The Great Work: Hope

On Thursday, a three-week long depression broke. It was at the end of a day when I missed work due to a particularly bad headache. The headache broke after a few hours. The depression didn’t, though I felt that I could read. Sometimes, during the depression, I can’t. Everything feels flavorless.

I got a massage. It had been scheduled to help with some TMJ issues. After the massage, I felt something I hadn’t felt in three weeks: hope. Hope that life could be happy. Hope that I could fight for happiness. Hope that I could find happiness. Hope stopped feeling like something I had read in a book, something as fantastic and mythical as dragons and elves. Hope was something that I could have. It was a magic spell that could propel me forward, sustaining me as I tried to improve myself. The hope felt good. But it also scared me.

As I write this, I am a bit nervous because I don’t know how long the hope will last. The depression of the last three weeks wasn’t the first time I have felt this way, and it wasn’t the longest bought either. It wasn’t the darkest, though it does rank as a darker one. But as wonderful as these feelings of hope are, these feelings that make me think I can move forward and find happiness, I am nervous about when they break and the depression returns. I say “when” because, based on experience, I don’t feel confident saying “if.” I told my wife that it is like living with a roommate, and you never know what mood that roommate will be in come morning. You don’t know what mood he will be in an hour from now. Only, the apartment is your mind, and the roommate is you. And when the depression returns, you are the same person, though different. You are a different flavor of yourself. That which seemed clear and attainable before now seems distant. You fear that maybe it isn’t there at all. You are re-drawn, once solid lines and vibrant colors, now hazy and indistinct.

Right now, I have confidence that things will get better. That things can change. But I am nervous because I don’t feel in control of these emotions. I don’t know what triggers the change. But right now, I am searching, and I hope the confidence and momentum I have now will push me forward, through whatever is next.

Becoming

Only the Lover Sings cover

For my birthday, my wife got me Only the Lover Sings by Josef Pieper. Pieper was a German philosopher who lived from 1907 to 1994, according to Wikipedia. This particular book contains meditations on art, work, and leisure. I love this book and I think I will revisit it often. I have found many passages that resonate with me, many that cause me to pause and contemplate my life.

In his essay, “Thoughts on Music”, Pieper states that

Man is never just “there.” Man “is” insofar as he “becomes”—not only in his physical reality, in growing, maturing, and eventually diminishing toward the end. In his spiritual reality, too, man is constantly moving on—he is existentially “becoming”; he is “on the way.” For man, to “be” means to “be on the way”—he cannot be in any other form; man is intrinsically a pilgrim, “not yet arrived,” regardless of whether he is aware of this or not, whether he accepts it or not.

This resonated with me because I have been feeling stuck for quite some time. But just as our physical bodies continue to progress or diminish with each action or inaction we take, so do our minds and spiritual existence progress or diminish. There are no empty actions; no free actions. All action is movement toward something. If I feel stuck, I am still moving toward something. And perhaps, in this state, the greatest act of autonomy I have is to choose what I move toward.

I don’t always know how to do this, though. I have many dreams, but often feel like I lack a clear path. Many times in the past, I have hesitated or lingered as I wait for a path to become clear. Recently, however, I have started thinking that I am at my worst in these moments. I think I often face more depression and angst when I am not working toward something, clear path or not. I sometimes think I need to constantly strive for something; to not strive is to despair. I can always choose to change, to re-align the path, but if I linger, I become rooted to a location. I can suffer through inaction or suffer through uncertain action. But only in one of these do I exert control over an outcome.

Put another way, it’s easier to steer a moving boat or car.

This realization is sometimes hard to hold. In my despair, I become frozen or paralyzed. I sometimes don’t see the point of moving. I forget that I am supposed to move or forget that I am trying to move. And so, I am grateful to Pieper for the reminder that even in paralysis, I am still becoming.

 

The Great Work

Colorized version of the Flammarion woodcut of a missionary looking through the horizon that which lay beyond it.
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Universum.jpg

A few months ago I became fascinated by alchemy because of an episode (three episodes, actually) of Astonishing Legends. The episodes were about the Count of St. Germain. Now, to be clear, I do not think the Count is immortal. I do not think he had discovered the elixir of life. I think it is far more likely that he was a type of showman that moved in influential and powerful circles. For fun, I like to think he was the Doctor, and that Stephen Moffat missed an opportunity when he wrote “The Girl in the Fireplace.”

I’m already getting off topic.

The Count was actually my gateway to Western alchemy, and I became interested in the history alchemy. I was similarly interested in discussions of Chinese alchemy when I took a class on Religions of China and Japan while completing a religious studies degree. And while I think alchemy is interesting from a history-of-science-and-medicine standpoint, I think the symbolic language and concepts in alchemy are very powerful. Alchemy can be a useful metaphor for personal and spiritual growth.

In my religious studies class, we learned that Chinese alchemy started favoring spiritual refinement and development because, in a very practical sense, many early alchemists ended up poisoning themselves. But from that came theories of herbs and energy in Chinese medicine—and many blends of tea! In the West, alchemy led to early chemistry and medicine. It flourished in the early Muslim world. Indeed, the word alchemy is derived from Arabic: al-kīmiyā. One major difference between alchemy and modern chemistry, however, is the spiritual component. Chinese alchemy went on to refer to the refinement of the soul with the possibility of immortality. Western alchemy focused more on material goals of immortality and wealth—though prayer was still a strong component of Western alchemy.

I find the spiritual side of alchemy very intriguing: the idea that our bodies (or the self) are a container into which we put elements (ideas, concepts, theories) with the intention of refining ourselves, to reach greater understanding, enlightenment, or further discerning truth and reality. Granted, this includes the a priori assumption that an objective truth or reality exists outside of us—something that I think we must actually assume in order to move forward in any type of work. Science itself assumes that natural laws are knowable and stable; if they are not, we have no ability to measure and observe because they can shift or change. Likewise, if we want to refine ourselves and our understanding of life and reality, we have to assume such refinement is possible, which means there must be something outside the self to measure against. For some, that is the natural sciences, for others, God or spirituality. It can be ideals, dogma, or a code, but self-improvement is predicated on a rubric.

The interesting thing is that we often refine our rubric as we go . . . or at least, this INTP does. It’s kind of an INTP thing. I have come to refer to this attempt to understand reality and refine myself as The Great Work. In alchemical terms, the great work (or magnum opus) is the search for the philosopher’s stone. The philosopher’s stone is something you create (or another has created). The philosopher’s stone can lead one to immortality. Or, in the hermetic (and more metaphorical traditions), it is the pursuit of spiritual and intellectual transformation. It is individuation.

For my purposes, The Great Work is my attempt to understand reality and refine myself toward that understanding. It is the attempt to figure out if God is really there. It is the attempt to find that which brings me to life . . . that inspires me to move . . . that brings purpose and meaning. I struggle with all of these things. I joke that on my worst days, I’m a Nihilist; on my best, I’m an Existentialist.

This may not actually be a joke.

In my life, I have consumed many things that actually poisoned my attempt to refine myself. At times, these were consumed without much choice in the matter. But how we continue to refine ourselves is the key. I believe we can continue to move forward, though sometimes it may be hard.

And so, I may from time to time write about this journey, this Great Work. I will continue to research alchemy, to mine it for useful and essential elements to help bring together this artistic metaphor. I may try out theories as I develop them. This search may take years, and I may abandon the alchemy metaphor at some point. But, for now, this metaphor helps me create a framework for my search. It helps me organize thoughts, and allows me to embody them in a way that has previously been a struggle.

But the most important thing, at the moment, is that it is helping me to keep moving, to keep searching, and to keep hoping.

Final Fantasy 2 Introduction

Original Final Fantasy 2 box art

Original Release Date: 1988

Playthrough Platform: Playstation

My History with the Game: Despite owning the PS One remake, I have never played all the way through this game. What I remember about the game is that the story was stronger and more dominant than the first game and that the game mechanics are very different. The mechanics are based around what actions you take. At the time, I didn’t care for this, but in the intervening years I have become a fan of The Elder Scrolls. I’m actually looking forward to the mechanics now. I think this is the only Final Fantasy game that uses this type of character progression. And I really like that Square established early on that they would take risks with these games and not just duplicate what came before. But more than anything, I am excited about playing a Final Fantasy game that I have never played before.

I can’t wait!

Final Fantasy 1 – Retrospective

Final Play Time: 15:22

Final Fantasy logo

Overview

Final Fantasy was the game that saved Square and launched the long-running, extremely popular series. It’s hard to recapture the context of this game and recognize how ground-breaking it was at the time. It feels dated, but this game revolutionized the jRPG genre. I’ve played through this game multiple times, and in honor of this year being the 30th anniversary, I have played through the game once more. Again, this was a groundbreaking game at the time, but this review reflects my experience with the game on this play through.

Story:  4

Final Fantasy starts with a “save-the-princess” trope that soon evolves into story that requires you to revive the elemental crystals and defeat the elemental fiends so you can open a time gate to fight an ancient evil, close a time loop, and erase an alternate dimension where chaos rules. It actually sounds cooler than it plays out. Most of the information on the plot is held until an info-dump prior to the final dungeon and a bit more prior to the final boss. The concept is good, but the execution is a bit weak. That said, I’m happy Square was ambitious with the concepts, and high concepts continue throughout the series.

World Building:  5

As world building goes, there’s not a lot to this one. There are your standard elves and dwarves, kings and queens, and so on. This game feels influenced by Dungeons & Dragons but with a bit of Japanese spin. When the game story introduces us to the ancient Sky People and their lost civilization, the world starts to expand a bit. In fact, lost civilizations with advanced technology become a trope in other Final Fantasy and Square games. But its treatment here is small. It’s interesting, but there’s not much to it. I wanted more lore than I got. But, it was a step up at the time. Compared to the lore in games like The Legend of Zelda (most of which was in the manual and not the game.

Characters: 0

Deep characterization was not really a thing when this game was released. While Garland, the ultimate evil in this game, is said to have succumbed to darkness and hatred, this isn’t something that we ever really see. Again, it is told, not shown. None of the main characters area really characters, merely avatars of the player.

Gameplay: 7

As I mentioned before, this game is seems influenced by Dungeons & Dragons. The most noticeable instance of this is the magic system, which is divided into spell levels, and each level only allows a certain number of casts. Once you have used all available castings, you must rest. Instead of short and long rests, you have sleeping bags, tents, and cabins, each of which restores increasingly greater amounts of health and magic. The combat requires a bit of strategy if you want efficient and quick combat, though in the remake there is less need for this strategy as in the original version (which didn’t re-target monsters as they died). The combat can be fun, but it can also be brutal at times. I spent a lot of time early on grinding gold and XP, and I still struggled against some monster later in the game. Combat can be frequent, too. Sometimes it is hard to go more than five steps without a random attack. This can be incredibly frustrating if a character dies, and you have to go back to a chapel to revive them, but you keep getting attacked. Let’s just say that I learned to hate the Marsh Cave at a very young age. I’ve always felt the game got easier after that. Or at the very least, gold was easier to come by after that.

Personal Enjoyment: 5

I’ll confess, I’ve never really cared for Final Fantasy. It was one of the few games I had on the NES, and it was years before I beat it. My love for the series actually started with Final Fantasy IV (2). That game won me over with the story and characters, and it was because of that game that I later went back to Final Fantasy I. I almost never think about it with fondness. Nor do I think of it with dislike. It’s just . . . there. I appreciate it as the starting point for this series, and I smile at the callbacks. But when it comes to craving a Final Fantasy experience, this first game has never been one I revisit with excitement. It kind of pains me to say all this. I appreciate what it did at the time, both as a game and for the RPG genre, but for me, it is a miss. It is an artefact that has many elements that would carry through into later games. And in those later games, they would often be used to greater effect.

Final Rating: 4.2/10

Final Fantasy 1 Introduction

Final Fantasy strategy guide by Nintendo Power
I still have this, though it is about to fall apart.

Original Release Date: 1987

Playthrough Platform: Playstation

My History with the Game: I first played this game on the NES back in the early 90s. I didn’t fall in love with the series through this game. It was hard. Very hard. I re-played this game after falling in love with Final Fantasy IV (2) and VI (3). I have played through and beat it three or four times, once on the original system and subsequently on the Playstation Final Fantasy Origins re-release.

I have wanted to do a Final Fantasy playthrough ever since the release date was set for FF XV. Unfortunately, I didn’t start because I didn’t have easy access to Final Fantasy XII. But, since the HD remaster of XII was announced, I’ve decided to move forward on this goal. It also gives Square-Enix time to push through more patches and updates to Final Fantasy XV.

I’m nearly finished with FF. In the story, I have just picked up the Warp Cube, so my next stop is the Sky Tower. For future installments, I plan on writing an introduction before starting each game, then writing a final review as I complete the main story. I’ve finished most of the games in this series, but a few here and there will be new to me. I’m looking forward to revisiting old friends and meeting new ones.

My plan is to stick to the numbered games, so no Mobius, Crystal Chronicles, Legends, Adventures, Crisis Cores, sequels, etc. (This isn’t a hard rule, though. I reserve the right to change this according to my fickle nature. And because I already have FFX-2.). Also, I am not going to play XI and XIV since I don’t particularly want to jump into an MMO.

So, I hope you will join me for this on again, off again series. I’m going to take my time to enjoy these games and finally play my way through the series.

Dragon Age: Origins (PC)

Overview

Dragon Age: Origins is a game by the renowned RPG developer Bioware. The game takes place in the kingdom of Ferelden, and follows the last two Grey Wardens as they attempt to form an alliance against the Darkspawn. As of this post, I have put over 104 hours into Dragon Age: Origins, most of which was devoted to three different playthroughs of the main quest.

This review contains spoilers for the game.

Dragon Age Origins cover

Story:  8

On an overall plot level, DA:O didn’t impress me much. Ferelden is a world of humans, dwarves, elves, ogres, dragons, and Darkspawn (which are not orcs but can be read as orcs).  While these have become commonplace in post-Tolkien fantasy and so aren’t unusual, I struggled to get in to the game because I’ve seen these tropes time and time again. The true test, though, is what the developers do with these tropes. In this story, the Darkspawn are undead minions of Arch-demons (the resurrected old gods who take the form of dragons). For reasons not currently known, the Darkspawn want to destroy the races of Ferelden. Normally they lurk underground in the Deep Roads, but if they come across an Arch-demon, they gather their forces and invade the surface, an event that is called The Blight. An order of warriors, the Grey Wardens, was founded centuries ago to fight the Darkspawn and lead the races of the world against the Blights. The Grey Wardens are formed from volunteers, however, and their numbers wane between Blights. So, this is your typical good versus evil. The Grey Wardens are fascinating. You are introduced to them through Duncan, who recruits you after tragedy befalls your character. (You have seven different character origins you can choose: noble human, mage elf or human, noble dwarf, lower caste dwarf, servant elf, and forest elf. Each character origin has a different inciting event.) But in addition to this overarching narrative as you attempt to gain support for the Blight, you become embroiled in the politics of Ferelden as Teyrn Loghain orchestrates the deaths of the king and all the Grey Wardens except you and Alistair. His motivations are rooted deep in his personal history in fighting for Ferelden’s freedom from the Orleasian Empire. So, despite some played-out, heroic fantasy tropes, the journey is worth it as Bioware fleshes out a world that is deeper than what it looks at first glance. More on this world below.

World Building: 8

So, the heroic fantasy tropes were a bit off-putting at first. But as stated above, delving deeper into this world propelled it above my initial impression. In Ferelden, elves are outcasts and were once an enslaved people. They have largely lost touch with their old ways, and are working to recover their heritage. However, there is a distinct division in elf society between city elves and forest elves. The city elves are technically free, but tend to be segregated and treated poorly. This was an interesting twist on how elves are typically portrayed in heroic fantasy. But the world building I found most interesting was that of the mages. In this world, magic puts mages in touch with the Fade, the spirit realm where demons exist. If a mage is weak, he or she could become a vessel for a demon, which—depending on the demon—can lead to great acts of evil. Mages are born with the ability to use magic, just as people are born with the ability to use the Force in Star Wars. In an attempt to keep the mage population under control and useful to the kingdom, the Circle of Magi (the governing body of mages) is controlled by the Templars, a division of The Chantry. Thus, magic is controlled by the church. All mages must be sent to the Temple. A sample of their blood is taken and stored for tracking purposes in case they escape. After studying their trade, a mage undergoes a test called The Harrowing, in which he or she enters the Fade. If they survive and return without being possessed by a demon, they become a full mage. Otherwise, they die. If, after study, they don’t show the required control and aptitude for magic, they are made Tranquil through a process that severs their connection to the Fade and strips away their emotions. It is thought that without these things, Tranquil are undesirable to demons.

All of these elements (and many more I have not mentioned) elevated DA:O above the heroic fantasy crowd. While the Darkspawn themselves never felt like anything but a generic evil to me, the history, politics, and human machinations gave new flavor to this old formula.

Characters:  10

Without a doubt, the characters make this game. Over the course of the game you can team up with ten playable characters (1 is available via DLC and 1 is referred to as a secret character, and is available late in the game). Each character has a distinct personality and responds positively or negatively to your actions, dialog choices, and gifts. As characters grow to like you more, they unlock bonuses, but if they dislike you, they may leave the party. It’s a fascinating mechanic, and definitely builds and fleshes out mechanics started in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. But as much fun as role-playing the relationships can be, what is more fun is the banter. As you walk through forests, ruins, and cities, the characters talk to one another. It’s fun to listen to Alistair beg Wynne to mend his socks, to Leliana criticize Alistair’s cooking, to Morrigan’s cynical comments to Leliana, and so much more. I frequently stopped my journey to the next location just to listen to the banter. You genuinely build a comradery with these characters, and I long for more stories with them. Knowing that future games don’t feature these characters in leading roles is a disappointment. But, if future games have characters this strong, I’m sure I’ll cope.

Gameplay: 8

It took me a while to figure out how much fun this game could be. I came from a jRPG background. More specifically, I came from a Final Fantasy background. I was used to grinding and maxing out characters, and that was how I approached DA:O. This approach was wrong. This game rewards building a cohesive party rather than maxing out individual characters. There is a level cap of 25 (I think), and so it is not possible to max out a character with all available skills for their class. Once I figured out that strategy was necessary (and once I discovered the Arcane Warrior specialization), this game became a ton of fun. Mage builds offered me the most enjoyment because of their sheer power. In most other games I tend to focus on a type of ranger build (stealth + basic combat focusing on long range + item crafting). In this game, I prefer to let the other characters focus on combat and stealthing while I break out the heavy area-of-attack spells to direct the enemies where I want them. And when I learned some spells combine and enhance one another . . . yeah, I may never go back to a non-mage build in DA:O. Creating a cohesive party is the key to succeeding in this game, and it is so much fun. Beyond that, the level design is great in ruins and buildings. The forest designs don’t quite work for me, and the fields/roads are also underwhelming. But these are all vast improvements over KotOR, which was the previously played Bioware game. While this game doesn’t offer you the level of freedom of an Elder Scrolls game, Dragon Age: Origins gives you plenty to do and quests have satisfying variety. You can play as selfish or as selfless as you want, and your choices will carry over into future games, as I understand it. I look forward to playing the DLC as well as Dragon Age II and Inquisition to see how the world develops.

Personal Enjoyment: 8

I spent over 104 hours (so far) in this game. Not bad for a game that, initially, didn’t impress me. But, after delving in and out over a few months, I hit a streak around Orzammar (the dwarf kingdom) that kept me going non-stop. Suddenly, everything came together for me, and I was hooked. I felt like cheering as Alistair gave his speech to the assembled army against the Blight. I loved the moment where I lead my team through the gates of Denerim as crowds of soldiers cheered. I (ahem) cried as I made the choice to sacrifice myself in the fight against the Arch-demon, allowing Alistair to live and be king. And then I played through the game two more times in a year-and-a-half. I think that is high praise. So, why not a ten? There are still moments where the game lags for me. There are places where I have to force myself to play through them (specifically, the Dalish quests). And again, I really wish there was more on the Darkspawn. I want to know more about why they do what they do. Everything else is so well thought-out, the Darkspawn seem a bit lacking in comparison. But, there are two more games and a lot of DLC missions. These could have the additional depth that I want.

Overall, though, I wouldn’t spend over 100 hours in a game if I didn’t enjoy it. I admit, my first playthrough I got to a point where I just wanted to get to the end of the game, but the last few hours were so good that they prompted me to immediately start a new class build so I could play the game again. The journey was worth it, and I expect I will play through this game more times in years to come. I can’t wait to continue seeing how this franchise develops.

Final Rating: 8.4/10

The Dark Tower Book 1: The Gunslinger

Overview

This year I made a commitment to pick a fantasy series and read my way through to the end. I would like to do this every year in my attempt to fill the hole left by the currently unfinished Song of Ice and Fire. The only criterion for this goal is that 1) the series must be finished (the main series, not peripheral stories), and 2) it must be a series I have never finished reading. There are quite a few fantasy series that I have started but not finished, for one reason or another (lack of time, apathy, the series was on-going). So, I decided that the inaugural series would be Stephen King’s The Dark Tower.

I have read the first three books in this series (The Gunslinger, The Drawing of the Three, and The Waste Lands) before. In fact, the first time I read them, book four (The Wizard and Glass) had just come out. I tried again a few years later, and stalled out after book three once again. I have always enjoyed The Dark Tower in concept, but not always in execution. But these previous readings had occurred at very different times in my life when I have had very different tastes. The major difference between then and now is that I have come to have great respect for Stephen King as a writer. I do hope to complete my King Reads King goal to read (if not read AND write about) every Stephen King book. In my time working through his bibliography, I have loved Salem’s Lot and The Shining; I have immensely enjoyed 11/22/63 and much of The Stand. And there are a few books that I thought were middling or in the fine-but-not-for-me category. Admittedly, I haven’t read very far in his oeuvre yet. But, it seemed time for The Dark Tower, and I looked forward to seeing how I felt about the book this time. The Gunslinger is a collection of short stories about Roland Deschain’s pursuit of The Man in Black. Roland is a gunslinger, a type of knight in this world that has moved on and may very well be dying. The Man in Black is an evil wizard, and Roland pursues him much as Harmonica Man pursued Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. But, when this inevitable meeting finally happens, Roland discovers a bigger, deeper mystery that will shape his destiny. In the past, I haven’t enjoyed every story in this collection. They seemed to decrease as they went along, for my younger self. But again, I have grown to appreciate King more, and I eagerly anticipated my reaction as I once more entered Mid-World and Roland’s dying world.

Personal Enjoyment: 4

I can’t tell you how many times I almost gave up reading this book. Interestingly, “The Slow Mutants” and “The Gunslinger and the Man in Black” were my favorite chapters in this read through. In the past, they were my last on my ranking of the chapters. My interest in the stories seemed strongly connected to how much The Man in Black appeared. I found him far more interesting than Roland or Jake. His control and manipulation of Roland was far more interesting than Roland’s need for revenge. My wife challenged me to at the very least get through book four this time. But I wasn’t sure I could get through this one. I did, however, and I enjoyed the final story so much that I was looking forward to The Drawing of the Three, so kudos to King for turning things around in the end. But the stories in this book would, I think, look great on film (if done well), so maybe the upcoming movie will work better for me. Oddly, in the past I would have said this was my favorite of the Dark Tower books. I’m not sure that bodes well for the rest of this journey, but we shall see. For the time being, I am staying with this journey.

Characters:  7

I’m not going high on this one because there are few characters, and they aren’t quite up to King’s standards. None of the characters in this story are typical for him, though. He’s taking a risk and stretching himself, which I can’t fault him for. But, as stated before, I didn’t connect to any of the leads outside of the Man in Black. He was the most interesting to me. But, as I recall, Roland will get more character to play off of in the next book, and all of them fit more firmly into King’s wheelhouse. I’m holding out hope that I just started in a lull or in the wrong mood.

Story:  7

I’m giving this a seven because, while it isn’t bad, it doesn’t currently do much. As stated before, this is a typical Western revenge story with some setting twists thrown in. And these twists are interesting. But King walks a precarious line here between Western and fantasy. The first story falls firmly in Western, but starting with “The Way Station” it starts to meander into fantasy. This meandering wasn’t quite what I was going for, despite knowing it was coming. I think the cowboy-confronting-his-nemesis trope broke apart because of that meandering, and the genre mixing loses a bit of focus. Roland becomes less a gunslinger than just a man from an elite order than uses guns. The story moves from Western to post-apocalyptic, even though it is the apocalypse of a world similar to, but not quite, ours. It doesn’t quite work for me in this read through.

Setting: 8

I’m almost surprised by the higher score here, but despite the unfocused genre bending, King builds his world well. It is intriguing, especially as Roland wanders through the remains of what was. The flashbacks don’t quite work for me, because I imagine European-based high fantasy with gunslingers, but I totally buy the image of a gunslinger walking through an apocalyptic wasteland. It fits because of the desolation of both the West and the apocalypse. Fantasy is often less desolate (though, as with G. R. R. Martin, it can be bleak). But empty landscapes where, after days of seeing no one, you see a stranger on the horizon, and you don’t know if this person is friendly or not, naturally falls into both Western and apocalypse. It is the breakdown of social order; it is the rule of the gun in a world of limited resources. It is heat and sand and mirage. As I recall from previous readings, The Waste Lands leans heavily on this, and I think it could potentially work better for me. But the places where we moved from Western to Fantasy just didn’t work for me this time. But the ground work is set, and I think King can (and does) build upon what he set up here.

Vision: 7

What was it trying to do?

I think The Gunslinger was trying to pay homage to Westerns (specifically those by Leone) while delving into fantasy and horror to put a new twist on the genre.

Was it successful in doing it?

Not for me, no. Again, Western + apocalypse works for me. Western + high fantasy, not so much.

Was this worth doing?

Absolutely, yes.

To Sum Up

The Gunslinger was an ambitious start. I’m not sure I think the younger Stephen King was up to the challenge quite yet, nor do I think the ideas had solidly manifested by this point. I think this story took greater form as time went on, and I would argue this point because he was compelled to lightly update the book to match where the series eventually went. There are certainly good ideas here, and there are some very good passages. But each time I visit this book, I like it less and less. But I look forward to The Drawing of the Three, oddly, because I think King stuck the landing with The Gunslinger. He ended the book on a high note that made me want to read more, and in the end, that is a type of success.

Final Rating: 6.6/10

Star Wars Legends: Revan

Overview

Revan was written by Drew Karpyshyn, who was part of the team that developed Bioware’s Knights of the Old Republic. The novel continues Revan’s story, providing linking material between KotOR 1 and 2, shows what happened to Revan and The Exile (Meetra) after KotOR 2, and provides background on the Old Republic MMO.

Cover for the Revan novel

Story:  9

Revan is divided into two parts. Part 1 shows why Revan vanished between KotOR 1 and 2, and largely portrays events Revan’s search for Mandalore’s helmet and the elevation of Canderous Ordo to the title of Mandalore. These events were mentioned in KotOR 2. However, Revan’s secondary motivation is to discover a planet covered in storms, a planet that he saw in his dreams. But along with Revan’s story, we meet Lord Scourge, a Sith assigned to protect Darth Nyriss, a member of the Sith Dark Council. Scourge prefers actions to talk and politics, which is unfortunate since he is quickly manipulated into an insurrection against the Sith Emperor, who Nyriss believes will one day destroy all life in the galaxy in order to ensure his continued rule. Agreeing that the Emperor is insane, Scourge joins the insurrection. Eventually, they capture Revan.

Part 2 of the novel takes place after KotOR 2, and deals with Meetra’s search and rescue of Revan. In the end, Scourge, Meetra, and Revan find themselves working toward a common cause: assassinating the Sith Emperor.

From what I have seen, this novel has been divisive. While people tend to enjoy part 1, part 2 has been criticized for retconning Revan and Malak’s turn to the Dark Side. And yes, this novel does indeed retcon their change. This was fair game, however, as we never saw where Revan and Malak went in the Outer Rim beyond finding the Star Forge, and the Exile started off for the Outer Rim to search for Revan after KotOR 2. According to the Wikipedia article for KotOR 2, the planned third game would have dealt with the Exile encountering Ludo Kresh’s faction of the Sith, the group that didn’t side with Naga Sadow’s plan to invade the Republic. While Revan doesn’t go with this original story, it does play on the idea of a Sith Empire remnant, and it embraces the idea that the Sith Emperor saw Sadow’s defeat, and decided the Republic was too strong to attack. Instead, he decided to bide his time, and later corrupted Revan and Malak in an attempt to see if the Republic had weakened. When the two fallen Jedi did not return, he decided to continue waiting.

While I know this annoyed many fans of Revan, I enjoyed the attempt to bring resolution to Revan and Meetra’s story. (A story I know is dealt with further in the Shadow of Revan expansion for The Old Republic. I’ll get there eventually). This story may not have been the one Bioware or Obsidian would have told at the time, but it did juggle the pieces well. And since I read this novel while I was also playing KotOR 2, I was impressed with how well they fit together.

Characters:  8

Yet another area in which this novel is divisive, fleshing out somewhat blank-slate character that gamers were able to inhabit can be tricky. While Revan and The Exile have back stories, the emphasis of both games was that their pasts didn’t matter; who they are as player characters matters. Add to that the question of Revan’s gender, and polarization can occur. So what is Revan’s gender? There was a line early in KotOR 2 where Kreia mentioned Revan being female. There is a dialogue option that says, “I heard Revan was a man” or something to that effect. I think it was a clever addition on the developers’ part to do this since it allows players the option of continuity between the two games. Later in the game, Mandalore referred to Revan as male, and I assumed that was influenced by the dialogue choice early in the game. But does this make Revan male or female? I don’t know if Bioware or Obsidian had given a definitive answer to that question until this novel.

That said, I like that they alternated gender. I really enjoyed the Exile’s story more, and I was thrilled that she became a major character in the second part. I also liked that T7 and Canderous appeared. I was disappointed that Bastilla didn’t play a larger role and that the other characters didn’t appear. For example, what happened to Atton? He and the Exile headed off into the Outer Rim at the end of their game, and he didn’t get so much as a mention in the novel.

But the characters we got were good. I liked how Nyriss played Scourge. I also enjoyed Sechel and the exploration for how Sith with almost no Force sensitivity could use manipulation and deceit to move up the ranks. But what really impressed me was how Karpyshyn orchestrated Revan, Meetra, and Scourge’s team up. He did a great job of unifying them in a common cause and of showing Scourge’s musings of the Jedi and their philosophy of the Force. No, they were never going to be friends, but at the very least, Scourge grew to respect their differences so long as they had a common cause. In the end, Scourge’s decision when they faced the Emperor made sense according to his journey. In a way, his ending is as tragic as the others. It reminded me a bit of Paul Atreides’ decision in Dune: what is the best of the bad scenarios?

I would have liked more about the Sith Emperor himself, but I think that will have to wait until The Old Republic. (My character is probably nowhere near meeting the Sith Emperor. So far, I have a Jedi Knight and a Sith Agent characters in Chapter 1 and the Prologue, respectively.)

Vision: 8

What was it trying to do?

As far as I can tell, it was trying to set up SWTOR while bringing some amount of closure to the KOTOR games.

Was it successful in doing it?

Somewhat. I think some fans will say no, but it fit well enough with what was set up in the games. I would have liked to see more of the characters from the games, but the leads were covered. And the way this novel ended probably didn’t help people like this one more.

Would I like to see elements of this added to the New Canon?

Yes, as I’m always up for seeing the Old Republic era in the new canon.

Style: 8

Karpyshyn is a good writer. His prose is clear and easy to follow. I liked how different chapters were from the third-person perspective of the character they followed. Thus, we gained information as Scourge, Revan, or Meetra gained it. It was fun when the chapters switched between Scourge and Revan while Revan was imprisoned. We got to see how each manipulated the other. The book is a quick read, too. I look forward to the next SW book by Karpyshyn, and I may check out some of his non-SW books.

Personal Enjoyment: 9

I really enjoyed this one. I read it as I played KOTOR 2, so everything was fresh in my mind. I think the book supplemented the game quite well. I didn’t mind the retconning, probably because KOTOR was just okay for me. But I enjoyed getting some small amount of closure to those stories (until I get to Shadow of Revan, which will hopefully resolve more). I also can’t wait to journey further into the SWTOR era through the books, comics, and game.

Final Rating: 8.4/10

Star Wars: Lost Stars

Overview

Lost Stars is by Claudia Gray, and it is the first Star Wars young adult romance novel. I was apprehensive about picking this up when I first saw it. I don’t remember hearing about it when the Journey to the Force Awakens line was announced. But word of mouth has been positive. In fact, word of mouth has largely been that Aftermath, the “adult” novel set after Return of the Jedi in the new canon was a disappointment and that Lost Stars is the novel we had all been waiting for. I haven’t read Aftermath, so I can’t judge this, but I do know of its reputation. I’ll get there soon enough.

Lost Stars Cover

Story:  7

Lost Stars is about Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree. Both are from the planet Jelucan. Thane is an aristocrat and Ciena is more of a peasant villager. Their positions in society would normally keep them apart, but they bond over their love of flying. When they were young, they met (and impressed) Wilhuf Tarkin. Both dream of joining the Imperial Academy. They spend their youth training with the Kyrell V-171. They eventually join the Academy, they become star pupils, and they each have promising careers ahead of them. Well, until the Death Star and Alderaan. After Alderaan, Thane finds his loyalty shaken. Ciena’s loyalty is shaken as well, but the loss of innocent Imperial lives (and friends) at the hands of Rebel terrorists ultimately strengthens her resolve. Soon, the childhood friends find themselves on opposite sides of the galactic conflict and struggling with their growing feelings toward one another. In all, a very personal story played out on the galactic scope we have seen in Star Wars. Everything culminates in the Battle of Jakku, the final stand of the Empire against the Rebels.

While the story is well told, it shines with the new material: the Jelucani culture, the experience of the Imperial Academy, Thane’s time on the crew of The Mighty Oak, and the Battle of Jakku. But I confess I lost interested when the novel covered episodes from the original trilogy. Sometimes it seemed like Thane or Ciena were doing things just off camera. Ciena disabled the hyperdrive of the Millennium Falcon on Bespin; Thane was a soldier who investigated the abandoned Rebel base on Dantooine. It put me in mind of some Lord of the Rings video games where your character is part of the B-Team, having the same experiences as the leads, though of slightly less importance. This can be fun, but I think I have grown weary of it. So much of the emphasis in Star Wars right now is on the Imperial/Rebellion era. This feels like the Star Wars galaxy is shrinking. But this is also why I enjoyed the moments that took us to new places. I’m eager to see this new era of Star Wars build the canon, not give fans more of the same.

Characters:  8

Ciena and Thane are memorable and distinct. Because Gray goes deep into their heads and emotions, we get a lot of information about who they are and what motivates them. I enjoyed Gray’s perspective on why someone would continue to support the Empire after Alderaan. She created Imperial characters that were not evil or corrupted by Sith. These were people in conflict with their personal ideologies and trying to find a way to remain faithful to their beliefs even when evidence challenged that. This is a very human struggle. And since the Empire as portrayed in the original trilogy was not based in religion or mysticism, this had to be a secular struggle.

But along with Ciena and Thane, many of the secondary characters are good. We meet people who are killed in the first Death Star. We see how an Alderaanian officer responds and copes with his loss. We meet new friends and old, and all the characterization seem to fit.

Vision: 8

What was it trying to do?

Lost Stars tried to be an entertaining, YA Star Wars novel while shining new light on what happened after Return of the Jedi.

Was it successful in doing it?

Yeah, I would say so. I can’t speak for where it ranks in the YA romance genre, but it was largely entertaining.

Was this a good Journey to the Force Awakens?

Yes and no. Again, where we covered old ground, I was less engaged, but I enjoyed learning about the Battle of Jakku. Even more, I enjoyed seeing some of the power struggle after the Emperor’s death. There was good stuff in these sections, though far too little.

Style: 8

Gray’s style is immensely readable. I only had two complaints: the font (not her fault) and a few places where transitions weren’t clear. This may have been an editing issue. While we spend far more time in characters’ heads and emotions than I was accustomed to for a Star Wars novel, this is likely due to YA conventions. Regardless, this book can probably be read over a couple of days, despite being over 500 pages.

Personal Enjoyment: 7

As stated before, the parts of this novel I didn’t enjoy as much were the “behind the black” moments, the moments where this novel takes place just off camera of the original trilogy. I would have preferred more post-Jedi content, but what we got was good. And I really enjoyed the moments on Jeluca and with The Mighty Oak crew. Lost Stars isn’t my favorite of the new novel in the canon, but it is certainly an enjoyable one.

Final Rating: 7.6/10