Monthly Archives: December 2015

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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Book Review: Night Winds

Night Winds is the third Kane book by Karl Wagner that I’ve read. I already liked Death Angel’s Shadow and Bloodstone very much and so I had pretty high confidence that this one wouldn’t disappoint me either. Like Death Angel’s Shadow, Night Winds is a collection of several unconnected stories of various length. And as many others have already claimed before me, Kane seems to be at his best during these shorter tales when Wagner can get straight to the point. The more stories I read, the more I am surprised that only Howard, Leiber, and Moorcock are widely regarded as the great giants of Sword & Sorcery, but I think Wagner can easily stand among them as an equal. The stories of Kane are a lot more gloomy and less exhilarating fun compared to Conan, but I think when judging them by their own strengths they really come out pretty even.

416b88d85f358107ee285b84612551ddJust like Conan, Kane is always the centerpiece of his stories and the defining element of the series. The stories are not just with Kane, but always about Kane. And as a character he is extremely fascinating. Kane is possibly one of the most extreme cases of anti-hero with a heart so black and cruel that he would easily be a villain in any other stories but his own. And from what what other people tell about the things he is doing between the stories, being a full out villain is apparently his normal mode. Not only is he an evil man, Kane is also cursed to be immortal. He does not age and recovers from injury and sickness much faster than any normal human. But he can still be killed and he does feel pain like any living man and that’s the true punishment behind his curse. Because the one thing that Kane hates more than his eternal life is the very idea of seeking escape in death. He probably could kill himself or allow others to kill him with no problems, but his pride drives him to cling on to his tormented life with bare hands and teeth until his very last breath. With all the time in the world and a powerful body, he mastered the arts of fighting and sorcery ages ago and is quite probably the most dangerous person in the entire world. But in the world of Kane, sorcerers don’t cast spells and are much more like Lovecraftian ocultists, and even a warrior like himself can not fight a dozen men by himself. He spends his eternity by gathering armies of mercenaries and bandits to carve out small empires to rule, but eventually he is always either defeated by his enemies or simply gets bored with it and walks off into the wilderness with nothing but his sword and his clothes to sink into sorrow or find himself some new kind of diversion. It is during these times where almost all of the tales of Kane are taking place.

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Kishoutenketsu, or putting the twist in the middle

While familiarizing myself with storytelling techniques and dramatic structure, I came across the term kishoutenketsu as a form of narrative structure common in East Asia. I had not heard the term before, but I instantly recognized the idea behind it. The word simply means Introduction, Development, Change, Resolution and this structure can be used for pretty much anything from a four line poem, to philosophical arguments, and whole TV shows. It’s used so frequently in Japan that it can often become a source of confusion when talking with Europeans and Americans who have difficulties with grasping what the point of an argument presented in this fashion is supposed to be.

The basic concept of kishoutenketsu is that a story or argument begins by introducing a subject and then continues to elaborate on it. However, about halfway or two thirds through the story, the narrative suddenly switches to a different subject that may only marginally or not at all be connected to what has happened before, or make everything that has come so far seem inconsequential. The beauty of it then comes in the fourth part of the story where it is then revealed how these two seemingly different plot strands are actually very closely connected and that they have really been the same story all along. What I find quite enjoyable about this approach to telling a story or making a point, and which probably why it became so commonly used in East Asia, is that it engages the audience to do their own thinking. It presents a puzzle that is meant to make you curious about how it will all come together in the end, and that curiosity makes you pay attention to the details and anticipate what intention the storyteller might have. And it’s not uncommon that the true meaning of the story will not be clearly explained at the end. It is both rewarding for the audience, as it makes you feel smart when you see the connections and the pattern, and also helps to make the message stick in your head because you actively worked on finding the meaning instead of just being handed a final conclusion that makes sense in someone elses mind. Continue reading