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Ascendance of a Bookworm Part 2, Volume 3 (#5)

Title: Ascendance of a Bookworm #2.3

Author: Miya Kazuki

Myne is ready for life to go back to normal after the disaster that was the trombe extermination mission, but the incident has much farther-reaching implications than she could imagine. She’s assigned a guard, and Ferdinand has his own ideas about what would be best for her future. But Myne would rather keep her focus on books. She’s working with ink, letter type, and inching closer to her dream of a printing press . . .

Although Myne is really good at giving everyone around her a share of her profits, she’s also really good at giving them a LOT of work. This is another fun-filled adventure of Myne driving everyone casually insane as they try to keep up with her.

The focus is gradually expanding to new characters that maybe showed up a little previously but now get a lot more spotlight. Like Johann, the blacksmith Myne prefers. Poor Johann used to LIKE Myne’s orders, until she decides to go all in on a printing press and now wants dozens of tiny little letter stamps that all have to be perfect.

Overall this is another solid chapter in the drama of Myne’s eternal obsession with books. I rate this story Highly Recommended.


Title: Impyruim

Author: Henry H. Neff

It’s been 3000 years since Max, David, and Mina won the war against Astaroth. The Faeregine have ruled since then, expanding their dominion until they control most of the world. Hazel Faeregine is the youngest of the triplet Faeregine sisters. She has no interest in the throne, only her magic. But simply being a Faeregine comes with dangers and expectations . . .

Hob is a poor miner in the mountains until an unexpected opportunity brings him to the capital. Here, he finally has a chance to help overthrow the Faeregine family’s 3000-year rule, which he hopes will bring a better life for all the non-magical people who suffer under the current policies. But revolutions are tricky business, and Hob is only one player in a much larger game . . .

I’m glad we get a chance to return to this world, although the huge time-skip means it’s not necessary to read the Tapestry books before this one (although I would highly recommend it anyway because they are excellent). This is a different sort of story, with various powers clashing and two kids caught in the middle of things.

Hazel and Hob are both good characters, although I preferred Hob for his determination and his competence. Both Hob and Hazel are considerably less able to influence their situations than one might expect. The ending also leaves Hob particularly in an inconclusive situation, which I wouldn’t mind as much if there was definite news of a sequel. It’s otherwise irritating to get so many hints that big things are stirring without being able to see many of them worked out.

My only downside is that the book felt somewhat long for a payoff that feels like it ought to take more than one book. The whole war with the demons issue is important, but the heart of the book is more with the struggle between the caste system that’s grown up around magic-users versus non-magicians, with the new technologies the Workshop could unlock against the way people have always lived, with the old and inflexible Spider Empress and the extremely young heir to the throne. Those conflicts, as well as a certain necromancer still in the wild, would be plenty of material for future story.

All in all, it’s a solid beginning, and I hope it will be a series of its own. There are some nods to fans of the Tapestry books, though mostly those times are treated like the ancient history they now are. I rate this book Recommended.

Sethra Lavode (Khaavren Romances #5)

Title: Sethra Lavode

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Khaavren Romances #5 (The Viscount of Adrilankha #3)

Kana’s defeat at Dzur Mountain hasn’t slowed the Dragonlord much. But it has taught him to work more carefully around Zerika’s advantages. He’s laying the groundwork for a decisive blow. And Grita, together with the outcast Phoenix Illista, is determined to take revenge on Khaavren and his friends.

Meanwhile, Zerika struggles with the realities of running an Empire (at least, those pieces of the old one that now recognize her as Empress). Khaavren cannot make peace with his son’s determination to marry outside his House, and he’s bothered, as well, by some of the decisions his new Empress has seen fit to make. He’s loyal to the Empire, but he’s no longer sure about the Empress . . .

This book has a number of nods to various things that come up in the Vlad Taltos books, such as the Teckla on Tazendra’s estate, which help with the feeling of the books as a history to the events in those days. Morrolan continued to amuse me, especially when he finally gets his chance to get revenge (and how apologetic the book gets trying to describe his particular method of insult).

The climactic battle with Kana that’s been building finally comes to a head. I liked how such a complicated scheme met its undoing in a few simple, impossible to predict, very human interactions. Luck and chance play a small but vital role, as these are not pieces on a chessboard but people who will, occasionally, act out of character (or within character but to an unexpected degree).

Overall this is a good cap on the series, though I think the second book (and the bits with Morrolan in this one) is my favorite of the lot. I rate this book Recommended.

Five Hundred Years After (Khaavren Romances #2)

Title: Five Hundred Years After

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Khaavren Romances #2

Despite the promising beginnings of friendship, Khaavren is the only one of his four comrades left in the Phoenix Guard. He’s been alone for hundreds of years, growing quieter, but still strongly committed to his duty. The Empire has been suffering from the neglect (and foolishness) of the Emperor, but as conspiracies threaten to unravel the kingdom, Khaavren determines to do what he must to protect his king and his country. Even if it does set him at odds with old friends.

This was more interesting to me than The Phoenix Guards. Knowing the end from the beginning—that Adron’s Disaster is the focus of the book—lends a certain tragedy to the whole affair. This is echoed in Khaavren himself, who started The Phoenix Guards by stumbling into a set of fast friends, but who starts this one alone. He alone remained in the Phoenix Guards, he alone has found neither friend nor spouse nor obsession to replace them, and he has tempered his original enthusiasm with almost a melancholy devotion to his duty.

Even when the circumstances bring him back together with his old friends, his duties hold them apart. Khaavren’s job is to carry out the will of an Emperor whose decisions are increasingly worsening the situation instead of improving it. Although he’s also influential enough, in his own way, to push for better courses of actions when he can.

This is also funny on a number of levels. For one, the assassination attempts against Khaavren. It’s a continual source of frustration to the powers that want him dead, and an amusing experience for the reader, who can see how little Khaavren expects any of them, yet how perfectly the situations work out in his favor. I also thought it was fun how he meets Daro, and what attracts him to her (she gets fired).

All in all, this book covers an interesting period of history in the Dragaeran Empire, one referenced a number of times in the Vlad books, but would stand alone just fine. I rate this book Recommended.

Dzur (Vlad Taltos #10)

Title: Dzur

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos #10

Vlad has gone back to his old territory in Adrilankha. Things aren’t quite how he left them, or how he expected it to go. Cawti’s having trouble keeping the Jhereg out of her area, since she won’t run an organization like Vlad had. And she’s not one to ask for help, even if Vlad would drop everything for her, forgetting the price on his own head, to do it. He’s just going to have to take care of things himself, in his own way, like he always does . . .

Picking up only a few hours after Issola, this wastes no time dumping Vlad right back into trouble. I was amused at the extended metaphor in this book: cooking and murder. A perfect meal, compared and contrasted to those things needed to make a kill. And a several-course meal that sounds amazing, so have at least a snack on hand.

Vlad also has some of the best humor I’ve read so far in this book, and several quotes I like.

“It’s easy to consider everyone a sucker who cares about things you don’t care about. So who does that make the sucker?”

And of course Loish has several great conversations:

“Boss, you know you’re a bully.”
“And worse, you enjoy it.”
“You’ve missed being a bully all these years.”
“I’m proud to know you.”

And several situations I refuse to spoil because they’re just too funny walking in blind. (In particular, a certain character who has been joked about previously has something of a role.)

I liked the Dzur, and the conversation Vlad has with one about heroics. It was amusing to find a people dedicated to the side of good—as long as the right side is heavily outnumbered, or hated by everyone, or otherwise has almost zero chance of winning. In other words, Vlad should probably partner up with one for the future.

All in all this series hasn’t flagged much, and I really like the direction it’s going. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Zeroes (Zeroes #1)

Title: Zeroes

Author: Scott Westerfeld / Margo Lanagan / Deborah Biancotti

Series: Zeroes #1

Scam’s big mouth is always getting him into trouble. He’s got a power that can help him say whatever is needed to get what he wants—but he doesn’t know what he’s going to say until it’s already been said. So when he hitches a ride home with the wrong guy, he ends up on the bad side of drug dealers, bank robbers, and mobsters. And even Scam’s big mouth isn’t enough to talk his way out. Problem: will his former friends forgive him enough to come to his rescue?

This is a different take on the whole superhero subgenre. The powers themselves are fascinating (and I LOVE the nicknames!). Ethan (Scam) can be the ultimate con artist. Nate (Glorious Leader—no, really!) can focus a group on a goal. Riley (Flicker) is blind, but can use other people’s eyes to see. Chizara (Crash) can destroy any high-tech device. Thibault (Anonymous) has to work very hard to make anyone notice him at ALL, and they’ll forget him immediately. And Kelsie, the daughter of the bank robber, can nudge the emotions of a crowd.

Really, you can’t go wrong with a book that has a character everyone calls Glorious Leader only half-ironically. (The ringtones the various kids have for his number is also hysterical.)

The powers mostly remain a mystery, although one Nate has been trying to solve for ages. I do hope he gets farther in future books, as the crowd-based mechanics is an interesting twist: only Ethan/Scam works best one-on-one. I’d love to know if he really is the same as the rest of them, or if he may be, as Nate once suspected, a different species.

The morality is mostly shades of grey. Chizara is the only one of them concerned with using her powers for good and not just for their own sake; Nate in particular was interesting to watch, as his power is influence, and he has a very amoral stance on just about everything that happens. So he’ll urge the group towards what he thinks is best, rather than try to build them up as potential heros. And he wants to be a politician . . .

Overall this is a great read, although people who find Ethan/Scam really annoying might be turned off at first, since much of the beginning is from his perspective. I’m going to have to hunt down the second book now. I rate this book Recommended.

The Shadows (The Books of Elsewhere #1)

Title: The Shadows

Author: Jacqueline West

Series: The Books of Elsewhere

Olive has spent her life in apartments. Beige, square, comfortable apartments. But when her parents jump on a cheaply-priced and fully-furnished home, she finds herself in a place stuffed full twisted corners and other people’s odds and ends. In particular, a number of paintings that conceal their own worlds. But the home also has its secrets . . .

The most I can say for this is that it just failed to grab me. Olive is a boring protagonist most notable for liking pink kitty cereal. Given that the main antagonist was a painter, I was expecting more out of Olive’s interest in art—or her gift of crayons to Morton—but in the end none of it matters. Morton, similarly, is just there, either to annoy Olive or to enable her plans to succeed. He has a more interesting backstory and more potential, but he doesn’t have a lot of agency.

The most interesting characters are the cats, particularly Harvey, who thinks he’s various characters from classic literature and even dresses up to play the parts. I liked all the cats, though. From the overly-formal Leopold who secretly enjoys a good head scratch to the disgruntled Horatio to the probably-deranged Harvey, these are the characters who stand out. It’s just a shame the book isn’t really about them.

Also, a minor note, but one that really bugged me: Olive mentions not turning off the lights as “the worst thing you could do,” because of the environment. This is puzzling. The WORST thing she can do is waste a few dollars’ worth of electricity? Apparently lying, cheating, stealing, killing, etc, are only sort-of bad, but leaving a light on is THE WORST.

Overall, other than the cats, nothing draws me to continue what is obviously a series. All the same, it isn’t bad, just run-of-the-mill. I rate this book Neutral.

Tales of Zestiria (PS3/PS4/Steam)

STORY: The world is in an era of chaos. Long ago, legends tell, in such times one known as the Shepherd would rise up to drive back the darkness. But the darkness closes in, and no Shepherd has yet appeared . . .

Sorey is a rare young man: raised in a village of seraphim, he’s never met another human. Seraphim are a race invisible to the eyes of most humanity, but humans like Sorey with a high enough resonance can see them. When a chance encounter with an injured knight draws him outside to the world, he takes up the mantle of the Shepherd and struggles to bring peace for humans and seraphim alike.

I greatly enjoyed the story, although it isn’t without its flaws. The humans-can’t-see-seraphim dilemma is played up more than once for laughs—or showing how other people outright fear Sorey for the incredible forces that protect him. I also liked the way Sorey’s new Shepherd powers initially grant him nothing but sickness as his body tries to adjust. Or how learning to use techniques such as armitization leaves him asking “How do I turn this off?”

I also liked the focus on one major villain throughout. Most recent Tales games have suffered from wandering plots but this one stays pretty focused. Sorey is told as soon as he gets his power that his duty will be to stand against the Lord of Calamity, but he’s encouraged to explore and grow stronger before that confrontation. And when repeated encounters leave him unable to best that individual, he diverts himself with gaining more strength and finding out more of the real story. And the Lord of Calamity seems more bent on destroying Sorey personally than with destroying the world (although he’s not opposed to that), which leads to some really nasty tricks.

Character-wise, I liked all of the characters. Sorey’s ruin mania (often exacerbated by a friendly competition with Mikleo) helps paint him as a mostly ordinary kid who got sidetracked into this whole heroing business. And it’s not unusual for him to geek out at some historical discovery (the skit with the bust you find in the museum is particularly funny, as it contrasts what the girls think of it with what the guys think). Mikleo, having a similar interest in ruins, is a good counterpoint since the two of them often butt heads about minutiae no one else cares about (and there’s a great skit where Rose is trying to contribute to their argument and failing miserably).

Unfortunately, the other characters suffer from not having a ton of depth. Edna’s teasing really grated on me at first when she was picking on Alisha, who wouldn’t fight back, but later on she had a lot of funny moments. (Not so much when she picks on Mikleo, since he won’t just sit there and take it like Alisha does.) But Edna’s main plot thread, introduced when you meet her, is cleared up via a sidequest that’s easy to skip, and it’s relatively little content for such a big personal issue for her. Similarly, Dezel had a lot of potential, but most of his story gets crammed into a set of cutscenes between back-to-back fights, and it took me reading some outside materials to really get a good picture of what actually happened with him. Zaveid could have fleshed out both himself and Edna if his relationship with Edna’s brother had gotten more than a passing mention. Alisha actually had a plot, but it’s barebones, rushed, and a lot of it happens offscreen (oddly, despite at one point being held for questioning, she never remarks on this incident, making me wonder if she actually had been detained or if that was just a lie told to Sorey). And so on.

The most puzzling offender is Rose. I liked her (well, until the Alisha DLC, which paints Rose in a really bad way in the beginning), but I don’t find her to be internally consistent. She’s mostly the feelings-not-thoughts character. But she’s involved in professions that favor thoughts over feelings, such as her job as a merchant, and she’s supposed to be a really good merchant. Frankly I thought Eguille should’ve been the head of the Sparrowfeathers. He seemed more suited to the role. On the other hand, she seems to be a vigilante, but you don’t see a lot of the passionate drive that would give such a role a context. Why is she set on taking out bad guys? That’s not explained.

Still, even with that, I had a lot of fun with the plot. The end is mostly satisfying, though a few points are frustratingly vague (I prefer to think the figure in shadow at the end is human, not seraph, but it’s basically up to you).

GAMEPLAY: This is the first attempt at an “open-world” Tales. The world map is now fully explorable at a detailed level. After Xillia’s ugly corridor layout and profusion of brown and gray, I really appreciate all the bright colors and beautiful visuals. I got the PS4 version entirely because of the cleaned up graphics. The plot isn’t too long, but I spent a lot of time just poking around maps looking at things or looking for surprises.

The battle system is a more or less seamless transition on the world map. You’re still bounded by a circular area you can’t leave without escaping the battle, but the field objects around you when you fight are now part of the fight. This is good and bad. The battle camera is generally okay for single player, but even there it tends to get stuck on rocks or behind enemies. I was disappointed in the after-battle victory quotes, as only one or two of them was genuinely funny and most of them were more boring stock quotes. Earlier games in the series had a great selection of victory quotes.

Also, the AI will die. A lot. On the flip side, the seraphim’s ability to auto-revive in the back row, or auto-revive humans on armitization, meant that I made it through the entire game without using a single life bottle.

Artes have been broken into a rock-paper-scissors system, which I personally disliked due to how insane this made enemy spellcasters (Yes, I party-wiped multiple times against the Wraiths. Nothing like ten of the buggers constantly casting tiny spells that keep you pinned in place until dead). It can be hard to distinguish if the enemy is using martial or hidden artes against you, and since they generally know how to screw up whatever you’re doing, this can get problematic.

More positively, most of the characters have enough uniqueness that they’re fun to control. Lailah takes some getting used to for her slow attacks, but her AOE spells cheese giant mobs if used correctly. Mikleo, though, I don’t really like until armitized, as his spells are outclassed by everyone else and his melee is only average. Zaveid actually has a funny quirk where if the enemy is half-human-female, he’ll change from attack cries to start catcalling them.

I also liked the new enemy designs and enemy types. Especially elephants. Because beating up woolly mammoths is awesome.

The skills/fusion system is far too dependent on randomness, even though there are a few methods provided to make it somewhat less random. Getting a good skill build is going to take a bit of luck or a lot of patience. On the other hand, I completed a Normal/Moderate playthrough without needing to focus too heavily on skills (the Medusa fights are one notable exception, because if you can’t get the stack-6 bonus skill to prevent petrification, you’re going to have a bad time. On the other hand, you get Dezel, who automatically has this skill on all his titles, for the required one, and the other three are optional fights). Getting the skills in the first place is hard, but once you have them it’s not too bad to keep upgrading your weapon through strategic fusion.

But, if you have the time and the inclination, it’s perfectly possible to set up a character with, say, 80% casting time reduction plus absurd boosts to elemental damage plus the ability to ignore enemy resistance to that element. Or set them up to ignore 300 damage from every hit, plus the first 8000 damage total in a fight, plus 10 seconds invincibility at the start of a fight. And if you use the NG+ option to apply double/triple skills 2/3x to the skill board, that only gets more overpowered. The options are wide open and “best” build depends more on how you like to play.

OVERALL: The complaints about the game are valid, but I still found it a great time and really enjoyed playing my way through it. The story is my favorite Tales so far, though I would still say Tales of Graces has better mechanics. I spent 80 hours on the main game and am working my way through the postgame dungeon and Alisha’s DLC (which was originally free but now costs money, unless you get the Collector’s Edition which has it included). A pure plot run would be a lot shorter, but I spent a good amount of time in the optional dungeons, exploring the field, and so on. I spent almost no time grinding, as the only time I needed to get extra skills for a boss fight the normin drops were sufficient to get what I needed relatively quickly.
I would add that the Alisha DLC chapter may turn a mostly satisfying ending into a somewhat frustrating one based on what I’ve seen so far. You do get the option to play as Alisha with a better moveset and the opportunity to use her Mystic Artes, but she can’t armitize, which leaves her outside the most useful mechanics (especially revive-on-armitize), which especially hurts during bosses. That said, it has its own content that can be carried back to the main game if you play from a clear save file.

I played the first game in English but plan to do another run in Japanese. The English voices are generally solid, but the dual audio ensures that those who prefer the original language can enjoy it. In addition, the music is excellent. The Collector’s Edition sadly only includes twelve tracks, but they include Rising Up and Journey’s End, two of the best in the game (none of the elemental temple themes, though). So if you like the music, importing the OST is a better option than buying the Collector’s Edition.

I will add the Prima guide is mostly useless, though the maps can help. But the text spoils cutscenes rather than give actual strategy, the data section is missing a ton of information, sidequests are all bunched together in the back and not indicated in the main walkthrough (and those aren’t even 100% complete either), and so on. So buy at your own risk, and in the meantime the free online guides are starting to catch up.
All in all, this is one I certainly plan to replay. I rate this game Highly Recommended.

Spell Fantastic

Title: Spell Fantastic

Author: Martin Greenberg

Like all short story collections, this one had a few I enjoyed, a lot I was ambivalent about, and some I’d rather not have read.

“Saving Face” by Kristine Katheryn Rush – I liked this one a lot. It’s a slower kind of murder mystery, where the main character isn’t directly involved but rather figures a lot out from the side. And his magic is small and not at all flashy, but important, in the way ordinary life is important, even if most people don’t notice it much.

“A Spatter of Later Stars” by Nina Kiriki Hoffman – This was mostly just there. It might have worked better as the opening chapter of a novel, because a lot of characters and gifts are set up, but the actual plot and resolution was a bit weak to stand alone.

“The Woman Who Loved Death” by Robin Wayne Bailey – Disliked. Death shows up, and Hell, but what Hell is/involves and what evil is blurs and confuses. The main character quite enjoys Hell because she’s busy sleeping with Death, and has more of a sense of her own evil deeds after she goes back to life than in the afterlife, which seems backwards.

“Sacrifice” by Michelle West – This is a twist on a fairy tale, although which fairy tale is part of the surprise. I disliked this for the horrible way the main character gets treated throughout, which includes rape and an unwanted marriage.

“Spellsword” by Jane Lindskold – My other favorite of the volume. This is a short story about a college-age young man who failed his wizarding exam and is out on a quest to prove everyone wrong. Magical swords and pterodactyls—how can you go wrong?

“Curse of the Dellingers” by Micky Zucker Riechert – The initial setup is awkward, although at least it carries through the theme well. But I didn’t care for it overall because the only magic was a curse that made people do horrible things.

“For the Life of Sheila Morgan” by Dennis L. McKiernan – Disliked. The main character was irresponsible and petty, and it was hard to want things to work out for her at all.

“The Sagebrush Brujo Meets the Last of the Platters Or Why Do We Live in LA?” by John DeChancie – This one will depend on how much you like the narrator. I didn’t care for him and his rambling, and the frequent pop culture references mostly cited things I didn’t know, although I can appreciate the end point about little moments of magic. It just felt like a lot of words for a tiny plot with a tiny payoff.

“To Catch a Thief” by Lisanne Norman – This one really puzzled me on the setting. I thought it was straight up fantasy for about half the story until it mentions spaceports, and suddenly there are alien races. This is another one that feels like a chapter taken out of context from a larger book, especially given the way it starts and ends in the middle.

“The Thronespell” by Diana L. Paxon – I liked how this incorporated the old Norse legends and the new changing face of the kingdom, and how the two young men become somewhat friends even though they have a vast cultural divide.

“And King Hereafter” by Rosemary Edghill – This would have been better if it hadn’t gone with the Hitler ending. As soon as I saw the year this was taking place the ending was inevitable. Which was annoying. And it’s also why I hate reading World War II era fiction.

“The Midas Spell” by Julie E. Czerneda – More of a sports story here, which was a surprise. The end was a bit fast but was understandable given the hints dropped earlier. Good but not a favorite.

“Embracing the Mystery” by Charles de Lint – The technology references are dated by this point, and the story meanders a bit in the beginning, but this was a good way to finish out the book. It gently points to the unknowable, the magic, and ends the volume on a hopeful note.

Overall this is a hard one to give a blanket recommendation to. I rate this Neutral, and I hope Jane Lindskold eventually collects this short story into a book with the others featuring the Albuquerque adepts. (This story references one published in another anthology; I think there are four total, all in different anthologies).