Wednesday, September 26, 2012

I killed a York

Some posts ago I mentioned a number of things I was looking forward to. Now I can cross the first item of my list: War of the Roses, a multiplayer medieval mayhem game which is out on 2nd October, but since I pre-ordered it I got it today (well, technically yesterday but I had forgotten all about it and discovered it was ready to play by accident a couple of hours ago). 

What A Song of Ice and Fire diehard would not want to try out this game? It is, after all, based on the, surprise surprise, War of the Roses, which in turn influenced George R.R. Martin a great deal. The conflicts between House York and House Lancaster provided a feast of exciting battles, political intrigue and backstabbing and peculiar characters for Martin when he began A Game of Thrones. Not saying the War of the Roses is his only inspiration, but one must conclude that it has been an important one - York/Lancaster, or Stark/Lannister?

Being a Lannister-man I was naturally inclined to side with the Lancasters, even though, when reading up on these wars (I recommend Alison Weir's Wars of the Roses) I kind of cheer on the Yorkists.

So, the game downloaded and updated, I hit play. The main menu is laggy, but the music is very nice when it doesn't stutter. There's little to do; either choose a training session, or jump straight into multiplayer bloodshed and doom. This is unfortunate; I had looked forward to create my own character, with his own name. Instead all I can pick is "Footman". 

Ah well, the atmosphere is all good. Oh, I can do one thing though - I can play around with the design of my shield, choosing between various ordinaries and all that jazz. It's not very gripping, as the choices are pretty limited and the colors don't really stand out, so I let my son design my shield. So instead of a character I just have a generic Footman but with a unique shield design. Kind of weird. Cause when you play York or Lancaster, you really should have been wearing the tabards of those houses and not your own design. Minor nitpick, but for me it took away some immersion straight off the bat.

Ser Footman Footmanson II
So I decided to test a "Training Battleground" first, you know, to get the drill. 
Turns out these training areas are nothing like a sparring yard or a castle's courtyard with men training their combat abilities.
It's just the multiplayer maps, without other players. It taught me to move (surprise! W A S D) and how to climb a ladder. 
It was quite buggy, with soldiers standing in corners and not dying from my savage blows. The map also didn't allow me to move out from a certain area under the threat of being "hanged, drawn and quartered", so I was basically standing there not doing much for a good while. 
Shrugging, I decided to go for the multiplayer battles which, after all, is the meat of the game.


Having learn how to swing the sword (left-click mouse button as you move the mouse in one of the four cardinal directions, hold the button down for more powerful blows before releasing it), I entered a map featuring a big tournament field and two other players, as seen in the picture right below this here olde text.

Kill the Starks! I mean Yorks!

I understood right away that I better turn down everything to get some movement in the game; it lagged, it stuttered, it even threw me out a few times, forcing me to start the game all over gain (fortunately the loading speeds are fair). So I went into mortal combat, swinging around, using the right button to block with my shield (or parry with the sword, when the shield broke), and for a moment there, despite the utter lack of running satisfyingly, I was caught up in the medieval mood of death and destruction, blood spattering all over, and receiving more than one death blow, nicely animated (probably) with opponents either bashing your head in with a shield, or sticking a dagger through your throat.
With the game barely running, I had no chance (though I'm not sure I'd do that much better with a good computer) - I ended up dead. Quite a lot.

The most common sighting of Footman Footmanson II.

Still interested, I went on to try out different fields of battle, some more interesting than others; there's a great map with a river, and a bridge and watchtowers, there are castles, and though the graphics probably aren't good enough for today's hippest gamers, I felt like I was there, fighting and hiding, and as I finally got in a kill (or rather, what the game calls an 'execution'), I gained some points and unlocked Crossbowman, and later Longbowman and some sort of Knight, as well. They felt different from each other, which is a good thing. 

In conclusion, I can't wait to get a modern computer capable of running this without hitches, and I can't wait for updates and patches to fix bugs - especially the one throwing me out of the game, which happened a lot. I hope for more variation, better coloring of shields and armors, and I hope to understand what the hell I am doing at times. I see people on the game forums talk about gaining levels, for example, but nowhere did I see anything about "levels" in the game. Still, warts and all, this is a promising little title. It needs more stability, it needs more options in the shield designs, but all in all for the price it's not too bad and can only get better.

The last thing I saw before leaving the game tonight.

I'm not sure if I dare recommend the game as it is right now, but in a few months' time it may be kicking some plated ass. 

Monday, September 24, 2012

Collapse of etiquette

I know, two posts in one day. That's not entirely the way I've been running this blog. As you may have gathered, I'm kind of semi-secretly re-reading The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson's love-it-or-hate-it incredibly epic fantasy saga. I have been reading something Malazan at a regular (if slow) pace since January 2010 (!) when I, after two aborted attempts, finally read Gardens of the Moon, the first book, for the first time. Since then I had to devour a staggering nine more books in the series (the tenth book, The Crippled God, was published when I started on book six), and  this crack led me to read the accompanying series by Ian C. Esslemont, and both Ian and Steven have published even more novels and short stories in the meantime, so that not until now, September 2012, do I have nothing Malazan to read that I haven't read before! That's quite crazy. However, since these books are quite unusual in many respects, and quite obtuse, and me not always reading with care - which these books require - I immediately felt the need to go back and re-read this stuff and get a proper bearing on things. And the more time I've spent with the Malazans, the more I admire this series, although it is in many respects very different from George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. The thing the two series have most obviously in common is that they are both pretty grimdark. 

ANYway, I finished Gardens of the Moon last week and, as I've already mentioned in some post downstream, it was really really really a different experience the second time around, much more so than A Game of Thrones. I remember how pleasantly surprised I was reading Thrones for the second time; how many things clicked into place, so many aha moments. Now multiply that by ten and we're talking Gardens. Everything - from locations to events to characterization to plot - everything really clicked in a way it never could do the first time around because I was thrown into the deep end. Things that I simply did not understand how to visualize I now see as clear as fresh underwear; characters have more depth, actions and reactions are more understandable. I know people say that if a book can't do you good on a first read it's not worth reading, but after having spent so much time letting the Malazan world unfold through fifteen fat books and a number of short stories, returning to the beginning was a literary revelation and I can't recommend it highly enough. 

Which brings me to the reason for this post, which is that I wanted to present a little conversation between two peculiar characters from an early chapter in the second book, Deadhouse Gates, which I'm currently enjoying before the eyes shut down (along with The Wise Man's Fear - they contrast nicely, one dense and the other light). I'm not saying it's a fantastic piece of literature I'm throwing out here, I just so enjoyed the exchange and wanted to share. The two characters in question are Mappo Trell, who is an ancient (but young in mind and body) half-orc-like character (well, not really a half-orc - he's a Trell) who has arrived at an isolated place - a temple run by the somewhat mad priest Iskaral Pust, a servant of Shadow. They are inside said temple during this early exchange between them. I love it, both for the writer's flair in description, the dialogue, and well, the zaniness. 
This being from the second book, Erikson is still to bloom into the writer I so admire these days; the early books are more about turning fantasy cliches on their head, or gently mocking some of the genre's tropes, but still, in the excerpt below there is so much to like, and think about. If you are "into" the world, you'll notice that though Iskaral is quite strange indeed, he's also giving us hints as to his role related to a powerful character not really mentioned; there is very droll humor, and characterization almost entirely through dialogue. All right, I'll shut up now. Time for a quick trip to Mount Hyjal and then bed and my two books (Brett's The Desert Spear has fallen completely by the wayside; it just can't keep my interest up anymore - more on that should I be able to finish it). 

Iskaral Pust poked the broom farther up the chimney and frantically scrubbed. Black clouds descended onto the hearthstone and settled on the High Priest's grey robes.
'You have wood?' Mappo asked from the raised stone platform he had been using as a bed and was now sitting on.
Iskaral paused. 'Wood? Wood's better than a broom?'
'For a fire,' the Trell said. 'To take out the chill of this chamber.'
'Wood! No, of course not. But dung, oh yes, plenty of dung. A fire! Excellent. Burn them into a crisp! Are Trell known for cunning? No recollection of that, none among the rare mentions of Trell this, Trell that. Finding writings on an illiterate people very difficult. Hmm.'
'Trell are quite literate,' Mappo said. 'Have been for some time. Seven, eight centuries, in fact.'
'Must update my library, an expensive proposition. Raising shadows to pillage great libraries of the world.'
He squatted down at the fireplace, frowning through the soot covering his face.
Mappo cleared his throat. 'Burn what into a crisp, High Priest?'
'Spiders, of course. This temple is rotten with spiders. Kill them on sight, Trell. Use those thick-soled feet, those leathery hands. Kill them all, do you understand?'
(...)
'Have you resided here long, High Priest?'
'No idea. Irrelevant. Importance lies solely in the deeds done, the goals achieved. Time is preparation, nothing more. One prepares for as long as it is required. To do this is to accept that planning begins at birth. You are born and before all else you are plunged into shadow, wrapped inside the holy ambivalence, there to suckle sweet sustenance. I live to prepare, Trell, and the preparations are nearly complete.'
(...)
'Servant prepares food.'
'Can he bring it to the library?'
The High Priest scowled. 'Collapse of etiquette. But if you insist.'
The Trell pushed himself upright. 'Where is the library?'
'Turn right, proceed thirty-four paces, turn right again, twelve paces, then through door on the right, thirty-five paces, through archway on right another eleven paces, turn right one last time, fifteen paces, enter the door on the right.'
Mappo stared at Iskaral Pust.
The High Priest shifted nervously.
'Or,' the Trell said, eyes narrowed, 'turn left, nineteen paces.'
'Aye,' Iskaral muttered.


[Re-read] Davos II: Thinking about it a lot while strolling




Greetings, wanderer of the seemingly endless lands of Cyberspace. Yes, I am old-fashioned. I know these lands are more commonly called the Interwebz these days. But I am an old man, a teller of tales if you will, having traversed these boundless realms for eons. In this time and age, even books have become digital, and so one can read classics such as A Storm of Swords without the need for glued-together paper. Yes, there is something called 'e-books', a magical device if there ever was one, allowing anyone to read books from their smartphones, computers, iPads and other similar devices of magical bent. The power that resides within this digital age is great, but can also be used to squander time, to viciously and anonymously attack authors and other artists, and last but not least be made to expose yourself, so be wary of this invention! 

Where did that come from?

Davos Seaworth © Amok
All right, it's Monday, the clouds hang low over a landscape slowly turning from green to gold and brown, and a white raven dropped by earlier this morning announcing autumn (incidentally, a white raven came to Winterfell just before Bran discovered Jaime and Cersei and announced the fall, har har). I admit I have   a conflicted opinion about autumn/fall. It is at once beautiful and serene, and the growing darkness is comforting and allows for more indoors geekery, but at the same time it is a time that gets me down for extended periods of time. It is important, then, to find and enjoy things that can get me up and going, and one of those things is, of course, reading something of awesomeness, which A Storm of Swords clearly is. I've come to Davos Seaworth's first chapter in the third novel, and I am looking forward to it. Last we saw him, he was rescued from a very small and boring little island out in the Blackwater Bay by a friendly ship, so he's actually got a pretty good starting point compared to some of the other characters (I mean, Ned has been starting out as dead for two books now).

The chapter opens with a quick paragraph setting the scene. Ser Davos is aboard the Shayala's Dance and Dragonstone, you know, that fancy island of gargoyles and stone dragon castles, is straight ahead. He's coming home. Kind of. 
The second paragraph throws us straight into Davos' mind, where he is thinking about the red woman sorceress, Melisandre. I must note that Martin deems the winds out here as "perverse", I am not sure I've ever seen a wind being called perverse before. Not that kind of wind, anyway. So what is Davos thinking about Melisandre? Well, mostly her red ruby and her red clothes, it turns out. Not really remembering where this chapter is going, I can only say it seems obvious we'll have a meeting between Davos and Melisandre, with Martin planting the seeds right here.
See, here we go, Davos reflects that Melisandre will be one of those waiting for him, along with Stannis, and it is obvious that Davos doesn't feel too good about that. Interestingly, we get this thought from the Onion Knight: "She has broken him [Stannis], as a man breaks a horse. She would ride him to power if she could, and for that she gave my sons to the fire. I will cut the living heart from her breast and see how it burns."
Well, what have we here? This is not the intensely loyal Davos from A Clash of Kings. This is a Davos with murderous thoughts, with a growing hatred, and a new way of looking at Melisandre (admittedly it has been building to this conclusion throughout the previous novel). The cool thing is that we have a character who kind of has a growth spurt during the first three paragraphs of the first chapter, not many books can claim that (if you count this as a stand-alone, which it is obviously is not, so why the heck am I wasting time writing this up?). Anyway, Martin in this way also puts in a nice edge, a tension - so Davos wants to kill Melisandre. For a first-time reader it could be quite exciting indeed, wondering if Davos will go straight ahead, climb the stairs of Dragonstone and go straight for her heart with the dirk he's patting. 

This is, as always, the time when Martin pulls back to reflect on what has gone before. He's given us a hook (Kill. Melisandre. Now.) and so he can safely sit back and tell us how nice Captain Khorane Sathmantes had been during the voyage (if you remember him, you've got a pretty healthy brain). Is Martin giving us information on Khorane because he will eventually return in the story, or is this what is called 'padding'? I sure don't know. I'm not sure how much we need to know Khorane's eye color, or how he relishes snails and lampreys, if he's just a throwaway character who appears - technically speaking - only between two chapters of the saga. 

We are re-exposed to Dragonstone's shape and mood, and are also reminded that Ser Davos' state of health isn't the best, what with his shaking legs and fits of coughing and, most tasty of all, "bloody gobs of phlegm". The Shayala's Dance continues to sail toward Dragonstone, and now Davos' thoughts turn to his past, what he calls "another lifetime", allowing the author to put in some character building as well before getting to the point (which is getting off that bloody ship and set foot on Dragonstone). We are given reminders of the Battle of the Blackwater and Davos thinks of "Renly's shade" - unlike other characters, Davos has no way of knowing the shade was in fact Ser Loras Tyrell donning Renly's armor. I like this bit of added detail, as it shows so clearly how something mundane (man in armor) can turn so quickly into rumors of the supernatural (the "shade"). It's a way of reminding readers that, hey, everything you hear or read isn't, you know, necessarily true. Not sure Martin had that intention in mind, but that's how this particular detail serves both story and setting. 

And still the ship is moving toward Dragonstone, and by now I feel it's enough, but Martin lets me suffer a little more boating, unaware of my natural affinity for seasickness. Thanks very much. Davos pretty much stands on deck looking around and thinking thoughts, interesting and all, but please? Ah, here we go. They pulled down the sail as they entered the harbor, to dock on oars alone. Good!

Captain Khorane (awesome name by the way) tells Davos to go meet Salladhor Saan, but Davos insists he must go to his king immediately, but Khorane insists right back at him and so Davos goes to see Salla. Poor Davos has to walk the docks for a quarter of a mile, where he finds Salla in the hold of a cog where he's counting cargo. Are we padding again, mr. author? Salla is naturally surprised to see Davos stand before him alive and somewhat well, and when Salla tells Davos that the sea has spit him out again, it reminds Davos of the story of Patchface - which might be a red herring (spit out from the sea), a coincidence, or an actual link between the two that will be explored later. It also reminds me of countless stories from the Star Wars expanded universe - how many stories have they made, in comics, in computer games, in novels, where Boba Fett has been spit out from the Sarlacc? And wouldn't it be awesome if Davos had a jet pack? And a sawed-off laser rifle?

Davos is brought to a "large and lavishly furnished" cabin aboard the cog at Salla's orders, where he is given cheese and olives and a cup of hot wine. Salla appears not long after (having finished his counting of cargo, I assume - his line, "Thirty-seven, thirty-eight, thirty-nine" is probably not a favorite quote from the series among fans). It's nice to see Salla being nice to Davos, though, worrying about his cough and all that. People show little compassion in Westeros, generally speaking, so this is a nice treat in a book that will only grow darker in terms of atmosphere and mood. Turns out the trade cog they are on belongs to Illyrio Mopatis, nice way to stick him into the setting here to show the fat man's influence and how far his control / power goes. More aptly when talking about Mopatis is to say he's got his fingers in a lot of pies. Salla reveals he has been made Lord of Blackwater Bay, and that Lord Alester Florent is now the Hand of the King on Dragonstone. Interesting political developments, then.

Davos realizes he lost his pouch with the remains of his fingers - the physical manifestation of his luck, if you will - so alarm bells should be ringing that Davos will be a bit unlucky in the foreseeable future - unless Martin wants to make a point out of the fact that there's no such thing as luck. We'll have to wait and see, maybe make a tally of "unlucky happenings". There's more backstory laid out to give a full account of what survived and what didn't during the Battle of the Blackwater, and Davos listens patiently (I don't). Some great news though! One of Davos' sons was rescued and is alive and well. That's two niceties in one chapter. Not bad. Oh, he did lose the rest of his grown-up sons. That is true. And bad. 

Salladhor offers Davos a ship (and Stannis is out of ships, so Davos can't expect to get himself a new ship from that quarter) but on the condition that Davos takes up his smuggling again and works for Salladhor. Salla is showing his true colors again here, being a bit of a scoundrel after all, but Davos is still loyally sworn to Stannis and refuses the offer. Salla warns Davos he will find the king Stannis a changed man; "Since the battle, he sees no one, but broods in his Stone Drum. Queen Selyse keeps court for him with her uncle the Lord Alester (...)" Doesn't sound like he's changed that much to me, but hey. There is a shortage of coin though. The only one Stannis sees these days is Melisandre. See, Martin is tying the chapter up nicely, starting out with thoughts of the red woman and now we've circled back to her. It's all about Melisandre, really. It's all a bit mysterious, with Stannis and Melisandre not eating, but going down "together to watch the flames", of hungry fires within the mountain. She's at it with her sorceries again, that's for sure. The way Salla talks about it, it is hard not to hear the echo of classic high fantasy: 

"There are shafts, they say, and secret stairs down into the mountain's heart, into hot places where only she may walk unburned. It is enough and more to give an old man such terrors that sometimes he can scarcely find the strength to eat."

Three important observations regarding this line of dialogue: 1) The usage of the word "shafts" may be intentional, as in subtly telling us Stannis is shafting Melisandre. Okay that was a tasteless joke. Sorry. 2) Could there be a connection of sorts between Meli and Daenerys Targaryen, with regards to the usage of the word "unburned"? I have a feeling Martin is slowly but surely setting up a meeting between the two, and only one of them will come out of it unburned. You read it here first. 3) Is Martin showing something of himself here? I mean, he wishes to describe utmost terror, and does this by comparing it to eating. So scared you can't even eat! How scared must you be? Yes, that was another tasteless joke. Sorry.

Davos tells Salla he is planning to kill Melisandre, but Salla tells him he shouldn't be saying such things, which goes to show how things have changed - Melisandre has more power, more influence, now than in A Clash of Kings. It's really an effective way to bring forth this fact, by having even a scrupulous pirate like Salladhor be afraid of "treasonous talk", if you mean what I know. Yes, yes, Maester Cressen tried to murder her and failed. I know. Get on with it. Yes, Davos is kind of lingering between believing in the supernatural and not, aided by Melisandre, yes. At last Davos gets up and ready to go to the castle. Salla warns him, tells him Melisandre is there. Oh rlly now.

One line that strikes me as...wrong: "You are an onion smuggler, what do you know of skulkings and stabbings?" Uhm. Smuggler? 
These two never seem to stop talking. Get on with it. The dungeons are mentioned (alarm bells!), blablabla Salladhor has clearly gained new respect for the red woman. Davos decides that he was saved (spit out by the sea) to destroy Melisandre, and we may well see that come to pass once upon a time in a parallel universe but I do really think the red woman will be destroyed at Dany's hands, not Davos'. Knowing that words are wind, this passage is semi-interesting: "An ill wind is all. A wind drove her too far to the south." "And who sent the wind? Salla, the Mother spoke to me." This line both shows us that Davos still clings to the Seven gods of Westeros, opposing Melisandre's Rh'lorr, but also that there might just be a little more to Martin's overuse of the words are wind phrase - this article  at 'Overthinking It' goes into more detail - could the winds be the voices of the gods, for example? Hey, the chapter started out with winds too, the winds in the sails of the ship on its way toward Dragonstone. Wind everywhere. 

More reminders (the shadow baby at Storm's End, Ser Cortnay's death), and then Salla's prophetic dialogue that someone will kill Melisandre, but not Davos. Suits my Daenerys theory just fine. Salla is making this much harder, Davos muses, and I am thinking, Martin is making this much longer than necessary. Still, there's fine character building, exposition and yadayada. Maybe I've grown to accustomed to my new hero Erikson's way of writing with almost no exposition at all? Another possible prophetic piece of dialogue from the self-same Salladhor, about him being the one to carry Davos' bones to his wife. We'll have to keep an eye out for that one, then. And finally Davos leaves the pirate, and they do not part on particularly good terms.

Another long walk then, with a bit more description and a little more thought-wanking, and finally we get to the castle gates, and again Davos is hindered, the guards believing him to be dead, Davos waiting and waiting for someone to get him inside the castle, and finally he is allowed to go round to the "sally port and they'll admit you". Now a sally port is an actual thing they used to have on castles, so +1 for adding this little mediæval detæil, woo! Kind of suspicious though, sending him around to the sally port. 

And the chapter just goes on and on stalling, drawing it out. Maybe Martin wants to build the atmosphere, the impending sense of doom. Maybe I am just too impatient today. He meets, in the garden, with Edric Storm. This, of course, is the point of this particular piece of the chapter - to introduce properly Edric Storm, a bastard of Robert Baratheon, but finally we get to the point and that is of course Axell Florent showing up to take Davos to the dungeon. Why? "He means to use it [the dirk] on our lady." Either someone's told Melisandre about Davos' plans (Salladhor) - which is likely (the time Davos had to wait could account for the time Salla would need to send a message off to Melisandre); or Melisandre has seen it in her flames (I call bullshit on Melisandre and her flames, at least for now - I'm pretty sure some of her tricks seen later in the series can be explained somehow). 

At least that's chapter's over and done with. Yes, I found it somewhat ponderous and boring. But it's an essential builder for Davos' upcoming story, obviously. And it sets up Edric Storm, the fallout between Davos and Salladhor, and gives us insight into how Davos is changing, and how he's mentally torn between loyalty and hate, and between pragmatism and the supernatural.

And that's it for now, time to get a-workin'.



Sunday, September 23, 2012

Warcrack

It began with an innocuous-looking e-mail from Blizzard Entertainment. "Come back for seven free days." Being in a bit of an early winter depression anyway, I downloaded - once again - the World of Warcraft client, thinking, well it would be nice to see those good ol' characters again and perhaps level the highest a bit further so I could see something of the Cataclysm expansion which I bought back when it was released (the collector's edition, even). So with a shrug and a lazy smile I sank down into the couch and logged back on. I was surprised to see just how many characters I had around a number of servers.

His Holiness Atrosha
My two main characters were still hanging around in the Northrend area, so I went with the priest and began doing his quests one by one in a systematic manner, quickly leveling him up. And by doing so, I found myself slowly drawn back into the funny, cartoony world of Azeroth. Rediscovering how everything changed with the cataclysm, getting back a sense of geography as I hadn't really explored Northrend thoroughly, you know. But I did not dare join a foray into any dungeon as I had to reacquaint myself with all the spell buttons all around the screen, finding out what everything did etc. And then, halfway through level 79, my time was up so I still hadn't seen anything of Cataclysm although I did find back to some of the fun that World of Warcraft actually can provide (in small doses).

A Son of Darkness, Purake.
So, not quite satisfied with the experience - as in, I wanted more: it felt good to be back, although my conscience is definitely telling me this is just to get an escape from the drudgery of reality, but I wasn't yet committed enough to re-subscribe, as in throwing money Blizzard's way. So I decided to create a character on a trial server (a trial server allows you to play the game up to level 20 for free). Having just finished Forge of Darkness and re-reading The Malazan Book of the Fallen series by Erikson I decided - for the first time ever, I must add - to make a character based on existing intellectual property. Usually I loathe meeting characters with a name variation on some fictional character, you know, like the countless variations of Legolas you eventually end up meeting, but I decided to snort all over that train of thought, since it's a ridiculously simple, fun game and not anything at all meaningful, and created a Night Elf whom I named Purake. With Purake I entered the fascinating, very Elfy part of the world known as Teldrassil (or something like that), where the background music is quite nice and where I ran through the quests but also actually reading the lore to try and get a bit of immersion out of it. With a two-handed sword strapped to his back Purake went about questing his way through the island of the Night Elves, then went on to Darkshore (how fitting a name is that, Erikson-readers?) and did everything I could there, quickly leveling up all the way to twenty. And then...oh by the gods, and then...I wanted more. Once again I had been infected, injected, dejected. I went online and paid for a month's subscription. And once again everything else has become tedious and all I want to do is sit and click those damnable buttons, repeatedly, living inside this cartoon world where characters don't even have houses, where life is linear as a ruler, and I can't understand what part of my psyche submits to this type of mental enslavement.

All this has led to me skimping on updating this blog with a new chapter, forgetting to work on a couple of stories, neglecting things right and left. It is an interesting experiment none the less, and I am curious how long I will hang on to the digital drug this time. Fortunately there's a lot of stuff coming up on the other side ("reality") that will force me to be away from Azeroth long enough that I may regain control. Ok now I sound like some multi-loser computer nerd with no social skills beyond clicking the "Accept invitation to guild" button. It's not that bad. Most hours of the day still go to entirely different things - it's just that my spare time now is completely filled with Azeroth shenanigans. For now...

Not sure I'm gonna level all the characters I rediscovered, though. I mean, let's see, we have Atrosha (level 80 human priest), Purake (level 20 Night Elf warrior), Dwarne (level 10 dwarf rogue), Benfred (level 3 human hunter), April (level 70 human mage), Celestion (level 19 human paladin), Cilisei (level 13 Blood Elf hunter), Slynt (level 12 human rogue), Esmerond (level 9 human warlock), Ashery (level 7 human hunter), Melwasule (level 5 Night Elf druid), Druknargh (level 3 Orc rogue), Grishnish (level 2 Goblin shaman), Toblio (level 2 Gnome warlock), Amaragona (level 2 Draenei shaman), Garring (level 22 dwarf hunter), Rhianwen (level 4 human warlock), Quentyn (level 12 human warlock), Glendirion (level 10 Blood Elf paladin), Karkarech (level 1 Orc warlock), Khurníur (level 36 dwarf warrior - my first character), and Myreië (level 5 human priest). 

Phew. I do note a couple of things: I like making characters and I don't have an undead character nor a worgen. Oh the pain, the pain of it all.

Very soon: Back to your regular ranting, geektalk & hopefully a re-read of another A Storm of Swords chapter. 

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Oooh, writing!

[Rant. You have been warned.]

Yes, finally an update for those of curious how fares the health of The Winds of Winter! You might say that it's a bit early what with A Dance with Dragons being only, what, one year and two-three months old, but I for my part am so used to waiting for this story to get somewhere that it's more out of custom that I check the master's website to glean information on the next book.

So when there's a large "Still Writing!" post up at his Not-a-Blog, I am immediately intrigued even though I really should know better. Of course, this post is also not about The Winds of Winter. It's about his "fake history", that is, background information to be used in the upcoming The World of Ice and Fire book, a book I could have been interested in five years ago. 

We all know how long the last novel took.

Well, it's nice to see that admittance although...you know, that just reinforces the hope that this post is about the next novel.

And now I am writing the "sidebar" (hoo hah) about the first Dance of the Dragons, the fratricidal civil war between King Aegon II and his half-sister Rhaenyra, for THE WORLD OF ICE AND FIRE, and it's turned into a monster too.

Looks like everything Martin touches, turns into a monster. A monster of solid gold and stuffed with dollars, I'd think. Is he complaining here, or is this sneaky publicity for the world book? I guess the latter.

As of today, I have a hundred and three bloody manuscript pages (some VERY bloody) and still no end at hand. I had hoped to finish this one today, but... no, not even close. Lots more to write.

Hundred-and-three manuscript pages? Wow! That's like thrice the size of the manuscript pages of The Winds of Winter. I understand there are contracts and all but seriously. I am sad.

I think there's some good stuff here, and judging by the reception my reading got at Chicon, most of you seem to like the fake history too. But DAMN, there a lot of it.

There's probably good stuff there. I'm not complaining when I read a Dunk & Egg story. And I assume there are many rabid fans eager to devour this background material. I'd just love to hear a word or two about the main project once in a while. But DAMN, there not a lot of it.

Sigh.

Maybe I'd buy the World of Ice and Fire book if those eggheads (or dunkheads, if you prefer) from Westeros.org weren't involved. They are more ruinous to my enjoyment of Martin's books than the long waits, in fact. Civil wars in the distant Westerosi past is okay, but imagine all those manuscript pages going forward, as in being hours spent working on The Winds of Winter

Hey, looks like I've skipped a couple of Not A Blog posts. Let's see. Another damn calendar. "Birthday books". Would you look at that, those prices are almost as cheap as wherever else you can buy them. But of course, from George you get an autograph (maybe) so that probably drives the value up. Is there anyone remotely interested in Westeros who doesn't have it by now? I mean, even I, the annoying and hideously evil detractor, has one. Or two, I don't recall if the scribble in GRRM: A RRetrospective is his actual scrawl or just a copy. He did sign a copy of a Game of Thrones: The Collectible Card Game for me, though. Slashed right across Cersei Lannister's teats. Ah, at least Martin gets himself rid of publishers' excess stock. Wonder how many Wild Cards books actually live inside his palace. 

And then there are several sports posts again. Those I don't read. And I am honestly not requiring his every post to be something I want to read. By all means, let the man enjoy his sports commentary dreams.

I feel better now. That is all. 

Every writer, at some point in her or his career, becomes aware (like a creeping doom) of a growing burden of expectation on them. Based on previous works, with fans identifying themselves and defining themselves around those previous works, we become aware of a pressure to conform. And in the lauding of those ‘favourite’ elements of our canon, fans often express, whether directly or indirectly, a desire for more of the same. To compound matters, there is something both simple and inviting to the writer in question, to acquiesce to those expectations, and to deliver just that: more of the same, each and every time, and many do so, and occasionally with great (continued) success, and as a consequence they find contentment in their efforts.

(Steven Erikson, @ An Introduction to Forge of Darkness)

Friday, September 14, 2012

Friday Night Geekery

Usually Friday evenings are reserved for family, but today I was really itching for some immersion into whatever; so I brought the laptop to the couch, and everybody's happy. The rest are watching some incredibly uninteresting program on the television, while I have taken off from this harsh world for a trip into...well, an even harsher world, as I decided to play a round of Crusader Kings II. I added, through Steam, the add-on 'Ruler Designer', which allows you to design rulers. Not the ones you use at school mind you but the medieval feudal lord type. This particular add-on wasn't expensive, fortunately, for it really wasn't all that much. You can click through a number of options for your personal shield, your portrait and you can adjust the scores of your character and of course choose your own name. By increasing your character's scores you also, I found out, add Age to your character, so if you want a fabulously adept character he or she is going to be like 102 years old and die upon entering the game. When I found that out, I lowered the scores until I got a reasonably nice character looking a bit like me, only ten years younger so there's at least some skill left to the dude. 
I picked a small, independent realm wedged between Norway and Sweden just for kicks and started the game without an heir, so the first thing to do was of course to get a spouse. Without an heir I'd be out in just one generation. Sending a letter to a duke in Wales, I convinced him to send his daughter over. But the years passed by without offspring, even though I did "Send gift". And here I thought my character was a dashing scoundrel well-liked by the ladies. Eventually the game threw me an option to initiate a love affair with another lady in the court, so out of frustration (imagined frustration that is!) I sent "my man" off. And lo! and behold. Nine months later she gives birth to my first son, and upon his birth I legitimize him, not caring what my wife says. Turns out she doesn't say anything about it, so all is well in the realm of Dal. 
Not long after, my lover gives me a second son, so I am at least relieved the general is firing proper. A few years pass by, the boys grow up, I name the first-born my heir, and then out of the blue my wife decides to reveal my dirty secret to the court. I shrug and tell the monitor with an Italian accent, "It wasn't me." What's surprising is that a year after this wicked slander, she - the wife - gives birth to my daughter. I guess we made up... Only three months after my only trueborn child's birth, my lover gives birth to yet another girl!

And that's the story of what's-his-name so far tonight. The thing is, that even a strategy game (in this case, set in medieval times) generates story, and secondary worlds (in that real medieval history cannot but become alternate in a game such as this), so even though Crusader Kings II isn't a fantasy story, it still gives me that fix that I crave all the time. It's the kind of game where you want to tell others what you have done, if you know what I mean. Kind of the opposite of a MMO, where everybody plays and experiences the same. That's why, after years of MMO-addictions big and small, I still hold single-player experiences on the computer gaming front in the highest regard.

For the weekend, I've got a few geeky things planned that I am looking forward to: Meeting up with some people for a pen-and-paper around-the-table game of roleplaying, finish Gardens of the Moon for the second time, get in a few more chapters of The Wise Man's Fear, play a little World of Warcraft since it's free (five days to go - so far I have not been enticed to renew my subscription, which I last cancelled almost two years ago) - I did, in the twenty minutes or so I played a couple of days ago, ding level 78, and the rest of the weekend will be entirely dedicated to real life activities and relationships, lest you think I live in a cave of nerdity +2. 

Meaning, have a nice weekend.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

[Re-read] Bran I: Smells like a Song


The geek-plan for today is to read another chapter in A Storm of Swords, rewrite the introductory scenes of the SFF World's short story competition for September-October (I realized I was beginning way too early, before anything actually dramatic was happening to set up the story; that's one lesson I've learned from reading all these writing guides, start as close to the 'event' of the story as possible and go from there, then add necessary background) - my problem is that I always envision these things on too large a scale, as if I am preparing for a trilogy of novels and not a short story; but it's worth the effort to go back and redo stuff, because it is valuable as a lesson; third, I hope to find time tonight for a game or something. I received an e-mail from Blizzard Entertainment today giving me seven free days to return to World of Warcraft. Maybe I could add a level or two to my priest (last I saw him he was, I believe, level 77 or thereabouts). I suspect I'll tire of it the moment I log on. Guild Wars 2 has been whispering in my ear lately as well, but so did Diablo III and that game didn't do anything for me at all. Better save the money for all the stuff that's still to come this fall. Anyway. A Storm of Swords.

Martin opens the chapter with a sentence setting the scene, describing nature, immediately giving me that feeling of following wanderers on their way through a secondary world, reminding me of Tolkien's Middle-earth in the way nature was important in his The Lord of the Rings. I've mentioned before how Bran's story-line especially from here on is closer to the classic fantasy of Tolkien than other story-lines in the saga. I mean, if it were thrice the length, this could have just as easily been seen through the eyes of Frodo Baggins: "The ridge slanted sharply from the earth, a long fold of stone and soil shaped like a claw. Trees clung to its lowers lopes, pines and hawthorn and ash, but higher up the ground was bare, the ridgeline stark against the cloudy sky."
Wonder if the use of the word 'stark' is a nice touch or coincidental. 
The next paragraph makes it clear just why we are getting this close look at nature - Bran Stark is inside his wolf (that still doesn't sound quite right does it), and as a wolf he's obviously much more attuned to his surroundings, and environmental cues have a greater impact on his senses. So in that sense, it is quite interesting how Martin uses this as a literary technique. It is more believable that we get "closer" to nature through Summer than through, say, Tyrion Lannister who wouldn't stop to admire the different species of tree around him. 
Martin rambles on about the nature around Summer, and it's crisp and sharp and enjoyable. "The smells were a song around him, a song that filled the good green world." Here we have Martin using his favorite word again. 

As Summer, Bran notices a pack of wolves slipping through the woods near a brook, which reminds him of his own pack: Five they had been, and a sixth who stood aside. Summer, Grey Wind, Shaggydog, Lady, Nymeria...and Ghost. He senses Shaggydog nearby, "angry", and we learn that sometimes Summer can actually sense some of the others, feeling their presence, well, except for Lady who ended up with a smiling neck. Maybe her spirit appreciated the irony when Eddard's head was put on the block. Still, interesting, isn't it, that he can sense them. Could be handy should they all end up in the vicinity of each other again, sometime.

The wind shifts, bringing with it the scent of prey. He sniffs the air, then bounds off to the far side of the ridge, finding a dying deer, encircled by wolves. Martin shows us he knows something about how wolves in a pack function before he lets Summer warn them with a low growl and chase them off, except for their leader. He fights the leader for a long time until it lies down in submission, handing over the deer or whatever is left of it to Summer. As he is about to set his teeth into the deer (I find Summer being quite egoistical here, by the way, just taking someone else's hard-earned kill, but hey, wolves were never known for their manners) the voice of Hodor breaks through the hazy...borders between his wolf-self and his true self. "Hodor, Hodor." He doesn't want to listen, doesn't want to return to his broken body, but he is already realizing that he is now thinking as Bran, not as Summer, and so as his mind is drawn forth and back to his own body, we can conclude that when inside Summer, Bran's perception and self-awareness is weakened and so it is dangerous to stay warged for too long. Bit like wearing the One Ring for too long. Really, Bran + Summer is this story's equivalent to Frodo + One Ring. Don't think I noticed it before, but it is kind of obvious a comparison, isn't it?

You can do it, Bran!
Bran returns to his body, which is down in a damp vault of some ancient watchtower, thousands of years old (in Bran's opinion - Martin never gives us these ages specifically, so I am kind of suspecting that Westeros' history maybe isn't as old as some people claim). Jojen Reed tells him he was gone for too long, admonishing him. Bran says he wanted to eat, Jojen tries to comfort him by saying that his sister, Meera, will soon be back with frogs. Yeah, great. Frogs. More admonishment from Little Grandpa when Bran admits he forgot to mark the trees. He's like learning how to pee all over again. Through their dialogue we realize that Bran really enjoys being Summer, because it allows him to run, and because he has actual power (over the other wolves) while in his true life he can't run and doesn't actually wield much power even though he is a prince of Winterfell. Jojen reminds him that he and Summer are two separate identities, so Jojen is clearly worried that Bran will slip forever into his wolf's skin, and by extension, the reader begins to worry too - again, much like we follow Frodo as he must resist the temptations of the Ring. Big difference being of course that Summer most likely won't turn Bran twisted and evil and an agent of Sauron. Bran suggests that he could slip back right away and mark those trees, that's such a nice throwaway line there showing that he's a kid not caring for consequences, but Jojen tells him not to do it. I wonder why Jojen is so adamant about marking the trees, I do not remember this so I am curious if there's an answer forthcoming.

Bran is resentful, wondering how Jojen would know all these things about warging (like, what your wolf eats won't feed your human body); this may be a subtle foreshadowing - that Jojen is in fact a skinchanger or warg himself; maybe if he meets a girl who kisses him, he'll turn into a frog.

Meera returns, much to Hodor's joy, and we are getting small hints that Bran likes her a lot more than her brother. The way he describes her, there's a kind of appreciation there. Fortunately, Meera has brought fish as well as frogs. Hodor collects wood, Meera cleans the catch, they use Meera's helm for a cooking pot and yadayada and when Meera gives him his food, he says, "Thank you, Meera, my lady." Awkward and sweet at the same time - another hint of a growing infatuation? 

A discussion follows - should they stay hiding in the watchtower, or move north to the Wall? Will they stay in hiding as they travel, or try and obtain horses? Jojen's arguments win the discussion. "Somewhere to the north, the three-eyed crow awaits us. Bran has need of a teacher wiser than me." Here we see it written plainly - the three-eyed crow is not an illusion, a dream, a phantasm - it's a being waiting for them, who can teach Bran the ways of the Force. Hodor gets restless and Bran tells him to go outside and practice with his sword - allowing the author to remind us they have brought 'tomb swords' from the Winterfell crypts; I'm pretty sure they'll come in handy against the supernatural forces of the far North. But even when outside, Hodor continues to bellow ("Hodor!" - yes, his vocabulary remains limited); is the author trying to get us nervous about something? Does Hodor sense something approaching? At the same time, Bran concludes that the Wolfswood is huge so nobody's hearing Hodor's noise.

"Bran Stark" (c) Fantasy Flight Games
We go back to the main theme of the chapter - Bran's relationship to Summer and the danger of his personality being consumed by the wolf - and Bran promises Jojen he will be careful when he wargs. Oh, here we have Jojen admitting he doesn't warg - he's but a dreamer, his green dreams being the only thing he inherited from the legendary greenseers of old - the greatest of them being able to warg into any animal (can't help but see this as foreshadowing for Bran eventually warging into a dragon - you heard it here first. Okay maybe not here and not for the first time.) 
Jojen goes on telling Bran why they need to find the Three-eyed crow: Because Jojen can't teach Bran the finer points of warging. It's all a bit vague in the sense that it seems a little random, but at the same time it works well. 

Eventually, Meera tells Bran that he should decide upon their course of action, and he's pleased by this. Bran mulls it over, allowing Martin to give us a quick overview of the situation in the North as Bran thinks through his options. The chapter ends when he's made his decision, which fires off the next part of his story arc:

"I want to fly," he told them. "Please. Take me to the crow."

Not the most arresting chapter, this. Three kids and a Hodor hiding out in a barely described tower, discussing what to do next and deciding to go North. At the same time, this chapter of course sets up the story to come for Bran, and as such it works a fine line between exposition and drama. I feel a certain lack of solution to the chapter when it comes to Hodor's bellowing: It feels as if this is supposed to foreshadow an approaching danger, but we don't get an understanding beyond accepting that Hodor is bored and needs to do something. Maybe that's all there is to it, of course, but it feels...unresolved. The earthy feel to the chapter, however, is great - atmospheric, moody, the sense of adventure and fellowship. Gandalf nods his head in approval.

Next re-read: Behold! The Onion Knight lives. Perhaps a layer's been peeled off...but he's alive. Oh we knew that already. But TV-only fans of the series don't. Muhaha. Ha.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Stuff and stuff

Stefan Sasse, of Tower of the Hand fame (and not agreeing with me right here on this blog about the quality of A Dance with Dragons) has set up a geek blog which he has called The Nerdstream (that's a great title) where he geeks out on TV series like Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead

My own week in geekery has not resulted in much. I finished Forge of Darkness, played a couple of games of Magic the Gathering: Online with a new experimental deck which won and lost equally, tried to get back into Crusader Kings II but it was just too demanding and my concentration refused to cooperate; I've started a new short story for SFF's September-October competition which I believe could end up pretty good if I can be bothered to work on it and also a flash fiction for SFF's September flash fiction competition (where I'll try for the first time to write a story set in the real world); I've returned to Patrick Rothfuss' The Wise Man's Fear, and it is quite easy to jump straight back in. Rothfuss crafts such a nice cast of characters with small, but entertaining events along the way, and I truly understand what all the...'fuss...is about, but the first-person narration gets tiring after a few chapters and I have to put it away. Just a matter of taste. It's very good, very entertaining, generous with its concepts and ideas and back-and-forths, but for me it becomes a slow read. But I have committed to it, and it's first on my to-finish-reading-pile, definitely. With Peter V. Brett's The Desert Spear right behind (I kind of totally stopped reading it). Lastly, my son has grown very interested and fond of the Star Wars universe (no wonder) and so we have watched Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. For a six-and-a-half-year old I can only commend his tastes; he prefers these over the wretched The Phantom Menace. Supposed to be the "kiddie" movie, this film doesn't really push any button except for the Qui-Gon Jinn/Obi-Wan Kenobi/Darth Maul duel. The magic of the classic trilogy, however, is still working at full tilt.

As for the future in geekery, I have a small list of "Can't wait 'til it's out" stuff (European release dates):

* Joe Abercrombie's The Red Country (October 18th)
* Ian C. Esslemont's Blood and Bone (November 22nd) - Malazan just keeps on giving, doesn't it?
* War of the Roses, a medieval battle game for the PC (October 2nd)
* A Map of All Our Failures, my favorite band My Dying Bride returns with a new album (October 15th)
* Baldur's Gate Enhanced Edition, PC game, (September 18th) 
* Neverwinter, PC game (early 2013)
* The dungeon editor for Legend of Grimrock (whenever it's ready)
* ... everything I'm not yet aware of, or have forgotten...to say we're being bombarded with entertainment options isn't an understatement. Maybe something totally off the radar explodes onto the scene and takes us all by storm, like A Song of Ice and Fire once did?

It's looking to be a nice autumn when looked upon with geek glasses. Rains and storms come forth! I want to be inside with my fantasy stuff and stuff.



Friday, September 7, 2012

I have fallen in love with a monkey

Being a rabid devourer of music, I've always used WinAmp to listen to music from my external hard drives. I even purchased a license to unlock the 'pro' features. I keep one copy of my digital music collection at home and one at work, but since I lost both my computers this summer and have to use my work computer until I've saved enough money for the beastly machine I desire, I've had to install a second media player so I don't confuse WinAmp with two different drives having the same files (drive letters...when are they going to become a thing of the past I wonder?). So I went with Songbird at work, but after about a year of using it I finally gave up today. There is much to like about it, but many features are bugged, it strains the CPU, and I've had a lot of back-and-forth with the software, so today I decided it was time to check out something else. I went for MediaMonkey as it was ok with installing at work, and after some fiddling around to find the correct version of a lastfm.scrobbler (I'm addicted, I can't help it...must...scrobble), and lo! and behold.
Mediamonkey takes the best from a variety of media players and mashes it up to be perhaps the best media player software. Intuitive, with a lot of bells and whistles and options, I mean, it has all the stuff already onboard, the only thing I needed to add was the scrobbler. I can change between a number of views, it mostly imports the correct tags, oh my, it's lovely. It has WinAmp's functionality and ease of use, it has display options making it look and function like any other media player out there, it has the panes of Songbird, the tag editing functionality is the best, so it seems I must needs send some money to unlock the 'gold' edition for this player as well. All the customization a music nerd like myself needs, all under one hood. I hope it delivers on the promise it has seduced me with this fine September day.



Okay so this post was totally not about fantasy but I reckon it was geeky in its own way. Life is so much better when accompanied by music. And now to prepare for a lesson of 18th century literature while secretly wishing I could do a lesson on the subtleties of Tyrion Lannister.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Finished the Forge

Last night I decided to finish Forge of Darkness no matter what. Hence, I am a bit sleepy at work today. But it was worth it, if only for the satisfaction of actually reading a book from beginning to end without interrupting the read by reading other books at the same time. Like Martin, Erikson manages to pull me into his world and keep my attention focused on his writing from beginning to end, leaving out the desire I often have of reading something else in-between. 
And yet there is a world - several worlds - of difference between the two authors. Where one is easily accessible, with plot at the forefront, the other is hard to grasp, more experimental with regards to plot and characterization. I have no trouble understanding that Martin's books are much more popular because they are much less demanding - but the more Erikson I read, the more enamored I have become of his unique style, which admittedly has changed a bit over the course of his eleven Malazan works. I find myself, as I have mentioned before, continually thinking about the Malazan empire even when I'm not reading, the same way my thoughts used to be occupied by Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader when I was young, and later pushed into a corner to make room for Gandalf and Aragorn, and after them Tyrion and Daenerys - and now, joining the crew, not characters but the entire mythology that is Malazan Empire: it is not so much about great individual characters (though there are qualifying participants) but a complex tapestry of made-up history, geography etc. 
Forge of Darkness then is another fine addition to the mythos, although it is, in some respects, quite different from what Erikson did with his ten-book cycle of the Book of the Fallen. This book is, as the title suggests, much darker, with less room for banter and humor; there is an almost Shakespearean slant to it, what with the way dialogue is (carefully) constructed, and it is at times deeply philosophical. Most of the action takes place inside the characters, making Forge of Darkness feel very literary for a fantasy book, if you know what I mean. Characters muse on life and death, faith and sacrifice, and all the other big stuff. It feels profound. Erikson masterfully weaves together such a rich presentation of the early days of his setting, it leaves me in awe and wanting to re-read almost immediately to get a better understanding of it all - which could be considered a weakness, and which is perhaps the main argument from those who've tried to read his work and couldn't finish: You really have to pay attention, be mentally awake so to speak, to get under the skin of these books. 

I admit that reading Forge of Darkness, a lot has probably passed me blissfully by. There are so many characters, many of them never given traits to make them stand out especially (perhaps the biggest difference compared to Martin, where most characters have very distinct personalities or traits or physical clues to make them unique), many with similar names, and though I often recognized characters mentioned or appearing in The Malazan Book of the Fallen, such as the awesomely named Sukhul Ankhadu, I could not remember much if anything about them even though I've been reading Erikson continually since January 2010. Even so, it remains an enjoyable thing to read because the experience - in that moment of "being there" with Erikson, sharing his thoughts and enjoying his commentary on the present state of the world (which is pretty evident at times) - the experience goes deep anyhow. There are some truly horrific things happening to people in this book, but there are always implications, consequences, things to consider. The new characters in the book were better defined, though. One thing Erikson remains is being elusive. He never goes into much description when it comes to places and people - he is really steadfast at seeing things through the eyes of his characters and if that means a character would never pause to consider just what the city of Kharkanas looks like (because the character has been there all his life), so be it - no description of Kharkanas. It leaves more to the imagination, but I am not sure whether I appreciate this particular aspect of his writing or not. Depends on my mood, I guess. Interestingly, it doesn't really matter what Kharkanas looks like. What matters is how the Tiste will face all the troubles besetting their realm of Kurald Gulain in this first book in Erikson's new trilogy. I know I can't wait for the sequel, Fall of Light, even though by the time that book is published (at a guess, next year) I'll have lost much of the material I've been trying hard to grasp. Whole scenes pass by with characters talking to each other and I am but an observer on the sideline, not really knowing what they are talking about and nobody cares to explain. It adds authenticity, but takes away some immersion if you're not really focusing (well, for me anyway). 

The plots, then, aren't spectacular - but the creativity on display - still, after so many books - definitely is. There are strange places, like the Vitr (first introduced in Esslemont's Stonewielder I believe), stranger characters (lots of them), peculiar scenes that hopefully will make more sense once the story is finished, some authorial intrusion done on purpose, experimental writing all over the place, several subgenres and genres mixed up (the subplot of Envy, Spite, and Malice feels like a more horrific Roald Dahl, while Anomander Rake has a whiff of Elric of Melniboné about him, there is tragedy reminiscent of Shakespeare's plays, perhaps in particular Romeo and Juliet, both in Draconus and Mother Dark's story and in Andarist and Enesdia's), there is a hint of the hardcore military fantasy from the Book of the Fallen but on a smaller scale, and so on and so forth). It all adds up to an exhausting, but ultimately rewarding, read. This is like nothing else in fantasy literature, and I have no problem understanding there is and will probably always be a love/hate divide for these books. Erikson realizes this too, when he, somewhere in Forge of Darkness, through the character Haut, explains what he is aiming for with this novel and that it is not up to him whether you buy into his concept or not - the telling of tales can take many forms, after all.

Personally, I rank it neither above nor below other Malazan books; to me they are all pretty much similar in terms of content, the later books perhaps leaning a little more toward philosophical / meta writing (but still good), and each book is so full of epic goodness that it makes little sense for me to try and rank them. Some awesome sequences appear in most books, like Coltaine's march in Deadhouse Gates, or the defense of Capustan in Memories of Ice, or the breath-taking Y'Ghatan sequence in The Bonehunters, and Forge of Darkness similarly has a number of memorable scenes, only the scale is smaller - but the intensity of, say, Cryl Durav's last scene, invoking a range of emotions both in the characters and the reader, equals the intensity of outward action sequences just fine.

I'd give Forge of Darkness a 9 out of 10, docking one point for the somewhat ponderous sections here and there, and for the fact that I personally would enjoy this stuff even more if Erikson could just put a little more meat on the bones and not be so elusive about so many things.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

More words, less wind

Geek that I am, I have been writing stories over at SFFWorld's writing forums again. I've put them both up on my Words are Wind blog, so feel free to have a read if you are so inclined. 
'Enemy of the Triumvirate' is the story of the First Hunter, sort of like an anti-sorcery Pope, and 'The Malingerer' is a longer (about 7,000 words) story based on the topic 'insanity'. 
Now I'm already jotting down ideas for the September-October short story competition, where the theme is 'Skeletons in the Closet'. I've got the basics down - that is, a basic idea and premise, basing it on an RPG setting I homebrewed back in the day, and have decided on six crucial scenes to get the story across. Why am I doing this? Because it's fun. 
Where 'The Malingerer' was, perhaps obviously I wouldn't know, somewhat influenced by Steven Erikson's cryptic style, I am planning to go a bit Joe Abercrombie on my next story, with some dark humor and some hopefully entertaining dialogue. Really, it is fun. Experimenting with words to get a story across is also a very good way of finding even more appreciation for the work laid down in, say, A Storm of Swords. Writing does take an appallingly long time (especially when you have to juggle it with a hundred other hobbies, work etc.)

Do note there's an extract of Joe's next novel, Red Country, right here!!!!1 Can't go wrong with this author, he's no longer up-and-coming, he's in the building and he's belittling everyone else. 


[Re-read] Daenerys I: Nudity and Naïvety


Whoa, September already! Only a few months left until half the world will be in the grip of fear, awaiting the end of days according to the Mayan calendar. Kind of funny how we live in quite modern times - just think about all that is achieved day in and day out in modern hospitals - and yet people cling to superstitious mumbojumbo as if we were still in the Dark Ages. That being said (and perhaps I am being offensive here), I have read articles and books with arguments both for and against the whole Mayan calendar/end days thing, to come up with my own opinion. At first, when reading the alarmist stuff, it did get me worried but that's because it's written in such a way as to scare - then, reading more skeptical articles weighing against this fear-mongering, I made up my mind. Like so many other silly things still held in belief these days - things that have been proven not to work, like, say, astrology, prayer, tarot, Nostradamus - one has to keep one's head cool when dealing with topics such as this and try to really listen and understand what's being said and done, not just accept whatever without good sources or whatever. When discussing the matter I sometimes get the question, "What if you're wrong?" Yeah, what if? What if, by sheer coincidence, the world goes to hell on December, 21st? Was there anything I could have done about it? Not really. At least I wouldn't have spent the time beforehand being sucked into fear's clammy grip. I'll end this little paragraph (which I did not intend to write, but just came out anyway) with this lil' quote from Wikipedia (sources for the quote found there), which is good enough for me:
Professional Mayanist scholars state that predictions of impending doom are not found in any of the extant classic Maya accounts, and that the idea that the Long Count calendar "ends" in 2012 misrepresents Maya history and culture.
(Bolded text by yours truly)

Which brings us to Daenerys and the Doom of Valyria. See what I did there? I retroactively came up with a connection between the first and second paragraph. Only I'm not sure the Doom is mentioned in this first ASoS chapter at all. Better start reading...I seem to remember this chapter taking place on a ship...

Ah, yes, here we go with slow drumbeats and the swish of oars. Balerion is the name of the ship, and the dragons are chasing each other in the sky above it. That's quite an arresting image, I hope and believe we'll see this one next year on TV. We are reminded how the Dothraki feel about 'the poison water', before we close up on one of the three dragons - Drogon - as we're told he is larger and hungrier and bolder than the two other dragons; perhaps an obvious foreshadowing of Drogon becoming the badass "leader" of the dragon trio later in the story. If only this sea voyage was actually taking her to Westeros! Maybe the series could have / would have reached its end by now? There are two other ships present as well, easily forgotten perhaps, also named after dragons. Another possible foreshadowing comes when Ser Jorah mentions that dragons could grow so big as to pluck giant krakens out of the sea - will we see, say, Drogon shut his jaws around Victarion Greyjoy and lift him out of his warship? Is this foreshadowing the fall of House Greyjoy to House Targaryen? I think so. At least I like to think so. I want the story to reach a finale. Then, something's got to give, right? More important exposition on the dragons, this time from mysterious Whitebeard - as long as a dragon has freedom and food, it never stops growing. Well, I guess we can take that with a grain of salt otherwise we'd have dragons the size of a moon disturbing the orbit of Planet Westeros And Environs, but I think we're already seeing this coming to pass toward the end of A Dance with Dragons. A little history on the pit dragons of King's Landing. There's a hint there's more to Whitebeard, but I can honestly not remember whether I figured out who he was the first time I read this amazing book. 

The dragon skulls in the Red Keep are mentioned, fun how they kind of always lurk in the background, a symbol both for the fall of House Targaryen, the fact that the Targaryens are still not done with, and the Usurper's rise to the throne yet never being safe (the presence of the skulls symbolizes these things, I mean). Daenerys asks Whitebeard whether he knew her brother, Rhaegar, another entity lurking in the background of the series, a presence intangible yet very important to the overall story (which is why I am kind of surprised he isn't part of the TV series though I can see the difficulties in bringing Rhaegar across to that medium). The way Whitebeard answers Daenerys' questions should be more than enough to realize we're actually dealing with Ser Barristan Selmy here, it is pretty obvious on a re-read. I mean, dialogue like, "I make no such claim, ser. Myles Mooton was Prince Rhaegar's squire, and Richard Lonmouth after him. When they won their spurs, he knighted them himself, and they remained his close companions. Young Lord Connington was dear to the prince as well, but his oldest friend was Arthur Dayne."
The dialogue is exactly how Ser Barristan Selmy talks, and the way he has intimate knowledge of the knights of Westeros should seal the deal. Perhaps the most interesting part of these particular lines is the mention of Lord Connington - young at the time - who was dear to the prince - after all, we get to meet Connington later in the story and learn that he held the prince dear as well, seemingly as dear as Ser Loras held King Renly. Upon seeing this line, one must again admire Martin's ability to weave into the story these small details that will show up later; also, it seems to me then, that the whole Connington/Young Griff - plot, which came as a bolt of lightning for many readers in A Dance with Dragons, was something Martin had planned, if not in detail, all along. Yes, no matter how sorry I feel book five is, I have to admit that it seems Martin is still holding to an outline of sorts. Maybe I'll find more to like in book five once I get there for the second time. I hope so. I do not want to dislike A Dance with Dragons, you know. 

So while we have a "slow" chapter in one way - a few characters chatting to each other while on a ponderous sea voyage - it is also quite the interesting chapter, what with all the background information on the Targaryens we get hurled at us from Whitebeard. When Daenerys asks Whitebeard what her brother Rhaegar was truly like, I am sure all readers are right there with her, like a secret ghost just behind her shoulder, all eager to get some real information to help piece together the puzzle that is the background story of A Song of Ice and Fire. So what was Rhaegar really like?
"Able. That above all. Determined, deliberate, dutiful, single-minded (...)"
He was pretty much a good guy, wasn't he? A hero. Or is Ser Barristan - I mean, Whitebeard - projecting? He doesn't seem like the kind of man to not be honest about things. In fact, Rhaegar's personality seems to be a close match to only a few other characters in this world, most notably Lord Eddard Stark perhaps.
Whitebeard goes on to tell a tale about Rhaegar, thereby feeding us some more tidbits: As a boy, Rhaegar was bookish; he took no interest in playing with other children; was very smart; he found something in the scrolls that changed him, and made him decide to train as a warrior. At this point, Whitebeard excuses himself (conveniently) so that we don't get more, but still want more. More!
The excuse is Strong Belwas, who has risen, and is now bellowing, "Strong Belwas is hungry! Strong Belwas will eat now!" That is quite funny, actually. Gotta love Strong Belwas. Also, the humor here lifts us out of the introspective telling of old tales, taking us back to the now. Effective. 

When Whitebeard leaves them to help Strong Belwas get some food in his mighty belly, Ser Jorah warns Daenerys not to trust the old man too much. He tells her Whitebeard's too old to be a squire and too well spoken to be serving Strong Belwas. She admits that it is strange, and well it should be. Some catching up from A Clash of Kings follows, kind of annoying but I guess a wise move for the author so his readers don't have to, ahem, re-read the books to remember all the details. Again we are reminded of how priceless her three dragons really are; before we get the first real exterior action in this chapter after all this interesting talk - sailors shout that the wind has returned, which means it is time to get moving. 

"I am still half a world from Westeros, but every hour brings me closer." More like, every year. Trolls will be trolls.

That night, Ser Jorah comes to disturb her in the captain's cabin. We are reminded that she's naked except for a coverlet; the literary reason I suppose to keep that tempting carrot dangling before Ser Jorah's eyes. She shows him how she feeds the dragons, and again we see how Drogon is faster than the others, quickly roasting the pork Dany throws in the air and swallowing it. Drogon simply dominates the other two. Oh, Jhiqui is also naked, mind. So, Ser Jorah tells Dany what's troubling him: Strong Belwas, Whitebeard, and Ilyrio Mopatis (who sent them her way - in itself worthy of some speculation). Jorah reminds her of the warning she was given by the Warlocks of Qarth - the three betrayals, once for blood, once for gold and once for love. They have decided the first one - blood - was Mirri Maz Duur, and so two betrayers remain. Jorah insinuates that the next two could be Whitebeard and Strong Belwas. Daenerys doesn't want to hear it, though, even laughing at Ser Jorah for suggesting they could be working together against her. He fears that once in Pentos, Daenerys will be in Ilyrio's power. Which I think is a valid fear, to be honest, knowing just how slimy Mopatis is. Interestingly, Daenerys thinks to herself that while Ser Jorah is overreacting, he is doing this because he loves her - and didn't we just see mention of a betrayal for love? She gets angry because she feels Jorah treats her like a child (note: she is a child), and I love her counter-argument: "Strong Belwas couldn't scheme his way to breakfast." - perhaps Daenerys' funniest line in the saga? She's always so brooding and serious but here she shows a rare display of humor. When talk turns to Whitebeard (Jorah calling him a deceiver) we get a mention of "Lord Commander of the Kingsguard" quite close, linking the two in a way so obvious it hurts my feelings I didn't catch this the first time around. 

The point Jorah finally comes to, is that he advises her to turn the ships around and go for Slaver's Bay instead of Pentos. She doesn't like the thought, but asks why she should go there anyway. Jorah answers that she might get an army there, specifically the Unsullied of Astapor. Oops, the coverlet slips off Dany's shoulder for a moment there. We get a longish tale of the Unsullied's capabilities, which slowly makes Dany reconsider her first impulse. Much of the ensuing dialogue is Jorah trying to convince Daenerys to drop Ilyrio to get a bigger army; could this be the point where Ilyrio - when he finds out she's not coming his way after all - decides to gamble on a ... different scion? It is kind of insinuated that by changing course, Jorah believes this decision will force Belwas and Whitebeard to show their true colors. "Yes!" Daenerys suddenly decides, sounding like a giggling teenager (which, I must remind you once again, she is) "I'll do it!"
She throws back the coverlets and bends over the chest, and I can only imagine the author slobbering over his keyboard as he imagines Daenerys practically pushing her ass onto Ser Jorah's face, ... oh, Ser Jorah slides his arm around her. Now, I have the utmost disgust for rapists, and I understand that girls should be allowed to dress however they like without being harassed by old dirty men, but she is naked and bending over the chest and I can't help but think that Ser Jorah takes that as, you know, an invitation. They end up kissing, in fact, which is innocent enough, and while they kiss thoughts rummage through her (teenage) brain; when she finally disengages, she says he shouldn't have...he interrupts her, saying he should have kissed her a long time ago, his eyes firmly fixed on her nipples. Oh yes. The chapter ends with Ser Jorah proclaiming that the three dragons must have three heads meaning three dragons must have three riders meaning Daenerys must have two husbands meaning he should be one of them. 

So here we have Ser Jorah finally, and utterly, displaying his love for this kid, and perhaps Daenerys finally understands that she should wear clothes when engaging in debates with horny middle-aging men. The more important point here isn't Ser Jorah's love, however (even though the warning signal - the earlier talk of the three betrayals and one for love - is obvious now) but that the dragons must have three riders. This will affect the rest of Daenerys' story arc, all the way into A Dance with Dragons and beyond. 

Ser Jorah: Time for a /faceslap. You have screwed up. 

Does anyone else feel dirty at times reading about Daenerys and Ser Jorah? 

In other news, just a measly 50 pages left of Forge of Darkness! What a deep and somewhat confusing book, like most Erikson tales! But I love it. It is so different and ambitious. Like Erikson says, 

Ambition is not a dirty word. Piss on compromise. Go for the throat.