How not to write fantasy

Still from the opening of Record of Lodoss War where the party of balanced RPG cliches are surrounded by several dragons looming overhead

I’ve been watching Record of Lodoss War today and am halfway through. It’s obviously based on a tabletop RPG campaign since the main characters, despite having differing agendas, keep sticking together for no damned reason. I mean, why did the elf even join them in the first place? The protagonists also keep getting into dangerous situations at convenient intervals and their antagonist seemingly does nothing else besides obsess over the heroes and send low level minions to attack them, despite obviously having the power to crush them in one blow.

I guess it’s neat to see all the fantasy stuff that you have to imagine when you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, but this show kind of just goes from encounter to encounter without a main plot that holds it together well enough. It’s okay if you’re doing afternoon drinking on a long weekend (Happy Victoria Day!) but it’s not really something to watch for a compelling story or anything serious at all.

Tales of the City

Book cover of Imaginary Cities showing a futurist rendering of a shining white city of skyscrapers with a crowd of tourist in 1930s clothing gaping at the panorama

I am in the midst of reading Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. The best description of it is one that it provides – a nonfiction version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s just as hard to describe as the latter book. Basically it’s a collection of short essays loosely grouped around certain themes regarding cities of fiction and dream and myth and architecture.

Well, perhaps “essay” is the wrong word as essays traditionally argue for a point of view, whereas in this book the pieces mostly wander back and forth through Samuel Coleridge and Le Corbusier and Judge Dredd and whatnot. Reading it is like reading Calvino’s book. I think my favourite piece so far is the one about science fiction stories of cities ruled by women – both the ones written by men that are panicked screeds about feminism and the smaller number written by women that seriously try to imagine egalitarian societies.

My biggest complaint at this point is that the book is quite Eurocentric. It would have been stronger if it at least included Asian notions of city building, as historically the largest cities in the world have been in Asia. If there’s a cyberpunk section later on that doesn’t mention Akira then I’m going to be disappointed.

Other than that, I like the book so far.

This Ain’t the Left Hand of Darkness

You know, I like Grimgar of Fantasy and Ash. It’s about a bunch of amnesiac Japanese youths dropped into a fantasy world and forced to kill monsters to survive. Yeah, it’s like the hundredth variation on the “trapped in an RPG world” subgenre, except this one isn’t a power fantasy about the uber-l33t players replacing their pathetic offline lives with an awesome new virtual existence. No, this one actually examines what it would be like to have to kill another living being for the first time or lose a close companion or any one of a number of video game experiences that would be traumatic in real life. In other words, it treats the RPG world experience like a war movie.

I like the show, but it ain’t perfect. I’d say the worst thing about this anime is that every week I forget Ranta is an awful human being and every week he reminds me of that very fact. I’ve never liked fanservice – if I want porn I can get porn, anime studios – but I’d take a gratuitous shot of Yume’s naked asscrack every week (and holy shit was that ever gratuitous) over yet another tired line about how Ranta’s female teammates only have worth if he finds them sexually attractive. He could at least vary up his misogyny and insult women for having a different waist to hip ratio than men or having slightly higher pain thresholds or whatever. You know, really open up new horizons of animated sexism.

This is probably the thousandth time I’ve heard the joke that goes “you have small breasts, therefore you are worthless” on various anime series. Even if I thought that joke was funny, I certainly wouldn’t think so after hearing it repeated in one form or another since the 90’s – which is probably the last time someone laughed at that joke, by the way. You know, because it was already old and the person hearing it couldn’t believe someone was still using that joke.

I complain because I actually do like Grimgar. This Ranta thing is like a mouse turd in a bag of chocolate chips. I realize that the light novel author has mental health issues and might not be aware how jokes work (for instance, that they should be funny), but that doesn’t make this part of the show suck less.

A People’s History of Middle-Earth

I finished reading The Last Ringbearer. It’s a story completely unapproved of by the Tolkien estate which tells the story of the end and aftermath of the Lord of the Rings trilogy from the viewpoint of the orcs. It’s pretty much only available through non-standard channels in English, though I understand it’s sold openly as a published book in its original Russian.

I quite liked the opening when it was a revisionist retelling from the perspective of the losing side, leavened by long digressions into the history of Mordor and the ecology of the land, but in the middle it turned into a standard fantasy quest, which I wasn’t into. It’s clearly deliberate parallelism to the One Ring mission. After that it turned into a Cold War spy novel before ending kind of ploinkingly with almost the same climax as the original trilogy.

Reading the book was an interesting experience. I’m not sure it’s something I can recommend, particularly since I don’t know who I could even recommend it to – the story keeps switching genres and I don’t know if a typical fantasy reader would appreciate this literary legerdemain. That, and a Tolkien fan would probably be really ticked off at how the story of Lord of the Rings has been cruelly hacked apart and sewn back together as a cynical propaganda piece by the victorious West.

The book ends with an essay from the author defending his fanfiction – I do not use this term pejoratively, but it really is the best term for this work – and criticizing the fantasy genre’s demand for Manichean struggles between good and evil. This leads me to believe that he may not be widely read in the modern fantasy genre. There are numerous English fantasy works that put a gritty spin on fantasy, the most famous probably being A Song of Ice and Fire (a.k.a. Game of Thrones in its TV incarnation). Those works may not be as widely known in Russia, but it seems such an obvious idea to put a cynical spin on fantasy that I’m sure there are Russian writers who are doing the same thing already.

Anyway, that’s that. I read The Last Ringbearer. I didn’t hate it. I didn’t like it. I just thought it was kind of okay.

I have walked 500 miles

Above a port city of soaring spires hangs a female rogue on a rope spanning the blue sky and aims a throwing knife offscreen while in the background a woman on a balcony looks out at the sea.
This scene never took place in the game.

I think I’m more than halfway through Baldur’s Gate 2: Throne of Bhaal. I’ve been playing the Baldur’s Gate series off and on ever since I loaded up the first game probably eight or nine years ago. I used the Baldur’s Gate Trilogy mod to have BG1 run through the BG2 engine, so essentially I’ve been playing a single run of a computer role-playing game for most of a decade. With the end fast approaching I wanted to take a look back at the highlights of my run. Call it a greatest hits compilation. Continue reading “I have walked 500 miles”

Four ways to forgiveness

There’s no two ways about this: Spirit Circle is a damn good manga. Unfortunately, it’s rather hard to discover this for yourself, as all the synopses I’ve read make it sound incoherent or unremarkable. Take this one, for example:

Fuuta Okeya is a normal 14-year-old boy, except for the fact that he has the ability to see ghosts. A cute girl transfers into his class one day, but acts particularly aggressive towards him. This girl called Kouko Ishigami is followed around by a ghost called East. Fuuta tries to get along with her but ends up failing after she sees the birthmark he usually keeps covered. She then declares him as her enemy, his birthmark as a cursed brand and claims they have a long history, while talking about reincarnation. Who is this girl and how are they connected?

“Oh, it’s another high school story,” you might think. “Is it like Bleach? I’m guessing from the art it’s a comedy-romance and the reincarnation angle is the only unique thing about it. Oh well, high school comedy-romances are a dime a dozen.”

A girl and a boy fighting in the present day, as two young people in the pre-Hispanic Americas, as an old witch and a young knight, and as a ninja and a feudal Japanese swordsman

Hell no. I would never have tried this manga out if I hadn’t known it was written by the same person as the one behind Lucifer and the Biscuit Hammer, but I’m glad I did. I think I have enough samples of his writing now to say without hesitation that Satoshi Mizukami knows how to write a moving story.

Basically, Spirit Circle is about the dispute between a boy and a girl that stretches backward and forward to the past and the future and back again, through different reincarnations and universes. In the present day, the boy searches through his past lives to find the reason for the girl’s animosity, while in each life the two fight and try to find a way to stop fighting.

Don’t get me wrong, this manga is definitely funny. There actually is comedy and romance in this series. But each reincarnation of the two rivals lives rich and full lives with their share of tragedy and suffering and peace and joy. Some heavy shit goes down, and not in just the past lives of the two.

The series is available on Crunchyroll’s online manga service. I do have to mention that I read it on my tablet and the app has the annoying tendency to occasionally show me a page that I’d already read. If that happens to you, I recommend exiting the manga and entering it again; that should make the proper page show up.

I’ve found Crunchyroll’s online manga offerings to be rather sparse in number and in quality. One might call it hit-or-miss but in my case I’ve found more misses than hits. This manga, though, is definitely one of the good ones. It’s also being simultaneously published, which means that it’s still not finished. However, from the way the story is going I think it’s almost done. If it sticks the landing then it’s going into my list of favourite series.

The gray world

Princess Ran in her Nike sneakers cutting her way through the vines to her sleeping prince

I’m currently reading Ran and the Gray World, which is a manga about a girl growing up in a family of sorcerers. It’s a whimsical and beautiful magical realist story, like one of the more child-oriented Hayao Miyazaki films. The manga contains scenes of childlike exuberance on the one hand, and scenes of terror and crushing sorrow on the other, but the tone never feels dissonant. Describing more of the plot would make the story sound nonsensical – like I said, it’s magical realist – but it does hold together with its own internal logic.

I think the series does a good job of showing how kids can handle more than adults tend to give them credit for. The art is wonderful, so the manga is enjoyable just on the visual level, but I do like how well it shows the eternal resiliency of children. I can see why it’s big in Japan.

The names of fantasy

Just for the hell of it, I’m going to list as many names as I can remember from David Eddings’ Belgariad and Malloreon fantasy series:

  • Garion
  • Belgarath
  • Poledra
  • Polgara
  • Durnik
  • Torak
  • Riva
  • Sendaria
  • Ce’Nedra
  • Silk
  • Zandramas
  • Mallorea
  • Angarak
  • Tol’Nedra
  • Ulgo
  • Eriond
  • Barak
  • Mandorallen
  • Vo Mimbre

God and my right

Many faux-medieval fantasy stories willfully ignore the overarching influence of the Church on European society. Knights were specifically said to be soldiers of Christendom and Christianity permeated every level of society, from the beggars who depended on handouts from the charitable orders to kings who had to be wary of excommunication. Medieval economics was also shaped by the Church, for it was considered impious for Chistians to charge interest on loans, which left moneylending as a Jewish profession. All these things and more made medieval Europe the way it was.

The Red Knight by Miles Cameron avoids this ahistorical presentation. It’s essentially set in a parallel universe Middle Ages where magic exists. Sorcerers require a license from the Church to practise magic, dragons rule over large parts of the land, and the forces of Satan threaten humanity everyday.

The world, you see, is divided in a war between God and Satan. However, the forces of Satan are actually just the forces of Nature fighting back against human encroachment. Having legitimate grievances, though, does not preclude moral excess, and the intelligent creatures of the wild massacre entire villages in their fight.

The author is a re-enactor and a history freak, which shows in the level of detail he displays in his fictionalized medieval England. Fencing masters teach moves for fighting monsters, rebellious peasants bide their time in the shadows, and despite the state of total war people come to accommodations with their supposed adversaries.

Anyway, I liked the book. Read it if you want more history in your fantasy.

The Summer of Adventure

I just completed the adventure game Memoria, which I’d bought during GOG’s summer sale. It’s rather old school in its point-and-click control scheme. Were it not for the graphics and for the far lower number of game-crashing bugs (damn you, Quest for Glory IV) I might have thought I was playing something Sierra Entertainment made in the 90s.

But one glimpse of the visuals will let you know this game is from the 21st century. I mean, just look at this game:

A waterfall, a princess, a bound thief, and two Amazons

That’s too detailed to be anything but hand-painted. And this is a screenshot from the game itself. Something from the classic era of adventure gaming would be full of visible pixels. Even a lot of modern adventure games like Gemini Rue still use that older style of giant pixels. I suppose it’s both out of nostalgia and out of consideration for the development budget.

Memoria is about a princess trying to stop a demonic invasion and about a birdcatcher five hundred years later learning about her story in his own quest to solve a magic curse on his beloved. The latter protagonist is somewhat run-of-the-mill, but the princess is more savage and ruthless than the typical bland do-gooder you might get in this sort of game. It’s rather refreshing.

Daedelic Entertainment definitely went all in on this game. Even the voice actors are uniformly good. And as an adventure game it’s satisfying enough. The puzzles tend not to delve too much into that odd adventure game inventory puzzle logic, such as that infamously convoluted Gabriel Knight solution (number four on that list) which involves using cat hair to make a mustache to match the picture on a passport stolen from a man with no facial hair. No, I think experienced adventure gamers should be able to finish this without having to resort to a walkthrough.

However, while the game is fun, it isn’t very long. I only got it last week and have already finished it, after all. I remember taking a lot longer to finish an old Sierra game. This game is actually fairly linear, so you’re not wandering around a lot of different locations wondering which doohickey should be used at which place and in which combination. It’s pleasant to look at some pretty pictures with no real sense of urgency, but it’s hard to justify paying full price for something this ephemeral. It’s not like this game has a lot of replayability in it.

Overall? I say buy it if you’re into adventure games, but wait until there’s a sale on.