Review — The Mandalorian

It’s been a while since I’ve actually reviewed something, and since I watched the whole first (and for now only) season of The Mandalorian in one sitting while staying home sick from work, I thought now would be a great time to talk about it, since it’s still fresh.

Since it is relatively new, though, this review will be completely spoiler-free. I was intending to add a spoiler-section at the bottom as I normally do, but my typical commentary went on long enough, and I didn’t feel I had much to add that required spoiling. So if you’d like to chat, feel free to comment and I’ll add spoiler tags if necessary.

My understanding is that everybody loves this show. It’s got everything from Space John Wick to Baby Yoda, what’s not to love? Well, I’ll tell you something contentious (to incentivize your reading): I thought the show was okay at best.

The biggest problem I had can be tied in a nice little bow, too. Every character the show told me to root for felt… edgy. The Mandolorian is the resident Batman/John Wick/whatever of Star Wars. So cool he never even takes off his helmet. He gets a pass because this is long-established Mandalorian lore, but I believe it is still worth mentioning. You have Cara Dune. Ex soldier and so awesome she can mop the floor with several guys at once ’cause she has a huge gun. You can tell she’s competent because our resident Batman likes her and wants to team up. You have Kuiil, who is so wise and obviously always right that you’ll be facepalming every single time the other characters don’t listen to what he has to say. And of course, you have Baby Yoda, who is so adorable that even when he’s being stupid you can’t help but ugly cry every time he’s on screen. And so on. I’m exaggerating, of course, but you get the idea.

Tied to the concept of edgy characters, this show had a serious problem with presenting and solving problems to the character. Often, these problems would arise without warning, or worse, would be solved out of nowhere, or both!

It felt like everyone was cool stereotypes that had X amount of their #cool scenes, and only failed when the plot felt it was necessary for them to be less competent. Successes and sudden salvations felt unearned because the show taught me that success and failure alike cannot be predicted.

For example, in the very beginning, when Mando (which is a stupid abbreviation, given “Lando” is already a character) is fighting the blurrgs, he is suddenly attacked. He does not hear footsteps and has no inclination that danger is near. Interesting that a master bounty hunter failed to notice a huge primal beast. Then, in the same fight, he is saved, again without warning, by Kuiil. This is more forgivable, as Mando is a little preoccupied with possible death to notice a tiny man coming to his rescue (even if he is on another blurrg). The stakes feel weird in this scene because danger was both presented to and taken away from our hero without his input in the situation at all. He was just… there. If the actor had been replaced with a punching bag, the entire scene could have played out exactly the same way (given that blurrgs are a punching bag’s natural predator, of course). This scenario happened multiple times throughout the show, but this is the best example of it because it shows both problem and answer being solved suddenly, and in the same scene to boot.

How do you solve this? Easy. You present the characters, and the audience, with a problem that seems like there is no way out. Then, when the character makes a clever use of the resources they have available to win the day, that success feels earned. If the character notices a crumbling wall earlier that day and later uses that crumbling wall to get away from the bad guy, it turns into foreshadowing and makes our hero look more competent. When salvation comes out of nowhere, the opposite happens.

The show, as a whole, also does a poor job making me care. The Mandalorian protects the asset in a way that is—as the show tells us—uncharacteristic of somebody like him. This is fine, I have no problem with that concept, but it fails to tell me why I should believe he would do such a thing. Spoilers I won’t mention aside, character choices like this are important enough to at least hint at their root. Also, the Mandalorian has a very strange gauge for who he can and can’t trust. He implicitly trusts some strangers with the most valuable baby in the galaxy while he goes off to kill people, then doesn’t trust a droid who was practically designed to protect him. Now I know what you’re going to say. “But the plot! But the plot!” And I get it. The reason he doesn’t trust droids makes sense. My point is more that he trusts random people for no reason. Also, he doesn’t trust that protector droid, but in a previous episode he leaves the baby alone on his ship with a droid he knows even less.

Overall, though. It’s a great series and has some awesome moments. The scene where he gets trapped behind a door (and the way he gets out) is incredibly well done, and did a great job at making the Mandalorian feel awesome in ways other scenes failed. The Mandalorian Armorer very much feels like a “rest zone” in a video game where you come back to upgrade your gear, and while the armorer herself is pretty one-dimensional like the other characters, I couldn’t help but enjoy every minute of screen time she had. Maybe she was my edgy OC whereas the other characters simply didn’t vibe with me.

P.S. I thought the way they ended the season was weird, as they revealed a thing that seemed too important to throw into an “after credits” style scene, but after talking to my brother about it, he made a good point. You need something to tease the next season with, and revealing it earlier in the episode/season would have left nothing to be excited for for later.

Review — Yesterday

Alright. Time to review a movie I watched a month and a half ago. Let’s see if I remember anything? I will state two things before I start, though. The first is the obligatory “I won’t spoil anything” comment, as I always leave the spoiler section of the review till the end in a very clear distinction. The second is that in all honesty, I still am not sure how I feel about this movie. It touched at a lot of things that are still quite subconscious in my head, both good and bad.

The first thing I should point out is that the plot is nothing to write home about. The “call to action” as it were is ludicrous and is waived off pretty quick because, let’s face it, this movie is about The Beatles, not the story (apparently). Sort of related to this is the fact that the trailers did not do a very good job setting the movie up as a Rom-Com, when that ends up being nearly 100% of the screen time. I wasn’t surprised, but it did disappoint me a bit. After all, shouldn’t this movie be about… The Beatles? (See above.)

Apart from the standard plot, the characters and themes aren’t really explored very much at all. The people ‘on stage’ are painted in broad strokes and aren’t really touched ever again, and the only two people that ever show any real emotion are the leads. It’s like you gave an artist a coloring book and they spent hours shading in all the detail of the clothes, but then when they got to the background they just used a blur of primary colors. (A bit of hyperbole here, though. The lead characters don’t have nearly that much attention to detail.)

What makes it good, though? Well, to put it simply, the movie tries to do one thing: to live in the nostalgia of the majesty of Beatlemania, and reminisce about how great a lot of their songs were while having fun along the way. It accomplishes that. It does a phenomenal job, even. The fact that the group put out so much iconic music means that the writers could put in the perfect song to fit every scene, and the vibe of every piece of music hits dead on the money. On that principle alone, the movie is fantastic. It pumps you up with energy when you need it and lets the somber numbers soothe the pacing in between.

Now that said, will somebody who doesn’t know the Beatles enjoy it? I think it’s tough to say, but either way, they won’t get nearly as much out of the movie as a Beatles fan would, because they aren’t the target audience.

Alright. Spoilers ahead.

To further elaborate on my point that the plot is pretty weak, I’ll say that they missed a lot of opportunities. They don’t even try to explain what happened when the global blackout happened, or even why it happened. The other two people that remember The Beatles could (and should) have at least provided some insight, as the three of them could have all had similar stories, but we never get any explanation as to why they know, when Jack had to get hit by a bus to remember. On top of this, they touch on the idea of Jack’s impostor syndrome, but in reality, he would feel it to a scale nobody has ever felt before, so I would have liked to see the movie punch that up more. Plus, the fact that Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were actively teased in both the trailer and the movie without them actually having a cameo bothered me. That felt like a really dirty move.

What I would have loved to see, and the biggest disappointment I had in the movie (beyond the fact that it was actually a Rom-Com), was that this movie could have easily retold the story of how Beatlemania happened in real life. The Beatles go to Germany, are very popular, go to America and transform music entirely, the music changes who they are, they grow apart, etc. You translate Brian Epstein into the evil agent lady (already don’t remember her name) and fit “The Beatles break up” to instead be “Jack gives up being a star” and bam, your movie is already written. You could even still make the Rom-Com the main genre, but more parallels to the actual lives of The Beatles would have been fantastic.

Also, I’m not surprised that the movie never explored this, but if The Beatles actually lived in this parallel world and simply never became who they are in ours, Jack’s story of “I remember a past that didn’t happen” is easily provable. All you have to do is have Jack tell the story of The Beatles, then track down the real band members, and see where the lines cross (or might have crossed). He would probably know so much about the lives of nobodies that it’s truth would be hard to refute. Again, the movie was right not to address this, because that would have derailed the plot off a cliff, but still. I can’t help but think of these things.

Lastly, the ending is… weird. The fact that he puts her face on the big screen and confesses his love to her, without being face to face, seems really odd to me. I mean, he’s not even confessing it to her, he’s confessing it to his audience. I always wonder how many people get proposed to at public events where it would humiliate both people for the girl to say ‘no’, but this feels like a similar moment to me. Ellie is standing in a room hearing the feedback of his voice and the distant roars of the audience, being told that that Jack apparently loves him. That doesn’t strike me as the killer finale this movie deserves, though of course it wasn’t painted that way. In addition to that, there is no way the audience would clear out of the stadium before Jack’s agent managed to find him. She would have been cutting the mics and tackled him within minutes of him rescinding his fame, which I have no doubt he would have been sued horrendously for in the real world. (Jack “loving” Ellie is a load of crap, by the way, because if he is surprised when she first confesses her love, then that means he really had no interest in her, and I do not for one second believe that anyone can develop romantic interest in somebody they’ve platonically loved for years.)

That’s about it. Is it a good movie? Well, sort of. It does what it wants to do and absolutely nothing else. I will leave off with this, though. I do not like romance in virtually any storytelling. It’s always a hard sell for me because most often, it ends up feeling unearned or contrived, and Yesterday is no exception. This movie was particularly offensive in that regard in the fact that Ellie’s character struck a lot of chords with me, as she reminded me a lot of somebody that was/is very dear to me, and I wish that that was not the case.

Review — The Boys

It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed anything (one nonfiction book, a convention?, and a podcast are all that I’ve done in the last year), and it’s been especially long since I’ve done any piece of media. Wait. I still haven’t done a review of Yesterday? Putting that on my to-do list so I don’t keep forgetting. Anyway, I recently watched Season One of The Boys, which was different in a lot of ways. Two things to note here: I won’t throw in any spoiler-related commentary until the end, which will be obvious. The second thing is that it really deserves its R (X?) rating, as there is lots of swearing, gore, and sex. This review itself won’t be too graphic, though, so if you’re just interested in my thoughts, you’re good to go.

Now, I don’t really watch TV shows. As a rule, they are very time consuming and require your full attention, so as a rule of me enjoying efficiency and multitasking, I tend to spend my free time elsewhere. I was interested in The Boys though, because its premise was very similar to one of my favorite book series The Reckoners, written by Brandon Sanderson. (You can read my review on the first book here). To sum up both plots, the premise is that superheroes are evil and exploiting the world to suit their wants and needs (mostly wants), and the main characters are a group of normal people teaming up to take them down. In The Boys, this takes the form of “the superheroes are all apart of a super big corporation that only cares about making money, so superheroes are the posterchildren for printing fat stacks.

So, ups and downs of the first season? Well, I’ll start with the bad news, which is that exactly one character in the entire show has any likability (if you really need a hint, it’s Starlight), and everyone else is either evil and self-righteous, or consumed with revenge. (Okay, I do also like Mother’s Milk and Queen Maeve, but I’m not exactly rooting for either of them to succeed). Since I didn’t like any of the characters, basically anything anyone did disappointed me. “Oh, no, what have you done…? Oh no, not you, too… Really? Was that necessary?” And so on. Nothing that happened was satisfying, it was just… interesting enough to keep me going. Side note: I think the casting on this show is amazing, it’s the characters themselves that make me wince.

The show would be a lot better if Hughie, the main character, is likable. But he just isn’t. When his girlfriend is killed at the beginning of the first episode (the inciting incident, it’s in the trailers), he gets wrapped up in everything in order to get revenge. When he’s faced with some difficult decisions, he makes interesting choices for sure, but he is never painted in a light that makes him relatable. Maybe that’s subjective, but I had a hard time agreeing with any of the decisions he ultimately made. (I’ll also say that he often operates in a moral grey. When he did the ‘right thing’, sometimes I shook my head in confusion, but when he did the ‘wrong thing’, it felt out of character. His personality can be confusing sometimes.)

That said, the story was interesting, and expressed compelling social arguments, which I love. And all of those things were introduced in a very believable way. This doesn’t happen in the show, but if I’m running for president and I get the opportunity to set my opponent’s house on fire with the guarantee I will never be found out, why wouldn’t I do that? A lot of the stuff the character actions in the show fits that mentality. It also has some really good humor, like when Butcher is talking about the Spice Girls, and when the conversation ends the scene cuts to “elsewhere” and The Spice Girls is playing.

If you had asked me if I was enjoying the series after any episode, I would shrugged. It definitely wasn’t a ‘no’, as I continued watching it, but I often felt too uncomfortable with what was happening to really say I liked it. The season finale though, is really good. I love how all the pieces were put in place for the second season, because it gave me hope that I can finally start cheering some of the characters on.

Alright. Spoiler Free section is over. Now for the episode commentary.

I have three big issues with the first season. The first is the most glaring issue of the fact that Compound V is so secret and so hard to get, but later we find out basically anyone with money knows about it. I simply cannot believe that it could be so well hidden if simple folk like Starlight’s mom know the full “truth” of what is going on. That’s a simple fix, too. Tell people you can make their child a superhero as long as they grant custody for a few weeks and sign a waiver saying the kid might die in the process. The parents are provided no details on how they are superfied. Done.

Second issue is also based in my suspension of disbelief. There is no way in a million years that Vought would have The Deep “out” himself after what Starlight said at the convention. I believe it is conceivable that the public wouldn’t settle down, but basically throwing away one of the Seven to save some PR is ridiculous. What they probably would have done was hire some random guy to confess publicly, hand him ten million dollars, then shove him off to Antarctica in case anyone wants to crucify him for something he didn’t actually do. There would definitely be people lining up to take the fall if there was enough incentive. It seems especially weird that they ship him off since they don’t make any moves to replace Translucent or The Deep after they’re both gone. Why did Lamplighter need to be replaced if the other two weren’t important enough for it? I get that he publicly retired (which I just know will be revealed not to be the case), but it still seems weird that The Seven is now The Five and Vought is doing basically nothing to acknowledge that.

My last problem is that I hate how Butcher shot Starlight at the end of Episode 7. It does nothing except frustrate the viewer. It didn’t even advance the plot! Butcher might have assumed she was luring Hughie into a trap, but the fact that Hughie runs after she is shot makes it really hard for me to believe that she could ever see any good in him, especially with how that conversation ended. “Hey, you made my job even more of a nightmare than it already was, lied to me about being a nice person, ruined my whole perception of reality, then had your friend shoot me so you could run off without redeeming yourself? Uh, no, I don’t think I’m going to be seeing you again, sorry.” But also, if they wanted to go that route, it stands to reason that she should become an enemy of the Boys at least for a while. Instead, Hughie redeems himself in thirty-minutes as far as the audience is concerned.

As far as the final episode goes, though, I thought it was fantastic. Homelander really pulled a curveball on me in the situation with Butcher, and the reveal that Butcher’s wife is still alive (and has a son) wasn’t really surprising, but it was compelling, and made me very interested to see how that interaction plays out. I’m also really glad that Starlight finally joined the “good” side, and now that all the main characters are playing for the same team, I feel like I can finally root for them. Mostly Starlight though because everyone else sucks.

P.S. I don’t want to know more about Black Noir. I loved scenes like where he stole the piano from that guy with just a look.

Review — The Ideal Team Player

I haven’t done a book review in some time, or a review at all really, so I thought I’d take a break from my voice acting samples to change the pace a bit. (Though I’m just realizing I haven’t reviewed Brandon Sanderson’s Skyward—a crime I will amend soon.)

The Ideal Team Player is a nonfiction book—a book about work environments, in fact. I would never pick up something like this on my own, but it is required reading for my job, so I picked up the audiobook to listen to on my down time.

I have to admit, it was actually a pretty neat read.

I’ll give you a rundown of how it’s structured. It’s 226 pages or 5 hours long, and as a writer I hate that I can’t give you a more useful, calculable number like word count, but there you go. There are two portions to the book: the story, and the explanation of the concept that uses examples from the story. The story is slightly longer than the nonfiction portion, but the nonfiction portion is, in my opinion, more useful.

The plot of the book is very rudimentary. An amiable guy is promoted to CEO well before he’s ready, because the guy before him is retiring and trusts him a lot. They have to hire a bunch of new people to complete two large jobs coming up, and it’s up to the new guy and his team of two executive to establish and execute a new hiring process in order to make the company have a sense of cohesion and teamwork.

The writing of the story is, well, not amazing. It was obviously written by somebody who doesn’t read or write fiction; it gets the point across, but holds little intrigue and focuses on the information without caring about the finesse of the craft of writing. I started to grind my teeth a bit every time I heard the phrase [“Why would yadda-yadda?”, Tabatha wanted to know]. Please don’t ever use ‘wanted to know’ as a dialogue tag. It just looks and sounds awful. The plot isn’t bad per se, but it isn’t a page turner, either.

What’s more interesting is the nonfiction instruction manual at the end, outlining the concept of what makes “The Ideal Team Player”. As established in the story, the ideal team player requires three attributes. They must be humble, hungry, and smart. The book will do a much better job at describing each of these concepts, as it has a much larger span of time to work with, but the jist of it is that somebody will hold the most value in a company if they are [nice and willing to accept fault and blame], [an overachiever who is passionate about their work and is always pushing themselves], and [knows how to communicate their ideas and work with people (not necessarily “intelligent”)].

The book goes on to explain the problems that arise in employees that exhibit only one or two of these traits, and how to get them to emulate all of them. It goes beyond employers, too. This book is also meant to be read by employees, so it helps you understand where your own faults are as far as forwarding the momentum of your workplace, and for that I find it very useful. For example, I’m not hungry at my current job simply because I have no passion for the work I’m doing. That mostly tells me that I should find a better job where I enjoy the work more, but you get the idea.

This book isn’t useful for every job. Pretty much any minimum wage employee wouldn’t be in a workplace that cares about progress simply because they don’t need you to be your best, they just need you to exist. You might get a slight wage increase if you are an ideal team player in that environment, but this book is more tailored towards companies that are striving for quality of both atmosphere in service rather than sheer output of product and income of cash flow, like any huge corporation.

Overall solid book. It’s a quick read and didn’t feel like a waste of my time. And I’ll be honest, I rarely enjoy nonfiction books, so the fact that I approve this one is saying something.

Me — WorldCon 76

I spent this past weekend in San Fransisco attending the 76th WorldCon. I would call this the third convention I’ve ever attended, the first two I’ve experienced being BlizzCon (to which I’ve been several times), and Anime Expo (to which I’ve been twice). To my knowledge, there are two “types” of conventions, one for seeing events and people, and another for meeting people and making connections.

I’ll be honest, I only attended WorldCon for one day, so my experience is obviously very limited. So much so that I don’t even know exactly what I may have missed. I will say though, the panels I went to were pretty interesting and I learned quite a bit in some of them. It’s a very casual atmosphere—panelists talk about stuff for about an hour, then audience members ask questions, and then afterwards you can generally go up to the panelists and talk to them individually if you really want to.

On one of the panels I was at, Brandon Sanderson made a surprise appearance, which was cool. (Later in the day there was an insanely long line to a panel we wanted to see, and found out that it was because he was explicitly listed as a panelist, so that’s why.) Funny enough, the panel we saw him on—a discussion about medieval wounds and injuries—he had almost no useful information to share. The other panelists were surgeons and doctors who were experienced in the field, and Brandon was just “the writer” among them, so instead he just became the guy that asked the questions.

The Con was honestly much, much smaller than I had anticipated. For a world famous international writer’s convention I expected everybody and their grandmother to be there. Instead, it was a few dozen small-ish rooms that seated about a hundred people each, with hour-long lectures going on in each room throughout the day for 5 days. I don’t know if that sounds boring to you, but I for one wish I could have attended so many more panels.

The main downfall of my entire trip there was that distance and time was a huge deterrent. Living in Southern California means that driving up to San Fransisco would take about 8 hours (if you’re being conservative), and my travel buddy and I both lead pretty busy lives. I took the day off work Friday, and she and I drove up then, went to WorldCon Saturday (which was about an hour away from the convenient place we were staying) and then drove back Sunday, because we needed to be home for Monday. Overall a pretty expensive trip for only a day of experience, but I don’t regret it. Sometimes it’s nice to just leave for a while.

So, would I recommend WorldCon? Depends, but I think there are only two types of people that would really enjoy it: Writers who are interested in learning new things (probably from people in the field they so respect) or readers that want to meet their favorite authors and hear stories about the worlds they’ve created. I’d imagine there are a few people that fall through the cracks of those categories, but if I saw any of them there this weekend, they slipped past me.

Also, from my experience of this weekend, I realized that aspiring writers tend to have a “look”. I can’t really describe it, but the crowd here was very distinct from say, Anime Expo, or BlizzCon, or even just public crowds wherever.

Review — Hello Internet

Hello Internet has been a podcast that’s been on my radar for a long time, but the infrequency of post, lack of concrete topic, and length of each episode has made it a very low priority. Since I’ve had more free time to listen to audiobooks and podcasts, though I’ve been perusing them.

To sum up what the podcast is, it’s simply two guys, Brady Haran and CGP Grey talk about a myriad of topics, be it a piece of news that happened, a book they’ve both read, or a funny story one of them has to share. There’s little consistency from episode to episode, though each consecutive podcast touches on stuff that happened on the previous episode to follow up on community feedback or updates on the story.

Really, the only reason to listen to this podcast is for their personalities. They are pretty interesting people, which makes that prerequisite fine. Brady is what one might consider to be the “typical” person. He is pretty smart, but for the purposes of the podcast he serves mostly as a foil for Grey. Grey, however, is obviously different. I would describe him as a robot. He doesn’t like decorations in his house, because they serve no purpose, he doesn’t like attention (on the podcast, Brady calls him Grey, his internet persona) despite his being a public figure, and he is very careful about the things he says and the way he lives his life.

CGP Grey makes some awesome educational YouTube videos that are very informative, but I’ve found that they offer little insight to who he is as a person.

On one of the most recent episodes, he mentions that he has a whole alias for Starbucks. An entire second identity that he knows so well he can instinctively respond to this fake name, just to obfuscate any unnecessary attention he might receive. It sort of serves as a filter to the outside world. (I’ll admit, I definitely identify more closely with Grey than Brady. Part of me seriously considered making an alias for spam purposes.)

So, if you have time on your hands and you’re looking for stuff to listen to just for the personalities, I’d recommend Hello Internet. The two of them work very well together because they obviously know each other very well and like each other a lot, but their personalities are so different it’s an interesting dynamic to experience.

It’s worth noting too that they talk about some interesting things. They talk about controversial news stories and then add their own thoughts, so it’s not simply a reiteration of something we’ve already heard, and they’re introspective with themselves so they can often explain their own reasonings to their logic.

I would go so far as to say that this podcast would be the closest one resembling a podcast I would make, if that ever did happen. Just me and another person/other people talking about stuff. It’s a hard sell—the litmus test to see if you like this really is just “do you like the people”. I’d recommend watching some CGP Grey videos and if you think the topics he covers are interesting, that’s a good start.

Review — Welcome to Night Vale (Podcast)

The last few weeks I’ve been listening to the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, knowing very little about it other than what I could conceivably guess based on the title. As it turns out, even there I was mostly wrong. I assumed it was a story about a dark fantasy place, which I was correct about, but I also expected a continuous story along the lines of a typical web comic such as Homestuck. (I have not read Homestuck, but am more or less familiar with the premis.) Instead, Welcome to Night Vale is written in episodes with the intent that one can simply jump in and listen with no context required. So, what is it? Well, it’s a Lovecraftian comedy—a radio news broadcast from the fictional town of Night Vale.

Before I jump in, though, I have one thing I need to say: It should be Nightvale, damnit. One word! I have no logical argument to back that up, it just looks more aesthetically pleasing like that! (Also, it’s annoying to have to write Night Vale, because it’s more work, and I am as a matter of course opinionated against the reason it is more work to write.)

Because my job allows me to listen to podcasts all day, I get through audio content very quickly, so even upon learning I could start wherever, I of course began with Episode 1, and have just finished (with episode 130) today). To summarize, the podcast most frequently takes the form of a (bi)weekly news broadcast in the town of Night Vale. The news is often related to creepy things, such as SCP objects or Lovecraftian horrors. I would liken Night Vale to a “modern day Innsmouth”. The radio host, Cecil Palmer, never really acknowledges the dangerous horrors this town seems to have a very long and deep history with, and thus the combination of the eldritch combined with a lack of logical concern creates a humorous show.

Overall, it’s pretty solid. I’ll admit the punchlines are rarely amazing. I probably laughed out loud about once every 10 hours of content. Not bad, I suppose, given that I’m alone and at work during that time. Nonetheless, the humor is consistently amusing. I’ll say that one thing the podcast does very well is remain consistent with the information it gives you, even if it’s all over the place. A small factoid about a minor character will suddenly become important three years (real time) later, and you’ll find out that it was actually because of X all along! It seems clever, but really I would bet that it’s importance was decided later. It’s done flawlessly, though, and it surprises me how much of a “knowable” ecosystem Night Vale eventually becomes after a time. It transitions from random factoids about a place you’ve never heard of to characters and people with rich histories interacting based on events that did or did not happen long ago in the podcast. And even if you didn’t see that episode, it doesn’t matter because it’ll explain that history when it becomes relevant.

Of course, the podcast isn’t without fault. In my opinion, it has three. The first is that there are characters and events I actively dislike, so whenever they’re given stage time I get frustrated. (I’m also not a fan of it whe  it leans more towards radio play, where other actors are involved. I prefer the episodes of just radio broadcast and host. No guests, no phone calls, no live investigations. In fact, the character I liked the least becomes mayor of the city at some point! That was pretty disheartening.

The second major downfall is that by nature of what this podcast is, the punchlines can get pretty predictable. Even if you don’t know what the exact joke will be, you start to be able to sniff the setup a mile away, which does sort of kill the fun of the experience.

Lastly, for every 25 minute episode, there is probably 6 minutes I skip. The first 2 or so are self-promotion/sponsors, the middle chunk is a 3 minute song that is, almost always, terrible. and the last minute is more self-promotion. It’s annoying because the easiest way for me to skip on Castbox is by 30 second chunks, and I listen on 1.4x speed, so when I was listening to the podcast, I would literally have to pull out my phone every 10ish minutes to press “Skip ahead 30s” a bunch of times. I can’t imagine other people would have major issue with this in particular, but in my specific circumstance, it was quite annoying. Nothing like the hour long podcasts I’m used to that have a single 30 second ad in the middle or at the end.

What I will say, though, is that as time goes on the episodes become two or three-parters, so you eventually get stories that take an hour of content to see the completion of. I do like that, because it gives me something to attach to and it gives the sense that bigger things are afoot.

Review — Pawn of Prophecy

I first heard about David Eddings’ Belgariad Saga through Matt Colville a highly respected dungeon master in the D&D community and, I assume, a very competent writer as well. Matt is ever the proponent of classical media, and often uses it to inform his own design choices, so when he explained a plot point of one of his favorite books series, I felt obligated to put that book series on my list.

Pawn of Prophecy, published in 1982, is very much the textbook hero’s journey. I joke about how the first installment of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series is just a ripoff to The Lord of the Rings, which I still think is quite fair, but I’m even more amused to say that Pawn of Prophecy and Eye of the World start almost exactly the same way. The only difference is that the Belgariad focuses on the journey of one boy, whereas The Wheel of Time centralizes around three. It makes me wonder—was the epic fantasy genre so limited and niche decades ago that what few books there were were all exactly the same? I mean, I haven’t even brought up the Sword of Truth series. Okay, well now I have, but I can’t simply be cherry-picking here. There must be some validity to it.

Anyways, enough talking about the similarities, let’s talk about what this book is in a vacuum. Overall, I think it does feel a bit dated compared to the fantasy of today. It does have much less action scenes, not to say that modern books need that or that that fact detracts from the story, just an observation. Pawn of Prophecy is very much the opening to a larger world, where big things are happening but the young hero—and by extension the reader—is ignorant of these events.

What amazes me most about this book is that it’s a great character study for a typical D&D setting. It features some classic archetypes for player characters, but also houses very realistic places and digestible politics. My favorite interaction in the whole book is when guards are interrogating the party as they pass through town. The con-man of the group has a very normal conversation with the guard that is obviously about discussing a bribe price, even though neither person mentions anything outright. To a casual observer, they’d just as soon have been talking about the weather. Clean but meaningful exchanges like that is something that this book excels in, and a writer would do well to learn from these things.

The biggest drawback to this book is its classical nature. Things take quite a bit to happen, and for any avid reader or anyone familiar with the Hero’s Journey, this book can’t surprise you with any event or plot twist it tries to throw at you. Especially if you’ve read the Wheel of Time first. Having admittedly only read the first book of the Belgariad, I would so far summarize it as an “Easy Mode” version of The Wheel of Time. The former is five books long, the latter fourteen. And to be honest, I only got through the first five books of WoT before I realized I still didn’t care about a single character, and thus put it down (forever?)

So while there’s nothing truly innovative about Pawn of Prophecy, it’s a short, relaxing read. Not much suspense, but quite immersive for what it is.

Review — War Crimes

Of the many novels written in the Warcraft universe, I’ve actually read a scarce few of them. To be honest, this is only my second. However, having played WoW off an on for the majority of my life, and having many brothers and friends that are well versed in Blizzard and Warcraft lore, I’m quite familiar with the characters and events, generally speaking. I won’t give spoilers here, though, for as familiar as you may be with the story before and after this book, the novel itself does contain some pretty neat, self-contained things.

War Crimes is a somewhat recent addition to what surprised me to be a collection of over twenty canon books, and chronologically it was the latest addition to the universe until Before the Storm published last month. It takes place between the Mists of Pandaria expansion and the Warlords of Draenor expansion, serving as a segway from one to the other. It explores the trial of Garrosh Hellscream, the former Warchief of the Horde after he basically killed thousands of people and was, to put it mildly, a jerk to everyone, even the people who should have been his friends.

I’ll be honest—I didn’t expect much of this book. The main plot is a trial, and I hated Garrosh’s character simply because he’s boring. In fact, if I were to buy a Warcraft book, it probably would have been one of my last choices for those reasons. When I’m reading a story like this, it’s generally because I want to dig deeper into a universe I’m already familiar with, and not only does this book basically not have that, but it doesn’t have very much action in it, either. It is, as you might expect, almost entirely placed in the Temple of Xu’en, where the trial takes place.

But the book is fair. To call it a bad read or a waste of my time would be out of line. It does the characters justice while also showing different sides of them. It explores the morality and virtues of many of the main characters in Warcraft lore, and you see different sides of them you might not otherwise notice. Flashbacks are used as evidence in the trial (via magic, of course), so we also get to see some interactions between characters outside this moment in time, and that can be really interesting when you didn’t realize those characters knew each other at X point.

I’d say one of the best things about this book is that it’s a balancing act of two parts, and it does a great job. Writing a book (or any piece of media) based on a game where the player has a direct impact on the environment or story of that game is hard. You have to either pretend the player doesn’t exist, which makes any player made choices seem inconsequential, or you make the player a main character, which only works if they don’t get to make their character. The second part is writing a part of the story that isn’t important enough to be essential to the gameplay, but is interesting enough to not waste the reader’s time.

War Crimes does a great job on both of these fronts. The players are the ones that managed to defeat Garrosh and put him in “prison”, but they aren’t necessary for the trial. Players want combat, and this part of the story has very little of it. You wouldn’t want a trial scene to be in your video game anyway, unless you’re playing Ace Attorney, in which case what is a bloodthirsty orc doing there? As far as being interesting but not essential, the story does a good job of that, too, exploring nuances of characters, as I’ve already explained. The ending of the story is a bit obvious if you’ve played the beginning of Warlords of Draenor, or have seen even the trailer of it, but nonetheless it’s a good read.

Overall, this book is a good read if and only if you are interested in understanding the personalities, flaws, or beliefs of the major characters in the Warcraft universe. You really get to know the characters as people in this book, not as the walking stereotypes they can sometimes fall under. If you want to read action scenes, understand the lore of Azeroth (or Draenor etc.), or read about the major events of the world, you’re better of picking up pretty much any other book in the universe.

As a side note, it dawned on me reading this book how little opinion Warcraft players probably have based on the characters in the lore. Basically any player will tell you that Cairne Bloodhoof, or Vol’jin, or Jaina Proudmoore are basically cool people. (Or at least they were, given various points of the story.) For as divisive as Warcraft tries to be—splitting the players into Alliance or Horde—I’ll bet 90% of the playerbase will be able to tell you which are the honorable, good characters from both factions, because while the lore tries to paint in broad strokes of “good and evil”, it does a great job at putting both of those extremes in either side.

Review — Brief Cases

Finally, a new Dresden book! …kind of. I think that I started reading The Dresden Files about five years ago, around the time Cold Days came out. By the time I was just about caught up, Skin Game was published. Up until that point, the books were being churned out practically once a year, and well, that was three years ago now. I picked the wrong time to get caught up!

Thankfully, a new short story anthology was released, and boy was it nice to get some more Dresden. I recently started listening to audiobooks at work, an with me working full time, I’m getting through them pretty fast. So I am simultaneously ecstatic and depressed that I’ve already finished.

But before I get started let me add a qualifier. The thing that sucks about this review is that it’s more pointless than most reviews. The people that know Dresden will buy it automatically and love it, because it’s the Dresden we all know and love, but the people that don’t know Dresden shouldn’t get it, because like his other short story anthology, there are lots of time skips and even more spoilers. (The last two short stories take place after Skin Game). So instead of me framing it into the vein of “is this worth reading”, I’ll speak plainly in terms of what I liked and didn’t like. That said, this review is not spoiler free. I won’t be discussing many spoilers by virtue of the fact that my opinions tend to paint broad strokes, but I don’t see much point in writing a review that’s half spoiler-free and half not. So let’s jump in.

I’ll start with what I didn’t like just to get over it. The first is that a lot of these stories have sexual contexts I don’t much care for. I mean, I’m not surprised, that’s always been a Dresden thing. But after taking a break from the series and reading so many other things, I’ve noticed how just how much Jim Butcher tends to describe women based on how insanely hot they are, and how naked they tend to get because “the world of vampires and the fey are very sexual realms”. Logical, sure, but I think it would be fair for me to say that the story could redistribute the sex into more polarizing zones. Take it out where it isn’t necessary and emphasize it where it is rather than just putting a little bit pretty much everywhere. (Side note: I am willing to concede that maybe I’m just being dramatic and prude, but at the same time I don’t think the Dresden series would lose much of anything if there was less sex-but-not-actual-sex, you know?)

My second critique is even more whiny than the first: I didn’t really get to see anything I wanted to see. None of my favorite characters, and nothing awesome really happening. Now, obviously he can’t write about important people doing important things in a short story collection—you can’t force your entire reader-base to buy something that’s supposed to be a side adventure—but still. I wanted to see more stuff that had… meaning. “Zoo Day” is probably the best example of this, and it was definitely my favorite story. We see a potentially bad news character introduced, but it was done in a way that doesn’t take away from the main plot when they inevitably return. I also wasn’t a fan of the same plot structure of “retelling a story” used in two of the twelve stories here, though Butcher isn’t much to blame, because a lot of these stories were written at various times over the years and put together, not written for this book.

But the stories in and of themselves are great. I loved everything about the Bigfoot stories, especially the fact that they all dealt with different issues while (unconsciously) foreshadowing future ones. “Zoo Day” is a masterpiece, too. A long scene told in three different perspectives dealing with three different conflicts is great, and Mouse being the narrator to a story was a lot of fun. Top notch.

I love where the series is going, especially considering the scope and the perspective strength of some of the characters, but it’s also nice to take a break and see characters deal with more mundane issues—it puts the huge ones in the main series in a better perspective.

But also I’m mad that Butcher introduced the Lovecraftian mythos in a single short story and we’re probably not going to see much else from the Old Gods for a long time, if at all.