Review: A Noble’s Quest

anoblesquest

Review of A Noble’s Quest
by Ryan Toxopeus
ISBN-10: 1492170127

If you’ve ever played Dungeons and Dragons, chances are you and your group of fellow adventurers sometimes waded into combat without asking a lot of questions first. Or justified a slaughter when diplomacy fell through. Or found it easier to kill the King’s guards and hide the bodies than face up to some perhaps well-deserved justice.

You did all this in the name of fun and because, as the main characters in your own story, you were obviously the heroes. You saved the world, or at least the town, and if you left a lot of bodies behind along the way, well, that’s the life of an adventurer.

Maybe someone in your group jokingly brought up how your actions must appear to everyone else in the game world. “We’re murder hobos!” But it’s just a game and everyone’s having fun, so who cares, right?

But when those adventures are the basis for a book, as they are here, those ruthless antics are not as simple. As a reader, I expect the main characters to act heroic, work toward becoming a hero, or at least recognize that they’re not heroes at all, but they’re doing what they think is right.

If I had one huge disconnect with the book, it is that while the main characters are proclaimed to be heroic, the book never really addresses that they often act like murderers and thieves, without having any sense that their actions are justified. They’re doing it because they’ve been sent on a series of quests to achieve a secret goal, and they repeatedly talk about these quests in a way that seemed a little too meta for the characters, as if they were aware they were an adventuring party in a game.

One of the main characters repeatedly worries about the group’s seemingly unjustified murders, but eventually has an epiphany in which he realizes they were all justified after all because he was defending himself and his friends. I didn’t buy the logic and I never really felt the characters were heroic.

That being said, the book is well-written and it kept me reading. There’s a good sense of humor throughout and, even though a lot of the world-building is stock Player’s Handbook in many parts, the original touches are clever and engaging. I especially enjoyed a scene of some dwarves dealing with an interesting type of alarm, and any scene that had to do with the Dwarven religion, which seems like a clever, Dwarven take on Christianity.

I think if you approach this book as the account of a role-playing group acting out the lives of Player Characters, you’ll be more likely to enjoy it for what it is. And when all is said and done, I want to know what happens next in this world. Good thing then that the second book, A Wizard’s Gambit, is in the works.

Review: Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest

helentroyquestI used to read humorous fantasy all the time when I was younger: John DeChancie’s Castle Perilous Series, Craig Shaw Gardner’s trilogies, and Robert Lynn Aspirin’s Myth series being some of the books I read and reread several times. Somewhere along the way, though, I fell out of the habit of reading funny books.

Helen & Troy’s Epic Road Quest, by A, Lee Martinez, definitely falls into the humor fantasy category. I might not have picked it up except for it being the book chosen for a local book club I am going to attend for the first time. I won’t say it has rekindled my love of the genre, but it was good enough that I’ll sprinkle similar books back into my reading queue. (Since I’ve had Terry Pratchett recommended to me more times than I count, that seems like a good place to start.)

So who are Helen and Troy and why are they going on this epic quest? Without revealing too much, Helen is a minotaur and Troy is your usual perfect hero type. They live in our world, if myths and legends were true and the fantastical had long since become commonplace. Their Call to Adventure comes by way of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, where they end up being tasked with a quest by an insane god.

In other words, just another day in the fantastical world Martinez has created. Of course, everything is taken so much for granted and treated with a dry, been-there-done-that attitude, that the book doesn’t have much of a sense of wonder. Instead, it’s a by-the-book quest to get the McGuffins, and it wears this on its sleeve. The characters themselves are aware that they are on a quest and must abide by certain tropes.

It’s done with a dry wit and gentle touch, spending as much time on building the friendship between Helen and Troy as on describing the mythical beings they encounter along the way.

Above all, it’s a quick read that kept me amused me and worked by itself and as a meta narrative on the nature of heroic quests.

Lego 60066: Swamp Police Starter Set

Psst, you may not know this, but I like Lego. I’m in the early stages of Lego addiction, and I’ll be posting on my blog whenever I have something Lego-related to share.

IMG_2551

Lego has a new “swamp police” theme, which seems to involve lots of sets with the same few characters. Each set has a different vehicle or two, and a small building or two. I’ll admit not being that interested in the theme overall, but for anyone looking to build up their Lego collection, I highly recommend the Swamp Police Starter Set.

For $10 you get four minifigures (female and male police officers, two male criminals), which is a good deal in and of itself. One of the criminals comes with a nice orange-red beard, and both sets I’ve opened had an extra beard piece. Nice.

What else do you get? A pair of oars, fan and circular fan case, snake, spider, shovel, walkie-talkie, money, handcuffs, some foliage, and best of all, a really nice crocodile with opening jaw and swinging tail. And then there’s bricks to make a small hovercraft, a wooden raft, and small island money cache.

IMG_2552

I bought three of these sets, partly to get three crocodiles for a Pitfall build I’m working on, but also because it’s hard to beat the price on this one in relation to the minifigures and other neat bits you get.

5 of 5 for price and usefulness.

Manga & Graphic Novel Challenge

Mother Gamer Writer

The fine folks at Mother/Gamer/Writer have been hosting a Manga/Graphic Novel/Video Game Novel Challenge for a few years now, and I’m going to join in this year.

I’m going to shoot for the stars and enter at Level 5 (read a total of 45-55 books). The actual reading should be easy. I tear through manga and graphic novels on a regular basis (and I’m skipping the video game novel portion of the challenge). But keeping up with reviewing each book? That will be a challenge. Let’s see if I can keep up or I fall flat on my face, shall we?

I better get myself to the library and get some manga and graphic novels checked out, because if there’s one thing I can’t do, it’s afford to buy all of the books I am going to read! If you’re of a mind to help me in that department, maybe you’d consider buying one of my books or stories? (What, you thought I’d miss a chance for a shameless plug?)

Review: Talus and the Frozen King

Talus and the Frozen King by Graham Edwards

£7.99 (UK) ISBN 978-1-78108-198-3

$8 .99/$10.99 (US & CAN) ISBN 978-1-7810-8-199-0

Published by Solaris Books

TALUS AND THE FROZEN KING

 

I started to read Talus and the Frozen King right after A Discourse in Steel by Paul S. Kemp, and at first I worried it would be too similar, a fantasy buddy adventure. As it turned out, I was pleasantly surprised when I realized the book was not really an action-adventure story, but rather a murder mystery. Now, if I had read the book cover, which proclaims that the book introduces the world’s first detective, maybe I wouldn’t have been surprised, but then again I might not have given it a chance because mysteries aren’t my first choice of reading.

At its base, Talus and the Frozen King is much like a familiar Sherlock Holmes and Watson story, except in this case, Holmes is a bard named Talus and Watson a former fisherman named Bran.

Talus is emotionally-stunted but clever and insightful. Bran, his sidekick, is more rough-and-tumble. He may not figure things out as fast as Talus does, but he understands human motivations in a way the bard-sleuth does not. It’s a familiar trope but both characters are fleshed out well enough that I had as much interest in them as in solving the mystery.

The details of the world building kept me interested at first, especially as I was going into the story blind, unsure of what type of fantasy it was. Interestingly, the level of magic in the story is open to interpretation. Many of the characters believe in it, but as it is a historical fantasy, this could simply reflect that many people in our history believed in magic and spirits.

While the world-building pulled me in to the story at first, the mysteries surrounding the frozen king’s murder eventually grabbed hold of me. By the halfway point of the novel, with mystery piling on top of mystery, including those in Bran and Talus’ past, I found myself racing to the end. I’d definitely buy the next book in the series, because while the book works as a stand-alone mystery, I definitely want to know where Talus and Bran’s adventures take them next.

Reviewer’s Note: I received a review copy of this book but as always this review is my honest reaction. I use Amazon Affiliate links so if you follow the link and buy the book, I might someday make enough to afford to buy a book on Amazon. :)

Harrison Re-Read: Make Room! Make Room!

Make Room! Make Room!
by Harry Harrison
ISBN-13: 978-0765318855
Amazon: Paperback | Kindle
Goodreads | LibraryThing

Cover by Alan Aldridge.

 

Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison is a classic look at overpopulation in crowded cities, so of course it makes sense that I would look to it for some inspiration in regards to my own story of an overcrowded world, The Only City Left. Make Room!x2 was written in 1966 and takes place in 1999, where no one is partying because there’s barely enough food, water, and space to survive, much less dance with Prince.

As in The Caves of Steel, New York is used here as the ideal City (in the Platonic sense, not the “I’d want to live there” sense). Life in this New York is miserable and crowded, with none of the amenities of far-future technology: “There was nothing to do, no place to go, the city pressed in around him and every square foot of it was like this, filled with people, children, noise, heat.”

Also similar to The Caves of Steel, Make Room!x2 (sort of) revolves around a murder.

Detective Andy Rusch is barely scraping by, sharing a small apartment with his elderly roommate, Sol, who has lived long enough to know just what he’s missing. Andy, like the rest of the cops, is overworked, and underpaid. Most crimes go unsolved because the police don’t have the time to follow up on them, but when Big Mike O’Brien is killed, political pressure is applied to make sure this case is solved.

Possible spoilers from here on out. You have been warned.

While Make Room! Make Room! is an interesting, if very depressing, look at the perils of overpopulation, it’s a bit disjointed as far as the story goes. It’s a murder mystery but not really, as the focus is only intermittently on Andy solving the crime. Instead the story jumps around from Andy to street rat Billy Chung to O’Brien’s ex-moll Shirl Greene, and to Sol, Andy’s roommate, never sticking to one point of view to any satisfying conclusion.

The characters are there to provide a look at life in New York City, and that life is horrible unless you’re into organized crime or politics (between which there is a very thin line if there is one at all). Each character has bleak, wandering story in which they are barely in control of their own existence, impotent in their endeavors, enjoying only meager and temporary successes.

No matter how well Andy does his job, he only gets crap from his boss, more assignments, and in trouble with Shirl. Shirl, for her part, is more than willing to live in poverty with Andy, but he is so caught up in his job that he ignores her to the point she must abandon him. Billy Chung resorts to crime to improve his life, ends up murdering Big Mike and fleeing without any valuables, and wanders around for the rest of the story until he dies resisting arrest. And Sol is fine until he gets fed up enough to march in protest and ends up breaking his hip and passing away for lack of proper medical care.

While this all adds to the feeling of dread and uselessness that underpins the story, which I’m sure is the point, the story is tough to read. It ends with Andy bumped back down to beat cop, completely unfairly, and the population only growing, growing, growing.

Towards the end of the book, Andy’s roommate Sol gives a long speech about overpopulation, religion, and the lack of political will to fix the world’s problems. It’s a bit heavy-handed, but the damnable thing is that it is as true today as it was when Harrison wrote the book. We might have passed by 1999 without a problem, but there’s no indication that we’re not simply kicking the world of Make Room! Make Room! down the road a bit. 2050? 2099? Who knows.

It’s a classic book, and it definitely informs the history of my far-future Earth in The Only City Left, but having read it twice now, I think it’s one I will retire from my re-read list. I can watch the news to be this depressed, but for my fiction I’d prefer a little more adventure to go with my social commentary.

Note: Although the movie Soylent Green is based on Make Room! Make Room!, there is no plot in the book about people being turned into food. Soylent steaks are mentioned but they’re only fake steaks made of soybeans and lentils.

Asimov Re-Read: The Caves of Steel

The Caves of Steel
by Isaac Asimov
ISBN-13: 978-0553293401
Amazon: Paperback | Kindle
Goodreads | LibraryThing

Classic Michael Whelan cover art.

The first book in Isaac Asimov’s Robot series, The Caves of Steel, is one of my all-time favorites and a definite influence on The Only City Left. It’s a murder mystery, plus it deals with the themes of man vs. robot and Earth humans vs. Spacers (humans who have colonized other planets). But the element that had the greatest impact on me was life in a big-C City.

The book takes place on Earth roughly 3,000 years from now, at a time when all major cities have been covered over and no one lives outside of these Cities except for the simple-minded robots that farm the food the humans need. The story is set in and around New York, which is the sort of Ur-City that seems to be popular with SF writers (case in point: I’ll have a post later about Harry Harrison’s Make Room! Make Room!, which also showcases a “future” New York).

Our main character is Lije Baley, a 40-ish detective, married with one kid, who enjoys the small luxuries his C-5 rating allows him (the sink inside his apartment has been unlocked for private use, for one thing), but who lives haunted by the shadow of seeing his father lose all rank and privileges when Lije was a child.

He is called upon by Commissioner Julius Enderby (a friend who has risen through the ranks faster than Lije) to investigate a murder, but there a couple of hitches that make this case extremely sensitive. First, the victim is a Spacer, and he was killed in the heavily-guarded Spacetown outside of New York City, which should be an impossible feat. Second, Baley will have to take a Spacer partner and house him during the investigation.

This would be bad enough, but it turns out that his partner, Daneel Olivaw, is actually R. Daneel Olivaw, a robot. City dwellers have barely-concealed contempt for the robots that the Spacers are forcing them to use, because the robots are pushing regular folk out of their jobs. Without jobs and the status that goes with them, City life is miserable, so robots are not well liked.

Daneel is not just any robot, though. He looks completely human, albeit the Spacer ideal of human. He has some traits that give him away, like how he doesn’t breathe unless he’s talking, but for the most part he can pass for human unless someone is specifically trying to tell if he’s a robot or not.

Okay, so those are the basics. If you want to avoid possible spoilers, read no further (but do read the book, it’s a classic).

So what do I like about this book? To start with, City life. Asimov drills down into some of the minutiae of living in a City, not just at the technical level, but the social one. Like, the second you step into a public restroom, you don’t look at anyone else and you don’t talk to anyone else. Or how the mere thought of stepping outside the steel cave of the city is unthinkable to Lije. City life, despite its drawbacks, had become the new norm, and even those pesky Medievalists who want to return to nature acknowledge that they won’t be able to do it, but maybe the next generation or the next can.

Lije ends up at war with himself as to whether or not the Cities are a good thing. Early on, he is all for them: “Think of the inefficiency of a hundred thousand homes for a hundred thousand families as compared with a hundred-thousand unit Section … the endless duplication of kitchens and bathrooms as compared with the thoroughly efficient diners and shower rooms made possible by City culture.”

He even imagines the Cities growing and growing, combining with each other, overcoming the problems that will arise from population growth: “Baley had the picture of an Earth of unlimited energy. Population could continue to increase. The yeast farms could expand, hydroponic culture intensify. Energy was the only thing indispensable. The raw materials could be brought in from the uninhabited rocks of the System. If ever water became a bottleneck, more could be brought in from the moons of Jupiter. Hell, the oceans could be frozen and dragged out into Space where they could circle Earth as moonlets of ice. There they would be, always available for use, while the ocean bottoms would represent more land for exploitation, more room to live. Even carbon and oxygen could be maintained and increased on Earth through utilization of the methane atmosphere of Titan and the frozen oxygen of Umbriel. Earth’s population could reach a trillion or two. Why not?”

Ah, that’s quite an image, and if you’ve read The Only City Left, you can see where I got my inspiration (well, that and Trantor), even if only at a subconscious level. It had actually been years since I read this book when I started writing TOCL, but the seed had been planted. (Not only that, one of my characters is named Jessie, the same as Lije’s wife, and I didn’t make that connection until this re-read.)

In the end, Lije comes to see that City life is a dead end, and that humans must colonize the stars again. They can’t visit the Spacer worlds, because the Spacers, while long-lived, cannot abide the germs Earth humans would bring with them. New worlds will need to be colonized, and to do that, humans will need the help of robots. So that’s why the Spacers have been trying to foist robots on humanity! They, too, know that humans need to spread out amongst the stars to ensure humanity’s survival.

The Earth of The Only City Left, run-down and mostly abandoned, is my own take on this idea, but I never would have created it if not for Asimov’s The Caves of Steel.

Book Review: Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom

Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom
by Tim Byrd (http://tim-byrd.com/)
ISBN-13: 978-0989443302
Amazon: Paperback | Kindle
Doc Wilde on Goodreads

docwildefrogs

I picked up Doc Wilde and the Frogs of Doom during its Kickstarter, where it pledged to “recapture the magic of classic pulp adventure stories, with lost worlds, ancient ruins, weird science, evil villains, and daring heroes, bringing them into the 21st century with contemporary themes, modern scientific notions, the wonders of a close family, and a deep appreciation of literature and of the thinking life itself.”

I’m not sure about the last two items on the list, but the book mostly delivered on its promises. Doc Wilde and his children Brian and Wren are more like gods than humans: in superb physical shape, masters of many languages and scads of obscure knowledge, trained in the most useful mental and physical martial arts. They have nary a negative trait, drawback, or disadvantage amongst them, which definitely gives the book an old-time feel.

The Wildes are joined by rough-and-tumble pilot/driver Declan mac Coul and quote-spewing Phineas Bartlett. Yes, the man named Bartlett is full of quotes.

The adventure begins when the Wildes learn that Grandpa Wilde has gone missing. All they have to go on is an idol of a frog and a picture of Grandpa smiling as he stands before the open maw of a giant frog with shark-like teeth. The family’s reaction to this news is “Grandpa was missing again. Cool!”

The adventure takes off from there and involves peculiar frogs, a cliché South American dictator, dark matter, and more impossibly amazing inventions than you can shake a nanobot at. The book is heavy on exposition at times, but the chapters are short and it moves along at a fast clip.

The sheer perfection of the main characters means that they are rarely in any believable danger, so after a few cliffhanger chapter endings that turn out all right, a lot of the suspense is leeched from the story. That’s okay, though. The outcome is never in doubt, but the fun is seeing what mental discipline, physical feat, or novel technology the Wildes will use to save the day.

Doc Wilde is primarily for young adults, but it could also work for adults who enjoy over-the-top pulp adventure. There is nice artwork throughout by Gary Chaloner, but reading on the Kindle Paperwhite, I found the artwork to be quite tiny. After zooming in on it a couple of times, I mostly ignored it for the rest of the book.

Purchase Doc Wilde on Amazon.

Doc Wilde and The Frogs of Doom