Monthly Archives: November 2014

Paul Kingsnorth: “The Wake” – a book review

Something a bit different today: for the first time in my life, I feel compelled to write a book review.

the wake

Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake tells the tale of the Norman invasion of England in 1066 through the eyes of a Lincolnshire farmer, Buccmaster of Holland. After the initial wave of devastation, Buccmaster has to find a new way to live in a country increasingly at odds with his traditions and his expectations. But he finds it impossible to let go of the old ways, ultimately leading him into deep conflict with everyone he meets. It is a post-apocalyptic novel set nearly a thousand years in the past.

Over the last week or so, I’ve worked my way through The Wake. This immediately sounds like a less-than-ringing endorsement. Worked my way through? But there’s really no other way to put it. This is a novel that demands the reader’s whole attention, because it’s written in a language that doesn’t exist and never has.

Kingsnorth has taken elements of the Old English spoken a thousand years ago and melded them with elements and syntax from modern English, to create what he calls a ‘shadow tongue’, giving a flavour of how his characters might have spoken in 1066 without requiring the reader to hold a degree in Old English. Naturally, some effort is still required, as seen in an early paragraph*:

so i will go to the ham i saes to my wifman and i will asc what the gerefa macs of this fugol. she was weafan on her great loom in my great hus as i left this hus was sum thing to see. raised of ac timber it was the roof laid with secg from the fenn all carfan on the door frames wyrms and the runes of the eald times. treen we had and some seolfor things a great crocc greater than many in the ham many men was lustan after my hus

But once you have a few pages under your belt and consulted the partial glossary a few times for those words without modern cognates, it becomes almost second nature. Through this gained fluency comes better understanding of the first-person narrator, Buccmaster of Holland. Through better understanding comes insight into Buccmaster’s mind. And what a mind.

Buccmaster is one of the most bitter, small-minded, manipulative, abusive horrors I’ve come across in fiction – the epitome of the anti-hero – and I loved reading his voice. He brought to mind Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho; indeed, anyone meeting Buccmaster now would consider him a sociopath. He sees everyone as below him (his references to his status as a “socman” and his ownership of “three oxgangs of good land” continue long after such things have been destroyed) and uses his initial social status to essentially bully others into following him as an insurgent leader. As the story progresses and it becomes clear that he is no sort of leader, he shows his mastery of manipulation as he twists words and takes advantage of his luck to convince his followers that everyone else is “dumb esols”. Everything Buccmaster does seems to be driven by anger and frustration. In modern American parlance, he has ‘gone postal’. In modern British parlance… he’s pretty much a Britain First candidate. He’s just awful.

Every so often… well, in fact, a lot of the time… Buccmaster achieves his goals by simply being stubborn and swearing aggressively until others back down or are won round. His foul-mouthed rants against the “fuccan frenc hunds” are wonderful to read, filled with the contempt that drives his every action, pulling the reader deeper into Buccmaster’s gradual descent into madness. Filled with blind rage at the loss of his grandfather’s beloved Norse “eald gods” in England due to the coming of “the crist”, he starts to believe himself to be the last hope of “anglisc men”, carrying a sword forged by the mythical Weland the Smith. As a second narrative voice starts to regularly interweave with that of Buccmaster, it is clear that his grip on reality is becoming weaker, and the reader is left wondering where he can turn next.

Ultimately, I hugely enjoyed my ride along in Buccmaster’s mind, although the thing that gives the voice its strength and authenticity – the ‘shadow tongue’ – also proves to be its greatest limiting factor. By limiting the language so that no words of French or Latin derivation are used, Kingsnorth has removed huge swathes of descriptive vocabulary that we are so used to as modern readers. Naturally, a sokeman in 1066 would not have had a huge vocabulary, so it is certainly in keeping with the linguistic conceit, but it does mean that things can be a little repetitive through the course of the book. There are only so many times that you can be told a mere is deop and deorc, lined with secg and lesch, but I forgave the repetition as it gave extra weight to Buccmaster’s slow decline – as if he is using the same phrases again and again to make his thoughts more true and more real, to take things back to the way they always were.

The Wake isn’t a book I can blithely recommend, much as I might like to. It really depends on a person’s relationship with reading as an activity, and the reviews on Amazon bear this out. The rating distribution is an almost-perfect inverted bell curve, with as many people loving it as hating it (“Don’t understand it, Would like my money back” is a particular favourite of mine). If reading is mindless entertainment for you, The Wake is one to avoid. For those who like a bit of immersive challenge and a ride along with one of the most unpleasant characters you may ever meet, it triewely is a fuccan good boc.

————————

* Rough translation into modern English (any translation errors my own):

“So I will go to the village,” I said to my woman, “and I will ask what the reeve makes of this bird.” She was weaving on her great loom in my great house as I left. This house was something to see. Raised of oak timber it was, the roof laid with sedge from the fen, all carved on the door frames [were] dragons and the runes of the old times. We had woodenware and some silver things; a great cauldron, greater than many in the village. Many men lusted after my house.

Newcastle Gamers – Saturday 8 November 2014

A quick blast through the seven (or eight, depending on how you define them) games I played on Saturday…

I kicked off with Stefan Feld’s new La Isla, which had been in the small pile of birthday games I’d bought myself the previous week. It was quick to teach and quick to play, coming in at around an hour with four players (Olly, John Sh and Camo joined me). We played with only the basic ‘level 1’ cards, which was quite enough to be getting on with, iconography-wise, but it did mean we were limited to the most basic of actions and bonuses (no extra explorers, no extra card slots, etc.).

The decagonal island was crowded for four, so there were a few occasions with animals being stolen from under each other’s noses – I managed to snipe a pika from Olly at the last minute, ensuring I’d have a full set of five animals for 10 points in final scoring. That pika wasn’t enough to stop Olly from winning comfortably, however, after he’d taken a strong lead in the mid-game through a simple strategy of methodically working his way around the island while the rest of us jumped around a bit as the cards dictated.

Early game – it sure is pretty

Early game – it sure is pretty. Too many pikas over on the left though, and not enough time to work around to them.

It was a fine game. Not as in “mighty fine”, but simply… fine. Nowhere near the level of Feld brilliance like the wonderful Trajan, but a perfectly good light, quick game. I do have some minor complaints, mainly that (a) it’s very susceptible to bad luck in the card draws because you have to use every one of the three cards you draw in each round (no holding back a useless card until it’s useful); and (b) the resource colours are horrendous for people with colour-blindness. Camo misplayed a couple of times because he couldn’t distinguish the card images of natural and yellow cubes. I was struggling to tell grey from brown at times, but that may have just been the lighting in the hall. This is all compounded by the fact that the natural wooden cubes range from roughly white to nearly grey… sometimes on different faces of one cube.

On the positive side, it’s quick, light and easy to teach and understand. It has some player interaction, but not too much opportunity for screwage, and it looks lovely on the table. (It also includes one of my favourite components ever – the three-slot player card holders are so simple, yet so effective.) All of this leads me to think it might be perfect gateway euro fodder, so I’d definitely like to try La Isla with some non-gamers.

Next up was Lost Legacy: Flying Garden, which is Seiji Kanai’s own tweak on his Love Letter mechanics. It plays identically to Love Letter for most of each round, until the “investigation phase” is reached, at which point… well, my understanding of what happens at that point is kind of limited. We played a full round (complete with investigation phase) with four players. Camo bore the full brunt of the game’s biggest weakness by being eliminated on the very first turn of the game. I slipped the Flying Garden into the Ruins, but then didn’t get a chance to take part in the investigation phase because John correctly guessed where it was. Lloyd arrived, so we shuffled in Lost Legacy: The Starship to make it playable with five. There were lots of eliminations in this one, with Lloyd winning by default as last player standing.

Lost Legacy is a fine substitute for Love Letter (there’s that word “fine” again…), but I’m not entirely convinced by the addition of the deduction/investigation element. Given the choice, I’d probably go for the raw simplicity of Love Letter.

And then Mousquetaires du Roy happened.

Lloyd brought it out, set it up and we all just sort of rolled along with it. Quite how this occurred, I have no idea. It was absolutely not John’s sort of game, probably not Olly’s sort of game and it didn’t appeal much to me, but somehow politeness overtook us all and we became Dumas’ Three Musketeers. Or, in my case, d’Artagnan (cue much singing of the Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds theme tune).

Now, as thematic integration in games goes, this was really pretty good. It’s an obvious candidate for a one-versus-many game: Lloyd was the dastardly Cardinal Richelieu, secretly deploying Milady de Winter and the Comte de Rochefort to stop the four of us as we attempted to complete missions and return the Queen’s jewels before time ran out. Sadly, as game mechanics go, it was dreary. Want to attempt a mission? Roll some dice. Duelling? Roll some dice. Seeing how the siege at La Rochelle is going? Roll some dice. Bleeuurgh.

Worst of all was the colossal downtime. If (as happened to me twice) you get knocked out during a duel on the first action of your turn, you go to hospital, lose the rest of your actions, wait for everyone else to take their turns, sit through Richelieu’s machinations, then lose another turn because all you can do in hospital is stand up, heal and draw a card. Bleeeuuurrrgh.

"So, I've got this Nobility card. Does anyone need more Nobility? Shall I use this Nobility to complete this mission?" "Meh."

La Rochelle looks desperate, while Camo attempts to pay off someone in Paris with chess pieces.

Anyway, we won in the end. Mousquetaires du Roy, ladies and gentlemen: never again.

I retreated to the safety of Android: Netrunner with Graham. I hadn’t played since our last run o’ the nets, but Graham had, so he was well practised and kind of had the upper hand. I used my Weyland corp deck against Graham’s Shaper deck. After a couple of early agendas scored for me, everything settled down into the traditional poke-n-snipe game. Graham was unusually well off for much of the game (early Armitage Codebusting, followed by Magnum Opus, then Kati Jones later in the game), while it turned out that my deck was basically all ICE at the top and all economy at the bottom. Naturally, I didn’t know that while we were playing…

So, poor Weyland against solvent Shaper. It didn’t end well for me, although it hovered at 5–5 for quite a while. My eventual downfall was Graham’s pair of R&D Interfaces, giving him an effective Maker’s Eye for every run on R&D. One run every two or three turns gave him the game. Irritatingly, he didn’t run when he would have accessed a Snare; instead, it came into my hand and I installed it in a remote server rather too obviously for him to want to access it. I didn’t draw either of my Scorched Earths, but I couldn’t make a tag stick on him anyway. By the time the tagging ICEs came out, I couldn’t afford to install and rez them, and Graham could always afford to jog effortlessly past them with his icebreakers.

Lesson learned this time: advance fast, even if it looks risky. I might have been able to get another couple of points early on if I’d been bolder with my agendas. Another lesson learned: Tollbooth is awesome.

We followed up with a game of Province, using John Sh’s copy pimped out with mini-meeples. Not much to say about this one, except that it’s a neat little micro-euro with a sweet balance between rules simplicity and turn-to-turn brain-burn because of the shared worker cycle. (“I need labour, but I don’t want him to get money, so I’ll have to move those workers but not those… but then I don’t end up with enough labour, so I’ll have to move an extra worker, which gives him enough money next turn to build that, so I’ll build this instead to get the VP, so then I don’t need as much labour in the first place and oh god we shouldn’t have started playing this after 10 pm…”) I won, but probably only by virtue of having played it before. The first goal was to have two available workers other than the green starting workers, so that took a while to meet. After that, it was pretty quick to end.

Camo beckoned us over to playtest some mechanics he had for a trading game (currently using Coloretto cards), which was interesting and generated some useful feedback for him. I look forward to seeing its next iteration. And then – after I inspected the physical board for Paths of Glory, of which I’m about to embark on a play-by-email game with Gareth – we rounded off the night with a seven-player 6 Nimmt. I can’t even fully remember who was playing, but I can remember coming last, with 23 points. I’d been doing very well through the first seven rounds (score: zero), but then picked up major points in each of the last three rounds. Camo took victory with a single point.

All photos by Olly and me, shamelessly stolen from the Newcastle Gamers Google+ page. Newcastle Gamers is on the second and last Saturday of every month, 4:30 pm until late at Christ Church, Shieldfield, Newcastle upon Tyne!