Review: Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley

Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley
Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley

Cowboy Angels
Paul McAuley (blog, twitter)
Pyr, 2011

I started this sort of randomly.  I mean, I certainly intended to read it next, but I was on my way to the bathroom (tmi?) and saw it sitting there on my desk and just sort of brought it along.  Then we had more than a foot of snow dumped on us so I kept reading.  I don’t know what it is about the novel that prompted me to keep reading.  I think that it had something to do with the sort-of wearied spy/two old soldiers talking dialogue early in the novel.  There is a certain undeniable attraction to the “I’m too old for this.”  mentality in protagonists that I sometimes find hard to resist.

Cowboy Angels is sort of like Sliders but instead of dumb graduate student it was spies that had discovered a way to hop realities.  These spies don’t get lost but instead became part of an initiative to create an alliance of America’s across multiple realities.  Of course, all of that happened before Cowboy Angels started.  The novel opens with a regime change predicated on the desire to end the violence and resource drain caused by the active pursuit the so-called Pan-American Alliance.  Agreements are broken and those original spies, the Cowboy Angels, are more-or-less hung out to dry.  Fast forward several years later and retired CIA Agent Stone is living out his retirement in a prehistoric sheaf (alternate reality) running a hunting lodge when he is called back in by The Company to track down his former partner who has apparently been on a murder spree targeting the dopel’s (alternate reality versions) of a mathematician.  Almost against his will Stone is dragged back into the field.

Continue reading “Review: Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley”

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Some thoughts on re-reading Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon
Gardens of the Moon (the ok cover, not the stupid US cover)

I first came upon Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series on the old wotmania (RIP) Other Fantasy forums and quickly ordered a paperback copy of Gardens of the Moon from amazon.co.uk.  I blew through the novel in a matter of days and was absolutely floored by what I read.  Sure it dragged in some sections, and focused on a surprising number of characters for an opening novel in a series but there was something special about Erikson’s world.  A world where gods, and beings of great power visit mortal realms and where men and women dip into godly realms with a seeming ease.  Where power comes at a great personal cost.  It was a world filled more with the strange and terrifying than the wondrous and the amazing and for some reason, for me at least, that made it feel all the more real.

Continue reading “Some thoughts on re-reading Gardens of the Moon”

Hardly Reaching

The only story in Halo: Reach exists in its cut scenes.  This my friends, is a failure. Reach, stripped of those cut-scenes is by and large a fairly pedestrian shooter that offers little new to the table.  While the game is certainly attractive there is frequently very little that distracts you from path set before you and level design evinces little to no effort in capture the detail and horror of the events surrounding you.  Much of this is par for the course when it comes to the FPS genre and I’ve yet to see a game that really approaches narrative in a unique way.   Absent of the advanced technology and flashy bits Halo: Reach, in terms of gameplay, is about as deep as Super Mario Brothers and, in truth, offers fewer variations in how to get from start to finish (I exaggerate slightly, Super Mario Brothers has a warp zone, Reach has no means other than a straight path for completion and there ends said variation).  Mario dies, you restart.  Noble Six dies, you restart.  Rinse and repeat.  There isn’t anything new about Reach, at all.

Sure, the game does occasionally shakes things up by offering vehicle based missions.  Those instances where you get to fly a Sword space fighter or Pelican Helicopter remain an exciting and welcome change of pace to the running and gunning the dominates the game.  Of course linear is still linear however you dress it up.   That linearity is reflected in the level design which, more often than not,  throws you head first into the face of the enemy.  My favorite example of this, late in the game, was being told to “lay low” by my commanding officer.   A command that apparently required I dash like a madman through enemy troops, waving hello as I sprinted by.  There is a definitely a problem when I’m complaining about a lack of stealth.   For all its linearity that mad sprint was still somewhat invigorating though its necessity only became apparent (or assumed) after around 5 or 6 prolonged firefights resulted in no progress and quick painful death.  Of course it’s the same sort of invigoration I get when I blast through stage 1-1 or 1-2 in SMB.

Halo: Reach should have been an epic war story, full of the last stand heroics of 300 and the emotional pull of Braveheart.   But the game felt absent of these things.  The game lacks impact that any “last stand” story should have.  I was particularly struck by this during a  point in the game where you find yourself alone in the empty shell of a city the only initial company the dead.  Dead that offer no blood scattered amongst walls absent of scorch marks.  It is curiously antiseptic scene of carnage that offers no means to engage the emotional response of the player.  Six (your character) has a job to do, but there is no emotional impetus to do that job and there is little if anything to tie you to the either the environment or the individuals surrounding you.  Compare this to something like Dead Space (a game I’ve yet to finish, but really want to) where the environment has a menace and character all its own, you struggle to explore the next corridor because you don’t really want to know what it holds.  Of course Dead Space is an MA game while Reach is Teen, but I still found myself curiously unmoved by the plight of Reach’s citizens.  Similarly, as the “new guy” on Noble team I found myself apathetic towards my teammates who I never had a time to get to know or really care about.  Even Halo 3 crafted a believable emotional bond between Cortana and Master Chief and Reach’s inability to do so between flesh and blood beings is bizarre.

I made the decision to play Reach on Heroic.  This was likely a mistake.  It is, according to Bungie, the way the game was meant to be played.  Likely this is true for people other than me.  I do not have the “1337 5k!11z” and often find myself sidled with inferior weaponry which with the exception of the battle rifle is just about every weapon in the game.  Though, it should be said that all weapons are inferior on Heroic.  What’s surprising about this game is how little actual fun I had while playing it.  Sure it had its moments, but those I most enjoyed were those that played least like a Halo game.  The best I can offer is the sense of accomplishment I felt when I did manage to get through a particularly sticky spot, but it’s the same sense of accomplishment I feel when I’ve managed to best myself when running.  If I’m being honest the running feels better.  Maybe that hollow feeling from Reach speaks more about where I am in terms of gaming than the game itself; your mileage may vary.

In the end Reach is pretty sad for what amount’s to Bungie’s swan song in the Halo universe.  They have, by and large, made the same game four times now (I haven’t played ODST, so it could be five) and other than improvements in graphics and an increase in the scale of cinematic moments I see little to differentiate any of these titles.  It’s possible that these complaints are valid for the FPS genre as a whole.  In general terms you can probably take my overall complaints and substitute any FPS and they’ll probably stick.  I have to wonder how or if this genre can take the next step. Hell, I don’t even know what that next step is.

Review: Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card
Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

Pathfinder
Orson Scott Card
Simon Pulse, 2010

My initial attraction to Pathfinder was based solely on the fact that the main character was named Rigg.  Rig is a less well known name of the Norse god Heimdall;  it is the name Heimdall goes by as he wanders Midgard, the tale of which is chronicled in the Lay of Rig.  Heimdall’s prodigious sight is one of the reasons he was chosen to guard the Bifrost Bridge (the path between Midgard and Asgard) and is somewhat similar to Rigg’s own sight related ability to see the paths of the past.  As Rig, Heimdall gifts humanity with magic runes and is something a a father figure, while initially this comparison to Rigg doesn’t quite fit by novels end it could be argued that Rigg is ineffably tied to the fate of humanity.  That being said, the links to Norse myth are tenuous; more homage than template.  Card’s story here is one that is both clever, original and highly engrossing.  Far more engrossing than the jacket copy would have you believe:

A powerful secret. A dangerous path.

Rigg is well trained at keeping secrets. Only his father knows the truth about Rigg’s strange talent for seeing the paths of people’s pasts. But when his father dies, Rigg is stunned to learn just how many secrets Father had kept from him–secrets about Rigg’s own past, his identity, and his destiny. And when Rigg discovers that he has the power not only to see the past, but also to change it, his future suddenly becomes anything but certain.

Rigg’s birthright sets him on a path that leaves him caught between two factions, one that wants him crowned and one that wants him dead. He will be forced to question everything he thinks he knows, choose who to trust, and push the limits of his talent…or forfeit control of his destiny.

Continue reading “Review: Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card”

Wooooaaaarghhhhhhh!!! (Or, MAGFest 9)

So apparently my WordPress android app decided not to post anything, that was awesome.  Things were quiet here because I left last Wednesday, amidst nearly 11 inches of fresh snow and several rail delays for the Music and Gaming Festival 9, i.e. MAGFest, down in Alexandria, VA.  From the convention’s about page:

In short, MAGFest is a music and video gaming festival run by fans, for fans. In more verbose terms, it’s an annual event dedicated to the celebration of video games and video game music. Every year offers 24-hour console, arcade, and PC game rooms, live video game cover bands, a vendors area, and guest speakers from the video game industry and fan scene….What makes MAGFest unique is that it’s an event run by fans for fans. There are no corporate sponsors, no over-crowded showfloors, and no hour long lines. MAGFest is built from the ground up to be a party-like atmosphere with focus on community and fan creations, which creates an environment that no other expo or convention can ever recreate.

One hotel, 3,000 nerds, and just over 3 days of 24-hours madness.  It was pretty fucking awesome.

The title of the post, is apparently (roughly at least) how you spell the sound Colossus makes in the 90s X:Men Arcade Game.  Starting on Thursday morning, while waiting in line to receive my badge, the Colossus yell near instantly became the rallying cry for MAGfest 9.  I’m told that the seed for this was planted in a MAGfest promo video.  Regardless, the Colossus yell morphed into something akin to the wave, often starting in a distant corner of the con and rippling its way across the show floor.  It substituted for applause or jeers during panels.  It became the “official” battle cry for the fight against Dr. Wiley during both of The Protomen’s shows.  Some were visible annoyed by this strange occurrence, but I for one was consistently amused.  Enough that I bought a t-shirt emblazoned with Colossus and the sound effect.

MAGFest reminded me very much of the video game nights my alma mater’s Sci-fi Club used to hold, except writ much much larger.  The console room was massive and stocked full of everything from system linked 360s running Reach and MW2 to Nintendo 64’s with F-Zero X and Perfect Dark, to Sega Genesis’s with old school Sonic, to DDR cabinets, to Rock Band 3, and even some Dance Central.  If you played it, ever, it was there.  The arcade area was pretty impressive stocked with plenty of arcade classics (Pacman, Asteroids, Centipede, Galaga, Defender and more), Nintendo themed multi-game cabinets, including the surprisingly entertaing if ridiculously difficult Windjammers (in desperate need of a modern Wii or Kinect based remake).  There were even several pinball machines including one from Terminator 2 and even D&D themed table.  Pinball is still awesome and I hope we see more of those at MAGfest 10.  Of course the bane of my existence and most nearly irresistible game for me was a mechanical game called Ice Cold Beer.  Rather than explain in detail, check out this video:

MAGFest had several panels.  Highlights include Spoony’s late night comedy set/Q&A.  I had never heard of the guy before then I saw him at MAGFest but he is a pretty funny dude and I definitely plan to keep an eye on his videos past, present and future (found over at the Spoony Experiment_).  My highlight though, much like at last year’s PAX East, was from the ever enthusiastic and exceptionally well prepared gents from the Geek Nights podcast.  This time out  the topic was “Losing Should Be Fun.”  The topic itself likely deserves an entire post itself but they presented some cogent points on the notion that a game should be fun no matter how well you are playing.  In the course of their discussion they mentioned the game called Dread, which I hadn’t ever heard of before, but plan on buying at the first opportunity.  You can read more on the game over at Tilting at Windmills.

Of course the biggest draw for me was the concerts.  Three nights stuffed with video game bands and overflowing with enough nostalgia to kill a man.  In no particular order the weekend included performances from the X-hunters, Rare Candy, Metroid Metal, the Minibosses, The Protomen, The Megas, Armcannon, Year 200xEntertainment System, the OneUps, Bit Brigade,  brentalfloss, a_rival, and Powerglove.  Highlights for me included the synth-tastic Rare Candy, The Megas, This Place is Haunted, brentalfloss, The Protomen, and of course Powerglove.  Of those bands Rare Candy, brentalfloss, and This Place is Haunted were new to me.  Rare Candy, dressed more or less like characters from Pokemon (the drummer was wearing a Pikachu suit) were chock full of energy and synth-heavy renditions of video game classics.  brentalfloss is the author of the “With Lyrics” series on youtube and typically posts humorous interpretations of games and gaming culture.  He is a talented guy, fricking hilarious, and kicked major ass despite being relegated to the JamSpace for his performance.  This Place is Haunted were one of the few bands who dipped outside the video game box for inspiration, playing rocking medleys from classic tv series and an epic rendition of all the major themes from Rocky (along with montages from Rocky IV).  The Protmen also rocked two nights performed their first album, Act I, on one night and their second album Act II on another night.  The Protomen, for the unitiated, are sort of like Spock’s Beard and Porcupine Tree except they write rock operas (or one multi-part rock opera) based on the world of Megaman; both Act’s I and II owe a huge debt in theme and content to The Wall and they are a crazy talented group of individuals that music fans everywhere ought to go see.

I could go on and on about MAGFest 9.  It really is its own little world; one that stands apart from other conventions.  I do hope in the future that a more diverse spread of musical genres make their way to MAGFest; the distinct lack of just about any Nerdcore presence (with the possible exception of a.rival) was keenly felt by myself and I think that MC Frontalot, Schaffer the Darklord, Beefy, ytcracker and others would fit right in with MAGFest crowd.  Gaming fans take note MAGfest is a damned fun party that is definitely worth the price of admission.  I’m planning on being back for MAGFest 10 and hopefully a couple more of you out there will join me.

Review: Stonewielder by Ian Cameron Esslemont

Stonewielder by Ian Cameron Esslemont
Stonewielder by Ian Cameron Esslemont

Stonewielder
Ian Cameron Esslemont
Tor, 2011

When starting a Malazan novel my most frequent initial mental state is confusion.  This does not speak well for either myself or the novel concerned but has been almost universally true in the twelve or so novels I’ve read in this universe shared by Steven Erikson and Ian Cameron Esslemont.  While Erikson and, to a lesser extent Esslemont (I speak mostly of volume), have created a vibrant and colorful world it is a necessarily muddy one as well.  When dealing with an empire composed various diverse (not to be confused with d’ivers) peoples the various gods, powers, continents, languages, etc. tend to have more than one name and, more frequently, a different flavor depending on who is talking or describing.  Throw in the fact that the novel’s have become increasingly interconnected, true in both the main series by Erikson and with Esslemont’s Malaz-centric series, and even most hardcore fans have to become easily lost in the quagmire of people, places, and plots. Continue reading “Review: Stonewielder by Ian Cameron Esslemont”

Review: Dauntless (Lost Fleet) by Jack Campbell (audio)

Lost Fleet: Dauntless
Lost Fleet: Dauntless

The Lost Fleet: Dauntless
Jack Campbell
Audible Frontiers, 2008

Audible Frontiers has so far done a bang up job of producing accessible and quality productions of recent and classic science fiction and fantasy works and their release of Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet: Dauntless is no exception.  One of my favorite things so far is that they often include an introductory note by the author (true for this audiobook and for Mike Resnick’s Starship series) that give a little bit of background information on how the title came about and some of the thematic notions that spurred the authors into writing what they did.  For Dauntless, Campbell explains that one of his inspirations were the notion of ancient heroes and particularly the Ten Thousand.  In terms of the former Campbell focuses his attention on John “Blackjack” Geary.  Geary, who secured a victory in the opening phases of war with the Syndicate was subsequently believed dead.  Flash ahead a century or so and the novel opens with Geary, whose cryochamber has recently been discovered finds himself struggling to adjust to living again.  Of course it’s more than that as those hundred plus years have served to transform what was a simple desperate battle for survival on Geary’s part into something much more mythic and turning the man into a legendary hero. Continue reading “Review: Dauntless (Lost Fleet) by Jack Campbell (audio)”

Review: The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan
The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

I read and enjoyed The Strain (as did my friend Val) last year but this time out I nabbed the audiobook version of its sequel The Fall.  The Fall, second book in a planned trilogy, takes place bare moments after the end of The Strain.  New York is sliding further and further into chaos, rioters run rampant, people are disappearing, and the authorities (local or otherwise) are at a loss for what to do.  Abraham Satrakian, Ephraim Goodweather, and the exterminator Vasily form the core of the resistance against the rising vampire population.  Unfortunately they are a resistance with its back to the wall.  As it turns The Master’s plan doesn’t just encompass New York but the world as cities worldwide receive planes full of dead passengers; as New York did at the start of The Strain.

Continue reading “Review: The Fall by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan”

A Quick Look Back at 2010 (also…December Summary)

No big year end posts for me.  No choices for best-ofs, I’ve enjoyed too much over the course of year to make some sort of arbitrary decision about which was best.  Some interesting stats…

In 2010 the blog had  aprox. 41,000  hits.  An increase over 2009’s 29,159 hits.  A fairly substantial increase.  I have no way to determine how that increase came about, but there it is (I suspect robots).  I made 127 new posts in 2010.  Not a bad number, but I have nothing to really compare it to so it is something of a meaningless stat.   I also had sort-of a semi-anniversary this year.  Technically speaking, on the basest of levels, I started this blog 2005.  Of course in 2005 it really wasn’t “this blog” and a was a much sadder, sorrier, thing than what you see now.  So while, technically it has been 5 years, in reality it has been closer to 3 (I moved the blog to wordpress in May of 2007).  However I didn’t really start posting reviews, or even posting regularly until October 2007 (there was a one paragraph semi-review of The Lies of Locke Lamora in August 2006).  As you can see determining when to celebrate my this thing’s inception is a bit difficult.

In terms of reading 2010 was pretty similar to 2009 with 73 books (more or less) read and reviewed over 2009’s 70.  I’m hoping in 2011 I can inch that number a bit higher.  What will 2011 bring?  Even I don’t know.  But I’m pretty excited to find out.

A quick take on December:

The Last Colony by John Scalzi

An Autumn War by Daniel Abraham

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

At the Queen’s Command by Michael A Stackpole

SW: Fate of the Jedi: Vortex by Troy Denning

The Emerald Storm by Michael A Sullivan

Black Lung Captain by Chris Wooding