Assassin’s Apprentice

In a conclusion that will be of no surprise to anyone much, I should have read a Robin Hobb book long before now. Still, though, I’ve read Assassin’s Apprentice now; and to make up for how overdue that is, I at least had a reading companion.

To the extent that I went in with expectations, they were these: that these books are bleak and dark and full of horrible events occasionally broken up by fleeting happiness. After one such book, I have to say my expectations were largely fulfilled. It’s funny, Fitz is not a perfectly reliable narrator, but you can tell that he wants to be. His failures are not failures to see himself clearly, or unwillingness to admit to himself or his audience some dark truth or other. It’s just, his life has been so far outside the bounds of normalcy (or even the bounds of viewpoint characters in low magic fantasy realms) that he honestly cannot see just how bad he has it; and contrariwise, he cannot really tell when he is being treated badly instead of normally. It’s an impressive series of blind spots.

Nevertheless, the moments of pure happiness are there, and I had constant empathy for him, and empathy for others inhabiting his world, and interest in that world and what will happen next. It’s not just the 20+ years of bibliography that have built up. Even from this book alone, I can tell that only a very small part of what could be a very large story indeed has been told[1]. The fact that people I trust say the quality doesn’t drop off is purely icing.

[1] Or, okay, this is a trilogy. It might be more fair to say that it’s obvious there’s a lot of trilogy left to tell, with a lot of escalation between here and there. My expectations of even more than that lurking around the edges could be better described as Stockholm Syndrome from one too many doorstop series? Whatever, I like them long to the point of unending.

The Fate of the Furious

A lot of things happened between the first movie in the series and and the eighth. Apparently what used to be a racer’s hijacking crew is now a racer’s international superspy organization? Or something like that. But six intervening movies is room for a lot of things to change, so, fair enough.

The Fate of the Furious pits Vin Diesel against everyone he’s ever known, because of reasons plus Charlize Theron. It is basically identical to the first movie at its core, with family and friendships pitted against outside forces (first time, the law; this last time, crazy world-threatening espionage), but the stakes and stunts have been escalated beyond all thought of realism. Which is cool! I mean, not if you’re looking for realism. Basically, you will either think this movie is incredibly dumb, or full of over the top hilarity.

The movies in between (which I still plan to watch) will be a lot harder to review now, I bet.

The Fast and the Furious (2001)

Fun fact: I saw the last 5 minutes of this movie probably half a dozen times while I was working overnights for a cable company in the early 2000s. No idea how or why I never saw any earlier part of it. Later, it turned into a big movie series, and I still never saw any of them. But apparently my parents have, because today is Mother’s Day, and the eighth entry of said series is what she wants to see. So I decided to catch up, which means watch the first one and fail to see anything else due to time constraints.

The point of my opening anecdote is that it turns out the last 5 minutes of The Fast and the Furious do shockingly little to spoil anything that has gone before. Well enough so that I feel bad doing it my own self, though I suppose I’m the last person in North America to have seen it. Basically, Vin Diesel is the big cheese of the LA street racing scene, and Paul Walker (who as far as I know built his entire career around these flicks) is the ingenue trying to break into said scene. So Vin takes him under his wing eventually, and they race a lot of cars and have chases and things. Also, there’s a subplot about a truck hijacking ring that keeps trying to distract from the chasing and whatnot.

If you like cool stunts and fast cars, or if you’ve ever played Grand Theft Auto games, you should check it out. (Because this movie, and maybe the whole series based on previews I’ve seen, is a series of GTA side missions come to life. (To be clear, this is praise.))

The Walking Dead: The Whisperer War

Here are the problems with The Whisperer War:

1) It is way way way too busy. Zip cuts between scene after scene, with sometimes 12 and 16 panels on a page. Which is not automatically a bad thing, except that
2) I recognize maybe half of the characters in the book, max. This is less an art problem and more a too many characters problem. Even with the TV show as an aid, I don’t know who everyone is. (I mean, to be fair, I rarely know who everyone is on the show either, but I at least come a lot closer.) Which means all those zip cuts between maybe some characters I recognize, some I know well, and some where I’m just shrugging helplessly? It’s bad.
3) I shouldn’t discount the art problem, though I’m restating the same thing in a different way. If you’re going to insist on having so many characters running around, it is important to not have an art style that serves to obscure features. (In this case, no coloring. The series has always been black and white.)

Here are the things about the Whisperer War that are pretty good:

1) A genuine sense of danger persists. That’s good because a book like this needs tension, but also because I can bring myself to believe that maybe something really terrible is on the horizon, and that the overstuffed cast will maybe soon deflate a bit, to the benefit of everyone except the ones who are (newly) dead.
2) Two characters had some solid development! That sounds like not enough, when you are thinking about a book. But when you are thinking about six issues of a long-running comic, which is perhaps the more accurate way to think about this, it’s actually pretty impressive.
3) Plenty of seeds of future foreshadowing, which is a nice change from the series ambling from one calamity to the next. It is also helpful in that I’m coming around to caring about more than one or two characters again.

That said, some of the foreshadowing is either random noise mixed into the signal and therefore not foreshadowing at all, or it dampens / kills the genuine sense of current danger. This was ever the problem with fiction, though, especially long form fiction. What can you do, really? Anyway, long story short, I have pre-ordered volume 28, and I kind of wish it was already here to read.


I was poised to read a Robin Hobb book, but then my schedule got pushed back, so I went for something guaranteed to be quick and easy. And then work was a bear[1], and I realized a new Walking Dead was out, so now I’m actually behind on starting the Hobb instead of ahead. Oh well, that’s what happens when I try to keep to a schedule on much of anything besides work and vacations.

Which brings us to Shockscape, a book that demonstrates Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in action[2]. See, these books can only have either a title that is vaguely related to the plot, or a cover that is vaguely related to the plot. Never both, and virtually never more than a vague relationship. In this case, the title is as far as I can tell a meaningless agglomeration of syllables, while the cover shows a giant mutant bear, who isn’t in the book long, but he is the catalyst for the rest of the action. Which consists of the same kind of action in most Deathlands books: the good guys run into a baron[3], he sets them to some task for which failure means death and/or enslavement, depending on whether you are a person on the task or a hostage, the good guys complete the task (probably by killing someone what needed it), and then return and kill the baron too, because what kind of a dick makes people do things whether they want to or not?

It’s a good thing I don’t mind stories that are formulaic, as long as I know that whatever character or plot or world-building development missing from this book will definitely occur in the next one. Anyway, there was a pretty solid cliffhanger? (I hope they don’t resolve it in the easiest way possible, where they might as well not have had it in the first place.)

[1] Oops
[2] It doesn’t.
[3] A baron, in Deathlands parlance, is the leader of some locality. He always has sec men, and usually is in some sense a bad guy, either by virtue of terrorizing his populace or by virtue of opposing the good guys in a non-evil way that is never justifiable enough to make our heroes look like non-good guys when they inevitably chill him in the end. (Unless he’s a recurring character who gets away but will probably be killed in a sequel. That happens.)

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Thing that is awesome: I saw a Guardians of the Galaxy double feature on Thursday! Thing that is less awesome: it always takes me forever to review premiere style movies. Like, to even have time to start. I am typing this Sunday, and I will post it Sunday, but I didn’t start until Sunday, which as you know is three days after Thursday. I don’t know why this always happens, but it always does. I might as well not even go to premieres, for all the good it does anyone else! …although I still get to see it early, so that’s nice.

In a nutshell: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is the platonic ideal of a comics movie. It requires you to have seen the original, yes, but since the original was full of origin stories that people didn’t already know by heart, that’s not so bad. And then it’s off to the races, with… basically a lot of cool and hilarious stuff that I can say nearly nothing about, because it would all be spoilers. Even the thematic discussion is a no go. Except to say, trust me that yes there’s a heaping helping of theme. And lots of cool old characters, and some cool new characters, and a teaser for the future that I don’t see how they can pull off right, but then again, if you’d asked me five years ago (or five days ago!) if they could pull off what they did in this movie, I would have said no, that’s way too stupid to ever work. So I’ve clearly been proven wrong, and I’m once again excited for the next thing!

I should say, the music is not as good as last time.

Pixels (2015)

On Sunday, after two days of renaissance festival and a truly spectacular amount of mead, we decided to watch a random movie. (It should have been the American Gods pilot, but Mary was already sleeping off a scraped cornea.) The one that got picked, basically by virtue of being the first one seen that there was a quorum on, was Pixels. I mean, yes, the con column had “Adam Sandler movie”, but the pro column had cool video game movie, not the kind based on a specific game, but rather just generic 1980s arcade fever. Arcades are cool!

Anyway, we were wrong. Nothing outweighs “Adam Sandler movie”.

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice

I’ve been reading these Tommy Taylor books long enough to put them on the same level as Mike Carey’s Lucifer, if not quite the pinnacle of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Of course, Mike Carey writes The Unwritten series as well, so I suppose that wouldn’t be an exactly shocking comparison. I guess what I mean is that it’s nice to see him spread his wings and tell a literary story that is all his own and that nevertheless aspires to the heights The Sandman achieved.

I will, of course, have to go back and reread the series at a gulp, after it’s completed. (That’s probably true of Lucifer, for that matter. The television series is not, uh, a suitable replacement, although it is good trashy fun.) And the place I would inevitably start is with Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, an unexpected prequel that not only details the lengths Tom’s father Wilson went to, establishing the symbiosis between his son and the fictional character based on him (or that he is based on? I don’t think there’s a correct one-way distinction to be had), it actually provides the story of the first Tommy Taylor novel. Which, of necessity, is less of a Harry Potter rip-off than the books have seemed when only shown in snippets in the main sequence of The Unwritten series.

Then again, it also hastens to explain that the synergy between character and infant is the cause of the Tommy Taylor series replacing other child wizard academy books as the archetype of the series, so from an in-world perspective, the distinctions were probably a lot less necessary than they were from the perspective of an author and publisher looking to not get sued for plagiarism. Because, as good as the conceit of the series is at letting it get away with the in-world rip-off, I doubt Rowling would much care about a clever conceit.

I think I’ve gone off message at this point? It just fascinates me, what Carey has done here. In any case, The Unwritten is a good series, and you should read it! And this is a good prequel, and you should read it too; but like all good prequels, you should read it later, to avoid spoilers for previous books.

X-Wing: Mercy Kill

This is I think the next to last volume in the Star Wars Extended Universe series of books, by chronology. It is also, to my knowledge, the last book written by its author before he died unexpectedly a couple of years post-publication, certainly during the timespan when the EU was being gracelessly removed from Star Wars canon. There’s probably some kind of metaphor there.

Mercy Kill is about three things. Superficially, it’s about tying up loose political ends from the Fate of the Jedi series. Externally, it’s about a “wouldn’t it be cool if?” moment, the cool thing in this case being to bring back Wraith Squadron, the special ops branch of the New Republic’s navy. Being spec ops, they never used X-Wings as much as the rest of the navy did, but they were developed in the X-Wing series, and so here we are. (Also, it hasn’t been called the New Republic for a long time, but that doesn’t matter to you I’m sure, and being spec ops spy types, it doesn’t much matter to them either.)

Third and I’m sure most importantly, it’s about the horrors of war, the beauties of friendship, and the ways we cope with these things and the loss of them, and the long road of recovery. …okay, that’s a little bit overdone, but it’s not not about those things, and seeing as the series is all but ended, I’m feeling a little maudlin, okay? Oh, and fourth, like all the X-Wing books, it’s more than a little funny in the way that all good caper stories are. I guess I didn’t say, and wouldn’t have said before since I read the rest of the X-Wing / Wraith Squadron books years before there was a site to review them, but these are wisecracking, safecracking special ops people with hearts of gold, not grim dour special ops people who never leave a man behind. So the book is fun, which you would probably intuit from the Star Wars title, but might not from the mention of a special ops force as the stars.

Also, Star Wars isn’t always fun anymore, is it?


The biggest problem with Firewatch is that I don’t really know what the genre is. Walking simulator is a really bland descriptor, indie is not a type of game, it’s a type of studio, and it felt a lot less interactive fictiony than other games I’ve used that tag on before. So, what kind of game was this?

One kind of game it was is “pretty great”. After a series of unfortunate life events, this guy Henry takes a job with the 1980s Wyoming forestry service on firewatch. Which, if not self-explanatory, is when you sit in a tower all summer looking for fires before they become uncontrollable. And over the course of the summer, a story unfolds!

The story is fine, too, but mostly what I loved was the haunting atmosphere. You’re wandering around the woods, no company, virtually no human contact, just the voice on the other end of the radio that is your supervisor between you and utter isolation. Which is I think what Henry was going for, but it gets really hard to take after a while. I am an introvert, in that I want to spend only a small amount of time interacting with people; but I guess I’m a soft introvert in that it comforts me to know that if I needed a person, it would be really easy to find one. I’m pretty sure a summer spent not seeing another person’s face and only hearing another person’s voice at their whim would leave me pretty dang bonkers.

Or maybe it was only haunting to me, because, see above? Either way, there was nothing I didn’t enjoy, even down to the  emotional discomfort. The one bummer was trying to figure out the controls. There was Steam controller support, but not in the sense that the game’s instructions matched them; purely keyboard driven, alas. Having a gated ecosystem is the better way to console in terms of support, but significantly limiting in terms of what games are available. So, definitely worth the trade-off! But still.