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Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970) 342 p.

A good portion of my to-be-read pile comprises of the various classics one is obligated to read, ranging from traditional classics, to Booker and Pulitzer prize winners, to science fiction watersheds. Ringworld is a seminal science fiction novel which spawned the concept of a ring as a space habitat, used later in works such as Iain M. Banks in his Culture series, or – most obviously, for my generation – the Halo series of video games. It’s what’s apparently known as a Big Dumb Object, the only other example of which I recall reading was Arthur C. Clarke’s enjoyable but forgettable Rendezvous With Rama.

Ringworld follows the fortunes of four interstellar explorers who set out to explore the titular object, which encloses a star and has trillions of times the surface area of Earth. Shot down by the ring’s automated defences against space debris, the crew find themselves stranded on the surface and have to try to escape. It’s a good basic concept, muddied a little by the introduction of alien politics and a fairly odd idea relating to one of the human characters, regarding the idea of genetic luck, which actually comes to dominate much of the book’s final act.

Unlike a lot of the novels I have to cross off the classic list, Ringworld wasn’t too bad. It’s pretty typical mid-century science fiction: it’s full of exposition, it sacrifices character for setting, and the protagonist is accompanied by a young, beautiful and ditzy woman who has sex with him all the time. Comparing it to the Big Three, it has more in common with the cartoonish sense of humour of Robert Heinlein than the stiff, wooden sci-fi of Clarke or Asimov.

Ringworld is a readable and fairly enjoyable sci-fi adventure, even if it does drag a little towards the end, and has a couple of good scenes and ideas – I particularly liked the way the crew eventually escape the ring. But I didn’t find it worth writing home about, and I won’t bother reading any more of the series (which apparently goes downhill anyway.)

Communion Town by Sam Thompson (2012) 278 p.

I do have such wonderful taste in Booker Prize predictions – I finished this one the day it was dropped from the list.

Communion Town is a “city in ten chapters,” which is a fancy way of saying that it’s a bunch of short stories with a few mild links, all taking place inside the same constantly shifting, everywhere-but-nowhere metropolis. I’m quite partial to stories that explore and celebrate the concept of the city – see Brandon Graham, China Mieville, Jeff Vandermeer, and, I suppose, Philip Reeve. Communion Town may well be the book that breaks that spell for me. I found myself not only disliking its obsession with the the city, but disliking even the fact that Thompson thought anyone might be interested in it.

The city of Communion Town is unnamed, many of the characters in the stories are unnamed, and even the more interesting parts of the book – the nameless horrors which lurk in the night-time alleyways, desperately accosting people to “tell them a story” – go unnamed and unexplained. Thompson usually deals more in thought and introspection and summary than he does in concrete things like dialogue and scene and, well, plot. The city is meant to be every city, any city, no city – which works less as a celebration of urbanity and more as an irritating conceit which prevents the book from ever achieving any sense of place. Thompson’s preference for generalisations over specifics, for summary over scene, quickly becomes tiresome. Example:

Every pleasure palls. In a short time Stephen had learnt to drink deep of experimental delights that would have frightened most of us if we understood them, but the richer the meal, the sooner the appetite wanes, and the epicurean longs for more exotic flavours. He never saw himself as a sybarite; he thought of his explorations as light-hearted, even a kind of joke. But anyone can drift away from themselves when nothing is forbidden. Before he realised it the mask wouldn’t come off: he was corrupt with luxury, famished with feasting. The society knew how to watch for its moment. His mind and body were precise instruments for their own indulgence, but his imagination was sickly with exhaustion. He had fallen into the lassitude of one who has gone too far in the secret regions of experience, achieved too much in the sphere of private ambitions; now the tawdriness of the world was making him ill. His exquisite appetites troubled him more than ever but there was nothing, it seemed, that could answer anymore to his needs. He was bored.

So was I. How can you expend so many words and yet say so little? The result of passages like this – strung into stories, strung into a “novel” – is that I never connected with a single character, never connected with the city, never really cared about what was going on. It was one of those books I had to force myself to finish.

I saw nothing of the “genre pastiche” that had reviewers comparing this to the far superior David Mitchell. I only noticed two stories rendered in a deliberate genre style, that of Sam Spade and then Sherlock Holmes. Both of these were awkwardly written, with imitation prose interrupted by Thompson’s own flights of philosophical fancy – so that, for example, a gumshoe getting roughed up by thugs in a dirty alleyway pauses to notice a black and gold lizard watching him from a trash can, and reflects that he’d “never seen one like it in the city.” The stories, for the most part, lap over onto each other like waves of tedious melodrama, and I barely noticed when shifting from one to another except to mark my relief that the book was drawing closer to its conclusion.

Last year’s Booker longlist, for all its scandal about “readability,” featured a number of very interesting novels that took the trouble to tell a story. This year’s has shoved the gearstick back up to highbrow, and I’m sure Sam Thompson’s Communion Town isn’t the only nominee that sacrifices function for form; I’ve heard nightmarish things about Will Self’s Umbrella, and an article Ned Beauman wrote about himself in The Awl was marinated in arrogance and put me off ever reading any of his books. The Booker committee is welcome to their summer of difficult, tedious novels that are more pre-occupied with self-absorbed experimentation than they are with telling stories or saying something worthwhile.

I could end the review there, but I feel like I’ve been a bit too vitriolic for a first novel, so I’ll mention a couple of redeeming factors. Thompson is certainly skilled with the written word, and there are sentences or passages of description in Communion Town which paint a vivid picture and genuinely stand out. (He just needs to learn to restrain himself when delving into his characters’ mental geography.) The book is an experiment in what can be accepted as a novel, and originality should always be encouraged. (He just needs to realise that experimentation must be tempered, and that not everyone will be as interested in his conceits as he is.) And, finally, I’m in the minority- most people seem to have liked Communion Town. So there you go, make your own decision.

The Magician King by Lev Grossman (2011) 542 p.

The Magicians is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year – a thoughtful and realistic take on the childhood fantasies of Harry Potter and Narnia which manages to simultaneously deconstruct and celebrate those legends. One of the only things I didn’t like about it was its ending, which flipped the story on its head and would have ruined the book if not for the fact that I knew there was a sequel.

I can’t quite agree with ending the first novel that way (especially knowing that Grossman didn’t intend to write a sequel at the time) but The Magician King delivers a more than satisfactory continuation of Quentin Coldwater’s tale, not only returning to its old themes and ideas, but building on them and exploring new ones. (Spoilers for The Magicians from here on in.)

The Magicians finished with Quentin’s adventures in Fillory leaving him not only unsatisfied and unfulfilled, but also mourning the death of his girlfriend Alice. It then took a sharp twist when his old friends Eliot, Janet and Julia showed up to take him back to Fillory to reign as king. And so The Magician King begins after Quentin has been reigning over Fillory for some time, gradually beginning to feel his listless ennui set in once again. A minor voyage to visit an outlying island, to see why they haven’t been paying taxes, seems in order. (There’s more than a touch of Voyage of the Dawn Treader here.) The book really begins to kick off after Quentin and Julia arrive at that island and finds themselves thrust into a deeper quest.

Intertwined with this quest is Julia’s backstory. In The Magicians, she was a background character, a failed Brakebills entrant stuck with fragments of memory about what she failed to achieve, who confronted Quentin when he came home for summer holidays and begged him to get her into Brakebills. By the novel’s end she has inexplicably become a magician; The Magician King explains how. While Quentin’s story in The Magicians was one of achieving a dream and ultimately being dissatisfied with it, Julia’s story is one of glimpsing a dream and then having the door cruelly slammed shut. What would have happened to Harry Potter if he had met Hagrid and gone to Diagon Alley, but then been unable to cross through Platform 9 3/4s? What would have happened if he’d been forced to return to Privet Drive in London’s suburbs? What would he have been willing to do to get back into that magical world?

Both my housemates read the book before me, and hated it for Julia’s backstory. I had no issue with it, apart from a few cringey chapters where she gets involved with an online forum (and meets its denizens in real life later… where they’re still referred to by their online usernames). There is a slight issue in the fact that her story is juxtaposed against Quentin’s adventures, which are totally awesome, and I while I was never bored reading Julia’s story I was never exactly enthralled either – at least until its horrifying climax, which is excellent, although both my housemates separately spoiled it for me.

And Quentin’s story is fantastic. It’s full of neat little events, like when he wakes up in the morning on an island, wanders away from his sleeping companions to take a leak, and ends up getting drawn into an unexpected adventure. Just as in The Magicians, Grossman is riffing on the fantasy genre while also revelling in it; it’s a rare novel that manages to do this so well. I love the meta-awareness Grossman imbues in all his characters, who aren’t so much aware that they’re in a story as much as they’re comparing their lives to stories, or imagining how other people see what they’re doing:

“All due respect to your being king here, but Julia and I are king and queen of Fillory, and we have to get back there. For all intents and purposes we are on a fucking quest here. You are now on the quest team too. I am deputising you. We have to get back to Fillory, and we don’t know how we’re going to do it. That’s the problem.”

Or:

The old wood of Josh’s dining table felt cool against Quentin’s forehead. In a few more seconds he’d sit up again.That’s how long it would take to roll his brain back to the state it was in before it thought that their troubles were over. Until then Quentin would just enjoy the cool solidity of the table for one second more. He let the despair wash over him. The button was gone. He thought about banging his head a few times, just lightly, but that would have been overdoing it.

Another aspect that impressed me was the direction in which Grossman takes the novel. I read a review at some point, which I can’t find anymore, which said something along the lines of “Grossman seems to have forgotten the reason he wrote The Magicians in the first place.” This made me worry that he would write a fantasy adventure which ignored Quentin’s crushing ennui, from which he perpetually suffers despite living in an amazing fantasy world (because problems are on the inside, kids!) Fortunately, this doesn’t happen at all. Quentin’s issues are still very much a part of the book, but Grossman moves forward with them and Quentin actually grows as a character. The Magicians was a concept novel in which the characters were serving the conceit. The Magician King, on the other hand, is Grossman taking the characters and developing them into something more; by the novel’s ending, Quentin is a much more mature, likeable and even selfless character than he was in The Magicians. The ending could also be considered a fucking bummer, but I found it quite uplifting and hopeful, which I’m pretty sure is the correct interpretation.

Ultimately I think The Magicians is the stronger novel, simply for its originality, the fresh take it gave the childhood fantasy mythos. The Magician King falters at times, and is held together by a less coherent theme. But it’s still fun, funny, exciting and compulsively readable, with a bunch of great fantasy set-pieces and genuinely surprising character development. I greatly recommend this novel and its predecessor to fantasy fans, and I hope Grossman gives us a third one.

I wrote this review a while ago but I’ve been sitting on it to coincide with the release of the universal app for iPad and iPhone. That day has arrived, and you can now buy the remastered version of King of Dragon Pass from the App Store for $10.49 for iPad and iPhone; or, if you don’t have either of those, you can download the original from Good Old Games for $4.99.

I called this a review just then, which isn’t quite right. It’s more of a gushing love letter, so you’ve been warned in advance.

The isolation ended when a stranger tried to take over the land. His name was Belintar. We knew that he had powerful magic, because he swam ashore from the ocean, which was closed and utterly impassable. Belintar, who did not worship gods anyone knew of, claimed sacral kingship. He declared Kethaela to be a place called the Holy Country.

It was holy, he said, because he ruled it.

We refused to acknowledge him as king. We were attacked, persecuted and robbed. We faced a difficult choice. We could submit to Belintar and remain in Heortland, but as little more than thralls. Or we could strike out for haunted Dragon Pass, risking our lives but retaining our freedom.

Since I am telling you this in our clan hall in Dragon Pass, you know what choice we made.

King of Dragon Pass is one of the best video games ever made. I came across it probably more than twelve years ago, on a pirate disc from South-East Asia, and at that time I must have poured hundreds upon hundreds of hours into it. I still leave it for years at a time and then wander back to it for another run-through, and, even though I now know it better than that episode of the Simpsons with the teacher’s strike, I still find it entertaining.

King of Dragon Pass is part strategy, part RPG, and part simulation. There are no moving graphics; the game is conveyed through text and illustrations, both of which are immensely rich. The writing is on par with the best of fantasy novels, and the story is the by far the game’s biggest drawcard. I can say hands down I’ve never played a video game with a deeper and more engaging world and story.

King of Dragon Pass takes place amongst a culture known as Orlanthi (named after their god, Orlanth) who roughly resemble land-borne Vikings of the Dark Ages: they’re brash and burly and have an economy based and cattle and raid each other without thinking much of it. The Orlanthi live in Heortland, a rich and prosperous country – at least until Belintar the Usurper shows up. In the persecution that follows, many of them flee to Dragon Pass, a dangerous and forbidden land to the north. You take control of a clan that chose freedom over servitude, and fled north to eke out a living on the wild frontier, where about twenty other Orlanthi clans are simultaneously squabbling for turf and fighting off the legion of other inhuman threats.

And so, from day one, you take control of a clan of refugees in a frightening and dangerous new land. You’re in charge of every aspect of their lives: agriculture, livestock, raids on other clans, feuds and alliances, internal politics, exploration of Dragon Pass, fortifications, sacrifices to the gods, the management of their magic, trade relations, the accumulation of wealth, their leadership struggles, and much, much more. And with every passing season, you’re given a random event to deal with, drawn from a pool of something like 500, often influenced by choices you’ve made in the past. They range from events as mundane as a raid by an enemy clan or a high-ranking noble caught sleeping with someone he shouldn’t, all the way up to completely off-the-wall shit like a zombie plague or a rampaging chaos snail.

The beauty of King of Dragon Pass is how richly realised the game world is – as I mentioned earlier, I think it’s on par with well-regarded fantasy novels like Game of Thrones or video games like The Elder Scrolls series. The level of detail makes it one of the most immersive games I’ve ever experienced, and the culture of the Orlanthi is what grants the game its RPG aspect. If you try to play like a 21st century latte-sipping Guardian-reading empathic civilised human being, you will fail. Put yourself in the mind of a bloodthirsty Viking chief and you may do a little better. But, as one slightly grumpy review in the app store says:

The outcome of the game seems to be determined by 90% the random cruelty of an insane hostile world, and 10% by your actual decisions.

This game is easy once you know the ins and outs of it, but that takes time. I would love to go back to when I didn’t know anything about it, rather than when I knew it off by heart and simply clicked the best option when I saw the picture. Note that I said “best.” There are no right answers or wrong answers in this game; every option is influenced by your clan’s reputation, the skill of your leaders, your magic, your wealth, luck, and a dozen other hidden factors. You are not given a “likelihood of success” percentage, and the game is richer for it. You’re as blind and helpless as an actual frontier clan would be.

This is not a fantasy world based on Tolkien derived tropes. Elves are literally plant people, made of vegetable material (if one of your lumberjacks gets shot by a green arrow, don’t bother hunting for the culprit.) Dwarves are strange little men in thrall to a machine god and an unimpeachable schedule. Magic comes from the gods, not from anywhere else, and many things are inexplicable. The pass is swarming with horrible monsters – minotaurs and walktapuses (walktapi?) and dinosaurs and horrible zombie creatures that burst out the stomachs of your cattle.

Every event gives you five or six different options encompassing a number of reactions. For example, a tribe of weird duck people live nearby, who are a source of jokes for both the player and the Orlanthi. When a warrior duck storms into your clan hall, says he’s tired of being the butt of jokes, and demands to fight your finest warrior to the death in single combat, you can either refuse him; or accept, to first blood; or accept, to the death; or apologise for making fun of the ducks; or refuse, and make a joke to his face. Most recently, I accepted, and sent out my battle-scarred war-leader. The duck cut him in half.

Which was shame, because you come to know and love your clan’s leaders. There are seven slots at the bottom of the screen, which comprise your clan ring, selected by you from about 20 or 25 potential nobles. The makeup of the clan ring has a number of effects on the game – having worshippers of seven different gods makes heroquesting easier, having more women than men makes the clan more fertile, having a chief with a weak leadership score can result in a coup. But mostly they act as advisors to an uncertain player: giving their advice, explaining certain laws and customs, suggesting repercussions to situations that might not be immediately obvious.

As the visible face of your clan, the clan ring are effectively the game’s characters. They have quirks and foibles and eventually die, and if you’ve grown attached to them, it can be quite sad. Because you have seven ring members, they’ll come and go, arriving as fresh-faced youngsters and departing as grey-bearded old-timers… if they’re lucky. More likely, they will meet a brutish and nasty early death. Playing on Hard on the iPhone version, without ever save-scumming, I’ve lost eight chiefs in about thirty years – in battle, while heroquesting, to assassinations from other clans, to snakebite, to whatever. When one of your nobles steps up to the plate and successfully completes a heroquest (a re-enactment of a god legend, which can bring either great boons or terrible curses), it feels good. When one of them goes missing while exploring the area and their bones are discovered a year later, it feels bad. When a feuding clan offers to make peace, and then double-crosses you at the meeting and assassinates half your clan ring, it makes you furious.

And these people have minds of their own; they may challenge the chief for power, or turn out to be a secret Chaos worshipper, or go and murder the children of another chieftain “to start a war… we’re getting soft.” Sometimes they can be useful, sometimes they can be infuriating, and sometimes they’re racists with a chip on their shoulder who won’t stop banging on about elves.

It’s possible to forge a narrative in this game, to nurture potential heroes and send them on quests and missions you think is appropriate to their character. But it’s also possible that the young, handsome Elmali with a gift for leadership that you’re grooming to become king in the endgame sequence gets randomly killed in a botched cattle raid at age 21.

King of Dragon Pass isn’t for everyone. Not having moving graphics is probably a major point against it in our Flash-driven world, and it’s most definitely not a typical ten-minute timekiller that you play while sitting on the train or waiting to pick up Chinese takeaway. If the idea of a slow-paced strategy game with more depth than the average 12-part fantasy series isn’t appealing to you, then it’s probably not your bag. If, on the other hand, you want to play a game where you manage a Viking village, ride dinosaurs into battle, negotiate with dragons, forge a kingdom out of wilderness and do combat with the gods themselves in an alternate dimension, then, yes, buy this game.

I know ten bucks is a lot of money for an iOS game, but it’s not a lot of money in general. It’s less than what you’d spend on a sandwich and coffee in a cafe (in this country, anyway). Pretend it’s on Steam. It’s definitely worth it.

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