Monday, July 16, 2018

LUCIFER'S STAR sale for $2.99 on Kindle


Hey folks,

Good news from the wonderful folks at CROSSROAD PRESS. Lucifer's Star is the first of my dark space opera trilogy and is on sale for $2.99 this month.

From the bestselling author of The Rules of Supervillainy:

Cassius Mass was the greatest star pilot of the Crius Archduchy. He fought fiercely for his cause, only to watch his nation fall to the Interstellar Commonwealth. It was only after that he realized the side he'd been fighting for was the wrong one. Now a semi-functional navigator on an interstellar freight hauler, he tries to hide who he was and escape his past. Unfortunately, some things refuse to stay buried and he ends up conscripted by the very people who destroyed his homeland.

LUCIFER'S STAR is the first novel of the Lucifer's Star series, a dark science fiction space opera set in a world of aliens, war, politics, and slavery.


Buy at Amazon.com

Friday, July 13, 2018

Abaddon's Gate (The Expanse #3) review


    ABADDON'S GATE is the third volume of the Expanse and while it promises many new and interesting developments, isn't one I enjoyed as much as the previous installments. That's not to say the novel isn't good but it has some flaws which made me think this series might be running out of steam. I hope I'm going to be proven wrong but the only way I can do that is to pick up the next volume.

`    The premise of the novels is humanity has explored the solar system and colonized both Mars as well as the Asteroid Belt. Unfortunately, this hasn't come with prosperity for all mankind. Poverty and conflict remain with humanity as the need for resources has become greater than ever. The conflict between the three factions has been made worse by the existence of the protomolecule, a billion-year-old alien artifact that has opened up new areas of technology as well as science. One of these is a massive celestial gate on the other end of the solar system.

    A group of priests, priestesses, reverends, and other religious leaders have been assembled on a publicity mission to investigate it. Meanwhile, Clarissa Mao, daughter of Jules-Pierre Mao, plots to frame Captain Holden and the crew of the Rocinate in order to avenge her father. This frame-up job ends up forcing Holden and the crew through the gate to become the first people to see what lies across the universe.

    The mystery of Abaddon's Gate is an interesting one as we get to see hints of what species created the protomolecule and why. The continued lack of actual aliens in the series is something which is both to its benefit and deterrent. It's really a series about humanity's reactions to alien life versus alien life itself. I don't know if we'll ever solve the mystery of what happened to them but it seems very likely we will and I'm not sure that's a great direction for the series to go. Then again, I compare it to A Song of Ice and Fire. I'm much more interested in the events in King's Landing versus the White Walkers.

    An interesting element is the novel it is a surprisingly religious novel. The character of Anna is a devoted Eastern Orthodox priest (or so I believe--things can change a lot in Russia in 200 years) who wants to save the soul of Clarissa Mao as well as end the fighting without further bloodshed. She spends a lot of time contemplating God, the universe, destiny, and alien life which is not the sort of thing you usually find in hard science fiction novels.

    The crew of the Rocinante are decent in this book but nothing really interesting happens with them. Yes, Holden is framed but no one believes it for very long nor is there much tension from the crew. We also lack interactions with Bobbie Draper, which is a shame as I really liked her character. I will say that Holden is starting to grate on me as a character since his naked idealism only works with very cynical characters to contrast him to.

    I also have to give the author's props for the fact they created the Behemoth--a converted Mormon generation ship which the OPA has turned into a completely useless military vessel. It can't fire any of its weapons due to the fact it's not structurally built for combat but it looks like it is. I will say, though, the book's handling on drug dealing offended me. One of the supposedly heroic characters spaces a man for dealing them and lost all sympathy as a result from me.

    Indeed, my biggest issue with the book is the character of Bacca. One of the major plots of the book is how he has to seize power from his insane military commander who is grossly underqualified for his position. When, in fact, I think Bacca is a dangerously unstable murderer who mounts a mutiny for flimsy pretexts. When you actively hate one of the main characters and think he should fail, something has gone wrong.

    In conclusion, Abaddon's Gate was....okay. I hope the next book is better, though.

6/10

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Angels and the Bad Man (Technomancer 3#) by M.K. Gibson


    THE TECHNOMANCER novels are one of my favorite indie reads with a peculiar combination of cyberpunk, urban fantasy, and Christian eschatology. The apocalypse had happened and God forgot to show up, resulting in demons taking over the world before human technology makes it into a cyberpunk dystopia. The books are witty, funny, and still manage to draw a lot of drama from the dark side of living in a hell-run post-apocalypse technopolis.

    The protagonists, Salem and Grimm, are two of the last free humans who have to play the games of demons to protect their isolated community of survivors. Well, it helps that said survivors is made up of a bunch of Vikings and has a couple of pagan gods defending it along with cyborgs but that's another story. Last book, Salem made a deal to try to get rid of his debt to hell but foolishly forgot the only way hell would ever make a deal like that was if they didn't think there was any chance of him pulling it off.

    ANGELS AND THE BAD MAN is the third installment of the series and follows Salem's escape from Flotsam Prison. This results in him being chased by mercenaries eager to bring him back even as he's made the stupid deal to find "The Tears of God" for his demonic patrons in exchange for saving his small community. Along the way he'll be kidnapped by Bison shifting Native Americans and be forced to reconnect with his deranged progeny. Meanwhile, Grimm is finally tracked down by the surviving fairy races who intend to make him pay for publishing all of their secrets and driving them to near-extinction.

    I like the Technomancer series as it's basically a light Dresden Files-esque read despite the fact it takes place in a world which has (literally) gone to hell. Terrible things can happen to Salem but he's almost always going to regenerate with his nanites and respond with a crack or a pop culture reference no one gets. He's done some bad things in the past but he's trying to make up for them and is a likable enough hero. I'm not as big a fan of Grimm or the Norse Gods but neither of them annoy me either.

    After three books in, I will say readers generally will know what they're getting with these books. While the existence of the Tears of God promises a bit more continuity, the books are more about Salem's trying to survive and his road trip adventures than a continuing story arc. Salem hasn't come any closer to overthrowing the forces of hell and that's not even his goal, it's just to survive long enough to carve a place for him and his people.

    I enjoy these books and recommend them to folk who like urban fantasy, cyberpunk, and things like Joss Whedon or Jim Butcher's work. What can you say about a book where an ancient wizard has to outsmart the entire Wild Hunt while another fights the Yakuza as well as a horde of cyborg ninjas? That it's a damned good book, that's what.

9/10

Saturday, July 7, 2018

She Dreams of Fire by M.K. Gibson


    SHE DREAMS OF FIRE is probably my all time favorite novel from M.K. Gibson and that's impressive since I absolutely loved VILLAINS RULE and the TECHNOMANCER series. I think my reasons for liking it are due to the fact it takes place in the modern world and manages to do a Dresden Files-esque world of fairies, magic, and demons. Indeed, M.K. Gibson's writing style is naturally similar to Jim Butcher's so it is really hitting the sweet spot as I wait for the release of PEACE TALKS or BRIEF CASES.

    The premise is Agatha "Aggy" Grae is a ten year old girl when her mother is murdered in an arson attack by a coven of witches. Witches in this world are portrayed remarkably unsympathetically (as the use of real-life hate book in the series title indicates), being a bunch of sociopaths who misuse their magic to manipulate or destroy the lives of those around them. It is a portrayal mitigated only by the fact Aggy, herself, is a witch.

    Thanks to the help of a traumatized EMT and veteran, Marcus, Aggy manages to survive the fire which killed her mother and discovers the ability to steal the abilities of fairies by injecting herself with their blood. With the help of Marcus, who turns out to be more like Dexter than your typical EMT, and a talking carnivorous rabbit--she sets out on a quest to get revenge on her tormentors.

    The characters and dialogue are the real draw of this book versus the fairly bog standard revenge plot. Aggy and Marcus are both deep characters with great contrast between one another. Aggy is a dedicated survivor and street kid while Marcus is an educated doctor who feels compelled to murder people but tries to restrict it to the truly guilty. Plus, they have a psychotic talking rabbit. You'd think that would bring the group down but it only makes it more awesome.

    An adventure is only as good as it's villain and M.K. Gibson has his absolute best in Lady Vanessa. She's a sociopathic witch who doesn't hesitate to use people's families against them, murder children, or lie to her partner in the police in the most outrageous of ways. Vanessa is an intelligent villain and actually manages to stay one step ahead of our heroes in believable ways, so that's just good writing even if you want her outright dead by the end.

    This is technically set in the same world as the Technomancer series but this is pre-apocalypse versus post-apocalypse. A couple of characters survive from this story to go on to become ones in the next one centuries later but I suspect these are more Easter Eggs than serious tie-ins. I'd like to think Aggy will eventually be able to live a normal life.

    If I have any complaints about the book, it's the fact it's written a bit broadly and could have done with some more seriousness. However, as I write humorous urban fantasy myself, I can understand why the author chose to write it this way.

9/10

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Vampyr (2018) review


    VAMPYR is the third game from DONTNOD entertainment, which had the somewhat missable (arguably forgettable) Remember Me and the video game classic LIFE IS STRANGE. It is a pseudo-Victorian (technically Edwardian) story about a vampire created during the Spanish Flu Epidemic of 1918 where 50 million people died. That's roughly ten times as many people died during the Black Death, by the way.

    The protagonist, Jonathan Reid, is a brilliant blood specialist who is transformed into a vampire and left to rot on top of a mass grave of Spanish Flu victims. Awakening, Jonathan Reid kills his sister in a blood-crazed frenzy then botches a suicide attempt in an attempt to atone. From there, Jonathan struggles to find himself a new life as he investigates vampire society, the vampire race's relationship to the Spanish Flu, and why there's a huge number of blood crazed psychopaths wandering the streets.

Dialogue is the best part of the game.
    One thing I will appreciate about this video game is that it is a heavily storyteller-driven game and there's not a smack of multiplayer about it. The gameplay isn't great, feeling like a dumbed down Dishonored crossed with Arkham Asylum, but it is fueled by a deep devotion to the characters as well as a desire to tell a classic vampire story. In short, I have very mixed feelings about this game but I suffered through the worst parts to finish it, which means I mostly liked it. Mostly.

    Unfortunately, the game suffers from the fact Jonathan Reid is not the most interesting of protagonists. He's a somewhat snooty upper class intellectual who is disdainful of religion even when crosses repel him and he's walking around as an explicitly supernatural being. It's a bit like playing Sherlock Holmes when Watson remains the emotional heart. As such, a lot of times I couldn't help but be more interested in the countless well-written NPCs around the game.

    The biggest star of the game is undoubtedly London itself. I'm not sure how accurate the depiction of the city is but it is a dark and fascinating place ravaged by both the Great War as well as the Spanish Plague. There's a bit of an immersion breaker in the fact the streets are full of vampire hunters, murderous ghouls, werewolves and worse.

The graphics are okay but not great.
    The fact none of the public seem to comment on the horrible monsters routinely being killed around them is also troubling. Despite it being 1918 and cars spread around, you can't fast travel across the monster-filled streets either. Instead, to get anywhere in the setting, you have to wander around on foot slaughtering people like you're crossing Skyrim.

    The travel issues of the game are also troubling because they have each district full of people who fall sick with a variety of ailments like fatigue, cold, or headaches that need to be treated in order to prevent the districts from falling into "Chaos." This means you're running up and down the map all the time, fighting the same re-spawning enemies over and over again.

    There is a clever gameplay element that I do appreciate, which is the fact that murdering NPCs results in Jonathan Reid getting a massive boost to his experience. The actions cause the district to become less healthier, more suspicious, and dangerous. If they fall to chaos, the NPCs disappear and they become full of vampires and monsters with all quests failed.

The combat is clunky but serviceable.
     The problem of this is the morality of these actions takes a hit with the fact Jonathan Reid can avoid "murdering" people but kills dozens, if not hundreds, of vampire hunters as well as his fellow undead. While there's a distinction between murder and killing in self-defense, it's kind of weird to have Jonathan Reid's pacifism lauded as well as no effect from killing hunters versus slaying the NPCs that include gangsters as well as the occasional serial killer.

    Gameplay-wise, you mostly wander around the city streets and fight a small variety of enemies that get progressively tougher the more you progress in the story. You can use firearms, melee weapons, and your vampiric powers. Though, in practice, the only thing which really worked for me consistently were melee weapons that stunned characters so I could drink their blood. There's some minor bugs, especially when coming from the map section, that often causes Jonathan to moonwalk backwards or be unable to move forward for a few seconds.

    I do like how cosmopolitan London is depicted as being with black, Indian, homosexual, Jewish, communist, and Christian characters. Jonathan Reid is a bit too tolerant for his time period to be believable but I'm not going to complain about that. I'm also quite fond of Jonathan's love interest Lady Ashbury, though they're both so reserved I didn't realize they were in love until the end of the game. Really, the standout character of the game is a mid-game boss that I can't talk about for risk of spoiling.

My favorite character in the game.
    Combat is clunky and pretty unforgiving unless you are overpowered due to murdering everyone on the map and absorbing their power. The leveling system in the game is also broken with your character usually half-a-dozen levels underneath whatever you're fighting. I think if they'd removed the leveling system and kept everyone without hit points like Dishonored or Batman: Arkham Asykum, it would have worked better. Its serviceable at best and not as enjoyable as either of its inspirations.

    The vampire lore in the game is a bit like the game's treatment of England. Overdone but not bad. If I'm going to be honest, this game feels a LOT like The Order: 1886 crossed with a laymen's version of Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines. There's the upper crust vampires (Ekons), the deformed sewer-dwelling vampires (Skals), the brutish thug vampires (Vulkod), werewolves (Great Beasts), and the Inquisition (the Priwen Guard) which hunts them. They're also all tied to King Arthur because, of course they are.

    In simple terms, Vampyr is okay. It's not a great game and this is coming from an undead fanatic. I actually think this game probably would have benefited from being re-imagined as a 5 episode Life is Strange-esque storytelling adventure. Not to pigeonhole DONTNOD Entertainment but I think they do those better than action games.

7/10

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Twin Peaks: A Limited Event Series review


    This is a review which is a long time coming and I had a problem coming up with what I thought of the series as a whole. The ending felt unsatisfying to me in many ways, even frustrating, but I was tuned to every episode when they popped up on Showtime until the very end. The original run of Twin Peaks remains my all-time favorite show and I've re-watched it multiple times. I wasn't sure I loved it the first time but it had a way of burying itself deep into my brain before growing into something grandiose.

    Twin Peaks: The Return is a direct sequel to the original series despite it being twenty-five years later. In the finale of the original series, Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle McLaughlin) was replaced by an evil doppelganger wearing his face. Dale was trapped in the Black Lodge and the ghost of Laura Palmer, or someone very similar to her, said, "See you in twenty-five years." That is a foresight from David Lynch and Mark Frost or just an incredibly lucky coincidence.

It's time, Cooper.
    Twenty-five years later, Twin Peaks has completely gone to hell and become a crime ridden suburban hellhole. The Black Lodge's residents have decided to help Cooper regain his body and return him to life while drawing the Bad Cooper back. This proves to be a lot harder task than any of them realize as Bad Cooper is a genius. We also follow other personages from Twin Peak's original series and see how they're fairing in the modern day. How are they doing? Usually, the answer isn't well.

    I have to say David Lynch loves toying with his audience as we have to wait a very long time to see Special Agent Dale Cooper return to action. Much of the show has the protagonist of the original run spending his time in a near-catatonic daze, mistaken for a third doppelganger named Dougie Jones. These scenes are both frustrating as well as hilarious with Janey E (Naomi Watts) playing a housewife who doesn't seem to realize (or simply doesn't care) her husband seems to have had a stroke.

I like David Lynch looks to be having fun.
    The actual expected "Agent Cooper" role is mostly played by David Lynch himself with the character of deaf Assistant Director Gordon Cole investigating the supernatural goings-on which link the Bad Cooper, Good Cooper, Dougie Jones, and the town of Twin Peaks. This would be extremely arrogant of most directors but Gordon Cole is a beloved character for a reason and Lynch has the acting chops necessary to lead his own show. He's helped by Miguel Ferrer's Albert Rosenfield and singer Chrysta Bell as FBI Agent Tammy Preston (in-universe author of the The Secret History of Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier).

    I admit to a certain level of disappointment with the absense of both Donna Hayward and the somewhat unsatisfying ending to Audrey Horne's story. Lara Flynn Boyle's issues with Twin Peaks meant she was probably never going to show up but the character of Donna not being mentioned is a big issue. It would have been nice to give her an ending of some kind given her role as one of the show's major stars. Sherilyn Fenn doesn't get much of a role either, save at the end, and I hope she'll return in a hypothetical fourth season.
Go ahead, make fun of his mullet.

    Other characters do get an ample amount of screentime with Doctor Jacoby reinvisioned as a Left-wing analog to Alex Jones, Nadine having finally founded her drape store, Ed and Norma still mooning over one another, as well as a Bobby having married (then divorced) Shelly. Indeed, I found the story of Amanda Seyfriend as Becky Burnett with her abusive relationship with Steven Burnett to be one of the highlights of the season. So much so I regretted the show didn't have time to have Bobby and Shelly's reaction to its conclusion.

    The supernatural plays a much bigger role in this season of Twin Peaks than previous ones with the Bad Cooper merged with Bob, the existence of doppelgangers, and the frequent appearance of the White/Black Lodges. We also get introduced to new and confusing characters with the now-supernatural Phillip Jeffries (played the late David Bowie via archived footage and voiced by Nathan Frizzell). The story of Bob's origin is a trippy and surreal take on the atomic bomb, spiritual barriers, and a set up for a possible fourth season.

    The depiction of Twin Peaks as an economically depressed, crime-ridden location where most of the locals are either unemployed or on drugs is something I appreciated. Norma is the most successful of the Twin Peaks residents after the Hornes (and Jerry Horne made a fortune selling marajuana post-legalization--which shows there's no justice in the world). Everyone else is struggling in various ways and I really wish we could have followed the town a bit more since it seemed very relevant for today's climate.

Bobby becoming a cop is weirder than Evil Cooper.
    The music for the third season is beyond beautiful with the score for the actual televsion series being beautiful and subdued. However, after every episode, we also get a band playing at the Bang-Bang Bar which includes Julee Cruise, Chromatics, the Cactus Blossoms, and "The" Nine Inch Nails. I purchased the soundtrack for the season and have listened to its songs constantly.

    So, what is my biggest issue with the third season? Well, unfortunately, David Lynch doesn't bother to tie everything up in a bow as he did before but ends on a note possibly even more frustrating than the original series. On the plus side, it heavily involved Sheryl Lee and I love her as an actress almost as much as I love Sherilyn Fenn. To truly appreciate this work, I think you need to be a super fan of the original or at least watch it before you watch The Return. Thankfully, I am and did.

Love the mother, not so much the son.
     This is a series which raises more questions than it answers. Many characters introduced who feel like they should be important like local crime boss Red or Audrey's "husband" turn out to be just part of the background. There's many vignettes and allusions in the Roadhouse scenes that, ultimately, have nothing to do with the story. This is also the last mystery I ever expected to also be resolved by a magic green glove and punching (it makes sense in context). Would I have had liked more Audrey? You betcha. However, that's just how the cherry pie crumbles sometimes.

    The Blu Ray Special Edition of Twin Peaks: The Return contains an additional six hours of extras from David Lynch and Mark Frost. Sadly, none of them will give the answers people hope for or the commentary I'd have loved to have gotten from the cast. However, it does contain their ComicCon panel as well as many fascinating behind the scenes vignettes.

9/10

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Detroit: Become Human review


    I've got mixed feelings toward David Cage's video games. I generally like that someone is creating adult based storytelling-focused adventure games. It's nice to have someone working to elevate the medium and I consider Heavy Rain to be a classic. I also liked Fahrenheit (a.k.a Indigo Prophecy). Unfortunately, his games are ones which suffer for the fact they're not at all that much fun to play. Still, I was interested in the subject matter of Detroit: Beyond Human since I'm a huge fan of robot-related fiction and social issues as related to them. So, is it any good? Well, yes, but it's not great.

    The premise is that in the year 2038, we've successfully created intelligent androids that have been mass-produced and sold in the United States. I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen but props to David Cage for thinking big. Unfortunately, the androids are receiving so much abuse at the hands of their creators that some awaken, become deviants, and attack their owners or attempt to flee to Canada.

Kara is an intensely likable character. Sadly, she's a guest star.
    Already, there's some uncomfortable confusion as to just how sentient the androids are supposed to be since if they're rebelling, you can put that off as malfunctioning, but if they're fleeing to Canada to live as refugees then that's a pretty clear sign they're sentient. One would think we'd see more signs of people advocating for android rights in that situation or, at least, acknowledging they're people.

    Become Human has three perspectives to follow with Kara, Connor, and Markus. Kara and Markus are domestic servants attached to humans who have polar-opposite views on how to treat them. Markus is an android police man very obviously inspired by Deckard and Joe from the Blade Runner movies. It is his job to deal with his kind's malfunctions. It seems like the game draws heavily from the TV series Humans, which focused on android domestics, as well as the aforementioned pair of movies. This isn't a bad thing but the influences can be a bit too spot on if you've seen both.

I like this guy is the only outright evil android in the game.
    The game does an excellent job of world-building, establishing how androids work with humans as well as their role in the universe. I like they are primarily helpers of the elderly and designed for supporting people rather than a pure slave labor force. I felt the game overdid the allusions to Nazis, slavery, and other real-life atrocities, though. It also feels very derivative as android-and-android-hating buddy cop duo (Almost Human), sex club murder (Humans), and meeting the creator of the androids who is obsessed with their potential (the Blade Runner films) have all been done in ways that David Cage doesn't add much of a spin on.

    There's a lot more choice and consequence in this game than normal with the benefits as well as drawbacks all clearly shown on a dialogue tree. This actually spoils things a bit but does allow you to explore all the various options available without difficulty. Are you a violent murderous robot revolutionary or a peaceful demonstrator? Do you beat up the drug dealer trying to hurt you or let yourself get beaten up? How do you respond to the pleas of other androids?

Shall you free Cortana or not?
    I feel like there's more that could have been done with this premise. I was very interested in the difference between androids who were "awoke" and those who were "asleep." Are the latter really nonsentient? If so, does that mean enslaving them isn't wrong? What is the diminished capacity of these machines really entail? Sadly, it seems to have gone very strongly with the idea the androids are an enslaved working class with them even forced to sit on the back of the bus.

    Gameplay-wise there's nothing really to write home about. David Cage games are all about people doing laundry, asking questions, and making choices. This isn't a bad thing but this isn't the kind of game which you enjoy for anything but the story. My favorite parts of the game were the Kara and Connor section with Marcus losing much of his appeal as soon as he was no longer with his benevolent "owner." The graphics are beautiful but that's to expected in the days of Triple A gaming's ascendance.

The faces genuinely confuse me.
    I should note I'm not averse to a sci-fi game about addressing civil rights, peaceful resistance, and disenfranchised working classes. The word "robot" comes from the Czec word  for "forced labor" just like the word slave comes from the "Slav." Robots have traditionally been used as representations for all minorities everywhere. I, myself, have used the metaphor in my Lucifer's Star books. I do think they could have done something a bit more original with it, though.

    In the end, Become Human is...okay. There's some stand-out performances like Lance Henriksen (the original helpful android in sci-fi) and Clancy Brown as the android-hating cop. However, the story I was most interested in with Kara was the least relevant to the main story. I think they could have easily had her as the messianic figure instead of Marcus and it would have been a more interesting story by far. This is also the first David Cage game without a shower scene! Shame!

8/10