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.

Thursday, November 19, 2020

The Nature of Middle-earth, coming June 2021

Tis common knowledge that in 1937 J.R.R. Tolkien published The Hobbit, followed a little less than twenty years later by The Lord of the Rings. What may be less known is that the Father and Founder of Modern Fantasy was a perfectionist of the both the best and worst kind, the former because that is why his legendarium is the highest of the best, and the latter because it kept him from publishing so much of his work during his lifetime – which is why The Silmarillion, The Book of Unfinished Tales, and much else was later published by his son, the late lamented Christopher Tolkien.

Yet now, still and even from beyond the circles of the world and the Halls of Mandos does the great J.R.R. Tolkien keep giving! For in June next year comes hitherto unseen essays written by him, fitting called The Nature of Middle-earth. What are they about? Elvish immortality and reincarnation (yes, Gandalf is not the only one to return from death), the nature of the Valar, the lands and beasts of Númenor, the geography of the Gondor, and even who had beards. This last may seem odd, but the only Elf known to have a beard is Círdan the Shipwright, and no Hobbits no matter how old have been seen with one, and it is widely believed that Dwarven women have facial hair as well. For myself, I am particularly looking forward to learning more about Númenor and the Valar; the beard question has never interested me much. Regardless, it is clearer than ever that Arda truly is vast beyond the thoughts of Elves and Men.

"The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords." - J.R.R. Tolkien 

Saturday, November 14, 2020

My father and I just finished Piranesi by Susanna Clarke

My father and I just finished Piranesi by Susanna Clarke.
During the year the albatross came to the southwestern halls in the Labyrinth, truths and answers to a thousand mysteries are assembled from forgotten journals and murky memories that ebb and flow as the tides while who is friend and foe becomes both less and more certain, until all meet in a flood that washes away all doubt. Truly unique on a level comparable to Diana Wynne Jones herself, though one could never mistake it as being written by Jones, this book is nothing like anything we have ever read.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

I have just started Duel at Araluen

I have just started Duel at Araluen, book #3 of the Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger series by John Flanagan.
This situation reminds me very much of the Siege of Macindaw on multiple fronts, enough I admit to concern that Flanagan is running out of ideas. That said, I am looking forward to getting to know the Heron Brotherband and seeing how Maddie can strategize her way out of this mess.

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

I have just finished the The Red Fox Clan

I have just finished The Red Fox Clan, book #2 of the Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger series by John Flanagan. 

The good news is that I am apparently wise enough in the ways of Fantasy to pick up on deceit before the mark, the bad news is that such tricks are often far more effective against castle walls than a dozen battering rams. Maddie thought she was going home for a vacation. Now she has to save it.

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Rangers: From Merry Men to Dúnedain (and beyond)

Rangers. A well-known Fantasy designation now, an archetype found in many works of literature and role-playing games (such as Dungeons & Dragons), they share many common attributes: Often wise and unfailingly hardy as well as cunning and perceptive folk who are past-masters in the arts of stealth, wilderness survival, and combat with a particular specialty in archery and other ranged weapons. But where did this archetype come from? Two places, the first of comes not from a single Fantasy author but from the ballads and legends of our own world. Namely merry old England for, as I have said in the past and as any Fantasy reader worth the name knows, Fantasy literature draws much of its inspiration from myth and legend, both of which are empowered with wonder and mystery. In the case of Rangers, take a guess. Green clad archers of the forest who defend the common people? If you are thinking Robin Hood and his Merry Men then you hit the bullseye straight on, for from their woodland abode in Sherwood Forest they are fit and basically founded all the key attributes listed above. I say basically because, to start, they were not called Rangers and, for all that stories of Robin Hood are serious in that they face a real tyrant in the form of Prince John, they are more comic in nature; the Merry Men are called such for a reason.

Today, however, the most common form a Ranger takes is a cloaked, grim-faced woman or man with an aura of mystery about them and who tends to be something of a loner, making them similar to the Merry Men, but different enough to be notable. Which brings one back to the question of where did this archetype come from. Two places, the second being where, also as any Fantasy reader worth the name knows, the Fantastic draws much of its inspiration: The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. More directly from the Rangers of the North (who are the last remnant of the Dúnedain of Arnor) and their leader Aragorn son of Arathorn who in the town of Bree is known as Strider; and their southern Gondorian Dúnedain cousins the Rangers of Ithilien under Captain Faramir. Often grim, particularly the Northerners, and garbed camouflaging browns, greys and dark greens, the Rangers of the North protect the lands they wander although their secretiveness made other peoples look upon them with wariness and distrust. Whereas the the Rangers of Ithilien were a Gondorian special operations force that routinely harass and ambush Sauron's forces from several secret retreats. As one can clearly see, this covers all the bases the Rangers of the North exemplifying the noble community of mysterious loners type of Ranger, while the Rangers of Ithilien operate in a more official capacity in that they are an military unit within a larger country.

Of course, it is hardly a coincidence that I am writing about all this shortly after beginning The Red Fox Clan, book #2 of the Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger series by John Flanagan, and indeed I have thought and known all of the above for years. But it was only late last week that I realized with shock that I had not written it down. Which brings us to the glorious topic of Rangers in Fantasy literature, or rather what would be a glorious one if it was used enough to even be deem a topic. Strange at it is to say, while other Tolkienesque tropes and elements have been harvested and employed almost to the point of exhaustion in some cases, only John Flanagan took the Rangers and built something of them: his Ranger’s Apprentice books being an international bestseller and the Ranger Corps of the Kingdom of Araluen a flawless combination of both the Rangers of North and Ithilien in how Araluens view them and their official function in service to the Throne. If Halt is not based off Aragorn and Gandalf I will eat my quiver. 

(On a side note, today is a most apt day for this post because today is the day that book #4 of the Ranger's Apprentice: The Royal Ranger series comes out!)