Tag Archives: recommended

Monster Hunter International (Monster Hunter International #1)

Title: Monster Hunter International

Author: Larry Correia

Series: Monster Hunter International #1

Owen Pitt’s attempt at a normal life blew up in his face when his boss turned into a werewolf and tried to eat him. Now the former accountant is looking into a new career: hunting the creatures everyone has been told doesn’t exist. But strange visions and an ancient evil plague Owen, and his life is about to get a lot more interesting . . .

This was pretty good, although I’m not in the group that finds the opening scene the best thing ever (guess I just never had bosses that terrible?). The monsters range from werewolves and vampires to much more obscure creatures, which makes me happy (even if the main point is to kill pretty much all of them). The wendigo was a particularly nice surprise.

The action layers with the mystery. I liked how even though Owen is in training to become a big bad monster hunter, he’s also stuck in the middle of mystical visions he can’t control or explain. All the gun talk does go over my head, though I didn’t find it excessive. It’s also a pretty funny story.

I was a bit thrown off by the prose avoiding contractions, which was more noticeable towards the beginning. It made the text sound necessarily stilted.

Overall I enjoyed this, and will probably continue with the series. I rate this book Recommended.

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The Cult of Unicorns (Penny White #2)

Title: The Cult of Unicorns

Author: Chrys Cymri

Series: Penny White #2

Penny is balancing a life equal parts fantastic and mundane. She has a gryphon and a snail shark in her house, and is a liaison to a parallel world of dragons and other mythical creatures, but she’s also a small-town vicar. And that means sermons, baptisms, weddings, and putting up with an enormous list of petty annoyances. But people have been turning up dead, and the wounds look like they could be from unicorns . . .

This is as crazy and as funny as the first book. Penny mostly deals with stubborn or completely clueless people in her role as vicar, which demands a lot of patience. I like how several characters challenge her on her habit of stretching the truth. In some cases she might be justified, but most of the time it’s just trying to avoid trouble, and even though she doesn’t agree with them I like seeing her called out on it. Penny tends to go for the solution that doesn’t ruffle feathers, when everyone would probably be better off if she instead offered a bit of truth.

And Morey has cemented himself as my favorite character. He’s blisteringly intelligent, but he’s also a gryphon. Which means his perspective on things like hunting is that of a predator. He and Penny have a much better relationship now, but they still snip at each other.

The wedding was also hysterical. I get a definite vibe of “details have been altered but story is true” from so many of these encounters.

I am not fond of the heavy use of alcohol, and how basically everyone (at least in Penny’s circle) tries to drink their problems away. Penny almost reads like a functional alcoholic.

Overall, though, this is a fun story that tackles urban fantasy from the direction of someone of faith. It stands out for the authenticity of the highs and lows of trying to live out that faith, and for the unusual approach. I rate this book Recommended.

The Temptation of Dragons (Penny White #1)

Title: The Temptation of Dragons

Author: Chrys Cymri

Series: Penny White #1

Penny White is a vicar at a tiny little church in England. When she stumbles across a dragon that’s been hit by a car, she learns about a parallel world full of mythological creatures that touches our own. Penny is eager to learn all she can, but she still has a church to pastor, a possibly-murder mystery to investigate, and one man and one dragon competing for her attention . . .

This was sheer fun. Obviously written by someone intimately familiar with the various hazards and hardships of life in the ministry, Penny’s struggles as vicar were some of the funniest parts of the book. I really like that she has an active relationship with God. She’s not just someone who prays, but someone who sees answers to prayer.

As the notes rose and fell, I wondered whether God were giving me a message, or just having a good laugh at my expense. In my experience, it’s often difficult to distinguish between the two.

And of course, there’s plenty of fantasy, from dragons and unicorns to were-beasts and vampires. Also hysterical is that many of these intelligent beings have converted to various religions, and Penny mostly deals with members of the Christian church in the same location as hers but on the other side, which is a sister church. So when she’s not being awed by REAL LIVE DRAGONS she’s having theological debates with the cat-sized gryphon who took up residence in her home. Who is a stickler for a literal reading of the Bible, in contrast to her more liberal positions.

As I looked around the assorted faces – human, dragon, unicorn, vampire, and some for which I didn’t have names – I realised that the interview process had started. I was now going to have to mingle, answer the same questions time and again, and above all be friendly and approachable. It was time for Trial by Buffet.

I am entirely on Morey’s side about James, Penny’s brother, though. His behavior is appalling and Penny, in the name of charity, continues to enable him. Setting some rules or withholding some privileges when he misbehaves shouldn’t be such a problem. Frankly I think she’s not doing him any favors by allowing him to get away with everything.

Overall, this was just a ton of fun. I had a few theological quibbles, but the fact that this is an excellent fantasy starring Christians who are serious about their faith makes those a really minor point (and the arguments between Penny and Morey demonstrate that believers can be on the same team without agreeing on every little thing). And come on, there’s even a reference to Zoroastrians. I’m less fond of the love triangle angle, especially given that one of the love interests is a dragon (REALLY do not want to know how all these mixed-species “marriages” are going to work when some of them have vastly different physiology). But I’m really looking forward to the sequel. I rate this book Recommended.

Xenoblade Chronicles 2 (NSw)

Title: Xenoblade Chronicles 2
Platform: Nintendo Switch

Rex is a salvager who dives into the Cloud Sea for ancient artifacts to sell. But when a contract with a huge paycheck goes sour, he finds himself in possession of a legendary Blade called the Aegis. Her name is Pyra, and much of the world is out to claim her for themselves. . .

This is the first Xenoblade game I’ve actually finished, so I’m not going to be able to speak to how it stacks up to either of the previous.

I enjoyed the plot. I went into this blind since I bought it on release and have been playing steadily since then. The cutscenes had dynamic shots and a lot of movement (and quite a lot of things that blow up, which is always fun). And the plot had a lot of interesting twists, especially early on (the Gramps scene at the beginning of chapter 2 was especially funny). I think Morag was my favorite character, for her dry professionalism and inability to make jokes.

That said, I tended to take the plot very, very, very slowly. The game rarely traps you in one place (even if technically you are stuck on a ship or something, the warp functionality still works and you can go back to buy stuff or explore), the maps are big and full of secrets, and once you unlock the ability to summon more blades, there’s always another rare to draw or level up. Even at 171 hours I didn’t get close to maxing out the affinity charts of all the rare blades (this wasn’t helped by needing 165+ hours to pull the last 2 randoms, and the last sidequest blade took forever to finish the prerequisites).

Much of what I spent all that time on is optional, however, and it’s perfectly possible to clear the plot using only story-provided blades and minimal grinding. One nice benefit to being over-leveled, though, is that enemies won’t notice you if you’re too strong for them, so by the end of the game I was walking through all the story dungeons without having to fight anything.

The dub was good. The European accents were a nice change of pace, and I liked most of the voice acting. I downloaded the Japanese voices but haven’t tried them yet (I like being able to tell what my teammates are yelling during battle, as they will often have a “need healing” or “death” quote that reminds me to pay attention to them).

The battle system is really boring at first, but as you progress the plot it does layer on subsystem after subsystem, so by the end of the game instead of waiting on your turn it’s more about juggling what you want to do right now. Using your pouch items well can also speed things up tremendously, as boosting the recharge rate of your arts and/or specials means you’re able to unleash high-powered attacks more often.

The game does have some small annoyances that add up over the course of the game. Some of them have been getting patched out, so it’s possible that by time all the patches are available a few more of these complaints will be addressed. But for now, here’s what really needs an update. It didn’t bother me much the first time, but I could probably have cut 20 hours from my playtime if some quality of life things had been different.

The blade menus need more sorting options, like bonded driver, boosted stat (like trying to find Luck or Agility boosting blades), ability (being able to sort for something like Salvage Mastery would be amazing), or in the Merc menu, “best suited” or something that could prioritize blades by the number of requirements they meet. Because right now it takes too much time trying to find a blade that has the specific characteristic I need. In the same vein, Merc Missions desperately need a “repeat with same blades” option to help grind out the repeatable missions for affinity chart completion. In addition, if the affinity chart nodes would actually fill out when the requirements were met, rather than when the chart is LOOKED AT, Merc Mission completion screens could be simplified considerably, and regular battles/quests unlocking nodes could apply the bonus without forcing me to go back into the menu, find the relevant blade(s), and open the chart to update.

The Accessories and Aux Core menu is similarly a mess that could use more sorting options, like by type so you can see everything that does the same boost together and pick the strongest. And I’m not clear why it won’t stack similarly-rated copies of the same accessory or Aux Core (unrefined aux cores stack, so why not the refined ones?). This means if you’re selling them to clear out room, you have to sell them ONE AT A TIME. Again, this may not be a lot of time individually but it makes managing things harder than it needs to be, especially if you’re swapping out accessories like luck boosters to increase the chance of rare blades and then going back to your old build.

The rare blade random pull mechanic was fine in the beginning, and if all you’re trying to do is get through the game you can probably get a good number of them just by cracking open a few cores every chapter or so. But the gatcha system doesn’t appear to have any stop logic that will say something like “okay you pulled 100 cores so here’s a rare.” This makes getting the last few blades really annoying as it can take hundreds of cores. You can’t release blades on the screen where you summon them, meaning every so often you have to go back to the Manage Blades menu and clear them out. And there’s no good way on Manage Blades to see the stats together in a way that would make it faster to figure out what to junk. Actually, I’d settle for a way to “lock” blades I intend to keep (for field skills or other abilities) and then it would be more obvious what wasn’t a keeper.

Compounding the problem of blades is the fact that transferring them between users is tied to an extremely difficult to obtain item, the Overdrive Protocol. So you just got a tank blade on the healer? Great, either spend your limited supply to move it to someone who wants aggro, or bench that blade for the duration. By end game it’s at least POSSIBLE to grind Overdrive Protocols, but this involves maxing out an affinity chart on the rarest 4 crown common, and then releasing that blade. So tweaking team setups is possible, but not easy once you’ve run through the initial stack of Overdrive Protocols that you can find in game.

And I would have liked more 5 crown blades with less individuality per blade. The game gives each of them a personality, a sidequest, heart-to-hearts, and unique dialogue from the driver, which adds up to a frustratingly limited selection of 5 crown commons. No weapon has full elemental coverage. For example, if you want an Ether Cannon that isn’t dark/light/water/electric, you’re going to have to use a common blade. Some blades have great skills but an element that doesn’t mesh well with the team. And the story blades have a lot of overlap—three fire blades (one can be swapped, but that takes some effort to grind out Tiger! Tiger! if you didn’t get the expansion pass and its ether crystals), three water, a wind blade and an electric blade that overlap with some of the better 5 crown rares. . .

And the game ties certain driver combo (Break/Topple/Launch/Smash) to certain arts on certain weapons for each character. So if you want Rex to use Smash, you’re stuck with his Wind story blade because he has no other weapon type with Smash, and it’s not possible to get duplicates of that weapon. Since battles are basically just trying to set combos on the enemy, whether elemental or driver, having these limited cuts down on the kinds of parties I can build.

As of this writing, there is still some future DLC promised. New Game+ is my most anticipated inclusion, as there should be additional blades available (and, hopefully, the ability to retain the rare blades I spent so much time maxing out in this playthrough).

In the end, most of what annoys me isn’t required to beat the game or even do well at it, but it does drag down the presentation. If the gatcha could be rebalanced, some of the menus adjusted, the maps could get an actual compass, and a few more arts qualified for driver combos, this would be a much better game. As it is, if you like JRPGs, this is still good game to try. I rate this game Recommended.

Tales of Zestiria (manga)

Title: Tales of Zestiria
Volumes: 1-3

Adapted from the game, Tales of Zestiria follows Sorey, a human, and Mikleo, a seraph, as they journey from their remote mountain village into the world. Calamities are multiplying, but when Sorey takes up the mantle of the Shepherd, he gains the power to actually do something about their cause . . .

This adaptation condenses quite a lot, which means certain bits (like the bow Mikleo finds) get changed around a bit to fit the new structure. On the plus side, all the important scenes are still there, and most of what was cut was relatively minor stuff, so it doesn’t hurt the pacing. In fact in some cases the pacing feels improved since a lot of the additional explanation is trimmed out.

What does feel awkward is that the fight scenes tend to get cut short, or take all of three frames to finish. But I mostly bought this for the pretty art, and on that front it does not disappoint at all. Seven Seas did a really nice job including a color plate in front with images front and back. The story art is clean and has a lot of really nice frames of everyone in various poses. And the back of the volumes includes little gag manga that behave like extra skits (the nods to the game equipment screen—and making all the accessories Alisha’s fault—when the characters were playing around with the dress-up accessories was really funny).

Overall, by this point you probably know if you like the story or not, and if you don’t, one more adaptation isn’t going to change your mind. If you did enjoy the story, I consider the manga a worthwhile investment. It’s speeding through the plot fast enough that this is looking like a very short series, the art (minus the fight scenes) is generally very good, and so far it’s preserved all the high points. Recommended.

Vision Quest

Title: Vision Quest

Author: Pamela F. Service

Kate Elliot was used to a military family that moved around constantly. After her father dies, though, she and her mother have a more permanent home in an old run-down town in Nevada. Kate is tired of losses, and determined not to make friends. Determined not to get hurt. But an ancient Indian artifact draws her into the lives of two ancient shamans . . .

This story is more about the shared visions that link an ancient shaman boy with Kate and later Jimmy. The story can be a bit more literary, but still fast-paced due to the short length.

The characters are well-drawn. Kate’s grieving and loneliness has turned into a determination not to be hurt again, which leads her to isolate herself. She’s particularly irritated at having to rely on Jimmy for anything—because her mother will consider them friends, and want her to be social. Jimmy was amusing too. He thinks Kate is crazy, but when the visions start coming to him too he commits to helping her get rid of them. I also really liked his insistence that Pete’s racial slurs be correct—he’s less offended by the slur and more offended that Pete keeps confusing him with other nationalities, even after he corrects him.

Wadat’s portions were good too. He’s not sure he wants to be a shaman, but his mentor and father-figure is, so he’s sort of fallen into the training. He keeps having visions of a strange spirit who follows him around, but as he’s familiar with spirits in general, he’s not bothered by the visions as much as curious what this spirit might want. He’s used to placating the spirits, and if this one wants something in particular, he’ll try to do what he can for it.

Overall this is another solid title, though not my favorite. I rate this book Recommended.

The Reluctant God

Title: The Reluctant God

Author: Pamela F. Service

Lorna Padgett is the daughter of an archaeologist, and more at home in Egypt digging up sites with her father than at her boarding school in England. But when a chance find uncovers an untouched tomb, her knowledge of the ancient world is needed in an entirely different way . . .

Ameni was the second son of the pharaoh. Constricted by a life of duty, he longs for adventure. But his life has a destiny he never imagined, and soon he will get an adventure he never wanted.

It’s been decades since I last read this, but I still remembered enough of the plot for it to feel like a reread than a new read. The two individual stories alternate long enough to build up both Lorna and Ameni before the single event that changes each life. After that it turns into a race to recover the missing urn.

I liked the hints of mysticism around Ameni. He’s in the line of Pharaoh, who is considered a living god, but he doesn’t understand what that really MEANS until the mantle passes to him. He’s still a man, somewhat. But he has a different relationship now with the gods, and can speak to them and hear back from them. And the ways Anubis particularly keeps stepping in for him are really neat.

I’m not as sold on the message of Osiris being a god of love, or the other gods actually loving the people who worship them. That’s not exactly evident in the myths. I can go with it for the sake of the story, but it does pull me out a bit now.

Overall this is a fast read that has an interesting concept, but it’s not a story I see myself going back to. Still, it was an entertaining read. I rate this book Recommended.