Friday, October 31, 2014

Great Bitten: Outbreak review


    28 Days Later is one of the two movies which tell the definitive British zombie apocalypse story. The other is Shaun of the Dead. The first gets referenced a couple of times in Great Bitten but, oddly, not the latter.

    I don't think Great Bitten is going to get many accolades as either film but it does manage to capture an essential British zeitgeist. Which is, of course, "What would it be like in the United Kingdom during the zombie apocalypse?"

    The lens through which this apocalypse is viewed is Warren Fielding. Warren is sort of an ur-British hero as twenty and thirty-something Brits see themselves (or forty-and-fifty-somethings looking back).

    Just the way brown-haired hard men making hard choices represent the way American males like to see themselves, Warren is an anti-establishment working-class background kind of guy who is angry at the world but good-humored about his distaste for everything.

    He's quintessentially British. At least to anyone born during the 1980s to early 90s.

    I know this, oddly, because every single one of my England-born players made the same basic character for our online Tabletop games. Just about every one could be described the same way, too. Warren reminded me a lot of these old friends so I'm inclined to be kind to this book, fair warning.

    Much of the book is about how the author sees the United Kingdom fairing during the zombie apocalypse. Some of the differences are stark and give a different sort of spin on the event than American fiction's usual, "everything falls to crap at once."

    Utilities last a long time in Great Bitten, as does things like the internet. Survivors are Twittering and Youtubing the apocalypse well after you'd think they'd be boarding up their homes. Guns exist but they're rare and something the protagonists wish they had more of. The government rabbits to the United States, doing their best to make it appear things are normal while planning for the worst.

    There isn't much of a plot for the first two-thirds of the book. It's just Warren trying to get himself, his sister, brother-in-law, and their child to safety. Warren's flawed character is studied by the author as a part of him wants to make this his hour.

    Warren doesn't know anything more about the zombie apocalypse than anyone else but tries to become the leader anyway. Some of his suggestions, like not drinking (still functioning) tap water, are ridiculous but show what sort of person he is. Warren wants to be useful and Z-Day is his chance.

    Or is it?

    The plot which exists at the end of the book and sets up the sequel is my least favorite part of Outbreak. It resurrects the tired old trope of, "a bunch of men start enslaving women when the apocalypse happens." The fact it was used in 28 Days Later even gets lampshaded in the text. Given I want this trope to die in a fire, I'm happy about its inclusion.

    Thankfully, this overused plot doesn't take up much of the book and I hope it doesn't play a big role in the sequel. I was a big fan of the characters in this book and would like to see Lana, in particular, return. Lana is a well-designed lesbian character who's self-confidence plays off against Warren's insecure masculinity.

    They're very entertaining together and would have been a good couple if not for their incompatible orientations. The two were developing a fast friendship in the book and I hope neither dies anytime soon.

    I'll probably read future volumes in the series but I wish the book had ended on a more definitive note. Outbreak is entertaining, well-structured, and has a different feel from most zombie-apocalypse stories. It's not perfect but, then again, what is?

8/10

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

John Golden and the Heroes of Mazaroth review


    This is the funniest thing I've read in ages.

    Seriously.

    I may be biased since I'm a World of Warcraft fan but this is hilarious. Most of the jokes are understandable to someone who hasn't played but those who have, man, they're (no pun intended) golden.

    The book contains references to: auction houses, dungeon raids, re-spawning, fantasy's somewhat questionable female attire, questgivers, and God knows how much else. I've read the story three or four terms and I'm still finding new in-jokes. This is a labor of love and I appreciate that.

    The premise of the John Golden series is fairies have invaded the internet. It's much easier for them to manifest in computer networks than in our world. This interferes with the performance of the systems and, occasionally, the fae steal the souls of their computer's users. As a result, a special class of fairy-hunters exist called Debuggers.

    Debuggers can physically enter the networks and kill the wayward fae inside. This doesn't actually harm the fae since "death" is only temporary for them, but it repairs the network. John Golden is the world's best debugger, in part due to the aid of his disembodied sister Sarah.

    Sarah lost her body in a fairy poker game (don't ask) and has been living in John's laptop ever since. Possessing all the powers of an A.I., Sarah provides John with badly-needed backup in the internet-influenced world of the fae.

    Here, John Golden has found a stereotypical fantasy Dark Lord living in a finance company's servers. John finds out this fae is a refugee from the obscenely popular Heroes of Mazaoth game. Unable to defeat the powerful internet daemon, John needs to figure out a way to get it to return to a life getting killed repeatedly by level-grinding gamers.

    Again, it's hilarious.

    I can't say much more about the story without spoiling it. After all, the book is only sixty-nine pages long. However, it gets funnier by the page. Buy this novella if you own an e-reader, love urban fantasy, and have the slightest familiarity with WOW.

10/10

John Golden: Freelance Debugger review


     I like urban fantasy which doesn't take itself too seriously.

    One of the greatest fantasy novels of all time, The Hobbit, is a ridiculous story from start to finish. Which, of course, you might miss if you're only familiar with the movies. Terry Pratchett has made a cottage industry out of using fantasy explore absurdity. John Golden: Freelance Debugger is a funny urban fantasy novella, only sixty-eight pages, which I'd gladly read a full-length series about.

    Before I begin this review, I should talk about the size. It's about a quarter the size of a full-length novel but costs half-as-much. Despite this, I'm still going to recommend purchasing this novel and its sequel. While not a big fan of novellas, sometimes they're entertaining enough to be worth the purchase price (and then some).

    This is.

    The premise is fairies are real but instead of menacing the quote-unquote real-world they've discovered they can manifest in computer networks. Fairies proceed to screw up bandwidth and play pranks on their users, which really plays havoc with computer owners. Sometimes, they even kill and eat the souls of their computer operators.

    This is where Debuggers come in. Debuggers are those rare humans who can physically enter the virtual reality worlds of fairies and "kill" them. This act banishes them back to their home-dimension and frees the networks from their control.

    John Golden is one of the world's foremost debuggers, existing as a combination IT guy and James Bond. Well, he likes to fancy himself the latter but he's much-much more the former. John travels with his sister, Sarah, who lost her body during one of his adventures and is now a kind of ghost in his laptop. Sarah, notably, resents this as she's an atheist and prefers to think of herself as a computer simulation of the very-dead flesh-based Sarah.

    The books are written from the perspective of John's memoirs with Sarah hacking them to add her own (often hilarious) commentary on events. John tends to take a somewhat action-orientated view of his adventures with a heavy dose of romance while Sarah is ruthlessly pragmatic. How the two describe a programmer John crushes on is, for example, very different.

    I could spoil the story but it's better experienced. This is a fun-fun adventure and I recommend it for anyone with an e-reader.

10/10

Buy at Amazon.com

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel review


    Having purchased this yesterday, I'm not going to be giving a comprehensive review. Rather, I'll be discussing the first five or six hours of the game and whether or not I think it's worth purchasing. After I finish, I'll do a separate review of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel's storyline. To begin, I'd like to mention I consider Borderlands 2 to be one of my top five video games of all time. They go: Skyrim, Dragon Age: Origins, Knights of the Old Republic, Borderlands 2, and Mass Effect 2.

Moon-bot! It's fun to say Moon-bot!
     You might guess from these games, I'm primarily an RPGer, so it's to Borderlands 2's credit I put it on the list. The game is fun, has interesting characters, and is one of the best open-world experiences I've ever played. It was also funny, which deserves kudos by itself. I enjoyed all of Borderland 2's DLC and am planning to go through the first game when time permits.

    The main game and DLC set up numerous sequel hooks: the existence of other Vaults, the assault on Hyperion's space-station above the planet, and the existence of other Sirens. Sadly, Handsome Jack was dead and his passing left big shoes for any successive villain to fill. Gearbox seems to have realized the latter as well, which is why this is an intrequel between the first and the second games.

    The premise is a modification of the "take back Helios" sequel hook. The player characters are one of four Vault Hunters Handsome Jack has hired to, what else, find a Vault. Two of the Vault Hunters are his minions from Borderlands 2: Nisha the Lawgiver and Wilhelm the Enforcer.

    The other two are a mysterious assassin named Athena and series mascot Claptrap. Playing the role of the villain's henchmen isn't so far from the normal Borderlands experience since all the Vault Hunters, with rare exception, are one form of anithero or another.

There's lots more guns--and that's really the whole point, isn't it?
    Handsome Jack isn't yet the CEO of Hyperion. Nothing more than a low-level programmer, Jack is acting way above his pay grade by hiring mercenaries. It's a good thing he did, however, because a legion of former Dahl corporation mercenaries seize control over Helios Station in order to prevent Jack from finding the Vault he's hunting.

    Keeping Jack from opening a Vault is a VERY good idea but it appears they're bad since they attack without provocation. Your character is forced to flee the station and head down to Pandora's moon, which is where you will prepare to take back the station. This is where the game really begins.

    For the most part, this plays identically to its predecessor. The protagonists and their abilities are different but only slightly. Wilhelm, for example, doesn't have a turret but a pair of flying weapons platforms which heal him as well as attack his enemies.

    Claptrap is the most interesting character given his abilities are somewhat random. I've yet to play the others but am eager to give them all a try. Additions to the gameplay is the moon's gravity is low so super-leaps are possible. Likewise, air pockets are scarce on the planet so you have to use oxygen tanks in order to move between habitable areas.

Handsome Jack is still handsome. That's going to change.
    Long-time fan-favorite Scooter is replaced with Australian lesbian Janey Springs, who is one of the few inhabitants of Pandora's star system possessing a moral compass. In a way, I regret the loss of Scooter because he's wonderfully repulsive but I'm interested in this new character. Hopefully, she'll demonstrate some of the horrific personality flaws which make the series so entertaining.

    So far, I'm seeing a lot of the same only with new environments as well as a few tweaks. This isn't a bad thing since there's no reason to change a formula which works. There's no significant upgrades to the game environments but they're entertaining and the writing is top-notch if silly. I'm hoping we'll get to see more series regulars since the series' appeal is, in-large-part, due to its quirky characters.

     If I were to give this game a fault and that would be a rare fault indeed, it is the fact the game has a substantial amount of platforming to it. This fact is somewhat bothersome as I play Borderlands for the shooting, not the leaping into the air in a precisely-aimed manner. The driving sections are also more difficult due to all the extra rivers of lava and ice.

    Fans will appreciate more Handsome Jack and the development of several characters who died in Borderlands 2. If this is the last video game I ever buy on Xbox 360, then I'm happy to say it's money well-spent.

    10/10

Buy at Amazon.com

The Walking Dead: Season 2: Episode 5: No Going Back review


    Wow.

    That was a trip.

    No Going Back is, easily, the best of the Season 2's episodes. I also think it's got some of the most troublesome plot twists. A lot of the drama is forced and requires the characters to act like idiots but I was willing to overlook this because the story was so good. The funny thing is this is probably the least "plot-centric" episode of the series and works due to the strength of its characterization.

    The premise of this episode is the group has survived its shoot-out with some Russian Survivors and is now stuck with a teenage boy who was traveling with them. Kenny doesn't trust him because, well, the boy was part of the group which just tried to rob them.  The rest of the group doesn't trust Kenny due to his violent murder of a character in Episode 3 and his depressed rage from his second wife's death.

    The group splitting up is something which was foreshadowed in Episode 4 and the events which do it are shocking. By the end, you will probably hate some characters you previously liked and possibly killed some.

Tensions rise in the group for very good reasons. Also, because everyone hates everyone else.
    Either way, Clementine will know the sting of betrayal.

    Or she'll commit it herself.

    The theme of No Going Back seems to be, "sometimes good people will do bad things when they're scared." No one is evil in this episode. Even if you buy into some conspiracy theories about the character of Arvo, he's just a guy stuck with the people who killed his group. Everyone just wants to be safe and that means getting rid of the people they don't trust. The sad part? The only person trusted by everyone is Clementine.

    And she can't keep this group together.

    One thing I liked about this episode was the fact Telltale forgoes its usually railroading to allow no less than five different endings. While none of the choices really "matter" until this point, the final choices can have a dramatic effect on who lives or who dies. I'm happy with my ending, Clementine staying true to herself and not abandoning those she loves. I've seen the other endings, though, and they are pretty damn bleak.

    So I guess I lucked out.

Amazing how a touching moment like this can go downhill so quickly.
     Sadly, as I mentioned, some of the characters are required to be idiots. They must be willing to go over, rather than around, an avoidable natural hazard. They must be willing to trust the opinion of a relative newcomer to someone they know well. They must be willing to endanger their own lives in order to make another character appear less trustworthy. Really, the characters make stupid decisions this episode. I can't be too mad at them, though, because people in real-life do that under stress.

    As a finale to Season 2, No Going Back was a good one.There's some truly powerful moments like a flashback to Season 1, the fate of a character who I'd grown to like, all of the finales, and conversations where you get into the heads of characters who all want your approval. Clementine is the glue which keeps this group together but none of them really see her. I was glad for the opportunity to mention, in-universe, no one listens to Clementine even when she's talking sense. No wonder this group was doomed.

My ending actually brought tears to my eyes. Okay, not really, but it came close.
    Some gamers may complain the finale for Season 2 isn't very well plotted out but I think the actual plot-plot ended with Episode 3. Carver was the main threat which drove the story and everything else is just denouement. The threats which menace Clementine here are human nature and distrust, which can't be shot or beaten to death with a crowbar. It's a nice contrast to the Stranger plot which so dominated the end of Season 1.

    Goodbye Season 2, I look forward to your sequel.

    10/10

Monday, October 27, 2014

Blood Deep review


     The Blackthorn novels are my favorite Paranormal Romance series.

     Period.

     I think it's because they straddle the line between genres so well. They're predominately romance with lots and lots of sex but don't sacrifice plot, drama, or world-building. The world is well-developed, divided on cultural as well as species lines with a heavy-emphasis on social ills. The character arcs are nicely done too, each lead showing genuine growth by the end of the novel.

    The books have a signature style too. A pair of lovers meet, initially antagonistic, only to grow closer as they struggle against one another. This is always in the decaying urban hellhole of Blackthorn, a ghetto where the supernatural is segregated away from quote-unquote "polite" (read: human) society. Each couple is somehow tied to the Vampire Prophecy, which predicts the rise of a leader who will overthrow the human-run establishment to set up a more egalitarian society.

    Blood Deep is the fourth novel in the series, introducing our fourth and final pair of star-crossed lovers. Jessie and Eden are a human male and supernatural woman caught up in  covert operation gone horribly wrong. Eden, the man, has been sent to infiltrate crime boss Pummel's twisted "Circus" in order to extract Jessie for his employers.

    Eden has been promised medical treatment for his niece if he can extract Jessie in three days. Jessie is a member of an unknown Third Species (non-humans like vampires or werewolves) with the power to heal. She is mystically enslaved by Pummel and if she tries to turn against him, she'll die.

    Eden, of course, falls in love with Jessie but can he deliver her from one slave master to another?

    Read and find out!

    Interestingly, I find Eden and Jessie to be the healthiest relationship of the four series couples despite the fact she's a slave and he's an undercover cop pretending to be a convicted murderer. Previous romances in the series have involved a lot of emotional blackmail and even attempts to kill one another.

    Here, Eden wants to help Jessie but he's caught in a situation where he can't blow his cover. Jessie would dearly love to trust Eden but she's a woman who has been seeing nothing but the worst of humanity in Blackthorn since its creation. Trusting a man who appears to be a hardened felon (and who isn't that far from one in reality) is a risk she isn't willing to take.

    At least, initially.

    What I really liked was the Noir elements and how they were taken to new heights this volume. We get a real sense of the injustice of Blackthorn's world and the segregation of species. The Circus isn't that far from John Carpenter's Escape from New York, a place where criminals are dumped to live out lawless lives where the strong feed on the weak. The immense poverty in Lowtown and surrounding districts also highlight the troubles of Blackthorn aren't as isolated as initial books implied.

    We also get some development of the Vampire Prophecy plot and how the major powers are dealing with it. I admit, I wasn't too keen on the metaphysical results of our heroes "defying destiny" implied by this book and hope there's an explanation as to who (exactly) is so offended by it. I am, however, glad to see fictional power brokers dealing with prophecies in a proactive way. Which side is more evil is up in the air and I wouldn't be at all surprised to find out that Jessie is premature in her belief humans are worse.

    I like the characters of Jessie and Eden, both of them appealing to me for various reasons. Jessie's Third species race turned out to be a genuine surprise and yet made perfect sense with all of the clues dropped earlier. While, "I did it all for a sick relative" may sound somewhat contrived, you can tell Eden is a ruthless man at heart. Jessie is hard in her own way, cleverly manipulating Pummel to avoid the worst of his abuses while plotting to figure out her next move. Jessie could easily kill Pummel, in all likelihood, but where would she go instead? As events reveal, there's nowhere safe in Blackthorn's world.

    I liked the supporting cast, too, which is surprising given the majority of them are unrepentant psychopaths. Everyone from Mya to Chemist to Tatum is one sort of scumbag or another but they're all likeable scumbags. I wouldn't mind seeing the survivors come back in future books as allies of convenience. It takes skill to make likable protagonists but it takes an artist to make bad guys you enjoy reading about.

    I really liked this book, arguably as much as any other in the series if not more so. This is one of those rare series I think which may get better the further you get into it like the Dresden Files. The fact the main plot finally getting off the ground is good too. I'm eager to see how the Vampire Prophecy ends and hope we'll see a conclusion in the next couple of books. Despite this, I'd still be happy to read more in the world.

10/10

Buy At Amazon.com

Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Etiquette of Giving a Bad Review


    Recently, I was talking with some associates on Facebook about when to give a bad review. I'd given a lower-than-expected score to a book and they were surprised. They asked me what my criteria were for scoring and whether or not I'd ever given a bad review. I answered, yes, I'd given bad reviews in the past and would continue to do so in the future.

    They asked me if I was ever worried about authors trashing my work in public or getting mad. I answered, "Well, if I was intimidated by hard feelings, I wouldn't be a very good reviewer, now would I?"

    It occurred to me, however, there's not much on the internet about the right way to give a bad review. There's plenty of Caustic Critics (thank you, TV tropes) who love to put down things because they suck and it's funny to hear stuff get heckled. These reviews are wildly popular and with good reason.

    People appreciate the honesty of having the flaws of a work pointed out to them. However, I've seen a lot of reviews which are just teeth-gnashingly nasty with no real content. It's okay to hate on a work but I've never really gotten much feedback from, "It sucks! Don't buy it!"

    What is the purpose of a bad review?

    For me, the it's to hold up a sign and warn away people away like a lighthouse does with ships near rocky shores. I'm a great believer there's so such thing as bad publicity so I have to always ask myself, "Is a bad review better than not reviewing something at all?"

    There have been several books I have refused to review on the United Federation of Charles because, bluntly, they weren't very good. The authors were friends of mine but I couldn't, in all honesty, review their work without tearing it down.

    One free ebook I got from an author hadn't been formatted properly so it didn't have paragraphs. I told her that she should correct that but that it being for sale, now, was a mistake. I would have mentioned this on her Amazon.com page but there were already reviews which pointed this out.

    So, when should I post a bad review? Here's my thoughts:

1. When you feel the need to be a dissenting opinion: This is something that often motivates me and that's when I find myself reviewing something very-very popular which I don't like. My review of  (here) reflects the fact I found Cole Phelps to be a sanctimonious jerk who made ahistorical claims about World War 2.

    I also found the game's open-world to be unnecessary. The game was often called the best game of all time and I felt it was most certainly not. Still, I gave it a two-star rating because a one-star rating wouldn't acknowledge the fun I did have. I gave a similar review to Fallout: New Vegas: Dead Money (here), which I found to be boring and poorly designed.

2. When I feel the author can do better: I find it amusing that, hands down, the single most popular review on my website is my review of Charles Stross' The Jennifer Morgue (here). To date, it is my only one-star review on this website. I hesitated to post it anywhere but my blog because I love Charles Stross' writings and respect him as an author. He's a guy who writes Cthulhu-themed spy fiction, more or less catnip to my Delta Green-loving brain.

    However, The Jennifer Morgue was one long shallow parody of James Bond which turned up its nose at the series every chance it could get while cribbing its plot from Thunderball (the most overused of all Bond films/novels to rip off). It was painful to get through and unworthy of the author's efforts. I hope to meet Charles Stross someday but if we ever do, he needs to know I don't think much of that work.

3. When there are problematic elements: As mentioned above, I'm a fan of both the literary as well as the film version of James Bond. If I were to ever review Ian Fleming's works today, however, I would find myself unable to give them ten out of ten scores on the basis they were often racist and sexist.

    I don't mean "kinda" racist or sexist either. I mean stuff like that in From Russia With Love, Kerim Bey talks about how he used to keep his future wife prisoner in his basement. H.P. Lovecraft is the greatest horror author of all time, in my mind, but if I glossed over some of the vile crap he said about other races then I'd be doing a disservice to my readers.

    The thing is, I still love H.P. Lovecraft but he has quite a few stories I'd give 1 star or below to like Medusa's Coil. That's the story where the "horrible revelation" the protagonist discovers about herself is she's got black ancestry. Not exactly sanity-blasting, IMHO. I weigh in how these elements effect my readership and point them out so readers can judge for themselves whether they think they'd enjoy a book.

    While most modern authors avoid the excesses of the past, I can't tell you the number of times I've knocked off a point or two because the villains are a bunch of rapists because the author has decided that's the best way to show they're evil. That particular bit of storytelling really burns me.

4. When I think the flaws are not immediately apparent: This is where I will make my own confession time: my first Tabletop RPG, Winterweir, sucked. This is a somewhat overly harsh opinion, I've been told since I have a fairly rabid fanbase. I still took it off the market, though, because it had a lot of typos and grammatical mistakes I might have found if I'd been more cautious. It doesn't look amateur-ish, though.

Mostly, because of the kickass cover art by Storn Cook.


    Reviewers were not fooled by the cover, though, and their opinions were brutal. In this day and age, anyone can buy awesome cover art or even excellent editing (which they don't do often enough) but you can't buy good writing.

    That only comes with practice.

    Finally, the 5 and most important rule.

5.  When you *do* post a bad review, be specific and honest: A review where you praise everything and don't mention what you dislike doesn't help an author (unless you really liked everything). A review where you criticize everything but don't mention what you liked is equally valueless (unless it was that awful).

    I use the 1-10 scale for a reason because it is the rare book I think is technically perfect as well as awesome to read. Stuff like Heir to the Empire or Time of Death: Induction are the rare books I think are genre classics in the making. Most books, by contrast, get lower scores even when I really like them.

    If I'm unhappy I've read a book, then I'm happy to assign a 2-5 score for a work. However, if I've liked it in even the mildest way I tend to give a 6 or above. 8 is what happens for book I really-really liked but don't think did anything exceptional. I only give 9 or 10 scores to books that I think not only tell a good story but do something which really sticks with me or makes me think. Don't dilute the 10 out of 10's power or the 1 out of 10's venom by throwing them around causally.

    I hope this has helped future reviewers out there. I also hope readers and potential reviewers will understand that writing out reviews for authors is something they live for (both good and bad). Take the time to review the books you like (and dislike) and share those opinions. Staying silent is something I reserve for only the worst of the worst.

    The books I'd rather see forgotten.

Addendum

    Some friends have e-mailed me privately about this article and mentioned they feel intimidated by potential audience retaliation. Part of what Amazon.com has made the mistake of doing was including a "helpful" or "unhelpful" response system. Likewise, other authors have attempted to go after authors they find to be problematic.

    My response to this? Barring tracking you down to your house (where you should call the police), don't sweat it. No one likes getting a bad review and some people are going to be immature asshats about the whole thing.

    I've posted over a hundred reviews at Amazon.com and a tenth of them have been marked unhelpful. Nine-tenths of them, however, have been marked helpful so I know I'm doing something right. You can't deal with the audience reaction to your reviews, whether from rabid fans or authors who act like five-year-olds. The majority of Amazon readers aren't going to pay attention to your review ranking, either, but instead what you wrote.

    Remember that.