Thursday, November 9, 2017

Review: Rebel Galaxy

I picked up Rebel Galaxy by Double Damage games on a whim when it appeared in a GOG sale.  I hadn't heard much about it, but I've long been a fan of the Wing Commander: Privateer and Freelancer games.  I love open sandbox "worlds" with space combat, trading, and more.  Rebel Galaxy promised to provide that kind of experience, with the added bonus of flying around in capital ships!

For the most part, it really delivers.  The capital ships you fly are large, imposing hulks of metal that turn slowly and but are loaded with weaponry, shields, and armor.  They are just maneuverable enough to make combat interesting; you never feel like you're flying about in a nimble fighter, but you have to pay attention to your positioning in combat.  While most ships have a nice assortment of highly-effective turrets that can be levied against both fighters and capital ships (these were almost always set to auto-fire when I played), you also have an array of broadside cannons along each flank (think pirate ships!).  Combat becomes a matter of maneuvering to keep your broadside pointed at a consistent flank of the enemy ships so you can whittle down his shields, while simultaneously avoiding his broadside cannons--not to mention the other half-dozen capital ships nearby, along with a dozen fighters all buzzing about.  When the heat gets too intense, you can engage an extra layer of deflector shield, and use "afterburner"-style engines to boost out of the thick of trouble.  Of course, your opponents have access to similar engines, and often will follow in pursuit.  Combat effects--light, sound, etc--all just felt right.  As the game progresses, I found myself immersed in epic battles between fleets of craft.  I felt like I was in the battle of Endor at times, and that's the mark of a good space combat game, in my view.

Combat is most of the game.  There is an enjoyable trading economy, with a variety of commodities that could be bought and sold for significant profit throughout most of the game.  You spend a lot of time doing a variety of missions.  Some of these are simple bounty or courier missions, while others are more interesting: escort, blow up the base, recover a stolen artifact from a ship, etc.  These were randomly generated, but it worked well.  Like most space games like this, the chronic lawlessness of the systems is staggering--how on early can those pirates afford dreadnaught-class ships anyway?  Ah, who cares, it's fun to blow them up.

There is a short story campaign to play through as well.  While short, it's interesting enough, and the writing and voice acting is solid and sometimes excellent.  I finished it before progressing into any of the really big ships, but I'm not far off, and I might play a bit longer with the randomized missions and bounties. 

Also, I should say a word about the soundtrack.  Rather then the generic classical symphony we usually get in space games, they opted to take a big risk and went with a kind of garage band meets southern rock sound.  As strange as it sounds, it really works, as the game tries to paint the setting as a sort of wild west in space.  I found myself humming many of the games' tunes during the day, and sometimes would pull up the game just because I started thinking about the muscle. 

Overall, this was easily worth its current $20 price tag.  I put a good month into it, and I want more.  If they posted a DLC story expansion, I'd grab it in a heartbeat.  It sounds like the company is instead developing new games.  If they ever decide to do a Rebel Galaxy 2, I will jump at it.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Subtle Knife by Phillip Pullman

I'm torn on this book.  On the plus side, The Subtle Knife really expanded the universe (universes?) of the series.  As it says in the introduction, the first book was set in a world like our own, but different.  This second book actually begins in our world, but then broadens in scope to a multiverse of settings that all seem to be connected, somehow or another.  Characters can slip from world to world via tears--cuts?--in the fabric of the universes themselves.

On the flip side, while the ideas were interesting, I just couldn't get into the story or the characters.  Lyra Silvertongue, the indomitable lead character from the first story, seemed relegated into supporting, and at times even...subservient?!...role in The Subtle Knife.  She took a back seat to Will, a strong-headed boy with a tough past and fractured family.  It's not that I didn't like Will, but I never really connected with him or understood what made him tick.  The story in this book becomes much darker, and old villains from the first book resurface more powerful than ever, to a degree that seemed contrived.

Ultimately, the book ended on such a down note that my daughter and I felt compelled to take a break from the series and seek out lighter fare.  It was disappointing, because we thoroughly enjoyed the strong female lead and empowering tale of the first book, and had hoped for more.

Dead Man's Steel

Dead Man's Steel is a good, satisfying conclusion the Grim Company trilogy.  We get complete character arcs for most of the key characters, and resolution of most of the conflict and drama set up in the first two books.  This is a rough world, and one can't expect everything to resolve in happy ending fashion.  Nevertheless, conclusion was fitting, appropriate, and compelling.

The book takes some significant risks.  We finally get to see the Fehd in their full glory, and it turns out that they come with a notable sci-fi slant to them that puts them at odds (intentionally) with the rest of this swords-and-sorcery universe.  Several of the seemingly-insurmountable foes go down relatively quickly, setting the stage of other, arguably even greater conflict as the book goes on.  When the dust settles, the author's playground will have permanently changed.

I think there were a few places where the book didn't hold together quite as well as Sword of the North.  We repeatedly get to re-live the various characters' astonishment at the technology of the Fehd, to a degree that seemed overplayed.  And as the disparate characters all converge together into one party fairly late in the novel, we can almost see the author's glee, but it results in some moments that were a bit too campy for my tastes.  Nevertheless, what I keep coming back to is how deeply satisfying it was to see virtually all of the many plot threads from the first two books run to their conclusion here, with innumerable unexpected twists and turns along the way.  It was a terrific series, with characters that I came to genuinely care about, despite their many warts.  I look forward to reading more from the author in this and other worlds.

4 out of 5 stars.

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.