Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Micro review PART 1 [book]: The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of The Year, Vol 8 , edited by Jonathan Strahan

The Best Science Fiction & Fantasy of The Year, Volume Eight , Strahan, Jonathan (ed), (Solaris, 2014)
Published 8th May (UK), 13th May (USA)

This not only is the longest title we've reviewed in a long while, it's also one of the longest reads, and so rather than do what, frankly, often is necessary with anthologies - namely, to skim through a lot of the less-compelling stories - I'm going to review this in a few parts over the coming weeks, around its release. Why such reverance? Well, for one thing Jonathan Strahan, a Perth native who has very successfully been editing these collections since volume one, has won praise for revitalising the idea of the annual anthology, which to my eyes at least was often a backyard for less interesting tales. For another, just look at that cover! Also, I have always loved short stories. As a child, they introduced me to new genres and helped me write my own. As a student, they helped me do essays (papers), because they were much quicker to read the night before a deadline. And as an adult-in-training, they allow me to read between work and travel without getting stuck on a longer work for months at a time. More seriously, short fiction can have a power that a novel rarely attains - it can sweep you away to a new world in a few paragraphs, understand a character in a few sentences, and blow your mind in a few pages.

Jonathan Strahan's introduction is fascinating in itself, charting the 65-year history of the science fiction and fantasy anthology, and how they came after decades of such stories only seeing life in brilliantly-named pulp magazines like Amazing Stories, Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories. As the latest editor of these compendiums (what he calls 'annual reports from one reader to the SF world'), he talks about how he has always aimed to balance the forces of his predecessors' battle between genre-loyalty and wandering originality. He says, 'I have restricted this book to stories that I believe are definitely SF or fantasy in some way'.

Despite this intention, and the space image on the cover, my sci-fi yearnings were initially confused. Strahan begins with Joe Abercrombie's Some Desperado, which was, unless I'm missing something, a straight-up Western genre-piece. No fantasy, no sci-fi. Containing some wonderful phrasing ("she sprinkled silver as if she was tossing seed on her mother's farm, miles and years and a dozen violent deaths away") and engrossing action, as a young female outlaw attempts to evade her pursuers in a ghost town, it nevertheless left me a little back-footed in terms of my narrow expectations, and wasn't original or complex enough to transcend those. I'll admit I kept waiting for her to turn out to be a robot; my brain is a little broken like that. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and would love to read more from fellow-Brit Abercrombie.

The second tale continued this trend of confusion, albeit in a very different style. Zero For Conduct by Greg Egan takes us to modern Iran and Afghanistan as we follow teenage genius Latifa, who has created a new chemical compound in her Mashad school lab that she hopes will save her family from poverty and the dangers of life back in her home town of Kandahar. The complex science is the only element of 'sci-fi' in this story, although, as her mysterious substance takes form, I was expecting more fantastical consequences. Yet, shorn of the sight of the cover by the nature of an ebook, I was taken away by Egan's deceptively simple-seeming prose into Latifa's life and found myself entirely absorbed as she and her sceptical grandfather worked to carry out their plan. Whlst I have been to Iran and so perhaps am more affectionate to stories set there, this is undoubtably a beautiful short story, with a quiet heart and determination, and a confidentally-gentle ending .

Louisiana native Yoon Ha Lee's story, Effigy Nights, slammed the issue of genre back down on the table immediately, however, with her second sentence : 'The city lies at the galaxy's dust-stranded edge..' Excellent! And on she goes : 'fire-winged starships... statues of shape-shifting tigers... crystals extracted from the nervous systems of philosopher-beasts'. Whoopee! This is the promise of the cover, finally delivered! I felt, though, a nervousness; after two wrong-footing pieces that turned out to be, bluntly, great stories regardless of genre, would this space fiction be a deflatingly familiar tred through old ideas? Thankfully, no. Lee has woven a beautiful, macabre world here - a city state invaded by grand military forces, defending itself by cutting trapped creatures from their extensive library of stories.  Cursed surgeon Seran shows the library warden how to release these monsters from the tales in the books and soon the city is filled with inventively destructive fighting. In a story concerned with the power of writing, Lee plays with words like a cat with a mouse, flipping them around and forcing them together in her terse sentences - ' you could see people hung up as corpse-lanterns, burning with plague-colored light'. The tale, with elements of both Eco and Banks, ends sadly but horrifically and leaves a strong impression.

A modern master of writing is next, and if Lee's wordplay beguiled, his strains and perplexes, but charms nonetheless. Geoff Ryman offers up Rosary and Goldenstar, a wandering tale that skitters from character to character over the course of an Elizabethan evening by the Thames, before punching home with a superb final line. Three Danes arrive at the home of Squire Diggs who already is hosting Dr John Dee and a young Guillermus Shakespeare. Given that two of the guests turn out to be Rosencrantz and Gyldenstiern (the title is the English translation they are given), we are clearly in a world of alternative history. Shakespeare talks of meeting Galileo in Rome, and ends up being conscripted into an anti-Papist spy ring by Dee. For the most part this is a comedy of errors (ref intended) as the English and Danish attempt to communicate and deal with the inept servant, before it goes physically up to the roof and mentally up to the heavens. The sci in this fi is the 'exploding world' of astromonomy and the dawning comprehension of the stars, and the most, for me, wonderful moment comes as Shakey and the servant girl share daydreams of sailing into the stars and colonising Mars. As a writing lecturer at my old university (thankfully for him, not when I was there), Ryman clealry delights in playing with ideas of who these figures were, and the awkward bi-sexual actor-poet is a delightful creation of his. The hint of fantasy and detail of the science of the time ground this literary fancy in the realms of the collection's criteria, but like all the tales here, is its own beast. I think Strahan is being cheeky with his own rules... More evidence in Part Two nest week, as we grapple with Gaiman and parry with Parks....

Scores to come in the final part, but so far a resounding 9.
Written by English Scribbler, a short short story reader (sic) and Nerds contributor since 2013

Monday, April 28, 2014

Best Sci-Fi TV of All Time Tournament - Results!

Ladies and gentlemen, here we are. You have voted by the thousands, and the results are in.

You have selected...bum-ba-ba-bum!...Firefly as the Greatest Sci-Fi TV Show of All Time!

I must confess, I'm confused. I really, really like Firefly. I may even love Firefly, and I will admit the Comic Con Firefly Reunion panel made me a little misty-eyed. but it ran for 14 frickin' episodes and a movie. I guess it really is how you use it...

So congratulations to Firefly and all you Browncoats out there who drummed up a tremendous response to every round of the voting (and managed to squeak Doctor Who). And let me say to Star Trek: The Next Generation that there's no shame in coming in second out of a strong 32-show field, especially when you totally flattened every other show you faced (including my pick, The Twilight Zone). So to you I will simply quote one of our site commenters, and say in closing "Shaka, when the walls fell."


Microreview [book]: House of the Rising Sun, by Kristen Painter

Painter, Kristen. House of the Rising Sun. Orbit: May 13, 2014.

Breaking News: Fauxmance Strikes Again!

The Meat

I have a hate affair with urban fantasy. The mixing of various otherworldly creatures and a seedy cityscape just seems like a losing combination to me, and there have been precious few books (or movies, come to think of it) that have challenged my low-grade distaste with the subgenre. Does that mean I'm some sort of purist who wishes to insist that vampires or whatever should only appear in stories set in medieval Eastern Europe, or something? No, not really—but shouldn't there be a compelling reason why a given story is placed in a particular setting? For example, contemporary New Orleans just screams vampires because of that Christian Slater movie (you know the one I mean, and yes, I know he's not the actor from that film that people usually focus on, per se). But if, when writing a new urban fantasy story, the decision is made to set it in New Orleans and we the readers begin to sense a "yeah, it's set there because lots of other otherworldly tales were set there!" vibe, that's not exactly a mark in said new story's favor. In that respect, I liked Meyer's decision to set Twilight (etc.) in the American northwest, a 'region less trodden by', so to speak.
  Sadly, Kristen Painter's new human, vampire, voodoo, witch, 'fae' (magical being) mash-up House of the Rising Sun is stuck back in that supernatural cesspool, New Orleans. There are of course some things to appreciate about the story (interesting echoes of Billy Wilder's Sunset Boulevard! An appealing variety of races/character types!), as there are about the city (test tube shots! Those doughnut things!), but do the good bits outweigh the not so good ones? Nope—or rather, insert whatever folksy quasi-Creole expression "the natives" of New Orleans use for "no" here.
 The logic of the various races' magic, etc. was intriguing, and so for the first third of the book or so just learning about the principles of the world Painter was creating was enough to sustain my interest, but where she lost me was in her decision to hang the story around two of the least believable (and, in Harlow's case, least likable) characters I've encountered in ages.
  Remember the Vomit Comet at amusement parks, where in the blink of an eye you've moved 180 degrees? That's what Augustine and Harlow seem to do in terms of character motivation, and at times it induced the same visceral reaction in me as I clutched my spinning head, trying not to paint the furniture. Harlow in particular is all over the place. She's supposedly a mousy yet also smoking hot computer nerd obsessed with RPGs (every male computer nerd's ultimate fantasy girl, no doubt! Take another look at the cover of the book, posted above), who hasn't spoken to her Norma Desmond-like mother in years because the latter denied the former the chance to form a relationship with her father. Wait, what? She severed ties with her loving, compassionate mother because mommy wouldn't give her any info on daddy? There's nothing believable about this at all, and before you get on my case over the absurdity of pointing out suspension of disbelief problems in an tale filled with vampires, witches and an almost limitless variety of magical 'fae', this is an issue of character development and motivation, or in other words, the emotional and dramatic core of the story (since all the magical stuff is just window dressing, in the end). If we find it impossible to believe the characters' relationships or actions, that's a serious problem no matter what kind of story is being told.
  The relationship at the center of the book, though, is the burgeoning romance between the fae Augustine (who is supposedly as tough as he is self-confident: he pompously remarks at one point, to reassure the sometimes brash, sometimes wimpy Harlow, 'I am by far and away the most frightening creature that lives in this city') and Harlow. Here, too, I'm not buying it. Augustine is perfect in every way, impossibly sensitive throughout Harlow's crazy mood swings ("I want you out of this house" followed by, a day or so later, pleas that he not stay with her), and so deeply does he care for her after spending a few days near her that he prioritizes her moods and feelings over the ostensibly critical investigation (of Harlow's mother's murder).
   Not only would no actual being, human or otherwise, be this infuriatingly accommodating, his pathological overprotectiveness of Harlow and her precious feelings frequently impedes his efforts to find a solution to the very problem upsetting her, meaning any self-respecting woman (human or otherwise) would tear him to shreds for his counterproductive condescension (and to make matters worse, he utterly fails to protect Harlow from physical danger, but does a bang-up job shielding her from any risk that she might get tired, etc.). And if Augustine's really such superhuman man candy, how is it that two totally normal humans could get the jump on him? If run-of-the-mill humans could manage to grab his arms before he could capture a certain vampire ("Augustine jerked away, but it was too late"), even his much vaunted abilities become mere deus ex machina tools to be deployed—or in this case found wanting—when the romance at the heart of the book demands he let Harlow down (or, alternatively, impress her/us with his prowess later).
  There is also a certain unevenness in the writing, a tendency either to get carried away in hyperbole or possibly a lack of editing for plot consistency (the third person narration gives us windows into various characters' psychological states, including one who mentally remarks how much more exorbitant a certain service had been than she expected, only to follow up a few pages later with "[it] had been as exorbitant as expected". But this is all small potatoes next to the fact that there's nothing likeable about Harlow and nothing believable about Augustine. This is a fauxmance, I'm afraid.

The Math

Objective assessment: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for echoes of Sunset Boulevard, +1 for an interesting menagerie of creatures in this world

Penalties: -1 for the lack of believable characterization (and wildly shifting character motivation), -1 for everything about Harlow, and -1 for the fauxmance between her and Augustine

Nerd coefficient: 4/10 "not very good"

[Even though a 4/10 probably sounds brutally low, it's not nearly as bad as you might think: see here for more info on how we score these things.]

This has been a public service announcement brought to you by Zhaoyun, sf/f book and movie aficionado and main cast member of Nerds of a Feather since early 2013.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Dead Rising 3

[Dead Rising 3, Capcom Vancouver, Microsoft Studios, 2013]

low expectations

Let me start out by saying that I wasn't really hoping for a lot from this title. I own the first Dead Rising for the Xbox 360 but I didn't make it very far into the game. The control scheme was horrendous and I never really got involved in the story. I played a few hours of it and put it away, never to be picked up again. It got decent reviews and I usually enjoy a good zombie game/show/movie, but for some reason the first Dead Rising didn't grab me. I never picked up the sequel. Due to those facts, I didn't expect a lot from the third entry in this trilogy. I'll be honest with you, I only picked it up because of the somewhat depressing dearth of games for the Xbox One and my having beaten everything else out there that's even half worth playing. 

Knowing that, you can imagine my surprise when it turned out to be a really creative, well-honed, bloody good time (pun fully intended). The story is well-crafted. The control scheme is fairly deep, yet quickly graspable. The graphics are quite nice. The protagonist is likable. The open-world is large and fun to explore. In short, Dead Rising 3 is a really decent game, much to my surprise. 

why does this keep happening?

The events of Dead Rising 3 detail the third major outbreak of zombie-itis. They take place ten years after Dead Rising 2 in a fictional city called Los Perdidos, California. This is the third outbreak of its kind. A small group of uninfected including the protagonist, mechanic Nick Ramos, his boss Rhonda, and a runaway named Annie is holed up inside a diner in the city. They see a news report that the city will be the recipient of a nuclear bomb in six days and decide it would probably be best to get out before that particular package arrives. The rest of the game follows Nick and his friends' attempts to escape the bomb and the explanation of the genesis of the outbreak, which, as it turns out, is a huge government plot. Don't worry, I won't ruin the twists and turns for you if you intend to give this game a run. Suffice it to say that the plot is quite interesting and Nick plays an integral part in both the creation and solution of the outbreak problem. 

man, that's a LOT of zombies!

The gameplay in DR3 is very impressive. Nick, being a mechanic, is able to craft various useful tools from the plethora of items found around the open world map. Not only can he create extremely useful and often funny vehicles, but he can generate some 300-plus weapons as well as various food recipes that have varying types of effect on him and his companions. The crafting is so deep that I didn't even cover half of the options in my first playthrough of the game. 

Some examples of this piece of the game are the RollerHawg, which is the welding of a motorcycle to a steamroller. It has the speed of a bike with the destructive power of a two-ton crushing machine. A 2x4 and a lead pipe created a particularly effective bashing weapon called Heavy Metal. A sledgehammer and a car battery created a beast of a beatdown melee machine titled the Electric Crusher. Among the most hilarious bits of crafting is the addition of a leaf blower and a massager to make a gun that shoots dildos. 

The crafting options also extend to food. As you are attacked by zombies, either hit, tackled, or as they try to bite you, your health meter will deteriorate. Nick has to eat in order to replenish his health. It isn't particularly hard to find food lying around the world, but culinary items could be added to one another to give specific boosts to Nick's abilities. For example, adding candy to coffee creates Quick Step, allowing Nick to sprint without getting winded for a short period of time. Three cups of coffee and a bottle of vodka makes Energizer, which causes Nick to become invulnerable to attacks. A ham and three bottles of liquor creates Spitfire, which, as the name suggests, allows him to breathe fire on the undead in his immediate vicinity. 

what are you wearing?!

Probably the most humorous part of Dead Rising 3 is the costumes. As you can see above, one of the many options was reminiscent of the Gimp from Pulp Fiction. In an adult store, you can find a full S&M suit along with go-go boots. Although Nick will complain every time you force him to put on the getup, I loved playing in the leather-zippered outfit because I just couldn't stop laughing at the poor guy. Among the other clothing options are a disco suit straight out of Saturday Night Fever, a tuxedo, a child's superhero outfit, a woman's Star Trek uniform, and even a Blanka mask from Street Fighter II. 

that about sums it up

I could go on for hours about the story, but I'd hate to spoil any of it for those of you who are going to play the game. It isn't Shakespeare, but it has enough twists, turns, and jokes to make it a very enjoyable experience. For the completionist gamer, there are tons of collectables. Not only are there weapon blueprints that are necessary if you want to make some of the more than three hundred combo weapons, but there are books that give Nick advantages in some areas such as more XP, increased damage, or weapon durability. There are also bodies of the dead that tell little stories about their sad endings. It has statues that serve little purpose beyond the joy of collecting. Finally, there are side quests that allow Nick to help other survivors along the way. 

how it ends...

Kidding. I'm only kidding. I won't tell you how it ends. What I will tell you is that there are multiple endings to the game depending on decisions you make throughout. I wouldn't have learned about this nice little addition had I not failed in my first attempt at finishing the game. However, it was very nice to see that Capcom allows for more than one outcome. Although I still love Titanfall, one of its major drawbacks, in my humble opinion, is the fact that the game's result is the same whether you succeed or fail in your missions. Dead Rising 3 isn't so uncreative. 

My final judgment of Dead Rising 3 is, as stated before, that it exceeded my expectations by a wide margin. I picked up the game to pass some time, not even sure that I would finish it due to my experience with the first Dead Rising. What I got was a thoroughly enjoyable, well-crafted game that sucked me in and surpassed my hopes in all areas. While I doubt it will win any game-of-the-year awards, you can be assured that this one isn't a dead end like its predecessor. If you're a fan of the Walking Dead or Left 4 Dead 1 or 2, give this game a try. I don't think you'll be sorry that you did. It is much more fun than the former and much deeper than the latter. If wiping out zombies is your thing, then this is your game. I killed over 27,000 of the undead in my first playthrough and I hope to top that number in my second, which begins tonight. Happy hunting!

Objective Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the unexpected and hilarious sense of humor in the game.

Penalties: I honestly can't think of any. While it isn't the best game ever, it does what it's supposed to very well. Kudos, Capcom!

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

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Thursday Morning Superhero

As I hack away at my keyboard searching for a fitting opening to this week's post, I find myself very distracted by the thoughts of C2E2.  I will be making the drive north late Friday night and plan on enjoying 2 days of convention glory.  Once again this convention boasts an impressive lineup and I look forward to picking up my Artful Daggers trade and some other fun things.  It is starting to feel a lot like convention season!

Pick of the Week:
The Walking Dead #126 - The end of "All out War" is upon us.  Robert Kirkman and crew wrap up this series in a surprising fashion and I am never surprised by the sheer physical sense and insanity of Negan.  This has been a memorable run that had a truly fitting ending. Maybe I am being optimistic thinking that issue #127 and future comics will be printed in color.  Maybe I think too highly of the human race.  Despite our differences I like to think that the vast majority of us are good people.  Whether I am wrong or right, one thing is clear.  I have a feeling we aren't in Kansas anymore.

The Rest:
Mind MGMT #21 - Matt Kindt brought the thunder on the latest issue of his supernatural thriller and I was not disappointed.  It was dubbed by Dark Horse as a "silent issue" as the characters did not speak, but we were treated to their inner monologue as the fight broke out.  Caught in the Magician's traps, the agents have their abilities clouded as they attempt to solely survive this frightening ordeal.  A departure from your traditional Mind MGMT issue, but not in a bad way by any means.  One of my favorites.

Skull Kickers #26 - While it may not offer the depth of other comic series, Skull Kickers has a warm place in my heart as it is a title that is simply fun.  This tongue-in-cheek book delivers a lot of high quality, and some low brow, laughs and serves as a type of palette cleanser when it appears in my pull list.  This issue pokes fun at traditional dwarven lore and is chalk full of puns.  Fun stuff.

Batman Eternal #3 - As I said last week, I am glad that this series is coming out each week.  Things aren't looking up for Gotham (are they really ever?) as Falcone wastes no time usurping power and establishing his order.  Corruption seems to breed in Gotham and this tale is no different.  Once again the police force is targeting Batman while he is trying to prevent a civil war amongst the villains at large.  Throw in a new origin story for the New 52 and we have quite the exciting book.

Original Sin #0 - Marvel's new event is off to a great start with Mr. Mark Waid at the helm.  Nova seeks answers from The Watcher and gets more than he bargained for.  A rare insight into the origin of The Watcher makes for an interesting debut.  I am hoping that it goes beyond a traditional Marvel event, but it has my attention for now.

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Best Sci-Fi TV of All Time Tournament Bracket (Final Round)

Guys, I have to admit I'm a little stunned. I did not see Picard and Riker unseating Kirk and Spock in the Classic side of the bracket and heading into the Finals. Sure, The Next Generation ran for much longer than Star Trek The Original Series, and sure the third and final season of Star Trek is a hot mess, but I figured if this was a popularity contest, the "logical" choice would be...well, no matter. You've spoken with your votes, and if I'm being honest, you probably made the right call about the better show. For the record, The Next Generation went gangbusters out of the gate, but Star Trek made a valiant comeback toward the end and ultimately, only 18 votes out of hundreds cast separated the two shows.

Firefly didn't surprise me this week, but I sure didn't have it getting past Doctor Who last week. Do I prefer Firefly? I do. But I'm only one man. One man with whom, in this case, thousands of people happily agree.

So here we are. The Finals. Will the scion of a long-established dynasty walk away with the crown? Or will the 14-episodes-and-a-movie upstart put another feather in the cap of Mr. Neil Young's line that it's better to burn out than to fade away? We'll soon see. Off you go!

To see the results of previous rounds, please click here.

Microreview [book]: The Crimson Campaign by Brian McClellan

McClellan, Brian. The Crimson Campaign [Orbit, 2014].

The Meat

To be completely honest, I'm torn by this book. After my not-so-positive review of McClellan's first installment, Promise of Blood (see my review here), which did not come close to meeting my expectations considering the buzz the book had generated,  I had not planned on continuing on with this series. That might have colored my expectations to begin with. As expected, The Crimson Campaign continues the same problematic trends from the first volume of the series. And I have the same litany of complaints about anything from the world's weak treatment of women to unbelievable character attitudes and to darkness for no other purpose than to let the reader know how dark the world is (the severed fingers still bother me). But, on the other hand, I found The Crimson Campaign to be a quick and enjoyable read. At times, a real page-turner. So I am at a loss at how to grade this second installment of Brian McClellan's new flintlock fantasy trilogy.

The Crimson Campaign picks up right where Promise of Blood left off. Field Marshal Tamas is in the process of spearheading the Adran invasion of Kez, but soon finds himself (and his powder cabal) deep behind enemy lines, drastically outnumbered and pursued by superior forces, with little chance of escape. So dire are his circumstances that Tamas is widely believed dead. Meanwhile, after weeks in the Gurlish mala dens attempting to smoke himself into oblivion, Taniel Two-Shot emerges as the last line of defense against the advancing Kez army. And to his surprise, he soon learns that this army is perhaps guided by Kresimir, the very god Taniel thought he had killed. On the home front, Inspector Adamat continues his quest to rescue his wife and children from the enigmatic and undoubtedly evil Lord Vetas. In the process, he runs into the weak and indecisive maid/laundress Nila, a woman who may turn just out to be more than she appears to be. 

The Crimson Campaign still features a well-paced, action-packed ride through the wilderness of Kez, the mountains of Deliv, and the Adran capital of Adopest. Although the prose does not reach the heights of such newcomers to the genre like Peter Higgins, each storyline has enough twists and turns to keep the reader's attention. Pacing is by no means an issue with this series. The Tamas storyline in particular reads like Paul Kearney's fantastic tale, The Ten Thousand. Moreover, The Crimson Campaign also gave McClellan the chance to develop some of the side characters in fascinating ways. I appreciate how the Privileged Bo has developed throughout the novel, and the Nila storyline has finally become interesting. 

The series, however, still suffers from the very same problems I noted with the first volume. First, at times there is needless gore that serves no other purpose than to be gory, needless grit that only serves for the sake of being gritty. This is something that we at Nerds of a Feather have complained about again and again (see here for The G's rant on the topic). More strikingly, an annoyingly weak treatment of women abounds throughout the novel. Even the most powerful of women suffer from some affliction. Ka-poel is a sorcerous being with the power that could rival gods, but she is a deaf-mute, and is interpreted only through her relations with her protector, Taniel. And that relationship is mind numbingly colonial, with Taniel needing to come to terms with the fact that she is a person to be loved and respected, not merely a savage. But although she may have ideas and power, she has no voice of her own (yes, she's our very own subaltern). And need I mention that she becomes the object of male lust in a not-too-savory way? 

Moreover, I found Tamas to be the least compelling main character I have read in quite some time. Tamas loses perspective far too often for someone touted to be the most feared Field Marshal throughout all the realm. For instance, he is said to be a widely respected leader, but Tamas takes way too long to come to terms with the fact that Vlora cheated on his son and ruined their engagement.  He even takes his anger at Vlora out on the men under his command! Making matters worse, the substandard backstory introduced midway through the novel (the very reason Tamas launched his revolution against the throne) only works to make Tamas seem petty. And it is for his pettiness that the world now has descended into chaos. I am hopeful that McClellan plans to surprise us and take this in a new and exciting direction, but I don't plan on holding my breath. 

In the end, I think this series will find its audience. And yet again, I find myself convinced that I am not it. Although an enjoyable read and a real page turner at times, The Crimson Campaign still leaves much to be desired...   

The Math 

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +2 for always keeping my attention.

Penalties: -1 for the continuing misogyny; -1 for Tamas and his backstory.

Nerd Coefficient: 6/10 "still enjoyable, but the flaws are hard to ignore"

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

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

Monday, April 21, 2014

Execution--A Post in 3 Acts

Act 1

I tend to binge read fantasy. Until age 16 I couldn’t get enough of the stuff—from the gateway grub of David Eddings and Dragonlance to higher-grade fare from LeGuin, Kurtz, Leiber and Zimmer Bradley. I read countless Tolkein clones, until Tad Williams’ excellent Memory, Sorrow and Thorn had the last word in that conversation. I even read six or seven Wheel of Time books, ultimately concluding that it should have been a trilogy.

Then I discovered literary fiction.

I credit/blame a forward-thinking high school English program for my conversion from fantasy. We read Raymond Carver and William Faulker, Toni Morrison and Tim O’Brien. We even read Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson—the one about heroin addicts. These books were beautiful, powerful and unflinching, the kind of books that grab you by the shirt and say: “look around you, this is the world you live in.” Fantasy seemed childish, trite and unsophisticated in comparison.  

My genre consumption shifted towards science fiction, which seemed (as it often does) the more serious half of SFF. I dove into the mind-altering depths of the New Wave, devouring the work of J. G. Ballard, Thomas M. Disch, Samuel Delany and Philip K. Dick. Ursula LeGuin was a carryover, of course, though by now I'd graduated from Earthsea to Hainish. I returned to the classic science fiction I'd first discoverded as a child, finding that some (e.g. The Stars My Destination) stood up to the test of time while others (e.g. Foundation) did not. I continued to avoid fantasy like the plague.

Enter Jemmy, now a fellow Nerd of a Feather but at the time a friend and co-worker. At lunch we’d head off to one of the many bookstores in walking distance from our office, gravitating to the science fiction and fantasy aisles. Inevitably our conversation would turn to the tragic fact that I’d never read anything by Octavia Butler or George R. R. Martin, and how this needed to be corrected as soon as humanly possible. I bought copies of Parable of the Talent/Sower and Lilith’s Brood, and loved them all.  But I couldn’t bring myself to do the same for A Game of Thrones--it was fantasy, after all.

Then one day, Jemmy up and bought me a copy, casually informing me that I no longer had any excuse for not reading it. Still I hemmed; I hawed; I resisted. Until one night I just sort of picked the damned thing up—and never looked back.

Complete with cheesy 90s-style cover
A Game of Thrones wasn’t a perfect book, but it was a gripping political thriller high on intrigue and low on magic. I blasted through the even better sequels, A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords, eventually moving on to the not-good fourth and fifth volumes. Again I concluded that an overlong fantasy series should have been a trilogy, though it didn’t bother me much this time. The bleak perspective resonated with many of the things I saw going in our world—a feeling punctuated by the early 2000s zeitgeist of ethnic cleansing, terrorism and “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

From there I moved on to the other luminaries of gritty fantasy: Joe Abercrombie, Glen Cook, KJ Parker, Gene Wolfe. I ate the stuff up, and reveled in the visceral thrills of fantasy that walked in the shadows and probed the darkest recesses of the human soul.

Only, after a while, the gritty stuff started to get repetitive too. Formulaic, even.

My frustrations with fantasy resurfaced. I’d already had it with pig farmers fulfilling prophesies, “noble savage” elves and all the other clichés and tropes of the neo-Tolkein canon. I make an exception for Andrzej Sapkowski, because he, well, subverts everything. But exceptions—or more accurately, the fact that they are exceptions—can prove the rule, so to speak.

But now even gritty fantasy, once a refuge from the neo-Tolkeinic morass, proved equally capable of being cheap, generic and derivative. Worse, there appeared to be an arms race of sorts in the works. I still wanted my fantasy to explore the darker recesses of the human experiences, but I wanted it to mean something. I certainly didn’t want or need anyone to amp up the grit-tay just to out-do the last guy. And I'd had it with offhand rapeyness and tortureporn serving no purpose other than to announce the grimmmmmm darrrrrkess of a fantasy world.

I began to think about the things I wanted to see more of in fantasy. First on the list was more fantasy that, like recent work by Elizabeth Bear, NK Jemisin, Saladin Ahmed, Scott Lynch, Doug Hulick and Django Wexler, leaves the crowded shores of pseudo-medieval Europe (or more accurately, pseudo-medieval Britain and Ireland) for different spatial, cultural and temporal planes. The world was a big place and history is full of rich veins of inspiration. I didn't want anyone to be lame and appropriative, but I did want more fantasy authors to discover the rest of the world, and to explore time periods on either side of the Middle Ages. 

I wanted novel geographies, topographies and physical environments. I wanted more experimentation with (or at least problematizing of) social relations. And I wanted authors to spend more time exploring consequences, intended and unintended, of human action arising from relatable, understandable motivations. The best fantasy already does at least some of these things, but there’s still so much ground to cover.

I began to wish authors would go back to the actual medieval and Renaissance periods in order to develop more sophisticated models of religion. Religion in fantasy, after all, tends to come in two flavors: literal and cynical. Gods are either actually walking the land and doing things (mostly bad) or are totems every intelligent character understands to be superstition and little else. But religion is often experienced as a lived reality: no gods walking the earth, but life lived as if they might as well be. This idea was very interesting to me—and another under-tapped vein that could be utilized to great effect.

I grew certain that new and better ideas could save fantasy.

Act 2

I really wanted to love Glenda Larke’s new book, The Lascar’s Dagger, because it hits on so many of these things. It draws inspiration from the mercantilist period, when the Dutch and British East India Companies competed for spices and slowly committed resources to colonial ventures they couldn’t afford (which enticed the Dutch and British governments to intervene and outright conquer much of Asia, the beginning of a much more expansive and destructive phase of international colonialism).

It features a novel, polar geography, where the overland route to the Va-Cherished lands (i.e. alt-Christendom) pass through the North Pole. Trade is dominated by the Pashali, who have mastodons, but the enterprising merchants of Lowmeer would like very much to cut out the middle man. Discovery of the sea-route to the Spicerie (i.e. the alt-Malay Archipelago) also uncovers magical riches to be exploited. Larke thus invites us to consider the history of colonialism as it might have played out if magic had been involved—a fascinating idea that she makes good use of throughout the book.

On a personal level, I absolutely love that Larke develops characters based on the Malay world (an area near and dear to my heart) and does so in a generally classy and respectful way. Oh, and did I mention that religion is embedded into the very fabric of everyday life—even for the educated elites? Yes, The Lascar’s Dagger is certainly full of good ideas.

Yet as sophisticated as the book can be on an ideals level, it is let down by the kind of cardboard characterization outsiders, with some justification, associate with the fantasy genre. There is never any doubt who is good and who is “evil.” There is never any internal conflict, really, even when we are told there is. Everyone simply does the right thing, or the wrong thing, because they are the type of person who does the right thing or the wrong thing.

And for a novel written by a woman whose characters explicitly question the patriarchy of their social environments, the female characters are surprisingly unlikable—from the narcissistic and shallow Princess Mathilda to the always-grumpy Sorrel Redwing and annoyingly coy Pontifect. This struck me as odd.

Act 3

Reading The Lascar’s Dagger reminded me of a conversation script that most science fiction fans have witnessed or been a part of at some point in their lives. You know the one:

Science fiction aficionado gets into conversation with nose-thumbing type. Nose-thumbing type thumbs nose at science fiction, at which point science fiction aficionado convinces nose-thumbing type to read a cherished classic. Nose-thumbing type comes back to science fiction aficionado and says: “I’m sorry, but I just couldn’t get past the stilted dialogue, poor characterization and so forth.” Science fiction aficionado then pleads with nose-thumbing type—“yes, but it’s the ideas that make this book special.”

This is a common approach to genre—that bad writing is tolerable as long as the concepts are good. And most people just accept it--not only fans and readers, but authors and critics as well. Too often, when we discuss, debate and argue a book's merits, we fixate on the conceptual matter. Did it say something meaningful? Did it try something new? Did it meet or fail to meet a bar of acceptability as far as philosophy and social vision go?

These are important questions--important to me as well as to others. But fixating on ideas can overshadow equally important questions on fundamentals. Ideas, simply put, are just not enough—no matter how thought provoking they are. And by defining SF/F as "ideas fiction," we conspire to keep it in its literary ghetto. Really good SF/F, and by "good" I mean something of cultural impact and lasting value, is not born of vision alone, but through the execution of that vision.

In the end, this is what makes The Lascar’s Dagger so frustrating to me. I wanted to love this book—I still want to love this book, and in some respects I do love this book. After all, the ideas really are really, really good. Unfortunately, the fundamentals aren't.

Look, not all authors are Pynchon and not every book needs to be Gravity's Rainbow. But as much as we, the consumers, could have asked for more, someone on the production side could have recognized the seed of a great novel in this passable one, and nurtured it so it could flower into the thing it clearly wants to be. Justin Landon has recently called attention to this as a general problem facing genre publishing—and the experience of The Lascar’s Dagger really put that into perspective. There are a lot of writers out there with one half of the equation down pat, but who need more and better guidance to unlock their full potential. This is what traditional publishing is supposed to bring to the table.

Why isn't this happening? Like most problems in a capitalist economy, it boils down to issues of supply and demand. The business model of traditional publishing, you could say,  is like diamond mining: you extract as much carbon as you can and hope you get enough diamonds in the process to make the venture worthwhile. Cash-strapped publishers just aren't going to invest the time and money raising the diamonds to carbon ratio unless they feel it's either: a) necessary to their survival; or b) a conduit to greater revenue and profitability. Because the crisis in publishing is long-term, incentives to boost revenue by bringing more quantity to market faster wins out over incentives to raise quality--a slower process with less-certain results.

Now, you may ask yourself why I'm being so negative. Here's why: I have dedicated a lot of time and emotional commitment to fantasy, science fiction and traditional publishing. I believe in fantasy and science fiction, just as I believe in traditional publishing. It is my firmly-held opinion that traditional publishing is, and will remain, the most consistent and efficient route to quality product. I've come to know good, hardworking people at Orbit, Tor/Forge, Solaris, Jo Fletcher and the rest of the specialty imprints. I think they are awesome and do awesome things. And I've read a lot of really high-quality books they've brought to market.

But this isn't the '90s anymore, and even if the crisis is long-term, it's very real. If traditional genre publishers are going to hold position and even grow in this era of crowdfunding, self-publishing and the return of the small press, they will need to assert their role as developers of talent--mentors and coaches who can consistently turn promising into good, and good into great. They will need to take potentially diamondiferous material like The Lascar's Dagger and turn them into brilliant gemstones. This is how traditional genre publishing will survive, and even prosper, in the new literary economy. That's good for everyone. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Microreview [book]: Peacemaker by Marianne De Pierres

De Pierres, Marianne. Peacemaker [2014, Angry Robot]

I do keep wandering down the dusty road to future-westerns... Something about our past regurgitating itself into what may come is perhaps a comfort, perhaps a subversion of the fear of the ever-arriving unknown, the unconquerable tide of change.

Or perhaps I just like robot gunslingers. 

Either way, my tracks lead me back here into this Westworld world, this saddle-sore story pit. Luckily this time around, a gem awaits in the desert dirt. De Pierres is an Australian author of 'speculative fiction' (as her site puts it) and here she speculates on the bleak yet entertaining notion that the last scrap of land untouched in Australia is actually an artificial park, shaped from the red dust of the island continent, yet flavoured heavily from the mythology of the Old West. 

Our hero is a 'ranger' of this huge tourist magnet, tasked with keeping a watchful eye on this incredible chunk of land, surrounded by mirroring walls that shut out the sight and sound of the dirty and heaving city around it. The rather outstandingly named 'Virgin Jackson' (which sounds like some awful airline tie-in if the King of Pop were still around) is happier out in the 'wilds' than amongst humans, but a killing on site and an attempted one of her off both force her to confront not just the mystery but her relationship with colleagues, friends and a new arrival. 

This newcomer is from the States and goes by the name of Marshall Nate Sixkiller (I know, I know...) and carries the attitude and Stetson such a moniker suggests. Together they overcome their differences and encounter animal spirit guides, weird tattoos and bombs in alleys, all in the attempt to find out how is killing who. 

As the story progressed it felt like Pierres got more and more confident, more and more free. And the book benefited, for whilst my reaction was fairly negative due to some clunky dialogue and cliched characterisation, something happened as the city was gradually revealed, and I realised I was reading an excellent sci-fi .. sorry, spec-fi.

As the investigation continues some of the awkward notes remained but the story propels itself so quickly, and often surprisingly, and so I strongly recommend this refreshing read. Virgin is a complex and absorbing heroine, and the Australian dystopia she lives in is one I'll happily revisit when Pierred continues what is promised to be a series.

The Math

Bonuses: +1 for having what is sadly still fairly unusual - a female character undefined and unobjectified, and a fully-fledged yet flawed person 

Negatives: -1 for a frustrating ending that leaves you hanging for the continuation in the series but not in an especially excitingly manner

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

By English Scribbler, gunslinger, two-bit word-whore and contributor to the 2-years-young Nerds of A Feather since 2013.

Thursday Morning Superhero

As I type away on my post this week I am both saddened that I have not seen Captain America 2 yet and happy that C2E2 is a little over one week away!  If all goes according to plan I will be in attendance at this fine event on both Saturday and Sunday.  It has been some time since my last Con appearance and I am looking forward to returning to the chaos.

Pick of the Week:
The Auteur #2 - Wow.  This is quickly becoming one of my favorite books, but it is very difficult to recommend to just anyone.  This book is absolutely bonkers and I love it.  If you find buckets of gore and crass jokes offensive, this is not the book you are looking for.  Beneath the blood and guts, The Auteur is a smart and refreshing comic unlike any I have read.  Issue #2 demonstrates to what lengths Nathan T. Rex will go to ensure his next film is a success.  Not satisfied with your run of the mill horror, Rex plans on using Darwin, a notorious serial killer, as the murder expert on his film.  Packed with genuinely funny humor and a shockingly original plot line, The Auteur may be for you.  The VHS playing scene in the court room was one of the funniest gags I have ever read in a comic book.  Well played Rick Spears and Oni.  Can't wait for issue #3.

The Rest:
Stray Bullets: Killers #2 - The Stray Bullets comics have a way of sucking you in and connecting you with seemingly normal characters at a rapid pace.  Each issue stands on its own, but the depth of the world that David Lapham creates is better appreciated if you soak it all in.  Stray Bullets reminds us all that we are not perfect and that everyone has skeletons in the closet, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.  Deep down, despite our flaws, there are good people who make poor choices.  Beautiful book that should make its way to your pull list.

Sinestro #1 - I will admit that I am not well versed in all that is Green Latern, but with Cullen Bunn penning the new Sinestro title I had to pick it up.  Sinestro is pulled from his self-inflicted isolation by Lyssa Drak who urges him to take control over the Sinestro Corps once again.  With my lack of knowledge in the lore, I would guess that there were many references that were over my head. I still found the story compelling and will return for issue #2.  I am guessing it might be wise to see if my library has some collected volumes of Geoff Johns.

Batman #30 - The final act of "Zero Year" begins with issue and it looks to be a doozy.  I never considered The Riddler to be much of a formidable foe for Batman, but with what Scott Snyder has come up with I have a new found respect for Mr. Nygma.  The Riddler has transformed Gotham into a apocalyptic hellscape with seemingly no escape.  Through sheer terror, he has broken the will of the residents and it is going to take some fancy gadgets and planning to save Gotham.  Something tells me Batman will be up for the task.

Batman Eternal #2 - It is a good thing this title is coming out weekly, because things are moving at a rapid pace in Gotham.  With an all-star crew behind this title, I hope it maintains this momentum moving forward.  The villain reveal at the end of this issue was glorious and I am very excited where this book seems to be headed.

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

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Best Sci-Fi TV of All Time Tournament Bracket (Round of 4)


The Round of 8 was, without a doubt, the round with the most gnashing of teeth, and probably even tears, of any so far. For this was the round where Doctor Who faced off against Firefly.

Thousands of votes were cast (thank you, everybody), and ultimately, by only a half a percentage point, it was decided that Serenity would keep flying. (Insert wild celebration/screams of rage as you will).

Now in this Round of 4, you must face another impossible choice: Kirk & Spock vs. Picard & Riker. Is Star Trek: The Next Generation a better show than the one that begat all others, Star Trek? It's your call. But it is certain that an entry from the Star Trek franchise will face off against either Firefly or the Battlestar Galactica reboot in the Finals.

Some housekeeping: to see the results of previous rounds, click here. To review the utterly unscientific criteria used to delineate the Classic from Modern regions, check out the Round of 32 post. Many Reddit users pointed out that I had the order of the matches in the first round out-of-order, which I have consistently acknowledged, and apologize for once again. And for those of you who vitriolically demanded a larger image of the bracket, your wish has been granted.

Now, have fun, and on with the voting!



Check back next week for the Final Round!

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

AiIP: Self-Promotion Theater

You may have heard I am nearing the end of a Kickstarter campaign for a print run of my short story collection, 3024AD. I have detailed the reasons for that in this space before- in short, that the current common thinking, particularly for author-publishers, doesn't allow for any manner of distribution to brick-and-mortar bookstores. So I have partnered with Village Books in order to try a new model- one that supports them, and me, and opens the door for wider physical distribution.

The campaign- as of this writing- sits at $1,095 of the $2,000 goal, so your support is very much appreciated.

Only a couple days to back the Kickstarter!
But why should you support it? It's not as if there's a dearth of indie-published sci-fi out there. So, in the interest of salesmanship and self-promotion (two things I am generally terrible at), why you should:

It's Good Sci-Fi: I'm only being a little egotistical. It won Indie Book of the Year from The Cult Den last year, so it's not just my mom saying that. It's a unique story, told in a unique way and fairly universally those who have read it love it.

It's Cheap: Once it hits bookshelves, the physical copy is going to be $14.99 and the ebook $7.99. You can grab both for $10, and get a bunch of fun swag for a bit more. Or you can buy two for $15 and give one to a friend/library/whatever.

It's About More Than Me: I can't do it for everyone, obviously, nor do I want to, but for the author-publishers out there who take the time and effort to produce a high-quality product, opening the doors to partnerships and distribution in indie bookstores is a pretty huge deal. Right now, it involves calling or visiting every single one. As this evolves, I am hoping to see (at a minimum) a sort of co-op grow to where booksellers know they're getting a quality product and authors are getting support from influential literary centers. Printing enough copies of my own is the first step in the process.

Crowdfunding is Awesome: At least, I think so. You're a part of the process, privy to advance information and get stuff that isn't otherwise available. I love the process, and hope you'll support mine.

So there you have it- a few reasons to head over and pledge. Thanks in advance!


PS in the event you're sick of hearing about me, next month will feature other authors, and some interviews.

Dean is the author of the 3024AD series of science fiction stories. You can read his other ramblings and musings on a variety of topics (mostly writing) on his blog.
  He is also an aficionado of good drinks (extra dry martini; onions, not olives), good food and fine dress. When not holed up in his office tweeting obnoxiously writing, he can be found watching or playing sports, or in his natural habitat of a bookstore.
  He also has an unhealthy obsession with old movies and goes through phases where he plays video games before kind of forgetting they exist.
  Dean lives in the Pacific Northwest and likes the rain, thank you very much.

Madden NFL 25

[Madden NFL 25, EA Tiburon, EA Sports, 2013]

 A vast improvement

To start off with, I'll admit two things. First, I'm not the biggest sports gamer on the planet. I love going to live sporting events and I'm a die-hard Oklahoma State Cowboys fan (My alma mater), but the games normally don't do it for me. Second, I haven't played a Madden game since 2008. That game was so bad that I swore them off for quite a while and this is the first one I've picked up since. That said, I'm really glad that I did. It's been a fun change of pace from my normal sci-fi titles and wasn't a huge disappointment like my last experience with the franchise. 

So what's new? 

As I said before, I haven't played Madden in several years, but this game has several new additions from the last iteration I experienced. First of all, you can choose to play as a specific player, a coach, or lead the franchise as an owner. I chose the coaching option as it is the closest to the traditional Madden format. You can switch between players on defense and take over for running backs and receivers when they get the ball in this mode. I tried the player mode and it just wasn't as fun to be stuck in the shoes of a single player. I didn't have time to experience the owner mode, but I really like playing the game itself rather than acting as a front office manager, so it didn't interest me as much as the coaching mode.

There were all sorts of new gameplay additions, more than half of which I probably didn't use. I had enough trouble just picking out receivers without learning all of the new jukes, spins, and leaps that were available to ball carriers, but they were there for the die-hard Maddenite. Choosing plays was made up of a well-oiled mechanic that gave you an initial option for a single play right off the bat. If you didn't like that, you could choose "Ask Madden," which would give you three options for plays that fit the scenario. If none of those were to your liking, you could choose plays by type or formation. I'm not a football guru so I used Madden's suggestions about half the time. The rest of the plays I chose by type, often going with a play action pass or shotgun formation. The options of play type were plentiful with something like 70 different run plays, 90-plus passes, and multiple special formations including QB kneel or quarterback sneak. Whatever your style of play, there was a quick and easy way to choose the option you preferred. 

truly gorgeous

As you can probably tell from these actual screenshots, the game itself was a sight to behold. The graphics are easily the best I've ever experienced in a sports game. While that may not be saying much as I'm not a huge sports game buff, they were easily the equal of some of the more attractive other games out there like Assassin's Creed or Tomb Raider. Even though this game came out last summer and is just a port to my Xbox One, they obviously upscaled it somewhat to the new generation of consoles. Even though I may not be a sports game aficionado, I am a real-life sports fan and some of the replays looked as good as the real thing. During load screens they showed various previous versions of Madden's last 25 years and, although sometimes laughable, it gave a good impression of how far the game has come in its quarter century of sports game dominance. While 2008 felt like EA was just resting on its laurels, Madden NFL 25 made me believe that Electronic Arts really put a lot of effort and money into their silver anniversary edition. 

So, how'd you do?

Being a relative amateur when it comes to the sports game oeuvre, I chose to play the season on Easy so I wouldn't get frustrated and give up halfway through. That's likely the reason I ended up 19-1 and a Super Bowl Champion. I chose to play with the Dallas Cowboys, mainly because of Oklahoma State alum Dez Bryant and his on-field acrobatics as well as their close proximity to my home state. I'll freely admit I don't care for Tony Romo and I'm a college sports fan who generally ignores most pro sports other than the NFL. That said, Madden's ability to use the actual player names and playbooks makes it superior to NCAA in this gamer's humble opinion. Some of the awful names they come up with for "amateur" athletes that appear in college sports games just drive me nuts. I understand the necessity of it, but that doesn't make it an easier pill to swallow. 

My only loss in the game came at the hands of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Peyton is rated a 97 in the game making nearly every ball he threw up a strike on a frozen rope. However, I was able to get my revenge on him in the snow in New Jersey at the Super Bowl, winning 24-21. Although it didn't give me quite as much pleasure as defeating Handsome Jack in Borderlands 2 or Glados in Portal, it was still a nice little endorphin rush when I managed to overcome the seemingly invincible quarterback in the ice bowl. 

Final Thoughts

I realize this is a nerd blog, so even though its a game the very fact that this is sports-related makes it a stretch as subject matter for Nerds of a Feather. However, if you're looking to get a sports game for a nice change of pace, I can't think of a better place to start than Madden NFL 25. Pro football has overtaken baseball as America's game of choice and Madden is the video game equivalent of its crown jewel. Although it may have slacked off a bit in recent years, Madden 25 brings it roaring back. I can easily recommend it to either the casual sports gamer or die-hards that own everything from FIFA to NCAA 2013. I was a bit skeptical when I decided to give the franchise another try, but I'm glad that did. While I probably won't continue on into a second season, the game was well worth playing through the first. If you haven't played a sports game for some time like myself, give Madden NFL 25 a try. You won't be disappointed. 

the math

Objective Score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for being a superb sports simulator. +1 for surpassing my expectations completely.

Penalties: -1 for not really fitting into the "nerd" mold, since it's sports-related.

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

Monday, April 14, 2014

Shadowrun Returns!

As S. C. Barrus wrote in a guest post, crowdfunding has facilitated the re-emergence of the isometric RPG as a viable market segment in the crowded field of video games. Though primarily developed for PC/Mac, tablets are a natural home for these games. After all, most can be programmed by a relatively small group of developers (and thus sold for a pricepoint mobile gamers will tolerate), while featuring point-and-click gameplay that translates well to multitouch and doesn't require a hell of a lot of computing power to run smoothly. And the consumers these games target--nostalgic 30-somethings who want to relive a 90s gameplay experience--are, as far as I can see, slowly gravitating away from attention-requiring console or PC gaming and towards something that better fits a life defined by constant multitasking. Shadowrun Returns, then, seems a perfect fit for iOS and Android--and, indeed, most elements of the 2013 PC/Mac hit translate well. More on that in a bit. First, though, some background...

The '90s ruled, man
Shadowrun Returns is based on the famous pen-and-paper RPG Shadowrun, as well as the legendary 1993 isometric adaptation for SNES. The basic premise of Shadowrun is to put AD&D races/classes into a near-future cyberpunk universe, so that elves, trolls, shamans and mages quest alongside "runners" (people who go on "dungeon" crawls in corporate offices) and "deckers" (people who hack into "the matrix").

The original iterations produced remarkably balanced and deep gameplay, but 2007's ill-fated attempt to turn extract a console FPS out of the beloved franchise sparked anger and consternation among fans clamoring for something more faithful to the original vision. Enter Jordan Weisman, developer of the pen-and-paper game (as well as Heroclix and BattleTech), and Kickstarter. One year and $1.8 million in donations later, Weisman's studio Harebrained Games released Shadowrun Returns for PC/Mac. By the end of 2013, an iOS version hit the market.

...with elves!
Shadowrun Returns is, like the 1993 SNES classic, a true isometric RPG--featuring turn-based squad combat, highly customizable character classes, balanced gameplay and a well-developed and engaging story. Rather than attempt a modernization, Harebrained smartly doubled-down on the early 90s cyberpunk nostalgia--evident in everything from character hairstyles to the goofy drum-n-bass music triggered by combat. The result is a highly enjoyable, addictive experience that hits the right note of nostalgia for life-long Shadowrun fans, as well as those who, like me, cut their teeth on PC games during the 90s (and 80s).

On the other hand...

There are, however, some issues I'd like Hairbrained to address in the sequel. First off, I experienced some stability issues: freezing, crashing and so forth. After some online consultation, I learned that these could be mitigated by putting the iPad on airplane mode and closing all other apps. It did work, but eh...this kind of thing should have been dealt with in beta, no?

Of course, that might have just been a minor annoyance if it weren't for the game's frustrating "checkpoint only" save system. I guess the PC/Mac version has already been patched to allow for quick saving, but iOS has not. Though Shadowrun Returns is not a large game, a few of the levels could have benefited from some extra checkpoints--especially considering the game's propensity to crash. Going back and replaying 30+ minutes five times and not by choice is retro in the wrong way.

It's a testament to how fun this game is, though, that I didn't quit in frustration. I found myself thinking about the game when I wasn't playing, and waking up an extra half hour early so I could get a level in before the day began. Last game I did that for was Skyrim, and that's basically my favorite video game ever.

See, Shadowrun Returns isn't perfect, but it's a hell of a good time, and a great way to relive the good old days without the crappy hardware.

Tips and Vitals

If you decide to buy a copy of Shadowrun Returns, you may naturally wonder whether it's better on PC/Mac or iOS/Android. I can't speak to the PC/Mac version, but I will say that the touch interface was solid but at times less responsive than I would have liked. And I do think a two-button mouse would have come in handy. On the other hand, I spend most of the day hunched over in front of a computer screen. When relaxing, I prefer to be on the couch, with my feet up and either a controller or mobile device in my hands. So in that sense the trade-off worked in my favor; the iOS port is definitely good enough to justify not sitting at a computer desk.

After committing to iOS/Android, though, there's still the question of phone vs. tablet. Some games naturally work better on one or the other (e.g. FPS on phone; adventure games on tablet). Bottom line, I think Shadowrun Returns is clearly made for tablets, and would feel cramped on a phone. But maybe that's just my fat thumbs talking.

Once you've gone procured the game and fired it up, you are faced with a host of character creation questions. My character, "Nerd," was officially a shaman (dude who can summon creatures under certain conditions) but was fairly balanced between summoning, decking and the use of ranged weapons. I also made him a tank, which helped a lot towards the end of the game. By the time you can select your own party, however, you realize that the easiest rode involves balance among characters, rather than within them.

It's okay to be a jack-of-all-trades, as I was, but every party needs one straight up soldier (armed with a shotgun, which is immensely overpowered). Coyote, who you meet in the course of the game, will do for this role--so keep her close. And it's vital you hire a decker--unless you are one yourself. I also found support mages useful for the fourth and final slot--someone who can up your accuracy, lay down fire or lightning fields if you get attacked from both sides and, crucially, heal squadmates without spending precious medpacks. Conversely, I found specialized shamans and assassins basically worthless.

Oh, and one other piece of advice: defensive tactics are your friend, particularly in the matrix.

Enjoy the ride, chummers...

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for balanced, lively isometric retro; +1 for the 90s are back, man!

Penalties: -1 for stability issues; -1 for stupid checkout-only save system.

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