Saturday, 31 March 2012

Review: Rise of Empire (The Riyria Revelations 2) by Michael J. Sullivan

As in Theft of Swords, this instalment is actually two books, namely Nyphron Rising and Emerald Storm.

It’s hard to go into detail of the plots without huge spoilers for Theft of Swords, so I’ll be a bit hazy on them.

I was unsure about whether to immediately get Rise of Empire or try something else, but decided on getting it based on the gripping sample I downloaded. The characters involved were largely new and what I read (the start of Nyphron Rising) was too enthralling to put off for later.

Significant political upheaval is going on in the world, as the balance between the political factions (royalists, imperialists/the church and the democrats) changes dramatically and sparks off open warfare. Whilst Hadrian and Royce are as engaging as ever, the story does introduce a number of new, significant and interesting characters (Amilia and Merrick Marius). Arista, who has hired the Riyria pair, attempts to bolster Melengar’s position with an alliance, though conspiracy and deceit hinder her efforts somewhat.

The second story continues this theme, which sees Hadrian and Royce sailing across the seas to the east. This allows the author to flesh out some more of the lore and add a whole new slew of interesting sailing characters. Meanwhile, Arista hunts for Degan Gaunt, the captured democratic leader.

Rise of Empire features an increasing sense of danger, both in terms of the world itself and for the individual characters within it, which I like. The additional characters really do add something, and there’s a nice mix of the splendidly noble, the wickedly vile and ordinary people just trying to get by. I did criticise Mr. Sullivan for, in the first story, info-dumping a bit at the start, but in Emerald Storm there’s a much more natural unfolding of the world as Hadrian and Royce travel to lands yet unseen by the reader.

The ending could be a little more climatic, but as the author says in an interview at the end of Theft of Swords he wrote the series not as 6 separate stories but as a single story sliced up into six portions. This also makes sense in terms of how well integrated the plots and characters of the various books are. There are twists and turns and returning characters but they don’t jar or feel out of place or, Heaven forbid, like deus ex machina.

So, I’ll probably be buying Heir of Novron (the third and final part of The Riyria Revelations) shortly.


Friday, 30 March 2012

Review: Philip Matyszak’s Classical Compendium

This is a delightful little book containing a wide array of miscellaneous anecdotes, lists, jokes and historical facts primarily from Ancient Greece and Rome. It’s very much the kind of book that can be read in little bits over a long period of time, or all at once (which is what I did).

There are quite a few wry jokes in, and not just from the author. Sarcastic comments from chaps like Augustus and Vespasian, amongst others, are included, along with many traditional Greek jokes about Elithio Phoitete (who is the Hellenistic equivalent of Tim-nice-but-dim).

There are occasional passages of poetry, as well as bits of graffiti and curses. The book takes a scattergun approach (as must be expected with a book of miscellany) but does better than most to actually make the ancients seem a bit more real. Reading the jokes and curses and strange occupations that no longer exist may make it easier to imagine the people of Rome and Greece millennia ago than the almost superhuman feats of Hannibal, Caesar and Alexander. After all, the epic crossing of the Alps is harder to imagine than Vespasian narrowly avoiding an Elvis-style death on the toilet (although the emperor was older and thinner).

Throughout the book are many attractive illustrations, including some mosaics and similar items from the ancient world. I particularly enjoyed the almost perversely obscure facts (Sterculinius, god of spreading manure, is presumably the modern day patron of party political broadcasts).


Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Mistborn Videogame to be released in Autumn 2013

Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (a trilogy and, I think, a stand-alone fourth book) is pretty popular and the addition of a video game to the brand will only add to that.

For those unaware, Mistborn is set in a world where ash falls constantly and people are utterly divided into nobility and peasants, who are little more than slaves. The ruler of this world has had the job for a thousand years (in the first book of the trilogy, at least) and is reckoned to be immortal and invincible, a god-like creature universally feared.

The game, Mistborn: Birthright, is to be set in the early years of this reign of terror and will be an action RPG. The innovative metal-based magic system will obviously feature heavily (the website,, has the line “Test Your Metal” below an allomantic table).

Perhaps the best news is that Mr. Sanderson himself will be writing the plot and most (maybe all) of the dialogue, so it’ll fit in perfectly with the world he’s created.

It’s in the early stages of development, so there’s not much more in the way of concrete info, and the approximate release date of Autumn next year could be changed, but it sounds like it could be good.


Sunday, 25 March 2012

Review: Blackadder – The Complete Collection (DVD)

Blackadder follows various men of the Blackadder family, all played by Rowan Atkinson, throughout history. There’s always a stupid servant named Baldrick, all played by Tony Robinson, and a number of other major (and sometimes recurring) characters.

The comedy is steeped in sarcasm, as the ambitious Blackadder seeks to thwart his rivals and improve his lot by means fair and foul. In addition to the four TV series the set includes The Cavalier Years (a small stand-alone episode), A Blackadder Christmas Carol (a longer and inverted take on the well-known tale) and Blackadder Back And Forth (a feature length episode in which Blackadder and Baldrick accidentally make a working time machine).

The first series was something of a missed opportunity. It has the excellent Brian Blessed as King Richard IV and Tim McInnerny as the delightfully dim-witted Percy, but Blackadder himself was a bit too meek and snivelling. Having seen a smidgen of the pilot (not available in this or the more recent Blackadder Remastered – The Ultimate Edition) where he was played more arrogantly it’s a shame. The series still has its moments (particularly in the episode where the King clashes with the Church) but is clearly the weak link.

Blackadder II is my favourite. Blackadder becomes the devious bastard he ought to have been from the start, Baldrick becomes stupid (he was strangely clever in the first series) and Miranda Richardson is fantastic as the giggly, girly, psychopathic Queen Elizabeth I.

Blackadder the Third sees our anti-hero relegated to the status of butler for the Prince Regent (Hugh Laurie, unrecognisable to those who’ve seen him only as House). In the first episode Blackadder tussles with Pitt the Younger, and there’s quite a lot of good political and class comedy.

Blackadder Goes Forth is the favourite series of many, (though I prefer II, as I said). It’s set in the trenches of the Great War, with Laurie playing a lieutenant to Atkinson’s captain. Tim McInnerny returns, but instead of a Percy he plays Captain Darling, the desk-bound bureaucratic bootlicker of General Melchitt (Stephen Fry). The ending of the final episode is really quite moving.

It’s a shame the pilot isn’t included, and apparently there’s a joke cut from the Christmas Carol episode [because it’s no longer politically correct]. I loathe revisionism, but, that aside, the boxset is highly enjoyable.

There is a slightly more recent Remastered edition (mentioned above) but I think most of the additional bits are extras such as commentary. At just over £20 it’s good value

It’s a great set, and well worth buying.


Thursday, 22 March 2012

Gaming Icons

I’m young enough (just) to be in the first generation that really played computer games. The change from the likes of Sonic the Hedgehog to Nathan Drake has been pretty damned stark, to say the least. Graphics are enormously improved, games are longer and it’s even possible to customise them with mods if you’re a PC gamer (plus there’s the internet, which was still science fiction a few decades ago). I even remember when games could not be saved. You either completed it in one go or failed and started right at the beginning.

In the early days there was a console war between Sega and Nintendo. Each side had its poster boy; Sega had Sonic and Nintendo had Mario. The console war was won by Nintendo, and the generation after the Megadrive (Genesis, I think, in America) and SNES Sega pretty much disappeared from the hardware scene (although they do still make good games, like Valkyria Chronicles).

Sonic and Mario are still around, but I’m staggered the blue hedgehog hasn’t faded away. Mario seems to be doing a little better, but neither are the heavyweights they were.

There were two Metal Gear games before Metal Gear Solid came out for the Playstation. The game was fantastic (although it’s easy to forgot how brief it was, despite having two discs) and introduced to many one of the best gaming characters of all time: Solid Snake. Gone were the days of hedgehogs that could run quite fast and Italian plumbers. Now we had a gruff, hard-as-nails protagonist, fighting against seemingly impossible odds. Just as importantly, voice-acting had arrived and David Hayter did a fantastic job for Snake. He also benefited from the deliciously evil Liquid Snake, voiced by Cam Clarke.

From there, via two instalments on the PS2 and MGS4 on the PS3 (the last game being drunk on cut-scenes, alas) Snake’s been a major figure.

Another very long-lived (and not yet dead) icon is Lara Croft. First bouncing onto our scenes (on many platforms) in the mid-90s, she was one of few leading ladies and built up a massive fanbase. The mix of gunfights, massacring endangered species, occasionally raiding tombs and gravity defying aesthetics was pretty much unchallenged until quite recently.

Nathan Drake’s a newcomer to the scene, but given how well his first three instalments, all for the PS3, have been received I think it’s fair enough to include him. He’s a bit reminiscent of Indiana Jones, the coolest of all archaeologists, and a male rival to the delightful Lara. In fact, he’s been kicking her arse a bit lately. There’s more, and better, humour than in the Tomb Raider games and, in my opinion, the additional cast in the Uncharted series is much more likeable than the ones in Tomb Raider. There’s a new Tomb Raider, unhelpfully entitled Tomb Raider, due out this year. It’s a reboot, and it’ll be interesting to see if Miss Croft can reclaim her Best Archaeologist In Gaming crown from Mr. Drake.

So, what makes an icon?

Well, they have to capture the Zeitgeist, the spirit of the times. Old school gaming was very much about platforming, hence the success of Sonic and Mario. The MGS games can still work now because Solid Snake’s a likeable, charismatic chap who can kill his foes with ease. He’s fun to play as, particularly when making Otacon wet himself.

Much of that is true of Drake and Croft (sounds like a law firm), but even more important than that is having great gameplay. Climbing all over ancient ruins, with enemy gunfire and treacherous falls all around is great fun.

It’ll be interesting to see if Raiden, occasional sidekick to Solid Snake, can cut it on his own. At the end of the year the horrifically entitled Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance is due to come out, with the girly-haired cyborg as the lead.


Monday, 19 March 2012

Will e-Readers change reading habits?

I got my Kindle sometime last year, mostly because I’m really pushed for space and read quite a lot. E-books enable almost instantaneous delivery, often lower prices and cost nothing in terms of storage space. Against that is the fact that an e-Reader has to be recharged sometimes and there’s a reasonably hefty initial cost.

They also makes self-publishing a lot easier. This opens up avenues of opportunity for new writers, and there are a great many well-received books available for a pound or less.

It’ll be interesting to see whether the e-Reader substantially alters reading, and perhaps writing, habits beyond this.

Personally, I think I buy more books now than I did before. The speed of delivery and the ability to read a sample are real bonuses (although I hope authors start including approximate word counts so the size of a book can be roughly gauged).

I read somewhere or other that there’s a slight fashion towards slightly shorter books now. The smaller amount of text available on each page (as default, it can be varied somewhat) probably leads to books seeming a bit longer than they would if they were in physical format.

I wonder if interactive serials could ever take off. Books used to be released one chapter at a time, I think, and whilst I can’t see that as such working, it might, if, after each chapter, the audience got to make a critical plot decision. The author could then write the next chapter up, and the process occur again. Hmm.

E-books won’t ever fully replace proper physical books, though. For a start, a file is a rubbish present compared to a physical book. It’s also useful for certain types (cookery, art) to have a physical book.


Saturday, 17 March 2012

Review: Theft of Swords: The Riyria Revelations (Riyria Revelations 1) by Michael J. Sullivan

This is actually a pair of stories: The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha.

The Crown Conspiracy introduces the pair of talented mercenaries Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn. They’re an interesting pair. Hadrian’s a skilled swordsman and honourable chap, and Royce is a sneaky fellow of questionable moral values. Despite that, there’s a nice fit to their pairing and some good chemistry.

They take on a job that seems too good to be true, and it is. A king ends up dead, and there are a number of suspicious royals who could be the culprit. The plot explores who’s actually guilty and the reasoning behind the regicide. The author does a good job of fostering that ambiguity, and Hadrian and Royce are a strong double act. However, I think there was a slight lack of pace in the middle part of the book.

Early on there’s a bit of info-dumping regarding lore (history of the world, particularly the fallen empire and the church). I quite like the lore (it’s not hugely original, but unlike most stories with dwarves and elves they aren’t gone or dying or suchlike), which is something of a saving grace. I also like the three political movements (not sure if Mr. Sullivan did this intentionally, but they’re similar to the Polybius model) of democracy, royalty and empire.

It’s a properly old-fashioned story, no grim and gritty swearing or explicit violence/sex. That’s not a black mark, of course, just an observation that it bucks the modern trend for gruesome realism.

I thought The Crown Conspiracy was reasonably good.

Avempartha was much more to my taste. The story was more focused, the action more engaging, the pace felt faster and the characters from The Crown Conspiracy are developed a bit further.

Thrace Wood, a village girl, hires Hadrian and Royce to help save Dahlgren, her village, from a monster. It turns out the beast is a relic of the ancient world, an elf-created being that cannot be harmed by ordinary weapons. Happily, a nearby but inaccessible tower (Avempartha) reputedly holds the weapon that can kill it.

We learn a bit more about elves, the heir to Novron (the demi-god first emperor) and something more of dwarves. The present day political situation is also developed somewhat.

I liked Avempartha quite a lot. I think I’ll get the other Riyria books, though I’m not sure whether I’ll get them straight away or go for something else first.


Thursday, 15 March 2012

Hannibal Vs Julius Caesar

I was going to link to this article in response to Mr. Llama’s comments on the last post, only to discover (to my great surprise) I hadn’t actually written it.

Hannibal Barca and Julius Caesar are two of the outstanding generals of the Ancient World (the other obvious candidate being Alexander the Great). However, it is a bone of contention between myself and the aforementioned Mr. Llama as to which fellow is actually the better (in military terms only). I think it’s Hannibal (I’d rank him approximately equal to Alexander), he thinks it’s Caesar (Scipio Africanus was more impressive, I think).

I’ll compare the two chaps in a number of categories to make my case. These are: Tactical and Strategic Ability, Enemies, Greatest Military Achievements.

Tactical and Strategic Ability

Tactically, there can be no contest. Lake Trasimene was one of the greatest ambushes in history, and Hannibal followed this up with arguably the most impressive battle of all time: Cannae. He also excelled in the difficult strategic challenge posed by Quintus Fabius Maximus and his cunning cunctatory ways. Last but not least, he was also talented at spotting opportunities others did not and doing the unexpected, such as his clever march through the Arnus Marshes or, even more unpredictable, marching through the Alps in winter.

Caesar had a very good battlefield record. However, from memory, I cannot recall him often deviating from the standard three line approach of the Romans. One such example was Pharsalus, where he faced an opponent so predictable Caesar knew to put a fourth line in such a way as to protect his force from the inevitable cavalry charge. Regarding logistics and strategic thinking, Caesar was certainly competent, but there is no battle he won worthy of comparison with Cannae, nor march comparable to the crossing of the Alps.


Hannibal did fight the Celtiberians, but most of what we know of him was his warfare against Rome. Roman soldiers were tremendously well-equipped, not least with a pathological sense of patriotism. The earliest generals he faced were usually mediocre, however, he later faced the intelligent Marcellus, the talented Nero and the highly skilled Scipio Africanus.

Caesar had two great campaigns, against the Gauls and then the Romans Pompey commanded. The Gauls were certainly no pushover, however, they had a limited understanding of tactics and strategy, and Vercingetorix emerged too late to save his people. Pompey’s days of action were behind him, and the soldiers he commanded, whilst patriotic Romans, were inexperienced. Despite this, Caesar was defeated at Dyrrhachium and saved only by Pompey’s timidity. Later, Pompey could have avoided Pharsalus and so won through the style of Quintus Fabius Maximus, instead of which he emulated the magister equitum Marcus Minucius Rufus, allowed himself to be bullied by the senators and launched an attack he didn’t want to and which failed.

Greatest Military Achievements

Hannibal has a plethora of epic accomplishments, a single one of which would make a lesser man famous in its own right. He crossed the Alps in winter, with elephants, marching against hostile tribes. Cannae is perhaps the greatest victory on a battlefield ever seen, Lake Trasimene may claim to be one of the greatest ambushes. Those who say ‘He lost’ miss the point. If I have a machinegun and fight an arthritic granny and win it is far less impressive then if I tie my hands together and almost beat Jet Li in a duel.

Caesar’s victories were more easily acquired, but also had a long-lasting impact. Gaul remained Roman almost until the Western Empire crumbled, and his defeat of Pompey changed Rome from a republic to an empire. These are mighty achievements, but is there a battle he fought to equal Cannae, a march as heroic as the Alpine endeavour of Hannibal? No.

This is why I think Hannibal was the greater of the two men, in military terms. He went up against Rome at its most fanatically patriotic, when it issued army after army against him despite incurring losses that would have crippled any other nation. And yet, he came close to ultimate victory, and even the Romans acknowledged his greatness. Caesar defeated some disunited barbarians, and then narrowly led an army of veterans to victory over inexperienced soldiers led by a man who made a number of critical errors.


Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Altmortis Begins

Unfortunately Bane of Souls is taking rather longer to get released than I’d hoped. It feels like a date where I get back to the girl’s house, she’s waiting in bed and I’ve managed to lock myself in the bathroom.

And so I climb through the bathroom window and find myself getting stuck into her sister, as it were.

Altmortis is the book which follows Bane of Souls. There are some characters that are in both (I won’t say who, as Bane of Souls has a relatively high death toll and I don’t want to mark anyone as safe) and a couple of new faces. It’s set in the Kuhrland, which is a kind of Germanic/Gothic/Viking realm. No kings or lords, and only a few Godi and elders who handle legal and ritual matters.

The theme of the book will be revenge, whether it’s really a good thing to attain and whether lusting for it might cause harm to the vengeful as well as those that wronged the victim to start with. Hopefully it’ll be interesting to write and read about the corruption of a man’s heart as he’s torn between rightful restitution and murderous retribution.

Unlike Bane of Souls, which has tons of magic, there’ll be almost none in Altmortis. This is largely because the Kuhrisch almost never have any talent for it. Because of that and the overarching theme of the book it’ll be a somewhat grimmer and grittier affair. The death toll will be smaller, although that’s largely because of the smaller cast list.

Got quite a bit of good background stuff done which helps, and there are a few scenes of particular violence and fantastical happenings that I’m really looking forward to writing. It’s always a bit weird getting back into the swing of first drafts after redrafting something several times and writing only little scenes and paragraphs, but I’m doing ok so far.

With luck, Bane of Souls won’t be too much longer. The lock on the bathroom door can only take so much hammering.


Sunday, 11 March 2012

Review: Game of Thrones DVD

The wait to get to see this series, based on the excellent book of the same name, seemed endless. I’d read A Game of Thrones some time ago, enough to forget most minor points but not so much that the major plot twists would prove a surprise.

The acting was generally very good, and a particularly pleasant surprise was the numerous child actors who did sterling work. Joffrey was as repellent as he ought to be, Arya was a very likeable tomboy, and Sansa was na├»ve and full of herself. Naturally, Sean Bean gave a bloody good performance as Ned Stark, (almost the only honest man in King’s Landing). Peter Dinklage played Tyrion Lannister, and was also thoroughly excellent.

There was more sex than expected, and a reasonable amount of fairly graphic violence. It wasn’t overdone but it’s clearly not family viewing or for the particularly squeamish.

The plot is very close to the book and the differences are largely there for reasons of practicality (there’s a normal carriage rather than a massive one for Cersei) or clarity (the Others are referred to as White Walkers throughout). They’ve had to slightly tone down one or two things (I forget how old Daenerys is in the book, but I think she’s a bit older in the TV series) but not much.

There are a range of extras, including commentary on many episodes (from cast and crew), background on Westeros and character profiles. The first commentary is by a pair of producers, and was actually pretty interesting (well, I thought so). So far I’ve only listened to that and the second commentary, with a trio of actors (Headey, Addy and Coster-Waldau), which was also enjoyable.

I think the TV series does the book justice, and A Game of Thrones is one of the best books I’ve ever read. There’s a second series due to begin on TV soon, and I hope it’s as good as the first (and that the DVD gets released a bit sooner this time).


Friday, 9 March 2012

The Robotic Cheetah

Military robots have long been desirable. They won’t ask for wages, won’t have qualms about doing unpleasant but necessary tasks and won’t even complain. It would also be nice if patriotic citizens didn’t get killed, and instead hardware got forcibly decommissioned.

Some time ago the dog (which is more of a mule, as it’s intended for weight-bearing primarily) was unveiled. It’s not, I think, finished, but it’s clearly pretty advanced. The robotic beast of burden has phenomenal balance, a steady pace and the ability to walk on pretty much any terrain.

Now the clever chaps at Boston Dynamics have created a robotic cheetah, which has recently broken the speed record for robots (now 18mph, having previously been 13mph).

Technological progress and non-human combatants have always been critical in warfare. Whether exceptional cases (Hannibal’s use of snakes in naval warfare or Wojtek, the Polish bear who fought in WWII) or more common ones (elephants, horses, camels) they can add a tactical or strategic advantage.

I think robotics could play a great role in logistics and intelligence (it’s not hard to imagine even more advanced surveillance robots as well as the dog or cheetah above), but I’m doubtful as to whether armed robots would be wise. They’d need to be able to differentiate between enemies and allies and I don’t know whether that will ever be possible, given the wide variety of context. If a robotic mule breaks then gear has to be carried by something else, but if a robotic velociraptor broke down it could pose a serious risk to civilians or its own side.


Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Review: A/The* Stainless Steel Rat Is Born, by Harry Harrison

This is a sci-fi book, set in a futuristic universe and written a couple of decades ago. The protagonist is Jimmy diGriz, a highly intelligent and resourceful but also tremendously bored chap who attempts to make his life worth living by becoming a criminal genius.

He’s not vicious or nasty, just sly, and uses violence only when necessary (and not to kill). The world he lives in is Bit O’Heaven, and has all the charm and joie de vivre of a 9-5 office cubicle.

He ends up in prison, where he hopes to learn more about the more skilful elements of criminality. However, he soon discovers everyone else in prison is a moron or incredibly violent, and sets out to find a mentor.

The book’s pretty light-hearted, and does a good job of making the small cast (diGriz is ever present) realistic and, in a few cases, very likeable. The writing style is such that it’s easy to race through the book (as I did), and there are numerous twists and cliff-hangers throughout which help keep the reader on their toes.

There isn’t really an antagonist, beyond The Man/The Establishment, although there are a few vile individuals dotted here and there. I think a slightly stronger sense of direction, perhaps through a primary antagonist, would have helped somewhat. That’s not to say the plot isn’t fast-moving, eventful and exciting, just that there’s a slight lack of focus.

I liked the minor use of Esperanto. I didn’t recognise it at first, but was aware of its existence (Esperanto was an effort to create an artificial language that would be intuitive and easy to learn for almost everyone. The reason it never caught on was because English had already become the dominant global language, and nobody spoke it as a native).

Mr. Harrison blends the generally light-hearted nature of the book with the grimmer moments very well, and I’ll be buying more of the books in the series.

*On the title: it’s listed as ‘A’ on Amazon, but the cover says ‘The’.


Monday, 5 March 2012

Pondering Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning

I’m still playing Skyrim, but recently another RPG has caught my eye. Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning seems to be similar to it in a number of ways. It’s a fantasy RPG, (although it seems more standard fare than the Nordic flavour of Skyrim), you can do things like alchemy and smithing, and there are a series of skills split into the old warrior-mage-rogue archetypes.

The graphics are a bit more stylised (or unrealistic, as you prefer), and I’d be surprised if there’s quite the same scale as in Skyrim. Character creation is restricted to four races (two elven, two human) and there seems to be a more limited scope for customising faces.

However, there is also an intriguing approach to classes. Whilst there are the three main archetypes, you can also blend them, to make a rogue-mage, for example, that has specific rogue-mage abilities/bonuses. You can do this by mixing two archetypes or all three.

There’s also a wider range of weaponry than in Skyrim and a bigger range of monsters. There seems to be some lacklustre views regarding the voice acting (which is a shame as I love good acting) but the combat may be better than average.

Oblivion had a bloody awful levelling system which could easily make players weaker as they levelled up. Skyrim’s fixed that, but Kingdoms of Amalur appears to have gone one better, and separated combat skills from non-combat abilities. This means you can’t bugger up levelling and become a skilled alchemist whilst neglecting all combat-related abilities, as is possible in Skyrim.

Reviews of the game seem somewhat polarised, with a few reckoning it to be better than the latest Elder Scrolls instalment but quite a few feeling it gets repetitive and that there’s not much beyond the action. Unfortunately, the only way to find out is to buy.

Mind you, I was unsure of buying Valkyria Chronicles, and that turned out to be strangely delightful.


Saturday, 3 March 2012

Review: The Master of Izindi by Dave Wallace

Well, the recent hiatus wasn’t from me working too hard, but the computer breaking. However, during the downtime I finished off a new book, namely The Master of Izindi, by Dave Wallace.

Quite unusual, this book. Although written recently, it follows a much more old-fashioned (properly old-fashioned) style, more akin to Journey to the West than Best Served Cold.

The plot follows the street rat Zafir, who witnesses a murder and has to flee to a monastic sanctuary which, in time-honoured fashion, teaches him to be hard as nails. After this he works to strengthen the Empire so that it can resist the nefarious plotting of those who would seek to conquer it, battling numerous enemies and hatching a cunning plan to safeguard his home from invasion.

The world is not the standard European medieval(ish) fantasy setting, but more like the Middle East a thousand years ago (there’s an Emir and Caliph rather than Earl and Emperor). Magic abounds, as do magical creatures drawn from Eastern traditions and the odd god or two.

Although it’s a thousand miles from my typical fantasy fare (gritty, realistic and with almost half the cast ending up dead on average) I really rather liked it. The refreshingly different world has a similar air about it to Journey to the West and the writing style is easy to read.

The book adopts a more straightforward approach to morality than is currently the norm, but doesn’t stray into the exuberantly unconcerned bloodletting of Li Kui or Sagacious Lu [both of whom are tremendously violent chaps from Outlaws of the Marsh].

I particularly enjoyed the companion that Zafir acquires in the latter half of the book.

A potential pitfall isn’t with the book itself but with the fact that it is a break from the current fashion for morally grey stories with buckets of realism. It’s an unashamed adventure story, and an enjoyable one, but if someone were after the next Best Served Cold, this might not be for them. However, if they were willing to try a new take on an ancient style written in a modern way, The Master of Izindi is well worth a look.