Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Dresden Files: Ghost Story review


    The ending of Changes was, in a word, epic. It also ended in a manner which left fans sincerely curious as to how the series would continue. If you haven't read up to Changes, now would be a good time to stop as it's impossible to discuss Ghost Story without discussing the finale of the previous book.

    Still here?

    Harry dies at the end of Changes.

    Shot by a sniper rifle, probably wielded by Kincaid the Assassin (a rival/friend/enemy), Harry fell into Lake Michigan and disappeared. Much like Superman, you know Harry was going to come back but some believed the series might have a major time skip followed by a switching to Harry's newly discovered daughter.

    Instead, the story starts with the very intriguing premise of Harry as a ghost. This status, again, is something no serious fan would expect to last but allows the consequences from the previous book to continue. Awakening in a state between life and death, Harry is charged by the Archangel Uriel to investigate the circumstances of his death and becomes embroiled in a conflict with the ghost of an enemy.

    The book's appeal is watching how Harry's friends and associates have dealt with a world without their protector. It is a sobering realization for Harry that Chicago is a far darker place without him yet his friends are capable of defending it. They have formed a "Justice League of America" which works as a network across America, fighting against the aggressively expansionist monsters of the world.

    The destruction of the Red Court of Vampires saved the White Council but like the fall of many dictators, the sudden chaos and power vacuum hasn't made things easier for humanity. The Formor Court is a collection of gods, fairies, and monsters kept in check by the Red Court and White Council's power for centuries but now one is gone while the other is terribly weakened.

    Perfect for expansionism.

    Throughout the book, Harry struggles to deal with his friends who are used to dealing with imposters and not wanting to believe their friend is dead. I loved Murphy's reaction best because she has stepped up to be the new hero of Chicago but the "unsolved" mystery of Harry's murder burdens her tremendously. Seeing her come to terms with Harry's death in the way a fan might is a great bit of writing.

    Also great is the development of Molly Carpenter. Previously Harry's spunky Goth girl sidekick, she's evolved into the "Ragged Lady." A woman who uses illusions and misdirection to punish not only the supernatural evils of Chicago but its corrupt police force. The change was unexpected, heartbreaking, and yet believable given what we know about her.

        The action in the book is well-written with a conflict between Harry and an archwizard's ghost. The fact Harry, as a ghost, is deprived of the majority of his supernatural mojo makes the story have higher stakes than normal. You can usually count on Harry to be able to blast himself out of problems and he doesn't have that as an option here.

        The Corpsetaker's ghost and her spirit army reminds me of the old Wraith: The Oblivion tabletop roleplaying game, which isn't a bad thing. I also enjoyed reading about how Harry struggles to adjust to being an invisible incorporal specter who can't do any magic. The Formor are worse than the Red Court in many ways and I look forward to seeing them as foes in future volumes. I can't say I really buy the world is worse off than when the Red Court was alive, though, since they were such a titanic force for evil. You'd think at least some of the world would be a better place without soulless marauding psychopaths.

    In conclusion, Ghost Story is a great continuation of the saga and a way to write Harry out of the corner he was pushed into. The new status quo is exciting and full of promise as is the possibilities opened up by Harry's status at the end.

10/10

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Far Cry 4 review


    I initially hated Far Cry 3, having difficulty getting into the controls and not at all enjoying the hard-to-use vehicles. I couldn't get into the mood of the game. It wasn't until I retried playing it that it rocketed up to becoming one of my favorite games of all time.

    However, despite this, I recognized the game as having quite a few problematic elements. Protagonist Jason Brody was a "Mighty Whitey" savior-figure who joined the native people only to become better at their ways than them. Ally-character Citra's cult was completely despicable despite being the apparent religion of the otherwise modernized Rakyat. Even the fact the main enemy was a white Imperialist didn't take away from the fact the majority of the game was a white man killing a bunch of brown folks because they'd taken his other white friends hostage.

    So, I was pleased at the possibility of a game where most of these problems are fixed. Ajay Ghale is a native of Kyrat raised in American. He is a non-white protagonist and the religion of Kyrat is neither orientalist nor hiding any dark secrets. While I would have preferred the use of a real-life ethnicity and religion, this is a definite step in the right direction. 

Far Cry 4 is one of the prettiest shooters in video games.
    The premise is Ajay Ghale coming back to the land of his birth to scatter his mother's ashes. On the way, his bus is intercepted by the government's forces. The dictator of Kyrat, Pagan Min, was in love with Ajay's mother and seems to have some transferred affection for her son. The only problem is Pagan Min is a bat**** crazy psychopath who leaves Ajay alone in the upstairs of a mansion, allowing him to escape into the wilds of Kyrat to join up with the resistance.

    Ajay isn't the most interesting character in the story, not going through much of an arc through the storyline. Say what you will about Jason Brody but he definitely changes as he goes through his adventures on Rook Island. Ajay's desire to spread his mother's ashes despite the fact a civil war is going on strikes me as a trifle unrealistic. If it were my mother, I'd be content bringing her back to her homeland once bullets started flying.

     The game makes up for Ajay's rather bland white-bread personality (if not ethnicity) by providing a colorful cast of weirdos every bit as off-beat as Far Cry 3. There's Amita the Marxist guerrilla, Sabal the theocratic freedom fighter, Hunk the American Idiot here to fight, and (of course) the villain. Watching the various characters interact is a source of great enjoyment even if the choice system is kind of ludicrous.

Amita is a favorite character of mine. Reminding me of Bolo Santosi from Just Cause 2.
     A story mechanic is that Ajay serves as the tie-breaker between Amita and Sabal's deadlocked decisions on whether to modernize or isolate Kyrat. Do you want to burn Pagan Min's drug labs or keep them going so the country has an economy to fall back on when he's gone (criminal or not)? Do you sacrifice a group of troops in order to get valuable intel which will warn you about an upcoming attack (which may or may not have already happened)?

    Everyone is, sadly, a little too ruthless so it doesn't seem like there's so much moral ambiguity as there's no good choices. I would have preferred a more tightly written story following Ajay's journey through the Golden Path than the artificial multiple choice story provided.

    The gameplay is virtually identical to Far Cry 3, which isn't a bad thing. I'm a great believer in the principle of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" in video games. Better to have a formula which you slowly refine rather than changing it around with every new game. There's a few new abilities like elephant riding and new enemies like Hunters (silent but deadly bowmen) but the basic structure remains the same.

    Ajay wanders around a very large map, retakes fortresses, and does missions while exploring the island. There's lots of shooting, skinning animals, crafting items, and stealth murder. Vehicle driving is every bit as frustrating as before but this is a small element of an otherwise excellent game. Then there's the fact Far Cry 4 is gorgeous.

The conflict between the modern and the old is a central theme.
    As beautiful as previous entries in the series have been, this entry trumps them all. There are babbling brooks, luscious jungles, and spectacular vistas. Even the buildings are beautiful with the palaces and temples having a "substance" to them, at least on the Xbox One, which is something I rarely say about video games. I wandered around many areas, just looking at the sights, which is something I haven't done since since Skyrim.

   All of this means Far Cry 4 is one of my favorite action games in terms of sheer playability. The combination of shooting and stealth means there's a near unlimited number of ways you can approach combat with enemies. You can sneak up behind them and stab them, run and gun, or make use of the new bait mechanic to summon animals to kill for you. Taking fortresses is an endless source of fun, involving all manner of tactical planning which is never so difficult as to require you to go one way or another. It's challenging but the guards are dumb enough that you can achieve your results however you want without it being easy either.

    One of the most touted abilities in pre-release media was the ability to ride elephants and use them as war mounts. I haven't got a chance to use this power yet and there doesn't seem to be enough elephants around to justify its use. Still, it's there. That's how varied the game is. You can attack your enemies' fortresses on entirely optional war elephants.

The appeal of the games include lots of hilarious oddball scenes like elephants vs. fascist troops vs. resistance fighters.
    The game makes use of a co-op feature where you and a buddy can join together to handle all of the various horrors but, frankly, I've never been a fan of online dual play and that hasn't been changed here. Indeed, I rather resent the game goes out of its way to encourage you to play with other fans online.

    I, thus, left the game's co-op feature offline for the majority of my playthrough. Indeed, one of the game's few flaws along with vehicle driving is the immersion-breaking suggestions you might want to do something "fun" like this every so often. You don't need to tell me what's fun game, I can judge that for myself.

    Ubisoft. *sigh*

Pagan Min wears a pink shirt. He's also crazy psychotic enough to pull it off.
    Another couple of things I'd like to comment on is the addition of a radio DJ to the game who takes on a Three-Dog (from Fallout 3) role of narrating the protagonist's adventures as they go through the game. A hyper-liberal stoner who is a bit of an ass, the Voice of Radio Free Kyrat is a hilarious character even if I imagine he'll annoy some people. He's endearingly offensive, though, and that's what the best DJs are. I actually found myself wanting to get into vehicles so I could hear his latest speeches.

    Pagan Min also deserves a shout-out in the writers having crafted a delightfully hate-able villain. Like Handsome Jack from Borderlands 2, Pagan Min frequently contacts AJ via radio in order to taunt him or speak. He doesn't hate our protagonist, though, but seems to think of him as a weirdly disobedient son. Troy Baker does an amazing job realizing a three-dimensional comic lunatic who is half-Joker and half-David Bowie. It's all too easy to root for Pagan Min and I rarely say that about villains.

    In conclusion, this is a great game and I think fans of Far Cry 3 will love it. Those who haven't played it will find it just as awesome as I did I think. The characters are great, the scenery is gorgeous, the humor is funny, and most of all the gameplay is fun. That's the best part of things, really?

10/10

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Dresden Files: Changes review


    Changes is, in its own way, an ending point for The Dresden Files. More precisely, it is the end of the "old" Dresden Files and the beginning of the new. The major plot arc for the first ten or so books of the series, the war between the White Council of Wizards and the Red Court of Vampires, comes to its dramatic close. We also bid farewell to the majority of the original series' trappings like the Detective story elements, its Noir trappings, and the idea this is anything but a very high fantasy urban fantasy series.

    Some of these changes are for the better.

    Some aren't.

    The premise of the book is Susan Rodriguez, the first love interest of Harry Dresden, has returned from a lengthy absence to inform her ex-boyfriend he's a father. Rather than bring them together, the discovery that she cut him out of his child's life without even allowing him the decency of knowing destroys any respect Harry has for his now-vampiric former lover. Worse, his child has been kidnapped by the Red Court of Vampires for an evil ritual which will probably result in her sacrifice.

    The Red Court is pulling out all the stops to destroy Harry, having grown absolutely gut-sick of the constant never-ending interference of our protagonist. This means attacks on Harry from supernatural, mundane, and spiritual corners. For once, they are portrayed as being every bit as deadly as their reputation implies. Watching Harry's life begin to disintegrate underneath the onslaught of terrible things is some of the most tense storytelling in the series.

    Changes makes excellent use of continuity without feeling the need to bog down the reader in irrelevant details. As Harry's life slowly unwinds, he proceeds to call in just about every single favor and ally he's made in the past ten books. He acts intelligently, with conviction, and proactively rather than reactively--at least to dealing with the problem at hand. It's one of Harry's finest moments, taking charge of his destiny to get back his daughter.

    Much of this novel is devoted to the moral question of what to do in order to accomplish your goals. Nietzsche formed an entire moral philosophy around this concept and what you should be willing to do. Here, Harry makes a statement he will do anything to save his daughter's life. Anything. That includes making a deal with the Queen of the Winter Fae and, if she refuses to help, darker sources of power. There's some genuinely shocking moments and they are all the more effective because you wouldn't think Harry would stoop to those levels.

    The ending of Changes is, sadly, something readers will never be able to experience the same way fans did when the book first came out. It was so shocking and unexpected everyone was seriously considering it to be the end of the series. Now that new volumes of the series are out starring Harry Dresden, some of the initial impact has been lost. Still, it's a surprising ending and more effective for that.

    In conclusion, this is one of the best books in the series but it's also one which is terrible for getting on the series with. Much of its appeal stems from the great use of continuity and previously established characters. Despite this, it's so well-written and such a classic story you could jump on it if you wanted to. The humor, action, and villains are great in this book. There's also a lot of powerful terrible moments like the resolution of the Harry/Susan plot.

10/10

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse review


    As I mentioned in the "Who is the Girl of Steel" (here) essay, Supergirl was absent from comics in her original Kryptonian form for the better part of two decades. While there were women who wore the big red S, they weren't Superman's cousin from Krypton. This all changed in 2003 with the second story arc of Batman/Superman "The Supergirl from Krypton."

Superman is watching you. Do not look at his cousin.
    Overall, I was very fond of "The Supergirl from Krypton" because it was a fairly whimsical tale with some serious bits. It wasn't especially deep in its characterization, Supergirl is amnesiac about her past for example, but it was fun. You had such things as an entire army of cloned Doomsdays, the Amazons actually being good for a change, and a throw-down with both the Girl of Steel and the Man of Steel with the Lord of Apokolips.

    Superman/Batman: Apocalypse is a really good adaptation of that storyline.

    I know! It had to happen sometime.

    As mentioned above, the story consists of Kara Zor-El arriving with a mount of Kryptonite from her homeworld. In the original comic, it is the remains of Argo City but it just seems like a whole bunch of Kryptonite came with her this time. She makes the mistake of landing in Gotham City, immediately making Batman suspicious. Naked and unable to speak English, Supergirl gets into all manner of trouble with her new powers. Batman manages to disable her with a shard of Kryptonite, which really is troublesome since that's a teenage girl he's using a lethal radioactive isotope to knock out.
I love seeing the DC Trinity together.
    As expected, Superman shows up and is delighted to have some of his lost Kryptonian family back. We get some really good scenes between Kara and Clark where he introduces her to shopping. It's a bit questionable a girl from a scientific Utopia would take to buying like a credit-card happy Valley girl but I appreciated showing her taking to our world with gusto. Batman still believes this is all a trick by someone like Lex Luthor or Brainiac because Batman does not believe in good things happening to good people. Thus, Bruce Wayne calls Wonder Woman to see if Supergirl can get some hardassed training in her powers by someone who isn't her cousin.

    Darkseid, meanwhile, looks for someone to replace Big Barda as the head of his guard.

    Supergirl, being a Kryptonian, looks just right.

    This is a pretty straightforward story and there's not a lot of twists and turns. It's about the three biggest superheroes in the world dealing with the arrival of someone every bit as powerful as them (even if Batman's power is his mind) but none of the discipline. Darkseid senses Supergirl is a weak-link in Earth's champions and could be bent to the, no pun intended, dark side.

Supergirl goes Goth? Fine, good for her. Darkseid lusting after her? No, wrong! Find someone your own age, God of Evil.
    Sadly, we never get to see what methods the Lord of Apokolips uses to try to bend Supergirl to his will and it would have been nice for them to expand on the temptations he might offer. The movie makes much of how Kal-El is a controlling overprotective father-figure while Batman alienates everyone (and Wonder Woman tries to kidnap her for boot camp). Doing a Return of the Jedi scene where Darkseid tempts Supergirl with freedom would have been a good addition to the film.

    Really, my biggest complaint about this film is Supergirl is a sideshow to Superman and Batman's struggle between trust vs. caution. Summer Glau does an excellent Kara Zor-El and I can't help but think this story would have benefited from more scenes from her perspective. What works in a six-issue comic format doesn't always benefit from transitioning to an hour and ten minute movie.

    Also, less of a complaint and more an observation is the artists for these movies really threw in a lot of fanservice for the heterosexual male gaze. Supergirl and all of the women are depicted with large anime-esque eyes, curvy forms, and revealing outfits. Given much of the movie takes place on Paradise Island, this leads to a lot of attractive women in various form-fitting attire. It's on the mild-side but when some of Darkseid's Female Furies, who are historically a collection of grotesques, appear somewhat attractive then you know the artists have gone too far.

All will love her and despair!
    The voice acting in the movie is good with Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly doing their usual bang-up jobs with the Dark Knight and Man of Tomorrow. Susan Eisenberg also is an excellent Wonder Woman, which we knew already from the Justice League cartoon and the Wonder Woman movie. In a way, I miss Nicholle Tom as Supergirl but I think Summer Glau was a perfectly good substitute and probably better for their fundamentally different characters. Sadly, Andre Braugher just doesn't work for me as Darkseid after Michael Ironsides.

    In conclusion, this is an enjoyable little movie which is about as substantial as a vanilla wafer. It has beautiful characters, excellent action, and about 20% as much characterization as it needs. Still, I'm going to give it a generous review because I love Supergirl and Wonder Woman. Any movie which has both is hard for me to come down on hard on.

9/10

Soon I Will Be Invincible review


    Soon I Will Be Invincible is more or less the father of modern superhero literature, specifically that new category of storytelling: capepunk. Capepunk stories are those tales which dissect the nitty-gritty storytelling of superhero stories and ask what they'd be like in the real world.

    Some capepunk stories are quite optimistic like Wearing the Cape, others pessimistic like Sad Wings of Destiny, and a few are a mix like Confessions of a D-List Supervillain. Soon I Will Be Invincible is one of the latter. It presents a world exactly like the kind in comic books but pulls back the curtain to reveal how much goes on to make the stories in superhero stories tick.

    Half of the book is from the perspective of Doctor Impossible, an aging middle-aged supervillain who is halfway between Lex Luthor and Doctor Doom. The world's smartest man, he suffers Malign Hyper-Cognition Disorder (i.e. he's an evil genius), which compels him to try and take over the world. He's aware, on some level, all of his plans are going to fail but is compelled by his ridiculously potent intellect that he must try anyway. It's, in a weird way, one of the more authentic portrayals of mental illness I've encountered in fiction as it is treated with sympathy and care despite the utter ridiculousness of the condition.

    The book gives a sympathetic take to its lead even if it never shies away from the fact his actions are self-destructive and foolhardy. He doesn't even have anything he wants to do once he takes over the world, it's merely something which he must do. This, of course, is part of the book's delightful out-of-universe subtext.

    Doctor Impossible tries to take over the world because he is a comic-book villain and that is what comic-book villains do. In existentialist terms, he is a Sisyphian figure compelled to ever push a boulder up the side of a mountain only for it to roll back down again. It's kind of fascinating, especially when you note this time Doctor Impossible might actually succeed. Having such an unrepentant but tragically sympathetic nutter trapped in such a situation where you want him to win is an interesting premise for a book.

    The book lampshades many of the time-honored tropes of comic books from the Silver Age and how they've changed as we move closer to the modern age. Doctor Impossible is a relic of a bygone era but the modern superheroes, with their sleek chrome cybernetics as well as badass weaponry, aren't nearly as potent as the ones of old. The only one who has ever stood a snowball's chance in hell of standing up against Doctor Impossible, despite his eternal loser status, is Corefire (a transparent stand-in for Superman).

    And Corefire is missing, presumed dead.

    Without him, can Doctor Impossible win?

    Would he even want to?

    Contrasting against Doctor Impossible is Fatale, the newest member of the Champions. Awed by her recent invitation to join the Justice League/Avengers of her world, she struggles to fit in despite being a relatively new heroes. Furthermore, her awe turns to dismay as she gets to know the various heroes and their many-many flaws. I liked Fatale less than Doctor Impossible but am glad we got an insider's look into the superheroes. Understanding them is every bit as important as getting Doctor Impossible's perspective on things.

    The Champions, themselves, are an interesting collection of damaged individuals. On the surface they have it all with wealth, fame, and costumes which fit in all the right places. Underneath it, they have all of the angst and struggles which post-Spiderman superheroes are cursed with. It turns out for all of Doctor Impossible's apparent harmlessness to the readers, he's a pretty terrifying figure to heroes and struggling against his schemes leave lasting scars. That's in addition to what it takes to devote yourself to 24/7 to devoting world-ending schemes.

    I especially like how the author chose to handle action in the book. Conflicts are theatrical, beautiful, colorful, and full of emotion. Doctor Impossible's attempt to escape from prison, a throw-down battle at a coffee bar, and the final confrontation are all delightful. I think readers will get a kick out of them. Seeing the battles from the perspective of Doctor Impossible and then from his opponents lends vastly different perspectives on what happened.

    The ending falls somewhat flat because it doesn't attempt to break the mold with its universe. This is about giving insight into Doctor Impossible's mindset rather than about how he learns a valuable life-lesson. I will say, there are a great number of twists which include one which left me positively gobsmacked. Check this out when you have the time.

    This is a book with great world-building, characterization, and countless in-jokes for those who are even peripherally interested in comics.

10/10

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Hounacier review


    The Valducan series by Seth Skorkowsky began last year with the very strong entry, Damoren. Damoren followed the adventures of Matt Hollis, mystical gunslinger and demon hunter as he joined the Valducan organization in attempting to rid the world of evil supernatural beings. During that adventure, he thwarted an attempt to wipe out all of the "holy weapons" which the organization used to destroy demons and faced down the mother of all monsters, Tiamat. It was an excellent globe-trotting adventure and darker than most urban fantasy fair with a good deal of horror. I liked it and was eager to see what would happen in the second book.

    The premise is Malcolm Romero, his real name rather than an alias, is a white atheist journalist who converts to Voodoo after witnessing an exorcism by a bokkar in Haiti. Acquiring the holy weapon Hounacier, which is a mystical machete, he proceeds to become both a practicioner of Hoodo magic as well as a Valducan demon hunter. Summoned to New Orleans by the death of his mentor, he proceeds to reconnect with old associates while trying to see whether or not he still fits into his old life.

    Hounacier is a great deal different from Damoren. Not content to just give us the next adventure of Matt Hollis, Seth Skorkowsky seems to be interested in switching between the various holy weapon and giving us different perspectives on the world. I had some trepidation about this because I really liked Matt Hollis and wasn't really sold on the Valducan organization. Still, I was willing to give Malcolm a try after his strong introduction in the opening chapter.

    I was pleasantly surprised by the results as Malcolm is almost as interesting as Matt Hollis (if not quite) and involved in an intensely personal quest to protect his loved ones from demons. Seth Skorkowsky wisely chooses to dial back the stories from the apocalypse to more personal tales of monster hunting. Saving the world and saving a family are both, after all, things heroes will attempt to do with all of their might.

    The practices of Voodoo are explored in this book, separating the religious aspects from the mystical framework. While some readers may question the fact Malcolm is a white protagonist chosen by the loa to be a demon hunter, this is subverted with a surprisingly ethnically diverse cast and the fact Malcolm isn't all that good at his job. He's not a "Mighty Whitey" character and I came to enjoy how being raised outside the faith inhibited in some places.

    I was also pleased with the immense amount of research done. This isn't a book written after consulting Wikipedia for a few minutes. Voodoo is portrayed as a valid form of religion, no more alien than any other faith, which just so happens to be literally true in the setting.

    One of my favorite bits from the story is Malcolm Romero having to deal with the fact he's considered a crazy religious fanatic, weirdo, and possible murderer by the greater Voodoo community. There's a nice moment where he leads to an air conditioned church running charity drives and doing community service where he's deeply uncomfortable. As a demon hunter, Malcolm must always exist on the outskirts of civilization and seeing the stereotypical depiction of Voodoo subverted was a nice change of pace.

    Malcolm is a good character, stuck in a life which has alienated him from all but his fellow demon-hunters and religious extremists. He's forgotten how to relate to quote-unquote normal people and his sinister reputation comes to bite him in the ass several times. I also liked his relationship with his ex-fiance, which is a romance I felt to be both believable as well as enjoyable to read about.

    If I have any complaints, it's with the fact the book promises a team-up with Matt Hollis and Malcolm on the back as well as early in the book. Matt shows up only at the very end of the book and barely has any relevance to the plot. Matt, at the end of the day, is just too awesome to incorporate into the book without wanting to see him dominate the book. I hope he'll show up as the star of future books because his usage here was just a tease.

    In conclusion, Hounacier is a very different book from Damoren but not a bad one. Those looking for a continuation of Matt Hollis demon-slaying adventures will have to wait for future installments of the book. Those interested in a Voodoo-practicing demon-hunting stalking werewolves and succubi in New Orleans, however, are in for a treat.

8.5/10

Buy at Amazon.com

Monday, March 16, 2015

Mountain of Daggers review


    A big fan of the Valducan books by Seth Skorkowsky, I was interested in other books by him and the release of a new fantasy series intrigued me. Mountain of Daggers is the first collection of short stories by him about the Black Raven. Who is the Black Raven? The Black Raven is the alias of Ahren, a thief and assassin who haunts a Medieval Fantasy world.

    The book follows Ahren's journey from being a ex-sailor with a history of burglary work to becoming the most feared and respected rogue in the world. I can't help but wonder if I'm going to see more of his adventures in the upcoming Blackguards anthology being released by Ragnarok Publications.

    The stories are deliberately modeled on the old Lieber-Howard mold where the protagonist doesn't have any real overarching narrative but a series of loosely connected stories which, if you read them in order, give you a rough sense of where his personality as well as ambitions are going.

    Ahren, himself, is a difficult character to get a handle on. He's not one of the larger-than-life personalities you usually find in these sorts of books. He's stoic, reserved, doesn't talk much, and keeps his thoughts as well as history to himself. Rather than Conan or the Gray Mouser, I'd say he's closer to Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name.

    He's a character who events happen to and he causes but doesn't really make an astounding effort to engage with his others. The exception is, surprising me as a reader, he ends up visiting his hometown out of the blue and we get a sense of what forces shaped him.

    Even then, he keeps a lot to himself.

    Ahren's character is an interesting one since he's the sort of fellow you could easily mistake for being a cipher than one the author is deliberately trying to leave mysterious. I confess, aside from the fact he's heterosexual with a particular fondness for girls who can pick pockets, I'm still not sure about what motivates him.

    Is he doing this for the money, the thrills, or because he likes it? I'd kind of saddened we never really get to see what Ahren spends the fortunes he makes on, really. Women? Mansions? Gold-plated swords he can show off to his buddies? With Conan, you knew every copper of his went to pay for his alcohol and wenching habits. Ahren seems to horde his fortune like a Swiss banker.

    The point of the book isn't Ahren, though, but his adventures and they are a delightful collection of Sword and Sorcery-esque romps in a more modernized environment. There's evil cults, wizards, decadent nobles, crazed witches, and petty criminal gangs who think they can make the Black Raven into a common legbreaker.

    My favorite story is about Ahren being hired to steal a magical oar cap which can control the souls of the dead as well as the waters of a Venice-like city. Another favorite story seems to be a shout-out to the movie version of Conan and his, ahem, encounter with a witch. The stories are full of atmosphere, world-building, and amoral surroundings. The setting came off like a combination of Hyboria, Lankhmar, Renaissance Italy, and Gotham City--which is a good mix.

    In conclusion, if you're interested in some daring heist fiction in a fantasy world then this book is a collection of several tales dealing with said subjects. They're, essentially, one long series of delightful chase scenes and action-pieces. I would have liked to get more from the protagonist emotionally but the character archetype is bound to appeal to some readers. This is a good book and one I read in a day, which is usually a good sign for a decent-sized 205 page novel.

8.5/10