Friday, May 31, 2013

Guest Microreview [book]: The Good, The Bad and the Infernal by Guy Adams

Adams, Guy. The Good, the Bad and the Internal [Solaris, 2013]

The Meat

The idea of mixing up the era of Billy the Kid with fantasy is as old as, well, the Wild Wild West. But this, the first part of a trilogy, takes a fresh spin on it, and is a great adventure tale that manages to hold its fantastical premise together with some deft mixing of the daft and the sublime.

It spends much of its time introducing all the various characters, in disconnected sections, as they travel across America, fighting evil forces and each other - rather like Lord of the Rings, only without the annoying pipe music. We meet a fake preacher, a Victorian inventor, a team of monks, a gang of freaks and a gunslinger as old as the desert, amongst many others.

They all are for various reasons heading for a mythical town called Wormwood, which is claimed to be a way to enter Heaven without dying. It shimmers into sight every few centuries somewhere in the world before vanishing and leaving legend and rumour in its wake. This time it is scheduled for the American Wild West, just after the Civil War.

And it's a era that Adams is clearly in love with (as he admits in his humourous biog). Through his passionate descriptive detail, you can almost feel the sun and dust, and smell the sweat and blood. It's tremendous fun for any Spaghetti Western fan.

As well as the main ingredient of this setting, he stirs in some steampunk seasoning courtesy of the inventor, and a whole ladle of religious fantasy. What you end up with is a gumbo of the hardboiled universe of a Sergio Leone with the far-fetched but enjoyable action and horror of, say, a quirky mongrel of Bram Stoker's Dracula and Solomon Kane.

For, as they near the town, nature turns against them. In fact, it unleashes hell on them, and the novel heads towards more magical realms. Imagine a souped-up locomotive being chased by cyborg Indian warriors and hordes of bats, and you'll get the jist. However, whilst the mutant creatures and high-concept fight scenes are entertaining enough, they don't entirely convince as spectacle. Compared to the Spaghetti Westerns he loves, a gunfight just can't come across on the page quite so well as on the screen, although he makes an impressive attempt. Also, while the grim-faced and stone-hearted Western elements were believable to me, the monsters made out of glass and wood, or the swarms of killer bugs at times felt, well, a bit daft to be honest. I found myself occasionally wanting to see a film adaption instead, where I could stare passively at CGI nonsense whilst scoffing popcorn. But maybe I'm unfairly more forgiving of movies than books.

The dialogue and narration are superb. I love a good dark-hearted metaphor, and he these delivers in spades -

"It was the sort of smile an alligator wore when convinced its meat was just about rotten enough to chew". -

This and some intriguing conflicts between the key players kept me hooked through all the switches between stories and characters, and occasional slips in reality, grounding my mind in the hot plains and faded saloons.

Slight spoiler: this is only part one of three and is all about the journey to Wormwood. Part two is not out for a year so don't expect to be reading about the town just yet. The book ends on a fun climax, telling us the adventure has only just begun. Bring on part two next year, as this is darn good, rootin'-tootin', gun-slinging fun.

The Math

Baseline assessment : 7/10

Bonuses : +1 for reminding me how much I loved Clint Eastwood before he turned into a Romney-loving fool; +1 for juggling multiple storylines with aplomb; +1 for the phrase "He scratched at his face with a sound as rough as a gang of armadillos fucking".

Penalties: -1 for not quite handling the sudden lurches into fantasy convincingly; -1 for one of the character's names changing temporarily by mistake

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

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

In this installment of Thursday Morning Superhero I will be writing on the road in my old stomping grounds of Austin, TX.  Like most of my fellow comic bloggers, I am attending an academic conference on the study of sport this week.  Maybe it's just me.  Well on to the comics!

Pick of the Week:
X-Men #1 - Brian Wood has established himself as a force to be reckoned with.  From the success of the Massive (which is great) to his ability to appease finicky fans (ie, Star Wars fans), this is a creator that you can trust.  I had my doubts that this book, featuring an all female cast, would read like a gimmick.  I am pleased to report that this title breathes new life into a franchise that, in my opinion, has been spread a little thin in recent memory.  Jubilee returns to earth with a mysterious infant.  When the two are brought into custody, there are major concerns as there is no record of the infant. There is concern that this is some sort of trap that the X-Men have willingly allowed into their custody.  Fast paced, well written, and great potential.  Very nice debut issue.

The Rest:
The Wake #1 - When I saw that Scott Snyder and Sean Murphy were working on a title together I could hardly contain myself.  A creative duo like this working on a new project is reason to be excited.  While I wasn't completely hooked with issue one, the intrigue built in the world they have created will keep me on board.  Whatever creature is being secured underwater in this post apocalyptic future gives me the heebie geebies!

Chew #34 - This feels like classic Chew.  We are introduced to a series of characters with special food related skills, Savoy asserts himself again akin to the early arcs, and Tony Chu makes a bold move hell bent on revenge.  For a series that I was still enjoying, but without the same passion as the early issues, this one served as a springboard to bring me back in.

Morning Glories #27 - Nick Spencer and crew really know how to provide the most bang-for-buck in comics.  The bridge between season one and season two was only $1, and the first issue in season 2 is a double-sized issue that explains a lot, and creates more questions.  The tone is set that we will finally understand some of the secrets of Morning Glories Academy, but I find myself confused with the overlapping timelines, etc.  

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

We Rank 'Em: The Hannibal Lecter Movies

“It’s the best show on NBC.” This is how my buddy sold me on Hannibal. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Community is an unmitigated tragedy. Parks and Recreation is, for reasons I’m not exactly sure about, one of the most overhyped TV shows—following a close second to that utter piece of shit that is The Big Bang Theory. Plus, the cancelled Law & Order. (Fortunately, it's only 17 hours a day on basic cable.) But, with Justified’s season over and Breaking Bad months away, I figured I needed a good weekly crime show to watch. I’m an obsessive, though. It wasn’t enough that I caught up on the show in a week, I decided that I’d watch every Hannibal film. In fact, I had to watch them. Great idea? Probably not, but here are my rankings anyways.

5. Hannibal Rising
A truly terrible—and unnecessary—film. Whereas the rest of the Lecter films go big on suspense, Hannibal Rising is essentially a vengeance fantasy. Here’s the gist: Back in his native Lithuania, a young Hannibal and his family are caught up in the waning days of the WW2. A group of thugs who’d been working as Nazi irregulars hide from the Soviets—who had a penchant for hanging Nazis—and eat Hannibal’s little sister. So naturally, Hannibal will get his revenge—and eat faces in the process. Pretty much everyone involved in this film should be ashamed. Even Thomas Harris, Hannibal’s literary creator, who wrought the story. He at least wasn't thrilled about it, but a paycheck is a paycheck. The cast is made up primarily of Euros, thus bad accents and awkward delivery abounds. Gaspard Ulliel, playing the young Hannibal, doesn’t do much beyond smirking and trying to look evil. And at some point in the film Dominic West gives up speaking with a bad French accent. Paychecks.

4. Hannibal
This actually may be a worse film than Hannibal Rising simply because of the caliber of artists responsible for this boring mess of a film. Well, maybe not Ridley Scott, no stranger to making shitty films over the last few decades. Jodie Foster and Jonathan Demme were wise enough to pass on participating in the film. Julianne Moore tried, more or less, but Agent Starling doesn’t really have much to do in this film other than obsess over Lecter in a basement at FBI headquarters. Anthony Hopkins pretty much smirks, speaks eloquently, and little else. The first third of the film will fool you into thinking the movie might be good. The middle third bores, the last act infuriates. And then the final scene: Hannibal feeding some kid a bit of Ray Liota’s brain. I found the scene offensive, mainly because it was so dumb. (I'm more or less agnostic when it comes to eating Liota's brain.) Dumb—that pretty much describes the film. At least Hannibal Rising is fun to mock.

3. Red Dragon
I don’t remember this film coming out when it did, which was probably a result of the trauma Hannibal induced after I had spent good money to see it. So when Bret Ratner’s directorial credit appeared on the scene, I thought, “Dammit, this is going to suck.” (I still cannot forgive him for what he did to the Dark Phoenix Saga.) But Red Dragon was actually pretty good. The plot moves, Ralph Fiennes play the Tooth Fairy with considerable restraint and creepiness, Hopkins partially makes up for being in Hannibal, and Edward Norton is pretty much Edward Norton. (An aside: Why did we at one point think this guy was the next de Niro? Of course, we was great in Rounders.) The murders were kept fairly simple and therefore, unlike the the serial killers on Dexter, the carnage is anything but cartoonish. In fact, the Hannibal show would have been better served by sticking to such realist brutality—you know, the kind that actually disturbs us—than the overelaborate, overwrought, overthought killings that populate the show. 

2. Manhunter
Red Dragon is an objectively better film than Manhunter, but our #2 gets bonus points for being made in the eighties. And it feels eighties, but in a good way, like Prince or gratuitous nudity in teen comedies. The poster alone screams cocaine and Ronald Reagan. There’s a lot wrong with the film—William Petersen’s inconsistent performance and the very silly violent ending—but none of that bothered me as I watched the film. In fact, I was amazed that I was actually enjoying one of Michael Mann’s movies. Tom Noonan’s portrayal of killer Francis Dolarhyde may actually have been better than that of Ralph Fiennes. Noonan’s Tooth Fairy killer is awkward, quiet, sensitive, and very disturbing without doing all that much. The main drawback of the film is that Brian Cox, despite offering a Lecter almost as chilling as Anthony Hopkins’s, is not given much screen time. Still, a lot of fun.

1. The Silence of the Lambs

This is the Die Hard of the psychological thriller/serial killer film: Genre defining. One need only watch Manhunter and Red Dragon back-to-back to see the impact this movie had. And it’s still chilling as fuck. I don’t think I need to elaborate further.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

6 Tips for Nerducating Your Children

Several of us on the Nerds of a Feather team have young kids, and in our own ways we're each doing our best to make sure our little ones understand important things like comic books being just as valid as any other type of book, and that Han shot first.
We display it proudly on our fridge. The drawing is of
Chuck Solo, the Angry Bird.
As my kids are now demanding that I call them "Ahsoka" and "Han," I've been giving a lot of thought to their introductions into new corners of the nerdiverse. Here are some tips I've come up with:

6. Respect Your Kids' Limits
It's a wonderful gift to be able to share something that was meaningful to you as a kid with your own kid when the time comes. Knowing when the time has actually come, though, depends on a kid's personality. I've come to realize that things I saw at a very young age and was ok with don't necessarily translate. One of my kids is extremely empathetic and sensitive, so I've had to hold off on a couple of things until I felt he would be able to process them emotionally. The other one, though, loves fantastic adventure stories and can set aside with much greater ease some of the human costs the characters experience, as long as the story moves. Like toilet training, kids all get there eventually. It's pretty awesome when the bad guys' faces melt off in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but it'll be just as awesome six months or a year from now if they're not ready for it yet. That said...

5. Trust Your Kids
They'd been playing with my lights and sounds Back to the Future Delorean for a while, so it was inevitable that they'd ask to see the movie. I had some reservations - Doc getting mowed down by machine gun-toting terrorists and profanity, mostly - but decided to roll the dice. So I had The Talk about bad words before we started the movie, and helped them get through Doc getting shot, which was tough on them at first. But as the movie went on, I watched them fall in love with it just like I did when I was almost their exact age. It was fantastic. I feel like as long as the kids feel safe (which is my job), and that there are rules that make sense (the movie's job), they can get through new stuff that's a little challenging to them. Dan Harmon wrote a great piece about Monster House where he talked a little about this.

4. Respect Your Kids' Tastes (However Awful)
I've tried like four times and just can't get my kids interested in Pinky and the Brain, much to my dismay. One of my friends is quite disappointed her daughter's favorite Avenger is Captain America. She finds Cap too vanilla, and has tried without success to interest her daughter in Iron Man or at least Thor, for Pete's sake. But no. My kids are suddenly into the Star Wars prequels, whose existence I deny. But they are their own little people, and as with so many things in life, we must let them make some mistakes for themselves. We can only teach them and hope they make wise decisions. And it can work - my kids have rewarded my trust by creating their own chant every time Jar Jar comes onscreen: "WE DON'T LIKE YOU, JAR JAR BINKS!"

3. Understand Now That They Will Break Your Toys
A great money-saving tip for families is to just hand over all your old toys to your own kids. Do you know how much a Star Wars action figure costs at a Target in LA these days? Like $12! It is utter madness. When my son got into fighting bad guys in all their many forms, he became very interested in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and their array of weapons. I just so happened to have Leonardo, Michaelangelo, and Donatello from when I was a kid, complete with weapons, and gladly presented them to my boy, feeling the warm glow of the circle of life radiating all around us. Five minutes later, Donatello's bo staff, which had survived so many battles in the 1980s, was in two pieces. "Sorry, Daddy. His staff broke." I don't know why it broke - whether he did something to it that was a bad idea or whether 30-year-old plastic is just continually disintegrating - and you won't know, either. But it's going to happen. And that's cool. We have fought our fights with them, and we should be grown-up enough to make our peace with their possible demise. At least, that's what I keep telling myself.

2. Don't Forget About a Franchise's Back Catalogue
When my more-sensitive child got interested in Batman, I got worried. Or, since I'm a parent, maybe the more accurate phrase should be "I continued worrying, but now about something new." The thought of him watching Harvey Dent hold a gun to a little boy's head for what seems like 19 hours in The Dark Knight and the years of therapy bills I would immediately have to start paying as a result of exposing my young son to this scene and others in Christopher Nolan's trilogy gave me a momentary, silent panic-attack. But that's only because I was too focused on the present, when so many franchises are being reborn in some type of "gritty" iteration. There's also Batman the Animated Series, I remembered, and even the old Adam West/Burt Ward campfest I loved as a kid. We have now watched the 1966 movie more times than I can count, and I learned that 1) Caesar Romero actually had a mustache the whole time he played the Joker because he refused to shave it off, and 2) hearing little kids saying "Holy Polaris, Batman!" is awesome. Even though "gritty" is the new black, it wasn't always that way, and there are almost always ways to introduce our little scions to characters we love in ways that are age-appropriate, no matter how young. I mean, we actually have a picture book where The Incredible Hulk rescues a cat from a tree and joins the family for a picnic we read to the kids as infants! Which brings us to...

1. Remember What We're Really Doing Here
It's important to remember this is really all about one thing: love. We love something, it gets us excited and strikes sparks to those secret areas in our hearts that are lined with kindling, and we want to share that love with our kids, whom we also love. And whether it's comic books, movies, video games, or fantastic novels and stories, the common denominator is that it gives us an opportunity to spend time with our little ones, and that's the thing that's going to mean the most in the long run, to us and to them. It also reinforces that no matter how weird their tastes may eventually be, no matter how odd their visions and dreams, there will always be other voices with which they can commune, and those who will love them.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Unreal and the Real: Selected Stories of Ursula K. LeGuin, Vol. One: Where on Earth

The Meat

As a general rule, I'm not fond of anthologies. Why raid the refrigerator for a bunch of different random stuff, all mixed together and all of which you've tasted already? Isn't it more satisfying to find something you've never had before, or choose just one thing you know you like and eat until you drop? Plus, if I wanted to listen to the greatest hits of a band, I could just go back to their previously released CDs, where each of those songs has certainly appeared; the thought of shelling out money for a 'new' album that's a mere collection of bits and pieces of other albums (especially if I already own them!) doesn't appeal to me at all. Who, exactly, is the target audience for anthologies? Avid LeGuin fans will have read most or all of these stories before and might feel cheated, whereas neophytes probably won't understand how these particular stories function and fit into her larger oeuvre (which is Pretentious-talk for "body of work"). Who, then, is left who might be able to appreciate the much-maligned anthology?

Me! I'm what you might call a lapsed, moderately avid fan of LeGuin, or more specifically, of her novels; when I was younger, I had little interest in short stories as a medium, and none at all in short stories about the "real world": in other words, any stories not overtly devoted to escapist science fiction or fantasy themes were dead to me. So whenever I heard about or saw another story in LeGuin's fictional but (usually) all too drearily real Orsinia or the like, my eyes glazed over and I reached reflexively for one of her more straightforward science fiction novels instead.

You've probably guessed that I really liked this volume of short stories, so you may well expect me, at this point, to say something like "what a fool I was—I wish I'd been open-minded enough to appreciate those stories years ago", but in fact, I don't regret how things turned out. It's sort of like the first time I tried to read Ulysses, mostly just to prove I could; turns out that's not a very good motivation for reading something. I hated it, and stopped reading almost immediately in disgust. But a few years passed, and then suddenly it just felt right to read it...that's pretty much what happened now, with my belated discovery of LeGuin's less science-fictiony stories.

Sure, like all anthologies it suffers from some unevenness in story quality; LeGuin has a tendency to write in a fascinating style, a hybrid of minimalism and just slightly pretentious pithiness; when the story can support that kind of emotional payload, it's powerful stuff, and doesn't feel pretentious at all, but in some cases, the stories weren't quite engaging enough. For example (from Brothers and Sisters, one of my least favorite stories of the collection): "Her sorrow boasted of itself. She rose to the occasion like a lark to the morning. His silence and her outcry meant the same thing: the unendurable made welcome. The younger son stood listening. They bore him down with their grief as large as life. Unconscious, heedless, broken like a piece of chalk, that body, his brother, bore him down with the weight of the flesh, and he wanted to run away, to save himself." Taken out of (or even in!) context, this strikes me as a bit overwrought.

What's so remarkable about LeGuin, though, is that this same style, in some cases, has real emotional power: she had me in tears, several times, with some of her finer stories. Real tears, mind you, necessitating a Kleenex and everything—when's the last time a book actually managed to move you to tears? Moreover, even though none of the stories are overtly S/F in nature, LeGuin does include some fascinating starting premises for several, including a town that magically relocates within Oregon from time to time ("Ether, OR"), and a type of technology that creates a visualization of another's conscious thought, which in her telling is being used, behind the Iron Curtain at least, to crush opposition even on the level of thought ("The Diary of the Rose", probably my favorite story of the entire volume); both stories are excellent, especially the latter, with its heart-rending examination of the rapport building between a doomed patient and a doctor powerless to intervene.

Indeed, LeGuin shines brightest when she's describing human relationships, especially those within a family; she's not as convincing when she discusses big sweeping ideas in a more abstract way. Her treatment of Soviet-era Eastern Europe, and especially the glorious, idealistic tearing down of the Iron Curtain in "Unlocking the Air", feels too simplistic, almost binary in its oppositions of soldiers and poets, guns and words, evil and good. Yet even within that very story, she delivers some passages, concerning the mother-daughter relationship in particular, as fine as anything in her work.

Long ago I eagerly devoured the Earthsea trilogy and most of LeGuin's anthropological S/F stuff, and only now have I reached the point where I could appreciate this volume, a good sampling of the rest of her work, which is quieter, with few explosions and whatnot but, instead, a great deal of ordinary life, in the Virginia Woolf sense. As such, this volume probably won't appeal to everyone; a good test to see if you're 'ready for it' would be to try reading the fourth Earthsea novel, Tehanu (assuming you've read the Earthsea trilogy already). If you throw it down in disgust, I recommend waiting a few years before you pick up this volume of stories; if, however, you find yourself appreciating at least some aspects of Tehanu, then you won't be disappointed by what these stories have to offer.
The Ultimate Litmus Test for LeGuin: if you don't hate Tehanu, you'll probably like Where on Earth!

The Math

Baseline score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for managing to wring tears out of this jaded cynic

Penalties: -1 for overwrought language and simplistic good vs. evil depictions of Eastern Europe

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

[Don't think of this as a C- or something, because it's not; in fact, 7/10 is quite high for us. You can read about our scoring process here.]

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Xbox One Announcement

the next generation is here!

It's been eight years since the last generation of Microsoft's gaming console, the Xbox 360, was released. That's only one year longer than the length of time between the releases of the original Xbox and the 360, but it has seemed like an eternity. Microsoft is a few months behind Sony in announcing their new console, but both will be available for this year's Christmas season. Parents, start saving now! Although Microsoft hasn't released the actual cost yet, rumors are that the console will run from $400-$500 depending on the model. However, if you sign up for an Xbox Live online service subscription when you buy the box, the cost could be closer to $300.

the guts that make it go

Although rumors are that the PlayStation 4 will have a bit more power to its punch, the Xbox One is no slouch in the spec department. It will use an eight-core AMD Jaguar processor to chew through anything developers can throw at the console. The memory will be 8 gigabytes of DDR3 RAM. Supposedly the PS4 will use the newer GDDR5, but there are very few pieces of software that make full use of 4GB of CPU RAM today so the 8GB in the Xbox One should be more than enough to handle most anything that comes along until it's time for the "Xbox Two." 

Finally, the next-generation Xbox will come with a 500 gigabyte hard drive. This is the only area where I can see some potential issues arising. Microsoft is already making a push to sell their games over Xbox Live by downloading them directly to the hard drive. Rumors are that they will attempt to drive consumers even further in that direction. Currently it's only older games and Xbox Live Arcade titles that are downloadable, but the new console will likely offer new releases for immediate download. Some reports are saying that even if you buy a hard copy on disc, the console will automatically download the game to your hard drive the first time you put it in the disc drive. While it will take some doing to fill up 500GB, hardcore gamers will be able to do so. Microsoft's answer is cloud-based memory that may or may not be included in the cost of your Live subscription. 

You're Kinected, whether you like it or not

The Kinect will be bundled with all new console packages. This doesn't bother me too much as long as it doesn't raise the overall cost. I understand that Microsoft is trying to grab a piece of Nintendo's family gaming pie, but for hardcore gamers like myself, it doesn't offer many attractive options. If I want to play a game standing up, I'll go to one of my friend's houses and use their Wii. While I'm glad that my mom uses her Wii to play Dance Dance Revolution for her cardio workouts, I prefer to go to the gym for exercise, then come home and play Call of Duty on my butt. 

pre-owned games

Both Microsoft and Sony are looking for ways to remove a thorn that has been in their respective sides for some time. I'm talking, of course, about used games. Some games have already started to use codes to prevent players from sharing discs with their friends for free. Mass Effect 3 is one game that comes to mind. The disc came with a redeemable code that was necessary to access the online portions of the game. If you bought the game used from Gamestop or another pre-owned game outlet, you had to purchase a new code in order to access the online multiplayer portions of the game. 

In order to bypass this loss of income, Microsoft is rumored to make all of their games require some sort of code to play the title. You'll be able to take games over to friends' houses, but you'll have to download your Gamer Profile in order to play. If you want to loan a game to a friend, they will have to pay a fee. This requirement, coupled with the push toward downloaded games over discs, likely signals the death knell for traditional video game stores that make a significant amount of their income by re-selling used games. While I rarely buy used titles, I enjoy the option, especially with older titles that had questionable reviews. If I don't like the game, I can rationalize the expenditure due to its lower cost. There are also rumors that a fee will be required to play games you already purchased for previous consoles. While I can understand their desire to get their slice of the pie with regard to used games, this rumor, if true, is going too far. It's one thing to make people pay for games they borrowed from friends. It's quite another to make me pay for a game I already gave them sixty bucks to play. I'm NOT paying for the same game twice. I'll keep my 360 around rather than give in to this bit of technological extortion. 

the extras

The Xbox One will offer a bevy of new options that aren't available on the 360. First and foremost, it will finally catch up to the PlayStation by adding a Blu Ray player to its hardware. It will offer full 1080p HD resolution for both games and movies. The current Xbox 360 has the ability to play games at Blu Ray level resolution, but when it first came out it maxed out at 720p/1080i. If you were lucky enough to avoid the Red Ring of Death and you still have one of the early consoles, it can't take full advantage of that new 1080p HDTV you got last Christmas. 

As with Microsoft Windows, the Xbox One will allow you to run multiple apps at the same time as your game. They claim there will be no loss of performance while running multiple simultaneous software applications. Microsoft says that gamers will be able to jump between apps, games, and video instantaneously without having to quit one in order to start another. This option will be helpful in making the Xbox One into the all-inclusive entertainment center they're aiming to create. With its Dolby 7.1 surround sound, Microsoft hopes to replace your DVD/Blu Ray player, stereo, Netflix/Hulu streaming units, and any other gadgets you currently have in your entertainment center with the single Xbox One console. Gamers will also be able to use a new split-screen option to watch movies at the same time as they converse with their friends over apps like Skype and Facebook. With all of these built-in tech apps, I believe Microsoft will likely succeed in their goal of being the lone entertainment unit in many homes. 

final thoughts

While there has been plenty of controversy surrounding the new Xbox One, most of it comes from ancillary issues that the majority of Xbox users won't really notice when they upgrade from their 360. Personally, I'm really excited about the new console. Microsoft seems to have backed off from their early rumor leaks that the machine would require a full-time Internet connection, which was the main complaint many fans were making about the new console. However, an always-on connection will help maximize the console's capabilities. I'm interested to see where they end up with regard to many of these rumors.

I have a pretty powerful CPU tower that tears through anything I've thrown at it, and the specs of the Xbox One blow it out of the water. I can't wait to get my hands on the new console to see what it can do. Microsoft, if you're reading this, I'd love a free box so I can give an early review of your wonderful new toy! If not, I'll still be one of the first in line to pick up the new Xbox One. I've been ready for a next-gen console for a few years now. Although the Xbox 360 is still churning out some pretty good games, its capabilities have been mostly maxed out. It's time for a more powerful gaming machine, and we're almost there! The Christmas season and subsequent Xbox One release can't get here fast enough. 

Friday, May 24, 2013

INTERVIEW with Ian C. Esslemont

Today we welcome Ian C. Esslemont to Nerds of a Feather. We are the latest stop on Ian's blog tour to promote his recent book Blood and Bone (which we reviewed here). Today, Jemmy and The G were lucky enough to "sit down" with Ian to discuss Blood and Bone, the Malaz world and his overall process of collaborating with Steven Erikson. We particularly appreciate his musings on the use of violence in fantasy. Read on, and enjoy!       

NoaF: Your biography mentions that you studied archaeology. In what ways have your studies of archaeology impacted your novels and world building?

ICE: As Steve and I have talked about before, we hope that our background and training in archaeology and anthropology has ‘impacted’ our work significantly (by the way, I hate that word). Anyway, while we may have taken various liberties, for the most part, our thematic concerns in the World of Malaz are very much driven by issues out of anthropology, such as culture contact and its consequences, colonialism, the nature of religion, the shift from chithonic ‘paganism’ to other religious regimes, cultural and ethnic pogroms, loss of histories, etc.

NoaF: Malazan fans will love your depictions of Jacuruku--especially Himatan, the jungle guarded by Ardata. In fact, the natural environment (which often brings to mind Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness) plays a bigger and more direct role in Blood and Bone than in any other Malazan novel we have read. What inspired you to center the novel in a deep and dark jungle?

ICE: I hope that the readers do enjoy it. I can’t recall what suggested introducing a jungle. I just always saw Jacuruku that way. When I showed Steve chapter 1, he was surprised, but pleased. ‘Hey, a jungle,’ he said. ‘No one does jungles in fantasy.’ Of course there are pieces set in tropical environments, but what Steve was getting at was the tired cliché of fantasy novels /series being nothing more than iterations on northern European peoples, climes and environs. Or Mongolian steppes, or such. I can’t think of one sword and sorcery series, or epic fantasy series, that goes deep into the jungle. Though, Conan does tramp through a few. And I believe She is set too far north in Africa to occupy a tropical jungle. Thinking about it, I suppose it would have to be a combination of one of my favourite authors, Conrad, together with having lived for three years in Thailand. My wife and I did a lot of jungle trekking there, and in neighboring Cambodia, and Laos.

NoaF: One of the most powerful themes running through Blood and Bone is man’s desire to control nature, to make it “productive” and warp it to his own ends. Could you speak to how such broader questions informed your work?

ICE: This theme runs all through the Malaz novels. Each species, or culture attempts to put its own ‘face’ on its surroundings and we see this played out everywhere in Malaz. The struggles between the species or cultures is a struggle to control this broader narrative of existence. The struggle plays out over the entire rather extended history of that world. As it has over our own. While we, the beneficiaries and descendants of this ancient struggle, are – to our discredit – still unable to let it go.

NoaF: Those of us who have read a number of other Malazan books are already familiar with Warrens and Elder Holds. The Thaumaturg mages and Shaduwam, though, seem to practice a different type of magic. Could you elaborate on this type of magic for our readers?

ICE: The magic of the Thaumaturgs and Shaduwams are rooted in existing systems (or so I hope). I saw the Thaumaturgs as practicing a sort of warped Denul (the magics of healing – medicine, if you will). They have stretched and twisted it into a monstrous mirror-image of itself. A magic of bodily torture and deformation (where plastic surgery is going, I’d say). As for the Shaduwam, I gave them the traditional elder shamanistic practices of animism, meditation, philosophy and spiritualism. I don’t believe we see anything from them that can’t be attributed to such, or so I hope.

NoaF: In some ways, the Thaumaturg magus-leadership is as coldly cruel as the Pannion Domin (and the cruelest of regimes in the Malazan world). What inspired your vision of the Thaumaturgs? Is it based off any historical precedent, or is it the product of your imagination?

ICE: The Thaumaturgs are of course a magiocracy – rule of mages. This regime I see as no different from a theocracy – rule of priests. The treatment of their people I present as no different from that of their brother regime.

NoaF: You and Steven Erikson co-created the Malazan world. Could you walk us through the creative process of collaboration? Were there unique advantages and/or challenges to this approach?

ICE: It was chance, really. We met on an archaeology dig; we found that we both wanted to write; we found that we worked well together gaming; and we didn’t annoy the hell out of each other. It was a creative friendship that brought energy and laughter to our shared material. And it’s that enjoyment that really drives creative work, I think. You have to love what you’re doing, and we both love makin’ this stuff up. All the above are the advantages. The main challenge, I guess, would be trust; trust that the other person won’t mess things up; trust that the shared vision is in fact shared – and thus there won’t be any of that messing up. And, so far, there hasn’t been any of that from either of us.

NoaF: To what degree do you coordinate stories? Do you establish a continuum prior to writing or do each of you just riff off what the other guy does in his last book?

ICE: The stories were, for the most part, all coordinated in the main arc of his ten and my five or six. These were set out long ago in their essentials. However, since then, each has also been a sort of riff on what the other guy did last.

NoaF: The Malazan books are pretty dark and violent, and as I’m sure you’re aware, darkness and violence in fantasy has been the subject of some debate lately. We weighed in on this topic a few months ago with what was basically a middle position: all of the fantasy reviewers at this site like a lot of what could be considered dark or gritty fantasy, but get frustrated when it’s just dark for darkness’ sake. We want violence, when it’s presented, to tell us something that couldn’t be told another way, and I think the Malazan books are notable for not just presenting violence, but exploring the consequences and implications of that violence in meaningful ways. Could you speak a little to your approach to these topics?

ICE: That is reassuring to hear. Steve and I believe firmly that any violence must be accompanied by its consequences, the way effect follows cause. Darkness and violence for its own sake is shallow and immature. I hope that if the Malazan world conveys anything, it is that a violent world is a scary place, and not to be desired. If there is violence, then it is the violence of the Eddas, or the Elizabethan stage, with all its stabbings, beheadings, battles, duels, poisonings, regicide and fratricide. As well as all its exploration of justice, morality, and the depths of the human soul.

NoaF: The Malazan books are known for their diverse world building, rich cultures, myriad magic systems, and the ascendants (strange and powerful individuals who have transcended death and have reached near-godlike status, for series newbies). What races/cultures and character types in particular have you enjoyed writing about, and why? Are there any that you find particularly difficult to write?

ICE: I suppose I enjoy writing about the oddities the most. The one of a kind survivals or recluses. They are … unusual, odd characters. I find normalcy hard to write. One of the groups I most enjoy writing are the T’lan Imass. To me they are fantastic in every way. Tragic, but fantastic. I find the Jaghut difficult to write as I suspect I don’t quite have the grasp on them that Steve has. I also very much enjoy writing scenes with Malazan soldiery. I find that I allow myself permission to do all sorts of things with them that I wouldn’t dare in other scenes, or with other characters.

NoaF: One of the other things the Malazan books do really well is that they pose thought-provoking questions, and only answer some of them. Often times the reader is left in the dark. How do you strike a balance between too much and too little information? How do you know when enough is enough? And do you ever second guess yourself? 

ICE: I hope that so far I, and we, have struck this balance. I suppose it’s up to each reader; some have a higher tolerance for mystery and for actively digging things up, others less. So far, my instinct has been to hand the reader very little. Readers, I think, would agree, that they have to work harder to get into our series than they have to elsewhere. This isn’t just denying rewards, or withholding facts. Rather, we hope that when the reader has figured something out, or discovered something, they’ll feel that they’ve earned it. 

NoaF: Now that Blood and Bone is out, we are already looking forward to your next book, Assail. When can we expect it to come out? Are there any other projects you’d like our readers to know about

ICE: Well, I’m not certain when Assail will come out; that’s not up to me. Late this year, early next, I’d imagine. Once I hand it over, I’ll be free of the main arc Steve and I hammered out long ago. From there, I suppose I’d like to take a hand to some non-Malaz material. But I’m also not ruling out returning to the world to periods and regions as yet unexplored.

NoaF: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us!

ICE: Thank you for the opportunity to talk about all things Malaz, and thanks to the readers and fans.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

SDCC Most Wanted Exclusives

The nerd mecha that is San Diego Comic Con is less than 2 months away and the tension is growing.  The bloggers are busy scooping rumors, studios have begun to make some announcements, and I am prepared to spend four days waiting in line.  I love it! With the Matty Collectory Presale (June 4) around the corner, I thought I would take a look at my top 5 most wanted exclusives.  As a father of two who has established the norm that my kids can each choose one exclusive for me to bring home, I will talk about their selections first and then move to the top 5.

What my kids want:

Catwoman Barbie:

In not too shocking news, my three-year old daughter wants the Catwoman Barbie doll from Mattel.  I try to encourage them to select from Mattel because of the ability to preorder.  With a lack of Polly Pockets this year, it is none too surprising that she was swayed by the Barbie.  I think she made a good choice.

Rokkon and Stonedar:
Keeping with his love of Masters of the Universe, my five-year old son selected the two-pack of Rokkon and Stonedar.  These figures have removable panels for when you want them to either be an action figure or a rock and look great.  I think he also made a wise decision and I hope the presale treats me well.

Top 5:

1. Chew #35 variant - I am a huge fan of Chew from John Layman and Rob Guillory and they have delivered again. While Layman was originally hesitant to go with another homage to Tarantino, I am happy he trusted Guillory to deliver what is sure to be a sell out.  I just hope I can make it to the Image booth before this beauty sells out.

2. Star Wars Black: Boba Fett with Han Solo in carbonite - When you combine the wordsexclusive, Star Wars, Comic Con, and Boba Fett you have something that people will be interested in.  Given the high quality of packaging that Hasbro is known for and the amazing photos of what this toy looks like, it is high on my list.  The only problem facing me is that I don't have the patience to wait in the line to score this before it sells out.

3. Wrath of the Rancor - Hallmark has well established itself as a mainstay at SDCC.  The line for its exclusive ornaments wraps around the side of the floor beginning on preview night and the booth is buzzing throughout the convention.  If I am fortunate enough to make it through the line before this is sold out, then the Wrath of the Rancor will be mine.  I am always a fan of Star Wars ornaments, and if you add in the quality that Hallmark produces with the exclusiveness that nerds love, you have a winner.

4. Jason from the NES "Friday the 13th" game from NECA - I love the retro feel and creativity that NECA took in this figure with very distinct coloring.  A fan of both the movie and the game, this would be a great toy to add to any collection.

5. Hot Wheels® A-Team Custom GMC Panel Van - The fans at Comic Con go crazy for the exclusive Hot Wheels® and this one warrants enough nostalgia to catch my attention.  The notion of playing A-Team with my son is something that I haven't quite wrapped my head around.  I think I will try to pick this one up.

Thursday Morning Superhero

Talk about an incredible week of comics.  I don't even know where to begin.  The first thing I will tell you is to go to ComiXology and take advantage of their Fatale sale.  You can get back issues for as low as 99 cents and collections for $4.99.  Time for me to get caught up with this stellar series.  On top of the second Cow Boy book has a release date of September!  If you are curious why that is important read this.  If you have been reading up on my blog I don't hide the fact that I love Daredevil, Sixth Gun, and Mind MGMT.  All three dropped new issues this week and all were absolutely incredible.  It was very difficult to rank one as my pick of the week but here goes nothing.

Pick of the Week:
Drake Sinclair!!!
Mind MGMT #11 - Things are about to get serious as Henry Lyme and his crew bring their attack to Shangri-La.  Meru is really the star of this issue and it served the series well.  She is able to convince Duncan to join the mission and really grows from a journalist trying to write another book to a character with a past that may come to haunt Lyme and company.  I have a few theories as to who she really is, but Matt Kindt has a way to steer you, almost at his will, in whatever direction he chooses.  With impending doom and the maturity of Meru, this issue is amazing.  My favorite moment in the book was the reveal that Drake Sinclair, from the Sixth Gun, was actually a rouge Mind MGMT agent!  It seems that Kindt and Cullen Bunn have crossed paths again (go buy The Tooth).  Mind blown.

The Rest:
Sixth Gun #31 - We were left with Becky Moncrief trapped in a spirit world, her spirit guide shot and killed, being pursued by enemies.  In this issue, when all hope appeared to be lost, she is saved by a mysterious individual who is wielding the second gun in axe format.  If you have been reading the series you will recall that the six have taken various shapes over time.  In the issues to come, it appears, we are going to learn a lot about the origin of the six guns.  I think my favorite moment in this issue was when Drake, despite being in charge of Becky's safety, left her with the tribe to avoid the temptation to gain control over the sixth gun and be one step close to, according to this week's Mind MGMT, destroy the world.  Mind blown again.

Daredevil #26 - We finally learn who has been hatching all of these plots to mess with Matt Murdock.  He was left beaten within an inch of life in the last issue and given how much he has put up with, it is not surprising that he finally snaps.  Watching Murdock unhinge at the end of this issue put this issue over the top.  The raw emotion pouring out of him as eluded his assassin to confront who had been behind everything is palpable is one of the reasons why Mark Waid is writing on a whole other level.  Mind blown yet again.

The Bounce #1 - At the urging of a staff pick from my LCS I picked up this title and was happy to have done so.  The Bounce features a slacker hero who exists in a world that is just now experiencing the evolution of costumed villains and heros. While not an entirely original idea, it feels fresh given the writing and the main character.  His special ability is that he can roll up into a ball and bounce around.  Great writing, strong art to support it, and a new world to explore.  Mind not blown, but intrigued.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Microreview [book]: Blood and Bone by Ian C. Esslemont

Ian C. Esslemont, Blood and Bone [Tor, 2013]

The Meat

The problem with authors engaging in collaborative endeavors is that fans cannot help but compare the authors against each other. Such is the case with the Malazan world. Although co-created by authors Steven Erikson and Ian C. Esslemont, Erikson is widely seen as the face of the Malazan world. This has much to do with timing. Both authors are working on aspects of the same overall story, but Erikson started and finished first, leaving Esslemont to fill in the details. For better or for worse, Esslemont has been stuck as the second fiddle, the Robin to Erikson's Batman. 

To be completely honest, I am one of the fans who sees Erikson as the face of Malaz. I tore through all of the Malazan Book of the Fallen a few years ago, finishing the series in the span of perhaps a month and a half. Having finished the series, I could never motivate myself to read Esslemont's contributions. After all, I know what happens to the Crippled God, most of my favorite Ascendants, the Bridgeburners and Bonehunters, and witnessed the end of the vast conflict that cleaved apart the Malazan world. Why spend more time in a story I already completed? Don't we keep reading to figure out what happens next? It was thus with some apprehension that I requested for review Bone and Blood, Esslemont's fifth book and newest contribution to the overall storyline. In retrospect, I am glad that I did.

Blood and Bone does a fantastic job in capturing the overall spirit and feel of the Malazan world. The world is dark, gritty, powerful, and the site of extended power struggles among ascendants, gods, mages, warriors, and empires. Like all the novel's in Erikson's series, this book is set up as a power convergence. "Power draws power," after all, and this sets the stage for climactic scenes that test the limits of the human imagination.

In Blood and Bone, which takes place roughly simultaneously with Erikson's The Crippled God, this power struggle takes place largely on the island of Jacuruku, the site of Kallor's ancient empire and the location of the ceremony that called down the Crippled God (or the Shattered God). Various groups are working their way through the island. But the plot is so complex that it would require too much space to do it justice (and truth be told, even after reading the book I am not completely sure what happened). Suffice it to say that there are a few main stories taking place simultaneously. The Crimson Guard is moving toward a final confrontation between the Avowed and the Disavowed. A Thaumaturg army, led by a great mage, is waging a war on Himatan, a living jungle guarded by the ancient deity Ardata (who some call the Queen of the Witches). A Malazan force and a young girl with mysterious powers, Saeng, are also working their way through the Himatan. And further to the south, a foreign Warlord has united the desert tribes and convinced them to wage war on their Thaumaterg enemies.

Esslemont does a fantastic job of world building, some of the best I have seen in quite some time. He brings to life the threatening yet wonderful jungle of Himatan. And compared with most of Erikson's books, where the setting is secondary to the overall plot, in Blood and Bone Esslemont makes the setting (the jungle of Himatan) central to the overall story. In this sense, Blood and Bone far exceeded my expectations. Himatan is hot, humid, strange, and menacing in ways that draw every character into its dangerous embrace. The jungle's native populations can either be inviting and peaceful or dangerous and cruel. And the travels of various characters through the jungle's depths at times reminds of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, with all its implications of an impending conflict between civilization and savagery.

Blood and Bone is intelligent in its treatment of historical and real world issues. I was struck in particular by the "rational" Thaumatergs' desire to colonize and "civilize" the savage jungle in order to put it to "productive" use. Partly, this can be read as man's struggle for ascendancy over the natural world. But in his execution, Esslemont may also be hinting, in a nuanced way, at the ideological underpinnings of colonialism and imperialism: that the colonizer actually believes in his power and progressive mission to uplift the colonized. Equally powerful was Esslemont's foray into the ethics and cruelty of pure, unadulterated rationalism and empiricism (when taken to extremes).  

But in all honesty, Blood and Bone is at times confusing. Esslemont weaves a few too many character threads into the overall tapestry, and does not have sufficient time to develop many of them fully. Further, he has a maddening tendency to play coy with his readers. He poses many more questions than  he answers, and many times leaves readers in the dark about what actually happened. In fact, I felt much more in the dark after reading Blood and Bone than I did after reading any of Steven Erikson's books (outside of, perhaps, Gardens of the Moon, the most uninspired book of Erikson's series). Because of this, the Osserc and Celeste story lines in particular disappoint, and leave the reader wondering why they were included and whether they contributed to the volume in any noticeable way.

Further, Esslemont's attempts at humor often fall flat. Esslemont simply lacks Erikson's flair for comic relief. The relationship between Golan and Chief Scribe Thorn (and Murk and Sour) did in fact make me smile at times, but Esslemont just cannot pull off the sarcastic, sharp-witted hilarity that Erikson keeps in his arsenal. Expect no Tehol Beddict and Bugg, nor an Iskaral Pust on his cantankerous mule. The humor in Blood and Bone just feels too forced. 

This does not take away from Blood and Bone's achievements. Blood and Bone does not disappoint; it is a great addition to the Malazan world. Esslemont weaves a detailed and complex tapestry, one that fans will have a fun time unraveling. He creates a lush background and overall world that perhaps surpasses that of any other book in the Malazan world (at least the ones that I have read). He fleshes out the broader timeline and the story of the Crippled God. And, lest I forget to mention, the book is a real page-turner.

But at the same time, this book strikes me as a cautionary tale on collaboration among authors. Esslemont's series would have been much more effective had its releases been timed alongside Erikson's (the ones that take place roughly at the same time). No doubt, that was the original intention. But the fact that readers have to wait years to catch up in a story that is already complete diminishes the impact of Esslemont's (albeit very good) contributions (granted, it does give him an immediate and powerful market...). In the end, Blood and Bone is an enjoyable read, great for committed fans of Malazan Book of the Fallen. But owing to this issue of timing, in particular, I wonder whether it has the power to attract a broader readership outside the most committed of Erikson's fans.  

I look forward to Esslemont taking his considerable talents and embarking on a completely new story. But I guess I will have to wait until after he finishes Assail...

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for Himatan; +1 for more of Gothos's awesomeness.

Penalties: -1 for leaving the reader with many more questions than answers; -1 for too many story lines and a convoluted plot.

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

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

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Streaming Sci-Fi Summer Camp

If there's one thing unemployment is good for, it's catching up on TV. Suffice to say that I've had the opportunity to enjoy a fair amount of sci-fi programming in the last few weeks. To make it through the thunder and lightning of evening storms, I've already begun revisiting some classics I love and some classics I always meant to love but never got around to -- and it's been AWESOME. I am leveling up in nerd-dom after the epic Doctor Who marathons I've gobbled down. Here are my suggestions to stave off the swass:

I've heard the phrase "You never forget your first Doctor" -- and now that I'm working backwards past the fantastic Matt Smith, I know it's true. Tennant is good, but Eccleston is a bit of a let down (though I've loved him in other things -- he's the general in 28 Days Later, remember?).

Doctor Who is a must if you like shows that are funny, smart, dumb, self-aware, fanservicing, and sometimes really quite moving. If you're new to Who, start with Series/Season 5 of the reboot with Matt Smith as The Doctor. The first two seasons of the Eleventh Doctor are on Netflix, and the third that just wrapped up is available streaming on Amazon and iTunes. For the ultra-anal, this guide is your bible.

In fifth grade, I bought a TNG lunchbox at a thrift store after discovering afterschool back-to-back TNG/DS9 in syndication. It's like coming home. Jean-Luc Picard, Riker, Data, Troi, Geordi, Worf, Crusher... and Wil Wheaton as Ensign Wesley Crusher. (I know this might be sacrilegious here in these hallowed internet halls of geekery, but am I the only person who wants to punch him in the face sometimes?)

TNG is on Netflix and streaming on Amazon. Yes, sometimes it's really really cheezy, but it can also be thrilling and funny. I now present: Riker Sitting Down --

Why, Riker, why??

Ok, this isn't sci-fi, but it's damn fine TV for geeks. Bilbo and the bad guy from Star Trek Into Darkness finally hit the nail on its homoerotic head and blow pretty much every other Sherlock Holmes adaptation out of the water. (I feel like Tobias Bluth... "There's gotta be a better way to say that.") The fanfiction for this show must be insane.

Watson's patience and awe of Sherlock's Asperger-fueled genius fluctuates with his entirely understandable frustration. But really this is the Benedict Cumberbatch show, which is all anybody really wants it to be. The Series 2 ending made me cry and scream... my dog had no idea what was going on. But don't worry, SPOILERS, SWEETIE.

But the real answer to the question "How can I avoid going outside?" is so obvious. May 26 -- all your dreams come true: Arrested Development, Season 4, 15 episodes streaming on Netflix. Really, it's a good thing I'm unemployed or I'd have to take the day off of work.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Microreview [book]: The Tyrant's Law by Daniel Abraham

Abraham, Daniel. The Tyrant's Law [Orbit, 2013]

The Meat

I've been on a bit of a roll with fantasy lately, going from strength to strength with Douglas Hulick's excellent Among Thieves and Elizabeth Bear's mesmerizing Range of Ghosts (review forthcoming). So I guess a little part of me expected to be disappointed by The Tyrant's Law [Orbit, 2013], book three in Daniel Abraham's epic fantasy series The Dagger & the Coin. After all, though I loved The Dragon's Path, I felt the wheels came off a bit in The King's Blood, and it wasn't clear to me whether Abraham would get the thing back on track. Fans of the series will be happy to note that The Tyrant's Law is easily the best installment in the series, and marks Abraham as an unusually daring and thought-provoking fantasy author.

(WARNING: mild spoilers follow.)

In the aftermath of Antea's victory over Asterilhold and the crushing of Dawson Kalliam's rebellion, the world has suddenly become a much creepier place. Basrahip, High Priest and advisor to Palliako, claims that Kalliam only rebelled at the behest of the chitinous-skinned Timzinae, one of the twelve additional races of humanity created by the dragons who once ruled the world, and the alleged "loyal servants of the dragons." Their supposed purpose? To stop the re-emergence of the Goddess, who the priests claim was thwarted into hiding by the "evil" dragons.

Geder Palliako's armies, aided by the priests of the Spider Goddess, have therefore set their sights on Sarakal and Ellesai, where the Timzinae predominate. Unfortunately, the race war that ensues doesn't go the Timzinae's way. Oh, and Cithrin--the young Magistra for the Medean Bank who once saved Palliako's life but then kinda freaked and hightailed it out of town when he executed someone right in front of her? She's been sent to apprentice at a bank chapter run out of a city in Antea's crosshairs. Uh-oh. And there's no Marcus Wester to keep her safe either--after all, he's gone off with ex-priest/actor Master Kit to find something to kill a big spider with.

There are two ways to read The Tyrant's Law. One is as a middle chapter in an epic adventure told through multiple character perspectives, a la George R. R. Martin. In this sense, the book largely succeeds. The characters are brilliant, the story well-paced and the writing is crisp and engaging. Cithrun, Marcus, Yardem and Kit are as likable as ever, and I'm also happy to say that the Clara chapters (which had an annoying Cataelyn Stark-goes-Downton Abbey feel to them in The King's Blood) are hugely improved. She has a more complex subjectivity now, and Abraham takes her story arc to interesting places.

That said, some of the problems endure. The world, for one, still feels a bit threadbare--characters travel across wide, featureless expanses as if by express rail or teleportation. And the thirteen races of humanity remain an interesting but underdeveloped idea (though The Tyrant's Law does more to rectify this than either previous installments in the series). Of greater concern were the occasions where I couldn't really figure out what motivated the characters (Cithrin especially) to make certain pivotal decisions. And I found myself wondering (again) if these moments are sacrifices of Abraham's prolific pace of writing. After all, managing two single-authored and one co-authored series that are being published concurrently, and yearly, is a tall order for any human being. While it's a testament to Abraham's skill as a writer that this series is as good as it is, I think it's fair to say that he might be spreading himself a bit thin.

Big Ideas

There is, of course, another way to read The Tyrant's Law--as a novel of ideas. The genre doesn't exactly produce a lot of these, but it does happen--see, for example, my reviews of Sapkowski's excellent Witcher books. As the title implies, The Tyrant's Law is a meditation on tyranny. This in and of itself isn't all that unique--gritty fantasy is already full of stand-ins for sadists like Vlad Tepes and bloodthirsty conquerors like Timur the Great. But the nature of that tyranny, and the horrors that stem from it, feel distinctly modern in this case.

Antea, after all, seeks not only to conquer the world, but to "cleanse" and remake it. And when I say "cleanse," I mean "of all those whose blood is supposedly tainted by association with the dragons" (there's an irony there, which will be evident to anyone who reads the book). That association is conceived as both collective and as an immutable consequence of birth, rather than belief, while the mission, so to speak, is to completely and utterly remove that taint in systematized fashion. This is a thoroughly modern way of thinking, and stands in stark contrast to the unsystematized, "sack-and-slaughter" violence of pre-modernity. Even the language used by the cultists to sow the seeds of distrust and enmity towards the Timzinae are familiar to students of the 20th century--"roaches" was in fact a term used by Hutu Power to dehumanize Tutsis, while accusations of collective guilt for phantom "conspiracies" were central to the experience of Jews under Hitler and Kulaks under Stalin.

The victimization of the Timzinae takes place in stages, much as Hitler's victimization of Jews began with harassment, moved on to a curtailment of rights, proceeded to ghettoization and devolved into mass slaughter. We watch, powerless, as these discourses spread across the population, infecting otherwise good people until there are very few left who do not accept them as truth.

It's true that genocide is the ultimate grimdark endgame, and those who weary of all the grim darkness may balk at reading about this kind of thing. But let me say this: Abraham takes us down this path to hell with a minimum of gore. There are no extensive flaying scenes, no graphic rapes or highly detailed descriptions of organ matter being removed from the body. The restrained approach is refreshing, and still highly effective at inducing a sense of dread.

One thing did trouble me, though. Palliako has to this point been presented as a fairly likable and relatable guy, an affable, bookish sort who gets bullied around a bit and probably reminds you of a bookish sort you know, if not yourself. We're clearly supposed to like him and sympathize with him, yet be simultaneously repulsed by what he ends up doing. I see two purposes to this approach: to suggest that "pure evil" is a fiction and to argue that we create our own monsters from decent folk.

Abraham explores this territory deftly, but I can't help but find it problematic in some respects as well. Even if we just stick to the psychological side of things (and ignore sociological, historical or economic factors), tyrants of this sort tend to come in two varieties: extreme zealots (e.g. Hitler) and paranoid sociopaths (e.g. Stalin). Geder is neither. He isn't even a sadist, the kind of who enjoys the personalized violence of rape or torture. So what, exactly, is motivating him? Abraham gives some answers (which I won't spoil for you), but I found them unsatisfying--reinforcing the general criticism of character motivation.

One Last Thing...

Leaving heavy topics like racial stigmatization and the nature of tyranny aside for the moment, I should mention that there's a scene at the end of the book that potentially changes everything. Or, at least, I think it changes everything. It's the kind of ambiguous cliffhanger you might find on a show like Twin Peaks or Lost. If I'm right about what it means (and I'm increasingly convinced that I am), then Abraham has done something extremely clever starting way back in The Dragon's Path, and done so with enough subtlety that it would be very difficult to pick up on until now. I'm chomping at the bit to see if I'm right.

The ending is, in a way, emblematic of what makes this series so good, and so addictive. Sure it has its problems, and some are fairly serious, but The Tyrant's Law has considerably more strengths than weaknesses, and gets bonus points for having something legitimate to say about human nature. That marks The Tyrant's Law as an unusually smart installment in an unusually likable fantasy series.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for doing more than just telling a good story; +1 for OMG the ending!

Penalties: -1 for character motivation issues; -1 for the persistent lack of geography.

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

Read about our scoring system, in which a sufficiently random sample of books would normally distribute in a bell curve around a mean of 5, here.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

First Impressions: XCOM Enemy Unknown

wandering the desert

For gamers, the current months are something akin to Moses and the Israelites after their liberation from Egypt. It's slim pickings out there. Other than the fourth Borderlands add-on downloadable content in June, there's not much coming down the pike until Grand Theft Auto V in September. It's usually the time of year most of us either pull out the best games of the last year for another playthrough, or go find something to do outside. 

Much like the Hebrews, I was wandering the desert (also known as Best Buy) last weekend  looking for manna from heaven. Then I saw XCOM. My cousin had loaned me the game several weeks ago with a highly positive recommendation, but it's been a while since I played a real-time strategy and tactics type game. I'm used to squad games that use a turn-based combat system, but most of the ones I've played are Japanese. Ever since he gave me the disc, it had just been sitting on my shelf. I hadn't heard of it and the back cover copy didn't really grab me. However, I already had it so I thought I'd do some research to see if it was any good. To my shock and excitement, the only game this year with a higher rating on was Bioshock Infinite. XCOM was rated a 90 while Bioshock got a 93. XCOM came out last October, but it was clearly the best option I had for playing a quality game right now. 

It was that or play the new Star Trek game, and it's getting absolutely demolished by critics. So far, I have to say I made the right choice. 

the big picture

The Earth is under alien attack. A truly original concept in gaming, I know, but the approach to the traditional theme is different than any I've seen. The game is a re-make of a 1994 Amiga game that was later converted to the original Playstation. I missed the first one, but this version is awfully fun. You are in charge of XCOM, the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit. They are responsible for the protection of Earth from an increasing number of alien abductions and direct attacks. As you can see above, all the continents and many of the largest countries on the planet are counting on you. Fail to adequately protect them and they will leave your fragile alliance, preferring to be responsible for their own defense.

In order to learn about alien attacks, you must scan the planet looking for activity. You begin the game with one satellite. As you progress, you build and deploy more satellites over different countries. They are used to catch incoming alien ships before they get to the planet's surface. If an incoming ship is identified, you can scramble Interceptors to take them down. If you are able to destroy the alien warship, you then send your squad of soldiers to the crash site to wipe out any survivors and recover alien technology that survived the impact.

strategy and tactics

A large part of the game involves your team of researchers and scientists. The researchers take alien technology your squad recovered from alien abduction attempts or crashed UFOs and use it to upgrade your own weaponry and technology. The picture above is the XCOM headquarters, also know as the Ant Farm. It contains your Engineering and Research divisions, as well as a barracks for your troops, the Situation Room that tracks worldwide panic levels, a hangar to house satellite-protecting Interceptors, and Mission Control from which you launch attacks on enemy incursions.

You can expand your "Ant Farm" by building new facilities such as Power Plants, Thermo Generators, Foundries, and Satellite Uplinks. You must have satellite uplinks to control and monitor the various satellites you've put into orbit. The foundry allows you to develop upgrades for your existing weapons, armor, and vehicles. Power plants and thermo generators merely improve the speed and skill with which you create new items and facilities. The depth and detail involved in simply learning all the aspects of this game was astounding. It made the upgrade system in other RPGs like Skyrim look simplistic in comparison. I'm some 15+ hours in and I still feel I've only scratched the surface. While I have a general understanding of the game at this point, I still feel there's a lot more to discover before I've finished it all.

squad combat

Before leaving on any combat missions, you must outfit your squad. You begin the game with four members, but can expand it to six as you gain experience and cash by completing early missions. The soldiers come in several types including Assault, Support, Heavy, and Sniper. Each one has upgradable skills that are added to their arsenal of moves as they are promoted up the chain of command. Snipers gain a headshot. Heavies can fire a rocket launcher. Assault troops gain the ability to fire after moving or get off two shots per turn instead of the normal one. Support can use multiple medpacks to heal other squad members during battle. 

The combat in XCOM is turn-based, which is unusual in Western games, in my experience. I've played several turn-based games this generation including Lost Odyssey, Star Ocean, and Tales of Vesparia, but they were all Japanese. This is the first American game of its type that I've experienced. XCOM was made by Firaxis, the company headed by Sid Meier, the famous creator of the Civilization series. For the uninitiated, turn-based combat is kind of like playing a board game or Dungeons & Dragons. Each character, including the enemies, gets one turn to make a move. After that, the game moves on to the next character and allows them to make a single move. 

While some Call of Duty fans might find this style of combat slow and tedious, it adds considerably to the strategic aspect of the gaming mechanic. You must use competent squad-based tactics if you want to keep all of your soldiers alive throughout the mission. The quickest way to kill off a character is to send them charging off by themselves, Rambo-style. I learned the hard way that lone soldiers are quickly ganged up on and wiped out by groups of enemies beyond their ability to withstand. 

the breakdown

Although this is considerably different than any of my recent gaming experiences, I've been enjoying it immensely. I wish I'd had time to finish the game this week, but it requires 30+ hours of gameplay to complete and I simply didn't have the time to finish it in five days. That said, if I had to rate this game today I would give it an 8 or a 9. Although the game has tons of moving parts and keeping track of them all seems daunting at first, once you've grasped the various responsibilities you have as the leader of XCOM, the smoothness with which they work in tandem is nothing short of amazing. 

If, like me, you're looking for a quality game during this down-time in big name releases, give XCOM a look. It isn't for everybody. If you're a fan of the Call of Duty series or other shooters like Halo, this one may not be for you as the action isn't as fast-paced or intense as those blockbusters. On the other hand, if you enjoy a game with depth that requires thought and planning in order to succeed, XCOM is right up your alley. It is very similar to Sid Meier's Civilization series, but set in a completely different universe. If you are a fan of his previous games, I believe you will enjoy this title just as much if not more. Good luck and happy gaming!