Comic Review: Tales of the Jedi

Totj_kotor1Star Wars: Tales of the Jedi is a comic series that was published by Dark Horse from 1993 to 1998 with a total of 35 issues. This was only two years after the Thrawn Series by Timothy Zahn had kickstarted the Expanded Universe as we know it now, placing it pretty early in the history of Star Wars tales. The series was created by Tom Veitch, who had written the Dark Empire comic series a year earlier (which I consider the greatest travisty of the Star Wars universe after the Holiday Special), but he was joined by Kevin Anderson in 1994, who had just released his Jedi Academy novel series (which also has a pretty poor reputation among fans) and became the sole writer for the series a year later.

The Tales of the Jedi are set 4,000 years before the movies, in a time when the Republic was still smaller, the galaxy less explored, and the Jedi much more numerous. The first three story arcs, written by Veitch, (and giving us the now popular title “Knights of the Old Republic”) follow the adventures of the young Jedi Ulic Qel-Droma and his brother Cay and their fellow knight Tott Doneeta, who are send to the planet Onderon to help the government of the capital city end a war with the tribes living in the surounding jungles. They discover the spirit of the Dark Jedi Freedon Nadd manipulating the events on the planet, facing the three Jedi with a much bigger threat than they anticipated. As the crisis escalates, Ulic’s path crosses with the newly trained Jedi Nomi Sunrider, who has an exceptional talent for the Battle Meditation technique, which allows a single Jedi to coordinate the efforts of an entire army and making her extremely valuable.

Once Kevin Anderson joined as second writer, he introduces Exar Kun, a character from his Jedi Academy novels, whose spirit is trying to turn Luke’s Jedi students on Yavin 4 to the Dark Side. Exar Kun is unhappy with his master not trusting him to learn about the dangerous powers of the Dark Side and so sets out to learn more about them on his own. A path that very much mirrors that of Anakin Skywalker in the movies that were made a few years later. Exar Kun gets corrupted by the still not fully destroyed spirit of Freedon Nadd who leads him to the ancient Sith tombs of Korriban, where he once more unearthes the ancient secrets of the Sith. At the same time Ulic Qel-Droma is trying to infiltrate the leadership of a new Sith cult called the Krath who also have been guided by Freedon Nadd and establishing their own galactic power by allying with the Mandalorians and become a major threat to the Republic. Halfway through the arc, after the Dark Lords of the Sith series, Veitch left as a writer, leaving the field entirely to Anderson with the Sith War series.

A third main arc is set a thousand years earlier and centers on the first clash between the Republic and the Sith Empire under the leadership of Naga Sadow, who uses trickery and conspiracy to first destroy his rivals for control over the empire in The Golden Age of the Sith and then sets his eyes on the Republic in The Fall of the Sith Empire. A final, much shoter arc called Redeption, is set some years after The Sith War, but is mostly a personal story of Nomi Sunrider’s daughter Vima and doesn’t really add much to the historic lore of the Old Republic.

The setting of these comics would later return on the Knights of the Old Republic videogames, which right after the release of the second game got another comic series also, and confusingly, called Knights of the Old Republic. I was interested in those comics and had read the Jedi Academy novels at some point in the late 90s, so I decided to start at the very begining with the Tales of the Jedi series to know more about those references to Exar Kun, Ulic Qel-Droma, and Naga Sadow. When I first read them some three or four years ago, I quite enjoyed them. But having read them again over the last two weeks, my opinion of the series is now very different.

The first arc, written by Veitch, is really pretty bad. The art is very sloppy and ugly, characters are as flat as it can get, and what little traces of a plot there are are almost entirely told by exposition in boxes with the characters not really contributing anything with their own words. The second arc, begun by Veitch and Anderson, is a noticable improvement in that the art now looks only bad and that the plot consists of exposition in speech bubbles instead of boxes. It’s still a bad comic, though. The third arc, now done completely by Anderson alone, first starts surprisingly well with Golden Age of the Sith. The art has now been upgraded to simply ugly, though servicable, and there’s actual plot and Naga Sadow has some real personality as we follow him taking out his rivals and becoming new Dark Lord of the Sith. Sadly that didn’t last and The Fall of the Sith Empire is right back to being a jumbled mess of exposition. The short Redemption at the very end is okay, I guess. I still don’t think it’s any good or very interesting.

So yeah. My final impression of the Tales of the Jedi series is that it’s bad! There are noticable improvements over time, but those are simply from “godawful” to “only bad”. The only reason why I would recommend to anyone to read any of these comics, would be a great interest in the lore of the early days of the Star Wars universe. But even then I would say that only The Golden Age of the Sith and The Fall of the Sith Empire are worth it. If you really want to know about Ulic Qel-Droma and Exar Kun, then you’re much better of at just reading the page on Wookiepedia. There is so little plot and characterization in Veitch’s comics that you really are not missing out anything. It probably is much more exciting to read a detailed summary than to shovel your way through that pile of dung yourself.

Some basic plots for fantasy adventure tales

When trying to write Sword & Sorcery stories, I often end up discarding an outline because my initial idea doesn’t really offer much of an actual plot. The first observation I made is that any story that would be considered an action adventure tale needs four basic elements to be great.

  • A protagonist.
  • An antagonist.
  • A conflict.
  • A memorable location.

The first three seem completely obvious, but I realized that many of my initial ideas were really lacking both clear antagonists and conflicts. A travel adventure can make without them, but for Sword & Sorcery they are essential. (A memorable location is technically optional, but I think any adventure story benefits hugely from having a climactic scene take place on a really awesome stage.) So I sat down and went through all my favorite fantasy stories to see what the basic type of conflict in them is and hopefully find some useful pattern that helps me with coming up with my own plots. All of them would be what critics call “person against person” conflicts. “Person against nature” and “person against self” are pretty much nonexistent in heroic fantasy adventures. (Though Kane occasionally goes there in addition to fighting with lots of other people.) While looking primarily at fiction, all of them actually make for great adventure hooks for RPGs as well.

  • Assassins! Someone wants to kill someone for whatever reason. The protagonist has to prevent that, and might even be the target himself. (The Phoenix on the Sword, Cold Light, The Lesser Evil.)
  • Reverse Assassins! Same idea, but this time it’s the protagonist who wants to kill someone and needs to find a way around those who would try to prevent it. Relatively rare, but if you give the protagonist a good reason it’s also a nice starting point to create a plot. (Conan the Barbarian. Worms of the Earth.)
  • Escape: The protagonist is imprisoned or trapped and has to find and fight his way out. (The Scarlet Citadel.)
  • Rescue: Someone else is imprisoned or trapped and the protagonist has to save him.
  • Predator: A person or creature wants something and can get it from people by killing them. The protagonist has to put an end to this. (Alien, Predator, The Thing.)
  • Assault: Enemies attack a town, castle, or country to take control of goods, territory, or people. The protagonist needs to repell them. You could instead have the protagonist lead the attack, but that’s very difficult to present in a heroic way. (The Hour of the Dragon.
  • Arcane Power: Someone wants to get his hands on something that would give him great magical power. The protagonist wants to prevent this, either by giving the power to someone else or by making it unreachable. (Raiders of the Lost Arc, The Last Crusade, Bloodstone.)

This is a pretty quick and dirty list and such great stories as The People of the Black Circle and A Matter of Price really don’t fit easily into any of these categories. But if you’re in search of a good plot for an adventure story I think these are a pretty solid start.

Game Review: The Witcher

The_Witcher_EU_boxI was very much intrigued by The Witcher the very first time I heard about it, back around 2005 or so. “Dark Fantasy” had not really been a huge thing back then and the concept sounded like a fresh new approach to the genre that to me was mostly defined by The Lord of the Rings and Dungeons & Dragons. The game was released in 2007 and I played it the first time not very long after that. However, I never actually finished it. And greatly enjoying the books now and wanting to play the second game again, it seemed the appropriate thing to give this game another go.

Background

The Witcher is based on a series of fantasy books written by Andrzej Sapkowski during the 90s. Basically it started out as taking themes and archetypes from Grimm’s Fairy Tales with some elements of Polish folklore and turning them into serious modern tales of violence and prejudice. It’s a bit similar to what Neon Genesis Evangelion did in Japan with it’s own take of children controling giant robots to fight city annihilating monsters to save the earth. Though usually there’s also a good amount of small meta-jokes here and there that really go a long way in keeping the books from drifting into grimdark territory. The main hero is Geralt of Rivia, the Witcher. When the world was still full of monsters that threatened the survival of human civilization everywhere, the Witchers were created to be superhuman monster slayers, highly trained in swordfighting and the basics of magic and turned into alchemical mutants through various potions that give them immunity to disease, resistance to poison, accelerated healing, hightened senses, and so on. But as the world has become more and more pacified many people doubt that these dangerous freaks are still necessary and there are only very few of them left and even fewer new ones being trained. But as monsters are starting to go extinct, it becomes very clear that this won’t make the world any more safer or peaceful as people are really one of the biggest source of violence and missery. While the last book in the series was published in 1999 and has been translated into over a dozen languages, the English translation has always been very late and the final three books are only being released in English right now, with the last one coming in 2017. The game takes place 5 years after the last book, which of course kind of spoils the ending of the series, but given the popularity of the games it’s pretty much like “I am your father!” and “Aeris dies” now. However, given the themes and moods of the series, I am really not feeling like this makes reading the books any less fun or exciting. The game does a very good job of remaining very brief on what exactly happened during the books and don’t really tell you anything about what was going on at the final showdown. Still, feel yourself warned when I go deeper into the story later in this review, where I will mention how the transition from the books to the game takes place.

witcher3Gameplay

The Witcher is in many ways a “classic western RPG” with lots of similarities to various Dungeons & Dragons games, The Elder Scrolls, or Dragon Age. However, because you’re playing a fixed character and there is a pretty clear main story, it’s in many ways much closer to the Mass Effect games. I think the closest comparison would probably be the Gothic series that was developed and released in the early 2000s, but to my knowledge didn’t get very popular outside of Germany. (It was a huge hit here, though.)

Geralt is very well known for the signature weapons of a witcher. A steel sword and a silver sword. Steel is the weapon of choice to kill people and animals but does relatively little damage to supernatural creatures. The silver sword is much better suited to that, but is more blunt in comparion and not ass effective against regular enemies as the steel sword. Though, how Geralt himself puts it “both are for monsters”. Since Geralt is a swordsman through and through, fighting with a sword and no shield is the primary, and effectively only form of combat. You can pick up daggers, axes, and clubs from enemies, but your skill with these doesn’t ever improve while you can become a total beast with your swords. There are three modes of fighting. A strong mode for big and heavily armored enemies, a fast mode that deals the most damage to small and fast enemies, and a group mode in which you lash out against every enemy around you. The group mode deals the least damage per strike, but since you’re hitting lots of enemies at the same time its perfect any time you are dealing with three or more enemies at once. While this is a neat idea in theory, there is very little strategy involved. Usually you can see immediately if the enemy takes more damage from strong or fast mode attacks and all you do is press the button to select the right mode for the current enemy. There is never really a question which mode might work best, it’s always obvious so there isn’t really any choice or tactics involved. The main tactical element of combat is deciding where to stand, which enemy to aim at, and when to move to a new position to avoid getting swarmed by to many opponents at once. But that’s also what you do in Baldur’s Gate or the first Dragon Age and while the animations of Geralt’s awesome fencing style look amazing at first, the novelty of it quickly runs out. Combat is serviceable, but not a particular highlight of the game. The second game went the right way with getting ride of modes and giving you a strong attack button and a fast attack button instead. Continue reading

Book Review: The Desert of Souls

The Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones is the story of Asim, captain of the guard of a powerful nobleman in Bagdad in the 8th century. He is also the narrator of the tale, reporting of his adventure with the sage Dabir some indeterminate number of years later. I am usually not a fan of historic fiction or first person narration, but here it turned out to be surprisingly fun. When their master had been sad about the death of his favorite parrot, Asim took him to a trip to the market to distract him and cheer him up, with Dabir getting roped in against his will. On their trip they met a fortune teller who told them that an opportunity for great adventure was waiting for them right outside her door, but if they prefer to go back to their ordinary lives all they would have to do is stay inside her house a few minutes longer and it would simple pass by. But of course they didn’t.

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Even though set in a historic setting, the book is clearly a fantasy story. But even the two heroes are very sceptical that anything supernatural is going on for quite some time. And while miracles and supernatural beings are accepted facts of their culture, the ideas of sorcerers and undead monsters in the middle of Bagdad just seems too unbelievable to everyone. It’s a very “classic” adventure tale and I’ve seen Jones write frequently about his love for Robert Howard and Harold Lamb. And it shows. I think as historic settings go, this is as close to the spirit of Sword & Sorcery as it gets. I am also reminded of Indiana Jones and Tarzan, so you probably might get an impession of what kind of adventure this is.

Asim’s narration works very well for the book. Overall I think the characters are not very complex, but both Asim and Dabir have clear personalties and it shows through not only in their dialogues but especially in the way that Asim describes the events and adds his own thoughts on them. He is somewhat of a simple man and while apparently being able to do a good job at protecting the house of his master and his family, all the praise for him is generally about his loyalty, honesty, and bravery. But he really isn’t the sharpest knive in the drawer at any stretch. The language he uses to tell his tale is simple and he often glosses over the details of the more arcane and ocult things that are going on, admitting that he didn’t really understand what the sages and sorcerers had been talking about. At the same time you also learn a lot about him from the little and seemingly irrelevant details he does mention because they seem to be important to him. It’s frequently mentioned in passing that they took a short break for prayer or that they washed hands before sitting down to eat, and while you almost never see him mentioning the turbans people are wearing, there are numerous cases where he points out that a person did not wear a turban. I don’t know the cultural dress code of that place and period, but simply by mentioning it it becomes obvious that Asim considers them improperly dressed and that to him that tells quite a bit about their character. While somewhat simple minded and a warrior, his honesty and integrity are without doubt and he is very conscious of his manners and proper behavior. Or at least as he sees it.

I sprang off my left foot, caught the roof ledge with my fingers, and pulled myself up. Dabir urged care; I do not think he heard my response, as I was too busy not falling to answer clearly, and my words do not bear repeating.

As far as knowledge of history and culture goes, the Arab world is not one I am particularly familiar with, but throughout the book it is always very apparent that Jones does. At least once or twice every chapter there is something mentioned that makes me stop and think “Oh yes, I think I heard about that somewhere before. Interesting to see it included in this story.” I mentioned the regular breaks for prayer and the washing of hands, as well as the absence or loss of turbans, but there’s always a lot more of this kind everywhere. At one point early in the book there is a mention of Turks, and that seemed somewhat dubious to me so that I looked it up. And as it turns out, the Turks had already been muslims in the 8th century, even though it was only many centuries later that they migrated from modern Kazhakstan to Turkey. And not only are there muslims in Bagdad, but also Zoroastrians and as they travel down the Tigris there are scenes involving “Marsh Arabs”, an ancient ethnic minority probably very few people in the western world have ever heard of. All this makes it feel that this story takes place in the real Abbasid Caliphate and not just some Arab-themed fantasy world that has some well known place names thrown in. What always intrigued me most was the use of the term “Greek”. In the tale as told by Asim, it’s always simply “the Greeks” without any additional commentary, and given the way he narrates the story it feels very appropriate. Asim knows what he means by Greeks and assumes that all his listeners do as well. But at this time in history, any “Greek” ambassadors or spies would be from Byzantium, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. And most of eastern and northern Europe was not christian yet, so to Arabs in the 700s the word Greek might even be seen as synonymous with Christian. I really liked that the Greek sorcerer in the story is a necromancer. Resurrection of the dead is a purely Christian concept and the whole idea of Hell was adopted from ancient Greek mythology. I don’t know of Jones took any liberties there, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there were rumors circulating in the muslim world about Christians creating undead monsters in secret. The Romans had rumors about Christians being canibals and practicing child sacrifice some centuries earlier, so it doesn’t seem unlikely. And after all, even the word necromancy is Greek. In contrast to that, the Zoroastrian priests use fire magic, which also seems like something that the people of Bagdad probably would not have found too difficult to believe.

Jones has written quite a bit about the Sword & Sorcery genre over the years, among them some of the most interesting and insightful articles I’ve seen about it. He really does know the genre and how it works, and this shows very much in this book. It’s really a lot of fun. There’s almost always something happening and the narrator is always giving his own thoughts and perspective on the events in a way that is very enjoyable. (The first boat ride was the only point where I thought it should hurry up and get back to the action.) There are frequent fight scenes, but they are generally kept brief enough to not bog down and keep the action moving. Things tend to happen in interesting locations and there are lots of turns that give the whole thing a certain pulpy quality. Calling the book formulaic would be doing it a great disservice and create the wrong impression. It’s not a heap of cliches in any way and feels very original. But I think overall it could have much more of a spark and been much more audacious. Jones manages to avoid the story getting campy or pretentious, which is always a real risk with this genre, but I think it could have used a good amout of more fire. Structurally I think it’s an excelent adventure tale, but I got the impression of it being a bit too careful and slightly stiff. Aside from Asim, who being the narrator is always present throughout the entire tale, the supporting characters all seem somewhat underused. From what glimpses we get of them, Sabirah, Hamil, Farouz and even Diomedes seem like really interesting characters, but they actually do and say only very little throughout the entire story. Ali could have been a villain you would love to hate simply based on all the times he showed up to ruin someone’s day, but sadly we don’t really ever learn anything about him. He’s just the knife guy.

But even considering that, I think this book is really pretty great. It doesn’t read like a book by a seasoned career author, which it isn’t, but it’s one of the books I had the most fun reading in quite some time. That’s really one of the things I’ve been missing from many books I’ve recently been reading. As well written as many of them are, they are not fun. There’s a second book with Asim and Dabir, which I am sure I’ll be reading eventually. And if Jones adds a bit more fire and audacity to his tales, I think he could be really outstandingly good.

Book Review: Kull: Exile of Atlantis

186182While most people know of Conan, only few have ever heard of Kull. Kull was, to my knowledge, the first serious attempt of Robert Howard to write heroic fantasy, but he had only very little commercial success with the series and I believe only managed to sell a single story to a magazine. It was only much later when he had already become famous with Conan that people really took interest in his earlier stories about Kull. This collection appears to include everything Howard ever wrote about Kull and I think even goes a bit overboard with it. Not only does it included several full stories (which admitedly would have made for a pretty thin book), but also earlier drafts for some of them and a number of fragments that were never completed and sometimes only conist of a few pages. If you only look at the actual full stories, this book is a lot shorter than it looks.

Kull does have his fans and many of them are sometimes quite vocal in asserting that Kull is not simply a proto-Conan. And while it’s true that Kull is not just that, he still is very clearly a proto-Conan. Kull is a barbarian from Atlantis who had a turbulent career as a slave, gladiator, and soldier, until he led a rebellion against the king of Valusia and strangled him with his bare hands, taking the throne for himself. Not only is that pretty much exactly what we’re told about Conan in The Phoenix on the Sword and The Scarlet Citadel, but The Phoenix on the Sword is 80% identical to the Kull story By This Axe I Rule. Conan did not come from nowhere or out of nothing. Conan was Robert Howard’s attempt to take Kull and make the stories more action-packed with more monsters and grander villains. And as we now know, it worked.

While I’ve heard some people say that they actually like Kull more than Conan, I’m really not feeling that way. As a character, yes, perhaps Kull might be a bit more interesting. But when it comes to the actual stories and what is on the page, Conan is playing in a completely different league. The stories of Kull are not bad and clearly the work of a writer with a fascinating imagination. But as the craftsmanship goes I do find them rather lacking. There are good ideas, but as pacing and tension goes they are mostly pretty weak. And I don’t really feel surprised that Howard was not able to sell them to a magazine for publication. Even the completed stories still feel like drafts, and often like first drafts at that. As completed stories they aren’t just that good and I think reading Kull at his best is comparable to seeing Conan at his weakest.

When it comes to rating this book, it really is much easier than I’d like to: Nay! I do not think this is a good book. I can not recommend it to people looking for something fun to read. It’s still worth reading if your interest in Kull is an academic one. This is where Sword & Sorcery really started and where it took the shape we now know. And this is Robert Howard when he was starting out writing fantasy, which is also really fascinating to examine for a fan. But I don’t think it is offering much when you’re looking for entertainment.

Awesome future novel idea #3: Pirates of the Baltic and Kraken!

George Martin described his Song of Ice and Fire series as being basically the War of the Roses with dragons. So when I was checking some facts on the 14th century German pirate Klaus Störtebeker, I very soon realized that someone should write a fantasy series inspired by the whole regional situation in which he lived and was active. I always considered the Baltic Sea a region where nothing really ever happened after the times of the Vikings was gone. A rather boring and insignificant part of the world. There was the time when Sweden send troops into Germany during the 30 Years War and that time when the Fins repelled two huge Soviet Invasion during World War 2, but that appeared to have been pretty much it.

But, oh boy… At least for the last decades of the 14th century, shit was getting seriously real around here. The king of Sweden and Norway had split his kingdom between his two sons and the new king of Norway married the daughter of the king of Denmark. After the deaths of the kings of Denmark and Norway, the Danish princess manages to get the nobles to elect her son as successor of both her father and her husband. This angered her sister, whose own son had been meant to become king of Denmark, but that had been overruled by the Hanseatic League. If you’re not familiar with them, think East India Trading Company. But probably even more powerful by quite a bit. These super wealthy merchants ruled over several of their own independent city states. The prince who had been denied the throne of Denmark was also the Duke of Mecklenburg in Germany and now understandibly upset with the League.

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The Swedish nobles saw an opportunity to get rid of their king by making an alliance with Denmark-Norway and start a kind of civil war. Since Denmark had the Support of the Hanseatic League, the Duke of Mecklenburg joined in on the side of the Swedish king. This lead to the creation of a serious force of mercenaries/privateers/pirates who are lead by impoverished nobles from Mecklenburg and came to aid the besieged Swedish capital Stockholm. These pirates quickly became a serious disruption of sea trade and so the Hanseatic League send its own troops to fight them and eventually occupied Stockholm. The pirate army gained control of the island Gotland, which is the largest island in the entire region after Great Britain and Ireland and sits right in the center of all the Baltic Sea trade routes. This annoyed the knights of the Teutonic Order, who originally were crusaders in Palestine but then went on another crusade against pagan Slavs on the Baltic coast and established their own independent country in Lithuania a hundred years earlier and was regularly at war with Poland. So the Teutonic Knights invaded Gotland, which forced the remaining pirate leaders to flee the Baltic Sea entirely. And they ended up in East Frisia, a region that previously had been an egalitarian anarchy but after several desasters fell under the control of several warlords. From there the situation gradually calms down as Sweden gets integrated with Denmark and Norway into the Kalmar Union and the remaining pirates are eventually hunted down and executed. There’s no big finale or ultimate showdown to the real story.

But, damn! This is wonderful stuff for a big fantasy novel! It got everything. Various kingdoms, succession conflicts, dynastic struggles, merchant lords, exiled nobles, pirates, warrior monks, island fortresses, barbarian chiefs, sea battles, sieges, public mass beheadings of known outlaws. Instand awesome, just add magic. And probably the best part: You got two sisters who both fight over whose infant son will become the ruler of the whole region.

The one thing with my Sword & Sorcery setting that I was always a bit unhappy about is that it developed into something that really wasn’t suited to have a lot of Baltic Sea culture integraded into it. But this would be a perfect opportunity. And many of the key locations are right where I grew up. Lübeck, Hamburg, Mecklenburg, Denmark. That’s right outside our front door. (And I am currently planning to return back North later this year after several years in Southern Germany.) 14th century is a bit late when it comes to my personal taste to fantasy aesthetics, but transfered into a fantasy world the basic political situation should also work quite well in something that looks a bit older. Can’t really have a super powerful alliance of merchant lords in a true dark ages setting, but there’s plenty of room to wriggle. But then, I think the world as shown in the Witcher games seems very much inspired by pretty much the same peroid and region and I enjoy that quite a lot.

Though I really have no idea yet how to turn that into a story. Because I am actually not a fan of these huge epic series with millions of words. But it feels to me like an idea that I should seriously keep in mind if I one day feel the need to take a break from my Ancient Lands stuff.

Books to Read in 2016

For the next year I have planned to read a number of books I’ve been having on my list for a long time but never got around to actually give a go. I have to admit that I am not highly enthusiatic about most of them and my main goal is to broaden my horizon. But if I happen to find one or two writers I really like and want to read more, that would still be totally worth it even if the others end up disappointing.

  • Baptism of Fire by Andrzej Sapkowski (1996)
  • The Black Company by Glenn Cook (1984)
  • Dark Crusade by Karl Wagner (1976)
  • Defiler of Tombs by William King (2013)
  • The Desert of Souls by Howard Jones (2011)
  • The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan (1990)
  • Glyphbinder by Eric Bakutis (2014)
  • Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed (2012)
  • Times of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski (1995)
  • Under a Colder Sun by Greg James (2014)
  • Waylander by David Gemmell (1986)

At about a book a month that should be pretty easy to accomplish. And look, only two of them are older than I am! I am not only reading stuff from when my parents were just born. Only mostly.

2015: Empires, Assassins, and Dead Kings

Overlord posted the list of the 50 best fantasy books released in 2015 at Fantasy Faction today and it made me realize that I have not read any book that has been released since 2014. Aside from Stealer of Flesh from 2012 and The City of Dreaming Books from 2004, the most recent fantasy books I enjoyed are all from way back in the 90s or a lot earlier. I tried reading some others, like Gardens of the Moon, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and Tome of the Undergates, but got bored by all of them very quickly.

Going through a list of 50 books that a group of well read fans of the genre considered the best of the year, you’d expect to find a good number of works worth reading. But the sad truth is that there’s only two among them that at least somewhat caught my attention but also sounded pretty cliched. As far as I am able to tell, the whole fantasy market is currently dominated by stories of assassins murdering kings and emperors and starting a huge succession crisis, and it seems to have been for several years now. And I just don’t care at all for either assassins or court politics.

I always thought I am not asking for much, but stories about exploring ancient wonders and encountering monsters seem to be pretty much gone for the time being. There has been some whispering in the shadows for a while that Sword & Sorcery appears to be in a good position for a comeback, but so far this really does not appear to have materialized at all. Maybe there are some people writing stuff of this kind, but if that’s the case it’s apparently not promoted as such. Trying to find anything of that kind seems to be mostly a very fruitless endeavor. The one honorable mention as an exception to this is William King, who is mostly known for his licensed works for Warhammer. I really should read some more of his books. Stealer of Flesh really wasn’t bad, but it’s very similar to Karl Wagner and I’ve been given priority to the old master for the last year.

The World of Magic and Monsters

While working on a draft for a story set in the Ancient Lands for while now, I’ve still been struggling to come up with plots that really embody the themes I have in mind for the world and evoke the style of other works that greatly inspired me. In situations like these I always find it very helpful to get back to the very basics and make a list of the works I want to emulate, and then try to find what elements they all share in common. And it did help quite a lot this time as well. Looking at Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Metal Gear Solid, and various wuxia stories, I noticed that they all share the trait of having a kind of separate and hidden community of heroes and villains who share knowledge of things mostly unknown to the rest of the world.

It’s made the most explicit in the wuxia genre in the form of the Wulin, the “community of kung-fu”. In most wuxia tales all the masters of kung-fu know each other, either personally or by reputation, and tales of their deeds spread quickly among all practitioners of the secret arts. Regular people know of this hidden world, but they know very little of what’s going on inside it, the alliances and rivalries inside it, the exact nature of the supernatural arts, and the special traditions and customs these people observe. Something very similar is found in Star Wars with the world of the Force that includes the Jedi and the Sith, but also the Witches of Dathomir, the Sorcerers of Thund, and many other minor groups. In Metal Gear Solid you have this crazy world of super-powered super-spies, which really is very similar to the whole superhero genre. While not made explict but still present, there is a similar exclusive community in the Indiana Jones movies which includes Indy, Marion, Beloq, Mola Raam, and all those Nazi leaders. In the Witcher stories there seem to be something similar going on with most sorcerers, witchers, and alchemists being in complex web of relationships that covers all the Northern Kingdoms. Another great example are the roleplaying games of the World of Darkness, where it is spelled out explicitly right in the name. It’s a whole different world that geographically overlaps with everyday life and occasionally interacts with it, but for the most part remains hidden from normal people. Which is just as everyone involves prefers it.

When working on outlines for Ancient Lands stories, I most often end up with a generic monster or haunted ruin piece that frankly even bore me. How is it going to entertain anyone else when even I don’t feel really excited about it? I occasionally considered approaching new ideas for stories as Star Wars fan fiction and then just moving them over into the Ancient Lands. But I think many of my very early ideas for the world already provide a solid foundation that can easily be expanded into such a community of the supernatural which would make that step unnecessary. A special World of Magic and Monsters. The Druids were conceived that way from the very beginning. Not an actual organization with hierarchies and headquarters, but an informal association of shamans and witches who keep each other informed about what they hear about sorcerers and demons. Going a level higher there already exists an implicit community of witches, priests, monster hunters, and treasure seekers. While their goals are different, the knowledge they come across and have use for is often the same. And it makes perfect sense that those who explore ruins of the Ancients have close connections to shamans or monster slayers.

I would not go so far and make it as explicit as the Wulin in wuxia, or as clearly separated from normal society as the World of Darkness, with strict laws and traditions. That would seem inappropriate given the wild and disorganized nature of the world as a whole. But I like the idea of part of the world running by special rules and relationships that you really can only learn about if you are initiated into this community. You may know that a neighbor used to be a monster hunter and now he’s just another old man tending a small garden, but when he gets visited by mysterious strangers nobody really knows what kind of things they might be talking about all night behind his door. I also really like the idea of everyone knowing everyone and no antagonist being a random stranger. It always makes the world feel much more alive and connected and also supports the idea of a world where everything is decentralized and governed by personal connections.

First thoughts on Star Wars 7

As part of our now regular christmas tradition of seeing a movie with the family the day after christmas, we’ve been to watching the new Star Wars movie today. There’s a big and pretty nice theater just a few hundred meters down the road from my parent’s house and this time of the year there’s always something we all want to watch. I had decided pretty early on that I am not going to see the movie on my own, but if my family wants to see it I’d been happy to go along with it. I’ll keept this review down to specific details that have already been revealed by the trailers and so on, so it’s not entirely spoiler free, but I won’t be talking about anything that gets revealed only in the movie itself.

I’ve seen the movie in 3D and didn’t enjoy that. I think the projector was slightly misaligned but aside from a faint “shadow” to both sides of objects with a high contrast to the background I don’t think that was much of a problem. Nobody else complained about that. I think this was the third or fourth movie I’ve seen in 3D and it just seems to not be working for me. I see the depth effect and colors look crisp, but I take a while to get focused on the image and for large parts of the movie the cuts are just so fast that it’s already by the next image once I’ve found my orientation. And any time there’s some shit flying in the foreground it completely messes up my vision as well. The combined effect was that everything appeared extremely jittery and out of focus the whole time so that after 20 minutes or so I just watched it without glasses. That meant the whole movie was blurry, but that’s something I could live with in exchange for not straining my eyes for over two hours. Not sure if it’s all me, or the projector, or if they used 3D poorly in the movie. But I never enjoyed it in some of the Hobbit movies either. Please get over this fad soon and show movies normally again.

I also saw it in German. The voice acting was fine, but since English is mostly a highly simplified version of old North German it is almost always possible to translate dialogue in a way that achieves almost perfect lip synching. Unfortunately the result is a highly simplified version of modern Standard German, that sounds completely unnatural and incredibly stilted. And when you’re passably fluent in English, you probably could reconstruct the exact original English script from just hearing the German lines. It’s word by word translation and that always sounds shit.

Now to the movie itself. My overall impression is that this is “a new Star Wars”. It is very much really Star Wars and not something else with the name tagged on (yes, I hate Nu Trek), but it’s not more of the “old Star Wars”. It’s Star Wars, but a different Star Wars. Though the last 15 had already been a different Star Wars than my Star Wars. And now we have another one. I am not thrilled about that, but I think that’s okay and it would have been unreasonable to expect something else.

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