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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Review: Sword of Destiny

Sword of DestinySword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Witcher series continues to be a breath of fresh air for the fantasy genre, which continues to be a supremely ironic thing to say considering this book was first published in 1992. This book continues the adventures of Geralt of Rivia, notable monster slayer and sorceress lover. The book itself is a collection of short stories as Geralt moves from one adventure to another, though these tales feel more connected than the stories from the previous book “the Last Wish.” In particular, we see how some of the biggest arcs of the Witcher storyline begin to take shape, especially the first meeting between Geralt and his Child of Destiny, Ciri (which was a hugely exciting moment considering Ciri’s role in the Witcher 3).

If there’s one thing about this book that I wasn’t crazy about, it’s this; I feel very much like I’m exploring this world without a road map, and not in a cool “let’s see what’s out there” way but in a “I feel like I’m missing something important here.” A lot of terminology isn’t explained and concepts and descriptions must be inferred from context, which is sometimes difficult considering the sparse, utilitarian writing style. It’s a problem with the previous book as well, honestly, but it didn’t bother me as much because even though it was the first book, I thought it might all be explained. Here, though, I was aware that despite having played one of the games, read two novels, and a graphic novel . . . there were still details that I didn’t quite follow.

That said, don’t overlook this book. It’s a wonderful fantasy world and everything about it and everyone in it are interesting and exciting. Most of all, however, is the fact that nothing about the Witcher feels like it’s in the long shadow cast by the Lord of the Rings. I have no idea if author Andrezj Sapkowski ever read Lord of the Rings, but even if he did, its influence isn’t here. Maybe it’s a product of cultural difference; the Witcher draws very heavily on its polish origins, but for an American reader, that creates a feeling of an entirely new world, something that isn’t easy to come by in the fantasy genre.

So, although I didn’t plow through this book with the reckless abandon of the first volume, I still enjoyed my time in Geralt’s world and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.

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Review: 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

I think this is a much better book than my rating gives it credit for. There’s always something intensely subjective about a review, something that often has nothing to do with the quality of the text itself, that goes into the final “what do I rate this” decision. It could be the reader’s mood that particular day, it could be the juxtaposition of what else the reader is working on at the time, or it could be the phase of the moon or Saturn being in retrograde, or whatever.

I know that I personally tend to read in cycles, where I’ll focus on a particular topic or subject at a time, read through a few books, then move on to the next one. I haven’t really been in a survival story mood lately, which begs the question: is that my fault or the books? I leave it to you to decide.

Regardless, there’s a lot to like here. Franklin has an excellent writing style and keeps a firm grip on the direction of the narrative (ironically the opposite of how survivor Alvarenga’s boat drifts aimlessly across the ocean). There’s nothing worse in a nonfiction adventure story than an author who insists on inserting him or herself into the text, which can work if it’s done well . . . but it’s usually not done well. Franklin has a style like a good investigative journalist, interested in getting the facts and the truth as much as possible, but without editorializing on the subject.

My biggest problem with the story comes from the fact that one’s world becomes very, very small when one is adrift at sea. This is a huge revelation, I know, so bear with me. There are plenty of details to keep things go; tropical storms, whale sharks, water spouts, and the perpetual struggle to survive, but at some point when you’re adrift, the cycle settles in: food, water, fatigue, despair, sunburn. At some point, we’ve gotten through the fact that you have to eat some pretty disgusting things to survive and it’s hard to keep your hopes up.

Overall, if you’re hungry (heh) for a good survival at sea story, I think this book will deliver on exactly what you’re looking for. Or if you want to meditate on “how much worse can it get” for a person struggling to survive, this book is for you. If you’re not a survival story kind of reader, though, I think you can drift on.

Review: Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American CenturyExit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century by Daniel Oppenheimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book largely due to the chapter on Christopher Hitchens, who has long been a writer I’ve admired (his support for the Iraq War notwithstanding). I was very interested in seeing a neutral perspective on Hitchens, since I already have read at length what Hitchens himself said about that decision.

Before we get to the Hitch, however, we move through history as we explore the political careers of several other Leftists who ultimately, well, left. On the first few chapters, I am more ambivalent; these stories are likely going to be of more interest to those who are familiar with the men in question. I myself had only the vaguest recollection of who Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham was (before going to look it up on Google).

Although it was likely not the author’s original intention, what struck me as most interesting about the chapters on very early Leftists like Chambers and Burnham was the stark reminder of the history of the Left. It’s so very easy in political history to assume that the arrangement that exists today is equivalent to what came before; the Left is liberal, the Right is conservative, end of story.

But we forget that the political Left went through a long history with competing ideologies and that the social liberalism that brought me to the Left once struggled for intellectual oxygen against communism. These days, the idea that “Lefties are all commies” is basically a dead horse trope, a political joke that’s amusing irrelevant. So irrelevant, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it used to be true. But I digress.

The most interesting chapters were on Norman Podhoretz, Ronald Reagan, and the Hitch. Podhoretz isn’t someone I was familiar with, but his story is so fascinating in its self-destruction that you can enjoy it entirely on its own merits. The ill-advised publication of the book that led to his public humiliation and ostracization doesn’t need you to be political to relate to what is basically a very human story. Especially when you consider how many people tried to warn him about what he was doing.

I list Reagan and Hitchens as the other highlights of the book as these were the individuals who were most relevant to me personally, since Reagan continues to cast a long shadow over the political landscape even today and I’ve read most of Hitchens’ books. It’s also interesting to contrast Reagan with the other figures of this book, as he’s the only one who isn’t described as an academic or intellectual. His story is a different one and at the end of it, I wonder what would have happened had he never been shifted to the right (although such a shift seems inevitable, given his personality).

Finally, we come to Hitchens. It’s unfortunate that Hitchens is one of the shorter chapters, because this was what I most wanted to read about. While author Daniel Oppenheimer generally takes a fairly neutral tone throughout the book, never allowing his own politics to color his prose, he describes Hitchens in particular as having fallen as a result of his rightward drift. Not because Left = Good and Right = Bad, but because the decision to double down on the Iraq War ultimately seemed to demolish Hitchens’ own vitality when the war effort began to unravel. Oppenheimer describes Hitchens’ best work as having come before the Hitch left the Left, which I would agree with.

It should go without saying that this book is for those with more than a passing interest in political history and thought. But for readers of that persuasion, it’s a fine read. It’s particularly refreshing in its balance and even tone, neither sanctifying nor demonizing of Left or Right. That’s something that’s increasingly rare in modern political thought (unfortunately, and yes, I hold myself as having failed this standard). If you’re interested in the topic, even a little, this book gets a solid recommendation.

Finally, I’d like to note that although it’s only described in the foreward and postscript, Oppenheimer’s thoughts on the nature of political allegiance and ideology were especially important to me. More and more, I’ve fretted about how people on “my side” can hold what I feel to be profoundly stupid ideas; most anti-vaxxers are on the Left rather than the Right, for instance. How can people who hold compatible ideas to my own be so misguided about other things, I would ask myself?

Oppenheimer reminded me that Left is a broad category and that many competing ideologies fall under its umbrella. He describes the Left and the Right as suits that don’t entirely fit right; maybe they bunch in the shoulders or have sleeves that are a little too short. But we pick the one that fits the best and ignore the little ways it doesn’t fit. Oppenheimer offers his book up as a challenge “to wrestle with the ways in which his or her own political suit might strain at the shoulders a bit more than is comfortable to admit.” And while it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll be leaving the Left any time soon (if ever), this book helped sharpen my perspective.

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Review: Rise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art Book

Rise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art BookRise of the Tomb Raider: The Official Art Book by Andy McVittie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This absolutely beautiful book managed to make me feel surprisingly guilty.

I loved Rise of the Tomb Raider; it’s a worthy sequel to the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot (which I also loved). This book is, as you might expect, a collection of concept art and design documents that led to the creation of the game’s characters and environments.

The reason why this beautiful book made me feel so guilty is because it shows you just how much care and detail went into the environments and backgrounds that I cruised through as I jumped from one ledge to another on my way through the game. I love the Tomb Raider games and I get totally immersed in the world when I play . . . and yet I never spare more than a passing glance at the lovingly crafted ruins, relics, and other pieces that artists worked to create. There’s a page about a few chalices and other Byzantine relics that talks about how much realism the art team tried to create, but this chalice isn’t part of the plot (as chalices are wont to be). It’s just a nice looking ancient cup. I probably ran past it at top speed without ever noticing.

I play games to be immersed, but when that immersion happens, I give the credit to the writers who created the story and the actors who brought the characters to life. Maybe I spare a thought for the programmers who actually built the thing and maybe, maaaybe I think about the art team when I appreciate a well crafted character model or a pretty forest. But when you see just how much care, just how much craft and attention to detail goes into all of this, even a little cup that’s just a setting detail, it makes you appreciate how absolutely spoiled gamers are when it comes to our digital worlds. There’s an entire world of art around every moment and for the most part, we just treat it as window dressing as we focus on the shoot-shoots and the booms.

If you’ve played Rise of the Tomb Raider, I recommend picking up this book from your local library and paging through it, giving the artists a few moments’ consideration for all the work they did. We appreciated it, even if we were running by their work too quickly to notice.

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Review: American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics

American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and PoliticsAmerican Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics by Dan Savage
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For the avid Savage fans out there, this book might be unnecessary. If you’ve read Savage Love religiously, if you’ve read all of his other books, if you’ve followed his work very closely, you may not feel the need to pick this one up. There’s a feeling early on that there isn’t as much “new” stuff here, that these are topics and discussions that Savage has covered before. The subtitle for this book might be “the complete Dan Savage primer.”

And yet, even if you’ve read the entire Dan Savage canon, I still think this one is worth your time. Savage’s writing style is just so crisp, so compulsively readable, that his books are a pleasure to work through, even if the topic is deeply serious.

Of particular interest to me were the chapters about growing up Catholic (I can relate to that) and his experiences when his mother passed away (which, fortunately, I can’t relate to yet), the latter of which prompts some thinking on the death with dignity movement and physician assisted suicide (both of which I support whole-heartedly).

There’s so much more to be enjoyed, however. I love his frank style. I love the practical approach to sexuality. At one point in the book, Savage describes a particular piece as “the kind of discussion you’d have with someone after a few glasses of wine.” I think that’s a perfect description for the book as a whole, as wine-fueled discussions can be serious, deep, silly, opinionated, intense, thoughtful, and everything else one can imagine, but never boring.

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Father’s Legacy: A Fallout 4 Fan Fiction

I haven’t written fan fiction in many, many years, but over the past few months I’ve been playing quite a bit of Fallout 4. To finish the game requires making some pretty big choices and unlike most roleplaying games, there isn’t an obviously good or evil ending. I spent a lot of time thinking about what I wanted to do and why I wanted to do it. Although the game ending doesn’t reflect any of the thought I put into my choice, I couldn’t get all that contemplation out of my head. It just continued to swirl around and around in my thoughts. I decided I’d write it all out, if only so I’d stop obsessing over it and from that effort, my first piece of fan fiction in over a decade was born.

Needless to say, there are huge spoilers for the story of Fallout 4, so be warned. I also can’t promise that I created something easy to follow for those that aren’t familiar with the game. I didn’t write this with the intention for anyone to read it, so your mileage may vary. Despite all of that, I rather enjoyed what I made after I read through it and it’s interesting enough that I decided to share it here.

Once again, spoiler warnings for pretty much the entire main storyline for Fallout 4 and further warnings that it may not make sense if you aren’t familiar with the game. If you’re still interested, the story begins after the jump.

Continue reading “Father’s Legacy: A Fallout 4 Fan Fiction”

Review: Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics

Primary Colors: A Novel of PoliticsPrimary Colors: A Novel of Politics by Anonymous
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Until the halfway point, this was a 4.5 star book. I’d just seen the movie of the same name recently so I was interested in reading the book to compare the two. I was also hoping the book would provide more insight into some of the characters’ decisions.

I was impressed by how faithfully the movie recreated scenes from the book; this might just be one of the best book-to-film adaptations I’d ever seen, which is even more impressive when you consider the context in which it was created; the mid-to-late 90s were rife with a lot of failed adaptations.

It’s rather fun to try and guess which characters are based on real people (and there’s a handy list for you to check your work). And the characters here are strong and interesting . . . at least at first. But where things go wrong is, perhaps not coincidentally, where the book and the movie versions diverge. The movie paces the book almost perfectly until the middle point, then skips over a lot of plot to leapfrog right to the big finale. Frankly, this was a good idea.

The book started to lose me around the time the main character had an affair with Susan (based on Hillary Clinton) and other . . . I guess you’d call it plot wandering? The plot and characters that was so taut and relentlessly paced seems to derail as Henry’s angst overwhelms any further direction. Unfortunately, it’s not something that resolves quickly enough and so the closing act drags until the big finish.

There’s also this weird thing about how faithfully the characters resemble the people they are based on and how some of the events very closely resemble things that really happened (such as the Cashmere McCloud/Gennifer Flowers scandal) but other ones are wildly fanciful (I don’t recall anyone in the primary dropping out due to a heart attack, then having his replacement drop out due to a drug scandal).

On the one hand, you recognize that a novel can be fantasy and that the real story of the 1992 presidential campaign didn’t have quite as many fun twists and turns. On the other hand, when you mix reality with fantasy so thoroughly, it creates a distance between the text and the reader, because now I’m not sure what to do with any of this material. I can’t dismiss everything, because some stuff is based on truth. But I can’t believe everything, because some of it is so obviously made up. It started out fun, at first, but eventually it just felt like homework.

So we’re left with a decidedly odd review at the end. On the strength of the characters, their dialogue, their interaction, and their sheer presence on the page, we come to 4.5 stars, maybe even 5 stars. Which is a really good thing, because this novel is almost entirely in dialogue.

On the other hand, the weirdness of some of the plot aspects and the sagging third act meant that after a roaring start, I found myself procrastinating on finishing the book, which means even with such wonderful characterization, the love/hate split I felt leaves me with a respectable, though not amazing, rating of three stars.

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I Spend A Lot Of Time Thinking About Water

There’s an interesting piece about water rights in the March 2016 issue of The Atlantic that’s worth your time, especially if you live in the Southwest, which I did and the majority of my tiny readership (most likely) still does. Short version: it might be time to adopt a free market approach to how water rights are managed in the American Southwest. The whole thing is worth a read, but here are a few highlights that I found particularly compelling:

America consumes more water per capita than just about any other country—more than three times as much as China, and 12 times as much as Denmark. People in the driest states use the most: Residents of Arizona each use 147 gallons a day (not counting agricultural water or water used to generate power), compared with just 51 gallons in Wisconsin, largely by filling swimming pools and watering lawns year-round in the desert. This extravagant use continues despite scarcity because water is kept artificially cheap. The water bills that Americans pay cover a mere sliver of the cost of the infrastructure that delivers water to them. Some city users pay $1 for 1,000 gallons. On farms, water is even cheaper. One thousand gallons of agricultural water in western states can cost as little as a few pennies.

Have you read Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water by Marc Reisner? It’s a good read, although you’ll learn more about dams than you ever thought you could possibly wish, but what’s most striking about it is how prescient Reisner was; he wrote about this in 1986, when climate change was still “the greenhouse effect” and acid rain was a really, really big deal. And here we are in 2016 and it’s all going pretty much the way he predicted, which isn’t good.

Back to the article; can the power of the free market fix the water rights problem in the Southwest? Well, I’m not one to argue for “the power of the free market” to fix all of society’s ills, but honestly, I also can’t see how a free market solution could be any worse than what we’re doing now. Give it a shot, I’d say. Let’s see what happens. The environmentalist finds common cause with the libertarian on this issue.

One more excerpt from The Atlantic piece, because I’m a vegetarian and this is my blog and I can tout stuff like this if I wish:

And, of course, growing more food requires more water. In theory, Americans could simply eat less meat: A vast majority of the West’s water is used to produce feed for cattle, and data from Water Footprint Network, a Dutch NGO, show that if Americans gave up meat one day a week, they would save an amount of water equivalent to the entire flow of the Colorado River each year. But that cultural shift might prove even more difficult than reallocating water rights.

The entire flow of the Colorado River each year. Just something to think about.