Friday, January 31, 2014

A Rising Thunder Review

This week I decided to review A Rising Thunder by David Weber. The book opens with a number of scenes involving the recall of merchant shipping belonging to the Star Empire of Manticore from the Solarian League in response to a number of escalating incidents and battles between League and Royal Manticore naval forces. It is hoped that this action and closing Manticore controlled wormholes to League shipping, drastically decreasing the number of freighters working the league’s trade routes and  vastly increasing the length of time ships take to reach their destinations, will convince the League’s leadership to back off from its aggressive posture. This fails and the League’s leadership instead prepares an offensive against the Manticore system. This leads to an internal conflict when the Beowulf system, Manticore’s strongest allies within the League, exercises its right under the League constitution to refuse to allow a second league fleet passage through the wormhole linking Beowulf and Manticore.  Meanwhile two intelligence agents return with proof of an ancient, ongoing conspiracy manipulating current events and maneuvering to seize control of all humanity. This revelation leads to a surprise alliance just in time to confront the League fleet attacking Manticore, an attack which leads to a massacre of the attack force with the League suffering massive losses. When news of the defeat arrives, the commanding admiral of the League Navy begins plans to prevent the League’s true leaders from blaming him but is forced to commit suicide by the Mesan conspiracy first. The book ends with the Beowulf system announcing its plans to withdraw from the League and the shadow leaders of the League pondering possible responses.
I give the book a 7 out of 10. It isn't bad and some of the discussions between members of various factions regarding the strategic plans of their groups are very interesting but the series is at its best when the missiles are flying and the lasers blazing. There isn't much combat in this book and what battles occur are too one- sided to be of much interest. I’m sure the setup will lead to better things in later books though.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Movie Review -- I, Frankenstein

Today we have the new supernatural action movie I, Frankenstein starring Aaron Eckhart. Based on the graphic novel, it has now hit the big screen. It is also from the people who brought us the Underworld movies which I was a huge fan of back in the day.

The story stays surprisingly faithful to Mary Shelley's original novel, up to a certain point. Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster (Eckhart), then abandons it, and the monster gets revenge by killing Frankenstein's wife. The doctor chases him through the arctic but dies from exposure to the elements.

The plot of the movie picks up right after these events. The monster decides to give his creator a proper burial, but as he is doing so he is attacked by a mysterious group of malevolent beings. Nearby gargoyles come to life and save him. They take him to their base at the Notre-Dame Cathedral, and explain that he has just been dragged into a war between demons and the Gargoyle Order which is made up of angels who take the form of gargoyles (naturally). Their queen, Leonore (Miranda Otto), takes pity on him and asks for his help in protecting mankind from the bad guys. She also gives him the name Adam. Adam, however, wants nothing to do with their struggle and heads off to the most remote corners of the earth in the hopes that the demons won't bother him there.

Centuries later, the demons finally catch up with him. Realizing there is no refuge from them, he decides to take the fight to them. He heads back to Paris and proceeds to "ascend" them, sending them down to Hell. The gargoyles notice this and are angry that he is recklessly engaging the demons out in public and endangering humans lives. They bring him to the cathedral to confront him on this. Soon the demon prince Naberius (the ever sinister Bill Nighy) gets wind of this and sends his minions to attack the cathedral in order to capture Adam. Naberius wants to use Adam to bolster his forces and make them unbeatable. Will the good guys triumph over evil, or will it be hell on earth? For that matter, just who are the good guys?

I like this movie to a certain extent. It has stylish visuals and plenty of cool moments. On the other hand, the demons are pretty generic. I could swear I've seen them in countless other movies. The gargoyles are more creative, but still nothing to write home about. And Eckhart's performance, while not bad, is nowhere near as good as it was in The Dark Knight. Then again, that's a pretty high standard to maintain.

The music is another high point of this film. It features a gothic orchestral score and hard rock songs. It's a step above what I usually hear in movies. I actually downloaded the ending theme on iTunes just now while writing this review.

Bottom line: If you go to see this movie, you'll be entertained. Just don't expect anything groundbreaking.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Clone Assassin review

This week I decided to review The Clone Assassin by Steven L. Kent. The book opens with a trio of devastating strikes against the Enlisted Man’s Empire, a government formed by the clone soldiers of the Unified Authority which had ruled human space, after they revolted against the Authority which had exiled them to cover its own failings in the face of an alien attack which destroyed over 90 percent of the human settled worlds. These are shortly followed by an attack on Wayson Harris, the main character of the series and one of the leaders of the clones. The first part of the book is focused on efforts to recover from the attacks and discover the fate of Harris. Later parts expand to include a urban battle in Washington DC, a rescue mission for an ally of Harris who had encountered Authority forces while investigating the attack on Harris which itself turns into a full scale battle, and a one man mission into one of the Authority’s command centers.
I give the book a 6.5 out of 10. Most of the battle scenes are entertaining but some aspects stretch believability even in a fictional setting like aerial gunships that take a hundred rockets from the same basic technology base to bring down.  Also while some of the plot twists are entertaining there is a major one which I feel was revealed far too early. I’ve re-read that part of the book four times and still don’t see how revealing the twist at the point in the story where it's exposed adds anything to the story. In fact, the twist doesn't really have any noticeable impact I can see on the story until the last few pages of the book and I feel saving it until then would have made the ending of the novel much more surprising. 

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Star Trek: The Fall: Peaceable Kingdoms Review

This week I decided to review Star Trek: The Fall: Peaceable Kingdoms by Dayton Ward. At the end of the previous book Admiral Riker had requested that Captain Picard and the Enterprise seek out evidence of the true identities of the group behind the assassination of Federation President Bacco early in the miniseries after they discovered that the acting Federation president is deliberately covering up the true identities of the assassins, and his Chief of Staff was arrested and sent to a hidden prison for misuse of his powers after being implicated in the plot by one of the assassins shortly before the assassin’s death. Doctor Crusher is then contacted by a Cardassian doctor she has known for years who claims he has discovered secret information about the acting president. Information the acting president is willing to go to any lengths necessary to keep concealed. The story then becomes a three-way race against time as Doctor Crusher and allies seek to find evidence to confirm the truth about the acting President, the Enterprise seeks to rescue Doctor Crusher's party while evading attacks from Starfleet special forces trying to prevent the truth from coming out, and Admiral Riker and his allies on Earth seek to find the former Chief of Staff and keep him alive long enough to face trial. There are also a number of flashbacks back to the darkest days of the acting President's past, a time he is willing to kill as many as it takes to keep buried.
I give this book an 8.5 out of 10. I enjoyed the combination of present scenes and flashbacks to the past. While the acting president’s secret was similar to one of my personal theories regarding him it was different enough to be an interesting twist, and there weren't any tragic events that seemed added for the sole purpose of making the novel darker. I loved the implications of the end of the miniseries for the Star Trek novel franchise even though I believe they imply that my favorite running subseries in the franchise is finished.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Revisiting the Classics -- Valis

Today we have the 1981 Philip K. Dick novel Valis. It's one hell of a strange trip.

The story is told from the point of view of Dick himself (who breaks the fourth wall by referencing his earlier works). He's here to tell us about his friend Horselover Fat (yes, that is his name). I liken him to Forrest Gump if Gump was on a constant acid trip. Fat has had it pretty rough the past few years. His wife left him and took their son; his friend Gloria committed suicide despite his best attempts to stop her; he himself got hooked on drugs, attempted suicide--but failed--and got sent to a mental institution. There he was bullied into not trying to kill himself anymore. Once he got out, he found himself broke and basically alone. And that's when things get weird.

See, Fat claims to have had profound revelations beamed into his head via a pink laser from a divine creator that he calls Zebra.This suddenly makes Far very spiritual, and he spends a considerable amount of time discussing theology with his friends. He even writes page after page of his exegesis in which he records his metaphysical ramblings. Here is one such example:

Entry #14 from the tractate: The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.

Fat believes--among other things--that there are two Gods, a rational one and an irrational one. The irrational one seems to have the most influence on our universe since our universe is irrational.

He also has a hero complex. In between writing his exegesis, he does his best to assist his friend Sherri who has cancer. This leads to nothing but trouble for our protagonist who has plenty of trouble to begin with. His good-natured antics are continually spurned by the women in his life. Can this guy ever get it together and lead a normal existence?

Eventually, the sci-fi element does come into play. Fat and co. see a movie called Valis. The bizarro plot centers around a mysterious satellite with the acronym VALIS (Vast Active Living Intelligence System). Many elements of the story mirror Fat's experiences, and the gang comes to believe this is no coincidence. They get in touch with the film's creators and are introduced to a world they could have never imagined, a world where the wildest ideas are possible, yet nothing is what it seems. Now they must face difficult questions. Who or what is God? What is reality? What is time? Can they trust the people giving them the answers to these questions?

Valis is based on real events in Dick's life, and the novel is supposedly his way of trying to make sense of it all. Like Horselover Fat, he had either stumbled onto advanced knowledge or he was simply going insane. This book was written during the last years of Dick's life, and his (apparently) deteriorating mental state is evident throughout. It's much more out there than, say, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Reading the story, I got the sense Dick hadn't completely lost his mind. He knew what he was writing about, even if he wasn't entirely certain about it.

The narrative manages to merge diverse religions, from Christianity to Judaism to Gnosticism and everything in between. Dick covers all the bases. I'd be lying if I said I understood all of it, but I did catch glimpses of profound ideas throughout the story. Whether or not the characters themselves have lost touch with reality (if, indeed, reality every truly existed) I can't say. But I can say Valis is a wild ride that will really make you think. Everyone should give it a read.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Cool Kickstarter Project -- Afterlife: Episode 1

Today I'd like to tell you about another Kickstarter project I've started backing. It's a graphic novel by Sander Offenberg and Hugo Kejzer called Afterlife: Episode 1. From the project homepage:

"What if you get the news no one ever wants to hear:
You are terminally ill - there is nothing we can do for you.

While trying to prepare yourself for your final goodbyes, you get an unexpected chance at surviving: 
You may move to a secret underground facility where you'll get experimental treatment that may return you to health... 
But there is a considerable downside: you will never be allowed to return to the 'real world'.
You will never see your family, your friends and lovers again.
They will think you are dead.

Afterlife is about a group of people who have made this decision.
They will have to come to terms with the loss of everything they ever knew or cared about.
They must find new purpose and they will have to learn to deal with the idea of literally being buried alive in this 'perfect place' called Novamed...
And as if that is not enough, their new world turns out to be anything but peaceful. Inhabitants must face impossible dilemmas: terrifying threats from corrupted doctors, frighteningly unstable co-inhabitants and other unexpected dangers.
As this once idealistic world begins to unravel, more and more people are looking to achieve the impossible: to find a way out."

The story is intriguing, and the art so far looks pretty slick. I encourage everyone to check out Afterlife: Episode 1.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Darkship Renegades review

This week I decided to review Darkship Renegades by Sarah A. Hoyt. The novel starts with the two main characters, husband and wife Kit and Thena, returning to the hidden asteroid colony Eden after a mission to harvest power cells from Power Trees over Earth went wrong. Kit finds himself accused of treason because he landed on Earth to seek treatment for a radiation poisoned Thena. They also find themselves targeted by Eden’s energy board which is using a shortage of power cells to seize control of the colony by setting up a power rationing system then declaring that those opposed to them are using more power than they are allotted. Kit, Thena, Doc, and Zen, a mentor to Kit, and his sister respectively are sent to Earth to find the secret to growing new Powertrees. En route they have to deal with a sabotaged vessel, and Kit developing multiple personalities due to an emergency medical technology leading to the personality of the man he was cloned from arising in him. And should they succeed they will still have to deal with the energy board.
I give the book a 7 out of 10. I wish we had seen more of the rebellion on earth which was sparked in the previous book instead of just having it mentioned a few times and seeing one operation that’s part of it. The book really could have used more action sequences and this would have been a great way to add them. 

Friday, January 3, 2014

Star Trek: The Fall: The Poisoned Chalice Review

This week I decided to review Star Trek: The Fall: The Poisoned Chalice by James Swallow The novel opens with the USS Titan under Captain William Riker being recalled to Earth. Riker is promoted to the admiralty because the Commanding Admiral of Starfleet finds himself needing someone he can trust after a betrayal in the previous book. Then Tuvok finds himself assigned to a covert mission to a highly illegal Klingon prison with some surprising allies. Meanwhile William Riker’s former First Officer finds herself assigned to command a medical ship while carrying out secret work for William Riker and his allies which leads to signs of a dark conspiracy within the Federation manipulating recent events.
 I give this book 7.5/10. While still showing the high ranks of Federation politics as far too un-idealistic for my tastes given the core themes of the Star Trek setting the re-appearance of a favorite minor Star Trek Character of mine whom most people including me believed had been killed off screen helps balance it out, and the ending of this book is much less depressing than the ending of the previous book in The Fall arc in my opinion.  

Kindle Spotlight -- Shackleton Crater

Today we have a novella by Jody Rawley: Shackleton Crater. Without further ado, let's get into it.

Taking place in the present, the story concerns a group of astronauts given a perilous mission. You see, the Chinese are about to establish a base on the moon. This would force the international community to acknowledge the big rock as theirs. Unwilling to let China take the whole moon for themselves, the President orders our protagonists to haul prefab structures there and beat the easterners at their own game. Chosen to lead the mission is Caird, a former professor with some wild ideas. When it comes to actual space travel, he's as green as they come, and his crew of seasoned explorers don't know if they can trust him. 

Their fears are proven to be well-founded when they arrive at the moon and all hell breaks loose. An accident causes part of the crew--along with Caird--to crash in the ominous Shackleton Crater. This place is deep and dark, and things look bleak for our intrepid heroes. Fortunately, they manage to salvage enough of their ship's supplies to survive. They dig a small cave in the crater's wall and seal it up. Then they set fire to the frozen oxygen ('cause it's really cold in there), giving them both heat and air to breathe. This keeps them alive, but they still have to find a way out of the crater, reunite with the rest of the crew, and establish their own base to thwart the Chinese. The odds are against them, so do they even have the slightest hope of succeeding? A huge curve ball towards the end may just make the question moot.

I liked Shackleton Crater. The story is compelling and full of the kind of cool survival space drama (such as Apollo 13) I enjoy. I'm really not sure if all the things the characters in the story manage to do are even possible, but nor do I particularly care. Ultimately, it's a story about hope and working together to survive ridiculous odds, and I think that's something we can all get on board with.

However, there is a double-edged sword to this story. I can tell an impressive amount of research went into it. All kinds of details and technical jargon make their presence felt throughout the narrative. I always like a well-researched story. On the other hand, the multitude of astronaut and NASA lingo may turn off some readers. A healthy knowledge of these things is recommended, though not required. I was able to go along with the story regardless.

In conclusion: Shackleton Crater is a gripping, well-researched tale, and well worth it at 99 cents.