Monthly Archives: May 2016

Un Lun Dun

Title: Un Lun Dun

Author: China Miéville

Zanna’s life is getting weird. Strange people are seeking her out, animals aren’t behaving normally around her, and even ordinary objects are taking on a disturbing kind of life. Then Zanna accidentally pulls herself and a friend through to an alternate version of London—Un Lun Dun—where nothing is normal anymore. And Zanna’s somehow expected to save it from a formless menace that’s already been hunting her down . . .

I wanted to like this, but I don’t care for the writing style at all and ended up quitting midway.

The book excels at being weird. Especially once Zanna gets to Un Lun Dun, the story whisks from one unusual thing to the next. I can’t fault it for a lack of imagination—that’s clearly the main selling point of the book.

The problem is the characters.

The story reads like a sketch rather than a story. Here’s a girl whose sole feature of interest is that she wants to go by Zanna instead of Suzanna. Her friends are even less fleshed out. The bus conductor gets more history than the two main characters. The plot tends to present a bit of dialogue or action, then skip to the next little bit, with just enough detail to present the world without really digging in. This is worse in the real London as Un Lun Dun gets more attention. But even in the new world, the details are presented without a lot of fleshing out, and only a few things here or there get a longer glance.

If the writing style and flat characterization doesn’t bother you, then have fun with the weird things that pop up all over. For myself, I need a better plot and better characters to get engaged. Not Recommended.

Plain Kate

Title: Plain Kate

Author: Erin Bow

Kate Carver, the woodcarver’s daughter, has been carving since she was able to hold a knife. But her skill brings suspicion, and after her father dies, she’s left to depend on the fickle generosity of her small town. Then a stranger appears who offers to give her heart’s desire in exchange for her shadow—a man who won’t take no for an answer.

This is a very hard story to read, but the good bits are very good. Mostly it’s hard because of the awful things that happen to some undeserving people, and the story doesn’t glorify the awfulness but it isn’t shying away from it either. Suspicion of witchcraft can get you killed, or worse. Kate has had to live all her life with people doubting her skill, but when she loses her shadow, even those she thought were friends turn against her. Nor is Kate the only one affected badly by such fear-driven madness. There’s a scene near the middle that was very hard for me to read for the brutality of it (violence, mostly, for those wondering about sexual content).

But, if that doesn’t deter you, the surrounding story is solid. Kate hardly recognizes it herself, but she suffers from desperate loneliness, particularly after her father dies. Which makes her relationship with Taggle, a cat she raises from very early kittenhood, so sweet. The deal that costs Kate her shadow gains Taggle a voice. Taggle is so quintessentially cat. He’s supremely self-confident, has a very direct outlook on life, and—when confronting a man who has killed many people and is ruining the lives of many more—finds the worst thing about the whole ordeal that he has had wet paws for months. He has some amazing lines.

“We’re not talking about you.”
The cat’s inner eyelids had been sliding closed. He lifted one, lizardlike. “We’re not? Why not?”

“Give me another reason,” Taggle said, flicking his ears. “Give me a cat’s reason. Keep in mind that we do not,” he harrumphed, “run into burning buildings going ‘bark, bark.'”

Pretty much every time he opens his mouth I want to quote him….

So, much is lost by the end, but it does still end on a bittersweet note. If the hard things don’t turn you away, then this can be a good time. I rate this book Recommended.

Heir to the Sky

Title: Heir to the Sky

Author: Amanda Sun

Kali is the only child of the Monarch of the floating islands of Ashra. She daydreams often about the earth below, which no one has visited for hundreds of years, because of the monsters. The Phoenix had raised Ashra above the land for safety, and so Kali can only dream, and prepare herself for her betrothal and her upcoming responsibility to rule. Then she falls over the edge—and somehow survives. Suddenly everything she knows or thought she knew will be challenged in a fight for survival . . .

This book crams so many of my favorite ideas into one little volume. Floating islands, fantastic monsters (and the daring few who hunt them), and most especially the winged people. The setting bursts with vivid detail, painting a wild landscape both alien and familiar. I particularly liked the kinds of creatures that show up, from the well-known mythological nods to original creations. And I wish there had been more of the Benu, as I would’ve liked to see far more of their culture and their history.

I liked Griffin a lot too. He’s bold, capable, confident, but not overbearing, and helpful to a fault. And the other survivors are also good, though Griffin gets the most time on page. Kali grew up in an extremely sheltered world, in more ways than one. Griffin was named for his first kill, which he made as a small child against the monster who had slain his parents and was about to finish his sister off as well. The contrast between the two works well.

So why not rate this higher? Mostly because there are a number of things around the end that don’t add up (and one trope that I’m getting really sick of seeing). First, the trope: I would’ve preferred Kali to be correct rather than Griffin when it came to the Phoenix. I was fairly certain in the first pages when the Phoenix was introduced how this was going to end up, and that’s exactly how it played out.

Aside from that, though, there are a few things that just don’t make sense. A prophecy is mentioned in the last few pages, without ever spelling out what the prophecy actually is (and I suspect Kali ends up fulfilling it accidentally, but there’s no way to be sure). The whole rebellion plot has a very confusing resolution. Kali herself wonders: why those lies, specifically, when the instigators are condemning themselves? And the ending is almost unrealistically upbeat, considering the vast majority of people are going to die because of it, and therefore won’t see things in nearly the same light as Kali does. (Though it would be interesting to see if the addition of engineers, specifically, would make a difference. Griffin mentions one of the chief problems is the lack of people with skills other than hunting, who might have known how to build towns able to stand up against the monsters.)

So overall I like the story, though not as much as I would’ve liked to have liked it. Kali takes forever to catch on to a few things that are rather obvious, and some pieces of history remain unknown that might’ve been interesting additions to the plot (mostly about the Benu. How did they survive before the islands? How did anyone survive long enough to get to the islands? Why aren’t there more traces?) But it was still a good read. I rate this book Recommended.

Forest of Wonders (Wing and Claw #1)

Title: Forest of Wonders

Author: Linda Sue Park

Series: Wing and Claw #1

Raffa has always had a gift for botanicals. But when an attempt to save an injured bat leads him to a new discovery, the consequences stretch far wider than he could have imagined. Now Raffa struggles to decide the best way forward, one that allows him to honor his training as an apothecary as well, or one where he could possibly make new discoveries . . .

This is an engaging book whose biggest flaw is that the entire plot is obvious once past a certain point early in the story. Raffa’s talents make him a wildcard, since he can intuit the best way to mix a botanical without knowing ahead of time what will result. He does have training, and works within that, but the scarlet vine he brings home has properties beyond anything he’s worked with before.

But then we have his uncle going to pursue a new research opportunity in the city, a once in a lifetime, too good to be true opportunity Raffa’s parents are less sure about. And from that point until the end not much was a surprise anymore, at least for me. I wish there had been a good reason—or even a bad one—presented for the villain’s motivations (I find it hard to credit the lies, since there’s no evidence of any legitimate use presented, just showmanship and later evil). What ABOUT the rest of the world? Raffa is ignorant of it, of course, but there’s no reason the townsfolk he runs into have to be as well.

I wish Kuma had been a shapeshifting bear the way it almost appeared in the beginning, and not just a girl who partnered a bear in nearly the way Raffa has partnered with Echo. I wish the titular Forest of Wonders had a bigger role in the plot than simply being a place where the vine grows, and that the creatures living in such a magical spot were more than just ordinary. I wish more had been explored with magic in general, and what it is and isn’t, and if people as well as plants might have some kind of power (because despite all the denials, clearly some form of magic is in operation, and any history on how power works would have been nice).

The clear setup for a sequel gives me some hope the series will draw out more complexity from the overall situation. That said, I’m not really that interested in going forward with this. This book was a decent read, just not one that grabbed me. I rate this book Neutral.

Infinite Undiscovery (XB360)

Story: Capell is a musician in jail because he looks too much like the rebel leader Sigmund, the man responsible for going around smashing the chains that bind the moon to the earth. When an unexpected rescue lands him in Sigmund’s group, Capell reluctantly agrees to help. No one anticipated Capell was also capable of that rarest of feats: smashing chains.

The story ranges from pretty good to downright terrible. The general setup is fine, if you ignore physics entirely, since we have the major villains chaining the moon to the earth, but this only affects things like tides when a chain is presently fastened in the water (presumably magic is able to regulate things once the chain is severed, even though the actual moon is still in the same spot).

That aside, I liked Sigmund. He’s serious, doesn’t talk much, and is so focused on smashing the chains as fast as  possible that he’s willing to sacrifice more human considerations. He’s out to save the world, but recognizes (sometimes perhaps wrongly) that he can’t be everything to everyone, and often chooses to ignore smaller struggles as a result.

(As an odd aside, even by the end of the game, no one seems to have made the connection that the reason Sigmund and Capell can smash the chains is because they’re unblessed by a lunaglyph. Since the moon’s power is holding the chains in place, the unblessed can act as a kind of anti-matter to disrupt them. So technically they had a whole village of people capable of doing the job, only no one figured it out.)

On the flip side, the major plot twists won’t surprise anyone, and the harem antics are cringe-worthy (a princess tripping herself to give Capell a panty shot? REALLY?)

The story plays out in actual cutscenes, which I like. Most of the core characters have good voices, though a few (Vic’s attempted accent, more than the voice itself) aren’t as polished. And a surprising number of cutscenes are subbed as though they ought to be voiced but instead have utter silence.

I like the amount of characters. The game has three kinds of characters: melee, mages, and more of a mix. Some of the characters, however, only join as secondary, which means they won’t ever go into a party with Capell. That part was annoying. Several points in the game split the party, which is where those secondary characters can be used, but it also means if you are using them then you need to equip them.

Gameplay: Battles play out in real time on the actual maps, and this worked really well. Enemies can be surprised (or can surprise you) by hitting them when they aren’t looking, and this substantially affects what items they can drop (not fun. At ALL. Dragon Fangs can only be dropped with surprise attacks, and you’ll need a LOT of them just to learn some extra moves for various characters.) But apart from farming considerations, this was a good mechanic. Enemies spawn relatively quickly and inhabit dungeons as though they lived there, such as harpies perching on top of cliffs or pillars.

One limitation is that the only character you can control is Capell. He’s incredibly versatile to make up for it. He can melee with his sword skills, or use his flute to provide more of a support role. He also has a Connect ability that allows him to command an ally to perform specific (player-assigned) skills. I did wish that more than two skills could be assigned for use in battle. They end up being less special attacks and more finishers. The attacks can also level up, but they do so at a rate that put me in postgame dungeon without anything hitting level 3 (the max). And since nothing carries over into a new game, it’s useless to max more than one or two skills you find extremely useful (eg, Astro on Eugene or Michelle to help get surprise attacks).

Also, the menu doesn’t pause, which makes using items in battle something best left to your team.

Vermification battles are just straight up annoying, though. Capell has to play the flute to even reveal the enemy to his party, and that visibility wears off very quickly, and he has to use Symphonic Blade while connected with a teammate to be able to hit them. Except by time you’ve finally got Symphonic Blade charged up, you probably need to play the flute again (if it isn’t already dead). This can be somewhat alleviated by leveling up Symphonic Blade so its synching effects last longer, but it burns so much MP and time trying that it’s hard to bother.

The party AI is very good, though. You can’t set individual actions apart from when Capell connects to someone, but your team will behave in ways similar to their personalities and roles. Capell can issue general directives like Spread Out or Focus to further refine this.

The crafting system is both deep and for the most part accessible, thanks to the free vouchers making about half of the needed materials available from any shop (blacksmithing and some alchemy is great, cooking not so much). I wasn’t as big a fan of each item taking a set amount of real time to generate, as a good chunk of my game time was me reading a book while mashing A so Edward or Eugene could craft something I could sell at a profit. The other annoyance is that item creation can have failure rates. This is fine for things like Salamander Boots, whose materials can be bought from stores, and much less fine when crafting unique items into their ultimate forms. Basically, craft near a save point and save often if aiming for better crafts.

Speaking of saves, there aren’t many. And these are huge dungeons. I spent an hour and a half running around Luce Plains the first time because I couldn’t find the castle I was supposed to be aiming for, and the only save point in this massive map was back in the town I’d left. And there’s no quick travel, which really hurts when sidequests keep pushing you from town to town, trekking back and forth across maps. And you can only change parties in towns (WHY???) which means you’d better either really like using Komachi or say goodbye to the chests only she can reach in one-time dungeons.

It’s not any better in towns, either, since Capell is by himself while the rest of the party hangs out on their own. This is a nice touch of verisimilitude that becomes utterly aggravating when sidequests like “Connect to all your male party members and introduce them to this guard” come up, because you have to grab them one by one and run back and forth.

Overall: I beat the game in about 46 hours, which would’ve honestly been closer to 35 if I hadn’t spent so much time crafting for money so I could try to keep 99 of every material on hand. The postgame dungeon is taking me a bit longer, but mostly because of those dratted Dragon Fangs (I’m not trying to get my HP to 2 billion; I just want to learn all the available moves. Although it greatly amuses me that it is entirely possible to get so much HP the postgame boss literally can’t outdamage you equipping a 3% HP-regen accessory.)

For all the annoyances, it’s still a decent game. The story is too short to have much fluff in it, so it trucks from beginning to end. The real time, on-map combat can be a lot of fun, though don’t go into it expecting something as complicated as the Tales series. And if you’re looking for JRPGs on the Xbox 360, this one is likely worth the $10 or so it runs for these days. I would, however, HIGHLY RECOMMEND the guidebook, if only for the maps. The maps will keep you from going insane. I rate this game Recommended.

The Keeper of the Mist

Title: The Keeper of the Mist

Author: Rachel Neumeier

Keri lives in the little kingdom of Nimmira (exactly 378 miles of border), which is surrounded by mists that hide it from the wizards to the north and the warriors to the south. And although Keri is the daughter of the current Lord, no one is more surprised than she when the mysterious magic that governs the country chooses her to be his successor. She was intending to spend the rest of her life running her bakery. Now she needs to learn to rule a kingdom and learn its magics, and fast—the mists are failing, and Nimmira has caught the attention of both its neighbors . . .

I liked the worldbuilding a lot in this one. Here, ordinary rules of succession are subverted, as it’s the magic that does the choosing for who will be the best ruler (although it is true that person still has to be in the bloodline of the traditional monarchy). Keri knows she ought to have the power, particularly when she ascends, but she has a hard time figuring out how this relates to the supremely important boundary mists and how to stop them from going down. I especially liked the posts that go with Keri: in addition to the Lady (or Lord, as the case may be), the land assigns a Doorkeeper, a Bookkeeper, and a Timekeeper. (And I would dearly love to be either a Doorkeeper or Bookkeeper. The ability to open any door, anywhere in the kingdom? Or the ability to just turn and reach for a book and the exact one you need is right at hand?)

I also really liked the characters. Keri is young and inexperienced in leadership, but she’s got maturity and a level head. I really liked Cort, who accidentally ends up her Doorkeeper. He’s overly responsible and serious, and not someone Keri initially appreciates, but he’s dedicated to his position and his country the same way she is. More, I think. She’s willing to put her life on the line, but he’s the one who actually does in multiple instances. I liked how the story shows both the good and the bad of his type of personality, pointing out that if he’s extremely hard on others, he’s hardest on himself. And the Timekeeper was also amazing—somewhat spooky, with powers that have the least definition but also the most intriguing impact.

Where I think the book suffers a bit is that by nature of the magic, Keri and the rest are bound to Nimmira itself. That wouldn’t have to be a problem except an important piece of plot moves beyond the boundary, and then we get a great deal of planning for how to resolve this without any of the key characters actually doing it themselves. Things go sideways anyhow, but it did underline the inherent limitations of the setup.

I do hope for a future book in this world, as there were enough open questions to leave plenty of room, but the overall story does tie up well enough even if no sequel ever materializes. I rate this book Recommended.

Sorrow’s Knot

Title: Sorrow’s Knot

Author: Erin Bow

Otter is the daughter of the greatest binder in Westmost, Willow. The binders keep back the dead, from the little shadows that sting and numb to the dreaded White Hands, whose touch is fatal. But for her girlhood Otter doesn’t trouble herself too much with the dead. She has her friends. Kestrel will be a ranger and venture out into the forest, where Cricket will be a storyteller. Then the unthinkable happens, and Otter’s world starts to fall apart. Her mother is going mad, and the dead are walking . . .

This is a beautifully told story. From the beginning, the little details of character and setting evoke so much. Otter, Kestrel, and Cricket live in a very small village out on the edge of the world, and they very much expect to take a traditional place in village life. Despite the definite horror aspect, the story overall is a more sorrowful journey, threaded through with hope and joy. I love the indigenous American setting. I love how everything from food to clothes to homes to rituals is so clearly depicted.

And the characters are equally lovely. The friendship between Kestrel, Cricket, and Otter is strong and sweet, and it’s interesting how they continue to be friends through Kestrel and Cricket getting married. I loved that they were still living and working together, without any undertone of jealousy, or Otter trying to steal Cricket, yet Kestrel and Cricket are so much in love with each other. And I liked how Cricket could be gentle and strong. He’s not given a lot of credit, as a man with no magic in a world where the woman’s power to bind things with knots is paramount to keeping safe from the  ever-lurking dead, but he has his own kind of power.

Overall this is a somewhat slower-paced book, with elements of mystery, and an intriguing read. I rate this book Highly Recommended.