Monday, November 28, 2022

Dawn's Light (Sol Saga #1) by Hunter Blain review


    DAWN'S LIGHT by Hunter Blain is the first book in what I hope will be a long-running superhero series. The Sol Saga is a change from the author, who is primarily known for his Preternatural Chronicles books. Being as I am both a urban fantasy as well as superhero author, I was interesting in reading what another author making the leap between genres would be able to do with the change in expectations. Much to my surprise, the result can basically be summarized as, "What if Watchmen was really-really funny?"
The zig-zags of tone will not be for everyone but I have to say I found to be immensely entertaining. 

    Specifically, this can be some of the darkest superhero literature I've read with the protagonist, Sol, giving a family terminal radiation sickness while trying to save them from burning to death in a fire. Later, his attempts to take refuge with a family result in the horrific death of everyone involved, including a scene where someone begs him to save their dying mother only for him to be able to do anything about it. 

    Then there's Harry, who is quite possibly the worst soldier of all time and who every single action probably contributes to the "Things Private Skippy is no longer allowed to do" list. In a book where large sections of America are devastated and many innocents are slaughtered in the "a teddy bear is floating in the pool ALA Breadking Bad" way, he's the kind of guy who stops to make a loud Ghostbusters joke. I personally love this as it's utterly insane and contributes to the book's uniqueness.

    The premise is Sol is a strange visitor from another dimension inhabited by humans. Exiled by his people for the crime of accidentally killing someone, he has gained immense powers via the transfer to this reality but has a spotty memory. Sol has a bunch of solar based powers and is someone who terrifies the government but he is willing to do his part to try to make the world a better place. In fact, it's his job to save us from ourselves. He's opposed by Tenebris who is the Lex Luthor to Sol's Superman but a deranged anarchist (or so it appears).

    In what I think is one of the humor bits that doesn't contrast with the darker themes, I really enjoyed the fact that Sol is completely oblivious to how horrifying and dystopian his society is. Its a totalitarian eugenics society that is implied to have destroyed all rival culture and outlawed religion but Sol gets all butt hurt when anyone reacts to his descriptions with anything other than complete happiness.

    There's a strong but subtle social satire element to the book as well with the premise being, essentially fascism vs, anarchy (ala the original V for Vendetta). Sol comes from a society of absolute authority and control but he's up against a man who argues, not unconvincingly, that the current governments of the world are less of an actual social contract and more of a pyramid scheme. I also appreciated his plan to blow up all social media in the world, which seems like it would be counter-intuitive but actually fits with his real goals.

    I really like the set up for the world and appreciate the fact that it has a twist I genuinely did not see coming but makes sense of all the inconsistencies I'd spotted throughout the book until the end. Hunter Blain is an always entertaining author and while I have some mild issues with the book, I really enjoyed it from beginning to end.

8.5/10

Available here

Saturday, November 26, 2022

Star Wars: Andor review


    Disney's stewardship of the Star Wars brand has been somewhat spotty in its handling. I'm going to spare you my opinion on the subject because we would be here all day but I was a Legends fanboy and religiously cultivated my love of the Expanded Universe for a good ten to twelve years of my life. Suffice to say, my opinion of the sequels was less than stellar and I feel like with the exception of Lost Stars, the novels have been nothing of particular note either. Thankfully, Disney has been doing somewhat better with the television shows as both The Mandalorian and Kenobi were pretty good. I'd even go so far as to say that Kenobi should have been a movie in theaters rather than on Disney+.

    Andor, by contrast, is it's own beast and I honestly think it may be among the best Star Wars media ever created. I bring up all of my above Star Wars experience because I'm putting that into context. I've read everything from The Lost City of the Jedi to the New Jedi Order. I've watched Droids, Ewoks, Clone Wars, and Resistance. I can tell you the difference between a Quarren and a Klantooine. What I'm saying is I know shit

    I don't know if Andor justifies the existence of Disney's Star Wars but it is a compelling argument by itself. The Mandalorian is what I wanted from a Boba Fett series since I was eight years old but Andor does something different. Andor is actually of artistic merit. That's a bit of a loaded pair of buzzwords but it's the best way to describe what this show does for me. There's nothing wrong with entertainment that exists to entertain but Andor manages to do that while also actually having something to say. A lot of things to say actually. All of which it does with imagery, storytelling, and strong characters.

    The funny thing is that I was going to give this one a pass. I mean, who the Nine Corellian Hells cares about Cassian Andor? He was okay in Rogue One but it's not like he was a particularly important character that I was dying to learn more of. If I had to choose any character from the Disney movies I would want to watch a series about, I'd probably choose Jyn Erso, Rey, Finn, Rose, Q'ra or Tobias Beckett. Hell, I'd watch an office comedy starring Admiral Krennic. Not that I was dying for any of these movies but Cassian didn't leave much of an impression. Here, he does.

    Getting into the actual review, Andor is ostensibly the story about the titular character. It's not quite twenty years into the reign of the Empire and he's a petty thief working on the planet Ferrix as he's struggling to find his lost sister. Cassian is an indigenous native of a planet that got separated from his family due to the Clone Wars and thinks he can track her down. The different kind of story this show is can be summarized by the fact he looks for her in a brothel and ends up murdering two cops, one of them begging for his life, in the first five minutes.

    Now that might give you the impression this is a grimdark show or ridiculously gritty but this is definitely a far more grounded show than the typical Star Wars universe. This is not Luke Skywalker or even Han Solo's Star Wars. This is maybe not even Wedge Antilles' Star Wars, this is Uncle Owen and Rebel Soldier 271#'s Star Wars. There are many people who have 9-5 jobs under the Empire, Stormtroopers are terrifying, and you can have your life ruined by an Imperial beach cop sending you away for six years for loitering. 

    This is the first Star Wars work to really give us an idea of what "normal" life in a galaxy far far away is like. The oppression of the Empire is everywhere but it's just close enough to what we experience in our day to day life to be disquieting. The Empire has put the squeeze on everyone but Cassian, like many others, is determined to keep his head down until events actively prevent him from being able to do so. We get to see what life is like on worlds occupied by the Empire, how the upper crust live, the inside of a minimum security prison, and more. 

    Strangely, my favorite part of the story is Mon Mothma's part. They somehow got Genevieve O'Reilly back twenty years later after only a walk on cameo for Revenge of the Sith with most of her story removed from it to reprise the character. The founder of the Rebellion isn't doing much founding, though. Instead, she's doing the infinitely less glamorous role of financing petty rebel cells while hoping to be able to do more. Her husband and child don't know what she's up to and they're put in danger with every act she does.

    This is a Star Wars show that reckons with the politics of fascism and how it is an insidious and not always overly visible force. It's not about Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine but the petty prison wardens and smug rent a cops who revel in the power their positions grant them. Resistance to tyranny is something that goes beyond simply shooting up baddies and it is sobering how easy it is to believe things aren't "that bad."

9/10

Thursday, November 24, 2022

Eight Recommended Lovecraftian Fantasy/Scifi Novels

Howard Phillips Lovecraft remains one of the more controversial writers of the 20th century. A fantasy and science fiction visionary, he helped create a whole new concept of horror with his weird fiction concepts. The Great Old Ones, Necronomicon, Nyarlathotep, and creatures like the Deep Ones have resonated with generations of readers. He was also personally kind of a dick with racial beliefs extreme even by his time (so much so that Robert E. Howard told him to dial it the fuck down) as well as politics we can safely say were "questionable."

Nevertheless, his perhaps most admirable quality as a writer was the fact that he was never afraid to let alone else play with his toys. An early advocate of what we'd now call "open source" writing, he happily shared concepts and ideas with his fellow writers. There's a reason so many unnameable horrors and weird gods appear in Robert E. Howard's work. Also, he and Robert Bloch of Psycho fame took turns killing each other off in their stories. Howard Phillips would be delighted at the longevity of his creations and the fact that he has entertained thousands of people through things like the Call of Cthulhu tabletop games or Re-Animator movies.

Speaking as the author of the Cthulhu Armageddon books as well as participant in such anthologies as Tales of the Al-Azif and Tales of Yog-Sothoth, I thought I would share some of my favorite post-Lovecraftian fiction created by writers willing to play around with HPL's concepts.

8. The Trials of Obed Marsh by Matthew Davenport


Obed Marsh remains one of HPL's more fascinating characters despite the fact he never appears on screen. A sea captain, he sold the entirety of his community's souls and future to the Deep Ones in exchange for gold as well as fish. However, in any time there is economic despair, it becomes understandable when you might be willing to make a deal with the (Sea) Devil. Matthew Davenport is also the author of the Pulpy fun Andrew Doran novels but this remains my favorite of works.

7. The Atrocity Archives by Charles Stross


Combing the absolute horror of the Great Old Ones with the mundanity of being a British civil servant, even one that just happens to be a field agent and spy. The Laundry is a fantastic book that is somehow humorous, terrifying, and philosophical all at once. Bob Howard is a great character and is the only man in the world who can stand against the forces of darkness through the power of mathematics. Except, really, he knows he's eventually going to lose and he's mostly just trying to delay CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN for a few years at best.

6. 14 by Peter Clines


Peter Clines and I were notably both coming up in Permuted Press when that company got bought out by people who subsequently began printing Oliver North and other Far Right authors. Abandoning ship, both of us found better deals. I was overwhelmed by how much I loved his Ex-Heroes books where superheroes fought zombies. They had their flaws but got better each book until they were cancelled. 14 is even better as our protagonists are staying at a surreal apartment building where the mysteries of what its purpose as well as horrors is an onion to unpeal. 

5. The Elder Ice by David Hambling


Despite the popularity of the Call of Cthulhu games, there's a surprising lack of Lovecraftian detective fiction out there. You'd think the company would have been marketing books like TSR had been fantasy in the Eighties and Nineties. The Harry Stubbs series, starting with the Elder Ice, is as close to it as I've found. A WW1 British boxer, he is always coming within a hair's breadth of destruction at the Mythos' hands but avoids enough of it to keep his sanity and life. For the most part.

4. The Burrowers Beneath by Brian Lumley


The Titus Crow series is one of the biggest influences in my writing career because it is such an incredibly batshit crazy series. A Sherlock Holmes and Watsonian pair of occultists, Titus Crow and his assistant Henri de Marigny start with a war against a new Great Old One sending monstrous sandworm-esque monsters around the world to hunt them. Then it goes from there. I love this book and think its the Masks of Nyaralthotep literary equivalent I always needed. My only regret is the fact Tor books refuses to shell out money for new covers or release the rights back to Brian Lumley on the Kindle editions. So I recommend the audiobook version.

3. The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor Lavalle 


Victor LaValle has a complicated relationship with HPL, being a man of color who loved the writings of the author but felt excluded by his world. Adapting The Horror of Red Hook, Victor LaValle tells the story of a (not very good) jazz musician who finds himself immersed in a complicated occult conspiracy with the police, an eccentric millionaire, plus unlimited power to a man who might be able to overthrow a corrupt power structure. 

2. Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff  

 
Probably the most famous book on this, Lovecraft Country has already been adapted into a series by HBO that (sadly) only lasted one season. The story of a family of motorist guide writers who find themselves invited to a millionaire occultist's home only to become involved in a series of fascinating encounters with the supernaturals. The book is, in my opinion,better than the series as well as significantly lighter. Which is impressive given how dark the book can be at times. It manages to be good horror, good social satire, and good Cthulhu Mythos all in one.

1. The Litany of Earth by Ruthanna Emrys


The top recommendation here is by Tor reviewer, Ruthanna Emrys. An interesting interpretation of HPL's world from a reversed position. Basically, the Deep Ones and their human families were put in internment camps as of The Shadow of Innsmouth but released after WW2. Aphra Marsh is one of the few survivors and is struggling to reintegrate into American society. Dealing with a cult of white people who have misinterpreted her people's religion, it sets up the excellent Innsmouth Legacy books. It is available for free on the Tor site: https://www.tor.com/2014/05/14/the-litany-of-earth-ruthanna-emrys/

Friday, November 18, 2022

LA Noire (2017) review


    LA Noire
by Rockstar Games and Team Bondi is one of those classic games that has managed to stand the test of time despite the fact it was not a massive success in its initial release. It was created under extremely taxing circumstances, using the latest in motion capture technology, and managed to find an audience but not an incredibly huge one. People came into it expecting another Grand Theft Auto and got something much closer to a linear adventure game.

    The premise is WW2 veteran, Cole Phelps, has taken a job as part of the police in the post-war economic boom town that is Los Angeles. Cole has some bad memories of his time in the Pacific Front, no kidding, but is generally thought of as a war hero. However, he's eager to put his past behind him and forge a new life by solving crimes as well as working his way up the incredibly corrupt LAPD. Unfortunately, Cole is as honest as the sun is shiny.

    The positives of the game are difficult to put into words because they're really-really positive. The facial capture technology provides the game as close to photo realistic as was possible for the time and the characters mostly hold up even eleven years later (Note: this is a review of the remastered version). The recreation of Los Angeles is spectacular and the game really has the benefit of giving you a look into a cityscape that no longer exists.

    The real humdinger of the game, though, is the writing and this is probably one of the best written games of all time. Alongside Red Dead Redemption 2, this is a truly great story and would make a great movie or book if it wasn't already an incredible video game. The individual cases are incredibly well-realized with stories ranging from a skeevy film maker blackmailing his actresses for sex, the infamous "Black Dhalia" case expanded into an entire story arc, and more mundane cases like a Jewish man murdering a man who abused him one too many times. The larger narrative is also pretty good, invoking both Chinatown as well as LA Confidential. If you haven't seen either of those then Who Framed Roger Rabbit's freeway plan.

    The gameplay is primarily based around, shockingly enough, actual police work. Cole goes to crime scenes, examines them, gathers evidence, and then interrogates suspects. Sometimes he gets into shoot-outs and action scenes but surprisingly rarely. This is honestly closer to Phoenix Wright instead of Grand Theft Auto. The goal is to figure out who did it, where, and with what as in Clue. Very often, it will involve watching the facial animations of suspects to see them overact some tick that gives away they're lying. 

    The quality of the acting deserves its own salutation because it really is impressive to look upon. There's some real quality actors here like John Noble among others. The characters tend to be archetypes but never so much that I didn't believe they were real characters either. Which is another thing you don't often see in these sorts of video games, if not video games in general.

    Now for the flaws of the game. The first one is the fact that it's actually very inconsistently designed. There's no reason for the game to be an open world title because there's nothing to do in the open world and nothing would have been lost if they'd just begun every case directly after the last one. A better developer might have also incorporated more open world activities or made the "random crimes" spread throughout the map ones you can find via map marker.

    The game is also full of fantastic cases but also seems like it's skipped over some important character beats as well. One emotional subplot is a main character having an affair in a time when that was illegal and could get you fired from your job. However, we never get to know the main character's wife or the person they're having the affair with so it comes out of nowhere. Just a little bit more would have gone a long way in terms of character development. The game is fantastic when it's doing cases but drops the ball in a few areas.

    There's also a switch in protagonists when, bluntly, one of the protagonists is substantially better written than the other. An entire fascinating story about morphine smuggling, real life crime boss Mickey Cohen, and the Post-War financial situation for veterans is only available to learn about via video cutscenes. It would have been much better to actually play out the scenes. Of course, given the game took seven years to make, talking about the things they could have included is probably a mistake.

    Gameplay wise, LA Noire is underwhelming because the investigations are entertaining enough but could have been supplemented with more action scenes as well as things like car chases as well as more exploration. There's also annoying little details like the inability to easily skip cutscenes (you have to look up how to do so online). The game is definitely for mature gamers with racism, sex, murder, and a dark gritty take on Post-War Los Angeles. This is a very period accurate view of the world as well as a very cynical one. Which, of course, is right up my alley.

    LA Noire was remastered in 2017 and a VR version of the game was released. Virtual Reality is not my thing but worth considering for those who are into the whole thing. Right now, it is about twenty dollars and I think it's a real bang for your buck kind of deal. I strongly recommend the game even with all of its flaws.

9/10 

Available here

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Star Trek: Renassiance (New Frontier #10) review

    Basically, this continues the three-book Excalibur plot that follows the crew as they're separated from each other by the events of Requiem. In this case, it is Burgoyne, Doctor Selar, Robin Lefler, her mother, and a certain part of Thallonian royals. I'm not actually a fan of the crew being separated like this and feel like it should have been one big huge book but this came out in 2001, so I'm not exactly in a position to complain.

    Part of what I like about the book, though, is that it does tackle very un-Trekkian sort of things like a custody battle with Burgoyne and Doctor Selar. Frankly, it hasn't aged well as a plot, though. In addition to Burgoyne sexually harassing the Doctor for the first few books, their desire to involve themselves in the life of a child conceived during Pon Farr that he has only a biological link to hasn't exactly aged well.

    Basically, I'm going to be blunt that I think the relationship between these two is probably my least favorite part of New Frontier as a whole. I never liked the two of them together and they sort of make each other look worse, even with child on the way (especially with a child on the way). Which is a shame because Bugoyne is a character that has become more relevant with the introduction of non-binary people.

    Really, though, the best part of the book is definitely the Risa story. I don't know what it is about Risa but I find it a place where some of my favorite Star Trek stories are set. Yes, even the one where Worf becomes a terrorist. I think it's just the juxtaposition of the fact there's a vacation planet and everyone loves this world with the fact that it is apparently also a place no one can ever get any decent vacation time in. Perhaps also the fact that the utopian Federation is so nice that you kind of wonder why a vacation planet even exists.

    Mind you, I hope what I heard that Risa was based on Hawaii isn't true, though. Because, really, tourism is such a colonialist awful influence on that island and its natives that it becomes in incredibly poor taste.

    But the real appeal of the book is SCOTTY! Yes, James Montgomery Scott himself, now tending bar on Risa and enjoying his retirement in a way that I think sounded a lot better than him going off to a nursing home planet. Certainly, it has a lot more dignity and the fact that "Relic" suffered from a lot of ageism (the idea that old people didn't have anything to contribute in a futuristic world) was a pretty awful one. Here, at least, I think he's having fun and while I'm glad later books put him back in engineering, I think being a bartender isn't the worst thing he could do in his elder years. It's a shame he and Morgan Primus didn't hook up, though.

8/10

Saturday, November 12, 2022

Space Academy Washouts' audiobook is now available for preorder


"These are the voyages of the starship...something-something."


Captain Vance Turbo has been struggling for the past few years, his reputation in tatters and most of his allies having turned against him. Offered a chance to go after a sinister crime syndicate at a peace treaty in Notha Space, he jumps at the chance. However, no sooner does he do so that he discovers that a malevolent AI and even more powerful forces are at work. Ones that threaten everyone and everything in the galaxy. Will Vance somehow stumble his way into saving the universe again or will his luck finally run out?

Space Academy is an all-new series from the hilarious duo of C.T. Phipps (Supervillainy Saga, Agent G) and Michael Suttkus (I Was a Teenage Weredeer, Lucifer's Star) that lampoons the space opera as well as military science fiction genres.
RELEASE DATE: 12/13/2022

Space Academy Cover Changes

 
Hey folks,

I'm  pleased to announce an update for the Space Academy series. We've got a  new set of covers and some short stories for the Kindle editions of the  funniest series in science fiction today. Vance Turbo, HERO OF SPACE  and the worst crew in the galaxy are repeatedly called upon to defend  the Galactic Community from conspiracies, four-foot-tall fascist  squirrels, ancient alien gods, and gun-toting space rednecks. I think  these new covers capture the zaniness of my and my co-authors' work.

They're available on Kindle, Audible (narrated by Jeffrey Kafer), and Kindle Unlimited.

#1: Space Academy Dropouts: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B09Q1MS51G

#2: Space Academy Rejects: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B09Z7QFFCQ

#3: Space Academy Washouts: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B0B8MXLJ1B

I hope you'll all check them out.