Friday, September 19, 2014

Destiny

[Destiny, Bungie, Activision, 2014]

One of the Biggest Video Game Releases in History, You Say?

Well, probably, but not as big as Activision Blizzard initially reported. Although they announced $500 million in first day sales, they only shipped $500 million worth of units to stores, but the actual sales were quite a bit lower. They really only made about $325 million in sales during the first five days on Destiny. However, that's nothing to smirk at, and Call of Duty: Ghosts did the same thing claiming $1 billion sold on day one when the actual number was also significantly lower. It has been one of the most hyped games the public has ever seen with the television marketing campaign costing somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.7 million. However, the fact that they didn't release early copies to critics for release day reviews was a bit disconcerting. When a movie does that, you know it is going to be a stinker. The reasoning Bungie gave for the decision, and it does make sense, is that they wanted critics to have the ability to play a fully populated MMO (Massively Multiplayer Online) rather than one with only a few other critics online at the time. With MMOs, there are thousands of people online at the same time occupying the same virtual worlds, so it would make a difference in how the game appears if critics gave it a try without all of the actual players running around doing missions in the area. It would also make some parts of the game unplayable as they require three-man teams to even begin, much less complete. Anyway, enough with the hype, let's get to the meat of the game!


Gameplay

I'll cut to the chase. This game is about as polished as they come with regard to mechanics. It plays like a Porsche drives. Smooth. You start out by choosing between three types of protagonist. There are Titans, which are the tanks of the game. They can take massive amounts of damage without dying, but lag drastically behind the other two in movement and damage recovery. The second is the Hunter. This character class moves quickly and easily with a high agility score. Unfortunately it takes forever to heal with the lowest recovery setting of the three classes. The third type is the Warlock. This is your typical mage that can recover quicker than the other two, but doesn't have very dangerous attacks outside of its special magic moves. The Warlock isn't the quickest of movers, either. All of that said, I've played all three characters and it seems like Bungie did a pretty good job of balancing out their various skills and deficiencies. Each character also has two subclasses that define their special moves. You should choose your subclass early because any upgrades to one won't transfer over to the other. Pick a subclass based on its special moves and stick with it throughout the game. 



Beyond that, you can choose between Human, Awoken, and Exo. You can customize the look of your character, but race and the appearance are only cosmetic. They don't effect how the character plays at all. Humans are, well, like us. They managed to survive the destruction wrought by the Darkness, dubbed the Collapse, and are just trying to survive in the last city not controlled by its minions. The Awoken are humanoids with bluish skin and an ethereal glow about them. They are based on mythological creatures such as elves, vampires, ghosts, and angels. The Exo are either machine or cyborg, I've read both definitions. They supposedly survived the Collapse but have no memory of their history before that. 


There are four species of alien enemies that fight for the Darkness: the Fallen, the Vex, the Hive, and the Cabal. The Fallen are scavengers that are attempting to take over the Earth. They are filthy urchins that constantly look for anything of value left behind after the Collapse. Vex are robots that employ a hive mind, all connected to a single consciousness. They came to our universe through warp gates from another dimension and mostly populate Venus. Hive are a species of undead that live on the Earth's moon. Their strength is in numbers and they tend to attack in hordes. Finally, the Cabal are massive creatures that employ thick armor and huge metal shields for protection. They generally stick to Mars missions and are the last species you encounter before finishing the campaign. None of the species like each other and you can often sit back and watch firefights where they kill off one another, leaving a much smaller force for you to take out before moving further through the game's many maps. Unfortunately I had to dig up nearly all of this information about the enemy species online because so little of their background stories is covered in the game itself due to the painfully thin plot. But more on that later. 



Special Moves



Each character type has two special moves. The first is called a Super Charge and it is the more powerful of the two. The second is a melee attack that has various effects depending on character type and subclass. All special moves can only be used sparingly and take time to recharge. Grenades act the same way. 

Titan



The Titan's Super Charges are titled Fist of Havoc and Ward of Dawn. The Fist causes the player to jump in the air and come crashing down, slamming both clinched hands into the earth causing high levels of damage to any nearby enemies. Ward of Dawn creates a small shield through which the player can fire but no projectiles can penetrate. The Titan's melee attacks are dubbed Storm Fist and Disintegrate. Storm Fist is simply an overpowered punch that does a lot more damage than your average pop to the jaw. Disintegrate actually has nothing to do with disintegration. After you smack an enemy you absorb any incoming attacks and transform them into ammo, health, or a quick recharge for Storm Fist. 

Warlock



The Warlock's Super Charge attacks are referred to as Nova Bomb and Radiance. Nova Bomb hurls a bolt of damaging light at the enemy. Radiance boosts your skill recharge speed, damage resistance, and melee damage resistance for a brief period. The Warlock's melee attacks are called Energy Drain and Scorch. The first one, strangely enough, drains energy. Heh. It removes health from your enemy and speeds the recovery of your health, grenades, or Nova Bomb. More than any other character class, I found the effects to the Warlock's Super Charge attack to be vastly superior to its melee attack. 

Hunter


The Hunter's subclass' Super Charges are Arc Blade and Golden Gun. These two are easily the most visually appealing of all the special moves. Arc Blade generates a knife of pure energy for about eight seconds, letting you attack as many enemies as you can in that time period. For most, one shot is all it takes. Bosses may require multiple hits, but the attacks come so fast that they can't do anything but reel in pain from the impact. With Golden Gun, you fly up into the air in a yellow whirlwind of flame, landing with a fiery pistol in your hand. You have three highly damaging shots with the revolver that, again, take out nearly anything but a boss with a single shell. The Hunter's melee attacks are Throwing Knife and Blink Strike. It's as if Bungie had to balance the beauty of the special moves with the plainness of the melee attacks. Throwing knife is decently effective, but no more impressive in graphic design than a knife thrown in Call of Duty. Blink Strike is also unimpressive, being merely an extended melee attack with more range than your standard stab with a kitchen knife. 

Bang Bangs and High Fashion


There are a plethora of weapons and armor to choose from in Destiny. Your character carries one primary weapon, one secondary weapon, and one heavy weapon. The primary weapons include auto rifles (machine guns), hand cannons (revolvers), scout rifles (hunting rifles), and pulse rifles that fire three-round bursts. The secondary weapons are the shotgun, fusion rifle, and sniper rifle. Heavy weapons are just a rocket launcher and a machine gun. Each weapon group can have a variety of upgrades. I won't bore you with every single option as that list would take up three pages and this review is long enough already. Some examples are Quickdraw, Upgrade Damage, Kinetic Damage, Extended Mag, Hawkeye, Warhead Verniers, Reactive Reload, and Void Damage just to name a few. Upgrades are available on every weapon and must be earned in battle. On top of that, you have to have enough Glimmer, the primary currency of Destiny, and, with many, additions like Ascendent Shards, Weapon Parts, and Plasteel Plating. 


The armor consists of four different pieces: the helmet, gauntlets, chest armor, and leg armor. Each one carries with it bonuses, just like the weapons. Not only do they have the same upgrades as the guns, but they also hold bonuses for Intellect, Discipline, and Strength. That's just a short way of saying your Super Charge, your specialized grenades, and your melee attack, respectively. You also wear a class identifier, which is a scarf for the Titan, a cloak for the Hunter, and a bond for the Warlock. You can also purchase these pieces of clothing in order to ally yourself with one of the cults (More on them later). While wearing a piece of cult clothing, all of your reputation points go toward that cult rather than your Vanguard score. It makes little difference beyond allowing you to purchase items from specific vendors. There is no bonus or upgrade given by wearing one piece over another. 


Campaign


While the gameplay in this game is fantastic, its one shortcoming is in the story. I suspect the reason for so many of the hot-or-cold reviews that have been coming out is the plot. It is very vague and there isn't much to it. The Traveler - a massive, moon-sized, planet-looking thing - comes to Earth and teaches us about space travel. Humans populate Mars and Venus. Then, the Darkness, the Traveler's ancient enemy, destroys nearly all of mankind. A small group of humans, Awoken, and Exo survived and are fighting the minions of the Darkness. There. That's the whole thing in four sentences. Of course there are more detailed mini-stories in the missions, but that's the gist. The missions usually consist of traveling to somewhere, killing a bunch of minor enemies, then killing a boss and going back to the Tower for a reward. Usually I'm worried about giving away too many spoilers in a review but with Destiny it's hard to do so because there's just not that much to spoil. It's unfortunate that the story doesn't have much depth because the rest of it is spectacular, but sadly that's the case.  


For players that were expecting the next science fiction epic like Halo or Mass Effect, they will be sorely disappointed with Destiny. The universe is sparse and barren. The massive hype of the next epic science fiction masterpiece has fallen painfully flat. For players that just wanted a finely polished FPS MMO, there are few out there that are better. I believe that the main culprit behind all of the highly polarized reviews, both from professional critics and users, is the thin plot. It's like Bungie spent so much time building lush, verdant landscapes and intelligent, believable AI that they ran out of time and threw the story together in the last thirty minutes before the deadline. I fully expect that Destiny 2 will flush out the universe quite a bit due to all the negative press. At least I hope so, because the franchise has such great potential that it would be a crying shame to let it remain so unfulfilled. 

There is a soft cap of 20 on every character, but it is possible to go beyond that ceiling by collecting "Light Points." The only way to get light points is by equipping gear that has a certain light point amount assigned to it. With this light-infused gear on your character, your level can rise above the level 20 cap. I've seen players online reach as high as 27, but I'm not sure there is a true cap on your character. Due to the limit of 100 Vanguard/Crucible marks (other currencies) you can accrue per week, it's hard to tell this close to the game's release what the true limit is, if any. It isn't necessary to join a cult in order to get gear with high light points, not to mention damage/defense numbers, but it helps. 


Multiplayer Games


Initially the pure multiplayer aspect, dubbed the Crucible, left me feeling more than a bit disappointed. There was only a single game type on the Xbox One. I'm not much of a multiplayer addict. I just prestiged my first character on Call of Duty: Ghosts last month if that's any indication. Due to that fact, I've done less-than-spectacularly in the Crucible. That said, I've managed to level up to 24. They equal out the leveling for the purposes of multiplayer, but I suspect from my numerous deaths that the same can not be said for the weapons and armor. I'll shoot someone five times with a high-powered rifle and they just hit me once with a machine gun and I'm the one that goes down. Something's not right about that.


Vanguard


The Vanguard is a game mode where you take on Strike missions with two other players. There are four levels of Vanguard mission to choose from of varying difficulty. The game requires that you undertake these missions with three players, but that doesn't mean you have to have two other friends online in order to complete them. The servers do a good job of matching you with similarly-leveled players. These missions offer you Vanguard Reputation and Marks that can be spent with the Vanguard and cult merchants in the Tower to purchase special armor and weapons. There is a limit of 100 Vanguard/Crucible Marks per week that can be earned. I'm not sure if that's to keep the multiplayer from becoming an unbalanced mess, to keep players coming back each week for more, or a little of both. Either way, I've maxed out my Vanguard/Crucible Marks for the week so my desire to run these slightly more difficult missions has wained until next Monday. 


Crucible

The Crucible is the game's true multiplayer portion. It started with only one game type on day one of the release, but it has since expanded to four. That's still a sadly low number for the developers who essentially created the multiplayer craze with Halo, but it's enough to keep a casual multiplayer participant like myself happy for the time being. The four game types are called Control, Clash, Rumble, and Skirmish. In Control, two teams of three players have to capture three zones and hold them. Doing so increases your point total for every kill. Clash is classic team deathmatch with six gamers on each team. Rumble is an every-man-for-himself game where every one of the six players is out for the others' blood. Skirmish is just a smaller version of Clash where the teams are made up of three players instead of six. In Crucible matches, you win Crucible Reputation and Marks, which are spent on weapons and armor from one of the three cults. 




Join a Cult


There are three factions in Destiny. Bungie refers to them as "cults." They include The Future War cult, the Dead Orbit cult, and the New Monarchy. You have to reach level 20 before you can join up with one of them, but they're the only way to get the most powerful weapons and armor in the game. Well, almost the only way. You can stay non-affiliated and use your Crucible Marks to buy things from the Crucible salespeople in the Tower. All four factions' pieces of armor contain a light point amount. As mentioned before, light points are the only way you can level up your character above the soft 20 cap. From what I can tell, the cult contacts in the game (there are three, one for each group) and the two Crucible salespeople (a non-political, general group) have the best weapons and armor for sale when compared to the Vanguard leaders.  


There are advantages to choosing one cult over another based on the way you choose to play. Each one has an effect on two of your three attributes, those being Intellect, Discipline, and Strength. Choosing a cult will give you the opportunity to gain bonuses to these attributes through their armor. If you purchase Dead Orbit armor you get a bonus to Discipline and Strength, reducing the cooldown time of your grenades and melee attack. Joining the Future War gives boosts to your Intelligence and Discipline (grenade and Super Charge cooldown). The New Monarchy offers you the chance to get bonuses in Intelligence and Strength (Super Charge and melee). Each group has a history that isn't really covered in the game and I won't get into here. You don't use Glimmer to purchase items from the Dead Orbit, New Monarchy, Future War, or Crucible vendors. Instead, you have to earn Vanguard and Crucible Marks. These are an entirely separate type of currency that must be earned by doing Strike missions for Vanguard marks or Crucible battles for theirs.


Music and Environment


Two places apart from the gameplay where Destiny really shines are the lush soundtrack and the impressive, varied battlegrounds. That shouldn't be a surprise, though. Bungie used the same duo of composers that wrote the music for the Halo series, Michael Salvatori and Martin O'Donnell. Even Paul McCartney collaborated on the project. Yes, that Paul McCartney. The music fits the game perfectly, building with the action and easing off into lush soundscapes for the menus and load screens. The suspenseful parts of the game were made even more intense with spooky ambience. There are even seamless transitions between portions of the game where there normally would have been only silence. 


The environments are as sumptuous and varied as the planets on which they represent. The Earth portions take place in what used to be Russia and it is every bit a decrepit wasteland as Mad Max or Cormac McCarthy's The Road. The moon looks just like the footage we've all seen dozens of times in movies and on television. The Red Planet appears like the shots that were beamed back from the Curiosity rover. Some poetic license was taken and "ancient" ruins were added to give the maps some variety. Finally, Venus emerges as a tropical rainforest after it had been developed by terraformers. Suffice it to say the graphics in this game are second-to-none. 


Tick, Tock, Tick, Tock...

According to www.howlongtobeat.com, Destiny takes ten hours to complete the main story and seventeen-and-a-half for the campaign plus extras. I found that to be a bit of an underestimate. I did all of the missions in the game including the Strike missions and easily spent twenty-plus hours on the campaign before I even touched the multiplayer modes. Now, I'm a bit of an OCD perfectionist when it comes to finishing a big game that I'm enjoying (That's a nice way of saying I'm anal), but even so, it isn't something you can do in a day like the Call of Duty campaigns. So plan on a good week or so unless you're one of those people who partakes in eight-to-ten hour marathon gaming sessions. 


The Math

Objective Score: 9/10

Bonuses: +1 for being one of the smoothest games I've played, mechanics-wise, not to mention it's just plain beautiful. Plus, your sidekick, Ghost, is voiced by Tyrion, Game of Thrones' Peter Dinklage!

Penalties: -1 for the paper-thin plot. I mean, come on! What did they spend, twenty or thirty minutes writing the story? This is supposed to be the next big science fiction franchise, but instead it's merely an FPS MMO, albeit a very good one. Here's hoping Destiny 2 brings a lot more to the universe than Bungie's first outing did. -1 for the painfully long load screen scenes. I realize that it would take light years to reach Venus, but that doesn't mean you have to take it literally in the game for the sake of realism. I probably spent at least 2 hours of my life during the last week watching my ship hover in space between missions as it loaded up the Tower or the next mission. 

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


Thursday, September 18, 2014

New Contributors Wanted!

Nerds of a Feather, Flock Together is looking for 1-2 awesome individuals to join our team of regular contributors!

Duties: posting approximately once every other week, though the exact number will fluctuate. We would like one or both contributors to focus on reviewing new science fiction and fantasy novels, as well as the occasional anthology or collection of short fiction. The second contributor could alternatively review crime/pulp fiction or mix book reviews with reviews of cult films, TV, comics, video games or commentary on geek culture. Must be active on twitter or willing to be active on twitter.

Benefits: free books and the potential for other free stuff, as well as joining a dynamic team of enthusiastic nerd bloggers.

Who we’re looking for: we want someone who writes well and doesn’t need to be copyedited. We’d like someone who appreciates our kind of humor, understands and is ready to abide by our established format and scoring system and otherwise “fits” with the institutional voice of the blog. We are particularly interested in female applicants, as well as applicants with interest in areas of SF/F that we don’t cover as completely as we could (e.g. contemporary/urban fantasy, hard SF, short fiction, etc.). But don’t be dissuaded from approaching us if you don’t fit neatly into either of those categories! 

Caveat: we know lots of you have awesome projects you want everyone to know about, but since these are regular contributor positions, we would like to emphasize that this would not be an appropriate forum to use for promoting that awesomeness (aside from your blogging awesomeness, of course). 

Process: send an email to nerdsfeather.indiesubs@gmail.com telling us what you are interested in doing, why and how you see yourself fitting onto the NoaF team. Please also send a writing sample, which can be either embedded into the body of the email or links to published work. We will try to respond to everyone as quickly as possible. For those who appear to be the right "fit," depending on level of experience, we may ask for one or two guest post before solidifying the relationship.

We look forward to hearing from you!

Regards,

NoaF Team


Thursday Morning Superhero

Before you do anything else you want to pick up the Valiant Humble Bundle right here.  For a mere $15 you can get over 80 amazing titles from one of the best indie publishers in the business.  The Humble Bundle has had some amazing deals in the past, but so far the Valiant bundle is by far the best bang for your buck.  This week I didn't pick up too many titles at my LCS.  I have heard that this week's Fables was a tear jerker and that Spider-Gwen is a title that is worth checking out, so I may be making a second stop after work.  At least I got to check out the new lady Thor.



Pick of the Week:
Oddly Normal #1 - As a proud father of two nerdy kids it gives me great pleasure to read a great all-ages titles like Oddly Normal.  Oddly is a half-witch who is having a hard time fitting in.  She has two great parents, but they don't seem to understand what she is dealing with at school.  This book debuts on her 11th birthday and we learn that Oddly Normal is anything but normal.  I have been searching to fill the Harry Potter void in my life and feel that this title is a contender.  While I recommend this to any parent looking for a good title for their son or daughter, I quite enjoyed it as well.  If you, like myself, have enjoyed Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, this title is worth checking out.

The Rest:
Thor #25 - The reign of the current Thor has come to an end.  When Nick Fury revealed certain secrets on the moon, Thor became unworthy to wield Mjolnir.  What we learn in this final book in the series is that he regains his worthiness and has three granddaughters who seek to understand their past.  I will admit that I have not read any of the other Thor titles in this run, but found this one intriguing enough to check out the new lady Thor, even though it seems like a gimmick. At least I can tell my grandchildren that I read the first issue where lady Thor made her debut.



Stray Bullets: Killers #7 - What an odd coincidence reading this book today.  This title opens up at an Orioles game the day after they clinch their first American East title since 1993.  To top it off, the events that unfold started on my 8th birthday!  Sadly this is where all of the happy coincidences end and the dark ones begin.  David Lapham delivers another stunning, yet depressing, issue.  Lapham has a unique ability to tie stories together in a way that is completely plausible that doesn't feel forced.  Eli seems to have a lot going for him, but when you associate with people that are friends with criminals in this world, watch out.  Great series that feels shockingly real.





Daredevil #8 - Matt Murdock is getting settled in San Francisco and things really pick up in this issue.  We are introduced to Killgrave, the purple man, who has mind control thanks to an experimental nerve gas.  When will we learn? Anyhoo, Killgrave has been using this control to seduce women to birth a new army of purple-skinned mind-controlling children!  It sounds silly, but Waid delivers another thrilling issue with a twist that has me itching for the next issue.





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

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Microreview [book]: On the Beach by Nevil Shute

On the Beach had been on my bookshelf for years, and I had always looked forward to reading it since the author, Nevil Shute, also penned the novel one of my favorite Jimmy Stewart movies (No Highway in the Sky) was based on. On the Beach was an entirely different experience. On the one hand, it is possibly the most interesting take on the end of the world I've ever read. On the other hand, I kept finding myself questioning the authenticity of the characters' actions and outlooks.

The 1957 novel was written in the early Cold War-era and explores the outcome of mutually assured self-destruction from a profoundly interesting vantage point: Australia. Two years after a nuclear holocaust between Russia, China, the United States, and other, smaller and less-accountable nuclear powers wiped out all of humanity in the Northern Hemisphere in six days, this book begins as the southernmost inhabitants of the planet wait for the global winds to bring the lethal radiation to them. Everyone will die. There is no escape. This is the end of humanity, and there's nothing to do but wait for it. To quote T.S. Eliot, as Shute does, "This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang, but a whimper."

The novel follows Lieutenant Peter Holmes, a newlywed and new father in the Australian Navy, as he is assigned to one of the only two remaining American naval vessels, a submarine that was submerged when the war happened, and surfaced to find it had nowhere to go but Australia. It's no spoiler to say we then read about Peter, his family, and his friends, both on the submarine and on the mainland, living out their – and all of humanity's – last days on Earth. The characters are well-drawn and each is endearingly noble. It's sad to see them go. But the thing that irked me about the novel was how normally everyone acted. There was no looting, no particular lawlessness, and only a couple of people who were even habitually drinking too much. Believe me, if somebody told Americans there were only six months left for all of us, we'd be beyond Thunderdome in no time. Maybe it's the British stuff-upper-lip-and-all-that influence, but almost everyone in the novel just goes about their business, making plans for next year, and generally acting as though the world were normal. I get it, it's a coping mechanism, but I never believed everybody would use the same one.

That said, this novel really got under my skin, so much so that I dreamed one night that I was in the same spot the characters were in, having a goodbye party at my office to say "we'll meet again" to all my coworkers, and all we'd ever known, and life on this planet. It is an unrelentingly bleak book, like the movie Fail-Safe, but a nevertheless moving testament to the bullet we all collectively dodged, and should hope to never encounter again, and all that should be lost if we are not so lucky.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Penalties: -1 for what seems to be a far-too-civilized take on the end of civilization

Bonuses: +1 for fundamentally decent characters who, while far-fetched, are admirably noble; +1 for being a far more human look at the end of the world than most others in the genre; +1 for a slow, but inexorable pace that actually heightens the impact of what's to come

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

Posted by — Vance K, Nerds of a Feather contributor since 2012, and singer-songwriter for the band Sci-Fi Romance, whose debut album cover bears an eerie similarity to the 1960 Signet edition of On the Beach seen above

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Microreview [book]: Sworn in Steel by Douglas Hulick

There's No Place Like Home



Among Thieves is a book I've recommended on many occasions to fantasy readers, as well as those looking to dip their feet in the genre after graduating from HBO's Game of Thrones. It's part of the resurgent "thieves and assassins" style of fantasy, the new school of which is perhaps best exemplified by Robin Hobb and Scott Lynch. But Among Thieves has a unique feel to it, more thriller at heart than epic adventure. And the way it balances grit with playfulness feels like a cross between Michael Connoly and Harlan Coben. With swords. And magic.

Among Thieves could also serve as a masterclass in world-building. In Drothe, Hulick presents a relatable hero, and surrounds him with memorable characters: swashbuckling mercenary Bronze Degan, redoubtable lieutenant Fowler Jess, enigmatic Djanese sorcerer Jelem, etc. These characters blend seamlessly into the world around them, which feels smaller and more vivid than in most second-world fantasy. Everything, from the sight and sounds of alt-Byzantine Ildrecca to the lingo, or "cant," employed by the Kin (i.e. underworld) has been fully integrated into the experience, so that it really brings the story to life. Nothing, in other words, feels out of place.

Warning! Spoilers for Among Thieves and Mild Spoilers for Sworn in Steel Follow!

So it was with great anticipation that I started the sequel, Sworn in Steel. Drothe is now a Gray Prince, but finding the adjustment from street-level information gatherer (i.e. a "nose") to shadowy manipulator a bit hard. Then one of his colleagues, Crook-Eye, gets murdered, and there's evidence pointing to Drothe. Drothe knows this because he found the body at a proposed meeting between them, where Drothe was going to bargain for something Crook-Eye had in his possession--the discarded sword of former best friend Bronze Degan--and where a temporary peace was supposed to protect both parties. It's a setup, that much is clear from the beginning. But a setup to convince Drothe to travel to the Empire's political rival, the Despotate of Djan, to seek out Bronze Degan and convince him to return to Ildrecca, in spite of the fact that Drothe betrayed Degan and in the process broke a solemn oath?

In fact that's exactly what it is, and the setup works: Drothe agrees to travel to the Djanese capital of El Qaddice. Only problem is, you can't enter El Qaddice without patronage from someone in the Despot's family. And how is an Imperial thief supposed to get that? Drothe and his "partner," the degan variously known as "Silver" or "Wolf," concoct a scheme involving a troop of actors--after all, the Despot's nephew is a famous patron of the arts. What could possibly go wrong?

Lots, as it happens. There are three basic plots: the main one, in which Drothe tries to gain access to the Old City of El Qaddice and find Bronze Degan; a secondary plot involving shadowy assassins (a thinly-veiled reference to the Hashashin) seeking Drothe's "night vision"; and a tertiary plot involving the smuggling of Imperial "glimmer" (i.e. magic) and rivalry with a local crime boss.

Here's the thing: the ride is pretty enjoyable. Hulick writes clear and tidy prose, and keeps things moving at a good clip. It is certainly a fun read. Yet Sworn in Steel lacks the inspiration of its predecessor. This is perhaps most evident in the world-building, an undoubted strength of Among Thieves, where it is so vivid you can practically smell the marketplace and even imagine the curvature on each individual cobblestone. I have rarely encountered an imagined place in fantasy that feels as fully realized as Ildrecca does. Yet Djan feels empty in comparison, a featureless alt-Arabia save for a few mentions of waterpipes and cardamom. I don't have a problem with writers using medieval Islam and/or Arab culture as a template for modern fantasy, and Hulick is respectful rather than sneering at his subjects (not a high bar to set, but one many writers nevertheless seem incapable of scaling). Thing is, I expected more--I expected Hulick to infuse Djan with the same richness as Ildrecca in Among Thieves. I did not get it.

There are other issues. For one, even if Hulick's writing has good forward momentum, the plots themselves are poorly paced. The tertiary boss vs. boss plot resolves too quickly, while the assassin/night vision plot gets smushed up at the end, and further muddled by the distracting, 11th hour appearance of a djinn (who really should have been either given more attention or dropped altogether). And halfway through we've pretty much forgotten the actors even exist.

I also found myself getting distracted by the use of "cant." It's one thing in Ildrecca, where you have conversations among Kin using shared lingo--that works beautifully in Among Thieves and in the early portions of Sworn in Steel. But it's a different story when you have Drothe in Djan, speaking Djanese, yet still using Kin lingo in conversations with people who don't know what he means. It's like imagining a cockney from London's East End going on vacation to Spain and literally translating rhyming slang into Spanish until local Spaniards ask him what he means by "tachuelas de latón," at which point he then tells them it's a euphemism for "hechos" (facts). Unlikely, right? Minor point, I know, but it bothered me nonetheless. 

All that said, the book is a fun read, and I continue to be a big believer in Hulick and the world he's created. I just didn't love this one like I loved (and continue to love) Among Thieves.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10.

Bonuses: +1 for clean, smooth prose that never gets in the way; +1 for good, old-fashioned thriller fun--in a fantasy setting.

Penalties: -1 for thinness in world-building; -1 for pacing issues.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10. "Enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore."


***

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


Reference: Hulick, Douglas. Sworn in Steel [Ace/Roc, 2014].

Monday, September 15, 2014

AiIP MicroReview: Darkness Concealed by D. Emery Bunn

Synopsis: 50 years ago, the dawn did not come. Again. Everyone in Telthan knew it would happen. Monsters roamed the land, killing virtually everyone in their path, laying waste to anything in their way. Only a precious few survived to rebuild the wreckage of civilization, just like last time. No one questions the Darkening. Not even the children.

That is, until four strangers set off in search of answers, braving a forbidden city, a forgotten library, and foreboding mountains for the truth that has to exist. But the past does not give up its secrets easily, and the truth is far darker than the blackest night.


The Meat: There is a lot to like here. It is very 'readable', though I stop short of saying 'page-turner'. While that is probably a fine distinction, what I mean is it is comfortable to read, yet not oh my god, I have to find out what happens next exciting to read. 

The characters are well-defined and likeable. The dialogue is well-written and engaging.  The pertinent details are well described, yet... That's the problem I have with it. I have been struggling with what seems to be missing, and pertinent is the word. I hesitate to knock it because, by and large, it is very well done- but narrow.

The four main characters, the things that relate to them, the world itself are very rich. It has a lot of fantasy tropes (which is one of the reasons I don't read a whole lot of fantasy; those tropes are pretty much unavoidable), but 'The Darkness' has good, gritty feel to it- yet we don't get to know the world in its present state quite well enough to know it well. While the dialogue/action is described very well, there is little that makes me feel as if I am in a small town, big city or in the mountains.

The other area I go back and forth on is Caleb, who stutters. His stuttering is written in phonetically, and it doesn't work for me- but I think it's great for the character. The really annoying part is not how it's done, I'm just not sure how you communicate it. I almost wrote 'it interrupts the flow of dialogue', but... that's what stuttering does. So either it's perfect and amazing, or falls flat, but I'm not quite sure which.

The Math: So. Can we talk? Like outside this little review space, for a second? Just, about books. Because I have been staring at the cursor for a good five minutes, not sure what I should write here. I should write something, give it the six or seven it deserves and move on. But that's what's bugging me. You see, every book I have read lately has been a six or seven. Part of it is me. I grew up on a steady diet of classics, and am a whore for them. And I want some of these contemporary authors who I am not reading to be them, or at least reach out and grab their genres by the balls and own them. There has been a lot of good stuff lately, to be sure, but I want something outstanding.

OK, digression over. Thank you. Back to the math. I said it deserves a six or a seven, and it does. It is rarefied air for a debut to be what I described in the preceding paragraph, so I don't expect that here, but it does have that potential- despite having a ton of tropes, it is deep and enjoyable and unique enough to work.

Baseline: 6  (still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore)

Bonuses:





+1 for solid character development
+1 for world building
+1 for including magic in a way that makes sense, and not using it as a cop out all the damn time

Penalties:
-1 for pacing. Starts really fast, then slows, then picks back up.

-1 for reliance on fantasy tropes. Repeating doomsday cycle, small town protagonist, etc.

Nerd Coefficient: 7 (a mostly enjoyable experience)

While there are a few criticisms, I say grab this when it is out on the 23rd. If you like fantasy, this a solid read.

-DESR
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.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Microreview [book] : We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

A self-help group for bizarre social outcasts reveals macabre secrets


(2014, Tachyon)
Available to purchase here or from your local indie store here (buy local!)

My last review admitted to my lazy habit of choosing a book by the cover. After finishing this excellent short novel, I feel I have moved on a little, because whilst this cover would never tempt me usually I picked it up due to the synopsis anyway. Sorry, Tachyon, but your choice (assuming it was yours) of anonymous young female with harsh font is more suited to a genre of dead-young-woman-evil-murderer kind of crime fiction that leaves me as cold as the corpses it throws on the slab with each lazy, amoral and uninspired airport carousel-infesting back cover blurb. 'A beautiful woman is found in the woods..'. Really? Your brain decided to create, then share, that brain-fart of a plot-starter with the world? Get off my planet.

But wait! A few cracks and marks on the cover's face hints at something odder than the usual bland killer-thriller retreading. And I hope the passing book-buyer can see past the cover because this a story unlike that realm of predictable writing and indeed unlike anything I have read in a while. Gregory (an acclaimed comics and short story writer as well as award-winning novelist) does with his latest what so few writers I go on a journey with manage to achieve - namely, to surprise. More than that, he dances with his plot and wording efficiently and confidently; very rarely in this book did a sentence jar or plot shift not hit home smoothly. It is not, perhaps, a masterpiece, nor a revolution in the art of writing. Some dialogue falters into flat simplicity. A bit more descriptive detail of the environment would have strengthened the narrative's hold. The fire demon is a bit silly. It is, however, clearly the work of someone who knows where they are going and how to get there without falling prey to trappings of genre.

A group of five strangers are persuaded by a mysterious psychologist to take part in group counselling together. All seem to have been through various surreal and fantastical experiences which have left them scarred physically and emotionally. Harrison was a virtual superhero, fighting monsters from beyond. Barbara and Stan were victims of horrific, freakish torture-murders. Greta and  Martin are clearly traumatised but slow to participate. Gradually they and their doctor begin the halting process of therapy, but, less peacefully, outside forces propel them into action. Anymore than this brief introduction would probably spoil the journey but, suffice to say, this is not what you would expect. Sensing a dormant superhero plot? Wrong, madam. Anticipating a overly-sincere adult talkathon in a therapy room? Incorrect, sir. 

The tension is held pleasingly. Gregory creates mystery and secrets amongst his cast then depicts the frustration and insecurity those barriers create, and illustrates each character in contrast to the other. Much of the tale is about trust, conflict, friendship and loneliness, and he is careful to only shout about the issues when his characters opt to. Their pasts are, similarly, not headlined, but shaded vaguely, in order to hint at what has happened over time, much like in real therapy of trauma. However, one element of his technique initially intrigued, then confused, then annoyed, and then finally pleased me - he writes in the good ol' third person, yet each section and several other moments are written by hovering first person, who describes the group as 'we'. This narrator figure is intriguing because I was waiting to see who that was, but then confusing because they speak about all the characters by name (with never an identifying 'I'), then annoying because it clearly wasn't an additional wallflower of a character, before finally pleasing, for in it I saw what I imagined part of Gregory's humane philosophy to be. 

His story seems to be written by someone who values compassion, diversity and individual freedom, and yet also relishes the macabre, the demented, the cartoonish. This range of focus means that over a few pages he traverses from detailing insane, nauseating torture, to wild imagery, to tender friendship or gentle politeness, generally without missing a beat. In this I feel he helps to colour the world of therapy and psychological trauma with the contrast of extremes and shift of gears such experiences create. This may seem too complex or sincere a basis on which to view a book that involves inter-dimensional fire demons and psychopaths who etch drawings on the skeletons of living people. Yet the author does to my mind manage to juggle the emotionally-believable and the downright bat-shit daft very well. In my brief encounters with people who have endured genuine horrors I can thankfully so far not imagine or understand, I felt this dizzy split between belief and detachment. Is the experience of someone who has seen their family murdered or lost a child any less horrific or vertiginously-outlandish than someone here who has been scarred repeatedly to attract the deadly desires of Hidden Ones from a world beyond? Less silly, more 'real'... but no less impossible to grasp clearly, or view directly.

Along with his compassion for his characters, Gregory has clear empathy for us as weary readers, too - the story is perfectly-brief. Indeed, some have complained that it ends before it gets going. I disagree. It goes precisely where it needs to go and no further. A sequel would be welcome, and yet in some ways a shame. By avoiding the action that eventually erupts in the final pages for the bulk of the short book, he shows his interest is more in human interaction, emotional development and the effects of violence on the psyche, not in describing how monsters do cool things in fight scenes (although he has prowess there). Not the usual Nerds fare that I explore perhaps, but I was delighted by this adventure and will now eagerly search out Gregory's earlier novels. And try in future to see past the covers.

The Math

Diagnosis : 8/10 

Improvement: +1 an empathetic look at counselling and trauma; +1 still keeping the fantasy and horror entertaining but not gratuitous

Regression: -1 some characters get less development than others and one is jettisoned without enough resonance because they remain too enigmatic

Closure: 9/10 'Very high quality / standout in its category' 

Written by English Scribbler, in on-going Nerds treatment since 2013