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Reading roundup + games

First, the books:

My reading list is here, complete with links to goodreads and all.

For various reasons I read less this year than in the last couple of years, which is a bit disappointing, but there've been worse years. Hopefully things will pick up again in 2016 or 2017.

Even worse, most of what I read this year were re-reads (mainly Discworld and Geralt-saga), which is why I'm not going to do the usual end of year meme I did for the past couple of years and will simply point out a few highlights (and lowlights) instead. (In general though, any book I re-read this year was great!)



What's the best book you read this year?

This is not an easy question to answer, since this year I re-read two of my favourite books of all time: Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, and Andrzej Sapkowski's Pani jeziora (hasn't yet been translated into English yet, which is a shame. It's slated for 2017 I believe), and I refuse to choose between the two (if I had to choose, I'd probably have to give the edge to Sapkowski though because it's the final volume of the Geralt-saga).

So, not counting re-reads the book I rated next highest is Die Unendliche Geschichte (The Never-ending Story) by Michael Ende. Believe it or not, I never read this before, I only ever knew the American movies. And you know what? While I love the movies, I was surprised by how much more there is to the story in the book.

This book doesn't stop once the hero has successfully completed his quest. It keeps going. It shows the hero having to deal with the responsibility of becoming a hero. And that's not something mandy fantasy books do. It's an incredibly imaginative tale and the writing style (at least in the original German, I can't speak for any translation) holds up as well. Furthermore, I thought the book was genuinely touching in some parts. There are lessons in it about valuing the people around you, shedding selfishness and making sacrifices, but the book is also devoted to respecting the self, which is something I appreaciate in a novel about growing up.

See also my review on goodreads for more reasons to love this book.


What's the worst book you read this year?

Eve Forward's Villains by Necessity

The book's supposed to be sort of a cheeky parody of the High Fantasy genre, particularly the slew of books so heavily inspired by D&D type settings so popular in the 80's and 90's. The book's taking the old and tired premise of beings of absolute good battling absolute evil in eternal conflict, and sets its main plot right after Good has defeated Evil, resulting in the remaining sort of shady individuals (such as thieves, chronic liars, frauds) being brainwashed into good, moral citizens who couldn't harm a fly. Much blah-blah is made by morally neutral/grey druid types about the cosmic balance being out of order and that evil needs to be restored or the world will end in the blinding light of goodness.

Thus a druid rescues some of the shady characters (a thief and an assassin) from being brainwashed and sets out to free the metaphysical forces of evil from their transdimensional prison with their help.

This book just isn't very good. I had to fight to make it to the end and not send it to the (digital) trash bin for being an absolute bore (if there's ever a battle of Absolute Excitement vs Absolute Boredom this book could be boredom's champion). The characters are so lifeless and the world is entirely sterile, and not because it's drenched in holy goodness and order.

It's supposedly a fantasy parody, but it simply regurgitates the awful, unoriginal tropes of 80's and early 90's Sword & Sorcery trash novels without applying any sort of twist to them. You'd think having the good guys be the villains and the book following a group of morally shady characters would be enough of a twist to make the story interesting, but it just doesn't manage.

The bad guys aren't really bad guys. With the exception of the man-eating demon sorceress (aka the only remotely entertaining character in the entire novel- who gets judged for her evil ways pretty hard by her fellow supposedly evil characters) none of the "evil" characters do anything remotely reprehensible, even though the main character is a professional assassin.

However, the real bullshit occurs when the book feels the need to make sure the reader understands that the assassin protagonist really is a decent man at heart when saves a hapless, helpless damsel from being raped. In a world that's been brainwashed into absolute goodness, while the main characters are infiltrating a city entire populated by "good" characters. Even among this goodness a "good" character can commit such a "good" action as attempting to rape a defenceless woman, for no other reason than to further the characterisation of the leading man. Neither the victim nor the rapist has a name, characterisation or even a side-plot devoted to them. They only feature on two pages. But there's always time for a rape to serve as a cheap plot device to divide the heroes from the scum, even if it goes against the one thing the reader knows about the secondary characters involved, which is that they've been brainwashed into goodness and robbed of selfishness and basic instincts and drives.

What a waste of tree-meat.


Your favourite "classic" you read this year:

Again, I have to go with Die Unendliche Geschichte, but I don't want to repeat myself. Since I didn't read many classics this year the runner-up is most likely Frankenstein.

It drags in parts, and despite his book-smarts Frankenstein really is a doofus by the end for the sake of plot progression, but as a fan of English Romanticism I enjoyed that this book showed its literary roots, and the dilemma presented by the creature certainly kept me hooked.

(This being my first encounter with the tale - sure I've absorbed bits of one movie adaptation or other through cultural osmosis, but never had any interest in watching them - I was surprised that Frankenstein is Swiss and doesn't actually have an assistance called Igor.)


And the least favourite classic?

The only reason Breakfast of Champions didn't get the spot of worst book is because it isn't quite as boring and offensive as Villains by Necessity, but it remains a deeply unpleasant book in my eyes.

Kurt Vonnegut remains a bit hit-and-miss for me, in that there's books of his I adore (Slaughterhouse 5, Mother Night), and others in which the black humour stops being enjoyable for me and becomes only gross. Sadly, Breakfast of Champions fell into the latter category for me, which is why, despite some interesting narrative tricks and the book touching upon a lot of topics I find interesting (like writing, classicm, sexism), and depite the book having a lot of very quotable things to say about these topic, the book just isn't for me. In addition to that Breakfast of Champions had a habit of going off on more tangents than I remembered being used to from Vonnegut books, which didn't help my enjoyment of it.


The greatest disappointment this year?

It breaks my heart to say it, but it's Raising Steam, Terry Pratchett's penultimate Discworld novel. It simply didn't read like a polished novel. Of course, by the time he wrote it Pratchett's disease was already pretty advanced, but that doesn't change the fact that Raising Steam read like an early draft.

There are so many promising ideas put into this novel, but none of them get fully developed. There's the advancement of technology, industrialisation, the emancipation of the goblins, the social/gender issues of the dwarves, an entirely new faction to the book's central conflict is introduced only about 50 pages before the end, and then there's Moist and his taff right in the middle of it. It's too much, since everything has a half-baked feel to it, rather than being well done. It's hard to get into any of it and be swept away by the story, because of it. In this all these factors contribute to a rather tough, at times even outright boring read, because it's so hard to get invested in the plot. It's simply tragic.


A(nother) book you read this year you want to recommend (maybe one that you haven't mentioned yet?):

Bloodchild by Octavia E. Butler was quite fascinating. I read the titular short story on the web a couple of years ago and finally managed to pick up the entire collection. It's great mix of Social Science Fiction stories, ranging from human-alien cohabitation troubles to an exploration of the human senses and what allows us to stay human and civilised. If you were looking for a theme touched upon by all or at least most of the stories I'd say it's (mis)communication. Both verbal and non-verbal. I'd say it's well worth the read if you're into the social exploration potential of sci-fi at all.


The top 3 books I hope to read in 2016 (as a kind of New Year's resolution):

#1 Richelieu by Philippe Erlanger. Got this recced to me as one of the best if not the best Richelieu biography. It's been sitting on my shelf since the summer and I can't wait to get to it.

#2 The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch. If it won't be delayed another year. There are few book series I am as excited about as the Peter Grant/Rivers of London novels, so hopefully this book will see publication in 2016.

If it doesn't get published in 2016, I'll name The Phoenix Guards by Steven Brust as a replacement (though to be honest, I'm hoping to read both of these). This got recced to me very warmly (as "The Three Musketeers" in a Sci-Fantasy setting, with Porthos being the one to be gender-switched for once instead of the default sexy Aramis, AND it's supposedly got a great Treville stand-in which is the type of character I live for) and I'm intrigued.

#3 The Fortune of War by Patrick O'Brian. I have horribly neglected my AOS reading this year. Hopefully lucky Jack will help me do something about that this year.




And now the games, including one I've never talked about before: Games I played (and beat) for the first time this year:

I'm trying to get this in just now, because many of these games can currently be bought through the Steam Holiday Sale (until monday night) at a massive discount (up to 80+%).

In the order that I played them:

Dragon Age: Inquisition – I don't think this needs any introduction. If you're into gaming at all you've heard of Dragon Age. And you're probably tired of seeing me bash this game.

In this installment you're a poor schmuck who got talked into touching something they shouldn't and now you and your eerily glowing hand are the only ones who can close magic rifts in the sky that are unleashing demons to wreak havoc across the countryside. Well, that's you, your hand, and the genre typical band of misfits with relationship issues you quickly acquire.

Unfortunately, this one turned out to be my disappointment of the year. Unoriginal, uninspiring main plot structured around a weak villain with an only marginally explored motivation. The companion characters are fun for the most part, but their quests and the three or four particularly exciting main quests I'd actually love to replay [Spoiler (click to open)]The Winter Palace, the Fade stuff, and the mage or templar recruiting quests get buried under a 100 hours of filler content. Mounts let you get around faster but cuts off any interaction between the companions, i. e. the only fun part of the game and there's no mounted combat. The camera handles awful on PC and the combat is so boring! This game is even less versatile and features less synergy effects than the combat of the second game. And that's without mentioning the constant crashes!

Previously posted, more in-depth opinion on this game: here.


The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt – Aka "Dad simulator." You're a monster hunter looking to retire, but the fact that you need to find your missing adoptive daughter before a band of extra-terrestrial spectral elves does to exploit her space-time-powers for their own sinister gains kinda ruins your plans. Your search is made even more difficult by the fact that there's a war on.

Is based on my favourite series of fantasy novels and also happens to be a fantastic game: Amazing quests, including secondary quests that range from great to fun to absolutely, emotionally crushing. The third act is a bit weak in that it devolves into a standard fantasy "save the world/mankind" type of plot driven by, again, a weak villain, but this is excused by the stellar first two acts. Combat is fun, the mount is actually useful both in battle and out of it. I've some trouble aligning some of the characterisation for the characters taken from the novels the game is based on with the characters as they are in my head, but the characters originally created for the game are spectacular! It's just a fantastic game. Can be played without knowledge of the previous two games, though I recommend looking up Assassins of Kings, if more for its plot than its gameplay. Wild Hunt (thankfully) has the best gameplay out of all the Witcher titles, by far. It's just the truth.

Favourite game I played this year.

Previous posts about this game and what's good/bad about it: here and here Never managed to do a proper review though. I could write 20 pages about the level of depth I enjoyed with this game, only no one would read it, so why bother?


Long live the Queen - a sim with cutesy Manga-style art that's a lot more strategic than the art style might have you believe (A LOT!). You're a teenage princess with pink hair. Your mother, the previous Queen, got murdered. You're going to be crowned Queen in a year to replace her and rule the land just and wise (hopefully. You can also choose to be slightly sociopathic instead). You have a vast table of skills you can choose to learn in preparation (from singing to naval strategy to logistics to foreign history to magic). But at the same time everyone and everything is trying to murder you before you can take the throne. Good luck.

This game is sooooooooo much fun. It's very simple and straightforward in theory, but while the gameplay is very accessible and very easy to understand and learn, figuring out a way to survive until your coronation is damned hard, because there's so many variables to take into account. You can only raise a set (low) amount of skills per week, and each week features some even or other that'll require you to make a choice that'll influence the ways in which the story (and plots to kill you) progresses. Some of the ways in which this game kills you are just bizarre. I recommend this game to everyone. Just absolutely everyone!


Dust - An Eylsian Tail - You awake remembering nothing but a name – is it your name? – In an enchantingly beautiful and serene grove. Next to a sword. The sword talks to you and asks you to pick it up. Even though it upsests the cute little flying fox guarding the sword, you do what it says, and suddenly, you have this strange power.

I already wrote a short, incoherent love letter for this game earlier this year, here, but it really is as good as everybody says it is. Absolutely fantastic, long, 2D action platformer, with a gripping mystery story about grief and redemption. Even though amnesia storylines aren't a type of plot I'm keen on, I loved watching this game revealing its secret to me. The twists get foreshadowed really nicely and the story is supported by fantastic art and extremely lovable protagonists (prepare to have emotions about them. Lot's of emotions. There's a lot of personality in this game). Runs stable, no crashes, no game-breaking bugs. Just a beautiful game.

Even if you're not into Anthro art that much, giving the game a chance to win you over to its aesthetic is worth it for the fun gameplay and the cute humour.


Dishonored - This is going to be a tad longer, because I haven't talked about this game before:

I'm of two minds about Dishonored. It has a solid story, the gritty steam-punk setting is fantastic, but there's parts of the gameplay that disappointed me. This game has a chaos mechanic that defines how NPCs regard your main character and how dark and desolate the world around gets with each new level/area/mission. High chaos means there's more enemies, NPCs are meaner people (to each other) and the world you're leaving for the little girl you're trying to rescue might end up a very bleak place (a narrative explanation for this is that your violence creates an environment of fear that radicalises the world around you - in an exaggerated manner). Chaos is mainly created by killing. And by that I mean it's affected by killing anything (except fish and dogs). Not just your assassination targets, but their guards, civilians, even this game's take on zombie adds Chaos if you slay them. Now, there are ways to complete the game without killing anyone. Instead of killing your target you can have them kidnapped instead, for example (whether they'll ultimately face a fate worse than death is up to you). You can take out guards in your way (who are just doing their job and don't even know the people they're working for are responsible for all the sucky things in the world right now) by sneaking up on them and knocking them out manually, or firing a knock-out dart from your sweet steampunk wrist-crossbow. And that's it. There's a couple of spells (your character acquires magic at one point in the game) that can help you in taking people out without killing them or evade enemies entirely (like when you transform into a small enemy and circumvent patrals by crawling through small spaces).

But the main action for a non-lethal completion of the game is sneaking and using the crossbow. Oh, and knockout darts are the only kind of dart that are limited to 8 at a time. You can't carry anymore at a time and they're rare to find and stock up on during a mission/level once you've used one. However, by not killing anyone your character gets the chance at making the world a better place for his daughter.

Meanwhile players who are fine with killing characters get to use a sword, multiple lethal bolts for the crossbow (even ones that explode), a pistol, barbed wire traps, exploding traps, shrapnel grenades, and lethal spells like one that summons a swarm of rats to maul an enemy to death.

While the stealthy approach gains its excitement from the tension of whether enemies will spot you or not, the combat approach is just much more versatile and fun. But you don't get to see a happy ending if you do that.

As someone who just can't bring myself to be evil in video games (well, most of the time. But this is one of these times!) I find that very frustrating. Especially since I initially only got interested in this game because it's made by the same people that made Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, which is a game I adore for its physics: Just about everything in Dark Messiah is made to be smashed, or to allow you to kick enemies into it. The combat in that game is great fun and its most attractive feature as you might gather. So, yeah, being incouraged not to use violence in Dishonored kinda took me by surprise. I wouldn't be complaining at all if us pacifist players got more gadgets to play with than a single type of dart for the crossbow. *sighs*

Despite that, Dishonored is still a good game, I just can't shake the feeling it could have been a great game instead.


Memoria - Hoping to find a way to save his best friend the former bird catcher Geron turns to a soothsayer for help. The man agrees to share the secret of the cure he seeks if Geron can help him find the answer to a centuries old riddle that is buried in the tale of the Princess Sadja, who one day went out to fight demons only to vanish from history.

Pretty much a perfect point & click. The solutions to the puzzles are always logical if not always straight-forward. The parts that you breeze through definitely outnumber the bits you'll spend gnashing your teeth in frustration. Add to this gorgeous, hand-drawn art, an incredibly creative, playful narrative, that takes leaps to include wonderfully imaginative elements and a cast of interesting characters that'll grow on you very quickly - including a truly wonderful female deuteragonist. Can be played without knowledge of its predecessor (Chains of Satinav), but I believe the story will have an even greater emotional impact if you went through the first game with some of the characters you'll encounter again in Memoria. (I think I like Memoria just a tad better though. It's simply got the more creative narrative.)

My previous squee about this game: here. Contains mild spoilers.


The top 3 games I'm hoping to check out this year (New Year's resolution):

#1 Pillars of Eternity.

It's a NEW GAME BY OBSIDIAN THAT'S COME OUT THAT I DIDN'T EVEN KNOW HAD COME OUT until I watched a random "notable video games of 2015" video by a games critic I like. It's a classic Fantasy CRPG. That looks gorgeous. By Obsidian. OBSIDIAN!!! To me, Obsidian remains the company I wish Bioware still was in terms of writing. Looking back at all the RPG titles they at one time took over from Bioware, the writing for the Obsidian made sequels is just SO. MUCH. BETTER. This includes Mask of the Betrayer which remains in possession of the best, most engrossing story I've ever had the pleasure to follow in an CRPG. Obsidian just knows how to push all my buttons, okay? Accordingly I have crazy high expectations for this game.

#2 Renowned Explorers: International Society. A colourful rogue-like with a unique setting and equally unique combat mechanics, or so it looks like. ♥___♥

Please, please, please, if you happen to read this for some reason, at least look at it. It looks both strategic AND unbelievably cute and made with love and care. What a lovely looking game. You're basically a team of explorers. And you go explore islands and fight sheep – with love (if you want to. If you don't want to, then you can fight sheep with swords and pistols).

#3 Undertale. Yes. Undertale. I will look past the super annoying hype that shoves this game into my face just about every other day and give this title a chance, because apparently it's truly worth it, despite the hype-train. Or so say people whose opinion on games I've come to trust.

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Comments

failte_aoife
Jan. 3rd, 2016 09:48 pm (UTC)
You know I am about 65% sure I read something by Steven Brust once (something with T? Taltos? *checks GR...apparently this is a book that exists though oddly it is the 4th in the series despite being the first one that was published...whatever) but apart from that I remember nothing about it. But The Musketeers IN SPACE (or something) does sound very awesome XD

(Did you ever get a happy ending in Long Live the Queen? I got frustrated and then distracted, as so often happens with games for me...)
asthenie_vd
Jan. 3rd, 2016 10:03 pm (UTC)
Yes, Taltos! The musketeer thing is set in the same universe, which is how hamsterwoman ended up reccing the stuff to me, because she's a fan of the Vlad Taltos series.

If I end up liking the author's style, I might have to get into the main series as well, because the premise sounds interesting. :)

I'm reading The Element of Fire first though, which is set in a 1600's Fantasy AU with magic and assassins and fae and stuff - because the ebook for that one is only 3,20€ vs. 18€. D:


(Yes, I did! I eventually used a guide! XD I have since achieved more happy endings on my own, but it's still hard. I've still never managed to stop that one girl from going into the forest where she presumably gets eaten by something nasty, because I've never managed to do a successful play-through with high Lore stats. I've also never done a playthrough with a "cruel" princess. I read up on it on the guide and ... no. It's just too cruel. XD Like, apparently you can [Spoiler (click to open)]avoid the duel against the evil foreign king who kept killing me btw XD - by swearing allegiance to him and becoming his evil henchwoman. But to prove you're serious about it YOU HAVE TO KILL YOUR FATHER! DDD: I just never could. The dad character is this this cute, sad woobie. I could never murder him. XD
failte_aoife
Jan. 4th, 2016 10:12 am (UTC)
I have the kindle-sample of Element of Fire and enjoyed it but didn't buy the book so far because...well...I have books and I always tell myself I should reduce my tbr-pile before getting new books...which never works anyway...ehem.
(But now I just saw that both Element of Fire and The Phoenix Guard are as unabridged audiobook on Audible and I haven't yet spent my monthly credit...I only had originally planned on either getting Lyndsay Faye's Holmes-hunts-Jack-the-Ripper-book or Der Turm...NOOOO! Desicions are hard)

Noooooooooo...I don't think I could do that either...I can barely bring myself to have nameless rebels executed as some games require :D
asthenie_vd
Jan. 4th, 2016 04:49 pm (UTC)
Ooh, I started Element of Fire by now, so let I'll be eagerly awaiting your review. ^^ (So far I can say that Captain Tr- I mean Captain Thomas is very swoon-worthy. XD And there's a lot of characters and events inspired by history, which amuses me, because some of these scenarios I've been contemplating to use for fic - like the exorcism of Loudun kicks off the plot in this one and it's delicious.)
hamsterwoman
Jan. 3rd, 2016 11:13 pm (UTC)
*butts in*

Chronology in the Taltos series is really odd, mostly because Brust likes playing with his readers' minds. Taltos was actually the fourth book published (Jhereg is the first) but it is the first in terms of internal series chronology (i.e. Vlad is youngest there).

The two series, Vlad and the !musketeers books, have very different styles, despite being set in the same universe, and even sharing some characters (e.g. so far we've gotten to see older !D'Artagnan a few times in the Vlad books, and !Aramis once, plus there are several characters who are fairly major characters in both series, although they are not Dumas expies).

Also, the Element of Fire book sounds very relevant to my interests as well. Looking forward to your reactions to that, asthenie_vd!
failte_aoife
Jan. 4th, 2016 10:06 am (UTC)
Ahhh! Thanks! I was vaguely confused why I would have randomly read the 4th book in a series.

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