Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Skyrim Book Reviews: Barenziah

Working my way through the Bs, after I finished Biography of Barenziah, I felt a great compulsion to immediately read The Real Barenziah. Since I didn't want to drop an R title into the middle of my B list, and I didn't want to wait until I reached the Rs to talk about The Real Barenziah, I decided to pull these two out and treat them together. I'll probably do the same for Biography of the Wolf Queen and The Wolf Queen.

Biography of Barenziah, by Stern Gamboge, Imperial Scribe. (Three volumes.)

Sniff, sniff. What's that smell? It reeks of propaganda. There are two multi-volume sets about the life of Barenziah, and this is the terrible one. It's kind of worth reading as a companion to The Real Barenziah, but on its own . . . it's a little bit awful.

The Real Barenziah, by Anonymous. (Five volumes.)

Unless "Anonymous" is intended to be Barenziah herself, this can't be considered a historical account, but rather historical fiction. There are too many details that only Barenziah herself could have known. (Yes, I know she wasn't a real person. Stay in character here, okay?) That said, the story is very good.

After reading about the "innocent" and "chaste" Barenziah in Biography of Barenziah, I expected The Real Barenziah to present the opposite extreme. I anticipated a tale of a wicked, evil woman. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find her here depicted as a well-rounded character who did some bad things and who also did some good things. She was a thief and a queen and so many other things, and she had to figure out for herself who she really was. Her feelings and deeds were complex, and I found myself liking the character. I have a few quibbles with typos, misused words, and inconsistencies in the spelling of Riften/Rifton (I don't care which, but each author should pick one and be consistent), but overall I can overlook such small flaws in the face of a well-told story.

Biography of Barenziah, as a companion to The Real Barenziah: two and a half stars.

Biography of Barenziah, alone: One star.

The Real Barenziah, with or without the other set: Four stars.


Note: I am not connected to Bethesda in any way, and no one asked me to do these reviews. I am doing this purely for my own fun, as time allows. I don't have an agenda, other than the joy of reading and writing. If I panned your favorite Skyrim book, sorry. If I gave five stars to one you thought was awful, also sorry. These are my opinions and mine alone. You're entitled to your own.

Read these books within the game Skyrim, on The Elder Scrolls Wiki or on the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages, or download the Dovahkiin Gutenberg.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Skyrim Book Reviews, Titles Beginning with A

Read these books within the game Skyrim, on The Elder Scrolls Wiki, on the Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages, or download the Dovahkiin Gutenberg.


An Accounting of the Elder Scrolls, by Quintus Nerevelus, Former Imperial Librarian.

Since Skyrim is the first Elder Scrolls game I've played, I really wasn't familiar with the lore surrounding the titular Elder Scrolls. This was my introduction to the Elder Scrolls and the Moth Priests, as told by a librarian who sought to catalog these artifacts of arcane wisdom.

Of course, considering that I have worked as a cataloger for well over a decade and am presently working toward a Master's degree in library science, I am predisposed to favor a story that features a cataloging librarian. But even setting aside my bias, I do think this is an excellent story. It is tight, well-written, well-paced, and interesting. The narrator's voice is consistent and strong, and the story has a nice, if not completely surprising, twist at the end.

Four stars.


The Ababal-a

I believe it is meant to emulate the great epic tales of history, such as Beowulf, however the writing is convoluted and disjointed. Interesting ideas are presented in fragments that flit by with no connection to one another.

Two stars and a half stars.


Advances in Lock Picking

The author admits up front that he is not a good writer, and he is right. However, despite the purposely terrible writing, there was one piece of information worth opening this book for, beyond the skill point you earn for reading it: holding a torch near the lock makes it easier to pick. I have no idea if this is true in real life, and I can't imagine why it would be, but it has helped my lockpicking in Skyrim.

Two stars.


Ahzirr Trajijazaeri

A Khajiit explains the Khajiit mindset and customs to outsiders who are allies in their struggle against the Imperial oppressors. I felt more like I was listening to an oratory than reading a text. The narrator's voice is perfect, and I can envision him speaking these words with sweeping gestures of his hands and sly flicks of his ears and tail. If this were our modern world, I can imagine this Khajiit on stage, perhaps with a witty and clever PowerPoint presentation displayed on a screen behind him. Perhaps I'm just partial to Khajiit, but I found this book absolutely delightful in every way.

Five stars.


The Alduin/Akatosh Dichotomy, by Alexandre Simon, High Priest of the Akatosh Chantry, Wayrest, and Alduin is Real, and He Ent Akatosh, by Thromgar Iron-Head, prowd Nord

Although these are two separate books and you will likely find them in separate places around Skyrim, they should be taken as a set. When I first found Alduin is Real, I was put off by the painfully bad spelling and grammar, and I almost dismissed it as a junk book. But reading it back to back with The Alduin/Akatosh Dichotomy, I formed a very different opinion.

In The Alduin/Akatosh Dichotomy, the pompous priest Alexandre Simon has a theory about the Great Dragon Akatosh being known by different names in different regions, and he insists that the Nord stories of the great dragon Alduin are just corruptions of the Akatosh myth, and he dismisses any evidence to the contrary. In fine academic writing, he builds his case and dismisses contrary opinions from "the primitive peoples of Skyrim."

Alduin is Real is clearly intended to be a rebuttal of The Alduin/Akatosh Dichotomy, and the barely-literate "prowd Nord" makes his case with a treatise that a third-grade teacher would bleed five red pens dry correcting. Of course, the real author is an anonymous employee of Bethesda, who did a rather impressive job of creating the voice of Thromgar Iron-Head, despite a few occasional lapses into almost-correct standard English. The "prowd Nord" makes his case rather convincingly, actually, and I am inclined to believe his interpretation of Alduin over the analysis made by the priest from Wayrest.

Taken together, these two books present a very interesting commentary on cultural hegemony, local wisdom, and academia versus common sense.

Taken individually, neither of these books would have earned above three stars, but together, as perfect point and counterpoint, I give them five stars.


Amongst the Draugr, by Bernadette Bantien, College of Winterhold

Oh, those crazy mages. Who else would think to live in a crypt to study the undead? Her observations on draugrs are actually very interesting, and they serve to elevate the draugr above the average video game zombies. And her explanation of the connection between the rank-and-file draugr and the dead priest in the central tomb is positively chilling.

Four and a half stars.


The Amulet of Kings, by Wenengrus Monhona

This is full of good historical information for the world of Skyrim, but it's a little dry. I really don't have much say about it. I can't decide if it's interesting in a boring way, or boring in an interesting way.

Three stars.


Ancestors and the Dunmer

This provides a very interesting description of how the Dunmer once treated the bodies of their dead, with a particular focus on the Ghost Fence, which was made from the bones of their ancestors to anchor the ghosts to this world, so that the ghosts might protect the living. I didn't find this as creepy as some readers might, because I've seen with my own eyes the Ossuary at Sedlec in the homeland of my ancestors, and I felt it to be a holy and wonderous place. So building structures of human bones (or in the case of the Dunmer of Skyrim, elven bones) doesn't really creep me out. I thought it was a neat custom, and it made the Dunmer seem much more interesting to me. This probably isn't required reading, but I thought it enriched the game world greatly.

Four stars.


The Apprentice's Assistant: Advice from Valenwood's Most Prestitious Spellcaster

The pompous narrator reminds me a lot of Guilderoy Lockhart from the Harry Potter books. Next comparison: The Great and Powerful Trixie, from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. In short, Aramril, the narrator, is incredibly annoying. She gives useful advice on spellcasting, but probably not anything that the average player wouldn't have figured out on their own.

Two and a half stars.


Arcana Restored: A Handbook, by Wapna Neustra, Praceptor Emeritus

Written in stilted, archaic language, this book repeatedly tells you that you must have it in hand, "so that thou might speak the necessary Words straightaway, and without error." The Words here being an incantation for restoring power to depleted magic artifacts with the Mana Fountain. The author also repeatedly lambasts the work of Kharneson and Rattor, who presumably are his rivals. I haven't learned who they are yet. Perhaps they are the authors of another book that I haven't encountered. In any case, the Words of which Wapna speaks are not actually present in this book.

Three stars.


The Arcturian Heresy
, by the Underking, Ysmir Kingmaker

This book wanders back and forth between present and past tense, sometimes within the same paragraph, making it painful to read. It has a lot of plot, and the poorest possible execution of that plot. It's almost like the author wrote an outline of the book they wanted to write, then though, "eh, good enough," and didn't bother to actually write the book. It reads like an awful first draft that never went through any kind of editing process.

Half a star, and I'm tempted to give it zero.


The Argonian Account
, by Waughin Jarth

This is a four-volume set, and from the title, I expected it to be dull. However, I was pleasantly surprised by the well-written story and excellent pacing. It was neither too long nor too short, but exactly the perfect length without a wasted sentence. The protagonist is a well-paid civil engineer who has somehow managed to get by without ever doing any actual work. His boss, thoroughly deceived into believing that this man is actually one of his best employees, gives him a challenging assignment, one that might force him to work after all. The engineer journeys to the Black Marsh, where he is to improve the roads and bridges in an environment that is exceedingly harsh and hostile. I won't say anything more, because I don't want to spoil the many delightful surprises this story has to offer. Get all four books and read them in order. This is possibly the best Skyrim book I've read so far. Even people who don't play Skyrim might enjoy this story.

Five stars, solid.


The Armorers' Challenge
, by Mymophonus

This is an enjoyable, if rather predictable, tale about two blacksmiths competing for a military contract. One is famous, has a magnificent forge, and has access to the highest quality materials. The other has next to nothing in terms of facilities and materials, however, he has the advantage in knowledge and experience. There is nothing new in this little parable, but the writing style is clean, and it's a pleasing read.

Four stars.


The Art of War Magic
, by Zurin Arctus, with Commentary By Other Learned Masters

The title fairly well sums it up. This is full of tactical advice for battlemages. How useful any of it is, I can't say. I found several pieces of advice to be contradictory. One passage recommends allowing your enemy to win before striking, while another suggests not engaging the enemy unless your own victory is secure. The anecdote about the Chimer sorcerer's ice demon was reasonably entertaining, though, and the book is worth reading just for that.

Two and a half stars.


Note: I am not connected to Bethesda in any way, and no one asked me to do these reviews. I am doing this purely for my own fun, as time allows. I don't have an agenda, other than the joy of reading and writing. If I panned your favorite Skyrim book, sorry. If I gave five stars to one you thought was awful, also sorry. These are my opinions and mine alone. You're entitled to your own.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Skyrim Book Reviews: 2920

It's time to dust off this moldering, old blog and start posting again. Why? Skyrim, of course. In my spare time, late in the evening after I finish my grad school homework, I like to play The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim on my unpatched, offline PS3. People talk about how horrible and unplayable the unpatched Skyrim is, but honestly, I haven't had any game-breaking problems yet. Sure, I've had crashes, poor refresh rates, and distracting lags, but it hasn't been nearly as bad as it was with Fallout 3 or Fallout: New Vegas, and I made it through both of those games.

But I'm not going to talk about the game, not really. No, I'm going to talk about the books. The world of Skyrim is enormous, diverse, and gorgeous. You have ten races to choose from for your character, five houses you can own, more than forty followers you can recruit, and about three different types of enemies. Okay, there are more enemy types than that, but sometimes it feels like all I ever get to fight are bandits and draugrs and bears, oh my! And the occasional random dragon. But my favorite part of the game world is the books. There are hundreds of them, all with unique content. Translated into real-world pages, most of these books are actually short stories. However, they provide quite a lot of backstory to enrich the game-world.

My character, Sekhmet the Khajiit warrior-librarian, is filling her Breezehome house with books. Breezehome doesn't have a lot of bookshelves, but it's the only house she has, so she's also using end tables and other storage containers for books. She's established a distinct reference collection, along with separate serials, history, and fiction sections. (Yes, I'm a little OCD.) Sekhmet accumulates books in-game faster than I, in real life, can read them. (Sometimes, when you're running through a dungeon and you have to shut the game off soon, you just don't have time to read the six new tomes you found.) So imagine my delight when I discovered the Dovahkiin Gutenberg, where a kind bibliophile-gamer has compiled all of the books into a single, downloadable, 1064-page EPUB document, which I was able to load on my Nook. Now I can read the books of Skyrim on my breaks at work and while sitting in waiting rooms.

As I'm reading these books, I'm finding some of them to be delightful, and other to be flat-out terrible. And so I have decided to launch a series of blog posts reviewing the books of Skyrim. I'm going to follow along with the order in which they are presented in the Dovahkiin Gutenberg, because it'll be easier for me to keep track of. You can also see the full text of these books at both The Elder Scrolls Wiki and The Unofficial Elder Scrolls Pages. And, of course, you can find the books laying around all over Skyrim, to collect, read, sell, or decorate your character's home with. But if your reading time is limited, my goal with these reviews is to tell you, without spoilers, which books are worth spending your time on.

Note: I am not connected to Bethesda in any way, and no one asked me to do these reviews. I am doing this purely for my own fun, as time allows. I don't have an agenda, other than the joy of reading and writing. If I pan your favorite Skyrim book, sorry. If I give five stars to one you thought was awful, also sorry. These are my opinions and mine alone. You're entitled to your own.

And so, finally, we come to my first review:

2920: The Last Year of the First Era

This is a massive twelve-volume set, and reading it represents no small time commitment. Don't try to read them out of order; the story is far too convoluted. If you're collecting them in the game, wait until you have all of the volumes to read them. (By all means, though, open them to collect your skill points, and then set them on a shelf for later.) The volumes, in order, are:

2920, Morning Star, v1 (Boosts your One-Handed skill)

2920, Sun's Dawn, v2 (Boosts your Illusion skill)

2920, First Seed, v3 (No skill bonus)

2920, Rain's Hand, v4 (Boosts your Restoration skill)

2920, Second Seed, v5 (Boosts your Speech skill)

2920, MidYear, v6 (Boosts your Heavy Armor skill)

2920, Sun's Height, v7 (No skill bonus)

2920, Last Seed, v8 (Boosts your Sneak skill)

2920, Hearth Fire, v9 (Boosts your Conjuration skill)

2920, Frostfall, v10 (Boosts your Conjuration skill)

2920, Sun's Dusk, v11 (No skill bonus)

2920, Evening Star, v12 (No skill bonus)

Conveniently, the book titles in order also serve as a handy reference guide for the naming system for the twelve months of the year. (Unfortunately, they won't show up in order in your inventory or on your bookshelf--they sort alphabetically.)

Within the Skyrim-verse, 2920 would be considered a historical novel. It took me a couple of volumes to really get into it, because there are so many characters that it was hard to keep track of them all. But the series is long enough to eventually make good use of all of those characters. If anything, I wish it were longer. Not that I wish for more story, but that I wish that the story that is present were told in much greater detail. Given the detailed plot, 64 pages really isn't enough to flesh it out properly, and so it felt cursory and abrupt. It also could have used some editing, as there were a few distracting typos and wrong words used in place of a homonym. But overall, this series is worth reading, just for the twisting intrigue and political backstabbing.

Three and a half stars.