Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Kindle Spotlight -- Star Wars: Before the Awakening

Star Wars fever continues to sweep the nation, and this blog is no exception. With that in mind, here's a prequel story to The Force Awakens: Before the Awakening by Greg Rucka and Phil Noto. Not a long book, it's three stories centered around the main characters of the movie.
In the first story, stormtrooper FN-2187 is on a fire-team running simulations in preparation for their first mission. FN-2187 is the shining start of the team, consistently out-performing his comrades. However, in the eyes of their CO, Captain Phasma, he has a critical weakness: Compassion. During simulated battle, he goes back and saves a member of his team who has been pinned down by New Republic fire. Phasma tells him his duty is to the First Order and not to his team and he needs to put the mission ahead of everything else. FN-2187 complies, but soon the team is sent on their first mission to a mining asteroid to deal with striking miners. And Captain Phasma's solution will test FN-2187's loyalties like never before.
The second story takes place on the Tatooine wannabe Jakku. Scavenger Rey ekes out a meager living selling scrap to shady businessman Unkar. One day, she finds the score of a lifetime in the form of an intact freighter. Realizing she can really clean up if she gets it running, she sets out to do just that. But she has to keep it a secret for months as she toils away, strategically deciding which parts scavenged from other wrecks to sell for food and which to use to repair the freighter. And when her operation is finally uncovered, she must decide who she can trust, a decision which may screw her in the end.
The third and final story focuses on Poe Dameron, a pilot for the New Republic's Rapier Squadron. One day, they receive a distress signal from a ship. They go to help, only to find a First Order force attacking the ship. Before they can rescue it, the bad guys board it and take off with it. Poe tries to warn his superiors about the danger posed by the First Order, but they refuse to listen. One person who will listen, however, is General Leia Organa. She enlists Rapier Squadron for a top-secret mission to find out if a Republic senator is really a double agent for the New Order. Their mission is to quickly disable his yacht, board it and bring it back to base so they can recover the files stored on its computer. But to do so, they'll have to take on the might of the First Order, a tall order (no pun intended) for even these skilled pilots.
Before the Awakening  is a fun little addendum to the movie which adds in interesting tidbits but ultimately answers few questions. For example, I expected to find out just how Poe ended up on Jakku, but this book doesn't tell you. Also, Rey's story is pretty weak and doesn't really add anything to her or her story.
However, I feel Poe's story is the best and has the most action. Also, FN-2187's story features a lot more of Captain Phasma than the movie. If you read my review on that, you know I was a tad underwhelmed by her presence there. This novel also has a better variety of ships than the movie, a complaint addressed to me by James.
You could do a lot worse than read Before The Awakening. Just don't expect any big revelations.

Friday, December 25, 2015

James Review -- Star Wars: Death Star

In celebration of the recent release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I decided to review the re-release of Star Wars: Death Star by Michael Reaves and Steve Perry. 
The story begins by showing how many of the main characters of the tale come to be on board the novel’s namesake battle station. First is Villian Dance, an Imperial fighter pilot sent to intercept a shuttle commandeered by prisoners used as labor to construct the Death Star. Then Teela Kaarz, a political prisoner who had been a top tier architect before being sentenced to life imprisonment for treason is introduced, followed by Memah  Roothes and Rodo, a cantina owner and bouncer respectively, who are eventually sent to run a cantina on the Death Star.
Next are Tenn Graneet, who eventually becomes the Death Star’s chief gunner, and Kornell Divini, also known as Uli, a doctor who has been serving in the military since the Clone Wars. And, finally, Celot Ratua Dil, a convicted smuggler who manages to sneak aboard the station, and Nova Stihl, an unknowingly Force-sensitive trooper who had befriended Dil while posted to Despayre, the prison planet where the Death Star was constructed.
It also includes scenes showing Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader arriving at the station and some background on the history of the Death Star project in the Legends timeline. Most of the story focuses on life on the Death Star as the cast eventually meet and become friends, with Celot and Memah becoming a couple along with Teela and Villian. The story also covers an early incident of sabotage and an attack on the station by a rebel heavy carrier and its fighter wings. But after the destruction of Alderaan most of the group begins plotting to flee the station along with the station’s chief librarian who had secretly been aiding the rebellion while Graneet struggles with guilt after destroying a planet using a weapon he had believed would never be used on an inhabited world.
However, when a key component of the planned escape is confiscated by security, the plot becomes a mad scramble to escape the station even as the Battle of Yavin rages outside.
I give this book 9 out of 10. Getting a look at what life was like for the people on the Death Star who weren’t the high-ranking officers was fascinating, as was getting to peek into the mind of the station’s chief gunner both before and after he destroyed a world. It was also interesting how the cast tied into the scenes from A New Hope set aboard the station, and it explained a minor detail from the movie which I had wondered about for years before reading the book. However, I found the battle scene where the rebel carrier Fortressa and her fighters attack the station underwhelming and the tactics the fighters use seem contradictory at times and make little sense, though this might have been intentional on the part of the authors.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Movie Review -- Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens

Please forgive the belated review, but I didn't get to see the decade's biggest movie until today. It's Star Wars: Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Directed by the great J.J. Abrams, is it as good as his past work.
The story takes place three decades after Return of the Jedi, and things aren't looking so good for the Republic. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared, and the Galactic Empire has been reborn as the First Order, governed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Serving under Snoke is his apprentice, the mysterious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren is after a map to Luke's location, and the First Order tracks it to the planet Jakku. It's currently in the possession of resistance member and X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). They attack the village Dameron is hiding in, and he gives the map to his droid BB-8 for safekeeping. Dameron is captured by Kylo Ren, but BB-8 manages to escape.
BB-8 is eventually found by scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley). She takes the droid home and they soon encounter former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) who's had a change of heart following the attack on the village. They don't have time for proper introductions, however, as the First Order launches an attack on the settlement they're in. They manage to hijack a very familiar ship and eventually meet up with its former owners who are happy to be home.
From there, they embark on a journey to aid the resistance and find Luke Skywalker. But Kylo Ren is never far behind, and he's determined to get that map at any cost to complete his vague mission. Can our heroes take down a new breed of Sith and the most powerful weapon the galaxy's ever seen?
The Force Awakens stays very true to its predecessors. From the opening dialogue, to the classic sound effects, to the rousing John Williams score, this is every bit a Star Wars movie. You can expect dogfights, lightsabers and a villain in a mask wearing all black. You'll also be very entertained by it. This film maintains the benchmark set in the 70's and 80's and I can honestly say I want to see it again and again. There's even a shocking event that I like, but is sure to divide fans for years to come.
However, it isn't without its shortcomings. I, for one, am unsatisfied with the character of Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). People made a big deal about her being the first female Stormtrooper, but she hardly does anything. Maybe they have a bigger role for her in mind for future installments, but I wanted more. And while we're on the subject of unimpressive characters, in the picture below you can see Finn holding a lightsaber. When he actually uses it, though...
...he gets his ass kicked. Pretty badly. I don't think he's cut out to be a Jedi.
Oh, and while we're at it...where's Lando?? They'd better include him in the next movie. And there will be a next movie; this one leaves a lot of threads to be resolved.
All nitpicking aside, if you've somehow avoided seeing The Force Awakens thus far, stop torturing yourself and go see it. It's very worth it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Kindle Spotlight -- Acne, Asthma, And Other Signs You Might Be Half Dragon

Today we have what could possibly be the greatest book title ever: Acne, Asthma, And Other Signs You Might Be Half Dragon by Rena Rocford.
The story follows asthmatic, acne-ridden teenager Allyson Takata who's half Japanese and half Irish. And then, one day, while being attacked by kidnappers, she starts breathing fire and is told by her best friend Beth that she's also half dragon! Turns out Beth is half troll, and the world is full of such supernatural creatures called the Kin. This prompts Allyson to start thinking about the father she's never known and what kind of secrets her mother is keeping from her.
Unfortunately for her, an absent father soon becomes the least of her problems. When a classmate of theirs--who's also a unicorn--gets kidnapped, Beth gets blamed for it. If she's found guilty, she'll be executed by her unicorn caretakers. Since they can't get the police involved, Allyson and Beth take off to rescue their classmate and clear Beth's name.
But they quickly find themselves in over their heads when gryphon bikers enter the picture. Allyson discovers her father was involved with them, and some of them hold a grudge against him because of a tragedy that occurred. Nevertheless, she befriends them and begins trying to master her dragon transformation. However, they soon uncover the existence of a sinister villain known as the Magic Thief who is behind the kidnapping of many Kin, and his plans don't involve world peace. Allyson and friends set out to stop him, but that may mean she'll have to kill her father who's working for the Magic Thief. Can she muster the strength to make this sacrifice, or is there another solution that doesn't call for patricide?
Acne, Asthma, And Other Signs You Might Be Half Dragon is a delightful story. It's refreshing to find a protagonist who isn't (at first glance) attractive. Allyson has to deal with both asthma and acne to find her inner strength and beauty. Beth is also a strong female character who can handle herself in a fight. I also like how the Kin are handled; they're all impressively strong and there aren't (as far as I can tell) any weak ones.
I strongly recommend this book if you're a fan of fantasy. This is easily one of the best stories I've read this year. It's well-written and well worth your time.

Friday, December 18, 2015

James Review -- Star Trek: The Original Series: Child of Two Worlds

This week I decided to review Star Trek: The Original Series: Child of Two Worlds by Greg Cox.
After a short scene on Spock’s seventh birthday, the story jumps to shortly after the end of the original series first pilot, The Cage. The Enterprise is suffering an outbreak of an extremely virulent form of Rigelian fever while almost a month’s travel from the nearest Starfleet medical base. Doctor Boyce, the Enterprise’s current chief medical officer, has been studying an experimental treatment, but the treatment requires ryetalyn, a rare substance. Cypria III, a nearby neutral world has the substance but is very close to Klingon space.
Captain Pike orders Enterprise to proceed to Cypria III and during the journey he explains to Spock that there is a first officer’s position open on the Intrepid, another Constitution-class starship with an all-Vulcan crew and that he is willing to recommend Spock for the position. Spock asks for time to consider, but the trip is soon complicated further when the Enterprise receives a distress call. Pike orders the Enterprise to respond while sending a long-range shuttle with a team including his first officer to negotiate for the needed ryetalyn.
When the Enterprise reaches the distress call, they find a Klingon battlecruiser, commanded by General Krunn, pursuing a badly damaged Cyprian freighter with two people on board. The Enterprise manages to rescue them before the ship explodes, but one of the women passes out soon an the other, named Merata, claims to have been kidnapped, while Krunn demands the return of Merata and her kidnapper. But a scan reveals that Merata is actually a Cyprian altered to appear more like a Klingon  When Soleste--the frieghter’s captain--awakens, she explains that a decade earlier, her father and her younger sister Elzura had been at a Cyprian mining outpost that had been raided by Klingons. Her father had been killed, but Elzura’s defiance had impressed the Klingons enough that they took her with them  Soleste has dedicated her life to finding and rescuing her sister and believes that by taking Merata she has done so, a belief confirmed by DNA testing.
But her sister barely remembers anything about her life before being adopted by Krunn and things soon grow even messier when word of Elzura’s fate reaches Cypria III. While matters had originally been going well, the population demands Elzura’s return before they will give up any ryetalyn, with matters soon reaching a boiling point and the landing party being besieged by rioters. The Enterprise moves to rescue their team but soon finds themselves engaged by the planet’s defenses while the Klingons attempt to rescue Merata, who must decide where she truly belongs.
I give this book 7.5 out of 10. The book is well written but there is no tension to the subplot involving Spock considering a transfer because anyone remotely familiar with the franchise knows what his decision is. The Elzura/Merata plot is more interesting but its basic concept lacks originality and has few surprises. 

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Kindle Spotlight -- Legacy

Michelle Lowe recently sent me a copy of her novel to review. So, without further ado, here's Legacy.
The story takes place in an alternate 19th-century Earth. Sinister nobleman Tarquin Norwich goes to see his witch one day to find the whereabouts of a toy-maker named Indigo Peachtree. The witch tells him she doesn't know his location, but she does know the location of two brothers who do. The brothers are Pierce and Joaquin Landcross. She instructs Tarquin to send his children to capture the brothers. Tarquin isn't exactly Father of the Year and thinks little of his youngest kids, Archie and Clover, yet he sees little choice but to follow the witch's instructions.
So Archie and Clover hunt down Pierce, while their brother Ivor goes after Joaquin. Using the witch's supernatural knowledge, Archie and Clover capture Pierce without too much trouble. But when Pierce finds out Tarquin is after his old friend Indigo Peachtree, he fears for the innocent toy-maker's life. Therefore, upon being freed by Native American abolitionists (long story), he decides to help the Norwich siblings find Peachtree and his journal, both of which Tarquin wants for some nefarious purpose.
Pierce, Archie and Clover make their way to France to recover the journal (they also pilfer a museum for mysterious masks that belonged to Peachtree). Unfortunately for them, the British are after Pierce because he tried to steal from the queen, and evading them won't be easy. To make matters worse, there are different supernatural beings to contend with, one of which also has a grudge against Pierce (this guy just makes friends wherever he goes, I tell you). Add in trigger-happy humans, and you have a recipe for disaster. Can Pierce and the Norwich siblings trust each other long enough to thwart Tarquin's maniacal ambition?
The characters in this story have to take the good with the bad, and that's true of Legacy itself. It has a fresh and compelling story, but it's seriously weighed down by a complete lack of editing. Typos, spacing errors and other mistakes mar what is otherwise an enjoyable experience. If it weren't for these issues, I would have no problem recommending Legacy. If you can get past the flaws, you'll find a good story. Otherwise, you might want to pass.

Friday, December 11, 2015

James Review -- Bodacious Space Pirates: Abyss of Hyperspace: Volume 2

This week I decided to review the second volume of Bodacious Space Pirates: Abyss of Hyperspace. 

It opens up exactly where the first volume ended. Chiaki has arrived at Marika’s house to find it in ruins after an attack. Fortunately, the only person home at the time was Ririka, Marika’s mother and an infamous pirate and one-woman army in her own right. Ririka explains to Chiaki that Marika is probably at the home of Princess Gruier Serenity. 

The story then cuts to a brief scene with Marika discussing the mission to rescue Kanata with the mission’s sponsor. Things then move to the Bentenmaru where many of the crew members are attempting to determine who was behind the recent attack launched on them. They confirm that the vessels were warships belonging to the navy they claimed to belong to, but that the ships in question were supposed to be in their manufacturer’s shipyards being examined after three years of service. 

The story then shifts to Kanata discussing his feelings for his father with the two Serenity princesses and they explain the nature of their own births. Meanwhile, the café where Marika works part time finds a restraint from a major franchise opening nearby and threatening their business. And, soon, a spyware program is found deep inside the local computer networks. Eventually, it is realized that the malware was installed by the company which made the security software the computers were using. This leads to the revelation that the seemingly disparate forces hindering the Bentenmaru and her crew are actually all branches of the Yggdrasil Group, a massive conglomerate with thousands of corporations under its control. 

After discovering a hidden message, the Bentenmaru sails to a comet where they find both the ship of Kanata’s father and an experimental hyperspace submersible. But the forces of Yggdrasil are closing in and even with surprise reinforcements from Chiaki, her father, and the Yacht club at Marika’s school,the Bentenmaru is still outnumbered as it fights to cover Kanata who must now decide what to do with the legacy he has been left if he can reach it safely…

I give this volume 7.5 out of 10. The story was interesting but I feel that the side plot involving the café and its new rival added nothing to the story and was just a waste of pages to make the book longer. Also, the final battle was somewhat underwhelming to me and I don’t like the design of the experimental submersible very much, and feel that it makes little sense for use in space. Still overall I had a lot of fun with it and I hope more stories in the setting get released in English soon.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Cool Kickstarter Project -- Implosion: ZERO_DAY

I recently discovered a sweet new animation project out of Taiwan. It's called Implosion: ZERO_DAY and it's going to blow your socks off. Here's the info direct from the Kickstarter page:

Implosion – Never Lose Hope, was released in April 2015, and embodied a sci-fi based hack & slash game for the mobile platform. Set on bringing the AAA console gaming experience to mobile, Implosion received a Metacritic score of 93/100 as well as the coveted "editor's choice" on both AppStore and Google Play store. The characters were voiced by lead actors from the Resident Evil, Tekken, and Transformers franchises.
Implosion: ZERO_DAY, is a full-length feature animation, set twenty years before the events of the mobile game. By combining techniques from East and West, and sub-genres like High-Fantasy, Cyberpunk and Space Opera, this anime is sure to captivate audiences. From seasoned anime veterans to animation newcomers, ZERO_DAY has something to offer everyone. "A digital odyssey that urges the viewer to reconsider the way we interact as a species, and how we think about our place in the universe."
All regular matter, the entire Earth, and everything ever observed by humans, adds up to less than 5% of the “known” universe. Dark matter harbors the face of reality that is invisible to us; but what if the dark universe came out of hiding? In an age when our planet has been pushed beyond the limit of population control, the only viable alternative is to search for a new home. The technology that promised to take us to new stars has brought with it far more than we’ve bargained for. In the year 2179, Earth makes first contact with extra-terrestrial life, as a result of bold, scientific experiments in faster than light travel.
I encourage all of you to back this project pronto. For more info and reward levels, visit the official Kickstarter page at

Friday, December 4, 2015

James Review -- Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi

This week I decided to review Star Wars: Heir to the Jedi by Kevin Hearne.
The story begins not long after the Battle of Yavin with Luke Skywalker travelling to Rodia in the Desert Jewel, an Alliance-allied yacht, on a mission to help open a new supply route for the struggling Alliance. But while at a transit point and known smuggling hub in the Llanic system, Luke encounters a small freighter being pursued by TIE Fighters backed by a Star Destroyer. Since the freighter was made by a group that has helped the rebellion in the past, and Luke believes that anyone who has this kind of hostile attention from the Empire must be an ally, he joins the battle and aids the freighter in escaping before continuing to Rodia.
While there he meets with the rebellions potential new allies and eventually discovers that one of them is the niece of a Rodian Jedi whose life had been saved by Luke’s father Anakin during the Clone Wars. Though mortally wounded during Order 66, the Rodian Jedi had managed to program his ship to take him home before dying and Luke is escorted to the Jedi’s tomb where he obtains the fallen Knight’s lightsaber.
After the meeting with the Rodians, Luke returns to the Alliance fleet where he discovers that the freighter he had aided at Llanic was carrying vital data for the rebellion. Drusil Bephorin, a highly skilled Givin cryptographer, is being forced to work for the Empire under house arrest but has slipped out a message revealing that she is willing to aid the Alliance if the rebellion rescues her and her family. Luke is assigned to rescue Drusil along with Nakari Kelen, the owner of the Desert Jewel. But the ship needs upgrades if it is going to have a reasonable chance to carry out the mission, and the rebellion lacks the funding for the needed upgrades. Nakari offer a solution, however, and explains that her father, who is head of a major pharmaceutical corporation, is sympathetic to the rebellion after Nakari’s mother was sent to Kessel for writing a song mocking Darth Vader, would be willing to upgrade the ship if Nakari will retrieve a scouting ship whose crew was wiped out by animals they had been gathering for study.
After subduing the animals, who are smart enough to develop and employ basic battle tactics, and retrieving the ship, Luke and Nakari move to rescue Drusil but find themselves facing Imperial Security agents. And after they rescue Drusil and escape the Imperial force sent to intercept them, the Empire puts out a bounty on them which leaves them to face an array of pirates, bounty hunters, and Imperial military forces on the road to their destination.
I give this book 8 out of 10. The battles are interesting and varied enough to have something for fans of any type of combat that doesn’t require large forces. Including things like detailing Luke taking apart a lightsaber to study how it is put together is a nice touch as well, and I enjoyed many of the new characters introduced in the tale. However the ending was a little too predictable for my tastes and reminded me of a few recurring plot elements from the old Legends continuity that I found annoying then and still dislike. Also there were a few things, like mentioning how Admiral Ackbar feels about smuggling, that add little or nothing to the story in my opinion.