Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Answering Review Request: Terran Psychosis

Votey asked me to read his story "Terran Psychosis". It's about this guy who insists that he's an alien that transformed into a human so he could investigate human behavior, and the doctor that's trying to figure out what's wrong with him. I will examine Plot, Character and Polish, and then assign a grade.

PLOT

WARNING! SECOND CHAPTER INTRODUCES A PLOT TWIST. I WILL GO INTO THIS DURING THE SECOND PARAGRAPH OF THIS SECTION.

Gordon Johnson is locked up in a nut house because he's insists that he's an alien and that he came to earth to tell the human race about the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The conflict is not his struggle to convince others that he is right, but rather his doctor to find the problem in his mind and cure him. The reason Doctor Kleen is so sure that there is indeed something wrong with him are SPOILER.

Tomato in the Mirror.

Gordon is telling the truth about his nature and his mission. The twist is that the story begins with him on a space ship and with other aliens rather than on Earth and in a mental hospital. It's more of a mystery/conspiracy story than the verbal cat and mouse that it initially appears to be. By the ending, it has branched out into a more straight-forward humans vs aliens thing with gray and gray morality.


CHARACTERS

It's a short story with four characters. There isn't much room for characterization. The characters are well constructed but they feel too much like pieces in a puzzle to be characters in their own right.
Doctor Kleen is a benevolent doctor
The Director is stern but reasonable. There's also a little bit of world building regarding her species. It's not relevant to the plot but it is an interesting aside.
Chorpash's Gordon persona is loud and colorful.

Evil Men in Black.

POLISH

In terms of grammar and spelling, I found two errors. In terms of writing style, it is engaging and flows well. Mr.Votey is equally skilled in 1st and 3rd person narration.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Terran Psychosis" a B+

Click here for the next book review (which was a request): Negative Thinking

Click here for the previous book review (which was also a request): Crimson Guard 1: The Apprentices

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Answering Review Request: The Apprentices-Crimson Guard Trilogy book 1

Andretta Shellinger requested that I read one of her client's books.  She is a co-owner of Wizards Keep Publishing and the client is Dana Journey. His book The Apprentices-Crimson Guard Trilogy was published in November and she contacted me to aid its exposure.  I will examine Plot, Character and Polish, and then assign a grade.


PLOT

The prologue is fantastic. It has this sense of epic battle while this wise old mage is doing something Last Resort like. A panicky boy runs in and underscores the master's calm. This master mage, Mantiloc, is more annoyed at this apprentice mage's lack of a spine than the invading army outside his doorstep. It's "the youth of today are pathetic" sort of grumbling that is stereotypical of grumpy old people. The context makes it humorous. Then Mantiloc initiates his Last Resort, thoroughly thwarting the invasion attempt, and thus leading the villain to shout We Will Meet Again. Reading this prologue in the Amazon preview is what convinced me to accept this review request.

The first chapter is also good. It starts out with Lyndon referencing Robert Frost's poem "The Road Not Taken" and how he doesn't like that road because he doesn't like change. Thus, Lyndon is quickly and excellently set up as a Reluctant Hero and a snarky one at that, which promises to be fun to read. The following two events (The Burning City Library and work as caravan guards) are similarly interesting and well set up. The first one even addresses an instance of Fridge Logic in a humorous fashion. They could be fleshed out more, polished a little better, but they're still good. It's the following arcs (about half the book) that have problems.

The general thrust of the plot is Lyndon gathering the titular "apprentices". They are the apprentices of four other apprentices of Mantiloc. There's a prophecy saying they are essential to ending a long and supernatural war. This is the connecting thread between all the adventures within this story. However, this is only a "rear view mirror" perspective on the plot. The way it is presented is much different.

Lyndon starts his journey without any objective; not to gather the apprentices, not to rescue/avenge Mantiloc, not For Great Justice, just to satisfy curiosity provoked by a stranger. The events that lead to each arc appear to be coincidence rather than character driven goals. It's less annoying than it could be because the prologue has Mantiloc talk about prophecies and afterward Lyndon monologues about destiny and how he feels it will drag him down a troublesome path because that's what his master talks about. Because Destiny Said So is a legitimate trope but here it lacks the development to fully distinguish itself from bad/lazy writing.

There's constant jumping around in terms of character perspective, which is made worse by the changes in narration. When Lyndon has the POV, the narration is first person; everyone else is third. It is confusing and jarring.

The fight against the Big Bad is not resolved in this book because it's not started. This book's conflict is basically a recruitment program and that is resolved but it is subtle. Mr. Journey is clearly going for a queuing up cliffhanger, but because nothing has been set up, there's nothing behind it and so the cliffhanger lacks force.

CHARACTERS

Lyndon is a Vanilla Protagonist. He's a first person narrator with little in the way of personality or driving goal. Initially he had this Didn't Want An Adventure thing but that disappeared quickly. Later in the book, he remarks that "all I wished for was excitement". Other people tell him where to go and what to do and his berserker side does the fighting for him, so he himself doesn't do much of anything. It makes me think he was deliberately created this way to show off the others. There are flashes to a personality, but for the most part it's bland.

There's only one way to explain why Juleen falls so quickly for him, why the other apprentices don't ditch him, and why an army volunteers to work for him despite the fact that the only payment he can provide is, by his own admission, "death on a distant battlefield". That explanation is "destiny". Again, this wouldn't be a bad thing if it were further developed. The Red String of Fate, for instance, is a time-honored justification for why two people quickly fall in love.

The other apprentices are all more interesting characters than Lyndon. Their backstories are more detailed, their personalities are more visible, and they take action based on motivations, because they have motivations. Jes has his friend loyalty and Lovable Rogue personality, Frey explicitly talks about destiny to explain himself and demonstrates compassion in a big way, Naomi has this fiery snarky thing and her introduction justifies why she stays with the group, and Talon has this Gentle Giant Atoner thing going for him.

This is highlighted during a scene where the party is captured and shackled: Jes picks his chain locks with rogue skills, Talon breaks his with his dragon strength, and Naomi melts her's with fire magic. Lyndon just sits there and narrates.

Redington is a case of Fridge Logic. He's implied to be the person who gives Lyndon the scroll that sets him off and then he leaves until the end of the story. At that point, he explains a bunch of stuff, including why the apprentices are important. Why does he wait? If the apprentices are so important, why doesn't he help?

POLISH

The book I initially received was an unedited rough draft. I read most of it before either I or Miss. Shellinger noticed this and so I saw a lot of grammar errors and other stylistic problems. After I received the fixed copy, I still noticed these things but to a lesser degree.

There are missing apostrophes for the possessive tense.

There is no distinction in text to show that someone is thinking. With Lyndon's POV, this is worse because it is difficult to distinguish his thoughts from his narration.

The prose is immature and clunky. The dialogue and narration often sounds artificial, like it's trying too hard to be elegant or poetic.

In the final part of the story, there are no paragraph breaks to separate two or more people talking. It's all one paragraph with whatever action they take. It's hard to read. It feels as though the editor didn't reach this part.

The book is "ALMOST" a good one. If it were truly bad, then this review would be easy to write and this book easy to grade. Instead, it is constantly on the verge of something great. It's just not quite there yet. There's nothing fundamentally flawed. It could shine with a lot more polish and organization.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Apprentices-Crimson Guard Trilogy book 1" a C
 


Click here for the next book review (which was a request): Terran Psychosis

Click here for the previous book review (which was not a request): Rich Dad, Poor Dad

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Rich Dad and Belligerent Author (book review)

This week is something different. Instead of a novel, I'm reviewing a self-help book. It's supposedly non-fiction but I have doubts about that.  My own dad (whom I consider both "educated" and "rich") recommended it to me years ago. It's only now that I've gotten around to reading it. My opinion of it is mixed.  Kiyosaki  certainly has good advice but it's buried in a bunch of junk.

A lot of the stuff here is simple stuff: keep expenses low, be careful when buying luxuries, always watch for opportunities, etc. Beyond simple it's obvious, but still stuff that should be taught and especially with young people, like teenagers. If they have a credit card and no income (whatever it may come from) then they're going to have problems settling their debt at the end of the month. This kind of advice is likely to be met with a "duh" from adults. It's good advice but it's also basic stuff.

I'd say the most useful and unique thing here is something espoused in an early chapter: he says that there's a difference between "being poor" and "being broke". The former is permanent because it's a state of mind and the later is temporary because it is not. "Being rich" is not possessing a great deal of money but is also a state of mind. It's a matter of intelligence, rebounding from failure, and thinking creatively. It's too bad he doesn't focus more on this aspect.

Kiyosaki writes in a engaging voice. It sounds like the author is talking through the page. Combined with his frame narrative and it becomes an easier read then you would think something like "financial literacy" would be. Personally, I think he wanted to write fiction but called it non-fiction in order to market it to adults.

The first two points, while good in and of themselves, contribute to the bad points. There is outrageous arrogance in this book. It's in both Kiyosaki'a narration and the scenes with his idolized "rich dad". Both of them go on and on about the above simple and basic advice like it's revolutionary and they're among a rare and elite handful that understand it. He repeats it over and over again, which sounds condescending. He also repeats how wealthy and successful he is due to these lessons, which could be bragging and/or pleading with the reader to continue reading.

There's also a matter of fictionalization. His "rich dad" is never identified, and I've read that he dedicated his earlier book to his "poor dad" which he holds in poor estimate here. The childhood scenes sound like a morality play with everything fitting into place to espouse some aspect of "rich dad's" unparalleled brilliance.

Despite the previous two paragraphs, there are occasions where Kiyosaki pulls back and plays down expectations. He gives the line about how most self-starters fail within five years and how stocks are risky investments and stuff like that. He outright states that "I don't recommend anything I do." This one line makes any business advice in his book worthless, because he doesn't think anyone else should try it. In other words, don't bother trying to copy his success in real estate.

If not for business advice, then the point of the book must be motivational, right? No, it's not. Kiyosaki is belligerent in his attitude. That's the bulk of the "engaging voice" I spoke of earlier; It's this high and mighty sense of superiority. Everybody is wrong; teachers all over the place do a horrible job educating kids,  accountants and bankers are bean counters (yes, he uses the term "bean counter") that should never be charge, and parents are well-meaning idiots that are setting up their kids for a life of financial struggle.  Anyone that disagrees with him is a "poor dad", who simply doesn't get it.

After all of this, he tells the reader that if you follow his instructions, you will fail and that you should learn from this failure (instead of his book). If you're looking for a motivational text, I'd look for something else, unless you want kick-in-the-pants motivation.

Finally, there's this cross promotion thing. From the first chapter and occasionally through the lessons, Kiyosaki talks about the game he created, "CASHFLOW". It sounds like part of the purpose of the book is to push this game onto the reader. There's also a sense that the book itself is one of his "assets" and he's stroking his ego in the process.

I'm not going to critique his business practices because I'm not in that field. I can't say for sure if he's right or wrong, but from the things I've heard his ideas are sketchy at best.

My bottom line: read the first two chapters and then put the book away, or don't buy it at all.

Click here for the next book review (which was not a request): The Apprentices-Crimson Guard
Click here for the previous book review (which was a review request): Dark Communion

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

My Two Cents on Kindle Unlimited

I've been reading about the Kindle Unlimited controversy in Clean Indie Reads over on Facebook and some other places. This is my two cents prespective for the publishing industry and the readers that feed it.

Personally, I don't see what all the hullablloo is about. I've been tracking my sales and burrows for months now, and if anything, both of them have gone up. I'm certainly getting more burrows than I used to but it's not as if my sales have been seriously negatively affected. The two of them are about the same; within five or so of each other in this second half of the year. (As of this post, my sales outnumbers burrows 3.5:1.) My royalties are also better than they were in the first half of the year. This dissonance causes me confusion so I thought it over.

My book is going for 99 cents on Amazon right now, so I suppose that could be part of the reason. At this price, my royalty deal is 33%. If I wanted the 70% deal, I'd have to price it higher, like 2.99. (I suppose my reasons for this are related to the discussion, but it's still a digression so I'll move on.) Even if the Kindle Unlimited deal for a single burrow is 1.33 dollars instead of 2, that's still siginficantly more than I'd get for a sale. I've seen people that set their ebook at 5, 10 and even 13 dollars. At the 70% royalty deal, then even the full two dollars would look small in comparison.

It stands to reason why Amazon doesn't pay full price for a burrow. Authors are paid when a Kindle Unlimited user reads 10% of the book. For a 100 page novel, that's 10 pages. That's basically an extended preview. Since the reader pays a flat rate for the Kindle Unlimited service, then depending on how many books they sample, that one book costs them nothing. They don't have to commit to the book and the author still gets paid. If Amazon paid 100% of the price for 10% of a book, then the company as a whole would make even less money than it does right now (zero).

As far as I've heard, there's something about Amazon giving Indie burrows part of a pot of money while paying big publishers a full commission. I haven't seen that on Amazon itself so I can't be certain. According to those same sources, the biggest publishers aren't in Kindle Unlimited anyway, so it's a moot point.

I think it's a control thing. Authors think they've lost control because Amazon uses a complex formula to determine Kindle Unlimited pay rates instead of allowing the authors to set it like for the sales section. This perception is an illusion. Kindle Unlimited is part of KPD Select, and authors can choose whether or not to have their books be part of this program. If you don't like it, you have the power and option not to do it. This then leads into another control thing: KPD Select means being exclusive with Amazon but, again, I don't see the problem.

As far as I've read, Amazon has the biggest slice of the ebook market. It's like 70 percent. Everyone else has to split 30 percent. Even if I have this wrong, it's still the basic picture. It's better to stick with the big kid on the block so they'll help you move more books then spreading yourself thin over a bunch, right? In order to keep an author's business to itself, Amazon provides other ways to move books, make money, and gain readers. It's a compliment because Amazon sees these authors as valuable and something it doesn't want its competitors to have.  "Do all your business with me, and I'll help you increase your business." I've heard some argue that it's the reading platform that's a problem; only Amazon means only Kindle. That's also not a problem because there's free conversion programs available out there, and also, traditional paperback. The bottom line is that Amazon does not demand exclusivity from every author publishing with it.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Answering Review Request: The Dark Communion

Joey Ruff asked me to read his book "The Dark Communion". It's about an occult detective investigating a string of child abductions involving superhuman bums. I will examine plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.

PLOT

On the whole the plot is good. There's an action prologue that shows precisely what this occult detective, Johnathon (Jono) Swyft can do and what he's like. This leads into and connects with the main plot of the child abductions. The Herald in this case is not a Femme Fatale with some mystery but a kid looking for his brother. Points for originality and all that.

There's this progression of events and investigation that leads to the unraveling of the mystery. It makes sense all the way and leads up to this kick ass final battle with a foe much cooler and tougher than a demonically possessed hobo. It's also well foreshadowed.

I also like the world building. It's interesting stuff; a mix of classical and original ideas about monsters, where they come from and how they interact with humans and the world. It's also skillfully woven into the story. For instance, Korrigan are vulnerable to Cold Iron (a classic trope) but there's no paragraph explaining this. You see it in action. The rule of thumb is Show Don't Tell. The only time there's "telling" is when Jono explains something to his daughter, who is on the verge of joining daddy in the field.
There are two things about this novel that I find to be weaknesses:
1. Agent Stone shows up everywhere Jono goes. It gives the impression that she's stalking him or it's some string of coincidences. Given the lack of real villains for most of the book, it feels like she's plopped into the scenes to provide cheap conflict.
2. There are lots of prolonged tangents into backstories. One time there was a whole chapter that was a flashback to a completely unrelated incident. It was basically filler. The Wendigo stuff involved with the story could have been delivered in a less bloated fashion.

I like the ending. It's climatic, it resolves the initial conflict (the job offer) but the larger part is still ongoing and there's an interesting turn in Jono's personal angst.

CHARACTERS

Jono, our protagonist, is an asshole. There's no getting around that. He fires off more F-bombs than bullets. He doesn't care about the pain of others, including or especially his clients, and (as his partner Ape said) he often makes them feel worse. He antagonizes an FBI agent that would love any excuse to put him behind bars. I'd like to see someone kick his teeth in if he hadn't suffered enough already.
Underneath all that crud and cynicism is a heroic heart, so he's what Tvtropes calls a Knight in Sour Armor. Despite all his talk about how he doesn't give a damn and makes a joke about everything, he's still in the monster hunting business, he raised Nadia so well she's more mature then he is, and he shows respect for his siren girlfriend.

Other main characters include Jono's partner, Ape/Terry Towers, and his adoptive daughter Nadia.
Ape is a good foil for our protagonist because he's a fist fighter/sword user to contrast Jono's coat full of guns, and he's more positively empathetic. He looks like a gorilla because he's big and hairy but is much more civilized than Jono.
Nadia is the daughter of Jono's late mentor, Huxley. She's a nice girl following in both of her father's footsteps. She's intelligent and gets along with everyone. She also has an interesting power based on controlling the inertia of objects.

There's a slew of law enforcement agents, from local detectives and cops to the FBI. One in particular is Agent Stone. Somehow she frequently turns up where-ever Jono is doing monster busting and yet she always misses the monster itself. She is just as much as hardass as Jono himself but lacks the same sympathetic POV.

Father Finnegan is an interesting character. I wish I'd seen more of him. He's an excellent foil for Jono and here's why. He's a current and devout priest in contrast to the former and disillusioned priest, and his skill with a gun is referred to as "Wild West Gunfighter" in contrast to Jono's walking armory of More Daka. Watching them interact was fun.

There's not much to say about the villain. He doesn't show up for a while and conflict is instead provided by discovering the threads of his organization and between the various anti-heroes fighting and getting in each other's way. The end result is that he's flat, generic and, to quote Jono himself "pathetic".

POLISH

Jono is a first person narrator and he has a clipped way of speaking. This makes it hard to determine what parts of narration have grammar problems and which are intentional. After all, no one speaks in perfect grammar, and especially not a coarse guy like Jono. The most ambiguous parts are towards the end. Overall, spelling and grammar are not a problem.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Dark Communion" a B

Click here for the next book review (which was not a request): Rich Dad, Poor Dad

Click here for the previous request (which was not a request either): Journey to the West

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Importance of Empathy with Characters

 When one is an author it is necessary to have characters and possibly Loads And Loads Of Characters. To effectively write these characters you need to be empathic to them; to know their personality and mindset. This will enable you to write actions that are true to their character. The trick is that these actions may seem illogical to you personally, but make sense to the character.

I often see a lack of empathy on Tvtropes. Tropers passing judgement on characters for being stupid or whatever. The problem is, they're doing this from their own mindset and their own prespective. This leads to a dissonance because the character's actions make sense to them (and their writer) but they don't make sense to the Tvtroper.


There's a quote from Tolkien's The Hobbit that directly addresses this. It's during Biblo's riddle game with Gollum. It goes along the lines of "It is easy for you, sitting in your room, to answer these riddles but for Bilbo" it is more diffcult. Bilbo is alone, in a dark cave, far from from home and right next to a creature that's moments away from eating him. The person reading The Hobbit is likely doing so in more comfortable/less threatening circumstances. Thus, Bilbo will reasonably have a harder time thinking straight and thus solving the riddles (and coming up with new ones) than the reader.


There's also a scene from the X-Men film series. In "First Class" Charles tries to convince Erik to show mecy to their enemies by saying that they're "just following orders". For a holocaust survivor, this is not a valid argument, to say the least. A viewer is left wondering, if Charles is such a highly educated man, telepathically picked Erik's life history out of his mind earlier in the film, and has shown great insight and ability to get along with others in the movie, why does he make such a blunder? I read the answer on Tvtropes.

As much as it has bitching and complaining, it also possesses a hoard of insight into characters because many tropes demonstrate this kind of empathy. They figure out why the characters do the things they do. The answer in this case is because Erik is wearing an anti-telepathy helmet. Charles has been a telepath since he was nine and so he grew up with this power. It's how he relates to others and now, for the first time in his life, it's unavaliable. It's like blindfolding someone and asking them to move around in their home. They may have lived in it for years, but without their sight, they stumble because they're not used to the sensory deprivation. This is ontop of the high stress situation and a tremendously painful experience Charles went through moments prior (anyone else who has seen the movie knows what I'm talking about). Thus, he blunders and viewers call him an idiot and other things.

You might be thinking-what's the point? If the characters acting in character means my reader can't relate to them, then shouldn't I avoid that? After all, if they can't identify with these characters, then surely no one will read my book! No, you shouldn't dismiss character empathy and especially not for some fool's errand as "character identification".  If characters don't act in character than you don't have characters. What you have are puppets for an invisible puppeteer (i.e. the author). This is worse.

For one thing it ruins immersion. If characters don't act like real people (or as they are presented) then the reader is reminded that they are not real and the situation is not real. This can cause them to stop caring and Tvtropes calls that scenario Eight Deadly Words because the reader has lost interest in your work.
For a second thing, if characters are not driving your plot then your plot is driving your characters. This leads to all sorts of bad stuff like As Strong As They Need To Be, Character Derailment, Idiot Ball, Poor Communication Kills, etc. It's snark bait. I've seen on twitter, on tvtropes and in other places.
Finally, why character identification is a fool's errand. Even if you were writing for a single person, and based a character on them, they might miss it. They could instead look to another character. Now consider an audience that could be thousands of more. Their opinions will be as scattered as the stars in the sky. Furthermore, you could write to group A but misinterpret and offend; you could instead attract group B and be unaware of this.  By making someone identifiable, you do harm to your characters and leave out parts of your audience. It's best to focus on your characters and making them the best they can be then trying to guess your audience.

The characters must act consistently and to do that you as an author need empathy for them.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Journey to the West (A long overdue review)

I finally finished Journey to the West the other day. At over 3,000 pages across four volumes, it's quite a journey in and of itself. I will examine plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.

This is a review of the novel as a whole. I might do something more specific at a later date.

 PLOT

The novel itself is basically two stories. First is the Rise and Fall of the Monkey King and the second is Xuanzang's journey to fetch scriptures from Thunder Monastery.

The Rise and Fall of Monkey is like a Protagonists Journey to Villain. It starts off with Stone Monkey becoming the Handsome Monkey King and going on adventures to protect his kingdom from threats, up to and including death-by-old-age. Then he gets so full of himself he attacks gods and rebels against heaven. In the end this villain is defeated.

The plot is quick, fast paced and constantly escalates. The method by which Monkey becomes so powerful makes sense. The series of events that lead to him trapped under Five Elements Mountain is driven by character decisions. It can stand alone as a complete story. Naturally, Monkey fans want to see him get out from under that rock but it can stand alone.

The rest of the novel is Xuanzang's journey to fetch scriptures. It has an interesting start. There's this Dante's Inferno thing as part of the set up and there's also how Xuanzang gets involved in the quest and then how he recruits his three disciples. Then it's basically filler until they reach Thunder Monastery.

The Pilgrims encounter demons that want to eat/seduce Xuanzang and Monkey has to rescue him. Usually, he has to seek help from other deities instead of simply smashing everything in his path. There's occasional variations, like helping a kingdom from an unrelated demon scheme, problems with humans, or a Broken Bridge.

I like the ending. It's a good ending, with closure and such.

CHARACTERS
Because there is No Antagonist, the only developed main characters here are the pilgrims themselves.

Xuanzang is basically a walking plot device because he takes no action other than starting the journey and placing the headband on Monkey's head. Monkey could jump back and forth between Thunder Monastery and Tang capital twenty times with ease but Xuanzang is mortal and cannot ride on clouds so he has to go the long and hard way. He gets captured to involve the Pilgrims in the affairs of demons along the way and insists on helping everyone (even if they're a demon in disguise), thus providing the excuse to delay the Journey.
If the other three characters in your cast are criminal demons, then it's necessary to have somebody like this but he could stand to be more like a true Good Shepherd and less like a jerkass.

Monkey is like a Trope Maker or something for general shonen anime heroes: he's rude, arrogant, and defeats enemies by beating them senseless with his superior martial arts but he is also driven by a kind heart that wants to protect his subjects. In addition, he is an old and cunning trickster. Many of his victories rely on sneaking around gathering Intel and then devising a strategy to overcome his opponent's advantages. He also knows more about Buddhist teachings than his own master, who was raised a Buddhist monk.

Pig is basically a sidekick type character. He makes wisecracks, helps the hero in small ways, and gets captured occasionally.

There isn't much to say about Friar Sand (or the dragon prince/horse for that matter).

POLISH

When you're translating over 3,000 pages of Chinese into English, there's bound to be some typos. I only found a couple, which is admirable on the part of the translator.

Trickster Eric Novels gives Journey to the West a B+

Click here for the next book review (A review request): The Dark Communion

Click here for the previous book review (a review request): God's Forge

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Answering review request: "God's Forge"

Patrick Dorsey asked me to read his novel, "God's Forge". It is a dramatization of the night that the Knight Templar headquarters was sacked and the order dissolved. I will examine plot, characters and polish and then assign a grade.

PLOT

The plot's conflict is basically for a group of Templar knights to escape the order's headquarters in Paris when it is sieged by King Philip IV. However, there are other threads: Andre carrying a special package, numerous scenes with the king alone, the string of humiliations suffered by the Templar grandmaster, and a whore's own machinations. Interwoven with all of these is cutbacks to the Fall of Acre to the Saracens. While all of these are interesting enough on their own, mixing them all together is a pain. The main plotline is bloated and bogged down with the minor ones, and the minor ones feel underdeveloped.

This is a dramatization of the historical event in place of an original story. Anyone that knows the basic story of the Templars (Powerful soldiers of God, sacked in one knight, and may or may not have found the Holy Grail and disappeared to somewhere else) will not be surprised by the events taking place. It is an interesting dramatization (not as dry as a straight-forward fact-based historical record, for instance) but a dramatization it remains. I would have liked to focus on the events afterwards.

There are too many coincidences for me to ignore. A couple is realistic because real life is full of chances and accidents. In here there are too many: 1.) A courier with a special something just happens to arrive at the Templar Grand Temple within minutes of King Philip's siege, 2.) One knight plans to leave the temple as soon as his horse gives birth, which happens also within a few minutes of leaving the temple. 3.) A squire drops armor in the small time frame between the start of the siege and before the arrests begin, which is why William has any allies at all. 4.) Out of all of Paris, the Templars stumble upon a blacksmith abusing a whore who leads them to a tavern where 5.) A royal guard captain just happens to share the same room as them. 6.) After avoiding the main force of this royal captain, the Templars stumble into three stranglers who were taking a piss. 7.) When Listette is looking for the Templars, she stumbles into three soldiers she's on bad terms with; just these three out of the entire company that were maimed but not killed by the Templars.

There's an abandoned plot thread about mid-book. The Templars realize the moral and social rot of the city they're posted in and decide to save souls in Christendom before going back to the Holy Land. They determine this is why The Lord allowed them to lose the Holy Land to the Muslims; they need to "get their own house in order first". It's not directly stated if their later actions are tied to this, but given the fact that they are God's Army, it is not out of the question.

Finally, I don't understand why the grandmaster gave up without a fight. If the goal was to distract King Philip then certainly a fight in the front gate would hold attention there and pull forces away from the back. If nothing else, the king wouldn't be thinking about "rounding up fugitives" and instead about "take the citadel!"

The ending is fantastic. As you can tell by now I have problems with the body of the plot but the ending is fantastic. It is a falling action kind of tone, it has closure, and it complies with the historical record while at the same time, not quite as dismal.

CHARACTERS

Characters are diverse. The Templar fugitives are like a microcosms of the Templars themselves. There is William the veteran Knight in Shinning Armor, Andre the na├»ve and noble newbie, Etienne whose just a unforged squire, Odo the Cool Old Guy, the contrasting Francesco with his age and dogmatism and Armande who is here just to wash away his excommunication. You have the full range of experience, idealism/cynicism, and the belief what it means to be part of God's army.

Lisette is a complicated character. She's a street walker and proud of it, but only because her family disowned her for being raped. She tells William she had no choice in terms of profession but when he mentions becoming a nun, she says such a thing wouldn't suit her. Whether or not she knew of this specific nunnery order before or after she became a whore would mean the difference between hypocrisy and a "too far gone" mentality.

There's also an interesting split between the villains. King Philip doesn't appear to have anything against the Templars pre say. He just needs to make "his beloved France solvent again" and the Templars appear to be his best shot. Imbert the head inquisitor, genuinely believes that he is an instrument of God in weeding out corruption and that the Templars, as an organization, are corrupt. He is willing to make exceptions for individual members, provided they confess and seek reconciliation, of course. Lower down the chain, you have officers motivated by a variety of selfish things: money, lust, success, recognition etc.

As you can see, I am much more favorable to the character than I am to the plot itself. The individual scenes are better: well written, character driven, etc. The problem is the larger picture.

POLISH

I spotted a couple spelling errors. It's nothing major.
If there's a reason for the inclusion of the Acre plotline, after the action prologue, I don't see it.
There's some good history stuff in here and a glossary of references so that's nice for history buffs like me.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "God's Forge" a C+

Click here for the next book review (which was not a request): Journey to the West
Click here for the previous review (Also not a request): Young Miss Holmes casebook 1-2

Thursday, November 6, 2014

It's Not about the "If" it's about the "How"

Will the brave knight slay the dragon and rescue the princess? The answer to that is a single word: Yes or No.
How will the brave knight slay the dragon and rescue the princess? Now that is an interesting question. I could write a story based on that.

This post is about the importance of the "HOW" in a story, at the expense of the "IF". By this I mean, that whether or not the protagonist succeeds in what ever endeavor they set themselves to or what conflict they have to overcome is not as important as the conflict itself. It's like that old saying "It's the Journey that counts."

"Happily ever after" is as boring as "rocks fall, everyone dies". Furthermore, they are short and endings. While necessary to complete a story, they are not what the writer should be focusing on and/or stressing out about. I don't know anyone who picks up a book simply to see the ending, and skipping to the ending is likely to be confusing because you won't have the frame of reference to make sense of it. As an example, I will use the anime BACCANO!. The first episode spoils every single plot point of the main storyline in the first few minutes, but unless you know who these characters are and what's going on, it won't mean anything to you. The appeal of the series is watching the shenanigans that lead up to that point.

Readers are savvy. On Tvtropes, we have numerous tropes describing this predictability: The Good Guys Always Win, Underdogs Never Lose, Third Act Misunderstanding and Break Up Make Up Scenario. It takes a great deal of skill to legitimately make them think that the secret agent will perish in the death trap, or the hero will be killed by his arch enemy, etc. Whether then base the tension of your story on whether or not the Good Guys win or the underdogs win the big game or the two leads hooking up, focus on the struggle to get to that point.

For another example, I will use the light novel and anime "No Game No Life". The two leads are a brother-sister team calling themselves "Blank". They begin the show as a gamer of god-like skill and their motto is "Blank Never Loses". The appeal of the show is not in the tension of whether or not they will win or lose (though there is plenty of that) but rather it's in the cleverness of their strategy and the frequent humor (also, the animation is gorgeous). If the point was simply for them to win, it would get old quickly. Thus, there is more to it.

Another example is the manga and anime "Hellsing". Here I'm specifically referring to "Hellsing Ultimate". The "hero" of this story is the brutal vampire Alucard who works for the Hellsing Organization in killing supernatural threats like ghouls and other vampires. There is no tension in Alcuard's fights at all. He outclasses all of his opponents so much that the question is not "will he win?" but "how bloody and creative will he make his opponent's death?" He has to be absent for most of the series' climax because otherwise there is no doubt he would quickly resolve it. Thus, you get to the see the other, less powerful, heroes being awesome.


One final example from one of my favorite fan fiction authors will due to prove my point. "Brave New World" by Ri2 has the most generic of premises: A couple of heroes journey to find mystical trinkets to stop an evil organization from destroying the world. What makes this fiction special is happens within the context of that premise. There are astounding twists and turns, uproarious funny events, and a tremendous amount of original world building. None of this has more than tangential relation to the premise. Most of the time it's there for Leo, resident Genre Savvy nerd, to make fun of for being generic. At times it feels like an excuse plot.   
 
When writing your stories I encourage you to keep these examples in mind.



 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Godzilla original (1954)

I watched the original Godzilla after watching the 2014 Reboot because I wanted to gain perspective. For the record, I will point out that it was the unedited Japanese version "Gojira" rather than the Americanized "King of the Monsters". I will examine plot, character, and polish and then assign a grade. Comparisons to the 2014 reboot will follow when necessary.

PLOT

This film has a horror/mystery sense to it. The early scenes are dedicated to figuring out what's going on and how to deal with it. The scenes jump between numerous groups before settling on Emiko and Dr. Serizawa. This gives a greater sense to the immensity of the problem of Godzilla. Even when he's not on screen, people are affected by his presence; daily living decisions have to account for this monster.
This sort of atmosphere is missing in the 2014 reboot, which tries too hard to make the audience care about the Brody family. The soldier going home plot is a parallel and competing plot thread with the "rampaging giant monsters" thing instead of contributing to it.


This original film has a moral dilemma that makes its conflict poignant. Godzilla was awakened by a super weapon, nuclear bombs, and the only feasible way to stop him is with another new super weapon, the oxygen destroyer. If its existence is revealed, then it too would ravage the world as others would seek to use it in the future. The anguish that Dr. Serizawa  feels as he watches Godzilla rampage is finer than any drama film I've ever seen.
It's also missing in the reboot. Instead we have stuff like "This giant monster is the consequence of nukes so we're going to hit it with a bigger nuke." Only the new Dr. Serizawa realizes how stupid this sounds. It's Godzilla's gravitas that's missing. No one gives him the respect/fear he deserves until the end of the movie. "King of Monsters-Savior of our City?" is one of my favorite parts.
It's the MUTO that feel like the main monster in the reboot. Their first destruction and casualty causing is in a nuclear plant. Then they raid a nuclear waste facility and steal an armed warhead and bring it into a heavily populated area. It's like they stole Godzilla's shtick. He himself feels like a side note in comparison. This is another point in the original's favor and against the reboot.

The climax has a great emotional pitch. Dr. Serizawa  uses his invention and in such a way that it will never be misused. It's quite an achievement that he can make his own (off-screen) death more dramatic and compelling than the giant monster being stripped to the bone.
The final line is about the possibility of other Godzilla and how irresponsible uses of nukes could wake another one up. It is very much in line with the rest of the movie, both in message and in tone.
The reboot feels confused about its climax. It's messy. The humans scurry around like ineffective ants and Godzilla simply leaves after killing both MUTO. The message, if any, is as follows: If confronted with two or more hostile giant monsters, "Let them fight".

CHARACTERS

A success of the original film is how it personifies the common japanese citizen. Instead of forcing an everyman audience surrogate who is supposed to represent everybody, there are numerous small scenes. There's the old fisherman talking about old legends, there's the woman and her Famous Last Words next to her children, the reporter with his Dead Line News, the council trying to get a handle on things and decided what to do with the information they have, the team that analyzes the footprints and such. It's a lot of non-protagonist attention and it works much better than the reboot's obsession with the Brody family.

Dr.Serizawa is fantastic. Despite his isolation, eye patch, and oxygen destroyer, he's not a stereotypical mad scientist. He's a morally upstanding guy who wants to make the world a better place, and just happens to stumble upon a potential super weapon. He really doesn't want to be come a "destroyer of worlds" and at the same time he can't stand watching Godzilla rampage.
His actor does a great job as well. He's cold and aloof to the reporter but it's clear to see his anguish in private. The expression he makes when he burns his research notes is tragic; it's like he's building building his own funeral pyre. You can see him mentally preparing himself for his heroic sacrifice.
I see Brody Sr as his reboot counterpart. He is someone I would like to see more off. As I stated in my previous review, he has the passion and motive that could have made him a compelling character. I can imagine him and Godzilla forming an Enemy Mine situation to kill the MUTO; the former for revenge and the later for a meal.

Ogata is also good. He's a got a job to do and he does it, even if it means confronting giant radiation breathing monsters. He makes a great contrast with Dr.Serizawa. He's like "I get your Scale of Scientific Sins problem, but people are dying."
You could say that Brody Jr is his counterpart in the reboot. He's a soldier, he has family issues, and he's trying to kill the monsters. The difference is that the reboot forces the movie to follow Brody Jr to the expense of other characters. This weakens the movie.

POLISH
This is where the original movie losses points with me. Given the era and the movie's budget, the special effects are silly. When you get a good look at Godzilla's face, you see googly eyes. The destruction of cities and such are clearly model sets. I remember a scene where a car crashes and, mid-frame, it transforms into a toy. The rampage is still effective but only when license is given for the real life context.
In that respect, the reboot blows the original out of the water. Godzilla and the MUTO truly look like a giant reptile and insects instead of men in rubber suites. The atomic breath is breath-taking in its awesomeness. The destruction couldn't look more real and devastating. If there's one thing I can praise without reserve about the reboot then it is how it brought life and immensity to Godzilla and his two giant monster foes.


Trickster Eric Novels gives "Gojira" an A

I watched the 2014 reboot because I've heard a lot about Godzilla but never watched one of the films. The closest I'd come was the cartoon series based on the 1998 film. So I bought the original. In the time to come, I'm going to go through the rest of the franchise. Perhaps then I will have a different perspective on the 2014 reboot. Until then, you can read what I think about it in the previous post: Godzilla 2014 review

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Godzilla 2014 review

I watched the 2014 reboot of Godzilla a few weeks back. It was my first Godzilla movie. Before that my only Godzilla experience was watching the animated series (featuring the son of Zilla) when I was a kid. It wasn't quite what I was expecting so I did a little reading while composing the first draft of this review. I decided to watch the very first Godzilla movie (Japanese original, not  "King of Monsters" adaption) before finishing this review.  Next week, I'll post a review for the original, kind of like what I did with the original and reboot of Robocop.

 
PLOT
 
What we have here is jumbled. The prologue starts in 1954, in the ocean. Then it jumps forward half a century to the Philippines, and then another time and space jump to Japan and then another of fifteen years to America. At the start of the first act, the protagonist then immediately goes back to Japan. As if that weren't enough, the movie shifts back to America a couple scenes later. It's disorienting and it makes the movie feel like it's confused about its identity.
 
The focus on Ford Brody increases the confusion. He is only tangentially related to the MUTO or Godzilla by way of his father's research. After his father's death, he spends a good portion of the movie simply trying to go home and this coincidentally puts him in the MUTO and/or Godzilla's path. There are frequent splits between traveling and MONARCH working with the Japanese and/or American military trying to get a handle on the giant radioactive monster situation.
 
The plan to kill both monsters is stupid. You have a creature that feeds on radiation and your plan is to throw a nuke at it. This is despite the fact that the first scenes of the movie is a similar plan failing. The scientists point this out, and the military basically says "that plan failed because we didn't throw big bombs at them". 
Considering the solution and its dilemma in the original, I wonder if the writers for this reboot watched it. If they did, they've either forgotten or didn't care.
The MUTO steal the warheads, take them to a heavily populated city, and the military has to radically adjust their plan to getting the bomb out before it goes off. Dr. Ishiro Serizawa says "let them fight" and this time the military listens.


Now, about Godzilla and his treatment in this film. I say the following after having watched the original uncut Godzilla (Gojira) in the original Japanese (with English subtitles).

I understand the whole "build up anticipation" thing and "nothing but action gets boring" thing.  It works very well in the original. The problem in this movie is that it is not "sneak peaks" and instead teasing. When viewers see a full body shoot of Godzilla, hear him roar, and he's facing another monster, they expect to see a fight. Instead, the film immediately jumps forward to after the fight and only shows a couple seconds in a in-universe TV. That's not delayed gratification. That is laziness and saving on the budget.

I think the Monster Delay trope works well in the original. I don't think it's handled well here. At least, it's not in regards to Godzilla. The MUTO are handled better. That early scene where they cause the tragedy at Janjira is perfect as an introduction scene. It has alarms, mechanical destruction, and all that stuff that is nice to set up danger. A couple scenes later, there is a dark and shadowy scene where a MUTO fights soldiers. That's also good. Everything else until the climax is simple chain jerking.
 
The ending feels...off. After killing both monsters, Godzilla goes back into the sea. Since he was described as an "apex predator" I would have liked to see him eating the dead MUTO.

CHARACTERS

There isn't much to talk about in regards to characters. The military guys, including our protagonist Ford Brody, are kinda dull and interchangeable. The scientists guys are mostly here for exposition. The civilians, like the Brody family, are here to scream and run away. This is the case for the better part of two hours.

Ford Brody feels like a plot prop. He emphasizes how isolated his father has become in his search for the truth of the Janira Incident. He provides a piece of knowledge to MONARCH after his father dies. He enables the plans for the nukes because he's a bomb disposer for the military. Besides this skill and his marriage, there's nothing to his personality but Stoicism. He watched his dad die when they were on the verge of reconciling and this doesn't matter for more than a scene and only because MONRACH needs the above state nugget of knowledge.

He doesn't seem to care that there are giant monsters running around and at times it sounds like he wants to leave the story entirely and fade into the background like one more civilian.

The problem I have with this movie, and all the Word of God and hyper defenders and apologists of it, is just this. They talk about the minimal Godzilla and monster fighting because they want something more human, emotional, and True Art instead of sheeple-pleasing CGI and destruction. YET THE HUMAN CHARACTERS DO NOT DELIVER. Thus, it sounds like an excuse to save on special effects than anything "artsy".

 The one exception to this is Dr. Brody. He is a passionate man. He has a connection to the plot through the Janjira Incident. He has a personal tragedy and a drive to overcome it that makes him cheery worthy. I don't understand why the plot starts with him and then time skips fifteen years to focus on his son. The only reason could be to prove that Anyone Can Die, but you'd think that they wouldn't hand protagonist duties over to someone as uninvolved in the plot as Ford.


The giants monsters, MUTO and Godzilla alike, are stronger characters than Ford despite their lack of lines and screen time. They are more active characters to be sure. They have a plan and carry it out. Despite being on screen for less than ten minutes out of two hours, they carry the entire movie. Without them, there would be no movie. The humans are interchangeable and lesser in importance. If you want a disaster movie, use a tornado or something.

POLISH

The pacing is funky. It's like start and stop in a car. If the climax were the only scene to have the monsters, that would have been sufficient. My problem is the constant jerking away.


Godzilla and the MUTO look great. The revealing shot of Godzilla, in particular, is fantastic. Starting with the foot of stomping, trailing up the body to show a full shot and cap it with a roar. It was awesome! Now if only they didn't cut away until after the fact. Seeing them on TV is a let down, and now that I think about it, a Take That against the audience.

The final battle is also awesome. There's an extended full fight between Godzill and both MUTO. The Big G's breath weapon looks amazing. Watching the soldiers HALO jump into their midst and sneak into the MUTO nest was also pretty cool.
 
Trickster Eric Novels gives Godzilla 2014 a C

I might as well say right now that I prefer the 1954's original, man-in-a-suit and all. You can see why in my next post: Godzilla 1954 original

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Young Miss Holmes casebook 1-2


This is not a review request. I found out about this book from wandering about online. It looked intriguing but I was worried. 

I thought it was going to be a Cousin Oliver style Mary Sue. In other words, a lame story exploiting Sherlock Holmes' name for an unrealistic child protagonist.  That is not the case. Sherlock Holmes remains the number mystery solver here and no one knows this better than Christie herself. She sometimes calls herself his "stupid niece" because she can't measure up to him. He's a regular character here and important to many storylines but he's still not in the "main cast" or takes the spotlight from them. 


The plots are the original Holmes stories but from the perspective of the Young Miss Holmes, Christie Hope. However, these are not simple re-treads with a younger and cuter protagonist. There is a lot of original content built up around the cases, and because Christie has her own way of solving crimes, even the cases themselves aren't the same. I read the original Red-headed League after reading this one here and it is very much a difference experience. You know those games where you can play through the same event as different characters? It's like that.

Christie is called "Holmes in miniature" by several characters and this is a concise way to put it. She is academically brilliant and solves cases for fun rather than Great Justice. Her social skills are marginally better and she has a great deal more compassion but she'd rather stay in the family library than gossip. While intelligent she is still a child and thus immature, and this where her Watsons come in.

Christie has "three Watson" so to speak: two maids and her governess. In place of the bromance of Homes and Watson themselves, this is more of a two big sisters and mother-substitute thing.  Grace, the governess, takes the biggest role in raising Christie to be a proper lady, because her parents are in India, but at the same time she also teaches her how to become a better detective.

The artwork is fantastic. It's cute without being cutes-y and does a great job conveying story as well as the manga's humor.

 There is a lot of funny stuff here. I have only read two of the original stories, so I may have the wrong impression, but I don't remember there being much to laugh about.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Young Miss Holmes Casebook 1-2" an A+

Click here for the next book review (a true review request): God's Forge

To see the previous book review (also a true review request), click here for "Crisis On Stardust Station"

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Answering Review Request: "Crisis on Stardust Station"

John Taloni asked me to read his story "Crisis on Stardust Station". It is about intelligent and telepathic cats that live in a space station and help humans repair it after a freak solar flare. I will examine plot, characters and polish before assigning a grade.

PLOT

The plot starts off with world building and character introduction during a peaceful time. I find this necessary to set the tone of the story. It's like something written by Vulcans; all serious and logical. At many times someone says something along the lines of "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one." Overall, it's interesting to see the tripartite world of the space station: human astronauts, Civilized Cats and Free Cats.

I would classify the rest of the plot in two arcs: Repair and Prepare. The Repair Arc follows the space station's attempt to fix the damage done to the station by the solar flare and the Prepare Arc follows their attempts to shield themselves against the next solar flare. The primary work is done by the Civilized Cats and Free Cats with the three humans providing knowledge of the station and the necessary work to be done.

Aside from the intelligent and telepathic cats thing, it is a hard space science fiction work. I will freely admit that I don't understand how space stations and solar collector satellites function so my confusion at the events is likely due to my own ignorance. If Mr.Taloni were just making stuff, I wouldn't be able to tell. However, it sounds plausible enough. Nothing techno babble or P particles.

On the other side of the coin, it's not completely science-y. There's other stuff too. There's a culture clash between the Civilized Cats and the Free Cats, discussions about leadership, and also a very tiny love mystery. These things provide that Human/Cat element so you know you're not dealing with robots.

Ending is good. There's a climax and then falling action to resolution, and finally a sequel hook. I like that pairing.


CHARACTERS
There's a large cast of named characters. The more prominent have good development and I will highlight some of them. On the whole the cast feels more like an ensemble without a "main cast".

Shadow is the leader of the Free Cats. He's powerful and a skilled hunter. As the crisis unfolds, it's interesting to see him transition from "forest hunt leader" to "space hunt leader". It's kind of like a Industrial Revolution thing; that transfer of skills. Instead of catching mice he's catching packages in space.

Speaker is a Free Cat misfit. He's a poor hunter and "paths" i.e. (telepathic transmits) much louder than others. It turns out that he has a special skill for long range telepathy and going deeper than others. On Tvtropes, we'd call him a Woobie, so it's nice to see him "find his highwalker" in Alice.

John the human and Mrrowl the cat are like the same person in two different bodies. Both of them are studious, inquisitive, strong willed and take the long view of things. If one removed descriptions and saw only dialogue, it would be easy to imagine them being old friends of the same species. Being on the same wavelength likely helps Mrrowl add John to the "Deep Path", a Hive-Mind like group telepathy session.

POLISH

No spelling or grammar errors.

Like I said above, there's a Vulcan style tone in this book. It's serious, logical, presents the facts and gets stuff done. It reminds me of the classic Sherlock Holmes stories in that way.

 This is not to say that there is no emotion. For instance, when Shadow goes off to make his Heroic Sacrifice, there is a great deal of emotion. In fact, scenes such as these stand out all the more because they are rare, and therefore more memorable.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Crisis on Stardust Station" a B+

Click here for the next book review (which is not a review request): Young Miss Holmes casebook 1-2
Click here for the previous review request: Dawn of Steam: First Light

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why you need Beta Readers

Today I received my second beta reader's feedback. It made me really excited, both for the feedback itself and the fact that I'm closer to publishing "Looming Shadow".  With this feedback, I am more confident that my second book will be a success.

I didn't do the beta reading thing for A Mage's Power and because of this I didn't notice a grievous error in the manuscript.  The first chapter was disastrous. It turned off a lot of readers  and I know this for certain because such things are in several reviews. None of them like it and those that didn't dislike it only tolerated it. No one thought well of it until recently when one reviewer praised it. The bottom line is that it was a problem in the first chapter of my first book and I had no idea. I had no idea because I didn't show the book to anyone other than my parents. They're brilliant people but they are not fans of the fantasy genre and so they're not my target audience.

In the original edition of A Mage's Power, there was a section in the first chapter that involved Eric cyclying through a series of mysterious events. There's a dark mine where voices try to make him fall asleep forever, a volcano which tempts him into killing the office bully, a watery cavern that makes identity questions and other weird things. One reviewer compared it to Alice in Wonderland.

Piror to this is Tasio the Trickster talking about how he helps people and then a glimpse of a day in the hoo-hum life of Eric Watley. After the problem scene is an Urban Fantasy. The events of the problem scene never come up again and there is no context to understand them. That's why people don't like it.

It made a great deal of sense to me, personally. I thought through everything and made sure all the details were correct in the grand scheme of things. I was unaware that it would be baffling to a reader who had no context for it.

To those who are interested and read this scene before I removed it, I will explain. It was all A Secret Test of Character. It tested Eric's resolve to continue despite fear of danger, his determination to overcome obstacles in high stress situations, his problem solving and observational skills. The point was to make sure he had the bare minimum to survive in a place like Tariatla, where monsters are as common as mosquitoes.

"It was simply getting past that first initial chapter." This is a direct quote from a review. It's likely the kindest thing anyone said about this scene.  If I had sent this to more beta readers then I believe they would have pointed out this glaring problem. Then I could have removed it prior to the launch and avoided such statements in future reviews. Then I would have a higher rating and happier readers.

That is why you need Beta Readers

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Answering Review Request: Dawn of Steam First Light

Jeffrey Cook asked me to read his book "Dawn of Steam: First Light". It's about a Drean Team exploring the world to either prove or disprove that an adventurer's journals are non-fiction, and all because of a bet made by two aristocrats. I will examine plot, character and polish before assigning a grade.

PLOT

This story takes place in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars, and several people have gotten rich because of it. Two of these newly rich people decide to make a high stakes bet on Dr.Bowe's journals. These journals talk about his adventures across the world, from the American Wild West to India, to Japan, the last of these was closed to outsiders at the time, and the many wonders that he has seen. The bet is that he made all this up and so they hire crews to prove one way or the other.

This book covers the first leg of the trip, thus "First Light". It covers the bet itself, the Avengers Assembled scenes, and the trip across America. There's also an unplanned detour at a Spanish fort in Florida to claim it for England because a certain incident indicates war is coming.

Considering the story is told through Gregory Watt's journal and letters, and in professional and documentary tone, it can hardly be said to be thrilling despite its subject matter. The reader is further removed from the source of the action since Gregory Watts is not the one publishing this story in-universe. His wife is and after 65 years of marriage to boot. HOWEVER, that does not mean that this story is not dramatic or suffuse with tension. For example, there's this horrific storm that the airship is trapped in that leads to tragedy; since Gregory warns of the tragedy before hand (after all, his girlfriend is a delicate thing and might not be able to handle such awful happenings!) it has this "waiting for the other shoe to drop" sort of suspense; of knowing something bad is going to happen and being unable to stop it, because it's already happened.

Also, there is a subplot within the "exploring on a bet" main plot. Up until now, the in-universe public has been unaware of this conspiracy. Cordelia adds extra stuff that wasn't in the original publication. These are revealed in occasional interludes from other characters; other letters that hinted at something bigger and more sinister. It's quite a treat to find those gems.

There's a historical element; a deep sense of history. The events of the story take place in 1815 but the in-universe book is published in 1885. Thus there are footnotes for events that take place between the two. It is fascinating flavor text. It's the sort of small details that can push a story's quality higher.

The Ending is fantastic. Cordelia, the in-universe editor, decides to stop volume 1 after the group's first big achievement. This also marks the end of the first year of their adventure. Thus, it is a milestone and suitable stopping place.

CHARACTERS

The main cast is a Rag Tag Bunch of Misfits. Their recruitment fills tens of pages. While this may sound boring, the events that occur in the midst of recruitment and the colorful nature of these characters makes it quite entertaining. Gregory's English snarkiness makes it even better.

Gregory Watts is the Supporting Protagonist and documentary/photographer of the expedition. He wastes no time in establishing how silly he thinks the bet is and how it is obvious that Dr.Bowe fabricated his journals. He takes the job in spite of this because he believes such an adventure will bring him fame and fortune enough to convince his girlfriend's father that he is worthy of her hand in marriage. In other words, a modern engagement challenge.

He is an English gentleman. This means that he is polite, chivalrous and patriotic. It also means that he is prejudiced against everyone that is not English, has mild Stay In The Kitchen ideas, and is prone to backhanded compliments and stealth insults.

The people he recruits as follows:
-Sir James Coltrane and Jilian Coltrane are like paragons of English society for their gender. Respectively, they are the gentleman war hero/inventor and the proper lady Silk Hiding Steel social networker. They are dual leadership of the expedition.
-Sam Bowe is frontier hunter and the daughter of Dr.Bowe. She is their guide.  It becomes a minor running gag how her feats impress Gregory yet impress upon him that she must be insane for doing so.
-There's Eddy McBride, a Scottish sniper and a foil for James; gruff, quirky, Scottish, and snipping.
-Harriet is a Cute Clumsy Girl desperately trying to be a Proper Lady like her cousin Jillian. She's also a mechanic from her time on her family's farm in Virgina.
 -An Italian conman named Giovanni Franzini and his assistant,  Julietta Penn, who is a Romanian fortune teller. They provide less reputable skill sets.

There is no clear villain, just the "opposing crew" from the other side of the bet. Very little is revealed about them in the first volume but they still cause a great deal of trouble.

POLISH
Dawn of Steam is an epistolary novel, that is, it takes the form of letters and journal entries. Never once does this atmosphere break. The illusion of historical documents and 70 year footnotes is perfect. It's impressive stuff.

No spelling or grammar errors.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Dawn of Steam First Light" an A+

Click here for the next review request: "Crisis on Stardust Station"

Click here for the previous review request: Blood for Gold: The Fatal Tome

To read about the sequel: Gods of the Sun, click the link.

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Movie Review: Captain America the Winter Soldier

I reviewed phase 1 of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so now I will review Phase 2, in between book reviews of course. This one here is for Captain America the Winter Soldier.

PLOT

The basic thrust of the film is Steve Rogers investigating the assassination attempt on Nick Fury and a possibile conspiracy within SHIELD. Joining him on this mission is fellow avenger Natasha Romanof and a new friend, Sam Wilson. Thus, it has a much different feel to it than his original. It is a spy movie instead of a war movie, which again, reflects Steve's temporal status as the "Man Out Of Time".

 I watched a Marvel feature which pointed out that, unlike Thor 2 and Iron 3, this sequel will be truly different from the first because Steve Rogers is the "Man out of Time". He can't go back to his original setting after saving the day. This greatly informs the plot in many ways.
-->For one thing, it's funny. The running gag of Steve not getting modern cultural references is continued here: the first scene shows that he has a notebook of things he's missed and wants to understand. Then, much later, he understands when Natasha makes a War Games reference.
-->It's also dramatic. Steve comes from a time where there was a clear line between "good guys" and "bad guys" but here he starts to wonder if SHIELD is the former or the latter. As shown in many of the advertisements, he says "This isn't freedom, this is fear."

There's a theme Order vs Chaos in this film and it's played with to a greater extent than many examples. Both SHIELD and HYDRA represent Order in different aspects, the Knight in Sour Armor and the Knight Templar, respectively, and both of them are opposed to an nameless and shapeless Chaos. It's basically Fear and Lack of Control that they're opposing. In pursuit of this goal, they force Captain America and his allies into a form of heroic Chaos, who in turn, are trying to return the setting to a nobler Order.

I didn't find any plotholes, fridge logic, or otherwise anything not structually sound plotwise. I looked but I couldn't find anything.

Considering the bomb shell that is dropped here, Marvel Studios does an admirable job closing the movie's initial conflict. At the same time, they drop a number of sequel hooks. Simultaneously, I am delighted at the closure of one MCU project and I'm excited for the next.

CHARACTERS
This movie is the first to truly examine Steve's Fist out of Temporal Waters problem. Avengers throws him right into the plot of alien invasion. Here we see how he's adapting; learning how to use the internet, catching up on things he missed, and enjoying the much better food and lack of polio.

He's also a SHIELD agent and there is significant friction betwee him and his boss, Nick Fury. It's like a Knight in Shining Armor working for a Knight in Sour Armor. What I like about his portrayal here is how he be Captain America, this paragon of virtue and integrity, without becoming a cheesy and/or jingostic figure.

This is also the first film to take a solid look at the internals of SHIELD and its agents. Nick Fury, for instance, is shown in his capacity as Director of SHIELD instead of Recruiter of Avengers. We see the sort of things he does and the politics that he has to manipulate. There's also more about the man himself and his history. Then there's Natasha Romanof. While we still don't know what happened in Budapest with Hawkeye, more light is shed on her past and she herself is further developed as a character.

As for villains, it's quite a contrast with the original, and again, it makes a poigant statement for our Man Out Of Time. Red Skull was a megalomaniac Obviously Evil Take Over the World kind of guy. The villain for this movie is subtler, more sinister, and therefore more dangerous. Alexander Pierce pulled the wool over on someone as paranoid and crazy prepared as Nick Fury, and his Project Insight is much scarier than the Chitarui invasion. Aside from the fact that it has flying and self-sufficent aircraft carriers, it feels like something that could happen in real life, or the near future at any rate. What's worse, he used an organization that was supposed to protect the world from people like him to do it.

POLISH

This movie looks and sounds amazing. From the hand-to-hand between Captain America and the Winter Soldier, to the Helicarrier muntions, to Sam's Falcon suit, it's all breathaking.

The pacing is good too. We get a ground level view of what the world is like for Steve, then the plot builds up into a intriguing spy thing that becomes another epic climax.

For those that scorn "mindless superhero genre action" there's plenty of emotional moments here; plenty of scenes showcasing conflicting philosophies.

 Trickster Eric Novels gives "Captain America the Winter Soldier" an A+

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Old and New RoboCop

Two weeks ago I watched Robocop 2014 (my review for it can be found at this link) and last weekend I watched Robocop 1987. Many reviews of the former are written from the perspective of the latter, and so I thought it would be fun to do the opposite. There will be plot, characters and polish before I assign a grade.

PLOT

I found the 2014 plot to be tighter than the 1987 plot.
In the 1987 version, you have many plot threads: (1.) There's the Old Man wanting to make Delta City on the decayed ruins of Old Detroit, (2.) Rick Jones promoting his 209 series, (3.) the rivalry with Bob Martin's RoboCop program, (4.) the hedonism of Boddicker's gang, and 5.) the non-sequitor news segments all in addition to (6.)  RoboCop's war on crime and (7.) struggle to regain his humanity. All together, it makes Robo feel overshadowed simply because there is so little time focused on him. I like it, make no mistake about that, but the 2014 plot line is more streamlined and so it feels more put-together.
In the 2014 plotline, everything relates back to Omni Corp's desire to sell robots in America. (1.) The Novak Element is about making robots look good and humans look bad, (2.) Robocop's war on crime is about proving robot effectiveness and (3.) his balance between human and robot is a deliberate PR move to warm people to the idea of robot law enforcers. (4.) Antoine Vallon's gun smuggling business is used to demonstrate the "Human Cops Are Corruptible" angle vs. the "Soulless Robot" angle.

There's satire and political commentary on both sides but, as with the plot, the 2014 version is more focused. It takes the mocking stick and pokes it directly into corporate political lobbying. Robocop is exclusively used by Omni Corp as a Public Relations stunt in order to sway public opinion and enable them to sell their purely robotic law enforcers on American soil. The point is selling these robots to fight crime in America, instead of the two step "clear out crime and then start an urban renewal project" with its corporate rivalry and backstabbing.

The 1987 version has many more targets. There's consumerism from all those commercials, criticisms of those that enjoy ultra violence (the gang's torturing of Murphy and blowing up cars while gleefully laughing), and corporate corruption shown best in the "bitches, leave" scene which involves snorting cocaine from a prostitute's breasts and culminates with Boddicker blowing him up because Rick Jones paid him too.

The criminals (corporate and otherwise) are also focused on different targets and both times they create a parallel.

Back in 1987, Robocop crushed a cocaine factory in pursuit of his killers and he was originally killed chasing bank robbers. The corporate side of things had Bob Martin snorting cocaine and Dick Jones planning to sell a white elephant that needed lots of service and spare parts, i.e. robbery.  ("Who cares if it works!?")

In 2014, the focus is on selling weapons. Alex is blown up because of a sting he did on illegal guns that he traced to the evidence bin in the police department, pointing to corrupt cops. On the corporate side, we have Omni Corps (possibly) bankrolling the Novak Element to give them good press and twisting the arms of politicians to influence legislation. Both sides talk about their need to push "product" and their product is weaponry.
It's worth noting that the cops in 1987 version were only "corrupt" in so far as they were owned and operated by OCP.

In both films there's the issue of robot replacements for police officers. In the 1987 version, the police are afraid of that happening and yet they go on strike, which causes anarchy. In the 2014 version, this is explicitly what Omni Corp plans to do but with pure robots instead of more Robocops. There's no talk of a strike, but perhaps that's because the police aren't privatized in the remake and "public servants can't go on strike".

Considering the twenty seven year difference between the two, there's a case of Technology Marches On between them.
In the 1987 version, you have wonder how Robo Cop arrives Just In Time to stop crimes like the convenience store robbery, the attempted rape in the alley, and then the robbery at the Gas Station. It's too quick for a police radio. The 2014 version resolves this problem of narrative necessity by giving him surveillance feeds. There are cameras all over the city and so RoboCop can monitor large sections of it at once and cycle through all of them quickly.

On the other hand, this means he doesn't need the data spike which means he doesn't get the data spike. After watching the 1987 version, I was disappointed that I didn't see it in the 2014 version. In addition to accessing data, it can stab people like a dagger and flip the bird to other people. It's a multi-purpose tool.

I believe these differences are based in the different times they were produced in. When the first one came out, I wasn't old enough to talk so I can't speak for that era. However, the 2014 version's talk of the War on Terror, laws governing the use of unmanned drones, and mouth piece news programs, is much more familiar to me than Detroit's crime problem, privatized police forces, and abandoned steel mills.
Also, a story about a robotic policeman is naturally going to make more sense in the era that has more advanced technology.

On a minor note, there's in-universe reasons for his differing levels of robotization. It's minor because it's a small detail but I've seen it brought up in reviews and Tvtropes so I'll address it here.

In the 1987 version, the scientists were excited about saving his left arm but Bob Martin, who wants a robot, insists on removing it for a full body change. In the 2014 version, Peter Sellers insists on saving the right hand because he wants a human effect for the PR Boost. In a deleted scene, he says, "you can tell a lot about a guy by his handshake." This fits the tone of both movies: impersonal product vs. appealing PR spectacle.


 CHARACTERS

In 1987, Murphy has the TJ Lazar gun twirling trick. It may have come from a children's show but it is a distinct and more importantly "humanizing" thing. It was something only he did and he did it because his son thought it was cool and "I get a kick out of it." It remains after his mind was wiped and connects him to his memories as a family man.

Murphy 2014 has no such trait, but he compensates by spending more of the movie as himself instead of as RoboCop. Indeed, he is only called "Robocop" in a "Good Cop Bad Cop" joke by Lewis. Thus, we see more of him as he was/is and how his persona responds to increasing levels of robotization.

The portrayal of Murphy's family are polar opposite.
In the 1987 version, we only see them in memories. They've long since moved away. This is a great sense of loss for Murphy personally and means he has fewer people to interact with. More of his identity is gone because they are gone.
In the 2014 version, they are a more substantial presence. It is his wife that signs the consent form that transforms him and she helps him make the initial adjustment.  It is also his wife that triggers his "reboot" so to speak after his dopamine levels are artificially lowered.

In the 1987 version, the people who transform Alex Murphy into Robocop are background characters. They have no names and disappear once Robocop begins investigating his own murder. We learn nothing about them. The corporate guys take center stage.
In the 2014 version, the transformation team is condensed into Dr. Dennett Norton and his assistant. Dr. Norton is one of the main characters because he is the one programing Robocop and he is the lynchpin between Robots-Fighting-For-Justice and Corporate-Bottom-Line.  I place him in the top three with Peter Sellers and Robocop himself.


 POLISH

There's no doubt that 2014 version looks better. Even with nostalgia goggles, it is impossible to state that its special effects are inferior to 1987 version.  The 209 in the original looked silly but they look sinister in 2014.  The battles between them and Robocop are thrilling as opposed to funny.

Personally, I prefer the 2014 version but they're both great movies.  B+

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Movie Review: 2014 Robocop

This week's post will be different than usual. I watched the 2014 Robocop yesterday and I want to share my thoughts about it. While I was debating whether or not to give it a shot, much of the stuff I read about was comparisons to the original Robocop. Being a remake, that's fair enough but I'm going to judge it on its own merits. I've never seen the original and this one has inspired me to look into the old one.
Like a review request for a book, I will examine plot, character, and polish and then assign grade.

PLOT

I like the plot. I like the way that the world is set up (the droid soldiers, the Dreyfus Act, the Novak Element) and why someone like Robocop is wanted. It's a solid grounding for the plot to come.

The story's conflict is a mix between Robocop solving crimes in Detroit and Omnicorp milking him for PR to overturn a law that forbids them from selling their product in America. On a third front, there's Alex's family and partner trying to hang onto the human part of him as he is steadily reprogrammed into a robot.

He wakes up as Robocop fully aware of himself and who he is, but this is steadily eroded as OmniCorp's CEO demands him to be more like the robots they're deploying elsewhere. Alex does not know that they're doing this yet he becomes more and more "soulless robot" as the movie goes on. The movie may be rated PG-13 but watching this sort happen is still unnerving.

For more on those that dislike the movie for its rating, I have this-War on Terror, political lobbying, biased media, poking fun at the last two, and Alex's body horror.

My only complaint plotwise is the decision to upload the entirety of the DPD's data base into Robocop minutes before his first official appearance. The opportunity for something to go wrong was high because that's a LOT of data going into a mostly human brain. Then when he has problems downloading the information relating to his own near-death, they don't skip over it. It feels like a weasel to make him act robotic.

There is a great ending. It has resolution but still has plenty of room for more Robocop adventures.


CHARACTERS
I like this version of Alex Murphy. On tvtropes, he's what we'd called a "Disney Anti-Hero" because he's heroic at the core and rough around the edges. We're introduced to him as a disrespectful cop, who doesn't trust his fellows except for his partner, and who comes down hard on criminals, but he's also a family man, a good partner, and incorruptible. Indeed, the car bomb is set up because two corrupt cops say he can't be bought.

Dr.Norton is a fascinating character because of the depth and berth of his persona. He's the one responsible for transforming Alex Murphy into Robocop and the following programing. It's clear that he's constantly weighing numerous values with each action. For instance, should he install the combat mode which makes Alex a passenger in his own body-without his knowledge-or let Mattox condemn him as a failure, preventing him from going home and seeing his family ever again?


Raymond Sellers is the CEO of Omnicorp and the Big Bad for this movie. However, he too has a fleshed out character. He's personable, friendly, and while he's interested in making money, he's not (initially) portrayed as an unscrupulous asshole. Even after he decides to turn Robocop into a martyr to advance his company's agenda, he doesn't become a mustache twirling villain. There's a classic villain ball at the climax, but that can be put down to (justified) over-confidence than evil gloating.


POLISH

One thing that cannot be denied is that this movie looks awesome! The Omni-corp drones, Robocop himself, the various associated technology/gadgets and the battle scenes; all of these are sleek, stylish and make for a stunning picture.

I also like the pacing.  The main meat of this film is Alex Murphy as a human, who happens to be Robocop, so the first act of the movie that shows him as this human is essential. Indeed the importance (or un-importance) of  "the human element" is a reoccurring theme.

There's not a boring moment or time wasted. Even the intimate scene with Alex and his wife is used for character development because he breaks it off to investigate a car alarm nearby.  (In my view, this is the Chronic Hero Syndrome that is exaggerated after his transformation).

Trickster Eric Novels gives Robocop 2014 a B+


UPDATE

I have since watched the original Robocop. If you'd like to see a comparison review, click here

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Answering Review Request: "Blood for Gold book 1 Fatal Tome".

Damien Coll asked me to read his short story "Blood for Gold book 1 Fatal Tome". It's about criminals exiled to an orc infested island to mine for gold and stars a thief.  I will examine plot, characters and polish and then assign a grade.

PLOT

It is difficult to weigh the plot because of the nature of this story. It is 37 pages long and cuts off shortly after the protagonist arrives on the island. It feels like an extended prologue. The main character is introduced and developed. She's sent to this island and meets other people. Then the orcs attack and the book cuts off.


The tome in question is one that the protagonist's father was killed trying to obtain. It starts off as critically important but then it fades from significance. Because Mr.Coll's book is so short and incomplete, I can't say if this is bad writing or not.
 
I liked the development and where the plot was going but there's so little here I can't call it an ending.
This book feels less like a book and more like the pilot episode of some show. It's just a beginning without a middle or an end.

 
CHARACTERS

As short as it is, the two main characters are well developed. There's backstory, personality and motive for the leading lady, Uliane. Srevtiur likewise. Furthermore, they make great foils for each other.  Uliane is this devious thief given to talking poetically and Srevtiur is a plain speaking former military officer.


As an organization, the Vultures are made distinct from garden variety mooks with their uniforms and by comments from others. There's a sense that they are more than convenient objects for heroes to beat up on. They have more meat on them than that.

POLISH

I found 1 spelling error.

When I finished reading, I wasn't sure what kind of a grade to give this book. It's not a finished work. The ending doesn't even count as a cliffhanger because the conflict has barely been set up. On the final page, the author presents several options as if this were a "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel. It could ultimately be really good or it could be really bad depending on where Mr.Coll went from here. I don't know because this book is truly more like 1/3 of a book.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Blood for Gold book 1: The Fatal Tome" an X (if the rest of the book is as good as what's here, a B+ is likely and A+ possible but so is an F).

 
Click here for the next review request: Dawn of Steam: First Light

Click here for the previous review request: Past, Present and Nowhere