Saturday, January 30, 2010


"Bread and Wine" is a great little book, one I still haven't completely been able to puzzle out yet.  It's a piece of anti-fascist literature, very much a product of the author's situation (living in exile during the Mussolini years); it's also something more, something I can describe but not define.


The story is bookended by Don Benedetto, a venerable retired Catholic priest who lives a quiet life in mountainous rural Italy.  The bulk of the story is devoted to Pietro, one of Benedetto's former students who is now a revolutionary socialist.  Pietro agitated for the Party, was exiled, spent several years campaigning in other European nations, and has now returned, in ill health, to Italy.

The central conceit of the book is simple and effective.  The police have been alerted to Pietro's return, and in order to avoid their suspicion, he disguises himself as a priest.  Calling himself Don Paulo, this atheistic communist plays the role of a pious man of God.  And he plays the role horribly.  He doesn't want to hear others' confessions, complains loudly when he is confronted with spaghetti, and flirts with a village girl.  He wears the cloth, and this seems to be enough.  The people he encounter take his identity for granted; priests are by definition strange, and nothing he does raises their suspicion.

It's hard to like Paulo at first, but as he grows more accustomed to his rural community and softens his attitude, we soften towards him as well.  He can come off as brusque or complaining, but he fundamentally and passionately cares about the cause of justice, so much so that he has sacrificed his wealth, health, and comfort for it.  He's also quite intelligent; his mind is a weapon, and once he turns that weapon against those in power instead of the powerless, it's easier to cheer for him.

Most of the book is spent in the countryside, as Don Paulo moves between a few small villages.  The peasants are great, colorful characters, providing great pathos and humor, as well as a bright shot of truth. 

I was a bit uneasy with some of the humor... a lot of it comes off as "Gee, look at those rubes!"  They don't seem too bright, cling proudly to their superstitions, and are given to frequent bouts of drunkenness.  One of the first we meet is a man nicknamed Sciatap.  We later learn that he spent his youth in America, and after many years of living there, he returned to Italy knowing only a single phrase of English, that was endlessly directed at him - Sciatap.  (Or, as you realize it should be spelled, "Shut up.")  He and a young boy take turns whacking a donkey, yelling "Garibaldi!" after each strike, in order to teach it that this is its name.  When the boy holds up some food and shouts "Garibaldi!", the donkey trots forward.  The boy is happy, confident that it has learned its name, apparently not considering that the donkey was just responding to the offered food.

The peasants fear two things in life.  The first is the Evil Eye.  To avert it, they paint horns on their doors.  This superstition I'm familiar with.  The second one is stranger to me - the peasants frequently cite a fear of envy as well.  I'm really curious what the original Italian for this is, and if it has different connotations than the English word.  Frequently, individuals describe how disaster struck those with envy, and disclaim any envy for themselves.

The role of the peasants in this book remind me a bit of peasants portrayed in Shakespeare's comedies.  In both, the peasants are very ignorant, but their ignorance itself can become a sort of superiority.  When they argue with wiser people, the peasants often win; their appalling lack of knowledge leaves the other side sputtering, unable to respond coherently.  On the other hand, sometimes the peasants, with their strong connection to the physical, the real, the actual, are able to see things more clearly than the more educated who, who are too attracted to the ethereal, the theoretical, the ideal.  This second aspect comes across most strongly towards the end of the book, when Pietro is finally starting to question his role in the party, and just what effect the revolution can have on the poor.

Paulo eventually comes to love the peasants.  He also grows more comfortable in his role as priest.  I don't think he ever becomes a believer, but he begins to see some good in faith.  When he and Don Benedetto are finally reunited, he draws some great insight from the older man.  The last portion of the book is filled with religious allegories, both those offered by Paulo (recasting Jesus's plight as that of the poor's struggle against the powerful) and those he encounters (echoes of the Last Supper, Judas, the Sermon on the Mount).  I enjoyed these parts, though I'm at a loss to explain exactly how the author intends us to take them.

There's an nifty shift in this book between the persons of Pietro and Paulo.  Interestingly, the narrator will use the term Pietro when he is in his civilian clothes, playing the role of the revolutionary, and Paulo when he dons his clerical vestments, playing the role of the spiritual intercessor.  It's the same man, and at the same time two different men.  Both are informed by the other: Paulo's direct experiences with the poor causes Peter to rebel against the abstract natterings of his party superiors; and Pietro's passionate devotion to the cause leads Paulo to dispense socialist homilies to his impromptu flock.  The more the two sides mix, the better and more effective a person he becomes.


I'm still at a total loss when it comes to the very final chapter.  Let's face it: up until now this has been a fairly pleasant book.  Even with Pietro's persistently poor health and the background specters of fascist totalitarianism and war in Africa, the actual events in the book feel largely peaceful.  It's a man on a journey, meeting other people and reforming his view of the world.  So, jumping from that to a sympathetic young maiden being eaten alive by wolves on a barren frozen mountainside felt very disturbing.

Fundamentally, I just don't know what to make of it.  Should we blame Pietro for fleeing, which abandoned those who loved him and brought them destruction?  Should we view the incident metaphorically?  If so, are we witnessing the cruelty of war destroying innocence?  Is this fascism devouring its subjects?  Has primal nature reared up and asserted primacy over the mind?  I could probably back any of those up with messages elsewhere in the book, but they can't all be true.

I'll give the author this - it's definitely powerful, and certainly memorable.  I just wish I knew what to do with it.


Sometimes I think that I took my "English Major" degree too seriously.  I'm pretty well-read in most of the major American and British writers, but still have many embarrassing gaps when it comes to writers from the majority of the world.  When you come down to it, it's just odd that most of my impressions of World War II and its surrounding events have been informed by islanders, not people on the mainland who directly struggled with the ground troops pushing back and forth over boundaries.  Bread and Wine is closer to the action than many other books of this era, and at the same time it feels far more peaceful and thoughtful than anything from Orwell, Huxley, or even Lewis.  That's probably because the book is set among common people, who see things for what they are and not for what they represent.  It's an interesting change, and one I'm glad to have encountered.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hunter Hunted

What a treat to get more Sandman!  Don't get me wrong, I'm completely happy with Gaiman's decision to end the series.  That's a large part of the reason why I like it so much: rather than spilling out eternally like most comics runs and diluting its wonderfulness, he gave it a definite arc and form.  That said, I love the world and characters he created, and it's wonderful to return to it.

The Dream Hunters was originally written a decade ago.  I have yet to read it in its original form, but was previously familiar with the general concept: Gaiman wrote a story based in the mythology of ancient Japan, melding the Eastern setting with his own mythology of the Endless.  This wasn't a comic, but rather a novella that was illustrated by a talented Japanese artist; the overall product sounds somewhat similar to his original edition of "Coraline," a relatively slight story with memorable illustration.

In this new edition, Dream Hunters has been adapted into comic book form.  Again, I haven't read the novella, so I can't report exactly how the adaptation took place - I doubt that we're reading all of Gaiman's original words, but it seems likely that we're reading his dialog.  The art is just amazing.  It has a great, classical look to it; it shifts between a couple of different styles, but all of them look appropriate for the setting (some seem almost like Ukiyoe prints, others are vivid and lush drawings of the countryside). 


When Dream makes his eventual appearance, I almost cheered.  It's such a treat to see him on the page... Sandman always rotated through multiple artists, each of whom gave their own personal spin on the character.  Certain elements always remain the same - the pale skin, the height, black eyes that are filled with stars, a mop of unruly black hair.  It's utterly fitting with this character that he would seem to shift and change from one issue to the next.  The take on Dream is internally consistent here, since the same artist drew the whole story, and it upholds the tradition well.  There are some subtle changes to adapt to the Japanese setting: Dream wears a long, flowing robe that is woven with the shapes of various dreaming people, animals, and spirits.  Cain and Abel also make a brief but wonderful cameo; I recognized them from their first panel, despite their topknot hairstyle.  The Fates return here, once again keeping the same basic roles (maiden, mother, and crone), while looking completely different from how you've seen them before.

While it was great seeing Dream again, he only occupies a fraction of the story.  (Which is far from unusual - again, one of the great things about Sandman is its mutability, and many issues in that series would only show Morpheus on a single page.)  The main story concerns a monk, a fox, and the onmyoji, a rich and powerful man with magical powers.  The first issue could be read by itself as a good stand-along story, but Gaiman picks up the thread on which it ends and continues spinning it out into the main plot of the story. 

The monk is a wonderful character, kind of unusual for this type of story because of his plainness.  He is a good man, a Buddhist who has absorbed the teachings of faith.  He is wise, has a sense of humor, and generally doesn't directly seek to confront opposition in the world, but rather displays a kind of serenity that disarms most potential problems.

The fox initially seems like a minor character, but she grows into the most appealing personality in the book.  She is curious, intelligent, and compassionate.  She lives in a different world from the monk, with different gods and different rules and different futures.  You feel for her as she tentatively tries to bring their worlds together.

Random note: this story seems to contradict the famous quote about foxes and hedghogs.  In Sandman, he says that foxes know many things, while hedgehogs know one big thing.  In some ways, you could read Dream Hunters as the story of a fox who tries to become a hedgehog.

The onmyoji makes for a good villain, mainly because he isn't obviously villainous.  He does horrible things, but he doesn't seem to be driven by malice or cruelty, but rather by fear.  That doesn't make his actions any more acceptable, but makes him at least somewhat sympathetic.


Mmmmm... after an extended sojourn with Gaiman's prose, it's great to return to the medium where I first encountered him.  As a nice little bonus, reading this book overlapped with reading a nice little profile of Gaiman in the current New Yorker.  He's a surprisingly prolific and talented writer, and we're lucky to have him in all the forms that we do.

Saturday, January 23, 2010


I was recently looking for a few books to round out a checkout from the Willow Glen library.  They have a really nice browsing section set up, similar to most other San Jose libraries (and I'm guessing increasing numbers of public libraries across the country).  A substantial portion of the books in the library aren't shelved in their traditional Dewey Decimal or fiction-by-author's-last-name sections, but instead are placed on shelves, generally with the cover facing out instead of the spine; these tend to be grouped by subject (mystery, cooking, finance, etc.), but otherwise are unordered, making it really easy to laterally drift and stumble across something you might not otherwise have seen.

That's the theory, at least.  Sometimes I get good finds, often things that I'd meant to read years ago but had long ago forgotten.  Other times nothing really grabs me.  This time, I ended up walking away with two comic book collections, both of "The Spirit," both likely reprinted to tie in with the horrible movie that was recently released.

I knew next to nothing about The Spirit, but I was at least somewhat familiar with its creator, Will Eisner.  Eisner seems to be the grand dean of the comics world; he had an incredibly long career, starting in the 1930's and continuing until his recent death.  He had a profound influence on multiple generations of comics creators, and seems to be lauded for his warm personality as much as for his great skill.  The Eisner Award is the highest honor that can be given to comics.

I realized that the two collections were radically different.  The first was "The Best of The Spirit," covering highlights from the original DC comics run.  This starts with The Spirit's origin story around 1940, and continues through the end of World War II and in to the 1950's.  The book begins with a great introduction by Neil Gaiman, who accurately observes that the stories in this collection stand the test of time really well; when he first read them in the 1970's, he had no idea that they were over thirty years old, and they felt more fresh and relevant than the contemporary comics he read.  I will observe that the comics ARE fairly dated when it comes to racial attitudes... these are far from the worst that I've seen, but they do observe some prejudices that seem pretty ugly to us today, particularly the African-American characters. 

The series in general has a lot of fun with ethnic humor, and most supporting characters speak in phonetically transcribed dialect.  So, yes, an Italian gangster might say "Whatsa matta you?" and a refined French criminal may murmur "Thees ees a plassure, madame."  I generally dislike dialect, but for whatever reason it doesn't bother me as much in comics as it does in novels.

Other than ethnicity, the most obvious characteristic of The Spirit's cast is the large number of attractive women.  Femme fatales occupy nearly every story, and there's a regular mixture of "good girls" and "bad girls," just like in a Bond movie.  Also as in Bond, these tend to be pretty strong characters: The Spirit almost never rescues a helpless woman (and is actually more likely to need rescuing himself), but he faces formidably crafty female criminals, and trades wits with secret agents and other occasional allies.  I suppose it's all mildly exploitative, but it doesn't seem to have the same patronizing aspect as other works of this era.

I have to say that The Spirit himself is a pretty dull character.  He isn't really a superhero... he wears a mask that protects his identity, but sometimes I need to wonder why.  What exactly would the problem be if the criminals realized that he was Denny Colt?  He doesn't seem to have a family, and his closest friends are all cops anyways and already on the radar of his enemies.  He has no super-powers, and there aren't any super-villains here either.  He's a detective, a better-than-average fighter (he always uses his fists, sometimes a handy prop, but never a gun), and can take an amazing but not superhuman amount of punishment. 

His personality makes up for his uninteresting background.  It isn't flashy - he doesn't have a catch-phrase or lots of running gags - but he's sincere, confident without seeming cocky, and somehow able to charm a multitude of women without ever seeming lecherous. 

His enemies are a more varied and entertaining lot.  Most often these are gangsters or criminals of various sorts: jewel thieves, embezzlers, stuff like that.  I was struck when reading this by how relatively tame the stories are, at least in terms of violence.  Gunshots will often be fired in the climax, but only rarely are people killed.  A typical story will involve someone stealing something, The Spirit chasing them, then recovering the item and sending them to jail.  And yet, due to the skill of the writing and the art, it will be more interesting and rewarding than some over-the-top story about saving the world from an alien invasion.

The Spirit does sometimes face more exotic foes: Nazi war criminals, spies, mad scientists, even (in one very odd story) aliens from Mars.  These stories feel more interesting, but still fit nicely into the overall pace of the series. 

Where the matchups may seem conventional, the style is anything but.  I was frankly surprised by how many interesting, innovative techniques were used in this collection.  I had sort of assumed that Will Eisner had broken a lot of ground, but that since everyone else had copies him, a modern reader like me wouldn't even notice that what he was doing was interesting.  I was wrong.  There's some great stuff in here, like one story that is told from the murderer's point of view; you actually peer out of his eye sockets in each panel, which is a very creepy yet thrilling touch.  There's a story told like a children's book, with the tale of a toy tommy gun, the cutest weapon you've ever seen - it even has a face!  The shape of panels is regularly reworked for dramatic effect; sometimes a large section will jump out with more action, or they'll be divided into very thin slices to convey a kind of slow-motion effect.  He also experiments with a huge variety of framing devices, like a clock that ticks off the ten minutes that a story takes.

The second book of The Spirit comes from a modern continuation of the series that DC put out in recent years (I believe about 2007-2008).  This was, frankly, bizarre.  The first couple of issues felt great, like modern updates of that classic Spirit style, down to the somewhat hokey plot (an actress smuggles jewels into America).  Even there, there's some stuff that's just bizarre, like when The Spirit says (I kid you not) "heezy fo sheezy."  Really?  C'mon.

There's a wider variety in art styles in this collection than in the classic Spirit.  Most of the issues capture the original's look with sharp, clean lines and vibrant coloring.  Early on, though, there's a shift to a much more impressionistic style for one issue, which also brings with it way more gore and open sexuality than before.  I felt really weird defending the integrity of a series that I didn't even really know about until a few days before, but I thought that they TOTALLY disrespected their legacy.  :-)  Not that I have any problem in the slightest with telling that kind of story; it would have fit right in with modern Batman or Sandman.  But I just couldn't see The Spirit acting the way he was here.

There were exceptions.  Hands-down my favorite story in this collection is a straight retelling of the Sand Saref story from the original run.  The key components of this story stay the same, with some very minor modernization and slight shifts in tone.  It perfectly captures the wonderful feel of the original, while feeling like it has something worthwhile to say.

The major arc in this collection is about El Morte, which doesn't belong in The Spirit's universe at all.  El Morte is a zombie, a criminal who was raised from the dead by voodoo powers, infects hundreds of other criminal corpses, and then starts a rampage of terror across Central City.  Again: in other circumstances, I wouldn't have any problem with that story.  It just isn't a story for The Spirit.  He feels shoehorned in there, like someone put this together in a Mad-Libs experiment, and the way he's forced to respond to this forces him to constantly seem out of character.

There's a TRULY BIZARRE issue about cable news personalities, and I'm still trying to puzzle through how I feel about it.  I totally agree with the writer's underlying point, that our modern dialog is too strongly polarized between left and right, we thrive too much on conflict, and we need to spend more time listening and less time shouting.  As told, this story is filled with characters who clearly model real-life counterparts: Trust = Rush Limbaugh, The Flobert Factor = The Colbert Report, and so on for Hannity & Colmes, Bill O'Reilly, Anderson Cooper, Geraldo Rivera (herein Mustachio Hernandez).  I must admit, I did like the corny names.  That's something The Spirit has always had going for it: its joyful and utterly shameless use of absurd names like Bullit, Pizza, and so on.  Anyways.  The cable personalities start dying off, in comically over-the-top ways.  I laughed, I got a kick out of it, but at the same time I need to wonder: is this a little too contemporary?  Fifteen years from now, how many people will remember Hannity & Colmes?  (True, I would have posed the same question fifteen years ago about Rush Limbaugh.)  Again, part of what was so delightful about the Eisner run of The Spirit was how timeless it felt.  Yes, even despite the Nazis and the tommy guns, you could track everything and enjoy it.  But this is so much part of the moment, down to embedding the YouTube player interface into the panel structure.  It feels like transient, like it's slipping away as I'm watching it.

I'm pretty curious how I would have felt if I had read the more modern creation first.  After all, my favorite comic, Sandman, is a re-creation of a classic Golden Age comic that COMPLETELY tosses out everything about the character and creates a totally different personality and world.  You don't see me complaining about how Gaiman betrayed the legacy of classic Sandman... would it have bothered me - at all - if I'd read some of those original comics from the 1930's? 

I can't say that the new collection isn't well drawn, or well produced.  It just rubs me the wrong way.  Take of that what you will.

So, that's that.  I enjoyed my time with The Spirit, but I think I'm done now.  DC has put out the entire original run of The Spirit, and while I'm sure they're good, it isn't SO amazing that I feel like I must track down and read all of it now.  There are plenty of other comics out there that I need to read first.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Come Together, Sail Away for Future!

I think that The Irresponsible Captain Tylor might have been the first anime series that I watched.  I'd seen a few movies and specials before then, but not a long-run series.  I encountered it in college; late at night, it appeared (subtitled) on The International Channel at some amazingly late hour, paired with Dragonball Z (which was not subtitled).  DBZ was a bizarre soap opera that constantly promised imminent violence, but mainly consisted of glowing and glowering.  ICT, on the other hand, was one of the funniest and most entertaining things available on television.  It was as if someone had set out to create a show just for me: a science-fiction story, with space ships and battles and lasers and aliens, combined with a laissez-faire sensibility, sharp humor, and an explicit philosophy of "Do what you feel like, and don't worry, things will turn out." 

There were a total of 26 episodes, and I managed to watch most of them, but not in order - studies sometimes got in the way, as did an occasional need to go to bed before 2AM.  I think we started about a third of the way through the series, and caught most of what we missed when it repeated after the season ended.  I've continued to think fondly of ICT since then, and recently treated myself to a re-watch - in order this time, completely from start to finish.

In the intervening ten years I've watched a LOT more anime.  I've certainly seen shows that are prettier or more exciting.  Still, I was impressed by how well ICT stands the test of time.  It originally came out in the early 1990's, and apart from the opening credit sequence (which feels VERY 1980's, complete with a color-toned woman with big hair dancing like Paula Abdul), it doesn't feel dated.  The art is (or at least looks) hand-drawn, but with high production quality and attention to detail.  Characters actually move: Tylor slouches and stumbles across the bridge, the Marines stride, Harumi minces.  The interior of the ship, where most of the series takes place, feels rather worn, but in a good way: you do get the impression they want to convey, that the Soyokaze is a rickety old beater that hasn't been cared for.  Any time that they head off-ship, the backgrounds grow much more vibrant and pretty, whether it is the futuristic city-scapes on Earth, a verdant pastoral setting in a virtual reality simulator, or the gorgeous and ethereal sight of a nebula cloud.

So, the art is good, but what initially attracted me to this series and brought me back are the characters.  The cast is even more varied and interesting than I had thought... I had remembered Tylor, Yuriko, and Yamomoto, but I had forgotten how prominently the doctor, Lt. Andressen, and the marines were.  Over the course of the 26 episodes, you get to really know them well, and share some of the sense of camaraderie that blossoms on the Soyokaze.

To further develop that: Tylor is the center of the series, and the most amusing character, but this series isn't about one funny guy and 20 straight men.  Tylor has a particular type of humor, but Yamomoto is hilarious in his over-the-top pursuit of honorable military virtues; the doctor gets laughs with his strange mixture of competence, drunkenness, and curiosity; the twins and the Akira-esque pilot have a great running gag of unwanted attention; Harumi and Andressen are great foils of toughness.  And... had I just forgotten that there's a marine with a hockey mask named Jason?

I had remembered the strange shift in tone towards the end of the series.  Or maybe it shouldn't be so strange; a good number of comedic Japanese anime seem to shift towards a more serious tone towards the conclusion.  (Guu does it too, if memory serves correctly.)  Still, Tylor was the first time I'd witnessed the phenomenon, and it felt a little weird when I first watched it.  This time around, I was ready for it, and found that it was fine... the story isn't amusing during a couple of episodes, but it's still good, and it does set stuff up nicely for the end of the very last episode.  If it was up to me (and maybe it's good that it wasn't), I'd have just made the series 25 episodes long, and combined numbers 24 and 25 into a single show.  Too much moping for me.  Still, saying that 4% of this show isn't enjoyable shouldn't count as criticism. 

Be that as it may: ICT remains as funny, poppy, and weirdly inspiring as I remember.  For a show that seems to parody ST:TNG, it's very much its own thing, and it's hard to think of what I can compare it to.  If you haven't seen it yet, try to track it down and give it a watch; I hope you like it!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Shadow of the Wind

Is it just me, or has Spain had a bit of a literary renaissance in recent years?  It seems like, since the death of Franco, there has been a surge in interesting writing coming out of there.  Some of that writing looks back at the time of Fascist dictatorship in that country, either directly for source material, or more generally for mood and theme.

The Shadow of the Wind falls into the second category.  The book is set during Franco's long rule; the main story covers the years just after World War II up through the mid-1950's, while the rich backdrop for the story stretches back to the chaotic time just before the start of the civil war.  The book really isn't about Franco, and I'm actually not sure if his name is ever mentioned, but the specter of malevolent power lies over the whole text.  This is not a world that is ruled by the kind and the just; it is a world where brutal men with the fewest scruples gather the most power. 

The book is pretty dark... not pitch black, thanks to some welcome humor and some wonderfully lovable characters, but still, there's a lot of fear to go around.  Some of it is concentrated in particularly frightening scenes that play out like a Hitchcock horror, full of dread and slowly mounting tension that abruptly results in unexpected shocks.  Even outside of that, though, there's a more displaced fear hanging around all the characters; their lives feel tenuous, as though at any moment they could be snipped away, and nobody would dare complain.


I had a hard time getting a bead on the literary style of this book.  The narrator, Daniel, tells his own story, but his story is mainly about his attempt to discern another story, that of the mysterious novelist Julian Carax.  Carax's story was largely finished before Daniel was born, and someone has been trying to wipe Carax's story from the face of the earth.  Daniel keeps chasing down leads and trying to get a picture of what happened.  Much like in Rashomon, though, every source he encounters has its own prejudice and perspective, and some people directly lie to him.  Rather than slowly but directly approaching the heart of the secret, the story rapidly spirals in on it; allegations are corroborated, new threads woven into the tale, others plucked out.  All this happens as Daniel faces increasing personal threats, and the circle of danger around him grows, gradually pulling in his friends as well.

One of the really disconcerting things about this book is the number of similarities between Daniel's personal life and that of Carax.  Over and over, we see direct parallels between Daniel's past experiences and things that he has just learned about Julian.  For a while, I was thinking that the book would turn out to be really meta, and we'd learn that Daniel was actually Julian or something elaborate like that.  That turned out to not be the case; instead, the author does a phenomenal job of scattering those parallels throughout the book, and then, towards the end, wrapping them up and showing how they actually came to pass.  Without giving too much away, I'll say that it's a surprisingly satisfying treatment.

I'd give this story its highest props for the plot and the mood, but the characters are just shortly behind that.  Daniel himself is rather plain, but almost everyone else is colorful in a really interesting way.  Some of the most vivid characters are those who we never meet, but who are revealed in Carax's backstory.


I'd never heard of the author before picking up this book, but I'm thoroughly impressed by what he's produced here.  The Shadow of the Wind is a great, spooky, interesting story, a book about books that manages to avoid post-modern trickery and just tell a really excellent tale.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Saidin: The Gathering

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines." - Emerson

The above is my excuse for reneging on a nearly decade-old vow to not read any more "Wheel of Time" until after Robert Jordan actually finished the series.  I swore this vow in a fit of disgust about halfway through Winter's Heart.  Throughout high school this had been my favorite fantasy series, but the recent books had grown increasingly aggravating, and Winter's Heart pushed me over the edge.  Not only was the plot spinning out of control, not only was Jordan still introducing new characters and threads, not only was he avoiding any actual resolution to the innumerable storylines he had already created, but it wasn't even edited!  At all!  I'll put up with a lot of things in a book, but typos aren't one of them.  I set the book aside unfinished (a rarity for me, to say the least) and haven't looked back.

Even though I had quit the books, it was impossible to miss the news of Jordan's passing.  Even though I had stopped enjoying his books, the news still saddened me.  For years he had insisted that he had a plan, that the final scene of the series had been written since almost the beginning, that he was just working to get to that scene.  Given this, it seemed a shame that we wouldn't be able to read that, at least, and provide some closure to the more than ten thousand pages he has written.

Before his death, Jordan had promised that he would no longer torment people with additional volumes in the series.  Instead, he would write and release just one more final book, no matter how long it needed to be.  Because of this, there had been a longer-than-usual gap since his previous release anyways.  This added drama to the whole situation: the knowledge that there was a lot of STORY just lying around there in manuscript form was tantalizing.

Eventually, Jordan's estate announced that they would do right by the fans: his widow selected a new author who could pick up Jordan's manuscripts, read his notes, and finish the great work.  This announcement was greeted with a mixture of delight, skepticism, dread, and curiosity.  The result is "The Gathering Storm," and I was pleasantly surprised to see that it has been receiving warm reviews, even from people who have not cared for Jordan's recent works.  I decided to go ahead and try it out.

One of the first things I discovered was that, contrary to my assumption, this was not, in fact, the final book in the series.  The new author clearly describes in a preface to this book how he came to this opportunity, what his process has been, and what we can expect.  There is simply too much story left for a single volume, and so he will be releasing three final books to wrap it up.  The Gathering Storm is the first, and there will be two more.  And, hopefully, that will be it.  I have to say, this sounds very familiar and I was pretty skeptical... long-time Jordanites remember that The Wheel of Time was originally supposed to be a trilogy (then five books long, then seven, then ten...), so "There's just two books left to go" is a common refrain.  That being said, this particular author hasn't lied to me yet, so I'm more willing to believe him.

Apparently, the book is a combination of extant texts originally written by Jordan and edited by the new guy, combined with new texts extrapolated from outlines by Jordan, combined with some brand-new sections necessary to fill out the plot.  That's pretty impressive, because the overall tone of the book is almost seamless, both within itself and in comparison to the earlier books.  The characters act, speak, and think the way that we're used to; I rarely found myself thinking, "Oh, that person wouldn't say that."

On a related tangent, I was shocked at how quickly I was brought back up to speed on the world and the books.  Again, I quit this series cold turkey almost a decade ago, and since then I haven't read any of the new books (I never finished Winter's Heart or touched its sequel), I've cut myself off from the vibrant online Randland community, and I've avoided any WoT-related ephemera (like the PC game).  It's been banished from my headspace.  In preparation for this new book, all I did was read the Wikipedia entries for the books that I had skipped.  Those (1) gave me a slight jog to what was going on, and (2) reinforced my impression that nothing much happened in those books anyways.

When I jumped into The Gathering Storm, though, all those old memories came flooding back.  I remembered the True Source, how it flowed into the two halves of the One Power, the rules for weaves, male and female channelers, how circles worked.  I remembered the True Power.  I remained fuzzy on some of the details - exactly which Forsaken had been killed, which balefired, which captured, which at large - but I clearly remembered the rules of the world itself and the most important revelations: the Tuatha'an, Loial's task, the status of the White Tower, the Seanchan and their a'dam, the Black Tower, the Tower of Ghenjei (does Robert Jordan have a thing for towers or what?), Rand's three loves and their relationships.

The single best thing about this book?  Stuff actually happens in it!  The second-best thing?  It doesn't introduce a ton of new plot threads or meaningless characters!  That supports the notion that the story is actually drawing towards a conclusion and not endlessly spinning out of control.


Here's a list of important things that happen in this book (in the sense of wrapping up plot lines or directly bringing things closer to a finish):
1. Masema is killed by Faile, ending The Prophet's rein of terror.
2. The Seanchan attack the White Tower, captyring Elaida and two dozen or so Sisters.
3. Rand Balefires Graendal.
4. Rand Balefires Moghdein.
5. Egwene purges the Black Ajah from the White Tower.
6. The White Tower raises Egwene to Amyrlin, ending the Tower's division.

A few interesting developments take place, though they don't really count as things happening:
1. We learn about the link between Rand and Moridin.
2. Rand destroys the most powerful male sa'angreal.
3. Rand learns to channel the True Power (!!!!! OMG!!!!)
4. Rand apparently banishes the voice of Lews Therin from his head (this is a bit unclear, but at the very end of the book it's implied that this was always madness after all).
5. We learn that Verin was Black.  (I remember wondering about this one before - I forget the details, but we learned a while ago that Verin could tell a lie, but I was never sure whether this meant that she was actually Black or if she had just gotten rid of the Oath for some other purpose.)
6. Rand also fulfills the prophecy about standing on his own grave.
7. Aviendha is accepted as a Wise One and is currently traveling to Rhuidean to take her final exams.  (Not to crow, but I saw the point of her tests coming from miles away.)
8. The Shaido have apparently scattered, and are no longer a threat.
9. Mat gets plans from the Illuminator to build "dragons", evidently some kind of massive mechanized weapon.

Some other cool stuff that doesn't directly contribute to the story's resolution:
1. Mat fights zombies in a rural town.
2. Rand banishes Cadsuane and nearly kills his own father.
3. The Borderlanders have left the Bordelands and traveled all the way to Far Madding.  We never learn what's up with this.
4. Rand refuses to aid Lan, who is leading a group of Malkieri towards the Gap.
5. Siuan bonds Gareth Byrne as her Warder.

And, just for old times' sake, there's some stuff that doesn't mean anything.
1. Perrin has a wolf dream and then wakes back up.
2. Rand meets the Daughter of the Nine Moons, they briefly negotiate, and then part still in a state of war.
3. Rand declares (in the climax at the end of a chapter) that the Last Battle has begun, then promptly throws a hissy fit and mopes around Ebou Dar for a while.

So, that's all cool. 


Page-for-page, this is probably the most eventful book in the series since The Dragon Reborn.  and my most enjoyable since The Fires of Heaven.  While the style of the book feels a great deal like Jordan's, there's a discipline in here that was missing for a long time, and that makes this a far superior work.

That said, I couldn't help constantly comparing this to the other great modern fantasy series that had replaced WoT in my affections, A Song of Ice and Fire.  Here are a few somewhat random thoughts.

Good and Evil

I'm tempted to say that ASoIaF has a more nuanced view of morality than WoT.  This is less true on further reflection, but probably still ultimately the case.  In WoT there are plenty of organizations that can't easily be categorized as good or evil: what about the Whitecloaks?  What about the Seanchan?  How about Asmodean?  Still, there is ultimate good and ultimate evil: The Creator, though an absent god, is universally acknowledges as Good, while the Dark One is, almost by definition, pure evil.  Things close to the Dark One also are pure evil without real redemption available: the Forsaken, Trollocs, Myrdraal, etc.  (That said, a revelation in this book reminds us that humans who have turned to the Dark One may still be striving for the ultimate good.)

The picture is more complicated on the "good" side.  Characters in WoT are fairly realistically human, including all the pettiness, squabbling, instinct for factions, ignorance, and pride that we experience every day.  And so you get everything from endless arguments (will Nynaeve never leave Rand alone?) to outright war (most notably, the Seanchan fighting the Dragon's armies when both should be marching to Shayol Ghul).  This is actually the source of much of the tension in the series, and I think it's a source of how people become so emotionally attached to this book: there's such a huge variety of "good" characters to choose from, and nearly every reader will find at least a few that they identify with.

In contrast, ASoIaF doesn't seem to really have an ultimate good or an ultimate evil comparable with the Creator and the Dark One.  (I won't be shocked if one appears later on, but so far we haven't seen one.)  There are some things that do seem to unquestionably be on the evil side - the Red Priestess and the undead in the far North come to mind.  Still, there are things that used to seem to be pure evil that no longer do - see Tyrion Lannister and the Dragons.    George R. R. Martin's world seems to be closer to our own: we can point to some individuals and events as being pure evil (Saddam Hussein, the Holocaust), but are also well acquainted with seemingly intractable foes who are later revealed to be people like us (the Soviet Union, Moamar Quadaffi).


I was struck by a similarity here, and surprised that it hadn't made as strong an impression on me when I first started reading ASoIaF: both series are built around point-of-view chapters.  We take turns riding along peoples' heads, with third-person omniscient attached narrators that give us the perspective of the major players.  This is a great technique, as it gives us plenty of personality and insight into a complex web of relationships.

With Robert Jordan, the style is pretty similar throughout.  Different chapters are different in tone - Mat's are almost always more amusing and lighthearted, Perrin's are more emotional and Rand's more dramatic - but the underlying writing feels very similar throughout.  In contrast, one of the things that most impressed me about Martin was how he seems to actually use different narrators for his characters.  It's subtle, but, for example, Bran's early chapters are told in a simple, plain style that focuses heavily on sensory impressions, while Tyrion's chapters have a more florid, elaborate narrator who does more interesting things with language.

The way the authors treat their characters are different.  Martin is infamous for not making anyone safe: he establishes early on that everyone is at threat and can die at any time.  With Jordan, some characters certainly die, but rarely point-of-view characters, and never major ones.  That may change in these final two books, but up until now I've never seriously thought that Rand, Mat, Perrin, Elayne, Egwene, Nynaeve, or Aviendha were ever at risk of death.

There's one other major difference: at least in this book, the characters think A LOT.  Huge sections of the book are interior monologues where the characters puzzle over the situations they're facing, reminisce over past events, daydream about what they want, and generally chatter about themselves.  It's a prime case of telling, not showing: characters will think about how sad they are instead of demonstrating their sorrow; they'll think about how much they love someone instead of demonstrating that love.  It isn't exactly bad - there's some stuff that's just really hard to show well in prose - but it isn't great either.  Martin's characters do introspect a decent amount, but not for pages and pages at a time.

Fictional History

Oh, actually, that also relates to how they approach the world's backstory.  Both of these are fully-realized fantasy worlds.  Both of the authors dole out information over hundreds of pages and a multitude of books.  However, with Martin, I tend to feel like, before he wrote the very first world, he knew basically everything about his world: the religion, the history, the houses, the culture, etc.  He basically forces you to drink from the firehose, dumping tons of information on you without giving any background, forcing you to pick it up and interpret it on your own.  I found this exhilarating.

Jordan's world is as deep, but with him, I get the impression that he was making it up as he went along.  Not the plot: he's really a master at dropping hints and clues in earlier books and then building up to great revelations later.  But when it comes to the world BEHIND the story, he seems to be inventing more than relating.  For example, we learned very early in the series that there are multiple Ajahs among the Aes Sedai, and that each has a color and each is dedicated to a particular purpose.  However, he only talks about a couple of the colors in the beginning, and it takes a surprisingly long time until he gets around to explaining what the Gray and the Brown Ajahs do.  Similarly, we've had that great wide map of Randland from the very beginning, but no real explanation of most of the countries until the characters actually go there.  This isn't a criticism, exactly - there's nothing wrong with inventing on an as-needed basis - but when you look at the long scope of both series, I find Martin's world more compelling, at least in its presentation.

I feel like I'm rambling now, so I'll wrap this up.  I enjoyed this book.  If you're a huge Jordan fan, you probably read this book a long time ago.  If you're new to him, read "The Eye of the World" - it's really good, and actually comes surprisingly close to standing on its own as an independent novel for the first tome in a 14-volume series.  If you're in my camp, and have enjoyed his past books but fell off the train at one point, then I'd actually advise you to keep waiting... this book is good, but that won't be enough if the series fails to come to a satisfying conclusion.  It looks like we might actually see the Wheel stop turning sometime this decade, and when it does, I'll let you know whether it's worth catching the last couple of spokes.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Knaves by Need

Once more to the well... a different well this time, though.  My youngest brother Andrew brought a book called "Villains by Necessity" to my attention when he included it in a Christmas wish list.  He had read and enjoyed it years before but hadn't been able to find a copy recently.  I looked around, and wasn't able to locate anything suitable for gifting, but did find a library copy from Berkeley Public Library.  Thanks to our awesome inter-library loan system, I got hooked up with it and was quickly entranced.

VBN is an utterly traditional fantasy story, but perfectly reversed.  The broad outlines match every stereotype there is.  You have six companions, representing different races and professions.  They go on a quest.  This quest requires them to acquire six magical artifacts, called Segment Keys.  Each stage of the quest takes them to another land with its own customs.  Their path is guided by a riddling prophecy, which they must decipher in order to find what they seek.  Along the way they fight battles, hide from powerful opponents who chase them, and get to know one another.


The wrinkle?  These are the bad guys.  The party includes an assassin, a thief, a dark sorceress who eats human flesh, and a black knight.  Their opponents represent the forces of light and goodness.  Their quest is to open the DarkPortal, a gateway to the realms of darkness, so they can unleash evil upon the world.

Cool stuff, huh?  It nicely subverts a lot of the most familiar fantasy elements, and manages to be quite thought-provoking as well.

The story essentially takes place a hundred years after the end of any other fantasy series.  The Dark Lord has been defeated, the forces of Good have overcome overwhelming odds to defeat the forces of Evil. They have been so successful that they have driven the dark Gods from the world, sealing them away so they cannot influence the course of humanity.  As a result, Light can rule unopposed.

And so it does.  First they hunt down and kill all the remaining monsters.  Then they focus on their own society.  People are reformed.  Greed drops away.  Lords no longer seek power from one another.  Everything is cheerful and happy and getting more so all the time.

Of course, this has a negative impact on certain professions.  The book opens with two guild leaders, Sam and Arcie, bemoaning the fact that their guilds have been deserted.  Nobody needs to hire an assassin any more, and thieves have given up on stealing.  Soon, even these two are threatened with extinction.  A pleasant extinction - the Wizard Mizamir, one of the Heros who defeated the darkness, has started using his magic to reprogram the minds of "bad" people, gradually turning the realm into a good society one miscreant at a time.

They escape and eventually run across a Druid, Kaylana, who tells them that the Balance has been wrecked.  A True Neutral to the core, she recognizes that the increase in Good will lead to a kind of stasis.  The world requires conflict to keep going; if Light continues unabated, then all motion will cease, all thought stop, and everything will be frozen forever in a pure white light.  Therefore, she has determined to undo the work of the Heros and re-open the DarkPortal.

This starts them on their quest.  I have to say, the whole book is extremely indebted to D&D, particularly the class and alignment structure.  I'd probably break it down like this:
Sam: Neutral Evil Rogue (Assassin)
Arcie: Chaotic Evil Thief
Kaylana: True Neutral Druid
Valerie: Neutral Evil Mage (I'd say "Sorceress," but one of the later battles makes it clear that she is limited to the spells she has prepared for the day.)
Blackmail: Lawful Neutral Fighter
Robin: Lawful Neutral Bard

On the other side:
Mizamir: Lawful Good Mage
Fenwick: Neutral Good Fighter

Oh, and there's a really funny scene where they meet an opposing party in the mines of Pat-Atuk (sp), where each villain meets their good counterpart.  Again, it's a great twist on the old tradition of the evil doppelganger.

The book isn't just entertaining, it's also well-written.  I say that despite some pretty egregious typos... Sam is "Same" in a couple of places, and there are some other mistakes as well.  In a way, though, those just make me even more impressed.  It feels like the book didn't even go through a copy editor, so it's cool that it's as tight as it is.


There are two secret twists in the book, both of which are pretty strongly telegraphed.  I'm often a sucker for twists and don't always pick up on them.  Here, I was actually a little disappointed... it seemed almost too easy.  Then, for a long time, they didn't do anything with them.  For a while I thought that the author would never explicitly reveal these secrets; that would've been REALLY cool.  She finally unleashes the twists in the final pages, within a couple paragraphs of one another, and I ended up being pretty happy with how they're handled.

The first: Sam, who has a contract to kill Mizamir, is his son.  Several times characters comment on how Mizamir looks somehow familiar, and later on Valerie mentions that Sam must have some kind of inborn magical talent.  What I didn't expect, though, was how they were related: it turns out that Mizamir had scrambled Sam's mom's mind, which is why she never was able to take care of herself or of Sam.  Of course, this isn't a Good thing to do. 

The other mystery is the identity of Blackmail.  He never speaks, his motives are unclear, and his identity is a mystery.  At least to the people in the book.  Once I heard about the Paladin Prye (sp) who went on a final quest, disappeared, and never returned, I figured out who he was.  He was a companion of Mizamir in their initial quest, but after the Victory Mizamir turned his brother into a horse to punish his evilness.  Blackmail is fully honorable and follows the Code, but he recognizes that Good must always be a choice, not something forced on you from without, and so he has taken the quest to reverse his earlier actions.  The cool surprise here: learning the identity of his horse.

I wondered a lot about Blackmail during the book.  At first, I had thought that maybe the horse was the intelligent person, and the knight the silent beast; perhaps some sort of soul-translplanting spell had reversed the two.  After the horse dies and the knight carries on, I eventually figured out the Paladin connection.  For a while I thought that he had been transformed into a demon knight of some sort.  One thing that didn't satisfy me in the final revelation was an explanation of why he never slept.  I was convinced that he was somehow an undead or vampire or something.  I dunno.  Do paladins not need to sleep in D&D rules?


The book is a lark, and a really fun one, worth the effort to track it down.  It'll make you wonder why there aren't more books like it out there.

It's surprisingly poignant, too.  There's a great section around the 2/3 mark where the villains reveal to Robin what their motivations are.  On the one hand, it just lays out the typical D&D definition of "evil" as "doing things for selfish motives" (e.g., in Baldur's Gate, an evil character can take all the same quests as a good character, you just need to say "I'm doing it for the money.").  It gets pretty eloquent, though.

"There's more to people than some definded label," said Arcie.  "There are more than straight good and evil, aye, even more than law or disorders or fence-sittin'.  There's prejudice, whimsey, affection, superstition, habits, upbringing, alliance, pride, society, morals, animosity, preference, values, religion, circumstance, humor, perversity, honor, vengeance, jealousy, frustration... hundreds o' factors, from the past and in every present moment, as decides what some one person'll do in an individious situation."

[Apologies for the dialect - that's just the way Arcie talks.]

Good times... for a nice twist on traditional fantasy, check this out.

Saturday, January 09, 2010

I guess we've agreed to call this "Twenty Ten"?

There has been a surge of "Best 10 X of the Decade" lists floating around.  I like lists, and I like stuff, and I felt generally good about the past decade, so here are some of my choices.

Note: These should be understood as my personal, subjective favorites.  In other words, these are the ones I enjoyed the most, not necessarily those that are "best".  Also, just picking 10 is hard enough, ordering is impossible, so don't read anything into the particular ordering here.  I used numbers just because that's an easy way for me to make sure I have 10 items.

Top 10 Movies:
1. Fellowship of the Rings
2. The Two Towers
3. Return of the King
4. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
5. Waking Life
6. Pan's Labyrinth
7. Wet Hot American Summer
8. Bowling for Columbine
9. Primer
10. Spirited Away
If I'm allowed to do Lord of the Rings as 1 movie, then I'll substitute "A History of Violence" and "Zodiac" as my other two.
I felt like I had to put a comedy on here, and WHAS was on the top of my mind.  The movie itself is funny, but even more than that, it epitomizes the kind of humor that I've enjoyed most this decade: the playing-it-straight-while-embracing-absurdity mode, making deliberately bad art while showing that you, the creator, recognize that it's bad and giving the viewer encouragement to laugh.  On television, Garth Merenghi's Darkplace is a great example of the type.
Michael Moore has become declasse, but I still think that Bowling is a great movie.  Everything Moore does has become incredibly politicized, so it's easy to overlook the fact that this is his least partisan, least polemical, most curious movie ever.  Contrary to popular belief, he doesn't demonize the NRA or our lax gun control laws, sanely pointing out that countries like Switzerland and Canada have even higher gun ownership rates and nowhere near our murder problem.  Instead, Moore is looking for something subtle, trying to find the piece of the American psyche that makes us hurt one another so much.  He doesn't find it, but this movie is a great place to look.
It's no coincidence that most of my movies are from earlier in the decade.  I just haven't seen that many movies lately.

Top 10 Books:
1. Anathem
2. The Baroque Cycle
3. The Raw Shark Texts
4. The Tipping Point
5. Kafka on the Shore
6. A Song of Ice and Fire
7. Pastoralia
8. Going Postal
9.Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
10. What to Eat
It may seem cheap to do The Baroque Cycle as one book, especially when I did Lord of the Rings as three movies.  I don't have a great excuse for why, though I'll point out that Stephenson wrote the entire manuscript (in longhand!  on parchment!) at once.
Ditto ASoIaF.  I really should pick one, but it's all one big serial.  The latter books are generally cooler, but only because of the work done by the earlier books; it's impossible to read them in isolation.  I should just rename this section "Top 10 Books and Series" and stop complaining.

Top 10 Television:
1. Battlestar Galactica
2. Arrested Development
3. Firefly
4. Dexter
5. The Wire
6. Robot Chicken
7. Death Note
8. The Venture Brothers
9. Stella
10. The Daily Show
I agonized a little about putting Lost on here.  If you just look at the best, and ignore most of Season 2 and half of Season 4, then it's one of the best shows of the decade.
Isn't it strange that I like so many TV comedies and so few movie comedies?
I currently like The Colbert Report more than The Daily Show - it tends to be more creative and imaginative.  Still, looking at the work of both shows over the decade, TDS beats it out for quality.  It isn't exaggerating too much to say that the show helped keep me sane in the difficult years from 2001 until 2006.
BSG and The Wire are my favorites of the decade by a wide margin.

10 Worst Events:
1. September 11, 2001
2. November 2004 elections
3. November 2000 elections
4. Abu Ghraib
5. AT&T wiretaps America
6. The government (including Obama!) refuse to punish AT&T for violating the Constitution
7. Laissez faire regulation and bad housing policy leads to the Great Recession
8. Guantanamo imprisons innocents in Kafkaesque charade
9. Enron, Worldcom, and all the other companies that defrauded the little guy while looking out for #1 self-implode, contributing to the first of two totally unnecessary recessions this decade
10. Death of Kurt Vonnegut

10 Personal Highlights:
1. Moving to California
2. Graduating college
3. Working for 4 great software companies and 1 internship
4. Writing my first book
5. Becoming an active hiker and cyclist
6. Learning to cook - well!
7. Traveling in Japan
8. Sticking to my goals
9. Getting paid for things I love to do
10. Keeping in touch with friends from every stage of my life

10 Coolest Tech:
1. Mobile phones (especially with GPS, Internet access, cameras, and more)
2. iPods
3. Digital cameras & camcorders that fit in your shirt pocket
4. PS2/3
5. GMail
6. Google Maps
7. Ubuntu
8. YouTube
9. Wikipedia
10. Roomba
Notes: Think about it.  A tiny, tiny little piece of plastic can hold hundreds of hours of music.  You can buy a robot, for about a week's worth of wages, which will CLEAN YOUR FLOOR FOR YOU.  Are we living in the future or what?I didn't include stuff like biodiesel or solar power - even though those became big deals this decade, the underlying tech has been around for a while.

Top 10 Video Games:
1. GTA San Andreas
2. ICO
3. Dragon Age
4. Baldur's Gate 2
5. Rock Band (+ Guitar Hero, all incarnations)
6. HalfLife 2 + Portal
7. Civilization IV
8. Fall from Heaven 2
9. Katamari Damacy
10. Rez
FFH2 DEFINITELY deserves a separate slot in addition to Civ4.  I must admit that I now play FFH2 far more than the other, but both are great games.
Disclaimer: I only owned a PC and various Sony products through this decade, so no XBOX or N64/GameCube/Wii games are included.

Other notes:
I've been sadly out of the loop on music for most of this decade, so I don't want to hazard a Top 10 list for that.  I'll note that most of what I've been enjoying lately is electronic music, but there's plenty of other great stuff out there.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010


I've overcome my hatred and loathing of Bioware's DLC to finish Dragon Age, which remains an excellent game even after violating me.  I loved the gameplay and the plot all the way through to the end, and find myself continuing to think about it even after finishing the game.


You make some HUGE choices during the course of the game.  Many of these relate to your gathering of armies.  Some of mine included:

* What to do with the Circle Tower.  A few rogue mages have become Abominations, killing other mages and threatening the Circle.  You kill the abominations, but the Templars who protect and guard them are rightly paranoid: have you dug out the bad apples?  A Blood Mage can remain in hiding for years, unleashing demonic power at the worst possible time, and with all the chaos in the tower there's no way of knowing for sure who was corrupted.  I decided to trust that the threat was past, and welcomed the surviving mages into my army.

* The Elves.  The eventual story you piece together about the Dalish tribe is pretty moving.  Much like, say, the Kurds in our world, the Dalish have been kicked around for generations.  They (the Elves) have lost their homeland and their culture and their longevity.  This particular tribe moved into the Brecilian forest centuries ago.  A group of indigenous humans attacked, killing the leader's daughter.  In a rage, he placed a curse upon them.  He summoned a spirit from the Fade, bound it to the body of a wolf, and cursed the humans with lycanthropy.  For the rest of their lives, they would be mindless, ravening beasts.  Only, the spirit was a benevolent spirit.  Over time, she helped the werewolves remember who they were, and they regained their humanity and their capacity for speech.  In recent years, the werewolves have taken to targeting the elvish hunters, purposely infecting them.  They have given up hope that the elvish leader will lift the curse on them, so their only hope is to pass the threat onto his own people, forcing him to act to save them.

You only learn all this towards the end of the quest, though.  For nearly the whole time, you only have the elvish leader's word about what's going on, and he's a lying, manipulative bastard.  I was suspicious early on - when you first meet the werewolves, one of them speaks to you, and the Keeper's denials ("Oh, I didn't know they could do that.  Never mind, it isn't important") rang false.  Eventually, you penetrate into the werewolves' lair, where you are forced to fight through some of them before encountering Witherfang herself.  I talked with her, established what was going on, and agreed to talk with the Keeper on their behalf.  He showed up, returned, and confronted Witherfang.  This leads to a tense situation - will you side with the elves?  With the werewolves?  I did the latter, and attacked the Keeper with all I had.  Once defeated, I spoke with him urgently, demanding that he raise the curse - his hatred had doomed two people, and it was time for him to move on.  He did so, the werewolves turned back into joyous humans, Witherfang returned to the Fade, the Keeper died, his much cuter assistant took his place, and the Elves joined my army.  Two down, two to go!

* I think I did the Redcliffe quest slightly out of order.  I retrieved the Urn of Sacred Ashes early on, after defending Redcliffe Village from the undead but before entering the Castle proper.  Once I finally penetrated the castle, I very carefully dealt with the demon-posessed Conor.  I chose not to kill him.  A Blood Mage who I had freed offered another way: someone could enter the Fade to kill the demon possessing him.  His mother offered to sacrifice her life for him.  I was tempted - she is one of the most annoying characters in the game, and the possession was her fault anyways since she doted too much on the child and prevented him from being properly trained by the Circle.  That felt a bit more evil than I wanted to play, though, so I chose the third way: a hard ride to the Circle Tower to retrieve enough mages to allow us access to the Fade.  I sent Morrigan, and she easily defeated the demon.

Next, I met the dying Arl.  I'm sure that this was when I was supposed to start my quest for the Urn, but I was all like, "Oh, you mean these ashes?  I've got those already.  Yeah, it was no big deal."  He was healed, and the political game began.  To end the civil war, we would need a strong candidate for King.  Alistair, the only person left with the royal blood, was our only choice, despite the fact that he hated the idea of being king.  Before that, I would need to finish raising my army.

* Politics in Orzammar.  I think the Orzammar quest might be the longest of the army quests (unless you count the Urn as part of Redcliffe).  It also had special resonance for me, as I was playing as a Dwarf Commoner.  Almost immediately after arriving in the Dwarven capital, you need to make a decision: who will you support as the next king?  The choices are Lord Harrowmont, who is kind, fair, honest, virtuous, and probably the old king's chosen successor; or Prince Bhelan, who is ruthless, cunning, manipulative, and possibly the old king's murderer.  Oh, and Bhelan is also your sister's consort.  Much as I liked Harrowmont, I decided to throw in with Prince Bhelan - there was a chance, after all, that my nephew could grow up to be King of the Dwarves, which would be pretty cool.  Also, despite Bhelan's personal repugnance, he seemed like he might be the better ruler: he was a capable fighter and leader, and unlike the tradition-bound Harrowmont, Bhelan seemed more reform-minded, willing to challenge the ancient caste system and open up greater trade with the humans.

I did a bit of the double-agent thing for a while, trying to get inside Harrowmont's organization while working for Bhelan's victory.  This only works to a point; the two really don't like one another, and you can only get so far before you are forced to make a decision.

Eventually, I headed into the Deep Roads to try and locate Branka, the one living Paragon.  As Paragon, her vote could sway the entire Council and break the deadlock.  The Deep Roads are very long and filled with darkspawn, probably more than anywhere else in the game.  This area is also filled with history and lore; you learn more about the constant battle between the Dwarves and darkspawn, about the long and gradual retreat of the dwarves, the territory lost.  This section owes an enormous debt to Tolkien's Moria - the same grand and destroyed halls, the sense of emptiness and quiet punctuated by enormous armies, the vessel of good filled with a teeming evil. 

The endgame here was one of my favorites of all DA.  You stumble across Branka's lesbian lover, who was forced to eat darkspawn flesh and has gone mad.  Her voice eerily wafts along the cavern walls and she recites a singsong nursery rhyme about encroaching doom.  She's your first confirmation that Branka still lives, and is maybe not entirely reasonable.

Finally, I met the Paragon herself.  I'd brought along Oghren, her drunken estranged husband, who was shocked at her monomaniacal pursuit of the Forge.  She forces your party through the famous smith's traps, eventually leading you to the smith himself.  An earlier note that I'd found on a corrupted altar had prepared me for the truth: the Anvil of the Void, universally considered the savior of the dwarves, carried an unconscionable price.  Each golem, which was an almost unstoppable fighting machine and a hedge against the darkspawn, required a living sacrifice: the dwarfish body would be placed in the mold, then liquid metal poured around him.  The smith had converted himself at the last, and now occupied the body of a golem, centuries after he had been presumed dead.

I should mention here that, while I generally brought my preferred party of Alistair, Sten, and Morrigan everywhere I went, I swapped in other characters whenever I thought it might introduce some other story options.  Therefore, when in Orzammar or on the Deep Roads I instead traveled with Oghren, Shale, and Morrigan.  Oghren and Shale weren't quite as useful as my two preferred melee fighters (or maybe I just wasn't as used to controlling them properly), but they did very well.  I gradually built Shale up into the ultimate damage magnet, even better than Alistair, with absurd amounts of health and really useful defensive skills.  Oghren couldn't quite match Sten for sheer damage, but more than held his own.  And, once Morrigan had learned the Sleep/Arcane Horror combo, I could hold my own against pretty much any large group of foes anyways.

All that to say, Shale was in my party when I finally met the smith, and I was treated to a very long conversation that did a lot to bring out more of Shale's story.  I learned that, like the other Golems, Shale had once been a dwarf, and a female dwarf at that.  Shale had no memories of her history, but her curiosity was piqued by the story.  I've been impressed at how well Shale's story is integrated into the main story line, though perhaps I shouldn't be.  After all, this is an add-on that was available the very day that the game was released, so of course they were able to do all the dialog and such while putting together the main game.

Branka shows up and freezes the golem.  You then face a choice much like the werewolf/elf choice: do you support Carridin (kill Branka, free the Golems, and destroy the Anvil so that no more can be made)?  Or do you support Branka (kill Carridin, enlist the help of the Golems in your own army, and doom another generation of dwarves to eternal suffering)?  I found that the political question didn't provide an easy out, either: as Carridin is also a Paragon, his vote would serve as well as Branka's.  I hemmed and hawed, and finally threw in my lot against Branka.  She was a madwoman, and needed to be put down.

This fight was surprisingly difficult, one of the few at this stage in the game that I initially lost.  Branka has more golems, and the golems are resistant to my preferred mind-bending magics, so I had to use my second-tier fighters and a dagger-wielder to take on the enemies.  Both sides have some golems, but Branka has more, and she herself is a very powerful and versatile fighter.  In my first attempt, I'd focused on trying to take Branka down, anticipating that the fight would automatically end with her defeated.  This proved my undoing, as the enemy golems have some very potent disruptive attacks that cause mass stun effects or deal damage to a large group.  On my second try, I focused on taking down the golems first, and kept Morrigan in pure healing mode, making sure that she kept my ally golems up to top health as well as my party members.  (I think you need to do this manually, as I don't believe there are any tactics to heal blue-colored allied units.)

Once the fight is over, I could honor my promise or betray it.  I decided to keep my word.  Carridin deputized me to cast his vote, I destroyed the anvil, then Carridin destroyed himself.  All very moving.  We returned to Orzammar and made a dramatic entrance at the height of a Council vote.  I was playing this whole section fairly Machiavellian, in case you couldn't tell, and so I sort of glossed over what had happened and said, "Carridin demands that you make Bhelan your king!"  They did.  Bhelan, in his first official act as King, ordered the execution of Harrowmont.  Ahhh... good times.

In the aftermath, I continued to kiss up to Bhelan, politely asking him for my troops and avoiding any mention of patricide.  I said farewell to the sister... it's a testament to the game's writing that this felt so moving.  The situation was complicated, but I felt good at where I left Orzummar: I had done the good thing by rescuing the golems from their service, and had done the expedient thing in tapping the leader who could best aid me, and been a good family man in ensuring a long and happy life for the sister and her progeny.


I'm only hitting the highlights here, of course.  Dragon Age has a stupidly great number of side-quests, which delightfully occupied my time.  By far my favorite were the thief-related quests that you can undertake in Denerim, but there were plenty of other good opportunities: assassinations for the Crows, crime for "certain interested parties," various menial tasks for the Mages' Collective, and a whole host more.  There were also lots of really fun little one-offs, like collecting pig-bunnies in Orzammar, sponsoring a Dwarf who dreams of studying magic in the Tower, feeding an army of beggars in the Alienage.

Some of the most interesting and challenging are your companions' side quests.  These are all over the map in style and difficulty.  Completing them gives you a nice boost in your relationship with that companion, and often some special power or item besides.  Alistair's may have been the easiest; all you have to do is talk to his sister.  Leliana's was a lot of fun, in no small part because of the romantic relationship angle: after many conversations about her past, her faith, and her dreams for the future, her background attempts to catch up to her; you can guide her as she struggles to decide whether she must return to the person she once was, or if she can be free to chart a new course for herself.  Morrigan's might have been the most challenging, as she has you fight her mother, who takes the form of a powerful dragon.  Oh, sure, you can wuss out and agree with Flemeth to trick Morrigan into thinking you did the deed - and I was tempted, as this was fully in keeping with my character - but it's a really fun, epic battle, and if you slay her yourself you get some excellent robes for Morrigan.

Oh, yeah, I should follow up on my earlier report about my overly complicated romances.  I ended up just manning up, talking with Morrigan, and dumping her.  It hurt in the short term - her opinion dropped from 100 to 70, meaning 2 whole minor power ranks went away - but I won most of that back by completing her companion quest, and the remainder when I found and gave her a particularly thoughtful gift.  Even though I kept getting into "Morrigan Disapproves: -2"-type situations, I was able to keep our relationship in a happy, healthy zone.  Again, I'm not sure how much I should try and apply these lessons to my own life.  "Sorry, babe, I just don't love you any more.  Hey, do you want a silver comb?  How about a raw steak?"

I didn't realize until relatively late in the game that some gifts were super-important.  They are things that come up after you've gotten into deep conversations with your friends, and show your intense interest in them.  I stumbled across Leliana's fairly early on, which did wonders for that relationship.  For Zevram, it's a glove that smells like his mother's.  For Alistair, it's Duncan's sword.  And so on.  Morrigan's gift leads into a really intense and tender conversation, and her personality really changed as a result of that - she became softer, less distrusting of men in general and me in particular.

Back to the main plot!

Arl Eamon calls the Landsmeet to try and break the civil war.  This leads to another round of quests in Denerim as you lobby nobles and gather more support for your position.  And, once again, there are some really crucial decisions to make.  You learn that the Queen is under house arrest in Arl Howe's manor.  You can save her, or not.  I saved her, in the process uncovering crucial evidence of unsavory acts on the part of Loghain and Howe, and rescuing a captured Warden.  Once you kill Howe and bring out the Queen, you are met at the door by one of Loghain's flunkies.  At first, I sought to challenge her, which led to a fight.  I thought, "Mmmm, nah, that isn't how Seberin would handle this."  Reload.  Next time, I simply surrendered.  "Sten disapproves: -15".  Ouch!  But the Queen, still disguised, is safely taken back to Eamon's estate.  Seberin and Alistair were thrown in prison.

The two of you wake up in a cell, practically naked.  You have a brief dialog, and can either say "Let's try to break out" or "Let's wait for the others."  I suspect that the latter choice would let you assault the castle with the other team members.  I'm all about breaking out of prison, though, so I chose the former.  Here, too, you have MORE choices in technique.  I seduced the guard (hey, who can say no to a mustachioed dwarf?), then knocked him out and grabbed our stuff.  I switched into stealth more and explored until I found some guard uniforms.  Good!  Then I talked our way into the guards.  Better!  Then we demonstrated that we were ready for patrol and went marching out the front gates.  Awesome!  I love this game!  Again, I'm sure that there were a dozen ways to handle this, most of which would have involved violence, but I love that the game let me break out of a highly guarded fortress with only a single casualty.

Reunited with the rest of the team, I talked politics and love.  The Queen was grateful for our help, but she wanted us to support her for the throne instead of Alistair or Loghain.  She says, and everyone agrees, that she was a great ruler, and handled most of the kingdom's administration under Cailin's rule.  Still, Eamon is reluctant, because she has no Calenhad blood, which will make it difficult for others to support her.  An intriguing possibility came up in conversation with Eamon: why not have her and Alistair marry?  He provides the claim, and she can handle all of the actual ruling stuff that he doesn't want to do.  Alistair, who is standing four feet away, comically sputters.  "Go ahead!  Act like I'm not here!  I don't even want to hear any of this!"

I talked with the Queen and Alistair, and we came to an agreement.  Emboldened, I set out to wrap up a few loose ends, most importantly some troubles in the Alienage and the final thief quests.  Finally, I told Eamon that I was ready, and we entered the Landsmeet.

The Landsmeet was possibly my favorite part of the game, and also the most frustrating.  It's an incredibly deep sequence.  All the decisions that you have made throughout the whole game will affect the course of events, and so will your words.  I ended up replaying this section a half-dozen times, and was amazed at how intricate and convoluted the dialog tree went.  There were whole areas of dispute that might not come up at all, or would prove to be be pivotal, based on your opening remarks.

There were two reasons why this section was frustrating.  First, about half the time, the game would get stuck in an infinite "Loading" screen right before a pivotal battle.  You could only reach this battle after several minutes of conversation, so I would need to alt-tab to the desktop, right-click the window, exit, then re-launch Dragon Age, load my game, wait for it to finish loading, open the door, go through all the conversation again, and hope that this time it wouldn't crash.

Worse, though, I couldn't get my desired outcome AFTER the battle.  I ended up dueling Loghain one-on-one.  This was a satisfying battle - in the six or so times that we fought, I never died, but always came close and needed to heal often.  My rogue hardly ever faces anyone heads-on, and by this point in the game he was spending way more time stealing than stabbing, so it was a lot of fun to test his steel.  I eventually settled into a rhythm: Mark of Death to boost damage, then Dirty Fighting to stun.  I could maneuver behind him and get off a flurry of backstabs before he un-stunned.  Then Dual Weapon Sweep, and continue fighting until I could Dirty Fight again.  It usually just took one repeat of this until he fell.

The really tricky part comes after he is defeated, though.  The Warden you rescued mentions that there is another way: Loghain can undergo the ritual and become a Warden, binding him to your cause and removing him as a threat.  I thought this sounded cool - throughout the whole game, while ostensibly opposed to Loghain, I'd really thought that it would be better to get everyone on the same side to fight the Darkspawn.  Everyone says that Loghain is a brilliant general, so why not keep him on our side?  Well.  Alistair HATED this idea.  He threw a hissy fit, delivering an ultimatum: him or Loghain.  And, of course, the Queen is Loghain's daughter, so she will do anything to keep him alive. 

The first time this happened, I started off trying to convince Alistair to let Loghain live.  This segued into an argument between him and the Queen on who should rule.  I said, "Oh, Alistair, of course," thinking that he would agree to marry her.  Turns out that this was really a referendum on Loghain's life.  I couldn't bring myself to kill him on my own, so Alistair did it.  And - surprise! - the Queen didn't want to marry the man who chopped off her father's head.  Some people!  Alistair locks her up in the tower as a prisoner.


Next time, I decided to let Loghain live.  The only way you can do this, as far as I can tell, is to let the Queen rule.  Her first act as queen: executing Alistair.  Oops.  Shades of Bhelan here; I should have learned my lesson.  It wasn't a total loss - before reloading, I took Loghain back to camp, give him all the paintings that I'd been saving up, and talked and talked and talked.  He's a pretty sympathetic character, as I'd suspected: like almost everything in Dragon Age, his morality just cannot be reduced into a simplistic good-or-evil dichotomy.  He was passionate about Ferelden, the land and its people, but his background had blinded him with hatred towards Orlais, which in turn made him paranoid and unable to rule wisely.  I diplomatically avoided presenting Leliana.  The most touching part of the discussion is when he describes Anora as a little girl.  He smiles as he tells you that she seemed born to rule: as a child, when she fell and skinned her knees, she ordered them to stop bleeding.  This is especially touching because, if you DON'T save Loghain, just before his death he tries to comfort Anora, telling her not to worry.  "Don't treat me like a child!" she says.  He grins, and says something like, "To a father, a daughter is always a child, with pig tails and skinned knees."  It's so bittersweet that your character can only hear one or the other part of this puzzle, but never both in the same game.

Anyways.  I kept on trying.  EVENTUALLY I got it right.  The key is to kill Loghain, by yourself, as soon as you have the opportunity to do so.  If you start to talk about it or waver, marriage goes out the window.  Once Loghain is dead, Alistair and Anora will argue a bit about who should rule.  You're clearly the baddest mofo in the room, so you get to pick who will rule all Ferelden.  At last, I ordered Alistair and Anora to get wed, and the Landsmeet is over.

The Landsmeet ends with a speech.  If Alistair is king, he gives a very awkward and stumbling speech that vaguely conveys the idea that there are bad things out there that need to be killed.  If Anora is queen, she gives an infinitely better speech, more passionate and more articulate, that lays out her vision for the coming struggle.

The final endgame is fairly long and enjoyable.  It opens with a rousing speech by Alistair, who has inexplicably grown far more eloquent than during the Landsmeet.  Perhaps the Arl has paid for some elocution lessons?  By this point, my characters were so strong that I could walk over all the obstacles sent my way.  It was actually a bit of a let-down that I used the armies, which I had spent the whole game gathering, as little as I did.  I think they would be way more useful for lower-level characters.  The way they work is a little weird - you can select one army to deploy at a time, at which point units will start spawning in your vicinity.  You only get a few at a time, but they are replaced as they die.  You get 50 units of each army, except for the Mages, who give you 12.  (I'm guessing that this would vary based on how much you supply your armies in your storage crates.)  Each army has its own strengths and weaknesses, which are clearly described within the game.  Dwarves are resilient and can take a lot of damage, but have no ranged attacks; Elves are the opposite, with long-range bow attacks but little armor.  You can't issue orders to your army, but the AI seems to generally be pretty good.  You can use the armies in most outdoor areas and not indoors.

According to the in-game help, you can only deploy one army in a place at any given time.  I think this is true.  The help also says that you can only deploy each army once.  I'm less convinced that this is true.  Before the final-final battle, the only army I had used were the Knights of Redcliffe, who helped me clear out a large group of enemies near a castle.  I lost 12 soldiers, leaving me with 38 left.  Once I got to the final-final battle, it looked like they were still selectable, so I probably could have brought them back again.  I opted for the Elves instead, as their greater range was much more helpful.  Now that I think about it, I wonder if that help text meant that if you deploy another army, it replaces the first one?  It would have been really helpful to swap out armies for different stages of the last battle.

Anyways.  There's a great, climactic ultimate fight with the big bad Archdemon dragon.  I'm not sure how powerful the dragon itself is - it may not have been as strong as, say, Flemeth or "Andraste" - but the fact that it constantly summons darkspawn throughout the game more than makes up for that.  The battle is quite varied, too, as the dragon flits between different areas on the map and calls forth different types of attacks.  I ended up regularly switching up my standard tactics.  Morrigan focused on healing, but cast Crushing Prison and Mark of Death every chance she got.  Any time the dragon landed, I surrounded and whaled on him with my three other characters, but for much of the fight he was out of reach, so Seberin shot at him while Sten and Alistair helped battle the swarms of Darkspawn.

Oh, wow!  I totally forgot to write about the night before the battle.  Ahem.

You learn from the other Warden that there is another secret about your order.  Whenever an Archdemon dies, its spirit still lives on; it will move into the closest darkspawn body it can find.  That darkspawn will then become the Archdemon, continuing the blight.  The only way to really kill an Archdemon is for a Warden to strike the killing blow.  When this happens, the spirit will seek out the darkspawn blood in your body.  Its spirit will become trapped in your form, killing you both instantly. 

Well, I didn't want to die.  And I needed Alistair to live so that Anora wouldn't annoy me by becoming sole ruler.  So I figured that the other Warden could die.

That night, though, Morrigan comes to you in your chambers with a proposal.  Turns out that Flemeth had a plan all along, and Morrigan has been waiting to carry it out.  Seems like there may be another way out, a dark magic way.  Step one: Sleep with Morrigan.  Step two: Conceive a child.  Step three: Kill the Archdemon.  Step four: The Archdemon's spirit will seek out your child, who will possess it.  Step five: According to Morrigan, the child isn't possessed or anything.  It becomes something superhuman, capturing the power of old Tevinter, but free of the evil of the demon.  I have my doubts.  Step six: Morrigan goes away, taking the child with her, and you never see them ever again.  Step seven: ??? Step eight: Profit!

Well, that's pretty cool.  Another fling with Morrigan, AND I don't have to die?  I signed up.

Back to the action: the game is basically over once you slay the dragon.  There's a long and satisfying prologue, though.  In the throne room, Alistair is crowned king, and publicly praises you for your actions in stopping the blight.  He asks if he can offer any favors.  I said, "Hey, send some humans to help the Dwarves fight the darkspawn."  He was all, "Oh, yeah, that's right!  The Blight sucks, but we only fight it every few hundred years, while the Dwarves fight it every day of their life."  He asks whether you'll stay and help him rule, or help the Wardens.  I said that I thought I would do some traveling.  You part on good terms.

You then can wander around the throne rule for a while, talking with various people.  Queen Anora is a bit worried about Alistair - "Is he always like that?  He seems incapable of talking about anything without cracking a joke."  The Arl is a little worried for Conor, but in general very happy.  The sister is overjoyed at how things have turned out, both with Bhelan and with you, and says that mother has finally stopped drinking.  Hooray!  She sends Bhelan's congratulations, and says that you have been raised to Warrior caste.

Nearly your enjoy party is there, except for Morrigan and Dog.  Even though I knew the game was over, I was tantalized by some of the possibilities raised in this section.  Sten said that he was returning to his homeland; I asked if I could join him, and he told me to meet him at the docks on 2 days' time.  Wynne and Shale say that they are traveling together to old Tevinter lands to see if they can find a way to reverse the golem process and return Shale to her mortal form; Wynne strongly implies that you won't see her again.  I asked Zevram if he'd continue traveling with me; he noted that I have a knack for finding lots of treasure, and cast his lot in.  Oghren plans to stay on the surface, and will try to get married to his sweetheart from Lake Callenhad.  Finally, I spoke with Leliana, and we renewed our determination to travel together.  Awww.  It occurred to me that, if the game actually continued as it was currently laid out, it would be very interesting tactically: three rogues and one warrior.  Not my ideal party configuration, but a very interesting group of people.

You march out the door, and the game ends for real.  Over a series of really pretty backdrops, text describes what happened next for a variety of people and groups.  These ranged from the very large, like the fate of Ferelden, to the very minor.  A few that I recall:

* Alistair and Anora are good rulers, beloved by their people, and as expected, Anora does almost everything.
* After several years, no more abominations arise from the Circle Tower, and it is declared free of demonic influence.  (So, it turns out I made the right decision to spare them - bonus!)
* The dwarf scholar impresses her mage teachers, and writes an influential treatise on magic.
* Prince Bhelan purges the opposition, but proves to be a strong and effective leader.  Over the objections of the Council, he promotes reforms to the caste system, and thousands join the house that you founded.  He is also strong militarily, fighting fiercely against the darkspawn, and for the first time in generations they manage to turn back the tide in the Deep Roads, reclaiming some of the thains that were lost.  There are several attempts to depose him, however, and Bhelan eventually dissolves the Council and becomes a despot.  (I was really happy with how this ended - a bit ambiguous, but more positive than I had expected when I supported him.)
* The new temple founded in Orzammar attracts a fair number of followers.  It is attacked and destroyed by traditional dwarves.  The priest rebuilds, and continues preaching to his flock.
* Rumors begin to swirl that the Urn of Sacred Ashes has been found, and become more prevalent when the Chantry doesn't deny them.  Pilgrims begin to travel to the mountain to encounter the ashes themselves.
* Morrigan isn't seen again... for a long time.  (Cliffhanger!)

The game ends in a very satisfactory way, while still leaving tons of possibilities open for sequels.  I have to admit, I'm very curious to see exactly how Bioware approaches this.  From what I understand, the game can end dramatically differently based on how you played the game.  Bhelan or Harrowmont might rule in Orzammar; Ferelden might be ruled by Alistair, or Anora, or both, or even you (if you are a human noble who marries the right person); Morrigan might have birthed the demon child, or she might not have.  Will all of these decisions get carried forward in the next game, be it sequel or DLC?  It would be awesome if they did, but at the same time, it seems like a lot of stuff just can't happen in the sequel unless you made particular decisions in this game.  I'll be curious to see if and how Bioware tackles this.

So, all in all, I loved Dragon Age, and can highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys RPGs or games with intricate storylines.  Just be sure to never give Bioware any money for DLC until they fix their incredibly broken game!