Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Terra Incognita #1 and 2)

This is a review of the first two books of the Terra Incognita series. I suspect they might have even been one book originally, given the title of the first does not make sense until the conclusion of the second.

Forget Sci-Fi. While taking place in a utopian future, amidst self-driving flying cars, smartphones embedded in people’s’ ears, and innovative forms of government, this series only dimly feels like it occurs in the 2400s. It feels unstuck in time. Most of the characters are immersed in Enlightenment philosophy. Several even dress like they’re from the 18th century, speak like it!

The story, written from the first person perspective and in the reader-aware style of the eighteenth century, follows Mycroft Canner, a convict. In the future, convicts must travel the land providing service (“Servicer” Mycroft) in exchange for food. Like many aspects of Palmer’s future wherein liberalism has spun out of control, it sounds nice and humane at first but is gradually revealed as borderline slavery. Anyway, Mycroft narrates the story, told over a few days. There’s various hi and lo-tech tricks that allow us to see the points of view of other characters, but Mycroft is our primary point of contact. It makes the eventual reveal of why he is spending the rest of his life in servitude all the more chilling and impactful.

Too Like the Lightning, by necessity, must spend a good deal of words setting up the universe, with its combination of future tech, Enlightenment worship, extensive social and economic cause-and-effect chains, etcetera etcetera. This new government-nation evokes ancient Rome and its notions of citizenship and rule.  Europe is run by a Parliament… but also the King of Spain. Here’s five other world governments too.  P.S. since the planet has been geographically decentralized (flying cars at impossible speeds), nobody is tied to their birthplace anymore but can choose whom they owe allegiance too.  

While fascinating, it does make for rather slow reading. Characters are developed and the plot put in motion in between lengthy segments of world building (and philosophy). While I liked it from the start, book 1 became dramatically better once I understood the basic tenets of the world and the last quarter of the text rockets forward, the dominoes falling rather than being stacked up.

What is stunning about book 2, Seven Surrenders, is that despite being action-packed, there’s very little action at all. The pacing is driven by conversation, by political upheaval, by personal vendettas between powerful people and their world-spanning fallout. Dialogue-as-action spouted by characters 400 years in the future dressed as characters 200 years in the past! It’s weird! And really good.

Ada Palmer, as she notes in the afterward, is interested in continuing the great Conversation, as started by Voltaire. The events and characters of Terra Incognita are set up so that questions asked are either timeless: what level of sacrifice or violence is acceptable to preserve the safety of the whole? What freedoms and forms of expression ought to be given up to prevent violence and division?

Other questions point more directly at our current moment. Gender is crucial to both the understanding of the world and the plot itself. Gender is a topic of high-interest in science fiction currently. We’ve seen a mass revival of the themes from Ursula’s LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein a people (or all peoples) of the future have only one gender. It’s typically interesting but feels highly reactionary to the present moment of history wherein hard-right institutions, both legitimate and not, are on the rise. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad thing. But it can also feel overly simplistic, too desperate to demonstrate how wonderful a gender-less future would be that it doesn’t feel genuine. I noted this when I read Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which left me wondering if everyone in the future is bisexual.

Terra Incognita seems like this at first. Everyone is a ‘they’. If not outlawed, overt genderism is seen as unethical or at least highly distasteful by the population at large. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that by acting like gender does not exist the people of the future just buried the problems of the past rather than truly unpacking and understanding them. This isn’t shoved in your face (at first) but gradually unrolled, like most of the series’ best points.

If it wasn’t clear yet, I thought these books were excellent. The best series I’ve begun in a very long time. I never rush out to get the next book but I did here, eager to find what happened next in this weird utopia on the brink. It was innovative and original and I wish every science fiction novel I picked up was such an opportunity to journey somewhere new.

Odin Sphere Leifthrasir

odinsphere

Somehow, Odin Sphere, a cult classic from the PS2 era, was lovingly remastered.  I didn’t even know people bought this game back then. And it’s not just a remaster in the commonly used sense of new HD graphics, but a total rebalancing and update of the game that should make other remasters curl their toes in shame.

The narrative, with its Princess Bride-esque framing setup of a girl and her cat reading old books in the attic, follows the interweaving paths of several archetypical characters: the valkyrie, the cursed prince, the brooding warrior, the elf queen, the witch. You play out each of their campaigns one by one. Each character swap means you view events through their eyes from the beginning, which means that the end of the first character’s plot coincides with the end of the last character’s plot.

Sometimes it’s charming — most of characters are likeable, effecting earnest solemnity in the face of goofy plot. Other times it’s tedious as the characters, especially Oswald the shadow knight, prattle on about their feelings and o woe is me my soul is misery take me death. Occasionally it’s bizarre and hilarious, like when prince-turned-cursed-rabbit-man Cornelius declares I have a magic sword in the middle of a conversation without context or reason. Other times it’s troubling, like when you just want Valkyrie Gwendolyn to realize her dad, Odin, is kind an asshole, but she never does. Later, she’ll trade patriarchal controlling figure Dad for husband Oswald, whose totally okay with bargaining with Odin for her life&love. Maybe you can guess my feelings on Oswald.

This game displays the beauty of hand drawn and animated 2d graphics (and how technically taxing they can be — this game was notorious for slowing down the framerate of the PS2 and I even got it to slow down the PS4 once, when fighting a full screen full of enemies and throwing magical potions in a frantic effort to clear them all out). You guide your character from one battle arena to the next, juggling various elves and goblins and dragons, and then planting fruits and vegetables fed and watered by the essence of their souls. After harvesting this grim bounty, your character eats it to gain experience, stats, and health.

Leifthrasir greatly improves the combat over the original by making it far more fluid, easy to combo, and giving you much greater customization options. It makes the game easier, so playing on hard mode felt right to me. Though you’re never punished for lowering the difficulty and if you’re fighting an annoying boss on a less ideal character (like, say, Oswald, who is basically a slow, low-damage joke until you build up enough damage to go into ‘berserk’ mode), you can swap it back down to normal without penalty.

Playing it felt like a sort of blast to the past* of the PS2 glory days, but there was also a feeling of newness to it, because despite being a decade old, there’s never been much else like it.

 

*I even busted out the pen and paper to record every meal my character ate (for a trophy). Check it out:

20160811_210545

The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) by N. K. Jemisin

fifthseasonThis book took me all over the place. I couldn’t decide if I hated it or admired it or was utterly bored or wanted to read the next book in the series right now.

In a volatile, volcanic world, civilization is destroyed every so often by cataclysmic geological events (Seasons). Thrust into this world are three different characters vying with the various conflicts that mark living on an unstable planet with specific prejudices against them in particular. The characters are linked, though initially it is a mystery just how. I guessed the reason about halfway through the novel: it’s a pretty cool twist! The plot is based around these three, and my enjoyment of the novel varied so greatly between them, that I will go through them one by one.

Damaya is a child taken from her family for developing superpowers. In this world, some people are born as orogenes, which means they have devastating seismic abilities to literally move mountains or burst volcanoes. Naturally they’re feared and persecuted, and when children are found (and not killed in ignorance), they’re taken off to a wizard boarding school called the Fulcrum.

The reason I couldn’t wait to be done these chapters is simple: I’ve had it with magic schools.

They’ve suffused popular fantasy novels and media for too long. I feel like there’s a generation of creators who are around my age or usually a little older who grew up with the same media I did. Before Harry Potter, we had The Wheel of Time, with its Aes Sedai and magic reduced to science that can be learned in a classroom, greatly influencing all of epic fantasy. Even the rise of immersive, narrative video games have left their mark. I’m thinking Bioware games like Mass Effect/Dragon Age for sure. Not only does The Fifth Season’s magic users and subsequent prejudice have much in common with Dragon Age mages, tonally it is similar. Perhaps because Bioware was in turn greatly influenced by Joss Whedon. Maybe this is all an oversimplification but pop-Sci-fi/fantasy media of all stripes are feeling tightly entwined.

Another reason magic schools and I don’t mesh is that a) I went to a commuter college and b) I always hated school. Harkening back to college life is a key nostalgia element for the many people I know that speak of their college experience with such fondness (and certainly it would have been cooler if they were learning magic). If not nostalgia, I imagine there is still some appeal for those that actually enjoy classroom learning. 

The next point-of-view character is You, a woman named Essun. It’s written in the second person, following the account of a woman who found her small son murdered at the hands of her husband. This plot immediately grabbed my interest — distinct narrative point of view, jarringly awful event — and then promptly lost it. For starters, it’s glacially slow and Essun seems to barely cover any ground compared to the other two. Certainly the husband plot isn’t resolved.

Jemisin’s narrative style is something I’m going to call blogversation because I as far as I know there is no useful term for it (yet). What I mean is that the narrator is present and speaking directly to the reader in accessible, conversational language that reminds me of blogs. Many sentences start with “Well,” and end with “, actually” or “, anyway”. It means you can end up with prose that looks like this:

“Wow.

Really. That’s what you’re thinking. You’ve got nothing better. Wow.”

It’s not awful exactly, but I’m not a big fan. I feel like it puts a layer between me and the characters because the modern author writing in such modern language makes me start thinking about N. K. Jemisin writing that to me and not the actual character. This happens throughout the entire book but it’s especially bad with Essun. There’s a point very early where she ends up killing a whole bunch of people and the following chapter begins with:

“You’re so tired. Takes a lot out of you, killing so many people.”

There’s a sort of flippancy in that sentence that just kills it for me. If you can speak like that about killing people, how much does killing people actually matter?

Another major gripe I have with the You of Essun’s chapters is that, despite the intent of being so personally linked to this character, she spends near zero time contemplating what I figure nearly anyone would if they found their husband killed their child. Namely: how could he do that? We know nothing about husband Jija by the end of this book.

This brings me to Syenite. A college-age student/prisoner of the Fulcrum, Syenite is sent on a routine mission to help a coastal town, but the whole operation is just a front to be forced to have sex with and be impregnated by a senior orogene. 1 + 1 orogene = 1 more orogene for society to collectively control. 

I like this. I liked it quite a bit. It’s a good ‘ole back-and-forth, twist-and-turn adventure story. It still has some of the prose and thematic problems of the other two characters, but I forgave them easily because I was invested in the story. Even the secondary characters are superior to the other arcs.

I feel like the part of the novel I actually enjoyed is just a footnote at the end of this review here, but as they say, it’s easier to point out what you don’t like than what you do. Also, while Syenite is only one of three characters, it feels like her chapters are about half the book. So it’s at least as much good as bad or lukewarm.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

sevenevesThere’s a golden rule in science fiction and fantasy that goes something like this: Don’t infodump.

Instead of spending paragraphs or entire chapters explaining the rules of this fictional world — the breeding habits of the native Grew, the intricacies of the spacecorn trade, the atmospheric pressure of Planet X — have that information roll out gradually through character action and dialogue. It’s simply a genre specialized version of fiction’s holy paean of SHOW DON’T TELL.

I’m telling you all this to make sure we’re on the same page when I say that Seveneves feels something like sixty percent infodumps. Or more. The moon explodes and all life on earth is doomed. What follows is lengthy descriptions of how, in the brief span of time we have left, humanity builds a set of vessels in space to survive our five thousand year exile from earth, waiting it out until the surface of the earth stops being bombarded by lunar debris and cools down. So the meat of Seveneves is technical explanations of the the structures humans are building in space, and how it is possible to build them. This is coupled with a primer on the science — with a particular emphasis on orbital mechanics — required to understand how space works.

Don’t get me wrong: There are characters, and they’re not poorly developed, though many are stand-ins for real life people. A Neil Degrasse Tyson stand-in named Doob is central. Hilary Clinton and Jeff Bezos analogues make appearances. But we’re talking about a 900 page book here. Characters and plot are not the focus, which is sort of counter to popular theory of what a novel ought to be.

Anyway, I thought it was great. I’ve never been partial to golden rules. Or rules of any kind really.

By attempting to encase the novel in real science, either what we can already do now or what we think we can do in the very near future, there’s an authenticity to the theory that makes it sing. I’m not a scientist. I have zero idea how much of this came from Neal Stephenson’s imagination and how much of it is solidly based in fact. But he sells it well enough that the novel feels like a legitimate merge of non-fiction science text and fictional adventure.

It does take a leap in the last few hundred pages, literally, time jumping to five thousand years in the future wherein humanity is terraforming earth in hope of returning full time. While the science theory is still there, sort of, it morphs into a second-rate fantasy novel that feels vaguely like Stephenson trying to create a setting for a video game RPG. It’s not bad exactly. Still a fun beach read. But a dramatic step down from the first two sections of the novel.

Dark Souls III

dark souls 3

Once more unto the breach. For the third time in five years, the first flame is dying; nearly dead. When it dies, an age of Dark will commence and light will become no more. Granted, the world is a twisted, corpse-littered mess and it’s a dubious notion that it’s worth saving in the first place, but here you are, another mute undead warrior stumbling on to the scene to make things right (or worse).

The Dark Souls series, including the main trilogy and its predecessor Demon’s Souls and spinoff Bloodborne are some of my favorite games, ever. The uncompromising vision, the gorgeous rendering of hellish medieval ruin, the drive to try something new. In an industry that was moving more and more towards accessibility as the ultimate goal, Dark Souls popularized a philosophy already apparent and contentious in literature: Demanding effort and attention from the reader/player can lead to a finer, more rewarding experience. Dismissing the axiom that entertainment need be ‘easy’ is Dark Souls gift to posterity.

The bedrock of Dark Souls is that by thrusting the player into a dangerous world that does not hold their hand or explain much at all, both the oppressive atmosphere of the gameworld is heightened and the high the player feels after finally overcoming a difficult challenge is far more satisfying than it would be otherwise. And this practice is proven true, again and again. I can say this from experience, when after narrowly taking down The Nameless King, one of the harder bosses, I was in a shaky but exultant state indeed.

What this does for the narrative is key too: I rescued a smooth talking but frankly creepy fellow and brought him back to my home pad. He then offered to ‘unlock my true power’ and give me a free level up. In other games, I would just blindly accept the reward. But this is Dark Souls, which has taught me to be suspicious of anything free, especially from the mouths of shady individuals. This is the series that, in past games, allowed me to bring back friendlies to my base who later murdered everyone else there. The narrative and its choices are enhanced by the gameplay. The risk.

(I took the offer anyway; naturally, nothing comes without a price)

We’re five games deep now. Elements of the series have filtered down into other games — from cosmetics like bonfires being used as checkpoints to feature adoption like being able to leave templated messages to other players to a general philosophy that fine tuned difficulty is an admirable design philosophy. Can Dark Souls maintain its innovation? It doesn’t try. Rather than re-invent the wheel, DS3 is satisfied with simply doing what it already does very well. Something none of its imitators have ever really approached. The tightness of the core systems, the haunting strangeness of its world. It basically gives a clinic on level design with the wonderful Undead Settlement, a crumbling shantytown that constantly intertwines and twists back on itself, while maintaining the fiction of being a real place where people once lived.

While I thoroughly enjoyed my time playing the game, if not as quite so much as Bloodborne*, there were times like I felt like I was going through the motions. There’s only so many times you can roll-dodge the wide swing of an animate suit of armor’s greatsword, or throw the same fireball or get stabbed to death by another cackling skeleton. DS3 seems to acknowledge that its players could have played up to four separate but similar games by this point, so everything seems to move much faster and hit much harder. We’re still pros by this point, though. It would be laughable to say the game wasn’t difficult, but it’s a controlled, familiar difficult that doesn’t challenge me for long anymore. We’ve seen the decaying land of Lothric/Drangleic/Lordran many times by this point, and while it’s still haunting and enchanting, it’s no longer fresh. The game acknowledges this by doubling back to previous titles — locations and familiar faces abound. 

This is the finale. The victory lap. Visionary Director Hidetaka Miyazaki has called this his final Dark Souls game. Another impressive feat is to quit when the time is right and not when the money runs out. I cannot wait to see where he will take us next. 


*I’m not going to say much about Bloodbourne because I already wrote plenty on it here; but I will say it remains the pinnacle of the series for me. The highly focused trick weapons and speedy gameplay ultimately trumped the greater armament diversity of Dark Souls and I loved the focused Victorian/Lovecraftian story. That said, there’s still expansion packs lurking out there in the future for DS3

 

Salt and Sanctuary

salt3

While hired on as a guard to transport a princess across the sea and broker peace-via-marriage between two endlessly warring kingdoms, your ship is hijacked by bandits and tentacled sea monsters (alas) and you’re hurled into the sea. Naturally, you wash up on a mysterious island, unstuck in time, littered with all manner of beasts and creeping haunts and apocrypha.

Salt and Sanctuary is a game that is actively trying to be a 2D version of Dark Souls.

To say that it was merely inspired by Dark Souls or that it is a homage does not do justice to what is actually going on here. It’s a gloomy, abstract game-world that is difficult and requires patience and trial and error to traverse. You pick from an analogue of Dark Souls type classes, right down to the ill-equipped deprived. You collect salt/souls to level up and lose them at death and have one chance to return and reclaim them. At it’s most egregious, and the only point where I found it just too much, you journey to the bottom of the world and see many other world trees in the distance, a nearly 1:1 pasting of one of Dark Souls most iconic areas.

It’s effective. More love-letter than cash-in. And of course, morphing a 3d game into two dimensions changes the gameplay completely. Platforming plays a much bigger role; being knocked off platforms was easily my highest cause of death. A jump button is huge — I could play a slow-rolling, fat armored knight type character because being able to jump (and later dash) solved nearly any mobility woe. As a result, along with some easily exploitable systems and easy bosses, it’s much easier than Dark Souls. It does maintain the heavy feel of combat, and basic enemies can still kill you quickly if you’re not quick and alert.

The places where it deviates from the formula are hit-and-miss. For example, the sanctuary system replaces the bonfire checkpoints; A sanctuary is a sacred area dedicated to one of the various creeds of the island. You pick your character’s religion (or absence of one) at the start and find several others along the way. This allows you to locate defunct sanctuaries and spruce them up and populate them with various merchants — blacksmith, cleric, guide, etc — to make the place more homey and give you access to various tools. When you find opposing creeds’ sanctuaries, you can still perform basic functions like saving your progress and leveling up, but little else. By crushing a ‘bloodstained page’, you can declare (holy) war on the heretic sanctuary and fight its adherents; if you win, the sanctuary now belongs to your creed. It’s cool and a more atmospheric and robust system than a mere checkpoint, but it would have been nice to take it a little further. There’s not much point to converting other creeds and the faction system just requires tedious farming of enemies to level up.

Likewise, the art, sound and animation is usually pretty good, with caveats. I like good 2d art and S&S is mostly there. The environments are beautiful in a cloudy washed-out way, the art merges with the sparse storyline perfectly and it captures the visual excitement an RPG should have at equipping your character with a new piece of gear. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little too murky and it can be hard to discern enemies and their attacks. And what is up with those faces?

The game’s biggest failing is they clearly ran out of time by the end of the game. Environments go from complex, many-leveled labyrinths with several exits and entrances and shortcuts to boss corridors without much else in them. Possibly worse is that the number-tuning of the game gets thrown out the window. The last bosses all collapse in a few hits, leading to a bizarre situation where the last boss is much easier than the first one (or second or third or etc). It would benefit greatly from a rebalancing patch, and it does leave a poor impression indeed when you feel like you’re playing a legitimately great game that turns into a merely average one for the final twenty percent.

That said, it was the kind of impressive, joyful discovery that instantly made me a fan of the indie studio, Ska Studios, who created it. 

 

The Swan Whisperer by Marlene Van Niekerk

swan whispererI usually try and avoid books about writers. Or specifically works of fiction about writers of fiction. They can easily run dangerously self-aggrandizing or saccharine. You get this combo of O, my struggle! combined with something about the grand importance and essential nature of fiction — something I agree with completely but find suspect when delivered in the form of a writer constructing a clay model of themself.

(By contrast, I do love many books about books, from If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler to The Princess Bride to The Satanic Verses)

If you hadn’t guessed by now, The Swan Whisperer is a book about writing. Not just about writing, but formal creative writing classes. And not actually a book, but more a short story posing as one, about forty pages and illustrated.

The conceit here is that the narrator of the story is a South African creative writing teacher giving a lecture to her colleagues about an erstwhile student of hers who, on a trip to Amsterdam to snap his writer’s block, befriends the mysterious Swan Whisperer, an old man who descends to the canals every morning to commune with a legion of swans. The narrator goes on to explain that the student, Kasper, has been sending her cryptic letters, cassettes, and packages and excerpts of each are printed verbatim in the text.

It’s beautiful. The Swan Whisperer overcame any prejudices I had about books about writing. I’m usually not the type to sigh and wish if only this short tale were longer… but I did here. I wanted to continue, to hear more of Kasper’s secrets.

On the first page, Van Niekerk asks:

“What does one teach when one is a teacher of Creative Writing? The true? The good? The beautiful? Should one teach criticism, fantasy, or faith? What is the use of literature? What is its place on the greater canvas of human endeavours? And perhaps I should also ask: Can a story offer consolation?”

By the end of the story, I feel like maybe the answer is “Who knows?” or “Maybe it can’t possible do those things.” Maybe writing must instead be taught by winters abroad on frozen canals, falling in love with mute homeless men, savage history, love of fables, the sound of mountain rivers at midday.

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. 

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

library-mt-char-jacketThe Library at Mount Char is about a family of librarians. Sort of.

Sort of a family, because I guess that’s what you become when all your parents are simultaneously murdered and you’re adopted by a timeless demigod (not-so-fondly known as ‘Father’).

Sort of librarians because while they are caretakers of shelved books, they’re more like the X-men; The books serve as fonts for their themed superpowers. In other words: If you study something long enough, say medicine, you gain larger-than-life abilities, like healing any wound or bringing people back from the dead. The librarian in charge of the animal books can speak to and live like animals, learn all their rituals and hierarchies. The guy whose catalog is War has mastered every sort of weaponry, can read his enemies thoughts, and mows down armed soldiery faster than you manning a turret in the latest Call of Duty game.

Yes. This is an extremely, extraordinarily goofy book.

It is Carolyn, whose catalog is language (of which she can read or speak any variety, both modern and ancient, both human and animal, both worldly and out-of-space) that we follow through most of the novel. Now in their thirties, the librarians’ ‘Father’ is suddenly missing. It turns out that despite being a colossal hardass who more-or-less constantly tortured and abused his adoptive children, Father was the catalyst who kept all the entities who are even worse from descending on the earth, turning people into tentacle monsters and extinguishing all life on earth and whatnot. But Carolyn has a plan. The plot is the realization of that plan.

Did I mention this book was goofy? It embraces it. The God of War guy runs around in a blood-caked Tutu killing people en masse with a pyramid attached to a chain, gifting his victims’ heads to his girlfriend. I mean, like, total eradication of a police station. Intestines hanging from the ceiling, cops chopped in half, don’t slip on the blood! This is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is consistently weird. I think it’s supposed to be dark and brutal too, which I guess it kinda is, but the ruminations on abuse are difficult to take seriously within the scope of tutu guy assaulting the White House. The violence falls somewhere between a Tarantino movie, a slasher flick, and a video game. Somewhere in me I have a thesis about how video game violence altered book and especially movie violence in the past decade. Another time.  

This book has some great ideas that only half-happen. They’re a tease. We have this intriguing set of superpowered librarians but we only get to know maybe 3-4 of them. There’s 12 total but not even all of them are named, which is baffling honestly. Likewise, partway through the novel when the world threatens to end and eldritch beasties are unleashed across it, I anticipated the second half of Cabin in the Woods but received barely a glimpse of the outside world. Instead: repeated conversations by the same two characters wandering the library. There’s a whole lot of talking and explaining in this book.

Fantasy/Sci-fi pet peeve: While it’s understandable when confronted with the fantastic and seemingly impossible that modern day humans react with disbelief, after a while, I think I’d get used to it and stop asking. This one guy, Steve, spends half the damn book going “Bluh? Carolyn, lions can’t talk!” “60,000 years old? People can’t live that long, Carolyn!” “Carolyn, despite seeing this before my very eyes, it’s impossible for this library to be bigger on the inside than the outside, surely it’s an underground bunker?”

I threatened to skim Steve. Anyway, despite problems like these, or the way the pacing unravels in the last third of the book or the fact that the final answer of “Why? Why does the library exist! Why did Father kidnap and train these people!” is a tired cliche, I sort of loved this book. It’s ridiculous but inventive and creative and fresh in a way I wasn’t expecting. I read it in a handful of sittings. I want fantasy to take me somewhere I haven’t been before, and The Library at Mount Char did just that.

Empire Ascendant by Kameron Hurley (Worldbreaker #2)

EmpireAscendant-144dpiThis is the second book in the Worldbreaker Saga. I reviewed part one, The Mirror Empire, last year. Reading my own review prior to starting part two turned out to be a boon. The world is complicated, the dramatis personae lengthy. According to my Kindle, the glossary at the end is 5% of the total mass of the book. Even after the refresher, I was a bit overwhelmed by the plethora of similar-sounding names for a good while.

The world is under assault from a relentless army from a mirror-world, an army comprised of phantom versions of the people of this one. They’ve already sacked an entire continent and are on their way to conquer the other two main countries. A hodgepodge group of characters all over the world stand to oppose them (and just as frequently: oppose each other). The pace, the headlong speed of the action, the scale continues to be Hurley’s strong suit. So many world(s)-spanning epic fantasies become lost in their own details and sputter on following millions of new threads introduced each book. The Worldbreaker Saga is speedy, despite the massive scope. Events happen quickly. The plot is spinning at a nice and compelling rate, while still remaining (mostly) comprehensible. When new threads are introduced, old ones are severed. Character bloat isn’t an issue when a writer is balancing the scales by brutally murdering many of the old ones (seriously brutal, not faux-brutal — trust me).

I complained of the world not feeling weird enough in The Mirror Empire, especially given how strange it was supposed to be. Empire Ascendant is more satisfactory in that regard, the strange attributes (killer plants, moon-based magic powers, world hopping) are better realized and many of the old tropes discarded. When we can base a major set piece on an Alice-in-Wonderland-esque tea party of disparate characters sitting down for a banquet right in between two different armies protected by magic air bubbles, and the scene works, we’re going places. I’m still a little nonplussed by the main continent/character set where the action is taking place (Dhai) but there was so much going on all over the damn place, that I wasn’t too displeased.

There’s a theme that runs through the novel about ‘monsters’. To fight a monster, you must become one. Gaze long into the abyss… etc. While it is of course credible that being exposed to constant violence would provoke violent tendencies in the person (or people) attempting to survive, it does not mean they would need to become monsters. I always balk when a character in a narrative thinks something along the lines of “If I do this [possibly bad thing], then I’ll be just as bad as them.” I am not sold by Empire Ascendant’s version of this; the villains have launched a sustained genocidal rampage on such an unimaginable scale, that the main characters killing a few people (in self defense) just cannot compare. Nor am I sold on the theme beyond the scope of the novel — that real life evil requires evil in return. It seems to be like Hurley is reaching for some of the moral heft of Oakley Hall’s Warlock but not quite grasping it.

Another reason maybe I’m not sold on it is because I do not find the characters to be truly believable people. I saw this as a detractor in the first book (and still feel like the universe has some strange-but-nostalgic affinity to video games) but I’ve come to terms with the characters being less realistic depictions of people and more like pulpy archetypes who speak modern english. I’ve read Kameron Hurley’s blog and she’s confessed her love of 80s action heroes and I can see the influence in Empire Ascendant. Several scenes in the book could be reinvented as death metal album covers. Picture a grim anti-hero bleeding out, reclining on a mountain of corpses, flipping off the camera. That’s honestly not that far from a description of one character’s demise in this book.

Empire Ascendant does everything the first book did well better, and minimizes on the things the first book did poorly. Not much more you can ask for from a sequel. I’m invested in the plot. It’s refreshing to feel like this is actually going to wrap up in three books. The board is set for book 3 and I look forward to the conclusion.