Sunday, August 31, 2014

Pleasures of the Guilty

Wow, I've had better weekends...

...But last night I found a couple of quiet hours for myself, so just to indulge myself a little extra, I connected a laptop to a 46" screen to get some size and played a little Skyrim. I let all worries about the upcoming week of work, all the meetings, all family matters, things I need to write and do, I let it all go away for a while and allowed myself to immerse myself back into the land of the Nords for a while. And it really made a difference. When I went to bed I felt a lot more content, and after a few pages of Esslemont's Assail I slept soundly (I could've said "I slept like a baby" but as I have a youngling sleeping at my side these nights, I can assure you that sleeping like a baby is a weird, weird, proverb).

When looking through the eyes of my character, the Dark Elf Shadows (yes, he's shown up on this blog before) on a fairly big screen, I immediately fell back in love with the sense of adventure this game provides. Cause what I really was hankering for, was some roleplaying, and so I decided to really "be" Shadows last night. During last night's voyage (I try to skip fast travel for that immersion), I met a ferocious ice dragon harassing the townsfolk of Dawnstar, and later, an even more ferocious blood dragon somewhere out in the wild, attacking a bandit stronghold. Navigating an enraged dragon and angry bandits was a fun experience. That's what gives Skyrim its extra points - the potential for the unexpected. For all the linear quests, you can still strike out and do whatever you feel like, within the frames of the game obviously.

Shadows against a blood dragon, somewhere north and east of Falkreath (which I hadn't visited before last night)


Once again I also noted that the popularity of A Song of Ice and Fire must have had some influence on Skyrim, as it feels far grittier and medieval than the four previous The Elder Scrolls titles did. Love it.
I spent a good amount of time trying to defeat a heavily armored orc in a small dungeon, keeping a table between me and him so that I could survive; this fellow could smack me down with one stroke with that bigass sword of his. I wore him down with arrows and fire, until I finally succeeded. And it felt so good! After months with little to no gaming (aside from, say, nine hours in Divinity: Original Sin) it was nice to game away the evening and I didn't even feel guilty about it.

Yesterday, Skyrim was more therapy than guilty pleasure.

Friday, August 29, 2014

[Re-read] Tyrion IX: Ups and Downs


All right! Friday! My favorite day of the week. Not only is it currently the only day of the week where I have time to dip into a chapter of A Storm of Swords, it also heralds the coming of weekend, which in turn brings more smiles all around. Coupled with nice late-summer weather, one can only be grateful for living in a (relatively) quiet corner of the world, though the news likes to remind me just how beyond repair the human race seems to be. Sigh. Anyway; speaking of beyond repair; here's Tyrion's ninth chapter, the sixty-seventh of this magnificent volume of awesomeness. It's a chapter with a lot of characters and a lot of talk, so let's see if Martin can keep us interested and excited in spite of that.


Thursday, August 28, 2014

Setting Sail for Assail

Back in late 2009, about the same time I started this blog actually, I gave Steven Erikson's Gardens of the Moon a third and final try. Something about the work appealed to me, but I just couldn't get a hang of it. Reading online that the best thing was to persevere and get through it, I managed to finish it and I was wondering what the heck I had just read - in the sense that while I could envision a lot of the scenes and understood most of it, I still found it difficult to come to grips with Erikson's obtuse, almost excluding style in this first novel. It was like watching a painting but some parts were smudged. Or something like that. 
Still, it left me with enough motivation to continue the ride with the second book, Deadhouse Gates, which right off the bat hooked me with a sinister, dramatic, twisted prologue that I still re-read now and then for the thrill of it. Erikson had improved dramatically between these two titles as well (there's a ten year or so gap in real time between them); and somewhere in the third book, Memories of Ice, the hooks were finally in me, and while I still didn't understand it all, it became more and more captivating. I am glad I listened to those who told me to continue. Ironically, the friend who recommended A Game of Thrones to me nine years earlier, and who in that sense is kind of responsible for me falling headlong into the exploration of fantasy literature, never finished Gardens of the Moon despite me trying to sell it to him. 

The best thing about it all was that I had found something to admire while waiting for George to finish A Dance with Dragons. Not just that, Erikson had at the time only one out of ten volumes left to complete, and the man was pushing out books so fast I could hardly believe it. So only a month later, The Crippled God was published (early in 2010 if I recall correctly) and I had a complete ten-volume series to indulge myself with; and for each volume I became more and more impressed with Erikson's mastery of the language, his quirky humor (which really came to the fore in book five, Midnight Tides), the deep themes and the harsh lessons learned, and eventually I knew I just had to get into the companion series as well. 

Ian C. Esslemont, then, is Erikson's long-time friend and he is as much a power behind the Malazan epic as Steven himself, and his complementary series, The Malazan Empire, fit into the Book of the Fallen cycle and both series feed on/off each other. So as I came close to the end with The Crippled God, I knew I had even more goodies to devour: and like Steven, Ian is a pretty fast writer too (I guess the excruciating wait for Martin to deliver made everyone seem like Speedy Gonzales), and so I spent a long time not having to wait for more Malazan adventures - all the way until last year actually. By then, I had devoured everything, including the absolutely insanely brilliant Bauchelain & Korbal Broach novellas - do yourself a favor and read Crack'd Pot Trail - if not for the setting, for the beautiful and sinister writing. Such a gem. Anyway - Erikson published Forge of Darkness, a prequel to the Books of the Fallen, and Ian Blood & Bone, his fifth, and then, all of a sudden, I was without a Malazan fix. Until now, and Assail.

Starting the novel has been a bit rough, with constant interruptions, but now I'm into it, back in the world of the Malazan Empire, and I love being there. The prologue of this book is such a visual pleaser (in the sense that it feels cinematic, and I can imagine how great it would look on the screen, with a character being hunted through pine forests covering mountainous slopes, the pursuers...well I won't spoil anything). The same prologue also highlights why I rate Esslemont lower than Erikson, even though they share the world: The writing just isn't as excellent as Erikson's can be. While the "visuals" of the prologue are fantastic, the way Esslemont narrates leaves something to be desired. 

I noticed while reading how staccato the text was (it improves by the first chapter, though). Every sentence of the chase. In the mountains. Is written something. Like this. Lots of stop-start-stops. What I guess I am trying to say, then, is that Esslemont's prose is far from the superb quality Erikson began to deliver about halfway through his 3-million-word cycle. But now, after what, sixteen? seventeen? fat volumes of Malazan Empire, the setting itself draws me in, and the writing becomes but the window into this fascinating, continually mysterious and wildly epic setting. Now, I am looking forward to that quiet half hour I have before sleeping, just to get back there and see what Assail will be all about. 

Looks like I'm going to push out another A Storm of Swords post tomorrow, if luck holds. Until then, I'll leave you with this little piece from Steven Erikson, from aforementioned novella Crack'd Pot Trail. 

My tales, let it be known, sweep the breadth of the world.
I have sat with the Toblai in their mountain fastnesses, with the snows drifitng to bury the peeks of the longhouses.
I have stood on the high broken shores of the Perish, watching as a floundering ship struggled to reach shelter.
I have walked the streets of Malaz City, beneath Mock's brooding shadow, and set eyes upon the Deadhouse itself.
Years alone assail a mortal wanderer, for the world is round and to witness it all is to journey without end.
But now see me in this refuge, cooled by the trickling fountain, and the tales I recount upon these crackling sheets of papyrus, they are the heavy fruits awaiting the weary traveler in yonder oasis. 
Feed then or perish.
Life is but a search for gardens and gentle refuge, and here I sit waging the sweetest war, for I shall not die while a single tale remains to be told.
Even the gods must wait spellbound.

Oh man, now I realize there's one Steven Erikson novella I still have to read. The Wurms of Blearmouth. I had all forgotten about that one. TOR published an excerpt, even. *Smacks head, says d'oh*

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Emperor of Thorns & Breaking Down Fantasy into Six Tiers



Being the third in the Broken Empire Trilogy (shouldn't that be Borken Empire), by Mark Lawrence, EMPEROR OF THORNS continues the story from 'Prince of Thorns' and 'King of Thorns', following Jorg Ancrath toward an ending that was...well. I really want to tell you what I think of how Mark wrapped up this fascinating and probably divisive (in terms of love/hate from readers I mean), but I feel like this is the kind of wrap-up that you want to experience yourself, completely spoiler-free. Not saying there's a massive migraine-inducing plot twist or anything - all I'm going to say is that I liked it and I didn't like it. That helped, I guess. But I liked it more than I didn't like it. And it's an ending that I am still thinking about a day later.

So, the trilogy is done and I know Lawrence has already begun a new tale, starting with Prince of Fools, and I have to admit I am anxious to get back to the setting, which is Lawrence's second best achievement with his story. I really don't want to comment too much on the setting either, as it is another part of the story that I suppose is very satisfying to figure out on your own, but it works wonderfully well and with a little more detail and expansion (possibly in Prince of Fools, which features the same setting) it could very well be the next big role-playing game setting license. Lots of fun ways to be creative with this setting as a game master, I suppose.

The best thing about this series is, as I have mentioned before, of course, the main character Jorg. Throughout the story you will feel all kinds of things about this guy, from loathing to curiosity to fascination and everything inbetween. If you find the Prince of Thorns a despicable fellow while reading the first novel, don't give up - this is a character that needed three volumes of text to be seen from a variety of angles and perspectives. I've seen (on Amazon) people quitting the series because Jorg is such a prick (closest comparison in some ways is Joffrey, but where Joffrey is fairly one-dimensional, Jorg is anything but). 

I think A Game of Thrones: Light is a fair way of describing the Broken Empire trilogy. It is not light in its exploration of themes or anything; it is light in the sense that the focus is mainly on one character, Jorg, who is properly explored, and the rest of the cast are not given very deep characterizations (whereas George RR Martin gives so many characters the full treatment); it is lighter in the sense that we don't get intricate/complex plots and there isn't as much reading between the lines; and the plot itself is fairly straightforward (though with a few neat little twists) whereas Ice & Fire sprawls. The pace is quicker; Jorg travels from the far north to the deep south in the time it takes Jon Snow to take stock of the Night's Watch inventory. Another thing that makes comparisons to Martin almost required is the grit, with dialogue and unflinching brutality being similar. There's this same sense of dark humor, also shared by Joe Abercrombie. It is certainly edgier than, say, Rothfuss. 

Having finished, I feel I have a new series to add to my top ten list of fantasy series/novels, though I am not sure where I would rank it among my other favorites. It is not as good as the very best - Martin, Erikson - it almost reaches that second tier - Rothfuss, Abercrombie - and it is better than other recent good tales like Blood Song  so I think I'm wedging Lawrence onto Tier 3 (along with Richard K. Morgan, who perhaps is another good comparison to Lawrence's work), and then on Tier 4 we have the more recent novels in the genre like Blood Song and The Emperor's Blades. Yeah. Something like that. 

So here's what my ranking of fantasy novels looks like right now. I haven't added everything I've read yet, let's call this a preliminary sketch. By putting these tales in tiers, I don't have to decide which ones are the absolutely best, which feels all right. I know I placed The Stormlight Archive on Tier 4, which is probably too low, but it still not grabbing me. Technically, it is a very impressive work (I'm talking about the first book now) and so perhaps should be moved up the tiers. But for now, I am placing them just by personal taste and not evaluating other aspects).

TIER 1:
George R.R. Martin, A Song of Ice and Fire
J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
Steven Erikson, The Malazan Book of the Fallen

TIER 2:
Joe Abercrombie, The First Law Trilogy, Best Served Cold, The Heroes, Red Country
Patrik Rothfuss, The Kingkiller Chronicles

TIER 3:
Mark Lawrence, The Broken Empire Trilogy
Richard K. Morgan, A Land Fit for Heroes
Saladin Ahmed, Crescent Moon Kingdoms
Ian C. Esslemont, The Malazan Empire

TIER 4:
Anthony Ryan, Raven's Shadow
Peter Staveley, The Emperor's Blades
Scott Lynch, The Gentlemen Bastards
Brandon Sanderson, The Stormlight Archive
Grey Keyes, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone

TIER 5:
Robert Jordan, The Wheel of Time (I admit I stopped during book four)
R.A. Salvatore's Forgotten Realms books & other Dungeons & Dragons novels

TIER 6 (almost, and in some cases, actually unreadable):
Robert Newcomb, The Fifth Sorceress


Agree? Disagree? Any obvious titles I should've read? Feel free to recommend me something!
(I have Glen Cook, Robin Hobb, and Guy Gavriel Kay on my to-read list already)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Emperors, Emmys, Endgame

Almost done with Emperor of Thorns (Mark Lawrence), it feels good to find time to read more often, though it has stolen time from other hobbies. With the end of the summer holiday, massive loads of work await as well, impeding further on precious geek-time. Once again I find myself wishing one could get paid for just geeking out in the comfort of one own's home.  After Emperor, it is time for Assail, which I have to admit kind of drives me a little harder to finish Lawrence's trilogy; which, even as I am coming to the end of it, still continues to come up with these baffling surprises, dark and twisted scenes, and the humor that permeates Lawrence's writing (although I feel the humor is somewhat downplayed in the third book).

I have to say I am surprised Game of Thrones got only four Emmys. Surprised, and disappointed that once again a fantasy production is given the short shrift when it clearly deserves all the praise in the world. Not that it really matters - the viewing numbers says it much better than an Emmy anyway. 

A new A Storm of Swords post coming up, hopefully by Friday, which seems to be my new window for my re-read posts this fall. I have to work it in between everything else, so I don't expect to be able to do more than one re-read post a week for the foreseeable future, but that still means I'll wrap up Storm and get cracking on those two last books - which in my mind still feel like the two new kids on the block who don't feel as if they really belong; in other words, fresh - before the year is over at least.


Friday, August 22, 2014

Assailed!

Wow!! I had completely forgotten the release of Assail, Ian C. Esslemont's sixth Malazan Empire novel which also serves to backend Erikson's main cycle.
Weird how I kind of just forgot about the most interesting book of the year (for me personally).
I bought it before giving myself the chance to even consider waiting until I have finished my other books.  Which is dumb because it will probably be half the price soon enough, but I really need a Malazan fix and I am quite curious about how Esslemont will wrap it all up.
Oh joy.
But four days. Why haven't I seen or heard anything? This is big!

[Re-read] Arya XII: Riders of Doom


Hello and welcome to the latest re-read of A Storm of Swords! This time I'm tackling chapter 66, Arya's twelfth, which means I have fifteen chapters and an epilogue left. I am still amazed today, fourteen years after my first read, by the scope and complexity, the characterizations and, of course, the shocks, that this massive tome provides. And even though I have previously called A Clash of Kings my favorite book in the series, I think I must now retract that statement and properly announce Storm as the best book in the series, even though it takes a little dive after the Red Wedding, but that is more due to my expectations for where the story could go and not having those expectations met. This is the main reason why I look forward to re-read A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons, hoping that now that I know where and how the story-lines move, I can read the story without being too bothered how Martin kind of did a massive perspective shift from King's Landing, the North, and the Riverlands to encompass a much larger world, with the Iron Islands, Dorne, and Essos becoming so much more prominent backgrounds.