Assassin’s Creed Origins

Ancient Egypt is so cool. Stunning works of bronze-age architecture, endless deserts and oases. Camels. Thousands of years of humans living along the Nile. So long-lasting that Cleopatra lived her life closer to ours than to the architects of the great pyramids. Where writing, libraries, and Anne Rice’s vampires all began. 

For the past few games, the Assassin’s Creed series found itself mired in Western Europe with rapidly stagnating gameplay. It took a year off and returned revitalized. By revitalized, I mean borrowed heavily from The Witcher 3’s gameplay and world design, while investing to the usual high degree in creating a historical setting in-game.

Bayek of Siwa is a ‘medjay’, a sort of protector-shaman-civil serviceman. Some time prior to the start of the game, his son was murdered by a bunch of masked dudes sporting animal names like the Jackal or the Scarab. Naturally he decides to hunt them all down. While there’s some hackneyed bits towards the end where the game earns its subtitle, showing how the assassin’s creed began, the revenge story is basically all there is to the plot. A breadcrumb trail of corpses to take you around Egypt, which is so huge the main game doesn’t even take you through all the major zones. Not even close.

Bayek is a good hero. Furious and distraught over the loss of his son, yet buoyed by a paternal kindness that in other circumstances would be his defining trait. In between screaming at bad guys and then stabbing them, he’s trying to be everyone’s Dad. Many quests take this quite literally, helping parents, helping children. Facial tech really excels here, as it did in the Witcher, seeing Bayek’s smile after helping a child complete a task, then watching his eyes tighten and smile start to melt as he remembers. Other quests take on specific period dilemmas, and it’s great to see Bayek get pissed off and angrily growl “blasphemy!” when finding an illegal crocodile tannery in the middle of a city that is supposed to hold the animal sacred.

The modern era of video games is in crisis: There must be enemies to kill, to maim, to execute in 4k, HDR, glory. But who? Narratively and visually, we’ve moved beyond killing without purpose. The solution thus far has been populating the world with unthinking zombie/machine hordes or an ill-defined and ambiguous banditry. AC:O opts for the latter. You spend a whole lot of time in “bandit” camps, bandit forts, bandit hideouts. Who are these bandits? What did they do to deserve such mass slaughter? Why is the ratio of Egyptian citizens to Egyptian bandits basically 1:1? The game is not interested in fleshing this out; they’re ‘enemies’ like orcs or goombas. There are brief segments where it is Greeks or Romans who are the enemy, but the tangled web of Mediterranean imperialism and dynastic incest is certainly not something the series wants to engage with seriously.

I’ve drifted away from big budget Western titles, because they play it safe, both in gameplay and especially in narrative. For example, Ubisoft (maker of AC:O), is about to release Far Cry 5, which takes place in one of the most beautiful places on earth (Montana), but since the game refuses to engage meaningfully with its premise of ultra-right wing terrorists and plays it safe, trying to not to offend anyone (according to reviews), I am absolutely not interested. AC ultimately plays it safe too. You have a rote plot and spend hours killing bandits, but like I said in the first sentence, I get to ride a camel around Ancient Egypt, I get to climb pyramids and plunder tombs and be bitten by snakes. In some very specific cases, I’ll settle for, and indeed be well-satisfied by, an excellent historical setting paired with a good protagonist, regardless of what else may be missing. 

The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota #3)

I love this series.

Regardless of what I’ll write next about the good or the bad and what worked or what didn’t, I’ll start by stating how pleasing it is to open these books and be surprised. This is part of why I read in the first place. Not for comfort or for safety, but to experience new ideas, to be taken to new places, to encounter characters whose journey I find dear while also illuminating human experience out in the real world. I’ll read a few books a year that deliver this pleasure. They’re rarely sci-fi or fantasy, which is too bad, because if I’m honest with myself, then I know that’s where my heart lies.

Following the events of the first two books, the global conspiracy enacted by the Humanists to prevent world war by systemically assassinatinating persons that will increase global unrest has become public knowledge. Most of the planet is in an uproar over what to do with the perpetrators and their trial is a significant plot point, finally revealing the meaning of ‘Terra Ignota’, the series title. Ironically, this serves as yet another trigger point for that very same theoretical, now actual, War. War that puts all of humanity at risk since technology has so rapidly increased in the two hundred years since the last big one, wherein we barely scraped by.

While the previous books were already heavy on conversation (& The Conversation), The Will to Battle is nearly entirely dialogue or summary of dialogue, at times going so far as to abandon narrative conventions (“he said”) entirely and become transcript:

I: “Lied to you? How?”
Kosala: “They said they’d help me work for peace, while all that time the two of you were training your private army.”
I: “That was no lie, Chair Kosala. Achilles wants peace, more than anything.”
Kosala: “You both believe the peace movement is doomed.”
I: “All mortal things are doomed: you, me, this peace, the Empire, this planet. Achilles doesn’t choose sides based on how likely things are to succeed, only whether they’re worth dying for.”

The straightforwardness of this is warped by our narrator’s madness, wherein characters who couldn’t be present in the scene are included. This includes recently dead fictional characters, metafictional characters (The Reader), and long-dead real world characters (Hello again, Thomas Hobbes). There’s a brilliant sequence early on where Mycroft takes the newly resurrected Achilles to meet all the world leaders and the setting shifts from one capital to the next and one Emperor or President to the next mid-conversation and without warning. This allows us to be many places at once without transition and cement clear contrasts between the great leader’s opinions and motivations in this almost-war period.

The structure of these novels requires our slate of main characters be an incestuous bunch of world leaders, who at times leave me praying for the series to end with a Hamlet-esque purge of the entire cast (especially Cornel fuckin’ MASON). This means it’s difficult to see regular people, with their riots, looting, or food hoarding as real actors. Given that a major plot point involves running census numbers to determine how likely unrest and outright war are, this is far from a world of individuals. It is a world of data and Great Thinkers instead. This is necessary to focus on the big questions Palmer wants to ask, or at least necessary for the means she wishes to ask them: People arguing about grand questions of philosophy, what lengths are worth going to for peace, and what means are justified, and being able to act on the conclusions they reach. Would you destroy this word to save a better one? How much is one life worth versus the future of humanity? And who gets to choose?

Quoth Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me:  imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?

This passage is also imagined as an SF story written by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, which is also quite good. It’s a topic always sure to cause great debate at the bar.  The Will to Battle isn’t quite the same, since the decision is calculated killing of innocents vs. bowing under the yoke of an alien god, but it raises many similar questions.

The series is not without flaws. Since the cast is so large and the scope so wide, Palmer must resort to quick characterization schemes. I think we have several people now whose shorthand characterization is a metaphorical familial relationship (i.e. the Mother of the World, the Grandpa/ma of the Senate, etc). Perhaps because of the immense labor of introducing all these characters, Palmer is loathe to let them go and introduce too many new ones, but there is no good reason for Merion Kraye to potentially be around nor for Head Sensayer Julia to not be imprisoned (or for another jail-bound character to escape). Conversely, I wondered what the point of spending so much time with Carlyle Foster in the earlier books was if they were barely going to be featured here at all.

A blurb on the back of the book from Jo Walton gushes:

This is the kind of science fiction that makes me excited all over again about what science fiction can do. Lots of books can knock you over and leave you reeling and dazzled when you’re fifteen, but it takes something special to do the same thing to you at fifty.

I’m not fifty but the same still applies. I wish it happened more but I treasure it when it occurs at all.

The Familiar Volume 5: Redwood by Mark Z. Danielewski

My reviews for the first four volumes: One Rainy day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain, Hades.

Thus we reach the latest novelty of the Familiar experiment: the season finale. The first four volumes slowly drew the disparate characters of the The Familiar, who have spent thousands of beautifully type-faced pages engaging in mischief, violence and introspection, directly into eachother’s paths. At last, we see them meet.

The great majority of Redwood is concerned with a single scene occurring in the Ibrahim’s living room. A gathering of main characters clashing over the fate of the eponymous kitten. It is a perfectly good scene. An interesting scene. Character and plot. It does what a good scene should.

But it’s the same scene repeated by the five different point of view characters present. There’s sundry details revealed in each chapter. Naturally one person will notice things that another does not. This includes some neat bits like seeing the Ibrahim’s comfortable middle-class house and lifestyle observed by other, less-privileged characters when we’ve already spent multiple books listening to Astair and Anwar struggle with money. Hardly enough to justify the repetition though.

There is nothing inherently wrong with a tight focus. Volume 1 comprised a single day, one rainy day in May, which felt lovingly crafted and well-paced, delving into the recursive depths and quotidian trauma a single day can hold. By contrast, volume 5 feels scant, even sloppy. It’s not merely the scene repetition — the writing itself feels imprecise, less sure-footed, the fantastic bits too muddy. I was not captivated nor satisfied in the way I expected to be.

Not everyone is in the Ibrahim’s living room. There’s movement elsewhere. Luther finally catches up with Domingo, though his arc continues to flirt-with but not commit-to the larger drama. The framing stories that open each volume receive conclusions or further clarity. The gruesome youtube clips of men shooting baby animals concludes and is tied into the main plot and wrapped up by Isandorno. The sections following cave people and far-future humans is far more cohesive and sensical, if still opaque.

I’m still on board the Danielewski train. One clumsy episode does not ruin a great TV show either. But it was certainly a let-down having the series first season finale be the weakest book thus far.

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.

The Familiar Volume 3: Honeysuckle and Pain by Mark Z. Danielewski

TheFamiliarVolume3

Here we are with Volume 3 of my favorite series prominently featuring a scrying orb.

My review of Volume 3 could almost be a copy-paste of Volume 2.

Xanther’s bond with the sinister Familiar deepens. Anwar worries about code and money. Astair worries about sex and money. Luther chews metal. Jingjing smokes. Isandorno unemotionally observes great violence. Cas is on the run. Shnorrk drives his cab around and ponders being the most irrelevant character. Ozgur collects even more scintillating clues that will surely come together, some day.

In Volume 3, there’s actually conjecture that the characters might all start converging in LA. And one character even, ever so briefly, sees another one. Granted, it’s a 2 second long accidental non-meeting, but it’s there!

In other words, the series remains a very slow burn. But it also remains a pleasure to read. The swirling text and tension-via-page flipping and word arrangement remains enchanting. I just like holding and reading the damn thing. The characters were already easily identified by their fonts, but now I can just glance at the color coding on the top right and think “Oh, pink, I’ll have a long Xanther chapter next”. It has become… familiar.

The Familiar is extremely tight on both technology and current events. The nerdy characters discuss modern video games. The characters react to say, the Isla Vista Killings or ISIS executions. But even now, we’re starting to outpace, in real time, the story. It’s still Summer 2014 there. Anwar attends E3 and beholds games that have already been released. Should this series reach its end, at 26 or 27 or whatever volumes, we’re going to be many years ahead (barring major time skips). It’s set to produce the heretofore unseen trick of going from fully up-to-date to capturing a past moment in history in the same series.

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

 

Assassin’s Creed: Unity

unity

The thing about playing these games a year or more after they’ve come out is I know the critical and fan reception beforehand. Thus I knew this was the most maligned Creed game yet, and everyone seemed to hate it so much that, as a form of apology, Ubisoft gave away its only downloadable expansion for free.

Was it all that bad?

Well, the first thing I noticed was the ghastly decision to give the people of revolutionary France english accents. I found I could switch the language to french (with english subtitles) in the options menu and never looked back. Indeed, it was quite educational. I now understand the lyrics to that Talking Heads song:

Psycho killerrr
Qu’est-ce que c-est?
Qu’est-ce que c-est?

Anyway. Other than the language mishap, the game seemed pretty good. After two games on the high seas and the North American frontier, it was nice to be back in a real city again. Paris is beautiful and fun to run around and parkour in. There’s gameplay improvements that seemed to improve the run and climb gameplay of the series. At first.

Naturally, it didn’t last.

To start with, for some baffling reason, a game set during the iconic French Revolution barely engages with the revolution at all. You spend a few minutes hanging out with a young Napoleon and then at the end of the game, they throw you a bone and reveal Robespierre was a pawn of the villainous Templar. The Marquis De Sade is the historical figure you spend the most time with (OK, that’s kind of funny). Danton is shunted to some lame co-op side missions and everyone else may as well not exist, along with the major events they partook in. This is the same damn game that two installments ago had me holding the reins of Paul Revere’s horse, while he sat on its rump performing the Midnight Ride! Moreover, the game plays it even more safe and blandly, by refusing to even touch the political and moral murk of the revolution. The enemies are merely labeled ‘extremists’, and the templar’s goals are unbelievably vague (Do stuff! Kill the king! Now, kill Robespierre!).

The story is instead a linear revenge narrative, that aside from hitting one or two good beats, is predictable and largely boring. This game earned Ubisoft a lot of heat when they gave some lame explanation of why there’s no women assassins in multiplayer. I’ll raise you that complaint and take it to single player — the protagonist is Arno Dorian, this guy who bumbles around trying to avenge his lover’s Dad. Elise, the lover in question, drives most of the plot. Her arc — raised as a templar from birth and forced to ally with the assassins by necessity — is more interesting and relevant than Arno’s non-story/non-arc. It’s bizarre. To top it all off, by the end of the game, you’ve realized the plot is a sidestory to the greater AC storyline. It’s completely self contained and if you never played it, you wouldn’t miss a thing.

Worse, the combat and stealth is horrendous. I’m not sure I’ve seen its like in high budget games ever before. In the old games, you could just sit there holding the block button and counter every attack any enemy launched with ease as they attacked one by one. Granted, that’s not the best system. Unity kills it though. Now you attack enemies that constantly block until an attack gets through and you kill a guy and during the ‘you’re killing a guy, wow!’ animation, other enemies can attack you. It’s bullshit! If another guy is gonna stab me, I’m not gonna do this fancy spin-flip-kill moves like Arno is doing, I’m gonna stab him and turn around! The end result is that I just stocked up on smoke grenades and spent every fight in the game dropping a smoke grenade, kill 2-3 coughing enemies, drop a smoke grenade, kill 2-3 more.

And the stealth! Listen, there’s 2 ways to do stealth correctly.

  1. The enemies are stupid and go ‘wait, huh? Is someone there?’ when you’re executing their buddy 5 feet away (Old AC games worked like this, as did old Metal Gear Solid games)
  2. The enemies are much smarter and behave more like real people, but the player has the tools to handle this and the enemies are not too plentiful to make stealth impossible (Splinter Cell / New Metal Gear Solid games)

Unity fails on both fronts! Enemies appear en masse. Go to a dinner party and there’s as many guards as guests. And get anywhere near them and the whole building is alerted. Is it outside in a courtyard? Congrats, now you’re going to have a dozen snipers shooting you up for 75% of your health a pop.

By the way, the controls suck too.

To sum this all up: I had one assassination mission where I had to kill a dude sitting in a room with honestly like 20 guards surrounding him. I peppered the room with smoke grenades, ready to dash in and kill him and dash out before anyone noticed. Instead, the mere sound of the grenades triggered an alert and one guard knew where I was, so as Arno ran up to complete the assassination job, instead of killing the guy right in front of him, he leapt through the air backwards at the one alert guard. Totally ruining what would have been a fun, emergent gameplay opportunity.

But, whatever. What can I say? I still played through the whole game and got most of the collectibles. I still had fun. Is all I really need a virtual historic city to run around in to be satisfied, even when the gameplay is such shit? Maybe. At least for one game. I hear the next one is better and I hope so. I’d rather not see the series tank and fade away.

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.

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.

The Familiar: Volume 1 by Mark Z. Danielewski

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how many raindrops?

 

One rainy day in May, 2014, a whole bunch of seemingly unrelated but absolutely absorbing events happen. A 13 year old girl with epilepsy tries not to lose herself contemplating how to count all the raindrops in the sky; a gangster initiates a strange new recruit; a hard-boiled detective contemplates his love affair with LA; in Singapore, weird shit is happening; in Texas, weird shit is happening; plus several other plotlines. By the end of this book, volume 1 of 27 (!!), very few of the stories connect in anything but general atmosphere, but like the engaging serial TV dramas it evokes, I can’t wait to figure out how to they all come together.

 

how many raindrops how many raindrops how many

 

Mark Danielewski of House of Leaves fame, occasionally accused of gimmickry, is known for breaking down the traditional novel format by altering typography and spacing to match the narrative content, inserting images, changing text axises (causing you to flip the book around at various angles), and literary-mathematical puzzles. House of Leaves example: Characters crawling in a tight space means the text itself shrinks and takes up dramatically less space on the page. For several pages. The Familiar example: Xanther, our epileptic and anxiety-ridden protagonist ponders how to plot the number of raindrops falling from the sky and the text itself is twisted into falling rain, puddles. As Xanther’s unease mounts, the image is rearranged to confuse the eyes and trigger her anxiety in the reader. It works!

Likewise, characters spend a lot of time thinking, especially Xanther’s parents, and their thoughts are distributed in nested parentheticals (It’s occasionally hard to read (but it’s more like people actually think (do you reflect in clear sentences all the time?)) that do a great job of revealing character’s desires and concerns (thus ends my example of nested parentheticals)).

 

how many raindrops

 

Sometimes you’re reading one sentence or one word per page. This arouses an immense and inexplicable amount of hostility from some readers/reviewers. Like challenging form is some kind of literary offense. Danielewski’s single word pages have delivered superior content to many five hundred word pages I’ve read. One thing I will allow: Danielewski is a skilled writer, but it is the style and composition of the novel that is his unique and lasting skill; the multi-plotted storyline of The Familiar is reminiscent of other authors (David Mitchell comes to mind immediately) and while it’s quite good, it wouldn’t stand up as well as a standalone vanilla text. But the style is not an affectation — it’s deeply rooted in the conception of the novel itself — wondering what The Familiar would be like without all the stylistic, typographic, and narrative quirks is missing the point.

 

how many

 

Danielewski is a nerd. All his books pull deeply from sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Pulp detective stories. A plot line in the book involves Xanther’s dad, a video game dev, and there’s segments of his code on pages of the book, discussion of which physics engine to license. The Matrix is key. There’s a hilarious aside where the dog-fighting gangster character, Luther, compares his life to that of Michael Vick. Indeed, Danielewski does not shy from current events — the characters engage with modern smartphone tech: skype, instagram, etc. It shortens the gap for the made up social media apps in the novel, which will absolutely become more important in future volumes.

Future volumes I will assuredly read. I love this stuff.

 

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