Monthly Archives: May 2013

Review: Warbound by Larry Correia

Gritty urban fantasy adventure set in an alternate noir 1930s

Click here for the TL;DR

Warbound is the third book in the Grimnoir Chronicles, and marks the end of a trilogy.  I will have to get around to reviewing the first two books (Hard Magic and Spellbound) at some point, but I finished the eARC (electronic advance reader copy) last week and it is still fresh in my mind.  This review will be both a general overview of the series as a whole and a review of its conclusion, Warbound.

The Grimnoir Chronicles is an alternate-history/fantasy set in the 1930s.  Sometime in the 1800s, individuals began manifesting magical abilities.  Individuals exhibit a specific power, which by the time of the story have gained common nicknames.  “Heavies” (or as one of the main characters, Jake Sullivan, likes to call them “Gravity Spikers”) can manipulate gravity.  “Fades” can cause their bodies to become insubstantial and walk through walls.  “Movers” can move objects telekinetically.  “Travellers” can teleport, and so on.  The magic is both varied and interesting.  Correia starts slow with what is possible and gradually expands what each type of magic user, or “Active”, can do, whether through increased strength, skill, or creativity.  It’s always great to see an author set up a system and then surprise you with creative uses for the powers they have given their characters.

In the aftermath of the Great War (WW1 for you non-history folks), Japan has emerged as the major world power behind the strength of the Chairman, an incredibly powerful Active, who can use any type of power and seems to be immortal.  Japan, known as the Imperium, has conquered China and most of Asia, solidifying their power.  They take and control all of the Actives in the country, teaching and training them in special “schools”.  They also use the conquered people as subjects for magical experiments, constantly seeking to expand and increase their magical knowledge and abilities.  Russia has, under Stalin, followed a similar path and keeps their magicals in camps and gulags.  The United States has largely avoided this path, and American Actives are free to go about their lives normally, with a few exceptions.  There is a definite anti-magical prejudice in certain regions and in certain groups, up to and including violent reactions.  At the start of the series, one of the main characters, Jake Sullivan, is locked away in a special prison after killing a crooked sheriff after a young Active boy was killed.

I love how Corriea has woven the real history of the period so seamlessly with the fantasy. Each chapter starts with a quote, whether historical or fictional. I believe all of the quotes that don’t mention magic are authentic, and I was familiar with most of them. Apparently many people were upset about a quote from Woodrow Wilson that was strongly pro-KKK, not realizing it was an actual quote from Wilson. History has plenty of interesting tidbits if you dig into it! One chapter of Warbound opened up with one of my favorite quotes from GK Chesterton. I was so excited that I had to immediately tweet about it.

I also enjoyed the almost “secret history” aspect of magic as it relates to many famous individuals. Babe Ruth was a Brute. Nikolai Tesla and Thomas Edison were Cogs. While it’s common knowledge in this universe, it almost makes you think these incredible individuals were magic in our world too.

Thanks to the success of the famous “Cog” (an Active whose magical ability deals with superhuman intelligence or creativity in a given field) Ferdinand von Zeppelin, the main form of air travel in the Grimnoir Chronicles is not airplanes but airships, which is awesome.  Airships are very cliché in steampunk, but you don’t see them so much in urban (or in this case, noir) fantasy.  It’s easy to see why zeppelins and airships have become a cliché in steampunk…they’re so damn cool!  It really is a much more romantic idea of flight.  It’s a shame that our timeline took a different track.

The main characters are all members of a magical society known as the Grimnoir Knights.  The Knights are a worldwide society of Actives who seek to protect magic users, as well as make sure magic users don’t become a threat to peace and security.  They stand in opposition to the Chairman and the Imperium.

WARNING:
From here on out the review will contain spoilers for all three books.

The major conflict of Warbound entails stopping the Pathfinder, a sort of scout for a creature known only as the Enemy, which has chased the Power (it was revealed in the first book that the Power is a living creature which grants magical ability in a symbiotic relationship with humans) from world to world, devouring everything along the way. Jake Sullivan leads a strike team deep into Imperium territory in order to discover where the Pathfinder is, as well as how to stop it.

There are two major subplots. One involves Francis attempting to deal with the US government taking steps to register and roundup Actives. One of the earliest scenes in the book has Francis in a meeting with President FDR. It was one of my favorites in the entire book. Unfortunately, this plot largely drops off for most of the book, and only plays minor role in the end. I understand the need to focus on Jake and Faye, but I would have enjoyed more of Francis vs FDR.

The other plotline has Faye in Europe, trying to better understand what it means to be the Spellbound, under the tutelage of one of the Grimnoir Elders who sought to have her killed. I liked a lot of the scenes here, especially her talent with mazes (foreshadowing!), as well as finally getting a look into Dead City (Berlin). I did feel that some of Faye’s story was a bit rushed, especially towards the ending. I understand that the nature of her power as Spellbound allows for this sort of rapid ramp up, but it just felt a bit too quick of pace for me.

My favorite aspect of Warbound had to be the relationship between Jake Sullivan and Toru, the disgraced Iron Guard. The grudging respect between the two was fantastic. I think Corriea writes villians better than just about anyone. Madi, the Chairman, Crow, all fantastically complex characters. Though technically not a villain, I’d put Toru in there with them.

Of course the action is fantastic. If Correia is one of the best at writing villians, he’s THE best at writing action. MHI had great fight scenes, but Correia’s mastery of his magic system takes the Grimnoir Chronicles to the next level. If anyone asked me who to read if you want to get better at writing action, I’d recommend Correia without hesitation. Jake’s entrance for the final fight was awesome.

Overall, the trilogy was excellent. One of the best reads for me in quite a while. It was very well plotted and paced. Everything was well foreshadowed without giving too much away. No Deus ex machina, nothing out of left field. I thought that stakes were continously raised, though not always as you’d expect.

The main plot of the second book, Spellbound, was actually a bit of a step back from Hard Magic. The Chairman was a larger than life, international/worldwide threat. In comparison, the Grimnoir’s fight against Crow and the OCI was much smaller scale. However, Corriea took the opportunity to up the personal stakes for Faye by revealing the truth of the Spellbound curse, as well as introducing the threat of the Pathfinder without getting into it directly. I thought it was an interesting and unique way to structure the trilogy. Usually it’s just a constant ramp up.

TL;DR
The Grimnoir Chronicles trilogy was one of the most enjoyable reads I’ve had in a long time. The setting is fantastically uncommon, the characters are complex, the plot is compelling, and Corriea is a master of action writing. I’d recommend the trilogy to anyone, especially if you’re already a fan of MHI.

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Papers, Please.

A Dystopian Document Thriller.

The communist state of Arstotzka has ended a 6-year war with neighboring Kolechia and reclaimed its rightful half of the border town, Grestin.

Your job as immigration inspector is to control the flow of people entering the Arstotzkan side of Grestin from Kolechia. Among the throngs of immigrants and visitors looking for work are hidden smugglers, spies, and terrorists. Using only the documents provided by travelers and the Ministry of Admission’s primitive inspect, search, and fingerprint systems you must decide who can enter Arstotzka and who will be turned away or arrested.

“Papers, Please” is, quite simply, a triumph of game design.

Looking at the game as a simple list of mechanics, it’s nothing special. It’s essentially a “spot the difference” game. However, a few simple design choices make all the difference and turn it into one of the most addicting and compelling games I’ve played in a long time.

The theme makes the game.  It’s an entirely believable setting and situation; I could imagine this being based on real events in Eastern Europe during the Cold War.  The crushing poverty, the political instability and paranoia.  It all just works.

The addition of time constraints is an obvious addition to a game such as this.  It sets up a conflict between being thorough in your checks and getting as many people through immigration as quickly as possible.  Making a mistake can result in being penalized.

Of course, this addition by itself is not what makes the game so genius.  You receive money for every immigrant you inspect.  At the end of the day, you get a very simple menu showing your income and expenses.  Rent, food, heat, etc.  You also are caring for your family; you have a wife, a son, as well as your uncle and mother-in-law living with you.  Sometimes they will get sick and you need to purchase medicine for them.  Sometimes you won’t have enough money to care for everyone.  You never even see your family members, but it’s still a gut-wrenching moral decision to skimp on medicine for your uncle and mother-in-law to afford food for your wife and son.

Other moral quandaries arise during your work day. A young girl slips you a note that a man is getting her into the country so that he can sell her into sex slavery.  A husband is admitted into the country, but his wife doesn’t have all her documents. Do you admit her, even though it will cost you money you need to keep your family alive?  This is how morality is best handled in games.  You don’t give people Good or Evil points; you simply put them in tough situations and make them decide what the right thing to do is.  You don’t judge them, you make sure they know the consequences beforehand and let them weigh their options.  Some  will do whatever is the “best move” as far as the game in concerned, but for others it will be painful, and therefore meaningful.

It’s an incredible simple yet deep game.  It demonstrates how a solid theme can inform mechanics, and how a few mechanics mixed with the pressures of time constraints and moral decisions can create a rich, engaging, and addicting experience, without having to spend millions of dollars on fancy graphics or effects.

“Papers, Please” is still in development, but you can download a free demo here