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: 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.

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.

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”…)

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.

Game of Thrones – news round-up

The last few days have seen quite a few Game of Thrones-related news items. A recap below:

  1. A Game of Thrones will premiere in the US on 17 April.
  2. HBO has released new publicity photos, visible here.  I particularly like the bottom-most picture, which is of Catelyn; it makes her look wise, sad, and strong.
  3. Courtesy of Winter is Coming: a list of stations outside the US which will broadcast the series. In Australia, the series will be on Showcase, “possibly in July”.
  4. Also from Winter is Coming, a summary of a fifteen-minute, non-public preview video (SPOILERS for the first few episodes).

US Versus UK Cover Art: Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes

I usually prefer UK (and, by extension, Australian) book covers to their US covers (see Discworld for an example of good British cover art), and Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes is no exception. Look at this UK cover: yes, it has an attention-grabbing axe and bloodstain, but the axe itself is almost photorealistically drawn and once you look past that, the detailed map says, “Fantasy novel!” without being garish about it. Now look at this US cover, and tell me it doesn’t make the book resemble a trashy slasher novel.

 

Which cover makes the book distinctive, in a good way? And which cover would you rather be seen with, in public?

Here comes the ten-minute look at Game of Thrones!

As promised by HBO, here’s the long “Inside Game of Thrones” video! It’s also up on Youtube in ten-minute and twelve-minute versions.

 

Mostly, it was the little things that stood out for me. Jaime Lannister’s ornate armour (go to 5:32 on the ten-minute video); it might not be golden but this is just as good. “Littlefinger” Baelish’s sly, mocking tone (2:13). Viserys’ creepy stare (6:19); here is the living, breathing embodiment of a mad Targaryen king. There are snippets that we’ve already seen or heard (such as Ned and Catelyn, and a certain confrontation in the streets), and a scene that I recognise from the leaked pilot script.

 

And we finally have a more precise ETA – April 2011! I look forward to hearing more about the series as we draw closer to April.

Another GoT teaser

Right on the heels of my last post, here comes another teaser for Game of Thrones. This one is a full minute and again, looks pretty cool. Again, it focuses on the Starks, but there are cameos by others: Cersei, Dany, Littlefinger and Jaime (?), Tyrion, and the brothers Clegane. Enjoy!

A Game of Thrones: the publicity rolls on and on

More appetisers for those of us looking forward to HBO’s Game of Thrones! On the Making Game of Thrones site, HBO has recently uploaded twelve large stills that were originally featured in Entertainment Weekly, plus another short (15-second) teaser. On Sunday 5 December, US time, there will also be a fifteen-minute “Making Of” video!

 

I have not analysed the images or the trailer in any detail, but they look great to me upon first glance. Ned and Catelyn look older and fleshier than I’d imagined them, but of course differences between my mental images, and those of the creators of the series, are inevitable. Jaime looks fine in the still image; however, I don’t think a still can really do the character justice. The key to depicting Jaime on screen is his combination of magnetism and arrogance, and this requires that we can see him in motion. So I look forward to future trailers/promotional videos that feature the Kingslayer.

 

(In other news, I’m back from holiday! I hope to post a review of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cryoburn soon.)

The Dance with Dragons draws closer

The latest news on A Dance with Dragons is that GRRM has five part-chapters left to write, and that his publisher “[hopes] to have a finished manuscript by Christmas.”

My head knows I shouldn’t get too hopeful. After all, we’ve been here before: GRRM went on a roll in the middle of ’09, and A Feast for Crows came out back in ’05. My heart, now, that’s a different thing. My heart remembers the thrill of buying AFFC for myself, that I bought it on a Tuesday, that it was on my way down to class. My heart is what draws me to click on every ASOIAF-related thread in the hopes that it’ll contain an announcement that ADWD is finished. My heart is what makes me hope that this time, with 8+ POVs already done and good progress made on a particularly sticky plot element (the “Meereenese Knot”), it’ll be for real.

(In other words, this post could have been subtitled, “What it means to be a fan…”)

Discworld: Where monsters are folks just like us

One thing I love about Discworld is that its monstrous races, well, aren’t. They are ordinary people like you or I, and their “inhumanity” comes out mostly in the form of funny quirks.

The werewolves? Prone to that slight problem around the full moon, and to following instructions to “fetch!”, but otherwise not too bad. The vampires? Well, some of them have sworn off human blood – or, as they prefer to call it, “the ‘b’ vord”. The zombies? They have rights, too, and they’ll stand up for them! It’s perhaps the trolls who are the least “human” of the bunch, but that owes more to limited intelligence than anything else. And all of the above have integrated themselves into human, urban society, up to and including keeping the peace as members of the City Watch. Compare that to most other works of fantasy fiction!

So the next time you mow down Smouldering-With-Generic-Rage Skeleton #9345, think of what kind of life he/she/it might have been able to live on the Disc.

Discworld: fantasy cover art that’s actually good

Terry Pratchett is, I think, pretty much unique amongst fantasy authors in that he is blessed with good cover art for his novels*.

First came the covers drawn by Josh Kirby. Even before I started reading the Discworld novels, I immediately recognised them on the bookstore shelves, courtesy of the glorious, garish pandemonium of the Josh Kirby covers. For example, you can see his cover for Guards! Guards! here. While the characters don’t look much like they do in the text, the cover is true to the book in the most important sense. It hints at the kind of reading experience you will, in fact, have: a bellyful of laughs.

Josh Kirby died in 2001, and in 2002 Paul Kidby took over the cover art with Night Watch. Kidby’s covers don’t have the same manic glee of their predecessors, but they depict the characters very well and retain the comedic touch that the subject matter needs. My favourite Kidby cover is Going Postal, which wonderfully spoofs the “barbarian hero posing atop a mound of bodies”  (and I love the gothy Adora Bella Dearhart puffing away on her cigarette). And Kidby’s depiction of Sam Vimes as a Clint Eastwood-lookalike never fails to amuse me.

Truly, I would do both Pratchett and his cover-artists a great service to say I could judge the Discworld novels by their covers.

* At least in the UK and Australia; from what I’ve seen, the US covers aren’t quite so inspired.

Is A Song of Ice and Fire really that bleak?

Now that HBO has released a new teaser, a behind-the-scenes video and a “making of” subsite for A Game of Thrones, and since I had my copy of AGOT autographed by George R R Martin today, this seems an opportune time to ask: is A Song of Ice and Fire really as grim as it’s made out to be?

I know — this seems like a crazy question at first blush. ASOIAF is one of the defining series of modern, gritty low fantasy. Its signature shtick is that characters who would have escaped the consequences of their own stupidity in any other work, by virtue of protagonist plot armour, here pay the price. GRRM has gone on record as saying that he set out to avoid the “roller coaster” feel of novels that create the illusion that their characters are in danger, but where you know the heroes will ultimately be all right.

But stopping there would overlook one vital point. In the novels, trying to do the right thing can get you killed – but when a characters does choose to take a stand, it is held up and celebrated all the same. Characters do change for the better. Life in Westeros is filled with tears – but also moments of joy and triumph. And GRRM has declared his goal of a bittersweet ending, not a horrific one. Compare this with, say, Richard K Morgan’s rage against the world, or Joe Abercrombie’s unrelentingly cynical view of human nature. Who is the bleaker?

Cyclic history?

Cyclic history – and specifically, the notion that empires will inevitably rise to galaxy-spanning heights, then decline not to mediocrity or middling-power status but to utter oblivion – is deeply embedded in the DNA of science fiction. Asimov did it in the Foundation series, of course, but you see it everywhere in space opera: the backstory of Niven & Pournelle’s The Mote In God’s Eye, Poul Anderson’s Flandry series, any number of David Weber novels, the Traveller tabletop RPG,  the Tough Guide to the Known Galaxy (http://www.rocketpunk-observatory.com/spaceguideF-L.htm)…

Yet, to the best of my knowledge, it has nothing like the same prominence in fantasy. Why’s that?