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Book Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan

Book Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan

The Lions of Al-Rassan, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Lions of Al-Rassan is one of the best fantasy books I’ve ever read, and I say this even though I’m not entirely convinced it is fantasy.

Whatever its genre, it tells the tale of Moorish Spain and events leading to the Reconquista, but through the lens of the fantastical. The major powers and players are sufficiently mixed up and layered with new details to make it clear this is not earth (there are two moons in the sky!) and it’s not a historical account , but things are also immediately recognizable, even as an American. Instead of Christians, Muslims and Jewish peoples, you have the Jaddites, Asharites, and the Kindath – with all the same customs, stereotypes, challenges, and desires. It’s a little weird, to tell the truth, but more on that later.

Thankfully, it is much more than just a fantastical retelling of Cantar de mio Cid. At the heart of Lions of Al-Rassan are the lives and personal stories of impossibly powerful, emotional, and clever men and women. There’s The Captain himself, Rodrigo Belmonte, a genius tactician and leader of the strongest band of Jaddites on the peninsula. Opposing, or allied, with him is Ammar ibn Khairan, an Asharite poet, advisor to kings, killer of kings, and lovable rogue. Finally there’s the woman that stands between them, Jehane bet Ishak, a Kindath doctor whose life is defined equally by love, war, and medicine.

These three heroes are the pillars of the book, with themselves and the people that follow and love them serving as a metaphor for the mishmash of cultures and the inevitable conflict arising on the peninsula itself.

Al-Rassan is a ticking timebomb of external pressures and irreconcilable differences, but there is a compelling argument made by its characters that it doesn’t have to be. There’s a dream shared by many characters that conflict is not inevitable, that it is possible to blend disparate cultures (in some cases quite literally) to create something new, better, but fragile. This struggle is the source of its many emotional highs and lows.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a more human book, especially in the fantasy genre. Characters frequently stop and appreciate beauty, celebrate companionship, weep at tragedy, and profess respect for their friends and rivals.

The key here is that, with few exceptions, there are no evil men. There are competing and incompatible cultures, religions, and political systems, but humans are human, and their shared likenesses are as important as their differences. These are crafty and intelligent men having crafty and intelligent conversations with each other, even in conflict. You end up sympathizing with everyone, even going so far as hoping, naively, that they somehow all get what they want.

They won’t, of course. One of the greatest themes running throughout the book is that these men would be great and lifelong friends if not for just one small problem – the tragedy being that these “small” problems are often the most defining parts of their lives.

It is a nearly flawless book, though there are a few problems I couldn’t get past.

I’ve read plenty of books that straddle the line between fantasy and historical fiction, but this is the first time it’s been a source of distraction. Events and characters are so close to their real world counterparts – often with comically referential names, titles, or descriptions – yet at the same time are very clearly not.

I kept wishing that the book fully committed to fantasy or history.

Take the three major religions as example. Going by their descriptions, you’d likely say they are sufficiently fantastical: the Jaddites worship the sun as god, the Kindath worship the two moons, twin sisters of the sun god, and the Asharites worship not the gods but the stars and the human prophet who preached their glory.

And yet when you read of their cultures, practices, and so on, you’ll quickly find they are literally Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The Kindath (Jews) are called the Wanderers, valued for their skills and trades when times are good, but immediately blamed, persecuted, segregated, expelled, and labeled as sorcerers and baby eaters when times are bad. It’s not subtle!

It’s also not a bad thing, necessarily, because the fantastical framing is as good of a teacher as any historical drama would be. And yet… it remains distracting, taking me away from its world and putting me back in my own.

More distracting are the names of its characters: Rodrigo “The Captain” Belmonte is of course El Cid himself, Rodrigo “The Lord” Diaz. The character of Ammar ibn Khairan is based on a man named Muhammad ibn Ammar. A major city in the book is named Silveness (Seville), ruled by the khalifate (caliphate), which eventually falls and is replaced by the Almalik (Almoravid) dynasty.

Both book and reality contain a Sancho the Fat, yet they are different people… sorta?

On more mundane annoyances, there are a number of writing ‘tricks’ that Guy Gavriel Kay goes back to a few too many times.

Often – too often – there will be a scene in which an important event is viewed through the perspective of one of the characters. It will then end on a cliffhanger – like a character’s death, not yet named – and then the perspective shifts. Sometimes the cliffhanger is resolved, but more often than not this trick happens a 2nd or even 3rd time, or the time frame jumps suddenly and you’re left to infer what happened before the book eventually just tells you.

The writing is very clearly aware that it’s dangling the reveal in front of you, and it’ll purposefully lead you down false conclusions to stretch out the tension even more. Once you notice the trick it’s hard not to get impatient or even frustrated by it.

There are also a number of repetitive words and phrases that grate after a time – people can only talk about “dissembling” or “diverting” so many times before it becomes irksome – but they’re minor.

Indeed, all of its problems and distractions are minor when compared with the work as a whole. They are primarily noted only because the rest of the work is so phenomenal that even the smallest error stands out of place.

It’s a remarkable book, one that should be on the shelves of every fantasy fan, and it’s made me a Guy Gavriel Kay for life. Just don’t read it too close to taking a test or quiz on the history of Spain, because it will cause you to fail spectacularly.

Building a Village: Open Heart Development

Building a Village: Open Heart Development

Hello Villagers!

This week, I reached a very exciting milestone: there are now less than 200 items remaining on my “Required for v1.0” to-do list!

There were once over 1,200 items on this list, so being below 200 is a really big deal and signifies we’re close to the end.

To celebrate this milestone, I’m doing something I hope you’ll find pretty cool: I’m making my entire Trello board public!

This means that anyone can follow along as I grind down the remaining tasks for v1.0.

Wait, what’s Trello?

Trello is a project management tool that many developers use for tracking tasks, ideas, goals, and other things needed to make a game.

You can think of it as a big, virtual to-do list. And because it’s virtual, I can easily share it.

Whoa, there’s a lot there! Too much! What should I pay attention to?

Most people will want to stick to the cards in the first column of the board. They are labeled “Read This First!” and “Burn Chart”

The Read This First card will explain what you’re looking at and how to parse my crazy chicken scratch.

The Burn Chart is probably the most meaningful thing here. This is a graph that tracks how many items are left on the Required for v1.0 list on a day-by-day basis, as well as a forecast for future days.

This number serves as a countdown, and when it hits 0, that means Village Monsters is ready for release. For example, the above chart predicts completion by September 9th.

Of course, some items are much harder to complete than others, and cards are constantly being added, modified, or removed from the list as new things are found and priorities shift.

So don’t be too surprised if you see this prediction swing wildly around. What we really want is for it to be consistently trending downward.

Does this board contain spoilers?

Sort of. Like I said, this is the same exact tool I’m using to keep track of development, so it’s bound to contain info or hints about features and things you haven’t seen yet.

However, almost all of it is in my shorthand and wouldn’t be easily recognizable unless you know what you’re looking for. Still, if you want to go in fresh then you shouldn’t let your eyes wander too much.

That’s all from me for now! The march to v1.0 continues, only this time you get to watch me marching from the comfort of your own home.

An Honest & Obvious Update on Release Dates

An Honest & Obvious Update on Release Dates

Hello Villagers!

Today I want to give everyone an update on the schedule of the upcoming Village Monsters version 1.0 update.

I’m moving the release window from Spring 2021 to Summer 2021. Given that I’m posting this on the literal summer solstice… well, it’s probably not a surprise.

The game is in very good shape, and this decision wasn’t easy to make. However, this small delay is ultimately best for Village Monsters and for myself, even if it’s somewhat embarrassing to have to announce.

Keep reading if you want to know more about the reasons behind this move.

So, what’s taking so long?

Since April I’ve had real life friends and family playing the final game. It’s been a ton of fun and extremely valuable, but their feedback has caused my “Required Before v1.0” to-do list to grow by leaps and bounds.

By May, I realized that the math wasn’t working in my favor. I put off announcing a delay in case I could crunch my way to victory, but it hasn’t been sustainable, and it’s not healthy for me or for the quality of the game.

Villager Monsters is my first game, and it’s incredibly special to me. I’ve been working on it full time for 4 years, but even years before that I was dreaming and doodling about the game.

I know it’s a fool’s errand to chase perfection, but I still want it to be the best game it can possibly be. It has to be something I’m proud of, even if it means it takes longer to come out.

What’s next?

My main goal is to finish work on v1.0. Everything else takes a backseat until then.

However, relaxing the release schedule also means I can stop crunching as hard, which will give me more time for social media, Discord, and dev diaries.

It’s a somewhat tragic irony that the closer I get to the release the less time and energy I have to talk about it, so being able to to catch my breath is actually very important and valuable.

I have a group of playtesters that I’m going to have play v1.0 in the upcoming weeks and months. This group will expand as the game gets closer to release, so if it’s something you’re interested in then keep an eye out.

Until then, stay cool, villagers!

Building a Village: A Portrait is Worth a Thousand Words

Building a Village: A Portrait is Worth a Thousand Words

Hiya Villagers!

It’s been awhile since I’ve done a proper devlog, so I want to start with something small. So small, in fact, that it’s only 48×48 pixels: today I’m talking dialogue portraits!

Portraits are an important part of any game with a lot of dialogue text, but for a solo project like Village Monsters it’s absolutely essential.

I have neither the skill nor money to create fancy animations or sexy cutscenes. Instead, I have to rely on writing and dialogue portraits to convey the personality of a villager and the tone of a conversation.

Until recently, the portraits in game were just a villager’s overworld sprite scaled and touched up. It was a cheap solution, though a surprising number of people enjoyed the low fidelity look.

But I knew I had to completely redo them for version 1.0, so for the last month or so I’ve been chipping away at my giant to-do list and improving portraits one by one.

With over 32 villagers (and nearly that many minor NPCs), this has been no easy task! So let’s take a look at a few examples of what I have so far.

Before // After

As you can see, I opted to give each monster a full makeover as I went through them. I’m trying to minimize how many “rework” type tasks I’m doing this close to release, but I’m really happy with how these updated portraits are looking.

I limited myself to a 48×48 base, but villagers are allowed to exceed these boundaries if they have particularly large distinguishing features. I mean, these are monsters – you can’t force them to fit into a box.

Lip Sync

Before I end today’s post, I want to share one last thing I’ve been experimenting with: lip sync during dialogue!

Here’s an example:

The new portraits make it easy to add (basic) movement like this, and I think it makes conversations feel much more dynamic. However, I worry it may be a bit too distracting, so I may tweak or get rid of it altogether.

What do you think?

In any case, Village Monsters v1.0 can be seen on the horizon, so I’ll have much more to talk about very soon. Later tater!

Playtesters needed!

Playtesters needed!

Hiya villagers!

Village Monsters v1.0 is right on track. In fact, even as we speak the hype train is barreling down said track at over 400 miles per hour. Don’t worry, I have been repeatedly assured by the conductor that this is all perfectly safe.

I’m now ready to recruit volunteers to help playtest the near-final version of the game! I’ve really benefited from the whole Early Access process, but playtesting is a different beast and requires a much smaller, more dedicated type of group.

I’m looking for ~10-12 testers to play and share their thoughts on the game. Priority will be given to Kickstarter backers and Early Access owners of the game, though I do have a couple of slots reserved for new players.

Your only requirement is to play the game normally and provide feedback + answer questions in a short survey. In return, I can offer some modest benefits: your name will be included in the credits under “Playtester” and you’ll get a Steam key of the game.

The testing period will be this May and will be conducted through Steam’s new playtesting feature.

If you are interested in becoming a playtester, then please fill out this form by May 3rd!

Patch notes for Village Monsters v0.90.X

Patch notes for Village Monsters v0.90.X

Patch Notes for v0.90.1

  • Fixed crash when talking with the Clam Before The Storm
  • Fixed crash when attempting to change your name on Three Wall Island
  • Stopped villagers from referring to you as “Josh”
  • Fixed incorrect placement for the skill exp bars in some resolutions
  • Fixed mail keys from not working properly
  • Added the option to change both your character name and “username” at Three Wall Island

Patch Notes for v0.90.3

  • Greatly improved performance on Linux and Mac
  • Added several new odd jobs to the board listing
  • Worked and added new story cutscenes to the start of the game (New Games only)
  • Reworked how critter feeding works. In general, food storage now lasts much longer
  • Changed up critter food trough to visibly show when food is running low
  • Combined the Fish and Critter collection pages into one journal section
  • Added new titles for each hobby skill level
  • Moved the records page of your journal to the System tab and added a whole bunch of new records to track
  • NOTE: Some records for loaded games will be incorrect as they weren’t being tracked until this release
  • Reworked how the pass out mechanic works
  • You are now given one last chance between losing all your energy and forcing yourself to stay awake. When you see the “Exhausted” effect it’s time to eat some food or get some rest immediately
  • Improved the garbage dump
  • Villagers now universally hate being gifted trash
  • Added new winter variants for a number of buildings
  • Improved look of puddles
  • Improved the look of flower and grass sway
  • Improved the look and behavior of several critters
  • Added new nicknames to the critter name generator
  • Fixed “pest” critters (Fraley Snake, Tank Treader, Queenly Ant, and Sour Worm) from displaying erroneous sprites when stabled
  • Fixed a number of incorrect pronouns
  • Fixed a rare crash in Bonfire Beach
  • Fixed additional situations where the player’s name wasn’t used correctly
  • Fixed doughies displaying their descriptions instead of their names
  • Fixed graphical bug on the calendar

Patch Patch Notes for v0.90.5

  • Small improvements to the new library job
  • Small improvements to the dump and Garboar
  • Fixed item ratings / attributes being lost when stored or retrieved from your stash
  • Fixed rotation issue with the calendar page of your journal
  • Fixed crash related to the Sunken Treasure perk
  • Fixed issue when giving gifts to Lindwyrm
  • Fixed phantom door near Edmund and Calista’s home
  • Fixed a number of blank entries for regional drinks
  • Fixed a further number of issues with pronouns
  • Fixed a number of incorrect exhibits in the library
  • Various other fixes and improvements