Friday, 18 April 2014

Can we stop calling them graphic novels?

The term 'graphic novel' has long been a pet peeve of mine, and for some reason it's come back into mind lately; probably something came up on my Facebook feed. In any case, it's a term that really bugs me, and I thought I'd talk about it a bit here. Calling them graphic novels is pretentious, it's unnecessary, and it's symptomatic of the comics medium's inferiority complex. Let's just keep calling them comics.

As far as I know, people first started talking about graphic novels when Watchmen first got collected into a single volume, presumably because DC realised that it was too good to let it go out of print and because there was a lot of money to be made from selling it in conventional bookshops. I love Watchmen as much as the next person, and the comics medium's desire to be taken seriously and accorded the literary merit it deserves is admirable, but appropriating terminology from other media isn't the way to go about it.

To me, 'graphic novel' just comes across as a bit condescending, as if comics aren't good enough in themselves and so have to borrow another, more respectable medium's name before they can be treated with the same respect as traditional literature. Admittedly, there are many cases where it is a fairly appropriate description, but even in those cases I simply don't see what's wrong with calling them comics, because that is fundamentally what they are.

When a comic is conceived of, written and published as a single, reasonably long volume, in the same way that a novel is, then it is fair enough to refer to it as a graphic novel, even if my aforementioned issues with the expression still stand. For instance, Blue is the Warmest Colour is a graphic novel, and Hellblazer: All His Engines is a graphic novel. There are certainly advantages to be had in writing and publishing your work in a single, novel-length work rather than serialised in periodicals, and there have been no shortage of great books in that format. The authors arguably have greater creative control, aren't constrained by page limits, and don't have to worry about deadlines. I've no issue with the format, I just think the terminology is a bit pretentious.

The real problem for me is that, nine times out of ten, when people say 'graphic novel' they mean 'trade paperback,' and while the terms are almost always used interchangeably, they ought to mean completely different things. Most of the time when people refer to graphic novels, they're talking about collected editions of monthly comics, in which several issues have been put in one book for convenience, ease of reading, and so that it can be sold in traditional bookshops.

Again, I've no issue with the trade paperback format. I don't buy single issues because the trade is usually cheaper and doesn't have adverts in it, and the fact that comics are being collected and preserved in this manner is a wonderful thing for the medium. Most writers tend to write for the trade these days anyway; it's pretty rare that you'll come across a single issue that actually works as a standalone story rather than as a chapter in a bigger, ongoing narrative. But this is where we come to the real crux of my problem with graphic novels.

Putting six issues of a monthly comic into one book doesn't make a novel any more than putting six episodes of a TV show on one disc makes a film.

The 12 issues of Watchmen may tell a single story that was clearly planned from the beginning as such, but that doesn't make it a novel. The 8 episodes of True Detective's first season also tell a single story that was clearly planned from the beginning as such, but no one in their right mind would refer to it as a film.

Like I said, it's a symptom of the medium's inferiority complex. It's a pretty old medium at this point, but given that its development as an art form was arguably set back at least 20 years by the Comics Code Authority, comics as a medium still has a reputation as being for kids, as unfair and undeserved as that stigma might be. It's simply a case of a relatively young medium borrowing terminology from an older, more respected medium to describe something that is uniquely its own, and doing itself a disservice in the process. It's implying that the comics medium is somehow inferior to the novel medium, which just isn't true. Neither is superior to the other, they're just different.

So there we are. While there are cases where 'graphic novel' is a pretty accurate description of a comic, for the most part the term is condescending, not applicable to the format, and a statement that comics aren't as good as prose.

And that's just a bit rubbish, isn't it?

Friday, 4 April 2014

Is A Song of Ice and Fire going to collapse under its own weight?

Before I anger the legions of fans, let me first assert that I am absolutely one of them. I've been a die-hard fan of the series for years, I vividly remember losing my mind when it was announced that Charles Dance was going to play Tywin Lannister in the TV show, and my old, battered copy of A Game of Thrones has been signed by GRRM.

But, I worry that the series is going the way of The Wheel of Time, and I don't mean I'm worried that Martin is going to die before he finishes it. (It's not impossible, but he seems to be in very good health by all accounts.) I mean that it's been going for nearly twenty years and there's still no ending in sight. It was initially conceived as a trilogy and is now projected to run to seven books, though Martin hasn't ruled out the option of extending it even further. It's alarmingly reminiscent of what happened with Robert Jordan's series, originally meant to be six books but bloating to 14 by the time it finished.

For the record, I think The Wheel of Time is vastly inferior to A Song of Ice and Fire for any number of reasons which I won't get into here. Yes, I know it's meant to get better as it goes, but the first 800-page tome bored me almost to tears and didn't exactly inspire me to read 13 more of the damn things. A Game of Thrones, on the other hand, was gripping from start to finish and ended on a cliffhanger which almost physically compelled me to rush out and buy A Clash of Kings. And A Storm of Swords (both parts). And A Feast for Crows. And then, eventually, A Dance with Dragons.

As great as Martin's story is, the unfortunate truth is that a story is only really satisfying once it's ended. And as much as I love Ice and Fire – and I love it dearly; it's possibly my favourite series of novels – it's no closer to ending than it was when the first book was published back in 1996. The story's scope and scale, one of the things I most admire about it, has simply got out of control.

In the first book, there are (I think) eight point-of-view characters, and four storylines: the Wall, Winterfell, King's Landing, and Dany. As of book five, there have been somewhere in excess of 20 POV characters, and even if several of those have been immediately doomed prologue or epilogue characters, it's spread the story too wide. Four storylines is a lot to keep track of in itself, and I don't even know how many are going on simultaneously now. To quote that most famous of fantasy novels, it feels thin, stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.

Feast and Dance were by no means bad books, even if Feast did suffer from missing almost all the best characters, but there's no denying that not an awful lot actually happens in them. Yes, Dance ends brilliantly, and the last quarter really picks up the pace and starts delivering on the sort of excitement that was present all the way through Storm, but it takes a hell of a long time to get there.

As much as I hate to say it, at this point we almost need another couple of Red Wedding-style bloodbaths to thin the ranks of the characters and bring some focus back to the story. The intricacy of Dance's plotting and the skill that must have gone into constructing and editing it are nothing short of staggering, but at this point the story is simply too big and spread over too wide a space. There are too many characters, is the bottom line, and as much as I love them – writing believable characters is one of Martin's greatest talents as a writer, and to my mind the main reason the series has become so wildly popular since the TV show – he really needs to kill some of them off.

And I have no doubt that killing characters off is well within Martin's abilities. If The Winds of Winter is as bleak as its title suggests it will be, maybe the story will be back on track by the time A Dream of Spring comes out. I just hope it doesn't take Martin six years to finish it.

Friday, 28 March 2014

Iain M. Banks' The Algebraist, ten years on

I am a big fan of Iain M. Banks' SF. I've read all the Culture books, apart from The State of the Art and Inversions if you consider that to be Culture; I'm of the opinion that he's one of if not the best British SF author of the past 25 years; and Use of Weapons ranks among my very favourite novels, horrifyingly disturbing though it is.

It's for this reason that I'm always slightly puzzled by the relative lack of awards he received for his SF. Specifically, the only time he was even nominated for a Hugo, arguably the most prestigious award in the field of SF and fantasy, was for his 2004 non-Culture novel The Algebraist. It's been ten years since its publication, almost a year since he tragically passed away, and we're coming up to the 2014 Worldcon at which he was going to be a guest of honour, so I thought it seemed like a good time for a look back at this book.

First off, I really enjoy The Algebraist, but I am confused about why, of all Banks' SF, this is the one that was nominated for a Hugo rather than Use of Weapons or Excession. Perhaps it was the fact that he hadn't written SF for four years by the time it came out and the anticipation contributed to its success, and it could very well be that it's one of his most purely entertaining, crowd-pleasing books. It probably is one of my favourites of his, but that doesn't mean it's one of his best. Still, it's spectacularly entertaining space opera, a thrilling adventure story which I would strongly recommend. It deserves to be read, especially since it tends to be overshadowed by the Culture.

It's largely in the world building that both its biggest successes and biggest flaws lie. Most of the action happens in the gas giant Nasqueron, where our protagonist Fassin Taak has been sent, and the construction of the civilisation within the gas giant is extremely impressive. The resident Dwellers are a Slow species, for whom entire human lifetimes can occur in the space of a lazy afternoon, and the bizarre ways they carry out their lives are never less than amusing. For me at least, there's an aura of mystery about gas giants anyway, and the extended journey Fassin undergoes while travelling through Nasqueron makes for a great space adventure story.

This could be another contributing factor to the wide appeal necessary for a Hugo nomination. It's probably the most conventional space opera Banks wrote, without meaning that as a criticism, in that it follows a protagonist experiencing a fairly traditional Hero's Journey to try and save his home from being destroyed in war. The framework of the story is rather familiar even if the details are not, and it could be that the resonances these kinds of stories have for so many people are what caused its success.

That said, the world building of the broader galactic community does get a bit out of hand. The Algebraist is a long book, and could have done with a rather more rigorous edit: all the details of the greater civilisation are interesting and well drawn, but they tend to arrive in the form of infodumps a bit too often, breaking the flow of the story somewhat. I suspect this is because the novel isn't part of Banks' already well-established Culture series, and so he was keen to mark out the differences between the two universes.

It's not necessarily a great novel, but it is a great read. It may not be top-tier Banks, but even at his lower ebbs his SF is of such a high standard that it's easy to recommend to anyone who's a fan of the genre. For those who aren't yet initiated, they're probably better off starting with the Culture before moving on to this relatively dense work. Still, if you read SF for escapism and want a cracking, thoroughly entertaining space opera, I can unreservedly recommend The Algebraist. Read it, and remember one of the genre's true masters, taken from us far too early.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Remembering Hellblazer

Hellblazer, after running for 25 years and 300 issues, making it the longest-running comic at either DC or Marvel to have never been cancelled or rebooted, was cancelled a little over a year ago. Because of that, and because of the fact that more details about the upcoming TV series have been emerging lately, I thought it was a good time to express my views on one of my very favourite comic books.

I don't object to its cancellation in itself, even if it is weird to mark the Vertigo imprint's 20th anniversary by cancelling its flagship title. 300 issues is a lot, most of them were good to great, and it was definitely better to end on a high rather than drag it out and potentially squander what had been good about it. Plus, given that John Constantine ages in real-time, even if his ageing is slowed down somewhat by his demon blood, he was still 60 years old when Hellblazer ended, and it was probably time to hang up the trenchcoat. Death and Cigarettes, the final story, may not have been one of the all-time classics, but it was still a great one and a very fitting end to the series.

I do object, however, to the fact that Hellblazer, one of the most important comic books in recent memory and Vertigo's longest running book, was cancelled so that John could be rebooted and brought into the DC Universe – especially since the New 52 is, by and large, awful. Yes, he originated in the DCU in the pages of Swamp Thing, but even back then those characters were more or less cordoned off from the wider universe. Hell, John considered the Crisis on Infinite Earth to be basically a sideshow to the return of the Original Darkness, the great threat that he and the Swamp Thing faced together.

Even if we leave aside the problematic, One More Day-esque erasure of 25 years of character development, it doesn't make sense from a business perspective or from a creative one: cancelling a big-selling horror comic in order to put John in what basically amounts to yet another superhero comic. They risk losing the dedicated Vertigo readers who might not be interested in superheroes, as well as losing all the actually mature (as opposed to the New 52's superficially mature) content, urban fantasy and social commentary that made Hellblazer so special. I'm told the current Constantine title isn't all that bad, but I'm of the opinion that John simply doesn't belong in a superhero universe. There was an issue of his current title when he had a run-in with Captain Marvel (I refuse to call him Shazam) and ended up stealing his powers, which pretty much sums up my problem with that comic.

Hellblazer's colours were revealed as early as its third issue, a bitter satire of stockbrokers and yuppies in the Margaret Thatcher era. And there's the rub: what made this comic so interesting and unique was that, even with the presence of magic, zombies and demons, it was clearly taking place in our world, and the themes and subject matter reflected this. John was a magician, but he was still just an ordinary working-class man from Liverpool, and tended to use wits to con his enemies far more than he actually used magic against them. The story Pandemonium, written to commemorate the 25th anniversary of John's first appearance in the pages of Swamp Thing, epitomises this: it's a brilliant, savagely angry condemnation of the Iraq War in which John thwarts the demon Nergal's plans by winning a game of poker. It encapsulates everything important about Hellblazer, and it's one of my favourite Constantine stories.

The current situation is kind of ironic in a slightly depressing way. DC has basically returned its superhero comics to the mindset of the '90s, and dragged John down into it as well, whereas the actual '90s, when superhero comics were in the toilet, was Hellblazer's heyday. That was Vertigo's golden age, Hellblazer was the flagship, and it remained the flagship for the next 20 years. It just depresses me that such a great, important comic book has been replaced by another disposable superhero title.

I guess we just have to hope that the TV series will do the character justice. And if nothing else, they've nailed John's look perfectly: I'm pretty sure the only way to get someone who looks more like him would've been to go back in time to 1988 and actually cast Sting.

Seriously, credit where it's due: this guy is John Constantine. Well done, NBC. There's talk of him not being allowed to smoke in the show, which would be irritating. Apart from the cigarettes being as indelible a visual aspect of the character as Superman's cape, they're a constant reminder of John's addictive, self-destructive personality, and one of the classic stories, Dangerous Habits, couldn't exist without his smoking addiction. Still, I'm allowing myself to be cautiously optimistic about this TV show. It can hardly be worse than the Keanu Reeves movie, at any rate.

Friday, 7 March 2014

The Cthulhu Contradiction

As a follow-up to my piece about The Crack'd and Crook'd Manse, the Call of Cthulhu game I played a few weeks ago, I thought I'd write a more detailed post on my general thoughts about the system, and specifically, the big part of the game that just doesn't make sense.

First things first: I really like Call of Cthulhu. Mechanically it's very similar to Dungeons & Dragons, albeit with percentage dice rather than a d20 as the main ones you use, and the character stats and skills work in much the same way as their D&D equivalents. The big difference in terms of gameplay is that there's a lot less faffing about with the combat, which is a very nice change. Tabletop RPG combat can easily end up being dreary and tiresome, especially in D&D 4th Edition where you spend most of the time flicking through sourcebooks trying to remember what all your abilities do, but Cthulhu's is simple, fast, and often extremely tense because fights tend to be pretty difficult.

Naturally, the biggest draw with Call of Cthulhu is the one present in the name: the fact that it's a horror game based on the fiction of H.P. Lovecraft, arguably the most important horror writer of the 20th Century – and it's in the horror where the system really shines. As I detailed in my last post on the game, it's very easy for things to go spectacularly wrong very quickly, and character death is an omnipresent worry – in the foreword to the famous campaign Masks of Nyarlathotep, which I really want to play, the author outright tells you that the characters are unlikely to survive to the end. It's a really nice change from being the heroic adventurers of D&D where success is assumed: here, you're just ordinary people up against forces so overwhelming and otherworldly as to be practically inconceivable, and failure is a very real possibility.

Unfortunately, though, there is a serious contradiction inherent in the idea of merging a tabletop RPG and the Cthulhu Mythos. By their very nature, RPGs are founded in mathematics, because there need to be defined rules for how the game works or things would go off the rails even more quickly than they usually do. Numbers are the most concrete, logical means of understanding the universe that we have – there's a reason you can't do physics without doing a hell of a lot of maths as well. The problem with that is that the fiction of the Cthulhu Mythos is defined by its incomprehensibility and illogicality: what makes the monsters of the Mythos frightening is that their natures and motives are simply beyond human understanding, and their physical appearance is often beyond the ability to describe.

In the story from which Call of Cthulhu takes its name, we have no idea what Cthulhu is, where he's from, what he's doing, or why he's doing it. That is what makes him frightening. In the game itself, Cthulhu is defined by numbers and statistics: his motives may still be vague, but the GM knows precisely what he is in game terms. Even though he regenerates them, the very concept of hit points, that most crucial of role-playing concepts, is antithetical to the Mythos; the idea that these cosmic abominations will die if you do precisely this much damage to them is profoundly problematic in terms of what makes Lovecraft's fiction so compelling.

Let me stress that it doesn't make the game any less fun, and I'm certainly not trying to put forward a solution. For me, this paradox is pretty much insoluble, because tabletop RPGs are and always have been grounded in maths. It's just one of those irritating things that stick in the back of your mind, and I thought it was an interesting point about the game. It's not as if I would want to change the way things are: Call of Cthulhu is a fantastic game, and if this contradiction is necessary for us to be able to play it, then so be it. But still, it would be interesting to see if anyone could design a game which doesn't run counter to one of the most fundamental tenets of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Friday, 28 February 2014

The Iron Dragon's Daughter is exactly what a fantasy novel should be

While on holiday in New York last summer I managed to track down this small, quirky little bookshop called Singularity & Co. Inside was something close to Paradise for me: it specialises in old, out-of-print, vintage SF and fantasy. I could happily have spent hours browsing the shelves, but time was pressing and we wanted to go and get a drink at the Gotham City Lounge (it was a nerdy day). Still, I couldn't bear to leave without picking something up, and I happened across a battered copy of a book called The Iron Dragon's Daughter. I'd heard good things about it, but it didn't exactly seem like a well-known or particularly noteworthy book from what I knew. Still, it was in the 'Staff Recommendations' section, and for $5, what could be the harm?

And my goodness, if it didn't turn out to be the best fantasy novel I'd read in an awfully long time – probably since I finished A Dance With Dragons back in 2011, to be honest. And the reason why is very simple. It is purely and unashamedly a fantasy.

Well of course it is, I hear you say. But wait, I say, hear me out. As much as I like Tolkien, and I like Tolkien a lot, it's always bothered me that the vast majority of fantasy fiction basically exists to rip off The Lord of the Rings. The fact that the phrase 'generic fantasy' can be uttered without irony is a depressing indictment of the general state of the genre. Fantasy, like its sibling SF, should be a playground for the author's imagination, where they can cut loose with all the crazy, out-there concepts that you can't get away with in literary fiction. It's the entire reason people read fantasy in the first place, and yet so few authors actually make the most of this opportunity.

The Iron Dragon's Daughter is quite possibly the most imaginative fantasy novel I've ever read, simply because author Michael Swanwick never insults the reader's intelligence by worrying that a particular element might somehow be too fantastical. He isn't concerned that the reader will struggle to suspend disbelief, because if you're reading a fantasy novel that shouldn't ever be a problem. The novel takes place in a fantasy world featuring all the races you'd expect – elves, dwarves, gnomes et al – but loads of others as well, chief among them the changeling protagonist Jane, who appears to have been stolen from our world and brought to this dark, twisted version of Faerie.

The oppressive elven rulers force the poorer children to work in factories, building the steam-powered iron dragons which function as the elves' fighter jets. The plot later shifts to a great city, changing gears from an almost Dickensian beginning to an urban fantasy setting in a determinedly high fantasy world. In the city, Jane learns alchemy, cheats at her exams by practising quicker, easier sex magic, takes fantastic spins on various drugs, has a nightmarish, prophetic vision of her future, and takes part in a riot that is viciously put down by elves riding mechanical horses. It is utterly bananas, and that's what makes it so brilliant.

I've never read anything else like it, and surely one of the aims of writing a fantasy novel is to be able to elicit this sense of awe and wonder from the reader: to open to them a completely new, unfamiliar world where anything could happen, and where you don't just regurgitate the plot of The Lord of the Rings for the umpteenth bloody time. In this regard alone, The Iron Dragon's Daughter is one of the finest fantasy novels I've read, and that's not even getting into the other stuff. I could write a whole other post about the broken, heroic, utterly convincing female protagonist, in a genre too dominated by male authors and characters. Or the Iron Dragon of the title, one of the most frighteningly amoral, self-serving, genuinely menacing dragons since Smaug – and that's before he decides to have a go at committing genocide.

It's a mad book, but if you want to see what fantasy can be when the author really lets their imagination run wild, I can hardly think of a better example.

Friday, 21 February 2014

Move over, Avengers, here come the A-holes

On the off chance that you didn't see it, the first trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy is now online, and I find myself in the unexpected position of having to rank it as probably my most anticipated movie of the summer. When it was announced, my only thought was “The Who of the What?” I read comics, and I'd never heard of these guys. If Thor was a risk, I can only imagine what Guardians represents for Marvel Studios.

What I'm most excited about is that it isn't a superhero movie. Rather, it's a huge, crazy space opera with a ragtag team of misfits at its core, which is a pretty big departure from Marvel's usual fare. Even by the standards already set by these films, it looks like it's going to be utterly insane. Talking trees, blue and green alien girls, a genetically enhanced warrior raccoon, a bar which is the disembodied head of a giant space monster: this is the sort of thing that an epic space adventure should be made of.

It's a gamble, but if it works, it could represent a huge shift in how Marvel Studios and Warner Bros approach comic book adaptations. Hopefully, it'll mean they'll have more confidence in non-superhero properties, and encourage them to adapt the more obscure, interesting, out-there concepts that might be more entertaining than a superhero saving the world yet again.

My big hope is that, if it works, Warner Bros will officially start production on Guillermo del Toro's Dark Universe project: a team-up movie between DC Vertigo's magic-themed characters, such as the Swamp Thing, John Constantine, Zatanna and Deadman. Their business strategy at the moment basically amounts to copying whatever Marvel's currently doing, and Groot even looks a bit like the Swamp Thing. The hypothetical prospect of this movie is pretty much the stuff of my wildest geek dreams, providing it turns out good. In the same way that the Avengers seems to have prompted them to turn the Man of Steel sequel into a Justice League movie in all but name, the hopeful success of Guardians of the Galaxy might prompt them to take a chance on one of their less-known, non-superhero teams. It's unlikely, especially with the Constantine TV show currently in production, but the possibility exists.

Apart from anything else, it's only a matter of time before both studios start running out of superheroes to adapt, and Marvel are already scraping the barrel a bit with Ant-Man. We urgently need Black Panther, Black Widow and Captain Marvel movies to balance out the overwhelming white dudeness of the Avengers, but what happens after that? For both DC and Marvel, turning to their more obscure titles could very well be the answer, and the Vertigo characters are some of the richest and most deserving of film adaptations out there. No, Keanu Reeves' Constantine doesn't count, it was terrible.

This is all speculation, though. Blind hope on my part, in all honesty. For now, all that matters is that what looks to be an incredibly awesome space opera from the same guys who made the Avengers is on the immediate horizon – and for someone who loves space opera as much as I do, that is extremely fucking exciting.

Plus, if Guardians does well, it would give Marvel more of a reason to put Runaways into production for Phase Four. Wouldn't that be something?

Monday, 17 February 2014

Call of Cthulhu: The Crack'd and Crook'd Manse

So I spent most of Sunday, the first really nice day in quite a while, cooped up in a darkened room, sitting around a table and rolling dice. It was awesome. I always forget how much I miss playing RPGs until I actually sit down and play one. Call of Cthulhu is a brilliant game, despite the big paradox right at its foundation - which I intend to write about at a later date.

For the moment, I just feel like talking about the adventure we played on Sunday, titled The Crack'd and Crook'd Manse. Of the five Call of Cthulhu adventures I've played, I think this is the one I enjoyed the most, and weirdly, it's because we all almost died. The threat of death is a pretty constant companion in Cthulhu, and I remain honestly amazed that the entire party got out of this particular haunted house alive. 

It started out as you might expect for a Cthulhu game: a missing person and associated mystery, talking to people and reading through the records to try and learn more about them, before heading off to their house to properly get the investigation underway. First great thing: a real sense of creeping dread. The garden was completely overgrown, and the plants kept shifting as we walked through it, knocking Big Callum on the head and tripping Thea over. It was very weird, which, for a game based on weird fiction, is important. Second great thing: mishaps, injuries, and unexpected apparitions in the house, keeping us nervy and on our toes.

It was the finale that cemented this as my favourite Cthulhu game to date, though. The cosmic abomination du jour was, we were later informed, the spawn of Shub-Niggurath, which when it eventually appeared looked like a giant amoeba. Big, sentient pile of ooze with grasping pseudopods. Unpleasant. Responsible for the overgrown garden and decayed, rotting house. By this point, Josh's character - earlier incapacitated with a broken leg - had vanished, taken by the creature, and it had blocked the rest of the party's attempt to get downstairs. 

It was at this point, with Josh gone, the creature's pseudopods dragging Stassy away, and the rest of us fleeing up the stairs while flinging salt (its weakness) at it, seemingly achieving nothing but pissing it off, that the panic set in. It was a very tough battle, and in that moment I genuinely thought a total party kill was on the cards. Things only got worse from there - the creature latched onto my character's face, guns had as good as no effect on it, and Thea abandoned us by jumping out the window to escape. Eventually, once I'd got free, Big Callum, Stassy and I did the same - which resulted in me being horrifically injured and reduced to -1 hit points. 

Before everyone ran away, they decided to just throw everything we had at the creature in one last, desperate attack. Miraculously, this was enough to kill it, meaning Stassy, Big Callum and Thea were able to rescue Josh and stabilise me. 

I couldn't believe no one had died, even if I was only just barely alive. It's the only time in a tabletop RPG where I've actually feared for a party wipe, and in Call of Cthulhu, that's a great feeling. It's a cosmic horror game, it should be tense, dramatic and frightening. It was a great adventure - even though my character may still be in the hospital by the time we play another one.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

My thoughts on The Lions of Al-Rassan

I don't really know how to classify this book apart from calling it historical fantasy. The setting, its geography and the broad strokes of the story are based on historical events; but the names and details are changed and the characters are largely fictional, as is much of the plot. The author, Guy Gavriel Kay, does this in most of his books, in this case basing the novel on Medieval Spain and one of the principal characters on El Cid. I can sort of see why people might have a problem with basing a fantasy world so explicitly on a real-world nation, but I actually really like it. All fantasy nations are based on historical ones at least to some extent – the Rohirrim are Vikings, the Dothraki are Mongols and so on – and the way I see it, all Kay is doing here is making better use of the history than most.

It allows for some wonderful meditations on real-world problems as well. This fictional Spain is divided among Jaddites (Christians) in the three northern kingdoms of Esperana, Asharites (Muslims) ruling most of the peninsula in the country called Al-Rassan, and the wandering Kindath (Jews) living as subjects on both sides. The main characters are the Jaddites Rodrigo Belmonte – loosely based on El Cid – and Alvar de Pellino; the Kindath physician Jehane bet Ishak; and the Asharite poet/diplomat/soldier Ammar ibn Khairan. The plot charts how their lives are interwoven and ultimately sundered by the demands of their different faiths as Al-Rassan is pushed over the brink of holy war.

It really made me think, more than anything else, about how bloody stupid and pointless organised religion is. All it really serves to do in the novel is propagate suffering and unhappiness, while spelling the doom of culture and civilisation. The people of Al-Rassan are condemned for their luxurious and pampered way of living by both the Jaddites in the harsh north and the Muwardis – fanatical zealots utterly devoted to Ashar – in the deserts to the south. The city of Ragosa, ruled by the largely secular, wine-drinking King Badir and his Kindath chancellor, seems like by far the nicest place to live in the peninsula, and both Jaddites and Muwardis would prefer it to be destroyed. Where they see excessive luxury, I see the march of civilisation. The Kindath are hated by everyone, only tolerated because they have to pay more taxes, and this book really made me think about how much, and how unjustly, Jews have suffered over the centuries. I won't get into spoilers, but the amount of pain the Kindath go through in this novel, when they and they alone are uninvolved in the conflict, is nothing short of appalling when you consider that this happened to real people.

It's on the small scale is where it really hurts, though. Rodrigo and Ammar, the titular Lions, the two best men in Al-Rassan, become friends while exiled in Ragosa. Despite different faiths, different cultures, different sides, they grow to love each other, recognising each other's extraordinariness. And when war comes to Al-Rassan, they are forced to part – and if that sounds like a spoiler, I assure you it's not hard to see coming. This is what religious hatred does: it doesn't just end lives, it ends wonderful, life-affirming friendships. Practically everything good that is accomplished is when Jaddite, Asharite and Kindath work together, disdaining their differences. Hatred, the natural offspring of religion, achieves nothing but death and destruction.

Jehane's father Ishak deserves his own mention, actually, because the idea of doctor as hero is another big theme of the book. Despite the punishment inflicted upon him by his king after performing a particularly remarkable surgery on his wife, he is adamant that he would do it again, because that's what doctors are supposed to do. Even in the scenes of blood and battle, Kay is very clear that true heroism lies not in ending lives, but in saving them.

Apart from anything else, The Lions of Al-Rassan is a spectacular example of what can be done with fantasy when the author is willing to do something completely different from everyone else – which is pretty much the point of fantasy, to be honest. It's a truly wonderful story, and one that I really can't recommend enough. Both a brilliant adventure and a genuinely thoughtful meditation on the triumphs and follies of mankind, it uses the prism of fiction to look at real issues and examine the human condition in stunning depth, just like fantasy should. It's a novel of friendship and love, brutality and beauty, humour and heartbreak. It moved me to tears on several occasions. Read it.

EXCITED EDIT: Guy Gavriel Kay himself tweeted this blog. A promising new beginning, I think.

New beginnings

I'm bringing back my blog! I've been inspired to write something by a book I finished recently, and wasn't sure where to write it but here. I'm not sure how long the reanimated corpse will shamble on for - the cleric I got the Raise Dead spell from seemed a bit drunk - but I'm going to try and get back into the habit of blogging at least semi-regularly. In order to motivate myself, I'm changing what I talk about on here. I write film reviews and articles elsewhere, so this is going to be a space for more niche, genre stuff that interests me a lot but might not be so interesting to a big audience. I'll probably end up talking about SF and fantasy a lot, and in all likelihood comics too. If that sounds like stuff you'd like to read, stay tuned.

The Dread Pirate is back!