Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Read for Fun: Spice and Wolf Volume 4

This is the fourth volume of Spice and Wolf and the one that was skipped when the anime was made. It's a shame because it's a good story. The thrust of this one is that the pair continue to look for clues to the location of Yoitsu, following the lead given to them by Diana in volume 3 and then get tangled up in local trouble. I will examine plot, character and polish and then assign a grade.

PLOT

I like the plot. It is a steady progression towards Holo's series goal of going home. It builds upon the revelation of the previous volume so the goal is still valid with this revelation. It is also woven into the troubles of this town but separate from it. From that angle one can assume it to be seen as filler or Wacky Wayside Tribe but I don't see it this way.

It's the same sort of cloak and dagger economics from previous volumes and the same delightful banter from the leads. It also goes deeper into the religious nature of the setting. It's nice to see sympathetic clergymen for once. Indeed, Lawrence has much praise for Elsa, even though she's technically not a priestess; medieval ordination being what it is and all.

This volume examines in detail the point of contrast between Christianity and paganism. There's Holo, a pagan deity that was worshipped until recently and the last two volumes introduced two more deities and now there's this village of Tereo that worships this giant snake which may or may not exist. With all these pagan deities running around, what's a Christian priest supposed to do? It's a Crisis of Faith for Elsa and it makes an intriguing side plot alongside the economics. I also like the solution she finds.

The nature of the conflict in this volume is a shift from the previous. Unlike its predecessors, where it's a business venture for Lawrence or otherwise a personal motivation initiated by him and carried out economically, this one is more like getting roped into something. It's defensive in nature which is a nice change of pace. He makes a profit, naturally, but it's more about responding to and manipulating a deal settled between two villages long before he arrived.

As before, the ending is good because the conflict is handled skillfully. The book's conflict is closed satisfactorily but the series conflict continues.

CHARACTERS

Elise and Evan are fine foils for our leading couple. Elise is a proud and clever girl but still developing the confidence that Holo displays so easily. This makes her inner vulnerability more apparent than Holo's. Unlike Holo, she has an easier time showing affection to her guy. Evan is an aspiring merchant who wants to get out of his small town, which is what Lawrence used to be some years ago. The biggest difference, aside from the age and its experience, is his relationship with Elsa; it's much more straightforward.

 Town Elder Sem is also good. While is antagonistic, it's still easy to call him a Reasonable Authority Figure given the circumstances that surround him and his village.

This volume gives a more balanced view of the Catholic Church from previous volumes. It's not just some huge monolithic trading firm with religious slogans and different uniforms. The other one is certainly corrupt and greedy but the church of Tereo is portrayed as truly pious, both in this generation and the previous one. It is certainly a boon to Father Franz that a village of pagans have nothing but good things to say about him.

POLISH

Same as the others, no grammar or spelling errors.

Trickster Eric Novels gives Spice and Wolf Volume 4 an A+

Click here for the next book review (which is a review request): Unreliable Histories

Click here for the previous book review (which is also a review request): Amanda Moonstone 1 - The Missing Prince

Friday, April 24, 2015

Answering review request: Amana Moonstone book 1 The Missing Prince

Dan Wright asked me to read his fantasy novel, "Amanda Moonstone book 1: The Missing Prince". It is set in the same verse as his Draconica series but focuses in another country with an original cast. I have read three of those novels (You can read my review for the first one here). This one is about a sorcerers that becomes entangled with a succession struggle involving the royal family of Celtland. I will examine Plot, Characters, and Polish before assigning a grade.

PLOT

At the highest level, what we have here is a Changeling story mixed with a Road Trip Romance, except the "romance" is foster mother/son rather than between lovers. The two leads are Amanda Moonstone and Daryl Gryphenpyre. Daryl is the son of the previous ruler of Celtland, Queen Sheena, and he's been in hiding since she was killed by her brother (his uncle) who is now the ruler. Amanda is a financially struggling sorcerers who hopes that the reward for Daryl will put her life back in order.

It's pretty standard by the trope but this by no means makes it less touching. This is the fourth book I've read by Dan and I continue reading his work because he places a premium on doing a good job rather than being 100% original. I like this because the later goal is impossible and this frees him to raise the quality in other areas. Was I surprised by anything that happens in this story? No (well, maybe a few things...) Did I still laugh at funny parts, "aww!" at heartwarming ones or go "holy shit!" at the awesome parts? Definitely.

Another point in favor of this book is it's place within the Draconica verse. I really like Verse stuff. It makes the stories seem fuller, you know? Bigger and more indepth and that there is more to this fictional reality than what exists on the page. It's Imagination fodder. Anyway, there are references to the Dragokin sisters (Queen Sheena and Queen Daniar were friends, for instance) and Gothon's Campaign, which took place during Trapped on Draconica, informs the underpinnings for Celtland's current royalty in fighting.

There are two things that bother me about this plot. Call it Fridge Logic.
1. Kimera, the new king who deliberately tries to be as vile and ruthless as possible to as many people as possible, is never assassinated. He once threatened to hang one of his guards for correcting his grammar. He treats everyone like this, from the grunts to the royal guard captain. After a couple years, you'd think one of them would stab him in the back, especially since he's replacing a queen who had a tremendously high public approval rating. If he were like Gothon, this would make sense because Gothon was personally powerful. This guy is just a fat slob. It breaks my Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
2. Luthar turns his back on Kimera after winning their duel. This guy has first hand knowledge of and painful experience with Kimera's treachery so why he would do this without first securing Kimera is strange. It feels like a petty plot twist to allow Luthar to get to his digs in at Kimera while also allowing a bigger climax with Amanda.

There's a great ending. It has perfect closure for this book's conflict while at the same time opening up a series wide conflict with a sequel hook.

CHARACTERS

Amanda Moonstone is a delightful Classic Antihero. She has a good heart but is living in circumstances that lead to less than heroic actions. She's struggling to cope with three interconnected tragedies in her past ranging from the supernatural to the personal. She also has impressive but not game breaking magic.

I'd like to spend a paragraph on that last point. There are a number of restrictions on Amanda's magic that feel arbitrary. It's like Dan is trying to Hold Back the Plotinium. For instance, Invisibility has a long recharge time, she can't use levitation on herself for flight, etc. I took this as a lesson he learned from the Draconica main series, where the dragokin sisters seem to lose power with each book to make their threats more challenging. I see the ground floor restrictions here as a sign that her Power Level will be more consistent.

Luthar is an expy of Taurok from Trapped on Draconica; the noble top enforcer who is coerced into serving the Big Bad via I Have Your Wife. He even took Gothon's only sympathetic trait (love for the late queen), thus making Kimera entirely evil. His past and vocation makes him Amanda's foil so sharing the screen time with her was a good idea on Dan's part.

Kimeria is a pitiful villain. Even with heinous villains, there's still room for admiration based on their talent, but this guy has none of that. This makes his villainous breakdown and downfall all the sweeter. Also, he's not the true villain here. The Author (a character in the story, not Dan Wright) is far more sinister,  imposing, and overall more important to the grand scheme of things.

POLISH

No spelling or grammar issues. The pictures look good and are well placed.

Trickster Eric Novels gives Amana Moonstone 1: The Missing Prince a B+

Click here for the next book review (which was not a review request): Spice and Wolf volume 4 

Click here for the previous book review (which was not a review request either): Sword Art Online Volume 2 Aincrad 2

This was a free review request. I received nothing in exchange except a free copy of the book.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Read for Fun: Sword Art Online volume 2 Aincrad 2

This is the second volume for Sword Art Online. Again I must say that all the "problems" of the haters have to do with the way the story was adapted to TV, and the anachronistic nature of the two volumes. Thus, this is my second Defense of SAO. (To read the first click here) As before I will examine plot, characters and polish while responding to common critiques.

PLOT

This volume takes the form of four short stories set before Kirito clears the game. As I said in my review of the first volume, three of them occur before the main narrative of the first volume. This means that they form the earliest episodes, and because they are stand alone short stories, they are disconnected from each other and the main plot of volume 1 other than the fact that they are all within the grand narrative of the Aincrad Death Game. Thus they look like filler in the anime, but they have a specific purpose.

The first volume is all about the elite. It's focused on the clearers who are in the latest dungeon, fighting the latest bosses and pushing the frontier closer and closer to the top of the castle. This is only a couple hundred people out of thousands trapped in the game. This second volume is focused on the middle grade players, who build new lives for themselves inside the game while waiting for the clearers to free everyone, as well as the bottom rung players, who are too scared to leave the Town of Beginnings.

There is also a difference in perspective. Kirito was a first person narrator in the first volume, but here, he only takes that role in one story. Silica, Lisbeth and Asuna are the viewpoint characters in the other three. This doesn't translate well into the anime and so these episodes lose a lot of substance.

Given this set up, there is no ending within the book but the plots themselves are closed well.

CHARACTERS

I have a feeling that the misunderstandings produced by this volume are responsible for a lot of the hate towards Kirito as a Mary Sue. He is an elite clearer that is hanging out with players of substantially lower levels. All of these stories take place away from the frontier. This is why Kirito is so much more powerful than everyone else. The anime doesn't frame this appropriately and so Kirito appears unfairly high in level. In fact, Kirito talks about how unfair the level based system is during the first story (this line is included in the anime but it's an easily missed thing). Anyone reading this volume for fantastic and suspense filled fight scenes is going to be disappointed. Kirito is here to provide a contrast with the middle grade and low grade players in order to give the reader perspective.

Silica gets the short end of the stick in regards to adaption. She is the supporting protagonist in her story, she gets a lot more development and she shows her true power. She does not get either of those in the anime. In regards to her status as part of Kirito's "harem", it's understandable that she would get something of a crush. After the rescue in the dungeon, giving her high grade equipment, and then helping her revive her familiar, all without asking for anything in return and after a period of prolonged loneliness, a young person is naturally going to think favorably towards him.

Lisbeth is a first person narrator in her story. We get her past and motivations here as well as a great deal more personality development when they are missing in the anime adaption. Her progress from selling crude weapons on the street and living out of an inn to owning her own shop and being highly regarded among weapon smiths didn't make the cut. In regards to her status as part of Kirito's "harem", it's a minor thing. Asuna appears in this story before Kirito does and their friendship with each other is established first.  Lisbeth picks up on her crush and when she finds out it's on Kirito, she has a brief period of anguish and then goes into Shipper on Deck mode. Furthermore, I get the feeling that death game induced loneliness is a bigger part here than one more notch in Kirito's belt. It just looks like the later in the anime because it couldn't preserve the first person narration.

Asuna herself is the viewpoint for the third story and she gets more development here as well. There's her backstory before the game and as well as the first day and her rise to her current spot in the Knights of Blood. This story is the only truly romantic one of the stories because it is with the only real couple, and during their Honeymoon to boot.

Finally, Kirito is the viewpoint again for the fourth story. This is about his days with the Full Moon Blackcats. I imagine that any complaint a hater could bring against him about this incident, he would agree with. Yes their deaths were his fault, yes a high level player shouldn't have been messing around with them, yes he was a horrible person for showing off (when he was truly keeping them alive and making them stronger) etc. This is Kirito's darkest moment. He outright states that he doesn't expect to survive fighting Nicolas the Renegade and is basically committing suicide by boss fight; he's choosing this particularly boss in the hopes of reviving at least one person. Again, you don't get this in the anime because of adaption compression.

POLISH
Like the first, no spelling or grammar problems. The artwork continues to look good as well.

Trickster Eric Novels gives Sword Art Online Volume 2: Aincard 2 an A+

Click here for the next book review (which was a review request): Amanda Moonstone 1 The Missing Prince

Click here for the previous book review (which was a review request): Shadow of the Raven

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Answering review request: Shadow of the Raven

Robert Charles asked me to read his book "Shadow of the Raven". It's about Edric Saran, a foreign ambassador, investigating the death of a friend and through that getting involved with supernatural happenings such as crossing between dimensions and conflicts between deities. I will examine plot, characters, and polish, and then assign a grade.

PLOT
This is a growing plot. The way that it builds upon itself from the murder of a scholar to a titanic cross world climax is impressive. It's like you look back and "Whoa! The Caterpillar has become a butterfly!"

It's a strong use of the macguffin trope. The fragments of the portal stone are collected, assembled and put to use in the second act. While it remains important through the entire work, its use and purpose shifts. It is, in other words, not a mere trinket for the heroes and villains to fight over.

It's quite the well structured plot. Heroes and villains each take action as appropriate to their situation and take care to determine multiple possible responses and ways to advance. When a character is passed the Idiot Ball, the narration is fully aware of this and quickly explains why this action is/was appropriate to the character's temperament. It also adds to a sense of foreboding. Narrations says something like " X did something foolish and it led to tragedy" and I was like "Oh no, what happened?!"

Additionally, the use of Chekhov's Gun is fantastic. The number of seemingly inconsequential things that are set up in advance to become important later shows how well thought out  the story is and it also provides a nice pay-off when the reader makes the connection.

 The story feels both very long and also, shall I say "full extended" in that it left no stone unturned in developing itself and its characters. It took me a while to read it all and I enjoyed every page because of this fullness to character and setting.  

There is a fantastic closure to the conflict. It's a great sense of resolution for the fantasy epic main plot line while at the same time leaves open the possibility of future clashes with the villains. It also creates a nice Maybe Ever After for the romantic sub plot.


CHARACTERS

The male lead is Edric Saran, a snarky gentleman. On Tvtropes, we'd call him a knight in sour armor because of his grumpy attitude and cynical view matched with inner heroism, and in this case, chivalry. I really like how he develops over the course of the story, both in terms of character growth and also the revelation of his backstory.

The female lead is Arawiyn Trelan. She has this haughty princess demeanor that I find appealing. Matched with her determination to do good and stop the evil Solomon, it highlights her noble nature and works as a cap against bitchiness. She has her own character arc separate from the main plot and Edric's own that sees her grow in a remarkable way as well.

The two leads develop this Sword and Sorcery/Lady and Knight dynamic that enriches the narrative. It's fun to read for its own sake but also for the classic nature of it in what appears to be an early modern setting.

As for the villain, one thing that I like about this story is the way it plays around with the notion of who is the Big Bad. Is it Lord Solomon the sinister council chessmaster? Is it Jerrack, the dreaded fae lord of Fellhallow? Is it Maglyen, the god of death? Or is it Arianwyn herself, duping Edric into helping her with a myriad of half-truths and a wounded gazelle image?

 I also like Jamar. He's a classic Big Guy with his size and strength, who is also quietly dignified and possessing a similar gentlemanly snark (perhaps butler snark is more accurate) as Edric. Quintus is similar in this regard as the only Lawful Good character here who also possess more hidden depths than "incorruptible law enforcer".

POLISH

No spelling or grammar problems.

This story is written from Edric's first person narration. There's no frame device for it and so I wonder why he's narrating. However, I also get the sense that he's dictating this story to someone because it has a reflective air to it, as if he's recalling these events years later. It certainly works to the book's sense of humor as Edric's wit is shown in both his narration and his spoken words.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Shadow of the Raven" by Robert Charles an A+

Click here for the next book review (which was not a review request): Sword Art Online volume 2

Click here for the previous book review (which was not a review request): Worlds of Medieval Europe

The sequel to this book also has a review: Light of the Radiant

This was a free review request. I received in exchange except a free copy of the book.

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, April 7, 2015

Neccessity of a Verse Book (The Mechanics of Fantasy)

When writing a story, it's necessary to keep everything straight so everything makes sense. The who, what, where, why, and how of things can get complicated when you have a sheet for every place and character. This is especially the case for speculative fiction as it contains many more possibilities than realistic fiction.

I was revising a scene in Journey To Chaos book 4 and it was the latest of the many occasions that I've been struck by the complexity of the fantasy genre. The supernatural nature of world provides far more in the way of world building and character ability and backstory then an equivalent story in a real life location. This is what Looming Shadow took so long to publish; there were many elements to keep in balance and account for.

When I took the whole work into consideration at once, and then the work in context of the series and the series in terms of the verse, there was a lot that I had to keep track of. It was a fascinating period of contemplation and reconciliation between plot elements, but it was also a long and, at times, tedious process. It was like hiking without a map; it's enjoyable until you get lost so I'm glad I had been keeping a map and adding to it as I went.

As in realistic fiction, you have to keep in mind the terrain and its nature, all the characters involved and their motivations, how the characters relate to each other, and the actions they would take in this specific situation, not as logic would dictate but as their individual characteristics would dictate. However, fantasy fiction has more elements. You could have different scales on the Super Weight, from badass normal to moderate magic to high magic to god like(and the level of divinity for each god-like character) in addition to skills that might be supernatural but not really "magic" as such. You might have to keep in mind the aspects of a non-human race in comparison to the human race, and how these affect other races. The area itself could have a supernatural qualification.

It's kind of like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. "I have this character Bob, who has Y level of skill/strength/speed etc, S kind of equipment, a favored enemy of X, racial bonuses A and B, a skill set of G,H,T." Then you multiply this by the number of character in the scene. Character sheets are useful for summarizing them.

 The scene I referred to involves demon mage mercenaries, chaotic elven anti-order warriors, and chaotic elven priestesses, invading a land blessed by the head deity of order and fighting elite orderly soldiers with the assistance of chaotic deities. There is a lot of information to keep track of that would not exist in realistic fiction and so I found myself re-reading my notes and previous books.

Now I'm revising this blog post and I realize it reads more like a prologue to a chapter than a standalone thing. I suppose that's why D&D books are so thick...