DNF: The Maze Runner

Oh dear. Oh deary dear.

I decided to read The Maze Runner by James Dashner because I got hold of the film while it was on sale, and I hate to watch a film adaptation before reading the book. I want to know whether the adaptation does the original material any justice. So I started reading the book. And then I started forcing myself to swallow small portions of it most nights. And then, after what felt like a month of trying, I had got to about three quarters of the way through, and I just couldn’t force myself any more. And I watched the film instead.

Just see the film.

I can’t even begin to express how much I despise DNFing. I so rarely do it I could probably count the times I have done so on one hand. I like to think I’m a fair judge, and give each book a fair trial by reading the whole thing, even if it’s not really my cup of hot chocolate. But there was just something about The Maze Runner that I just couldn’t push through. It felt like it was a lot longer than it actually is, although that was probably because I was dragging the reading out over so many weeks. I don’t think it was the story that was an issue. In fact, it’s really my kind of story, right up my genre alley. I think it was the writing. I just found it very bland and unexciting. It was a book of beige. I struggled to picture the glade and the maze and the characters. I think it just wasn’t very evocative or engaging. I’m sure it’s to a lot of people’s taste, and judging by the sales, it really must be. But it’s just not to my taste. I like to be sucked in by writing, and there was really no suction there for me at all.

On the plus side, I really enjoyed the film. As with most adaptations, there were a number of significant differences between the book and the film, but in essence, it was there. Which goes to show I really did like the story. I guess the strong visuals in the film made up for those patchy images that my own imagination had managed to cobble together, so it just came together better for me as a film.

I’m sorry. I did try. The film was great, and I’ll be watching all the others. But the book was just that bit too long with that bit too uninteresting writing for me to persevere to the end.

In search of the Best Harry Potter Reading Experience

At the end of October, as the nights were drawing in, a chill could be felt in the air, and the leaves began to turn, I found myself feeling the urge to dive once again into the soothing pages of Harry Potter. I don’t know why I associate HP with this time of year. Perhaps it’s the heavy focus in the books on Halloween and Christmas. Perhaps it’s because I find autumn is the most comfortable season of the year for me, and that’s synonymous with Hogwarts. Whatever the reason, I indulged and cracked open the latest illustrated entry into the series, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Perhaps the most Halloweeny of the lot, and I think still my favourite of the seven.

Once again Jim Kay has done a fantastic job of adding colour and texture to J.K. Rowling’s world. And just as the mood of the books has turned darker, so too has Kay’s illustrations. Probably my favourite page is the dementor on the Hogwarts Express – a dark, cloaked, faceless figure looming through the doorway with that gnarly hand, and a candlelit reflection of Professor Lupin staring in terror.

I have to say, on the downside, that there were fewer illustrations than my appetite would have liked. I did some reading around, and it seems that Jim Kay was a bit rushed on this job. In his own post, he expresses how good it is to be able to take his time over the next book, The Goblet of Fire, implying he had been rushed on The Prisoner of Azkaban. There are a number of spreads in a row at numerous points where the illustration is just a background wallpaper print for the text. I know the books are getting longer now, and they have to save money on the printing, but it was a bit disappointing to turn the page and find yet another wallpaper spread.

However, what I did find in this book was a fantastic new reading experience, at least for me, that made the book even more enjoyable this time round. I don’t know why, but partway through, I had the idea to listen to Stephen Fry narrate the book while I followed the text and turned the pages. It’s a complete and unabashed return to childhood, sitting in bed and looking at the illustrations and turning the pages while a grown-up reads the words. It was a total indulgence, and I absolutely loved it.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban with the Audible audiobook.

I don’t care that I’m somewhere above thirty; this was by far the most enjoyable Harry Potter reading experience I’ve had yet (except, of course, for the first time I ever read the books; nothing can beat that). Stephen Fry is just the perfect person to narrate the books, and does a much better job than my rubbish internal voice, and when you add that to the illustrations, the whole experience levels up. I’m not gonna lie; I hate being an adult. It’s ghastly. So being able to return to childhood for just a short while is a wonderful antidote for the unpleasantness of adulthood. If you’re feeling rubbish, you’ve had a bad day, or the weather is being wonderfully grim, I can’t recommend this experience highly enough. Go on. Indulge.

Review: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

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Title: Shadow of the Tomb Raider

Developer: Eidos Montréal

Genre: Action-adventure

My playtime: 20 hours

My rating: 9/10

Well, I’ve just finished serving the big bad boss up some whoop-ass in the latest outing for Lara Croft, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, so I thought I’d hit y’all with my review whilst it’s still fresh in my mind. Just give me a moment to blink away the bleed-through …

I am in reality. We don’t skewer each other with pickaxes. We don’t steal resources from impoverished civilians. And we definitely don’t poke holes in endangered species …

There we go.

I’ve been a fan of Tomb Raider since Tomb Raider II, the first game I was old enough to play (oh, the hours I’ve spent pottering around blocktastic Venice). So this has to be the longest-running franchise that I’ve eagerly anticipated each release date of. Lara has been with me ever since my age had double digits, so it’s fair to say she’s had quite an impact on my life. As a child, I so desperately wanted to be her, but now I’m an adult and the opportunity to raid tombs for a living has passed me by, I’m quite content to live vicariously through Lara as she adapts and flourishes into the fourth decade of my time.

I’m a fan of all three of these latest games, but I have to say, I am particularly impressed with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. It really feels like the maturation of Lara in her current iteration. They had an excellent formula is 2013, but the brew is at its best in the final episode of this trilogy. I think this is mainly due to the proportions and qualities of this world, set in the Peruvian jungle. The hub areas are vastly bigger than they are in the previous two games, and more than that, there are actual side quests. Gasp! Yes, this is a real, living, breathing world populated by actual people. Previously, our Lara has been adventuring through fantastic settings with some truly epic locations (which can definitely be said for this latest game), but they were all lacking that certain something that made them feel lifelike: life. There are NPCs galore in Shadow, beset with the usual problems that NPCs can’t solve for themselves. Poor lambs. And because you spend time in these hubs, hunting out relics and documents or completing side quests and challenges, this game feels a lot bigger than it really is. Unlike vast open worlds in which you spend most of your time trying to find the fastest way to traverse them, you’ve got to poke your nose into every nook and commit suicide several times to reach every cranny to find every bit of hidden treasure (and I’m ace at finding every way possible to commit suicide in Tomb Raider – I particularly liked being blown off a ledge, breaking my leg and then being devoured by wolves). And there is some fantastic background information about the indigenous and colonial cultures in this area. I actually stop and listen to each entry, rather than just collecting for collecting’s sake, because it’s so fascinating. The challenge tombs are also much bigger than in previous episodes, with much more involved puzzling and problem-solving. The puzzling feels far more like a significant feature of the game now, rather than just a natty bit of fun on the side. I do love a good brain challenge, and this is Tomb Raider after all. The key is in the title.

There are some nice RPG touches in this game. Right from the off, you can customise Lara’s outfit and then collect other outfits with certain bonus effects (you can even skin her in old-school Lara – ah, the memories! That bloody butler!). There are a decent number of weapons to buy or earn, and a comprehensive skill tree that allows you to build Lara’s skills in a way that’s useful for your particular play style. My preference is to be stealthy (because I just panic when all the bad guys rush me), and Lara has learned a few new tricks in this regard. She can now apply mud camo and stick to muddy walls, ready with her trusty jury-rigged knife to savage the presumably half-blind guards. The only problem I had here was that Lara was a bit too sticky for me. It took a lot of joystick waggling to get her to peel away and run to the next cover. Not great when you have to time things exactly. But as compensation, you can now put lure traps on dead bodies, attracting the presumably half-brain-dead guards to your latest kill so that a proximity bomb can blast them into oblivion. That’s great fun! Probably my favourite feature for stealth kills.

But there’s not too much RPG stuff to threaten a total change in genre. I think they’ve got the balance about right. These days, gamers expect more from an action-adventure. People like to make choices and be in control regardless of genre. It’s fun and it makes the game dynamic and personal. And at this point, we’re really getting to know this Lara and understand her choices and behaviour, even if she does cock up on an apocalyptic level. I think that’s the other aspect of this game that really makes it stand out from the others. We see Lara at her worst and best. She’s like Percival crossed with an avenging angel who’s still too young to make wise choices, but when she cocks up, she makes damn sure she puts things to rights. This is a Lara that I can really get on with: rash and flawed, but ultimately courageous and righteous. And that is just the kind of dynamic hero/anti-hero that I like in my games.

So I’m really pleased with Shadow of the Tomb Raider. I think the developers should all get cake for this game. They’ve done themselves proud, they’ve done the franchise proud, and they’ve made a lifelong fan very happy.

Review: Heavy Rain

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Title: Heavy Rain

Developer: Quantic Dream

Genre: Interactive drama

My playtime: 10 hours

My rating: 8/10

I have to admit, I was very uncertain going into this game. I’d never played an interactive drama before, and I’m not a fan of games that force you to watch hours and hours of cutscenes that interrupt play. I’ve very recently signed up for PS Plus while the subscription was on offer, as I wanted to at least try it out for a year and see what I was missing (not to mention get into that bloody Dark Zone in The Division at last! That was a total waste of time, as I just died within minutes every time I stepped in there). Every month, PS Plus has free games to download, and Heavy Rain was a free game in July. I’d heard a lot about it, and it’s a predecessor of Detroit: Become Human, which I’d heard even more about, so with a little encouragement from my friends, I went ahead and clogged up my internet connection with it.

And colour my mind changed! I think I’m an interactive drama convert!

It’s only a short game – you could probably complete it in a day if you were dedicated – but it packs one hell of a punch into those few hours. The premise is you are essentially in something akin to a film, taking on the roles of the characters and exploring scenes and guiding interactions with other characters. The ultimate goal is to solve the mystery of the Origami Killer.

I think this is possibly one of the most challenging games I’ve ever played for two reasons:

  1. You have to make certain decisions very quickly, and I am a notorious overthinker who can take days to make up my mind over even the most trivial matters.
  2. I have this amazing ability to totally forget the anatomy of a PS controller under even the slightest whiff of pressure.

So you can imagine how stressful this experience was for me! And herein lies the reason for my conversion: the adrenaline was real, the fear was real. I spent a lot of time poised on the edge of my seat with my controller trembling in my hands as I pushed myself to make snap decisions and hit the right button at the right moment. And that stuff really counts. There are innumerable permutations in Heavy Rain, depending on the choices you make and the buttons you (fail to) hit, so your story won’t unfold exactly like the next person’s story. And this is real insight-into-your-soul stuff. This game confronts your personality with snap decisions about harrowing situations, and you’ll soon learn what kind of person you are if you weren’t sure already. I feel genuinely fretful after playing this game, and those scenes are playing on my mind, almost haunting me. Did I make the right call?

The good thing about this game is that, because it’s relatively short, you can easily go back and play it through on a whim, making different choices or succeeding where before you failed. It also allows you to restart from a certain chapter if you aren’t happy with the outcome of your first attempt. That was a real relief for someone who suffers from button paralysis and Indecisiveness Maximus.

But the thing is, I don’t think I would have enjoyed this game so much if it hadn’t been for the stress and the adrenaline and the edge of my seat. It is a genuinely thrilling experience. And I really appreciated the filmic atmosphere of the whole thing. Perhaps being a pluviophile has something to do with it, but there’s a real sense of looming threat and psychosis throughout. Just exploring scenes is actually a really satisfying experience in a game, and Heavy Rain really plays on that gaming preference (if, like me, you’re an explorer type!). The only thing that irked me was the movement mechanics. I actually found it really hard to just walk in one direction. Unlike most games that use the left joystick, Heavy Rain uses the R2 button for walking, and then you can change direction with the joystick. I really struggled at times to get my character to just stand in the right place to trigger an exploration button, but really, that’s my only gripe.

Heavy Rain is a fantastic mystery thriller to fully immerse yourself in. It’s challenging both physically and mentally, and it has certainly inspired me to play more interactive dramas.

The only question that remains is why does nobody in this rain-washed town own a single piece of Gore-Tex?

Tip for Sticky Labels on Book Covers

If there’s one thing that really makes my blood boil when it comes to books, it’s people who try to damage them. Be it cracking and wrenching a spine beyond recognition, dog-earing pages or writing notes in the margins, I am physically pained and sickened by the sight of book abuse. I can feel my heart beating faster even just writing about this.

But there is something else that really ticks me off and that I definitely class as book abuse: sticky labels on book covers! Gah! Curse the marketing goon who ever thought of it! And is it just me, or are they getting stickier? In the old days, you used to be able to easily peel labels off things without leaving a nasty, sticky residue, but these days, the marketeers have really upped their glue game. I suppose now that people buy their books online, the labels have to be robust enough to survive the journey from printer to warehouse to doormat. It would, after all, be a total disaster if their precious money/personal data-grubbing marketing message was lost in transit!

Well, I’ve found a little wrinkle that might come in handy if your book cover has been savaged by glue. I recently purchased a book that came with one of these hideous decals promoting a wine-tasting holiday, or some such impossible-to-win prize draw, in exchange for personal data. Perfectly irrelevant to me because I don’t like the taste of alcohol! Anyway, after I’d carefully peeled this thing off, there was a huge circle of stubborn stickiness that was not amenable to any amount of rubbing. Then I remembered that nail varnish remover is pretty good at removing most things, not just nail varnish. So I whipped out my bottle, applied some to a cotton wool pad, and hey presto! The gluey slime came off without a fight, with absolutely no damage to the book cover. I also had a go at some kind of dirt residue on the same cover, and that came off like a dream too.

So there you have it: my tip for removing sticky nastiness and muck from book covers! I wouldn’t recommend scouring away at it for ages, as, like I said, nail varnish remover is good at removing most things, so I wouldn’t want to be responsible for advice that leads you to rub off any ink or varnish from your covers. But I just dabbed on a little bit, did a few swipes, and there was no damage at all, just a nice, clean book cover.

Review: Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

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Title: Ready Player One

Author: Ernest Cline

Pages: 374

Goodreads link

My rating: star5

This was one of those times when I wanted to read the book before I saw the film, and since Ernest Cline is a self-confessed uber-geek, I felt like I was in safe hands with this one. Even from the first page, I knew I had found a book nestled very deeply within my comfort zone. Within these pages, I was among friends.

And, boy, do I know feel like a total geek wannabe. I love books, games and films, but I now realise I am several hundred levels away from being able to call myself a true geek. I’m not going to tell you what year I was born, but I don’t remember the eighties. Yet since reading Ready Player One, I feel like I was there, in the infancy of true consumer gaming. The whole book is a neon tapestry of geeky knowledge woven with extra geeky knowledge, with an extra sprinkling of geeky knowledge for good measure. And the best part is that Cline’s encyclopaedia of eighties geek culture is delivered in an unnervingly prophetic dystopian – only one of my favourite genres. I keep going on at people that virtual reality is the future of our society, in a world that is overcrowded and drained of resources. Cline’s bleak near future satisfies my predictions and provides a jolly good story to boot.

There’s plenty of world-building, which I can rarely get enough of, but it’s done in such a thorough way that it’s hard to poke holes in it. This is why geeks should write books. They are very hole-aware because a robust world is the only satisfying one. To be honest, as I was reading Ready Player One, I really struggled to like the POV character, Wade. At times, he gets a bit bogged down in self-pity and has a whiff of the cowardy custard about him, but he does improve, and now that I think about it, he’s just exhibiting the same insecurities that a lot of us loner-geek types can’t shake (I am definitely included in that category). So really, he’s an archetype geek, and I can’t criticise that. Who wants a perfect hero after all? There’s nowhere to go with that.

I have to say, I was totally gripped by this book. It was the kind of book that I made time for during my day. It’s a real escape-and-immerse novel that’s as robust as any decent massive open-world game. It’s a pure, unashamed geek-fest, written for geeks, by a geek. If you’re a geek, you’ll love it. If you’re not (or you’re a wannabe like me), you’ll be really impressed by it. And I think that’s probably my key descriptor for Ready Player One: it’s impressive. I am impressed.

Now, have I said ‘geek’ too many times?

Legal Deposit Libraries

Here’s something you need to consider if you are self-publishing your book in the UK. If you are publishing a paperback version, you will at some point receive a request from the legal deposit libraries for one copy of your book for each of the UK’s designated deposit libraries. There are six of these libraries in total:

  • Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford
  • Cambridge University Library
  • The National Library of Scotland
  • The Library of Trinity College, Dublin
  • The National Library of Wales
  • The British Library.

The deposits for the first five in this list are handled by the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries, which has its office in Edinburgh. The British Library will send their request separately.

Publishers (and if you are self-publishing, that means you) in the UK are legally required to deposit one copy of every paperback they produce to these six libraries, under the Legal Deposit Libraries Act, 2003. And yes, this does also mean POD books, such as those you can make on Amazon KDP. I’m not sure you’d go to jail if you didn’t comply, but it’s probably considered very bad form if you do not. In fact, I had to delay sending copies of my books off to begin with, as they weren’t up to the standard I wanted them to be at for permanent posterity in the six biggest libraries in the UK. During that delay, I got a second email from the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries to tell me I still hadn’t delivered the books to them, so I guess their tactic is just to continuously email you until you comply. And if you’re a good little citizen, like me, you’ll do as you’re told.

Before I got the requests from the LDLs, I was aware of such libraries and such legal requirements, both having been to Cambridge University and having worked in publishing. But I wasn’t aware that this applied to self-published authors. Where on earth, I thought to myself, would they keep all these gazillions of self-published books? Surely, it must just be publishing companies that fall under this requirement. But, no. I assumed incorrectly. And to be honest, I actually found it quite the financial burden to bear. I publish my book through Amazon, so I had to buy six copies of my own books, pay for shipping on Amazon, and then pay for shipping to the LDLs. Fortunately, five of the books go to the same place (the Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries), so this saves a little bit on postage costs, but it’s not an insignificant amount. So please be aware of this as an additional expense if you are self-publishing.

Apparently, this legal requirement does apply to ebooks (and seemingly every other digital publication, such as webpages, which they seem to harvest themselves), so if you only publish your books as ebooks, you’re technically still obliged to deposit a copy. However, I never got a request email for all the time that my ebook was published. It was only when I did a paperback version that the system kicked in. Perhaps it’s just the case that they do not enforce their right to digital content. But if you have your book in print and digital, they want the print version. They won’t accept digital if you have it in print. I guess this is one of those situations where large institutions are twenty years behind the rest of us. It’s a bit crazy, if you ask me, because if you could just deposit electronic copies, they wouldn’t need so much real estate to store physical copies and we penniless writers wouldn’t need to spend so much cash getting the books to them, but there you go. What do I know?

If you want to know more, here are the relevant websites:

The Agency for the Legal Deposit Libraries

The British Library

 

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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Title: Norse Mythology

Author: Neil Gaiman

Pages: 304

Goodreads link

My rating: star5

I’m a huge fan of old stories from bygone civilisations. There’s a lot of information to be gathered about old peoples from artefacts, architecture and old bones, but I think that stories really give an deep insight into the psyche of those who came before. When you read something like Beowulf or The Metamorphoses or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, you’re really investigating the human condition and psychology of the time these works come from. I’m not much of a history buff, but I am a psychology buff and a student of human thought and behaviour, so these stories have great appeal for me.

I’d had Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology on my reading list for quite some time, but somehow couldn’t get around to actually obtaining a copy. But then two fortuitous events collided: my birthday and the release of the new God of War game. I wanted to brush up on my norse mythology before playing the game, and it just so happened that my mum bought me this book for my birthday. So I got straight on it!

Neil Gaiman is, of course, a very accomplished writer, but what really impressed me about this book was the careful research and curation that has gone into it. Gaiman has done all the hard work, poring through the various sources of Norse history and mythology to extract and stitch together a string of tales that are both fascinating and amusing, just as a fireside story should be. If you’ve ever read the Poetic Edda or the Prose Edda, you’ll know it can be a bit treacly to read, perhaps something to do with the translations, but this is a book that caters to the modern reader. It reads easily and flows nicely like a book of collected stories, only the stories all relate to each other. The order of the tales is such that it takes you on a mythological journey from the Norse version of the creation, and the birth of the gods, all the way to Ragnarok, and the death of the gods (I just love that the Norse predicted the downfall of their own gods!). So although it’s a collection of individual stories, they all blend together into an overarching narrative, which makes it a satisfying experience as a book.

Oh, and forget what you think you know about Thor and Odin from the MCU, these guys were proper jerks! In fact, almost all the gods that feature have some serious personality flaws, particularly anger management issues. But I think herein lies the insight into Norse life. The gods were harsh and indiscriminate in their wrath because the Norse people’s environment was harsh and indiscriminate. It was a dangerous place to live and a dangerous time to live in, and death was meted out just as indiscriminately as the gods meted it out. The gods dealt in treachery and war and deceit and greed, all of which were a reality to the people who created them.

I think it’s also interesting to note that the Norse version of hell, Helheim, is a frozen wasteland, which of course, was a very real and dangerous environment for the Norse. Meanwhile, the vision of hell that was created in the Middle East and Mediterranean is a fiery furnace, and of course, extreme heat and drought was a serious concern for those peoples. Each hell represents the extremes of climate, and the dangers and fears associated with them, relative to each group of people. This is purely my own speculation, of course, but I think it’s rather neat all the same, and again, it lends a certain insight into the minds of those we cannot question.

Personal ponderings aside, Norse Mythology is an excellent example of engaging writing nested in considerate curation. It’s got all the characters you’ve heard of, and then plenty more besides. There are lessons to be learnt (although I’d advise against Thor’s philosophy of just bashing everyone’s head in to solve all your problems!) and great insight to be had. I’d be surprised if anyone was disappointed by this book.

Review: God of War

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Title: God of War

Developer: SIE Santa Monica Studio

Genre: Action-adventure

My playtime: 50 hours

My rating: 9/10

I should start this review with a disclaimer: this is, in fact, the first and only God of War game I have played. To be honest, the previous episodes completely passed me by. I must have been too busy playing Assassin’s Creed! But the first thing that drew me to this 2018 game was some beautiful artwork and a huge feature article in my gaming magazine back in Autumn 2017. For me, the world and how it’s rendered is one of the most important features of a game, so I was immediately attracted to these stunning blue- and green-toned visuals. And it turns out that the concept art was telling the truth about what awaits in the game itself.

Although not a true open world (which is my preferred setting for my gaming deckchair), it still excels in its epic scope. Around almost every corner, through every canyon and behind every door is wow moment, the kind where you lift your fingers off the controls and leave only your right thumb rotating its joystick just so you can fully take in the scene. In amongst the stream of expletives uttered as I managed to die on a regular basis, the most common exclamation I made was “Oh, wow!” or “Oh my god, look at that!” Apart from the colour and the lighting, I think the real artistry lies in the height and the depth, especially, of each location. There’s a real sense of impressive scope, even in the relatively small areas of the world. You get to feel really small, which is a feeling that I always crave (living, as I do, in such a cramped and flat environment). Each area or realm creates real feeling and atmosphere. The battering winds, disrepair and unending jagged sea ice of Helheim give you a sense of the cold despair. The ethereal beauty and dusky nature of Alfheim give a sense of the endangered enlightenment.

And, yes, as I hinted above, I did die. A LOT. I’m not an amazing gamer; it can take me a while to get used to the feel of a game, and I’m especially slow at combat controls. I tend to take things far too seriously, and my mind and body go into a panic-freeze funk when the enemies approach. I will eventually develop a cool head in a game after a few hours of play, but God of War is not forgiving for gamers like me, even on the “normal” mode. There’s a really tough boss fight almost immediately, and possibly one of the steepest learning curves I’ve experienced in a game. But I would say the weapons you get to wield are fair compensation for the amount and deftness of wielding you have to do. The Leviathan Axe is definitely one of the coolest and most useful weapons in a game ever. And they really do make you utilise the full range of its awesomeness. This is the kind of game where experimenting really pays off in trying to solve puzzles or collect everything. My main tip for this game would be: look up and chuck that axe at everything!

Don’t get me wrong, this is not just an axe-chucking, beasty-slashing hack fest. There is that layer to the game (I mean, you can’t be a god of war and not decapitate a fiend or two), but it’s so much more complex than that. It’s so much more of a story than that. This game is really about a relationship, one between between a father and a son who aren’t particularly comfortable in each other’s company. Kratos is certainly not the most loving or encouraging of fathers. He spends most of the time calling Atreus “BOY!” in that marvellous Christopher Judge voice, and criticising him and generally being huffy and intolerant. But as the game plays out, there’s an evolution to their relationship that you cannot help but become completely invested in. Yeah, yeah, the game is gritty and violent, but it’s also funny and sweet, and every little interaction between the characters really means something. God of War is a very satisfying experience both as a gamer and as a human.

And, I have to add, as a story lover. I frequently went out paddling on the lake just to hear stories from Norse mythology. At first, it feels like these stories are just a bit of audio filler as you travel around the lake, but actually, they are really important to understand the context of the game. And in fact, nothing you do, see or hear in God of War can be classed as “filler”; all these environmental embellishments are critical to gaining the fullest and most rewarding experience of the game. Side quests, for example, are always optional, but here, they are central to Kratos and Atreus’s complex and developing relationship. You won’t get the intricacies and the nuances if you skip anything, or if you fail to notice the little gestures that pass between characters. Even when using the mystic gateways to fast-travel, you’ll hear stories or snippets of speculation that are crucial to understanding what’s going on. Every bit of content is all part of the story, which makes everything unmissable.

Apart from the total immersion of the story, the real standout feature of this game, for me, was the progression, something that has been well mastered here. Like I said, it’s not a huge world, but everywhere in it, they tease you with collectibles and puzzles that you can’t solve just yet because you don’t have the right equipment. Gah! It’s infuriating and excruciating! But it’s also incredibly motivating. And it adds yet another layer to the story-telling because each piece of equipment is acquired as part of the narrative. It also makes good use of a small world because it means you go back to each area a bunch of times with something new to do or discover (and a chance to spot more of those pesky eyes of Odin!). Everything is done at an appropriate time in the narrative, which makes the progression utterly satisfying and the game far less aimless than an open-world affair, where the player has more control over their own progression. It just all feels seamless without being contrived, because you still have control over where you go in the world (unlike something force-fed, like Unchartered, where you don’t get to revisit any location). And levelling up and upgrading gear is the same: you feel like you’re in control, but everything happens at an appropriate time and rate. It’s an extraordinary balance between the gamer owning their game, and the developer curating the gameplay.

And, you get to upgrade not only Kratos’s gear but also Atreus’s gear, and for me, the small boy with a bow was butt-savingly amazing in combat when my brain did its panic-freeze thing, so he’s well worth upgrading.

There are two areas of God of War that made me decide on 9/10 instead of the perfect score. Firstly, the game was too dang short! The world is pretty small, even if you do go to all the other realms, so I’d say 50–80 hours is the limit. Although I enjoyed the main story, and it’s probably one of the best main storylines I’ve played, there are only a handful of side quests, and I like to get lost in days’ worth of side quests to stall progressing through the main quests. Really, it was so good, I just wanted more! Secondly, the skill tree is entirely combat-focused, and there are quite a lot of skills to earn for each weapon. This may sound great for a gamer with excellent combat skills, but I just found it totally overwhelming. The number of button combinations you have to learn off by heart to use these skills is staggering, and most of the time, I just couldn’t get it to work because I couldn’t master the intricacies of the timings while in the heat of a battle. And anyway, in the end, I managed to play through the whole game with just the basic moveset and maybe a couple of special moves that I did manage to get the hang of, so these abundant skills for each weapon aren’t even necessary. Good news for me, but it does make earning new skills a bit pointless.

In the grand scheme of things, however, these personal niggles of mine didn’t in any way damage my enjoyment of the game. It is epic and seamless and really artfully woven. This is a real standout for me so far this year, and probably so far in my gaming history. It’s one of those above-and-beyond games where the quality of the experience lies in the details that have been so carefully placed. It’s a game, and it’s a real work of art. And you get to be BFFs with the World Serpent. What’s not to love?

Ravenclaw edition of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Look what arrived today! I know, I know, she’s gone and gotten YET ANOTHER Harry Potter book. She’s such a sucker for marketing. Well, in the case of Harry Potter, I’m really not that ashamed. And I was even more of a sucker this time because I went and preordered it directly from Bloomsbury, paying through the nose, so that I could get this awesome exclusive bookmark.

This Chamber of Secrets edition is illustrated by Levi Pinfold, just like the house editions of Philosopher’s Stone, but where Philosopher’s Stone was more Ravenclaw centric in the cover design, this one is more Chamber of Secrets centric, with the entwined snakes, Moaning Myrtle and possibly a Cornish pixie. There’s also some new extra content about Ravenclaw characters in the book and more Ravenclaw factoids. The dust cover has a lovely matt feel to it, and it also has copper embossing, which the Philosopher’s Stone edition doesn’t have. However, the page edges have the same blue and yellow striping.

I’m dead chuffed with the Ravenclaw bookmark, which is actually quite good quality. It’s a pretty standard faux leather, reasonably flexible, bookmark, with the words “Ravenclaw” above “Wit * Learning * Wisdom”. I’m slightly vexed that the illustration on it is the cover design of the Chamber of Secrets book. I think it would have been better with the Ravenclaw crest, so it wasn’t book specific. But I’m not going to cry about it. I’m kind of hoping they’ll start selling the house bookmarks separately, as I’d like to catch them all, even though I’m mostly a Ravenclaw. I like to be able to pick and choose based on my current mood!

Now I’m just debating whether to put this in my usable bookmarks stash or in my don’t-use-it-or-you-might-spoil-it bookmark collection. I’m leaning towards actually using it.