Thursday, April 28, 2022

Review of The Tower of Swallows by Andrzej Sapkowski

Note: This review of The Tower of Swallows (1997), fourth volume in the Witcher series, is going to assume the reader has read the prior three books.

If you’ve read Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher saga this far, it’s likely anything I write will change your mind whether to push forward with the fourth, penultimate volume, Tower of Swallows. Then again, Baptism of Fire was such a weak book that you may think twice.

Fear not—or at least only a little, Tower of Swallows is likely the best book of the saga thus far. If the reader has felt a little sea sick trying to follow Sapkowski’s timeline and plotline, this book starts to braid all the pieces together in tighter fashion. It gives readers recognizable plot handles to hold in relationship to one another.

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Review of Superluminal by Vonda N. McIntyre

Like many sf writers of the 20th century, Vonda McIntyre opted to take a successful novella and extend it. “Aztecs” was published in 1977, and six years later, readers were able to experience the novel treatment, Superluminal (1983). As with all such revisits, the questions are: how does McIntyre extend the narrative, and does it enhance the experience?

The opening of Superluminal is the novella “Aztecs”—which answers the first question; the novel picks up where the novella left off to tell what happens next. A woman, Laenae, comes to consciousness having recently completed surgery which replaced her heart with a mechanical pump. Necessary for long distance space flight, Laenae has sacrificed her body’s core to be one of the rare few who can call themselves “Pilot”. But that is only the first step. Fully understanding the impact of her decision requires a deeper look at relationships and people who have taken similar decisions as herself.

Friday, April 22, 2022

Review of Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski

Note: This review of Baptism of Fire (1996), third volume in the Witcher series, assumes the reader has read the prior two books.

If there is anything Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher series does well, it’s maintain internal consistency. The writing can at times go off on unnecessary tangents, issues with narrative flow pop up, and there isn’t a strong, overarching sense of social setting/place for the reader to relate to, but Sapkowski is at least consistent with these inconsistencies. What then does Baptism of Fire, the bridge book of the series, do to carry forward the Witcher torch?

If anything, Baptism of Fire is the most linear of the Witcher novels—an almost literal bridge from the second to fourth novel. Where the two prior Witcher novels shift in time and place, from this group of characters to that, from this castle to that forest, Baptism of Fire follows Geralt almost entirely throughout. And it’s toward the building of a merry band of men. Like an 80s novel, Geralt and company go from place to place, slowly accumulating a motley crew of elves, dwarves, vampires, and others. There are occasional scenes thrown in here and there to catch up on what is happening in other places in the land (Ciri, the emperor, the magicians, etc.), but by and large the novel is an extended cut-scene of Geralt as team leader.

Console Corner: Review of Railway Empire

I owned a Lionel train set as a child. I set it up and took it down many times, and even built some of my own terrain—bridges, tunnels, crossings, etc. I used to love going to hobby stores and seeing all the possibilities. I owned several magazines and would daydream looking at the immaculate sets people built in their basements. And to this day I think there is still some fascination watching the giant metal machines on rails. Naturally, what better place is there to realize a train dream than video games? Let’s take a look at Railway Empire on PS4.

Railway Empires is, among other things, exactly that: a sandbox to build a railway network to your heart’s content. Bridges, tunnels, freight delivery, express passenger trains, building a business and becoming a millionaire in the process—it’s all there. Much more rural in nature than urban, the game’s environments are broad scale rather than local. Players will be connecting cities rather than stations within cities, and managing many of the big business pieces which complement that—stocks, industry, train maintenance, employees, etc.

Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Review of Engines of Empire by R.S. Ford

I sometimes find myself asking the question: has it all been done? Are there are any truly original stories still being written in the 21st century? Have we seen it all and what’s left is just iterations? Deep in my heart I believe the answers to be ‘yes’. But in order to continue to enjoy the experience of reading, I’ve converted the questions to: how does the author iterate? With R.S. Ford’s novel Engines of Empire the answer to the question is not the same at its outset as it is upon completion.

Engines of Empire is a fast-paced, multi-p.o.v. novel that looks to Game of Thrones for structure and Golden Age sf for content. The story is largely focused on one family (like the Starks) and the dispersion of its members across a kingdom in conflict as tragedy inevitably pulls them apart. But where George R.R. Martin gives the reader reasonably well fleshed out characters, Ford opts for the Edgar Rice Burroughs type of 1D, occasionally 2D, characterization. Plot of prime importance, putting the characters through the paces of capture, kidnapping, conflict, court drama—all the things that generate narrative tension, is priority. For people who like such dynamic, entertainment driven books, the pages will turn fast.

Thursday, April 7, 2022

Review of Machines & Men by Keith Roberts

Few contemporary science fiction readers know the name Keith Roberts. Which is a shame. When the history of the genre is written, his name is worthy of the pantheon. Evolving from H.G. Wells rather than Burroughs or Verne, Roberts always begins with the human element before extrapolating in subtly imaginative fashion a tweak to society, technology, environment, and other areas critical to the human experience. While not exemplary of precisely why Roberts is worthy of the pantheon, Machines & Men (1973), Roberts' debut collection, nevertheless shows where it all began.

Consisting mostly of novelette-length stories, Machines & Men is divided into two halves. You guessed it. Kicking off “Machines” and the collection is “Manipulation”. I have a dislike of tele-anything—telepathy, telekinesis, etc. (except teleology). “Maniulation” has them all. Thankfully, Roberts grounds this story of one man and one particular crush he has in psychological reality. More anti-hero than superhero, Roberts questions the use to which a person would put such abilities—when you know that you know that you know, but can do something about it, which is interesting.

Cardboard Corner: Review of World Without End

It’s interesting how habits in life ebb, flow, and evolve. I played board games as a child, not heavily, but we had a small collection. The hobby abandoned throughout my teens and twenties, it wasn’t until my thirties that (apparently) life slowed down enough to put me back at the table looking for social, fun tactile, and tactical experiences. A local music and book shop had a small collection of board games for sale, and one day we bought Worlds Without End (2009). Entirely the opposite of my current, research-based purchases, it was a lark, a whim. My brain seemingly starved of such experiences, we enjoyed the game for just being a game—no context, no media influence, no hype, just a game on the table. What do I think today?

World Without End is based on the (brick of a) novel by Ken Follet of the same name. A 2-4 player competitive game, it focuses on the years of Europe’s black plague. Heavy on resource and hand management with some worker placement, players try to build the city, but still able to do the following: pay taxes, eat, be filial to the church, and heal illness. Like the stereotype of Medieval existence, it’s a tight, starved experience (that is decided by victory points, natch).

Saturday, April 2, 2022

Review of The Evidence by Christopher Priest

As he's gotten older, Christopher Priest has become increasingly a curmudgeon. Aside from the fiction he publishes, Priest's contact with the public is to either promote said fiction, or to whinge about something related to culture or science fiction. It's not becoming, but damn is the man a great writer. To date, the reader rarely found Priest's discontent overtly present in his fiction. With 2016's novel The Evidence, however, the cracks begin to show. But damn is he a good writer...

In its soul, The Evidence is a crime thriller which uses the devices of the genre to actively construct an engaging conspiracy, all the while actively deconstructing the genre with narrative choices intended to call the whole thing into question. While never breaching meta-fictionality, it's nevertheless clear that Priest finds the whole exercise both cathartic (I'll show these mainstream punks that crime fiction is a child's game) yet engaging (I'll show these mainstream punks how to write a truly clever and surprising spot of crime fiction).

Cardboard Corner: Review of Agricola: Family Edition

I am not a fan of Agricola. I don’t hate it, but there are other engine-building-type games I’d rather play. Seemingly an unending parade of barriers, I feel as though the designer tried to fit reality into a game instead of fitting a game into reality. Rather than having the freedom to build the fastest engine from the start, players spend their time butting their heads against the limitations of their current situation until the next round opens up a little more possibility, then a little more—like ships in the Panama Canal moving from lock to lock with the open sea in view. That being said, Agricola is a phenomenally popular game, and given that the theme is very wholesome, I decided to invest in the Family Version for, ahem, the family.

Agricola: Family Edition is a streamlined version of Agricola. Evident in the fact the box is half the size, the number of options is reduced—not to a minimum, but roughly half of the original. Rules are similarly streamlined, but not to the same effect as options in-game. The beating heart of the Family Version remains worker placement: using meeples to take actions within the limitations of the round in an attempt to grow your farm and family. Players spend their time: building a homestead, having children, raising crops, feeding and harvesting animals, all in an attempt to earn the most victory points. Efficiency and optimization of the player’s farm engine is still key to winning, only that the number of paths to that condition are limited compared to the original.