Thursday, February 8, 2018

Zelda: Trial of the Sword Complete

I know, I know.  I don't blog anymore. (That may change; I miss it.)  But I have to mark this milestone.

Last night, we finally completed the Trial of the Sword in Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

It's one of the quests added by the expansion downloadable content, and it is easily the hardest thing we had to do in the game. Battle strategy, adaptation, resource planning, honing skills, using every resource you have, learning from your mistakes -- it was amazingly difficult, and thus, in the end, gave us a real sense of accomplishment.

We did not read any of the hints available on line, so we really felt like WE did it. (The "we" includes Sherry, who strategized with me, and who kept an eye out for things in the environment on each level and warned or advised me. Video games are a two-player thing for us.)

Anyway, this challenge is broken up into three stages. Each was tough, and each subsequent stage was tougher than the previous. The final (third) stage took us more than two nights to master. What frustration! What FUN!

If you bought this game, there are several great reasons to get the $20 DLC. This quest is the best of them. Oh, sure, the game-play enhancements are very useful (map & teleport enhancements make it worth the $20 alone) but here's why I say this is the best:

By the time many of us face "The Boss" in this game, we've advanced Link to a point where fighting Calamity Ganon is fun, but it's not likely to make us feel like we're challenged.
The Trial of the Sword is CHALLENGING!

Great expansion. Great game.

==============  Link (hah!) and Image and Spoilers ==========

Here's the link to the page that advertises the expansion, and a picture of the fully powered Master Sword.  I will try to get around to writing some spoilers -- things you should NOT read if you want to play the quest without knowledge.  I'll post those below the sword picture.

=====  Design discussion with Spoilers  =====

Zelda: Trial of the Sword Play Notes

OK, so for the rest of this blog, I’m going to just write about the Trial of the Sword, with no attempts to limit spoilers.  There are things I want to say about how the Trial is put together, about how we approached it, and what made it so challenging.

General design:

There are three phases to the Trial.  After successful completion of each phase, the Master Sword increases its damage strength by 10, so by the time you’ve completed all three, the sword will progress from a decent 30-strength, to an impressive 60-strength (which doubles around Ancient technology to an overwhelming 120-strength.)  That is the in-game reward for completing the quest.  The REAL reward is knowing you figured out how to get through these trials.

Each of the phases has these similarities:

  • ·         Link is stripped of all material possessions at the start of level 1 of the phase.
  • ·         Link can keep any objects he finds in one level to carry forward to the next, limited by his current capacity at the time he enters.
  • ·         The weapons carried by foes in the levels are constant, but the contents of containers in the levels are only mostly-constant.  There is some randomness.
  • ·         Each phase has sub-phases – after a certain number of battle levels, there is a replenishing level. 
  • ·         The replenishing level is directly preceded by a mini-boss fight.
  • ·         Link loses all possessions gained when he completes each phase.
  • ·         If Link dies during a level, he must start the WHOLE PHASE again, from the beginning.
  • ·         You CANNOT SAVE during a phase. 

Each of these design points has significant effects on what strategy and tactics you need to adopt.

From here on, I am going to talk about how each of those design points affected our game play.  I am sure others will approach the challenges differently, but this is what we learned, and what we did with what we learned.

Link is stripped of all material possessions at the start of level 1 of the phase.

The quest tells you this as you start, so it’s not really much of a spoiler.  But how do you deal with this fact?  Is there anything you can do to mitigate some of the loss you experience when everything is taken away?

We did two things before entering each phase:
·         We ate a meal which over-filled our hearts.. Generally, this was a +5 meal.
·         We consumed something that increased our defense for a long period of time.

You see, it’s going to be tough to get healing in the phase. There will be chances – I’ll get to that – but every fractional heart you bring in will be important in the long run, and for us, adding extra hearts (the more the better, clearly) and preventing loss of hearts was more crucial than being able to attack better or than having some resistance. 

But we learned early on that this is basically one of the only ways you can use what Link has gained outside the Trial to help inside the trial.

But here is a very important point – while Link is stripped of material, and (sadly) stripped of the powers granted him by each of the Champions, he still has all of the powers he gained at the beginning of the game – two bomb types, magnesis, etc.  These powers are, in my estimation, crucial to survival.

And also importantly, the size of Link’s “pack” – the number of weapons, bows & shields – remains as well.  So, the farther these are advanced, the more options you’ll have.  We were maxed out on Bow pack, and had almost all the spaces for weapons.  This was very helpful.


Link can keep any objects he finds in one level to carry forward to the next, limited by his current capacity at the time he enters.

Items are scarce during the Trial.  Things you would never pick up when playing an advanced Link in Hyrule will be helpful during the combat levels.  We found ourselves using “arms” – you know, actual stal-creature arms! – as our weapons early on, because they were the best things Link could find, and you need to have something to attack with.  And though you might never use an acorn to cook in Hyrule, they help boost you when cooking the limited meal options you’ll have in the Replenishing levels.  More on that later. 

Our advice – don’t leave anything behind, until you don’t have space to carry more.

The weapons carried by foes in the levels are constant, but the contents of containers in the levels are only mostly-constant.  There is some randomness.

Because Link can only use items he finds, it’s very helpful to know which weapons he’ll have the chance to get as he progresses.  We found, as we repeated the Trial several times, that we needed to analyze which weapons we ought to use for which situations.  Using the strongest weapon available was definitely NOT the best strategy.  If you wear out a 48-strength one-handed sword in Level 8, you’ll be frustrated in level 15 when you’re using rusty broadswords.

However, weapons are not the only things you pick up.  You can get ingredients and arrows from barrels and crates.  Most of the time, the contents of those are consistent.  But there is a bit of variability. By the time you get to a Replenishing Level, most of the ingredients you have will be the same, but sometimes you will be able to create speed boosts, and sometimes you won’t.

Oh, and some levels have chests.  Do not miss them!  I should have mentioned this earlier, but for us it was critical that we had our Sheikah Slate set to detecting Treasure Chests when we entered the Trial.  This allowed us to ensure we did not miss any chests.

Each phase has sub-phases – after a certain number of battle levels, there is a replenishing level. 

The replenishing levels give you a chance to cook food and pick up equipment.  The first thing to do is look to see if a Fairy is hovering around.  If so, sneak up on it (or them) and get it (or them.) 

After that, we made sure to take absolutely everything we could into our inventory before we cooked some meals.  You’ll make different decisions than we did, I’m sure, but we tended to maximize hearts in our meal preparation (so it helped a lot to have experimented with this, and kept notes, while playing the game.)  The exception to this is for specific “boosts.”  There are some levels where resistance to specific dangers are important.  When that’s true, the ingredients you find in the Replenishing Levels make such boosts possible.  If you find ingredients to make cold resistance, you can be pretty sure you’ll need it.

The replenishing level is directly preceded by a mini-boss fight.

Oh, you can just count and you’ll know when the last combat level of a subphase is upon you, but it’s important for you to know that you’re going to be facing a mini-boss.  You can guess the kinds of creatures which are mini-bosses – they’re the ones you face in Hyrule that pop up as special fights: Hinox, Taluses (Talusi?) and so on.  Find a way to defeat these, and you get to Replenish (or you get to finish the Phase, and the Master Sword gets stronger.)

Link loses all possessions gained when he completes each phase.

This doesn’t matter so much from a full-game point of view.  You’re not going to get anything in the Trial that you couldn’t get elsewhere, and most of what you have left when you’re done with each Phase is no better than what you probably have in inventory already. 

But, it does mean this: after you’ve finished one phase, and the Master Sword gets stronger, and you decide to go on to the next phase, you start all over again.   With NOTHING. 
Each successive phase is different from the preceding one.  It’s longer.  And the levels are harder.

And you start with nothing.

So you have to learn all over again.   It’s frustrating.  And it’s great.

If Link dies during a level, he must start the WHOLE PHASE again, from the beginning.

This is the crux of the challenge, of course.  Get beaten by that final mini-boss before you can enhance the Master Sword?  Start over again at Level 1 of the phase.  You don’t realize how casually you’ve been treating death until you don’t have an autosave point.  Which brings up the final design point.

You CANNOT SAVE during a phase. 

Period.  Once you’ve started, you just keep going.  Oh, sure, once you’ve been killed, you will be sent back the Korok Forest and you can decide to leave and try again later (we did this after each phase, and in fact gave up for a while after trying the final phase a few times so we could go get another couple shrines to get one more heart.)  But, during the levels of the phase, there is no saving.  So, make a mistake and let that bokoblin hurt you for three heart on level 3?  Sorry.  You can start all over again, but you can’t start just before level 3.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Skyrim - Main Quest Complete

In the middle of April, 2017, we completed the "main" quest line of Skyrim.

I had a fantastic time -- pun intended -- living inside this character, choosing the direction of his growth, and fulfilling the Dragonborn destiny.

The game is not "done" as far as I am concerned. I'll keep playing to see more of the world and accomplish more quests, but I do want to pause for a moment and take note of some items as we reached this point.  (I say "we" because most of the time, I was using the PS3 controller, but Sherry was sitting next to me watching, advising, and helping with puzzles and strategy.)

Character Name: Will
Level: 53
Game Days: 396
Calendar days: 66

My game was helped tremendously by having the Sanguine Rose staff, which allowed me to have access to a summoned Dremora, who was always tougher than any Atronoch I could summon.  Sure, I kept having to recharge the staff, and sure, the Dremora (we called him "our demon") had no ranged attack, but generally, if "Atty" (the Flame Atronach) or "the Storm Trooper" (the Storm Atronach) were not being as helpful as we'd like -- particularly in a Boss battle -- we called on the Demon.  We acquired the staff at the end of a quest called "A Night to Remember" which starts with a drinking contest between my character and a guy I meet in a bar.  So, yeah, there are always opportunities in this sort of game to do things which are out of character for me, as a person.  I played mostly "heroic" -- choosing not to Join the Assassin's Guild, for instance -- but could not be saintly.  This game has a story in which there are many times when the "good" choice either doesn't exist, or is not obvious.

I used Lydia as my follower right up until I married her, at which time I recruited Jordis.  Lydia and I adopted Lucia and Samuel.  I owned Breezehome, from early on, but the family never lived there.  I owned Proudspire Manor, which is where the family spent most of the time, until I built Lakeview Manor, at which point we moved there.  Late in the game, I also bought Honeyside, but honestly, once you've lived in Proudspire or Lakeview, who would want to live in Honeyside?  Even when it's fully outfitted, it's crowded and seems a bit dirty -- not unlike Riften, the city it's in.

I "finished" wearing a set of double-enchanted Dragonscale Armor, with a double-enchanted "damage + health-stealing" sword option, and a "damage + soul-stealing" sword option.  By the end, I was typically casting Icy Spear in my right hand, and wielding one of the swords in my left.  I typically used the Ice Form shout in normal battle, though Fire Breath was situationally useful against things which burned easily, and I almost always used Dragonrend, once I got it, when in a battle with a dragon.

Skills: Primary skills I focused on are above the line.
  • Destruction: 100 - though I never used, or even acquired, the Master level Destruction spells before completing the main quest. 
  • Conjuration: 97 - For a long time, Conjuration was higher than Destruction, but it levels as your summoned creatures do damage, and it's much easier to make sure you, yourself, do damage with Destruction spells than it is to make sure your Atronach gets its licks in.  Oh, and I never used the necromantic Conjuration spells.  It's not my style. 
  • Smithing: 100 - Worked hard to advance this, wanting to do Dragon Scale armor.  I focused on the "left" side of the Smithing tree. I only took a "right" perk to be able to use the Dwarven metal we kept finding.
  • Enchanting: 100 - I decided early on that I would not try to finish the main quest until I could double-enchant.
  • Light Armor: 84 - focused on this skill late, as I wanted the Dragonscale Armor to become "weightless" to wear, and then to provide more protection.  For most of the early and middle game, I wore the Arch-Mage Robes rather than armor, but switched once I could do the Dragonscale smithing.
  • One-Handed: 73 - also a late focus, as it became clear I needed to balance my Magika use better.  For a long time, I stayed out of hand-to-hand range, letting my follower and my Atronach handled the close fighting, but I'd run out of Magika if the battle lasted a while, and I decided I wanted to be able to fight continuously.  I couldn't, though, until I was wearing armor. 
  • Alchemy: 76 - I remember buying training in this a few times, but most of the levels were gained through experience.
  • Speech: 80 - Worked on advancing this skill early, to make money faster and more efficiently.  Once I got the perk which allowed me to invest in businesses (which meant I had also gotten the perk to allow me to sell any kind of item to any vendor), then I just let it grow through experience.
  • Lockpicking: 73 - never bought a level of this; books and picking locks got it this high.
  • Restoration: 58

Aside from the Main Quest, the only other major questlines I completed were the College of Winterhold (I gained character level 12 in the final battle which made me the Arch-Mage) and Dawnguard.  I never chose a side in the civil war, though, I will likely do that as I continue playing.

Here are some stats from this point in the game.

Skill Increases: 801
Skill Books: 56
Dragon Souls Collected: 68
Words of Power: 52
Shouts: 22
Soul Gems Used: 231
Souls Trapped: 303
Locks Picked: 163
Largest Bounty: 1000
Lifetime Bounty: 1045
Items Stolen: 8
Spells Learned: 56

Quests Completed: 82
Misc Objectives Completed: 205
Questlines Completed: 3

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Breaking Bad - Complete

Well, I finally did it.  I didn't start watching Breaking Bad until it was all over, and somehow I was able to watch the whole thing without finding out any spoilers. 

I wish I had recorded, somewhere, the date when I first began watching Season 1.  I know Sherry and I watched the first two episodes together, but, as we'd expected, this was not Sherry's kind of show. 

So, to watch the rest, I had to rely on times when I could see episodes myself.  Mostly, this happened in hotel rooms while I traveled.  But for the end of the series, I have taken advantage of having a Netflix-capable blu-ray player connected to the TV by the treadmill.  As I work to get my 10,000 steps in each day, it's been good to be able to follow the final installments in this masterwork of the episodic form.

Seriously, there are stories which can only be told in movies, but there are also stories which need to be told over longer periods of time.  Breaking Bad is one of them. 

I'm impressed by the creators involved in Breaking Bad.  I'll miss it.  But I'll remember it fondly! 

And now, finally, I know Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, two of the iconic characters of our shared American mythos. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

New Year's in July 2015 - Games

A rare event this year: in late July, Paul and Mike visited for several days, and during that time, we were able to play games, much as we do over the New Year's holidays.  Here's what we played:

Kingdom Builder - I've played this a few times since I received it for Christmas, and its replay value is quite high.  Adam and I taught it to Paul and Mike. Adam won again, which is not surprising, but it was actually a pretty close game, and Mike secured second place.  We played it again, and Leah won a game with Paul and me.

Elder Sign - We won!  We won!  Leah, Sarah, Troy and Paul played this cooperative game with me.  I'm not sure whether we have ever won this game before -- perhaps we have -- but it's always tough, and it was again.  By the time we finished, Sarah and Leah both said they really liked the game and would want to play it again the next day, so they could solidify the rules in their minds.  It didn't happen, but it was fun to have a new game for them.  I think it was Paul's first time playing it, too.  He had played Arkham Horror before, and this is a simplified version of that game.

 Forbidden Desert -Another cooperative game, but we lost this one.  It was the first time we had ever played it (I bought it just that day) and we didn't start at the lowest level of difficulty.  This was a mistake, because we took some early actions which were quite inefficient, which we understood once we had played a while.  But by that time, it was too late, and the desert storm overwhelmed us.  Lucas, Adam, Troy and Paul played this one with me.  (This was another TableTop game, by the way.)

Dungeons and Dragons - though the group had not played in a few months because of my travel schedule, we had a session scheduled for late July.  Then, happily, Mike's plans changed and he needed to arrive a day early -- the day we'd be playing.  So, I made the two nastiest antagonists of the evening into playable characters.  Mike played a lich; Paul played a dracolich.  We all had great fun!

Legendary - This cooperative game was one which Adam had suggested to me numerous times.  This time, with Mike and Paul visiting, and Troy at the house to join in, we finally did it.  It's a deck-building game, a la Dominion (which we never played, strangely) but the players all team up to simulate a team of superheroes who are fighting against a major Marvel supervillain and his supporting villains and henchmen.  We were quite beaten down, but ultimately we did win, with Mike delivering the final blow.  What fun!  Now, do I try to own this game, or do I just ask Adam to play it with me more often?

Sushi Go! - It was a quick game, and we had fun.  Sarah, Troy, Leah, Paul and I played.  I ran away with it, though I don't really know how.  I guess I must have added some unrealized skill to some luck.  Anyway it didn't take long, and it was a good, simple time.

Splendor - Again, a highlight of the game play.  Everyone likes this game with its simple rules, but clever design.

Small World - I didn't play this, but Lucas, Leah, Paul, Mike and Troy did.  It was a very close game, and Leah pulled it out at the end.

Ticket to Ride: Asia - This was, I think, the second time I had played this version of the Ticket to Ride series.  Its unique aspect is that it can be played by teams of two, but those team members are not allowed to talk.  Strange, but fun.  I teamed with Troy, and we won.  It was quite a close game, though.  And no one knew who had won until we counted at the end, which was great.

Magic: the Gathering - thankfully, Mike and Paul and I were able to fit in some games of Magic.  I rarely play, except when Paul is here, and we've been so busy playing larger games the last few times that he has visited that we really haven't played much.

Whoonu -On the final night of their visit, a bunch of us played this game, in reverse.  Normally, players try to figure out which of many items or activities the other players like most.  This time we tried guessing which they'd like least.  It was a fun twist, and we learned that Marisa does not like cotton candy.

All in all, this was a fun-filled visit, and we all enjoyed ourselves quite a bit.  Among the best things about the visit: Sherry's meals! The kids getting to spend time with their "uncles," Paul and Mike.  Talking about TV, movies, games and the future with great friends. And the games - they were plenty good, too!

Friday, July 31, 2015

Review - Good Omens - Pratchett and Gaiman

Title: Good Omens
Authors: Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

There are certain books which must be read.

Well, of course, all books must be read.  That is, if you are going to get the contents of the book into your head, reading must be done.  But that's not what I mean.

What I mean is, if you are a fan of a certain genre of book, there is a set of books which forms the "working vocabulary" of that genre's fans, and there is an expectation among those fans that other fans will have read those books.

For instance, if you say you are a fan of epic fantasy, then surely you have read Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings.

And if you are a fan of hard science fiction -- at least if you grew up in the sixties and seventies -- you will have read most if not all of the core Asimov books - the Foundation Trilogy and at least I, Robot, as well as probably Herbert's Dune.

And, when it comes to comic sci-fi (yes, that's a subgenre, and yes, "comic" means "funny" in this instance) everyone expects you will have read Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Well, shoot, I've read all those.  What I had not realized is that there is another book which needs to be included on the list with Hitchhiker's is Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch.

Neil Gaiman is an amazingly prolific writer (not Stephen King prolific, I suppose, but close) who has a well-deserved following; much of what he writes is spooky, but not all of it, and no matter what he writes, it's well received.  He's a Big Deal. [1]  Terry Pratchett is revered as the prolific counterpart to Adams in comic sci-fi (who was not all that prolific, when it comes right down to it) and is also a Big Deal. [2]

Well, before they were Big Deals, these two creative geniuses got together and wrote a book.   Apparently, this book is now a :cult classic."  Why I had never heard of it before I happened to pick it up and said "I've always meant to read some Pratchett, and here he is with Gaiman, who is spooky, but clever, so I should buy this," I'll never know.  I think the reason has to do with the "cult."  I'm not much of a "cult" guy.  Meet me, and you don't think "cult."  It might be about the last thing you think when you meet me.  So, apparently, those cultists who worship Good Omens: ... just never mentioned it to me.

So here I am, in my advancing years, picking up this book a good 25 years after it was first published.

And enjoying the Hell out of it!  (You think I just swore, don't you?  And if you know me, you're thinking "Steve!  You don't swear!  What's going on?  Is it that 'cult?'  Do we need an intervention?")

The story in Good Omens: ... presupposes that Heaven and Hell have been at war since Creation, which really was only just over 6000 years ago, and that, as predicted by many a churchman over the years, as well as one extremely prescient witch (the Agnes Nutter mentioned in the full title,) the whole thing is going to come to a head in the years after the Anti-Christ is born.

The novel introduces us to a whole cast of Dramatis Personae who are involved in the End Times, including a pair of buddies from opposite sides of the Ultimate Battle - an angel named Aziraphale and a demon named Crowley.  They've each been doing their appointed Thing for their Side for six thousand years, but they also have formed a bit of a relationship.  Sound funny?  It is funny!  Britishly funny, though.  Dry, clever, understated, even when very overstated things are happening.  And yet, it has the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, depicted as never before.  And while they, themselves, are in no way funny, the way they are brought into the present [3] is spot on!

I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  It's so funny.  It's thought-provoking in the nicest possible way.   It almost treats the whole Heaven/Hell/Good/Evil thing respectfully, but not completely.  And yet, it's never offensive. [4]  It's fun! 

I think Christians who have read Lewis's The Screwtape Letters really ought to read this, too.  And I think non-Christians who think they have a handle on how this whole God/Devil/Heaven/Hell thing can't be real, and doesn't have anything to say to my life really ought to read this.  It will not convert you.  I promise.  But maybe, just maybe, whichever you are, you will learn what "ineffable" means, and you will laugh while you learn it. [5]


[1] And he's fun to follow on Twitter.  Seriously.  (Well, he's not serious very much of the time, but then sometimes he is, and he's always interesting.)  And he lives in Minnesota.  Which is unusual for an Englishman.
[2] Sadly, Pratchett died in March 2015, but his impact on sci-fi ensures he remains a Big Deal, and will be so for as long as people are reading the subgenre, which is likely to be a very long time, indeed.
[3] Well, not the present of 2015 -- the present of 1990.  It works.  It really works.
[4] OK, it wasn't offensive to me.  I realize that I offend much less easily than some people.  So, if you are easily offended, especially where it comes to religion, be warned.  It might offend you.  But if it does, just remember a couple of things:  it's fiction and it's satire, of a sort.
[5] And that might have sounded like I was swearing, too.  But I was not.  Ineffable.  It's a word.  Look it up.  And then read this book.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review - Hydrogen Sonata - Iain M Banks

Title: The Hydrogen Sonata
Author: Iain M. Banks

I picked this book up when I was in Dragonfly Books, in Decorah, Iowa, because it's an independent bookstore owned by a classmate of mine, and I can't think of three better reasons to buy a book.

You did count to three, right?  1) Independent Bookstore.  2) Classmate.  3) I was in a book store.

OK, now that we have the justification for the purchase settled, I suppose I should review this thing.

Hah!  That would be something!  How in the world to summarize the plot of this story, so I can tell you a bit about it?  Hmmmm....

In the far, far future, the many civilizations in the universe have discovered that there is something outside our normal four dimensions.  That "something" is called the Sublime.  When a race reaches a point where there doesn't seem to be any more it can do in Reality (three dimensions plus time) the race can decide to go, en mass, into the Sublime.  Individual biological beings can't seem to do it themselves, so whole races need to go, at once.  (Spaceships, which are AIs of significant substance, can sometimes do it -- and some have.)

Well, early on in The Hydrogen Sonata, we find that a race is very close to their Subliming day, but something strange happens, and this strange thing might threaten that Very Significant Event.  Several characters get involved in the intrigue, and as they do, we are presented with an amazing future where science has allowed for enhancements to people which I would never have imagined.

The story starts out confusing, as author Iain M Banks plops us down into many threads, as if we were already familiar with his concepts, but then slowly ties the threads together, while teaching us his world. The resulting exposition is fascinating, as subsequent chapters make you reevaluate what you thought you knew from the preceding ones.  

The story is complex, and at times both amusing and thrilling.  In the end, though, I am not sure the story is what I'll be left remembering.  Because -- and don't let this scare you -- ultimately I think it's the philosophy of the book which left the deepest impression on me.   I can't really describe it without spoiling some of the story, so I won't try. 

It's been a long, long time since I read a book and wished it had been part of a college class or book club, so that I would have the chance to discuss the book with others who had just read it.  This is that kind of book.

So, it's sci-fi.  If you can't handle that, stay away.  But if you can, and you like a novel that makes you think, and challenges your sense of propriety at times, this is a good read.  I want to read more of Banks's books now.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Review - Captain's Fury - Jim Butcher

Title: Captain's Fury
Author: Jim Butcher

While I said, in the review of the third book in the "Codex Alera" series, that it was the best of the lot so far, you should in no way take that to mean that this, the fourth book, is to be ignored.  Oh, no.  Keep reading.  This is still plenty good!

Book four gives Amara a very difficult task, and Butcher's writing keeps you hanging on every part of her journey.  And she's not even the key figure in the story!

Again, that position belongs to Tavi, who is now in charge of a Legion of soldiers.  While he has been successful, others are jealous, and they intend to use their positions and their Furyborn power to take what they can.  Meanwhile, as always, Tavi has seen the next threat to the Empire, and must seek to neutralize it.

By the time you read book four, you will have seen the heroes make tactical alliances with "bad guys" already, and this theme continues.  And, by this time, you will probably be impressed with the ways the author can find of putting his heroes in seemingly hopeless situations, only to have them emerge, if not victories, at least alive, if somewhat damaged.

The only "negative" I can write about this book is that the ending did not drive me to pick up the next book immediately.  Books two and three almost demanded me to start the next story -- not because the story was incomplete, but because I simply had to see what would happen next.  I have not yet read book five simply because Butcher "let me off the hook" with the end of this novel.  Oh, I'll go back.  I have to.  At this point, it seems to me that Butcher has a plan, and there might actually be an ending to this books-long story.  I want to see what that end is.  I think you will, too.