Tag Archives: aliens

The Isolator: The Biter (The Isolator #1)

Title: The Isolator: The Biter

Author: Reki Kawahara

Series: The Isolator #1

Minoru lost his entire family the night someone invaded his home. Now he wants nothing more than to get through life without impacting others at all. No more memories, good or bad, for him or anyone else of him. But his strong desire to have a minimal existence has one major problem: when the alien orbs descended three months ago, one of them chose him. Now he has the power to completely isolate himself, but others received more malevolent abilities . . .

This was a lot deeper than I was expecting. It’s an excellent picture of both Minoru, who reacted to extreme tragedy by turning in on himself, and also Takaesu, whose twisted childhood set him down the path of becoming a serial killer.

I liked that Minoru really struggles with connecting to other people in the wake of losing everyone who was important to him all at once. Even though this book hints that some of the people he’s met would consider him a friend, he’s not ready for friendship. He’s defining his relationship with them by how quickly he can get rid of them, and how he can try to smooth over anything they might find memorable about him so he can fade into the background once again. Other characters don’t get him at all, but he’s got that quiet desperation that drives him, and he stands up for his own convictions.

This takes an interesting twist when he finds himself somewhat responsible for putting others in danger. He doesn’t wish on anyone else the same kind of tragedy he experienced, so he steps up despite wanting to keep a low profile. It’s also fun how he ends up using his perfect isolation to fight. He’s not a skilled fighter, and his abilities are entirely defensive, but he can do quite a lot more than I expected with them. (And the book never did answer if he will eventually run out of air if he keeps the shield up too long.)

It was also interesting how deeply the powers tied in with who the characters are. Minoru getting isolation powers is easy to see, but I loved that the villain’s biting powers made just as much sense. In both cases, the orbs latched on to an obsession in their host and amplified it past all reason. Given that, I’m looking forward to seeing more backstory on his new teammates, to see why their powers developed the way they did.

Overall this was a very nice surprise. The sci-fi/supernatural elements are flashy and fun, but also grounded in well-realized characters. I am looking forward to see where the rest of this series goes. Recommended.

Subjugation (Subjugation #1)

Title: Subjugation

Author: James Galloway

Series: Subjugation #1

Humans had dreamed of alien contact, but nobody expected the Faey to show up one day in a gigantic battleship, demanding Earth surrender or be annihilated. These blue-skinned humanoids then solidified the subjugation by using their telepathy to root out and crush any resistance. But Jason Fox refuses to surrender. His plan to do just well enough in school to avoid forced labor on the farms and then wash out to a quiet career comes to a screeching halt when he captures the interest of one of the Faey Marines stationed in his town. She wants him, and she won’t take no for an answer. Soon his little resistance snowballs into a far bigger fight than he ever imagined.

I’m really torn on this book. On the one hand, I love the detailed descriptions of alien tech. The ideas behind it, how it fits together, and how Jason scrapes by with obsolete components built to do something outside the original specs is a lot of fun. The plasma-based technology is interesting, and some of my favorite parts are where the story spends a page or more simply breaking down how the newest gadget works. Add to that the challenge of building a habitable base in an urban wilderness of abandoned towns, or the various prank wars Jason initiates, or the eventual real war that happens despite everything, and there’s a lot of fun to be had.

And the twist about human telepaths was really good.

On the other hand, there’s just no way I buy the “romantic” relationships. The Faey are a female-dominated society whose women are a teenage boy’s wildest dream come true: girls whose thoughts are dominated by sex, all have great bodies, and don’t mind sleeping around. All. The. Time. In fact the book gets pretty fervent in its defense of why it’s totally okay for Jason to be true loves with one Faey female but bedding anyone else he finds attractive. And his partner equally expects to be able to sleep around herself.

I don’t buy the lack of jealousy (he rationalizes the situation over and over to himself, but since when was jealousy rational?), or on the flip side, the way his roaming eye isn’t degrading his bond with his true love. I don’t see anything deep in his relationship with the woman he gets involved with. It’s a relationship that starts with her not honoring his “no,” and even though that drives him wild, once he ends up sleeping with her they’re golden. I could go on, but it boils down to Sex Makes Everything Better just being something that ought to work out better in theory than in practice.

(For a great counter-example, see Teckla by Steven Brust, where Vlad and his wife love each other but have irreconcilable political differences. And this is not because I think everything ought to end unhappily, but because it highlights the hard truth that holding to convictions can cost you, and which ones you choose to hold on to determine what has to be sacrificed).

Overall, whether or not you like this is going to depend on two things: if you like getting a lot of details about pretty much everything, and if you don’t mind or enjoy the way all the sex gets presented. I rate this book Neutral.

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.

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.

The True Meaning of Smekday (The Smek Smeries #1)

Title: The True Meaning of Smekday

Author: Adam Rex

Series: The Smek Smeries #1

Gratuity is a precocious 11-year-old who happens to get a first-hand look at the alien Boov takeover of the planet. Little does she know a chance encounter with a Boov mechanic on the run will pull her into a war that’s spanned the galaxy. All she really wants, though, is to find out what happened to her mother (preferably while not being shot at by aliens).

The writing on this is strong, with a good sense of voice and engaging main characters. Gratuity (Tip) is independent enough to tackle her problems herself, even when it involves a long drive cross-country through alien-occupied territory. But she still wouldn’t get very far without a Boov who calls himself J.Lo, whose mechanical genius is matched by his appetite for toxic substances.  And the humor is also pretty strong, much of it in Tip’s wry observations about her circumstances.

But I found myself losing steam as the book progressed. The literary style started into a lot of literary tropes I’m tired of seeing. Oh, here’s a homosexual who got beaten senseless because people are nasty to homosexuals (this is one sentence and feels more like trying to check an Issues bingo card). Here’s how the greatest problems with sticking the entire country into one state are mostly people of different races devolving into bouts of racism (personally, I think the far, far, FAR bigger problem that wasn’t addressed was the severe lack of bathrooms. You can’t just stick millions of people into Arizona and expect to have enough toilets for everyone. And that’s discounting the fact that Arizona is kind of noted for being rather dry, so are the aliens running the plumbing systems now too, so that everyone can afford to flush? What about toilet paper? My thoughts go here because a large portion of the plot does get spent in bathrooms. But you could make the same argument about basic shelter or hygiene or medicines. But the story never talks about people dying left and right, unless they’re shooting each other.)

There were others, but it was in the same vein. The second big thing that bugged me with the end was Gratuity’s mom. The beginning paints her as lovable but not quite all there, easy to manipulate, easy to take advantage of. Given that, I never could believe what she ended up doing (trying to avoid spoiling anything, but it was before the Gorg).

So . . . nice prose, sure. But not for me. I kept fighting to suspend disbelief with the setting, and I didn’t like how the whole book felt like a Message about certain Issues in addition to a story. I rate this book Neutral.

Gratuitous Epilogue (Touchstone #4)

Title: Gratuitous Epilogue

Author: Andrea K. Höst

Series: Touchstone #4

Marriage, kids… Cassandra thought she’d have more time before all that happened. But life had other ideas, and now that The Worlds Have Been Saved, it’s time to live life to the fullest. Muina continues to grow and develop, the Setari are finally able to get a break, and everyone has their own ways to make this planet home.

It’s really hard to describe this one, except as a novel-sized love letter to fans of the trilogy. Those who liked a healthy dose of action mixed in with the adventures of everyday life might find this disappointing. It mostly covers a few weddings, some parties, kids, lots of babies, and some intriguing events that could (hopefully) lead to future books.

I liked seeing where it all went. Sen, Rye, and Ys can be a bit too good sometimes, though. I find it hard to believe she’s not dealing with bratty or challenging behavior more, especially from Sen, but on the other hand, the diary format means much of Cassandra’s life is summarized.

And the end, of course, leaves open a number of interesting “What happens next?!” possibilities. So I can hope another Gratuitous Epilogue might come along. If you’ve read the series and really like the slice of life bits, I rate this Recommended. If you haven’t read the series, by all means do that first, and if the slice of life isn’t to your taste than this will probably hold less appeal.

Caszandra (Touchstone #3)

Title: Caszandra

Author: Andrea K. Höst

Series: Touchstone #3

Cassandra Devlin has forged a funny sort of life for herself on another world. Now her newest relationship is rearranging her world all over again—this time in good ways. Mostly. It’s not fun to watch the Setari rushing off to deal with monstrous incursions from other spaces, or trying to figure out her own very odd abilities before they manage to kill her. And as the biggest mysteries grow ever closer to becoming solvable, the enemies they face grow even deadlier.

One thing I really like about these books is how very lived-in this world feels. Cassandra has plenty of adventure and otherworldly excitement, including her deepening talent set, which no one has ever seen before. But the diary highlights the fact that most of her days involve living. Sometimes recovering in medical, sometimes shopping, sometimes exploring more of Muina. Dealing with little life issues like having entertainment companies make television shows based on your life. It really brings home how she and the Setari are people first, dealing with crisis after crisis as they come up, because they’re the only ones who stand between three planets and total ruin.

There are several interesting twists here, too. The plot slowly unfolds, and unlike many stories, it’s not going to fully explain everything—because as Cassandra points out, the people doing the plotting neglected to have evil villain motivation speeches, or leave handbooks explaining their plots, and besides that most of what evidence they have is very old. But what is there is enough, and it’s not only plausible but lends some very disturbing implications to just what Cassandra herself might be able to do, or how others might try to take advantage of her.

The climax comes well before the actual end, and I liked seeing the “after.” Again, it helped to show how much these are people, and that their lives do go on. (And for the curious, there is another book called Gratuitous Epilogue, which is mainly more life stuff, some of which has been hinted at here.)

It’s hard to say too much about this one without spoiling something good, so I’ll just say this is a very solid set of books and has quickly become a favorite. I rate this book Recommended.

Stray (Touchstone #1)

Title: Stray

Author: Andrea K. Höst

Series: Touchstone #1

Cassandra Devlin isn’t doing anything spectacular when she simply walks into another world. But wishing won’t get her back home. Now she’s got to survive in an alien world. Surviving in the wild is a lot harder than she’s thought, but nothing can prepare her for what she discovers.

I don’t want to spoil too much in the summary, as I didn’t read a whole lot about this going in (other than knowing multiple people who were crazy about the book), and I found a lot of the plot surprising in good ways. So I’d like to leave the opportunity open for others to be surprised too.

I really liked how detailed and character-oriented this is. It isn’t a survival/adventure story like Hatchet or My Side of the Mountain, where the main character is at least moderately prepared to face raw Nature. Cassandra has a backpack, a few school supplies, clothes that are in no way suited to wandering around forests, and no hope of return/rescue. And as she eventually realizes, no hope of counting on what she does know to be true, either, as she encounters creatures and things that cause her to accept she’s no longer on Earth.

I’m not terribly fond of the diary format, but I do like how raw and honest Cassandra is through it. Due to the format her reactions to events always feel a bit delayed, since we’re reading about them after the event is over.

The various “spaces” was also hugely interesting to me. I’ve always liked alternate dimensions (and various powers), and other worlds, near-space, real-space, and various abilities to manipulate things was a lot of fun. The technology levels also make an intriguing contrast to most of the lost-in-another-world stories I’ve read, and there are some interesting conflicts as Cassandra works through its implications for her personally.

MINOR SPOILERS:

Also: psychic space ninjas. Which is funny in all sorts of ways.  I liked the military feel, and the organization, and how Cassandra both fits into their daily routines and completely interrupts them. And I’m impressed that the book doesn’t cheat and try to ignore most of the squad members, even though it will probably take me a dozen readings before I can truly recognize them all. The major ones have enough personality to recognize right away. I really like Maze, or how Zan’s friendship comes out in all these understated ways.

END SPOILERS.

Overall this was a very good read. I am fond of stories about humans transported to another world, and this one really nailed a lot of the practical issues. At the same time, it’s a fascinating new world, and I’m interested to see where it goes next. I rate this book Recommended.

Bounders (Bounders #1)

Title: Bounders

Author: Monica Tesler

Series: Bounders #1

Jasper has spent his whole life keeping the secret of his birth. He’s a Bounder, a specially-bred human crafted to make quantum leaps across galaxies. Even if most of the time he feels like a spaced-out klutz, he’s got that program to look forward to. A place where he’ll finally be with other kids like himself. But when he enters the program, he finds there’s more going on than just another type of school. And once he knows, he has to figure out what he’s going to do about it.

I liked this. It’s got a huge cast of characters for a rather short book, but everyone is distinct enough that telling them apart isn’t much of a problem. Jasper narrates, but the reader can easily pick up on a few things he’s too young (or too distracted) to see for himself, like the reason everyone in his pod gravitates towards him as a leader.

The technology is a lot of fun, too. The quantum ships, the tube transports, and the Civilization-type game that everyone finds so addicting are all nicely detailed. And I liked how the technology brought questions as well as answers, as in the case of genetic engineering. Humanity decided to excise “bad” genes, only to find some of those undesirable parts actually had benefits as well.

Overall this is a fast, fun read. The kids are a likeable bunch, and the plot never slows. I rate this book Recommended.

Ambassador (Ambassador #1)

Title: Ambassador

Author: William Alexander

Series: Ambassador #1

Gabe isn’t planning much for his summer. Until Frankie, his best friend, is sent to California until school starts. Until the Envoy, an alien life form, asks Gabe to be Earth’s ambassador to the rest of the universe. Until his family life crumbles unexpectedly. Oh, and one of the aliens is trying to assassinate him. Can Gabe save his own life, his family, and the rest of planet Earth?

This was a pretty good sci-fi, although the way it ended left me somewhat disappointed. The Envoy is an interesting lifeform with some fun abilities, and I liked that it stayed to partner with Gabe rather than just granting him the role of ambassador and running off. This makes several later encounters with aliens clearer, as the Envoy can provide some of the detail Gabe has no way of knowing. They make a good team, and it would be interesting to see their further adventures.

I also liked the science, and how the ambassadors actually meet together (quantum entanglement, multiple dimensions, and basically videoconferencing rather than hauling everyone everywhere to some base that would struggle to keep the correct environment for multitudes of alien species). I liked the assassination subplot, and how that worked out. The Outlast was intriguing, and if there are future books I hope they go deeper into who these creatures are and why they changed their minds about conquering the universe.

I didn’t entirely buy the reason why all ambassadors had to be children (or childlike). This elevates one aspect of children while ignoring others—less maturity means less wisdom, less restraint, and in some cases LESS flexibility about others (because they haven’t lived long enough to see most of their assumptions challenged yet by life). I was willing to overlook that, though, since this is a kid’s book, and therefore the main character was going to be a kid, so it was for plot reasons as much as anything. And the Envoy (and presumably the other Envoys) was making an effort to select for actual character, as opposed to just picking a random kid off the street and elevating him to stand in for the planet.

I was also ambivalent about the whole juxtaposition of Gabe’s family being illegal aliens in America (sans Gabe and his twin siblings, who were born there). I do like how the book avoids outright judgement calls, despite the repeated references to the Underground Railroad. Gabe’s parents weren’t running away from horrible oppression and the meanie American government was throwing them out—it actually seems they had a relatively good life in Mexico, and his parents just wanted to avoid the hassle and possibly the expense of going through the paperwork to immigrate properly. Gabe, as a child, wants his family to stay together (though really they ought to be staying together in Mexico at this point… they’d be waiting a few months for Mom to join them, but she’d make it back). And the way the book ends leaves it unclear how and where his family is actually going to end up (rescued and then living inside their neighbor’s house would be my guess).

I get that this isn’t going to be an argument for or against illegal immigration. I appreciate that the story tries hard to stick to being a story. I was just bothered by the comparisons with Gabe’s family to the slaves escaping on the Underground Railroad. The story never says they were prevented from immigrating, just that they didn’t bother going through the official channels. I get that the system can suck. I get that his family is basically nice. But what they’re doing is undercutting legal immigrants and native workers, and taking advantage of things the country provides without playing the same role citizens do to support them. They get the benefits, but not the duties. For example, Gabe and his siblings go to school, but if his parents don’t have documentation, then they probably aren’t paying any taxes to support those schools. So I don’t feel much sympathy for the family getting found out, despite the story taking pains to try to cultivate that sympathy.

Regardless, the vague ending is more of a reason for me to hesitate on recommending this than the immigration. The last half page brings up a lot of questions, and it’s not clear what actually happens to Gabe or his family—did it work the way he was trying to set it up, or did something go wrong? So they can’t understand each other, which means what? (And for that matter, what did happen to the previous ambassador?) So, fun science, a generally good storyline, but a frustrating finish. I rate this book Neutral.

(Just noticed this book has a sequel, so maybe that helps, but I don’t know if I care to read it.)