Review: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

The Well of Ascension by Brandon SandersonThe Well of Ascension

Brandon Sanderson

Tor Books, 2007

Wow.  If I truly felt that were sufficient I’d stop there.  The second book in Sanderson’ Mistborn series takes everything from the first book, The Final Empire, and improves on it; and then some.  This book is half-again as long as the first one (816 pages in mass-market vs. Final Empire’s 676) and it took me half as long to read it.  Where The Final Empire had issues with pacing the Well of Ascension managed to keep me gripped from start to finish.

This novel opens up where the last one finished, though a bit later.  With an army sitting outside the Walls of Luthadel and our heroes scrambling to deal with that threat while Vin remains haunted by the dead Lord Ruler’s final worlds.  Elsewhere Sazed uncovers secret’s about the mysterious Hero of Ages while investigating whether or not the mists that shroud the land at night are striking during the day.  The slick plotting of the politically sections of the novel is equally exciting as the mystery of the more epic magical elements and both are glued together by Sanderson’s skill at characterization.

The truth of it is, at least for me, is that the human elements drew me into the novel almost more so than the epic aspects of the plot.  Sure there are the requisite big things happening (war, major magical threat) but it’s the development of the character’s within that setting that is truly fascinating.  The way Vin and Elend struggle with their identities, while potentially overbearing, is handled with a subtlety and care by Mr. Sanderson that is truly remarkable.  Both character’s are introspective without veering into outright whininess and are plagued with conflicts, both external and internal, that manages to keep their self-examination both interesting and exciting.

Vin, in particular, is thrown into the spotlight by a new character Zane.  Zane is a very obvious foil for Vin but again is an interesting character in his own right.  He is what Vin might have become without the influence of her friends and left alone on the streets.  There is a lonliness to the Mistborn, a sense of being outside of things, that draws Vin to Zane and creates a complex emotional tension between the characters.  What makes it even more exciting is that we, the reader, know (whereas Vin doesn’t) the inner workings of Zane’s twisted mind.  It’s like watching two cars on a colision course with no way to intervene.

Sanderson throws you a curveball late in the novel in regards to Zane that makes the whole thing even more entertaining and amps up the mystery behind the character.  As before: RAFO.

Sazed stands out again in this book and is yet another character struggling to find his place in the world.  He is discontent with his role as Keeper, spreading knowledge to the freed skaa, and feels there is unresolved business at hand.  Like Vin he is contrasted with the introduction of Tindwyl another Keeper; who seems content in spreading her stored knowledge.   Their differences and interactions, a subtle pushing and pulling between their emotional attraction and mutual frustrations with one another, helps to better define each as a person.

Which in that end is what all the relationships in this novel reveal.  Whether it be the subtle tension of Vin’s attraction to Zane and her love for Elend, the complex emotional interplay between Sazed and Tindwyl, or the relationship of all of Kelsier’s crew to one another, it is their interactions and feelings toward one another that help define them as characters.  Reinforcing the weight of the emotional conflict in the novel we actually get some minor POV from Breeze, the allomancer who is in expert at Soothing emotions whose comments reinforce the importance of relationships and emotion to each of the characters in the novel.

All of which has nothing to do with the politiking and mystery of the novel; I’m not saying that it is somehow inferior to characterization only that the characters serve as the impetus of the novel.  Late revelations in the novel about the Hero of Ages makes for some truly compelling reading and really whets the appetite for the third book, approriatley enough, The Hero of Ages.  The fight scenes that use allomantic magic are still as exciting as ever with some startling twists that elevate them above and beyond what was seen in The Final Empire.  Combine this with Sanderson’s deft plotting, masterful pacing, and superior characterization and you get one hell of a ride.  Highly recommended for fantasy lovers of all stripes.

Mega Man 9

Mega Man 9 is coming.  It’s not only going to be on Wiiware but it’s going to use NES style graphics.  Yes, you read that correctly.  A new NES-style Mega Man game is coming.    When I get a chance, I’ll follow this up with some thoughts on the series and where I think this game needs to go to succeed.  But for the moment just revel in the fact that there is another Mega Man game coming.

Is this what my life has come to?

I sit down I my computer.  I open up my e-mail.  I hit Ctrl+T to open a new tab and what is the first website I go to?

This week it’s Blizzard.com.  Their daily changing splash image hyping their upcoming announcement of a “mystery” has me in its thrall.  I have fond memories of the Diablo games, though I never actually managed to finish either, and kind of hope we say that announcement but only time will tell. Joking comment about a new Lost Vikings game would certainly fit with ice motif they’ve chosen but doesn’t jar the more serious vibe the splash image implies.

In the meantime check out the background images below to see the changes:

Splash Image 1

Splash Image 2

Splash Image 3

Splash Image 4

Of course the wonderful nerds over at Kotaku have been all a twitter discussing the various aspects of said splash image.  Hype is fun, isn’t it?

Review: Mistborn: the Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

the Final Empire Mistborn: the Final Empire

Brandon Sanderson

Tor, 2006

While I read and enjoyed Brandon Sanderson’s first novel Elantris I had not been in a huge hurry to pick up and read his Mistborn books.  Then it was announced last year that Mr. Robert Jordan picked Sanderson as his successor; the man left to finish up what the late great Jordan did not have time to finish himself.  So have followed Sanderson’s blog for bit as he reread the Wheel of Time series I decided it was about time I gave the Mistborn books a try.  While Sanderson’s position finishing Wheel of Time brought me to this book/series that will be the last time I mention that aspect of his writing.  This book deserves to stand on its own.

I’m going to start with pacing since, as co-workers pointed out to me, I took more time reading this book than I have recent others.  The pacing isn’t slow but it isn’t fast either.  One might best describe it as deliberate.  The book builds momentum at a steady pace and, while this serves a definite purpose, never feels contrived.  My most recent foray’s into fantasy this last year have been the likes of Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie and I admit that the kinetic focus of those earlier reads made falling back into the more measured pace of other fantasy a major adjustment on my part.  Do parts of the novel seem to drag?  Occasionally, yes but I was always drawn forward by the blurbs.

Using bits of fictional non-fiction to enhance a fantasy world is no new trick, but Sanderson manages to take that to the next level.  The pre-chapter blurbs here are essential to the story here and at the same time serve as a look into the pre-history of the world as the reader sees it.  Now I hesitate when discussing these blurbs a bit because as I was reading there were times when I felt that the story being told there was more interesting than the story being told in the main narrative.  In hindsight, the book finished, I can see that there is a greater parallel between these two stories than is readily seen when first starting the book.  In truth this deeper relationship between both narratives is rather masterful but that fact only becomes apparent towards the end of the novel.

In truth perhaps deliberate is a good word for the novel as a whole.  Sanderson’s use of pacing and character serve a very specific purpose especially as they pertain to Kelsier.  In the opening chapter Sanderson pulls a bit of a magic trick calling out Kelsier as the main character, then introducing the true main character a bit later.  In truth, while he is central to the novel, he is more a foil (though a fleshed out, three dimensional foil) for the true main character: Vin.  Kelsier’s characterization goes further as well as Sanderson goes out of his way to make him an uncomfortable figure.  Kelsier is like Han Solo, except where Han only shot first once Kelsier continues to shoot first for the majority of the novel.  Throw in his deliberate manipulation of people and events around him and he isn’t a very likable character.  Which, if he were the hero of our story, would likely cause a lot of people to throw in the towel and put the book aside. However, the discomfiture the reader feels as a result of Kelsier’s character is echoed by the characters that surround him.  Kelsier isn’t a character you really “get” until towards the end of the novel.  His motives are seemingly clear yet, through that lense of discomfort and distrust, Sanderson manages to make the reader (and the other characters in the novel) question Kelsier and what exactly he is all about.

That raw edge the Kelsier has, despite his apparent joviality, serves as interesting juxtaposition to the paranoia and distrust of street-urchin Vin.  As I sad earlier Kelsier serves as a kind of foil for Vin who, despite her hard upbringing on the streets, manages to come off as the more innocent of the two regardless.  Despite her initial distrust and constant paranoia she lacks that level of cold hatred and violence that practically oozes of Kelsier in his darkest moments.

If fascinating characters weren’t enough Sanderson went ahead and crafted a fascinating magic system to enhance his world.  Based off the properties of certain metals it is perhaps the most unique magic system I’ve seen in a fantasy.  It is simple in a sense but the means through which Sanderson has his characters use it displays a level of depth that belies those first impressions.  I won’t ruin it for you; to quote a certain other author: RAFO.

In the end Mistborn: The Final Empire is a great read that I recommend to all fans of fantasy.  Like some of the more recent author’s in the genre Sanderson plays with the accepted fantasy tropes in an interesting way; creating not only a brilliant story but causing the reader to think about values, power, and responsibility.  It was so good in fact that rather than read the copy of Neuromancer that’s sitting on my desk I opted to go for the second Mistborn book, The Well of Ascension, instead.  Book two is something like half again as long as the first which I have to read in a week since Amazon.co.uk  informed that Toll the Hounds is on its way.

Also, if you’re really enjoying the book I recommend visiting the author’s blog where he has annotated every chapter of books 1 and 2!

Inches Closer to Armageddon

In what almost amounts to a continuing series on the pending robot apocalypse we have this news bit about an early generation replicating computer. While it is primarily design to easy production of everyday items it’s creator hopes it can be used make other computers.

Scariest sentence:  “The machine has also successfully copied all of its own structural pieces.”

At least we can be comforted that it isn’t being made by Japanese company CYBERDYNE, creators of, and I shit you not, HAL (the hybrid assistive limb).

4e Review: The DMG

I’m going to try and be breif here.  For a comprehensive review of all the books, the DMG included, check out Martin Ralya’s review over at Gnome Stew, and for a decent overiew of the DMG I recommend Chatty’s review over at Chatty the DM.  I’m going to cover a lot of the same ground and both those guys are way better at me than this anyway.

The Basics:

More so than any previous iteration of the DMG this is a book designed to help instruct and prepare you for being a DM.  That may sound stupid to say but the previous editions of the DMG were more focused on providing tools and rules for DMs to use.  The 4e DMG is about practical instruction which is a fantastic change of pace.  With the diffusion of most mechanics into the PHB there is a more level playing field between what the players know of the rules and what the DM knows of the rules.  This in turn lets the DM focus on the more important aspects of his job: crafting challenges for players, creating atmosphere, and managing the story.  Definitely a change for the better.

That doesn’t mean that the DMG is absent of rules for “eyes only” so to speak.  Indeed the DMG has rules aplenty but they’re rules that pertain only to aspects of the game that only the DM is responsible for.  The majority are rules based on some sort of construction whether it be new monsters, npcs, whole encounters, or even house rules.  I’d say about the first third of the book is made of pure advice while the remain 2/3 is a mixture of both advice and rules.

What’s To Like:

Traps.  There is a feel of depth and complexity to traps that was never there in 3.x.  Traps function in a way similar to monsters (complete with stat block) that manages that complexity in an easily digested format.  Triggers and bypasses are typically laid out in specific terms and the rules try to cover what happens when PCs take a specific action (typically attacking a trap).  All in all good stuff.

Artifacts.  Artifacts are a fusion of the late 3.5 legacy weapons and the artifacts we all know and love.  Where old school artifacts were essentally plot devices that PCs were never intended to really touch new 4e artifacts are designed to be used and have specific limitations on them to prevent their use.  First off they only stay with PCs for a specific amount of time, typically defined as a certain teir (heroic, paragon, or epic) with powers dependant on what tier the item is designed for.  They are all intelligent but instead of the old ego score the PCs are encouraged to generate a rapport with their item represented by how the goals of the item match with the actions of the PC.  The more in line those are the better their relationship and, as a result the more powers available to the artifact user.  A cool system that makes artifacts both desirable and ultimately useful; rather than mere fluff.

A fuller explanation of monster roles.  I like how this keeps the players with a Monster Manual in the dark about what those terms mean.  In addition the templates are nice allowing for easy customization of monsters and the quick and handy NPC charts are damned handy.

What’s Not To Like:

Skill Challenges.  I hesitate to put them here because honestly I do like them.  It is unfortunate that one of the more interesting mechanics of the game is marred by a inadequet explanation of the mechanics behind it.  It is still a worthwhile and interesting mechanic, and the example skill challenges certainly help explain the mechanic, but the nuts and bolts of the skill challenge need some serious errata in order to make complete sense.  Again, this isn’t bad, just poorly defined.  Experienced DMs good at riffing on rules will find a lot of use here but will require a lot of stabbing in the dark with little help from the rules as written.

Treasure tables.  Again, not bad per se, and certainly better than the random tables in the previous editions, but at the same time fairly limited in terms of what you can do with them.  There aren’t any easy ways to do treasure and what we have here is certainly workable.

The Verdict:

This is a solid book and IMHO leaps and bounds ahead of the 3.x DMGs.  If you plan on DMing don’t let the book’s size fool you (it is the smallest of the three) it is chock full of information that you will find interesting, fun and, most certainly, useful.  A great book definatley worth the price of admission.  Novice DM, I think, will get a lot of mileage out of this book.

DC’s New Weekly: Trinity

While Final Crisis‘ first issue was a bit disappointing the appearance of DC’s new weekly series Trinity was a welcome surprise.  Out of the gate it is already better than both 52 and the abysmal Countdown to Final Crisis.  The title refers to DC’s big three: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.  It also plays with the religious like mythology that surrounds and ties together those three characters.  It isn’t a perfect series by any means but a solid creative team of Mark Bagely (Ultimate Spider-man) and Kurt Busiek(too many to name) keep the series from the sprawl and sporadic narrative that made 52 drag and ruined Countdown.  Like both of the previously weeklies it is tied strongly with the history and unified mythology of the DC Universe.  New DC fans might not like that but I imagine comic fans of all types will find something to like in the series.

To aid the newbie to DC, one not quite familiar with the lesser known faces of the DCU, one of the writers over at Newsarama is doing an annotation feature to exaplain/point out interesting facts about the characters and events in the story.  Check out the series for a fun read and stop by the annotation entries for the first three issues:

Annotations for Trinity issue #1

Annotations for Trinity issue #2

Annotations for Trinity issue #3

Summer Gaming Mallaise

Some notes before I begin, I am indeed still playing Bioshock.  The game just doesn’t excite me, but I’m determined to finish it….eventually.  I am also still playing Grand Theft Auto IV.  It is still fun, I still like the story, but certain gameplay elements (save system…um the controls) make it frequently frustrating and slow progress.  Other interests play a factor as well, I do love reading and certain other distractions have more than slowed my video game playing.

Continue reading “Summer Gaming Mallaise”

Monster Manual (4e Review): “I’m a MONster! Raaawwr!”

The 4th Edition Monster Manual rocks!  I’ve seen some complaints from other reviewers but I’m saying right now that I love it.  Like the PHB the Monster Manual cuts out the chaff, leaving a non-nonsense affair full of crunchy monster goodness.  If you were to take the AD&D Monstrous Manual strip away the lengthy fluff descriptions and replace the remaining whitespace with actual monster stats you’d get what we have here.

As a result, this book is exactly what it says it is.  A book of monsters.  Between this and the PHB we begin to see the overall design philosophy that guided the content for each of these books.  The PHB is the main book, it has all the rules on how to play at all levels of play (in 3.x rules were split between the PHB and the DMG).  The Monster Manual is a toolbox for DMs, a bag of tricks if you will, with the additional benefit of providing some optional races for PCs.  Last the DMG is the book about the game; the nuts and bolts of design and implementation and some general D&D philosophy to aid newer players in crafting their own personal play style.

What does that mean for this book in particular?  Well how about this: want to make a monster?  Too bad!  Not in here buddy.  While the book has a glossary defining certain terms it doesn’t have info on advancing monsters, or creating new ones.  This is a manual of monsters pure and simple.  That other stuff, being the province of the Dungeon Master, is by necessity in the Dungeon Master’s Guide.  To that I say amen!  Even the glossary is pared down to a bare minimum.  Where the 3.5 glossary read like a chapter in and of itself, with lengthy descriptions of types and sub-types and other nebulous things, the 4e glossary reads like…well…a glossary.  Short sentences define each term with no lengthy descriptions cluttering up the page space.

I’d have to look a bit closer but it looks to me like WotC did there best to never split a monster over two pages that weren’t both facing.  This is a huge boon as it means not having to flip a page to read the same stat block/ability.  The concise, easy to read stat block for 4e also helps in this.  Even complex monsters like Big T (a.k.a the tarrasque) and dragons take something like 3/4 a page length in their the eldest, and therefore most complex, variant.  True to their promise 4e contains fully statted dragons of each age level for the 5 chromatic colors (no metallics here); a huge welcome change from all the build-a-dragons in 3.x.

Like classes from the PHB all monsters fill a specific role.  They don’t use the same striker, controller, leader, defender breakdown that PC classes but each typically are an analog of one the forementioned roles.  Monster roles include artillery (ranged combatants), brutes (big beefy hitters), controllers (buff other enemies), and soldiers (front line fighters with a high defense and decent attacks.  There are other roles as well like the skirmisher and the lurker each of which seems to play with striker PC role if different ways.  One of my favorite abilities of a lurker (the exact monster escape me at the moment) is a garotte wire that lets the monster make a grab to start strangling a PC, maintaining the grab without the PC escaping for several rounds automatically drops the PC to 0 hp.  The same monster has additional ability that lets it use the grabbed PC as a body shied!  Absolutely fun, devious stuff for a DM to use; maybe not against the beefy fighter, but an unsupecting Wizard?  Ouch.

There are two meta-roles: the minion and the solo monster.  All minions have 1 hp and deal a flat number of damage (no rolling), they’re designed to keep PCs occupies while remaining at least a marginal threat.  They’re a cool concept designed to make even low-level PCs feel powerful.  Solo beasties, like dragons, defy the general encounter principle of equal or higher monster to PC ratio by pitting the PCs against a single opponent.  Solo opponents are fun and pretty brutal; as anyone who played in the White Dragon encounter on Game Day can attest.

This is another great edition to Fourth Edition that cleans up the sprawl of the previous edition.  It does come at the cost of fluff, which I admit I do miss, but the greater gain in terms of mechanical depth is well worth that loss.  This book has some recycled art which I think is kind of dumb; especially when it’s old art for the iconic drow; come on Wizards!  You really telling me you couldn’t spring for another piece of drow art?  There has to be tons of better art laying around the office that could have been used in place of the 3.x drow warrior art!  A minor complaint, but a silly design choice given the overhaul of the system at large.  If you plan on DMing, or want a leg up on your potential opponents, than pick up this puck and take a look.