Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Quick Review Summary before going all Quentyn on y'all

I've really been living the fantasy these last months (well, except for blogging about fantay all that much), so in this post I'm just going to try and give a short review of some of my trips to those fantastical otherworlds. I note that I never have the time to watch movies and TV shows, which saddens me, but they simply take too much time to consume. Except The Force Awakens which I obviously had to go see. Several times.


All right, so that was back in December, the 16th to precise. I took my nine year old who is becoming a big Star Wars nerd himself to see The Force Awakens. I knew a whole lot about it beforehand, having followed the production closely ("and with great interest", as Palpatine would say) since it was announced back in October 2012. I was terribly burned by the prequel trilogy, and had finally gotten over it (seriously, I cannot tell you how much anguish those three films caused my geek brain), and thought that an Episode VII wouldn't and shouldn't get me all nervous, excited, apprehensive, curious etc. but of course that's precisely what happened and going into the theater I was super-tense because, you know, the original trilogy was and is the most important of all fantasy stories to me. Yes, they are silly (or "delightful" as writer Lawrence Kasdan would say) but they are simply part of me, and have always been, and no matter how much I've been into other stuff later, Star Wars was always there. 
The first viewing was...well, it was interesting. I was overwhelmed by the intense pace, and felt that I was being steamrolled over; there was no time to properly digest what was being presented to me. I left the theater feeling a giddy excitement, a rush, and this was definitely something I enjoyed watching a lot more than Episodes I-III. Yet at the same time, there was this nagging feeling, mainly because of how derivative it felt, what with the plot beats of the original Star Wars (1977) being repeated almost verbatim; yet The Force Awakens presents that lived-in galaxy vividly like the originals did, and it definitely has some of the best acting of all seven; and I found myself falling in love with Rey, despite the weirdness of her super-quick Force sensitivity acceleration. Finn was great, Poe was great - for the first time since 1983, I chuckled at Star Wars dialogue ("You go first, or I go first?", Poe Dameron not being intimidated by Kylo Ren). 
I think they were very smart to leave huge gaps of backstory alone instead of over-explaining everything through stilted dialogue (preferably uttered while walking toward a window, see; the prequels), even as it pained me to not really "feel" the plight of Kylo Ren. 
The second time we went to the cinema was more comfortable as I knew what to expect. I still found that the film moves really fast, and that's a good sign. Whereas I was constantly bored at the drivel of the prequel trilogy, The Force Awakens rushes toward that beautifully shot, wordless end scene and the moment a scene is over I feel like I want to watch it again - with a few notable exceptions.
There were a few things that really hurt the overall quality of the film in my humble opinion; aside from the (frankly astounding) large number of references to the original trilogy, I was well and truly disappointed with the character of Snoke, whose voice was so freaking cool in that first teaser trailer - There has been an awakening...have you felt it? The design and look of the character took me right out of the film, wondering why I was looking at a character that would suit a Harry Potter movie and not a Star Wars movie. Maz Kanata suffers a bit from being a CGI character thrown into a world of practical effects, as well. Snoke and Maz both are problematic because their presence is so obviously computer-generated compared to all the grit elsewhere in the movie. Not knowing what the next two episodes will bring, I feel that the two characters easily could have been removed from the story without too much impact. Kylo Ren could have turned out the way he did all on his own, and Maz's role as the one who has Luke Skywalker's first lightsaber could easily have been changed as well.
These niggles however did not do much to harm my enjoyment of this fun - above all, it's fun - space fantasy, and I am eagerly awaiting the blu-Rey to see it again and again. 
In conclusion, The Force Awakens is good at everything the PT sucked at (acting, humor, dialogue, etc.) and is bad at the few things the PT kind of did well (I admit the PT brought in a whole lot of new designs whereas TFA strips it down a lot (to the point that the good guys now only have X-Wing fighters), and the overall concepts of the PT were original (Palpatine's rise to power, and how he set up the Clone Wars) whereas TFA arguably has the weakest plot of them all (and the weakness of the plot was my main worry before going in). Fortunately, spectacular acting and the high fun factor saves it - but I'm still not sure whether I am treating the film as part of my 'head canon' or if I think of it as a fun non-canon adventure the way I think of Star Wars comics and novels. Time will tell. And to think that I'm getting another movie in the franchise this year! That's just insane. It's like George RR Martin suddenly wrote a post on his blog revealing he has been quiet for so long because he wanted to surprise us with a new A Song of Ice and Fire book every year for the next six years. 

In the wake of The Force Awakens, my Force sensitivity was obviously triggered back into life and I just had to buy some of the new stories coming out; partially to satisfy my curiosity in seeing how they have re-imagined the time following Episode VI, Return of the Jedi, now that the old "Expanded Universe" was deleted from the archives, and partially because I wanted more Star Wars back in my life. Oh, the feels. The love. 

First thing I bought was Chuck Wendig's Aftermath. It is getting pretty bad reviews from the majority of Star Wars nerds but trust me, it really is the best Star Wars novel in existence, including everything written since Timothy Zahn returned us to the galaxy far, far away in the early 90s with Heir to the Empire. Wendig avoids all the traps and pitfalls most franchise authors fall into. Wendig brings fresh, snappy prose (some would say it's broken) which in my opinion at least feels closer to the style of the actual movies; he manages to avoid too many contrived links between his novel's characters and movie characters (most authors seemingly get a kick out of writing all these coincidental meetings between their characters and Luke, Han, Leia etc.); and the story is actually interesting, well-paced and easy to follow (I've started A New Dawn, another new-canon novel, several times and it just bogs down immediately into boring technobabble). One of Aftermath's main characters, by the way, is the chubby pilot (am I allowed to say chubby? for the record I'm getting awfully chubby myself) seen in princess general Leia's base in The Force Awakens. Recommended.

Lost Stars is a complete contrast, and, quite popular among Star Wars fans. And it is precisely the kind of boring drivel that makes me dislike most Star Wars literature. A slow-burning story based on the tired old cliché of star-crossed lovers (think Romeo and Juliet: In Space!) with one character ending up fighting for the Empire and the other with the Rebellion, there's no end to the contrived encounters. Let's see, from Episode IV we have the main characters meet basically every character who survived that film (and some, like Tarkin, who didn't); the prose is bog-standard nothing-to-write-home-about stuff you expect from a licensed product, and the story doesn't really ever make you wonder what's going to happen next; I found myself rather wondering "Which character will he or she run into next?" Still, it was a better read than most Star Wars novels I admit, but the bar isn't too high in the first place. It felt like a character-driven story (and not a superweapon-driven one, for example) which is central to understanding what Star Wars is all about anyway.

Finally, a number of short stories and novellas have been published in the The Journey to The Force Awakens line of stories and, since they were inexpensive, I bought two of them: The Perfect Weapon, a more than decent enough story featuring a background character from TFA, and Smuggler's Run, a Han Solo and Chewbacca story that had a perfect pacing and where the author (Greg Rucka) got the characters just right - with Han Solo's lines written so well I could hear Harrison Ford's voice as I read the story. Of the two, Smuggler's Run was the most fun reading experience, though the lure of these books - to tease The Force Awakens - is kind of a moneygrab as there's not much being revealed. I mean, I don't consider "Han Solo is old, people!" a proper tease for the new film.


I’ve got a few more new Star Wars novels to get through (title of that book I have with both Tarkin and A New dawn), but for now my curiosity has been sated, and I’ve gone back to finishing Django Wexler’s The Thousand Names which suddenly picked up again after a longish plodding section, and is now back to being a ripping good yarn. 

I did read some of the new, apparently canon, Star Wars comic series too, though; first I read Star Wars: TITLE HERE, featuring a tale not too far removed from Lost Stars (in the sense that it is about a couple, also kind of star-crossed though they both serve the Rebel Alliance), in this case the parents of ace pilot Poe Dameron from Episode VII. It was a light, fun read. What more can I say? It’s just a comic book. 
Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes is a trade paperback that collects the six first issues of Marvel’s new Star Wars series and it’s a fun, light read as well. But I can’t for the life of me treat this stuff as canon. It remains a fun what if story to me. I just can’t buy into some of the things presented in these tales, but they are a fun quick diversion which is all they should be. Only movies are REAL!1

All right, enough with that galaxy far, far away - there are other fun secondary worlds I’ve visited over the last months, though “fun” may be the wrong word to describe the setting of Projekt RED’s videogame The Witcher III: The Wild Hunt. It’s the place I’ve spent the most time in, and it’s a world as grim (or even more) as Martin’s Westeros. If you enjoy Martin’s cynicism, grit, and penchant for violence and bodily fluids, seek no further - The Witcher III delivers in spades and is the best Westeros game ever made. Although it for some reason insists to put in silly Scottish-dialect-speaking dwarves, Tolkien-style. Really doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the game. Despite the silly dwarves, The Witcher III is an absolutely amazing masterpiece of CRPG design, with the possibly best dialogue and voice acting I’ve ever experienced. The writers aren’t afraid to shy away from morally grey areas, violence, sex, whatever, which gives the game an edge sorely lacking in a world full of manga RPGs and vanilla Dungeons & Dragons-style games. The main character, Geralt of Rivia, may at first come across as a typical power fantasy badass but turns out he is an amazingly well realized character with so much depth. I fricking love being Geralt, roaming the war-torn, disaster-ridden, disease-plagued faux-medieval-Eastern-Europe…except when I meet werewolves. Those goddamn things are just impossible. They actually took the steam out of my experience - after many hours of hopeless addiction, getting into a fight with a foe I just cannot seem to beat, I found myself drifting back to Star Wars Battlefront for a quick gaming fix. One of these days I’ll try to immerse myself back into Geralt’s plight, as this is a stunning game in all ways except werewolf ways. Highly highly recommended. The lame cover art doesn't do the game any justice at all. Maybe I'll do a writeup of my adventures as Geralt the Witcher one of these days. I've never taken more screenshots than I've done while playing The Witcher. So many gorgeous vistas. You really feel like you're wandering in some otherworld. The game has also led me to decide to read some of the novels the videogame series is actually based on. I really like the concept of the Witchers, and I really like how much Eastern European folklore they've managed to weave into the game (coincidentally my own "campaign world" which I use for short stories and my tabletop RPG campaign, also draws heavily on Eastern Europe's history and mythology). Lots of interesting and actually spooky quests, a plethora of interesting choices and interesting NPCs, fantastic design, I am inclined to say The Witcher 3, despite me not caring much about the combat system, might just be the best RPG experience on a computer...ever. Yes, better than Pillars of Eternity (which I stopped playing; and it's so dense with stuff I feel I have to start over again to get back into it) and better than Baldur's Gate (maybe). 

I've bought a couple of other videogames (Steam sales = feel the love), some old ones that I used to play back in the day (Knights of Honor), some indie dungeon crawlers (The Fall of the Dungeon Guardians, and the throwback to one of my all-time favorite games Eye of the Beholder, a little gem called Dungeon Kingdom: Sign of the Moon, currently in so-called Early Access, which triggers all my compulsive disorders but I'm stuck just as I got stuck on Eye of the Beholder back in the day - I know, the Internet shall provide, but I like to solve these puzzle/trap/dungeon adventures all by myself. But I notice it's easier to put in a round of frantic laser-fighting in Star Wars: Battlefront. It's simplistic but it really feels like I'm part of the Rebellion/Empire in the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, and the button-mashing, running-around, cursing-my-opponents-when-they-shoot-me-to-pieces is a nice change from the usually slower games I prefer.

I was really impressed by Django Wexler's The Thousand Names when I began reading it; it provided a suitably mysterious prologue that left me wanting more of the characters presented therein (unfortunately, they are mostly gone from the remainder of the novel), and the main characters Marcus and Winter, once introduced, were likable. The setting, too, was interesting, combining elements of fantasy with something reminding me of both the American civil war, Napoleon, and the French Legion. "Flintlock fantasy", they call it. Unfortunately the book failed to keep my attention as its plot began to move (ponderously, because of heavy cannons needing to be pulled across the desert) and too much space was devoted to quite similar descriptions of fighting; there was simply too much fighting at one point, with the same kind of sensory descriptions (how often does the book mention the smoke) f their guns). Like the army of the Vhordanai, I got bogged down...but then a couple of days ago I dived back in and almost as if the story knew what I was thinking, it began picking up pace, and well the story got more interesting again. It really is a good book at its best, better than most of the fairly good fantasy novels of the last decade. In my opinion, of course. It is not as gritty / grimdark as the stories I usually rave about (like Prince of Thorns for example) - in fact, there's a decency and decorum here that makes The Thousand Names almost stately in the way it comes across. Maybe a few cuss words and off-hand mentions of horrific things, but nothing right there punching your face like Abercrombie, Martin etc. At more than 70% read, I now have high hopes of actually finishing this novel...

...which leaves my increasingly larger "to read" pile. I believe the next novel will be a return to Mark Lawrence's world, as The Liar's Key has been waiting since publishing date for my attention. Though I feel like I need to flip through Prince of Fools again to remind myself what it was all about. I think it's time to face up to the fact that I'll never finish Brandon Sanderson's The Way of Kings. Six years now since I cracked it open for the first time. There's always something new and exciting coming out that has a stronger pull on me. And I still haven't read the sequels to The Red Knight. Or the sequels to Half a King. Or that Rothfuss novella, Silent-something something. 

All right, elsewise I've, as befits my curse, spent too much reading all manner of nerdy stuff. I trawl a number of tabletop RPG-related sites, sometimes finding myself reading too long into the night (which accounts for the slowness of my novel reading, sometimes I just get hung up on some thread about some game or setting). My collection of first/second edition D&D Forgotten Realms books is almost complete, barring a few obscure (and costly, so costly) out-of-print titles, and my third edition collection (which I swore I would never start) is about halfway to completion. What can I say, I just love pulling out some random book full of goofy fantasy stuff. I usually break down its influence to more medievally ideas, when I'm in the mood for stealing stuff for my own world.

That world has been getting some much-needed love from its daddy, too. I've been spending too many hours the last week assembling a list of all the NPCs (that is, characters not controlled by my players, it's an RPG term) in my setting and to my mild astonishment it runs 54 (!) pages in Word. That's a lot of pages...for the first of several continents. The "campaign bible" (all my notes on history, culture, geography, all that world-building stuff) is now closer to 500,000 than 400,000 words with no end in sight. I know I've got to stop sometime if I want to get more stuff done outside of this hobby project, but at the same time I like doing crap like this. Which is basically mimicking Martin's appendices, damn it. Will I one day build an actual novel out of all the bits and pieces? Probably not. I don't have the discipline. But I like to build the world, by writing, by making maps, by drawing characters, and so it continues to grow whether it will never be seen outside of my gaming group or not. And maybe I'll throw it all into an ebook and try to sell it as a "nuts and bolts" thingamog for other gamemasters to pilfer. We'll SEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE but this whole post was basically procrastinating because I dread the Quent so there you go.

Until then, get your head out of the clouds and be productive :-P

Addendum:
Who painted my face while I was asleep?
Got an email from Youtube with a teaser trailer for Game of Thrones season six. I clicked 'play' before I remembered I'm not supposed to be watching this stuff. What a weird teaser. I don't believe for a second that some of the characters seen as dead skin masks in the House of Black and White will die, but I guess they'll probably fool a lot of people (and me, if I'm wrong duh) into thinking that certain main characters are going to die (possibly horribly). I wonder if this could actually lead to more people not watching? "That's it, enough with all the killings," kind of? Or maybe it will draw even more viewers because, you know, morbid curiosity. Hard to judge, public relations business can be. Said he.

Ooooh and an Episode VIII teaser showing us Luke from a new angle and sweet, sweet Rey holding out that lightsaber. Looks like I'm set for a lot more geekery. And even Ooooh-er, there's two new Malazan books out this year, Fall of Light and Dancer's Lament, OH Hell's yeah! Malazan is the gift that keeps on giving, provided you like it of course. Now if Martin actually manages to finish Winter, we could be looking at a 2016 that takes fantasy to a whole new level. And since we actually have a February 29th this year, we get a whole extra evening to revel in all the goodness that so occupies the geek's mind. (I am aware that VIII is slated for a December 2017 release, but we are getting a new Star Wars movie this year anyway, the spin-off Rogue One. I'm not particularly pumped about it but I have a hunch it's going to be great fun). And Abercrombie is working on a new novel to follow his First Law setting, which is superb news. Wow, this will be quite interesting. And to boot, my favorite CRPG franchise is set to return with Baldur's Gate: Siege of Dragonspear. And maybe finally my own Waiting for Winter: A Re-read of Clash of Kings, Part II will see the light of day. Who knows? Stay tuned for Quentyn Martell's riveting adventures!

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