Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Microreview [book]: Touchstone, by Melanie Rawn

A rather boring bromance teetering on the edge of yaoi/BL

Rawn, Melanie. Touchstone. Tor, 2012.

Note: see that dragon on the cover? Total misdirection--it's a 'stage' dragon, not a real one. Thanks for finally driving home the lesson that some books really shouldn't be judged by their covers :(

When I was growing up I read a few books by Melanie Rawn. I'm embarrassed to admit that I remember nary a thing from them—except for their covers, which had dragons. And what little child doesn't love dragons? Fantasy literature with dragon riders and princesses and whatnot was awesome to my little mind. Even now, as an adult (ish), there's a certain romance to such tales, in the sense that I still love movies like Willow despite the fact that, objectively, Willow (or as I like to think of it, LOTR-lite!) leaves a lot to be desired.
And that brings us to Touchstone, which has exactly none of the features I used to love (and still feel nostalgia for today) about fantasy. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, of course, but in this case, it's not much of a good thing either. There are some intriguing aspects to the story; it's startlingly unconventional, for instance precisely by lacking dragons (though there is a princess, who seems to be kind of a horrible person), and has an interesting racio-ethnic back-story to the world Rawn has created. Everybody seems to have a bit of Elf, Wizard (since when did a profession get to be a race? In the U.S. we've got Caucasians, African-Americans, Asians, Plumbers,, on second thought, we really don't, Rawn!), Goblin and Human in them, as well as a few rarer races. However, instead of a straightforward swords and sorcery tale, we get a magical theater troupe on the road (literally, for much of the book) to success. Rawn goes into quite a bit of detail on the mechanics of this theatrical style (which uses magical glass jars called 'withies' filled with emotive magic that various magic-users release and then distribute to the audience, controlling exactly what those watching feel, and how strongly), and it does actually sound pretty awesome. I was impressed that Rawn departed so dramatically (pun intended!) from mainstream fantasy here.
But that's also a problem: to me, 'fantasy' as a genre doesn't necessarily have to have adventurous quests, or dragons, or sword-fighting, or (consummated) romance, but surely it should have at least some of those, for sheer entertainment's sake if nothing else. Touchstone is 0 for 4 action/romance-wise, but (problem two) it gets a perfect score in the BL (boy's love) sub-genre.
What is boy's love (or, as it's known in Japan, 'yaoi'), you ask? It's a story, almost always written and consumed (that's fancy-talk for 'read'!) by young—and generally heterosexual—women, about two smoking hot boy-toys whose sultry looks conceal, to rip off High Fidelity, a deep ocean of emotion just below the surface. These boys, often despite protestations of heterosexuality themselves, find themselves magnetically drawn to each other and begin in some cases a Platonic (ironic since Plato is thought to have fancied boys!), in others an x-rated love affair. There are all sorts of explanations for why women would like reading (and writing) stories about sensitive men who fall in love with each other as true equals, but whatever the reason, Rawn has definitely taken the story in a BL direction. Teenage dramaturgists Cayden and Mieka have a stormy though technically unconsummated bromance, complete with caressing, spooning, and all sorts of other physical contact, but the physical side is far less important than the emotional: each is, to the other, the single most important person, without whom life loses its savor, and the narrative is chock-a-block filled with them talking/yelling at each other, sharing their feelings, etc. In fact, that's pretty much the entire story—there are no duels, no wars other than of words, no events of any kind other than theatrical performances along their path to rising fame, and no other relationships of any real note.
It's all very touching, I suppose, but I've been spoiled by...shall we say rather more eventful fantasy, and have come to expect that stories I read contain something other than oceans of sensitivity. If anything, judging Touchstone by the generic conventions of fantasy is a mistake: it belongs firmly in the realm of (b)romance. And judged as such, for anyone who is really into the idea of reading about two boys finding in each other their Great Love and becoming emotional soul-mates, this book, the first of a series apparently, would absolutely blow your mind. But this reader was hoping for swords and mayhem and dragons and world-ending peril—more than I was hoping for an account of boys spooning, anyway!

The Math

Objective assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for shedding fantasy's genre conventions to go in an entirely new direction

Penalties: -1 for having that direction be BL, or as I've cleverly renamed it, 'boring lame'.

Nerd coefficient: 5/10 "Equal parts good and bad."

[See more about our scoring system—and thus why getting a 5/10 isn't as bad as it might sound—here.]

Zhaoyun, while not a huge fan of bromances, is a self-proclaimed aficionado in the more conventional fantasy and sci fi departments, and has been a main cast member (to continue the drama theme) of Nerds of a Feather since early 2013.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Microreviw [Comic] Seconds: by Bryan Lee O'Malley

O'Malley, Bryan Lee. Seconds [Oni Press, 2014]

This past week we have been given the gift of Seconds from Bryan Lee O'Malley.  O'Malley is the creator behind the beloved Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and has remained relatively quiet since its conclusion a couple of years back.  He was clearly hard at work at his next creative endeavor as Seconds debuted this past week.  In many ways Seconds feels like a fitting for a follow-up to the phenomenon that is Scott Pilgrim.

Seconds revolves around the life of chef Katie, who is the head chef of the successful restaurant Seconds, but is attempting to open up her own restaurant as she has already earned a reputation as a terrific chef.  Without reason, her world is brought to a sudden halt as her ex appears, her current relationship crumbles, and doubts about her new location begin to emerge.

Conflict lies at the center of this story.  The primary conflict is between Katie and the spirit of Seconds.  The spirit appears to be a girl of a similar age, and wants to protect Katie and Seconds.  When granted an opportunity to rewrite the past, via a notepad and special mushrooms, Katie attempts to fix the mistakes she made in her past relationship.

This undoubtably unleashes a string of multiple futures for Katie in which she must navigate and learn from.  As in life, Katie must understand that not all negative things should be reversed.  She grapples with relationship decisions, professional decisions, and more as she attempts to write the perfect future for herself.  She is meddling with a power that she doesn't fully grasp and when she accidentally brings in a rival spirit to Seconds, her futures begin to become more and more surreal.

O'Malley does a masterful job asking the big questions that we face on a daily basis.  What would I do if I had a second chance in this situation?  What would the ramifications be if they went the way I thought they should be?  Seconds is a beautiful read that informs us all that there is nothing wrong with making mistakes.  Nobody is perfect, but if we follow our heart and focus on what is important to us and the one's we love, despite some pain, things will work out in the end.

Seconds, in many ways, felt like a Hayao Miyazaki movie geared towards an older crowd.  Strong female character, goes through a tremendous personal growth, dueling spirits, and lots of heart.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for its casual approach to tackling deep and life altering situations.
Penalties: -1 for being a one-shot graphic novel.  I would have happily read volumes in this series.

Nerd Co-efficient9/10 very high quality/standout in its category

Read about our scoring system here. And remember, we categorically reject grade inflation!

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

Monday, July 21, 2014

Microreview [book]: When Gravity Fails by George Alec Effinger

Charming Sleaze and Cybernetics in a Middle Eastern Setting

I grew up in the 80s and 90s, so it's no surprise that my vision of what science fiction is and can do is shaped, in part, by what dominated the genre during those years--namely, hard SF and cyberpunk. But whereas hard SF remains a vital and active sub-genre, cyberpunk has atrophied. The reasons are not hard to discern. Though hard SF can be parochial and tropey, the basic template of "science-y science fiction with a strong emphasis on science and strict adherence to scientific plausibility" is flexible enough to move with the times. Cyberpunk is more of a one-note symphony: hacker-y/transhuman-y types navigate treacherous near-future world where corporations are really, really powerful. And the presence of actual hacker-y/transhuman-y/corporate-y stuff all around us means that cyberpunk gets dated much more quickly than books about terraforming Mars.

That doesn't mean cyperpunk is gone; rather, it lives on in the ever-popular dystopias of YA fiction and in literary heroes like Lisbeth Salander, who Stieg Larsson basically ripped out of a Bruce Sterling novel. And there are plenty of in-genre legatees, like Lauren Beukes, who might not write cuberpunk per se, but nevertheless owe a lot to it. But now us children of the 80s and 90s are of the age when nostalgia for that teenage "sensawunda" beckons. Sometimes the urge is simply too strong to ignore.

Usually when that happens, I turn back to William Gibson--still the best writer and singular visionary of the cyberpunk movement, in my humble opinion. This time, however, I wanted to read someone new, and the prime candidates were Pat Cadigan and George Alec Effinger. I still plan to read Cadigan sometime this year, but I already had When Gravity Fails, and the prospect of reading science fiction set in the Middle East (but which reputedly did not exoticize or Orientalize its subjects) appealed. So I chose that.

When Gravity Fails falls on the transhuman-y side of cyberpunk, and has very little to do with computers--a fact that serves its durability well. People can get cybernetic implants that can bestow skills, like being able to speak a foreign language, or personality traits--including those of figures from literature, history and popular culture. It's the first book of a trilogy starring Marid Audran, a streetwise hustler in the Budayeen--a lurid, rough-and-tumble place full of prostitutes, barkeeps, petty criminals and, well, tourists. The story itself is kind of forgettable (Marid tries to find a pair of killers with the personalities of James Bond and an infamous serial killer), but it's good enough, and has a neat, hardboiled feel throughout.

The real star, though, is the Budayeen and its colorful cast of characters. It is, in essence, a cross between pre-war Beirut and New Orleans--specifically the French Quarter, where Effinger apparently spent some time. Most characters we meet in the Budayeen live on the margins of society, and interestingly, are transgender.

It's worth lingering on this point for a bit. We are currently in the midst of a broad conversation about the normativity of binary gender in SF, for example in Alex Dally MacFarlane's column for When Gravity Fails presents a view of how gender might work in the near future that, I suspect, has been deeply influential on a number of writers. But it doesn't really present an alternative to binary modes of thinking on gender. Rather, it presents how binary conceptions of gender might work in a context where switching is relatively easy, but in which many social norms remain deeply conservative. The switching itself becomes normative, but the in-between state (as far as sexual organs are concerned) remains taboo. Throughout the book there are subtle, pejorative references to pre- or non-op transgender persons, called "debs," from both the "real" men and women (the term used in the book) and post-op transgender men and women.

So this probably wouldn't pass the "MacFarlane Test," were she ever to develop one in her column, as When Gravity Fails does not present a view of non-binary gender that extrapolates beyond 2014 norms. However, I read it as Effinger creating an internally consistent mode of thinking about gender in a near-future setting that incorporates plausible prejudices (since people always do seem to have prejudices). It is as if to say that the ready availability and apparent ease of medical procedures for switching sex doesn't necessarily imply the dissolution of binary gender norm, but may instead simply reformulate or recontextualize them--perhaps even, in some social respects, reinforcing or reproducing the binarism in the process. While that's an interesting prospect, it's unfortunate that we never get a view of all this from a "deb's" perspective, as there are no significant "deb" characters. Instead we're just presented with casual bigotry as part of the backdrop. I would have preferred if Effinger had handled this differently.

Effinger's treatment of his Arab and Muslim subjects--and of Islam--is another notable feature of the book. The crude stereotypes of the post-9/11 zeitgeist are refreshingly absent, and in their place, stress on often neglected elements of ethnic and religious custom in the Middle East: hospitality, complex modes of address, the strategic use of flattery and so forth. The close quarters coexistence of "sin" and "faith" in a Middle Eastern city may surprise readers whose view of Islam is largely informed by Western caricatures and the crude, violent extremism of groups like ISIS. Effinger's Muslim characters, by contrast, tend to have a complex, fluid relationship to their faith--not uncommon in real-world analogues to the Budayeen. Some are deeply religious, others are not, but even the ones who are work to negotiate strictures of faith with the practical realities of daily life.

Nor is religion treated with the disdain common in science fiction, where it is often framed as "superstition" or "anacrhonism." Marid, we are told, is not a religious man. But as he falls deeper into danger, he begins to reflect on his long-neglected faith. It gives him a degree of comfort and psychological protection, as it does for so many the world over. Effinger isn't endorsing a religious viewpoint or narrative, but rather portraying religion and religious people in a way that feels authentic and humanized and suitable for the near-future world he has constructed.

I also give Effinger major kudos for setting the book outside the West and not treating his subjects like objects. Though Effinger isn't an insider (and since I'm not either, I can't vouch for his attention to detail), everyone feels complex, three-dimensional and believable. And almost everyone is sympathetic in at least some regard. If you're going to write about something you didn't grow up with and don't claim as your own, then this is the kind of approach that will set you apart from the glut of exoticizing cultural appropriation--not to mention the offensive stereotype-mongering that dominate portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in Western literature and entertainment media.

The book's problems are relatively smaller, but still notable. As mentioned above, the plot isn't very well developed or well paced. That doesn't ruin the experience, but it could have been better than it was. And there are moments where the colorfulness of the Budayeen and its residents gets to be a bit too much. Incidentally, this is also a problem I identified with Daniel Woodrell's Bayou Trilogy--which, science fictional elements notwithstanding, is quite similar in tone and theme to When Gravity Fails.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for presenting an unforgettable and thought-provoking world; +1 for the generally sensitive, nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of Arabs, Muslims and religious people.

Penalties: -1 for lack of "deb" perspectives undercutting significance of gender schema; -1 for missed opportunities on plot and pacing.

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10."Well worth your time and attention."


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

Friday, July 18, 2014

Microreview [book]: The Shadowed Sun by N.K. Jemisin

Even better than The Killing Moon!

N.K. Jemisin, The Shadowed Sun [Orbit, 2012]

Readers of this blog know how much I enjoyed The Killing Moon, the first book of N.K. Jemisin's The Dreamblood Duology. It absolutely blew me away. After all, where could a story that features ninja priests go wrong? But Jemisin's first installment was about so much more. At the same time a political thriller and a coming of age novel, The Killing Moon laid bare the personal and social power of belief and skepticism, revealed the power inherent to sexuality, and featured a powerful character-driven story of conflict and forgiveness! But it ended on such a high note (and so completely) that I wondered whether the second book in the duology, The Shadowed Sun, could match up. What could Jemisin have left to say? 

A lot, as it turns out. Shockingly, The Shadowed Sun is even better than the first book in the duology. Nay, it blows The Killing Moon out of the sky. The prose is as rich and engaging as in the first novel, and Jemisin weaves a detailed tapestry that binds together such difficult issues as civilization, barbarity, sex, abuse, and even love and lust in meaningful ways. 

The Shadowed Sun centers on two interconnected stories, both which take place 10 years after the events in The Killing Moon, when Gujaareh remains occupied by the Kisuati. Both stories are driven by main characters who are out of place in their respective societies. The first story is that of Sharer-Apprentice Hanani. The first woman to become a Sharer in the Hetawa, Hanani found that success  as a woman using dream magic necessitated repressing her femininity. Every action she took would be judged harshly by her male peers, so she had to strive for perfection -- to become the perfect, sexless Sharer. This no doubt added layers of complexity to her relationship with her mentor, Mni-inh, which in many ways reflects the master-disciple relationship between Gatherers Ehiru and Nijiri in the first volume. Hanani's story begins in the dreamworld: she he fails in a ritual of healing, with her client dying in the process. Only slowly does the Hetawa realize that this might be the result of a mysterious plague afflicting Gujaareh, a plague in which victims die screaming in their sleep.

The second story focuses on Wanahomen, the son of King Eninket and heir to the Sunset Throne who fled Gujaareh at the end of book one. Taking refuge with "barbarian" Banbarra tribes, he rises in Banbarran society to become a man of importance, and hatches a plan to retake the Sunset Throne. But at the same time, in the process he becomes a man without a place, neither Gujaareen nor Banbarran, neither fish nor fowl. And to take back the throne, he will have to do the impossible: this outsider will have to unite the diverse Banbarran desert tribes to launch an attack on Gujaareh.   

The complexity at all levels of this book is astounding. The reader soon learns that the "barbaric" Banbarrans are in many ways more civilized than the "civilized" Gujaareen. The "ruthless" Kisuati overlords are not necessarily so ruthless--while issues do emerge, the Kisuati Protectorate for much of the novel is guided by Sunandi, someone who has grown to love and care for her adoptive city state. In fact, there are few issues that Jemisin shies away from tackling. She thrives when characterizing people who are out of place in their respective societies. But more strikingly, she deals with the personal and emotional consequences of death, religious belief, rape, (and shockingly) child abuse with a level of sophistication rarely seen in the genre.

What makes this book so satisfying, however, is that the characters feel real. The main and supporting characters are so well thought out that I found myself identifying with each of them--with their strengths and foibles, their motivations and feelings. 

I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that The Shadowed Sun really won me over. The Shadowed Sun is a masterpiece, and a book you should definitely read. Run, don't walk, to your nearest [online?] store to buy it. 

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for its rich detail and complexity; +1 for dealing with rape and abuse in a sophisticated manner

Penalties: -1 for the book's resolution   

Nerd Co-efficient: 10/10 Mind-blowing/life-changing.

Read about our scoring system here. And remember, we categorically reject grade inflation!

POSTED BY: Jemmy, a SF/F fanatic, a failed wall gazer, and a Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

In less than a week I will be enjoying sunny San Diego and rubbing elbows with over 100,000 of my closest friends. As I prepare for my upcoming journey, I present to you good folk my top panel from each day.  I hope that I will be able to attend these panels, but plans are fluid.  It was hard to pick just one, but Batman, Horns, Saga, and a chance to impress my son with insider information is pretty good.

DC Comics: Batman 75: Legends of the Dark Knight
In his 75-year publishing history, Batman has grown into one of the most popular and influential icons of all time. Don't miss this historic panel with the legendary creators such as Neal Adams, Greg Capullo, Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Frank Miller,Grant Morrison, Denny O'Neil, and Scott Snyder, who have shaped the Dark Knight into the hero he is today.

RADiUS-TWC Previews Horns and Everly
First-time Comic-Con attendee and star of Horns Daniel Radcliffe joins co-star Juno Temple, director Alexandre Aja, and novelist Joe Hill to debut the world premiere of the Horns movie trailer, chat about the film, and hold an audience Q&A. In addition,Salma Hayek will be introducing new footage from her kick-ass film Everly. The panel will also reveal new scenes from upcoming RADiUS titles with some special surprises.

You know Saga. You love Saga. You can't get enough of Saga. Luckily, this year, series creators Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples are ready, rested, and eager to talk to you about Saga. What's coming up next on you-know-what? How could they do that thing to you-know-who? Whether you're coming in your finest cosplay or street clothes, you need to come to this panel..

LEGO: Ninjago
The LEGO: Ninjago team talks about the development of the TV show and toys.Tommy Andreasen (senior creative manager, LEGO), series writers Dan Hageman and Kevin Hageman, and Simon Lucas (product designer manager, LEGO) discuss the behind-the-scenes development of the LEGO Ninjago product line and TV series, with Brian Bowler (brand marketing director, LEGO) moderating the panel.

Enough about me, time for this week's reviews!

Pick of the Week:
The Auteur #5 - Rick Spears managed to give this comic the ending it deserved.  Nathan T. Rex may be a deranged individual who drugs women, bails out convicted serial killers, and has an extremely loose moral compass, but I ended up caring about him by the end of this series.  Rex taking his crew to Vegas for a wrap party was as insane and trippy as you would expect from this series.  Oni Press has confirmed that there will be more Auteur moving forward which makes me one happy camper.  There is nothing else like this in comics and I have nothing bad to say about the series.  Shocking, hilarious, disturbing, and fun. 

The Rest:
Stray Bullets #5 - In an odd, but highly entertaining story, David Lapham delivers a surreal fairy tale including the cast of characters he introduced in the first four issues.  While it still has the same feel as the other issues, it was difficult to read at times because the other issues feel so real.  It felt like I was watching a B-movie from 1971.  Definitely enjoyable, but quite the departure from the other issues.

The Wicked + Divine #2 - This stellar title from Image picks up steam this week as the Gods are recovering from the framing of Lucifer for the Judge's death.  Laura offers her assistance to Lucifer as we learn more about her rebirth, Laura's back story, and are introduced to a new formidable foe.  This series is hipster gold and is one of the most unique books I have laid eyes on.

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

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Desert Fox by Shenandoah Games for iOS

New Wrinkles to a Winning Formula

I missed out on the 1970s/1980s heyday of board wargaming, but I was big into the 1990s video game translations--Panzer General II being my personal favorite. Sadly, these and other turn-based strategy games faded with the rise of the RTS. But though I appreciate the frenetic action of Starcraft and C&C, I never stopped loving this slower, more genteel breed of strategy game.

As with isometric RPGs and point-and-click adventure games, iOS has stimulated a resurgence of interest in the faded genres of yesterday. In 2012, specialist studio Shenandoah Games released Battle of the Bulge, a small-scale but deep wargame set on a classic board divided into pieces (though not hexagonal, as in the classic model). The game let you play out several scenarios related to the historical battle, and even choose the general you would face (the A.I. for which would then pursue a strategy in line with their historical predilections). Games were relatively short, but never seemed to play out the same way. And it came chock full of history lessons! It was, in a word, awesome.

Desert Fox: The Battle of El Alamein is the third installment in the Crisis in Command series, after The Battle of the Bulge and 2013's Drive on Moscow: War in the Snow--and it may be the best one yet. The game puts you in the midst of the Western Desert Campaign of 1942, in which Axis forces (under the command of the eponymous "Desert Fox," General Erwin Rommel) attempted to drive the Commonwealth forces out of Egypt to clear a path to Persia and its oil fields. Historically speaking, the campaign featured a whole bunch of German advances until the stalemate at the First Battle of El Alamein (July 1-27, 1942) slowed Rommel down. Then new British commander Lt. General Bernard Montgomery ended Hitler's oil dreams permanently at the Second Battle of El Alamein (October 23 - November 11, 1942). It was the first major victory for the Allies since the start of the war. 

Desert Fox is built on the same engine and features the same general gameplay dynamics as earlier entries in the series. You take the role of Axis or Allied commander, and either face off against a historical opponent or a friend. Each side has a limited number of days, divided into a discrete number of turns, to achieve specific goals, most of which involve either capturing a set number of vital points on the board or getting units past the enemy defenses (while maintaining supply lines). Each player moves units on one hexagon per turn--a departure from the normal way of things in a lot of wargames (where players move all available units in each turn), but which lends the battles a gratifying chess-like feeling. There are different units--infantry, armor, APC, etc.--all with different advantages and disadvantages. And there are serious terrain effects, ranging from armor bonuses gained while defending cities to roads that facilitate breakouts. The elegance of this formula is what made The Battle of the Bulge such an inviting and addictive experience.

Though the core gameplay returns in tact, Desert Fox nevertheless adds a few new wrinkles that keep things fresh. Now you have to contend with--or receive protection from--landmines and barbed wire. Even if you wipe out enemy units on a given space, you won't be able to advance until you clear the mines and wire, and only certain units (i.e. infantry or mechanized infantry) can do that.

There are also significantly altered supply dynamics. In the first two entries in the series, units were supplied as long as they sat on an unbroken chain of friendly territories. But now any unit can go out of supply after taking action (or retreating after being attacked). Each side has a limited amount of supply they can airdrop in, and unsurprisingly, the Axis has less supply to go around, while also having to contend with bombing runs on supply lines. But the Axis get a more complex array of units, allowing for tactical approaches not available to the Commonwealth. There are the standard armor and infantry, plus mechanized infantry, super fast recon and flak, which can negate Commonwealth air power and help keep units in supply.

Desert Fox gives you three different scenarios of progressive complexity: Ruweisat Ridge, a fast-paced battle where the Axis attempt to seize strategic sites (which garner victory points); Second Alamein, where the Commonwealth tries to shove the Axis back into Libya; and The Campaign, a massive, longer-term and more open-ended scenario than the others. It's advisable, after completing the tutorials, to learn each one well before progressing to the next. (Here are some additional tips if you need them.)

Finally, Shenandoah made some neat decisions with the menu system that really top off the experience nicely. Keeping track of things is super easy, and you always have access to historical information on the events portrayed in the game. Everything is nicely presented and intuitive, and the tutorials are among the best I've ever encountered in a strategy game. My only real complaint is that it would be fun to have an additional mode where each side has to deploy its units at the start.

In the end, Desert Fox presents a balanced, challenging and deep strategy experience. And it manages to present something that can appeal to both hardened wargamers and genre neophytes. While I'd still recommend the latter to check out The Battle of the Bulge first, it's not necessary to enjoy Desert Fox.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for managing to make a wargame that is simultaneously deep and accessible; +1 for the supreme elegance of the game design. 

Penalties: -1 for where's that deploy-ever-unit-myself mode?

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10. "Very high quality/standout in its category."


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

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

AiIP: Five Indie Books to Read This Summer

Since I started writing-or, rather, publishing- I have met lots of cool people, and made some great and lasting friendships. It's also been a journey of self-discovery, and one of the things I have discovered is that I am really, really terrible at writing reviews. I can talk about a book for days, but for whatever reason, putting that to paper is always hard. I generally kind of go "I liked it, you should read it" or "I didn't; don't". So that's what I am going to do here- five books that do indie publishing right. Enjoy.

Augment: Human Services, Phil Elmore: This one was sent to me by Johnny Atomic, who did my cover. He had worked on this one as well, and it took me forever to get around to it, but I wish I hadn't waited. It's clever and different than a lot of the scifi out there. If you like grit and conspiracies, you'll love this.

Augments: They're the plague of the modern world, a deviant class of cyborg surgery addicts who've been herded into ghettos for the safety of those still legally human. As tensions in the tech ghetto rise, David Chalmers, an agent for Human Services, is sent behind the walls on a routine extraction. What he discovers is a helpless young woman maimed by unthinkable implant technology... and a murder, for which Chalmers is promptly framed.
Hunted by assassins and wanted by his own government, Chalmers must peel back the layers of a conspiracy without losing his own humanity to a back-alley surgeon's knife -- but first, alone and unarmed, he must survive the tech ghetto itself.

Rings of Anubis, E Catherine Tobler: A steampunk adventure in all the best ways. Adventure stories are always my favorite, and this one is suspenseful and fun. Plays with time travel, exploration of Egypt as well as real-world events (the Paris World Fair is described wonderfully).

Paris, 1889: A time when the world looks to a future of revolutionary science and extraordinary machines. Archaeologist Eleanor Folley looks back to Egypt’s ancient mysteries and her mother’s inexplicable, haunting disappearance. Agent Virgil Mallory, a man with ghosts and monsters his own, brings evidence of a crime that leads Eleanor into deepest Egypt again. Dangerous marauders and revelations from beyond the grave are part and parcel of adventures in the desert, but Eleanor doesn’t count on crossing paths with the guardian of the underworld—Anubis himself!

 Discovering Aberration, S.C. Barrus: Another steampunk adventure, although a bit more traditional- but that's the idea. Written to the tune of most major steampunk tropes, it doesn't take itself seriously at all and constantly pokes fun at the conventions that populate the world. All the while, it manages to tell a fun treasure-hunting story.

An ancient map stollen. A lost civilization discovered. A terrible secret unleashed.
Thaddeus Lumpen's archaeology career is near collapse, thanks to the machinations of rivals who would kill to claim a discovery for themselves. In desperation he turns to Freddy Fitzgerald, a rebellious writer who still maintains connections from his days as a street hooligan. For Lumpen to get ahead of his even less scrupulous competitors he must steal an ancient map and forge a path to an island where a lost civilization waits to be found. For Freddy, it's a chance to sell the story of a lifetime.

But nothing is as simple as it appears from halfway across the world. Old acquaintances become enemies, professional rivalries turn violent, and a notorious gang lord wants his map back. The island itself holds dangers that Freddy and Lumpen couldn't have prepared to face--and horrifying secrets that might be better left buried. Beset by wild beasts, cutthroat competitors, and dangers darker still, the two men fight not for glory, but their own survival... before the island pushes them past the brink of insanity. 

Insomnium, Zachary Bonelli: This is the first is a series of great reads, which I always struggle to describe properly. Think Sliders, maybe. But... better. As I've said, I love adventures, and this is an adventure though a series of artfully-crafted alternate universes, with great characters and great stories.

Nel Hanima lives in Seattle of 2089, a citizen of the newly organized Western Union. Life has stabilized since his childhood, when he lived with his parents in the Queen Anne community bunker. Government has been reestablished, and order restored. Famine and disease no longer run rampant, and the economy has stabilized. But still, the trees and grasses grow browner. The Sound continues to rise, swallowing up neighborhood after neighborhood of Nel's youth.

A faint tug drags at Nel day after day. The suspicion that his life is without purpose or meaning or hope grows ever stronger.

One night, he falls asleep in his apartment and awakens in the City of Nowhere, an impossible conundrum world of inhuman citizens, where time and space are an illusion and paradoxes run rampant.

As Nel explores the city, he meets Giniip Pana, Rev Merveille, and Drogl Belgaer, humans from alternate versions of his world's timeline. Together with his new friends, Nel works to unravel the mysteries of Nowhere, to learn how he came to be there, and discover not only a way to return to Seattle, but also the purpose and meaning his life has lacked. 

Isaac the Fortunate, A. Ka.: This is a fantasy series (The Winter is book one) that doesn't drag on forever or star some kid from a village in the middle of nowhere who is the chosen one, so it gets instant points in my book. Instead, it plays off much better scenarios, consequences and human emotion.

Beltran had humble ambitions—to farm his land, to grow his family, and to live fruitfully with his wife, Amaranta. The winter of 1553 had different plans. After a crippling famine, unbearable storms, and a devastating plague known as the Delirium, the winter had taken everything dear to him.
Then, through the backhanded kindness of a mysterious traveler and her time-obliterating potion, he got everything back.

His salvation is the beginning of his problems, as he discovers just how stubborn history can be. Greater forces are at work. The more Beltran learns about the circumstances, the less he understands—especially when it comes to the traveler and her inept husband, Isaac. In their quest to stop the Delirium, she and Isaac won’t let anything, or anyone, get in the way of their senseless plans.

Beltran fights for his simple life, his love, and his future... again, and again, and again, even when he finds nobody on his side, not even his dear Amaranta.

There you go- a few books for your summer TBR pile. I hope you enjoy them!

Dean is the author of 3024AD and other stories, engineer, and geek about many things. He lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. You can listen to him ramble on Twitter and muse on his blog.