I’m sure this bodes well

A GOA (Mythic european operator) representative trying to explain how their service will be greatly improved for Warhammer:

We have moved our offices to a foreign country to be able to provide the service that we couldn’t offer for DAoC due to the labour restrictions in place in France.

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Books at my door

Ordered from bookdepository.co.uk (since it’s free delivery, and it’s convenient to buy single books) and arrived today.

When I said I was going to read just the very best in the genre, I really meant it. Added points because I like long branching series and this is one of them.

This is a nice edition from Tor, bundling the first two books. 410 pages in total, but written in a super-tiny character.

I’m currently reading “Deadhouse Gates” by Steven Erikson, but the curiosity goes more toward Gene Wolfe since I’ve never read anything of him. Maybe I’ll try to read them in parallel, even if I prefer to focus on just one thing at time.

Gardens of the Moon – Steven Erikson

The story so far:
It’s a tale of two warring factions. It starts in the middle of the campaign of a Roman-like empire ruled by a mysterious empress, moving to expand her territorial control beyond what’s reasonable. The other faction being the “free cities”, who form an alliance to try to fight back and preserve their independence. Two opposed groups. The rest of the plot is about the insane proliferation of sub-factions.

Each of these two big groups is divided into a number of internal factions, with their own hidden history and plans, often not aware (or completely aware) of each other, often not even aware of where they stand. From there rises the emergent complexity of Erikson’s world. And not only we have a number of factions criss-crossing each other, but then even the gods enter the fray. Adding more foreshadowing, mystery and forgotten history. Everyone messes with everyone else. With the added principle at the foundation of it all: power draws power.

The result? A convergence. There’s a high number of sub-threads in the plot due to the interaction of these many factions, all converging to a point. Not only conceptually, but also geographically. Thankfully Erikson is coherent, so everything is well explained and makes sense, and the reader has the feel already halfway through the book that everything is moving exactly toward that point, and that it’s gonna be a real mess.

That’s the structure of the book. A really good structure. It starts with a bang, a powerful scene that is admirably handled (first you see the gruesome aftermath, then you are brought right there). Then there’s the calm after the storm, and, for the 500 pages between that first part and the climax, Erikson meticulously builds up his dominoes just so he can blow everything up later in a handful of pages.

While it moves on, there’s a whole lot of showmanship. Fireworks. So much that maybe you can find them a bit too excessive. So much stuff, characters and plots are presented that they could easily fit a fat trilogy. Still, the book doesn’t feel like moving too fast, because you know that all it happens isn’t resolutive but just another step toward the final reckoning.

There’s a guy half Marilin Manson, half Sephiroth from Final Fantasy 7, who goes around sitting on his moon-shaped airship. There’s a Jaghut Tyrant, who lifts his index and a volcano rises out the earth, that flicks his thumb and turns everything to ashes. Armies of zombies (kinda), all kinds of weird creatures like flying insects used as helicopters, a winged monkey, a chaos-powered wooden puppet. There are named swords with particle effects, powerful mages, a fool who walks through dreams, demons, dragons, other dimensions, gods.

Continuously, powerful forces who can destroy and enslave worlds are quoted. You think that this scenario is complete? That these are the “villains”? No, because before the end you discover that the forces at play are just “diversions”, and that bigger players are entering as well.

Now, I deliver death.

An endless stream of “you’ve seen nothing yet” and it almost feels like the Dragonball of fantasy literature.

But don’t get me wrong, because all of this is awesome. The worldbuilding is consistent, gritty and realistic. It has a strong sense of wonder, but it doesn’t slip on it and it’s probably the best setting ever. Brave and ambitious. Inspired and visionary. There’s attention to the different cultures and how all these uncommon aspects can affect what’s around them. The concept of gods walking among men is about how the perception of people change, when they know that gods aren’t an abstract, dubious ideas, but they are concrete, and affect visibly the world around you.

As with Tolkien, there’s history to the world going back for thousands of years. Unlike Tolkien, history here isn’t just a distant horizon, but instead comes back to take its toll. And knowing history means having an advantage, being ahead of your enemies. Gods, being immortal, have patience. Men, being mortal, are continuously on the edge.

On top of all this goodness, if you like its taste, there are a number of flaws. I often read complaints on the forums and now I can comment with my own experience. For the most part those flaws exist, but are marginal details that don’t get in the way. On the other side there are certain aspects that are more relevant.

To begin with, Erikson uses a tone that doesn’t change much through the whole book. For Glen Cook this worked because he used a single POV, for Erikson this works less, because he offers the POV of just about everything, included anthropomorphic animals that appear a bit silly. With so much display of power it is counterproductive to show every POV because you diminish the sense of wonder and have a normalizing, flattening effect on everything. The “flat” tone also makes the “voices” of all characters also flat, so making them all too much alike.

This gets worse as it loses a lot of the charisma of the characters and the novel feels distant. You aren’t easily drawn in as you fail to understand and sympathize with the characters. You always feel a separation and this works against the interest when powerful scenes are depicted. They kinda happen, they are pretty, showy, but fall a bit short because of the lack of emotional involvement.

Another flaw is that Erikson is abrupt with descriptions. When he says someone is “tall and lean” then he’s already giving out too much. All the characters seem a bit like black shapes, not because they lack a distinctive characterization, but because Erikson doesn’t linger to explain and describe. He moves on, only handing out a couple of words every hundred pages. The characterization is actually there and works, but you have to extrapolate it by yourself.

This is painfully obvious if you come from reading something like Abercrombie. In that case every phrase and word is carefully studied to give a particular feel of a character. Detail. Emergence. Here the grand scope and ambition makes characters cower. They are crushed by the plot.

There’s a love story hidden in the book that is completely developed in the background. A lot of readers complained it doesn’t make sense. The truth is that it’s very consistent, but it happens in ellipsis. It’s veiled. Like the rest of the characterization, you have to infer it. And for most readers this just means that it never happened, as it was never clearly exposed.

These two (flat tone and weak characters) are the two biggest complaints. I recognize the first as a flaw, but the second is more a choice of the writer than a flaw. In the case of the love story there was so much going on that exposing it would disrupt the pace of the book with a scene completely inappropriate. That love story represents a plot shift, but it was outside the themes of the book. And, thinking about it, Erikson dealt with it in the best way possible.

Another minor flaw I recognize is about the Deus Ex Machina. There’s a whole lot of it. I see how people are gonna hate this, but for the most part, it’s excused in the plot. Deus. Gods. In this book there are gods. They exist as part of the plot. They bend the plot as they like. They ARE Deus Ex Machina. Because they can.

This is actually one of the best realized aspect of the book. In Greek mythology gods were personifications and projections of human weaknesses, desires, ambitions and so on. Erikson takes inspiration from that. Gods weigh in everyday life, they are characters themselves, involved directly in the plot and not just abstract entities. Erikson has all of this, but his way is unique and charming in its own way.

The gods in this book intervene in everyday life in subtle ways. For example there’s the classic scene of someone who suddenly sees a coin on the ground, crouches to grab it, and doing so dodges a dart shoot by an assassin. A so classic scene that is completely ineffective and unbelievable. Ruins the consistence. But here it’s not a coincidence. It’s not chance, it’s Chance. It’s a god manipulating things.

What makes all this interesting and unique is that these gods don’t just intervene in subtle ways, pulling threads as they like, but that they are promptly detected by “normal” people who use magic. These characters can sense the presence and activity of the god, so discover who’s moving things behind the scenes. What makes this so interesting is that, while detected, the presence of the god isn’t directly explained. People can detect gods but can’t detect their intentions. And all this leads to a kind of passive observation filled with fears, because if a god is there and is meddling, then no good things can come out of it. Power draws power and soon it will be a mess for everyone. And if you want to live, you have to anticipate the gods’ moves.

It’s like a labyrinth. You on a side, a god (minotaur) from the other. You can’t see through walls, so you can’t see where the minotaur is moving. But you KNOW it’s there, and you have to find the exit all the while avoiding to face the minotaur.

This means that for the most part the Deus Ex Machina is inside the plot itself, and not an external intervention of the writer. But there’s also a part, 2/3 into the book, and then the end itself, with a row of fortuitous encounters that are a bit too convenient and feel forced. So there’s still a bit of external leading and “lucky” intersections, which is an even bigger flaw because the plot was already solid enough to not need it at all.

The relationship between men and gods is, after all, the theme. Erikson is an archaeologist and deals with the effects of cultures. With gods all around, men don’t have the control of their own lives. They are preys. Tools. They feel desperate, hopeless, with a sense of doom. At the same time they still fight the hopeless war. And being hopeless makes them unpredictable. Leading to acts of sacrifice and heroism. The quality of men versus gods.

This book isn’t simple to get into. Both because it’s multi layered and because of some of the flaws explained above. But it also sets in motion a truly epic saga that is evocative and fascinating in all its parts. With a powerful imagery and epic scope that is unparalleled in the whole genre. The end of the book, while accelerating to a maddening speed, manages to both wrap the plot in a satisfying way and lay the premises for at least the next two books, so that it puts in you the curiosity to follow through.

It requires more than the usual attention and work from the reader. Tolerance to apparent dead ends and continuous POV changes. To unclarity, opaqueness, hidden purposes, misleadings. Faith in the writer. That’s a lot to ask, but it pays back with a setting with an unprecedented scope and depth.

He drew another satisfied breath of steamy air. “We must needs await, at the end, the spin of a coin. In the meantime, of course, wondrous food beckons.”

Siege at Pale

Once again a sketch from the limited edition of “Gardens of the Moon”. The siege at Pale (and all this happens in chapter 2):

Image taken as always from Pat’s blog.

I’m done writing the review of the book and quite pleased with it, as it’s not excessively long and I was still able to include most of my notes. I haven’t posted it yet simply because I’m 80 pages from the end of the book and I want to hold it till I’m absolutely sure that those remaining pages don’t change my view.

Donnie Darko explained

I’m a bit late watching this movie, but here it is (if you haven’t watched this sci-fi movie you’ll have no idea of what I’m talking about).

The movie can only be understood through the online material. Here’s a starting point:

Like life, and much of Wolfe’s work, Donnie Darko can only be seen forward, but only understood looking backwards.

That said, the semi-official FAQ doesn’t really explain everything, and about those parts that don’t make sense it simply states: “this is open to interpretation”. Nope. It’s open to interpretation because you didn’t get it. Heh.

The real explanation comes from here.

This is my own paraphrase. EVERYTHING makes sense, is consistent, explained and never forced. There isn’t anything ambiguous.

First thing: the real theme of the movie is the demonstration of the existence of god. Which is the element that ties together all the plot threads.

Postulate: the space-time is an entity trying to preserve itself the same as all organisms do. It can happen that the system has a crisis, and the entity has means to counter and solve this crisis, the same way an human body develops antibodies and can heal wounds. Trying to preserve itself.

The space/time anomaly in the movie, generating the Tangent Timeline, is not caused by someone, or the random actions of someone, or weird super-powers. It is not due to something related to the characters in the movie. It is simply a natural phenomenon, like the fall of a meteorite. So the characters in the movies aren’t “special” by any means. They are simply caught in the anomaly. This is important.

Now. The anomaly is a danger for the integrity of the space/time entity. In the same way it happens to a human body if it doesn’t heal, if the anomaly persists for too long, the space/time sort of “collapses”. So the situation needs to be fixed within a set maximum time-frame.

The anomaly has also an epicenter. All those who are caught near the anomaly become the “antibodies” of the system. This means that ALL characters in the movie are “zombies”, lead by a greater will (space/time). If you could “interview” antibodies they wouldn’t say who they are, what is their function and so on. Because they operate unknowingly, unconsciously. They are simply manipulated. Unaware. They have illusion of life and conscience, but they can’t choose or really live.

This creates two groups. From a side, everyone in the village, the manipulated, zombie ones. From the other, our hero, Donnie Darko.

There’s one main difference. The manipulated ones have no real “conscience”, as they are manipulated, and have no special powers. While Donnie Darko has special powers (that allow him to fix the time anomaly and “save the world”) but also has the freedom of choice. This means that the manipulated ones, being just puppets, are lead by an all-knowing hand. So an hand who knows how to fix things. While Donnie Darko has conscience, but no knowledge.

So. Manipulated ones, who know how, but don’t have the power to. And Donnie Darko, who has the power to, but doesn’t know how.

The WHOLE movie is about (subject) the manipulated ones trying to induce Donnie Darko to do his task. A tutorial. They will try to make Donnie Darko do it. Force to do it. Induce.

Most of the plot in the movie is pure, awesome Deus ex machina revealed. Making all sort of things happen just to induce Donnie to do something.

For example: why the old crazy woman goes every day to check her letter box? Common answer: because she knows something, so she goes to check if a letter about that something arrives.

Nope. That woman is a zombie like everyone else. She checks the letter box to induce another character to say “someone should write her”, to then induce Donnie Darko to do it. This letter being sent would then, at the end of the movie, induce the old woman to find the letter, and start to read it in the middle of the road. Who consequently induces a car to arrive, dodge the woman in the middle of the road and kill Donnie’s own girl.

Why Donnie’s girl dies? To induce, once again, to make him do his task. Death and life of zombies don’t matter. What matters is simply persuade Donnie. Push him to “do the right thing”. That is: using his powers to fix the anomaly and save the world (so preserving the time/space self-preserving entity).

This introduces the theme of god. Donnie can see the future movement of people (the translucent tentacle coming out the chest). So he speaks with his teacher. Meaning: if I can see the future, then it means things are already determined before they happen. So this means that there is god, as someone who makes those choices and sets the plan. BUT. If, I, Donnie Darko can see where they will go, so having the power to *change* it, then who am I? What happens if I don’t do what they tell me (save the world)?

Teacher reply: I cannot answer because… (stupid reason). Of course he cannot. This is a scene about Donnie Darko (god’s tool) asking god (a manipulated one) what happens if he doesn’t do what the god asked him to do. Of course god can’t answer that. Taboo.

So, again, the movie is about Donnie Darko’s internal conflict: do I do it, or not? Do I fulfill my role or not?

In the scenes with the psychologist, Donnie says he:
1- Knows there’s time limit, so that things aren’t going to last. Something is going to happen (end of the world).
2- He doesn’t want to die alone.

He knows that when the time is come (the maximum time limit of the Tangent Universe), he will be alone. Him and his vision/tutorial (Frank/god). He will be alone because he knows that the he will have to make the choice alone. To do his task or not.

Added element. Everything that happens in the Tangent Universe isn’t in any way “normal”. It’s simply the realization of Donnie’s own wishes. He finds a girl, fucks her, is handsome, is intelligent, has success with everyone, kicks various asses. He’s basically badass all around, a winner.

NOT because Donnie’s really badass. But because that’s his own wish. He’s got powers. He has the power to realize all he wants. So he actually LOVES this Tangent, unstable Universe. Because everything is great for him.

This also explains a part that is rarely understood. There’s a point where Frank tells him (before he teaches him how to do his task, by opening a wormhole in the movie theatre):
Donnie: “Why do you wear that stupid bunny suit?”
Frank: “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?”

Now, it makes sense asking someone *why* he’s wearing a bunny suit. Because there’s a choice, so a reason. While it doesn’t make sense to ask someone *why* he wears a man suit. Because it’s not a choice. You are born with it.

What Frank implies there is: nope, Donnie. You’re not just a man. You’re past that. You’ve got powers. You can be whatever you want. Why are you still sitting here, pretending to have a normal life (wearing a man suit)?

That’s the transition. Frank is “teaching” Donnie who he really is (god’s tool to do a task, with super-powers and all). In fact shortly after he teaches Donnie how to use his power to fix the anomaly.

Donnie has the choice. To recognize god and complete the task. Or still cling to his pretty but ephemeral life. Denying god.

Why does Donnie Darko die at the end of the movie?

To begin with, he has the choice to live. He could complete the task and still live. The task doesn’t require Donnie’s death. It only requires Donnie to “give back” his pretty ideal life, as that Tangent Universe would be “sealed”, solving the anomaly (god, aka the space/time entity, would cheer at this point).

So why he decides to die? It’s quite simple. As written above, he’s scared to die alone. He’s scared to follow Frank/god’s order and give up at least part of his life. But when he finally accepts the task, he also accepts the existence of god. He seconds the greater will, so he *affirms* it. By doing so, he’s not alone anymore.

He basically passed the test. Accepted god. Hence he transcends his own being. By doing what he does he didn’t *have to* die. But he’s so “past it” that his mortal body, girlfriend, family and EVERYTHING he cared about, are now pretty useless. He’s beyond. He recognized god and doesn’t need anymore a mortal life and body. Stopped to care about the ephemeral stuff of everyday’s life.

OR. He’s betrayed. Used as a tool, induced to believe he’s transcended. Induced to kill himself after his task was complete. Either you believe in god, rewarding people who comply. Or you believe in the space/time entity who operates to simply preserve itself. Kinda selfishly. And once the tool is used, it is tossed away and killed. Making the tool believe that he’s got a much better life.

Either you believe in god as a generous entity. Or you believe in god as a manipulative one. Or just a living entity preserving and caring for itself. Discarding parts of itself, as a process, same as we shed cells during our own life cycle.

The movie obviously stops there. It doesn’t show what happens if the anomaly isn’t fixed (it’s just the space/time entity making people believe that things would go very wrong if the anomaly wasn’t fixed. But maybe only selfishly). It doesn’t show what happens to Donnie’s “life” past death.

Quite a wonderful movie-idea. One of the most ambitious ever.

Problem is, the movie doesn’t provide the tools to understand itself. You have to read stuff online, read the “solution”. I think it would have been much better if these arguments were also real themes *IN* the movie. Instead of outside of it.

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Nope, this isn’t about cartoonish style

For MONTHS after the first screenshots of Warhammer Online were released there was the argument about whether WoW copied Warhammer or the other way around.

People who saw only WoW and thought Warhammer was a copy and people who claimed to know better said that it was Blizzard to have copied and pillaged Warhammer for years.

Both kinda true.

True that Blizzard didn’t invent anything. Not just in gameplay, but also the setting and its style. Copied from Game Workshop, copied from Giger. Mostly because, as it happens with many franchises, the original games were bland and with no depth. Derivative. Ultima started derivative as well. Then all games, when successful and spawning series and consolidated settings, start to acquire a personality.

But rarely they are truly original or don’t have roots somewhere.

Now the point is: WoW came before even the concept of Warhammer Online. Graphically, WoW has ITS OWN distinctive style. That people easily recognize. It’s not just a general setting style. It’s a visual style all-around. You can see at a glance if a screenshot comes from WoW. It goes FAR BEYOND being “cartoonish”. It’s WoW. Everyone recognizes it.

*Then* Mythic takes the concept of bringing Warhammer to an online version. They do have WoW under their eyes. They aren’t oblivious. They know its style. When the screenshots of Warhammer appeared on the internet they said they weren’t copying. Defended their choices saying that Warhammer came first. That Blizzard copied that style.

Now I ask you to look at this.

If the artist(s) who produced that say that they went for an original style that wasn’t trying to replicate *precisely* WoW’s style… Well, they would be some of the bigger and shameless liars in the world.

And this isn’t just about artists “taking inspiration”. This is a blatant CORPORATE MANDATE. To make Warhammer look AS CLOSE AS POSSIBLE to WoW in the hope to overlap the market and try to reach exactly that target.

I’m not saying this is a bad or unacceptable move. I’m saying they are COWARDS who won’t admit what they are doing. And it is under everyone’s eyes.

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Books ladder

In my books review I avoided giving numerical votes because when I look back I usually disagree with myself. It happens often that you find you gave an higher vote to a book you liked less than another.

This happens because votes and ladders are used and useful as a comparative thing. But this also means that votes are going to change as you read more and have a broader view. The vote is relative to what you read.

So I was thinking how I would rate those books I read recently. Here is my current ladder:

9+ The Blade Itself – Simply brilliant, and I keep grinning every time I think about it. Oodles of charisma.

9 The Black Company – The first book. Perfect structure and really accomplished.

7.5 The Great Hunt – Jordan’s second. I liked it a lot, flows really well. I didn’t like where most people say it gets better (the end), but I still rate it high because it kept me hooked.

7+ and 8+ Gardens of the Moon – Here is Erikson. Two votes because one is objective (the lower) and the other subjective (higher). The fact is that I love the setting and scope, so this adds a subjective value, but at the same time I recognize some flaws and so I would rate it lower.

6.7 Shadows Linger – Glen Cook’s second. It was much weaker than the first. Too awkward and weird. I expected more.

6.5 and 7.5 The Eye of the World – Jordan’s first. In this case subjective is 6.5, objective is 7.5, the opposite of Erikson. Fact is that I was bored by the type of plot. I read it already and this book is for the most part a rip off of Tolkien. Too many parallels. At the same time (objective vote) it’s really well planned and executed. In its kind it’s one of the best if not the best, but for someone who already read fantasy it feels redundant and gives deja-vus.

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Still reading Erikson

I’m reading the first book very slowly. Not because it feels too complex or too boring, but just because I want to give it time and enjoy it. It will be hard to summarize all the notes and comments I’ve taken but it should happen in a couple of more weeks.

In the meantime there’s a very good summary of the series as a whole on Fantasy Book Critic. Lots of praises, some I don’t completely agree with, as Erikson doesn’t completely delivers on the front of characters. But all the flaws I noticed are still small quirks that don’t get in the way of the overall enjoyment.

There was also an interesting thread with polls about the books. What makes it interesting is that with fantasy series, especially long ones, there’s a general consensus about whose books are better or worse. As you can see from those polls when it comes to Erikson every reader has a different opinion. Someone’s favorite book is often someone’s worst, and in most cases the order shifts considerably. The only few rules is that most people loved the third (Memories of Ice) and the second (Deadhouse Gates), while the first is usually considered the worse. In between the remaining ones (4, 5, 6, 7) whose preferences shift incredibly. The fourth is the classic average, the fifth is either loved or hated, as it’s a bit more detached from habit of the series. Then the sixth is a very long transition, and the seventh a “hit or miss” case, as most plots come together and so drawing more “opinionated” comments.

Eventually I’ll get there to comment myself. Maybe.

For those who already read everything the Prologue of Toll the Hounds is out. But then I’m sure you already know. The book (hardcover only) is out in UK at the end of June (along with Esslemont’s own). Beginning of April for the mass market edition of Reaper’s Gale (still UK, in US out *now* as TPB). I’ve already planned two nice combo orders from amazon.co.uk: beginning of April for Abercrombie’s last+Erikson’s 7th, and end of June for Erikson’s 8th+Esslemont.