Sunday, January 30, 2022

Review of The Fall of Babel by Josiah Bancroft

There was perhaps no book I was looking forward to reading more in 2021 than the final volume in Josiah Bancroft’s Babel series, The Fall of Babel. Certainly there is some sentimentality, some honeymoon vibes in the air, but four years on and this, as of the completion of the third book The Hod King, is my fantasy series of the 21st century. While we live in an entirely different cultural state than when books like Lord of the Rings or Song of Ice and Fire dominated (the market seems too diverse and saturated to lean toward one series, for example), the first three books in the tetralogy left me with such belief. Does the fourth and final volume hammer home the thought?

As with the preceding volumes, The Fall of Babel picks up where the previous book left off. Bancroft having split the narrative in The Hod King, readers bounce between a handful of viewpoints—Adam, Voleta, Marya, Senlin, Byron, and so on, which also means bouncing to different places in the tower as the mysteries of the Bricklayer, the Sphinx, and Luke Marat grow deeper. These threads of story slowly but surely braid together as the book builds toward its epic climax, as well as resolution of Senlin’s quest to reunite with Marya.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

Review of Termination Shock By Neal Stephenson

I have been on Neal Stephenson cool down. After the phenomenal Cryptonomicon and Anathema, followed by the lengthy but meaty Baroque Cycle I was riding high. Then things changed. Reamde was a decent story hidden in a navel (resulting in gazing, natch), and Seveneves, while having some positives, didn’t quite have the soul of those earlier novels. I was put off the Neal Stephenson radar and ignored the novels he released after. For reasons unknown, I decided to check the radar in 2021, and picked up his near-future cli-fi novel, Termination Shock, to see how he’s pinging. Seems loudly and clearly…

Like Snow Crash, The Diamond Age, and several other Stephenson novels, Termination Shock is experienced through the viewpoint of several main characters (and features martial arts). The first is queen of the Netherlands, a down-to-earth woman who prefers to be called Saskia. Arriving unannounced in Houston to tour a Texas billionaire’s geo-engineering facility, she discovers it would have been better to phone ahead. Local wildlife disrupting her airplane’s landing, Saskia finds herself in debt to a local invasive species bounty hunter named Rufus. Rufus’s demons in the closet incidentally expunged by the queen’s arrival, he goes on to find gameful employment in his area of expertise. Press secretary to the queen is Wilhelm. His heritage rooted in Indo-China, it goes on to play a role in how things pan out after the meeting with the billionaire. And last, and most mysterious, is Lax. A Sikh born in Canada, he goes to India to find his roots, and in the process becomes involved in the Himalayan border dispute with China. That proves to be the least of his worries as the geo-engineering project goes on to have global, political repercussions.

Monday, January 24, 2022

Review of Fall of Thanes by Brian Ruckley

There may be nothing more divisive in fiction than a fantasy series’ final volume. The reader, having invested hours and hours and hours of their time and imagination into the story, starts to have relationships with the world and its people, and naturally starts to have hopes and expectations. More importantly (if the series is any good), there is some overarching sense of tension that has been building throughout the series, and only the final volume remains to resolve it—to provide the massive catharsis readers have been led to believe will occur. For better or worse, the author’s ability to deliver on this expectation in the final volume often determines the overall series’ success. Running the risk and pulling through with flying colors is Brian Ruckley’s Fall of Thanes (2009), final volume in the Godless World trilogy.

With the failure of the Blood Haig’s assault on the Black Road as well as Aeglys’ ability to recruit despite his psychosis, the end of Bloodheir did not bode well for the people of the Godless World. Fall of Thanes sees this downward spiral reach depths of madness the reader could not have predicted. All across the land, a shadow clouds people’s minds, and subsequently their judgment. The allegiance between the Inkallim and Black Road falters. Court politics in Vaymouth draw knives internally. And Orisian, with K’rina the empty na’kyrin in tow, continues to try to find his purpose in a land smoldering with war and destruction.

Console Corner: Review of Knights & Bikes

There are many ways a video game can be successful. Good story, good mechanisms, good art, good puzzles—just one of these facets done well can rocket a game to fame. In the case of Foam Sword’s Knights & Bikes (2019), it’s the combination of brilliant art and charming story.

Knights & Bikes is a classic adventure. Things start one rainy afternoon on the island of Penfurzy when a girl named Nessa lands with the ferry, looking for a place to sleep. Demelza and her goose happen to be at the pier, and after a little altercation, Demelza welcomes Nessa into her little mobile home where the two bond over video games and nighttime stories. The next day, Demelza introduces Nessa to the amusement park her father owns, as well as the legend of lost treasure the island is famous for. But in the process of giving Nessa a tour, something happens. A bulldozer digging a hole goes crazy, unleashing all kinds of ghosts and spirits. The girls having to fight for their lives, they realize that the only way to stop all the mad things from happening is to work together to find the treasure and put the evil spirits away.

Saturday, January 22, 2022

Review of Midnight, Water City by Chris McKinney

The hazy, distant, unreliable parts of my memory tell me that as a teen in the 90s I watched an animated series for adults that was part of CBS’s evening schedule. The Simpsons, Family Guy, Rick & Morty, etc., etc., are now part of mainstream culture, but back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth, it was almost an unheard of thing: an adult cartoon in a time slot usually reserved for family sitcoms like Major Dad or other such rubb—ahem, shows. The series sticks in my brain because it was underwater, and the cast of characters, anthropomorphized fish, yes. Thanks to the wonders of the internet I can now check my dear ol’ memory, and indeed there was a show, Fish Police (only three episodes before getting the axe.) Underwater detective work the name of the game, Fish Police came to mind while reading Chris McKinney’s novel Midnight, Water City (2021).

Midnight, Water City starts, as many classic mysteries do, with the discovery of a murdered body, that of super scientist Akira Kimura. The main character, an unnamed detective, is first on the scene, and having known her at various times in the past, makes it his personal mission to find the killer. A famous recluse, Akira discovered the asteroid heading toward Earth and put in place the technology which prevented it from shattering our globe. Humanity nevertheless was forced to move—not underground but below the sea. The detective must traverse Water City searching for clues, interviewing suspects, all to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Dragon's Breath

I do pay some attention to board game awards, but generally prefer to let time be the ultimate recommender. Any game popular after 1 or 2 years can be noted, but any game still popular after 3 or more years is likely worth looking closer at. The exception is children’s games, specifically the Kinderspiel award. Not yet leading my family astray, there is a list of extremely popular, fun, and developmental games we own as recommended by the German board game award. Haba’s Dragon’s Breath (2017) is yet one more good example.

When setting up Dragon’s Breath, players construct a tower of “ice rings” in the middle of the board that they fill with dozens and dozens of small, colorful jewels—plastic, not real <wink>. After, players select their cute dragon cutout and play begins. An estimating game, players take turns guessing which color of jewel will have the highest number fall to the board when the top ring of the tower is removed. The first player’s dragon breathes fire, melts the ring (i.e. the ring is removed), and players collect the jewels of their color which fell. First player rotates to the next player, and play continues. Round and round the game goes until all rings are removed. At the end, jewels are counted, and the player with the most—the player who estimated consistently best, wins.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Review of The Bone Ships by R.J. Barker

My lump of gray matter tells me that I enjoyed R.J. Barker’s debut novel Age of Assassins. It says that plotting was satisfying, that characterization was colorful, and that it was overall an enjoyable read. What it’s not telling me is why I didn’t read the remainder of the books in the trilogy... Nevertheless, I decided to pick up the first novel in Barker’s next trilogy, The Bone Ships (2019). I think I’m starting to understand why…

The Bone Ships is set in a completely different world than the Assassins trilogy. Fully nautical, it features a large archipelago called the Hundred Isles, and the swashbuckling, seafearing people who make the islands and waters home. Hunted for their bones to make ships, sea dragons have long ago gone extinct, leaving the people of the Hundred Isles to fight among themselves, as well as another large archipelago called the Gaunt Islands. Enter Joron Twiner. A timid talent, he’s picked to be first mate by Lucky Meas, shipwife (captain) to a bone ship called The Tide Child. Things are initially tough between the pair. Meas is a rough, demanding shipwife. But when a sea dragon is sighted, all bets are off as the Hundred Isles race to claim the beast.

Console Corner: Review of Cloudpunk

For four decades cyberpunk has been a fascination for a certain niche of society, with little bits and pieces disseminated into the public arena along the way. While there is an argument to be made cyberpunk is a thematic medium where corporate interest clashes with individual freedoms and opportunities, or where technology invades the body putting the idea of “humanity” into question, there remains nothing more recognizable in cyberpunk than its aesthetic. Put up an image of a neon, dystopian metropolis, and voila, cyberpunk. Capitalizing on all of this, but mostly said aesthetic is Ion Land's game Cloudpunk (2020).

Cloudpunk takes place in the neon night of the city of Nivalis. Players occupy the role of Rania, a newbee to the city who has just picked up a job with the illicit package delivery company, Cloudpunk. Over her head in debt, Rania needs to earn a few dollars to pay rent and bills. She is provided a HOVA delivery car and given a man named Control as her contact. Rania spends her time picking up packages and delivering them per Control's instructions. She drives the HOVA to the required destinations, parks, and walks to the drop-off point to complete the job. But Nivalis' shiny neon surface is not as perfect as it would seem. Malevolent androids, drug gangs, powerful AIs, corporate thugs—all have some role to play in not only Rania's deliveries, but also in the future of the city.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

Review of Leviathan Falls by James S.A. Corey

Eight novels and multiple short stories later and we've done it, we've reached the end of the Expanse line. Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham, the duo behind the pen name “James S.A. Corey”, have chosen to take more of an episodic rather than linear approach to their world/story. Nevertheless, the past two novels have clearly been building toward the series' climax, and it's up to Leviathan Falls, ninth and final novel, to erect the capstone. Does it fulfill the hype?

Leviathan Falls picks up where Tiamat's Wrath left off. The crew of the Rocinante have been reunited, at least what is left of it, and added Teresa Duarte as passenger. Winston Duarte, her father, has found himself in an... altered state of existence due to the proto-molecule and goes off the ranch. The Laconian government wants to know his whereabouts, so they dispatch their best shot at tracking him across space, Colonel Tanaka, a hard-nosed soldier who doesn't take any shit. Strange things begin happening near ring gates, and space-time starts to deteriorate, randomly killing swathes of humans. Feeling the pressure, the crew of the Rocinante are forced to fend off Duarte's attempts to contact his daughter, all the while the universe starts to collapse in on itself around them. Leviathan does fall, question is, on who?

Saturday, January 15, 2022

Review of The Rock Eaters: Stories by Brenda Peynado

Changing up my review formula, it's necessary to abandon “clever” intros and jump to perceptions regarding Brenda Peynado's debut collection The Rock Eaters (2021). It's mixed. So many shiny, golden bits and bobs, and yet so many gaping holes—an entity with beautiful pieces worth reading that doesn't amount to a whole (as much as a collection can, that is).

There is something hugely predictable about the m.o. of The Rock Eaters. Look at the tapestry of life and add one magic realist element. Then, select a character or characters and present them as subject to identity politics. Mix, mash, and voila, you have the majority of the collection The Rock Eaters (2021). Peynado, knowingly or unknowingly, pays homage to Gabriel Garcia Marquez in scatter shot, 2021 culture war fashion.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Takenoko

Wind in the bamboo. A gently gurgling spring. Lotus flowers. The zen garden experience… with a hungry panda looking to eat the bamboo… and a haughty gardener looking to repair the damage. Welcome to Takenoko (2011).

Takenoko is a 2-4 player family game that sees players criss-crossing an ever-growing bamboo garden, trying to collect points in a variety of ways. The player with the most points at the end, wins. A mix of luck and determinism, players have different ways of manipulating the game state to bring about three different types of points: 1) patterns of bamboo plots, 2) quantities and types of bamboo, or 3) feeding the panda specific types of bamboo. With players trying to find the most efficient use of their turns to achieve these goals, Takenoko is a relaxed, meditative game.

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Best Reads of 2021

As has become tradition here at Speculiction, I publish two year-end lists: best books I read published in that year (2021's link here), and best books I read regardless of year published. The subject of this post is the latter. Another way of looking at this is: the impression. Which books stand a chance of poking their way through my memory ten years from now? Here are the books which stand a chance:

Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadwi – Warning: do not read this novel taking the title literally. The connection between Saadwi's creation and Mary Shelley's is only conceptual. Set in 21st century Iraq, Frankenstein in Baghdad looks at the presence of the US Army and the variety of local reaction to it. Like Shelley's, Saadwi's is not a political novel. Humanity placed above any present incarnation of global social relations, the monster which takes shape is one wholly fitting to the story's scene.

The Thicket & Paradise Sky by Joe Lansdale – I couldn't just pick one. The Thicket and Paradise Sky are both excellent Westerns. Colorful, colloquial dialogue. Characters that pop off the page. Stories that are anything but predictable. And a 21st century sensibility. If you haven't read Lansdale but are looking for a rich, meaty story to relax into, try one of these. Then be prepared to buy the other. This is Tarantino if Tarantino ever wanted to switch careers to be a novelist.