Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Review of Flight & Anchor by Nicole Kornher-Stace

Combining gundam-style mechs and video games in a near-future dystopia, Nicole Kornher-Stace's first novel in the Firebreak setting was a spot of cartoon action with two fun main characters. Looking to build off the success, Kornher-Stace is back in 2023 with another novel in the setting, Flight & Anchor (Tachyon).

A new arrow for a new target, Flight & Anchor shares only the setting of Firebreak. The new target of an entirely different color and in an entirely different direction, the novel puts readers in the shoes of two child soldiers, 06 and 22, after they escape from the facility where they were forced to train as super-soldiers. Alone in a big urban world, the pair struggle to survive on the cold streets while the Director of the facility attempts to track them down and bring them back—dead or alive to be determined.

Sunday, May 28, 2023

Review of Horus Rising by Dan Abnett

Confession time: I am a skeptic of IP-based fiction. As a teenager, I read some very poor Star Wars universe books. I tried a few Dragonlance books, as well as some of the non-Frank Herbert Dune books. I have avoided anything video game related. Overall, I understand there may well be a few well written pieces hidden away, but most that franchise fiction I tried was poor quality: cheap plotting, mediocre to bad technique, and low expectations of reader intelligence. Staring at the MASSIVE Warhammer pantheon of books, I was understandably reluctant. But, always trying to challenge myself, I dipped a toe in the water: Dan Abnett's Horus Rising (2006). The water was warm and pleasurable.

In short, Horus Rising was a pleasant surprise. I went in expecting stinky cheese and instead got a solid, three course meal I can recommend beyond for people likewise skeptical of the IP. While superficially Horus Rising is literally of the “squids in space” variety, it is absolutely not that type of fiction a level deeper, specifically in its development theme, its representation of power/authoritarianism, its questions about religion/the supernatural, its approach to colonialism, and its prose. But I get ahead of myself. What's the story about?

Tuesday, May 23, 2023

Review of Ashes of Man by Christopher Ruocchio

I will not write a proper intro to this review. Readers of Christopher Ruocchio's Sun Eater series who have read the first four books are just looking for the basic summary to have an idea what they are getting into before inevitably purchasing the book. Let's do that.

Ashes of Man (2022) picks up precisely where Kingdoms of Death left off—not a surprise considering Ruocchio wrote them in one go. Marlowe has been rescued after his seven-year imprisonment in the hands of the Cielcin and is back in humanity's hands. His status as returning hero is not guaranteed, however. There are many people in the Empire skeptical of the half-mortal's intentions. Marlowe is put through the ringer of humanity's power circles, before learning his fate. And that, as they say, is just the beginning.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Battletech TCG

When the history of tabletop games is written, Richard Garfield is undoubtedly a name that will feature prominently. He is the designer of not one but several games that not only have stood the test of time but stand tall—which is saying a lot considering the flood of titles in the golden age of culture today. RoboRally, King of Tokyo, Android: Netrunner, Magic: The Gathering—these are games released decades ago that are still well known and played today. And there are games he designed which have fallen through the cracks. In the case of 1996's Battletech TCG, it is undeservingly so.

A card game based on the IP, Battletech TCG recreates the board game in streamlined fashion, all while displaying the theme which makes the concept unique: giant robot mechwarriors blasting it out. Technically playable by three, four, or more players, it's best at two, with games taking 30-45 minutes. Players build 60-card decks then square off. On their turn, a player deploys assets in order to construct mechwarriors, mechwarriors who are then deployed to attack their opponent's mechs and HQ, or to defend. The goal of the game is reduce the opponent's HQ (deck of cards) to zero. First player to do so, wins.

Saturday, May 20, 2023

Review of Jade City by Fonda Lee

Fantasy (or perhaps just me?) is always looking for the next fresh thing—story which combines the familiar and the innovative in engaging fashion. Tell us the story we've heard a thousands times but do it in a way that we don't realize it. Perhaps Fonda Lee's 2017 Jade City has done it?

Jade City is, at its heart, a conception of an urban world where Asian mafiosos rule and jade is their Dune-esque drug of power—both in terms of money and granting super powers. Like The Godfather, it makes organized crime cool but does so from a distinctly Oriental perspective—more yakuza than any Italian mafia one can name. It's Hong Kong and Tokyo, not Sicily or NYC.

Jade City is not centered on one gang. Lee spreads the love across several rivals, all vying for power. And the characters Lee chooses from each to represent are archetypal in nature. The hot-blooded thug who thinks he's the best. The woman with martial prowess who wants to keep out of family business but gets drawn in. The young man forced to choose sides. The ruthless gang leader. The good guy among the bad guys. And on and on. Most of the time, the characters feel more like action figures bouncing around on the screen than human.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Article: Tailspin: The Decline of Hulu's The Handmaid's Tale Series

If there is a pantheon of dystopian novels, then Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-four, Zamyatin's We, and Huxley's Brave New World are chiseled there. As is Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale—the fourth face on the Mt. Rushmore of doomed futures. The book features a Christian version of ISIS taking over a massive chunk of the United States in the chaos of an infertility crisis, a takeover that subjugates women into servant roles and forced reproduction. Frighteningly realistic seeing the far right emerge from the West's woodwork the past decade, it makes for engaging story and thought-provoking reading material.

1990 saw the release of a feature film based on The Handmaid's Tale. A solid production, it generally does the book justice. But like a lot of movies which adapt books to the screen, it is clear that two hours was not enough to contain June Osborne's powerful tale. Fast forward the clock to our Netflix world and the possibility of creating a ten-episode series to tell the story became real, something Hulu did starting in 2017. Season 1 a faithful and excellent adaptation, it captures Atwood's novel in ten episodes almost as one imagines it while reading. A popular success as well, Hulu quickly signed on for more seasons.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Review of Tyll: A Novel by Daniel Kehlmann

Who doesn't like the idea of a jester? Perhaps getting a bad rap for the modern conception of a playing card which can mess up the most well made game plans, the actual historicity of the figure is something more nuanced and diverse, from king's diversion to soothsayer. Most often a side character, Daniel Kehlmann, in his 2017 Tyll: A Novel, puts the jokester front and center in 16th century Germany. The playing card comes to life.

Skeptic and cynic that I am, what follows should have a caveat: I am a sucker for books which cleverly poke at the absurdities of the human condition. Yes, Robert Sheckley is amazing, and while Kehlmann's style is one altogether different than Sheckley's, the two both keep a distance from their characters such that their true humanity can be boiled down to its bones, many of which are irrational. Here are a few of those of Tyll:

Friday, May 5, 2023

Non-Fiction: Review of The White Mosque by Sofia Samatar

If there is any part of the globe which has a giant question mark stamped on it in most people's minds, it's the Stans—Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, etc. Of course for people living in Central Asia there is no mystery. But it is a giant swathe of land for which most Westerners have little if any knowledge. Looking to alleviate this situation while delving into personal mysteries is Sofia Samatar's 2022 travelogue-cum-historical examination, The White Mosque: A Memoir.

To my admittedly limited knowledge, Sofia Samatar is predominantly known for her fiction. (Check out A Stranger in Olondria if you are interested in a well-written, non-generic fantasy novel that cares about culture and language.) At least that is how I know her—I even jumped on The White Mosque initially thinking it was fiction. To be clear it's not, but the style of writing leans in that direction.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Ashes Reborn (aka Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn)

Note: This is purely a review of Ashes Reborn. I have not played the original Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. and therefore cannot comment on the differences between the two, except to say that many people call Ashes Reborn as Ashes1.5. The rules are apparently the same, but card effects have been better balanced.

It's been said before, and it's worth repeating to kick off this review: Magic: The Gathering is one of the largest inflection points in the tabletop games industry. Thirty years and counting, fresh content is still being released. The community and tournament system still exist. And with unique cards and rarity, the after market is literally a million-dollar industry. But it's not a perfect game. Obscure combos can destroy an opponent before they have effectively had a chance to play. The randomness of card shuffle is an extremely strong factor in outcomes. And mana screw is a real thing. As a result, many games have since looked to put their own spin on dueling wizards but optimize the model to better balance gameplay. One game which has done this extremely well yet in unique fashion is Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn, now being printed as Ashes: Reborn (2021).

While technically playable 3-4 players, Ashes is essentially a two-player, PvP game that sees players talking on the roles of powerful phoenixborn (magic wielders), trying to reduce their opponent's life total to zero. Players choose a phoenixborn (of which there are six to choose from in the core box), build a deck of cards around it (spells, events, upgrades, etc.), and try to defeat their opponent by playing said cards over a series of phased rounds. At this high-level, the experience is certainly Magic-esque. A level deeper, however, shows what makes Ashes special.

Monday, May 1, 2023

Review of Birds of Paradise by Oliver Langmead

In case you weren't paying attention. In case the same-ness of the fantasy market has drowned your hopes of innovative, fresh fiction. In case you've given up and fallen into the generic arms of fantasy published today. Fear not. Look to Oliver Langmead. His debut Dark Star, while cyberpunk-y in nature, was written in epic verse. His follow up was the dreamscape Metronome, a book that doesn't have a comfortable genre niche. His fourth, Glitterati, is the most unique dystopia you will ever read. But what about his third, Birds of Paradise (2021)? Let's get into it.

Birds of Paradise is the story of Adam in the modern world. Adam? Don't worry, you know him. It's that guy from Christianity's origin story. You know, Garden of Eden, forbidden fruit, serpent, fig leaf. Now fully clothed, he has drifted immortal through human history, constantly reinventing himself into our modern world. Not forgetting his friends of old, however, they stick together to protect the wonders of nature. A rose forever in bloom here, a fruit tree that perpetually produces fruit there—these are just a few of the things that Adam and his avian coterie protect. And who are they protecting them from? The ravages of human advance and growth.