Saturday, December 27, 2008

World Without End

A while ago I posted an anticipitory post about this book, written by Ken Follett. I just finished it up last night (after putting it aside for a few months). It took a while -- this book is definitely a "bug squasher" at 1014 pages -- and if you liked Pillars of the Earth then you'll probably like this book too.

The gist is that the descendants of the original families from Pillars of the Earth undergo their own struggles, this time spanning the 14th Century rather than the 12th. Again the cathedral at Kingsbridge is a central character...this time we see what became of the structure, and the efforts to expand/improve the structure.

This time the talented builder is Merthin, his uppity love interest is Caris, and Merthin's brother Ralph is the military type thug of the book. There are a number of other supporting characters, but these are the ones we primarily follow.

One of the reasons I was excited about this book is that it covers one of my favorite periods of history (ironically, Pillars of the Earth is also set during one of my favorite periods, the early-mid 12th century). While the book has the same sort of biases as the predecessor, it was still an enjoyable read.

Like the previous book, World Without End sets up a mystery to be solved at the very end. Here an injured knight named Thomas has a document in his posession that could rock the foundations of England's Monarchy. Only a few people know where this document is hidden. Otherwise, much of the book is about the life and times of the main characters.

One critical event in this book that I felt the author did not handle quite so well is the Black death of 1349-1351. Really, this should have been a central aspect of the book, but in the end I felt it tangenital to the characters. The problem I have is that, in the context of the era, the Plague was sort of the "Nuclear Apocalypse" of the Middle Ages. Entire villages were wiped out, and Europe lost a significant fraction of its population. The book really doesn't convey this well, and as we see the characters deal with it, the emotional impact was not as great as it could be. Really, one of the main characters should have died of it to really have the gravitas such an event would rightly evoke. Alas it was not to be.

One interesting aspect of this book is that Follett seems to have essentially recycled the characters from his previous book: Merthin is the brilliant and morally steady builder, Caris is the talented woman that flaunts societal norms and the church, and Ralph the military thug. It creates a certain sense of continuity, but really I would have liked characters more differentiated than this, and when I say the book feels like a retread, it really is. Especially bothersome is Follett's bias against military type characters: whe had thugs in the last book, we have thugs in this one. It would have been refreshing to follow a military character that had a positive impact on the book, rather than a negative one. While there were some redeeming characters (Gwenda's son Sam for example), there were plenty that were not.

Some historical issues I have this time around: Sam as mentioned above is revealed to be actually Ralph's son (yes, that's a spoiler, but of course I warned you...). When Ralph learns of this, he decides to make Sam a squire. Would something like this have happened historically? Perhaps. I think it would have been more interesting and a bit more plausable if Ralph granted Sam a Sergeantry (that is, a fief that is below the stature of a full manorial knight's fee). He could have displayed a bit of Ralphs malicious sense of irony then by making Sam's father and mother tenants on his fief. Not to be though...

And the mystery? It is revealed at the end that the document Thomas had been carrying was a letter...from none other than King Edward II. In it he reveals that Edward did not die, but instead fled the kingdom in secret and took up another life. Really? Hmmm...I'm really not sure about this one. Of course this does not contradict the historical record (especially since Edward doesn't pop up and cry "Here I am!"), but is it in his character?

In the end an enjoyable book. Like any historical fiction there were a few problems. But if you like Follett, or want to read some decent historical fiction,World Without End (and of course Pillars of the Earth wouldn't be bad places to start...

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Eagle in the Snow

The latest read is by Wallace Breem, titled Eagle in the Snow. An historical fiction, it takes place in the early years of the 5th century, during the reign of Emperor Honorius and his general, Stilicho.

This book is a bit older, first print in 1970. While a pretty decent read, the book is riddled with historical innaccuracies. While for some people this might not be important at all (the story has primacy), in my opinion if I'm going to read a book set during a historical period, I want at least a bit of historical accuracy. As it is, in this book, the errors were enough to break the suspension of disbelief and knocked the book back a few stars.

The gist of the book centers around Maximus, an officer in the Roman army, who is given a legion and made the military governor of Germania (which in our context really centers around the western border region of modern Germany; the area around Bingen, Trier, and other towns along the Rhine). The Emperor's Magister Stilicho gives Maximus and his men the job of securing this border against incursions of several Germanic tribes. Short on resources and men, he fights a desperate battle to stem the tide.

As I said above, there were a few errors, some more egregious than others. I felt the characterization of Stilicho a bit weak. Admittedly, he has only a little screen time, but at one point, while discussing the invasion of Germanic tribes such as the Vandals, Stilicho characterizes them as his people. Stilicho had been the son of a Vandal man and a Roman woman, but had lived most of his life in the Empire, educated in Roman schools, was a Nicene Christian (as opposed to an Arian of the Vandals), and thus about as Roman as anyone else. It would be akin to me saying (as an Italian-american) that the Italians are my people. Its a bit strange, and I don't think it is something he would say. Especially given his parentage I think he would be well motivated to be more Roman than the Romans.

A more important error, especially since the book is essentially a "military adventure" is the numerous errors and omissions in organization of the Roman Army. It definitely feels like Breem did not do his homework. Maximus assumes command of the 20th Legion, some 6000 strong troops. The problem with that is the old legionary commands had been broken up, new legions formed, and the units were much smaller, perhaps 1200 men per. Although some legions maintained their old designations, it is somewhat unlikely they would maintain the same strength as in the old days. Furthermore, a lot of mention is made about Auxilia. In the time of Emperor Augustus and the Early Empire, Auxilia were equipped and trained differently than the legions, but by this time were for the most part indistinguishable from the legions, unless they were specialists. Finally, there are quite a few inaccuracies about equipment, with the legionaries described as wearing "breastplates," using short swords and javelins in a manner very reminiscent of Early Imperial Romans. By this time, Roman legionaries would be wearing either mail (Lorica Hamata) or scale (Lorica Squamata) armor, if they had any armor to begin with. Furthermore, the short, thrusting sword Gladius had been replaced by the longer, slashing Spatha, and the primary offensive weapon of the Legion was the spear. This was in response to the greater importance Rome's enemies put on cavalry, where the spear functions much better as a defensive weapon. For a bit of military fiction, it was details like this that I was looking for. Their absence and errors lessens the book quite a bit for me.

The actual story of the book is divided into 3 main sections: the 1st third of the book (roughly) details the origins and early career of Maximus (thus establishing the character), the 2nd third about the problems he faced defending the frontier, and the last third -- the climax -- about the battle against the Vandals, Marcomanni, Burgundians, Quadi, and other Germanic tribes. They payoff of the book was good, the battle scenes vividly described. But it was all let down by incorrect depictions of the army.

One fun easter egg in the book is when Maximus precipitates the death of most of the Vandal Royal family...leaving the "whelp" Gaiseric alive. He will turn up later...

Overall a decent book. Just didn't have a decent historical foundation.

Monday, December 22, 2008

My response to 4e

Rather than blogging about books I've read, I feel it is important to instead essay about what I consider to be a big shake-up in the D&D world: the release of 4th Edition D&D.

In this essay, I'm going to start by stating a few assumptions, as well as a brief history of my association with D&D.

First, I am going to assume that we are looking at only the Players Handbook, and Dungeon Master's Guide (where appropriate). All other support material is not going to be considered. This is the most fair and balanced way to approach any such comparison (and comparisons are natural: after all 4e must live up to the legacy of previous editions). Secondly, I will primarily be arguing, in terms of content, with this assumption in place.

As for my association with D&D, I've played (at least briefly) every edition, from the Red Boxed (Basic) Dungeons & Dragons of the early '80s (with the awesome Elmore cover art), up through 1e AD&D, 2e AD&D, 3e D&D, 3.5e D&D, and finally 4e D&D. Thus, there is a lot (and I mean a lot of legacy) for any edition to live up to.

When 4e was announced, I viewed it with trepidation, in the same way I viewed the change from 2e to 3e. What, exactly, would they do? How would it be handled? The transition from 1e to 2e AD&D was in my mind an improvement: the system assumptions were not changed, and the rules were cleaned up and added to with the better additions from 1e. Thus, transitioning from a 1e campaign to a 2e campaign was almost seamless. Adventures from 1e could almost be used unmodified (monster stat blocks would need to be tweaked, but that's about it), characters required only minor updating, and there were more options for character generation. Although there were a few omissions that would have been problematic (no assasins for example), some of these omissions were added back in at a later time. Additionally, frankly, some omissions (like the aformentioned assasin) were probably for the best. Despite this, the Forgotten Realms setting felt it neccessary to introduce a "fantasy disaster" in order to explain the changes, just as Greyhawk had a module dedicated to detailing the changes, but both were probably unneccessary, and in the case of FR caused more anguish than it smoothed. How would this transition be handled?

While, when 3e came out, the changes were far, far more radical, the watchword here was to create a ruleset that could integrate and convert a 2e campaign (with admittedly more work than a 1e to 2e campaign) and make it play. This was done by introducing far more options and "builds" for characters. Even 2e characters built under Skills and Powers could be for the most part converted (at least in my examination) thanks to the more options available for 3e. In my group, while I cannot speak of others, I found converting my mid-level thief from 2e to 3e painless, and essentially filling out the character sheet, picking appropriate feats (based on what he could do before) and appropriate ranks in skills.

Now comes along 4e and it was a much greater challenge, to the point were I found it impossible. You will always run into situations where magic items do not convert over (such as from the 2e to 3e campaign: my Short Sword of Backstabbing did not convert, so I converted it over to a normal +2 shortsword that added an extra die of damage in sneak attacks: simple). Do this in 4e and what sort of magic item is it? Does it give a daily power? Encounter? Similarly, a lot of other more mundane magic items did not convert over. Though relatively unimportant, the Spoon of Murlynd (which help define the character as being...mundane...) had no conversion support. Although I could use as-is, this isn't true of a number of other magical items. For example, 4e has a listing of 13 Wonderous (magical) items, whereas the 3.5e DMG has three hundred Wondrous Items in 3 categories (from minor to major). While some might say one does not need such a level of variety, I ask how often you enjoy eating pizza, burgers, and ham sandwiches? Just with what is in the core books, 3e has more choices than 4e.

4e radically changes the game mechanics of character advancement. No longer do each class advance in its own way: all classes advance the same, but through the aquisition of powers. These are further divided up into at-will (use as many times as you want: always limited to 2 different ones), Encounter (once per an encounter), and Daily (usable once per day). There are also utility powers as well, but these with a cursory review appear to be appliciable only in combat. Non-combat spells are handled by Rituals, which are open to anyone that can get the appropriate feats. Thus a 5th level character, no matter what the type is, has the exact same number/type of powers. Thus all the classes "feel" the same, differentiated minorly by hit points, and what cool description the power has. In other words, all the classes are mechanically the same...even fighters can aquire rituals (or non-combat spells). In many ways this feels like World of Warcraft's ability trees: you level and get a new ability. Even in there, though, for spellcasters you at least get to cast whatever spells you know within the context of the game in watever combination or frequency you desire: no artificial "this spell affects the monster once a combat."

Although really a subtext of the above, I think its appropriate now to discuss magic. Magic is either integrated into powers (for combat spells) or Rituals. For powers, the result of this (and to make them in-balance with all other classes) is to strip them of any depth and make them a simple, one paragraph effect lacking flavor. Of course some will say this simplification helps speed gameplay, and make it less unwieldy. I of course say that it takes away options, and strips away flavor.

In the end, in terms of magic, I can understand the complaints about the legacy magic system used up to 3.5e, called the "Vancian" magic system (based on the literature of Jack Vance). It too is an artificial constraint, done for game balance. However, a non-Vancian spellcaster had already been introduced to 3e in the form of a sorcerer, giving players and DMs an alternative. So what sort of magic system does 4e use? And what happens to sorcerers? I haven't read the FR campaign setting, so I cannot comment on how they handle it, but they re-introduce another "fantasy disaster" solution, which was lame in the 2e transition, just as it is lame in the 4e transistion. Now, the magic system of 4e becomes a "magic emulator," neither Vancian or "mana" based like the Sorcerer, and abstracted away from what I consider flavorful. Rituals partially make up for that, but since they are a seperate game mechanic and interruptable by combat, no longer can players use clever adaptation of non-combat spells to achieve unique in-combat effects. A level of finesse is lost.

The skill system (which in my opinion was one of the best features of 3e) has a superficial resemblance to the old 3e system (open ended, roll D20 and add your skill bonus). Gone however are customizable skill point allocation. Instead, everyone gets 1/2 level plus ability modifiers for all skills. To be especially good in a skill, you can be "trained" in a limited number of skills, which nets you a +5 bonus to that skill. Of course there are feats as well that can alter this mix, giving more bonuses or more "trained" skills. While this makes skill selection infinitely easier, again it elimiates a certain level of customizability to skills. You can differentiate some skills, but less so than under the previous edition. Furthermore, a number of skills have been eliminated, and others rolled together. I have less problem with skill consolidation than I have with eliminating skills. For example, craft skills have been eliminated. A character I had made to be a master smith is no longer, unless by DM fiat. Therefore, if I want to have my character make a master sword of exceeding beauty and value, I no longer have control over that aspect of my character; the DM does now, and it is up to DM fiat to decide whether my character can do that, rather than a pure numbers game. Additionally, this also means that any character of sufficient level will be better in most skills than a commoner who is a professional. I suppose that is alleviated by the lack of profession skills, but nonetheless if feels a little of Mary Sue-ism.

Furthermore, characters are now divided into "roles" they play in the game: controllers (control the flow of battle through firepower), leaders (support), strikers (offensive, mobile, high damage characters), and defenders (protect the rest of the party from close assault, i.e. "tanks"). While this merely codifies a phenomenon that has occured since D&D's inception (perhaps not with these exact words, but the concepts are the same), I still feel resentful that for example, as a fighter I am limited to "tanking" (to take the World of Warcraft parallel further, fighters can "mark" a target, imposing penalties to that target if they choose to attack something other than the fighter. When I was playing a 4e fighter, I called it "getting aggro," the parallel was so similar) and can't bust out of that. What if I want to make a ranged specialist fighter? 4e's answer is to just make a ranger. This doesn't sit well with me, since it forces my character concept to adhere to the rules, not the other way around. Net, less freedom when creating characters. For some this is fine; for me, I don't want to be limited to a specific character role, but want the tools to be able to break out of those roles if I so choose, 4e doesn't give me those tools in the core books.

There has also been a shake up in starting races. The standard races of the previous edition (Human, Dwarf, Elf, Half-elf, Halfling, Gnome, Half-orc) has been eliminated. We get some of the old "core" races (Human, elf, dwarf, halfling), but now have in addition Tieflings and Dragonborn. Although not a problem per se, however, the problem arises in that it is core. For many it might not matter at all; for long term campaigns it can cause some headaches for the DM. Now he has a choice to either "ban" the extra core races, allow them and alter the campaign (via the dreaded ret-conn), or just start a new campaign. For long term players in the campaign, there might not be any issue with "banning," but what about new players recruited to the game?

The last item I want to touch upon is multiclassing. In 3e muticlassing was a breeze. Just add a level of the appropriate class, add the appropriate abilites, and you're off. This flexibility further allowed one to make the characters they want. The fact that not all choices were optimal are not a detriment to the system, but a challenge in the character. For example, one of the hardest classes to play are Fighter/Wizards (or Fighter/magic-users for the old timers). Unable to wear armor efficiently nor cast spells as well as straight wizards, the charm came from exploiting the class abilites in such a way to make a unique character. It was definitely not the most optimized character, but definitely a challenging one. In 4e, multi-classing is boiled down to a feat that allows you to do something outside of your character class. By itself, this would be a cool feat to backport to 3e, for characters that want a specific ability (for flavor or to support a character concept), but for a full blown multiclassing ability, it pales compared to what you could do in 3e. Can you build Elric, for example, in 4e? I don't think you could even approach his abilities with the multiclassing abilities in 4e.

In the end you take away from the game what you put into it. Sure, it is possible to have a good time playing the game: I played in a several month long campaign (as a fighter) with the gaming group, and had a good time. But just because we had fun playing doesn't mean I have to like the rules. In the end, I played a fighter (besides the fact we had to fill a role so right off the bat I felt less freedom in playing what I want based on how the rules push roles) as a "make it or break it" test. I never have been a huge fan of fighters, so if 4e can make them fun, then maybe it might be a winner. No such luck, and in fact I was bored playing my character. To be fair 3e doesn't alleviate this that much, but at least there if I want to "break the mold" I could do that with the inherent flexibility of the rules. I don't think I'll be playing in any official D&D campaigns again until perhaps 5e comes out in a few years. Even then I might hesitate since, if I really like the rules, 6e may completely invalidate them because Hasbro/WotC isn't selling enough books. At this rate, I'd rather play Pathfinder or GURPS.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A New Hope

No, this is not some review of the Star Wars movie franchise; rather it is a review of the novelization of the first Star Wars Episode IV movie: A New Hope.

While the book has its author line as George Lucas (who should need no introduction if you're a SF fan), it is in fact "ghost written" by Alan Dean Foster. Foster was also responsible for the sequel Splinter of the Mind's Eye, as well as the story for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (still one of my favorites; the director's cut really makes it a great film). While Foster of course has his own fiction, he has been prolific in the genre and adaption market, writing quite a few movie adaptions.

Reading the novelization is definitely a different experience. Coming out before the movie (but largely following the script) there are quite a few differences, from Luke's callsign (Blue 5 instead of Red 5), to more significant variations (Artoo was for example a tripedal droid, rather than using wheels for locomotion). That being said, the book certainly captured the feel and spirit of the movie, helped by Foster's wordsmithing.

That being said, its rather thin (not quite 200 pages), and felt quite a bit rushed. In many respects, it was a faithful scene by scene adaption, but it suffers compared to other movie-to-book adaptions in that it didn't expand much compared to the movie. A novel gives the reader the chance to get more detail than is presented in the movie. Part of this might be the limitations the author was put under (there were, for example, no really detailed descriptions of characters, ships, and the like), but it would have certainly helped a fan to be offered something the movies do not.

In the end its a very quick read, and works on a level in which a fan can almost hear the dialouge from the movie cheweing through the mind. But in no way was this either high literature, or one of the best Star Wars novels...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Last Colony

The last book in Scalzi's trilogy, this book returns the focus back to John Perry, though in fact is a sequel to The Ghost Brigades. In this one, Perry is now returned to a normal flesh and blood, human body (a sort of modification of the old Roman plot of land in reward of service...this time you get a second life) and has set himself up on some backwater as an administrator, and lives there with his wife and the (now) teenage daughter of the protagonist from the previous book. Suddenly, he's tapped to lead a new colony. But everything is not as it seems...

Again, as a sequel, this book does not live up to the first one. That's not to say its bad, but I felt wanting for a bit more.

Scalzi falls into the trap that other SF writers sometimes get into: too many plot threads. In this one, the new colony world just happens to have its own primitive intelligent life-form...but he doesn't go anywhere with it. In my previous review of Clarke's Songs of a Distant Earth, the author setup a similar situation, in which it was discovered that the colony world has its own emerging intelligent life. Here, though, Clarke had a subtext: that all the assumptions we make may not always be the correct one, and that a lack of evidence does not automatically suggest a lack of existence. In Scalzi's book, I could neither find the point of this addition, nor were we fed with more.

That being said, I find it interesting that the book was a kick at conservativism (perhaps not of the political type, but a kick nonetheless). The premise is that humanity is very, very good at playing the galactic game. But things have to change if there's going to be a galactic civilization for everyone to inherit. In a way, I found it refreshing that humanity is in the wrong on this, and Scalzi does a good job in his trilogy in depicting humanity in a sympathetic vein, but at the same time stating clearly that maybe we were wrong...

Friday, July 11, 2008

Rendesvous with Rama

Arthur C Clarke passed away on 19 March 2008, and I found no better way than to commemorate his life and career than by reading one of his books.

I have to admit I was never a fan of Clarke. Growing up I had been attracted to the works of other authors, or in the full throws of genre fantasy fandom (Dragonlance, plenty of Forgotten Realms, and other such fantasy pulp). Thus it was not until I had picked up this book that I had read any of Clarke's material.

Have to say I didn't know what I was missing! Rama is a somewhat thin book, but well written and engaging nonetheless. It is done in the traditional style of hard SF: characters are a bit thin (the main character has some depth...brought about mostly by multiple wives), and are used mostly as a foil for exploring the great scientific mystery. As such mystery abounds, but perhaps not long enough. It was an enjoyable romp as the characters explored Rama, but in the end I don't think enough secrets were revealed for the pay-off. That being said, there is word it is being made into a movie (or at the least optioned), something I can certainly get excited about.

Clearly, though, the book was a setup for a sequel. I bought the sequel, though I'm told it is not as good. Well, I certainly intend to read it anyway (I got mine used -- in hardback -- though I'm disappointed that the previous owner was a smoker!)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Galaxy in Flames

The Horus Heresy is a central event within the Warhammer 40,000 (or 40K) universe. It's taken a long time for Games Workshop to start a novel series about it, but so far the payoff has been pretty good.

As many of you may have surmised by now, I view genre fiction as a sort of guilty pleasure. Never high literature, nonetheless it is entertaining and sometimes that's just what you need. GW like a number of gaming companies has been very effective at plundering its background for fiction, and I think it was a matter of time before they came upon the centerpiece of the 40K background.

Having read Horus Rising and False Gods_ previously, the next book in the series _Galaxy in Flames_ ties up the previous two books and sets off the heresy. Horus has now fully betrayed the trust of the Emperor and has set Astartes against Astartes (Space Marines for non-fans) and crushed the Great Crusade for his own interest.

While Counter is in my opinion not in the same league as Abnett, I felt this book was quite competently written and effectively advances the storyline. I can honestly say I didn't quite know how the book would end from the first page (even though I know the story in an over-arching way). Furthermore the status of some of the characters is in limbo, motivating me to read the next in the series.

While overall the series is good, It is not without criticism. I felt Horus' fall a little to quick and convenient, something that should have been stretched out for another novel. I also was disappointed that so far most of the other Primarchs haven't had a lot of airtime. That being said, I look forward to the next book in the series...

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

The Ghost Brigades

I just finished up Scalzi's The Ghost Brigades, sequel to Old Man's War. While I don't think the sequel quite lived up to its predecessor (a new book in a new universe, I find, is always more exciting than its sequel -- as long as that universe is compelling enough).

One thing I found, especially reading this book, how much being a parent changes one's perspective. One of the characters of this book, Zoe, is the daughter of the primary antagonist. I also found this character the most empathetic (or at least the one I related to the most) because, I think, I have a daughter of my own. There were other elements of the book, mainly describing the things that can happen to children in conflicts, that I felt was a bit wrenching. Five years ago I might not have had as much an issue with this, but now that I have a child of my own, I found these elements a bit more disturbing. But then good literature (in my opinion) should have the ability to disturb us a bit, to get us thinking, and to force us to re-examine our beliefs and the like. While I hardly think _The Ghost Brigades_ is some existential epiphany of the nature of life, I think the book was effective in challenging me and entertaining (the most important aspect!). I look forward to reading Scalzi's last book in this series.

While we're at it, I also recently purchased Ken Follett's A World Without End. I'm going to do something a bit different and blog about the anticipation of reading this book. It is the sequel to Follett's excellent Pillars of the Earth. Historical fiction, Pillars of the Earth is centered around the construction of a Gothic cathedral in the fictitious English abbey of Kingsbridge. Set during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). The sequel jumps ahead a bit, using the descendants of many of the characters in the first book, and takes place starting in 1327 (at the end of the reign of King Edward II), though the bulk of the book follows the beginning aspects of the 100 Years War, and appears to end in the Plague Years (1349-1351). I can't say how excited I am of this. King Edward III is one of my "historical" heroes; a powerful warrior-king of England and very successful at what he did (despite, perhaps, the ridiculous allegation presented in Braveheart that Edward III was actually sired by Mel Wallace!), and the 100 Years War is probably one of my favorite periods as well.

Historical fiction (that is good historical fiction that is not the Harlequin romances) is not as common as I'd like. There's been some good books, but I don't think the genre is as popular, and largely overshadowed by the romance novel industry. Whenever a good "serious" historical novel comes along, its a rare treat indeed. I already started the book last night, and look forward to reading it...