Thursday, December 26, 2013

Kris Longknife: Defender review

This week I decided to review Kris Longknife: Defender by Mike Shepherd. When the book begins the heroine and namesake of the series has made contact with a world populated by both a non-space faring indigenous species and a group of shipwrecked humans, including her grandmother who was believed to have been killed during a war long before the birth of Kris. She sends news back home which brings her Grandfather, King of one of the largest alliances of Human worlds, racing to reunite with his estranged wife. He brings with him a group of new advanced frigates and everything needed to build a support station for them. He appoints Kris commander of the forces assigned to the system. This leaves Kris having to deal with problems ranging from an angry captain who views her as an undisciplined hellion, learning as much as she can about the enemy she faces from wrecked ships and ruined worlds, and convincing the native species the aliens who have been stripping nearby worlds of everything down to air and water have to be stopped to repelling attacks on her position while finding a way to obtain food supplies when its discovered the planet she is defending doesn’t produce enough excess food to handle having a fleet’s worth of extra mouths added to the eaters. She also manages to find time to get married in the havoc.
I give this book a 9 out of 10. The Author is fast becoming one of my favorites due to his skill at writing space combat both ship to ship and fleet actions, the problems Kris faces as she tries to establish and support her base and fleet are well thought out. I would rate it higher but there were a few questions I felt should have been asked by characters in the story which never came up. Not enough to ruin it by an stretch of the imagination but enough to keep it from being a perfect rating. 

Movie Review -- 47 Ronin

Today I'm reviewing the new Keanu Reeves movie 47 Ronin, based on the old Japanese story.

The story takes place in feudal Japan, a land of myth and monsters. Kai (Reeves) is a mysterious foreigner who was taken in by the Asano clan as a boy. Viewed with fear and disdain because of his strange origins, he is a second-class citizen within the clan. Only the lovely Mika (Kou Shibasaki) seems to take a shine to him.

One day the Asanos play host to the shogun Tokugawa (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and their rival Lord Kira (Tadanobu Asano). A bit of treachery on the part of Kira and his witch (Rinko Kikuchi) forces Kai to fill in for the Asano's representative in a sparring match. Unfortunately, only samurai are allowed in the match, and when Kai's good-natured deception is revealed, he is severely punished. The betrayal doesn't end there, though. The witch tricks Lord Asano (Min Tanaka) into attacking Kira. This leads to Asano's death and his land falling into the hands of Kira. His second-in-command Oishi (Hiroyuki Sanada) is imprisoned and Kai is sold into slavery.

One year later, Oishi is released and immediately hatches a plan to avenge his former lord and save Mika from her impending marriage to Kira. This means breaking Kai out of captivity and reuniting with his scattered men (who are now masterless ronin). This is only the beginning, however. In order for their mission to succeed, they must face the mysterious inhuman Tengu, the witch's magic, and Kira's army. Will they be able to overcome these odds and bring the bad guys to justice?

I quite enjoyed this movie. A large part of said enjoyment comes from the slick production values, particularly the costume designs. There's a wide assortment of costumes in this film, and it really imparts the wealth and beauty of Japan (even if wasn't filmed there). The characters are even played by real Japanese actors, unlike some movies. I also appreciate the amount of research that went into this film. The writers really know their Japanese mythology and theater.

The acting itself is good, if not exactly stellar. Keanu Reeves brings a stoic edge to his character, and Rinko Kikuchi delivers a suitably sinister vibe to her role. There aren't really any standout performances to speak of.

However, I do have a few complaints. Namely, the villains themselves are pretty generic. I was expecting some sort of diabolical endgame from the witch, but her motivation remains pretty shallow and murky throughout. Whatever she was planning, I'm still in the dark about it.

Fortunately, the movie has some cool action to offset that. I can safely say I was kept entertained until the end credits. Also, it is worth mentioning the story does not have a traditional Hollywood ending. You might not like what happens to our heroes.

All in all, I really like this movie, and I encourage everyone to go see it.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Third Look -- God School

Brandon and Freya used their powers to halt all the traffic in front of the hotel and freeze the people already out there. Once that was done, Freya conjured a sleigh out of thin air and gestured for Ev to get in back of it. He did so, though he felt silly. The two gods got in front after attaching a harness to Freya’s tigers. They evidently were meant to pull the thing.
            “Ready, Ev?” Brandon asked.
            “As ready as I’m going to be, I guess.”
            Freya took the reins. “Let’s go!” The cats begin running, and the sleigh followed suit. Down 6th Street they went, and they must have been quite the sight—if anyone could see them. After a minute the tigers took to the air. Ev felt a rush of excitement as the sleigh rose off the ground. The Seraphim City skyline spread out before them, a glittering collection of lights and skyscrapers. Ev couldn’t help but marvel as they got a grand view of the magnificent city.
            Before long they passed over Jaxon Harbor and the Treadwell Bridge on their way out of the city. No one on the ground seemed to notice the sleigh flying above their heads. That was probably due to the gods’ magic—or powers or whatever.
            Soon they were over the Nibian Sea, heading east. The sleigh must have picked up speed, because before Ev knew it they passed over the Murnau Islands.
            Despite the fact they were exposed to the elements, Ev didn’t feel cold, and the wind wasn’t whipping loudly through the sleigh.
            Brandon turned around to face him. “You know anything about the Murnau Islands?”
            Ev shrugged. “They don’t think very highly of women, I hear.”
            “That’s an understatement,” Freya said, keeping her eyes ahead.
            Ev was curious about that statement. “What do you mean?”
            “They have absolutely no respect for women. They don’t even consider them to be human,” Brandon explained. “You’ll find out all the ugly details soon enough. For now, it’s best not to think about it. Ignorance is bliss, in this case.”
            “Uh…OK.” Now he was really curious, in that “I want to know, but I don’t want to know” sort of way.

* * *

After flying for a while (Ev’s cell phone said it had only been an hour, though it felt like longer), they arrived at their destination: Mt. Oleia. True to Brandon’s map, the mountain rose out of the sea like an angry rock giant. It was mostly comprised of one massive crag, with two smaller crags flanking it.
            Freya maneuvered the sleigh around to bring them closer to a tiny, almost imperceptible opening on the main crag’s face. They flew into it and landed in what appeared to be some sort of hanger. Inside were other sleighs of varying sizes and colors. Some looked like they could hold at least twenty people.
            They got out of the sleigh, and a young man in a jumpsuit came over to them. “Welcome back, Miss Freya, Mr. Strong. How did it go? The old girl didn’t give you any trouble, did she?”
            “None at all, Josh,” Freya said. “She handles as good as she ever did. My kids really have the hang of it by this point.” She indicated the tigers. She then whistled, and they retreated back into her chest. Ev wondered whether they were, in fact, her children or just her pets. He didn’t know anything about the Old Gods, but then again, no one did.
            Brandon said, “Come on; the President is waiting for us.”
            Ev cocked an inquisitive eyebrow. “The President?”
            Freya explained, “The school’s president. He’s also the dean and overall mentor to everyone. He’s the one who sent us to get you.”
            “Oh. That makes sense. So he’s like the head god or something?”
            Brandon replied, “Basically. Although he was actually born in the current, universe, he’s the one who founded this school. He recognized the need to create more gods to maintain order and keep Carnivál in check.”
            They began walking across the hanger. Freya said, “The President is actually fairly young for a god, but he’s shown an amazing ability to grow as a deity.”
            “He’s a natural born leader. That’s why we Lost Gods follow him.”
            They reached the end of the hanger and got into an elevator. It took them down one floor, where they emerged into a circular reception area. A middle-aged brunette woman sat at a desk in the center of the room. Vending machines and a coffee dispenser were located to her left. Behind her was another elevator. A map of the school hung on the wall to her right.
            “Welcome back, you two,” the receptionist said to Brandon and Freya.
            “Good to see you again, Aphrodite,” Brandon replied. “Tell the President we brought Ev Bannen. I’m sure he’ll want to see him as soon as possible.”
            Aphrodite clicked her tongue. “Unfortunately, he’s in a meeting at the moment. I’ll let him know you’ve returned. Nice to meet you, Ev.”
            “Uh…thanks,” Ev said, not really sure what to do here.
            “We’ll head on down now,” Freya said.
            “I’ll let you know when the President gets out of his meeting,” Aphrodite assured them.
            They proceeded past the reception desk to the other elevator. This one had more buttons than the other:

Level 2 – Offices
Level 3-4 – Classrooms
Level 5-6 – Dorms
Level 7 – Recreation
Level 8-9 – Training

            They got off at level five, which Brandon and Freya explained was the men’s dormitory. The elevator was situated in the middle of a long corridor. The hallway was brown with a white floor, and various flyers hung on bulletin boards. It looked just like any other college dorm, except this one was inside a mountain in the middle of the ocean.
            They sat him down at a chair in the hallway and told him to wait there until they returned. Minutes passed.
            Soon the elevators began letting off students. They were dressed in seemingly every fashion on the planet. It then occurred to Ev that the Kami Dios Academy probably recruited from all over the world.
            He didn’t know any of these guys, so he decided to keep his head down. However, one student, a bronzed-skin youth with short, spiked brown hair, approached him. “G’day, mate. Don’t think I’ve seen you here before.” He offered Ev his hand.
            Ev stood up and nervously shook hands with him. This guy had at least a foot on Ev in height. He wore a brown vest and tie. “Uh…hi.”
            “The name’s Jaysin. Jaysin Marx. Niceta meet you.”
            “Ev. Ev Bannen.”
            Jaysin said, “You new here?”
            Ev nodded. “Yeah. Just got here literally five minutes ago. Had some trouble with rofghosts.”
            “You mean refghasts?”
            “Yeah.” Ev felt embarrassed to have gotten wrong the name of the things that had almost killed him.
            “Ugly little biters, aren’t they?”
            “Well…they didn’t actually bite me.”
            Jaysin laughed. “Just a figure of speech. They can’t bite you. They’ve got no mouths for it.”
            “I noticed. So how do they talk?”
            He explained, “The hypnotic signals they use to lure you in also let them communicate. Don’t really understand how it works, myself, but there you go.”
            Ev decided to change the subject. “So, where are you from, Jaysin?”
            “Chrichton? I’ve never met anyone from there before.”
            Jaysin replied, “Not surprising. Most Chrichtons never leave the country. It’s too much trouble getting over the mountain chains.
            “Where are you from?”
            Ev said, “Upton. It’s a small town on Morovia, about a thousand miles south of Seraphim City.”
            “Seraphim City! I’ve been there. Real twigging parties they throw there.”
            “Another bit of Chrichton slang. When you’re mostly cut off from the rest of the world, you develop your own unique vocabulary.
            “So tell me: What kind of god are you going to become?”
            Ev was taken aback by the question. “What kind…?”
            “Yeah. Just like in religion and mythology, there’s different gods for different things. For example, Miss Freya is the goddess of love. Another person might be the god of thunder. Me, I’m gonna become the god of money.” To illustrate this point, he pulled out a fat wad of bills from his pocket.
            Ev gaped at it. “Holy…!”
            “Best to mind that kind of language around here. Never know who you’ll parse off talking like that.”
            Ev wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he just said, “Thanks.”
            “Don’t mention it. But going back to what I was saying—sooner or later everyone here has to figure out what kind of god they want to become. It’s your major, in other words.”
            “All right, I’ll definitely be thinking about it.”
            “Good.” Jaysin checked his expensive-looking watch. “I gotta get going. Maybe I’ll see you later.”
            “Yeah, maybe. Thanks for the advice.”
            “Don’t mention it.” And with that, he left. The hallway soon cleared, leaving Ev more or less alone again.
            Fortunately, within a few minutes Brandon and Freya returned. “Sorry to keep you waiting. Have you met any of the other students yet,” Brandon asked.
            “Yeah, I met one guy. Said he was going to become the god of money.”
            “Must be Jaysin Marx,” Freya said. “He might sound greedy, but he’s not. That’s because…well, better to let him tell you.”
            Ev said, “Um…OK.”
            “Come. The President is waiting for you,” Brandon said.

Chapter III: Getting Acquainted

They returned to Level 2. Brandon and Freya led Ev past rows of offices to the one at the end of the hallway. The name plate read “President Bethos”.
            Ev did a double-take. “Wait,” he said. “The Bethos?”
            Freya nodded. “That’s right. The god of Morovia. And he can’t wait to meet you.”
            The level of anxiety Ev felt at that moment could safely be described as nearly overwhelming. He was as nervous as he had ever been, and his feet felt like lead.
            Nevertheless, he managed to get himself moving into the President’s office. Unfortunately, his nervousness didn’t go away upon seeing Bethos. The President was certainly not what Ev had been expecting.
            “Hello, Ev! Come in, sit down.”
            Ev nervously did so. “Uh…hi.”
            Bethos reclined back in his chair. “Not what you were expecting?”
            He had to admit, “Well…not really. All the pictures of you are…” He didn’t want to finish that sentence, didn’t want to incur the President’s wrath.
            Bethos finished the sentence for him. “White? Tall? Long beard?”
            Ev nodded weakly, afraid that at any moment he would be struck by lightning.
            In fact, Bethos was not any of those things. He had skin black as midnight, he was about three foot six inches tall, and clean-shaven. He wore a burgundy suit and tie instead of a toga.
            He laughed at the massive historical discrepancy. “When I first became a god...” He turned to the bald, tanned man standing next to his desk—who was wearing a toga—and said, “How many years has it been, Ku?”
            Ku? The famous prophet who came from an unknown land and worked to spread the word of Bethos all those years ago? The day got more exciting by the minute.
            Ku said matter-of-factly, “Three thousand, one hundred and fifteen days.”
            Bethos pointed to his servant with a thumb. “This guy keeps track of those things so I don’t have to. Hell, I imparted a bit of my power to him so he could live forever for that exact purpose.” He laughed again. “Now, where was I? Oh, yes. When I first started, the world wasn’t ready for a diminutive black god. So they made me a tall white guy.”
            Ev dared to speak up at that moment. “But…couldn’t you make yourself taller? You are a god.”
            Bethos shrugged. “What would be the point? To gain peoples’ respect? I’ve already got it! Everyone here has chosen to follow me out of respect. I have no reason to change my appearance now.”
            That made sense. Still… “But why don’t you appear to the world and show them the real you?”
            Bethos explained, “Being a god isn’t about glory or vanity. We choose to remain in the shadows and help mankind from behind the scenes.”
            Ev was becoming more and more at ease around the President. “But mankind has fought countless wars because they don’t know what you’re all about.”
            “And whose fault is that?” Bethos said, maintaining his carefree attitude. “My man Ku laid it out for them a long time ago. Some of them called him a liar and claimed they alone knew my true nature.”
            Ev took the chance to ask the question he had always wondered about. “So where do we go after we die?”
            To his surprise, Bethos shrugged. “Beats me. We gods live forever, so even we don’t know. Some think there’s an ultimate god who resides over the afterlife. If you become a god yourself, you will likely never find out.”
            The thought was both encouraging and depressing. Ironically, if Ev indeed became a god, some answers could be forever denied him. Nevertheless, he thought it a risk worth taking. “Do you really think I can become one?”
            “Anyone can—and will—become supremely powerful if they stay here long enough. The built-up energies left over from the Big Bang will see to that. You’re probably already experiencing increased vitality just from being here a half hour.”
            In fact, he was. It wasn’t anything dramatic yet, but he did feel as though he had more energy. “Kinda feels like I just had one of those energy drinks.”
            Bethos pointed at him and smiled. “Exactly. The longer you stay here, the stronger you’ll become. However, it is our job to make sure you’re ready for godhood. As you attend classes and take tests, we’ll evaluate your progress. If we don’t feel you’re going to become a proper deity, you’ll be expelled. Sorry, but we have to be honest with you going in.”
            That scared Ev. “What will happen to me if I’m expelled?”
            “You’ll have to leave the Academy. Mostly likely you’ll end up going home.”
            Home? That scared him even more. “Professor Strong said you guys have been watching me. Does that mean you know what kind of home I come from?”
            The President nodded grimly. “That we do.”
            “Then you know home is the last place I want to go. My father used to beat me, and my mom just didn’t care. That place can’t even be called a home. I’d rather take my chances with those fallen gods than go back there.”
            From behind him, Brandon replied, “All the more reason for you to succeed here.” Ev hadn’t realized he and Freya were still in the room.
            “But do you really think I can?” he asked, to no one in particular.
            “I think you have the determination necessary. Your high school GPA was quite good, so we know you can apply yourself.”
            Yeah, but apply myself to becoming a god? That’s something else entirely. Nevertheless, Ev said, “Well, I don’t want to go home, and I don’t want to be killed by…uh…what’s that group’s name?”
            “Carnivál,” Freya replied.
            “Yeah. Them. I don’t want them sending any more of those refghasts after me until I can defend myself like the rest of you. So…” He took a deep breath, in case he found any arguments against what he was about to say. “I’ll do it. I’ll enroll here.”
            “Excellent!” Bethos said. “We’ll give you the paperwork to fill out, and then you’ll be an official student here. Now, other colleges have tuition—”
            Without thinking, Ev cut him off. “Oh, crap! I didn’t think about tuition. I have hardly in money on me. I was hoping to get a scholarship to whatever university I ended up attending.”
            “You didn’t let me finish,” Bethos said. “Other colleges have tuition, but not us. You can’t put a price on godhood, after all. We use our powers to keep the school running, not money, so you can rest easy.”
            Ev breathed the biggest sigh of relief of his life so far. “Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you.”
            Laughing again, the President said, “Don’t mention it, kid.
            “Now, there is one last thing I want to mention. You must eventually decide what kind of god you want to become.”
            “Yeah, this one guy said that to me. I really don’t know what I want to become god of,” Ev said.
            Freya said, “You have to become a god that can help people. We don’t allow our students to represent anything negative. With one exception, only Carnivál has the gods of hatred, vengeance, death, etc. You must choose something positive to represent.”
            Ev remembered, “That Jaysin guy said you’re the god of love.”
            Smiling, she said, “Exactly. There is nothing more positive in this world than love. I answer the prayers of mortals that pertain to love. For instance, I generally give them subconscious guidance. If I feel the mate you’re pursuing is right for you, I’ll help you succeed. But if that person isn’t right for you, I’ll nudge you away from them. The receptionist, Aphrodite, helps me out with that. Just because you’re a god doesn’t mean you can answer every single prayer.”
            “But how do I answer prayers? Do I just put my head to the ground and listen or something?”
            They all laughed. “We’ll teach you how to do it,” Brandon said.

            Bethos said, “Just be thinking about what kind of god you want to become. Now, then—I think you should get settled in the dorm. I’ll leave that to you two.” He indicated Brandon and Freya.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Star Trek: The Original Series: From History’s Shadow Review

This week I decided to review Star Trek: The Original Series: From History’s Shadow by Dayton Ward. In the Aftermath of the Star Trek Television Episode Assignment: Earth the Enterprise has returned to the 20th century. But it has picked up two stowaways. One is a Vulcan whose ship went down on earth in the 20th century and chose to remain on Earth rather than be rescued. The other is a Certoss, from a timeline prevented by the resolution of the Temporal Cold War, who seeks to destroy human civilization to prevent Humanity from becoming a threat to her people. The story switches back and forth between the 23rd century, where the Enterprise finds itself in conflict with a vessel from a species who lost their homeworld to the Certoss in the prevented timeline, know what happened in that timeline due to a protected archive, and see the arrival of the timeline displaced Certoss as a threat, and several points in the 20th century focused on investigations into alien, and in some cases, future human activity on Earth and the struggle to prevent the Certoss team from carrying out its mission which led to the temporal refugees arriving on the Enterprise.
I give the book an 8.5 out of 10. Getting to see the aftereffects of the various trips by Starfleet or aliens to 20th century Earth was interesting, along with the struggle against the Certoss and the 23rd century portion included enough conflict to keep the story interesting while managing to stick to the idealistic view of the future which is the heart of Star Trek lore, proving that an ending doesn’t need to be dark to be entertaining.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Star Wars: Scoundrels Review

This week I decided to review Star Wars: Scoundrels by Timothy Zahn. The book opens not long after the end of Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. Han Solo has a problem. The reward for his heroics in the movie, which he was going to use to pay off Jabba the Hutt, was stolen by a space pirate. He and Chewbacca fend off an attack by a bounty hunter in a cantina. He is approached by a man, who is impressed by his skills. The man lost his father, and was maimed during an attack by a crime lord on the father’s business and wishes for Han to put together a team to steal back 163 million in credit tabs, the full amount only available to the father or his agents though a  good slicer could get 800,000 to 900,000. Han begins putting together a team, notably excluding Lando Calrissian, whom he fears still hates him due to the events at Ylesia (See A. C. Crispin’s Han Solo Trilogy: Rebel Dawn for details.) Despite this Lando ends up being invited to the team, and he has realized Han wasn’t responsible for what happened. They are also joined by another face familiar to fans of the setting’s novels, and many others. They begin gathering information on the mansion of their target but soon things begin to go wrong. They stumble into an Imperial Intelligence operation aimed at stealing blackmail data from the man they are seeking to rob, and discover that he’s a high ranking member of Black Sun, one of the most powerful criminal groups in the galaxy. Despite this they press on first leading to a daring rescue of Lando, and Zerba, the team’s sleight of hand expert. In the end their plans lead to a heist, where much goes wrong.
I give the book an 8 out of 10. It’s a very well done story, and as much as I love space combat in Star Wars stories I know there are cases where including it wouldn’t help a story and in my opinion this is one of them. I love the detail put in to setting up the final heist, and the number of new characters, which means we didn’t know if they would survive the job, on Solo’s team keeps tensions high whenever something goes wrong. Even knowing Star Wars as well as I do the final plot twist aught me off guard. I knew something had to happen but never saw what did occur coming. There are a few points I’m still confused by in the plot but not enough to ruin the story.