Where Angels Fear to Tread – ‘Submergence’ by JM Ledgard

I’m in two minds about ‘Submergence’. It is rich in imagery and ideas, and filled with sumptuous description, but I found it frustratingly incoherent. Broken up into small sections, some only a paragraph long, it ruminates on love, faith and existence. It marries science and philosophy, terrorism and exploration, but I found there was little to drive me to read on. Each section was interesting in isolation, but if I’d lost the book halfway through I would not have felt a desperate need to find out what happened to the novel’s two protagonists.

The two central characters are spy and scientist. They meet in a French hotel, and are instantly attracted. Forced by circumstance they go their separate ways. One will be captured by terrorists, the other will travel into the depths of the ocean.

The narrative timeline is all over the place. Danny’s (female scientist) is more or less linear but James’s moves back in forth in time. The novel opens with his being held hostage, before returning to the two meeting in France. As James’ captivity lengthens, his thoughts and recollections become more erratic and philosophical, which adds to the lack of coherence.

The descriptions though are incredible, and the thoughts and emotions portrayed intense. The sections set in the French hotel are so evocative, you can see the rooms, taste the food, and feel the cold. So real and wonderful did this hotel seem, I searched for it on the Internet. Sadly, I’m not sure it exists.

The two stories on the surface have little in common. One is about exploration and the excitement of discovery, the other a horrible tale of abuse and mistreatment. Yet Ledgard teases out similarities. Somalia is in the fertile crescent, the ocean bed contains the building blocks for life. Both places could be considered as the cradle of civilisation, which in turn lead Danny and James to ruminate on the existence of God.

Both characters find themselves in environments devoid of light, literal or figurative. These dark places, where angels fear to tread, are given further texture by references to early Utopian fiction. The layering of themes and ideas in this book is very impressive.  James’ predicament highlights that there are many unexplored forgotten backwaters, even on dry land. Hell does not have to be submerged, it can be a place on Earth.

Submergence examines humankind’s need to explore, but how it is in our nature to look upwards to the heavens. Exploration beneath the sea is not glamourous nor heralded by mankind, despite it being as hostile as outer space. The benefits of exploring the deep may far outweigh travelling to Mars, but Danny’s underwater exploration fails to capture the public’s imagination.

The more I consider ‘Submergence’ the more I appreciate its hidden depths. Despite its brevity, it is a multilayered and textured read, the meaning of which goes well beyond simple words on a page. I imagine it would make an interesting book group choice as there are many themes and ambiguities to discuss. Whilst I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it, the lack of coherence making it hard to retain interest, ‘Submeregnce’ is a powerful novel about the state of the world and the importance of hope. I am glad I persevered.

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Just Another Normal Day in America – ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk’ by Ben Fountain

During Shalom Auslander’s hilarious black comedy Hope: A Tragedy, the central character voices the following about 9/11. (*) ‘Never forgetting isn’t the same as never shutting up about it’. This sentiment came to mind when reading Ben Fountain’s excoriating critique of America’s attitude to its soldiers and the War on Terror.

Private Billy Lynn is a member of Bravo company, a group of young soldiers who were involved in a bloody dogfight against Iraqi insurgents. They bravely fought to defend their comrades, and though some died, Bravo company was victorious. Now seizing a golden PR opportunity, the US army and government bring them home for a two week morale boosting tour of America. Now, on the last day of the tour before they have to return to Iraq, Bravo company are guests of honor at a Dallas Cowboys match.

It’s quite hard to describe just how good this novel is. It is political and social comedy at its finest. Comparison with Catch 22 is inevitable. They both skewer the absurdity of war, but if Heller analysed the front line, Fountain turns his lens to the home front. (There is also a delightful riff on Catch 22, when talking about gaining funding for ‘Bravo Company The Movie’.)

Bravo company are a well-drawn set of characters. A rag-tag assortment of men society would normally be content to ignore, forged, by the terror of war, into a tight-knit band of brothers. None of the group are particularly original from a literary perspective, but they are wonderfully vivid, and the camaraderie between them pitch-perfect.

The strength of the novel lies with how Fountain portrays the interaction of Bravo company with ‘real’ America. Most of the book is set behind the scenes at the Cowboys game, where the company are pushed from pillar to post meeting dignitaries and sponsors. Wherever they go, the men are told how proud people are of them, how they are upholding America’s freedom. In reality, the people they talk to are interested in one thing, what is it like to kill a man? Within this bloodthirsty request for information, there is always a religious subtext. It is during these exchanges, that I found the similarities to Auslander’s novel. The continual reiteration of atrocities past, stokes the fires of perpetual hatred.

Despite everybody wanting a piece of Bravo company, nobody really listens to them. Billy Lynn spends the whole book in search of an Advil, promises are made, but none are kept. A state of affairs that persists far beyond his search for pharmaceuticals. The novel reaches its apex when the military and rampant commercialism collide. There are two chapters where the men meet the Dallas Cowboys themselves, and then take a peek at their equipment room. These chapters are satirical fiction at its best, worthy of Heller at the height of his powers. The differences in care, preparation and attitudes of government funded soldiers, trained to kill, and American footballers, trained to throw a ball, are starkly laid out. There is an important message here, but it also comedy gold. Once the game begins, the lives Bravo company only become more strange.

As the novel moves to its conclusion, Billy sees how Bravo company are treated as a commodity. Few people are interested in the soldiers, only how they can use them to gain an advantage, either politically or in business. ‘Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk’ is a novel of many nuances. At its heart is political satire, but it is considerably more than that. This novel is about camaraderie and loyalty. Loyalty to your country, and your country’s loyalty to you.

I read recently (in a rather pompous article), that good literary fiction should renew the English language. On top of everything else Ben Fountain does this too. His prose is scintillating, filled with sentences made from words that should never be used together, yet somehow work perfectly. On every level this novel is a triumph. Perhaps the one thing War is good for, is producing high quality, emotive literary fiction.

* I may not have this quote quite right, and it may well be about the Holocaust and not 9/11 – but please forgive my faulty memory

Cigarettes and Bubblegum – ‘The Card’ by Graham Rawle

Graham Rawle’s Woman’s World is undoubtedly one the most inventive novels ever written. Five years in the making, it was created using words cut from vintage women’s magazines, which were then assembled, poison pen style, to form a coherent narrative. Whilst ‘The Card’ did not require such painstaking labour to bring to fruition, it is a similarly inventive novel and a joy to read from start to finish. Filled with humour and affection, it is utterly captivating. Once again, Rawle has showcased his artistic talents, this time in the form of 19 specially created bubblegum and cigarette cards.

Riley Richardson is a card collector, has been since he was a child. Socially awkward and slightly disconnected from reality, Riley is tormented by the one that got away. His dad, a printer, procured him a set of Mission Impossible cards, from which one card was withdrawn from circulation. All the other copies of card 19 were destroyed, Riley had the only one in existence. And he lost it.

Since then he has searched for it with a fervour on bordering obsession. The importance of the cards took on increased significance when, a short time later, Riley’s father disappeared. Then, years later, whilst sitting in a cafe, Riley is sure he spots Jim Phelps (from MI). Star-struck Riley follows him until the man disappears, but not before he drops a playing card. Riley picks up the card, and after a chance meeting with Princess Diana (the novel is set in 1997), interprets his discovery in a way that will alter his life irrevocably .

As in Woman’s World, Rawle portrays his central character as a someone on the fringes of normal society. Riley is a thoroughly decent chap, but the things he focuses on in life are very different from most people, making him seem a little odd. Something of a Walter Mitty character, he continually revises his reality to make life more palatable. We all do this, but Riley takes it a few steps further, mostly with hilarious consequences.

His ability to draw connections where none are present (or are they?) see him believing that British Intelligence wish to use him to protect Diana. As one strand of the novel propels itself towards its inevitable conclusion, Riley’s life twists and turns as he finds more cards, romance and a hint of what happened to his father. Though often funny, this is a tale of a life interrupted. Riley is crushed by neuroses that can be attributed to his abandonment.

Using clever wordplay, a story within a story and his delightful card illustrations, Rawle treats us to a magical modern fairy-tale. From first page to last ‘The Card’ is filled with warmth and wit, dry observation and obscure general knowledge. It is a wonderful novel and possibly the best I have read during 2012.

Many Thanks to Corinna at Atlantic Books for sending me a copy of this book for review.  

Wings and A Prayer – ‘What in God’s Name’ by Simon Rich

I very much enjoyed Simon Rich’s debut novel Elliot Allagash. It was short and satirical, funny but with a dark centre. In ‘What in God’s Name’, I hoped for more of the same. Unfortunately, I think it marks a step backwards. If I had to choose which novel was the debut, I would definitely pick this one.

The premise promises much. If Heaven is a place on Earth, it’s a faceless office building. Angels grind out miracles in office pens, and the CEO (God) would much rather play golf than look after the world. In any case, Earth was only created as a method of harvesting Xenon. In a fit of pique, God decides he’s going to destroy the Earth killing everyone on the planet.

Angel Craig is partial to his charges and he pleads with God not to kill them all. They make a deal, if Craig and his newly promoted sidekick Eliza can make just one prayer come true, God will save us all. All they have to do is unite two people who have both prayed that the other fall in love with them. Sam and Laura both live in New York city, both hanker after each other. It should be easy to bring them together. But of course…

WIGN is a curious mix of Hitchhikers Guide and Bridget Jones, marrying cosmic absurdity with social awkwardness. Sweet, funny and irreverent, it may just be the perfect beach read. Unfortunately it’s not a very deep story. Unlike Elliot Allagash, there is no bite, no layers beneath the story. There are some nice concepts and some funny lines, but ultimately it doesn’t say a great deal. I’d still read another Simon Rich book, but I would hope the next one will be two steps forward, rather than one back.

City of Lost Causes – ‘Dirty Streets of Heaven’ by Tad Williams

I was looking forward to taking this book to pieces, analysing it in depth and revealing its failings for all to see. Sadly, its torpid prose induced such a stupor I can’t remember much about it. Whilst the novel does rally towards the end, ‘Dirty Streets’ is lazy storytelling.

Where to start? I requested the book because its premise interested me. Bobby Dollar is a celestial advocate. An angel whose job it is to make sure that the recently deceased make it to heaven. When we die, lawyers from heaven and hell argue for our souls. During a hearing, a soul disappears, causing Bobby no end of problems. When a rival infernal advocate is brutally murdered, and an ancient Sumerian demon tries to shred Dollar into dime size pieces, he turns detective and attempts to head off a war between heaven and hell.

The novel is narrated in the first person in the mode of Philip Marlowe, i.e. a noir-thriller, wise-cracking detective. The problem is that Dollar is far from wise. The dialogue, though meant to be snappy, is more often clunky, and its pop-culture references dated. They read painfully like someone’s Dad trying to get down with the kids. Remember how you felt when you heard about David Cameron texting ‘LOL’, that’s how I felt reading many of Dollar’s witticisms. Adam Christopher also attempted the noir/Sci-fi crossover in his debut novel Empire State. Whilst the results were mixed, in comparison to Williams’ effort Christopher is Chandler reborn.

The story is virtually non-existent, mainly due to Williams sitting on the fence. His setting is half-baked. We have a vague outlining of what heaven might be like, and almost no idea how hell might work. I appreciate that the author doesn’t want to become bogged down in a philosophical discussion of what the afterlife might be like, but when in the opening few pages Dollar says that he can’t tell us much about heaven, because no one can really remember it, you can’t help but think Williams isn’t trying very hard.

We know that we’re supposed to be rooting for heaven, because that’s what contemporary theology tells us, but other than the inherent goodness of God and Angels there seems little reason for us to do so. The Devils and Demons in the book are venal and nasty, or so Dollar tells us, but they are also two dimensional. The one exception to this is the love interest. The noir femme fatale is played by the Countess of Cold Hands, one of hell’s better looking emissaries. Her backstory is both interesting and moving, and shows what Williams could have produced if he’d set his mind to it. Unfortunately he spoils it by having her sleep with Dollar. It’s literature’s least surprising plot development since Eric Carle’s caterpillar made himself a cocoon. I don’t want to spoil what plot there is by revealing any of it, but when a major component of the story is based on Blairite political theory, you know it’s seriously flawed.

The last third of the novel is better than what came before. Williams can write compelling action scenes, and there are some tense stand-offs. Having said that, because Williams world building amounts to little more than celestial arm-waving, the afterlife power politics that are supposed to have driven Dollar’s predicament, feel arbitrary and carry little weight. There’s a small twist towards the end, but sadly, because of limited development of a secondary cast, there is little surprise about the reveal.

The elephant in this review is Sergei Lukyanenko’s ‘The Night Watch’ series. If you haven’t read these books, they are set in Moscow and pit the Night Watch (heavenly) against the Day Watch (hellish) The books are everything ‘Dirty Streets’ wants to be. They are both based on the same premise, and as a result Williams’ book feels like the American remake. As for many popular foreign films and TV series that are remade to be palatable to US audiences, much is lost in translation.

Lukyanenko shows that good and evil are not absolute, and can be a matter of perception and circumstance. With one notable exception, Williams characters are right (representing heaven) or wrong (hell). Lukyanenko’s novels are subtle allegories of the Cold War, painstakingly constructed. In ‘Dirty Streets’, Dollar simply says something along the lines of, ‘the battle between heaven and hell is like the Cold War. There is no finesse. This typifies the difference between the two, and the Russian version far outstrips its American reproduction.

Difficult Second Novel? – ‘River of Smoke’ by Amitav Ghosh

‘Sea of Poppies’ was a dense rich novel that rewarded patient reading. Ghosh showed himself to be masterful prose stylist, and artful employer of the English language. His tale of life on board a ship bound for the Mauritius was filled with vivid characters pressed together in claustrophobic quarters. The friction generated by the novel’s close quarters, drove the story to its thrilling cliffhanging conclusion.

Book two in the trilogy is once again filled with rich language and vivid imagery, but outside the confines of the ship the story feels flabby. The action opens some time after the close of ‘SoP’, but its intriguing climax is glossed over, and the tension it created drains away. It’s a few years since I read part one, and the opening of book 2 does not help those with poor memories. The cast of these novels is huge, and both a recap and dramatis personae would have been welcome.

As for the first book, I read the opening chapters of River of Smoke trying to piece together what was going on. The action predominately moves to China, specifically Canton, at the height of the Opium Wars. The multilayered society that serviced the importing of Opium into China, is so incredibly well drawn, it’s almost too detailed. Instead of plot we have description. In SoP all the groundwork paid dividends as everything is drawn together in the final chapters. Here that is not the case.

Ghosh makes little attempt to help his reader see the bigger picture in his trilogy. There are links to characters from the first book, but they are often tenuous. Whilst the central story is good, the chapters that wrap around it feel like filler. Some incidental characters are involved in a wild goose chase, searching for a rare camellia. Much of this hunt is detailed in letters from a camp artist to Paulette (from book 1), a female botanist denied access to the foreign enclave on the basis of gender. Whilst the letters are often funny, they are largely irrelevant, and become an annoying aside.

Characterisation is strong. All the major players in the politics of opium smuggling are described in full unscrupulous detail. Their vainglorious justification of the trade from which they make their fortune forms the backbone of this book. They use the supposed weakness of the Chinese to justify their peddling of opium, and take umbrage when the Chinese Emperor halts the trade, stopping the easy money it provides.

Ghosh portrays the opium smugglers as self-appointed pioneers of free trade. They justify their actions by citing economical expedience. Ghosh draws delightful parallels between the selfishness of the opium traders and the current banking crisis. He paints them as men who will cross any boundary to make a profit, no matter what the consequence for others. Yet when these profits are in danger, they look to hide behind the might of the British government. This portrayal of banker as opium peddler is a convincing device.

Against this backdrop we see the travails of the novel’s main character Bahram Modi. He is an Indian merchant who has worked his way up from nothing, to owning a ship of his own. The ‘Anahita’ is filled with opium, paid for by himself and a large number of investors. The stalemate in Canton could be ruinous for him, if he can’t offload his cargo.

As the novel progresses Bahram becomes more and more desperate. He is an interesting character; a Parsi Indian alone in a world of Englishmen and Americans. His opinion is respected, he is allowed into the circle of traders, yet he is an outsider. Barham is caught between two cultures, and walks the difficult line between gaining acceptance in one, whilst remaining true to his roots. As the crisis deepens, Bahram relies on his English counterparts seeing him as an equal. His plight worsens and the need for acceptance from the inner circle becomes more pressing. Happy to associate with Bahram when things are going well, how will they react when the pressure is on?

Ghosh’s writing oozes authenticity. The multi-layered society that surrounded Canton is described in painstaking detail. The melting-pot of cultures and languages feels accurately portrayed, particularly through the author’s use of language. The pidgin used by those with no tongue incommon may not be the easiest to read, but is another example of Ghosh’s eye for detail.

This review is rather long winded now, and I’m not sure I’m any closer to summing up the book. I was so absorbed by ‘Sea of Poppies’ I had huge hopes for River of Smoke. Hopes that weren’t realised. Whilst Ghosh’s use of language is as masterful as ever, too much extraneous description spoils a good central story. Perhaps my expectations were set too high, but I finished with a sense of dissatisfaction. Having said that, at book group we greatly enjoyed speculating where the final part of the series would go. I look forward to discovering who was right.

Of Dice and Men ‘Destiny Quest – The Legion of Shadow’ by Michael J Ward

It all started with the ‘Forest of Doom’. The stacks of books, repeated delivery of Amazon parcels, reviews, tweets and recommendations, my love of books took root thanks to Fighting Fantasy. Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone paved the way to Tolkien and Eddings, Gemmell and Pratchett. From there, Eco, Atwood and Murakami. Solo gamebooks gave way to roleplaying games. The paths through the forest led to a passion for books and an affinity for unusually shaped dice.

But times change. Role playing games and the emergence of the home computer afforded more control, more excitement. Shallow characters (‘YOU’) and linear plots can only hold attention for so long in the face of creating an entire new persona and being able to go anywhere, do anything. With World of Warcraft, Warhammer and Dungeons and Dragons, do we need game books?

To be honest, I hadn’t even considered the question until a rogue tweet passed across my Twitter feed. Something called Destiny Quest hoped to pull the gamebook into the twenty-first century. It promised multiple pathways, in depth character development and kick ass magical items. A self-published version of the book had garnered excellent reviews, and the Gollancz reboot looked impressive. Curiosity piqued, I sent an email in response to a pre-order competition, and then something unexpected happened.

It turns out that ‘Legion of Shadow’ is written by an old school friend. This was a nostalgia trip with a personal touch. In many ways I am not surprised. Mike Ward always had a passion for storytelling and for gaming. In our gaming sessions, whilst most of us were obsessed with finding treasure and beating the crap out of things, Mike was concerned with character development and story progression. If something more interesting than a dungeon crawl was happening, then Mike was at the heart of it. That he was behind the Destiny Quest series was a delightful surprise yet made perfect sense.

Legion of Shadow is a book with ambition. At over 600 pages (and 900+ separate entries), it is perhaps a little daunting, but its simple game mechanic means that within ten minutes you should be up and running. The production values of the hardback are excellent. The artwork is of a very high standard; at the centre of the book are several colour plates including three glossy maps that are pivotal to adventures.

The other gamebooks I’ve played have all been a single continuous narrative that start from entry 1 and run through in one direction to the end (traditionally up to 400 in early FF novels). The narrative of LoS is broken into three acts. Each Act is self contained and made up of a set of chapters. Chapters are colour coded to denote difficulty, and are intended to be read roughly in difficulty order to form a coherent narrative. Once you have completed all the chapters, you can try your hand at the end of Act ‘Boss Monster’. Once you’ve killed the boss, there is some more narrative description and you progress to the next Act.

From there you cannot (are aren’t supposed to) go back to the previous Act. If your character dies during a chapter, you can return to the map, try again immediately, or try a different chapter, power up, and return to attempt the failed chapter at a later date. In addition to the narrative chapters, each Act has several ‘Legendary Monsters’; single short encounters, that enable you to hone your fighting skills and improve your treasure trove.

As the story opens you have no memories of your past and a man lays dying in your arms. He has a letter inviting him to become the apprentice of a powerful ‘Grand Master of the Dawn’. You take the letter and the dead man’s sword, and begin the quest to discover who you are.

The opening Act is quite jovial in tone. Many of the adventures and quests are based in traditional children’s fairy stories and folk tales. As you might expect the introduction is gentle, and the first few quests simple to complete, but as you progress the narrative becomes darker, and real choices have to be made. Some of the choice is necessarily artificial, (for true free choice, the book would need to be four times thicker than it is already), but there are enough options to keep up a semblance of free will.

Where there reader is offered a multitude of options is in character development. The core mechanic is simple. Each character has five stats. Speed, Brawn and Magic are used to attack. Armour and Health determine how good you are at absorbing damage. All combat is resolved using at standard D6. Combatants pit their speeds against each other, and the winner then has the opportunity do to damage. Another D6 roll is added to either magic or brawn (whichever is the higher) and this total, minus the opponents armour gives the damage.

The Destiny Quest mechanic adds character variation through its equipment slots. There are eleven places to add equipment, including main hand, off hand, cloak and rings. As you progress through the game you find various items to equip that boost certain stats, and so you improve. Once an equipped item is replaced it is no longer available, so you have to evaluate carefully whether a new item is better than your existing one. Further flavour is added to items through special abilities. These are usually very powerful but only useable once per combat. They have entirely cool names such as Spider Sense, Time Shift & Patchwork Pauper

At the end of Act 1 you get the chance to choose whether to be a Warrior, Rogue, or Mage. Your choice limits some of the items you can use, and also determines which careers you can choose. Careers are the final way to flavour your character, each one giving your character new abilities. The character variations are myriad, and herein lies LoS strength and its weakness. You can easily play through the book several times, each time creating an entirely different character, but it does mean there is great deal of bookkeeping. If you were to use the character sheet printed in the book, much like the one in my old copy of Forest of Doom, it would soon be perforated by holes made by the continual rubbings out.

In general, for me, there is too much emphasis on the physical abilities of your character. Though there are many options, they are perhaps not as different as they first appear. There is also far too much combat in the books. At first it was exciting, but as characters and creatures become stronger, it takes longer and longer, and when playing on your own, repeated dice rolling can only hold the attention for so long. In the end, I abandoned combat altogether, not because I wanted to cheat, but because I have a busy life, and rarely enough time to sit down surrounded by papers, pencil and dice.

The Legen (wait-for-it) dary Monsters though a good idea in principle, and an age old one borrowed from computer games, for me, failed to excite. They add little apart from dice rolling. Tough battles that promise treasure, but little in the way of plot development. If you failed to kill them you can return and try again, but unlike a computer game, where you learn from your previous attempts, here it’s a case of keeping rolling those dice until the odds fall in your favour.

I was far more interested in the story.

For this first book in his series, Mike is a nice position. Many people who buy the book will be looking for a nostalgia trip, and the author delivers. The writing style is very immediate, and feels cinematic, you can easily visualise yourself crawling through catacombs filled with creatures or squelching through swamps, trying desperately not to wake whatever might be lurking. There are many chapters and set pieces that are borrowed from other popular fantasy stories. That is not to say LoS unoriginal, as it very much has its own slant on things, but whether it be fairy tales, vampire counts or skeleton armies, there are lots of popular themes here. There are also a few nods to Michael Moorcock which I liked, as it was Mike who introduced me to Moorcock over twenty years ago.

But you can only play homage for so long. The LoS is entertaining certainly, but I worried for the future of the series. I found the opening two acts diverting, but there was nothing to elevate it to greatness. The book was in danger of becoming a hodgepodge of staple fantasy set pieces, and lacked a unique author’s voice.

But then came act three.

The transition from two to three sets up the story for an intriguing finale. Clearly aware that he needed to turn up the heat, Mike sets fire to his reader’s preconceptions. This is a solo story, yet suddenly you are part of a small band of freedom fighters. Character interaction feels natural as you become part of crack team fighting against overwhelming odds. The action and camaraderie is extraordinarily vivid.

Act three contains a chapter that is simply mind-blowing. Here Mike shows what he is capable of creating, and it certainly bodes well for future installments. There are a number of different pathways through through, each having alternative outcomes for your character and the resistance movement you have become part of. The number of permutations is bewildering, and the complex structure must have been painstaking to put together. The chapter as whole is filled with intrigue excitement and suspense.

The book’s final act gives me great hope for the future of the Destiny Quest series. It elevates it from something that will entertain fans of the gamebook genre, to a book that is enthralling and immersive for all readers. In the final stages I couldn’t put the book down, staying up long beyond when I should have gone to bed, several nights in a row. The gamebook has much to fight against if it is going to find a place in a highly competitive market. With ‘Legion of Shadow’ Mike Ward has given the genre a +4 Broadsword with which to smite its foes. The future of the solo adventure is in safe hands.