Tag Archives: highly recommended

The Red Winter (The Tapestry #5)

Title: The Red Winter

Author: Henry H. Neff

Series: The Tapestry #5

Having successfully defended Rowan from Prusias, the alliance is now ready to go on the offensive. Prusias, the seven-headed dragon/demon who claims rule of the world, must be defeated. Worse, the victory must come at the place that is the seat of his power. And always, in addition to Prusais’s menace, David, Max, and Mina must grapple with the mysterious Astaroth before his plans can come to fruition.

I can’t think of a more perfect cap to this startling and excellent series. Max, the Hound of Rowan, the son of the Celtic sun-god Lugh, is still discovering what his heritage means. Pursued by ruthless assassins that are actually his own clones, discovering new aspects to his power, and faced with impossible decisions, he may be Rowan’s great savior . . . or its destruction. David and Mia similarly uncover new depths of character, but my favorite has always been Max. Demigods that actually portray some fragment of the vastness and horror that an actual god might possess are rare in fiction, and Max has the unique challenge of integrating his humanity into his divinity, lest he become something worse than Prusias. “Never summon a god into the world,” he’s warned. And that warning is accurate.

I do wish I had reread the previous books before this one, because the story is both vast and sweeping as well as close, tying up a lot of the little hints and threads from previous books, allowing most everyone who survived this far to have their own little piece of the story (Bob and Mum are particularly touching). Connor surprised me, more than once. So did the vyes. The emotional highs and lows struck all the right notes, and there’s plenty of action and intrigue to move things along.

This has been a long journey that changed drastically along the way. From the humble beginnings of a boy attending a magical school, to the world-altering disaster that followed, to the covert rebellions, then open war, then beyond, this has been an absolutely amazing ride and cemented its place among the best of the best. Read them all in order (preferably in a row) to better appreciate the little clues and subtle details. I can’t wait to see what Henry H. Neff writes in the future. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

A Mortal Song

Title: A Mortal Song

Author: Megan Crewe

Sora has lived on Mount Fuji with the kami for her entire life, until a demon and his army invade. Then she learns she’s not kami herself, but only a substitute—a human traded for the real kami princess, a hedge against a prophecy of darkness that her parents hoped wouldn’t happen until the kami girl had grown strong enough to handle it. With the only home she’s ever known in danger, Sora is determined to save it . . . even if she is destined to be nothing more than support for the real princess.

This was fascinating on a number of levels. Sora wants desperately to be the hero. It’s her mother and father, her friends, her people that are suffering under the brutal tyranny of the invaders. Nor is the wider world immune, for without the kami’s guiding influences, various natural forces will get more and more unbalanced. But wish as she might, she continues to stumble across her own weaknesses and inadequacies. The need for food. The need to rest. The terrible truth that her inner self is changeable, not an incarnation of strength like Takeo’s nature is to loyalty. And the humiliation that another girl exists, a kami that is everything she thought she was.

The people around her are fascinating, too. Takeo’s loyalty is to the princess—but which one? Sora can’t figure out if their friendship since childhood will put her above the true princess . . . or if it’s for the best if he doesn’t. I liked the difficulty Chiyo has in accepting her own role, which is even more poignant because this struggle comes through Sora’s point of view, who is dealing with the same thing herself but is less able to admit it. Keiji is also a good foil to Sora, as his own humanity and weakness helps her to come to grips with her own. I do wish Haru had gotten more time, though. He felt barely developed, and once I realized his character wasn’t going where I expected, I was a bit disappointed not to know him better.

The setting is also wonderful. The story takes place in Japan, but since this is the world everyone knows, the story doesn’t waste time over-describing things that may not be familiar to a Western audience. In fact, the various kami, ogres, and other creatures justly get more attention. And what a nice variety! I knew a fair number of them and still found a couple I hadn’t seen before. Also some of the ones I had given up on seeing made a surprise appearance right before the end.

And the ending! I kept wondering if the prophecy would play out straight or get subverted, like the whole plot has subverted the typical tropes. I think it’s a testament to how well told the story is that it kept me guessing right up until the last. It felt like a very fitting way to finish things.

I was less fond of the romance, more because I dislike love triangles in general, and I felt that Sora’s new attraction happened really fast. But it never got pushed hard enough to overwhelm the rest of the plot, and I did like that it ended relatively positively for everyone involved.

The plot does wrap up well enough that a sequel doesn’t seem likely. Still, this was a very good read, and one I’m likely to come back to again and again. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

God Eater 2: Rage Burst (PS4/Vita)

The modern world has crumbled under the onslaught of a new life form, dubbed Aragami. These creatures rise and eat everything, and cannot be stopped except by artificially-created Aragami modified to be weapons. These God Arcs are wielded by humans synced to them, the God Eaters. You play a user-defined protagonist who just tested positive for compatibility for your own God Arc.

I bought this game almost by accident. I hadn’t really heard of it, and all the comparisons to Monster Hunter left me doubtful if I would enjoy it. But it had some Tales crossover appeal (some God Eater costumes and monsters appeared in Zestiria, and some Zestiria costumes were a day one bonus for God Eater), and the combat didn’t look too bad. I ended up getting the game and quickly fell in love.

The gameplay is really fast-paced. You have a home base where you can talk to other characters, craft or buy things, or accept missions. Once you’ve chosen a mission, you can leave, and you’ll be deposited on the field. The Aragami aren’t trying to hide from you, and will show up on your map, so it’s generally very quick to get into the action. And for about the first half of the plot, the individual missions are pretty fast to complete. Later in the game, partially due to the increased number of enemies, it started taking longer, but an average mission could still be 10-15 minutes.

If multiplayer is more your thing, then the game does have a multiplayer mode. I don’t really care for multiplayer and never tried it, but it does give the option of doing the more difficult missions with real people instead of the NPCs. That said, those NPCs are really good at staying alive (although the ones with shields tend to be better than the ones with only guns, as those characters can’t block). They may not melee half as well as you, but they can resurrect you and heal you, and it was very rare for them to die more often than I did.

The God Arcs have spoiled me for weapons from other games. Your single weapon transforms between shield, gun, and melee weapon of choice. You have three types of shield, four types of gun, and six types of melee weapon. Although you can’t switch equipment mid-mission, you can switch between missions. I really enjoy the ability to switch between short range and long range attacks on the fly. Your melee attacks charge an energy meter used to fire your gun, so battles are generally an initial volley (or for the blast gun, you can stockpile the meter) followed by some melee where you can drop a bullet or three every time you’ve got enough for another shot.

The game provides a number of bullets but you can also customize your own. This isn’t well explained in the game, but plenty of recipes exist online, or you can modify the bullets provided by the game and test them in the bullet editor before bringing them out on the field.

Although bullets tend to deal more overall damage, melee has its own tricks in the form of Blood Arts, which can modify various aspects of your attack to be more powerful. A well-aimed Blood Art can easily do as much damage as most bullets.

It’s also trivial to switch between weapon types, as you can craft an appropriate level of equipment and the Blood Arts (or Blood Bullets, for a gun) will level more rapidly against powerful enemies. So it only takes a small number of missions to get to a comparable level with at least one Blood Art on a new weapon type.

The crafting system has a good amount of depth, but also some shortcuts. You have a list of craftable weapons, and anything less than rank 15 can be upgraded to an eventual rank 15 form. Many of the upgrades aren’t available to craft directly, but upgrading will allow you to carry over the previous form’s skills, and it’s generally cheaper than crafting directly. So old weapons can be made useful again for less than the cost of a new one. If you don’t have a certain material required to craft or upgrade, every mission has some form of Ticket in its reward list. These tickets can be crafted into just about any material, which drastically cuts down on the requirement to farm. At worst, you’ll just have to redo a mission with the appropriate ticket reward instead of worrying about getting a rare drop. (Now, the menus could absolutely stand to be broken up better so you don’t have to scroll so far, but if that’s the worst I can say about it I’m still very happy.)

Clothing can also be crafted. Thankfully, this is cosmetic only, so you can dress your protagonist however you please. And although I hated a lot of the female outfits, I could still find a large number of combinations I liked. (Some NPCs have additional outfits, but sadly will only wear them during missions.)

The plot has good moments. I love the setting: a post-apocalypse world full of broken buildings haunted by monsters. I liked the plot, as generally the story comes in pretty small portions between missions. So even the slower or more generic parts tended to go quickly. Although one twist in particular left me torn between admiring that they went there and irritated at what it meant for my mission teams. There’s also the ability to watch any previous cutscene via the big monitor in Fenrir or the terminal in your room in the Far East.

Gilbert is my favorite character. He’s not as childish or enthusiastic as Nana or Romeo, but his reserve tends to break down in battles (he has some amusing lines on the field. Just try passing him a bullet or pay attention when the Aragami runs away). Out of battle, he’s highly conscious of the responsibility and danger of being a God Eater; his experiences in his former unit earned him the nickname Fragging Gil. He’s also not easy to fool–I particularly liked what he did in a confrontation in chapter 14. I also liked Julius and Tatsumi (I like responsible leader-types).

The music is generally excellent as well. They range from sweeping orchestral themes to quiet piano melodies to more of a rock style. Missions often allow you to choose background music (sometimes the plot missions won’t, but if you replay them you can pick whatever you want). As a nice bonus, once you reach rank 15, the jukebox unlocks, so the out-of-battle music can be entirely your choice (including no music).

I have very few criticisms of the game. This was originally designed for the Vita and it shows in a few ways. The battle arenas are a good size, but can get repetitive since new fields are few and far between until the end, but the glut of new fields there tends to be recolors of the same layout. And the out of battle areas are a few tiny rooms in your headquarters. I wish some of the menus (especially material crafting) had a better layout to avoid the enormous amount of scrolling required when you have the full list of endgame craftable items. And I wish certain monsters showed more in individual missions so I don’t have to keep playing a string of survival missions just to fight them.

Overall, this is the kind of game that exactly suits me as someone who likes anime-styled action games with some deep RPG mechanics (which is obvious when I consider that the only other game that even comes close in playtime for me is Tales of Graces and that was with multiple playthroughs). I don’t remember what my hour count was when I first beat the plot, but I’ve been taking it slowly and although I’ve run out of story, I still have the various extra missions and challenge missions I’m working through. Currently I’m around 175 hours in and still having a blast. I’ve changed weapon types a few times and am still working on mastering all the skills, building an ultimate set of equipment, and so on. It is more than possible to beat this game in a fraction of that time, if you’re just looking to rush to the end. If you like the Tales games, or are simply looking for a fast-paced action game, I would highly recommend checking this out. I would also suggest getting the Day One edition, as it includes God Eater Resurrection (a remake of the first game with some updated mechanics) for free.

Jhereg (Vlad Taltos #1)

Title: Jhereg

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos #1

Vlad Taltos is a mobster and assassin, and he’s just landed a contract so lucrative he’ll be set for life. If, that is, he doesn’t botch the job. Because this time his target is also a Jhereg, who knows how the game is played. It won’t be an easy kill, but if he can’t pull it off, Vlad won’t be alive to worry about the consequences . . .

I FINALLY got my hands on a copy of Jhereg, which I immediately devoured. It’s hard to believe this is the first book, and that’s not just because Steven Brust went and wrote prequels filling in some of the history Vlad so casually tosses out. The worldbuilding is immense, but tight—and having already read most of the other books, I can catch a lot of Vlad’s references (and I was pleased this book filled in some of the holes). But we already have Vlad, happily married to the woman who once killed him; his Dragaeran friends Morrolan, Aliera, and Sethra, who are all unique and dangerous; Daymar the innocently terrifying Hawklord, and on, and on.

They’re a great cast of characters, and each one already showing some snippets of untold amazing stories about how Vlad got involved with them. If this had been the first book I’d read, I’d still have wanted to track down everything just to see how this wildly different group of people had gotten so enmeshed in each other’s friendships. Morrolan, for example, is an extremely honorable Dragonlord—who not only has Vlad on staff, but calls him a friend (and given the lengths Vlad is willing to go for him, the friendship is mutual). It’s a testament to how well the series as a whole hangs together that most of those little details do get expanded in some book or other.

And this is in some ways an origin story for Vlad himself. We see him as he witnesses his first assassination, and as he bonds with Loiosh, his jhereg familiar. But the story never lingers on the past, preferring to hurtle along with Vlad’s present task of dispatching a man who is very, very difficult to kill. In many ways, the target has thought everything out perfectly. But as Vlad likes to point out, anyone can be assassinated.

The humor is perhaps a touch less developed than some of the later books, but still very present and very funny. Each chapter starts with some pithy saying, like: “You can’t put it together again unless you’ve torn it apart first.”

All in all, this is a great read whether or not you’ve read any of the other books, or whether or not you intend to. Like most of the series it’s basically a stand alone story set within a complex universe, and it plays out some small piece of the life of a very interesting man. I rate this book Highly Recommended.

Hawk (Vlad Taltos #14)

Title: Hawk

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos #14

Vlad’s slipping. He’s still in the city—he can’t tear himself away from the chance to see his wife, his son. And the Jhereg know it. Dodging the assassins is getting harder and harder, and sooner or later he’s not going to be lucky enough to make it. Which means it’s time to gamble, big time, on a scheme that has a chance to pull him out of this mess. But in order to earn Jhereg forgiveness, he’s going to have to offer something spectacular . . .

This is one of my favorite Vlad books. He’s so tired, desperate, cornered, but that doesn’t mean his scheming is any more straightforward. The action and tension ratchet up as he puts everything on the line for the merest chance he can call the entire Organization off his back. And after everything he’s been through on the run, it’s heartening to see a possible end in reach.

And the humor, as usual, is great. From Vlad’s amazingly funny explanation of cutting his own throat to him trying to figure out Daymar to his usual wry quips, there’s plenty of amusement to lighten the increasingly terrible situation he’s stuck in. At this point, Vlad’s not the only target, and he knows it.

All in all, this has me almost upset because I only have two more Vlad books before being caught up. I rate this book Highly 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.”
“Yeah.”
“And worse, you enjoy it.”
“Yeah.”
“You’ve missed being a bully all these years.”
“Yeah.”
“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.

Audiobook Roundup

Vacation means lots of time to read, and lots of hours for audiobooks in the car.

Sabriel by Garth Nix – At first impression, it’s odd to hear a male narrator, but before very long I was sold. Tim Curry has a range of voices for Abhorsen, Kerrigor, and especially Mogget. And unlike some male narrators, he doesn’t get whiny when reading female dialog. He’s got great expression. All in all, a great narrator paired with a great book. Highly Recommended.

I also made it through Lirael, which is the sequel, and the same comments apply.

Riders by Veronica Rossi – Another great book with a good narrator. I was particularly fond of the various voices used for Bastian, Marcus, and Jode, so that you could tell who was talking before even hitting the dialog tag (if any existed). Bastian in particular was perfect—eager, a bit goofy, easygoing. Also Highly Recommended.