What I’ve been reading

I wanted to go into a bit more detail on this week’s books – Night Soldiers, by Alan Furst (novel) and The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu (novel).

Night Soldiers is billed as a spy novel. I say ‘billed as’ because it’s really a collection of vignettes, loosely linked by the 1930s-1940s world of espionage. Here, a Bulgarian lad comes of age as a trainee spy in Moscow, amidst the terror of Stalin’s purges. There, a lethargic American joins the OSS, parachutes into occupied France, and discovers his talent for sabotage. It’s a vivid, immersive read – although as with the novels of Patrick O’Brian, the emphasis is on atmosphere rather than plot, so it may not be to everyone’s taste. If you’re interested in the era, give the sample chapter a look.

The Grace of Kings is a much-hyped epic fantasy inspired by Chinese history. It’s interesting, both for its setting and its style. It also tells a pretty good yarn!

Grace of Kings is the story of two men, Kuni the trickster and Mata the warrior, as they rise to power. Their adventures are, essentially, a fantasy retelling of the fall of the Qin Dynasty and the rise of the Han. (Seriously, knowing a bit about the period was enough to let me guess where the plot would go. I even guessed how specific incidents would unfold.) The Chinese influence extends beyond the setting – the mythic tone, the occasionally detached prose, and the willingness to tell rather than show remind me of the pre-modern literary conventions of Three Kingdoms. My main complaint is that one or two character actions felt contrived, seemingly so as to stick to “history”. Overall, a recommended read for fans of epic fantasy novels and grand strategy games (and maybe even Konami’s Suikoden RPGs).

Finally, I read Terry Pratchett’s Maskerade (novel) – his parody of The Phantom of the Opera. Decent, amusing, with some pointed comments on superficial beauty. Recommended for Discworld fans.

A spiritual successor to KOEI’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms?

This entry is part 1 of 2 in the series Oriental Empires

That is my initial impression of Oriental Empires (press release here), a newly announced 4X game that will be set in China between 1500 BC and 1500 AD. The bullet points and especially the screenshots remind me of Endless Legend/Civilization V meets Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI – it looks like all combat takes place on a hex-based strategic map, rather than being divided between a tactical and a strategic layer. The developers, R. T. Smith and John Carline, do have experience – both men have previously worked on the Total War series, with Smith’s experience stretching all the way back to the original Shogun. With the game scheduled for Early Access in ‘summer 2015’ (northern summer, I assume), the finished product is still some ways off.

Personally, I think the idea has potential. I’m always up for a novel setting, and China is badly underused in (Western) games. I’m trying to line up an interview with the developers, and will report back with any findings.


Musical Monday: “Restriction” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto

Tactics Ogre might just have my single favourite soundtrack of any game. This week, I present the hero’s theme, appropriately heroic. Enjoy!

Continue reading “Musical Monday: “Restriction” (Tactics Ogre), composed by Hitoshi Sakimoto”

What I’ve been reading

  1. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman, by Robert Massie (non-fiction). Finally finished after several months. Good book! Perhaps better in its first half, which deals with Catherine’s life before taking the throne — as the title suggests, the emphasis is definitely on Catherine the person rather than on Catherine the ruler. Recommended for fans of Europa Universalis 4.
  2. Iron Kingdom: The Rise & Downfall of Prussia, 1600-1947, by Christopher Clark (non-fiction). A dense political history comprising a chronological narrative (interesting) broken by the odd thematic chapter (rather dry). I’m about halfway through, and so far, so good.
  3. Sagittarius Rising, by Cecil Lewis (non-fiction). Another book I finished long after I began, this is the beautifully written memoir of a WW1 British fighter pilot, containing some beautifully poignant moments — at one point, the author recollects his mother making him sit for a new photo before he went off to war, so she’d have something to remember him by if he never came back. (Happily, the author lived on to a ripe old age; he wrote this book in the 1930s.) A brief coda deals with his post-war career trying to establish aviation in China.
  4. The Mechanical, by Ian Tregillis (fiction). Clockpunk fantasy set in a world where the Netherlands invented and enslaved clockwork robots, then used their new toys to dominate the world. It’s a dark, entertaining read; I think I preferred the author’s earlier Milkweed Triptych, but this is worth a look if the premise interests you.
  5. Wyrd Sisters, Witches Abroad, and Lords & Ladies, by Terry Pratchett (fiction). The delightful adventures of three witches: stern, practical Granny Weatherwax; bawdy old Nanny Ogg; and idealistic young Magrat, as they romp through skewed versions of fairy tales and Shakespeare. I’d rank these amongst Pratchett’s better novels, due to their humour (Witches Abroad is especially hilarious) and engaging cast. If I had to pick one, it would be Lords & Ladies, which is the best plotted and has my favourite “character moment” of the three. Highly recommended to fantasy fans!


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