Reamde by Neal Stephenson – Book Review

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*Spoiler free*

Recently, I reviewed a MMORPG themed book from the World of Warcraft franchise, and gaming wise, there are plenty of books out there. Reamde, however, hits the gaming book genre from a completely different angle.

Unlike other gaming books, that typically show you the world solely through the eyes of the in-game characters; Neal Stephenson’s Reamde shows you the world through the eyes of the characters, the players and the developers themselves, inside the screen and out.

MMORPG games connect people the world over and often, when you’re playing, you have no idea who’s on the other side of the screen, playing alongside you. In Reamde, Stephenson experiments with how far away your in-game actions can be felt, and shows just how far that concept can go.

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So, how far away can your actions be felt in a MMO? If Reamde is anything to go by: very. Stephenson takes you around the globe, seeing the game at the hands of American fans, English authors, Chinese hackers and Russian crimelords, showing that a couple of bad decisions in online gaming can change your life forever.

Neal Stephenson has done his best to research everything in his book, from computing and gaming terminology to English and Chinese culture, to ensure he provides an authentic experience to his readers and, despite doing a great job at it; he may have been slightly overly-ambitious, and to a learned reader, some of the terms and facts he throws in either miss the mark, or appear unnecessary, as if to say “look at how much research I did” and nothing more. This hardly hinders it, though, and once you see past some of the minor content, the writing itself is very well constructed and entertaining throughout.

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The book splits into several sub-plots quite early on, so you’re constantly seeing a change in scenery, but you never feel lost, and the constant changes serve as a great mechanic for separating the giant and complex book into easy-to-follow chunks. Again, this has a downfall towards the end, as the different storylines begin to emerge, and it slows the ending down with repetition and deja vu. A lot of other reviews of the book complain about the size of the book and argue that it could have been halved, but if you invest in the characters and treat the book as a thriller; you find yourself encouraging the detail, and using it to place yourself into some of the tough, seemingly inescapable scenarios that the protagonists have to face.

As a gaming book it’s truly unique, and despite a couple of hurdles was an incredibly enjoyable read, with some great, engaging characters and some unlikely scenes and twists from start to finish.

A rare find, as far as gaming books go, and a must read for fans of the genre.

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World of Warcraft: War Crimes – book review

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***This review is spoiler-free to up-to-date fans of the World of Warcraft in-game plot and will only mention elements of the new book that can be derived from the game and the book cover. Read with confidence***

Videogame based books are a lot like videogame based movies…or movie based videogames. When it comes to picking one up, there’s a high likelyhood that it’s a bad one. Any media crossover like this runs the risk of providing its developers with a cushion of safety – they don’t have to make it the best game/book/movie ever, after all; it already has a brand and a committed following before it comes out! This guarantees a scintilla of launch-day success, due to fans of the franchise showing their support, regardless of how it’ll play out. As a result, the plots of these crossovers is typically a poor, recyled cookie-cutter story, with misplaced, misinformed lore, and continuity errors, where merely they’ve replaced “Romeo” with “The Orc”, and scattered around a bunch of buzz words to keep the franchise fans’ interest. We all remember the great Mass Effect book burning of 2012.

Christie Golden’s World of Warcraft series is not that kind of book. She’s been writing Warcraft lore for over a decade, and you can tell that Blizzard have a huge deal of faith in her, granting her a vast breadth of creative license to stitch together different events from the realm, immortalizing characters and moments along the way.

Even to some of the most committed World of Warcraft players, Azerothian lore can break down to a simple dichotomy of Alliance vs Horde, but there’s so much more there than a good vs evil story, and the novels are a testament to that. I, admittedly am one such player, a “dialogue skipper” that just wants an objective and something to fight. If, like me, you have a habit of jumping from event to event without stopping to take a look around, I’d fully recommend reading the World of Warcraft books; they’ll change the way you look at the mmo and you’ll quickly find yourself immersed in the realm amongst the Bloodhoof’s and Proudmoore’s, making them more than just mission-giving NPCs.

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World of Warcraft: War Crimes begins where the in-game expansion, Mists of Pandaria left off, and acts as a precursor to the upcoming, Warlords of Draenor storyline, which is promising to give the Horde its “finest hour”.

The book documents the trial of the former Warchief, Garrosh Hellscream as his atrocities are weighed up by the Alliance, Horde and Pandaren, in order to decide his fate. As you can imagine, that makes this book relatively dialogue heavy and lean on the action scenes. What it lacks in action, however, it makes up for in emotion, as you look into all of the key figures of Azeroth as they discuss their own interpretations of right and wrong, and each cope with the aftermath of Mists, Cataclysm and the Wrath of the Lich King.

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I picked up the audiobook version on Audible, which was narrated by the award-winning Scott Brick, who is fast becoming my favorite narrator; he could probably read a Volvo owners manual and still invoke some kind of emotion from the listener. I was expecting his voice to struggle in a fantasy environment, but his voice acting makes each character stand out, sound authentic and come to life.

The plot is quite heavy, due to some of the horrible things that have occurred to the characters at the hands of Hellscream, and as they recount them in court, some of it can be quite tough to hear. Whether you’re on the side of the Alliance or the Horde in World of Warcraft, prepare to be surprised; because in War Crimes, you’ll find your allegiance continuously shifting sides as accusers and defenders begin to show their true colors.

As much as it is a precursor to the Warlords of Draenor expansion, the focus is very much on giving Mists of Pandaria a full and proper send-off and fans of Warcraft-old will be given plenty of opportunities to reminisce on Pandaria’s highlights.

Christie Golden has done an excellent job with War Crimes, in creating a near-perfect book, despite running several gauntlets. She has based a book on a popular, lore-filled franchise, provided little to no action in a book aimed at an action-hungry community and made the main theme of the book martial law…and came out the other end with a book that all fans will be thankful for.

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett – My first visit to Discworld

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My first and only experience with the Discworld series, until today, was through the point and click adventures of Discworld, Discworld II and Discworld Noir on the PlayStation, and even though I enjoyed them, I never ventured to the paperbacks.

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Fortunately, due to a newfound dependency on audiobooks to ease the weekly commutes, I’ve been visiting all of the great literary sagas that I’ve never had the chance to check out or finish; from Iain M Banks’ Culture Saga, to Stephen King’s Watchtower Series, to some of the more popular runs; like George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones run, I’ll be taking advantage of them all. Today was my first ever run in with Pratchett, and my first real attempt at fantasy. Until audiobooks, anything that wasn’t non-fiction or military, or gangster related, (or both, or all) was put to one side and deemed “not for me”.

If you haven’t tried audiobooks; the fact that it pushes you to try stuff you typically wouldn’t be willing to invest time in warrants it enough. They may cost more, but the convenience more than makes up for it. If you’re strapped for cash, Audible offer 1 free credit as a trial and currently have 3 additional credits on sale at £18. A credit grants you a full download of any of their audiobooks and the thriftier buyers will notice you can pick up things like the complete works of Shakespeare and the 63 hour long 30th edition of Atlas Shrugged for a single credit; providing you with literally days of listening time in a single hit, for a fraction of the price.

Anyway! onto The Colour of Magic…

This is the first of Pratchetts books in the enormous Discworld series; which describes the events of a world, on a disc, on the back of a pack of elephants, on a turtle…which is floating through space, to a location undetermined. Discworld has now spanned 3 decades and 40 novels, snatching up awards and bundles of critical acclaim along the way.

The version that I picked up was a spritely 7 hours long and narrated by Nigel Planer, who does a great job at getting hold of all of Pratchett’s complicated, imaginary vocabulary. A semi-downside of the Nigel Planer version is that it sounds a lot like it has been ported from an old cassette version. You can hear the subtle, magnetic squeal of digital synthesis in the background and the volume, and even general mastering of the audio track varies from chapter to chapter; which can be obnoxiously jarring when you’re caught up in the story. It does, however give it the retro feel of an 80’s novel though, which is probably as close to the feeling of picking up a tattered, much-read, beloved book as you can get with an audio track…so maybe it’s something to be embraced.

As with any longstanding series, the first book comes across as a little bit wet behind the ears, which will surely buff out as the series carries on. Despite it being an introductory novel, of sorts, it actually does a great job of introducing you to the concept of Discworld and the physics, lore and jargon that surrounds it. Rather than explaining everything that’s unique to the realm of Discworld, Pratchett refreshingly describes things as though you’re one of its inhabitants and that you should already get the gist. This may sound daunting, but it actually serves the fantasy really well and makes all of the new feel much less of a struggle.

Rincewind, the main protagonist, is painted well as the last person that should be playing the hero, but someone who is unwillingly thrust into situations beyond his ken; and you’re encouraged to feast upon his misfortune throughout, with some hilarious perforations from his unwanted, scythe-wielding onlooker.

It’s a brilliant combination of Sci-Fi and Fantasy, and something that clearly inspired the likes of Riyria Chronicles and the Wizard’s Choice digital gamebooks that I recently reviewed. I feel slightly guilty that I’m so late to the party…hopefully I’ll be caught up soon…39 to go!

Choose Your Own Adventure – Freeway Fighter by Ian Livingstone

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Recently, I wrote about a run of Choose Your Own Adventure mobile apps by Delight Games, and how I got into the CYOA scene back when I was in school. Strangely, before even hearing about the likes of Dungeons and Dragons, and other pen and paper adventures, I was rolling dice and calculating luck factors, completely unaware that I was playing guided fantasy.

The Fighting Fantasy series sold in the millions throughout the 1980’s and was headed by the co-founders of Games Workshop, Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson. Some of these games are now available on iOS and Android, thanks to Tin Man Games.

Inspired by the re-invigoration of CYOA on its new, handheld platform, I eagerly went back to the source of my dice-rolling adventures with Freeway Fighter, written by the fantasy-adventure OG, Ian Livingstone. These books can be picked up online for a handful of change, in great condition, and even as first editions without any extra cost.

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First published in 1985, Freeway Fighter looks into the distant, dystopian future of 2022, when most of the population has been wiped out by a deadly virus. The survivors live in small, desert camps, in an endless battle for fuel and Credits.

Your mission is to drive from New Hope; the surviving population’s last bastion of peace, to the oil silos of San Anglo in and armed, Dodge Interceptor to trade for an armored fuel tanker, return it to New Hope and kick-start the post apocalyptic world’s slow-grind into normalcy.

The whole thing couldn’t be more “Mad Max” if it starred Mel Gibson himself, but despite the glaring similarities, it’s extremely enjoyable.

All you need is two dice, a pen and paper and away you go. You’ll find yourself collecting car parts, syphoning fuel, bare-knuckle boxing and drag-racing against pick-up trucks that have been converted into Roman chariots, all in the name of restarting civilization.

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I failed on my first attempt in around 50 turns, rather tamely, by running out of gas and being forced to abandon the Interceptor and walk the plains back to camp. On my Second attempt, after a gruelling, 90-something turns, I died at the hands of “The Animal”, despite the use of my deadly knuckle-dusters. Finally, after almost 100 turns, on my third attempt, I managed to restore humanity, and even rescue a hostage. The book has a tonne of replayablity, different routes to take and even different endings. The game isn’t the most intuitive, and has a lot of luck involved, but every so often you’re rewarded for making bold moves, or punished for overstaying your welcome.

The artwork, provided by Jim Burns and Kevin Bulmer, is a 1980’s gem; with mullet-clad warriors and shoulder-padded women regularly making an appearance, making you crave watching some retro movies. I’ve had Alien, Mad Max and Blade Runner running in the background, as I’ve battled my way though this book. Each run has taken 1-2 hours to play through, and grants a unique piece of nostalgia. I’ve seen that the FF series has since been bought out, modernized and republished, but I can’t help but hope that they still have the same vibe, and live on in another generation of roleplayers.

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Next up, I’m thinking of taking on one of the dungeon-crawlers; either Citadel of Chaos, or the original, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain.

My 5 picks from the Audible sale

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Audible is one of those expensive, unnecessary things that I don’t need, but like having. It’s not a bad product, by any means, but on average, you’re paying around £1 per hour for digital content. When most audiobooks are around 20 hours long, you quickly realize that you can buy the physical disks online for the same price or less. It is, however, immediate, remote and convenient, granting you all of your audio library in one place, with a few additional features thrown in too.

I troop on with it, like a gym membership, it encourages me to “read” because I’m committed to a subscription, and it gives me the push I need to read books that I’ve always wanted to, but never gotten around to.

Cheap books on audible are rare, so while there’s a sale on, it’s worth grabbing what you can.

Up until March 9th, the books on sale are £5.99; putting most of them at half price or better.

Here’s five books to consider:

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A Battle Won by Sean Thomas Russell (Historical Fiction)

If you’ve ever wanted to get into a Naval War series, this is probably one of the best starting points. If you’ve ever wanted to try out the likes of the Hornblower of the Aubrey/Maturin series, but don’t want to delve into a 20-book-run of complex, nautical grey matter, Russell’s Hayden run currently stands at 3 books, with A Battle Won being the second. The story takes place around the time of the French Revolution, and just before the Napoleonic Wars famous for it’s rise in history-making, nautical battles between the likes of Napoleon, Nelson and Collingwood, and throwing in the battles of the fictitious Charles Hayden did history no harm.

It’s strange that the first book, Under Enemy Colours, hasn’t been included in the sale, possibly due to the sequel holding a higher rating, but either way, it’s a good jumping-on point, as the plot is quite straightforward, as far as historical fiction can go. If you already read Naval War stories, it might seem a little toned down and simple, but at £5.99 and 15 hours long, it’s worth a shot.

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The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson (Fantasy/Norse Fiction)

A story the paints a beautiful picture of Norse Mythology, telling the story of based around the actions of Thor, but from the perspective of some of Yggdrasil’s smaller, but equally pivotal inhabitants.

The Broken Sword is narrated by renowned narrator, Bronson Pinchot, who does a great job at bringing the complex, mythological realms to life.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (Popular Psychology/Personal Development)

Not a personal favorite, but I was impressed to see it in the sale, and would recommend picking it up while it’s so cheap. As far as pop-psychology and behavioral economics go, it doesn’t really bring anything new to the table, but acts as a nice guide and reminder of how we choose to see the world around ourselves, and will leave you analyzing the hum-drum of everyday transactions.

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Saints of New York by R.J. Ellory (Detective, Thriller)

Mafia-era, New York Police Detective investigating a run of homicides. It’s not for everyone and it’s full of swearing, violence and unredeeming characters. If you’re a fan of gangster movies, it truly feels like a 16 hour version of Ray Liotta’s narrative in Goodfellas. If you think that kind of stuff is childish and obnoxious, steer clear, but if, like me, you love a good mob story; this one pulls no punches.

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Firefight by Chris Ryan (Military Fiction)

Chris Ryan is the slightly lesser-known military author that emerged from the events of “Bravo Two Zero”. Known as “The One That Got Away”, Chris Ryan embarked on what is now considered the longest escape in British Militay history, covering 190 miles from Baghdad to Syria after an SAS operation, lead by famed military writer, Andy McNab, was compromised.

Personally, I’m a bigger fan of Chris Ryan’s work, both his non-fiction accounts and his fiction, as it is undoubtedly steeped in first-hand experience and subtle truths.

Firefight is a fictional story based around the war in Afghanistan, and as troops begin to pull out of Helmland in the real world; it’s a good time to reflect on one of the biggest military operations in history, through the eyes of a soldier.

Wizard’s Choice and the return of old-old-school gaming

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My first ever Dungeons and Dragons-style experience was through Ian Livingston’s 1985 book, Freeway Fighter.

Freeway Fighter was a “game book”, a genre that hit significant popularity in the mid 1970’s to 1980’s; around the same time that Dungeons and Dragons, and the fantasy computer game, Zork rose to fame.

The CYOA, or Choose Your Own Adventure book scene was huge, and featured mechanics such as Hit Points, Mana, Pen and Paper, Gold and even D20 Dice variables like a true tabletop role-player, but all contained within the confines of a paperback. Even as a kid, growing up in the 90’s, I felt their allure and quickly plowed through as many as I could find, but always returning to Freeway Fighter. Freeway Fighter was not only my first game book, but also my first minor act of crime; as I returned to it so many times in my school library, in an attempt to better my score, that I ultimately ended up graduating with it still in my possession; accidentally stealing the tattered, abandoned book outright!

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All of my memories of Mad Max-style endeavors in Freeway Fighter flooded back to me recently, upon the discovery of Wizard’s Choice; a mobile game for Windows phones and Android by Delight Games.

Although it’s a mobile game, it plays out just like a classic game book; with simple text, pictures and a list of role-playing options at each turn. In Wizard’s Choice you take the role of a semi-savvy wizard with his slow, but battle-ready, warrior friend, on the hunt for a lost damsel.

The “book” itself is written really well, albeit amateur. Despite the odd slip, it rolls along quite nicely, and has a reassuring air of humor behind it, allowing the writer to get gritty and gory from time to time without getting too dark. The decisions in it are well thought out, and reward the keenest of readers, by ensuring that the consequences relate to the text (for example, you can lose morale by taking the advice of a stranger over a trusted friend, or fail to complete a command, as a result of not heeding subtle advice written between the lines).

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The story changes scenery at a good pace, keeping you engaged and on your toes, and, although intuitive, will still manage to surprise you from time to time, like a good game book should, particularly a fantasy one. The only downfall, for me, was the lack of a dice mechanic. I think they’ve really missed a trick there, and it’d add a more random element to the overall game, not to mention pay homage to its predecessors.

If you die; you get the option to restart from the last checkpoint (page of inconsequential text), or from the beginning altogether and at the end of the chapter you’ll be rewarded with a score, rank and summary, encouraging you to go back and attempt a perfect run.

Delight Games have a library full of CYOA-style games and offer a premium membership, which grants you access to all of their titles, plus updates. I’ll be investing in it shortly…after another read of Freeway Fighter, for old time’s sake.

Book Club – Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

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David Foster Wallace became one of my new favorite writers in 2013, after a Youtube video featuring his 2005 “This is Water” commencement speech to Kenyon College’s Liberal Arts graduates, performed a lap around the social media circuits.

Since then, I’ve gone on to pick up whatever I can of his, from Infinite Jest, to his commissioned magazine editorials, and was fortunate to find “Consider the Lobster”, narrated by David Foster Wallace himself, on Audible.

David Foster Wallace died in 2008, and I’m selfishly saddened by the fact that such a great writer, who lived in my time, wrote such brilliant work, won awards and, sadly, committed a depression-induced suicide before I’d so much as heard of him. Knowing that such greatness can exist around around you, and be gone without creating so much as a ripple in your own world is uniquely saddening.

So, to find something I hadn’t read that was both written by David Foster Wallace and recited by him, gave me a chance at redemption, and a feeling of discovery, that I selfishly felt I had been robbed of, back in 2013.

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Consider the Lobster is a collection of essays, journals and commissions that grants a bizarre insight into David Foster Wallace’s life as a journalist, and an eye opening look at the world from his perspective.

The book is so refreshing, as Wallace focuses on the banal, irritating and mundane, and finds unexpected pockets of sadness, humor and reality deep within so many of life’s kinks.

From his comparisons between democratic process and lobster galas, to finding addictive forms or art and emotion within hardcore pornography, Wallace’s perspective serves to be evocative and humbling. Most importantly, it gives you a new, critical path into your own trains of thought, and makes you realize that everything around you can be considerably deeper than it first appears, provided you nurture your own opinions.

At times, you will even feel guilty for pre-judging, glossing over, and generalizing things that you typically wouldn’t give a second thought to. We all think that we’re above the crass and belligerent, but by simply analyzing every essence around him, Wallace teaches you, in Consider the Lobster, that we’re all guilty of it, and that there is so much out there that deserves our attention, but sadly; never demands it.