Ready Player One or The 80’s Were Amazing and I am Old

I know I am a little late to the party, but I just finished the book and I wanted to give The Doom Retrospective a tiny break. It’s been a long time since I’ve done a book review and I think Ready Player One is a worthy work to break my critic’s drought.

Published in 2011 by Ernest Cline, the book has developed into sort of a geek cult sensation. Honestly, as a huge nerd that grew up in the 80’s, I felt this book was written specifically for me. It’s not hard to understand that feeling when you consider that Mr. Cline is only five years older than me. It was also his first novel, which he published at the age of 39. The bastard. My window to match his feat is rapidly closing.

021915_ReadyPlayerOne_Cover

Climbing up towers of double-wides would make me avoid reality as well.

As you can probably guess, I really enjoyed this book. It is set in a not-too-far off dystopian future (2044), where global warming, wars, an energy crisis, and a stumbling economy have contributed to a world that is hardly habitable. Our main character, Wade Watts, lives in a mega trailer park and spends all his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality video game that is so revolutionary that it has supplanted the real world. People shop there, fall in love there, get married there, and even go to school there. It’s creator, James Halliday, is Willy Wonka, holding a contest inside the OASIS to determine his successor after his death.

The book really strikes the proper chord of nostalgia and forward thinking. Wade is obsessed with technology and the past. Throughout the book, he goes to great lengths to avoid the real world and the present time. As the book progresses, however, he starts to realize that the outside world still does hold some value (friends! love interest!). There is a political agenda here too, aside from the aforementioned worldly ills, race and sexual orientation are mentioned in the book, but they seem sort of just tacked one, like Cline wanted to call attention without really exploring the issues. Did I mention that a completely amoral corporation is the villain? Or other hunters of the prize team up to take down said evil corporation? All the boxes are checked here.

As for the writing, most of the time I didn’t notice it, which is a pretty high compliment. For a novel that is steeped in fanboyish obsession, the story could have been laughable, but Cline’s prose gets out of the damn way and lets the story flow. It’s not Steinbeck, but the book is well written.

The real draw of the book is just how much fun Cline obviously had writing it. Any major cultural touchstone from the 70’s and 80’s is fair game. Movies, comics, Dungeons and Dragons, music, and video games. It’s all in here. And they aren’t just mentioned. There is a page of nothing but Monty Python and the Holy Grail dialogue. There are pages describing games like Zork, Black Dragon, and Tempest in detail. I owned Zork and I loved that game. So bonus points there.

Overall, nothing in Ready Player One is revolutionary. Willy Wonka. Evil corporations. Virtual reality vs. the real world. Contemporary ills that lead to dystopian future when ignored. Nerdy loner growing as a person. Every bit of this book is recognizably drawn from somewhere else, and can even be a bit tropey and clichéd, but the prose is steady and Cline’s enthusiasm jumps off the page. I don’t feel changed by the book, but I still loved it.

8/10 1UPs!

As usual, feel free to leave your thoughts and comments below. You can also send your comments to thenonicheblog@gmail.com or follow me on Twitter at John_S20. If you like what you read, subscribe!

Flying Foxes and Kung Fu: A Review of Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain

I have always been interested in Wuxia (pronounced sort of like woo-seeyah), but I shamefully have never read a Wuxia novel. As usual for a review of a book that was written outside my culture, I have a few disclaimers: I do not speak Chinese and I have never been to China, Taiwan, or Hong Kong. So there are undoubtedly certain cultural signals and historical references that I may have missed, but I still can comment on the novel as a work of art.

Fox Volant of the Snowy Mountain was written in 1959 by Jin Yong, which is the pen name of journalist and novelist Louis Cha Leung-yung. For those of you unfamiliar with Wuxia and without going out of my depth, it is basically Chinese martial fantasy. The genre focuses on heroes that practice martial arts, follow Chinese ideals of chivalry, and travel around righting wrongs and fighting the good fight. It is Chinese high fantasy, with superhuman powers, idealistic characters, and amazing locations.

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This story is a classic adventure tale, focusing on a group of martial practitioners, some more memorable than others, who find themselves in a mountain manor owned by a mysterious lord at the top of Jade Brush Peak in Northeast China during the Qing Dynasty. As you might expect, there is a lot of fighting in this book and it is awesome. People are floating on snow, blocking blades with their bare hands, healing wounds, and paralyzing people with a mere touch of a finger. There is pretty much nothing these people cannot do. Fox Volant, our hero, can pretty much kill people just by flicking gems at them with his fingers.

What should not be lost in all of this kung fu goodness, however, is that between epic fights, there is a pretty compelling story. It’s a treasure hunt rolled up in a mystery rolled into a kung fu movie. To tell this story, Cha picked an interesting device. Almost all of the main plot points are told via flashback through anecdotes told by the characters. A few events are repeated several times because characters disagree on how events actually played out. It works well and the way the stories are told helps flesh out the characters.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book was also the most familiar. I enjoyed watching Chinese chivalry spring to the life on the page. It was very comfortable and familiar seeing the characters attempt to reach the ideals of loyalty, bravery, piety, and duty. Still, there were some cultural differences that should be noted. Where in the West, a chivalrous knight might be hailed for disobeying an order he finds unjust, a Chinese Knight-Errant always keeps his word and knows his duty. There is obvious merit to both tropes here and reading the more unfamiliar one was refreshing.

Louis Cha, still kicking it at 90.

Louis Cha, still kicking it at 90.

Dragonball Syndrome and a Cast of Dozens

Something that took a bit of getting used to was the habit of the narration to name every move by a, to be diplomatic, colorful label. Here are a few examples of some of the moves in this novel: Thousand-catty Counterpoise, Spring Cocoon Pugilistic Feat, and my personal favorite Empery Dragon Spinning Round to Sprout Whiskers. These are great names. When you watch something like Dragonball, characters constantly yelling their moves before they do them seems somewhat cheesy and I think hurts casual Westerners view of the genre. In this book, however, it gave the fights a cerebral element. This was not fighters yelling moves at each other, this was a mental and physical chess match using tried and true techniques. I found this particular trope of wuxia and its brethren to be fun and effective.

The book, however, was not perfect. First it was published as a serial, like a Dickens book, so you get a lot of sections ending with cliffhangers, most of them minor, but definitely written in such a way to have readers hooked until the next installment. This was not a flaw in the book itself, but it is not really my style.

Being a chivalrous fantasy novel, the story and eventual outcome is pretty predictable, except for the ending, which I will not spoil here (you will either love it or hate it). Good characters act good. Bad characters act dastardly. One of the weaknesses of idealized fantasy is that the characters can come across a bit shallow and two-dimensional. Veteran genre readers should be able to move past it, but those looking for a complex character piece should probably lower their expectations.

Last, and most importantly, there were a lot of characters. I mean a lot. So many characters that there is a list of them at the beginning of the book. There are 34 characters listed as “Main Characters.” Now, not all of them are truly main, but holy crap that is a lot of characters. Not only were there lots of people, everyone belonged to some organization or other. Was this guy from the Peking Overland Convoy or the House Spring Banditry? Was this the girl from the Dragon Lodge? This got so confusing that I started to have to write them down. Eventually, I had drawn a relationship diagram that I kept next to the book while I read. Bottom line, it was difficult to keep track of everybody. I like a full cast of characters, but sheesh.

The Verdict

Overall, I enjoyed the hell out of this book and ended up chastising myself for not getting around to a dedicated Wuxia phase of my life sooner. This is surely only the first of a long line of this type of novel for me. It has its flaws, but if you are a fan of fantasy, this book should deliver.

8/10 Gilt-faced Buddhas

The Secret Agent – Even Fat Guys Can Make It in the Spy Game

When my reading group decided to read Secret Agent for our first book, I was not quite sure what to expect. Sure, it is listed as #46 on the Top 100 Novels of the 20th Century, but I have to admit that I had never heard of it. One of the things I like to do before jumping into a new book is to do some background research on it. I had read that this book has been interpreted as being both pro-terrorism and anti-terrorism (however that happens), but as I will discuss, I do not think Conrad was taking any kind of stand on terrorism itself.

Since the book is over 100 years old, I do not feel any guilt over spoiling some of the plot. Secret Agent follows the story of Adolph Verloc, an agent of espionage for some unidentified embassy in London. His handlers at the embassy hatch a scheme to blow up the Observatory in Greenwich hoping that it will stir up public support for oppressive homeland security regulation (hmmm). Things obviously do not go smoothly. People are manipulated, innocents die, lives are ruined, and at the end of the story, the political and social situation is unchanged from the beginning of the novel. Basically this is your typical Joseph Conrad novel. No matter how hard Conrad tries, he cannot hide that the cup of his heart runneth over with love for humanity. Read Heart of Darkness for more of his mushy feelings for how great we all are.

This great author thinks fat people are hilarious.
This great author thinks fat people are hliarious

Secret Agent was published in 1907, so I knew there would be some Victorian Era shenanigans in the writing style, i.e. a lot of people walking around and looking at things or people sitting and thinking. In this regard, the book did not disappoint, or rather to a modern reader, it did disappoint. Conrad is pretty verbose when it comes to describing people, places, and emotional states. I have to admit that I found myself losing interest in certain chapters that were being bogged down by narrative.

The characters, however, are pretty memorable and the book is enjoyable when they are given time to actually interact with one another. In fact, the interactions between Verloc and the embassy ne’er-do-wells are the most entertaining scenes in the novel.

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, this book was one of the most talked about and cited, for obvious reasons. Personally, I thought Conrad was commenting on the corruption imbedded in the upper levels of power in Victorian society rather than taking some sort of stand on terrorism. The police are corrupt, the would-be terrorists are lazy, and every “bad” person is fat. Conrad bludgeons the reader with the rich, corrupt, influential person = fat trope. It is a bit distracting to read hundreds of pages of fat people, but I think Conrad did a decent enough job at least making it entertaining.

The Verdict

Am I glad I read this book? Yes. Was it as great a work of literature as the critics suggest? Probably. The writing is old and can be laborious to get through, but as a true sign of the novel’s worth, it is as topical and relevant today as the day it was published. This is probably the strongest point of the book. If you do not mind being a bit depressed after reading it, Secret Agent is a fine classic to pick up as your next book.

3.5/5 witty substitutes for stars.

The Orphan Master’s Son or North Korea Be Crazy

I am happy to join the bandwagon of sites that are reviewing the 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel. Published in 2012 and written by Adam Johnson, the novel tells the story of a North Korean orphan named Jun Do who experiences a lifetime full of events that are meant to highlight both the absurdity and the oppressiveness of the North Korean regime.

The man and his book

The man and his book

First, let me say that this novel was basically about the North Korean Forrest Gump. Jun Do seems to live a life that coincidentally lines up perfectly to allow the reader to see the worst aspects of life in North Korea. He’s in the military, on a fishing boat, going to Japan, going to America, meeting with Senators, in prison, and finally elevated high enough to rub elbows and converse with the late Kim Jong Il.

Accepting the remote possibility of a random orphan experiencing this amazing chain of events is a prerequisite for enjoying this book. Acceptance should be pretty easy since it is a creative choice by the author to show as many disparate experiences as possible in the DPRK. Shabnam seemed to have a problem with this at times, but I was on board from the beginning.

Many reviews and media coverage of this book mention how the story gives you an inside look at life in North Korea. This is only partly true. While I have no doubt that Johnson did a metric ton of research to put this story together, the probabilities needed to have the protagonist experience everything that happened in this book leads me to believe that the average citizen probably does not have run ins with every level of oppression, corruption, and graft that is on display here. Still, when I finished the novel I did feel a bit like a voyeur, so there was definitely a feeling of immersion.

No matter our differing opinions on the book, we can all agree that propaganda posters are awesome

No matter our differing opinions on the book, we can all agree that propaganda posters are awesome

The writing is solid but not spectacular. Johnson has a journalism background and I think it is on display here. The writing is what I would call workmanlike – it tells the story and gets the hell out of the way. While I was never wowed by any of the writing, I don’t recall any awkward sentences jarring me out of the experience either.

This book recently won the Pulitzer Prize. Make no mistake, I thought it was a good book, but not an excellent one. I think Johnson has written an entertaining book about the perfect subject at the perfect time. It paints North Korea in the colors that Americans expect and makes us feel good about ourselves while at the same time feeling righteous pity for the poor North Koreans who have to live under a crazy regime. It’s the perfect storm for a Pulitzer.

7/10 Cans of Poisonous Peaches

Midnight’s Children – Entertainment Usually Requires a Plot

Before I get too deeply into this review, I need to make a few caveats. First, I read this book refusing to use any sort of “helper” materials. I read no Spark Notes or Cliff Notes or other reviewers or any other literary criticism tool; my review is based solely on what I got out of the book using my own little noggin. Secondly, I am not Muslim nor am I an Indian or Pakistani. I used a dictionary for words I was not familiar with (like all good readers should!), but other than that, I relied on whatever knowledge I came to the book possessing. Keep these points in mind as you read.

Cover of the movie based on the book. It would be so difficult to turn this story into a movie which is probably why the movie received awful reviews.

It would be difficult to turn this symbolism-packed story into a movie which is probably why it received awful film reviews.

 

Midnight’s Children was published in 1981 by Salman Rushdie. It was released to some acclaim and is considered one of the best books of the twentieth century. It parallels the life of the main character, Saleem Sinai, with the subcontinent’s early struggles with independence. As India struggles, Saleem struggles. As India is overcome with optimism, Saleem and his family become optimistic. Even the house in which Saleem lives is handed over to his family by a wealthy British aristocrat at the exact moment Great Britain hands India its independence. The Saleem = India = Saleem theme is apparent from the beginning and is handled well enough.

The book is an example of “magical realism” which is basically very well written and timely fantasy. There are many fantastic events in this book which add flavor and give Rushdie more freedom in constructing his allegory. I liked it, but only because I am a nerd. If children having magical powers against the backdrop of the Indo-Pakistani War of 1965 gives you pause, you need to keep the genre in mind before you decide to dive in.

Because the book is classified as magical realism, the presumption is that Rushdie must be an excellent writer. Well yes, I can confirm that Rushdie is an excellent writer. The book is fun to read. He plays with words, his choices are interesting, and the novel is descriptive and clever. However, I have a major issue with the plot, and by that I should say there is no plot. As mentioned, the novel is an allegory, much like Pilgrim’s Progress, another book with not so much a plot but rather a string of loosely related events that are meant to inform, instruct, or lecture. It seems that Rushdie’s main goal in this novel is to educate and criticize rather than entertain. This is fine, but I found myself jolted by the abrupt emergence of parallels. One page I am reading about some event in Saleem’s life, sometimes innocuous, and the next I am jolted into some crisis on the subcontinent that loosely parallels the Saleem scene I just read. At times I felt Rushdie would have been better served writing a work of historical fiction. It would have been more concise and focused.

Here we see Salee- I mean Rushdie and Padma looking elegant.

Here we see Salee- I mean Rushdie and Padma looking elegant.

Have I mentioned this book is about 150 pages too long? No? Well this book is about 150 pages too long. Everything Rushdie writes ties in later on in the book, so no single event is wasted, but every character seems to have the spotlight for just a few pages too long; every scene gets just a few too many paragraphs. Over the course of 647 pages, this adds up. Perhaps my only passing knowledge of Arabian Nights and Islam causes me to rebel against meaningful paragraphs whose symbolism eludes me, but I could not shake the feeling that Rushdie was laying it on a bit thick in places.

The Verdict

Overall, this book is worth reading but be warned it is an investment. If you want to watch a talented writer do his thing or have an interest in the complex and turbulent history of the subcontinent without getting bogged down in a history book, you might want to give Midnight’s Children a read. I think the book was more fun to read than Secret Agent, but I found Conrad’s book more engrossing and so I have to score this book slightly lower.

5/10 Sniffing Saleems

Lolita – Sketchiness in Style

I recently read Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for the first time. Ranked #4 on the Modern Library Best Books list, the book is generally accepted as one of the best English language books written in the last 100 years, if not longer. I needed to read this book, partly for my own literary ambitions and partly because the book is so famous it would be a crime not to enlighten you all with my thoughts. I will warn you that there will be some spoilers, so proceed with caution all ye who venture past this paragraph.

Vladimir Nabokov waxing philosophical on how awesome he is.

Vladimir Nabokov waxing philosophical on how awesome he is.

Lolita is so famous (and as I discovered, rightfully so), it is hard to review the work without parroting the decades of critics and academics who have dissected it. Still, I wanted to write something that, if not unique, was at least interesting or entertaining. We shall see.

For those not familiar with the book, Lolita tells the story of a man (Humbert Humbert) who kidnaps, repeatedly rapes, and possibly falls in love with a twelve-year-old girl. After Secret Agent, topics like these no longer particularly shock me. Published in the US in 1958, I cannot imagine what the average reader must have felt reading it. By today’s standards, the vulgarity is tame and Nabokov is so talented that even the truly vulgar parts are described in such well-constructed metaphor and symbolism that the scenes have a decidedly literary quality rather than appearing as smut for smut’s sake. Still, it was the 50’s and such a book must have really rocked the boat. Nabokov foresaw this, which is why his first instinct was to publish under a pseudonym. Probably a smart move, considering there is a scene where Humbert covertly grinds to orgasm on Lolita while she is laying on the couch reading a magazine.

Many modern readers still consider the book a bit boat rocking. If you visit Goodreads, you will see that roughly 15% of the approximately 250,000 reviews give the book 1 or 2 stars. Some of these reviews are pretentious trash, a number of “I know better than you that Nabokov is a hack.” The reviews that draw my attention are of a different sort. Many dwell on the repulsive nature of the subject matter and how a reader can feel terrible after being immersed in it for several hours. These reviews are worth talking about.

If the book makes you feel disgusted, then Nabokov is doing exactly what he set out to do. This seems simple and obvious, but there is a big difference between these two responses:

Reader 1: “Holy shit, I feel terrible after reading this book. Raping kids? But, god damn it, the writing is so amazing and I know I am supposed to feel this bad. Good job, Nabokov, you pedophile portraying scamp! 4 stars!”

Reader 2: “Sweet Jesus, this book makes me feel disgusted. Raping kids? It is well written, but god, reading this book is like eating a shit sandwich. Nabokov, you filthy pervert. 1 star!”

Covers like these might help explain some of the One Star reviews.

Covers like these might help explain some of the One Star reviews.

When I inevitably write my book about raising Labrador Retriever puppies as a food source, I would kill to have a million readers give me 1 star because that would mean a million people read my book. For Nabokov, these 1 star reviews mean he has succeeded as an artist. Readers should and do hate the reality he creates. They detest the reality of the book to the point that their negative feelings towards Humbert color their actual enjoyment of the book. Imagine if you directed a horror movie and upon seeing it, audiences proclaimed that they hated it because it scared them too much. Would this disappoint you?

I was more fascinated than disgusted by the reality Nabokov creates, but the book still succeeds on multiple levels. The narrator is famously unreliable and the story works because of it. By the end of the novel, we know next to nothing about the titular character, Lolita aka Dolores Haze. Everything is told through Humbert’s delusions and so we see Lolita acting like a typical child one moment and speaking like the well-educated adult of Humbert’s dreams the next. These points come up in every review and by every critic, so I know I am not breaking any new ground here, but that’s not the point. For me, these things make the book fun to read. It is fun to squirm and think about how different the true reality is from the narrator’s version of it. Is Lolita really some underage temptress? Is she living in fear? Has she been so emotionally damaged that she apathetically accepts her fate? Nabokov keeps these answers mostly obscured, leaving the reader to speculate. The framing of this story is also great. The book is presented as a posthumously published memoir by a man we know is in prison, but Nabokov leaves us wondering whether Humbert is rotting away for his pedophilia or some other criminal act (hint, hint).

While many people talk about the book being written to shock, Nabokov stated that his goal was to write a romance novel to the English language. The book is beautifully written and it does play with words in a way that makes even the most morally problematic scenes seem clever, funny, or even romantic. I have to admit that I used my dictionary more for this book than any book I have ever read and most definitions included the tag “Archaic.” So, really, Nabokov hit it out of the park here.

If you are serious about shoring up your literary chops, this is a nice place to start.

8/10 Delusional Academics

Swordmage – A Review

We now get to the genre of book that is my jam. I know some of you may have been thrown for a loop when my first solo review on the site was Lolita. Well, fear not, I will never abandon the horse that brought me to book review land. So without further ado, let’s get into my first fantasy review.

I just finished reading Swordmage by Richard Baker, published in 2008. Now, I am a fan of lots of different types of fantasy, but I have to admit I have never read a book that was based on Dungeons and Dragons. This is shocking, I know. The idea of a D&D book always seemed cool to me with their various classes and races, but I always shied away from reading one because it is based on a game. Any time another piece of entertainment – a movie, a book, or TV show – is based on a video game or a board game, it is usually really shitty. I never saw Battleship but I am assuming it was real bad. I enjoyed Street Fighter but my soul is forever stained for it.

Unfortunately, nothing as cool as this cover actually happens in the book.

Unfortunately, nothing as cool as this cover actually happens in the book.

So I went into my fist D&D novel experience with low expectations and mixed feelings. I was sure I would like the swords and the fighting and the magic, but I feared that the writing would feel a bit stilted because the author would be hamstrung by a Wizards of the Coast (owner of the D&D franchise) edict. They would obviously want to make sure that the book at least alluded to actual gaming mechanics, classes, and skills. Did this happen? Yes. Did it ruin my enjoyment of the book? Read on.

The story is very straightforward, almost cookie cutter. The hero, Geran Hulmaster, returns to his hometown after a long absence and finds that his family, who has ruled the place for generations, has lost control due to the rising influence of foreign trading companies. The conflicts and threats in this book are generated by an undead necromancer, a barbarous orc warchief spurred to violence by a warlock, and a corrupt family member. However, like any good D&D game, the hero finds himself conveniently in a party with himself, a rogue, a ranger, and a sorcerer (who takes on the mysterious wildcard and then frenemy roles.)

The book goes as you would expect. Hero comes back. Hero finds things messed up. Hero has a few setbacks but pretty much kicks ass for 350 pages. Since this book is the first in a trilogy, there is also the “defeated bad guy licks his wounds and teams up with another villain to get that hero good!” Stay tuned for book 2!

Any time dice are appropriate tools for plot development, you might be in trouble.

Any time dice are appropriate tools for plot development, you might be in trouble.

The author writes the book competently enough, but for anyone familiar with D&D at all, the references sometimes feel a bit forced. The first time we are introduced to a character, we are usually told what class they are in the narration. Even though spells and abilities are not directly taken from the game by name, fans will immediately recognize them. This can jolt the reader out of the experience, but I think Baker handled it gracefully enough, although there is a scene in the book where the heroes have to basically sleep for 8 hours because the hero needs to recharge his spells. This is ripped directly from game mechanics.

The characters are pretty one dimensional. The hero is honorable with a checkered past. The male sidekick is wisecracking and loyal. The female sidekick is competent to the point that people are shocked by how competent she is. The frenemy is surly but helpful. The villains are bad to core with no real motivation other than greed or lust for violence.

It may sound like I am going to score this book poorly, but that’s not really true. Anyone who avidly reads any type of genre fiction, be it romance, mystery, science fiction, or fantasy understands and accepts that there will be stereotypes and tropes in the story. But to tell the truth, these tropes sell books. People who read fantasy want to read about magic and kicking ass. If they get strong pacing, plotting, and character development to boot then it’s gravy. Authors know this, readers know this, and editors know this. A fantasy book devoid of fantasy tropes is not a fantasy novel at all, no matter how well written. It would then be *gulp* mainstream literature.

Swordmage might not be a great book, but it’s an ok fantasy novel.

5/10 Twenty-Sided Die