Mistborn: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson

After the events of the first book, The Lord Ruler is dead and Elend Venture is now king. A lot of stories end with an evil empire being toppled and then leave it at that, as if this is a sufficient ending, but what The Well of Ascension explores is what actually happens after you topple an empire and it’s not an instantaneous happy ending.

Kelsier, the leader of the team who helped topple the previous regime, is dead and the crew who are left behind are now somewhat directionless. Elend sits on the throne and is a man of good ideals, but somebody without self-confidence or practical experience. While he tries to be the new ruler, the vacuum left by the Lord Ruler is one he doesn’t seem to be able to fill and others are forming armies to try and claim his position of power. Meanwhile, as he and his comrades try to stop a war from breaking out, the average person actually ends up with worse living conditions than they had under the Lord Ruler

I really liked the nuance to this book – there are several different factions vying for power and as you read, you have to question whether our protagonists are really the best people for the job. Everything is falling apart and, unlike the first book, where there was a clear good vs evil dynamic with the Lord Ruler against a group of noble thieves, here you have a situation where the best choice for a leader really isn’t clear. It’s an interesting story of fantasy politics and one which I found much more interesting than the first book (which I did also enjoy).

This book also introduces us to the Koloss, a race of large, brutish creatures which are used as grunts. I found them very interesting, but also felt somewhat bad for them, considering how they were seen as completely inferior to everybody else. We’re also properly introduced to the Kandra, a particularly intriguing species who consume the bodies of dead people so that they can then become a replacement for that person – we’d seen them in passing in the last novel, but what they are and how they operate is really fleshed out here and I was fascinated by them.

Meanwhile, the main characters continued to be fantastic – particularly Vin and Sazed, who are easily my two favourites. It was interesting to see Vin’s doubts and hesitations as she becomes an almost unstoppable Mistborn and we get a glimpse at more Terris people beyond Sazed as we meet a character named Tindwyl, a woman who is much less mild mannered than Sazed. Their adjustments to the changing world were interesting to see and while I was never all that fond of Elend, I think that works well and is exactly what we’re supposed to feel, as there’s a lot of intentional uncertainty over whether or not he is fit to rule.

I mean no disrespect to the first book, which was a great and enjoyable read in its own right, but The Well of Ascension does everything you want a sequel to do: it expands on the story, characters and setting and does a better job of it than the original. This is a brilliant novel of conflicting fantasy politics – just my kind of thing. If you liked the first book, I strongly recommend reading this too.

Rating: 9.3/10

Buy it here.

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Cohabitation during Lockdown

I’ve been living with a good friend of mine for almost two years and, of course, a large portion of that time has been spent in lockdown due to the ongoing global pandemic. A lot of people have had difficulty maintaining relationships with the people they live with during lockdowns, I’ve heard married couples are getting divorced and housemates are having to spend time apart because they are sick of seeing one another. So, of course, the question is: how has the ongoing global catastrophe affected my relationship with my house friend?

Well, I’d be lying if I suggested that there had been any kind of tension whatsoever, because, if anything, the two of us have just become even more happy and relaxed around one another. It’s a shame that this hasn’t quite been the case with everybody, but then I suppose it does give me cause to be proud of my relationship with my house friend. Since our dynamic doesn’t seem to be standard, I thought I’d make a blog post about why I think our relationship is as healthy as it is.

Not taking things personally

Sometimes my house friend comes home, says hello, then goes straight to her bedroom and I don’t see her again other than, perhaps, to say goodnight. Maybe someone in that situation might think to themselves “Oh no, why do they not want to be around me?” but I know in this situation that it’s not that she doesn’t want to spend to me, it’s that she does want to spend time on her own – a need we all have. How could I possibly be offended at that? Space is important to everybody.

Never being entitled

Good friends give each other emotional support and I have sat and listened to things that upset or annoy my house friend many times – just as she has sat and listened to things that upset or annoy me. However, it would be wrong of either of us to think that we can count on the other to provide emotional support 100% of the time – everybody has their limits and it’s not always possible to take on negative energy. So if we ever need to talk to the other about something, we always say “is it okay to talk about something negative?” Neither of us are entitled to the emotional support from the other – we both provide it often, but we both know that we can say no.

Communicating clearly

If either of us think that we have annoyed the other one, or if either of us just think that the other seems a bit grumpy or unhappy, we just ask “Are you okay? Have I done anything to upset you?” and then we express what the issue is or, much more likely, reassure the other that there is no issue. To be honest, because we are so open with one another and neither of us are ever afraid to raise anything, I’d never interpret something as passive aggressive, or thing that she was ever holding something against me. We both trust each other to be up front about about potential issues and therefore live with much greater peace of mind.

Doing nice things together (when we want to)

It’s easy to think “I live with this person and see them every day, therefore I don’t need to make special plans with them” but it’s important to continue to have fun positive experiences with the people you live with. Both of us are always coming up with nice things that we can do together, while at the same time understanding that we won’t always have the energy to do such things and that it’s okay to change plans at the last minute if the other isn’t feeling up to it.

Respecting boundaries

Many of the things I’ve already mentioned are boundaries, but they deserve their own point. My house friend dislikes physical contact or people being too close to her, so I avoid physical contact whenever possible and make sure I don’t stand too close. Perfectly reasonable – again it ties into not taking things personally. Someone might say “why would you be uncomfortable with me being so close? We’ve lived together happily for two years now, this is ridiculous!” but that’s not the right away to see things. The fact is that everybody has unique needs and boundaries and it’s important not to try and bend them to meet your own needs or expectations.

Bonus Point: Sense of humour

A good portion of every day is spent talking absolute nonsense. My house friend and I have almost developed characters that we slip into, or sometimes we pretend to be really nasty and toxic towards each other, which makes us both laugh. We have a similar sense of humour and are good at making each other laugh, so it is fun for us to spend time together. I guess this isn’t really something you can control, since it’s more a matter of chemistry. Although, by making fun of toxic behaviour (particularly toxic behaviour that both of us have previously encountered in others), we are inherently condemning it and passively reassuring the other that we won’t display those same toxic traits ourselves.

There’s probably a lot more to it beyond these few points, because human relationships are complex, many faceted things, but I wanted to write an overview because these are the same principals I try to apply to every relationship in my life. Essentially, I think it comes down to empathy and respect – with these at the heart of a relationship, it’s sure to be a good one.

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Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment

As I start this review, I have to say once again: I love how Yacht Club Games added so much free DLC to Shovel Knight. I once read that if they had charged a single penny for each new campaign, they could have made millions off the downloads, but instead they opted to add them for free – in an industry as greedy as the video game industry, I have a lot of respect for that.

Anyway, Spectre of Torment is the third Shovel Knight campaign and the second one they added to the base game – which can also be viewed as an independent game in its own right. In this story, you play as the Grim Reaper-esque Specter Knight, who I thought was one of the toughest bosses in the original game. While Plague of Shadows was different enough, I did think that Specter of Torment did more to distinguish itself from the original game. The story is not set at the same time as the base game and is actually a prequel, with Specter Knight working for the Enchantress at the Tower of Fate in order to help her grow her forces.

Just as Shovel Knight and Plague Knight both control very differently, Specter Knight also has a completely different playstyle. You have to jump through the air and lock onto things to attack with your scythe – you can also run up walls. Every level feels completely different and you ultimately have to get used to a whole new way of playing… and it’s really fun. There was a lot more technique to it, but once you master it, Specter Knight begins to feel very powerful.

One of the big upsides, for me, was the fact that the tone of this game was much darker. We learn that Specter Knight was once a regular human called Donovan and as you progress through the story, you get to play as Donovan in occasional flashbacks, all of which lead up to him eventually becoming Specter Knight. It’s as beautiful as it is tragic. Both of the previous two games had been moving, but nothing quite to the extent to what you get this time. It’s nice to have so much emotion in a 2D platformer as I know its a genre which can sometimes skrimp on the story side of things.

You’re also allowed to play through the game in whatever order you like, with all the levels accessible from the start. The benefit of this, I suppose, is that you don’t risk getting stuck on one specific level for ages, because you can just play the other levels until you’re good enough to come back to the one you struggled with. Since you can buy weapon and armour upgrades, Specter Knight may well be powerful enough to win those levels by the time you next return to them. In some ways, that makes it even more like Mega Man.

Other than that, all I can say is that this game is just delightful. It captures all the charm of the NES era of gaming and takes it further with modern technology. It has a beautiful 8-bit aesthetic and a suitable atmospheric soundtrack – I’ve already said this in my other Shovel Knight reviews, but it surpasses the games it drew inspiration from. Specter of Torment is, potentially, my favourite Shovel Knight campaign, as the character is particularly endearing and the gameplay is amazing. Definitely worth playing, though I would recommend at least playing regular Shovel Knight first.

Rating: 9.5/10

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Pregnancy April Fools Jokes

Whenever April Fools’ Day gets closer, I see several social media posts which say something along the lines of “Pregnancy is not a joke – there are people who want so desperately to become pregnant, but will never be able to, don’t make a pregnancy announcement as an April Fools’ joke this year.” For the longest time I never understood this – the people who make jokes like that aren’t making light of people who are unable to have children, they’re just making a dumb joke. I would never have thought that it was a particularly funny joke to make, but also it seems harmless.

Of course, I thought all that as somebody who has not been through the experience of finding out they can’t get pregnant. I wasn’t saying that people were wrong to say or think that, I just didn’t understand. I thought to myself “By the same logic, any pregnancy announcement is just as bad, right?” and then I thought about it for a while and I realises that that was the point. If you can’t get pregnant it probably does make you feel a little bit sad whenever you see that one of your friends has successfully done so and so, that’s a sadness you have to go through a lot anyway, so you may as well not have to go through it for the sake of somebody making a pointless joke.

I suppose I could have simply asked someone why they found posts like that so offensive, but as it’s obviously a very sensitive subject, it didn’t feel appropriate to bring it up. The other day I was just walking along and thinking about the subject, when all the pieces fell into place and it suddenly made sense.

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Doctor Who: At Childhood’s End by Sophie Aldred

If I had to choose a favourite companion from the classic era of Doctor Who, there’s a good chance that I would choose Ace. Sophie Aldred did a brilliant job of bringing to life a wonderfully nuanced character, and tonnes of other writers have also done a great job of developing Ace further through various Doctor Who novels over the years. With this book, Sophie Aldred took her own crack at writing Ace in a novel – and the results were fantastic.

Here was get to see Ace as CEO of the charity, A Charitable Earth (an ultimate fate for her which had been alluded to in several other stories). She struggles with horrible nightmares and is intrigued when she hears about someone else who has been having the exact same nightmares. Suspecting some kind of external influence, she heads out to investigate. It soon becomes clear that there’s some kind of alien activity going on and in the process of her investigation, she also crosses paths with the Thirteenth Doctor and her companions Yaz, Graham and Ryan.

One of my favourite things about this book was getting to see the interactions between Ace and the Thirteenth Doctor. Of course, Ace had known the Seventh Doctor who, in my opinion, is almost the opposite of the Thirteenth, at least in terms of the variations between the Doctors. There’s tension, but there’s also fondness. We do also get flashbacks to the Seventh Doctor, which provides a nice contrast between the two Doctors’ personalities. Really, I think the Seventh Doctor comes off quite badly, with his manipulative ways having long reaching problems which, not only cause problems for the older Ace, but his own later incarnation and her companions.

It was also great to see Ace meeting Yaz, Graham and Ryan. She seems to warm to Ryan and Graham quite quickly, but there’s a tension and even a jealousy from Yaz and it’s really interesting to see how that plays out. Every single one of the characters was captured perfectly and felt very true to how they had previously been portrayed on the screen (or in other media).

Speaking of other media, one thing which concerned me, as a massive fan, was how this version of Ace would reconcile with the character’s appearances within the expanded universe. Though it would only have been a small thing, it would have been a shame if the comics, audio dramas and other novels were ignored – but as it happens, every single one of them was acknowledged in a way I found quite satisfying. Plus, the whole book was littered with nice little references which are sure to make any fan smile.

It’s one of those books which won’t appeal to people who aren’t so familiar with the history of Doctor Who, but if you know the Thirteenth Doctor, Graham, Ryan and Yaz and you know the Seventh Doctor and Ace, then you could get a lot out of this book. Behind all the character drama, there’s also an exciting sci-fi adventure, but what was most appealing to me was finding out more about Ace’s life as a CEO and the character drama which stemmed from the relationships between everyone.

I only hope that Sophie Aldred will write more novels in future!

Rating: 8.9/10

Buy it here.

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Lately, as spring beings and the days get a little bit longer, I’ve found that I’ve had the chance to take my evening walks during daylight hours. I hadn’t really thought about it much, but I realised that I was going out in the sunlight for the first time in months and I found it a very uplifting experience. The darkness of winter hadn’t made me depressed like it does some people, but walking in the sun really energised me and put me in a good mood. And, most of all, it made me excited.

I have very little faith in our government and feel that they have responded appallingly to the ongoing pandemic – BUT, it’s beginning to feel as though the end is in sight. I walk along the streets with the sun shining down and think, maybe it won’t be too long before I can go to Nando’s again. Maybe it won’t be too long before I can arrange some big group meals. Maybe I’ll get to go around to a friend’s house again. Sit in a dessert parlour and eat an ice cream sundae. Nurse a diet coke on a summer’s evening at a pub with outdoor seating.

I don’t know – maybe it’s just because the vaccinations are rolling out, or maybe it’s just the sun skewing me towards optimism, but it certainly feels closer to the end than it does to the start. Last year, I felt there was no end in sight, but now… things aren’t better yet and it may still be several months, but I can imagine getting back into things before too long and that’s a pleasant thought.

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Mega Man 2

For years I’d heard about how the Mega Man games were shining jewels in the crown of the NES, but unfortunately my experience of the first game wasn’t particularly great. I did have fun with it, but primarily because it was obnoxiously hard and I found that funny. It was the kind of experience I wasn’t really keen to have again any time soon, so I never really invested in the broader Mega Man series. However, after having a really good time with Shovel Knight, which I knew was partially influenced by the Mega Man, I decided to give it another go.

As is often the case when I haven’t enjoyed the first game in a series, I’m really glad I came back for the sequel because it was fantastic. On the surface, it’s very similar to the first game – visually it’s almost identical and you start the game with a choice of Robot Masters to face: Bubble Man, Air Man, Quick Man, Heat Man, Wood Man, Metal Man, Flash Man and Crash Man. Each one has a level related to their power (like a forest for Wood Man, an underwater level for Bubble Man) and when you go through the level and then beat the Robot Master in a boss battle, you unlock their power which is helpful for the other stages.

The biggest difference is that this game balances its difficulty. It’s not ridiculously hard from the get go and, in fact, only gets really hard towards the very end of the game. The rest of the time, there was just the right level of challenge, which allowed me to truly appreciate the vibrant and colourful world that I was traversing. On top of all that, the game has a fantastic soundtrack (just like its predecessor) and I was able to enjoy it as a really well made 2D platformer.

I now see why the Mega Man series is among the most highly regarded on the NES. Without a doubt, this is one of the best games on the console. If you enjoy NES games or retro gaming in general, I strongly recommend this game, I’m sure you’ll love it!

Rating: 8.4/10

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Five years ago, I bought myself a bottle of mouthwash. It wasn’t one which I was planning to use once my current bottle of mouthwash was finished though – oh no. This bottle of mouth wash was going to be stored in a backpack and kept (along with some clothes and other necessities) at the house of a couple of friends. They lived in Bath and I lived in Corsham, so this would be a good set of supplies (or a DeTamble box, as an old friend would have said) for the off chance that I might miss the last bus home and end up needing to make an unplanned overnight stay.

In five years, this never happened – which, I suppose, says something about my ability to catch buses on time. However, my friends who were holding my supplies are now moving away from Bath and so it no longer makes sense for me to keep an emergency supply at their house. The other day, they gave it back (along with a generous amount of things they didn’t want anymore) and I took it home. It was quite convenient too, as I needed some mouthwash.

The next day, as I was rinsing my mouth with the mouthwash, a thought occurred to me. When my last mouthwash ran out, who would have thought that actions I took five years earlier would end up solving that problem? Likewise, when I bought that mouthwash, I could not have fathomed the life I’d be leading when I finally opened it: I’d no longer be working alongside one of the two friends who were holding it for me, in fact, I’d have had six different jobs since then, I’d now be living in Bath and I’d be living with a friend who, at that point in time, I didn’t really see that often (plus, of course, there was an unprecedented global pandemic). It’s nice to think about the ways in which the past influences the present and the present influences the future, both in obvious ways like this, but also subtle ways we might not realise…

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Star Trek: Deep Space Nine: A Stitch in Time by Andrew J. Robinson

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine is a wonderful television programme. I’ve seen it all and loved it from start to finish. It’s a show filled with memorable and well-written characters. One of my absolute favourites was Elim Garak, the Cardassian tailor with a mysterious past at a shady government organisation. Andrew J. Robinson, the actor who brought Garak to life, wrote A Stitch in Time and it serves as a biography for Garak, as well as an epilogue for the character after the ending of the series.

First things first: don’t read this novel if you haven’t watched the entirety of Deep Space Nine – not only will it spoil several major events from the series, but a few things just won’t make sense if you don’t have that knowledge going in. But if you are well versed in the story of DS9 and Garak in particular, then this book is a real treat.

There are three storylines going on at the same time, the first of these is set after the series. Garak had always been a very likeable character, despite the fact that he has a dodgy past, but no matter what you may think about that, by the end of the series, he’s lost so much and you can’t help but feel sorry for him. The parts of the story in the modern day with Garak working to help re-build Cardassia are really very sad, but not in an over the top kind of way – in a melancholy, bittersweet kind of way and there’s a painful nostalgia which you get when you contrast it against what you learn of the character’s past. Ultimately, this story thread gives us a chance to see how Garak has grown for the better.

The second story thread is the story of Garak’s life before DS9, starting with him as a child living at home, before then being sent off to school and later working for the secret group, the Obsidian Order. Not only is this the most in-depth and fascinating look at Cardassian culture I’ve ever seen, but this storyline shines light on much of Garak’s behaviour and even his little personality quirks. I don’t want to spoil anything, so it’s hard to say too much about this story thread, but it really compliments what we already know of Garak, helping him to feel more whole.

Finally, there’s a third story thread about Garak during his time on DS9. These chapters give you an opportunity to see other characters from the series and provide you with personal insights into Garak’s relationships with other members of the crew. Though there were less big revelations about the character in these chapters, I think that they were important in giving you a look at every period in Garak’s life.

Sometimes, when you have a mysterious character in a story, learning their backstory can be disappointing because the mystery was one of the biggest reasons that anyone liked the character. Not so with this – if anything, it makes Garak feel like a more three-dimensional person. I liked him a lot before reading this and I like him even more now – he’s a very tragic character and with everything brought together like this, you feel the tragedy even more.

Interestingly, this novel confirms the character as non-heterosexual, which is nice, because a lot of fans had interpreted him in that way. Unfortunately, this is only really mentioned in passing, which is disappointing – particularly as Cardassia is portrayed as a planet which places a lot of value on a “traditional family”, which would probably have caused some conflict. I definitely like the fact that it was included, I just wish that more had been done with it.

The only other real criticism I have of this book is that I felt that portion of the novel concerned with Garak’s time in school was drawn out a little too much. It wasn’t bad and there were certainly really interesting parts to his time in education, but after a while, I did find myself hoping the story would move on and we’d get to learn more about his life afterwards.

Overall though – a brilliant book. This was my first foray into the world of Star Trek novels and I think it was a good choice. A very addictive read which I made my way through fairly quickly. I strongly recommend it (to Garak fans).

Rating: 9.3/10

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Knowing Everything Will Be Okay

In June I ended up being made redundant because of COVID-19. It was all very sudden, leaving me jobless unexpectedly. This actually ended up being my longest period of unemployment as an adult and lasted just a few weeks shy of eight months.

Naturally, being out of work for so long is quite a financial drain. I had bills and rent too pay and every now and then, I had a moment of worry or doubt. What will I do if my money runs out? Thankfully, this wasn’t something which worried me too often – I had a lot of money saved up and I remained confident throughout that my next job was just around the corner… but still, every now and then it popped into my head just as I was trying to get to sleep, or I’d feel a bit guilty whenever I had a takeaway or indulged in any other kind of treat for myself.

Thankfully, a couple of weeks ago I was offered a new job and I no longer need to worry about my income. The other day, I thought to myself “Wouldn’t it have been nice to go back to June and tell myself that I’d find another job and everything would be okay?” and in a way, yes, it would, because it would have eliminated those occasional moments of doubt and concern – but on the other hand, it’s probably for the best that I didn’t know. If I had known I’d be fine, maybe I’d have become complacent. Perhaps I’d have worried less about buying things for myself and drained my savings too quickly. Perhaps I’d have felt it was less important to apply for jobs every day and taken more days “off” – ultimately, if I’d known that everything would be okay, maybe it paradoxically wouldn’t have been. Maybe then I’d have lost the drive to make everything “okay”.

And in a way, that’s quite a nice thought. Regardless of the situation, we can’t know that we’ll be okay, because maybe then we won’t – but just because we don’t know it, it doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

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