Wednesday, October 1, 2014

One Stop Apocalypse Shop Kickstarter

Now this looks interesting.

One Stop Apocalypse Shop Kickstarter

I've donated to approximately two Kickstarters before in my lifetime. One was a charity for an Exalted developer and the other was for the Reading Rainbow Kickstarter. I've always been fascinated by the potential of these things to make movies, however, and was waiting for a project to "jump out at me" after the Veronica Mars one. I'm intrigued by the premise of this one as I like the idea of someone doing "Clerks meets Buffy." Permuted Press is also a high-end indie publisher which has published some really good stuff in the past (John Dies at the End, Ex-Heroes, Time of Death: Induction) so I'd like to see it succeed.

Really, I'm more interested in the fact a favorite indie publisher of mine is getting into low-budget filmmaking.

I hope that works out for them.

What do other people think?

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Exclusive interview with S.P. Durnin

Hey readers,  

An extra-special treat for you today! S.P. Durnin, author of Keep Your Crowbar Handy, has decided to sit down for an interview with us. A devoted fan of the post-apocalyptic genre, I was very eager to get his insights into the book and his process.

Keep Your Crowbar Handy (reviewed here) is the story of Jake, Laurel, and Kat--three badass survivors of a zombie apocalypse which manage to find an underground shelter from the horrors outside. Coming to terms with their feelings for one another, they lead a larger band of survivors to try and make it to a safe zone across the country. What happens, though, when jealousy and other personal problems become more important to you than the horrors coming to eat you?


I hope the United Federation of Charles' readers will enjoy reading his insights as much as I have. Okay, let's get started! 

1. First of all, what separates Keep Your Crowbar Handy from all the other zombie novels out there?

Well, the reader has to understand that zombies are the boogeymen of the current era and, if fate is kind, that won't change anytime soon. They inspire feelings of abject horror in many people who'd prefer never to have been confronted by the concept of a mobile, hungry, decaying corps, and make us itch for heroes to confront them.

That's what I attempted to do with book one of the Crowbar Chronicles. Bring heroes, albeit reluctant ones, to life.

I've taken great pains to use nothing but real locations, spec-speak, survival tips, and whatnot -even going so far as to research the most popular brand of blue hair-dye, for god's sake-,  but I've added some elements to the mix that aren't "the norm" when it comes to the zombie/post-apocalyptic genre. Those elements being: a dash of sci-fi/adventure, a bucket-full of over-the-top humor, and a whole-heaping helping of sexual tension.

Examples:

1---I'm of the opinion that -as opposed to keeping with good old, everyday, hum-drum, reality- a good book, one that sucks me in and makes me crave more of the story, has a drop of the fantastic within its pages.

That could be anything from (but not limited to) the outbreak of a radioactive plague that turns people into highly-evolved. oversexed mutants, the Vampire Lords coming back from the 48th Dimension to save humankind from an invasion of murderous, super-intelligent parakeets, or a character learning their slightly-nerdy girlfriend by day. is actually a genetically altered, cyber armor-clad superhero who fights off alien invasions by night.

Pushing the boundaries of imagination encourages growth and progress. Consider any smartphone for instance. Thirty years ago? That was Star Trek.

2---I've had long conversations with other practitioners in the Martial Arts, including a good number who actively practice Ninjutsu. As silly as it sounds, ninja actually do exist and -yes- some of them are female. And quite deadly, I've found. I'm not in any way ashamed to admit that I still have some of the bruises. While I've studied Kung Fu for a number of years,  I'd be more than a bit hesitant to -ever again- try what skills I have even in practice bouts against a few of those ladies.

They're just plain scary.

3---The humor or "giggle-bits", as my Beta (reader) Corps dubs them.

I worked those in to balance out the "Oh-shit, Oh-shit, We're-all-going-to-die!!!" elements of the series. Remember the original Evil Dead 2, with Bruce Campbell? Demons escaping the underworld, severed body parts flying willy-nilly, and one-liners not only from the primary focus of the movie, but from the supporting cast as well?

That's a good time, baby.

2. How would you describe your protagonists Jake, Kat, and Laurel to potential readers?


Okay, I'll do Laurel first. (...No pun intended.)

If we think about it for a minute, most of us have known a really attractive girl/woman with self-image issues. Now before the hate mail starts flooding in, don't take my words out of context. I'm not in any way bashing them, or making light of their feelings. Only stating a fact.

That's Laurel. She's got "all the right junk, in all the right places" as the song goes, but -at least when first introduced- isn't interested in pursuing any type of relationship. She's jaded after been burned once before (badly), so she wants to concentrate on running her business and on her music. She's independent, a little repressed, borderline antisocial, and engages in a lot of hobbies (knitting, hitting Ren-fairs, hiking, playing guitar,) to fill a void in her life she doesn't want to admit having, even to herself.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Kat. In all truth, the phrase "free spirit" doesn't even begin to describe her.

She's a clubber, loves self-defense like it's her job, is into every kind of music from classic punk rock (The Good Stuff) to techno (not so much), and offers no apologies for who she's made herself into. She's confident, knows what she wants -mostly- and just how to get it, and is pretty much fearless to a degree. The fact she acts like a bubble-head to protect herself emotionally (and has a deeply abiding love for all things Hello Kitty) rounds out her personality, and provides her with a snappy little bit of "snark" as well, which is just plain fun to write.

Now we come to Jake.

The best description I can give him is: self-defacing Anime fan and ex-combat journalist turned ghost-writer. Here's a fellow who's been shot, shot at, beat up, blown up, and stabbed in the back (in the most literal sense of the word), who's not exactly happy-go-lucky, but tries to make the best of the mess his life's become. His "ride" he got via mail-order (unassembled in a box), his best friend is far more suave than he ever hopes to be, and his conscience is always piping up with (sometimes questionable) unwanted opinions which cause him to space out at inopportune moments.

Drop individuals like that into the Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, and then you can sit back to enjoy the cringe-worthy high-jinks.

3. The romantic relationships and sexual tension between your leads plays as much role in your story as the zombie attack. How did that come about?

I've taken some flack over the relationship factors/sexual situations in Keep Your Crowbar Handy, but to that I pose this question: What good is living, if you have nothing to live FOR? So yeah. I put some provocative stuff in there.

Happily and unashamedly.

That's because (speaking by way of painful and sphincter-tightening life experience) I've found if you survive facing the violent end of your existence on this little ball of rock hurtling through the universe at 67,000 mph (or thirty kilometers per second), you are going to feel a pronounced urge to take time out and appreciate the touch of another human being who cares for you. That could be your husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, or 'friend-with-benefits', what have you. Your libido is going to temporarily ramp up into overdrive. Perhaps not that very minute, but shortly -once you realize you've narrowly dodged an untimely audience with the Grim Reaper- you'll have a few "R-rated" urges.

I'm not just "whistling Dixie" here.

After speaking with those who's lives tend to be far more dangerous by degrees than your average person's -police officers, firefighters, along with some of the brave men and women currently in the Armed Forces (Who Deserve Our Admiration and Respect for putting their bodies in harms way to protect our cake-eating, civilian asses), I can tell you it's not just me. This is a common reaction and has noting to do with being a "Play-ah" or a "Ho".

It's primal.

It's your back-brain screaming "Holy shit! I'm still alive!!" in your ear.

4. Jake is a former SAS operative, laid­-back geek, military editor, All ­Round Nice Guy, and fabulous lover. How did he come about in your head?
 

Let me tackle these in order.

I created Jake by putting someone who's a mix of awkward charm and currently unstylish values together with just a smidgen of grit. While he's seen parts of the world most of us only fantasize about -which is why he's able to hold his own (perhaps not willingly, but still)  when the situation calls for some "rough-and-tumble"- Jake has the heart of a dork. Thankfully, when he spent time as a civilian consultant for a regiment of Britain's Special Air Service, he received a little combat training, but he's not G.I. Joe and he knows it.

The "laid-back" vibe readers will get isn't simple indifference on his part -which they'll learn as the story progresses-, but psychological fatigue. His family is gone, his friends are all dead (with the exceptions of his aging neighbor Gertrude Jennings, his landlord George Foster, and one Allen Ryker: auto mechanic, skydiving enthusiast and unrepentant "man-ho"), and he's -for lack of a better term- weary. He's alone. Stuck in emotional inertia and tired of The Game. Jake just want's to be left to hang out with Allen, write, consume some Guinness and Jameson Irish Whiskey on the weekends, and enjoy what time he feels he has left.

"All-around nice guy" has become a insult in modern society, the reason for which I honestly can't understand to save my life. Jake's beliefs and actions stem from how he was raised, prior to his father's passing. He has strong opinions towards mental defectives who abuse children, any crap-sucking, bottom-feeders who hit or rape women, and bigoted zealots who blow up buildings (thereby killing thousands of innocent people) for religious reasons. He acknowledges the world is a cruel, screwed-up place, and he's just one guy who's slightly above average in the fist-to-cuffs department, but there is just some shit he just won't put up with. Even if it is the Apocalypse. "Fabulous lover" is perhaps an overstated description in Jake's case.

Give me a moment here to explain why.

After I took a long-long look at supposed romantically-based relationships in today's world, I found many of them to be utterly lacking of anything even remotely resembling real affection. I hate to say it, but if you're hoping to miraculously find "The One" in a club or a bar? Yeah, good luck with the safari. That animal (much of the time) doesn't exist there any more than say... unicorns do. The term "meat-market" has been bandied around to describe those places for longer than I've been alive, so it's lost a lot of shock value, but it's still an accurate term.

I wanted to create a character that understands the human drive to "Go forth and multiply!", maybe even felt the urge pull strongly at him upon occasion (with the aid of a boat-hook), but really only wants to find his "One" if he can. Jake's never been successful in relationships for some pretty tragic reasons, however. So, when he manages to really connect with someone on both mental and emotional levels, he's understandably going to exhibit some amorous enthusiasm while in private settings.
 

5. What experiences from your own life did you draw from to create Keep Your Crowbar Handy?

Crap. I dread questions like that.

Not not because I lack source material, but because the answer makes me sound like a lunatic who's been marked for death by one deity or another. I'll come across with a few things that I can discuss without having to worry about late-night visits from law enforcement though.

1---At twenty-three, I had a knee replacement, thanks to a very close encounter with a four-hundred pound wild boar in South Texas. The surgeon who performed the procedure can kiss my butt, because he informed me after the fact I'd have a pronounced limp for the rest of my natural life.

Didn't happen.

Once I learned how to walk again, I rehabbed my knee by learning (and then teaching) beginner snowboarding after relocating to Montana, and I'm still at one-hundred percent today. (My right knee is now noticeably stronger than my left, to my physical therapists surprise.) Being mauled by that stupid swine convinced me a zombie apocalypse is the only reason I'd ever go back to that area of the country, and I realized the same idea could be applied to the misfit survivors in Keep Your Crowbar Handy.

**Note** That event is likely why I have a slow-smoker grill  (one that looks like a horizontal, black barrel with a smoke stack on the end), and have developed an affinity for pulled pork sammiches.

2---Years ago, I caught a bullet in the back. Lucky for me (can't you just feel the sarcasm?) it rebounded off my third rib, fractured it, spun upwards, and lodged into the underside of my scapula where it remains to this day. It aches when it's cold outside, but no other issues so far.

**Note** I'll tell you this for free: Anybody who tries to say "Gettin' shot ain't nothin" is either an idiot trying to impress someone, or a goddamn liar.

It hurts like hell. I have no desire to ever again experience that level of pain.

Seriously. Ever. In life.

3---Most folks over twenty have been in a relationship that's ended badly (anyone who hasn't should count their blessings), but only a few have actually put said event into a novel, revealing play-by-play information about the way it all unfolded .

I did.

**Note** A word of caution here, just in case you make the poor choice of ending it while out for dinner with your soon-to-be Ex: Merlot stains absolutely do not come out of a tan shirt. Neither does mustard, as it turns out...

Don't judge. It could have gone worse.

6. Will you describe your two female leads to the women in your audience and what you like about them?

Oh boy. This might very well go over like a fart in a spacesuit, but I'm not willing to just make something up here to cover my literary style so here we go.

To get an accurate picture of Laurel St.Clair  in your minds eye, think "hot-tempered, red-headed bombshell". Wavy hair, green eyes, a dusting of freckles, and the woman has some lung-power under that hand-knitted sweater, to be sure. This is my fault. Being an Irishman, I have a genetic predisposition for buxom gingers of the female persuasion with a little attitude.

Kat doesn't resemble Laurel in the slightest. She's of Japanese/Native American decent, and is athletically slim in kick-ass, Kung Fu movie heroine kind of way. But she has a wicked smile. Oh. Yeah. She dyes her hair "Smurfy-blue". This might encourage the reader think she's a little immature, but she really just enjoys playing the vapid vixen. Kat's intellect is rather frightening. While the two ladies are virtually polar opposites -both in looks and personalities, they undeniably share one definitive quality.

Neither could be considered "The Waif."

Nearly everyone has run across such a character in real life, which in modern times is more than a little surprising. Many men still find the "Help! Save me (insert random male here), you big, strong man, you!!" personality to be attractive, but I for one do not. While still single, way back when a tough, little dragon named Lockheed prowled the hallowed halls of Xavier Mansion, I quickly realized that I had zero desire to spend my life with someone of that mindset.

After putting a lot of thought into surviving a zombie apocalypse (shocking, I know), I realized quickly that -as in real life- that I'd want an equal. A companion. A partner. Someone who could take care of herself -or me if the occasion demanded it- in dangerous situations, and not just a pretty face I'd spend a large chunk of my time saving. Sure enough, one day when I least expected it, such a long-awaited woman found me.

After luck of that sort, how could I not put the same strength, the same force of personality, the same qualities I myself revere, into many of the female characters I pull from my melon? Not doing so would cheapen everything I find attractive about the fairer sex, and my Better Half as well.

7. Our heroes start a good bit better off than most zombie protagonists with a house-sized bomb shelter. Do you think that offers an alternative dynamic to most zombie stories? Do you think more stories should change up the formula like that?

I think these people would've had little chance at survival, if it weren't for "proper previous planning" on the part of one very abrasive and foresighted individual.

Yeah, I know. This busts the norm too. Usually, it's the main character who's got a safe packed full of assorted firearms and blocks of C-4 tucked away in his basement, for just such an occasion. That privilege is reserved for another member of the group within the pages of Keep Your Crowbar Handy though. It allows me to spread the Apocalyptic skill set around, so I don't end up writing about a super-capable "Bond-like" uber-character while neglecting others.

Now, should more novels start that way?

Honestly, I can't settle on a definitive answer to that. I suppose it depends on the type of story its creator is attempting to tell. If it's just the lone survivor, then no. In that case, you might end up with a rewrite of I Am Legend.  If the author is going for a more diverse feel however, puling in multiple characters who have specific abilities, that would compensate for the weaknesses of others? I that case it would make sense to have some kind of temporary hideaway or haven. I've seen tons of novels that are about characters trying to get to such a final destination, but few profiling any seeking escape from a ready-made locale.
 

8. Who is your favorite character after the leads?

While I'm sure lots of readers will yell "Foster!" in a calliope of violence-titillated voices, one of my favorites is Rae.

Maybe it's pesky external genitalia influencing my thought process, but her whole  "looks like a sexy-librarian, but can maintenance a Humvee and put an M4 carbine together from its component parts" works for me.

Rae's not perfect though. She's blunt, intolerant of other people's shortcomings, and has an inflated opinion when it comes to her own intelligence.  Yes, she has multiple Bachelor degrees (correspondence courses are wonderful things) and in real-life would closely resemble Jill Wagner, but that by no means makes her perfect. Regardless of how physically and  intellectually appealing she may seem, Rae has virtually no people skills to speak of. That makes coming up with her dialogue a real hoot, let me tell you.

9. What's the most interesting reaction you've gotten to your story so far?


I've received a good number of what you'd call "e-threats" from people who've read the first novel in my odd little "zombieverse"TM , become heavily invested in the characters, and are screaming for more. When one actually threatened to come to my home and (quote/unquote) "whip my ass" if I didn't come across with the next novel soon, I knew I'd done something right.

(To be honest, it's so far beyond flattering to know you've created a story that means so much to so many. I don't know how to express my feelings about it . Little compares, that's for sure.)

10. What can we expect from you in the future?

Oh, there's a lot more on the way in the story of Jake, Kat, Laurel, and the rest of their merry companions. Keep Your Crowbar Handy is only the beginning.

Anyone who's read the Permuted Press release of Book One in knows the survivors have one hell of a journey still ahead of them, and (sorry to tell you this people) absolutely no one is safe. This particular tale is back-dropped against the Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse, which means "Folks is gonna get ate"! I've already turned Book Two (Rotting to the Core) over for the editorial birthing process, and I'm currently hip-deep in the third (working title: Assuming Room Temperature) so events within the story are about to speed up in a big way.

The dead aren't going anywhere, and our survivors are still desperately trying not to kill each-other over various, annoying personality quirks. Then to top it all off -as if flesh-eating ghouls weren't bad enough-, there are some really unpleasant people roaming around the rubble of mankind's now-wrecked civilization.

As to what's next, after the Crowbar Chronicles are complete?

A while back the muse hit me hard enough to knock me to my damn knees, so I know where this particular apocalypse it headed. I'm outlining two -possibly three- novels set in the same universe, but the survivors in the Keep Your Crowbar Handy series won't a part of them. Though people enjoy spending time with the crew of the Screamin' Mimi, I've always said the story of these characters will be a finite one. No loose ends, no "lost years", no "The Further Tales Of-" books, nada. That's because normal people only have so much fight in them before they're to weary to continue the struggle.

Besides, another adventure has already begun bouncing around in my mind like a white-hot hedgehog and, judging from the way it's set my cortex simmering, the dead will be staggering on for a very long time to come.

World of Warcraft: War Crimes review


    This is a World of Warcraft courtroom drama.

    It's played entirely serious.

    Now, either this is awesome and hilarious at once or it's suspension of disbelief breaking. I lean more toward the former than the latter. Does it make sense that Baine Bloodhoof and Tyrande Whisperwind have either the training or formal speech patterns of a trial lawyer? No. Does it make sense that Azeroth has any of the legal traditions of a modern Western trial? I dunno, does it make sense Gnomes can build rocket-trains? No, but we love them anyway. Lastly, is it fun?

    Yes, very much so.

    Which is bizarre because this is about an unrepentant war criminal. High fantasy things like keeping the Red Dragon Aspect Alexstrasza as a slave to breed mounts, mana-bombing Theramore, and blowing up dissident orcs are treated with all the gravity of their equivalents in real-life. War Crimes isn't a parody, being a straight example of the genre, but it might qualify as satire. Fictional characters in an absurd (but awesome) fantasy world taking conduct in war more seriously than Earthlings today seem to be doing.

    The premise is Garrosh Hellscream, much-disliked leader of the Horde, has been captured by Thrall (I will never call him Go'el) and Varian Wrynn.  This is, of course, references events which happened in-game. I always feel kind of bad for the player characters involved in these sorts of in-universe climatic battles because they almost never get even referenced. You'd think they'd get a mention now and then like, "The Heroes of Azeroth" assisted them or something.

    Oh well.

    Garrosh committed many crimes during his tenure of Warchief from elevating the orcs above the other races, destroying island nation of Theramore, and worse. Both sides want him executed but Varian believed that having tried and found guilty would have a greater effect. They, thus, turn to the Celestials of Pandaria to serve as neutral judges. This is an astoundingly bad idea as Sylvanas points out since all-loving gods are unlikely to deliver a verdict motivated by political expediency.

    This book is almost devoid of action and, instead, focuses on characterization. We get Jaina dealing with her continuing PTSD (albeit, a more violent form than in real-life), Anduin trying to understand the monstrous activities of Garrosh so he can offer him solace as a priest, and Vereesa Windrunner's simmering desire for revenge against her husband's killer. We also have a nice little bit of characterization from Sylvanas who has been see-sawing between good and evil for awhile now. I especially liked the take of the book on her, which is that Sylvanas is kinda-sorta evil but really mostly insane now.

    Some might see it as a cop-out that Sylvanas is mentally ill but I think Christie Golden does an excellent job of illustrating just how twisted her thinking has become. I won't spoil the ending but her redemption seems further away than ever. How does redeem someone who has come to the conclusion it is better to be a monster? Even if the transformation is against your will? I think that's an appropriate question to ask as part of what makes Sylvanas so interesting is she's not just misunderstood but filled with spite and hatred from her eyes down to her toes. Whether she can recover from her current state or not is anyone's guess but I'd love to see a Windrunner novel from the author.

    I'm kind of iffy on some of the characterization. Jaina Proudmoore's sudden turn toward warmonger never quite sat right with me because while the destruction of your homeland would set ANYONE on a roaring rampage of revenge, the fact is that she's survived it twice before. Jaina was neck-deep in the zombie genocide of Lordaeron and the destruction of Dalaran in Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. Jaina Proudmoore was never naive but a hardened piece of steel willing to do anything for peace. She's closer to Princess Leia meets Rick Grimes than the character presented here, I think.

    Then again, clearly people should be listening to my fanboy interpretations over the who has helped develop this character better than anyone.

    Hehe.

    Still, mostly this book does very well in establishing why the Horde and the Alliance has such problems reconciling. Thrall stands by his decision to appoint Garrosh as Warchief because he's showing he accepts responsibility for his choices. He has a very Orcish attitude that you don't wring your hands about the past but move forward. To the Alliance in the audience, however, he may come off as self-justifying. Cultural differences are a serious hurdle for both sides to overcome. Garrosh, himself, may feel all manner of horrible feelings about his actions but he is so much of a proud warrior to ever admit it. He'd rather go down in history as a hated villain than a broken man.

    I regret this book never got into the head of Garrosh Hellscream. I would have been glad to have a point of view which finally gave us just what the hell he was thinking half-the-time. I suppose that would defeat the purpose of the book, however, which is to analyze how a monster's actions may be interpreted by others. Still, I hope we get a resolution in book form. This is too complicated a character to be resolved with a simple raid boss fight.

    In conclusion, I recommend War Crimes. If you can get over the somewhat surreal use of kings, queens, and warlords as lawyers in a Hague-style situation then it has a lot to go for it. Others may find Jaina Proudmoore's characterization or others to be grating. I trust Christie Golden, however, and am looking forward to the sequel.

8.5

Saturday, September 27, 2014

World of Warcraft: Arthas: Rise of the Lich King review


    Arthas.

    The Lich King of Azeroth.

    It's difficult to really convey the story of Arthas to anyone who hasn't played Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos and its expansion The Frozen Throne. I may eventually get to reviewing those real-time strategy games someday because they remain the apex of storytelling in their genre. Which, admittedly, means it's them against Command and Conquer plus Starcraft but I digress.

    For those who didn't play the game, it was a wonderful "Fall from Grace" story as Arthas attempts to save the Kingdom of Lordaeron from a zombie apocalypse. Well, undead apocalypse. Arthas went to increasing extremes throughout the book, doubling down on his bad decisions, until he ended up losing his soul to the accursed sword Frostmourne.

    Arthas' story was very similar to what a lot of fans expected from the Star Wars Prequels. Arthas as the good but flawed knight who ends up selling his soul to the proverbial forces of darkness in exchange for power. In his attempts to save everyone, he becomes the very thing he despises. Oh so tragic. Arthas also had elements of Michael Moorcock's Elric with his magic sword that appears to be less evil than the monster it slays.

    Christie Golden has the unenviable task of expanding the story of Azeroth's most iconic villain. How do you improve on a story which was told well in another medium? A simple repetition of the story would not be satisfying while changing things runs the risk of removing what fans liked.

    With the defeat of Arthas not yet having been detailed by the time of the book's publication, a lot of fans were also looking for some way Arthas might get his comeuppance too. Christie Golden succeeds by making it a story about Arthas the man versus Arthas the monster.

    Arthas: Rise of the Lich King is a character study of a flawed and weak man who still had many admirable qualities. Arthas was born to a lineage of heroes in the wake of the extra-dimensional orc invasions. Everything was expected of Arthas and he did his best to deal with these monumental expectations, even when it would have been better for him not to be so perfect.

    Arthas was a man who would not bend and thus simply broke.

    Surprisingly, despite the fact I'm not often a big fan of this, the love triangle was my favorite part of the book. My favorite World of Warcraft character, Jaina Proudmoore, falls in love with the person Arthas pretends to be and is ultimately betrayed when she gets a peek at the weakness inside.

    It was a powerful moment because it's something which doesn't need wizards, witches, or undead but all-too-human fear. I also like the addition of Kael'thas to their relationship as we see another character like Arthas, used to getting everything he want and surprised when he doesn't. By the end, poor Jaina has been put through the ringer emotionally and her suffering has only begun as later books show.

     The book has many memorable moments, including how Arthas acquired his signature horse and meetings with other signature characters who would shape the setting. None of these scenes are used as an opportunity for a cameo but are exploited to give insight into Arthas' thinking process. He's a man smothered by his lack of choice and, arguably, this prevented him from ever developing the ability to make good ones.

    No wonder he chose the "freedom" of evil.

     The ending of the novel is excellent because it deconstructs excuses for evil. Arthas has many reasons for why he did the things he did: Frostmourne, Ner'zul, Mal'Ganis, Uther, his father, and even Jaina. People who loved him want to believe he could be redeemed and that his previous goodness outweighs what he'd become. That he's not at fault for what he's done. The book provides an answer and lets Arthas take responsibility for the first time in his life in a great but terrible way. 

    In conclusion, Arthas: Rise of the Lich King is a great "Start of Darkness" story which gets us into the head of the Lich King and shows us why he's the dangerous monster he is. What makes him so terrifying, though, isn't that he's a remorseless evil psychopath. It's that he chose being one over being a hero because it was easier.

10/10

Friday, September 26, 2014

Batman: Assault on Arkham review


    I confess, I never expected to see an R-rated DC comics cartoon in my lifetime. Now, I'm sure they don't rate Assault on Arkham "R" specifically but instead has a PG-13 one. Which is ridiculous because heads explode plus sex, violence, and swearing. There's a substantial number of bodies dropped during this movie with cannibalism, decapitations, and being impaled in the face with a grappling hook as just some of the way people die.

    PG-13, my Utility Belt!

    Really, about the only reason I can assume this movie was rated PG-13 is because the characters are all animated so watching the severed head of one rolling across the ground counts less. There's also not that much blood despite the fact there's enough. Arguing about something as subjective as the ratings system, though, is pointless. I just want viewers to know this is the mature side of the DC Animated Universe first.

    Assault on Arkham is an hour-and-a-half-long movie based on the Batman: Arkham Asylum video game franchise. This is kind of misleading since the Arkham franchise isn't all that distinct from the mainstream DC Universe with rare exceptions. Aside from a few character designs, this could be any of the animated movies that takes place in their own "pocket universes." That isn't a complaint, however, as it's still a very well done version of these characters.

A great collection of villains.
    Interestingly, this movie isn't based on the adventure of Batman despite being set in the Batman: Arkham Asylum universe. No, instead, this is more a Suicide Squad movie. Which is curious since they didn't exist in the Arkham Asylum universe until fairly recently.

    What is the Suicide Squad? Well, my dear reader, it is a collection of DC comics supervillains assembled together by the government to go on missions too dangerous to send actual soldiers. Furthermore, if you refuse to cooperate, they detonate a bomb in your head.

    Both elements are demonstrated repeatedly during this rather ruthless movie as our villain protagonists are killed rather summarily throughout the movie. This is a dark movie and because our protagonists are "evil" it doesn't spare a moment of remorse for any of them. I was actually offended a few times because a few of the characters killed were quite likable as well as ones I'd grown up with.

    Oh well, it's just in this continuity.

Harley is awesome, as always.
    The premise is, as stated, the government (represented by Amanda Waller) assembling a task force to eliminate the Riddler after he's acquired a great deal of information he shouldn't. The Riddler has been captured by Batman, however, and is imprisoned in Arkham Asylum.

    Rather than request a prison transfer through the legal system, she's instead decided to send a black ops team to break into the place. For once, Arkham Asylum isn't treated as the cardboard prison we know it to be and is as guarded as a Super Max for the Super Insane should be.

    The characters assembled for this suicide mission are Deadshot, Captain Boomerang, Harley Quinn, Killer Frost, KGBeast, Black Spider, and King Shark. Quite a few of these characters will not be making it out of this mission alive but all of them get to demonstrate their personalities, skill sets, and abilities with the exception of one (who I won't spoil gets the ax early). The Joker ends up playing an unnecessary role in the story but, really, given it's his home turf and his role in Harley Quinn's life--I shouldn't be surprised he makes an appearance.

Again, Harley is awesome. There's other people but she's my favorite.
    The standout performances are Neal McDonough's Deadshot, Hynden Walch's Harley Quinn, (of course) Kevin Conroy's Batman, and Jennifer Hale's Killer Frost. Jennifer Hale actually doesn't get that much to do but I find her voice hits all the sweet spots and have since Knights of the Old Republic.

    I like Deadshot's characterization the most here because he's treated as the only sane man in a gang of lunatics as well as an eeriely calm professional. Harley Quinn is a hoot as always with Hynden Walch stepping into Tara Strong's big shoes quite well. While nothing exceptional, Troy Baker does an uncanny impersonation of Mark Hamill's Joker. If I questioned any characterization, it would be Amanda Waller's as she's portrayed as quite a bit more evil in this film than normal.

    In conclusion, I heartily recommend adult DC comics fans check this one out. It's brutal, dark, sexy, and hilarious even if it's nothing exceptional in terms of plot. I wouldn't let the kiddies see it, though.

8/10

Batman: Arkham Origins: Cold, Cold Heart review


    Batman: Arkham Origins and its first major DLC have something in common. They're derivative of much better stories and an attempt to cash-in on them. My review of Origins here talks about how it had potential but ultimately failed to live up to it. Here, I was looking forward to the DLC but found myself disappointed by it for other reasons.

    The premise of Cold, Cold Heart is more-or-less identical to the classic Batman: The Animated Series episode, "Heart of Ice." Ferris Boyle is being given the a Humanitarian of the Year award when Mister Freeze breaks in with a gang of thugs to kidnap him. We discover that Ferris Boyle is not really that much of a humanitarian and Mister Freeze is more sympathetic than his robotic suit might attest.

    Cold, Cold Heart screws up this premise in every conceivable way.

The visuals are impressive in this DLC, so there's that. This is damning with faint praise, though.
    The first problem is, of course, it's a straight retelling of an already-famous show's most famous episode. There's no surprises or twists here for even a causal Batman fan. The second problem is it's a BAD retelling as it adds a bunch of things in which undermine the episode's fundamental message.

    How?

    Well, Mister Freeze kills about a dozen people upon his entrance to Wayne Manor, callously freezing or blowing them up. Even if you assume it's harmless freezing, there's still the people who died in the initial explosion. It's hard to care about the message about Mister Freeze being misunderstood when he slaughters a dinner party on his way in.

    I was willing to forgive this element so long as the gameplay was fun but it's not. Cold, Cold Heart is basically the same as the rest of Origins, except in the main game you might enter a room with six guys holding machine guns. In Cold, Cold Heart, you enter said room only there's like sixteen. This doesn't ratchet up the tension but slows things down. It's what I like to call "Fake Difficulty" and it's something which coats most of the missions here.

Penguin's presence in the DLC is solely there to pad it out but, unlike most of the padding, it's quite enjoyable.
    There's some decent elements to the story. The opening at Wayne Manor is well-designed with our short glimpse of us giving us a sense of the immensity of the family legacy. I also liked the depiction of Penguin's club. The Penguin's presence in the DLC is an unnecessary complication but I liked how it showed Oswald Cobblepot's seething resentment of Bruce Wayne. Really, I think a better DLC might have been made of his revenge plot.

    All of this, of course, leads up to the final fight against Mister Freeze. Sadly, this where this DLC disappoints the worst as it's just a retread of the original one against Mister Freeze in Batman: Arkham City. That was a great Boss Fight, don't get me wrong, but it feels somewhat insulting just to throw it into this game.

    About the only thing I liked in Cold, Cold Heart's gameplay was fighting the cryogenic weapons-wielding enemies. The fact they can zap their own guys was greatly entertaining. If this had longer-term consequences than just halting them for awhile, I might have enjoyed it more. It would have added a valuable strategy element to gameplay--but it's just a quirky addition to the combat.

Bruce Wayne letting the mask slip just a bit.
     There's a segment at the start, too, where you are forced to fight as Bruce Wayne rather than Batman. Deprived of your body armor and gadgets, Bruce Wayne has to deal with a number of thugs at a drastically reduced capacity. While I think it's improper for Bruce Wayne to ever fight thugs personally due to his secret identity, given they were threatening Alfred I think it was appropriate there. I liked this section of the game and wish it was longer.

    In conclusion, there's two words to describe Cold, Cold Heart. Derivative and Padded. It doesn't do anything horrible and it's still based on Arkham Asylum's excellent combat system as well as Batman but it's not really all that fun.  Play it if you're really-really bored.

6/10

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Keep Your Crowbar Handy review


    It's like The Real World meets The Walking Dead.

    If this combination intrigues you, you should definitely check out this novel. If it sends you screaming in the other direction, then you should not. Keep Your Crowbar Handy attempts to do something different with the zombie genre and for more than half the book is a subversion of your typical post-apocalyptic tale.

    Our protagonists manage to be impossibly lucky and have the right combination of people to not only survive the initial outbreak but know a Doomsday prepper who was rich as well as paranoid enough to build a house-sized fallout shelter. In terms of the zombie apocalypse, it is the equivalent of winning the lottery five times in a row. Except, of course, our protagonists are all twenty-somethings with a couple of middle-aged adults shoved together with nowhere to go and a slow dawning realization no one is going to rescue them. As George Romero's movies show, the biggest danger in this sort of situation isn't zombies but your fellow survivors.

    I was back and forth on the book for much of the first half until I realized just what S.P. Durnin was doing. It's a story which works on a slow burn and has a nice element of satire to it. Our protagonists are beautiful, young, hedonistic folk who would be right at home on MTV or Friends with the small exception most are unusually badass. I'll get more into this but this is what lends the book its unique feel.

    The book takes place in a sort of exaggerated zombie-slaying video-game or humorous action movie universe where everyone is sexy and tough but acts like the kind of person you'd meet at the mall. Even one-chapter characters like Tracy are entertaining this way.

    Our protagonist, Jake, is a laid back hipster who just happens to be an ex-SAS soldier, anime geek, editor, fabulous lover, and all-round nice guy. He's accompanied by Kat and Laurel who are two badass women without his special training but equally laid-back take on the apocalypse.

    One has a sword.

    And no, it's not a polygamy situation--a pity, too, since I actually think it'd make sense in this situation. Last man on Earth and all that. Keep Your Crowbar Handy is the sort of book where it's less important that the end of the world is happening outside than events have forced a bunch of people together in a tiny space they can't leave. At least for the first half of the book. Boredom and abrasive personalities are the biggest dangers for the majority of the book rather than cannibal corpses.

   I can't say this is remotely realistic as you'd think one of this group would start to wonder if their family was horrifically killed (and one is). However, it fits with the book's metaphor, which is the zombie-apocalypse is pretty much your twenties. You're forced to with impossible situations and a large scary world but as long as you're in your apartment, you're relatively safe. That is, of course, until the food runs out and you need to go into the Big Bad WorldTM to keep the lights on.

    I liked the metaphor in Shaun of the Dead and this is a more glamorized American take on it. Our protagonists are even taken care of by their metaphorical parents, carrying their asses when they're too busy focused on enjoying themselves. I will say the author went overboard making Jake a sort of living god of idealized Generation Y manhood and spent too much time focusing on who was sleeping with who over the flesh-eating monsters outside. However, it's hard to fault the author too much because I liked the characters and their romances.

    Those more interested in apocalyptic action and zombie-slaying also only half to wait for the latter half of the book to get their fill. While the first half is mostly action-less with a single extended chase scene, the second is wall-to-wall undead murder. Kat, Jake, and Laurel earn their monster hunter credentials three times over during this section and I'm quite pleased with it.

    Keep Your Crowbar Handy is a quirky-quirky book and I enjoyed reading it. I loved the characters, too, and recognize all of their are true-to-life in their personalities. They're sexy as hell too. Hell, I married a girl like Kat (also named Kat weirdly enough). The humor in the book is great and there are large segments where I became invested in the personal struggles of our heroes.

    A lot of people have attempted to do the same zombie apocalypse over and over again. A bunch of survivors, trapped together, desperate, and then slowly picked off one by one until the survivors bleakly move on. Keep Your Crowbar Handy is not that book. It's a book which a girl with a Hello Kitty tattoo and sword slays a bunch of zombies while debating tossing her boyfriend's ex into the horde of undead outside. Which is great.

7.5/10