Monthly Archives: April 2017

Dragon Born: Chronicles of Dragon Aerie (Plague Born #1)

Title: Dragon Born: Chronicles of Dragon Aerie

Author: Travis Simmons

Series: Plague Born #1

On the night a slit-eyed baby was born, the dragons returned. Ravaging towns with their breath and their claws, slaughtering the people—and cursing many of the survivors with a disease that, if not fatal, might grant some the abilities of dragons themselves.

Wylan knows the events that surrounded her birth, but she’s still curious about dragons. She and her adoptive parents make a living scavenging, a life grown harder because the dragons are driving everything to ruin. But when she finally sees a dragon up close, it isn’t the encounter she imagined having . . .

This would have worked a lot better as a part 1 to some longer book, although even then there were pieces that would puzzle me.

The story opens—not with Wylan, who the summary would have you believe is the main character—but with the midwife who births her. Millie Bixby is as much a main character as Wylan is in this short piece, and the initial return of the dragons (along with their wreckage) gets a lot of detail. I thought the story went a little far here trying to humiliate Millie, mostly with the description of her pissing herself. I have no problem with the reaction, but the way it was described felt off, like the text was delighting in the fact rather than sympathizing with her. And Millie returns later on, to give a view of what’s been going on in the last remaining human towns while Wylan grows up.

I don’t really buy the way the wyverns have integrated into the town’s defense system. Unless I misread something and they are the majority of the town, in which case the setup makes a lot more sense. Millie’s drastic timeskip means the story loses a lot of interesting things, like how she determined she could shapeshift/had powers/was connected more to dragons, and how she reacted to that. Or how ordinary humans reacted to this. And are there other countries beyond the desert that people could run to, or is there some reason they’re stuck where they are? The story didn’t have time to introduce enough of the world, but even what’s here left me puzzled about certain bits.

Wylan’s story is fine until we get to the pivotal event, which goes by too quickly. I could write off her reactions as shock but her story basically ends right there, so there’s no sense of actually dealing with the event. Boom, it happens, and the next instant she’s vowing revenge, and then we swap back to Millie until the story finishes.

Speaking of, there isn’t much of a sense of cohesion to this. We have Millie’s story, which is basically entirely different from Wylan’s story, and there isn’t any kind of thread tying them together beyond the overall world and the fact that Millie happened to be there for Wylan’s birth. The end just stops—it doesn’t feel like an ending, just a chapter break. We don’t really get rising action, or any kind of payoff for reading just this segment. Again, this wouldn’t be an issue if this was just the first part of something else, but the fact that it’s treated like its own book makes me want something that feels like a cohesive story.

Overall, although I really like the idea of wyvern shapeshifters in a world with dragons, I’m not sure what to do with this. There’s a lot of solid writing on the bits that do work, but this feels more like bonus material than a story by itself. Wylan didn’t grab me with her personality, her story, or her decision, so that leaves reading a sequel solely based on enjoying her abilities . . .  and I’m not sure I want to do that. I rate this book Neutral.

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Thorn Ogres of Hagwood (The Hagwood Trilogy #1)

Title: Thorn Ogres of Hagwood

Author: Robin Jarvis

Series: The Hagwood Trilogy #1

Gamaliel Tumpin is pudgy, clumsy, and terrified of taking the class that will teach him the secrets of his race. The werglings can change their form into birds and mammals, but Gamaliel is certain he won’t do well. But the forest where they live borders a much darker wood, and it won’t be long before the thorn ogres are unleashed on the land . . .

I liked this quite a bit, but I’m tempering my rating and enthusiasm based on the depressing fact that this is clearly setting up a sequel, which has had years to fail to materialize. So it’s hard to recommend something that only resolves a small part of the bigger issue and doesn’t work all that well as a standalone.

All of the characters are well-drawn, but I liked Finnen, an older student with precocious gifting, much better than any of the kids. In a way this book is really more Finnen’s story, as he sees in his mentorship a chance to give Gamaliel what he lacked as a student, and possibly turn Gamaliel down a different road than the one he chose. And when his choices are revealed, and he has to bear the consequences, he still chooses the hero’s path to combat the greater evil. Even if he has to do it all by himself. Where Gamaliel’s character arc is retreading a familiar path, Finnen’s isn’t as clear, so it was a lot easier for me to get involved with Finnen’s struggles.

Really, the lack of a sequel is the biggest downside. The world teases some interesting bits of magic and mystery, which would presumably reveal more later. Gamaliel and those who survived have drawn the ire of creatures much larger and more powerful—but like the thorn ogres, not without their weaknesses. And if the characters continued to mature and grow into their strengths, it could easily surpass this book. But again, this is just the beginning of a quest that never quite takes off. I rate this book Neutral.

Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers (Anime)

Title: Rokka: Braves of the Six Flowers

Episodes: 1-12

When the Demon Lord rises, Fate chooses six warriors who inherit legendary power and fight for the peace. Adlet Mayer is determined to be one of those Braves. He’s confident he’s the strongest man in the world–and when the Demon Lord resurrects, and Adlet receives his coveted mark, he appears to be proved correct. But some sinister scheme is at work this time around: only six Braves exist, but seven have shown up! Who is the traitor? And can the real Braves determine the truth before killing each other?

This wasn’t at all what I was expecting. I thought, based on the first few eps, this would be mostly fantasy/adventure, but the arrival of the seventh Brave transforms the story into a locked-room mystery. With the Braves trapped within an impenetrable barrier, and one of them likely plotting to destroy them all, it becomes critical that they figure out who needs to die.

The traitor isn’t obvious, either. Pretty much everyone has something that casts them in a bad light, and as the episodes dig in, the probable traitor changes again and again as new evidence comes to light. As a mystery, it works well, although as a mystery I’m not going to get as much enjoyment out of a rewatch because at that point knowing who did it takes away most of the fun.

I grew to like Adlet a lot over the course of the show. At first he simply amused me because the self-proclaimed “strongest man in the world” wasn’t using strength, but dirty tricks, to win. Of course if you measure “strongest” by “winner”, then “win by any means possible” does look like a sound strategy. But for all that he’s boastful and gullible, he’s also smart enough to put together a lot of the mystery on his own.

The art is also worth a mention. The setting is Aztec rather than a traditional feudal European or Japanese society. I was also fond of the generic monsters attacking the party. I like dragonish looking beings. The flying ones are beautifully colored too, like tropical birds. However, there are a few areas where the art does slip up (a conversation on the side of a mountain was the worst one that stuck out to me), which hopefully would have been fixed for any DVD/Blu-Ray release. Since I watched the stream, I don’t know if this is still a problem for the disks.

The ending was equal parts satisfying and frustrating. I liked the reveal of the actual traitor and how that worked out, but the closing twist was annoying because there’s no chance to even get started on resolving it (and why are we repeating this line again?). I suspect this may be handled in the source material since it looks like the anime only adapted the first part.

Overall this was an interesting show on a number of levels. Primarily it functions as a mystery in a fantasy world, and the tweaks to a typical RPG adventure story make it feel unique. I am curious where it goes from here, and will have to see about reading the light novels as they come out in English. I rate this show Recommended.

Vault of Shadows (The Nightsiders #2)

Title: Vault of Shadows

Author: Jonathan Maberry

Series: The Nightsiders #2

Milo is not having a good week. Milo somehow not only outsmarted the deadly Huntsman, an evil human made worse by the alien Bugs modifying him to be a supersoldier, but stole the egg containing all the Bug’s DNA and technology patterns. And the Nightsiders who helped with that—a tree spirit, a fire salamander, a rock boy, and a werewolf—are now part of the uneasy alliance with the last of humanity to take back the Earth.

But the Huntsman isn’t about to forget Milo. He’s determined to retrieve the stolen egg. And he’s got an entire race of aliens ready to support his every plan.

I still wonder if these aren’t a bit too dark for the age range, or if maybe this would work better for me if Milo wasn’t 11. On the one hand, the book doesn’t flinch away from the fact that when the Earth gets overrun by alien invaders, not even kids get a free pass. On the other, we’re not only dealing with people Milo knows dying, but it goes beyond that to human sacrifice (although this does at least happen completely offscreen).

The stakes go even higher, too. This time around a villain from the Nightsiders appears, someone who would prefer humanity to go extinct and will even join with the Huntsman to do it (parallels to the Wild Huntsman are likely intentional).

Milo’s dreams provide the only real edge his group has. Glimpses of past, present, and future warn and guide them. I did like the library, and the ghost who reads there. I also really appreciated the book pointing out that although Milo can only see his own group of resistance fighters, there is still fighting in the rest of the world, and all of them are contributing towards the hope of success.

Overall this is still a strong followup to the first book, although something about it still doesn’t quite click with me. Still, as long as the horror aspects aren’t too bothersome for the reader, it’s a good read. I rate this book Recommended.

Toukiden 2 (PS4/PC)

Monsters known as Oni are invading the real world from the Otherworld. Ten years ago in Yokohama, the Oni broke through—and threw you through a gate ten years in the future. Now you are tasked with defending the village of Mahoroba from the Oni as a Slayer.

There isn’t much to talk about plot-wise for this game. It proceeds mostly as you might expect (although I was pleasantly surprised by both Benizuki and Kuyo). I like that there is a story mode, though, which helps add some variety and meaning to otherwise randomly going out and killing monsters. The Professor was easily my favorite character, for her snarky attitude and rather dangerous inventions.

Toukiden 2 boasts a world map in addition to missions that can be taken through the base town. I would’ve liked the world map a LOT better if you could warp to any of the portal stones (you can use any stone to go back to HQ, but you can only transfer from HQ to your bases, which makes getting to certain points on the map a trek every time). Also, I was frustrated by the fact that you get a grappling claw that lets you vault over cliffs…. but you still often need to walk around relatively minor barriers, which made some maps (Age of Grace in particular) more like mazes. I am also not fond of the “miasma exposure limit” still being a thing even after you purify an area. It feels like a way to artificially limit how much you can explore without going back to some kind of base.

That said, it was still nice to have actual environments to explore. The game provides both shiny object pickups, various crests, and wooden markers with some backstory as an incentive to poke around every corner.

Your teammates are good at dispatching the Oni, so picking companions for me usually involved picking whomever I needed to max out relationships with. You don’t get any control over their skills, and you have limited ability to direct them in battle (which I never used because I forgot the button combination).

I didn’t play too much with all the weapon types, but there is a good amount of variety. I mostly stuck with knives because I like fast-hitting weapons, although a major downside is that they offer no defensive capabilities. Tutorials are available for every weapon type, and every skill type, and these can be repeated as desired, so it’s easy to sample the various weapons and choose a favorite.

Skills are handled through Mitama, which are spirits that choose to help you. They range from historical figures to literary figures to a few gods and goddesses. Each one gets a nice portrait and a little voice clip, and has a number of skills that can be learned and equipped. These can be earned through the story, sidequests, or by slaying Oni. It can be a big job to collect them all, but just going through the story and doing a little extra will get plenty for a more casual run.

I didn’t care for most of the Oni designs, sadly, with Drakwing (a more traditional western dragon) being a major exception. They do offer a good challenge, though, and fighting them feels more interesting because of a tendency to transform at about half health, which can completely change attack patterns. If KO’d, you get a limited amount of time to be revived, and if KO’d again, your revival time picks up where the last time left off, so whether or not you can even come back depends on how quickly your teammates can get to you, even the first time. This likely isn’t as much a problem for more skilled players but I die enough to find it annoying, especially when certain fights include multiple Oni and it’s easy to get slammed by the one you weren’t attacking.

On the plus side, the auto save functionality, plus the ability to manually save anywhere except inside a fight, means you probably won’t lose too much progress if wiped out, even if you were exploring the Otherworld at the time.

Overall, I had fun with this, although God Eater is definitely my hunter game of choice due to several different mechanics (ranged and defensive included on all weapons, a less arbitrary revival system, the ability to earn unlimited tickets for material crafting, more colorful monsters which are more visually interesting, better story, epic music). That said, I’m still poking around in postgame trying to collect more Mitama, craft a better weapon, finish collecting crests, and so on. I have no idea what my hour count was because the save files only indicate the last time you saved, not the total hour count, and it’s been pretty fun for the most part. I rate this game Recommended.

The Edge of Worlds (The Books of the Raksura #4)

Title: The Edge of Worlds

Author: Martha Wells

Series: The Books of the Raksura #4

A shared dream has left the court of Indigo Cloud uneasy. But with no way to tell what it means, they have nothing but speculations. When a delegate comes to ask for their help with a mysterious city that might be related to the forebearers, no one can tell if this will be the fulfillment of the dream or its prevention. So Jade and Moon set out hoping to find some answers.

Something to know going in is that this is basically part one. The ending leaves off on a rather nasty cliffhanger, so you might want to have the sequel in hand before you start reading.

Here we get to see Moon as a flustered new father, wanting to protect his children but uncertain if that means haring off on another adventure or remaining home to defend them against possible invasion. To a lesser extent, that uncertainty extends to Jade, who desperately wants to make the right decision but can’t get enough information to know what that is.

Overall this is another solid chapter in the series, although many of the elements will feel familiar (more strange ruins to explore, some weird creatures and powers, etc). I rate this book Recommended.

Attack on Titan (Anime)

Title: Attack on Titan

Episodes: 1-25

Content warning: People die in somewhat graphic ways pretty much every episode. Eaten, stepped on, ripped apart, etc. It doesn’t go much for gore, though, just blood splatters.

Humanity has nearly gone extinct under the assault of the grotesque Titans. These giant humanoids only attack humans, so to defend against them humanity built three walls each 50 meters tall. But the area those walls enclose is the only safe space left for humanity. Eren is a young man frustrated by the necessity of living in such a small part of the world, and after the wall near his home is breached, he vows to slaughter all the Titans and take back the world for humanity.

I was late to this show for several reasons, most of which still hold true now that I’ve seen it. I don’t like the Titans themselves (ugly and naked giant humans, bleagh). And Eren isn’t as compelling as a lot of other leads, because he spends most of his time angry and juvenile, and even 25 episodes doesn’t grow him up much (actually, it doesn’t grow him up at all). It’s pretty hard to care about any of the characters, because the cast is massive and the story spends most of its time killing most of them off.

But, they have zipline belts (aka Maneuver Gear in the Crunchyroll subs and ODM in the official disks). And I am shallow enough to enjoy the show solely based on watching people zip around pulling crazy stunts. And the music can be really good too, which makes those action scenes stand out even more.

Animation-wise it can be a mixed bag. There are a ton of still frames used to compensate for good-looking action scenes. This was really noticeable in the first few episodes. I also wasn’t that fond of the really thick outlines used on characters. However, I did like the towns, houses, and backgrounds.

The characters are by and large forgettable, because most of them die too fast to have any kind of arc. It was interesting to see most people’s responses to war are basically to break down in fear, and struggle to overcome their reluctance to actually go against an enemy very likely to kill them. And I liked Armin, who unlike Eren can’t just use the magical power of “I want this really badly” to get himself out of trouble. Misaka is too dull, as her role appears to be “silently menace anything that harms Eren”, although I do like watching her fight. (Although I will admit the flashback to how she met Eren had me laughing hysterically. He was ALREADY screwed up as a nine-year-old.)

The plot is a little better, but where the first 13 eps are throwing out twists and revelations, the second half of the season feels more like aftermath. The female Titan there is a single obstacle they have to survive, and the end of the season doesn’t provide a lot of new information or a good sense of closure. It’s also really frustrating to see Armin’s big encouragement to Eren is “the bigger monster wins”—those who can abandon their humanity the most will triumph. I think that misses the point in a big way, although at least Armin seems aware he might be inviting in more trouble than the Titans themselves if this philosophy actually wins.

Overall, I don’t regret watching this (zipline belts!!) because I did enjoy the action sequences (and that first opening song in particular is worth listening to; the first ending is also good). That said, since the zipline belts and the music are the only two things I really LIKED, I’m not going to bother with the manga. I will probably watch the currently-airing second season after it’s over, since this series has a penchant for really long multi-part arcs. Recommended if the slick action/horror combination appeals to you, otherwise Neutral.