Critical Intel

Totally Selfish Post-Holiday Self Gifting Guide

arno and elise in ac unity

Happy New Year! The season of celebratory excess has come to a close and a new year lies ahead. But now that you’re recovering from the holiday binge of turkey, rummy eggnog and/or latkes, why not take the opportunity to binge with your brain?

Given that after the Holidays many people have a few Amazon gift cards rattling around, it’s a good time to direct you toward books that’ll let explore your favorite games on a deeper level, or that you’ll enjoy because they’re similar.

Welcome to Critical Intel’s Totally Selfish Post-Holiday Self-Gifting Guide!

For Assassin’s Creed Fans

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristoimage by Tom Reiss – Assassin’s Creed Unity

The son of a fugitive French aristocrat and a black Haitian slave, Thomas-Alexandre Dumas arrived in Paris in 1776 hoping his father – who’d sold him into bondage – could improve his prospects. Taught to ride and fence, he enlisted in the army as a private just before the Revolution, initiating the most meteoric military career in history. As the Revolution shattered old structures and ravaged the officer class, Dumas rose in the ranks through bravery and talent, his race suddenly not a bar to success. Winning a place as one of Napoleon’s most trusted generals, Dumas fought at the Battle of the Pyramids and led the famous crossing of the Alps. His exploits, from sword fighting in the street to shipwreck and capture, were so exhilarating they inspired his son to fictionalize his adventures in the classic novels The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo. Winner of last years’ Pulitzer Prize for Biography, there are few nonfiction books as exciting and fascinating.

April Blood: Florence and the Plot Against the Mediciimage, by Lauro Martines – Assassin’s Creed II

Assassin’s Creed II begins with Ezio embroiled in the Pazzi Conspiracy, a unsuccessful coup against the Medici family – but the game doesn’t fully capture the incident’s drama or historical weight. April Blood, on the other hand, illustrates every step of the event, from its origins in a family rivalry to its bloody climax in the streets and mansions of Florence. While the beginning moves a little slow, once the plot goes into motion the book reads like a thriller. By the time the Medici brothers kneel during high mass, unaware that the Pazzi are drawing knives behind them, it’s history as high opera. A heady mix of politics, vengeance, mercenaries, and enraged mobs eating their enemies’ hearts (yes, really) April Blood reads like a real-life Game of Thrones.

For Wolfenstein: The New Order Fans

Agent Zigzagimage by Ben Macintyre

When the Nazis invaded the Channel Islands, they inherited a unique asset: a jail full of English criminals. Among them was Eddie Chapman, a conman, safecracker and pathological liar the Germans considered an ideal candidate for intelligence work. Chapman was only too happy to volunteer his services in exchange for release, and after espionage training, parachuted into Britain with orders to sabotage an aircraft factory.
Instead, he turned himself in to MI5 and offered his services as a double agent.

Thus began an incredible intelligence career, as Chapman manipulated his German – and British – handlers, helped win the war, amassed a small fortune and collected fiancées on both sides of the conflict. Enriched with recently declassified documents and told with a rollicking narrative style, there are few books about espionage as entertaining as this one.

The British Spy Manual: The Authentic Special Operations Executive (SOE) Guide for WWIIimage, introduction by Sinclair McKay, published by The Imperial War Museum.

Imagine you’re a British SOE agent training for a mission in occupied France. What textbook are you reading?

Wonder no more, for the Imperial War Museum has published a fetching hardcover compiling the pamphlets, chapbooks and guides any prospective operative would have read. Mostly consisting of technical manuals, you’ll find instructions for operating thermite charges, laying booby traps, camouflage and even real-life Bond gadgets – all with original illustrations and photos. With an introduction by SOE historian Sinclair McKay, it would make a fine supplement for anyone running a WWII RPG.

Note: If you follow the retail links in this post and make purchases on the site(s), Defy Media may receive a share of the proceeds from your sale through the retailer’s affiliate program.


For Call of Duty Fans

Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Centuryimage by P.W. Singer

Singer served as an consultant on both Advanced Warfare and Black Ops II, and Wired for War is the seminal text that influenced both. Rather than merely discussing how technology changes warfare, Singer approaches the subject from a reader-friendly angle, suggesting that science fiction teaches us much about where we’re going. He’s not merely trying to capitalize on pop culture though – Singer’s a serious scholar, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the go-to expert on emerging technology in warfare. The most interesting parts of the book grapple with the big questions, like whether robots will make warfare more dispassionate, or if an autonomous drone could be tried for war crimes. Fascinating and accessible, Wired for War serves as a great starting point if you want to know about the underlying theories and assumptions about drones in recent CoD titles.

Horse Soldiers: The Extraordinary Story of a Band of US Soldiers Who Rode to Victory in Afghanistanimage by Doug Stanton

There’s a moment in Black Ops II where Alex Mason mounts a horse to carry him across the Afghan battlefield – and this level reflects a real event.

After 9/11 the U.S. dispatched a Special Forces team to Afghanistan. Their mission: to link up with the Northern Alliance and capture Mazar-I-Sharif. Mounting horses to keep up with their allies, the contingent faced rough conditions and heavy odds as they fought, negotiated, and laser-bombed their way to their objective. Entering the city, the liberators found themselves ambushed and besieged in the Qala-i-Janghi, a hulking fortress known as “the House of War.” Riveting, well-researched and filled with memorable characters, Horse Soldiers provides an enlightening look at war in the age of local allegiances – and features the 21st century’s first U.S. cavalry charge.

For the Grand Theft Auto or Saints Row Fan

Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Heartsimage by Julian Rubinstein

Meet Attila Ambrus: a professional hockey goalie with a heart of gold and a belly full of Johnny Walker. An escapee from Transylvania who came to Hungary by hanging onto the bottom of a train, he’s doing his best in the post-Soviet wreckage of 1990s Budapest – driving a Zamboni here, smuggling some pelts there, and doing whatever it takes to make ends meet. Like robbing banks. A lot of banks. I mean really a lot of banks. Mostly while tanked and flirting with the tellers.

Meet his opponent, Lajos Varju, the head of Budapest’s robbery squad and the last honest cop in Hungary. His department’s so broke, the city keeps cutting off their electricity. His assistant – “Mound of Asshead” – can’t stop crashing police cruisers. Their forensics expert wears a top hat, and their training program involves Hungarian-dubbed episodes of Columbo.

The Ballad of the Whisky Robber is without doubt one of the funniest true crime stories ever told. Attila’s transformation from incompetent goalie to an Eastern-European Robin Hood reaches Rockstar – and nearly Saints Row – levels of absurdity. Filled with Armani-clad gangsters, Soviet secret police, hulking Transylvanian enforcers named Bubu and a parade of girlfriends in leopard-print, there’s a reason I called Ambrus the only person to have lived like a GTA character.

For the Far Cry 4 Fan

Himalayaimage by Michael Palin

While Brits will be familiar with them, Americans may not realize that Michael Palin has moved from comedy to travel documentaries. His series Himalaya presents an excellent travelogue through the mountain range, just the thing to put Far Cry 4‘s amalgamated Kyrat into proper context. From the foothills of India and Pakistan to the summits of Nepal, Palin serves as an amiable travel companion and intermediary for the journey. You can watch the whole series on Netflix, and if you want to hunt for it, there’s an enjoyable companion book. Palin’s real strength as a guide is that he interacts well with local people and never gets embarrassed, so in addition to landscapes there’s a real sense of local culture.

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mt. Everest Disasterimage by Jon Krakaur

When journalist Jon Krakaur reached Everest, he didn’t realize he was about to experience what was – at that time – the deadliest climbing disaster in the mountain’s history. As a blizzard rolled in, reducing visibility and chilling the climbers, what started as a quest for achievement descended into a battle for survival.
What sets Into Thin Air apart is its tense atmosphere and attention to sensory detail. Krakaur takes the reader from Kathmandu to the top of the world, delving deep into the smell and feel of mountaineering as well as the specific events. It’s an experiential narrative that explains why people choose to climb the world’s high places, while exploring the disastrous effects terrain and weather have on the human body.

It was a bestseller for a reason.

This is, of course, a short list of the wonderful reading material out there on these subjects. Should you feel like adding to it, please do so in the comments.

Merry Christmas, and have a Happy New Year.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher based in Hong Kong. His articles have appeared in the Escapist and Slate. You can follow his exploits at or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

Note: If you follow the retail links in this post and make purchases on the site(s), Defy Media may receive a share of the proceeds from your sale through the retailer’s affiliate program.

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