Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Answering Review Request "Out of the Gray"

Patricia Gilliam asked me to read her novel "Out of the Gray". It's a science fiction political intrigue focusing on relationship between the Hanarians and the people of Earth. I will examine plot, characters, and polish and then assign a grade.
The first scene is terrific for setting the tone: a human politician and the hanarian ambassador are debating in a senate chamber on a long standing and controversial issue, and their sons wander into the hall because they're bored and strike up a friendly conversation. One of them even lends the other a dollar because a vending machine ate the first one. It does a great of job of (for lack of a better word) 'humanizing' the Hanarians so the following plot will play out like its author wants it to: turn the 'evil invading aliens' trope on its head.

Hanarias are people from another planet that have obviously developed casual space travel. They come to Earth hoping to be 'good neighbors' so to speak. They offer more advanced medical technology in exchange for nothing and the humans refuse because they believe the Hanarians are up to something sinister in vein of the Scary Dogmatic Aliens trope. There are no such things in in this story but there are Scary Dogmatic Humans. The Earth Independence Party may as well be a cult for all the controlling, indoctrination and race fervor they have. This is what I like most about the plot; exploiting political paranoia.

The EIP was born out of human fear of the Hanarians; their platform appears to be 'vote for us or the Hanarians will take over the planet'.  On one hand, this is funny because a politician will talk about these evil, sinister, unrelatable aliens and then the scene will cut away to one of them, who looks nothing but human and is bemoaning the fact that there's nothing good on TV.  On the other hand, it's not funny when people are kidnapped, experimented on, and killed because a xenophobe thinks it's the only way to avert the domination/extinction of his own species.

I detect two problems with this story: one of them is an element of the Evil Plan stretching of my Willing Suspension of Disbelief and the inconclusive ending.

For the first, the Evil Plan involves wiping out the entire Hanarian population with a bio weapon that they developed from something they didn't have until a day or two before they launched the attack.  The scale of such an endeavor; studying the poison, reproducing for proof of concept, reproducing it to the necessary amount to cover so many people, and then transporting all that undetected across space to not one but two planets....it's mind boggling.

For the second, I like a conclusive ending in stories. It doesn't have to be perfect but I want a clear indication that this book's plot has been resolved even if the Big Bad it is still around and still doing evil things.  Here I feel there's more of a 'the worst is over' kind of thing than a 'the day is saved but watch out for the next threat' kind of thing.  I feel like the epilogue would have been better used for this purpose than what is in there.

Overall I like the characters. The main ones are well developed and the minor ones are less so. It's hard to get a grasp on them at first because the story is split between two deuteragonist, Alex Verin and Rica Miller, and they never intersect. Thus, it's like there are two 'main casts' with stories running parallel to each other and influencing each other.

I like Jenard, the Hanarian ambassador, because of his sense of humor. He has an easy-going demeanor and makes jokes, some of them at his own expense. He can also be serious and there are hidden depths to him.
Rica and Alex I also like. They're admirable in their strength and desire to be righteous but at the same time they are not a 'I'm the main hero and I do everything' kind of teenage protagonist.  In this kind of story with what they have it would be weird. Instead, I feel like Jenard is 'the hero' of this story, who is older than both of them put together and a father himself.

Like I said, there are no villains this story but in terms of characters that is a literal statement. The only 'villain' to receive characterization is Kesseler and he doesn't make a formal appearance until after the halfway point. Instead there's an atmosphere that makes the EIP itself a character; a primordial As Long A There Is Evil kind of villain.


I spotted one or two errors but nothing bad or extensive enough to affect the score

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Out of the Gray" a B+

Click here for my next review (which was not a review request): Ophelia

Click here for the my previous review request: Ambrose Beacon

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Importance and Efficient Use of Mooks

This week's post is about the "mook" which is the Literary Term for the generic, low level henchmen employed by villains and killed by heroes. Naturally, this post will be most useful in action/adventure stories and otherwise genre that involves a good deal of fighting but it is useful in other genre too. I'll get to that latter.

A mook goes by many names ( "baddies", "goons," "scrubs," "drones," "small fry," "flunkies," "pawns," "toadies," "grunts," "minions," "lackeys," "underlings," "henchpersons," and "Cannon Fodder") but they all perform the same function: to be slaughtered by the heroes to show how tough they are or otherwise provide a sense of danger.  While some stories like to focus on the mook to give them personalization or backstories or the importance of this otherwise unimportant character, the classic mook is canon fodder. They'll likely wear helmets for depersonalization (and in live action so the same handful of extras can take the role of dozens.)

One prominent example are the Storm Troopers from Star Wars; those movies would not be so exciting if these guys weren't constantly firing at Luke and the Empire as a whole would not seem so threatening if it were nothing but Darth Vader and his non-action officials.

Another example are the Puddies from Power Rangers. Sometimes they fulfilled some goal or other for the villain, but most of the time they show up simply so the rangers can show off their martial arts before the Monster of The Week shows Up.

I'm going to use an example from a book that I recently reviewed to illustrate both proper and improper use of mooks. The book is  "Ambrose Beacon" by Alena Gouveia. (You can read that review here).

In that book, the initial enemies for the Ambrose family and their allies are these wolf shape-shifter demon things.  They are classic mooks in that they are a faceless mob of bottom-tier villains. One character explicitly states that their human forms are so non-descript that you couldn't pick them out of a crowd if you were looking for them. They are also classic mooks in that they serve a narrative purpose; establish the powers and skills of the heroes.

Before this there were demonstrations: Dinah snapped a metal bar in two and Cole spoke with wolves but there's nothing like beating on bad guys to really establish what the heroes are capable of. This is because the heroes don't have to hold back. Mooks are treated as Always Chaotic Evil nobodies and so the audience does not mourn them no matter how many are killed. Again, this helps when they are genuine monsters. What happens in these fights is really cool: Dinah grapples with one of them, Cole shapeshifts into a bear and one of their teachers blasts another with a beam of magic power. This is one of my favorite parts of the story. However, there is a problem.

Miss.Gouveia repeats this basic scene structure several times over and it becomes tedious. In Star Wars, there was a mix up of dangers: Storm Troopers, the sewer monster, Obi-Wan's fight with Darth Vader etc. This prevents the mooks from becoming tedious. In Power Rangers there is a sense of escalation; first the swarm of mooks, then the Monster of the Week, and then the villain would say "Make My Monster Grow!" and the final battle of the episode would be a giant monster vs a giant robot. Ambrose Beacon does not do either of these. Instead it's always an endless horde of the same sort of bland monsters so the scenes run together. In a later scene there are monsters that are stated to be 'more powerful' than the first monster but if there was anything that distinguished these two breeds of monster then I missed it.

Mooks can be used for more than just action scenes. Their purpose of establishing heroic skill or providing danger can be used in other genres. What they all have in common is that they have little to no effect on the main plot; they're like spice or a side dish. They support the main course.  For example,

A medical drama could use a series of minor cases of diagnosis to establish the skill of its protagonist doctor.  House M.D used clinic duty to demonstrate Dr.House's rapid diagonistic ability and his bitter personality.

A romance novel could feature a series of bad suitors to illustrate the difficulty its protagonist has in finding a special someone one. Ballads were fond of bit characters failing an Engagement Challenge to set it up as difficult for The Hero.

Mooks are useful at the start of the plot. They establish the strength of the heroes to demonstrate for the audience that they are ready to move on to bigger and better things. I suppose one could use a Zerg Rush to show power in numbers but then you run into the Conversation of Ninjitsu, or heroic Character Death.  At that point it's better to use single named villains but that's a post for another day.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Answering Review Request: Ambrose Beacon

Alena Gouveia asked me to read "Ambrose Beacon". It's about demons attacking this family because one of the children is the Chosen One. I will evaluate plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.

The prologue is fantastic. It delivers exposition and plot points without bogging down the plot, it has quick and effective characterization, and it is exciting and engaging. However, this made me worried. Whenever I see an excellent prologue, the rest of the book is poor. I don't know why this is this but it generally happens and that is the case here.
After the prologue with Fair Folk and demons and End of the World stuff there is a long stretch of mundane life with the Ambrose family. It works for characerization (I'll get to that in the next section) but it feels so out of place that it could be a separate story. This lasts until chapter nine. Getting there was difficult and the plot did not pick up at that point.
This is because the plot consists of the children running back and forth between their country home and their neighbor's (about 5 miles away)  and always chased by endless numbers of nameless demons that they ultimately kill anyways because another ally shows up or another Ambrose kid develops superpowers. The finale differs only in that it takes place somewhere else. I felt like I was reading the same scene over and over again, complete with someone saying "I'm More Hero Than Thou."

I'd say my biggest problem with the plot is paranoia, mistrust, and a general refusal for all the good guys to get on the same page and cooperate. You'd think that if all you need to do to create a superpowered savior was to create some half-elves, then there would be a dating service or something a thousand years back. On the other hand, this process is implied to be a crapshot and also that there's a long history genocidal-level bad blood between the two species.  On a third hand, you'd think the Fair Folk would get over it after two thousand years.

 However, there are some aspects of this plot that I liked.

I like how the Adults Are Not Useless which is normally not the case in stories like these. Indeed, one could argue that Harper, the children's uncle, is The Hero of this story because of his greater importance to the plot, protector status, and greatest character development. Jerry and Larry, two mundane police officers, take down just as many demons as the superpowered kids.
I also like how Arianna, the children's mother, dealt with the problem of 'which one is the Chosen One'. It is a delightful twist on this kind of plot line and to talk further of it would be spoilers.

As said in the Plot section, chapters 1-8 do not advance the plot. This is because they are devoted to character development. There are a dozen characters to introduce and most of them are plot significant so the story takes a time out to develop them. It is successful there. By the time the demons show up, all the characters are sufficiently individualized: Billie is the cutie, Louis the class clown, and Jerry is the father trying to balance work and parenting and tolerating his brother-in-law etc.

The problem is two fold: 1.) it's boring and 2.) it feels out of place.
After the mage vs demons thing in the prologue it felt like a let down. There's a plot line about a school dance, school bullies, parent-child relationship problems, and other things. It was a struggle to get through this stuff because it was boring. I don't pick up a fantasy book to read about this sort of thing.
I like to see character driven plots and that is the case here. Every event is driven by character decision (except for one Contrived Coincidence via Exact Eavesdropping) and we can see that thought process taking place. The problem here is that seeing many people's thought processes about many events bogs down the plot. Another problem is the all the ambrose kids and many of the adults have the same reactions to things, so it all muddles together when they fight demons, which is constant.
This book does not require proof reading; there are no spelling or grammar errors. It does, however, require editing.
As elsewhere in this review, a lot of stuff bogs down the plot. The PDF I read was 404 pages total and very little happened in that time period. Instead of rapid page turning (which I assume is the intention) I feel like I'm sloughing through it. Thinking of it as a Tv show, I'd say there's four episodes worth of plot material here; five tops. When you have a 400 page book, I'd expect something closer to 12.
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Ambrose Beacon" a C

Click here for the next review request: Out Of The Grey

Click here to read the previous review request "Blade Song"

This was a free review request. I received nothing for this review other than a free copy of the book.