Under the Skin features an extraterrestrial named Isserley, who has been surgically altered to resemble a human being, she drives the Scottish Highlands looking for muscular men to farm for their meat, an expensive delicacy on her world. “Scarred and awkward, yet strangely erotic and threatening, she hears passengers reveal who might miss them should they disappear…”
Optimist: One thing I didn’t expect coming from the film to the novel is that the “humans” (as the aliens call themselves, while homosapiens are referred to as “vodsels”) aren’t so advanced as to be able to easily disguise themselves as homosapiens. Isserley has been left angry and bitter at how her body has been contorted and mutilated to make her look like us (and only passably at that), and she suffers from severe chronic pains. Her rage encompasses the surgeons for mutilating her, the elite class of her species for betraying her, and males (of both species) for objectifying and pitying her.
Cynic: Isserley is a great character but I’m not a fan of omnipotent narration, especially when it’s used so sporadically. It almost feels like cheating when we’re explicitly told what the hitchhikers are thinking.
Optimist: We don’t always know what they’re thinking. It’s used sparingly, rather than sporadically, and in a specific context. And besides, it’s these sections which give us some of the funniest and most interesting parts of the book. Like how every single one of the men she picks up doesn’t realise she looks a little odd for a human because every one of them – even the non-chauvinists – are distracted by her huge breasts. It’s funny until you realise how believable it is. It’s part of what makes it, in my view, a great feminist book.
Cynic: I didn’t know whether I felt that more sympathy for the vodsels or for Isserley. That’s kind of fucked up. I mean, look at me calling humans “vodsels”.
Optimist: That kind of divided loyalty is one of the book’s great strengths. Though Isserley shows herself to be capable of unimaginable cruelty against our kind, she is still essentially an exploited worker. She thinks about us in the same way we think about our sources of food, though at times has the same misgivings that I, as a meat-eater, have about the morality of what I’m doing.
Cynic: Don’t remind me. It’s when a few of them escape that we first get the sense of what’s going on. One of them tries to throw a clump of dirt at Isserley, but is so bulky from overfeeding that it isn’t able to. That in itself was a pretty horrific image, but then we find out about the cutting out of tongues and the castration…it’s horrifying. I can’t get some of those images out of my mind.
Optimist: I found that more funny than horrifying, though the book goes for a sense of both. It’s very satirical and over-the-top and yet, oddly, still “realistic”, in a sense. My favourite parts of the book were those with Amlis Vess. The dynamic between him and Isserley is fascinating; he is wealthy, idle and immensely privileged. Isserley is, as I mentioned, an exploited worker. She has suffered because of people like him, and our sympathies lie thoroughly with her. And yet it is Isserley who is preying on us “humans”, while Amlis Vess is – for want of a better term – an animal rights activist, vehemently opposed to the slaughter of living, thinking creatures for meat. It’s an interesting juxtaposition. Vess’s idealism doesn’t automatically make him a hero. It could even be seen as self-indulgent – the concerns of the rich and privileged. Isserley doesn’t have the luxury to sit around philosophising on the morality of meat eating. She has a job to do.
Cynic: It’s interesting, this whole thing about empathy and power, but not exactly the most original of conflicts.
Optimist: My description doesn’t do it justice. It’s not one of those sci-fi novels in which characters are just vessels for the writer’s big themes Under the Skin is first and foremost character-driven. We genuinely care about Isserley, and that makes the big ideas of the novel much more interesting as they pertain to her character. All round, it’s a really fantastic novel.
Cynic: On balance, I’d say I agree.
How do I talk about a book like this? The truth is I probably can’t. At least, not as well as I’d like to. I finished The Secret History a few months ago and I’m still not sure how to write about it. But I’ve decided to just start writing and see where it gets me.
I reluctantly decided to listen to The Secret History as an audiobook. I generally feel audiobooks are better suited to sci-fi and fantasy than literary novels. However, the book is narrated by Donna Tartt herself, and knowing that it was the author’s interpretation of her own characters alleviated my guilt. What’s more, Tartt proved to be an extraordinary narrator as well as a spectacular author. She brought the characters to life in a way I would never have managed by reading a physical copy. Her voice for Bunny is particularly notable. The combined brilliance of the novel and this narration means I’m bound to listen to it several more times within the next year alone.
I’ve frequently read The Secret History described as a ‘reverse murder-mystery’ novel. This is technically true. It starts off with a murder and then we follow the perpetrators – a small group of Ancient Greek students at the University of Vermont – and the events leading up to the crime. But I don’t think this description quite encompasses the novel. At first it seems to be a book about horrible people doing horrible things to other horrible people. In the beginning I was quite concerned about hating all of the characters so much. But gradually it dissipated. They weren’t awful people, just different. Then later, as I got to know them better, just flawed. Now that’s morally questionable…but it was an accident. Okay, that’s a lot more questionable, but they don’t really have any other choice… (and on it goes) until “Oh, god, these people are terrible, terrible human beings. And so am I for ever agreeing with their reasoning!” I was complicit in their crimes. Leading up to the murder I became more and more convinced it was necessary and unavoidable. Then, the further away we got from the incident, my sense of morality gradually returned to me, just as it does for the characters. Of course it wasn’t necessary! How could I ever have been convinced otherwise? It’s quite a journey as a reader. I became as morally corrupt as the characters without even noticing it.
For much of the book I couldn’t figure out the significance of Ancient Greek. Of course, my lack of knowledge on Ancient Greece itself inevitably meant that many of the references went over my head, but the subject features so prominently I was bound to missing something more obvious. Some central theme I should be able to pick up on. It wasn’t until after the halfway point and the murder that it suddenly clicked: The Secret History is, itself, a modern Greek tragedy. The murder itself is tragic, and afterwards we watch their lives splinter when, if only they had a chance to move on from it, everything would be okay again. A return to ‘normality’ feels tantalisingly close, but it can’t come to pass.
If the book has one weakness I would say the events of the climax seem somehow apart from the rest of the book. It doesn’t feel quite real. However, given how meticulously Tartt crafts her novels (she spends 10 years on each book she writes) it may well be that this surrealism is deliberate and I simply haven’t picked up on its significance yet.
But either way, The Secret History is one of those books which is so good it makes me worry about ever being able to love another novel again, and it’s hard to give a book higher praise than that.
“For Gideon Mack, faithless minister, unfaithful husband and troubled soul, the existence of God, let alone the Devil, is no more credible than that of ghosts or fairies. Until the day he falls into a gorge and is rescued by someone who might just be Satan himself. Mack’s testament – a compelling blend of memoir, legend, history, and, quite probably, madness – recounts one man’s emotional crisis, disappearance, resurrection and death. It also transports you into an utterly mesmerising exploration of the very nature of belief.”
I thought, given the events of the book, it’d be appropriate to review The Testament of Gideon Mack with The Devil. He has a deep, drawling voice and a bored tone, if you’re wondering.
Me: Something I didn’t realise going in was that this book spans Gideon’s entire life, from his childhood to his death. His father was a minister too, and so we see the effects Gideon’s repressed Calvinist upbringing has on him later in life.
The Devil: Because blaming Scotland’s problems on Calvinism is sooo original. We’ve never seen THAT done before.
Me: Somehow I doubt YOU are one of Calvin’s great defenders. You just like being the contrarian. In any case, it’s not solely an indictment of Calvinism. Gideon spends much of his ministerial career raising money for various charities. Helping the poor is one of Calvinism’s great legacies.
The Devil: Except that even in this he can’t bring himself to care or be happy about the people he is helping. It’s just a challenge; can he top himself this time?
Me: I’m getting the sense you didn’t like the book much?
The Devil: It’s unbearably dull. At least until my own little cameo, and that doesn’t happen until I’ve suffered through 270 pages of his mundane life.
Me: I personally found the section where Gideon meets the Devil to be the least interesting.
The Devil: You what?
Me: I guess I found his everyday life more interesting than you did. Things like the in-fighting between Church factions and his preference for the company of eccentrics and atheists were the most enjoyable parts of the book. No, it’s not a book I devoured. I didn’t read it more quickly as the action picked up. As a reader, I saw everything with the same sort of detachment as Gideon. It wasn’t an exciting read per se, but it wasn’t boring. It had an easy pleasance to it.
The Devil: I’ll admit that his childhood and relationship with his father was rather funny.
Me: Let me guess, you’re favourite part was that one anecdote about Gideon not being allowed to watch television on the Sabbath, missing the second-half of the Batman double-bill, and never knowing how Batman and Robin got out of Saturday’s cliff-hanger.
The Devil: Why, yes. How could you tell?
Me: Because you’re a sadist.
The Devil: Quite an important part of the job description.
Me: Anyway. Coming from an island, I thought Robertson really nailed the feeling and dynamics of living in a small town. And his description of the gorge known locally as the ‘Black Jaws’ leaves a vivid image. But my biggest takeaway from the novel was that despite my atheism a career as a Church of Scotland minister doesn’t sound half-bad; talking about whatever you want at sermons, doing a wee bit of charity work, getting set up in a cushy manse somewhere. I could do a lot worse.
The Devil: Then you missed the whole point of the novel. Gideon’s lies devour him and those around him.
Me: I thought that was your doing?
The Devil: I can’t take all the credit. Gideon had dug a hole for himself long before I came along. Besides, who’s to say I was even real?
In Defence of Stannis of the House Baratheon, First of His Name, King of the Andals and the First Men, Lord of the Seven Kingdoms and Protector of the Realm.
Spoiler Warning: This post contains a couple (very) mild book spoilers for A Dance with Dragons.
I’ve added a strikethrough for anyone who wants to skip over these lines but still read the rest of the piece.
Stannis gets a lot of hate and I think it’s entirely unjustified. So, to quote one overly-popular royal:
“I will answer injustice with justice.”
Here’s why you should re-examine your views towards the One True King of Westeros.
“Robert was the true steel. Stannis is pure iron, black and hard and strong, yes, but brittle, the way iron gets. He’ll break before he bends.” – Donal Noye, A Clash of Kings, Jon I
First and foremost, Stannis is a a fascinating character. Or, at least, the situation he’s facing makes him an interesting one. My friend Andrew on Twitter summed it up best: “It’s the complexity of having righteous indignation when no-one else gives a shit, and maybe compromising your integrity to act upon it.” (Andrew is, ironically, a notorious Stannis-hater, but lately he’s started to come around somewhat.)
Stannis being forced to compromise his integrity and to deal with moral greys in a world he has always perceived as black and white is a fascinating inner-conflict. This is why I’ve always wanted to read more about Stannis during Robert’s Rebellion: torn between his duty to his older brother and his duty to his King.
“…The truth is a bitter draught at times. Aerys? If you only knew . . . that was a hard choosing. My blood or my liege. My brother or my king.” He grimaced. “Have you ever seen the Iron Throne? The barbs along the back, the ribbons of twisted steel, the jagged ends of swords and knives all tangled up and melted? It is not a comfortable seat, ser. Aerys cut himself so often men took to calling him King Scab, and Maegor the Cruel was murdered in that chair. By that chair, to hear some tell it. It is not a seat where a man can rest at ease. Oft times I wonder why my brothers wanted it so desperately.” Stannis Baratheon, A Storm of Swords, Davos IV
This quote leads me onto a second point: some people doubt his sincerity, but I truly believe Stannis doesn’t want the Iron Throne for his own benefit. Everytime he talks about the throne and of ruling, we sense the same reluctance we see in this quote. He’s driven not by a lust for power but by a sense of law and justice. He has the rightful claim, and so he will press it. Even when all hope seems gone, he will fight until the bitter end. As Cenk Uygur comically puts it: “He’s a relentless motherfucker: ‘Oh, my entire army got wiped out? That’s interesting…anyway, how are we going to win?'”
There’s something inherently admirable in his tenacity.
Though his disadvantaged position at times conceals it, Stannis is undoubtedly the best military commander in the Seven Kingdoms. Better than Tywin Lannister and Robb Stark ever were.
During Robert’s Rebellion he held Storm’s End under siege for an entire year when he was (I believe) only 18. During Balon Greyjoy’s first rebellion he beat the Ironborn at sea with little to no experience in naval combat, smashing the Iron Fleet off of Fair Isle. At the Battle of the Blackwater he came within an arm’s reach of becoming the first person to ever successfully storm King’s Landing (he was only beaten by wildfire magic). He smashed the wildling army despite it being 10x the size of his own force.
He went all Macbeth on the Ironborn at Deepwood Motte, using trees to mask his approach to the castle. Almost every decision he makes, even the non-military ones, have some larger tactical purpose. Maybe none of this sounds particularly impressive if you don’t know the details of the battles but this essay is a complete analysis of Stannis as a military commander: over 10,000 words long, astoundingly well-researched and detailed, it’s a very interesting read and will convince you of Stannis’s military genuis.
Seduced by Dark Magic?
Okay, I think it’s time to address the fiery red priestess in the room.
“Stannis is controlled by the Red Women!”, I hear the naysays cry.
Firstly, Stannis has too much of an iron will to be ‘controlled’ by anyone. Secondly, Melisandre clearly demonstrated that she has magical powers and can see the future – Stannis would have been a fool NOT to use her to his advantage. And using her is exactly what he’s doing. Despite seeing R’hollor’s power for himself Stannis remains stubbornly unimpressed. How many men – how many Kings – would be firmly wrapped around Melisandre’s finger at this point? When someone who can see the future tells you that you are Azor Ahai reborn that kind of thing is likely to go to your head, but Stannis has never succumbed to that kind of egotism. Melisandre certainly represents the devil on his shoulder, but Stannis will never be a religious zealot and though he may be compromising his integrity, he shows no sign of becoming a slave to Melisandre’s will. Melisandre and her Red God are only tools he means to use to win the Iron Throne.
Ignore the Propaganda: Stannis has the makings of a great King
In the past even I have qualified my love for Stannis with the admission I didn’t think he’d make a good King, but recently I’m not so sure about this. In fact, I’ve come to think Stannis may well be the best King or Queen Westeros could hope for.
Varys once said of Stannis:
“There’s no creature on earth half so terrifying as a truly just man.” – Varys, A Game of Thrones, Ned XV
Indeed. But (
leaving Danaerys out of it because at this point I doubt she’ll ever leave for Westeros) the options are not between hard justice and gentle forgiveness. The choice is between Stannis’s justice and Cersei’s outright cruelty, and I certainly know which I’d pick. And on a related note; the small council, the court and by extension the realm itself has been thoroughly corrupted by the likes of Cersei, Varys and Littlefinger, the selfish and the power-hungry. Somehow I don’t see them and their ilk prospering under a Stannis administration.
“There must be justice […] I mean to scour that court clean. As Robert should have done, after the Trident.” Stannis Baratheon, A Storm of Swords, Davos IV
Some may counter that his black-and-white sense of right and wrong means Stannis isn’t diplomatic enough to sit the Iron Throne. But there’s evidence to the contrary.
He was diplomatic enough to win over the mountain clans, who Jon admits are a particularly quarrelsome people. If diplomacy is called for Stannis is smart enough to see it.
Now, onto the main portion of my argument. Renly once told Ned Stark:
“He inspires no love nor loyalty. He is not a King.” Renly Baratheon, Game of Thrones, S1E7
This is one of the main criticisms against Stannis – he is unloved and therefore would be unable to command loyalty and respect from his subjects if he were King. But again it is demonstrably untrue. Quite the opposite: Stannis commands a loyalty and even love from his followers that few other leaders could dream of. During the strenuous, agonising, year-long siege of Storm’s End there was only one person who attempted to open the gates to Mace Tyrell’s army. The betrayal failed, but it would have been easy for Stannis’ men to turn on him en masse and open the gates in exchange for food and riches. Instead they starved for him. Much later his men would march to meet Renly’s army on the battlefield knowing they would hopelessly outnumbered, yet they still trusted in their King. Then they burned for Stannis on the Blackwater. Then, even after that crushing defeat when all hope for his cause seemed lost, they rode North with him, braving the cold and the snow to smash Mance Raydar’s wildling army Beyond-the-Wall. And through each hardship Stannis was always right there with his men. He inspires fierce love and loyalty from his subjects because he sufferes everything he asks them to suffer. And of course, that’s not even to mention the most notable example of love and loyalty Stannis elicits from his subjects. (*Cough*, Davos.)
The Onion Knight
Speaking of our Davos, he is living proof that Stannis is much more progressive when it comes to birth than anyone else. Granted, Varys and Littlefinger have risen high, too, but somehow it feels much less wholesome when they’re used exclusively for spying and sabotage. Stannis raised Davos up because he rewards good deeds and leal service. This is a more just way of doing things and the realm itself would be the better for it. And if I had to choose sides in any confict then I feel more than comfortable following the lead of a man like Davos Seaworth, one of the only genuinely good people in the entire series.
Winter is Coming: Protector of the Realm
The fact that Stannis is the only King to actively defend the realm has been mentioned so many times it’s like to lose its significance, but it’s no small thing. The Game of Thrones is meaningless in the face of what Westeros will be facing very soon, and Stannis is the ONLY candidate who takes the threat seriously and is willing to do anything about it.
After Evan is arrested for online anti-Catholic abuse and as he awaits trial, both he and his parents try to come to terms with their situation and struggle to explain how they reached this point.
Optimist: Set in one small room with chairs surrounding the actors, there’s a deliberate and claustrophobic intimacy to the play. The uncomfortable proximity makes the central performance all the more powerful; you can clearly feel Evan’s latent anger and bitterness at the situation.
Cynic: I’ll give you that it’s well produced but I have a question. Evan’s “sectarianism” is borne of ignorance, not hatred, that’s made quite clear. But in that case what is the play’s purpose? What’s its message? A misguided sectarian slur drives the drama, but the play doesn’t seem to be saying anything about sectarianism itself…
Optimist: Perhaps that sectarianism is so ingrained in our society that it trickles down to even those who’ve never been directly exposed to it?
Cynic: Again, that drives the play but doesn’t feel like its main purpose. At times it seemed to me like the play’s central message was an indictment of the internet and technology. The title is a partial reference to ‘keyboard warrior’, it’s only when Evan’s online world is threatened that he reacts rashly, and if he weren’t so obsessed with the internet and violent video games none of this would have happened. It just felt judgemental to me: “Kids these days with their online abuse…”
Optimist: I’ll admit that I have wondered the same thing but I’m far from certain that’s really the case. During the big, climactic moment of the show – Evan’s monologue – the writing seemed to display a deep first-hand appreciation for video games. This makes me think the play was more of an indictment against the ineffective, catch-all laws against sectarian language, which punishes those who aren’t truly any danger and does nothing to address the real problem.
Cynic: That does seem a more logical stance for the play to take…
Optimist: Either way, I know I enjoyed it. It’s difficult to choose a stand-out performance as all three actors portrayed entirely different reactions very effectively. There’s the father’s confusion and disappointment as his career is trashed, the mother’s understated sadness and fear for her son. Most of all there’s Evan’s pain, bitterness and rage at both the situation he’s now in and the bullying that pushed him to it. The last-line of the play’s big climax was delivered which such anger and ferocity that I can still recall it perfectly now. All things considered this was a play which managed a great deal with very, very little. I was certainly glad to have seen it.
Cynic: All things considered, I’d say I was too.
Stephen: As you can see from the review, I’ve certainly struggled a bit with figuring out exactly what the play is trying to tell us. I’m not sure if that’s the fault of the play or a failing of my own. However, when it comes down to it- any play I’ve spent this long thinking about was certainly worth my time. If it interests you at all then don’t hesitate to see it.
Optimist: The play stars a cheeky bogle, a sexy selkie, a dour banshee and a diabolical demon. We find out our faerie protagonists, particularly the demon Black Donald, have had a hand in the events of Scottish history, and especially the Act of Union. The faeries are worried that if Scotland votes Yes and becomes a ‘proper country’ then it won’t have need for mythology anymore, and the faeries will all die out. It’s a cheekily satirical play, complete with a gorgeous and atmospheric set.
Cynic: …There’s a couple of chairs and some smoke.
Optimist: Beautiful chairs, and the smoke is used to great effect. The Assembly Rooms seemed like a terrific Fringe venue in general. But back to the play. At one point each of the faeries proposes the best way to make Scotland vote No, and in doing so they each appeal to their own characteristics. For example, the selkie believes the No campaign should make the Union seem pretty and enticing before…well, you know what selkies do to you. It’s an especially fun and clever little segment of the show.
Cynic: It was a good segment but that gets me onto the part I wanted to talk about; the play is essentially Yes propaganda.
Optimist: Alan Bissett is pro-Yes. He has said from the start that this is a pro-Yes play. It was crowd-funded by Yes voters and we’re voting Yes! So why on earth are you complaining about it being partisan?
Cynic: Being SO gung-ho about it just makes me a little uncomfortable.
Optimist: It’s unashamedly optimistic about Scotland’s future as an independent nation. Actively working to temper our own excitement about it seems emblematic of the exact kind of Scottish miserablism Bissett wants to oppose here.
Optimist: Exactly. The play is clever, witty, fun, does exactly what it sets out to do and is executed splendidly. You can’t help but walk out of the theatre with a smile on your face.
Stephen: I saw The Pure, the Dead and the Brilliant on its first day. It was packed out then and I’ve heard it’s been packed out every night since, too. And it’s well deserved; this is a great play with lots of cheeky Scottish humour. Perfect if you’re a Yes voter or leaning in that direction (probably unbearable if you’re a staunch ‘No’, though!)
The Curing Room depicts a group of Soviet soldiers who have been locked in a cellar and left to rot by their fleeing Nazis captors in Poland. All they can do is try to hold onto their humanity until their comrades find them, or until they starve.
Cynic: Have you considered that the nakedness was a deliberately provocative and ‘edgy’ decision designed to draw in more of an audience?
Optimist: It’s a realistic depiction of how POW’s are mistreated by enemies and an incredibly brave feat for the actors to perform for an hour and a half on a bare set with no opportunity to hide anything from the audience. Besides, we had no idea they’d be naked until it the show started.
Cynic: But if it’s such a serious and artistic decision then why is it played for laughs? We’re only a few minutes into the play before we hear: “Get over it men; it’s only a cock (*wink wink, nudge nudge*).”
Cynic: Keep it in perspective; it’s not as if it’s saying anything new or original about the human condition. Sticking people in a room and depriving them of basic needs to watch what they do to survive has been done often enough before.
Optimist: Does every piece of art have to say something never before thought of by another human mind?
Optimist: No, this play isn’t the first to examine this situation but it’s the execution that’s so impressive. It’s impossible not to feel emotional while watching these men struggle to hold onto their humanity by desperately clinging to discipline, rank, and structure; even after they’re forced to eat their own dead.
Cynic: Okay- but who realistically cares about rank in a situation like this?
Optimist: That’s the strength of the play! The men themselves struggle to hold onto hierarchy and some sort of chain of command. But doing so is the only way they’re able to maintain any sort of civility or humanity. The stellar performances make it easy to believe that, for these men, it’s the most important thing in the world to maintain it.
Stephen: The Optimist in me wins this one easily. The Curing Room is a spectacular production and without a doubt the most moving play I’ve seen at the Fringe so far. If you’re in Edinburgh at all this month then I highly recommend you catch this one.
I read this back in first year and I’ve wanted to reread it for quite a while. This summer I finally got the chance.
World War Z remains a particularly impressive novel. It seamlessly weaves together survival stories from all over the globe into a single, coherent narrative chronicling everything form the initial outbreak to the how humanity came to win the war and this structure gives it great scope for diversity in the stories.
Realism is the best thing World War Z has going for it. Everything from politics and history to religion and culture factors into how states respond to the crisis- the most ready example is the Israeli civil war which erupts after the government decided to abandon Jerusalem. The inclusion of certain world leaders adds another dimension of realism to the story. For example, Nelson Mandela (though he’s not mentioned by name) gives moral authority and credibility to the military plan which saves the human race but sacrifices millions of lives in the process. This realism is, in my opinion, the great triumph of World War Z and why it stands out as such a particularly impressive zombie story. However, the inclusion of other, less permanent or renowned world figures e.g. the U.S. President and Vice President, who are heavily implied to be real-life politicians Colin Powell and Howard Dean respectively, serves to severely date the book. But to be fair to the book there was a very interesting dynamic between those particular characters which I did really enjoy.
A few other problems were more noticeable this time round. Though the zombie war was global the novel it’s still quite US-centric, which is always a bit frustrating. And a couple of the stories just aren’t as well thought-out or believable as the others e.g. one set in Japan follows a kid who’s apparently so obsessed with his computer that he doesn’t notice the city outside his window going up in flames – or even the fact that his parents have been missing for days! This section read like a “kids these days” lecture with added zombies.
However, most of the stories are very well thought-out and exciting, and a few of my personal favourite stories deserve honourable mentions. One involves a pilot who has to punch-out of her plane in the middle of a vast infected zone. Another is the story of the Indian General Raj-Singh who is a legendary figure throughout the book. There’s also a particularly interesting story of how dogs were used by the military when it came time to fight-back. And finally there’s the story about how the people of Paris thought they could escape the infection by fleeing into the Catacombs (three guesses how that turned out for them).
Tl;dr It’s a great book and the most realistic zombie story I’ve ever come across. Read it if you haven’t yet. And if you have, let me know in the comments which your favourite stories were.
Ubisoft just released the trailer for the next game in the franchise, Assassin’s Creed: Unity, which will be set during the French Revolution. My first thought was, of course, what better time to review last year’s instalment? So far this blog has primarily been dedicated to reviewing a sci-fi series that began in 1987, so this should fit right in to the ‘belated reviews’ niche I’m carving out for myself.
Bringing back the most popular gameplay mechanic of Assassin’s Creed III– or the only popular one, if you’re gonna mean about it – was probably a good move by Ubisoft, and the Caribbean setting is unique in the AC universe so far. However, I didn’t find the naval gameplay to be quite as engaging as most others seem to. Not as a core feature, at least. The occasional naval battle certainly helped to spice things up a bit in AC3, and boarding an incapacitated ship did always retain a satisfying sense of victory about it in Black Flag. But the naval battles still felt repetitive.
AC4 substitutes melodrama for a rollicking pirate-adventure feel, which was a good idea but one in which I think Ubisoft could have found a happier medium. The main missions could have done with a few more big cinematic / dramatic moments. There’s an unfortunate absence of memorable antagonists but colourful companions such as Blackbeard go a very long way to injecting interest in the main story.
The meagre choice of weaponry was enough to make me yearn for the diversity of even Assassin’s Creed III in this regard. I’m aware that the crossbow hadn’t ‘made it’ at this time in this part of the world and that a pirate would never be caught dead with a bow and arrow. But you’re also a semi-assassin and if there’s any aspect of an Assassin’s Creed game where you should take liberty with historical accuracy it’s the actual gameplay.
Of the weapons you do possess; the swords are fine and the blowpipe is useful (if unsatisfying). Chain shotting your enemies using four different pistols was always a pleasure though, I’m not gonna lie. But you don’t unlock the rope dart until one of the last few main story missions – so late into the game I’d already completed all of the assassination AND naval contracts. I could have used the variation the rope dart offered much earlier on. With no real goals to accomplish I ended up stalking the streets of Havana, hanging random guards throughout the town like the Assassin version of Lady Stoneheart (if you’re a Game of Thrones fan and don’t recognise that name don’t Google it – it’s a pretty massive spoiler).
Would it be unbearably negative to say my favourite thing about this game was simply that it avoided the biggest mistake of the previous ones? I expect the answer is yes, and I suppose to call it my favourite thing would be exaggerating. But I was nonetheless thrilled with how little time I was required to spend in the present-day Abstergo storyline. There was nothing more frustrating in the last games to be abruptly taken out of the experience and forced to play through whatever fresh melodrama Desmond faced that day.
This is the first AC game where the money you acquire is actually put to good use. Since AC2 the series has been notorious for including a relatively useless upgrade system, forcing to spend most of your money renovating a town (or something similar) which has no effect on the actual story. Yahtzee summed it up perfectly: “At least in this game the purchases you make go went to upgrading your ship rather than to cornering the imaginary sofa market.”
Though Black Flag is a breath of fresh air in a franchise that many people thought was on its last legs after AC3, I’m still not convinced Assassin’s Creed’s core gameplay is fun enough to sustain an annual release without stagnating. But Black Flag certainly alleviated some of those fears and as long as they’re able to keep coming up fresh, new environments in which we can run around stabbing important historical figures then I’ll keep enjoying Assassin’s Creed games.
On that note; VIVE LA FRANCE!
P.S. If you’ve never heard of Miracle of Sound, he’s a musician who writes songs inspired by video games. His song for AC4, ‘Beneath the Black Flag’ is catchy as hell, and really captures the rollicking action-adventure nature of the game.