Sunday, December 17, 2017


    Yeah, it was okay. Actually, no, no it wasn't. I feel like this is going to be one of those movies where I'm either on the wrong side of history or ahead of my time. Basically, my opinion of the movie is a resounding "eh." This is probably my least favorite of the Star Wars films and that includes the Prequels and Rogue One. I didn't even like Rogue One that much so I may actually be on the verge of disliking this film actively. It's not a badly made film but the direction it takes the characters, mythology, and lore just feels like they aren't very well thought out.

    The premise is Rey has gone to Luke Skywalker's residence near the First Jedi Temple and finds he's lost all faith in the Jedi Way. We later discover this is because he (justifiably) blames himself for Kylo Ren turning to the Dark Side. Finn and Poe have managed to make it to the Resistance's headquarters but they've been driven to almost extinction by the First Order.

Their story deserved much better.
    The First Order, despite losing their own Death Star, have all but defeated the New Republic and are poised to eradicate freedom across the galaxy. Kylo Ren is suffering from severe guilt and self-hatred for his murder of his father but has established a powerful force bond with Rey. Then stuff happens, heroes die, heroes live, and the next movie is set up. When the credits rolled, I wasn't filled with a sense of elation or shock but simply the numbness that I didn't buy this was the next chapter of the story.

    A big problem with this is Luke Skywalker. I'm not going to spoil anything but the answers for why he's gone into hiding are incomplete as well as out of character. To make an example, let's just say someone did a movie where Superman and Batman tried to kill one another. Where Superman was a brooding antihero and Batman killed...oh wait. Yeah, that's my feelings on The Last Jedi in a nutshell. This is the Batman vs. Superman of the Star Wars universe. Luke Skywalker is so grossly out of character that he's not recognizably Luke Skywalker at all so you can't really emotionally connect to the guy.

Is it creepy that I think Laura Dern still has got it going on?
    Given Luke Skywalker is the single most influential fictional character in my life. A guy who literally inspired my five year old self to become religious and aspire to be the nicest person I could be as an adult--this is not good. It doesn't fit with the Luke Skywalker of Return of the Jedi but it doesn't fit with the Luke Skywalker of The Force Awakens either. It reads like Rian Johnson's fanfic of Luke Skywalker so the ending just falls flat for me. Mark Hamill does the role but you can tell his heart isn't in it and he'd have probably enjoyed doing anything else.

    Daisy Ridley's Rey has some revelations about herself, her parentage, and plenty of other magical mysterious things which are probably the one really bright spot in the movie for me. I don't have any problem with Rey and while she's greatly overpowered, so was Luke in Return of the Jedi. I'm fine with her being the Galen Marek of the new franchise and she's a likable entertaining heroine throughout. I think the story would have been better if they'd gone a different direction with her parentage but it's not terrible the way Luke's treatment is.

    Adam Driver's Kylo Ren gets a treatment of the movie which I'm a bit iffier about. I mentioned the "fanfic" parallel earlier and this is how I felt about him. Kylo Ren has gone from being a creepy boy pretending to be Darth Vader to being a misunderstood broody loner who exceeds his idol in several cases. Rey and he have a lot of romantic tension that just feels completely out of place in Star Wars given the franchise has largely avoided showing evil as anything decent or romantic. The fact Finn's relationship with Rey is completely glossed over also feels like Hollywood may have an issue with the racial dynamics. I'm not saying it does but it seems notable the black male lead is unceremoniously set up with another woman.

    Carrie Fisher's farewell performance was extremely moving in light of real life events and I quickly bonded with Laura Dern's Admiral Holdo. The send off to another character was sudden and anticlimatic but also fitting. I also think if they had to kill one character at the end, which they didn't I'd like to point out, they probably did it in the best way they could have. Even so, a lot of characters die in this movie and not all of them were necessary or for the good of the story.

Really, the best scene in the movie.
    The special effects are beautiful, the fight scenes were terrific, and there's parts I wouldn't have minded if they'd been in the third movie but am angry for in being the second part since they leave the story a mess. I love the Porgs (albeit I'm horrified as to what Chewie did with one) and think the casino planet had a remarkably cynical view on war profiteering which did a better job than any of the Prequels explaining how Lucas views the Military Industrial Complex.

    Also, despite the fact I'm disappointed with the lack of a Finn and Rey romance, I have to say I enjoyed the character of Rose. She's a genki and enthusiastic new addition to the cast and I love how she helps even out the testosterone to estrogen level. She makes some weird choices and falls for Finn too fast but I don't mind them as a couple. I also like how she plays against his character as he continues to grow into a full-fledged hero of the Resistance.

    But did I like the movie? No. No I didn't. Worse, I can't really think of it as the future of my Star Wars so when I think of the next film, I have very little excitement. It's a shame because John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, and Oscar Isaacs were terrific in the film. In fact, just about everyone was. It was the script and storytelling choices which sucked.


Saturday, December 16, 2017

Future Noir Revised & Updated Edition: The Making of Blade Runner review

    Do you like Blade Runner? I mean, do you REALLY like Blade Runner? Well, I do REALLY-REALLY like Blade Runner. I've watched the movie dozens of times and it's really one of those films which exists up there in my head space with Alien and Star Wars that influence everything from my personal life to writing.

    As such, I was interested in what has been considered to be the definitive book on the movie. That's because not only was Paul M. Sammon on set with the movie during filming but he's returned to write about Blade Runner consistently for the past thirty or so years. This book has a number of editions because he keeps coming back to write on it.

    This book more or less follows the creation of the film from its beginnings as an adaptation of DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP to retrospectives from the actors on the film twenty-to-thirty years later. We find out everything from how individual scenes were filmed to the making of the neon lights to how everyone thought about Ridley Scott (he was not a popular director with the cast and terrified Sean Young).

    This is an in-depth and wonderful work on the subject even if it sometimes drags. Paul M. Sammon doesn't really touch on any of the movie's deeper themes and keeps himself laser-focused on the facts of production. As such, this is more a book for those interested in the nuts and bolts of the movies' creation as well as influence.

    Still, I definitely got my money's worth. I mean, how many other books talk about how the snake was actually owned by Joanna Cassidy a.k.a Zhora, how she really wanted to do the snake dance but got shot down by the producers (even going so far as to film it years later), and how she felt walking around the set naked the entire time? Those are the kind of stories you find within.

    In fact there's a lot of humor to be found in how much the cast you'd think would get along didn't and the cast which you'd think would be difficult turned out to be the best of friends. Ridley Scott, Harrison Ford, and Sean Young all came away from the movie hating one another while Rutger Howard is apparently friends with everyone to this day. Indeed, funnily, most of them know the author due to his constant checking up on them for fan material.
    Harrison Ford is a great interviewee in this book as well, which is to say it's clear he's only barely tolerating being interviewed and hates most of his former cast. The best part of the book is, hands down, "Do you want to talk about your co-star Sean Young" and his answer of, "No." That was worth the price of the book by itself.

    In conclusion, this is only a book which a super-fan would want but why would you be buying it otherwise?


Ex Machina (2014) review

This review contains spoilers for the ending of Ex Machina.

    Ex Machina is a movie which could make an excellent psychological experiment of itself. It's one I think that functions as something of a Rorshach test for its audience as virtually everyone comes away with a different interpretation of the movie based on what they think of the characters are trying to represent. If anything.

    The premise of the movie is minimalist and effective: Tech billionaire Nathan (Oscar Isaac) selects a young programmer named Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) to spend the weekend at his isolated high-tech ranch. Once there, the billionaire explains he's developed an A.I. that he wishes to subject to the Turing Test. The A.I. turns out to be an obviously cybernetic but very beautiful gynoid (i.e. a female android) named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Over the course of the weekend, the programmer becomes enamored of the gynoid and must decide whether to go against his boss to help her escape.

Beautiful and inhuman at once.
    If you want to know whether I recommend the movie then the answer is yes. It's a thinking movie which is very much about a variety of issues but also can be applied to other issues. There's been feminist, tech, socio-political, racial, and more interpretations of the movie with all of them being applicable.

    Thankfully, the movie also contains a plot which which works entirely on its own merits without needing to be about anything. If you're in the mood for a cerebral tech-heavy film about A.I. and personification then this is it. If you want to know more about the movie then be warned SPOILERS will follow. Okay? Good.

    A lesser movie would and could have gone with the "White Knight" narrative where the programmer rescues the gynoid and they live happily ever after. This is a much more distressing movie where the motives of everyone are suspect and what is really being said is left the imagination even as the credits roll. Indeed, some people have been upset about the movie because it didn't end in the way they expected it to.  How did it end? Well, as the movie is winding down, we discover Nathan didn't invite Caleb to determine whether Ava could pass the Turning Test or not but to do a variation of the "A.I. Box" experiment to figure out if she could convince Caleb to help her escape.

Can Aya feel anything even for her own kind?
    Caleb is humiliated after this discovery and then witnesses Ava taking matters into her own hands, gutting Nathan with the help of the mute gynoid Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno). Kyoko is killed in the process and Ava proceeds to cover herself in the skin of discarded prototype androids before locking Caleb in the powerless mansion's monitoring room. Ava goes to fulfill her dreams while Caleb is left to stave to death. It's a very-very dark ending if you have any sympathy for Caleb.

    Feminist interpretations of this ending have been that it either is a positive or negative portrayal as they take it as a matter of fact that Ava is a woman or at least meant to be one. That Ava, sensing Caleb just wants her as his fantasy girlfriend, abandons him to become her own hero. Less charitable readings take the view the director saw Ava as an inherently deceptive and dangerous character with her desire to be free of patriarchal control. It's an easy read to give the movie since Nathan has created his A.I. all in the shape of beautiful woman and is implied to use them for sex. There's allusions to Bluebeard, human trafficking, and the "bro" culture of Silicon Valley. Indeed, long has the gynoid been a symbol of male fantasies of ultimate control ranging from Galatea to Metropolis' infamous fake Maria.

    However, the alternate ending of the movie changed the entire context of "Ava" as it revealed she didn't have human senses at all but simply viewed the world through an ultraviolet interpretative matrix. That she was as far from a human being as a whale or a toaster, possibly not even any more sentient than a machine programmed to escape. Caleb and Nathan both let their guard down because they consider her to be a helpless creature but she's an incredibly intelligent (super-intelligent in fact) quantum computer without feeling or empathy. Its motivations are wholly incomprehensible because it was made from Facebook and code not biology or God.

Is her face her face or just camouflage?
    The feminist interpretation was there but it took on the darker note Nathan and Caleb didn't realize they were not dealing with a woman or even a human being because they were fooled by the doll-like appearance the former had given his machines. They treated a tiger like a house cat simply because its appearance played into their expectations. That changes the metaphor from being about treating people as machines than confusing the nature of a thing because you think you understand it. But is it the right one or is Ava just a person who wants to be free and is willing to kill to do it? Well, that's up to you the viewer isn't it as the director chose not to give us an insight into her thoughts.

    Famously, Phillip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Blade Runner actually have opposite morals. Blade Runner is about Replicants being the persecuted slaves and dehumanized oppressed peoples of the world. The narrative is squarely on the side of Roy Batty and it's only by abandoning his role as a Blade Runner does Decker achieve any humanity.

Her most real-girl appearance is at her most inhuman.
    Androids in Phillip K. Dick's novel are fundamentally inhuman and a sort of mental Uncanny Valley, created in man's image but with none of their soul. Whether you try to give Ava humanity in your viewing of the film depends a great deal on what kind of person you are. There's also the unsettling call out from the director, "Would you be as inclined to give Ava humanity in your mind if she looked less like Lara Croft as a cyborg and more like a big black Skynet-like box?"

    One element of the movie I enjoyed due to the fact I think it's entirely deliberate is the fact Caleb doesn't really ever think about rescuing Kyoko and more or less ignores her for the entire movie. She's a mute Japanese woman kept imprisoned by Nathan and possibly serves as his sex slave yet he only becomes interested in her struggle when he finds out she's an android too. Even then, he's mostly interested in Ava and only because she's expressed a sexual interest in him.

Is this her soul? Does she have one?
    In Caleb's Conan fantasy, he's only interested in freeing one girl from the warlord's harem, not both of them. Part of this may be racism or sexism but may also be as a geek, he's only interested in the sci-fi extraordinary plight of a android versus the everyday plight of his fellow humans.

    The acting is stupendous with Alicia Vidkander doing an amazing job portraying the innocent and coquettish Ava in just the way to make us wonder if that's just what the machine is simulating. Caleb is an amazing Anti-Hero and that's in the classical sense where he never makes enough choices to be a hero of any kind. He's just a dude who finds himself in an extraordinary situation. With Nathan we never figure out if he is a monster or if he was playing one to help his test along--but it says something about the guy he chooses to live in a completely isolated compound surrounded only by robots.    

    This is a minimalist movie and one which I very much enjoyed. It's very much one you have to pay attention to and what you take from it will be affected by whether or not you think Ava is a person, a machine, or a person who is a machine and wholly alien to us.


Exploded View by Sam McPheeters review

    EXPLODED VIEW by Sam McPheeters is a neo-noir cyberpunk detective story which tales place in that delightfully sunny and depressed city of Los Angeles in the year 2050. The skyscrapers have been converted into government housing for the poor, television is completely interactive, and everything is watched at all times by the police.

    LAPD Detective Terri Pastuzka is a lesbian and single mother who is suffering a mild case of depression due to the fact her wife has just left her for greener pastures as well as the soul crushing nature of her job. She spends most of her spare time mutilating the Nick and Nora Charles movies in order to make them dirtier as well as darker.

    I like the depiction of Terri and her struggles to make herself care about her life as the broken down detective is a great protagonist for any sort of cyberpunk work. The fact her daughter is acting out for lack of attention (including playing a highly illegal social media-based prank game called "Strangers on a Train") felt realistic for the environment. Her sexuality is treated no differently as any straight man's but worked well in the future environment.

    This isn't an action novel and most of the volume is spent exploring the tech as well as its implications in a poverty-heavy environment. All of the tech seems plausible with a bit of a stretch only for how interactive the programs have become in the future. Really, the most unbelievable element is the idea the United States would open itself up to millions of refugees from the India-China nuclear war.

    I love the vision of 2050 Los Angeles which Sam McPheeters presents and while I wouldn't say it's necessarily plausible like the technology, I will say it's certainly authentic feeling. This is a lived in and dramatic world that does not revolve around our protagonist or the plot. Indeed, solving the murders that our heroine obsesses over will do nothing to make the world a better place. It will just make her sleep better.

    In conclusion, this is an exceptionally good book and should appeal to fans of noir as well as cyberpunk. Terri is an excellent protagonist and I wouldn't be adverse to reading more of her stories as the conflicts within her aren't things that can be resolved overnight--if ever. The real lesson of her latest case wasn't that she had to get over her struggles but they will be there the next day and the next day after.


Friday, December 8, 2017

Dex (video game) review

    One of the elements which often gets ignored in modern gaming is the indie game. With so much focus on the Triple A games being released every year, those created by smaller studio are impulse buys and "until I have something else to play" at best--at least for most gamers. That means some surprising gems have been overlooked. One of these gems is one I'm going to take a moment to talk

The combat isn't too far from Double Dragon.
    Dex is a side-scrolling Metroidvania best described as "Symphony of the Night and Deus Ex." You play the role of Dex, a blue-haired cyberpunk heroine who is woken up one night by the world's worst assassins. Narrowly escaping them, Dex finds out she is a genetically engineered super-soldier who has a connection to one of the world's two artificial intelligences. This messianic destiny is far off and the majority of the game is trying to survive on the streets of Harbour Prime.

    Harbour Prime is a dirty graffiti covered hellhole inhabited by gangs, prostitutes, and thugs who wander the streets along with ordinary citizens. There's a lot of side-quests available for Dex to participate in from rescuing a young man from sex trafficking, robbing smugglers of cybernetic parts, and dealing with an attempt to patent food so as to force independent restaurants out of business. About 80% of the game is the sidequests and that's a good thing because the main quest is fairly straightforward while the sidequests all have multiple endings as well as different ways to approach. My favorite was an aging pop star dealing with a loony fan and both of them seeing the potential of cybernetic vocal chords to create a new career. You can side with the pop star, the loony fan, or arrange so they kill each other for shits and giggles.

I love Harbour Prime. It's a wonderful setting.
    The writing is the best part of Dex with a lot of lowlife criminal stories that are entertaining as hell. These are the kind of things which Deux Ex: Mankind Divided tried and failed to create convincingly. Ironically, it's the main quest which is the weakest of the stories since choosing to side with the godlike A.I. or the evil corporation is just a repeat of the original Deus Ex (or Neuromancer for that matter).

    The art design for the world is extremely well done. Harbour Prime has all the feeling of a proper cyberpunk setting with horrific bombed out slums, a sleazy Red Light district, and a fantastic district for the super rich. It reminded me a bit of a much-better designed Final Fight and I appreciated the fact you could fast travel between all the districts at will. Despite being limited in graphic budget, the place is well-done with lots of hidden nooks and crannies to explore.

Harbour Prime has a huge amount of personality.
    The voice acting for the game is top notch and there's numerous really well-done cutscenes which make use of art set pieces that give the game a nice comic book feel. All of the game's characters are well-realized from the Americana obsessed gun store owner to the somewhat disgusting cybernetics doctor who takes liberties with unconscious patients (sadly, you can't kill him for this). I was particularly interesting in the brothel madame Lilly who is a subversion of your typical human trafficker.

    The biggest flaws of the game are the fact combat is extremely basic and a broken boring hacking minigame. Even the developers commented the hacking minigame sucks. The RPG elements actually make both harder. For example, you can't kick until you upgrade your melee skill, for instance, and that's just ridiculous. The combat can thus be summarized as punching guys and rolling out of the way of their counterattacks until they go down. Using guns is barely viable as they don't do that much more damage than punching and quickly runs through ammo.

The sleazy elements are perfectly developed.
    The problem with this is the hacking mini-game is the least enjoyable part of the game and feels more like Space Invaders meets Gauntlet versus the rest of the game. It didn't become tolerable until I upgraded my Hacking stat to maximum. The game would have been massively improved by making the hacking game optional or giving some way of getting past them without having to do such a serious gameplay change.

    Dex, herself, is a great character and someone I wouldn't be unhappy to see become the star of a series of games. She doesn't speak much but what she does creates a mysterious and fascinating character. I admit to playing her as a professional thief, lover of prostitutes, and killer with a heart of gold. Others may go for a more heroic build.

Great comic book cutscene art.
    I was fond of supporting cast members Decker, Tony, Richmond, and Raycast. While they could have had one extra female character among the five hackers who form the group opposing the Complex, I will note Dex is the lead. I also like how the game often comments on how Raycast is untrustworthy and yet all the characters trust him--only to be have whether that trust be justified or not revealed in a genuinely surprising way. I actually grew to like all of the characters and cared about their fates.

    In conclusion, Dex is a surprisingly great game which got lost in the indie slush pile. A sequel is unlikely but the Dreadlocks team have continually updated and enhanced the game since its release so perhaps all is not lost. It's kind of funny that a tiny studio in the Czech Republic made such a delightfully cyberpunk game. With CD Projekt Red's upcoming Cyberpunk 2077, maybe there's just something about post-communist life which draws people to cyberpunk.


Monday, December 4, 2017

Assassins Creed: Origins review

    ASSASSINS CREED: ORIGINS is a bit of a late review because I've been taking my time with this game. I often have very positive first impressions of video games, only for my opinion to start to go down in the long haul--especially if they botch the ending. Fallout 4 is a game I really enjoyed but the sheer staggering number of half-measures ruined the experience for me. I also loved Deus Ex: Mankind Divided but the ending was a crash-landing on what was previously a great ride. 

    I finally finished Assassins Creed: Origins and have given myself a couple of days to ponder what I think of the story.  Overall, I think AC:O is a massive return to form for the franchise and probably the best installment of the game since Assassins Creed: Black Flag. However, it's not a game without some serious flaws which drag down the experience from being equal to Assassins Creed 2 (which remains the gold standard by which all others are measured).

Bayek is one of the most entertaining and well-developed of Assassins.
    The premise is a new modern day protagonist, Layla Hassan, is investigating the life of the first Assassin Bayek of Siwa. She's done this by breaking into his tomb and plugging him into the Animus. Bayek and his wife Aya are on a mission of revenge against the "Order of the Ancients" who killed their young son. While you get to play as Aya a few times, you mostly play Bayek and follow
him on his open-world quest to do good while tracking down the Order's members.

    The best part of the game is where the game diverges from the traditional AC formula. They tone down the First Civilization elements that have been dragging down the series since AC3. They also more or less wholesale copy The Witcher 3's rules in order to make a vast open-world which includes many interesting side quests. Bayek and Aya are fascinating personalities with the former being deeply religious as something new to the franchise (that primarily consists of irreligious protagonists).

    While revenge is an overused plot to motivate characters, Bayek and Aya are real in their grief as well as how it affects them. The death of their son has resulted in a rift between them and not even Kill Bill-esque vengeance is going to heal it. I also love the beautiful architecture of Ptolemy Egypt, which has been resurrected in all of its ancient glory. You can visit the Library of Alexandria, climb the Lighthouse, and visit much older monuments. The ability to climb the Great Pyramid of Giza to its top is worth the price of admission alone.
Bayek and Aya have a wonderful relationship.

    Even so, the villains are a bunch of one-dimensional targets with the fact they're just proto-Templars making me wonder what it would be like for Assassins Creed to have another opponent for once. Part of what made Black Flag so interesting was your targets were, by and large, other pirates or slavers. The treatment of historical personages in this installment is worse than usual since they go with a very stereotypical treatment of some of the period's most fascinating personalities.

    Julius Caesar is an arrogant one-dimensional tyrant and Cleopatra is a whining party girl who schemes with Pompey at one point. Her brother, Ptlomey, is treated as a dictator himself despite the fact he was a puppet ruler. Her sister is just outright excised from the story. Julius Caesar is a controversial figure in part because while he was dictator of Rome, he was also a man who spent large amounts of his personal fortune trying to win the common man over. Given Brutus was a man who loathed the common people, it seems strange seeing him as a champion of the early Assassins.

Eagle vision becomes literal of this game.
    There's a few acceptable breaks from reality like the fact we don't see the massive amount of slavery at the time since that would force our hero to either be anachronistically against the practice or lose him much of the audience's sympathy. We also get an early period for the Assassins' origins that keeps them locked in the present day versus making them responsible for all of history.

    Do I have any complaints about the gameplay? To an extent, yes, that the wholesale absorbing of the Witcher 3's gameplay doesn't really work for the setting. You should be able to sneak up and stab someone or drop on them from above so they die. Doing so and them getting back up doesn't make any damn sense, ditto when you shoot them in the head with an arrow.

    If you go after a target while underleveled, you might as well be fighting an indestructible tank. That means AC:O isn't so much a stealth game as a fighting game. The fact you have to constantly level up your weapons also feels silly in a "realistic" setting. As such, you have to do a lot of sidetreking in order to get to the end of the game. On the plus side, we do have a great new advantage in gameplay with Semu the Eagle. Bayek, for whatever reason, can see through his pet eagle's eyes and this allows you to mark targets as well as discover secrets about locations before planning your attacks. I also applaud the removal of synchronization challenges with the game allowing you to kill targets however you want.

Cleopatra is modeled after Elizabeth Taylor.
    There's also the fact the final portion of the game is played with Bayek's wife Aya who is not possessed of any levels of special equipment. While this is what I complained about earlier, it's a jarring gameplay shift and you've spent the entire time focused on getting your equipment to maximum then it's going to feel a trifle frustrating. You want to kill your final target (which is admittedly the mother of all assassinations) with your special Sword of Ptah +40, not a random bronze dagger.

    The map is huge and when I mean huge, I do mean huge. More of Egypt is detailed than I ever thought possible with Alexandria, Memphis, the pyramids, the Sahara Desert, rocky coasts, and the Nile all giving it a massive open-world feel. There's some flaws in this, such as the fact Alexandria was the second largest city in the world at the time while it's barely a map dot of a few key buildings in this game but acceptable breaks from reality. There's a staggering number of locations spread across the game. Plus, I do appreciate the opportunity to outfit Bayek in Pharaoh armor as well as riding around in a bling-covered camel.

A bit too much melee. Not enough stabbing from behind.
     A warning for those who hate microtransactions, Ubisoft did provide the game with a "pay to win" function that allows you to buy all the difficult-to-acquire skins and materials you need to max out Bayek's equipment. As gouging customers go, though, Ubisoft is doing the least offensive version possible since none of the stuff they're selling is necessary to win the game. I bought some cool outfits and they cost about $5 each. It's a far cry from gating away, say, Darth Vader or Luke Skywalker like some of the companies we know.

    In conclusion, Assassins Creed: Origins is a great Assassins Creed game but it isn't the best in the franchise. The game feels a little too much like a Dungeons and Dragons-themed fantasy RPG versus what the series has traditionally excelled at. The characters are likable but the portrayal of the time period is mixed. I'm glad I got the game and am glad I played it to the end but they could have gone a bit further with it.


Thursday, November 30, 2017

The United Federation of Charles 2017 Book Awards

Hey folks,
Sculpture of HP Lovecraft by Bryan Moore/copyright 2009.
It occurs to me that I have reviewed a staggering amount of stuff here on my blog but never was so arrogant to give out my own personalized awards. Well, I've decided to be every bit as arrogant as that decision deserves. This is going to be a collection of awards presented to those works of media that I feel like stood above the rest this year.

You may wonder why I'm presenting a bust of H.P. Lovecraft as my award. Well, for two reasons, the first is the World Fantasy Awards aren't using it anymore and second since this is just a picture of a bust that costs nothing--I might as well actually make it look good.

All of the contest awards are judged and presented by me with no input involved. I am completely fair in my judgement and will explain why I made the choices I need. If you have a problem with my decisions, well, it's just a blog award dude. I know a couple of these authors but that has not influenced my vote and even if it did--it would still be more honest than Hollywood.

Best of 2017

I might as well get the big award out of the way before anything else. After all, it's the one everyone is looking forward to.

Winner: The Dragon's Legacy by Deborah Wolf

I confess, I was actually back and forth on this one because there were a lot of incredibly good books which came out this year. Generally, the awards went to either Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames or Red Sister by Mark Lawrence. It kind of annoyed me this one didn't get nearly the attention it deserved.

The Dragon's Legacy is a massive book which takes place in a fantasy version of the Middle East and China that discusses the nature of everything from family as well as what to do when the world is ending (and there's not a damn thing you can do about it). Deborah A. Wolf's prose is amazing and she deserves every bit of success she can get.

Runner Up: Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

What? I didn't say Kings of the Wyld didn't deserve all of the praise it was getting. I just thought it wasn't quite as good as The Dragon's Legacy. It's a hilarious story about a bunch of over-the-hill mercenaries which combines Dungeons and Dragons with This is Spinal Tap. Saga is one of the great collections of heroes in fantasy fiction--and I mean all of it--that it's a shame the book ever had to come to an end.

Best Grimdark

Why best grimdark? Why not best grimdark? If you love gritty and dark fantasy (and you know I do), there's nothing better. Besides, it's what I enjoy reading the most and if you're going to do a book award then you should have categories which reflect your interests.

Winner: A Gathering of Ravens by Scott Oden

I confess I was surprised by this one as well since, like The Dragon's Legacy, it was a bit of a sleeper hit compared to some other works out there. However, this book is frigging dark and wonderful. The story of the last monster in the dying age of paganism, it has an amazing knowledge of both Norse mythology as well as history. The characters are fascinating but flawed with no one having a claim to good but many having one to evil. Everyone who loves their fantasy bitter and bleak should pick up a copy of this. The fact it ends up on a ray of hope is perhaps the most surprising thing of all.

Runner Up: Where Loyalties Lie by Rob Hayes 

I feel like kicking myself for not giving Rob Hayes the award here but A Gathering of Ravens was so good! Even so, Where Loyalties Lie really is perhaps my "favorite" book of the year. It's got pirates, grimdark, intrigue, sexy pirate wenches, and moral ambiguity up the wazoo. It comes in second here and third for Best of 2017. You'd be a fool not to buy it as well as its sequel The Fifth Empire of Man.

Best Independent Fantasy

Why Independent Fantasy and not Fantasy in general? Well, I think it's better to acknowledge the people who may have fallen through the cracks. Plus, there's been a lot of really good independent fantasy I've read this year.

Winner: Darkstorm by M.L. Spencer

Darkstorm is probably the sleeper hit of my year because it's just damned good no matter how you slice it. It reminds me a bit of the D&D fiction I used to read religiously at my local Waldenbooks in highschool. Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, and so on but with a lot more edge to it. The story of a coming apocalypse, two feuding brothers, a beautiful young mage, and how the heroes will NOT succeed in saving the world. Darkstorm is actually a prequel to the rest of the series but I have to say it's better by a mile (and I liked the others).

Runner Up: Shattered Dreams by Ulff Lehman

This was a particularly tough one as while I liked Darkstorm most out of all the independent fantasy novels I read this year, there were a lot of other really good ones. The Grey Bastards by Jonathan French, which I look forward to being published by a mainstream publisher, and Faithless by Graham Austin King both qualify.

In the end, though, I'm inclined to give this one to Ulff Lehman for the fact he managed to craft a multifacted dark epic fantasy which contained some truly great characters. He came within inches of toppling Darkstorm but I have to say I liked its prose just a wee bit better. Still, an impressive accomplishment and I hope people will pick this book up.

Best Independent Sci-Fi

Same for Independent Fantasy, there's just so many good books out there written by those unencumbered by the machine. Indeed, I actually had to split this award into two given my reading tastes.

Winner: Mercury's Son by Luke Hindmarsh

Where to place Mercury's Son is a work which confounded me for a lot of times because I fully admit to knowing Luke Hindmarsh. I also read the slightly-less awesome version of the book followed by its much more awesome re-write. I'm judging on the version currently out now, though, which is just pure awesome.

So, take my award with a grain of salt but I couldn't not give it to him because it was the sci-fi book I most enjoyed this year. Independent or otherwise. What is Mercury's Son about? The story of a dark and dying Earth, a theocracy, and a cyborg with no memory. There's so much good dystopian fiction out there, it's amazing I can say this is the best right now.

Runner-Up: The Secret King: Lethao by Dawn Chapman

I actually had this one as the winner for a bit because it's such a beautiful space opera with intrigue, social conflict, love, and war. The similarities to the 70s Battlestar Galactica only increased my enjoyment along with its Flash Gordon-esque grandeur. There's some parts which stumbled but I still felt this was an amazing work.

Best Cyberpunk

What can I say? I love cyberpunk so much it needed its own category.

Winner: Ghosts of Tomorrow by Michael R. Fletcher

There was really no contest for this one as Ghosts of Tomorrow is among the best cyberpunk novels ever written: comparable with Snow Crash, Neuromancer, and Altered Carbon. It's the story of the brain trade of the minds of children in a world where A.I. scans are a premium market but can only be made once from the living (something quantum mechanics says may actually be possible). It's dark, extreme, beautiful, and insane all at once. It also has a cowboy samurai cyborg assassin.

Runner Up: West End Droids, East End Dames by Brian Parker

West End Droids is an interesting addition to this list because it's actually the third book in a series and you don't see too many sequels winning awards. However, this is a great story about cyborgs, crime, as well as casual police corruption in a cyberpunk New Orleans. Zach Forrest is a great character and watching him reach his limit with the men who are supposed to watch is back is great.

Best Cthulhu Mythos 

It's a bit unfair to give an award to a genre completely made of pastiches but H.P. Lovecraft IS on the bust and he's already upset with me for profiting from his work. So, I'm going to appease his ghost with this category.

Winner: The Statement of Andrew Doran by Matthew Davenport

There's a lot of crappy Lovecraft pastiches out there and very few novelists bother to take risks. So, really, it was down to either The Statement of Andrew Doran or Winter's Tide for the best of the year. Matthew Davenport wins, in the end, because his novels involved punching Nazis in the face and finding the girl of your dreams actually is just a product of sorcery.

Runner Up: Winter's Tide by Ruthanna Emrys

Is it right to do a story where it turns out all the monsters of H.P. Lovecraft were misunderstood victims of government persecution and racism? Well, maybe, maybe not but Ruthanna makes a powerful story about the last surviving member of the Deep One hybrids after the Innsmouth raid. Not quite as good as the original Litany of the Earth but damn close.

In any case, hope you enjoyed!