Monday, 21 May 2018

Dragon Age Delinquisition part 4: Haven does not live up to its name


Sealing the Breach was surprisingly easy, due to the number of pet mages I own. Haven partied and everyone toasted my name. It was great. For about six minutes. And then we were attacked.

A dimwit called Cole turned up, claiming he was here to warn me. Nice work, numbnuts, but next time try warning me before I’m being attacked rather than during.

It was the templars, all sporting knobbly growths in an unfashionable shade of red (Red Knob Disease, as one wag called it). The lyrium-lickers soon paid the price for being dumb enough to attack me. One well-aimed trebuchet, courtesy of yours truly, flung its boulder high up on the mountain slopes, causing an avalanche. Enjoy your snow sandwich, halfwits!

It was at this point a dragon showed up. Bravely, I ran away.

Just before reaching the chantry I saved Threnn (quartermaster). The ungrateful bitch told me: “I didn’t expect this from you.” That’ll teach me to help a shem.

As every human in the chantry was too busy shivering with fright and wetting themselves, I went out to launch the last trebuchet boulder and bury Haven. At the siege engine I encountered Corypheus, aka The Elder One. Even by human standards he’s ugly. And so’s his dragon.

But it takes more than a Tevinter and a glorified iguana to get the better of me.

Whilst Corypheus was wasting time with exposition rather than actually trying to kill me, I unleashed the trebuchet to bury Haven, heroically escaping into some underground tunnels.

Eventually, I caught up with the others. (After a little bickering) they were so relieved to see me they sang a hymn and knelt before me. Solas added a few notches to his dodginess by revealing he knew of an abandoned castle nearby. Handy. And bloody suspicious. Anyway, I hardly had a choice. Upon arrival, the others formally asked me to be their leader. Cute that they thought anyone else could do it.

Friday, 11 May 2018

Review: The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain, by Ian Mortimer


This is the third Time Traveller’s Guide that Ian Mortimer has written, the previous two being of Medieval and then Elizabethan England. They’re completely self-contained, but I thought it worth mentioning in case anyone reading this preferred to get them in chronological order.

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain is a sort of everyday history, relating the habits of people high and low through the latter half the 17th century, when the monarchy was restored after the censorious puritanism of Cromwell’s reign. Innovations and advancement are everywhere, as Newton, Purcell, and Wren set to work furthering the boundaries of science, music, and architecture (the latter ‘aided’ by the Great Fire of London in 1666).

It is in this period that superstition really buckles beneath the weight of science, or starts to, at least. Speech becomes freer as newspapers spring up and a short-lived attempt at regulation ends, enabling a free press (which has continued to this day). Literacy rises, transport is improved with flying coaches and the impressively swift postal service. The plague sees its last occurrence on British shores, doctors soar in number, and women begin to break into art, acting, and other fields.

But it also sees terrible fires, the coldest winter ever, political turmoil when James II is deposed, the ongoing battle between puritans and those who preferred a freer society and many attitudes we would consider horrendous today (a love of cockfighting, religious segregation, kidnapping people for enforced servitude on ships/in colonies etc).

Ian Mortimer tells of life from the very richest to the very poorest, what people ate, how they lived, what work they did, and how the country changed so dramatically from the austere reign of Cromwell to the flamboyant Charles II (and his successors). It’s engaging and places you in the boots of the 17th people he describes.

This did throw up an interesting question. Until quite recently I didn’t give books specific ratings (on a personal level, I dislike them because a small problem for one reader is a deal-breaker for another, but do appreciate that others find such things useful). How to define a five star book? Something nigh on perfect? Something that’s 81% or better?

Regardless, I believe this excellent book, full of interesting snippets of information and insightful commentary, to be a five star book.

Thaddeus

Monday, 7 May 2018

Dragon Age: Delinquisition part 3: New Minions, and picking between Templars and Mages


Leliana mentioned the Grey Wardens have gone missing. Turns out they’re some anti-darkspawn cultists. Anyway, she’d heard of one in the Hinterlands, called Blackwall. Weirdly, he had no idea his chums have gone missing, and no idea why. Being as much use as pineapple on pizza, I was set to leave but, even more oddly, he offered to join up. I was going to tell him to sod off, but he explained Wardens have treaties compelling others to help them, and that’s too good to miss.

In Orlais, I recruited Sera and Vivienne, although I suspect that might’ve been a mistake. Sera’s a low level criminal, a tame elf used to human ways, such as atrocious hair. Vivles is a pro-chantry, pro-circle orthodox creature, so brainwashed she actually loves the chains the shem put on mages. But she does have connections with Orlesian nobility. I let let her join, but I’m going to have to keep an eye on her.

On the Storm Coast, I hired the Bull’s Chargers. They’re a mercenary group led by a one-eyed Qunari with the neck of a bull and a pebble for a brain. The fool goes into battle topless, wearing ridiculous baggy trousers. And I thought Orlesians had daft ideas about fashion. With an attitude like that to armour, no wonder he lost an eye. Could be a useful meatshield, though.

The Inquisition is pretty strong now. I have spies and connections from the Qunari to the Orlesian court. Decision time has arrived. Do I approach the rebel mages or the templars for help destroying the Breach (as the hole in the sky has become known)?

Lord Seeker Lucius seemed about as friendly as a scorpion’s handshake, so I decided to visit Redcliffe village to hear out Grand Enchanter Fiona. Bizarrely, the bridge between the village and castle has broken and nobody mended it. I didn’t see a pulley system or suchlike set up to get food to the castle either. Bloody weird. I knew humans were stupid, but that’s some elite level idiocy.

I was getting myself some booze in the pub when I bumped into Fiona. She claimed to have no knowledge of inviting me. Either she’s a liar or someone else tricked me. Even worse, the damned fool mages have signed themselves into indentured servitude to Alexius, a Tevinter magister. And the local lord has run off. The whole thing stinks.


Halfway through negotiating with Alexius (who has the wardrobe of a drunken jester), we were interrupted by his son Felix feigning illness to give me a note. It asked me to visit the chantry, claiming I was in danger. Naturally, I went along. After a little light demon-slaying, ’twas time for a chat with Felix and Dorian, Alexius’ former protégé. Turns out the jester is in a cult called the Venatori, and they’re obsessed with me. So obsessed, in fact, they used wildly unstable time magic to get here and secure the mages’ allegiance ahead of me.

I already have a hole in the sky to fix. I could do without the unravelling of time as well.

Attack is the best form of defence, and confronting Alexius went very well, up until the point he hurled me and Dorian through time. We learnt from Fiona, who was busy turning into a lump of red lyrium, that two years had passed and ‘the Elder One’ (Alexius’ master) had conquered the world. Dorian responded by saying he could send us back if we find the amulet of Alexius. We shall see if he lives up to his moustache.

Leliana was still alive, although looking pretty rough. Humans age even worse than I thought. In the end, it was a simple matter of killing Alexius and using the amulet to return to the present, where he surrendered pretty tamely.


Chose to make the mages my allies. It’ll guarantee their loyalty and stop them returning to the chantry. Anyway, all that’s left is to close the Breach and I can relax for a moment.

Friday, 4 May 2018

An Interview with Terry Mancour

Pleased to say that today I’ve been joined by Terry Mancour, author of the Spellmonger series (10 parts currently and still going strong). There are some spoilers in the interview below.

What's the premise of Necromancer, the tenth and most recent instalment in the Spellmonger series?

Necromancer is a climactic book, in a couple of different ways. First, it’s the tenth book in the series, and hitting double digits deserves some celebration, plot-wise. There are elements that I brought up in Spellmonger, Book 1, that I didn’t revisit until Book 10. Secondly, it’s also the conclusion of a trilogy (quadrology?), of sorts. Books 8 (Court Wizard) and 9 (Shadowmage) take place partially concurrent with Book 7, Enchanter, but from different character perspectives. In Necromancer I had to unite those three disparate character and plot perspectives and put Minalan back into the picture, character-wise. All of those deeply personal questions that arose at the end of Enchanter had to be answered.

Plot-wise, Minalan the Spellmonger is in rough shape . . . but he has hope. It involves an impossible quest and a tricky set of moves in which he manipulates everyone he needs to, from his own vassals to the very gods, to get what he wants. Thematically, it’s a quasi-Orphic quest in which he goes into both a figurative and a literal Land of the Dead in order to bring his wife, Alya, back from a persistent vegetative state. It’s a fight between Min’s ego and intellect and the dark forces around him – not all of which are readily apparent. He emerges from a dark place, by the end of the book, but only at great cost.

The early books focused very much on the goblin threat, but more recently it’s on the backburner. Can you tell us whether the Dead God and his goblin hordes will be coming back soon, or even at all?

The role of the gurvani (goblins) has changed, since Spellmonger, but they are still very important to the over-all plot, as is their fossilized Dark Lord. As truths about Callidore’s past get revealed, Sheruel’s simple desire for genocide will seem quaint and wholesome compared to Korbal – or, at least, the reader might feel a little more sympathetic to the gurvani. They have been kicked around by a lot of different peoples over the years, and they feel sidelined by the Nemovorti. They were finally on top, with an undead Dark Lord of their very own, and now this! They very aren’t happy about it. We will see Sheruel again, and the rise of the Goblin King as rebels against Korbal’s betrayal. Gurkarl will decidedly play a role, because yes, I enjoy drawing out plotlines that far for the pure hedonistic joy of it.


There are many parts already in the series, and many planned ahead. How much detail have you charted out the course of future books, or do you make a vague outline for each planned instalment and only develop it when you arrive at that book?

In some cases, quite a bit. I know how it ends, more or less. I know what has to happen for the end to happen. I know the cool scenes I want to write. But there is much undiscovered country along the way, and part of the joy for me, as the writer, is having unexpected stuff fall out of my brain and onto the page. I know we can expect to see some familiar fantasy tropes tackled in a slightly new or different way.

Min will go on the road, during his exile, and there will be a lot of adventures before the end. But I’ve learned not to over-plot my books before I’ve started them. That’s boring for the reader and for me. And its too much work. It’s easier to hitch my subconscious to the plow of my keyboard, or somesuch other analogy, and let it do the heavy work. That opens my writing up to spontaneous inclusions of interesting bits of stuff I pick up in my research.


Writing a series offers both writer and readers the ease of a consistent world and characters, as well as enabling for more character depth and development than a single volume, but keeping consistency without making things repetitive or ‘samey’ can be tricky. What’s the greatest challenge you’ve found writing a series which is now up to part 10?

Thankfully, while the piano only has 88 keys they still keep getting new songs out of it. Fantasy is much the same. Both J. R. R. Tolkien and George R. R. Martin use the medieval European fantasy setting, dragons, swords, magic, etc., but they are two entirely different stories. Hopefully, Terry R. R. Mancour will be able keep playing across those tropes in an entertaining way.

The episodic format of series fantasy fiction is helpful. But it’s also important for the writer to not abuse that. I make a point that each of my novels is a complete novel, in itself, not merely a section of a larger work. That means they need a beginning, a middle, an end, a plot, character development, and the rest.

Part of that can rest on the natural progression of events and character development. If you do it right, and understand human nature sufficiently, then figuring out how your character is going to change and develop in response to the course of events isn’t as hard as most writers seem to make it. In Enchanter, Minalan underwent stages of psychological response to a major personal trauma. That’s a pretty clear course of development to follow, and it gave the story greater depth without a lot of psychobabble. Or not much.

Part of that has to be supplied by the author applying a different approach or perspective on the same old medieval fantasy tropes. I find I take a lot of inspiration from significant events of the Middle Ages. Journeymage, for instance, was inspired by the Children’s Crusade.

Thankfully, the Middle Ages had a lot of fascinating stories that Fantasy literature has endlessly reinterpreted. While knight vs. dragon, elf vs. dwarf, etc. has had a lot of play, there are plenty of great tropes I haven’t used yet. In the future, expect some stories and plots revolving around the plague, voyages of exploration, peasant’s revolts, pirates, a succession crisis, and perhaps even the Inquisition. I’ll also be doing some more-familiar Fantasy tropes, such as the Dragon’s Lair, the Secret Cult, the Lost Civilization, the Ancient Evil, etc. Any of these is enough to hang an entire novel on, if you do it right. Mixing and matching them in the Spellmonger universe is a joy, and I have a long way to go before I start running short of material.


The series is focused entirely on Minalan to start with, but more recent instalments have seen other perspectives become increasingly important. Was this always planned, or did you feel that either telling the story or offering a new point of view was necessary to keep things fresh?

At a certain point, I think you have to vary the perspective in order to keep the reader’s attention. Consider that an awful lot more happened in the Civil War than what Rhett Butler saw and experienced. Offering those different perspectives allows you to give true depth to your world-building. It also allows the author to inject differences of perspective that can be jarring.

A case in point is how I handled the character of Dara in Necromancer. Dara has been the lead in the Young Adult/Cadet spin-off series I’ve done chronicling the events of the Spellmonger Series from her perspective. An adolescent girl and a middle-aged man see things very differently, and their perceptions of each other are as flawed and biased as anyone’s. I caught some flak from fans about how Dara, after being a strong and resilient character in one series, seems to be a whiny and self-absorbed girl in the main series.

Here’s the thing: to Minalan’s perspective, she is a whiny and self-absorbed girl. But Min’s perspective is informed by only a few brief scenes, not the introspection that Dara is undertaking as she moves from childhood to adulthood. To her, Min is a wise and powerful wizard who always knows what to do, not a self-doubting and sometimes self-loathing mage who frequently feels he’s in waaaay over his head. Which perspective is the “true” one? Neither. Each is just as valid, and by shifting viewpoints and characters to review the same events I hope to build up a tension that eventually erupts into conflict between the two.

A similar thing occurred with Pentandra. Responding in part to the popular ideas that a) there were no good female leading characters in Fantasy (which I dispute) and b) that men could not write good or convincing female characters, I wrote Court Wizard from Pentandra’s perspective. Within the novel she sees quite a bit of Callidore’s society that Minalan doesn’t, thanks to both her class and her gender. More, I had to change not only the nominal gender of the main character, but had to work to understand her perspective myself. Regardless of the politics of the moment, men and women generally tend to approach the same situations from slightly different directions. While there are notable exceptions, writing a female lead convincingly had to encompass some of these basic differences or Pentandra would have just sounded like Min in drag. No one wants that.

The further excursions into perspective, specifically Book 4, Knights Magi, and its more-or-less sequel Book 9, Shadowmage, explore the relationship with Tyndal and Rondal, Min’s senior apprentices. They’re undergoing an entirely different journey than Dara. They have different motivations and seek different risks and rewards. And they all see Callidore differently.

It’s not just a matter of keeping things fresh. Changing characters and perspective can serve the greater story when the reader knows things that the main character doesn’t. In fact, keeping track of who knows what, when, and how that advances the plot is something I spend a lot of time on.


Your books are selling nicely and well-reviewed, but do you ever want a break from the Spellmonger world? Are you working on anything else/have other plans, or are you just enjoying writing the series?

I’m so glad you asked! I am absolutely devoted to the Spellmonger series – it’s like a rich mug of ale.  But I have two sci-fi series underway, at the moment.

The first is my Tanith series, a continuation of H. Beam Piper’s classic space opera novel, Space Viking. After the original author tragically committed suicide with no heirs, his work became public domain. I’ve written two short sequels to the original already, Prince of Tanith and Princess Valerie’s War, and I’m working on a capstone finale to the work now, called Trask’s Odyssey.

And I will be totally honest: one reason it’s taking so long to produce the final book is that I’m enjoying it too much. If Spellmonger is like a rich mug of ale, then the Tanith Series is like a dirty double martini with three olives.

Secondly, I have a second sci-fi trilogy I’ve begun publishing. I won’t get into the background of the work here, but it’s an original time-travel piece that’s also (wait for it) openly pornographic. Sexually explicit. With all the best dirty words. It’s called the Casanova’s Butterfly trilogy, and the first book, Bad Penny, was released last summer to generally good reviews. I’ll be releasing the other two parts this summer and next, respectively. It’s already written, I just want to space it out because I’m like that.

It’s a trashy beach read and a lot of fun for any student of history or erotica or both. The main character is an anti-hero Pick-Up-Artist who goes pro by joining an elite government-sponsored time-travel program which goes back in time to insert certain genetic corrections into the human genomes to avoid a future catastrophe. The Old Fashioned Way: by seducing your grandmother. Most of the MC’s work is in the mid 20th century, the 1940s-1970s, one of my favorite historical periods. Along the way, the character’s hubris and arrogance screws up the time stream but good. If Spellmonger is a rich cup of ale, Casanova’s Butterfly is like a classic Manhattan with a roofie in it. I like to think of it as the Thinking Man’s porn novel.

The Spellmonger series is classic high fantasy. What were your inspirations, whether fictional or (for the political side, probably) real life?

It goes without saying that Tolkien is my bedrock inspiration, and my appreciation of the Professor grows every time I start another book. I also credit George R. R. Martin for some inspiration, because I began reading him before Game of Thrones and enjoy his approach to prose.

Other influences may be more obscure or subtle, even when I try to make them blatant, but here it goes: First and foremost would be Steven Brust’s Adrilankha series. My approach to Min’s character is closest to how Steve handles Vlad, his main character. Careful readers of both series will recognize me blatantly ripping off Steve’s character for a kind of cross-platform cameo in Shadowmage. But Steve’s wit and humor informed Min, and his approach to a well-drawn character is something I am proud to have stolen from him. Brust is the spiritual heir of Roger Zelazny’s amazing style, and I can’t recommend his stuff highly enough. Zelazny, himself, is a huge influence as well, particularly the Chronicles of Amber and the Lord of Light, but I even tracked down his “hard boiled detective novel” from the 1960s, and it rocked.

Another powerful influence was Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern series. Even though it has dragons and castles, it isn’t Fantasy. Not a lick of magic in it. It’s high-concept Sci-Fi with really good characters. Much of my cadet novels were cribbed from her Harper Hall YA trilogy. Another was Andrew Offut, who might be a little obscure for some folks but who did some great work back in the 1970s and 1980s, particularly for the Thieves’ World shared-universe series (for which Brust contributed a story, last volume). If you aren’t familiar, Thieves’ World was a wonderful collection of fantasy stories that really demonstrated the chops of some of the better fantasy writers of its time. Offut’s stories always impressed me the most. His original novels were likewise superior, though he didn’t get the acclaim that he deserved for their quality. Andy Offut knew how to get the most out of his characters, especially the minor ones, and when I need inspiration I frequently turn to his stories in the anthologies.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Fritz Lieber and Robert Howard, whose magnificent bodies of work informed the adventurous imagination of my childhood and occasionally leak all over Spellmonger. They made the world safe for brawny-thewed barbarians everywhere.

Non-literary influences should be included. Count the Boy Scouts and Dungeons & Dragons (which I was, incidentally, introduced to in Boy Scouts by Chris Evans – thanks, Chris!) as among my strongest. The BSA led, of course, to the Kasari culture in Spellmonger, and D&D has been a constant source of both inspiration and research.


Looking back at the 10 parts to date, which character (whether major or minor) have you found most enjoyable to write, and why?

I have a few favorites, and I’ll take the various main characters off the table for the sake of this question. Writing Crazy Alya was fun, largely because she’s usually so level-headed. I love writing the various Wizards of Sevendor, especially Olmeg the Green and Banamor. Both are based on people I know. Gatina the Kitten was a delicious delight to write, because she combines utter commitment with youthful enthusiasm. Onranion is a blast because he just doesn’t give a crap, and so is the Sorceress of Sorsha Wood, Lilastien the Rebel, M.D., the last remaining member of the Callidore Colonial Medical Service.

I love Sire Cei. I love writing Azar. There are characters that I absolutely love and who I haven’t even gotten to, yet. And yes, sadly, some won’t make it. But I have plenty to work with, and as long as I can keep them all sounding different and exciting, we’ll keep seeing them. Some will even get their own books. Banamor, Olmeg, Sire Cei and Zagor the Hedgemage will all get separate stories focusing on their perspectives, hopefully this year. Others will be explored in the future.


When can we expect the 11th instalment, and can you reveal anything about the premise?

I thought I might tell this one from the vampire’s point of view.

Seriously, Book 11 begins the second major arc of the series. The first ten books (decalogy) is The Spellmonger Ascendant. The second ten will be The Spellmonger’s Exile. In the first series, we see the rise of Min from lowly village spellmonger to senior noble of a unified kingdom. We saw how he built Sevendor from scratch and changed the feudal society he found himself in for the better: Magic in the Service of Man.

The second series will go a little darker. Now that Min has been exiled from Sevendor for at least three years, and then put unexpectedly in charge of the Magelaw, he has an even greater task ahead: building Vanador, a city designed to challenge the might of the various Dark Lords directly, without messing around too much with the rest of the Five Duchies. He has recovered his family, somewhat, and finds himself threatened in ways he never suspected once he becomes Count of the Magelaw.

In one way, the pressure has never been higher. At the end of Necromancer we saw our understanding of the war, so far, challenged by events and revelations from the past. Humanity has finally caught the attention of the Sea Folk, and now Min has to figure out what to do with it . . . as well as solving the complicated thaumaturgic puzzle of how to re-create the freak Snowstone spell. His wife is only beginning to recover her sanity and her fragmented memories. He faces a dauntless foe with very few resources or advantages, and no allies nearby to speak of. His political situation has never been more dire, and the future looks grim.

Yet in another way, Min has never been happier. The accomplishment he feels after retrieving the Handmaiden in Necromancer gives him great power, and he doesn’t see the various threats to Vanador as serious, compared to Korbal and Sheruel. The goblins are fighting each other, for a change, and the thousands of former slaves he helped free are struggling to rebuild their shattered lives in a shattered and depopulated land. Min has learned how to develop a country, thanks to Sevendor, and he has a lot more help this time. He’s living where he originally wanted to (more or less) with the girl of his dreams and their children. His enemies are far away and think he’s been bound by his exile, when nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, Min sees his exile as a means of catching up on some important work while allowing Sevendor to grow naturally, without his direct guidance for a while. In a way, he’s off the game board of Kingdom-level politics. In a way, he’s at the center of it.

It’s a time of restful watchfulness and preparing for future battles. A time of repose, reflection, rebuilding and consideration of the future. So, nothing of consequence happens. I anticipate that it will be a really long and boring book on peasant market economics and the fascinating study of crop rotation’s effects on overall productivity and peasant farmers’ risk management schemes. I foresee some fascinating discussions on comparative thatching techniques. Perhaps some titillating debate about the differences between canon and secular law. Livestock will be discussed in depth and detail. There might even be some authentic pottage recipes, if you’re good.

There will be a mix of old characters and new. To the fore will be Tyndal, Gareth, Ruderal, Carmella, Azar, Wenek, Sandoval, Terleman, Landrik, Caswallon, Thinradel, Cormoran, the Dradrien, and others. On the back burner (in the “Meanwhile, Back In Sevendor . . . .” sense) will be Rondal, Gatina, Pentandra, Anguin, Sire Cei, Banamor, Olmeg, and Dara. Ithalia and Onranion will be present. Varen, Fallawen, and Lilastien will have cameos, at best.

We’ll also see some new folk in the woods of the Wilderlands: Rumel’s people, commonly known as Wood Dwarves. Durin’s Folk, they ain’t. Some new critters we haven’t seen before, including powderhorns and shapeshifting predators. We’ll see how someone other than Dara commands a wing of Sky Riders. We’ll start to get to know Min’s kids as more than names. Including the children of Greenflower. We’ll see what light an ancient AI from humanity’s past can shed on the current colony’s precarious position. We’ll find out more about the Forsaken. And we’ll see just who among his many manly minions Korbal considers powerful enough to challenge the Spellmonger.

As to when it will be out, that’s difficult to say. It takes a while to craft a book like that, a lot of research and a lot of writing. I took much of this year off of Spellmonger to prepare for the next series and finish up the audiobooks for the first one. I’ve committed to publishing three other novels and some stories before I even get there. I’m also feverishly working on additional texts, like the Atlas of the Five Duchies and a FRP module and sourcebook, in conjunction with superfan and recognized Mage Knight of Sevendor, Aaron Schwartz. I need to continue my marketing efforts and my development efforts. I’d really like to see some elements of Spellmonger in an AV format, someday, and have been working in that direction. I’d also be interested in exploring a comic adaptation, if I could find the right artist. I’ve been looking for a few years, now, but haven’t found someone who can do it, yet.

All of that being said, I can make this simple guarantee: YOU WILL SEE BOOK 11, THAUMATURGE, BEFORE YOU SEE WINDS OF WINTER. Likely sometime in early 2019.

So, suck it, George R. R. Martin.

Links:




Thaddeus

Monday, 30 April 2018

Dragon Age Delinquisition part 2: Herald of Andraste, and Still Treated Like a Damned Servant



The hole in the sky is still there, but it’s not getting any bigger, and everyone knows I’m the one who stopped it. This is perfect. Not only do I have all the credit for saving the world, but everybody’s still terrified and wants the damned thing closed entirely. And who’s the only person who can do that?

That’s right. Me. The world’s most indispensable elf. Or ‘Herald of Andraste’ as my new fan club like to call me.

Angry Cassandra and Leliana (spymaster... spymistress?) introduced me to Ambassador Josephine. Charming lady, but her sleeves are ridiculous. I think our military leader, Commander Cullen, was giving me the eye. Understandable. Everyone knows humans only hate elves so much because they’re externalising the self-hatred they feel for finding us so much more attractive than round-ears. *sighs* We’ve been doomed by our own hotness.

Speaking of which, I went to the Hinterlands (shemspeak for ‘Land of Booty’) and encountered Scout Harding. Never had a dwarf before, but that might change… anyway, the templars and mages were at war. I killed both, and got thanked for it! Yes, puny humans, show gratitude to the Shem-Slayer!


That said, humans are still idiots. In the entire world, I’m the only one who can close Fade rifts, but instead they ask me to fetch goats and retrieve druffalo. Beginning to wonder if they’re worth saving. Dopey peasants.

Dennet, the local horse-master, called me a halla-rider. Racist scum. I called him out and he tried to wriggle out of it, claiming halla are majestic. Yeah. Majestic, and too smart to let a round-ear like you ride them. That said, he did give me a nice horse. Nothing quite like a stallion between your legs to put a smile on a girl’s face.

The whole reason for going to the Hinterlands wasn’t acquiring myself a horse or killing humans, fun as those diversions were. I went there to see Mother Giselle, a priestess who might be on our side. We had a nice little chat, and she suggested I go to Val Royeaux (the ponciest city in the world). I’m a bit sceptical. The Orlesians hate elves, and the chantry there hate the Inquisition, and I’m both. They even think my nickname, Herald of Andraste, is heretical.


That said, the quest for power would make having the chantry onside really useful. Destroying it is almost as good. Either way, I went to Val Royeaux. But before that, spoke with Leliana. We agreed killing our enemies is the way to go. I like her. When the Elven Empire arises, I’ll kill her last. Or perhaps keep her as a pet.

In the end, I was glad I went to Val Royeaux. A black-hatted priestess spouted a load of anti-elven bigotry, and then Lord Seeker Lucius arrived and punched her to the ground. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh my head off. It was fantastic, until he started ranting about righteous swords and how Cassandra should be ashamed (of her haircut, perhaps, but otherwise she’s ok).Then he walked off, taking all the templars with him. I took the opportunity to taunt my wounded foe, then wandered. On my way out, I encountered Grand Enchanter Fiona, who invited me to Redcliffe to discuss an alliance. Told her I’d think about it [need to decide whether trying to side with the mages or templars would harm the humans more], then went home. Odd to think of frozen, human-infested Haven as home.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Review: The Norse Myths, by Carolyne Larrington


Being into history and fantasy, the Norse myths seemed a nice blending of the two, so I bought this book.

The author adopts more traditional spellings for Viking gods (Loki is identical, but Thor’s name is spelt with the rune ‘thorn’ and two Rs). It’s more in keeping with the history, but like Greek names spelt with Ks (Hektor, Akhilleus etc) it can look a bit odd.

Like most people, I have only a passing familiarity with Norse myths (I could name maybe four gods before reading this book), and was interested to learn more. The book begins and finishes with the start and end of the world, with the intervening chapters covering the gods, their opponents, and human heroes.

Loki is the most intriguing fellow, because gods are usually good or evil with small nuance, but he’s genuinely tricky to pin down (amongst his odder feats was becoming impregnated by a giant’s horse and giving birth to Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse).

An interesting perspective was offered on Thor’s giant-killing antics, which is generally shown as being a good thing, but when he and Loki encounter a sleeping giant, he decides it’s hammer time and tries to smash the giant’s skull in, which looks murderous (and impolite) rather than heroic.

In addition to the myths themselves, there’s also quite a lot of artwork (both from the time and more recent versions in paintings etc) and some mentions of recent literary works (most famously, Tolkien’s stuff) that were influenced by Norse myths.

I especially enjoyed the author’s inclusion of commentary on the impact of Christianity and the dating of certain myths (which affects both Christian influence in storytelling and in the way the gods might be painted as inferior to Jesus). The suggestion put by several ancient writers that the gods were in fact excellent real people, whose deeds led to exaggerations and mythologising, is a neat way of wrapping together ancient Norse myths and (then) contemporary Christian thinking, without discarding wholesale the value or interest in said myths.

Downsides are minor, but irksome. For a start, CE. Common Era is a daft revisionist nonsense applied by some to the Christian calendar (BC/AD becomes BCE/CE) for reasons that are beyond me. There’s also a reference to a certain story reflecting, in the author’s view, ‘the patriarchy’. I’m not fond of imposing modern political perspectives on interpretations of ancient stories.

The book was enjoyable, and a good introduction (from my limited knowledge of the area) to Norse myths. I’d give it four out of five.

Thaddeus

Monday, 23 April 2018

Dragon Age: Delinquisition part 1: Sent to Spy


The first part of a new comedy, intended to be read by people who have finished Dragon Age: Inquisition (both to get references and avoid the spoiler problem).

***

The Keeper hates me. It’s understandable. I’m younger, smarter, more popular. But this is beyond the pale. There’s a human war going on, and it’s fantastic. The dopes are killing one another by the thousand, templars killing mages, apostates murdering clergy, and the peasants getting caught in the middle. But now there’s a peace conference (they’re bound to try and kill each other), and the Keeper has ordered me to go and spy on them. All I have to do is cross the sea, hike into snowy mountains in the middle of nowhere (typical human stupidity, they’re having the meeting near a decrepit temple, miles from civilisation), and spy. Nobody will notice a Dalish elf in the midst of a load of humans, will they? Well, I’ll survive, if only to come back and spite the Keeper. One day, the clan will be mine. Oh, yes. The clan will be mine.

The snowy mountains are picturesque but bloody freezing. Anyway, got myself some dumplings, mushrooms, a little wine, and a nice hiding place. What’s the worst that could happen?

The temple exploded.

Found myself in a nightmare full of giant spiders. Unsure whether it was the Fade, or those mushrooms were dodgy. Either way, I barely escaped. To top it off, the halfwit humans arrested me for the having the temerity to survive!

Just been interrogated by the two most stupid women in the world. One asked why she shouldn’t kill me there and then (they blame me for the explosion), the other said, barely a moment later, that they need me. Naturally, the round-ears have no idea what to do, but hope that I can help them (which makes the earlier death threat all the more stupid). The angrier woman, Cassandra, took me outside. Turns out the explosion also ripped a hole in the sky, which is growing larger and defecating demons all over the valley. Apparently, a magical green scar I’ve acquired is the solution.

Cassandra took me into the valley to meet her associates. The first is a slaphead elf who makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The other is a dwarf with a smart mouth, nice crossbow, and a penchant for exposing his chest hair. Also, my scar sewed up a tear in the fabric of reality. Turns out I really am indispensable. More surprisingly, the sexual tension between Cassandra and Varric (the dwarf) is staggering.


As expected, the humans were too busy bickering to actually decide which way to go and it was up to me, as bloody usual, to decide. We went through the mountains, rescuing a squad of hapless humans along the way. Could’ve sworn one of the lady soldiers used to be a Kirkwall guard who arrested me one time… Anyway, we reached the first rift, beneath the heavenly orifice. Long story short, visions were seen, demons emerged, and, as always, I kicked arse. And then collapsed.

Woke up in a comfy bed, in a little hut I didn’t recognise. A tame elf-servant came in and fell to her knees (not averse to that kind of thing but I was more concerned about whether or not I was about to get hanged). She told me Angry Cassandra was waiting for me in the chantry. A huge crowd was waiting for me on the walk there, but they didn’t seem like a lynch mob. Quite a lot of them were saluting me, speaking in hushed tones. Inside the chantry (an overblown stone affair within which round-ears sing to their fairy in the sky), Cassandra and Leliana (not sure if they’re sisters or married, or both, but they certainly argue a lot) told me they were breaking away from the human religion and forming a new organisation. And they want me to join.


This is perfect. The human war is ongoing, and now a new power is rising. A power led by me. Bow before your new elven overlord (overlady?), pathetic humans! [Obviously I’m keeping the elven supremacy angle on the sly. But once I’ve established my authority, it’s coming. That, and my revenge on the Keeper for sending me on what she thought was a suicide mission].

My only concern is the name. They want to call it the Inquisition, which sounds a bit tortuous and murdery to me. Anyway, who cares? My own private army sounds good whatever it’s called.

Thursday, 19 April 2018

Tales of Knights and Nitwits: Episode 11


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Having rescued the probably-still-doomed Nightstalker from the indignity of being shoved up his own fireplace, Lord Grimshag is no nearer to finding the Complete Works of Shakespeare. Or is he... ?

Meanwhile, Freya is seriously reconsidering her travelling companions and Temujin is distracted by thoughts of a frisky nature.
















Thaddeus

Monday, 16 April 2018

Review: The Last Wish, by Andrzej Sapkowski


Like many people, I really enjoyed The Witcher 3, and when a fellow of sound judgement suggested giving The Last Wish (the first, I think, Witcher book, the body of which the games are based upon) it seemed like a good idea.

The Last Wish is a collection of short stories interspersed with a continuous mini-storyline of Geralt recovering from a particularly grim wound. Violence is fairly high, there’s a helping of strong language, and sex is minimal and painted in a hazy watercolour rather than the explicit detail some others prefer (personally, I think the hazy approach is better).

The short stories are often around 50-60 pages in length, covering a particular monster contract or similar. As with the game, there’s an element of complex morality woven into what might be otherwise straightforward plots, which both elevates the story above the average and helps to deepen both the character of Geralt himself and the world in which he fights.

Writing style is a little difficult to comment on neutrally because I have a lot of Witcher imagery from the game to fill in any blanks there might be. I found the writing easy to read, and also moreish, often reading rather more than I’d expected. There’s no pat on the head and slab of explanatory text, instead, knowledge about Witcher skills (for example) is conveyed through actions more than words.

It’s a charming mix of old school European fairytale and modern day grim cynicism.

The translation from the original Polish is perfectly good with only occasional slips (a U in ‘evaporate’, and one apostrophe was back to front, though I suspect that was someone else’s minor mistake).

All in all, very enjoyable and I intend to read more of this series in the future. I’d give it four out of five.

Thaddeus

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Tales of Knights and Nitwits: Episode 10

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Through blind luck and sly scheming, the depraved journalist Temujin has managed to persuade the virtuous and brave Freya, Keeper of the Green Forest, and infamous murder enthusiast Lord Grimshag to accompany him on his perilous quest to the Abandoned Ruins of Woe and Certain Death. En route, the mismatched trio are on their way to meet an old chum of Lord Grimshag. What could possibly go wrong?
















Thaddeus

Monday, 9 April 2018

Review: The Persian Expedition, by Xenophon


[I'll also be posting this on my new blog The Wayfarer's Rest].

The story of the Ten Thousand, as told in this book (aka the Anabasis), used to be one of the most commonly taught in British schools, and it’s not hard to see why. Ten thousand Greek mercenaries are hired by Cyrus, younger brother of the Persian king Artaxerxes, to defeat his brother and put Cyrus on the throne. Although the battle of Cunaxa is won by Cyrus’ forces, Cyrus himself ends up dead.

The Greeks are a thousand miles from home and surrounded by enemy troops who vastly outnumber them. Going back the way they came is impossible because the supply situation, even with Cyrus helping, was dangerously difficult.

The Persian Expedition, written by Xenophon (one of the army’s leaders), is the story of how the army got back to safety. It’s thought (perhaps along with no longer extant versions by other writers) to have been the geographical and moral inspiration behind dreams of invading Persia, which eventually bloomed under Philip II and Alexander of Macedon.

As well as fending off some Persian attacks, the army grapples with unfamiliar territories and peoples, keeping itself fed and watered, and, perhaps most dangerously, internal political wrangling and the threat of disintegrating obedience once safety seems to have been reached.

It is not in the top rank of classical history. Xenophon lacks the rigour of a Polybius or Thucydides (although he also tends to avoid eight clause sentences...), and has a bias similar to Josephus, but not balanced by the same level of detail and insight. This may be because Xenophon wrote of the journey decades after it happened.

However, it is an interesting book. The failure of Persia (to be fair, they didn’t try as hard as they could’ve) to prevent the Greeks from leaving led those across the Aegean to believe that moral decay had made the orientals weak as well as decadent. The army hung together very well so long as it felt in danger, but as safety seemed at hand, things started to splinter and there was seemingly little gratitude to those who had helped lead the men out of the fire.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 4 April 2018

Coins that Laugh in the Face of Circular Conformity


Paul Kruger 1894 – meant to be circular, but this one is not

The first one confounded me utterly, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s an 1894 shilling, but it doesn’t have Queen Victoria’s face on it. Nor does it have any other identifying feature except a chap I’ve never seen before. Secondly, the shape is immensely unusual. It’s akin to a square with the corners cut deeply away, and a crown protruding from each longer side.

But it shouldn’t be. A helpful chap from Twitter (they do exist) responded to my SOS and rescued me from the shipwreck of ignorance. It’s a Paul Kruger shilling from South Africa. A quick check on Wikipedia suggests he had foolish facial hair, a nice hat, and is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a controversial figure. Why the coin was cut into such an unusual shape remains beyond me, but it’s certainly interesting. Someone spent a lot of time doing it.


Square Indian 2 annas coin 1945

I’ve got a small number of Indian coins, and chose this one for two reasons. It’s square, with rounded corners, and it’s from the rather significant year of 1945. As you’d expect, the Queen’s father, George VI, is on the front, which describes him using the rather magnificent title of King Emperor.

In addition to the English, there is some writing in an Indian language I cannot understand, though the majority is in English (as an aside, the numerals we use originate in India, so technically that’s also an Indian aspect of the coin). It wasn’t too long after this was minted that India got its independence, and the anna itself stopped being used due to decimalisation.


Wavy Hong Kong coin 1988 two dollars

Until quite recently (1997, I think) the British ran Hong Kong, leasing it from the Chinese. Apparently, the Chinese were astonished we didn’t try to extend the agreement and continue governing the place, given its extreme wealth. Of course, as the central government deepens its control, perhaps some of the people there miss the British, just a little.

The coin has a distinctive wavy pattern, which was also seen in some Indian coins (though I don’t possess any). The British coinage has been withdrawn from circulation but remains legal tender in Hong Kong.


Thaddeus

Friday, 30 March 2018

The Wayfarer’s Rest – New Blog Announcement


Hey, everyone.

As you’ll know, this personal blog of mine is a rambly affair that meanders like a drunk seeking a kebab shop. I’ve been wondering about writing a blog that was a bit more focused, more regularly updated with fantasy/sci-fi and history/science stuff.

Thaddeus the Sixth isn’t going anywhere. I shall still be rambling inanely on esoteric subjects, as well as putting up Tales of Knights and Nitwits here.

The Wayfarer’s Rest will seek to inform, educate and entertain, like a SFF BBC, only with one person working on it, and without the £3bn guaranteed income (alas). For the most part, the content of the two blogs won’t directly overlap, although I may dual post or repost odd bits and pieces (such as my writing about the Fermi Paradox here).

I did consider simply transmogrifying Thaddeus the Sixth into what The Wayfarer’s Rest will be, but decided against it. For a start, I like having a place I can ramble about anything I like without worrying if anyone will actually read it.

On that note, a new blog about a few coins I have which are weird shapes will be up next week.

Thaddeus

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Tales of Knights and Nitwits: Episode 9


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Will our intrepid trio of reprobates (and Freya) manage to find the Complete Works of Shakespeare? Will Temujin survive his perilous quest? What colour is Lord Grimshag's helmet? Find out [only the last one] in the latest exciting episode of Tales of Knights and Nitwits!















Thaddeus





Monday, 26 March 2018

Review: Kingdom Come Deliverance (PS4)


As the title indicates, I played this on the PS4 (an old, fat one). At the time of finishing the game, the 1.3 patch had not released, and I played the game to completion once.

Story

The premise of the story is thus: King Wenceslas has been kidnapped by his half-brother Sigismund, King of Hungary, who has rolled up in Bohemia 1403 to stir up trouble. As Henry, the son of a blacksmith, you find yourself embroiled in the turmoil that’s turning your kingdom upside down.

The story has a very adult tone, with plenty of violence and strong swearing (not one for the kiddiwinks) and a small amount of sex. The twists and turns of the story fit together nicely, and also offer the opportunity for a variety of gameplay (at differing times being easier or harder depending on whether you’re focusing on eloquence, stealth, or being hard as nails). Characters are three-dimensional, with some figures being both likeable yet also somewhat dickish.


Gameplay

In many areas, the gameplay is a significant deviation from what I’m used to. Combat and lockpicking are drastically different to other RPGs I’ve played, although horses and speech mostly works along established lines. There’s also an embedded (you can’t toggle it off) survival element requiring Henry to be adequately fed and rested, but this isn’t onerous (it’s much easier to handle than Fallout 4’s survival mode). It also plays into the feature of saving upon sleeping in a bed (after much, entirely correct, griping from players the game has had an exit save feature patched in).

Combat includes fisticuffs as well as armed (with a variety of weapons). A nice touch is that weapon stats can suit different play styles. I’m quite a stabby fellow, and there was one sword I had that was a bit flimsy but had great piercing power, so it suited my approach rather well.

There are five areas to aim cuts for, plus a stab option. Enemy attacks can be parried, and your own strokes can be chained together (combos are attainable via perks). Enemy skill can vary quite a bit. In the mid- and late-game being attacked by bandits was quite fun, because I was armoured like a tank yet being attacked by two scruffy blokes armed with sticks. It did not end well for them. The very different combat style did take me a while to get used to. Likewise the bow, for which there is no targeting reticule at all. At first I was atrocious (and a disgrace to the memory of English archers), but through a certain quest I fathomed out by practice the way to do it. In the end, I enjoyed the combat a lot.


Lockpicking was something I never got to grips with (this was patched, though I haven’t tried it with the update). As per most people, I could knock off a lock in Skyrim with ease, but I never picked a single lock in KCD (you have to rotate the mechanism with one analogue stick and keep the lockpick in the same relative position by moving the other analogue stick). Mind you, I was also playing as a virtuous hero, so it didn’t come up often either.

Moving to more familiar approaches, horses work very similarly to The Witcher 3. You can buy/loot swankier gear (more saddlebags means your horse can take on more gear, which is very useful when looting corpses that have valuable amour), and holding down the right button ensures they follow the road. You can also enswankify your steed with colourful caparisons, which is a nice cosmetic touch. Whilst you can buy (or steal) new horses, I stuck with my faithful Pebbles throughout the game. Like Roach in The Witcher 3, Pebbles is a demonic central European horse that can be magically summoned (indeed, some people believe the two games are part of an unofficial series about demon horses saving the world whilst transporting self-absorbed human ‘heroes’, but that’s clearly silly...).

Speech checks happen in three ways, based on eloquence, dignity (how fancy your clothes etc are), and intimidation. The eloquence check is used most frequently but all three are legitimate approaches and (playing a nice and articulate first game) I often made quite a bit of headway just speaking well.

A really nice feature is that you can’t just ignore an urgent quest and expect no consequence (sorry, wounded people. I just never got around to healing you and, er, most of you died as a result). It’s entirely possible to fail quests because you’re too busy dicking around elsewhere.


Graphics

The overall graphical quality is so-so. I’m not fussy about graphics, and they did the job well enough, though they could be better.

I really like the consistent medieval art style. The map is obviously a stand out feature, but everything from item labels to the menu has that historical feel to it.

Textures often took a long time to decide they wanted to show up. There was some clipping, although with a layered armour system I think some degree of leeway for that is reasonable. Pop-in did happen sometimes, and could be horrendous upon fast travelling (the monastery at Sasau appearing out of nowhere was vaguely comical).


Sound

In line with the graphics approach, there’s a pleasing ring of authenticity to the sound (and who doesn’t like the sound of hooves clopping over a wooden bridge?).

Music felt like it fit into the time period (although not being 620 years old I can’t swear to that) and helped reinforce the sense of historical realism. Sound effects were well done.

Voice-acting varied a bit, but the main characters were well done and Hans Capon’s voice actor in particular did a cracking job. I was mostly terribly nice, but on rare occasions I had Henry be a thug, and the protagonist’s voice actor had a great range.


Longevity and replayability

I’ve heard estimates the main story is 35 hours, with 70 hours total if you do all the side quests. That sounds broadly right, as I’d guess I put about 50 hours into it. Actions can have serious consequences and most quests of significance had varying routes to the objective (not all of which are flagged up, the game rewards player initiative). Not sure if I’ll replay immediately, but I do think a second game as a sneaky, murderous git could be fun.


Bugs and Other Issues

With modern games this is always tricky because there can be many patches. I completed the game before the 1.03 patch came out (believe it’s 1.05 on the PS4) which fixed various issues and also made lockpicking easier.

I encountered a fair few bugs. Most of these were comical (I once got thrown twenty or thirty feet in the air during a fight, and suffered no fall damage) but a few were irksome. One main quest didn’t start (it worked upon a later attempt) and another time a significant quest line didn’t work because for some reason I couldn’t question a certain man (I could, however, murder him). The multiple paths through quests enabled me to get around this, but it was less than ideal.

During the time I played the game, I suffered one crash.

Importantly, the game includes a minor character voiced by Brian Blessed. Sadly, he never once shouted “Chiswick, fresh horses!” or “Gordon’s alive?!”. I hope this can be corrected in future games (as sequels seem eminently possible).


Conclusion

The meat of Kingdom Come Deliverance is delicious and original, yet the crockery is chipped and some of the sauce has been spilled. Bugs and some clunkiness (waiting for graphics to load) do take the shine off a little. However, the core of the game, the story and gameplay, are great. I’m into history, so this particularly appeals to me, and the attention to detail and historical realism are a fantastic new approach to videogames. At the time of writing, it’s still £44 on Amazon, so if you haven’t bought it yet you may be better off waiting for the price to drop (giving more time for patches too). But when you do play it, you’ll find a great game waiting for you. I hope there’s a sequel, as hinted by the ending, and that KCD helps inspire more historical videogames.

It’s also the only videogame whose promotion led me to win a Hungarian silver denar, which is nice (more rambling on it here).

Thaddeus

PS Apologies for the lack of a bug/blooper video. I did make one but discovered I can't upload a video exceeding 100MB (I could create a whole Youtube channel for that, but for a single vid that's excessive faffery).