The plot of the second Inspector Chen novel goes like this: In Chen’s absence Zhu Irzh has to solve a murder case, and it looks like that this time someone from Heaven is involved.
The notable thing about the second Inspector Chen novel is his absence for most of the time. Calling it a Zhu Irzh novel wouldn’t be wrong. Like the first one the begin is a bit dry, but as soon as the plot began to move seriously, I was hooked. There were some nice bits which gave the impression that the afterlife is spatially bound to specific regions of belief. If you die in China, you get into the Chinese version of Heaven and Hell. I’m not sure if that’s true or if I misread that (where do tourists from other countries end when they accidentally die in their holidays, even if they are from a completely different cultural and religious background, I wonder).
Heaven and it’s people are depicted as aloof from Earth’s people and thinking, while Hell, despite being mostly evil, takes an interest in humans. Heaven isn’t a better afterlife, just a place where some few chosen go who had the luck to be either saints or die as innocent children. The rest can’t enter, like the people who are too good for Hell but not good enough for Heaven, and thus are punished to dwell forever in the region between both. Like the dowser who knows that he won’t go to Heaven because deep down he never believed that people are good, only mechanically following his religion, Heaven looks evil not by being actively evil, but by not being actively good. When the dowser in the end finds out that Hell isn’t that bad, I remembered Heinlein’s Job: A Comedy of Justice. Heaven is not all that it’s cracked up to be.
Inspector Chen’s first case is about him and a colleague from Hell trying to stop a scheme of Hell’s Ministry of Epidemics.
At first I thought Snake Agent not as involving as similar books (similar meaning the sub-genre that mixes mystery fiction with fantasy elements), but after fifty pages or so I was hooked. Unlike other writers who plow the same field, inspector Chen isn’t as dominant as other main characters in similar books. Liz Williams likes to change the viewpoints between chapters, and yet that doesn’t disrupt the reading at all.
The setting reminded me of how Michael Marshall Smith mixed horror/fantasy elements with SF elements and mystery fiction in his first books. Yet, while it’s a similar mix, Williams style is all her own. Her plot, while not extremely complex and with some predictable elements, has this touch of unpredictably at times, which is good way to sustain the tension and to haul to reader along.
Overall, a very enjoyable novel with a slightly different setting from the all too common vampires/werewolves/magic in the present/near future. The only danger is that the conflict hell/heaven doesn’t break much new ground, but seeing it played out in a different setting makes it look a bit fresher than usual.
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Reading reviews of Atomic Butcher all over the net, I saw one thing missing. To me, it feels as if the game is one big homage to Fallout. Sure, Fallout is an RPG and all, but the mood and style of Atomic Butcher reminded me very strongly of it, even if the gameplay is completely different (here we have an action platformer with shooting mechanisms similar to those in Abuse).
You go out in the wasteland to gather meat for the people in our shelter. You kill everything that looks alive. Atomic Butcher revels in violence; blood and gore is everywhere. The game starts easy, but slowly the difficulty is rising, until the second to last level, which is not only humongous, but hard as hell. This level also mirrors the Cathedral of Fallout, a shelter with bio-organic slime everywhere and big mutants. The ending acknowledges that you played a monster. It’s quite deliciously devious in how it mocks the player and what he has achieved.
I just wanted to give this game a try, since I had some spare time and needed something short to play. I was hooked in no time. Sword of Fargoal is a roguelike, but whereupon modern variants (I’m not talking about Diablo or its clones, but rather the myriad ascii roguelikes) slay newcomers with too much, Sword of Fargoal is simplicity pure. You start, you explore, you level up, you go deeper into the dungeon. And yet, despite such a simple gameplay, it’s incredibly fun.
Part of what makes Sword of Fargoal so much fun for me is the exploration of every level. One thing that has always drawn me to the RPGs is when you can explore a map and slowly uncover the unknown parts (here there be monsters). That’s why I like mapping features in RPGs so much, or even better when can lift the cloud of darkness by walking around. Makes me feel a bit like an explorer.
As I’ve already said, Sword of Fargoal‘s gameplay is very simple. Every aspect of the game is just the essentials. No complex skill system, only the fighting skill, HPs, six spells that can be found in treasure chests and money that can be exchanged for experience points. Fighting is automated, but engaging the enemy or fleeing is in your hands. If you find the Sword of Fargoal deep down in the dungeons, head back to the surface as fast as you can, but beware. There are enemies who steal it from you.
PaA is one of the most intense novels I’ve read. The new edition by Night Shade Book has a nice quote by Jeff Vandermeer, comparing it to the movie “Das Boot”, and that’s a very apt comparison. If you look solely at the plot you’ll be disappointed, since that is one of the weakest elements. But PaA isn’t about plot, it’s a slice-of-life piece depicting the hellish conditions on a Climber, the one advantage humanity has against the alien Ulant. When those spaceships go into a climb, they are mostly undetectable. Sadly they also can’t shed heat, and slowly the temperature is rising. Which limits the length of the climbs.
Equally severe are other, more human problems. 99% of the time is done waiting, which erodes the nerves of everyone, as is the isolation. Unlike SF where warfare in space is depicted like sea battles of the 17th century, Cook depicts it more like submarine battles. The enemy has no face, you can’t hate him, while those people around you begin to annoy you soon. If a Climber is too long on patrol, the social dynamics on board begin to deteriorate, reflecting the physical state of the ship itself.
Cook’s book also avoids easy categorization. It’s military SF, but neither is it propaganda about the evils of the military, nor is it an endorsement of military space opera shoot’em ups. You won’t get easy morals out of this.
The beauty of many of Cook’s novels is how he captures the chaotic nature of life. While the second Garrett novel has murder galore, there is no complicated plan from some genius criminal mastermind that Garrett has to unravel. It’s rather a very simple action that starts a chain reaction with some very unfortunate side effects for everyone involved.
At first it looks like a simple kidnapping case. But soon people begin to die, and from Garrett’s position it’s just a big mess that doesn’t make much sense. Typically for a Garrett book, it’s full of deadpan humor, and also typically it hides a very cynic and dark edge. There is no fate or justice, sometimes nice people die and not so nice people go unpunished. Which also means, which is in a sense very typical for Cook, but not so for his fantasy contemporaries, that you don’t know who will bite the dust.
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Hurrican is basically Turrican remade. Instead of pixel graphics the sprites are all pre-rendered, but overall Hurrican captures the original style and gameplay perfectly. Implied is that it captures both, the good and the bad. I was never a fan of the original, which relied too much on overwhelming waves of dumb enemies and big, but generic levels. If you lose a live, your present weapon gets downgraded, and since the base levels of the four shoot modes are basically useless against most enemies, this (downgrading) can be a very annoying feature. Another problems is that you can’t shoot downwards, which is really extremely annoying in many situations, and avoiding hostile fire is sometimes impossible. And I hate time counters in platformers.
This isn’t to say that the game is bad, just that the raving fan crowd aside the game does have gameplay issues, and since the remake replicates them, they are there as well. Even on normal mode it’s frustrating to beat the game. So, what’s good about the game? It’s a fast paced, non-stop action fest with some ingenious boss designs (even if the last one is the easiest to beat, which is rather strange) and nice graphics. Just don’t expect to get very far without some proficiency in mastering the game mechanics.
TLHoD has some interesting concepts, but they are never used in an interesting way. A diplomat from a big, federationlike organization arrives on Gethen, accessing their readiness for entry. But things don’t go as planned, and the diplomat gets himself involved in domestic affairs. To add spice to her fabulated culture (and to the plot as well) LeGuin made the Gethenians hermaphroditic. Most of the time they are neuter, and for two days in a month they can be either male or female, dependent on their partner.
All this seems like a great setup, but it’s just that. The plot is underdeveloped and never goes anywhere interesting (and most of the time it’s a rather slow and boring walk). Normally this could have been circumvented by focusing on the characters, but those are equally underdeveloped. There’s never tension between the diplomat and his local partner, both remain facile character sketches throughout the book. Neither are the concepts around the Gethenians biology and their impact on culture explored in any depth, nor does the culture of the Gethenians feel more believable than a generic Star Trek race. Why this book has become a classic is a complete mystery to me.
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RoE is a platformer that looks and feels like it’s inspired by Castlevania SotN. While the gameplay is not as strong as it’s inspiration, there are some annoying moments of enemies respawning and I don’t particularly like that special moves use similar input sequences as console Beat’em Ups, it does capture most of the basics of Castlevania’s gamplay and uses them to good effect. Since everything is in Japanese, I can’t say anything about the story, but the style is Egyptian with mummies and everything, which is a nice departure from the Castlevania style. It’s a bit on the short side, but worth playing.
One of the oddest books I’ve ever read. A pair of aliens leave their hectic life behind and settle on the world of Provender, where they enjoy the quite life. The catch: on Provender everything can and gets eaten. The newcomers get to know their new neighbors, and the many tasty things on Provender. The end of the book has a funny, and depend on your taste, mean twist (you probably know by now what to expect, it’s rather obvious).
The book is told in form of a diary, with a look at small, everyday details and events. There’s no discernible plot, and I wondered what the point of the book was, despite that it had been a strange and funny experience. I later learned that it’s probably a persiflage of Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence, which is a recount of his real experiences in the Provence.