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Archive for September, 2007

Robert Jordan

James Oliver Rigney, Jr, better known as Robert Jordan, author of The Wheel of Time series, died on Sunday 16 September.

Whenever I get on the internet I generally look at three author websites, in this order: stephenrdonaldson.com, georgerrmartin.com, and dragonmount.com/RobertJordan. The two or three times I’ve tried to visit this last site while I’ve been here in Canada – and maybe back in Britain, too, I can’t remember – it hasn’t loaded – and this’ll be why: it’s been far too busy. I was surprised and saddened to see the news, but also annoyed that I hadn’t come across it earlier.

The Wheel of Time is, up to a point, the best post-Tolkien fantasy series. It has an epic storyline of exactly the sort that makes high fantasy high fantasy, the world-building is pretty much second-to-none, and, while Jordan’s character’s aren’t the most diverse or striking, the protagonists have lived on in my mind for the last decade and a half.

Jordan was working on the twelfth and final book when he became ill with amyloidosis and was a long way from completing it. To be fair, the series had gone on too long. The first three books are generally agreed to be the stand-out volumes, but the second three books are a little different (longer, more detailed) but just as good in their own way; book six, Lord of Chaos, is my favourite. After that they started to go downhill. For me, books seven to nine are worth reading, but volume ten, Crossroads of Twilight, was abysmal. The most recent book, Knife of Dreams, was better, but I didn’t much enjoy it – the spark had definitely gone.

Even so, I was still intending to read the concluding volume, A Memory of Light, when it eventually came out. Not just for the sake of completion and not just because of a kind of dogged loyalty to the series, but TWoT still has a place in my affections, and for all the flaws in the latter part of the series it remains one of the best contemporary fantasies.

I don’t doubt that A Memory of Light will see the light of day before too long has passed. David Gemmell’s last book came out recently – a year or so after his death – and Jordan was apparently dictating plotlines during his illness in case of exactly this eventuality. More of a loss, perhaps, is the books he would have written once TWoT was done and dusted. Whether they would have been as good as the early TWoT volumes is another matter, but would have been interesting to find out. We’ll never know. Unless, of course, he rises from the dead to continue his career Virginia Andrews-like, and become not so much an author as a franchise. Probably best if that doesn’t happen.

It’s a real shame that Robert Jordan has died, and also a shame that his reputation as a writer was tarnished by the continuation of his seemingly never-ending story. All stories must end sometime, I suppose – and that’s not just inevitable, it’s completely natural.

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Last night I joined the roleplaying game that Pete and his friends are playing – Mutants and Masterminds. It took me a long time to settle on a character, but eventually I came up with what’s essentially a werewolf, except his change is triggered by heightened emotion instead of night/the full moon. Technically, he’s also able to change into a plain wolf, but a) it didn’t come up and b) we didn’t agree on a mechanism for him become one thing instead of the other.

The system is pretty good – it provides for a lot of flexibility and in some respects is quite straightfoward. On the other hand, you could easily find it too flexible. In most RPGs you’re provided with a number of character archetypes, from which you choose one (sometimes more) and then alter/improve to suit your needs/whims. In M&M (ha!) your character can be almost anything you want. Usually, an RPG will give you a number of areas that you can change individually, as well as some characteristics that are just set. M&M gives you 150 that you can spend on any characteristics at all – you could put them all in combat-type abilities and have no skills, or vice versa.

The meat of the game mechanics is the powers. My character’s power, as a man, is Morph – he can become something else. The werewolf, however, has Regeneration (so he automatically heals himself, a la Wolverine), Damage, Leaping, Speed and Supersenses. His backstory is that he was a lumberjack and one day he was attacked by a great wolf with glowing eyes. Before the wolf could kill him it appeared to be called off. John (for that is his name) was taken to hospital and recovered. One night after he went back to work he got into a fight and changed into a wolf-man-beast-type thing – and killed all his colleagues. He’s been on the run since then, afraid of justice and afraid of himself. He can control himself when he’s in the werewolf form nowadays, though.

So what happened in the game was that there was a huge battle going on between a load of demons that had decided to attack this plane, and the superheroes of New York. I joined in a fight between the other player characters and a large, red, plate-armoured demon called War. Once he was dispatched (back to Hell, via an exorcism) we then had to rescue a time-travelling baby from another demon, Pain. Pain had the ability to make people fall in love with her and attack her attackers – and this happened to me a fair bit. There was an episode (in fact, two episodes) where John leapt through a portal into the air and on to a demon spiriting away the baby (one of two kidnapped infants).

The baby was eventually recovered and the demon killed and some bizarre temporal dynamics were attempted to be explained. If I could make the character over again, I’d lower his defence rating – he almost never got hit – which rendered his Regeneration power redundant – and put it into attack or Damage. This morning I realised that I really should have made a character who can control luck and chance – Captain Maybe.

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Exchange rate watch

As I’m currently in Canada I’m updating my exchange rate watch to include the Canadian dollar by default. Naturally, it replaces the Korean won.

1 GBP = 2.0218 CAD
1 GBP = 1.4332 EUR
1 GBP = 2.0194 USD

Bonus Random Exchange Rate

1 GBP = 10.125 Ukrainian hryven (UAH)

 

Source: Yahoo! Finance.

 

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Lakeside locution

Today is Friday and it still feels as though I’ve only just arrived in Canada.

On Wednesday night, Pete picked me up from the airport and frove me back to his place. His place, or, strictly speaking, his parents’ place (they won’t be living here until next year) is a large lakeside house. The front door is actually on second floor, where there’s a kitchen, a living room, a small bathroom (unfinished) and a bedroom – where I’m sleeping. Down the stairs you find Pete and his housemate’s computer room, three bedrooms and two bathrooms. Down some more stairs you find the slightly mouldy-smelling gaming room – where I’ll be joining in a superheroes game tonight … as soon as I make a character. I haven’t been down to the lake yet, but from the upper floors it looks like the lawn extends from the bottom floor about 20 or 30 yards before there’s a fringe of trees and then water.

Yesterday, the housemate drove me into Halifax and bought me some lunch at a waterfront restaurant (I chose fish and chips – it seemed appropriate, somehow). We walked up to the public gardens and later went to a mall in Dartmouth – which is across the bay from Halifax, and towards their house – for a smoothie.

Halifax – what I’ve seen of it – has quite an uncityish feel to it – it’s almost more of a large small town. If you see what I mean. The streets had a fair amount of people on them, but they were far from heaving. Nor are the streets very wide, and most of the buildings are relatively modest in scale. From signs and the architecture, it definitely feels North American, though; apparently it’s quite similar to Boston.

And the weather’s been very nice – warm and sunny and not too windy.

Before I switched my laptop on, I discovered that the plug adapter I got at Heathrow appears to be the wrong type. The packaging said it was for use in America, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, but its prongs are closer together and a different shape than the plugs in the house. The prongs have a certain amount of give in them and you can get them into the socket, but obviously I don’t want to force them and blow something up. Or something.

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Air Maybe

Well, here I am at gate 25 of Heathrow Airport, waiting to board my flight to Montreal – which should begin receiving humans into its metal form in about fifteen minutes. The day has been pretty uneventful, disregarding the novelty of air travel. The flight from Manchester was a little behind schedule, but I’ve been at Heathrow for nearly three hours now.

At Manchester, while waiting for the flight from there I spent my last whole pound (in the form of five twenty pence pieces) on a coffee from a vending machine. My purchases since then have been conducted via the magic of credit card. I nearly came a cropper a short while ago when I returned to the bagel kiosk in Terminal 3 for another tea and a shortbread biscuit – I didn’t have the requisite 5GBP to permit the use of said magical card. So I dithered embarrassingly and got another shortbread and a banana. This came to 4.90GBP; the man next to me laughed. The girl behind the counter let the transaction go through. Then, in the departure lounge, I attempted to eat the shortbreads. The attempt was mostly successful, but the first one shed crumbs all over the place. I’ve now moved to another seat.

There was an interesting moment shortly after landing at Heathrow: as the plane taxied away from the runway we could see out of the left-hand (port?) windows two planes approaching to land behind us. Not much else to say at the moment, but I am, of course looking forward to getting to Canada…

And here I am … in Montreal, anyway. I’ve been reading Reaper’s Gale on the plane(s). It’s fine, but the gap between my reading this and the previous volume has been longer than any of the previous gaps – so I’m picking up threads (from two books ago, in fact) and trying to remember what has gone before. (On the subject of which, the WHGB for Fatal Revenant is now on Stephen Donaldson’s website. I looked at it a couple of days ago, but decided it would be a bit too tedious to look at just then. The book itself comes out shortly before I’m due to fly back to Britain, which raises the interesting question of whether I take the opportunity to buy the US edition. Well, almost certainly not, actually – question answered.)

My inner ear seems to be a bit screwed at the moment – I keep feeling as if I’m swaying or rising and dipping. Slightly disconcerting, but not entirely unpleasant.

Interesting. What I had assumed was my plane to Halifax has just been towed away from the gate. Boarding is due to start in about 25 minutes, so I assume it’ll be replaced. And now it’s been put directly in front of me at the neighbouring gate. Why am I sitting at the neighbouring gate? Because that’s where I bought my tea – my first purchase with Canadian currency. Strangely enough, the Queen’s head, while it appears to be on all the coins is only on the $20 note/bill (of the three I’ve seen, anyway); the $5 and the $10 have pictures of prime ministers on them.

While Canada is the second largest country in the world (so I understand) and contains all the diversity that amount of space would imply, I admit I’m guilty of having certain preconceptions about it (albeit at a low level). Much of the landscape we flew over once the Atlantic was out of the way seemed quite, dare I say it, English – a patchwork of farms interspersed with wooded areas (I believe they’re called woods – or forests if they’re larger than a certain, if unknown, size). Closer to Montreal, the farmland changed character – the fields were arranged in long strips. Flying over the city itself reminded me of … Sim City.

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Robert Rankin’s latest volume of madness came out while I was still in Korea, but after my last credit card had expired, so I’d been waiting a few months to get hold of it and my anticipation was duly high. Unfortunately, The Da-Da-De-Da-Da Code didn’t quite live up to my expectations.

Which isn’t to say that it was bad, by any means. It has all the classic Rankin elements: a dastardly plot to destroy the world, a gormless hero and much talking of toot. What it doesn’t have is a typical sidekick. Jonny Hooker (our hero) has an imaginary friend in the form of a fez- and waistcoat-wearing monkey, Mr Giggles, but Mr Giggles doesn’t appear to be entirely sympathetic to Jonny’s quest. It also has an unusual ending – for a Rankin book; I won’t say more here.

The humour is pretty typical, but it has a certain bleakness. It also doesn’t quite add up in some respects: some things are left unexplained and the nature of the bad guys is not entirely satisfactory – they appear to come out of nowhere periodically, attempt to screw things up for the world, then go away again for a couple of hundred years. I suppose one doesn’t really read Robert Rankin for the consistency of the plot and backstory, but The Blah-Blah-Blah Code wasn’t as good as some of his other novels. (It does contain a Metallica reference, though, which improves it somewhat.)

The hardback version comes with a free CD featuring songs co-written by the Lad Himself. I should really get round to listening to it.

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The setting of this novel is quite interesting (as Stephen Fry might have it) – it’s set in a late medieval/renaissance Italian-style city; specifically, Camorr has a very Venetian feel – the port is archipelagic (how often do you get to use that word in context?) – it’s built on a series of islands interconnected by bridges and boats.

The eponymous Locke is a Gentleman Bastard. To the underworld of Camorr he appears to be a thief of modest abilities; in reality he is a skilled conman who specialises in ripping off the nobility, thus breaking the Secret Peace between the nobs and the thieves. Much of the first part of the book concerns his scheme against Don and Dona Lorenzo. But, of course, it gets an awful lot more complicated later on.

The main complaint I have about this book is the anachronastic language. Despite its ye olde European setting the characters swear like contemporary Americans. For instance, ‘fuck’ is used as an interjection or for emphasis; you have ‘fucking’ this and ‘fucking’ that. I like ‘fuck’ in fantasy when it’s used as a verb, but the way it’s used in LLL just seems out of place. Likewise ‘ass’ and ‘asshole’. I prefer ‘arse’, (but then I’ve always been a bit anally retentive).

Apart from all that, the writing is OK. Not brilliant, but certainly not awful. For a lot of the book I got the sense that it didn’t quite feel authentic, that I didn’t quite believe in the characters, but I gradually lost this feeling as I drew towards the end. In fact, towards the end the story picks up a lot and I felt my heart beating faster as Locke did and was done to.

In the first half of the book I thought I probably wouldn’t bother reading the next volume (Red Seas Under Red Skies, recently released), but now I’m not so sure. I may well do, but I’m not going to make it a priority.

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