Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Wheel of Time [11] Knife of Dreams

This is Part 11 of my continuing series of blogs regarding what may possibly be my last re-read of The Wheel of Time, in anticipation of the 14th and final book releasing in 2012.Please see this blog post for an overview of the re-read and why I am blogging about it. Warning: CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE ENTIRE SERIES. The best way to approach this retrospective is via your own re-read. If you have not read the entire series yet, you may want to wait on reading this.




Book 11: Knife of Dreams (2005)
In my division of the series, Knife of Dreams doesn't fit into a nice grouping. The feel of the book is half of the previous trilogy and half of the next trilogy, as though you're straddling the border between two countries, one foot in each. I consider it a Prologue to the Conclusion. The Conclusion ends up being the Sanderson Trilogy, which is coming up next. For those who haven't been keeping track, here's my personal division of the series:

Setup Trilogy = 1-3
Action Trilogy = 4-6
Bridge / Midpoint = 7
Wandering Trilogy = 8-10
Conclusion Prologue = 11
Sanderson Trilogy = 12-14

Despite its "odd man out" status, it's a good book, in my opinion the best overall entry in the series since Book 6, Lord of Chaos. It's worth slogging through the Wandering Trilogy to get to this point, because pretty much everything is awesome from here on out.

Coming Back to the Series
When we left off last time, I was extremely upset by the last volume in the series, Crossroads of Twilight. After all the years I had invested in WoT, that book was so disappointing that I vowed I wouldn't continue the series until it was complete.

Obviously, it didn't work that way. Like Kevin Smith and Star Wars, it seems I am predisposed to like this series, no matter what happens to it or in it. It took almost three years for this book to come out, and the more I heard about it and after reading some early reviews, I couldn't help myself. As before, I repeated to myself, "One more chance, Jordan. One more."

In 2005 I was firmly ensconced in Reston, VA, having bought a condo there, working for Nextel Retail Stores in their Finance department, which merged with Sprint in the middle of that year.  I started playing guitar in a new band, Raising Water by Fire, more of a hardcore band than the straight metal I was used to.  The hype of a new WoT novel hit me and I decided to get involved with an online community and interact a little more with other fans of the series. I had lurked on many of the sites for years, but never felt compelled to join one. Finally I did, tarvalon.net.




I joined in early 2005 under the name of Crowl Rife. I got involved in the forums – mainly just General Discussion and the like, never did any of the Ajah or Tower group stuff there – and hung around for quite a while. I just recently logged in for the first time in years, and it appears that in 2010 they restarted their forums or something; all my post history there is gone. Sucks... I wanted to walk a bit down memory lane and relive some my posts. Oh well.

Anyway, I used to be on it at work all the time, and I was pumped for Knife of Dreams. During the course of the year I did a full re-read of the series for the first time since Book 8, The Path of Daggers, back in 1998. This was more to refresh myself on the early books, as opposed to the newer ones, which I still didn't like. I zipped through the re-read, going from the prequel that had released the year before (New Spring, which I'll cover in a separate blog post later) to Book 10 in less than 3 months, finishing up two days before the Knife of Dreams release.

Thoughts Then
Like clockwork, I found myself at a local bookstore, Books-A-Million, on the morning of release. This time I actually took two days off of work so I could just sit and read it straight through. I was the first one in the door when the store opened, grabbed my copy, then headed off to the Silver Diner for breakfast and a little reading.


They have great milkshakes, FYI

The Silver Diner in Reston, VA became my go-to place to celebrate the next two WoT releases, The Gathering Storm and Towers of Midnight. I'm not sure if I'll go anywhere when A Memory of Light comes out... most likely I'll take work off again and just read at home.

Before reading, I flipped through the book, looking at chapter titles and icons. Most times the chapter titles are generic enough to not give anything aside from a POV away, but at this point I didn't care about spoilers. I cared about Things Happening. When I saw the new snakes & foxes icon for Chapter 10, "A Village in Shiota," my heart skipped a beat. Could we really be doing something about Moiraine, Mat and the Aelfinn/Eelfinn? It had been theorized for so long, but there had yet to be confirmation in the books. I then saw the names for Chapters 28 and 29, "In Malden" and "The Last Knot," respectively. Could Perrin possibly rescue Faile? Seriously? The last chapter, "Prince of the Ravens," alluded to the marriage of Mat and Tuon.

I was very excited just checking the chapter titles. So I dove in with high expectations.

So what did I think? I liked the prologue (as usual, they released an eBook version over the summer, which I skipped), but found the first half of the book fairly dull, and not much better than the previous volume. Off to a bad start. But when I finally got to the Rand chapters, the book took off and didn't let up the rest of the way.

Things Happen!
Finally. Finally many significant things were happening in a WoT novel. Storylines that had been dragging on for the last 3-4 books were resolving. No more Perrin whining about Faile. No more Elayne trying to get the Lion Throne. Both seven year tangents that were now thankfully done.

More of the Black Ajah who had disappeared way back in Book 3 are rounded up and taken care of here, though there are still a couple unaccounted for as of now. Mat and Tuon get married, something we've been waiting for since Book 4. Discussing the rescue of Moiraine. Another capture of a Forsaken.

And real signs that Tarmon Gai'don is just around the corner are here... not just the occasional ghost or weevil like in Crossroads of Twilight, but real events, like Nynaeve dropping Lan off at World's End to start gathering up the Borderlanders for Tarmon Gai'don. Reading that chapter actually brought a tear to my eye, it's very well done. Rand trying to make a truce with the Seanchan, since it's obvious he could not conquer them. The pieces are starting to move into their final places.

It was such a relief to see Jordan back on track. Back then Books 8-10 were a pointless tangent to me. I wanted to get back to the three ta'veren and the meat of the story.

Thoughts Now
As I did when I first read it, I found the first half of the novel to still be slow. Knowing that it gets more awesome kept me going, though, and I zipped through the second half in just a couple of days. I like the lead up to Faile's rescue much better now, and I must admit I like that entire sequence in this book—I just don't like all the lead up and dithering around Perrin does in the last two books.

But what I like most about this one is the additional insight into the Seanchan world. We learn of the death of the Empress and chaos in Seandar in the prologue, which is a great twist that I never expected. We get more POVs from Seanchan characters, and the one by Tuon is fantastic, the way she calls Mat "Toy" in her thoughts and the way she is surprised by him once they rejoin the Band of the Red Hand. Overall, Jordan involves them a lot more in this novel than in past ones, and it's at this point that they no longer feel like a peripheral force to me; they are fully entrenched in the "Randland" continent and now have a part to play in the Last Battle. I always hoped Jordan would actually spend time on the Seanchan continent, but I'll take what I can get.




I also think it's interesting how some characters are only just now hearing about Dumai's Wells (the conclusion of Book 6, Lord of Chaos). News travels pretty slow when you don't have the ability to Travel... we've been used to Travelling for a number of volumes now, so it's weird to still encounter that—among the White Tower Aes Sedai of all people! It shows how far behind everyone else they've fallen. Once at the forefront of events in the world, they are now bringing up the rear and risk being left behind if don't accept change.

The one thing that's still lacking at this point, though, is the Black Tower. We get a little bit of it in this volume, but it still feels out of place sometimes. I wish Jordan had been able to spend more time there, showing how it expanded, though we can easily infer that from the few glimpses we do get. I never understood why Rand didn't visit them more. He surely knows what's going on there, yet doesn't try to put Taim in his place. I very much liked how Logain was featured more in this volume, but the whole Black Tower storyline is still unresolved heading into the final book, so we're going to have to wait until then to figure it all out (and finally learn how Demandred has been involved in the Black Tower, as we all know he has). Most likely Taim and his followers will be fighting for the Shadow.

Another Horrible Cover
Another WoT novel, another Sweet cover. This time we get a glimpse into Perrin's tent, which is super exciting and just makes me want to snap up the book and immediately read it. The depiction of Gaul and Galina I am fine with, even Grady on the back, and I do like the color scheme for this one, but I hate this version of Perrin. He looks to be in his 30s and has the typical look of many Sweet characters, which unsurprisingly looks like Sweet himself. He also appears to be a younger version of the dude behind him, which I'm guessing is Arganda.


The golden eyes could have been more prominent...

In addition, the title/author on the spine of the dust jacket is now vertical, rather than horizontal. The Eye of the World was vertical, then everything after that was horizontal...until Knife of Dreams. Suddenly they are vertical again (the next two volumes are vertical too). Why the sudden change? I don't really understand that, and I don't like the way it looks when all the books are in a row on the shelf. Stick with the same design the entire way through, Tor. Makes me think of A Song of Ice and Fire, they have like 4 different U.S. cover designs now, they get rebranded every couple of years it seems.




A Memory of Light Publication Date
A quick note about the final volume, A Memory of Light. While I was finishing up my re-read of Knife of Dreams, Tor announced the publication date for A Memory of Light: January 8th, 2013. Brandon Sanderson had been hinting at November 2012 for a long while now, but apparently Tor and Harriet McDougal (Jordan's widow and editor), decided they needed more time to get the book polished.

The delay doesn't bother me at all. January is only 2 months later than November, and I wasn't expecting it until then anyway. What's another couple of months when you've already been waiting 20 years?

In the end, I suppose I started my final re-read a bit too early. I was hoping for a fall 2012 release... now it will be over half a year until I can read and blog about the final book.

My Only Robert Jordan Signing
This time around, I decided to attend a Robert Jordan signing. In retrospect it was a good thing I did, because I would have never gotten another chance.

I never went to a Jordan signing before for a couple of reasons. One was that I lived in Nebraska until 2001, and I don't believe he ever came close to Omaha or Lincoln for a signing (I could be wrong). Terry Goodkind stopped by Omaha once when Faith of the Fallen (from his Sword of Truth series) released, and I went to that one, but in general Nebraska and surrounds is not a popular area for signings by NYT Bestselling fantasy authors.

As for the other reason... I just never paid much attention to it. I'm not big on signings, to be honest. It's cool to meet an author in person, but I find that I never have anything interesting to say when I go up to get something signed, I feel awkward doing it, and I just don't enjoy sitting around for an hour or two waiting for something anymore. I've done my fair share of that for concerts and the like over the years.

In the case of Knife of Dreams, though, I learned about Jordan's signing tour through tarvalon.net, the WoT fansite I mentioned earlier, and I decided to go since he would be coming near where I lived for once. Another member of tarvalon.net said he'd be at the signing too, and we discussed it and told each other what we'd be wearing so we could chat there. Unfortunately I don't remember what that person's name was, and since those forums are gone I'll never know.

The signing was at Olsson's Books, in Arlington, VA, on October 19, 2005. It was a smaller bookstore, and like many other small bookstores, they now appear to be closed for good (according to their website). I had never been there before, and I left work early the day of the signing to take the Metro (DC subway) into Arlington.




I was a half-hour early, bought my hardback copy of New Spring there so I could get a signing number, then sat and waited. I met the guy from tarvalon.net and we chatted a bit, then sat and read while waiting for Jordan. I was very excited for this signing. I was excited to meet Jordan, listen to him talk, do the Q&A and all the other stuff I kept hearing about regarding his signings over the years.

In retrospect, I think that day was a bad day for Jordan. He was late because of traffic, he said, and maybe he was feeling unwell. In any event, I personally found the signing to be somewhat disappointing, and Jordan seemed irritated, almost like he didn't want to be there. Or maybe it was just me, and I was expecting too much based on reports from all the past signings. And maybe he was getting tired of them and having to field the same questions.  Who knows.

I actually submitted a report of the signing to Dragonmount.com, which they posted and which I just now found mirrored on the Wheel of Time Wiki (a newer reference site). Here it is in full:
Hey, I was at the RJ signing last night (10/19) at Olsson’s Books in Arlington, VA. I’ve been reading the series for nigh 13 years now, but this was my first time attending one of his signings. I would have to say it was a bit of a disappointment...he showed up about 10 minutes late and went through his normal pronunciation spiel looking slightly perturbed. He then reiterated the answers for what have seemed to become the most oft asked questions this time around: Book 12 will be done when he’s finished with it, it will be last one no matter what, Infinity of Heaven is the next thing he’s doing, the two WoT prequels will be done at some point in the future, and that he’s come up with an idea for a trilogy of “outrigger” novels in the WoT world, but that he has to let it stew for a few years before he decides on doing it. Then, probably because he arrived late, he skipped the Q&A and went straight to signing. Somewhat disappointing, as the event was billed as a Q&A / Signing, and the Q&A was the main reason I went in the first place. I would have liked to just hear him talk for a little bit.

Anyway, when he signed my books I just asked him what he thought of the Darrell K. Sweet covers, and he said they were okay, but that he has minimal input on them. Sometimes he suggests scenes, and when he gets to look at the paintings prior to publication he suggest changes, but in the end basically Tor does whatever they want with it. A friend of mine ahead of me in line asked RJ if he would ever do any more Conan books and he said no, he only did them because he needed the money at the time. Obviously, he doesn’t need money anymore. ;^) So that’s it. Nothing too exciting. At least I got to finally meet him after so long.
Yes, of course I asked him about the Sweet covers, considering how much I hate them! Did you expect anything less based on earlier posts? Not surprised at all that he didn't have much to do with them.

Anyway, I got The Shadow Rising and Knife of Dreams signed. I posted a picture of The Shadow Rising in that blog entry, so here's the Knife of Dreams one:




So thank you, Robert Jordan—once again—for taking the time to sign my books and answer my question.

Next:
Book 12 – The Gathering Storm


Previous:
Book 10 – Crossroads of Twilight
Book 9 – Winter's Heart
Book 8 – The Path of Daggers
Book 7 – A Crown of Swords
Book 6 – Lord of Chaos
Book 5 – The Fires of Heaven
Book 4 – The Shadow Rising
Book 3 – The Dragon Reborn
Book 2 – The Great Hunt
Book 1 – The Eye of the World

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Beer Tasting - Unibroue: Eau Bénite Tripel

I was in Costco the other day, and they had this two pack of tripel beers by Unibroue, containing a bottle each of Eau Bénite and Maudite, "holy water" and "damned," respectively.  I had never had these particular tripels before, and knowing how much I love a good tripel (my favorite style of beer), it's no surprise that I had to buy it.

The first of the pair that I tried was Eau Bénite.  This is an interesting tripel, as according to the label it was "developed to offer the characteristics of a bottle refermented tripel with a slightly lower alcohol content."  The alcohol is definitely lower, at 7.7% alc/vol (generally they hover around 9%).

Unibroue is based in Québec, Canada, and as of 2006 it is actually owned by Sapporo Breweries Limited, Japan's oldest commercial brewer.  Unibroue makes a variety of beers, and I've tried some of their Chambly brews in the past, but never one of their tripels.  It seems Eau Bénite is an irregular specialty brew, since it doesn't currently appear on their website.

The Beer
Eau Bénite almost straddles the line between a pale ale and a tripel.  It has many characteristics of both.  It also reminded me of a wheat beer, mainly from the nose and color.  I chilled it up from room temperature for about 10-15 minutes before drinking.  I poured it into my tulip and got a huge head on it, easily half the glass from a brief pour.  Very impressed by the head and the color, a nice golden orange.


Nice light taste as expected.  I got a lot of fruit, primary banana and mango, as well as some orange peel.  Typical spices of the style, coriander and cloves.  It doesn't taste exactly the same to me with a lower alcohol content, but it has all the elements of a tripel.

The Verdict
This tripel is not bad.  Not the best I ever had, nor the worst.  Middle of the road and something I'd try again, but not go out of my way to get.  If you are in the mood for something light and not malty, done in the tripel style, give it a try.  If you're expecting something like a Duvel or Chimay, then you'll be disappointed.

I'll talk about the Maudite that came with it in a future post.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Distant [Update 1] Third Draft

If you've glanced at this site, you might know that I have previously released two eBooks, Bonebearer and Practicing.  If you've actually followed this site and explored it a little bit, you might know that I'm currently working on another novel, called The Distant.  I figured I might post some updates on the progress of this work every once in a while to maybe generate some interest and share some writing observations.

First Draft
The first draft of this novel was written between 2003 and 2009.  It grew out of a short story called "Born of the Forest, Dying With You," which I included in my short story anthology Practicing.  Once I got an idea of how to expand the story, I did a fairly detailed outline and wrote many pages of notes and some backstory.  Then I started writing.

Writing for me is a strange process.  Sometimes I get really involved and churn out a lot in a short time.  Other times I have to struggle to meet a target or to get things going, and in those cases I usually take breaks.  In the case of this novel, I ended up taking some long breaks due to a variety of reasons.  Suffice to say, it was written in chunks, and I veered quite a bit from the original outline.

I've read about how some writers have detailed outlines and adhere strictly to that, keeping tight rein on the characters and never letting the plot stray.  I have a lot of trouble doing that, mainly because I can't help but come up with better ideas as I'm actually writing and I can't help but incorporate them in.  Sometimes the characters tell me what to do, so I start taking the plot in a different direction, go back and fix earlier things on occasion, and usually end up in a way that doesn't mesh with how I started.  I then have to again rework earlier parts to make it all fit together, or cut things entirely.

Second Draft
That is what happened with this novel.  I went where the Muse took me and damn the outline.  Once I finally read through the complete first draft, I realized it needed a lot of work.  I let it simmer for almost two years before revising to a second draft in 2011.  I cut a huge section in the middle that was weak and really pointless in the grand scheme of things, 55K words total (out of the first draft's 231K), and intercut the narrative between past and present scenes (the first draft was chronological).

This new draft works much better in my opinion, as it gets to the meat of the story quicker and backstory is related in smaller chapters as needed.  In the original version the first half of the novel is backstory and setup, and when you get to the major turning point, it seems awkward and almost like an entirely different novel.  So mixing the two highlights both aspects of the work, without boring the reader with a clunky first half.

Third Draft
Last month, I started working on the third draft.  I'm trying to average around 2K words edited per day, though I usually don't meet that.  Some sections need little editing, but others need to be revamped or rewritten to reflect its new place in the novel, and that takes longer.  For instance, by starting the second draft in what was originally the middle of the first draft, I now have to introduce characters and explain concepts there, when in the first draft that had already occurred.  I have to do a little jumping back and forth while editing to keep everything consistent.

Overall, this is hardly the best way to write a novel, but it's the route I took for this one.  It's a learning experience, and something like this can only help improve my writing and editing skills.  I'm expanding some sections and will probably end up with a final word count of around 200K.  And there will definitely be a fourth draft, I can guarantee that.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Winery Visit - Soquel / Hunter Hill

Last weekend my wife (Amy) and I went down to the Santa Cruz area for a day, a short (but twisting and mountainous) 40 minute drive from where we live.  On the way we decided to stop at a couple of wineries.  There are a lot of wineries and vineyards scattered throughout this area, namely Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties, split by the Santa Cruz Mountains.

We chose two near Soquel, CA (to the east of Santa Cruz): Soquel Vineyards and Hunter Hill Vineyard & Winery.  They are very close to each other on the same road, secluded enough to be charming, but not so far away as to be a pain to get to.  Both are only open to visitors on the weekends.

Soquel Vineyards
We went here on recommendation of Amy's cousin.  It is run by twin brothers Peter and Paul Bargetto, along with Jon Morgan.  The Bargettos started this winery after leaving the one their grandfather started, Bargetto Winery (located in Monterey).  You can learn more about their history here.

One of the twins was pouring when we arrived, and unfortunately I can't remember which one (if you ever read this, I apologize!).  We were the only ones in the tasting room when we got there, which was nice - I never really like it when there's a large crowd of tasters.  He offered us two types of tastings: $5 each to taste their regular wines inside, or $10 each to taste their reserves outside and keep the glass.  We have plenty of wine glasses at home and since we had never been there, decided to just taste the regular stuff inside. 

Soquel Vineyards - Tasting Room

As indicative of the area, most of the wines were reds.  The only estate wine they have is a Pinot Noir - everything else is sourced from other areas, such as Paso Robles and the Santa Cruz Mountains.  We tried two different years of Chardonnays, 2008 and 2010 - the older was better, of course.  The 2010 definitely needed more age.  Their Pinot Noir and Zinfandel were both very good, as was their red blend called Trinity (website says Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, but I'm pretty sure he told us that was wrong).  I'm personally not a big fan of blends / table wines... I generally only like to drink them with a hearty meal like pasta or steak, and almost never by itself.  But this one was good.

We ended up buying two bottles.  One Trinity and one Chardonnay (the 2008).  Definitely a place I'd go back to.  All the wines were decent, and it was quiet (chalk that up to being January and the "off season"). 


Hunter Hill Vineyard & Winery
Next, we went down the road to Hunter Hill.  The tasting room here is a little bigger, with a lot of the knickknacks, bric-a-brac and wine accessories most modern tasting rooms want you to buy (Soquel did not have any of that), so it felt a bit more commercial.  We have all the wine accessories we need at this point, but we did end up buying a book Amy found called Wine Wherever, which focuses on California's Mid-Coast & Inland Regions, and which was signed by the authors.  Considering that we live in the region, it may come in useful.  And signed books are always fun to have.

Hunter Hill Vineyard & Winery

Anyway, to the tasting.  I was not impressed by the first couple of wines.  One was a white blend of Viognier and Verdelho, which I found to be a rather odd combination.  They called it Double Barrel.  Did not appeal to me at all.  I believe we did their Sauvignon Blanc next, which was okay.  The first red, a Cabernet Franc, I did not like.  So far off to a bad start.

Side note: The pouring portions here were also quite large... I'm sure wineries probably do this on purpose sometimes, because you generally will buy more if you're "under the influence."  I'm not accusing the pourer, who was very nice and friendly to us, of doing this on purpose for that reason - only saying that larger tasting portions do make it easier to achieve that end.  I know from experience.  Anyway, my wife and I discarded at least half of each pour, it was definitely too much for us.  The tastings were only $5 each, so at least we got our money's worth.

After three initial strikes I thought they were down for the count, but the rest of their wines turned out pretty good.  We definitely liked the Merlot enough to buy a bottle of it.  Their Port, which was a blend of Tinta Roriz, Touriga, Tinta Cao, Alvarelhao and Souzao - all Portugese varietals - was also quite good.  The other reds were average.


In the end Hunter Hill was worth the stop to try something new, the employees were very friendly and they had a nice property, but I don't know if I'd go again.  They didn't "wow" me.   I will always remember the Double Barrel, though.

Update 2/14/2012: We decided to open the Hunter Hill Merlot the other day, because it was already a 2007 and shouldn't be aged much longer... had to use our filter because there was a lot of sediment, so much so that it clogged the filter.  About half of the interior of the bottle was coated with sediment.  After rinsing out the finished bottle, suddenly we could see through it as the sediment washed away (we initially just thought it was a darker bottle).  The wine was decent, but it was good that we opened it, because we could definitely tell it did not have much longer.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Game of the Month [Jan 12] All Zombies Must Die! [PS3]



All Zombies Must Die!
I was actually a little bit disappointed in this game initially. I had high hopes based upon early gameplay videos, because the gameplay looked a lot like Burn Zombie Burn, one of my favorite PS3 games (and one of my favorites of all time, as well). So when I first got it and started playing, I felt immediate disappointment, because it was not what I was expecting.

The core gameplay is still there, but the arcade style of gameplay that I really liked from BZB was essentially gone. This game is not about seeing how long you can go in a level or how many points you can score. There aren't insane developer scores that you must surpass for trophies. It's a simple, run-of-the-mill action/shooter/RPG, whatever that means. You follow a story, do quests, upgrade characters, unlock levels. And after a number of hours with the game, I accepted what it was, and I started to have fun with it.



You can also do 4 player local co-op... I don't do multiplayer much, though.

If you've played BZB before, you'll have an edge going into this one and will find it pretty easy. I definitely did. Only a few parts near the end gave me a little trouble. Altogether, everything in this game is easy - from collectibles to quests to trophies. It makes for a fun 7 hours or so, but the weak leaderboards (based on XP points, I think) add nothing to the game/challenge and there's virtually no replay value. They mix it up a little with the RPG elements, like leveling up your character or a crafting system that you must utilize to complete certain quests - which is good, because I hate when games have item crafting systems that aren't actually needed to complete the game.

So why is this Game of the Month for me? Like I said before, it was fun (after I accepted it wasn't BZB 2), and fun trumps any other reason when I pick a Game of the Month. The only real gripe I have with the game is that you have to constantly go back and forth over the same levels. Different quests help break up that monotony, but it only goes so far. Either way, I had some good fun with this game and I'd play it again. Here's to hoping there's some interesting DLC down the road, and that it's not delayed for nearly 2 years like is it for BZB.


For more info, check the AZMB website and blog.