Monday, November 11, 2013

The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey

Our library recently has started a transition to RFID tags from bar codes, so instead of the librarian scanning the books that you hand over, the librarian simply watches you as you put your books on a mat and they scan themselves, and takes about as long.  I’m not sure if the librarians themselves decided on this plan, or if there was some sort of shadowy cabal that decided this was the next step in library management.  What I do know is that I still needed a librarian to scan this one, since it was an interlibrary loan, all the way from the exotic city of Plano – which may very well have been closer to my house than the actual library in the town where I live.  An exciting life I lead and no mistake.

Anyhow, in talking about The Steel Seraglio, I feel like there’s an angel on one of my shoulders and on the other one, the Satan.  Not the modern Armani-clad one with the binder full of deals, or even the solipsistic monster in Carey’s own Lucifer comic book, but rather the old-school Adversary, the one that never quit but is grim faced and charged with pointing out all of your numerous sins.  The story in The Steel Seraglio is rambling and expansive; the frame story itself doesn’t take up all that much space as much as the various sub-tales, discursions and examinations do.  But the frame of the plot is this:  the Sultan of the city-state of Bessa has 365 concubines, and following a violent revolution they are tossed from the city into the desert and then condemned to death.  But they don’t die that easily.

And the story is accordingly disjointed,
says the Satan.  You know very well that this sort of story structure works just fine in fairy tales or in something like The Thousand Nights and a Night, but in a modern type of novel the “story about stories” only works if your name is Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett.  I don’t mention those names frivolously either, since you’ve read a bunch of Carey’s work, and it’s at his weakest when he’s trying to be Neil Gaiman, which no one but Gaiman can really pull off and even he screws it up sometimes.

The angel counters, but you sure tore right through it, didn’t you?  Some of the stories were surprisingly poignant and many were beautiful in both execution and form.  Many of these vignettes couldn’t have necessarily supported an entire novel on their own, and they brought the atmosphere home in a way that other sorts of structures couldn’t have accomplished.  And if you have to write a collaborative novel, this is a great way to give everyone their voice without the general problems that collaborations are prone to.

But isn’t that a gentle way of stating that some of the stories are correspondingly weak?  And while I wouldn’t say that any of the writing is not ready for prime time, as it were, it’s clear that not all of the voices match and that some of the sections are much more strongly written than others.  For that matter the characterization isn’t so great either – you’ve got the 365 concubines and their servants and hangers-on and really only explore maybe a dozen of them, and fewer really because of the non-core characters that the narrative has to focus on as well.

But aren’t some of those great?  It was genuinely surprising when the story of the dancing girl turned out to reference one of the characters, wasn’t it?  And the villain of the first book, Hakkim Mehdad, is a truly wonderful character, scary and evil.  Here’s a man who isn’t that far off too many real figures, who preaches a doctrine of abnegation of the self on the grounds that most of life’s real pleasures aren’t to be trusted.  And while his speeches are convincing, he’s gone the extra mile to learn to kill those who he can’t persuade or who are especially persuasive to his opposite.

Ah, but isn’t that also a weakness in the plot?  He could be a great villain but here he is a preacher without a doctrine (except he doesn’t eat meats or spices).  Even though the story takes place in a seraglio in an Arabian Nights-esque fantasy land, they don’t practice any kind of real-world religion, and so it’s hard to understand what impulses exactly Hakkim is tapping into.  In our world this story would make sense, in this one it’s just understood, but that understanding requires the use of out-of-context referents that might not even apply.  And he’s really no threat once he’s taken Bessa; he dreams of spreading his particular cult of ascetics throughout the world but if so he’s going about it in a terrible fashion and there’s no indication as to why his doctrine takes off in Bessa and not anywhere else.  And in the end he frankly goes down like a chump.

But, says the angel, defeating Hakkim wasn’t exactly the point of the book.  The new society that the women manage to raise in Bessa is a paean to human rights and gender equality.  And the story of the former Sultan’s youngest son is fantastic; in other stories he’d be the hero and would fight to restore his rightful rule.  Here it’s clear that his rule wouldn’t be rightful and so begins his disappointment.  It’s telling that in a story about stories the ultimate danger would come from someone like Jamal who fundamentally misunderstands the sort of story he’s in.  And it’s done with such a light touch that it never comes off as preachy or heavy-handed.

Right, says the Satan, it’s got such a light touch that it can’t even make coherent sense in its own universe.  In what situation exactly is a modern pluralistic democracy going to exist in a despotic city-state where there was enough support for a Taliban-like regime not two weeks earlier?  It’s so implausible that one suspects the reason the details are not explored are that no details would be sensible.  It’s certainly not more plausible for lack of explanation.  And Jamal actually is a potentially interesting character, but his motivations are all over the map and his level of competence varies so widely that he’s just a plot device.  When it’s time for the women to win, they win despite impossible odds; when it’s time for them to lose, they lose to insufficient ones given what we’re told about how well things had been going for them.

That may be true, says the angel, but you were moved anyway, weren’t you?  Besides, there’s an added poignancy in the fact that they end up ultimately screwed by not always killing their enemies.  And admit that the story of how Zuleika got her first four kills is worth the price of admission all by itself.

Hmph.  Why don’t you admit that the second half of the book is almost entirely unworthy of the promises made in the first half, and that there’s so much subtext there’s hardly any room for the text?

And then they go on for a while like that.  The angel thinks that this is a really good book, with some serious flaws in it, but the Satan believes that it’s a seriously flawed book, with some really good bits in it.  Since I can’t decide which one is correct, I am forced to agree with both.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Gravity (the film)

I don’t do a lot of movie reviews here, partially because I don’t see too many movies at the moment and partly because there’s lots of other people who do movie reviews better than I do.  That said, Gravity was an amazing movie, and I loved it, and there’s no purpose of even keeping this blog if I don’t talk about the things that move me.

The curse of much of our modern media is the illusion of substance.  I don’t know exactly why that is, and I’m not really much for psychoanalysis.  Perhaps it’s fear of being thought uncool by actually committing to an emotional response.  But instead of doing the hard work of building character and having arcs, we get pre-formed characters that we’re told have emotional relationships with each other and we’re supposed to care about these relationships . . . just because.  In many cases movies will take the emotional responses that the viewer has from previous seminal works and repurpose it rather than try to actually be great, all the while having a self-referential smirk.

Add to that the curse of the overcomplicated, omniscient villain and effects that allow everyone to punch people forty feet through walls, plots that confuse complexity and length with depth, and the ubiquitous shaky cam.  There are some recent blockbusters that I’ve enjoyed, but there aren’t that many classics among them.

Enter Alfonso Cuarón to gently shoulder everyone aside and show how it’s done.  That a movie like this could be made right now is amazing to me, since it does almost everything right.  It’s a major studio effect-driven film, but channels the effects in service of its story, and in 90 minutes leaves you feeling a new thing.  It’s not perfect, especially being a little thematically heavy-handed, but it’s certainly an amazing experience.

The movie begins in orbit, with scientist Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) spacewalking near the Hubble Space Telescope, installing some doohickey that she helped develop onto it.  If they ever explained exactly what it did, I didn’t notice.  But mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) seems impressed that NASA funded it, since it’s apparently a prototype.  It’s so cool, in fact, that it was worth training Bullock as an astronaut so she could put the thing in personally.

Clooney is screwing around in an experimental jetpack, clearly having a ball.  But waiting for Bullock to do whatever it is she’s doing isn’t really that exciting, so he’s telling interminable war stories and joking around with Houston (the ground controller is played by the voice of Ed Harris, a nice casting gag).  This opening shot lasts for over ten minutes without a cut, and is frankly perfect.  They don’t tell you that Bullock is a genius, they just have the engineering department apologize to her for not listening to her about a possible failure mode for the device.  They don’t tell you Clooney is a badass, they just show it.  And in an offhand manner, Houston reports that NORAD informed them that the Russians have fired a missile at a satellite of theirs to demobilize it, but that shouldn’t be a problem, before going back to listening to Clooney’s story about some girl he was with at Mardi Gras one time.

Then in about five minutes, Houston interrupts them and tells them to forget about what they’re doing and come back right now.

Gravity doesn’t really have a villain as such, although the Russian attempt to bring down their satellite ends up causing an ablation cascade.  We never see those guys and they clearly didn’t mean to do what they did, but their debris jacks up the shuttle and kills all the shuttle crew besides Clooney and Bullock, as well as knocking out their communications with the ground.

The rest of the movie is spent in orbit, as these characters are trying to figure out how to get back and not die.  That’s it.  No cuts to the frantic ground operators, no frenzied communications, just an orbiting cloud of space crap and Newton’s laws of motion (occasionally manipulated for dramatic effect).

I wouldn’t consider myself a Sandra Bullock fan, having been subjected to a few of her romantic comedy films in the past, but she nails it here.  There’s a part where she’s sitting in a burning Chinese knockoff of a Russian escape pod, looking at the characters one the panel that she can’t read, and every single molecule of her being expresses “I am truly questioning the life decisions that have led me to this situation”.  She also manages to really sell her emotional dialogue, which is impressive since in many instances she’s having to talk to herself, since there’s no one around, since, you know, space.  If I did have a complaint about the movie it would be the dialogue, since in a movie that’s otherwise very subtle it acts like a jackhammer to the back of the head in terms of getting the point across.  But that’s not her fault.

And it does tend to get a bit Hollywood-y at times; it’s pretty clear that this wouldn’t be a survivable situation, but they soldier on regardless.  And there’s a portion of the movie where it basically kicks into high gear and Bullock starts to have everything go right for her for a change.  So that’s not perfect.  Nonetheless, this is one of the best-looking movies that I’ve ever seen, and although occasionally a little maudlin it at least means those feelings.  Do yourself a favor and see this one on the big screen.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Tomb Raider (2013)

There’s a lot of discussion in some circles about whether video games can really count as art.  Personally, I think it’s a no brainer that any media form which involves the contributions of so many artists (e.g., writers, musicians, graphic designers, etc.) pretty much has to be capable of itself being art.  And I also know that some video games have triggered complicated emotional responses in me, such as the usual suspects Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Shadow of the Colossus, and so on.  Just based on personal experience, I definitely think that video games can not only be art, but selected special games can be fine art.

Tomb Raider ain’t one of those.  It is a pretty fun mess though.

I haven’t played a triple-A title within a year of release since God of War 2, I think, unless Portal 2 counts.  I’ve got a job and I’ve got a family, which means that I don’t have a lot of uninterrupted time, and I’m also not really that into most of the major game genres.  I get a fair number of indie titles and retro games, and play Starcraft 2 on Tuesday nights, and that pretty much scratches my itch.  But I’ve got this awesome video card that I’ve kind of been meaning to exercise a little bit, and Steam had this on sale for 75% off, and so that’s how I ended up with the newest adventures of Lara Croft.

I wouldn’t say that I’m a huge Tomb Raider fan.  I did play the first three titles in the series, but I wasn’t into them enough to actually buy them, meaning that I rented them from Blockbuster Video back when that was a thing.  I think I beat the second one.  I specifically remember that the third one was so relentlessly, murderously difficult that I only rented it once and probably didn’t even get more than 10 minutes into it.  These games featured famous globe-trotting archeologist and murderess Lara Croft, who would make witty quips while jumping 10 feet in the air from a dead stop while dual-wielding submachine guns and personally wiping out all sorts of endangered wildlife and people, all while looking like a parody of a 14-year old nerd’s ideal woman.  I guess the series ended up in something of a rut, or at least they wanted to shake it up a bit, so they hired Rhianna Pratchett to do the writing, knocked Lara down a couple of cup sizes so she looks kind of like a plausible human (or at least a heavily made-up fashion model), and re-used the original title in this prequel/reboot.

There’s a huge and fundamental disconnect between the gameplay and the writing which makes it impossible to take this game seriously in any respect.  This is what I mean by “fun mess”.  The actual gameplay itself is top notch – Lara responds fluidly to user input, combat is varied and flowing, exploring the environment is fun, and this is one of the best-looking games I’ve ever seen, from the character designs down to the environment.  Clearly a labor of love, or at least enough money to simulate love, and once you can fake sincerity you can fake anything.  It’s also surprisingly violent – Lara can die in a variety of horrible ways, like being dismembered by wild animals, crushed by rocks, upside-down neck impalement in a fast-flowing river, carved up by machete wielding fanatics.   And you can reciprocate in kind by setting people on fire, pulling them off cliffs with grappling hooks, disabling them by shooting them in the kneecaps.  This one’s rated M for a reason, folks.  But it’s strangely satisfying to maneuver this little waif around, staving in grown mens’ heads with your climbing axe.

Guess I should back up one step and say what’s going on.  This game imagines Lara on her first adventure as she’s looking for the lost kingdom of Yamatai as a young girl before she’s done any of the stuff that she will be famous for someday, assuming all that wasn’t written out of continuity.  She’s part of what seems like a very bad and soon to be cancelled reality television show ostensibly starring her archeology professor, who’s a total venal jerk who is obviously wrong about everything and will clearly be horribly killed at some point.  But their ship goes to an island inside the “Devil’s Triangle” and is promptly wrecked, and then everything goes from bad to worse as they find out they can’t leave.  Oh, and there’s an evil cult there too.  And maybe . . . DARKER THINGS!  That seemed worthy of all caps there.  But yeah, mystical undead samurai.  All of whom will wreck your day.

There was another bit of media that came to my mind during the second time that my character was suspended upside down by the ankle in a snare trap while a half-dozen bearded castaways fired away at her with machine guns and she calmly dispatched them all with pistol shots to the head, and that was the Clive Owen movie Shoot ‘em Up.  In that film, Owen engages in lengthy gun battles with armies of goons for pretty much ninety straight minutes, stopping only to do stuff like punch a carrot through the back of a man’s head.  This is a film where the main character engages in a gunfight while having sex.  I bring it up because I’m pretty sure that Lara Croft kills far more people over the course of this game than Owen did during that movie, and otherwise her fights tend to play out about the same way.  I tried to keep a rough count when it started getting insane, but I lost track; it’s probably somewhere on the order of five hundred people.  Shoot ‘em Up, however, is a comedy film.  Tomb Raider means to be taken seriously, which it can’t, because it’s fundamentally absurd.

For an example of what I mean, besides being one of history’s greatest killers, Lara is also basically indestructible.  In the first five minutes of the game she manages to get burned and then fall twenty feet onto some rebar which punctures her abdomen.  Now I realize it would kind of suck if she just rolled around in agony for a while and then succumbed to peritonitis after a couple of days, but then why give her this grievous wound?  She gets pistol whipped, repeatedly falls off high ledges, walks through snow in a sleeveless shirt and hot pants, and is disturbingly near several large explosions.  And that’s just in the cutscenes.  They’ve eliminated the health bar, so if an injury doesn’t outright kill you Lara can walk it off in ten or twenty seconds – so you can also sustain literally dozens of gunshot wounds, arrow hits, Molotov cocktails and machete blows to the face without losing a bit of acrobatic ability.

But that’s all fun stuff to do.  I don’t know why the writing team didn’t roll with all the insanity and come up with a goofy excuse plot that was equally fun, but instead they seem to have written the plot around an entirely different game, one where you aren’t a mass-murdering parkour  fast-healing psychotic, and are in fact a scared young girl who’s plagued by self doubt and fear.  Don’t get me wrong, all the plot stuff is also funny, but I don’t think it’s meant to be.  And it’s also composed nearly entirely of tired clichés, while recognizing that, but not having enough courage to actually buck the clichés.  For an example, Lara confronts her adviser by pointing out that powerful women throughout history have always been accused of witchcraft . . . but it turns out she actually was a witch.  Hmm, no points for feminism there.  And then the cultists are actually regular guys when they’re talking amongst themselves as you sneak up behind them to slit them up . . . but they all attack you on sight and fight to the last man.  Not to mention the fact that the inescapable nature of this island could not possibly have gone overlooked by the world in general considering that thousands of people have been marooned there, along with enough weapons for an Army battalion and enough equipment that the mad cultists have managed to build windmills and complicated infrastructure.

The gap between the game that you’re playing and the description of the game you’re allegedly playing is so wide that I can’t believe that no one from the development team sat down and wondered whether it was really a good idea to have the gameplay contradict the alleged plot at every opportunity.  So I really can’t say it was that great.  On the other hand, it made me laugh (albeit probably unintentionally) and the actual gameplay was pretty good, so I can’t complain too much.  It won’t go on any all-time great lists, but out of the Steam sale bucket I’m counting it as a win.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Gladiator-at-Law by C.M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl

It was with some sadness that I learned of the recent passing of Frederik Pohl; a friend of mine pointed it out to me, and it was in the news once I looked.  I will admit that my first reaction was actually to be a little surprised that he was even still alive – he was 93 years old, after all. 

Nonetheless he’d actually published something as recently as 2011, so he was still in the game, and although I’m not exactly the world’s biggest Pohl fan, I think anyone who’s a fan of the genre has to recognize that his death (and Jack Vance’s, in May of this year) definitively closes the book on the Golden Age of SF.  Admittedly the Golden Age brought forth a lot of crap, but there were some diamonds in there too, and that’s just the nature of every age.

It was just a coincidence that I happened to pick this up on the discount shelf of the used book store two days before his death, and it was more for Kornbluth’s byline than Pohl’s that I got it in the first place.  But these two did write some good stuff together, and in memory of the man I moved it to the top of my queue.  Otherwise I’d have to go reread Gateway or something, and I’d just as soon not; too much Freudianism in there for my tastes.

One of my other reviews tackled Wolfbane, which was another collaboration by these same authors which had its moments but wasn’t really very good on the whole.  I’d have to say the reverse about Gladiator at-Law – it’s got some low points but on the whole was actually quite impressive.  I don’t think it’s been in print since 1986, so good luck finding a copy, but maybe they’ll do a Pohl legacy retrospective edition or something.

The protagonist, Charles Mundin, is a recently graduated attorney who’s defending small time crooks in an effort to keep his doors open.  He’s got potential, but unlike many 50s – 60s era SF protagonists he’s no superman and he’s not omnicompetent.  We’re introduced to him as he first tries to get his sad sack client to plead guilty and then absolutely fails to provide him an effective defense.  We then learn that he’s only got clients in the first place due to some small-time political connections he has, and that failure to pay his student loans may very well leave him out on the street.  He’s then at a party where he talks to a friend of his who inherited his father’s fat-cat corporate law firm; although Mundin helped his friend get through law school (it took eight years!) it’s the friend who’s getting a $125,000 fee for appearing at one hearing for a corporate merger and acquisition.  The merger’s been going on for decades and the hearing was to grant a four year extension - the friend expresses hopes that he’ll be able to pass it down to his son when the time comes.

As an attorney myself I found this bleakly hilarious, and it’s also a great example of showing.  Wolfbane was full of narrative telling you how the characters felt about stuff, but this one is much better about just putting Mundin in a situation with some pretentious asshole and letting you draw your own conclusions.  Before you know it, Mundin’s gotten mixed up with a pair of siblings who just might have a major minority stake in the corporation that makes the “bubble houses” that everyone aspires to, and which may or may not actually run the world.  Before you know it Mundin has to enter into the wretched hive of scum known as the stock exchange and try to buy one share.

To keep everyone’s minds off the fact that there’s really no social mobility and the financial system is just a giant casino, there are organized gladiator games, some of which are in fact as deadly as you’d imagine, others of which are more like American Gladiators.  However, I’m sure if anyone actually did that tightrope-walking over piranha tank stunt that it would get a million hits on YouTube.  I was sort of thinking that Mundin would be forced into a life of combat based on the title, but that’s really not how it goes – this book is maybe 150 pages, there isn’t any time for that sort of thing, as it turns out.

There are a lot of observations in this book that ring true, and some of the elements that you can tell that Kornbluth and Pohl were trying to take up to 11 have really come to pass.  Mundin isn't any better of an attorney when he's got a fancy office but the surroundings make him be taken seriously.  So, I liked it.  For such a short book it kind of dragged in places, though, and some of that 50s stereotypical prose can be a little flat or a little condescending.  Still, very interesting, Pohl was a master for a reason.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

There has never been any private detective as cool as Sam Spade, and I mean that most sincerely.  Dashiell Hammett based him on his own experiences as a Pinkerton detective, but unlike his other fictional detective, the nameless Continental Op, Spade isn’t just doing his job, he is the job.  Hammett stated once that Spade was the detective that every detective wishes that he could be and occasionally approaches, on their best day.  If you’re asymptotically approaching awesome then you’re just catching up to where Spade already is.  He’s that kind of guy.

It’s also worth pointing out that you might not actually want to be him, since Spade is also really low-down and mean.  In fact he is a colossal prick and not in that “jerk with a heart of gold” way.  When his partner gets killed, his first action the next business day is to call the sign painter to get the guy’s name off his door – he reveals that he thought the guy was a dumb son of a bitch and was just waiting for their annual partnership agreement to expire so he could kick him out anyway.  In addition, he was sleeping with his partner’s wife, maybe just to spite him, since Spade doesn’t seem to think very highly of her either.

The partner got killed helping out a new client, who in fine pulp detective tradition is a beautiful lady who walked through the door with a story of trouble.  Which, of course, Spade and his partner didn’t believe, but they did believe in her cash, so they were willing to go with it.  The name she originally gives is a fake; later she claims to be one Brigid O’Shaughnessy, but I don’t know if we’re supposed to believe that either.  Spade doesn’t trust her and treats her pretty badly throughout, but she did get his partner killed.  That doesn’t stop him from sleeping with her too, of course.  But then whatever affection he might have for her also doesn’t stop him from strip searching her when he thinks she might have stolen some money from him and, towards the end, throwing her to the cops to face a capital murder charge.  When she pleads for him not to, he seems genuinely surprised that she believes his personal feelings are going to have any bearing on his actions.

Along with O’Shaughnessy come a succession of oddballs and goons, including Floyd Thursby (killed offstage), the morbidly obese Gutman with his henchman Wilmer, and the unfortunate Joel Cairo, a man of undefinable Mediterranean ancestry who the narrative takes every opportunity to insult and degrade for his homosexuality.  I guess in the movie version they couldn’t just explicitly come out and call him a “fairy” like the book did because of the Hays code, so they just cast professional weirdo (and real life all-around gentleman) Peter Lorre and gave him a perfumed handkerchief and let it go at that.  Subtlety was definitely better in this instance.  I mean, Cairo is a bad dude because of all the legitimately bad stuff he does, like murder and arson, his sexual preferences aren’t really relevant to that.  It's rough reading for a modern audience, really.

Anyhow.  This bunch of misfits is after the Maltese Falcon, which is a priceless, jewel-encrusted artifact.  It could have just as easily been a suitcase full of money or a delicious cake recipe; all that really matters is that Gutman and the rest of these jerks want it.  Gutman thinks that Spade knows where it can be found, since O’Shaughnessy and Thursby had stolen from him what he’d previously stolen from some Russian general who allegedly didn’t know what he had.  But actually this unseen Russian dude is smarter than the whole gang of thieves from the very beginning.  As Spade says, “Jesus God, have you people never stolen anything before?”  And this is when he’s still trying to ingratiate himself with them.  None of this motley crew seem to know what they are doing with regards to crime, only Gutman seems to have a reasonable fence for this treasure anyway, and their ineptitude would be funny, if it weren’t for all the murders.  As it is, it’s still pretty funny.

Spade doesn’t personally kill anyone in this book, and doesn’t even carry a gun, for that matter.  He does beat up a couple of people and take their guns away, though in one case it’s Cairo and probably wasn’t all that tough.  In fact, that’s one of the best scenes – Cairo comes in, pulls a gun on Spade, and demands to search his office.  Commence beating and gun-grabbing.  After Cairo regains consciousness, they have a brief discussion and Spade gives him his gun back, which is a bad idea since Cairo then steps back a little farther, and searches the office at gunpoint for real.

The whole book is like that.  These crazy people are going around doing nonsensical things, and Spade is always a little bit ahead of them.  Towards the conclusion he gives a couple of hints that he might not actually be as bad as he’s making out, but I don’t know if it’s true or even if he believes that it’s true.  For the ultimate detective, at the end it’s all about style.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Conqueror Trilogy by Conn Iggulden

There’s a scene toward the end of the third novel in this series that encapsulates the stakes of this work very nicely – a city hasn’t paid its tribute to Genghis Khan, and he’s ordered an example to be made.  Consequently, when the Mongol army breaks the walls, they spend all day rounding up the 160,000 citizens that didn’t die during the siege and then spend most of the next day executing them all before taking everything valuable out of the city and razing it.

This is a bad day for the Mongols since it takes such a long time and all that hacking dulls up their swords.

What to say about a man who would order such a thing to be done?  And this wasn’t his first turn at the massacre rodeo, either.  The various Mongol conquests caused at least 30 million deaths and as many as 70 million deaths – an astoundingly modern-sounding total considering it’s the thirteenth century and all, and none of our modern efficiencies existed yet, so someone had to personally go out and stab these folks (except of course in the cases of mass starvation or disease in besieged cities).  Admittedly some of this continued after Genghis himself died, but we’re still talking about a man who presided over tens of millions of killings of his fellow humans.

Iggulden’s trilogy, which is strong historical fiction, shows Genghis as more than an ordinary man.  At the same time, it also shows him making mistakes, failing to see the big picture, and having the sort of ordinary family troubles that beset us all.

The first book in the series follows the future Genghis (called Temujin at that point) as he is a young man in a small clan in a tiny part of Mongolia.  He’s a tough kid and he leads a hard life, and his ambition is to one day be the khan of this band like his father is.  Since he’s the second son, this may prove difficult.  But then his father gets murdered by his enemies, neither he nor his older brother are old enough to effectively assert control, and the new khan exiles their whole family to solidify his own power.  Genghis ends up killing the older brother and growing to adulthood in an extremely hardscrabble and desperate way with his mother, sister, and three remaining younger brothers. According to history, that all really did happen.  And then there was a spark, or there must have been a spark.

Genghis decides that all the tribes need to stop fighting among each other, but in order to do that realizes that they need an overall leader.  Who better than him?  And so he begins recruiting a band of men from other un-tribed and exiled men like himself, making a name for himself by raiding the enemies of the Mongols, learning strategy.  Eventually he’s got enough men to take control of one clan, then his father’s, then a bigger one.  The book ends with Genghis declaring his intention to become Khan of all the tribes.

The second book begins as this ambition is realized.  Genghis has been absorbing more and more tribes into his army.  Those remaining tribes that don’t want to give their allegiance to him realized that they couldn’t stand on their own, and made their own alliance against him.  But it’s too late, the last battle occurred before the book even really starts and the focus is really on what Genghis wants to do next – attack the Chinese kingdoms to the south that he feels have been manipulating and marginalizing the Mongol people for centuries.

In the third novel, Genghis ignores China for a while since the Khwarazmian Empire has made a personal insult to him and he decides that this cannot be tolerated.  If you’re wondering why you’ve never heard of the Khwarazmian Empire before, that’s because of what the Mongols end up doing to them here.  This, like many of the other major events in these novels, is not fictional.
There’s a lot of brutality in these novels, like you might expect.  People get shot with arrows, crushed by siege weapons, starve to death, covered in molten silver, and in one case just get chased until they drop dead of pneumonia.  Genghis himself kills probably hundreds of people, with typical weapons frequently, but also with the sleeves of his armor, and in one memorable instance picking a guy up and breaking his spine over his knee.  (This individual has always been described as scrawny, this isn’t an 80s action movie move exactly.)  At the same time, Iggulden appears to have scaled back some of the atrocities just a little bit – Genghis is portrayed as having two wives, one of whom is a Chinese princess.  In reality, Genghis had at least six Mongolian wives, numerous foreign ones, and spent so much time with other women that 5% of the current population of the Earth is his direct descendant.  He is tactfully suggested to be raping various captive women on a couple of occasions, but in truth I’m just as happy to not read pages and pages of sexual assault, and probably Iggulden just didn’t want to put that in there.

The central paradox in this series is the fundamental problem of child rearing.  People under harsh privation are often tough and awesome as a result, and they want their children to also be tough and awesome, usually in the same ways that they themselves are tough and awesome.  At the same time, privation sucks.  Intentionally raising your offspring under privation when you don’t have to is a dick move; removing the privation ensures that your kids will not necessarily share your outlook or your priorities.  What is a great warlord to do?  Adding to this problem for Genghis is that he’s not sure that Jochi, his oldest son, is actually his own son – his wife Borte had been kidnapped by Tartars around the time of Jochi’s conception and, well, you never knew for sure back then.  He treats Jochi really coldly as a result and is oblivious to the fact that this harsh treatment has made Jochi into the ideal successor in most ways.

Genghis also suffers from a certain lack of vision.  He’s certainly not stupid, he’s a master of warfare and leading his men, and he quickly realizes the importance of certain practical skills, like siege engineering.  And his men aren’t out of control barbarians, either, their environment has made them into disciplined warriors.  At first, Genghis’ plan is simply to kill everyone who’s not Mongolian, but then his advisors persuaded him that living Chinese can pay tribute, and he also realized the utility of sparing people that quickly surrender.  But in truth he doesn’t need the tribute, and by the end his people are carrying around literally tons of silver and gold that they don’t have any particular use for.  Genghis doesn’t need money, since he just takes whatever he wants, and he doesn’t really want anything more than to have big feasts, go hunting, ride fine horses, sleep with women, and fight.  Silk is useful since he can use it as armor, iron’s good for weapons, but he doesn’t really understand what people want with gold.

Since he doesn’t care about or have any use for cities, he’s not a very good administrator.  So it’s sort of a shame that he conquers so many of them.  His advisors and sons recognize that the Mongols are going to need to make some philosophical adjustments if they’re actually going to rule an empire and not have to go around re-conquering every city every few years, but getting Genghis to agree with that is more difficult.  He didn’t get where he was by listening to people.  And in that sense this book is a tragedy, since you can see the seeds of the Mongolian Empire’s dissolution in the decisions that Genghis makes.  He makes it hard for his successors to have orderly transitions of power and he isn’t really that interested in making their jobs easier.

It’s also a tragedy, of course, that so many other people had to die for Genghis Khan to achieve whatever it was that he was trying to get out of life.  It’s a strength of the series that Iggulden manages to make you feel a little bad for Genghis, and showing some of the Mongols’ genuinely amazing deeds, without dehumanizing their opponents.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Papers Please by Lucas Pope

There has been a lot of ink shed (of both the real and virtual varieties) about how much “moral choice” systems in video games suck.  Often you’re given the opportunity to be either the paragon of virtue or a monument to vice, without much in between, and usually the “evil” choice involves going around murdering everyone you meet, even when there’s no particular reason for it or direct benefit to you from doing so.  There’s really a paucity of nuanced evil in the world of video game design.  And that’s why all those AAA game developers need to sit down and take a page from this independent developer who’s managed to put together the best moral simulator that I’ve ever seen.  Seriously, if you can get through this and not have an emotional reaction then you need to turn in your Homo sapiens card, no joke.

First, the mechanics.  The game takes place in the early 1980s in a fictional shithole Eastern European Communist dictatorship.  You have won a labor lottery and been assigned to work as a border control agent.  When you open up your shop, a stream of pathetic sad sacks will file into your checkpoint and present you with various documents so they can enter the country.  Personally, you’ve got some family members dependent on your salary for food, rent, and heat.  You need $55 per day to cover your basic expenses, and you get paid $5 for everyone who gets processed through the checkpoint, so you need to see 11 people per day in order to not draw down your savings.  If you run out of money, your family members will get sick, raising your expenses as you need to get medicine for them.  If you can't come up with the cash, they'll die.  If you go seriously into the red you may be imprisoned for debt yourself.

The interface is claustrophobic and well-designed to never give you quite enough room to spread out.  You have sufficient but not ample time, and although the documents start out simple enough, your bosses at the start of every day tend to throw in various requirements and by the end of the game there will be twenty or twenty five different failure points for documents.  If you let in someone with a discrepancy in their paperwork, you get cited.  If you turn away someone without a discrepancy, you get cited.  More than two citations in one day and you start getting substantial fines, meaning you can’t beat the clock by just letting everyone in, or turning everyone away.  Your superiors are apparently omniscient about this since if you make a mistake, you will be cited.  And you won’t get paid for your last “client” if you go past 6 p.m.

The gameplay itself is pretty simple; the would-be traveler presents you a passport and supporting documents, which you check for internal consistency and accuracy.  Do they look like their passport picture?  Appropriate identifying information?  Does the information on their passport match their visa?  Are any of the stamps or seals forged?  Have any documents expired?  Did they get their polio vaccination within three years?  Do they happen to be on a most wanted list somewhere?  Did they get the right kind of permit?  Okay, proceed, citizen.

All of that said, it doesn’t necessarily sound all that fun.  In fact, if you were me, you might say that sounds a lot like that summer job I had in the business office of a tile factory where I had to keep cross-checking dates and SKUs on a bunch of triplicate forms in an ancient computer system.  And maybe you’ve had a job like that too.  But the presentation is amusing enough that you really get to make a puzzle out of it – it’s satisfying to spot the minor error and hit that red stamp.  And then when you do approve someone you tense up for a minute while you wait to see if you made a mistake.

Now if that was it, I wouldn’t have made that statement about “moral choices”.  The fact is that this is one of the most interesting game ideas that I’ve ever seen.  You are a cog and a peon, and that’s about all you’ll ever amount to, regardless of what choices you make.  And right away you start getting to make them.

In addition to the randomly generated wretches in line, you’ve got a fair number of scripted encounters.  Some of these are desperate people who need asylum, or want to visit their loved ones, or need surgery, or so forth.  These people will inevitably have paperwork deficiencies.  Do you want to let them in anyway, despite the fact that you’ll get a citation for that and it may take food out of the mouths of your family?  Or do you deny them, in deference to the arbitrary rules of your superiors, who are a bunch of dicks and treat you like a dog?  It’s up to you, and while most of these choices don’t have long lasting repercussions, some of them do, and they aren’t immediately obvious.

You also have the opportunity to take bribes to let undesirable sorts such as drug dealers and sex traffickers into the country.  You can make your own rules about what you will and won’t tolerate; you sometimes even have the option to take the bribe and then deny the people anyway.  At one point along the game you gain the ability to detain suspicious people; this is not necessarily better than just denying them, since it takes longer and interrupts your work flow, but one of the guards offers to split his detainee processing fee with you, which makes it profitable to detain everybody you can, even when they are probably innocent of anything more serious than not catching a clerical error.  Is it worth sending people to the mercies of the secret police for minor offenses to pad your own wallet?  Up to you.

And this secret society of revolutionaries – do you help smuggle their members through the checkpoint?  Do you accept their huge bribes?  Can they help you if you are caught, and are they in fact any better than the current regime?  Will you help out your friend the border guard and allow his girlfriend through the checkpoint?  Will you hang the artwork made by your son on the wall, although it’s against regulations?  Are you prepared to refuse your bosses’ girlfriend admission although she has neglected to get anything close to the proper documentation?

Up to you.

This is a rare game where you’re not going to really “win” anything and all of the endings are, fittingly, ambiguous at best.  In one path you keep your head down and stick to legitimate graft, and are rewarded with the opportunity to enter an endless game mode, where you can keep analyzing paperwork forever or until you screw up enough.  In other words, a pie eating contest with a prize of more pie.  Way to go, comrade, I’m sure selling out all your ideals was worth it.  Of course if you don’t sell out your ideals it may end up going much worse for you personally, and who even knows about the general population.

In short, this game has managed to encapsulate the typicality of bureaucratic evil.  Instead of grand acts of malice for little discernible reason you have the opportunity to engage in petty acts of tyranny for totally understandable, if ultimately futile, reasons, such as if you decide to go ahead and take the citation to reject the perfectly valid visas of people who lip off to you.

If there’s anything negative to say about it, it’s mostly that it’s made by a single developer in a couple of months, so it’s pretty short and I’m not sure that it has all that much replay value.  Still, if there were elements like this in bigger titles it would increase the sophistication of video game plots by a huge degree.  And you will actually get annoyed at people who hold up the line by forgetting to give you the paperwork, and how you have to keep telling people to check the back of their ticket for the passport phone confiscation hotline.  Seriously, don’t these people read the bulletins?  I’m trying to do my job here.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson

Most of the science fiction that I grew up reading was from the 50s-80s, and quite a bit of it featured hyperdrives, interstellar empires, and the uniqueness of humanity.  I guess it said something about the cultural mood of the time; most of it was written by men (and I do mean men) who figured they’d beaten the Axis and conquered the atom and that we’d get to the laws of space and time in due course.  Now that said, we live here in the year 2013 in an environment which is in many respects vastly more technologically advanced than the worlds proposed by some of these authors, but we remain distressingly Earthbound with nary a space empire in sight.  Perhaps as a response to this, perhaps for other reasons, there’s been a surge of stories about what happens when we just can’t get off this rock at all.

There are a couple of approaches to this.  Some of the SF examining this question simply involves humanity going extinct over time, but some other works deal with technological fixes.  Vortex is something along those lines.

Vortex is actually the third book in a trilogy, the first two being Spin and Axis (I refer to them as the “Angular Momentum Trilogy” but they may have a more official name, I don’t know.)  Spin was a Hugo Award winning novel and one I enjoyed quite a bit – the setup for that one was that one day, all of a sudden, the entire Earth gets enveloped in a membrane that separates the planet from local space-time, so that time is passing much, much faster outside the membrane than inside it.  It turns out that there are vast networks of computing machines in the depths of interstellar space and they do this to worlds with intelligent biological life.

As to what they do, it’s complicated.  The life cycle of tool-using intelligences is short compared to the Hypotheticals (as they are called by some of the humans, although they are very real) and in order to maximize the time they have available, the Hypotheticals use singularities to create warp gates and allow the biologicals to colonize other planets, something that is otherwise infeasible.  The Hypotheticals connect Earth to another planet (dubbed “Equatoria”) which is a great place to live.  There’s another gate on Equatoria that’ll take you to yet a third planet that people can live on, although it’s not quite so nice.  And another gate on that world as well.  It takes the Hypotheticals a couple of billion years to set all that stuff up though, which is why they use the time-disrupting membrane to allow them to finish this project.  And, I suppose, they’re doing this sort of thing all the time.

All of this is revealed by the end of Spin.  You may have noticed that missing from the above paragraph is the question of why the Hypotheticals go to so much trouble to help out alien intelligences that they barely know.  Well, first of all, it’s not clear so much that it’s a “favor” since you don’t exactly get to opt in to this project, it’s something that gets done whether you want it or not.  And it’s also not entirely clear that it’s for anyone’s benefit at all.  There’s a guy in Spin who finds out somewhat more than he wants to about the Hypotheticals, and a whole sort-of-cult in Axis that ends up not necessarily liking the answers they get either.

There are two parallel stories in Vortex, one of which follows Turk Findley, a major player in Axis who has been removed from the galaxy by the hypotheticals for the past 10,000 years.  The other story is more of a frame story and involves the planet Earth somewhat before the events of Axis, but after Spin.  And although it does tie the story together, I liked Findley’s bit much more, and will be discussing it more.

Findley finds himself disoriented and recovered by a group of people who believe that he’s been touched by the Hypotheticals and will be the key to what I guess I’d describe as apotheosis.  They also snag Isaac, a young boy who was packed to the gills with Hypothetical technology back in Axis and who’s also been gone.  So they head to Earth back through the gate despite the fact that no one’s been there in a while and things weren’t going so well when they were, and find that it’s been rendered inhospitable to human life.  Or, for that matter, multicellular life of any kind.  Effects of climate change due to burning all the fossil fuel reserves of both Earth and Equatoria; it seems that caused eutrophication on a massive scale, poisoning the seas and filling the atmosphere with hydrogen sulfide gas.  Pretty rough.

Now, this isn’t necessarily the end of humanity since there are still plenty of people left on the various other planets, but the question does arise as to why exactly the Hypotheticals would go to so much trouble to ensure that humanity has the opportunity to expand to other planets but do not take any action whatsoever to either prevent humanity from wrecking its planets, by either technological or more brute-force means.  The people that Findley has fallen in with originally believed that the whole point of the Hypothetical exercise was to eventually uplift humanity to god-like status, and this particular problem of evil sort of throws a wrench in that interpretation.

I would remind the reader that one possible solution to the problem of evil is that god is not omni-benevolent, though.

At the same time, the Hypotheticals aren’t mustache-twirling super villains, either.  They’re really above most of that nonsense, or possibly aren’t even capable of villainy as such.  Way back in Spin one of the characters explained that their computational networks are so vast and so necessarily slow that they had a hard time noticing or even comprehending the life of a single organism, and even that character didn’t really understand what they were doing.  Toward the end of Vortex we do finally get an explanation, of sorts, of what precisely the Hypotheticals are up to and why, and the last twenty or thirty pages of the book are amazingly grandiose and spectacular in the absolute finest tradition of SF.  Both the time scale and the epic scope are pretty awesome indeed.

That said, some of the middle portions of the book do kind of drag on a bit.  And as I said above, I didn’t necessarily enjoy the frame story that much, since it tended to get a little preachy at times.  Nonetheless, if you read Spin and enjoyed it, I’d say the last part of this one justifies the admission.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Shogun by James Clavell

Yes, really.

I first read this book several years ago, on vacation, but was interrupted by a pretty severe case of food poisoning and didn’t really pay that much attention to the last third or so.  So I recently decided to give it another shot without the horrible disease, and also in the interim having learned more about the time period and the writing itself.  You know what?  It’s pretty good for a forty-year-old doorstopper.

That said, it’s also slightly strange if you know anything about the context.  It’s sort of like if a Chinese author wanted to write about the American Revolution, but didn’t want to necessarily commit himself to 100% complete historical accuracy if it got in the way of telling an entertaining story as he saw fit.  So you end up with the totally fictional character of “Joe Rashington” who is a Virginia planter leading the Continental Army while his associates “Jake Addams” and “Hamilton Frankleen” are over in Europe trying to get allies.  And they do pretty much all the same stuff as Washington, Adams and Franklin did at the same time period, but stopping to have long conversations with a Chinese man who happens to be in America at the time and who turns out to be critical to the Revolution, and who also has an affair with someone who is clearly, I don’t know, Betsy Ross.  You can see how American audiences might be a little annoyed by it, and it explains why Toshiro Mifune caught flak in his homeland for agreeing to be in the television miniseries.

Anyway, this novel deals with the late Sengoku period, which in real life was concluded by the famous Tokugawa Ieyasu starting a dynasty that would last over 250 years.  In this novel there’s some guy named Yoshi Toranaga who accomplishes the same feat.  (It’s said that he’s the head of the Yoshi clan, which would imply that Yoshi is his last name, but everyone calls him Lord Toranaga, also implying that Toranaga is his last name, and is just one example of Clavell probably knowing better but just throwing it in there anyway.  There are a lot of these issues with Clavell’s handling of the language, but I just have to take that on other people’s word since I don’t really know enough to have my own opinion on it.)

But maybe even that is getting ahead of things a little bit, since the book really focuses on one John Blackthorne, who is the pilot of a Dutch flagged ship that runs aground in Japan.  The ship is the remnant of a small fleet that was looking to circumnavigate the globe and harass the Spanish while they were at it.  As it turns out there was an actual sailor by the name of William Adams who actually did many of the things that Blackthorne does in this novel, including becoming a samurai, although I doubt he was quite as much of an arrogant hothead as Blackthorne is, and hearing about him was actually what inspired Clavell to write this novel in the first place.

From a storytelling hook angle, the shipwrecked sailor thing is golden.  Since the audience for the book is primarily English-speakers, here’s a British guy who has something of a backstory we can appreciate without having to go into too much detail about it.  There aren’t any fellow English speakers in thousands of miles, of course, but Blackthorne is a polyglot – most of the conversations that he has in this book are probably in Portuguese with a couple of forays into Latin, but he’s reasonably capable of speaking Japanese himself by the end.  And he doesn’t know anything whatsoever about the customs, the language, or the political mess he finds himself in, which means that other characters spend inordinate amounts of time explaining this stuff to him, and by extension, us.

Blackthorne only landed in Japan because he didn’t have any other options, and as it turns out the inhabitants aren’t exactly friendly.  He finds, to his surprise, that Catholic missionaries are already there.  This is bad, since he’s a Protestant and this is after all during a time of religious strife; however, it’s also perversely good in some ways since this means there are other Europeans that he can talk to, and they’ve also taught some of the locals to speak Portuguese.  He also finds that the local samurai are used to being obeyed quickly and without question; one of his crew members gets boiled alive at the whim of a particularly unpleasant local nobleman.  Then he quickly ends up in prison under suspended sentence of death as a captive of Toranaga, who’s having some personal difficulties of his own at the moment.

Toranaga’s difficulties stem from the fact that the land is suffering something of a cold war succession crisis.  A man by the name of Nakamura (a pastiche of the real-life Toyotomi Hideyoshi) had managed to unite all of Japan under his personal rule, but he’d had a son late in life and died not too long afterwards, leaving the country under a council of five regents until such time as his son could inherit.  The regents, including Toranaga, were all powerful and ambitious men, and it was Nakamura’s hope that their mutual dislike would keep them balanced.  Nonetheless, just as Blackthorne arrives, the other four regents have joined forces against Toranaga and it’s unclear whether he’ll be able to keep his position or, for that matter, his life.  This, too, is more or less the situation as it occurred in real life.

In many ways, Toranaga is portrayed as a total dick (one of the first things he does is order the death of a man along with his infant son for a relatively minor infraction).  But as the book progresses it focuses less on Blackthorne and more on Toranaga.  And while he really doesn’t think that much about breaking his word and doesn’t really regard people as having too much value apart from how they can help him achieve his goals, he also does show genuine affection for some people and does at least enjoy life.  His duplicitous nature and harshness are actually pretty typical of the regents and the other major lords, so at least he has style going for him.

There is really quite a lot of the white-guy-culture-shock, as you might expect, some of which is handled well and some of which is a little “meh”.  Clavell does occasionally veer a little bit too far into the whole “mysterious and inscrutable Orient” thing, but at the same time it’s pretty clear that a lot of the cultural differences are just different expectations around the same fundamental experiences.  Blackthorne is stunned by how composed some guys are on his ship in the middle of a storm, and most of the Europeans discuss how the Japanese don’t seem capable of fear.  But we find out that these characters are secretly terrified, and hoping that they don’t shame themselves by revealing it.  So there’s a sense of shared humanity there, which is nice.  It’s also pretty clear that the best aspects of Japanese culture as Blackthorne experiences it are limited to the aristocracy and the samurai class, and that he’s basically enjoying himself on the lifeblood of peasants.  His increasing embrace of the culture is not portrayed as entirely a good thing, although his flexibility to be able to is (unlike his surviving Dutch crew, who are a bunch of superstitious ghastly wretches that could be extras in a Monty Python short).

There are a fair number of action scenes in this book (one of which, a boat chase, is just perfect, and another, a ninja attack, which goes on way too long) but in many respects this is a non-action work.  Since there’s technically no state of war, the major parties can’t officially attack each other.  They do anyway, of course, but through proxies, via technicalities, by holding hostages, etc.  There’s a surprising amount of time discussing safe conduct passages and who can leave where when.  A bunch of Toranaga’s allies’ relatives are held hostage in an unassailable castle by one of the regents, but since hostage taking is forbidden they aren’t technically hostages.  At the same time, if they ask to leave, the regent will think of a reason why it’s probably not in their best interests to do so, and if they try anyway there may be an unfortunate accident.  You might think that one of them would just flat-out demand to go, but it turns out to be more complicated than that.  In addition there’s a lot of written threats, and questions about who is under whose orders, and whether they’ve adequately completed the orders, and a lot of minutiae.

Anyway, I liked it.  Although parts of it are kinda overwritten and repetitive, the actual cloak-and-dagger intrigue stuff is worthwhile.  I can see how it was a phenomenon, for a while, especially at a time when less was known about the time period.  It’s definitely not the sort of thing you’d see written today, for good or for ill.  The seventies were weird like that.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Penny Arcade's On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness Episode 4

I wrote about Part 3 of this game series when it came out, so it seems only fair to write about the conclusion here too, since it’s out and all.  And at $4.99 they’re practically just giving it away for a new-release title; I have to say that I don’t have as much gaming time as I used to before I had a real job and responsibilities and so forth, but I am enjoying the new world of digital publishing and indie developers that sell new games at under the $10 price point.

If you played the third one, this one picks up right where that one left off.  Gabe and Tycho managed to destroy the entire universe at the end of Part 3, or at least that was Tycho’s plan, his idea being that it sucked so badly that it should start over again, under the benign guidance of his niece Anne-Claire.  Unfortunately the plan didn’t quite work, since only three of the gods have been defeated and there’s one more remaining, holding a teeny-tiny bit of reality together.

And that is why your party finds itself in Underhell, which is supposedly much worse than normal Hell.

I really liked the writing in this one.  I mentioned in my previous review that the third game suffered from sticking too closely to the prose story that had been written when it didn’t look like the game would actually be made.  Without similar shackles here, and being designed as a game from day one, there was a lot more room for actual Penny Arcade humor.  I’ll be perfectly honest and say that not all of it works, but they keep it coming fast enough that it doesn’t really matter.  If one joke falls flat, there's another one just behind it.

One of the quirks about Underhell is that normal squishy people can’t hope to hurt its denizens, so you actually do most of your fighting with summoned monsters, a la Pokemon.  The monsters are assigned a trainer, and they get level up bonuses affiliated with the trainer’s stats, and one slate of abilities associated with them as well.  For example, if Moira trains Brodent, then he’ll get extra speed on leveling up and will be able to use her Gumshoe abilities, but if Jim trains him, he’ll get extra magical defense and be able to use Necromaster abilities.  He’ll still have his own slate of special attacks either way.

Like in the previous game, your characters return to full HP after each battle, your items can be used a certain number of times in every battle, and MP increases by 1 per round (subject to other effects), meaning there’s no reason to hoard items or not cast your best spells whenever you can.  Your enemies also increase in attack power and speed after every combat round, so you need to take them out quickly or risk being overwhelmed.  There are also a fair number of fights where you have additional combat restrictions or modifiers like I’ve seen in other tactical RPGs.

The game is also relentlessly silly.  Like I said above, it’s got lots of Penny Arcade humor throughout, and they’re basically daring you to take it seriously at any point, such as when a super dramatic reunion suddenly gets stuck in Japanese language mode, helpfully back-translated translated by some sort of brain-dead Babelfish knockoff.  Ostensibly you’re trying to go about destroying the entire universe, but it’s played for laughs throughout.  By the time you’re stabbing an evil god in the spleen you’ll be thinking it’s a perfectly normal day at the office.  I bet it’s also fun for the “real” Tycho to write for Tycho in this game, but I’m pretty sure in the first and second games he wasn’t such a raving psychotic.  I guess we’ll never know.  But everyone treats out-and-out murder as about as controversial as picking up a lotto ticket at the gas station.

I felt like this one was easier than the third one, or at least it didn’t kill me quite as much.  This may have been because I got familiarized with the combat style previously, but I’m not sure.  There are at least eighteen summoned monsters, most of which you will never use if you are anything like me.  The combat system basically forces you to inflict as many status effects and repeating-damage spells as you can for long fights on pain of grisly death, and that means that monsters which can’t do that for you are not going to be part of your party.  There’s maybe six or seven that have such abilities and I found a party of four that pretty handily took out everything the game threw at me, even the scary optional boss.  The game design really emphasizes its stripped-down nature, but Zeboyd may have finally stripped down a little much in this instance.  I found myself having the same fight over and over again and always winning, and by the end I was getting a little bored.  At least you don’t have to grind, as such, as once again all the encounters are right there on the screen.

The game is also pretty linear.  You will basically follow the plot for ten chapters and then get an airship, which you can use to access some secret areas and get some powerful items.  Or you can skip that if you want and just go straight to Overhell.  This is a one-way trip but you are warned about it, it’s not a surprise and it’s up to you.  I got some of the bonus stuff, but I don’t think I got all of it.  I’d say that the game is five to ten hours long, depending on playstyle.  I also don’t think there’s necessarily any replay value unless you thrive on playing the increased difficulty levels.  Perhaps I should have been on one of the harder modes, but I am essentially too apathetic about it to go back and see.

So I said that the third game was great, go get it.  The fourth game is also good, with nice humor, good storyline, and all that jazz, but at some point I felt that I’d had enough of it and I was glad it was done with.  Nonetheless, still a good show for Zeboyd and PA, and probably worth the $5.  As far as I can tell there’s no plan for DLC, so this does appear to be the end of this particular endeavor.  Congratulations to the PA guys on their first foray into game design, and maybe next time they’ll do something with a little more substance to it.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

Been a little slow recently because I’ve been reading some stuff that didn’t really excite me one way or the other and I didn’t have a lot of enthusiasm either good or bad to write about it.  So I went on vacation and decided to re-read some classics.  And here we go.

Lord of Light won the 1968 Hugo for best novel and is one of the stranger works of the period.  One of the things that I really like about it is how much is left unsaid and undeveloped.  In this current environment of sequel after sequel, you’d expect a whole world like this to be the setting of novel after novel, but Zelazny wrote about it once and moved on.

In describing the plot you have to read between the lines quite a bit, but here’s the basic gist.  On an interplanetary colonization ship, the “Star of India”, a bunch of human colonists left Earth some unspecified time before the novel begins.  It’s probably been on the order of five hundred years, possibly longer.  When they arrived at their destination, the crew members discovered that they had developed latent psychic powers, unique to each person, and they used those powers combined with technology from the ship to subdue the various hostile alien species on the planet and achieve a foothold there.  They’ve also got the technology to grow cloned bodies and transfer their consciousness over so they don’t die of old age, although the process doesn’t work if you are already dead.

Rather than explain all this to the colonists and the descendants of their various bodies, the crew spreads the Hindu religion and claim to be various gods.  During the initial desperate fighting this is one thing, but after things calm down there is something of a schism among the “gods” or the First, as they are sometimes called.  One faction believes the time has come to abandon the charade and begin spreading advanced technology to everyone, and are known as Accelerationists.  The other faction, the Deicrats, likes things just fine as they are and since they politically maneuver themselves into running the reincarnation machines there soon aren’t any Accelerationists left.

Except Sam.

The book itself is extremely vague in these specifics and has one of the strangest structures of any book that I can recall reading.  The first couple of chapters and the last ones are the only ones that occur in the “present”.  It kicks off right in medias res and doesn’t bother to explain a whole lot, with Lord Yama, the god of death, figuring out how to rescue Sam’s spirit from the planet’s Van Allen radiation belt where it’s been trapped for a while and to stick it back into a body.  At that point Sam decides he needs to meditate for a while, and he thinks about his war with the gods and how he got into that state in the first place.  This recollection takes by far the majority of the book, and when he’s done he gets back up, we get the final battle, and then it wraps up amazingly quickly.

Since the book starts toward the end of the action, as it were, you know that certain things are bound to happen and the only question is why.  For instance, we’re introduced to Yama helping Sam out, but they clearly weren’t always allies, and we get to see a couple of occasions where Yama was either sent to assassinate Sam or was helping some other gods try to kill him.  Tak wasn’t always in the body of an ape, and so on.

Sam’s revolt against the gods takes place over centuries and is a bizarrely interesting struggle.  He’s got some supernormal powers of his own, which helps, but primarily he has his strong will and sense of moral righteousness.  I like characters like this, although he is pretty terrifying as well.  Early on he commits to doing whatever is necessary to break the reign of the gods, and keeps his word to do it, even when he could quit, even when he might die.  If he has to kill, he'll do it, and if he has to make a pact with the aliens he previously trapped, he'll do it, and if he has to deal with the gods themselves, he'll do even that.

In some ways this is a pretty ahead of its time book, but in other ways it does jar a little bit.  Unusually for the time period, it’s got some strong female characters, some of which are helpful to Sam, and some of which are actually primary antagonists.  Its portrayal of same-sex attraction is pretty unfortunate, though.  It was the 60s, and the typical portrayal in SF was characters like the depraved Baron Harkonnen at the time, so even that isn’t as bad as it could be (although the suggestion that lesbians would really prefer to incarnate in musclebound male bodies is pretty silly to a modern reader).

This is also a book that rewards re-reading, since so much of it is in flashbacks and reminiscences.  The first time I read it I was enthralled, and on each subsequent reading I’ve picked up on something that I’d missed previously, and it will probably still be part of the SF canon after many of its contemporaries are not.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I’ve been trying to get my thoughts appropriately in order on this one for a while, but every draft that I have been writing so far has ended up damning it with faint praise, when what I guess I’m really trying to do is praise it with faint damns.  So I will go ahead and do that.

Let me start off by saying that this is a quality effort from Pratchett, which means that it’s going to be a reasonable read in any event.  If I’d written this book I’d consider it a job well done.  But considering his unfathomably large and deep catalog, he’s got a lot of competition from himself and I’d put this one in the “below average” category for him.  I ended up reading it on an airplane which is probably about the best place for it, since it was about airplane ride length and it also blocked me from having any other reading options handy without retrieving my carry-on from the overhead bin.  I realize that “better than fooling around with luggage on a packed flight” is not a ringing endorsement.

I’m not entirely sure on this point, but I think this book is probably meant for younger readers and it’s also not a Discworld book.  However, it takes place in Victorian-era London, which is probably about as close to Ankh-Morpork as you’re going to get in something close to the real world.  It’s not a sanitized version of London, there is a bunch of grinding poverty and casual daily horror that is usually elided from the setting.  As to when it takes place . . . well, the book is a little cagey on that and explicitly notes that there’s a form of time compression going on to ensure the cast of characters (some real, some fictional) can all co-exist.  Pratchett’s notes say that it’s somewhere between 1837 and 1853, with the caveat that Sir Robert Peel (playing the part of Sam Vimes this evening) didn’t have the job he’s holding in the novel at any point during those real years.  None of that bothered me especially.  In fact, the world building is absolutely first rate.  I’d love to read Pratchett’s underground history of Victorian London, instead of the story that we end up with.

Anyway, we’re introduced to main character Dodger (his nom de guerre; his actual name is of course extremely embarrassing) as he goes about his business of toshing, which means he ambles around in the sewer system seeing if there’s anything worth picking up down there.  Money’s good, objects are also okay as sometimes they’re worth having and sometimes they can be ransomed.  It’s stated that Dodger is not above “finding” things in people’s pockets from time to time either.  This is a storm sewer system, incidentally, not a septic system, although some people have begun using it as such, much to Dodger’s disgust.  Dodger’s an old, experienced and crafty hand at this, having survived it a lot longer than most people do.  He’s seventeen.

On this particular night he runs across two thugs beating up a young woman and leaps to her defense.  The woman, who is going by the name Simplicity, turns out to have a few problems of her own.  Namely she was persuaded to marry a prince from some German state, only it turns out that he didn’t consult his father the king beforehand and is expected to enter into an arranged marriage with someone else.  Suddenly all the witnesses to the marriage have had unfortunate accidents and she decided that maybe returning to her ancestral homeland was a good move.  The principality wants her back and is assuring the British government that no harm will come to her if she returns.  Everyone acknowledges that “no harm” can still encompass a rather large and unfortunate range of treatment.

So, there’s the setup.  If you are thinking, hey, streetwise urban petty criminal by the name of Dodger, that sounds a little familiar, I’d say you get a cookie but the Artful Dodger is wearing his trademark top hat right on the cover illustration so you’ll have to provide your own cookie.  Yes, Charles Dickens is a character in this book and yes, Dodger manages to drop titles for many of Dickens’ novels throughout the story, usually being reminded to stop writing stuff down in case the reader missed it.

That maybe was a little harsh, but there are a couple problems I’ve got with this book which put it in the below average section.

The first one is that he’s got this really great setup and setting and then basically doesn’t do a whole lot with it.  A lot of Pratchett’s heroes tend to be awesome, but in this case Dodger basically doesn’t even break a sweat.  He starts off down there in the sewer and by the end of the month he’s got a Saville Row bespoke suit and is being received at Buckingham Palace.  I never once got the sense that he was in physical danger, that his plans would fail, or that he was ever out of his depth in any way.  There were several good opportunities for this but none was taken.  Dodger can out-think, out-talk, and out-fight everyone right out of the gate.  The Discworld novel this reminds me of most heavily is Soul Music, where the joke is supposed to be that the guy is named “Bud of the Holly”, but that doesn’t actually have much to do with anything.  I’m saying that it’s cool to have Dickens in this book, but he doesn’t actually do anything that couldn’t have been done by someone who wasn’t Dickens, and he doesn’t really seem all that much like the real Dickens anyway.

In the same vein, the story lacks a proper heavy.  The unseen prince and his father are the villains but they’re over on the Continent.  Their agents first hire the aforementioned two thugs through a fixer.  Later the agents discuss whether the fixer is any good and whether they should hire “The Outlander” instead.  This sounds spooky, right?  A good Pratchett psycho villain like Mr. Teatime or Carcer?  Then Dodger is told to watch out – someone’s hired the Outlander.  And then the Outlander is both introduced and dispatched in one scene.  This is a shame, not least of which because what little we do find out about the Outlander means that this could have been a truly classic villain, and because the actual confrontation is the only time that Dodger ever really is at any of a disadvantage even a little bit (although salvation is not that far away).

One of the other problems I’ve got is perhaps specific to me, since I’m an Oliver Twist fan from way back and one played the Artful Dodger in yet another children’s theater production.  If Dickens really did base Oliver Twist on his fictional-real-life meeting with Dodger then both Dodger and Solomon Cohen should have sued his drawers off for libel.  I didn’t mention Cohen yet but he’s Dodger’s landlord/mentor and is as far from Fagin as humanly possible.  In fact he’s not only as cool as Dodger but far more worldly.  I sort of wish the book had been about him, but he’s been everywhere and seen everything and frankly would have probably had even less trouble overcoming adversity than Dodger did.  So maybe that’s not a good idea.  And also Cohen tries to discourage Dodger from pickpocketing.  But anyway, although Oliver Twist is really enjoyable, that was Oliver’s show and there wasn’t really too much suggestion that the Artful Dodger or Fagin were admirable or aspirational in there.  Like I said, maybe this is just me, but I was really bothered that Dodger was supposed to be the Artful Dodger when he really wasn’t, in any way.

And my other major complaint is in the nature of personal relationships.  In Discworld novels, the romantic leads tend toward the fourth-date marriage (Carrot and Angua excepted).  I’ve always thought that this was sort of a throwback to the Victorian-esque setting of the novels.  So here when it seems like Dodger and Simplicity may be getting together that’s not entirely unreasonable . . . except that this is supposedly the real world.  Simplicity’s problems started with her horrible choice of romantic partners and she’s just coming off a physically abusive relationship, and Dodger is a seventeen year old street kid who frequents prostitutes on the bad side of town.  I can foresee some strife in this potential relationship.  Just saying.  I wasn’t rooting for them to get together, although I won’t say whether or not they do.

So, there’s my list of faint damns.  I don’t need those four hours back, exactly, and it’s not actively bad.  Still, not his best, sad to say.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Takeshi Kovacs trilogy by Richard K. Morgan

I mentioned in my review of Neuromancer that it must be really frustrating to achieve your greatest success on your very first time out, because then no matter what you do, some jerk is always going to be comparing your later efforts to your first one and saying that it’s pretty good but . . .  Today, I’m going to be that jerk in discussing the Takeshi Kovacs trilogy, which is absolutely one of the best SF works of the past two decades, and at least arguably one of the all-time greats.  Perhaps Morgan will surpass his own work someday, but so far I don’t think he has.  But no one can take this achievement away from him, and in my mind it puts him right up there with anyone you care to name in the field.

These three books – Altered Carbon, Broken Angels, and Woken Furies, deal with the adventures of Takeshi Kovacs (that’s the Slavic pronunciation, by the way, you uncultured lout).  By any reasonable standard, Kovacs is a huge asshole, and even that is an understatement.  He’s at best an antihero and only then because the people he’s up against are even worse than him.  If you looked at a list of his many crimes you’d see just about everything on there except possibly sexual assaults, although in the second book he does engage in some dubious erotic healing techniques on a woman who’s really in no position to give enthusiastic consent (and in any event, this is probably more related to George MacDonald Fraser’s discovery in his first Flashman novel that rapists make worse protagonists than murderers, rather than Kovacs’ firm ethical standards.)

He’s introduced in the opening of the very first novel having just robbed a biotechnology firm on Harlan’s World, a Podunk colony planet out in the middle of nowhere, and as he and his girlfriend are post-coitally discussing how to dispose of the score they are raided by the police and shot to death.  Incidentally, this was a righteous shoot since the girlfriend took down a few officers with a toxic flechette pistol and Kovacs really was reaching for his gun at the time.

Now generally being killed tends to interrupt one’s social schedule and make it difficult for you to star in an SF trilogy from that point, but in the 25th century as it turns out everyone has a “cortical stack” implanted which holds all memories and personality, and it’s of pretty solid construction.  So while it’s by no means impossible to permanently get rid of somebody by destroying their stack, it’s not going to happen in your ordinary garden variety accident or gunfight.  This technology also makes people somewhat casually dismissive of their bodies, or “sleeves”, as if the flesh wears out or gets destroyed you can always just get a new one from somewhere.  The authorities also don’t bother putting physical bodies in prison, either; they just put your stack on a server somewhere and auction off your body, and when you get out you get whatever derelict they have available.  It also means that it’s reasonable to expect Kovacs to serve every day of the 120 year sentence he draws.

Except that’s not what happens – his digital personality gets freighted to Earth, where he’s reawakened in a pretty nice body and told that he’s being hired out to an absurdly wealthy tycoon as a sort of parole.  The tycoon, Bancroft, has recently been restored from backup after someone destroyed both his stack and his head.  Official verdict:  suicide.  Bancroft doesn’t buy it and asked around to some of his friends, one of whom recommended Kovacs as a nasty dude who could look into the situation, with force if need be.

As it also turns out, Kovacs used to be a UN Envoy, one of an elite group of super soldiers who make even other hardened badasses piss themselves with fear.  They are, essentially, weaponized sociopaths.  Given that anyone can get put into a huge muscleman body grown out of a vat, what distinguishes the Envoys is their mental conditioning.  This includes, but is not limited to:  resection of normal human fight-or-flight responses, eidetic memory, language retention, disregard for social dominance rules, and general fearlessness.  An Envoy has no scruples whatsoever when it comes to mission completion and thinks nothing of killing fellow humans.  They also have whatever powers would be handy when Morgan needs it for the plot, which I’ll give a pass.  Anyway, they’re so scary that upon leaving the Envoy Corps, they’re forbidden to run for political office or hold high corporate positions because of the threat they pose to the average Joe.  Perhaps because of these restrictions, ex-Envoys account for a large portion of the violent crime in the Protectorate.

Like most really good SF, Altered Carbon and its sequels aren’t really so much about the technology itself as it is about making some point about people.  The effect of cortical stack technology has had an alarming and constrictive effect on society.  It’s all well and good to think that it would be great to be backed up in case you have some horrible accident, or get sick, or whatnot.  But what about if Stalin had access to this technology, with off-site backups and an array of new clone bodies to get reincarnated into over and over again?  Or Steve Jobs?  Imagine if there wasn’t any way to climb the career ladder because the CEO and every middle manager on down was immortal.  And imagine if these people were constantly afraid of what they had being taken away – like today, but even more so.  This isn’t a dystopia, exactly, but the UN government is oppressive and heavily captive by powerful corporate interests.  The people with money and power are planning to keep it forever.

Bancroft isn’t really all that bad as these things go, but he’s got Kovacs over a barrel in that if Bancroft is displeased then the parole gets revoked.  The remainder of the novel is very reminiscent of a postwar noir detective story, only unlike in Raymond Chandler’s stories they don’t just knock him out, but actually can kill him in virtual interrogation rooms.  There’s some loopiness, but it all ties together and it’s really great.  Kovacs makes a good hard boiled detective and even the ultimate antagonist is a Chandler-esque figure of organized crime.

It was perhaps inevitable that a sequel got made, but what is really striking about the sequels is how little they have in common with the first novel.  There’s a lot of throwaway details that come back into play (he mentions offhandedly another Harlan’s World Envoy who finally shows up in the third novel) but the genre is totally changed.  If you were expecting another detective romp in the 25th century, Broken Angels is not it.

Kovacs has gone back into military service of a sort, hiring himself out to a mercenary organization on the planet of Sanction IV, currently involved in a nasty civil war.  As an ex-Envoy he’s a desirable recruit, but mentally he doesn’t seem to be that interested in the conflict.  On one side is a corrupt group of UN affiliated, corporate backed status quo defenders, and on the other the rebel Joshua Kemp.  The UN Protectorate isn’t heroic by any stretch of the imagination, but Kemp seems like a neo-Maoist who’s more interested in erecting statues of himself than any real reform and doesn’t hesitate to use nuclear weapons on civilian populations.  Kovacs claims at one point that he just signed up with the mercenaries because that gave him the best chance at getting a new body if killed there, and given his numerous allegiance switches this may even be mostly true.

Perhaps I should amend that a little bit – in this book Kovacs is totally out for himself.  He made a noble and selfless gesture at the end of Altered Carbon, but it would be hard to imagine him doing that here.  It may be because he’s older and even more jaded than before, but when he finds that there’s a chance to obtain an alien artifact he immediately ditches his enlistment obligations and attempts to cash in on it.  We already knew that he was a morally questionable individual, but in this book he slides very close into outright villainy, although in thinking about it he was pursuing a career in armed robbery prior to the events of the first novel.  Maybe comic-book level super villainy, then.  Anyway, I think there’s a reasonable case to be made that the actual hero of this book is mercenary chief Isaac Carrera, although it appears to be Morgan’s intent to portray everyone as a huge asshole.

Having made his score and escaped Sanction IV, the third book, Woken Furies, finds Kovacs back home on Harlan’s World engaging in a little recreational murder of some people who have annoyed him.  This one takes a little while longer to get started, but also contains the most interesting antagonist – Kovacs himself.  The ruling class of Harlan’s World surreptitiously took a backup copy of his mental state back when he was younger and still had some loyalty to the governing structure, and have sleeved this younger self in an attempt to get rid of the older Kovacs.  (Double-sleeving yourself in this way is highly illegal, which doesn’t stop it from happening occasionally throughout the novels.)  This one also features the possible return of revolutionary Quellcrist Falconer, who pioneered the concept of multi-generational civil conflict well before Kovacs himself was born.  As it turns out, Kovacs was only on Sanction IV in the first place to provide assistance to Kemp’s revolution on behalf of a Quellist cell before deciding Kemp was a jerk and defecting.

This third book is probably the technically best written of the three, but also tries to get into waters a little too deep.  Morgan writes really good action and suspense scenes but is not quite as good at philosophy and religion, both of which make up a large portion of this one.  But even the characters admit that they’re not sure what they’re proposing is better than the status quo, just that they want to change the power structure to make sure it’s not always concentrating in the hands of those who already have it.

There’s a ton of good world building and detail with just enough handwaving to make it all work.  The whole series is obviously a labor of love, and Morgan keeps it moving so quickly that you don’t have time to worry if any of it really makes sense.

At the end, when Kovacs is going along with a possible new revolution, he’s still not sold on whether it’ll work or whether it’s a good idea.  He’s not an idealist or an ideologue, and most of his capacity for group loyalty ended in a viral strike on most of his squad on a planet called Innenin.  As much as I like these novels, I also really respect Morgan’s decision to stop it here on the grounds that we’ve seen enough.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Johannes Cabal the Detective by Jonathan L. Howard

Having read the first book in this series and thinking it had potential, I decided to take the plunge and give the sequel a shot.  I’m certainly glad I did, because this proves that Howard’s world building wasn’t a fluke and my intuition that getting Cabal off that train would be the best thing for his character was right.  This book was way fun, and in my opinion better than the first.

Cabal starts off this book in a condemned cell in some made up Eastern European or Baltic state named Mirkavia (in a nice literary nod, Ruritania is said to be one of its close neighbors).  He’s in the condemned cell because he got caught trying to steal a necromantical tome from a local library, and as it turns out, just being a necromancer is a capital offense in that part of this world.  This does seem a little excessive on its face, but keeping in mind that he does actually have magical powers and did in fact originally sell his soul to Satan in order to obtain those powers, and for that matter we’re told that some of his necromantic experiments haven’t gone exactly 100% according to plan, it’s perhaps understandable why the authorities have that reaction.  The account of his trial (he was not given a trial) is pretty funny.  In fact, the whole thing is pretty funny.  The omniscient narrator has broken free of some of the constraints of the first volume and feels free to tell the reader repeatedly what a dick Cabal is and outline his alien mental states, generally in a very entertaining manner.

Anyway, Cabal is approached by a sleazy nobleman with a proposition; the Mirkavian emperor was supposed to give a rousing speech but has unfortunately just died.  Since the powers that be really need the speech given, and given Cabal’s specialty, they want to know if maybe Cabal can make the emperor less dead for a while.  Although it gives him a stay of execution, neither he nor the noblemen really believe it’s a reprieve, although Cabal does manage to use his freedom to make his former jailers shave a large number of cats.  It’s only a matter of time before he manages to outwit his ostensible captors and escape, of course.

We learned at the conclusion of the first novel that Cabal is doing all this stuff because his fiancée died and he wants to restore her to life.  Not some shambling semblance of life, but the real thing.  What the dead fiancée thinks about this proposition isn’t clear, and it’s also not clear whether she’d actually approve of everything he’s been up to in his quest.  It’s symptomatic of Cabal’s character that he considers the death something of a personal affront to him, as opposed to a general tragedy.  As the narrator points out, Cabal’s goals are sympathetic if you overlook the way he treats people, the things that he does, and his general methods.  But he’s got style, and having secured the book he came to Mirkavia to obtain he’s now got to figure out how to get out of the country, which he does by drugging some civil servant who looks vaguely like him with a chemical that isn’t all that likely to kill him, and taking his place on a steampunk airship out of the country.

This is the longest section of the book and also where the “Detective” part comes in.  Cabal is only moderately interested in legalities (he’s usually aware that he is breaking the law when he does it, but never lets that stop him if he feels that his activities will be unduly constrained) but has an extremely strong sense of self-preservation, so when there are a series of shady occurrences onboard, he’s got to see if he can get to the bottom of events.  He’s certainly not out for truth or justice, he’s in it to save his own ass.

If the conceit of the first novel was to explore where exactly a diabolical carnival would come from in the first place, this one is a Victorian era locked room mystery where everyone involved has some sort of secret and they’re on a magitek airship, where the detective is an amoral sociopath.  Cabal’s interests basically begin, end, and move through determining whether there’s a threat to him and, if so, removing it, while not letting slip that he’s an infamous necromancer and fugitive.  Other passengers have their own agendas, from trying to get an army contract to sell pork rinds to smuggling to racking up sexual conquests.  I tried to think of a passenger who didn’t have an ulterior motive or a secret identity and eventually came up with two.  It’s that kind of story.

Also on board the airship is one Leonie Barrow, who (if you read the first novel) sold her soul to Cabal in order to save her father, but in the end didn’t have to go to Hell for various reasons, only very tangentially because Cabal felt somewhat bad about it and more because Cabal was one soul short anyway.  Obviously Barrow could blow Cabal’s cover any time she wanted, and it would make some sense for Cabal to surreptitiously “remove” her.  He doesn’t, and can’t for the life of him really explain why, although her resemblance to his dead love probably is a major factor in there somewhere.  On her part, it would make sense to rat him out, and she can’t for the life of her really explain why she doesn’t.  Not that this is a romance, mind you.  It’s not that kind of story, and Cabal probably wouldn’t be interested, even if someone were to explain romance to him, which they don’t.  It’s implied that having no soul, then being re-souled and having so long a period of obsessive devotion to his goals have done something to his ability to feel much of anything anymore, which makes some sense.

Howard really has a lot of fun playing with literary and genre conventions of a typical detective story, and manages at the same time to tell a really good one.  He plays fair with clues and the astute reader might figure it out before Cabal does.  (For the record and in all honesty, I whiffed big time.)  I like detective stories generally, I like dry wit, and I found Cabal’s responses to all the indignities that life throws out him to be very funny indeed.  I also admire sequels that have dramatic genre shifts while maintaining the same overall tone.  So really, this one was hitting on all cylinders for me.

There’s a third book in the series, available currently only in the UK, and apparently a fourth on the way.  With this level of quality and improvement, I’m looking forward to their trans-Atlantic appearances.