Monthly Archives: March 2018

The Hidden Fire (Knights of the Flaming Blade #2)

Title: The Hidden Fire
Author: James R. Sanford
Series: Knights of the Flaming Blade #2

Kyric is discouraged from his failure to reach the castle, to start down the path to becoming a true Knight of the Flaming Blades. But Aiyan reappears in his life, and offers a chance at a new adventure: finding the Spice Islands that were marked on the map Aiyan stole previously. And, possibly along the way, Kyric might learn a little more and get one step closer to his dream of Knighthood . . .

This was kind of odd, because I liked the dream portions much better than the waking portions. The whole book, Kyric is following a series of dreams that are part adventure, part danger—and enough of it follows him to the real world to be concerning. He isn’t sure what they’re about, or where they’re leading him, but there’s something about them that captures his attention.

The waking adventure isn’t bad, just not as bizarre as the dreams. I don’t like how the introduction of the book is Kyric falling into a slump and deciding to lose his virginity with a random girl. He seemed to have more sense than that in the previous book. Similarly, his attempts at relationship later feel like they move really fast.

Action-wise, both segments have some good moments. Aiyan starts to show more humanity in the way he deals with some old comrades. The journey may be long, but most of the story doesn’t take place on the ship.

Overall this was a decent followup to the first book, although I wasn’t quite as fond of it due to Kyric messing around. I rate this book Recommended.

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The Amber Isle (Book of Never #1)

Title: The Amber Isle

Author: Ashley Capes

Series: The Book of Never #1

Never is searching for answers—about his mother’s refusal to name him, about the strange curse on his blood. Having recently come into possession of a map of the Amber Isles, he sets out. Unlike the other treasure hunters, he doesn’t want gold, just answers. Ancient ruins may be the only chance of a clue, when modern libraries have failed him . . .

This was good, although it was lighter than I liked on character development. It’s mostly how Never gets to the island and then navigates through the ruins depicted on his map. The end doesn’t tie anything up conclusively, so it’s on future books to push the adventure forward.

I liked Never as a character. He’s a bit snarky, but also clearly desperate. He can’t just accept the mysteries in his life. Given how hard it is for him to avoid accidentally killing people, though, it’s not hard to see why. And the curse backfires on him in some ways, besides the obvious.

The problem for me, though, is that this is such a small fragment of the adventure. The action is nice but it would’ve been good to get either character growth or some solid answers and not just teases. It was a nice read but I finished feeling ambivalent about continuing.

Given the shorter length, I would recommend reading this as part of a collection with the first couple of books. That way it won’t feel like it ends when it’s just getting started. I rate this book Neutral.

Katsugeki Touken Ranbu (Anime)

Title: Katsugeki Touken Ranbu
Episodes: 1-13 (complete)

Members of the Time Retrograde Army are out to disrupt Japan’s history. Standing against them are the famous weapons of Japan given human form. These warriors are sent back in time to preserve history, whatever the cost.

To be honest, the plot for this is a complete joke. The TRA only exists to give the pretty-boy swordsmen some generic zombie enemies to beat up at various points in Japan’s history. There’s some information about a few historical events, and the famous blades involved, but the main draw of the series is to watch nicely-designed characters having awesome-looking fights.

On that front, it succeeds pretty well. The majority of the story follows a newly-formed Second Unit (with a brief detour to the First Unit), and how the team starts to come together. The blades tend to take on some of the personalities of the masters they spent so much time with, which can cause some tension when we have Shinsengumi blades and Imperialist blades on the same team. But the blades are supposed to be beyond whatever old life they had in favor of wiping out the TRA. Unfortunately those emotions can linger and make life harder.

The strongest part of the story happens when three of those blades run across their former master. For one, it’s a mostly happy event—the mission and his desire to protect his master line up. For the other two, it’s not as happy. They know his death is coming, and it won’t be pretty, but preventing it will change the history they’ve been charged to protect.

Visually it’s a pretty series. Character designs for the blades range from traditional Japanese clothing to more modern clothes, which makes it kind of funny nobody in the historical times seems to notice. The action scenes are typically animated well. One of my favorite characters uses a spear. It’s nice to see spear-users get more representation, as their fighting style differs a lot from a sword.

Overall this is mostly something to watch for the eye candy. If you don’t like the designs or the prospect of a disappointing plot, then this is an easy pass. I enjoyed it well enough, but there wasn’t any sense of urgency about finishing it (I started this back when it was first airing, got distracted, and only now finished). I rate this Neutral.

The Ancient Magus’ Bride (Anime)

Title: The Ancient Magus’ Bride
Episodes: 13-24

Chise is growing used to life with Elias, the inhuman mage who bought her for her unique gifts. But the magical world they inhabit is full of both strangeness and danger, and Chise often stumbles into both.

This is more of an update to my original review, as not much about the overall situation has changed. We get a few more small stories about things Chise gets into, whether by accident or on purpose, and then a longer final arc where almost everyone we’ve met bands together to try to rescue two kidnapped dragons.

One of the big weak points of the series as a whole is that the sense of danger to Chise lessens as time goes on because she manages to get herself nearly killed on a very regular basis. The dragon arc is the only one that left her with some ongoing consequences, and even that kind of feels hard to care because it’s hard to tell the difference between “killing you faster” and stuff that’s already been going on. She never did have long to live, but the show was always vague about exactly how long she would have left, so after a while I stopped caring much about her life being in danger. (Besides, she’s the main character. It’s pretty much a given she’ll survive until the final episode, at least.)

On the plus side, the magical world on display still has a number of really neat things. Whether it’s a fox skin that allows Chise to shapeshift or finally visiting the land of Faerie, almost every episode was still introducing new wrinkles of powers, places, or people. My personal favorite was really just a footnote–Shannon’s husband is a dog-centaur who used to be human but was taken to live in Faerie and ended up that way. Not only do I find nontraditional centaur forms really awesome, the fact that he was formerly human makes it all better. And he’s all puppy-friendly about meeting new people and really upset that she’d spent three whole days away from him. I really hope he comes back at some point because I could totally watch an entire episode following his antics.

The ending feels a bit rushed, as a lot of plot points come up and get dealt with in the last few episodes, and the last episode was just odd. It tried to tie things up while not closing off anything the manga might do in the future, but I’m not sure the final bits of imagery really fit the mood of the two up until that point. They’re going to work through their first real fight like that?

Overall, if you liked the first half, you might as well finish it out. There’s still some really beautiful scenery, and some neat magic, but the latter half of the series isn’t as strong as the first. I rate this show Recommended.

XAM’D (Anime)

Title: XAM’D

Episodes: 1-26 (complete)

Akiyuki lives on Senton Island, a free zone between the warring North and South. When his decision to help a girl leads to a terrorist attack, he ends up infected by a biological agent that turns him into a living weapon. Now he’s effectively exiled from his home, as the military there has a lot of interest in what he’s become. With the help of another girl, Nakiami, Akiyuki is learning to live with his new condition. But will he master it, or will it master him?

This is another random older show I’d never heard of until just recently, and which the reviews were rather negative towards. And once again, I found I enjoyed it for the most part.

I like shapeshifters, so the situation with Akiyuki’s infection was one of the high points for me. In his case, actually shifting (even if it’s only a partial shift like his arm) brings with it a host of consequences, the most dangerous being that the new form is fundamentally unstable and has a tendency to turn to stone if he’s not managing it right. So messing up will kill him, which makes learning how to live with it, at least at first, a matter of learning how NOT to use it unless he absolutely has no choice.

I wish the show had done more to dig into some of the emotional issues with being turned into a weapon, but on the other hand you can tell a lot from his actions. He isn’t at all grateful to be “rescued” at first, since it involved removing him from his home, friends, and family. And getting back isn’t easy, because the military man in charge of the island at best wants to catch him to use as a test subject (and failing that, would be happy to have him killed).

Nakiami isn’t exactly Akiyuki’s love interest, which I liked. She’s mysterious, almost suicidally determined to rescue others, and uniquely competent in dealing with the humanform weapons. Although she’s traveling with a group, it’s also clear something holds her apart. And she’s a mean glider pilot (they called them kayaks in the dub but that always makes me think of boats).

There are a number of other threads that get a lot of attention throughout. I think my favorite was the ongoing really tenuous relationship between Akiyuki’s mom and dad, who are separated but not quite divorced. Akiyuki’s disappearance impacts both of them badly, as no one has any idea if he’s alive or dead, but it’s clear the two of them have enough pride and pain that even this isn’t enough to cause them to unbend more than a little. Both of them seem to regret being apart, and willing to come back together—but not willing to address the things that drove them apart in the first place, which pretty well dooms most of his dad’s attempts at reconciliation.

Another major thread is the friendship between Akiyuki, Haru, and Furuichi. That didn’t go at all the way I expected—some of the problems that were visible early on resolved opposite what I thought they would be, like Haru’s love interest. I like the way the dynamics played out, and how things that could have been little things if they’d all been together, if they’d all grown up normally, became in the end such a disaster.

On a technical level, the animation was pretty good, and I enjoyed seeing all the little details that were actually animated. This is a good-looking show, even when it’s going for more of a body-horror vibe (seriously, go look up the way Akiyuki actually transforms. He’s basically melting into a new shape that you can at best describe as humanoid).

I watched the show in dub, and in general that was a strong performance. There were a few minor characters who only had a handful of lines that sounded weird, but the major characters sounded good.

There were a few things that brought the presentation down a bit, though. I watched the show in dub, so I’m not sure if this is also true for the sub, but there were several points where the background music was loud enough to overwhelm the characters speaking, and I had to turn the volume up to try to pick out what they were saying. (I don’t know that this would matter as much for sub anyway, since I’d have the text.) I also really wasn’t fond of that long poem about enemies that gets repeated three or four times in full. It feels like an overly convoluted way to try to express a few ideas, and could have been done with a much shorter presentation.

The series does dip a bit in the middle when it chooses to shift the focus away from Akiyuki, who is mostly out of commission for several episodes, in favor of developing a lot of the more secondary characters. At this point, I feel it would’ve been stronger to focus more on Nakiami, or some other more action-driven character, instead of spending so much time with the crew of the postal ship. And there are several decisions at the end that baffle me. Why do that with Akiyuki, after everything is over? And then take that long to change your mind?

Despite the snags, though, I did enjoy watching this, and am glad I stumbled across it. I rate this show Recommended.

Very Truly Run After (Travels with Michael #2)

Title: Very Truly Run After

Author: William Duquette

Series: Travels with Michael #2

Michael has gotten married, and more or less gotten used to his abilities as a Traveler who can cross between parallel worlds. Unfortunately, he’s now attracting increasing numbers of other Travelers who presumably want his growing collection of finders. Thankfully, most Travelers aren’t very good assassins . . .

This is a very different book from the first, but equally funny. Most of this is because Michael spends a great deal of time in a parallel regency steampunk world. It’s a world where everyone dresses smartly, holds to a strict set of manners, and is “packing more heat than a summer day in Las Vegas.”

Yes, that’s right. Regency steampunk with lots and lots of guns. Gwen has a derringer and is considered basically unarmed.

Mostly this is because the local wildlife is oversized and deadly, but it certainly made a refreshing read after the nonsense I read last week.

Michael end up there somewhat by accident, but given the number of people after him, he concludes it’s a good idea to recuperate in a place where his assailants have to go through an armed populace that does NOT take kindly to assassins.

Of course there’s plenty of “regency” in the plot there, too. One of the more amusing segments is Michael discovering just what that term entails when his wife provides several books as research on the subject. And then watching a similarly convoluted dramatic plot working out in the lives of those he’s become acquainted with. Also fun is that Michael honestly can’t be sure what’s exaggerated and what’s not when he’s trying to read about life in the colonies, so he more or less has to take it all as truth.

I also appreciated this is the only steampunk novel I have read that does not go on and on about dirty smoke. Whatever they’re using with their aetheric contraptions, it isn’t dirty like actual steam (which is one reason Michael can’t figure out how any of it works).

All in all, this advances some interesting threads on the main mystery of Michael’s family and powers, and also provides a host of new and fun characters. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Vikings at Dino’s: A Novel of Lunch and Mayhem (Travels with Michael #1)

Title: Vikings at Dino’s: A Novel of Lunch and Mayhem

Author: William Duquette

Series: Travels with Michael #1

Michael just wants to eat lunch in peace. But when every attempt to go out to his favorite diners is met by pillaging Vikings, it’s hard to see lunch as a break. Between Vikings, Mongol hordes and a Roman legion, his small town is getting way too interesting . . .

This was AMAZING. Michael is a software designer who works from home and likes to indulge in going out for lunch. But soon that turns into an absurdist nightmare as various inexplicable raiders show up to loot and pillage those establishments. Michael has no interest in getting caught up with any of this, but he can’t seem to escape always being in the middle of things.

Basically, go read the sample on Amazon. The first chapter lays everything out beautifully. I love this kind of surreal comedy, where the events playing out could almost be a dream except real people are stuck trying to deal with the consequences.

And the rest of the book is just as funny, with unexpected bouts of seriousness (well, people ARE in real danger).

It was also interesting because Michael has a condition where he stopped growing at ten years old, so he has the body of a child and people tend to treat him that way. It’s soured his view on a number of things. Being an “eternal child” isn’t as much fun as it sounds. It does, however, make for some really funny scenes.

Overall, this was highly entertaining, and absolutely one I will read again. I rate this Highly Recommended.