Sunday, January 21, 2018

Something unusual: A Culinary Experiment

Today I'm going to share something unusual. It is a culinary experiment I performed today.

See, I keep special treats around for celebrating when I finish something exceptional, such as finishing a draft/publishing a book or completing a video game. Yesterday, not only did I finish a game but I also completed all its sidequests (there were basically two in the whole game, but all is all. It was Xenosaga Episode I for those interested). So I opened a packet of Lindt 90% cacao . It is a significantly different experience than the 76% percent with almonds that I ate previously; intense chocolate flavor. I think it would be better used as a caffeine replacement than a treat.
Then I remembered how Lindt's website talked about how a 100% cacao bar is suited only as a baking chocolate and I decided to go that route.

The recipe I planned is cacao bars (distinct from chocolate bars),  maca powder, and cheerios mixed together. I'm expecting it to be this clumpy finger-food thing. It is something like this one recipe that my Mom makes around Christmas time, which she calls "Kibbles and Bits", but that has white chocolate and other stuff. I'm going simpler for my first try. This is what happened.

 
 
Cleaning all of that up took as long as mixing everything up. I put the end result in the freezer. Then I moved to my favorite part of this sort of recipe; licking the mixing bowl. There was a faint taste of maca. I think it's because I only added two teaspoons of boiled maca to the thirteen or so squares of cacao. Perhaps I'll add more next time, or add cinnamon instead of or in addition to it.
 
What does this have to do with writing? I think that food preparation adds a sense of reality to any scene or culture. How they eat, what they eat, the things they do to food before they eat it; all these things inform the reader about them and influence their actions and the world around them. However, I don't do much in the way of food preparation myself. Usually, it's just adding spices to my oatmeal. So this was fun. Hopefully, it will also be tasty.
 
 
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, January 16, 2018

Read for fun: Sword Art Online Volume 9

I finished reading Sword Art Online Volume 9 recently. This is the start of the Alicization Arc, which, as of this posting, has not been adapted for an anime (although one is in the making). This was a novel experience for me as I watched the first four arcs before reading them (technically, I've only read the first two). I will examine Plot, Character, and Polish before assigning a grade.

 
PLOT
 

What I like about this arc, and this volume in particular, is the three layers of plots. On one hand is the immediate plot about Kirito investigating the new world, Underworld. There's also the in-universe storyline which he himself is a part of; the history of the Human Empire within the End Mountains. The third is the most far-reaching, the ongoing conflict with Laughing Coffin. It began when he clashed with them in Aincard and continued in confronting Death Gun and now there's a conflict in real life. There are hints of something more going on in real life with Rath and the Soul Translator, but I'm not that far yet.

The beginning is kind of disorienting since it starts in what does not appear to be a virtual world or the real world but a more typical medieval fantasy setting and has a boy named "Kirito" who acts as though he is a native of this world. This is thoroughly explained after the prologue and I found it interesting regardless. It was intriguing even, whether or not this was a role play.

This arc is quite different from previous ones in that it is an ontological mystery. When the story proper starts, Kirito has to figure out where he is and what he's doing there before he can do anything else. He even considers the possibility that he's been transported to another dimension, before dismissing it as ridiculous. He has no idea what's going or what's happening so he has to figure it out as he goes. For a guy once derided as a "beater", this is indeed a new experience.

In every way, he's starting out at level 1; not even his meta knowledge about VRMMORPG in general is useful because this game features real pain, no predictable spawning points, and no level-grinding (at least, nothing that he can track; I think stat increases are based on feats rather than grinding). Criticism about how Kirito is "uber-broken" or whatever has no place here.

There's also humor here, such as jokes about Kazuto being a henpecked husband and some self-deprecation to the general shonen genre and even previous arcs of SAO itself such as Kirito trying to predict the storyline he's been flung into.

There's more focus on Kirito and Asuna's relationship as well, which I think is nice given the perception about the franchise being in the harem genre. It's an understandable misconception that stuff like this volume clears up. An exemplary moment is when, shortly after being stranded in Underworld, Kirito considers himself a "CPU that's missing half its cores" because Asuna isn't around; endearing nerdy for the VR-addict.

There is an excellent split ending - the series' conflict is set up and ongoing but the specific conflict in this volume (centered on the Gigas Cedar) is closed.

CHARACTERS

Kazuto/Kirito continues to be introspective in this volume. As in Volume 4, where he contemplates the difference between physical reality and virtual reality, in this one he thinks about the nature of existence and life itself. Part of this is that Yui, his beloved A.I. daughter, is not fully "alive" in the way he himself and Asuna are because she is mimicking human behavior based on watching the 3,000 SAO players for two years. However, Fluctlight based programs, like the natives of Underworld, are just as alive as he is because they are clearly not limited in knowledge/behavior/expressions/etc. to a limited pre-programed database. This leads to pondering if he is a Tomato in the Mirror, i.e. one of those Fluctlight based programs based on the real Kazuto.

Incidentally, he considers faithfulness to Asuna to be fundamental to his personality and identity.

Several new characters are introduced, such as Euego, Alice and Selka (though I imagine readers will see far more of the first two than the third). Euego is this Beware The Nice Ones kind of character - friendly, helpful, understanding, and also brave, solid and has a lot of practice swinging an axe. Alice strikes me as an Iron Lady in-the-making because of her determination and bossiness, but also has a mischievous streak via Loophole Abuse and some cute traits like asking her friends' opinion of her cooking (and "secretly" getting her mom's help with it).

POLISH

I don't recall any technical errors.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Sword Art Online Volume 9" an A+


Click here for the previous book review (a request): A Change of Heart - The Royal Blood Chronicles

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, January 9, 2018

Answering review request: "A Change of Heart - THE ROYAL BLOOD CHRONICLES"

Mark Benjamin asked me to read his novel, "A Change of Heart", the first in his Royal Blood Chronicles series. I will examine plot, character and polish and then assign a grade.

PLOT

The story is told through rotating viewpoints. Every chapter has a different perspective and some of these "chapters" are a couple paragraphs long and consist solely of a character's thoughts. You might need a flowchart to keep track of who is who and related to whom. I typically frown on this sort of thing because it dilutes the narrative, among other things, but this case has so many viewpoints and it rotates so rapidly through them that it crosses a kind of literary event horizon and becomes useful; for storytelling, for webs of alliances and schemes, and for Omniscient Third Person.

Assuming that one can keep track of everything, it becomes a marvelous device. There is a LOT of scheming and backbiting and plotting going on, and this rotation of viewpoints enables the reader to see all the points and developments in real time. It develops the setting and character dynamics in a way that a single viewpoint never could. It also helps to lessen the Gary Stu factor of Gabriel because he is just one viewpoint among many and doesn't intersect with the main story for over a hundred pages. This story does not revolve around him.

It has a slow pace. This is a consequence of the viewpoint kaleidoscope. Gabriel isn't turned into a vampire for many "chapters" and doesn't realize this for many more; dozens of pages. The Silver Legion drafting Gabriel and his friends, which is described in the book's blurb, doesn't happen for one hundred pages, and by then the reader will have figured out on their own all the exposition given in the draftees' orientation, which further slows the pace.

In my opinion, this book causes Darkness Induced Apathy. That's what we at Tvtropes call it when the story/setting/etc. is so grim and awful on all sides that the reader stops caring what happens to whom. The vampires are, of course, vicious monsters. Even the more sympathetic ones think nothing of torturing and killing both humans and other vampires For the Evulz or something equally petty. The Silver Legion is no better, being an equally Deadly Decadent Court which cares more for killing vampires than protecting humans from them and recruits via kidnapping and indoctrination. Gabriel is too much of a pacifist to do more than protect his friends (he doesn't even want to feed on squirrels, let alone human, even evil ones) and said friends get absorbed in the culture of this shadow war.

This book has an interesting twist to the whole "protagonist transformation into magical superbeing" thing; no one to explain. Gabriel doesn't know he's become a vampire until a week has passed because his transformation took that long. He basically has to figure everything out on his own. His initiation to the secret world of fantasy is an entirely separate event.

One flaw in the story that I noticed is an inconsistency in the Silver Legion's structure. One part says that they are a secret government agency and another part says "we answer to no one" and says that the organization is older than most modern governments.

There is an open ending but it is more sequel hook rather than cliffhanger. If one considers "the fallout of the assassination of Lucas" to be the story's main narrative thread and Darius' Evil Plan to be the conflict, then there is....not really "resolution" but more of a changing of gears.

CHARACTERS

Gabriel is kinda-sorta the protagonist. The rotating viewpoint device mentioned in the PLOT section makes this story more of an ensemble thing but he's the closest to a central viewpoint character.

He's a nice guy, a nerd and a stereotypical wimp. He's also a vessel for wish fulfillment; getting bitten by a vampire made his life better on all accounts and he doesn't have any their weaknesses. The amount of Wangst makes him even more annoying.

When he realizes that he's a vampire, he REALLY pushes the Cursed with Awesome angle. He even rejects the Vegetarian Vampire route.

Gabriel's friends are a pair of foils and a love interest. There's the intelligent rich nerd who envies Gabriel's "change" into a socially smooth hunk and there's the jock who used to protect him from bullies and now suddenly feels socially threatened by him. The love interest is basically a nice girl without much else to add. What happens when they are drafted into the secret war is where things get interesting.

The rich nerd appears primed and ready to Jump At The Call but then he gets a more complicated view of things. The jock appears to assimilate into the hyper masculine Social Darwinist of the vampire hunters (a la He Who Fights Monsters) while the love interest jumps on board with the Fantastic Racism as soon as she sees that her little sister was in danger because of the vampires.

Darius is a half-breed royal vampire, a noble. He's the one with the Evil Plan. He is Cruel, arrogant, and ambitious to the point of kin-slaying. He's also completely lacking any sort of compassion or empathy for anyone. He even wears a turtle neck to hide his bite mark and so pretend to be a full-blooded vampire. It looks like the only reason his evilness hasn't exposed him is because vampires as a whole are a nasty lot.

Vincent is one of the rising stars in the Silver Legion. Now this guy is a messed up piece of work. He acts all gung-ho for vampire slaying just like his best friend (the guy whose in love with his own adoptive sister) when he actually wants to make the vampire hunters implode because he wants to be a vampire. It's not because he thinks being a vampire is awesome but because his mother turned into a vampire and he lived with her Momma's Boy style until the vampire hunters "saved him" by killing his mom.

POLISH

There were a couple of spelling and grammar problems, but those were minor. More pressing is when one character's name is used in place of another's. It's like the author got confused.

There is lavish detail on injuries suffered by the characters. It is gruesome to the point of Gorn.

This book is long and drawn out. I am no stranger to that. I've been accused of it myself. This book has Gabriel spending several pages of story (most of his time in each of his viewpoint chapters) indulging in each individual superpower as he receives it to the point that he does something like watch ants crawl from the far side of his yard. That is too much even for me.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "A Change of Heart - THE ROYAL BLOOD CHRONICLES book 1" a C

This has been a free review request. The author requested an honest review so I provided one.

Click here for the next book review (for fun): Sword Art Online Volume 9


Click here for the previous book review (request): Gama Ray Games


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).