Wednesday, December 2, 2009

State of the Blog

It seems that it's well past time for some Spring cleaning...and by past time I mean it's winter already. Anyways, updating links and going to see if I can find a counter that works. Have patience and don't worry about the dust.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mad Kestrel - Misty Massey

A swashbuckling tale about pirates that has surprisingly little actual piracy. Kestrel is a natural magic user in a world where magic is highly regulated, with "promises" or those with talent taken away by a shadowy society of mages. She runs away and finds that saltwater runs in her veins, taking up as the quartermaster to a pirate ship.

This book just didn't quite hit the mark with me. Perhaps it was the pacing, it started out relatively slow, but had a steady buildup, and as it approached the end I kept on thinking to myself "There has to be a sequel, it can't tie up everything in these few pages left!" The climax and ending was like a cannon shot, sharp and short. Even though the story had been building up to that moment, things came together in a single burst of action and it was over with. Or perhaps it was the lack of actual piratical activities, the only ship that they take is essentially their own ship in harbor, all others are merely past references, in fact, I don't believe that there was actually a cannon shot in anger, the closest we get is a warning shot across the bow.

The characters are also a mixed bag. The most loveable ones, such as Kestrel's friends from the bawdy house and of course Binns, tend to be out of the picture much of the time. They also tend to be solid archetypes, but with a few secrets to give them a bit of depth. Some of the crew is given life by their actions and descriptions, and that's something I would have liked to see more of, but for the most part they were rather forgettable. McAvery, the dashing rogue, is, well, there isn't much to him that doesn't appear on the label. Or at least if there is, he doesn't show it, he's there as a foil and romantic interest. I couldn't help but imagine him always having a self satisfied smirk while he plotted out how to get into Kestrel's pants. Add in the fact that he knows and exploits Kestrel's attraction to him moves his actions from romantic over to creepy in my opinion. Kestrel herself however, I couldn't help but like, she's a flawed heroine, and that shows through her internal biases and impulsive nature. And even though there were times when I wanted to slap her for being an idiot, I couldn't help but admire her guts and determination, as well as her quick thinking.

Mad Kestrel by Misty Massey was enjoyable, but plagued by inconsistent pacing and characters. It was also not quite what I expected, being more of a character based book, with piracy being almost incidental to the plot. There was so much potential there for a really wonderful book, but most of it is just not utilized. All in all, Mad Kestrel won't blow you away or give you a "wow" moment at the end, but if you've got a nice rainy afternoon then by all means go ahead and give it a go.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Burn Me Deadly - Alex Bledsoe

There's always the question of whether the sequel will live up to the original, especially when the first is as powerful as the Sword-Edged Blonde was, but I have to say that I was not disappointed at all with Burn Me Deadly. Fair warning, there are going to be some spoilers in this review.

Burn Me Deadly does have a change of flavor from the original, in that it is what I'd call a setting book. In the Sword-Edged Blonde, Eddie traveled far and wide to uncover mysteries, now we explore his home base and the area surrounding Neceda. Something that Bledsoe does quite well is interweave the stories of the people that in other books might fade into the background, or be conveniently pushed offstage when the plot doesn't need them anymore. Such as the wandering scribe who is most definitely on his own mission, the anti-government survivalist family, or even the guardsman that threatens to move in with Eddie and Liz if he gets fired. Little details like that turn this into a living world, admittedly one that's situated in the backwoods and lonely hills. Ones inhabited by a dragon cult that is at once exotic and rural, more evocative of serpent handlers in a backwoods church than of the bloodthirsty fanatics usually encountered in fantasy worlds.

Now there were a few moments that brought me out of the fantasy. One of them being a trick sword in a scene that reminded me of the movie Blade. Now it was nice to learn a bit more about the swords now that we know that them having make and brand names isn't just a one off joke, but the "special grip so it doesn't slice your hand open" gimmick was a bit much. This was a relatively minor problem though as anachronistic elements were tossed in every now and again, mostly for comedic effect, so it wasn't glaring.

The real gem of this story was in learning about the characters and relationships between them. Eddie and Liz's relationship have a very real and mature feeling to it, of people who genuinely care about each other, and aren't the young starcrossed lovers you usually see in fantasy.

While the body count has gone down, it still retains that deadly edge which keeps you on your seat. Good people(and horses) die, and not all of them die in epic battle, there isn't that aura of invincibility that usually surrounds well liked characters, which I think is necessary if a rather gritty fantasy like this. Anyways, Burn Me Deadly by Alex Bledsoe proved to be another great read, it has a stronger emphasis on setting than its predecessor, but proves to be every bit as entertaining.
(Note: This review was on the ARC copy, as such there may have been changes between it and the print version)

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Year Under Ground

I accepted the assignment from the Low King with a heavy beard and heavier heart. However, the destiny of the mountains calls to me, and there is only one answer when the mountain calls. Well, two actually, but being squashed was not very attractive. So we set out into the wilds, my mission, to establish a viable outpost for the dwarven empire of Lor Tangath in preparation for the arrival of settlers the following year.

Our disreputable party numbered seven, with the unspoken rule that no dwarf talk of his or her past. Whether they were criminals, colonists, or adventurers, everyone was to be expected to pull their weigh. Two miners, two farmers, a woodcutter, a mason, and one who seemed to have no applicable skills whatsoever. I would however, learn soon the necessities of survival. In addition, we were given breeding pairs of dogs, and cats, one of which soon adopted me as a sucker during mealtimes, a horse, and a camel. From what musty stockpile in the mountainhome came the camel I do not know, perhaps it was all a cruel joke.

Fortunately I was given free access to the kingdom's maprooms, and was able to carefully select an appropriate site. A calm temperate area which recommended itself by the presence of a river valley, allowing easy access to fresh water. As well as the ores promised to be plentiful within the nearby mountains. Something all dwarvenkind could appreciate.

We decided to name our new outpost Taranathel, in honor of our home kingdom. The rainy season was just beginning as we started, and as such my first priority was to get the alcohol and foodstuffs under cover before they went rancid. Hot dwarven ale is no friend of ours, any brewer could tell you that it's best kept in a dark cave, preferably served fresh from a cooling mountain spring. I order mining excavations to begin.

Progress has exceeded expectations! We now have storage areas for our booze. A wood workshop and a stone workshop both followed quickly, as I hoped to put together beds and tables, for a sleep deprived and hungry dwarf is not something any of us wish to encounter.

Excavations continue quickly. At this rate, we could have the entire mountain hollowed out by the time our first settlers arrive. And perhaps a posting back to civilization would be in order. As the refuse began to pile up inside, I quickly ordered a large field cleared outside. The sun and rain will do its work on any garbage we accumulate. A large farming area was set up along the main tunnel, I feel it should suffice even when our outpost grows to accommodate hundreds, much less our seven. We did have a setback along the north tunnel, in an effort to decrease our need to get water from outside I directed our tunnelers to excavate what I thought to be an underground pool...which unfortunately flooded the entire corridor. Fortunately no lives were lost. I am puzzled however as to why we have not discovered any ore, semi-precious stones yes, but as of yet no ore of any kind.

I have just been informed that the reason we have not yet found ore is that we did not dig into the side of a mountain as I had thought. Instead we are well ensconced within a dirt hill, thus the reason that excavations proceeded so quickly. This may be a slight setback. Nevertheless, I order our miners to continue excavating exploratory tunnels, down into the depths of the earth itself. Worries that we are running low on foodstuffs prompts the creation of a butcher...I wonder how camel tastes.

I am surrounded by nincompoops! Apparently I must tell each one what jobs they are allowed to do. The camel however, tasted delicious, as did the horse. And after sending a few dwarves to hunt, there is a near collapse of the groundhog population as dwarves, elated to be hitting things, wrestle them to the ground and rip off their furry little heads. Piles of tiny skulls litter the refuse heap. At times I fear for my sanity. I have ordered separate bedrooms for everyone.

Seven levels down and still no ore?!? Failure after failure. Not only is there no ore, but the trading caravan cannot find its way here, why I do not really know, for their messenger arrived easily. Even so, I constructed a trade depot just in case they found a native guide, as well as began construction of workshops to produce trade goods. None of my current dwarves have the skills to operate many of these workshops, but perhaps the migrants will be able to use them. Expansion of the storage rooms has been completed, and my cat had kittens...which promptly adopted me as well. Unfortunately, they don't seem to realize that the rats are all in the storeroom, not in the dining area. Speaking of dining, I wonder why our farm is not producing anything.

Ahhh, of course. The farmer had readied everything, but was waiting for me to tell him what to plant...the only thing we have seeds for dullard! Mushrooms, mushrooms, and more mushrooms! One of our dwarves has taken ill, felled by a particularly vicious groundhog. The others are requesting a bucket to take water to her. It seems our carpentry division has been slacking off(oops!). Also I have heard word that Kobold and monkey thieves have absconded with some of our trade goods. Given that I don't believe monkeys to be native to this ecology, I can only surmise that they've been trained and set upon us by the Kobolds. Security measures are taken...I install a door.

Huzzah! The migrants have arrived, farmers, peasants, woodworkers, and masons. Our population explodes to 15. As well as a wondering mage that offers to take a magical portrait of the main level of our outpost. But, they also bring news that I have been recalled. While I am hopeful it is for a parade and honorable pension, unfortunately it seems more likely that my many mishaps have caused them to lose faith in me somehow. Was it building into a hill instead of a mountain? Or flooding our tunnels with my search for fresh water? The shoddy showing in the groundhog war that left one of our own on death's door? The mishaps in planting that have led to a severe food shortage over the winter months? Only time will tell.

I leave you with a picture of Taranathel as I left it. Empty workshops and empty throne rooms. Although the pub, as always shows signs of life, as do the vermin infested larders. Perhaps another ruler could bring life to this grand experiment.

Note: While I had played Dwarf Fortress before, this is the first time I'd played since the update which made the game play in 3 axis. I stumbled across the story of Boatmurdered and couldn't help but dive back in. Quite a bit has changed since I first played, as is evident, it used to be that you just burrowed into a cliff face and encountered ores the further in you went, eventually reaching an underground river which...well, not that this excuses my failures. Anyways, check out Boatmurdered for an altogether more hilarious example of what could happen.

Also, I used the Mike Mayday Graphics Edition if anyone was wondering.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Sword-Edged Blonde - Alex Bledsoe

Just finished reading and all I have to say is wow, a very impressive entry from a newcomer. First let me give you the brief, relatively spoiler free background.

Eddie LaCrosse is a sword jockey(read PI) living over a tavern that's seen better days. A routine assignment to find a wayward princess turns his life upside down as he's pulled into a murder mystery that spans across decades. Eddie must now try to save the wife of his best friend while confronting his own past, which may just be more horrifying than the apparent grisly murder.

Now that's just scraping the surface, to tell more would definitely edge into spoiler territory, but how its written is something to behold. The book reminds reminds me of Glen Cook, if he had written his Garrett PI books in the same manner as The Black Company. Grim and bloody detective noir mixed in with a liberal dose of fantasy and magic. People die bloody and sometimes senselessly, and trusting in the kindness of strangers is a good way to end up with a dagger in your guts. The good guys have feet of clay and the bad are downright nasty, and sometimes there's a reason.

Eddie is very much in the mold of a grim fantasy hero, old and scarred enough to have gained a healthy dose of cynicism, but still noble where it counts. And we come to see his inner journey, reliving his history and coming to terms with what he's done, is just as important as the present predicament. The rest of the cast comes through in spades, full of interesting individuals whose personalities shine through whether they are a recurring character or ones that only pass through, leaving their indelible scars upon the story. The characters were definitely the high mark of this novel, and I hungered for more.

As for the setting, it takes a bit of a backseat to the journey. It's also filled with some rather anachronistic elements, which I found humorous but other people might find rather jarring for their fantasy. These included things such as; nametags for tavern girls; customs at the border crossings; and swords being issued model names. Again, funny, but a little bit jarring if you're expecting straight up fantasy. But if you're used to the cross genre detective fantasy present in, say, the Garrett or Thraxas series, then this is definitely on that vein.

In all, this is an excellent example of its type, and one that I thoroughly enjoyed, pulling me in so fully that I only lifted my head up hours and hundreds of pages later. There are a few points where willful suspension of disbelief is necessary, but other than that I found no real problems with it, and hopefully we'll soon see more of the Eddie LaCross series.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Top 10 Childhood Cartoons That Ended too Soon

Now, although I think we've emerged from the cartoon wasteland of the early 2000's with some exciting programming such as the new Clone Wars show or Wolverine and the X-men, I for one still pine for those Saturday morning glory days. So, although this will seriously date me, here is my list of the top childhood cartoons that ended too soon or that I wish we had back.

Also, note that if the show has a current lineage, then I'm not going to include it here(e.g. Batman TAS/Batman Beyond has lineage through Batman: Brave and the Bold. Or GI Joe through all those spinoffs I can't recall), those will get their due in another post.

10. Conan The Adventurer
Now if you can get over the gimmicks of loincloth clad barbarians, this was a pretty solid early morning show. Wake up, have a little swashbuckling barbarian heroics, and you were ready for the day. Okay, so there were some weak points, like the comic relief bird that loved pomegranates, but overall it was a solid show with some classic archetypes.

9. Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles
Better than the movie. Need I say more? Okay, okay, I guess I should. The 3d animation was pretty good(no uncanny valley) and the storylines made sense. More loyal to the book by Heinlein, they actually had powered armor(as opposed to the movie's woefully inadequate football padding) and Skinnies in this show, as well, you know, actually making the occasional atmospheric drop. Rico may still have been an idiot, but the supporting cast made up for it. Not to mention blowing up bugs, yup, lots of bugs.

8. Darkwing Duck
Let's get dangerous! He is the Terror that Flaps in the Night, the blankity in your blank, the etc. etc. The random catchphrase is definitely what comes to my mind first thing I think of this show. Witty enough to appreciate today, zany enough to love as a child. Logic? Pffft! Just a great cartoon that didn't take itself too seriously.

7. Pirates of Dark Water
I don't think there's any child born in the 80's that doesn't remember this show. Swashbuckling action, check, exotic locales, check, consistent storyline and engaging characters, check. What isn't there to love about this show? Besides the fact that it was canceled before we got any closure, damnit! Now the animation seems a bit dated, but the characters and plot are still there, and here we sit, just waiting for that last episode to come on. Also...MONKEY BIRD!

6. Pinky And the Brain
Narf! I think the theme song is permenantly etched upon my neurons. I spent way too much time watching and laughing over this show. Not to mention sketching my world domination plans during the commercial breaks....errr, have I said too much? Still, who can resist the two lab mice that tried to take over the world every night, if nothing else you have to appreciate the Brain's sheer tenacity. Not to mention how Pinky's mind worked to come up with the non sequitors that he did.

All right, now for the top 5!
5. The Tick

SPOON! Mighty, blue spandex clad justice. The Tick was probably the earliest heroic parody that we encountered as children, and we ate it up. The sheer insanity of it all still resonates today. And who could forget the supporting cast; Die Fledermaus, American Maid, the Sewer Urchin. Heros all....for better or for worse. Mostly for worse. This series was filled to the brim with off kilter jokes that still resonate, not to mention the over the top villains and comic parodies. Never taking itself too seriously, the Tick well deserves this number 5 spot on our countdown.

4. Exosquad

Now not all of you may remember this one, but I was enthralled when it came on. A cartoon with a body count?!? With our heroes putting DOWN a slave revolt you say?!? What madness is this? Now I can't help but feel the premise of putting down a revolution made by second hand citizens that humans created to do their dirty work seemed a bit morally dubious, but as a child, it didn't matter. Epic space battles that were more akin to an anime counterpart than an American cartoon, cities of Earth in ruins, concentration camps....okay, so yes this show was a little bit more adult than I think the target audience was, but it was still all sorts of awesome. And the fact that people actually DIED instead of just jumping out at the last second with a parachute, was just one of the reasons that this has retained a top spot in my list. Not to mention the subtle and not so subtle messages relayed through the human/Neo-Sapien relationships, the portrayal of loss and betrayal, and of course, the stunning humanity of some of the Neo-Sapiens. An epic space opera on Saturday morning tv, and if you didn't care for that, then you could just watch the Exo-suited pilots shoot up mooks. Of course, it did suffer from one flaw, like Pirates of Dark Water, it was never finished. So here we are, waiting in vain for final episodes to tie up loose plot threads.

3. Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego

Children don't need Dora, or a blue dog, or purple dinosaur to teach them during their off hours, no, they need an unrepentant master criminal bent on stealing the world's priceless treasures(and succeeding). Admittedly the talking head thing was annoying, but Rito Moreno as the sultry voice of Carmen, wowsa! The animation was first rate, the educational aspects were painless, and the characters were wonderful. Okay, so maybe I'm being a bit biased due to my geeky childhood crush on Carmen, but I don't think anyone can forget the intro music. Altogether, just an excellent show and one that should be considered as the pinnacle for educational animation.

2. Reboot

This is probably going to be a bit controversial, putting Reboot so high on the list, if only because it was such an uneven experience. If you only watched the first season, it was simply a mildly entertaining exercise in 3d animation with a few interesting gimmicks marred by cliche episodes and the monster a day plot. If you stuck with it, then things began to tie together. The later episodes ran into a very nice overarching plot, where the cute kid demographic was put on the backburner to making a good show. Tie that in with characters that you couldn't help but enjoy, and constantly poking fun at modern games and media, and there you have a winning combination that most can recall to this day.

1. Gargoyles

This is what quality animation should be. Not only that, but take a look at the voice cast, Star Trek: TNG actors ahoy! Anyways, this is one show that everyone who remembers it, seems to remember it fondly. Wonderful characters, actual overarching plotlines, excellent villains, compelling setting. Aside from one or two rare episodes, it wasn't preachy, was probably a perfect level of darkness for our childhood minds, and didn't speak down to anyone. To this day there are still plenty of fans that are hoping for its return. Anyways, with excellent animation, great characters, and plenty of devious plots, Gargoyles takes the top spot on my list of cartoons from my childhood that ended all too soon.

Honorable Mention:
Two words: Air Pirates. Okay, okay, it was more than that, with wacky stories and spot on parodies, this alternate world of biplanes sucked us in again and again. On the other hand, it's something that hasn't really aged with us, good visuals, but the jokes and sappy story arcs belong strictly in our childhood. It becomes painful to watch Kid skysurf, and the less said about the theme song the better. Catchy yes, in the smallpox kind of way, it weasels its way into your mind and doesn't let go. The final verdict is that although the dashing Air Pirate Don Karnage will remain in our minds with his indistinct species and undeterminable accent, Baloo and the Kid ring flat these days.

Dino Riders
Wow, it's as if the creators said to themselves "Dinosaurs are awesome, big guns are awesome, if we put them together it'll be MOAR AWESOME!" And awesome it was to our childhood minds. From the intro in the museum where dinosaurs came to life and began fighting each other, I for one, was hooked. Of course, unfortunately it doesn't stand the test of time well. Shoddy animation values(it was a cartoon to sell toys) and barely passable storylines designed to showcase the dinosaur of the week(it was a cartoon to sell toys) pull this one down off the top 10. Even compared to the other cartoons designed to sell toys(GI Joe and Transformers, I'm looking at you), this one is here mostly for reasons of nostalgia....well, that and Dinosaurs....with GUNS!

Aeon Flux
Stunning, and trippy. That's how I can best describe it. Cutting edge for its time, unfortunately its time being that of the extreme and horrible character design(unless jerky and emaciated are your thing of course). Honorable mention because we remember it fondly, but the idea of sitting through and watching it today is easily passed upon, if only to avoid the anorexic bikini stylings of "the future!"

Anyways, that's all I have for now. Feel free to comment on the choices, and especially if you have a favorite cartoon from your childhood that you just can't get out of your mind. I'd love to hear it, if only to jog this horrible memory.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Legion - William Altimari

Flashing swords, mysterious barbarian women, and the glory that was Rome. All the ingredients for a fine historical novel. Well, first off, why, oh why did they decide to put the ENTIRE PLOT on the backcover blurb, I mean, Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire is common knowledge, but did they need to reveal all the details? In fact, the biggest twist reveals are right there, there is not even a semblance of surprise to be had. Now, that's not a book killer by itself, so lets get to the meat of the book. Hopefully with a minimum of spoilers.

The author introduces us to the Roman world through the Greek-Diocles-a convenient mouthpiece that tosses soft ball questions to the soldiers and officers of the Legion. And inevitably we end up with page after page of various characters extoling the virtues of Rome. Now, I'm not going to deny that Rome was the top dog civilization with advanced weapons and tactics, but do we really need to hear about it every third page? Especially once Superma-I mean Centurion Rufio turns up, a better woodsman than the natives, can take on trained killers without a scratch, an marksman without equal, leaps tall Gauls in a single bound! Rome personified, standing between the unwashed(literally) Germans and the fabled cities of Rome! With a surprisingly modern morality, about two millenia before its time, freeing slaves, and spending most of his life redeeming himself for what was more or less an accidental killing during battle. Can we lay it on any thicker here people?

On the other hand, it wasn't all bad. If you can swallow all of that without gagging too badly, the book is actually a pretty easy read. Or at least I was hooked in by the rattle of arms and armor, the dust kicked up by sandaled feet, and flashing swords of some red blooded battle sequences. Now, if Altimari had focused on that aspect, as opposed to Rome/Rufio being the next best thing to the savior of civilization, then things might not have been so bad. The "mysterious barbarian woman" who is really no mystery at all due to the back blurb also provides some good moments, along with the overly sappy ones that follow. Random love story in a time of war, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. It was nice to have the interlude, but it could have been easily toned down, going from sappy romantic interlude to battle, well...jarring to say the least.

There are better books out there about the same subject matter. This one isn't horrendously bad, but it can easily be skipped. The area where it does the best in my opinion is the description of Legion life, and a quick trip to wikipedia will save you the purchase price. Nice for some escapist afternoon, but no need to search this one out.