Friday, November 27, 2009

The Wheel of Time: Speculations and Observations

Another piece of evidence that Brandon Sanderson has done a wonderful job with the latest volume of the Wheel of Time is that it's gotten me thinking, just like the old days of WoT, or just like I do a lot whenever I read a Song of Ice and Fire book. Obviously, the ultimate destination of the series is the Last Battle Tarmon Gai'don, but it has something like 1500 pages' worth of plots to resolve and characters to develop before it gets there. Here are some stray thoughts and observations, not necessarily connected to each other, on where the series is going.

--I don't know who made the decision to name the last book A Memory of Light. Maybe it was Jordan, less likely Sanderson, possibly Middle Managing Editor At Tor. But whoever it was, the fan base ought to give him or her a hug for not calling it something mind-numbingly uncreative like Tarmon Gai'don or The Last Battle. Take, for counterexample, the Left Behind series. Essentially the Christian apocalyptic eschatological equivalent of the Wheel of Time, it concerns the end of days, the last battle Armageddon, and the glorious appearing of Jesus to rule His new kingdom. Their titles were just fine until they got to the end of the series, which ended with--I'm not making this up--Armageddon and Glorious Appearing.

--Almost an afterthought since the middle of the series, Callandor got a few nods in The Gathering Storm, with the promise that "three will become one" in order for Rand to wield it again. We know that a circle of three channelers, one male and two female, is necessary to use it safely, which is ostensibly what the "three become one" passage is referring to. My best guess as to who these three might be are Rand plus the two of his girls that can channel, Elayne and Aviendha. It could just as easily be something like Rand, Egwene, and Tuon. But don't forget that there's "something" Min and Cadsuane are missing about the sa'angreal. One theory that I like but can't take credit for is that the "three" represent saidar, saidin, and the True Power.

--The Tower of Ghenjei showdown is coming up, and soon. I'm a sucker for mysterious, "what's really going on here?" sorts of stories, which makes this the single most exciting upcoming plot in the Wheel of Time to me. I can't wait to see how the Tower, the 'elfinn, and the red mirrors are all related, and how exactly one does win the game of Snakes and Foxes. Moiraine's rescue is somehow going to be more important to the rest of the books than simply "cool, now we have another ally to fight on our side", but it's impossible to say how yet. However, I am more or less certain that it's going to happen in the next book, where Ghenjei will be one of the "Towers of Midnight".

--Another Mat plot is the one I'm looking second-most forward to in the entire series: the culmination of the Illuminators/gunpowder story. Mat rolling into the Last Battle with the Band armed with cannons is going to be fantastic. Here's a long shot speculation, but we know that Rand wants to defeat the Dark One without having to touch him--because touching him with the Power last time led to the taint--so what if Rand ends up defeating the Dark One by blasting him with cannons?

--The White Tower reunification plot line is almost finished, but not quite: the Black Ajah purge still isn't complete. Mesaana is still alive, presumably with the Blacks somewhere, and Alviarin is still out there too. I think in the next book, Egwene will use the strength of the unified White Tower (perhaps another of the "Towers of Midnight"?) to get this done.

--A little Forsaken speculation: Moridin (né Ishamael), Cyndane (née Lanfear), and Moghedien are all bound together, the latter two by Moridin's mindtrap. Moridin is obviously a book-14 issue; Rand's battle with him will be one of the climaxes of Tarmon Gai'don. And it's not like Cyndane or Moghedien or making any plans of their own these days. I think during the last battle, it's going to take a good guy dream team of Rand (to fight Moridin), Moiraine (who has quite the history with Lanfear), and Nynaeve (who has history of her own with Moghedien) to take them down. Maybe these are the three who will end up using Callandor.

--More on the Forsaken: Mesaana and Aran'gar (née Balthamel) are the two Forsaken most closely tied to the Aes Sedai; if Egwene finished the Black Ajah purge in the next book, then Mesaana and Aran'gar are going down in the next book rather than the finale. And then there's Demandred, whose identity and plans probably won't be revealed until the very end.

--Perrin needs to do something with his wolf abilities. Don't know what.

--Finally, several pairs or groups of characters still need to reunite: Rand and his three girls; Lan and Nynaeve; Moiraine and Lan; Mat and Tuon; and perhaps most important to the story, Rand, Mat, and Perrin. Rand, Mat, and Perrin won't reunite until the very end, but when they do, stuff is going down.

Currently listening: "Dear Valentine", Guster, from Ganging Up on the Sun

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Wheel of Time: The Gathering Storm

I never quite know what to answer when people ask me if I like the Wheel of Time books. I think I like the idea of them, the promise, the setting, more than the books themselves. The concept more than the execution, perhaps. But that concept is so good that I believe the books are worth reading on its singular merit. I maintain that a drastically shortened Wheel of Time, truncated after the third book, and fudged a bit in the last few chapters of the second and third books, could be the greatest fantasy trilogy ever written, The Lord of the Rings included.

But like all great series apparently must, the Wheel of Time dragged a bit--rather, a lot--in its middle. Where the first three books were brilliant, books four through seven were overly complicated but still interesting, and eight through eleven just plain dragged on, with perhaps only one important plot point happening in each. We fans were getting antsy: Robert Jordan promised us that the series was going to end soon, but if the last book or books plodded along with the same lack of excitement as the most recent handful, we might be left with a series ending in a whimper rather than the bang we felt like we deserved.

Then, as if for the sole purpose of throwing everything we knew into chaos (as well as being a strange reflection on the events of the series itself), Robert Jordan passed away in September 2007. Fortunately, things worked out much more smoothly than they really had any right to: Mr. Jordan's family and associates quickly got their collective act together and installed a new author, Brandon Sanderson, who would ensure that we got some sort of resolution to the story we'd spent decades following.

So here we have it: the most highly-anticipated fantasy novel since... the last Wheel of Time book? No, that's not quite right. Knife of Dreams, The Gathering Storm's immediate predecessor, was another step down the same old Robert Jordan path, while Storm was a bold new step in the Brandon Sanderson direction. Knife was merely book #11; Storm is either book #12, or the first part of book #12, or the first volume in the finale trilogy, depending on how you want to think of it. Knife was the continuation of fifteen years' prior work, and Storm represents not only the beginning of the end, but a new voice trying to integrate itself into thousands of old pages.

For the first half of the book, that integration becomes a major motif. In that first half, Sanderson touches base with every one of the major characters. It represents Sanderson gaining his footing, setting himself up as the author, and testing his control of the plots and characters. (A notable exception is Elayne, who strangely does not get a single chapter in this book, and barely so much as a handful of mentions. Is this a tacit admission by Sanderson that he has no idea what to do with Elayne?)

Sanderson asserts his place as an author of a Wheel of Time book, and not a mere fantasy book, by hearkening back to the series' beginning. Emond's Field and the Two Rivers get name-dropped more than they have since the action was actually happening there a few books back, Baerlon even merits a quick mention, Min starts to become an important character in her own right, and Tam gets his first lines in ages. Perhaps this is a thematically important decision, giving a nod to the "everything starts where it ends" cyclical nature of the mythology. Maybe Sanderson knows that the early books were the most beloved by fans, and he's trying to get on the readers' good sides by emphasizing their importance. Or possibly it's not even a conscious choice: because the first few books were more memorable, their characters and settings have worked their way back in because Sanderson feels inherently more connected to and comfortable with them.

Aside from all this base-touching and identity-imprinting, nothing much happens in the first half of the book. It plays out like an extended news report--but (perhaps a bit cynically) that's nothing we're not used to from the Wheel of Time. However, things change quickly around the time Rand has his decisive encounter with Semirhage. It's an oddly written part of the book, seeming forced in all respects. Shaidar Haran has become more or less a walking deus ex machina for the bad guys--Sanderson needs to establish and explain some restriction on this thing's powers quickly, or else a multitude of plot holes will spring up any time someone wonders "why doesn't Shaidar Haran just do it?" And Rand channeling the True Power better have some explanation of its own--not to mention consequences. But even for its clumsy execution, this scene gets the action moving.

It doesn't stop, either. Plots that have persisted for the last three or four books now--the White Tower siege, Tuon's waiting to proclaim herself Empress, Aviendha's transition to being a Wise One, the fate of Verin, and Rand's escalating insanity, just to name a few--are finally resolved. Even Mat and Thom's long-impending assault on the Tower of Ghenjei now seems imminent. Sanderson's deliberate decision to have Rand balefire Elza Penfell in that Semirhage encounter is of course more than just a protagonist defeating an antagonist. It's understood in the narrative as further evidence that Rand is becoming dangerous and on the brink of insane. But I think it's also a promise by Sanderson that we're going to see antagonists defeated decisively from now on, and we're not going to see the introduction of a lot more minor characters. After four or so books of not a lot happening, all of this is welcome news to readers.

Sanderson's skill is not only apparent in making events happen. He's almost equally as skilled in parsing out the story when things don't happen. Sanderson has a good sense of how to organize the story in terms of exciting scenes and developing scenes--he doesn't try to string together too much development at once with the same characters, which would get boring fast. But when it gets exciting, he lets us follow the action with the same set of people for several consecutive chapters without breaking up pivotal events.

Another way Sanderson organizes his story well is in his understanding of which plot events to show, and which ones to let the reader assume has happened. Sanderson neatly accomplishes this through leveraging his characters' ta'veren powers, which is something that Jordan either never did, or didn't emphasize nearly as much as Sanderson. This device of letting Rand, Mat, and Perrin "see" each other works well to advance the plot without having to devote a chapter to each thing that happens with all of them. For example, at one point, Mat travels to Caemlyn to get information. Rather than having to write an entire chapter about Mat, he lets Rand have a ta'veren vision of Mat. In about three lines, Sanderson accomplishes something that might have taken Jordan an entire chapter.

And that brings us to the elephant in the room: what if Sanderson's implementation of the Wheel of Time turns out better than Jordan's? Are fans going to see what Sanderson has done with the series and rush out to proclaim him its savior? Even if they do--and judging from how good The Gathering Storm was, that might not be too much of an exaggeration--it's clear that Sanderson is not about to accept that mantle. In a gracious and classy foreword, Sanderson tells the readers in no uncertain terms that he's merely a facilitator at this point. He reminds us that the final three Wheel of Time books are Jordan's first and ours, the readers', second.

Even if Sanderson manages a complete turnaround, the important thing to remember is that that's the very best Sanderson can hope for: a return to form. Although the words of the last three books might be Sanderson's, the stories themselves are not. Everything good about the Wheel of Time--and yes, there is a lot of it, in spite of the direction that last handful of books took--is a direct result of Robert Jordan's fantastic brilliance.

But in the end, Sanderson does accomplish that return to form, and he does it so convincingly that I'm excited about the next Wheel of Time book for the first time in years.

Currently listening: "Perfect Symmetry", Keane

Friday, November 20, 2009

Dragon Age: Origins

At first, I was not ready to believe all the hype surrounding this game. My friends touted it to me as the greatest thing to hit the computer since the mouse, but I just wasn't sure. It had been since Oblivion, nearly four years, since I'd invested myself in a massive epic RPG. I just wasn't interested, or there wasn't a good one out, or it was undergrad and I was way too busy.

And besides, Dragon Age was just another Bioware RPG, right? My history with their games wasn't exactly the torrid love affair that it was for most of my friends. I played Knights of the Old Republic and certainly enjoyed it, even though I didn't find it the revolutionary masterpiece that I many of my friends did. I scratched just enough of the surface of Neverwinter Nights to know that I didn't feel like playing the other 95% of the game. And I've heard the Baldur's Gate suite of games referenced and quoted enough that I resent them even though I've never played any of them.

But now the bustle of undergrad has given way to the relative tranquility of grad school, and with an apparently good game out, why not give it a shot? Time isn't an issue--I figure it's either video games or House reruns--and if the game were a total bust, all I'd really be wasting is 50 dollars of the Department of Homeland Security's money. So far, I've been far from disappointed.

Unsurprisingly, Dragon Age plays exactly like any other Bioware game. You play the silent protagonist, customized however you like, who's tasked with defending your corner of the kingdom/world/galaxy from the Evil Supernatural Threat of the Day. Even though you're supposed to believe you're playing in a completely-defined setting, all the action really takes place in six or seven clickable spots on the world map. Half to two thirds of the game focuses on a parallel group of four or so quests, all of which need to be completed to lead up to the Climactic Confrontation in the last chunk of the game. In lieu of the "sandbox" feel of setting continuity, the game focuses on character interaction and development, especially when it comes to discovering the back stories of your six to nine other party members. (Often, it's quoted in terms of the number of novels' worth of dialog the character discussion contains; Dragon Age weighs in at nine.) And, of course, with all this character development comes the prospect of character romance.

That may seem like a hefty paragraph of over-generalization, but seriously, every Bioware game plays like that. It's a formula that's brought them success--and if it's not broke, don't fix it--but given that every Bioware game is mechanically the same, the characters and plots need to be immersive and legitimately interesting to convince me to play your game. And that all starts with the setting. Bioware took the easy and conservative, though effective, route in their first few efforts, drawing off the established settings of the Forgotten Realms and Star Wars.

It's inherently easy to make a Star Wars game. It can't be hard to draw off 30 collective years of Star Wars myth when you're making KotOR. The framework is already there, and all Bioware had to do was fill in some interesting details. In other words, given that someone is going to spend fifty hours of their life playing a Star Wars game, it can be reasonably expected that that person is going to know what a droid is, what a Wookiee is, why Jedi are important and heroic, and why the Sith are scary and evil. If you make up a cool story about the history of the Jedi, you can just have your characters tell it, and the player will automatically care about it.

That's not necessarily the case if you're making your own setting. You have to establish the setting framework first before you can tell those cool stories. Leaping into the tale of some legendary Grey Warden from a hundred years ago just doesn't work without first establishing who the Grey Wardens are, why they're important, and why you should care about them. At the same time, though, this sort of legend is useful (and almost necessary) for establishing a sense of verisimilitude.

Dragon Age goes a step beyond this, though. If you dig deep enough, you can actually hear different versions of the same legend, or different myths about the same character. All of that contributes to the setting having an organic feeling, as if the world actually developed itself through millennia of culture rather than developer fiat. The depth of lore isn't as extensive as it is in, say, the Elder Scrolls universe--but then again, the Elder Scrolls have had four mainline games plus at least as many side stories to develop its internal mythos. That the Dragon Age mythos is even able to be compared to the Elder Scrolls this early in its development speaks volumes.

A game can't survive on quality of setting alone, obviously. Otherwise, it would be sufficient to read a series of Wikipedia articles on the subject, similarly the critical research on the Mongol empire that I may or may not have done for an afternoon or two during my Big Oil internship. You need a plot and characters. Dragon Age does all right with both; as of now, I'm slightly more impressed by the story than the party. Many of the characters in this game have the tendency of being too arch, bordering on bitchy, but that's not always the case. Shale the golem is amusingly douche-y, Alistair's sense of humor is actually funny, Sten's laconic nature actually makes you believe he's from a foreign culture, and Leliana's vast repertoire of tales actually make you believe she's picked up a thing or two as a traveling minstrel.

Aesthetically, Dragon Age is average to decent, with the notable exception of the voice acting, which is superb. I've probably been spoiled on a steady diet of Jeremy Soule in the Elder Scrolls games, but the music feels repetitive and uninspired. The graphics aren't too bad--my computer, which is relatively new and decently powerful but by no means a "gaming rig", can play it with high resolution and graphic detail. I have to assume that anyone playing on a computer meant for gaming could turn all the settings to "ultra super awesome" and things would handle just fine.

One comment about the game's difficulty. I've talked this over with a friend who's also playing through the game now, and I've narrowed it down to three possibilities: 1) I'm missing something big, and finding that something would make the game a lot easier; 2) I'm really bad at the game; or 3) the game is just really hard. (I choose to believe option 3.) Just about every fight feels like a challenge, and at least one party member dies in a significant number of them. And here's the thing--I'm playing on normal difficulty. There have been more than a few times I've been tempted to say "screw it, I'm going for easy mode." I can't imagine how or why you'd ever play hard, let alone "nightmare".

All in all, I recommend this game, unless you're not ready to commit 50+ hours to a video game. (Be especially wary if you value your social life.) And I recommend it highly if you're a fan of Bioware's previous work or epic fantasy RPGs in general. Even if you're not a Bioware fan by and large, Dragon Age: Origins might make you a believer.

Currently listening: "Simple Pages", Weezer, from the Green Album

Friday, November 06, 2009

Vedera, Live at the Fillmore

Anyone attempting to find a record of the "Vedera concert" at the Fillmore on 11/5/09 will probably not find it. By all rights, it was the "Mat Kearney concert", with Vedera as an opening band. This marks the first time in my concert-going career that I've gone to a show for the sole purpose of seeing the opening band. If this smacks of indie-kid obscurism to you, it does to me too, and I sort of resent it.

Most of the reason I resent it is because Vedera is good--really good. It's just that Vedera doesn't have the massive fan base that's probably required to sustain a headlined tour. But they're clearly accomplished enough musically to headline their own tour, with two full-length albums out. And they're experienced enough; as Kristen May said, they've been a touring band for five years now. I can only hope that as Vedera continues to open for bigger-name acts like Mat Kearney and Eisley, and huge-name acts like the Fray, that they'll become a big-name act themselves.

In other words, while I might be awfully indie-kid in liking a band before they make it big, I'm decidedly not so indie-kid in that I want them to enjoy mainstream success. Fortunately for everyone involved, their fan base seems to be growing by the day, at least if their Facebook "fan" numbers are any indication. And they should continue to grow as long as Vedera keeps putting on concerts like they did in San Francisco.

Probably the most striking thing about the concert was the audience reaction to it. "Their singer is amazing." "She [Kristen May] is adorable." "I didn't know of these guys at all, but I'm buying the album." "I was really impressed." All of that suggests to me that all Vedera needs to do is maintain the aggressive approach to big tours and generating publicity, and they'll do just fine.

The concert itself, unsurprisingly, presented like a sales pitch for the most recent album, Stages. May gently reminded the audience to go buy the album at every opportunity she got--and at least her efforts appeared to have paid off. The set list was more or less straight down Stages, with a couple songs left off and a few others out of order. I might have liked to hear some of the older stuff too, but it's so different from the new material that it probably would have seemed out of place. Save it for the headlined tour, I suppose.

May remarked at the beginning that she had "butterflies in [her] stomach playing the Fillmore." You could tell--May started the evening a little hesitant, without going for the vocal "big plays" that fans know her for. By the end, though, all that trepidation seems to have vanished; "We Sing" was an enormously powerful performance to end the show. The "audience participation" gimmick in that song was fun, and it would have worked much better had the crowd been better sports in singing along.

One of May's most endearing traits during the concert turned out to be that shy nervousness from playing such an iconic venue combined with her coy flirting with the audience. (Bad, bad news for male fans of Vedera: Kristen May is married--actually to the band's guitarist, Brian Little.) Asking the audience if it was our "first date" with her (it was for most of us), maintaining an upbeat indie glamor throughout, and offering signatures and hugs after the concert (I got one of each) is the sort of thing that goes a long way toward building enthusiasm for seeing future shows. And even though I'm never (publicly) going to congratulate myself for "discovering" Vedera before the mainstream music community does, I can't say it wasn't amazing standing close enough to the stage to see the sparkle in Kristen's eye.

Only one regret from the concert: I forgot my damn camera. Photography during the concert was "not allowed", so I had to resort to furtive pictures taken on my phone, none of which turned out to look any good at all. And the lighting conditions were downright horrible when I tried to get pictures with the band, so what ought to have been me, Brian, and Kristen, ended up looking like some hideous red blurs. Still, the chance to meet both of them was fantastic--they're genuine, gracious people who clearly appreciate their fans and are willing to take some time out after their show to talk with them.

So go buy some of their music.

Currently listening: The Blue Album, Weezer