Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Review: Flight From The Dark (Lone Wolf book 1), by Joe Dever and Gary Chalk


Disclaimer: I played these books as a child, so my reviews will likely be laced with nostalgia.

Flight From The Dark is the first of dozens of gamebooks that Joe Dever (initially with Gary Chalk, later solo) wrote. For those unaware, a gamebook is approximately halfway between a videogame or tabletop RPG and a book. The reader/player makes decisions to determine how they try and solve problems, win fights, and so on. It’s eminently possible to end up dead and have to restart.

Flight From The Dark is a thinnish volume but has 350 sections. The premise is simple: you are Lone Wolf, a lowly member of the Order of the Kai, hero-warriors who protect the good from the evil of the nearby Darklords. Unfortunately, you’re a slacker and have to miss a celebratory feast to go gather firewood as punishment. This saves your life as the Darklords roll up and kill everyone who attends, wiping out the entire order.

Except for you.

You must flee to Holmgard, the capital, to warn and help the king, evading or fighting the Drakkarim, giaks, kraan, and other monstrous servants of the Darklords.

Character creation is mostly about picking the Kai disciplines you have, everything from healing to animal kinship, psychic defence (or attack) to hunting. Choosing wisely is critical, and getting lucky when you ‘roll’ (you could use a d10 but there’s also a sort of random number generator by way of a grid of numbers at the back, from which you can pick blindly) for combat skill and endurance.

Smart choices also matter. Being heroic sounds good, but I only survived one entirely voluntary encounter by fluking a couple of great combat results. By rights I should’ve been killed. At other times my cunning strategy helped me evade fights that would’ve occurred, if I didn’t have the right skills.

It’s a fun introduction to Lone Wolf, Magnamund (the wider LW world), and gamebooks, and only takes an hour or two after you’ve created your own Lone Wolf.

I discovered shortly after writing the above review that Joe Dever died a few years ago. RIP. His Lone Wolf books were (along with books written by Bernard Cornwell) what I read the most in my early teens. Sad to hear of his passing.

For those interested, there are plenty of second hand paperbacks floating around, and I know he gave his blessing for Project Aon, a website which enables you to play the books for free. There’s also (though I’m unsure of availability) some hardback reprints from a decade or so ago, if you prefer physical books.

Thaddeus


Saturday, 8 June 2019

Review: The Hundred Years War, by Alan Lloyd


Written in the 1970s, this book is about 170 pages and covers the entirety of the war. Naturally, that means it has to skimp on detail in places (although the battles are well-described and I did learn some interesting facts I didn’t know previously, such as France’s population at the time being roughly three or four times that of England).

There’s plenty of medieval artwork (although the Henry IV portrait actually isn’t him, according to a much more recent biography of said monarch by Ian Mortimer) and maps, which are clear and helpful, are peppered throughout the pages.

The general ebb and flow of this prolonged contest, which was as much down to who happened to be king of either side as anything that happened on the battlefield, is well-described, and I’m glad the relatively low number of battles was gotten across, as was the development of siege weaponry and varying martial habits (from brutalising the peasantry to trying to win them over through restrained behaviour).

I liked reading the book, though it should be stressed this isn’t an exhaustive account (or, indeed, an attempt at one) so it’s perhaps best as an overview or introduction. Other general books of that nature, with more detail, include Philippe Contamine’s War in the Middle Ages (reviewed here), and Christopher Allmand’s The Hundred Years War (reviewed here).

There’s also Ian Mortimer’s excellent biography of Edward III (The Perfect King, reviewed here), which covers about half the conflict.

Thaddeus

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Review: After the Ice, by Steven Mithen


After the Ice covers human prehistory from 20,000 BC to 5,000 BC. This extends from the Last Glacial Maximum (LGM), covers the initial warming after the end of the Ice Age, the cold spike of the Younger Dryas, and the return of the warming trend.

Beyond the obvious warming and a vague fuzzy awareness of hunter-gathering giving way to farming, my knowledge of this sort of period was minimal at best.

It’s a global book, looking at every continent on Earth and charting, in some cases, the arrival of mankind (in the Americas), and the development of man, which varied quite a lot. It’s intriguing to see the differing advance of technology and the earliest establishment of towns (in the Middle East/Mesopotamia), and the intermediate phase between hunter-gathering and Neolithic farming that happened in Europe and elsewhere (the Mesolithic).

As interesting were common features, particularly cave art and the use of stone (mostly flint and obsidian).

The author’s approach was to combine a straightforward archaeological summary with the practical implications, telling these through plausible vignettes of an unseen time traveller, John Lubbock (named after a Victorian who wrote a related book), as he visits various places and times to see how people lived.

The book is quite large, just over 500 pages (beyond which lies the index etc), and later on some of the less distinctive places/locations do blend into one another somewhat.

The epilogue was very interesting, and I liked the credible alternative perspectives on GM crops (essentially, it could bugger biodiversity and cause extinctions, or cure world hunger) and other matters. Throughout the book there’s a general open-minded approach that avoids imposing a single view when there are plausible options or a lack of evidence.

Thaddeus

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Review: The Blue Book of the War, edited by Herbert Strang


The edition I read was reprinted in 1917, and I think originally came out late 1916 (preceding the revolution in Russia and collapse of the Eastern Front). I believe this book was aimed at older children (it’s a little similar in style to The Wonder Book of Aircraft). The mindset is fascinating and the writing engaging.

Most books about The Great War nowadays tend to conjure images of terrible grind, both in terms of trench warfare not moving very much, and in terms of immense grimness. And those things are not wrong. But they’re also not the complete story.

In the Middle East and Africa, things moved with greater pace, and the middle of the book is dedicated to stories of naval exploits, many of which I had no idea about (British submarines getting up to mischief in the Bosphorus, for example).

The mentality of the book is of another age, with the start of a battle described as an adventure beginning. There’s both a recognition of how terrible war is (quoted below) and a celebration of the human spirit that can arise in conflict.

Early on, the book is poignant (a letter home from a soldier the day before he got killed in one of the many large battles standing out in the memory). But the overriding sense is of a quite alien attitude to both Britain and war, the latter perhaps closer to Livy’s Romanesque glory than today’s immense reluctance. I was wondering if it would be a parochial book, yet one of the examples of heroism cited was of a priest who gave the last rites to an enemy soldier, and whilst there is some German-bashing there’s also praise for Turkish manoeuvres around Suez, Von Mackensen’s Eastern shenanigans, and the final chapter is dedicated to heroism from British allies (Frenchmen, Russians, and Italians singled out, with kudos also given to the Sikhs, Maoris, and others).

Must admit, I found the book to have a lively writing style, and yet was perhaps even more interesting from a psychological perspective. The differing topics of the various aspects of the naval conflict and doings further afield ensured that, whilst the focus is on Britain and her Empire, there is plenty about other arenas where our involvement was either minimal or non-existent.

I shall end this review with a few excerpts that I made note of as I read:
War is a terrible, hideous thing.” [A short time later in the same paragraph]. “Yet there is something even more terrible than war, and that is the weak and cowardly acceptance of what we believe to be evil for the sake of saving our skins.”

We shall not, therefore, be surprised when we learn that by far the greater part of British naval strength and resources has in the Great War been devoted to the efficient maintenance of its patrol services: and we may well wonder at the weakness of human nature which impels us to esteem a dashing exploit, carried through in, perhaps, a few minutes, more highly than we regard the faithful endurance of hardship and the vigilant discharge of duty continued for long, weary months amid the stress and perils of the northern seas.”

Their brigade was lying in front of Gorizia and was much inconvenienced by the enemy’s fire from a particular hill that dominated their position – a hill so craggy, in fact, as to seem quite inaccessible.”

Thaddeus

Monday, 6 May 2019

Musing on RPG Morality Mechanics


RPG videogames have a range of approaches to morality. Mass Effect and Fallout 3 went for straight good and evil with paragon/renegade and good/bad karma respectively. More recently, faction-based approval/disapproval, such as in Pillars of Eternity, has become more popular, perhaps as it offers a more nuanced take on things.

I think there are a couple of interesting other ways that morality could function in RPGs, (focusing on a more medieval/fantastical world rather than a sci-fi universe).

The old medieval medicine system (if we can call it that) involved four humours. There was blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile. That could easily be translated into morality/behaviour, with blood and phlegm good, bile bad, and blood/yellow bile action-oriented and phlegm/black bile more thoughtful.

A sanguine (bloody) character would be your bold hero, diving into the fray, keen for action and leading from the front. A choleric (yellow bile) would be aggressive beyond morality, eager for bloodshed and more concerned with self-interest than public esteem.

I think that’d be an interesting approach because it has overlap between a thoughtful/action-oriented approach and good/bad. If certain options are only open to good/bad characters or thoughtful/action-oriented characters then in a given playthrough you’ll have a set of options that (unless you copy your playstyle) will differ when you replay the game. It’d also mean your actions matter.

Another way to go about such things would be to make gods more than window dressing. I’m not a vegetarian, but it’d be interesting if you had to pick gods/a god and live according to their precepts, and that could include a nature-based vegetarian style. Similarly, you could have a pacifist religion (perhaps excepting saving your own life), a god who demands his followers drink alcohol daily, one whose acolytes swear poverty, another whose worshippers must regularly participate in frisky time (making brothels part-business, part-temple), and so on.

The price for contravening your god’s whims would be divine punishment, including gameplay penalties, and a quest to restore you to the god’s favour. Or you could jump spiritual ship, which would make you loathed by your former co-religionists. As for advantages, you could start off with minor bonuses and have the opportunity through side-quests to climb the spiritual ladder to enhance them.

This is slightly similar to the faction-approval approach mentioned near the the start, but there are some significant differences. Not least is the limitation on approval (you can’t join the Lovely Peaceful God’s cause *and* worship Angor the Intensely Violent). Another is that it’d be largely (maybe entirely) optional, whereas faction interaction, at least to an extent, is usually a requirement in games that have them.

And it could easily co-exist with a faction system. Maybe you need to persuade leader X to help you. Sure, you can do that via the old approval system, but if you’re the High Priest of his religion (through prolific questing) it’d be cool to just order him to help on pain of excommunication.

Charitable works is another area that could work. Not only would, say, setting up an orphanage boost your reputation, it could also help get beggar children off the streets, improving your relations with businesses who don’t want half-starved urchins cadging coin next to their stalls.

Thaddeus

Friday, 19 April 2019

The Three-Inch Fool part 1


One of the Shakespeare plays that ages the worst is The Taming of the Shrew, the central message of which is that the key to a happy marriage is for a husband to psychologically crush his wife until she’s mindlessly obedient to him.

It does, however, have some cracking jests, perhaps my favourite of which is “Away, you three-inch fool!”

I’ve used that as the basis for a daft character name in Skyrim, and edited some videos into short episodes (I’ve got more in progress). It’s vanilla gameplay footage plus the internal monologue [via text] of The Three-Inch Fool, a morally dubious Argonian with a fondness for cheese and murder.



Anyway, if you enjoy Sir Edric’s internal monologues and self-absorbed comedic style, you might like this. I have limited experience editing, so any insightful feedback is welcome (is the volume fine, captions up too long/not long enough etc).

Thaddeus

Thursday, 18 April 2019

XCOM 2 DLC Review (PS4)


I hardly ever buy DLC, but I really liked XCOM 2 and happened to see there was quite the sale on (the original three pieces of DLC reduced by 50% and War of the Chosen, the later, larger, expansion reduced by 62%). For the record, I played on an old, fat PS4.

The bundle of three include some new cosmetic options for customising your cannon fodder, ahem, beloved soldiers, the Shen DLC that adds the Spark class, and the Bradford DLC that adds some swanky one-off weapons and three tough bosses (I did a playthrough of the original XCOM 2 base game plus these DLC, and almost my only losses [I played on normal difficulty] were due to these bosses).


DLC Bundle of Three

The cosmetic options offer a nice range, but, despite how splendid midriffs are, this isn’t something I’d buy by itself. The Shen/Bradford DLC each includes an extra mission with some story background I won’t spoil (both refer back to characters from XCOM: Enemy Unknown, the previous entry in the series.

The Shen DLC adds the Spark class (think Johnny-5 meets Terminator). I quite like the class, as it comes preloaded with the very useful shred ability, and overdrive, allowing multiple moves/shots in one turn.

The Bradford DLC has some unique weapons you acquire through scanning, and three bosses that have multiple turns, (the normal one and reactions to everything your soldiers do, even reloading). The multiple turns appear toned down a bit in War of the Chosen. These bosses are variants of the usual enemies, and come with a bucketload of hp and a penchant for running away (which is handy, to be honest, as they’re pretty damned tough).

These are good additions to the base game, which blend in seamlessly and add a little more variety. They’re nice to have without being fantastic.

War of the Chosen

There are a huge number of additions, some large, some small, with the War of the Chosen DLC. A quick summary of my view is that I like it a lot.

The Chosen are three high-powered individuals that you may randomly encounter when you perform missions in their territory. There’s an Assassin, a Hunter, and a Warlock, each with specific strengths and weaknesses. Taking them down is challenging (they’re easier than the bosses from Bradford’s DLC but effectively immortal and thus come back unless you complete the story missions to kill them permanently) and if they show up during a tricky mission they can make it a lot harder.

There are also three semi-independent new resistance factions who co-operate with XCOM: Skirmishers, who are ex-Advent, Reapers, who are sneaky scouts, and Templars, who are slightly nutty psionic enthusiasts. Each one provides a soldier for XCOM with unique skills (personally, I like Mox, the Skirmisher who can fire twice in a turn, and has a voice a bit like Todd from Stargate Atlantis). The factions also offer missions via the Ring facility, which involves sending off soldiers to act outside your control (although if they’re ambushed you’ll get an extraction mission). Each faction can also fulfil orders which offer you bonuses for a month (like recruits who go through training becoming sergeants rather than squaddies).


Pairs of soldiers can now form bonds that offer bonuses when they’re on the same mission, with this can be levelled up to increase the advantages. Propaganda posters are automatically generated and can also be manually created to celebrate promotions, victorious missions, or midriffs.

Some facilities are new, and with the right one you can select extra abilities outside the usual class options for soldiers (from options randomised for each soldier). This is very useful, perhaps to the point of being a little excessive.

There’s also the Lost. The Lost are effectively a horde of zombies (independent of alien control so they’ll attack the aliens almost as much as you). They’re very weak but there are tons of them. Killing them with ranged weaponry refunds your actions and their attacks are weak. I’m less fond of the Lost than other new aspects of the game as their whole shtick is high numbers, which can make missions something of a lengthy meatgrinder. (One time I had almost my whole squad in a great, elevated position, but it still took me forty odd minutes to effortlessly slay the shambling fools).

Research has two additions: breakthroughs and inspirations. One means research takes far less time for a particular subject, the other offers a rare (some can be acquired through faction missions as well/instead) new bonus like cut-price facility construction or extra damage to a specific weapon type but only if the research is conducted immediately.


A word on the older DLC Bundle: that’s included here. As mentioned above, the bosses are mildly nerfed, but that’s fair enough as they were perhaps overpowered in the original version. Neither Shen nor Bradford get their story mission, though, as the bosses have been repurposed as facility guards rather than appearing randomly, as that would coincide with the Chosen and open up the possibility of encountering both in a single mission, which might be too much (although it does sound quite cool).

I like the War of the Chosen expansion a lot. But there is at least one downside. I had two crashes, both around the end (one just before, one just after) a long mission involving the Lost. It was quite frustrating, especially as the first one cost me a soldier’s promotion which I needed to complete a certain action.


I don’t buy DLC often, but I’ve got to say I enjoyed this extra content. Would I recommend it at full price? Only if you’re Captain Moneybags. At a discount, give it a look, particularly War of the Chosen.

Thaddeus

Monday, 15 April 2019

Review: Oathbringer (Stormlight Archive book 3), by Brandon Sanderson


This has been out a little while but I only recently got my hands on it (literally, unlike the first two entries which I read as e-books).

Like its predecessors, this book is enormous, a little over 1,200 pages, and is just part 3 of a planned 10 or so in the series. (I know some are wary of taking on unfinished mega-series, but Brandon Sanderson does write pretty quickly).

The story resumes shortly after the events of Words of Radiance, and, though it may be obvious, I have to warn of spoilers from this point forth (major for previous entries, any spoilers for Oathbringer will be kept to the minimal possible level, focusing on premise).


The Everstorm, a new phenomenon heading in the opposite direction to the expected highstorm, batters the world, wrecking ships, destroying buildings, and catching most people off-guard. Just as the kingdoms are struggling to recover, some of them are in for a military confrontation.

The forces of Odium are gathering, but things are more complicated than they first seem. It’s nice to see ‘the enemy’ portrayed in a somewhat sympathetic light, rather than purely as fodder. Likewise, we learn some more background, to plot-twisting effect, of the old Knights Radiant and the Heralds, which alters things quite significantly.

Dalinar’s storyline (the central plot) is the attempt to create a grand coalition to fight back against the forces of Odium, a task made quite tricky when his nation (Alethkar) is renowned for its conquering tendencies, and he’s best known as a talented general. There’s a good portrayal of the varying national outlooks (bureaucratic Azish types, the moneyed naval Thaylen people etc) which both makes the world feel more real, and slots in nicely with the challenge Dalinar and those around him face when it comes to forging an alliance.

Shallan’s story arc is intriguing, and I liked the way her splitting personality was portrayed. I can’t go into much more detail than that without spoilers, but it suited the story and herself.

Adolin has plenty of action, but less character development than other major protagonists. Kaladin is miles away from the others at the book’s opening, trying to find his family.

Besides the big names we have occasional smaller POVs, sometimes as interludes, and these work nicely as little breaks in the enormo-book as well as fleshing out the world even more.

An interesting difference, for me, was having an actual physical copy. It made the artwork better, particularly the map early on, which I referred back to several times during the story. Otherwise, it’s just nice to have a tangible book, although it does take up infinitely more space than an e-book, so swings and roundabouts.

Overall, I enjoyed the book a lot. I like the author’s world-building style and lore, and there’s a number of significant plot twists. Pace later on is faster, perhaps a little could’ve been cut from the first half, but maybe I’m just nitpicking. I have no idea when the fourth entry in the Stormlight Archive will be out, but I’m looking forward to reading it.

Thaddeus

Thursday, 28 March 2019

Trilogy-writing: Pros and Cons


With Crown of Blood out early next month (6 April), I thought it might be interesting to consider the pros and cons of writing a trilogy, compared to writing stand-alone novels or a loose series, which has plots contained entirely within one novel but a recurring cast and world.

Pros:
Tell a bigger story
Allows more detail for secondary characters
Readers perhaps likelier to buy books 2 and 3 of a trilogy than books B and C of a loose series

Cons:
More complicated which means more planning is required and writing takes longer
Telling story arcs that work both within each novel and across the trilogy is difficult to balance
Readers often don’t want to start an unfinished series


People do like series, whether the traditional trilogy or larger scale mega-series (I’m reading the third entry in the Stormlight Archives myself right now). From a writing perspective, if someone likes book 1, they’re likelier to get books 2 and 3 of a tight series (with a single ongoing storyline) than books B and C in a loose series (with recurring characters but self-contained plots). Obviously, writers like selling books, as it gives them a warm, fuzzy feeling as well as the means to afford little luxuries, like food and rent.

Naturally, a tight series enables a larger, more complex/intricate story to be told than a single volume self-contained novel. Some stories are just too big to cram into one normal sized book (there is the enormo-book option, but some people are put off by a page count measured in the thousands). When I think about The Bloody Crown plot and trying to cut that down to one ordinary-sized book, it’s difficult to think what I’d discard to make it fit.

This brings us to the start of the cons list. A bigger story means it’s more complicated, and splitting the plot between three (or more) books means more planning is required. All that takes time. On top of getting that right, the division also means you need ongoing plot threads that are tied up in books 2 and 3, whilst also having self-contained and completed plot arcs within each individual book, otherwise a book, whilst having a place within the series, feels a bit under-cooked. That’s a tricky thing to get right.

Another problem for writers is that, particularly with larger series, later entries can be delayed. And some readers are reluctant to start series that aren’t finished. Which makes them being finished less likely if the first instalment is released before the others are ready to go, because fewer people buy them and the author sees little interest. Of course, you can finish the whole thing and release them with 2-3 week intervals, but that means writing, redrafting, editing, and proofing the entire trilogy/series before seeing any return at all.

Personally, my favourite approach is to have a loose series, as most of the pros of a tight series are present, but the significant drawbacks are not. It makes books quicker and easier to write (along with, for the Sir Edric series, fewer POV characters and being comedic rather than serious in nature).

For those wondering, my next move will be to sort out the release of Sir Edric and the Corpse Lord (Hero of Hornska book 4), which I’m hoping to release in the latter half of 2019.

Crown of Blood purchase links

Amazon UK:



Thaddeus

Wednesday, 20 March 2019

Crown of Blood – out 6 April


Good news!

Crown of Blood, the final part of the cunningly entitled The Bloody Crown Trilogy, is coming out on 6 April (paperback to follow).

The fate of the crown will be determined, as the rival Houses of Penmere and Esden find themselves faced with a dilemma: unite to fight off the King of Felaria’s sudden invasion, or risk losing the entire kingdom to the invader.

It’s the fifth book I’ve written that takes part in the Bane of Souls world (the others being stand-alones Bane of Souls and Journey to Altmortis, and earlier trilogy entries Kingdom Asunder and Traitor’s Prize).

As well as the splendid cover, by Autumn Sky, there’s a map, by me.



For the pre-order period and first fortnight of release, Crown of Blood will be just $2.99, after which the price will go up a bit. So, buy it, and tell your friends to buy it too.

You can pre-order it on Amazon or Smashwords, and it’ll shortly be up on other retailer sites too.



Thaddeus




Sunday, 24 February 2019

Ancient Rome on Five Denarii a Day, by Philip Matyszak


This is a short book, about 140 pages, set in 200 AD and covering what a visitor to Rome might see and do. Beginning with arrival nearby and travelling into the city itself, there’s a wealth of practical advice, from where to stay to how dinner parties work, as well as religion and shopping.

It’s an engaging book, with interesting snippets of information and the sort of approach to history that makes it very easy to imagine what it would’ve been like to visit Rome, climbing its hills and descending into its valleys. Details such as how much wine might cost, or the widespread dislike of the Praetorian Guard, add to the immersion.

The writing style is light-hearted, occasionally humorous, and easy to read.

I’ve read quite a lot of Thames and Hudson books of this nature, but all my previous ones were hardback. I must say I prefer those to the paperback. However, if your shelf space is limited the thickness is about halved by going for the paperback.

Weirdly, there’s a page numbering error, for maybe a dozen pages preceding the first set of plates. The standard numbering is fine, but the Latin numbering (which is correct both earlier and later) starts showing the incorrect numbers. Not a huge thing, but clearly wrong.

The plates are entirely CGI. A spot of real world photography for still extant architecture would’ve been nice (the Egyptian edition in this series had some creative modern drawings, but also ancient Egyptian artwork too). The map at the back is a double page spread, with some detail swallowed by the spine (bit of a pet hate).

Overall, a good book, with one or two minor things that could’ve been done a bit better, none of which relate to the actual text itself.

Thaddeus

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Snapshots – pick of the bunch


Blogging’s been a little light lately, due to me being busy with other stuff (Crown of Blood should be out later March/April, incidentally).

Time for a look back at the best samples of the last four Snapshot reviews, in which I single out the books I might actually end up buying. Links at the end of the post lead to the sample reviews (I’ve picked at least one from each post. The first snapshots post was written separately, some time earlier).

I’ll start with the mega-sampled The Chronicles of the Black Gate (books 1-3), by Phil Tucker, from the most recent post. To be honest, the only reasons I didn’t immediately buy this (I read the whole circa 40,000 word sample and really enjoyed it) was because I already have a comically large to-read pile, and I use my Kindle for proofreading (which I did immediately after finishing the sample). Highly likely I’ll buy this book.

Perhaps the most unexpected delight was Storm Glass (Harbinger book 1), by Jeff Wheeler. I selected books without reading descriptions and this one has plenty of stuff I wouldn’t normally consider. Child protagonist, ghost story, orphan. Not my cup of tea. Usually. But it’s very well-written and genuinely intriguing.










The Copper Promise (Copper Cat Trilogy), by Jen Williams, is a lot more my usual cup of tea. Fantastical doings, a spot of torture, multiple POV characters on a quest for treasure. The sample was entertaining and piqued my interest.











One of the samples I liked the most was Kingshold (Wildfire Cycle book 1), by DP Woolliscroft, (at the time of writing, this is an #SPFBO finalist, with the ultimate winner of the current contest undecided). Multiple engaging POVs, an intriguing world, and a major city about to make the transition from monarchy to democracy. Another one I’m very likely to end up buying.










I liked the daft comedy of Space Team (Volume 1), by Barry J Hutchison, (with the caveat that bodily fluid stuff generally isn’t my thing). Otherwise, fun, fast-paced, and amusing (which is helpful, for a comedy).


And so we move to the weird collection of excellence I accidentally threw together for the earliest (of the most recent batch) snapshot review. By chance, this included two #SPFBO winners and practically every damned sample was excellent. So, I’ve set myself the challenge of picking only two. Which I already know is going to be difficult because I can remember three off the top of my head, and want all of them.


In the end, I went for The Thief Who Pulled On Trouble’s Braids (Amra Thetys Series book 1), by Michael McClung, and Dangerous to Know (Chronicles of Breed, book 1), by KT Davies, both of which feature thief-type protagonists. Both have engaging lead characters and interesting worlds, and both set up intriguing premises within the scope of the sample.








Anyway, that’ll be the last bit of sample reviewing for a little while. I think there are some real gems in there, as well as some books I never would’ve checked out if it weren’t for the slightly random approach I took. Hope you found something interesting to read too.

Sample review links:

Thaddeus

Friday, 1 February 2019

Review: Repulse, by Chris James


This is an interesting book. It’s a sci-fi ‘history’ of a war to be fought in Europe, 2062-64, written in a style not dissimilar to some general overview histories I read last year about the World Wars.

The war in question features a sprawling Middle Eastern/North African Caliphate which suddenly attacks Europe, using technological advantage to conquer the whole continental landmass. Will Britain manage to defy the odds and survive? Will the Caliphate be pushed back?

The tech level is an order of magnitude beyond current possibilities, with tanks and soldiers making appearances but battles and war dominated by autonomous aircraft guided by AI. There’s shielding, lasers, and so forth. I thought the tech level was fairly realistic, whilst still, of course, being futuristic and interesting.

It’s an odd book. I did take a while to get into it, although I do read sci-fi sometimes, and military history. Near future and modern history are less interesting to me than either older history or more advanced sci-fi, which may be why it took a while for me to get into it, although I did end up reading the last third much more rapidly.

The writing style echoes those of genuine modern histories and does a good job of imitating them, with sources (diaries, other histories, papers released under the 30 year rule etc) being utilised. It’s an interesting approach and works well.

However, that same approach, with some exceptions (eyewitness testimony, diaries), does necessarily increase the distance between reader and brutality of war, which would not have been the case had a more traditional first/third person perspective been adopted. Obviously, this is a choice that’s been made, and the historical approach does enable a more neutral view, allowing for consideration of battlefield moral dilemmas rather than either justifying or decrying harsh measures in war.

Overall, I thought it was interesting and quite liked it. I’d suggest checking the sample before buying to see if it’s your cup of tea.

Thaddeus

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Review: The Inheritance of Rome, by Chris Wickham


For a while I’ve wanted a book that bridged the classical-medieval gap, so this book, subtitled ‘A History of Europe from 400 to 1000’ seemed ideal.

And what a book it is. Taking us from the Western Empire’s latter decades to its disintegration, the fragmentation of power across Europe, the continuation, decline and rise again of the Eastern Empire, the birth of the Caliphate, its rise and fragmentation, England’s weakness and rise, the Merovingian and Carolingian peaks of Francia, the ebb and flow of power being centralised and divided.

Practically the whole of Europe is considered. The ancient equivalents of France, England, Spain, Germany and Italy get most coverage, with a lot about the early Caliphate and Eastern Roman Empire too. Ireland and Scandinavia are also written about, a little less, and other parts of Europe (mostly eastern) are covered in less detail due to less evidence.

The book proceeds in chronological order, with differing parts having a different geographical focus. This works very well for keeping a tight enough focus to avoid the work becoming a sprawling mess, which could easily have happened, whilst at the same time providing the reader with a great breadth of information across both space and time.

The heart of the book is political, with the church, wider culture, and the economy also featuring heavily. It’s not militarily focused but significant military effects (perhaps most notably the rise of the Caliphate in the East, and Carolingian expansion in the West) are included where they impact upon politics, culture, and/or economy. Changes both between powers and within them (the relative power of kings, aristocrats and peasants, and how that altered over time) are considered.

I was wryly amused when the author criticised those who used ‘value-laden’ terms such as ‘prosperity’ when describing the changing nature of the peasantry up to 1000 AD, as the condemnation came in a chapter entitled ‘The Caging of the Peasantry’.

The maps, at the front of the book, are excellent, covering multiple geographical areas and time periods.

Downsides are few. Occasionally there’s slight clunkiness in phrasing, and I saw one mistake that’s obvious (the suggestion heading west from Dublin takes you to Great Britain) but otherwise there isn’t much to criticise. I do remember having some doubts regarding particular interpretations of history, but I do not see this as a flaw, as there are many valid but differing opinions regarding the past, especially periods for which documented evidence is limited. Although I didn’t necessarily agree with all the author’s views, they all seemed to me to be valid and reasonable.

This is not ideal as an entry level book for someone just getting into history, but for those with some background knowledge of classical and/or medieval history, and looking for something between those periods, it’s well worth reading.

Thaddeus

Friday, 18 January 2019

Review: Dragon Quest XI (PS4)


It’s some time since I played Dragon Quest VIII for the PS2, but I have very fond memories of it. At the time it had the best overworld of any game I’d played, the combat was well-balanced, and Jessica’s voice actress was enchanting. Would DQXI, the first Dragon Quest for consoles since VIII, measure up to its illustrious predecessor? In a word: yes.

Story

The story is, mostly, very simple. You are the reincarnation of the Luminary, an ancient hero who defeated (temporarily) the darkness ages ago. Having discovered your incredible destiny during a rite of adulthood with your girlfriend, you set off to the capital to see the King, at the suggestion of your adoptive mother. From there, all hell breaks loose.

Most of the story you will see coming a mile away. It’s fun but straightforward. However, there are some later twists you may not see coming, and a lot of the strength of the game in this area comes from the companions you get. This is covered in the gameplay section as well, but in story terms their contribution comes from making it feel like your character is first among equals rather than them just being appendages or minions. Each has their own distinctive character, from bossy Veronica to the, er, flamboyant Sylvando. Not only do they bounce off the (traditionally mute) player-character, they interact nicely with each other too.

There’s not much freedom when it comes to changing things, you’re very much following the hero’s story.


Gameplay

Combat is fantastically well-balanced in almost every way. The difficulty is enough that you have to pay attention but you won’t, usually, be flattened, and each character has varying ways to advance (everyone has at least two available weapon trees, as well as other options such as magic). Use of pep powers is important too. Characters sometimes enter a stage of enhanced power, and if specific other characters are present or are also in a pepped up status increasingly powerful attacks or defensive spells can be cast.

The characters are phenomenally well-balanced too. For example, Jade is a very powerful character but cannot heal others and can only heal herself via certain attacks, and she has no magical attacks. Veronica has powerful magical attacks but that’s almost it (until the latter stages). Serena and Rab can both heal and attack, whilst not being as aggressively strong as Jade or Veronica.

In short, you can mix and match companions in a variety of ways to create a party that works.

Enemies come in a wide range. There are some reskins, as was the case for VIII, but there’s a large selection and many unique bosses as well. The slimes, of course, make a return (if you can, defeat the metal slimes. They appear randomly and give huge amounts of XP), as do the endless puns (sham hatwitches are little pigs that wear giant witch hats).

Outside of combat, the game is easy to explore, and there are multiple large cities, in addition to a well put together overworld. Although, this has changed from being totally open, as it was in VIII, to connecting specific areas, which does make it feel smaller (it’s still large, I should stress, but there’s less freedom).

Draconian Quest:
These are a range of options you can toggle on and off to make life more challenging. I’ve started a new game with a few switched on, including Shypox, which makes the player-character sometimes freeze in combat due to remembering embarrassing memories, or fail to talk to NPCs the first time because he’s afraid they’re going to think he wants to chat them up, or remembering when he accidentally called a stranger ‘mum’. It’s quite amusing, and definitely increases the difficulty. If you’re familiar with the series or want an immediate challenge, you can start with some/all of them switched on and can remove the ones you dislike in church.


Graphics

The art style is very much Japanese manga, so if you like Dragon Ball Z, or videogames like Valkyria Chronicles, then that approach will be to your liking. For those unfamiliar, the heads are a little cartoony but there’s a great sense of realism in most other aspects and it looks very good.

The graphics themselves tend to be great although here and there, being finickity, you might see a short draw distance in some areas and occasionally closer shots of exterior walls/doors can be slightly pixellated, but I am being picky. In general terms, it looks fantastic, and the lighting changes (there’s a day/night cycle) works well too.


Sound

The voice-acting is infinitely better than the Japanese version, which didn’t have any. The voice actors mostly sound British (the spelling is British too, huzzah!), though there is plenty of variation, with some American accents and Aussie etc. Voice acting quality is generally good.

Music is MIDI but high quality. It didn’t bother me, indeed, it’s pretty good, but some are irked by the absence of an orchestral score which, reportedly, does exist but isn’t included in the game for some bizarre reason.


Longevity/Replayability

My full playthrough, including the post-game section (which, unlike the main game, involved a lot of level-grinding) took me about 90 hours. I’d guess maybe a third of that was post-game. There is no new game plus option, although the Draconian Quest options mentioned above do offer increased replayability. In my playthrough I did not do all the quests, but a clear majority of them.

I’d guess a total completionist playthrough would take about 100 hours, maybe a shade longer.


Bugs and Other Issues

I’m not sure I encountered a single bug. No hangs, freezes, lags. The closest to a problem was that if you rush into some areas the game deliberately pauses to load (usually in a city) but that’s clearly working as intended because a little slime-timer appears. Technically, that’s pretty damned impressive.


Conclusion

If you’re after a light-hearted, traditional RPG that offers engaging combat, likeable characters and an old-fashioned Good versus Evil storyline complete with excellent Japanese art style, this is the game for you. I do like grimdark (The Last of Us, The Witcher 3 etc) but it’s nice to take a break sometimes.


Thaddeus

Monday, 14 January 2019

Snapshots Review 5: The Reviewer Strikes Back


Took me a bit longer than expected, as one of the samples was enormous (maybe 40,000 words or more). After this, I’m going to do a post with the samples that intrigued me most and which I might end up buying, and then take a break from the snapshot reviews.


Gryphon Riders Trilogy Boxed Set, by Derek Alan Siddoway

The story follows Evelyna/Eva, who is reluctantly adopted by the blacksmith Soot. Soot, and his helpful golem Seppo, raise Eva without telling her of her illustrious parentage, only for events to conspire to drag her out of her comfortable life in the smithy and into the life of being Windsworn (a gryphon rider). The awkwardness of this change is well-written, as is the preceding story sketching her time working in the smithy. The tone feels a bit YA for me, but the writing quality is good, the story moves along at a good pace without being breakneck, and the sense of nervous anxiety and awkwardness is sympathetically realistic. Probably not for me, but if you’re after a YA story, it’s well worth a look.


Dragon School: First Flight (volume 1), by Sarah KL Wilson

I did wonder about shuffling the order here as it sounded very similar to the Gryphon Riders sample. Anyway, my first impression after the first page was that it was well-written but even more YA. The sample, which is very short, follows Amel, a young woman whose leg was badly broken and never healed. She’s seeking to become a dragon rider, and the opening chapter involves everyone else getting picked first to select their beast (colour determines role, whether war, diplomacy etc). But instead, a dragon seeks her out. I’ve got to say, it’s very well-written indeed. I might even put it on the list, despite it not being my usual cup of tea.


The Chronicles of the Black Gate (books 1-3), by Phil Tucker

I’ve got to say, this sample is massive. I’d be surprised if it were much under 40,000 words and may well be larger. Thankfully, given its enormity, I really liked it. The story follows multiple POV characters, mostly focusing on Asho. In a mythical world with different castes, he’s on the lowest rung, but due to a series of events starts the first chapter as a squire and ends it as a knight and almost the only survivor of a battlefield massacre. This puts him in rather an odd position and neither he nor others know quite what to make of it. Other POVs centre on his main location, the Kyferin castle/town, though one, Tharok, is entirely separate. Tharok is a kragh, a non-human and rather strong fellow, being hunted in the mountains.

The writing style has a little more description than most nowadays. Generally this works very well although here and there it does rob the story of pace. I also like that the multiple POVs help add depth to the Kyferin situation, and create worldbuilding without infodumping. I checked, and the full thing is over 1,500 pages and costs just over £2, so that’s definitely going into the to-be-considered blog I’ll write when I finish the current batch.


The Wendy, by Erin Michelle Sky and Steven Brown

An alternative history, it seems, set in the late 18th century England. A host of orphan babies are left in old London town, and one of these, Wendy Darling, is the character around whom the story revolves. The sample covers her awkward time in a foundling home, when she and her only friend start being taught sailor skills but are forced to take on jobs from the Home Office, as the alternative (as a young lady) is to become an apprentice to a seamstress or suchlike. The writing style is notably whimsical but I found it worked rather well. Magic and vampires seem like they’ll have a role beyond the sample. Not my usual fare but entertaining and well-written.


The Spirit Chaser (Spirit Chasers book 1), by Kat Mayor

This whole book is free, so I just read the first two chapters.

It’s a paranormal book set in the real world, following a TV show and its star presenter as they investigate demonic and ghostly activities. Early on, the show’s psychic has a warning ignored which leads to him being possessed, just about cured, and resigning, leaving the presenter with having to recruit someone else. The writing’s simpler and lower on description than I’m used to, but the pace of the story does zip along at a good pace (weirdly, the lack of flim-flam reminds me a bit of Machiavelli’s approach in The Prince). There’s some head-hopping (sudden POV changes) which may irk some people.


Thaddeus

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Sale of books and videogames


Hey, kids. Despite being a hoarder, I need room and have some stuff that is otherwise heading to charity/the bin. Normally I’d probably just send it straight to charity, but my own finances are in a state similar to the Colossus of Rhodes after the earthquake, so I’ve decided to see if any Persons of the Internet would be interested (UK only, I’m afraid, as others’ postage would be excessive).

Prices include postage. If you know me elsewhere do feel free to get in contact that way. Otherwise, leaving a comment here with contact info or getting in touch on Twitter (@MorrisF1) would be best.

I’ll send a pic or two of items to those who are interested in buying so you can see for yourself what state it’s in. If you want to buy a few things at once, discounts may be possible.

Payment must be via PayPal and, as mentioned, this is UK only.

Books (£4 unless otherwise noted, enquire about trilogies specifying if you want 1, 2 or all 3):
Top Gear, the Alternative Highway Code
David Gunn, Death’s Head/Maximum Offence (1-2 in a series)
Mona Lisa Overdrive
Path of Honor, Fate, Blood (complete trilogy in 3 volumes) - SOLD
Terry Goodkind, Wizards’ First Rule
Harris, Hannibal Lecter Omnibus £6 [bit weighty]
Story of the Stone, Volume I
Chris Evans, Call the Midlife
Brent Weeks, Night Angel Trilogy
Swainston, The Year of Our War
Grimwood, Pashazade
The Scar, Mieville


Videogames (£6 unless otherwise specified):
Shadow of Mordor, PS4 (£10)
Dragon’s Dogma, PS3
Medal of Honor: Rising Sun, PS2
007 Agent Under Fire, PS2
Medal of Honor: Frontline, PS2
Disgaea 3, PS3
F1 2010, PS3
F1 2012, PS3
DA: Origins, PS3
DA: Inquisition, PS3
Uncharted 2, PS3
Assassin’s Creed II, PS3
Bladestorm: The Hundred Years’ War, PS3

If you have any queries do leave a comment or get in touch another way.

Thaddeus