Friday, April 29, 2016

James Review -- Tau Ceti Agenda: Trail of Evil

This week I decided to review Tau Ceti Agenda: Trail of Evil by Travis S. Taylor.

The story begins a few years after the end of the Martian Separatist Wars. Former President Alexander Moore is now the commanding general of a task force hunting for hidden bases left behind by the insane AI Conpericus. Moore also seeks to understand what drove Sienna Madira, herself a former US President, and Moore’s mother in law to change her identity and become the leader of the Separatist movement. When the story begins all Moore knows is that it began with then Senator Madira and Conpericus receiving some form of alien message one hundred and fifty years in the past.

After capturing a base established by Conpericus, the task force discovers an address for quantum teleportation. This leads to a planet where part of the team discovers a hidden quantum teleporter leading to a mostly abandoned fleet combining United States and Separatist technology. Meanwhile, the task force’s lone super battlecruiser finds itself boarded by hostile robots. Despite desperate fighting, including blowing a chunk of the ship out to prevent the machines from hyperspacing it to an unknown destination the flagship is soon compromised beyond recovery.

Fortunately, the warship claimed by the recon team returns in time to rescue their remaining allies. After receiving massive reinforcements to man the recovered fleet, they send a recon team to 61 Ursae Majoris, believed to be the source of the transmission Madira received so long ago. They find a planet inhabited by human clones, many of them cloned from members of a battalion Alexander Moore belonged to when it had been captured, with Moore as the only survivor, and Sienna Madira herself.

Eventually, what has been driving Madira for fifteen decades is explained.  (SPOILERS) The Chiata, an ancient and ravenous species with a tendency to strip mine solar systems similar to Earth’s, until nothing is left regardless of if the worlds are inhabited, have a seventy millennia old legal claim to Earth’s solar system and they are beginning preparations to claim what they consider to be their property. Madira started the civil war in hopes of creating a military to defend humanity as well as setting up bases to block the Chiata’s route of advance and havens for humanity to flee to should Sol fall. Knowing that the Chiata have other enemies Moore decides to launch an attack to bloody the Chiata’s nose in hopes of convincing other alien powers that humanity is wirth allying with. But this will require leading his forces into battle against an enemy with massive numerical advantages and unknown weapons and tactics… (END SPOILERS)

I give the book 7 out of 10. I thought the combat sequences were very well written and the portion of the story where the task force is following the trail to Madira was well done, as well as doing a decent job keeping the exact motive of the aliens involved hidden until late in the tale. However, I feel that some questions were left unanswered needlessly and that the final engagement of the battle that serves as the book’s climax needed much more coverage than it got. And I find the fact that whoever wrote the description of the story on the back cover clearly couldn’t be bothered to read the story first; annoyingly, the back cover claims the book is set one hundred and fifty years after the events of previous book when it is actually set around twelve years after the prior book.

Friday, April 22, 2016

James Review -- Star Trek: Enterprise: Rise of the Federation: Live by the Code

This week I decided to review Star Trek: Enterprise: Rise of the Federation: Live by the Code by Christopher L. Bennett.
The story primarily focuses on Starfleet’s anti-Ware task force, and Klingon politics and how the two become intertwined. Enterprise is armed with new weapons to disable the Ware, a highly advanced technology which uses sentient brings as processors. But when they encounter the Partnership, an alliance of races dependent on the Ware, who have developed a method to switch out the beings who serve as processors to minimize the harm they suffer, Starfleet attempts to liberate them by disabling the Ware, with devastating long-term effects on the targeted world.
And Lokog, who is a Klingon privateer who has lost his standing due to being one of the QuchHa', victims of a mutagenic virus that altered his appearance removing the ridges on his forehead, has his own plans for the Ware technology. He offers to defend the next world targeted by Starfleet in exchange for Ware attack drones he can use to seize power in the Klingon Empire, and his successful defense forces a Starfleet ship to surrender, leaving its crew facing trial for the damage its Ware- disabling strikes have caused.
Meanwhile, Doctor Phlox has been summoned to perform an autopsy on the dead Klingon Chancellor M'Rek. While Phlox swiftly identifies M’Rek’s murderer, the void left by the death of the Chancellor leaves the Empire in chaos, and soon, anti-QuchHa' move to exterminate the QuchHa' who are left with little choice but to ally with Lokog.
Meanwhile, the Anti-Ware task force shifts its efforts to discovering the source of the Ware and finding a way for Ware technology to work without people being plugged in as it originally functioned. But when the Klingon High Council discovers the source of the Ware, they begin planning attacks on both the Partnership and the Federation. And after Section 21 givs the Klingons a peace offering of Starfleet’s Ware-disabling protocols. the ships of the task force becomes the Partnership’s only defense aganst a Klingon invasion…
There is also a subplot dealing with Phlox’s daughter Vaneel’s wedding to the son of an Antaran politician. But the wedding party is ambushed by anti-Antaran extremists, and the father of the groom is killed by Phlox’s estranged son Mettus. Then, after being arrested, Mettus is kidnapped by anti-Denobulan Antaran extremists Phlox must find a way to save his son without reigniting a centuries- old conflict.
I give the book 9 out of 10. It was interesting that the author chose to cast the Federation as the villians of the conflict between Starfleet and the Partnership, even if Starfleet is acting out of misunderstanding rather than malice and tries to repair the damage they’ve inflicted. And it is also fascinating to see the movement towards the Prime Directive gain strength as a result of this. However, some of the ongoing plot threads in the series receive little or no attention in this book and the ending is rather dark for a Star Trek story.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Kindle Spotlight -- Project Daily Grind

Today we have a recent release by Ukrainian-born author Alexey Osadchuk. It is entitled Project Daily Grind (Mirror World Book #1). This is it's first time being translated into English. Is it worth your time? Let's find out.
The story centers around Russian family man Oleg who has a very big problem. His daughter needs a new heart, and those don't come cheap. Sure, he could slave away in a regular 9-5 job to get the money, but where would be the fun in that? So Oleg decides to earn the cash by delving into the virtual MMORPG called Mirror World and mining fake resources for the game's rich big shots. He chooses his job (digger) and his race (Ennan, a surly character resembling Popeye the sailor) and gets started. But first he has to learn the game's basics, which isn't easy for a non-gamer like himself. And the vile player Shantarsky Jr. immediately takes an intense disliking to him. Having already made an enemy, how could things get worse?
Quite easily, as it turns out. Oleg soon discovers the race he chose is a dead one created by a former Mirror World programmer named Pierrot, and it causes him all sorts of trouble. Pierrot left a bunch of surprises for whoever chooses his race, and these surprises turn out to be both good and bad. For one thing, the Ennan can gain levels much faster than other races, and this makes Oleg a potential target for those who might think he has an unfair advantage. In addition, Shantarsky's father gets wind of this and uses it as leverage against Oleg to get him to do his bidding.
Despite all of this, Oleg manages to make friends and establish his place in Mirror World and begins bringing in the money as he works the game's mines. But with the danger of being exposed very real, and his daughter still needing a new heart, can he achieve his goals and protect what matters most?
Project Daily Grind is a bit of an odd duck. It doesn't have rising stakes (his daughter's condition never deteriorates throughout the course of the story), or even much conflict (Oleg isn't a warrior, so he avoids battle rather than face it head on). In fact, he actually moves his character to another region rather than fight the Shantarskys. Also, for all his troubles, he actually has mostly good luck in Mirror World; things usually go his way thanks to the machinations of Pierrot.
Nevertheless, the story of a father fighting to save his daughter is a compelling one, and I found it easy to root for Oleg throughout the course of the story. Far from a world-saving hero, he's just an ordinary man trying to protect his family, and that makes him very relatable. This is refreshing in a way.
Osadchuk also does a fine job showing off his knowledge of MMORPGs. He has crafted a deep world that has all the elements of games like World of Warcraft, and he spends a large amount of time explaining its different elements. Having played a few MMORPGs in my time, I'm impressed by the level of detail in this story.
In summary: Those expecting a traditional fantasy story will be disappointed, but those wanting something new and different will walk away happy. This is only the first book in the series, so I'm curious as to what future adventures await our Russian everyman.

Friday, April 15, 2016

James Review -- United States of Japan

This week I decided to review United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas.
The story is set in a timeline where Japan won World War II and conquered the US. It opens on July 1st 1948, the day the war ends, in an internment camp for Americans from Japan or with Japanese ancestry. As the war has gone badly, the treatment of the internees has grown worse, including torture and executions, and a Japanese liberation force arrives soon after the atomic strikes that end the war.
However, the former prisoners soon discover that their rescuers are just as brutal as their former captors. The story then follows a couple from the camp on their journey to their former home, only to discover it was destroyed in a nuclear blast.
The tale then jumps forward four decades to Beniko Ishimura, the son of said couple. Beniko is widely known for having betrayed the treason of his parents to the government, and is an officer assigned to censoring portical--their counterpart to computers--games. Dissidents have launched a new game based in a version of World War II that matches that our own history, apparently created by General Mutsuraga, a renowned game programmer whose simulation software is widely used in military planning.
Beniko and Tokko agent Akiko Tsukino set out to find the renegade general, whose daughter, a close friend of Beniko’s, had recently committed suicide. Eventually, their journey takes them into the depths of the new world’s society, including a variety of horrible biological experiments, before they are captured by the rebels. Akiko is tortured and maimed while Beniko tries to negotiate with the rebels.
There is then a flash back to the San Diego Uprising ten years prior to the main story. Major Wakana, later to become a general, is seeking to bring a peaceful end to the fighting, but then Lieutenant Colonel Mutsuraga put vengeance for his wife’s affair with one of the rebel leaders above all else and while Wakana, aided by Beniko, was able to stop one strike, he couldn’t halt a second or the bloodbath that followed.
In the present, despite the torture she suffered, Akiko is suspected of being a traitor and Beniko rescues her from government agents. Left with no other way to redeem themselves, the duo sets out for the ruins of San Diego to find Mutsuraga. But they face many dangers along the way, including a squadron of military mecha, and a game tournament where losers are executed. And even if they survive that, the true secret behind the illegal game awaits them…
I give the book  7.5 out of 10. It doe a great job of blending a manga-style setting with pieces of novels like 1984 and Brave New World. However while it does a good job explaining where its history diverged from ours, with Germany and Japan teaming up against the Soviet Union before moving on to the US, there are a number of technological changes from the 1940s, and some changes in Japanese society, like female soldiers in combat roles in the 40s, that are left utterly unexplained.

Friday, April 8, 2016

James Review -- Alliance

This week I decided to review Alliance, a Linesman novel by S. K. Dunstall. First, though: A little setting data. Lines are the key to a alien technology which humanity has used for a very long time with all of the human-made line ships being cloned from the original lineship humanity discovered. Linesmen are those who can sense and communicate with the lines, and each line has a distinct purpose--though not all of these purposes are known to humanity--with Linesmen being rated by how many lines they can communicate with.
The story opens with Captain Kari Wang on board her namesake vessel awaiting other Gate Union ships before starting a weapons test. But then the Kari Wang’s homeworld of Nova Tahiti has seceded from the Gate Union. Almost three days later, while Captain Wang is taking a spacewalk on the hull of her living ship, the vessel is ambushed by four Gate Union vessels armed with a new weapon of their own which destroys the Kari Wang and maims her captain who is the only survivor of the attack.
And a number of similar attacks leads to the beginning of a war between the Gate Union and the New Alliance of Worlds. Meanwhile, Ean Lambert, one of the few linesmen loyal to the New Alliance, and the discoverer of two new lines aboard an alien fleet found by the New Alliance, is preparing to begin to train potential linesmen, as a desperate hunt for candidates is going on across the alliance. But the Gate Union has sent a top agent to kidnap Ean, while the Linesmen cartel that used to hold his contract is trying to annul its transfer to Michelle, Crown Princess of the Alliance world of Lancia, despite Ean being happy in his new post.
And to make matters worse, an unknown enemy with high connections to Gate Union codes soon begins launching attacks on Ean while the Gate Union begins launching ships set to jump into the alien fleet ignoring the fact that a ship jumping into another triggers a blast capable of destroying worlds.
Captain Wang is eventually appointed captain of the Eleven, the fleet flagship, but her guilt at surviving while her ship and crew died has left her on the verge of suicide. Also, Ean’s mysterious enemies are closing in, making a quest to discover what force is truly behind the war and where their new weapons come from much more dangerous.
I give the book 8 out of 10. It is well-written but there are some areas that I feel should have been clarified better, and I wish there were more and longer action sequences, especially on the space front. Still, I’m curious about just what the discoveries at the end of the book will lead to and hope a third book comes out soon.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Revisiting the Classics -- A Trip to the Moon

Today we have the 1902 silent film A Trip to the Moon, directed by the great French filmmaker Georges Méliès.

There really isn't a whole lot in terms of story to this one. A group of explorers builds a rocket and launches themselves to the moon. There they meet the moon people and are chased back to Earth before being towed via ship to port. At fourteen minutes, it may be very short by modern standards, but at the time it was Méliès' longest film. The movie is notable for Méliès' groundbreaking special effects.

Actually, the real purpose of this post is to introduce our readers to Georges Méliès. He was a revolutionary director who pioneered new special effects such as time-lapse photography, reel splicing, dissolves and colorization by hand. His films are known for their whimsy and dreamlike qualities. To watch one is to watch a dream itself. He was unbelievably imaginative and way ahead of his time. Playing both actor and director, he was also hard-working.

He also led the way in colorization. An entire team of women were dedicated to hand-painting each frame, a laborious process but one which was very important to the cinema industry.

Méliès made over 500 films, but most of those have been lost due to either degradation or his own rebellious spirit; in 1923 he lost his company to a rival and, in protest, destroyed the majority of his reels. Even more were melted down by the French army during World War I. Thankfully, many of them survived and can still be enjoyed today on home video.

If you haven't experienced the magic of Méliès, you're doing yourself a huge disservice. Get on Amazon, order any one of his surviving film collections and discover this cinematic master for yourself.

George Méliès
A Trip to the Moon
Another great Méliès film: The Astronomer's Dream

Friday, April 1, 2016

James Review -- Windswept

This week I decided to review Windswept by Adam Rakunas.  
The story begins with Padma Mehta, the story’s protagonist, struggling to find contract breachers. In the setting, human space is ruled by mega-corporations and Padma work for Union as a recruiter. She is thirty-three recruits short of her quota, which would allow her to retire and purchase the distillery which makes her favorite rum, when an unreliable contact approaches her claiming that a colony ship due to pass through the solar system she lives in has forty people planning to flee their contracts. At first, she ignores the offer, believing it to be too good to be true, but after a convoy, from which she had planned to recruit more than two dozen breachers, is lost with all hands, she accepts.
But things rapidly go wrong. First there are only a handful of breachers instead of forty, and she is forced into a race to evade both corporate forces and agents of Saarien, a rival Union recruiter infamous for snatching recruits from his colleagues. And then, while Padma is helping her breachers adjust to their new lives, Saarien is found dead with all evidence pointing to Padma. And while trying to prove her innocence, she stumbles upon a plot to unleash a genetically engineered virus that will wipe out the vast majority of sugarcane in the universe. And in this universe, sugarcane is used for everything from reactor and starship fuel to creating building materials, so this plot could bring an apocalypse to human civilization if not stopped. But there are also corporate commandos seeking to destroy the plague, and among them is an enemy from Padma’s days serving the megacorps who wants revenge, and Padma is struggling with mental side effects from a corporate experimental procedure throughout the story.
I give the book 7.5 out of 10. Most of the characters were interesting and had good backstories, plus the action scenes were well-written. However, I wish we had gotten some more details on the bigger picture of the setting. Also, some of the events that take place felt a little too convenient for purposes of moving characters in the directions the plot needed them to go. Finally, I find the variety of uses for sugarcane in this setting to be stretching credibility, even though I understand why the story needed one plant to be the key to human technology and civilization. Still, overall it was a good story for an author’s first novel and I’m curious where he will go from here.