Friday, July 29, 2016

James Review -- Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Ambition

This week I decided to review Legend of the Galactic Heroes: Ambition, written by Yoshiki Tanaka and translated by Daniel Huddleston. 

The series focuses on two admirals on opposing sides of a war between the Galactic Empire and the Free Planets Alliance, founded by slaves escaping the Empire, which has raged for over 150 years since the new nations reestablished contact. On the side of the Empire is Reinhard Von Lohengramm, an ambitious young admiral plotting to seize control of the empire then reform it to remove the corruption that has festered since its founding five centuries ago. Opposing him is Yang Len-wi, who has made a career of anticipating his enemy's moves and salvaging disastrous Alliance defeats, often inflicted by Reinhard and his immediate subordinates.

When the story begins, Reinhard is preparing to ignite a civil war against the noble families he needs to eliminate in order to clear his path to power. But to prevent the Alliance from taking advantage of the Empire's internal conflict, Reinhard arranges a prisoner exchange to slip an agent into the Alliance to spark a civil war within the enemy nation. The fighting in the Imperial Civil War favors Reinhard from the beginning as the egos of the nobles hinder their ability to coordinate their forces and their willingness to obey the orders of the admiral appointed to command their navy. 

But tensions begin to rise in Reinhard's camp after Siegfried Kircheis, Reinhard's oldest friend, returns from a campaign against the nobles on the fringes of the Empire only to discover that Reinhard has allowed a noble attack to kill millions in order to gain more support from the empire's civilian population. Meanwhile, Yang anticipates Reinhard's plan to turn the Alliance against itself but, despite his warnings, a coup dedicated to granting the military control of the Alliance, in many ways echoing the coup that led to the founding of the Empire, seizes control of Heinessen, the Alliance's capital, with the father of Yang's primary aide leading the coup. 

But when the civilian population begins to protest against the coup, peaceful protest soon becomes a military-sparked massacre with an old friend of Yang's caught in the forefront of the storm. Yang moves to end the coup but fleets loyal to the renegades block his path and are positioned to strike his supply lines, and even if his forces reach the capital the most powerful network of fortifications in the Alliance awaits them.

I give this book a 9.5 out of 10. It does a great job balancing the political maneuverings and the battles, but there are a few flaws. First, the battles tend to focus too much in the big picture. The fleets are so huge that you could never see the battles from even a handful of ship's or fighter's perspectives without single battles becoming the length of an encyclopedia, but it would be nice to get to know more of the characters who aren't tied to the admirals or high ranking politicians. Also, while very few characters are outright evil, in my opinion the author does a lousy job trying to give the few evil characters any motivation or justification for their action beyond them being able to do what they wish.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Kindle Spotlight -- Victorian

Jordan Elizabeth is back with her latest novel, the supernatural mystery Victorian. Is it worth your time? Let's find out.

Contrary to the title, the story doesn't take place in England or the 19th century. It actually takes place in modern day New York. In the beginning, we are introduced to two teenage girls, introverted Celeste and antisocial rebel Weronika. The story switches between the two, but primarily focuses on Celeste. Both girls meet at a counseling group and strike up a friendship.

Celeste wants to be more outgoing, so she opts to join an upcoming event, the 1867 Fair which will be held at an abandoned village. The fair will showcase life in Victorian England, and although it's not the most historically accurate event, Celeste and Weronika get on board with it.

At first, things seem to be going well. But then Celeste begins seeing people others can't see and realizes the fair is haunted. Worse, these spirits didn't have peaceful deaths, and Celeste knows they need her help to pass on. So, with help from bad boy Zander, she digs into the village's past and uncovers a horrifying crime. She then sets out to tell everyone the truth. Meanwhile, both she and Weronika have tragic secrets that need to be let out, but do they have the strength to face their respective pasts?

Those looking for action should steer clear of Victorian. It has very little to get your adrenaline flowing. But if you're willing to read a slower, more human story of love and loss, this is the book for you. Celeste and Weronika are interesting heroines with their own flaws and insecurities. Weronika's past, in particular, is so heart-wrenching you might wonder if her life can ever be salvaged. This is a well-written story which anyone who has ever experienced loss and trauma can identify with.

However, I'm not sure the author handled Weronika correctly. She's used a lot less than Celeste and ends up being irrelevant to the solving of the big mystery. She's mostly just there to spur Celeste's growth as a character. I think she should have been more central to the main plot.

Nevertheless, it's a good story and I have no problem recommending it.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Movie Review -- Star Trek Beyond

Today we have the third entry in the rebooted Star Trek series. Is it as good (or bad) as Star Trek Into Darkness? Let's find out.

The movie begins as a soul-searching Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) is applying to become a vice-admiral and Spock (Zachary Quinto) is dealing with the death of his future self. The Enterprise goes to resupply at Jonestown, a massive space station near uncharted space. A mysterious woman soon arrives and requests help to retrieve her crew which has been stranded on a planet inside the nearby nebula. Kirk wastes no time taking the ship into the nebula to help her out.

But upon reaching the planet, the Enterprise is attacked by an insect-like swarm of smaller vessels which shred the ship like paper. Most of the crew is taken prisoner when the forces of the mysterious Krall (Idris Elba) board the ship looking for an equally mysterious artifact. Those that aren't captured head down to the planet, along with the Enterprise's saucer section, but are still separated.

Down on the surface, Scotty (Simon Pegg) meets mysterious warrior woman Jaylah (Sofia Boutella) who takes him to a crashed ship which may be their only hope of rescuing the rest of the crew. Meanwhile, Krall is seeking to activate an ancient weapon with which he'll wage war on the Federation for his own personal reasons.

Can the Enterprise crew reunite, get off the planet and stop Krall from killing countless millions?

I feel Star Trek Beyond is better than Into Darkness because of its more interesting characters and more creative ships. It also has a better climax than the previous film, delivering just the right amount of explosions and the Beastie Boys (yes, you read that right). I haven't decided yet whether it's as good as Star Trek, the first movie in this reboot series; it is too bad Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and Ambassador Spock (Leonard Nimoy) aren't in this one since their characters died (as well as Nimoy himself). Those two made the first entry very enjoyable. But oh well. That's a minor complaint.

Enjoy Star Trek Beyond. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, July 22, 2016

James Review -- Star Wars: Battlefront Twilight: Company

This week I decided to review Star Wars: Battlefront: Twilight Company by Alexander Freed.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Yavin, the Rebel Alliance launched a massive offensive into the Mid Rim. However, they overextended their forces and the Empire launched a counterattack. The main story begins on Haidoral Prime almost three months into the Alliance's fighting retreat. The Alliance's Sixty-First Mobile Infantry, or Twilight, Company receives a message about rebel prisoners being held in the Planetary Governor's mansion. A small team commanded by Sergeant Hazram Namir is sent to rescue the captives.

But when they arrive they find that the message was actually sent by Governor Everi Chalis who wishes to defect rather then face the wrath of her Imperial masters. Chalis is an expert on the Imperial supply grid and trade routes and she convinces Captain Micha Evon, otherwise known as Howl, who commands Twilight company, that her knowledge can allow the rebels to cripple the Empire. This leads to Twilight company being sent to the planet Coyerti which is the site of a major Imperial bioweapons lab.

But the Alliance must also defend the planet's natives who are temporarily all but defenseless due to their mating season. Eventually, Namir and Chalis find themselves stuck together on the Thunderstrike, Twilight Company's CR90 corvette, during a space battle and begin to become friends.  When Howl and Chalis are summoned to meet with Alliance High Command on Hoth, the former governor insists on Namir being an escort which leaves all three on Hoth when the Empire invades.

Namir and Chalis escape without Howl. Meanwhile, the Thunderstrike rescues the surviving crew of a rebel freighter but Brand, a former bounty hunter who originally joined the unit to claim the price on Howl's head but stayed her shot out of loyality to the friends she made, discovers that the rescued crew members are actually Imperial infiltrators. While Thunderstrike is saved, most of its officers are killed, leaving Namir in command of the company after they regroup. Chalis devises a campaign which will allow Twilight Company to take out the Imperial shipyards at Kuat.

But during an attack on Sullust--one of the battles intended to draw forces away from Kuat--the Empire begins a massive crackdown on the local population and Namir is forced to decide if his unit should prioritize crippling the Imperial starfleet or aiding the planet's population.

There are also a number of interludes showing scenes from Namir's life before he joined Twilight Company and short scenes focusing on Thara Nyende, a young woman from Sullust who becomes a stormtrooper seeking the means to aid her family and neighbors but finds her loyalties have made enemies from many of those she was trying to aid when the war comes to her homeland. Also included is the short story "Inbrief" by Janine K. Spendlove which focuses on the confrontation between Brand and Howl where she must choose her true allegiance.

I give this book 9 out of 10. The story is interesting and has enough surprises to keep from being too predictable. I enjoyed most of the combat sequences much more then I expected to and think they may be the best battles in recent Star Wars novels that I have read. However I feel that many of the flashbacks of Namir's life before Twilight Company added little to the story and wish the Thara Nyende plot had gotten more attention, especially once Twilight Company was on Sullust. I think getting to see one or more of the big battles that took place there from both sides would have been great, but it never happened.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Kindle Spotlight -- Ceres

The writing trio N.J. Tanger is back with the third installment of their Universe Eventual series. The book is Ceres. For my reviews of the previous two books, see BTW this review contains spoilers.

The plot picks up right after the end of Helios. The surviving crew of the Chimera are heading to the lost colony of Damascene in the hopes of getting supplies and repairs following their encounter with the psychotic AI Helios. Captain Selena Samuelson is exhausted, both mentally and physically, after the ordeal in which she lost her best friend. She's also hurting from the betrayal of former protagonist Theo Puck and ousted captain Marcus Locke. Their fate remains unknown.

And on Damascene, a very different struggle is taking place. This particular culture has rejected advanced technology and lives for the most part as a medieval society. Artisan in training Kerissa is commissioned to make a sculpture of a recently deceased child. Rather than making what is effectively a death mask, she decides to make the sculpture look alive. But this is in violation of the law, and she is arrested. Kerissa is brought before the mysterious Interlocutor who wants her help framing a rebel group for the crime. Kerissa goes along with the plan to save her mentor and fellow artisans, but when it becomes clear just how corrupt the Interlocutor and her troupe of female slave soldiers are, soldiers Hammid and Sanji bust her out of prison. Sanji is killed, but Hammid and Kerissa escape. The manage to get away, but it's a dangerous world beyond the city of Adan, and they face continual danger as they look for a way to avoid execution.

Meanwhile, on the Chimera, Selena embarks on a rescue mission to save crew members trapped on the other side of the ship. The trip is fraught with peril, and they don't even know if anyone survived the Helios' attack or their deadly escape into fractal space.

Eventually they will arrive at Damascene, but what kind of reception will they get? Can they enlist the aid of the colony ship Ceres, or will the Interlocutor prove too dangerous an enemy?

I had high praise for the previous book. I thought it was riveting and incredibly well-done. Unfortunately, I can't say quite the same for this entry. Most of the compelling characters are absent for this book, and a couple only show up in the epilogue. That means the authors must rely on the strength of new characters, and I don't think these newcomers are as interesting as in previous entries. Unlike Marcus, the Interlocutor is a very generic antagonist who doesn't carry much narrative weight. Hammid and Kerissa are all right, but they can't match the depth of Theo.

Also, the book needs proper editing. Typos and formatting mistakes pop up with uncomfortable frequency, something I didn't notice with the previous book.

Nevertheless, the story is strong enough that it kept my interest throughout, and I will definitely read the next entry when it releases.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Movie Review -- Ghostbusters

Today we have the Ghostbusters reboot. This particular film has been much-maligned as of late. Is it worth your time? Let's find out.

The plot closely follows that of the original. After losing the support of their respective universities, scientists Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig), Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) and Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) decide to start a business hunting ghosts. They hire inept spaz Kevin (Chris Hemsworth) and accept a new recruit, subway worker Patty Tolan. They soon get to work busting ghosts.

But they've got their work cut out for them; the mysterious Rowan North (Neil Casey) has been busy planting devices which attract and strengthen ghosts. And he's not just interested in a few ghosts. He wants an army of them. The Ghostbusters leap into action, but they may be too late. And to make things worse, the feds are conducting a campaign to discredit them. Can they save the world and their reputation?

A lot of people have had bad things to say about this movie even before it came out. James Rolfe, AKA the Angry Videogame Nerd, has even refused to see it altogether ( ). James Hill (the James of this blog) isn't too keen on it, either. Well, I decided to reserve judgment and see it for myself, and I'm here to tell you: it's not a bad movie. It's not bad at all (I watch Mystery Science Theater 3000, so I know bad movies).  I mean, it's not great, but it's a decent way to kill a few hours. It's got some genuinely funny moments, a strong female cast, and they even came up with new weapons to fight the ghosts, such as a spectral wood chipper (yes, you read that right).

However, I don't think it brings much new to the table, and actually takes a step back in at least one area. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is a friggin' balloon this time, so don't expect much from him. Also, the humor is hit or miss.

Bottom line: Ghostbusters (2016) isn't nearly as bad as people are saying, but it's not the Godfather, either.

James Review -- Manticore Ascendant: A Call to Duty

This week I decided to review Manticore Ascendant: A Call to Duty by David Weber and Timothy Zahn.

The story opens with Traviss Uriah Long leaving his house on what he believes is a trip to take some of his classmates jewelry shopping. Long is asked to stay with the air car because his classmates have reservations at a club soon.  Because he has no girlfriend to buy jewelry for, Long agrees. However while waiting, Long sees a recruitment station for the Royal Manticoran Navy and, inspired by his deceased father’s tales of his, service in the navy of the Eris system, decides to enlist.

But while  Long is discussing enlistment with the recruiter, all hell breaks loose as Long’s classmates attempt an armed robbery of the jewelry store which swiftly transforms into a firefight with police. As the botched robbery rages Long and the recruiter discuss the flaws in using an air car as a getaway and using someone who doesn’t know the plan as a getaway driver.

Despite the recruiter’s best efforts, Long refuses to apply for officer training, but early on Long faces a crisis of conscience when his belief in rules clashes with Chomps, one of his squadmates, stealing extra food because the new ration scheme doesn’t make allowances for people who have inherited genetic enhancements which require extra food as a side effect.

Then, later in training, Long discovers students cheating on tests and after sending several messages to the head of his section he is pulled aside by an instructor who explains why the problem will be dealt with later. Unfortunately, Long soon rushes into a figurative minefield after observing a simulation where the hostile force uses a theoretical weapon, a missile equipped with two drive systems. Long writes a paper explaining why such a weapon is impossible--or at least extraordinarily impractical and can never function as portrayed in the simulation. Long doesn’t know that creating a program to develop such a missile is the pet project of his chief  instructor and only a transfer to another department saves him from retaliation.

Meanwhile, a struggle is raging in the Manticoran government as a faction that believes the navy is a waste of resources and manpower in an economy still reeling from a plague that devastated the system’s population is gaining power, a faction that includes Long’s half-brother. Believing that Manticore will never be attacked, they intend to gut the navy in favor of the Manticoran Patrol and Rescue Service, essentially a spacefaring coast guard. Their initial plan is to divide the navy’s battlecruisers with each warship forming the cores of two MPARS sloops. A test is run with a single battlecruiser and eventually this leads to the sloop HMS Phobos and the battlecruiser HMS Vanguard both moving to assist the disabled mining ship Rafe's Scavenger. Urged on by her superiors, the captain of the Phobos pushes her ship, only for a flaw in the vessel’s engines to wreck the sloop, leaving two ships in need of rescue.

Long develops a plan to save both ships and passes it on to one of the Vanguard’s officers, but the captain rejects it because it would delay aiding Rafe's Scavenger by a few minutes. This leads to the Phobos being lost with all hands, a tragedy made more personal for Long when he discovers that some of the people who helped him through training were on board the sloop.

Around a year later, Long is serving on the destroyer HMS Guardian which is being sent to a summit where the Republic of Haven is seeking to sell warships to its neighbors. While Guardian’s official role is to look into the possibility of selling used battlecruisers to the systems sending agents, its real goal is to assess the possibility of exporting future warships produced by Manticore. However it is soon revealed that the true purpose of the summit is to organize an alliance and develop plans against a pirate fleet believed to be operating in the region. But the pirates seize the Haven warships at the summit along, with the Manticoran ambassador and Guardian’s captain leaving the remainder of Guardian’s crew scrambling to find a way to prevent the escape of the captured vessels without killing the prisoners and any surviving Havenite crew members.

I give this book 9  out of 10.. It does a great job of recreating the peak of the setting when readers were left wondering who would win and who would survive each battle, without duplicating what came before. It is also nice to see Haven’s first golden age before it becomes the finically starved conquest-driven superpower of much of the setting’s main era  However some of the political events on Manticore strike a little to close to part of the main era for my taste.

Friday, July 8, 2016

James Review -- Star Trek: Legacies: Captain to Captain

This week I decided to review Star Trek: Legacies: Captain to Captain by Greg Cox.

The story opens with Una, former first officer during Captain Christopher Pike's time in command, arriving on the Enterprise, seemingly just for a visit, but soon after arriving she steals the Transfer Key, an alien device whose existence and presence on the Enterprise is only known to the ship’s captain, first officer, and those who have held one of these positions in the past.

After evading the Enterprise in her courier craft, Una sets course for the planet Usilde where the Transfer Key was first encountered. Eighteen years earlier the Enterprise had approached Usilde after detecting technology far in advance of that found by an earlier survey mission. The ship detects a fortress inhabited by an unidentified species that appears to be altering the world to suit their need, but the ship can’t find any means of interstellar transport for the newcomers.

Una leads a landing party and, after meeting the native Usildar, confirms that the builders of the fortress have conquered the planet rather than being invited. Eventually, the landing party reaches the fortress only to be captured by the Jatohr who built it and are working to convert Usilde into a paradise for their people. Eventually, Captain Robert April beams himself down as part of negotiations and it is revealed that the Jatohr are refuges from another universe fleeing some cataclysm in their home dimension, with the Transfer Key being the core of the device that transported them.

The Jatohr never encountered any other sentient species in their native universe and this has led most of them to view the non-Jatohr they encounter in their new universe as nothing but threats to be conquered or destroyed. However, the creator of the transfer device doesn’t share this view and, with help from April and Una, he manages to return his people to their native universe, entrusting the safety of the key to the Enterprise’s captain. When used as a weapon, the Key shifts its victims to another universe rather than killing them and, in the present, Una believes she has discovered a way to bring the Enterprise crew members shifted by the key home, but Usilde is now in disputed territory claimed by both the Federation and the Klingon Empire.

Fearing what might happen if the Jatohr technology and the Transfer Key fall into Klingon hands, the Enterprise pursues Una with Kirk and Spock travelling to the planet and arriving just in time to rescue Una from the Usildar who have made tampering with the Jatohr ruins a capital offense. Una manages to convince Kirk and Spock to aid her quest, but when a Klingon fleet arrives sooner then expected, the Enterprise is forced to retreat, leading to Una venturing into the universe her crewmates had been banished to long ago while Kirk and Spock struggle to reach her courier ship and reunite with the Enterprise Transfer Key in tow.

I give this book 8.5 out of 10. It does a great job as an adventure story but I feel that it could have used some more action sequences. Also, I think it might have been better for the overall Legacies plot if the flashback had been its own book rather than part of this one, and there is a major plot twist at the end and, while I feel it does a good job of setting up a new plotline for the next book, I also feel it has no foreshadowing.

Friday, July 1, 2016

James Review -- Vicky Peterwald: Rebel

This week I decided to review Vicky Peterwald: Rebel by Mike Shepherd.

The story begins with the alliance led by the series namesake, Grand Duchess, daughter of the Emperor and naval officer, along with many of the leaders of the Imperial Navy carrying out a covert campaign to gather the forces needed to oppose the Empress’ ongoing plans to seize power while repairing the massive damage that plot has done to the Imperial economy in the outer regions of the empire.

After exaggerating her injuries sustained during an assassination attempt to stall for time when she is ordered to report to the Imperial capital of Geenfield and convincing most of a fleet loyal to the Empress that was moving to occupy St. Petersburg, the base of Vicky’s movement, The Duchess leads a convoy to a nearby system but even though Imperial law grants free trade between Imperial worlds, a fleet from the Emperess’ security forces moves to block them, leading to a small battle.

And, on the way home, Vicky’s forces encounter an attack fleet led by one of the most infamous and brutal leaders loyal to her stepmother. The navy manages to delay the attack but it is made clear that the forces of the Empress intend to destroy St. Petersburg rather than conquer it, so a desperate race begins to rally a fleet that can destroy the attack force, but even though the fleet loyal to the Grand Duchess has more experience in battle, those loyal to the Empress has an overwhelming advantage in numbers. With both Vicky and her step-mother accompanying their respective fleets, the decisive battle in the undeclared civil war begins. But there are other forces in the shadows working towards their own plans for the future of the empire even as the lasers and warships burn…

I give this book 8 out of 10. The author always writes great space battles in my experience, and this is the first Vicky Peterwald book to have space battles larger than short skirmishes. However, I feel there were a number of sections that could have used more detail. Also, the story is very biased. We have no insight into the motivations of the Empress and I feel that good villains are those where even if you utterly hate the villain, the reader has some idea why they made the choices and took the stances that they did. Here it looks like the Empress is just causing misery and seeking power for the fun of it.