Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Games | Sunless Sea - Failbetter Games

So today it's a bit of a diversion from our usual topics - and into the world of games, albeit one that's largely interactive fiction. I've been playing a great deal of Sunless Sea this year (too much Sunless Sea? Never!), and thought I'd chat about it on the blog.

Sailing near Irem
Sunless Sea comes from Failbetter Games, the company responsible for the browser game Fallen London, and indirectly for all your sad feelings about bats (they're probably also responsible for that strange hunger you've been feeling lately, if you experience certain parts of FL content...). So they've got a pretty good - if a little grindy - interactive fiction track record. Sunless Sea is a different take on the formula, putting you at the helm of a steamship on a vast underground ocean and inviting you to explore. As the tagline "Lose your mind. Eat your crew." suggests, the survival expectations are not high.

At its best, Sunless Sea is an anthology. Each island or port on the Unterzee has its own stories, frequently its own entire plotline. Many are by guest writers. Richard Cobbett's spider-worshipping Saviour's Rocks, and Emily Short's haunting Station III are particular highlights. As a result, it reads as something of a collection of short interactive stories: drifting across the Unterzee using the roguelike mechanics to find the next island, each of which has a very different theme and feel to it. There are islands with one big event, one big choice, which affects what you'll find there on subsequent visits. There are islands that dole out their nuggets of story slowly, one visit at a time - like the island of Mt Palmerston, which has you taking letters from a rather homesick deviless. Occasionally - but to the game's credit, not very often at all - there are the disappointing islands, only there to serve as part of other plotlines. (That said, the game is still being occasionally updated, and there will be an expansion at some point - I'm still hopeful for more in places like Irem, which has the promising quirk of switching tenses from the main game as time distorts itself)

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Review | The Wilful Princess & The Piebald Prince - Robin Hobb

I've always loved Robin Hobb's Realm of the Elderlings books, and when a friend was kind enough to lend me The Wilful Princess & The Piebald Prince I was happy to have the chance to revisit. Through all the novels, especially the Farseer and Tawny Man trilogies, one story is repeatedly referenced: that of the seduction of a Farseer princess by a Witted commoner, and the subsequent disastrous reign of the Piebald Prince. So in a sense, this book is a defictionalisation, as we never get to hear the tale in full in the novels proper - as well as a record of what really happened, as opposed to the folklore's version. Predictably enough, it's rather different.

It's narrated by Felicity, the daughter of the wet nurse to Princess Caution, who becomes her childhood companion. Ah, the Farseers. Their naming conventions are possibly the worst for irony (as you might expect from a novel featuring Caution as the titular Wilful Princess). She's an engaging narrator - deeply flawed, very (even if unconsciously) ambitious, and nonetheless adoring Caution. It's a good mix, and you're soon drawn into her story, in which the myth of an evil witted sorcerer becomes a series of unwise decisions and a political quarrel. And very convincingly, too, making the anti-Witted prejudice of the Farseer trilogy even more tragic.

The Wilful Princess does assume a fair amount of knowledge of the existing books, despite technically being a prequel. It would make sense without having read the Farseer trilogy, but most of the broader implications would be lost - and many references, such as those to the Skill, go entirely unexplained. It's an engaging story, yes, but largely for its exploration of the origin of this tale in the wider setting, so even if it's set before the first trilogy, I would firmly recommend reading this later. Besides, that way you get the joy of those moments when you realise a beautiful explanation has just taken place.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Review | The Iron Ghost - Jen Williams

In April last year, I read, reviewed, and ultimately loved Jen Williams' The Copper Promise - a refreshingly fast paced, self-contained epic. As such, I was very interested to see where the sequel would take us, and happily, The Iron Ghost's journey is equally interesting. (Plus, I can hardly disapprove of the pun on the cover. Sorry.) There will inevitably be some spoilers for The Copper Promise, as with all sequel reviews, so be warned!

The Iron Ghost begins several years after The Copper Promise's rather grand finale - and more in the heroic than the epic fantasy vein. After their world saving exploits of the first novel, the Black Feather Three have been rather more mercenary, steadily building fame and fortune. However, not all is well between the three. Wydrin and Frith are divided by Frith's obligations - he feels he ought to marry strategically, as the last member of his noble family, and this is causing... understandable friction. Sebastian is dealing with the remnants of Y'Ruen's army - his own magically created daughters - and trying to find a way for them to live in peace. So when the Black Feather Three depart for their new job in Skaldshollow, we're far from the amiable status quo of The Copper Promise's ending.

The Skalds traditionally use stone golems - werkens - quarried from the magic-rich stone of the mountain to labour in their city. But their way of awakening the creatures has been stolen by a neighbouring people, the Nahrl, who view the Skalds' practices as harmful to the local mountain spirit. When the Black Feather Three are hired by the Skalds to retrieve their property, the conflict soon escalates - an ancient mage, Joah Demonsworn, is on his way back, and soon both parties' problems are overshadowed by this entirely non-ominous sounding addition.

So, first - what I loved. The Iron Ghost knows what it does well, and what is does well is Joah. Thankfully there's a lot of him. Yes, frequently I call out for more ambiguous antagonists. But Joah is a wonder: so assured in his own rightness, so anxious to ensure Frith is his brother in all of this... it's the combination of his utter amorality with his desperate affection for Frith that makes him such an engaging villain. Yes, it might have been interesting to have more of a possibility for redemption - but sometimes in heroic fantasy, what we need is a villain, and Joah is a fantastic one.

Another aspect I should mention is the care for diversity. Often, epic and heroic fantasies have failed on this front, but The Iron Ghost clearly does well here: there's a gay protagonist who gets a romantic subplot, others in background, and the world isn't using the typical all-white fantasyland (Frith, for one, is not). And honestly, I appreciate this. It's not what makes the book good by itself, but it's important to appreciate some decent inclusions here, given how the fantasy genre has often disappointed - able to imagine entire worlds, but no POC or LGBT people in them, at least outside stereotypes.

That said, The Iron Ghost suffers where its predecessor did: pacing. It seems to have difficulty in dealing with its subplots - the Frith/Wydrin issue, for example, barely gets touched before an attempted and rather hurried resolution (which is dramatic, yes, but I want character development rather than drama, which this lacks). Sebastian's romance meanwhile, gets almost shoved out of the way at the book's end, leading me to go back and search for scenes I'd accidentally missed. I can't help but feel that for a long book, The Iron Ghost could better allocate pages to these important interactions - just as I felt with the earlier Sykes novels. The action set-pieces are fantastic, yes, but it's the characters that make the novel, and the ending in particular does them a disservice. Sebastian's dragon-brood at least get the time they deserve, and their relationship is far deeper for it.

I do appreciate the novel's blend of epic and heroic fantasy tropes. The threat may be massive; the location is more confined, so we have a far richer sense of place. The fate of nations may be involved; the nations are frequently petty, squabbling, and decisions made for very personal reasons. It's a good mix.

All in all, I'd definitely recommend The Iron Ghost. Admittedly, it can be uneven in parts, and I hope the sequel allocates more time to gradual development, rather than the jolting resolutions that were used for certain subplots. But as a whole, it's a massively enjoyable cross between the heroic and the epic which won't fail to keep you reading, with engaging characters, a truly fun villain, and a climax that left me wondering: where next?

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Adaptations | Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - BBC Series

Adaptations are always a difficult business. I'm ashamed to admit I far more often come down on the side of the book purists - mostly not because the adaptations themselves are bad, but because the novels are far more expansive, it's very hard not to lose key elements when trying to stay true to the original, and alterations can be risky. That said, some really succeed in distilling the book's essence. I've even preferred one or two to the source material. While Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell isn't among the latter, it's a work I thought could never be adapted well (mostly due to its sheer length!) and I'm very glad to be proved wrong.

Strange and Norrell (image courtesy of BBC)
Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is one of my all time favourite fantasy novels. A historical fantasy set around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, it begins in an England with a strongly magical heritage - but in which practical magic died out centuries before. Magic is studied by theoretical magicians. Practical magic is the lot of charlatans, street sorcerers, and entirely ungentlemanly. Until two gentlemen begin its reintroduction. Predictably enough, it's the tw
o in the title, and the novel follows their lives, academics, quarrels and struggles - as well as that of Stephen Black, Sir Walter Pole's butler, who is caught up in the consequences of their actions. And it's wonderful. I've made this recommendation several times already, but it really is the best historical fantasy I've read - and one of the few books I find endlessly rereadable.

The novel itself is a vast, sprawling work, clocking in at over 1000 pages in my copy (a very pretty one I picked up in the Oxfam bookshop a few years back after losing my original copy - black page edges are definitely striking). In fact, that's a large part of its charm - it will happily devote page-long footnotes to telling old magical folk stories, and referencing fictitious academic texts. I'm (as you may have realised) quite a devotee of extensive worldbuilding, and this is one of the most delightful examples I've encountered.

So it must have been a difficult work to adapt. Thankfully, they managed to stretch it out: a seven part, one hour per episode miniseries. And in general, they do a great job. I'm going to split my take onto it into a non-spoilery and an intensely, flee-far-from-here-to-a-small-yurt-on-a-remote-island-inhabited-only-by-the-Hermit-Club-if-you-haven't-seen-the-ending spoiler