Thoughts on Black Gate 14

So late last year, mostly on a whim, I decided that I wanted to subscribe to Black Gate magazine.  For those that don’t know Black Gate magazine, founded back in 2000, is a fantasy fiction magazine that focuses on “adventure fantasy.”  Character driven stories with brisk pacing, often strange landscapes, and more often than not a boat load of action are what Black Gate is all about.  It was a good time to jump on board with Black Gate since issue 14 (Winter 2010) is a double-stuffed issue clocking an at a massive 385 pages (in pdf) the print edition rivaling my 4th Edition Player’s Handbook in size.  What’s most impressive about those 385 pages is sheer amount of awesome fiction packed within.  While I haven’t read every bit of fiction in this issue everything I’ve read has been fantastic in one way or another and wonderfully unique as well.  Here is a look at some of what I’ve read so far:

Continue reading “Thoughts on Black Gate 14”

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Dragon Age II Demo: Sorry Guts, your sword is small.

So, last night I finally had a chance to sit down and play the PC demo of Dragon Age II.   Here are my thoughts on some of the changes in practice (as opposed to in theory):

Users can still pause combat and switch characters but can’t stack commands.

This is precisely as annoying as I thought it would be.   I’ll have to get used to it if I want to play the game otherwise I’ll be spending a lot of time micro-managing every action.  Dragon Age II, if you don’t want to be constantly pausing and issuing commands, absolutely requires that you take advantage of the Tactics system.

An increased reliance on action heavy combat.

I actually really liked this aspect of the game for the most part.  Combat feels quicker and more brutal despite almost no real mechanical difference.  Things are streamlined in a useful way, particularly when it comes to potions which are shared by the party at large and are hardwired to quickslot apart from your attacks/abilities.  I found the in-game feedback a little lacking and at a resolution of 1600X1200 found the cooldown counter (a slight shading) a bit difficult to see.  Why they went with gray, rather than a more obvious color like red or yellow or even a numeric countdown, is beyond me.  The new enemy deaths are bit over-the-top to the point of being almost comical.

No Overhead Tactical View

Bioware had explained this from a design standpoint using “interiors with ceilings” as a major point (particularly for the locked in 3rd person view for console players).  Honestly this decision is still stupid.  Placing an area effect spell while locked in a third-person view is pretty damn awkward; especially since you can’t center area effect spells on an enemy.  It also, for me at least, makes getting a handle on the tactical situation a little cumbersome since you have to rely on the mini-map, which places enemies as red dots, to get a handle of the broad picture.  You can adjust to it but it still seams like a bad move on Bioware’s part.

Things I didn’t talk about when I talked about Dragon Age 2 previously include the dialogue system.  This is more or less ripped straight from Mass Effect though it blatantly categorizes most responses as what I can guess are good (represented by some sort of angelic halo thing), neutral (a mask), and “bad” (a hammer?).  It works and if you’ve played the Mass Effect series you’ll be pretty familiar with how DA 2 operates in conversation.  Unlike Mass Effect 2, the DA 2demo  has some wildly inconsistent voice acting ranging from the horrible wooden (Hawke’s brother) to the fantastic (Flemeth).  I like Varric, the dwarf rogue who narrates the game and joins your party, and the cut scenes during the demo are really quite well acted.  Isabela is…distracting?  Her character design seems deliberately provocative but I admit she seem somewhat better proportioned than other video game vixens.

The demo really just scratches the surface of the story and I’m curious to see where things will go.  I have a feeling that many of my complaints from the first game will go unheeded here and have more to do with me as a gamer rather than the game itself.  The colors are still washed out and faded, there is still an abundance of browns and the game just doesn’t pop visually.  Compare DA2 with the recent Skyrim trailer or footage from Guild Wars 2 or even Diablo 3 and I think that DA2 comes in at the bottom by a considerable margin.  I was a little disappointing to notice some very obvious clipping on models during cut scene and there were some weird loading hiccups (might be my PC) during gameplay and cutscenes.

The Dragon Age II demo left me with the impression that after some rather minor changes DA2 should play very much the same as Origins.  It didn’t leave me super excited for the game but at the same time it didn’t leave me frothing with rage. I still no absolutely nothing about the story, other than that it chronicles Hawke’s journey to becoming Champion.  I look forward to seeing where that goes.  Of course Dragon Age II can’t be the game I really wanted maybe Bioware can work on “The Adventures of Sten and Shale” for their next title?

Review: Courageous (the Lost Fleet book 3)

Courageous by Jack Campbell
Courageous by Jack Campbell

Courageous (Lost Fleet 3)
Jack Campbell, read by Christian Rummel
Audible Frontiers, 2008

I’m keeping this short.  Mostly because listening to the audio versions of these books in such quick session has made it increasingly difficult to keep separate what happened when but also because the novels follow a similar structure with the relative strengths and weaknesses of Campbell’s writing remain consistent.  With a successful raid of the Sanseer star system John “Black Jack” Geary turns the Alliance Fleet towards the Lakota star system.  It’s seems however that Geary has used up all of his luck in previous engagements as an overwhelming Syndic forces soon begin appearing in system.  Courageous marks the first time that the Alliance faced such an overwhelming force despite its desperate trek back home.

Campbell really kicks the action up a notch in Courageous.  With its back to the wall the Alliance fleet displays some extraordinarily impressive skills.  Despite the difficulties of relative time Campbell manages to convey an active and exciting engagement and his descriptions of Geary’s fancy flying and near supernatural ability to time maneuvers perfectly lend an air of grace to the changing formations.  There is last stand moment that while a tried and true element of militaristic fiction still manages to be moving here, particularly Geary’s parting prayer to the elements volunteering for that moment (it reminded me of Rand’s parting words to Ingtar during the flight from Fal Dara in The Great Hunt).

Personal relationships are still a trouble to Geary.  Discoveries from the Alliance POW lists in the previous volumes send Vice President Rione into a dangerous emotional spiral.  I do have a certain fondness for the hard-as-nails politician but more and more she scares me (and I think Geary).  This remains one of the few times we get to see the emotional side of Victoria Rione and gives just a bare hint to the person buried beneath the icy exterior.  Not only does this help provide information on her own state of mind and character but it also offers a clue to how the mindset of the Alliance populace has shifted away from Geary’s own time.

Of course bad luck isn’t really the whole story regarding the disastrous events in the Lakota star system and once our hero has had a minute to evaluate the intelligence garnered from Syndic transmission I dare say that the revelations reveal a situation much worse than bad luck.  The final pages of the novel are, unfortunately, a cliffhanger.  Not so terrible when the next volume is readily available but I can see how it might have frustrated readers when the novel was first released.  I found that Courageous focused more strongly on the action elements of the Lost Fleet series and this left the novel feeling a bit shorter than the rest; particularly when combined with the cliffhanger.  Regardless, The Lost Fleet is some of the best military science fiction I’ve had the pleasure to read (or listen to) in a log time and I am hungrily making my way through the 5th volume in the series.

Review: Fearless (Lost Fleet Book 2) by Jack Campbell

Fearless by Jack Campbell
Fearless by Jack Campbell

Fearless
Jack Campbell, read by Christian Rummel
Audible Frontiers, 2008
Fearless picks up more or less exactly where Dauntless left off.  Geary is still struggling with the presence of his legendary alter ego “Black Jack” trying to reconcile who he is now not only with who he used be but with who and what others expect him to be.  Geary’s age and “man out of time” status is again at the forefront here though spun slightly different than in Dauntless.  In the first novel Geary was focused mostly on coming to grips with what the Alliance fleet had become and how fleet traditions had deviated so far from what he knew in the past.  Fearless however takes things in a more a personal direction.  It doesn’t abandon Geary’s attempts to return the Alliance fleet to the traditions he remembers but a large portion of Fearless tackles Geary’s sense of isolation and, appropriately, fear.

Some spoilers ahead!

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Review: Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest
Dreadnought by Cherie Priest

Dreadnought
Cherie Priest (twitter)
Tor, 2010

Dreadnought by Cherie Priest is a breakneck action filled steampunk title that grabs hold and never lets go. Vinita “Mercy” Lynch is a nurse at the Confederate hospital in Robertson, Virginia. When news of her husband’s death (a Union soldier) arrives it is followed quickly by news of her estranged father’s illness and a request that she visit him in Seattle. With little left holding her at the hospital Mercy packs her few bags and heads West. Of course this wouldn’t be much of a story if things didn’t go horribly horribly wrong and Mercy is constantly besieged by trouble of all varieties.

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Review: Clementine by Cherie Priest

Clementine by Cherie Priest
Clementine by Cherie Priest

Clementine
Cherie Priest
Audible Frontiers, 2011

I missed out on Clementine’s initial release via Subterranean Press but discovered last week that Audible released an audio version via their Audible Frontiers SFF imprint.  Clementine is a novella set in the Clockwork Century universe and centers on two main characters: Captain Croggon Beauregard Heaney (first met in Boneshaker) and former Confederate spy turned Pinkerton detective Maria Isabella Boyd.  Clementine focuses on the narratives of these two characters featuring Heaney’s quest to recover his stolen vessel The Free Crow (now christened the titular Clementine) and Maria’s first job as a Pinkerton to ensure the Clementine’s safe arrival at its destination.  Of course, not everything goes according to plan for either side…much to the delight of readers.  While having read Boneshaker isn’t a requirement for reading Clementine the events that take place prior to the novella, namely the theft of the Free Crow from Captain Heaney and its rechristening as Clementine, are detailed towards Boneshaker’s conclusion.  The how and why of it are less important than the fact that it did happen though and new readers (or listeners) will have little trouble jumping aboard with Clementine. Continue reading “Review: Clementine by Cherie Priest”

Review: Bloodshot by Cherie Priest

Bloodshot by Cherie Priest
Bloodshot by Cherie Priest

Bloodshot
Cherie Priest (twitter)
Spectra, 2011

Bloodshot by Cherie Priest marks what I would consider a significant departure from her earlier work particularly in terms on setting. While some of her work in the past has touched upon urban fantasy tropes, in so much that Boneshaker, despite its nineteenth century setting takes place in an urban environment and the fact that Priest tends to write strong female leads (Belle Boyd, Mercy Lynch, and Briar Wilkes in the Clockwork Century alone), Bloodshot represents Priest’s first full-on urban fantasy outing. Yes, Raylene Pendle AKA Cheshire Red, is a vampire and thief extraordinaire but Priest’s deft handling of character especially Cheshire’s distinct voice save this from the heap of other urban fantasies out there.

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Unofficial, Impromptu, Unintentded: Welcome to Cherie Priest Week

So the fact that I finished Bloodshot last week, and listened through the audio version of Clementine means I’ve decided to give over this week to Cherie Priest titles.  I’ve snagged Dreadnought as well and will hopefully be finishing that novel soon (especially since I decided to make this all “official” and what not)!   For those unfamiliar with Cherie Priest feel free to check out some of my earlier reviews of her work:

Fathom (Strong narrative drive combined with a fascinating use of combined and borrowed mythologies makes for an entertaining modern day fantasy.)

Those Who Went Remain There Still (Still my favorite Priest work. Should be available digitally now. A novel about home and the, sometimes literal, monsters that reside there.)

Boneshaker (The first Clockwork Century novel with strong characters in a vivid alt-history Steampunk zombie-filled version of a downtrodden 19th century Seattle.)

One day I’ll get around to reading the Eden Moore novels (Four and Twenty Blackbirds, Wings to the Kingdom, and Not Flesh For Feathers) as well as Dreadful Skin.   Both  Eden Moore (a horror influenced, paranormal tinged southern gothic series) and Dreadful Skin (about a nun tracking down a werewolf during the Civil War)  sound right up my ally.  This time out though I’ll be sticking to her newer work.  For those new to Cherie Priest you can find her on the web either on her own site or via her twitter account.

Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton
Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others
Jo Walton (bio)
Tor, 2011

Among Others by Jo Walton is a fascinating book full of languid prose.  Wistful, thought provoking, and able to touch upon my nostalgia as a fanatical reader of science fiction and fantasy it touched upon the aspects of the fantastic I love so much in a way, that for me at least, rang much truer than to the similarly themed The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  Also, Walton is obviously a great lover of libraries and the books constant exultations on the wonders of the place where I have chosen to stake my professional life always brought a smile to my face.  However, for all I felt that Walton is on the nose with the sense of community and the commonality that reading deeply in any genre brings there were times when Among Others was a bit of a struggle and where the constant name dropping of authors, stories, and novels occasionally grew wearying.

For those not in the know Among Others is the story of Morwenna, a teenage girl in 1960s Wales who has escaped the clutches of her mother who just happens to be a crazy witch.  That escape came at the cost though as Morwenna not only maimed her leg but lost her twin sister Morganna.  Morwenna, being a clever young woman, finds herself in the care of her estranged father (more-or-less driven off by her insane mother) and sent off, at the behest of her three spinster aunts (her father’s sisters), to a posh very British private school.  This is pretty much where the novel begins, in diary format, as Morwenna reveals her day-to-day life.   Intelligent and pragmatic Morwenna has little interest in conforming to the expectations of others; facts which find her alone more often than not.  Throughout the novel Morwenna finds comfort and succor in the thoughts and ideas of science fiction and fantasy (and some mystery, and philosophy, just about any book really) as Morwenna puts it herself “I care about so few people really.  Sometimes it feels as if it’s only books that make life worth living, like on Halloween when I wanted to be alive because I hadn’t finished Babel 17. I’m sure that isn’t normal.”  That conflict, Morwenna’s isolation partly due to her grief from the loss of her sister, aggravated by her inhibited mobility and enhanced by her straightforward and highly opinioned personality (often at odds with “proper” society) forms the crux of the novel’s conflict.

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January Summary

I swear I frickin’ clicked publish!!!!!!  Argh!  This should have been up Wednesday.  Here it is now.

Read and reviewed in January:

The Fall by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan

Dauntless by Jack Campbell

Stonewielder by Ian Cameron Esslemont

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

Cowboy Angels by Paul McAuley

Coming up towards the end of this week I should have a review up for Among Others by Jo Walton and next week I should have something to say on Bloodshot by Cherie Priest (I’m also listening to the audio version of Clementine). I don’t have anything big in the works at the moment and am pretty much grabbing books at whim.  I will tell you that I plan to grab Desert of Souls by Howard Andrew Jones as soon as I am physically (or digitally) able to ( Jones is on the editorial staff of Black Gate which deserves a post all its own) since a swords and sorcery tale of Arabian adventuring sounds just about right.  I’ve paused in my reading through Stealer of Souls (the first Elric anthology) but plan to get back to that soon.  I guess, given my excitement for Desert of Souls and frequent perusal of the massive Black Gate issue 14 I’m sort of on a sword’s and sorcery kick.  I definitely want more and I’ve been hearing the silent call of those Conan and Lankhmar anthologies sitting on my bookshelf.  I mean check out this gorgeous cover:  

That is how you frickin’ do “dude with sword” on a fantasy cover.