Sunday, May 31, 2015

Guest Blogging

Today I'm doing a guest spot on the blog Confessions of a Bookaholic. Check it out at

Friday, May 29, 2015

James Review -- Shadow of Freedom

This week I decided to review Shadow of Freedom by David Weber. The story was originally intended to be the second part of A Rising Thunder but was made into a separate book due to the length of it combined with A Rising Thunder. It primarily focuses on the Star Empire of Manticore’s Tenth fleet in the aftermath of Operation Oyster Bay, a sneak attack which disables the Star Empire’s warship and missile production until new shipyards and factories can be built. The Tenth fleet is at the forefront of the growing conflict between the Star Empire and the Solarian League, and with its missiles being the Manticoran Navy’s largest advantage over the enemy ammunition, supplies are vital. Problems quickly come to a head when a League governor illegally impounds a group of Manticoran freighters and refuses to back down, leading to a small space battle and a boarding mission to rescue the crews of the seized vessels. Meanwhile, a number of rebellions have arisen on vassal worlds of the League’s Office of Frontier Security, rebellions encouraged by false promises of Manticoran aid from impostors claiming to be Star Empire agents. When a courier from one of these rebellions reaches the Tenth Fleet, the commander of the fleet and her staff must decide if they can trust the rebels. Convinced that the offers of aid are part of a plot to discredit the Star Empire by making it look like Manticore was abandoning its rebel allies when convenient, a detachment of the fleet races to aid the rebels. But can Tenth Fleet reach the rebels in time to save them, and does it still have the strength for its planned assault on the heart of the League’s Madras Sector after sending the detachment? Also just how many rebel movements are awaiting falsely promised Manticoran aid and what other surprises will the puppet masters behind the conflict between the Star Empire and the Solarian League unveil as Star Empire forces draw closer?

I give this book a 8 out of 10. The political and strategic planning segments are well done. So are the infantry and ground battle we see, but the space battles are far from the author’s best. As a matter of principle I don’t believe in unwinnable battles, but with the current technological advantages the Star Empire’s Navy possesses over its League counterpart, engagements between the two are basically as close to unwinnable for the League as I believe you can get. And unless the Star Empire actually starts running out of its advanced missiles--unlikely due to events that occurred in A Rising Thunder-- or the League Navy undergoes a massive technological leap, this isn’t going to change soon. If anything the aforementioned events of a Rising Thunder mean the battles will be growing even more lopsided in favor of the Empire and its allies rather than less so. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Kindle Spotlight -- SECTOR 64: Ambush

Today we have SECTOR 64: Ambush by Dean M. Cole. Is it worth reading? Let's find out.

The story centers around Air Force pilots Jake Giard and his friend Vic as they carry out a training exercise one night. Suddenly, they encounter a UFO which disables Vic's fighter craft. The plane crashes and the strange object disappears. Jake, believing his friend to be dead, lands the plane and is immediately arrested by MPs. He is interrogated and then released, whereupon he returns to his girlfriend and fellow pilot Sandy. Things seem bleak until Jake gets a call from his old friend Richard who asks to meet with him. Richard then takes him into a secret government facility and reunites him with Vic who explains how he survived his encounter.

As it turns out, the UFO belongs to a race of aliens called the Argonians who look exactly like humans. There's a reason for that which I won't spoil here. Anyway, the Argonians have been secretly working with mankind for decades to prepare us for inclusion in the greater galactic community, and the incident with Vic's fighter was just an unfortunate accident. They're actually a very peaceful race.

Sadly, the Argonians have an ancient enemy in the reptilian, warlike Zoxyth who discover the existence of Earth and decide to pay humanity a visit. They show up in massive ships and begin wiping out our major cities one by one. But mankind is not entirely defenseless against this threat; they've got experimental Argonian fighters on hand to respond in kind. Nevertheless, the might of the Zoxyth fleet might just be insurmountable. Can Jake and his friends fight off this invasion without losing Earth (or their lives) in the process?

For the most part, I enjoyed SECTOR 64: Ambush. It's pretty much a present-day Independence Day (sans Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum), and was fun to watch the puny humans fight back against their extraterrestrial adversaries. It's an engaging thrill ride from start to finish, and I appreciated all the Air Force research which went into crafting this narrative. The action scenes in particular are very well done.

However, the same cannot be said for the dialogue which gets very corny. I frequently cringed as I read the exchanges between the characters. The dialogue just doesn't feel realistic.

Still, it doesn't bring down the story too much. Give SECTOR 64: Ambush a try.

Friday, May 22, 2015

James Review -- Star Trek: The Original Series: Crisis of Consciousness

This week I decided to review Star Trek: The Original Series: Crisis of Consciousness by Dave Galanter. The story opens with the Enterprise ferrying a diplomatic party from the Maabas, a usually xenophobic culture which has recently opened negations with the Federation, to their world of Maaba S’Ja. But as Enterprise approaches the planet, it is intercepted by a vessel belonging to an unknown race calling themselves the Kenisians. After a brief skirmish, the Kenisians agree to talk, claiming that Maaba S’Ja is their world and that they want it back. The Maabas had been driven off of their homeworld by invaders thousands of years ago and fled until they settled on  Maaba S’Ja where they found abandoned ruins, with the study of the ruins greatly aiding their science. The Kenisians, who are descendants of an ancient lost Vulcan colony that have mastered the art of transferring a consciousness from one generation to the next with a single body containing dozens or hundreds of minds, claim that the ruins are theirs and that they were driven off the world by an invasion as the Maabas were driven from their home. As the Enterprise crew tries to negotiate an agreement between the two sides, they discover that the Kenisians seem particularly interested in some of the ruins. Upon examining the ruins, it is discovered that they contain vital components of a Kenisian super-weapon, one so unstable that it could possibly destroy a large chunk of the galaxy if deployed. The Kenisians seize the superweapon and kidnap Spock, hoping to make him discover how to use it safely, while also seizing the Maabas ambassador, Pippenge, to translate any useful Maabas data. Spock must stall for time while finding a way to convince the Kenisians not to deploy their uncontrollable weapon while facing many ancient Kenisian minds that have sought revenge against their ancient enemies for hundreds or thousands of years, and keep Pippenge safe. Meanwhile the Enterprise is trying to discover the Kenisian vessel, or its destination in time to intercept it while realizing in the process that the same force drove both the Maabas and Kenisians from their ancient homes. But the Enterprise must face a trap laid by the Kenisians, who do not care if the Enterprise is merely delayed or utterly destroyed, and other danger await them as well…
I give this book an 8.5 out of 10. The story is interesting and the background to the current situation was well done but there are some key points to the history of the Kenisians which I felt could have been made more clear. While I’m somewhat leery of super-weapon-based stories, this one managed to avoid the worst excesses I have encountered in past super-weapon tales and the combat sequences were well done.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Movie Review -- Mad Max: Fury Road

Today we have a remake of the old Mad Max movies, Mad Max: Fury Road. Once again directed by series creator George Miller, is it worth watching?

The story begins in the future following the collapse of society. Former cop Max (Tom Hardy) is a man haunted by his failure to save an unknown child. He wanders the wasteland just looking to survive, but one day is captured by a roaming band of wild thugs who work for the sinister Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), a local warlord who owns a stronghold called the Citadel. Max is shaved and branded by Joe's minions and put in a cage to await his fate.

Meanwhile, Joe's trusted slave Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) leads a caravan to Gas Town to...well, get gas. However, she soon goes off-course in her rig, making Joe suspicious. He then discovers his harem of sex slaves have been spirited out of the Citadel by Furiosa.

Joe sets out in pursuit of his escaped "property" and brings Max along as an unwitting hood ornament. A battle ensues, whereupon Max manages to get free in the middle of a massive sandstorm. The car he's on top of crashes when he stops driver Nux (Nicholas Holt) from blowing them sky-high as part of an attempt to secure a sweet afterlife. Max and an unconscious Nux run into Furiosa and the harem who have stopped to freshen up. Both parties then get into a fight but have to join forces when Joe and his band of marauders catches up with them. Furiosa explains that she's taking the women to a place where they can be free, and Max reluctantly agrees to help. Together, they head off towards the promised land, but Joe's forces aren't far behind, and they'll need all the luck (and bullets) they can get to survive the journey.

To answer my own question, Mad Max: Fury Road is absolutely worth watching. It's an exceedingly stylish film, a visual treat. George Miller once again proves he is a prime visionary, delivering a rich setting and wildly colorful characters to the post-apocalyptic wasteland. He is truly in a class of his own.

However, there is a strange lack of diversity in this movie. I don't recall seeing anyone of color in the whole film. As far as I can tell, the future will be full of white people. Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome at least had Tina Turner in it, so I'm not sure what happened here.

Still, I don't think it hurts this film too much. Go see Mad Max: Fury Road and embrace the insanity.

"What a lovely day!"

Friday, May 15, 2015

James Review -- Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown

This week I decided  to review Star Wars: Maul: Lockdown by  Joe Schreiber. The story is primarily focused around Darth Maul’s mission to the prison station Cog Hive Seven. Cog Hive Seven is also the site of arena battles between prisoners which are gambled on across the galaxy. The story opens with Maul locked in a battle against an unidentified opponent which readers familiar with the Star Wars Legends continuity will swiftly identify as a Yuuzhan Vong. Maul is forbidden from using the Force during his mission but still manages to kill his opponent. Maul’s objective inside the prison is to locate the legendary arms dealer Iram Radique. While Darth Plagueis wishes Radique dead, Darth Sideious has sent Maul to obtain a bomb from Radique and then arrange its delivery to a cult. But unfortunately, this cult happens to be Radique’s most hated enemy which will complicate Maul’s mission greatly, in addition to the difficulty of identifying Radique. As Maul weaves his way through the prison, he makes new allies and gains control of two of the major gangs within the prison’s loosely-controlled population. But Radique soon comes to believe that Maul seeks to kill him and turns his resources against the Sith Lord. And when the prison warden starts a feud with Jabba the Hutt, Jabba launches an assault against the prison, seeking to kill everyone on it. And if these threats aren’t challenging enough, Maul must also deal with an insane former Jedi and a legendary monster which dwells within the prison if he is to survive
I give the book a 7 out of 10. On the plus side, the author did a great job characterizing Maul in my opinion. He showed Maul as more than a killing machine and more mission-focused than evil just for the fun of it. Sure, Maul will do horrible things when he feels his mission calls for it, but he will also do honorable things when it aids his goals, or at one point less because doing so aids his objectives and more than doing so will not hinder his mission. On the other hand, the plot seems a little thin. It feels like the author just decided that setting a Star Wars story on a prison station starring Maul would be fun and just came up with the quickest reason possible to get Maul there. Also, the menagerie of beings Maul encounters is crazy. Right off the bat there is a member of a species which would be incredibly rare, if not unknown in the region where Star Wars takes place at the time the story occurs. This is followed by another person who is implied to belong to a species that is only slightly less rare in known space in this era. And then there are representatives of a third species which not only does not have access to space travel when the story occurs, but their homeworld won’t be contacted by a space faring civilization for well over a decade yet Maul somehow recognizes their species and knows its name. The author desperately needed to resist the urge throw species in just because he liked them, and instead make sure their appearances made sense within the larger Star Wars Legends storyline in my opinion.

Friday, May 8, 2015

James Review -- Balance Point

This week I decided to review Balance Point by Robert Buettner. The Story opens with Jazen Parker, a high level agent for Terran Intelligence who has a problem. His Grezzen friend Mort, who is very large, very strong, sentient and highly telepathic, is very angry.  While using his telepathic abilities, which can reach across the gulf between solar systems, to see the news stories being read by the man who brought him his holiday dinner, Mort discovered that Bartram Cutler, a criminal business tycoon responsible for the death of Mort’s mother, has been pardoned and Mort is very unhappy. After Jazen calms Mort down, the story shifts to the neutral banking world of Rand where Cutler is meeting Maximillian Polian, an agent for Yavet, a human world that is Earth’s rival in the ongoing interstellar cold war. Polian also discovers that he has a reason of his own to hate Jazen and Kat, Jaz’s partner and lover. Cutler reveals a scheme to both get revenge against the Earth intelligence agents and obtain the faster-than-light drive which is Earth’s biggest advantage over Yavet.

Back on Earth after a party hosted by Kat’s father, who does not approve of his daughter's work or her relationship with Jazen, the couple meets with Howard, the head of Earth’s intelligence division, who informs them that they are on leave until further notice due to the suspension of active operation against Yavet interests. While Mort returns home for his once-in-a-lifetime chance to mate, Kat and Jazen eventually travel to Mousetrap, a system where most of Earth’s faster-than-light ships were built, whose shipyards are now mostly shut down and converted into a free city. Jazen lived here after escaping his homeworld of Yavet, but when Kat catches Jazen drinking with his former lover who now runs the bar Jazen owns, she assumes the worst and locks him out  Then Jazen receives a message telling him that the woman who raised him is dying and begins plotting a secret visit to his homeworld, unaware that the message, while true, was arranged by Polian. Jazen sets off on a journey to Yavet after informing Mort of his plans. But first comes a stop at Funhouse, a world renowned for gambling. Funhouse is particularly known for wagers on fights between alien predatory animals, and Jazen barely manages to escape after being accused of helping rig the games before continuing to his true destination. Meanwhile Mort has revealed Jazen’s destination to Kat who informs Howard. Howard then reveals that while there is likely a trap waiting on Yavet, Jazen may not be the true target. Instead he could be bait to lure the biological parents he never knew to Yavet. Kat races to try to aid Jazen who, after meeting his biological family, discovers the role his parents played in ending humanity’s first interstellar war and the secret knowledge which makes his mother such a valuable target to the force of Yavet. But the reunion soon becomes a desperate race to escape the net arranged by Polian’s forces with time rapidly running out. The book also contains "Mole Hunt" which is a short story concerning a Yavet covert operation on the planet Downgraded Earthlike 476, AKA the homeworld of the Grezzen.
I give this book an 8 out of 10. It wasn’t bad but there was little to make it particularly special in my eyes. I also felt that the big revelation about the end of Earth’s war with the Slugs was incredibly cliché. Also I felt that Kat's reaction to Jazen's and Syrene's meeting was an extreme overreaction that was out of character for Kat and thrown in as little more then an excuse to separate Jazen and Kat for a while. Finally, this is a spy book first and foremost, not a military science fiction book. It is good for its genre but very light on the combat. I enjoy spy novels as well as more combat heavy stories but if you are someone who prefers lots of bullets and lasers flying in the books you read this is not for you.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Movie Review -- Avengers: Age of Ultron

Today we have the latest Marvel movie, Avengers: Age of Ultron. Once again directed by Joss Whedon, is it as good as the first?

The movie begins with the Avengers attacking a fortified Hydra base to recover Loki's scepter. Hydra responds by unleashing the super-powered Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olson). Pietro has super speed and Wanda can manipulate matter and has psychic abilities. The two groups tussle briefly before the Maximoffs make their escape. 

Later, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) decides to go ahead with a plan to create a peace-keeping force using the scepter's mysterious intelligence. However, things quickly go awry when the intelligence, known as Ultron (James Spader), awakens and begins downloading his consciousness into multiple robot bodies. Having received his mission of world peace from Stark, he quickly twists it into something perverse and decides to do away with the Avengers which he views as a threat to said mission.

Ultron soon recruits the Maximoffs to his cause, and the trio gets to work dismantling Earth's mightiest heroes. The Avengers find themselves at a severe disadvantage against Pietro's speed and Wanda's mind games. Even worse, Wanda manipulates the Hulk into going on a rampage, and Iron Man must don his most powerful armor to stop the green goliath. The ensuing battle accumulates a crapload of collateral damage, threatening the Avenger's reputation. But Ultron is just getting started, and he has a plan to usher in the apocalypse. Can our heroes rally themselves and save the day?

The first Avenger's movie remains a favorite of mine, and I'm happy to say the sequel does not disappoint. It's got comedy, tons of great action and stylish visuals. If it weren't for the screaming kids in the theater and my mounting headache, I would have had a total blast. A mark of a good movie is if I can say I want to eventually get it on home video, and with this movie I can say that. I definitely enjoyed it more than Guardians of the Galaxy which I liked but viewed as Avengers Lite.

I also like that they updated the Maximoffs' wardrobe for the modern generation. The Scarlet Witch's comic book outfit in particular has not aged well, and thankfully Joss Whedon's version is much more sensible and fashionable.

In addition, the chemistry between the cast members is as strong as ever, and you really get a sense they had a blast working together and making this film. 

If there is a downside to this movie, it's that the villain's minions aren't that much different than the aliens from the first Avengers. However, that really doesn't bother me and I think Ultron is a compelling antagonist.

Bottom line: Go see Avengers: Age of Ultron. Now.

Friday, May 1, 2015

James Review -- Cryoburn

This week I decided to review Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold. The story opens with Miles Vorkosigan on the run after being injected with a sedative that he is allergic to during a botched kidnapping attempt. Struggling to flee while suffering from illusions generated by his reaction to the drug, Miles encounters Jin Sato, a young runaway who guides Miles to an abandoned Cryogenics company headquarters where a number of homeless people live. Miles is on Kibou-daini, a world ruled by corporations that specialize in cryogenically freezing humans until cures can be found for whatever condition is killing them, with the corporation that is taking care of a patient gaining the right to vote in the subject’s name. One of these corporations is plotting to form a branch inside the Barrayaran Empire, and Emperor Gregor has ordered Miles, who has himself suffered negative effects from cryogenic freezing and revival, to investigate. While Miles recovers from the side effects of the drug he was hit, with his armsman Roic, who was captured by the kidnappers, is plotting escape. Miles sends Jin with a message to the Barrayaran Consulate, but Jin is arrested for truancy while bringing Miles a reply. This leads to Miles making the journey to the consulate himself while Roic escapes the group that kidnapped him and many others. Meanwhile, Jin runs away from his aunt again, this time bringing his younger sister Mina. While investigating Jin’s family, Miles discovers that Jin’s mother Lisa was a leader of a minor dissident political party who was cryogenically frozen, officially due to having an untreatable mental illness, in the aftermath of a protest that became a riot. Miles suspects that Lisa knew some secret which scared one or more of the cryo-corporations enough that she was frozen to silence her. So a desperate race to locate, rescue and revive Lisa Sato begins while the increasingly desperate forces that seek to hide the secret she knows close in.
I give the book an 7.5 out of 10. It was a little dull at points but had some nice humor to it. One point I really dislike is that while the primary plot points of the story are resolved well, the end introduces a new event which will have major repercussions for any future stories in the setting that occur after Cyroburn and seemingly comes out of nowhere. I feel this point would have been much better if it were the opening to a follow up book rather than at the end of Cyroburn.