Review: Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity

Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity
Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity

Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity
Gabriel Hunt (James Reasoner)
Leisure Books, 2009

First Line: Gabriel Hunt tugged at the tight collar around his neck and grimaced as he failed to loosen it.

Leisure Books is of course an imprint of Dorchester Publishing the same publishing house responsible for the Hard Case Crime imprint.  Of course none of this should be a surprise at since, as this review points out, the series is the brainchild of Charles Ardai; the man behind Hard Case crime.  I was first attracted to this series thanks to the clever use of the character’s name as the author.  While this somewhat meta-fictional conceit doesn’t extend to the rest of the novel and is traded for a straight-forward no-nonsense third-person narrative.  That isn’t necessarily a bad thing since Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity was a brisk novel full of action, suspense, and excitement.

Continue reading “Review: Gabriel Hunt at the Well of Eternity”

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On Roleplaying

It’s time to Ramble On.

-Led Zeppelin

As I sat in a comfy chair last night, wearing my free Dragon Age t-shirt acquired at PAX ’07, and playing through the opening scenes of Mass Effect 2 (my Mass Effect t-shit was, unfortunately, in the laundry) I cringed as a notice popped up about earning +4 to my Renegade rating.  I stopped for a minute reviewing the conversation I, or rather Commander Shepherd, just had.  I didn’t recall saying anything particularly “bad.”   I let the moment of sick panic pass and pushed onward secure my good deeds would erase whatever slight misstep I had taken.

You see in every Bioware game I’ve ever played I’ve always been good.  Multiple play-throughs of Baldur’s Gate 2, Neverwinter Nights, Knights of the Old Republic, etc.  All good.  I’ve tried to play evil.  I have, really.  But something always stops me short.  A sick sensation in the pit of my stomach as I lie, cheat and extort.  A cold sweat that breaks out as I exploit the weak  or turn my back on the downtrodden.  I always abandon the efforts, returning to my goody two-shoes tendencies.  With Mass Effect 2 there is a faint curiosity that pulls me towards the glowing orange of the Renegade.  Part of it is a function of story.  I died.  I was brought back.  Two years of my life are gone.  The world around me has changed.  But, have I?  Distrust still exists amongst the various races.  The Alliance left me for dead but Cerebus, whose scientists I slaughtered as a Spectre, brought me back.  The Council sits on its hands unable to act while humanity is threatened.  They’ve turned a blind eye towards the threat the Reapers represent.  Did my old tactics of cooperation and open handed assistance even matter?

I repeat, I’m only three hours into the game.  Maybe it’s nothing Bioware did.  Maybe it’s me.  But I find myself, more than any other game recently, involved on an emotional level with what’s happening.  But I find myself wishing that Bioware made it harder to know precisely how my actions will affect my “alignment.”  Perhaps it’s a holdover from earlier games but more so than any other time I could remember I wish the game would let me just choose without the knowledge of precisely what the nature of those decisions might be.  Mass Effect’s Paragon/Renegade alignment system is fascinating but the foreknowledge of how your words and actions will affect that scale robs me of a certain level of investment in the preceding.  The system is visible, allowing me too much leeway to telegraph my actions to reach the outcome I desire.  The decisions don’t really feel like mine.

I still don’t know why I can’t be evil.  You see.  If you have ever gamed with me at the table you might be surprised to learn about my inability to be even the slightest bit mean.   Scratch that.  You would definitely be surprised to learn that.  Truth be told, you might even refuse to believe me at all since  absolutely none of my tabletop D&D characters has ever been GOOD.  Ever.

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Review: Arms-Commander by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

Arms-Commander by L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Arms-Commander by L. E. Modesitt Jr.

Arms-Commander
L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Tor, 2010

First Line: In the late afternoon on the Roof of the World, the guards stood silent on the practice ground, their eyes fixed on the blackness rising just above the western horizon as Istril stepped out of the main door of Tower Black and crossed the causeway.

As I mentioned when I first wrote about reading Arms-Commander this is my first Recluce novel since I read The Magic of Recluce some time after having plowed through the first couple of Wheel of Time novels.  I had forgotten precisely how odd the chronology of the series is where the first novel written is, in essence, is the penultimate tale in the series with the fifth novel written The Death of Chaos is actually the conclusion of the saga at large.  Needless to see for someone used a distinct beginning to end chronology in his fantasy Modesitt stands amongst a bare handful of fantasy authors whose series’ internal chronology leave me scratching my head in confusion (Katerine Kerr’s Deverry novels, and Steven Brust’s Draegaran novels, being two of the other that I struggle a bit with).  You read it hear first folks, non-linear story-telling confuses the hell out of me.

Despite my confusion as to the chronology of the Saga of Recluce the blurb for Arms-Commander had me a bit excited:

Arms-Commander takes place ten years after the end of The Chaos Balance and tells the story of the legendary Saryn. The keep of Westwind, in the cold mountainous heights called the Roof of the World, is facing attack by the adjoining land of Gallos. Arthanos, son and heir to the ailing Prefect of Gallos, wishes to destroy Westwind because the idea of a land where women rule is total anathema to him.

Saryn, Arms-Commander of Westwind, is dispatched to a neighboring land, Lornth, to seek support against the Gallosians. In the background, the trading council of Suthya is secretly and informally allied with Gallos against Westwind and begins to bribe lord-holders in Lornth to foment rebellion and civil war. They hope to create such turmoil in Lornth that the weakened land will fall to Suthya. But Zeldyan, regent of Lornth, has problems in her family. To secure Zeldyan’s aid, Saryn must pledge her personal support—and any Westwind guard forces she can raise—to the defense of Zeldyan and her son. The fate of four lands, including Westwind, rests on Saryn’s actions.

There are a number of points that jumped out at me in that little blurb, particularly the role of gender politics in the novel (not something every fantasy novel explores) and the hint of a blend of military action and politics.  Unfortunately while the novel certainly succeeds in delivering the latter it is on the former that I’m less certain.

Continue reading “Review: Arms-Commander by L. E. Modesitt Jr.”

Review: Nyphron Rising by Michael J Sullivan

Nyphron Rising by Michael J Sullivan
Nyphron Rising by Michael J Sullivan

Nyphron Rising
Michael J Sullivan
Ridan Publishing, 2009

First Line: Amilia made the mistake of  looking back into Edith Mon’s eyes.

Nyphron Rising is the third book in Sullivan’s Riyria Revelations following both The Crown Conspiracy and Avempartha.  The first novels set the bar rather high and I’m happy to report that Nyphron Rising manages to live up to its predecessors in just about every respect and even manages to pass them in some.  Following the events of the first two books the Nyphron Empire has reemerged from the ashes of history to threaten the kingdoms of Avryn.  Lead not so much by the prophesized return of the imperial heir but rather by a regency of corrupt church officials the new empire has managed to subsume a number of the surrounding nations leaving the kingdom of Melengar to more or less fend for itself.

As with any series Nyphron Rising is dependent upon the events of the previous volumes to place its story in context.  Where Avempartha and The Crown Conspiracy managed to stand relatively well on their own that is most definitely less the case for Nyphron Rising.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing and Sullivan does a better job than most authors  in crafting a tale that, despite being reliant on the context set by his previous, stand confidently on its own two feet.  I still think that a reader walking in off the street, so to speak, would find Nyphron Rising an enjoyable read in and of itself but each novel is part of a greater whole that is slowly being uncovered.

Perhaps most surprising is that where both the previous volumes focuses more or less on the heroes of the series, the thieves Royce and Hadrian, in Nyphron Rising the duo actually ends up sharing center stage with the Princess Arista of Melengar.  While previous volumes in the series, and her reintroduction here, she is initially cast as something of the spoiled princess archetype the bulk of  the novel focuses on her emergence as an actual human being.  I was almost blindsided by this.  In fact when first reading from her perspective  I was mostly impatient to get on to more time with Royce and Hadrian.  However, the more time Sullivan, and the reader, spends with Arista the more she manages to come into her own.  Furthermore, rather than  upset the dynamic and flow that defines Royce and Hadrian she serves as an in, a means for the reader to observe the depth of the relationship between those two characters.  As the story progresses and Arista becomes more familiar with her companions she becomes less an observer and more a participant.

Nyphron Rising is a bit of a broader work then the previous entries as well.  While the main thread of the narrative focuses on Royce’s, Hadrian’s, and Arista’s attempts to gain allies for Melengar there is almost as much time spent on both the politics pushing the Nyphron Empire forward and the heir that is nominally its head.  As the first line indicates Sullivan also takes the time to introduce a new character, the good-natured and straight forward kitchen scullion Amilia.  Sympathetic and honest she is the reader’s anchor in the murky political and religious waters at the heart of the Nyprhon Empire.  Put into something of a difficult and wholly unexpected position by circumstances beyond her control Amilia’s chapters exemplify a fascinating blend of tension and heartwarming compassion that throws the bald power mongering around her into stark contrast.

Amidst introducing new characters, broadening the series’ overarching plot, and fleshing out old characters Sullivan somehow manages to squeeze in examining the history and upbringing of both Royce and Hadrian.  Along with Arista the two thieves manage to stop and visit the birthplaces and childhood homes of  both Royce and Hadrian.  The novel focuses a bit more intensely on Hadrian since his desire to retire from the thieving/spying business is one of the primary sources of tension between the two friends.  Given what we learned about Hadrian in Avempartha (which I’m not going to spoil here) Royce’s attempts to uncover more about Hadrian’s upbringing not only serve as a valuable means of further deepening Hadrian’s back story but a excellent way of learning more about the history of the world without an excess of long expository passages.

Indeed, Sullivan’s ability to add to his world and characters while remaining focused on the plot(s) on hand is impressive and serves to drive the novel forward at a breakneck pace.  There some occasional problems however, primarily with Sullivan telegraphing some of his character’s moves a bit too neatly.  Primarily this problem arises via Arista’s use of magic and her discoveries over the course of the novel early on chart almost directly into important developments towards the novel’s end.  In addition Arista’s sudden attachment to a rebellious leader late in the novel felt a bit contrived, but not so much as to be distracting or off putting; especially in light of what I saw as something of a growing rapport between Arista and Hadrian.  In truth I’m of the opinion these are minor problems that never really detracted one whit from my enjoyment of the novel.

If you are a fan of fantasy and have yet to check out the Riyria Revelations you might consider turning in your credentials. While I can’t recommend it as a starting point for new readers Nyphron Rising has raised the bar once again for future installments in the series.  Sullivan effortlessly blends an old school fantasy feel with a reinvigorating verve and an original voice that make it stand out from the crowd.  Of course there was one major problem with Nyphron Rising….it ended.   In addition to being available via your standard booksellers you can of course purchase the novels directly from the author as well and if you have the time don’t forget to check out his blog.  Meanwhile I’ll be anxiously twiddling my thumbs as I await news on Emerald Storm.

Review: The God Engines by John Scalzi

The God Engines by John Scalzi
The God Engines by John Scalzi

The God Engines
John Scalzi
Subterranean Press, 2009

First Line: It was time to whip the god.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that, despite being something a genre fanatic, that this is the first John Scalzi book I’ve read.  I’ve always had every intention to read Old Man’s War but that intent has never manifested itself into action; this is a fact I’m going to have to remedy.  The God Engines is a horror/fantasy novella that happens to take place in space; mostly.  Our protagonist, Ean Tephe, captains a spaceship whose main means of FTL propulsion just happens to be a god bound in chains.  Captain Tephe is part of an interstellar religious empire almost directly guided by their actual god.  Tephe’s God just happens to have subjugated and bound other gods.  The God Engines is an absolute page turner with vibrant living characters in a vividly depicted landscape.  While the ships in the novella are never discussed in specific detail my brain certainly saw them as something straight out of Battlefleet Gothic (or maybe the Universal Church of Truth with their penchant for worshiping formless squishy things); an image aided by the ominous tone of the novel.

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Review: Redemption Ark by Alistair Reynolds

Redemption Ark by Alistair Reynolds
Redemption Ark by Alistair Reynolds

Redemption Ark
Alistair Reynolds
Ace, 2003 (mmpb, Ace, 2004)

First line: The dead ship was a thing of beauty.

Redemption Ark is the third book in Reynolds Revelation Space series.  I inadvertently skipped the second novel Chasm City but thankfully Reynolds’ fiction, despite being part of a larger overarching story, manages to stand well enough on its own and I never felt like I was really missing anything major.  As when I read Revelation Space the first thing that strikes me about Reynolds’ writing is the staid, deliberate pace.  I can’t qualify this in any meaningful way, it isn’t good or bad, but it is certainly an aspect of his writing that for me took some time to warm up to.  More so then Revelation Space, Redemption Ark delves a bit deeper into unfamiliar society, particularly the nearly post-human Conjoiners, and lingers more consistently on technologies that are both new and completely fascinating.  Reynolds is an idea man and barely a chapter passed by without some new and shiny bit of technological wonder to fire up my imagination.

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Gaming in 2010

2009 was a bad year for me and game.  A year measured by inability to commit and finish just about every game I’ve started.  I’m still working on Dragon’s Age, dabbling into Torchlight, and cautiously exploring the jungles of Crysis: Warhead. Regardless, there is still a bevy of titles I’m looking forward to in 2010.

In January we have Bioware’s Mass Effect 2.  I’m also slowly picking away at a second run through on the first game, this time on PC, but I likely won’t finish before the sequel hits.  In all likelihood I’ll be picking up the 360 version anyway so I can take advantage of my original saves.  The feature of Mass Effect 2 that I’m most look forward are the dynamic events that pop-up during conversation as described over at Actiontrip:

“The bigger functional difference is that we’ve added a new kind of dialogue response, which we call interrupts. It’s basically a way to seize physical control during a conversation depending on what’s going on. You’ll either have Paragon interrupts or Renegade interrupts at certain times and you can let them pass…”

This kind of stuff hasn’t really appeared in a Bioware game, other then the old Intimidate/Persuade dynamic.  Though to be fair, if I remember correctly, the old premium module Witch’s Wake for Neverwinter Nights had a similar kind of interupt system.

In February there is the reboot of Aliens vs. Predator.  Once again being developed by the folks at Rebellion I’m looking forward to returning to one of my favorite video game franchises of all time.  The original Aliens vs. Predator was a game I could never complete; it was just way too tense.  Not in a bad way but in a way that really managed to capture the fear and tension that first ping on a motion detector incites.  AvP2 I did manage to play through on all three campaigns and, while not as scary as its predecessor, was still a blast to play…particularly as the Alien.  From the few game play trailers I’ve seen from the new game it looks like the Marine sections will be trending more closely towards the original game.

Expected sometime around March is Eidos’ Just Cause 2.  I missed out on the first game, which apparently wasn’t that great, but everything I’ve seen and read about Just Cause 2 makes me think it’ll be over-the-top batshit insane fun.  Case in point, the trailer below:

Honestly, I don’t feel I need to explain my excitement beyond the ridiculously awesome shenanigans in that trailer.

From there things slow up a bit.  I always cautiously keep an eye on western games.  They always seem like they might be pretty cool but I’ve never actually played one.  That being said I’m keeping an eye on the late April release of Red Dead Redemption.  An open world Western from the folks at Rockstar sounds more interesting then much they’ve done as of late.  Also in April is the space combat MMO Jumpgate: Evolution.  While certainly not a new X-Wing game it has still been far far too long since I’ve jumped into the cockpit of a space fighter.  Don’t know how I feel about a monthly fee though so I’m going to be waiting on reviews and impressions for this one.

THE game I’ll be keeping my eye on throughout 2010 is going to be Fallout: New Vegas.  Feargus Urquhart helming the studio behind a new Fallout certainly has me excited at what that might entail.  Of course there has been literally no news on the title since it’s being announced in April of last year.  Other honorable mentions include Star Wars: The Old Republic and Star Trek Online.  I’ve studiously been avoiding promotional information about the Bioware developed Star Wars MMO, but I find it odd that all the impressions I have seen never mention any actual multiplayer.

Of course my chances of finding the time to actually play everything I want is close to none; but a man can dream can’t he.  There are also a ton of games I didn’t mention and it seems that Q3 and Q4 2010 are curiously empty/mysterious; unless I’m missing something.

Review: First Lord’s Fury by Jim Butcher

First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher
First Lord's Fury by Jim Butcher

First Lord’s Fury
Jim Butcher
Ace, 2009

First Lord’s Fury is the sixth and final book in Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera.  Set in a Roman inspired world whose citizens control powerful elementals called furies the Codex Alera is a fast-paced action intensive series.  In First Lord’s Fury both speed and action are ratcheted way past 11 making for an exciting, though somewhat rushed, read.  If you haven’t read any of the other books in the series yet then even reading past the blurb of the later books, or glancing at the titles, provides some minor spoilers.  Still if you haven’t read other books, or aren’t quite caught up to book six then stop reading now….

Continue reading “Review: First Lord’s Fury by Jim Butcher”

Slight Change of Plans

Don’t worry I still plan on my look at hardboiled detective fiction (in I read The Simple Art of Murder this weekend) but I think I’m going to take it slower then my other “projects.”  In the meantime I’m going to work through a backlog of fiction that has slipped through the cracks of my themed reading of late.  I have at least three books I really want to read but just haven’t had a chance to open up yet.  So in January look for reviews of:

Nyphron Rising:  the third book in the excellent Riyria Revelations series by Michael J Sullivan.

PUPPET IS CROWNED. THE TRUE HEIR REMAINS HIDDEN. A ROGUE’S SECRET COULD CHANGE EVERYTHING.

War has come to Melengar. To save her kingdom, Princess Arista runs a desperate gamble when she defies her brother and hires Royce and Hadrian for a dangerous mission. As the power of the Nyphron Empire grows, so does Royce’s suspicion that the wizard Esrahaddon is using the thieves as pawns in his own game. To find the truth, he must unravel the secret of Hadrian’s past–what he discovers could change the future for all of Elan.

The Rookie: Scott Sigler’s Blood Bowl-esque space football novel.  I gave it as a gift to my cousin’s husband for Christmas despite having not had a chance to read my copy.

Set in a lethal pro football league 700 years in the future, THE ROOKIE is a story that combines the intense gridiron action of “Any Given Sunday” with the space opera style of “Star Wars” and the criminal underworld of “The Godfather.”

Aliens and humans alike play positions based on physiology, creating receivers that jump 25 feet into the air, linemen that bench-press 1,200 pounds, and linebackers that literally want to eat you. Organized crime runs every franchise, games are fixed and rival players are assassinated.

Follow the story of Quentin Barnes, a 19-year-old quarterback prodigy that has been raised all his life to hate, and kill, those aliens. Quentin must deal with his racism and learn to lead, or he’ll wind up just another stat in the column marked “killed on the field.”

Arms-Commander:  I haven’t read many Recluse books.  Only one in fact when in youth I was lured by a Darrel K. Sweet cover thanks to my infatuation with a certain other series.  I remember liking it, but little beyond that.  The blurb makes it sound like it’ll be new reader friendly.  We’ll see about that!

Arms-Commander takes place ten years after the end of The Chaos Balance and tells the story of the legendary Saryn. The keep of Westwind, in the cold mountainous heights called the Roof of the World, is facing attack by the adjoining land of Gallos. Arthanos, son and heir to the ailing Prefect of Gallos, wishes to destroy Westwind because the idea of a land where women rule is total anathema to him.

Saryn, Arms-Commander of Westwind, is dispatched to a neighboring land, Lornth, to seek support against the Gallosians. In the background, the trading council of Suthya is secretly and informally allied with Gallos against Westwind and begins to bribe lord-holders in Lornth to foment rebellion and civil war. They hope to create such turmoil in Lornth that the weakened land will fall to Suthya. But Zeldyan, regent of Lornth, has problems in her family. To secure Zeldyan’s aid, Saryn must pledge her personal support—and any Westwind guard forces she can raise—to the defense of Zeldyan and her son. The fate of four lands, including Westwind, rests on Saryn’s actions.

I’m also just about done with First Lord’s Fury by Jim Butcher. As before keep an eye out for my final reviews in my Space Opera selections. Of course I’ll start working my way through hardboiled detective fiction starting with Chandler’s The Long Goodbye and Spillane’s I, the Jury, I might sit on the reviews until February however but we’ll see.