Review: 4 books I did not finish

For me thie last month was one of great disappointments. I played Dark Souls and watched the early seasons of X-Files, and both failed to live up to my expectations and had me quit at some point. I’ve also been trying to broaden my horizon in books instead of reading more Witcher or Robert Howard, which I already know I love. I ended up starting three different fantasy books and stopped reading all of them. For various different reasons, but also some that are very much the same. Since I have completed neither of them, I can’t do actual review of them. But I think that none of them are actually truly bad and each one has some great things about them. So what I’ll be doing is to give a short summary of each book, also including one I tried a few months back, and the reason I quit reading, as well as going into some more detail what they all have in common that had them fail in entertaining me. This is not “4 books I don’t like and the reasons why”, but instead “4 examples of novel openings that failed to capture my interest”.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

When I started trying to catch up with fantasy books that have come out or become popular in the last 10 years, the Malazan series was obviously one of the biggest names I’ve regularly came across. Normally I would never attempt to try a series of 10 doorstoppers, but praise for this one is so great that I thought I could at least read the first book and then decide if I want to do the whole thing. But it turns out, I could not. I don’t think I got very far with it either. The writing was nothing objectable and the scenes presented in a quite engaging way. This one was a while back, so I don’t remember very clearly, but I think I got introduced to four different characters. And at least within the limited amount of exposure they got in my reading, they were all totally bland and forgetable. Young nobleman, young female soldier, mysterious man on some special mission. And I think some kind of weird queen. And then I lost interest. I got introduced to several characters and to several locations and situations in which they find themselves. But I did not get any information on what role these people play in the story or their world and why or how these scenes are relevant to the plot. Usually I always try to go into a story pretty much blind. Vague praise of the qualities of a work get me interested and then I want to experience it myself without knowing where exactly the story will go. But since I was already at the point of giving up on the book, I tried looking up a brief and general outline of what the story is about. Then I asked people who love the series to try and explain to me what the story is about. And they couldn’t. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand their replies or found them unhelpful for what I wanted to know. The fans themselves were not really sure what the actual story is. Aparently this behemoth of printed paper keeps on going about different people doing various things that don’t really follow any primary plot. I can appreciate abstract narratives and stories relying mostly on characterization. But I need a goal or purpose for the combined efforts of the characters. From what I can tell, this series doesn’t have that.

Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes

I got this book recommended by several people at different occasions when I mentioned my search for recent Sword & Sorcery and fantasy adventure books. So I gave it a try. It starts with an infamous fight scene in which the heroes fight off an attack by pirates. Which makes up th entire first quarter of the whole book! Let’s say this is a quite “courageous” descision to start a book with, especially by a new writer. I actually read through the whole scene and got about a third through the book before putting it away. And I think the scene did not work out. Because even though it is very long, there is very little actually happening. There is a lot of fighting, but it doesn’t rally accomplish anything. It doesn’t feel like the enemies start to get fewer, or that the heroes are running out of strength and resources. No ships are sunk or new ones arrive, and throughout almost the entire battle, the situation is pretty much the same. At some point I was flipping quickly through pages to find the point where something new is happening and skip the repetitive stuff. But the majority of the lines are not actually fighting, but characters talking and thinking. Now, I am not a person of strong negative emotions. I don’t usually hate any things, and I don’t get angry about things. But reading this book… I think anguish could be an appropriate term to describe my experience. Most of the talking is a gang of loveable rogues doing witty banter. It rally is not the fault of the author, it really is just personal preference. But I fucking hate loveable rogues and witty banter! And this book is nonestop unrestrained witty banter. Or at least it tries. Every single word that comes out of the mouth of one of the heroes is a supposedly witty insult directed at each other. And after twenty, thirty pages of this, you really start to ask yourself why these people even form an adventuring party together? They all despise each other to no end and since they are all loathsome and terrible people, it seems quite implausible that they have not all killed each other in the first scene. It was an ordeal to read, I don’t want to see anything of it ever again. Yet, I don’t outright hate the book. It does has its qualities. Something many people commented on the book is that the author really has terrific skill at using language. His sentences are great and I enjoyed the style very much. If only he would have been telling a good story. Tome of the Undergate has pretty good ratings when you look around online, and I think this skill with words is probably a big reason for it. People I talked to about my unpleasant experience with the book told me that his pacing and plotting improved significantly in later books, and as muc as I despise this one, it really makes me interested in trying out something else by him in the future. I feel even inclined to compare him to one of the three giants of Sword & Sorcery. He reminds me a lot of Fritz Leiber. I love his writing, even though his stories are terrible. ^^

The Eagle Shoting Heroes by Jin Yong

As far as I am informed, this is one of the biggest and most famous Chinese fantasy books. And fantasy is a big deal in China, just as it is in America and Europe, though the markets mostly exist pretty much isolated from each other. Movies are easily redubbed and there is some exchange, especially in recent decades, but with books this is much less the case. The Eagle Shoting Heroes was written and released in the same period as The Lord of the Rings and a massive success, but somehow it never got published in English. Chinese fans made translations of it themselves, which I found to be of pretty good quality. It has been turned into movies and TV shows many times, some of which did get English releases as Legend of the Condor Heroes. Which does’t make any sense as it takes place in medieval China where there are no South American birds. For the first few chapters I really liked the story. It begins with a taoist priest coming to a village and having a clash with two villagers who turn out to be no ordinary farmers but secretly heirs of great warrior dynasties who had to flee their homeland. And of course, they have a big kung-fu fight. Taoism is one of the big Asian religions I know the least about. But in Chinese fantasy stories, traveling taoist priests are basically Jedi. And this novel is not pseudo-historic fiction. This is full out, balls to the walls fantasy loosely inspired by historic events. It’s total awesome. Because after the initial fight is over and everyone apologizes for the unfortunate understanding, a gang of ninja show up and the action gets even more outragous. Then an evil officer screws everything up, women are kidnapped, terrible revenge is sworn, crazy flights in the night. It’s glorious. This is one of the occasions where I can use my favorite word in the English language: “Preposterous”. I really loved it. Then in the second chapter the priest has a confrontation which a gang of seven famous kung-fu masters who would best be described as superheroes. Sadly, then the story skipped 18 years into the future to introduce one of the actual protagonists. There are more fight scenes that are quite entertaining, but the plot completely loses all steam. In fact, the plot of the previous chapters has been pretty much resolved. It only served to give us some backstory on who the boy is and how he got to be trained by kung-fu masters. And I felt left hanging, wondering what’s going to happen next. The first chapters are huge action spectacle with great pacing and stuff happening. And then it’s just a boy getting trained by his masters and some bits about the career of Djingis Khan. There’s no immediate goal or sense of direction. Just a series of scenes with no real indication what it might be a buildup to. Basically the same problem that made my give up on Gardens of the Moon. And it’s very clear that the book is about two heroes whose fates are tied together, and by the point where I stopped reading the second hero had not even been introduced yet. I have the strong suspicion that after the origin story of the first hero, we probably get the whole origin story of the other one before theh finally meet each other. And this is a really big novel. I had read quite a lot by that point, but it was still just a 10th of the book. And there are actually three more books after this one. Thanks, but no. If I can get it in smaller chunks of 50 to 100,000 words, I’d really love to read more wuxia stories. But these giant mammoth books just are not for me, especially when they don’t have a tight plot.

The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch

When I saw how much people praise and hype this book, I assumed it was the latest breakout success enjoying its 15 minutes of fame. But turns out it’s actually already 10 years old. Now that’s something that catches my interest. I am both picky and lazy, so most books, movies, and videogames I give any attention to are things that have already become classics and proven themselves to have a quality that survives beyond the initial excitement. When people still sing praise about something that’s an old hat, that’s what catches my curiosity. And I think The Lies of Locke Lamora has become established as one such classic. This one will probably still be remembere in 10 or 20 years. And reading it, it is easy to see why. It really is very good. I like it. But it’s not really doing anything for me. It is the story of Locke Lamora, a charming young man who was born to be a thief. He is the leader of a group refered to as the Gentleman Bastards. Some people steal out of necessity, some do it professionally. But for Locke and his team, stealing is not simply a job, or even an art. It’s a religion. They all have been raised and trained by a priest of the trickster god, and stealing is their life. And for Locke in particular, it’s his instinctive nature. They don’t care much about money, as they could easily steal more than they could ever spend. They are in it for the challenge and so only the most elaborate con games are good enough for them. Which I admit is a pretty good and new concept for a fantasy book. However, as I mentioned above, I really am no fan of the loveable rogue archetype. Though I have to give it to the book, that none of the character struck me as annoying or unlikeable. But I still don’t care for them. There are certain elements and themes in fantasy stories that fascinate and interest me and that feed my personal cravings in entertainment. And even when written as excelently as here, these stories just don’t deliver in that regard. It’s nothing qualitative. It’s plain personal taste. However, there is an actual problem I have with the story, which is that I am really not sure what the plot is about. I am about a sixth into the book and there’s still no sign of an antagonist or a conflict. Locke and his crew are setting up an elaborate con to trick two rich nobles out of their money, but it still feels more like setup for the actual plot that has not been introduced yet. Which is made worse by the fact that the story uses a technique that I really dislike and consider incredibly cheap. Even though we experience the story through the eyes and the mind of the protagonist, he has a lot of information about what is going on that the author does not share with the readers, but which is critical to understand what the protagonist is doing and why he behaves the way he behaves. And we know that he knows, because it’s all his briliant plan to begin with. We read about him going through with the plan without knowing what the plan is. It creates excitement and keeps the readers attention and interest. And it almost always works magnificently. But I consider it incredibly cheap, because the author is basically lying by omission. He tells us that there is a mystery where none exists. We are in the head of the protagonist and supposed to feel with him. Yet crucial pieces of information are withheld. It may work, but it’s a cheap trick. Especially in the first pages, events are often shown out of order, showing us a dramatic scene, but not giving any context. Which I call the Breaking Bad Opening. And like Breaking Bad, the supposedly dramatic scene often turns out pretty mundane amd unexciting once you actually get the information needed to understand what’s going on. Which the characters of course had all the time. It’s smoke and mirrors, and once you see them, it becomes impossible to ignore them. But again, other than that, it’s really well written and quite enjoyable, and the only book of these four that I very much recommend. It just is not what I am looking for, and when I am reading it I am always thinking that I could instead read something else that’s more my style.

The Big Problem

What I noticed a few days back, and what really motivated me to sit down and write all this, is that even though the books are all very different and I mostly have different problems with them, the main issue that makes me stop reading them is always the same. None of these books is able to tell me within the first 50 pages what the story is about. They are stories, but they don’t seem to have plots. What is the goal? What is the obstacle? What is the conflict? Where is it all going? What kind of story is this? In many popular stories this is pretty clear. In The Lord of the Rings the goal is to end the threat of Sauron getting back the ring while avoiding his minions. In the storie of Conan, the goal is almost always to steal a treasure or defeat an evil sorcerer. Not terribly original, but you know what kind of story it will be. Even in the Witcher novels, which are quite meandering with many different characters going to different places with diffuse goals, it’s very clear that the goal is to find out what the deal is with Ciri’s powers and why the thugs are hunting her and Geralt. It’s not a tight plot, but it’s a plot. Which is all I am asking for.

Now I do love pretty artsy and ambigous fiction. But with many fantasy books of recent years, I regularly end up at a loss when trying to figure out what they are about and what kind of plot they have. Even with the danger of appearing like an illiterate brute, my preference in fantasy is clearly adventure. And at least in this one point, I do applaud Tome of the Undergate. I really dislike the characters and the plot, but it’s an old fashioned adventure story of the kind that doesn’t seem to be any popular these days. On the Fantasy Faction forum someone had been asking a few weeks ago “Does a story need to have a hook?” And my personal answer is yes, it really does. I am quite willing to go along with a highly unconventional story about nonheroic characters dealing with diffuse issues. But I need to know what the story is about, and I would like to have a general idea within the first chapter. Because at least in my own individual case, I stop reading when I don’t get an answer to that question.

Retro Game Review: Thief

Thief: The Dark Project is one of the classic games from my teens, wich had gained an outstanding reputation back in the day, but for some reasons I’ve never really got very far past the first two levels. It’s a fantasy stealth game, and you could probably call it the stealth game that defined the genre for PC games. The same year, Metal Gear Solid was released for the Playstation, but even though they are completely different in almost any way, they both made the concept of games in which you secretly sneak around instead of killing all enemies popula. It was released way back in the great year 1998 (on the same day as Baldur’s Gate) for PC, and despite its age I was able to get it to run under Linux with WINE (with only an acceptable amount of trouble). I added some fan mods mostly for stability, but it also added some minor improvements like the night skies and water surfaces. I have to say it still looks pretty good for its age. Many games just a few years older have aged much worse when it comes to graphics. But this one is completely servicable. Audio is superb and I didn’t have any problems with controls or any glitches during play. My first impression had always been classic middle ages with a few anachronisms here and there, but as I got deeper into the story I discovered it to be actually following pretty closely to classic Sword & Sorcery traditions. It’s far more than breaking into castles and stealing gold coins and silver cups and candle holders.

Thief is the story of Garrett, a master thief who in his youth was trained by the Keepers, a secret society of lorekeepers who also have knowledge of semi-magical stealth skills, which come extremely handy for Garrett during the game. Some halfway decent shadows are enough to make him practically invisible, even to people who are standing right next to him and looking straight at him. The other two important groups of the settings are the Hammerites and the Pagans, which is where the Sword & Sorcery elements really start to take center stage. The Hammerites are a religion of smite-happy fanatics who have tremendous power in the City, while the Pagans are a group of wild men and women who live deep in the woods outside the city walls and worship an ancient and dark god of fertility and chaos. During the course of the game, the Pagans become the main antagonists for Garrett. As he delves deeper into their hidden lairs and learns more of their ancient religion, the game is getting more and more surreal and fantastic. It reminded me a lot of some of the more bizare adventures of Fritz Leibers Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. The intro should give you a pretty good impression.

I also played the second game, The Metal Age, which focuses on an even more radical sect of the Hammerites, who being a religion of order and machines, make it feel almost like steampunk, with the Sword & Sorcery elements virtually completely absent. Though the level design is greatly improved and the most annoying enemies from the first game almost completely absent, I couldn’t really enjoy the second game for that reason. The first game is all about magic, haunted places, and a twisted evil god and his creatures, and their nightmarish chaos creeping into the city. The second game is all about warehouses and office buildings, avoiding security golems and the like, and that just didn’t do it for me. It is the better game, but with a much weaker story and atmosphere, as far as I am concerned. The third game I didn’t get to run on my computer, and the less is said about the fourth, the better. But the first game, it really is quite amazing.

The game uses first person perspective, which might seem somewhat unusual as it’s normally used almost exclusively for shoting games, but I guess at the time it was an approach that both game developers working with 3D engines and players were already familiar with and so they just went with that instead of trying something completely different and new. But I think it actually works really well, especially for the parts of the game that are really quite spooky. The Penumbra and Amnesia games are pure horror games and are doing very well with this approach, too. You have a sword, but it probably will see very little use except for a few special cases later in the game. In this game, fighting means you failed at being sneaky. The actual main weapons are a club to knock people out from behind, and a bow, which is not usually used to shot people, but to fire all kinds of special arrows, which are the primary tools for getting into places and around guards. The water arrow can extinguish any open flame and though guards notice it, they will not lit it again. Since shadows make you practically invisible, these are always super handy. The moss arrow contains a capsule with magical moss seeds that will grow into a patch of moss about a meter across within a few seconds, allowing you to walk silently on wooden and stone floors. While Garrett is always sneaking around in tap dance shoes is a bit of a mystery, but having to take care of any sound you make is a nice gameplay element. The rope arrow will stick firmly to any wooden surface it is shot at and then uncoil a rope strong enough to climb. It still flies as easily as any other arrow, which I assume is because of magic. You also can pull it out and reuse it again, even though it can hold your full weight, which clearly must be the work of magic. And finally there is the fire arrow, which can light things on fire, or make zombies explode so they don’t get up again after being hit by the sword. You can also uses fountains or vials of holy water to turn your arrows into undead slaying arrows for a minute or so. Your bag of tricks is not as big as in most other stealth games back then and since, but it really is more than enough to always make the game exciting and puzzles fun.

For the first couple of levels you are doing a number of various break-ins, which are only loosely connected. You steal works of art, documents, and at one point even break a friend out of prison. And on the way you grab everything of value that is not nailed down. At the end of the level you get a reward, plus all the other valuables you collected, which will be your budget for buying supplies for the next level. For gameplay reason, all the money you don’t spend is lost and any equipment you don’t use is not carried ove into the next level. Otherwise it would be impossible to balance the challenges to both players who collect very little or grab absolutely eveything. Getting a lot of loot helps you with the next level, but doesn’t mak a difference in the long run. In almost any level there are a number of locke doors which you can not pick and you have to find a key for. Quite often the key is on the belt of a guard, which you can either knock out, or just sneakily pick the key from them. Others have coin purses or healing potions, which are also nice to get. On normal difficulty you simply have to find the item you are looking for and pick it up, and then the level is immediately over. Hard difficulty is immensely more fun, as you not only have to grab the item but also sneak out of the place again, often using a different route. Usually without killing any humans. This not only makes many levels about a third longer (and therefore the whole game), but also requires much smarter methods of getting to your goal. Simply running past the guards in the same room with the item won’t do.

The levels are often very big and you move around very slowly. I think most probaby take between one and two hours, depending on how good you are and how flawlessly your personal pride demands to pull everything off. Slowly knocking out every person in the building and hiding them in safe spots works, but is not nearly as satisfying as walking around them unseen. I also like the maps. You really have to use the maps or you will have no clue where you need to go. There are always dozens of rooms and corridors with lots of connections between them. And sometimes secret passages. The maps are not just clear layouts of the area, but instead you have rough sketches scribbled down on several papers. Sometimes you’re in luck and have proper building plans, at other times you have almost nothing. The only help you get is that the map screen always shows you in what area you currently are, otherwise it probably would be nightmare.

After a couple of levels like this, you get contacted by a man who has become aware of your exploits and has need of someone with your amazing skills. Because he has a job he thinks nobody else would be able to do. Which is where the main story really kicks off. The version that I played is Thief Gold, which adds several new levels to the game and is the version everyone should play. And the one I believe to be on GOG. The first release of the game was criticized for having too few levels in which you break into rich people’s places and steal their stuff, and that for most of the game you sneak around ruins and caves full of monsters instead of doing actual thieving. The new levels from Thief Gold address that and are all about that. They are not just like an add-on or are put between the early introduction levels and the later main storey levels, but spread out quite evenly through the whole game. And somehow they managed to do it so seamlessly that you wouldn’t even know that they added something later unless someone told you. And even if you do, it’s impossible to tell which ones are old and which ones new. At one point in the game you have to find four items. Originally there were two items each in two levels. But then they removed one item from each level and gave them both their own levels. And since the new levels are both again in human buildings with human guards, it breaks up the monotony of monster caves very nicely. It feels a bit like getting the four items take forever now (which it does, originally it took half as much time), but that’s a very minor tradeoff and the new levels are all great.

Now while the mechanics of the gameplay are fun in themselves, I think it really is the atmosphere and the story that make it shine. Or not, since they are both very dark. The Thief series is the only case I know that blends medieval fantasy with Noir. And it works perfectly. If you’ve seen The Maltese Falcon or Casablanca, you’ll immediately recognize the games as Noir. They have it all: Shady businessmen, corrupt watchmen, mysterious women, fancy houses, and it’s always night. And usually raining. But the plot of this game is also Sword & Sorcery. Not at all like Robert Howard, but very much like Karl Wagner or the darkest works of Fritz Leiber. Of course, this combination also gives the later parts of the game a slightly Lovecraftian feel. It’s very difficult to talk about the plot without giving away too much. It’s a story of deception and betrayal, where nothing is really as it seems at first and nobody is trustworthy. It leads to a number of different locations. Not just fancy mansions, but also a prison, zombie-haunted catacombs, a ruined and abandoned, quarter of the city, a hammerite temple, and an ancient cave city. The new levels also lead you into an opera house and a wizard academy. And then there’s of course the infamous mansion of Constantine, which really is one of the greatest gems of the whole series. It’s really unusual and weird, but if there’s any chance that you might play this game, I really recommend not looking up anything related to it. While many people probably would not instinctively group the game with Sword & Sorcery, I think there is a very strong kinship. Most of the world seems almost magic free and to have more in common with steampunk. But this game also has a very strong supernatural element to it. It’s not the zombies or the wizards of the mage tower, but the mysterious plot related to the Pagans. They are a very strange bunch, even much more so than the Hammerites. They would not feel out of places on Twin Peaks or X-Files, and I would not be surprised at all if the makers of this game were fans of those shows. But also, Garrett pretty much fits the mold of classic Sword & Sorcery heroes. He’s exist in a position outside of regular society (being a thief for hire who works only independent), who gets involved with things for personal and selfish reasons (making money and getting rid of personal enemies), and he also takes the initiative and uses daring acts to get closer to his goal. He doesn’t wade through a sea of enemies and cuts them down with an axe. Instead he sneaks into very high security and dangerous places, which is just as crazy and amazing, just in a somewhat different way. He doesn’t fight and doesn’t kill unless you make him, but he’s still pulling of insane stunts left and right. And of course, he’s constantly making comments on things that are wonderfully sarcastic. He may not look like it, but Garrett is in most ways a classic Sword & Sorcery hero.

In addition to being both Noir and Sword & Sorcery, this game also would have little trouble being classified as a horror game. Many levels are completely free of any horror elements and the others are not particularly horrific. But they are really damn spooky! The undead are not that terribly frightening either. But in this game you are always alone and in the middle of the night. And in the spooky levels you also creep around in old abandoned places with no living human soul anywhere, and most of the time barely any light. And of course, you always rely on stealth and there isn’t much to find in the way of weapons or healing. It all helps to create an atmosphere that is perhaps not terrifying, but super spooky. Perhaps the word creepy also doesn’t really describe it, but it’s the spookiest thing I’ve ever seen.

To sum up my thoughts on this game, it’s great. I feel like this will be one of my long time favorites, even though I really played it only this year. And even as old as it is, I highly recommend it. To my knowledge, there isn’t really anything like it around these days. Dishonored may look somewhat similar, but it’s really a completely different thing. I can’t really think of any group of people who play fantasy games, who would not like it. If you don’t like stealth games in general or you’re not a fan of spooky games, then this game probably is not for you. But to everyone else, I really do recommend giving it a look. It’s on Good Old Games and pretty much dirt cheap. Getting old games to run on modern computers can often be challenging, but when you get it from GOG, it usually has been updated to work without problems.