A Return to Form

So before I begin discussing some of the television shows of late, it is time for a confession. I’ve been seriously considering rescinding my policy regarding no book reviews.

The policy existed for a few reasons. There are concerns about conflicts of interest (promoting friends or nay-saying authors within my genre, etc) and also about the risk of creating enmity over honest critiques of works that fall below perfection. Although a heavy helping of tact and constructive criticism is essential to kaizen, there will always be those who are angered by the truth.

However there is a dearth of purposeful reviews. Product sites are host to star-ratings and plenty of unconnected praise, but they rarely go more than skin deep. What I’d like to see is true analysis; a discussion of themes, dissection of character motivations, breakdowns of any technical mistakes found by proofreading such as typos, misspelling or formatting concerns. 

Therefore I’ll be establishing three basic rules:

  1. The author or editor must request the review in the first place.
  2. Friends and colleagues can request, but I will mention a prior relationship with them alongside the release.
  3. The work must be available for purchase on at least one major outlet– This is to prevent trying to obtain “free” proofreading before release.

If anyone feels comfortable with these arrangements, feel free to contact me once the official page is available with my email. You can also simply comment here.

These reviews are spoiler free, but are lighter as a result.


Game of Thrones: Salt and Faith

Jon SnowI’ve finally cracked the seal on watching the latest season of Game of Thrones. Two episodes in and something was very amiss. There was the story line to Dorne which feels hampered by a missing faction elsewhere (which was present in the books).

Likewise, the situation at the wall involving Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) seems to have materialized from effectively nowhere, resulting in deal-making with someone he ought to hate. This proved frustrating personally as Davos is one of my favorite characters.

These incidents are justifying my concerns that deviations and omissions from the source material are starting to hamper the series. Thus the screenwriters have begun hot-wiring threads together, hoping to keep the engine running. Yet the 10-episode format limits available time to smooth the wrinkles of these transitions.

George R.R. Martin’s novels give the impression that he’s fairly good at avoiding pointless tales and subplots. Even the things that seem unconnected (and there are many, many such elements) often connect and trigger events down the road, although sometimes these have to be taken with a hint of salt and faith. Why the screenwriters didn’t respect this more, I cannot say. But their hastiness instills me with patience for Martin as he carefully crafts the final installments.

The book series is, after all, his Magnum Opus.

This is not to say that this season has all been bad. Watching a childhood dream come true for Tyrion (Peter Dinklage) on screen was rather amazing. And Daenerys’ (Emilia Clarke) complicated situation has my full attention. It simply maybe one of those moments when a few bad scenes must be overlooked to arrive at an otherwise good season. Time will tell.


The 100: Murder Made More 

The 100Going from fantasy “past” to science fiction “future,” I’ve finally cracked the code that is The 100.

There has been a trend where the first few episodes seem to have it rough, with character connections rampantly making or breaking. But as the story gets closer to mid-season, the alliances are finally sealed and the show tells the plot that it wants to tell… and quickly gets better for it.

This seems why the early episodes feel inorganic as the characters play musical chairs with pairings, the emotions they’re supposed to portray being jerked about. It could be that the producers have been trying to tweak and figure chemistry between its stars to best please its audience.

Another peculiarity has been the flip-floppery with regard to killing its darlings. In the prior seasons, killing characters was sometimes a painful, drawn out affair. This season saw sudden deaths claim two characters from the show’s dramatis personæ– one who resulted in a fair amount outrage. 

Be forewarned, there are spoilers within this news link if the reader is curious.

However, the death of this person was absolutely necessary to advance the plot in a vital direction. And curiously, it seems we’ve also learned more about this character post-death than anytime while they were alive. And, as usual, it’s the pow of each season’s finale that keeps its fans coming back to next season’s slow start. That’s one thing we’ve learned to count on.


Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Dangling Storylaces

Kimmy SchmidtIt was unclear what exactly was missing from this season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.

Only after being put side-by-side to the first season does the issue stick out. The first had an easier time weaving its most outlandish elements into the central plot. To this day, I still giggle over Titus Andromedon’s (Tituss Burgess) amazing Pinot Noir music video and the autotuned remix of his “Gonna Be Famous” (which is exactly what happened as a result). And Kimmy (Ellie Kemper) had her flashbacks to life in the bunker (occasionally revisited this season but not as often nor as rewarding). But this season, bizarre antics came more out of the blue, and were less memorable.

The plot-juggling was weirdly handled this time. Titus’ cliffhanger ending of last season was turned into an episode and then resolved with very little impact, although his follow up plots were simultaneously more interesting and entertaining. But less so for the rest of the cast. Jacqueline White’s (Jane Krakowski) hunt for spiritual meaning kept jabbing at a political cankersore. Lillian Kaushtupper (Carol Kane) labored against the gentrification effecting her neighborhood to no immediate effect for all thirteen episodes, although the ending suggested an intriguing thread for the third season.

Kimmy’s story lines were a Boggle board; first on her forbidden relationship with Dong before folding into deeply embedded psychological issues– resulting in animated scenes that were strange and out-of-place. Then there was the dynamic between her and Jacqueline that seemed little more than filler.

Her finale simply didn’t have that coveted “full circle” plot that Seinfeld and The League were renown for possessing. The first season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt accomplished this in a less karmic way then those other shows, returning to the origin of the problem. But the second season simply didn’t try, arriving at some catharsis that doesn’t feel as meaningful as one may hope.

That’s all for now. Keep an eye out for Penny Dreadful and Halt and Catch Fire reviews next time.

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The Siege of Castellax

The Siege of Castellax by CL Werner.

Earlier this year, I had said that I wouldn’t do anymore book reviews. At the very last sentence of it I had mention that, at the very least, I wouldn’t do anymore in a negative tone. 

Until today, I had kept my word on that. Today I finished reading The Siege of Castellax by CL Werner. So, in an exception I hope not to make so often, I am giving it a review. Call me a liar if you must.

For fans of Warhammer 40k, many of the Space Marine Battle Novels have  not always to their tastes. The SMBs, by their nature, have tended towards straight forward stories of two sides fighting, and some feel they lack story and character growth. 

But this book is a game changer. It is the first full SMB novel revolving around a Chaos Marine Legion instead of loyalists (Architect of Fate was a series of novellas). And above all, it has a story that delivers as sharply as any other 40k novel, or rather moreso.

Castellax is a factory world ruled by the Iron Warriors, under the command of Warsmith Andraaz. Life on Castellax somehow manages to be even more heinous than that of the Imperium. Human slaves, referred to by a resource term of ‘Flesh’, grind themselves into nothing serving the needs of the Iron Warriors, all to keep up shipments to Medrengard.

But everything goes to hell when a billion Orks attack the planet. Immediately, the Iron Warrior’s navy is smashed. Andraaz finds himself relying on his captains: Vallax and Rhodaan (pictured above) who lead the Raptors. Algol, a madman who enkoys taking the skins of interesting slaves. Gamgin, who leads the Iron Warrior’s human auxilia, Morax, who is in charge of the air forces. And Oriax, the enigmatic Fabricator and Techmarine.

Every major Iron Warrior character has their own fetish or intrigue. While the Orks tend to be more of a plot driving element than a character driven force, the story is told in the form of endless scheming and conniving amongst the Iron Warrior ranks. Grand plans to usurp positions of leadership, attempts at rebellion and revenge abound everywhere, as the psychotic antics of the legion repeatedly undermine their efforts to stop the greenskins. These characters create several of their own plot lines, that tie together and could never end happily.

A rare spectacle of the book can be explained in one word: Obliterator.

Indeed. Chances to read about an Obliterator in action, or even converse with them, don’t come often from the works of the Black Library. But Werner has given us the rare chance to witness the horror these eclectic behemoths inflict upon both enemies and allies. The scarcity of these monsters alone makes the book worth reading for anyone who has pondered these walking arsenals.

CL Werner crafts rare stages for combat, unusual circumstances that you wish would you could not just read or see on the screen, but play in a video game. Trains that dump cars and sacrifice their desperate allies to pick up speed. Raptors diving down massive cannon barrels to destroy them from within. Having to subdue a rampaging Obliterator. Perhaps the guys who are tinkering at the next Warhammer 40k game will pick Werner’s brain for ideas.

The Siege of Castellax satisfies and more. It hits every note that Black Library readers want: tight battle scenes, detailed settings that strongly interact with the story. Gripping, intriguing characters who spin and drive their own plots. Rhodaan will be a character who inspires modelist for months, if not years, to come. Chaos and its themes rule the day. 

It’s everything you want a Space Marine Battle novel to be. It’s a great book, and hopefully the start of even more amazing things to come from the SMB series. Be sure to grab a copy for the holidays.

Why I No Longer Do Book Reviews

Picture filler for fun.

Picture filler for fun.

It’s been a while since I’ve written a book review of any kind. While I have no problem doing reviews for television, movies and games, books are not on my list anymore.  I’m still reading of course. The writer who doesn’t read is basically covering his ears, screaming at the top of his lungs. Very annoying and very close minded. But I don’t want to do book reviews anymore.

I have my reasons.

There are many books out there that could have been great if the author put a spot more effort into it. Or editing that could have used more polish.

Sometimes, the only reason a story suffered was due to production limitations. Other times, maybe the writer needs considerable practice.

One of the interesting aspects about writing, from an economic perspective anyway, is the incentive for writers to cooperate rather than compete. We’re very used to the concept of competition in the marketplace. And fictional books belong to a very, very wide market with many, many alternative products. Why read a book when you can watch a movie, play a game, go drinking with friends, take a vacation, so on? It’s all the same thing: Entertainment.

But cooperation has considerable value as well. Some have argued, and I am inclined to agree on many points, that cooperation is more valuable than competition. As such, we find ourselves pitching for story anthologies rather than striking out on our own. We swap stories for review, proofing and editing. Word of a new anthology or publishing company is passed around.

Your writing rival today maybe your editor tomorrow, so consider that incentive to mind your words and actions.

That is the primary reason why I no longer wishing to judge the work of others, at least not openly and publically. Or at the very least, not in a negative tone. When in doubt, silence is golden.

The Gildar Rift

I'm sorry, but Huron Blackheart is just too damn ugly to make fun of.

I'm sorry, but Huron Blackheart is just too damn ugly to tease.

Author’s Edit-Note: Yesterday, I heard out some statements and thoughts on the review. As I considered it, I started to mentally compare this review to others I have written. I didn’t feel what I wrote was particularly fair, so I’ve submitted here an edited version.

Opinions can be swayed or changed, and not always for ill. If opinions and feelings didn’t change, then your first love would be your only love, people would be content with the same meal everyday and Kim Kardashian might still be married… for better or worse.

And opinions can be wrong, especially when founded on false facts or the impact  of a few bad apples in the barrel. And that doesn’t really do a book and its author justice. If anyone thinks this makes my opinion too biased, then so be it. It’s not the end of my world.

So here is the updated version. Edits are mentioned before hand, while the rest is left as the original.

I feel the need to give something of a disclaimer before I post this review.

You see, I pal around with the author, one Sarah Cawkwell, on the Shoutbox. That being said, I cannot claim that this review isn’t without additional bias (as I already am a Warhammer 40k fan). I admit that I found both strengths and weaknesses in the story, which I will list with both deserving praise and constructive criticism respectively.

I leave it to the reader to decide if my word is trustworthy given the facts I have presented. But I feel that The Gildar Rift is a solid, interesting read.

From the get go, there’s a lot that separates this book from other Space Marine Battle novels. For starters, I enjoy the fact that the enemy is Chaos instead of Space Orkz. I grew somewhat tired of the constant Orkz’R’Us that some other SMBs offered (Helsreach and Rynn’s World). It’s refreshing when the enemy is after your soul more so than your body.

When the threat of corruption is as equal as the threat of destruction, one must keep one’s eyes both on the enemy and on one’s allies.

I feel it best to discuss Cawkwell’s strengths. Her writing of space-naval battles is impressive. Very impressive. I’ve read some of the works of Michael Stackpole and veteran Black Library authors, and her talent for writing naval warfare is exceptional even in comparison. Her writing of ground battles is also solid but not quite the same caliber as in space.

Plot wise, The Gildar Rift offers far more than most Space Marine battle books, with a mix of interesting villains that contrast themselves against the long term plans of the Silver Skulls. The Skulls were hard at work on a new technical project designed to mesh man and machine. You may wonder how this is different than other Mechanicus products, but trust me when I say that it is different. That it is unlike anything we’ve seen in the grim future as of yet. It is enough to keep one curious and keeps the book from being branded as “bolter porn.”

One thing of interest was the traditions of the Silver Skulls. Firm believers in the will of the Emperor, they relied on Chaplain-Librarians to divine the future and accept or deny battle plans accordingly. While interesting in theory, I feel for the impatience of the main character, Daerys Arrun. To wait for the aye or nay of a tarot reading would drive me absolutely bonkers.

But the Silver Skulls “read the signs” approach truly fits Sarah Cawkwell’s combative writing style. You can tell from the first battle that she is a writer who fight-writes with her head first by discussing strategy and tactics. She lays out what has to be done and how it will be done, and takes the time to think it out before putting her thoughts and words into action.

Edits: Originally, I had stamped Cawkwell’s dialogue as somewhat weak at points. As I reevaluated the book, I narrowed my grievances down to only a few parts. The dialogue throughout the book was fine to good. My original post seemed to suggest that there was more wrong with Cawkwell’s work than there was, which was my fault.

So I have removed the section explaining body language and non-verbal communication. It can be reincarnated later in a more fitting post, and not insinuating more weakness in Cawkwell’s work than is actually there.

My grievances are reduced to a few scenes or statements which bugged me. At the start of chapter four (page 77), Arrun feels it necessary to apologize to Prognosticator Brand. Now in its defense, situations where a Space Marine feels it necessary to apologize to another are as rare as thumbs on a dog. But it’s painfully awkward to watch Arrun try to console his guilty conscience. Could I have written this part better myself? Very unlikely. But it begs the question of what is the proper way a warrior should seek forgiveness from another, which is something I’ll be thinking about.

On page 141, Huron Blackheart goes into some monologue of everything he intends to do with Arrun. The whole rambling set of threats could have used a touch of reason, even if it was irrationality. Was it Blackheart’s insanity? Was it psychological warfare? Was it madness or was there a method to it? Or both? The monologue raises an interesting question as to how much the author should explain. Would it have been better to clarify the purpose of Blackheart’s ranting or leave it to the reader to figure out?

Finally on page 320, the taciturn Daviks felt it necessary to give a very long winded explanation of the kinks in his strategy. Getting detailed would be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that Arrun was in the middle of a battle. Arrun shot this down, but wondered why it didn’t dawn on Daviks that it wasn’t the time.

But these weaknesses are miniscule compared to the whole. The Gildar Rift is a strong read, difficult to put down as the old question, “What happens next?!” kept me glued. I’ll be looking forward to Cawkwell’s next novel.

The Scarlet Letter

Single motherhood makes her so angry...

Single motherhood makes her so angry...

I sat down to read The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne about two months ago.

It has taken that long for many reasons. I wasn’t that excited about it. Hawthorne’s writing was extremely long and descriptive just to cover the simplest action. I guess he thought paragraphs were a sin. And ultimately because the subject matter bore me; it was lacking in explosions and gunfights.

But I read it anyway.

For those who don’t know, or don’t care to remember, the tale revolves around single mother Hester Prynne. Condemned to wear the scarlet letter, a mark of adulterous shame, she refuses to give the name of the father of her daughter, Pearl. Things take a slight turn when her legal husband, Roger Chillingworth, returns to haunt her and vows to find the identity of her lover.

I’d call the next part a spoiler, but the story was published in 1850.

Hester’s lover turns out to be Arthur Dimmesdale, the local preacher. Far from a condemning man, Arthur is physically weakened and eventually dies from the very guilt he feels for his actions and leaving Hester to suffer alone.

Now in light of modern politically charged themes, there’s a few things to really consider and think about. Most people focus on the hypocrisy of the situation, how the spiritual leader of the town is half the cause of its shame. Of course, Cracked recently came out with an article which discussed Puritan sex historically. Number four. It puts things in perspective, but doesn’t necessarily contradict the story.

But they might miss out on the other questions to consider. Political and modern questions.

First is the mixing of church and state. Today, such a thing would quickly be revolted against. For the U.S. these two organizations are segregated by our first amendment. But this book takes place during a time long before the Constitution came into existence. The collusion of government and the church is common here, and the laws reflect the church’s strongly defined set of morals.

There is also the government’s involvement in the family. Today, the involvement of the state in child rearing has grown considerably. Between the ages of 6 to 18, many children spend eight hours a day, five days a week in publicly provided schooling. Thus it appears that the state’s involvement is considerably less in the book than what it is today. But the Governor does see fit to question whether Hester is truly a proper role model for her daughter Pearl, and whether Pearl should be taken from her.

It creates a lot of food for thought when applied to modern political debates.

I really wonder what the line is between general fiction and the classics that we are all forced to read in high school. Is the message in The Scarlet Letter important? Definitely. Did it take so many words to tell? No. I feel as though one of the reasons so many teachers drag their students through these longer-than-they-must-be novels is a sense of “reward” we’re supposed to feel after completing it. There’s a fine line between when description becomes overbearing and long and when it’s just right.

Is that it? Do we just read these classics to feel some sense of accomplishment? I’m fortunate in that a lot of my teachers instead used anthologies of various short stories to convey the lessons and ideas. Short stories do not have much time for fluff, so they tend to deliver just the right about of description and get on with it instead of filling their reader’s minds with “descriptive riddles.”

Horus Rising

"Onward! Rock for the rock god!" -Warcry of the Facemelters Legion

"Onward! Rock for the rock god!" -Warcry of the Facemelters Legion

There is pulp fiction, which we read to be entertained and sometimes become the stuff of our day dreams. It’s just for fun.

Then there’s the intelligently written pieces, which we read and we walk away feeling as though we have learned something. As if we have made some discovery.

And then there are the philosophical pieces. And in my opinion, these are the deepest and most powerful pieces. The books we read that may offer a coalition of ideas, views and perspectives that threaten to permanently change one’s frame of mind.

So which of these three is Horus Rising by Dan Abnett?

When I first learned that the Horus Heresy was going to become a new book series, I knew that it had to be something special. The worlds of Warhammer 40,000 have been devised and built around this one colossal event, that brought the Great Crusade to an end and started a darker age of decay.

Anyone with any knowledge of the lore knows that this is a horrendously tall order. Warhammer 40k has been around for decades, and the hype surrounding this cannot be easily understanding among the fans.

Horus Rising is nothing like the usual fare we get from the Black Library for many reasons. First, it’s a stage setter. Nothing major happens in the book, with the exception of a few tiny details that effect things to come. The entire purpose of the book is to set the stage for the rest of the Horus Heresy itself through the events of the Great Crusade and the politics and thinking of the time.

Another great aspect, and the reason Horus Rising is a great tale, is the philosophies behind it. Throughout the Legions, Remembrancers (artistically minded historians) begin to try and captivate the the memories of the Great Crusade in their work, while Iterators pushed to spread the Imperial truth throughout the universe. Their stories add a missing human element that makes the book great, while at the same time shedding light on the world of differences between an Astartes and a human.

Speaking of Iterators, Kyrill Sindermann almost instantly became my favorite character in the Horus Heresy. In the introductory conversation Sindermann has with the protagonist Garviel Loken, my mind almost immediately puts the face of Alfred Molina on the Iterator. The conversation reveals not only the character but the underlying thoughts and philosophies of the Imperial truth, which are not without wisdom. The phrase that has remained with me was Mol- I mean Sindermann’s statement to the effect of, “It is right that makes might, and let us hope it is never the other way around!”

Sindermann and thinkers like him separate this book as an intelligent, thought stirring piece from the rest of the pulp fiction out there.

One might worry that my next phrase may give away plot spoilers, but like episodes I through III of the Star Wars trilogy, we all kind of know what’s going to happen eventually. But the book ends on an innocent seeming note when Loken casually admits that they are going to the moon of Davin. In my mind, I hear that mischievous oboe play three notes, a low, then high, then the same low one. Someone out there is up to no good.

Atlas Infernal

Books about Inquisitors are a different kind of beast. They are less about fighting and the clearly black and white themes we often see, and are more about the muddling grey, and adventures and discovery. Audiences don’t see many books about Inquisitors, the majority of them coming from Dan Abnett‘s Ravenor and Eisenhorn trilogies. The rest of the time the Inquisition makes appearances on the side lines of other stories, adding to the intrigue while never really becoming the star of the show.

"Now that there's one damn fine coat you're wearing..." -Marv

"Now that there's one damn fine coat you're wearing..." -Marv

For that reason, part of me worried if the book cover summary of Atlas Infernal by Rob Sanders gave away a little too much information about the plot. But personally? I suffer from the exact same problem when I describe my stories to other people. How much should I give away? I feel like I cheated a potential reader if I give away plot twists just to get them to read it in the first place. On the other hand, explaining very little of the story risks people putting it down without reading it at all.

When I first picked up the book, I was tired and hungry while waiting for the bus to take me home. Try as I might, I got a few pages and put it down.

I tried again after some rest and food, and this time found the book incredibly difficult to set down. It kept chugging along at a fine pace, mixing rest and illumination with the action and discovery. I found myself snappy when I had to set the book aside.

I have to take a moment to laugh at two descriptions in the book that I found hilarious. About 99% of the writing was good, but that 1% was memorably bad. The first was “chunky bolter.” My peanut butter is chunky, my bolter is bulky. The second is when Rubric Marines are described as being “death defying silent.” That was a horrible description. The words may sound pretty but sometimes, they just don’t make sense. But I guess 60% of the time they work every time.

The tale was addictive and imaginative, and in some ways the characters were and weren’t as well. Bronislaw Czevak, the main character, was an amusingly intelligent and eccentric man. But it wasn’t until I glanced briefly at other reviews that someone made a connection in similarity between Czevak and the famous Doctor Who. You see, I have rarely ever watched the good doctor although I have friends in both the United Stated and Britain who do, but from what little I’ve seen I have to reluctantly agree with the commentator who said as much.

The other characters were much the same way. They were unique and likeable, but there were aspects of them that felt like templates built off of someone else. James Hoare over at SciFiNow mentioned that the characters felt like they had come from the codex descriptions published by Games Workshop. While I don’t like to draw from another reviewer’s words on the matter, the fact is that Hoare’s words proved nigh impossible to remove from my mind once he made the connection. Still, I found myself liking Father the servo skull and Saul Torqhuil, the Relictors Tech-Marine and the rest of the cast, despite any building blocks that Sanders may have relied upon.

As the book came towards it conclusion, I found myself looking back on old sections again and again, trying to draw some connections that I may have missed. I surmised I knew what happened. But I felt like between Czevak’s induction into the Black Library and his reappearance among the Imperium, I missed something. Because the story is told out of order, there is some mental chronological restructuring that any reader has to partake.

In conclusion, despite the weaknesses in the book, I find myself hungering for a sequel. Not a trilogy, mind you. It’s very possible that if another book is written, Sanders could overcome the weaknesses in his characters and that side splitting 1% of bad descriptions. But if the second book is worse than the first, I probably won’t bother with a third.