Review: World of WarCraft: Illidan

Illidan: World of WarcraftIllidan: World of Warcraft by William King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I was but a stripling, I used to dive into fantasy books and read them (devour them, really) in a single sitting. It was the best feeling in the world, to be so absorbed into a book that you only pull yourself away to change position on your bed or to take a bathroom back before diving right back into it. It’s a sort of reading I don’t get to do as often these days, whether because reading over one’s lunch break necessitates keeping one eye on the clock so you’re not late or because prolonged exposure to the Internet has shortened my attention span to the point where I can only dive in the shallowest of intellectual waters.

Regardless, “Illidan” was a return to those early days. I read it cover to cover and had a great time while I did.

Let me get a few things out of the way, however. Yes, this is a video game fiction tie-in novel. No, it doesn’t actually pass my personal litmus test for tie-in fiction (that the story be accessible enough that you can read it and enjoy it without being a fan of the game). Yes, that makes me horrifically inconsistent. No, I don’t care, because I’m not getting paid to do this and if you want foolish consistency, go find a hobgoblin. This book is for fans of the game. If you haven’t played World of WarCraft, particularly if you haven’t played the first expansion “the Burning Crusade,” you can skip this one. It’s an amazing WarCraft novel, but it’s a middling fantasy novel. There are plenty of other middling fantasy novels out there; I’ve even read and reviewed some of them. Feel free to keep scrolling.

For those that are still here, as I said, I loved this book. It’s the best damn WarCraft novel yet to be published; let me explain why.

Let’s rewind to 2007. It was a different era, to be certain. Bush II was still destroying the country and we were all blissfully unaware that the Great Recession was just around the corner. World of WarCraft had begun to measure its success as a video game not in how many units had been sold or how many subscribers were playing, but by its body count of how many players were so enthralled that they died playing it because they forgot to eat, sleep, or use the bathroom. When the Burning Crusade expansion was launched, we, the brave heroes of Azeroth, fought off a demonic invasion and plunged through the Dark Portal into the strange realm of Outland. After fighting through the demonic invasion, we . . . then proceeded to wage war against the minions of a guy whose in-game class was entirely devoted to hunting and killing demons, a guy who’d always been, in the previous WarCraft game, a misunderstood anti-hero who, while often seeming a villain, usually was TRYING to do the right thing. Wait, what?

In the years since, the developers at Blizzard have acknowledged that the story in the Burning Crusade expansion was thin. And it was, indeed, paper thin. Characters that were playable heroes and well liked in the previous game (WarCraft III) are suddenly villains and raid bosses, for seemingly no reason better than “just ’cause.” What could have been a tragic and compelling story (having to fight those characters despite identifying with them) instead becomes a joke when the answer to the question “why are we killing these guys” is “because we want their stuff.” A thin story, indeed, and you can tell the lesson was taken to heart because the next expansion went out of its way to give you reasons to want to take down its final boss, the Lich King.

So, “Illidan” the book creates a storyline about what’s happening with the pseudo-final boss of the Burning Crusade to explain what he was doing while waiting around for us to kill him. It also takes several of the more strange elements that went unresolved in the game storyline and creates compelling justifications for them, in particular explaining why, despite the fact that we saw Illidan training new demon hunters, we only ever encounter one of those demon hunters as a raid boss.

The fact that the book manages to take that old game experience and create a new, interesting context feels, well, rather magical. Rationally, I know that this is all retcon; a complicated bit of storytelling judo to try and make a narrative out of the tangled, inconsistent disjointed experience of the original game narrative. However, even though I know it’s all retcon and I know that the game designers weren’t planning any of this when they made that storyline, “Illidan” manages to create explanations that feel amazingly seamless. It fits together like a puzzle piece and the revelations have actually improved my memories of that ancient expansion. It felt rather magical, honestly.

There are still plenty of flaws in the book. Although the book spends most of its time on its own narrative, the beginning and ending are set to the events of WarCraft III and the Black Temple raid, and you can absolutely feel the shift when the game narrative takes the driver seat, and not for the better. The dialogue for WarCraft III in particular has aged horrifically and feels stilted and unnatural. Unfortunately, no amount of word judo can make those pieces fit into the puzzle, but thankfully they’re rather rare.

So while Illidan doesn’t begin or end on a strong footing, it still manages to satisfy when allowed to tell its own story. It does an amazing job of building excitement for the upcoming Legion expansion and in particular makes me eager to play the new demon hunter class. And so, while it has plenty of flaws and is by no means a perfect book on its own, I can’t help but feel that this is the best WarCraft book I’ve read. As for the rating and how I justify this one, we’ll just say that we’re grading on a curve.

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Review: Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is going to be a warts-and-all biography. I’m going to tell it like it is! No sugarcoating! But the thing is, the person in this biography has no flaws! Let me tell you how the person I wrote about is absolutely perfect, who has only the sorts of flaws that seem to make this person even better.” Yeah. How many times have I read that introduction? How many authors have promised to give all the whole story and then delivered a glossy highlights reel rather than the real thing?

I’m pleased to say that Walter Isaacson did no such thing. He promised us an intimate portrait of a brilliant, driven man who could be cold, could be ruthless, could be manipulative. Isaacson delivered on that promise.

I’m not going to go into the details of Jobs’ life; that’s what this book is for, after all. Instead, I want to tell you about the book itself. And the thing I want to tell you most is that the book is very, very good and you should read it.

I also want to tell you that I read this book on my Microsoft Surface tablet and that I’m about as dedicated a Microsoft fan as they come (ZUNE FOREVER!!!!) I’m not an Apple man. I might be in the future (ALMOST picked up an iPhone this time around, but the high price point eventually drove me off), but when I read this book, it was deep in the throes of my Windows devotion. So that’s the kind of person who is giving this book five stars. The kind of person who Steve Jobs would denigrate, were he among the living. The kind of person who doesn’t buy his products, hasn’t ever watched a product reveal, a person who doesn’t find the term “reality distortion field” as something that’s charming.

And yet. And yet.

I still love this book. I loved reading about Jobs’ life. I love tech, and love him or hate him, Jobs shaped the tech world as we know it today. Most of all, however, I loved Isaacson’s writing style. I loved his approach, the exact perfect balance between fly-on-the-wall, recounting Steve’s own voice while sometimes inserting his own editorial voice to counter some of the claims made by the reality distortion field. It’s the best kind of biography, because it’s not a monument, not a tribute, not an ode or a paean, it’s simply the story of one’s life. That’s a rare treat in and of itself, but it’s made all the more special because of the care Isaacson shows his subject. You can feel the exhaustive level of research that went into every page.

After reading this book, I’m absolutely certain I would never have wanted to work with Jobs (not that I have the technical skill to do so anyway, I won’t flatter myself). I’m not particularly certain I’d ever even like being around him, reality field or no. But I spent the past weekend with him and I am better for it. I’m better for having read his story as the world is better for having his influence through his work and his legacy. I can think of no higher recommendation than that.

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Review: Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution

Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan SolutionGetting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had the power to make everyone read one book, I think I might spend that power on this book. On the surface, it might seem an odd choice. Fred Rich’s writing style won’t move anyone to tears with descriptions of awesome beauty or powerful prose. I’d even go as far as to say it’s a bit of a textbook. And yet. And yet. Because despite the back-handed nature of this introduction, I’m about to launch into one hell of a compliment.

The ideas in this book are amazing. Rich’s argument about the “Great Estrangement,” as he called it, had me nodding along and muttering “yeah, that’s a really good point” throughout the book. It made me realize that I’m as guilty as anyone of having a short-term view of politics and political history. I may not be strident about it, but I’d fallen into the partisan rift. Rich reminded me that conservation USED to be a core tenet of conservatism, and likely still lingers just below the surface. It was a Republican that gave us the EPA, after all (even if that Republican was Nixon). Teddy Roosevelt is a legend for his dedication to conservation; the roots are there. The bones are there. It’s only recently that this “drill, baby, drill” inanity has taken root.

Rich pulls no punches. He takes the left to task for alienating the right, for making it easy for Green to be dismissed. He argues that Greens have allowed their base to be broad, but shallow; that is, many people say the environment is important, but it’s not on on the top of many voters’ list of priorities. Most of all, however, he argues that Green lost its focus. He points to other movements that have been successful and credits at least some of that success to their laser-focus on their core issue: the Civil Rights Movement and the NRA are (perhaps oddly) his two best examples and as someone who continually despairs at the sense that the NRA and the gun lobby are unstoppable, it’s hard not to agree with that point.

Rich’s core argument is that we need to get back to the Center, what he calls “Center Green.” It’s a position I’ve gravitated towards my entire life, the idea that you should persuade rather than threaten, that it’s more important to be a good ambassador than a ferocious militant. I remain convinced that PETA has done more harm than good, even if their hearts are in the right place, simply because their various stunts have created a reaction in people that is “those PETA people are assholes and I don’t like them, therefore I do not support their position.” People really do shoot the messenger; it’s human nature.

Rich argues that we need to change that and that Green needs to deploy all the tools in its kit to make it happen. We need more focus on the positive work that Green has done (remember acid rain? The impending destruction of the ozone layer?) and less apocalyptic doomsaying. We need to be willing to employ language that many progressives are uncomfortable with, but would be undeniably effective in convincing conservatives to join the cause, such as making environmentalism a moral issue. The trend right now is that the facts should speak for themselves, but the reality is that the facts aren’t enough. People are emotional and can be appealed to emotionally, and it’s not as though there isn’t plenty to be emotional about when it comes to talking about the beauty of the environment and its importance in the lives of people.

Most of all, as I read the book, I kept thinking back to a particular family member of mine. He and I don’t talk politics, ever, but I know he’s as much to the right as I am to the left. But he was the one who taught me how to hike, he taught me how to navigate by map and compass, he put together scavenger hunts for me out in the wood, and he, more than anyone else, shared such an enthusiastic love for the outdoors that I couldn’t help but follow in his example. And yet the modern Green movement has made no room under its tent for a person like him. It has done nothing to make him feel welcome. Here’s the man who is basically my environmental mentor and yet the modern Green movement does not want him, because his politics are different.

Rich argues that needs to change. Green needs to be a center issue, not a progressive one, because that’s the only way anything will every get done. It’s the only way we’re ever going to succeed; all the greatest achievements in environmentalism’s history were done by reaching across the aisle and finding common cause. And although it might seem impossible to imagine in an era of Trumpism, I think that we can rediscover the ability to work together. And this book was instrumental in helping me arrive at that conclusion. I’m ready to work towards Center Green. And I think that, if you read this book, you will most likely feel the same.

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Review: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every TimeThe Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Must read. “The Confidence Game” is one of those books that you’ll find yourself referring back to, over and over, reflecting on the lessons contained within and how you can apply them to your own life. But far from being a self-help book or a guide on how not to get scammed, it’s also intensely fascinating and full of history and psychology. It’s very likely that you’ll experience a bout of intense cynicism after reading it, however; I couldn’t help but reflect on the times when I might have fallen for a scam myself (usually the “I need a few bucks to get home” variety). And of course, I wonder about all the possible scams that I might have encountered without even realizing it, which is more than a little troubling.

Regardless, “the Confidence Game” is as alluring and engaging as any good con artist might be. It’s the kind of book that stays with you, that keeps you thinking long after you’ve finished it, and that’s as much a testament to Konnikova’s good writing style as it is the importance of the subject itself. And if it helps you avoid a scam in the future; well, that’s just a bonus. Even if the research suggests that overestimating our abilities makes us more likely to fall for a scam, so it’s possible you might actually be more likely to be scammed after reading this book. Such is the dark web that the con artist weaves. Regardless, you should still read the book.

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Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely amazing; the perfect blend of heartfelt, passionate, thoughtful, and scientifically interesting. Although I love trees (having moved to the PNW specifically to be in forests again), I’ve never really thought particularly hard about them, about what they’re doing. Trees are scenery; beautiful scenery, no doubt, but certainly not the most important part of the story, right? Stories are about characters, not backgrounds.

Hope Jahren’s book convinced me how wrong I was to think of trees and plants as mere background. They are active characters engaged in their own lives and their own struggles, and though it doesn’t play out in a timeline that makes sense to most humans, the stories of trees are just as interesting as our own.

Jahren’s book alternates between brief (but fascinating) passages about the lives and science of various plants; how they grow, how they struggle, what they’re doing, and each section is relevant to a bit of the narrative of her own life. Resiliency, love, achievement; each part of Jahren’s own human existence is related and connected to the lives of trees and plants.

This is a hopeful, thoughtful book that invites you into a world you’ve seen every day but likely haven’t stopped to consider. I found myself reading entire passages aloud to my fiancee, eagerly sharing with her the latest fascinating thing I’d just read, even though she’d already agreed to read the book herself when I was finished with my copy. But the feeling of discovery of a new world was so exciting, so marvelous, that I couldn’t help but share whatever I found. In that way, I found myself relating to the author more than I ever thought possible.

If you’re a nature lover, this book deserves to be on your shelf. But even if you’re not, even if you’ve never thought of a tree beyond that time you pressed leaves as a kid in school, let Jahren show you her world. Share her triumphs and obsessions and enjoy her very personal, very deeply moving story of what it’s like to be a woman devoted to science. But most of all, let her show you how interesting it is to think about trees. She and her trees might just surprise you.

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Review:The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms

The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of FirearmsThe Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms by Iain Overton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poignant, thoughtful, and surprisingly balanced, which isn’t something you see very often with a topic as divisive as guns. Author Iain Overton travels around the world to understand the gun from the many, many different people whose lives it has affected: victims, killers, traders, creators, hunters, enthusiasts, and doctors. He doesn’t hold anything back; if the best way to understand hunting is to be a hunter, he goes out and does that. His expression of remorse and regret after killing an animal on a hunting trip in Africa was particularly emotional and heartfelt.

This is a book I would absolutely recommend to people who want to dive into the discussion about firearms and their place in the world. Overton doesn’t hold back on any aspect; he acknowledges that guns are power incarnate and that shooting them can feel very, very fun. He acknowledges that they can be collected and can be valuable and historical. But he also faces what they do to people, what they do to bodies and lives. And the result of his experiences are a decidedly less sanguine feeling about them as a whole, even as he understands them.

Unfortunately, Overton’s experiences tell us that guns aren’t going away. Not soon, maybe not ever (or if they do, it’s only because something more powerful replaced them). Nevertheless, understanding them can help come to terms with their role in shaping our world and for that reason alone, this is a book I think you should read.

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Review: Jennifer Government

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

You’ve never read a dystopia quite like this one.

“1984” set the tone for the dystopian future; the government that controls everything and everyone. It’s a future we fear constantly in an age of mass surveillance and secret NSA projects and black ops teams. The totalitarian nightmare.

“Jennifer Government” is a very different type of dystopia. Corporations are all-powerful and people take the last names of the companies they work for. Everything can be bought and those with the most money (corporations) have the most power. It’s a very different vision of the future and it makes for a fascinating setting.

The story itself is about a government agent (the titular “Jennifer Government”) who is hunting an executive responsible for killing fourteen people as part of a marketing promotion. That’s the simplified version; along the way, there’s a weave of different characters crossing paths and double crossing each other. The NRA is a private military organization. It’s nuts. And it’s awesome.

Barry’s writing style is taut and quick, in the “short chapter” tradition that keeps the pages turning at a lightning pace. It makes for the “can’t-put-it-down” experience.

With such glowing praise, why only four stars out of five? After I finished the book, I realized how much I still wanted to know about it. How did history develop in such a way that the government became a powerless bureaucracy and the culture evolved that people named themselves for their employers? The novel’s relentless pace became a problem; things I wanted to stop and explore I instead blazed past on chase scenes and escapes.

There isn’t time to wonder about the hows and the whys as the bullets are flying and the stakes are raised. The dialogue itself tends to be action movie-esque, a vehicle to keep things moving. But there are so many fascinating questions; how did we get here, why is the world like this, and no one seemed willing to ask them. A lost opportunity, if ever there was one.

In the end, I came away feeling as though I’d gulped down a very tasty meal, but so quickly that I didn’t really get a chance to taste it.

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Review: O: A Presidential Novel

O: A Presidential NovelO: A Presidential Novel by Anonymous
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

What a mess. “O” fails to live up to the standard (which really wasn’t that high) set by its obvious inspiration “Primary Colors” as a wink-wink fictional account of the 2012 election campaign between Obama and Romney. Even though it’s non-fiction, “Double Down” by Mark Halperin creates a more exciting narrative of the race, and that’s without the freedom to create any series of events one desires, since fiction doesn’t have to correspond to real events.

The story itself is a wandering mess. Point-of-view changes occur back and forth mid-chapter in an odd fashion. Despite being billed a book about “what O(bama) is really thinking,” he’s surprisingly absent for most of the book. Instead, we spend a lot of time looking over the shoulder of campaign manager Cal Regan and spend a lot of time going back and forth over the same issues of campaigning. Over and over.

Though it owes its existence to Primary Colors, O suffers in every comparison. Perhaps it’s because the Clintons, love ’em or hate ’em, are larger-than-life characters even in real life, with drama and scandal and intrigue. Contrast Bill Clinton with “No Drama Obama” and you see why the best the author can do is come up with a tepid “donor tries to share dirt about campaign rival” storyline that isn’t interesting, isn’t intense, and never actually turns into anything. Considering how little the story actually seems to follow the 2012 campaign, it’s a wonder why the author didn’t invent something more dramatic. The Republican opponent, Tom Morrison, seems to be a fusion between McCain (war hero) and Romney (businessman), so . . . maybe we’re just reading some guy’s political fan fiction about the hypothetical candidate he wishes could have existed to run against Obama?

Instead, we get side references to the fact that Obama likes to smoke, wishes he could play more rounds of gold, and swears sometimes. Riveting stuff.

If you want a more exciting political fiction novel that is based (loosely) on real people, read Primary Colors; it holds up better, and this is from someone who wasn’t overly impressed with that book, either. If you want a narrative that actually managed to be interesting, and has the added benefit of being true, look at Mark Halperin’s works, “Game Changer” and “Double Down,” about the 2008 and 2012 campaigns respectively. They’re good stories, and both have the added benefit of being based on actual events.

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Review: Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2

Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2Dragon Age: The World of Thedas Volume 2 by Ben Gelinas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Despite my love for in-game lore and the lore of Dragon Age, this book falls into the “so okay it’s average” camp. That’s not for a lack of trying on the author; the production value on this book is tremendous. The art itself is gorgeous. I spent a long time looking at the two-page spread on the inside cover that has (as far as I can tell) every named NPC from all three games in a group portrait. The rest of the book is lovely as well, with different colors and styles to create the feel of a document that might actually exist within the game world.

The problems arise from the fact that this is an attempt at creating a comprehensive tome about a world that revolves around player choice, which creates vastly different world states. The level of effort that goes into writing around things like the gender and identities of the three protagonist characters (The Warden, Hawk, and the Inquisitor) go to almost comical lengths. “Details of Hawke’s identity, gender and abilities differ depending on who’s telling the story.”

Except that in the game, Hawke (the player character) defeats a powerful enemy in single combat and saves all the nobles of the city, which is what prompts them to name Hawke “the Champion of Kirkwall.” In-game, everyone is aware that Hawke is a man or a woman, a mage, a warrior, or a rogue, because the other versions of that character just don’t exist. It’s only in the effort to create a narrative that unifies all of these possible choices that makes this silly non-entity description of Hawke possible.

And that’s a huge problem when three of the most important characters in the world have this “non-entity” status. But even for defined characters like party members, the accounts have this curiously abrupt quality where the text just stops abruptly as soon as it gets to describing what might have happened to them in the game. Because, again, the world state can be different. Characters can live and die depending on your choices, which is what makes the Dragon Age games so much fun; your version of Thedas can be unique to you. But it makes a universal account impossible.

I still commend the author for spending a tremendous attention to detail. The bits that don’t deal with the characters and content of the games are excellent. Background stories from places we haven’t been or events that took place before the game . . . these are interesting. The creation of legends, too, is handled well. But so much of the book is focused on the events and characters of the games that it’s hard to wholeheartedly recommend the book for these other interesting bits.

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Review: The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the UniverseThe Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A surprisingly trim and concise history on the period of time between Le Verrier’s discovery of Neptune and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In that interim period, a planet named Vulcan was born, lived in the minds of many, and then faded into obscurity before finally being decisively put down by Einstein many years later.

Considering the heavy topics this book covers (Newton’s theories, the discovery of Neptune, Einstein’s work, etc.), you’ll get the feeling that author Thomas Levenson is moving through the subject at warp speed. Compared to “Chasing Venus,” a book by Andrea Wulf about the early efforts to measure the transit of Venus across the sun, the effort to identify a planet between Mercury and the sun seem almost benign in comparison to that other exhaustively detailed effort. And before we’ve even had more than a few moments to consider that observational evidence wasn’t coming in, we’re jumping ahead in history to Einstein and the coup de grace.

Despite all that, it’s a great pop sci book. The existence of hypothetical planets is a fascinating topic on its own (how many people have ever even heard of such a thing as a hypothetical planet, let alone one that orbited the sun closer than Mercury?) and it’s especially relevant given astronomer Mike Brown’s announcement that there is a true ninth planet out beyond Pluto. At the moment, the Ninth Planet exists only on paper and in equations, and this book is an object lesson on all that this means; for while Neptune was discovered via the power of math and logic, so too was Vulcan inferred. Which will the Ninth Planet be? I can’t wait to find out and that’s what makes this book a great read. It’s one thing to go back and look at an interesting bit of scientific history; it’s ever so much more thrilling when you realize that we’re living through our own period of intense astronomical discovery.

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Compulsively iconoclastic!

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