Travis S Taylor: On to the Asteroid Review

My history with Travis S. Taylor as an author has been a rocky one. I enjoyed his contributions to the four Looking Glass books by John Ringo, though I’ll acknowledge that those novels are kind of a mess. (I’ll also acknowledge that I’d love a fifth installment.) After those, I jumped into his solo stuff with One Day on Mars and The Tau Ceti Agenda and found both to be poorly-written disasters of childish ideas and one-dimensional characters. I never did finish The Tau Ceti Agenda despite my best efforts to.

When Onto the Asteroid showed up … well, it was either this or an abysmal vampire spy novel. And hell, I was glad to see an apocalyptic story that didn’t involve zombies—seriously, those things are everywhere now. Bring on the mass destruction!

Of course, hindsight says I should have just not read either novel and saved myself the pain of this 330-page slog. Whoops.

Let’s start with the plot: Some new company wants to mine asteroids. Sure. I can dig that! They launch a rocket, stick an engine onto an asteroid, and start driving it towards Earth. I can dig this too. The problem is, the engine fails, and now the asteroid is heading right for our little blue planet. It probably won’t end humanity, but it will destroy society as we know it.

As far as plots go, it’s not inspired, but it’ll do. However, it doesn’t quite end here.

Instead of NASA taking care of this asteroid thing, we turn towards a second company that wants to start a hotel on the moon. Gary Childers is a super billionaire philanthropist who loves space, and since he’s got more money than anyone needs, he gets a bunch of say in how this is going to go down. He also has a really nice spaceship because money. NASA? No. His pilot is going to the moon, even though there are more-qualified people for the job.

See, there’s this strange undercurrent throughout On to the Asteroid that super rich people without limits or rules will save the day. Yeah, that one rich guy set the asteroid towards Earth, but he doesn’t count because there’s a better rich guy who has our back. He’s the nicest person in the whole world, someone you just can’t hate unless you’re a crazy terrorist, and he’s also really smart or something too. The novel goes into pain-stacking detail to make you want to love him no matter what because he is a dirty, dirty Gary Stu.

And because he has money, he can make things happen faster and better since the government can’t get in his way. It’s why there’s going to be a hotel on the moon.

Politically, I don’t like this set of ideals one little bit. It would be nice if the novel had some balance to it, but the evil rich company who set this mess off are ignored so Gary Stu Childers can work his magic, care about everyone more than himself, and then almost die a few times because we’re supposed to care if that happens.

The sad thing is, Gary Stu Childers is the only memorable character in the whole novel. The spaceship crew all blend together into some kind of grey sludge, and everyone else on Earth quickly become unimportant unless they’re really rich. The crazy terrorist stands out by being a crazy terrorist, but he’s just as boring as everyone else.

His shtick, by the way, is that someone hurt his honor so he doesn’t care if the world dies as long as he kills the people who metaphorically wronged him. It’s a real shame too, because his wild-card element should have been tense and fun, but instead it was just another paint-by-numbers thing to find boring. The end to his reign of terror is also so anticlimactic that it’s actually kind of offensive.

Everything about On to the Asteroid is uninspired, but being boring is the least of this novel’s problems.

Travis S. Taylor is not a good writer. His prose is awful—it’s more bland than his characters, all of whom sound the exact same—he seems to thrive on grammatical errors like a vampire does blood, all of his action sequences are grotesquely childish in execution, and his use of hard science turns what should be interesting sequences into choppy pieces of technical writing that are best skipped over.

Baen puts a, “this is an unproofed review copy” warning before all of its .pdfs, but even if that’s the case, there’s no excuse for the amount of typos, grammatical errors, style errors, continuity errors, and general writing nonsense found in this novel. What I read is a second draft, not something that should go on store shelves.

I’m not the biggest fan of hard science fiction, but I will acknowledge that it can better a book. The Martian would not be compelling without the formulas and essays on botany. Plus, Andy Wier makes it interesting. Hell, the same can be said of the aforementioned John Ringo books, whose bits and pieces of particle physics are really quite fun, if not a little too overbearing.

In On to the Asteroid, the hard science is used in the absolute worst way it could be, covering up action with facts and then skipping past the action so we can get back to our boring characters on their boring journey. None of it is fun to read, none of it is enlightening, and all of it should be removed. It does nothing for the narrative.

On to the Asteroid is a bad book. It’s a poorly-written mess of boring ideas in a boring execution that I almost did not finish. I wanted to stop around the middle, but I figured there had to be some kind of little twist hidden near the end, since there was so much left to go. There wasn’t. Instead, a 250 page novel is dragged out past its prime, bogged down by needless facts, repetition, and about a thousand other writing problems that should not be in a product people pay for.

Or to put this another way: When I hit the last hundred pages, I wasn’t geared up to sprint through them like a good book would have me do; instead, I began to skim, reading every other paragraph in hopes of something worth my time to show up.

Nothing worth my time ever showed up.

 

 

Nick Mamatas’ I Am Providence Review

Reviewers note: My review copy of I Am Providence was provided by Edelweisse for WeTheNerdy.com, but the review hasn’t gone up yet because [redacted] made a mistake. The novel releases August 9th, 2016

When I think about it, I’m not sure I’ve ever really enjoyed a who-done-it story. As soon as I know I’m involved in one, I of course try and piece the clues together to figure out who murdered whom and with what. The problem is, guessing right isn’t all that validating when you want to be surprised, yet guessing wrong usually leaves me feeling like I’ve been tricked in a bad way.

It’s all fun and games until the ending, when it’s either annoyance or disappointment. There’s a reason why I stay away from the genre.

The reason I didn’t skip over I am Providence by Nick Mamatas is that I really, really enjoyed The Last Weekend, his previous novel which came out earlier in the year. (Aside: Congrats Nick on releasing two books in a year! Damn!) I’m willing to take genre risks if I know I like the author.

I Am Providence was sold to me as a horror novel, though there’s little scare to be had. Much like The Last Weekend, it’s a character study on terrible people, or in this case, character studies. The plot takes place at The Summer Tentacular, a con for Lovecraft enthusiasts, all of whom are awful, twisted, and strange in their own delightful ways. The main characters are Colleen and Panossian; the former a newbie to the event and the latter a cynical writer who gets himself murdered.

Panossian’s death isn’t a spoiler since half the novel is narrated by him as fading ghost trapped inside his own dead body. He remembers everything up until the point where he was killed and his face was removed, but not that last crucial bit.

That right there is the only scary part of the book. It’s a terrible thought, being trapped in your corpse while waiting to be embalmed or even buried, stuck forever in blackness. It’s one of the irrational reasons I want to be cremated when I die. At least I’d get blown all over the place and get to view the sky.

The way Panossian handles the whole thing takes some of the scare away though. He’s obviously not happy about it, but much like Billy of The Last Weekend, there’s something a bit too fun about his depression and desperation that turns it from horror into a dark comedy. Panossian has a wonderful voice and tons of opinions, and since he has nothing but time, he lets his mind wander. He jumps from backstory to facts on Lovecraft to his opinions on those who attend the Tenatulcar every year (none of which are positive). It’s more fun than it should be.

The one thing Nick Mamatas can do without fault is create deranged, awful characters that you can’t help but enjoy and feel sorry for.

Colleen too is fun in her own right, acting as straight man in a sea of strange people, some of whom are outright misogynistic, racist, anti-Semitic, slightly crazy, obsessed, or some combination of all of the above. She acts as a good lens with which to view the event and the murder.

However, she doesn’t act as a good lens to solve the murder, which is a problem. While the cops question the event-goers—most of whom don’t care that Panossian is dead because he was a right prick when alive—Colleen takes it upon herself to help out. She does this by being nosey and all around annoying. The police tell her over and over to stop what she’s doing, and she rationalizes that as, “they want me to keep helping!”

Her attitude, and thus the bulk of the novel, drove me nuts. Colleen turned from a good reader stand-in to someone that was just obnoxious, which isn’t what you want out of a reader stand-in.

Halfway into the book, I was starting to grow a bit bored of the dynamic. Panossian makes a mental ass of himself, and Colleen upsets everyone around her by asking questions no one really wants to dwell on. Thankfully, there’s a nice little twist just when it’s all becoming unbearable.

But this is a who-done-it story, so we have to talk about the ending. I…didn’t like it.

The big problem is that there are too many characters, and once we’re getting a tally of all of the possible suspects, I realized I couldn’t remember who half of them where. When every character but one or two is unhinged, they all start to blur together. It really became a problem when a certain someone was looking like the prime suspect and I honestly couldn’t recall a detail on him.

The little problem is the whole thing wraps up a bit too cleanly. For a novel that’s really into Lovecraft (every chapter is named after one of his short stories, and there are enough facts about Lovecraft that this could be used as a source for a literary paper on the man), it has little to do with his stories as a whole. There’s nothing cosmic or scary, and the end answer was pretty unfulfilling.

I’m not sure if it would have been cliché if the end were some spooky, Azathoth-monster-dwelling-in-the-unknown affair, but it at least would have fit the framework.

And as strange of a complaint as this is, I kind of take umbrage with the way the book views these nerdy con goers. Yeah they’re all terrible people who you’d go well out of your way to avoid at a Comic Con, but I can at least empathize with some of their core fears and obsessions. I worry about not going anywhere with my creative endeavors, and I certainly obsess over nerdy subculture more than I probably should.

I Am Providence doesn’t always feel like it’s on their side though, laughing with them. No, often I feel like the novel is laughing at them. It makes sense within Panossian’s chapters since his are in first person and he’s a bit of a dick, but Colleen is handled from the third-person past perspective. Some of the nastier observations don’t feel like they come from her subjective voice but the author’s omniscient one.

I suppose of all the who-done-it books I’ve read, I Am Providence is the one I’ve liked the most. The setting, the tone, and the writing are all really good and enjoyable, and most of the characters are fun to observe from afar. There really is a lot to like. But damn, I disliked some of Colleen’s actions, and I wasn’t thrilled by the ending.

I suppose if you really like this kind of story, then this is a good example of it and one you’ll enjoy. If you’re curious, I’d say read the excerpts on Amazon. The first chapter is a good indication of what you’re getting into.

If you aren’t a fan of who-done-its, then this one isn’t likely going to change your mind on the genre.

Or flip a coin or something. I dunno. What do you want from me?

Spiderlight: Book Review

Reviewer’s Note: My copy of Spiderlight was provided by Tor. The novel releases on August 2nd, 2016 and can be preordered here

It’s probably fair to say that anyone who likes fantasy as a genre has a long history with high fantasy as a part of that genre. Heroes off to save the world from evil gods, warlords, or, in some cases, both! It’s fun stuff, or at least was. My high-school days were filled with Warcraft and Dragonlance and probably other examples of big magic, one-dimensional villains, and Mary Sue heroes doing what Mary Sue heroes do.

As an adult though, I really have no time for it.

Unless…unless an author can really change things around, play with expectations, and in general, have fun with the absurdity of five rag-tag heroes off to save the world from a badguy so big that armies can’t topple him. I might be on board for that.

Oh hello Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky, how are you this fine day? Off to tell a story about five rag-tag heroes on a quest to save the world by transforming a giant spider into a man and forcing him on your journey? That’s different. Are you also not going to take your story too seriously because let’s face it, high fantasy is absurd? Good. How about playing with my expectations? Wonderful!

There are a few key things that make Spiderlight a joyful and interesting experience, but the biggest one is Nth. Nth is a spider with limited sapience. He doesn’t like humans unless he’s eating them, and he loves his brood mother. That’s about it. Or it would be had our wizard character Penthos not twisted and contorted him into the shape of a man and given him more intellect than he knows what to do with.

On first glance, Nth is your standard fish-out-of-water character; however, Spiderlight messes with that trope by making him as pitiful as possible. He isn’t a hero; he’s a slave to the heroes. He hates being a human, and he hates these new concepts and emotions he’s now forced to endure.

It doesn’t help that everyone hates him too.

The setup makes it very easy to sympathize with Nth and downright revile his companions who are supposed to be on the side of Light. Dion is a paladin! Harathes is too! The other three are…well, less heroic, but still on the side of righteousness. They should know better, and in your typical high-fantasy world where good is good and evil is evil, they would have. This isn’t your typical high-fantasy world though, so Penthos looks at Nth like he’s his property, Dion thinks it a necessary abomination and wants to kill it, Harathes hates it and wants to kill it, Cyrene finds it revolting and wants to kill it, and Lief… Lief doesn’t really care. He’s a thief though, and they have to be aloof.

However, it is the above thoughts that turn our five ragtag heroes into an interesting bunch of characters. Each one is struggling with something, and Nth acts as the catalyst to bring that out. Penthos is the most gifted mage in the world, but he doesn’t understand people or the general concept of right and wrong. He does like fire though! Dion is overcome with guilt over her quest for a variety of reasons, Nth being the big one. Cyrene is a bit of a misanthrope because of how she’s treated as a warrior woman, and Lief is…well, Lief. But I like him so that’s fine.

Harathes is the only character who doesn’t see any real development throughout the novel, but when you have five others that do, that’s okay. Five protagonists in a novel is a lot.

Spiderlight isn’t a big novel (also a departure from high fantasy), but it is packed with character from start to finish. I went from hating most of the aforementioned “heroes” to liking and respecting all of them (save Harathes) over a very short amount of time. They’re all defined by their flaws first and change by either overcoming or at least acknowledging them. That’s a lot of character work.

It’s also all handled seamlessly. You don’t notice it until a bit after it’s happened, and then you go, “oh wow!”

All of this might sound pretty meaty and dour, and in a way it is, but Spiderlight is also fine with levity and having fun. Penthos is hilarious in how he talks and presents himself, Leif is charming and enjoys himself a drink, and Harathes and Cyrene have some pretty amusing drama and banter. Whenever the novel feels like it’s getting too dark or serious, it moves into a scene—seamlessly at that—that kills some of the nasty. It never gets dark or edgy.

Dion is the only character who constantly stays serious, but her emotional turmoil is perhaps greater than Nths in a way. She’s also never included in any of the jokes because she’s the hero and the hero has to be heroic and on task. It’s tragic and makes her just as sympathetic as Nth.

I suppose there are some flaws to Spiderlight, though they aren’t anything major. I wasn’t a fan of Tchaikovsky’s writing style at first. It’s very simple and streamlined, and I’m used to more flowery prose and descriptions in my fantasy novels. He also likes his adverbials. None of this breaks the immersion though, and after a few chapters, I grew to appreciate the way he turned out a sentence. Brevity is the soul of wit and whatnot.

And despite busting a bunch of expectations and being a different kind of high-fantasy novel, Spiderlight does fall into some pretty standard tropes. Our party is built of a tank (Harathes), a healer (Dion), a mage (Penthos), a thief (Lief), and a ranger (Cyrene). I found this clever when I first read Dragons of Autumn’s Twilight in high school, but at this point, it’s just kind of boring. Thankfully the characters all drastically elevate themselves over their base roles, but still, I’d have liked something a bit different.

The ending too is…somewhat of a problem. It is unexpected, but it also reads like Tchaikovsky thought himself very, very clever. It’s its own joke, but now I’m the one being made fun of and not someone in the story. I also feel like the more I think about it, the more holes I find in it.

That being said, it is satisfying, and it does fit with the tone and parameters set within the novel. It isn’t a bad ending, yet it…well, it just rubbed me the wrong way.

On the whole, Spiderlight is a great little book in a genre I had written off quite some time ago. I had a blast with it, and the few little things I dislike are pretty minor and may not bother you at all. It’s brimming with character, and while the world or quest themselves aren’t all that interesting when compared to bigger, flashier fantasy novels, they aren’t really the goal here. This is a character book first, and a good cast of characters will always trump plot and world building.

Neil Gaiman’s How to Talk to Girls at Parties Review

I love Neil Gaiman. Like full stop there. No, I’ll do it one better: I fucking love Neil Gaiman. History will smile upon Sandman as one of the greatest stories ever told, and American Gods is a phenomenal novel from meandering start to meandering finish. Anansi Boys is hysterical, Neverwhere is the most charming kind of wonderful, Good Omens is nothing short of fantastic…I mean, I could keep going, but I think I’ve made my point.

Now enter How to Talk to Girls at Parties, an almost coming-of-age comic book about…well, a shy, somewhat nerdy kid trying to overcome his fear of talking to members of the opposite sex. It’s a cute idea, and it’s a cute execution to be sure, but it’s almost too normal for Neil Gaiman.

Until, you know, it isn’t.

I have these expectations from Neil Gaiman (and Stephen King and George R. R. Martin and H.P. Lovecraft), to get a specific kind of story, and while that is unfair as hell, I’m happy to see those expectations met on a constant basis.

It does, however, take some of the mystery away. HTTTGAP (okay, there has to be a better way to abbreviate this), starts off by diving headfirst into Enn and Vic as our two main characters. The former is the shy person I mentioned above, and the latter is the gung-ho “We have to meet some girls!” kind of guy that all of us shy, nerdy kids are or were friends with at some point. And as the story crept along, I was waiting for the Gaiman moment to spring, for the narrative to get crazy and strange and maybe a little scary. It does because of course it does, and it’s amazing because of course it’s amazing, but damn. Like, I feel bad for demanding such a thing, for hunting for it. It is not a fair way to approach a story.

Regardless, what sets this apart from most other Gaiman stories is the scope. This isn’t Shadow wandering around America or Morpheus wandering around…everywhere; it’s two kids at a high-school party. This isn’t a big story with a giant cast of characters or a strange place to visit but about Enn, the most normal of normal people who is just a bit too shy for his own good.

It’s nice to see something so casual and almost personal here. Even on page one I was already rooting for Enn, and not just because I see myself in him. No, it’s just the way he starts the comic. It’s a memory, a voice over, and you can tell he never believed Vic from the get-go. He’s being dragged by his extroverted friend into a place he deems scary, but this isn’t London Below or wherever the hell Charlie went in Anansi Boys. Yet it is scary, because damnit if we haven’t been there before.

Strangers. Girls. Boys. Alcohol for the first time. More girls. Small talk!

And yet Vic isn’t a bad friend. In fact, he’s a damn good one, that wingman who has your back even though he doesn’t quite get why you’re so strange and shy. “It’s easy!” he’ll proclaim as he effortlessly gets the prettiest girl at the party, and you look at him like he’s speaking six different languages at once. But he does care, and he does want you to have fun, so it’s impossible to dislike him. As I read through this, I pictured my friends and similar situations that I’ve been in. It’s so easy to relate to what’s going on here that it’s kind of spooky.

This is the first area where HTTTGAP (sorry) excels. The second lies within the title of the comic itself. See, talking is only part one; the second part is listening. Enn talks, and seeing just that spark of character development is great, but he also doesn’t quite get to listening. He’s talking to girls about himself, and they talk back, and he misses everything. It maybe becomes a problem.

It’s hilarious. It’s also very Neil Gaiman, but you know, in the best of ways (there are no bad ways to be very Neil Gaiman).

For a book about two underage kids going to a high-school party, there’s this amazing and effortless amount of world building here, if that makes any sense. A lot is said in very little space, enough to establish multiple characters, lore, and a host of other goodies. It’s such a precise art form, and I really hope comic book readers understand how difficult it is to pack so much information into such a little space and not bog anything down.

You know when you run into bad exposition; you do not notice good exposition.

On the art front, because this is a comic book, I really like what Fabio Moon has done. There’s a lot of soft, vibrant colors here, and his expressions are on point. I’ve seen better artwork in other comics to be sure, but his style absolutely fits this story. When HTTTGAP gets a bit surreal and strange, the artwork follows, matching Gaiman beat for beat.

The way he sells the ending here is quite marvelous.

So yeah. HTTTGAP is really, really good, the exact kind of thing I look for in a Neil Gaiman story. It’s got what I want, yet it changes just enough to make it stand apart from his other works. It’s normal until it isn’t, and really, isn’t that what we want from any story?

Warcraft (2016) Review

I have a long history with the Warcraft property. I played the old RTS games when I was in middle school, and I got swallowed into the giant world of Azeroth via World of Warcraft during high school and college. I put more hours into that game than I ever want to think about. I’ve also read the books, which are pretty fun in their own right though not well written. My journey with the property stopped many years ago, long before “Wrath of the Lich King” came to an end, but the world and lore have always held a strong place in my heart.

You cannot break that kind of attachment.

However, from the opening preview of the Warcraft 2016 movie, I knew I was in for a rough time. Out of all the stories to tell, they went with the most boring: Orcs vs. humans. Why not bring on the Scourge? Why not tell of the Sundering? Why not show Arthas’ rise and fall? Or what about Illidan’s rise and fall? There are also like a thousand different dragons—do one of them. Deathwing maybe. He’s pretty awesome.

Nope. We get Orcs and humans, the thing The Lord of the Rings gave us in the mid 1950s. Tolkien did it better too.

And yet…and yet there’s enough here that we could have gotten a compelling story with Orcs vs. humans, as derivative as that is. The lore is capable of giving us more than what we bargained for. “Could have” is the sad qualifier here though. Warcraft 2016 can be broken up into three parts: Orcs, Humans, and Mages, and each one by itself has something fun to it.

The Orcs are fleeing a dying home yet are commanded by Gul’Dan, a warchief corrupted by the Fell. He’s destroying everything in his path, from the good to the bad, and has done away with honor long ago. Those under him only follow him out of a strong necessity, for this corrupt warchief will save the Orc race.

The humans are faced with a new foe, one they know nothing about. Their cities are being raided and burned from underneath their noses, and what’s worse, the Night Elves, Dwarves, and other races who are supposed to be allies aren’t helping. King Llane Wrynn is faced with some tough decisions and political drama, and he doesn’t know what to do. He hasn’t the men to face the Orcs alone.

The mages fear the Fell as a corruptive, unstoppable magical force, and when it shows up, they’re off to figure out where it came from and why. Something like that doesn’t just appear out of nowhere: It had to be invited in. Is there a traitor in the mix? Can a lowly mage who abandoned the Kirin Tor help solve all of these problems despite holding no respect from anyone?

Each one of these stories by itself could make a fun movie. The problem is, Warcraft wants to have all of them. Each of these movie-length plots is crammed into this film to the point of bursting, turning what should have been an awesome flick into a bogged down mess with too many characters, too much exposition, and little to root or care for.

I get trying to give the Orcs and humans equal plotting: You can’t care for both sides if you don’t. Fans of the lore and video games know that Azeroth is not a black-and-white continent—the humans are just as capable of evil as the monstrous Orcs—but this isn’t a video game. It’s fine to not give both sides to this conflict, especially when one side is way more interesting than the other.

Here’s the thing: I full-stop loved the Orcs in this movie. They’re everything they should be: Huge, honorable, slightly cartoonish, fearsome, equipped with giant weapons that border on being silly, ride big wolves, and have stupid-large shoulder armor. They are also surprisingly human. There’s a lot of to connect and sympathize with, and this is all established well before we’re forced to care about any of the humans. Durotan and the Frostwolf clan should have been the entire movie.

I mean hell, focusing entirely on them would have been amazing! Durotan is watching his fellow Orcs succumb to the Fell as they kill innocents to power the portal that will save the Orc race. They want to stop Gul’Dan, yet doing so dooms their people to a blackened, ruined world that can no longer support life. However, not stopping Gul’Dan dooms their people to the Fell.

That is compelling! That is awesome! That is also a fantasy story that has not been told on the big screen. We’ve seen Orcs vs. humans, but we have yet to see sympathetic Orcs. They’re always the bad guys, and other than maybe three in this movie, that remains the case.

Making viewers care about monsters would have been awesome, but it’s just so hard to do that when we only focus on a few of them, and at least two of those are evil.

So let’s talk about the humans. Or we could not because they were kind of terrible. A big part of this was the casting: Llane Wrynn was not kingly, and Medivh was lame. I didn’t buy either as characters. Dominic Cooper l is too young and too scrawny to be the leader of Stormwind, and this version of Medivh is as boring as can be. You’re telling me a hermit mage with so much power he could single-handedly turn the tide of battle is this normal? No. No I do not accept that!

Khadgar is the only saving grace to be found, the runaway wizard who finds himself in way over his head. His backstory is actually pretty good despite being delivered in a chunk of exposition, and his underdog status makes it hard not to root for him.

And then there is Garona (more like Groan-a (see what I did there?)) who is a half Orc, half human, and despised by both. She’s supposed to be this middle character, stuck between two sides with no real home, and while that should have been dramatic and interesting, it came across as ham-fisted and cliché. Everything about her was terrible, from the cringe-inducing dialogue to the long bouts of exposition to the lame romance subplot from out of nowhere, and it wasn’t until the very end that she started to serve a purpose. Other than her last scene, I just wanted her to disappear forever.

She ruined every scene she was in, and I’m not going to fully blame the actress for that either. There’s only so much you can do with a bad script.

Despite being a bogged-down mess with some bad characters, Warcraft 2016 isn’t without its merits. I loved the Orcs as I said, but I also loved the action set pieces. They’re big and fun. Watching an Orc swing a giant hammer at anything is just awesome, made better by some excellent sound design. Every battle reminded me of the video games in the best ways possible, and I’d gladly go see the movie again just for that.

Like I said, you can’t break the attachment I have to this series, problematic film or not.

The magic too is wonderful, bombastic and everything you’d expect from a video game, and it’s not anything I’ve ever seen on the big screen before. Silly mage words plus silly hand signals equals giant fireballs, portals, shields, and lightning storms. It’s awesome stuff, and a big reason why I want more fantasy stories of this sort brought to film. It’s just goddamn fun.

I do wish we had more of it in the movie. We get a handful of big, fun spells, but I’d have loved for a full on mage-vs-mage fight, with counterspells and fireballs flying from every which way as the combatants blink around and toss up temporary shields. It’s a bit of a failing that there are so few mages, especially on the Orc front. Gul’Dan was cool as a warlock, but I wanted more than just one warlock. Orcs can be shamans too! Where’s my chain lighting at?

The fight sequences are also oddly graphic. I guess the cartoon aspects helped the studio get away with cramming more gore and blood into a PG13 movie than is necessary, but it added a lot of weight (and meat, don’t forget the meat) to the fights we get. It’s a good thing.

My experiences with the Warcraft lore did help squeeze a lot more love out of this flick than perhaps was warranted. When Khadgar flew to Dalaran, my jaw dropped. I’ve seen that place before! Hell, I’ve lived there. I recognized places and spires and as cynical as my wretched body is, my face broke out into smiles. So too did I grin when the Blackrock Orcs were mentioned—I’ve ran that dungeon and fought them—or when different places were mentioned in passing, such as the Searing Gorge. Hell, the final battle takes place in what becomes the Blasted Lands!  I’ve been all over Azeroth, and seeing that world come to life in this way was moving in such a thick, nostalgic way that I find it hard to hate this movie.

At the end of the day, Warcraf 2016 is a problematic movie with a few things going for it and a lot of heart to boot. At least a full third of it is a mess, and I’d be hard pressed to recommend this to anyone with little knowledge of Warcraft, but hell, I had some fun. The magic was worth the price of admission, and I got to see someone polymorphed into a sheep. No other movies out there will give you that.

Warcraft is a good bad movie, and its biggest fault is that it could have been a good great movie.

Jodi Taylor’s Just One Damned Thing After Another Book Review

With the exception of the Terminator flicks, I prefer my time travel to be more on the comedic side. There’s something about the premise that I find hard buy into, be it the crazy paradoxes or the thousands of questions that generally come with the idea of, “but if I go back in time and do this, what happens?” Give me Kung Fury instead! I’d rather just laugh than accidentally scrutinize the science behind it (looking at you, Interstellar).

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor hits my sweet spot then. It primarily wants to be funny and even handwaves the bigger time travel quandaries so we don’t have to think about them ever again. Perfect.

Ms. Maxwell has a bunch of learning in history—the expensive, lengthy kind that will net you a job as either a professor at a fine college or the best darn McDonalds manager in this United States—and gets an invite to a very abnormal historical research facility called St. Mary’s. As luck would have it, St. Mary’s has a bunch of time-travel devices, and their job is to chronicle the nonsense that happened far in the past. Think the battle of Troy or the construction of fancy, super historical walls that I can’t remember the names of.

The problem is twofold. The first bit is that history doesn’t like to be tampered with, so this job is actually very, very dangerous, and the second bit is that time-traveling terrorists exist.

Here’s the thing though: Those two problems don’t make sense when paired together. History does bite back as the novel quickly shows us—and just as quickly forgets about, I might add—meaning that the terrorists can’t really do anything. Events have to happen a certain way, so it’s not like they can go back in time and prevent Hitler from killing himself (hello Godwin’s law in a review).

It sort of makes the latter half of the book a bit nonsensical.

The first half though, that part is great! It reminds me of Harry Potter in a way, where we follow Maxwell down a very bizarre rabbit hole and learn alongside her. There are plenty of characters to get to know, some fun concepts, and while there’s no real sense of danger, the levity of the book makes that unimportant.

Plus, I’ve never seen time travel handled this way. I like it.

I also really like Maxwell. I’ll full-on admit that she’s at least half a Mary Sue, but her sense of humor eases some of the sting of a character whose not only really smart but also solves all of her problems pretty quickly. She doesn’t struggle much through the first half of the book, but that only casually bothered me. I was having too much fun to care.

But here’s the cold, hard truth about our heroine: Her two biggest flaws are she’s a bit of an alcoholic and she’s a bit socially stupid. Normally those would be big problems, but here the first one happens mostly off screen and the second is only ever played off for laughs. I never got the sense of either, especially from a girl who gets drunk off of one margarita. You cannot be a boozehound and get knackered off of one drink (I know from experience).

She’s also very stoic, and while the book tries to play this off as a negative at points, it only ever feels like a net gain on her behalf. It means she can roll with the punches and deal with high-stress environments better than most. It also means she shows no fear in the face of danger.

I really want to upsell the front half of this book though, with its silly drama, crazy cast of characters, and few choice sex scenes that are darn well written, if not a little fictitious in tenacity. Because after the front half, Just One Damned Thing After Another takes a pretty steep dive.

Without hitting any spoilers, the novel tries to create some very strong, very tonally inconsistent drama between Maxwell and another main character. I never bought into it. The character in question isn’t a saint, but what he attempts to do came so far out of left field that I lost all suspension of disbelief. It doesn’t help that Maxwell deals with him very quickly and without any real incident.

From there on out, all of the drama around Maxwell comes off as fake, like the characters aren’t acting like they should. From one turn to the next, I could feel the author manipulating the people she had so painstakingly created, forcing them to do what the plot needed. It really left a bad taste in my mouth.

And hell, that wouldn’t be so much of a problem if there were a point to it, but Maxwell doesn’t suffer all that much. She hits rock bottom at one point, but the brunt of that happens off screen. Call me a sadist, but I do want my protagonists to have a rough time in the books I read. I also want to see it! Neither really happens here.

By the end of the novel, I found myself viewing it rather cynically. Maxwell does some very Mary Sue things because she’s very clever and accidents work in her favor, and we end on a high note. I’m left thinking of this particular comic. Yes, as an English major wouldn’t it be amazing if I could use my powers to save the world! Of course it would. However, I wouldn’t go and write a book about that because no one would want to read it.

This novel never hits those levels, but it makes me think about them. It makes me question some of the characters and the writing, and that’s not exactly a good thing.

It’s a shame too, because the front half really is good and lots of fun. There’s enough here to make me recommend Just One Damned Thing After Another, especially since I tore through it in a few days, but damn does it make some disappointing decisions.

J Patrick Allen’s Dead West: West of Pale Review

J Patrick Allen’s Dead West: West of Pale is a combination I’m not sure I’ve seen before, pairing urban fantasy—magic, monsters, and myth—with a more western setting. The official time period is somewhere after the civil war, perhaps five to twenty years based on what I can quickly find, but hey, that means we’re looking at old-school rifles, pistols, and lots of travel via horses. It also means that the fantastical elements are a bit easier to digest by the characters, since there are no pesky cell phones and Internet to get in the way.

The problem is, the book hardly does anything I’d call “new.”

Charlie’s father is murdered by some kind of river monster, and not one of the nice kinds either. No, this one talks and stalks, and it’s out for Charlie because it’s owed the blood of a first born. It also has no qualms killing anyone trying to help Charlie. Yup, it’s a nasty creature.

Dead West starts off explosively and doesn’t ever really slow down. The first leg of the book is Charlie’s terror-filled run across the United States looking for a mysterious fellow his father promised would help. Each stop he makes lets the monster get closer, and on the whole, it’s all pretty darn entertaining. The book being in first-person past kills some of the tension since we know Charlie isn’t going to die, but his narration sells his fear well enough.

The whole thing is a hair unbelievable though. He’s got few clues to go on, mostly just the name Sam Clayton and the random help of strangers, so that he manages to hike from Missouri to Minnesota and actually find Sam feels too coincidental and plot-demanded than anything else.

That being said, the first third of this novel, perhaps even a bit further, is good. The pacing is maybe a little too quick at times—this isn’t the kind of book that wants to sit down and smell the roses—but it’s fun and I certainly sympathize with Charlie. He knows nothing other than the monster is damn determined to see him dead.

When Sam Clayton is found though, we start getting answers, and that’s where things get a bit dull. Dead West turns from a sort of horror novel into a pretty standard, “there’s monsters out there, Charlie, and people like me hunt them” affair. Sam is of course broken and haunted by a terrible past, and he’s pretty gruff and unfriendly too.

And hell, even that isn’t so bad. The spook the two first encounter is pretty fun and wraps up well enough, though you’ll probably call the mystery well before it’s solved.

I think part of the problem is that Dead West relies heavily on common folklore, and it doesn’t really do much with it that we haven’t seen before. In a way, Mr. Patrick Allen was stuck between a rock and a hard place. If you’re trying to match history and actual fairytales, then you need to do the proper research to get things right; however, to stick with those fairytales too closely treads over plenty of things we’ve all seen and read about before.

He mixes things up somewhat, but I’m not sure he really changes enough.

The other part of the problem is with the writing itself. It’s nothing really special, falling into pretty typical young-adult first-person narration. There’s a good amount of telling, and even when Charlie is being descriptive, most of the descriptions are just dull. Now and then a wonderful set of sentences will show up, proving that there is good writing to be found here, but I wasn’t really engaged through most of the novel.

There are also a pretty notable amount of typos, wrong words used, or outright missing words. There are less of these in the first leg of the novel, but by around chapters eight or nine, they really start cropping up in full force. They seem to fall away a bit towards the end, making me think the first third and last third of this novel were heavily edited while the middle was skipped.

I could take a red pen and spend awhile inking in all the missing comas, too.

Honestly, Dead West: West of Pale reminds me of The Girl With Ghost Eyes in almost every way. Plenty of good bits, some fun characters, and a new setting, yet both novels really just rubbed me the wrong way, and I’m left trying to figure out why. I reread what I’ve written in this review and feel like my complaints are somewhat trivial.

I’ll do what I always do in these kinds of books then: tell you to go read the sample on Amazon. If that sells you on it, then yeah, you’ll have some fun. The novel gets a bit predictable here and there, and it hits a few tropes a bit too hard for my liking, but really, there’s little wrong with it other than some bland prose.

I just could not get into it past a certain point.

Fred Strydom’s The Raft Review

SPOILER WARNING: This is a hard novel to talk about without divulging some plot and thematic details. I very much recommend you stop here and pick this book up, because it’s fucking fantastic and I don’t want to ruin any of the major surprises in any way. Seriously, go buy this.

I’ve always liked the idea of large-scale unreliability in stories, though my experience with them is few and far between. There are one or two shorter tales I remember reading in college when studying unreliable narrators, but I’ve never actually had the pleasure of reading a full on novel with an unreliable narrator. Well, that is until Fred Strydom’s The Raft.

I have been missing out, because this book is absolutely amazing.

The day everyone on Earth lost their memories is referred to as Day Zero. It was a reset, and one that turned a technologically advanced world into a listless series of communes where people amount to nothing. Those that lead the communes—which remind me of a Jim Jones joint—promise to lead humanity into a new stage of evolution: A New Renaissance is coming! In the meantime, people need to think about community in a simpler way, one that forgoes family ties and materialism. Those are bad.

Oh, and if you try to escape, they’ll shove you on a raft and float you out into the middle of the ocean with nothing to eat except some plants that make you hallucinate.

Kayle Jenner lives in one such commune, and unlike most, his memories are somewhat complete. He had a house with a pair of horses, a wife, a son, and a daughter. He was even happy. A tragic car accident and Day Zero put a stop to that, and now he’s stuck on a beach memorizing a philosophy he doesn’t truly believe and wondering why he can’t stop dreaming of his son, Andy. Should he go find Andy? Can he? Will Andy even remember him?

These questions become Kayle’s main fear as he journeys to find his son, though the reader quickly becomes concerned with bigger questions about reality itself. Kayle’s core memories span his entire life, making him more reliable than anyone else in the commune, though there are blanks and oddities that he cannot account for, such as a mysterious figure named Jack Turning. His dreams too are strange. There’s an orb in the sky, one that has a sentience to it that makes no sense. Kayle dreams of this orb every night, and as it turns out, others are too.

While Kayle rightfully frets about his son and missing wife, we are left wondering how sane he truly is and what kind of supernatural being is affecting the world.

It’s a wonderful setup that turns The Raft into an untrustworthy soup with way more questions than answers. As the novel progresses and the world grows in clarity, the questions grow in number and importance.

And all of the above is only the first layer of unreliability. There are two more as the novel goes on, though I won’t spoil either. I’m sure you can guess one of them though.

The Raft is written in the first-person past perspective, with Kayle telling his story (which is actually a fourth level of unreliability now that I think of it); however, the novel doesn’t confine itself to just Kayle, nor does it always care about his story. As Kayle moves through the world, he encounters plenty of other characters who feel—perhaps supernaturally—compelled to tell them stories from their lives. The result is a series of first-person past shifts that make sense within the novel’s framework while also creating quick connections between the reader and strangers.

It’s absolutely wonderful. The writing is superb, and the all the vignettes within are perfectly executed in what they set out to do. Kayle’s story is compelling in its own right, but I never felt upset when perspective shifted to someone else because I knew I was in for a treat. Be it a little bit of horror, a giant heap of scifi and world building, or a mix of both, each of these chapters could stand alone if need be.

Each story ends with Kayle asking a question, and each time he’s given a little piece of a thematic puzzle. He then continues on, because nothing matters as long as he can find his son.

“Nothing matters” turns out to be one of the big themes of the novel. Even from the get-go The Raft is dark, but as it progresses, it submerges itself into nihilism and the deep-rooted fears that come with that philosophy. This is a bleak book, and there are times when it is outright cruel, both to its characters and the reader.

Towards the late middle of the novel, we begin getting some answers, though I didn’t like them much at first. Thankfully our fourth wave of unreliability hits with such a brutal force that it resets every notion I had about the book.

Mr. Strydom played with my expectations over and over again until I had no idea what was really going on. Even now that I’ve finished the novel, I still don’t know what’s really real and what is imaginary.

In that way, The Raft is probably the first book I’ve read with what a video game would call replayability. I want to go back in and see where things line up now that I know how it ends, because I think I’ll discover some amazing secrets I missed on my first go through.

I know not everyone will appreciate a dark-as-hell book that plays with your mind, but if that mix sounds enjoyable, then you really have to pick this book up. It is downright amazing. The Raft is easily the best book I’ve read this year, and one that I’m not sure will be topped.

Kenneth Lamug’s The Stumps of Flattop Hill Review

Note: This review was originally written for WeTheNerdy.com, and my copy of The Stumps of Flattop Hill was supplied by the author. The book releases May 1st, 2016

I’ve uh, never reviewed a kid’s picture book before. As an adult without children, I don’t ever really run into them, though I’m a firm believer that kid’s fiction can and should appeal to everyone. And hell, some of my favorite novels are kid’s books. The Golden Compass, Harry Potter And the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Marlfox, and The Hobbit all spring to mind as amazing stories for kids and adults alike.

The opportunity to read The Stumps of Flattop Hill by Kenneth Kit Lamug came like most of my review opportunities come: an emailed request. In this case, some of my fellow writers at WeTheNerdy recognized the name as a wonderful comic’s book artist and writer and told me to jump on this thing right away.

Here we are.

The Stumps of Flattop Hill is a haunted house story, and one that is actually pretty creepy at points. The house on Flattop Hill has a rather dark history, one where kids venture in for untold reasons and never come out again. Months later, a new tree shows up in the house’s yard. Life then moves on.

Florence, our silent protagonist, is mocked for being too scared to enter the house. After being told what happens to those that go in, I’m surprised anyone would speak of the house openly at all, let alone kids in such a manor. This isn’t some spooky place owned by a creepy old and misunderstood man; kids really do vanish once they enter. The place ought to be burned to the damn ground.

But I digress. Florence is infatuated with the place and like all haunted house stories, she ventures forth.

The Stumps of Flattop Hill is told through visuals and light amounts of poetry. The execution is pretty wonderful and actually reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road in a way. There’s an elegance to the little wording present and a confidence to let actions speak louder than words. The end result is a story that doesn’t hold your hand as you go through it, meaning paying attention to Florence’s facial expressions and the strange horrors she finds in the house is very important. This may or may not become frustrating for kids, though I’m not entirely versed on how smart children are these days.

The artwork in this story is very, very good. It’s all monochromatic, which already makes it look pretty disturbing, but combine that with some Tim Burton aesthetic, and you have yourself a winner. It’s darn creepy when it wants to be, and that tends to be through most of it. There’s a vivid weirdness to everything, and Mr. Lamug makes great use of the color black.

The poetry too is pretty good for the most part. The story doesn’t stick to one rhyme scheme but lets the words flow more organically, though everything is in meter and there are plenty of rhymes. This lets the text speed up when something tense is happening and slow down when we’re tasked with simple viewing.

Though perhaps the best part with the text itself is how it’s not afraid to be artistic in its own right. Words climb and contort based on what is being said. A cracked floor is paired with the word “floor” being cracked, a leaky door with the word “leak” visually leaking down the page. This gives The Stumps of Flattop Hill a ton of personality and makes the words themselves as visually interesting as the pictures.

Like with the visuals, I’m unsure what the age range of the text is supposed to be. I know all the words, but younger children might not; though any excuse to expand the vocabulary is a good one. The poetry too isn’t afraid to mix and match, meaning a verb might show up at the end of the sentence to fit the rhyme/meter scheme present. This is par the course in adult poetry, but I have no idea where it stands with poetry made for children.

I also have to wonder how appropriate the whole thing is for young readers, but then, I always enjoyed a creepy story when I was a kid (my neighbor introduced me to the Alien franchise at a very young age, so that’s probably his fault). Most fairy tales aren’t exactly without their own horrors either, so this one fits in with those as far as I’m concerned. If witches with candy houses can eat children, then this horror house can make them disappear.

Parents: Use your best judgment.

Honestly, my one complaint with the whole thing–and it is sadly a big one–is in the ending itself. I didn’t like it. It’s…unsatisfying as hell, which is a problem with any story regardless of the age group it’s meant for. I’m fine with a bad ending or an unhappy ending if there’s a good reason or point, but none of those really exist here. It just ends.

I’ve read others say it’s supposed to be an open ending, one for interpretation, but I’m not sure I agree. The book is too short for that. Maybe if there were another ten or so pages to flesh out Florence, the house, and her town; but as it stands, the story just ends poorly.

It is of course possible that I just haven’t paid enough attention to the pictures, but I’ve also read through the thing three times now.

The House of Flattop Hill is an enjoyable 40 pages with some great artwork and visually appealing writing. I think it’s a story I’d have had fun reading as a kid, and hell, I did have fun reading it as an adult. I just wish the ending had been a bit more satisfying.