Monthly Archives: October 2014

Jinx’s Magic (Jinx #2)

Title: Jinx’s Magic

Author: Sage Blackwood

Jinx is trying to keep his promise to the Urwald to escort Reven out of it. Only Reven isn’t taking to the eviction as well as either of them hoped. Reven is happy to see the Urwald as an opportunity—for a safe place to hide, and especially for its land and timber. To Jinx, who talks to trees, any talk of cutting them down is like proposing murder. But before he and Reven can get into a proper fight about it, Jinx is off to Samara on Simon’s instruction, sent to look for Sophie, some books, and an education. It’s power he needs to face the Bonemaster. But the Bonemaster is much older than he is, and has plied his deathforce magic far longer . . .

Jinx remains a supremely engaging character. His power is an odd hodgepodge no one really understands, least of all himself, but he’s starting to learn more about what he can do, and branch out. It amuses me he can do so much when he technically only knows four spells (six, by the end of the book). He’s got a vast amount of power at his disposal, but quite a lot that limits his use of that power, such as most of it only working when he’s in the Urwald.

And this is the book that dares beyond the Urwald’s depths to some of the kingdoms beyond. Samara gets most of the focus. The desert kingdom’s credo “Knowledge Is Power” is something Jinx struggles to figure out, along with the challenges of adapting to a wholly different kind of environment. No trees! And, oddly enough, people he might actually call friends.

I liked, too, that the Urwald continues to reveal more of itself. Werewolves and elves both show up and are fascinating. Although the werewolf Jinx meets seems to be outside the norm for its species, which is a mystery Jinx hasn’t solved yet, but does allow for some tidbits about werewolf life and culture. I am so happy these elves very much fit with the general nature of Urwald, which is to say they are nasty and deadly (which the first book said, but now that we have a visual it’s much more believable that Jinx lost a parent to elves).

The humor from the first book is still present here, and just as sharp. I love when Jinx’s honesty mixes with Simon’s sarcasm, or the way absurd things work themselves out, or the matter of fact way Urwald-dwellers treat death.

Overall this is a great followup to the first book. There’s none of the middle-series drag that can hit sequels, and the ending promises a great deal of fun to come. I rate this book Recommended.

Crystal Doors (Crystal Doors #1)

Title: Crystal Doors

Author: Rebecca Moesta and Kevin J. Anderson

Gwen and Vic, “twin cousins” born five hours apart, are still recovering from the death of Gwen’s parents and the disappearance of Vic’s mother. Gwen is sunk in her grief, but Vic tries to go at life full-tilt—until an unexpected accident lands them both on the other side of a crystal door, clear in another world. Now in Elantya, an island nation, they must figure out a way to get home . . . if they can survive long enough to do so.

This was rough, but readable. After a somewhat bogged down beginning which tries to introduce a lot all at once and paints Gwen as a real downer, the story quickly picks up its pace and doesn’t let up. I really liked Elantya. It’s filled with a number of neat little gadgets and creatures, even if most of them only get a quick glimpse.

The ocean theme is carried well throughout the book, from the beginning in an oceanic fun park to the various facets of the island nation. Magic is heavily tied to crystals, and works by a combination of symbols, physical ingredients, and words. The doors between worlds and their associated Keys are a good way to explain not only how inter-world travel is possible, but also how it might be prevented. And I’m fond of shapeshifting, even if it is only the bad guys who get to have all the fun.

On the less enjoyable side, the book suffers from some puzzling plot decisions. Why, if the enemy is an underwater race that has just sunk a trading vessel, do people think it’s a good idea to send students out on an old training ship without any real preparation for being attacked? And it’s painfully obvious who the villain is since it’s the only person who isn’t nice to the main characters.

Overall, this is a rather predictable story, but the world is engaging. Gwen and Vic clearly have some destiny going on, but their powers have yet to show themselves (the potential test at the end was interesting, but no one really explained how you go from lighting up a crystal to determining that means you can train as a Key, or have telepathic powers, or whatnot). This does set up a series, but the plot wraps up for the most part. I rate this book Recommended.

Shadow Hearts: Covenant (PS2)

World War I. A German soldier named Karin Koenig has been sent to a small church in Domremy to take care of a demon. The demon demolishes her forces but inexplicably leaves her alive. When Nicolas “Nicolai” Conrad, a priest, tries to exorcize the demon, the beast turns into a young man. But the exorcism does succeed in placing that man, Yuri, under a curse. And Nicolai has dark secrets of his own. Teaming up with Yuri and a small band of others, Karin pursues a cure for Yuri and an end to the evil forces gathering in the world.

The story is incredible. The only reason I can see for its relative anonymity is that FFX and FFX-2 were both released within days of SH and SH:C. The people who wrote SH:C realized something I think the Final Fantasies are starting to lose: it’s ALL about story. The characters are quirky, believable, definitely unique, from the vampire wanna-be pro wrestler to a white wolf that wants nothing more than a little girl to spoil him again to everybody else. The plot is complicated, and unlike every Final Fantasy I’ve played, discards the notion of a main villain. The people Yuri fights aren’t always his enemies . . . and when you’ve beaten the last boss there’s no sense of “he FINALLY died!” as with bosses like Sephiroth or Sin. The story is, however, a great deal more mature than the Final Fantasies, which may turn some of you off. I happen to like the willingness to deal with tough issues, such as Yuri’s inability to cure himself of the curse he receives at the beginning of the game and Karin’s doomed romance. She can’t help falling in love (which is pretty obvious from the intro clip), but Yuri can’t forget the one woman he did love, who died at the end of the previous game. Given that, neither of the endings are really good or bad (although the “good” one would probably mean a lot more if I had played the first game).

It isn’t quite all that depressing, though. The series has a really strange sense of humor, which worked well to balance out the really dark stuff. Joachim has a habit of picking up random junk to use as his weapons, which really horrifies Kurando when he steals a clay idol that’s been guarding their village for centuries. There’s a particular weapon called the Dark Tower, which looks like a little skyscraper, and is described as having lots of little people inside scrambling to meet their deadlines, which makes them really ferocious.

Sidequests are one area I want to completely finish, because they tend to reveal a lot more about the characters that you’d otherwise miss. The quest for Yuri’s ultimate fusion, for example, forces him to confront his memories of his father. On the other hand, the sidequests ARE optional. If you’d rather just finish the game as fast as you can, go ahead. There’s no need for ultimate weapons, armor, or accessories in order to beat the final boss.

Gameplay was nice. The battle system was more than just button-mashing, which made even routine battles a little challenging, but it wasn’t so far into the action side that spells and strategy suffered. In a very nice change of pace, I found myself always completely ready to handle the bosses without needing to go back and train. The fights might’ve been a little tough, but simply walking around completing the tasks to get through the dungeon was always enough to prepare the team for the battle to come. The shops give you a card that you can use to get discounts on items, although if you can’t seem to hit the ring you can always buy things full price. One area that annoyed me was the complete lack of inns. Tents are really expensive at the beginning of the game, and it’s rare that the game will automatically heal you after a major boss. Not that money was a huge problem. Once I stopped trying to equip all eight of them with everything, it got a lot more doable, and by the end of the game I had so much money I didn’t know where to spend it all.

The best part of the gameplay, though, is the fusion system. Yuri can single-handedly take whatever role is needed, as he gains fusions which specialize in tanking, healing, etc. You also have a great deal of choice in how to unlock those fusions (especially the ultimate forms) which means it’s easy to prioritize the most useful ones. Other characters use crests to equip spells. Although characters like Gepetto who are meant to be mages have a higher limit, spells can be swapped onto any character with the room. So you’re not stuck using a particular character just for a particular ability, although the special abilities are unique to each character.

A few of the nice features are a library that lets you view every monster you’ve ever fought (complete, if you’ve snapshotted them, with detailed information about their stats, item drops, and immunities), and all the major characters you encounter. There’s also a nice Help section with information on nearly everything in case you forgot the tutorials or need a refresher.

So are there any downsides? Not much within the game itself, that’s for sure. You’ll have a hard time finding the second game, and a much harder time finding the first. The third has nothing to do with Yuri and is more of a loose sequel. As someone who played only the second game, it makes sense, but would probably be a lot richer if I’d played through the first one as well.

(After I originally wrote this review, I did play the first game, and it does make more sense now, but there isn’t much gained except an appreciation for who Alice is as why Yuri is so in love with her.)

Goblin Secrets (Zombay #1)

Title: Goblin Secrets

Author: William Alexander

Rownie has always been with his brother Rowan, until the day Rowan disappeared. The fearsome Graba, an old woman they live with, is still looking for him. So is Rownie. So are a group of goblin actors. In the town of Zombay, acting is outlawed, which makes the goblins both daring and dangerous. Rownie is fascinated by the actors, but he’s not sure he trusts them. But they will help him look for Rowan, and he’d rather find his brother with them than let Graba get to Rowan first . . .

This had a more interesting setting than I was expecting, which makes it a shame the place never really felt grounded. Acting is outlawed and masks are forbidden, and it appears to be tied to a form of magic in the masks and the changes it can cause in the actors. Goblins, being already Changed, are thus safe, so they are the only actors allowed. The story offered so many glimpses of things gone sideways, from steampunk limbs (including eyeballs) to witchy magic to burning hearts for fuel, but the story never really drew back enough to give a fuller picture of what is going on or how it fits. For example, burning hearts seems like a terribly inefficient way to get fuel, but in context it seems more of a magical process than a physical one, as the previous owner does not necessarily have to be dead once his heart is removed.

The whole concept of Changes wasn’t really explored, though Rownie deals with several Changed. When he does ask one of them about it, that character brushes him off by saying it was too long ago to remember. Do all Changed become goblins, or are there other kinds of changes?  It’s never stated.

The story never loses its focus on Rownie and his relationship with his now-absent brother. The characters are generally strong, from the steampunk Graba (who is a nod to Baba Yaga, with her metal chicken legs and a house that moves) to the rambling goblin Thomas.

Mostly, I liked the characters but found the world confusing or distracting, never quite offering enough to get a good picture of the place in my head other than dusty and likely full of gears. The city, similarly, was broken into a Northside, Southside, and a bridge, and the only real depiction of any of them is in how the streets are laid out. So it wasn’t a bad read, just one that could have benefited from a bit more description that could give a better sense of the world. I rate this book Neutral.

Tales of Xillia 2 (PS3)

One year after the events in Tales of Xillia, the worlds of Rieze Maxia and Elympios are still moving slowly towards reconciliation. Ludger is a young man from Elympios who gets caught up in a trainjacking and a young girl named Elle who is trying to get to the mythical land of Canaan, and from there stumbles into a much larger plot involving alternate dimensions and the fate of both worlds.

It’s hard to say too much without spoiling something or other about the plot. I personally loved the story (despite some interesting plot holes), and a sequel is the perfect chance to explore alternate dimensions. Many of the alternate dimensions will make more sense for players who have gone through the first game, but the game does provide an in-game reference dictionary for terms and events. The overall plot is much more tightly focused on Ludger and Elle than the returning cast, whom I thought actually made better supporting characters than main characters. Ludger’s issues feel more personal. After failing to land the job he wanted (and failing to stay employed at the second one) he’s saddled with a massive debt, he’s trying to look after an eight-year-old girl who doesn’t know where her family is, his brother is involved in suspicious activity and may or may not be evil, and he’s trying to eliminate various fractured dimensions that keep springing up. It was a lot easier to root for him than the original Xillia cast in the first game, as he can’t help but be personally involved in everything that’s going on.

For the other characters, it’s an interesting look at how happily ever after actually worked out. The tone overall is a lot darker than the first game, and this is reflected in the various situations: Jude’s spyrite research isn’t going as well as he hoped even though he’s sunk every last penny into it, and Alvin’s business ventures are struggling to take off in the hotly competitive Elympion environment. Some did improve: Elize is now enrolled in a school and more outgoing, and Leia is enthusiastically pursing her job as a reporter. Some are more or less what you would expect from the first game: Rowen and Gaius are navigating the diplomatic process with Elympios and Milla is still off in spirit-land. Muzet actually stabilized enough to mostly serve as comedic relief, which was a shame since I think she might have been funnier with a little of the old drive. It is extremely funny to see how everyone from Rieze Maxia has adjusted to Elympios technology. Everyone now has cell phones, which means fun with ringtones, texting, and in Gaius’s case, power.

My biggest regret is that the story never fleshes out quite enough of Ludger, Julius, and Bisley. There is supplemental material which fills in the gaps, but some of that is information that the plot could have used: the reason Ludger and Julius live alone together, Julius’s backstory, more about Bisley’s character and motivations (he’s certainly a complex enough character in the supplemental materials, but he never gets much of a chance to show that in-game). Elle, thankfully, gets plenty of time, and is one of the best child characters I have seen in a game. She’s endearing and annoying, immovably stubborn but also powerless to do what she needs alone. The game never forgets she’s only eight.

Ludger’s story, being the main one, is the only required one to follow. Everyone else has optional character episodes that can be completed at various points along the main storyline, and completing them will usually grant a bonus scene somewhere else down the line. I liked that format, though I think the stories themselves were a mixed bag. Gaius, Muzet, and Alvin had boring stories—Alvin is actually a lot better in Leia’s character episodes, as his sense of humor slips right by her most of the time (and his two conversations with her are my favorite skits in the game). Alvin’s story is also a bit nonsensical at first. If he’s turning to honest business practices, why is the first thing you do for him a scam?

Ludger is a silent protagonist, for the most part. Player choices determine most of his spoken lines. The odd thing is, his voice is available to say those choices on a second playthrough, so it’s a little curious why the option isn’t available from the start.

The battle system evolves from Xillia’s in natural ways, particularly with the linking concept. Ludger has affinity ratings with each of his teammates, and building affinity will grant additional skills, special items, and eventually a dual Mystic Arte for each character. Affinity can be built through conversation choices, doing character episodes, staying linked in battle, and performing linked artes with that person. I was also extremely happy to see linking got its own strategy option, so characters can be commanded to act with you or act independently, which is the only sane way to link a mage and a melee character. Ludger additionally introduces a weapon-swapping ability which allows him to switch between fast and agile swords, a slower and more sweeping sledgehammer, and ranged dual pistols (which ironically lower agility to the point where it’s very hard to free run away). The weapon swapping was a bit much to get used to at first since Ludger has so many different artes for each one it took longer than usual to get used to his moveset, but his versatility is a very good thing since you’re required to use him throughout the main story. Xillia 2 also provides an insane amount of Mystic Artes, as Ludger can gain a dual mystic arte with every single playable character once his affinity is high enough. So Ludger alone has 2 Chromatus Mystic Artes, his normal Mystic Arte, and eight dual Mystic Artes. Jude and Milla also retain their Tiger Blade Sigma dual Mystic Arte, and Jude can get a special Mystic Arte with Maxwell if you complete all their character episodes and the subsequent bonus episode.

The difficulty does seem unbalanced. The enemies in the normal world hardly take any effort at all on Normal (such that I was switching it up to Hard to stay interested), but the fractured dimensions will adjust to your level, which means the foes are more what they should be.

On the less-positive side, the hot-swapping characters in battle from Xillia was removed, although I can sort of see why, as you not only have more characters than buttons, you also have certain characters locked in place. I was more frustrated by the fact that you can’t swap characters in your party unless you’re in a town, as this makes changing people out before you get the ability to teleport back to towns a royal pain. Food was nerfed (both in how many battles it lasts, and effectiveness—no more EXP+100%, and any EXP-increasing food isn’t available until postgame), which is even more aggravating because the restrictions from the previous game are still in effect, where you can only own one of any type of food item. And at least for the main storyline, when you’re under debt payments, it’s too expensive to be practical, though this is somewhat offset by the fact that you can pick up food on the field fairly frequently if you go after the bags.

Other changes were more neutral. I liked the Allium Orb system better than the Lillium Orbs from the first game because it was a lot easier to get skills and abilities. By mid-60s level I had everything learned except level-based skills higher than that (whereas getting to level 100 on first playthrough of Xillia was so tedious I quit in the 80s, so I never did get all the skills). The Coliseum no longer has a solo mode; it was replaced by a tag-team mode in which two characters go through at a time (party mode is still available as well). The job board mechanic pays enough that the debt isn’t as big an issue as it could have been, particularly if you save a few elite monsters for every debt repayment; jobs themselves could stand to refresh a little more often, though, as after a while the only jobs I wanted to do were the item-fulfillment ones my cats could run for me, and the monster-hunting ones tended not to go away unless I actually did a few of them (not sure how much this changes in postgame as I mostly ignored the job board once I got the Master Medal and paid off the debt). Custom items can be a nice way to get certain items cheaper by using materials to build them, but by postgame I was just wishing they would let me buy the status-preventing accessories rather than craft them, particularly because so many other custom recipes involved using one or more of them. Also, postgame gets ridiculous in crafting requirements, which means a long grind to get the best armor and weapons (because you have to have craftable components as well as the postgame dungeon material drops).

Ludger brings his cat everywhere. This amuses me. A running gag with the Kitty Dispatch sidequest is how Rollo is king of cats. Rollo also participates in many of the skits, and I love how expressive his voice actor can get while still sounding exactly like a cat. Kitty Dispatch also lets you send out any cats you have currently collected to fetch items for you from areas where you have already found cats. It’s a nice way to fill item-request jobs without doing actual work, as long as you keep a stockpile of the various rare items.

Costumes are back! Unlike the first game’s measly selection of free costumes, here there is a fair assortment, ranging from the Xillia 1 costumes and color variations to Gaius’s final boss costume (yes!) to “no jacket” versions of the new costumes and a few extras. Additionally, the attachments from Xillia are back, with a few new additions. There is still plenty of DLC costumes for those who want to go that route, but for those who can’t, at least there is now a decent selection.

I have seen many reviews complaining about the lack of new areas and the amount of backtracking that takes place. To which I say, most of the backtracking is optional. If you want to revisit all the areas from the previous game (to collect cats, if not the treasure) then feel free. If not, you can happily avoid many of the dungeons. The recycled boss fights are okay; those can be a fun challenge.

I would recommend a guide, since there are a number of things that will be easier with some help, like figuring out which dialogue options give affinity. The last dungeon particularly can be a headache without a map, as there are disappearing floor tiles that will change every time you enter the dungeon, meaning the path through will be different. I have the Prima guide and it is useful, though I wish the monster listings offered drop/steal information (weakness information is present). This may be available online as I did not peruse the site too closely.

Overall this was a very fun game, and one of the few I’ve managed to nearly platinum as of this writing. It is definitely better coming after the somewhat bland Xillia, but contains enough context to be playable alone if the first game put you off or isn’t available. I rate this game Recommended.

Dormia (Dormia #1)

Title: Dormia

Author: Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski

Alfonso is cursed with a strange kind of sleepwalking. Where other people might find themselves walking down a street, he finds himself climbing trees or tightrope-walking power lines. He can’t figure out why his sleeping-self does so many crazy things, but when his sleeping-self grows a mysterious plant, he finds himself on a wild adventure across the globe. The plant he has grown is a rare bloom that must be planted in its home city before its parent tree dies, or hundreds of people who depend on the tree will perish.

Well, I finished.

It took me a while to figure out what exactly made this adventure something I plowed through more than enjoyed. Sure, Alfonso’s sleep-based powers are fairly formulaic, but I don’t usually have a problem with that. I think part of the issue was that I never fully bought into the premise. A special form of sleepwalking that makes you do additional/crazy things, yes. A society of people who never sleep the way we would understand sleep because their “sleep” is more active than their waking hours—maybe. Given all the advantages for sleepers, it’s amazing anyone would wake up at all. Additionally, since it seems most people don’t really remember what they do while asleep, life would be mostly unconscious in these cities, which seems problematic. Doesn’t any daring soul want to enjoy his sports prowess or other skill by being aware of what he’s doing?

Also, what happens when your waking self is active all day and your sleeping self is active all night? Sleep is treated as a mostly mental process with little regard to the physical impact of spending all your sleeping hours active. And if you never remember what you did while asleep, how would the fact that you live most of your life oblivious of others affect your ability to have relationships? Also, why would it matter what you did while asleep, since no one not a knight can remember anyway? Which is a plot hole for a certain character because if no one can remember what you did while asleep they certainly shouldn’t care if you were on their sleeping team for some sport.

This disregard of the physical touches other areas too. For example, Hill talks about flying around the world while sleeping—and never mentions refueling. A 56+ hour flight on one tank? Forget the pilot, that aircraft ought to make history. If he did somehow refuel the plane while sleeping, apparently no one he dealt with at airports noticed he was asleep. Hill also later regrets he didn’t try to fly a rickety old seaplane across the ocean to shorten the journey, which even if the plane was capable still implies he intended to make the trip using a single tank of fuel.

Another thing that bothered me was that the only character who has an actual arc is Bilblox, and he’s supposed to be a secondary character. Even for Alfonso, the only struggle that isn’t related to staying alive is about Bilblox and how much he can afford to trust the man. Bilblox is a moral man, but he’s got some interesting battles that pit his morals against his desire and his need to see. Especially after he learns that “just one more time” is what made the bad guys as evil as they are.

There were hints that something more interesting might happen with other characters—Kiril showed some signs of being more than the flat evil everyone said he was, except it was all a bluff. It would’ve been more interesting if he actually had been helping Alfonso. Frankly I was hoping Hill would turn out to be the traitor, but he’s depressingly straightforward. He’s pretty well the same character at the end as he was when you first meet him. After his stunt with testing the woods, it seemed he was trying to waste time to make sure they arrived as late as possible, but turns out he was just being careful.

Third, the book is too long. Too much of the middle is random adventure that may reveal another facet of Dormian life but does nothing to promote either the growth of the characters or spur on the plot. The tension arc feels like this: problem is introduced, someone solves the problem, everyone moves to the next destination. Over and over again. Bilblox is the only long-term unresolved point of character tension (Kiril would count except no one thinks about him outside the rare times he actually shows up).

Basically everyone but Bilblox and Alfonso feels unnecessary to the plot. Or at least I was hoping people with a lot of page time would turn out to be more important. Lars gets a decent chunk of page time, and he only shows up for a little while, imparts a small amount of information, and then never shows up again. The ship captain and crew have a fairly substantial part of the book, but they’re just a taxi service getting Alfonso and company from point A to point B. The focus is all over the place, as Alfonso isn’t even primarily at odds with the Dragoonya. For most of the trip his biggest problems are trying to get the next person in line to give him what he needs to travel a little further.

This leads to problems like the war-plants that show up in the very beginning getting dropped for over 400 pages until they show up again near the end. Why do the Dragoonya have such a neat little weapon and only use it in those two places? What other interesting weapons might they possess? And why, if the Dragoonya are supposed to be the point, do they have the smallest role in the actual plot?

Fourth, there are some pretty bad plot holes. The book has a few riddles, which are okay (though I’m unimpressed with the translation for “I am the Great Sleeper”. . . that’s really what it sounds like?) . . . but although Alfonso has spent the whole book focusing on and solving riddles which are key plot details, he ignores one of the most crucial ones simply because the plot doesn’t want him to figure it out until it’s too late. Alfonso solves riddles like the Cyclops that aren’t even relevant to his journey. Why completely ignore this, when at a minimum he should’ve mistaken it as a clue for someone’s death?

Also, a certain character is wearing sunglasses in a dark room while they’re in a city known to be populated by enemy agents, the worst of which are easily identifiable by their white eyes . . . yet no one tries to peek behind those glasses to determine if this person really is friend or foe.

The bad guy is eventually identified by . . . his fingernails. From a picture that was drawn several hundred years ago. I understand the aging process works differently, but nobody said hair and fingernails stopped growing (or, conversely, no one recognizes how stupidly easy it is to change that detail, if the man ever breaks a nail or trims them). Or that there’s only one person in the world who could possibly have fingernails like that.

Overall this isn’t completely terrible, but there really isn’t anything I would point out to someone as being good. There’s almost certainly a sequel planned, and I would wager Nartam is going to be in it (no dead body = not dead, in my book, although I suppose it might be slightly possible he actually died). I rate this book Neutral.

The Colossus Rises (Seven Wonders #1)

Title: The Colossus Rises

Author: Peter Lerangis

Jack was a fairly ordinary kid, until the day he collapsed. He wakes up in a strange place where he’s told he’s one of the Select, carrying a gene marker that will grant him extraordinary abilities—and kill him before he turns fourteen. Jack isn’t sure he trusts the people who claim to be helping him. He isn’t sure he believes the fantastical story they tell him. But one thing is for sure: life will never be the same.

Right from the beginning, the snappy prose and snarky voice create an engaging story. Jack has his talents, but he feels mostly normal, which is why it’s such a surprise to him to find out he’s supposed to be someone special. Compared to the three other kids he meets, he doesn’t see anything to brag about. Superior physical prowess, incredible memory and navigational skills, and the ability to hack into any system—so how do a few homemade inventions even compete? (And Jack’s skill is not, as I initially thought, the ability to build incredibly complicated contraptions to do various things; he’s just wired that way).

The ties to mythology take a while to surface, which makes the title a bit obscure until nearly the end. It mixes some original Atlantis myth plus the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, along with plenty of small puzzles and codes. The illustrations are an integral part of most of the puzzles, and readers can try to figure them out alone, or keep reading to find the answers Jack discovers.

I found the scientific angle a little disappointing. The professor, at least, is trying very hard not to say the m-word, when magic is clearly what’s going on. It’s one thing to say people don’t use 99% of their brains and imply extraordinary physical and mental prowess will result from using more of it; it’s another to try to wrap a sphere that makes people fly into some kind of explainable phenomena, while attributing that phenomena to an ancient civilization rather than an alien one. It also diminishes the supernatural angle to Jack’s experiences, which would have been fine without an attempt to explain them.

Overall, though, this is a story that sucked me in. With an obvious tie to the Seven Wonders, Jack will likely be off to the other six in future installments, so there’s plenty of room for more adventure. And, of course, there’s still the ticking time bomb of his condition. It ties up well, but it never hurts to have the second one on hand. I rate this book Recommended.

The Tygrine Cat

Title: The Tygrine Cat

Author: Inbali Iserles

Mati is still a young cat when his mother sends him away, hiding him on a ship that takes him to lands far from the ones he knows. She wants to protect him from the evil about to swallow up her life. As for Mati, he finds himself in a strange new land, with cats that distrust him. He wants to be accepted among them, but he needs to learn how to live as they do. And all the while, his mother’s killers are getting closer . . .

This book failed to capture me. Although I liked the premise, the execution was bland. There was the initial oddity of Mati introducing himself as having an agouti coat (which is not a word I expected to see, and it’s an odd thing to have to look up). Then the cats don’t feel like cats as much as people, such as having a ruling tom who is worried about the other cat’s opinions of him when he supposedly killed the previous tom to become the ruler. But even as people they’re off in subtle ways. Mati is rejected as long as it’s convenient for the plot to reject him, and when he manages not to get killed at the end suddenly everyone loves him, even the grouchy snotty cats.

I also disliked how Mati managed more heroism when he jumped into a flooding river to save another cat than at the climax of the book. He faces down his mother’s assassin with little more than a cute realization of his breed and his breed’s duties. And somehow that wins. There’s no sense that he earned what he got at the finish, because it felt more like he accidentally stumbled into it. The plot wasn’t about him looking for his own identity, it was more about him trying to live with others. Even the realization of what he is doesn’t follow up with a sense of responsibility for what he has to do (and as far as the plot is concerned, all he has to do is stay alive).

So, the focus felt muddled. Mati more or less drifts through life until someone tries to kill him, and then he wins almost by default. I never felt the stakes. I never felt, either, the essential cat-ness of the characters. All in all it wasn’t a terrible book, but not one I’m likely to remember. I rate this book Neutral.

Jinx (Jinx #1)

Title: Jinx

Author: Sage Blackwood

Jinx has been told all his life about the dangers in the forest in Urwald. Both his parents died from the things in the forest. And life is too hard for his stepparents to want another mouth to feed. But when his stepfather tries to abandon him in the woods, Jinx meets Simon, a wizard, and ends up going home with him. Simon is a hard man and probably evil (at least a little), but Jinx is reasonably happy there. But trouble is always around the corner in Urwald. . .

This is a fun read with a rather morbid sense of humor, which is evident from the very beginning with lines like these only a few pages in:

“I didn’t marry the mother,” said Bergthold, aggrievated. “She died years ago. I married the woman who was married to the man who had married the mother. The boy’s got a curse on him—everyone who takes him dies.”

“Actually, that seems like a fairly normal death rate for the Urwald.”

Jinx himself is an interesting character. His ability to see the shapes of people’s thoughts never seems odd to him as he assumes everyone else is the same way. And he’s got a habit of listening: to the trees, to books, to people. Though Simon’s house is a much better life than the one he was born to, living with a wizard has hazards of its own.

The Urwald is a place with its own kind of character, one that Jinx explores and will hopefully continue to explore in books to come. It’s a dark, ancient forest filled with trolls, werewolves, vampires, and assorted nasties, but it’s home to Jinx, and he loves the trees.

Reven was frustrating, a bit. His curse stops him from giving any useful information about himself, but even beyond that he’s a hard person to know, as he keeps changing (and what there is to know makes me wish Jinx could punch him). Though he did seem to be more of a friend to Jinx by the end.

I was also a bit annoyed by how easily the Bonemaster was handled. It just seemed bizarre that the Bonemaster wouldn’t have extra precautions around that door which would let him know whenever it was opened, much less some kind of alarm which would tell him when his bottles were disturbed. Even granting a lot of his reputation may have been hype, he certainly had both power and paranoia in plenty.

Overall, though, this was an engaging story in an interesting world. I rate this book Recommended.

The Familiars (The Familiars #1)

Title: The Familiars

Author: Adam Jay Epstein & Andrew Jacobson

Aldwyn is an alley cat whose luck is running thin. When he sneaks into a pet shop to escape a bounty hunter, he accidentally gets adopted by a young wizard named Jack, to be Jack’s familiar. It’s a better life than being on the streets, but it doesn’t last long. Soon Jack is kidnapped, and Aldwyn and the other two familiars, a blue jay and a tree frog, must band together to rescue them.

The overall idea is cute, and fairly well executed. This is an adventure story from the point of view of the wizard’s familiars. Aldwyn isn’t sure how to fit in, as the know-it-all blue jay, Skylar, frequently exposes his ignorance about familiar things. Dense Gilbert the frog has no clue Aldwyn is just a stray, and he’s more willing to be Aldwyn’s friend. But in the journey they’re on together, street cat smarts is just as necessary as animal magic.

But Gilbert would have worked much better as another species. The fact that he’s a frog made a number of things unlikely to downright ludicrous, ranging from him keeping up with a cat and a bird over long distances, to him being able to walk through snow (and even swim in freezing water). He’s not even an ordinary frog, he’s a tropical species that ought to keel over from that much cold. And why does the cat think about digging a hole through the ice to swim under a wall, and not the frog (other than the fact that Aldwyn is several times more intelligent than Gilbert)? Aldwyn rolling in soot to become a grey cat is a great disguise, but covering a frog with feathers to pretend he’s a chicken? I get that it’s humorous, but it’s also so far out that no sane human would see such a creature and not find it suspicious enough to investigate on principle.

So overall, although I liked the characters, and there’s certainly a foundation laid here for things which won’t be revealed until future books, I don’t know that I care to continue. I rate this book Neutral.