Review: Eagle Rising

Eagle Rising

The Kirov series, of which Eagle Rising is the 47th (!) installment, is strange. If I’d read it three years ago, I’d probably have unfairly denounced it as the worst series of all time. In my more recent reviews, I’d sort of wavered from criticizing the individual books to admiring the ridiculous (in a good way!) plot and premise of the setting.

Now I have this weird feeling that’s settled. I unironically love the craziness and excess that the series gets into, while remaining just as critical of the many flaws of the individual books. I’ll take this flawed excess standout over a hundred “51% books” any day.

That being said, this book itself has essentially two set pieces spread out of over many pages and takes place in an entire arc with a forgone conclusion stated as early as the first book in the series. Whatever the author’s intention, the impression I got of this arc, with this particular WWIII having long since been established as ending in a nuclear fireball (hence the time travel and changing it in the first place…), was that it served mainly to show off wargaming set pieces.

The set pieces are a big Russo-NATO showdown in Eastern Europe and the shenanigans of the ship and its crew. The former is a strangely intriguing example of what happens when you rely on wargame simulations to an incredible and unprecedented degree. Besides the obvious issues with such a stilted de facto let’s play, there’s also problems when the simulations produce an undramatic (however realistic) result and there’s not much “cushion” of characterization or low-level danger to balance them. Another issue is that this particular conflict setup is not exactly undergamed.

The latter, a far more out there plot, involves the use of a time travel MacGuffin and some of the crew going onto an island and fighting a pack of wolves (it’s a bit of a long story). It also involves long scenes of clunky dialogue, which is less fun.

In a way, this book, with time travel shenanigans and wargame AARs, is its own series in a nutshell. Is this a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on what you want and/or like.

Review: Planeswalker

Planeswalker

The second novel in the Magic: The Gathering “Artifacts Cycle”, Lynn Abbey’s Planeswalker is a strange book that succeeds in one way but seemingly fails in its main goal. Where it succeeds, at least to me, is in one of its main characters.

Xantcha, a woman who was created by the technomagic horror plane of Phyrexia as an infiltrator, but who grew to have (mostly) free will of her own, steals the show. I’ll admit that the notion of an artificial almost-but-not-quite human is a fascinating one for me, and Abbey succeeds at portraying her well, certainly better than Urza himself.

Part of the problem is that the rest of the book consists of clunky pushes towards one middling set piece after another. As good as Xantcha’s story is, it gets in the way of the main plot. Furthermore, having the numbers routinely get big – ie “A THOUSAND YEAR journey” actually makes the experiences seem smaller and more mundane. Thus one big part of the book is better than the whole. But that part sure is good.

Review: The Brothers’ War

The Brothers’ War

One of the big games in my childhood was Magic: The Gathering, a fantasy card game with a surprisingly deep and varied backstory. Having encountered some parts of the backstory when I was younger, I turned my attention recently to The Brothers’ War, a novel by author Jeff Grubb.

The plot features brothers Urza and Mishra as they grow up and turn against each other, eventually leading opposite sides in a war of techno-supernatural contraptions. While passable, the prose isn’t the best, and the descriptions of large events take precedence over character development. The book is also about a third longer than it should have been. I kept seeing more repetition than I felt was necessary, and this comes at the expense of a rushed finale.

Still, you could do worse. The setting is a genuinely interesting one that takes fantasy tropes and builds on them, and while it could have been better, the writing could also have been done more poorly than it was.

Review: The Protocol

The Protocol

The initial book in J. Robert Kennedy’s James Acton series is The Protocol. This secret history conspiracy archeology thriller comes at sort of the tail end of my reading binge of this “genre”. Having read a lot of them, I’ve returned to more conventional cheap thrillers and have moved on for now.

This book embodies the reason why. A 51% book with an ancient mystical MacGuffin and super-conspiracy is still a 51% book if it has middling, mundane action. Especially if the MacGuffin itself is an unoriginal ripoff (as this is-I’ll just say there was an Indiana Jones movie that had the same kind of artifact and leave it at that). Just because something seems more outlandish than the blandest “shoot the terrorist” novel on paper doesn’t mean it comes across that way when actually reading it.

I’m not against ancient bizarre MacGuffins and super-conspracies in the slightest. But just having them doesn’t make them the equals of the best thrillers any more than using a similarly shaped bat makes one equal to a baseball Hall of Famer. It’s a lesson I’ve learned throughout my binge, and this is a good, even if not the most pointed, example of that.

Review: The One Who Eats Monsters

The One Who Eats Monsters

monstercover

Once again, Fuldapocalypse takes the plunge into a new genre. After seeing a good review of it on Spacebattles, I decided to read Casey Matthews’ The One Who Eats Monsters for myself.

This of course, is an “urban fantasy” novel, where you have supernatural entities hidden inside the modern world. Ryn, the protagonist is one of them, an ancient humanoid creature and vicious ‘hunter of monsters’. Throughout the book she alternates between being a vigilante and protecting a politician’s daughter she begins to develop very human feelings for.

Urban fantasy isn’t really a genre I read much of, although more for matters of admitted personal taste than any actual, inherent dislike. With that in mind, it was good for what it was. It definitely has some notable flaws. The human dialogue was often, er, “subpar”, and there were dramatic contrivances that made sense in-universe but still felt forced from a storytelling perspective.

But that’s more than made up for by the book having exactly what a cheap thriller needs to succeed-good action and good pacing. This definitely has both, although the sequel hook segment at the end is incredibly rushed.

The characterization is mixed but still ultimately positive. Many of the other characters are either shallow, stereotypical, or both. However, Ryn’s “monster with a conscience” is well-done, and that’s what matters most. Even the romance (and this is not a romantic fiction blog) is done surprisingly well-done.

One interesting note is that this is technically an alternate history novel. Among other things, supernatural shenanigans prolonged the existence of the Soviet Union (ah, those Fuldapocalypse zombie sorceresses). It reminded me, alternate history reader and writer, of this very big phenomena where a lot of fiction could be reasonably labeled “alternate history”, but because there’s no real incentive to do so, it isn’t.

I’m still not exactly a fan of urban fantasy, but I don’t regret taking a chance on a different genre with this book.

Review: Ward

Ward

The sequel to Spacebattles darling Worm, Ward arrived to much fanfare, to the point where the end of its author’s last web serial was overshadowed by antsy fans waiting for it to start. Now Ward itself has just finished.

When I started reading it, I saw that Wildbow’s literary issues didn’t change. The prose was too flat. The action likewise was too flat. The pacing had only two speeds: “Way too fast” and “Way too slow”. The descriptions are either overdetailed or underdetailed. I’d tried to follow all of his serials after Worm itself when they were written, and ended up just abandoning them.

Reading more of Ward, it has Worm’s problems, if not more. The structural issues mentioned above. The tendency to write into a corner and then ESCALATE out of it. The way the cosmology becomes ridiculous (you don’t include precognition as a power without good reason, much less two super-precogs, and that’s just one problem).

But really, Ward is a tragedy. I don’t mean inside the story itself, although it has plenty of dark moments. I mean that it’s dragged down by two big factors. The first is the legend of Worm bringing up unrealistic expectations (something Wildbow himself mentioned in his retrospective). The second is that its predecessor had just the right amount of factors to make it popular. Lightning was never going to strike twice.

One strange effect was that an improvement in the characterization actually doomed the serial. Worm’s fandom success hinged on Taylor, its protagonist, and her lack of what would normally be considered substance. Someone who was about 30% power fantasy of fighting back against the people who were just UNFAIR TO HER and 70% blank slate camera RPG protagonist created some strange incentives.

If you saw Worm as something that was more of a superhero RPG let’s play than anything else (which it comes across as), then the fanfiction boom made sense. Taylor’s bug power was just one “build” among others, and if the sole part of her character that filtered down was that wish fulfillment, then it’s easy to see why (combined with bandwagon inertia) why it got all the fanfiction it did on one small part of the internet.

So Victoria Dallon may have been an improved character, but the mystique was lost. Ward ended up as feeling to me like the kind of webfiction that, if you’re into it from the start (I wasn’t) you’d follow until it finished and then leave it behind.

 

 

 

Review: Life Without Giamotti

Life Without Giamotti

Sean Munger’s surreal Life Without Giamotti may be one of the most influential books I’ve read, with its surrealism influencing so much of my thinking with regards to fiction that I’ve sometimes had to step back and look to see if the tracks are there. For instance, my story thought of the pilot who finds his wingman is just a shell is, upon even a brief inspection, very much inspired by it. Possibly too much so. Oh well.

The narrative is a strange and unconventional one about an author and his character who has gained sapience. Perhaps fitting, it’s very hard to review. How can one score a book like this? It’s a strange book. Either you’ll think it’s a thought-provoking psychological story, pretentious emptiness, or a sum of parts that doesn’t quite add up to a whole. At times I’ve felt each of those opinions about this book.

Yet it’s well-written technically and its prose is sound. I can’t help but recommend it, to see if another reader will find it appealing.

An Old Story Draft Of Mine

So, a long time ago I had this idea in my mind. Now, granted, I didn’t know how to proceed from there, but it was this idea I had in my mind. Maybe it could still work as a very short story by itself.

I’ve talked before about “Steel Panthers Characterization”, derived from this:

spexample

Basically, in Steel Panthers, a unit has a nationally appropriate name and rank applied to it. Being otherwise interchangeable, this means nothing else in terms of characterization.

I came up with the term “Steel Panthers Characterization” to describe situations when characters were not just underdeveloped, but seemed to exist solely to put a certain piece of military equipment into action.

Fortunately, just as there were many, many fewer “Big-War Thrillers” than I’d thought, there are equally as few Steel Panthers Characters. Yet as a formative experience, this introduction stuck in my mind.

Basically, there would be a pilot in a two-seat, side-by-side aircraft, like an A-6 (as in the illustration) or an F-111 or an Su-24. It would dive in, release its weapons, and fly away on a routine mission.

Suddenly, the pilot would realize something wasn’t right. He looks at the other crewman, clad in his flight suit. Lifting up the visor, the pilot sees absolutely nothing underneath it. Same thing with the gloves and sleeves. Unnerved, the pilot simply ejects. His fate would be left ambiguous in a short story, but in a longer one he would become one of the characters.

What’s soured me on the concept is that I’ve felt it’s not only too harsh a critique, but also too inaccurate of one, given how few works really sink to that level. And the ones that do either make up for it in some way or are just unfairly easy targets. But still, the draft of the pilot’s story is something I feel I should share.

 

A Thousand Words: Yume Nikki

Yume Nikki

The early indie game Yume Nikki is, even by the standards of what this blog has become, a strange choice. It’s a cult classic art/puzzle game. There really isn’t that any plot or explanation beyond the surreal illustrations as a pigtailed shut-in named Madotsuki wanders around various dreamworlds. For an indie game, it has a distinct, memorable artstyle, and its early origin, much like Cave Story’s, helped it along significantly.

Of course, the other side of this is that it combines the type of low-intensity gameplay later referred to derisively as “walking simulation” with (barring looking it up online) often impenetrable puzzles. It’s definitely a cult classic, but it’s easy to see why it hasn’t become anything more.

There could hardly be anything less like the usual fare of Fuldapocalypse. Which is kind of why I selected this. A huge part of the appeal is in wondering what everything is and what it means-all the many, many, many guesstimates of who Madotsuki is, what happened to her, what all the monstrous dreams mean, and even the seemingly obvious ending, add to the appeal of mystery and uncertainty.

It would be ruined if there finally was a definitive, official explanation for everything.

And yet, in the technothriller and especially “alternate history as a genre” style of story, massive detail is a centerpiece. This could just be apples and oranges, but a thought that often comes across when I read such tales is “Is this detail really necessary? Would it often be better, or at least not any worse if it wasn’t spelled out so much?”

It’s good food for thought.

Review: The High Frontier

The High Frontier

highfrontiercover

The High Frontier is the de facto ending to the The Big One series. The end of the Easy Mode Cold War is, for most intents and purposes, the end of the main published series. And, like The Sum Of All Fears, it’s a good stopping point.

This entire franchise has the slight misfortune of bad context for me. You can see why and what in the entry for the main series. That being said, while The High Frontier may not be the worst book ever, it still stands out only for its plot “novelties”. What plot novelties?

Well, for this individual book, there’s, among other things…

  • A very cheap shot at the Space Shuttle program right off the bat, where the Columbia disaster occurs right after the Challenger disaster. It’s actually semi-realistic in a rivet-counting way. The second post-Challenger mission had foam hit the heat-shield and barely survived, and the Space Shuttle program’s many, many issues are well-known. But the narrative intent is obvious.
  • Exposition where the Chipanese [yes] antagonists lament the inferiority of their military compared to the (awesome) Americans.
  •  The Chipanese campaign in Vietnam, featuring the equivalent of the Soviet general secretary personally running into Afghanistan to command forces there and then getting killed.
  • In said campaign, there are so many names of historical Vietnam War figures that I couldn’t tell if it was just bad naming or the real people (who’d be much older, and in some cases, dead.)

 

Finally there’s the climax, the biggest missed opportunity in the whole book. Having read The Sum Of All Fears makes it look even worse than it did when I first read it. Here’s an opportunity to foil the plot by showing restraint in the face of apocalyptic provocation-and instead it’s the equivalent of having the protagonists stop the nuke from going off in the first place.

Then the book ends with Ronald Reagan asking about the Seer and one final infodump about the nature of the unaging mutants with catlike eyes who serve as combination plot devices, Mary Sues, and ways to not have to create more characters. Of course they happen to stop aging at convenient times, have an ability to sense other long-lifers, are disease-resistant but not immune, and it took as long as it did for one person to find them out. Hmmm….

The book itself is par for the course for the TBO series, which is to say, it’s substantially below-average. Yes, a lot of its negative reputation comes from the gauntlet-throwing and internet drama accompanying its initial release. Yes, it doesn’t look quite as bad in context when compared to the worst of either internet alternate history or post-1991 technothrillers. Yes, a lot of its flaws aren’t unique to it.

But it’s still clunky, hopping around characters and events. It’s still flat, with characters being either Mary Sues, placeholders, or strawmen.  The worldbuilding is still ridiculously stacked in favor of the Americans. The action is still either bland and one-sided or extra-bland. The stiff dialogue in this book (and in the whole series) is distinctly bad, even by the standards of low-end fiction. It’s still just not good.