The Dark Defiles (A Land Fit for Heroes #3)


What it’s about: The last book in the trilogy sees the three heroes achieve their respective destinies, and the truth of the world is revealed.


  • Reading this book has been a long time coming – one could say that I started the series way back in 2008 when the first book came out, and I’ve only just finished the third book in 2017.
  • The Dark Defiles, by and large, shares many of the flaws of the series as a whole – notably its tendency to get stuck in somewhat repetitive plot loops in which characters get pulled into dire situations only to be rescued by plot armour – Ringil with his terrifying spirit vanguard, and Archeth with her growing proficiency with her magic knives.
  • But the last book does take the series in an interesting direction, most notably in the culmination of its long running attempt to set up Ringil for on the path of  the classic hero’s journey, only to have him realise this and reject it in soundly characteristic fashion. It is revealed that the plot has a meta-plot – the events that happen to the characters are all orchestrated by higher deities that have to intrude into worldly affairs in a narratively circuitous fashion in order to follow a set of rules imposed by an even more inscrutable set of beings that have set the laws of that present reality after it was almost torn apart by a cataclysmic war.
  • These gods have been grooming Ringil (and similarly, the Helmsmen have been grooming Archeth) – so that he can fulfill the destiny they have in store and thereby achieve their inscrutable objectives. And Ringil follows the tracks and grows in power akin to some shounen anime protagonist, protected by the plot armour bestowed upon him by the gods, until he reaches that crucial point where he is expected to seize the reins of his destiny – but he acts, in true bloody-minded fashion, opposite to what is intended, to grasp his own destiny.
  • Similarly, Archeth was maneuvered by the Helmsmen into embarking on a quixotic quest north, which was a facade for their machinations to set her up as Empress – but she instead goes in a completely different direction.
  • Egar, out of the three, had no greater destiny, and his death was genuinely quite shocking, although in the context of the greater character carnage Morgan was wreaking on his characters, not entirely discordant with the theme. He was a normal bloke after all, and he, too, was manipulated like a pawn by the gods and used to serve a tangential purpose in the larger scheme of things. But it is Egar’s death that derails Archeth’s particular pre-set destiny chosen for her, although events conspire to suggest that she may heave closer to that fate than she thinks (as she rides back to Yhelteth, not knowing that her Emperor Jhiral has reclaimed Ishgrim for his own).
  • There are echoes of a technological past and a tenuous connection with Morgan’s Altered Carbon series of books too, connections that are more spiritual than suggestive of an actual canonical relation. But the parallels and hints are exactly the kind of thing I like in fantasy.
  • All in all, a well-executed conclusion to the series, both in terms of its thematic payoffs as well as the way in which the various plot threads were ultimately tied together – in what I must say was quite a miraculous fashion, considering that 50 pages to the end I was starting to wonder if there was supposed to be a sequel to this book.

Verdict: The Dark Defiles is a thematically satisfying conclusion to the series, and ties off the various loose ends in a pleasingly ambiguous fashion.

I give this: 4/5 smart daggers


2017 Round-Ups

This year, I made an effort to read more books, after last year’s dismal showing. And I did. But not that many more. Though, for some reason, I also watched far fewer movies than I used to (and missed a couple I’d been intending to watch in cinemas). My video gaming was also curtailed by a long game-less drought that lasted from September of 2017 to this month.

Oh, and the advent of Netflix meant I started watching a lot of TV.

Here are the numbers:

Fiction books read: 31

TV shows watched: 13

Non-fiction books read: 9

Films watched: 11

Video games played: 5

That amounts to 1 book every 9 days, 1 film every 33 days, 1 TV show every 28 days, and 1 video game every 73 days.

Some Highlights


Ministry of Moral Panic by Amanda Lee Koe (4.5/5 stars): This is not Singaporean fiction. It’s fiction written by a Singaporean writer. There’s a subtle but definite difference. While not perfect, it’s daring, vital and raw, and represents a giant step in the right direction for the local scene.

Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (4.5/5 stars): An autobiographical account of a childhood and early adulthood spent in an increasingly repressive Iran, Persepolis is precocious, brilliantly funny, yet sobering. A brilliant humanisation of a country and its peoples through the author’s acerbic lens.

Naoko by Keigo Higashino (5/5 stars): A strange and riveting tale of a man whose wife wakes up in their daughter’s body after a bus accident. But Naoko really shines as an intimate portrait of Japanese family life, with a spellbinding, utterly heart-piercing ending that lingers with you for days.

The Dark Forest by Liu Cixin (4.5/5 stars): Of the three books in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, The Dark Forest is the best by a country mile, an Asimovian tome brimming with mind-expanding ideas and sf concepts, and chronicling the grand march of time on a civilisational, even cosmic, scale.

The Fifth Season by NK Jemisin (4.5/5 stars): Also probably the best single book in Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy, The Fifth Season is an elegantly told narrative triptych that introduces an utterly spellbinding fantasy world while dealing with themes of abuse, exploitation and societal imbalances of power.


The Rise of the Robots by Martin Ford (4.5/5 stars): A persuasive treatise on why we should care about automation and think boldly about alternative economic and social systems to cope with the oncoming technological onslaught. Apropos reading for the current crop of thinkers and leaders, although the path dependencies of late stage capitalism will probably make these messages unheeded until it’s too late.

Cooked by Michael Pollan (5/5 stars): One of the most inspiring books I read in the year, Cooked describes the myriad forms and processes of cooking through the lens of the four classical elements, and is a clarion call for us to embrace this most human of activities as a means of making our lives fuller, richer, and more fulfilled.

Spring Chicken by Bill Gifford (4.5/5 stars): A light-hearted romp through the many ways and forms of people striving to extend their lives and health. Gifford’s wry and accessible style guides us through science and pseudoscience and in the end tells us that while genes play a large part in determining our lifespans, we can do much to ensure that we maximise the health potential of our own lives.



La La Land (4.5/5 stars): Shamelessly self-involved Oscar-bait, but no less of a joy (and heartache) to watch. Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone can do no wrong in this snazzy Hollywood romance, and the musical numbers are pure gold.

Blade Runner 2049 (5/5 stars): Magisterial, emotive, philosophical, and outright brilliant, Blade Runner 2049 is a more than worthy sequel to the original, and an utter masterpiece in its own right. Also, over the past two years, 4 of the 8 films highlighted on this blog have had one thing in common – Ryan Gosling. The man excels at comedy and drama both.

Thor Ragnarok (4/5 stars): The funniest Marvel movie ever made (except maybe the original Iron Man), and one that utterly transforms the somewhat underperforming Thor franchise into one of the best in the MCU. While straining at the edge of in-universe coherence at some points, the comedic dividends more than make up for that. Makes me excited for Infinity War too. One of the few MCU movies that doesn’t give me that familiar feeling of having seen that many times before.


Video Games

Obduction (4.5/5 stars): A rarity of a puzzler that combines Myst-like environmental puzzling with one of the most intriguing and inspired narratives I’ve encountered in games of this type. Obduction will enthrall you with its layers of overlapping mysteries as they slowly unfurl to reveal the truth of things. Above all, the game demands that you pay attention, and not just coast along being prodded by overly-intrusive UI stimuli.

2064: Read Only Memories (4/5 stars): Old-school cyberpunk fare with a progressive, LGBT-friendly flavour. It’s a mishmash of hardboiled detective story with anime sensibilities in a neo-futuristic San Francisco with all the familiar sf tropes that come with the territory. While a little unsubtle in its themes, ROM excels in its storytelling and worldbuilding.

Dishonored 2 (4/5 stars): While the plot is nothing to write home about, Dishonored 2 is a masterclass in making urban exploration fun, and a well-tuned power fantasy that allows you to deploy any number of tricks to fell your enemies. Its lurid, decayed steampunk atmosphere is also unique in gaming.




Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 4)


What it’s about: More precinct adventures with Peralta and Posse.


  • Four seasons in and B99 just keeps on giving. But it’s interspersed with a few elements that set it apart, just slightly, from the first three seasons.
  • First, the crimes have upped the ante, from the somewhat comical, isolated crime incidents in the first couple of seasons to more serious ones like mob shootings, escaped convicts and serious police corruption.
  • Second, there’s an attempt to tackle more serious issues, like the episode where Terry has an unfortunate run-in with a racist white cop who profiles him based on his skin colour. It’s a good episode, and sensitively handled, but doesn’t have that saccharine chirp of most low-stakes B99 episodes.
  • Last – the season ends on a real downer and might count as one of the few times I’ve felt genuinely stressed watching the show. I mean, being chased by the mob is one thing – but Jake and Diaz being framed by a corrupt cop and facing the prospect of 15 years in prison is something else – the system of justice that was once on their side is now turned against them in full force.
  • Jake and Amy’s relationship is still a bright point of goodness though, and let’s hope they keep it that way.
  • Unfortunately, there are bells tolling for B99, or so it seems – it’s a rank injustice that one of the best comedies on TV right now can’t get the ratings it deserves.

Verdict: Still good old B99, except for a stressful last few episodes. Treasure while it lasts.

I give this: 4/5 bags of coca’ina

The Cold Commands (A Land Fit for Heroes #2)


What it’s about: The story of the three antiheroes, Ringil, Archeth and Egar continues. Ringil cuts his way into the centre of yet another dwenda conspiracy, Egar gets himself into successively worse situations, and Archeth, having received a dire warning, mounts an expedition to find a lost Kiriath city in the North.


  • This is an odd middle novel. It feels less like the continuation of a first part and more like the start of a sequel series to the first book. Part of the reason was because the first novel could have been a standalone work with a number of minor modifications. The Cold Commands also opens with the characters, particularly Ringil, in very different circumstances – Ringil himself has developed magical powers the provenance of which is not made clear until quite a ways into the book, and is now an outlaw that hunts down and kills slavers.
  • In that sense, it feels a bit disjointed at first, because of the introduction of new world elements that were not really present in the first book. The ikinri’ska magic that Ringil seems to have picked up out of nowhere, the vague portents and weird things that keep happening to him, and his mysterious vanguard of wraiths – the cold commands of the book – that show up at just the right time to slaughter his enemies when he’s on the verge of being overwhelmed, and the weird time-warped relationship between him and the mysterious, out-of-nowhere Hjel and his band of followers.
  • Clearly, the deities and powers-that-be in the book are trying very hard to set Ringil up to be the hero-savior keystone to basically solve all the accumulating plot-threads he’s weaving together – power-leveling him through tribulation after tribulation and giving him all sorts of weird powers, even as the series tries to subvert the very idea of there being a world-savior type hero. Ringil suffers from an extreme form of plot armour, emerging unscathed even after a dwenda bites a chunk of his face off – but it could be construed, to a certain extent, to be deliberately seeded as part of the meta-narrative. But the way in which he rebounds is a testament to his pure, shonen-like bloody-mindedness.
  • The other two threads featuring Egar and Archeth aren’t nearly as weird, but they do take the series in interesting new directions. The full weirdness of the Kiriath wasn’t quite apparent in the first novel, but there is significant development in the second that really hints that they are essentially a technologically advanced race that just keeps up appearances with the barbarian locals in an effort to “uplift” them to their own standards of civilization. There’s even that intimation that their helmsman servants are just glorified AIs. I have a weakness for that sort of thing.

Verdict: Disjointed, hyper-violent, and initially confusing, The Cold Commands nevertheless opens up enough questions to keep the reader invested.

I give this: 4/5 space crabs 


The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes #1)


What it’s about: In a brutal medieval world, a lethal gay soldier, a womanising barbarian chieftain, and a half-breed last scion of her race grapple with the phantoms of their past and spectres that threaten their future.


  • You thought A Game of Thrones was the epitome of grimdark? It’s pretty tame compared to Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains. The series drowns in blood and violence is often the only way the characters know how to react to their troubles. The world is a hellscape of superstition, ignorance, corruption and regressive social mores, locked in petty factional squabbles. And – get this – it just re-legalised slavery in a move called liberalisation. But it’s a world that is just recovering from a war that was black and white in its stark moral absolutism – a war against a race of animalistic lizards that demanded the highest valor from its warriors. It’s a prototypical attempt to crack the fragile eggshell of high fantasy tropism – by setting the story after the epic good-vs-evil struggle amidst a landscape of blinding ambiguity.
  • Ringil, our battle-scarred, hard-bitten warrior, is a frenetic mishmash of atypical character traits for a main character – a sexually voracious gay ex-soldier with a magic sword and the bearing of an aristocrat, noxiously jaded by the world’s barely-concealed corruption and barbarity to the point of reflexive violence, yet secretly yearning for a better world that seems out of reach, in which he will never belong by dint of the blood on his hands. There’s something to be said about the book’s portrayal of Ringil’s sexual appetites, which binds him to a network of lovers and rivals and becomes the driving force of his travails in the book. It is a human spectacle amidst a fantasy world that abominates homosexuality and punishes its sodomites with public impalement. It’s a rather nuanced and was probably quite novel for the standards of mainstream fantasy in 2008.
  • The second main character of the book, Archeth, is another interesting character, the half-blood daughter of a race of immortal humanoids with advanced technology and eldritch intelligences that do their whim – the sort of science-fiction advanced alien race stand-in for the series. As the last of her race on the planet, she is left to advise the savvy but hedonistic emperor of her people’s chosen empire. Of the three threads, hers is the most potentially intriguing in terms of narrative and worldbuilding possibilities.
  • Egar, the womanizing and out-of-place steppe nomad chieftain, is probably the least interesting of the lot, although effort has been made to insert pathos into his origin story. But it’s pretty cool that the steppe nomad savages aren’t portrayed as faceless barbarian hordes as so many fantasy novels like to portray them – sure, they’re violent and rambunctious, but also politically smart enough to know how to posture in the midst of their neighbouring polities.
  • There’s a lot else going on in this book – enigmatic plotting gods, eerie elven types that can flit in and out of different dimensions, shards of deep history and hints of advanced technology, plenty of gay sex described in loving, erotic detail, and a trail of bodies, blood and viscera left behind by all three heroes. In a way, perhaps Richard K Morgan’s long dalliance with cyberpunk has provided the superstructure for this book – triads of noir fantasy heroes exacting revenge on the prevailing power structure.

Verdict: The Steel Remains is a violent, eclectic fantasy debut with many good ideas and just enough going on to bear the weight of its portentous cynicism.

I give this: 4/5 fireships

The Saga of Tanya the Evil


What it’s about: A sociopathic Japanese HR executive is murdered by one of the people he callously fired. He is reborn as a girl in an alternate version of 20th Century Europe in which magic is used in concert with machines to fight wars. Memories of her past life intact, she channels her innate aggressiveness into distinguishing herself as an effective commander on the field.


  • This is one example of an anime series that somehow works despite its odd, extremely circuitous premise, which essentially is just exposition to give us the story hook – that of having the protagonist be a cute but evil girl that somehow commands a squad of airborne death angels. Japanese anime/manga has a tendency to force-fit the cute girl that subverts expectations trope into all its intellectual properties, and this is just another manifestation of that tendency.
  • But putting aside all that, and the strange meta-plot involving Tanya’s face-off with Being X, the God that puts her in this predicament to begin with, Tanya is actually a very competently told story of an alternate World War I in which the Germanic Empire utilises superior military strategy and tactics to crush its neighbors and emerge victorious.
  • The worldbuilding, while simple in its analogousness to the European theater in WWI, is deep and effective in setting the stage for a conflict between factions that have both the benefit of mechanisation on the ground and magic aerial support in the air. The series is the brainchild of someone who clearly is a military buff and knows their basic history, drawing on famous battles of the past to fashion scenarios and stratagems that have the air of verisimilitude to them.
  • Anime theatrics and grandiloquence, while present, is kept to a tolerable level, and it is quite refreshing to see the series eschew the usual pandering audience exposition so endemic in anime, instead having their characters explain things to each other as if not actually trying to accommodate the attention spans of an invisible, layman audience. Tanya herself is a refreshing main character, ruthlessly practical to a fault and not at all constrained by the bounds of morality, an extremely lawful neutral-to-evil executor of the military will, but with a very human desire to just survive, and a competent commander to her men.
  • The series balances on the fine line when it comes to the question of where its sympathies lie. Tanya fights for an Empire that is clearly a stand-in for the Germans in WWI, and the series portrays them as ravenous imperialists operating under an absolute monarchy. The characters never question the rightness of Imperial supremacy and don’t blink an eye at the horrors of mechanised, total warfare – yet the characters come to realise that the Empire has bitten off more than it can chew – it can conquer, but it has no resources or gumption to govern a populace seething in resentment.
  • While I don’t think the series celebrates imperialism, it does put us in the odd headspace of rooting for those that serve the country at the whims of its political masters, who are imperialists through and through. But that’s just realistic of them to do so, given the social climate of the time, and really the only character who I feel deserves some moral reprobation of supporting imperialism (apart from the politicos themselves) is Tanya, whose memories of her past life give her a historical perspective and appreciation of the effects of imperialism that she nevertheless casts aside to serve.
  • There are some who criticise this anime for being sympathetic to fascism and Nazism, just because it tells the story from the side of the Germans. I don’t think that’s at all true – this is a stand in for the Kaiser’s, not Hitler’s Germany, and people who think otherwise need a crash course in the difference between the two. In World War I, no one really had the moral high ground.

Verdict: A surprisingly effective alt-history of World War I that is not overly saddled by its borderline ridiculous premise.

I give this: 4 out of 5 Elinium Orbs

Godzilla: Planet of the Monsters


What it’s about: Thousands of years after Godzilla forces humans off the planet to a desperate, wandering existence in space, humanity finally returns to a vastly altered Earth in a last-ditch effort to kill the monster and retake the Earth.


  • This is a bombastic, frenetic, exposition-laced film that dispenses with subtlety and nuance to tell a no-holds-barred, adrenaline-pumped tale of humanity fighting Godzilla and its minions amidst an alien landscape.
  • Seriously, in a bid to just accelerate to the action, the film just pays lip service to a score of anime tropes and space opera plot contrivances in a flurry of development for its own sake. The angry young protagonist bent on revenge, his relationship with his budding and competent female companion, the humanoid alien allies that are pretty much elves and dwarves in space armor, the “return-to-earth plot device” that sparks the whole thing. It assumes an audience familiar with these tropes, and therefore speeds past all the setup as if to say, “ah, you already know all this”, and descends into the action.
  • But to its credit, the action sequences, of the puny human military forces facing off against the enormous bulk of Godzilla, are worth the watch. The CGI animation is fluid and the choreography is gripping. I was literally gripping the edge of my seat. The desperate circumstances of humanity lent the action true existential tension.
  • The production values, on the other hand, falter when it comes to art direction. The aliens, as I have said, are just differently-skinned humans and pretty much elf and dwarf analogues. The characters are all alike and at times indistinguishable, and the vehicles and military hardware have a sort of homogeneity to them, as if the textures were all just recycled. Also, there isn’t much in the way of verisimilitude when it comes to human computer interactions. Characters manipulate holographic displays to impressive precision with only a wave of their hands. The plot and premise comprise hand-wavium and technobabble.
  • The film does not end on an optimistic note, which is sad, but I suppose opens up the movie for its inevitable sequel hook – complete with an interesting post-credits scene that hints that humanity may not be as decimated as was previously imagined. But we’ll have to wait for that second movie.
  • Ultimately, it reminds me a little bit of Attack on Titan – a story of the last vestiges of humanity dying in droves to take down giants far larger and stronger than them, except that in Godzilla, the exposition is even thinner on the ground and the characters even less fully formed, which is saying something.

Verdict: Bombastic and shallow but nonetheless an exciting, tense watch that is best appreciated as a operatic tale of humanity’s relentless, desperate battle with forces of nature that threaten to overwhelm it – the bread and butter of any Godzilla movie worth its salt.

I give this film: 3 out of 5 EMP drills