Friday, June 30, 2017

James Review -- Foreigner: Visitor

This week I decided to review Foreigner: Visitor by C. J. Cherryh. 

The story begins not long after Mikas Tillington, the human leader on Alpha station, a space station orbiting Earth jointly controlled by the planet's Aevi natives and the humans who immigrated to the world long ago, had refused to shift power to the Atevi counterparts of his crew when scheduled, and locked down and cut communications to the section of the station inhabited by refugees from Reunion station, a distant human station that had to be abandoned due to severe damage suffered in a long ago attack by the alien Kyo. Since arrival Tillington had been treating the refugees as second- class citizens, and Bren Cameron, a human agent of a powerful Atevi leader, must weave his way through the various political messes caused by Tillington's actions such as the fate of a group of human children under Atevi protection who had to flee to Atevi territory to escape imprisonment.

Meanwhile a Kyo ship approaches with unknown intent, which is causing fear that another attack is imminent. The Kyo begin meetings with Cameron, who is trying to discover why the aliens attacked Reunion station once but never struck again despite many years passing. At first he suspects the Phoenix, the ancient starship which found itself lost with no way home and is responsible for building Alpha and Reunion station, and the initial human population of Earth, accidentally did something to provoke the Kyo, who have been at war with an unknown power for decades. But as talks continue and Cameron earns a deeper level of trust from the Kyo, he will discover the real reason for the long ago attack and the chilling secret of the distant war being waged...

I give this book 9 out of 10. This isn't a book for action fans; it is purely diplomatic, featuring political maneuverings with no combat scenes at all. That said, it is very well-written with a number of interesting charters and challenges they face. The main problem is that this is part of a very long series and when a series gets this long there are going to be a fair number of readers like me that haven't read it from the beginning. I think a short chapter at the beginning explaining how the story reached the point where Visitor began would have helped greatly. While the book did a decent job covering the setting's recent history, there are still many questions left unanswered which I feel should have been answered. 

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Movie Review -- Transformers: The Last Knight

Today we have the fifth installment in the Transformers franchise by Michael Bay. Is it worth your time? Let's find out.

The story picks up some time after the last film. Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen) is missing out in space, and no one knows where Megatron (Frank Welker) is, so the Transformers on Earth lack leadership. This is especially troubling since they're still being hunted by humanity.

Meanwhile, Cade Yeager (Mark Wahlberg) has become an outlaw for his efforts to protect Autobots from the TRF--the military outfit hunting Transformers. One day he saves a group of kids who have wandered into the forbidden zone of Chicago looking for alien souvenirs. One of the kids, Izabella (Isabella Moner), turns out to be an expert mechanic, so she stays with Cade to help out. 

Unfortunately for them, the TRF has formed an alliance with Megatron and they launch an assault on Cade's base. Cade ends up running into a miniature Transformer who works for Sir Edmund Burton (Anthony Hopkins) who has ties to Sam from the first three movies. Burton shares Earth's secret connection with the Transformers and reveals Cade's heroic destiny. Burton also nabs Oxford professor Vivian Wembley (Laura Haddock) because she, too, has ties to all this.

Elsewhere, Optimus meets his maker and is given a sinister mission to carry out: Destroy the Earth to save Cybertron. How far will he go to accomplish this, and will he ever be the same?

After Transformers: Age of Extinction, I wasn't excited for another entry in this series. The Last Knight, sadly, does little to restore my faith in said series. At 2 1/2 hours, it goes on for far too long, has too many obnoxious characters, and presents predictable action. If you liked Age of Extinction, you'll like this one. Everyone else will fight an uphill battle to stay awake.

If Bay would shave a half hour off the running time, get rid of the annoying Transformers like Mohawk, and mix things up a little, I think we'd have a far better film on our hands. As it stands, I can't really recommend this one.

Friday, June 23, 2017

James Review -- Virtues of War: Ghosts of War

This week I decided to review Virtues of War: Ghosts of War by Bennett R. Coles. 

The story begins shortly after Virtues of War ended. Lieutenant Katja Emmes has returned to Earth being put on light duty after leave to give her time to recover mentally from the effects of the battles she fought against Earth's colonies, abandoned for a century due to a disaster in the Sol system, which are now rebelling against Earth's attempts to reclaim authority over them. But the nightmares and other issues stemming from this continue and she spends much of the book trying to find help other than medicines, narrowly restraining herself from attacking civilians, getting into bar brawls, and nearly killing other Terran officers.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Commander Thomas Kane and Sublieutenant Jack Mallory are both assigned to the Neil Armstrong, a research ship working on further development of the Dark Bomb, an extremely powerful weapon created in the field from a concept developed by Mallory. But they find themselves facing a captain more interested in his ship winning civilian science awards than weapon development, and a head scientist who blames any failings in her projects on members of her staff seemingly at random.

And Kete Obadele, agent of Centuria, the most advanced of Earth's old colonies and leader of the forces fighting against Earth, is working to pave the way for a direct assault on humanity's homeworld by establishing secret jump gates in space and on the planet's surface. But Obadele's wife and children were killed during a raid on Centuria in an orbital bombardment called in by Katja Emmes and the possibility of taking vengeance is never far from his mind.

When the attack comes, Kane and Mallory will face it in the stars while Emmes and Obadele face off on Earth as the war reaches humanity's birthplace...

I give this book 6 out of 10. First I find it fairly boring. The first eighty to ninety percent of the book have no action scenes beyond flashbacks and bar brawls, and I find the one battle we do get less interesting than the combat scenes in the first book in addition to be shorter. Second, most of the major characters I don't really care about at all and those few I did have any feelings for I usually spent significant portions of the book hoping they would be killed. 

In particular, Katja Emmes goes from a character I don't care about but tolerate to one I hate during this book. Third, I'm honestly not sure how the author wants the reader to feel about the factions involved. If he wants readers hoping Earth will lose despite most of the major characters being loyal to Earth he is doing a great job. On the other hand, if he wants readers to root for Earth to win I think he is doing a horrible job because I don't see much indicating that the Terran Union (AKA the Sol system) winning the war would lead to anything particularly good happening or that the colonies winning would lead to anything very bad happening and plenty of indications that the opposite is true. Still I think the trilogy might turn out well if the final book is better then this one and spends less time on politics inside the military.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

James Review -- Star Trek: The Next Generation: Hearts and Minds

This week I decided to review Star Trek: The Next Generation: Hearts and Minds by Dayton Ward.

The novel has two main plotlines. One is set in 2386 and focuses on the Enterprise as she explores the Odyssean Pass. As the Enterprise approaches a newly discovered world, Taurik, one of her engineers begins receiving orders and information directly from Admiral Akaar, Starfleet's commanding admiral. The information concerns an incident from Earth's distant pass and the orders are to relay information on the planet and its people to the admiral. As the Enterprise approaches, they are intercepted by craft of the Eizand, natives of the planet Sralanya. The Enterprise detects signs of a nuclear war fought on the planet in the twenty-first century. When Captain Picard is invited to bring a team to the planet Taurik tries to convince Picard to let him join the mission, but Picard, angered by Akaar withholding information and issuing orders directly to one of his subordinates, has Taurik relieved of duty and confined to quarters. 

At first the mission goes well, but then Picard and the away team are arrested, except for one member killed while trying to protect Picard. The Presider of the nation they were in explains that centuries ago her people had known that Sralanya would someday have to be abandoned and sent a number of long-range low warp stasis ships to search for a new world. Earth was considered a likely candidate but soon after arrival contact was lost with the ship sent there which eventually returned with a human crew. The Presider charges that the humans launched a nuclear strike on Sralanya, triggering automated systems which caused the planets three superpowers to unleash their nuclear arsenals on each other and that Picard must now stand trial for humanity's crimes against the Eizand.

Commander Worf and the Enterprise attempt a rescue but the ship is forced to withdraw because the focused EMP weapons used by the Eizand are overwhelming the ship's defenses and degrading a number of systems, including destabilizing the warp core. Taurik covertly approaches Chief Engineer Laforge offering to help in efforts to find a way to counter the weapons. Laforge must decide if he is willing to defy Picard's orders while the captain is unable to countermand them.

Meanwhile, a group of Eizand dissidents, who believe that humanity actually had no role in triggering the war and that the captured human crew of the formerly Eizand vessel were executed as scapegoats, liberate Picard and the survivors of the away team. They take them to a hidden base where they hope the Starfleet personnel can access a computer recovered from the scout craft which can reveal the truth of what happened long ago one way or another...

The other plotline is set on Earth in the 2030s with aspects continuing into the 2060s. The United States detects an alien ship, the Eizand scout craft, and sends a pair of fighters to investigate. The scout ship brings down one of the fighters with its focused EMP weapon but then is shot down by the remaining jet, with two of the crew dying. Majestic-12, the branch of the United States government which deals with extraterrestrial affairs is called in. Aegis, an alien group with human agents on Earth that has been trying to steer humanity away from self-destruction since the dawn of human nuclear weapons, also responds. This soon leads to an Aegis agent who is also a high ranking officer in Majestic-12 being compromised and Majestic-12 increasing efforts to locate Aegis' agents and bases on Earth even as it struggles to learn as much as it can from the Eizand craft while struggling to decide how to respond to concerns that the Eizand might decide to seize Earth by force in order to turn it into a new home, and a number of other incidents that might also be signs of hostile extraterrestrial life...

I give this book 8.5 out of 10. While the twenty-first century portions of the story introduced some interesting new characters and situations, I found the twenty-fourth century parts fairly bland. Also I feel that Picard's extreme reaction to Taurik's effort to convince him to allow the engineer to join the away mission didn't really fit Picard's character and happened just to give an excuse for the minor plot thread where Laforge (and later Worf) have to decide whether or not to override Picard's standing order regarding Taurik. Finally, I see potential for the very end, which had nothing to do with the novel's main plots, leading the stories of future Next Generation novels in very bad directions.

Friday, June 9, 2017

James Review -- Star Carrier: Dark Mind

This week I decided to review Star Carrier: Dark Mind by Ian Douglas. The story opens with a peek into the the thoughts of The Consciousness, a force so ancient that it doesn't even remember its age, which travels between universes seeking advanced life to assimilate, and has recently arrived in the primary Star Carrier. This is followed by an encounter between a European fighter squadron, deployed in response to The Consciousness destroying a human research base in the Kapteyn system, and the hostile new force in the universe. 

Meanwhile, the Star Carrier America is leading a fleet back in time to try to convince the leadership of the Sh'daar Collective, which humanity recently fought a decades long war against, to ally with them against The Consciousness, which is believed to be the force responsible for the Milky Way's destruction in a future the America had traveled too. But first the human fleet must survive an attack by Sh'daar rebels and succeed in negotiating with a force containing dozens of wildly disparate species.

Worse, when America and what is left of her fleet return to their native time, a number of the crew, including the fleet's commander Admiral Gray, have been infected by a new disease, leading to the ship being quarantined. But investigation reveals that the illness is actually sentient, and further study reveals that it is the binding force behind the Sh'daar Collective, with the restrictions on technological development that the Sh'daar wish to impose on humanity coming from a combination of the host species' fear of a repeat of the technological singularity which devastated their civilizations, and the infection's fear that those technologies could be used to destroy it.

Meanwhile, the AI Konstantin has been trying to convince President Koeing to deploy the America to Tabby's Star, where it believes knowledge vital to humanity's survival can be found. But after the President decides to send America as part of a massive fleet to reclaim Kapteyn's Star, the AI sets out to convince Admiral Gray to go rogue and take America to Tabby's Star. Gray agrees to go but even if America finds the technology Konstantin believes is waiting it may be too late to turn the tide of battle as the fleet sent to Kapteyn's Star's finds itself facing an overwhelming Consciousness defense including a battleship the size of a planet. And there are unknown forces waiting at Tabby's Star as well...

I give this book 9.5 out of 10 It has some great battle scenes and some interesting scenes showing the thoughts of the various players or contemplating why those forces might be acting the way they are. It also has some interesting new aliens and technology. My only complaint is that I feel the ending should have included a few more clues regarding what is coming next.

Monday, June 5, 2017

James Review -- Starfire: Imperative

This week I decided to review Starfire: Imperative by Steve White and Charles E. Gannon. 

The story begins years after the end of the war that followed the arrival of the First Diaspora fleet of the Arduans, who had fled their doomed home solar system in sublight vessels long ago. Most of the survivors of the First Diaspora have integrated into the society of humanity and its allies but the Second Diaspora--led by extremist Admiral Amunsit, refuses to acknowledge any non-Arduarn species as sentient, due to their lack of the telepathic link binding the Arduarns--and is pinned behind a blockade in hopes of preventing another war. Meanwhile, a campaign is underway aimed at ending the threat of the raiders of the Tangri Horde which have been attacking every other species they can reach for centuries, and liberate the Zemlixi, members of the Tangri species who are enslaved descendants of ancient agricultural societies conquered by the Horde long before it developed spaceflight.

But Amunsit has managed to turn all the later Diasporas to her cause. Renaming themselves the Kaituni, these fleets launch a massive offensive as the later fleets convert parts of their vessels into kinetic weapons that devastate or destroy of number of worlds and systems in the heart of human space as well as in Orion space, including the Orion capital of New Valkha. Following this, the Second Disapora and their allies launch a massive offensive aimed at eradicating those they consider inferior including the Arduarns who have made peace with the other species they have encountered. Part of the fleets engaging the Tangri begin the long journey back to Alpha Centuari, passing through many of the battlegrounds from the Fourth Interstellar War centuries before en route

Meanwhile a small group of ships that survived the kinetic strikes and the initial Kaituni attacks, including a Pan Sentient Union Intelligence unit based on a converted Arduarn freighter, begins its own path home while trying to gather information on the Kaituni. But as they move and meet other surviving ships, the news grows worse. The remainder of the Orion government and much of what's left of their fleet is destroyed when the system containing the Orion homeworld of Old Valkha falls and the Kaituni are launching strikes aimed at crippling the civilian infrastructure of those worlds they take whose populations aren't eradicated outright. And the artificial Warp Point linking the heart of Orion space to the heart of the human section of PSU space, including Earth has been closed leaving the officers of the small task force to determine the best possible course to save their civilization and its allies.

Meanwhile the lead fleet of the forces returning from the Tangri campaign is devastated when the Kaituni unleash the relativistic acceleration weapon or RAW, a quantum entanglement particle weapon they have developed and nicknamed the Hand of God. While only useful against devastators and super devastators (the two largest types of PSU warships) it can destroy these vessels in a single blow. While the remains of the crippled fleet manage to rally around the second returning fleet led by legendary Admiral Ian Trevayne and his wife Magda, the daughter of his nemesis from the long ago Fringe Revolt. But they soon find themselves in facing a new nightmare as the Kaituni have located the sanctuary of the surviving Arachnids, who were believed to have been wiped out during the Fourth Interstellar War and stirred them into launching a massive armada of their own aimed at the Kaituni target of Alpha Centuari...

I give this book 8.5 out of 10 It had some great battle sequences and very interesting characters on all fronts. That said, there are a few things I think could have been explained better, and some editing errors like multiple spellings of the same names, sometimes with more then one spelling for a name appearing on a single page. Also, one of the hallmarks of the Starfire novels to me has been both sides developing new technologies, ships, and tactics in response to their enemies. While the PSU certainly develops new tactics in response to the Kaituni, you don't see any new technologies and vessels being used by the PSU though there are some new technologies utilized by the Kaituni. And this doesn't effect the score but I personally hope there isn't a counter to the RAW-developed because I find the idea of ship design shifting back in favor of comparatively smaller ships appealing. When your heaviest warships have grown so large that warp points often have to be artificially enhanced to allow them to pass through I feel you are far past the point where you should shift your focus to making better ships rather then bigger ships. 

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Movie Review -- Wonder Woman

Today we have what is hopefully the vanguard of a new generation of female comic book movies. It is Wonder Woman. Is it worth your time? Let's find out.

The story begins in present day Paris before transitioning into a flashback to Diana Prince's (Gal Gadot) younger days, first as a child in Themyscrira, the island of Amazons, and then as a young adult. One day, an American pilot named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes his plane in the waters outside Themyscrira. Diana rescues him, but there's no time to celebrate because almost immediately the island is invaded by homicidal Germans. Steve helps the Amazons fight them off, but at great cost. He then explains about all the killing going on in the first World War as a result of chemical weapons being developed by crazed German Dr. Maru (Elena Anaya) and her superior Ludendorff (Danny Huston). Diana, convinced this is the work of Ares, the god of war, disobeys her mother and goes with Steve to London to vanquish the evil god. 

This won't be easy, especially since they don't know where Ares is or what he even looks like. Furthermore, in order to find him, Diana and her ragtag band of allies must brave the battlefields of Europe to root out the source of all evil. Along the way, she must face the ultimate question: Will killing Ares really end the madness, or are humans themselves irredeemable?

After the universal panning Batman VS Superman received, superhero movies need a savior. Well, I'm happy to report that savior is Wonder Woman. It's a thoroughly enjoyable romp oozing girl power from every pore. After male-led comic book flick after male-led comic book flick, Wonder Woman is a breath of fresh air. Director Patty Jenkins has crafted a film ladies everywhere can be proud of, one that appeals to both sexes. I'm really hoping this paves the way for more heroines to hit the silver screen. There's a long list of gals I'd love to see in leading roles (can we finally get a proper Catwoman movie, please?)

Bottom line: Go strike a blow for women's rights and see Wonder Woman.