Thursday, December 31, 2020

New Year's Eve

There is no point in pretending that 2020 was in any respect a normal year, but if Pandemic quarantines have a silver lining it is that they provide lots of time to read so, as the Wheel turns and 2020 rolls away, I think it is only fitting to look back on this year's accomplishments:

  • First and foremost I read the final eight books (The Path of Daggers through A Memory of Light) of and thus finished the great journey that was The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan.
  • West by Edith Pattou, sequel to East.
  • Taash and the Jesters by Ellen Kindt McKenzie.
  • Moon-Flash by Patricia A. McKillip.
  • Moonheart by Charles de Lint
  • Reread (for possibly the dozenth time) The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • The Fork, the Witch, and the Worm by Christopher Paolini, sequel to his The Inheritance Cycle.
  • Firebrand, book 6 in the Green Rider series by Kristen Britain.
  • Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
  • Books 2-4 of the Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger series by John Flanagan.
  • King of Shadows by Susan Cooper.

"Fantasy is escapist, and that is its glory. If a soldier is imprisoned by the enemy, don't we consider it his duty to escape?...If we value the freedom of mind and soul, if we're partisans of liberty, then it's our plain duty to escape, and to take as many people with us as we can!" – J.R.R. Tolkien

"I have claimed that Escape is one of the main functions of fairy-stories, and since I do not disapprove of them, it is plain that I do not accept the tone of scorn or pity with which “Escape” is now so often used: a tone for which the uses of the word outside literary criticism give no warrant at all. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter." – J.R.R. Tolkien

Thursday, December 24, 2020

My father and I just finished King of Shadows by Susan Cooper

My father and I just finished King of Shadows by Susan Cooper.

As they say in the theater, "the show must go on" and that philosophy does not change even as Fate and Time intervene to save Will Shakespeare and Nathan Field, Oberon and Puck, as a hurt boy actor from our time finds himself playing A Midsummer's Night's Dream in Elizabethan England under the Bard's person direction. A blend of the historical fiction and fantasy with the Cooper's trademark mastery of time travel that begins as simple and ends with a profound depth reminiscent of her The Dark is Rising masterwork. Truly the human spirit, a key component in acting, and the healing simple kindness and understanding gives transcends all Time.



Monday, December 14, 2020

I just started Hunter’s Oath, the first book of The Sacred Hunt Duology by Michelle West

Sound the silver horn, call the hunt.
I just started Hunter’s Oath, the first book of The Sacred Hunt Duology by Michelle West.
The first entirely new series since I picked up The Wheel of Time over two years ago, this one is already quite unique as the relationship and difference between Hunter and prey, Lord and commoner, bends before the will of the Hunter God in the land of Breodanir...while, far away, a mysterious seer-born watches and finds a shadow-snare, knowing when she is even if I do not.
Are you the hunter, or the prey?

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is the Mystery Genre's Tolkien

My father and I just finished His Last Bow: Some Reminiscences of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and, in doing so, finished our final journey with the consulting detective of 221B Baker Street and his faithful friend Dr. John Watson.
It was an absolute joy, an utter thrill-ride, and His Last Bow had some of the best. The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans contained all the finest elements of every Holmes mystery, The Adventure of the Dying Detective had us on the edge of our seats the whole time for the sheer uniqueness of it, while The Adventure of the Devil's Foot had us speculating as much as we were reading. And His Last Bow - The War Service of Sherlock Holmes had us howling with laughter, for the detective who came out of bee-keeping retirement showed once more that he is the unchallenged master of in the field of Higher Insults as much as in mystery.
Thus it is with sadness that, at last, we take our leave of 221B Baker Street. We salute you Mr. Sherlock Holmes, Dr. John Watson, Inspector Lestrade and our other friends of Scotland Yard, Mrs. Hudson, Mycroft Holmes, and of course the Baker Street Irregulars.
Thus do I state that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is beyond question the counterpart of J.R.R. Tolkien in the mystery genre, doing for it what, decades later, Tolkien later did for Fantasy. Indeed, avid readers of the Holmes stories helped create the modern practice of a fandom in that they were and are the world's oldest. When Conan Doyle killed off Mr. Holmes in The Final Problem, the public reaction to the death was unlike anything previously seen for fictional events. More than 20,000 Strand (the magazine in which Holmes stories were published) readers cancelled their subscriptions, furious at what they judged to be Holmes’ premature end. The magazine nearly went out of business and its staff referred to Holmes’ death as “the dreadful event” while those selfsame livid readers wrote to the magazine in wrath. Not that we, today, would expect much less from a truly diehard fandom but, at the time, Conan Doyle was the epitome of stunned for the simple reason that, again, fans had never before acted in this manner (indeed, this was before the word "fan" was even in widespread use). So while Fantasy owes it's roots to the great J.R.R. Tolkien, due credit must be given to its literary kindred Mystery that owes its bones to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle whose genius provoked the world's first literary fandom. Frankly and in ending, I am quite certain that Tolkien was inspired at least partly by Conan Doyle as the writing style of the two Englishmen are, at least to my eye, somewhat similar.
"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts." - Sherlock Holmes
"To a great mind, nothing is little." - Sherlock Holmes
"So silent and furtive were his movements, like those of a trained bloodhound picking out a scent, that I could not but think what a terrible criminal he would have made had he turned his energy and sagacity against the law instead of exerting them in its defense." - John Watson
"The game is afoot.” - Sherlock Holmes

Friday, December 11, 2020

I have just finished The Missing Prince, book #4 of the Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger series by John Flanagan

I have just finished The Missing Prince, book #4 of the Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger series by John Flanagan. 
I love rescue missions as a rule, and goodness knows that Will is an old hand at it with Maddie being a fast learner...but having unexpected backup will prove useful if getting back home again is in the plans. This certainly comes as close to a literal cliff-hanger ending as Flanagan has ever done.

Thursday, December 3, 2020

Stones and Go

Any reader of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time is familiar with the game stones. Popular in all countries in the Westlands as well as overseas in Seanchan, stones is valued by generals, rulers, and civilians, for it was said that all of the intrigues and all of life's pleasures could be found within this game. Skilled players of stones are known possess skill at both the Game of Houses and/or battlefield tactics, and vice versa. Thom is exemplary at Daes Dae'mar yet is hardly a military commander, while good ol' Mat is the opposite. Sounds like a fun game, right? I agree utterly, yet sadly Jordan never specified the any save the most basic of the basic rules, those being that each player is assigned one of two colors of army, each player alternating placing a stone on the board with the overall intention being to capture the stones of the opponent's army.

A Go board
Interesting, but hardly detailed. I did some digging, however, and learned that stones has a real-world counterpart: Go. An abstract strategy board game hailing from ancient China – indeed, is believed to be the oldest board game continuously played to the present day it is a two player game in which the aim is to surround more territory than the opponent; and the playing pieces are called stones. Now I can you saying, "sure, but what is wrong with chess? Why bother learning Go given chess' global reputation for as the quintessential strategy board game?" Curiosity and variety to start, but half-jokes aside, it is because the depths and breadth of Go's strategy makes chess look a sparrow before a griffin. A bold claim? Not at all and despite the fact that, compared to chess, the rules of Go are relatively simple. So where is the breadth and depth? A Go board is both a larger than a chess board with both more scope for play (on average there are many more alternatives to consider per move) and longer games. How much more scope? Enough that, unlike chess, a computer cannot automatically defeat a human. Indeed, the number of legal board positions in Go has been calculated to be vastly greater than the number of atoms in the known, observable universe.

So for those The Wheel of Time fans who want to try their hands at stones, as well as all others who, like me, finds chess tactics rather limited, here is the nearest thing. See this link for the rules. (Why do I find chess limited? I am accustomed to playing Fire Emblem and other turn-based strategy games which, as a general rule, I find far more challenging and emotionally engaging. I am no chess master, far from it by any and all definitions, but the impersonal and unchanging nature of chess makes it feel quite limited compared to Fire Emblem. Let's face it, one never begins a chess match outnumbered and on uncertain terrain that favors the enemy more than yourself with the possibility of enemy reinforcements looming in the background, much less wondering how a simple pawn could realistically defeat a mounted knight even if it was in the position to make an attempt, or taking the wounds sustained by your loyal troops into consideration. Fire Emblem, however, does all this and more as a matter of course and, in addition, has a basic troop component every medieval-style army worth the name had yet which chess lacks an equivalent of: archers.)

Saturday, November 28, 2020

I have just started The Missing Prince

I have just started The Missing Prince, book #4 of the Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger series by John Flanagan.

"One riot, one Ranger" as they say and if there is one book beginning I love and get to read over and over it is brutish bandits getting thumb-cuffed by witty Rangers. In the meantime, it will nice to having Gallica as the setting of this mission seeing as last time Halt and Horace were just passing through. Besides, I love rescue missions.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

I have just finished Duel at Araluen

I have just finished Duel at Araluen, book #3 of the Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger series by John Flanagan.
As I said, highly reminiscent of Siege of Macindaw, but with enough differences to keep a tactical mind churning and learning new tricks. Skill with the bow and blade is excellent, but flexibility and imagination are what marks the best commanders. I have to hand it to Maddie; she makes a good princess, but a better Ranger - and those patriarchal Red Fox Clansmen deserved every arrow she sent them. That said, the Ranger Corps has got to make the sling an official weapon of theirs.

Monday, November 23, 2020

I just finished playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Edelgard's route, Crimson Flower)

I just finished playing Fire Emblem: Three Houses (Edelgard's route, Crimson Flower). 
As with any Fire Emblem game, it was an utter joy to play: a bookworthy storyline with a vast cast of real, fleshed out, unique and compelling characters in a deeply sophisticated world which makes the dialogue no less compelling than the tactical battles that makes Fire Emblem a standout. Indeed, I have read books with less world and character building than Three Houses, and watched anime movies with poorer voice acting and subtle body language.
As to the plotline itself, leave it to Fire Emblem to create a game with three obvious story routes that all share an enemy...and a partially hidden fourth route where that enemy is in fact a dear friend and fighting against the revealed true oppressor of humanity. This Crimson Flower route is the path I tread alongside Edelgard von Hresvelg, heiress apparent to and then Emperor of the Adrestian Empire. Even in the darkest moment in the Holy Tomb of Garreg Mach Monastery I chose to trust her, knowing her heart and ideals, and never once did I regret that decision as layers upon layers of centuries old deceptions that true enemy had propagated were gradually pulled aside.
"Still, we have no choice but to eliminate those who cling to unreasonable ideas of justice. Even if our enemies are the gods themselves...we must never lose sight of our goal. It's not possible to change the world without sacrifice. Dying for the greater good is not a death in vain." - Edelgard von Hresvelg
It is for this reason that I view Crimson Flower as the canon Three Houses ending. Strange logic? No stranger than viewing Fates' third Revelation route as the true canon ending because it is the only one where we rid the world of Anankos. Even the FE Wiki states that "Anankos is the true main antagonist and the true final boss of Fire Emblem Fates." Furthermore, the game's theme song (provided at the post's end) is a fairly clear reference to Edelgard. I cannot list all the reasons why without giving key spoilers but, last time I checked, a red rose can be adequately described as a crimson flower.
That said, while the game was again exemplary, it was not my favorite of the Fire Emblem games for the simple reason that, like with FE: Fates, the complexity of the world – while obviously deep – is equally obviously spread thin between the four routes; meaning one has to play all four to get the full picture of the situation in Fódlan. For example, while clearly shown and implied, in Crimson Flower we get little to no details regarding Edelgard's history with Dimitri, nor the full story of those who slither in the dark. Call me a purest if you will, but I believe that each route should individually be comparable to past single-route FE games such as FE: Shadow Dragon.

Furthermore and as to the actual battles themselves in addition to the teaching element at Garreg Mach, Three Houses was a tad lacking in the former (unless I am a true master tactician without knowing it) due to the ability to turn back the hands of time and seeing where each individual foe will strike next; meaning it was less challenging, despite the fact that it was the first FE game I played on Hard Mode. As to the latter, it was unprecedented yet quite enjoyable. Overall opinion? The game was amazing because Fire Emblem is incapable of being otherwise and boasts many elements entirely new to the franchise, yet it contains much untapped potential as the overall story-arc was lacking compared to, say, FE: Awakening (which remains my unquestioned favorite.)
Peace and prosperity to you, Edelgard & Byleth, Hubert & Bernadetta, Ingrid & Felix, Petra & Linhardt, Ferdinand & Dorothea, Caspar, Leonie, Jeralt, Ashe, Hanneman, Alois, Manuela, Ignatz, Lysithea, Shamir, and Claude. To those who died, good people and former students blinded by the enemy's deception, may Sothis guide your souls.
"Reach for my hand, I’ll soar away 
Into the dawn, oh I wish I could stay 
Here in cherished halls, in peaceful days 
I fear the edge of dawn, knowing time betrays 
Faint lights pass through colored glass, in this beloved place 
Silver shines, the world dines, a smile on each face 
As joy surrounds, comfort abounds, and I can feel I’m breaking free
For just this moment lost in time, I am finally me 
Yet still I hide, behind this mask that I have become 
My blackened heart, scorched by flames of force I can’t run from 
I look to you like a red rose seeking the sun no matter where it goes 
I long to stay where the light dwells, to guard against the cold that I know so well."

Friday, November 20, 2020

The End of Shannara

Exactly one month ago, on October 20, the Fantasy genre was shaken to its core as an age came to an end for, on that date, The Last Druid by Terry Brooks was published – the final volume of his ominously titled Fall of Shannara series and with it the conclusion of Shannara saga. It sounds simple, just another series completed, but to fully appreciate this one has to go back in time to before the Golden Age of Fantasy and ask how the Fantastic went from fringe genre to a keystone of popular culture. The answer, unsurprisingly, begins with J.R.R. Tolkien. No one denies that Fantasy literature owes its bones to The Lord of the Rings; it essentially swamped all previously written works of Fantasy, and it unquestionably created "Fantasy" as a marketing category. Indeed, all the greats cite Tolkien as a defining influence, from GRRM to Jones, from Rowling to Paolini, from McKillip to Gaiman. Knowing that Tolkien came first, you cannot read any other books without seeing his hand-print. Indeed, in the immediate years following LOTR, its popularity created an enormous number of Tolkienesque works, but nothing that quite captured it. People wanted, were dying for, another The Lord of the Rings!

Then, in 1977, Terry Brooks' The Sword of Shannara came out. Some now call the it a LOTR imitation, but I disagree utterly; it is Tolkienesque, for a certainly, yet is its own story and the Four Lands has a history/lore unique to that of Middle-earth and populated by engaging characters; furthermore, to call the two subsequent books in the Original Shannara Trilogy LOTR imitations is nothing short of madness. Regardless, however, the key fact is that Brooks' was breakthrough success that publishers had been yearning for: the first true master Fantasist since Tolkien, and Shannara became the first Fantasy novel to appear on, and eventually top the New York Times bestseller list. As a result, the genre saw a boom in the number of quite popular titles published in the following years, such as Terry Pratchett's Discworld. Then came The Farseer Trilogy by Robin Hobb (which is one my to-read list) and The Blue Sword and its companion The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley.

The Four Lands 
In short, and as Fantasy author Aidan Moher states, Terry Brooks "filled the J.R.R. Tolkien-sized hole that had subsisted through the early ’70s, and helped reinvigorate the epic fantasy market. Even with all this success, however, it would have been a stretch to imagine that over 40 years later, Brooks would still be writing Shannara novels, and they’d still be selling like hot cakes." Well, at its core Fantasy is as much about making the difficult to imagine possible as anything else and, in regard to Brooks, that is exactly what happened. Forty years later and here we are. Now I have not read all of Shannara, as bookshelf-space is a valuable commodity and when all is said and done the complete Shannara saga likely outweighs Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time. No small feat this, but, as implied above by my knowledge of it, I have read the Original Shannara Trilogy and loved it.

Facebook post from 7/31/2013: "Just started The Sword of Shannara trilogy by Terry Brooks. I know a good Fantasy when I see it and if this turns out ill then I will declare myself blind. Well met, Allanon.
Facebook post from 9/26/2013: "Just finished The Sword of Shannara, book one of the Original Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks. All who call it a Tolkien imitation are blind.  I am counting on seeing you again, Druid."
Facebook post from 9/27/2013: "Just started The Elfstones of Shannara, book two of the Original Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks. It is high time we learned more about the Elves of the Westland."
Facebook post from 10/26/2013: "Just finished The Elfstones of Shannara, book two of the Original Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks. Sometimes the right choices are the hardest ones, both to make and accept. The Four Lands are safe and the Forbidding restored...Amberle Elessedil, you made the right one. Thank you. Take care Wil (don't lose those Stones) and Eretria. Good reign Ander. Good work Allanon."
Facebook post from 10/28/2013: Just started The Wishsong of Shannara, book three of the Original Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks. Again the fate of the Four Lands falls into the hands of the Ohmsfords of Shady Vale, and hopefully the Sword of Leah will see battle again."
Facebook post from 12/6/2013: "Just finished The Wishsong of Shannara, the final book of the Original Shannara Trilogy by Terry Brooks. Again the fate of the Four Lands fell into the hands of the Ohmsfords of Shady Vale and again dark magic was defeated. Well done Brin and Jair Ohmsford (good luck explaining things to Wil and Eretria), Rone Leah, Slanter, Garet Jax, Helt, Edain Elessedil, Elb Foraker, Kimber Boh, Cogline, and Whisper. Rest well Druid could have done more. And so I say farewell to the Four Lands and to the Ohmsfords of Shannara. I shall return in time, but like a certain Druid we know, it wont be for many years."
As one can see, this Stars Uncounted blog derived from what I already did on Facebook. More to the point and for all that it was seven years ago, Shannara remains an important series to me despite that I have in effect barely scratched the surface. Hence I cannot say much more save one of the saga's most defining feature as a whole is that it takes place over thousands of years, switching to a new generation of heroes book by book or series by series. Yet since he first began the Shannara saga in 1977, Terry Brooks has had a clear idea of how the series should end, and now after thousands of pages that amount to over thirty books, that ending has come in the form of The Last Druid. Shannara, the saga of many series that continued what The Lord of the Rings began, has ended and shall be deeply missed.