Tuesday, October 21, 2014

At Hell's Gates review


    Charity and horror fiction. Three words which do not normally go together but, honestly, should. All profits from At Hell's Gates sales go to The Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund. This gesture is something which naturally inclined me to like this book and its contents but I'll try to keep an unbiased perspective to the writing.

    This is a collection of a dozen or more short-stories which chronicle the adventures of various heroes as they deal with increasingly bad situations. They're the heroes facing hell (hence the title) and, in many ways, this is a surprisingly uplifting book. The heroes rarely come to a bad end and, when they do, it is a genuine surprise.

    At Hell's Gates is a book by such notable indie horror authors as Jacequline Druga (Contagion), Stephen Kozeniewski (Braineater Jones), Shana Festa (Time of Death), Stevie Kopas (The Breadwinner), and Paul Mannering (Tankbread).

    Quite a few of the vignettes deal with the characters from these works and if you're familiar with any of them, you're probably going to get more out of the stories than someone who is not. At Hell's Gates is a mixture of good, okay, and stories I found myself indifferent to.

    My favorite story is probably The Err Apparent by Tim Marquitz, which is a R-rated version of the Dresden Files with the Devil's nephew as its protagonist. Another standout is The Princess and the Flea by Paul Mannering. I wasn't familiar with either work beforehand but both were incredibly enjoyable and encouraged me to check out their universes.

    Some of the stories are ones that weren't so great, however. None of them were bad, per say, but some of them felt like they were teasers for the book worlds they came from rather than complete stories themselves.

    The best of At Hell's Gates is when the tales decide to show something in its entirety. Journal of the Undead: The Beginning by S.G. Lee is an example of one of the complete stories which is stronger for it.

    If there's a flaw with At Hell's Gates, it's the fact the vast majority of the stories are zombie ones. I think the anthology promoters would have done well to highlight this fact. Calling it At Hell's Gates: Zombies or something similar might have made things better, IMHO. Here, I expected a more diverse variety of stories and found, instead, a zombie anthology with a few outliers.

    Not every story will blow you away but it has a pretty good average against professional anthologies I've read. There's also some real gems in it as well. Given it is less than half the price of a comparably sized independent book, I think it's well worth the price to check out. The fact the profits go to charity also means that I encourage horror fans to pick it up.

     In conclusion, At Hell's Gates is a worthy edition to any horror fan's e-library.

7.5/10

Buy at Amazon.com

Monday, October 20, 2014

Sword Sisters review


    What if Red Sonja wore clothes?

    This is an odd way to begin the review but it's what I thought about when I read this book. Red Sonja, for uncultured HEATHENS out there (or people who have just never heard of her), was an adaptation of a Robert E. Howard character to Conan the Barbarian's Hyborean Age created by Marvel comics.

    The character is infamous for creating the chainmail bikini outfit while also, perversely, being one of the strongest female characters then in print. Her dichotomy of being a male fantasy character who is otherwise empowered would also extend to her sexual politics: infamously being a woman who would never be with a man who could not defeat her in battle.

    Aella is basically Red Sonja without all that crap.

    Well, sort of. Sword Sisters is more like Red Sonja: The Teenage Years. I understand this is a prequel to an indie fantasy movie starring and directed by one of the authors, Tara Cardinal. I haven't seen The Legend of the Red Reaper so I have to just this novel on its own merits. For that, the novel works pretty well.

    The premise of the novel is, loosely, Demons (with a capital D) invaded the world a thousand years ago. They proceeded to engage in horrific war crimes, many of which resulted in half-demon hybrids called Reapers. The majority of these hybrids were just as bad as their parents. However, they also engaged in war crimes which resulted in quarter-demon hybrids who weren't nearly as horrible. These Reapers successfully drove off the demons and won the war. One last half-demon hybrid was born, however, and she was sent to live amongst her quarter-bloodlined brethren.

    This is Aella. Aella is prophecized to be the last of the Reapers and someone who will change the world. Many of her brethren, who have formed a sort of samurai warrior-caste, are less than pleased their civilization is going to die with her. Despite this, they have chosen to adopt her and treat her as one of their own. They are attempting to mold her into the perfect Reaper and, bluntly, Aella is taking to this like a fish to desert.

    So she rebels, goes out looking for trouble, and finds it.

    Before I get into the rest of the review I should mention that while the book ditches Red Sonja's weird sexual hangups, it does maintain a strong gendered focus. In addition to the fact that the entire of the superheroic sword-swinging badasses being the product of sexual assault, the world of Red Reaper is strongly patriarchal.

    Women do not fight outside of the Reapers and are expected to dutifully obey their husbands. They are also chattle to be used in the religious ceremonies of the people's oft-questionable deities. The titular sister gets introduced soon after Aella rescues her from being sacrificed to a giant spider. The novel got itself an automatic nine out of ten, there, just because the heroine fights a giant spider.

    You can't get much more Sword and Sorcery than that.

    I can't give Sword Sisters a ten out of ten despite how much I want to because of a few minor flaws. The introduction is an info-dump which could have been better told to us in the book itself. Aella's angst is rather annoying at times and more believable as a sixteen-year-old girl rather than a ninety-five-year-old-one-who-looks sixteen. I also am uncomfortable with the fact the heroic warrior caste of the novel are, literally, all the product of war crimes.

    Despite this, though, I would recommend this novel strongly. It's nice to have old school Sword and Sorcery and if the novel is strongly gendered, it's gendered in the way which Red Sonja was good rather than bad. Many of her best stories were about kicking sexist pigs in the face and rescuing young women from human sacrifice before teaching them how to fight. The Reapers are an excellent group of heroes, origins aside, reminding me of the Witchers from the titular series.

    The supporting cast is excellent too with Amelia, unsurprisingly, being my favorite of the group Aela picks up. She's a great take on the "clever peasant girl" archetype and reminds me of Belle from Beauty and the Beast if the latter was really angry at being dumped at the Beast's castle. I really bought Aella and Amelia's friendship and how it developed. I also became very fond of Damato after his introduction. Sort of a antihero version of Aragorn. Some of the characters I like won't make it through the book and others will, leading me to hope this will be a series.

    As for Aella, herself, as mentioned she gets a little whiny herself but insecurities do not overwhelm her positive qualities. She's a strong character still finding her footing but who doesn't hesitate to get in the face of her tormentors. I also like that she's more interested in teaching others to stand up for themselves than be their rescuer. I find her atheism curious in this world (as I do in most fantasy worlds) but being raised by demons then demon hybrids will, undoubtedly, leave an impression.

    In short, if you can look past its flaws, this is a great-great book. I recommend it for all Sword and Sorcery fans, men and women alike.

9/10

GnomeSaga: Rough Magick review


    Rough Magick is the first book in a trilogy called the GnomeSaga. This is intriguing to me because, as far as I know, gnomes are the least-liked race in fantasy. Existing somewhere underneath kender and well-beneath dwarves, gnomes are a group of people which don't really have a fantasy idiom to call their own.

    This is mostly Professor Tolkien's fault as he managed to define what elves and dwarves were but didn't take time to spell out what gnomes were. Margeret Weiss and Tracy Hickman gave gnomes the bailiwick of being the anachronistic holders of technology in a fantasy world, which the gnomes of Azeroth cemented as a quality of them, but they're still fairly unloved.

    Kenny Soward is not going to be the one who changes gnomes forever in the public mind, in all likelihood, but he'll likely be referred to by readers as a man who gave them their chance in the sun. GnomeSaga is a story about gnomes with gnomes as the heroes and it does a reasonable job at showing them as perfectly capable of holding their own in a high fantasy story.

    The premise is there is a multi-dimensional empire ruled by a mysterious "Baron" which utilizes a race of stone-based lifeforms called (appropriately enough) Stonekin to conquer other races. These people, along with mind-controlled slaves, are forced to fight to the end in the Baron's service with no hope of escape. The Stonekin's leader, Jontuk, has found an inventor who is prophecized to lead them to freedom.

    She just has no idea about any of this.

    Niksabella is a nerdy shut-in inventor who is too focused on trying to get her infinite energy device (powered by magic) working to care about these sorts of things. Ridiculed and laughed out of polite Gnomish society, she is taken care of by a handful of friends who still believe in her. Her brother, Nikselpik, is a Necromancer of no small skill but has ruined his life with an addiction to "Bugging." A habit which is functionally identical to heroin use.

    These two oddball antiheroes are going to find themselves caught up in an extra-dimensional war which not only threatens their Steampunk-esque fantasy homeland but much of the rest of the Mutliverse as well.

    I should mention, before we continue, Rough Magick reads very strongly like Dungeons and Dragons fiction. Clerics cast spells which heal, wizards throw fireballs, and just about everything functions like someone is rolling dice in the background. As someone who grew up playing 2nd and 3rd Edition, this isn't a bad thing. However, new readers may be surprised to find out this isn't official Dungeons and Dragons fiction but a wholly original piece. Frankly, I wouldn't mind if the author did a Pathfinder or other 3rd Edition-influenced supplement for the setting as it might be fun to play in once or twice.

    Despite its heavy D&D-inspiration, the setting still feels pretty original and evocative. The gnomes have a fantasy steampunk-esque society with its own laws, customs, practices, and habits. They feel somewhat like if you dropped a bunch of Londoners from H.G. Wells and his contemporaries in the middle of a Tolkien-esque fantasy setting then cut them in half. It's slightly more adult than most D&D fiction I've read with Nikselpik being a drug-addicted lech but not so much I'd even rate it PG-13 versus PG. The author even uses made-up swear words like "futtering", which means exactly what you think it does.

    The characterization is fun and I can't say any of the characters annoyed me. I could have used a bit more description in places like the amorphs, the Stonekin, and otherwise but the author is usually quite good at giving the reader an idea of his rather bizarre universe. Clearly, the author also sat down to figure out who does what and how in the gnomes' society and that effort shows. I even liked both leads' romantic troubles, which I rarely say.

    So, overall, I'm going to give this a very high rating. It's not perfect and the story often overwhelmed me with so many new names but the author transported me into a high fantasy world which I liked. If you have any affection for worlds where fireballs are flung, tyrants are overthrown, and steam robots fight with alien-parasite controlled zombies then this is the book for you. I barely even noticed the heroes were four-feet-tall.

9/10

Buy At Amazon.com

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Dragon Age: The Stolen Throne review


    The Dragon Age universe is one of my favorite D&D inspired fantasy settings. It has a direct developer link to Baldur's Gate, which means it's linked to Forgotten Realms, which means it's plugged directly into my childhood.

    Dragon Age novels take themselves seriously despite being game-fiction, which I appreciate. As a thirty-three-year-old man who reviews video games as well as books, I need to pretend I'm not still the big kid at heart I am. Anyway, to understand this novel I should lend some context.

    The Stolen Throne is the first Dragon Age novel, written by series writer David Gaider, and details a lot of the backstory relating to the country of Ferelden. In Dragon Age: Origins, Ferelden was the setting and developed surprisingly well. While mostly fantasy England like 90% of all fantasy video games, it included a lot of little details like the fact the culture is strongly influenced by breeding dogs and not so little ones like the country had just managed to overthrow its pseudo-French neighbors.

    The chief villain of Origins, after the Blight, was the character of Teryn (Duke) Loghain. This is not a spoiler since anyone who looks at Loghain knows he's going to be the villain almost instantly. The thing is, while he remains your antagonist, the game hints he's more tragically misguided than evil. You even have the option of sparing his life and recruiting him as a party member, allowing him to redeem himself for his crimes.

    The Stolen Throne is both Loghain and Ferelden's story. Ironically, Loghain plays less a role than Prince Maric. Maric is the lawful heir of Ferelden's throne (and father to series' favorite Alistair) who has never sat upon it due to the fact the Orlesians (the aforementioned faux-French) have ruled over his kingdom for a couple of decades. His mother, the Rebel Queen, is a legend for her resistance to Orlais but Maric is more or less a pathetic disappointment.

    Then the Rebel Queen dies.

    Poor Maric ends up in charge and it's up to a clever peasant boy named Loghain to help him become a man. Loghain doesn't want the job since he resents all nobility for hardships he and his family have had to endure but will gradually warm up to the young prince. He won't, however, become a believer in the hereditary system of rulership and that I appreciate.

    The book has some very fun female characters like Rowan the Warrior Noble and Katriel the Elven Bard/Double Agent. Katriel is more or less Leliana (from Origins) with pointy ears so I was automatically inclined to like her best out of the characters in the book. Rowan, by contrast, is probably better qualified than Maric to lead the nation but can't because she doesn't have the right bloodline.

    Can they take back Ferelden from the Orlesians? Well, since Ferelden is an independent nation by the time of the games, yes, but how they do it is a winding twisty path.

    Part of what makes this story so appealing is it works entirely on its own. If you've never played any of the Dragon Age games, you can still enjoy this story on its own merits. Everything you need to know about the franchise is included in this volume and it has a satisfying narrative arc for everyone. Some characters will live, some will die, and others will have an unhappily ever after. How all this happens is quite entertaining to read.

     I also like the book's relatively modest stakes. Countless fantasy stories have the fate of the world resting on the shoulders of our heroes. Here, the fate of a single kingdom is on the line and it's not from monsters but their fellow human beings. The Orlesians are a brutal and repressive ruling class but not cartoonishly so. Or, if they're incredibly evil then it's because real-life regimes tend to be that way to conquered territories. You can't really outdo history in that regard.

     I found myself caring about the heroes and their personal lives, too, which I almost never do in fiction. The fact the romance story arcs aren't preordained to end in the way they traditionally do in these things is a nice change of pace. People get their heart broken, class stands in the way of true love, and sometimes what's broken can't be repaired. Which is, frankly, more true-to-life than most of us would like to admit.

    The book lives and dies on what I consider to be its authenticity. The world feels like it could have happened on some parallel Earth. Questions of morality, economic exploitation, racism, feelings of inadequacy, and cultural posturing all help ground the piece. It's really-really good and, in my opinion, not just a good game novel but a good novel period. Non-franchise fans could pick this up as an introduction to the setting.

    Buy it.

10/10

Buy At Amazon.com

Dracula Untold review


    Dracula is a historical figure who is, arguably, a lot more interesting than Count Dracula. While Dark Prince is not the sort of movie which is going to persuade you of this fact, the historical Vlad the Impaler lived a very interesting life. Being raised at the Sultan's court, intrigues, imprisonment, and more. If HBO ever wanted to do another show like The Tudors, they could do worse than do one based on his life.

    What does this have to do with Dracula Untold?

    Oddly enough, I would give it a B+ for educational content.

    I can already hear my readers making gasps of confusion. But C.T. Phipps, you magnificent stallion, isn't this a movie where Dracula becomes a swarm of bats to kill hundreds of invading Turks?

    Yes, yes it is.

Luke Evans captures a haunted, tragic Dracula even if he's a man who makes entirely justifiable moral decisions.
     However, this is also a Dracula movie which remembers the Turks existed and even explains what Janissaries are. Any movie which has the Dev┼čirme or "Blood Tax" where children are collected to be turned into the real-life equivalent of Unsullied is aces in my book.

    The movie even remembers Vlad III had a child and spent his formative years in the Ottoman Empire. His Turk-allied brother isn't mentioned (and seems to have been combined with the Sultan) but we history buffs can't have everything.

    The premise of Dracula Untold is Vlad III is the peaceful, noble, good-guy king of Transylvania. He used to be a prisoner of the Turks and was forced to fight for them (which isn't true in RL), but has given up his life of violence to live with his pretty blonde wife. The Turks, however, want 1,000 children for their Janissary army. Unable to oppose the Ottoman Empire on the field, he proceeds to seek a vampire out for the power to defeat their army.

    Much undead mayhem ensues.

The Old Vampire doesn't even have a name but Charles Dance makes him terrifying.
     The vampires in Dracula Untold are less like traditional portrayals of their kind and more like Abyssal Exalted, which are (for the laymen), basically gods. Dracula, at one point, kills an entire army by himself. The bigger problem for Dracula is, who would have guessed, vampirism is alienating to his subjects.

    Luke Evans plays an excellent Vlad III in this movie, more or less looking like a very buff version of Orlando Bloom. While I can't say I approve of a movie which turns Dracula into an unambiguously heroic figure, he's an excellent antihero throughout.

    Indeed, I question the anti-hero part at all since he makes everything seem very-very rational. Once your plan involves making a deal with evil supernatural beings, though, I suppose even good reasoning fails as a moral defense.

    The supporting cast isn't bad either. Dominic Cooper as the Sultan looks (and acts) so much like Karl Urban, it hurts. Sarah Gadon has little role other than to be Dracula's loving and supportive wife but takes that in some unexpected directions, too. Loving and supportive doesn't necessarily mean weak, after all. Game of Thrones' Charles Dance plays a vampire elder so generic he doesn't even have a name but does it so well that he's a potential Palpatine in the making.

Sarah Gordan is a lovely-lovely woman. Reminds me of Rosamund Pike.
    The special effects are serviceable with most of the money saved for some really impressive feats by Dracula with the rest being alluded to. I didn't mind this and the sense of Dracula's godlike powers wasn't bad. This version of Dracula is about as powerful as the one from Castlevania: Lord of Shadows (which is pretty damn powerful).

    I wouldn't say the action in the movie is pretty good but it doesn't embarrass itself, either. Dracula fighting non-superpowered beings like the Turk soldiers could have gotten old quickly, so they mix it up a bit. Mostly, his main power is becoming a swarm of bats which he uses like teleportation in Dishonored (which isn't a flaw mind you). I would have preferred to see more of his super-strength or other abilities, however.

At one point, the Turk army marches blindfolded. I don't know why. The movie doesn't either.
    I'd say more about this movie but there's really not all that much to say. It's a standard heroic journey, except the heroes' journey is becoming a vampire demigod. A lot of the movie is predictable but it doesn't do anything wrong either. The best parts of the movie are when there's surprises but those are few and far between.

    In short, this is a good popcorn movie akin to the Resident Evil movies. Whereas watching Mila Jovovich be an unnaturally attractive zombie slayer is the appeal there, the appeal here is Luke Evans being a vampire-themed superhero slaying members of the Evil EmpireTM. It's like 300 without the racism.

    7.5/10

Friday, October 17, 2014

World of Warcraft: Wolfheart review


    I like Richard A. Knaak's writing. This is something which often puts me at odds with myself because the two of us approach World of Warcraft very well. For one, he's a professional writer for it and I'm just a disenchanted fanboy. His WOW writings tend to be good vs. evil, I prefer moral ambiguity. He likes the Night Elves as noble, decent, good guys. I prefer them as wild savages which look down on lesser races. He likes Malfurion, I like Illidan.

    Now, after Wolfheart, I can say that I prefer Varian Wrynn as a flawed barbarian hero who is (in some ways) the worst thing to happen to the Alliance in years. While the author seems to prefer him as the messianic deliverer of humanity from darkness. It's ironic, though, since this book actually shows my viewpoint at the start but changes him into the latter. This is problematic because I was quite happy with him being the above enormous jerk and find him less interesting now that he's gotten over his problems.

    The premise is the Alliance is holding a summit at the Night Elf capital in order to debate the acceptance of the Worgen (werewolves) into the Alliance. This is controversial, though not for the reasons you'd expect. No one really seems to mind the idea of werewolves joining their faction, they are more angry over the fact they're from the nation of Gilneas. Gilneas was a member state in the Old Alliance but left it after the Second War. This is viewed as treason by many in the Alliance despite the fact they did it in peace-time.

    The thing is, the only person who seems to object to Gilneas joining is Stormwind and that's apparently enough to sink the entire deal despite the Alliance being composed of a dozen other member races. We also have a subplot about how King Varian is the chosen of the Wolf God of Azeroth, Goldrin, as opposed to one of the entire race of werewolves nearby. He's, furthermore, blessed by the goddess of the Night Elves Elune.

    ...

    Uh-huh.

    The funny thing is, I *LIKE* Varian. I enjoyed him in the World of Warcraft comics and most of his appearances in the game. I just don't care, much, for him being somehow the most important person in the Alliance let alone Azeroth. He might be Aragorn but Aragorn was a supporting character. Here, the focus is Varian and Stormwind's importance at the expense of many other characters. I'm doubly annoyed here because Varian as the savior of humanity intrudes on Jaina Proudmoore being such (which she was established as being in Warcraft 3).
   
    Despite this, I think there's much to like about Wolfheart. I enjoyed the mystery plot about who was murdering Highborne Night Elves despite the fact I figured out who was responsible early on. I also liked the new character of Jarod, who seemed like he brought some new attention to the Night Elves.My favorite part of the book is probably the subplot about the Horde invading Ashenvale. We get a real sense of the banality of evil watching how Garrosh manipulates patriotism and racism to abuse people who look different from them (ironic, too, given they're orcs).

    I will say he seemed to recover from an early trauma in the book too quickly and, frankly, think that plot could have been jettisoned. My favorite part of the book was the Horde invasion of Ashenvale and their attempt to take its resources-rich territory from the Alliance. It's rare the Alliance gets to fight the Horde in a full-scale war and this scene worked well. The characterization in the book was good, too. In truth, the only part I really object to is the attempt to sell me on Varian as such a great leader and important figure--which I just flat-out do not buy. Either before the events of the book or after.

    In conclusion, if you're not troubled by setting up the King of Stormwind to be the most important figure in the Alliance then this book will probably be very enjoyable. If you're looking for a stand-alone novel, this probably won't work either as it depends a great deal on knowledge of World of Warcraft's setting. Still, it's not a bad novel and I have nothing but praise for Richard Knaak's writing ability.

7/10

Buy At Amazon.com

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Breadwinner: Haven review


    The Breadwinner Trilogy is a self-published trilogy of novels which is getting reprinted up by Permuted Press. It's an interesting phenomenon of the indie scene that, increasingly, publishers are picking up proven successes on the self-published market than take a chance on a new series. Here, I'll be reviewing the original version of the second novel sans edits.

    The second book starts with Samson, Veronica, and Ben sailing away from their doomed hometown in order to find a new location. Deciding to take refuge in a luxurious high-rise apartment complex, the trio come across another group of survivors and merge their two groups.

    Anyone want to guess there will be trouble?

    Haven does have one large problem at the start and that is the fact it jumps right into the action, which normally wouldn't be the case but I'd forgotten who was who from the previous volume. I had to get out my copy of The Breadwinner in order to figure out what was going on since Haven resumes immediately thereafter.

    Once I managed to get past this stumbling block, though, I applaud Stevie for showing some real courage in throwing wrenches into the story. People talking about The Walking Dead being courageous in killing off characters but Stevie is up there with the comic. When one such death occurred, I was immediately hooked back into the story again.

    The majority of the book, like the previous volume of the series, chronicles the adventures of the previous band of survivors. Led by the mysterious and dangerous Michelle, they attempt to live out the apocalypse in their apartment before deciding to try the Dawn of the Dead thing. Take over a shopping mall? What could go wrong!

    I really bonded with the character of Michelle and she swiftly became my favorite character in the series. Unfortunately, halfway through, I mentioned this to Stevie Kopas on a website she frequents only to get sniggering from her. You'll find out what I mean later. I must say I'm kind of disappointed but the twist was, nevertheless, shocking.

    Then again, I've often liked characters like that.

    In conclusion, Haven is a good continuation to the characters' journey of the previous books with a couple of surprise twists. Some of which are truly shocking. The book suffers because Samson was, hands down, the most interesting character in the series and moving away from him is problematic. Likewise, I felt annoyed at the twist with Michelle. Otherwise, it's a fairly straight zombie adventure which succeeds on its merits as a typical example of the genre with the aforementioned surprises livening things up.

    Buy it when it's re-released in Spring 2015.

7/10

Buy at Amazon.com