HALLOWREAD 2017! Grady Hendrix’ Paperbacks from Hell

October! The season for pumpkin beers, inappropriately sexy costumes, and, of course, trashy horror novels.

While I’ve got at least two non-horror book reviews lined up, I think I’m gonna put them on hold for now, because … well, again. October! Hallowread! Time for me to bust out an awkward portmanteau and dive right into tales of gore and monsters.

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And we’re gonna start things off with a bang here, with Grady Hendrix’s recently released Paperbacks from Hell. Y’see, while I can certainly appreciate a trashy horror novel from the dollar bin, Grady Hendrix loves them. And so, Paperbacks from Hell is a fascinating book, detailing the rise and fall of the Horror novel. From the early 70’s to the early 90’s, tons of publishers churned out countless books full of lurid sex and violence, each one trying to one-up the last in its outrageousness. In Paperbacks from Hell, Hendrix tells the story of these books– along with the authors, artists, and publishers who produced them. It’s the kind of fandom-study that I gobble right up, and yet can’t seem to find enough of.

Paperbacks from Hell is organized categorically, rather than chronologically. Each chapter deals with one general type of Horror-antagonist or the other: Satanists, Creepy Kids, Murderous Animals, and even weirder stuff like psychic Nazi S&M leprechauns.

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I am not making this up.

Hendrix breaks things up into little bite-sized chunks, often with snarky sub-headings such as “What to Expect When You’re Expecting (a Hell Baby)” or “Skeleton Doctors are the Worst Doctors.” This is hardly a dry, academic text– the tone is more of “seriously, can you believe this shit?” Hendrix brings his fannish love of cheesy horror to the book, but he’s self aware enough so it never comes off as fawning. Hell, Hendrix goes on about how terrible and/or insane a lot of the books he covers are, which makes Paperbacks from Hell even more entertaining.

Even still, Hendrix makes a lot of really interesting points about these forgotten books. He ties the popularity of haunted house novels like The Amityville Horror to economic anxieties in the 70’s, Anne Rice’s vampire books to the AIDS epidemic, and looks at the surprising conservatism of the Splatterpunk movement. Hendrix even mentions the evolution of the Horror genre, in which serial killer novels a-la The Silence of the Lambs mutated into the ‘Thriller’ genre, leaving plain Horror monsters behind. (Though the Horror genre would in turn evolve into Urban Fantasy/Paranormal Romance, but that came a bit later).

Paperbacks from Hell is a great read as is, but the thing that really makes it great is its imagery, as Hendrix includes tons upon tons of cheesy horror covers, along with the occasional artist profile or even a couple of previously unpublished cover sketches.

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Don’t worry, it gets even crazier than this.

Ultimately, the only complaint I have about Paperbacks from Hell is that there’s not enough of it. Hendrix has a lot of ground to cover, featuring hundreds of horror novels over the course of a couple decades. I would’ve loved to see him go a little more in-depth into some of his deeper ideas … but at the same time, thinking too hard about some of these books kind of defeats the point. Paperbacks from Hell is like talking to a horror nerd over a beer– but thankfully he’s witty and entertaining enough that it’s worth letting him go down his rabbit hole, just to see what kind of insane shit he’s gonna bring up next. The book’s entertaining enough for most fans of genre literature, but if you’re really into horror, Paperbacks from Hell is a must-read.

And now, I’ve got the urge to dig through the horror section at the used bookstore. Stay tuned!

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Some Obligatory Thoughts on the SNES Classic

Or: Why I won’t be doing anything productive until 2018.

Not to brag TOO much, but yesterday I managed to snag the second to last SNES classic from the local Gamestop. Early bird gets the worm, and all that. After the short run of the NES classic, and the various pre-order fiascos a few weeks ago, I didn’t want to leave anything to chance. The good news is, Nintendo released more SNES classics in the first shipment than the entire production run of the NES classic, so there you go. Hopefully you guys should be able to track one down if you haven’t picked one up yet.

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But yeah. I grew up on SNES, which made the SNES classic a must-buy. It’s got a rock-solid bunch of games, including the previously unreleased Star Fox 2. The original Star Fox was (and still is) my jam– which makes Star Fox 2 a little hard to get my brain around. I’ve honestly only played it for a little bit– I’ll have to give it a more in-depth go later.

Instead of trying to review or rate or rank all of the SNES classic’s 21 games (which has already been done to death by any number of websites people actually pay attention to), I figured I’d just offer a few more general thoughts.

Yes, the dinky controller cable length is a pain. Why it’s shorter than the actual Super Nintendo controllers, I couldn’t say. I’ve heard extension cables are easy enough to get, so I’m gonna have to track some down before long. Though you also have to physically get up and hit the reset button to switch between games as well, so … yeah.

Really though, the biggest thing that struck me about the SNES classic is that there’s a bit of decision fatigue that comes into play. I mean, just looking at the list of games available, the term ’embarassment of riches’ comes to mind. One of the things about having a console as a kid (or who am I kidding, even now) is that one tends to pace one’s acquisition of games out– get a game, focus on that for awhile, and then move on to the next. Of course, back in the day when I’d only get a new SNES game for Christmas (or maybe my birthday if I was lucky), the laser-like focus on a game for weeks or months at a time was even more intense.

And, to be fair, I’ve only had a SNES classic for barely 36 hours now– I’ve mostly just sampled games without getting too into them– so far Super Metroid and The Secret of Mana are getting the most of my time, mostly cause I didn’t have either of those as a kid. I haven’t even touched Final Fantasy III or Zelda or Earthbound yet, knowing how long and in-depth they are. (I’ve also beaten FFIII and Zelda multiple times on my O.G. SNES, but that won’t prevent me from getting around to them before long).

If I were to be suddenly, inexplicably trapped for weeks on end in some remote Alaskan cabin with little more than a SNES classic and my to-read pile of books, I’d be perfectly fine with that. Of course, there’d have to be the inevitable Twilight Zone-esque twist in which the cabin’s TV didn’t have an HDMI port, so maybe that’s not the best plan.

One thing that struck me about the SNES Classic’s library was that it’s rather limited in scope. Don’t get me wrong, the games on there are all damn solid … but they’re all from either Nintendo, Capcom, Konami, or Square. (Or I guess Rare kinda sorta counts for Donkey Kong Country. Don’t get me wrong– these guys were the giants of the 16 bit era, but it would’ve been nice to see some other guys like, I dunno, Acclaim on there.

Of course, one of the real stingers is that the SNES Classic doesn’t have Chrono Trigger, which is arguably the best game on the system (if not all time).

I can understand licensing issues probably got in the way of putting the likes of U.N. Squadron or NBA Jam on the SNES classic … but Nintendo was obviously in talks with Square (or SquareEnix, these days) to put FFIII and The Secret of Mana on there … so why not Chrono Trigger? My only real explanation is that SquareEnix just wants to pretend Chrono Trigger never happened (there’s a time travel joke to be made in there), and would have folks focus on Final Fantasy instead, since they’re still making those. Then again, I suppose it’s probably a good thing they never made any Chrono Trigger sequels (we do not talk about Chrono Cross), as otherwise Chrono Trigger 9 or whatever would be about a boy band trying to sell cup noodles or something.

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I am not making this up.

But yeah. Even with my little quibbles and nerd-theories, the SNES classic is still by far my favorite video-gamey purchase in awhile. And, y’know, writing about it here … kind of counts as doing something productive, right?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I think I’m gonna play some Mario Kart.

Book Review: Matt Wallace’s Envy of Angels

Urban Fantasy, as a genre, tends to be a little more … cross pollinated than other genres. This is kind of a necessity, as if you didn’t start mashing up various ideas and tropes, it’d be just … fantasy. The standard model is basically ‘Noir + Magic,’ as seen in The Dresden Files or countless imitators. Or sometimes it’s more explicitly ‘Magic + Sexytimes’ as in Laurell K. Hamilton’s stuff. Or maybe it’s even ‘Magic + Nerd Shit’ as seen Annie Bellet’s Twenty Sided Sorceress series.

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And here, in Envy of Angels, Matt Wallace mashes up ‘Magic + Food,’ and it makes me wonder why nobody thought of it before. I mean, even monsters gotta eat, right? So when Tor.com was giving out the Envy of Angels ebook for free, I scooped it right up.

Envy of Angels is the first in Matt Wallace’s ‘Sin Du Jour’ series. It centers around the titular Sin du Jour– a catering company that specializes in a very specific clientele: monsters. As one can imagine, your typical demon or goblin has some very specific tastes, requiring some very specific ingredients that only the Sin du Jour crew can provide. And when the caterers get a request to serve angel meat at a banquet, things get understandably complicated. ‘Settle kitchen disputes with knife fights’ complicated. Though some non-monster kitchens may work along the same principles, so … accuracy there?

Envy of Angels is a fun, quick read– I devoured it over the course of a slow afternoon at work (don’t tell my boss). However, the book has the vague ‘pilot episode’ feel as the first work in a series. As it starts, the book feels like it’s going to center on Lena and Darren, two chefs who’ve been blacklisted in the New York culinary scene, only to wind up as the viewpoint characters into the insanity of Sin du Jour. However, the POV soon shifts all over the place from there, highlighting a good dozen or more different characters and viewpoints, which makes the book feel a bit crowded. To be fair, Wallace presents us with a ton of quirky characters, from the rockabilly-girl pastry chef to the stoner-zen busboy to the alcoholic Irish alchemist (there’s a tongue twister for you) to name just a few. The thing is, Wallace only gives us glimpses of most of them, so the book comes off as a little unfocused.

A good chunk of the novella is devoted to Sin du Jour’s Stocking & Recieving team. They’re a commando-esque bunch of badasses who are responsible for acquiring the most exotic ingredients– especially the sort of ingredients that tend to bite back. These bits feel the most like ‘traditional’ urban fantasy, or, perhaps more accurately, there’s a vague tabletop gaming feel to it. Kind of like Shadowrun with more chef’s knives. This is also where the book gets the silliest, as the S&R commandos wind up on an adventure that pits them against a giant chicken and a horde of fast-food zombie clowns. It … sort of makes sense in context. Sort of.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, Envy of Angels is a silly book. While not an outright comedy, it’s still pretty light in tone. And despite the blood and knives and monsters and such, things never get really gruesome, so I couldn’t quite stick the ‘horror’ label on it. I mean, hell, Wallace makes a joke (not to mention a plot point) about how angel meat tastes like chicken. The whole series is also written in the present tense, which on the one hand helps to give the book a rather zippy pace, but it’s also one of those stylistic choices that takes some getting used to. Really though, the worst thing I could say about Envy of Angels is that Wallace never made me particularly hungry with his descriptions of food– which is probably a good thing when angel is on the menu, but still.

I’ve never worked in a restaurant kitchen (or even in a restaurant at all), but I still enjoyed reading Envy of Angels. I imagine anybody who’s said “Yes Chef” in all seriousness would get an even bigger kick out of it. Envy of Angels is kind of like a fancy hipster taco: a fun, light combination of some flavors you wouldn’t have thought of putting together, but nothing transcendentally brilliant. But hey, sometimes hipster tacos are worth telling your friends about, right?

And I guess that’s why we’re here.

Book Review: Final Fantasy V by Chris Kohler

It says something about Boss Fight Books that they held (and completed) their “Season Four” kickstarter before Season Three even ended. And heck, they even released the first book of the new season before the last one of the previous. Granted, each Boss Fight Books volume stands on its own, but it’s still an interesting thing to note. Though the real kicker is that their fan-voted book on Final Fantasy VI (and the one I’m anticipating the most) probably won’t hit ’til they do a “Season 5.” They haven’t even announced who’s writing it– which is a shame ’cause I have a bunch of ideas and I could totally hammer something out for them in a pinch. Call me, Boss Fight dudes.

In the long run, though, it’s probably a good thing I didn’t wind up writing a book on Final Fantasy VI, because Chris Kohler’s Final Fantasy V goes deep into the creation of the Final Fantasy series in a way that I never could.

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Y’see, Final Fantasy V was never released in the US in its original form, as Squaresoft decided the RPG was too hard and too complicated for an American release. Kohler, however, was determined to play FFV, and so he painstakingly tracked down an imported cartridge, modded his Super Nintendo to play it, and more or less taught himself Japanese so he could actually play the damn thing. On top of that, Kohler helped put together the first FAQ & guide to FFV– a guide that was eventually plagiarized by Bradygames’ published guidebook to the game a couple years later. Oops. Still, it’s this kind of expertise that makes Kohler just the man to write Final Fantasy V.

Kohler is the closest thing to an expert there is on FFV, discounting the game’s creators themselves … who are also in the book. Part of the “Season Four” gimmick is that each book includes interviews and input from the people behind that particular game. If Final Fantasy V is any indication, the next wave of Boss Fight Books are going to be great reads.

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But, not only does Final Fantasy V provide insight into the making of … well, Final Fantasy V, it also uses the game as a case study of fandom in general. Kohler grew up in the heady, proto-internet days of the 90’s, when nerdy American audiences were slowly trying to figure out what this “anime” thing was (and why a VHS tape with two episodes of Ranma cost like fifty bucks). The fan-translation of Final Fantasy V is a direct parallel to the fan-subbing of various anime series, complete with a revolution in online distribution when the internet became more widespread. Kohler is, unsurprisingly, a bit of an otaku himself, as he loves just about all things Japanese, not just the Final Fantasy games.

As for the game itself? Final Fantasy V is … alright. It’s a fan-favorite for its intricate job system and gameplay, but the plot isn’t much to write home about. I vaguely remember playing FFV, even– on a ROM, of course. The funny thing is, said ROM (with a translation based the efforts of Kohler and his buddies) was viewed as the best version of the game for a long time, especially compared to a terribly edited release on PS1.

Also, the main character’s name is Butz. Yes, I’m snickering too.

Really though, the thing about Final Fantasy V is that its American fans are pretty much the ultra-fans. Kohler compares the game to the Velvet Underground– where it’s said that everyone who bought The Velvet Underground & Nico started a band, everyone who imported a Japanese cartridge of Final Fantasy V went on to work in the video game industry.

All and all, Final Fantasy V is the quintessential Boss Fight Book. Kohler provides a bit of fuzzy nostalgia to get things going, then branches out into just why Final Fantasy V is such an interesting game, and how it came to be. And, by tying it into the broader scope of Japanese culture taking off in America, there’s some interesting stuff for people who haven’t played FFV. Well worth a read, and I’m eagerly looking forward to whatever Boss Fight Books drops off in my inbox next.

Book Review: Scoundrel! by Keith Thompson

Awful people make for great reading.

I’m a sucker for the ‘bumbling rogue who somehow turns out the hero’ trope– it’s why I enjoyed George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman novels so much. Thing is, I’ve read all the Flashman novels (and watched the movie!) so I’ve had to go poking about for something similar. It’s this searching that brought me to the Ciaphas Cain novels (a.k.a. Flashman IN SPAAACE)– and now, I’ve stumbled across Keith Thompson’s Scoundrel! The Secret Memoirs of James Wilkinson.

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Thompson directly describes his book as “An American Flashman,” complete with an endorsement from Fraser himself (who Thompson worked with on a couple of screenplays, so that’s a thing). The book centers around James Wilkinson– an opportunistic rake and coward who signs up in the Continental Army in order to impress a girl. He then proceeds to blunder through one disaster after another (and there certainly were a lot of them in 1776), to the point where he’s selling secrets to the British. Not that it does him much good, but still. Even the “secret memoirs I found in a trunk” framing device is identical to the Flashman novels.

The key difference, however, is that James Wilkinson was an actual dude— not only that, he was one of those colorful characters in history who had a career that seems like something out of a fictional novel. Upon his honorable discharge from the army in 1815, newspapers described him as “a General who could not win a battle, nor lose a court martial.” Wilkinson was involved in more conspiracies and potential rebellions than I can keep track of, culminating in feeding secrets to the Spanish during his time as the chief general of the American army. Crazy stuff. I’m pretty sure he gets served in a rap battle in Hamilton at some point.

Scoundrel! takes place entirely over the course of 1776, from the Siege of Boston to the disastrous Invasion of Canada to Washington’s hail-Mary victory at The Battle of Trenton. Thompson definitely puts the ‘historical’ in ‘historical fiction,’ as there’s plenty of talk about which generals went where (and subsequently screwed things up). Wilky meets a stream of historical figures on both sides. In particular, Wilkinson falls in with Benedict Arnold– before he started working for the British. See, Arnold started the war as one of the Continental Army’s best generals, only to get screwed over by politics so many times that he up and switched sides. This took place several years later, so it’s not really covered in Scoundrel! (though it is alluded to).

Perhaps to make up for the dryness of troop movements and such, Thompson throws in some utterly shameless low-key comedy: fart jokes, dog poop jokes, and the requisite seduction of various femme fatales. At least at first, the gags seemed to veer a little more scatological than I’d expected, but I think Thompson just threw those in early on to give the reader an idea of just what they were in for.

While entertaining, Scoundrel! feels a little limited in scope. By pinning the novel to an actual historical figure (however colorful), Thompson kind of limits himself in the mayhem Wilky can get up to. Of course, a lot went on in 1776 so there’s something to be said for that. Even still, Scoundrel! lacks the freewheeling anarchy of the best Flashman novels. Or maybe the scope feels limited because I know a tiny bit about the Revolutionary War, as opposed to the Sepoy Rebellion or the Crimean War or whatever other fiascoes Flashman gets into.

Still, Scoundrel! is a fun enough book if you’re in the mood to read about, well, a scoundrel. Not to mention educational, too! With the amount of reverence the U.S. applies to the legendary status of the Revolutionary War, it’s interesting to look at it from a more grounded perspective, full of incompetence and indecision and backbiting– not to mention a British army who isn’t entirely made from moustache-twirling villains. So, y’know, come for the fart jokes, and leave with a slightly better understanding of history. Go fig.

It says ‘Volume One’ on the cover of the book– but from my general pokings around on amazon, Thompson hasn’t written a sequel yet. Not surprising, since “my book is a fictionalized account of a famous traitor!” may be kiiiiind of a hard sell. I’d be game for reading a sequel, if Thompson ever got around to it– though I’d hope he’d fast forward to some other fiasco in Wilkinson’s life, instead of setting the next book in 1777 or whatever.

Book Review: Merlin’s Mirror by Andre Norton

So, uh, how about that weather?

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I envision getting a lot of use out of this image.

Confession time– I actually moved out of Houston a little while back. I just kept the blog going because I like to write about books and it seemed like too much of a hassle to start up a new blog. So I lucked out– luckier still was the fact that my parents (and their three hooligan dogs) were also out of town when Harvey hit. Some water got into their house, though we don’t know how much. It sucks, but I’m sure we’ll all bounce back … eventually.

Better people than I have written better things than I ever could about Harvey. It hurts to see streets I walked (or, more accurately, drove on, because Houston) submerged– though it’s the stories about people volunteering and helping each other out that really get my eyes a-teary. So, if you haven’t already, do what you can to help out. Please.

And, uh, with that out of the way, how about a strained attempt at normalcy? Huh?

I know what you’re all here for– random sci-fi book reviews! And for this installment, I’m dipping into the classics. Or, uh “classics.”

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I’ve covered Andre Norton before, so when I stumbled across Merlin’s Mirror … somewhere (likely the dollar paperback bin) I figured I’d give it a go. I mean, it’s certainly got a pretty fun gimmick, at least.

Any sci-fi fan has probably heard Clarke’s Law before: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In Merlin’s Mirror, Norton takes the idea and runs with it, adding in a dollop of Arthurian legend for good measure. The premise is simple– Merlin (or “Myrddin,” in the first half of the book or so) is actually a half-alien agent of the “Star People,” who someday may return to Earth after a terrible interstellar war. To this end, Merlin is tasked with raising and advising King Arthur to unite Britain to get ready for the Star People’s eventual arrival. Of course, things are rarely as easy as they seem, as Merlin is opposed by a woman named Nimue, who is also half alien, and is working to foil Merlin’s plans. Oh, and Nimue winds up posing as The Lady of the Lake, because why not?

So yeah. There’s a lot of potential for crazy adventures here, but Merlin’s Mirror didn’t quite click with me. For one, Norton uses a kind of dreamy writing style here that’s reminiscent of various myths and sagas and stuff. It’s appropriate, but not as punchy and exciting as I would have hoped for. It’s still fun to see some sci-fi elements added to Arthurian legend, even if Lancelot never shows up. (Guenevere runs off with Mordred instead, for some reason).

On top of that, Norton doesn’t quite deliver on the premise of Merlin’s Mirror. Honestly, the book leans a little more towards fantasy than sci-fi– the closest we get to ‘actual’ technology is Merlin’s titular mirror, which is a kind of TV screen thingie that shows him various things he needs to know. So that’s cool. But other than that, a lot of Merlin’s ‘technology’ is operated through weird rhythmic tapping and chanting, which lets him do stuff like create illusions and use telekinesis and, uh, yeah. I think the big thing that bothers me is that we never really get a feel for just what Merlin can and can’t do. I’m not saying I want to read a comprehensive spell list or anything, but knowing just what a character’s limitations are can add to the tension of a situation. As is, the worst Merlin really has to deal with is physically tiring after doing one bit of magic or another.

The other thing that gets me is that I found myself wanting to see more of Nimue/The Lady of the Lake. She spends most of the book being vaguely seductively evil (the whole ‘threat of sexuality’ thing seems a little more complicated when coming from a woman writer like Norton), only to finally have an actually interesting justification in the last few pages of the book. And, y’know, the fact that Merlin & Nimue both are ultimately pawns of unknown space-people isn’t explored very much. I mean, there’s a whole lot of potential in a character defying destiny– or trying to, at least. As is, the characters go along with the schemes of their alien masters without really questioning them.

So yeah. Merlin’s Mirror didn’t wow me– but I’ve never been super into Arthurian legend, or even wizardy stuff in general. Still, it’s a decent enough read for those who are into that sort of thing, and the book, much like The Stars are Ours! has something of an open ending, which has got me wondering if Norton ever wrote a sequel.

I mean, King Arthur with laser guns. How cool would that be?

Book Review: Mass Effect: Ascension by Drew Karpyshyn

Every so often, someone will declare that the latest sci-fi franchise is “The Next Star Wars!” Depending on who it’s coming from, this can be done either as marketing shorthand, or sometimes from outright fannish enthusiasm. Of course, such arguments are ultimately moot, as Star Wars will be the ‘next’ Star Wars for as long as Disney keeps on cranking out sequels and spinoffs. Which Disney will do as long as they keep making money. Which means forever, pretty much.

A spinoff novel! Featuring none of the characters you liked from the game!

But I digress.

It takes more than just some spaceships and laser guns to be ‘The Next Star Wars,’ though. No, what you need … is an expanded universe. Which is what brings us to Mass Effect: Ascension.

So, disclaimer. I love the Mass Effect series. Or, uh, parts of the Mass Effect series. The first game is nigh unplayable due to sloppy controls and that stupid moon-jeep, and the less said about the ending of the third, the better. The chunks in the middle, though, are freaking great.

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The second one’s always the best: Empire Strikes Back, Aliens, Godfather II … 

And so, when I stumbled across Drew Karpyshyn’s Mass Effect: Ascension in the dollar bin, I scooped that right up. Now, just about anybody (and I mean anybody) can seemingly write ‘official’ fanfiction for a given franchise these days. I know I’ve read far too many Star Wars EU novels for my own good. But, what got me really interested in Mass Effect: Ascension was the fact that it was written by Drew Karpyshyn– one of the lead writers of the Mass Effect games. So that makes it more canonical (and therefore better), doesn’t it?

Well.
Mass Effect: Ascension is the second of Karpyshyn’s Mass Effect novels– the first was a prequel to the first game, detailing the background of Saren, the first Mass Effect’s main villain. In turn, Mass Effect: Ascension takes place in the gap between the first and second games, and details … uh … some stuff? It centers around Kahlee Sanders, a scientist working at the Jon Grissom Academy– a school for brilliant children, including ‘biotics’– Mass Effect’s pseudoscience version of space-wizards. So Space-Hogwarts, essentially. It’s worth noting you actually get to visit the Academy and meet Kahlee Sanders in Mass Effect 3, so that’s kind of neat, right?

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Sanders in Mass Effect 3

Anyway, the plot revolves around one of Kahlee’s students, a girl named Gillian. Gillian kind of has a ‘Hollywood Autism’ thing going on, in that she’s shy and withdrawn and doesn’t speak much– but she’s also really good at a particular skill. Which, in this case, happens to be telekinetic space-magic. Kay. Problem is, Gillian’s super-space-magic is somehow the result of experimentation by a Human-Supremacist conspiracy called Cerberus. And when the Illusive Man, Cerberus’ head honcho, decides he wants Gillian back, things start going south from there.

Mass Effect: Ascension was released in 2008, while the second Mass Effect game hit in 2010. Cerberus plays a major role in ME2, and ostensibly Mass Effect: Ascension was supposed to set them up … but, well, apart from a couple of exposition-heavy pages early on, there’s not too much to flesh Cerberus out other than ‘these guys are jerks.’ Which … kind of goes into their in-game characterization, but not in a good way? Basically, Cerberus is a supposedly ultra-powerful, planet-spanning conspiracy that has a real inconvenient habit of cooking up mad science projects that summarily turn around and rebel against them. Which could be a really fun mad-scientisty take on things, it’s just that Karpyshyn and everyone else at Bioware wants us to take Cerberus seriously.

I kind of get the impression that Karpyshyn saved all the good stuff for the actual video games. Sanders and the other characters of Mass Effect: Ascension come off as a little generic. What’s worse, though, is that large chunks of the book don’t feel very Mass Effect-y. The games are full of weird alien races to meet and cool locations to explore, but Mass Effect: Ascension doesn’t use this to its full advantage. Things finally pick up about 200 pages in, when Sanders and Gillian and co. wind up visiting the Migrant Fleet– the home of the planetless Quarian race. It’s actually a really neat look into Quarian culture– but it’s also too little, too late. On top of that, the book doesn’t have the kind of action-adventure shootiness one would expect from a book based on an action game.

The problem with Mass Effect: Ascension (and likely with most other ME tie-in stuff) is that the best part of the Mass Effect franchise … is you. One of the strengths of the Mass Effect series is the ability to customize your character, Commander Shepard. Not just in appearance or character class, but in behavior. You can be a super-goody space savior, or a snarky anti-hero, or even a more nuanced combination of both. As Shepard tears around the galaxy shooting robots and romancing blue space babes, the decisions you make carry over to the next game, and the game after that. No two playthroughs are the same. Characters– or entire races can die depending on the choices you make. Which is great for a series of video games, but not so much for an Expanded Universe. Though I will take this opportunity to mention that the only real Mass Effect canon is my playthrough, starring Paragon Soldier Femshep. Also this canon stops right before that stupid Reaper hologram kid shows up in the ending of the third game.

I went into Mass Effect: Ascension hoping for rollicking space opera adventure and snappy dialogue. What I got was … not that. It’s a shame, really, as the novel format has the potential to delve into stuff that would never make it in the games, due to budget or marketing or whatever. Instead, the requisite distancing from the ‘actual’ Mass Effect plot and characters makes the book a lot weaker. Mass Effect: Ascension takes too long to get to the cool bits that make Mass Effect, well, Mass Effect. Removing those elements just leaves a generic sci-fi adventure that frankly isn’t that compelling. But hey, crappy tie-in novels are just a sign of being a “real” franchise anyway, right? Bring on the action figures and lunchboxes!

Seriously, a Garrus lunchbox would be rad.

Book Review: Terry Pratchett’s Raising Steam

So the last few books I’ve read haven’t impressed me that much. And, sure, it can be fun to read books of questionable quality, kind of like a literary version of MST3K. But, as things go, one can only take so much schlock for so long before needing to come up for air.

Terry Pratchett to the rescue!

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So yeah, in case you don’t read ‘genre’ fiction (in which case– why are you reading this blog?), Terry Pratchett is one of the premiere satirists of modern day literature. It’s just that he writes a lot of books about dwarves and trolls and stuff. But even then, Pratchett uses the fantastical setting of Discworld to talk about modern society to great effect. His writing isn’t just funny– it’s at parts heartwarming, heartbreaking, and all around brilliant. There’s a reason he was knighted, after all.

Raising Steam is Pratchett’s penultimate novel, 40th(!) in the Discworld series. Thankfully, Pratchett never was one to get bogged down in continuity, so you don’t have to read the 39 books before it to know what the hell is going on. This said, it does help to read at least a few directly related books to get a feel for the major characters and what they’re doing. (Off the top of my head, I’d say Going Postal, Thud!, and Snuff are the big ones to be familiar with, though really it’s hard to go wrong with Pratchett in general).

The fun thing about Discworld is that, while it started as a general pastiche of fantasy tropes, Pratchett soon veered off and started doing his own thing, introducing modern(ish) technology like movies, the printing press, telegraphs (well, Semaphores, but still), and even Rock & Roll. And so, Ankh-Morpork, the central city of the setting, began to evolve into a kooky mirror of London, or any other major world city.

In Raising Steam, Pratchett brings trains to Discworld. A brilliant young inventor figures out how to harness the power of steam, and then it falls on Moist von Lipwig, a fast-talking con man who’s employed by the city (again, go read Going Postal) to organize it and shape the railway into something productive. It helps that Moist is my favorite Discworld character, so I was predisposed to like Raising Steam from the start.

Of course, things are never easy for poor Moist– for even as he’s working on the railroad, an ultra-conservative, fundamentalist faction of dwarves is rising up in opposition to anything that resembles ‘progress.’ Eventually, Moist has got to build a railway that stretches all the way across Discworld in order to put the rightful Low King back in power. Don’t let the vaguely dramatic synopsis fool you– this is still a Discworld novel, so it’s still going to be pretty whacky.

It’s funny– Raising Steam revolves around steam power, but it’s not at all steampunk. There are no gears on top hats or nods to an idealized British empire, even if a few characters probably wear goggles at some point (for entirely practical reasons). Instead, Raising Steam is more interested in the magic of actual technology– which is to say, trains. The steam locomotive had a huge impact on the course of history, and Pratchett leans full into that, covering everything from commuter suburbs to changes in the price of fish to the rise of trainspotting culture.

It’s not just about trains, either. Pratchett emphasizes the ‘melting pot’ nature of Ankh-Morpork at every turn, contrasting it with the fundamentalism of the grags– that faction of ultraconservative dwarves. Furthermore, Raising Steam heavily features goblins (who were introduced in Snuff, I believe) as a new immigrant community within Ankh-Morpork. And sure, they have some weird customs and smell a little funny (everyone smells funny in Ankh-Morpork), but they’re clever and hardworking and otherwise a boon to the city. Pratchett doesn’t belabor the point too heavily, but it’s definitely a message to take to heart in the reactionary and xenophobic times we live in. Pratchett died in 2015, before the Brexit vote, but there’s no question as to which side he would’ve supported.

All of this said, Raising Steam isn’t a perfect book. Quite simply, it takes a hundred pages or so to really build up steam (I will not apologize for that joke). Furthermore, there are a couple of passages, especially in the beginning of the book, that don’t quite have the same old Pratchett ‘zing’ that his best works do. In particular, some of the characterizations feel just slightly off. Lord Vetinari, Ank-Morpork’s Machiavellian (but exceedingly pragmatic) tyrant suffers from this in particular, as he’s given a couple of bits of dialogue that end in exclamation points … which goes completely against the cool, collected, and vaguely Christopher Lee-ish characterization he’s had over a couple dozen books or so.

Another of Rasing Steam‘s weaknesses, and really a weakness of a lot of Pratchett’s writing, is the lack of a good villain. At every turn, the grags are shown as bloodthirsty, callous, mean-spirited and short sighted … but hardly ever competent. This is entirely intentional, as Pratchett naturally has a low opinion of bigotry in any form. Still, whenever the grags come into conflict with Moist or any of the book’s other protagonists, they’re summarily trounced and humiliated without too much effort, which drains a little tension from the book. I think one of the reasons Discworld books rarely have great or memorable villains is that Pratchett lets his heroes get the kind of snarkiness and style that’s usually reserved for antagonists. I mean, shoot, Lord Vetinari could easily be the arch villain of a different series, so long as you filed the serial numbers off (and maybe made him a little less competent so he didn’t murder the heroes right off the bat).

Pratchett’s not at the top of his game in Raising Steam— but honestly, the worst I can say about it is that it’s not as good as the stuff he was writing at his peak (Thud! or Night Watch come to mind for examples of his best books, though I’m sure there are a bunch more I’m missing). It’s a little sad that it’s one of the last Pratchett novels … but on the other hand, there are still dozens of Pratchett’s works I haven’t read yet, so at least there’s that!

But yeah. If you’re a Discworld fan, Raising Steam is well worth a read. Of course, if you’re a Discworld fan, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that anyway.

Book Review: Fafner: Dead Agressor by Tow Ubukata

And now, for something completely different.

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BATTLE ROBOT ASCOT!

Fafner: Dead Aggressor is a “Light Novel.” — basically, Japanese YA, an evolution of the pulps. I picked up the translated version Fafner: Dead Aggressor on a whim at a convention some years ago. I’m not too familiar with the anime it’s based on, but I’m always a sucker for giant robots. It’s worth noting that the novel is based on the anime series, rather than the other way around. I haven’t watched said anime, either, so I’ve got no idea how different the two adaptations are.

The book (and anime) centers around a teenager named Kazuki, who learns he’s been secretly conditioned through hypnosis to pilot a giant robot in order to defend humanity from genocidal alien invaders. As you do. There’s some overcomplicated justification about how only teenager’s minds are flexible enough to merge their brains with their giant robots, because again, anime. Or Light Novel. Whatever.

While reading, Fafner: Dead Aggressor, I couldn’t help but go down a checklist of mecha-anime tropes. Amnesiac teenage protagonist? Check. Sad-eyed anemic love interest girl? Check. Smarmy jerkass dude who the protagonist is weirdly obsessed with and thus becomes slashfic fodder? Check. Heck, the term “fighting spirit” is used on like the first page.

Mind you, tropes aren’t necessarily a bad thing. Really, you could argue that, by reading like the first couple episodes of an anime show, the book does exactly what it sets out to do. And heck, there’s at least one pretty sweet giant robot fight in the middle of the book: what would be the ‘second episode,’ I guess. Kazuki’s mecha, (or ‘Fafner,’ cause they’re going for a vaguely Norse theme with their names) is kinda cool, and uses ‘blade mines’– read: exploding knives. An author would have to try very, very hard to make me not like exploding giant robot knife fights, and thankfully Ubukata does not disappoint on that end. I might have preferred if there were MORE exploding giant robot knife fights, but I can say that about almost every book I’ve ever read.

This said, Fafner: Dead Aggressor isn’t high literature. The prose gets a little awkward from time to time, as I’m sure a lot is lost in translation. Even still, there are some pretty interesting ideas underneath the teenage angst and giant robot fights. Kazuki and his friends live on an isolated island (that turns out to be a hidden refuge from the killer aliens), and the whole sense of rural, day-to-day boredom actually has a lot of potential for storytelling.

Unfortunately, there never was a second Fafner light novel, so the first book mostly sets a bunch of stuff up that doesn’t get resolved, and ends. It’s kind of like a TV show being canceled after the first couple of episodes. Although, poking around YouTube shows me Funimation has the whole series available to watch for free, so … well, maybe I’ll get around to checking it out next time I’m in the mood for some teenage angst and robot fights.

Happens more often than you’d think.

Book Review: The Ship Avenged by S.M. Stirling

As many an after school special has taught us, you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

But what about the author photo on the inside of the cover?

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HELLO LADIES

I really shouldn’t throw stones, being an awkward nerd myself (which reminds me, I could use a haircut). But on the other hand, I will never pass up an opportunity to post that S.M. Stirling photo, ’cause it’s freaking hilarious. It’s his ‘my book about spaceships and lasers is serious business’ expression that gets me more than anything.

But I guess we should actually talk about the Stirling book I read, huh?

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PEW PEW LASERS

The Ship Avenged is the sequel to The City Who Fought, a novel Stirling co-wrote with famed author Anne McCaffrey. I reviewed The City Who Fought awhile ago, and found it to be a rather … interesting book. Namely, while a lot of the action and sci-fi stuff was well done, the relationships and interactions between the characters were pretty cringeworthy. And that’s before you get into the rapey Nazi Space Pirate Drow antagonists.

Now, the interesting thing is, The Ship Avenged was written by Stirling alone. One of the biggest questions I asked about The City Who Fought was which author wrote which sections. So I figured reading The Ship Avenged might provide some clues to that. Which it did! Just not nearly in the way I expected.

The Ship Avenged centers on the scrappy-kid character from The City Who Fought, only she’s ten years older now and has her own spaceship for space opera adventures. It’s also worth noting that said protagonist is named Joat– an acronym for “Jack of All Trades.” Why she didn’t just call herself Jack, I couldn’t say. In any case, I guess Joat was Stirling’s favorite character from The City Who Fought, because the rest of the earlier book’s cast are mentioned only a couple of times, and don’t get any screen time of their own.

Instead, Joat gets caught up with some dude named Bros Sperin, who is like Space James Bond or something? He might’ve been mentioned in the earlier book but I don’t remember him. Anyway, Sperin ‘recruits’ (read: blackmails) Joat to go do some spy stuff for him on a space-pirate planet, which is honestly making it sound a bit cooler than it comes off. Oh, and Joat gets sent to scope out a space-mobster who coincidentally happens to be the evil uncle who sold her into slavery when she was seven. Oops.

Meanwhile, there’s also some business about the vengeful Space Nazi Drow Pirate bad guys from the first novel developing a weird biological weapon to use against the good guy planets. Of course, this plan fails terribly because the good guys also have an alien scientist named Seg on their side. Seg’s been studying the biological weapon on their side, and so he promptly immunizes everyone before bad stuff can happen. Plot-convenient as this is, Seg turned out to be my favorite character in the book. He’s a literally four-eyed alien nerd who invites himself along on Bros Sperin’s mission because he’s read too many spy novels. Fun stuff!

In any case, there are a lot of differences between The Ship Avenged and The City Who Fought. For one, the whole brain/brawn gimmick in which a terminally ill person is hooked up to a computer network to run a ship or a space station with the help of a physically capable ‘brawn’ assistant is completely absent. There’s a little business with Joat and her ship’s fussy AI, but that’s pretty standard sci-fi stuff.

What was most surprising was the fact that The Ship Avenged was a lot less problematic than The City Who Fought. I mean, sure, there’s some vaguely iffy stuff in that older men keep hitting on Joat, and the Nazi Space Pirate Drow themselves are all kinds of weird. Because not only are they dark-skinned and inherently violent, but they also breed faster than ‘normal’ humans, and … yeeeah. But they don’t actually rape anybody over the course of the book, so that’s something? (A low bar, I know). In fact, there’s a sub-plot in which the nicest of the Space Drow and one of his prisoners fall in love and escape from the Bad Guy fleet. This … is covered in all of about two chapters. It’s just ‘oh hey I don’t want to torture-murder you’ in one chapter, and then, after about a hundred pages of Joat tooling around space, we return to Bad Guy fleet where they’re like ‘we are so in love! Let’s run away!’

This romantic subplot (or lack therof) is indicative of The Ship Avenged as a whole. The book comes off as undercooked– it reads like Stirling’s not sure if he wants to write a swashbuckling space opera, a star-crossed romance, or a taut space-espionage thriller.

The Ship Avenged is a middling-to-decent sci-fi adventure, but I’m still glad I read it. Seeing as of how the book is devoid of its prequel’s weirdo “Nice Guy” relationship dynamics, I presume that some of The City Who Fought‘s most questionable elements were from McCaffrey, and not Stirling. It’s certainly the opposite of my hypothesis when I started reading the book, and something I’m gonna have to keep in mind the next time I get the urge to read a Pern novel or something.