Comic Review: Hellsing

Though review might be stretching it a bit.

A while back I was on a work training course and shared a room with a guy who happened to have brought the first three volumes of Hellsing. I had heard a lot of great things about it over the years and the anime seems to be widely considerd as one of the great classics, like Full Metal Alchemist and Death Note. I had long planned to look it up but never got around to it, so I jumped at the opportunity to give it a try. This review only covers these first three volumes.

For comics, the visual style is obviously a major factor but not as relevant to the narrative, so let’s get this one covered fist. My impression of the drawing is that it’s okay. I’ve seen it praised, but I didn’t feel impressed by it myself. But it looks good and the images are not overcrowded with stuff that makes it difficult to figure out what’s going on. It works, that’s always the most important part.

But now to the story. Hellsing is set in a world that is plagued by vampires. Two main organizations are presented that are fighting against them. The Hellsing Organisation of the Anglican Church in Britain and Section XIII Iscariot of the Catholic Church. Both groups appear to be in a state of cold war but have made agreements to not operate in each others territory so they can focus on the main threat posed by the vampires. Hellsing’s top agent is Alucard, a vampire himself who dresses in a red coat and hat and has two big ass guns. The story begins with the recruitment of Seras Victoria, a police officer who was fatally wounded in a massacre commited by vampires and made immortal by Alucard who happened to have been send to deal with the situation. Shortly after the Hellsing headquarters get attacked and a majority of their staff slaughtered, which leads to Alucard and Seras going to Brazil to track down the people behind the attack.

What I quite liked of what I’ve read so far are the character design. Seras, Integra, Walter, and Bernadotte, as well as the two catholic nuns, all seemed like they could be really interesting or at least entertaining people to follow around in a story. But unfortunately I have to say, not in this story.

Even though it spans across three volumes, I found the plot to be very thin. Very little actually happpens or is explained and I had no real understanding of what’s going on for pretty much the entire time. The plot, or what little there is of it, seemed to me to be little more than an excuse to depict endless piles of slaughter and gore. It’s not that I have any problem with this in general. I like both the anime and manga of Neon Genesis Evangelion and have to say I am quite a fan of Elfen Lied. (Though the anime is awful, it drops almost all of the plot.) I’m still planning to get to Berserk in the near future. Extreme violence in manga can be great. But in Hellsing it felt very different to me. It didn’t seem like the blood and guts where there to make any point but that the comic exists only for the sake of violece and gore.

All in all, I have to say that the first three volumes of Hellsing left me very much unimpressed. Actually rather disappointed. Maybe “it gets better later”, but as it is I really feel no desire to get back to this one.

Book Review: Jirel of Joiry

Jirel of Joiry by C.L. Moore is widely considered to be one of the great honored ancestors of the Sword & Sorcery genre by fans. There are a total of five tales of the character of which four have been published between 1934 and 1936, making them contemporaries of Robert Howard’s Conan tales and some of Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborea. Moore is primarily known for her science fiction work (and she wrote the first draft for The Empire Strikes Back) and build a very considerable reputation over the course of her career. I had not read anything by her before, but the name recognition alone had me go into this with pretty high expectations.

Jirel of Joiry is the ruler of a principality somewhere in “medieval” France. She’s a ruler and a warrior, which makes her the first published female hero of Sword & Sorcery (though Robert Howard wrote some which he didn’t get published), and you have to look pretty far and wide to find any other. However, I have to say I personally found her to be a very flat and one-dimensional character. She has no backstory whatsoever other than being the ruler of Joiry and her personalty consists of the two emotional states of anger and defiance. To me that barely qualifies her as a character.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag. I quite like the first story Black God’s Kiss and the last story Hellsgarde, but was hugely disappointed by the other three. One thing that Moore does get very right is the creation of atmosphere and the imagining of strange and alien sights and landscapes. This is stuff that stands up pretty well when compared to the imagery evoked by Clark Ashton Smith, who was certainly a master at this. But this is not much consolation considering that the plots all completely suck.

Black God’s Kiss stands well above the others in this regard, as it has things happening and progressing. Jirel has been defeated by an enemy general and imprisoned in her own dungeon, after having suffered the terrible insult of being forced to kiss him. This can not stand and so she calls on the priest of her castle to help her getting her revenge by leading her to a secret passage that leads into a strange nightmare realm, where she might find some source of dark magic to slay her enemy. The journey down the strange passage and through the otherworld is quite well done and I greatly enjoyed reading it. The story also ends in a quite surprising way that I found to be pretty brilliant. I’ve seen comments about people considering it misogynistic, but my impression was that there are dark forces at work and not that Jirel succumbs to some “female weakness”. I very much recommend reading this one and seeing it for yourself.

The same can’t be said for the other stories. Black God’s Shadow is pretty much part two of the previous one, but reads more like Moore was recycling all the strange sights she had cut from Black God’s Kiss to keep the story from getting too long and losing its pacing. But nothing actually happens. In Jirel Meets Magic and The Dark Land, she finds herself in different strange realms of magic that have their own weird sights, but again nothing at all actually happens. These three stories consist of nothing but descriptions of strange things seen in strange lands, but without a plot it’s hard to care about any of them. Hellsgarde is better again in that it doesn’t go to yet another strange realm and that it has a plot. Jirel has to travel to an old haunted castle in a swamp to ransom her knights out of captivity but finds it to be not entirely abandoned. It’s not a great plot, but it’s a plot, and it has a surprising reveal at the end, that unfortunately fails to actually change anything that happened before.

Another big problem I have with the stories beside the lack of character and plot, is that Moore did a pretty poor job at making things feel threatening. The stories are mostly nothing but descriptions of things, but she still managed to completely fail at following “show, don’t tell”. Pages over pages of descriptions of how things look like and how Jirel feels about seeing them, but the things she describes don’t appear to be threatening at all. The moonlight looks poisonous, the shadows look evil, and the river looks terrifying. And we have nothing to go with than taking her word for it. There’s no mention of how the moon, the shadows, or the river look different from ordinary examples and so there’s no reason why we should feel anything similar to what she tells us Jirel is feeling. In Hellsgarde we even get a man of ordinary stature with “the face of a hunchback” and “the voice of a cripple”. At the third mention of the hunchback with the straight back, I couldn’t help myself thinking: “You keep using this word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.”

So in my final assesment I have to say: Nay! While I think Black God’s Kiss is a good story and entertaining read, Jirel of Joiry is not a good or interesting collection at all. In fact, I think it’s really pretty bad. Moore is one of the few women who wrote Sword & Sorcery and Jirel one of the very few female protagonists of the genre, and I suspect this might be the reason of the character’s limited fame. We want more female writers and more female protagonists, and being able to find one back in the 30s we latch onto it. However, more recently we got The Copper Promise by Jen Williams which also has a female protagonist. I am currently reading it and while I am not much of a fan yet, Williams easily pushes Moore down to second place for women in Sword & Sorcery. Let’s just hope we’re going to see more competition in the coming years.

Comic Review: Tales of the Jedi

Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi is a comic series that was published by Dark Horse from 1993 to 1998 with a total of 35 issues. This was only two years after the Thrawn Series by Timothy Zahn had kickstarted the Expanded Universe as we know it now, placing it pretty early in the history of Star Wars tales. The series was created by Tom Veitch, who had written the Dark Empire comic series a year earlier (which I consider the greatest travesty of the Star Wars universe after the Holiday Special), but he was joined by Kevin Anderson in 1994, who had just released his Jedi Academy novel series (which also has a pretty poor reputation among fans) and became the sole writer for the series a year later.

The Tales of the Jedi are set 4,000 years before the movies, in a time when the Republic was still smaller, the galaxy less explored, and the Jedi much more numerous. The first three story arcs, written by Veitch, (and giving us the now popular title “Knights of the Old Republic”) follow the adventures of the young Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma and his brother Cay and their fellow knight Tott Doneeta, who are send to the planet Onderon to help the government of the capital city end a war with the tribes living in the surounding jungles. They discover the spirit of the Dark Jedi Freedon Nadd manipulating the events on the planet, facing the three Jedi with a much bigger threat than they anticipated. As the crisis escalates, Ulic’s path crosses with the newly trained Jedi Nomi Sunrider, who has an exceptional talent for the Battle Meditation technique, which allows a single Jedi to coordinate the efforts of an entire army and making her extremely valuable.

Once Kevin Anderson joined as second writer, he introduces Exar Kun, a character from his Jedi Academy novels, whose spirit is trying to turn Luke’s Jedi students on Yavin 4 to the Dark Side. Exar Kun is unhappy with his master not trusting him to learn about the dangerous powers of the Dark Side and so sets out to learn more about them on his own. A path that very much mirrors that of Anakin Skywalker in the movies that were made a few years later. Exar Kun gets corrupted by the still not fully destroyed spirit of Freedon Nadd who leads him to the ancient Sith tombs of Korriban, where he once more unearthes the ancient secrets of the Sith. At the same time Ulic Qel-Droma is trying to infiltrate the leadership of a new Sith cult called the Krath who also have been guided by Freedon Nadd and establishing their own galactic power by allying with the Mandalorians and become a major threat to the Republic. Halfway through the arc, after the Dark Lords of the Sith series, Veitch left as a writer, leaving the field entirely to Anderson with the Sith War series.

A third main arc is set a thousand years earlier and centers on the first clash between the Republic and the Sith Empire under the leadership of Naga Sadow, who uses trickery and conspiracy to first destroy his rivals for control over the empire in The Golden Age of the Sith and then sets his eyes on the Republic in The Fall of the Sith Empire. A final, much shoter arc called Redeption, is set some years after The Sith War, but is mostly a personal story of Nomi Sunrider’s daughter Vima and doesn’t really add much to the historic lore of the Old Republic.

The setting of these comics would later return on the Knights of the Old Republic videogames, which right after the release of the second game got another comic series also, and confusingly, called Knights of the Old Republic. I was interested in those comics and had read the Jedi Academy novels at some point in the late 90s, so I decided to start at the very begining with the Tales of the Jedi series to know more about those references to Exar Kun, Ulic Qel-Droma, and Naga Sadow. When I first read them some three or four years ago, I quite enjoyed them. But having read them again over the last two weeks, my opinion of the series is now very different.

The first arc, written by Veitch, is really pretty bad. The art is very sloppy and ugly, characters are as flat as it can get, and what little traces of a plot there are are almost entirely told by exposition in boxes with the characters not really contributing anything with their own words. The second arc, begun by Veitch and Anderson, is a noticable improvement in that the art now looks only bad and that the plot consists of exposition in speech bubbles instead of boxes. It’s still a bad comic, though. The third arc, now done completely by Anderson alone, first starts surprisingly well with Golden Age of the Sith. The art has now been upgraded to simply ugly, though servicable, and there’s actual plot and Naga Sadow has some real personality as we follow him taking out his rivals and becoming new Dark Lord of the Sith. Sadly that didn’t last and The Fall of the Sith Empire is right back to being a jumbled mess of exposition. The short Redemption at the very end is okay, I guess. I still don’t think it’s any good or very interesting.

So yeah. My final impression of the Tales of the Jedi series is that it’s bad! There are noticable improvements over time, but those are simply from “godawful” to “only bad”. The only reason why I would recommend to anyone to read any of these comics, would be a great interest in the lore of the early days of the Star Wars universe. But even then I would say that only The Golden Age of the Sith and The Fall of the Sith Empire are worth it. If you really want to know about Ulic Qel-Droma and Exar Kun, then you’re much better of at just reading the page on Wookiepedia. There is so little plot and characterization in Veitch’s comics that you really are not missing out anything. It probably is much more exciting to read a detailed summary than to shovel your way through that pile of dung yourself.

Game Review: The Witcher

I was very much intrigued by The Witcher the very first time I heard about it, back around 2005 or so. “Dark Fantasy” had not really been a huge thing back then and the concept sounded like a fresh new approach to the genre that to me was mostly defined by The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. The game was released in 2007 and I played it the first time not very long after that. However, I never actually finished it. And greatly enjoying the books now and wanting to play the second game again, it seemed the appropriate thing to give this game another go.

Background

The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy books written by Andrzej Sapkowski during the 90s. Basically it started out as taking themes and archetypes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with some elements of Polish folklore and turning them into serious modern tales of violence and prejudice. It’s a bit similar to what Neon Genesis Evangelion did in Japan with it’s own take of children controling giant robots to fight city annihilating monsters to save the earth. Though usually there’s also a good amount of small meta-jokes here and there that really go a long way in keeping the books from drifting into grimdark territory. The main hero is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. When the world was still full of monsters that threatened the survival of human civilization everywhere, the Witchers were created to be superhuman monster slayers, highly trained in swordfighting and the basics of magic and turned into alchemical mutants through various potions that give them immunity to disease, resistance to poison, accelerated healing, hightened senses, and so on. But as the world has become more and more pacified many people doubt that these dangerous freaks are still necessary and there are only very few of them left and even fewer new ones being trained. But as monsters are starting to go extinct, it becomes very clear that this won’t make the world any more safer or peaceful as people are really one of the biggest source of violence and missery. While the last book in the series was published in 1999 and has been translated into over a dozen languages, the English translation has always been very late and the final three books are only being released in English right now, with the last one coming in 2017. The game takes place 5 years after the last book, which of course kind of spoils the ending of the series, but given the popularity of the games it’s pretty much like “I am your father!” and “Aeris dies” now. However, given the themes and moods of the series, I am really not feeling like this makes reading the books any less fun or exciting. The game does a very good job of remaining very brief on what exactly happened during the books and don’t really tell you anything about what was going on at the final showdown. Still, feel yourself warned when I go deeper into the story later in this review, where I will mention how the transition from the books to the game takes place.

Gameplay

The Witcher is in many ways a “classic western RPG” with lots of similarities to various Dungeons & Dragons games, The Elder Scrolls, or Dragon Age. However, because you’re playing a fixed character and there is a pretty clear main story, it’s in many ways much closer to the Mass Effect games. I think the closest comparison would probably be the Gothic series that was developed and released in the early 2000s, but to my knowledge didn’t get very popular outside of Germany. (It was a huge hit here, though.)

Geralt is very well known for the signature weapons of a witcher. A steel sword and a silver sword. Steel is the weapon of choice to kill people and animals but does relatively little damage to supernatural creatures. The silver sword is much better suited to that, but is more blunt in comparion and not ass effective against regular enemies as the steel sword. Though, how Geralt himself puts it “both are for monsters”. Since Geralt is a swordsman through and through, fighting with a sword and no shield is the primary, and effectively only form of combat. You can pick up daggers, axes, and clubs from enemies, but your skill with these doesn’t ever improve while you can become a total beast with your swords. There are three modes of fighting. A strong mode for big and heavily armored enemies, a fast mode that deals the most damage to small and fast enemies, and a group mode in which you lash out against every enemy around you. The group mode deals the least damage per strike, but since you’re hitting lots of enemies at the same time its perfect any time you are dealing with three or more enemies at once. While this is a neat idea in theory, there is very little strategy involved. Usually you can see immediately if the enemy takes more damage from strong or fast mode attacks and all you do is press the button to select the right mode for the current enemy. There is never really a question which mode might work best, it’s always obvious so there isn’t really any choice or tactics involved. The main tactical element of combat is deciding where to stand, which enemy to aim at, and when to move to a new position to avoid getting swarmed by to many opponents at once. But that’s also what you do in Baldur’s Gate or the first Dragon Age and while the animations of Geralt’s awesome fencing style look amazing at first, the novelty of it quickly runs out. Combat is serviceable, but not a particular highlight of the game. The second game went the right way with getting ride of modes and giving you a strong attack button and a fast attack button instead.

There are a few alternative steel swords throughout the game, but you probably end up using only two or three different ones throughout the entire game, and there’s only a single silver sword that you can get slightly upgraded towards the end. There is also a total of only three suits of armor and no magic rings or amulets. What you get instead is alchemy. Which really is a very innovative and fun way to handle combat customization. Throughout the game world you find huge amounts of magical plants and monster parts which you can make into potions once you have found the right recipes for them. And there’s a lot of them. You can either make potions that increase your own health, endurance, resistances, and so on, or make oils for coating your blades that deal additional damage and status effects to various kinds of enemies. And since ingredients are extremely plentiful, you are pretty much always able to make any potion or oil that you want. All you need is to rest at a campfire, which are usually found less than a hundred meters away wherever you are. In practice I mostly used the Swallow potion which gives you health regeneration for about 10 to 15 minutes, and the Cat potion that lets you see in total darkness and eliminates the need for a torch. Swallow is one of the shortest duration potions in the game, most others will easily last you through several dungeons in a row. Even though I played on Hard there was rarely any need for other potions or oils, but when it comes to the tougher fights it really is a very fun system. The only limitation is that you always can have only a single oil on each of your swords and that all potions are slightly toxic. Most people would drop dead immediately when drinking them, but witchers are able to handle four or five of them in a row. One time I was so heavily drugged up and in immediate need of a fast acting healing potion that I actually keeled over dead from an overdose of potions rather than from my injuries. The very last thing I did in the game after the big final battle and before the final cutscene ran – which I didn’t know at the point – was to drink my last remaining cleansing potion that ended all my active potion and removed all the poison from my body. A wonderfully poetic way to end a game of drug fueled mayhem.

And finally Geralt has some limited magic abilities in the form of five simple spells. The ones I most almost exclusively are Aard and Igni, which create a blast of air that can knock enemies over or unconscious or create a big burst of fire for direct damage. There is also Quen, which creates a short lived shield to absorb a bit of damage, but even with considerable upgrading I found the added protection not worth the while. Keeping moving and having a Swallow potion ready is usually sufficient and trying to raise a quick Quen spell doesn’t seem to make any difference for more than a few seconds. There is also Yrden, which creates a stun trap on the ground, and Axii, that lets you turn one enemy against his allies. But stunning all the enemies around you and finishing them with your sword or throwing fire at them always seemed much more practical.

The Story

While there is a good amount of fighting throughout the game, I think it really is primarily about talking with people, solving mysteries, and progressing the plot. The game begins with Geralt finding himself in the wilderness near the old witcher stronghold Kaer Moren with no memory of how he got there or even who he is. His old master Vesemir and the sorceress Triss are not too particularly surprised by his loss of memory because to everyone’s knowledge he had been killed five years earlier and several of his friends had been there when he died. But now he’s back, appearing in the middle of a supernatural thunderstorm somehow linked to the mysterious Wild Hunt. Unfortunately, there is not much time for Geralt to try to figure out what happened to him as the ruined castle is attacked by a sorcerer and a gang of bandits that find their way into the lab and steal the alchemical books and ingredients that are used to turn witchers into superhuman warriors. The few remaining witchers decide to split up and try to find any trails that might lead them to the sorcerer and his base, with Geralt going to the kingdom of Tymeria. Most of the game takes place in the Tymerian capital Vizima, where the city guard and the knights of the Order of the Flaming Rose are fighting against a criminal gang called Salamandra, and the elven and dwarven rebells of the Scoia’tael who are hiding in the swamps. The Scoia’tael are one of the most interesting elements of the setting, being a militant group that desires to remove all humans from the Northern Kingdoms and reclaiming the lands for themselves. The human monarchs and their subjects are everything but sympathetic to their cause and react by systematically subjugating any nonhumans on suspiscion of aiding the terrorists. On the other side, the Scoia’tael consider anyone who doesn’t support their cause to be a traitor and collaborateur and also deserving death. At the same time, the great Nilfgaardian Empire in the south is well known to give some reasonable degree of autonomy to its nonhuman subjects and has long had great ambitions of invading and taking over the independent Northern Kingdoms. Even though the Nilfgaardian aristocracy conists of humans, that makes them allies of convenience to the Scoia’tael. Everything considered, it’s a situation that just isn’t going to get a happy ending for anyone involved.

While the plot itself turns out to be nothing to write home about, the game does an incredible good work at bringing the world of the Northern Kingdom to life. It may not be a great Witcher story, but it certainly is an amazing Witcher adaptation. Many characters from the books make an appearance in the game and both they and Geralt are captured perfectly. There are few things I hate as much as comic relief bards in a fantasy story, but I love Dandelion. I love him in the books and I love him in this game.

I believe not many people have actually finished this game, because if they did the ending would be much more infamous. It’s not so much confusing, but certainly pretty weird and going into completely unexpected directions and coming out of nowhere. While sitting through the final dialogues and cutscenes, I couldn’t help but being more and more reminded about the ending of Neon Genesis Evangelion. Usually I am a big fan of esoteric endings, but here it feels somewhat out of place and something more conventional might probably have been more appropriate.

Technical Things

Back when the game was first released it was notorious for being quite troublesome to getting it work and run well. And while I believe the current Enhanced Edition is a lot better, it’s still partly the case. While many people say it’s running completely fine for them on Linux, I wasn’t able to get it work at all. In the end I had to boot up an old WinXP installation I still had on my computer and that mostly worked quite well. But in about 50 hours of playing I had about the same number of complete crashes. Which is a lot. The game does have four separate autosave slots, but when the game only saves at major area transitions that isn’t terribly helpful when you can stay on the same map for quite a considerable time. Including several major fights. By regularly saving the game manually I was able to play through the whole thing with only minor inconvenience, it’s still very annoying. However, on the positive side, that was the only kind of error I ever experienced throughout the entire game. Not a single time did I have to deal with broken dialoges, a messed up questlog, characters that failed to spawn, or anything like that. I never had to go back to an old save because a quest became unfinishable. For a notriously buggy RPG that is a major achivement.

Visually it looks quite impressing, especially considering that it uses the same engine as the unspeakably ugly Neverwinter Nights. Especially when you can put all the settings to maximum on an average modern computer, the faces and many of the outdoor environments look really very good. The same can not be said for character animations, though. It’s wobbly heads and twitchy arms not much better than what you’d get in the first Resident Evil or Deus Ex. But it doesn’t really hurt the game. The biggest problem I have with the visuals of the game are the colors and most of the lighting. I can get what they were aiming for, but pretty soon seeing nothing but washed out, faded, and dusty colors everywhere was starting to get on my nerves. Especially with the sky being overcast 90% of the time. There are a few spots where the lighting is pretty interesting, but mostly it’s just dreadfully dreary. The environments appear to be heavily inspired by Poland, with the architecture, fashion, and armor being based on 14th century Northern-Central Europe. And as someone who grew up in the German parts of this greater region, it’s really great to see a game that so faithfully draws on the environment and sights of our homeland. And yes, while the weather is pretty accurate too, it’s not working well for a fantasy game. There is such a thing as too much realism and permant overcast sky with slight drizzle is among that. Thankfully the second game went to great lengths to avoid this and uses stark lighting and high color contrast that makes everything look slightly overexposed and I think it works beautifully.

Another thing I feel worth mentining is that the camera work on the cutscenes is pretty amazing. Whoever was responsible for this really knew what he was doing. Lots of very interesting and unusual shots that have various interesting effects on the presentation of the scene. It’s very much unlike anything else I’ve seen in a videogame. It’s actually considerably better than the camera work in the entire Star Wars prequel trilogy. (If you watch the movies again, try to pay attention to it. They consist almost entirely of the most basic and boring shots you can do.)

Final Thoughts

Making a final judgement on this game is difficult. There is a lot to praise about this game, but also a very great amount of reasons to complain. The story is not great, the gameplay is mostly rather poor, and it doesn’t really look great either. The main selling point of the game is that it is a Witcher game, and as I mentioned, I think the adaptation is done really well. The way that people think, talk, and behave in this world is quite unique and probably the most interesting part about the whole game. If the game were set in any other generic fantasy world, I don’t think anyone would have taken any notice of it because it would be just plain boring. I played the game again because I am a big fan of the book and really enjoyed the second game a great lot and plan to play it a second time soon. So I wanted to finish The Witcher at least once, mostly for the sake of completeness and because I wanted to experience the strange ending for myself instead of watching a video of it. And I don’t regret that I played the game. But I feel very certain that I won’t be playing it again another time. Now that I’ve seen it, I don’t really see why I would want to play it again. The best thing about it is the world of the Witcher, and you can experience it even better in the second game, which is so much more fun and enjoyable in every way. And given that the story of this game neither ties in directly to the book nor the other games really doesn’t make it a big loss for anyone who doesn’t play it. It’s not a bad game and I won’t tell anyone to avoid it. But for anyone who is only now getting interested in the Witcher, I would actually rather recommend starting with The Witcher 2. I would say there is a good chance that this game won’t be fun to play for many people and you have to bring some already existing enthusiasm to it to properly enjoy it. If you’re not already fully on board with The Witcher, I really recommend starting somewhere else. Either with The Witcher 2 or the books.

Book Review: The Desert of Souls

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones is the story of Asim, captain of the guard of a powerful nobleman in Bagdad in the 8th century. He is also the narrator of the tale, reporting of his adventure with the sage Dabir some indeterminate number of years later. I am usually not a fan of historic fiction or first person narration, but here it turned out to be surprisingly fun. When their master had been sad about the death of his favorite parrot, Asim took him to a trip to the market to distract him and cheer him up, with Dabir getting roped in against his will. On their trip they met a fortune teller who told them that an opportunity for great adventure was waiting for them right outside her door, but if they prefer to go back to their ordinary lives all they would have to do is stay inside her house a few minutes longer and it would simple pass by. But of course they didn’t.

Even though set in a historic setting, the book is clearly a fantasy story. But even the two heroes are very sceptical that anything supernatural is going on for quite some time. And while miracles and supernatural beings are accepted facts of their culture, the ideas of sorcerers and undead monsters in the middle of Bagdad just seems too unbelievable to everyone. It’s a very “classic” adventure tale and I’ve seen Jones write frequently about his love for Robert Howard and Harold Lamb. And it shows. I think as historic settings go, this is as close to the spirit of Sword & Sorcery as it gets. I am also reminded of Indiana Jones and Tarzan, so you probably might get an impession of what kind of adventure this is.

Asim’s narration works very well for the book. Overall I think the characters are not very complex, but both Asim and Dabir have clear personalties and it shows through not only in their dialogues but especially in the way that Asim describes the events and adds his own thoughts on them. He is somewhat of a simple man and while apparently being able to do a good job at protecting the house of his master and his family, all the praise for him is generally about his loyalty, honesty, and bravery. But he really isn’t the sharpest knive in the drawer at any stretch. The language he uses to tell his tale is simple and he often glosses over the details of the more arcane and ocult things that are going on, admitting that he didn’t really understand what the sages and sorcerers had been talking about. At the same time you also learn a lot about him from the little and seemingly irrelevant details he does mention because they seem to be important to him. It’s frequently mentioned in passing that they took a short break for prayer or that they washed hands before sitting down to eat, and while you almost never see him mentioning the turbans people are wearing, there are numerous cases where he points out that a person did not wear a turban. I don’t know the cultural dress code of that place and period, but simply by mentioning it it becomes obvious that Asim considers them improperly dressed and that to him that tells quite a bit about their character. While somewhat simple minded and a warrior, his honesty and integrity are without doubt and he is very conscious of his manners and proper behavior. Or at least as he sees it.

I sprang off my left foot, caught the roof ledge with my fingers, and pulled myself up. Dabir urged care; I do not think he heard my response, as I was too busy not falling to answer clearly, and my words do not bear repeating.

As far as knowledge of history and culture goes, the Arab world is not one I am particularly familiar with, but throughout the book it is always very apparent that Jones does. At least once or twice every chapter there is something mentioned that makes me stop and think “Oh yes, I think I heard about that somewhere before. Interesting to see it included in this story.” I mentioned the regular breaks for prayer and the washing of hands, as well as the absence or loss of turbans, but there’s always a lot more of this kind everywhere. At one point early in the book there is a mention of Turks, and that seemed somewhat dubious to me so that I looked it up. And as it turns out, the Turks had already been muslims in the 8th century, even though it was only many centuries later that they migrated from modern Kazhakstan to Turkey. And not only are there muslims in Bagdad, but also Zoroastrians and as they travel down the Tigris there are scenes involving “Marsh Arabs”, an ancient ethnic minority probably very few people in the western world have ever heard of. All this makes it feel that this story takes place in the real Abbasid Caliphate and not just some Arab-themed fantasy world that has some well known place names thrown in. What always intrigued me most was the use of the term “Greek”. In the tale as told by Asim, it’s always simply “the Greeks” without any additional commentary, and given the way he narrates the story it feels very appropriate. Asim knows what he means by Greeks and assumes that all his listeners do as well. But at this time in history, any “Greek” ambassadors or spies would be from Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. And most of eastern and northern Europe was not christian yet, so to Arabs in the 700s the word Greek might even be seen as synonymous with Christian. I really liked that the Greek sorcerer in the story is a necromancer. Resurrection of the dead is a purely Christian concept and the whole idea of Hell was adopted from ancient Greek mythology. I don’t know of Jones took any liberties there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were rumors circulating in the muslim world about Christians creating undead monsters in secret. The Romans had rumors about Christians being canibals and practicing child sacrifice some centuries earlier, so it doesn’t seem unlikely. And after all, even the word necromancy is Greek. In contrast to that, the Zoroastrian priests use fire magic, which also seems like something that the people of Bagdad probably would not have found too difficult to believe.

Jones has written quite a bit about the Sword & Sorcery genre over the years, among them some of the most interesting and insightful articles I’ve seen about it. He really does know the genre and how it works, and this shows very much in this book. It’s really a lot of fun. There’s almost always something happening and the narrator is always giving his own thoughts and perspective on the events in a way that is very enjoyable. (The first boat ride was the only point where I thought it should hurry up and get back to the action.) There are frequent fight scenes, but they are generally kept brief enough to not bog down and keep the action moving. Things tend to happen in interesting locations and there are lots of turns that give the whole thing a certain pulpy quality. Calling the book formulaic would be doing it a great disservice and create the wrong impression. It’s not a heap of cliches in any way and feels very original. But I think overall it could have much more of a spark and been much more audacious. Jones manages to avoid the story getting campy or pretentious, which is always a real risk with this genre, but I think it could have used a good amout of more fire. Structurally I think it’s an excelent adventure tale, but I got the impression of it being a bit too careful and slightly stiff. Aside from Asim, who being the narrator is always present throughout the entire tale, the supporting characters all seem somewhat underused. From what glimpses we get of them, Sabirah, Hamil, Farouz and even Diomedes seem like really interesting characters, but they actually do and say only very little throughout the entire story. Ali could have been a villain you would love to hate simply based on all the times he showed up to ruin someone’s day, but sadly we don’t really ever learn anything about him. He’s just the knife guy.

But even considering that, I think this book is really pretty great. It doesn’t read like a book by a seasoned career author, which it isn’t, but it’s one of the books I had the most fun reading in quite some time. That’s really one of the things I’ve been missing from many books I’ve recently been reading. As well written as many of them are, they are not fun. There’s a second book with Asim and Dabir, which I am sure I’ll be reading eventually. And if Jones adds a bit more fire and audacity to his tales, I think he could be really outstandingly good.

Book Review: Kull: Exile of Atlantis

While most people know of Conan, only few have ever heard of Kull. Kull was, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt of Robert Howard to write heroic fantasy, but he had only very little commercial success with the series and I believe only managed to sell a single story to a magazine. It was only much later when he had already become famous with Conan that people really took interest in his earlier stories about Kull. This collection appears to include everything Howard ever wrote about Kull and I think even goes a bit overboard with it. Not only does it included several full stories (which admitedly would have made for a pretty thin book), but also earlier drafts for some of them and a number of fragments that were never completed and sometimes only conist of a few pages. If you only look at the actual full stories, this book is a lot shorter than it looks.

Kull does have his fans and many of them are sometimes quite vocal in asserting that Kull is not simply a proto-Conan. And while it’s true that Kull is not just that, he still is very clearly a proto-Conan. Kull is a barbarian from Atlantis who had a turbulent career as a slave, gladiator, and soldier, until he led a rebellion against the king of Valusia and strangled him with his bare hands, taking the throne for himself. Not only is that pretty much exactly what we’re told about Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, but The Phoenix on the Sword is 80% identical to the Kull story By This Axe I Rule. Conan did not come from nowhere or out of nothing. Conan was Robert Howard’s attempt to take Kull and make the stories more action-packed with more monsters and grander villains. And as we now know, it worked.

While I’ve heard some people say that they actually like Kull more than Conan, I’m really not feeling that way. As a character, yes, perhaps Kull might be a bit more interesting. But when it comes to the actual stories and what is on the page, Conan is playing in a completely different league. The stories of Kull are not bad and clearly the work of a writer with a fascinating imagination. But as the craftsmanship goes I do find them rather lacking. There are good ideas, but as pacing and tension goes they are mostly pretty weak. And I don’t really feel surprised that Howard was not able to sell them to a magazine for publication. Even the completed stories still feel like drafts, and often like first drafts at that. As completed stories they aren’t just that good and I think reading Kull at his best is comparable to seeing Conan at his weakest.

When it comes to rating this book, it really is much easier than I’d like to: Nay! I do not think this is a good book. I can not recommend it to people looking for something fun to read. It’s still worth reading if your interest in Kull is an academic one. This is where Sword & Sorcery really started and where it took the shape we now know. And this is Robert Howard when he was starting out writing fantasy, which is also really fascinating to examine for a fan. But I don’t think it is offering much when you’re looking for entertainment.

Book Review: Night Winds

Night Winds is the third Kane book by Karl Wagner that I’ve read. I already liked Death Angel’s Shadow and Bloodstone very much and so I had pretty high confidence that this one wouldn’t disappoint me either. Like Death Angel’s Shadow, Night Winds is a collection of several unconnected stories of various length. And as many others have already claimed before me, Kane seems to be at his best during these shorter tales when Wagner can get straight to the point. The more stories I read, the more I am surprised that only Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are widely regarded as the great giants of Sword & Sorcery, but I think Wagner can easily stand among them as an equal. The stories of Kane are a lot more gloomy and less exhilarating fun compared to Conan, but I think when judging them by their own strengths they really come out pretty even.

Just like Conan, Kane is always the centerpiece of his stories and the defining element of the series. The stories are not just with Kane, but always about Kane. And as a character he is extremely fascinating. Kane is possibly one of the most extreme cases of anti-hero with a heart so black and cruel that he would easily be a villain in any other stories but his own. And from what what other people tell about the things he is doing between the stories, being a full out villain is apparently his normal mode. Not only is he an evil man, Kane is also cursed to be immortal. He does not age and recovers from injury and sickness much faster than any normal human. But he can still be killed and he does feel pain like any living man and that’s the true punishment behind his curse. Because the one thing that Kane hates more than his eternal life is the very idea of seeking escape in death. He probably could kill himself or allow others to kill him with no problems, but his pride drives him to cling on to his tormented life with bare hands and teeth until his very last breath. With all the time in the world and a powerful body, he mastered the arts of fighting and sorcery ages ago and is quite probably the most dangerous person in the entire world. But in the world of Kane, sorcerers don’t cast spells and are much more like Lovecraftian ocultists, and even a warrior like himself can not fight a dozen men by himself. He spends his eternity by gathering armies of mercenaries and bandits to carve out small empires to rule, but eventually he is always either defeated by his enemies or simply gets bored with it and walks off into the wilderness with nothing but his sword and his clothes to sink into sorrow or find himself some new kind of diversion. It is during these times where almost all of the tales of Kane are taking place.

Undertow is the first story in the book and I think an excelent choice to start with. It was the first time I’ve read a Kane story last year and it’s a great introduction to the character. Somewhat unusually, Kane has only very few and short appearances in this story. Instead we mostly follow other people talking about Kane, who is currently the sorcerer king of the city. This works surprisingly well and does a great job at establishing Kane as a really mysterious and dangerous character, because they are all completely terrified of him. It worked for Sauron and it works for Kane.

In Two Suns Fading we have Kane just after he got fed up with his last empire and simply walking out into the desert, leaving all his advisors and generals to figure out what to do next by themselves. It probably will all fall into chaos and bloodshed, but Kane doesn’t care. In the desert, Kane encounters a lone giant who is on a quest to find the tomb of an ancient giant king, and with nothing better to do Kane decides to join him. It’s a relatively short story and not one of Wagner’s best, but still pretty entertaining.

In The Dark Muse, Kane has made himself an underworld boss in some desert city, where for some strange reasons he has become a good friend and generous patron to a famous poet. This seems rather uncharacteristic at first, but so what? It’s Kane! He’s lived almost forever and is a highly intelligent man who can be quite cultivated when he wants. Surely he has been doing much stranger things through the ages. The two come into possession of a strange sorcerous artifact that has the power to send a person into the realm of dreams, and also nightmares. Kane’s poet friend really wants to try it out in hope to finding inspiration for an incredible masterpiece, but when they begin things do turn very strangely and dangerous.

Raven’s Eyrie takes place in wintery forrested hills, where a badly wounded Kane and the few surviving members of his recently destroyed gang of bandits are running from a band of bounty hunters close behind them. And it is also the night of the Demonlord’s Moon, so they have little choice but to take refuge in a small and isolated inn that Kane had previously raided some eight years ago. The owner is one of the few survivors who didn’t get masacred by Kane’s men and senses an opportunity to get her revenge. This is one of these great stories where there aren’t really any heroes but instead you have just a group of terrible people doing horrible things to each other out of hate and greed. But Wagner manages to still make it a strory that is very enjoyable to read, as he generally doesn’t go overboard with the violence and gore. It’s a dark tale and a somewhat bleak tale, but it doesn’t revel in unnecessary suffering.

Lynortis Reprise is probably the creepiest Kane story I’ve read so far. The plot is very simple and there isn’t really much happening, but the real star of this story is the location where it takes place. Lynortis and the surrounding area are the remains of a battlefield where thirty years ago tens of thousands of soldiers had laid siege to a city for two years. It is overgrown with weeds and bushes and littered with broken siege engines and mountains of skeletons, and riddled with craters, trenches, and tunnels, and the ruined remains of what once were farms and mannors. It really reads like Wagner had just been working on a World War I horror story before writing this. Kane encounters a group of old mercenary companions who are looking for a treasure they believe to be hidden somewhere in the ruins of the city and Kane eagerly accepts the offer of joining them. There is probably more gold and jewels than they can carry and they also need to be quick as there are others hunting for the treasure as well. However, treasure hunters are not the only people in the area as there are still some survivors of the battle living in some of the ruins and there are also things in the tunnels below the ground that one character refers to as the half-men. That’s already an ominous name, but the meaning behind it is even more disturbing than one would probably expect. In many ways the story feels somewhat experimental and is presented different from the other stories in the book. Sometimes it works quite well, at other times not so much. But it’s still a very interesting read. The following is probably one of my favorite paragraphs I’ve read:

Spewing tentacles of incandescent death blossomed over the roadway. Where it stuck, men flamed into cinder. Searing fragments reached out like lethal fingers, burning all they touched. Men and horses shrieked in pain and terror, bolted over the outer wall in blind panic. Flaming bodies pitched over the edge, falling like stars into the darkness far below.

This story also surprised me by having a simple but really good twist that I totally did not see coming. And the way it is presented you have several opportunities to figure it out yourself instead of having a character step forward and saying it directly, which I think makes it hit a lot harder when the pieces suddenly come together in your head. Only when I caught it did I realized that I had already missed two previous hints that could have given it away. Putting this story close to the end of the book was another good choice in organization as you really have to be familiar with Kane to make it work. If this were the first or second Kane story you read, it would probabaly just be strange and look like poor plotting. But this way it was a great wow moment when I made the realization.

The last story is Sing a Last Song of Valdese, which again is relatively short compared to the others. It’s a nice little spook story about a group of seven travelers spending the night in a small inn in the middle of a wilderness haunted by bandits and ghosts. It’s really a pretty straightforward horror tale rather than an adventure story, but it fits the world of Kane. Nothing amazing and it probably could have been expanded into something much more refined, but I like the idea behind it.

Not surprisingly, I really like this book. It’s just as good as Death Angel’s Shadow and a step or two above Bloodstone. If you like Kane you should obviously read it. If you haven’t read any Kane stories but want to, this one is a very good pick to start with as well. I very much recommend it.

Movie Review: Interstellar

I’m a huge fan of Nolan movies and beside Inception my top list of favorite movies of all time consists of Blade Runner, Ghost in the Shell, and The Empire Strikes Back. Yet somehow I had not seen Interstellar until now, even though it was a foregone conclusion that I would love it. Even with just knowing that it’s a Nolan movie about space and wormholes. Once I heard that much last year, I didn’t watch any trailers or read any preview articles about it, knowing that I would eventually see it, almost certainly love it, and love it all the more the less I knew about it in advance. But somehow I never watched it when it was released or got it on DVD when it came out until now. It was actually just me wondering out of the blue how the music for the movie would be and looking it up it sounded really quite amazing. This had me think about a technical question on how it was done and suddenly I found myself being only 80% blind to the content of the movie instead of 95% as I had been before. That convinced me that I had to actually watch it and to watch it very soon! Which I did yesterday.

And I should have watched it last week! It would have been so much better going into the movie completely blind, not even knowing what the story is about. Not knowing about the setting, not knowing about the underlying conflict, not knowing about the goal. Many people consider Nolan movies to be confusing, but I personally think the one way in which they could be better would be being less predictable. And even just knowing a few basic things about the plot lead to me not really being surprised by the story of Interstellar. So in this review I will not be talking about the story at all but instead about why I think you should really see this movie. If this kind of movie is for you. Of course there is so much to talk about in this movie and I think I will do another post in a near future where I will totally nerd out about all the things I’ve seen and discovered.

The Heart of Darkness

But for now I’ll try to keep it strictly to the merrits of the movie aside from the plot. To outline the story just in very broad strokes, it takes place in a future where the world is in terrible shape and the hope for the future of huminity lies in the exploration of distant planets in space. However, the physics involved that allow humans to reach other planets do extremely strange things to our perception of time and space, which results in a very weird and bizare experience for the astronauts. A lot of talk about the movie has been about how much actual hard physics and space technology is in the movie and how much more accurate it is than any other movies that have been made before. And that is true. But Interstellar is not a hard science-fiction movie! This is a really funky movie. Much more than Dark Knight movies and even Inception, this movie is all classic, oldschool Nolan mindfuck. Or, as I would rather think about it, classic Nolan cerebral lovemaking. Nolan’s movies are often considered to be postmodernist or existentialist, and Interstellar certainly is weird. But there is absolutely nothing humorous, ironic, or mocking about it. It’s not a crazy fun ride or a space adventure or anything like that. This is a seriously heavy philosophical and emotional movie. One might even be temped to call it spiritual, but that term probably would create the wrong impression. It is in fact one of the defining aspect of Existentialism that it sits firmly on the blurry part of the border between philosophy and spirituality. It is concerned with issues that are traditionally considered religious while at the same time rejecting the concepts of the supernatural or the divine. All of Nolan’s movies touch on this spehere, but Interstellar dives into it much deeper than ever before.

And I think this is the main factor that will determine if this movie is for you or not, and how much you’ll enjoy it. The Batman movies are somewhat unusual superhero movies, but they are still superhero movies. Inception left many people confused about the plot, but it still entertains as a popcorn action movie. Interstellar just won’t do that. It doesn’t really have any action scenes and a narrative that is pretty simple. (While it’s very deep, it’s not complex.) And it’s almost three hours in length. Almost everyone is used to movies that run 120 minutes, but adding 45 more minutes to that makes a big difference. And since it isn’t packed to the brim with plot development, it also is pretty slow paced. Oh, and yeah: It’s also very bleak. It’s not a violent movie or an agonizing movie, but it’s dark. I’ve been thinking about elaborating on this a lot, but everything I come up with feels like it would give away too much. I think a comparison with Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell is really quite appropriate here. If you can get something out of these kinds of movies, I think you’ll also enjoy Interstellar.

Blah, blah, something about wormholes, blah, blah

One of the most amazing thing about the movie is the sound. It is, how we would say in Germany, a very brave attempt. And indeed, lots of people hate it! Dialogue is very often really hard to understand and the music often gets extremely loud. I am not exactly sure if it was the right call, but I understand why Nolan insisted on doing it and I very much enjoyed the final result. But I am unceartain whether much would have been lost if the voices were more clear and the music less intrusive, but probably a majority of viewers would have greatly appreciated it. It certainly was no accident or oversight. People have complained about Bane in The Dark Knight Rises being bad to understand in test screenings and Nolan argued that he wants it that way. And just look at the care and detail that he always takes with everything else in his movies. When you can’t hear what people are saying, he wants you to not hear it. I admit, I probably didn’t understand even half the sentences of what is being said in the entire movie. And people who did understand it often complain that the dialogues are bad. But I don’t think he is trying to cover up the fact that the things people say are banal and artificial. I think that’s really the entire point. Dialogue in this movie consists of two types: People talking about physics and technology in terms that most viwers won’t understand anyway but is there to set the scene, and people talking about their emotions and relationships. In either case, it really doesn’t matter what anyone is saying. Their mouths are moving, but nobody is saying everything. Almost the entire communication in this movie is done nonverbally. There is a wonderful quote from the old TV show Babylon 5, by its most strange and enigmatic character: “If it is understanding that you seek, you have to listen to the music, not to the song.” I think that’s what this movie is really all about. In real human communication, the things that come out of our mouth are full of data junk. So much of it is redundant or reflexive and does not actually contain any new information, and then you have of course all the stuttering and mumbling as well. When listeing to people talking you are missing words or whole sentences all the time, but the brain automatically filters those disruptions out and cleans up the message before it enters our consciousness. We’re not normally aware of it, but when you try to type down a recording of normal speech accurately, it immediately becomes obvious what a total mess it is. Almost no movie, TV show, or videogame ever does that and instead you get every single line that was carefully prepared and recorded as often as it took to get it just right. (The Big Lebowsky being a notable exception, but it may not immediately be noticable as our brain automatically does the usual cleaning up process.) By making the dialogue in Interstellar unintelligible the viewer have to rely on other cues to figure out what the characters have just tried to communicate to each other. And for me that worked perfectly well. I was not always completely sure what was actually happening according to the script, but there was never any ambiguity about the interaction between the characters. There are a few scenes of exposition talk where I think that might not have worked so well. Even with just picking out only every third or four words my knowledge of what these words mean was enough for me to figure out what physical principles they are talking about. If you don’t have this preexisting knowledge, I think there are many scenes where it seems like they are explaining very important things that will be necessary to understand the next parts of the plot, and people just won’t have a clue what they just said. In the end, all the science and engineering is not important for the story. But when you think it’s important and try to figure out the puzzle with half the pieces missing, it probably is going to feel very frustrating and confusing. The movie does not tell you “This is technobabble, it’s not important for the plot.” I think it’s a neat idea, but the potential to backfire is huge. And I think backfire it did, at least for most people.

Now the other thing is the music. I love the music. I wasn’t a fan of the older Hans Zimmer stuff, but many of his most recent works are really quite great. I think to a good degree he is delivering his customers the kind of music that they want. And yeah, you don’t expect anything highly unique or creative from the developers of the Call of Duty games. But when Christopher Nolan orders something really extravagant that is highly tailored to his vision of the final movie, then Zimmer is able to deliver that as well. The music for Inception was certainly unique, but for Interstellar it’s much more extreme. When you go all the way down to core, the entire music for the whole movie is just slight variations of the same very simple tune. Which is only five notes. And it repeats over and over in various very different but recognizable variants. Sometimes it’s very quiet. And sometimes it’s incredibly loud. I have a nice 5.1 sorround sound system set up here (one of the best investments I’ve ever made 12 years ago) and it’s just mind blowing. Rumor has it that one IMAX theatre ruined their sound system because they set it too high to make the dialogue more audible. I would not outright dismiss this story as a hoax. Good things my neighbours are on vaction or I wouldn’t have been able to appreciate it at it’s full glory in the middle of the night. It’s kind of creepy and certainly very haunting, adding hugely to the often bleak and sometimes desperate atmosphere. Oh, and the main instrument is a massive church organ. Another ballsy move was to make space silent. In many shots there just isn’t any sound at all. You only hear things when ships are docking together or landing on a planet or when stuff is moved around inside them. When the music goes completely quite as well, it’s just fascinating to experience.

Where no man has gone before

As I mentioned in the tiny fragment of summary before, this movie is about using wormholes to reach distant planets. The movie is eerie and haunting from the very beginning even back at Earth, but once they start exploring outer space it just gets totally weird. Most of what they find looks normal, as it was shot in real places in Iceland or inside a full scale model of the spaceship, but it all feels completely wrong. It’s really hard to not give away too much here and I think it just needs to be experienced in person to full appreciate. But as I am concerned they might not just have been traveled to a distant point in space but just as well have been gone to a different universe or different realm of being. It’s all totally surreal. It’s all like a dream, but you might not really be sure if it’s a good one or a bad one. It’s creepy, but beautiful. Amazing and terrifying. It’s transcendental. Which again goes back to the core elements of existentialist philosophy.

They also do happen to find planets that are similar to Earth. Similar in some ways, but also very clearly not Earth. Doing the entire movie in space probably would have gotten boring pretty soon, but the planets are just as weird, beautiful, and unsettling. While they make for a nice change of pace of environment, they seamlessly maintain the overall atmosphere of the whole movie. It’s a truly bizare journey, but that’s really exactly what you’d expect when you follow Christopher Nolan through a wormhole into strange and distant corners of the universe.

So yeah, I enjoyed this movie very much. It probably isn’t going to become a regular member of my collections of amazing movies to constantly watch again, and I dare say I like Inception better. Simply because it’s much more digestible. But at the same time, Interstellar is even more amazing. I feel like I can not much better understand my dad’s love with 2001. Not that I feel like I understand or appreciate that movie any more now than I did before, but if someone who doesn’t like Interstellar would ask me to explain why I think this weird clunky movie is so amazing, I also would have a very hard time to even explain what about I like. This is a movie to keep staring into until one day it maybe stares back at you.

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.