Category Archives: books

The Locked Tomb

Gideon the Ninth, the first book of Tamsyn Muir’s Locked Tomb Trilogy, is an incredible blend of styles, by turns funny, intriguing, swashbuckling, tense, horrifying, confusing, doubtless a few others I missed. It assembles a fantastic cast (albeit one that takes a little while to get to grips with), locks them into a mysterious challenge, and keeps the twists coming. Impressive enough on its own, the sequel Harrow the Ninth pulls away that rug, replaces it with an even more intricately textured rug, and leaves me half wishing I’d waited until the third of the trilogy was out it so I could jump straight in, and half grateful of the time for a good re-read (or three) because it crams in so damn much. It teeters on the brink of baffling, dealing with memory, madness, reality, then layering on the necromantic nature of its universe, but in a (generally) satisfying way; there’s (at least) one aspect that I need to particularly pay attention to second time around that I’m not sure I fully grasped. It slightly reminds me of Neal Stephenson’s Anathem or Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe Sequence; very highly recommended.

(Searching back, I see I briefly mentioned the first Fractured Europe book, Europe in Autumn, then entirely failed to rave about the subsequent Europe At Midnight, Europe in Winter, and Europe at Dawn, most remiss of me, it’s a great series, also very highly recommended. And looking back, quite spooky: “The roads seemed busy this evening. Fifteen years after the last deaths from the Xian Flu and people were only just starting to reconnect with normal life. The British Isles had got away comparatively lightly from the pandemic…”)


A couple of months ago HTMT Hugo-reviewist Days was enthusing about Pad Cadigan’s Synners on Twitter as Gollancz put it, and 39 other ebooks, on sale for 99p. I was tempted to grab the whole lot but, with a fairly hefty “To Read” pile already, settled for a mere six or seven including Synners, and just got around to reading it.

First published in 1991 the SF Gateway edition has a 2012 introduction preceding a 2001 10th anniversary introduction, interesting layers of digital archaeology pointing out the uncanny prescience of the book and it really has aged well, it still feels completely fresh and contemporary. Even since 2012 further aspects are coming out of the pages, the current wave of VR headsets looking like they might actually stick, at least one startup is offering a full-body haptic feedback suit.

It’s not the easiest of starts, plunging you straight into a wide cast of characters, but as the strands intertwine the familiar-but-strange world emerges beautifully. I’ve read a few SF books in the last year or so that sounded interesting, had positive quotes (probably clipped from more nuanced reviews that I should’ve read in full), and have been… OK. Not terrible but workmanlike, read smoothly enough without sticking in the memory, bland characters telling-not-showing infodumps. Synners fizzes, throwaway lines pivoting into a mantra, sweeping along on musical textual riffs, leaving you to do a bit of assembly and so much more satisfying for it. Best thing I’ve read for a while.

Reading Roundup

Breaking radio silence for a quick guest spot on episode 51 of The Three MMOsketeers on the splendid CSICON last week, one of the news stories covered malware attacks on MMORPG companies, reminding co-host Breki of Charles Stross’ novel Halting State. My “to read” pile keeps growing; it includes the sequel to Halting State, Rule 34, and another Stross novel, The Apocalypse Codex, from his Laundry Files series, which I must get around to.

From the “have read” pile I really enjoyed the first two books of the Milkweed Triptych by Ian Tregillis set in an alternative World War II of mad science and blood magic, sharing some of the occult/espionage themes of The Laundry Files (Tregillis and Stross have a nice chat at Orbit Books). For those who like to read a full series in one go, the third book, Necessary Evil, has just been published; I don’t tend to pre-order books due to aforementioned “to read” pile but made an exception for this one and would highly recommend the series. Excerpts are available on the author’s site, and there’s a standalone story on that gives a flavour of the universe.

While poking around similar things on Amazon, the “Customers who bought this item also bought…” section threw up perhaps the greatest book title ever: Ack-Ack Macaque. From the first sentence of the synopsis, “In 1944, as waves of German ninjas parachute into Kent, Britain s best hopes for victory lie with a Spitfire pilot codenamed ‘Ack-Ack Macaque.’ The trouble is, Ack-Ack Macaque is a cynical, one-eyed, cigar-chomping monkey, and he’s starting to doubt everything, including his own existence.”, it was an instant buy, and it’s a lot of fun.

(Fascinating etymology corner: ‘flak’ and ‘ack-ack’, terms for anti-aircraft fire, have completely different derivations despite the similar sounds. Flak is from the German for anti-aircraft gun, fliegerabwherkanone; ‘ack’ is the letter ‘a’ in the World War I British signal alphabet, thus ‘ack-ack’ for ‘anti-aircraft’.)

Things to Do in Denerim When You’re Dead.

For those of you who were blissfully unaware, Friday was MMO Hard Disk Drive Destruction day. It seems that I’m one of the few people who celebrate this holiday, and it was with great excitement and anticipation that I got home from a long hard day at work, entertained my daughter for the evening and popped her to bed, before turning on my PC and finding that the HDD which was home to all of my MMO games had decided to retire from this life. Insert your own favourite line from Monty Python’s Parrot Sketch here. I don’t know why these things always happen on a Friday, but the fact that it is currently the one day of the week where I get together with a bunch of friendly others from the pool of Van Hemlock static group gamers and enjoy some hot MMO group action, probably has something to do with it. Thankfully I managed to recover the data from the expiring drive by using a little bit of trickery involving other operating systems less fussy than Windows, external cables, a Big Hammer, lots of swearing, and the customary blood sacrifice of a virgin – although I didn’t have one to hand, so I just used virgin olive oil instead; you can also use sesame seed oil if you prefer your sacrifice to have a more ritualistic smoky aroma. So I saved myself many gigabytes of downloads and many hours of painful UI customisation for my various characters across the multitude of MMOs that I play, but in the meantime I had some time on my hands, so I got around to finishing a few non-MMO projects.

Firstly, I finished reading The Wise Man’s Fear, the excellent follow-up to Patrick Rothfuss’ first book The Name of the Wind. It’s not hard to describe why I like the books so much, I think Rothfuss has a style of writing that is very easy to read, compelling without taking itself entirely too seriously, while maintaining a healthy balance between light and dark subjects. I put him very much in the same camp as Joe Abercrombie in this respect, although Rothfuss’ story tends towards the lighter side of fantasy, it serves only to make the dark moments that much more intense and emotionally fraught; Abercrombie’s tales, on the other hand, tend to run towards the dark side of human nature, while occasionally punctuating the darkness with bolts of light humour and joy. The character of Kvothe is pitched just the right side of brilliant and self-assured, without being obnoxious, and the world which he inhabits is fascinating, from the systems of magic, to the hand-talk of the Adem mercenaries, all the way down to the myths and legends, of which Kvothe himself is destined to become a part. If you haven’t tried Rothfuss’ books yet and you’re a fantasy aficionado, I couldn’t recommend them highly enough. And as evidenced by Rothfuss’ latest blog post, where he points out that The Wise Man’s Fear is currently number one on the New York Times Bestsellers list, it seems that many other people are in agreement. What’s more, towards the end of his post, Rothfuss describes how he feels that he needs to do something a ‘little bit rockstar’ in order to celebrate this success, and so what does he propose?

“Maybe I will also drink some rum while I play Dragon Age. Because… well… because I can. And because that makes it just a little bit rockstar. It doesn’t hurt to be just a little bit rockstar sometimes…”

Which brings me nicely on to the second thing I did in-between hitting a hard disk drive with a virgin while sacrificing a hammer to the gods (what can I say: it was late, I was a bit drunk, and I got the instructions upside down): I finished my first play-through of Dragon Age II. I enjoyed the game a great deal, but I’m very much a story person when it comes to Bioware games these days; I couldn’t really discuss the combat in much detail because I set the difficulty to casual, and as such there were perhaps only three fights which required me to drink a potion, let alone worry about tactics other than ‘Darkspawn? We attack! Huzzah!’. I found the companion characters to be interesting takes on standard fantasy tropes, and I enjoyed the voice acting on the whole; as I stated on Twitter, my favourite line in the game having to be Isabela’s “I like big boats and I cannot lie”. The city of Kirkwall is breathtaking (be sure to look up and take in the sights on occasion), and although the locations within it become familiar to the point of being mundane once you’re running through them for the eleventeenth time, I felt that the city never lost its sense of scale. Other than that, it’s a standard Bioware RPG, if you’re any sort of CRPG gamer then you know what that means, and you’ll also know whether it will appeal to you or not. If you want me to try to sway you, I’ll simply say: decent plate armour for female characters, woo! And I’ve included a screenshot of my Melantha Hawke in a favourite armour set from the game.

Contrast that with my High Elf warrior in Rift, who could be fighting off death invasions, or modelling for the cover of Heavy Metal Illustrated, hard to tell. I’m still not finding myself excited by Rift. I’m enjoying it as a dabbling diversion when other games aren’t drawing down my attention, but there’s something about the game that prevents me from being infatuated with it to the point of ignoring all other games, as I have done in the past with, for example, World of Warcraft and Lord of the Rings Online. Part of my issue is the global cool-down system for combat, which I don’t find to be the purported system which ‘allows me to carefully consider my options’, but instead something which restrains me and constantly calls me to heel. I imagine it’s the same sort of frustration felt by two dogs trying to have a loud and tooth-filled debate on who is the best at being a loud tooth-filled debater, while both are muzzled with their owners constantly yanking them away from one another by their leashes. It’s a shame, because the reactive abilities that the game includes – which are off the global cool-down and thus allow you to do something useful while waiting for your main abilities to come off their European Work and Time Directive mandated 1.5 second tea break – are an excellent way to break the system up, giving the player something to do in the meantime. Make the reactive abilities less powerful, maybe make them short duration buffs, say, and you could give players something to do during the global cool-down which would help during combat without unbalancing it. A two tier system, with the main abilities all on the global cool-down, but with a wealth of secondary abilities off the global cool-down, could create quite an interesting system, and one where I don’t feel frustrated at having to spend thirty seconds of a one minute fight chin-on-hand and staring at little glowing clocks counting down on my hotbars. There are reactive abilities in the game, but never enough to make the system as interesting and engaging as I feel it could otherwise be. My other issue at the moment is the fact that I decided to play a Guardian, mainly because being utterly agnostic in real life, I tend to veer towards heavily religious groups in my fantasy escapism, much as being utterly male in real life, I tend to veer towards heavily female characters (read into ‘heavily female’ whatever innuendo you so choose) in my games. The problem with the Guardians is that the first area in the game proper where they adventure is Silverwood: a big bright ancient fantasy forest, full of elves and goblins and ruins, straight out of the fantasy cliché text book. Not a problem, this is a fantasy MMO after all, but after you finish with Silverwood, the levelling conveyor belt passes through border control and takes you into Gloamwood… a big dark ancient fantasy forest, full of wolves and ghosts and ruins, or Silverwood II: The Gloomening, as I have come to call it. My character is level twenty four, and I’m really starting to struggle to carry on with the Kill Ten X quests interspersed with the occasional frantic frenzy of fighting a rift, which alas is nothing more than a zerg wrapped in the illusory cloak of cooperative game-play. Adventuring in Gloamwood feels like I’m still stuck in Silverwod after all this time, only someone has turned the gamma down, presumably to enhance the feeling of depression the player experiences as they’re told to go and find some bat wings because Random Quest Giver X needs them to create Token Artifact Y, in order to progress Arbitrary Plot Device Z.

Still, I’ve got plenty to be getting on with elsewhere, which is another reason why Rift is perhaps not capturing my imagination like I feel it should. I’m starting my second play through of Dragon Age II, this time as a mage, to see how the sissy-robe-wearing set like to live. I’m also still enjoying my time in Lord of the Rings Online, with the Burglar coming along nicely, albeit a bit slowly what with the abundant distractions provided by single player games, books and spontaneously exploding hard disk drives.

Reading Roundup

Being on internet-less holiday a few weeks back gave me a good chance to make inroads into a book backlog I’ve been steadily building up, so a few quick reviewlets:

Michael Palin – Halfway to Hollywood (Diaries 1980 – 1988) The second volume of Michael Palin’s diaries feel a little like Python’s Meaning of Life which falls within its purview; a jumble of stuff, some which works really well, but a bit directionless. There’s plenty of interest, though, with Palin writing, acting and presenting in various projects (including the tail end of Python, Time Bandits, Brazil, The Missionary and A Fish Called Wanda), and from my point of view as it hits the mid-80s it starts to overlap with events I remember first hand for added nostalgia value. As well as the international fame and stardom there’s a more prosaic stint as chairman of Transport 2000, and far more personal entries about his family, especially his sister who suffered from depression and committed suicide, though there are lighter moments such as taking his mother to New York for her 80th birthday and co-presenting Saturday Night Live with her. The book concludes as he’s about to head off Around the World in 80 Days, which promise an interesting third volume.

Eoin Colfer – And Another Thing… The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is, of course, the greatest combination of radio series, book, game and towel ever produced, though the books did tail off somewhat as they went on, particularly the fifth (Mostly Harmless). A sixth book, written by Eoin Colfer after the death of Douglas Adams, seemed a bit unnecessary; not outrageous corpse desecration (heck, I quite like the film, even if they ditched some of the best dialogue for no apparent reason), but not one for the “instant buy on publication” pile. After picking up a cheap copy, “a bit unnecessary” seems like a fair assessment; it’s not awful, there are some nice scenes here and there, but it felt hampered by picking up from Mostly Harmless and the resulting baggage, particularly bogging down when dealing with previous elements from the series (Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged was a fantastic throwaway gag, not so good as a main character). And there’s no Marvin. Give the game another go instead, unless you like your sanity.

Anthony Price – A Prospect of Vengeance. Anthony Price writes Cold War espionage thrillers in the vein of Len Deighton or John Le Carre; slow paced, lots of talking, not so many gunfights, multiple layers of intrigue (the British are usually engaged in assorted intra- and inter-departmental wranglings even before the rest of the world get involved). Price wrote 19 books in a series with a couple of common threads, the character of David Audley (though each book is written from a different point-of-view), and an element of military history. After finding one in a jumble sale I’d only managed to pick a few others up as they’re mostly out of print, but I recently discovered AbeBooks, a big old database/marketplace for secondhand books, and managed to complete the set at an average of 50p per book (though postage & packing racks the overall price up a bit). A Prospect of Vengeance, the penultimate book of the series, wasn’t my favourite of his, but still a very solid and enjoyable read; if you’re interested, I’d suggest starting with either The Labyrinth Makers or Other Paths to Glory.

Charles Stross – The Fuller Memorandum Charlie Stross’ Laundry series combine Unix-hacking BOFHism, a Dilbertian civil service, espionage and Lovecraftian horror in a potent geek cocktail. The first (The Atrocity Archives) was a pastiche of/tribute to Len Deighton, the second (The Jennifer Morgue) invoked Ian Fleming, which I didn’t get on with quite as well, though there’s a neat in-world explanation for the Bond behaviour and a nice twist. Hearing the inspiration behind The Fuller Memorandum was Anthony Price put it straight on my wishlist, though as the author says the series has acquired more of an identity of its own now. Lots of good stuff here including Concorde variants flown by 666 Squadron (the one formed after this one), a JesusPhone to combat unimaginable horror (there’s an app for that) and cultists aplenty. Thumb-shaped tentacles up.

Paul Cornell – British Summertime Another out of print find from AbeBooks, British Summertime combines Judas Iscariot, time travel, Bath, a Dan Dare inspired space force where disembodied heads pilot ships, a girl who can always find chip shops and angels. Inventive undoubtedly, but it didn’t entirely click for me, there was just a bit too much in the mix.

Only your friends steal your books

Amazon have announced that they’re going to be selling Kindles properly in the UK (as opposed to the half-arsed “International” version), and at £109 for WiFi-only and £149 for a 3G version I’m quite tempted. My Android phone generally takes care of internet on the move, but for an extra £40 and no monthly fee a Kindle could be handy backup for very basic mail/blog checking on its stripped-down browser, the longer battery life being particularly useful as the phone really needs charging every day. (iPads are very shiny, but at least £400 more plus data charges…)

Course there’s reading books as well, that being the main purpose and all, and as I’m getting ready for a holiday and contemplating cutting down on spare pants to squeeze a few more books into a suitcase, the ability to have a library in a pocket is rather attractive (especially for everyone else I’m going on holiday with). One of the problems is starting a collection from scratch; there are clear parallels in books and music, with ebook readers for MP3 players, but where you could rip your existing CD collection to MP3s (not strictly legally, though most people do it anyway) there’s no equivalent for books that I’m aware of apart from chopping one into individual pages and shoving it through a scanner with a sheet feeder and oh-so-reliable OCR software (“It was the beset of Timmeys, it was the war St. of T1 mess, it was the age O twistom, it was the a Geoff goulash”). There’s always Project Gutenberg for stacks of free classics, and a few more recent works available under Creative Commons and similar licenses, but it would be nifty if dead tree editions of books contained a code that could be used to also get an electronic version.

Reviewlet: The Guild Leader’s Handbook

The KiaSA Guide to MMOGs has this to say on guild leadership:

‘How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?’

Winston thought. ‘By making him suffer,’ he said.

‘Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.’

The estate of George Orwell protested that this bore striking similarities to 1984, but KiaSA Publications quickly printed a copy in an old font that looked a bit like a typewriter, spilled some tea on it, and claimed it had been written in 1926 so couldn’t possibly be a copy/paste job from Project Gutenberg, although when pressed were unable to explain how a guide to MMOGs could predate MMOGs themselves, the invention of the electronic computer, and the birth of its own authors. Fortunately The Guild Leaders Handbook offers a more forgiving and originally written look at the role of the guild leader with more emphasis on honesty and leading by example than tearing human minds to pieces.

Scott F. Andrews, long-time WoW guild leader and author of “The Officers’ Quarters” column at, has collected his experience into a paper-based advice dispensing format known as a “book”, The Guild Leader’s Handbook, which you’ve probably seen a few reviews of as No Starch Press mailed out copies to a bunch of MMOG bloggers, most of whom aren’t as slack as us. Still, our motto is “if something’s worth reviewing, it’s worth waiting a couple of months then reminding people about that thing that sounded quite interesting a while back”.

The book is comprehensive, starting with the formation of a guild and recruitment, dealing with different personalities within a guild and associated drama, the activities you’ll embark on (raiding, PvP, roleplaying), keeping the guild going over time, and dealing with real life. It’s generally aimed at a Guild Leader, as the title rather suggests, but would also be of interest to others with guild responsibilities such as officers, or even anyone who just wants to know a bit more about guilds in MMOGs. Perhaps it could have widened its audience slightly by looking at things from a non-leader’s perspective, though. The section on recruitment, for example, has tips on what to look for and danger signs in a potential recruit; it’s not too difficult to reinterpret “danger signs for a recruitment officer” as “things not to do when applying to a new guild”, but a bit of extra advice on how to find a guild and make a good impression might be handy.

Much of The Guild Leader’s Handbook is applicable to any MMOG guild, and could probably be applied to other online communities, but the primary focus tends to be obtaining loot through large scale PvE encounters, i.e. World of Warcraft raiding, not unnaturally given that’s the author’s background. The chapter on raiding and especially raid leading seems particularly strong, and another chapter is devoted to loot distribution; PvP and roleplaying are combined in a chapter which is a good introduction for those not particularly familiar with them, but very much a whistle-stop tour of key points as in-depth implementation will vary from game to game.

Perhaps the weakest section for me is on People and Personalties, using “Player Personality Classes” (PPCs) as a way of identifying potential clashes. The eight proposed archetypes, each with two specs, are a bit woolly, and as the author says most people are composites of elements from several areas. “Classes” and “specs” are very natural for MMOG players, but with a lot of existing research on personality, motivation, team roles etc. in a business context I would have preferred to see something like Myers-Briggs types translated into gaming roles, or better still picking up some of Nick Yee’s MMORPG psychology research from Project Daedalus developing Bartle’s MUD player classifications into a more detailed study of player motivation. Still, the slight weakness of the personality class model doesn’t really undermine the more important advice on recognising, confronting and defusing drama. A few sections are highly subjective as well, such as what makes a good guild name, but the author acknowledges this and is never dogmatic in presentation.

Something the Handbook really drives home is how involving a guild can be. Course some guilds work fine as a loose collection of friends, but past a point they need time and effort, from members but mostly from leaders, and extend outside the boundaries of a game. Most prospective leaders will know at the outset they’ll need to schedule in-game encounters, lead the guild into them and distribute rewards, I suspect fewer anticipate they may need to confront substance abuse or relationship problems amongst members. The last chapter of the Handbook, “Dealing With Reality”, gives sensible and practical advice for such situations, and though it obviously can’t cover precisely what to do, at least it can prepare a guild leader for the possibility they might need to deal with a criminal confession at some point. It’s not all about the darker side of life, though, it also covers organising real-life guild meet-ups. In some ways it’s staggering that virtual items and monsters, pixels on a screen, bits in a database can provoke tension, envy, scheming, even hatred; but then they also spark joy, camaraderie, passion, the togetherness of a guild which sets it apart from a single player experience.

Overall, you could probably get much of the information in The Guild Leader’s Handbook from websites, blogs and game forums, but (as per Sturgeon) you’d have to wade through an awful lot of crud to get it. The Handbook pulls everything together with a nice, easy to read style, with something for most MMOG players. It’s a must-buy for a WoW player looking to start up a new guild for raiding, though I suspect that’s a pretty small market; even experienced guild leaders should find something of benefit. Steering clear of obscure jargon, it might even be suitable to offer friends and family an insight into why you play that silly game so much and get worked up about someone else claiming The Awesome Sword that should’ve been yours.

To conclude the KiaSA Review Service (available to anyone who’d like to send us stuff), a couple of pithy quotes for the cover of the second edition, bracketed sections optional:

“Better than Joyce’s Ulysses (in its coverage of loot distribution systems)”
A la recherche du temps perdu has nothing on The Guild Leader’s Handbook (when it comes to advice on leading a raid)”
“(If your local store is out of Viennese spowling tape,) The Guild Leader’s Handbook makes an excellent (substitute, so long as the thrush-plate is) present (and straight, then curved.)

Reviewlet: Spook Country by William Gibson

I started reading William Gibson in the late 90s, by which time Neuromancer was a strange mix of past, present and future; possibly as a result I preferred his Bridge trilogy. When Pattern Recognition came out I didn’t pick it up; I’m not really sure why, possibly from a snap first impression that it was something to do with advertising. Spook Country, on the other hand, sounded much more like it; espionage fiction had been a bit quiet since the end of the Cold War.

Typically for Gibson, Spook Country kicks off in median res, the first few chapters being slightly hard work as you assimilate the main characters, then it’s off on the trail of a container via virtual locative art, medieval history filtered through tranquillizers and the orishas of Santeria, ending with almost as many questions as you started (albeit different ones). Gibson’s prose is as vivid as ever, and on the whole I thoroughly enjoyed Spook Country, though the “lead singer of a cult indie band” background of the lead character jarred slightly.

For a slightly more acerbic (but obviously spoilertastic) take, it’s also the feature of one of The Guardian’s rather excellent Digested Reads.

Reviewlet: Masters of Doom

I’ve been on something of an early 90s bender recently, starting with digging out a stack of old PC magazines for the “It was (x) years ago today” articles (1992 coming soon), then within a couple of days of each other Gamasutra had a great interview with Tim Sweeney of Epic Megagames (prompting fond memories of Jazz Jackrabbit, Epic Pinball and One Must Fall: 2097 amongst others), and Eurogamer had a piece on “The Shareware Age”, generally very good, though I’d disagree slightly about its pre-1993 PC gaming “Dark Age” suggestion. Off the back of all that I picked up David Kushner’s Masters of Doom, “How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture”, the “two guys” in question being John Carmack and John Romero of id software.

Masters of Doom is a fascinating read, thoroughly researched, covering the genesis of id, their early games (Commander Keen and Wolfenstein 3D), and the seismic release of Doom. Though the supporting cast are well fleshed out it’s the relationship between Carmack and Romero that’s the focus, the way it clicked to kick-start the first person shooter revolution, their contrasting personalities complementing each other perfectly. Unfortunately, though, the differences that initially sparked such creativity turned into a rift that forced them apart, like Lennon and McCartney or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore before them. After Doom there’s the rocky road of Quake leading to Romero’s departure to found Ion Storm and the debacle of Daikatana, while id stuck with Quake and Doom sequels.

It would have been interesting to have a little more context around the effect of id’s games on the wider PC gaming scene, comparative sales figures perhaps, or the reaction of id to rival games and vice versa; there are brief mentions of e.g. Half Life, Unreal Tournament and Deus Ex, but further depth would be outside the scope of the book, really, so it’s hardly a flaw. All in all an excellent book for anyone with any interest in the formative years of the FPS.

Reviewlet: Tank Men by Robert Kershaw

When looking at military history it’s easy to view tanks in terms of statistics; on the strategic scale the numbers employed and distances covered, at an individual level armour thickness, gun calibre and velocity, engine power. Tank Men, as the name suggests, concentrates on the human element, the men (and, in some Soviet divisions, women) who crewed the tanks in World War I and II, an area sometimes overlooked not only by history but also early tank designers.

Based heavily on letters, diaries and personal testimonies, Tank Men looks at the whole experience of armoured warfare. The camaraderie of crews functioning together, crammed into tiny uncomfortable spaces, frequently roasting or freezing, always fatigued but having to maintain constant alertness. A recurring theme is dread of being trapped in a burning tank; crews would not only see the results, at extremely close quarters if recovering vehicles, but also sometimes hear trapped comrades over open radio nets. Some of the accounts are quite harrowing, and really bring home the horrific nature of war that’s all too easy to distance yourself from on the other side of a screen.

From the initial deployment of tanks in the battle of the Somme to VE Day, via the first tank versus tank engagement in 1918, Blitzkrieg, North Africa, Kursk and Normandy, Tank Men covers the key formative campaigns of the tank from the perspective of the men who fought in them. A thoroughly researched and gripping book, highly recommended.