Tag: novel

2013: The Best

Courtesy Irrational Games

This is the season for Top 5 or Top 10 lists. Games or films or books or toys – people like to rank what was best for the year, and find out how those ranking stack up against others.

You may have noticed that I’m not really doing that. It’s hard to pick just one thing from among the various pools of entertainment into which I dip, but things I’m still thinking about, and enjoying thinking about, in this late part of the year are definitely worth discussing, if not mentioning. So, without further ado, here are the best entertainment experiences I had in 2013.

Best Video Game – Bioshock Infinite

I want to mention Hearthstone at least in passing. Blizzard’s computerized CCG is an absolute blast and challenge to play, with a surprising amount of depth and bursting with variety. The monetization system makes a great deal of sense, and it’s one I don’t mind at all. However, as much as I enjoy playing it, it wasn’t the best game I’ve played that came out in 2013. That honor goes to Bioshock Infinite.

While the combat isn’t necessarily ground-breaking, which can be a major blow to a first-person shooter, the story and its presentation are what keep this game in my mind long months after its release. The fact that the story is less about gritty, hard-boiled everyman Booker DeWitt and more about Elizabeth and her plight is, to me, a sign that storytelling in games is moving in the right direction. The ‘Burial At Sea’ DLC reinforced this, and with the news that we will, in fact, play as Elizabeth soon, I’m quite curious to see how 2014 treats the franchise.

I played a lot of great games from 2012 this year – Journey, Spec Ops: The Line, The Walking Dead – but among the games that came out in 2013 that I actually played, Bioshock Infinite takes the prize.

Best Board Game – Archipelago

2013 was the year I got back into board gaming in a big way. I started building my own collection, I had design ideas and gave feedback to others, and I continue to espouse that there’s more to board games than staid, stale standbys like Monopoly, Clue, and Risk. I’ve played a lot of games with hidden roles (Avalon, Coup, Battlestar Galactica) and several cooperative games (Pandemic, Elder Sign, Escape: The Curse of the Temple), but one game that’s stood out in my mind since I started this endeavour is Christophe Boelinger’s Archipelago.

The best way I can describe Archipelago is “Settlers of Catan meets Twilight Imperium where everyone sort of works together but not really”. I love its expanding scope and constant need for players to cooperate to keep ahead of a loss, but also allows subtle plays through worker placement mechanics and hidden objectives. Its gameplay is much deeper and less random than Settlers, and it doesn’t take anywhere near as long to play as Twilight Imperium. As much as I adore a deep and rich space opera universe in which I can take an active role and vie with other players for dominance through diplomacy, trade, and treachery as well as straight-up space combat, I also like to play a game that takes less than an entire day. Archipelago hits all of the right notes in just about perfect harmony, and on top of not being able to recommend it highly enough, it’s the best board game I’ve played in 2013.

Best Book – The Fault In Our Stars

Okay, this is where I cheat again. The Fault In Our Stars was published in 2012. And while I’ve read quite a few excellent books – and one particularly shitty one – the one that had the most profound effect on me was John Green’s New York Times bestseller. In world where a lot of people tend to look towards young adult works with skepticism or even open content, here’s an example of dramatic, involving, romantic young adult fiction done absolutely right.

Green paces his story just right, fleshes out realistic and endearing characters, and invokes our sympathy and support without pandering, writing down to his audience, or relying on cheap tricks or narrative slight of hand. It’s a fantastic read and extremely well-written. I feel like I’m going to be repeating my review of the book a great deal, so here’s a link to that. And here’s a link to buy the book on Amazon.

Best Film – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Apparently, 2013 was saving the best for last. None of the films I’ve seen this year were truly awful (again, I avoided certain ones deliberately), there were only a couple of disappointments, a few surprises, but for the most part, I’d say the movies of the year were “good, but not fantastic.” I like that I’m seeing more character-focused storytelling, more investment in world-building, and comic relief that doesn’t feel too forced. However, the experience in cinemas that excited me the most, involved me the most, and blew me away the most was definitely The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

There’s so much I like about this film. Thorin as a noble, dignified dwarf reminds me of why I like them so much in Middle-Earth, in Dragon Age, and even in World of Warcraft. Bilbo Baggins is shown truly coming into his own and still employing his brain and wits as much as his sword. Gandalf and Radagast working together always makes me smile. The world feels expanded and deepend with stops like Beorn’s house and Laketown. And Smaug. Smaug. I really don’t have to say anything else, do I? It’s my movie of the year and I’m really looking forward to seeing it again.

There you have it! 2013, all wrapped up. I’m interested to see what the year ahead brings, in many ways. I hope you all have had a safe, warm, and rewarding holiday, and are ready to ring in the new year. I know I am.

Book Review: Word Bearers Omnibus

I will admit to a certain degree of professional jealousy when it comes to the writings of others. Most of the time it’s when I read something good, which encourages me to push myself, to write more, to craft better stories. I’ll watch John Green spiel into a camera or read Chuck Wendig‘s writing advice or see a particularly amusing or thought-provoking tweet from the likes of Susan Arendt or Amanda Palmer and think, “Man, I can get there, if I just get off my ass and work more at it.” But there’s a darker jealousy I also contend with. It’s the jealousy that comes from reading a published work that is irredeemably, completely, and blatantly awful. This happened with Quest for Karn, it happened with the Warcraft manga, and now it’s happened with the Word Bearers Omnibus, a trio of Warhammer 40,000 novels collected into one bulky volume for easy shot-putting through the nearest window.

Courtesy Black Library

The Word Bearers are a legion of the infamous Chaos Space Marines, genetically enhanced super-soldiers who betrayed their Emperor in favor of the gods of Chaos for reasons I’m not going to get into. The ranks of the traitors are many and varied, from the foaming-at-the-mouth World Eaters to the stoic and eerie Thousand Sons. The Word Bearers are a middle-of-the-road bunch of incredibly powerful killers, favoring a unified approach to the Chaos god foursome over following a single deity. While twisted and warped, theirs is a doctrine based on faith, and the potential is there to examine and explore what motivates and perpetuates the hearts and minds of those bound to such a doctrine.

I spent most of Dark Apostle, the first book in the omnibus, waiting for these ideas to arise, then I waited for the story to get going. For a long time, Anthony Reynolds introduces us to characters and begins fleshing them out just before killing them, often in a rather grotesque fashion befitting the grim darkness of Warhammer 40,000’s dark future. If a character doesn’t die and isn’t a Chaos Space Marine, than something even more horrible is going to happen to them the next time we see them. It does something that is the death knell of just about any work: it makes things dull. The repetition not only defangs the entire enterprise right from the start, it kills the story’s momentum and throws the pace way off. On top of this inherent flaw, the main characters, the Word Bearers of the title, are also dull and uninteresting. Their rivalries are flat and boring, and their battles are unexciting. A lot of bolters get fired into a lot of chests and a lot of faceless humans are killed instantly by this. Reynolds just really likes to talk about it.

Dark Disciple began, and to be honest, I was waiting for a twist. If the first novel was just so much ‘bolter porn’ to draw in some of the target audience of the miniatures game, perhaps the author was setting things up to become more interesting later on. Perhaps this is part of my disappointment, expecting this sort of development, as it never showed up. More bolter fire, more pointless characters, more dull and uninteresting ranting on how weak the false Emperor is and how his followers need to suffer as gloriously as possible. The story has no momentum, the characters have little motivation, and stakes never escalate, meaning the ultimate end of this tedious tale is a tedious ending. Considering all the things that could be done with warrior-priests of Warhammer’s interesting pantheon of Chaos gods, the disappointment merely deepens.

I must confess I only read the first few pages of Dark Creed. I was not invested in any of the characters. I was not interested in how the plot was developing. Reynolds had had two whole novels to engage me, and had failed utterly in doing so. I actually started to feel anger at the book in my hands, which somehow had stumbled into publication likely due to its licensed tie-in nature, and its author, who really should have known better than to waste so much time with this absolutely interminable dreck. For a cadre of warriors chosen by both the Emperor and the Chaos gods for their faith and their skill in battle, there’s no real conflict to be had in any of this story, not in any of the three novels. There’s no scheming by or on behalf of the Chaos gods, no interesting rivalry or betrayal within the ranks as they vie for position, nothing. Everything plays out in the most flat and boring ways possible, any potentially engaging plotting or characterization is smacked down almost the moment it’s raised, and even possessed chainswords and face-violating tentacle masks can’t save this entire omnibus from being a complete waste of time.

With all of the potential tension and rivalries between the Chaos gods, the inherent dichotomy of the nature of faith with the nature of perpetual warfare, and the colorful history of the Warhammer 40,000 universe, the Word Bearers Omnibus could have been an interesting work of licensed fiction. It could have cast the villains of many a tale in this setting as complex, diverse characters instead of just heretics to be gunned down. Instead, we get over 700 pages of pointless gore and meandering plot that goes nowhere and adds nothing to either the overall fabric of the universe or our lives. Save yourself the time and money this omnibus would waste, and skip it. I hear there are better novels on the Word Bearers in the Horus Heresy series, and I may check those out. This, however, shames the followers of Chaos, and the devotees of the dark gods should likely destroy it on sight. I could see followers of Khorne, especially, getting so pissed at its go-nowhere story and flat, dull characters that they start eating it.

Book Review: Bait Dog

BAIT DOG: Potential Cover
Courtesy Terribleminds

Bait Dog is one of the hardest reads I’ve ever experienced. Not because any of the language was obtuse, mind you: Chuck Wendig, as always, writes smoothly and conversationally. It also wasn’t because there are any plot problems or discordant character moments. It was hard to read because it deals with the ugly and absolutely repulsive world of dog fighting.

Atlanta Burns is a girl who gets shit done. We established this in Shotgun Gravy. Word has gotten around, and now other people want her to get shit done for them. A rich girl hires her to find out why her dog crawled home missing her claws and teeth. Atlanta isn’t much of a dog person, but she needs the money so she takes the case. Her friend Shane seems to think this means she’s given up on finding who killed their gay friend Chris, while evidence suggests the young man committed suicide. The more Atlanta kicks over the rocks hiding this depraved world of dogs teaching other dogs to kill, the more she finds animals far worse behind them, the sort of animals who would stage a suicide just to murder a boy who likes other boys.

Gritty tales such as this are necessary in worlds where people would much rather invest in canned sequels and safe but mediocre remakes. People may think that sordid affairs and underhanded people of this nature only exist in certain places far from their homes. Stories like Bait Dog remind you that nothing could be further from the truth. Having lived near and moved through the areas of Pennsylvania described in the world of Atlanta Burns, the idea of dogs being tortured and murdered for profit so close to my home is absolutely chilling. And that’s only part of the story.

So many people say “it gets better” when it comes to bullying, to hatred, to racism and homophobia and every other type of evil, ignorant behavior that seethes in the hearts of human beings. But when you see a friend with an eye swollen shut because of bullies, or crying because of narrow-minded hate, or hanging from the end of a rope, it’s hard to believe that it will ever get better. Atlanta has her own way of making things better. It usually involves a squirrel gun, a collapsible baton, or a big can of bear mace.

It can be hard to remember that Atlanta’s a teenager. She goes about her business with what seems like certainty to the outside observer. But from inside our head, we see how much she flies by the seat of her pants. We keenly feel her lack of confidence in herself, her concerns for her mother and her friends, and her absolute intolerance for the intolerant. In a world where polite society would have her working out a compromise, learning to forgive and forget, where compassion is expected to be levied against hatred, Atlanta answers hatred with hatred, blood for blood. So all-consuming is her thirst for basic, natural justice that she will risk everything, anything, to see it done. She’s a pint-sized pubescent Punisher.

Atlanta’s stories, so far, work on very basic levels and play on raw nerves. This both makes it hard, at times, to read, but also worth the time and effort to read it all the way to the end. The story builds in a very organic and visceral way, pulling off plot twists and character revelations in a fantastic way. As difficult as some of the mental imagery can be to process, by the time you’re in a hard-to-read section the tale’s already got you by the balls, and you can’t not finish reading it.

If you like very human protagonists who kick ass, if you want to see true evil punished, if you love your pets, Bait Dog is for you. Know going in that it’s going to hurt. Remember that the hurt will be worth it. Take a deep breath, and dive in.

Book Review: Headhunters

It’s easy to assume that threats to national security and integrity only come from foreign shores. Dressing terrorists, the boogeymen of our time, in the clothes and skin color of minorities softens the reality. There will always be dissidents, malcontents, and flat-out crazy people within our own borders, working inside our own systems, either to dismantle something they see as wrong or just to get themselves ahead somehow. Fighting these threats can be a dirty, underhanded, downright soulless affair. But if the country’s integrity is to remain intact along with its security, some men must make sure certain lines are never crossed. Simon Parks is one of those men, and he is our subject as the protagonist of Charlie Cole’s Headhunters.

Courtesy Charlie Cole

Simon works for Blackthorn, a deep-cover internal anti-terrorist group working in the United States to combat domestic terrorism. While most of his duties are concerned with finding new talent for this work, his job keeps him at the office for very long hours, even days at a time, and his wife decides to leave him over it. In an attempt to get her back, Simon inadvertently causes a fatal car crash, leaving him a widower and his children without a mother. Heartbroken, he resigns from Blackthorn and tries to start life over in a new city, as a headhunter for a different firm. But his old boss isn’t about to let a resource like Simon go without a fight, not while there’s still work to do, and Simon’s new boss is not all he seems, either. Intrigue comes at Simon from all sides, with what’s left of his family caught in the crossfire.

Novels like this work or fall apart based primarily on the construction of the protagonist. A driven, stoic, nearly super-human badass (or a team of them) can carry an empty summer action flick, but not so much a modern thriller. Thankfully, Cole gives Simon a great deal of humanity and humility. He questions his actions even as they’re being undertaken, apologizes several times to friends when they become involved in his life and its trials, and continually reminds the reader that he’s “just a guy.” While it’s a realistic reaction to the sort of shenanigans that occur to Simon, he doesn’t have the difficulties Jack Ryan did in early Tom Clancy novels. He’s perfectly competent as an unarmed combatant, marksman, and strategist, even as doubts gnaw away at him.

It’s pretty clear that this is a debut novel, with some of the plot developments easy to predict and some of Simon’s abilities and resources seeming too good to be true. However, Cole has a background in the areas within which the story takes place, and while I’m certain artistic license has been taken throughout the novel, none of the flaws make the novel difficult to read or hard to believe. Simon has enough bravery to carry the action, enough humanity to invoke sympathy, and enough humility to avoid becoming insufferable. The story moves at a good pace, action scenes pop with a good dose of realism, there’s plenty of twists in the tale, and Charlie even threw in a bit of romance, presented tastefully and at the right times to allow us breathers between the tension.

Fans of tales such as 24 and The Bourne Identity will be right at home here. Charlie Cole is looking to be a decent successor to Clancy and Ludlum, and Headhunters is a fun and engrossing read. He has plenty of room to grow, which is actually exciting. As good as Headhunters is, his next yarn should be even better.

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