Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

All her life, Lyra has lived at Jordan College in England.  She grew up among the old scholars as a rough-and-tumble rugrat, befriending the child servants who worked at the college, climbing the old buildings, exploring the old crypts, and generally getting up to as much mischief as she could.  One time, as part of a "war" between groups of children, she ended up stealing a houseboat and cruising down the river with it.  That all changed one day when her mysterious uncle, Lord Asriel, came to visit the scholars of the college, only to have the master of the college attempt to kill him...

The Golden Compass was a really interesting book.  It provides an alternate reality that differs in only a few ways from our early-1900's Europe.  Most significantly, every human possess a daemon, which is a sort of animal familiar that serves as an immediate animal companion throughout their lives.  In early life, daemons can shift between forms at will, but around the person's puberty, the daemon will take on a permanent animal form.  While the book is the story Lyra's journey, much of the mystique and conflict revolves around the connection between a person and her or his daemon.  Lyra travels to cities and to the frozen north, befriends a sentient armored bear, and earns the name of Lyra Silvertongue.  It's a heck of an adventure.

I read this with my 8-year old daughter.  It's probably the most mature book that we've read together.  She is a veteran of the Warriors series, which has its share of violence, but other parents should know that bad stuff happens in this book.  Despite the fairly slow and stodgy beginning of the story at Jordan College, she loved the book from the start.  A lot of that probably has to do with Lyra, who is a willful, strong, kid who loves to push boundaries.  We both enjoyed the book a great deal.  We're moving directly into book 2.  A clear 5/5.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

I've seen The Lies of Locke Lamora described as a sort of Ocean's Eleven story in a fantasy setting.  That's arguably how that book begins, but unlike Ocean's 11, you never really get to see a plan develop past its fledgling stages, much less come to fruition.  While things hardly could be said to go according to plan in this story, I think the Ocean's Eleven descriptor fits Red Seas Under Red Skies far better.  Locke and Jean spend two years planning an enormous heist, and you get to follow along as they ride by the seat of their pants, somehow navigating death trap after death trap as they work toward their goal.  If anything, much of this story is even more light-hearted than the first novel.  It no doubt helps that, by now, I am firmly in Locke and Jean's camp, and revel in their witty banter and outrageous hi-jinks, whereas it took me a while to warm up to the characters in the first novel.

That's not to say that there aren't poignant scenes.  As the novel's great twists and turns throw Locke and Jean into ever more dangerous situations, they make friends--and those friends are thrust into those same dangers.  The book somehow managed to keep a smirk on my face for most of it, but still created deep, heartfelt emotion; that's quite a feat by the author.

If there's a criticism to levy at the novel, it's that the story is a bit convoluted.  There are major swings in the narrative that require entire plot lines to be suspended for major parts of the book.  Nevertheless, it does all come together by the end, in one form or another, even if not exactly as one might expect or hope.

But...the characters!  Gods, the characters!  It's not just Locke and Jean, who have risen in my view to one of the best duos in fantasy history.  But their companions in this tale are original, vividly realized, and yet somehow do not pander to the reader.  Even the chief villains of the story, for the most part, have multiple sides to their personalities, and motivations that seem clear, relate-able, and justifiable.

It's one of the faster 700+ page books I've read, and manages to be deeply engrossing throughout most of the tale.  These two Locke Lamora novels have quickly risen to be among my all-time favorite fantasy series.  5/5

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Peter and Wendy by J.M. Barrie

This book was a delightful surprise. I'd heard that the original Peter Pan novel was very different from the Disney-fied version. Nevertheless, I was not expecting this delightfully quirky and satirical story. This Peter Pan is a timeless being, a boy who rejects with disdain all things from the grown-up work, preferring to live in a world of make-believe: Neverland.

Neverland in this story is the imaginary world of childrens' play time brought to life, where boys and girls can talk with animals, have make-believe meals that last them days, and can wage war and actually kill pirates with little consequence. The "lost boys" who live there with Peter Pan seem partially aware that all is not completely as it seems, but for Pan this is his preferred world. The story is told with sarcasm and wit. It was a blast to read, and often left me shaking my head and grinning in delight.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

This story takes place a generation after the events in the Deathly Hallows.  I enjoyed the opportunity to dive back in with these characters and see what kinds of people they have become as adults. And the core new characters, Harry's son Albus and Draco's son Scorpius, are well-realized characters that probably have enough to them to support another series (if they can find appropriate antagonists). The story is excellent, and manages to explore both the new child characters and the adult versions of the original characters. It asks some interesting questions, such as how important small acts can be in determining a person's fate.

That said, the execution of the story wasn't quite on the level of J.K. Rowling's solo works. While plays are certainly meant to be seen and not read, there were a few too many moments that seemed to be going for a chuckle or audience applause, and yet didn't do a good job of moving the story along or fitting in with the themes of the world. Nevertheless, it's a fast and enjoyable read, and is pretty satisfying given that it is the last tale we're likely to ever get of Harry Potter and his close friends.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Downbelow Station

Downbelow Station featured an incredibly well-built future universe, ripe with intrigue. I found the pacing to be excellent throughout--even the opening chapter, which, despite reading like a history book, was fascinating in its innovative take on the economics of humankind's expansion. I loved the emphasis on realism throughout the setting. While there were a few key technological marvels, like jump drives, there were limitations as well. Sensors, for example, became ineffective at high speeds, making ship-to-ship combat reminiscent of scenes from submarine novels as crew struggled to find the location of other vessels. Ship-based gravity still depended on centrifugal motion (no mass effect technology here!), and disruptions to course or rotation were physically jarring to crews. Similarly, while much of the book focused on life on a space station, the major challenges were often very basic: food, water, shelter, and the dangers of riots and anarchy.

Generally, it was just a great book. The characters were vivid and deep. The story was full of unexpected twists and turns, and yet managed to avoid even a hint of contrivance, at least in my view. The writing style was a bit harsh and conversational, and leaned heavily on sentence fragments for drama. Furthermore, the author doesn't always spell out the characters' intentions. Usually, this was done to positive effect, but sometimes it resulted in confusing passages. The overall narrative was just so compelling, though, that moments like this were short-lived and quickly forgotten.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

The Lies of Locke Lamora

I don't really have time for a full-length review, but I really enjoyed this book and wanted to leave a quick goodreads review of it.  I thought I'd repost here:

An engaging and very memorable book. I am not a big fan of con-artist stories, and the early parts of this tale really do ask you to buy into the excitement and charisma of its characters. I initially didn't, and as a result was sometimes siding with their victims while still enjoying the ride. As the book progressed, however, the depth of the story grew and grew, and I couldn't help but be swept away in the tale. The world is wonderfully imaginative. A medieval city built upon the ruins of some impossibly vast civilization unknown to modern times. Magic exists, but it's rare in modern day, though alchemy provides an everyday technology to the aristocracy. I'm not sure that I ever really came to "like" Locke Lamora, but I sure enjoyed rooting along with him as he encountered challenge after challenge. It was a refreshingly different book, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Review: Mass Effect 2

Following the defeat of Sovereign at the end of Mass Effect 1, Shepherd and crew find themselves in the midst of a grand denial.  The Council attributes the unprecedented attack against the Citadel to the Geth and a rogue agent, blissfully happy to believe that the danger has passed.  Meanwhile, they still treat the true threat, the Reapers, as myth.  Shepherd finds himself in a waiting game; without Council support for a full investigation of the Reapers, there is little else to do but wait for their next move.  When a mysterious ship appears and attacks the Normandy, Shepherd find himself injured, presumed dead, and cut off from the Alliance--at least temporarily.

The highlight of Mass Effect 2 is unquestionably its story and universe, which builds upon the first game's fantastic universe with a tremendous deal of depth and new revelations.  Many of the races that were only hinted at are given far more treatment this time around.  With Shepherd working outside the Alliance, we get to explore the outer rim systems.  It is a realm that ranges from semi-ordered to lawless, and most of its residents are happy to operate outside of Council space.   The Quarians, courtesy of a companion character, are given a tremendous amount of development, including a visit to the migrant fleet.  And, in a surprise highlight later in the game, we even get a healthy dose of new insights on the Geth.  Several other races also are featured heavily, many of which received only a brief mention in the first game.

The story is fast-paced throughout the game, with the feeling of tangible threat growing each step along the way.  It is a good length--I finished the game in 52 hours, and I always play slowly--just enough to feel like you can sink yourself into the story without every feeling like the game was dragging.  It was a very satisfying experience, and yet I was wishing for more by the end.

The combat and RPG system is still fun in Mass Effect 2, but it is definitely different.  Many of the classical RPG elements were streamlined from the first game, which was a little disappointing.  There is very little, if any, choice to be made about equipment, with the exception of one's preferred rate of fire for shotguns.  Furthermore, decisions about abilities are largely relegated to deciding which of four skills (five for Shepherd) to forego.  Controls were similarly simplified, with you needing basically three buttons outside of movement: your trigger, the pause-the-game-breathe-and-trigger-abilities button (I live and die with this button), and the run/take cover button.  It took some getting used to, but by the end I found that combat was pretty fluid, fun, dynamic, and rarely over-dependent on "twitchy" player skills.

The biggest addition to the combat system was a paper-rock-scissors (sort of) system of defenses.  In addition to health, enemies can have up to three other types of defenses: armor, shields, and biotic barriers.  Each defense is best targeted by different kinds of weapons and skills.  Shields, for example, can be attacked by semi-automatic guns of Warp biotic abilities, whereas armor is better penetrated by heavy pistols and fire-based biotics.  I really enjoyed this addition; it made weapon switching important in combat, and, best of all, encouraged me to take along different companions depending on the types of enemies I expected to face in a given mission.

Also gone in this game were the planetary exploration missions of the first game.  You never get the equivalent of the mako tank missions where you get to drop down on a planet and battle your way to a mercenary base.  Instead, in this game, the mission just starts at the door to the base.  The mako's controls might have been bad at release, but by the time I played the game, it was vastly improved and, frankly, really fun.  I LOVED the opportunity to trek across alien landscapes of random planets, many of which weren't directly tied to the main plot.  ME2 seemingly replaced the mako experience with something far less fun: painfully slow, boring scans of planets for resources.  Those scans are mandatory, too, if you want to get enough resources to upgrade your weapons and ship sufficiently to take down the bad guys in the endgame.  I have no idea what the designers were thinking with this part of the game; more than once, they ended my late-night gaming session because I was nodding off trying to find a little bit more iridium.

In the end, ME2 is a terrific game.  Its main failing is that it probably isn't quite as good as the original, which has an argument for best RPG of all time.  If you compare it against ME1, you probably have to take off a star.  But compared to other games, I just can't do that.  ME2 is a blast to play, and I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to others.  It's not perfect, but it's a 5 out of 5.

(sorry for no screenshots on this one; I took them, but they seem to have been deleted from my Steam screenshot directory!)