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Monthly Archives: March 2013

The Seventh Gate by Margaret Weis

The Seventh Gate (The Death Gate Cycle, #7)
by Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman

So I’m going to rate the whole series. I’ve been reading these books for some time now, between other books. There are seven in total, quite a long series. It has an interesting premise. There are five races: humans, elves, dwarfs, sartan, and patryn. The first three are roughly the same strength, while the latter two are supposed to be much more powerful and consider themselves demigods, if not gods outright, but they are bitter foes, the sartan supposedly good and the patryn supposedly bad. A long time ago, the sartan, fearing the patryn, used their magic to lock them up in a labyrinth, their prison, and to divide the world into four elements, earth, water, fire, air. Each world would emphasize one of these elements, so in the air world, there are floating continents, but little water. Supposedly, the resources would be shared between the worlds and everyone would be happy and in paradise, the sartan watching over the lower races. But then they disappeared and left the humans, elves, and dwarfs by themselves, having to duke it out for their resources. The books begin with one patryn, Haplo, who had broken free from the terrible labyrinth, being sent out to explore these worlds and find out what happened to the sartan. At first, the books explore the cultures and how each race adapted to their environments, which is a bit interesting, there are some unique ideas, but later on it gets a little complicated, with evil incarnate trying to disrupt everything. Early on, Haplo find Alfred, a bumbling sartan, and even though they are enemies, are forced to work together. For most of the series, Haplo is an antihero, the villain who is going to conquer everything, but then he slowly is converted to good, and builds a relationship with Alfred. Unfortunately, I felt that relationship was altogether too abrupt, with them becoming pals in the sixth book. It was more interesting with the tension between them. The last three books felt like they lost their way, once they stopped describing the worlds. And while the worlds and cultures were interesting, they felt underpopulated. I didn’t feel there were great cultures to be explored, just a few squabbling nobles to try to represent them. The elves, humans, and dwarfs were all so similar, it didn’t feel necessary to have them. I don’t mind these races, but only when there is a reason to have them, something unique about them. The characters were mostly filler, and I didn’t really care about the lower race characters. Even Haplo and Alfred didn’t feel well rounded. And every leader of the people was stupid, something I would call lazy writing if I couldn’t compare them to the leaders in the government today (just kidding). The ending wasn’t great. The wizard Zafnib just called attention to the fact that these were books and dated them, using cultural references from the 80’s and 90’s, although some of the jokes were funny…at first. Anyway, they had an interesting premise but weren’t executed perfectly. Reminiscent of the Dragonlance books, but in a less predictable setting.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JOS_jpP1-1M

Here’s another video I made, in the same vein, but with a different story to tell and a different tone.

Story telling can come from any medium. Videos are obviously part of that, but few of think that even commercials can tell a story in 30 seconds. Here’s a video I made for an advertising class (nothing to do with fantasy, however) for sharpie markers. I tried to tell a story, both with and without words.

TheOneRing

One of the most common uses of magic, especially in low magic worlds, is through some sort of item, or an artifact. The classic example is the one ring in the Lord of the Rings. It has the power to make one invisible (and supposedly Sauron could take over the world using it). In fact, most of the magic seen in these books are through items, like Sting glowing when orcs were near. Gandalf had his magic, but we didn’t see very much of it, and it was always with his staff. Many legends have heroes questing after some sort of magic item, like the golden fleece of Jason of the Argonauts. Some stories require magic items, like wands or brooms for magic, like in Harry Potter. Sometimes crystals are used, like in some Final Fantasy games. King Arthur’s Excalibur might be considered a magic sword, or the holy grail. Star Wars had its lightsabers. Some items act as charms, like four leaf clovers, and have just a little magic. Many religions have sacred objects, like the arc of the covenant, or holy water, or bones of a saint. Often, the quest to find or use one of these artifacts is the main point of the story. Other times, they don’t serve much of a purpose, aside from adding to the story or producing cool action scenes. So why do so many stories have these special items?
Part of this might come from humans’ desire to anthropomorphize the world, making it more relatable to them. Children think animals are as intelligent as they are, that they just speak a different language. People see faces in rocks, clouds, and buildings. So making these items special is natural. We don’t like feeling alone in the world, alone in our intelligence, so we assign it to other things and animals. But sometimes items that are intelligent have their own will and might plot against their owners.
Not all artifacts are intelligent, though. Many represent great workmanship. A man who labors days over making what he considers the perfect sword is going to want to believe it is special, maybe that he poured his soul into it and there is something about it that other swords don’t have. Others may feel they were inspired in what they made, that some divine being was guiding them, and so want to give their work divine attributes. Idols were made, often from precious materials like gold, and then worshipped as gods. Because people want to believe in some higher power, but they also want to control it. Nowadays, instead of idols, people might worship knowledge and science, or their expensive car, or the work of their hands.
Because of ignorance of how things really work, people sometimes assign mystical properties to what they don’t understand. If they pray to an idol, and it rained, it was a sign. Some people thought photographs would steal part of your soul when they were first invented. Magnets magically were attracted to metal. Stage magicians use tricks to make things appear like magic. Any technology sufficiently advanced appears to be magic to those who don’t understand it.
Sometimes in legends, the hero was so much larger than life, that his clothes and weapons had to be larger than life as well, or rewards for his valor. And men have always dreamed of having the upper hand, getting better weapons, from knives to swords to arrows to guns to canons to planes to bombs to missiles to nukes to death stars. Magic sword beats normal sword.
Often they are a sign of status. King Arthur became king because only he could pull the sword from the stone. A wizard has his staff. A teen has his iphone, connected to google, the source of all knowledge. He uses it to see what his friends had for lunch and look at pictures of cats.
With magic, spells on humans usually seem to wear off, don’t have permanence, because that would be too much of an advantage, but on items it is fine, because the item can switch users, and sometimes the artifact itself will change owners on purpose, like the one ring.
With many stories about the quest to find or destroy an artifact, the artifact is the source of power, either to defeat the enemy, or the source of the enemy’s power.
So artifacts often play a big part in a story for different reasons, but sometimes they are very unnecessary. A sword of strength+1 and dexterity+2 won’t change the fate of the hero. A sword that can cut through anything and lets the hero escape from prison will.
Brought to you by a Macbook of intelligence+5

The First Law Trilogy
by Joe Abercrombie

** spoiler alert ** This has some spoilers, so if you really want to read through the series, don’t read this review.So everyone seems to like these books because they turn the fantasy world upside down. There’s the usual tropes, the quest, with the prince, the barbarian, the warrior princess, and the mage, off to find some mysterious artifact that will stop some dark lord. Fairly familiar, except that everyone is a jerk and they never find the dumb artifact. Theres also a crippled torturer who is supposed to gain sympathy. So there are some interesting twists, and if I were to judge this on the first book alone, without having read the others, I might have given this a higher score. It was intriguing, and you want to find out what’s next. Are things going to get better? No. That’s the problem. Maybe I judge books too much on their ending, but if they don’t end satisfactorially for my, then I’m not happy, even if it was good up till then. The noble is a self righteous jerk. The warrior girl is blind to everything but her own revenge, which she never gets. The mage looks at everyone else as inferiors and tools. The barbarian is the most sympathetic, but he’s pretty much just along for the ride. The torturer is just that: he tortures people. Just because we get to see his point of view doesn’t make him good or sympathetic. He does some bad things. And the ending is a total let down. It feels like someone played a prank on me. I read three books just for this? So back to the first point. It turns the fantasy genre upside down. I think the genre needs to look at itself now and then and not just follow blindly what others, like Tolkien, have done. But making the whole thing pointless? That turned me off. If you like gritty, you might like this, I know there are many who do, but if not, don’t bother.

If I had taken things slower, I might have avoided that fall, but I was too rushed. It was probably a ten-foot drop, but I landed badly, plus the tree branches tore into my legs. The apple rolled away from me, only two bites in it. I blacked out.

What happened from there was like a dream, or was in fact a dream. I wasn’t sure. I thought I saw Michael carrying me to the village, his smile reassuring. Other images stayed in my mind as well, including three people standing above me, speaking, but I couldn’t understand them. The shadows closed in over me.

I awoke the next morning in my bed, no scratches or bruises. Completely normal. Except I wasn’t sure how I’d gotten there.

“You stayed out late last night,” my mother said, her voice inviting me to tell more. Normally I would have, but I was unnerved from the experience. Had Michael found me?

“I lost track of time,” I said evasively. Mom frowned.

“Eva, what were you doing?” This time it was sterner.

“Mom, I’ll tell you later, but I have to find some answers,” I said, leaving the house.

“Answers?” my mom called out as I left.

I found him leaving his house to go to the woods. Such a fine figure he made. He smiled when he saw me. But it was a guilty smile. My throat went dry. “Hi…Evaling. I didn’t see you yesterday. I know I said we could go on a walk, but it will have to be after. I have to work right now.”

I kept walking, as if I hadn’t come to see him. As if I didn’t hear every heartbreaking word. Not that the words told me anything. But the way he said them, I knew. Lily had gotten to him.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw him frown, then shrug. I resisted the urge to run crying to my house. Besides, I needed to find my answers.

I made it to the woodcutter’s camp before the men did. The first ones were coming up the path. Ethan was one of them, looking fine. Not wanting to answer their questions, I plunged ahead into the woods. Again, I felt the aura of sadness. It was like the trees themselves were sad.

Somehow, I knew where I was now, unlike last night. After a little while, I even found the apple I’d bitten. Two bites in it, still. It was going rotten, brown on the inside.

Who had taken me home? I thought it might be Michael, but he said he hadn’t seen me. My parents didn’t seem too worried this morning, so I must have been taken home soon after falling. But my mother would have wondered why I didn’t eat dinner.

Maybe it had all been a dream. I didn’t have the scratches to prove anything. But the apple was there, its two bites looking at me like eyes. I felt a movement in the corner of my eyes, in the shadows.

I spun around. No one was around me. I was pretty sure I could make it back this time, but it had been awfully foolish to come back. “Who took me home last night?” I cried out in frustration. A few birds flew out of their nests upon hearing me.

“Hello Evaling,” Michael’s voice startled me from behind.

How had he gotten here? And he was coming from deeper in the woods. “Michael?”

His smile was charming and confident. I wanted to run into his arms. He looked like he would hug me, protect me, and never go to Lily. “We should go back, Eva.”

He stepped closer, still with that smile. It was different from two days ago. Not shy. He had never called me Eva, either. Only my mom did. I looked into his eyes. His green eyes. “You’re not Michael!” I yelled, not understanding what was going on, but knowing it was true.

He, whoever he was, put his head in his hand and shook it, still smiling, but this time, more of a smile that a father has when one of his children figure out the lies he was telling them to protect them.

“Very observant. I might have benefitted in choosing one you did not love and know so well. Ethan’s image could have served, but I felt you would trust Michael more.” Now his voice was different. More light, in a singsong manner, picking up on the subtle harmonies of the woods. It made Michael’s real voice seem mundane.

The false Michael stepped into the shadow of a tree and disappeared. I kept looking at the spot where I knew he was supposed to be, but I couldn’t see anything. What was going on here? A few feet away from where he disappeared, the false Michael came out, almost gliding. Except he didn’t look like Michael anymore. Instead, a man with long curly bronze hair and slightly golden skin took his place. His body was perfectly proportioned, and although he looked strong, he moved with a grace that resembled water flowing more than people walking. Michael looked clunky in comparison. A fairly simple dark violet robe covered him.

He flowed towards me. Every time he went through shadow, he disappeared. Or rather, the shadows seemed to hug him. I had the feeling he could control it, and was trying to show me something.

“What are you?” I asked, afraid, but not as much as I should have been. This being, humanlike but not human, exuded trust.

“My name is Lancithar. I am not a human, as you see. Many would call me an angel. Or more appropriately, a night angel.”

Why night angel? My mind worked furiously. I should have been in shock, but my mind worked harder in his aura. “You’re invisible in the darkness. At night. You come to the village and heal everyone. The night soothing.”

“Yes, my kind has chosen to serve yours, healing in the night so that none die, except in old age. It was not always so, but now your kin expect it like the rising of the sun.”

He was right. I never questioned the night soothings. I guess I thought the night itself held mystical properties. To know these night angels came into our houses and healed us was a startling revelation.

“Why do you tell me this? Why me?”

“What would you call the night soothings?”

Before, they were natural. Now that I knew he was the cause of them, they were “Magic.”

“There has been some debate among my kind if our service is truly benefitting you, or if we are making you dependent on us.”

“You would stop them?” The idea seemed horrible.

“Not without replacing them with something else. We would give you magic to heal yourselves, whether night or day. We would open your eyes to the greater world around you, so you could see how the trees suffer when you cut them down, how you can work together with nature and each other to build up great civilizations.”

“What do you want from me, then?” I asked, still wondering why he hadn’t appeared to the village.

“With your permission, I would like to give you this magic, to see how a human would react to it. Then we would decide whether to give the gift to others and let humans take control of their fate or not.”

“So I don’t have to decide whether the soothings will stop? This is just a test?” I did not want the responsibility on my shoulders. Surely the people of the village would want to keep the night soothings. But this night angel spoke of such interesting things that we were ignorant of. Did they have to be mutually exclusive?

“If you have the power to heal yourselves, you would no longer need the night soothings, nor need to wait until night to heal yourselves.” He seemed to be able to read my mind, or at least my expression. The wind blew some leaves past his path.

“And what else would I be able to do with this power?”

“Once you understand magic and how it works, you will have power to do as you wish. Heal, travel, gain knowledge, or make yourself more attractive. It would be in your hands.”

Oh, this man knew how to tempt me. I could just imagine how jealous Lily would be of me with magic. “I’m not sure. Maybe I should think this over.”

“If you wish. Although, I may find others who want to learn what I have to offer them.”

What if Lily took the offer? “I will learn magic.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes,” I said, closing my eyes.

“Just so you know, you will no longer be human. You will be something more, the first of a new race. You will be known as Evaling, the girl who brought magic back from the forest. Mother of magic.”

It sounded so scary and exciting at the same time. What did he mean, I would no longer be human? I wouldn’t be ugly, would I? But this Lancithar said I could make myself more attractive. Would I be like him?

“Do it, please.” I clenched my fists and tensed. Lancithar smiled, pleasant but with a tinge of sadness.

Flowing closer, he put his hands on my head. I felt a tingle through my body. He lifted his hands and looked me over. I looked at my hands, expecting something to happen. Nothing did. I looked expectantly at Lancithar.

“All I can give you is the capacity for magic. You must learn for yourself. Absorb nature as you journey home. Tonight there will still be a night soothing. I expect you will be enlightened. In a few days’ time, meet me here.” He pointed to the apple on the ground I had bitten yesterday. “This apple will stay here to mark the spot.”

I had so many questions. Feeling the same, it didn’t seem like he had done anything to me. Was this all a lie? How could I use magic? I wanted to learn now!

“Please stay…” my voice trailed off as he disappeared. I looked between the shadows, but he didn’t reappear. I even waved my hands under the shadows of the trees, but to no avail. He was gone.

I found myself walking back out of the forest. It was more mysterious than it had ever been. I kept looking around, to see if I could find Lancithar or some other night angel. Were they watching me? Would I be able to see them if I learned magic? How was I supposed to even begin?

Checking the back of my head for bruises to make sure I didn’t have a concussion and hadn’t dreamt it all, I crunched through the leaves on the forest floor. I obviously didn’t travel like the night angels, silently, because once I got to the edge of the forest, I heard someone call out, “Eval, is that you?”

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Of all the Zelda games, this felt most like the original experience I had when playing Ocarina of Time. At first I was kind of wary of the ridiculous enemy, Zant, who looked like a dead fish, and turned out to be like Voldo from Soul Caliber, but once I found out that Ganondorf would be the main villain, I was ready to take this seriously. And it was a more mature Zelda game than its predecessors. I enjoyed being a wolf, for the most part, although by the end of the game, it felt like just one more item. The new items were interesting, (with the extra clawshot I felt like SpiderLink!), the world was large, and it brought back good memories. The last battle with Ganondorf was, while easy, dramatic. I really enjoyed this game.

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Spirit Tracks

Link’s more modern than ever, with his own train. This felt like it belonged on the handheld, and it didn’t have the time limit dungeon that Phantom Hourglass had. Controlling Zelda as a spirit made things interesting. But it did feel a lot like Phantom Hourglass, with some minor improvements. They kind of blend together in my mind, really. Anyway, it was a fun game.

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Skyward Sword

This one was really fun, but it was also harder than other Zelda games. And longer. The motion controls made this a unique experience, but they were part of the difficulty. Slicing the sword in just the right way could be frustrating, and trying to thrust was tortuous. I did like the idea of the stamina bar, having Link sprint. The art style was nice, but it didn’t feel as serious as Twilight Princess. Going around, flying on my bird, trying to rescue Zelda, it was an immersive story. Going to the same three environments over and over got a little dull, especially in the desert. And were the only people inhabiting the world those who lived in the floating islands? It felt kind of sparse in that respect. But finding out new places in each area was fun. They did a lot with just a little.

Extra: Smash Bros

Just to let you know, Link has always been my man on Smash Bros. And I will slay you with him.

I know there are more Zelda games, but I haven’t played them. I’m sure the minds at Nintendo will keep pumping them out, making the Zelda universe more convoluted and full of addicting puzzles. I will probably be there. In the immortal words of Link:

“Chaaa!”

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