Friday, December 21, 2012

Board Game review: Age of Conan - The Strategy Board Game

Date of publication: 2009
Publisher: Nexus game/Fantasy Flight game
Number of players: 2-4
Suited for: Age 12 to adults

First of all, I need to clarify, board game is my new hobby. Therefore, this is literally, my first board game review. All things must have a beginning, and I am going write my first board game review on "Age of Conan the strategy board game".

Age of Conan, is the first board game I purchased in my life. I picked this game, as my stepping stone into the world of board games, because I am a huge fan of Robert E. Howard, and I also like the character Conan and the Hyborian age. I've played the MMO computer game, Age of Conan, but I just didn't like it very much. However, in the past, I have seen this board game on the shelves of bookshops and the like, and I was always curious about it.

I purchased the game from Fantasy Flight Game during its Christmas special sales, for 25 bucks (it is usually around 80 bucks). I don't have anyone to play with me yet, but I have played about 5 solo games now, and developed an AI rule for my solo sessions. By now, I think I know enough about the game to write a review. Just keep in mind, my review is based on solo playthroughs.


Age of Conan, is a thematic war game, set in Robert E. Howard's literary invention, Conan the Cimmerian. If you are unfamiliar with Howard's Conan stories. The world of Conan was called the Hyborian Age, it is a pseudo historical era dated about 15,000 years ago. During the time of Hyborian Age, the world was one continent, populated by different civilizations.

Official promotion trailer for Age of Conan: The strategy board game

This game supports 2-4 players. Each player takes control over one of the four dominant civilizations from Hyborian age, seeking to expand their empires through military conquests and diplomacy. At the same time, Conan, wanders around in the Hyborian continent, embarking personal adventures. In this game, no one really controls Conan (a very interesting gameplay mechanism I will explain later), however, a smart player will try to incorporate Conan's movements on the map into his/her strategy for maximum benefit.

Game components:

This game comes with high quality components. It has a rule book, a very big and sturdy board, 2 sets of dices, lots of cards, tokens, and 170 pieces of plastic miniatures (including 1 Conan miniature and an adventure marker). There are 4 kingdoms for the players to choose from: Aquilonia, Hyperborea, Stygia, and Turan. Each of these kingdoms have their own set of kingdom cards, miniatures, and they are different to each other. This means, the player need to use different strategies when playing as a different kingdom. 
The art works on the cards are very beautiful, the board is big and beautifully drawn. The plastic miniatures are very detailed, and are divided into 4 kingdoms. Each kingdom has different looking miniatures, with their corresponding color codes. Each kingdom has 4 types of components/units: Soldier, Emmisory, fort, and tower. The soldier units are used in military contests, emmisory units are used in intrigue contests, forts are markers for player controlled provinces won through military conquests, while towers are markers for player controlled provinces through intrigue contests. 


The core mechanics of this game is a bit complex, I will not provide a detailed walkthrough here, but simply outline the general rules. Essentially, this game has 2 major aspects. The first aspect, is the part when the player bids for control of Conan and his adventures. The second aspect, is the actual war game itself (conquering pronvinces, sending emmisories etc..). In order to give you an idea of how this works, I will explain the role of Conan first.

The role of Conan in this game:

As I have mentioned before, in Age of Conan, no one really controls Conan. So you might wonder, how does this work? Personally, I think the control mechanism of Conan in this game, is absolutely genius! Let me explain.

In this game, the goal for each player is to gain as much "empire point" through his/her playthrough. This can be done by conquering pronvinces on the map, or achieving certain objectives in the game. 

One of the roles of Conan, is to dictate the time and progress of this game. Age of Conan is played in 3 ages. Each age consists of 4 Conan adventures. The Conan adventures are played out using an adventure deck. At the beginning of every adventure, a new adventure card is drawn, the destination is shown on the card, with the number of adventure tracks/tokens shown at the bottom of the card. The adventure tokens, represent the length of the adventure in play. The players then bid for Conan, the player with the highest bid, recives the right to control Conan for that adventure, and collects adventure tokens while he guides Conan to progress with the adventure. Collecting adventure tokens, is one of the ways to win the game (but not the only way to win). After an adventure is completed, a new adventure card is drawn, and the bidding process starts again. The completion of 4 adventures, symbolizes the end of an age. This is the time when scores are rewarded to each player, and new Conan adventure decks are set up for the next age/phase. So essentially, the timing in Age of Conan, has 3 phases.

But the role of Conan doesn't end here. The player who wins the bid for Conan (the Conan player), receives certain benefits when Conan is in the province he/she is trying to conquer. At the same time, if a non-Conan player is attacking a province where Conan is at, then Conan works against him/her. On top of this, the Conan player can also drop "raider coins" in other player's provinces, causing his/her opponents to loose empire points if the raids are not resolved properly at the end of an age.

Finally, in the 3rd age. If the Conan player manages to guide Conan to his/her home province at an end of an adventure. He/she can end the game early, by crowning Conan. A successful attempt to crown Conan, reward the player with massive number of empire points, which might help the player to win in the end. However, if you fail, then Conan laughs in your face and cut your head off! (meaning the player looses the game immediately and is out of the game).

In summary, in this game, a cunning player will try to take advantage of Conan's presence, or use Conan to sabotage his opponents' progress. Conan acts as a force of nature, the legendary Cimmerian wanders around on the map for his own personal interests. What tends to happen is Conan can be an aid to your plan in this round, but can suddenly work against you in the next round.  Personally, I think the way Conan is presented in this game, is very faithful to the way Conan was envisioned in Robert E. Howard's original short stories.

The war game part:

The major part of this game, is the contest for dominance. Each player takes turns to perform his/her actions. The actions are determined by rolling 7 fate dice. Afterward, the player pick a dice from the dice pool, to engage in either: military action (conquering pronvinces), intrigue action (winning provinces through diplomacy), or court action (playing even cards, drawing more cards etc..).

The military and intrigue contests are played out by throwing 6 dices. The player wins the contest by scorcing more hits than his opponent's hit score from the dice throw. There are 3 types of military contests: campaign, siege, and battle. Campaign is when the player attacks an uncontrolled, neutral province. Siege, is when the player attacks a province owned by another player. Battle, is when two players' armies meet in a neutral province. When a player conquers a pronvince through military contests, the player gains empire points. Intrigue contests, shares similar principle as military contests, but when a player wins an intrigue contest, he/she gets gold instead of empire points.

The player can also buid card decks. Each kingdom, has an unique set of "kingdom cards", and there is also a set of strategy cards, with 2 functions: 1) used to bid for Conan, and 2) adding bonuses during contests. These cards, are essential to help the players to win contests. The player can increase his/her card deck, by drawing cards when the court action is chosen during his/her turn. In my experience, it is not very easy to win a contest without using these cards.

What I think about this game:

Learning curve: (7/10) - As a new comer to the world of board games, I found the initial learning curve of this game a bit steep. There are many rules to learn. For me, the gameplay only started to flow smoothly when I finally mastered the rules in my 3rd playthrough. Veterans to board games (war games) might find the rules easy to learn, but for new comers and casual gamers, the learning curve could be slightly steep. The good thing is, the rules are intiuitive and not very confusing, anyone should be able to get the rough idea of the rules after 1 sitting. While mastering 90% of all game rules after 2 playthroughs. Once you are familiarized with the rules, the gameplay flows very smoothly. I think it might be slightly difficult for younger players (kids) to learn the complex rules in this game. In other words, I think this game is more suitable for adults who have better reading, and comprehension abilities.

Component/production quality: (9/10) - This game has very high quality components. The board is beautiful, the presentation of the board feels like an ancient artifact I dug out in some forgotten desert. It captures the theme really well. The cards are thick, glossy and have beautiful art works. There are plenty of plastic miniatures, these pieces are highly detailed, the Conan miniature looks especially amazing. Overall, this game is asthetically pleasing to look at, and the components are robust and sturdy.

Gameplay: (7.5/10) - I've had lots of fun playing this game. I really like the way Conan is treated in this game, it is very faithful to the vision of Conan from the source materials. The game is also very balanced. Although every kingdom has different abilities, but they are all approximately equal in strength. The core mechanics delivered a very good balance between randomness and strategy, while presenting a variety of choices to players to craft his/her strategy. In this game, there is not just one way to win, and sometimes, even the most carefully laid out plan will not always guarantee a victory. I only have two complains about the gameplay: 1) This game doesn't really encourage the players to attack each other. There are not enough incentives to encourage the players to attack each other. This means unless you are playing against someone who is/are very aggressive, the players will feel like they are playing against the board instead of against each other. 2) The Conan adventures are not fleshed out very well, the descriptions for the adventures are too short. After a while, the Conan adventures just feel like a timer to dictate the pace of the game, and don't contribute to the theme very much. Another thing, I also feel that this game plays better when there are 4 players. I heard there was an expansion planned, addressing these issues. Unfortunately, it turned out that Nexus Games is not in business anymore, so sadly this means we may never see the expansion set.

Replayability: (8/10) - In my 5 playthroughs, every playthrough is different. The fact there are 4 kingdoms with different abilities, also means the player needs to adapt a different strategy when playing a different kingdom, further adding to the replay value.

Thematic factor: (8/10) - This game is highly thematical and very immersive. The presentation, and the gameplay mechanics compounded to an authentic Hyborian experience. Even if you know nothing of Robert E. Howard's Conan, you will still enjoy the theme and the atmoshphere presented in this game.

Overall: (8/10) - I am happy that this is the first board game I've ever purchased. When Age of Conan board game was released in 2009, it received mixed reviews. Apparently the main reason why people were disspointed, was because of the wrong expectation, that this was to be an adventure, hack and slash styled game, where the player gets to play as Conan. But Age of Conan is a war strategy game, the game designer never advertised this as an adventure or RPG game. It was advertised as a war strategy game, and it definitely suceedded as a solid war game! This really is a fine game that deserves to be played more. I certainly think this is a fine Christmas present for myself. I've had a lot of fun even just playing by myself, and I think the fun factors will increase playing with a group of friends over a large table. If you are having a board game night with your friends, when you want a good, fantasy themed, strategy/war board game, Age of Conan won't disappoint. 


Tuesday, December 18, 2012

5 great (retro) fantasy movies you probably haven't seen yet

Peter Jackson's latest fantasy epic, The Hobbit Part 1 is about to hit the cinema (I am suspicous of how this will turn out, because he is turning a 300 page book into 3 movies). The Hobbit is already receiving mixed reviews, but as expected, this movie is destined to draw a huge crowd of viewers this holiday season, and is bound to earn big money at the box office. This made me realize something, in recent days, whenever the phrase "fantasy movie" is mentioned, most people are immediately reminded of Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, or Harry Potter.

But I tell you the truth. Know! Oh viewers, that before the time of multi million dollar CGI, there was a golden age of fantasy movies undreamed of, when shining armors, real life actions and fantastic stories glowed with magical charms upon the vistas of silver screens.

Today, I am going to tell you 5 (in my opinion), great fantasy movies you probably haven't seen. Here it goes:

5. Die Nibelungen (1924)

 Die Nibelungen is a series of 2 silent fantasy films, made in 1924. Directed by Austrian director Fritz Lang. The movie itself, is an adaptation of the epic poem, Nibelungenlied, in 1200 AD (the Old Norse parallel is The Saga of Volsung). The movie retells the story of Siegfried the dragonslayer, and the tragic romantic love triangle between Siegried, Brunhild the Queen of Iceland, and Kremhild the princess of Burgundy. It is a beautiful story with dragons, dwarves, Valkyries, the Huns, tragedy, romance, betryal and the kind of stuff that inspired Tolkien to write his Middle Earth saga. And unlike most modern adaptations of classical stories. Die Nibelungen is a very faithful adaptation to the original epic poem. If you like Richard Wagner's famous opera (the Ring of the Nibelung), then this movie is a definite classic you cannot miss.

4. Fire and Ice (1983)

 Fire and Ice, is an animated adventure-fantasy film. This movie, was ranked by Online Film Critics Society, as the 99th greatest animated films of all time. There are serveral reasons why this film is great. First of all, one of the producers of this film was Frank Frazetta, one of the best fantasy artists of all time. The drawings in this animated feature all have the unique style of Frank Frazetta's arts. Secondly, the screenplay was written by Roy Thomas, one of the best comic book storywriters fronm Marvel. Thirdly, the vividness of scenes in this film are captured by the process of rotoscoping, where the live actoin scenes were shot, then traced with animated cels. Until this day, Fire and Ice is still a remarkable film to watch.

3. Draongslayer (1981)

As the title suggests, this is a fantasy movie about slaying dragons (very self explanatory). The story of Dragonslayer, however, is quite interesting. In Dragonslayer, the land is plagued with a powerful, evil dragon whose apetite for destruction can only tamed, through the sacrifice of a young woman on regular basis. The tormented villagers eventually seek out the aid of a powerful sorcerer, to rid the land of the evil dragon. However, the sorcer suffered a most untimely death. And his apprentice must take up the mantle left over to him, to slay this dragon with half baked wizard skills (due to his unfinished training as a sorcerer), and free the oppressed people once and for all. The special effects in this movie are quite stunning. To make it even more impressive, this is all done before the days of CGI.

2. Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian, is THE movie that made Arnold famous. Although Arnold's Conan is not really what Conan's creator, Robert E. Howard, invisioned Conan and his world to be, nonetheless, this movie, not only made Arnold famous, but also started a whole spree of fantasy movie making in 1980s, gaining the prestige as a cult classic. I am one of those Robert E. Howard fans who is well aware of how this Conan movie painfully deviates from the original material. It is worth mentionig that the screenplay of Conan the Barbarian was writen by award winning screenwriter John Milus and Oliverstone (Platoon, Scarface, Midnight Express etc..), but the writers seemed to just take the name of the character Conan, and threw as many nihilistic elements into the story as possible. Another bizzare phenomenon, is Arnold had minimal amount of dialogues in this film, and most of his dialogues are replaced by the awesome soundtracks from Basil Poledouris (the soundtracks are really good). The first 20 mintues the film felt like a speechless musical play. Nonetheless, I still enjoyed this film. It is hard to say exactly what makes this movie fun to watch. Perhaps it is the combination of: the awesome soundtracks by Basil Poledouris, a story glaring with nihilistic philosophy, and the almost "silent" presence of Arnold as Conan, which created a weird, wacko, and wicked chemistry, somehow worked quite well in this "not very Conan" Conan movie. Anyway, Conan the Barbarian, is still one of those fantasy movies widely recommended among the fans of the genre.


1. Excalibur (1981)

 Taking the crown as the top of my list, is John Boorman's Excalibur. Made in 1981, this is my most favorite fantasy movie. In many ways, I actually prefer Excalibur to Peter Jackson's LOTR. Excalibur, is a retelling of the beautiful story of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, from the birth of Arthur and the time of Uther Pendragon, to Arthur's death in the war against Modred in the "Final Battle". This movie, is probably the most faithful adapation of Sir Thomas Molary's classic romance "Le Morte d'Arthur" from the 15th century. Excalibur, features music of Richard Wagner, and original scores by Trevor Jones. The visuals and the costumes are highly impressionable and astounding. In my opinion, Excalibur succeeds on story, theme, settings, music, and visuals. There aren't many fantasy movies that can surpass this master piece. A while ago, there were talks of a remake, I am glad it didn't happen, because as we have seen from the quality of remakes today, a new version of Excalibur would definitely be ruined by the marketing ploys of movie companies to milk cash.

Here they are, 5 great, and retro fantasy movies you probably haven't seen yet. Perhaps, after you are disappointed with Peter Jackson's new Hobbit movie in a few days' time. You can go to your local video store and take out these classics, and see the quality of movies do not always go hand in hand with multi-million dollar CGI.

Happy holiday!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Book Review: The Sowers of the Thunder by Robert E. Howard - Donald Grant Publishing 1976

Today, I am going to review a very cool book!

What's so cool about this book? Well, first of all. When this book was published in 1976, only 1200 copies were made available, and yes! This book, has been out of print for a long time. Secondly, look at the title of this book, it's called "The Sowers of the Thunder", now where the heck are you going to find a book with a title as cool as this? Thirdly, this book, is a collection of 4 fast paced, sword swinging historical stories written by Robert E. Howard himself. Fourthly, this book has some really cool illustration and artworks in it.

Throughout his career as a writer, from 1920s to 1930s, Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan, Kull, Bran Mak Morn, Solomon Kane, Francis Xavier Gordons etc..) wrote a variety of stories, from fantasy, adventure, horror, boxing, western, historical stories,  comedies to poems. It is estimated that in his career of 15 years, Howard wrote more than 3 million words of poems and stories.

Most people know Robert E. Howard from his character, Conan. However, very few people know that some of Howard's best works are his historical fictions. Collected in this book, are 4 of Howard's sword swinging historical fictions, all took place during the crusade era, set in the region of Outremer. The 4 stories are: The Lion of Tiberas, The Sowers of the Thunder, Lord of Samarcand, and The Shadow of the Vulture. Every story carries the traditional Howardian style, lyrical prose with lightning fast pace. All of these historical fictions have tragic endings, and they are definitely some of the darkest stories that Howard ever wrote. At the same time, these stories are without doubt, some of his finest works.

So, if you are a fan of Robert E. Howard, or if you are a fan of historical fiction. Next time, when you come across this book, do no hesitate. Grab it immediately, because while you can get these 4 stories in Del Ray's series of Robert E. Howard Library of Classics, but this book, published in 1976 by Donald Grant Publishing, is a truly beautiful book deserves to be collected.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: I am a Barbarian by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Edgar Rice Burroughs, is most well known for his 2 famous literary inventions: Tarzan and John Carter. Tarzan, is doubtlessly one of the most widely known fictional characters of all time, alongside Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and Conan the Cimmerian (the big 4). On the other hand, John Carter has been re-introduced to a new generation, through the Hollywood blockbuster film, John Carter in 2012.

About 2 months ago, I read the centenary collection of the first 6 Tarzan novels. It was my first experience with Edgar Rice Burrough's works. I have to say, I was not particularly impressed with the Tarzan stories. As a result, I thought Edgar Rice Burroughs was but a mediocre author.

One day when I was surfing the web, I came across a book called: "I am a Barbarian", written by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Initially, I wasn't too sure if I should even pick up this book, firstly it is because, after reading Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs is not on my list of favorite authors. Secondly, from the title of the book, I thought this book would be a Edgar Rice Burroughs styled heroic fantasy, with card board like characters and repetitive stories akin to Tarzan stories. But after looking at the description of the book, it turned out that this is a historical fiction. Set in the time of the Roman Empire. To make it more interesting, the story is about the most notorious Roman emperor, Caligula.

As someone with an avid interest in history, I decided to pick up this book. Apparently, I am a Barbarian was only published 17 years after the death of Edgar Rice Burroughs. The copy I have, is an out of print version, a hard covered book published in 1967, with a dust jacket and a frontal piece illustrated by award winning artist, Jeff Jones.

The story is told in the style of a memoir, recounting the life of Caligula, the imperial family, and the life of the Roman society, through the eyes of one of Caligula's slaves, an individual called Britannicus. Britannicus was originally a Briton, whose father was a chief of a small tribe in England at around 20AD. Britannicus comes from a bloodline of kings, his grand father was of the King of Kent. After a failed military campaign, both Britannicus (age 11) and his parents were captured by the Romans. Britannicus was sold into slavery, subsequently came into the hand of the Roman general Germanicus, and his wife Agrippina. The couple had 3 sons and 3 daughters. One of the sons is Caligula (Little Boots), who would one day become the most notorious emperor in Roman history. Britannicus was chosen to be a slave for Caligula, to be a companion and a play mate for the 4 year old Caligula. From here, the story evolves over the span of 2 decades, until the time when Caligula was finally assassinated at 41AD.

After reading this book, I have to agree with some critics who proclaimed that, I am a Barbarian, is Edgar Rice Burroughs best work. The story, the character development, and the depth of this book is far better than any Tarzan stories. Edgar Rice Burroughs, managed to write a master piece, by breathing life into historical characters and events, while capturing the vividness of the corruption, degeneracy and the debauchery in the Roman society, and blending history with fast paced actions. The result is a page turning, yet reflective and fulfilling historical novel, and I cannot but feel thankful for the fact that the slavery and class system atypical in the Roman society, has long been abolished from our 21th century world, accredited to the fact that our moral systems and ethics are largely shaped by teachings of Christianity and Jesus Christ.

Book Review: Karl Edward Wagner's Kane

Karl Edward Wagner, is one of the masters of horror fiction. But his most famous literary creation, is the mystical swordsman Kane. When Wagner started writing Kane stories, he aimed to introduce something that has never been done before in the genre of dark fantasy/sword and sorcery. Instead of having the readers follow an anti hero (or a hero), Wagner's imaginary works would have the readers follow a protagonist who is, a super villain.

The stories are set in an alternative, pre-medieval world. Kane, is a fictional character that has "obvious" connection with the biblical character "Cain". Wagner's Kane (Cain) has red hair, is a powerful warrior, a master strategist, and an expert in occult knowledge. Kane is also left handed, and is cursed by his creator for rebelling against him, for the murder of Kane's brother Abel. As a punishment for being mankind's first murderer, Kane is cursed to wander the earth as an immortal, until the day when the violence he first introduced into this world will destroy him. Kane is marked with a sign that shows him as a murderer, the mark of Kane illuminating the aura of a murderer in his flaming blue eyes.

 Wagner wrote in total of 3 Kane novels, 15 short stories and 2 poems. The 3 novels are collected by Nightshade publishing in 2002, in a volume called: "Gods in Darkness - The complete novels of Kane". This omnibus collects 3 novels: Bloodstone, Dark Crusade, and Darkness Weaves. The short stories and poems are collected in another volume: "Midnight Sun - The complete stories of Kane".

It's very difficult to describe the character of Kane in short paragraphs, because he is probably, one of the most fascinating, and multi-dimensional characters to ever embrace the world of fantasy fiction, on par with Michael Moorcock's albino prince, Elric of Melinbone.

The attractiveness of Kane, is in the mythology of the character itself. Wagner successfully crafted a super villain like character, by linking to the biblical character Cain. Furthermore, Wagner explored the physcology of a character whose nihilistic existentialism outlook is shaped by his immortal, cursed existence to wander the earth for eternity, unable to form meaningful relationships with other humans. In all of the Kane stories, there will be moments when the readers will cheer for Kane, and there will be moments when the readers will hate Kane, while being absolutely appalled by Kane and atrocities he committed.

Unfortunately, Karl Edward Wagner died at young age of 48 in 1994. So Kane stories also died with Wagner's untimely death. However, the large collection of Kane stories, is a marvelous legacy to the world of fantasy fiction. The stories of Kane glow with the eerie luminescence that creeps with the dark and twisted character of Kane and his saga. The Kane stories, are not to be missed by fans of the heroic/dark fantasy genre.  

Side note: The last 3 stories collected in volume 2: "Midnight Sun - The Complete Stories of Kane", contain extreme, graphical contents. I would advice strong caution here.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Book Review: The Broken Sword by Poul Anderson

I am going to start this review by asking you 2 questions:

1) Do you like fantasy fiction, akin to Tolkien's Lord of the Rings?

2) Have you ever read a book called "The Broken Sword"?

If your answer to Q1 is yes, and Q2 is no. Then, may I recommend that you run to the nearest bookstore immediately, and get this book?

Yes, look no further. The Broken Sword, is a must read for any fans of fantasy fiction. And yes, it is that good, period!

You might ask, just what is so good about "The Broken Sword"? Well, there are too many goodies in this brilliant fantasy novel that I cannot describe in this review (I want to avoid a 10,000 word review). So instead, I will just write a synopsis, and share some opinions of mine on this book. But most importantly, you should read it for yourself to discover the magic in this masterpiece of fantasy.


Tyrfing, is a mighty, magical, yet evil sword. It was shattered into pieces, to prevent it from striking at the root of Yggdrasil, the world tree (in Norse mythology) that binds earth, heaven and hell together. However, a time has come when the sword must be reforged to save the elves. The story's protagonist, Scafloc, is a human child kidnapped and raised by the elves. He is the only person who is capable of persuading Bolverk, the ice giant, to reforge this once mighty blade. But Scafloc's quest is not without difficulties. Along the way, Scafloc must battle and confront the shadow of himself, Valgard the changeling, who has taken the identity as Scafloc in the world of men...

What I think about the book:

I cannot praise this fantasy novel enough. First of all, this story is loyal to the tradition of Norse saga, to the highest degree! The story itself is raw, untamed, wonderful, savage and lyrical. A fast paced epic, encompassing the sensations of the harsh and grim realities, crafted with the authentic DNA of Nordic mythology. Consequently, Poul Anderson's The Broken Sword, is a story where both heroes and villains are destined for a titanic drama, imbued with impending dooms, inevitable tragedies and emotional conflicts, making this book one of my top 5 favorite fantasy novels.

The bottom line is, if you are a fan of fantasy fiction. You will love this book!

NOTE: The Broken Sword has 2 versions. The original version was published in 1954. However, in 1971, Poul Anderson revised the book and greatly weakened this master piece. My advice is, if you want to get this book, buy the book with the 1954 version. This version was recently republished by Gollancz (the book cover shown above). The ISBN is: 9780575082724

Happy reading!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Book Review: The Once and Future King (published by Folio Society)

  King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table, is one of the most enduring stories of all time. It is a beautiful, yet tragic story about justice, chivalry, and good vs. evil. There are many incarnations of King Arthur in literature. The most famous, and most authentic material, is Thomas Malory's "Le Morte d'Arthur", written in 1485 (The death of Arthur).

The Once and Future King, is a book written by T.H White, about the story of King Arthur. Intended to be a set of children's books, the story is largely based on Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. Since its publication, this book has become a classic, well loved by many readers. The reason for its success is not only because the easily accessible prose. More importantly, the story invites its readers to explore thought provoking topics, such as power, justice, and human nature.

This hefty volume is composed of 4 novels: The Sword in the Stone, The Queen of Air and Darkenss, The Ill-Made Knight, and The Candle in the Wind. The story starts with the light hearted novel in The "Sword in the stone", then gradually progressed with a more bleak, and more serious tone until the end of King Arthur's life, a beautiful and fitting conclusion, in "The Candle in the wind".

 The Once and Future King will make you think. Almost every sentence, paragraph and passage in the book is meant to be a reflection of our world, and to be interpreted more than its face value. As a matter of fact, I can think of more than 100 favorite quotes from this book. Although T.W White is a self proclaimed agnostic, it is very interesting that he has a very deep and profound understanding of the Christian concept "human sin". By retelling one of the most famous legends in the world, King Arthur and his knights of the round table, White managed to convey a compelling story, illuminating many truths about our struggles and failures as humankind,

If you haven't read T.W White's masterpiece yet, be sure to pick it up. This is not an easy book to digest, but if you are wiling to invest some time, and make some efforts to think, you will find this book won't disappoint its readers.

P.S: The above artworks, are samples of interior illustrations, from Folio Society's edition of "The Once and Future King". This is an out of print edition. While I do own this book, but I do not own the copyright to these artworks, the pictures are presented here for the purpose of this book review only.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Book Review: Three Hearts and Three Lions

Published in 1953 and authored by Poul Anderson, "Three Hearts and Three Lions", is one of those fantasy classics unknown by many modern readers. However, this hidden jewel is widely recognized in the community of fantasy fiction, as one of the most influential novel in the genre.

Poul Anderson, is one of my favorite authors. He won numerous awards for his sci-fi fantasy books. His works are inspired by Norse mythology, and the stories are often told in the style similar to epics and sagas. It is often widely acknowledged, the best novel from Anderson, is his 1954 fantasy novel, "The Broken Sword", a fantasy novel fashioned after Nordic saga (review coming soon). However, Three Hearts and Three lions, is often considered as one of the most ground breaking fantasy novels, and is the foundation for Gary Gygax's Dungeons and Dragons franchise.

The story of Three Hearts and Three Lions, is similar to Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court". The difference, is in Three Hearts and Three Lions, Poul Anderson focused more on crafting a heroic epic.


Holger Calrsen, was a Danish migrant to the US. He managed to find a job in the US as an engineer. In 1941, during World War 2, Holger decided to travel back to Europe to join an underground resistance force, fighting against Nazi Germany. In a mission to rescue and transport prisoners, Holger engaged in a hand-to-hand combat against a German soldier. During the combat, Holger sustained injuries to his head, and became unconscious. When he regained his consciousness, Holger found himself in a strange land, next to a black stallion, a suit of medieval armor, weaponry and a shield with the emblem of three hearts and three lions.  Mystified by his predicament, Holger set out to unveil the mysteries of his whereabouts, only to discover, he was in medieval Europe. Only that the land seemed to be filled with magic, mythological creatures and supernatural entities.

Holger befriended a dwarf and a swam may. Later, Holger discovered that he has been transported to the time of the Carolingian cycle, but in a parallel universe. In this universe, the forces of law is in conflict with the forces of chaos. The forces of law/order, is represented by Christianity, commonly embraced by humans, governed under the empire ruled by Charlemange. The forces of chaos, are the Faeries. In this status, Holger was also puzzled to discover, he was strangely acquitted with skills previously unknown to him, such as: skills with medieval weapons, the ability to speak speak fluent Latin, and flash back of memories 

Determined to find a way to return home, and determine the truth of his identity. Holger set out with the dwarf and the swan may on an adventure. Only to discover that he has a crucial role to play in the struggle between the forces of law and the forces of chaos, which is tied to his mysterious identity of his forgotten past. In his quest, Holger encountered a number of mythological characters and creatures, from dragons, giants, trolls, werewolf, while struggling against the forces of Morgan Le Fay.

 What I think about the book:

Three Hearts and Three Lions, is a very intriguing fantasy novel. This is probably the first fantasy novel to use the concept of multi-verse, in conjunction with time travel. The idea of parallel universe and time travel, are elements often found in science fiction novels. However, Poul Anderson has successfully pulled these elements across the genre, to create a very interesting world where the story is set. In addition to this, Poul Anderson artfully blended Norse mythology and Arthurian legend, to craft a fabled world full of wondrous intrigues: regenerating trolls, giants, swam may, Faeries, Morgan Le Fay, elves, dwarfs, dragons, and werewolves. The story is composed very well , Anderson's prose is beautifully written, yet remains easy to understand without sounding overly archaic.

This novel, however, is not without flaws. Personally, I think the ending is anti-climatic. The story, character development, and the pace continuously build up throughout the entire book, until the end, instead of a dramatic conclusion. Readers are treated with an abrupt ending. The readers can't help but feel despondent about the ending, but perhaps, this ending was intentionally constructed by Poul Anderson, to make the readers empathize with Holger's feeling as his adventure reaches the conclusion.

Nevertheless, Three Hearts and Three Lions, is indeed a very well written novel, with some very interesting ideas. I mean, where else can you find a fantasy novel with all these elements: Multi-verse theory, time travel, paladins, dragons, trolls, giants, swan may, werewolf, Morgan Le Fay, Faeries and Emperor Charlemagne, all blended in a well written, intriguing adventure? Look no further, Three Hearts and Three Lions, is one of those classics not to be missed by true fans of fantasy fiction. I am sure this is why, Easton Press has included this book in their "100 Master Piece of Fantasy" list.

Happy reading!

Friday, September 28, 2012

Book review: Tarzan of the Apes and Other Tales - Centenary edition

  This year marks the 100th year since the first Tarzan story was released. Tarzan, the lord of the jungle, is one of the most iconic characters in fiction. At the mention of the name "Tarzan", most people will conjure the mental image of a muscle bound man, garbed in loincloth, swinging between tree branches in the jungle while shrilling weird cries of an ape, rescuing damsels in distress from the clutches of ferocious man-eating predators.

These mental images come from movies and TV series, such as the Disney animation "Tarzan" (1998). But I wonder how many people have actually read the original Tarzan stories written by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan? Personally, though I have seen a lot of movies and TV series based on his literary inventions, such as John Carter and Tarzan, I have never read any of the works by Edgar Rice Burroughs (ERB). One day, when I was browsing in the bookshop, I came across this omnibus collection, and decided to add this to my "to read" list.

When Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the first Tarzan book, he was at the bottom of his financial status. At that time, ERB was struggling to find a good job to support his family, as a pencil sharpener salesman, ERB was exposed to and was attracted to the pulp fiction market. He disliked the pulp fiction materials of his era, so he decided to write his own. As a result, Tarzan was born. Little could anyone guess Tarzan would go ahead and become one of the most well known fictional characters to embrace the world, and ERB became a millionaire with it.

This book, is a beautifully made omnibus, collecting the first 6 Tarzan novels published from 1912 to 1919. It comes in both hardback and paperback format, both covered with leather binding. At 976 pages, this is a big tome, and if you decide to purchase this book. I would recommend the hardback format, because a hardback book is more durable, especially with a big volume such as this one. The price difference between the hardback and the paperback format is only 10 dollars. The hardback format of this book costs approximately 35 dollars, which is a reasonable price for a book such as this.

So, the appearance is good, and the price is good, but what about the content of this book?

As I mentioned earlier, this omnibus collects the first 6 Tarzan novels published through the 1910s. I will briefly provide synopsis for these six novels below:

Tarzan of the Apes:
This is the first Tarzan story published in 1912. This is the "origin" story of Tarzan. The story told how Tarzan's parents, Lord and Lady Greystoke, became lost in the wild African jungle. After giving birth to Tarzan, Lord and Lady Greystoke died, leaving Tarzan as a helpless baby orphan unprotected in the savage African jungle. At the same time, a mother gorilla lost her baby after an accident. By a whim of chance, the grief stricken mother gorilla came across baby Tarzan, and adopted Tarzan to replace her lost baby. The rest of the story entails the journey of Tarzan from boy to manhood, growing up thinking he is an ape, his first contact with the civilized men, and the eventual pursuit of his romantic love interest, Jane Porter.

The Return of Tarzan:
Following the conclusion in the first book. Tarzan was living in Europe with his friend. The ape man struggled to comprehend with the civilized mannerism in his new environment. Furthermore, Tarzan made a mortal enemy in Europe, a villainous Russian spy Nikolas Rokoff. The story progressed, where Tarzan eventually traveled back to the African jungle, and encountered a series of adventures which will ultimately pave his way to his romantic love interest, Jane Porter.

The Beasts of Tarzan:
Tarzan is now married to Jane Porter, and the couple has a son named Jack. Their peaceful life were ruined by Tarzan's long time enemy, Nikolas Rokoff. Tarzan's wife and son were stolen by the evil villain, and Tarzan attempted a desperate mission to rescue his family from the clutch of the villain.

The Son of Tarzan:
In this story, Tarzan's son, Jack, was in his teenage years. When a mysterious gorilla entered into the life of Tarzan's family in Europe. After a series of events, Jack landed up in Africa with the gorilla, and spent the remaining of his teenage years as a jungle man, acquiring the survival skills as his father had, and finally became his own man.

Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar:
 Tarzan and his wife lived in their African estate. Tarzan often ward off against the elephant tusk hunters, and made some enemies. When Tarzan finally ran out of money, he traveled back to the ruined city of Opar (mentioned in The Return of Tarzan), to acquire more treasures. His enemies were on his trail and plotted revenge against Tarzan by kidnapping his wife, and taking his treasures. Once more, Tarzan must engage a rescue attempt to be reunited with his beloved wife, Jane.

The Jungle Tales of Tarzan:
 This part of the omnibus, is actually not a novel. Rather, this is a collection of 12 short stories of Tarzan, featuring Tarzan in his younger years. The stories mostly revolved around Tarzan's first love interest, a female gorilla. As strange as the idea sounds, but some of these short stories are very interesting, and serves as "tie-in" stories to fill in the gaps about Tarzan's time as a young man.

What I think about the book (Civilization vs. barbarism part 2 - The noble savage):

To be honest, after reading almost 1000 pages of Tarzan. I think Tarzan stories are quite repetitive. There are too many repeated scenes; Tarzan fights/kills lions and panthers, battles against giant gorilla for supremacy etc.. At about half way into this massive tome, I was a bit bored with repetitive scenes.  I struggled to read through the last 200 pages of this book. In addition, ERB's writings can be a bit monotone at some places. In the last 50 pages, all I wanted to do was to finish this book and shelve it, because it was becoming such a laborious task.  In my opinion, other than the first book "Tarzan of the Apes", the other Tarzan novels and stories are mediocre at best.  

Based on the quality of the stories, I don't really understand why Tarzan has gained such fame, that after 100 years, Tarzan remains to be a well known legend. I speculate, the element behind the lasting success and the charms of Tarzan, is the romanticism of the idea "the noble savage".

The noble savage (nature's gentlemen, originated in the 19th century), is the idea that uncivilized men have innate goodness if they are unexposed to the corruption of the civilization. This is a highly controversial idea, and no doubt it was highly criticized by many. For example, some Christians might rebuke this romanticized idea, because the idea that men have innate goodness/unselfishness/righteousness is in contradiction with a branch of theological teaching within the greater Christian community, who believe that after the fall, human are born completely selfish, and are utterly incapable of being good/unselfish/righteous unless God works in his/her heart. At the same time, I speculate some proponents of neo-atheism might rebuke the idea of noble savage as well, probably because the concept that human can be good without civilization, must sound appalling to those who believe that civilization, human progress, and technology is the answer to solve all problems facing humanity. In other words, the idea of noble savage is probably being battered by both ends whenever the it is brought to the discussion table.

In this review, I am not going to argue against, nor will I support the idea of the noble savage, because I realized people's views on this subject are going fluctuate according to their personal experiences in life. Instead, I will like to propose a new perspective, to explain why Tarzan, and the idea of noble savage is a subject of immense fascination.

Why the fascination with noble savage? Very simple, I think the reason can be summarized in one word: Hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy and the corruption in the civilization, from my speculation, is probably the reason why some people adore the concept of noble savage. And perhaps this is also the trigger for this romanticized idea. In ERB's Tarzan stories, it is evident that while ERB always refer to the jungle beasts as savage and brutal creatures (not very positive descriptions), but the jungle beasts lack the greed, cowardice and evilness compared to his descriptions of civilized men.

In other words, I realized, the idea of the noble savage is not romanticizing the possibility that human beings are better off without civilization. Rather, the idea of the noble savage, seems to be a complaint against the hypocritical treatment people give out and receive in each other, within the human world. In other words, many people had the experience of meeting someone who appears nice, perhaps with good clothes, good table manners, good taste in food, music, literature, highly educated, and speaks of noble things, after civilized mannerisms. Then after all the nice things on the surface faded, they are somewhat hurt (and sometimes being hurt) to discover this person is actually NOT as he/she appears (or claims) to be. So some people complain about such hypocrisy, by arguing that civilization only brings corruption (as ERB tended to describe civilization in the Tarzan stories). But the question is, are barbaric people really "better" than civilized people? What about cannibalism in the primitive tribes? I think while some hypocritical behaviors unique in civilization might be absent in a more primitive human settlement. However, I do not think the primitive human settlement is necessary more ethical. Rather, it must also have some problems unique in barbarism, with the absence of civilization (such as cannibalism, strong dominate against the weak etc..). To me, it seems that the argument of civilization vs. barbarism arrives at this conclusion: Neither barbarism nor civilization can bring a perfect justice system to the human world to achieve absolute righteousness.

I wonder how many people realized, at this crucial point of reflection. The general theme of the Bible comes in agreement with our observations in the human world. The Bible says that after the fall, human beings are corrupted with sin and this is why we have all the human induced tragedies. While it is true that the level of evilness/selfishness is not the same across the spectrum of humanity. But equally is true that no human beings in this world can truly, and honestly say that he/she has never wronged, or hurt others by our selfish nature. So what hope is there for us? Very simple, the Gospel tells us that God loves us so much, that He has send his son, Jesus, to come and take away our sins, so that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16). This means in God's divine plan, those who repents and believes in Jesus as his/her savior and starts to live a new life, will be saved, and enter the kingdom of heaven, where the hypocrisy/corruption of human civilization, and the brutality and the savageness of barbarism will both cease to cause suffering and tragedies.

It seems, that in contrast to the ideologies of secular humanism and neo-atheism, Christianity is the ultimate answer to all the problems in the human world.

I do not own this artwork. The copyright of this image belongs to  Frank Frazetta Properties LLC

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Book Review: The Long Ships - Published by New York Review Books Classics

 In the medieval world, a group of people plundered and pillaged unopposed, for almost 300 years. They were masters at sailing in the deep waters, explorers of uncharted worlds and ferocious in battles, their songs of ancient heroes echoed in the vastness of the open sea. Their enemies, trembled at the sights of their approaching dragon ships, they were warrior poets. They were, the Vikings.

Have you ever wondered, what it is like to be a Viking? Sailing the seven seas, singing songs of ancient heroes, gulping ales, where fighting, blood feuds, counting booty, plunder and pillage is the way to make a living? Well, Frans G Bengtsson's adventure/historical novel "The long ships" will tell you a thing or two about the stories of Vikings, in the way these ferocious Norsemen would have like to be told; epic, poetic, heroic, action packed with adventures at every corner, and (probably) most importantly, filled with dry humor. More over, this book also tells a very interesting history, of the conversion of Scandinavia to Christianity in 10th century AD. Is this the kind of yarn that you tickles your fancy? Read on!

I have not met many people who have heard of this book, and this is rather baffling, because of the people who have read this book (such as on goodreads), almost everyone liked it! The Long Ships, is one of the most read books in Sweden. This is originally a Swedish novel, and New York Review Book Classics has wisely incorporated this book into their list of publications.

Written in 1943 by Swedish author Frans G Bengtsson, The Long Ships is a historical fiction centering around a character called Red Orm. Orm is the protagonist in this novel, his is well known for his red hair, red hot temper, and his legendary adventures. The story of Red Orm took place in the late 900AD to early 1000AD, during the late Viking age, in the middle of Christianization of Scandinavia. The story developed around the historical, political and cultural conflicts of the time. Even more interestingly, the story also depicted the contrast between the pragmatic views in the Nordic pagan religion, against the spread of Christianity and Islam.


The book is divided into 4 parts. Each part recounts the story of Orm at different stages of his life, in chronological order. The first part of the book told the story of Orm as a young man, who was born and lived in Skania, he was captured and joined a Viking ship through a twist of fate. On this voyage, Orm made some good friends. Their ship encountered a Danish ship along the coast of the Frankish empire, and they collected an escaped prisoner, Solomon the Jew. Solomon vowed revenge against the one who betrayed him, and took the Norsemen to plunder the castle of the Castillian Margrave. The Norsemen derived rich booty from this venture. On the voyage home, Orm and his men were attacked by an Andalusian fleet. After being defeated, Orm and the surviving Norsemen were captured by the Andalusians and forced to become galley slaves. Through another twist of fate, Orm and his fellow Norsemen were rescued by Solomon the Jew and entered into the service as bodyguards for Al-Mansur. They were forced to (partially) convert to Islam and partook in the campaign of Marca Hispanica. In this campaign, Orm and his men captured the bell of St. James, and they came upon a chance to exact the revenge against their former slave masters at the galley. Orm and his men escaped from Al-Mansur with the bell of St. James and returned to the north, where they seek the service under King Harald (Harald Bluetooth), who have recently converted to Christianity. Upon presenting the bell to the king, Harald invited them to celebrate the Yule with him. From there, Orm's luck changed, many high adventures followed, and told in this book that recounts the story of Red Orm..

What do I think about the book:

I enjoyed reading The Long Ships. This is an old-school style adventure yarn, but it is also a very interesting historical/adventure novel. Retelling the history of Christianization of Scandinavia. The essence of the book, is essentially a story of a barbaric culture progressing to a more civilized society. The style of writing in this book, is very different to the writing style in contemporary literature. It has a saga feel to it, and is very fitting for the story-telling of an adventure tale of this category. Besides all the adventures and actions, this book is also full of dry humor. I pretty much read the entire book with big smiles on my face (and sometimes, bursts of laughter). The characters in this book are impressionable and likable, and I really appreciated Frans G Bengtsson's depiction, of the contrast of Norse pagan religion, against Christianity and Islam. For example, in the story, Orm is pretty much a pragmatist. When he was a bodyguard in the service of Al-Mansur, he followed the tradition of Islam to please his master. When he left the service of Al-Mansur and once again put to the open sea as a Viking, Orm reverted back to the old Norse pagan tradition, sacrificing a goat, to exchange for a peaceful sea voyage. Eventually, Orm converted to Christianity, so he can marry a princess who is a baptized Christian, and he stayed a Christian because he believed that God has blessed him with good "luck" and prosperity in all of his endeavors. Similarly, several characters (Norsemen, and Viking Chieftains) in this book, converted to Christianity because they were promised gifts if they agreed to be baptized, while most of the Nordic folks in the book converted to Christianity because they were assured of God's blessings, and were promised of "good lucks" if they agreed to be baptized. This makes me wonder, if the medieval church strategy of converting Scandinavia was based on "prosperity Gospel"? (actually, some historical records seem suggest this as well). But more importantly, I think this is a good call for people who identify themselves as "Christians" to reflect and remember, just exactly is it that their faith should be centred on.

In this book, the Christian monks are just as likable as the main protagonist himself. The monks are portrayed realistically as noble and zealous for their belief, but at times can be hypocritical (and self righteous). For example, one of the characters in this book, is a monk who, despite his very strong sexual desires for women, yet insisted to remain unmarried to follow apostle Paul's example, because he believed that he can glorify God better by doing more work if he is unmarried. This monk, however noble he tried to be, was unable to obstinate himself from his desires, and landed up having adulterous affairs in secrecy, which eventually lead to his departure from Christianity all together.

The funniest moment in the book, occurred when the Vikings invaded England and demanded the king to pay compensations. The Christian monks were sent by the king to negotiate the bargain. When the monks failed to persuade the Vikings to lessen their demand, they judged the Vikings as, unable to enter the kingdom of heaven due to their reluctance to let go of the riches. Upon hearing this, the Vikings replied that surely, if what the monks said about the kingdom of heaven, the eyes of the needle and gold were true, then they are actually helping the king to enter heaven, by relieving him of his burden of "being too rich". Obviously, the monks/king refused to yield to the demands of the Vikings, this event demonstrated the hypocrisy of the Christian monks in the book.

 Personally, I really appreciated the way Frans G Bengtsson portrayed the Christians in this book. Because after spending 6 years at churches as a Christian, I have personally seen people who are similar to the Christian monks portrayed in this book. I think this is a very realistic portrayal and should make every Christian reflect on what they "should/should not" say to other people. Equally as important, the story of the monks should remind us the fact that, God does not value us according to how much work we can do for Him, instead, God loves us, and He has already done the most important work for us as Jesus. Religion sets up standards and measure your performance accordingly, but true faith is all about trusting in God and know that He loves us.

The Long Ships, is a very entertaining read. This is an action packed high adventure filled with dry humor, with intriguing political situations, conflicts of cultures and religions, and has some very likable characters. I think most people have probably never heard of this book, which is very well known in Sweden, but not as well known in the English speaking world. Seriously, go to the library now and barrow this book, or buy this book online, do whatever you can to get hold of this book. This is a classic not to be missed!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Book Review: The Sword and Sorcery Anthology - Tachyon Publications

 Dragons roar, quaking trolls, flashing swords and then heads roll....

Welcome to the world of sword and sorcery fiction, a sub-genre in fantasy fiction. The origin of Sword and Sorcery can be traced back to the writings of Lord Dunsnay, in the early 1900s. However, it was only until 1930s, when the stories of Robert E. Howard's famous barbarian warrior, Conan the Cimmerian, took the world of fantasy fiction by storm. With Conan, the genre blossomed and solidified into the genre of sword and sorcery as we know today.  Sword and Sorcery fiction is often inspired by Nordic sagas and mythologies, and is a union of horror fiction and heroic fantasy, sword swashbuckling adventures.

 The differences between Sword and Sorcery fiction and high fantasy fiction (such as Tolkien's Middle Earth stories), is that Sword and Sorcery yarns are often darker, with elements of realism. In sword and sorcery stories, the protagonists are often anti-heroes/barbarians, instead of being all-round nice guys, such as heroes from The Lord of the Rings. The poster child of Sword and Sorcery today, is George R.R Martin and his series, "A song of Ice and Fire", made popular by the HBO TV series, A Game of Thrones.

Personally, Sword and Sorcery is my favorite genre. Only 15-20% of my reading consists of non-fictions, because I don't like to read about facts. I love reading fictions, I enjoy suspending my disbelief/skepticism, and let the author tell me a good story, and use my imagination to reconstruct a fantastic world in my mind, with bigger than life heroes and adventures in wonderful ways! I read a lot of Sword and Sorcery stories, because I think anti-heroes are more interesting than the all round good guys such as Aragorn. I also prefer the style of storytelling in sword and sorcery, because often the morality of the stories are neither black nor white, but with shades of grey, it is a world much like our own (with the exceptions of fire breathing dragons, roaring trolls and evil necromancers). My journey of fandom into the world of sword and sorcery, started years ago; when I chanced upon a complete collection of Robert E. Howard's Conan chronicles. I became a fan instantly, this passion would eventually drove me to to read ancient literature/saga/epic poems, such as Beowulf, the Nordic sagas, Arthurian legends and the ancient Sumerian epics. In many ways, I think reading Conan the Cimmerian is what got me into reading at the first place. Over the years, I have horded a collection of ancient epics, sagas, fantasy novels, and sword and sorcery writings by various authors (including some out of print and rare books).

I was delighted when I found out, that Tachyon Publications published an anthology of Sword and Sorcery. The cover art of this book certainly captured the essence of Sword and Sorcery fiction, full of blood and thunder! This book contains 19 stories, written by different authors in the genre, each with different styles, settings and background. The chosen authors in this anthology represent 75 years of the history in this genre, and the list consists of an all-star cast: Robert E. Howard, George R.R Martin, David Drake, C. L Moore, Karl Edward Wagner, Poul Anderson, Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock, Glen Cook etc..  At 480 pages, this hefty anthology is quite a collection. I did not like all stories collected in this book, but I loved at least half of them. Instead of reviewing all 19 stories, I will only briefly mention the stories I liked:

Tower of the Elephant - Robert E. Howard:
The anthology started appropriately with a classical Conan yarn from Robert E. Howard. Titled "The Tower of the Elephant". In this tale, young Conan broke into the Elephant Tower to steal a jewel from the hands of an evil sorcerer. The story has a dramatic twist at the end. The Tower of the Elephant has long been one of my favorite Conan stories.

Black God's Kiss - C. L. Moore:
The next interesting story, is C.L. Moore's "Black God's Kiss". The main protagonist in this story, is a French fighting woman in medieval France know as Jirel of Joiry. Moore wrote the stories of Jirel back in the 1930s. It was unusual for its time, because the protagonist is a strong woman. Many critics has often claimed that C.L Moore's Jirel stories are ahead of its time. While this story is interesting, but I do not find it as intriguing as Robert E. Howard's writings. Still, it was a fun read.

The Unholy Grail - Fritz Leiber:
Fritz Leiber, is famous for his stories of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser. A pair of very humane heroes traversing a land full of dangers and adventures. A story featuring Gray Mouser's origin was collected in this book, titled "The Unholy Grail". There is not much actions in this story, the plot was interesting enough, but I was hoping for a tale that would showcase both Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, instead of a story entailing Gray Mouser's origin.

The Tale of Hauk - Poul Anderson:
Poul Anderson is one of my favorite authors. I enjoy his writings immensely. Collected in this anthology is a short story by Poul Anderson, titled "The Tale of Hauk". This is a story crafted after the fashion of Beowulf and Nordic sagas. The story telling, and the language used in this tale, give the story a feel similar to an epic saga, and is one of the better stories in this book. If you haven't read Poul Anderson's books, but enjoy reading Nordic sagas, or fantasy stories fashioned in similar styles as Tolkien's books. Then I recommend three of Poul Anderson's novels: Hrolf Kraki's Saga, The Broken Sword, and Three hearts and Three lions.

The Caravan of Forgotten Dreams - Michael Moorcock:
Elric of Melnibone is one of the most interesting characters/anti-heroes in fantasy fiction. He is the most well known character invented by author Michael Moorcock. Elric is a sickly albino prince from an empire already faded. Elric has a sword, StormBringer, a cursed rune blade that steals the souls of the lives it has taken. In his sickly status, Elric needed this sword to give him the life force that he naturally lacks. However, the sword also caused Elric much grief and sadness as it steals the souls of the ones he loved, a truly tragic character. In this anthology, one of the Elric stories is collected, titled "The Caravan of  Forgotten Dreams". This is a fine story, one of the better ones in this collection. Featuring Elric and a rare occasion when he is motivated by a noble purpose rather than his usual, self-serving manner.

Undertow - Karl Edward Wagner:
Karl Edward Wager, is one of the most overlooked fantasy/horror author of the 20th century. This man is talented, and his most well known literary character Kane, happens to share the same origin as the Biblical Cain, mankind's first murderer. The Kane stories became really popular in the 1970-80s, when three of Wagner's Kane novels were published, with cover arts done by Frank Frazetta. Kane is definitely one of the most memorable characters in fantasy literature. The stories of Kane are interesting, because more than often, Kane is actually a villain rather than a hero (he is not even an anti-hero). I suspect that Wagner's Kane stories is probably not everyone's cup of tea, because in the stories, the protagonist is often the villain, and the stories are, very, very dark. However, in this book is a short story about Kane, titled Undertow. In my opinion, this is probably the best story in this anthology. The story started off as a traditional sword and sorcery yarn, then it branched off and contains such a twist at the end that is completely unexpected. If you are interested in Wagner's Kane stories, you can get the two volume set, the first book is called "gods in darkness", the second volume is called "The midnight sun - the complete stories of Kane".

The Barrow Troll - David Drake:
Another good story in this book, is called The Barrow Troll. Written by David Drake. I have never read any of Drake's writings. But this short story is very well crafted. The Barrow Troll is a short story fashioned after, and inspired by Nordic mythologies. It is somewhat creepy, and has lots of actions. I quite liked this short story.

Solider of an Empire Unacquainted - Glen Cook:
Although I have heard of Glen Cook, but I have never read any writings by him. In this book, is a short story (the longest in this book) called, Solider of an Empire Unacquainted. A very strange title for a story perhaps, but I think this is the third best story in this anthology. I look forward to reading more writings by Glen Cook.

Path of the Dragon - George R.R. Martin:
Another story I enjoyed tremendously in this anthology, is George R. R Martin's "Path of the Dragon". This is a short story as a part of the series "A Song of Ice and Fire". This is actually the first time I am reading Martin's writings, and I have to say I am impressed. Perhaps one day, I will sit down and read A song of Ice and Fire series.

My major complain about this book, is that for an anthology. This book lacks the appropriate introduction and background for each authors, and the stories showcased. The only editorial voice consists of a 3 page introduction by David Drake, and this essay does not mention anything about the background, development and the history of Sword and Sorcery fiction. I also think some of the important authors in the field have been left out. For example, regrettably, Clark Ashton Smith and Lord Dunsnay's writings are not included in this anthology, yet these two authors are some of the best authors in this genre alongside Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber and Karl Edward Wagner. Out of the 19 stories collected in this anthology, the 9 stories above, in my opinion, are the better ones and definitely worth a read. The other 10 stories varied in quality, some of them are average, some of them are not very good. Overall, I think the 9 stories I mentioned, make this anthology a good collection. In addition, this anthology should be a good introduction to anyone who might be interested in taking a sneak peek into the world of sword and sorcery.

Happy reading, open the pages, brace yourself and be transported to a whole new world!

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Video game review: Darksiders 2

  They say there are two things you cannot avoid in life, one is death, the other is tax. It is true that death comes to us all. It seems that in THQ's latest game Darksiders 2, the game developers would have the players take control of the grim reaper, Mr. Death himself on an epic journey, not to take life, but to give life... At this stage of the review, I am going to jump ahead and say Darksiders 2 is awesome! This really is my kind of game, and Death is a very likable anti-hero. But what exactly is Darksiders 2? Well, let's find out!

  In 2010, the video game studio Virgil, developed a game called "Darksiders". The first Darksiders game was an action adventure game, blending the best elements between God of War and Zelda. Darksiders 1, received many positive reviews from critics and players alike, due to the solid gameplay, eye-pleasing artistic style and a somewhat interesting storyline "inspired" by the Judeo-Christian Bible (the book of Revelation). The game quickly gained a large fan base, and Virgil studio started to develop a sequel. In 2012, the second installment in the franchise is released. Darksiders 2, promised to be a bigger and better game than its predecessor, and the game was released in August 2012.


The Darksiders universe is set in a fantasy world, "loosely inspired" by the Judeo-Christian Bible. In the world of Darksiders, the "creator" made the angels, demons and the humankind, together with the respective realms for these creatures. The balance of the universe is kept by a group called the "charred council". A demon called "Lilith" mingled the dusts of angels and demons to create the Nephlims, a race of beings which included the four horsemen. The Nephlims waged wars across many different worlds, causing unimaginable bloodshed and destruction. Eventually, the four horsemen grew tire of the slaughter, and defected to the charred council. The Four was granted with incredible powers by the council to serve the balance, and their first task was to destroy their own kind. In a major battle, the four horsemen slaughtered all the Nephlims and restored the balance. Awaiting the time when the 7 seals would be opened, when they will be summoned to bring about the end of the world.

The four horsemen in the world of Darksiders, look at the picture.. yep, there are four of them.

In Darksiders 1, the player took control of one of the horsemen of apocalypse, War. He was falsely summoned to earth when one of the 7 seals wrongfully opened, and War was accused by the charred council of starting the Armageddon pre-maturely that brought about the end of humankind. In the first game, War professed his innocence in front of the council, and was given a chance to return to earth, 300 years after the apocalypse to prove his case.

 The story of Darksiders 2 runs parallel with the first game. While War was on earth trying to find out who set him up, Death, the oldest, most powerful and fearful horsemen set out to find a way to save his brother War from condemnation. Death's plan is to resurrect and restore humankind to atone for his brother's action. On this journey, Death would travel to many places, see many wonders, and encounter many creatures both big and small, there is no way to avoid Death, the pale rider cometh!

The pale rider cometh!

With Darksiders 2, Virgil studio has made many improvements over the first game. DS2 is now categorized as an open world/roaming, action RPG game. There are all together 16 chapters in this game, and Death will visit 6 different worlds. While it is possible to ride the horse to travel between locations, but the more efficient way is to use the fast travel system.

Need to go somewhere? Use the map!
 The combat in Darksiders 2 retains the style from its predecessor, the major difference is that in Darksiders 2, Death is a far more agile fighter than War. Most of Death's deadly moves rely speed and timing. Death can use two different modes of attack, his primary weapon is a set of psyche, the secondary weapon can be a set of super fast gauntlets, or heavy weapons such as axe, mace of hammer which have slow attacking speed.

The heavy weapons in Darksiders 2 are... really big!

During combats, Death can also deploy special abilities to wreck havocs against his foes. The combat is very similar to God of War and Devil May Cry, to win the day and survive an encounter with outer worldly creatures, the player has to dodge, attack and use special abilities strategically.

There are many special abilities in Darksiders 2, knock yourself out.

The boss fights (there are many of them) require the players to observe the movements of the bosses and use tactics to win the fight. Overall, the combat system is solid, and remains the core strength of this franchise.

The first boss in Darksiders 2, the Ice Giant
Darksiders 2 has a very heavy RPG element. Other than the primary quest, there are also many side quests to be found by interacting with NPCs in the game world. While the story for side quests are not particularly interesting, but these quests often require the player to travel to a perilous dungeon or locale to defeat some massive monsters, with fitting rewards to be gained at the end of the quest. The conversation dialogue in Darksiders 2 uses a very similar design in Mass Effect. However, the conversations don't really affect the story of the game at all, and the dialogue often serves the purpose of story-telling rather than impacting the development of the story.

A conversation with a... giant dwarf?

Darksiders 2 also has a new looting system. In this game, there are literally thousands of armour pieces and weapons you can find. When Death vanquishes an enemy, the creature drops items that can be picked up. If this does not satisfy your thirst for hording equipment, there are also hundreds of treasure chests scattered throughout the game world, each containing items that will aid Death on his journey. The armor pieces and weapons are level based, and the items get better as Death levels up. The loot, item and inventory system is very similar to Diablo 3. The kind of armor pieces you equip on Death depends on your play style, but also enables the player to customize the appearance of Death.

The inventory menu of Darksiders 2
Sample armors in Darksiders 2
 As Death completes quests and defeat enemies, he gradually gains experience points and levels up. When Death gains a level, he is rewarded with a skill point to assign to a special ability (of the player's choice). In Darksiders 2, there are two skill trees. One set of skill is focused on enhancing Death's melee combat (the warrior build), the other set of skill gives Death the ability to summon creatures to aid him in battles (the necromancer build), the type of character build can be further enhanced by the armor pieces equipped on Death by the player.

The menu for skill trees

 Puzzle solving is another main element in Darksiders 2. The puzzles in this game can get quite difficult, some of the puzzles will really make you think hard. Most of the time, Death has to utilize his surroundings and gadgets (such as the portal gun and gripping chains) to solve a puzzle. There are also a lot of wall running and climbing on the dungeon walls in this game, an element very similar to Prince of Persia and Assassin's Creed. In my play through, I was often baffled by some of the more challenging puzzles. Nonetheless, the puzzles are all solvable (if you think hard enough). Personally, I loved the mental challenges offered by the puzzles in Darksiders 2. However, if you are the kind of person who just want to get on with the game and kill stuff, then you might not find the challenging puzzles in Darksiders 2 to your liking.

Finally, apart from the main quest and side quests. The player can also take Death to the Crucible. This is an arena mode where Death can face up to 100 waves of enemies. After every 5 waves, Death can choose to either quit the arena and cash in the reward (such as armors, weapons, amulets, gold or potions), or continue to fight on to accumulate more reward. However, if the player dies in the middle of the session, you loose all previous rewards. Beating all 100 waves of enemy in the Crucible can let the player unlock 2 pieces of Death's most powerful armor, the Abyssal armor (I only managed to beat 55 waves in my first play through and only unlocked the Abyssal boot).

Welcome to the Crucible mode, the winner takes all. The loser goes home empty handed.
In general, the combat in Darksiders 2 is fun, exciting and exquisite. The newly introduced RPG system allows the game to have more replay-ability, and makes the experience more rewarding, while at the same time allows the player to customize Death to suit their play style. Finally, the puzzles in Darksiders 2  present some real challenges to any fans of video games who are not afraid of exercising some brain muscles.

Graphics, design and music:

The artistic design of Darksiders 1 and 2, is done by Joe Madureira (Uncanny Xmen). The looks and feel of the graphics has a very strong comic book style. The sceneries are grand, colorful and fascinating. The character designs are good to look at, and give the sense of high fantasy setting. I really like the way Death looks, with his death mask, spiked armor, a crow on his shoulder and his cool horse. While the artistic design of the game is amazing, the same cannot be said to the the technical side in the graphics department. On the PC version of the game, there are actually no features that allows you to turn on graphics options such as AA, high resolution shadow, textures resolution and so on. The result is the graphics in this game is not as high quality as it should be on modern PC games. The shadows in this game are highly pix-elated (I think I can almost count the pixels). It is very strange for Virgil studio to release a PC game with no options to tweak the graphic settings.

Welcome to the beautiful world of Darksiders 2
 The music and soundtracks of Darksiders 2 are simply amazing, a definite improvement over the soundtracks in Darksiders 1. I have the collector's edition of the game, and I was given a pass to download the soundtracks of the game from THQ website. Each of the soundtracks are very suitable for the different locations and occasions in the game. Finally, the voice actor for Death is Michael Wincott (from the film, The Crow), the voice acting for Death is top notch, very suitable for the character of Death, and certainly made Death one of the most memorable video game characters up to date.

Technical glitches:

 You might be wondering, with awesome gameplay, very likable protagonist, top notch soundtrack/voice acting, and beautiful artistic design, this must be the perfect game right? Sadly, this is not true. In my opinion, the biggest problem with Darksiders 2 is the list of technical glitches and bugs. Other than the lack of graphics setting features on the PC version, the game also suffers from a lot of glitches that can halt Death's quest to resurrect the humankind. Luckily, none of the bugs are game breaking, but glitches do prevent the player from completing certain side quests. Virgil studio has promised to release a patch in the coming weeks to address these problems. It would be very good if these issues can be resolved. Given that THQ is not in good finiancial status, they have really invested a lot in Darksiders 2, hoping this block buster title can get the company out of its current money troubles. I really hope Darksiders 2 can sell well and THQ can pull through, because I would really like to play Darksiders 3 in the future.

Final verdict:

  I instantly became a fan of the Darksiders franchise when I played Darksiders 1 two years ago. In Darksiders 2, with the solid gameplay, beautiful art design, amazing soundtrack, top notch voice acting, and a very, very likable protagonist. I think Darksiders 2 is currently my favorite game this year. However, the technical glitches and the lack of graphic setting in Darksiders 2 (on PC version) really weights against it, but since Virgil studio has promised to release a patch to address all these problems, I will rate Darksiders 2 as it will be when it will be patched in the (hopefully) near future.

In my opinion, Darksiders 2 scores a solid  9.5/10

Regarding the story:

The story of Darksiders 2, is loosely inspired by the book of Revelation. I think some people might be concerned about the spirituality of this game, in respective to the Christian worldview. Personally, I think we need to keep in mind, this is a "fantasy" story "inspired" by the book of Revelation. This means we need to look at the story for what it is, NOT for what "we think it should represent". (what I mean is, it would be ridiculous to expect a fantasy story, inspired by elements in the book of revelation, to accurately represent Christian theology. Remember, this is a video game story, not a theological commentary making a statement about Christian theology) .

A word of precaution to the would-be players. Darksiders 2 is strictly MA15+, mostly due to graphical violence.

There is one thing I want to mention (warning: Spoiler ahead!!!). In the game's ending scene (the final cut scene), the narrator spoke a sentence that summed up the story of Death: "Thus, from death came life, and the seeds of humanity was resown. But, Death's journey has not ended".

I think this is a sentence that should remind Christians of something we are familiar with. I always find it very interesting that the idea of "an individual's self sacrifice to save others", is such a highly revered idea in pop culture entertainment. If you have played this game, given the entire context of the story in Darksiders 2, perhaps this can be a conversation starter (a common ground) with your friends, who does not yet know that Jesus is humanity's savior, and has died and rose again.

 Happy gaming!