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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.