Thoughts on Knights of the Frozen Throne

Knights of the Frozen ThroneI play a lot of Hearthstone, but I don’t usually post much about it here. But with the newest expansion, Knights of the Frozen Throne, launching in a day or so, I thought I’d jot down some thoughts on the set, and where the new cards might take the classes going forward.

This is a long post, as I had a lot of free time on my hands during a flight.

For reference, here is a gallery of all the new cards.

Druid

One thing I think is clear: Druid of the Swarm will see play, and I’m not sure what will happen in a meta where a two mana Poisonous card is popular. It may change the way people build decks, needing to either deal two damage or keep small minions around on the board.

Druid of the Swarm’s other form, as well as the 3 mana Crypt Lord card, are going to give Token Druid some very significant (and annoying) board protection which should see the deck continue to appear regularly on the ladder, and stronger than before.

Malfurion the Pestilent, the Druid Hero card, is one of the most consistently playable in the set, and I expect to see it in most slower decks. I can’t say the same for Hadronox, which as a 9 mana Deathrattle without taunt, is far too slow for all but the greediest control players – it just doesn’t compare to N’Zoth.

One last card that could make waves in Druid is Ultimate Infestation, which in itself is almost as powerful as a hero card – it’s pretty much two 5 mana Kazakus potions in one card (though it draws more cards than Kazakus). It comes at a 10 mana cost, and requires a suitable board state, but I can see it played as a one-of in Big Druid. (People are making noise about Quest Druid, but I still don’t see much reason to play it.)

Hunter

Control Hunter might happen, but it probably isn’t going to. Stitched Tracker and Abominable Bowman are great cards, and at least the first will be played, but Hunter still lacks some of the tools to make a slow deck worth it. Right now most Hunter Deathrattle minions have anti-synergy with Bowman, so it’s going to take another set or two to make Control work.

Midrange on the other hand could make a comeback, perhaps in a slower version with Deathstalker Rexxar for the late game. Rexxar is one of the weaker Hero Cards, providing a lot of value but not much more. Secret Hunter is also gaining some tools, but nothing quite on the level of current Secret Mage – people will play it, but it’ll be more annoying than successful.

I do think there’s an outside chance that Face Hunter could resurface, with the new Abusive Sergeant-alike Acherus Veteran, but odds are low. Personally, I’m interested in experimenting with Quest Hunter and Prince Keleseth, as a card that makes the 1-drops more impactful, but I have no illusions that it will actually be a good deck.

Mage

Mage got an interesting package of cards in this set. I don’t see them bringing about any new powerful deck types, but the existing ones will get a little more refined.

Probably the least predictable of Mage’s new tools is Frost Lich Jaina, a somewhat powerful Hero card but one that doesn’t have an immediately clear place. The battlecry would seem to encourage Elemental Mage, but I just don’t see that taking off. It’s still playable as a standalone, and who knows, maybe there will be a tier 3 Control deck.

Blizzard keep printing cards that interact with Freeze mechanics for Mage, but I still don’t see them coming together into a deck. (Coldwraith is going to dominate arena, though, just by being a 3 mana 3/4.) I also don’t see Secret decks changing all that much – Glacial Mysteries is just too expensive, and even the best outcome of 5 secrets on turn 8 is just going to annoy your opponent without actually gaining you much.

Paladin

Paladin is going to be a class to watch out for in KotFT. The Paladin Hero card, Uther of the Ebon Blade, is, like Malfurion, a solid, playable card that will make it into any slow deck. The Four Horsemen win condition is unlikely to make a huge impact, but it’s going to be annoying to play around.

The focus of the new set for Paladin has been Divine Shield synergy, and they have a lot of interesting tools there; I don’t know if they’ll make a top tier deck on their own, but we’ll have to see. Bolvar Fireblood will probably see play with minimal synergy (Righteous Protector, Rallying Blade, Wickerflame Burnbristle, and Tirion) just because it makes a great Spikeridged Steed target. My own interest is toward Handbuff Paladin, which I think is getting a lot of useful options (see Corpsetaker), but I’m not convinced it’ll be any stronger than it was in Mean Streets of Gadgetzan.

The unknown factor in Paladin, as far as I’m concerned, is aggro: they just got a very powerful 1-drop, Righteous Protector, which could open the way for a new fast deck to take over. Watch out for that Rallying Blade synergy.

Priest

I’ve mentioned a few times so far where I think aggressive decks might rise up – or just get better – with the new expansion cards, but if there’s one thing that could keep them in check, it’s the number of whirlwind effects in the set. Spirit Lash is one such effect, and it’s going to be a staple in Priest. It might need a spellpower boost to clear some Shaman and Druid boards, but it’s going to do a lot of work against Pirate Warrior and Divine Shield decks (even if it does no healing there). And of course it offers a whole new way for Priest to mill itself with Circle of Healing.

Beyond that, there are a few decks that have people excited. Shadowreaper Anduin when combined with Raza the Unchained is likely to be a force to be reckoned with – watch out for big Radiant Elemental + Lyra the Sunshard turns. The set also gives several cards to a new deck type, based around cheating out big minions with effects and then resurrecting them – Eternal Servitude is a great card in itself, and Shadow Essence can do great things in a deck built for it. Expect those to be combined with Barnes to summon an endless chain of Obsidian Statues, the new powerhouse big drop – alongside Ysera and The Lich King, of course. Embrace Darkness has been called out as slow, but I guarantee you it will be played – Priest as a class can afford to take one hit before the switch.

On the “interesting but not quite viable” side, Shadow Ascendant and neutral card Happy Ghoul call to mind the possibility of a new style of Priest play focusing around cheap minions (perhaps with Mana Geode and Kabal Talonpriest). Wait and see on that – maybe next expansion.

Dragon Priest didn’t quite die with the standard format rotation, but it’s not what it once was. New neutral card Bone Drake offers the chance of a revival, giving fuel to the “hold” mechanic and even giving Priests potential access to the new Mage legendary Sindragosa. Finally, Quest Priest hasn’t really been on my radar, but right now I’m sitting looking at Tomb Lurker and Bone Drake and wondering…

Rogue

Rogue is going some interesting places. While we didn’t get much here for Miracle Rogue – it didn’t need anything really – what we are getting is a whole bunch of cards that preserve your life total, weapon value engine Doomerang, and a Hero card that can generate new combos through extra copies of cards in your deck.

Doomerang and a new Rogue weapon pair well with the hero, which removes your dagger hero power, and I can easily see a new deck emerging from those three cards. On the other hand cards like Spectral Pillager and Bone Baron just don’t fit what Rogue wants to do – it’s like Blizz thinks if they keep printing more mid-cost 5-attackminions we’ll eventually just break down and use them.

Roll the Bones throws a bone to Deathrattle Rogue, but the card’s unlikely to be as powerful as it seems at first glance (look at Wrathion), and Rogue is still lacking something to make Deathrattle decks work. Don’t expect much of that.

Shaman

Blizzard have tried with one card set to introduce a whole new style of deck to the Shaman class. Freeze effects are all over, but with Moorabi and Ice Breaker the only payoff, I’m not convinced they’ll be worth the space in a deck. (Though Moorabi could be a nice just-for-fun build-around, allowing Shaman access to minions from other classes.) The one exception among these Freezes is Voodoo Hexxer, a perfectly fine card on its own. While Avalanche looks like a half decent AoE, Shaman have plenty of good AoE already.

Thrall, Deathseer is, simply put, the worst Hero card in the set. It’s cheap, and double Evolve is a strong battlecry, but Evolve Shaman needs minions on board, and removing the Shaman hero power is exactly what you don’t want to do. I’ve seen it said in other card reviews: what Shaman wants to do on 5 mana with a full board is not Evolve, it’s Bloodlust.

The only other place Shaman has really been given anything is for Murloc decks, but Quest Shaman just doesn’t need much card draw, which leaves Ice Fishing dead in the water.

Warlock

Probably the class I’m most excited about in KotFT, Warlock has been pretty much dead for the last few months, having had its two big decks, Zoo and Renolock, gutted by the standard rotation. How is Blizzard fixing this? By giving it the strongest Hero card in the set, Bloodreaver Gul’dan.

Let’s be fair: Warlock has a few absolutely terrible cards in this set, as it seems to in every set, but the good cards it’s getting are great. Gul’dan’s Hero card has the strongest hero power in the game, one which not only lets you tear apart opponents with 3 damage a turn, but also provides healing, exactly what Warlock needs in the late game after Life Tapping away its health. And on top of that you’re resurrecting a board of demons, which are likely to include taunt, charge, and other effects.

I’ve seen a couple of opinions on where Bloodreaver Gul’dan can go – some people see this as the time for Krul the Unshackled to finally see play (and it could work), but I’m more interested in looking at Quest Warlock. A lot – a hell of a lot – of players think it’s a terrible idea. They look at discard and see the worst case scenario, discarding your Hero card, and then what are you going to do? But I’ve been playing the deck lately, using a build by Brian Kibler, and it’s really not that bad, even when you get unlucky and discard Jaraxxus. I see Gul’dan offering more options to the deck, adding a third win condition alongside Jaraxxus and Nether Portal, and Discardlock clearly offers some of the strongest possible outcomes for Gul’dan’s battecry. Add in Blood Queen Lanathel for a beefy body and more healing, and you’re going places.

The other good cards for Warlock are Despicable Dreadlord, offering ping to a class that lacks it on a reasonable body, and Defile, one of the best but most complex board clears in the game. You’ll see a lot of both cards. On the other hand, Treachery, Gnomeferatu and Howlfiend are complete junk, and Unwilling Sacrifice is only borderline.

The other thing to look for is a potential Zoo revival, if only through the strength of a few interesting neutral minions and perhaps Sanguine Reveler. It still won’t be as strong as before, however.

Warrior

Will the reign of Pirate Warrior finally be over? Haha no. But Warrior are still getting some interesting and powerful cards in the set.

Control Warrior might be receiving a bit of love with Mountainfire Armor (a weird card, and a hard one to evaluate) and Blood Razor (it’s almost as good as Death’s Bite, which means it’s pretty damn good), but most of the help is going to tempo Warrior, including the Hero card,  which provides a constant supply of Whirlwind effects. Combine with Animated  Berserker and Blood Razor for easy activation of all on-damage effects. The issue I’m having is picturing what Tempo Warrior does without the best of those effects, Grim Patron. Rotface sits in a similar space, with a very high upside, but it’s expensive and inconsistent, and the new Valkyr Soulclaimer just isn’t a strong card.

No, I think what we’re going to see is an old fashioned Control Warrior using new activators for Acolyte of Pain, Armorsmith, and Grom Hellscream, while Pirate Warrior maybe picks up a couple of new cards (Forge of Souls for weapon consistency, Phantom Freebooter as a new curve topper) and runs with them. The nature of the new Hero cards means the set doesn’t really bring anything to Quest Warrior – they didn’t even print any good taunts.

Neutral

Knights of the Frozen Throne has probably the most interesting set of cards Hearthstone has ever received, with new ideas used on the majority of the set, so there are a number of neutrals worth looking at.

Corpsetaker is going to be in a lot of decks, particularly Paladin, since it provides a lot of value if you’re​ including Divine Shield, Taunt, and Lifesteal anyway. Bone Drake is a significant addition to the Dragon type, though many classes lack the synergies to be worth playing a full Dragon deck now.

Unique cards like Meat Wagon are going to prompt some experimentation even if they don’t make a big impact (I’ve seen talk of Handbuff, but who wants to pull an unbuffed minion from their deck?). Skulking Ghoul is going to appear everywhere for the first few days and then mostly disappear. And while not new, expect a lot of weapon removal in the Frozen Throne meta.

Of course the big hitter of the set, and the new legendary that’s going to see the most play, is The Lich King himself. A big card with taunt and a powerful end of turn effect, it’s going to be in every control deck at first, and then maybe a few less once people decide they can’t afford to keep burning cards from their deck. Expect it to still be very popular. (Arfus far less so – it’s a 4 mana 2/2, it’s just not worth the one random card.)

Everyone can see the three Blood Princes are junk, though people will try to make them work.

That’s It

I’ve covered everything that seems worth covering, though my coverage likely isn’t worth all that much. What remains is to wait until tomorrow (or, well, Friday morning,  I’m in Europe), open packs, and see how wrong I was.

Which one card everyone crafts will turn out to be complete crap? Which joke of a card will dominate the meta for the next year and a half? Which card from three sets ago has been completely forgotten and is about to be everywhere? I’ll probably write another, shorter post in a few months to see how well I did here.

Advertisements

Colossal

colossal_28film29Colossal, written and directed by Nacho Vigalondo, is a strange film to have to describe to someone. When you say “it’s a dark black comedy about alcoholism and abusive relationships starring Anne Hathaway, who finds out she’s causing a giant monster to attack Seoul”, you get some puzzled looks, because yes, this is a weird mashup of genres. I wasn’t sure what to expect going in; what little I’d heard suggested it would either be a huge disaster, or that I would love it. And hey, it’s not a disaster.

Anne Hathaway’s character, Gloria, is an unemployed writer with an alcohol problem. After being kicked out by her boyfriend she moves back to her home town, where she runs into her childhood friend Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who offers her a job at his bar. Gloria quickly settles into a pattern of drinking all night with Oscar and his buddies, often waking the next day with no memory of the night before.

And then the news starts reporting about a giant monster that has been materialising in Seoul, South Korea, causing terror and destruction. Gloria quickly comes to the realisation that she is in fact causing the monster to appear, and it is mimicking her actions.

It’s a pretty blatant metaphor: the monster destroying Seoul as a stand in for the damage Gloria causes to those around her with her self-destructive drunken behaviour. Where things get really interesting is after she shares her discovery with Oscar and his friends; Gloria’s relationship with Oscar begins to take a darker turn, and their influence over the events in Korea become part of an increasingly abusive cycle.

It’s so obvious what the film is doing with this premise that it seems like it shouldn’t work at all, but somehow it does. Despite some jarring swings in tone in the early parts – when the monster attacks are first reported I felt like this would fall apart after all – the film really manages to sell the idea that this is what is happening, and this is what real, flawed people would do with that power. The performance by Sudeikis in particular, with the gradual reveal of his abusive nature, is excellent.

This can be a very dark film, and it is tackling some serious subject matter, but it also manages to have incredibly funny moments, even when what’s happening perhaps isn’t something that should be laughed at.  The tone does clash at times, but for the most part it’s handled well, and I think the portrayal of domestic abuse is something the film does well and treats somewhat respectfully. If there’s one problem on that end it’s that the resolution of their conflict is maybe a little too easy and neat.

One final thing I feel is worth bringing up, and which adds a small caveat to my otherwise strong recommendation, is that this is a film about two white Americans in New England whose personal problems are acted out upon the lives of thousands of South Koreans; the very real death and destruction they cause is far removed from them, existing for the purposes of the film as part of an extended metaphor for the control abusers can hold over their victims. As a white westerner myself I don’t think there’s much I can say about that, but the use of Asian lives like this without providing them a real presence or agency in the film seems like something that deserves addressing.

That said, Colossal is unique, weird, and features some brilliant performances. It might not work for everyone, but I very much enjoyed it and would recommend checking it out. It’s in cinemas in the UK right now (though not in all of them; I had to travel a little out of my way to see it).

Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2016

I’ve been in Edinburgh since Monday, on my annual visit to the Edinburgh Fringe. Usually I’d make a summary post each day, but this time I thought I’d just write it up in one post.

TL;DR my favourite shows this year:

  • Daniel Sloss, So
  • Chris Coltrane, Socialist Fun Times
  • Nicole Henriksen, Makin It Rain

But I didn’t see anything I’d say was bad.

Monday

My first day at the Fringe was a little shorter, and I mostly saw acts I’d seen before in previous years. The first show I saw this year was Tamar Broadbent’s Get Ugly; this is the third year in a row I’ve been to Tamar’s free show, and she was as good as ever, very funny with good songs.

Next was Rachel Parris, another musical comedy act. I first saw her in a free show a few years back which I enjoyed a lot, but her paid show the next year – which used character comedy – was a little disappointing in comparison. Best Laid Plans, her show this year, was back to something more like that first year, and I enjoyed it.

After that was the last repeat on previous years, Daniel Sloss’s So. Sloss is one of the best stand up acts I’ve seen, and this year was just as good as last year, highly recommended.

My final show on Monday was Russ Peers’ Bad Gay, which started off awkwardly when I was the only person who stepped forward when they called for people with tickets to go in. It was one of the shows that are free to get in but give the option of buying a ticket, which is not clear on the Fringe ticket website; it turned out I had a few tickets like this. As it was 10:30pm on a Monday, it was a pretty small crowd. Peers’ show was a little rough around the edges, but amusing enough.

Tuesday

I fell afoul of my indecision on Tuesday, and didn’t go to either of the first two free shows I’d been considering to start my day. In the end I started with The Punel Show, which is exactly what it sounds like. The show was a bit of a disaster, as one of the two hosts was absent due to an injury and the remaining host was a little lost, but it still managed to be a lot of fun (so long as you like a lot of bad puns).

After that was Laura Lexx, Tyrannosaurus Lexx, which wasn’t the greatest standup show, but was still worth the price (this was another of the”£5 or pay what you want” tickets).

My next show was James Wilson-Taylor’s Ginger is the New Black. Another musical comedian, this show was a bit shoutier and more absurd than most I saw, and got a lot of laughs out of me.

After I grabbed some food (I barely ate on Monday and was trying to do better), I moved on to American standup Ari Shaffir’s Ari-S-P-E-C-T, which I think was my favourite show off the day.

Finally, there was Gillian Cosgriff’s This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, which had my favourite songs out of all the musical comedy acts I saw this year.

I’d planned to see another after that, but it was late, wet, and I had a 25 minute walk to get to my hotel, and I really wasn’t feeling up to more.

Wednesday

Wednesday was my best day of the Fringe. Some of the crowds were small, I got soaking wet, but I had some of my best times at the shows I saw that day.

The day started a little weak with Sooz Kempner’s Queen; the show had strong storytelling elements and Kempner’s cover songs were strong (she has a good voice), but the original songs weren’t great and the humour wasn’t quite there. (I honestly think the show could be fine without being funnier because of that storytelling side, but Kempner kept calling attention to the weak laughs.)

I followed that up with Laurence Owen’s Cinemusical High, a one man high school musical, which was a lot of fun.

The next show was Chris Coltrane’s Socialist Fun Times. I’d tried to see Coltrane before a couple of years ago, but the venue had been packed full; this time was also packed, so much so that people were sitting on the floor. It’s political comedy, very left wing as the title implies, and very very funny. Really glad I caught this one, will probably try to see him again on future trips.

As good as that was, the next show I saw is possibly my favourite out of all five years I’ve been to the Fringe. Nicole Henriksen’s Makin It Rain is a one-woman theatre piece about her work as a stripper to support her comedy career. Henriksen gives a strong performance which is at turns funny, sexy, serious and poignant. As well as an autobiographical piece, it’s also a feminist discussion of the stripping profession, the impact it has on performers, and its position and perception in our sexist society. Strongly recommend seeing this one. (Note: includes nudity.)

After that, I went to a standup show by Danny Deegan, which had the smallest crowd out of all my Fringe shows with only 5 people present. Deegan handled it well, though, and delivered a solid set largely about his relationship with his father. I think we all had a good time despite the turnout.

After killing some time watching a street musician (or more honestly, taking shelter under a tree from the rain, which happened to be next to a performer), and getting well and truly soaked walking across town to the venue, my final show of the Fringe was Rahul Kohli’s Newcastle Brown Male. Kohli’s set about racism was a decent end to a very good day, I enjoyed it a lot.

That’s it for my 2016 trip to Edinburgh. Right now I’m on a train from Edinburgh to London, where I’ll be attending Nine Worlds Geekfest; more on that later this weekend. It’s been a good trip this year; here’s looking forward to next year.

X-Men Apocalypse

X-Men Apocalypse would be a good film, if they hadn’t decided to skimp on character development in favour of filling the middle with pointless fanservice and padding.

(Spoilers ahead.)

I just got back from seeing the film, and I already tweeted a bunch of thoughts on it, but here I’ll go over them in a little more detail.

So you’re making a movie, and you have a group of teenage characters who are just getting to know each other. The foreign exchange student wants to see a bit of US culture, so what else is there to do but have them take a trip to the mall? (This is set in the 80s, after all.) They get to hang out together on their own terms for the first time; you can show how they interact as a group, start them bonding. Maybe the new kid gets into some trouble because he looks different, and his new friends stick up for him. When they come back to school and find out that plot has happened, they’ve already become a team to the audience’s eyes.

Or you can have all that happen off screen and show another Quicksilver slow-mo sequence instead. The fans liked that last time, right? They won’t want to get to know these new characters, what they want is the same thing as last time, but twice as long and with way more forced humour.

And that there is where X-Men Apocalypse falls down. While we do get to know Scott Summers, Jean Grey, and Kurt Wagner somewhat, their initial bonding as a group happens off screen. This is perhaps because the following segment of the film has the three of them working together to help rescue several other X-Men (and Moira McTaggart) from Colonel Stryker, but the problem with that is the entire sequence is irrelevant to the plot of the film.

At best, the section in Col. Stryker’s secret base exists only to have a fanservice scene of a newly-created Weapon X Wolverine slaughtering his way through a small army. It’s padding, pure and simple, and adds nothing to the Apocalypse story.

(Can I just jump in here to say how bullshit it is that it’s the three characters who get to work together here? There are four friends who go to the mall together, and thus avoid getting caught by Stryker. Jubilee, another fan favourite character, is one of their group. And yet I’m pretty sure the film never even named her, and she disappeared entirely after the destruction of the school.)

Speaking of the Apocalypse story, this too suffers from the unnecessary padding of the film. When he first ventures into the modern world and encounters Ororo (also never named, iirc) it seems like we’ll get to see how he brings her onto his side – but instead, he gives her power and that’s it, she’s on side with no explaining or convincing. Each of the first three of his Four Horsemen – Storm, Psylocke, and Angel – is turned completely at the first demonstration of his power. There’s no sense of why these characters would go along with his plan to destroy the world. Their recruitment scenes wind up perfunctory, and kind of repetitive. Only the fourth Horseman, Magneto, gets an extended scene convincing him to join – because of course he does, this latest trilogy of X-Men films always likes to make everything about Magneto when it can.

Considering the amount of padding in the film, they had so much room to develop all these characters. Show us how Apocalypse convinces Ororo, what it is about his message that gets to her, and it would become much more meaningful when she turns against him. If they’d spent less time shoehorning in Wolverine cameos and Quicksilver music videos, maybe we could’ve got to know why Angel is the way he is, and maybe we’d know a single damn thing about Psylocke.

This film had a villain whose entire plot was “recruit followers, then use their power to destroy the world”. When there’s little in the way of event in your plot, you make it up with character. Make us empathise, make us understand. Don’t just throw in additional empty action to keep us occupied until you reach the page on your screenplay marked “start climactic battle here”.

(The rest of the film was alright. Not amazing, but certainly not bad.)

What I’ve Been Reading – Winter Edition

I started writing this post in March, but I was never quite happy with my summarising of the books. I’ve been in a reading slump and have not finished any reading or writing I’ve done for the last two months. I finally decided to try to finish what I had here and just post it. It took me 10 minutes. /shrug

Since the last time I made one of these posts, I’ve only written about two books on this blog – Seveneves and Radiance – but there are several others I haven’t mentioned. Here are some brief thoughts on all those other books.

Karen Memory – Elizabeth Bear
A steampunk western about the residents of a brothel who become targets of a powerful and ambitious criminal after taking in a rescued trafficking victim. Meanwhile, a serial killer is targeting prostitutes in Rapid City, and Deputy US Marshal Bass Reeves seeks their help with his investigation.
There’s plenty of wild steampunk invention in this alternate history where “Mad Scientist” is a licensed profession, from submarines to mind control to mech-suit sewing machines, and a lot of action. The main strength of the book however is probably the narrative voice of the protagonist, Karen Memery, who aspires to own a ranch and write adventure novels, and finds herself right in the middle of all this trouble.
I can’t say it’s among my favourites of Bear’s work, but it’s certainly a fun read.

The Fifth Season – N. K. Jemisin
In a world where frequent major tectonic activity causes devastating “fifth seasons”, some people, known as “orogenes”, have developed the ability to control and cause tremors. Feared and hated by ordinary people, orogenes, once discovered, are either killed or sent to the Fulcrum in Yumenes, to train in captivity to serve the empire.
The Fifth Season tells the story of Damaya, Syenite, and Essun – a child found and taken to train at the Fulcrum; a young women travelling with a powerful orogene to fulfill one of the Fulcrum’s missions; and a woman whose son has been killed and daughter taken by their father, who she now chases after as the world begins to end around her. There’s more going on than there seems, however, with mysteries surrounding the strange beings called Stone Eaters, the floating Obelisks, and the truth behind the origins and methods of the Fulcrum.
This complex novel fits together these three stories from three times in a way that gradually peels back the surface of this society and begins to show us the mysteries underneath, and something of the truth to come. The story of Syenite is the most complete here, as she travels with Alabaster, the most powerful Fulcrum orogene, and begins to learn the reasons for his bitter cynicism toward the empire. It’s between this and Damaya’s storyline that Jemisin addresses the slavery of the orogenes, and how the empire keeps the worst truths of its treatment of them hidden away. Essun’s story, on the other hand, seems mainly to lay groundwork for the future of the trilogy; if there’s one place the book suffers, it’s in being the opening volume of a series. Overall this is an excellent book, and very much a series to watch.

Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
Published as part of Tor.com’s new novella imprint, Binti tells the story of a young woman who is the first of the Himba people to be accepted into the most prestigious university in the galaxy. Leaving without the approval of her parents, she sets off on a spaceship journey to Oomza University – only for things to go wrong when the ship encounters a hostile alien species.
Binti is about identity, communication, and understanding – in particular, it’s about respecting one’s heritage and culture while forging your own path, and discovering who you are as an individual. It’s a charming story with a strong lead character who solves problems through empathy.

Persona – Genevieve Valentine
The United Nations meets beauty pageants. Persona shows us a future where every country has a Face, an individual who serves as a mix of ambassador, personification, and figurehead. Faces are the public representatives of their governments, their images and lifestyles tightly controlled; celebrities whose reputations are tied closely to those of their countries. When an assassination attempt is made against Suyana, Face of a tiny South American nation caught between competing powers, she ends up having to rely on photographer Daniel – an aspiring member of the illegal paparazzi – to help her uncover who was responsible and find a way to restore her position.
A light and fast-paced political thriller, this didn’t quite match the strength of Valentine’s The Girls at the Kingfisher Club (one of my favourite novels of 2014), but I still enjoyed it. At the ending I was left feeling that a lot more could have been done with the story, so I was happy to hear that a sequel, Icon, is on its way.

Black Wolves – Kate Elliott
The outsider King Anjihosh has conquered the Hundred, killing the Demons who ruled the country and uniting it under his rule. Decades later, under his grandson King Jehosh, it seems like the peace and unity he created is beginning to fall apart as factions within the palace scheme for power.
As the foreign ruling family impose their customs and faith on the country, this fuels discord among the people. King Jehosh himself is no longer sure how much power he really holds. Dannarah, the king’s aunt and formerly Chief Marshal of the giant-eagle-riding Reeves, sees the systems of the Reeve Halls being torn apart and remade in dangerous forms by her great-nephews. Kellas, once the most trusted Captain of King Anjihosh and his son Itani, is brought out of retirement to help Jehosh, but he is part of another, larger agenda. They and others become caught up in the plots that are tearing the Hundred apart.
This is a big, complex epic fantasy, where every character has their own secrets and you’re never really sure who can trust who. It’s hard to summarise, with so many characters and so much going on. What I can say is that it was one of the most engaging and well-crafted epic fantasies I’ve read, full of great characters (the back-cover copy – and the very long prologue – focuses on Kellas, but it tends to be the other characters, mostly female, who carry the story), and written with a clear awareness of issues of prejudice regarding race, gender, religion, and culture.
The Black Wolves trilogy is a follow-up to an earlier series, however you do not need to be familiar with those books to follow the plot of this one – I have not read the Crossroads trilogy, but based on the strength of Black Wolves, I intend to.

Sorcerer to the Crown – Zen Cho
Zacharias Wythe is the new Sorcerer Royal of England, but faces hostility from the magical establishment in his role – Zacharias is black, a former slave freed and adopted by the previous Sorcerer Royal, Sir Stephen Wythe, and trained in magic in an effort to prove to the Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers that people of his race are just as capable of magic.
On a visit to a school for “gentlewitches” (which specialises in teaching young women how not to use magic, which is considered unladylike) he encounters Prunella Gentleman, an orphan of unusually powerful magical ability, and seizes on the idea of training her in order to demonstrate the capabilities of women – just as she seizes on him as a means of escaping her current life and finding a better station for herself in London society. Together they end up dealing with assassination attempts against Zacharias, the efforts of a Malaysian witch to stop British magicians supporting persecution of her people, and the unexplained closing off of Faerie and dwindling of magical power in England.
The novel is written in a style that mimics the period, but with a willingness to address Britain’s colonialism, and the ugliness of race and gender prejudice. It’s been earning a lot of praise and award consideration, and I can see why.

Archivist Wasp – Nicole Kornher-Stace
In a post-apocalyptic setting where ghosts wander the world, Wasp is the Archivist, whose role is to capture these ghosts and from them try to learn anything she can about the world before. The ghosts, however, do not talk – until she encounters one strange spirit, a soldier who seeks out Wasp’s help in finding his former partner. Their journey together will lead Wasp through many questions and discoveries about who she is and where she came from.
Archivist Wasp is a journey-through-the-underworld tale with a very original spin, and woven within it is the touching science fictional story of the ghost soldier and his partner. Both sides are ultimately about finding your own identity, and escaping the roles that others have shaped you for.

*

In addition to the above, I’ve gone through a number of audiobooks, but I’m having a harder time shaping my thoughts on those. I’ll leave you with these for now. I’m currently reading Testament by Hal Duncan, which is doing some very interesting things with its reinterpretation of the gospels, but has taken me a very long time to get through as the Bible can be somewhat dry.

Radiance by Catherynne M Valente

In a universe where the worlds of our solar system are close, and every one of them is habitable, humanity left the bounds of Earth in the nineteenth century, establishing itself across all the planets and their moons. This expansion was fuelled by the discovery of callowmilk, a substance extracted from mysterious creatures in the seas of Venus called Callowhales; their milk provides humanity with much of the nutrients it needs to survive beyond Earth. The cities of Luna, the Earth’s moon, became the centre of the nascent cinematic industry; an industry that remained largely silent and monochrome, held back by the exorbitant fees charged by the Edison Corporation for use of their patents on sound recording and colour film.
A filmmaker, Severin Unck, disappears during production of a film about the unexplained destruction of a Venusian colony. Radiance is this universe’s attempt to make sense of what happened, through her films, through recordings of her life and those who knew her, and through the attempts of her father, the legendary director Percival Unck, to tell her story.
It’s a novel that at times feels like a complicated puzzle, presenting pieces of information, telling Severin’s life out of sequence, and circling in on the events that occurred in the village of Adonis – events tinged with weird horror, of which you made gradually aware. There are shifts in tone along the way, through noir and gothic and fairy tale narratives, each taken up and discarded as Percy Unck attempts to find the shape of his film. And it’s this element that makes it the most interesting – the knowledge, repeatedly made clear, that everything in the book is told at one remove; second hand or interpreted by the mind of a filmmaker.
The story of Anchises St John, sole survivor of Adonis, attempting to discover the truth about Severin is not reality, but the plot of Percy’s film. Scenes from Severin’s movies, which are documentary and very personal, we are assured are heavily scripted and rehearsed. Even Percy’s home movies are suspect, as we are told of how he would have his family re-enact events until things were just right. There was a point, around two thirds of the way through the book, where I became very aware of the unreliability of everything I was being told, and I assumed the book would ride this ambiguity all the way to the end, providing no solid answers and leaving the explanations a matter of interpretation.
I was a teensy bit disappointed, then, when the final sections of the book not only offered up an explanation, but seemed to confirm that this explanation was the correct one. It was a very neat and tidy conclusion. This is not to say it wasn’t satisfying, however; the ending takes all of the pieces, all the clues layered throughout the text, and brings them together to show you how they all fit, and the solution to the mysteries is a weird and wonderful bit of worldbuilding in itself.
In all, I found Radiance a fascinating and entertaining read, even if it didn’t quite end up where I would have expected. It’s a fun book, one that rewards close reading, and quite unlike any other I’ve read. If the idea of a book that mixes pulpy planetary sci fi, cinema, mystery, and unconventional storytelling appeals to you, definately check this out.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

(This isn’t exactly a review, as I’m trying to be fairly relaxed and brief in my thoughts here. I always have trouble writing up my thoughts on books, and am trying to make it easier.)

I don’t usually read hard science fiction (I generally don’t read all that much sci fi in general), but Neal Stephenson is an author I’d seen a lot of talk about over the years, and his latest novel Seveneves was getting some positive buzz, so I went ahead and got it.

Seveneves is about what happens after the moon breaks up. How it happens doesn’t really matter to the story – it’s an unexplained phenomenon, a mysterious Agent that strikes the moon and breaks it into several pieces – because this is a story of how civilisation might survive the catastrophe. It’s a near-future setup, not quite our current day; this is a world where we have captured an asteroid and attached it to the ISS (a development that allows it to survive falling debris from the former moon), and where genetics and robotics technology are both a little more advanced. But apart from those few things, it attempts to tackle how humanity might find a way to survive in orbit when they know the earth is about to become uninhabitable.

There’s a lot of technical detail in this novel, going into how every part of this survival scheme works, backing everything in real science. Because of this Seveneves can be a little dry in places, but I was surprised by the way Stephenson was still able to make this a compelling read. It’s an extreme survival story, with a lot of science, a little politics and some action, and though dense it moves along pretty well. The main appeal of the book is not so much characters as it is the presentation of problem and solution, and the worldbuilding that results. (That isn’t to say there’s a lack of compelling characters; that would be untrue, and selling the novel short.)

That worldbuilding takes full control in the final section of the novel, which is set five thousand years after the initial disaster, and shows humanity as it is beginning to return to the earth’s surface. I found this the least enjoyable part of the story, to be honest, as it often felt like its purpose was to show off the fantastic technologies Stephenson had extrapolated from the earlier parts, and the unusual ways he’d come up with for humanity to develop. I found the ending itself a little abrupt, as if he had finished giving us the tour of all the ideas he had come up with, and that was it. I’m being a little unfair to the book there – I can see the intent; it ends on a note of hope, at a point where the reader can see a the potential future of the earth and wonder on how it will work out – but since the actual plot of the final section was slow-moving and somewhat predictable, the thought that it was only there to showcase the author’s worldbuilding was forefront in my mind.

All in all, I did enjoy Seveneves – the ideas were fascinating, and Stephenson knows how to keep the infodumping readable and occasionally compelling. I still feel like I’m selling the book short; it’s the work of a skilled author after all. If you’re at all interested in the ideas of how humanity could survive in space, this is a book worth reading.