Wednesday, October 29, 2014

John Golden and the Heroes of Mazaroth review


    This is the funniest thing I've read in ages.

    Seriously.

    I may be biased since I'm a World of Warcraft fan but this is hilarious. Most of the jokes are understandable to someone who hasn't played but those who have, man, they're (no pun intended) golden.

    The book contains references to: auction houses, dungeon raids, re-spawning, fantasy's somewhat questionable female attire, questgivers, and God knows how much else. I've read the story three or four terms and I'm still finding new in-jokes. This is a labor of love and I appreciate that.

    The premise of the John Golden series is fairies have invaded the internet. It's much easier for them to manifest in computer networks than in our world. This interferes with the performance of the systems and, occasionally, the fae steal the souls of their computer's users. As a result, a special class of fairy-hunters exist called Debuggers.

    Debuggers can physically enter the networks and kill the wayward fae inside. This doesn't actually harm the fae since "death" is only temporary for them, but it repairs the network. John Golden is the world's best debugger, in part due to the aid of his disembodied sister Sarah.

    Sarah lost her body in a fairy poker game (don't ask) and has been living in John's laptop ever since. Possessing all the powers of an A.I., Sarah provides John with badly-needed backup in the internet-influenced world of the fae.

    Here, John Golden has found a stereotypical fantasy Dark Lord living in a finance company's servers. John finds out this fae is a refugee from the obscenely popular Heroes of Mazaoth game. Unable to defeat the powerful internet daemon, John needs to figure out a way to get it to return to a life getting killed repeatedly by level-grinding gamers.

    Again, it's hilarious.

    I can't say much more about the story without spoiling it. After all, the book is only sixty-nine pages long. However, it gets funnier by the page. Buy this novella if you own an e-reader, love urban fantasy, and have the slightest familiarity with WOW.

10/10

John Golden: Freelance Debugger review


     I like urban fantasy which doesn't take itself too seriously.

    One of the greatest fantasy novels of all time, The Hobbit, is a ridiculous story from start to finish. Which, of course, you might miss if you're only familiar with the movies. Terry Pratchett has made a cottage industry out of using fantasy explore absurdity. John Golden: Freelance Debugger is a funny urban fantasy novella, only sixty-eight pages, which I'd gladly read a full-length series about.

    Before I begin this review, I should talk about the size. It's about a quarter the size of a full-length novel but costs half-as-much. Despite this, I'm still going to recommend purchasing this novel and its sequel. While not a big fan of novellas, sometimes they're entertaining enough to be worth the purchase price (and then some).

    This is.

    The premise is fairies are real but instead of menacing the quote-unquote real-world they've discovered they can manifest in computer networks. Fairies proceed to screw up bandwidth and play pranks on their users, which really plays havoc with computer owners. Sometimes, they even kill and eat the souls of their computer operators.

    This is where Debuggers come in. Debuggers are those rare humans who can physically enter the virtual reality worlds of fairies and "kill" them. This act banishes them back to their home-dimension and frees the networks from their control.

    John Golden is one of the world's foremost debuggers, existing as a combination IT guy and James Bond. Well, he likes to fancy himself the latter but he's much-much more the former. John travels with his sister, Sarah, who lost her body during one of his adventures and is now a kind of ghost in his laptop. Sarah, notably, resents this as she's an atheist and prefers to think of herself as a computer simulation of the very-dead flesh-based Sarah.

    The books are written from the perspective of John's memoirs with Sarah hacking them to add her own (often hilarious) commentary on events. John tends to take a somewhat action-orientated view of his adventures with a heavy dose of romance while Sarah is ruthlessly pragmatic. How the two describe a programmer John crushes on is, for example, very different.

    I could spoil the story but it's better experienced. This is a fun-fun adventure and I recommend it for anyone with an e-reader.

10/10

Buy at Amazon.com

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel review


    Having purchased this yesterday, I'm not going to be giving a comprehensive review. Rather, I'll be discussing the first five or six hours of the game and whether or not I think it's worth purchasing. After I finish, I'll do a separate review of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel's storyline. To begin, I'd like to mention I consider Borderlands 2 to be one of my top five video games of all time. They go: Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic, Borderlands 2, and Mass Effect 2.

Moon-bot! It's fun to say Moon-bot!
     You might guess from these games, I'm primarily an RPGer, so it's to Borderlands 2's credit I put it on the list. The game is fun, has interesting characters, and is one of the best open-world experiences I've ever played. It was also funny, which deserves kudos by itself. I enjoyed all of Borderland 2's DLC and am planning to go through the first game when time permits.

    The main game and DLC set up numerous sequel hooks: the existence of other Vaults, the assault on Hyperion's space-station above the planet, and the existence of other Sirens. Sadly, Handsome Jack was dead and his passing left big shoes for any successive villain to fill. Gearbox seems to have realized the latter as well, which is why this is an intrequel between the first and the second games.

    The premise is a modification of the "take back Helios" sequel hook. The player characters are one of four Vault Hunters Handsome Jack has hired to, what else, find a Vault. Two of the Vault Hunters are his minions from Borderlands 2: Nisha the Lawgiver and Wilhelm the Enforcer.

    The other two are a mysterious assassin named Athena and series mascot Claptrap. Playing the role of the villain's henchmen isn't so far from the normal Borderlands experience since all the Vault Hunters, with rare exception, are one form of anithero or another.

There's lots more guns--and that's really the whole point, isn't it?
    Handsome Jack isn't yet the CEO of Hyperion. Nothing more than a low-level programmer, Jack is acting way above his pay grade by hiring mercenaries. It's a good thing he did, however, because a legion of former Dahl corporation mercenaries seize control over Helios Station in order to prevent Jack from finding the Vault he's hunting.

    Keeping Jack from opening a Vault is a VERY good idea but it appears they're bad since they attack without provocation. Your character is forced to flee the station and head down to Pandora's moon, which is where you will prepare to take back the station. This is where the game really begins.

    For the most part, this plays identically to its predecessor. The protagonists and their abilities are different but only slightly. Wilhelm, for example, doesn't have a turret but a pair of flying weapons platforms which heal him as well as attack his enemies.

    Claptrap is the most interesting character given his abilities are somewhat random. I've yet to play the others but am eager to give them all a try. Additions to the gameplay is the moon's gravity is low so super-leaps are possible. Likewise, air pockets are scarce on the planet so you have to use oxygen tanks in order to move between habitable areas.

Handsome Jack is still handsome. That's going to change.
    Long-time fan-favorite Scooter is replaced with Australian lesbian Janey Springs, who is one of the few inhabitants of Pandora's star system possessing a moral compass. In a way, I regret the loss of Scooter because he's wonderfully repulsive but I'm interested in this new character. Hopefully, she'll demonstrate some of the horrific personality flaws which make the series so entertaining.

    So far, I'm seeing a lot of the same only with new environments as well as a few tweaks. This isn't a bad thing since there's no reason to change a formula which works. There's no significant upgrades to the game environments but they're entertaining and the writing is top-notch if silly. I'm hoping we'll get to see more series regulars since the series' appeal is, in-large-part, due to its quirky characters.

    Fans will appreciate more Handsome Jack and the development of several characters who died in Borderlands 2. If this is the last video game I ever buy on Xbox 360, then I'm happy to say it's money well-spent.

    10/10

Buy at Amazon.com

The Walking Dead: Season 2: Episode 5: No Going Back review


    Wow.

    That was a trip.

    No Going Back is, easily, the best of the Season 2's episodes. I also think it's got some of the most troublesome plot twists. A lot of the drama is forced and requires the characters to act like idiots but I was willing to overlook this because the story was so good. The funny thing is this is probably the least "plot-centric" episode of the series and works due to the strength of its characterization.

    The premise of this episode is the group has survived its shoot-out with some Russian Survivors and is now stuck with a teenage boy who was traveling with them. Kenny doesn't trust him because, well, the boy was part of the group which just tried to rob them.  The rest of the group doesn't trust Kenny due to his violent murder of a character in Episode 3 and his depressed rage from his second wife's death.

    The group splitting up is something which was foreshadowed in Episode 4 and the events which do it are shocking. By the end, you will probably hate some characters you previously liked and possibly killed some.

Tensions rise in the group for very good reasons. Also, because everyone hates everyone else.
    Either way, Clementine will know the sting of betrayal.

    Or she'll commit it herself.

    The theme of No Going Back seems to be, "sometimes good people will do bad things when they're scared." No one is evil in this episode. Even if you buy into some conspiracy theories about the character of Arvo, he's just a guy stuck with the people who killed his group. Everyone just wants to be safe and that means getting rid of the people they don't trust. The sad part? The only person trusted by everyone is Clementine.

    And she can't keep this group together.

    One thing I liked about this episode was the fact Telltale forgoes its usually railroading to allow no less than five different endings. While none of the choices really "matter" until this point, the final choices can have a dramatic effect on who lives or who dies. I'm happy with my ending, Clementine staying true to herself and not abandoning those she loves. I've seen the other endings, though, and they are pretty damn bleak.

    So I guess I lucked out.

Amazing how a touching moment like this can go downhill so quickly.
     Sadly, as I mentioned, some of the characters are required to be idiots. They must be willing to go over, rather than around, an avoidable natural hazard. They must be willing to trust the opinion of a relative newcomer to someone they know well. They must be willing to endanger their own lives in order to make another character appear less trustworthy. Really, the characters make stupid decisions this episode. I can't be too mad at them, though, because people in real-life do that under stress.

    As a finale to Season 2, No Going Back was a good one.There's some truly powerful moments like a flashback to Season 1, the fate of a character who I'd grown to like, all of the finales, and conversations where you get into the heads of characters who all want your approval. Clementine is the glue which keeps this group together but none of them really see her. I was glad for the opportunity to mention, in-universe, no one listens to Clementine even when she's talking sense. No wonder this group was doomed.

My ending actually brought tears to my eyes. Okay, not really, but it came close.
    Some gamers may complain the finale for Season 2 isn't very well plotted out but I think the actual plot-plot ended with Episode 3. Carver was the main threat which drove the story and everything else is just denouement. The threats which menace Clementine here are human nature and distrust, which can't be shot or beaten to death with a crowbar. It's a nice contrast to the Stranger plot which so dominated the end of Season 1.

    Goodbye Season 2, I look forward to your sequel.

    10/10

Monday, October 27, 2014

Blood Deep review


     The Blackthorn novels are my favorite Paranormal Romance series.

     Period.

     I think it's because they straddle the line between genres so well. They're predominately romance with lots and lots of sex but don't sacrifice plot, drama, or world-building. The world is well-developed, divided on cultural as well as species lines with a heavy-emphasis on social ills. The character arcs are nicely done too, each lead showing genuine growth by the end of the novel.

    The books have a signature style too. A pair of lovers meet, initially antagonistic, only to grow closer as they struggle against one another. This is always in the decaying urban hellhole of Blackthorn, a ghetto where the supernatural is segregated away from quote-unquote "polite" (read: human) society. Each couple is somehow tied to the Vampire Prophecy, which predicts the rise of a leader who will overthrow the human-run establishment to set up a more egalitarian society.

    Blood Deep is the fourth novel in the series, introducing our fourth and final pair of star-crossed lovers. Jessie and Eden are a human male and supernatural woman caught up in  covert operation gone horribly wrong. Eden, the man, has been sent to infiltrate crime boss Pummel's twisted "Circus" in order to extract Jessie for his employers.

    Eden has been promised medical treatment for his niece if he can extract Jessie in three days. Jessie is a member of an unknown Third Species (non-humans like vampires or werewolves) with the power to heal. She is mystically enslaved by Pummel and if she tries to turn against him, she'll die.

    Eden, of course, falls in love with Jessie but can he deliver her from one slave master to another?

    Read and find out!

    Interestingly, I find Eden and Jessie to be the healthiest relationship of the four series couples despite the fact she's a slave and he's an undercover cop pretending to be a convicted murderer. Previous romances in the series have involved a lot of emotional blackmail and even attempts to kill one another.

    Here, Eden wants to help Jessie but he's caught in a situation where he can't blow his cover. Jessie would dearly love to trust Eden but she's a woman who has been seeing nothing but the worst of humanity in Blackthorn since its creation. Trusting a man who appears to be a hardened felon (and who isn't that far from one in reality) is a risk she isn't willing to take.

    At least, initially.

    What I really liked was the Noir elements and how they were taken to new heights this volume. We get a real sense of the injustice of Blackthorn's world and the segregation of species. The Circus isn't that far from John Carpenter's Escape from New York, a place where criminals are dumped to live out lawless lives where the strong feed on the weak. The immense poverty in Lowtown and surrounding districts also highlight the troubles of Blackthorn aren't as isolated as initial books implied.

    We also get some development of the Vampire Prophecy plot and how the major powers are dealing with it. I admit, I wasn't too keen on the metaphysical results of our heroes "defying destiny" implied by this book and hope there's an explanation as to who (exactly) is so offended by it. I am, however, glad to see fictional power brokers dealing with prophecies in a proactive way. Which side is more evil is up in the air and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that Jessie is premature in her belief humans are worse.

    I like the characters of Jessie and Eden, both of them appealing to me for various reasons. Jessie's Third species race turned out to be a genuine surprise and yet made perfect sense with all of the clues dropped earlier. While, "I did it all for a sick relative" may sound somewhat contrived, you can tell Eden is a ruthless man at heart. Jessie is hard in her own way, cleverly manipulating Pummel to avoid the worst of his abuses while plotting to figure out her next move. Jessie could easily kill Pummel, in all likelihood, but where would she go instead? As events reveal, there's nowhere safe in Blackthorn's world.

    I liked the supporting cast, too, which is surprising given the majority of them are unrepentant psychopaths. Everyone from Mya to Chemist to Tatum is one sort of scumbag or another but they're all likeable scumbags. I wouldn't mind seeing the survivors come back in future books as allies of convenience. It takes skill to make likable protagonists but it takes an artist to make bad guys you enjoy reading about.

    I really liked this book, arguably as much as any other in the series if not more so. This is one of those rare series I think which may get better the further you get into it like the Dresden Files. The fact the main plot finally getting off the ground is good too. I'm eager to see how the Vampire Prophecy ends and hope we'll see a conclusion in the next couple of books. Despite this, I'd still be happy to read more in the world.

10/10

Buy At Amazon.com

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Etiquette of Giving a Bad Review


    Recently, I was talking with some associates on Facebook about when to give a bad review. I'd given a lower-than-expected score to a book and they were surprised. They asked me what my criteria were for scoring and whether or not I'd ever given a bad review. I answered, yes, I'd given bad reviews in the past and would continue to do so in the future.

    They asked me if I was ever worried about authors trashing my work in public or getting mad. I answered, "Well, if I was intimidated by hard feelings, I wouldn't be a very good reviewer, now would I?"

    It occurred to me, however, there's not much on the internet about the right way to give a bad review. There's plenty of Caustic Critics (thank you, TV tropes) who love to put down things because they suck and it's funny to hear stuff get heckled. These reviews are wildly popular and with good reason.

    People appreciate the honesty of having the flaws of a work pointed out to them. However, I've seen a lot of reviews which are just teeth-gnashingly nasty with no real content. It's okay to hate on a work but I've never really gotten much feedback from, "It sucks! Don't buy it!"

    What is the purpose of a bad review?

    For me, the it's to hold up a sign and warn away people away like a lighthouse does with ships near rocky shores. I'm a great believer there's so such thing as bad publicity so I have to always ask myself, "Is a bad review better than not reviewing something at all?"

    There have been several books I have refused to review on the United Federation of Charles because, bluntly, they weren't very good. The authors were friends of mine but I couldn't, in all honesty, review their work without tearing it down.

    One free ebook I got from an author hadn't been formatted properly so it didn't have paragraphs. I told her that she should correct that but that it being for sale, now, was a mistake. I would have mentioned this on her Amazon.com page but there were already reviews which pointed this out.

    So, when should I post a bad review? Here's my thoughts:

1. When you feel the need to be a dissenting opinion: This is something that often motivates me and that's when I find myself reviewing something very-very popular which I don't like. My review of  (here) reflects the fact I found Cole Phelps to be a sanctimonious jerk who made ahistorical claims about World War 2.

    I also found the game's open-world to be unnecessary. The game was often called the best game of all time and I felt it was most certainly not. Still, I gave it a two-star rating because a one-star rating wouldn't acknowledge the fun I did have. I gave a similar review to Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money (here), which I found to be boring and poorly designed.

2. When I feel the author can do better: I find it amusing that, hands down, the single most popular review on my website is my review of Charles Stross' The Jennifer Morgue (here). To date, it is my only one-star review on this website. I hesitated to post it anywhere but my blog because I love Charles Stross' writings and respect him as an author. He's a guy who writes Cthulhu-themed spy fiction, more or less catnip to my Delta Green-loving brain.

    However, The Jennifer Morgue was one long shallow parody of James Bond which turned up its nose at the series every chance it could get while cribbing its plot from Thunderball (the most overused of all Bond films/novels to rip off). It was painful to get through and unworthy of the author's efforts. I hope to meet Charles Stross someday but if we ever do, he needs to know I don't think much of that work.

3. When there are problematic elements: As mentioned above, I'm a fan of both the literary as well as the film version of James Bond. If I were to ever review Ian Fleming's works today, however, I would find myself unable to give them ten out of ten scores on the basis they were often racist and sexist.

    I don't mean "kinda" racist or sexist either. I mean stuff like that in From Russia With Love, Kerim Bey talks about how he used to keep his future wife prisoner in his basement. H.P. Lovecraft is the greatest horror author of all time, in my mind, but if I glossed over some of the vile crap he said about other races then I'd be doing a disservice to my readers.

    The thing is, I still love H.P. Lovecraft but he has quite a few stories I'd give 1 star or below to like Medusa's Coil. That's the story where the "horrible revelation" the protagonist discovers about herself is she's got black ancestry. Not exactly sanity-blasting, IMHO. I weigh in how these elements effect my readership and point them out so readers can judge for themselves whether they think they'd enjoy a book.

    While most modern authors avoid the excesses of the past, I can't tell you the number of times I've knocked off a point or two because the villains are a bunch of rapists because the author has decided that's the best way to show they're evil. That particular bit of storytelling really burns me.

4. When I think the flaws are not immediately apparent: This is where I will make my own confession time: my first Tabletop RPG, Winterweir, sucked. This is a somewhat overly harsh opinion, I've been told since I have a fairly rabid fanbase. I still took it off the market, though, because it had a lot of typos and grammatical mistakes I might have found if I'd been more cautious. It doesn't look amateur-ish, though.

Mostly, because of the kickass cover art by Storn Cook.


    Reviewers were not fooled by the cover, though, and their opinions were brutal. In this day and age, anyone can buy awesome cover art or even excellent editing (which they don't do often enough) but you can't buy good writing.

    That only comes with practice.

    Finally, the 5 and most important rule.

5.  When you *do* post a bad review, be specific and honest: A review where you praise everything and don't mention what you dislike doesn't help an author (unless you really liked everything). A review where you criticize everything but don't mention what you liked is equally valueless (unless it was that awful).

    I use the 1-10 scale for a reason because it is the rare book I think is technically perfect as well as awesome to read. Stuff like Heir to the Empire or Time of Death: Induction are the rare books I think are genre classics in the making. Most books, by contrast, get lower scores even when I really like them.

    If I'm unhappy I've read a book, then I'm happy to assign a 2-5 score for a work. However, if I've liked it in even the mildest way I tend to give a 6 or above. 8 is what happens for book I really-really liked but don't think did anything exceptional. I only give 9 or 10 scores to books that I think not only tell a good story but do something which really sticks with me or makes me think. Don't dilute the 10 out of 10's power or the 1 out of 10's venom by throwing them around causally.

    I hope this has helped future reviewers out there. I also hope readers and potential reviewers will understand that writing out reviews for authors is something they live for (both good and bad). Take the time to review the books you like (and dislike) and share those opinions. Staying silent is something I reserve for only the worst of the worst.

    The books I'd rather see forgotten.

Addendum

    Some friends have e-mailed me privately about this article and mentioned they feel intimidated by potential audience retaliation. Part of what Amazon.com has made the mistake of doing was including a "helpful" or "unhelpful" response system. Likewise, other authors have attempted to go after authors they find to be problematic.

    My response to this? Barring tracking you down to your house (where you should call the police), don't sweat it. No one likes getting a bad review and some people are going to be immature asshats about the whole thing.

    I've posted over a hundred reviews at Amazon.com and a tenth of them have been marked unhelpful. Nine-tenths of them, however, have been marked helpful so I know I'm doing something right. You can't deal with the audience reaction to your reviews, whether from rabid fans or authors who act like five-year-olds. The majority of Amazon readers aren't going to pay attention to your review ranking, either, but instead what you wrote.

    Remember that.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Contagious Chaos review


    Contagious Chaos is the third volume of the Contagium series, which is the chronicles of a young woman (Orissa "Rissa" Penwell) as she struggles to survive a zombie-outbreak. Rissa' situation is slightly better than most zombie survivors as she quickly hooks up with a group of Marines who defy genre convention by NOT being evil rapists or morons.

    The premise is Rissa has gotten herself captured while exploring a  former insane asylum. The inhabitants (a group of white-supremacists which have taken over) have set up their own quasi-Woodbury-esque dictatorship under a man named Dre.

The asylum-dwellers have ample food, medical supplies, and weapons which they have been using to (what else) prey on other survivors. They intend to beat and torture a location of Rissa's group out of her. Rissa doesn't intend to let this happen and will do her best to escape so she can warn her friends.

    I think the asylum-dwellers are biting off more than they can chew as I would put my money on the Marines rather than a group of heavily-armed gang members. The author tries to sell them as a serious threat, however, and a group comparable in might. I can't say I'm a big fan of setting up "utterly evil settlements" in zombie stories, though, even if there's justifications for this like them being composed of racists.

    I'm more a fan of things like Rick being willing to take the Woodbury survivors into the prison at the end rather than total destruction as the only recourse. We have enough arguing for that in the real world without fictional people being reduced (ironically) zombies.

    Contagious Chaos is more interested in telling a story of good versus evil with a side order of revenge than moral ambiguity, however. The asylum dwellers killed a friend of Rissa and tortured her, which drives her to want to exterminate them. Any and all obstacles which stand in her way are ones she cuts through with a knife. Rissa even plans to unleash zombies onto the asylum, something I'd only advocate in the most extreme situations.

    The book makes use of one of my personal bugbears in sexual assault (or the threat thereof) as a means of illustrating the villains are evil. I automatically remove a point from any novel which makes use of this plot point. I've seen it too many times in everything from the Book of Eli to The Walking Dead to ever want to see it again. Thankfully, it never gets beyond the villains suggesting it is Rissa's fate if she doesn't cooperate.

    Despite this, Contagious Chaos is good.

    Quite good.

    Rissa is an excellent proactive female heroine in a genre which is only now starting to produce excellent ones. She's tough, intelligent, motivated, and neither overly sexualized or removed of those qualities. Rissa has a fully-realized personality and we get to know her intimately during this book. Even if I believe her desire to destroy the asylum residents verges on the brutal, many readers will appreciate a female protagonist motivated by anger and revenge.

    My wife certainly does.

    I liked the character of Hayden who is a wonderful romantic foil for Rissa. As the handsome Marine she's seeing and the only human being with an immunity to zombie-itis (so to speak), he could easily be the protagonist of the series but isn't. I like how he desires to be protective of Rissa but understands that's a stupid attitude to have with someone so proactive. Their relationship sort of reminds me of the best of Buffy and Angel.

    The book is filled with action, great emotional moments, and hard decisions. Rissa is the toughest woman left alive in the world and it's fun watching her have to push the Marines to the right decisions sometime. I also like her relationship with her fellow female survivors, teaching them how to be tougher in a world where weakness is going to be exploited.

    In conclusion, I think this is an excellent action-orientated zombie apocalypse novel. It's about finding the bad guys and smashing them up good. It's got plenty of zombie-killing, romance, and despicable villains. I may not like its depiction of the mentally ill or the threat of sexual assault as a problem for our heroine to overcome but these are minor issues in the grand scheme of things.

8.5/10

Buy at Amazon.com