Tag Archives: historical fiction

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

51g6GKymFKLAt long last, I’ve played another Assassin’s Creed game. I must be at least four behind now? And at some point they get terrible, though I do not know what point that is. Anyway, Revelations (the last of the Ezio Auditore trilogy) was still a good game, so that’s nice.

Well. I mean, it was a good game. That part is true. All kinds of new toys to play with, the same climbing and running and jumping and assassinating fun from the previous two games, plus a satisfactory ending to Ezio’s story and both a nod to how terrible AC1 was plus a satisfactory ending to Altaïr’s story to make up for it. Gameplay, 16th century storyline and 12th century storyline, all of these were firing on all cylinders. Best Assassin’s Creed game yet.

Except… so, the ending of Brotherhood pretty much blew me away. It was a huge out of nowhere plot twist for Desmond’s story (he’s the guy in modern times that is reliving the genetic memories of his ancestors) that was simultaneously a huge cliffhanger. And for that part of the story… I mean, just nothing. Everyone seemed to treat it as no big deal and not worth mentioning, and I’m left clawing for answers that I suppose will never be forthcoming.

So that’s lame, and inevitably colors the whole experience. Alas.

The Map of the Sky

9102OsNohAL._SL1500_You know that book The Map of Time that is so intimately tied up in my Kindle ownership? It turns out that it was the first book of a trilogy of standalone books. Who knew? The important thing to focus on here, besides that I also definitely liked The Map of the Sky, is that word “standalone”. Because while this book makes more sense if you’ve read the first one, that is not necessary and there is definitely not a cliffhanger at the end, or even any more hint of a third volume than the first one implied that this book was coming. So if you’re worried about reading it? Don’t, it will be fine.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way: You know how the first book in the Victorian trilogy riffed on the Time Machine? This one riffs on the War of the Worlds, albeit a lot more straightforwardly than that other time. And really, I think that should be all you need to know? Yes, it’s in the same tone and voice as the first book, like you’d expect, and since that worked for me just fine then, I’m happy with it here as well. And what it somewhat lacked in byzantine twists, it made up in my deepened emotional attachment to the characters (and their deepened emotional attachments, for good or ill, to each other).

Also, one part of the book, set in the 1830s instead of 1898, is possibly based on a Poe novel instead of War of the Worlds? I am saddened to be unfamiliar with it, if so, and especially saddened that I did not get to choose him as my American Literature senior focus, back when I was getting my lit degree. I tried, but one can only wait so many semesters before you just have to agree to get on with graduating instead. In any event, it reminded me a great deal more of a completely different narrative which I shan’t mention here, to avoid spoilers.

The Map of Time

You may or may not remember that I started reading The Map of Time on a plane in October, only to lose it on said plane due to a series of circumstances best blamed on myself. Tragically, it took an extremely long time before I admitted I wasn’t going to find another physical copy anytime soon and acquired a Kindle copy instead; and perhaps fittingly, the Kindle came to me in part to make fun of my having lost that very book. And it is one hundred percent fitting that there should be such a circular tale to my reading of the book when it is itself so very concerned with circular tales.

See, there’s this guy who had a prostitute girlfriend, only she was Jack the Ripper’s fifth and final victim, right before he got caught. And before you know it, first Murray’s Time Travel (offering scenic trips to the year 2000 to watch mankind’s final battle against his automaton overlords) and then famed author H.G. Wells are enlisted to help him travel back in time and stop the Ripper before poor Marie Kelly’s demise. And then there are two more stories after that, all set in the same several weeks long period of November, 1896, and with similar time travel plots. You have to watch out for Palma; he pulls so many fake-outs and double blinds within his characters’ time-travelling escapades that you’ll think you’re watching an episode of Lost. From the second season. Or possibly Back to the Future 2. But you know, mostly it’s a period piece, of which I suppose I’ve read quite a few lately, mostly written by Dan Simmons.

My thought? Totally worthwhile, go for it. And then let’s talk about it afterward, because I feel uncomfortable adding more details than I have, which may already be too many, but there’s a lot of stuff to tease out up in here.

Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood

acrom_360_mI wonder if there’s a new season of The Borgias starting on Sunday or so, or whether it instead got cancelled. I wonder this primarily because of my current familiarity with the characters and some of their life events, courtesy of my completing Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood over the weekend. Because, see, after the happy ending in Assassin’s Creed II, the first thing that happens is the Borgias destroy Ezio’s home in revenge for that golden apple fiasco under the Vatican. It’s a whole big thing that won’t make enough sense to be spoiler if you haven’t played the first game and, if you have, basically it’s an excuse to get him injured and friendless so that he starts off the game not a god walking among men. Whether this is a good decision is left to the individual player, but I suppose it is at least an understandable one since someone could plausibly pick up this game first.

After that, it’s pretty much the same game, which is an entirely good thing. You climb and run and sneak and murder your way through early 16th C. Rome in an attempt to stop the Borgia and their Templar allies from controlling the fate of the world, with all kinds of side missions and secret explorations and memories of Ezio’s buried past along the way, not to mention the near-future modern day shenanigans in which it’s apparent that someone is helping Desmond Miles from afar, because he may not be able to trust all of the people helping him explore Ezio’s memories. To put it simply, this the best serious sandbox series ever, and the prettiest sandbox series ever regardless of plot seriousness. (The best non-serious sandbox series is Saint’s Row.) If you like to look at the beauties of the past, and you like to climb around on everything, you will love this game. If you like conspiracy theories and dark futures, you will also love this game. If you like both, this is your candy store right here. And there’s already another sequel out!

A word or two about the multiplayer: extremely fun among friends who have played the same approximate amount of time as each other, suffers from the modern theory that playing online a lot isn’t enough of an unbalancing reward, so we will also give you levels and new toys with which to crush newcomers who for some reason can’t play online 12 hours a day for the first month of release. I’m not sure how to solve this problem, and realistically there is no way beyond me accepting that multiplayer online has passed me by for the most part. (But yay for friends.)


You know how I was recently talking about running out of Stephen King books? Well, now it’s actually happened. I’m sure he’s still writing something, but there are no more plans floating around in the world for when the next one will come out. I have read an entire canon.[1] This particular book is his take on the big time travel questions, like “What would happen if you went back in time and killed Hitler?” or “What if you killed your own grandfather before he met your grandmother?”[2] or, predictably in the specific case of 11/22/63, “What if you saved Kennedy?”

Naturally, of course, the book proceeds to be only partially about that. Mostly, it’s about an (only slightly nostalgia-tinged) trip through the late ’50s and early ’60s filled with the same ratios of horrible and wonderful people that exist everywhen and with the consequences of impossible choices. What King gets right (really, what I think he always gets right and is least appreciated for) is the characters. They are always painfully honest and painfully real. Nobody, not even the wifebeater who apparently[3] shot the President, comes off as irredeemable. And nobody, not even the man who plans to give up five years of his life just on the odds that he can prevent the assassination and that doing so might make the world better, is faultless. Typing it out, that sounds trivial and necessary in any worthwhile story, but I guess I am more talking about the unflinching way he portrays the horribleness that lurks in the best people and the basic decency and love that exists in the very worst people.

What he gets wrong? I mean, obviously I’m going to trust his historical research, because I don’t have that kind of time. The other things are towards the end of the book and are pretty subjective. Also, due to their placement, they are spoilers, but I still want to talk about them, so see you in the first comment!

[1] The most trivial of internet research has revealed the preceding statements to be untrue. But after April? Nothing.
[2] Why would you do that? That’s stupid.
[3] No spoilers!

Assassin’s Creed II

Assassins-Creed-2_X360_BXSHT_ESRBI’m always so happy when I finish a game! Though in this case, it was long enough that I may need to take a break (or at least a palate cleanser) before I start anything else serious. So, remember when I hated Assassin’s Creed? But I thought I would still love Assassin’s Creed II after a brief glance at it? So, yeah, that turned out to be true. It is the same as the other game in most important respects, only subtly better every time there’s a comparison to be made. Giant sandbox of a game, this time set in 15th Century Italy, where assassins must battle Templars for control of the hearts and minds of people, and, well, also the future. But that’s okay, because the future is in every bit as much evidence as the past; in fact, you’re not really in the past so much as your near-future guy is going into a cool machine that lets him live the memories of his ancestors (I think?) and learn from them, both skills and information. So while the game is open and sandboxy and actiony and jaw-droppingly beautiful, the plot is science-fictional and always interesting. Plus also, if you for some reason don’t care for the high-level plot, the plot on the street is of this kid first learning about his family’s secrets and then, when things take a wrong turn, setting about fixing everything, over 25 years of life. Good drama!

And if none of that does it for you, you also get to climb really tall buildings, wander around dusty tombs, and sometimes pounce on people from 40 feet above to stab them in the throat. And hang out with Leonardo da Vinci all the time. And learn a lot about regional history[1]. And… y’know, if you’re not persuaded by now, I really don’t know what I could add. Damn fine game, though, and I feel bad for you.

[1] I quickly decided the easiest thing to do would be to assume everything that happens in the past portion of the game is historically accurate. I’m pretty sure it was, anyway, so.

The Alienist

On recommendation of one of my graphic-novel-sharing friends, I picked up a turn of the 20th Century mystery book, The Alienist. (And, seriously, it was recommended several times, and has been mentioned several times more while I’ve owned it unread. Which is not a complaint about my pushy, pushy friend, it’s a wry nod to my massively overflowing bookshelf.) But the point is, I got to it, only to find (unsurprisingly) that everything I heard was true! It is in fact a pretty darn good fiction about the genesis of modern police procedure set against the trashy, immigrant-filled slums of New York City’s 1896. It occasionally bordered on feeling too modern, but never quite got there, all while managing to have a shockingly strong female protagonist in the cast, an occasionally Holmesian feel, and special guest appearances by Theodore Roosevelt and Charles Ranhofer. Oh, and “the first” serial killer. That may not actually be something for everyone, but it’s something for just about everyone I want to know.

Assassin’s Creed

71233_frontTo be clear, this is a pretty old game. I remember reading about Assassin’s Creed in Gamestop’s magazine sometime in 2006 and being really excited about what they were doing with the cities full of random people and the ways you could run and climb and otherwise interact seamlessly with the environment, and without a lot of weird button combinations and things. Plus also the plot, which pits historical Assassins against the Knights Templar in the Crusades setting; it seemed to have a lot to offer on both the very pretty and the very cool scales. The framing story, which has a faceless but clearly very wealthy corporation essentially kidnapping a man who is a descendant of one of these assassins, because they can put him in their cool sci-fi device and use the blood link to pull genetic memories from him, seemed like it may also have been cool, but I really didn’t get far enough into the game to form a valid opinion.[1]

So, right, that part is probably relevant. Despite all of the real coolness inherent in the gameplay and plot in concept, in practice I found it absolutely unplayable. Part of this, I realize now after the fact, is that the introduction was weak and did not provide as much direction as I think I needed to latch onto the plot. The other part, that caused me to stop playing out of pure frustration, was mechanical in nature. Without a clear set of roadsigns to pull me quickly into the plot, I was still enamored of the beautiful countryside, and on top of that there were collectible items and very tall towers with expansive views to enjoy, so I started poking around into that, still perfectly happy with what was going on around me. Until I learned that any time I ran (or ran my horse) past a soldier, I would be targeted for death. It’s not like I had started murdering people yet, and it’s equally not like it was based on some recognition of me, as obviously a walking person is easier to look at. No, the designers just made a terrible decision in which any person who is running must be evil and in need of capture. And once I had to enjoy the expansive open world at a snail’s pace always instead of slowing down at the parts I wanted to explore in greater detail, or else I’d have to fight all the time? And I still didn’t really have a feel for the actual main game on top of that? It was rendered unplayable.

In the meantime, people have sung the praises of its sequels, and while nobody seemed to hate the one game-breaking aspect of the first game the way I did, everyone seemed to claim that the sequels fix a lot of other small problems that I never really saw for myself, and the whole is a massive improvement. My completionism still left me believing I might try to pick up the original again someday, but having played a few hours of its first sequel (review forthcoming, though likely not anytime very soon) and seeing that on top of my complaint, it really does feel a lot more polished and playable in ways I can’t even explain the differences for, it has become clear to me that I would only be punishing myself by going backward.[2]

Anyway, this right here? Kind of a horrible game that thankfully got another chance at life. Because the concept I loved so much? It works every bit as well as I had imagined.

[1] The wikipedia summary that I recently read tells me it probably would have been very interesting, though.
[2] Hence the wikipedia summary.

Drood: A Novel

The very best and very worst thing about Drood is how heavily invested it was in Charles Dickens. Because, and here’s the thing, I really dislike that guy! He probably wrote great stories full of interestingly-drawn characters, but the names are so twee and the plots so meandering (ah, payment by the word) that I’ve never been able to get past that to whatever it is underneath that people rave about. But this book, you see, in which Dickens and fellow author William Wilkie Collins concern themselves with a mysterious foreign priest and  murderer, has narrator Collins espousing the same Dickensward distaste I have, and for some of the same reasons. So it’s nice to start off a book with someone that’s on my side.

I mislike the idea of delving very far into the plot, as Simmons is good at doling that out at his own pace; it’s only the endings that seem to fall apart. And in this case, I can truly say I don’t have that complaint. The complaints I do have are largely character-based and hard to elaborate upon other than through those spoilers I’m avoiding. Suffice it to say that for a variety of possible and overlapping reasons, our narratorial window into the world is severely compromised, making it impossible to have any confidence in unraveling the central mystery of the novel, and even worse, making one doubt that Simmons actually has any complaints about Dickens himself.

Still and all, the twists and turns are entertaining and the narrator’s personality made up quite a bit to me for his compromised perspective, so if you can live without being sure what happened[1][2], it’s a pretty fun book. Also, if you care, this is explicitly the same world as his previous The Terror, right down to the fact that Dickens and Collins wrote a play on the very topic of that missing expedition. In real history, yo!

[1] And I know that some people cannot…
[2] If you’re sure that we are told what happened and I’m just holding on to alternatives unreasonably, I am prepared to have a discussion about why that would mark pretty shoddy writing and also to bring up a pair of scenes that cast vague, formless doubt on the whole enterprise.

Inglourious Basterds

MV5BMTk3NDA0NTI3Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMTUwODQzMg@@._V1__SX1859_SY893_The problem I think with a Quentin Tarantino movie is that it defies categorization. He’s not exactly his own filmmaking genre, not really, but it’s a close thing. And it’s not even that Inglourious Basterds is a multi-genre hodgepodge like Kill Bill was; it’s on the whole a straightforward World War II action movie. All the same, it’s tricky to explain. But here goes: a band of Nazi-killing Jews led by Appalachian Brad Pitt, a Jew-hunting SS officer, and a young Jewish theater owner cross paths in 1944 occupied Paris over an Allied plot to take out the Nazi high command in one fell swoop. …yeah, that looks right.

There’s plenty of stylized violence, over-the-top yet finely-drawn characters, and episodic storytelling; all straight out of the Tarantino playbook. I guess he maybe does have his own genre. But it’s a good genre! Aside from my appreciation for the tropes and for this particular plot and character combination, the most interesting aspect of the film was, for me, dissecting its trajectory. More bluntly: a plan to kill Goebbels and Hitler and etc. is pretty much doomed to failure in mid-1944. I have pretty explicit historical knowledge backing me up on that point. So there I sat, watching and wondering, is this a comedy of errors? A tragedy? An ironic masterpiece in which any of several plans might have succeeded without the interference of competing plans toward the same end? What movie is Tarantino actually making? Obviously I can’t tell you what he made, because, well, that’s the whole movie. But I can say that lens really worked for me.