Friday, March 27, 2020

Review of The Hydrogen Sonata by Iain M. Banks

I assume like most bibliophiles, there are a few authors that touch that nerve of pure enjoyment and satisfaction inside. Their stories fill me with an inner sense of delight at the places, characters, and emotions described, and leave me feeling a little high upon completion—wanting more but wonderfully gratified with what I have. And completion is, unfortunately, a necessity. While we may like to be forever in those places and among those characters, the last page inevitably turns. And for authors who have passed, so too do oeuvres have a last page; at some point in time I will have read everything by an author and face the reality of not being able to embark on any virgin experience.

And thus it is with a few authors I have patiently let their final unread book sit on the shelf for years, waiting for the moment that feels right to enter upon that last bit of glory. With Iain Banks’ The Hydrogen Sonata (2012) a couple of weeks ago the moment felt right. And so, with mixed feelings, I dived in for my last, virgin experience in the Culture. I have emerged upon the last page to confirm delayed gratification is a real thing.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Review of Galileo's Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson

From a few, solid perspectives, Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2009 Galileo’s Dream is the perfect bit of historical fiction. Where some modern writers will relay history in near-fictional form, i.e. adding dialogue, emotions, etc., not all of which are directly taken from recorded history, this approach can often feel disingenuous, like the writer is preying upon our acceptance of their conjecture. Galileo’s Dream thrusts in a different direction: science fiction.

Robinson clearly having pored over biographies of Galileo and the Italian mathematician/scientist/lens maker/astronomer/author/physicist/engineer’s own written works, not to mention histories of Galileo’s era, the Catholic church, and many other contributory sources, a good two-thirds to three quarters is a mimetic imagining of the man’s life—dialogue, emotions, stream of consciousness, etc. But where Robinson departs from the presentation of historical fiction is to introduce the ludicrous. Yes, the ludicrous. Sending Galileo into the future, particularly into a war being fought among Jupiter’s moons by the future of humanity, the 16th century mathematician meets the next millennium.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Review of Time of Contempt by Andrzej Sapkowski

Seeming to set the pace for the remaining three books in the trilogy, Time of Contempt (1995), the second book, picks up exactly where the first Blood of Elves left off. Not only pace, the novel likewise carries forward the character focus, authorial voice, and style of the first novel in consistent fashion.

At the outset, Ciri and Yennefer are on their way to Aretuza where the intention is that Ciri will train to harness her magical source abilities and become an enchantress. Their journey anything but straightforward, while stopping in Gors Velen the duo have several encounters that indicate prying eyes are interested in their progress—or lack thereof. Meanwhile, Geralt wanders the countryside and cities, earning his keep as a monster hunter. After accidentally stumbling upon a behind-the-scenes fight amongst factions of the mages, Geralt finds himself embroiled in the wider interests of Aretuza, like it or not, and simultaneously in the machinations of Nilfgardian interests to take over the lands.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

Console Corner: Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

While single-player games can be a lot of fun, something I can sink hours of time into, I still prefer couch co-op.  Something about working together with someone sitting beside you to solve a puzzle or take on a difficult level of enemies (and the boss!) is more satisfying.  But these days there are relatively few really good couch co-ops.  Most games designed for online multi-player, gone are the hours of fun with: one Nintendo, two controllers, and a game that was almost inevitably designed for at least two players.  The market today is not devoid of such games (Overcooked, Lara Croft and the Temple of Osiris, Never Alone, Wipeout and others keep the type alive), but they are certainly the minority.  Where most Nintendo games were couch co-op, modern games are not.  But a 1.5 player game?  A wonderful adventure stuck between a one- and two-player experience is Starbreeze Studio’s 2013 Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.  How can a game be 1.5 player? Let me explain…

Brothers is the story of two boys, Naiee and Naia.  Their father lying deathly ill in the family’s small, seaside hut, the village doctor sends the pair on a mission to the Tree of Life to collect the waters that will save him.  Both the boys able climbers and eager to help, they embark on the journey of a lifetime to get the valuable resource.  Norse in theme, their journey through the fields, mountains, and beyond is full of surprises, good and otherwise, the pair must pass to get to the Tree of Life and help their father.

Console Corner: Review of: Assassin's Creed: Origins

A new year, and a new Assassin’s Creed game.  Oh wait, 2017 was a little different; Ubisoft had taken a two year break to change the formula with Assassin’s Creed: Origins...  Or did it?

Before I start bemoaning the state of Ubisoft, it’s best to jump into what AC: Origins is.  Origins is the story of Bayek, medjah of the desert town of Siwa.  Egypt ruled over by the despot Ptolemy, Bayek works to protect his town from Ptolemy’s generals whose greedy, ambitious soldiers persistently kill and steal from the people.  But things hit closer to home for Bayek one day when he and his son are abducted by one of the generals and forced into an underground occult ritual, a ritual whose results prove devastating to Bayek, pushing his life in a new direction.  Revenge now his goal in life, Bayek must travel throughout Egypt to take down the generals and ultimately the pharaoh who wronged him.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Review of Spook Country by William Gibson

With scalpel-sharp diction and splash of ideas, what often goes overlooked in William Gibson’s oeuvre is that the author may also be a master of theme. Given so much credit for minimalist writing and sensawunda science fiction, some readers become enamored by this dynamic surface and fail to gain a sense of what lies beneath, namely understated commentary on society, politics, and technology. 2010’s Spook Country, second in the so-called Blue Ant trilogy, is no exception—and may very well be the most overlooked of the overlooked.

The three strands of Spook Country’s story braid consist of Hollis Henry, former rock-n-roller turned journalist; Tito, a Chinese-Cuban living in NYC who, with his family, helps facilitate various crimes involving the latest technology, and Brown, a covert operative ostensibly associated with the US government who has been given the assignment of tailing Tito. The three unaware, a mysterious shipping container in Vancouver of unknown contents forms the point at which all their various and peculiar stories converge.

Thursday, February 27, 2020

Review of Deliverer by C.J. Cherryh

Opening just after the chaotic run of Pretender (relatively speaking, of course, this is the Foreigner universe, after all), the opening of C.J. Cherryh’s Deliverer (2007). Ninth book in the Foreigner universe, sees Bren, Lord Taibini, Isildi, Cajeri, and the entire entourage return to power in the atevi capital. This group responsible for cleaning matters up in the wake of the attempted coup, they look to restore Taibini’s power base. But before the dust can settle, a new crisis emerges that puts the idea the insurrection has been quelled back up for question. Question is, from which side is the attack, and what are the long term effect?

In telling this story, Deliverer marks a major departure from the pattern, if it can be called as such, that has emerged over the first eight Foreigner books. Bren is no longer 100% the viewpoint character; Cajeri, Lord Tabini’s grandson, shares screentime. Deliverer thus offers two perspectives on atevi life. Given the plot directions that are revealed, it’s a fitting departure, which, for as surprising as it is, still feels natural. The second departure is that Cherryh abandons, or at least appears to abandon the trilogy structure. If events in Destroyer seemed to be wrapped up by Pretender, Deliverer only adds to the feeling. It cleans up the relative mess left over from Pretender, but given the majority of plot threads were also tied off by that book, there is little for Deliverer to capitalize on save introducing new elements, which in turn breaks the mold of the first two trilogies which featured strong, overarching plot lines.

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Console Corner: Review of Observer

While Bruce Sterling and William Gibson would likely argue differently, there is no denying the popular appeal of what has come to mean ‘cyberpunk’ in the broader cultural mindset.  Mostly a visual understanding, images of dirty neon streets, people augmented with technology, urban sprawl, and dark static skies beneath which thieves, corporate thugs, and hackers co-exist spring quickly to mind.  Taking this motif and working it nicely into a game is Bloober Team with 2017’s Observer.

The gritty game playing out over the course of one night, players take on the role of Detective Daniel Lazarski, special investigator in the Krakow police department.  Getting ready to start work, he gets a mysterious phone call from his son Adam who is in need of help.  Arriving at his son’s broken down, slum apartment, he discovers a headless body on the floor.  Using his digital and biology implants to search the room, Lazarski discovers that A) the body does not likely belong to his son, and B) one of the neighbors may have further information.  As rain splashes down the gutters of the slum building, Lazarski gets to the bottom of the murder in a fashion only cyberpunk offers.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Review of The Blood of Elves by Andrzej Sapkowski

I am one of the millions of people who bought, played, and absolutely loved CD Projekt Red’s Witcher 3: The Wild Hunt video game. The tip-top best in storytelling action-adventure, the dozens upon dozens upon dozens of hours I spent playing were wholly engrossing for a variety of reasons I won’t go into, here (rather, here). But The Witcher IP remains the creation of writer Andrzej Sapkowski, and reading recently of his disgruntled (jealous?) views towards the game’s development and writing, I decided to have a go at his novels to see how the original compares.

The Blood of Elves (1994) opens on the dramatic scene of a young princess forced to flee her ruined and pillaged kingdom of Cintra. Attacked by the ruthless Nilfgardians from the North, princess Ciri finds her way to Kaer Morhen, home to a small enclave of witchers (magically endowed monster hunters) who teach her what they can of their art. Ciri’s mysterious potential for magic discovered in the process, the group decides the best course of action is to entrust her to a school for enchantresses. But transporting Ciri from Kaer Morhen to the school is not an easy task. The Nilfgardians still looking to kill the princess to rightfully claim Cintra, the witchers entrust Geralt of Rivia to escort Ciri through the hazards of the cities and the wilds—something which proves to be a bigger challenge than just killing monsters.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Review of A Bond Undone by Jin Yong

A Bond Second is the second volume in Jin Yong’s (aka Louis Cha) The Legend of the Condor Heroes series. Thus, don’t bother reading further unless you’ve read the first volume in St. Martin’s Press’s new translation, A Hero Born.

The Legend of the Condor Heroes initially published in instalments, later as a novel, and now in English in volumes, A Bond Undone picks up events directly where A Hero Born left off. Lotus Huang and Guo Jing continue their star-shaped courtship, fighting their way through a variety of kung fu masters and illusions. A good portion of their fight is through Cyclone Mei, the deranged woman looking to get revenge for her lover’s murder. Mei’s kung fu skills so powerful due to her knowledge of the Nine Yin Manual, a host of villainous characters follow in her wake, trying to get their hands on the manual to learn its invaluable contents. Naturally, it’s Guo Jing who unwittingly comes in contact with the sacred manual, and who must fight even harder to stay alive.

If A Hero Born was an action-packed novel, then A Bond Undone is practically non-stop. Scenes are introduced with the barest minimum of details before feet and fists start flying, page after page after page. While often approaching maximum capacity, Jin does a good job delineating the scenes so as not to confuse the reader. It is Hong Kong action films in written form (and likely much of their inspiration), but each scene, for as fast as it moves, remains focused. (It should come as no surprise the book has been adapted multiple times for Chinese television.)

Friday, January 17, 2020

Review of Coyote Horizon and Coyote Destiny by Allen Steele

Rather than review Coyote Horizon (2009) and Coyote Destiny (2010) as the separate novels they were published as, I am choosing to review them as the single story they were conceived as—an aspect highlighted by the fact the first book ends on a major event resolved by the second. (That being said, Steele does state in the intro that Destiny can be read without having read Horizon, and while he is technically correct, it’s not recommended if the reader wants to have any true connection to the characters and situations.)

Allen Steele’s Coyote series is, for the unaware, a mix of planetary adventure and social science fiction that harkens back to yesteryear sf while incorporating elements of the 21st century’s in an underrated mix of well-paced storytelling. About the human colonization of an extra-solar planet, the moon Coyote, Steele has, in five books thus far, taken the reader on a step by step journey, relaying the troubles of taming a wild land, setting up civil infrastructure, and dealing with political strife, all the while trying to balance the needs of our home planet Earth, and Earth stretched to the maximum in terms of resources, environmental pollution, wars, religious ideals, etc. Steele’s style straight-forward and steady, he has built a memorable image of the first days of a new human civilization, a story which culminated in Coyote’s recognition as an official political entity at the end of Coyote Frontier. Plenty more stories to tell, Coyote Horizon and Destiny form a single tale, or interwoven tales depending how you look at it, that defines the next stage in the evolution of the planet.

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Console Corner: Review of Resident Evil 2 (2019 Remake)

Resident Evil on the first Playstation is one of my favorite games of all time.  I still recall the darkened-room play sessions with a friend, trying to solve the puzzles while not getting chewed on by a zombie.  I still recall the wonder of unlocking and exploring a new part of the mansion.  I still recall with some fear the spiders dropping from the ceiling, the eerie footsteps, the shark chase, and those damn dogs jumping through the window.  And I recall the satisfaction of finishing the game without one hint or clue save teamwork.  Video games exiting my life after that year (for whatever reason), I never played Resident Evil 2.  Thus in my return to video gaming it was something of a surprise to learn that Jill’s tale in Raccoon City had spawned not only a sequel, but a whole series.  And not only a series, but a remastered version of my beloved original.  Apparently a popular item, it motivated Sony to commission the remaster of the second Resident Evil title.  Some people cite it as the best of all the games in the series, so let’s see how it stands up.

Resident Evil 2 opens on a scene with a truck driver mawing on a hamburger, driving down a road in the pouring rain.  His face oily, the ketchup squirting, droplets of water visible on the windshield, it’s quickly apparent this is not a PS1 game, graphically.  Accidentally running over a woman, the driver gets out to check on her, and—you guessed it—gets mawed on by a zombie.  Enter Leon and Claire, a policeman and bystander, respectively, who have stopped at a nearby gas station, only to discover the same as the truck driver: the dead in fact live.  Ramping up events of the original Resident Evil, the virus has spread to Raccoon City, and Leon and Claire are in a fight for their lives to escape.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Console Corner: Review of Star Wars: Jedi Fallen Order

Cracking open Jedi Fallen Order, Respawn’s 2019 action-adventure title, is a highly enjoyable experience for any Star Wars fan looking for a single-player campaign that holds true to the motif of the original movies. The player quickly recognizes the game’s DNA: the blood of grandpa Dark Souls and grandma Tomb Raider flow in its veins, but it remains unequivocally a Star Wars experience with quality story that betters both The Force Awakens or The Last Jedi.

In Star Wars lore, Fallen Order occurs just after Revenge of the Sith, in particular Order 66 that wiped out all of the Jedi—well, all except the main character of Fallen Order. Cal Kestis is a young Jedi in hiding. His master killed as a result of Order 66, at the beginning of the game Cal finds himself in hiding on an Imperial world, earning money scrapping junk spaceships. But when an Imperial patrol accidentally uncovers his identity, the chase is on. Cal’s training still not fully complete, he falls in with a rogue cargo ship, and together with the crew try to achieve the next phase of his development, all while trying to stay one step ahead of the Empire—alive.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

2019's Best Reads

2019’s Best Reads

The following is a list of the books that were more personally enjoyable to me in 2019, regardless of year published. (For the best of what was published in 2019, see here.)

With small children, a major project at work, several extended business trips, and a kitchen renovation, my reading slipped this year compared to previous years, but I was still able to read a fair number of books. I did read many genre-centric books, but generally I feel myself slipping away from them. The inundated state of the market, the inundated state of my mind (hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of books the past decade), the underlying current of: “Maybe I’m approaching the end of that cycle in my life?”, and the desire to read more non-fiction seem the biggest influencers.

In no particular order, these are the books that poked their proverbial heads above the water in my (proverbial) mind the past year, starting with Fiction, and ending with Non-fiction: