Friday, April 18, 2014

Z-Boat review

    When one typically says the word "post-apocalyptic zombie fiction", you assume the former is caused by the latter. The first intriguing thing about Z-Boat is the zombies are completely unrelated to the fact the world has gone to hell.

    Set in an undetermined time in the future, Z-Boat describes a world where the environment has been totally destroyed by pollution and only a few countries remain due to economic collapse. While I was knocked out of the book by her, presumably humorous, choice of North Korea as one of those nations--we have no idea just how long the world has been in this state.

    I found Suzanne Robb's vision of a humanity on its last legs enjoyably dark. Everyone continues to go about their business despite the fact its obvious the world not just coming to an end but had ended years ago. Humanity is taking its time dying out but the sheer amount of devastation makes any repair attempts impossible (doubly so given humanity is using outmoded rusting 21st century equipment).

    The bleakness is all subtext, though, with the humans of Z-Boat not really caring about the end of the world. Instead, their chief concerns are their paycheck and whether or not their next mission will get them killed. The crew of the titular boat reminded me strongly of the Nostromo's crew from Alien as a result. A collection of individuals in a doomed situation, shady corporate sponsorship, and one exceptionally competent woman who might save a few.

    The characters are an ecletic bunch and the book's chief draw. The Betty Loo submarine is more or less the last stop and all of them have checked pasts of one kind or another. Not all of the crew like each other and tensions run hot and thick between the original crew as well as the newcomers.

    My favorite characters were Ally and Brian, the former being a survivor of a cult-like militia and the latter being the ship's alcoholic Captain. The novel spans multiple perspectives and gives us a multifaceted view of the situation while also making sure we don't know who the "main" characters are. This keeps tension hot when bodies start to pile up.

    Suzanne Robb brings an interesting new approach to zombies as well. Her particular Z-words are notable for the fact infection doesn't destroy a subject's intelligence. Instead, they just become incredibly hostile and focused on feeding above all else. The zombies are thus able to plan and strategize before falling on their former human allies like the cannibals they are. There were times when I wondered if they were possessed by an alien parasite like in The Thing. We got only a short bit from the perspective of these "smart" zombies and I'm hoping for more in future books.

    Readers should be forewarned the actual zombies don't appear engage the crew until the last third of the book. Suzanne Robb is far more interested in the tensions, paranoia, and in-fighting amongst the crew to drop in her cannibalistic creations off the bat. Therefore, the book is something of a slow burn before an explosive climax. This may not to be everyone's taste. Likewise, I question the choice of the surviving nations in this reality and believe others would have worked better.

    One scene also bugged me. A crew member of the Betty Loo is revealed to have taken part in a monstrous crime. One so horrific and destructive that the casualties outnumber Nine-Eleven a hundred fold. When his part in this horrific massacre is revealed, the crew just sort of shrug it off. I'm not sure if the author was trying to make a statement about the callousness of people in the future or simply the idea such tragedies are commonplace now. Either way, it took me out of the book.

    Still, the personal relationships of the crew helped endear them to me so when the zombies finally did arrive--I cared who got eaten and who didn't. This is an important quality for any work of horror and Z-Boat successfully pulls it off. I look forward to future works set in the world of Z-Boat and recommend the novel for zombie and apocalypse fans.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Zombies vs. Infected

    This is an addendum post to "How to Write A Zombie Novel" based on an observant reader's comment about the controversy over Zombies versus Infected. The difference may not be immediately obvious to the layman but is actually rather controversial in some circles.

    The difference is, in simple terms, Zombies are dead people who have risen from the grave while Infected are individuals who are sick yet now gruesomely savage. The latter was popularized by the games Left 4 Dead and 28 Days Later, both depicting a "different" kind of (lower case) zombie which was both fast moving as well as more intelligent than the Romero undead.

    There's considerable overlap between these two concepts. Indeed, I actually just use the term zombie whenever I refer to them in my hash-tags. However, the differences between the two types of zombie can mean a major difference between how the monster is handled in the story.

    As mentioned, the Zombie is very much based on George Romero's model. They are dead rather than sick and are not required to follow much in the way of biological rules. They can be shot, chopped up, and set on fire without causing them overdue distress. They also tend to be slow-moving because, obviously enough, they are rotting. There's a definite building-dread to these creatures that, ironically, is similar to how human beings became the dominant species on Earth.

    Everyone knows cheetahs are faster than human beings. So are a lot of animals. However, something I learned in college was human beings are actually much better at endurance walks. So, when they caught up to their prey, they were fresh and the latter were dead tired. Zombies are much like this. Our hero can spend the entire movie running away from them but they, unlike their pursuers, have to catch their breath and sleep. The Zombie is like death. You can escape it every day of your life but it will catch you.

    In this respect, the mindlessness of the Zombie is also part of its appeal. A Zombie is a very impersonal sort of killer. George Romero's movies even sympathize with the creatures to a certain extent, highlighting they're remnants of humanity rather than just purely evil. A Zombie's bite will kill you and turn you into a monster but it bears no malice or anger. Thus, a Zombie serves as a decent enough stand-in for death.

    Infected, by contrast, are a bit more hard science. While rising from the dead as a shambling horror is still, for now, in the realm of fantasy--we have people attacking people in savage ways all the time. Rabies, drug-cocktails, violent schizophrenia, and other conditions make it plausible (if unlikely) that something akin to a zombie attack could occur. In short, Infected are "living" zombies.

    This doesn't mean that Infected can be cured. Far from it. The majority of depictions have them as brain-dead but possessing only aggressive instincts and hunger. In short, they're living people have been reduced to a state of heightened mania. This, theoretically, means they're vulnerable to damage (even if they don't feel pain) and have a need to eat as well as sleep.

    Infected, due to the fact they're still alive, are not rotting creatures. They are able to run, attack, and reason to a certain degree. They are as intelligent as animals, for the most part, and may display some communal behaviors. Amusingly, this would apply to the first George Romero zombie who ran after Judith O'Dea's character in a cemetery before trying to break into her car with a rock.

    Resident Evil shows some of the benefits of Infected in they can be adjusted to fit non-zombie motifs. Infected can be linked to mutants and turn into all manner of horrible and disgusting monsters. While Zombies can theoretically be turned into horrible abominations, in general, they tend to be associated with rotting and have no real bodily processes.

    The differences between Zombies and Infected have long-term consequences for each other. Zombies can stay animated forever or will, eventually, rot to pieces. They are supernatural beings and can follow any rules you want to establish for them. They have no natural life-cycle and thus can do more or less anything you want them to. The Infected, on the other hand, should have whatever sort of life-cycle (for lack of a better term) described.

    In most cases, the Infected don't have to last forever. The initial outbreak is terrifying enough as it is. However, unless you intend to have them die of "natural causes" you might want to think of a crude life cycle of the creatures as time wears on. Do they continue to wear the clothes they wore until they're tattered stinking remnants or do they put on clothing out of habit? Do they sleep, hibernate, or enter a kind of weird stasis? Do they hate the light and love the dark or prowl around during the day? These can add a lot of fun to your book if thought about to their natural conclusions as well as interject a kind of fun realism.

    There's no reason the two kinds of undead can't overlap, though. Zombies can run, the Infected can display almost supernatural qualities, and the two sides may blend however the author may desire. In one Call of Cthulhu scenario, protoplasmic aliens take residence in  corpses and then re-animate it despite "life" no longer following the functions of a normal human. The intelligent aliens of Dark City are animating the corpses of humans for similar reasons. Likewise, the use of Zombies as metaphors for disease predates the creation of Infected.

    There's no reason authors must keep a strict divide between the two in their books but if they want to, bearing in mind these qualities might benefit them. Thanks for reading, folks!
* Special thanks to Neil Cohen and Rob Pegler.

Monday, April 14, 2014

How to write a zombie novel

   So, you want to write a zombie novel.

    There's two ways of going about this.

    The first method is write a book and put zombies in them. Bam. You've succeeded. Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon has two levels where you meet the ravenous undead. The first has them created by a mad scientist and the second has them rising from the grave as part of a native bravery test. The video game isn't about zombies but they are a part of the story. This, obviously, isn't touching the real meat of the question (pun intended). How do you write a novel focused on the ravenous undead? Not as guest-stars but the main attraction.

    Well, the first thing you have to do is define what what a zombie is in your setting and what rules apply to it. While George Romero created the "modern" zombie, the roots of the creature go back much further. The first reference to the ravenous undead is in the oldest writing known to mankind with the Epic of Gilgamesh. Ishtar uses them as a threat to gain herself access to the Bull of Heaven.

    "If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven, I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld, I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down, and will let the dead go up to eat the living!”

    Sadly, we never get to see Gilgamesh versus the hordes of the dead and he fights the infinitely less-interesting bull. Amusingly, vampires were more like zombies in their original myths. They were ugly, disgusting, and unpleasant creatures who rose from the dead to kill the living. Some were handsome and sired children or looked like their old selves but since the beginning, rotting dead have been a motif. There's also the Voodoo zombie, which is a corpse raised by magic as a servant of the living or a brainwashed human being depending on how you want to deal with the idea.

    For the most part, I determine these rules to be the qualify of what is required to be a zombie versus some other form of monstrous animal.

* It is dead.
* It is decaying or corpse-like to the point it doesn't have vital signs.

    That's it.

    You can do intelligent zombies, mindless zombies, hungry zombies, zombies sustained by magic instead of flesh, zombies coming back because of vengeance, zombies coming back because of a curse, zombies which have destroyed the world, or zombies which threaten only a small fraction of people like Jason at a camp site. There's an infinite number of tales to be told with the ravenous dead and you don't have to stick with the classics. Hell, even Tolkien had the Barrow Wights and the hordes of the dead used by Aragorn to protect Gondor.

    Really, the big question is what your zombies represent. This will determine what sort of qualities you want to attribute to their existence. In Night of the Living Dead, George Romero's horde of the mindless dead exist as an excuse to force class-conscious and racially uncomfortable people into a house together. They're a natural disaster that can be adjusted or altered any way the storyteller wants. 

    In the original Dawn of the Dead, the zombies are representative of the mindless consumerism (pun almost certainly intended) which was afflicting American life. In the Resident Evil films, the zombies represent (however obliquely) the military-industrial complex's continued production of ever-more-destructive weapons for seemingly no reason.

    My favorite use of zombies is as a metaphor for plague and sickness. Zombie-ism (for lack of a better word) spreads like a disease from carrier-to-carrier. It knows no difference on class, wealth, race, or age. It brings sickness followed by death and, because of that sickness, the person becomes a threat to the people around them. The fact Zombie-ism is usually incurable only makes the situation more tragic.

    What's next to consider is that zombies, by and large, aren't actually characters. They're a plot device. George Romero subverted this by having a couple of his movies show the undead gradually recovering it's humanity. Twilight-parody, Warm Bodies, was all about a zombie as a romantic figure (the humor coming from how ridiculous this is). Before it was the 1993 movie, My Boyfriend's Back, where an intelligent zombie must adjust to eating the flesh of the living to go on a date with the girl he likes.

   Perhaps the best use of intelligent zombies is in the Fallout games. Radiation causes all sorts of funky effects in the setting and one is that people killed by it during the war, as often as not, rose as deformed slowly-rotting undead called Ghouls. The thing is, aside from their appearance, they were perfectly normal people and subject to prejudice.  Fallout 3 added the fact ghouls were not immortal and eventually degenerated into the mindless undead they were feared to be (but only over the course of centuries).

    However, for the most part, zombies are unintelligent parodies of human beings.

    So where does this leave the writer? Well, the important thing to realize in these circumstances, the "star" of the work is probably not the undead but the humans reacting to them. This is a delicate balance to maintain because audiences who read zombie books are, as often as not, there for the suspense. The heroes exist to be lunch until one or more of the group survives (or they all die). So, when crafting the protagonists of your zombie novel, you should question whether or not characters are meant to be expendable or not. By and large, there's usually a "Final Girl" or a small group of survivors to illustrate the dangers of the zombie threat.

    This too can be subverted but should only be when you have a reason for it. Peter Cline's Ex-Heroes novels are about superheroes versus zombies. The traditional narrative of plucky survivors against the undead is subverted by the fact the undead don't actually pose any real threat to the majority of them. Saint George is immune to being bitten, Zzzap is made of electricity, and Stealth is simply too good to be defeated by the undead. 

    In this case, the tension is from the fact they are attempting to protect regular humans from the undead. They may face non-zombie threats which menace them but there's a class tension which emerges from the fact superior beings are thriving with "normal" human beings forced to exist in their shadow.

    How much danger are our heroes in and who are we willing to sacrifice to the specter of the Grim Reaper? A protective narrative places the heroes as individuals trying to save others while a survival horror narrative is about living yourself. The two can be combined, as we see in The Walking Dead, but a real question is how menacing you want your creatures to be. 

    Bluntly, it is my recommendation you should always kill some of your darlings in zombie fiction lest you undermine the zombie's threat. Zombies are dangerous and nothing reveals this quality more than body count. When zombies have destroyed the world, as in post-apocalypse scenarios, the need to "prove" their danger lessens dramatically.

    Zombies don't have to all-powerful and dangerous to serve their purpose. Indeed, one of the appeals of the monster is they're rather crap by themselves. A common element in zombie fiction is the zombies, after an initial period of intense danger, become relatively easy to survive if you know what you're doing. 

    The traditional Romero zombie is slow because it requires the flaws of humans (overconfidence, treachery, or greed) to make them dangerous. This is why I prefer my zombies to walk rather than run. The thing is, though, zombies don't get tired and they can take all the time in the world (bwahahahah--ahem).

    Another element to consider when writing a zombie is whether or not it's a good idea to include psychos. "Psychos", as coined by the Dead Rising series, are individuals who have been driven mad by the events around them or are simply opportunists seeking to profit by it. Man is the real monster, blah-blah-blah. The thing is, that's actually a pretty effective lesson when it's obvious (more often than not) our heroes would be able to survive if they worked together. 

    Psychos offer an excellent opportunity to provide writers with villains who can talk. People often react poorly in traumatic situations and is there any more than cannibal monsters rising from the dead? People might do something insane like try human sacrifices (The Mist), kill their fellow humans so the zombies are distracted by the fresh meat, or even turn to looting as the breakdown of order gives them a chance to fill their material desires (Dawn of the Dead).

    There's also the question of the "Z-word." Zombies are pop-culture monsters more than vampires, demons, and so-on. In fiction, by and large, people have some idea what sort of powers and abilities a vampire possesses. Being intelligent monsters, the idea a vampire surviving unseen is plausible. This is less so with a zombie. You must establish how familiar the people of your book are with the ravenous undead.

    In The Walking Dead, George Romero's movies do not exist, and they never use the Z-word because the rising dead are a completely unknown quality until that time. In Thom Brannan and D.L. Snell's Dog series, zombies were created in direct homage of the creatures from fiction. Do people know "rules" of killing zombies or is it a completely inexplicable phenomenon? There's nothing preventing you from fiddling around with the concept either.  

    Alan Wake has the Taken, who are zombies with the serial numbers filed off. The Taken have their souls and minds removed while being re-animated by the black material of the Lake. A horrific fungus might re-animate humans as a monster like in The Last of Us. Mass Effect deals with humans who have been re-animated with nanomachines as cybernetic-corpses. Even changing small bits around can help your work feel fresh and new. It will also leave your reader wondering what sort of "rules" are being followed.

    Finally, the important thing to remember with your zombie novel is figuring out what sort of ending you want to go with. Once you have determined what your zombies are supposed to represent, how much damage they've done to the protagonists, and so on--you must figure out where the story will carry you. In Zombie Apocalypse scenarios, the ending is rarely anything but bittersweet. After all, it is rare for the humans to totally defeat the epidemic. More often, it is simply a matter of surviving to the next day.

    The genre is also famous for its endings where the entire cast is killed, though this is rare now and could anger readers. In short, my recommendation is to just go with what feels authentic versus what feels happy.

    I hope you've found my advice informative. If not, well, see if I help you when Z-Day happens.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Inglourious Basterds review

    Inglourious Basterds is an example of a bait and switch. On one hand, the movie's posters and advertising depict this as a movie about the titular team. It promises revenge porn against the Nazis on a level akin to Indiana Jones crossed with Castle Wolfenstein. What it provides, instead, is an art film about the nature of revenge porn and how that reflects us as an audience. I went in expecting Django Unchained and what I got was Spec Ops: The Line.

    Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to grindhouse cinema and bloody carnage, so this is a case of "only Nixon could go to China" as anyone else analyizing just how much is "too much" when it comes to dehumanizing another human being would come off as softhearted. Here, Quentin Tarantino asks a simple question: is there a limit to the amount of torture and violence we can apply to a fellow human being even when they're enormous scumbags?

    Is there any critical examination of this going on or it just "us versus them"? SHOULD there be any critical examination? Does it matter if these are real monsters or not? It seems a tad hypocritical Quentin Tarantino made this movie then went on to make Django Unchained but, perhaps, this highlights he's aware of the dichotomy even if he makes no judgements on it.

    Inglourious Basterds is a movie with three groups of protagonists. The Basterds, themselves, who are a cartoonish brand of psychopaths out to revenge their race on the Nazis (they're all Jewish with the possible exception of Brad Pitt's character). Shosanna Dreyfuss, Jewish survivor of Nazi hunters, who is a significantly more "real" protagonist out to avenge her dead family. Then there's the character of Hans Landa, who is an affable analog for Heinrich Himmler. Yes, I'd argue he's one of the protagonists as opposed to the villain (or is both).

    The Basterds are an interesting take on the violent anti-hero as a great number of their war crimes during the movie are things the Nazis themselves did. The carving of swastikas into the heads of prisoners, the murder of prisoners for information, and torture of allies on the merest suspicion of treason. Several times in the movie, we see the Nazis (the title being applied to regular German military as well as members of the party) act in a manner significantly more human than our ostensible heroes. Yet, we cheer the Basterds because they're against the Nazis and on "our" side, no matter how horrific their deeds.

    In truth, the character of Shosanna is the actual "hero" as while she wants revenge on the Nazi war machine, she acts in a much saner manner. Shosanna still wants to carry out murderous revenge against the Nazis but her plan is squarely aimed at Hitler. The indiscriminate torture and terrorism of the Basterds seems like a complete farce compared to her cold, calculating, and thoroughly justified Count of Monte Cristo-esque revenge plan. Shosanna wants to lock Hitler and a bunch of Nazi soldiers in a movie theater and burn it to the ground. Even though it's a horrible death for many people, it's in the middle of a war and one cannot say she is not someone who is not justified in her actions.

    At least, unless you're a pacifist or don't believe in revenge.

    The character of Hans Landa is a curious mixture of both hero and villain. A character based on Heidrich Himmler crossed with Sherlock Holmes, he is a mastermind behind the Holocaust and yet not Anti-Semitic. He kills people because that's job and he's good at it. He's a genius polygot played with tremendous charm and wit. Were he not part of one of the most evil acts in history, one could easily see him as a hero.

    Which, of course, is part of the movie's point. What values a hero espouses seem very unlike the reasons audiences root for characters. There's one seen where an audience of Nazis roots for a hero in a movie about killing people as the audience watches the movie about heroes killing Nazis. In the end, the characters all come together and there's bloodshed followed by a typical Tarantino ending. No lessons are learned, a lot of bodies are left on the ground, and the audience is left to ponder: What did I just see?

    My answer is a mess.

    For all my praise above, I think Quentin Tarantino doesn't really have a message here. He makes a valid point that heroes should be held to a higher standard than just being "guys working for the people we identify with" and that the Germans during WW2 were people too. You could even make a statement the movie highlights the Allies weren't all sunshine and roses (which they weren't). However, the movie loses me with the fact the primary target of the movie is Hitler's Inner Circle and an architect of the Holocaust.

    The Basterds are horrible people, one and all, but it's hard to deny the appeal of retribution when one's people are being eradicated--which muddies the morality a good deal. The Soviets enacted a horrifying revenge on the German people during their retaliatory invasion. Their actions were not remotely moral, but I can't say I don't understand them. Murder and horror happen in war because war is murder and horror.

    Which is why it should be prevented in real life. Tarantino simply observes the horrors of his protagonists, villains, and everyone in-between without making a point. This robs the movie of any real point or power. In a film dealing with issues like revenge, the Holocaust, state-sponsored terrorism, and more--the most memorable thing about the film is Brad Pitt's hilariously bad accent.

    The Jewishness of the Basterds is almost incidental to the story compared to Shosanna's. Given she's a girl who has had her family murdered and would be killed for her interracial relationship with her black lover, it's hard to say there's any moral equivalency whatsoever. Even the sympathetic German soldier who likes Shosanna unquestionably serves a regime whose public face was horrible (let alone its private).

    In short, war is hell and you can't really talk about anti-heroes, villains, and moral standards without acknowledging the dehumanizing effect of it. Quentin Tarantino is more interested in talking about the dehumanizing effect of revenge porn on audiences--which I'm not sure exists. My grand-uncle fought in the Battle of the Bulge and barely survived. He had to deal with a lot of uncomfortable and dehumanizing things.

    Killing fictional people was not one of them.


Friday, April 11, 2014

Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon review

    The relationship between boys (not men) and the 1980s action movie craze is something which is difficult to explain. It's really a meeting of circumstances more than anything else. You see, back when the PG-13 rating was either nonexistent or new (coming to pass because of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), the R-rating had some leeway from movie theaters. It had just the sort of forbidden allure that was intoxicating to boys aged twelve to fourteen.

    What did you want to do when you wanted to show how much more grown up you were than Star Wars (even though you weren't)? Well, you went to see one of the many R-rated movies out there in theaters or on VHS. The movie industry was completely complicit in this. Aliens, Robocop, Terminator, Predator, and Rambo (part II and III) had massive fanbases amongst those who were technically too young to see them. I won't lie to you, there were also other allures of R-rated movies that newly pubescent boys would hope to be in these sorts of films, especially the really bad ones. The internet has wiped out the allure of these latter ones completely.

The Blood Dragons are impressive monsters and easily one of the game's best features.
    What am I blathering on about? Well, what I'm trying to get at is that 1980s action movies were marketed as often as not at kids as well as adults. I could have said that upfront but I wanted to soliloquy about my childhood. Imagine G.I. Joe with more nudity (16-bit), swearing, and blue-colored gore. This will give you a pretty good idea of what Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is all about. It's a cartoon made for adult men in their thirties reminiscing about their childhood as adolescents wishing they were adult men in their thirties.

    It's pure nostalgia.

    The premise of Blood Dragon is you are Sergeant Rex Power Colt, whose name could only come from the fevered dreams of young boys wishing to be awesome. He is a slightly-out-of-date cyborg commando in the post-Apocalypse draconian United States (which has just survived Vietnam 2). In a hilariously unsentimental riff on Apocalypse Now, Rex is sent to terminate his former commanding officer, Colonel Ike Sloan, who has assembled an army of cybernetic soldiers to take over the world. They're called...OMEGA FORCE.

    Dun Dun Dun.

Nothing says fun like a minigun.
    In a way, Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon is the anti-Spec Ops: The Line. SO:TL  is a video game about the horrors of war and how there's something messed up about slaughtering thousands of digital people onscreen to feel like a hero. Blood Dragon explicitly calls out this attitude as nonsense, having a brief moment where an NPC talks about how video games are fun, improve reaction time, and have no proven link to violence despite numerous studies. SO:TL  is about making you feel guilty for wanting to be a hero, Blood Dragon is about being the most stereotypical over-the-top action hero since Duke Nukem but without the crudity or sexism.

    The gameplay is nearly identical to that of the main game, Far Cry 3, which shouldn’t come as any surprise. What the game does is streamline the experience system so you gain powers instead of tattoos. Rex Power Colt has a few fun new abilities as well, such as the fact he can run at 30 mph, doesn’t suffer falling damage, and can breathe underwater. These abilities change the way the game is played and help solidify the sense that Rex is a cyborg badass early on. Rex also has chain-kills unlocked at the beginning so he can slaughter three or four robot enemies at once from the very beginning.

    Perhaps remembering the funnest part of Far Cry were the outpost takeovers, Blood Dragon  expands on them. Omega Force's garrisons are larger, better armed, and have a number of alternate means of takeover. My favorite is turning off the energy shields and letting in Blood Dragons to slaughter the troops within. You can also lure them to attack your enemies or distract them with the cyborg hearts of your foes. They're great "boss" enemies and sufficiently hard to kill so that even cyborg badasses like Sergeant Rex Power Colt must use every resource to kill them.

The cutscenes are done in a deliberately retro-style, which is hilarious.
    The homages run hot and thick in Blood Dragon, starting with the fact Michael Biehn (Aliens, Terminator) is the voice of our hero. The game references Robocop, Predator, Commando, Cyborg 2, Rocky IV, and a dozen other sources with everything from databank entries to more obvious references. I'm particularly fond of Doctor Elizabeth Veronica Darling, voiced by the incomparable Grey Delisle, is a combination of a dozen 80s cliches. All of them, I point out, which make her character laugh out loud funny.

     At heart, Blood Dragon is a funny game and a good example of the action genre. Thus, it works as the best kind of parody. You aren't supposed to take Rex Power Colt's ridiculous jingoism ("I made a promise to Lady Liberty"), muted humility ("Paintings of sad clowns and dogs playing poker are amazing. This is just the job."), and cheesy one-liners (too many to count) seriously but you can. Underneath the joke-a-second storyline, there's a simple but entertaining story about good versus evil. Ike Sloan is an entertaining monster and Rex Colt is a likable hero.

    If I have a complaint about Blood Dragon, it's that its less ambitious than it could have been. The entirety of the game takes place on a single island smaller than the final level of Far Cry 3. This game could have easily been expanded into a full-blown $60 side-entry into the franchise using Far Cry 3's engine. Likewise, the final level comes close to being perfect but fails to deliver a satisfying battle with the villain.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

Pretty When She Dies review

Disclaimer: I am writing novels for Permuted Press now, so I may have a slight bias to liking their novels more than I might. Still, I will attempt to be objective.

    Pretty When She Dies is an interesting little book. If I were to describe it, I would suggest picturing a room full of Paranormal Romance readers with the clean-cut Twilight-esque types on one end, the likable girls  in jeans in the middle, and the punk girl with a dozen piercings and tattoos in the back. Pretty When She Dies is what the last one is reading. It's a series where everything takes on a darker, harder, edge than is usually found in the genre. Much like the Blackthorn books, it straddles the line between Paranormal Romance and Urban Fantasy with the former leaning to PR and this novel leaning to UF.

    Way back in the nineties when I was an awkward moody teen as opposed to an awkward moody adult, my favorite pastime was Vampire: The Masquerade. A tabletop role-playing game, V:TM introduced the concept of Gothic Punk. Gothic Punk was a theme which showed a world much darker than our own where elder vampires secretly ruled the world behind the scenes, humans were ignorant victims, and the heroes were the younger vampires who had just enough power to be dangerous but couldn't control their dark sides. Eventually, much like actual punk, Gothic Punk was sanitized to become the unrecognizable backdrop for family-friendly stories where the monsters were about as scary as those in The Hobbit.

    Actually, no, I was pretty scared by Mirkwood's spiders when I was a kid.

    If you're wondering where I'm going with this, Pretty When She Dies feels like a book which embodies the old Gothic Punk feel. Vampires are terrifying, aggressive in their sexuality, and have no regard for the lives of humans. Normal humans aren't all that great either, being a craptacular species of ignorance and cruelty with only the rare diamond shining through. It's a dark world that still has plenty of edge to it. I found this to be a refreshing change and am inclined to recommend the novel on this basis alone.

     Pretty When She Dies starts with Amaliya Vezorak being transformed into a vampire by her college professor. Unlike other settings where vampires are merely misunderstood, this is portrayed as an act of violent assault--as is his dumping the newly turned and hungry young woman in the midst of a college sex party. What follows is a bloody massacre and we get our first real hint this is not going to be your typical vampire novel.

    It's interesting so very few vampire novels are interested in the concept of how someone reacts to being turned. How does one's family react? How does one deal with one's newly liquid diet? Who does one feed on? The first half of Pretty When She Dies charts Amaliya as she attempts to survive being a vampire with no assistance. The fact she knows no rules about being a vampire or its laws are all plot points which provide a good amount of tension.

    Eventually, our heroine manages to find her way to a place where she can learn about her status as the undead and meet our romantic interest for the novel. Even this proves to be an unconventional sort of relationship. Cian, the head vampire of Austin, is a character who nicely upends many traditional vampire romantic lead roles. He's already engaged to a plucky young human woman who believes in his "good heart." The fact Amaliya comes into his life as a home-wrecker who is quite sure they're vampires rather than human puts a fascinating spin on the whole process.

    I won't spoil the rest of the book but it has several unexpected twists and a good use of its mortal supporting cast. Too often, these sorts of books forget humans exist or treat them as something unimportant in the grand scheme of thing. If I'm talking too much about how this book zigs left when most books zig right, this is true. Part of what makes Pretty When Dies entertaining is it does read as a deconstruction of traditional (read: hack) Paranormal Romance plots. Thus, Amaliya is a breath of fresh air.

    Indeed, I doubt I would enjoy this book if not for the fact Amaliya is such a rebuttal to so many tired and worn cliches about Urban Fantasy heroines. Her sexual aggressiveness, implied bisexuality, and willingness to cross lines make her a fun antidote to stale "safe" heroines. I, half-suspected, she'd end up seducing Cian's fiance--though that's probably a little too far for today's still-puritanical audiences.

    Did I like everything? No, I'm sorry to say I did not. I think the stories pacing was a little off and the author could have eased the reader into a world filled with a heightened sexuality and corruption from the world's own. I spent eight years in college and I never encountered the parties where our young heroine finds. Likewise, the causal number of complete scumbags she meets strains belief. Amaliya is not the most introspective of characters but pausing in the beginning to let us get a feel for her condition would have been welcome. Some audiences may be turned off by the breakneck pace and descriptions during the first few chapters before things smooth out.

    In conclusion, I recommend Pretty When Dies but with the caveat that the first part of the story is not my favorite. It takes awhile for Amaliya to settle into her new life and the author to settle into her rhythm writing her. Yet, the book reminds me so much of my wannabe Goth days I can't help but say it was worth the purchase. The book grew on me not only as I read it but as afterward. I'm definitely going to pick up future installments of the series as well. I hope they continue to be transgressive and edgy with Amaliya's dark and sexy side allowed to grow.


Blood Roses review

    Blood Shadows was a book I reviewed a few days ago and, it just so happens, I read the sequel to in that time. Likewise, I'll be diving into the third book in the series soon thereafter. I suppose that, by itself, is an endorsement of the Blackthorn series.

    The premise of Blood Roses is a young witch named Lelia, our female romantic lead, is told her sister is being held hostage by vampires and goes to the undead-controlled district of Blackthorn in order to do a service for them. Using magics she shouldn't be able to use, Lelia saves the life of influential vampire Caleb's brother Jake. Unfortunately, Lelia finds out the circumstances of her sister's "kidnapping" were more complicated than she suspected. Not only is her sister not a hostage but they have figured out Lelia is a serryn, a subspecies of witch capable of entrancing vampires to drink their poisonous blood--sort of like a succubus is to humans. Caleb has an avowed hatred of serryns and has no intention of letting her leave his club alive, even though he's trapped by his promise to give her safe passage as well as the debt he owes her. Readers may remember I wasn't terribly fond of the previous book's male romantic lead, Kane Malloy, due to the man's controlling nature and arrogance. Curiously, while Caleb is equally controlling and arrogant if not more so, I found him more enjoyable.

    I expect this is because Caleb is not nearly as in control of the situation as Kane was and his attempts to dominate Lelia prove to be extremely poor ideas. Furthermore, Caleb's behavior in the book is highlighte as both self-destructive to himself and his cause. In short, I love it when bullies have their attitudes explode in their face. The fact he is a bully, though, is just part of his characterization. Long-standing fan of noir fiction as I may be, I'm hardly adverse to flawed protagonists and watching Caleb struggle between doing what he wants to do (kill Lelia or turn her over to the vampire authorities) with what he knows to be right (letting her leave Blackthorn).

    I enjoyed this volume of the Blackthorn series because it added significantly to the mythology of the setting as well as its politics. The previous volume hinted at the fact vampires were unfairly ghettoized and imprisoned in the worst districts of the world due to race hatred (though, perhaps realizing this is a pretty big pill to swallow, the author makes it clear vampires are not innocent victims in all this).  We also get an explanation for the mysterious vampire prophecy introduced in Blood Shadows but which was left oblique until now. Much like in the Elder Scrolls' Morrowind, prophecies aren’t actually something which will happen but more like an instruction manual in the Blackthorn-verse.  There’s a set of criteria and just about anyone can hijack it for their own ends. I find this infinitely more interesting than predestination.

    The character of Lelia is also a very fascinating one. She’s a woman destined to be a vampire hunter but who, despite having no great love for the species, chooses to eschew violence. Being trapped in the territory of cruel and apparently evil vampire Caleb is a near-insurmountable problem for her.  Yet, Lelia is not broken by events and does her best to try and stick with her beliefs when it would be easy to turn on her power and destroy the vampire before her. While a fan of Caitlin Parish from the previous book, I find I prefer Lelia due to the perception she's both more emotionally centered as well as smarter (though Caitlin was no dummy).

     Having read the second novel in the Blackthorn series, I'm interested in some of the themes which have been developing. Lindsay J. Pryor has a fondness for placing her romantic leads in direct opposition to one another. Unlike in other Paranormal Romance novels, these are not easily resolved situations. While the protagonists possess a powerful attraction to one another, they are frequently on opposite sides of a conflict that isn't so easily resolved as the Capulets and the Montagues (which ended in their deaths--spoilers, I know!).  Watching the characters break down each others' rough spots and go through real change while facing the consequences of their actions puts this above a lot of fiction I've read. Half the time (for example), when a vampire and a werewolf hook up despite centuries of war, it's like their parents vaguely disapprove. No, this makes a really statement about relationships. You have to change and deal with the consequences for them to work.

    I approve.

    The supporting characters of Blood Roses were quite entertaining too. Both characters have very annoying siblings (to them) who are, thankfully, more than just cariactures. It's good to have flawed characters like the leads because we get to see their mistakes impact their family and them get called out on it. I think Lindsay J. Pryor does an excellent job of creating believable family relationships. Both the leads' siblings may be idiots but they're not without merit. Indeed, Caleb's brother is probably the most moral character in the book despite being a lecherous jackass. I also liked our first real glimpse into the vampire heirarchy.

    I had some small issues with the ending as I thought the resolution left something to be desired. One of the major issues between the couple is resolved through a previously-unrevealed rule of sorcery which I didn't much care for. I much would have preferred the consequences of the characters' mutual conditions to be a continuing obstacle they have to deal with. Then again, I love torturing characters and seeing how they're tortured by life so I probably shouldn't be the best candidate for deciding these things. There's also a "hidden nobility" reveal about one of the characters which lowered my estimation of them. After dealing with the unstoppable force of nature which was Kane Malloy, I was looking forward to seeing some "commoner" vampires.

    Overall, I'm quite pleased with Blood Roses. I enjoyed the first book a great deal and this is a marked improvement over it with more entertaining characters, more tightly woven interaction, and more complications for them to overcome. I will continue to read this series as long as she continues to write it, intrigued by the dark and seemy underbelly as I am.