Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

Book Review: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table by Martin J. Dougherty

The Arthurian mythos is a familiar one to just about everyone in some form or another.  But unless you’re a scholar of the subject, you might not know where all the pieces came from and how they got put together.  This “coffee table” book gives an overview of basic information about King Arthur and his knights.

King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

This generously illustrated tome begins with a look at what we know of early British history, and historical figures that might have inspired the tales of Arthur, even if no actual King Arthur ever existed.

Then it moves on to the major sources of the Arthurian stories.  The first written account we still have is that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose Arthur is just one in  a line of probably fictional rulers.  The book also covers the romances of Chrétien de Troyes (who was big on graphic violence and courtly love), the Grail Quest (heavy on the preachiness and religious allegory), and of course Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur, which pulled material together from multiple sources and added some of his own touches.

A final chapter touches on modern retellings of the Arthur cycle, from Mark Twain’s satirical proto-science fiction work A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, through the musical Camelot to the recent television series Merlin.  The author also talks a bit about what might be called tertiary Arthuriana, where a character could say, “this bell was enchanted by Merlin” with no other references to King Arthur, yet the audience will immediately know what’s being talked about.

This book is for the layman, and should be suitable for tweens on up.  (Parents of younger readers might want to discuss the theme of marital infidelity that comes up in the relationship of Sir Lancelot and Queen Guinevere, as well as other places in the Arthurian cycle, not least Arthur’s own birth.)  There is an index, but no bibliography, so serious scholars will want something more advanced to work with.

The author also talks a bit about the enduring appeal of King Arthur and his stories.  Heroic knights and chivalry, a struggle of good against evil, a kingdom where right is more important than might, even if it is doomed to fall and be followed by a darker age.  “A moment so bright it will be seen on the far side of that darkness.”

This book would make a good gift for the casual fan of things King Arthur, especially bright teenagers.  Did they like the recent movie?

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2

Manga Review: Vagabond Volume 2  by Takehiko Inoue

Quick recap: In 17th Century Japan, failed soldier Shinmen Takezo has reinvented himself as wandering swordsman Miyamoto Musashi.  Dedicating his life to perfecting his own style of swordsmanship, he travels to Kyoto and starts a feud with the Yoshioka school of kendo.  Unknown to him, his childhood friend Matahachi is also in town, and accidentally sets fire to the Yoshioka dojo.

Vagabond Volume 2

This volume opens with Musashi being nursed back to health by the rough-edged Buddhist monk Takuan.  Realizing he still has a long way to go, Musashi decides to travel to Nara, there to pit himself against the spear style of the Hōzōin Temple monks.  A chance encounter with an elderly gardener may be more valuable than any battle.

Musashi is distracted by thoughts of his other childhood friend, the lovely Otsu.  She’s now the servant of a master of the Yagyu style of swordsmanship, who Yoshioka Denshichiro has come to train with in preparation for his next duel with Musashi.

Others are also on the road.  Gion Toji of the Yoshioka school is tracking Musashi to kill him, and is none too restrained about maiming other people along the way.

Matahachi’s on the run because of the arson thing, and a chance encounter allows him to also reinvent himself as the respected warrior Sasaki Kojirō.  His sections of the story are tragicomedy, as he keeps having good intentions, but the flaws in his character prevent him from following through in a crisis, and we watch him make excuse after excuse for doing less than he ought.

Miyamoto Musashi is better at learning from his mistakes; while he is not the sharpest katana in the armory, he’s partially grasped the concept of critical thinking and examining his own mindset.  Still has a long way to go before being the best swordsman in Japan though.

The successor to the Hōzōin spear style, Inshun, has his own issues.  He’s a natural combat genius who has never known “fear”, or had a truly serious challenge to his skills until now.  Thus his growth has stalled; Inshun must learn how to deal with defeat to become stronger.  His multi-chapter duel with Musashi is the centerpiece of this volume.

The art is stellar, but much of the credit for the plot and characterization must go to Eiji Yoshikawa, author of the novel this manga is an adaptation of.

There’s a lot of violence in this volume, some of it quite bloody.  There’s also a brief sex scene with female nudity–this is a “mature readers” title.

This continues to be a good choice for fans of samurai action stories.

Book Review: A Game of Thrones

Book Review: A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin

About three centuries ago, the land of Westeros was known as the Seven Kingdoms.  Then Aegon Targaryen and his sisters came from the collapsed civilization of Valyria with their dragons and conquered six of the Kingdoms.  (The seventh Kingdom joined up later semi-voluntarily.)  Eventually, the dragons died off, but the Targaryen dynasty stayed in power through inertia and intermittent smashing of rebels. Finally, King Aerys the Mad was such a poor ruler that a rebellion led by Robert Baratheon and his supporters succeeded in overthrowing the Targaryens.

A Game of Thrones

Robert is…a better king than Aerys, anyway.  He had intended to marry a member of the Stark family, lords of the North, but she perished during the rebellion and Robert settled for Cersei Lannister, member of a powerful Western family.  The Lannisters have become powerful at court, but one of their intrigues is about to have a slight glitch, putting their plans in jeopardy.  Other noble families have noticed the success of the previous rebellion, and remembered that their ancestors were also kings.   Across the Narrow Sea, the last heirs of the Targaryen dynasty are still alive and dreaming of retaking the Throne of Swords.  Far to the North, beyond the Wall, an enemy older than the Seven Kingdoms itself is stirring with the coming of Winter.

If this were a history book, we’d be about to see a lot of maps with flags and arrows on them.

This is the first volume in the vastly popular A Song of Ice and Fire series, which has spawned a TV series, Game of Thrones.  There are planned to be seven volumes, of which five are out and the sixth is scheduled for release in 2017.  This may mean that the TV show will need a completely different ending.  Mr. Martin started writing this epic fantasy series with the idea of making it more “realistic” (cynical) than  many of the doorstopper fantasy books then  on the market.  As such, things do not always go well for people who try to stick to ideals such as honor and justice, leading to cruel, pointless deaths for them or others.   I should mention here that yes, GRRM does go to rape repeatedly as a way of showing how gritty and realistic the setting is, and there are at least a couple of child marriages that are pretty creepy.  (I am told that the TV series aged a couple of characters up.)

This book is written in tight third-person, so we only know what the current viewpoint character senses and thinks about.  This allows the author to keep certain things a mystery until another character is the point of view, and to shade the interpretation of certain events.

Most of the viewpoint characters in this first volume are members of the Stark family.  Eddard “Ned” Stark is more or less the main protagonist of this book.   A childhood friend of King Robert, he’s now been called upon to become the King’s Hand, the person who handles most of the daily details so the king can concentrate on ruling.  Their mentor had been the previous Hand, but recently died, and his wife sent the Starks a letter accusing the Lannisters of having a hand in it.  Eddard is a very honor-bound man and constantly attempts to do the right thing.  Given the nature of this series, that’s not healthy.  His clan motto is “Winter Is Coming.”

Catelyn is Ned’s wife, originally of the Tully family.  Her sister is the wife of Jon Arryn, the former hand.  Catelyn is fiercely protective of her children, which causes her to make several rash decisions.

Robb Stark is the eldest child and heir to their castle Winterfell.  At fourteen years old, he must assume a man’s role before even his harsh homeland’s usual standards.  We don’t get any point of view chapters for him.

Jon Snow is allegedly Ned Stark’s illegitimate child of about the same age as Robb.  While he certainly does resemble Ned, the older man’s refusal to explain anything about Jon’s conception or mother  beyond “he’s my bastard” suggests there is some mystery about his actual parentage.  Catelyn doesn’t like him one little bit.  He’s sent North to the Wall to join the Nightwatch like his Uncle Benjen, only to find out that conditions there are not as expected.  (Benjen goes missing shortly thereafter, one of the big mysteries of the series.)

Sansa Stark is the older daughter, who is good at activities considered traditionally feminine in Westeros.  She’s also a huge fan of chivalric romances, and thinks that’s how the world works, at least for her as she’s clearly the lady fair type.  (Think of an eleven-year-old Twilight fan who actually lives in a world where vampires follow horror tropes.)  She’s engaged to Robert’s handsome son Prince Joffrey and ignores some important clues to his real personality.  (In fairness, her father told her none of his evidence of what was really going on.)

Arya Stark is her slightly-younger sister, who is initially more likable for modern audiences, as she gets all of the “rebellious tomboy” personality bits.  She gets some important clues early on, but only being ten and not having context, doesn’t get to do much with them.

Brandon “Bran” Stark is seven, and an avid climber.  This gets him in trouble when he passes by a window that should have been unoccupied and learns a dangerous secret.  His subsequent near-death experience causes him to forget what he learned, but the person whose secret it is can’t take chances on that, and the assassination attempt made on Bran moves much of what Catelyn does for the rest of the book.

Rickon Stark is the baby of the family at three, and doesn’t get any point of view chapters in this book.  Nor does family guest/hostage Theon Greyjoy, who is slightly older than Robb and Jon, and is boarding at Winterfell as a hostage to the good behavior of his father.

Tyrion Lannister is the only member of his family to get point of view chapters.  Born with dwarfism, Tyrion was barely tolerated by his father Lord Tywin and sister Cersei, and marginally treated better by his handsome brother Jaime (now a Kingsguard.)  Clearly never going to win glory in knighthood, Tyrion has concentrated on honing his mind, and his razor tongue.  He is kind to Jon Snow and later Bran, but runs afoul of Catelyn Stark due to the manipulations of his enemies.

And then there’s Daenerys “Dani” Targaryen.  She and her older brother Viserys are the sole remaining grandchildren of the former king, and Viserys is thus the rightful ruler of Westeros for the Targaryen loyalists.  However, in exile in the Free Cities, their cause has not gone well, and the royal pair are broke.  In a last-ditch effort to raise an army which he can use to take back Westeros, Viserys arranges for Dani to be married to Khal Drogo, a mighty leader of the Dothraki horse nomads.

Despite his taste for child brides, Khal Drogo is a pretty good husband by Dothraki standards, and Danerys learns to love him.  Even better, their child is prophesied to become “The Stallion That Mounts the World.”  Viserys isn’t willing to wait until his nephew is born to start conquering things, and pushes a little too hard.  He probably never really understood what it means to “wake the dragon.”

Don’t get too attached to any of these people, Mr. Martin has no qualms about killing viewpoint characters in cruel and pointless ways.

Good things:  There are a lot of vividly-drawn characters in multiple factions–my edition has a list of the major clans and their members at the back, along with a timeline of the Targaryen Dynasty, and that still leaves out multiple members of the cast.  The politics are detailed but not too difficult to follow.  The main thing is that far too many nobles remember bad things that happened to their families decades and even centuries before, and operate on the principle of getting payback for that.

There are many twists and turns in the plot, so other than “someone’s going to have a cruel and pointless death soon” it’s hard to guess what’s happening next.    Sometimes I did get frustrated by people making boneheaded decisions for stupid reasons, but the majority of actions made sense given earlier or later explained motivations.

Less good:  The content issues noted earlier; Mr. Martin likes him some earthy language too, and is overfond of the word “bastard.”   This is rather obviously not a standalone book, with most of the plot threads still hanging loose at the end of Book One, and I am told many of them dangling through the end of Book Five!  Perhaps I should have stuck with my original intention of not starting until all the books are out.

To be honest, this series has had so much hype that you probably already know if you’re interested in trying it.

Let’s enjoy the Sesame Street version of the plotline!

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Audio Review: The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Most Star Wars fans are aware that director George Lucas based much of the look and feel of the first movie on classic Hollywood films and especially the thrilling chapter serials.  But have you ever considered what A New Hope would sound like if it were a big-budget film made in Hollywood’s Golden Age?

The Adventures of Luke Skywalker

Someone certainly did, and put together a version that might have appeared on old time radio as part of Lux Radio Theater.  LRT was a weekly broadcast hosted by famed movie director Cecil B. DeMille that adapted recent movies for the radio, often with the actual stars of the movie reprising their roles.  You should be able to find episodes downloadable or streaming at various sites on the internet.

For this performance, there is a star-studded cast (provided by voice impersonators):  Mickey Rooney as Luke, Humphrey Bogart as Han Solo, Katherine Hepburn as Princess Leia, Bela Lugosi as Darth Vader, and so on.  (Rin Tin Tin as Chewbacca!)  It was recorded live; there’s some obvious microphone feedback towards the beginning and some of the cues are a teensy off.  Much of the story is carried by the narrator, who fills in what we’re supposed to be seeing.  (Saves on special effects!)

The story follows the familiar film, plus or minus a scene or two.  The dialogue has been altered at a few points to allow in-jokes for the “actors.’  (Bela doing the Dracula “bleh!” for example.)   Some of the impersonations are better than others; in fairness, some voices are easier to imitate.  As a purist when it comes to historical fiction, I was jarred by a couple of words being used that hadn’t been coined by the 1940s, even in science fiction.

It’s a lot of fun, and recommended to both Star Wars and old time radio fans.  On the down side, this recording had a limited number of copies made, and is now out of print, so may be difficult to track down.

TV Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy

TV Review: Thunderbolt Fantasy

Sho Fukan, a simple wanderer, just wanted an umbrella to ward off the rain.  But the sly stranger called Rin Setsua manipulated Sho Fukan into helping out a damsel in  distress.  The woman’s name turned out to be Tan Hi, a shrine maiden whose family was dedicated to keeping a powerful magic sword locked away.  Tan Hi’s brother had already been killed by Betsutengai, leader of the foul organization Genkishu, who now desires the part of the sword she has to unlock the mystic barrier around the blade.

Thunderbolt Fantasy
Sho Fukan and Shyu Unshou discuss one of their group. But which one?

By assisting Tan Hi, Sho Fukan has made an enemy of the Genkishu, and is thus roped into Rin Setsua’s plan to go to the Seven Sins Tower and defeat Betsutengai.  There are many hazards along the path, so Rin Setsua recruits others for special skills:  demon necromancer Kei Gai, one-eyed archer Shyu Unshou (and his impetuous sidekick Ken Sanun), and the assassin Setsumusho.   It’s not the most cohesive group–Kei Gai and Setsumusho openly plan to kill Rin Setsua for previous wrongs once the objective is reached, Sho Fukan is only going along under duress, and everyone else is wondering if Sho Fukan is really as ignorant as he acts…or is the world’s best actor.

This show is a Taiwanese-Japanese co-production, with writing by Gen Urobuchi (Madoka Magica) and puppetry by Pili Co.   Yes, that’s right, it’s a hand puppet show!  Based on the popular wuxia (mystical martial arts) subgenre, the fight choreography and use of body language are masterful.  This makes up some for the expressionless faces.  I should mention here that the show was broadcast in three different languages; I am using the Japanese versions of the names for convenience.

The setting is more or less a fantasy version of China; a demon invasion two centuries before has split the country in half with a new mountain range and wasteland.   Various mystic weapons were created to drive the demons back, the most powerful of which is rumored to be the Tengyouken that Tan Hi’s family guards.  Kei Gai is a lesser demon who chose to stay in the human world for her own motives, and does not get on well with mortals.  Since everyone is wearing elaborate full-body robes, this helps conceal the puppeteers.

As expected from an Urobuchi story, there are some nasty plot twists in the last third of the series, some fairly obvious (what part of “openly plans to kill the leader” did you not understand?) and others more shocking.  It’s a wonder that anyone is left to appear in the sequel (already in production.)  Viewers unfamiliar with wuxia may find some conventions of the subgenre like random poetry recitation a little baffling or off-putting.

There’s a fair amount of blood in the combat scenes, and a surprisingly gory moment towards the end.  I’d say junior high school viewers and up should be able to handle it.

Highly recommended to wuxia and/or puppetry fans.  These are really cool puppets!  As of February 2017, the show is streaming on Crunchyroll.

And now, the opening song, created by T.M. Revolution!

 

Book Review: First Contact

Book Review: First Contact by Michael R. Hicks

The scout ship Aurora is searching for new worlds, especially inhabitable ones for the citizens of Earth and the various worlds their descendants have colonized.   What at first seems like a bonus of two viable worlds in the same star system turns into a deadly encounter.  Those worlds are inhabited by members of an alien race that will come to be known as the Kreelan Empire.  And now that the Kreelans are aware humans exist, they are very excited about going to war with us.  All of us.

First Contact

This is the first book in the In Her Name trilogy of trilogies, though the middle trilogy was written first.  It details how the Human-Kreelan War got started.  The series is a cross between military SF and full-on space opera, though this volume tends more towards the former.

It seems that the Kreelans are what TV Tropes call a “Planet of Hats”, a society that is entirely based around one concept or activity for the purposes of moving the plot along.  In this case, their “hat” is honorable battle; Kreelans want to fight, preferably hand-to-hand, and the humans are the first new opponents they’ve had in millennia.  In order to ensure that they aren’t going to accidentally wipe out the humans before the war can really get started, the Kreelans actually go back to their history books and recreate weapons and vehicles of roughly the same technological level as the humans have now.

Early in the first chapter, we are told that most of the characters we’re meeting are not going to make it through the next few hours.  This makes it a bit of a slog as various crew members’ backgrounds and personality quirks are  revealed, often during a combat scene.  The Kreelans are choosing a Messenger to send back to human space and get the squishy people ready to fight.  Once they have that sole survivor, the focus shifts to Earth and the other human worlds’ reaction to the news, and finally to the defense of the first planet on the invasion list.

Many of the people in the book seem to come straight out of Central Casting; the eccentric but brilliant general, the sassy lady reporter, the bungling officer who dies to let a real hero take command, etc.  This is exacerbated by many stereotypes of Earth cultures spreading to their colonies.  For example, people from the Francophone colonies are all some variant of French stereotypes, right down to having their best troops being the Foreign Legion.  One of the heroes comes from the planet of Nagoya, which is basically the Japanese city of Nagoya, but a whole planet of it.  The only mitigating factor is that the casting is a bit more diverse than it would have been in the Twentieth Century.

This means that many of the best passages in the book are those told from the perspective of the Kreelan Empire, which has the advantage of being alien enough to engage the author’s creativity.

There are quite a few exciting combat scenes, and one of the things I like is that the story does not shy away from showing that even the “good guys” can be forced into taking civilian lives as collateral damage.  (The Kreelans have no real concept of “civilian”, seeing them more as “targets that don’t fight back and thus only worthy of extermination.”)

One weakness of this being in the military SF subgenre is that the book has a tendency to make the Kreelans “right”–the only humans of consequence are those that engage in combat or provide support for those that do.   I’d like to see the human tendency to do things that aren’t somehow related to combat or survival as a strength that the Kreelans have discarded in their single-minded pursuit of battle.

Briefly discussed in this book, and apparently a major factor at the beginning of the next one, is that the Kreelan warriors are all female.  Due to a “curse” their males are non-sentient, and mating is only semi-consensual.   Easily triggered readers might want to give that a miss.

Otherwise, this is a pretty clear-cut “no shades of grey” war story where you can root for the human heroes.  Not the best military SF, but readable.

 

Manga Review: Noragami: Stray God #1

Manga Review: Noragami: Stray God #1 by Adachitoka

Mutsumi is in a bad way.   Not only is she under stress studying for the high school entrance exams, but her classmates have turned against her, bullying Mutsumi and encouraging her to self-harm.  She’s locked herself in a toilet stall for a good cry when suddenly she sees a telephone number in the graffiti advertising someone named “Yato” who promises to solve her problems.  Desperate, Mutsumi calls the number.

Noragami: Stray God #1

To her shock, Yato (who appears to be a teenage boy) and his female companion Tomone teleport straight into the girls’ room to discuss Mutsumi’s problem.  It turns out that Yato is a kami (“spirit” or “god”), but he’s at the very bottom of the hierarchy, with no worshipers or space in a shrine, making him a “stray.”  In an effort to increase his visibility and save up cash to buy a place to live, Yato has scribbled his number all over town, and charges five yen (roughly a nickle) for his problem-solving services.  Tomone is Yato’s shinki, a living weapon with a mind of her own.

Unfortunately, Yato isn’t all that bright, and tends to solve problems by cutting them with his sword.  Mutsumi’s problems are partially caused by an ayakashi (hostile spirit) that is amplifying and feeding on the negative emotions caused by exam stress, and cutting that is relatively easy.  But that isn’t the only issue, and how Yato finally solves it disgusts Tomone so much that she quits, leaving Yato weaponless at the end of the first story.

This series ran in Monthly Shounen Magazine in long chapters, so there are only three in this volume.  In the second story, Yato meets Hiyori Iki, a human girl who is a big pro wrestling fan, and due to an act of selfless courage develops the ability/problem of her soul slipping loose from her body.   In soul form, she’s physically powerful, but also very vulnerable, gaining a “tail” that’s actually a link back to her physical body–if it’s cut, she dies!  The third story ends with Yato gaining a new shinki, Yukine, who is decidedly unimpressed with his master.

The name of the series immediately brings to mind the classic 1930s manga Norakuro, about a stray dog that joins a canine-people version of the Imperial Japanese army, learns discipline and valor, and climbs the enlisted ranks.  Little-known in America, it was popular and influential in Japan, with demilitarized versions appearing after World War Two ended.

Noragami is fun adventure-comedy, contrasting Yato’s blunt and sometimes abrasive personality against Hiyori’s naivety and sunniness.  While both of them are eager to help people, Yato is goal-oriented and must be compensated first (even if it is just a nickle) while Hiyori just does it because it’s the right thing to do.  Yukine barely appears in this volume, so a full read on his character is not available here.  The art is decent and conveys the action and mood nicely.

As mentioned, the first story does involve bullying, and there is an element of victim-blaming.  There’s a small amount of incidental fanservice–thankfully, the “camera” does not linger.  And of course there’s a certain amount of fantasy violence.  It should be suitable for junior high readers on up; parents of younger readers should point out why victim-blaming is not useful.

This series was popular enough to get a two-season anime adapation, which I have not seen.   Recommended for fans of shounen fantasy manga.

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

Manga Review: Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2 written by Kazuo Koike, art by Goseki Kojima

Yamada “Decapitator” Asaemon is the o-tameshiyaku, sword-tester for the shogun and official executioner of criminals.  It’s not a pretty job, but at least he has one in Edo-era Japan, during a time of peace.  Without wars to fight, many of the samurai vassals are on tiny stipends, while ronin without lords can at least get paying jobs if they’re willing to be a bit flexible in their ethics.  The merchant class is getting richer, while the underclass of urban poor swells and rural farmers are oppressed by their petty lords.  The social conditions breed crime, so there is always plenty of work for Yamada.

Samurai Executioner Omnibus 2

This seinen (young men’s) manga series is by the creators of Lone Wolf and Cub, and shares many of the themes and settings.   Unlike that earlier work, however, there does not seem to be an overarching plotline.  The stories are episodic, and most could take place in any order.  Two stories do, however, guest star young cop Sakane Kasajiro, an expert with his hooked chain.  Yamada helps him discover new ways of using his weapon to protect lives.

Yamada takes a grim satisfaction at being expert at his craft, able to decapitate the condemned with a single stroke and thus minimize their pain.  He was raised from early childhood to succeed his father as executioner, and has chosen to remain single to avoid condemning his children to the same path.  (One story in this volume has him briefly reconsider, but it is not to be.)  Yamada seems happiest when he can bring small moments of joy into a person’s life, and is often sought out for sage advice.

The first story in the volume has Yamada challenged for the post of sword tester by Tsukuya Bakushuu, a poverty-stricken and largely self-trained swordsman.  They participate in a contest of suemonogiri, precision cutting.  Tsukuya loses, but cannot accept this result.  It ends in tragedy.  To be honest, at least half the stories here end in tragedy, not surprising, given Yamada’s job.

The closing story is particularly hard to stomach.  O-Toyo murders the woman her lover abandoned him for, and mortally wounds the cheater.  However, it’s a slow death wound, and he could live up to four months with good treatment.  Her execution will be in three months, and O-Toyo wants to outlive the man out of pure spite.  As it happens, there’s one way for a woman to get her execution delayed–getting pregnant.  Now, how is that going to happen when she’s locked in a women’s prison?  Yes, the story is going there.  There are other examples of female nudity and rape in these stories, but this is the most brutal.  And then the ending comes, and it is even more brutal.  Even Yamada is shaken.

Also outstanding is the story “Tougane Yajirou”, about an elderly police officer whose use of force is considered excessive even by the standards of the time, and who is much more interested in catching criminals than in preventing crime.  Yamada disapproves, but there is a story behind the old man’s cruel behavior.

Koike and Kojma do a masterful job of depicting a world that is both very familiar in its everyday life, and alien in its way of thinking.  This omnibus edition combines three of the Japanese volumes, and is presented in the expensive and time-consuming fully-flipped format, so it reads left to right.

Recommended for mature readers who enjoyed Lone Wolf and Cub or are otherwise fans of samurai action.

Book Review: Twin Cities Speculations: An Anthology of Sci-Fi and Fantasy

Book Review: Twin Cities Speculations: An Anthology of Sci-Fi and Fantasy edited by Eric Binfet

As I may have mentioned before, I have a soft spot for local writers, of which Minnesota has many.  One Twin Cities writers’ group got together and self-published an anthology, and here we are.  Eight stories of SF and fantasy, all first officially published in this book.

Twin Cities Speculations

The opener is “Space Aliens on Maple Lake” by Bill Cutler.  It is ice-fishing season, and a downed alien spacecraft lands on Maple Lake.  The aliens need to avoid detection by pretending to be an ordinary ice fishing shack, but will they be able to fool the Earthlings?  Light comedy with Minnesota stereotypes.

“The Cursed Years” by  Cecelia Isaac is the only story with no mention of Minnesota, being set in a fantasy world.  The protagonist, Py, is cursed to wander far from his kingdom for seven years.  He starts his journey  voluntarily in an effort to make the curse less onerous, but soon discovers even thinking about returning home is dangerous.  He acquires a talking sword, and an actual goal when he learns there may be a way to break the curse.  This is one of the better stories in the volume, and has an obvious sequel hook–it could also be turned into a doorstopper trilogy with enough padding.

“The Harry Hawkins Experience” by Jonathan Rogers has a would-be biographer tagging along with the title character, a wealthy adventurer.  They investigate a tomb with restless inhabitants.  The writer is a filmmaker, and it shows with a very “this could be a movie” feel.  Sadly, Mr. Hawkins is an annoying character who is supposed to become more endearing as the story wears on, but doesn’t.

“Heaven Help Me” by Lindsey Loree is a monologue by a fallen guardian angel.  Turns out that Heaven is very judgmental and not at all big on redemption.  The protagonist unwittingly helps set an alternative plan in motion.

“Robbing the Grave” by Eric Binfet concerns a guilt-ridden man having dreams that seem to predict the future…and the future is murder.  Is this his dead brother giving him another chance to prevent innocent life from being taken, or just his guilt finally causing a permanent breakdown?  There’s an in-joke for Marvel Comics fans, and an interesting police character.  The protagonist’s relationships with his best friend and girlfriend come off a bit tedious.

“Kreet” by Tina S. Murphy is about a grif, an insectoid creature, named Sooe Han-Cen who is going into the desert to find the stronghold of the titular Kreet.  The Kreet are an invasive species with an explosive population curve, and a penchant for eating grif.  Sooe’s mission is complicated by all her fellow Agents having already been eaten, and the presence of a foolish treasure hunter who thinks she’s trying to steal his goodies.  This is the longest story in the volume, and comes with an extended coda that reveals the consequences of Sooe’s mission from a different perspective.

“Volunteers” by Susan L. Hansen is told in reverse order, starting with the heroes having had successes against the alien slavers called Jakooma, and flashing ever back to how they got there.  The most imaginative bit is the psychic whose powers are normally kind of useless due to the future changing every time someone makes a decision, but in dire circumstances that narrow the possibilities, becomes Earth’s one hope for freedom.

And the book closes with “LOST” by Lizzie Scott.  Lilith, grieving the loss of her husband and children, has isolated herself in a remote farmhouse.  During a blizzard, a very lost little girl  named Pyry shows up on her doorstep, and Lilith must put aside her own problems to help the child.  But what she does may be more dangerous to Pyry than the thing that got the girl lost in the first place!  This too was a good story, that followed through on its fantasy concept well.

I regret to say that spellchecker typos, the bane of self-publishing editors, are frequent, especially in “Kreet.”

Overall, a decent enough collection of stories, but mostly of local interest to Minnesotans.  Others might want to invest in case one of the writers eventually becomes famous.

Manga Review: Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Manga Review: Sword Art Online: Aincrad original story by Reki Kawahara, art by Tamako Nakamura

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Aincrad

It is the year 2022, and commercially viable virtual reality equipment is now on the market.   Of course, one of the first applications that comes to mind is Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs), and the first one out the gate is Sword Art Online.  Kirito (his online handle, real name Kazuto Kirigaya) was one of the lucky beta testers, and is looking forward to the full launch of ten thousand players.

Except that shortly after the game begins, all the player characters are summoned back to the beginning town, remodeled to look like the players themselves, and unable to log out.  A figure who claims to be the game’s designer, Akihiko Kabaya, announces that they’re all trapped in the world of Aincrad, and won’t be able to log out until the 100th level of the game is beaten.  Oh, and the respawn feature has been disabled, so if you die in the game, you die in real life.

And in case you were hoping for rescue from the outside?  If anyone removes the VR gear or tampers with it, it will automatically kill the player, and this has been announced to the media.

Realizing that the area around the Town of Beginnings will rapidly become too overhunted for him to level up quickly, Kirito decides to go solo, as his beta tester knowledge allows him to punch above his weight, so he can go to the next town even at first level.  He does invite along a noob (new player) named Klein, but Klein won’t abandon his friends, and Kirito doesn’t think he can protect more than one ally.

The story picks up again about two years later.  with the Aincrad dungeon about three-quarters cleared, at the cost of four thousand deaths.  Kirito has been very successful as a solo player, but suffers stigma as a “beater” because his character level is so much higher than most people’s that he triggers monster encounters that are lethal to anyone near him.

It’s at this point that Kirito runs into a girl named Asuna, who is known as “the Flash” for her superior sword skills, is highly placed in the powerful Knights of the Blood guild, and happens to be one of the few skilled cooks in the game.  Oh, and she’s very pretty.   Asuna won’t leave Kirito alone, and they’re soon in a relationship.

However, the already lethal world of Aincrad is about to turn it up a notch, and there are secrets not even the beta testers know.

This manga is based on a light novel series, which has also been turned into an anime.   (One of three so far where the basic plotline is a person being unable to log out of a virtual reality game.)  It adapts the first storyline, the Aincrad world.

This version of the story trims out many minor characters, including most of the women (which makes the gender imbalance even more noticeable.)   It also has a tendency to make good characters good-looking and bad characters less so; the most prominent minor villain doesn’t even look human, and remember, that’s his real face.

The main villain is a real piece of work; in addition to what’s already been mentioned, it turns out he’s disabled another important player safety feature, but left it able to feel their pain.   (It’s likely he didn’t realize the full implications of this particular act, he’s very low-empathy.)

This volume is mostly aimed at teenage boys; the female characters are all defined by their relationships to Kirito, and there’s a sequence of Asuna in her underwear with no equivalent scene for any of the male characters.  (We also learn that it’s possible to alter the “moral code” setting to allow in game sex, but it’s not clear if the characters actually do this.)

Kirito is a loner with deep manpain through most of the story, though he lightens up a bit towards the end when he falls in love with Asuna.

The art is generally good, but many of the fight scenes are poorly choreographed, resulting in the manga equivalent of “shaky cam”.

If you are already a Sword Art Online fan, this is a perfectly good addition to your collection.  I’d also recommend it to teenage boys who like online gaming.  Other people might want to flip through it in the library to see if the art style takes their fancy.

Update:  The sequel to AincradAlfheim Online, is considered to be a severe step down from the first storyline, taking all the parts that were problematic and goosing them up, as well as managing to be much more sexist.  From the bits I have read, I strongly recommend stopping at the end of the Aincrad story and considering that the end of the series.

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