Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Review of The Shadow Casket by Chris Wooding

Chris Wooding's The Ember Blade (2018), while vanilla in style and not the most mature epic fantasy ever written, had just enough something to push it over the line to earn interest in a sequel, a sequel which turned out to be 2023's The Shadow Casket. Does it too have enough something to get over the next line?

The Shadow Casket picks up three years after the events of The Ember Blade. Aren and his group of friends remain in hiding, the numinous blade likewise tucked secretly away. Looking for allies to start a revolution and free Ossia from the Krodans, Aren attempts to convince some of the outlying tribes of the value of aligning with him in a fight. In doing so, he likewise learns of another numinous object, the titular casket, which may be the key to their cause. Meanwhile, the Krodans are razing the land, looking for Aren and the sword. Klyssen, upset with the manner win Kroda is recklessly destroying its economic and social base, lashes out as his superior, and is punished for it. Taken from home and family, he faces exile, and in doing so accidentally crosses paths with the undercurrents of Krodan society working with the darkest of magics. Will he be able to rally Kroda against Aren and his friends?

Cardboard Corner: Review of Terraforming Mars: Ares Expedition

I have occasionally come upon the idea that a person's enjoyment of a strategy board game is relative to their ability to simultaneously juggle multiple interdependent elements in their head toward one or more goals. The better a person is at this, the better the chance of them enjoying a complex strategy game. Rather than “boringly difficult”, it's more likely to be a “fun brain exercise”. Terraforming Mars Ares Expedition (2021) can be a fun brain exercise—for the right brain.

Like many board games released the past couple of years, Ares Expedition combines several different mechanisms—hand management, resource management, drafting, action selection, tableau building, etc. But given the way in which players must combine those mechanisms in the flow of play ultimately makes Ares Expedition an engine building game for 2-4 players. Each player takes on the role of a corporation looking to contribute the most toward terraforming the Red Planet. Raising its temperature, increasing the oxygen level, and developing the oceans are the three main ways that players corporate engines contribute, and as such, earn terraforming points. The player with the most terraforming points at the end of the game, wins.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Review of Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

M. John Harrison has said (in a now deleted blog post) that the writing itself should trump the world in which a story takes place. (I paraphrase, but that is the sentiment.) He singled out the genres which make the most ado of their worlds, fantasy and science fiction, for too often failing the reader in this regard, i.e. being exercises in imagination with limited relevancy. He did not come out and say it, but I assume by using the word “writing”, rather than “theme”, “plot”, “character”, etc. that a world could in fact be the centerpiece as long as the technique sustains the vision and gives readers reasons to relate. And that's the rub of Ada Palmer's Too Like the Lightning (2016). First in a science fiction quartet foregrounding a semi-utopian, future Earth, it puts Harrison's statement to the ultimate test.

Too Like the Lightning is set a couple hundred years in Earth's future. A utopian degree of civil development has been achieved, i.e. human rights flourish and humanity has sustained a significant period of time without major, world-disrupting wars. Crime does occur but at low frequency and quality of life has been roughly equalized across the globe. There are no gaps similar to what we see today, for example, between Europe and most of Africa.

Cardboard Corner: Review of Imperial Assault

As my children get older, Star Wars starts to become a bigger and bigger thing. Air lightsabers (like air guitars), pew-pew noises, and Chewbacca burble (bleating? grumbling?) become an increasing part of everyday life. Of course there is nothing special about my family. But there is something special about Star Wars, and there are many, many board games on the market trying to capture that 'something'. Vying for top spot of Star Wars immersion on the table is Fantasy Flight Games' 2014 Imperial Assault. (Pew-pew noises not included.)

Imperial Assault is a difficult game to categorize. Hovering at ceiling height above the table, it's a miniatures game for 1-5 players that plays a campaign across varying scenarios using a modular map to recreate classic Star Wars environments. Tatooine deserts, Dagobah jungles, Imperial bunkers, and star destroyer bridges are just some of the places the wonderfully sculpted plastic minis portraying Rebel heroes and Imperial villains battle it out.

Down at the table level, one player takes on the mastermind role of the Imperials, controlling all of the stormtroopers, probe droids, officers, and other baddies in an attempt to prevent the Rebels from achieving their scenario goals. The other players take on the role of Rebel heroes, and depending on the scenario will fight off the Imperials to accomplish objectives; rescuing captives, stealing data, destroying bunkers—real Star Wars stuff. Linking these pieces together is a campaign that never plays the same way twice. Oh, and a set of custom dice developed specifically for resolving the game's attacks and skill tests.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Review of The Light Pirate by Lily Brooks-Dalton

Lily Brooks-Dalton's Good Morning, Midnight caused a bit of a stir upon release. (The publishing world being what it is, this was naturally in a teacup.) An effective character study informed by major sf tropes, there were people who got out the old saw of “those literary writers stealing our science fiction ideas”, while the open minded swathe of sf readers tended to be more positively affected by the fully realized stories of two people living out solitude in different ways, one onboard a space ship and another in an Arctic research base. While extrapolating on our current reality in a different manner, Brooks-Dalton's follow up novel The Light Pirate (2022) once again brings into view the personal, inner worlds people while applying “science fiction tropes”, near future climate change in coastal USA the “stolen idea” this time. As successful?

Opening in Florida in the present day, The Light Pirate sees a major hurricane blowing in. A woman named Frida, now nine-months pregnant, nags her husband Kirby to stack sandbags and board the house in preparation for the winds and rains they know are coming. Intensifying the situation, Kirby's two boys by a previous marriage, Flip and Lucas, complain about Frida behind her back, increasing her stress levels. Stuck between home and work, Kirby awaits the call he knows is inevitably coming: to leave the house and repair downed electrical lines. Sure enough, the call comes just as the hurricane blows in. In the chaos the two boys go missing, leaving Frida feeling guilty and Kirby on dangerous roads to find them. The rest, they say, is history.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Non-Fiction: Review of Putin's Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine by Mark Galeotti

Like many people, I have been paying close attention to Russia's tragic “special military operation” in Ukraine the past year. In the course of consuming media trying to stay abreast of the situation, I find myself drifting toward particular voices of reason—journalists and commentators with level heads and realistic views to what is happening. Michael Clarke, Julia Ioffe, Niall Ferguson, Emily Harding, Michael Kofman, and Timothy Snyder are some of the people whose expertise provides a lighthouse in the storm of media and propaganda. Like those pundits, Mark Galeotti is another voice of reason willing to express hard truths. Seeing he released Putin's Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine in 2022, it was difficult not to want a more in-depth understanding of Russia's military operations the past two decades.

Before any criticisms of rampant capitalism are put forward, let's be quick to point out Galeotti had nearly finished writing this book before February 24, 2022. While he did take the time to add a chapter addressing Russia's attack on Ukraine (up to June 2022), it's clear based on the book's structure that the Ukraine content is tacked on. And “tacking on” in this case is wholly acceptable given the balance it strikes between providing inquisitive readers information while being respectful to those involved in the ongoing conflict. It's clear this is legitimate, expository writing without ulterior motives.

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Review of Starswarm by Brian Aldiss

I have tried to find a name for this type of writing but can't: the short story collection that can be argued is a novel and the novel that can be argued is a collection. I'm thinking of books like Sequoia Nagamatsu's How High We Go In the Dark, Nina Allan's The Race, Cordwainer Smith's The Rediscovery of Man, Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, Jeff Vandermeer's City of Saints and Madmen, and so forth. Brian Aldiss' Starswarm (1964) is another such... book. If bands can have concept albums in which songs are created as part of a single, larger artistic vision, then I have decided that writers who do such a thing with short fiction produce concept novels.

The concept woven throughout Starswarm is that its the far-far-far future and humanity has spread itself to near infinity across the universe. Trillions upon trillions of people exist in the myriad stars. Each story in Starswarm takes a look at some of those people, living in some corner of that vast-vast vision. For once, back cover copy is spot on: "...Perhaps in doing so we may not only learn something new about ourselves but also discover at least a hint of what drove the Ancients to launch their frail metal spores into the deeps."