Monday, March 21, 2016

Sword Art Online 1: Aincrad

Sword Art Online 1:Aincrad by Reki Kawahara. Originally published by Yen Press/Hachette Book Group, 2014. Approx. 245 pages (some color and B&W illustrations as well).

This might be a pretty short review. I am assuming that if you are reading this, you are already somewhat familiar with the premise of Sword Art Online, a recent phenom with tendrils reaching into the realms of anime, manga, video games, and light novels. In short, it focuses on gamers participating in a fantasy-based VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game). The thing is; the developer of the game programmed the unique headset required for playing it quite a bit - to the point where the immersion is real. So, although the players' bodies are being sustained in specialized medical facilities, an in-game death will translate to a real world one as well.

Well, here's the blurb, which explains all that, just better:

In the year 2022, gamers rejoice as Sword Art Online - a VRMMORPG (Virtual Reality Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) like no other - debuts, allowing players to take full advantage of the ultimate in gaming technology: NerveGear, a system that allows users to completely immerse themselves in a wholly realistic gaming experience. But when the game goes live, the elation of the players quickly turns to horror as they discover that, for all its amazing features, SAO is missing one of the most basic functions of any MMORPG - a log-out button. Now trapped in the virtual world of Aincrad, their bodies held captive by NerveGear in the real world, users are issued a chilling ultimatum: conquer all one hundred floors of Aincrad to regain your freedom. But in the warped world of SAO, "game over" means certain death - both virtual and real...

The book focuses for the most part on Kirito, a teenager in Japan who is a lifelong gamer, and had been chosen as one of the beta testers for the initial SAO rollout (the game itself was limited to 10,000 participants). Kirito is, of course, a natural in his new environment due to his gaming pedigree. He is also somewhat of a loner, although he does coordinate attacks on end-of-level boss monsters with some of the guilds that evolve in this new society. Over the course of these ventures he strikes up a friendship with the beautiful, chestnut-haired Asuna; a high-ranking warrior in the KoB (Knights of Blood), who is considered another of the top gamers.

The novel spends more time detailing their developing relationship/romance than it does the advance through the game. All of the expected anime tropes are here: overly dramatic moments of sacrifice, melodramatic romance, all that good stuff. If you like that stuff, you'll eat it up. If you don't, it's pretty much a cringe on every page. I fall into the former category, so it was fun for me.

There are also a few nice little curve balls which I did not expect, and those made for a nice touch.

The secondary characters are interesting enough, although definitely cast from familiar templates. The world of Aincrad itself is painted quite nicely for the reader as well; with most floors following some consistent decorative theme.

Now, depending on how you look at them, anime light novels can be seen as either an oddity or a novelty. And, of course, a lot of their ultimate success or failure hinges on the English translation. The translation here, done by Stephen Paul, makes for an easy, seamless, brisk read. I don't have a Japanese original to match it against, and I haven't read any of the fan translations circulating the web either. My only complaint with the writing itself needs to be lodged against the writer, not the translator. Certain actions and reactions common in the visual mediums of anime and mange simply do not translate well to the written word: case in point, the facial overreactions which are so common in those mediums (i.e. - exaggerated puffed cheeks, bulging veins, clouds of exhalation after a satisfying meal, etc.). The book attempts to describe those actions quite literally; where deft metaphor would probably convey the message quite better. That's the thing, though. There are plenty of lofty modifiers throughout the book (a direct translation or Paul's word choice?), but there is little in the manner of figurative language. Maybe it wasn't there to begin with, or maybe it didn't get translated well.

My only other complaint is that for such a vast RPG world, there are very few instances of interaction with the monsters. We get some, and there is thankfully some attention paid to the side skills that SAO players can develop, but it would've been a great benefit to the overall experience to see some more of the monsters that would've made a game like that so attractive to the players in the first place.

And yet, even with some slight drawbacks, I enjoyed this book a lot. It is no literary masterpiece, by any means, but it definitely taps into a vein. When I was younger, I was (I'm sure) the only kid in our D&D circle that actually played the game by imaging I was in the world. It wasn't just about making my character "super-strong". I always wanted to escape into that fantasy world. The same continued with shows I loved, like Voltron and Robotech. When I got into my 20's, I still felt those same longings, wishing I could escape into worlds like those in Chrono Trigger. Back them, voicing those wishes came with serious social repercussions. Luckily, they are more acceptable now. And that's the kind of pure escapism that SAO offers. I'm sure if I was younger, I'd be grabbing these books off the shelves at the bookstores and hunting down the newest fan translations.

So, even though it feels a bit silly to be reading these books in my 40's, I'll probably grab the subsequent volumes from my local library. Or maybe I'll buy them so my kids can read them too in the near future. I'm not sure if I am going to sit through the anime yet. My anime obsession started its decline close to 15 years ago, and the newer stuff is kind of hard to get into when you've been weaned on the classics of the 70's and 80's.

Give SAO a whirl. And kudos to Yen Press and the other publishers for putting these books out there.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

Nice pic of Kirito and Asuna. The character design is fairly typical, but visually attractive. I like the lettering. the inner illustrations are a win as well. My only issue is that at a cursory viewing, it might be tough for the new reader to differentiate whether this is a light novel or a manga.

Cover Final Score:


Sunday, March 13, 2016


Almuric by Robert E. Howard. Originally published in Weird Tales, beginning in 1939. This edition published by Planet Stories, 2008. Approx. 148 pages.

When one looks at all that Robert E. Howard accomplished in his 30 years, it is astounding to see how many original characters he created, and we marvel at his voluminous bibliography of short stories. One thing also stands out though; for all his hundreds of short stories, there are so few works by him of novella or novel length. Of course, this is a reflection of the market at the time as well.

Of Howard's longer length works, Almuric is one of the most famous (technically a novel, it was originally published in three parts in Weird Tales). It can best be described as a take on Burrough's John Carter of Mars (Barsoom) series, but with Howard's indelible fingerprints all over it. Almuric is the very pinnacle of the kind escapist fantasy and wish-fulfillment that so defined his body of work.

Our hero in Almuric is Esau Cairn, who of course is the man's man of men's men. He espouses every virtue which Howard embraced; he speaks in declarative soundbites of salt of the earth nobility, he is in prime physical form, and of course, the great equalizer in his repertoire are his superb boxing skills. As you may have guessed, there is no known match for these twin dealers of justice. One night, an altercation with a corrupt politician prompts Cairn to finally unleash the full power of one of his fists - which immediately kills the man. Now a man on the run, Cairn beats a hasty egress.

He runs to the sanctuary of a scientist friend - who is narrating the prologue and gives us what amounts to Cairn's chronicle on Almuric - who just so happens to have perfected a method of interplanetary transportation. This scientist uses this amazing technology - which he outright refuses to explain to the reading audience the details of - to send our noble pugilistic protagonist to the far off world of Almuric.

These things working out the way they do, Almuric is a planet with an atmosphere strikingly similar to, you guessed it, Earth. Their is safe water for drinking, and sustaining food to be found. The wildlife is similar too; if not a bit bigger and scarier.

Then there are the Gura. The Gura are the human equivalent on Almuric. They are a warrior race; the males are large, hairy, belligerent, yet honorable (for the most part) types. They have a simple form of civilization. They know enough about building to erect sturdy fortifications, and can fashion fine blades and serviceable carbines. However, they live a very in-the-moment, hunter/gatherer type lifestyle. They have no need for the recorded work, or displays of artwork.

The women of the Gura race, however, are hairless and demure. This is due to the fact that the men do all the physical labor and fighting, and the women stay home and do....women's stuff, I guess.

 In accordance with "how these things work", Cairn finds that he can communicate with the Gura; at first he attributes this to them also speaking English, then he realizes it is due to some phenomenon which never gets explained.

And so, rickety foundation of logic in place, we move onto the story. Basically, the book follows Cairn as he hardens his body in the wilderness of Almuric, then, as he assimilates into Gura society, where he always surpasses the natives through sheer grit, tenacity, or inherent greatness, earning himself the moniker of "Ironhand". Later, we have some adventures as he falls prisoner to some rival Guras, and, finally, we get to a climax in which he must face off against the dreaded Yagas. The Yagas are cool in that they are basically those old DFC black gargoyle figures come to life.

And there you go. There are no surprises at all in how the narrative unfolds; you can guess right off the bat how any given scenario will unfold. That's just the thing, though. This was the age of pure fantasy, and the heroes we wanted to be, saving the damsel we wished we could save. Call it dated, misogynistic, marginalizing, or whatever nomenclature assigned to these concepts by the Mom's-basement-dwelling ranks of the Perennially Offended.

While I can poke fun at the absolutely ridiculous (lack of any coherent) logic that binds this story together, it really doesn't matter. What it comes down to is how it is written. Almuric is not Howard at his finest, but it is Howard at his best. True, many scenarios are resolved by the appearance of events of convenience that go beyond the pale. It's a given that any sentence that ends with an exclamation point is going to be a bad one. Also, the prose is more purple than Grimace's autopsy (and now I hate myself for Googling to see if there was already a corresponding image for that term. Because there absolutely was one). But, the earnestness with which Howard has fleshed out this world is near palpable. The finished product has a taste of sci-fi with a huge flavor of prehistoric times, with Cairn being a heroic fantasy barbarian type on par with Conan and Kull. The world isn't only populated with souped-up versions of Earthly creatures, either. There are mythical beasts, and hints at monstrous, near-spectral creatures. The end result leaves the audience wishing that either more Almuric stories had been penned, or that options for a shared universe would have been explored.

It is so plain to see the Howard put not only his whole heart into this story, but also his entire imagination. Another thing I want to mention - so often when people introduce a story from around this time, they feel the compulsion to apologize for some of the beliefs and values of the people at the time. I don't really go in for that. Especially when you realize, as silly as some of the concepts here are, Howard was such a fiercely intelligent and well-read young man. These pulp stories come alive with a quality of language that brings into stark focus how far the English language has deteriorated in the last few decades. Perhaps, instead of demanding that dead men apologize for what they believed, we should apologize for how much the spoken word has suffered under our poor stewardship.

But that's just my opinion. Check out Almuric; it's a lot of fun. You can read it on Australian Gutenberg here.

Cover Score:

I love this cover by Andrew Hou. It really captures the mood and tone. Cairn is not made into an overly-muscled creature, and Altha is rendered beautifully. 80's style fantasy cover work at its finest.

Cover Final Score:


Thursday, March 3, 2016

The Emperor Expects

The Emperor Expects by Gav Thorpe. Book Three in The Black Library's "The Beast Arises" series, originally published Febraury 2016. Approx. 215 pages.

After two very solid installments to kick off their Beast Arises series, we come to the third volume, The Emperor Expects, by Gav Thorpe. Would Mr. Thorpe continue the high level of quality laid down by Abnett and Sanders, or would we start to see some of the chinks in the ceramite of the power armor?

Maybe we should start with a bit of a preamble regarding Mr. Thorpe. Gav has always been sort of an enigma to me as a writer. I see a lot of vitriol pointed at a lot of his works, but I've never considered him a bad writer (there are only two writers I've sampled from The Black Library who I'd say were "bad writers". I won't mention any names, but I'll just say that one of their last names rhymes with "rhyme"). Thorpe actually strings together coherent sentences in a meaningful manner. And yet, for some reason, his stories almost always fail to engage me in any way whatsoever. Due to this, I have a fairly large collection of unfinished works by him, compared to only one finished book (Grudgebearer, which was enjoyable and yet fairly unmemorable). But, I see a lot of anger directed towards him and his body of work on the interwebs, which I don't get.

Well, we'd see with this one. I am committed to finish this series, so The Emperor Expects would be the Gav Thorpe acid test.

What was the result? Well, it's a decent book; good in some ways, and pretty bad in others. What went wrong, and what was still right?

With the groundwork and preliminary framework already laid down, The Emperor Expects focuses primarily on two story arcs; in one, High Admiral Lansung and a large contingent of the Imperial Navy take the fight to the orks. In the other, a power struggle has erupted within the ranks of the Inquisition on Terra, with Inquisitor Weinand caught squarely in the middle.

There is also a small section dedicated to Captain Koorland, aka Slaughter, the Last Imperial Fist, just for a sake of keeping a low flame under that story until the next installment (we get a hint at something known as "The Last Wall" protocol, which also happens to be the name of the next book).

What this all means is that The Emperor Expects is first and foremost an Imperial Navy book (which I personally love, although individual tastes may vary). Thorpe makes the right decision in approaching this as "naval battles, just in space", yielding some fairly spectacular ship on ship combat. Or should I say ships on ships? There are a lot of ships involved.

Those are the best scenes in the book. It should also be noted that apart from one scene (in my opinion, the best action sequence in this volume), there are no appearances by the orks themselves in the flesh. Don't know if that will be a deterrent to any potential readers.

Now that we've mentioned the things that work, it's time to get around to the elements that didn't. WARNING: SOME SPOILERS LURK AHEAD.

First and foremost, the characters. Strong characters will lift the flimsiest of material, across any genre. Poor characters will sink any work, no matter how lofty the aesthetics. Such is the case here. The characters are flimsy at best, out and out bad at worst.

Let's start with Vangorich. I personally couldn't stand the snarky omniscience which Abnett utilized to realize him. Sanders did a much better job; making him what he should be: the smartest man in the room at all times. Sanders' Vangorich is investigating multiple issues simultaneously, and constantly running simulations to determine the best possible assassination options for high-value targets.

Now let's look at Thorpe's Vangorich: he gets verbally manhandled by Lansung not once, but twice in the same debate. Why? His best argument, when seeing that Lansung was gaining too much influence, was to challenge him with something along the lines of "Oh yeah, if this big battle is so important, why don't you just lead the fleet yourself then? Hunh?" Seriously.

Later on, someone is also able to actually sneak up on him. Again, seriously.

I'm not saying this because I have any emotional investment in preserving the integrity of Vangorich's reputation. It's just that if I am to believe that he is capable of doing what the Lexicanum says he is capable of doing, then showing him committing a series of bush-league mistakes isn't the way to do it.

There are some things that didn't sit well with me regarding Esad Wire, aka "Beast Krule", Vangorich's top assassin. Keep in mind that this man is not only a top assassin, but also worked for years with the Adeptus Arbites in some pretty seedy areas. And yet, during a briefing with his boss, he seems surprised that he should keep tabs on an Inquisitor, because, "she's on our side, right?"

No. You assume that no one is on your side. I know that and I'm not even an assassin.

Later, he draws a blank at a name which turns out to be Wienand's body double. Don't ask me to believe that the fact that there are body doubles in play wasn't part of the Officio Assassinorum's intel packets. If the Assassins are using intricate camouflage, body doubles, and Mission Impossible-style face masks, you have to assume that the other guys are too.


Rule 1: Trust no one.
Rule 2: Assume that the enemy has the same (if not better) resources at their disposal that you do, and approach them as necessary.

As far as the Navy storyline is concerned, the characters were enjoyable. A lot of the focus is on a Captain named Kulik, and his First Lieutenant, Shaffenbeck.

My issue with these characters is that they feel somewhat manufactured. They are cobbled together with all the qualities that the author assumes makes them likable; the are always capable, tough when they need to be, caring without being soft, able to hold their own in a fight, and they always have a cutesy remark to make at just the right time to break the strict pressure of command. Don't get me wrong; it's entertaining. It makes their scenes very readable. But they never feel like "real" people.

While I'm talking about them, it reminds me of another issue I have with the book....the tone.

Often, during the Navy scenes, even though what I am reading can be called good ship warfare, and even good sci-fi, it doesn't feel like Warhammer 40K. I get it that Thorpe wants us to see Kulik as a noble man in the midst of a vainglorious Navy, but his concern for his men goes beyond a believable norm. The fact that he outright balks at the thought of an Admiral friend being comfortable with maneuvers that would cost lives is pretty funny. Noble commander or not; there is a basic tenet in all military service that your troops are disposable resources. You know that your moves will put a set number of them at risk; your charge is to minimize that loss.

That's pretty much it with my assessment of the characters. I should mention that some of Koorland's dialogue is fairly treacly as well.

I can see now how some might have a problem with Thorpe's writing style. He does indulge quite a bit in the wordy descriptions of backgrounds, clothing, etc. This doesn't bother me per se, but it becomes an issue when there are situations where more detail would've been greatly welcomed. For example, when armsmen on the ship are heading off to repel boarders, we get a full paragraph describing their uniforms; from the stripes on the pants to the piping on their jackets. Great! I love detail like that. On the other hand, a lot of the description of the ships is simply boiled down to what class they are. Think of some of the amazing design work on Imperial Navy ships; why not spend a few paragraphs on contours and crenellations and whatnot. Also, even though Thorpe describes some of the orky ships (and the attack moon) quite well, why not some more details of their pugnacious, haphazardly jerry-rigged monstrosities? I mean, the orks do these things to such great excess that an author should be like a kid in a playground when tasked with describing them all.

One issue I did have with the writing here: exposition. When Thorpe wants to convey an idea, he does not demonstrate it, he does not imply it, he outright explains it. In excrutiating detail. For example, when describing how the Senatorum is supposed to work, he mentions that the end result is something ideally similar to a system of checks and balances. He then explains, in full detail, what a system of checks and balances is. This is done often through the book.

I don't want to complain about that too much. I think to myself; if I got this book when I was, say, 10 or 12, like many are when they get into 40K, I'd probably find it all pretty informative and feel a bit smarter after reading it. So, I understand that there is a sizable swathe of the potential reading audience that this style might resonate with. If you aren't in that slice of the pie chart, consider yourself warned.

I know, there's a lot of nit-picking here; but for the most part, I enjoyed the read. The only section which I'll say I really didn't care for was the "Wienand Chase Sequence".

But, other than that, The Emperor Expects has a lot going for it. There is great pacing; with a nicely balanced ratio of action to story advancement. Thorpe paints backgrounds and realizes people and places with aplomb; he has been an influential force in crafting this universe for many years. This is where all of that detail has a definable, enjoyable yield.

And, it all ends with a nifty cliffhanger.

Looking forward to The Last Wall.

Final Score:


Cover Score:

I like these covers, but I'm not sure who this is supposed to be. Is it Admiral Lansung (too skinny)? Is it Beast Krule (why the uniform)? Is it Admiral Acharya (but he's only a minor character)?

Cover Final Score: