Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Super Powereds: Year One by Drew Hayes review


    SUPER POWEREDS: YEAR ONE is the first volume of Drew Hayes' SUPERPOWERED's series. I was a already a fan of the man due to his FRED: THE VAMPIRE ACCOUNTANT and VILLAINS' CODE series. So, I had no doubt I was going to love this book. What were my feelings upon finishing the first book? I definitely enjoyed it with a few small caveats.

    The premise is that the world is full of mutants (called "Supers") that are born with special abilities like the ability to fly, turn into steel, or shoot laser beams out of their eyes. However, like the aforementioned Marvel creatures, they also have a downside where there are people crippled by their abilities. These people (called "Powereds") are unable to control their power and are despised by the public.

    A group of these Powereds are gathered together and operated on by a mysterious group that then enrolls them in Lander University. They have been turned into Supers by their surgeries and it is a test to see if they can pass the punishing trials that others undergo in order to become full-fledged superheroes. It's somewhat similar to MY HERO ACADEMIA except the protagonists are malfunctioning Supers instead of a "normal" person who gains superpowers.

    The protagonists are an eclectic mix of a telepath, a luck-manipulator, an energy absorber, a kid who has a sexy Captain Marvel-esque alter ego, and a flying heiress. They are just part of a much larger campus full of Supers that are all competitng to become the next generation of superheroes. The weight of the secret they hold could change their positions considerably, though.

    Part of what I like about the book is how authentic it feels. The majority of the characters are dealing less with issues of superpowers than they are things like romance, being on their own for the first time, and other classic elements of real life. It actually feels a lot more authentic to the college experience as I remember it versus the way its often portrayed on television or in books.

    Much of the book's appeal is the fact that it feels relatively low stakes and that helps make the storyline easier to indulge in. Who is sleeping with who and whether a character is pushing his limits or not isn't the kind of thing you can focus on while doing the usual superhero thing. There's room to breathe and enjoy the minutia of college life as defined by people who think they're a Jedi or can use their replication power for threesomes. There's still action scenes and a plot by the end but they're mostly in the name of friendly training.

    The book can best be summarized as "relaxing" and an entertaining read versus something that is especially deep in its world-building. That isn't necessarily a bad thing because it is a world that is easily understood and serves as a springboard for getting to know its likable and entertaining cast. It's long enough that I wouldn't say it's afternoon reading but an enjoyable week's read when you just want to be entertained.

    This was originally a web novel and I will state the Kindle edition I got had some minor formatting issues. I didn't have difficulty reading it and there were only a couple of minor errors. Still, having experienced the book in both Audible and Kindle format, I would recommend the former. If you like superheroes and you like coming of age dramas then this is definitely for you.

Available Here

 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Marvel's Avengers (2020) review

 
    MARVEL'S AVENGERS is a game I have very mixed feelings about. Indeed, I can't think of a game I've had more up and down thoughts about other than possibly Cyberpunk 2077. The difference is that Cyberpunk 2077 was a game that I very much enjoyed playing despite the many bugs as well as crashes. Marvel's Avengers wasn't as unplayable as Cyberpunk 2077 but the core game was also a good deal more boring. So, yes, this is going to be a harsh review for the game and this is after the game has had extensive time to debug and improve itself.

    Normally, I would focus on the single-player campaign for the majority of my review but I actually have to focus on the whole game before I get into that because it's clear that Square Eidos wanted to make a Destiny-clone instead. The game is built as the skeleton for what seems like was planned to be an MMORPG-style live service that could be played forever.

I like Kamala's mega-fists.
    Unfortunately, this really doesn't have the kind of juice to be able to be another Destiny. Say what you will about Destiny but it is fun to play and extremely easy to understand the basics of the game. You shoot things, you use your special ability, you gather loot, and you team up with your friends to shoot more things in more complicated environments. The system is integrated into the story and there's a wide enemy variety across multiple factions.

    Marvel's Avengers fails at practically all of this. You have a limited number of superheroes to play and all of them are insufficiently leveled at the end of the single player campaign except maybe Ms. Marvel (good for me as a Ms. Marvel fan but I think most other people prefer other Avengers). There's really only one faction to fight in AIM with a staggering lack of colorful bosses to fight. Finally, looting is just plain dissonant with the Marvel license since they only can pick up armor and that doesn't change their cosmetic appearance. The enemy variety in this game is just terrible with AIM robots, Watch Dog hate group members, and more AIM robots.

    Seriously, this game's lack of ambition for a live service is actually more irritating than the fact its designed as a money sink in the first place. I mean, if you're going to make Marvel's Avengers then the very least you can do is insert Hydra, Chitauri, or the Kingpin's goons into all this. It's obviously not the Cinematic Universe, inspired as it may be by it, so there's nothing stopping you from making use of everything else to make the world more colorful. I mean, I like AIM, but they can't carry the game by themselves.

Lots of abandoned roads and cars as stages.

    Indeed, one of the biggest weaknesses of this game is the fact that there's not a Marvel's Alliance number of bosses throughout this thing. There's MODOK, the Abomination, a disguised Loki, Taskmaster, and Monica Rappacini. I like Monica but she's not exactly someone I would put on my A-list of baddies to fight the Avengers in their game. I remembered playing the Avengers arcade game in the 90s and that had the Living Laser, Sentinels, Red Skull, Mandarin, Whirlwind, Ultron, and dozens of others.

    Now getting onto the single-player campaign, the funny thing is it's actually pretty good. I feel like I would have liked it as a Ms. Marvel solo game and given it a pretty good props. Unfortunately, it's not a very good Avengers game even if the story is fine. Yes, just fine. The premise is basically the comic book version of Civil War mixed with the X-men. Well, bargain basement version of Civil War and the X-men.

    The Avengers get blamed for a disaster that kills thousands, are disbanded, and the protection of the world is taken over by AIM under the leadership of Doctor George Tarleton (the future MODOK). AIM builds an army of robots and starts hunting for the Inhumans that were created by the malfunctioning Terrigan reactor that the Avengers were blamed for the destruction of. It's a bit of a rehash but having the bad guys take over the world at the start of things is a pretty solid premise.

    Weirdly, the protagonist of the game isn't Tony Stark or Captain America as you would think in this sort of game. If I were writing it, Captain America would have been sent into the future five years via science magic or in a coma like Metal Gear's Big Boss. Instead, the protagonist of the game is Pakistani American Kamala Khan a.k.a Ms. Marvel. She is the super-Avengers fangirl that witnessed A-Day first hand and is trying to find evidence that will exonerate her heroes.

Combat is...fine. Just fine.

    If you're not familiar with Kamala Khan, she's basically a teenage Spider-Man in personality with Mr. Fantastic's power set. She's an ordinary teenage girl living in New Jersey that is an enormous dork but full of enthusiasm for heroics. I happen to love the character but even I got irritated with the opening 30-minute fetch quest consisting of her wandering around a Disneyland food court promoting Avengers merchandise. I'm not kidding, that is the beginning of the game. I also fully believe at least half of the players will think the game invented her. I also think that Sony is probably the reason why it's not a teenage Peter Parker reuniting the Avengers.

    My overall impression of the campaign is, generally, I wish this was a single player Ms. Marvel game because I think it would have been an awesome introduction to the mainstream video game world for her character. The story's lower stakes, focus on Inhumans, and use of AIM would feel more appropriate for her than the entire Avengers. As such, it feels like AIM are starter villains for Earth's Mightiest Heroes.

    The combat is, again, fine. If it feels like I'm damning the game with faint praise, that's because I am. There's multiple ways to play the game with each separate character but it doesn't do any of the combat styles particularly well. Serviceable is probably the way I'd describe it. Honestly, the only characters I really enjoyed playing were Ms. Marvel and Captain America. Ms. Marvel because her stretchy powers were something I hadn't played before and Captain America because it's basically Batman from Arkham Asylum.

The hellicarrier is one of the few good set pieces.

    There's no sense of accomplishment upping your equipment because you know, intellectually, that none of the Avengers use that much equipment in the first place. Thor isn't going to start slapping on pieces of AIM armor or wrist-gauntlets nor is the Hulk. The cosmetics are also not that attractive in the first place as I don't care if my Hulk is a slightly darker shade of grain. Maybe if they sold Hulk cosmetics like a Red, White, and Blue one or wearing clown makeup but, alas, no. Injustice 2 was at least smart that the cosmetics changed your characters. Substitute US Agent, Bucky, Falcon Cap, or Captain Hydra skins for Captain America.

    In conclusion, this game is not very good. It's not terrible and I am playing it but I'm almost doing that out of obligation due to my love of Ms. Marvel as well as AIM. As an Avengers fan, I wouldn't feel obligated to play this anymore than the movie tie-ins. It's the fact it used two relatively lesser known baddies front and center that makes me think, "well the story is good at least." Even then it really is discount X-men with robots hunting for superpowered humans and stuffing them in camps.

5/10*

* And the 5 is being generous.

Monsters and Men (Pantheon Saga #2) by C.C. Ekeke review


    MONSTERS AMONG MEN is the second installment of the Pantheon Saga by C.C. Ekeke and a book that I immediately purchased after finishing the first one. This book was originally the second half of the first volume and manages to carry on the plot of Titan's murder as well as the development of its protagonists. The Pantheon Saga follows three individuals: new superhero Greyson, intrepid reporter Quinn, and teen powerhouse Hugo as they deal with the fallout from Titan's death.

    The premise is that the world's greatest hero was killed by a magnetic pulse that gave him a stroke. His former archenemy, Lord Borealis, was arrested and is now set to be executed for the crime. However, there's ample evidence that someone else was responsible for the crime. Unfortunately, the Vanguard have closed ranks and are torn between believing the simple answer versus those who think it might have been one of their fellow superheroes.

    This is a significantly stronger installment than its predecessor and I liked Age of Heroes a great deal. Basically, the stakes are higher and the character development is stronger. Several characters go in directions that I didn't expect and the book is all the better for it. Basically, the writer is not afraid to make characters irredeemable and redeem others that you wouldn't expect to be the good guys.

    Greyson's story is the strongest in this book despite the fact it was the weakest in the previous one. A terrible disaster happens at the start of the book and it results in him becoming a wanted fugitive. His burning anger that he'd been using superheroism to sublimate doesn't go away when he's forced into retirement and the attempts to "help" him deal with his guilt only make things worse. I especially liked Lauren's "betrayal" as she thinks she's helping him but does something that is truly unforgivable.

    Hugo's story is also fascinating as he is slowly lured into becoming a juvenile delinquent verging on supervillain due to the fact he's met a beautiful teenage girl that wants him to join her gang. His anger is every bit as deep as Greysons and the continued abuse he gets at school is slowly driving him insane. At any point, losing control could result in a lot of his (admittedly terrible) classmates being killed. It's a surprising source of tension.

    Quinn's story is continuing her investigation into the death of Titan and the possibility that one of his teammates were involved. Sadly, I feel her story was the weakest of the three due to the fact both Greyson and Hugo suffer dramatic tragic events that change their lives. Quinn comes close but the story always seems to walk back the worst of the consequences.

    The book reveals some of the darker side of superheroes with some explicit references to the #MeToo movement that makes the story all the stronger. It's not just that one of the superheroes is a complete scumbag but that his fellow "heroes" looked the other way while he was behaving in such a despicable manner. I felt that was distressingly realistic and it's well handled in this book.

    This book wraps up most of the plotlines introduced in the first book and sets up the plotlines for the second. Really, if both of them had been combined into one book then it would be a straight 5 out of 5 for me. However, this does feel like the latter half of a larger book. Still, the action was good, the characters well-written, and the story entertaining.

9/10

Available here

 

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Age of Heroes (Pantheon Saga #1) by C.C. Ekeke review


    I'm a huge fan of superhero literature as anyone who knows anything about me can tell you. I was inspired to write my Supervillainy Saga series by such works as Soon I will Be Invincible and Confessions of a D-List Supervillain. Age of Heroes looked write up my alley with a supposed realistic look at life in a world where superheroes were celebrities struggling to deal with 24-7 media coverage.

    The premise is that three individuals are deeply affected by the sudden inexplicable death of the hero known as Titan. There's Greyson, who worshiped Titan since childhood but has grown into an embittered adult, Quinn, who is an intrepid reporter that wants to break into the big leagues with coverage of Titan's death,  and Hugo a teenage boy that may have inherited Titan's powers. Each of them is an ordinary citizen, at least at the start, and provide a grounds' eye view of a larger than life person who fills the role of the world's greatest superhero.

    These three perspectives provide an excellent view of the superheroic world, particularly after the world-changing event that is the loss of their Superman figure. Greyson has a father who hates superheroes and struggles with his own unfulfilling life that he could change by using the powers he's gained. Quinn wants to cover serious issues but is encouraged to examine all the trite and salacious details that the public wants over real investigation. Hugo constantly toes the line between wanting to use his powers for good and the devastation he could unleash on all the people who had wronged him.

    I absolutely loved the world-building of this one. The world is just similar enough to our own to be good social satire with the handling of celebrities. People are interested in the sex lives, purity, and hook-ups of superheroes far more than their actual saving of lives. Images are also carefully maintained and managed to benefit them financially even when they are motivated by more selfless goals. The Vanguard, the setting's Justice League/Avengers, must manage their public perception because plenty of people are just looking for an excuse to tear them down.

    My favorite story of the three main leads is definitely Hugo's. A fifteen-year-old deeply in love with a beautiful popular girl, he bends over backwards to do what she says in hopes that she'll come to like him. This story is painfully true to life and ends in a way that I feel is emotionally satisfying. I am very eager to see where his story goes and, for once, don't actually know whether it will be a tale of heroism or villainy. Quinn's story is a close second because it provides us the most insight into the Vanguard and their reality versus public perception.

    My favorite supporting cast character is probably Seraph as she's a Supergirl-esque character that is the youngest member of the Vanguard. Expected to be a virginal and faith-based hero in public, engaged to Captain America-esque character Sentinel, she struggles under the public relations pressures that the others don't. These kind of little touches are excellent and help make the world more believable. She reminded me a bit of Starlight from The Boys and while I didn't like the comic, I enjoyed the Amazon version of the story that touches on the same themes.

    The action is excellent throughout the book with numerous well-described fight scenes that make me think this would have worked well in comic book format. The action isn't the focus of the book but it is something that is integrated well. Besides, as this isn't a monthly comic, we can also see characters badly injured or outright killed. I also want to give the author a nod for diversity as this cast includes a wide range of races, sexual orientations, and other things that make it more realistic.

    In conclusion, this is an excellent novel that I think works from beginning to end. If it has any faults, it's the fact the central mystery is not resolved at the end but carried over into the next book. For me, it was fine and I immediately purchased the sequel. This is not a self-contained story but it's a small issue for such a rich characterization-filled story.

9/10

Available here

 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

The Horror of Supervillainy and A Nightmare on Elk Street are done!

Hey folks,

I have fantastic news! 2020 was a hard year for anyone but it was especially hard on the writing process. Yet two of my manuscripts have now been completed, edited, and turned into Crossroad Press for publication!

THE HORROR OF SUPERVILLAINY

The Horror of Supervillainy is the seventh volume of the Supervillainy Saga and I'm pleased to say one of the best. Gary has decided to ditch supervillainy for the side of angels but he's terrible at it. Thankfully, an opportunity to provide his bona-fides come in the form of a talking raven who wants to give him a chance to rescue the President's daughter from vampires! But is it a trap? Of course it is.

A NIGHTMARE ON ELK STREET

The third and final Bright Falls Mystery novel is finished! Jane Doe is now at the height of her powers but, unfortunately, that doesn't pay the bills. Taking on a security job with a horror film company that wants to use "real" monsters in its production. Unfortunately, the movie is threatened by a force that quickly turns its attention to Jane. Plus, Jane finally has to make a decision she's been avoiding for years.



Saturday, January 23, 2021

Hardwired by Walter Jon Williams review

     Cyberpunk is a genre that arose organically during the 1980s as advancing technology as well as a culture of corporate greed set against the backdrop of the Cold War led to a mixture of nihilism as well as utopian skepticism. Basically, many people believed that science would definitely change the world but that the problems of human society would remain the same. People might visit the moon but would they ever deal with systemic poverty or racism? Probably not. Bruce Sterling, William Gibson, and Pat Cadigan all contributed the basis for what would eventually become a thriving subset of dystopian science fiction.

    Somewhat overlooked but every bit as influential is Walter Jon William's Hardwired. It was the chief influence of Mike Pondsmith's Cyberpunk 2020 and several other works that were the basis for our popular image of a future gone horribly wrong. It's interesting that the book is actually closer to a Western in many ways than an urban crime noir as so many cyberpunk books. The technology is there but it is a rugged desert in Texas where the majority of the action takes place versus Blade Runner's Los Angeles or Gibson's Sprawl. This helps differentiate it from many of its contemporaries and is another reason I recommend the book so highly.

    The premise is centered around two iconic characters. Cowboy is a rich smuggler who drives around the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic Earth inside a neural-linked tank that provides him access to the firepower necessary to do his job. He's given a questionable job that will take him through bandit-ridden territory to deliver medicine that may come from the people he hates most in the world. Sarah is a high(ish)-class prostitute who is taking care of her junkie brother when she undergoes plastic surgery to seduce a rich "Orbital" on behalf of a mysterious client. If they're on the level, it could mean an escape from the hell of the Earth but that's a big if.

    The world is a fascinating one with the people of Earth having become citizens in a Third World hellhole following their defeat at the hands of the aforementioned Orbitals. The megacorporations based there now control the world's economy as they devastated humanity's infrastructure with mass-drivers after a brutal but short-lived war that ended in the favor of those with the ultimate high ground. It's not quite Mad Max, Earth has technology as well as society, but they depend on the whims of the solar system's elite. It reminded me a bit of anime's Gundam and if not for the timing, I'd wonder if the creator was partially inspired by Hardwired.

    This is a gritty and dark novel but also a fairly short one. Neither Sarah or Cowboy's story last very long and don't intersect but are still able to paint a vivid picture of their awful society. They are both criminals but the society they live in is so manifestly unjust that any actions they take, no matter how cruel, seem justified. Betrayal and treachery are things both of them are prepared for but still manage to hit them because they can't turn down the jobs they know are too good to be true. It adds to the tragedy and pathos of the novel.

    I will say that some of the novel's elements haven't aged particularly well and readers should be forewarned. Sarah is hired to seduce a Orbital that has changed from an old male body to a beautiful young female body despite the former being heterosexual. The latter is depicted as simply indulging a personal vice rather than being a transwoman but its easy to see how many readers would have assumed so. "Princess" is certainly not meant to be a character any sympathy or understanding other than being a rich old male psychopath with a Sapphic fetish. This element is the only one that bothered me in an otherwise fantastic book.

    In conclusion, Hardwired is required reading for any true cyberpunk fan and doesn't take much time to read. I picked up the 30th Anniversary version that contains additional material from the author that I feel is well worth reading. This is a book that, upon completion, I immediately re-read in order to fully soak up the world created. The audiobook is also excellent and one that I recommend for its excellent narration.

 9/10

Available here

Saturday, January 16, 2021

Nanoshock (SINless #2) by K.C. Alexander review


    NANOSHOCK is the sequel to NECROTECH, a novel that I felt was one of the best cyberpunk novels of the new millennium. Cyberpunk hit its heyday in the Eighties and has never really return to its previous prominence, probably due to the fact we managed to make it reality around the late Nineties with the first present-day hackers movie being, well, Hackers. The SINless series is an homage to the classic Eighties cyberpunk, though, with its vulgar but unchanting heroine Riko as well as her insanely self-destructive attitude to anyone or anything that attempts to control her (or be her friend).

    The premise is that Riko is still recovering from the events of the previous book. Her credit is in the toilet, she may have betrayed her fellow saints (street mercenaries) to a corporation, and her girlfriend became a kind of cyber-zombie that needed to be put down. Now she's pursuing a series of questionable leads in hopes of finding something that will reveal the truth of her situation. Aiding her in this is the corrupt corporate execute, Malik Reed, and the brother of her late girlfriend, Indigo, who still suspects her of being responsible for Nanji's death.

    Nanoshock is book I have complicated feelings regarding. The book is trying much harder to be harsher, more vulgar, and more in your face than Necrotech. It opens up with Riko having sex with a nun (not a real one) in a back alley as a way to shock the audience. Riko also needlessly antagonizes everyone around her, physically assaulting and lashing out at her allies from the previous book. This is part of the story, though, as Riko was diagnosed with PTSD and her remaining paying gigs are all bound to trigger it.

    I like that K.C. Alexander is willing to make her heroine not the most approachable or even likable at times. A more conventional author would play up her sexual tension with characters like Malik or Gregory but she has Riko even more antagonistic as a result. Relationships that seemed like thwy would be permanent or grow closer are permanently fractured in this volume. It isn't exactly a feel good response but this isn't exactly a feel good book. Sometimes, events break a character and the consequences aren't pretty.

    The world of SINless is a fascinating one, being a Judge Dredd-esque archaology that seems both infinite as well as claustrophobic as well. There's endless numbers of horrible neighborhoods, new gangs, and murderous flamboyant mercenaries to deal with. The addition of technological zombies in the necrotech only adds to the horrifying but fascinating detail as well. Eventually, you put too much tech inside you then that tech will take over. It fits the world and makes things even more surreal and terrifying.

    If I had one complaint about the book, it is the fact that the central plot to discover who did what to Riko and her team isn't advanced much. Riko goes to elaborate lengths to try and recover the tape that seemingly convicts her but comes no closer to acquiring it by the end of the book. Instead, her journey is a personal one and ends on a cliffhanger I've been hoping for a resolution to since the book came out.

    In conclusion, I really enjoyed this book but it goes to darker and edgier places than the original. Not all readers will be comfortable with its harsh depiction of its characters, sexuality, and violence. However, that's part of the book's appeal. It is definitely a cyberPUNK book and all the stronger for its choices.

    8/10

Available here