Monday, June 19, 2017

Assassin's Fate by Robin Hobb

I knew there would be ugly tears at the end of Assassin's Fate. Robin Hobb excels at causing me to break down in ugly tears. There are very few authors who can punch me in the feels the way that she does. It's going to be difficult to write this review without spoilers, but I'm going to give it a stab though at time of writing I'm still feeling quite raw.

Anyone who's been in for the long haul with Robin Hobb will know that the FitzChivalry Farseer books (three trilogies) are part of her larger universe that includes the Liveship books and her related dragon books. It's taken me years, but I've finally caught up with Fitz, the Fool and Nighteyes, whose intertwined fates are complex and often take remarkable turns.

Objectively, this is not the strongest book of the series; at heart it is an extended epilogue. And I understand. Ending a saga with such a perennially popular character like Fitz is *difficult*. There is always the temptation to leave open "happy for now" threads but anyone who knows Hobb's writing will be well aware of the fact that she foreshadows *everything*. And while there are a few red herrings in Assassin's Fate, I was not surprised by the decision she made for the conclusion. It was *right*. I could see it coming a mile off yet I cried so much I had to give my glasses a good wipe afterwards and go wash my face.

I'll say this much: Not many authors can make a novel that is basically an extended sea voyage and rescue exciting, but Robin Hobb succeeds, and it's because of her attention to detail, the examination of the lives of others and their interactions and the smaller conflicts within the greater picture. The story is in its subtleties, and Assassin's Fate is the novel that ties everything together for all the stories that have come before. If Hobb wishes to leave this setting here, that would also be fine and right for me. In fact, it would be a perfect place in all its bittersweetness.

The story itself has a dual nature, part laying to rest of ghosts, part coming of age. Fitz is a man outside of time, who lives with his regrets. And he is tired, and this shows in his interactions with others. Bee represents a fresh current, heir to the incredible stories that have happened before her time, and burdened with being the one who is at the heart of the drama that takes place in the present. This is, as can be understood, a heavy burden to bear yet her trials also serve as a crucible.

I'm not going to go into any further detail, because it's difficult to discuss deeper without spoiling the story. If you've yet to read any of Robin Hobb's books, start with Assassin's Apprentice, book one of the Farseer Trilogy. Then read the Liveship Traders and the Rainwild Chronicles. The Tawny Man trilogy slots in somewhere there too, then finish with the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. You will meet an unforgettable cast of characters, and since I've now read many of the early Fitz books for the second time, I can state with authority as a long-time fan of SFF, that Robin Hobb's stories deserve their place among the classics in the genre, right up there with luminaries like George RR Martin, Mark Lawrence and others who write the kind of fantasy that doesn't shy away from treading on difficult topics with nuance.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mass Effect: Andromeda (update)

Right. I'm now 50% through Mass Effect Andromeda, and I've come to the sudden realisation that I've stopped caring about the game. None of the characters truly hit me in the feels – I honestly don't have that squishy, emotional mushiness I had with games like Brothers or Dragon Age. The much-vaunted romance frustrating. The gameplay is repetitive. I know I'm OCD, but there are only so many fetch quests I can stomach.

Sure, the maps are lovely, but after last night I feel as if the game is a chore. What nearly did my head in yesterday was the perma-broke glitch with the Nomad on Elaaden. Apparently there is a way to fix it, but then you need to have activated the northern-most forwarding station (which I hadn't). So, guess what? I lost 2 hours of gameplay going back to an earlier save where I still had a functioning Nomad. Fast travel didn't fix the fuck-up either. Nice one, BioWare. Nice one. [grumbles]

My overall conclusion about the game, after reading this article and having a good ponder about my own experiences thus far, is that it was doomed from the start due to multiple reasons, and the fact that it was rushed through to shipping with so may glitches, I just can't even. I'm going to give myself another weekend or two to finish the main quest, and then I'm done here.

I'm really disappointed, as ME:A has so much going for it, but it's cumbersome, badly put together (I mean, haring halfway around the galaxy on Yet Another Fetch Quest and then another ... and then another). BioWare bit off too much with this game, and it's a Frankenstruct of some really schwaai ideas that kinda lumber around making groaning noises while knocking over furniture.

Things going for it include the neat combat system, which was fun (and challenging). And I must thank ME:A for teaching me how to play a shooter, because I was horribly resistant to the idea of playing a shooter up until this point.

Next up on my plate will be Horizon Zero Dawn, however, sooner rather than later. I've been told that even though I still refuse to play Witcher 3, I MUST MUST MUST give Horizon Zero Dawn a chance. (And yes, I have a soft spot for archers, so this is likely.)

A thought on open-world gaming: There is a reason why Skyrim is such a timeless classic, despite there being a skeletal story (and it justifiably being called the "golf" of RPGs). It feels like a second world you can live in, where you can customise the kind of experience you want. As a world it feels cohesive. ME:A just feels ... sparse, hastily populated, where you never really feel as if the choices you make have any real impact on the final outcome. I know that a good RPG plays with the idea that you have the illusion of choice, but I felt with Dragon Age this illusion carried through a lot better, and the game just felt tighter. I'll happily play all the Dragon Age games again (and again). I'm just not sure whether I'll be returning to Mass Effect, even if it's to play the older games.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

Before she was Wonder Woman she was Diana, princess of the Amazons, trained warrior. When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, she leaves home to fight a war to end all wars, discovering her full powers and true destiny.

I will admit fully that I was horribly afraid that Wonder Woman would be a wee bit overhyped. I mean the cess pit that is media already gave me severe misgivings about whether I wanted to see the film. No, I don't care that she shaves her armpits nor that her thighs jiggle. I mean, FFS, if tooting some sort of identity politics horn is the only reason why you're going to give this film love then well, fuck that.

This is a good film, though. Thankfully. From a pacing perspective and considering character development, this is possibly one of the best blockbuster new cinema I've seen recently (except perhaps for The Arrival).

While I wasn't absolutely floored when I left the cinema, (I've a little issue with super hero films in general and the Curse of Too Much Awesome that seems to bedevil them), I had to recant a little once the husband creature and I had an opportunity to trade our thoughts.

This *could* have been that awful movie that was just put out there to tick feminist boxes. It isn't that movie. Instead we have a very refreshing female hero whose naïveté when faced with a world radically different from her own results in her having reevaluate her stance on the way forward. She goes into battle, amped to take on the Big Bad she's been prepared her entire life to fight, only to discover that the evil she's supposed to root out is a little more complex than that. Now, that's some writing that I like.

The support cast (a Scotsman, a Middle Eastern guy, a Native American ... stop me if you've heard this one) were a little thin on the ground for plausibility, but from a storytelling perspective they served the purpose of reminding Diana of shared humanity is worth fighting for, blah-di-blah ... that sort of thing. That being said, I kinda wanted them to have more than a support cast role and get to know the characters better than just being cardboard cut-outs with a little backstory. But then I'm equally cognisant that you can only do so much in a film, and I've been spoilt horribly by TV series.

Gal Gadot as Diana, however, is as the title of this film suggests, just wonderful, bringing to the screen the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength. Chris Pine as Steve Trevor is your typical bland blond boy who makes me think of a generic Matt Damon type. He was thoroughly unremarkable. Frankly, I found the brief interactions Diana had with Sameer (Saïd Taghmaoui) to be far more refreshing, and I needed to see more of this. But ja, time. There's only so much you can do without bloating a movie.

Out of all the superhero films I've seen (and I must warn you, I can't tell my DC from my Marvel on the best of days except to say that I fucking HATE all Superman movies) Wonder Woman is most certainly one of the best written and executed where I felt that they didn't just gloss over poor screenplay with piles of CGI. And fuck it, I'm a woman. I dig seeing ladies kicking ass. If I was a little girl... ag, who'm I kidding, I'm still a little girl at heart, it was frigging awesome to have Amazons fuck shit up. It's nice to have films that break from the same tired old stories. And this is about as much whooooo girl power you'll get out of me tonight. Now go watch the film, eat some popcorn and have a good time. Wonder Woman won't disappoint.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A few words with Elaine Dodge, SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment finalist (2014)

A big welcome to Elaine Dodge, one of the finalists of the 2014 SA Horrorfest Bloody Parchment short story competition, who's here for a quick Q&A. If you've yet to pick up your copy of Bloody Parchment: Blue Honey and the Valley of Shadow, you have no excuse – go feed your Kindle app

What darkness lies at the heart of your story? 

Our actions have consequences and those consequences can open the door to events, people, or darkness which can result in our very souls being enslaved to an evil far greater than any we have ever imagined could possibly exist. And if you don’t know how to fight back, you’re lost.
         
What do you love the most about writing?

I love reading – moving into an alternative reality, fading into a time warp, coming face-to-face with people I’d never meet anywhere else, having adventures which I’d never be able to have any other way. Writing takes that one step further and instead of hoping someone else can provide that magic carpet for me, that door in the cupboard, I can create them myself.

Why does reading matter? 

They say that people who read are more empathetic. I think this is true. But I also believe it goes deeper than that. People who read are often more able to see behind the façade of the words people say, they can read between the lines and are sceptical about takings things at face value. Readers are often more open to new experiences, more ready to take risks, more able to see possibilities where others only see problems. And this is good. The world needs more people who can peel back the canvas, go through the wardrobe, fall through the mirror and come back out with new ideas, new solutions, new dreams and new insights.

An excerpt from "The Man with a House on his Back"

The fog has arrived. Silently, like the breath of the Scythe Man, it has surrounded the cabin and muffled the dogs. The evening meal finished, we sit silently in a half circle, like subjugated felons around the hearth. Even the fire is sullen. The meagre amount of warmth from the pale blue flames is hardly enough to keep the shadows in the corners of the cabin where they belong. My grandfather, Old Jack, sits, clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth. It’s a night for stories, for dreams of the past. He stirs.
“When I was a child,” he begins...
The forest was thicker. You could walk for days, weeks, without seeing its end. The trees were older and darker. You stayed on the path or you lost your way. And no one would search for you. There were tales of wild beasts, evil spirits and the heads of the dead. It rained. Not like now, but nearly all the time. Even on those strange, dry days the mist hung low in the air, coiled and sliding around the roots of the trees, masking the trails. Hiding the way out.

What other things have you written? 

I have written a variety of short stories of varying genres. Sticking to one genre seems so dull. All my short stories, some of which are my entries to the Writers Write 12 Short Stories in 12 Months Challenge and some are first chapters for future novels can all be read here.

My first novel, a historical romance adventure, Harcourt’s Mountain is set in 1867, in the mountainous wilderness of British Columbia. There’s Indians, bears, wolves, heroes, heroines, baddies, white water, kidnappings, gold, ships, caves and romance. The synopsis, reviews and a variety of buy-links can all be found here.

My second novel, The Device Hunter is my current WIP (work in progress) and I’m nearing the end. This is a steampunk novel and I’m having a lot of fun not just with the writing but with designing ingenious devices! It’s a good thing I have two friends who went to MIT who can advise me when my creations get too convoluted! You can find a ‘wishful thinking cover’ here.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Kamphoer deur Francois Smith

Kamphoer deur Francois Smith was vir my nogal 'n moelike boek om te lees. Die storie self is nie lineêr nie, en skuif tussen die hede en die verlede, soos dit aangaan. Daar is distansie in die hede, terwyl die herinneringe meer persoonlik, onmiddelik is.

Dit is gebaseer op 'n ware verhaal van Susan Nell, wie se familie bywoners was op 'n Vrystaatse plaas gedurende die Anglo-Boereoolog. Toe sy in Winburg se konsentrasiekamp beland het, was sy verkrag deur twee Engelse soldate en 'n joiner, en toe so wreed aangerand is dat hulle haar byna doodgemaak het. Haar liggaam het van die lykswa afgerol en 'n Sotho man, Tiisetso, het haar ontdek. Al was se erg beseer, het hy en sy vrou Mamello, vir haar gesond gemaak en toe vir haar Kaap toe gestuur, waar die fotograaf Jack Perry vir homself oor haar ontverm het.

Ek gaan nie die hele verhaal oorvertel nie, maar gaan maar net uitskets hoe Susan se belang in psigoterapie vir haar gely het om te werk met die wat deur drie oorloë van bombskok gely het. Sy het ook twee van haar verkragters weer ontmoet, maar dié roman handel meestal net met haar tyd by die psigiatriese hospitaal in Engeland.

Kamphoer is 'n ongemaklike storie, en omdat dit op die waarheid gebaseer is, is daar nie 'n bevredigende einde nie. Die tema is die van die stories wat 'n mens vir jouself vertel, en hoe die lewe eintlik maar niks beteken nie – net 'n leë, oorgroeide graf iewers in die veld.

Friday, June 9, 2017

Western Empires, Christianity and the Inequalities between the West and the Rest by Sampie Terreblanche

Western Empires, Christianity and the Inequalities between the West and the Rest by Sampie Terreblanche is ... well, it's not an easy read. In fact, it's pretty much as hefty and complex as the title suggests. Yet it was one of those books that I felt compelled to dig into because I felt I needed to gain a better understanding of how everything all fits together, especially since I live in a country that has been distorted by the effects of colonialism.

The West has dominated global politics and economics for centuries, and as Terreblanche illustrates, the reasons for this is complex, and most certainly inextricably tangled with a dominant religion, trade and warmongering. For centuries we've swallowed the narrative that a Western culture is somehow superior to those of the the "Rest" as Terreblanche terms the nations that were colonised by the so-called "track-laying powers" of Spain, Holland, Britain and later the USA.

However in order to understand why things transpired as they did, he digs deep, into the history of the East and West, and how different economic models had come into being and what their strengths and weaknesses were, and the world events that happened that would give the West the eventual advantage (hint: it has to do with the plunder of raw materials from Africa and the Americas that led to the eventual destruction of the East's economy thanks to the importation of cheap European fabrics, according to Terreblanche). Yes, the industrial revolution was a key event in world history.

Granted, my own understanding of the complexities of world economics are sketchy at best, and I struggled to get to grips with a lot of the terminology used, but I soldiered on.

According to Terreblanche, Christianity served as a justification for the world powers' military endeavours, and how at different eras, different powers arose (see my earlier comment about the track-laying nations). He points out that globalisation is a part of empire building, and looks at how maritime and military power, as well as the effects of industrialisation, help reinforce the sustainability of the assorted Western imperial powers.

We look at how the West has become what it is due to its plurality, and also the highly competitive behaviour born out of this. The West is grounded in a society that thrives on warfare, and is founded upon it.

Those who have monopoly will use it to oppress – resulting in slaughter, death and dislocation. Terreblanche examines the rise of the nation-state out of city-states and how a nation wielding power does so out of the notion that it does so morally. We see also the hybridisation of culture within a colonial society, and how indigenous populations are often complicit in their exploitation.

Something that I found fascinating was the connections between the four sources of imperial power: political, military, economic and ideological. Gunpowder, printing and the compass were important innovations but Terreblanche also states that private enterprise played a vital role in empire building. Consider also the authoritarian nature of the track-laying nations who built their empires. Modernisation, capitalism and war-making integral to the West. Warfare and imperialism go hand in hand.

Terreblanche looks at how Western empires conquered, subjugated and exploited what he terms the "Restern" world and how asymmetrical power relations lead to unequal growth via mercantilism, industrialisation then post-colonialism. Increased productivity required coercively acquired raw materials and resulted in destruction of local industries. So yes, the slave trade was a very big part of this, and the fact that the industrialised countries scrambled to divvy up the "New World" for their insatiable economy.

Terreblanche exhaustively details a recent world history along these lines, eventually looking at the aftereffects – how many African countries were unprepared for independence. Ruling indigenous elites often used their positions to enrich themselves through the state and the process of decolonisation is, therefore, as destructive as the process of colonisation with poor bureaucracy leading often to armed conflict.

Okay, that's pretty much a *brief* look based on some of the notes I took while reading. As a writer of speculative fiction, this book was incredibly useful to me. It also made me hate the human race just that little bit more too, but it was perhaps one of the most important reads for 2016. Granted, yes, Terreblanche's stance is quite Marxist, but I find I most certainly do agree with him that rampant, unrestrained capitalism is bad for us and the planet overall. And yes, anyone defending colonialism is going to get a serious side-eye from me. However, I will say this much: Colonialism is what it is. We live in a society that is forever altered by its effects, and it's what we do with this knowledge that is important.

This is a difficult read, but perhaps also one that is vitally important, and I wish more people would take an interest in trying to figure out the somewhat daunting bigger picture that Terreblanche has fearlessly painted. I don't think I can fully do this book justice, but I'm still in awe of its depth and breadth.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales (2017)

Captain Jack Sparrow searches for the trident of Poseidon while being pursued by an undead sea captain and his crew.

Auntie's not going to lie, she's had a bit of a thing for Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) since the silly bugger first staggered onto the screen in 2003. Oh gods. Yes. The movie franchise is *that* old. I'm *that* old. Ah, well, never mind.

My first thoughts when I walked out of the cinema was that this fifth instalment in the series isn't awful. I mean, it could have been worse. I was entertained, yes, but the movie wasn't *sharp*. The humour was slapstick at best, and while loads of peeps in the cinema were laughing, I wasn't. It really wasn't that funny.

I mean, I was entertained, and the CGI was pretty. And there were some awesome things happening, but if you're looking for the same snap that you'd get with Guy Ritchie's King Arthur, you're going to be left hanging.

Plot wise, Dead Men Tell No Tales is a pretty standard hero's journey, evenly divided by the two main characters – Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites) and Carina Smyth (Kaya Scodelario). Henry is the son of ... yussss, no surprises there. Ta-dum! Will and Elizabeth (Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightley). And he's after the Trident of Poseidon that will allegedly break all curses so that he can reunite his daddoo and mummoo. Carina is our orphan in the storm, the intellectual lass who's got her father's journal with the "map that no man can read" (get it, she's a chick not a dude, so she can read it, huh, huh) and she's on a mission to also find the Trident.

Captain Sparrow, as always, is the trickster figure who's an agent of chaos with the compass that leads to his heart's desire that he keeps ignoring to his own detriment. His denial of this call to adventure results in the release of his spooky arch-nemesis Captain Salazar (Javier Bardem) whom he cursed to undeath (as one does) who's now hell bent on Captain Sparrow's demise (revenge being, of course, one of the noblest causes). Of course to get to Sparrow, Salazar hunts down all the pirates that he can, thereby drawing our old friend Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) into the equation, and what follows are the usual double-crossings and unbelievable coincidences one comes to expect with any of the PotC films (mainly because I don't think the writers could be arsed to actually develop a nuanced screenplay).

Look, the CGI effects are awesome, but they don't quite make up for the lack of substance for the underlying story. To be fair, if you're in the mood for mindless entertainment, slapstick humour and plenty of explosions and stunts, look no further. This instalment most certainly hangs together more cohesively than Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides (which is not saying much, I know), but there were still moments where I felt that some of the transitions were jagged, and relied on the wow factor to gloss over what the narrative lacked.

Okay, I'm feeling slightly rotten about my ambivalent review, so I'll say it again, this is not a horrible film. It's fun. There are loads of gags, and it had people laughing. And Carina steals the show, honest to goodness, while Henry is just a bland little porridge boy. Hey, one day I'll be jumped up on too much coffee and sugar, and I may even watch all the Pirates of the Caribbean films back to back because I've always got a soft spot for my favourite pirate captain because I quite enjoy Depp slurring and staggering about, oblivious and yet somehow endearing. (Though I find now that he only ever seems to reprise Sparrow with most of his roles that he takes on these days.)

At time of writing, I've noticed that IMDB has an entry for PotC 6 with nothing cast in stone yet. I hope they lay the movie franchise go to rest, with the fifth movie. No. Really. If anything, maybe look at a spin-off TV series and hire some good writers to develop a solid script, but please don't try to flog this pony you've only just managed to scrape up off the ground. Dead Men Tell No Tales ties up the assorted narrative arcs nicely. Let it end here. Please.