Book Review: Breach of Peace, by Daniel B. Greene

Despite the frankly embarrassing amount of entertainment available to me, I’ve been watching more YouTube stuff than I did before. I think the more conversational nature of a lot of channels acts as a vague substitute for actual human conversation. Plus, YouTube has a lot of niche (read, super nerdy) content. And recently, I’ve even found people talking about books on YouTube! Which is kind of what I’m doing here, only in, like, video form (by people who are younger and hipper and better at video editing than I am).

One of the first “booktubters” I came across is one Daniel Greene. I first stumbled across his channel when he was ranting about how bad Robert Newcomb’s The Fifth Sorceress (one of the worst books I’ve ever read, for the record) is, so at least he’s got good taste.

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And Greene just wrote a book! Or, uh, a novella. It’s actually kind of interesting in that he’s also got a bunch of youtube videos talking about his writing/publishing process. See, Greene wrote Breach of Peace as kind of a warm up, something to build up to a ‘full’ novel. Which, y’know, makes sense, especially since there aren’t many short story/novella markets as there used to be. Though the internet has opened up a lot more short fiction venues than there used to be, say, even ten years or so ago.

Breach of Peace probably could have benefited from some closer editing– which is something that’s probably true of most self-published books. It’s not unreadable, by any stretch, but there are a couple of weird bits in there. Like, there’s a line that says a character “cocked his pistol’s revolver,” which is either a typo, or an indication that Greene doesn’t know how guns work.

In any case, might as well talk about the plot, huh? Breach of Peace is a detective story, centering on three (really, two, as the third one doesn’t get as much characterization) inspectors investigating a horrific murder. The book kind of reminded me of Law & Order, of all things. Very procedural-ish, in that respect. Naturally, the investigation leads to a larger conspiracy–

–and that’s it.

I suppose the fact that my first reaction is that ‘there should be more of it,’ is a good sign. Honestly, Greene has the skeleton of a full novel– if he went ahead and built up the actual investigation, he could easily expand Breach of Peace into something larger. Though honestly, the mystery part … really isn’t. Like, it basically boils down to the characters going “oh hey I talked to a guy and now we know everything that happened.”

But Breach of Peace is supposed to be a fantasy book more than a mystery story … except, uh. It doesn’t have to be. Like, there are a few greebly monsters, and some mention of a big high overlord demigod guy ruling over the entire society. Which in itself vaguely reminds me of the first Mistborn book– considering Greene’s a big Sanderson fan, that follows.

Despite the fantasy elements, Breach of Peace could honestly be reskinned into dystopian sci-fi with only a couple of minor changes, and maybe some different cover art. Do I want Greene to awkwardly shoehorn some elves and Gandalfs into the book? No. But at the same time I think the book would be a bit stronger if it did more to distinguish the world as a unique fantasy setting. Something as small as some weirdo place names or little glimpses at the wider world would go far to distinguish the setting as something more than ‘generic rainy noir city.’

MILD SPOILER ALERT: So, this book has a heck of a downer ending. Which just feels a bit … off? Like, it makes sense in the context of the book, but as a standalone thing, it’s not very satisfying. There’s a place for tragic endings, sure, but they work better when they stem from the choices (usually bad ones) that the characters make. In Breach of Peace, it’s more “rocks fall, everyone dies” and … that’s it. Compare this to, say, The Builders, which, at a similar length, is even grimmer and more violent (and is about talking animals!), but still manages to have a satisfying ending.

So yeah. Breach of Peace is entertaining, if not mind-blowing. It’s a quick afternoon’s read, and a nice way to support a guy doing interesting stuff on YouTube and, uh … that’s it? I’ve read better books, sure– but I’ve also read far, far worse. If anything, I’d like to see Greene write a full-sized novel, but I imagine I’ll probably be waiting awhile for that.

SPECIAL GUEST ARTICLE!

Hey there, nerds!

In other news, I went ahead and did a guest/combo feature over at The Dragon Fortress, in which I share some random thoughts about old neon-colored action figures. Fun stuff! You should check it out!

dragon-fort-combiners


Honestly, if you dig old toys and and goofy nostalgia, go ahead and check out the rest of his blog, ’cause there’s a lot of really great stuff on there.

BOOK REVIEW: Idle Ingredients, by Matt Wallace

Oh, hi folks!

Sorry for the radio silence recently. I’m still alive– even got my first vaccine dose the other day, so, y’know, progress? It’s just that, in the irony of quarantine, I’ve been reading less, despite having a whole mess of free time. ‘course, a lot of it comes from the myriad other distractions I have available. So, uh, if you guys want a random blog article on the minis I’ve painted or the video games I’ve played during quarantine, lemme know.

It also doesn’t help that I’ve been reading some non-fiction lately. It’s stuff I’ve found interesting … but don’t have too terribly much to say beyond that. Aaaaand I’ve been listening to a ridiculously long audiobook that I have opinions about, but I want to finish the damn thing before I post about it.

But! As sort of a stopgap measure, I figured I wanted to do something with this blog. And, easily enough, I happened to stumble across Matt Wallace’s Idle Ingredients in a dollar bin, and here we are!

Idle Ingredients is the fourth book in Wallace’s “Sin Du Jour” series, focusing on a catering company that specializes in serving food to monsters. I read the first one awhile back, and enjoyed it, so I figured I’d give this one a go, despite not having read the intervening books. I’m a rebel, dangit.

idle

Thing is the Sin du Jour series is kinda unique– the books (novellas, honestly) are short, about half as long as a ‘standard’ fantasy or urban fantasy novel. So where, say, a Dresden Files novel is a big punchy action movie, each Sin du Jour book reads more like an episode in an ongoing TV series. There’s fallout from the previous book, and a stinger cliffhanger at the end to lead into the next one. Thus, reading Idle Ingredients is kind of like randomly coming across a mid-season episode of some TV show you haven’t really watched before. Specifically, it’s like watching a crossover between something like Supernatural and a food show like Ugly Delicious. Which, as far as I know, Supernatural may have actually done a cooking episode– I mean, they crossed over with Scooby Doo, so nothing’s out of the question here. Incidentally, the Scooby-Doo crossover is the only episode of Supernatural I’ve sat down and watched.

But I should probably talk about the book, huh? As mentioned before, the Sin du Jour series centers on the titular Sin du Jour, a catering company that caters to fae and demigods and demons and whatnot. It’s a fun take on the Urban Fantasy genre, instead of the typical ‘gritty magic detective in a trenchcoat and/or leather pants.’ In Idle Ingredients, the company is dealing with the fallout of their last gig, only for a business-suit wearing succubus to breeze in and start mind-controlling all the dudes there for nefarious purposes. Mentioning that it’s a succubus is technically a spoiler, but Wallace isn’t exactly subtle. Then again, with a word count not even topping 60k, he doesn’t have the time to be.

And so, it falls onto the women of Sin du Jour to suss out the succubus’ evil plan, and to break her hold over the other chefs in the kitchen. Pretty straightforward, honestly. Again, like a mid-season episode of a TV show.

Ironically, even though the book’s antagonist is a succubus, Idle Ingredients never veers into paranormal romance/erotica stuff. The succubus is perfectly capable of manipulating people by keeping her clothes on, thankyouverymuch. Which isn’t to say the book’s entirely PG, either– the chefs swear … well, like chefs, after all. There’s no porn-porn in the book, but there is a little bit of food porn, with loving descriptions of the preparation of food. Part of the fun of this series, and perhaps its main reason for existing, is giving Wallace opportunities to think about the unique palates and tastes of various supernatural creatures. Like, how do you cook for a salamander, a creature made out of living fire?

Really, Idle Ingredients is kind of low-key compared to the first Sin du Jour book I read. In that one, there’s a giant immortal chicken and fast-food-zombies. And heck, the characters even mention an Evil Demon Santa that attacked in the book before this one, but Idle Ingredients is pretty low-key in comparison. Though there is an amusing bit with a stoner demon assassin, because this is a very silly book.

Idle Ingredients isn’t a great novel (novella, whatever), but it’s a fun one. I enjoyed it well enough, though I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I’d read the two books in the series prior to this one, so I had more of an idea of who the characters were, and what they’d been through. Still, it’s enough to make me want to read the rest of the books in the series– and heck, with any luck, I’ll actually read them in order.

In any case, stay tuned, Dial H For Houston readers! All the, like, twelve of you. Because I’ve got a BONUS FEATURE coming up in the near future, which is going to be super rad. I promise. And after that, well, maybe I’ll start getting back into the swing of things on my reading, and start posting reviews on a regular basis again?

The world can hope, right?

Book Review: Kull, Exile of Atlantis, By Robert E. Howard

At any given time, I have an … extensive to-read pile. Even when I’m traveling, I like to at least have a cheap paperback or two stuffed in the bottom of my bag, just in case. It probably doesn’t help that there’s not a dollar paperback bin I won’t stick my nose into.

But, ironically, when the power went out during the recent snowpocalypse, my to-read pile just didn’t cut it. As I needed something, y’know, good to distract me, and keep me from running down my phone’s battery by compuslively checking on facebook or whatever. And so, in a desire for something familiar, something readable, and something that I could read in small chunks, I turned to a Del Rey collection of Robert E. Howard stories. Kull stories, to be specific.

Kull cover

I’m not a Howard scholar by any means, but I will say these Del Rey collections, distinguishable by their black-marbled covers, are arguably the best way to read Howard. They’re ridiculously comprehensive, including unpublished fragments and poetry and setting notes taken from Howard’s papers. The books also come with introductions and appendixes compiled by later scholars & authors to give more context to Howard’s work. But lest you think these are dry academic texts, it’s worth noting the Del Rey editions also have a bunch of cool illustrations of guys with swords getting into fights.

Many of the volumes are broken down by character– so there’s a bunch of Conan ones, a Solomon Kane book, and this one (the one I happened to have handy) is about Kull of Atlantis. Howard wrote Kull comparatively early in his career. In fact, the first Kull story, The Shadow Kingdom, is often referenced as the first modern Swords & Sorcery story. It’s interesting to see how a lot of the classic tropes were baked in from the start: big burly barbarian heroes, ancient ruins and tombs, devious snake-men, and so on.

While Kull was foundational to the formation of the swords & sorcery genre, only three Kull stories were published in Howard’s lifetime. This collection compiles all that unpublished Kull stuff– at which point you can see various patterns and themes emerge. What’s interesting (to me, at least) is to compare Kull to his successor character, Conan. Howard himself moved on from Kull, and wound up having a lot more success with Conan– and in reading Kull: Exile of Atlantis, I think I’ve got a theory as to why.

Kull illo

See, Kull is your standard Howard protagonist: he’s burly but clever, and of course really good at killing bad guys. And while Kull is a king in most of his stories, his role is kind of passive. In a lot of the stories, Kull is kind of passive. Or, well, at least as passive as a guy who goes around cleaving assassins in twain can be. Seems that half of his stories focus on how Kull reacts to various attempts to depose him. While there are other stories in which Kull gets into trouble because … he’s bored and wants to go take a look at some wizard’s magic mirror, or a talking cat or something.

This kind of curiosity feels rather adolescent, especially when combined with the number of times the stories mention Kull has no interest in the various scantily-clad women sashaying about. In comparison, Conan is more active, chasing women and treasure alike. Which isn’t to say there aren’t Conan stories that give him a more reactive role. After all, famous Conan story “The Phoenix on the Sword,” is basically a re-write of the Kull story “By This Axe I Rule!”

Still, Conan feels a bit more … well, I don’t want to say ‘mature’ of a character, but definitely ‘older’ in his tastes and behavior. Kull is curious, but also with kind of an ‘ew girls’ ambivalence like he’s in the 6th grade or something, while Conan is a hard-partying, skirt-chasing frat boy in comparison. Which leads to Solomon Kane being the responsible adult of the bunch, I guess? (I haven’t read enough Bran Mak Born to figure out where he fits on the scale).

If I were ambitious, I could probably spin a halfway decent academic paper out of this. Which, well, I won’t, but still. Overthinking and theorizing about pulp fantasy stories is kind of what I have a blog for, at least. But even still, Howard’s rollicking, fast-paced prose is still engrossing nearly a century later, well worth reading even (perhaps especially) if you’re not going to write a paper about it.

Book Review: Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City, by K.J. Parker

I’m a sucker for a good siege story.

Helm’s Deep, Night of the Living Dead, Assault on Precinct 13– anything about a ragtag group of characters holed up against an overwhelming foe. It’s compelling to have characters who just don’t have enough of, well, anything. Ammunition, food, water, time. It’s an easy way to put conflict into a story.

I actually happen to be in Houston at the moment, which means I can identify with somebody holed up with dwindling supplies a bit too much. For the record, I’m fine. Got power back a couple days ago, and the pantry’s pretty well stocked. Really the only thing I can complain about is that I’m smelling a bit rank since I haven’t done laundry in over a week, but lucky for you, dear reader, this is the internet and you don’t nave to smell me.

sixteen

And in another bit of, uh, ‘serendipity,’ I picked up K.J. Parker’s Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City before the power went out. So at least I had something to read (not counting my ever growing to-read pile. Shut up). I also got a couple of other books read, and hopefully I’ll get around to reviewing them, uh … soon? Maybe?

So yeah. K.J. Parker is a pseudonym of author Tom Holt– I get the impression he uses the Parker name for his more ‘serious’ stuff. Though with this said Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City isn’t exactly grimdark, either. The book’s narrated in first person perspective, in the snarky words of Ohran, a colonel of engineers, as he describes how he and his outnumbered command wind up the only defenders of The City against a vastly superior force.

Technically, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is a fantasy novel, as it involves people with swords chasing each other around made-up lands with made-up names. The setting itself is … vaguely reminiscent of the Roman Empire, in that it’s a big sprawling bureaucracy with lots of engineering knowhow (they’ve got a Hippodrome, even), or maybe it’s a bit more inspired by Byzantium, given some of the other elements. Either way, the book is decidedly lacking in elves, wizards, or dragons– it’s a more ‘grounded’ sort of fantasy.

Really, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City reminded me less of a generic Tolkien homage, and more of Andy Weir’s The Martian. It’s kind of a ‘problem fiction,’ in that the main arc of the story is ‘oh shit, we have a problem, time to think of a way to fix it.’ And, being what it is, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is less concerned with the derring-do of holding a breached wall, and more about the engineering needed to prevent that wall from being breached in the first place. Ohran is an engineer, and therefore he solves his problem like an engineer, coming up with all kinds of clever ideas. Siege engines are built, sapping trenches (and countertrenches) are dug, and so on. Though with the engineering focus, there’s not as much ‘personal’ stuff with supplies slowly dwindling and people getting hungrier and what have you.

It’s not as dry as it sounds, honest. Ohran is an entertaining narrator, and unlike The Martian, he actually has other charcters to play off of. This said, most of the other characters come off as a little bit flat. Some of them have potential for more depth, at least, it’s just that since everything’s from Ohran’s perspective, they don’t get as much focus, I guess?

Still, the ‘X problem is solved with Y clever solution’ is a solid formula, and Parker is a skilled enough author to keep the plot moving forward at a page-turning pace. Like, I probably would’ve devoured this book in just a few days even if I did have electricity.

While entertaining, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City isn’t a perfect novel. For one, there’s only three female characters of any note– though one could argue that’s three more than a lot of earlier fantasy books. Likewise, the plot takes something of a melodramatic turn in the last third or so, when the identity and motives of the besieging army is revealed.

What’s a little bit more eyebrow-quirk-worthy is the fact that one of the book’s major themes is racism. See, the Empire of Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is ruled by a darker-skinned Robur people, with lighter-complexioned “milkfaces” like Ohran as second-class citizens. There’s even a bit where Ohran gets yelled at for drinking from the wrong public fountain, even in the middle of a siege. On the one hand, this kind of thing goes to illustrate how stupid and arbitrary racism is in the real world. On the other, I’m not quite sure if a random English fantasy author is really the best guy to address this sort of thing. Especially when “what if white people were really the victims here?” can be a real tricky theme to write about.

Then again, the fantasy-racism thing always takes a backseat to the more interesting bits about catapults and siege tunnels and what have you. At heart, Sixteen Ways to Defend a Walled City is an entertaining, readable adventure, even if it’s not quite as hard-hitting or thought provoking as the best fantasy novels coming out these days. There’s at least a sequel, How to Rule an Empire and Get Away With It, which I’ll probably get around to reading at some point. And heck, wanting to read more means the author’s done something right, y’know?

Book Review: The Last Uncharted Sky, by Curtis Craddock

 

I read Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors awhile back, and rather enjoyed it. I also read the second book in the series, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery a few months ago during that several month stretch where I wasn’t reviewing or keeping track of what I read.

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Normally, I like to space books in a series out, but A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery was so good that I went ahead and scooped up the third book in the series, The Last Uncharted Sky, just a few weeks ago, and here we are!

I’m a sucker for swashbuckling. Because of this, I’ll read or watch just about anything with rapiers and fancy hats. The world of Craddock’s Risen Kingdoms novels is modeled loosely on 17th century Europe, only if the various countries were situated on an enormous flying continent, hanging impossibly in a cloudy void. Each of the Risen Kingdoms has a particular kind of sorcery that runs in the bloodline of their nobility. The Not-Spanish have silver eyes and can enter into mirrors, the Not-French have blood-red vampiric shadows, the Not-Germans are shapeshifters who can take animal forms, and so on. It’s a fun sort of system, kind of reminiscent of a Brandon Sanderson novel, just without the charts and appendixes at the back. Though one thing I noticed as the series went on was that Craddock focused on the weirder sorcery of the Not-Spanish and Not-French in the first book, but then later ones introduce more ‘traditional’ magic like shapeshifting, or illusions or what have you. Then again, the second book also introduces the Not-Italians’ ability to cover themselves in bulletproof feathers and pass family memories down the line like a Trill symbiont from Deep Space 9 (which is the Best Trek, for the record, but that’s another blog post entirely).

last uncharted sky

Of course, a setting is only as interesting as the characters who inhabit it. Thankfully, Craddock delivers on this as well. The series follows the adventures of a brilliant noblewoman and secret academic named Isabelle, and her bodyguard/father figure, the musketeer Jean-Claude. A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery also introduced Major Bitterlich, dashing catman shapeshifter (and Isabelle’s love interest). And those are just the viewpoint characters; the series is full of compelling characters so that nearly everyone will have a favorite.

After foiling a coup attempt in the second novel, The Last Uncharted Sky takes up with Isabelle & Co. as they prepare to set out into the great unknown, taking an airship in search of an ancient, lost treasure that was mentioned in the last book. Swashbuckling adventure ensues, complete with battles at sea (er, battles at sky?), swordfights, daring escapes, sky-pirate enclaves, and so on.

However, amid all the adventure, The Last Uncharted Sky plays around with some other themes as well. In particular, disability is a recurring theme. Isabelle herself only has one (or, well, one flesh and blood arm), and at the beginning of the novel she’s dealing with a magical malady that’s basically a schizophrenia metaphor, complete with having to take her meds for balance. Likewise, Jean-Claude isn’t nearly as young as he used to be, and has to deal with getting older and older. Even Major Bitterlich has old trauma he needs to work through– though his particular condition comes off as a bit of a retcon, as it never came up in the prior book. This said, I’m not quite sure if the disability metaphor is entirely accurate, as by the end of the book (spoilers, I guess?) most of the characters get their conditions treated. Well, Jean-Claude’s still old, I guess, but still.

Of the three Risen Kingdoms books, The Last Uncharted Sky is kind of the weakest. Where the first two involve all kinds of intrigue, The Last Uncharted Sky’s “go get the MacGuffin” plot is pretty straightforward in comparison. Likewise, there are a few melodramatic plot twists that come off as a little bit too coincidental, and the book’s Big Bad of a villain has a plot that really just boils down to “Nyah, I will kill everyone!” Between that, and the fact he’s a goat-headed shapeshifter, it kind of reminded me of something out of Warhammer Fantasy. Which, considering the Church of the Builder, the primary religion of the Risen Kingdoms, has something of an Adeptus Mechanicus flavor to it … well, it makes me raise an eyebrow. Though honestly, Craddock still puts enough of an original spin on things that it doesn’t come off as contrived. I kinda wonder what 40k army he plays, however.

Honestly, though, these are just small quibbles. The Last Uncharted Sky is an engrossing, swashbuckling fantasy adventure, one I’d recommend to anybody with an interest in the genre. Particularly, if you enjoy Brandon Sanderson’s flavor of action-packed fantasy with weird-but-categorized magic, the Risen Kingdoms are definitely something to read, as they deliver the same kind of action, but with better plotting and characterization. Of course, you’d want to read the first two books before The Last Uncharted Sky, but there are honestly a lot worse ways you could spend your time.

Book Review: WebMage, by Kelly McCullough

An easy, pithy way to describe a lot of books is “GENRE + THING.” I mean, every author wants their book to stand out, so one easy way to do it is to just mash stuff together. So the Dresden Files gives us “Fantasy + Noir,” Weber’s Honor Harrington series is “Space Opera + 18th  Century British Navy” and Kelly McCullough’s WebMage gives us “Fantasy + Cyberpunk.”

Though honestly that makes it sound cooler than the book actually is.

webmage cover

In the world of WebMage, magic is treated as a programming language. It has to be coded, debugged compiled– and as such it can also be hacked. So far, so good. ‘Magic done by Computers’ can be a pretty interesting foundation for a story. Charles Stross gets a lot of mileage out of it in his Laundry novels, and I’m even reminded of an old Rick Cook book called The Wiz Biz that I read back when I was a kid.

WebMage is presumably named after, well, the titular WebMage, a magic-hacker named Ravirn. Ravirn’s got the standard ‘urban fantasy snark’ thing going on, most often shown through his dialogue with Melchior, his familiar (read: sidekick). Melchior’s a webgoblin: a constructed magical goblin-guy who sometimes transforms into a laptop. Early in the book, Ravirn and Melchior discover that one of the Fates (you know, the Greek goddess ladies with the loom and all– they were the bad guys in S5 of Legends of Tomorrow!) is creating a magic-program to alter reality to eliminate free will. This, of course, is a Bad Thing™, so Ravirn proceeds to get chased all over the multiverse as he blunders around trying to stop it. Oh, and there’s a sexy blonde elf-hacker-girl that Ravirn hooks up with on like page 50, too, so there’s a love interest.

On paper, Webmage works well enough– the problem is, the setting is an absolute mess. For example, the inclusion of the Fates (and later, the Furies) gives WebMage a kind of Greek mythology foundation. Fair enough. Except … Ravirn (and his Fate-blooded cousins) are basically Midsummer Night’s-Dream style fae, complete with pointy ears and fancy Elizabethan ruffles. Because reasons. And then there’s the multiverse angle as well, where the book has a brief interlude in “Saint Turing’s,” a medevial Christian style monastery devoted to monks who chant in binary– which on paper is a fun idea, but it really doesn’t fit into the kitchen-sink of styles and ideas that McCullough tosses in.

The ramshackleness applies to the plot, as well. The book starts with Ravirn and Melchior having to dodge assassins as they try to save the multiverse from Atropos’ free-will-eraser-program. But then the book sort of switches gears, as Ravirn also has to deal with a shitty roommate and missing his finals at the University of Minnesota. Which, again, has lots of story potential; having your protagonist juggle weird adventures with mundane life has been a thing ever since Spider-Man, if not earlier.

It’s just that the book glosses over the finals (and a couple assassination attempts!) in the span of like a chapter and a half, which makes me wonder why it was even there in the first place. Once this tenuous connection to the ‘real’ world is forgotten, the rest of the book is pretty much just Ravirn and Melchior fleeing from one place to another, occasionally with ‘inside magic-cyperspace’ segments. It’s … okay? Though by the end of the book I honestly didn’t care all that much, so it was kind of a chore to finish.  As again, McCullough keeps on throwing in new ideas, which on their own could be pretty fun, but there’s just too much going on without enough depth to make things interesting or even coherent.

Maybe WebMage would be more entertaining if I’d paid attention in the one computer science class I had to take in high school. I’m sure there are a ton of little jokes and gags in there that an actual programmer would laugh at. Alternately, since the book was published back in 2006, maybe a lot of those programming gags are dated by now? Who knows. Still, at least the series was popular enough for McCullough to write a couple more, with titles like Cybermancy and Codespell. But honestly, I probably won’t try tracking them down.

Book Review: Silent Hill 2, by Mike Drucker

Boss Fight Books’ latest, Silent Hill 2, officially releases on January 26th.

But since I got in on the kickstarter, I got my copy early, so now I can be ahead of the curve, for once! And I even managed to sit down and get this review written, to boot! Fancy that.


So yeah, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you probably know the rundown. Boss Fight Books releases books about video games, with each one written by a different author, taking a different tack. Some are more personal affairs, looking back on nostalgia and identity and stuff, while others have a more academic bent. Mike Drucker’s Silent Hill 2 leans towards the latter, though he does mention some of his own personal experiences throughout.

For those who might not be familiar with Silent Hill 2, it’s a video game of psychological horror, released by Konami in 2001 (you know, back when Konami still made good games). Drucker makes a very good point in the book that Silent Hill 2 is certainly a good game, but really not a fun one. As on the surface it looks like a survival horror romp a-la Resident Evil, but the game is more interested in exploring themes of abuse, neglect, depression, murder, and suicide. So, uh, not exactly Mario Kart.

I honestly haven’t played Silent Hill 2 all that much– rather, it’s a game I watched someone else play. When it first came out, my horror-loving best friend scooped it right up– and promptly got mad at me and the other guy hanging out at his place when we kept making snide commentary about the game’s slow burn of an opening. He’s forgiven me for this since then. I think. Later, in college, I had a roommate who played through Silent Hills 1 & 2 in preparation for the release of Silent Hill 3, so I at least absorbed some of the stuff about rust-world and Pyramid Head and whatnot via osmosis.

This said, even though I’m not super into the series, I still found Drucker’s Silent Hill 2 to be an interesting and informative exploration of the game. Drucker gives each of the game’s character a chapter’s worth of analysis, and also explores some of the bigger themes presented by the town itself. Early on, Duncan notes the Silent Hill games are are explorations of American surrealist horror a-la Twin Peaks or Jacob’s Ladder, as done by a Japanese video game developer, which is one of the things that make them so wonderfully weird.

Silent Hill 2 is definitely on the more academic end of the spectrum of Boss Fight Books. Partly because Silent Hill 2 has a surprising amount of academic research written about it– in particular, the work of Ewan Kirkland is cited multiple times throughout the book. Factor in a bunch of citations from books and articles about horror in general, Silent Hill 2 is downright educational. But even still, things never get dry and academic. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, as Duncan writes in a tone that’s both informative and entertaining, particularly when he throws shade at the game’s protagonist for being both excessively boring and also an awful, awful person.

As mentioned before, Silent Hill 2 is a good game, if not a fun one.

Lucky for us, Drucker’s Silent Hill 2 is both good and fun. So if you’re a fan of horror games, or just horror in general, I’d definitely recommend this book.

And heck, with the citations and bibliography and all, it’s downright educational!

Book Review: The Five Trials, by Mike Truk

You guys wanna get weird? ‘cause this is gonna get weird.

In 1994, a game by the name of Fighting Baseball was released in Japan.


The thing was, said game didn’t have a MLB license, so they had to make up generic team names– and player names.

In 2016, somebody noticed this and put it into meme on twitter.

In 2018, somebody decided to use one of these goofy names, Mike Truk, as a pseudonym. Or, well, I at least hope it’s a pseudonym.

That should probably tell you about what we’re getting into, here.

See, every now and again, I poke around self-published stuff on Amazon. Partly because it’s something I’ve vaguely considered getting into with my own writing (presuming I ever write anything worth trying to publish), and partly because, with a lot of the current changes in the publishing industry, it’s a lot harder to find the kind of pulpy, throwaway schlock that’s destined to fill the dollar bins. I’ll spare you the details (mostly because I don’t know all of them), but there’s a definite movement for lower-to-mid-tier authors towards online publishing. And, with tools and stuff in Kindle Unlimited, doing so is easier than ever.

For better and worse.

Which brings us to Mr. Truk.

As I poked around the fantasy section of Kindle Unlimited, Mr. Truk’s books popped up fairly regularly. A few months ago, he was giving copies of his first book, The Five Trials, away for free, and I got curious. And here we are.

So yeah. The Five Trials centers around a bland, reader-insert guy by the name of Noah. Noah is a generic nerd who’s kind of good looking, at least, and like maybe did a couple years of aikido (which will become important later). He’s in love with his best friend, Emma, but sadly she’s off to the Big City™, and he can barely stammer out a confession at the bus stop–

–when some dude in a space-pod crashes through the bus and hands Noah a magic sword before dying.

WELP.

Oh, and there’s an evil monster attack, too. Noah pees himself a bit, then manages to kill the monster, at which point Noah and Emma are zapped into another dimension. As you do. Once there, it’s revealed that Noah is apparently the “Savior,” (that is, your bog standard chosen-one), destined to save the universe from darkness. Only part of the savior-ing process involves picking out a party of fellow adventurers to assist him as they go through the titular “Five Trials.” Each one’s basically a different level of a video game– though sadly it’s not quite on the ‘ice level, lava level, minecart level’ scheme of things.

Oh, and Noah has to form a magical bond with the other members of his party, and apparently the best way to do that is by having sex. Good thing Noah winds up surrounded by a bunch of hot ladies, I guess? There’s the blonde valkyrie one, the gothy snarky one, the mean-girl redhead, and Emma’s also there to be the girl-next-door.

It’s that kind of book, folks.

If the cover didn’t tip you off, gratuitous sexytimes are more or less the whole point of this series. Mike Truk pretty blatantly gets his, er, inspiration from cheesy harem anime– though it’s not QUITE as bad as it could be? I mean, at least there’s no panty shots or underage characters or anything. Which, uh, is kind of a low bar to set.

I knew all this going in. And heck, I’m not necessarily opposed to smut in a book. Sometimes it can actually be used in an interesting way, such as in Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel novels. And as I read The Five Trials, the book surprised me in that it wasn’t quite as cringeworthy as I thought it would be. Which isn’t to say the book was good, mind you. But it still had a couple attempts at depth?

Like, for example, there’s the whole thing with Noah and Emma (oh, and there was a third best friend in the trio who died in a car crash before the book even started) which had the makings of, like … actual emotion behind it? Of course, a lot of that love triangulation is forgotten (or at least expanded into a far larger love polygon) once Noah learns he’s got to sleep with the other characters for contrived magical purposes. Likewise, there’s even a throwaway line about how some of the other ‘candidates’ for Noah’s party are dudes, but he’s not into that, but it’s at least rafted as an option? Which, uh, would be a far different book if he went that way, but hey. It’s just a hint more depth I’d expected from a cheesy sex-fantasy-adventure written by a guy naming himself after a meme. Heck, there are even a couple of female characters in the book Noah doesn’t have sex with! (I suppose that’s what sequels are for).

And the funny thing is, there’s not even as many sex scenes as you’d expect? Don’t get me wrong, there’s a fair bit of explicit smut in the book. And sometimes the smut is a bit … off. (For the record ‘canal’ is a very unsexy word). And heck, the sex scenes themselves are … kind of vanilla? Like, Noah never hooks up with an elf or a dryad or any other weird magical babes that a fantasy novel could offer. (Which, again, is what I suppose sequels are for).

But an even greater amount of wordage is focused on monster-fighting in the various trials, or clumsy fantasy worldbuilding, complete with a deluge of made up nonsense names and some magic system bits I think Mike Truk cribbed from Final Fantasy Tactics.

The Five Trials tries, if slightly, to be something more than just an excuse for chainmail bikini babes to sex up the protagonist. And honestly, I think that might be its biggest flaw? Because on the one hand, the plot is goofy and contrived and narrated by leeringly horny protagonist. Like, every time a new female character shows up Noah gets to drool and go on about how she’s “smoking hot” or somesuch. But on the other hand, the fight-the-monsters and save-the-world action is rather gritty and gory, which doesn’t match the tone. Like, about two thirds of the way through the novel there’s an extended sequence in which Noah & co are captured and tortured– and not in a kinky fuzzy handcuffs way, either.

All and all, this weird and inconsistent tone really drags down The Five Trials. It’s like Mike Truk tried splicing a Lord of the Rings knockoff with the literary equivalent of a Porky’s movie. Sex and the fantasy genre have been intertwined at least since they started painting naked ladies on the cover of Weird Tales, if not earlier. It’s not the inclusion of explicit sex scenes that makes The Five Trials weird– it’s the fact that the goofy, contrived horniness doesn’t fit in with the gritty, bloody action of the rest of the novel.

But yeah. I’m probably not going to read the rest of the series, even though The Five Trials ended on a cliffhanger (because of course it did). There are plenty of better fantasy adventures out there, and I dare say there are sexier ones, too.

But hey, at least I got the book for free, right?

It’s 2021! Now what?

Oh hey guys! I guess I’m still here!

Normally, I’d do a ‘2020 in review’ kind of post, but, uh, I don’t wanna. For fairly obvious reasons. 2020 was a hard year on everybody. I’m lucky in that I was able to weather the worst of it without too much trouble, and, uh, I’ll probably keep weathering it as the new year goes on.

Of course, amidst the vaguely apocalyptic year, I wound up falling behind on my reading, and then falling behind even more on my blog posts. At least I DID get some reading in, though there’s like a half dozen books I didn’t have the chance to review. Sorry about that. But it’s a new year! A new decade! So time to get back into the saddle, right?

The question is … what do YOU want to see?

I have some vague plans already, at least. There are a bunch of new releases that came out over the last quarter of 2020 that I’d like to get to. Axiom’s End sounds really interesting (mostly because I’ve heard it compared to the Transformers), To Sleep in a Sea of Stars has me curious if Paolini has improved as an author, and … I’m probably gonna have to do a hate-read of Ready Player Two at some point, because Ernest Cline is a hack. And that’s not even counting the exciting stuff coming out from Boss Fight Books, or the of books I got for Christmas, or my ever-growing to-read pile, or even reviews of stuff I read back in 2020 but still want to talk about for whatever reason. (Spoiler: the latest Dresden Files novel got issues). And I’ve even got one particularly out-there book that should make for a pretty entertaining blog entry once I finish, y’know, reading it.

And heck, I’ve even acquired a snowball microphone over the break. If I get REALLY ambitious I could start sharing my unsolicited opinions in podcast/youtube channel form! Except “Book Youtube” is apparently already a thing, and this Daniel Greene kid is talking about “the genre” while also being younger and better looking and far better at editing than I am. Harrumph.

But! What do you think, the whole … dozen or so people who are still reading this? What would YOU like to see? More sci-fi? More fantasy? More nonfiction? Would you rather see me ramble on about current releases, or should I look back to more obscure fare dug out of the dollar bin? Do you want to hear my manly and authoritative baritone, or would you rather me just stick to text?

In any case, I hope all of you have a great 2021! If nothing else, it’s gotta be better than 2020, ’cause damn that was a low bar to set.