Thursday, August 23, 2012

Answering Review Request: Shadow of Black Wings

I was asked by James Calbraith to read and review his debut novel "Shadows of Black Wings". It's the first book in the "Year of the Dragon Series". In terms of plot I can't tell you much (more on that later) but the gist of it comes in two parts: 1.) Bran is a boy fresh out of college and isn't sure what to do with his life. 2.) Conspiracies both mundane and supernatural brew in Yamato while the world outside it seeks entrance.

The book's strongest point is world building. I love world building; I love it when the author takes the time to paint the full picture. It shows attention to detail and a sense that the author put great thought and effort into creating their setting. In "Shadows of Black Wings" every scene and location is painted to perfection. Some books have characters moving in a void but that's never a problem here. I feel as though I could set foot on any location from Llambed Academy in Dracoland (The UK) to the Suwa Shrine in Yamato (Japan). This is not a 2-D painting either. Much exposition goes into the history Bran's homeland, its landscape and the ones he travels to, the local culture vs those nearby, differences between towns and cities, and, most interesting, the magical technology of the setting.

On another note, the languages. There are many languages in this setting and our protagonist, Bran, is not a linguist. Some other author would not bother with them and others would use a 'translation spell' or some other devices in a attempt to include many languages but avoid a language barrier. Not this author. The fact that Bran does not know the local language is a plot point and receives a chapter worth of attention.

A second strong point is character development. Mr. Calbraith has a knack for quickly developing characters. Just one scene and a name becomes a 3-D flesh and blood person. On TVtropes we call this "Establishing Character Moment" and it serves him well. My personal favorite is Nagomi's for being the most poignant and indulging in bait and switch to make me think she was something she was not. This added greater depth to her character right off the bat.

Another point in the characters' favor is that they dominant the plot. Every choice a character makes influences what happens to them and to others. One of my two biggest pet peeves concerning plots is the danger of them derailing characters to make themselves work. That's not a problem here.

The weakest point is the plot. As the saying goes, ' a stool stands on three legs' and the third leg of this stool is shaky. The premise states the focus is in Yamato yet it takes Bran 2/3 of the book just to reach the island.If Mr. Calbraith wanted to spend the book creating a world and characters, that's fine. I would have enjoyed that. However, there is a plot. He simply spends the whole book getting to it. Its a pretense of a plot that prevents from truly appreciating the setting.

I keep thinking 'is the plot starting now?'  There are many plot threads that are brought up and then never appear again. At one point, a man in Yamato schemes in the manner of a Big Bad. At another Bran fights a dragon zombie. Wars his homeland is fighting are mentioned. None of them are developed.  They do wonders for the flavor of the setting but nothing for the plot.

More importantly, failure to conclude the book's conflict is, in my opinion, the worst thing an author can do short of plot tumors. Yes, it is part of a series but there should be some kind of closure for the conflict exclusive to this book. This ending makes me think Mr. Calbraith cut the manuscript in half and published the first half as book one. Without a plot, the entire book becomes nothing more than world building and character introduction; a twinkie without the cream. Instead of resolving conflict its the opposite. Conflict is only just beginning in the final pages. Thia turns me off from reading the second book because I suspect the ending was crafted this way solely for the 'left hanging' factor. In other words, a way to prod readers into buying the next book.

I like the characters and the world they live in but the conflict truly begins at the end and so the book itself feels more like a travel narrative than a novel. I am interested in reading the second book but, because of the ending, its not high on my to-do list.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Shadow of Black Wings" a  C+. 

Click here for the next review request: The Trouble Shooter

Click here for the previous review request: Light and Dark: The Awakening of the Mage Knight

Friday, August 17, 2012

Watching Captain America on Election Day

I bought "Captain America: The First Avenger" for my birthday last month but until now I didn't have a good time to watch it. I decided there was no better than to celebrate my first voting day since I graduated from college. It did not disappoint. The plot was great, the characters are entertaining and well developed, and the visuals are amazing.

The follows a steady progression from "Steve Rogers the wimpy guy" to "Captain America the war hero."  I've seen Super Hero movies that spend too much time on 'getting to the superness' and not enough of showing the super hero in action. That's not a problem here. Steve kicks ass from breaking out PoWs to dismantling Hydra's network to the final battle on an aircraft carrier. Even better is how they show Steve is already a hero before getting an upgrade from the super serum. In fact, this is a plot point that defines the first act and his relationship with the villain, Red Skull.

A second point of the plot is the integration in the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. Steve works shoulder to shoulder with Howard Stark, father of Tony Stark the Iron Man, and the Tesseract that Red Skull uses to power his army's weapons is from Thor's homeword of Asgard. I really like Shared Universe because it gives a sense of a wider world; the story we see (in this case, watch) is only a fragment of everything that's going on. In fact  there's a discussion on TvTropes "The Avengers" page where the tropers debate why other Marvel heroes don't help out the Avengers when the Chitauri invade and one of the answers is they are; we just don't see it. With a Shared Universe that answer is perfectly reasonable.

You know you have a good plot when it follows character development. Here we have a plot that is driven by the ambitions of the characters inside it. Dr. Erskine wants to create a truly noble warrior while Steve wants to serve his country; their goals merge and become Captain America.  Colonel Philips, on the other hand, has different ideas of what the perfect soldier is and thus his ambitions initially clash with Erskine's.  At the other end of the pond, Red Skull wants to take over the world, not because he's a villain in a super hero film, but because he believes himself to be a 'superior man' whose arrogance was by amplified by the same super serum as Steve. The Howling Commandos are just as fun to watch, and fun to root for, as the hero himself.

Everyone gets their time to shine. Peggy headshots a Nazi spy from a great distance. Dungan,  Gabe Jones and Jacques, hi-jack a HYDRA tank and wreck havoc in the base they hijack it from. Colonel Philips is played by Tommy Lee Jones! And he knows how to a Hydra captive sing like a bird without touching them. By no means does Captain America hog all the awesome.

Finally, the movie is just really feaking cool. The battle scenes, the magic/science of the Tesseract, and the more low-key interactions between Steven and others like Erskine. Its a wonderful movie. I'm glad I bought. I might watch it again on the next election day.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Answering Review Request: Light and Dark The Awakening of the Mageknight

Daniel Fife asked me to review his first book "Light Dark The Awakening of MageKnight". The protagonist, Danny is a normal student when he stumbles into a battle between a white dragon and a black shadow creature. The next day he finds out the dragon was the pretty new transfer student he has a crush on. She draws him into her world, where she is a squire for the Order of the Light and fights the shadow monsters who seek to destroy the world.

It is not the most original of plots. Anyone with a drop of genre savvy could predict every plot twist in the story. Except for one which, appropriately, is the most important one of all. Even without that it is still a enjoyable read.
1.This isn't some half-assed cliche storm. Mr.Fife put thought into the life of the knight's community to create the full picture. The knight's tailor, for instance, has zilch to do with the plot but he is necessary for the setting. Someone's got to make the squire robes, after all, and someone needs to tailor them to fit the flabby rookies as they develop into lean knights. There's also a scene about elfin tea practices which serves as character development in addition to world building. It's one of my favorite scenes.
2. Another one of my favorite scenes is the squire duel. Mr. Fife knows how to write an action scene. He also knows how to give his hero a superpower without it turning in a gamebreaker or introducing a kryptonite factor to negate it entirely. All it does is level the playing field against stronger and more experienced opponents.
3. The transition from event to event is smooth and believable. Thus the pacing is enjoyable, except for one part which I will get to later. Mr.Fife does not rely on idiot balls to move the plot along. Instead it is powered by the agendas of many different people contrasting and meshing.
4. The character development is great, or more appropriately, it becomes great after the characters arrive at the knight school. Once he focuses on the main characters (instead of introducing new ones every chapter) they all develop distinct and likable personalities.

This book has its flaws. There are three of them and they're all in the first arc.
1. Pacing. Dragons don't show up until the fourth chapter (p. 18) and that is a brief moment. Answers and genuine world building don't come for another 7 pages. In-universe the pacing is also off. The story begins on the first day of school, then skips weeks to the first shadow, then a sixth month skip where apparently both the good and bad guys sit on their butts and do nothing, and finally a skip to the end of school. In 45 pages, only two shadows show up and Danny is just beginning to find out about them. If this were a TV show, all of that would be dealt with in the first episode, second tops.

I have a suspicion that Mr.Fife wanted to make Danny as identifiable as possible and this is the reason for the odd pacing. 'first day of the school year', 'bullies' 'crushes', etc. These had to happen in school for the reader to slot themselves into Danny's place. Once this is established, Mr.Fife has to make month long jumps where nothing happens to put his characters into a 'summer knight training school' where the plot truly begins.
2. Characters. There are too many characters introduced early on that are not important. It's a waste of space and a drag on the storyline. Their characterization is also a problem. No one has a solid character in the first arc; not Danny, not Sabrina, no one. I referred to them as 'average guy' and 'pretty new girl' until they arrived at the knight academy. Danny's friends are even worse; they're names with a biography attached. All of them are better characterized by the end but that doesn't justify their poor characterization at the start.
3. Construction. Normally I praise world building but only if it serves to build the full picture. What Mr.Fife did in the first arc violates the Law of Conservation of Detail. He introduces half a dozen characters in the first arc who will never be seen or heard from again; builds a school environment; starts the story on the first day of school when the meat of the story takes place when its over. It's a horrible idea to build this setting and then throw it away.

Based on the first arc (the first 45 or so pages) it deserves an F. Based on the remaining 150 or so pages, it deserves an A or B. I can't reconcile the 'mundane school' writing with the 'knight school writing'. It's like they were written by different people.

Trickster Eric Novels doesn't know what to give this book.

Click here for the next review request: Shadow of Black Wings

Click here for the previous review request: Trapped On Draconica

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Aboard the Absolution

The first monday of the month is inpirational monday. I blog about stuff that inspires me.  (Yeah, I'm two days late for this month. Stuff happened).

This guy is T.O.M. 3.0 and he's the host of the animation block Toonami.  It aired from 1997-2008 every day after school and then Saturday only. Then, as I mentioned in a previous post it was revived at the end of last May and is again on Satuday nights. The "Toonami Faithful" gather then for a Toonami Twitter Party.  Thinking about him makes me want to start revising right now.

Toonami introduced me to anime and it has fed my imagination ever since. Those shows provided me with the inspiration to start fanfiction.  Which grew into an original novel that I plan to publish next month. I pretty much spent my childhood on his space ship, The Absolution, gorging myself on everything from action to comedy to romance.

However, the real reason T.O.M. continues to inspire me is that he's more than a host for a programing block. He's a character himself. He talked to the audience about the shows he broadcasted and rated games he'd played. Clip shows made from the shows would play during commercials. They weren't advertisements; they were philosophical and encouraging. I remember one such line, 'Believe in yourself and create your own destiny. Don't fear failure'. Then the screen panned out to reveal T.O.M. at a computer and looking silently at the viewer.

Because of him I'm a novelist today.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Review Request Red Flags

About two months ago I signed on with Book Tweeting Service to be a voluntary book reviewer. I listed my tastes along with my email and blog on their website for writers to see. They'd send me their work along with their request. Right now I'm on my fourth such request: "Light Dark The Awakening of MageKnight" by Daniel Fife.

I had fun reading "Trapped on Draconica" and "Nimpentoad". I was glad to write and tweet reviews for them because they let the story speak for itself. I'm looking forward to reading "Blood Skies" because the author told me the premise in a single sentence and the closest thing to self praise was 'I have it on good authority that they don't suck'. All of them fit my favorite genre of 'fantasy'.
It's been fun so far but I gotta make known a some red flags that pop up too often.

1. Claiming to be 'original' and other self praise

This is number one because it is the biggest turn off. I can't stand it when writers tell me how 'original' they are. One person even told me their work was going to 'redefine the fantasy genre' or something like that. No one is 100 percent original. I'm certainly not. I will gladly tell anyone who asks what my many influences are (a few are on the 'About the Author' page above this post) though I won't say what they influenced because that would be spoilers. Anyway, it bothers me because it's a Suspiciously Specific Denial; why tell me it's 'original' or 'engrossing' or other quality unless you, to some extent, think it's not.  The more you praise yourself the less likely I am to read your book. Let the book speak for itself.*  This leads into number two.

2. Not providing enough information

You gotta tell me what's going on for me to be interested in it. I like to know who the protagonist is, what their problem is, and a few things about the setting. I'd also like more details then 'average guy fights evil thing to save the world'.  Some have only told me that something is targeting their protagonist but not who or why and very little about the protagonist themselves. Others tell me what their book does, for instance, 'unites the mystical world and the scientific one' but it doesn't say who is doing the uniting and why. The less you tell me about your book the less likely I am to read it. However, the inverse is not true. The golden mean is a paragraph.

3. Your book does not match my profile on Book Tweeting Service
The page lists that I like 'fantasy, science fiction, and historical fiction'. If you email me paranormal, or romance, or realistic fiction, then you obviously skipped to the line that had my email and did not truly read my profile. I find that offensive. I will tell you 'Sorry, that's not my genre' and therefore waste both our time. HOWEVER, this point is number three for a reason.

If you make a good enough pitch, and it's tangentially related to one of my interests, then I might say yes. For instance, I received a review request from a guy who wrote a detective novel. That's not my genre but the detective lives in a science-fictionish setting and the author wrote such a marvelous request that I said yes.

If you send up all three of these red flags then, as the saying goes, three strikes and you're out.

*If the book has reviews by others and you want to attach them to your request, that's fine.