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

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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.

Review: The Dragons of Dunkirk

The Dragons of Dunkirk

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Damon Alan’s The Dragons Of Dunkirk grabbed me the moment I looked at the cover. Naturally, I thought of Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, only with fantasy invaders instead of sci-fi ones. I also thought of an early Fuldapocalypse review, Dark War Revelation, only set forty years earlier.

So, the German supernatural unlocking goes horrifically wrong, leaving the world exposed to a classical fantasy realm ruled by an ancient wizard (but not a zombie sorceress, sadly). Multiple characters of both sides take in the conflict as it ensues.

There’s a lot this book hasn’t done well. The dialogue is a little stiff, and the action not the best. The worldbuilding on the fantasy side isn’t the most truly distinctive.The characters, while adequate, aren’t more than that.

But what it does do well outweighs that. Alan manages to keep the conflict between a magical and technologically advanced side balanced in a way that doesn’t seem too contrived. (I’ll just say that bullets are something they can withstand to a big degree, but artillery shells are something else).

It has a great concept and an execution that, though imperfect, doesn’t squander it in any way. What’s not to like?

 

Review: Vortex

Vortex

Jon Land’s third novel, Vortex, is easier for someone like me who’s already read many books to review. This is because this is where the writing finally clicks. This is where Jon Land goes from “out-there thriller author” to “Jon Land.”

For all that The Doomsday Spiral and The Lucifer Directive were out-there, this manages to one-up them with its tale of cosmic manipulation, a conspiracy that threatens the universe (yes, the universe), and psychic powers. The foot is on the crazy car gas pedal and it never leaves. From here, it’s just a short step to the “majesty” of Blaine McCracken.

Review: God Of Death

Casca: God Of Death

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So I figure I should mention the best Casca book in my eyes. That would be the second, God of Death. By some accounts in the confusing internet tangle of rumor and whisper surrounding the series, it’s the last book Sadler personally wrote. I have no knowledge or evidence for any of this being true or not, but figure I should mention it.

In the book itself, Casca sails with the Vikings and ends up in pre-Colombian Central America. Then he gets his heart cut out-and puts it back in what should have been the defining scene of the series. Cue many of the Casca staples. The doomed romance, the “exotic” historical eras, and the lack of strict accuracy.

What makes this Casca stand out is that it actually runs with the supernatural qualities and the immortality gimmick in a way that many of the later ones simply don’t. It could be that the series was still fresh and new, or it could be that the vagueness of this time and place gave Casca more breathing room than a more documented one where he ultimately has to stick to history. Whatever it is, God Of Death is one of the few books where Casca’s premise lives up to its potential.

Review: Balkan Mercenary

Balkan Mercenary

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Although not the latest Casca book, Balkan Mercenary is the most recent chronologically, occurring in the beginning of the Yugoslav Wars. It’s the first book in the series I’ve reviewed that’s written by Tony Roberts, who’s the current official author of the Casca franchise.

So, I have get this out of the way first. If this had no connection to Casca at all and was just the story of a man and his team of mercs going into the Yugoslav Wars to take down a war criminal and avenge the death of his loved one, it would be a modestly decent “51% book”. There are far better books than something in the same league as Marine Force One, but there also worse ones (which is why, in spite of my complaints, I still read the Casca books).

But this is the 44th installment in a long series that I think just doesn’t work as well in more modern times as it does in the distant past. It’s even mentioned in the book itself that Casca’s aliases are getting easier to track, so I can understand why Roberts seems keener to keep Casca a historical character.

Here, every reminder that this middling action-adventure tale featured a millennia-old immortal felt blatantly shoved in. A piece on how he remembered medieval Serbia. A piece on his blood being poisonous (this was present in the early books). And a tie-in with designated recurring enemies the Brotherhood of the Lamb, who feel especially forced. Balkan Mercenary, like many other Cascas, just plods to the middle, not daring to  try and take the extraordinary premise any farther than 51% of the way.

 

Review: Cold Allies

Cold Allies

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Patricia Anthony’s debut novel Cold Allies is a distinctive book. But it is not exactly distinctive in a good way.

First, there’s two awkward plots. One plot is the surrealist tale of blue alien orbs that suck people in. The second plot is a sort of “World War III” where an “Arab National Army”, fleeing the drought and famine of an ecologically devastated world, invades Europe. There are (even by technothriller standards) a ton of shallow viewpoint characters who are constantly being shuffled around, taking out what little coherence might have existed.

The war plot is one of those weird cases where one might think the biggest issue would be the book being too political. And yes, a lot of the characters are shallow stereotypes, seemingly contributing to it. But it’s handled just totally matter-of-factly, kind of like Dark Rose or Ian Slater’s USA VS Militia series. For the alien plot, it crosses the line from “surreal” to “pretentious” pretty handily. This book is little but a bizarre novelty.

 

Review: The Samurai

The Samurai

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With the nineteenth entry in the series, The Samurai, Casca swings and misses dramatically like a called-up minor leaguer facing Nolan Ryan. Of all the Casca books I’ve read, this is the worst of them (so far). I’ve heard conflicting answers as to who was actually writing the later Casca books before Sadler’s death, but whoever was did not succeed here.

Knowing the history of the series, I was expecting a clumsy, stereotypical depiction of ancient Japan. And I got it. But it also has very blocky, clunky prose and flat fight scenes that take away the biggest strength of the Casca series-the ability to have effective action despite its protagonist being, you know, immortal.

Not that it really matters much, because here Casca himself might as well just be a second-rate hired gun in a dull story about dull rivals fighting for power in dull battles. Having all the weaknesses of the Casca books but none of the strengths, The Samurai is something I wouldn’t recommend even to fans of the series.

Review: The Alpha Deception

The Alpha Deception

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It’s not Jon Land’s fault that his first Blaine McCracken book left big shoes to fill. How does the second, The Alpha Deception, fare? In it, Blaine McCracken has another crazy adventure as he fights a rogue Soviet general with a death ray and an army of cheap thriller flunkies.

The book starts with a scene where a Hind-D helicopter is treated like it’s some kind of Airwolf-style superweapon. It only gets more ridiculous from there, from a fight with a pet panther to McCracken being subjected to a combination Dr. Evil Deathtrap and Greek mythology reenactment to a giant submarine/crab-mecha.

There’s a few stumbles with the plot. First, the ending is, well, a little Indiana Jones-y, and not in a good way. More important is the plot centered around the villain’s takeover of a small town and the resistance of its residents, which is far less interesting than McCracken’s own exploits (until, of course, they intersect). But those stumbles are very small, and The Alpha Deception maintains all the charm of the first book and then some.

 

Review: Casca The Eternal Mercenary

Casca 1: The Eternal Mercenary

Casca The Eternal Mercenary

So the Casca series is a little off the Fuldapocalyptic beaten track for me. But really, I of all people couldn’t resist a series written by Barry Sadler of ‘Ballad of the Green Beret’ fame with the premise of “The Roman soldier that stabbed Jesus with the spear is fated to be a soldier/warrior forever”, fusing the Longinus and Wandering Jew mythologies. That part brings a very different song to my mind.

The first book opens in Vietnam where the main character heals ridiculously fast from a seemingly fatal head wound, and one “hypnotic narrative” later, returns to nearly two thousand years in the past. After the event, he gets in a fight with his “sergeant” over a girl and ends up with a deep wound… …which heals, because in practice, he turns into essentially Marvel’s Wolverine without claws. Cue a long stretch of time where he fights throughout dynasties of Roman history, then a final scene in the then-present where Casca/Casey has escaped from his Vietnam hospital-and is fighting in the Arab-Israeli wars.

This is very much a pop-historical “sword and sandal epic” rather than trying for any serious attempt at realism, and is all the better for it. Casca becomes a slave, he becomes a gladiator, and he enjoys a bit of peace before returning to his horror.

One of the low points of the book is its cultural er- insensitivity. While an action novel in the 70s is not going to top anyone’s “most progressive” list, this has a few moments that made me raise eyebrows. The walking stereotype Chinese martial arts master (yes, in ancient Rome, it’s a long story) who teaches Casca I was more bemused by than anything else. I went ‘uhh….’ at both the vicious savage African gladiator whose victims included (of course) a young blonde woman and the man whose marriage improved after he started hitting his wife.

But even the worst I found tolerable, because it only felt offensive and not offensive and creepy. This is, after all, a 70s action novel. And what it does well, it does very well. The Eternal Mercenary can make its action dramatic even with an immortal protagonist, and that’s no small feat.

Casca: The Eternal Mercenary is lightweight sleaze, but it’s good lightweight sleaze.