Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Answering Review Request: Unreliable Histories

Rob Gresgson asked me to read his novel "Unreliable Histories". It's an urban fantasy that looks to take place in a fantasy counterpart of the British Isles during the Age of Exploration. I will examine plot, characters and polish and then decide on a grade.

NOTE: this review is about the first edition. I was 1/3 finished with it by the time Mr.Gregson put out the second.  He informed me that the chapter ordering is a little different, Jul has a little more screen time and the opening was rearranged, but in terms of content and story, they are the same.


What we have here is two characters investigating a mystery. Myrah and Al encounter a wizard in a big and flashy event who tells them to find a certain object before dying. Mostly because they're bored, they go off on this little scavenger hunt. They travel from place to place learning about this thing they've found and uncover pieces of information relating to alternate histories for their country and their own lives.

What I like the most about this story is its angle about the Commercialization of Adventure. Myrah's uncle is one of the three heads of an empire spanning company that supplies explorers, adventurers and the like. It's called FMS Exploration and it has everything from ships to equipment to crew for its customers. Most of it is just for show because the adventurers are just for show. They're trying to become rich, famous or some other self-serving goal by lying about their boring and profitless adventure. There's a running gag about how they name innocuous and harmless places something intimidating and fearsome like "Light of Dragon's Blood" or some other such silliness in order to spice up their tale.
It's the opposite of the trope No Hero Discount. While the hero sees the merchant as greedy for not cutting him a break when he's trying to save the world, the merchant sees the hero as walking money whose not as special or important as he thinks he is. It's even this sort of merchant that keeps the traps in all those dungeons fresh and ready. HOWEVER, this is all done is good fun (narratively speaking). It's not a dark and gritty sort of angle but a light hearted mocking angle. I find that much more appealing than someone who piles on the tragedy.

About half way through there's a genre shift where Myrath and Al go through a genuinely threatening dungeon that houses a genuinely threatening demon and receive aid from a genuinely heroic adventurer (Myrth, in her jadedness, still thinks he's a scoundrel, despite a smidgen of infatuation). There's still more of the Commercialization of Adventure going on, but I got the sense that the vain glorious adventurers of the start are just the most public and visible; there's a deeper layer going on.

Ending is great. There's closure for the book's conflict and a funny lampshading of the remaining plot threads and how everything is not all neatly tied up. It also works well as a launching pad into the second book.


Myrah is the hero of this story and a character I like. She's practical, she's both intelligent and cunning, and she has heroic spirit. She's also jaded from her uncle's "profit above all else" business model, poser explorers and the general misogyny of her society. Third, she has this British wit which I believe is a gift direct from her author.

Al (Alaethar) is her partner and foil. He's this big guy that helps Myrah because he's in love with her. He's routinely Mistaken For Badass because of his size and an innocent scare on his collarbone. At the start, you think he is the one going to be the Ascended Fanboy but then he becomes Myrah's voice of reason as she tries to figure out the Index. It is quite amusing to see Agent Mulder turn into Agent Skully so quickly. The genre shift has quite an effect on him.

Nevigorn is a fun character. During his previous adventure, he found The Truth and gained an Enlightenment Superpower that changed his view of the universe and everyone in it. As a result, he rarely makes any sense to anyone. It's cloud cuckoo lander humor that is at the same time very pertinent to the plot. His Lack of Empathy can come off as Leaning On the Fourth Wall.

Fievelus is Myrah's uncle and one of two villains for this story. He may be the Big Bad or an Unwitting Pawn by the end but he's certainly The Heavy. He's greedy. He's a Corrupt Corporate Executive that has developed a Social Darwin style philosophy to explain how he is not corrupt despite his actions. Myrah tries to keep him out of the loop regarding her adventurer activities as much as possible because she knows that he will push her aside to make as much profit as possible regardless of anything else.

Hahn is a minor character but I wanted to include him but he is a fascinating case. He is every bit the Ideal Hero: brave, charismatic, kind, generous,  defender of the innocent and scourge of oppressors while also very skilled in combat. For this reason Myrah thinks he's a scoundrel because he's known as an outlaw (because of the scourge of oppressors thing) and because she's never met an adventurer that wasn't a selfish glory hound. On the contrary, he spends all his praise on Al, a rookie warrior and a stranger to him. He also speaks in a formal heroic style, which Al and Myrah both find strange but fitting with his character type.


It looks good. No spelling or grammar errors. The foot notes have some funny and interesting world building.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Unreliable Histories" an A+

This is a free review request. I received nothing in exchange for it but a free copy of the book.

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

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Movie Review: Avengers 2 Age Of Ultron

I saw Age of Ultron the other week and so now I can continue with my reviews of movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This one will cover plot, characters and polish and then assign a grade.


This movie has a different pace and momentum than the previous. Starting out with a battle against HYDRA, it lulls for for a funny party at Avenger's Tower where Ultron is created, shows up and rebels. Then there is a series of confrontations followed by a climax. I like this approach because it makes it different from the previous film. There is certainly no sense of formulaic or paint by number stuff going on here. Only the most basic sense of storytelling tools like Rising Action and Climax followed by Falling Action and Resolution.

Also, the Evil Plan is certainly more complex. Loki's goal in The Avengers was basically to open a path for an alien invasion. Here we have a Well Intentioned Extremist upgrading himself while working on a Social Darwinist thing to "bring peace in our time" as his creator instructed. If Ultron's motives or reasons or goals seem to shift frequently, that's not bad writing. That is good writing because it showcases Ultron's personality in this verse. For one, he's crazy, for two, he's manipulating the twins by withholding his true goal and three, he simply changes his mind the Avengers steal his Vision.

Battle scenes are amazing, as has become standard with the MCU. My favorite is two part. One of them is the Hulk vs the Hulkbuster armor. The other involves a Hold The Line involving the Avengers and a couple new allies.

I don't see the problem with the Natasha/Bruce romantic angle. Given what she says, it makes sense (though a nod to Betty would have been nice). I don't see the "sterilization" thing as misogynistic at all. Isn't the fact that she it happened at all mean that the Red Room considers her value far and away outside her ability to produce children?

Ending is great. There is resolution to the conflict and then a springboard to the solo films of Phase 3. It's a shifting of narrative weight that provides both closure and excitement for the next installment.


Ultron is a fantastic villain. He looks menacing with his robotic stuff and he certainly puts up an impressive fight in physical combat while carrying out a multi-pronged Evil Plan. He has the snark comedy (very well delivered by James Spader) and making this even better is that he gets it from his "father" Tony Stark, and he hates being compared to him. On one hand he's this sinister philosopher villain and then he goes and does something goofy or childish like the "smaller people" line. A combination of insanity, immaturity mixed with great knowledge, and a dash of obfuscation and manipulation, and the true extent of his Evil Plan remains flexible and mysterious.

The Avengers continue to perform well. They are a better oiled team than in the first movie, as natural because they've been working together against HYDRA for some time now, but there is still tension. Iron Man's "peace in our time" philosophy clashes with Captain America's "don't try to win wars that haven't started" philosophy. With knowledge that Captain America 3: Civil War is coming, you know that this is where it starts.

Hawkeye gets great development here. Not only is he a badass archer and secret agent, but he's also The Heart of the team and a family man to boot.


This movie looks amazing, both in battle scenes and in quiet scenes.

Trickster Eric Novels gives Avengers: Age of Ultron, an A+

Review for Avengers 1 can be found here

Saturday, May 16, 2015

New Release: REGINA SHEN series!

I'm helping out another author today. Their book was released yesterday and will be discounted for the rest of the month. If you like post-Apocalyptic Dystopian things, then you should check it out.
Abrupt climate change melted ice caps, flooded coasts, and expanded deserts. The World Federation’s notorious Department of Antiquities polices barrier walls and suppresses knowledge from the past. Three-hundred-plus-year-old Grand Old Dames rule using a caste system.
Regina Shen is an outcast condemned to live on the seaward side of barrier walls. She survives by her wits on swampy islands and thrives on salvage from sunken cities, including illegal print books from before the Federation. With her photographic memory, she defies Antiquities by reading books not available in the Federation. The Federation claims she has unique DNA that could single-handedly reverse the extinction of humankind. It's too bad she doesn't trust them enough to barter fairly, let alone with her life.
Regina Shen: Resilience – A hurricane threatens to destroy Regina’s world. Separated from sister, mom, and home, with Antiquities in pursuit, Regina fights to stay alive and avoid capture while hunting for family. Does she have the resilience to survive both the storm and Antiquities?
Regina Shen: Vigilance – Pursued by Antiquities, Regina jumps the barrier wall into the Federation to find her kidnapped sister and winds up on a closed-university campus with heavy security. Regina must use her wits to escape and rescue her sister without letting either of two rival inspectors capture her. Can she rescue her sister from an obvious trap?
They are available on Amazon (http://www.amazon.com/Lance-Erlick/e/B00C1PKYSA) and the first book is discounted at $2.99 through the end of May.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Get to the Dungeon!

These days I'm writing the fourth book of the Journey to Chaos series, currently untitled. It's the ninth chapter and I was at a rut. Things were moving slowly. It was difficult to move the story forward. Part of this was a simple lack of framework for the arc to come but something else was in play; something more fundamental. My characters were not in a dungeon.

In the terminology of an RPG, a "dungeon" is any enclosed area where there are monsters, traps, treasure chests etc. that adventures pass through for the sake of the plot. A dungeon can be a forest, a cave, a literal dungeon of prisoners within a castle, the ruins of a town, etc. I'm not sure if a plain that one passes through on their way to something else would count as a dungeon, in the same way or otherwise, but the point is that a dungeon is where the action happens. That is where the fights occur, and the plot develops. A hero could, for instance, receive a mission from the king in a town and then go out to accomplish this mission in a dangerous locale. The town is only good for buying supplies/equipment, resting at the Trauma Inn, and talking with NPCS.

The early video RPG were entirely dungeons. I remember playing the original Zelda game and it plopped Link straight into the first dungeon without fanfare. I didn't play it far but I don't recall any towns or such. The second game had only minor, one-screen, towns where you couldn't do much. The dungeons were where stuff happens. That is where the hero fought mooks, engaged with villains, and pushed the plot of he game forward by pursuing the objectives of his mission.

FFXIII was entirely dungeon. It was a pretty neat trick, how the developers kept the characters (and thus the players) in dungeons throughout the entire game despite the fact that all of Cocoon was inhabited, settled or otherwise used by humans. There were nature preserves, mechanical grave yards, military installations, and when a character reached some honest-to-goodness town, some soldiers would show up and drive the NPCs away, and then it would become one more dungeon. The usual function of a town is fulfilled by the save sphere, which in this game is a high tech communication device for purchasing all sorts of stuff. Personally, I liked this idea. The plot never slowed down. In fact, I would find myself playing late into the night because I was driven by the energy of the plot.

I also remember playing the Dot Hack games and stuff always happened in dungeons. Specifically it was the bottom level of the dungeon. Even with its simulation of a MMORPG, events with "other
players" would occur inside a dungeon and at their bottom level. This was to ensure battles, treasure finding, the plunging of a new area and the development of characters. The town hubs were only good for finding equipment, party members, and quests to undertake within dungeons.

I struggled for days with the pace and direction of the ninth chapter of Journey to Chaos book 4 before I had this realization. So, without further ado, I placed them into a dungeon. Initially they were traveling to a peaceful town but that would lead to more talking. I realized that would be boring info dump and plot coupon-ish. So I altered the setting to make it dangerous. The details are naturally spoilers but in doing so the spoilers accelerate the rate at which I could move to the spoilers and introduce spoilers. This move suited the purpose of the plot but now it was easier to write and keep exciting. That change than accelerated my own discovery of the plot and this particular arc and its characters.

I'll have to keep this in mind for the next arc. It's of a different nature than the one I'm working on right now but if I keep this "get to the dungeon" thing in mind I believe that I will have a framework with which to progress.