The Armchair Madcap

Anime and Manga — Reviews and Previews

Moogles, Magic, and Muramasa Blades: the Armchair Madcap Conquers February

It’s the last Friday of February, which means it’s time for the monthly roundup of my madcapping throughout the lands of literature and videogames. I got a lot more reading done than I anticipated in a short twenty-eight days, but a single videogame monopolized much of the rest of my free time!

A Brief History of the Samurai by Jonathan Clements

Not many people know this, but I was actually a history minor in college and have long considered seeking a higher degree in that field. Also, because of my proclivity for watching and playing entertainment produced in Japan, I’ve had a particular thing for Japanese history and the like. I’ve spent months and months looking for books on the subject to some mixed success, but never really came across anything that tempted me to buy it.

This book, however, was on sale for $3 at my place of employment, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see if it might be the diamond in the rough I was looking for. Clements wants this work to stand as a quick overview of the Samurai class from their inception to their perception in the modern day, and it certainly succeeds in that regard. People coming into the subject with no prior knowledge will find that it requires some familiarity with the basic tenants of the Samurai and the history of Japan, but it is by no means so dense and self-referential that it will run newcomers off. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those with a more nuanced familiarity of even certain periods of Japanese history will find that the book doesn’t dig deeply enough as it chooses to focus on only a few select, important people from each era. For example, knowing little of the dawn of the Samurai, I found the sections on the rivalry between the Minamoto and Taira clans to be fascinating, but was disappointed to see that the Sengoku/Warring States period had been simplified into a succession from Nobunaga to Hideyoshi to Tokugawa. Just watch [Sengoku Basara] or play Samurai Warriors to see how many other influential people were at play during this time (though note that neither of those properties is realistic in any other way).

That was Clements’ intention, however: to skirt the line between novice and master. Perhaps this book earns its worth first by clearing up a number of the misconceptions and myths that have come to surround the Samurai and second by having an exhaustive “Recommended Reading” list for further perusal. A Brief History of the Samurai is precisely that – a brief history that opens the gateway to a true study of Japanese history.

How Not to Write a Novel by Howard Mittelmark and Sandra Newman

Let’s face it: there are a thousand books out there that claim to sell you the secret to writing a best-selling novel. This book claims to do the opposite – namely, give you step by step instructions for writing the worst novel ever conceived and ensuring that it never falls into the hands of a publisher, let alone the general public.

This book has a surprisingly sharp sense of humor to go along with its surprisingly good advice, broken up into sections like how to begin in the most boring way possible, how to populate your world with unlikable cardboard cut-outs, and how to make sure an editor’s fireplace is stocked for the winter with your manuscripts. Aside from that snarky humor, though, you aren’t going to be getting here anything that isn’t available in those thousand other writing guide I’ve mentioned before.

And let’s face it: no book is going to go out there and write your novel for you. If you’re looking to pick this up and distract yourself from all of that writing you’re not doing (a pitfall into which all writers fall at one point or another), then you’re not doing yourself any favors. But if you want to have a funny read and want to be driven to think about what you yourself might be doing wrong, then give How Not to Write a Novel a chance.

Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

Considering how long I had been waiting for this book to come out, I expected that I would have a much more exciting time reading it. I had read the first book in the series, Eragon, when it first came out and had been keeping pace with the subsequent releases, but there wasn’t the same drive this time to jump right in as there had been in the past. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to re-read all three of the previous novels (I have a to-read pile dozens of books deep without adding re-reads to the mix), and I was worried I wouldn’t remember enough of the nuances of the characters and plots to just jump right in to Inheritance. Luckily, someone recognized that this might become a problem and included a few pages summarizing earlier events. It was a smart way of getting the audience back into the flow of things without forcing a considerable investment in time. That, however, was just about the last aspect of the book with which I was truly pleased.

Don’t get me wrong, I was never particularly displeased with anything, either – the entire process just felt more like an obligation than it did a true joy, a necessary step to get the end of the story. I don’t think that Paolini is necessarily to blame for this: he has created a fascinating world with an interesting system of magic, his characters are likable if simple, his plot is serviceable. Perhaps the issue lies in the fact that I have recently read much better fantasy fiction. [A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin] and [The Cold Commands by Richard K. Morgan] both stick better in my mind, but both are also unrelentingly stark. Maybe that is ultimately the problem I had with Inheritance – it’s just too optimistic, too cut-and-dry.

If I have to point to a particular place where the novel falls flat, I have to point to the final battle. It ends in a matter that is fitting, even poetic in its justice, but it is far from dramatic. The final chapter as well is a bit ballsy, but not exactly satisfying. Ultimately, I can’t tell if my lackluster response to Inheritance is because of the novel or because of my own experiences in the interim.

Final Fantasy XIII-2, XBOX 360

Given my past ranting and raving about the [state of RPGs in the modern gaming era], you had to know that I was going to be snapping up this game. The original Final Fantasy XIII was released when I was a sophomore in college, and I had large chunks of free time to plod through what turned out to be a surprisingly non-interactive experience. Plenty of others have complained before me of the linearity of FFXIII which made the game feel like a 20-hour tutorial that really only opened up to players in the final act. There was also the matter of a pair of particularly annoying characters – whiny pre-teen Hope and ditzy, bubblegum-friendly Vanille – that alienated former fans of the series.

But if FFXIII was an overly long hand-holding session with flaws and annoyances, then FFXIII-2 is a quick and dirty return to the old formula: exploration has returned, a player’s choices can actively effect the order in which the story progresses (to a degree), and the game has done away with the annoying level handicaps that superfluously increased the difficulty even for players just looking to grind against and decimate their opponents. The game did add an arbitrary dialogue system that doesn’t seem to change much and drags out already long cut-scenes. This is, after all, a Final Fantasy game – cut-scenes abound, but at least they’re gorgeous to watch.

The story picks up a few months after the end of the first, and the main focus is time travels and all the paradoxes and problems that it causes. Most of the original cast has returned in some form or another, with only fan-favorite Sazh held ransom for an upcoming DLC pack. I was pleasantly surprised at the changes made to some of the characters – Serah, once just a damsel to be rescued, gets quality treatment here, and Hope has grown from a spineless brat into a leader worth his salt. Newcomer Noel fits in well with the J-RPG crowd.

When it comes down to it, if you managed to get through all of FFXIII, then XIII-2 is your reward. If you gave up partway through the first game, then its sequel might just be good enough to tempt you to give it another shot. If you have never considered playing a Final Fantasy game in your life, then this isn’t going to change your mind, and I’m not really sure why you’re reading this anyway. It’s interesting to note, however, that this might be the first Final Fantasy game to get not only a sequel but the full trilogy treatment.

—–

That’s it for this month! What did you read/play? What are you planning to read/play in March? I’m looking forward to Gail Carriger’s novel Timeless and maybe some Mass Effect 3 (though the RPG elements seem to have been all but excised). Let me know what you’ve got up your sleeves!

2 comments on “Moogles, Magic, and Muramasa Blades: the Armchair Madcap Conquers February

  1. suucakes
    February 25, 2012

    I was really excited when someone gave me the book “Eragon” one year for my birthday, but when you do compare it to more established fantasy authors who have earned their fame many times over, you are completely right: Eragon is really cut-and-dry. While I am happy that Paolini was able to publish his book at such a young age, I still recall the goblin chasing the elf through the forest, shooting “lightning out of his hand”. It smacked so much of a bad online roleplayer and I just couldn’t keep reading. What can I say– I’m spoiled on Tolkien and Mercedes Lackey.

    But I’m glad you’re aware of the fact that your outlook on Inheritance may have been colored by the books you had been reading before it. Yay for insight 🙂

    • AnonFleance
      February 25, 2012

      I like how you put that, “smacked so much of a bad online roleplayer.” Something I noticed particularly in this last novel (but which I’m sure was present in the first few) was that the main character seemed to be there for wish fulfillment. He was very nearly perfect, and the only mistake he made — though a very, very big one — ultimately winds up getting accepted by all and kind of glossed over. He turns his mistake into a weapon. Which, okay, some might say that’s just a character growing and accepting what he’s done, but it irked me quite a lot. And the final battle… Oh lord, it pretty much becomes, “I’m good, you’re evil, so you’re going to lose.” There was no nuance to it. So yes, it reminds me very much of someone who got their start in online roleplaying, or who played too many of those sorts of games over the years.

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