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Dissecting Dragon Age Lore – Dwarves and Lyrium

Michał

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Welcome to the next dissection of Dragon Age lore, esteemed leaders. This time, I’ll tackle a topic that falls somewhat to the wayside: dwarves, and related matters—the Titans, and lyrium.

At first glance, Dragon Age dwarves are rather typical. They’re short and tough, and they live underground. They make magic weapons, and many of their men have beards. They resist magic, and cannot become mages. As it often happens with the franchise, though, it’s not quite as simple when you zoom in a little closer. The core of the dwarves’ identity is made up of two things: their ability to mine lyrium and enchant… and the fact that they’re teetering on the brink of extinction.

Society, or What’s Left of It

By the time Dragon Age: Origins begins, the dwarven civilization consists of two cities—Orzammar, and Kal Sharok. We never see the latter, however. There are vague mentions of it in the first two games. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, there is an option to make contact with them, but it only happens through a war table operation. All we know is that they managed to survive after the dwarves in Orzammar chose to abandon all other cities and thaigs and retreat. Needless to say, they hold just a bit of a grudge over being left to fend off endless darkspawn.

We know that the dwarves had a massive empire before the First Blight. It spanned the entire Thedas… or rather, below it. They built cities, created enchanted wonders and traded with the Tevinter Imperium. The Darkspawn ended it all. They overran the Deep Roads and all the cities and thaigs. Thus, Thedosian dwarves are effectively a post-apocalyptic society. They lived through the end of the world.

Orzammar became the capital of the dwarven empire some time before the First Blight—the former seat of power being Kal-Sharok. Afterwards, it became the place the survivors of the dwarven people ran to. Orzammar now clings to life, holding the Darkspawn at bay, selling lyrium to the surface world and desperately striving to keep the old traditions alive.

The obsession with tradition, rules and roles is something we encounter over and over in Orzammar. Dwarven society divides itself into castes: Noble, Warrior, Smith, Artisan, Miner, Merchant and Servant. Then there are casteless, who are right square on the bottom. Those dwarves who live on the surface likewise have no caste.

As you’d expect from a caste system, it’s very rigid and inflexible. A dwarf’s caste determines their social standing and role; deviating from them is discouraged, to put it mildly. Dwarves don’t have religion, as such. They venerate the concept of the Stone, which surrounds them and supports them. Dwarves come from the Stone, and return to it after death. Good dwarves strengthen it, and wicked ones weaken it.

The casteless aren’t technically the “lowest” caste, as they have no role, standing or place in society. The Stone rejects them, and they’re effectively criminals by dint of birth. It’s no surprise that their career options begin and end with organized crime or cheap, illegal labour. Which the upper castes are more than willing to use them for. Dwarves who leave for the surface become casteless by definition… but Orzammar couldn’t survive without them. They’re the ones who run the lyrium trade, both legal and illegal. There’s a whole diaspora of dwarves on the surface, but we see very little of it outside organized crime.

It’s not a pretty picture that I’ve painted here. The last remaining dwarven city that we actually see is a place rife with inequity, politics and blind devotion to tradition, all sending them into a downwards spiral. What was it like before the Darkspawn happened, however? Let’s dig into what we know.

Origins and Nature

For a long time, the origins of the dwarven species were a mystery. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, particularly the Descent and Trespasser DLC, we find out some pretty heavy facts, finally.

The conclusion of the Trespasser DLC tells us that the dwarves originate from a class of beings named Titans. They shaped the earth with their will, until they fell asleep. In Trespasser, we find out that they  were struck down and put to sleep by the ancient elves, and their “gods”.

Dwarves evidently survived the fall of the Titans. It’s very unclear what they were like before the Titans fell. Elven mosaics call them “witless, soulless” workers of the Titans. It’s not exactly a reliable source, considering that the same mosaic proclaimed the elves’ intent to destroy the Titans, and it took Solas, the sole survivor of the ancient world, a while to consider that dwarves might actually be people. But it’s still telling. That being said, the same mosaic says that “their deaths will be a blessing”. If “they” refers to the dwarves,  something clearly didn’t go as the elves thought it would.

Another hint for the dwarves’ former nature comes from Dagna, the Inquisition’s arcanist. When she analyzes pieces of the Fade that the Inquisitor brings back from the place, she experiences strange things. She felt huge, like a mountain, and “thought all the thoughts”. She was “around all her people”, and “her thoughts were all of theirs”. Tellingly, she speculates that it might be what the Stone feels like.

It’s hopelessly cryptic, but becomes clearer once we’ve finished Descent. I think dwarves were linked with the titans’ bodies as part of a hive mind, of sorts. This connection broke when the Titans fell. Which brings me to a theory a friend of mine and I formulated. Namely… perhaps the dwarves’ current caste system is a faint echo of their functions within a Titan’s body. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence—a race of beings who used to be part of a massive organism now have rigid social roles.

The question then becomes, what did happen to dwarves after the Titans fell? It seems like there are two major breakpoints in their history, one being the First Blight, and the other, the fall of the Titans. By the time the games take place, Titans are a children’s tale at best. Shaper Valta, who accompanies us throughout the questline, says she had found mentions of them in two places: a bedtime story, and a book that predates the First Blight. She believes the Shaperate, who chronicle dwarven history in lyrium runes, might have intentionally erased knowledge of the Titans.

If that is true… why? And when? The Shaperate is not above erasing memories when someone powerful enough demands it. If Bhelen became king in Dragon Age: Origins, he has the Shaperate remove his allies’ Carta affiliations. So what purpose could someone have had in hiding the Titans from the dwarves’ memories? Was it political? Or did they truly think it was for the best? Did it happen before or after the First Blight brought them to the brink of extinction?

I’m leaning towards it happening after the First Blight, and here is why. In Dragon Age 2, we visit the Primeval Thaig. There, we find red lyrium, which has such far-reaching consequences later on. But we also find evidence that the dwarves worshiped deities of some sort, something unthinkable to modern dwarves. We also encounter rock wraiths, also known as the Profane. According to dwarven lore, they’re dwarves so corrupt the Stone rejected them, but here’s what the Codex has to say:

We who are forgotten, remember,

We clawed at rock until our fingers bled,

We cried out for justice, but were unheard.

Our children wept in hunger,

And so we feasted upon the gods.

Here we wait, in aeons of silence.

We few, we profane.

Feasted upon the gods…there’s only one thing it could possibly mean. The tabletop Dragon Age RPG even explicitly states that rock wraiths feed on lyrium veins. And as we find out in Descent, lyrium is the Titans’ blood.

Therefore, I think it’s possible dwarves may have worshipped the Titans as gods at some point—maybe not all, but some. We see no mention of it in what little records we have that predate the First Blight, but it would disappear along with the mentions of Titans themselves. Did it happen because someone thought the Titans failed their people? Or was it a power-grab? My friend and I have theorized that the dwarven Shaperate are descendants of a forgotten priest-caste, but it’s just wild speculation on our part.

The Matter of Lyrium

That being said, “Stone sense” is a very real thing. Dwarves have an innate sense of direction and orientation underground. Some more than others, and the Shaperate recruits those who display it particularly strongly. The Miner caste is said to often have an uncanny way of finding lyrium veins.

Lyrium keeps coming up, again and again. Affinity to it is one of the dwarves’ innate traits, along with the stone-sense, resistance to magic, inability to perform magic, and inability to dream. Dwarves who live on the surface lose their stone-sense, and according to background materials, their resistance to magic as well…not that it stops Inquisitor Cadash from resisting magic. Their connection to lyrium remains, though. They can handle it safely, unlike the surface races.

It would be easy to link the dwarves’ disconnection from the Fade to lyrium, but mages use lyrium to enhance and empower the magic they draw from the Fade. Lyrium potions restore mana or increase magic power when used by the player-controlled characters. It can also serve as a power source for more complex and demanding spells.

And yet, dwarves aren’t the only one who resist magic and the Fade. Templars and Tranquil come to mind. According to Dagna’s ramblings, Tranquil aren’t like dwarves… but also are, because they do work lyrium and resist its harmful effects. Could it be they approach the same problem from opposite sides? Well, Dagna puts it best herself: we have answers that aren’t answers.

Templars, on the other hand, are likened to dwarves on multiple occasions. Cole, a spirit of compassion, says that dwarves are quiet, but with the old song still echoing inside, like Templars. The “old song” being the call of the Titans, most likely. Cole says that the Templars’ bodies become incomplete, and yearn for something bigger than they are. Thus, magic has no room to come in.

This yearning is the cause of the addiction that plagues the Templar Order. Ser, an enigmatic man who teaches the Inquisitor in the Templar skills, says:

“Inside, there’s something you don’t know you possess. Becoming a Templar will make you keenly aware. […] Once you are accustomed, that… something… will get hungry.”

This is more or less what Cole says. Lyrium awakens something in Templars, makes them yearn for something they don’t even know. The Titans. It’s not quite the same as what dwarves experience. The little folk can’t actively deny magic the way Templars can, while Templars can still dream, as far as we know.

This raises implications, though. A member of any species can become a Templar, even if most of them are humans. Does it mean all of them have some sort of bond with the Titans, on some level? Or does the lyrium forge such a bond?

Regardless of the answer to that, we know that lyrium grants Templars their abilities by allowing them to reinforce reality. They push the Fade away, preventing it from gaining a foothold; magic has no room to come in. According to Cullen, an ex-Templar struggling with lyrium dependency, those abilities become as instinctive as using a weapon, eventually.

So in some way, lyrium is an antithesis to the Fade. Tranquility, the process in which a person is cut off from the Fade, is accomplished with a lyrium brand. And yet, like I said, lyrium also empowers magic. It creates enchanted items, and gives mages more power.

Lyrium is a very precious commodity, for obvious reasons. But I think it’s even more important than its economic value would suggest. It seems obvious that it links to some fundamental truths about the Dragon Age universe. And dwarves share that link. Let’s hope the Titans’ wayward children receive more development in the coming material.


Images courtesy of BioWare

Michał is a natural meddler, driven to take fiction apart and see how it works. In The Fandomentals, he examines fantasy and gaming with a critical, and somewhat cranky, eye.

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Shameless Draws the Line Between Healthy and Unhealthy Emotion

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When it comes to the ongoing continuity of any sort of story, cause and effect are extremely important. What characters say and do should not be taken lightly, whether it is positive or negative, since completely ignoring a situation where something significant happened only serves to break the kind of immersion a series should be going for. This was never really a problem for Shameless in the past, but recently something has come up to make me wonder, but wait last episode they were literally…? Granted it’s not the biggest of plot points—or holes rather—but still if it happens one time what stops it from happening a second time. Maybe it’s just me nitpicking at this point because I know it wasn’t a central part of the plot (actually it was mostly filler), but the fact it made me question what was going is something that really made me wonder about the rest of the series.

On a different and more significant point, another thing that is important in a series is to divide the line between right and wrong, whether it comes from the for of good and evil or healthy and unhealthy. Granted this is Shameless we’re talking about, and a lot of the morality of the series is pretty gray. But one thing we can count on being thrown onto sides are feelings and emotion. One thing that certainly sets Shameless apart from the rest is it’s realism in context to our relation to its characters. Keeping that in mind, something so central to the show’s success should be able to give us a clear line between what we can expect could be positive characteristics in the form of development and learning while on the negative side being constant poor decision making and remaining the same person of the course of the shows length. This episode reminded me why the line exists and why it is so important.

Recap

The episode opens to Ian continuing his plans involving movements against religious homophobia while Frank tries to plan his retirement, which hilariously is nonexistent due to his whole six weeks worth of work in his entire life. Debbie also finds some off the books welding gigs that take place at night which is about as strange as it sounds. Celia appears to take Franny for a few days, begging the question as to what is going on with Derek? Meanwhile, Kassadi continues to be an insufferably happy fiance by buying presents for the family; I forgot she was rich. Yet scarily enough, she give Carl a necklace with a pendant sized bottle filled with her blood…crazy.

Fiona continues to work on the apartment and learns that Nessa lost one of her Ford babies but hasn’t told her wife yet. Speaking of Ford, he does text her asking her to look at some furniture for her apartment as she tells Nessa about their situation. It’s cute to see Fiona and Ford look at furniture and see another language he knows. At least it gets her a huge discount on a pretty expensive Danish chair.

Kev and V continue to try and find Svetlana a rich old man to marry to help her one up her old fellow sex worker from the previous episode. Lip goes to make a visit in prison to see Youens and we shockingly find out that he has passed away, all the office will tell him that there was an incident and he didn’t survive and that the body was claimed by the next of kin. What follows is a quite depressing montage of Lips ride home.

Once Fiona returns home, she sees the family of the man who fell off her roof arguing with his coworker, who is refusing to give her money for the work already done until he’s out of the hospital. It looks like they’re homeless at the moment and Fiona does what she can to help. She realizes they might be homeless, when what starts as his daughters wanting to use Fiona’s bathroom turns into a bath for them. Ian starts to see more supporters come out to see him after the viral video of him saving the priest and he’s approached by a minister to help more of the Gay community. Lip goes back to Youens’s home and walks in on his daughter, Tabitha, going through his affairs. It turns out the withdrawal from booze caused him to have a bad seizure, he tries to seem significant to her but she comes off as offended and asks him to leave and to leave his key.

Svetlana finally has her date with old rich man only to be treated like a cheap sex worker and she ends up punching him in the face when he asks her for a good time for very little money. Ian has a lot of the kids in his home to spread the message of love but it only serves to gain him more followers in which he’ll need a bigger place to speak. Though he’s not sure if he’s up to the task which is as much as he expresses this fear to Fiona. Though now he’s dubbed as Gay Jesus.

Debbie’s night welding job actually ends up working for a bunch of scabs trying to one up production for cheaper against a welding union. They do get caught but most of them get away, including Debbs. Kassidi gets more and more possessive and obsessive when she realizes Carl is still going back to military school. She has a clear freak out about it while Lip tries to write a speech for Youens’s wake. The family finds out he’s engaged, but of course Ian and Fiona try to convince him not to marry him. Frank does what he does best and acts like Frank.

Shameless presents, “Gay Jesus”

Just as Fiona begins to enjoy life on her own, the man who fell off her roof is brought by ambulance to his family who are still living in a car right outside her apartment. Once Ford comes back, Fiona tells them she’ll try and find them family housing until they can back on their feet. Pun not intended. Meanwhile Kev and V work a scheme with mic and two way radio to help Svetlana act more like a submissive woman to help her find a rich old man. Debbs realizes even though there is danger with working with scabs, the pay was too good for her not to take the risk again. Carl comes back home to all his military uniforms ripped apart and this leads to yet another fight as she begins to describe that she’ll die if he leaves. The two compromise on getting married that day, oddly enough it’s not the weirdest marriage that the Gallagher family has produced.

Fiona talks to Trevor about the housing for the family, and Trevor mentions that Ian hasn’t been around much even though he was supposed to speaking to some kids for him that night. Trevor expresses that he misses him. Frank, now pretty much back to his old ways, is using Ian’s message for shameless advertising; of course Ian tells him that 95% of the sales must go to help Trevor’s kids.

At the wake for Youens, Lip realizes that he was not the only life touched by his professor, in fact he was actually the least successful of all of them. They all come up talking about how he helped them become masters in their field, or was there for them when they needed him most, and even more emotionally exclusive situations. Lip crumbles his speech and leaves in anger only to go back to the bike shop to destroy things. Fiona tells the family outside that she found them a place that will take them in two days but offers to let them stay at her apartment until then. Carl and Kassadi’s marriage falls through when they’re told they have to wait for the next day for their marriage license to take effect.

She’s insane

Fiona and Ford spend more time together as she finally confronts him about his lack of interest in her life, only to realize he already knows everything bout her by asking around. She’s surprisingly not creeped out by his extensive knowledge of her because of how he words it that she’s completely out matched by his charm. Svetlana’s second attempt at wooing an older suitor has her take off her mic in frustration and go straight for grabbing the mans crotch. Another successful meeting gets Ian a larger group for support, he waivers only at the idea of saying the same things over and over but quickly picks back up once he’s told that sometimes that’s all one needs to hear.

My ship has set sail

Carl finally admits to Kassidi that he’s having doubts about their marriage the next day and that he was relieved that they had to wait. He wants to wait a little longer and she seems to accept based on his honesty. Probably the best thing she’s done until she ruins it back trying to fake hanging herself so that she’ll be saved by Carl, using that as a sign that he really does love her. This leads to them getting married that day after all.

After Fiona and Ford finally pop the cherry she’s rushed back to her apartment because more people are now squatting with the family to make money off of them. Trevor finally confronts Ian about missing his promise to him and the two fight, Trevor brings up some valid points. Lip finds Tabitha on his porch, she brought him the draft of a recommendation letter written for Lip and she expresses how he was a great dad to strangers but not to her. She says that he never saw her father right more about a student than he did for Lip. She begins to cry and Lip does his best to console her.

The episode ends with Fiona attending Ian’s big night while calling it a cult under hush hush, though I’m not sure if she’s serious or not. Ian gives a great speech, charismatic and relatable. Debb’s gets injured at her scab gig when a heavy metal pipe falls at work, her expression gives away that it’s a serious injury. Fiona finds out that the man whose family she’s been letting stay at her place is now suing her for falling off the roof and wants 6 million dollars.

Review

The first thing I really want to talk about is Youens’s death. For Lip this had a profound effect and swirled emotions around like crazy. Up until now Youens had been a sort of crutch for Lip; sure he was grateful for the man helping get his life straight and paying for his rehab, but at the same time Lip centered his true rehabilitation by trying to help Youens from succumbing to the same fate. Clearly the man did not want to be helped after he showed up to court drunk. Emotionally the thought of the old professor going to jail weighed heavy on Lip and with his passing Lip was given a forced release from that pain. I’m not saying I wish death on anyone holding someone back emotionally, far from it, but in this case it might have helped Lip in the long run.

This scene was pretty powerful

The second part of this is Lips handling of the wake. We’ve seen Youens not only help Lip to sobriety but a long time ago he saw a future in him, a promising career. This slowly fell apart as the drink became most of what Lip cared for. Upon witnessing all that former students and the like had to say about Youens at his wake we realize that they were all a lot more successful in life than Lip. We could understand if this made him feel like a failure in some respect but the real emotional turmoil is the feeling of not being exclusive or not being someones, “one”. While on the surface it seems like a selfish thought on his part but surely he knew he couldn’t be the only one whose life he touched. Of course this feeling is remedied by Tabitha who most likely feels the same exact way, especially when students had a better child to father relationship than she did with her own father and like that we are given a proper division between healthy emotional grief and selfish possession.

On the opposite side of that spectrum, we have Carl and Kassadi’s relationship which is pretty much dominated by her over bearing possessiveness and emotionally abusive attitude towards Carl. She literally pressures him into seeing things her way by threatening, screaming, and just all around acting quite frankly insane. Carl really needs to find a way out of this before it continues to get worse.

Ian’s plot has gotten a lot of traction of the course of the season with a major pro and con. The pro of course is not only sending this message of love while at the same time facing the realities of being looked to as a hero by so many. The show brilliantly weighs in the issues that are faced by people of importance into their personal lives. But the major con is that earlier this season we saw Ian at an all time low saying something was going to be done. It was solemn, thought provoking and then never mentioned again. It seemed pretty significant at the time so why was it completely forgotten?

I had the same issue with the new plot for getting Svetlana a new old, rich husband. Kev and V just spent almost an entire episode working to shame and humiliate her and once she has a moment of true weakness they run back to her side? Granted they are good people and would do something like that for a friend in need but they literally just spent almost a whole season hating her and suddenly they don’t? Sorry, but I don’t buy it.


Images courtesy of Showtime 

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Helsreach Shows Us a Universe of Constant War

Michał

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Greetings, readers of the Fandomentals, and welcome to my first article of 2018. I’d say I hope it’s better than the last year, but who are we kidding? With that in mind, let me introduce you to a book from a universe that is much, much worse than our own. The book in question is Helsreach, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden. It’s a part of a larger series of novels taking place in the Warhammer 40000 universe, about the battles of the Space Marines – the grim, bald men in very large pauldrons who are perhaps the most recognizable face of the setting… for better or worse.

The title of the novel refers to a hive-city on the world of Armageddon. “Hive”, in this context, means simply a massive city on a planet full of such. Armageddon is an industrial world, producing machines and weapons for the Imperium of Man, and it saw a great deal of warfare, even by the standards of Warhammer 40K. Helsreach takes place during the third war for Armageddon, a titanic conflict depicted in codices, novels and other material. The major dramatis personae of it are Commissar Yarick and the Ork warboss Ghazghkull Mag Uruk Thraka.

…Neither of whom plays any sort of role in this book. Yarrick appears briefly, but Ghazghkull is nowhere to be seen. That’s because Helsreach is only one city on the planet, and not a very important one, even. The sheer scale and brutality of the fighting it sees despite that is a testament to how mind-bogglingly brutal the war at large is. But its relative insignificance provides much of the actual conflict of the novel, due to what it means for its main protagonist.

Said protagonist would be Chaplain Grimaldus, of the Black Templars chapter. Black Templars are fanatical and devoted to the Emperor even compared to other Space Marines. Grimaldus’ role as a Chaplain means that he serves as a priest, leading them in prayer, stoking their faith and encouraging them to ever greater ferocity and brutality in the name of humanity and its God-Emperor.

If that sounds boring and one-note to you, well, I used to think so too. But Dembski-Bowden showed me that it doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. Space Marines stand apart from humanity, yes. Their physical and psychological traits both result from heavy genetic modification.

And yet… Grimaldus is relatable. He hasn’t been a Chaplain for long, having replaced his mentor in the role. He doesn’t think he’s up to the task. His battle-brothers, whom he leads into the battle for Helsreach, agree – but as they will not question the chain of command, it just leads to quiet resentment. Grimaldus is also less than happy to have been sent to fight for an insignificant city with a handful of Marines, rather than join the Chapter in the massive battles in the planet’s orbit or other cities. The fact that he’ll die doesn’t bother him – dying for the Emperor is his goal in life. But dying without glory and honor do.

As relatable as Grimaldus is to us, the narration emphasizes the differences between the Space Marines and humans. That’s how it refers to normal people, at least in the Polish translation. The Adeptus Astartes are defenders of humanity, but whether or not they’re still human themselves after so many modifications is arguable. The soldiers of the Imperial Guard around them certainly feel the gap. Their towering size, unflinching focus and zealotry, the constant sounds of their power armor… not to mention their inhuman strength and fortitude in battle.

Grimaldus’ journey in this novel involves coming to terms with his position, realizing the worth of the struggle for Helsreach and empathizing with the “mortal” men and women around him. Compared to Warhammer 40000 as a whole, the inclusion of women is what I’d call decent. The Space Marines are a boys-only club as ever, but the Imperial Guard is clearly full of both genders. There’s some romance stories among the Guard that kind of come out of the left field. I think their main purpose is to confuse Grimaldus – who, like all Space Marines, has neither the capacity nor drive for such relationships.

One of Grimaldus’ more interesting relationship is with the princep of an Imperial Knight. For some quick context, a Knight is a building-sized bipedal war machine, basically a mecha. The princep is an extremely old woman who’s the thing’s main pilot, submerged in a tank of liquid and integrating with it through her mind. Her relationship with Grimaldus is that of grudging respect mixed with hostility, as their goals and ideologies clash.

Despite working towards the same goal and against the same enemy, they represent different factions within the Imperium of Man, which do not see eye to eye. The details of it might somewhat confuse a reader who isn’t very familiar with the setting, as they concern the religious and superstitious reverence that humanity has towards technology.

The princep belongs to Adeptus Mechanicus, also called the Machine-Cult, for a reason. They supposedly worship the Emperor in his aspects as the Omnissiah, the Machine-God… which is a thin veneer covering their radically different beliefs. Of course, the talk about machine spirits and machine-gods isn’t entirely superstition, as Titans have a tendency to struggle with their pilots for control once their mental strength wavers…

What about the enemy that they all face? Well… not much to say about them, really. Wahrammer 40000 Orks are very much like fantasy orcs, with all their ugly implications… except cranked up to eleven in most ways. Their every trait, and every aspect of their biology, has been designed for one purpose – waging war. After their creators disappeared, and so did the threat they designed Orks to face… the greenskins simply began to fight anyone and anything they could.

Needless to say, they’re pretty monothematic. There are ways to make them more than just a wave of enemies to cut down, but Dembski-Bowden does not do that. Orks simply are an endless horde of brutal, bloodthirsty fighters. They die in droves, but they keep coming, are far smarter than they look and possess war machines to match those of the Imperium.

Here’s also where the differing perspectives of Space Marines and humans come into play again. A Space Marine, a superhuman wearing power armor and wielding powerful weapons, can swat Orks aside easily. To a regular human, a Ork is a huge, vicious, durable monster.

One way or the other, the Orks simply provide a background against which all the conflicts among the protagonists are forged – Grimaldus’ inner doubts, tensions among leadership or his decision to unearth a massive, ancient war engine that the Adeptus Mechanicus would rather stayed buried.

The constant, unrelenting war the Orks provide as antagonists can become overwhelming. There are brief moments of respite and planning, but other than that, the book really gets across the atmosphere of a battle that just doesn’t end. I consider it a success on Dembski-Bowden’s part, but not everyone might see it this way. It depends on how much you like war stories, probably.

I’ve talked about characters and their perspectives on things, which brings me to an important part. The novel uses third-person narration, but certainly not an omniscient one. We see things from above the shoulders of characters, whether it’s Grimaldus or others. But our view is very much colored by how they see things. This is especially visible when we see the Astartes from the point of view of regular humans, but that’s not all there is to it.

Indeed, I have heard that Dembski-Bowden outright advised everyone to remember that the books are written from the characters’ perspective and express their views, no one else’s. This is particularly apparent in Helsreach when Space Marines of the Salamanders Chapter appear. This Chapter’s traditions and tactics focus strongly on protecting the common folk of the Imperium, setting them apart from the often aloof and arrogant Astartes.

To us, it may seem like a positive trait. But the narration portrays them through Grimaldus’ eyes, and he sees their care for the civilians as weakness and foolishness. Grimaldus would rather take out an Ork warboss than escort defenseless people. Is it bloodthirsty fanaticism or pragmatism?

Having said all that, is Helsreach good reading for someone who isn’t very familiar with the Warhammer 40K universe? Although I learned about it a long time before picking it up, I would say it might be. There are many elements that might confuse a casual reader, mostly the names of different groups within the Imperium. Most of it is easily understood in context or directly explained, however. At the end of the day, the setting uses some very typical elements, putting them in a grimdark space fantasy atmosphere.

So, if you like grim stories about endless war, inner and interpersonal conflicts and don’t get tired easily of fight scenes… Helsreach might be for you. Either as a not too deep, casual read, or a jumping point into a larger universe.


Images courtesy of Games Workshop

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Shameless Tackles Hate and Intolerance with Love and Schemes

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With the holidays over and Showtime giving us a week off to really sit in and think about how the first half of this season of Shameless, it’s pretty easy to get lost in what we still want to see from a series that has been on the air for nearly a decade. While I’ve expressed my doubts about what this season could accomplish, and where it may be lead astray, especially considering the lack of unity in the central characters of the show, I’ve also begun to wonder if the magic of the Gallaghers is gone. Like I’ve said oh so many times over, I want the whole family or not at all.

With the week-long break, I really thought about that statement and came to the conclusion that in a way I am entitled to my opinion, but at the same time the very same entitlement may make me look like a spoiled fan. Even so, while I can live with the eventuality of a grown family branching out on their collective own, I believe I’m still right in the fact that the purpose of the story, the series itself, is that it is actually themed around the family. What they do on their own is entertaining enough but again lacks any real consequences to a singular plot as a whole.

While some episodes in this season were still enjoyable without that sense of singularity I find myself on the ropes in the opinion of whether it is time for the series to end or not. While I am enjoying this season for what it is I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels it is lacking that traditional Shameless charm that has carried it so far. With that said I leave it up to the remainder of the series to sway me in one direction or the other, whatever the outcome may be.

Recap

The episode opens to quite the loud Gallagher household with incessant doorbell ringing, a baby Franny who will not stop crying and a whole group trying to use the bathroom which Debbie refuses to vacate due to constant use of pregnancy tests. All showing negative of course, did I mention that Fiona’s new pup is adorable? Lip decides to ease Debbie’s tension by offering to take her to Planned Parenthood to get a real test and Brad gets a morning surprise of naked Fiona as he’s sleeping in the tub. Fiona decides to just go to Nessa’s apartment to shower. We get to see more of Kassadi who is now Carl’s girlfriend a little too close to him for comfort, especially as she sits on the head of the toilet watching him pee…and underwear that says “all Carl’s”.

…crazy

Frank begins his refugee relocation to Canada scheme in the hopes of helping those victimized by Trump’s America xenophobia while of course making a quick buck from them and smuggling cheaper drugs (mostly the medicinal kind) back to the US. At least he’s doing some sort of good even if it is tainted by classic Frank mentality. Watching him try to teach his new clients the Canadian anthem is especially giggle worthy.

Ian, Trevor, and at-risk kids begin to clean up the building they leased from Margot and soon discover that some of their queer kids have gone back home because their parents have forced them to a church where a priest will help them “pray the gay away”. Offensive, but sadly an all too real situation that unfortunately exists in the world. It mostly went unnoticed until one of theirs tried to kill themselves. Kev and V provide some filler from their last scenes as Kev continues to act in his dominant streak. When Lip and Debbs arrive at Planned Parenthood he notices that Sierra’s boyfriend is there with another woman who is pretty much almost in labor. The two exchange looks in uncomfortable silence. Fiona gets Nessa’s apartment all to herself.

Frank begins his journey to the great white north as he tries to make the best out of a long trip by playing confusing word games with his clients…and a goat. I may have also made a weird noise of excitement when I realized Sameer was played by the same actor as Salim from American Gods…but I digress. Lip has a quick word with Charlie about his pregnant companion and Lip gives him ultimatum to tell Sierra or he will himself. Ian and Trevor visit their friend who is bed ridden and find out more about this priest and his church. Fiona enjoys the freedom of living alone for a few hours only to be caught in mid naked dance by Ford in hilarious embarrassment. The two sort of flirt as he invites her to look at some famous architecture of south-side Chicago. He’s really into it and Fiona just kind of goes along with it. Carl and Kassadi’s sort of relationship moves to the uncomfortable and depraved as she begins to give him hand jobs in the middle of driving for Uber.

Lip finally starts to meet with sponsors only to realize that Brad was actually pretty tame compared to the ones that are out there. The best being his first who is basically taking no shit about him being too involved in others lives, while the others end up being way too old or way too weird. Frank takes his refugees into the wild to cross the border while telling hilarious stories about Canada playing on their light-hearted stereotypes. Kev finally starts to employ his newly found dominant mentality on Svetlana while at work and it helps to remove V’s sexual attraction to her and way more towards him. Fiona and Ford share a sweet moment as Ford tells her the beauty of certain buildings she only knows for what ghetto events happened there. It’s sweet to see Fiona have an exchange with a man who isn’t romantically interested in her, which is really cemented when she makes the first move and he tells her he’s not interested. Though not because she’s not good looking but rather because he thinks she’s too complicated. We can’t really tell if she took it as an insult or not at this point.

Well this was awkward…

Ian and Trevor finally attend a meeting for the conversion church and it is very sickening to say the least. At this point they’re just gathering some intel for an eventual strike back until Ian can’t stomach the hatred anymore. One of Frank’s followers faints and he cuts open her Burka and carries her on his back for the remainder of the journey. Debbie has Liam take some sultry photos of her to put on craigslist for employment, “sexy welder girl looking for work”. Lip almost spills the beans about Charlies other woman to Sierra because of her obvious distress, but is quickly saved by Sierra correcting him and telling him her father had murdered her mother years ago and his parole is coming up in a few days. Lip reminds Charlie of his ultimatum especially with the long drive they’re going to take.

Debbs decides to get her weekly groceries from emergency food banks and acts slightly entitled for an unemployed mother seeking out assistance. The dinner she prepares for the family is pretty unappetizing though. Frank finally gets his flock to Canada and the goodbye is bittersweet for Frank has actually done a good thing for some very good people. Kassadi’s crazy begins to come out more and more as the episode goes on and Ian prepares a bible study of his own. Also the whole family bashes Fiona on why she is complicated. Again can’t tell if the intent was malicious or not, seems like no though.

Ian finally goes back to the church and has a bible quoting contest with the priest, a back and forth of sections in the bible that either condemn gay love or Ian’s pro love quotes focusing on loving your fellow human no matter what. The scene is absolutely fearless and astounding that not only does it resonate on the viewers of the show but even in show as it’s hits thousands of views on YouTube. Carl and Kassidi finally reach a weird impasse as he finally gets mad at her and she pulls out the extra crazy acting both completely dependent on him and just overwhelm him with really weird emotions. Yeah, I don’t like her. Kev’s dominance continues to reign as he pushes Svetlana farther and farther away from almost total control of The Alibi and it double serves him with V’s new found love for his new machoness.

This scene was so well done

The episode concludes with Fiona attending a party with Nessa and her wife to find that they are both pregnant. Funny enough Nessa’s wife is pregnant through artificial insemination thanks to Fords sperm…and Nessa is pregnant also thanks to Ford but she actually decided to have sex with him, being drunk and laughing the whole about it anyway. Fiona approaches Ford about it but not really seriously and as more of a “oh I’m the complicated one?” type of way. He’s also got a total of five kids already. Lip decides to see the first sponsor as she’s pretty much the most normal, if not a little unflinchingly honest. Debbs also finally gets her period assuring that she is not pregnant and Frank prepares for another refugee relocation job.

Review

Like the previous episode this one was probably one of the best this season. Even though we’re still dealing with mostly smaller stories, the ones that stuck with us really did for good reason. The most talked about of course being the whole conversion church situation with Ian and Trevor. As I mentioned in the recap it is a really sad reality that these types of places exist and even worse is that they use not only fear mongering in the form of eternal damnation but also treat queerness as an affliction or disorder. Beyond this incredibly ignorant mentality it was great to see Ian not only confront and conquer but to also do so using the same exact texts these intolerant zealots do. It’s a wonderful thing to see fear and hate brought down by love and respect.

Ians face is the collective anger of an entire fandom

In the most nuanced plot line of the episode, Frank’s journey to Canada with middle eastern refugees is an especially delightful segment to watch. Not only is the scene a critique on the xenophobia plaguing our country ever but also a general lack of humanity on some of our peers parts. What I loved most about this segment was that it had literally nothing to do with their religion or country of origin. Other than the fact that we know why they’re going to cross the border illegally Frank nor the writers put in anything associating them with a religion or country and choose to let us see just our fellow Man and Woman. Even for Frank this something completely different but carries a message we should all accept by now. Granted he does throw in a little quip here and there like calling them his “little brown bunnies” it’s hardly something to take as condescending or insulting and is mostly just Frank being Frank.

On of the weaker moments of the episode was Carl’s current involvement with Kassadi. I mean I liked his story earlier on in the series in trying to find a way to afford to get back into military school. Then suddenly she appeared and made things super weird for everyone and his return to the academy completely went out the window. I mean, I’m sure he is going to go back, he already has the money for the next semester but where will that leave her. At this point she is already very manipulative and uses negative emotion to get what she wants from him. I have a feeling this will lead to conflict when he decides it is time to go back to school and whether she’ll let him or not. Time will tell.

On a final note, this episode did seem to ignore the last few minutes of the previous episode where Ian seemed to be under some heavy emotional distress. He talked about something that may need to be done but was pretty vague about it and didn’t respond to Fiona when asked him what it meant. While his mind was no doubt preoccupied with what was going on this episode I would really hope they follow up on this as it could lead to an increasingly emotional and authentic experience in story telling.

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