Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence

I bought Prince of Thorns back when it was relatively new on the market (a few years ago?). I read the first chapter, didn’t particularly care for it, put it away, and moved on to something else.

Recently I found it again in my Kindle library after I wrote that bit about the grimdark genre, remembered that I’d only read a single chapter, and decided maybe I didn’t give it a fair shot. It’s at least popular enough to have spawned two sequels, so somebody must like it.

So I went back into it using my patented “read the first sentence of every paragraph until something catches my eye” method, which is a surprisingly fast way to read, if not entirely comprehend, a book. (Then again you might be surprised how often the first sentence of a paragraph summarizes the whole paragraph. It’s a trap I fall into myself quite often.)

This time I got to Chapter 24, the 49% mark, before I reached the same conclusion as the first time I tried to read it. (Actually I had reached that conclusion at about the 10% mark but I kept skimming through it because I had nothing else at hand to read.)

It’s a first-person narrative where the narrator is kind of a bastard (figuratively, not literally). It’s set in a medieval-Europe-like setting during the “Hundred Wars” which presumably is supposed to resemble The Hundred Years War (by most accounts one of the worst times in European history). It’s heavy on dialog and light on description and exposition, so it’s a fairly fast read. The story begins with our hero (cough cough) in the middle of a rampage of vengeance for something that happened earlier.

In the interest of learning to be a better writer, I’ll try to diagnose why I don’t like the book.

I don’t mind the grimdarkishness of it. I don’t mind that our character is a bastard. The problem I think is that it’s shoved into my face so fast that there was no time to get accustomed to it. We are introduced to our main character in the first chapter and the author tells us through this character’s actions and thoughts that he’s consumed by hate, bent on single-minded, bloody revenge.

Um. Cool?

The classic story of revenge doesn’t bother me. But the author fails to give us any time to get to know our main character and develop any kind of sympathy for him before we see him rampaging. Revenge stories are supposed to start out by showing our hero being a great person who doesn’t deserve the bad things that happen to him or her. This book does not start that way. It starts out with, “Eww, this guy’s a creep.”

Compare with Arya from The Game of Thrones. She launches into a classic tale of (albeit slow-motion) revenge, too, but we root for her because GRRM gave us three-quarters of a book to get to know and like her before bad things happened to her. Compare also with that guy Glokta from The Blade Itself. He was kind of a bastard, but Abercrombie was able to make him sympathetic enough (through humor and crippling injuries) that we could turn a blind eye on his monstrous behavior.

Our main guy Jorg in Prince of Thorns is just a straight-up monster. He says monstrous things without a trace of humor. He thinks monstrous thoughts. He doesn’t struggle with the moral implications of his monstrousness. He doesn’t wish he wasn’t a monster. He just jumps up and declares, “Yes, I’m a monster, and I want things, so don’t get in my way.” Even his companions are scared of him. And not only is he a monster, but he’s a teenaged monster. (Redundant, I know.)

Now it’s true that Bad Things happened to him when he was younger. His behavior is partially a product of his time and his upbringing. (His father is also a monster.) It’s the kind of thing you might see in a supervillain origin story. In fact, the author is doing a decent job of building up Jorg as a complex villain.

Except, you know, he’s the protagonist.

Maybe that’s the whole point of these books. “What if there was a book where the protagonist is the evil villain? Ha ha! The joke’s on you, reader! Trope subverted!”

Well unfortunately it’s not really working for me. I’m all for subverting tropes but this either goes too far or it isn’t executed well enough for me. It’s not very satisfying to read a book and root for someone to kill the main character the whole time. It’s destined to end in disappointment. (Because there are two sequels.)

The worldbuilding falls a bit flat for me, too. It’s some sort of alternate Earth I guess where some things are the same (the pope, Jesu, Roma, the Hundred Wars) but some things are different (place names). I think there might be some kind of magic but it seems unimportant. It feels a bit lazy to me.

On my precisely-calibrated rating scale, I give Prince of Thorns a “meh.”

Stormblood’s a’Comin

FFXIV’s Stormblood expansion is arriving on June 16 for head start players, so I figure it might be a good time to talk about it. I pre-ordered it a long time ago, but I haven’t commented much about it. I did at one point write a post about some of the early feature announcements, but naturally, I never got around to publishing it, and it’s super obsolete now.

When last we left our intrepid main character back in January, she was sitting at ilvl 224, having just geared up with ilvl 230 items from The Weeping City. She was avoiding the Antitower dungeon in the Heavensward Main Scenario, and wondering if there was an easy way to upgrade her pathetic bow beyond ilvl 210. I’ve logged in for maybe a grand total of 15 minutes since then (just long enough to keep the game client updated and verify that it still works).

To be honest I haven’t seen much in this expansion to make me excited to jump back in. I barely play enough to keep up with my Bard, so it’s highly unlikely that I’m going to get around to playing a Samurai or a Red Mage. I hardly touched the three new jobs in Heavensward (in fact, I don’t think I ever unlocked the Dark Knight at all).

I am very much looking forward to expanded inventory, though. I don’t know if they’ve said how much extra space, but I’m hoping for at least doubling the current amount, in both the backpack inventory and armory inventory. It better not be something dumb like one extra row. (I’d love to see an auto-sort, too.)

I’ve got mixed feelings on retooling the class abilities. I agree that it’s needed, so they don’t keep multiplying with every expansion until it’s a big mess like some others (*cough* EQ2 *cough*). Keeping a limited number of abilities is one of the best things about FFXIV. It makes it one of the easiest MMORPGs to re-enter because you don’t have five hotbars of abilities to remember like some others (*cough* EQ2 *cough*). Yet there are still just enough abilities to make interesting rotations that matter.

But I’m not looking forward to re-learning how to play my Bard yet again. It took me a long time to come to grips with the Heavensward Bard, and I’m expecting it to be a drudgerous chore to learn the new rotations at level 60. (Though it will be nice to be able to move again.) That’s not even counting all the other jobs that I’ll have to start over on.

The most interesting parts of the expansion to me, the maps and story, will be largely walled off until I finish the Heavensward Main Scenario, which is still waiting on me to PUG the Antitower. I guess it’s conceivable I could push through to the end before June 16, but it seems unlikely given my current enthusiasm level (tonight I logged in three times fully intending to run that dungeon, only to stare at the Duty Finder screen for a minute and log back out).

I thought about using one of those potions to skip ahead, but I feel like I’m too close to the end already. It’s a great idea to skip 50 or 100 hours of quests, but I’d guess I’m probably around 10-15 hours from the end. If my research is correct, I’m mired in patch 3.2, with just 3.3, 3.4, and 3.5 parts 1 and 2 remaining (about 5 more dungeons and trials).

Is This The Life We Really Want? by Roger Waters

I’ve been trying to write about a movie or television show every Saturday, but I didn’t have anything ready for today. So you get an album review!

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a long-time Pink Floyd fan, so when I saw that Roger Waters would be releasing a new album, I instantly clicked that pre-order button on Amazon. The CD and AutoRip MP3s both arrived yesterday, Friday, June 2.

I was very nervous to hear this album. After all, Waters’ last album Amused To Death is a masterwork of musical perfection. It would be hard to top it. Also, the only criticism I ever had of ATD is that Waters’ voice didn’t sound that great compared to his earlier stuff, which I chalked up to the ravages of the aging process. That was way back in 1992.

Now it’s 2017, and presumably Waters has aged another 25 years. Speaking from some personal experience, that’s a lot of mileage to put on vocal cords that didn’t sound that great to start with.

I’m happy to say his voice sounds fantastic. Admittedly there’s a lot of technology available to fix vocals these days that weren’t around in 1992, but his voice doesn’t sound unnatural to me.

The album begins with When We Were Young, a sort of spoken-word prelude that sets the tone and announces that this is, indeed, unmistakably, a Roger Waters album.

Most of the album consists of quiet, simple melodic instrumentations of piano, acoustic guitar, and bass over light drums, with accents of synths, strings, and backing vocals. But some tracks venture into more electronic, trancey, Floydian territory. Familiar, topical television sound bites pepper almost every track. And as always, the lyrics are a stinging rebuke against politics and politicians and war.

I hate to compare new music from an artist against his older music, but there are a couple of tracks that really stand out as Pink Floyd-style music. Picture That sounds like it was inspired by One Of These Days. Smell The Roses has a very similar riff to Have A Cigar.

I like every track from start to finish, but the ones that really piqued my interest were: Picture That, Is This The Life We Really Want, Bird In A Gale. I like them because they sound a bit more musically experimental.

Is it better than Amused To Death? No. But it doesn’t need to be. It stands just fine on its own.

Far Cry 5 Outrage Hype!

Hey look, I downloaded the fan kit with ready-made images for blog posts!

There wasn’t much happening Friday the 26th except some kind of Far Cry 5 reveal, so I’ll see if I can summon up some words about it.

From what I can tell, Far Cry 5 is going to be essentially the same gameplay as Far Cry 2, 3, 4, and Primal, except it will be set in America with a Christian cult as the bad guys, and of course, that’s where the controversy begins.

The controversy seems to be the only reason anyone is talking about this game, though. And actually I’m only assuming there is a controversy,  because I’ve read repeated headlines which have told me something to the effect of, “You won’t believe how much controversy Far Cry 5 is stirring up! Click here to find out!” (I haven’t clicked on any of them.)

I admit, though, that I personally have not seen anyone in my circles arguing over this game, which makes me wonder if the “controversy” is made up out of thin air just to sell more games. (It’s probably just that I’ve successfully curated my social circles to exclude the kind of people who would get upset over this kind of thing.)

Late-breaking news: I saw someone retweeted a Change.org petition to cancel Far Cry 5. It’s probably legit, but would I be surprised to find out that Ubisoft PR was behind that? Nope. We live in a time when it’s incredibly easy to social engineer people.

[Note: I tried to look at said petition Tuesday night, but Change.org was down. Did somebody DDOS the petition to death? I think the petition is silly, but I think trying to DDOS away unpopular viewpoints is worse.]

I watched the reveal trailer. I’m guessing Ubisoft has taken the Branch Davidians–David Koresh’s heavily-armed Adventist sect from Waco, Texas–lifted them out of the headlines of 1994, and put them into Montana under a different name. Supposedly we’ll be playing a character trying to “infiltrate” this sect, and there will be local residents which form a sort of resistance to the sect, who will fight by our side.

What do I think? The short version is I find it a bit unrealistic as a setting (I’ll explain that later), but I’m willing to give it a shot. I doubt if I’ll buy it on day one, though. Far Cry is an easy series to wait for. Once you’ve seen one Far Cry game, you’ve basically seen them all.

As an American, what do I think of making Americans the bad guys? It doesn’t bother me in a broad sense, since I’m well aware of the extreme diversity in cultural opinions across these United States. But I don’t particularly enjoy the prospect of being lumped into the same category as a bunch of zealots. It should be really obvious that folks of the Branch Davidian ilk do not represent mainstream America in the slightest. (Even mainstream right-wing America.) But I suppose it depends on how the game handles it.

I mentioned that I thought the Far Cry formula was “unrealistic” in an American setting. That’s because, if we go by previous Far Cry games, the bad guys have always taken over the section of the country in which they reside, essentially replacing or becoming the government. They allude to that in Far Cry 5, too, since your character will be meeting part of a “resistance” fighting against this cult militia. It appears that this cult has taken over the entirety of “Hope County.”

That formula works if your setting is in the Third World–in a lawless country where whoever is in power is the one with the biggest guns. But that does not work for me in an American setting, certainly not in a post-9/11 setting. Here’s a hint: The U.S. Government always has the bigger guns. Not to get too political here, but we live in a near police state these days, at least when compared to our past.

So I’ll be curious to seehow they’re going to spin this story in a way where it makes logical sense for a (presumably) criminal militia to control part of Montana.

Montana is a huge, remote wilderness, but they still have laws and law enforcement there. The only thing that a militia could actually control–anywhere in the U.S.–is their own “compound” (ie. private property). But the idea that there might be a “resistance” on said private property, or that the militia’s influence extends beyond the borders of said private property to a whole county–that’s very unrealistic. If there were armed militia gangs roaming the streets of Montana in the way that they tend to do in Far Cry games, I imagine the Feds would get involved pretty fast.

SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson

I’m back with another book report. This time it’s SEVENEVES by Neal Stephenson (I have to look up the proper spelling of his name every single time), which I read sometime last year. (Hey, at least I’m writing this post this year!)

In my Cryptonomicon review, I said Neal Stephenson is hit-or-miss with me, but this time he delivered a solid hit. I loved this book.

It’s about the moon breaking up and destroying the world, and the steps taken to save the human race. I have always been a sucker for “disaster” stories so it had me as soon as I heard about it. (I can’t remember where I first heard about the book.)

The reason the moon broke up isn’t really important to the story, and in fact is never fully explained. I think there were some theories (a high-speed something hitting it in just the right way), but the characters were kind of busy and didn’t have time or resources to investigate.

The book is in three parts. The first part of the book deals with the immediate aftermath of the moon breaking up and the cold realization that all life on the surface of Earth is going to end. (Apparently all of the increasing number of moon pieces falling into the atmosphere would eventually reach a point where the air superheats and cooks everything. It sounded plausible to me but I’m certainly not an expert on exploding moons.) Part one follows the efforts of launching as many people into orbit as possible, as fast as possible, to save the human race. (They had a two-year deadline.)

The second part of the book deals with events after the “white sky” event which kills everything on Earth, and the efforts of the remaining space-faring human race (numbering about 1,500 by then) to get to a stable place to survive for thousands of years in space until the Earth is habitable again. (Remaining in orbit was still not safe, due to constant bombardments from “bolides,” a term you will understand thoroughly by the end of the book.)

In addition to all the scientific, physical, and emotional obstacles to overcome, there are (of course!) political obstacles as well. It’s all woven together in a way that I found riveting from the beginning of part one to the end of part two.

There aren’t enough words to say how much I loved these first two parts of SEVENEVES. (I am rendering the name in all caps because I think it’s supposed to be that way, because of the symmetry of the word, or at least that’s how I imagine it should be.) I was glued to my Kindle screen for hours on end, which is somewhat of a rarity for me these days. The characters were compelling, the drama was compelling, the action was compelling, the science was compelling, the politicking was compelling, the sociography was compelling. And there were robots!

Then there is the third part of the book. It begins 5,000 years later, and deals with returning to Earth. If I remember right, it started with a truly epic amount of exposition. I can’t say much more about it without spoiling things a bit.

The only criticism I have of SEVENEVES is the decision to include this third part. I don’t want to say it wasn’t good, because it was, but it was a bit of a letdown, because it’s an entirely different story and tone. It is essentially a sequel to parts one and two. You can probably guess that after 5000 years pass, none of the characters from parts one and two appear in part three.

I actually had to put the book down after part two and leave it for several days before I picked it up and started reading again. I had a very strong emotional connection to the characters and events happening in parts one and two, but when it came to part three, I was a lot more detached. It was still fascinating, but it was such a different narrative that it didn’t quite fit with the rest of the book. It was almost like a really long epilogue. I would have preferred to see it expanded and made into a full-blown novel on its own.

But other than that, this was a fantastic book. I rate it as … *drumroll* … great!

Note on Comment Approval

I apologize, but at some point in the last couple of weeks, WordPress decided that I needed to approve every single comment regardless of who it came from, so you may see some delays with comments showing up.

I have no idea why it’s doing this. I can only assume some random thing changed with WordPress or Akismet or Jetpack recently. I’ve fiddled with some settings again tonight to see if it helps.

Why Solo MMORPGs

Another one rescued from my Drafts folder, from February 2016…

I’m in the camp of people who primarily play MMORPGs solo, so I guess I can speak a little on this topic.

I wouldn’t say that I “demand” solo content from MMORPGs, though.* And it’s not that I’m against group content. I just prefer games where I can log in and do interesting things without having to form or join a group all the time. Because if I had to do that, I probably wouldn’t log in very often unless I had the time to idle a lot.

I don’t understand why this is a controversial topic–why it has to be one or the other. I think it’s well within an MMORPG’s capabilities to handle both styles. (It’s got to be easier than catering to PvE and PvP crowds at the same time, at least.) I can’t think of a single MMORPG I’ve played since my first one (UO) where I couldn’t do soloing or grouping depending on my mood.

The reasons that I prefer to play solo essentially boil down to two things, which I imagine are the two most common reasons anyone would give: Introvertedness and limited time.

Introvertedness

I don’t like to lean on introversion as an excuse, but the reality is that, even on a good day, it’s a lot of work for me to cultivate and maintain social relationships. Particularly right now, when I have a fairly intense amount of socializing I have to deal with at work, the idea of extending that into online games is pretty abhorrent.

You never know what kind of person you’re going to meet in an MMORPG, of course, but nine times out of ten, from the perspective of an introvert, other people are going to be an energy drain. They don’t have to be a jerk to do that, either. Sometimes the friendliest people in the world are just as draining. I hate to admit it but sometimes I find friendly people more draining to deal with because I feel like if I don’t mimic their friendliness they will receive a social cue from me that their behavior is inappropriate, which is both wrong and makes me feel tremendously guilty. So to avoid that I have to work extra hard to interact with them in a way that meets my needs but also doesn’t hurt their feelings. It’s far easier to just avoid people altogether. :)

Maybe we need some way to indicate our mood in the games we play. In real life, we can tell from expressions and body language and social cues whether it’s “okay” to approach someone to talk. But in a game, that doesn’t exist.

Time

The other big reason is time. When I log into a game, I want to start playing immediately. I don’t want to log in and wait an indeterminate amount of time while a group forms. Even with dungeon finder tools, I find it very aggravating to log in, queue for something, and then sit there staring at the screen waiting for the queue to pop. That’s one of the things I love about FFXIV–you can actually accomplish something meaningful (leveling an alternate class or crafting) while waiting for a queue. You can’t do that in most MMORPGs–you just have to stand there doing nothing.

Then there is how long the activity takes once you start it. If a game task starts to take too long, I start to feel trapped and claustrophobic and “stuck” at my computer playing what will increasingly feel like a stupid game. The upper limit of my focused concentration on one task is usually around 30 minutes, especially on a work day. (To me, a “task” is anything with a start and an end, like a dungeon, or a match, or a quest, or something like that.) After that I want to walk away for a while, or do some other computer task, or do some other game activities, or play a different game, or basically anything.

Long dungeon runs with PUGs are the absolute worst. I still vividly remember a two-hour dungeon run in Neverwinter and a two-hour dungeon run in WildStar. Both were successful by sheer force of willpower in overcoming failure after failure after failure. I should have felt great about those accomplishments but mostly I felt like I had gotten out of a two-hour tax seminar.

But solo activities in MMORPGs are usually short, finite tasks. Go to a spot, kill ten rats, hand in a quest. Boom, you’re done. Even if the task does take too long, you can always walk away and leave your character AFK for a while.

The minute you step into a group activity, you’ve lost control over your time. You have to stay there until the group finishes, and group tasks in MMORPGs are almost always time-consuming. God knows why, but they usually design group content so that it does take a long time.

Incidentally, I sometimes have more difficulty playing “sandbox”-style games solo because of the time factor, particularly if they have a harsh death penalty. It’s endlessly aggravating for me to be forced to make a “corpse run” because you have to get your stuff back before it disappears or someone else takes it. (Currently I’m experiencing this tremendous annoyance in ARK.)

* Back when I wrote this draft, there was an article or a blog post or forum post or something that talked about players demanding solo content, but I don’t know where it is now.