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 decades ago, most people would have scoffed at the idea that video games are an art form. 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, and 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; on 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: the details surrounding punching, kicking, shooting, attacking, etc. are of utmost importance.  And yet 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 see what the game's focus actually 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 fun of the purest variety. It embodies the spirit of video games in every way—the sprites, 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, a demon 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.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Review of Out of Body by Jeffrey Ford

Jeffrey Ford is quietly one of the tip-top best fantastika writers of the 21st century. The originality of imagination, the sense of ebb and flow of story, and the understanding of what makes a story truly a story, I buy read his books sight unseen. And this is despite Ford’s work with Seeming to have a contract with the publisher to deliver a novella every year or two, these stories tend much closer toward genre mediocrity (aka “broader appeal”). But he is Jeffrey Ford, and thus I read 2020’s Out of Body.

As hinted in the title, Out of Body is about out-of-body experiences, particularly one had by a small town librarian who begins to experience the phenomenon after being first-hand witness to a tragedy. His experiences arising at night after falling asleep, he goes out into the night world, there to learn who and what else is “alive” there. More than he ever expected, his out of body experiences lead him into the middle of a situation he would have far rather slept on.

Console Corner: Review of Ghost of Tsushima

Shorter Review: If there were a hippy community of Witcher 3, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Assassin’s Creed, and God of War that had an orgy one night, Ghost of Tsushima would be the samurai love-child—true parentage a mix of blood.

Longer Review: Over the years, and undoubtedly over the years to come, there have been and will be video games trying to capture some essence of ‘samurai’. From Ninja Gaiden to Shadow Tactics: Blades of the Shogun, the world has a fascination with these Japanese knights, their code of honor, and the deadly katana combat they are famous for. And there has been, and will likely be controversy over how well or poorly these games capture that essence. With Sucker Punch’s 2020 Ghost of Tsushima, however, it’s difficult to see where any controversy might arise (save the ‘cultural appropriation’ crowd, natch).

Seeming to take all the lessons learned from this generation’s action-rpgs and blending them into a synergistic vision of single-player campaign glory, Ghost of Tsushima pushes all the right samurai buttons (har har). Fluid combat, engaging world-building, a story of honor and glory, evolving upgrade paths, blessedly short loading times, a staggeringly beautiful setting—finding holes in the game is very difficult. All the good parts of other games borrowed and implemented in a historically realistic setting, Ghost of Tsushima may be the last great game of the current generation of consoles.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Review of Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell

David Mitchell occupies one of a few hallowed spots on my virtual shelf of: buy sight unseen. Even if he were to take on the most tried and true plot ever contrived, I believe his wordsmithing would overcome any inherent triviality, producing an engaging novel in the process; reading a Mitchell story is like being scrubbed in the waters of dynamic diction and gregarious character. The man’s writing defines ‘verve’. Utopia Avenue (2020) was bought review unread. It’s time to see if his spot on the shelf is still deserved.

Utopia Avenue is yet another departure for David Mitchell. Each of his prior novels scattered across the dartboard of setting and theme, Utopia Avenue finds itself in the counter-culture revolution of 1960s England. What we’ve come to call classic rock starting to take center stage, the book tells of a fictional band—a drummer, bassist, guitarist, and organist—who come together under the numinous auspices of Canadian manager Leon—to make it big. This arc of story, from poverty to success and beyond is everything a reader would expect from such a story. But it is likewise more.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Cardboard Corner: Review of Arkham Horror: The Card Game

For those in the know, they know this blog is no friend to H.P. Lovecraft. While not openly hostile, there is much indirectly to be said by the lack of Cthulu content among the thousands of reviews of science fiction and fantasy—Lovecraft’s wheelhouse—on this blog. The primary reason is style: the man’s diction is overwrought, and as a result, a grind. The second is substance; of what little I’ve read, most was “common horror”, i.e. dark, arcane things happen to ordinary people.  This doesn't massage my f-spot (fiction spot).  I recognize there are philosophical elements to Lovecraft’s fiction worth digging deeper into (“the unknowable of the great beyond” <queue scary ghost noises>), it’s only that the manner in which these ideas are packaged is a turn off.* But like entering a real house of horrors (versus reading a short story about one), it’s the degree of interaction which has the biggest impact on the Lovecraft experience. Jump scare: Fantasy Flight Game’s Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

A combination of Choose Your Own Adventure and tactical card-playing, Arkham Horror: The Card Game is a game that sees one to two players (up to four if you buy an additional copy) working their way through scenarios, searching for clues, accomplishing objectives, and trying to stay alive fighting monsters. The scenarios strung together to form an overarching campaign, players steadily add powers and abilities to their investigators as they move forward, facing bigger and more evil challenges while solving the larger mystery. RPG-ish, there is a chance players take on permanent trauma and injuries as a consequence of various decisions and story inflection points, making for a tense, seat-of-your-pants adventure through the layers of story. It turns out Lovecraft in the driver’s seat is a different experience than laying on the sofa with a glass of wine.

Cardboard Corner

It’s happened. I’ve been pushed over the edge. To blame? Arkham Horror: The Card Game.

As you, my loyal thimbleful of readers have noticed the past few years, the blog has branched out into video games. While some may balk at an interactive, digital medium invading the space of what was primarily a blog reviewing the analog, for me it represented two things: a natural evolution reflecting my life (i.e. a person can only review a hundred or so books per year without looking for something else invigorating), but also a chance to write about another form of narrative that, while most often simpler in form compared to fiction, offers a participatory experience that books simply can’t. (It’s no surprise that the games I prefer are largely those which utilize a player’s agency in a story for thematic purposes.)  And besides, since the beginning of the blog I’ve posted randomly my family’s various world travels (what some might argue is also a form of story—ha!). <drumroll> As of today, there is another contemporary form of narrative that has pushed for a place on this blog.

I’ve always played board games. But as a child,  I never had a collection, a handful at best, and most of the games were common for the era—Monopoly, chess, Life, checkers, Jenga, Boggle, Mouse Trap, Sorry, Scrabble, etc. But I also had a couple of games that sparked a little extra enjoyment, games that brought to the table something a little less ordinary, namely Fireball Island and Scotland Yard. In Life and Monopoly, the “narratives” are dictated by wheel spins and die rolls. The number of outcomes to Life can’t hold a candle to the seemingly infinite paths the title—reality—holds for us. But in Fireball Island and Scotland Yard, a different “story” plays out on the board with each game. “Remember when your detective was standing here? I was just one space away, and I thought for sure you were going to catch me!” you might say after the game. Or, “If you hadn’t played that Fireball card here, she wouldn’t have been able to steal the jewel. That’s what allowed me to sneak up behind her and get to the docks ahead of you!

Friday, October 9, 2020

Top Ten Jack Vance of All Time

I achieved a bittersweet day in my life a month or so ago: I read my last "new" Jack Vance book. While I immensely look forward to re-reading many of them, unless some secret stash of manuscripts are discovered by the Vance estate, I will never again read a Vance story virgin to my eyes. Reflecting on this reality, I thought it a good time to look back at the cream of the crop. Forgive me as I will play fast and loose—sometimes individual stories, sometimes novels, and sometimes series, but I believe I've compiled the best ten works Vance produced.

Before I get into the list, a few honorable mentions. I love the Durdane series. It's perhaps the closest Vance came to writing a serial, 1920's pulp sf adventure, but in his vivid style. Spanning multiple planets and featuring space ship fights, blasters, aliens, etc., it's fast-paced fun that really keeps the pages turning. I have a soft spot in my heart for the duology Lurulu/Ports of Call. Written when Vance was in his eighties and nineties (his last published fiction, in fact), the books have less action than a lot of his other works but star a young man who longs to see the universe, and eventually does in a series of fun yet relatable planets and cultures. Paralleling Vance's own life traveling as a newlywed, father, and writer, I can't help but see Vance in the duology, reflecting back in old age with a glint in his eye, proud to have seen the world we live on and express that experience as only he can in sf adventure. And finally Wyst: Alastor 1716. The best of the three Alastor novels, in Wyst Vance takes the piss out of Bohemian socialism, interestingly through the experience of an off-world artist. Vance's sharp eye to human nature the guiding light, indeed, the communist collective has some dark spots to address but under Vance's hand are addressed in a humorous, almost satirical way. And there are more books I greatly enjoy, Emphyrio, Maske: Thaery, The Dying Earth, and others; Vance would not be Vance if he didn't have a lengthy list of highly readable fiction.  But on to the top 10.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Review of The Lesser Devil by Christopher Ruocchio

I have described Christopher Ruocchio’s Sun Eater series to date to be a hybrid of Ursula Le Guin and George Lucas. Space empires, laser fights, and evil aliens—there is plenty of action, but action tempered by a deeper sensitivity to language, culture, and Otherness that makes the series a little more than the latest space opera flash in the pan. (High brow literature, no, but certainly more than the average offering on the oversaturated market today.) With the short novel (novella?) The Lesser Devil (2020), Ruocchio sets a tangential course of story from the main novel arc, expanding the world he’s built and the characters in them in similar fashion.

The Lesser Devil returns the reader to the setting of Empire of Silence, the place where Hadrian Marlowe was born, raised, and ultimately escaped. Set fifty-odd years after said escape, the story tells of Hadrian’s brother Crispin and a mission his father sends him on to a remote place on their planet. To say more of what transpires in the mission would spoil the story (matter go sideways very quick). Suffice to say, the authoritarian actions of Hadrian and Crispin’s father has not been to everyone in his empire’s liking, an overdue case of revenge on the books.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

Review of The Dying Earth by Jack Vance

Before I knew anything about anything (some would argue that is still the case), I read that Jack Vance was a hidden gem of yesteryear science fiction and fantasy. Seeking out his best, all fingers pointed to Tales of the Dying Earth—what I thought was a loooong novel, but turned out to be a collection of short stories and novels. I was blown away. I literally had never encountered a voice that inspired such delight, humor, and pure enjoyment of story and writing. I have since gone on to read what I think is everything in Vance's oeuvre, and having done that, what better than start back at where it started, all over again.

My joy in Tales of the Dying Earth was not a hit off the bat, however. I struggled with the opening stories—the stories taken from Vance's collection The Dying Earth. While highly readable, they didn't have that singular, unique voice that I would discover in the Cugel novels, and in essence define what Vance is as a writer to me. Dare I say it (will Vance's fans kill me?), the Dying Earth stories hovered somewhere just above normal, average. But will they feel that way the second time round—ten years and hundreds upon hundreds of science fiction and fantasy stories from all points later?