22s with a 1940s technological/industrial base, so what do they build instead? ) to the grand strategic decisions made by Roosevelt, Stalin, et al. So pulpy this series may be, but I feel no guilt about how much fun I had reading it. And I would even recommend it to readers who’d like a pulpy, action-packed pageturner with which to kill time. Say, while waiting for that flight?

 

 

* With the disclaimer that I am not an expert on WW2.

 

 

Next up: why Conan the Barbarian (the original movie) isn’t a guilty pleasure.

At long last… – my thoughts on ADWD

My copy of ADWD
At long last... my copy of ADWD

 

After six long years, I’ve finally read A Dance with Dragons. Here are my thoughts.

 

SPOILER WARNING – stay out if you haven’t finished the book.

Continue reading “At long last… – my thoughts on ADWD”

Spoiled by Greatness

When we want to praise a well-made device, a skilful cook, a more convenient way of doing things, anything, we commonly say, “It’s spoiled me.” Usually this is just a figure of speech. But as with many other clichés, there is a literal truth at the heart of this: sometimes, we really do find something so good that it takes away our ability to enjoy inferior alternatives. And I think this is the case with two of my preferred forms of entertainment, games and books.

 

My most recent gaming example is Total War: Shogun 2 (my verdict here); in mechanical terms, the best strategy game I’ve played in years. Shogun 2 didn’t just fix much of the Total War series’ traditional bugginess. It also fixed two endemic problems with the strategy game genre: the boring late game, and pointless diplomacy. Now, when I think about other games in the genre, I have a much more critical eye for those two issues (especially the former) after seeing them done correctly. One studio that might suffer as a result is Paradox Interactive. I’ve loved Paradox’s historical simulations for years and I have plenty of cool stories to tell about them (see, for example, my Byzantine adventures in Europa Universalis III), but they are not particularly fun after the early- to mid-game. So Paradox’s upcoming Crusader Kings 2 and especially Sengoku will have to surpass a bar that Shogun 2 set pretty high, and Paradox will have to work that much harder to convince me to buy them.

 

Something similar may have happened to me in books, although here it may simply have been that my taste improved as I grew up. When I discovered fantasy fiction in my early teens, I loved Raymond Feist’s tales of orphans-turned-sorcerers and swashbuckling young heroes. Then, over the years, I read George R R Martin, and Glen Cook, both of whom specialised in taking apart the traditional fantasy novel. Martin needs no introduction; Cook’s Black Company series depicts a traditional fantasy world, with centuries-old wizards capable of destroying armies in the blink of an eye – but from the perspective of the underdog, the common foot soldier. Now I can’t even remember the last time I glanced at my Feist collection. My tastes in space opera tell a similar story. I used to happily read military science fiction novels that were little more than glorified after-action reports. Then when I was 17, I discovered Lois McMaster Bujold’s space opera novels – character- rather than explosion-driven, hilarious, moving, brilliant* – and I didn’t look back.

 

You can even see my own writing reflect the above trends in my literary tastes, albeit, it seems, with a lag. The first decent story I wrote, back around 2005 or 2006, was a heroic fantasy Tale of High Adventure, set in a world awash in magic and starring a hero who’s stronger, more cunning, and more superpowered than his foes. By late 2008/early 2009, when I wrote the first draft of The First Sacrifice, things had come down to earth. Artorius of Cairbrunn, the main character of The First Sacrifice, might be tough, clever, and a spirit to boot, but he’s decidedly short on superpowers. (To stretch an analogy, Artorius is the Daniel Craig to my earlier imagined Conneries and Moores.)

 

I’m not so sure whether I’ve experienced the same phenomenon, of discovering the good and being unable to return to the mediocre, in other media. Anime went in the opposite direction –  I discovered most of my favourite anime within the first few years after I started watching the medium. While I am unable to enjoy the majority of anime, I think this is more because common anime tropes annoy me than because I’ve been “spoiled” by watching the cream early on. And I don’t really watch enough movies or TV, nor am I sufficiently analytical when I do, to be spoiled for lesser works.

 

Is this phenomenon a blessing or a curse? Often it feels like the latter, when I just can’t find anything that interests me. On the other hand, bypassing the uninspired is what allows us to have time for the truly good. And if being spoiled is the price that must be paid to encounter greatness, well, I think it’s one well worth paying.

 

* You can legally read most of Bujold’s space opera series, the Miles Vorkosigan saga, for free here. Highly recommended if you like space opera at all.

Announcing my short story: The First Sacrifice

Artorius of Cairbrunn hates being dead.

 

In life, he was a hero, protector to emperors and scourge of the barbarians, before he was betrayed and killed. Now, hundreds of years later, he’s been summoned back to the world of mortals — and telling hero from villain is not as simple as he once thought.

 

A heroic fantasy short story about right and wrong; fallen kingdoms and rising upstarts; love, loss, and the lengths to which we’ll go for those we care about.

 

You can buy The First Sacrifice for just US$0.99 or read a free sample at Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/70735) or at Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0059HBUM6). It’s available for Kindle (at Amazon) and in HTML, mobi, epub, PDF, RTF, LRF,  PDB and plain text (at Smashwords).

 

I also have ten (10) freebie coupons which I’ll email to the first ten people who comment and request them. I currently have nine coupons remaining.

 

I hope those of you who check out the story will enjoy it enough to recommend it to your friends. And if you’re thinking about ebook self-publishing, or you’re just interested in how it works, check out my fiction website!

One headline I’d like to see in a David Weber novel

The Honor Harrington series of space operas, by David Weber, features Space Commie bad guys who set out to conquer the galaxy when they realised their own treasury could no longer pay for bread and circuses to keep the mob happy. I can’t help but wonder, though, if events in the stories could have gone very differently…

 

***

 

BAILOUT IMMINENT FOR PEOPLE’S REPUBLIC OF HAVEN

 

This week, officials from the Interstellar Credit Fund arrived in the New Haven system to negotiate a bailout package for the People’s Republic of Haven. “We will never default on our debts,” said Chairman Pierre of Haven after meeting the ICF officials.

 

(PHOTO: The ICF delegation is greeted by anti-austerity protesters.)

 

Still, one policymaker close to the talks was sceptical. “Sure, the Havenites can trim their bloated defence budget,” said the policymaker. “Who do they think will invade them, anyway? But I question whether they have the political will necessary to reform their economy.” The source didn’t wish to be named, citing a lack of authorisation to speak publicly.

 

In other news…

A Game of Thrones’ bleakness, revisited

HBO has now aired three episodes of Game of Thrones in the US, and while it doesn’t show here until July (in time for A Dance with Dragons!), I have been following the discussion anyway. I am not at all surprised that some viewers characterise it as a bleak show — but I think this is an opportune time to dredge up my post from last year asking whether the franchise is really that grim.

 

(I don’t think the following vague comment counts as a spoiler, but just in case…)

 

Yes, it is violent. Yes, bad things can happen to people who deserve better. No, it is neither hopeless nor nihilistic, and that, to me, makes all the difference.

 

(And no, I don’t think this just means I have extreme standards for what counts as “bleak”…)

What are your favourite genres?

I have three questions for you guys reading this:

 

1.     What are your favourite genres in any medium (games, books, TV, movies, etc)?

 

2.     How have these changed over time?

 

3.     And why have these changed over time?

 

In my case, when it comes to games, I spend most of my time playing strategy and RPGs, but I’ll dabble in almost anything except sports – and many of my favourite games, such as Star Control 2, Okami, and God Hand, are neither strategy nor RPGs. My tastes were even broader when I was younger – I grew up playing Civilization and SimCity 2000, but also everything from Street Fighter 2 to Zelda: Link to the Past and Herzog Zwei. The subject matter of a game, more so than its genre, is what usually interests me, and it just happens to be the case that the narratives/historical periods/imaginary worlds that I find most appealing tend to be in strategy and RPGs.

 

When it comes to every other form of media, if you asked me one or two years ago I would have called myself a pure science fiction/fantasy buff, but since then I have identified less and less with that genre. Most of my recent book purchases have been history books, always a love of mine, and what fiction I have read has increasingly been historical fiction. I read these to satisfy my growing interest in trade, prosperity, the course of empire and the slow birth of the modern world, and these are issues for which I find speculative fiction increasingly irrelevant.

Book review: The Other Lands, by David Anthony Durham

THE OTHER LANDS

By David Anthony Durham

 

The Other Lands is the second book in the epic fantasy trilogy by David Anthony Durham that began with Acacia. And I’m glad to say it’s a far more engaging read than its predecessor, which was intelligent and original but also rather dry. The first book followed the children of the royal Akaran family, rulers of the kingdom of Acacia and hegemons of the known world, as they struggled through invasion, subjugation and finally liberation. By the time of The Other Lands, peace has descended again, but how long will it last?

 

Plotwise, The Other Lands is very obviously the Middle Book. Plenty of things happen, from palace plots to great hunts to lethal ambushes, but the net effect of these plot threads is to set the stage for Book 3. However, it is still fascinating to watch those threads unfold, and they leave off at precisely the right moment to make good cliffhangers. This all takes place in an elf-less, dwarf-less world that owes little or nothing to Tolkien or D&D. And while it’s not based on any particular period (unlike, say, Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical analogues) and eschews the ubiquitous quasi-medieval Western European setting for something more original (how many other fantasy novels feature a literal ‘opiate of the masses’?), it does have a historical flavour from its kings and queens, priests and exiled tribes.

 

Characterwise, The Other Lands gives us the usual fantasy cast of valiant warriors, depicted likeably enough, and a couple of rather more pathetic/despicable hangers-on – but also, rather more interestingly, a morally ambiguous monarch takes centre stage as one of the main characters. If you ever wondered what a less unsympathetic, more intelligent version of Cersei Lannister would be like, this is the book for you.

 

Theme deserves a special mention. At its heart, the first book was about principles versus realpolitik, and how hard it is for leaders to stick to the lofty road. It’s less prominent in the second novel, but it’s still there in the background, and the road paved with good intentions remains a key part of one character’s arc.

 

Overall, The Other Lands is a good novel, both readable and imaginative. Don’t start the Acacia series with this, but if you enjoyed the first book, then The Other Lands is well worth checking out.

 

You can buy The Other Lands from Amazon here.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

A Dance With Dragons: The good news and the bad news

So, George R R Martin has good news and bad news regarding A Dance With Dragons.

 

The bad news is, the book isn’t done yet.

 

The good news is, he’s so close to the finish line that we now have a specific release date – 12 July 2011.

 

I should be excited, but by this point, I’m too firmly lodged in the “I’ll believe it when I see it” camp to get my hopes up.

Book review: Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

UNDER HEAVEN

 

by Guy Gavriel Kay

 

“You gave a man one of the Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five of these glories to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank – and earn him the jealousy, possibly mortal, of those who rode the smaller horses of the steppes.”

 

Well, Shen Tai – hermit, son of a famous general, and the hero of Under Heaven, the novel by Guy Gavriel Kay set in a fictionalised version of Tang Dynasty China – has just been given two hundred and fifty.

 

I have mixed feelings about Under Heaven. This is a Kay novel, so at a “micro”, nuts-and-bolts level, the writing is very good. The characters are vividly drawn, from beggar to scheming minister to random foot soldier to Shen Tai himself. Even the least pleasant amongst them becomes sympathetic when we view the world through his or her eyes. The settings of the novel are distinct, from a haunted lake to the steppes to the splendours of the imperial capital. And Kay has a wonderful eye for the way the world works – the cruelty of random chance, the unfairness of history and folk memory, and on a happier note, the human capacity for kindness and loyalty and devotion.

 

My problem, rather, is with the big picture – the plot in which all those elements are wrapped. Under Heaven is not a George R R Martin or J R R Tolkien or Joe Abercrombie-style novel about Stuff Happening. It is not even a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, such as his earlier Tigana or The Lions of al-Rassan, about Stuff Happening. Rather, though Stuff Happens in the background*, Under Heaven’s plot structure is fundamentally not that of the conventional, three-act, build-to-a-climax-and-denouement novel. The story, for want of a better word, meanders through this beautifully described setting and past these beautiful people. For a lot of readers, this won’t be a problem. But it left me dissatisfied.

 

Was Under Heaven worth the money I paid, the time I sank in? Yes. I appreciated Kay’s sense for human nature and for life. I appreciated the worldbuilding, and a couple of the characters and scenes will stick in my mind. But it’s neither one of my favourite reads nor even my favourite Kay. All in all, worth a look – judging by the reception this book received, you may like it more than I – but I am glad that I waited for the paperback to take that look.

 

* If you know anything at all about Tang Dynasty history, you will be able to guess what that stuff concerns: I saw a major plot development almost right away, and all I know about the era is the name of one historical figure, his fate and that of a few of his contemporaries, and what its pottery looked like. The fact that this didn’t spoil Under Heaven for me, I think, reinforces my point about what the book isn’t about.

 

You can buy Under Heaven from Amazon here.

 

I hope you enjoyed this post! To quickly find this post, and my other reviews, click the “reviews” tab at the top of this page.

Magicka demo impressions: sadly, it’s the little things that count

Update: Following a patch, Magicka now allows you to save and quit at checkpoints (previously, quitting in mid-level would lose your progress). I now own the full game.

 

After hearing about Magicka, a newly-released game, on the Quarter to Three forums, I was intrigued. After reading this writeup of the game, courtesy of Rock Paper Shotgun, I had to try its demo. After actually playing the demo… well, I’m glad I tried before I reached for my wallet.

 

The gameplay itself is, no pun intended, a blast. Think of it as a Lina Inverse simulator: the game is about fighting off hordes of goblins, trolls, and other nasties by tapping out different magic elements on your keyboard/gamepad to produce different spells. So tapping earth will fling rocks at your foes. Tapping earth and fire will lob a fireball. Lightning and fire together will jump from foe to foe and set them alight. Cold and arcane will produce a beam that freezes enemies in their tracks. Water will make enemies (or yourself!) more vulnerable to subsequent lightning magic… The devastation you can unleash is enormous, and the gameplay, as you mash the spellcasting buttons, is suitably frantic.

 

No, the problem is the technical package in which the gameplay is wrapped. You can’t just save anywhere you please. At least during the demo, the game isn’t as generous as I’d like with checkpoints, so I can clear out a room, die on the next room, and have to play the first room all over again. But that pales in comparison next to the fact that you can’t save midway through a level, exit, and resume where you left off. And we are not talking about five-minute levels here –30-40 minute sessions weren’t enough for me to finish the first level. You can remap the keyboard and gamepad controls, and return the keyboard to its default – but I haven’t yet seen any ability to return the gamepad to its default. And multiplayer, a major selling point of the game, reportedly doesn’t work.

 

I understand the developer and publisher are aware of the complaints. A patch has already been released, and more are on the way. That said, I was not encouraged to read, on the Steam forum:

 

“A save option can’t be added without some serious investement in coding time.

we’d much rather spend that time on fixes, more polish and other requested features.”

 

I hope Magicka’s developer will quickly tidy up its infuriating problems, because I want to fully enjoy its potential. ‘Til then, I’m saving my $10.

Let me play a cyborg! The prevalence of high fantasy & classic space opera in games

Elf, dwarf, dragon, tavern.

 

Space pirate, FTL jump, space cruiser, space junk.

 

I’ve just summed up the settings of 50% of the science fiction and fantasy novels in existence. And I’ve also summed up the settings of 90% of Western* science fiction and fantasy video games.

 

These numbers are fictitious, of course, but I choose them to illustrate a point. High fantasy and space opera** are probably what most people associate with fantasy and science fiction, respectively, but they are a long way from comprising the entirety of the broader genres. On the other hand, they dominate gaming both old and new: to name just a few examples, consider Heroes of Might and Magic; Warcraft and its spinoffs; Master of Orion; Star Control 2 (as I discussed here); and Mass Effect, which I have running in the background as I write. These traditional settings can be done very well – Star Control is among my favourite games – but it should still be asked: why are they so prevalent?

 

In the case of fantasy, I suspect this is because the influence of D&D still runs strong, particularly in the RPG genre. And in any case, the situation is getting better; game developers are increasingly looking to the “modern” crop of epic fantasy authors for inspiration. At the AAA end of the spectrum, Dragon Age is pretty obviously influenced by George R R Martin; at the indie end, not only is Dominions 3 based off real-world mythologies (as I described here), but there’s even a minor spell inspired by the T’lan Imass from Steven Erikson’s Malazan series.  In another ten years, we might well see games inspired by Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, or Patrick Rothfuss.

 

Science fiction, on the other hand, doesn’t have that excuse. Sure, there’s probably a good reason why we don’t see hard science fiction games, but that still leaves a huge gulf. Where is the post-apocalyptic (other than Fallout and its predecessor, Wasteland), the near-future Mundane SF, the cyberpunk, the post-cyberpunk? Even when it comes to space opera, we mostly see the “classic” variety featuring a dozen alien species, but humans who are exactly the same as they are now, just with FTL drives. Where are the transhuman space opera games, with societies characterised by mass use of biotech (e.g. Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cetagandans; and the Abh from Crest of the Stars), AI, and/or cybernetics?

 

As a result, there’s a lot of untapped potential. Imagine a Ghost in the Shell knockoff where, like a 2050s version of 2K’s upcoming remake XCOM, you had to solve cybernetic/AI-related crimes around the country, gathering evidence of a master scheme along the way. Or a Europa Universalis-style strategy game where you had to manage political cohesion across an interplanetary, or even interstellar, nation, in the face of social change driven by biotech/AIs/the Singularity. Or, as I mooted a few months ago, a steampunk version of Space Rangers 2 in which you could fly an airship around the world, fighting pirates, embarking on quests, and playing mini-games. Originality wouldn’t even be the commercial kiss of death, if Dragon Age (over in the fantasy realm) is any indication.

 

Again, game developers, I throw down the gauntlet. You’ve let me play Aragorn and The Lady, Johnny Rico and Han Solo and Mon Mothma. Now let me play Motoko Kusanagi and Miles Vorkosigan and Prince Alek of Hapsburg. You’ve already created so many worlds of wonder for me; surely you can show me a few more varieties?

 

* Japanese games might have their own clichés, but they’re not the same as those favoured by Western developers.

 

** For the purposes of gaming, I’m lumping together military science fiction and space opera.