Monday, December 22, 2014

Review: Malice

Malice by John Gwynne

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was a completely unexpected pleasure. I read a lot on the train to (and back from) work so I need fresh material to keep my mind busy and Malice somehow ended up on my radar, mentally classified under the rather usual "commute fodder" label; something hopefully enough to get me turning pages without being yet another generic fantasy throw-away as many end up being.

Well, I was quite wrong.

It's not that this book has no weaknesses and I realize it's odd for a very positive review to start with those, because it does. Sometimes the author tells us instead of showing us (a character is said to be charismatic but we never seem him exert that charisma to the stated degree, for example) and some interpersonal relationships are developed entirely off-screen instead of letting the reader glimpse into what chemistry is like between the characters. Some cultures aren't as developed as I was hoping, too, such as that of the giants, and although magic exists we are given very little information about its limitations, practicers or nature; not every book has to examine and detail those like Sanderson does, but it would have been great to see more than we got.

However otherwise the novel went from strength to strength, especially for a newcomer.

The plot revolves around a 'God-War' that's coming back to the world, and prophecies which speak of two figures which will unite each of its two sides. One man will lead the forces of Good and the other the forces of Evil. In this there's of course very little fresh since those are old and well used tropes in the fantasy field, even with the twist of *two* such characters emerging rather than a single savior.

However what was really fun for me to read about was the development of a score of characters and how they then were cast in the shadow of these prophecies. Some honourable figures who let perfectly noble emotions - honour, loyalty - lead them into a sliding slope into supporting the wrong side, and some villainous ones operating from the shadows bidding their time to cultivate long-brewing plots. If anything the setting allowed for some very interesting pieces as as the book develops the two sides in the upcoming war (which is meant to be a four-part series, with two of its instalments out as I'm writing this). One side is truly ascendant in the first book, virtually undefeated in any conceivable way with strength and fresh allies who keep flocking to their banner while the other is barely able to operate at all, has very minimal resources and struggles to stay alive long enough to make it to the second novel.

There are a lot of characters in this book, something which perhaps the author might have overdone, especially since some may be redundant; there are more than one sets of brothers and fathers/sons dead-set against each other, which I reserve judgement about in terms of whether they will end up making their mark or seem like rehashes of each other.

All in all I really enjoyed this one. I'll start the second part, Valor, today; hopefully it'll be just as good. 4.5/5 stars for me.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Review: The Fell Sword

The Fell Sword
The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The second instalment in the Fallen Son series was one I was looking forward to. Since The Red Knight was such a tour de force - extremely well paced, very inventive, doing an excellent job of balancing world building, action and character development - I wanted to see where Miles Cameron would be taking his setting to.

I can't say I enjoyed this book quite as much as I did its predecessor. It could be because the bar was set so high but the truth is, I didn't find it as focused. Although the presence of many (many!) point-of-view chapters was present in both novels here it was more distracting and occasionally confusing than serving to promote the plot.

Even the Red Knight himself seemed to suffer from the same problem, taking a step back to countless threads that never quite seemed to come together in time for a true climax to the novel before the end - there was one, and it was satisfying enough, but I can't help but feel it was missing something. The stakes were different, we were exposed to a world view where they are very high indeed, and yet the protagonist was still tangled fighting a small-time villain whose chances of winning at that point had been greatly diminished.

Now, this could be mid-series struggles that will pay off in later books. It's happened before with other series and I've every confidence in the author's ability to pull it off. But as a single instalment goes it could have ultimately had more meat in it and been polished to deliver the same kind of potent, focused punch the first one did.

Even with its faults this was still quite enjoyable. The cast is deep, they have their own voices, and their dialogue is often a pleasure to read; it's not often I even remember secondary (let alone tertiary) mercenary support characters' names let alone feel disappointed when they die. Which happens, if not quite as much as George R.R. Martin allows such fates to occur - the Traitor Son is a grim series but it's not ... as grim as others.

I give this book 4/5 stars. Let's see what the next one brings to the table.

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Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review: Lord of Emperors

Lord of Emperors
Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is quite an accomplishment; rich and detailed, political and philosophical - a character's take near the end over what the 'Lord of Emperors' actually *means* is fascinating - from cover to cover.

While I can see how some readers might feel alienated by the amount of attention given to lyrical descriptions and character studies, that's something that never bothered me; in fact the writer's nostalgic eye on events that shook his book's world blended perfectly well with my own tastes.

The ending is bittersweet as well. It epitomizes what seems to be Kay's favorite plot direction - for everything a price, and grand things are the costlier - but it also makes sense. It's a work full of intrigue and colorful, three dimensional characters that should be read.

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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The tyranny of belonging.

I find it discouraging sometimes how we have a built-in need to belong to groups. In a world where most of us are otherwise trying hard to ensure our uniqueness and find our identity we still try damn hard to pigeon hole ourselves. We choose favorite sports, social income based groupings, we separate from the unwashed masses through our hobbies and special interests.

What fascinates me though is how even as we are drawn toward and join such communities we then often make every effort to split them into subgroups instead - sometimes with more dramatic results than others, others with more subtle effects.

Sports teams are the obvious example. Although it's pretty obvious there isn't really any discernible difference between a soccer fan of team A and a soccer fan of team B, they'll still argue, yell, and even draw blood trying to point out the exact opposite.

... Nevermind they are essentially the same kinds of people, excited about the same plays, played the same game from when they were all kids; none of that matters.

I was surprised when I first noticed the same trend when it came to another community - dog owners. You'd (well, I'd) expect such a bunch to be very tightly knit given their common affection for Man's bestest four legged buddy, but that's just not the case. Kill or no-kill shelters? Strays or pedigree-certified races?

... Nevermind that your next door neighbor might hate all dogs and wouldn't consider adopting one at all, somehow you end up disliking Bob down the street immensely because he went and paid a fortune to have heroic surgery performed on his puppy when he could have rescued a dozen poor strays with that money.

It just keeps going on and on. In the last year or so I've decided to be physically active so I'm spending a lot of time around gym-dwellers, including their online forums. It's very common to see people bashed in posts because of their training methods - Bob (yes, him again) has the nerve to lift light dumbbells and perform a bazillion reps instead of working out with a sensible program like Starting Strength.

... Nevermind that the vast freakin' majority of people you ever run into are couch potatoes who don't step foot in a gym at all. So if you reserve your malice and disregard for the people who at least make some, even inefficient and clumpsy effort, would you be prepared to show the flab-bellied big-bellied rest of humanity?

So don't even get me started on the merits of Star Wars vs Trekkies, vi vs emacs, Windows vs Linux (vs Macs?), or any other internal denomination you care to think of. I'm sure there are many out there I've not even heard of but which split people up pretty damn passionately over.

Such hierarchies of self validation in communities really bug me. Which is naturally a hypocritical stance for me to take, too, given the context of this post; after all at least such people are trying to be part of something even if they then simply try to rip other like-minded folk into shreds for disagreeing with their own personal flavor and inlination.

Is that normal, did people always do this historically? I know it worked the same way with horse races ever since Byzantium (remember the Nika riots) and if we want to be really controversial then we can include religion in this mix - after all, do Catholics and Protestants (or hey, Muslims and Christians...) have more or less in common compared to say, themselves and atheists?

Are we simply meant to be engaged in endless attempts to belong and be set apart from our own peers at the same time? 

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To geek or not to geek?

Growing up a geek, as many of you will know, is a pain in the ass. As a kid you just don't fit in right, there are no other groups you're a natural for other than, well, those made up of other geeks. Such circles' common trait is that its members usually don't want to be there, they'd upgrade to just about anywhere else for the price of being offered the opportunity, and some do as the years pass - puberty makes jocks of bespectacled boys, bestows cleavage to shy little girls, which are easy ways out of the geek way of life.

Not everyone does make the jump. I've had friends who've spent, quite literally, decades breaking out of their own mold, trying and struggling to be something other than what it seemed they were cursed with. Some have tried music with varying degrees of success, others chased the opposite sex with single minded determination or made attempts to distill elements of art into their geekdome.

The vast majority try to somehow keep it under wraps - I still remember laughing at Nick (of The Mazablog fame) when we ate in public after visiting the local comic book store, when I'd read mine on the table and he'd keep his in those brown paper bags they gave us like they were contraband. Sure, sure, it was to 'protect the magazines' from being ruined by spilled coke or something. Uh huh!

A few select people just embraced it. It doesn't really matter of course, since being a geek isn't a choice - it's just who you are. Peel enough layers of civilization, culture and pretense and what you get is the same inner nerd you came kicking and screaming into the world with.

You know what? As time passes it's becoming increasingly evident that it's quite the blessing.  Let me count the ways.

  • Professionally speaking you're far more inclined to be technologically savvy. That's a serious advantage that forever sets geeks apart from the burger-flipping crowds and, on average, offers a higher salary than the same people we often envied in our teenage years. 
  • There's a very small chance you'll be outpaced by times. Even when it comes to what you're not explicitly interested in, you still get it. I'm not a photography geek but the digitalization of cameras didn't catch me by surprise. I understand hybrid cars and could debate the ways it will affect our lifestyle although I know nothing next to nothing about automobiles themselves.
  • In terms of living your life, the very trappings of being geek, our tropes and ways of having fun have prepared us to excel.

    When I was exposed to fitness (well in my thirties) I had an epiphany at how many nerds have posted on the mindset required to improve yourself. Belonging to a group of like-minded individuals who're pulling their resources together by writing them down in organized, comprehesive ways? That's pretty familiar.

    Needing to understand nutrition, exercise? That sounds like a need to use search engines and wade through forum posts efficiently - but I've been doing that for years.

    'My body is a machine' claimed one fellow nerd, 'and I get to hack it'. Wait, hacking something I've taken the time to understand first? Oh yeah, been there.

    The big one: To make yourself physically better you need to grind. You need to watch what you eat on a daily basis. You need to follow repeative patterns and gain slow incremental rewards from them when you exercise. Your only confirmation is gradual change over time as you get stronger and faster one step at a time. That sounds like leveling to me. I've certainly done that!
  • We are flexible in our geekiness; everything is a puzzle needing to figure out. Where I work - a research institute - I'm surrounded by system administrators who do their own plumbing, programmers who routinely fix their own water heaters. They hook up web cameras to monitor the sea waves hundreds of kilometers away to know when they should surf. Our crappy basketball team uses advanced collaboration tools to mix our schedules and figure out when we can go to practice.

    When we shop we don't merely walk in a store and buy whatever crap is handed to us - we do research first, we read reviews, we get opinions from like-minded nerds living continents away.

    When it comes to it we're the go-to people. For all that we complain about having to do computer support for our families and friends, we're needed; we don't need because we know how to do stuff, or to find out what we don't already know. We often have a holistic understanding of the world in politics, in science, even in sports.
  • Finally, and this is perhaps the most important part, geeks are an international community unlike any other, recognized through their trappings. I see a guy walking across the street with a xkcd t-shirt and I know - I don't merely suspect, I'm absolutely sure - I can walk up to him and start a conversation. I've made friends just because I met them at a Magic: the Gathering store gawking at cards. I can walk into the local fantasy shop and get in a heated debate about D&D within a few minutes with people I've never met before. Or arrange to play with a group of them on Saturday night, and every Saturday night, for months to come.

    Sure, some of those things are duplicated in say, a sports bar during a game, but it can be argued that ultimately an obsessed around-the-clock football fan is nothing more or less than one of us, in a different field. Welcome home, brother.
I don't know what makes a geek. I wouldn't change it for anything though, and I believe I knew that ever since I was a teenager and watched with some amusement the attempts my fellows made trying to escape the destiny of forever being one.

Why would they want to?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Your body is the enemy.

Something changes once you start figuring out how fitness works. It's a bit of a paradigm shift, especially if you happen to be a thirty-something like me who's been getting random exercise through team sports throughout the years but never actually read up on what's happening behind the curtain (or, more accurately I suppose, under the skin).

So it turns out my body doesn't want me to be fit. It takes advantage of it once I am, and it sort of breaks down and dies when I'm not, but it doesn't have to like the process. See, being the product of thousands of years of evolution it doesn't really trust this western civilization thing that's been going on lately; just because I figure there won't be a drought or a lack of antelopes next week that'll mean starvation for sure it doesn't mean there won't be one, you know?

And it sort of goes from there. Processed sugars? Lots of fat? Gimme. It stores it all under the skin, this delicious fuel that can bring me out of a harsh winter in one piece. What, running? Lifting heavy things? Screw that noise. What happens in the gym is the exact opposite of what most people (myself included) thought - you don't build muscle in there, it destroy it so that it can be rebuilt - hopefully thicker and stronger - while you rest later on.

That's what it's all coming down to then. It's a battle between what my body thinks it wants and what I hope I can convince it to do. And, just like every other war, there are no dirty tricks disallowed, no trickery too base or deception too vile. You just have to do whatever it takes to win.

Take the nutritional protocol I've been following. It's called LeanGains, a form of intermittent fasting (yeah, I know, I was scratching my head too). The idea is that you intentionally alternate fasting periods in which you eat nothing with periods of heavy eating where you eat like a pig, picking mostly protein to stuff into your mouth. That tricks your system into tapping into your fat reserves every time to cover your energy needs but keeps it sustained right afterwards so it doesn't also start consuming its own muscles in panic.

Like in every war your body retaliates to these attacks you're launching against its fat deposits. Dieting will normally cause as much as 30%-40% muscle loss in normal males and 10%-20% in obese ones; you wanna lose weight? Hah. It'll eat through your lean mass at the same time, figuring it'll try to conserve that hard earned fat by wasting your far more difficult to gain physical strength instead.

Even worse so losing comes at a price. See, in a diet we lose fat and muscle at the same time as described above, but when we give up the diet for a time and put on weight again we pretty much only gain fat. So after a couple of circles of shedding pounds and putting them back on we just get weaker, with a slower metabolism making it harder to go through it again. Pah!

In the end this is a chess game - where your main weapons become information and consistency. In fact I'd say those are your only weapons, as without both understanding what it'll take for you to win and without actually having the determination to stick to it freakin' constantly, it won't work. It just won't. Your body doesn't play fair, it'll give you the munchies when you're feeling down or relaxed, it'll make you drool when you see that delicious cheesecake on a fridge shelf, it'll keep you hungry even after you've eaten more than enough for a meal.

And there are answers. Our body is a tough opponent but it does have an enormous weakness - it's really predictable. Once you know what's going on you can plan to defeat it at its own game so it can be shaped to do whatever you want from it.

For example, regular weight lifting exercise in combination with high protein intake defeats (or, well, minimizes) the lean muscle loss - victory! Treating weight loss as a maintained condition rather than a race for the summer means I don't have to deflate and expand like some ill-mannered balloon with all of its adverse effects. Understanding how to exercise means I don't just waste my time at the gym on a god-awfully boring treadmill for forty minutes or performing a hundred repetitions of some mini-weight.

Information and consistency vs thousands of years of evolution. Sure. Those are odds I'm willing to take.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Of Gaming Woes.

Although I've been sitting in front of monitors playing computer games ever since the late eighties and my one-proud Amstrad 6128, I've been recently informed by a friend that I'm no longer considered a gamer per se; that is because I don't actually play anything else than MMORPGs.

It's more or less true. With the possible exception of some really good single-player releases (Skyrim, Dragon Age, I'm looking at you, you life-stealing black hole where my evenings go to die) I've long stopped even trying out most genres let alone individual games. Gone are the days I used to try out first-person shooters or my once-beloved real time strategy zerg-a-vaganzas. No, unless I'm playing a character who gets somehow into adventures and his prowess' progress is measured in magical armor and glowing swords I simply don't bother for long.

The thing - and my plight now - is this: I'm stuck. I'm in a rut. I don't feel like playing much of anything. After years and years of continual service to World of Warcraft and assorted attempts at finding a new mistress - City of Heroes was a good try, Age of Conan came and went, Warhammer Online was great but didn't last - I thought that perhaps Bioware's latest and best would do it. Star Wars: The Old Republic was hailed by the entire industry as something of a messiah that would usher games into some mythical new age of MMORPGs' next generation.

Well, it was good. I can't find anything wrong with Star Wars. I liked the movies just fine, I've even been a good nerd and even read some of its Extended Universe {tm} books. Lightsabers are great. Sith are great. Jedi - great. The Old Republic was quite decent, I put my hours into it, I visited a bunch of alien landscapes filled with horrors and delights along with my trusty blaster and cute sidekick companion in a tight outfit. By all means I ought to be hooked by now, addicted and surgically attached to my mouse trying to preserve my sanity and sleep patterns as they both slipped away from my feeble grasp.

However... Well, however that's not what happened. Yesterday I even got an automated e-mail by Bioware letting me know that 'Mako misses me' - she's the cute sidekick mentioned above - since I haven't been on in a week or more. And they're right, poor Mako is right, I haven't.

By all means I can't blame this on the game. I don't think I'd be playing much more if I was still on WoW, either. And experience has taught me in the way experience only gives you insights after you've been burned by their absence several times in the past, that when everything else remains the same and your reaction is different, that what has changed is yourself.

It's not the games that are less fun. To some bright eyed lad coming into the massively multiplayer scene right now I'm sure the industry could do no wrong by him; that not-so imaginary person would invariably become as hooked to the experience as I was. That I haven't simply means it's not what I'm looking for right now.

Of course it's not the first time this has happened. I've burned out on gaming before and stayed away for months at a time. It's usually been some sort of event that gets me back, such as the launch of a brand new expansion and/or friends of mine making a guild and offering me vast virtual riches and complicated looking armor sets in exchange for every single minute of free time I have. But not even such lush propositions seem to catch my eye these days.

A rut. And if I don't play MMORPGs, given that I don't really play anything else, what on earth does that leave me with?

What is left of my identity when so much that is geeky and good has melted away? Brr!