Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3) by Ann Leckie

ancillarymercyWait, this is the last one?

As another episode of Spaceship-Turned-Person gallivanting across space, this one is pretty good. It doesn’t really blaze new ground, but it’s a satisfactory wrap-up of the Athoek Station plotline from book 2. As a conclusion to a trilogy sparked from a galactic civil war between warring factions of a thousand bodied ruler? Left me a bit wanting. Because it’s doesn’t really conclude the overaching plot; because it introduces new characters who seem like they’re going to do something important and then they don’t; because the crucial showdown is resolved by a specific take on legal interpretation.

But I guess I’m kind of putting the end of the review first here. Ancillary Sword ended with Breq solidifying her influence over the planet of Athoek and its space-bound, AI-controlled Station, where most of the action took place. It barely touched the plot threads from the first book, with an empire at war with itself, due to its many-bodied emperor, Anaander Mianaai, reaching a moral quandary and splitting in half. Ancillary Mercy combines these two story arcs. A unit of the ‘bad Anaander’ warps into Athoek space, seriously pissed off at Breq and looking to seize control of Station. Book 2 and 3 could almost be two halves of the same book — they’re very similar in plot and tone. Book 1 is left floating out in space as our hero’s origin story.

Ancillary Mercy is enjoyable. It has almost entirely the same strengths and weaknesses as the previous books. i.e. Breq is still a great character, noble and inscrutable, but the secondary characters are forgettable or baffling unbelievable  (I’m astounded to find that Seivarden, the worst part of book 1, who was mercifully absent in book 2 gets a whole section based around her because she’s a fan favorite; why is emotional immaturity is a staple of Radchai military personnel?). The social justice piece is occasionally interesting, but reductive. A tyrannical plantation owner is replaced by a co-op and apparently everything is solved, and we move from near slavery to perfect bliss.

A new thematic element is investigated: The personhood of machines. It’s relevant seeing the main character was formerly a spaceship, but sort of half baked. AI Ship’s are programmed to be fond of their captains and take care of their crew. This doesn’t mean they have to do everything to the best of their ability — a captain who is kind to her ship is going to get better treatment than one who treats ship and crew poorly. Ships do have their ‘favorites’. Your average human can’t compel ships to do anything but certain people with closely guarded access codes can force ships to do whatever they want. Ancillary Mercy declares that last sentence is morally repugnant and weaves that notion into the plot. I call this half-baked because like, if you initially program someone to only find joy in doing some things, and those things revolve entirely on servicing you and your army, then saying “OH! We’ll stop forcing you to do things.”, doesn’t mean shit. What happens if a Ship decides it doesn’t want to be a space-taxi shuttling around your army goonsquad anymore? What if it declares itself a pacifist and discards its guns? The book doesn’t ask.

So final verdict: As an episodic sci-fi tale that is at least somewhat nonstandard in narrative and characterization, with a swift moving prose, and frequent forays into modern socio-political issues, it’s a good series and well recommended. As a complete space operatic trilogy that concludes its main threads satisfactorily and doesn’t needlessly introduce loose ends, it’s not quite there. Still, I’m on board for more Ann Leckie.

Advertisements

The Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt

The Witcher 3 is huge. Enormous. Gigantic, massive, humongous. Here, let’s cut to the chase and pull out the thesaurus.

huge

 

(Moby??)

I spent like one hundred thirty hours on the thing. Prior to this, I think the longest game I ever played was Persona 3, an RPG that came out like ten years ago(!), that involved a group of diabolically powered teenagers who, between fighting evil, had to play through every single day in a highschool year. The Witcher 3 blasts past it, featuring more than the interior of an anime highschool, indeed 3 separate, massive regions of gameworld. 

But is it any good? Is the length justified? How padded is? Yes! Sort of. More than a little bit.

Some unspecified time after the events of The Witcher 2, Geralt of Rivia starts to have dreams about his adoptive daughter: the young sorceress and heiress to the Nilfgaard Empire, Ciri. This means she’s in trouble. He hooks up with his on and off girlfriend, Yennifer, discovers that Ciri is indeed in danger and fleeing from The Wild Hunt, a host of spectral horseriders from another world. What’s interesting about the plot is that most of the characters involved are from the source materials books, and not the games. We know Ciri is important because Geralt thinks she’s important, not because we actually know who she is at the start of the game (‘We’ being people who haven’t read the Polish novels). It’s a testament to the game’s storytelling and character development that this is pulled off near flawlessly. I cared.

So the plot unfolds with Geralt learning of a series of leads on Ciri’s whereabouts; he sets off to investigate and as you collect clues, you trigger flashbacks where you get to play as Ciri and come to know what happened to her. It’s alright. The plot, I mean. I think the more focused plot of The Witcher 2, with its political murk and super assassins was stronger. The Wild Hunt’s plot is a bit more generic, too steeped in magical nonsense. For some reason, this game turns the villains themselves — the eponymous Hunt — from ringwraith-esque ghoulies, to world-hopping hedonist elves with muscles. This sets up some cool set pieces like marshalling your friends (a… fellowship, I’d say) to a fortress to defend an assault from the Hunt’s armies, but overall it’s not entirely compelling.

On the other hand, the character work is superb. The dialogue blows away most video game talking, which is further impressive since it’s a translation. Geralt is a great hero. His witty exchanges with the female leads feels natural and is only embarrassing sometimes, instead of all the time like in Dragon Age. But where it really shines, and what feels innovative, is how well the game takes on non-verbal communication. Characters exchange glances. Their eyes widen or narrow. They look pained or defeated without appearing overly theatrical. Immense amounts of information are characterized through these actions and many more, just like they are in the real world. One of the strongest sub-plot lines in the game has little to do with interdimensional invaders or magic crystals but is actually centered around domestic abuse and family drama. Geralt encounters The Bloody Baron, a man known to lose himself in drink, beat his pregnant wife, alienate his daughter. In other words: he’s scum. Most games would leave it at that. But he’s also somehow magnetic, his story and dialogue compelling. I really wanted to know what happened to the fucker. The game had me wondering if repentance is real, how we ought to handle people who do cruel and terrible things. At some point I shifted from thinking “Listen to this asshole make excuses” to “What if he’s really one hundred percent sorry?”, starting making excuses for him like “But, but, he was genuinely kind to Ciri!”. It’s surprising a game could do that.

witcher 3

There’s several side quests that might as well be main quests. They have expansive plots and tie in major characters. There’s just as many, if not more, that are just sort of filler. Or a quick joke. Hunting down a serial killer who turns out to be a vampire disguised as a mortician is cool, telling yet another parent that their son got eaten by a ghoul, or losing a game of poker so you can punch some guys who stole your clothes gets old after a while. Moreover, if you try and do most of the quests, you’ll quickly outlevel them and start getting zero experience/useable loot, not to mention any combat will be super easy since you’ve far outpaced the danger of the enemies.

In fact, the biggest weakness of the game for me is the combat and scaling. I played on the hardest difficult, supposedly only for the insane, and it was pretty hard at first, but became button-mashing trivial fairly quickly just by completing quests and crafting the best loot I could find. The character progression itself is pretty lame. Like the previous game, you can choose to specialize or mix and match between a witcher’s three specialties: Signs (basic magic), Sword mastery, and alchemy (though regardless of specialization, any witcher worth his salt is proficient in all 3). But unlike the previous game, many of the abilities you choose are weak, only providing marginal or very specific bonuses. It wasn’t particularly exciting to unlock a new tier of abilities. You’re also limited on how many you can equip at a certain time.

Anyway, as you can guess, something that I willingly spent so much time on honestly did captivate me, combat and filler side quests aside. And I haven’t even written about Gwent, the in-universe card-game you build a collection for, which I also totally conquered. The characters are lightyears ahead of most games, and felt real in a way the rest of the plot/world didn’t. I kind of miss them. The game has two(!) expansions as well. Who needs that much Witcher?? Maybe me. I’ll get to them eventually. 

A General Theory of Oblivion by Jose Eduardo Agualusa

A-general-theory-of-oblivionPop Quiz: Name a country in Africa that notes Portuguese as an official language.

 

Think about it…

 

Waiting…

 

 

Answer: There’s actually six. Angola, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Mozambique, Sao Tome and Principe, and Equatorial Guinea.

A General Theory of Oblivion is about Angola. Its bloody revolution, booting out the Portuguese colonials, and later its civil war, conflicts of capitalism and communism. But mostly it’s about a cadre of individual characters, criss-crossing over the 30-40 years leading to the present. Chief among them is Ludo, a portuguese agoraphobe who moved from Lisbon to Luanda to be with her sister and brother and law. When the wealthy portuguese fled Angola on the eve of Revolution, this family stayed a bit too long, sister and brother in law disappeared, and Ludo was left to brick herself into her apartment and spend the next three decades in isolation. The other leads include military police, imprisoned dissidents, men unsure whether they’re portuguese or angolan.

Agualusa, a man of portuguese descent born in Angola, initially wrote this story as a screenplay, and it shows. It’s extremely short. I read it on my kindle, but goodreads lists the hardcover as 256 pages. It must be like 24 point font with 3 inch margins to stretch that long. The length is actually perfect, because I found the book pleasant but lacking in depth and feel my good will would have evaporated had it gone on much longer.

As a country’s history, it does not delve deeply. I barely know any more about Angola than I did when I started (which can be summed up as: nothing). And since the details revealed are minimalist, the book short, and the character list long, I never got the sense of most of the characters. As a book describing agoraphobia, it fails completely when stacked up against classics like We Have Always Lived in the Castle. Where it succeeds is in capturing a feeling. I get the sense of Luanda, Angola’s capital, and the various zeitgeists that flowed through it from Independence until today. I didn’t grow attached to the many characters, partly due to the clinical narrative style detailing them, but I found that same style of writing very readable. It didn’t ask much of me and I got more than I expected in return. The blurbs compare it to Kafka which is frankly laughable, but I don’t regret reading it.

The Familiar Volume 2: Into the Forest by Mark Z. Danielewski

familarv2

Two volumes in the same series in one year! Some of my favorite and the most surprising books of the year, and not just because they prominently feature a scrying orb. Can he keep up this pace?

Review for Volume 1 is here. This one will contain some minor spoilers from book 1.  

Volume 1 was likened to the pilot of a TV show. There was a few main story arcs — Xanther and her family discovered the Familiar, in the form of a helpless, blind kitten. Luther resolved the immediate action with Hopi, by killing him (twice!); jingjing dances, learns of psychodrugs, finds out his magical aunt’s kitten is missing. Small plots sort-of reached a conclusion point and the action was tightly packed into a single rainy day in May. V2 is more like the follow up episode — everyone resets and returns to their normal daily routine, more time passes, and seeds of the greater plot are sown.

The thing is — not much happens. Actual plot movement only really occurs in Xanther’s chapters, as what we already guessed starts to manifest — that kitten is bad news. And Cas, the bearer of the mysterious Orb, which we still don’t know what it does (but definitely ties some major things together) also sees movement, reaches an end-beat. And each major point of view character can probably be linked to at least one other in this book, instead of being a jumble of disparate stories. But Luther’s story doesn’t really touch on the happenings of V1, and he kind of treads water. Isandorno the Mexican gangster has almost has zero development, but at least he has the creepiest chapters still. Shnorhk, the Armenian cab driver, two volumes in a row, has zero plot; I was intrigued when the first book flirted with the notion that the Armenian genocide was somehow tied to the greater evil behind The Familiar, but that idea had no presence in V2.

So even at two books a year (Volume 3 is next June), it’s an extremely slow burn. There was a point where a chapter ended with a character’s dire and very uncertain fate, and by glancing at the color coded chapter headings visible from the side of the book, I wondered is that character dead or does he simply have no more chapters this volume? The TV show analogy falls apart a bit because in TV, you have those gaps between seasons, not episodes.

The writing and visual design is still inventive and top notch. The motif of creating rain drops with the word raindrop from V1 is repeated, instead using simple hash lines to create pine trees, which become a forest, both this volume’s title (into the forest) and the metaphor triggered in Xanther’s consciousness. Indeed, the conclusion to Xanther’s story in this one is relayed entirely by images, no prose, just text swirling into illustration. It’s pleasant to read, regardless of story arc momentum. Like the first one, I had difficulty moving on to my next book; played Hearthstone on my phone on the bus instead of reading. Looking forward to next June.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows

pk

Shovel Knight was a joyous nostalgia trip, but more than a mere trip down memory lane, it was backed up by engaging and rewarding gameplay.

And now it has an expansion.

As part of the Kickstarter that funded the game in the first place, backers got to vote on which of the secondary knights became playable characters. Plague Knight was one of the winners. In the base game, he’s a berobed, masked alchemist with a handful of lines, mostly giggles. Hehe. Plague of Shadows makes him the hero, characterizes him charmingly, gives him an adorable love story. Makes learning to dance a major plot motivation.

Operating from a secret lab below the main town you traverse as Shovel Knight, Plague Knight is out to defeat all the knights of the Order of No Quarter, nab their essences, and alchemize The Ultimate Potion. The game largely follows the same flow as the original. Just in places where Plague Knight, being a villain, shouldn’t be, he gets different sequences than Shovel Knight. Guards attack him instead of inviting him in. The game amusingly takes place concurrently to Shovel Knight’s adventure, which is played for laughs and helps explain why PK would visit his own level.

Plague Knight controls completely differently than Shovel Knight. Shovel Knight was solid — he had tightly responsive controls and his equipment all worked reliably & predictably. Plague Knight, by comparison, is slippery, unpredictable and awkward to control. He can throw bombs, of which you collect a wide assortment with different properties (customizing the arc of the throw, the type of powder in the bomb, and the type of explosion that is released). But the major crux of playing Plague Knight is his jumping scheme. He has a short, stubby jump (shorter than Shovel Knight), a second even stubbier double jump, but so long as you were holding down the bomb button, he has a third jump that blasts him across the screen.

A strange and imprecise control scheme. At first. You learn to always charge PK’s bomb jump, but if it’s charged, you have to release it at some point, which could be tricky when navigating spikes/lava/bottomless pits. I spun off into unintended directions often, slipped down holes, ran out of jumps mid spike pit. Fast forward to now, having beat the game a few times: I soar majestically through each level, barely touching the ground and skipping swathes of obstacles. While the game is partially remixed, and each level has a new Plague Knight specific section that better tests his skills, the majority of the game is still designed for Shovel Knight and his limited mobility. This is still somewhat challenging for the first run as Plague Knight (though being able to stay in the air so long does make the bosses super easy), but once you ‘get’ Plague Knight, it breaks the game wide open and you can beat levels in record time.

There’s two more playable knights coming some time in the future. Can’t get enough of this!

Crimson Peak

crimsonpeak

This ghost story commits an unforgivable, positively ghastly sin: The ghosts don’t even matter! It’s a ghost story with pointless ghosts! Mere backdrop. Fluff.

It’s also a majorly flawed, tonally confused movie.

The story opens in late 19th century Buffalo, New York and our protagonist is Edith, an aspiring author whose publishing start is facing challenges due to extreme gender prejudice. “Write a love story”, they say. The writing plot[1] is dropped as soon as the story leaves Buffalo, but anyway, Edith has the ability to see ghosts. Her dead mother came to her as a child and warned her to “Beware Crimson Peak”, which turns out to be a completely useless warning because Edith doesn’t even learn the name Crimson Peak until she’s already there. She had no chance to avoid it. Thanks, Mom.

Edith’s dad is a big business man in. . . something. The type of business that allows one to don a pressed suit, grow a bushy beard, and pontificate on one’s own self importance. Dad’s money attracts an English aristocrat slash entrepreneur pitching a mechanical contraption designed to draw clay from the ground. Edith’s dad is not a fan of this guy, Thomas, for reasons of character. Dad insults Thomas and his soft hands, praises his own American rough hands, and tells him to get lost. But Edith inexplicably falls in love with him. Why she does this is anyone’s guess; Thomas displays a distinct lack of charisma and neither actor has much chemistry. He compliments her manuscript I guess. This is all it takes to get them wed right quick and Edith is swept off away from everyone she knows to an isolated, decaying English manor with her new husband and his creepy sister.

And through it all, this movie cannot decide if it’s a period horror piece or a fairy tale with ghosts. So characters make nonsensical decisions or live in a house that has an open roof, letting snow and rain and whatever else in. A house filled with bugs. The type of thing that’s totally acceptable in a fairy tale. But the dialogue and characters are typically playing everything straight. They seem to think they’re involved in a gothic drama, bound to the laws of reality, with piano solos and deep-eyed brooding.  It doesn’t help that few of the performances are any good[2], which is at least fifty percent a directorial problem in this movie, since the vision and tone are so muddled.

Crimson Peak has more continuity errors than I’ve seen in a movie in a long time. A character turns off a faucet and in the next cut, it’s back on. Time gaps abound. There’s other miscues that aren’t so much ‘continuity error’, as pure nonsense. Edith learns she’s being fed poison tea so she declines an offer of tea and then half a second later willingly eats porridge spoon-fed to her from the same person who prepared the tea.

And let me repeat: The ghosts don’t even matter! The actual plot could exist entirely without ghosts. They just kind of hang out in the background. They’re not particularly scary or well designed ghosts either (which is baffling considering this is the same director as Pan’s Labyrinth). The visual design and effects do not mesh well. The ghouls have an ethereal, semi-opaque quality that is thematically consistent, but comes off as cheap.

As for the plot, I could have settled for a cliche “the villains were ghosts all along!” over what we actually get: ghost bystanders to an entirely human story that happens to make no logical sense. The villains were seducing rich heiresses and murdering them after they stole their money, so they could finally finish building the clay extraction machine, to make money to repair their ancient house. Why didn’t they just use their victim’s wealth to restore the house? Who knows! It’s nonsense just like the rest of this movie.

All the movie really has going for it is the creepy-pretty design of the house that half the movie takes place in. It is beautiful and would be fun to explore. But it’s not that interesting, certainly not enough to carry the plot, dialogue, or performances.

 

[1] Did I mention this plotline also insults literary history? There’s a point where someone mocks Edith for being a single lady writer, and tells her Jane Austen died a spinster. Edith (cleverly) retorts that she’d rather be like Mary Shelley and die a widow. I wanted to flip a table over and shout that’s because Percy died when he was so young! And Mary herself didn’t exactly reach old age either. What the hell.

[2] While the tone and acting is confused, there is one actor who is somehow perfect: Charlie Hunnam, Jacks from Sons of Anarchy, plays Edith’s childhood friend. He is so earnestly campy, we couldn’t stop laughing whenever he was on screen. Despite being a doctor in 1900s New York, he still uses his modern day NorCal biker accent! It’s hilarious. While other stalwart men riding to Edith’s rescue, walking four hours through a blizzard, would be eye-roll worthy, watching Jacks do it is hilarious.

“Sir, we’re closed, you can’t rent a horse.”
[deadpan] “Then I’ll walk.”
“But it’s four hours in the snow, at night!”
[stoned-faced, biker accent] “Then I better get goin…”

At one point he gets stabbed in the arm, and the manner in which he pirouettes around, upper body frozen, face tense and quivering, is like perfect satirical theater. I don’t think it’s supposed to be this funny. It’s probably not funny at all if you’ve never seen an episode Sons of Anarchy.