Saturday, October 31, 2020

Review of Rhialto the Marvellous by Jack Vance

When kudos are handed out for Jack Vance’s Dying Earth tales, it’s rare that the three Rhialto stories, collected in Rhialto the Marvellous (1984), are left with anything in their hands. In the context of Vance’s oeuvre and his fandom, the reason is interesting. Introspective, sober (relatively speaking), and of a particular flavor, they possess only a few of the qualities of the other Dying Earth stories, but are deeper, darker, and more substantive for it. Most of Vance’s stories read and appreciated for the fast-paced dynamics of plotting, the Rhialto stories offer something similar but a little different—just different enough to be something special.

The stories in Rhialto the Marvelous all feature a group of eccentric magicians living in the last days of the sun. Vance capitalizing on the concept as only Vance can, their petty and esoteric interests are presented in comedic yet human fashion, and are integral to their interpersonal differences. Creaky, old men having wars of words (and occasionally fists) over magical baubles and tomes is great fun—high flying verbiage contrasted by childish interests.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Mare Balticum

What is it about claymation that touches something within us? The Nightmare Before Christmas, Shaun the Sheep, Wallace & Grommit, Pat & Mat, Primus music videos, Coraline, the California Raisins (the California Raisins!)—there is a fascination watching these productions that resonates somewhere within us regardless whether we like the content or not. Like a puppet show or pantomime, I think it’s because the mind is constantly aware that we are witnessing a production—a presentation whose nuts and bolts are partially leftover on screen. With normal movies and shows, we can so easily get lost in the story because the characters are human, and move and behave in smooth, natural human ways. With cartoons we accept that its unnatural and abstract from the beginning, and quickly push the thought aside to watch. It’s a good thing, therefore, that Mare Balticum has solid gameplay mechanics to draw the eye away from the superb Claymation inspired art.

Mare Balticum is a family game where players control fishing fleets on the Baltic Sea, trying to collect the most valuable haul of fish. Players have three actions on their turn: catch one of the five types of fish, move their ships to richer waters, or storage fish at the ports. All fish harvested from the board are afterwards replenished by drawing new fish from a bag, a bag that likewise contains six clock tokens. When a clock token is drawn, players must assign a multiplier value (3x, 2x, 1x, or 0) to the type of fish they think they will have the most tokens of at the end of the game. When the sixth clock token is drawn, the game stops, players count their fish, use the multipliers per fish type, and add up their score. The player with the most points, wins. (Total play time amounts to approximately 15 minutes per player.)

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Review of Afterland by Lauren Beukes

The market for fiction today is saturated far beyond anything humanity has ever seen. For casual readers who do not invest time in selecting their next read, this is likely not a big deal. But for bibliophiles, it represents a number of challenges. One of these is reading books that are not 100% the same as another book (no two grains of sand yadda yadda yadda), but which hold a LARGE number of elements or devices in common. The market for post-apocalyptic fiction the past ten years, for example, seems to have had not only its surface filled out, but all the gaps, niches, and interstices filled in as well. It’s impossible to be novel. With this knowledge in hand, what then does Lauren Beukes have to add with Afterland (2020)? Answer: maybe everything…

The premise of Afterland is quite straightforward: a strange cancer emerges in the near-future to kill 99% of males on Earth. But it is the aftermath of this situation which the novel focuses on, something which Beukes accomplishes through the points of view of three characters. The first are mother and son, Cole and Miles, told separately. When the reader first meets them they are on the run, trying to escape police given that all boys must be kept in special facilities for research purposes. Miles therefore travels as ‘Millie’, a fourteen-year old girl as the pair travel cross-country to Miami to catch a boat to South Africa. The third point-of-view is Billie, Cole’s sister. Awakening in a car crash at start of the novel and badly injured, she burns with hate for Cole, who was seemingly the cause of the crash. Believing Cole tried to murder her, Billie sets off on a vengeance mission to track down her sister and do her justice, and try to get a piece of the profit in the process.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Skill Up's Review of The Last of Us Part 2 and the Art of Video Games

Warning: Spoilers. Do not read unless you've finished the game.

This article is a response to some of the points raised by Skill Up in his review of the The Last of Us Part 2. Unlike a lot of, if not most of the game's reaction and backlash, this article will not be a hit piece or click bait. I hope it is critical but constructive, addressing what was unaddressed or misrepresented.

Unless you were part of the industry's development, most people would have scoffed at the idea that video games are an art form a few decades ago. Given the state of of video games today, however, it's tough to argue. Like books, movies, etc., video games have the power to speak to us through a medium that is fictional yet relative, representative yet stimulating. But where books inspire imagination and movies guide you through an imagined experience, video games add yet another layer of imagination: participation. Players vicariously take on the roles of the characters, directing them within the limitations of agency granted by the game/technology. This experience is dichotomous; one one hand (no pun intended) are the technical mechanics of participation/gameplay (control, vision, action, interaction, etc.), and on the other hand are the elements of narrative (setting, character, dialogue, plot, etc.) In Skill Up's review of The Last of Us Part 2, this dichotomy is heavily, heavily biased to one hand with a lack of underpinning knowledge on the other. It does not do the game full justice.

There are many different types of gamers, and Skill Up is one I've come to categorize as a gamer who loves gameplay—the first hand, in-the-moment experience of interacting with the game's virtual world through the mechanics that allow this. Another way of putting this is, some of his criticisms of TLoU2's gameplay are spot on. Gameplay has been slightly enhanced and improved from Part 1, but the loop overall is very similar, nothing truly innovative coming out the game. Naughty Dog clearly did not want to deviate too far from the success that was Part 1, and yes, there are absolutely other games with better control, response, action, etc. on the market. SkillUp nails this. Trouble is, gameplay isn't the game's prime focus, and by focusing so heavily on gameplay Skill Up failed to capture the value of narrative to the work of art the game is.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Review of Cugel's Saga by Jack Vance

First half of Jack Vance’s Cugel duology, The Eyes of the Overworld (aka Cugel the Clever), is a riot of wit, charm, and the most colorful storytelling that a reader can encounter. Rogue an unintended wayfarer (as we all are, to some degree), his quest to capture the ‘eyes of the overworld’ and return them the Laughing Magician is the joy of fiction in 150 pages. The last pages of that book indicating just how two-edged Cugel’s ‘cleverness’ is, it remains for Cugel’s Saga (1983), second and final book in the duology, to complete Cugel’s tale.

Having accidentally transported himself back to the very same place at which he started his quest for the eyes of the overworld, Cugel’s Saga opens with Cugel standing on said shores, with nothing in his pockets, wondering what to do. Heading in a different direction, he comes upon the manse of a magician, and there finds gameful employment collecting the scales of a dead demon from from a pit of slime, all for pitiful pay. Escaping the miserly magician on his own terms, Cugel once again finds himself alone in the wide world, but with a numinous object in his pocket tat he feels will surely lead him to revenge on Ionuscu, the Laughing Magician.

Review of The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance

There are certain reviews that I don’t feel comfortable writing. In some cases I don’t feel I will do a book justice. And in other cases, the material is so special, so close to my heart, that putting into words a “review” has a chance of deconstructing something that I would like to remain a construct of mysterious quality—or at least that’s how it can sometimes feel. Teetering ahead on this tightropes, I dive into Jack Vance’s The Eyes of the Overworld (or as Vance preferred, Cugel the Clever) (1966).

Figuratively and literally (at least in the text), The Eyes of the Overworld, first of the two Cugel novels, is magic. Ostensibly far-far-far future Earth, the sun is a dying red blob in the sky, occasionally fading out to pop back to life, while below on Earth humans live a quasi-futuristic/Medieval existence. One such existence is Cugel. At the outset, he is a wannabe tradesman at a flea market who quickly succumbs to his baser instincts at the behest of a fellow seller. Coming to regret his decision to steal from the local magician’s manse, Cugel finds himself thrown across the sky into foreign lands with the spells of the Laughing Magician impelling him to find and acquire an object of inestimable value and bring it home. All manner of being resourceful (a useful trait considering he gets himself into trouble as much as he avoids it), Cugel fulfills his mission, sort of. But as with most things, it’s the journey not the destination…

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Review of King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats by James Patrick Kelly

The talking dog. Ordinarily it’s a sign of madness, but in science fiction fully sentient canines have long existed—from Olaf Stapledon’s tragedy of a dog with human-level intelligence in Sirius to Clifford Simak’s cautionary sequence of stories that find dogs becoming “rulers” of the universe in City. Adding a dose of feline in his futuristic vision, James Patrick Kelly’s novella King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats (2020) tells of one decaying but diverse city ripe for revolutionary change, all through the eyes of man’s best friend.

Kelly seeming to have shifted into a more subtle gear as the years go by, the splash of talking cats and dogs proves just the surface of King of the Dogs, Queen of the Cats. About an aristocratic canine named Gio, the dullards of societal stability have started shaking him loose from his deep-rooted life. Involved in love triangles, sneaking around at night, rubbing shoulders with nefarious people, and otherwise not knowing what to do with his life, Gio’s answer comes in the form of a circus brought to town by an extra-terrestrial cat. Revolution in the works, a stable life for Gio and the city around him will be no more…

Console Corner: Review of Guacamelee!

Zap! Pow! Bang! With mariachis—and luchadores!! Guacamelee Super Turbo Championship Edition! by DrinkBox is one of those game that is just fun of the purest variety. It embodies the spirit of video games in every way—the glorious colors, the sense of fun, and all button mashing you can imagine in this highly recommended 2D action platformer.

An ordinary man working in the agave fields, players take on the role of Juan in Guacamelee. But he oh so quickly finds himself in the position of rescuing the beautiful president’s daughter from the evil Calaca, who has emerged just before the Day of the Dead to find a sacrifice. With the assistance of goat man (as well as chicken magic), Juan punches, headbutts, and suplexes his way through our world, into another dimension, and back again to defeat the evil Calaca and rescue the president’s daughter. Not precisely Pulitzer quality writing, but certainly fun.

Review of Demon in White by Christopher Ruocchio

Those reading this review will likely be interested in having one question answered: is Demon in White (2020) as good as the two previous novels in the Sun Eater series? Is it worth the time and money? Answer: yes. Ruocchio continues to build his world with surprises, fill out Hadrian’s character in a mostly 3D way (2.5D?), and keep the reader engaged through big-screen storytelling. Page length, well, it too increases…

If you were hoping to have an additional question answered: how did Hadrian get his head chopped off and survive? You are not the only one. Hadrian also wants to know, and his quest leads him to an answer in Demon in White. But not before two major trials. The second not possible to be described (spoilers), the first can at least be introduced. With the slaying of the Cielcin prince, Hadrian is now a legend among men, and an Emperor’s knight. His first mission as knight sends him into the deeps of space to solve the mystery why imperial ships disappear without explanation in a certain quadrant. Hadrian unravels the mystery, but not before encountering a threat unlike the human world has ever seen, and one that has implications on the entire Empire itself.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Cardboard Corner: Review of The Enchanted Tower

Perhaps someday I’ll wax on about all the wonderful, human aspects of board games. The healthy social interaction, the brain exercise, the fun, the imagination, the tactile experience—waxing! They’re good in many ways, and I would argue most especially for children. Granted, some games offer limited forms of brain exercise: roll the dice, obey the dice, move the piece, roll the dice... Such games may actually be a detriment, in fact. But at the same time, many adult games—adult in the intellectual sense, har har—are too difficult for wee ones. Thus, children’s board games that exercise the mind and are fun for adults are a blessing. Enter The Enchanted Tower.

Using a classic fairy tale motif, The Enchanted Tower sees a hero and a sorcerer racing toward a hidden key, trying to rescue or capture, respectively, a princess locked in a tower. The hero closes their eyes while the sorcerer hides the key in one of the many holes. Players then take turns rolling unique dice to move around the board and find the key. As the sorcerer knows where the key is, the hero is given a head start for searching. The player who finds the key first, however, does not automatically win. There are six keyholes in the tower that players must test to find the one that frees the princess, meaning it’s likely more races—and more suspense—await.