Friday, November 27, 2015

Microreview [book]: A Prospect of War, by Ian Sales

First-rate space opera "spaction"—a new epic adventure begins!

Sales, Ian. A Prospect of War. Tickety Boo Press Ltd., 2015.

Said book can be bought right here!

Best of all, this space opera is way more interesting than real opera, because there’s just a whole lot more going on with a lot less (practically none, really!) full-throated warbling whilst striking dramatic poses on stage. Seriously, how many operas have you seen? Be honest: you secretly (or perhaps openly!) think opera is pretty dumb, right? But I’ll bet most of you totally like the idea of (outer) space, especially when there’s ships blowing up and people getting impaled on swords and everything!

So how did we get the term ‘space opera’? Space is way cooler than opera. But I don’t want to be a complainer, so I’m here with an alternate suggestion: spaction! That’s exactly what A Prospect of War is: major action, involving spaceships and brief stops on planets and conspiracies against an ancient, seemingly stable empire. Plus, Sales took a hint from Frank Herbert’s brilliant innovation to combine spacefaring civilization with swords: the technological explanation is similar, something along the lines of projectile weapons being ineffective against personal shielding gizmos so all high-class people master the sword.

The most interesting innovation Sales brings to the spaction is the seemingly harsh neo-feudal system in place throughout the enormous empire. Society is stratified into the noble class (hardly any), the yeoman class (an elite few), and proles (the 99%).  The difference between the two elite classes is tiny compared to the rigidly enforced gulf between the proles and the higher-ups. That said, among the epic cast of characters, several yeomen-class figures end up impersonating proletarians, with varying degrees of effectiveness (coaching from a linguist helps one yeo(wo)man temporarily shed her haughty aristocratic speech patterns and accent). It’s fascinating to consider a multi-planet empire that has devolved in its social system to a complicated feudal monarchy, and not necessarily implausible either.

However, it seems to me it would be all too easy for people in such a universe to fake it—both ways (assuming they have the means to acquire a suitable costume). Right from the beginning of the story, it’s so tremendously useful for elites to use the giant world of the underclass that despite their classist distaste for the idea, they keep doing it. Obviously the reverse is a lot more destabilizing to the social order, and there are a few offhand comments by characters suggesting (that they believed) any prole who dared attempt such a revolutionary act would be caught instantly (and it’s an offense punishable by death, which would provide a healthy deterrent for most, to be sure!).

This is by way of saying that the sociopolitical system, while interesting on an intellectual level, sounds a couple of gentle pushes from total systemic collapse (and to be fair, this is the first part of a larger series which will certainly explore the weaknesses of the seemingly eternal empire). Aside from this quasi false note, however, the rest of the story and its characters are quite engaging (though Casimir’s journey to maturity was quite a jerky, abrupt roller coaster), and I’m looking forward to the subsequent installments! To Ian Sales, and in honor of Thanksgiving: I'm thankful for A Prospect of War (which sounds pretty weird unless we all understand it's a book title!).

The Math

Objective assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for rocking the spaction formula

Penalties: -1 for a degree of implausibility in the idea of a neo-feudal space-faring civilization

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 "something pretty awesome this way comes" (see stuff on scoring here).

This message brought to you by Zhaoyun, spaction-lover and reviewer at Nerds of a Feather since 2013. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Microreview [book]: The Shards of Heaven by Michael Livingston

 If Dan Brown rebooted HBO’s Rome 

The Shards of Heaven is an alternate history set in Ancient Rome and Egypt (Alexandria), shortly after the assassination of Julius Caesar (Et tu Brute?!). It follows Juba, an adopted son of Caesar as he attempts to collect a series of magical objects, called the shards of heaven, to give him the power needed to avenge the death of his father (former King of Numidia). The story also follows the now legendary centurions Lucius Vorenus and Titus Pullo who are serving Mark Antony in Egypt.

Pullo and Vorenus
The Shards of Heaven truly is a wonderful book. The writing is superb and has the feel of a seasoned veteran. The story is fast-paced and gripping and the imagery is vivid and imaginative. I know there are mixed opinions of Dan Brown’s work, but it’s hard to deny that his books can be impossible to put down and leave you with a sense of wonder for history, artifacts, and travel. This is how The Shards of Heaven made me feel. It also made me miss HBO’s Rome something fierce.

With a few exceptions, character development is on point. Characters appear with a range of external and internal diversity, and even many of the characters that don’t have a POV are still well rounded and multi-faceted. And while we have varying skin tones and personality-types throughout the story, I am left wanting for gender diversity. The lack of an adult female character that speaks is stark, especially with respect to Cleopatra. She speaks briefly in the prologue, to express her indebtedness to a man for saving her child, and does not speak again until roughly half way through the book. On the few occasions where she does speak, it is always regarding her children, except for one time where she says “do this” (not a direct quote). The fact that we don’t have a POV for her is not an excuse. We have no POV for Antony, but still he is built as a lush and vibrant character. Anytime a character muses about Cleopatra, it is always about her beauty or stoicism, and she is seen as the seducer of two Roman generals first, and the Queen of Egypt second. This is very disappointing, because from what I understand Cleopatra was an intelligent and well educated woman. I also understand that it was not her looks that were the most appealing about her, but rather her affect. We get none of this.

Cleopatra and Antony 
Potential lies with Selene, Cleopatra’s 10-year daughter, though we still don't get her voice until about 100 pages in. She is adventurous and independent and makes her own density, despite the limitations presented to her. There is still too much emphasis on her appearance and budding beauty for my taste, but I am excited to read the next book in this series to see how she develops as a character. 

And I can't forget to mention how much I appreciate that this story does not ignore the Hebrew mythology that is often so overlooked during this time period. It was a breath of fresh air.

All in all, The Shards of Heaven is a wonderful read and I highly recommend it. Its only flaw really is the stark lack of gender diversity. I know women did not have a ton of rights in the time that this story is set, but that does not mean they must be silenced. Cleopatra was Queen of Egypt for Bast’s sake!

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for sophisticated and gripping writing style, +1 for cultural diversity

Penalties: -2 for silencing adult female characters, - 1 for reducing Cleopatra to a cold, sexual object

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10 “an enjoyable experience, but not without its flaws”



Reference: Livingston, Michael. Shards of Heaven [Tor Books, 2015]

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Introducing...NERD MUSIC!

Yes, we are tinkering with the formula once again--only this time we are mixing our unidentified yellow liquids with our unidentified blue liquids to produce a new post series on music!

Artist's Rendering

Music, you say? What's nerdy about that? Oh, just about everything. But in keeping with our mission, we are going focus specifically on what you might call "nerd music"--that is to say, anything that relates, directly or thematically, with the nerdy stuff we already cover. Cult film soundtracks? Check. Video game music? Check! Science fiction or fantasy-themed music? You know it.

Note: this isn't a review series, per se. Rather, each post will profile an artist, record or style we think you'll want to know about it. And we'll embed links to streaming services that pay artists per play (and also include links for purchase) so you can check it all out for yourself with a minimum of hassle. Hope you're excited--I know I am!


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.

Monday, November 23, 2015

STRANGER THAN FICTION: Masters of Doom by David Kushner

The Two Johns in Prose

Growing up, I was an enormous id Software fan. For me, it started with a pirated copy of Wolfenstein 3D on my Packard Bell 386, but Doom 2 was really my jam. I spent countless hours finding and playing user-made levels and modifications. I lived through the split, when John Romero broke from id to form Ion Storm. I anxiously awaited each new game. Even now, hearing a Doom alum worked on something gives me enough reason to take a look at it. I thought Masters of Doom wouldn't contain much I didn't already know, but I was quite wrong.

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture primarily follows the two Johns of id Software, John Romero and John Carmack. Though the narrative involves all members of the id team, it starts with the two Johns. Masters of Doom follows their lives from early adulthood, through the formation of id Software, their formal split, and closes shortly after the release of Quake 3: Team Arena. It's primarily focused on the early days of id, Doom, and Doom's impact on the company.

Masters of Doom is a excellent look at the wild days of 90's game development. I'm talking about when a team of less than 10 can make a game that changes the game industry and makes them bazillions of dollars, which is precisely what id did. Even more incredible, they did so without much of a plan beyond "make games" and "have fun". When you consider how video game hits today are made, it's shocking to me that they got as far as they did. Sure, we occasionally get a Minecraft, but most games are done with teams of hundreds.

What is also surprising is how much internal strife occurred along the way. id made big moves, and stepped on a lot of toes along the way. It's arguable that they didn't even properly utilize the resources they had, with people instrumental to their games' development either half-hearedly doing so, or outright unhappy with the games direction. When Romero split from id, it was huge and public because Romero was a huge, public figure in the gaming community, but there were equally important and devastating losses throughout id's history.

If you're not a fan of Doom, or id Software's games, or game development in general, there might not be a lot of reasons to read Masters of Doom. It knows its audience, the 90's PC gamer, and its audience should know something about the time before heading in. However, if you have any interest in those things, Masters of Doom is truly compelling for providing an inside look at one of the most important video game developers of all time.


POSTED BY: brian, sci-fi/fantasy/video game dork and contributor since 2014

Reference: Kushner, David. Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture [Random House, 2003] 

Friday, November 20, 2015

Microreview [Novelette]: The Case of the Little Bloody Slipper by Carlie St. George

Fairy Tale Noir. If it wasn't a thing before, it is now.

The world is full of fairy tale retellings. There is a certain nostalgia at seeing characters popularized by the Grimms and later sugarcoated by Disney for mass consumption in stories once again very much for adults. Such stories are not rare, either. Fables took the premise and ran with it, and there are a number of television shows and movies that work with the same basic idea, though in much different ways. I can safely say, though, that The Case of the Bloody Glass Slipper manages to innovate the trope and create a living and breathing second world fantasy-noir that had me charmed from the start. Indeed, part of what makes this story stand out is that it divorces the characters from the actual fairy tales. Jimmy Prince, the hard-boiled private eye, is not the actual Prince Charming. Instead the story reinterprets the characters in a 1920's industrial setting where sickness is rampant and the divide between rich and poor is wide indeed. 

This story focuses on Jimmy's search for a missing woman, one he shared a single dance with. What follows is a delicious subversion of the Disney tales, where Cinderella and her sisters are assassins at large, the Fairy Godmother runs an upscale brothel, and Snow White is a damaged heir to a pharmaceutical fortune. Jimmy himself is a bit of a black sheep, one uncomfortable with the upper class he hails from because of what he's seen during a time when disease was so prevalent that people wee being burned alive to prevent it spreading. He works as a private eye with his sidekick Jack, a young street kid. The story manages to capture the feel of noir without falling for a lot of its pitfalls. Women here, while they often come off as femme fatales, whores, and victims, are nuanced and complex, and as it turns out it's Jimmy, much more than any of the women he's after, who ends up as the damsel in distress. 

If there's a complaint to be made about the story it's that Jimmy isn't exactly the most capable of main characters. Which completely makes sense given his background. His privilege shows as he barely-successfully navigates the dark underbelly of the city. He pushes forward, putting himself and others in danger, and only through the competence of the women around him does he manage to not end up populating a shallow and unmarked grave. Of course, this only further subverts tropes and expectations, but it does raise certain concerns over whether he should be the main character of the story at all. I'm very hopeful that future visits to the setting and characters (there are at least two more to be released over the next month) will see Jimmy grow a bit more into himself and his role and maybe able to find his sea legs, as it were. 

What's here, though, is very fun. There's an impressive amount of world building going on, and the action keeps things moving along in classic noir style, with kidnappings and gunfights and smoke and whisky. The stage was quite effectively set and there's a lot left to explore, politics and unrest rumbling in the background. The seeds of future stories were planted in the form of characters that, while not central to this story, made an appearance with the promise of more to come. The dynamic between Jimmy and Jack was strong and compelling, and I'm definitely interested in seeing what kinds of trouble they can get into. To make a long story short (or I suppose to make a short story shorter), this made a very nice first act of a larger story. It stands on its own, yes, but at the moment it feels like we've only just dipped our toe into this world, and assuming it's not chopped off by an errant stepsister, there's a lot of depth yet unexplored. 

The Math:

Baseline Assessment: 7/10 

Bonuses: +1 for subverting the hell out of fairy tale tropes, +1 for building an entirely original and complex world to house the action and characters

Negatives: -1 for surrounding Jimmy with characters who feel a bit more interesting than Jimmy himself. 

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 "how long do I have to wait for the next one?!" see our full rating system here.

The story is available in its entirety here.


POSTED BY: Charles, avid reader, reviewer, and sometimes writer of speculative fiction. Contributor to Nerds of a Feather since 2014.

REFERENCE: St. George, Carlie. The Case of the Little Bloody Slipper [The Book Smugglers, 2015]

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Thursday Morning Superhero

 This week we are gifted a wonderful new superhero from Mark Millar.  Apparantly Millar was traumatized by the actions of Super Man, and inspired to create a superhero that wouldn't frighten people, but inspire them to do good deeds.  On top of that there are three stellar titles from Jason Aaron and things get a bit dicey in the latest issue of Beauty.

Pick of the Week:
Huck #1 - Mark Millar launched a new title this week, his take on a Superman type hero named Huck.  Huck was left at an orphanage as a baby, and it quickly became apparent that he was special.  The town's little secret, Huck was raised to do one good deed per day.  We get a glimpse into how he accomplishes this, and sometimes it is as simple as buying someone lunch, while other times it involves using his super strength to lend a helping hand.  Millar does a great job of building an instant rapport between the reader and Huck, and I cannot wait to learn more about him.  In celebration of his beloved character, Millar launched #DoaGoodDeedToday on Twitter and is sending 10 people signed comic books.  I love a good book that has the ability to create a positive impact like this.

The Rest:
Star Wars: Vader Down #1 - The first event from Marvel's Star Wars began this week and it was quite enjoyable.  Written by Jason Aaron, Darth Vader tracks down Luke Skywalker to a base on Vrogas Vas and all hell breaks loose.  One things that Marvel really nails in its Star Wars comics, is a sense of scale.  Vader jumps out of hyperspace in the middle of multiple X-Wing squadrons working on manuevers.  The ensuing battle is truly epic and once again we are treated to how powerful Vader is.  I never fully appreciated his power in the movies, but the comics have dramatically changed my perspective.

The Mighty Thor #1 - I have not remained in the loop, but couldn't resist reading the re-boot of the re-boot, so I gave this title a whirl.  The new Thor, Dr. Jane Foster, has cancer and is dying in her human form.  In an interesting twist, when she takes hold of Mjolnir and becomes Thor, the cancer treatment in her body is purged.  On top of that, she is unwelcome in Asgardia, as many accuse her of stealing Mjolnir, and Odin has gone insane.  Whew.  That is a lot of personal drama to mix in with the impending war of the realms.  Not sure I am up for taking this title on, but it was an interesting read that should be worth your time with Jason Aaron penning it.

Star Wars #12 - I have to hand it to Jason Aaron, who wrote three of the five books I am reviewing this week, for delivering one of the most wonderful scenes that has ever hit the pages.  Chewbacca wielding two lightsabers.  R2D2 raided Grakkus' personal stash of lightsabers, and delivered them to Luke, Chewie, Han, and Leia, following an E.M.P. that disabled all other weapons.  Using the lightsabers, they are able to free Luke from the Gamemaster and once again slip through Vader's fingers.

Beauty #4 - Calaveras once again launches an attack Detective Vaughan and his team.  The plan was  to leak the story to a popular beauty television show, but Calaveras, who we learn is not to be messed with, launches an attack that the three are barely able to escape.  We learn a bit more about the beauty and the chain of command at those who are behind it, but much remains a mystery and I look forward to seeing where this one is headed.  Definitely one of the best new series of 2015.

 POSTED BY MIKE N. aka Victor Domashev -- comic guy, proudly raising nerdy kids, and Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.  

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

CYBERPUNK REVISITED: Void & Meddler, Episode 1

Bathed and Confused in the Neon Rain

Though our Cyberpunk Revisited series is largely finished, this new release necessitated its revival. After all, it's a: (1) cyberpunk-themed; (2) point-and-click adventure game; that is (3) published by Mi-Clos Studios, who gave us the exquisite space survival game Out There. In some ways, I guess you could say I've been waiting my whole life for this game--or, at least, the thirty-odd years since I first played Manhunter: New York. Could this title possibly live up to my expectations? The answer, as far as Episode One is concerned, is "yes and no."

In Void & Meddler, you star as Fyn--a hardboiled DJ who has lost her memory of the past two years and wants it back. So you search for clues across a city that feels a lot like what New Yorkers might have imagined the future to look like in 1980. In other words, gritty, grimy and bathed in neon rain.

The art design draws inspiration from both the warm, cartoon-like style of Broken Sword and pixelated Sierra and LucasArts classics. But Void & Meddler also features some of the best use of color I've ever seen in a video game--buildings are bathed in the proverbial neon rain, while raindrops pitter and patter on a virtualized camera lens. It is absolutely stunning, and manages to feel nostalgic and progressive at the same time.

Unfortunately, the puzzle design doesn't evoke the same feelings. In the classic point-and-click mold, you basically move Fyn from place to place, picking up and interacting with objects for use in one of the game's many puzzles. Void & Meddler gets extra credit for creating multiple solutions to its puzzles, which means you don't have to spend hours just trying to find that one thing, without which you can't proceed.

On the other hand, there's no narrative momentum--something games like Gemeni Rue, Lost Echo or Stasis all use to great effect. Instead, you just click on anything--in the hopes that you might be able to accomplish something that is, at best, vaguely defined. Simply put, it's never really established why we should care about Fyn getting her memories back, and never all that clear how the things we do in the game relate to that endgoal. That formula might have worked for King's Quest, but it's not 1984 anymore.

Still, the game has enough style to keep my interest. I do, however, hope for more dynamic puzzles and a clearer sense of story from Episode 2.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 the color; +1 in the neon rain.

Penalties: -1 for retrograde puzzles; -1 for narrative issues.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."

Our scoring method explained in full.


POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a
Feather editor/blogger since 2012.