Friday, October 31, 2014

The Vorkosigan Saga: Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance Review

This week I decided to review Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold. When the story begins, Captain Ivan Vorpatril is serving as aide-de-camp to Admiral Desplains on the world of Komarr, which has been controlled by the Barrayaran Imperium, which Ivan serves, for decades.  Byerly Vorrutyer, an informant for Barrayaran intelligence  has infiltrated a group targeting a woman named Tej, and the informant asks Ivan to protect Tej. Ivan goes to where Tej is working at a package shipping business and begins flirting with her, but is rejected. He then follows Tej home, but Tej’s genetically engineered blue-skinned companion Rish stuns him because they think Ivan is working for their enemies. They are still holding Ivan when the real attack force arrives, and Ivan manages to warn them the attack is coming. The group flees to Ivan’s apartment where they are eventually joined by Byerly. It is revealed that Tej is a daughter of the leaders of a powerful major house in the Jackson’s Whole system and on the run after her house fell to a hostile takeover from another major house while Rish is one of a set of genetically engineered performance artists created by Tej’s mother using much of her own DNA. Meanwhile the local cops are seeking Ivan as a person of interest in the disappearance of the two women, while local the local Immigration service wants to arrest Tej and Rish as illegal immigrants Seeing no other way for the group to avoid arrest, Tej and Ivan elope. They then travel to Ivan’s homeworld of Barrayar, planning to get a divorce after which Tej and Rish will travel to Escobar to meet with Tej’s brother, the one member of her family whom they know is safe. But the sham marriage begins to become more, this being aided by the fact that their petition for a divorce is rejected on the grounds that neither spouse has done anything to the other to justify a divorce. And then good news leads to even more complications when it is discovered that the bulk of Tej’s family managed to escape the attacks on their holdings and they arrive on Barrayar planning to take Tej and Rish with them. But they are also searching for an old and massive hidden storehouse leftover from the Cetagandan occupation of Barrayar, hoping to use its contents to equip themselves and refill their war chest in preparation for a counter attack against the house that seized their holdings. But they still don’t know who within their house betrayed them, and their journey to the storehouse may lead to disaster for them and those who inhabit the area near the storehouse, including Imperial Security Headquarters.
I give this book an 8 out of 10. The story was amusing and d it had a happy ending for pretty much everyone but the villains. The story focuses more on the life of the characters with some light combat and adventure, plus a nice amount of political maneuvering. No space combat at all but including it  really would not have made sense in the story. This is the first story I’ve read where Ivan was standing alone as the main character rather than being secondary to his cousin Miles Vorkosigan, whose family is the namesake of the series, and who stars in most of the setting’s stories. I hope it isn’t the last because Miles has always been one of my favorite science fiction heroes. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Doctor Who Recap -- 10/25

Tonight's episode "In the Forest of the Night" begins with the Tardis landing in the middle of a forest. A little girl named Maebh approaches and asks the Doctor for help. She explains she was with Danny Pink, but someone told her to come here. Confused and a little irritated, the Doctor takes her into the Tardis, where she seems unimpressed at its dimensions. He complains he can't get to the center of London, but Maebh tells him they are in the center of London (Trafalgar Square, to be exact). But how can this be? It's a forest, not London.

Meanwhile, Clara, Danny and their students are leaving from a sleepover at the London Zoological Museum. They step outside and find the entire city overtaken by a forest that grew overnight. Turns out, it's not just London; it's the entire world. Clara calls the Doctor to tell him, but he already knows. He tells her he has Maebh, but when Danny asks, Clara lies to him about who she was talking with.

The group heads to the Tardis and seeks shelter inside. The Doctor doesn't appreciate all the kids poking around, but forgets about that when Maebh once again goes missing. Clara explains the girl's sister also went missing, causing Maebh to become borderline autistic and hear voices. Seeing a clue there, the Doctor decides Maebh holds the key to solving this mystery. He soon finds her homework, on which she has predicted a coming solar flare. How did she know about it?

The Doctor and Clara go outside to search for her, and they run into men in hazmat suits who are attempting to burn down the trees. However, the trees turn out to be fireproof. The two continue on, but are soon chased by wolves that have escaped from the London Zoo. They eventually run into Maebh, but things get much worse when a tiger shows up. Fortunately, Danny arrives and scares it off with a flashlight.

Maebh reveals she is the one who summoned the trees. Thoughts just come to her, she says, and she thought it would be nice to have a forest. Suddenly, an imposing voice begins speaking through her. Calling itself the Here, it says it has been on Earth long before everyone else, and it will be on Earth long after everyone else has died. Furthermore, it says the sun has called it. The Doctor declares that because of the impending solar flare, the planet is doomed. Clara suggests he use the Tardis to save the children. But it's just a trick to get him to save himself.

The Doctor takes off, leaving everyone to their fate. Upon further examination of the situation, though, he has an epiphany, and quickly returns. He tells everyone the trees are actually a defense mechanism meant to save the world. Sure enough, the massive supply of oxygen they've built up protects Earth from the solar flare, and the trees disappear. Watching this unfold is Missy, who seems impressed.

Everyone rejoices at their salvation. The Doctor reveals this has happened numerous times throughout human history. Mankind remembers the fear (which is why we're afraid of the forest), but not the cause. Finally, Danny tells Clara to stop lying to him about her adventures with the Doctor.

Oh, and Maebh's sister comes back.

Tonight's episode, like most of the ones this season, was solid. I thought the sudden forestation of the planet was an original storyline, and Peter Capaldi continues to impress with his gruff, snarky interpretation of the Doctor. Also, I like how Clara is an imperfect character; she continually lies to her friends, and it keeps getting her in trouble. I sense they're building up to something with her, and I look forward to finding out what.

Next week is the first of the two-part finale. 

Friday, October 24, 2014

The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield review

This week I decided to review The Lost Stars: Perilous Shield by Jack Campbell. The novel opens in the Midway system not long after the end of the previous book.  A massive fleet, belonging to the alien Enigmas, whose master plan to cripple humanity --or at least the Syndicate Worlds and the Alliance--recently failed, has entered the Midway system which has recently revolted against the Syndicate Worlds. It arrived while the Midway system’s fleet was preparing to engage a Syndicate fleet sent to retake the system. And soon the Alliance’s main fleet appears, attempting to pass through Midway on its route home, including a Super Battleship captured from the second alien race humanity has encountered, and several ships belonging to the third, and so far only friendly, non-human space-faring species mankind has encountered. The first section of the book focuses on the battle against the Enigma forces, and efforts to forge a temporary agreement with the main Alliance fleet for aid against the Syndicate forces, while rescuing a newly-arrived vessel fleeing the Syndicate fleet. There is also a hunt for remaining members of the system’s old Syndicate internal security force, which are launching attacks against the new regime as the system’s first elections draw near. And then, while a key portion of the Midway fleet is away picking up POWs whom they hope will crew the Battleship Midway is working on completing, a fleet belonging to another former Syndicate faction--this one far more militaristic than Midway--sweeps in, attempting to seize Midway’s lone Battleship. Meanwhile, a plan instituted by one loyal but insane member of the Midway forces is discovered. A plan which may unleash a nightmare of epic proportions if not stopped…
I give this book a 6.5 out of 10. The first portion of the book is basically a rehash of some of the events of The Lost Fleet: Beyond the Frontier: Guardian from a different point of view. While still interesting, it wasn’t great. After that part ends, the book gets much better, and I enjoyed the increased focus on space combat. But the last chapter is like something out of a very bad soap opera script. It cripples one of the more enjoyable rivalries in the Midway military, and I don’t see a way out of this that doesn’t involve reducing one of the more interesting characters in the story to minor character status in future books, if they aren’t removed from the story totally by the end of the upcoming sequel.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Early Impressions -- The Flash

I became a fan of the Flash a while back while reading through old issues of his comic, so I was very much looking forward to the new TV series. I have to say, I'm very impressed so far. The CG is very well-done for television, and I really enjoy seeing the effects in action. I thought the blurring would be similar to Smallville, but it's actually much cooler. Also, the acting talent is solid, with Grant Gustin playing a very believable Barry Allen, and Tom Cavanagh shines with his own charisma. It's also cool seeing cameos from Arrow. Usually in DC movies and TV shows, each universe is separate, but with these two series, they're keeping it together, which is a nice plus.

Finally, there are so many colorful villains they can bring in. Some are cool (like Captain Cold), while others...not so much (Rainbow Raider; here's hoping they leave him out).

Bottom line: The Flash is really exciting so far, and I eagerly look forward to the rest of the first season.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Doctor Who Recap -- 10/18

Tonight's episode "Flatline" begins with a man disappearing from his home after announcing "They are everywhere." Later, the Doctor tries to get Clara home after another adventure, except they end up in Bristol, quite a ways from where she lives. More confusingly, the Tardis has shrunk and they have to squeeze through the doors to get out. The Doctor sends Clara away while he searches for the cause of this strange malady. She goes for a walk and encounters a graffiti artist doing community service named Rigsy. In a funny scene, she takes up the mantle of the Doctor and pokes fun at her traveling companion. Rigsy then comments on a number of people who have gone missing. Also painted on the wall are a bunch of people with their backs to them.

Clara returns to the Tardis and finds it's shrunk down down to about the size of a soda can. She thinks it's funny, but the Doctor--who's now trapped inside--isn't so amused. He reveals that something is leeching external dimensions, and its coming from the northwest. Clara puts the Tardis in her purse and meets up with Rigsy, and the two of them investigate a flat where one of the people disappeared. It's a locked room mystery, and they set about solving it. Soon Rigsy decides to return to his community service, but the Doctor finds him useful, so he has Clara show him the Tardis to get him to stick around. Suddenly, the Doctor announces that an unknown force is sucking the Tardis' energy.

Afterwards, Clara and Rigsy head to the site of another disappearance where they meet MI5 agent Forrest. The agent goes into another room, but a writhing something sucks her into the floor. Clara and Rigsy rush in to assist, but they're too late; Forrest's nervous system has been scaled down and flattened along the wall. The Doctor realizes they're dealing with two-dimensional life forms who are dissecting humans to understand three-dimensional organisms. The 2D entities move in to attack them, but they get on a chair suspended from the ceiling to avoid getting caught. Danny calls and asks if everything's all right. Clara lies to him and says yes, and they escape through the window.

They return to Rigsy's community service detail, only to find the people painted on the walls coming alive. The Doctor declares these are the missing people, and the 2D beings are wearing them like camoflage. The group escapes into a warehouse with the invaders in pursuit. The Doctor wants to try communicating with them because they may not realize they're doing humans harm with their experiments. Using the sonic screwdriver, they rig the building's PA system to transmit a message. The 2D beings respond using numbers, which the community service detail realizes are the numbers on their jackets. Are the invaders listing their past and future victims?

After another attack, one of the men bites it, and the group escapes into a tunnel system. However, they find all doors have been turned to 2D. The Doctor, still stuck in the Tardis, comes up with a device he calls a Toodis which can restore a door handle to 3D. They move deeper into the tunnels, but a giant hand reaches out and grabs another of the workers, revealing they're evolving into 3D. The group makes a run for it, but Clara gets bumped and drops the tiny Tardis into a hole, where it lands on subway tracks...and there's a train coming. There isn't enough power left in the Tardis to defend against this, and the Doctor seems doomed. But taking advice from Clara, he sticks his hand out and maneuvers the Tardis out of the way like Thing from the Addams Family. The Tardis then goes into siege mode, essentially turning it into an impregnable cube. Unfortunately, life support is failing, and it desperately needs a recharge.

No longer able to communicate with the Doctor, Clara has to find a way out of this on her own. So she has Rigsy draw a picture of a 2D door and places it along a wall in the tunnel, and she puts the Tardis behind that wall. The 2D beings poor energy into the faux door trying to get through it, unknowingly powering up the Tardis behind it. Now re-energized, the Tardis goes back to full size, and the Doctor comes out and condemns the 2D beings which he has dubbed Boneless. They knew exactly what they were doing, making them monsters. And if they insist on being monsters, then the Doctor must become "the man who stops the monsters." He banishes the Boneless back to their own dimension and then gets the workers back to the surface. Afterwards, Clara tells him to admit she made a pretty good Doctor. He admits she was a fine Doctor, but says goodness had nothing to do with it. She keeps lying to people throughout this episode, and he doesn't seem to approve.

Finally, Missy appears and has taken a keen interest in Clara. What's going on here? We'll just have to wait to find out.

I found this week's episode to be very imaginative. The 2D beings idea, while not wholly original, was executed very well. And the Doctor's subtle commentary on his own nature speaks to the quality writing this shown continues to display.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Star Trek: Voyager: Acts of Contrition review

This week I decided to review Star Trek: Voyager: Acts of Contrition by Kirsten Beyer. When the book begins, the Full Circle fleet,, now under the command of Admiral Janeway, has returned to the Delta Quadrant seeking an alliance with the ancient Confederacy of Worlds. But as the fleet learns more about the laws and customs of the Confederacy, they discover a number of facts that leave some questioning the wisdom of an alliance between the Confederacy and the Federation, such as the power wielded by the Confederacy’s Market Consortium and its treatment of member worlds in crisis. But with a coalition of many of Voyager’s old enemies, and those jealous of the Confederacy’s technology at the gates, an alliance may be all that saves both the fleet and the Confederacy. But the true nature of the hostile coalition’s leadership may render all efforts to combat them useless. Meanwhile, back in the Alpha Quadrant, Seven of Nine struggles to aid Starfleet Medical in combating the Catomic plague which is devastating many of the worlds damaged by the Borg during their final assault on the Alpha Quadrant. But soon Seven discovers chilling signs of just how far Starfleet will go to stop the plague and even more horrific evidence that the plague might not be what it seems. And Tom Paris must face off against his own family in a desperate legal battle for custody of his daughter and unborn son, calling in every friend and favor he can against his mother, who feels that he and his wife are unfit parents, and his sisters who are supporting their mother’s efforts.
I give this book an 8.5 out of 10. It does a great job of balancing the various plot lines, though the transitions are a little jarring at points. While only one of the major plot lines is resolved in this book, with the others to be dealt with in the upcoming sequel, there was enough attention given to each plot that I have enough ideas about what might come to keep me wondering just what will come in the sequel, and there’s enough mystery left that I’m not sure where one of the plots will go next from the possible paths at the end of this book. The space combat was a little bland but not enough to cripple the story.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Doctor Who Recap -- 10/11

Tonight's episode "Mummy on the Orient Express" begins with an elderly woman being attacked on a train by a mummy that only she can see, resulting in her dying of a heart attack. Later, the Doctor takes Clara to that same train, the Orient Express. However, this is actually a space train! They've come here for Clara's last adventure with him; she decided to end their relationship following last week's episode.

Once aboard, they meet Maisie, the granddaughter of the woman who was just killed, and they find out about the alleged mummy. They also meet Quell, the ship's captain who's trying to keep a lid on things, along with Perkins, the chief engineer. The Doctor begins contemplating the mummy situation and seeks the knowledge of Moorhouse, an expert on myths who's also traveling on the Orient Express. They discuss the legend of the Foretold, a creature seen only by its victims who kills in 66 seconds. It is said to be immortal and cannot be harmed by conventional weapons. The Doctor believes this is the culprit behind the woman's death. As they are discussing this, one of the cooks aboard the train is killed by the Foretold.

Meanwhile, Clara and Maisie break into a storage compartment to see the woman's body. Maisie explains this is out of guilt because she often wished her grandmother dead (Granny wasn't such a nice person, apparently). However, they get locked in and are stuck.

The Doctor and Moorhouse investigate the recent deaths and discover the electricity faltered during each. The Doctor goes to find Clara but can't get through the locked door. Just then, Captain Quell arrives to arrest him on suspicion of being the murderer (the Doctor had been pretending to be a mystery shopper up to this point). But another death occurs, and Quell releases him. The Foretold then kills Moorhouse, and the Doctor tells the crew to bring him the background data on the victims. As it turns out, each of them was sick in either body or mind, causing the Doctor to conclude the mummy is targeting the weakest people first. The Doctor also realizes the passengers are experts in different fields, specifically chosen, and he demands to know who's pulling the strings.

At that moment, the train's upper-class facade is revealed to be a series of holograms (along with most of the passengers), and a lab takes its place. A mysterious man known only as Gus uses the PA system to announce he's brought them together to capture the Foretold so he can reverse-engineer its abilities. And to show he means business, he decompresses the kitchen, sucking the cooks into space.

The Foretold then kills Quell, and the Doctor discovers Maisie is the next victim. He urges Clara to bring her to him so he can watch the mummy attack her, instructing her to lie if necessary. Clara does lie, telling Maisie the Doctor can save her. They go to him, and the Foretold attacks. However, the Doctor manages to steal her negative emotions (the reason the mummy was targeting her), thus becoming the new target. He confronts the Foretold and determines the bandaged menace is actually a soldier who was equipped with a teleporter and cursed with immortality by having to suck the energy from the living. Knowing the soldier just wants his war to end, the Doctor surrenders. The Foretold disintegrates, and the Doctor acquires his teleporter. Unfortunately, Gus doesn't want witnesses, and shuts off oxygen to the car they're in. The Doctor manages to activate the teleporter and get them off the train.

He takes everyone to a nearby planet, and he and Clara have a talk. Her faith in him is restored following his rescue of Maisie, but he explains it's not that simple. Sometimes you have to make bad choices, he says. If Maisie had died, he would have simply moved onto the next victim and kept fighting the Foretold. Nevertheless, Clara decides to keep traveling with him.

Tonight's episode was another strong one. I especially liked the exploration of the Doctor's morality. He's not a clear-cut black-and-white figure. He has his flaws, but he keeps doing his best to do the right thing, and we are again reminded he needs an emotional anchor like Clara to keep him grounded. Also, as a fan of the anime Galaxy Express 999, I dig the space train concept. Finally, I'm intrigued by the mystery of Gus, and I hope he shows up again down the road.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Worlds of Honor: 6: Beginnings review

This week I decided to review Beginnings, the sixth volume in the Worlds of Honor short story anthology series, set in David Weber’s Honorverse. The first story is "By the Book" by Charles E. Gannon. It is by far the earliest story in the setting so far, taking place more than sixteen centuries before the setting’s main series. The story follows Lee Strong, the commander of an Earth Union patrol cutter as his rescue of a hijacked liner and investigation into the hijacking, followed by a suspicious explosion at a colony where then Union’s sublight interstellar vessels are, but it leads to the discovery a conspiracy that could alter humanity’s future forever.  The second story is "A Call to Arms" by Timothy Zahn, It stars Travis Long, and serves as an introduction to the Manticore Ascendant series, which is set a few centuries before the main series. Lieutenant Long finds himself transferred to a newly refitted light cruiser after reprimanding the favored nephew of an admiral. He struggles to adjust to his new ship and captain, but even as elements of Parliament are trying to reduce the Manticoran Navy, a megacorporation hires a mercenary fleet to seize control of the Manticore system and the light cruiser Long serves on finds itself in the path of the attack. Next is "Beauty and the Beast" by David Weber which shows the first meeting of the parents of Honor Harrington, the heroine of the main series. But this isn’t a peaceful story at all as Alfred Harrington is forced to launch a one-man assault to rescue his future bride Allison who has been kidnapped by forces seeking to use her to blackmail her brother into committing treason. Next is "Best Laid Plans," also by David Weber. This story covers the first meeting of Honor, and the Treecat Laughs Brightly, later known Nimitz. The story starts with Honor travelling into the woods in search of flowers for her mother’s birthday while Laughs Brightly and his younger brother are traveling through the area gathering supplies for their clan to use through the coming winter. They sense Honor’s presence through their empathic sense but soon realize she is heading towards a pair of large predators and their children, and an attempt to warn her away soon becomes a desperate battle for survival.  The last story is "Obligated Service" by Joelle Presby. It follows Claire Bedlam Lecroix who is among the first Grayson native female officer candidates. She finds herself struggling to complete her training assigned to a ship that’s been undergoing refit for a year, and a captain who has little interest in training her, or the rest of his crew. She finds herself transferred to another vessel where the training is harder but soon finds herself struggling as she prefers tech training to tactical and many of the crew become ill after the ship’s chief medical officer ignores her advice on maintaining his equipment. Than Claire is thrust into the heart of search and rescue efforts after a massive attack cripples the Grayson shipbuilding industry by destroying the space stations containing the system’s shipyards and a variety of facilities, followed by a struggle against the head of her family who is trying to have her recalled home.
I give the collection an 8 out of 10. It does a wonderful job of providing a wide variety of stories within the setting, and even the ones which I didn’t expect to enjoy much had their good moments. I am kind of annoyed by one thing though. I hate when the back covers of books lie about the contents of the book and this one definitely does that. The back cover states there is a story within it which stars Honor as a Commander in the Royal Manticoran Navyn but the only story Honor appears in is set before she even enters training, much less becomes a commander. And by the time of the only other story in the collection set during Honor’s lifetime, she’s an admiral.