Monthly Archives: September 2017

Honor and Blood (Firestaff #3)

Title: Honor and Blood

Author: James Galloway

Series: Firestaff #3

With the Book of Ages in his possession at last, Tarrin needs to get back to Suld, where he can use the book to determine the location of the Firestaff. Unfortunately, his Goddess has prohibited him from getting on a ship, so he’s stuck making the thousands of leagues journey over land. To keep his friends safe, his only company is Sarraya, a Faerie. But the journey brings challenges and surprises, forcing Tarrin to confront his ferality and his power . . .

I think this may be my favorite book of the 8 book series. It’s certainly the longest (Calibre Page Count estimates just over 1800 pages). By this point, Tarrin has turned hard and ruthless, and he survives by making his mission his sole focus. But now he’s got far too much time to think, and he’s also got a goddess determined to push him to improve, which means confronting a lot of his degrading morality. The Selani who populate the desert aren’t enemies, since he has the brands of Fara’nae, but he doesn’t want to get involved with them.

Of course, he ends up picking up companions (albeit somewhat temporary) despite himself. Because the Selani don’t back down from a challenge, and their honor also provides some obstacles to Tarrin’s determination to get along by himself.

I like how the confrontations with Jegojah end. Tarrin has proved over and over again it’s very easy to push him too far, but what “too far” looks like tends to go in one direction. Jegojah breaks the mold (although it’s mostly the help that did it). He’s also a reoccurring threat that in some ways gets worse every time he shows up, because he’s not just someone Tarrin can roast with a single magical firebolt.

I also really like the war. The return to some of the earliest locations from the series provides an interesting new look at them (and poor Duke Arren always seems to have bad run-ins with the trouble that follows Tarrin around). The climatic battle of the book is enormous and gives a great sense of how magic and steel can work together for a devastating assault or defense. Although magic is powerful, it has enough limits to put the outcome in question, especially when the enemy has its own nasty tricks.

Overall, this might be the longest book in the series, but it also delivers at a level above either of the two books that came before. Highly Recommended.

You can read the books for free here:


The Questing Game (Firestaff #2)

Title: The Questing Game

Author: James Galloway

Series: Firestaff #2

Tarrin Kael has been tasked by his Goddess to recover the Firestaff, a mythical artifact the whole world is now hunting because it can allow its holder to become a god. Not that anyone knows where to find it. So in preparation for that search, he’s sent to Dala Yar Arak, the largest city on Sennadar. Which means traveling on a ship in confined spaces and dealing with a lot of strangers, which are both hazardous for his now hair-trigger temper. He still hasn’t gotten used to being a Were-Cat, and this kind of stress isn’t doing him any favors. But his Goddess asked, so he’s determined to go through with it, no matter what or who stands in his way . . .

The second book is, unfortunately, one of the weaker books in the series, especially the beginning. I still love several parts, but the beginning can be a bit of a slog as the overly detailed prose digs into Tarrin’s disintegrating sanity. Basically, he whines and justifies himself a lot. Much of that could’ve been cut down from paragraphs to a mere sentence or two and given the same impression without quite as much text.

However, after a key event partway through, everything goes sideways, and the story improves significantly. The conflict between Keritanima and her father puts her in the spotlight for a while, and this is a conflict that’s been both a long time coming and well worth the wait. It’s an amusing war where she’s working to destabilize her own kingdom enough to topple her father from his throne, a war of intrigue and assassinations. Meanwhile, Tarrin finds himself unwillingly embroiled in the were-kin society he tried to leave behind in order to pursue his quest.

This book also showcases one of Tarrin’s more interesting abilities—turning people who were once enemies into solid allies. His compassion wars against the instincts of the Cat, and every now and again, when compassion wins out, big changes result. I particularly like what happens with an old enemy that resurfaces late in the story. Tarrin does what he sees as his duty, though he hates it at first, but it turns into something that really blesses both of them.

The fight scenes continue to be both varied and interesting. From the Doomwalker Jegojah to the Were-Cat matriarch Triana to pirates and more, there’s always some new conflict exploding. Or perhaps it would be better to say, Tarrin explodes whatever is attacking him in various fun ways. He’s a powerful Sorcerer, but as using Sorcery requires him to risk destroying himself, he tries to be cautious about using it. Until he gets mad.

Overall, even though this isn’t the best book in the series, it still provides a solid adventure. The overarching goal of the Firestaff–and this book’s goal of obtaining the Book of Ages–keep everything focused. And even though I don’t particularly like that it takes forever to get to places on a boat, it is a good bit of verisimilitude. I rate this book Recommended.

You can read the books for free here:

The Tower of Sorcery (Firestaff #1)

Title: The Tower of Sorcery

Author: James Galloway (Fel)

Series: Firestaff #1

Tarrin Kael is a farmboy from a small village with dreams of becoming one of the famed Knights of Karas. Unlike most of those who have such aspirations, he’s got enough training to hope he has a decent shot: from his father who used to be a Ranger, and from his mother who comes from a culture where everyone learns their hand-to-hand combat styles. But when a Sorceress and the Knight guarding her stop by his village, it is the Sorceress who claims him for her Tower. But trouble follows hard on their heels. Disaster after disaster plagues his journey—including being bitten by a Were-Cat, and losing his humanity—and even the Tower of Sorcery isn’t what he hopes. Tarrin is determined to figure out what’s going on. Because if he doesn’t, something’s going to succeed at killing him . . .

These books have been favorites for years, though it’s been a while since I last read them. They aren’t available through traditional ebook outlets, but the author has posted everything online for free, and one of his fans has compiled an ebook version for those with ereaders (I think I prefer the docs at this point, as it is easier for me to stop when I have to open another file to get to the next chapter. Plus the ebook seems to have a few formatting gotchas where scene breaks don’t always populate correctly).

The prose can be somewhat clunky, and has a tendency to repeat smaller facts every now and again. And some of the character reactions are spelled out rather than shown, which can read awkwardly. It could use a pass with an editor to tighten things up some and fix a few grammar issues (I might find/replace “alot” myself on my copy, as it bugs me).

That said, the story is good enough that I tend to forget those flaws very quickly.

This is epic fantasy, with an enormous cast of characters, a number of intersecting subplots, a big world with historical and geographical context, a detailed magic system with four main types of magic and various checks and balances between them, and a number of human and nonhuman races. Rereading this is fun precisely because I can see where the threads of various plots started, and know how they will eventually draw together. But since the story mostly follows Tarrin, it doesn’t feel overwhelming even on a first read. The world gets built up layer by layer, and executes well within those confines. Even apparent contradictions are plot points.

Tarrin is an interesting protagonist. He’s only “typical” for a few chapters, and even there, the label is debatable. He’s had enough training to make his dream of being a Knight a realistic one, but no amount of training could prepare him for the physical, mental, and emotional changes that accompany becoming Were-Cat. It doesn’t help that no one really knows much about the Were in general and Were-Cats in particular, and the person best suited to help him is someone he is convinced is going to kill him. And compounding the natural changes that go along with being a Were-Cat is the political game that has thoroughly snared him. Cats don’t like being trapped, or used, and being constantly afraid for his life and unsure who to trust is eroding his sanity.

Oh, and the Cat goes berserk when he gets mad enough.

Tarrin’s friends don’t have as much opportunity here to move beyond initial impressions, but they’re still fun. His deep and almost immediate friendship with both Kerri and Allia is called out as unusual (and there’s the suggestion of divine meddling), but his friendship with others grows more naturally. I like how many different warrior cultures are represented, and how although they have a lot of similarities, there’s also a good amount of differences, which range from preferred weapon type to the character qualities that discipline emphasizes. And although two of those are held up as the gold standard, there’s a lot of respect for any group that has skillful practitioners.

The author has a good eye for fight scenes and what makes them work. We have plenty of scenes of training bouts, individual conflicts, and group conflicts; with and without weapons; with and without magic. They don’t feel repetitive because they tend towards surprises. And it’s not just skillful combat—Tarrin angry has a tendency to rip off faces or explode heads. There’s also a good sense of how nonhumans would fight differently due to their physical differences, like using their tails, claws, or massive strength.

Overall, this may be a little rough around the edges, but it is a very, very good series. Don’t let the length deter you, because it manages to keep pretty good energy throughout, and the eventual payoff for the interlaced plots is spectacular. I rate this book Recommended.

If you’re interested in reading these, the link is here:

Fire on the Mountain (Mountain Trilogy #2)

Title: Fire on the Mountain

Author: Michelle Isenhoff

Series: Mountain Trilogy #2

Quon knows he’s not cut out for his father’s trade of making carriages, but when an accident with horrific consequences strands him, he has no idea what to do. Taking up the offer of an old man, he agrees to journey and learn . . . and eventually to become a hero. A mighty dragon is terrorizing the villages in the mountains, but Quon is destined to defeat it. Or is he?

This is technically a sequel, although almost everything in this book happens before the first one, so the only difference is readers will walk into this knowing how Quon’s quest has to end. And that makes everything just a little tragic, because Quon’s mistakes and triumphs and growth are ultimately pointed towards a different end than anyone he knows expects.

I like the setting, once again. It’s a fantasy vision of rural, historical China, and Quon lives as many kinds of laborer as he’s working his way towards defeating the dragon. It’s interesting to see how many of his decisions have reverberations throughout his life, and the lives of others.

It’s also nice to see a bit more of Song Wei and what became of him after the end of Song of the Mountain, though it amounts to little more than a good epilogue for his earlier quest.

Overall this could easily be stand alone, even though it will help to have read the first one just to understand more of the very beginning and very end. I rate this book Recommended.

Star Ocean 4 (Xbox 360/PS3)

Title: Star Ocean 4

Systems: XBox 360 / PS3

World War III left Earth a ruined wasteland, so mankind turned to space. Edge Mavrick is one of the specially trained expedition forces on the lookout for habitable planets and extraterrestrial life. What he finds is an adventure he never expected.

This is the first Star Ocean game I’ve put any significant time into. It’s supposed to be the second-worst, but I found it a fairly good game, albeit with a lot of things I wanted tweaked for quality-of-life improvements.

The story was okay (although most of the PAs you can trigger on ship journeys range from mildly interesting to extremely cringeworthy), though there was one big, big decision Edge makes in the middle that had me wondering how on earth anyone would be that stupid. And the rest of the crew doesn’t help, either—they not only unanimously agree it’s a bad idea, but they turn around and say they’ll still follow Edge’s every order. Even though he’s just gotten a lot of people in a lot of trouble.

And then, following that, Edge goes off the deep end in the other direction, equating showing off in the Coliseum with his big stupid decision. Even though no one copying his moves could possibly do a fraction of that damage.

Also I’m just shaking my head on the reasons why spacefaring civilizations are using swords and bows, even if I don’t care to fight everything with some form of gun.

From a gameplay perspective, everything I liked usually came with a “but I wish they’d done this.” The action fighting system is much lighter than a Tales game, which could be better or worse, depending on how much you like the often-intricate Tales systems. What I missed most was the ability to assign shortcuts to teammate attacks, so you can request healing or a certain attack without having to switch characters (because the AI almost never does what I want once I leave my chosen character). The targeting system is awful. Play a melee oriented character and s/he will consistently target an enemy that runs away—and rather than change targets to the enemies YOU ARE RUNNING PAST, will stick on that first enemy. This makes going for the lots of kill trophies really annoying if you’re trying to do them without setting everyone else to “Do Nothing”. Add to that it’s hard to cancel out of attacks, your spellcasters only fast-cast if you do it manually, stealing requires a knockdown attack . . .

Or take Item Creation/Synthesis. This can only be done on the Calnus. So if you pick up a new party member or finally gather/mine the ingredients you needed, you have to trek all the way back to wherever you parked your ship to use it. From a story standpoint this makes sense, but it’s one place in particular that I wish they’d ignored logic and just let you do it as long as the correct characters were in your party. Oh, and you can only carry 20 of any item, which includes materials only used in IC/Synthesis. And some recipes will call for up to 20 of one ingredient. (And using IC at all means dealing with Welch, who is supremely annoying and badly needs an option to turn off her voice.)

Also I am enough of a Synthesis nut that I went and bought the Xbox 360 version for any future playthroughs because I like being able to break the game when possible, and the rebalancing for the PS3 version cut out a lot of the more interesting synthesis possibilities.

The trek could have been less horrible if there was some way to fast travel. Nope, your advanced spacefaring explorers go everywhere on foot. The best you’ll get (eventually) is a bunny that’s not only marginally faster than your dashing (because it doesn’t hit the slowdown at the end of each dash). Also it takes a while to be able to summon the bunny where you need it, so until then have fun running to the two areas where they are found wild to pick one up for a trek across the giant maps. Which if you are coming from your ship is no help at all.

The Coliseum is fine . . . except the only good way to earn points for the prize shop is to use the bunny races. Because fighting below your level nets you 2 coins, so the only way to earn anything is to advance in the ranks, or try to advance two characters far enough for the reward to be worth it and then keep switching so they can fight each other and swap places over and over. But you’ll still earn more faster from bunny racing. Which isn’t really “racing” because you don’t drive the bunny, you just control whether it dashes or jumps. Also the PS3 version apparently interprets “50 consecutive solo wins” as “must be done in one sitting because reloading from save resets the counter.” Since you don’t get items or monster book data from Coliseum fights (why not? Seriously, this would make it at least a tad less annoying if I could farm for drops/percentage) this is just monotonous. (For the record, I only wanted 50% trophy completion to unlock level cap for postgame, so I could at least attempt Ethereal Queen. I don’t need to spend hundreds of hours for 100%.)

Finally, the postgame dungeon desperately needs a save point, or a fast travel checkpoint. Doing everything in one run would be fine if it didn’t take HOURS to get to the top due to the horrible way it gates the floors. And you have to redo those every single time. I like the challenge of creating ultimate equipment and trying it out against a superboss. I don’t like the assumption that I have no life and can throw away better than a half a day any time I want to attempt that challenge.

Overall, this was decently enjoyable, but the little aggravations were enough to prevent it from being a favorite. I beat the main game in about 100 hours (mostly because I’m OCD when it comes to things like filling out a monster encyclopedia to 100%, but I eventually gave up because beating 100 of the monsters that only spawn one to a mob got too tedious). Recommended if what’s detailed above doesn’t scare you off.

Dragon Defender (Dragon Defense League #1)

Title: Dragon Defender

Author: J.A. Blackburn

Series: Dragon Defense League #1

Peter Clark is not really an adventurous sort—unless you count building robots. But when an uncle he didn’t know about shows up on his twelfth birthday, he learns his mother’s disappearance is connected to an unexpected legacy with dragons. Now he’s running around South America looking for a dragon egg . . .

This was pretty good, although it relied a little too heavily on circumstances being favorable for my tastes. Peter might be an approachable lead, but he doesn’t have a whole lot of skills to offer (the awesome car battery scene aside). He picks up two companions fairly quickly, though. I don’t care much for Xana, whose main contribution appears to be that she’s rich and has parents who don’t care if she runs around in a dangerous place unsupervised. Similarly, Mario is almost a bit too good when his introduction paints him as a kid who has had a very hard life and turned to crime to support himself.

Those are comparatively minor quibbles, though. The dragons are the main point of the book, and those are a lot of fun. I like that there are multiple types, with their own habitats, and in some cases ties to local folklore. And the particular dragon this book is tracking down isn’t exactly typical. Given what ends up happening, I am curious to see how Peter interacts with other dragons in the future.

As might be expected, the first book is in large part setting up a series to come. I am curious to see how the larger story unfolds. It would be nice if the bad guys aren’t so one-dimensional, but given everything else this book was doing there wasn’t a lot of room for that here. I rate this book Recommended.

Song of the Mountain (Mountain Trilogy #1)

Title: Song of the Mountain

Author: Michelle Isenhoff

Series: Mountain Trilogy #1

Song aches to know about his family. His parents have died, and he lives with his grandfather, who refuses to speak of them. But without knowing his past, how can Song know his future? Then a dragon shows up, and Song realizes there is more to both his past and his future than he ever expected . . .

I really liked this. The story is set in an alternate historical China (with bits of fantasy, such as a fire-breathing dragon). The setting builds in a natural way, and the description never stalls describing things that would be unfamiliar to a Western audience. Instead it’s all presented as Song experiences it.

Song himself is interesting in a couple of ways. His focus on wanting to know his own history is understandable, but it’s also unique because he feels he doesn’t have a future without knowing his family history. It’s less a personal grief and more of a cultural expectation. That said, he’s also the only one making a big deal of it. The villagers may or may not care about their own ancestors, but Song isn’t close enough to any of them for a direct comparison.

I’m not sure what to make of Nori’s ending. I don’t quite believe what Song believes actually happened, and I don’t have much sympathy for her in any case. At least Song comes to his senses about her sooner rather than later.

Overall this is a somewhat short read but a good one. I rate this book Recommended.