Review: Rebel of the Sands by Alwyn Hamilton

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Title: Rebel of the Sands

Author: Alwyn Hamilton

Pages: 358

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

Okay, I’m going to hold my hands up here and confess that I bought this book because of the cover. I’m so ashamed! But, to be fair, it is a stunningly beautiful cover with gold foil and the kind of blues that you want to spend the rest of your life looking at. Even if I hadn’t read Rebel of the Sands, I would have just kept it on my shelf for its cover alone.

Right, enough about the cover! Mind you, I do have one large piece of beef about the cover: it’s got one of those irritating and unremovable circles with ‘Like Katniss? Love Rey? Meet Amani’ written on it. Ga! I hate these things! Could you announce any louder that you’re being a me-tooing, bandwagoning, other-people’s-work-leeching publisher? It’s nothing to do with the author, but it’s lazy marketing on the part of the publisher. And the fact that I can’t remove this really burns. It doesn’t even need it! The marketplace is flooded with strong, butt-kicking heroines. The blurb on the back of the book is enough to tell me Rebel of the Sands features another one. I don’t need to be patronised by the obvious!

But, in reality, that little unremovable circle sums up a problem that I have with Rebel of the Sands. The desert setting and Middle-Eastern flavour were a big selling point to me for this one. It’s not unheard of, but it’s pretty rare in this genre, and I was hoping to find myself breathing in one heck of a lungful of fresh air. But actually, apart from the setting, there is quite a healthy helping of deja vu here.

Strong heroine with a few broken bits meets handsome stranger who rescues her from a dire future and takes her to a place where she discovers she has magical powers and a mythical parent and might be the key to ridding the world of evil. Oh, and by the way, the handsome stranger turns out to be a prince. Shucks.

I’ve heard it before. In fact, I’ve heard it a thousand times before, in every other female-oriented YA book.

However, there are some redeeming features to Rebel of the Sands, and these are the reasons I gave it so many as four stars despite my rant. Firstly, the writing is excellent. It pulls you in right from the first chapter, and it was really the opening few chapters that kept me churning through to the end despite my growing disappointment in an over-hashed plot line. Amani has an engaging point of view, and it’s this point of view that brings me to another feature I liked: gender discrimination. No, I don’t mean I’m in favour of gender discrimination, I mean that Hamilton really explores a world where women are treated with great inferiority compared to men. It’s the kind of exploration that gets my hackles up and has me hissing and spitting in my head. It’s a long way from Western countries, but it’s important that we stay aware of inequality around the world and that especially young readers have a taste of how it is for others. When you are looking through the eyes of woman in an unequal world, it makes you want to appreciate what you have more and fight harder for those who don’t have it and keep fighting until genuine equality is achieved. Forget the story, this is actually one of the key takeaways of this book for me, and sometimes there are more important things in a book than the superficial plot.

I will be reading the other books in this series because I think (at least, I hope) there will be more important things to come. And who knows, maybe the story will acquire some novelty, and I’ll be even happier. You can’t know what a pie tastes like until you’ve eaten it, after all.

Review: PathFinder by Angie Sage

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Title: PathFinder

Author: Angie Sage

Pages: 460

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

My Angie Sage books occupy quite a bit of real estate on my bookshelves. I have ten in total, but they’re all hardbacks and really quite chunky books. And it is so worth having the hardback editions of both the Septimus Heap series and Sage’s newer TodHunter Moon series. Bloomsbury doesn’t publish the hardbacks in the UK (they did for the first few Septimus Heap books, but they then switched to the cheaper paperback option with, frankly, ghastly covers), so I get imported versions from the US published by Katherine Tegen Books. Thank you, America, for waving the flag for good-looking books! The hardbacks are aesthetically so satisfying to hold and read, and the aesthetic really does add to the experience of reading these books. The cover designs are made to look like old leather-bound, metal-cornered tomes that you need to brush the dust off, and the paper has a lovely tactile quality with frayed edges. It really suits the high-fantasy setting for these series and sets off the carefree, childhood-innocence indulgence of reading an Angie Sage book.

It’s been a while since I read the Septimus Heap books, and I was so well rewarded for jumping back into Angie Sage’s fantastical, magical world with PathFinder. One of the best aspects is actually just meeting all these wonderful characters again, now slightly older. Marcia with her infamous purple python shoes, Jenna the down-to-earth queen and, of course, Septimus, now the Extraordinary Wizard. And now we get a bunch of new characters to boot, and they don’t disappoint. Angie Sage has a wonderful talent for characterisation, to the extent that you know exactly who an old character is in PathFinder before their name is even mentioned. And I was squeaking with joy when the form-shifting cat Ullr made his appearance again. A ginger cat that turns into a panther at night? Yes, please!

The story of PathFinder certainly doesn’t suffer from Second Album Syndrome. It stands right alongside any of the Septimus Heap books for its originality, engagement and quirkiness. Despite the old characters, the plot is completely new, with yet another fascinating bit of Magick going on. Tod is an interesting and complex character with a engaging point of view to witness the story through. Even though she doesn’t have the Magickal skills of Septimus or Marcia, she’s loyal and courageous and an all-round marvellous new heroine. There’s a real sense of mystery in her past and, in fact, in the whole book. It really feels like this story is heading somewhere I don’t want to miss out on.

Of course, I’m not going to mention an Angie Sage book without also mentioning the incredibly talented Mark Zug, who peppers Sage’s books with delicious pencil drawings. These are not the kind of sketches you quickly skip over, even if you did just end a chapter on a cliffhanger. These are the kind of pencil drawings you ooh and aah over, and scrutinise for every detail. I wish more books had this kind of fine drawing in them; they just make the whole experience far richer, as if it has another dimension. It all adds to the visual sophistication of the book, which in turn enhances the natural sophistication of the story and its characters.

It is always a genuine treat to read an Angie Sage book, and PathFinder really delivers as the first book in the TodHunter Moon series. It’s what I would call a hot-chocolate read, the kind with whipped cream, marshmallows and a chocolate flake stuck in for good measure. I get from PathFinder, and all of Angie Sage’s books, the same sensation I get when someone places in front of me a hot chocolate with all the trimmings. Only, the books last a lot longer!

Five Books That Changed My Life

No, don’t worry. There’s nothing particularly worthy on this list. This post is not designed to shame you, but rather to give you a bit of insight into the books that had a great impact on me, perhaps great enough that they shaped the course of my life in some way.

1. Hairy Maclary by Lynley Dodd

See, I told you it wasn’t worthy! Whenever I think back to the books of my early childhood, Hairy Maclary and his band of wonderfully rhymingly named friends really stick out to me. I’ve always been a fan of dogs and all animals with two or four legs, but there is something I particularly like about books written from the point of view of animals. Humans are complicated creatures that I still haven’t worked out yet, but authors who write about animals have a gift for observing the world in its simplest terms. They can just cut to the core of existence and get rid of all the baggage we humans like to carry. If something we do is weird or destructive, they’ll say so.

I don’t want to get too philosophical here, after all these are just fun picture books, but it is safe to say that I have some very fond memories of my mum reading me these books. I particularly remember her impression of Scarface Claw, the toughest tom in town. We would make loud hissing and spitting sounds together that entertained me endlessly. And I think that’s the point really. If you introduce your child to the delight and wonder of reading at an early age, it will stick with them for ever. And what a wonderful gift that is to give someone. Thanks, Mum!

2. Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

When I was about 9 or 10 years old, I started to go off reading. At my school, we had shelves of books in each classroom that we were dutifully supposed to borrow from, but I guess nothing there really inspired me. I remember struggling through my SATs tests because one of the tests was to write a coherent story, but my creativity levels were at an all-time low. My teacher probably didn’t help, because she was extremely disparaging about the books I did try to read, about animal rescues and the like. She wanted me to read much more worthy titles, and anyone who has been forced to read literary “classics” as part of the school curriculum may know just how much that discourages you from reading at all.

So, my dislike of reading continued until one day my mum brought me home an adult high-fantasy book called Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb. I completely devoured it and read straight through the next two books in the series, too. I’d never got attached to a character in a book as much as I was attached to Fitz, so this book not only rekindled my interest in reading, it also introduced me to the idea that characters were there to actually become emotionally involved with. It was like my empathy for fictitious characters suddenly kicked in, and I was away, completely sold on the idea of reading again. To this day, being emotionally involved with the POV character is absolutely essential to my enjoyment of a book. And, crucially, this was the book that inspired me to actually write my own story, my first full-length story when I was about 13 or 14. So, once again, thanks, Mum!

3. Song of the Lioness by Tamora Pierce

Not long after Robin Hobb came Tamora Pierce. I have very distinct memories of reading her books with my best friend at school when we were about 13 or 14. She and I were very similar in that we both wanted to be adventurers. We both loved Lara Croft and films like The Fifth Element that have very strong female leads. This was very early in the 21st century, so us girls were still very much subject to gender stereotypes. At the school I went to, girls were expected to do English Lit, Art and Theatre Studies at A-level. There is absolutely nothing wrong with these subjects, but there is absolutely something wrong with the expectation that girls should just study the arts and leave the sciences to the boys. We were also under the reign of the “popular” girls, who were all very girly girls and thought of little else other than how they looked and which boy they were going out with.

So, when my friend and I found Tamora Pierce, it was like the sky had split open and the world was turned upside down. Here was a girl, Alanna of Trebond, who dared to have the ambitions of a boy, to dress up as a boy, to do as well as a boy and to go on daring adventures. It was utterly inspiring, and more importantly, it was aspiring. Tamora showed us girls trapped in a world of stereotypes that we didn’t have to stay trapped if we didn’t want to. I say this list isn’t worthy, but what more important lesson could a girl learn these days? You are equal, you are valuable, you matter, you can choose to do whatever you want, and you don’t have to accept the limits that other people place upon you. Song of the Lioness is a defining piece of literature in my life.

4. Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

Yes, yes, I know. It’s a bit of an obvious and unoriginal choice, but this might not be for the obvious and unoriginal reasons you are expecting. Harry Potter is not only important to me, it is important to everyone. It has become deeply embedded in our culture, and if you haven’t read the books, or at least watched the films, I really don’t know how you survive the average conversation without becoming totally confused.

However, for me, there’s another layer of significance here that deeply impacted my life. Harry Potter introduced me to fandoms and the idea of being a fan of something, really, being more than just a casual fan. The definition of a geek is “a knowledgeable and obsessive enthusiast” of something, and all of a sudden, it became acceptable to be a geek. The rise of the fandoms in the age of the internet and subsequent social media is a direct cause for the rise of the modern geek, something that is now considered cool to call oneself. This is a liberating turn in our culture. We’ve all been able to come out of our geek closets and admit that we actually really like something, and we like to collect objects and information that pertain to that something. No more do we have to hide our collections in the garden shed or temper our public displays of affection and enthusiasm. Harry Potter was the start of a chain of events that mean it is now cool to engage with and know a lot about something. Harry Potter is the reason I have a snorlax plush on my desk. Harry Potter is the reason I meet with my friends in restaurants to discuss the latest computer games. Harry Potter is the reason I go to Comic Con and cosplay as my favourite fictional characters. Harry Potter is the reason I display every other fun, unworthy book I own in my house with pride. Harry Potter is the reason I don’t have to feel ashamed to be me and love the things that I love any more. That is why these books are so important to me.

5. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Okay, so here is my one slightly worthy contribution to this list, but I’m not going to go into the traditional lit crit essay you can find in any study guide. There is a very specific reason why Jane Austen is on my list, and it has nothing to do with Mr Darcy. Pride and Prejudice is on my list because it’s the first JA book that I actually read, rather than just watching the TV and film adaptations, and it taught me a very important lesson in my writing. It taught me to upgrade my vocabulary. Whenever I feel myself getting a bit beige with my language or a bit inarticulate, I read a bit of Jane Austen, because every time I do, my language and powers of articulation suddenly increase tenfold.

I think it’s very easy to slip into bland words and common expressions because these days the most common use of language is to convey information in the shortest and most transparent way possible. Text messages, for instance, emails, news bulletins, tweets. Nobody has time any more to really take time to explore and use the more obscure words and phrases in our language. The English language has around 170,000 words in it, but the average adult English speaker has a vocabulary of about 20,000, and much of this is passive vocabulary that they understand but don’t actually use.

I’m not trying to tell you all that you’re not trying hard enough or that you are stupid or lazy, or for that matter that I am wonderfully articulate and learned. What I’m saying is that by reading the language used by Jane Austen, I’ve become more confident to increase the complexity of my own language, because people can still understand me. That’s what I’m saying: that readers are more intelligent than they are often given credit for in fiction.

What I like about Jane Austen is that it stretches my linguistic muscles. The words and sentences and expressions themselves are part of the enjoyment of the book, not just the clever plots and dashing heroes. She pushes and challenges me to think more about my language, be more conscious about the things I write and the way I express myself. She has taught me to love my language and find words interesting and write them down so that I can use them somewhere in conversation or in writing. And for that reason, Pride and Pred had to be on my list.

Review: Sand by Hugh Howey

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Title: Sand

Author: Hugh Howey

Pages: 384

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

I very rarely read a trilogy straight through, one book after another, but I made a very happy exception to my tendency for Hugh Howey’s Wool trilogy. I happened across this author by chance while perusing recommendations on Amazon, and it is a very happy union. I went straight through from Wool to Dust without blinking. So I thought I’d give some of Howey’s other books a go and picked up Sand.

It was wonderful to submerge myself in Howey’s deliciously evocative writing style again. He has a way of embroidering each scene that really places the reader right there in the moment, sensing the environment of his characters. His descriptions and metaphors are sublimely succinct and trigger the exact sensation or emotion that you should be feeling at any moment. You don’t have to force your mind or squeeze your imagination in any way; it all just floats freely into your consciousness. In his style, Hugh Howey approaches writing genius. Add onto this the fact that his genre of choice is post-apocalyptic, and I’m a very happy literate bunny.

In Sand you’ll find another intriguing post-apocalyptic world set on top of hundreds of metres of – you guessed it – sand that has settled over Denver, Colorado. With Howey’s evocative way with words, you really do start to feel the sand in your boots, and perhaps more alarmingly, the inevitable claustrophobia of diving hundred of metres below the surface with the main characters. If you have unresolved fears about being buried alive, you might want to rain check this one. You spend of an uncomfortable amount of time busting for air, so it might not be suitable for slow readers either!

Perhaps one of the best features of Sand is the dynamic between the four siblings, three of whom provide the majority of the narrative. Howey has really captured that dichotomy between love and frustration that ultimately manifests as family loyalty. Their collective tenacity is at the heart of this story, and this is ultimately a story about family, even though it’s embedded in an engaging, brain-teasing plot.

Or, at least, it’s engaging right until the end. After following the siblings around the desert, uncovering mysteries, dastardly plots and cryptic clues as to the origins of the apocalypse, you get nothing. No answers and no ending. There’s a reasonable pace throughout the book, but it really starts to ramp up in the last few chapters, and you start to feel like you’re about to be hit with an awesome climax. But it’s like the author suddenly hit the word-count limit, and he had to draw a hasty conclusion. The eldest sibling goes off on a potentially thrilling mission, but you don’t go with her. You’re left sitting in the middle of the desert staring poignantly at the sky and witnessing the side effects of her mission from miles away. I said conclusion before, but that’s really not what it is at all. It’s a rush of speculation, the bear minimum required to write the final sentence, and it leaves you utterly unfulfilled. You’ve invested all this time and thought and emotion in the story and characters for not very much at all. It’s the literary equivalent of fasting all week and then not getting to eat that pizza and ice-cream sundae at the end of it. What happens to the missing characters? What happens to the bad guys? Who even were the bad guys? What happens to the residents of the desert towns? What happens to the world? How did the world come to be like this? I know it’s good for the imagination and the soul not to have every question raised throughout a story answered, but the amount of answers you get in Sand is utterly mean. Is the point of the exercise for the reader to entirely speculate and invent not only the answers but the whole rest of the ending that was completely missing? I’m not sure I’m down with that. The point of reading someone else’s work is to explore their ideas and perceive a world through someone else’s mental filter. I can listen to my own ideas and perceptions any time I like!

So, yes, Sand has a great deal of potential, and it gives some interesting insights into the human condition. But it’s ultimately disappointing. Howey’s writing is evocative and engaging, and he is without question one of my favourite writers. It’s worth reading for the setting and the sensations alone, but be prepared to turn over the last page and wonder where the hell the rest of the words are.

Review: New York Collapse by Warren Merchant

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Title: New York Collapse: A Survival Guide to Urban Catastrophe

Author: Warren Merchant (Alex Irvine and Ubisoft)

Pages: 175

Goodreads link

My rating: star1

*NERD ALERT*

I’ve been playing The Division over the holidays, as it’s my favourite Christmas-themed game (although I’m not sure there are many other Christmas-themed games out there …). Post-apocalypse + Christmas decorations. Yes please!

Anyway, I finished all the main missions but suffered a bit of Division withdrawal when I came off it. I don’t have a Playstation Plus account, so endless plundering in the Dark Zone is a no-go for me. So I did a quick search and found a tie-in book called New York Collapse: A Survival Guide to Urban Catastrophe by the pseudonymous Warren Merchant.

Now, I’m always a bit sceptical about tie-in media: films of books (we all know they rarely work), films of games (which work even less!), games of films, companion guides, books of games, etc. There’s always a bit of a sense of me-tooing and cashing in on fans. If a book carries the name of a game, it can get sales based on that and not necessarily on the quality of the book.

So with a bit of trepidation, but reassured by the abundance of good reviews, I bought New York Collapse. And I’m so glad I did!

It’s actually supposed to be the survival guide that crops up in the game. A character appears in echoes (playbacks from surveillance equipment) called April Kelleher, and you can see in the game some of the moments that she writes about in this book. The survival guide itself is a guide to surviving a TEOTWAWKI event (The End Of The World As We Know It). In the margins are the scrawlings of April Kelleher as she survives through the apocalypse in Manhatten, in parallel with the events of the game itself. Rather suspiciously, the advice centres almost entirely around an outbreak of weaponised smallpox in Manhatten. Handy, considering that’s exactly what has happened in The Division game. But that’s all part of the mystery that April is trying to work out while trying to survive in an extremely hostile environment, with the constant threat of infection, federal aid collapsing and gangs whittling down what remains of the civilian population. The survival guide is also full of puzzles that April (and you) needs to work out in order to locate the author, Warren Merchant, who is clearly trying to get her to meet him for whatever mysterious reason. He clearly knows more about what’s going on.

The book is really well produced to look like it’s been through the apocalypse and back. The cover is all torn up and there’s blood and muck all over the pages. Rather than just using a handwriting font, they’ve actually got someone to hand write the margin scrawlings so it looks authentic. On top of that, there are bits and pieces waiting to fall out, which are highly realistic apocalypse souvenirs and clues that April picks up. It honestly feels like this is April’s actual copy.

Although I have played the game, I think you could get a great amount of entertainment out of The New York Collapse even if you haven’t played or even heard of The Division. At it’s core, it’s a highly realistic, engaging and original post-apocalypse story. If you’ve played the game, this adds a little more context, and you’ll probably have a deeper understanding of some of the references, but I really don’t think it’s necessary. The only frustrating aspect is that you don’t really get an ending. If you haven’t played the game, this will probably feel like the first in a trilogy. It’s got that embellished-beginning storyline, with the ending feeling like that’s the point at which it’s all going to kick off. But alas, this is a standalone. Not being party to the Dark Zone in the game, which is where the end of the book points you, I have no idea what the outcome is of April’s story either. This vexes me because it feels a little bit like it’s pushing you to spend even more money than you already have, and when you don’t have much of a gaming budget, like me, it can leave you feeling frustrated and unfulfilled. I may never know what happens without resorting to Youtube, and where’s the fun in that?

Anyway, that’s why this has got four stars, not five. A book without a resolution and with a bid to drag more money you don’t have out of you can’t get five stars in my book of principles. In terms of production and intelligence and authenticity and the exercise for your own brain, this is a five star book. Whether you’ve played The Division or not, if you like apocalypses, conspiracies and you want to learn a bit about surviving in an urban environment, put this on your reading list.

Now I’m off to prep my go-bag.

Happy Winter Solstice

Happy winter solstice one and all!

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As a nyctophile and a chionophile, this is a good time of year for me. We don’t celebrate Christmas in my household, but because almost all Christmas traditions are descended from pagan mid-winter festivals, you’d never tell! We have a tree with decorations, and fairy lights around the house, and we have a big feast on the solstice. The only thing I don’t allow is cake with fruit in it. Because that’s just wrong.

So why do we celebrate solstice?

Well, for a start we are atheists. Of course, I don’t think it’s wrong to celebrate Christmas if you aren’t a christian, but Christmas has become extremely commercialised in recent years. Really, this is what put me off Christmas. Endless adverts programming you to buy, buy, buy or risk disappointing all the people that matter to you. I will not be dictated to by retailers and fat cats. I retain the right to control my own purse strings. It’s for this reason that I don’t engage in other commercial holidays like Black Friday. My computer and TV get turned off on those days. I will spend my cash on what I want, when I want.

So, by celebrating a commercially unrecognised holiday, I don’t have to deal with this retailer rubbish. I’m taking those sentiments that were once associated with mid-winter festivals, and are now associated with Christmas, and removing the negativity and the pressure and the Chinese container ships full of tat. It’s a much more enjoyable time then. It’s about family, friends, feasting and, of course, celebrating the turning of the year and the cycle of the seasons.

Whatever festivals you celebrate through winter, I hope you have a wonderful time. It is, after all, the most wonderful time of the year.

Review: Horizon Zero Dawn – The Frozen Wilds (DLC)

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Title: Horizon Zero Dawn – The Frozen Wilds

Developer: Guerilla Games

Genre: Action role playing

Playtime: 20 hours

My rating: 10/10

Here’s a nice Solstice-themed review. Solstice in that it’s a blizzard-filled new foray into my favourite gaming world – Horizon Zero Dawn.

Oh, it’s so good to be back in Guerilla Games’ post-apocalyptic Wyoming! If you’ve read my review of Horizon Zero Dawn, you’ll know how much I can rave about this beautiful world, and this snow-lined new addition is certainly no disappointment.

Although only a fraction of the size of HZD‘s main world, The Frozen Wilds is no afternoon jolly. It boasts HZD‘s strong storyline precedent and then dumps a whole load of exciting new content and challenges in your lap for good measure. Thought the thunderjaw was difficult to defeat? Those seem like easy game in the face of new machines the frostclaw and the fireclaw. At least you could shoot components off the thunderjaw and render it practically harmless. Not so the new bear machines! And just when you thought you’d sorted your combat tactics, it all gets thrown out the window with the new kind of corruption in town. Don’t think your fancy shield armour will help you here! It all adds up to satisfyingly challenging gameplay, even if you’ve thoroughly mastered the main world.

There may have been a bit of snow in the main world, but this is the knee-deep kind that drastically slows you down as you try and sprint away from your new adversaries. And when a blizzard hits, you’ll struggle to see your arrow tip in front of your face. It makes for a genuinely harsh and challenging environment. But it also makes for an incredibly beautiful one. Among my favourite moments, are forging through a sparkling, untouched blanket of snow and standing on top of a mountain at night, the sky glittering with stars and awash with the gently undulating aurora as the white world stretches out before me. This is a fantastic area for my trademark tootling around!

The NPCs are up to their usual beguiling standards. There’s a whole new host of characters to care about, and the Banuk culture and mythology is just as fascinating and engaging as any other HZD culture. Also engaging is the well-developed storyline that is no mere footnote to the story of the main world. No spoilers, but the events of TFW very much build on the HZD events, rather than just being an ignorable side note. It’s well worth playing even just for the new tidbits of information about the apocalypse. When I found out what was behind the problems in the Cut, I gasped and cried out the name in epiphanic exultation. It was genuinely marvellous!

I hope there is more HZD DLC to come. To be honest, I will lap up anything to do with this world! And I’m attempting to use the Force to persuade Guerilla Games to make another full-blown game. Who knows if I have any aptitude in the Force, but hey.

Review: Horizon Zero Dawn

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Title: Horizon Zero Dawn

Developer: Guerilla Games

Genre: Action role playing

Playtime: 80 hours

My rating: 10/10

It’s been quite a few months since I finished Horizon Zero Dawn, but the new DLC, The Frozen Wilds, has inspired me to play again and finally write a review (I’ll write a separate one for The Frozen Wilds).

The truth is I’ve been a little bit daunted by the prospect of writing this review because I’m pretty certain I will not be able to do this game justice. I’m not exaggerating here when I say I have finally found it. I have finally found the perfect game for me. HZD embodies everything I want and need in a game for it to be a truly fulfilling experience.

It probably helps that post-apocalypse is my favourite setting for anything (books, games, films, the lot). I like to explore the human condition under adverse parameters, and HZD is a sublime mixture of the mesolithic and near future with a dash of jurassic thrown in for good measure. But it’s the way it all unfolds that is so sublime. You genuinely start off with no idea what is going on, and your awareness builds and builds with each carefully portioned nugget of story you play through. It really is like playing through a really well-written book. I know there are many different types of gamers, but I am both a strategist and a story-lover when it comes to gaming, and I find that often my story-loving side ends up less than fulfilled. I like to be fully submerged in a world with a robust story and a complex mythology, which is exactly what HZD provides. And more than that, it blends possibly the most engaging story I have ever played with some of the best gameplay I have ever played.

That’s really at the crux of why I am giving this game 10/10 and calling it perfect. Every aspect of this game has been done to the highest standard. Beyond the story is the gameplay itself. I’m quite a cautious player, lacking in confidence in life generally, but HZD is all about presenting you with challenges and building your confidence through them. It builds your anticipation with the mention of a thunderjaw, then you get to try and take one out with a helpful NPC, using an array of available combat strategies until you find the one that suits you, then you take one out on your own, and then they throw you in a pit with three of them to see if you sink or swim. That kind of thing anyway. The point is, you start off a bit wary of everything, and by the end you feel like a champion of all things, ready to take on any challenge because you have come to realise that perseverance and the dodge button really do pay off.

The RPG aspects of the game do not fail to live by this same building philosophy. The gameplay is not prescriptive, but you can choose a style that suits you as an individual player. An array of weapons offers you an array of combat tactics that you can experiment with until you find your style. You can build your skills according to your style, and chop and change outfits according to your needs. It’s a game that very much places you, the player, at the heart of the experience, and that’s the best kind of game in my opinion, the most fulfilling and rewarding.

And then there’s the world itself. I’m a huge fan of massive open worlds (as my friend puts it, I like to “tootle around” quite a lot in games, just exploring and adventuring to my own rhythm), and although this isn’t the biggest of worlds I’ve played in, it’s certainly one of the most beautiful and diverse. From snowy mountain sides to rocky deserts to steamy jungles and river glades, this land has it all. The graphics are dynamic and wholly believable and the animation is some of the best I’ve seen, with some of the most expressive faces and realistic movements. I actually found myself getting attached to NPCs, and I never get attached to those people. Normally, I just see NPCs as the facilitators of missions, but not so with HZD. I was genuinely caring about my allies and thrilled at changing their opinions of the red-headed Nora savage who was taking action to change their world for the better.

I think probably one of the best features of this world is the quality of the light. That might sound odd, but it turns a beautiful world into a truly breathtaking world. The same place can take on a range of characters depending on whether you see it by dawn, midday, dusk or night. The intensity of each phase of the day just makes the whole place sparkle. I am frequently to be found (in all my tootlings) just standing still on a cliff overlooking a river valley and watching it all in the changing light. Or taking my time surfing on the top of a tallneck because it affords the best views of the world (and a cheeky safe vantage point for picking off machines on the ground!).

The missions have a balance that few games manage to achieve, and that it the balance between challenge and frustration. It’s tricky enough that it’s never boring, but you also never reach the point where you’re throwing the controller at the screen. They are just pushing you to enable you to explore your own skills and limits. Really I feel like through playing this game, I have become a better player. It has actually upgraded my abilities as a gamer. And I’m not sure there’s many other games I can say that for.

Honestly, I could go on and on and on about how much I love this game. There are no flaws but one, and that is that it is far too short. I finished it in about 80 hours, but I could have just gone on and on for a 1000 hours and not gotten weary of it. I still get a thrill after all this time thinking about following Alloy’s red hair and clinking armour on the road to adventure through a breathtaking world. This is not a one-play wonder for me. I will be restarting this beauty again and again and again, until they make a follow-up.

And please, please, Guerilla Games, make a follow-up.

Hidden Dawn Paperback

Well, I’m dead excited because I am holding in my hands an actual ink-and-paper copy of my book!

*trumpet fanfare*

 

My old ebook distributor, Pronoun, are sadly closing down, so this has prodded me to at last join the ranks of the KDP massive. The ebook version of Hidden Dawn is now available, as it ever was, on Amazon, but I’ve also taken the plunge and used KDP’s beta paperback publishing services. I was a little bit daunted, but Amazon being Amazon, they make it very easy for you, giving you templates for internal layouts and cover design.

Previously, I impressed myself by designing my own front cover for the ebook, but now I’m positively glowing with achievement after also designing up my back cover and spine (with a little help from Photoshop!). With the Amazon template, internal typesetting was very easy in Word. You just copy and paste in your content, with a new section for each prelim/endlim and chapter. Then you just have to fiddle about with font, font size, leading, etc. until you have a viable set of spreads.

The only snag is, at £8.99, it’s quite expensive when compared to other paperbacks on Amazon. It’s about £1 more expensive than paperbacks in bookshops, but with Amazon’s loss-leading discounts, the paperback of Hidden Dawn seems uncomfortably dear. I do apologise, but as it’s print on demand (POD), you don’t get the advantage of bulk discount that traditional publishers get. £5 of that price is the cost of printing, and Amazon add 60% of that price as their pocket money, sparing me the few pennies left over in royalties after they’ve creamed off a further 40%. That price is absolutely the lowest I was allowed to go without paying you to buy it. I’m not grumbling because I’d rather readers had the option of a physical copy, if that’s what they prefer. I just wanted to be transparent and explain why it was so expensive. I’m afraid I have no control over that 😦

Overall, I’m really impressed with the quality of the printing. The paper inside is particularly nice when you compare it to the thin rag you get in a lot of mass-market paperbacks these days. The gluing is robust, just like any other paperback, and the text is pin-sharp. I admit I had a few anxieties over the quality of a POD book, and I fully expected to have to make a number of changes after I got a copy actually in my hands, but I can’t see anything that I would actually change. Colour me impressed.

Well done Amazon!

Review: Assassin’s Creed Origins

assassins-creed-origins-cover

Title: Assassin’s Creed Origins

Developer: Ubisoft

Genre: Action-adventure, stealth

Playtime: 100 hours

My rating: 8/10

*SPOILER WARNING: I won’t spoil major plotlines, but I will be discussing some content and Aya’s role*

Well fellow Creedsmen, this one has been a long time coming, and I’m not just talking about the two-year hiatus since Syndicate. I’m talking about the four-year hiatus since Black Flag. We have been faithfully sitting on our hands, biding our time, waiting for Ubisoft to come back around to the good old days of Assassin’s Creed. And I’m so thrilled to say they have finally done it!

I want to describe Origins as the first truly open-world AC game, in the sense that this is a vast land including urban and rural locations that can all be accessed on virtual foot. I know Black Flag is open world, but locations are only accessible after sailing for vast distances on an ‘open’ sea. Not that I didn’t love the sailing, but there’s only so much interest at sea. And both Unity and Syndicate were entirely based in a single city, and in my book that doesn’t constitute a world. But in Origins, AC has finally begun to reach its potential.

Ancient Egypt is not only a beautiful world, but it is an extremely faithful one. Everything has been painstakingly recreated to be as realistic as it’s possible to get. The great pyramids are almost completely accurate in terms of their internal architecture, Alexandria is the centre of knowledge and culture that it really was and don’t get me started on the languages. Having a degree in linguistics, this is possibly the most thrilling aspect for me. They actually reconstructed Ancient Egyptian for this game. Reconstructing a language is no five-minute job. You have to study its modern-day descendants and work backwards to counteract all the changes that languages go through over hundreds or thousands of years. That is seriously impressive. And not only are the locals expressing the Ancient Egyptian equivalent of “He must be mad!” and “Sunday driver!”, but the Romans are speaking Latin – yes, actual Latin – and the Greeks are speaking Ancient Greek.

And I think that’s where the strengths of ACO lie. They have taken the tried and tested Assassin’s Creed formula, set it in a beautiful open world, but crucially they’ve also upgraded all the attention to detail. Origins feels like a genuinely authentic historical adventure.

I’m not saying it’s completely perfect. As glorious a world as it is, the experience of outrunning a sandstorm in the beautifully realised desert is counteracted by the 2D vegetation. I mean, are we really still in 2D-vegetation land? And the animation isn’t great when you compare it to something like Horizon Zero Dawn. The NPCs still have cone-clothing (you know, togas that stick out like solid cones so you can see their pants when they’re lying on the ground), and their faces lack a broad range of expression. Also, for such a huge and diverse world, the main and side missions are surprisingly short and lacking in diversity. To put it in perspective, it took me about ten days to complete ACO (all main and side missions and interest points), but it took me about three months to complete The Witcher 3 and Fallout 4. I know Assassin’s Creed is all about … well … assassinating, but there’s a real lack of diversity in side activities. They are pretty much all go to a location, stab someone or clear the place out, and collect a reward. It does get a shade tedious after a while, and I found myself sighing, “Oh, another Roman camp” upon approaching a question mark.

I think the most irritating aspect of this game is Aya (Bayek’s wife). I’ve no issue with her character per se. I love a female assassin and played Evie in Syndicate at any point where I had a choice who to play. My issue is that you spend hours and hours upgrading Bayek’s skills and equipment to the point where you think you can handle the big bosses at the end of the main storyline, only to find that you’re not playing Bayek at all. You have to play as Aya, who uses the least effective weapon in the game (IMHO), has no special skills or moves and because you rarely play as her character at any other point in the game, you really have no connection to her. This vexed me greatly. I know other people have raved about how wonderful the ending to ACO is, and I know it’s a great set up for previous and future episodes, but it really made me feel like all my efforts throughout the rest of the game were completely pointless. You literally cannot prepare or give yourself any advantage for the endgame fights. As a serious strategist, this is extremely frustrating.

Okay, gripes over. The improvements to the game almost entirely outweigh the flaws. I’m just going to say one word: Senu. I’ve never been so attached to an animal in a game as I am to this wonderful eagle. She adds a dynamic to AC gameplay that I’ve no idea how I’ve got along previously without. Not only can you see the layout of tricky restricted areas from above, but you can see the whole beautiful world from above. One of the best experiences is setting your mount to follow the road and then playing as Senu, watching yourself gallop across deserts and mountains from above while spying out which resources are heading your way. In fact, I found myself rarely fast travelling anywhere because racing through the world on horse- or camelback is such a rewarding experience in itself. I’d actually be excited to discover that my next mission was 9km away!

The other marvellous addition, or I should loss, for me at least, is the removal of those stupid additional tasks to get 100% sync on missions. I was never dexterous or calm enough to achieve any of those, so I rarely had the satisfaction of properly completing a mission. No more! I can actually feel like I’m achieving things in ACO, with or without flare. I thought I would miss the minimap, but actually it’s fine without it. The only thing I do miss is knowing when I’m about to step into a restricted area. Many a time I found myself charging into a pit of Roman soldiers completely unaware. I’m also grateful that the forays into the future (as Laila) are short and sweet. I personally detest being pulled out of great gameplay to go through these laborious future episodes that could quite frankly be done away with at no great loss, but Laila seems to be quite the assassin herself and has most of the moves.

I know I was a bit derisive about the side missions earlier on, but some of them are really very engaging. I really enjoyed the more era-appropriate missions like the stargazing and tomb raiding, ones where you have to use your brain a bit more to figure things out, rather than just hide-and-stab missions. I do love a good hide-and-stab (and I realise that’s the whole premise for Assassin’s Creed) but I’m just looking for a bit more diversity to keep my interests levels from dropping off. (On a side-mission side note, I will never finish this game 100% because they want me to kill elephants. I’m sorry, I simply can’t. I know it’s very historically relevant, but it just cuts a little near for me with the current state of elephant abuse in the world. They are highly intelligent and empathetic creatures, and I just won’t do it. I can kill all the humans on the planet, but I will not cut an abused elephant to death. Just no.)

So, all in all, Assassin’s Creed Origins is a huge success for the franchise. I will say it: it is the best Assassin’s Creed game yet. There, I said it. That doesn’t mean it is without flaws, but I am entirely optimistic that Ubisoft is heading in the right direction now. They lost their way a bit, but they listened to the players, they took time off to make sure their next offering was what we wanted and they have certainly delivered. From a longtime fan to a responsive developer: thank you, thank you, thank you.