Friday, August 28, 2015

James Review -- Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron

This week I decided to review Star Wars: X-Wing: Rogue Squadron by Michael A. Stackpole. 

The story opens with Corran Horn facing the Redemption Run, a training simulation based on an old battle which will be instantly recognized by many players of the original X-Wing PC game. The mission is to protect a number of ships delivering wounded to a medical frigate. After barely achieving the mission when he and the final TIE fighter mutually cripple each other and the TIE is hit by a previously launched torpedo, Corran has a brief discussion with his wingmates and the pilot of the final Imperial fighter in the simulation. 

Meanwhile, Wedge Antilles has a meeting with Admiral Ackbar and General Horton Salm, leader of a bomber wing training at the same base as the reformed Rogue Squadron. Wedge wants to make some changes to his unit’s roster, replacing one of his pilots with Gavin Darklighter, whose cousin died during the battle to destroy the first Death Star, and his executive officer with Tycho Celchu, the pilot of the final TIE from the simulation that opened the book. But General Salm doesn’t want Tycho anywhere near a combat unit because Tycho was once captured by the Empire and escaped leaving many--including Salm--to believe he is really an Imperial agent. 

In the end, Wedge gets his wishes but, elsewhere, Kirtan Loor, former Imperial Intelligence liaison to a Corellian Security team Corran Horn once belonged to, has spent years chasing the team because he claims they aided the rebellion by refusing to focus their police efforts on his preferred targets. Loor catches the team’s leader, who dies in interrogation, then is recalled and assigned to destroy Rogue Squadron. After rushed advanced training, the Rogues are moved to a forward base, but stumble upon an Interdictor cruiser ambushing a New Republic-allied smuggler, and it is later revealed that the smuggler is Mirax Terrik, both a childhood friend of Wedge’s and the daughter of the rival of Corran’s father. 

After a mission to rescue the crew of a disabled New Republic scout ship Loor manages to locate the squadron’s base, and a stormtrooper unit sent to scout the base raids it instead, inflicting the first fatality suffered by the new Rogues. And soon, after a retaliatory strike turns into a desperate battle against a Lancer-class Frigate, a warship specifically designed to combat starfighters, the Rogues are assigned to attack a base codenamed Blackmoon. Blackmoon is well positioned to serve as a staging area for operations against the Imperial capital, but the Imperial general commanding the base has a moneymaking operation on the side which has allowed him to both double the strength of his fighter force and enhance the base’s defenses. 

The attack on Blackmoon is a disaster but Whistler, Corran’s R2 unit, manages to figure out where Blackmoon is and pinpoint a flaw in the enhanced defenses. But with New Republic forces spread thin, it will fall to Rogue Squadron, reduced to six X-Wings and eight fit pilots, alone, to cripple the defenses despite being badly outnumbered and having little time in the mission area due to limits on the fuel supply of their craft.

I give the book 8 out of 10. The battles are great but there are some mistakes in characterization like Wedge thinking that he enjoys combat. He definitely enjoys fighting but the stories involving him make it clear that he hates combat rather than liking it. While I like the details like including one of the missions from the original X-Wing computer game as a training simulation, and even including an in-setting explanation for the most annoying allied AI quirk in the game, some information in the book is wrong and spotting the errors should have been easy. For example, in one battle, Corran’s ship is disabled by an Ion Cannon hit despite none of the ships in the engagement having ion cannons. Also, ion cannons seem to alternate between disabling ships--which is their function in almost all Star Wars stories that they appear in--and outright destroying ships (sometimes doing both in the same battle). And, in a third example, Wedge explains that the shuttle attached to the Rogues doesn’t carry missiles because it has been modified to fit the profile of an assault gunboat despite the fact that the gunboats not only carry missiles, they carry a massive amount of missiles for a craft their size. 

Still all in all it is a great start to the series, and in my opinion within the top 4 of Stackpole’s Star Wars-related works.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Kindle Spotlight -- Blood Street

Carl Alves recently sent me a copy of his vampire novel Blood Street to review. Without further ado, here we go.

The story takes place in present-day Philadelphia. Low-level mobster Pat "The Goat" Adesso is searching for his friend Johnny Gunns one day. Well, after several stops, he manages to track him down at Gunn's girlfriend's house. To his horror, though, he finds both of them brutally murdered and disemboweled. And to make matters worse, the killer is still there. The Goat finds himself face to face with a pale stranger with superhuman strength and speed. The Goat barely survives the encounter, and reports back to his superiors he's just seen a real life vampire.

The crime family patriarch, Enzo Salerno, dismisses his claims as fantasy. However, when more victims turn up, dispatched in the same sick fashion, the culprit's seemingly inhuman characteristics become hard to ignore. Enzo orders an hunt to find him.

Meanwhile, vampire patriarch Magnus knows the killer is one of his brood named Alexei. He's incensed at Alexei for killing with such reckless abandon and drawing attention to their kind, but Magnus' lover Gabriella is quite fond of him and doesn't want any infighting. Nevertheless, Magnus knows he can't let this continue and must take action before they are discovered.

Also investigating the killings is government agent Mark Andrews. Realizing he and Enzo have a common enemy, he reaches out to the mafioso for a temporary alliance. Enzo, determined to catch Alexei, reluctantly agrees. Together, both sides set out to bring the vampire to justice, but are they about to start a war they can't win?

Blood Street is at its best when it focuses on vampires. They're just about my favorite monster, and I always enjoy stories about them. When this novel focuses on mobsters, it comes across as bad mafia fan fiction. Many of the human characters seem--to me, at least--to be mobster stereotypes. There's a particularly unpleasant mafioso named Big Fat Paulie (Family Guy fans should recognize that name). Then again, I'm hardly an expert on the mob, so Alves' portrayal may be accurate, but it just doesn't seem like it.

But it's not just the mobsters I have trouble buying into. Gabriella is wildly inconsistent in her actions. The author includes a scene in which she punishes a wife-beater, adding she enjoys bringing scumbags to justice. Yet she continually ignores the murderers in her own family. I feel this scene is unnecessary and only confuses the plot.

Fortunately, as I said, the vampire parts (Gabriella notwithstanding) are quite good. I enjoyed seeing them fight the mob to see who was the lesser of two evils, and there are some good fight scenes and a satisfying conclusion.

All in all, Blood Street's a mixed bag. There are good and bad parts, though I think the good outweighs the bad.

Friday, August 21, 2015

James Review -- Star Trek: Seekers: Longshot

This week I decided to review Star Trek: Seekers: Long Shot by David Mack. 

The story opens on the planet Cavino IV, known as Anura by its inhabitants the Austarans, where scientists are about to activate a new dark energy-based power generator that uses quantum fluctuations. But something goes wrong, creating an anomaly that alters the laws of probability, causing a mix of miracles, one in a million disasters, and everything in between. 

Meanwhile, in a nearby system, the USS Sagittarius is scouting a candidate world for possible colonization when they pick up the dark energy readings from Anura and move to investigate. After confirming that the planet is inhabited but hasn’t developed warp drive yet, the Sagittarius tries to gather more information without being detected, but this plan swiftly goes down in flames when the leader of Anura hails them and asks for help in ending the crisis before things get worse. 

Captain Terrell leads a team to the planet, but due to the distortions caused by the generator, they and Doctor Kavalas, one of the scientists who worked on the generator project, must use the planet’s highly automated highway system to reach the generator despite events leading to massive traffic jams and wreaking havoc on the automation that controls the vehicles. And the journey grows more hazardous when some of the Austarans decide that the visitors from another world are responsible for the crisis and start hunting them. And then Kavalas must reveal the ultimate secret of the project. 

Meanwhile the Sagittarius tries to aid the planet first by rescuing the crew of Anura’s space station before a meteor swarm can destroy the station, and then by intercepting a planet killer-sized dark matter rock that is approaching Anura on a course that uses the planet’s moons to hide it from the world. But when Anura’s sun begins building towards a discharge which will fry the world, the team at the generator becomes the planet’s only hope…

I give this book 8 out of 10. It has some good comedy bits and I thought it was a nice touch how the author showed flashes of the effects of the improbability field on regular Austarans and how it showed the effects helping Austarans as well as harming them. That said, I felt the secret of the quantum project came out of nowhere with no hints at all until it was revealed. I don’t mind surprises but I feel there should have been at least a couple of small hints rather than the secret seemingly coming out of nowhere. And there are many questions left unanswered with most of them linked to that secret and no signs I can see that they will be resolved in later stories.

Friday, August 14, 2015

James Review -- Rebellion

This week I decided to review Rebellion by Ken Shufeldt. 

The story opens with the birth of John David, known as JD, Dury, who is orphaned within seconds of his birth due to a snow storm-induced accident. He is adopted by Leroy and Emma Bolton, and eventually flees from a group of six bullies. Leroy, a retired Special Forces instructor, punishes him severely and makes it clear that JD is to never flee from anyone again and JD beats the bullies with a stick the next day while Leroy beats their fathers in a fight a short time later. 

Then, a few years later, the bullies strike back and almost beat JD to death. Leroy puts JD in homeschooling and begins training him in the art of combat, warning JD that the training he has received comes with great responsibility, before dying at his adopted son’s fifteenth birthday dinner. 

As the United State economy continues going downhill, JD begins working to help support his family, but this eventually leads to a feud with Bob Tower, a man very well connected in the local underworld. The feud ends in a PayPerView cage match and JD kills Bob after Bob obtains a knife from an ally during the fight. JD is then convinced to join the army to escape retaliation and swiftly rises through the ranks after playing vital roles in victories against various warlords and terrorist groups. 

Meanwhile, a series of presidents is struggling with reviving the United States economy. While one succeeds for a time, a computer attack, teamed with a strategic assassination, undoes all the progress in a day. And the next president faces a series of terrorist attacks that make 9/11 “look like a bloody nose.” JD leads an attack on a terrorist-controlled building but is forced to destroy the building, along with the terrorists, to prevent them from setting off one of the most powerful nuclear weapons ever made. Eventually, these attacks are traced to Central America, and the entire United States Army, followed later by the National Guard, is sent to attack them. With things going badly on the home front, the president asks for UN Peacekeepers and a Chinese force led by General Sung is sent. After a battle, however, it is discovered that the Chinese are actually aiding the US’s enemies in Central America, but this discovery comes too late. The Chinese launch a Neutron bomb Strike on Central America, and the US launches a counterstrike, leaving billions dead, and with the bulk of the US military destroyed, Sung seizes control. 

JD is sent by his mentor, who is the commander of what’s left of the US Army, to link up with fringe groups and militias in the occupied US to form an organized resistance. But eventually, the Chinese locate and destroy the headquarters of the US military remnants. JD then finds himself as the commander of the resistance. The rest of the story follows the conflict, including JD allying with many former enemies, but also leaves room for a sequel, though I suspect its focus will be much different if it comes.

I give the book a 5.5 out of 10. I thought the beginning dragged on too long. Also, there are some decisions made by characters in the story that, to me, make absolutely no sense, and there is little mention of how most of the nations outside the Americas are reacting to the events of the story. It does do a good job of showing both sides cross into war crimes territory rather than making the resistance and it allies purely good and the Chinese purely evil, though, with a few cases of resistance members executing prisoners who have surrendered. However, it always explains what drove the resistance members who committed the acts to do so to cast them in a more sympathetic light and which side is supposed to considered good is never left in doubt. I also feel the story could have used more scenes further away from wherever the current main character is, and I don’t recall many full collaborators with the occupying forces appearing, unless you count people whose families have Chinese guns to their heads. This is something I find incredibly jarring and unrealistic for this type of conflict.

Friday, August 7, 2015

James Review -- The General: The Savior

This week I decided to review The General: The Savior by David Drake and Toney Daniel. The story is set on the planet Duisberg, which was once part of a galactic republic before a republic-wide civil war led to the unleashing of a nano-virus which eradicated most advanced technology other than a few well shielded AI Supercomputers. One of these supercomputers was a ground warfare and planetary specialist on Duisberg named Zentrum. Zentrum has set itself up as god of the societies on Duisberg, but to prevent civilization from collapsing again, it restricts technology and society to an eighteenth and early nineteenth-century level with occasional assaults on the more civilized regions by the Blaskoye tribes to keep technology from developing too far.  A pod containing copies of the AI Center and a copy of the mind of Raj Whitehall, a general who managed to bring civilization back to his world, eventually making it the heart to a new multi-planetary federation, has landed on Duisberg. 

They have formed a mental link with Abel Dashian, an officer in Zentrum’s Guardians, and warned him that if Zentrum isn’t stopped, the human population on Zentrum will inevitably be destroyed by an asteroid impact. Early in the story, Abel is part of a force of Guardians sent to attack a city which has developed technology forbidden by Zentrum, including a number of (for Duisberg at least) highly advanced weapons like repeating rifles. With aid from Center’s ability to predict possible futures, and Raj’s tactical advice, Abel manages to assist the army in a number of battles. 

But the time for the next Blaskoye invasion has come. Even worse while Abel tries to turn his army into a force to fight both the Blaskoye and Zentrumm agents of the latter find and destroy the pod containing Raj and Center. To make matters even worse, Abel’s father and a number of his high- ranking allies vanish or are brainwashed, while his lover Mahaut prepares a militia to defend the capital city against the Blaskoye horde. There are also a number of flashbacks to events that took between the previous book and this one mostly focused on Mahaut’s life and the relationship between her and Abel.

I give this book an 8.5 out of 10. The battle sequences are well written and I loved the portions which took place solely within Abel’s mind. But I think the flashbacks could have been reduced without doing any real harm to the main story. Also, I feel that Zentrun’s blindness to the danger to Duisberg posed by the number of large asteroids in its solar system makes no sense. Even if Zentrum for some reason knew nothing about, or had forgotten everything it had known about the solar system it was based in, shouldn’t the array of giant craters told it that if the planet had been hit by that many giant asteroids in the past, the odds of it happening again were incredibly high? 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Kindle Spotlight -- Progeny of Gods: Vertuem Destiny

Today we have a recent novel by Geoffrey Storm, Progeny of Gods: Vertuem Destiny.

The plot centers around 19-year-old Greyson Wight who has traveled to the Kingdom of Viaeden to join the military. This is a land where trees grow to be miles tall and whole cities are built on their branches. Greyson, along with best friend Tay, have dreams of serving their kingdom aboard "bark ships" which are airships made of wood from these trees. 

But on their first mission, things go horribly wrong. Under Greyson's orders, a fallen angel named Stiqula--who previously terrorized the kingdom decades ago--is accidentally released from his tree prison. Viaeden's king Huey, already paranoid, is now furious and orders Stiqula to be dealt with immediately--or else! But Stiqula's on a mission to free Refsiel, the lord of darkness, and unfortunately for the citizens of Viaeden, this requires much carnage and bloodshed. Many souls must be offered up to Refsiel before Stiqula can get what he wants, and he wastes no time getting to work.

To end this nightmare, Greyson and Tay are given their own ship to hunt down Stiqula, but Greyson must first come to terms with his status as a vertui, a green-eyed human of murky origins whose destiny it may just be to save the world. But vertui are viewed with (sometimes homicidal) disdain, and many people outright hate them. Can Greyson step up to save the day, or will the world's superstitions (and Stiqula's incredible power) be the end of all mankind?

I had a good time with Progeny of Gods. It has riveting action scenes, clever sci-fi tropes and good character development for Greyson. The author does a good job of exploring his struggle with his own darkness and his search for redemption for the many deaths he feels responsible for (which he's not even sure he deserves). You can easily root for this protagonist.

However, a few issues bring down the experience. The first is the author's choppy writing style; sentences start and stop abruptly, and it breaks the flow of the narrative. It comes off as amateurish.

The second issue is the immature dialogue. Character's repeatedly say "gunna" instead of "gonna," and Greyson and Tay's bromance gets annoying as they banter. Tay's not a particularly likable character to begin with, so I really didn't a crap about his relationship with Greyson.

Still, these issues don't hurt the novel too much--they're just mildly annoying. Give Progeny of Gods a try and you might just find a good read.