Monthly Archives: September 2014

100 Cupboards (100 Cupboards #1)

Title: 100 Cupboards

Author: N. D. Wilson

After his parents were kidnapped, Henry York goes to live with his aunt and uncle in Henry, Kansas. Henry has lived a very sheltered life, and this first time away from his extremely overprotective parents offers more adventure than he could ever imagine. And then he finds the cupboards in his attic room, and the adventure of an unfettered life becomes another kind of adventure entirely. For the cupboards are gateways to other worlds. Places of magic. And an evil he cannot imagine wants to use him to escape . . .

The whole book is mostly a setup of the premise introduced in the title: 100 cupboards with a magical history and purpose are uncovered by a boy ignorant of their true nature. The beginning is a solid introduction of Henry York, his new family, and the small town where he’s going to live. In that respect it reads very much like a fiction novel for a good while. Henry’s parents were criminally overprotective and did their best to stamp out any hint of imagination or wonder in him, and although he has some inkling they were, he’s confronted by how much so when he has to deal with the rough-and-tumble country lifestyle enjoyed by his cousins, who are allowed to do such dangerous things as climb ladders or play baseball.

Once the cupboards are uncovered, the magic starts to pick up. Henry and his cousin Henrietta (yes, really) are the ones digging out all the mysteries. Unfortunately, that’s where this being a first novel falls down a bit. Although some resolution is provided to the struggle between the family and the evil Henry and Henrietta have unleashed, Henry has only pushed it aside and made it worse. And there really isn’t a whole lot of exploration into the other worlds just yet; Henry gets a few small glimpses but mostly wants to avoid trouble, so there isn’t much yet beyond a small look into the worlds he does see.

This is not a bad book, but I found myself more invested in the fiction aspects than the fantasy. I liked Frank, who is Henry’s uncle and the main proponent of him moving out of his shell (he has a particularly apt description of Henry as the grass that has been smothered underneath a board, deprived of sunlight until it’s withered and weak). I liked the way Henry is being daring, if only to himself, as he actually plays baseball and finds to his surprise he’s not half bad, and that playing baseball doesn’t immediately result in life-threatening injuries. Henry’s timidity hampers most of the adventure, though there are signs this is changing by the end.

So this is another story that is best read with the trilogy in hand, as the first book is one big introduction to everything that is to come. I don’t generally have a problem with that structure but the initial hook has to be good to make me want to invest in more than just the first one, and I’m not all that excited about picking up the second book. I rate this book Neutral.

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Moonshadow: Rise of the Ninja (Moonshadow #1)

Title: Moonshadow: Rise of the Ninja

Author: Simon Higgins

Nanashi is nearly at the end of his training to be a shinobi, one of the secretive warriors of ancient Japan. His clan, the Grey Light Order, work for the shogun at a time when Japan is newly united and uneasily at peace. But a rebel warlord plans to change the status quo. He has plans for a new and deadly weapon, one that will bring back war and conquest and lay the victory solidly in his own hands. It’s a heavy first mission, but Nanashi (renamed Moonshadow) must succeed, no matter what it costs.

This is an excellent story with a good eye for detail, most especially with the martial arts and sword styles that Moonshadow and the others are using. Japanese words appear throughout, but are given enough context to make sense, and for those readers who can’t remember the plethora of terms, there is also a glossary in the back.

Moonshadow himself is a good protagonist. He’s skilled in the shinobi arts but has little exposure to the outside world. He’s quick, clever, strong, and kindhearted, the last of which works to his favor as much as the rest of his skills put together. Standing against him is a crew of skilled warriors, whose best is the legendary man known as The Deathless. Oh, and there’s also a rival shinobi who would very much like the documents too, and who has a bag of tricks to rival his own.

The fight scenes are the best part of the book, but Moonshadow has plenty of opportunity to show off the rest of his training as he’s got to infiltrate a heavily guarded castle and somehow escape with both the documents and his life.

Overall this is a quick read and a lot of fun. The end is the open-ended resolution that ties everything up yet feels far more like the start of an ongoing series. And I hope it is, because there are small questions left unanswered and some bigger villainry underway, and it would be a shame not to see where this goes. I rate this book Recommended.

The House of Power (Atherton #1)

Title: The House of Power (Atherton #1)

Author: Patrick Carman

Edgar is an excellent climber, which is a problem in Tabletop because no one is allowed to climb the cliffs and the punishment for trying is severe. But Edgar is looking for something, a treasure left to him by a man he can barely remember. And for that, he is willing to go places where no one from Tabletop has ever gone before: the mysterious Highlands, the land above Tabletop which rules them. When their world is turned on its head, though, Edgar’s boldness brings the two worlds together in ways no one anticipated.

This is a dystopian novel, so certain elements of the society are practically standard fare: a regimented society, a culture struggling to make it day to day, and a boy who has no regard for the traditional boundaries. In this case, the boundaries are physical as well as social, as gigantic cliffs separate the Flatlands, Tabletop, and the Highlands. Illustrations provided throughout offer a nice set of visuals for various places and things.

I’m not a huge fan of dystopian books, and some elements of the society and lifestyle felt oversimplified. Oversimplification is a flaw in dystopian novels generally, that I’ve noticed. For example, there was an attempt to explain the lack of variety in food and animals, but it’s still hard to believe most of the humans aren’t dying of malnutrition since the only plants eaten on Tabletop appear to be the figs and fig tree inner parts, and it didn’t seem to be something they shared with their neighbors who raised rabbits or sheep. And even the fig-farmers don’t eat most of their figs. So where are the vegetables? As long as they’re growing grass (which presumably the sheep and rabbits aren’t after every square inch of it) why not have gardens too?

Another frustration is that the book makes no attempt at resolving much of anything. This is better understood as part one, and it more stops than ends. The oddest part of this is that it almost feels like it could tie up in a few more chapters, once the water supply is reached, and provide a better ending, or at least a more solid cliffhanger. At this point I suppose this would be a more minor irritation because the rest of the trilogy has been published, but be forewarned: this will leave off at an odd place and more or less require the second book to be on hand.

Overall, the book itself isn’t that bad, but I don’t buy into the overall system presented. And it’s annoying to read about extremely cruel bullies who are at best offered a minor setback (presumably he will go down by the end of the trilogy but I don’t know that I want to wait that long). I rate this book Neutral.

Tales of Xillia (PS3)

Tales of Xillia (PS3)

Jude is a medical student who stumbles into a mess bigger than he ever imagined when he encounters Milla one evening after classes. Milla Maxwell, Lord of Spirits, has come to Fenmont on a mission of utmost importance. Jude’s decision to accompany her will have far-reaching consequences, as what they discover sets them on a journey to destroy a weapon that could ruin their world.

Tales of Xillia allows you the choice to play as either Jude or Milla, and this choice will affect the beginning cutscenes, a few places throughout the game, and a brief clip at the end. There are some explanations and events for both sides that the other side will miss, so to get the full story it would be recommended to play both sides, although by and large the majority of the content will be the same (new game bonuses would allow the second playthrough to be considerably faster, however). I chose Jude for my initial playthrough.

Jude and Milla both hold fairly strong roles in the plot. While Jude’s character arc is more of an ignorant kid dragged into a world-changing crisis, Milla is someone who knows almost everything from the beginning, and her powerful personality provides most of the drive. True to the Tales games in general, the plot takes a more or less predictable course for the beginning portion of the game and then everything gets turned on its head. It’s hard to say too much about the plot without major spoilers, but it is fast-paced for the most part and very character-driven.

I found the story mostly engaging, but bogged down by a few persistent frustrations. Alvin, mostly. Perhaps this is less aggravating on Milla’s side, but after the third betrayal no one should’ve kept giving him more opportunities to sell them out. This is capped off by a weak ending which is presumably part of the reason a sequel even exists. But there are a few strong scenes as well that stand out to me, most notably one midway through where Milla’s refusal to give up her mission confronts the ugly reality that continuing is going to be next to impossible (after Fort Gandala).

The fighting engine is where Tales games shine, and Xillia introduces the concept of linked combat. Special bonuses, both active and passive, are available to linked partners (eg, new moves and a “partner skill” for things like stealing or guard breaking); and given that linking is basically how to hit overdrive and perform the biggest attacks in your arsenal, it’s key in using the combat system to its fullest potential. Unfortunately, the linking AI is not really that smart. If a melee character links to a mage, rather than the mage sit in the back blasting enemies as usual, the mage will run up behind the enemy in an attempt to pincer it with you. This is wonderful for two melee characters but usually death for mages. If you have two mages linked they’ll stay in the back where they belong and harass the enemy from a distance. Which is a shame, because someone like Alvin with his terrible magic defense could use Rowen’s Auto Magic Guard. And Milla, who’s got a rather large collection of expensive spells, would benefit from Elize’s ability to restore TP. Despite these shortcomings, it does add a good layer to combat.

There is also the ability to hot-swap characters into battle, which is a good step forward. If a certain boss turns out to need the skills of a character not in the party, or if someone in the party is simply not well suited for the fight, you can swap in characters from reserve. You can also hot-swap which character is player-controlled.

The difficulty felt about right, though I was prone to wandering off into advanced areas simply for the challenge of defeating monsters 40 levels higher than I was, which left me somewhat overleveled for the actual story bosses. Fighting the Devil Beasts (optional bosses) as early as possible were the most challenging fights of the game due to low stats and less than ideal equipment (nothing like fighting a beast that inflicts Confuse before you have equipment to prevent it….).

The leveling now uses a system which gives you some control over how you want to spend some points towards various stats. Unfortunately, since you have to unlock “key” areas in order to expand the grid, it really doesn’t offer as much flexibility as it first appears. It is nice to prioritize favorite artes or skills but since the key areas are usually on opposite ends of the grid you’ll end up spending points on less useful skills just to get to the next level.
The shops also level, using materials. This is more flexible than the character leveling in that you can choose which shops to develop and which to skip (my Food shop always took lowest priority, whereas Weapons were first). You get bonuses for turning in certain materials to certain shops, and these bonuses change periodically, so although it’s most efficient to wait for a bonus to turn in that type, you aren’t restricted to only giving items with bonuses.

Environments started out beautiful and unique, but quickly devolved into “another large area surrounded by high cliffs.” It would have been nice if the areas had a bit more variety, such as blocking you off with a river or thick forest instead of always being cliffs. That said, the general lack of puzzles (particularly moving-block environment mazes) can be seen as a refreshing thing, as it’s possible to navigate any environment without needing more than the provided maps. The music was generally nice although I don’t recall any specific pieces. If you have certain pieces of DLC, you can also get additional battle themes.

The environments also greatly expanded the search/sparkle points of earlier Tales games to the point where it feels a little crazy. Environments are liberally littered with bags and shiny spots, which are respawnable points for an extra bit of gald or materials. It makes farming for some materials remarkably easy, as you don’t need to fight the enemies in a given location to get most of what they’re going to drop. It also means that a lot of what you will pick up is piddly gald amounts and less useful junk, but the rare finds can make it worthwhile.

Titles have changed from previous Tales games. Now you have to actually do certain things to earn them, which means if you aren’t very good at certain aspects it’s hard to get them (Jude in particular was hard to trigger not just his ability but also his partner skill, since that required you to get knocked over while he wasn’t knocked over, because if you both go down he won’t help).

Food has also changed. Instead of cooking, you buy meals and consume them from the menu, which will then apply effects to your upcoming battles, such as restoring HP at the end or increasing defense throughout. The big irritation here is that you are limited to buying one of any given type of food item. This makes it hard to stockpile when running through dungeons, and more desirable effects (EXP/Gald increases, at least by the end of the game) are prone to either needing restocks way too frequently or else using less-than-ideal combinations just because you’re allowed to stock both the 30% EXP increase and the 100% EXP increase but not multiple 100%, and the effect wears off after 5 battles or less.
Another change from previous Tales games is the general lack of costumes. The costume system is largely replaced by an “attachment” system, where you can pick up various articles of clothing, like glasses or wings, and equip them to any character to change his looks. Most actual costume changes are DLC, although you do get one for Jude or Milla for beating the game on their respective stories. I liked attachments, but most of them are rather silly, and I personally prefer the full costumes.
Other random thoughts: Coliseum is harder than it needs to be because you can fall off the edge of the round ring which is an auto-loss. With characters like Jude, who may pop around the back of an enemy, or Leia, who has a lot of lunging artes, this is even more annoying. But single-player Coliseum is also the sole reason I have to play as most of these characters, so it’s always a challenge to figure out how to win using someone I haven’t directly controlled all game.
Overall, I did enjoy the game, though it will be a while before I go back to play Milla’s side. It isn’t my favorite Tales game, but the battle system was fun. Each of the characters has a unique playstyle and none of them was awkward. I am excited to play the sequel (Ludgar looks to have a very interesting moveset). I rate this Recommended.

The Dream of the Stone

Title: The Dream of the Stone

Author: Christina Askounis

Sarah’s family has been falling apart. First it was her older brother Sam, who went to work at the Institute—which initially looked like a blessing, but her parents have growing suspicions about his job, and the tension is driving them apart. Then her parents die, and she’s left with nothing but an aunt and uncle who take her far from the country farm home she loves. When Sam sends her a mysterious object, though, everything changes. Sarah is thrust to another world and faced with an evil that can swallow up much more than she knows . . . and somehow only she can stop it.

This is a very literary fantasy. The beginning is grounded on Earth, and the story reads more like fiction until suddenly magic happens and Sarah’s somewhere else entirely. The book is well-written, and the other world has some neat ideas, but in the end the story bothered me too much to like.

Sarah spends much of the book sad and depressed, and longing to go back to life with her parents. This is very well drawn. It is also tedious after a while. Instead of moving through her grief, she lives mired in it, so that even the good experiences in the new world tend to get overshadowed by her downcast emotions. And then bad things happen and it gets worse anyway.

It’s also an odd book in that Sarah doesn’t really do anything. She spends a fair amount of time getting pushed around by circumstances and other people, and the only decisions she makes are rather small ones. It makes the climax feel very odd, because everyone’s treating her like she’s done this great thing when in reality all she did was recognize that the dead are dead and what is given to Love is never lost. So it’s more of an emotional journey than anything else.

The relationship she builds with Angel involves a lot of kissing, one scene swimming naked together, and not enough time to believe it’s really love and not lust. Which I suppose isn’t a huge problem given how it ended up.

Overall this is not a badly written book. But there’s not really a good adventure story, since so much of it is under a cloud of negative emotions, and I didn’t care much for the story that was left. I rate this book Neutral.

The Hunchback Assignments (Hunchback Assignments #1)

Title: The Hunchback Assignments

Author: Arthur Slade

Modo has grown up under the care of Mr. Socrates, learning much from books and tutors but completely isolated from the real world. It may have been a kindness—Modo is a hunchback with lopsided features, and once he was made aware of his appearance he was also warned how the world would react to it. But Modo has a gift that allows him to change his appearance, and it is that gift that Mr. Socrates intends to use. The opportunity comes sooner than Modo expects when the Clockwork Guild’s machinations surface right in the heart of London.

This Victorian-era steampunk draws on a lot of familiar elements. Although I was delighted to see a reference to George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, other references left me much less thrilled. Modo, for instance. Modo is rather obviously either based on or intended to be Quasimodo, and the Notre Dame birthplace clinches it. Hyde is also the main villain (although no sign of a Jekyll), with his transforming potion put to evil uses. At least he has some clockwork skills to go with his mad chemistry.

This will probably appeal more to people who like very light doses of magic in their steampunk. Modo’s ability appears to be unique, and the setting is otherwise a rather ordinary London with a few steam gadgets thrown in (all of which belong to the enemy and were created by Hyde). Modo’s main dilemma has more to do with keeping a certain lady from discovering what he really looks like than dealing with the Clockwork Guild, at least at first.

When he does deal with them, the story plays a bit fast and loose with his abilities. He goes on a wild adventure for three days with almost no sleep, yet despite being tired he can usually shift his face the way he wants it when he needs it. It felt a bit like cheating since he’s not really showing the exertion he says he’s feeling.

This wasn’t bad, but I’d rather have steampunk along the lines of Michael Pryor’s Laws of Magic series, which amply supply magic, or something that uses the steam gadgets themselves a lot more. The use of Hyde as a villain also disappointed me because I’d rather see a character that does not draw so heavily from existing lore. I rate this book Neutral.

Sands of Nezza (Adventurers Wanted #4)

Title: Sands of Nezza

Author: M. L. Forman

Alex had no plans to go on another adventure, but when a message arrives from an old friend begging for his help, he doesn’t take long to decide. But this time, he’s not in the company of a band of adventurers. This time, he’s on his own. The land of Nezza is a mysterious place, one which doesn’t much like adventurers or wizards. The war-torn land has been without a king for a long time, but the missing Prince Rallian might be a force capable of uniting them—if the evil that lurks behind the scenes doesn’t strike first.

It’s hard to point to exactly why these books are so enjoyable, but I think it’s the way heroism is so straightforward. Adventurers Wanted features adventurers, honor, swords, magic, and dragons, and there is a refreshing simplicity to how it all comes together. There is more than one problem in Nezza, of course, but the bad guys are making things miserable, and Alex and a few friends are out to make everything right again.

This is more complex than the previous books in some ways. Alex is growing as a wizard, and he does a lot more thinking and planning (and quite a lot of worrying). It’s less about throwing power at things and more about strategies. And Alex has to hold himself back at several points because setting a king on a throne isn’t as easy as killing a dragon, and sometimes too much power is a bad thing.

If there’s one thing that did seem a bit of a let-down, it was that Magnus was constantly reaffirmed to be a schemer, both powerful and clever, and he didn’t get the opportunity to really live up to his reputation. The suggestion spells were a nice touch, but that was more Alex tripping passive defenses than Magnus going out of his way to take Alex down.

The story is mostly complete in itself, though the end offers a tease for the next probable adventure. The series is gradually pulling back to take a wider view of its world, and it will be interesting to see how Alex ends up in the middle of all the trouble sure to come. I rate this book Recommended.