Saturday, December 27, 2014

Dutch Process

I'm continuing to fly through available Mitchell books. I'd picked up The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at the same event where I grabbed The Bone Clocks, and devoured it in a couple of days over the holiday. It was, as I've come to expect from Mitchell, fantastic. It's also quite different from his other books that I've read in some interesting and often pleasant ways.

Unlike many of his books, which have far-ranging structures with a grand narrative that spans the globe and decades or centuries in time, Thousand Autumns is much more local. Nearly the entire book takes place in a span of just 18 months, and of that, the majority of the story occurs on a tiny island just about two acres large. This lets Mitchell show off some different gifts: instead of virtuosic linking together of disparate characters and themes across seemingly impassable temporal and spacial distances, in this book he delves deeply, gradually uncovering more and more aspects of his titular character and the various Japanese and European people he encounters.


I always hesitate to generalize, even though I feel compelled to do so. Many of my favorite authors have a recognizable type that they seem to enjoy working with as protagonists. Murakami famously features supremely passive aimless young men. Stephenson loves brilliant self-taught outsiders. Mitchell seems to like featuring characters with deeply rooted moral centers. These are still flawed characters, and they beat themselves up over the mistakes they make and the people they hurt, but over the course of the novel they become increasingly assured at expressing their beliefs and standing up against oppression.

Jacob is an incredibly likeable character. A devout follower of the Dutch Reformed Church, he continues Mitchell's refreshing trend of positively depicting Christians whose religious belief compels them to do good in the world. (And, to be fair, the book also provides continuing examples of those who use faith as a cover or an excuse for the advancement of themselves and their race.) From the very beginning, he struggles as he must evaluate his various obligations and loyalties. Is it proper for him to smuggle his personal Psalter into Japan, violating an international treaty? May he use deception to root out corruption? Should he obey his superior's direct order to forge a letter? Often, there seems to be no good solution to the dilemmas Jacob faces; it's good, though, so see the struggle, and recognize that for Jacob it actually matters to do the right thing. Surrounded by greed on all sides, he seems determined to stand apart.

Which is not, incidentally, to say that Jacob is a saint or lacks ambition. That's one of the details of his character that I especially enjoyed: in addition to being faithful, he is also a capitalist. He reads Adam Smith, and borrows money to (legally) bring a valuable cargo in to Japan, which he then sells for an enormous profit. This makes him feel very believable, both as a fully-realized character, and also as a Dutchman: he comes from a tradition that values thrift and resourcefulness and belief, and as the novel continues he increasingly comes to stand for a sort of ideal of his people.

MEGA SPOILERS (for Thousand Autumns and Bone Clocks)

While the novel is a bit unusual in its more localized focus, it does share significant themes with Mitchell's other works, along with numerous links to characters and events. One persistent trope is the greedy and unscrupulous taking advantage of the kind-hearted, and Jacob falls to this, hard, about a third of the way in to the novel.

From here, the scope of the novel begins to expand: not so much in space, and definitely not in time, but in humanity and character. The second part of the novel steps away from Jacob: he still exists as a person, but no longer drives the narrative. Instead, the point of view settles over two Japanese acquaintances of his: Orito, a physician's daughter with whom Jacob has fallen in love, and Ogawa, an interpreter and Jacob's closest Japanese friend; unknown to Jacob, Ogawa also loves Orito. Orito has been legally abducted by the evil monk Enomoto, and the guilt-ridden Ogawa embarks on a dangerous quest to free her while Orito first endures, and eventually negotiates with, her life of confinement.

The novel kaleidoscopes even more in the third section, silencing the Japanese pair but introducing many more voices, some minor characters earlier in the novel and others completely new: African slaves serving the Dutch, the Japanese magistrate of Nagasaki, the captain of a British frigate, and Jacob himself all take turns, sometimes reporting the same event from multiple perspectives. This is in some ways similar to Mitchell's wider-ranging narrative style, but it feels much more intimate and closely connected.

It was really interesting to read this novel so soon after the Bone Clocks, and in particular to see Dr. Marinus. Marinus is a major character and narrator in Bone Clocks, and when he first meets the Horologists, we learn about his time on Dejima. There are a ton of references to Marinus's Returner nature in Thousand Autumns, but honestly, if I'd read this book before that one I don't think I would have picked up on them at all. A lot of these are pithy phrases, like "Many lifetimes ago I learned this technique," which I would just happily accept as idiomatic if I didn't know better. Near the end, though, he gets really specific, down to explaining that he isn't afraid of death because he'll just need to wait for a couple of weeks and then can come back again. That's fun to read, but also incredibly impressive, to realize how thoroughly he'd sketched out his cosmology for The Bone Clocks that he could faithfully depict it in a book that didn't really have anything to do with it. And even more so when, upon reading the afterword, I realized that Mitchell has been playing around with the idea for Thousand Autumns since 1994, twenty years before publishing The Bone Clocks. Now, I'm not sure if the whole "decanting of souls" idea has been percolating since then, but it's really cool to see how he's had such a unified vision for his disparate books.

Speaking of which: I'd remarked at the time that The Bone Clocks was unusual in just how explicit it was about, uh, how stuff works: the system by which various people can gain immortality, what powers they hold, and so on. Reading Thousand Autumns after The Bone Clocks was pretty fascinating, since I had already learned how the system worked, and everything fit well; but I think that, within the context of Thousand Autumns itself, the presentation is much closer to a Haruki Murakami-ish or Thomas Pynchon-esque book: we witness a lot of strange things, which seem to imply that there may be a supernatural world out there, but it's ambiguous enough that it seems more tantalizing than definitive. Enomoto does seem to be able to kill insects by waving his hands, but who's to say that this isn't some kind of elaborate trick? Enomoto claims to be hundreds of years old, but we have no way of directly verifying this claim's truth. There is definitely a secret cult that practices child sacrifice in the belief that it will gain them immortality, but again, we can't know if their belief is true.

That is, we can't know within the context of Thousand Autumns, but by reading the books in this order, I already "knew" that the cult had actually discovered the secret to immortality, and were thus just as dangerous as they believed themselves to be. And, it was also interesting to try and use that knowledge to suss out exactly what was going on, particularly at the end. It seems pretty clear that the liquid provided by the Goddess was an equivalent to the Dark Wine decanted by the Blind Cathar, and thus presumably offers the same effect: prolonging the lives of those who drink it. If that's the case, then Enomoto is certainly old, and cannot be killed by age or illness, but would still be vulnerable to unnatural death (which would explain the extreme precautions he takes against poison). Why, then, at the end, does Enomoto seem to be convinced that his soul will survive death? That isn't what happens with the Anchorites: when they die, they stay dead. Perhaps this is a piece of cult belief that isn't actually true?

Or, maybe there's something else going on? While there are significant links between the Mount Shiranui Shrine and the Chapel of the Blind Cathar, they aren't identical; the difference that struck me most was Shiranui's reliance on infants, while the Chapel needs Potentials of any age. There's a brief mention in Thousand Autumns that, at a young age, a person's soul isn't tethered as tightly to their body, and thus can be more easily extracted. I wonder if this might be the same principle at play in the Chapel: we know that one of the abilities of the Horologists is the transmigration of souls, where one person's soul can travel to another's body; perhaps that means that their souls are also "loosely tethered", making them candidates.  Or, who knows, maybe something else about using infants makes the Shrine's practice fundamentally different from the Chapel's, and maybe this difference does enable Enomoto's ability to survive death.

The ending of the novel is really nice: not exactly an "everyone lived happily after," as there is a fair dose of melancholy and even Jacob's late marriage isn't depicted as especially loving, but still a happier ending than I was expecting. I was very struck, though, by the last couple of paragraphs, which describes Orito appearing unnoticed and kissing Jacob on his deathbed. It seems like a lyrical flourish, perhaps a depiction of the last few neurons firing in Jacob's brain, but given everything we know about the world from The Bone Clocks I am of course tuned to the possibility that she might actually be there. We spend time with Orito's point of view, and she certainly doesn't seem to be aware of any previous lives, so she is an unlikely (though not impossible) Horologist. A dark part of my mind worries that, when Enomoto died, he might have transmuted into Orito. I don't have any particular reason to think that this would be possible or likely, apart from its intrinsically sinister nature: we don't get any POV from Orito after she returns to the Shrine, though, so I'm currently not able to discount it either. Even if Enomoto did end up in her body, though, going to the Netherlands and kissing Jacob before he dies is probably very low on his bucket list.


In some ways, this might be the most conventional David Mitchell book I've read, which is to say that it's rather unusual for a David Mitchell book. He has a consistent moral voice, though, which makes it fit in well with his other novels even though it would probably be shelved differently from the remaining books. It was a great read on its own, and even better as another piece of the larger mosaic that Mitchell has been constructing during his career.

Finishing this when I did helped me feel better about reading these out of order: not that I would necessarily recommend reading them this way, but I got a lot more out of this book having read The Bone Clocks. Of course, reading them in the other order would have its own rewards as well. I have yet to re-read one of his books, but I already suspect that it will be a very rewarding experience. It's rare to encounter an author who arrives with such a fully-formed vision in mind that he completes across a range of books, instead of merely extending already-established mythology further in subsequent novels. Mitchell has a fantastic gift, and his books continue to be pleasures to read.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Things Went Slightly Wrong

Just a brief note on my continuing adventures in Dragon Age:

As promised/threatened, I've immediately leaped back in to Dragon Age. This time I'm playing as a male Qunari mage named Visaas Adaar. I have three objectives for this character:
  1. Complete the game on Nightmare difficulty
  2. Romance Cassandra
  3. Make as many "bad" choices as I can stand and see where they lead
So far, progress is slow but steady on all fronts. I've reached the early/mid game inflection point, where things really open up and the plot kicks into gear. It's been easier to plan my route through the game, thanks to my very recent experience with Aztar and giving myself permission to glance at a few online notes, most particularly around seeing where early Inquisition agents can be found. Unlike my first game, where I jumped around a variety of locations before reaching this point, here I've almost exclusively been operating in the Hinterlands, with some pretty good results.

Playing on Nightmare is definitely more challenging, but honestly not as tricky as I'd feared. I do need to pay close attention to party composition: if I expect any fights at all, I always bring along one good tank and two barrier mages (including my PC); with Aztar, I only worried about combat loadout for main-mission sequences and tough quest bosses. For popup fights, I just make sure that I keep my barrier up as much as possible, but otherwise can let the AI play itself most of the time.

For tougher fights, I occasionally need to pause; I rarely switch over to other characters, but will check and make sure Visaas is taking down enemies in the proper order (mages, then archers, then assassins, then grunts, and finally tanks). So far I haven't done much with potions; in a couple of pinches, regeneration potions helped me pull through. Likewise, I haven't used focus abilities yet, but I expect to make use of them during boss fights.

I'm kind of wrestling with a bigger strategic question: I don't think I'll have the patience to make this a 100% completionist game, so I'm trying to figure out if it will make more sense for me to follow the general approach to my Aztar game, where I do most of the optional side-quests to try and get slightly over-leveled for story missions; or if I try to take most of the plot stuff near the minimum level, when enemies will also be weaker. The thing which is slightly pulling me towards the latter approach is recognizing just how generous the game is with supply crates during those story missions: you tend to get a good supply throughout, with a guaranteed crate before the final boss fight. Coupling this with focus abilities and (hopefully) some jars of bees, I'm hoping I can complete a critical-path pass through the game successfully even on Nightmare, and possibly in less time than my Normal-difficulty Aztar game.

Visaas is a mage. I dislike the starting spells you get; Chain Lightning is OK, except that it hits multiple targets, so it can draw more aggro on you than you expect, particularly before your tank has their taunt abilities and you get an aggro reduction passive. Flashfire just seems bad: it costs a ton of mana, doesn't do much damage, affects a single enemy, and a lot of enemies seem to be resistant to its panic effect. Which reminds me, I need to respec out of it now that I can. Anyways, I've been mostly focusing on the Spirit tree, which is redundant with how I build Solas, but that redundancy is good; Barrier is incredibly effective in the game. I haven't taken a specialization yet; I'm trying to choose between Knight-Enchanter, which I've heard is the most overpowered specialization in the game but seems a bit redundant with my team loadout; or Necromancy, which seems very useful for crowd control and survivability. (I love the Rift Mage specialist as a character, but remain deeply skeptical of the tree's utility.)

So far, my main loadout has been Visaas, Cassandra, Solas, and a rotating lost most commonly occupied by Sera; in this game I've outfitted her as an archer, so in most engagements Cass will try to engage the enemies in a clump while the three others unleash ranged attacks from a safe distance. This way I can prioritize our barriers, either putting them over the three ranged if we're taking any fire and otherwise helping out Cass. I'll shortly be swapping out Cass for Blackwall, since I'm building him as a tank this time and his Champion specialization is better-suited for that role than Cass's Templar role. There's a slight chance that, if I take Knight-Enchanter, I might instead try to keep Blackwall, Cole (specced for daggers) and myself in melee range, with only Solas playing support at a distance. Again, the goal would be to maximize barrier usage.


I haven't developed quite as strong of a concept for Visaas's personality as I did for Aztar's, but he's still pretty fun to play. If I were to sum up his philosophy in a single phrase, it would be "Puny hu-man!" He's vaguely bemused by the big mess that humanity have gotten themselves into, and barely tolerates their requests for assistance in getting out of it. Unlike Aztar, who was a big believer (principally in herself), Visaas has a jovially sneering attitude towards any sort of institution: the Qun, the Chantry, the Templars, the Circles, Orlais, even the Inquisition. And unlike Aztar, he has zero interest in actually replacing or improving upon any of those institutions. His role is to be the kid who sits in the back of class, making smart-aleck comments at the teacher. When he's compelled to help, he'll sigh, complain, and then do the bare minimum required.

He isn't a bad person, really, and doesn't deliberately do anything evil; but he also doesn't feel compelled to go out of his way to fix other peoples' mistakes. His overarching attitude might be something like, "Ugh, fine. If none of you is going to save the world, I suppose it'll have to me. This is the last time I do anything for you jokers, though!" His iconoclasm actually melds pretty well with Sera's opinions, although he doesn't have a well-developed moral lodestar like she does: he's not doing it for the little folks, or to achieve a balance, just because people keep on bothering him to fix it.


I've recruited all the companions and tried to avoid getting locked out of any content, but other than that I'm trying to play things oppositely to my approach in the first game. Most dramatically, I sided with the Templars in this game, and holy cow, it makes a huge difference. I'd kind of expected that it would swap around a few characters and have some new dialogue, but basically go through the same arc. Instead, the lead-up to the attack on Haven plays out incredibly differently: mechanically and lore-wise. There's no confrontation with Alexius, no trip into the future, and not even a good glimpse at what Corypheus is attempting to achieve. Instead, there's an utterly fascinating and freaky trip into your own head as you wrestle with an envy demon for possession of your soul, and a ton of lore around spirits and the play Corypheus is making for control of the red templars.

Your attempt is actually successful: you can defeat the leadership of the Red Templars before they have finished converting the Order. You also face a choice similar to that you encounter after rescuing the apostate Mages: you can force the Templars to dissolve and subordinate themselves within the Inquisition, or allow them to remain and rebuild as an independent organization allied with your own. I'm curious to see how this continues to play out through the rest of the game, and in particular if the bands of red templars will be replaced with bands of renegade mages. It's already become clear that Samson is no longer Corypheus's lieutenant: instead Corpheus is served by a female venatori named Calpernia, who I don't remember even encountering during my Aztar game.


Anyways! The game continues to be tons of fun and remains very engaging. I'd been slightly worried that it might feel boring to repeat it so soon after "finishing" it the first time, but that hasn't been the case at all. Between the different world state background, new character, new personality, and different plot choices, the game is playing out significantly differently from before. I'm thoroughly impressed at the breadth of experiences the game enables. After all, even though hard-core fans like myself will revisit this game multiple times, I'm pretty sure that statistically most players will only beat it once, if that. From a purely logical perspective, it would make sense for BioWare to invest as much as possible in making that single play-through as good as possible. I feel very fortunate that they decided to take all the time and effort to create such a rich and varied experience, recognizing that most players would only see a fraction of the content.

Oh! And I'm not screencapping quite as much this time around, but still grabbed, um, over a hundred shots up to this point in the game. So, here's another album! You're welcome!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


Once again, the incredible Choco-Minto has proven her skills at maximizing cuteness!

Sera is showing off a doodle that's actually described in the game - as soon as I read that, I immediately thought "Oh my gosh, that sounds like the perfect thing for Choco to draw!" Aztar Cadash is impressed, as am I - the details like Mega-Sera rampaging through a crowd are unexpected, and also absolutely perfect for Sera's character. Yay! This makes me so happy!

Monday, December 22, 2014

You And Five Armies

It is finished! By now it’s become traditional for me to watch Middle-earth movies at the earliest possible moment, and I have now completed the cycle with a showing at the Metreon IMAX in San Francisco. On a related note, pre-ordered tickets with assigned seating are the best thing to happen to movies since the invention of digital streaming.

I really liked the movie a lot. This shouldn’t be shocking; I’ve enjoyed all of these films, including the ones that “book fans” have lambasted due to their infidelity to the source material, and those which movie buffs have slammed due to their long running time. I love Middle-earth, and treasure every extra minute I get to spend in that world.

In some ways, The Battle of the Five Armies is an outlier among the six extant works. In particular, it has by far the fewest introductions of new locations. Every other movie has sweeping, panoramic, swelling, majestic unveilings of stunning landscapes: the Shire, Bree, Rivendell, Caradhas, Moria, Lorien, Rohan, the dead fens, the Black Gate, Mordor, Gondor, Minas Tirith, Pelennor Fields, Mount Doom, the trollshaws, the Misty Mountains, Goblintown, Mirkwood, Laketown, the Lonely Mountain. In contrast, TBotFA has a very narrow focus, almost entirely taking place in a limited area around Erebor, and virtually every location we see was previously introduced near the end of The Desolation of Smaug. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but did stand out to me.

On the other hand, the available space is used incredibly effectively, almost entirely with the eponymous battle. I haven’t confirmed how much time it takes up in the movie, but it certainly feels like more than half. I’ve heard some complaints over the length of the battle, but personally, I loved it. Frankly, I think that battle scenes are Peter Jackson’s greatest strengths. Often, when he films short skirmishes, I get disoriented and have trouble following the action. As the scale of an encounter increases, though, he seems to grow more confident and assured. Looking back over his films, I’m really impressed at how artfully and efficiently he’s able to communicate the physical space where a battle is taking place, how the forces are arrayed against one another, and follow the ebb and flow of attacks, retreats, rallies, and routs. More than a decade later, the Battle of Helm’s Deep remains an awesome sequence, and The Battle of Pelannor Fields and Battle of the Five Armies are of the same caliber.


In general, the movie is very faithful to the events of the book and the appendices. Everyone who’s supposed to die does so. The White Council’s assault on Dol Goldur was explained but not described by Tolkien, and I was happy with how they portrayed it here: the arrival of the Council, their varied application of martial and magical powers, and their ultimate victory in battle that nonetheless presaged a far more hopeless war. My single favorite part was probably Cate Blachett’s stunning performance as Galadriel, recalling a fantastic scene from Fellowship of the Ring and nicely expressing some great ringlore. I was also happy with how they handled Saruman’s role at the end; I’d been a bit worried that it would be too on-the-nose, either showing his corruption or hammily predicting it. Instead, it was a wonderfully subtle thing, in which we see Saruman’s immense pride, and recognize that it will lead to his downfall even while the remaining council members fail to see it.

In contrast, I was slightly annoyed with Legolas’s ending. The whole “Oh, you should totally go check out this ranger fellow! I have the feeling you two will become GOOD FRIENDS” was too meta and jokey for my tastes. But, again, I’ve just gotten in the habit at rolling my eyes at everything Legolas does and not letting it bother me too much. He has more of those trademark ridiculous action shots here, which by this point are completely expected.

The fate I was most anxious to learn was Tauriel's. Ever since her introduction in the second part, I knew that this was going to be a tragic story: in the book, Kili falls in the battle, and I was almost certain they would keep that in the movie. Since Tauriel is an invented character, though, I was less certain about her: would she and Kili perish in one another's arms for maximum anguish? Or would Kili heroically sacrifice himself to save her? I was happy with how they wrapped up this subplot, glad to see that Tauriel survived and would make her own way in the world, independent of Thranduil and Legolas. (And, incidentally, I will not be the slightest bit surprised if she pops up in a video game in the future, a development I would certainly welcome.)

Probably the most pleasant surprise for me, though, was how faithfully the filmmakers maintained the dark overtones of the book's climax. It's true that, in general, the movie has been much darker than the original children's story. However, the book sets up a really distressing scenario near the end: the dwarves are too stubborn to pay restitution to the men who suffered for their activities; the men and elves seem greedy for the dwarves' treasure; and all of these people who we've grown to like are swept into a pointless war against one another. It's very sad, and also very evocative of what seems like a timeless truth in our world: people and nations who gain power seem to quickly lose their kindness, turning harsh and craving ever more control. And, while it's emphatically not an allegory, I can't help but wonder if Tolkien was influenced, even subconsciously, by the exceedingly pointless First World War in which he himself suffered.

The movie does a great job at capturing this dynamic, focusing much of its attention on Thorin's slide from noble striver to despot. What's so great, and so tragic, about the conflict is that you can see how each faction can believe itself to be in the right. The dwarves were driven from their homes, and simply wish to reclaim what is theirs. The men have lost everything, and simply wish fair repayment for their losses in supporting the dwarves. And Thranduil just wants the gems that he paid for hundreds of years ago.

And yet, the dwarves harbor an eternal grudge against the elves for failing to defend them from Smaug. The elves and men blame the dwarves for inadvertently luring the dragon there in the first place. One can easily imagine a reasonable resolution to the disagreement, with modest payments made and the dwarves still maintaining a ridiculously large sum of wealth; yet extremism has set in, and once Thorin begins denouncing others, it becomes increasingly difficult to back down from his position. And so a war that absolutely should not happen lurches towards its inception.

I had a theory which I developed in junior high, about how the only thing that can convince groups of people to stop fighting and work together is to unite against a common foe. In my favored example, Wales was filled with various tribes, who found against one another until they were threatened by England, at which point they united together. England and Wales shared animosity, until Great Britain started to fight against France and other powers, at which point the two countries became more or less integrated. England and France were famously antagonistic, until World War 2 forces them into an alliance, which definitively ended a near-millennium of periodic wars between them. They formed the basis for an alliance against the Soviet Bloc, including nations such as East Germany. After the Soviet Union fell, the threat of a dominant United States encouraged England, France and Germany to join together to form an economic community. And so on.

All that to say, it's very believable that, while these three factions of the Free Peoples were ready and willing to shed one another's blood, the thing that finally pulled them back together was a foe common to all of them: an army of goblins, which in the movie is explicitly linked to a major push by Sauron to seize territory in the North and open up a route between his southern orcs and those of Gundabad. Once the goblins arrive on the scene, the belligerents instantly realize that their priorities have been wrong, and begin working together against their common enemy.

In an odd way, I think my very favorite scene from this third movie might be Thorin's final duel with Azog: not because it's exciting or climactic (it is), but because of how thoroughly and subtly it unifies characterization, plot arc, and theme. The scene which probably got the biggest reaction from the audience in my theater was when Thorin grabbed the flail's end, then tossed it back to Azog; Azog catches it, there's a beat, and then the ice floe he's standing on slowly tips over and he falls into the water. It got a big laugh because it's so well shot, perfectly timed, and was so unexpected while in retrospect making perfect sense. But I especially love it because of how, with no dialogue, it shows Thorin evolving past his earlier inexorable greed. Thorin was holding on to something that was damaging him. By giving it up, he can save himself.

I would have been happy if Azog had died there. Unfortunately, without significantly altering the ending of the book they had no choice but to kill off Thorin, and so Azog makes a nasty, brutal return to the fight. Here, too, there's no speech, but Thorin's final actions convey so much meaning. He struggles for so long, even though the struggle is hopeless and only brings him pain. In the end, though, he surrenders, ceasing his struggle; and, in doing so, he's finally able to eliminate the source of his trouble. Thorin dies, but at least he dies a good dwarf, completely redeemed from his earlier mistakes.

Final comment: As I seem to constantly insist on noting, Tolkien's stories are not allegories. If they were, they would be so much less. However, since they are written so well and seem to get at eternal truths, they appear endlessly applicable to contemporary situations. Because of the time in which I live and the time in which these movies have come out, I've always been drawn towards seeing in them a reflection of America's military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan after the terrorist attacks of 2001. That analogy hit me particularly hard in this movie, as I suddenly had a near-epiphany: "Oh my gosh, the United States is exactly like the elves of Mirkwood!" As shown in the movie, the elves are a large, strong, powerful force; however, Thranduil is obsessed with protecting his own borders, and reluctant to extend himself abroad. He goes forth in a military adventure initially motivated by economic concerns; allies eventually persuade him to help defend others against a savage foe; but once his own soldiers begin to fall, he immediately loses his nerve, and prepares to fall back to his own land, leaving others to continue fighting in the battle.

Again, Thranduil is not a villain, and his motivations do make sense: he's one of the few to have experienced a true World War, and has no taste for such conflicts. Likewise, the United States has tried to follow a course it believes in, striking a balance between the good it thinks it can achieve and the cost it is willing to bear. And none of this was at all on Tolkien's mind when he wrote his books, and I'm not sure if it was even on Peter Jackson's mind when writing this script, but it affected me much more than any film specifically about the recent wars has.


Well, this is it! We've had six enjoyable adaptations of Tolkien's books, which is six more than I thought I'd see in my lifetime. The Hobbit has certainly had a rougher path than the Lord of the Rings - due to the differing tone of source material and film, heightened expectations, and significant pushback from fans and the movie industry - but I think it's a remarkable achievement. It has started to bring some of Tolkien's deeper lore out to an audience that has not encountered it before, and given us some wonderful visual realizations of the beautiful worlds Tolkien created with his words.

The most controversial aspect of The Hobbit remains its additions to the source material. Some of these have worked well, some have not, but I think it's something that we'll be seeing more and more of in the future. After all, sooner or later the books' copyrights will expire, and, assuming they're still popular in the future, we might see an explosion of adaptations, not unlike the myriad versions we have of various fairy tales and medieval legends. Time will tell how well these films stand up, but from my perspective, they are destined to become stone-cold classics.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Stop Draggin' My Heart Around

Guys! Guys!

Inquisition is so good.

It is beautiful, and wonderful, and engaging. It challenges me, and makes me play at the edge of my seat, leaning forward and frowning in concentration as I ponder the fate of the world and just how far I'm willing to go to save it.

Like a lot of other nerds who play video games, my ur-concept of the ultimate game comes from Ender's Game. Not "the gate is down" combat game: the immersive, virtual reality, procedural RPG/adventure game. You know, the one with the giant and the two drinks and the eyeballs. I encountered that story at a young, impressionable age, and it has stuck with me as the ultimate potential of the form of the video game: a unique experience for every player which responds to their actions, adapting itself to match their evolving capabilities, but also challenging them morally, forcing them to confront their fears and break through their own personal mental blocks. I have my doubts that this game (like the similar game in The Diamond Age) can ever be achieved, but artifacts like Dragon Age Inquisition show how close we can get.

Man... there's way too much stuff to possibly write about here. I did the requisite album which has some moment-by-moment commentary (though eliding nearly every cut-scene). Here are a bunch of random things I want to talk about!

Mini Spoilers

Let's talk about Sera! Sera is awesome. I appear to be in the minority on this - in both conversations with my brother and surveys of the online fandom, she appears to annoy many people - but she's hands-down my favorite companion, as well as my love interest in this playthrough.

Unsurprisingly for a Dragon Age character, she is so interesting, and the more you get to know her the harder she becomes to describe. And it isn't because she, like, has an alternate identity or Secret Past or anything major like that. She's just a fascinating, deeply peculiar person.

One of the most defining aspects of Sera's personality is her self-reliance. She's always felt like she's on her own, and always been capable of getting through life without help. Not necessarily getting through life well, but she's happier figuring things out on her own and ending up with a weird outcome than getting someone else to do it well for her.

When you first meet her, she's introduced as (one of the) Red Jenny(s). Really, though, that ends up being one of the least important things about her. When I try to pin her down, I keep coming back to the question of her intelligence. On the surface, she seems shockingly ignorant at times, and her accent makes it clear that she's never been properly educated. However, she's able to burst out with some remarkably perceptive observations. Often, she will say something, and people will go, "What the hell are you talking about?" And then she'll explain herself, and I'll go, ".... I never would have thought of it that way, but that actually makes a lot of sense."

By the end of the game, I decided that the best way to describe her is an autodidactic polymath. She's coming from a way-outsider point of view, without any of the preconceptions that we've built up over the previous three games, which can make her seem dumb or nutty at times. But, she's incredibly determined, and much smarter than she seems at first. One fantastic example of this is her relationship with books. Reading her journal, you can see that she seeks out books on topics that interest her; sometimes she discards them as boring or long, but she maintains that drive for knowledge, and comes up with some great gems.

Speaking of her journal, I absolutely adore it. Actually, Sera's writing in general was one of my favorite things in this game. It's such a unique voice, again pointing to the idea that Sera never went to school, and taught herself how to read or write: she's very understandable, and never misspells words, but also puts things in a different way from how anyone else would write them. Plus she doodles and draws filthy sketches in the margins, which is fantastic, and expresses her perpetually juvenile attitude towards life. In Skyhold, her journal keeps on changing over the course of the game as my relationship with her grew, and I loved the peek into her thoughts it gave: her desire to know more about Andraste after I embraced my role as herald; her failed experiments with crafts; her researching of dwarf culture; all sorts of great random stuff. Likewise, all of her War Table missions were fantastic. The Bees one was the best, but I treasured every snippet of text from Sera I encountered over the whole game.

You can easily, and accurately, compare Sera to a magpie. She has a wonderful little room in the Skyhold tavern, filled with all sorts of bright, interesting little trinkets. She isn't a hoarder, she just enjoys collecting lots of little things that capture her attention. I think her mind works the same way. She doesn't have a large overarching system or philosophy by which she organizes her life in the same way most other characters do. But neither is she incapable of learning things. She just finds certain specific things interesting, and learns what she can about them, and doesn't waste her time on things that bore or scare her.

Besides her textual writing, Sera has (what I think was) the best banter and dialogue in the game. Pretty much every time she opened her mouth I cracked up. I love the way she talks, and the way she can't pronounce Corypheus's name. "Coryphanus? Shite." (Which, now that I write this down, I see is even funnier printed than it is spoken.) Some randoms things that stick in my mind include:

"Because tits."

"I bet the wolves are in the cave. Because wolves are shit and caves are shit."

Sera: (Apropos of nothing): I once saw the empress' arse.
Blackwall: (Resigned): Of course you did.
Sera: Well. Actually, I made a drawing of her arse. But people said it was a very fine likeness.
Sera: This has been a story about trust.

The romance with Sera was great. BioWare is sometimes accused of recycling plots, and there's some truth to that, but the really remarkable thing is that every single one of their romances (and, really, companions in general) have been fully distinct. Ahead of time, I had kind of assumed that it would play out like the Isabela romance in DA2, since both are free spirits unbound by tradition.

Instead, it ends up being this surprisingly sweet, very mutual pairing. With Isabela, the relationship was pretty much entirely physical (at least at first): you both desire one another, and act on those desires; even if it transitioned into a romance, it's explicitly founded on the premise "we'll only keep doing this for as long as it feels good." With Sera, there's a strong mutual affection at play. Sera likes you because you're fun and sweet, not because she lusts after your body. Trust is actually really important in this relationship. You have to spend time with her, travel with her, share experiences together, and eventually the romance starts to blossom.

There's always an arc to these plots, of course. As you grow closer to Sera and get to know her better, you can begin to see the fear that lurks behind many of her decisions. She's afraid of losing you, and afraid of nothingness, afraid of absence. You don't need to change her to progress in the relationship. You need to understand where she's coming from, and what she needs, and reassure her that you will be present for her. It's not the flashiest, most dramatic romance arc BioWare has done, but one of the most fulfilling.

Yikes... I definitely don't have time to chime in on all of the companions. Suffice to say that they're all fantastic, each in their own distinct way. Early on, I'd heard a lot of positive stuff about Dorian's personal quest, and I can understand why: it feels very authentic, and gets at something that's a big deal in both the real world and the fantasy world, without ever coming off as preachy or a Very Special Episode.

In retrospect, it was also slightly amusing just in the way it highlighted my own total aversion to conflict. I was very up-front with Dorian throughout the whole quest, keeping him in the loop about what was going on and letting him make the decision to take the meeting. There's a very dramatic scene when Dorian confronts his father, and Things Are Said, and I totally backed up Dorian. Then there's a choice where his father tries to give his side of the story, and I instantly picked the option that was like, "Nope! C'mon, Dorian, let's get out of here."

Which... in the moment, I felt absolutely sure was the "right" thing to do. His father had been duplicitous, and Dorian clearly felt distressed being in that situation, and I just wanted to get him out of there ASAP and back into an environment where he would be unconditionally accepted. The more I think about it, though, I wonder if it would have been "better" to dig into it a bit more and extend the conversation. It absolutely would have been painful and awkward in the short term, hence my knee-jerk instinct to flee. But my actions ensured that the underlying dynamic wouldn't change. Who knows what might have happened if I had encouraged a dialogue? Could we have changed some minds? I don't know. But I'm not the sort of person who confronts issues head-on in real life, and it was amusing to see those same instincts kick in while playing a pure fantasy video game.

I'm kind of tempted to make another post which is just a list of all the things I love about Inquisition. There are way too many to reference here. However, I did want to call out one particular improvement over DA:O and DA2, which is the way in which gameplay mechanics are now integrated with the narrative. There's a long-running joke among fans about how, based on everything we know in the lore, blood magic is incredibly dangerous and evil. Every time you encounter a blood mage in any game, things go horribly wrong and demons are released and people get possessed and all turns to ashes. However, you're able to become a blood mage yourself, and your companions appear 100% fine with this. It's amusing to see your character slit their own hand, pour their pure blood upon the rocks, draw upon the forces of demonic might to blast their enemies... and Alistair and Aveline are all like, "La da dah, nothing to see here, gee I love being one of the good guys!" And yet, because blood mage has been a really powerful specialization, there hasn't been a reason to not get it: you get all of the benefits and none of the well-established downsides.

That's all changed this time around. For starters, specializations aren't something that you just select or unlock. There are entire quests built around them. The Inquisition contacts some top-end training specialists, who each set you to various tasks to prove your talent and commitment. They impress on you the significance of your choice, not just as a set of new abilities to learn, but as a way of life. In my case, I had three very stark choices. Reaver: "Your life will be short and bloody, but you will die filled with a lust for death!" Templar: "You will face crippling addiction and gradually lose all joy in your life, replaced with a solemn devotion to a thankless duty." Champion: "Everyone will love you and you'll gain fame, fortune, and power!"

Guess which one I chose?

I expected it to end there, but it didn't! I was surprised and delighted to see my companions noticing the new direction I was steering towards, which opened up some completely new dialogues. Iron Bull asked me what made me decide to "turtle up." (I explained that my offense was already doing just fine, thank you.) Sera was a bit bemused by the whole thing, as champions typically imply chevaliers, not exactly her favorite people, so we had a little chat about how these skills would help me better protect the group. Furthermore, all of your trainers then stick around in Skyhold afterwards, and will share little nuggets of wisdom. I love it when games manage to unify their gameplay and their lore, and Inquisition completely nails this one.

Just in general, I loved all the ways in which dialogue subtly referenced and reflected the choices I'd made: choices in building my character, plot decisions I made throughout the game, and decisions I'd imported from the previous games. This rarely led to entire new quest arcs, but was just sort of naturally reflected in ongoing conversations. For example, it became clear pretty early on that Sera thinks dwarves are adorable. She always approves when you flirt with Scout Harding, and there are a bunch of lines in which she remarks on how you're just "the cutest little thing", along with some cruder references to your anatomical matches. (Weirdly enough, Varric has almost nothing to say about your dwarf background, other than a few references to your experiences with the Carta.)

Besides dialogue, these sorts of things are also reflected well in the war table missions. I became more and more impressed by the war table as I gradually realized the role it serves. In a way, it harkens back to the days of text-based adventure games, the same things that started me off in programming as a wee lad. Arguably the best thing about these missions is that they are ridiculously cheap to make. In modern AAA video games, for a long time now, every new quest has required new level design, 3D character modeling, voice-over acting, and possibly cinematics and combat design. This has led to a paradoxical evolution, where games have gotten shorter and smaller as technology has improved. The War Table inverts that whole expectation. You don't need to see what's going on, just issue your orders and then read the reports. And so, BioWare can go nuts, writing tons of missions for pure comedy, or to provide closure to older plot threads, or let you encounter parts of Thedas that we otherwise wouldn't see.

I'm reminded of Jordan Weissmann describing his decision to use text-based dialogue for Shadowrun Returns: "The first of these powerful weapons is what I call 'The Infinite Resolution Rendering Engine' an incredible piece of biotechnology developed over millions of years, capable of presenting the audience such vivid imagery so real they can smell and even taste it. Yes you guessed it, it’s the gray stuff between your ears and the imagination it is capable of. We can’t afford to put everything in our imaginations onto the screen, so instead we decided to put it into your imagination via 'theater of the mind'. By combining beautiful environments and characters with cleverly-integrated text, we hope to inspire you to 'see' and 'hear' things that we could never afford to put on your screen or out of your speakers." Now, Jordan was speaking in the context of an indie developer, but that wisdom really holds true at any level: even for the AAA developers who can afford to create polished, movie-like experiences, they can get way more bang for their buck by writing evocative textual stories. In some cases, the way you imagine these playing out can seem even more impressive than the explosive cinematics that we do see. Inquisition feels like the best of all possible worlds: it firmly establishes a sense of style and place, and convinces you of the depth it possesses; and then it uses all the tools at its disposal to translate that depth to breadth, tying in your immediate struggle with a far vaster canvas that spreads across decades and over an entire continent.

I don't want to overstate this too much. Despite the presence of choices, this isn't really a CYOA-style branching narrative; I believe there are a few branches, but for the most part the mechanics of the results only vary in how long the missions take and which rewards you receive. Still, I got pretty invested in the non-mechanical aspects, thinking carefully about what sort of organization I was trying to build. Early on I would instinctively always send the adviser who could complete a job most quickly; as time went on, though, I gradually found myself more and more focusing on Josephine's diplomatic approach, closely followed by Leliana's subtly practicality, and largely sidelined Cullen's brash military aggression. I also came to enjoy the writing more and more as I got more used to the missions. Part of me wonders if the BioWare writers might have taken a page or two of notes from Failbetter Games, who have made an art out of telling a complete, compelling story in a single sentence.

I'm repeating myself a bit here, but the war table lets it feel like your in-game, main-plot decisions have far-reaching consequences, without needing to create enormous branches in the gameplay. I've only played the game once so far, so I may be making some incorrect assumptions, but after making a particularly difficult decision, I found myself in a strong alliance with the Qunari. This was awesome, though the sacrifice I had made to get there left a knot in my stomach. As a slight salve to that, I was able to pursue a surprisingly long and detailed "quest line" with none other than Tallis, my would-be love interest from Mark of the Assassin. It felt so good to "hear" from her again, and picture her in action as we teamed up in a rollicking, long-ranging adventure. Now, as much as I would have loved to actually literally hear from Felicia Day and have her join my party, I understand that there's no way they could justify doing the cost for something that only a subset of players will encounter. But, thanks to the war table, I got much more narrative charge out of this crisis point, and also a fantastic continuation of a character I really enjoyed.

I could keep on going... I'm pretty sure that war table missions are much quicker and easier to implement than almost any other content, which might help explain why there was so much about Serault in there, despite The Last Court only wrapping up very shortly before Inquisition's release. And they also do a fantastic job of connecting with and wrapping up stories from the wider Dragon Age universe. Some of my favorite characters from the novels, like Rhys and Evangeline, show up through the war table, and you can, in a sense, create your own endings to these stories through the decisions you make. It's a fantastic synthesis: taking novels that were born from the games, flower on their own, bear fruit in the form of new characters and plot, and then re-pollinate the next game. These missions still have value to people who never read the books, but for those of us who have, they mean even more.

A few more random notes before jumping into spoilers:

I didn't do that much crafting in the game, although it was still much more than in either of the first two games. From a mechanical perspective, crafting will sometimes, but not always, result in better equipment than you can find. In the endgame, I started to get more interested in crafting for purely aesthetic reasons: I was about to save the world, and wanted to look good doing it.

I crafted a set of Tier 3 battlemaster mail for Aztar, my PC Champion tank. I didn't care quite as much about appearance here, and so just used the most plentiful/powerful metals I had, resulting in a greenish suit with notes of gold. You can (and should) name every item you craft; this suit became known as "It's So Easy Being Green." And, true enough, that was the most powerful set of heavy armor I ever acquired. Conversely, though, the best unique sword and shield I found were much better than the best items I could craft. It's still possible that there might be better out there - I spent a lot of money on Tier 3 schematics, but might have missed a few, particularly in the weapon category - but it didn't seem at all worth the effort to track them down, particularly for a tank.

On the other hand, I was fairly happy to spend an inordinate amount of time coming up with an ultimate suit of armor for Sera; she was the one constant in all of my parties, so it seemed like a worthwhile investment. I really like her asymmetric look, and had dug many of her early outfits, but by the endgame the best rogue armor that I found while questing was generic leather-duster gear. I dropped way too much gold picking up a couple of Tier 3 medium armor schematics, thanks to a shop hidden in the Hissing Wastes, and then set to work. It was really tough deciding between the Dalish Scout armor and the prowler armor; both of them looked great, but I eventually decided to go with the prowler for a base.

When crafting, I tend to just focus on my highest available tier materials, then scan for the most useful stat benefit; if there's a tie, I'll go with the color I like best. I lucked out with Sera, since the metal I ended up using (perhaps Nevarrite?) resulted in this really pretty blue color. I paired that with a purple accent cloth color for a striking, but not particularly loud, outfit.

In general, I really dig what they've done with crafting, although it gets so close to being perfect that I'm left feeling a little exasperated by some tiny things that aren't completely perfect. A lot of this comes down to a balancing act between form, function, and rarity. It would be boring if every schematic of the same tier had the same stats, and so they mix it up, with different ones requiring different amounts of resources; schematics that require more materials take more effort to craft, but since they have more inputs, they result in higher-quality results. It would also be boring if every schematic had the same visual appearance, and so they have a really nice variety available. Particularly when it comes to companion armors, some of the schematics will give them good stats and an altered appearance of their iconic outfit, while others will replace their outfit altogether. (Most famously, if you're sick of looking at Varric's chest hair, you can cover that mass up.)

One of my favorite things that they've done is allow you to "cross the streams" between entire armor sets. For example, after Halamshiral you acquire a schematic for your dress uniform. This is classified as light armor, and so ordinarily only mages can wear it. However, if you use rare materials in crafting it, you can make it available for any class. Conversely, if you want Solas to don a great big hulking set of plate armor, you can find a ton of Silverite and then smith it.

So, you have a lot of freedom in how you craft, but as far as I can tell there are some streams that can't be crossed. Most noticeably, there are some armors which are just flat-out the best available. When it comes to medium armor, the Dalish Scout Armor seems to be the best around: you can fit in a whopping 28 defense units, which is pretty much ultimate. I preferred the look of the Prowler Armor, but it only has a mere 14 utility units. I really wish there was some way to mix and match power with appearance: even if it required the use of extra Masterwork materials or something, it would make me feel better if I could craft an Ultimate Piece of Armor and not feel like I was being forced to make some compromise between aesthetics and usefulness.

Gosh, I can't believe I wrote that much about crafting and, like, nothing about Cole or Cassandra. Hrm. One final note: I still didn't make any consumable items in this play-through, but I get the impression they'll be essential for my upcoming Insanity playthrough. In the previous games I've always resisted "wasting" my resources on single-use items; but, since crafting items respawn in Inquisition, it seems much more practical to make use of them. I finished up the game with a stupid amount of herbs, so I already know they're intended to be used.

Final observation before mega-spoilers: Banter has always been a high point in BioWare games, and the banters in Inquisition were some of my favorites yet. Most particularly, I was really happy with the tone of the banters in Inquisition compared to the ones in DA2. In DA2, I got genuinely distressed at how mean Fenris and Anders were towards Merrill. It just felt vicious, and I wanted to yell at them to stop but there wasn't an option to do it. So, I left those jerky men at home and ended up killing both of them.

In comparison, in Inquisition there are still some pretty intense personality clashes and rivalries, but they are catty and fun rather than barbed and awful. I got particular pleasure from bringing Sera and Vivienne along: those two are just so different, and really go at each other, and it's just so enjoyable to hear them one-up each other through pranks and insults.

Oh, wait! I lied, one more quick thing before mega-spoilers. I was initially pretty bummed when BioWare announced the party breakdown, and particularly the division between male and female characters. I've become increasingly convinced of the importance of representation in video games; and in the past BioWare has really stood out among major developers for giving equal prominence to men and women in its games. Dragon Age: Origins, Dragon Age 2, Mass Effect 1, 2, and 3, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and Star Wars: The Old Republic... for about a decade, BioWare has been remarkably consistent in having an equivalent roster of men and women available as companions in their games. I was surprised and a little bewildered that they would abruptly shift gears in Inquisition, with twice as many male as female companions.

I've heard some defenses of this, including the prominence of female characters in non-companion roles and the idea that a 6-3 division is almost the same as a 5-4 division so what's the big deal, nerds? My math mind immediately seizes on this: if someone wants to roll with an all-dude party, they can make a dude inquisitor, and will have 20 different options for assembling the remaining slots in their party:
  1. Blackwall, Cole, and Dorian
  2. Iron Bull, Cole, and Dorian
  3. Blackwall, Varric, and Dorian
  4. Iron Bull, Varric, and Dorian
  5. Blackwall, Iron Bull, and Dorian
  6. Varric, Cole, and Dorian
  7. Blackwall, Cole, and Solas
  8. Iron Bull, Cole, and Solas
  9. Blackwall, Varric, and Solas
  10. Iron Bull, Varric, and Solas
  11. Blackwall, Iron Bull, and Solas
  12. Varric, Cole, and Solas
  13. Blackwall, Dorian, and Solas
  14. Iron Bull, Dorian, and Solas
  15. Varric, Dorian, and Solas
  16. Cole, Dorian, and Solas
  17. Blackwall, Iron Bull, and Cole
  18. Blackwall, Iron Bull, and Varric
  19. Blackwall, Cole, and Varric
  20. Iron Bull, Cole, and Varric 
 In contrast, if someone want to roll with a ladies-only party, they can make a lady inquisitor, and have a whole whopping one option to fill the party slots:
  1. Cassandra, Sera, and Vivienne
Of course, in the vast majority of games people will happily combine the genders and come up with a mixed party, and I'm almost certainly over-analyzing this. Still, it feels like it's far easier to sideline the women in this game than the men: based on numbers alone, it's very unlikely that at any given time most peoples' parties won't include at least some men, while it's conversely very easy for a party to completely omit women.

Anyways, this was all mildly controversial a couple of months ago - okay, very controversial, within the hot-house community that is the Dragon Age fandom - but, personally, my objections completely dropped away several months later after BioWare revealed the romance options. Much like the companions, I had just assumed that BioWare would continue in the tradition it's been following for the last decade and provide an equal number of romance choices for men and women. Nope! It turns out that the romances followed the same breakdown as the party skew, ending up with five romanceable men and only three romanceable women. Furthermore, the game eschewed the "everyone is into everyone" vibe from DA2, locking many of the romances to only particular genders and, in some cases, even races.

At this point, it became pretty clear that BioWare is catering to the Straight Female Gamer, and I couldn't be happier. Women are famously and consistently underserved by the video game industry, despite being some of the most devoted fans around, and it feels very overdue for "them" to experience what it's like to have their whims catered to. Granted, I look forward to the day when every player has equal options; but given the unbalanced history, I think "they" deserve a game or two of their own. I like thinking of Inquisition's romance options as an apology for Anomen.

Okay, for real now, let's do some

Mega Spoilers

For me, Dragon Age has primarily been defined by its "big decisions". Those times when the dialog options pop up, and I stare at the screen, and stare, and stare. Then get up, and brew myself a cup of tea, and start pacing, muttering to myself, weighing the pros and cons, trying to decide what will lead to the better outcome, and whether I'll be able to live with myself after making that choice. 

There are big choices, and there are big choices. Sometimes these are huge world-shaping decisions that feel awesome to make because they are so impactful, but while I'm often happy to make these decisions, they're also often ones which are fairly clear to me: I might hate making the choice, but I don't waver. Far more challenging are the ones where I just can't decide which is the right way to go, and spend the rest of my game (or, possibly, my life) worrying about it.

Two points in this game stood out to me. First, as background: as in the earlier Dragon Age games, I gradually built up a concept of my character, starting out with a kernel of an idea before character creation, testing it out in some early conversations, stretching to see what directions the game would let me take it, and gradually developing those instincts into an overall philosophy; I then used that philosophy in turn as a tool by which to evaluate most of the decisions I encountered, which actually feels pretty reassuring: I can believe that I'm expressing a coherent moral view of the world instead of agonizing over every little choice.

As I alluded to in my earlier post, in this game I decided that Aztar Cadash is primarily concerned with reshaping the world into a better place. She strongly believes in the acquisition of power for its own sake, since she views herself as someone who can be trusted to wield it to good ends. She does enjoy her friendships and emotional connections, but these are utterly subordinated to what she views as her higher calling.

Speaking of higher calling: from the beginning, Aztar confidently embraced her role as Andraste's Chosen. It's something that she chose to believe, but she pursued this belief with pure conviction. There's a moment later in the game when you learn the truth: the woman others thought was Andraste was, in fact, a spirit, possibly of Divine Justinia. So, in a real sense, my entire movement was founded on a lie.

How did Aztar respond? By doubling down on her belief. She continued to express her faith that Andraste had chosen her for this task; even if Justinia had saved her, Justinia was fulfilling Andraste's will.

And, Aztar went even further. After returning from her physical sojourn in the Fade, she was asked what message to share with the people. Aztar lied and declared that Andraste had told her that she (Aztar) spoke for the Maker, and all should follow her commands.

That's... a pretty despicable move, actually. And it seems like a textbook emulation of how a cult leader would behave when confronted with proof that their cult is false. But I really liked this whole evolution since it was all perfectly internally consistent. Aztar's main lodestar had never been her religious faith: it was her desire for power. Faith was merely a very significant means towards achieving that end. This crisis point forced Aztar to confront the ambiguity behind her words, and made clear where her true objectives lay.

Which is not at all to say that I see Aztar as a villain - she is trying to save the world, after all. She's just completely comfortable with dispose of lesser niceties in pursuit of what she sees as a greater outcome.

This actually segues nicely into one of the hardest decisions I made, the fate of Bull's Chargers. While you don't spend a ton of time with them, I'd grown very fond of them. They're a motley, chaotic, talented and funny bunch, each member vividly and distinctly drawn. (My favorite might be Dalish, an elf mage who keeps ludicrously insisting that she's an archer.) They were a big part of what I liked about Bull: he's such a laid-back, fun-loving yet inspiring leader, who has seen the untapped potential in this group and brought them together to accomplish great things, earning their pure loyalty in the process.

I also was a huge fan of Bull's relaxed honesty, and loved his initial conversation with you, which basically goes, "Just so you know, I'm going to be spying on you for the Ben-Hassrath, but I'll show you my reports before they go out and won't share anything too damaging. Oh, and I'll let you know what my employers are up to. Sound good?" His attitude is unlike that of any other Qunari we've met yet, and I also really appreciated him as a link to the Qunari. From an in-game perspective, the prospect of an alliance with the Qunari was incredibly tempting. They're almost certainly the single most powerful nation in Thedas, and have refrained from conquering the land only because of their religious faith.

And so, when Bull presented an opportunity to cooperate with the Qunari in taking down the Venatori, I leaped at the chance. I (both as a player and as my character) have issues with the Qun, but this was a purely military operation, of significant benefit to both parties. We led Bull's Chargers and then divided our forces, taking out some Venatori encampments to ensure safe travel for a Qunari dreadnaught.

And then... things went south. Reinforcements arrived, preparing to surround. I had to make a decision: should I instruct them to fall back, abandoning the overlook and dooming the ship? Or order them to hold their ground, upholding our agreement with the Qunari and issuing a death sentence to Bull's most faithful followers?

I felt so bad, but I gave the order. Bull's Chargers made a last determined stand, knowing that they were all going to die. The dreadnaught escaped, the alliance was sealed, I was heartbroken. This entire group of wonderful, distinct, talented fighters was gone. By Aztar's cold moral calculus, though, I had made the right decision. It's a cruel thing to say, but the truth is that I already have many other fighters, many other mages; in the grand scheme of things, as much as I personally liked the Chargers, they would not make a significant impact in the major war to come. On the other hand, the Qunari offered me things I could not find elsewhere. A navy. Gunpowder. A northern front. My head was utterly convinced that I had made the right choice, even as my heart was convinced that I had failed.

Of course, Iron Bull himself was a casualty in this outcome. He noticeably changes afterwards: he's still the same person, so doesn't become completely withdrawn, but he comes to view his time with the Chargers as an aberration, and prepares to rejoin a stricter lifestyle under the Qun. Once again, on a personal level I was fairly devastated by this - I'm appalled by the lack of freedom of the Qun, and missed the anarchic spirit of the old Bull. But, again, on a practical level it seemed like a worthwhile trade to make. Bull was still a fantastic fighter, still contributed fully to my party; his happiness was diminished, but one man's happiness can't be weighed against a military alliance that could win a war.

As an epilogue, I was very happy to see the alliance with the Qunari blossom, leading into my favorite non-Sera-related series of war table missions: an epic, long-running quest line with Tallis from Mark of the Assassin. In my next play-through I'll save the Chargers and see how it affects the story, but I imagine that you won't have access to the same Ben-Hassrath agents in that case. I loved seeing that mission played out, even though it also served as a constant, painful reminder of the actions I'd taken to bring it about.

The other choice that actually wrecked me was the result of Leliana's personal quest. Once the question of succession to the Divine came up, I whole-heartedly backed Leliana's claim, gently discouraging Cassandra from the Sunburst Throne and encouraging Leliana to pursue it. As part of this quest line, other surviving clerics have started maneuvering to elevate one of their own, and I enthusiastically supported us taking action against them.

This all was going along more or less as I expected and got more and more engaging as the stakes were raised higher. Near the climax, you travel to a remote chapel to recover a secret message that Justinia had left for Leliana. You encounter a chantry sister, and she and Leliana exchange pleasant chats while you search the chapel. At last you find the cache, and Leliana pulls a knife on the sister. She had deduced what I suspected: she was a spy, sent from a rival cleric, to thwart Leliana. Leliana was ready to kill her. I nodded me approval. Leliana slit the priestess's throat, in the heart of the chantry, and blood poured down over the tiles.

What had I done?

In the moment, it felt so right. Of course I wanted to support Leliana. Of course I wanted to oppose her enemies. Of course it was dangerous to let this spy escape. Of course it would have led to further problems down the line.

But Leliana changed. It became clear that this was a crisis point for her, and she had firmly set foot on a new path. The old Leliana, who was sweet and kind and gentle, was gone. In her place was a new woman: proudly ruthless, heartless, willing to shed blood to achieve her view of the Chantry. A woman, in fact, quite like Aztar herself.

What made this so particularly tragic for me was my long history with Leliana. Across both of my playthroughs of Origins, I always end up romancing her, and have never been able to bring myself to harden her. Even though many players think that the hardened Leliana is superior to the un-hardened one, I just treasure her gentle side too much. I always convince her to spare Marjolaine, even knowing that there are greater benefits to myself if she turns towards the dark side.

And then, after going to such lengths to deliberately keep her on a bright path, I had corrupted her with my latest character. Aztar had undone the work accomplished by Kiriyon, dragging Leliana down into the mire of bloody, heartless machiavellianism. I still liked her, but felt horrified at what she'd become. At what I had done.

As the game progressed towards the end, my doubts continued to multiply. Aztar had acted out of a desire to stabilize her own position, but had she, really? On the one hand, a bloody Leliana is supremely capable at accomplishing her goals, ruthlessly pursuing any objective without concern for collateral damage. But, was I so sure that Leliana was a tool I could actually wield? After all, I had elevated her to the rank of Divine, arguably the only position more powerful than my own. Leliana had her own agenda, her own vision for the role of the Chantry in shaping the future of Thedas. That might align with my own, but it didn't exist merely to further my own aims. It was bad enough that I had created a monster. Had I also created a monster who would destroy me?

I just about lost it a day later. After gaining the support of the surviving Grey Wardens, I embarked on a long-running War Table mission to try and track down the Hero of Ferelden. All along I had been wondering about the relationship between Kiriyon and Leliana; based on her dialogue, it sounds like they are still on good terms, and have parted for a time to allow Leliana to fulfill her duty to Justinia. More recently, though, I had wondered whether they still remain in contact and what, exactly, Kiriyon is doing in the meantime. At the end of this mission, I received a short but heartfelt letter from Kiriyon, encouraging me to continue the work I was doing with the Inquisition. In a postscript, Kiriyon also begged me to look after Leliana, asking that I do all that I could to help her walk in the light. I nearly cried. Called out by my own character, wracked with guilt, I felt like I had betrayed not only my principles and my friends but even my own self.

This is another thing that I want to try differently in future playthroughs, and I'm very curious to see how it affects the epilogue. In my current slides, Leliana becomes a very powerful Divine, and that same ruthlessness which makes me cringe also allows her to reunite the Chantry under her grasp. It would be very much in keeping with BioWare's style for the "good" Leliana to lead to a worse outcome, perhaps with a new schism dividing the southern Chantry or Leliana losing the throne to a rival. Shades of Bhelan and Harrowmont here, I suppose. In any case! This whole plot arc ended up being surprisingly, deliciously traumatic for me, and I'm impressed by how much it ended up affecting me.

In contrast to these deeply troubling choices, others were relatively easy to make, even though the act of making them provided me with angst. The game positions the question of who you leave behind in the Fade to be a very difficult one: Hawke, or <insert surviving Grey Warden here>? In my game, Alistair continues serving as a Grey Warden while Anora rules Ferelden alone. I didn't really even hesitate before selecting Hawke to survive. It isn't that I dislike Alistair: he's charming, loyal, can be quite humorous, and is someone I've enjoyed traveling with. But, at the end of the day, he isn't me in the same way that Hawke is. It might have been a tougher choice if my Alistair had still been King of Ferelden: then he would have been a powerful political figure, and I would have needed to match the sentimentality of saving my Hawke against the expediency of rescuing a significant ally. As it was, though, Alistair was just a lone man, a man who will die sooner than most due to the Calling, who has embraced the principle of noble sacrifice for his entire life. I was happy to give him his wish. Well, "happy" may be too strong, but I didn't second-guess myself once after leaving the Fade.

Along similar lines, I had a specific objective in mind for the entirety of the Halamshiral quest, and was very pleased to be able to achieve it. This sequence has obvious parallels to the Landsmeet quest of Origins, and has a similarly complex and varied set of outcomes. I came into this game after having read The Masked Empire, and already felt deeply familiar with the three major figures of Celene, Briala, and Gaspard. (Side note: I was super-happy to see Michel appear in a supporting role later on. Not to mention resolution to the Imshael plot!) My sympathies were very much behind Celene and Briala, although as usual BioWare writes very nuanced characters and tends to avoid pure villains. I dislike Gaspard due to his warmongering and the way he would throw away the civic achievements Celene has achieved during her glorious reign; but at the same time, he's the most honorable of the trio, and arguably the most admirable.

Anyways. I gather that mechanically the "optimal" outcome is to convince all three to work together, but I wasn't having any of that: I wanted Celene firmly back on the throne and Gaspard killed or neutered. I was delighted to be able to reunite Celene and Briala. They had broken up for extremely good reasons, but I still had loved the scenes of affection between them in the novel, and it makes me happy to think that they will be able to reclaim their bliss. Based on the ending slide, it's unclear whether that bliss will last; but I think that Celene's accomplishments will, and I feel very pleased by how things ended up.


It seems like every time someone beats Inquisition, they feel compelled to report how long it took them to complete. It feels like that misses the point. I think that BioWare has, at last, created a game that truly is for everyone. If someone just wants to experience a tight, compelling, character-focused drama, they can power through the main missions and wrap up the game in less than 40 hours. If they want to enjoy a sprawling RPG, exploring varied landscapes and tackling a variety of challenging combat encounters, they can play through the major side quests and extend it to 100 hours. If someone wants to pretend that they're playing a Massively Singleplayer Offline RPG, they can go deep into crafting and reputation and mount acquisition, burnishing their own unique character for over a hundred hours. And the truly mad can expand the game until they encompass every square foot of southern Thedas, finding every single last little collectible, exploring every last nook and cranny, over hundreds of hours.

In my own particular case, I beat the game after about 97 hours of play. This included all of the main quests, all companion quests (except for Solas's, which bugged out for me), a few of the collection quests, and all story-oriented side quests except for some in the last few areas. (I did most of Emerald Graves, about half of Emprise du Lion, and only a few in the Hissing Wastes.) I'm very satisfied with the pace of the game. I'll probably return to the save file in the future and finish up some remaining business, most significantly the dragon battles.

In the meantime, now that I have beaten Dragon Age: Inquisition, what's next for me? I'm going to play Dragon Age: Inquisition! I've rolled a new character; this one is a Tal Vashoth Mage.

I'm jumping from Normal to Insanity for this playthrough, because I am a masochist. So far it's hard, but seems vaguely do-able. I'm sure that I'll need to start actually using a bunch of stuff that I had ignored in the Aztar game, like pausing the game, using the tactical camera, using consumable tonics and grenades, and using focus abilities. I feel like my real-time Normal playthrough was great preparation for the unpausable multiplayer game, but I'm looking forward (with some dread) to the more tactical challenge that an Insanity playthrough will require.

And, what lies ahead in the future? Why, more Inquisition! I'm already starting to vaguely think through a hypothetical third, "perfect" playthrough, with a character who shapes the story the way I want it to go. I plan to use my Tal Vashoth to explore some of the alternate, possibly-even-worse outcomes to decisions I made in the first game, giving me a clearer picture of the narrative range available in the game. I'm going to hold off on creating that third character until after the mod community finishes creating some decent hairstyles, though.

What I'm even more excited for, though, is an expansion. It was great that BioWare broke from a longstanding tradition and did not include any Day One DLC for this game: it let me just enjoy playing the game without feeling any buyer's remorse one way or the other. But the game seems clearly designed for expansion, particularly because the world is so vast, because the game continues after the "end", and because the higher-level areas are more challenging than the actual last mission. There's great potential here for an expansion along the lines of "Tales of the Sword Coast" back in in the Baldur's Gate 1 days, which added several story-rich arcs that could be enjoyed either before or after beating the main game. My time with Inquisition has been so much fun that, as soon as it becomes available, I'll immediately grab whatever new content becomes available for it. Even after spending so much time in this game, I can't wait to return to Thedas and enjoy it even more.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Tik Tok

During a recent event with David Mitchell, I picked up his latest book “The Bone Clocks” as well as some of his earlier ones. I absolutely love everything that I’ve read by him, so he’s entered the category of authors who I like so much that I try to avoid reading them too quickly, so I’ll have more books to look forward to before exhausting the supply.

During his conversation, he’d mentioned something that I hadn’t really picked up on before, which is the fact that all of his books share connections. On the surface, they’re all written in pretty different literary styles and set in very different times and places, so I’ve tended to think of each one as being its own standalone thing. But, I’ve learned, certain characters will pop up in different novels, certain phrases will be repeated in different contexts, and some events which occur in one novel will be referenced in another. Therefore, you can easily think of all of these novels as existing in a single universe, which may or may not be our own universe, and the resonances across multiple books increases their impact the more you read them.

I don’t mean to oversell this point; all of his books absolutely stand on their own, and you can easily look at the links as being a kind of easter egg. But it is a great treat to discover that sort of consistency when it doesn’t call attention to itself.


The Bone Clocks unfolds over a stretch of time. Unlike Cloud Atlas, which switched between different narrators and spanned centuries, the story of The Bone Clocks mostly orbits around the life of a particular woman, from her teenage years through her old age. She anchors the first and last section of the book; the middle sections each are told from the point of view of a single person whose life intersects with her own. Each individual section lasts between a few days and many months, which jumps of about 15 years between sections.

The main protagonist, Holly Sykes, is a fantastic character. One of the advantages of such a long time span for the novel is that we can see her grow and mature over time: she remains recognizably the same person, but her life experiences have a profound impact on her attitudes and behaviors over time. She starts off as a fairly wild, naive, rebellious teenager, and swiftly turns into a considerate, caring, generous, thoughtful woman. I’ve seen transformations like that in people who I’ve known for decades, and it’s an impressive thing to believably demonstrate in a novel.

As a tangent: the novel’s treatment of gender as a mutable characteristic was interesting. I was reminded of Cloud Atlas; not so much the novel, but the movie, which famously featured actors crossing lines of age, race, and sex. I like how the novel doesn’t say “Gender doesn’t mean anything!” - the ending, in particular, makes it abundantly clear that men and women occupy very distinct levels of fortune - but it also considers gender to be an attribute and not core essence, which was a nifty perspective.

David Mitchell is one of the only authors apart from Haruki Murakami to completely nail a certain style of modern writing that I absolutely adore: novels that feel very grounded in the mundane details of daily life, but that seep with the suggestion that some strange, paranormal, possibly supernatural forces are lurking at the fringes of our experiences, subtly affecting our lives while remaining opaque. Murakami’s oddities have a slightly fantasy flavor about them, while Mitchell’s smell a bit more science-fiction-y. The Bone Clocks continues in this tradition, with several thrilling passages where the reader is abruptly jolted between the mundane and the supernatural world.


One of the things that most impressed me about The Bone Clocks was just how explicit Mitchell gets about the way his world works. I’m pretty used to Murakami and other authors doing a lot of suggesting and implying while almost never spelling out the details of how their systems work. For the most part this is great: it makes the world linger in my mind longer as I puzzle over what’s real and what isn’t. What Mitchell does here is an order of magnitude harder: build up that sense of mystery, then reveal that mystery, and have it continue to be exciting after the questions are answered. We end up with very clear explanations about what happened to Jacko, why Jacko behaved the way he did, what was going on with Ian and Heidi, just who the Blind Cathar was, not to mention where and when the Blind Cathar came from, how he operates in the present day, the implications of his triumph for the Horologists and the world at large. This would still have been a terrific book if, say, it ended with Crispin Hershey’s death, setting up an ominous but ambiguous epic struggle between vaguely-defined primal forces. Instead, it gets even better, as those forces are put into stark relief and their conflict is decisively resolved.

Just for fun, here’s an in-my-own-words summation of the novel’s metaphysics:

Every human being has a soul. When the person dies, their soul is released. It eventually passes into the Last Sea; nobody is certain what happens to it after that.

However, a few peoples’ souls work differently. Known as Atemporals, they are not bound in time to a single lifespan. There are several subgroups of atemporals. Returnees are reincarnated, and retain complete memories of their previous lives. When they die, their souls are untethered and sort of wander; after 49 days, they are reborn in the body of a young child. They don’t have any control over which body they end up in, but it always alternates between male and female over consecutive lives.

In contrast, Sojourners can willingly choose to abandon their bodies at any point, typically when close to death, and can select a new body to inhabit. In practice, they will often “take over” for a child who would otherwise have died, occupying the child’s body but retaining their own wisdom and knowledge. Unlike a Returnee, if a Sojourner dies their soul will be gone forever, so it’s important for them to move on to a new body at the correct time.

Because atemporals “live” for centuries or millennia, they have a ton of time to perfect their skills. This includes not only strong social and technical knowledge, but also a variety of psychic skills. These include “suasion”, a way of mentally implanting an idea in another person; subspeaking, a form of targeted telepathy; the ability to project mental force fields (as barriers or kinetic projectiles); and the ability to occupy another person’s consciousness, traveling in their body and seeing through their eyes.

All atemporals start out on their own, and most of them exist independently, either because they don’t realize there are others like them or because they prefer to keep to themselves. However, over time a group of these atemporals have gradually come together, forming a group that they call Horology. Horologists support one another and practice to develop their skills, but more importantly, they seek to protect humanity from the acts of malicious atemporals, and offer guidance for people who have latent psychic powers of their own.

The majority of people, of course, are born, live a full life, and then die, releasing their souls at the end. They are the eponymous “bone clocks”. A subset of these people have some inborn skill that enables them to use their chakra-eye and access seemingly supernatural abilities such as precognition or telepathy. Most of this subset never does anything with those skills. However, certain humans, known as Carnivores, are able to extend their lifespans indefinitely by consuming the life essence of other “potentials”. Carnivores aren’t born immortal like Atemporals: instead, they live in a single physical body, which can remain youthful forever, and prolong that life by engaging in this destructive ritual.

(As a side note: at the event, David Mitchell talked a bit about this, mentioning that he found the lure of immortality a rather believable one for explaining why otherwise good people might do horrible things. The traditional incentives that draw one towards evil are wealth and power. As he points out, if you want wealth you can try to become the head of a major corporation, and if you want power you can run for office; it’s not all that hard. But, for most of us, if someone offered to let us live forever if we violated our principles, we’d at least consider the offer.)

Many of these carnivores are rogues, and Horology was largely formed to shut them down; Horologists are kind of like shepards of humanity, protecting the vulnerable from the wolves. However, in recent centuries, a particular group of carnivores has posed a huge threat. Calling themselves Anchorites, they are centered around the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar. The Blind Cathar was a middle-ages monk who followed the anchorite heresy, a form of gnosticism which held that Satan created the physical world and all matter is intrinsically evil. The Blind Cathar created a space that bridged the physical world and the threshold of Dusk, the space where souls come from and return. He’s essentially an undead figure who has transmuted into the Chapel, able to communicate with his followers but not take physical form.

The Anchorites locate potential victims, lure them to the Chapel, and then the Blind Cathar opens his chakra-eye and devours the victim’s soul. The soul is decanted into Black Wine, drunk by all the followers. This wine allows them to continue living without aging for the next three months. They try to consistently keep their membership to 12: every three months, one of them will bring a fresh victim, with each member required to develop a potential once every three years.

The Horologists have battled the Anchorites for a long time, with very limited success. Even when they manage to destroy one of the Anchorites, the remainder can indoctrinate replacements culled from promising potentials. They aren’t able to enter the Chapel: only Anchorites can, and they can access the Chapel from anywhere on earth and also exit from the chapel to any other location, making it virtually impossible to trap them.

And, with that background (which isn’t wholly revealed until near the end of the book), here’s the main plot:

Before the book starts, Holly Sykes’ brother, Jacko, nearly dies of pneumonia. Actually, he does die, and a Horologist moves in to take over his body. He continues to act like Jacko, but betrays wisdom beyond his apparent years. Holly is able to telepathically hear voices, making her a potential psychic, and Miss Constantin, an Anchorite, begins grooming her for sacrifice. Another horologist, Dr. Marinus, is tipped off about what’s happening. He closes her chakra-eye, removing her psychic manifestations and depriving the Anchorites of a victim.

The Horologists begin to develop a plan. Knowing that the Anchorites will be peeved by their loss in this skirmish, they reason that they’re likely to try and strike back. And so, they have Jacko begin expressing psychic abilities as well, correctly expecting that the Anchorites will try to kidnap him instead. Multiple Horologist souls “stow away” in Jacko’s body when he is brought to the Chapel, where they plan to unleash a surprise attack, Trojan Horse style. However, as soon as Jacko enters the Chapel, the Blind Cathar senses their presence. He warns the other Anchorites, who swiftly attack the intruders. It’s a slaughter, wiping out most of the invaders, and dealing Horology a major blow. Many Anchorites are killed as well, but they’re in a better position to recover.

In the aftermath, Marinus and Esther encounter Holly, who happened to run away from home on the same day as their attack. Esther had anticipated that something might go wrong, and hid herself away inside Holly’s mind where the Anchorites wouldn’t be able to find her. Marinus dies while protecting Holly from a rampaging Anchorite; Holly survives, but her memory of the incident is erased. As far as she knows, her brother has disappeared.

Holly grows up. She has a one-night stand with a sociopath named Hugo Lamb. He seems to face a choice: continue on his current path, becoming a very successful and thoroughly despicable person; hold on to Holly, trying to become a better person and settling for a calmer, more fulfilling life; or joining the Anchorites, and living forever in exchange for acting even more immorally than before. He chooses to live forever.

Apparently abandoned by Hugo, Holly ends up with Ed, a childhood friend. They never actually marry, but together raise their child, Aoife. Ed is a combat reporter who works in a variety of deadline locations, including the Israel/Palestine border and post-invasion Iraq. Holly’s psychic abilities begin re-expressing themselves, including an ability to predict the future.

Ed dies, and Holly raises Aiofe on her own. She writes a memoir, The Radio People, that describes her childhood experiences and the loss of Jacko. She hopes that publishing the book will popularize Jacko’s absence; he was never found, and she thinks there’s a chance that someone will recognize him from the book. Instead, the book becomes an enormous bestseller, and Holly is raised out of near-poverty into an unexpected wealth. She and Aoife travel the world on publicity tours, where Holly faces much skepticism and some unwanted attention.

Esther’s long-laid plans begin to slowly move into action. Like Holly, she was able to see snatches of the future, and predicted the disaster. So she left behind hidden orders with seemingly inconsequential people, orchestrating events such that she could be rescued from Holly’s mind. This begins when Marinus receives a tempting offer from an Anchorite who claims to have had a change of heart and decided to betray the Chapel. Marinus is rightly skeptical of this overture, but, aided by prodding from Esther, he comes to the conclusion that in the long run the Anchorites will triumph over the Horologists, so the higher risk of a swift defeat is better than the certainty of a lengthy slide into irrelevance.

Marinus reveals herself to Holly, who understandably is overwhelmed by all this; her direct experiences of the conflict have previously been erased from her mind, and she has spent much of her life trying to deal with unexplained paranormal phenomena, not to mention hordes of con artists. Of course, merely by contacting her they bring her to the attention of the Anchorites; while they don’t perceive Holly as a threat, she is an annoying symbol to them, and they’re all to willing to destroy anyone who they think the Horologists care about. Holly is attacked, then rescued, and receives a fantastically detailed explanation about exactly what is going on. She decides to join with the Horologists.

This leads into a fantastic, super-natural, exciting climax, filled with betrayals, secret plans, noble sacrifices, valiant struggles, all presented in a terrifically kinetic manner that rushes forward while capitalizing on the depths of the characters we’ve gotten to know (at various ages and in various ages) over the course of the book. At the end, Horology is nearly wiped out, but the Anchorites are completely destroyed, leaving a thin but undeniable shred of hope.

The climax isn’t the finale, though. The last section of the book finally returns us to Holly’s point of view; while she’s been the constant character throughout the novel, this is the first time we’ve occupied her head since the very start when she was a reckless teenager, and it’s both rewarding and sad to sit inside her calmer, often sorrowful perspective. The last section doesn’t extend the exuberance of the the Horologist’s victory: we’re back on solid earth now, away from the transcendent struggle of immortals, and dealing with problems that our civilization has created for itself. As part of Mitchell’s overarching book-spanning metastory, this is a critical link between the modern day and the dystopic future which the inner chapters of Cloud Atlas present. In the earlier books, we had a sense for the causes: climate change, increasing inequality, a coarsening of society brought on by a winnowing of natural resources. Here, we’re seeing those early steps actually acted out. Holly belongs to the last generation that actually remembers the glory days we live in, with a worldwide Internet and global commerce and enshrined rights for women. She’s seeing that slip away, already lost in much of the world, and desperately maintained in a few fortunate pockets.

There is still a shred of hope, fortunately. Holly manages to secure a safer life for her progeny; it’s a great sign of her generous heart that this doesn’t just include her granddaughter, but also an adopted refugee orphan. The promised land is Iceland, which is geographically isolated from the rising chaos and has the discipline to enforce needed policies that adapt to the bad new world. We see that the surviving Horologists have largely thrown in with the Icelandic government, acting as sort of shepherds to the human race: not ruling them, but doing all in their power to support the good that people seek to do. Lorelei and the horologists and the other fortunate few will eventually become the Prescients, that technologically advanced but largely hopeless society that appear, almost god-like, in the heart of Cloud Atlas. With them, we sense, is a chance for eventual salvation from mankind’s great mistakes.


Awesome book! I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve read by Mitchell, and this book continues the trend. A lot of people have been comparing it to Cloud Atlas, and there are certainly some superficial similarities - the shifts through time, multiple narratives - but it feels pretty distinct to me. There’s a much greater willingness to embrace the fantastical and the surreal, and a bit less groundedness in individual acts of kindness or cruelty.

I’ve been reading his stuff out of order, so I’m looking forward to diving back in to the backlog. I can’t wait to see what I find next!