Happy Birthday to The Scrying Orb

One year.

Last April, I started this blog theorizing I had much to gain by composing my thoughts on the books I read. It has been a successful endeavor. While reading, I knew I must always come away with something to say. It made me a more careful reader, and made me consider more thoroughly the author’s decisions and whether they succeeded or failed or fell somewhere in between in their goals. I have become a better reader and, hopefully, a writer. At the very least, it has made me a more consistent writer.

While I created this mostly for myself, The Scrying Orb does enjoy a handful of visitors daily. I can’t really call this a bareboned, scant content blog anymore and have plans to improve.

1. I am going to improve the design of the blog. It’s sort of embarrassing that it is so sparse when visual design is a major part of my day job. Time to spend some time browsing themes and some labor spent in photoshop and sundry.

2. I wrote on a few games and movies, but the blog is almost entirely book reviews. I want to expand my writing on other media. Similarly, I would like to create some content that is not tied specifically to one creative piece. Actual articles, I mean.

I have updated the about page to reflect the above. Here’s to another year.

Dark Souls II by From Software

dark souls 2A world locked in an endless cycle of decay. Sleek, gothic architecture. Imposing black angles and rain slicked stone. Or slimy, blighted lands, every bootstep a sickening squick, squoosh. Ruined forts that keep going down and down, through more ruins, and volcanoes, through the literal Yggrasil-world-tree roots of the world, and even deeper still to crypts intended to seal certain undesirables away for good (alas). Or up and up, atop peaks dotted with windmills, up lifts hanging in space to windswept steppes shadowed by dragons soaring overhead as you scramble across a rope bridge, swaying in the gust.

This is the world of Dark Souls. A bleak, medieval dream created by Japanese developer From Software.

To explore this world, you, a character with a flimsy narrative drive — merely being instructed to pursue The King (and collect more and more souls) — are thrust. Without guidance. I was partway through the first dungeon area, after a false start in another zone available from the onset, before I realized I had missed the vendor that could upgrade my character in an earlier hub town. Indeed, the Dark Souls series has a reputation for being difficult and obfuscatory. While the mechanics are certainly… murky, the vaunted difficulty is a tad overblown. The challenge is fair, and, with some exceptions, stacked towards the beginning before the player has grasped the systems and built their character in a specialization of their choosing. In fact, Dark Souls II goes a littler further than its predecessors. There is a bonfire (checkpoint where you return on death) close to most bosses, many tough enemies can simply be sprinted by, there’s a ring that eliminates all the consequences of death (lost souls, lost humanity), and ranged attacks make much of the game drastically easier.

Dark Souls also shows innovation in multiplayer and player-to-player interactions. One can leave messages to others, based on a set of templates, not free writing. This is often helpful, sometimes purposely misleading, and occasionally hilarious. Shaded versions of other players can be seen running throughout the world, alerting you that you are not alone. When they die, they leave bloodstains that allow you to view their final moments, perhaps giving you a tip on how not to die. Dark Souls II goes further than the original in its take on “covenants”, groups the player can join, many of which allow various cooperative and competitive bonuses. For instance, one allows you to set traps and build up a lair that sucks in unsuspecting players, who now have to navigate your dungeon or kill you to escape. From is one of the few console developers who has nailed a unique take on multiplayer — it combines the best parts of multiplayer (cooperation, humor, competition) but its forced limitations alleviate the worst aspects of spending time with strangers on the internet.

And unlike Dark Souls, the sequel does not taper off at the end. It’s an unfortunate truth that many long games, especially RPGs, display an obvious lack of money and time and the quality falls off a cliff in the final areas. As I mentioned, the goal of Dark Souls II is to find the king, and when you reach the kingdom’s magisterial seat — Drangleic Castle — the game reaches its highest points and does not let up for the rest of its playtime, bewildering easy last boss notwithstanding. The gameplay mechanics are tightened up and overall, there is only the briefest hint of staleness; the series definitely ought to innovate in the next chapter, but I’ll buy it regardless.

The Moor’s Last Sigh by Salman Rushdie

Last_sighWhat’s this book about, eh? Let’s check the back cover blurb:

“Its narrator is Moaes ‘Moor’ Zogoiby, a ‘high-born crossbreed’ who is the last surviving scion of a dynasty of Cochinese spice merchants and crime lords. Moor is a compulsive storyteller and an exile. And as he travels a route that takes him from India to Spain, he leaves behind a labyrinthine tale of mad passions and volcanic family hatreds, of titanic matriarchs and their mesmerized offspring, of premature deaths and curses that strike beyond the grave.”

Moor does indeed journey to Spain from India. In an airplane. In the last 20 pages of the novel.

Baldly misleading summaries are hardly rare; what is interesting here is what whomever wrote the above chose to omit and why.

Because what the The Moor’s Last Sigh is about is this: a man, near death due a supernatural ailment, tells the story of his entire family from great grandparents to himself, tying them to the tumultuous history of India. The exact same setup as that of Rushdie’s most celebrated novel, Midnight’s Children, the Booker of Bookers.

The same setup. Not nearly as good.

It’s not a total retread. Simply chronicling a different family in a different region of India changes the story greatly. But neither novel has a gripping plot — they are appealing due to Rushdie’s wordy, imaginative prose and the history he intends to capture. Moor’s origin is a collision between Christian and Jewish tradition. The locus of the story, and the Zogoiby-De Gama family, is Moor’s mother, Aurora. All roads, past and present lead back to Aurora. She is the magnetic core drawing all others in, both in-narrative and as external-reader. When the story focuses on Moor, it’s dull by comparison — which makes a sort of narrative sense but does not make the book any less bland when his mother exits center stage.

Rushdie’s writing does make it all worth reading. The man can turn a phrase. And perhaps if it didn’t feel like somewhat of a regurgitation of a greater work, I would have enjoyed it more. Nonetheless, I found it wanting.