51GOZPH3rhL._SY346_I stumbled across the author’s blog by chance while at KingMidget’s Ramblings. I was excited to see that she, like me, was a fan of Weird and Lovecraftian fiction, and I read her spot-on analysis of the short story The Repairer of Reputations, which I love. And so I decided to check out The Friendship of Mortals, the first entry in her series featuring Lovecraft’s corpse-reanimating doctor, Herbert West.

The plot broadly follows that of Lovecraft’s original episodic short story until the end, but with numerous edits, alterations and additions. It is a “reimagining” (or “reboot” in modern lingo) rather than a mere retelling. For one thing, it’s far longer. Lovecraft’s original seems like a mere outline in comparison.

Very often, when people say their work is “Lovecraftian” what they mean is that it has some names or artifacts from Lovecraft’s mythos, or perhaps that their tale concerns large alien monsters resembling sea creatures. Very few writers imitate Lovecraft’s tone, which is detached and serious. Usually these wannabe Lovecraft stories are written in the somewhat flippant manner of a Stephen King narrator, with a few references to “Cthulhu” and “Abdul Al-Hazred” thrown in.

Within a few pages of Friendship of Mortals, I was blown away by how well Driscoll managed to imitate HPL’s style. The tone, the pacing, the careful descriptions of everything from people to books to the architecture in Lovecraft’s fictional town of Arkham – all of it was there, just as in the canonical stories of Lovecraft himself. While Friendship of Mortals may take its general plot and characters from one of Lovecraft’s shorter (and generally less well-regarded) tales, its style and pace resemble his longer and more developed works, particularly The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

This would be impressive enough on its own, but Driscoll manages another feat: she explores the psychology and backstory of not only West, but the narrator (unnamed in Lovecraft’s original, but here named Charles Milburn) and other characters of her own creation. And though the human element was something that Lovecraft, for good or ill, deliberately minimized in his stories, Driscoll examines it, and does it well, without ever becoming unfaithful to his style.

Each of the major characters—West, Milburn and Alma Halsey, Milburn’s lover– are given detailed backstories and for the most part behave in believable and consistent ways. The romance between Milburn and Halsey was particularly impressive, because Lovecraft never wrote romance. In general, one of the major red-flags that a would-be Lovecraft imitator is about to become decidedly un-Lovecraftian is the introduction of sex or romance.

But Driscoll somehow pulls it off. As I was reading the love episodes between Halsey and Milburn, I thought to myself “If Lovecraft had written romance, it would have been like this.” That might sound like a joke, given Lovecraft’s antipathy toward all emotions except fear, but I mean it as a sincere compliment: Milburn and Halsey’s affair, while being relatively explicit, still seems in keeping with the period setting, both in terms of how it is described and what the lovers actually do.

Driscoll reinvents the vignettes of Lovecraft’s serial, changing or removing certain details here and there, fleshing out the views of the sentimental and romantic Milburn and the rational, calculating Doctor West, and then bringing them, over the course of West’s increasingly disturbing experiments, into conflict. Minor characters are just as vividly-drawn as the major players, from one of West’s numerology-obsessed professors to his overbearing businessman father.

Driscoll plays down the horror and violence of the original, but the relatively little space given to the monstrous results of West’s experiments renders them more powerful as a result. It’s dark and disturbing stuff, but again, true to the spirit of the source material.

I have a few quibbles: the book is lengthy and slow-paced, which readers expecting a thriller may find forbidding. But I doubt Lovecraft fans will be put off by this, as HPL could take his time with a story as well, and part of his style is its slow, gradual pace. A feature, not a bug, in other words.

In the last quarter of the book, the psychological character-development aspect takes center stage over the plot and horror elements, which some readers may find disappointing. Milburn’s philosophical musings, while quite interesting, begin to overtake all the other components at this stage.

One other note: there is one scene in which a character uses a racial slur—it’s perfectly logical for the time and circumstances, but nevertheless it is shocking enough to see on the page that I think I ought to warn readers about it. But again, anyone who has read HPL’s own works will have seen far worse, alas.

But these are all ultimately minor points, which don’t detract much from the book’s many virtues. The Friendship of Mortals is the first in a series, and I’m eager to read the next installment. It’s certainly a must-read for Lovecraft fans, and I think it works quite well even for readers to whom things like the “Necronomicon” or “Cthulhu” are meaningless, provided they like a good psychological drama with tinges of the supernatural.

I can’t stress enough the magnitude of what Driscoll accomplished here—she took one of H.P. Lovecraft’s lesser short stories and made it into his greatest novel. I say “his” just because she imitates him so well that at times, I swear I could forget the author’s identity, and believe that HPL really had returned to flesh out his tale of the amoral re-animator and his increasingly reluctant assistant. Like Dr. West, Driscoll has made her subject live again.

“’You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.’”Charles Dickens. Our Mutual Friend. 1865

Ernest (angrily): “When you come to think of it, it’s extremely injudicious to admit into a conspiracy every pudding-headed baboon who presents himself!”—W.S Gilbert. The Grand Duke. 1896

220px-Fire_and_Fury_Michael_WolffI love politics. And I love unreliable narrator stories. So reading Fire and Fury was like a dream come true for me—not only are all of the book’s subjects unreliable narrators, presenting contradictory views and advocating mutually exclusive objectives, but the author himself is a sketchy character with questionable ethics and suspect motives. I’ve not witnessed such a kaleidoscope of political and journalistic deception since the movie Jackie.

But while the Kennedy administration was retroactively known as “Camelot”, the present one would be more accurately branded with another three-syllable word beginning with “c”. Forgive me if I shock you, but such vivid language is often employed by the President and his staffers in this book, especially Steve Bannon–certain quotes from whom helped drive sales of the book as well as end Bannon’s career at Breitbart.

For the first part of this review, I’m going to write as though everything the author reports is true, and provide analysis based on that. After that, I’ll discuss some of the weird things that cast doubt on Wolff’s account.

The central thread running through the book, which spans from Election Day in November 2016 to sometime in early Autumn of 2017, is the struggle for power between two factions: The President’s self-described “nationalist” strategist Steve Bannon on one side, and his adviser/daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared (“Jarvanka”, in the Bannon side’s terminology) on the other.

Behind most of the strange day-to-day details, the gossipy infighting, and Machiavellian backstabbing, this is the driving force of the whole drama, even more than the President’s fixation on what the mainstream news outlets are saying about him.

Most of the bizarre occurrences that we remember from the first year of this administration were the results of proxy wars between Bannon and the President’s daughter and son-in-law. For example, the infamous ten-day tenure of Anthony Scaramucci as White House Communications director was a move by Ivanka’s side against Bannon’s. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement was a victory by the Bannon side against Ivanka’s.

Bannon is motivated by resentment against the permanent government in Washington, which, in the Bannon version of history, has sold out the interests of the United States to foreign powers, and become a corrupt network of out-of-touch intellectuals and bureaucrats.

The Ivanka side’s motives are a little less clear. Preservation of their family business combined with horror at the President allying with a man so closely tied to the openly racist “alt-right” movement seem to be the main ones. (Cynical observers might say that it’s really their horror at what being associated with the alt-right does to the family brand.)

The mainstream Republicans—represented for most of the book by then-Chief of Staff Reince Priebus–are mostly offstage, and only intermittently have contact with the President, who does not like to be bored by the complicated business of hammering out legislation. He prefers to watch television and gossip with other businessmen about his problems.

While Bannon sees the world as a clash of civilizations, his boss sees it as a clash of personalities—in particular, media personalities, like himself. To him, politics is just the New York business scene writ large; and the political press just an expanded version of the New York tabloids, to which various competing interests leak stories—sometimes “fake news”—to get better deals.

Over all of the gossip, be it Bannon constantly insulting Ivanka or the President’s various complaints about the accommodations or the servants or the press or whatever else is bothering him that day, the book paints the President as an easily-distracted man who changes his mind seemingly every hour, and his staff as a group of people feverishly scrambling to achieve their own goals by trying to curry favor with him.

And then, of course, there is Russia. Wolff actually takes a semi-sympathetic view to the administration on this point, arguing that they are too disorganized to carry out a massive conspiracy with a foreign government, and that the press has made this conspiracy up out of a few disjointed bits and pieces of evidence that don’t really add up to much.

Curiously, this is also Bannon’s view of the Russia issue, and he repeatedly stresses the facts that (a) the Mueller investigation is all the fault of Ivanka and Jared for urging the firing of FBI Director Comey and (b) that he, Bannon, has no ties to Russia whatsoever, and doesn’t know any Russians and is totally not involved with anything to do with Russia.

Given that Bannon is constantly likening the entire administration to Shakespearean tragedy, perhaps he’d be familiar with the concept of “protesting too much”. It’s true you rarely hear his name in connection with the Russia ties, suggesting he’s either innocent or better at covering his tracks than the rest of them.

And this where we have to start some meta-analysis of this book. Bannon, like the Shakespearean protagonist he apparently thinks he is, gives lots of soliloquies about a number of subjects. At least, that’s the impression you get from the book. But much as I enjoy imagining Steve Bannon wandering around the White House giving long philosophical speeches to nobody in particular, it seems pretty clear that he was willing to talk to Wolff all the time, more so than anybody else in the administration. Also, the fact that the Wolff’s time in the White House ended shortly after Bannon left bolsters the claim that it was Bannon who was giving him all this access.

Why on Earth would Bannon do that? It doesn’t make much sense on the face of it, and when you factor in that Bannon lost his relationship with the President and his job with Breitbart as a result of the book’s publication, it seems even more peculiar.

One possible theory is that this was yet another in a long series of Steve Bannon schemes that had the precise opposite effect of the one intended. Bannon let Wolff in to glorify him and destroy his internal enemies, and wound up destroying his own career instead.

Another possibility is that Wolff tricked Bannon just as he tricked the President, and that the nickname “Sloppy Steve” is as much a comment on Bannon’s ability to keep his mouth shut as it is his style of dress.

Or maybe Bannon invited him in, thinking he would chronicle the glorious success of their first year in power, and when it didn’t turn out that way he forgot to tell him to take hike.

The most interesting possibility is that Bannon wanted someone to give an account that would absolve him of any involvement with the Russia scandal. Maybe sacrificing his career was worth it to him to get the word out that he was totally not involved with any Russia stuff.

All of this speculation assumes that what Wolff has written is true, and there’s plenty of reason to doubt that as well. Throughout the book, there are snippets of conversation that, upon reflection, seem hard to imagine Wolff obtained any other way than downright espionage. (Assuming he didn’t just make them up.) How does he know, for example, what the President said on the phone in his bed at night? Does Wolff know which of his business associates he called, and interview them? If so, how does he know they are telling the truth?

There’s a chance that the entire thing is made up (although if it were, presumably Bannon would have denied the bits that got him in trouble). I think a big reason Wolff got a free pass from much of the press on checking his accuracy is that he doesn’t report anything contrary to the impression most people have of each member of the administration. Everyone acts pretty much like you’d expect them to, given everything else we have seen of them. So it seems plausible.

Which could mean either that all of them are exactly like they seem on TV, or that Wolff made up a story using the members of the administration as “stock characters” in a drama of his own invention. But I don’t think that’s what he did—at least not for the major players. Because the book doesn’t really have a story worth inventing, other than perhaps the story of Steve Bannon’s rapid and unlikely rise to a position of power, followed by his equally rapid fall after he was undone by his own arrogance. I guess it is rather Shakespearean after all!

Thanks to all of you who have read The Directorate! And a special shout-out to those who not only read, but also reviewed and provided helpful feedback, right down to notifying me about typos. (Which should now be fixed, BTW) Patrick, Carrie, Mark… I’m incredibly lucky to have readers who are so supportive of my work. Thank you!

51-tF08D1ULPat Prescott is a long-time reader, commenter, and great friend of the blog. (My very first follower, actually—dating back to my pre-Wordpress days.) So, I feel a little sheepish that it took me this long to read his novel, Human Sacrifices.

It’s an extremely ambitious book—a blend of various genres, with elements of horror, of romance and of satire. The story follows Jan, a young schoolteacher who suffers through a brief marriage to an abusive husband, and tries to find peace in helping her students escape the perils of local gangs. She ultimately remarries to a thoughtful preacher, Paul, who has a tragic history of his own.

The horror parts of the story come from the allegorical demonic face that Jan sees in the trees outside her room early in the book—a face she refers to as “Mal”, a God of Death, and which comes to symbolize the evil in the world—whether it be the gangs, or Brother Bobby (a flamboyant fundamentalist preacher who holds considerable influence over Jan’s first husband), or the tedious nature of school bureaucracy that prevents Jan from teaching her students.

As you might imagine, the horror writer in me loved this idea, and thought the scenes where Jan addresses Mal were among the most effective in the story. These are deemed “hallucinations” by the other characters in the story, but for Jan, it ultimately signifies all the adversity she has to overcome.

Paul and Jan face plenty of adversity over the course of the book, whether from school administrators or religious fanatics, but also have plenty of good times and interesting discussions about relationships, sex, and religion.

Through it all, Prescott skewers many targets, from the everyday annoyances of the educational system to deeply sensitive religious topics. Jan’s second husband Paul holds forth at length on some of the most controversial issues—abortion, religious monuments on government property, gay rights, etc.—and on each of them delivers well-reasoned arguments against the worldview of the zealous Fundamentalists, all based on evidence found in the Bible itself.

Being not terribly well-read on the topic of religion, I found much of the terminology initially unfamiliar, but ultimately very interesting. For example, I learned about “millennialism”--a belief held by some Christians regarding Christ returning and ruling for a thousand years before the Final Judgment.

I admire Prescott’s courage for taking on these topics, and the viewpoint of a liberal protestant which he portrays was quite an interesting one to read.

Now, putting on my critic hat, I did have a few problems with the story, particularly in the middle section, where I felt things dragged a bit as the day-to-day facts of Jan’s relationship with Paul were explored. That could just be my tastes, though; as I’m not generally one for romance in novels. And while Paul quotes from plenty of male experts on sex and gender relations, I think it would have been good to include a bit more of women’s views on it. The female characters, in my opinion, all seemed a little too sex-crazed. There’s nothing wrong with sex-crazed characters mind, but I prefer to have some who are not very interested in sex at all, just to balance things out.

Also, I felt the book wasn’t divided into enough chapters. Cutting into smaller chunks might make things more manageable, and might even suggest a way to address the “flow” issue I mentioned above. As it was, they seemed a little too packed, and also a bit too sequential—plot twists and minor dramas arise, play out, and are resolved in a fairly linear fashion. It might work better if these plot threads were mixed up a little, so that different ones came to the forefront at different parts of the book. For example, the last chapter is largely Jan interviewing another character and learning her life story. I would have broken this interview up over the course of several chapters, so that we have more time to mull parts of it over, and to put the final part toward the end, but also coincide with other dramatic developments. (Of course, this is something that is very hard to do, and something I doubt if I myself could do—again, I respect the level of daring it takes to even attempt this.)

Finally—and this is an issue I can relate to, having struggled with it myself—there were some typos, missing commas, and run-on sentences, particularly in the first part of the book. These are just editing glitches, and probably inevitable. I heard about similar issues from readers of my most recent book. It seems like no matter how many times you reread something, errors still get through. The great thing about eBooks is that you can correct them.

Human Sacrifices is a promising effort which, with some revision, I think could become a very good novel indeed. I hope none of my criticisms seem too harsh, because I really think there is a lot of good material to work with here. Patrick has done me a great favor by critiquing my stories honestly, and his comments made me a better writer, so I think the least I can do is try my best to return the favor. I know firsthand that it’s tough to work on something for a long time and then hear people asking for changes and modifications—but I also know I was very grateful for it afterward.

Because in spite of the flaws I mention above, I give the author a lot of credit for trying to pull off something so ambitious. It’s not easy to address all of these different facets of life in a book, and probably doing so is bound to occasionally be messy—rather like life itself.

Well, well, well, I went 0-for-2 in my conference championship predictions. I think that’s the first time that’s happened since I started doing these. The New England victory wasn’t really a surprise, although the Jaguars did pretty much everything they needed to in order to win. It reminded me of the last time the Jaguars were in the playoffs—they played a near-perfect game against the Patriots and lost that one, too.

More shocking to me was the Eagles beating Minnesota. The vaunted Vikings defense looked like they were playing with lead weights in their shoes as the Eagles blew them out.

So now the Eagles draw the most dangerous opponent in all of football—the team that can be down 28-3 with 18 minutes to go in the game and still win. The Eagles knew they had won the NFC championship at halftime when it was 24-7. Even if they have a lead like that at the halfway mark of this game, there will be no such assurance.

The last time the Patriots and Eagles played, back in 2015, was one of the strangest games I can remember. Philadelphia was just playing out the string of the failed Chip Kelly experiment, and New England was, as usual, gunning for the number one seed in the AFC.

The Patriots took an early 14-0 lead, and then some bizarre spell came over everyone at Gillette Stadium and one crazy thing after another transpired. First Belichick made a shocking mistake, punting instead of running out the clock, and Philly blocked it for a touchdown right before halftime. Then in the 3rd quarter, Brady made a rare red-zone mistake and threw an interception that the Eagles returned for a touchdown.

The weirdness wasn’t over. Later on, New England ran a trick play where Amendola threw a pass to Brady. The play gained 36 yards, and then on the next snap Brady was intercepted again.

The Eagles had a 35-14 lead early in the 4th, and then New England rallied with two quick scores to close it to 35-28. The Eagles promptly fumbled the ball back to New England with a minute to go, and at this point, we all knew where this was going: another patented Touchdown Tom Terrific All-American Miracle Clutch Ageless Boy Wonder Comeback was in the offing, right?

And then… nothing happened. The Patriots got one first down and then threw four incomplete passes. Ballgame.

It was one of the weirdest games I’ve seen, and may have cost the Patriots a shot at Super Bowl 50, by causing them to lose homefield advantage to Denver, where they would ultimately lose the AFC championship.

A lot has changed since that game, especially for the Eagles, who have a new coaching staff, and a completely overhauled offense. The Patriots, while still the Brady/Belichick show, are famous for evolving considerably from one game to the next, let alone from season to season. So it might be that there isn’t much to be learned from that 2015 game.

There are still a few veterans from that Philly defense, however–maybe most importantly, defensive linemen Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham. Graham had two sacks in that 2015 game, and everybody knows the key to beating New England is for the line to get pressure on their signal-caller.

The NFL’s final four this year came down to the Patriots and three teams seemingly designed to beat the Patriots: the Jaguars, Vikings, and Eagles all feature the strong defensive lines needed to bring pressure without blitzing. This probably isn’t a coincidence; at this point, everyone knows that if you want to win the Super Bowl, odds are you’ll have to go through the Patriots to do it.

If there’s a ray of hope for the Eagles; it’s this: they match up with New England far better than last year’s Falcons did, and that team managed to get a 28-3 lead. And though the Patriots probably won’t play as badly as they did in the first half of last year’s game, one of the oddities of the New England dynasty is that for all their football expertise and unmatched playoff experience, they never seem to bring their “A” game in the Super Bowl. The only ones where they really seemed to be giving it their best shot against an evenly-matched opponent were the one against the Seattle team that embarrassed Denver the year before, and their very first one, against the mighty St. Louis Rams and their high-powered “Greatest Show on Turf”.

All the other Super Bowls of the Brady/Belichick era (or Reign of Terror, if you prefer) have been weirdly sloppy and played down to the level of their opponent—from the defensive struggle-turned-shootout against an underdog Carolina team in 2004, to their offense’s bumbling first half against Andy Reid’s badly beat-up Eagles in 2005, to their two upset defeats at the hands of mediocre Giants squads, to last year’s furious comeback to beat a prolific but one-dimensional Atlanta team. Throughout all their Super Bowls, these Patriots have never mustered any points in the first quarter—unless you want to count Brady scoring two points for the Giants on an intentional grounding penalty in 2012.

Maybe the Patriots will notice this, come out guns blazing, and score 28 points in the first quarter. At this point, though, an underwhelming first half is starting to look like a pretty consistent habit.

As for the Eagles, while the story line this week is “what chance does unlucky backup Nick Foles have against a Belichick defense”, I’d argue that it’s actually an advantage to the Eagles to have him playing quarterback. There’s not an entire season’s worth of film of how he runs the offense for Belichick to study and learn his weaknesses.

Now, having said that there are reasons for hope if you’re rooting for the Eagles—and pretty much all of America outside of a corner in the northeast is—I don’t want to understate the magnitude of their challenge. They are facing the greatest quarterback and coach in the history of the sport. The Patriots are impossible to rattle, even if they face adversity early in the game. Beating them requires playing perfectly, and sometimes even that isn’t enough.

The Eagles will have to be very bold and aggressive if they want to shock the Pats. I’m reminded of what Sean Payton said about facing the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV and wanting to “steal a possession”. Payton’s way of doing that was a surprise onside kick to start the second half. It will take a similar level of guts to pull off the win against New England.

Do the Eagles have it in them?

Well, if I’m wrong, I’ll just go down as one more football fan who wanted to see somebody outfox Goliath. But if I’m right, I’ll look like a genius. Why the heck not?

PHI: 37

NE: 35

I had low expectations for this game. After the fiasco of the Mass Effect 3 ending, coupled with EA’s general business practice of filling out their games with overpriced DLC and tacked-on  multiplayer, I wasn’t expecting them to do much with a new entry in the series.

Besides, the original Mass Effect trilogy was a lot of fun, but also wildly uneven. The first game had a brilliant story and atmosphere, but clunky controls and emotionless characters. The second game, as re-imagined by EA, had great characters and terrific voice-acting, but an incoherent mess of a plot that was only tangentially related to the story set up by the first game. And the third game had tighter controls, better combat, and a surprisingly good crafting system—but it compounded the story errors of its predecessor tenfold, while also doing major disservices to the characters. And that was before the infamous disaster that was the game’s finale.

All in all, while I had a lot of fun with the Mass Effect trilogy, there was no avoiding the fact that it was a decidedly mixed bag—some brilliant elements; some rather shockingly bad ones. For years, I’ve said that if someone made a game that had the story and atmosphere of Mass Effect 1, the characters and voice-acting of Mass Effect 2, and the gameplay mechanics and crafting systems of Mass Effect 3, it would be a true masterpiece.

And now I know I was right. Because Mass Effect Andromeda is that game.

I don’t think I have ever been as pleasantly surprised by a game as I was by this one. I was expecting a Gears of War clone with a Mass Effect coat of paint. Instead I got an epic adventure in a sprawling galaxy, complete with likable characters, clever writing, and what just might be the best-designed combat and exploration mechanics I’ve ever seen.

You play as Ryder, a special operative who, in the early stages of the game, assumes the mantle of Pathfinder—the person tasked with setting up colonies in the Andromeda galaxy on behalf of an organization called “The Initiative”. Like Shepard in the first three Mass Effects, Ryder can be either male or female. The official canon has male Ryder’s name as “Scott”, and female Ryder’s as “Sara”, but the game allows you to choose your own first name. So, as I have traditionally done in RPGs at least since Fallout: New Vegas, I’m playing as a woman named Jane.

Jane Ryder
This is my Pathfinder. There are many like her, but this one is mine.

I have never felt such a connection with a player character before. Not with Shepard, not with the Courier, not with J.C. Denton—not even with the Jedi Exile. Something made me feel attached to my Ryder. Fryda Wolff’s terrific voice-acting is part of it, I’m sure, as she manages to at least match the great Jennifer Hale’s Commander Shepard, and perhaps even raise the bar a little higher. Tom Taylorson also does a good job in the brief but important scenes Scott has in a female Ryder playthrough. (I haven’t played the full game as Scott. I’m not sure if I ever will–to me, there can only be one Ryder.)

I can’t give a full plot summary, or this review would be longer than War and Peace. Ryder leads her team across the various worlds of Andromeda, battling the hostile species known as the Kett, making alliances with the native Angara species, setting up outposts, uncovering the remains of a bygone species known as the Remnant and in the process making the worlds of Andromeda livable for the Milky Way species—humans, turians, asari and krogan.

Desert on Eos

The first planet Ryder explores, Eos, was where I really started to grasp that Andromeda was something far more epic than I had expected. As I drove around the gorgeous, sprawling deserts, listening to Cora and Peebee banter while we fought the Kett and secured our outpost, I realized I was 10 hours in, and the save screen informed me I was only 10% of the way done with the game. For comparison, a typical playthrough of KotOR II or New Vegas (two of my all-time favorite games) takes me between 20-30 hours.

Wow, I thought. I’m sure I’ll pick up the pace soon, but I’m looking at a 40-hour game here.

Try 73 hours. And counting. The game goes on after you beat the final boss.

I have trouble being a completionist my first time through an RPG. I usually start off vowing to do all the sidequests and explore every nook and cranny, but then I get impatient and want to see what happens in the main story and wind up rushing to finish it. That didn’t happen with Andromeda—the game made me feel like I really was exploring new worlds and discovering new wonders, not just mowing down wave after wave of bad guys en route to the end.

Fighting Kett
The combat in this game is some of the best I’ve ever seen.

Now, it’s true, there are tons of bad guys to be mowed down, and what a system BioWare has designed to do so. As with the other games, there are combat powers, biotic (telekinetic) powers and tech powers. All of these lead to remarkably different playstyles. As if that weren’t enough, Ryder’s weapons are highly customizable. You not only can build new ones from scratch, but you can add augmentations and mods that drastically alter their behavior. (I made all my weapons super rapid-fire laser guns, for example.)

I almost never bother with crafting systems in RPGs, but I was hooked on this one early on. After every mission, I was always rushing back to the modding table to see what new armor and weaponry I could put together.

The way you acquire new equipment is also ingenious. Throughout the game, you can scan various objects for research points that you can spend on building new items.  This again reinforces the need to explore every inch of the galaxy in order to build new equipment that leads to better combat. It’s all a very nice feedback loop.

Now, again, good game mechanics don’t count for much without a good story and characters. After all, Mass Effect 3 had a good crafting system too, but nobody walked away from it thinking “I was really satisfied with that shotgun I built!”

Andromeda’s overall story, while not terribly innovative, avoids descending into utter nonsense like Mass Effect 2 and 3 so often did. And its character interactions are every bit as good as those in ME 2. There are even a few scenes that do something very rare for a video game (or even most Hollywood films, for that matter): scenes where the characters don’t say anything in response, but instead convey what they are thinking solely with the facial expressions. There was one scene where two crew members are arguing  over something silly and Ryder silently facepalms in the background. This was a level of nuance that I was not expecting. For all the complaints about animation glitches (I’ll get to that), it was nice to see that degree of realism.

Each member of Ryder’s crew has a backstory, as does Ryder herself. The Ryder family history is quite interesting, and gradually piecing it together makes for a very satisfying subplot, with a great payoff during the endgame sequence.

All the backstories are slowly revealed over the course of the game, and the development of relationships works much better than in past Mass Effects because of Andromeda’s slower pace. It seems more plausible that a crew member would fall in love with you over the course of many conversations and missions together, rather than the old model of “three conversations and then bed”.

Now, as you are likely aware, the knock on Andromeda is that it’s glitchy. The animations are awkward and there are weird bugs and incomplete quests.

Yes, all of this is true. The game crashes abruptly sometimes. There are some sidequests that are broken. (One was a simple “scan three things” mission, and the game never gave me the option to scan the third.) The facial animations, while sophisticated and nuanced in concept as I described, do sometimes look a little bizarre. When talking to her AI assistant, SAM, Ryder sometimes turns her head around 180 degrees on her neck, like she’s possessed. In one cutscene, one party member was placed directly over top of another, causing them to meld together—I hadn’t seen anything so weird since the sex scene in Blade Runner 2049. And the krogan party member makes the game’s framerate slow down to a crawl if you enter combat with him. (On the flip side, this glitch also makes Ryder immortal.)

Cora
This is far from the weirdest facial animation you’ll see.

All of these are indeed annoying bugs, and if you came to Andromeda as someone used to polished AAA games, I can see it would be pretty appalling.

Let me explain why I can forgive it: my introduction to RPGs was BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic, which I first played on the Xbox 360 in 2006. Because it was an original Xbox game that had to be made compatible with the new console, it had all kinds of slowdown issues in combat, random crashes during loading, and a host of other issues. But I enjoyed the thrill of a grand adventure across the galaxy with my rag-tag band of party members so much that I could forgive all. I’d never played anything like it before, and a few bugs here and there couldn’t interfere with the ambitious scope of the game.

Then I played Knights of the Old Republic II, by Obsidian, and again had to deal with broken quests (fuel for Telos, anyone?), glitches, and an ending that seemed (on the first playthrough) confusing and abrupt. But I loved it even more than KotOR I for the brilliance of the writing, the complexity of the characters, the brooding, ominous atmosphere, and the deep, philosophical questions at the core of the story. To this day, it remains my favorite game—perhaps even my favorite work of fiction, regardless of medium.

Since then, I’ve loved lots of games that had their technical flaws, be they bad graphics, (Deus Ex) frequent crashes (Fallout: New Vegas) bizarre texture glitches and entire rooms that didn’t load (Alpha Protocol) or just being so utterly broken they couldn’t be played without cheats. (Mask of the Betrayer) I loved them all, in spite of their technical shortcomings, because they more than made up for it with the sheer ambitiousness of their stories, the scope of their settings, and the depth of their themes.

Nomad on Voeld
Exploring in the Nomad.

Mass Effect Andromeda is another in that class. Its flaws are the flaws of a work so daring that it pushes the limits of the possible. Unlike the original Mass Effect trilogy, which always felt oddly constrained despite its space-faring setting, Andromeda really does shoot for the stars. It gives you a sense of freedom, of exploration and of adventure. Whereas Mass Effects 1 -3 boiled down to the story of Commander Shepard vs. the Reapers, Andromeda feels like a universe of countless stories, in which Ryder’s is but one—an important one, with significance to all the others, but still, just one. As I discussed in my KotOR II video, the interplay of galaxy-spanning concerns with deeply personal ones gives the game a truly epic feeling.

Andromeda
The Heleus cluster, where Ryder’s adventure takes place.

That’s another difference with the original series: unlike the Lovecraftian bleakness of the Reaper threat at the heart of Shepard’s story, Andromeda belongs to a different strain of science fiction—the optimistic sort, about life surviving in alien settings and using technology to overcome adversity. A fittingly pioneer spirit underlies all of Ryder’s adventures, and when, after long fights and lengthy treks across strange worlds, Ryder establishes a new outpost, you feel a sense of accomplishment—like you really did use your powers to help out humanity. It’s an inspiring theme; a throwback to the “space cowboys” epics of the past, when space was viewed as another frontier to be tamed and made habitable.

While the writing is not as deep, and the themes are lighter and less complex, Mass Effect Andromeda is the first game I’ve played since KotOR II that really made me feel like I was part of a universe, and even more importantly, made me think about what that really means. Like Obsidian’s epic, it makes the player ponder the meaning and the scale of their decisions, and reflect on, ultimately, humanity’s place in the cosmos.  There is no higher compliment that I can pay a work of fiction.

Ryder in game
Pathfinder Ryder on bridge. Where to next?

One Night in BridgeportOne Night in Bridgeport is a legal thriller that follows Jack McGee, a law student who is sent to Bridgeport, California to deliver some papers concerning the purchase of some land by a large corporation. While there, he decides to have a one-night stand with a local woman, Lea Rogers. (Who, though McGee doesn’t realize it at the time, is the daughter of the property owner.)

The next morning, McGee wakes up feeling overwhelmed with guilt and regret over cheating on his fianceé and leaves without speaking to the still-sleeping Rogers. She wakes up in time to see McGee’s car pulling out of the parking lot, and immediately feels angered and hurt by his caddish behavior.

Later, she discovers that McGee is handling the purchase of her mother’s property, and her anger only increases further. In a conversation with her friend and local lawyer, Butkus Sweet, she mentions sleeping with McGee and Sweet decides that it must have been rape. After he pressures her to do so, Rogers presses charges against McGee.

From this point, things go from bad to worse for McGee, beginning with his initial decision to tell the investigators he has never met Rogers, and continuing through his trial, where many other questionable aspects of his past come to light.

The book has an almost Rashomon-like quality to it, in that we see things from different characters’ points-of-view. In addition to McGee, Paxson also shows the perspectives of Rogers, Sweet, and the Judge. (Personally, I found the Judge and McGee’s determined-but-overworked defense attorney, Tammy,  to be the most sympathetic characters in the story.)

The plot is well-paced, and the final twist that resolves the story is both set up well enough that it doesn’t feel like it came out of nowhere, but hidden well enough that you don’t see it coming. I also enjoyed the descriptions of McGee’s walks in the snow. At one point, Paxson alludes to the eerie, muffled silence that accompanies a new snowfall–I loved that, because to me it’s one of the most interesting things about snow, and not enough writers make mention of it.

My only real problem with the book was how unlikable McGee is, but I suspect that this is a pretty realistic depiction of this kind of case. Some readers might be alienated by his personality, but if you’re the type who needs someone to root for to feel engaged with a story, be patient–in the second half of the book, the Judge emerges as a very well-written, sympathetic and interesting character.

It’s the sort of book that I think can be perceived very differently by different readers, so before you read my last bit of analysis, I recommend you read it yourself and make up your own mind. I’m not only going to spoil some plot points below, but also say some subjective stuff that could color your perception of the characters. So, now’s your chance to bail if you don’t want spoilers.

Ready?

(more…)

The Directorate
Click to view on Amazon

 

At long last, here is the novel I’ve been talking about for the last few months. I started writing this back in August, and polished off the first draft some time in October. I’ve wanted to do a Space Opera/Science-Fantasy military adventure for some years now, because those were the sorts of books, movies, and games I liked best as a kid and teenager. Some elements of this story have been kicking around in my head since I was 12 years old. (Others, of course, are as old as science fiction itself.)

It’s definitely slower-paced than The Start of the Majestic World—there’s a lot of backstory, world-building and political machinations in this one, but I enjoyed being able to set the scene a little more compared to the deliberately vague setting of Majestic World.

I wrote several posts about my process as I was working on this book:

Here you can read my concerns about how there is one scene and character who is similar to one in Majestic World, and why I decided it’s OK.

Here you can read my musings on “Mary Sues”, whether my protagonist is one, and why they are so popular.

Here is where I addressed whether it had enough words, too many words, or not enough words.

Here is where I considered whether it was funny enough

On most of these questions, I decided that what I was doing was probably right, or at least that any other approach I could think of wouldn’t have been as good. That’s not to say that another author might not have been able to tell the story better, but only that I didn’t know how to tell the story any better. Your mileage may vary.

The thing I’ve enjoyed most about this whole process has been the comments I’ve gotten from readers, both here on the blog and on Twitter. It’s been a lot of fun, posting about various aspects of the book and hearing what other folks think. So, many thanks to Carrie Rubin, Phillip McCollum, Eileen Stephenson, Barb Knowles, Mark Paxson, Pat Prescott, Thingy, and all the other readers who stop by here. I appreciate all of you!

NFC

Call me crazy, but I never understood why the Eagles were an underdog against Atlanta. The Falcons were a shadow of what they were last year, and Nick Foles is not a bad quarterback. He was the last guy who led the Eagles to the playoffs prior to this year, I believe. Yet the press treated him like he’d never seen a football before. So I wasn’t shocked that they managed to pull out the narrow win.

The Vikings meanwhile were the beneficiaries of a coverage screw-up the likes of which had not been seen since the 2012 Baltimore/Denver divisional game. But that’s not to say they were lucky rather than good—their defense had New Orleans on the ropes until late in the 3rd quarter, but eventually they started to bend before the powerful Saints attack.

I’ll be honest—my opinion beforehand was that Saints/Vikings was the real NFC championship, and everything that happened in the game reinforced that impression. The Vikings have a brutal defense, one that could only be tested by a Hall-of-Fame quarterback in command of a high-powered and balanced offense. Foles, while better than the press has given him credit for, is not in Brees’s class, and I think he’s going to be in for a rough game Sunday. Minnesota will stifle the Eagles and punch their ticket to… Minnesota, where they can become the first team ever to host the Super Bowl.

MIN: 23

PHI: 10

AFC

Oh, look, it’s the New England Patriots again. They’ve been conference title game fixtures for years now, and I think everyone is getting sick of it. I don’t even dislike the Patriots as a rule, but at some point you get tired of seeing the same uniform over and over again. (Although even the Patriots’ ridiculous “Flying Elvis” looks like a design masterpiece next to the abominations that their opponents will wear.)

The Patriots are of course heavily favored to beat the upstart Jaguars, and why not? They’re the defending champs, they’re playing at home in chilly Foxborough, and Jacksonville’s quarterback is a wildly inconsistent gunslinger who only completed 53% of his passes against Pittsburgh.

But I’m having flashbacks to another AFC Championship game—specifically, the one two years ago in which the Pats were road favorites against a Denver team that had a strong pass rush and a quarterback who was highly suspect.

I know, I know. You’re saying: “Did you really just compare Bortles to Peyton Manning? The Peyton Manning, one of the best to ever play the game?”

Well, not exactly. I’m comparing Bortles to 2015 Peyton Manning, who was merely a ghost of his former all-star self. Manning was long past his prime by then. I have no doubt that he could (and can) read a defense better than Bortles, but Bortles can scramble and throw the ball with more power than 2015 Manning could. So it’s pretty much a wash.

The Jaguars chances look even better when you remember that their team vice president, Tom Coughlin, was the coach of the New York Giants teams that twice upset the Patriots in the Super Bowl. Those teams also fielded a strong defensive line and an inconsistent quarterback whose play was rarely pretty, but who had a knack for getting things done when it mattered most.

The Jaguars, in short, are the very model of a Patriots-beating team.

To be sure, it’s not going to be easy—the 2015 AFC Championship, Super Bowl XLII and Super Bowl XLVI were all extremely close affairs. You can bet your bottom dollar that Belichick’s defense is going to take away Jacksonville’s favorite offensive weapon, running back Leonard Fournette, and force Bortles to throw the ball. But I think he’s got enough arm strength and sheer guts to get it done against New England’s bend-but-don’t-break secondary. And the Jaguars’ defense will give Brady all kinds of problems—he doesn’t have the ability to heave the ball like Roethlisberger did in a valiant failed comeback last week, and he’s going to get hit a lot. And New England doesn’t have the kind of bruising running back that they need to take the pressure off Brady.

All season long, the Patriots have just looked off to me. Sure, they’ve still been the most consistently good team in a weak AFC—they have the greatest coach and greatest quarterback of all time, after all—but the usual Patriots’ swagger has been absent ever since their shocking opening-day defeat. I think all the big games and the sky-high expectations and deep playoff runs year after year (Remember, they have to play 2-3 more games a season than the typical team) are finally starting to take their toll. Brady has so far defied the decline that comes with age, but the clock is bound to strike midnight eventually. My pick is that it will happen this Sunday, against a team seemingly designed to beat him.

JAX: 16

NE: 13

So, this is the project I’ve been hinting about on Twitter these last few weeks. I decided to do it on a lark, and ultimately it turned into way more work than I expected. Yet for some reason I kept going. I’m not even sure why; I had more or less accepted the fact that some technical glitch was eventually going to scuttle it, but I just kept plugging away at it, and here we are.

I’m not happy about the reduced size of the video and all the black space on the screen. I’m a total newbie when it comes to making videos, so there’s probably an easy fix that I just failed to figure out. It might have something to do with the resolution (The original was saved at 720p. At 480p the footage is in an even smaller box.) If I figure out how to solve it, I might do a re-upload. But that probably won’t happen for a while; I’ve got other stuff I want to work on first.

Consider this video a supplement to the KotOR II retrospective I wrote a few years ago. The essay is more thorough—and more eloquent—than my remarks here, but I hope having some footage from the game helps make my points a little more clear, especially for people who haven’t played it. The reason I keep talking about this game so much is that I think it contains lots of useful examples for writing fiction generally, not just games.

Enjoy!