Thursday, August 30, 2012

Raiding the Stacks: The Time Machine, by H.G. Wells

Once again I have decided to visit the (public domain) works of H.G. Wells and will be talking about The Time Machine. I would definitely say that The Time Machine is a landmark story in the history of science fiction because it introduced the idea of time travel and the ability to use a machine to travel forward or backward through time at will. An entire genre of wonderful stories, such as Back to the Future and Doctor Who were only made possible through Wells introducing the idea of a time machine, and I'd hate to live in a world where neither of those bodies of work happened. I highly recommend you read this story, even for nothing more than nerd cred.

One thing that really surprised me about The Time Machine was its relative brevity as a novel. The book is extremely concise, but I don't think it suffers at all because of its brevity. Wells does an excellent job of telling the story in a precise manner and doesn't introduce subjects without adequate explanation. There is definitely an open ended feeling to the conclusion of this story, but it serves as a call to action for the reader in the hope that maybe the future the Time Traveller faced in 807,201 CE can be avoided. I would say that many of my readers could easily finish The Time Machine in a day and I highly recommend you find a copy.

Perhaps the most important thing about The Time Machine is the fact that its overarching message is incredibly relevant to the current economic and social anxieties, despite being written over a hundred years ago. As you probably know, the world of 802,701 CE consists of two races, the Eloi and the Morlocks. The Eloi live on the surface world and enjoy a life of leisure, while the Morlocks live beneath the surface and are responsible for maintaining the Eloi's lifestyle through a lifetime of hard work. What is interesting, though, is that the Eloi are little more than cattle for the Morlocks, and while it may be a good life while you're alive, at the end of the day you're still hamburger. Wells explicitly states that the Morlocks are the eventual descendants of the Have-nots, the oppressed working classes who manned the factories of Wells's era. The Eloi, on the other hand, are the descendants of the elite Haves, who eventually have little more mental facilities than children as a result of their idle lifestyle. In our current era of the 99% vs. 1%, The Time Machine remains a highly relevant social commentary as well as a warning to the 1% that the oppressed masses don't always stay that way.

Overall The Time Machine is a short, very easy read and an excellent commentary on the growing economic gap between the rich and poor. Although written over a century ago, Wells's work has once again become a relevant social commentary on our economic structure. Although it offers no solutions for avoiding the future of 802,701 CE, The Time Machine leaves the reader wondering if perhaps the future can be changed by our actions in the present.

- Kalpar

Sunday, August 26, 2012

De Bello Hispaniensi e Germanicum

Some pitched battles against the Danes and an assault on the fortresses in Iberia form the crux of this update.  We also work on buying our way back into the Pope's good graces, because medieval popes are corrupt like that. Enjoy!

Part 78:

Part 79:

Part 80:

Part 81:

Part 82:

Part 83:

God Save the Queen

- Carvan

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Walker, by Michael Langlois

So I actually started out really liking this book, despite it being kind of cliched. I've read a couple of other books that shared the concept of people who could travel between worlds through some sort of inherent ability. I guess I just really like the concept and enjoy the different directions people take with the concept. The problem was about halfway through the book I realized that there was something horribly, horribly wrong with the book and it got worse from there. I'm even willing to go ahead and say I was a little offended by this book because of its extremely unfortunate use of inherently bad tropes.

The story begins with our protagonist, Daniel Thorten, an ordinary schmuck like us in St. Louis who's trying to work at his job and pay for his mom's medical bills. Daniel soon discovers, though, that he has the ability to walk between worlds and is recruited by a mysterious organization known only as the Guild. With the Guild Daniel can develop his powers, pay his mom's medical bills, and see fascinating new worlds, but the Guild is not as benevolent as they initially appear and their internal struggles may mean Daniel may not live long enough to enjoy that half-million paycheck.

Before I get into the issues that made me really hate this book I want to talk about a couple of structural problems which, if the other issues had not been present, would have made this an okay but not great book for me. The first problem was Daniel's ever-increasing power levels throughout the book; initially we are told that Daniel is a Walker, someone who has the ability to travel through the Veil and reach other worlds. This is different from Channelers, who use the Veil to become incredibly strong and serve as bodyguards for the Walkers, and Wayguides who are able to establish psychic beacons that let Walkers reach different worlds. And I would have been fine with Daniel being a really good Walker because there'd still be some limit on what he could do. Unfortunately it turns out that Daniel is a member of the very small portion of the population that can do all three who make up the ruling Council of the Guild, and if that wasn't overpowered enough, it turns out Daniel has such a mastery of the Veil that he can become more powerful that the Guild leaders with time. And I really didn't want to read a game of "Anything you can do, I can do better." If I really want to suffer through that I'll go play a non-tier one in 3.5 of Dungeons & Dragons. I really thought Daniel could have benefited from being less overpowered.

My other big issue was the pacing of this novel. Walker starts out at break-neck speed and we aren't really given a chance to catch our breath at any point in the novel. In some cases that can be really good for a book, such as if the characters are racing against time themselves and it helps to convey the urgency of the situation. Walker simply doesn't have that urgency and is more about wheels-within-wheels byzantine plotting rather than fast-paced action. The plot would definitely have benefited from some more time to gradually develop and layer on the intrigue rather than racing straight to the finish.

Mechanical issues aside there are some serious problems with Walker, specifically in the tropes it chooses to use to tell its story. The first problem I want to talk about Daniel's mom and how she was stuffed into a refrigerator, metaphorically. For my readers who don't know, "Stuffed Into the Fridge" is a trope in which loved ones of the protagonist are killed in a particularly gruesome way and left for the protagonist to find. Normally this motivates the hero to avenge his loved ones and can be a useful plot device, unfortunately it is almost always women who get killed and motivate male heroes to take action. (Unfortunately many of the women are also forgotten almost immediately.) The reason I bring this up is because Daniel's mother, who if she had a name I don't remember it being mentioned in the book, is killed by the Guild and Daniel finds out about three-quarters of the way through the book which further motivates his desire for revenge against the Guild. It's just a cheap shot by Langlois to make the Guild seem more evil when there have already been countless examples that prove they're evil enough already. It's a cheap emotional shot meant to tug on our heartstrings, it's poorly executed, and the book would have been much better without it.

The other big issue I had with the book was the character Iyah and her backstory. Iyah is an extremely powerful Channeler and occupies a very important position in the Guild. Tossing a solid oak table through a wall is no problem for her, and she's wicked deadly in a fight so I really liked her as a character. The problem I had, though, was her backstory and the use of rape within it.  You see, there was this unfortunate trope that started sometime around the 90's in which a Strong, Independent Woman (TM) was tough and no-nonsense. Almost always the female charcter was that way because of some sort of abuse in the past, whether sexual or emotional, which in some twisted way "taught" her to be strong. This is exactly the case with Iyah who was in an extremely abusive relationship before joining the Guild and it is stated by characters that this is why she became so tough. Quite frankly I find it offensive that a woman has to go through emotional and/or physical abuse to become a tough person and it perpetuates an awful stereotype. Furthermore Iyah is almost gang-raped in the novel and it's up to our hero, Daniel, to save her because she can't save herself. I know the book had something resembling a reasonable explanation, but it carried extremely unfortunate consequences.

Overall this book would have been okay in spite of its mechanical defects but there's much more to Walker than just those issues. This book carries two extremely unfortunate tropes that are downright offensive from a feminist viewpoint. I really would not recommend any of my readers look at this book and instead go read something more interesting.

- Kalpar

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Prodigal Son Returns

Good news everyone! Carvan has another Let's Play after a bit of a hiatus. Sorry about that. Got involved in the Steam sale at the end of July and Crusader Kings and Civilization V ate up ages of my time. Not to mention the fact that the school year crept up on me like a ninja or something. Seriously.

Anyway enough of my blathering via text, listen to me blather in these lovely Let's Play vids! Enjoy!

God Save the Queen

- Carvan

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Spellwright, by Blake Charlton

So to begin, I'm not really sure what to think about this book. There are a couple of original ideas and some of them are executed well, but some aren't. In addition there are a lot of ideas in this book that stray very little from fantasy tropes and made for somewhat tedious reading. Overall it left for me a very neutral impression about the book. Not something I hate, but not something I particularly liked either. Let me try to explain.

The story follows a series of events centered around Nicodemus Weal, an apprentice wizard at Starhaven, one of the academies of magic in Charlton's world. Magic is divided into a series of languages that only a select number of people see, and even then these spellwrights have to be taught the language's vocabulary and grammar to be able to see the language. Basically a spell consists of paragraphs of text of the magical language it's written in and if, for example, you wanted to make a magical wall you'd craft the wall out of paragraphs of the magical text. However people who didn't know the language you were using would run into the magical wall but wouldn't be able to see the text it's made of. Overall I thought it was an interesting idea and a novel take on magic.

The reason I explained how magic works in Spellwright is because Nicodemus is a cacographer, someone whose touch can gradually corrupt and misspell magical text. Now this may not seem a big deal but when a misspell can potentially explode in your face it can be downright dangerous to be a cacographer. In addition to their more fantastic abilities, cacographers are what we'd call dyslexic and very often don't even realize when they're misspelling words, even mundane ones. The author himself is dyslexic and it offered an interesting view into how hard it can be for someone with dyslexia in our text-driven world. Unfortunately this is where my problems also began with the book. (Sorry, spoilers.)

Basically when Nicodemus was a child his parents "gave" him his cacography through a magical artifact. If Nicodemus is holding the artifact then he can cast spells with absolute precision, but without it he has a very good chance of misspelling by accident or his touch corrupting the spell he's casting. The major problem I have with this is that Nicodemus becomes obsessed with retrieving the artifact and "completing" himself, even though there are plenty of cacographers who were just born that way and have no convenient artifact to "cure" them. Nicodemus himself, among other characters, state that there's nothing wrong with being a cacographer and they should use their disability to become stronger rather than be discouraged. Nicodemus even calls himself a hypocrite for telling other cacographers to accept who they are while searching for his own magic cure and it becomes very hard to sympathize with him. By the end of the book I seriously want to punch him a couple of times.

Another problem I had with the book, and this kind of extends to other fantasy novels as well, is how generic it was in some respects. Yeah, Charlton added his own elements, but the story's still about a chosen one who was in a couple of vague prophecies and will be instrumental in saving the world from a demon apocalypse. It's a fantasy trope that's been used time and time again and is just as worn out as the team of heroes going on a quest related to a magical artifact. In many respects Spellwright does not bring anything new to the table and suffers as a result.

Overall, I'd say it's an okay book, just somewhat poorly executed. Considering that this is Charlton's first book it definitely shows room for improvement and I hope that Charlton's later books get better as he continues to hone his skill. My final big issue, though, is that Spellwright is the first of a series of books that Charlton is planning on writing, although I have no idea where the series will end. And this is where Kalpar gives his unsolicited advice for aspiring authors.

"But Kalpar!" my readers are probably saying, "You yourself couldn't write a book to save your life! What gives you the right to give advice on something you yourself cannot and have not done?" Well, listen, I've read several books that were the first book by the author and were also the first of a series and here's what I noticed. Some of those books were bad, some were okay, but none of them were great. Your first book is going to be rough around the edges because you're still developing as an author and finding your voice. Even with my favorite author ever, Terry Pratchett, his first Discworld book The Colour of Magic is kind of rough in places. If the first book of your epic fantasy series still has that sort of unfinished character, then some readers may not be interested in finding out what happens with the rest of the series. So my advice is this: for your first book, just have some fun. Find an idea you like and run with it, don't worry about making a huge series. Develop your voice as a writer and then write your epic fantasy series. Maybe I'm just full of hot air but I definitely feel that it might help a few authors.

For a first book, Spellwright is fairly good, although I really hope Charlton addresses Nicodemus's hypocrisy in future books. If any of the concepts sounded interesting or you like mysteries then feel free to peruse it but be aware of its heavy use of tropes.

- Kalpar

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Kalpar's Thoughts on Series Six of New Doctor Who

So recently I stopped putting off watching Series Six of the new Doctor Who and finished it in a couple of days. Overall I did like this series but it left me with some significant concerns as well. I definitely would recommend everyone go watch it if you haven't already because there are some really good episodes in this series, despite its flaws.

Oh, and as a warning, I'm probably going to have to mention spoilers to really get to my problems with the series so if you haven't watched it already go ahead and do that.


So, for me, this series started off really well with the episodes The Impossible Astronaut and Day of the Moon. Those episodes introduced a new villain for the Doctor, the Silence, and set up this series's story arc so I was pretty excited. The problem I had, though, was that I felt like the story arc was not particularly well done and in hindsight this is kind of a problem with other seasons of the new series as well. Basically what I'm noticing is that the creative team of Doctor Who will leave little hints throughout the season and give some foreshadowing, but generally most of the huge story arc will be revealed in the last two episodes of the season in a big finale. (And based on the past seasons there's about a 60% chance of Daleks being involved.) And, to be honest, I was kind of okay with that but this latest series was significantly different because we kept returning to the overall story arc in a majority of the episodes and it became more central as a driving engine for the plot. Unfortunately there were still a couple of episodes that stood on their own and didn't really connect with the story arc. Even then I'm being generous with the episodes that are related to the overall plot but in a sort of indirect way. I really felt this series would have been better served by having all of the episodes build upon the story arc, even if it meant losing one of my favorite episodes The Doctor's Wife.

I also had some issues with the decisions for the character arc of the Doctor during this season. I guess my first major issue is that people, in this case the Silence, are once again trying to defeat the Doctor because they consider him their enemy. For the Doctor this is kind of a big deal because he doesn't like being seen as this evil enemy that destroys everything in its path but that's really unfair. If you think about the enemies that the Doctor fights, they're...well, usually evil. Daleks, Cybermen, Sontarans, they're all obsessed with conquering the universe and making everyone like them. The Doctor fighting against such foes isn't an evil act, it's heroic. He remains a champion for freedom against forces of tyranny. Yeah, fighting all of those battles can be tough and really wear on the Doctor, but the universe is much better off with him than without. Fortunately the writers kind of addressed this in The Wedding of River Song so hopefully it won't be an issue in the future.

Another problem was that the Doctor kept getting really upset because he couldn't save everyone and felt like a failure as a result. And yes, I can at least understand why the Doctor personally would be upset over every person he's incapable of saving when there are so many that die. However, from a storytelling point it makes a lot of sense. Seeing people die, despite the Doctor's best efforts to save everyone, makes the danger feel far more real and makes the viewing experience more emotional for us, the audience. As terrible as it sounds, we have to see people get killed by Weeping Angels and clockwork robots to raise the stakes of the conflict and make the Doctor's actions that much more critical. In addition, on those rare instances when the Doctor can save everyone it becomes a poignant and cherished moment. If the Doctor saved everyone all the time then his victories would become meaningless for the audience. It is because such victories are rare that they are valuable not only to us but also the Doctor.

A final point was that in A Good Man Goes to War the Doctor summons allies who owe him a debt from across time and space to help him in the Battle of Demons Run. This is all well and fine and made a really epic episode. The problem I had, however, was that some of these characters, specifically Madame Vastra, Jenny, and Commander Strax, we had not met before. From what little we learned about those characters in the episode they seemed really interesting and I wanted to know more about their stories but this was the first, and perhaps only, time that we get to see them. Listen, I'm all for introducing new characters to the Doctor Who universe and considering the Doctor's a time traveler they might meet out of order but there's a right way and a wrong way of doing it. The right way is how they introduced River Song in Silence in the Library/Forest of the Dead where the Doctor is just as surprised as the audience and has to be introduced. Even though River died in Forest of the Dead because both she and the Doctor are time travelers we are left with the expectation that we'll meet her again in the Doctor's future travels. An improper way is just throwing in characters we've never met before and flat out stating that they owe the Doctor a debt. I would have strongly preferred that they had stuck to characters we had met before, such as Danny Boy and the other Spitfire pilots, for the Doctor's army, rather than introducing one-shot characters who have an implied history with the Doctor that we never get to see.

So, yes, this series has some issues as far as I'm concerned. Some of my other friends had less of a problem so I guess it really comes down to a matter of opinion. I would definitely recommend still watching this season because there are some ridiculously awesome episodes in there. (The Doctor's Wife made my list of favorites very easily, but it was written by Neil Gaiman so are you surprised?) I really hope that the next series, coming out later this year, will build upon the previous plotlines and reach greater heights.


- Kalpar

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Last Hero: A Discworld Fable, by Terry Pratchett and with art by Paul Kidby

As my two readers probably know by now, I am a huge fan of the Discworld series by Sir Terry Pratchett and I have read a majority of the books in that wonderful series. However, I have not yet read some of the supplemental books to the series or the children's books of Discworld but I intend to rectify that in the near future. Recently I read the illustrated novel, The Last Hero, which is written by Sir PTerry and has many excellent illustrations created by longtime Discworld artist Paul Kidby. This novel is a must-have for any fan of Discworld and an excellent afternoon read.

The plot of The Last Hero takes place sometime after the novel Interesting Times in which Cohen the Barbarian and his Silver Horde of octogenarian heroes had managed to take over the Agatean empire. Cohen has everything he could possibly want, but when his friend Vincent chokes to death on a cucumber Cohen realizes dying in the lap of luxury is no fitting end for a hero. So Cohen decides to imitate Mazda, the first hero, who stole fire from the gods by returning fire to the gods on Cori Celesti. With interest. Yep, Cohen and his gang are going to blow up Dunmanifesten, the home of the gods, in one final act of epic heroism.

Unfortunately, Archchancellor Ridicully and the rest of the Unseen University staff realize that if Cohen succeeds in blowing up Cori Celesti then the entire magical field of the Disc would be destroyed. This may not seem too concerning but since magic is what holds the Disc together it could mean the end of the world. So Ankh-Morpork sends off a team to stop Cohen and the Silver Horde, consisting of Leonard da Quirm, inventor of their spaceship, Captain Carrot Ironfounderson of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, who bravely volunteers to go stop Cohen, and Rincewind the wizard, who knows he'll end up going anyway because that's how the universe works.

I do have one complaint about this book, it isn't very well fleshed out in parts and the transitions between locales is downright clumsy in parts. The flow of the book gets a lot better as you get further in, but for the first quarter or so I kept getting disoriented. I was especially disappointed in this instance because I expect better from Pratchett, but overall I still think it's a worthy addition to the Discworld franchise.

The illustrations are absolutely fantastic and offer a great view of Discworld. Some of the wide-angle pictures of A'Tuin with the four elephants and the Disc on top of them were gorgeous. I definitely don't regret buying this and love having some excellent Discworld art in my collection now. However I don't know if it's a book you should share with your kids and any parents should definitely read it first. I know the one picture of Cohen giving the gods of the Disc the middle finger would have kept my mother from letting me read it when I was a kid. Adults fans of Discworld will definitely enjoy it, though, and you can probably read it in an afternoon.

I also loved that this book decided to lampshade tropes that keep appearing in hero stories and even video games. I found myself asking, "Yeah, who does put all those keys and weapons and medicine kits in those abandoned dungeons?" If you've ever played a dungeon-crawler like the Legend of Zelda games or you're a fan of the Conan the Barbarian stories you'll definitely appreciate The Last Hero. Apparently evil overlords are contractually obligated to hire henchmen so stupid they can't see through the flimsiest of disguises, while heroes are obligated to let the overlords escape to fight another day. Plus it's good for both of them because they're not out of work tomorrow.

If you're new to the Disc I don't think I'd recommend starting with The Last Hero, there are a couple of other books which are much better introductions, such as Guards! Guards!, Witches Abroad, and Small Gods. Also, I feel like you kind of have to read Interesting Times first to really understand Cohen and the Silver Horde, a rare example in the series. But if you're an old friend to the Disc and haven't checked this out yet you definitely won't be disappointed.

- Kalpar