Saturday, July 26, 2014

Movie Review -- Lucy

Today we have the offbeat new Scarlett Johansson movie Lucy. The film is directed by Luc Besson who gave us the Transporter movies and The Fifth Element, among many others. It's a lot more lighthearted than the trailers would have you believe.

The story starts off with a party girl named--wait for it--Lucy who's hanging out in China. Her sketchy beau Richard forces her to deliver a mysterious briefcase because its recipients are pissed at him for some reason. He's not exaggerating; they kill him within minutes of Lucy entering the hotel the delivery is to take place at, and Chinese gangsters, led by Mr. Jang (Choi Min-sik) take her prisoner and force her to open the case. Inside she finds bags of a strange blue powder which Jang's associates identify as CPH4, a synthetic drug they intend to distribute. They knock her out and implant one of the bags in her stomach, but due to harsh treatment at their hands, it ruptures, releasing the drug into her system. After a bizarre anti-gravity spectacle, she awakens to discover greatly increased intelligence which allows her to efficiently dispatch her kidnappers (and one unfortunate cabby's leg) and get to the hospital. The doctors explain to her what CPH4 actually is, and that she's received a lethal dose. She realizes she needs the other bags or her body will break down, but they've been inserted into other unlucky couriers and sent off across Europe. 

Meanwhile, Professor Samuel Norman (Morgan Freeman, of course) is explaining what would happen if humans were able to utilize more than ten percent of their brain's capacity. Lucy calls him up and reveals that, thanks to the drug, she has done just that and is enjoying the perks. She can, among other things, read minds, diagnose injuries with just a touch, control electronic devices, alter her own physiology and instantly understand foreign languages. And she's just getting started. Intrigued, the professor agrees to meet with her. But first, she has to track down those missing bags, and enlists the help of government agent Pierre del Rio (Amr Waked). Unfortunately, Lucy has two big problems. First, every cell in her body is trying to break away from her. Second--her increased mental power is overriding her emotions and compassion; she ruthlessly kills or maims anyone who gets in her way. With time running out, can she figure out her purpose in life before she loses everything?

Lucy has a special endearing quality I just can't quite put my finger on. Maybe it's Scarlett Johansson's beauty and acting ability that has me enraptured. Maybe it's the fascinating scientific theories the movie brings to the table. Maybe it's the genuinely funny moments (such as when the Chinese gangsters tell Lucy to open the briefcase while holding up blast shields). At any rate, I like this a lot more than the last comparable film--Transcendence. 

However, one thing saps the movie's momentum. It is interspersed with cutaway gags vaguely reminiscent of Family Guy. These are distracting and do not add anything to the story. If not for them, I would give the film a better recommendation.

Nevertheless, Lucy is an endearing, thought-provoking movie.

Parental Advisory? I'm not sure this movie needs an R-rating. It has blood, but that's about it.

Friday, July 25, 2014

House of Steel Review

This week I decided to review House of Steel: The Honorverse Companion by David Weber and BuNine, a group of consultants that aid David Weber with work related to the details of the Honorverse. The first part of the book is the novella I will Build My House of Steel . It covers the efforts of King Roger III of Manticore’s efforts to prepare his nation for the pending war against the People’s Republic of Haven, beginning with Roger as a junior officer struggling against the established mindset held by many of his superior officers in the Royal Manticoran Navy who feel that the navy needs to focus its limited resources and construction on protecting the Star Kingdom of Manticore’s abundant merchant trade from pirates rather than preparing a full scale war. The story follows Roger as he becomes part of a small weapons and technology development and analysis team for the RMN  through his reign, with two chapters set after his death covering his daughter’s first days as Queen and the much later battle where one of the weapon concepts he encouraged is first used at anything near its full capability, a weapon which decisively turns the last battles of the First war between Haven and Manticore in Manticore’s favor and revolutionizes space warfare, as well as the Queen’s reaction when she gets news of that battle’s results. The rest of the story consists of detailed information on the two main protagonist nations of the setting ranging from histories of the two nations to entries on major players in both nations' military forces and governments at the time the book is set, along with details of the makeups of their military forces plus details on the ships, weapons, and equipment they use during the era of the main Honor series up to around two years before the chronologically latest books in the setting. This is followed by a chapter describing the process used to create the navies native to the setting, and a FAQ section.
I give House of Steel a 9 out of 10. Throughout the series, you’ve heard about the struggles King Roger III and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth III, faced in preparing for the war which was the centerpiece of most of the current main Honorverse novels, as well as a number of the setting’s short stories, and I enjoyed seeing more detail on his role in the events leading too it. I wish the story had shown us more of Roger’s career as a warship captain but I admit that most of his actions on the bridge of a warship had little to do with his preparations for the war with Haven, with all of his combat actions taking place against pirates, privateers, or slavers. I loved the amount of detail put into the sections concerning Star Empire of Manticore and the Protectorate of Grayson and thought the article on how the navies of the Honorverse are created was a very nice touch. The only thing I wish could be added to the later sections would be to expand the specifications and histories of the various warship classes used by the Manticoran and Grayson navies so they covered all of the warship classes used by the two navies rather than just those used during the main series. 

Monday, July 21, 2014

Kindle Spotlight -- Silent Starsong

Today we have a new novel, released last week, by T.J. Wooldridge: Silent Starsong. It's the first in the series, so here we go.

The story takes place on the planet Cordelier. Some explaining is required here, for you see, the planet is inhabited largely by humans, but they don't come from Earth. In fact, the people of Earth remain largely unaware of their existence. This is never explained in the first volume, but I suspect there's a Battlestar Galactica thing going on. There are other, nonhuman races living on Cordelier, but the only ones we really see are the Naratssets: tiny, vaguely human creatures with dual antennae and oval-shaped heads who are talented telepaths.

Anyway, the protagonist is 11-year-old Kyra Starbard. She comes from a family of people who can listen to the stars and see the future, and her mother makes a fabulous living doing that for people. Unfortunately, Kyra is deaf, so everyone writes her off as defective with dim prospects. Everyone, except her father and grandfather who believe she has latent potential for...well, no one really knows. 

One day, they go to a galactic swap meet and Kyra is startled to "hear" a captive Naratsset talking to her. He explains that it's just telepathy, and that his name is Marne. He's not blue like most Naratssets, so he, too, is considered defective. Kyra's father buys him from the trader (slavery is legal on Cordelier) and they take him home to basically be a pet. Kyra's mother for some reason doesn't like Marne, but she lets him stay. For a while they live happily.

However, the United Foundation Consortium (AKA terrorists) want to kill all Starbards, starting with Kyra. A surprise attack shatters her world and leaves her with only Marne to rely on. With her own family plotting against her, can Kyra and Marne muster the strength to make things right?

Silent Starsong is a very good novel. Having a deaf protagonist is a fresh approach that Wooldridge executes perfectly, and the bond between Kyra and Marne is the light that shines in the sea of darkness that is their world. I never felt that the situations they find themselves in were anything but respectful to the deaf. I did feel that they spend a little too much time trying to get one another to show their true feelings, but's that's a minor quibble. The narrative remains thoroughly engaging throughout, and my reading sessions were perhaps longer than could be considered healthy for me.

Bottom line: Silent Starsong is a great story with plenty of heart.

Friday, July 11, 2014

James Review -- Earth Afire

This week I decided to review Earth Afire by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston. 

The book focuses on several viewpoint characters that, over time, become merged into two groups. It opens with a young boy named Bingwen from a remote Chinese village watching the video of the Formic in action that Victor Delgado transmitted across the net trying to warn Earth of the incoming Formic ship. While the Earth’s governments insist the video is a hoax  Bingwen, an apparent child genius, finds a number of signs in the video which indicate otherwise and manages to convince his grandfather to help him stockpile supplies in case the Formic do attack. 

Meanwhile, Victor Delgado is forced to flee Luna with Imala Bootstamp, his lawyer who aided him in sending the Formic warning, due to the crimes he committed in travelling to Luna and trying to warn Earth of the coming invasion. And, in deep space, Lem Jukes acts to gain full command of his vessel and diverts to recover a wrecked ship which he hopes will contain useful data, including a record of the disastrous Battle of the Belt, while Victor’s mother Rena tries to hold the survivors of their destroyed ship together and find them a new home, eventually signing on with a deep space salvage vessel. 

Back on Earth, Mazer Rackham’s unit is sent to China to train Chinese pilots to fly the new HERC transports and be trained in the new Chinese Drill Sledge high speed tunneling vehicles.  The UN refuses to believe that the Formics could be hostile and sends a delegation to meet them. The delegation is destroyed and the Formics send a number of landing ships to China with one ship landing near Bingwen’s village. Mazer’s unit begins search-and-rescue efforts without authorization and rescues Bingwen and his grandfather, and then begin seeking a way to penetrate the defenses of the nearby Lander. 

Then Witt O'Toole, who has illegally led his unit into China to attack the Formic, meets with Mazer and Bingwen after the deaths of Bingwen’s grandfather and the rest of Mazer’s unit. They plan an attack using the Drill Sledges to bypass the shielding around the Formic Lander, while in space Victor and Lem meet in person for the first time and race to exploit a possible weakness that Victor discovers in the Formic mothership’s defenses to board and cripple or destroy the ship before Lem’s father Ukko can send a fleet of drones armed with Glasers, the predecessors of the DR Device from Ender’s Game, against the Mothership which is orbiting Earth.

I give this book a 7.5 out of 10. There are too many important battles and events which I feel should be seen as they are happening rather than being described vaguely after the fact for my taste. Also, I question what the point of the Bingwen character is. He seems at first to be similar to Ender Wiggin from the Ender books which start a century after this book, though he later seems to be better at political manipulation than battlefield tactics. I can’t help but wonder why none of the older characters thought of his ideas, especially since one of them is almost identical to a tactic Witt O'Toole used earlier in the book to retroactively make his unit’s entry into China legal. It feel almost like they had Bingwen come up with this plan instead of someone else because they had a child genius quota to fill in the cast. 

Friday, July 4, 2014

Star Wars: Crucible review

This week I decided to review Star Wars: Crucible by Troy Denning. The novel begins with Han Solo and his wife Leia Organa-Solo at a meeting point in a cantina awaiting Lando Calrissian, who has recently taken over a major refining facility in the Chiloon Rift, an area of space known both for the dangers of its plasma storms and the vast riches in valuable resources contained in its asteroids. Unfortunately, a rash of pirates have been greatly hindering mining operations, and Lando has called his old friends Han and Leia to help. However instead of Lando the pair first run into a young miner fleeing a debt and then the Mandalorians and Nargons, a artificial species of designer soldiers, who are pursuing the young miner. It is revealed that the pursuers are working with Galactic Exploitation Technologies or GET, a conglomerate which is trying to take over the mining industry in the rift and soon a battle breaks out. Eventually Han and Leia reach Lando, stopping to send a message explaining what is going on to Luke Skywalker who decides going to help them will be a nice change of pace, and a good test of how well he has healed from his last battle. Luke gets there shortly after a Sith Assassin working for GET has sabotaged Lando’s main refinery, killing tens of thousands of workers as well as critically injuring Han and Leia in the process. The investigation into the sabotage turns into a showdown leading to Han being captured and taken to GET’s base where he meets the organization’s leaders: a pair of Columi brothers who have spent much of their lives seeking vengeance against anyone who they suspect of possibly being involved in an attack which inflicted debilitating brain damage to their mother, who was a data broker, when they were children. Han, who was her final customer before the attack, is the last person on their list and finds himself in a card game where losers are forced to answer questions and suffer pain of simulated injuries. Meanwhile Lando, Leia, and Luke are joined by Luke’s son Ben and his partner Tahiri as they all try to rescue Han. After a variety of battles ranging from infiltrating a GET ship to destroying the fighters guarding GET’s headquarters a climactic battle begins which soon moves to the Force powered, time altering artifact at the base of GET’s headquarters.
I give this book a 7.5 out of 10. It was mostly entertaining, and I was pleasantly surprised by both the quantity and quality of the space battles in it. However many of the actions the villain’s take, especially towards minor characters or their employees seem to be done just so the reader never doubts they are evil, or to give those working for them reason to betray them rather than being done to aid in accomplishing the goals of the villains. Also there were some things written into the ending of the nine book series that proceeds this book in the Legends timeline, the final book of which was also written by Troy Denning, that I absolutely hated. The two biggest ones could easily be altered to a better form but not only does this book leave things as they were regarding those two points it goes out of its way to set to up so tha it appears at least one of the two will never be changed.  

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Kindle Spotlight -- Through the Door (The Thin Veil, Book 1)

Today I want to tell you about a gem I recently came across: Jodi McIsaac's fantasy novel Through the Door, the first book in her The Thin Veil series.

The story begins in Halifax. Cedar McLeod has everything going for her. She's got a bright future with her amazing boyfriend Finn, as well as a joyous announcement for him. But one day she goes to his place and finds it empty. Finn has left without a trace, and a heartbroken Cedar announces to no one in particular: "I'm pregnant."

Flash forward to seven years later. Cedar is raising her daughter Eden with the help of her mother Maeve. It isn't easy; Cedar has to juggle the responsibilities of her busy job with those of being a mother, and Eden very badly wants to know about her father. Cedar just wants to move on, and avoids the subject as much as she can. But that all changes one night when Eden opens her bedroom door to find the Egyptian pyramids on the other side. Despite being understandably freaked out by this, Cedar decides to test the strange doorway, and they discover Eden can use any door as a portal to places she's either been to or seen in photographs. This presents a horrifying possibility to her mother, who realizes she can go almost anywhere at any time, and Cedar would have no idea where on earth to look for her.

Desperate for answers, Cedar tracks down Finn's parents and reluctantly tells them about her daughter's gift. They seem to have some idea of what's going on, but don't give her much in the way of answers. Cedar then gets a call from her friend Jane who's been babysitting Eden but has somehow ended up in New York City with no knowledge of the child's whereabouts. Her worst nightmare having just come true, Cedar presses Finn's family for answers and learns that they are the Tuatha de Danann, the mythical ancient rulers of Ireland. One of their own, Nuala, has gone rogue and kidnapped Eden because she wants to use her power to return home to their world. They've got to stop her before she takes the child to place they can't follow, but that won't be easy, because Nuala has the ability to compel almost anyone to do her bidding with a simple command, and the Danann don't fully trust Cedar because she's a human. Is there any hope for this incredibly dysfunctional family?

Through the Door is an absolutely riveting read. I hard time putting it down because I kept wanting to get to that next page to find out what happens. Is has a strong narrative, compelling characters, and best of all, it's steeped in Celtic mythology which I love. Read it, and you'll learn quite a bit about the Tuatha de Danann and their lore. I highly recommend it to any and all readers who have a taste for fantasy and/or mythology.