Thursday, May 17, 2018

Answering review request: Poisoned Princess

Armen Pogharian asked  me to read his novel "Poisoned Princess". It is a medieval fantasy, and I want to include high fantasy because it is much like a classic Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but it has a small and close scope that is better fitting of low fantasy. It's basically a quest to retrieve a cure for an important political figure.
I will examine Plot, Character, and Polish, before assigning a grade.

PLOT


There's a somewhat slow start to the main plot. It takes a bit for the princess to be poisoned, and this is a good thing. It provides space for the world to be set-up and characters to be introduced and developed. I also like the event itself, both in being present and how well it is executed; skillful guardians vs devious assassins.

As the story unfolds, the titular poisoning was the assassin's back-up plan rather than their main effort. This strengthens the plot by making the princess' safety a game of cat-and-mouse between the assassins and the warders (who are basically the royal Secret Service). It would have been easy to make this into an excuse plot to justify an adventure but it is developed and better throughout than that.

Even after the princess is successfully poisoned, the assassin doesn't call it done and go home. He spends the rest of the book trying to knife her in her sickbed. This makes for a continuation of the pre-poisoning dynamic with some of the warders while the others go on the quest.

It is a great quest; a quest in the classic epic style. The adventuring party has to travel a considerable distance within a time limit. They encounter everything from bounty hunters to monsters while keeping their mission as secretive as possible. There are many close calls and dangerous encounters, and both are skillfully written by Mr. Pogharian.

The heroes get a couple of lucky breaks that make these encounters easier but so do the villains. I think it evens out. To me, it was never about making things easy for the heroes or artificially giving the villains an edge to stay threatening, but more of a genuinely lucky thing or a matter of foreshadowing.

This is basically a Save-The-Princess storyline, which is one of the oldest in the genre, and I really like it. This is because it is a well-written use of the trope, which I think is more important than being original.

The ending is great. It closes this book's conflict while remaining open to all kinds of new adventures for latter in the series. I respect and admire that kind of planning.

CHARACTERS

Toran is the story's protagonist (and the hero too).  He is a half-elf barbarian fighter who is good with both the sword and the bow. He joins the warders on the recommendation of his uncle at the start of the story.
While he has significant skill in battle and highly skilled in tracking, this is presented as due to his uncle's elven training and the two halves of his heritage mixing well (barbarian strength and battle lust together with elven senses and speed make a formidable combination). My point is, he is a powerful character without being special in someway. This means he doesn't overtake the story and his teammates are relevant.
He has angst about his heritage, and it causes him some problems, but he manages that and is a stable young man overall. That's another thing I like about this story; engaging characters without Dysfunction Junction.

 

Adrelle is a human noblewoman, and the handmaiden of the titular princess. She insists on going on the quest to help her friend.
Her Establishing-Character-Moment is a thing of beauty. It firmly and quickly establishes her as a both a Deadpan Snarker and a very clever girl. See, the warders aren't used to people tracking their agents back to their hideout.
There's a twist/secret regarding her character, and I thought I guessed it but I was only half-right. That's yet another thing I like about this story. Despite appearing to be traditional fantasy fare, it still surprised me.

 

Draham is a fine mixture of Our Dwarves Are All the Same and some personal twists. While he is a short and stocky character of great strength, a wielder of a warhammer and is very proud of his large and bushy beard, he is basically a rogue. Yes, he has numerous disguises, aliases and has sufficient dexterity and speed to convincing play the role of a jester.
He's the senior partner of the adventuring party, the veteran with the two young bucks. He acquits himself very well indeed in both battle and outside of it.


Yuden is the assassin who poisons the princess and then spends the rest of the book trying to make sure she dies. He gets a couple of focus chapters that show how he goes about his work. Because of this, the reader knows more about him then "evil poisoner guy". He is not an evil character, so to speak. He's more like an amoral character. As far as I can see, all this assassinating and sneaking around is just his job, and he gets squeamish when it comes to torture.


POLISH

I don't recall anything in the way of typos. There might have been one or two near the end.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Poisoned Princess" an A+


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

Click here for my previous book review (a request like this one): When Hope Calls


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).

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Answering Review Request: When Hope Calls

David Lui asked me to read his novella "When Hope Calls". It's about a humanitarian office that tries to save a girl from slave traders. It's based on a true story, and given this fact, my grading system of "plot" and "characters" and "polish" feels....inappropriate. So this will be more free-style than usual.

 
The premise is that Mya, the girl who was kidnapped by slave traders, miraculously (this is the word used in the story itself) has a cell phone on her. The cast tried to pinpoint her location through clues she provides and eavesdropping on her captors. It is a high-emotion, touch-and-go situation with low periods that feel like emotional burnout.

During the periods of rapid activity and tense waiting that occur between calls from Mya, the cast ponders what sort of person kidnaps a child to sell to into a harsh and abusive life, and controls them with fear and violence. The answer they come up with is a person motivated by greed and envy.

When reading reviews from books, I've noticed that it is common to call them "page-turners". In fact, it is so common that I bet someone has said "lots of books are called page-turners, but this one really is!" Maybe it is because the thriller and suspense genres aren't my personally preferred ones, but I don't generally read books that are mean to be finished quickly. This one has the rare distinction from me of being called a page-turner. It is a quick read, with high suspense and tension throughout.

There is a tad of Leaning On the Fourth Wall when one character accuses another of being part of the human trafficking problem because they're not doing anything about it at the moment.

It has a good ending. Regardless of whether or not Mya is rescued, The Adventure Continues.

When the story is over and Mr.Lui returns us to real life, he lists steps the reader can take to combat human trafficking. They are all practical things that the reader can do personally, and not appeals for donations, which I think is nice. It's about spreading awareness of the problem.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "When Hope Calls" a +

This has been a free review request. David Lu asked for an honest review so I provided one.


Click here of my next book review (a request): Poisoned Princess

Click here for my previous book review (for fun): D&D Complete Divine.

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, May 1, 2018

Dungeons and Dragons rule book: Complete Divine.

Continuing my recent exposure to and fascination with Dungeons and Dragons, here is another rule book, Complete Divine. This one is focuses in on the divine/spiritual/religious aspects of a possible D&D campaign world. There are lists of prestige classes beyond the standard found in the player's manual, a consolidation of information about deities (I think most, if not all, of these are from the official Greyhawk setting), holy magic items, etc.
 
So many classes and all of them made distinct; I was surprised just how big the "divinely-empowered" category could be. This is more than just mechanical terms but also how these characters fit within the world of the game itself.
 
 
There are sections at the start describing the class in-universe terms and then how they function as part of a setting and then as part of a player's campaign; like bifocal glasses. There are even quotes from or about this class and an illustration that matches the equipment list. It's well-thought out stuff from a lore perspective, and as I have started reading the Dungeon Master's manual, this is just as important in an immersive campaign as stats and rules.
 
 
Reading this book made me want to roleplay a Bard who becomes religious by multi-classing to an Evangelist, and then after becoming unsatisfied with only that class (perhaps after acquiring all of its class abilities), switches to Holy Liberator (because they are basically Chaotic Good Paladins, and Bards are always chaotic). 
 
 
The list of deities was one of my favorite sections and I found myself flipping to it often, because of the interaction with the alignment of the classes, and also because of the magic item/artifact and spell lists. There is connecting lore for all these sections.
 
Trickster Eric Novels gives Dungeons and Dragons rule book: Complete Divine an A+
 
Click here for my thoughts on other D&D manuals: Player's Handbook v 3.5 and Heroes of Battle


Click here for my next book review (a request): When Hope Calls

 
Click here for my previous book review (for fun): No Game No Life volume 4
 
Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Book and Author Spotlight - Kellyn Roth

Hello Blogsphere and internet in general. Today, I'm helping Kellyn Roth with a blog tour. Yes, this woman right here.

   

My part of this is a spotlight for her and her new book, At Her Fingertips. This is a piece of Realistic Fiction, and furthermore it is Clean Romance. She asked me to share the book's blurb, a couple excerpts, and tell you about the prizes she's giving out. First, the blurb.
At Her Fingertips (Book #3)
Alice Knight is looking forward to her debut as it means she will be able to carry out her plan. She will have her first Season in London, she will meet her husband, and she will marry him. However, Alice struggles to make her feelings reconcile with her goals.
Alice is sure that, if she can only cling to her plans, she will manage without help from anyone — including God. A childhood friend returning unexpectedly, a charming gentleman who is not all he should be, and an American author with strange ideas about life all make her question the plan.
With the life she longs for at her fingertips, can Alice grasp it?
 
If you're interested, CLICK HERE for the excerpts.
I read them and they're good. I prefer the first one because of this line, "
Mr. Knight had a brain that worked just like a semicolon; he was forever remembering something new that needed doing and asking Kirk to write it down". I can see in my mind how such a scene plays out. It makes me smile, and it works as quick characterization for both characters.  



  

Author Bio

Kellyn Roth was born and lives on a cattle ranch in North-Eastern Oregon. Always fascinated with telling stories, she created crazy games to play with her little brothers as a child. Today, she writes Christian and Historical Fiction with a focus on truth and family. Find out more about her and her novels at kellynrothauthor.com
Social Media
Facebook: @krauthor
Twitter: @ReveriesofRuby
Goodreads: krauthor
Instagram: kellbellroth
Pinterest: krauthor
YouTube: Kellyn Roth
Personal Blog: kellynroth.wordpress.com
Book Blog: reveriesreviews.wordpress.com




Monday, April 16, 2018

Read for Fun: No Game No Life Volume 4

No Game No Life Volume 4

I was a fan of series before I picked this book up. It is the first volume I've read. After watching the anime, I wanted to see more. Naturally, the animation crew had great material to work with because this volume delivers on the appeal of the series.


It was fun and satisfying to see the aftermath of the events of the anime. It turns out the stinger for the anime occurs in a later light novel. It was a great cliffhanger, definitely, but caused some confusion on my part. Anyway, the ongoing process of it merges the real-life-implications of such an event and the games-resolve-conflicts rules of Dishboard.

The game of the Sirens is a real-life Romance game (dating game), which one of the few that the gamer siblings have not mastered. Far from being afraid, they are so proud of the fact that they are socially incompetent shut-ins that they emit a battle aura. Furthermore, the mystery of the nature and victory conditions of the Siren's game is intriguing and compelling, especially given that it is the gamer siblings' logical weakness.

The deviousness and cunning of the gamer siblings also continues to impress. One would be surprised at how much of their silly antics are actually a cover for plans, and how much of it is both. They certainly surprised me with their exploitation of the Beach Episode trope.

I want to focus on that. Beyond the lighthearted and fanservice of the trope, and even beyond the covert deviousness, it specifically deals with the gamer siblings' opinion of beach vacations. Due to their backstory as Hikikomori, they see this common vacation destination as too messy, too hot, bad for one's hair etc. It's pretty deep given the archetypal form of this trop.

Also worthy of note is that Steph does something awesome, proving that she is not "a steph" once and for all, while simultaneously exploiting her reputation as such.

The new character, Plum, is definitely a woobie. The circumstances of the Dphamir race elicit much sympathy, and Plum makes a great Straight Man for the stupidity of the Siren race as well as the silliness laid-backness of the main cast.

The ending was both satisfying and exciting. It achieves all the advantages of a cliffhanger without actually leaving anyone hanging, as well as the advantages of a resolved conflict while still going full steam. It is impressive.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "No Game No Life volume 4" an A+
 
 
 


Click here for the next book review (for fun): Dungeons and Dragons - Complete Divine


Click here for the previous review book (also for fun): Dungeons and Dragons - Heroes of Battle

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Read for fun: Dungeons and Dragons - Heroes of Battle

This is a supplement to the main Dungeon Master's guide which is specific to war-theme campaigns. It offers campaign advice, sample missions, new prestige classes, new feats, new items and new spells. The idea is provide aids for a campaign other than dungeon crawling.

 The differences are quickly made apparent. Four adventurer PCs in a large army of NPCs against another army of NPCs in open area instead of an enclosed one with far more going on than a single encounter at a time; how does one manage that? The answer can apply not only to board games but to video games and adventure novels too, "Think big, play small". After reading this section, I started seeing it in a lot of plots, such as Legend of Spyro: Dawn of the Dragon.


There is this chapter in the game which revolves around a huge siege of Dragon City. There are a lot of humanoid moles defending the walls and the gates (competently, I might add) and four big and powerful dragons. In all of this, how do the programmers make Spyro and Cynder relevant here? Before you say "exploit protagonist powers and take on the entire army in the field", let me pre-empt that by saying this is not a game where the main character can kill any number of mooks; take on too many and you will die. Maybe you could do it using cheat codes to get fury breath early and unlimited mana but even then an enemy could get the drop on you from above.

Instead, the game guides the players through scenario. The dragon pair put out fires, defend a wall-mounted cannon, help the guy reload, destroy siege towers, and defend the front gate. All of these are singular, specific, important areas where PCs can make a significant difference in at least one section of combat, and through it, the overall battle.


Also, this book is not all about pitched battles or sieges. There is variety. A DM can plan covert stuff like intel gathering and rescues missions. There are escape-the-siege-and-bring-reinforcements missions. There is infiltration and La Resistance type missions. There is lots of potential fun suggested apart from dungeon crawling, and that can be included too (Ex. "The general has received word of special combat-power-enhancing herbs that only grow in this haunted forest".....).

In addition to campaign and encounters, there are also new prestige classes ranging from Combat Medics, mixing fighter and cleric, to War Weavers who are basically wizards geared around team-playing, to Legendary Leaders, who milk all the advantages that come from having many cohorts and can make the morale checks easier to manage.


Speaking of which, the morale rules are interesting. Losing too much health or seeing a bunch of their comrades die can lead an NPC to fear and panic, but seeing a hero doing something awesome or giving a rousing speech can embolden them. This is another way that PCs can influence battles. It also adds another layer of realism and strategy, which aids immersion and rewards those that can effectively utilize the system.

I tell you, I'm going to refer to this book when designing my own war-themed campaigns as much or more than a textbook like The Medieval Siege. What's good for the Dungeon Master is good for the Author.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Dungeons and Dragons: Heroes of Battle" an A+
 

 

Click here for my thoughts on other D&D manuals: Player's Manual 3.5 and Complete Divine

Click here for my next book review (for fun): No Game No Life volume 4

Click here for my previous book review (a request): Song Hereafter

Brian Wilkerson is a freelance book reviewer, writing advice blogger and independent novelist. He studied at the University of Minnesota and came away with bachelor degrees in English Literature and History (Classical Mediterranean Period concentration).

 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Answering review request: Song Hereafter

Jean Gill asked me to read her novel, "Song Hereafter". It is the fourth book in her "The Troubadours"  series and the fourth book of hers that I have reviewed. I wished I had a Hall of Fame on my blog because this is also the fourth book of hers that I find excellent. I will examine Plot, Character, and Polish, and then assign a grade.

PLOT
 
The overarching plot here is that of Dragonetz and Estela's relationship trouble; not with each other but with their situation. They are effectively a married couple (common-law marriage?) but for previous-book reasons, they can't be officially married. This causes certain problems in 12st century European society. These problems take the form of several, smaller, more concrete arcs. The biggest of which, and what is the meat of this book, is a stealth-diplomatic mission to Gwalia (i.e. Whales).


Upon initially reading the book, it can come off as disjointed because certain plot points are set up and then resolved shortly after (with exception, of course, to the main plot in Gwalia) without any obvious connection. However, one soon sees how they are all connected to the larger plot and build off on each other. It can sometimes be surprising just how well they connect. It is a tapestry of life, sort of thing.
 
I like what Jean Gill does with scenery and other landscape details. It is a great balance of what is beautiful and what is necessary. When the leading couple approach the Palace of Joy in Zaragoza, there is this depiction of its splendor. The natural landscapes in Gwalia are similarly attentive but not every location is described. That would be exhausting. Reaching this balance is something I try to do in my own writing, but I am not as consistently skilled  in this area as Miss Gill.
 
Question: "What's in the bag?" Answer: "A badger." WHACK. Simultaneously, this scene is funny, serious, and an establishing character moment for two critical characters and their society.
 
Over the course of this book, Estella writes a travel guide she calls "The Wise Traveler". Not only does it show another development of Estella's creative nature but it also serves as a handy and non-intrusive way to provide exposition. It is actually a meta device because the information provided about the places Estella visits also informs the person reading Miss. Gill's book about Estella's point of view and audience.
 
There is a satisfying conclusion, both to this book and to this series. The Romance Genre aspect of the series is fulfilled in full and many plot threads are tied. It is a good place to stop in the lives of Estela and Dragonetz, though there is definitely more to them.
 
CHARACTERS
 
Estela's character continues to develop as her character arc takes a new turn. This book places a special emphasis on the roles of wife and mother, which unfolds in how Estela is vs how the society at the time and place expects both to act. There is patience and understanding but also stubborn support (whether he likes it or not). There is also a heightened contrast with Alienor that was previously absent.
Contrasting this is her coming into her own as a healer by saving her own medical mentor from a disease that is really tough to cure. It turns out that her first task with a patient is convincing the family that A.) it is not yet time for Last Rites and B.) she, personally, can heal them.

Then there is writing "The Wise Traveler", which shows another facet of her artistic side, apart from writing and singing.
It is interesting to note that despite getting beaten over the head with social norms like wives being absolutely obedient to their husbands, Estela is not portrayed as a feminist. Sure, she doesn't want to "count to four" whenever her husbands commands it of her, and would really appreciate it if people didn't assume that her man was responsible for her lyrics, and bristles when a court lord forbids her from singing because of her gender, but she is also totally on board with supporting her husband's goals even if she doesn't agree with them, making sure her children are taken care off even if it precludes other opportunities, and generally putting family first.
 
As for Dragonetz, the self-flagellating continues. He is a complex chivalric character. It's like he is a Knight in Sour Armor that aspires to be a Knight in Shining Armor but has too many human frailties and too much disillusionment to do so.
Despite all the good he does, he never feels like it's enough. There's this scene where he goes to a notary to legally designate the son he sired with Estela as his heir and make sure they're both provided for in the event of his untimely death (which, considering his line of work, is a very likely thing) but leaves it feeling like he's betrayed her since she's legally his mistress instead of his wife (incidentally, this is also his fault due to a previous  attempt at helping her).
Also, there's this running gag where he jokes about using his sword on any warrior or bard that Estela shows too much admiration for; Estela hopes he's joking. It turns out to be another human frailty that he feels a need to metaphorically whip himself for.

The third character that I want to focus on is John Halfpenny, a master minter. He's mostly here for comedy, whether it is rants about how he hates working with gold, clowning around as the Lord of Misrule, or standing perfectly still while Estela practices knife-throwing on him. Yet he, too, is a complex character, with his backstory regarding The Anarchy in England at the time, and the role he plays in the stealth-diplomacy mission.

There isn't really a villain here. It's more like a series of grey-scale antagonists. Here are people who could be allies or enemies. It is part of a general greyness that is upheld well through all of Miss. Gill's series. Lords Rhys and Marredud are like neutrals who could go either way depending on the actions of their guests/captives, Patronella doesn't do much more than sniff disdainfully at how the lead couple is living in sin, and Miquel, despite being a stellar example of Faux Evilly Affable, thinks he's doing the right thing.
 
POLISH
 
I didn't see any typos or grammar errors. That's a difficult thing to do with a novel.
I also like the glossaries and maps that are included at the start of the novel.



Trickster Eric Novels gives "Song Hereafter" an A+


Click here for book 3 in "The Troubadours" Plaint for Provence

Click here for my next book review (for fun): D&D Heroes of Battle

Click here for the previous book review (for fun): Resisting Happiness


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).

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Read for fun (sort-of): Resisting Happiness.

"Resisting Happiness" by Matthew Kelly.

I have mixed feelings about this book. I agree with a lot of his stuff but not all of it, and in some cases I disagree more with his style and attitude than his content.

First of all, daily prayer. I agree with this. Just a couple minutes (it doesn't have to be ten) in the morning helps with focus and gratitude and stuff.  Helping out in the community is a good way to show Christian love, and being active during worship services is a good way to understand it more, and enjoy it more. I find myself in greatest agreement with the first couple of chapters.

These are direct to the topic of "resisting happiness" and why someone would do such a thing; literally happiness itself. It's about people choosing shallow happiness, (like some luxury) false happiness, (like a bad relationship), or convincing themselves they are happy when they are not, to avoid trouble instead of seeking true happiness. That stuff makes sense. Even the part where he says that no amount of accomplishments can make someone happy/no amount money can make someone happy, have a certain logic to them, even though the way he writes it makes it sound as though anything other than evangelizing is pointless. These are some of the things that I am more half-and-half on.

Another of them is the practice of offering-an-hour-of-work-as-prayer. On one hand, it sounds like something that can make one's daily labor feel more meaningful, but on the other hand, it sounds like the kind of empty ritual that non-theists mock. There's also a lot of talk about the need to be passionate and zealous in one's faith. It's like a backhand to those who are quietly devout. There's no need to make a show of it; "do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" and all that. Then there's the stuff that I disagree with entirely.

There's one chapter (ch. 19) where Matthew Kelly talks about how being bored is a massive insult to God. In other words, it is a sin to be bored. He really says that; "to say we are bored at any moment in our lives is a massive insult to God" (page 98 in my paperback). This is not about sloth, i.e. laziness, but feeling the sensation of boredom. One can be plenty active and industrious etc. and still be bored. You can do selfless things for others and still be bored. This is a sin. It's hard to take him seriously when he says stuff like that. Which leads into my next point -  the frame narrative with his uncle.

I am suspicious of the non-fictional nature of the stories with his uncle. The book is basically presented as conversations he has with his uncle about things someone should do to be "happy" (which quickly turns into "develop a passionate and active inner spiritual life") and the aftermath of them. I find them to be too convenient. They act a frame narrative, starting chapters and providing content for the rest. Sure, one could say that the stories fit the book so well because the book is just a recording and extrapolation of the stories, but, from my perspective, there are problems with this view.
All the dialogue sounds too exact; was he writing this stuff down at the time? Despite "making more money than my teachers" (ch 6, page 29), Kelly acts like a stereotypical teenager, i.e. lacking the maturity to start and run several business (while in high school and still making time for sports and his girlfriend). He acts obstinate and/or snarky when his wise uncle suggests something, quickly caves in, and then realizes that his wise-and-nameless-uncle is right. A similar set-up was present in other self-help books that I have read and one is thought to be bogus (this book is also similar to the story of Siddhārtha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism).  It's a fine teaching method but there is a more fundamental problem.

This book talks about selflessness and the importance of doing God's will instead of thinking "my will be done", but all of this advice and all of these lessons etc. are geared toward making the reader happy.  This book is marketed by promising to make the reader happy. So even if they follow Matthew Kelly's advice, they are still accomplishing their own will anyway.

Finally, there's instances of him plugging himself and his organization, Dynamic Catholic. I understand that his experiences will come from his work and that he has a lot of stories and examples of the lessons in practical and concrete fashion, but the fact remains that he's advertising his seminars and his book publishing. He's even asking for donations through stories of a woman who buys his books so she can give them to others, and a man who thinks God made him talented at making money so he could donate it to Dynamic Catholic.


The below grade reflects both what I like about this book and what I don't like.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "Resisting Happiness" a C+-

Click here for the next book review (a request): Song Hereafter


Click here for the previous book review (for fun): Magic, Magic, Everywhere


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).

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Read for Fun: Magic, Magic Everywhere

"Magic, Magic Everywhere" is basically the novelization of the movie "Magic Movie Night".


It is a quick read. There is a large font so the pages go by quickly. In fact, I went through fifty of them without realizing it. Even though I had watched the animated counterpart, I had difficulty putting this one down at my first sitting. I wanted to see the differences because I heard there a couple big ones. This is my impression.

This counterpart is simplified. Books, including novelizations, typically provide more information about the story; a wider scope. This one is smaller. This goes from background details to a significant part of Dance Magic being omitted (namely, the Crystal Prep student conflict/team up storyline). It's disappointing and one would think it would make a great friendship lesson for Starlight to witness, but understandable (see below).

This counterpart is Integrated. Instead of three loosely connected storylines, this one cohesive whole. The Crystal Prep omission was probably for streamlining the narrative and making this happen. Starlight Glimmer, for instance, is present for the whole story instead of the final third and spends the middle arc tracking leaks of Equestrian Magic on Sunset Shimmer's behalf. This is something I like. Starlight vs Juniper Montage is also something I like because it shows more cunning on her part (the "flip kick" from the animated version attracted flack).


Trickster Eric Novels gives "Magic, Magic, Everywhere" a B+


Click here for the next book review (kinda-sorta for fun): Resisting Happiness

Click here for the previous book review (for fun): Dungeons and Dragons Player's Manual (3.5)

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).

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

My realization about the pursuit of reader identification

I'm not sure why I didn't post this earlier. I guess it was because it was more of a stream-of-conscious self-reflection thing then something for my blog. However, it is something that I want to share. This self-reflection was triggered by "Canterlot Boutique", the 14th episode of the fifth season in My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

The monotony of the same thing over and over again; the thrill of inspiration; satisfaction from others enjoying one's work;  trying new things; as an artist (albeit an author rather than a seamstress) I can relate to that. This could be my favorite of the season and high up there in the series as a whole. Is this the appeal of identification? It is certain relating. I could understand the joy at the start, the frustration at the middle, the shift between financial concerns and artistic direction. Yet, I didn't think that I was Rarity, in her shoes, or anything like that. Rather, it made me want to start writing. To enjoy my own craft. Yet I wanted to get my thoughts down first.

The pursuit of reader identification is a thing that has bothered me for some time. While I look through articles about writing and marketing books, I see "identify this" and "identify that". How important it supposedly is for a given reader to be able to identify with the main character (or some other prominent character) is regularly mentioned.  I saw this in a book about bats when the author spoke of the initial inspiration as if it were a self-imposed challenge. I believe the words were "could kids identify with a bat?" I see it in several places on Tvtropes, such as the tropes This Loser Is You, Audience Surrogate, and Lowest Common Denominator, among others. I even saw it in a Just For Fun page, "So You Want To Be a Voice Actor". The line was "the audience sees themselves in you". All this bothered me because it didn't make any sense.

Identify with a character? That's nuts. Emphasize with? Sure. Relate to? Yes. Understand their situation and trouble? Definitely. But think that I am the character or that the character represents me? No. I bring this up because "Canterlot Boutique" helped me achieve a moment of clarity.

A lot my own fears regarding my career as a novelist are here.
1. Someone taking over the process and taking credit for everything.

---> That's why I hesitated so long before publishing my first book. It took more mustered up courage and resolve to upload it to KDP than anything else I've done, including my driver's license test and the promotion for my black belt in Tae Known Do. It was like jumping off a cliff into cold water.
2. The fear of doing something dull and monotone endlessly; writing the exact same thing at the command of someone else (be it a publisher, agent, marketing team etc.).

---> That's the biggest reason I ultimately decided to be an independent author.
3. The fear of losing inspiration

----> ......I don't even want to go there.

There's also the joys that I experience as a novelist.
1. A flash of inspiration from a random thought or experience. A lot of ideas came that way.
2. The exhilaration of a review from someone who truly enjoyed my book. There are few bigger intrinsic highs for me.
3. The satisfaction of announcing a new book (i.e. grand opening).



It's not identifying in the sense that the reader thinks they are this character. Rather, it is a connection to them that goes deeper than sympathy or understanding. I can sympathize with and feel sorry for, say, Bill Yoast in "Remember the Titans" when he struggles between his ambition for the Hall of Fame and defending his fellow coach and players from racism but there's a disconnect because I'm not into Football (or any sort of team sport for that matter). I can relate to Ron Weasley of "Harry Potter" fame more than Bill Yoast when he's trying to make his homework report a little bit longer because I've been there and I understand the problem, but this is only a shallow thing because I am otherwise nothing like Ron. I had a bigger, deeper, more intense emotional experience with Rarity's dilemma because I felt like it spoke to me personally. I can understand why a writer would want to be able to evoke that in their audience. However, I still don't like the idea of trying to distill such a experience.

That leads to things like lowest common denominator and mass market appeal; a character generic enough to fit anyone in a given demographic doesn't fit anyone within it at all. Indeed, that was the surface conflict of the episode; making dresses that were exactly the same. Rarity has an Imagine Spot of everyone outside her shop wearing one of her dress designs and it saddens and depresses her because they are all wearing the exact same design. The idea of an assembly line making the dresses horrifies her. The satisfaction (and, yes, success too) comes from reaching customers individually. In other words, identifying them as individuals rather than a faceless demographic.


What do you think? Have you ever had a moment like this from a show/book/game etc.?


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).

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Read for Fun: Dungeons and Dragons - player's manual (version 3.5)

I bought this some time ago for research purposes and I finished reading it last year. Since then, I have also read "Complete Divine" and I'm in the process of reading "Heroes of Battle". For a world-building nut like myself, this stuff is like a triple chocolate sundae with sprinkles for my mind. It's not a novel so I'm not going to use my usual grading scale.

Note: I read on Tvtropes that different versions of the game have their own divided fanbases just like different volumes of a novel series. This is the only version I've read about so I don't have anything to compare it to.

There's lots of stuff here that I recognize without reading it before. Talking Is A Free Action, for instance, is a trope on Tvtropes. The idea of quests for treasure and such is much older than D&D, of course, but I see here the modern template.

 
Then there's influence I see in video games. I know that turn based combat in video games came from board games like this but now I see that "successful attack role" meant that out of a series of attacks, one or more or them was successful. The in-universe combat does not stop. Also, I see that consoles in video games do the dice-rolling calculations that players do. A D&D board game is like a video game without the restrictions (assuming a sufficiently flexible/skilled/adaptable DM, of course).

I quickly saw how useful this could be for creating characters in a novel. Everything one needs for player building can be repurposed for character creation: background, abilities, religion, language, naming conventions, motivations, culture, behavior etc. This is the foundation for making a character more a collection of facts just as it is for making a character more than a collection of stats.


The spell list! Wow, the spell list is a significant chunk of this manual. Lots of different spells and their uses and their requirements and limitations; a minute magic system. It inspired me. Seriously, this helped with the development of a plot.



There were a few typos here and there but those are inevitable in something this long. I count about a dozen across three hundred pages.


Trickster Eric Novels gives "Dungeons and Dragons Player's Manual 3.5" a +

Click here for my thoughts on other D&D manuals: Heroes of Battle and Complete Divine


Click here for the next book review (for fun): Magic, Magic Everywhere

Click here for my previous book review (a request): Nosferatu Chronicles: Origins


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).

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Sword Art Online - Ordinal Scale review

Sword Art Online - Ordinal Scale is an amazing movie. Before watching it, I read a review that said it did a good job of using the franchise's strengths and avoiding its weaknesses. I agree with that sentiment.

 
The interacting of physical existence and digital existence, for instance, is well executed in the movie's augmented reality. It has many different uses beyond games like "Ordinal Scale", such as working as a GPS, counting calories in food, and staying in contact with A.I. friends. The game itself is part of this by allowing the player to be conscious while playing. This combines the appeal of games such as Sword Art Online (adventure, fighting monsters, earning treasure etc.) with vigorous physical excercise, and helps the players to stay in shape in the open air.

 
People who dislike Kazuto/Kirito for being an overpowered solo player will rejoice at seeing him make a fool of himself the first time he plays Ordinal Scale. Being a VR nerd, he is absolutely unsuited for combat in AR, and he doesn't become effective until his little sister puts him through a training montage. Even after that, his victories are a team effort.

I was happy to see the focus on Kazuto and Asuna's relationship. Since the end of Mother's Rosario, she has been urging him to meet her mother and the primary subplot, their character arc, is about a promise they made to each other while in Aincrad. When tragedy strikes, the depth of their bond is on full display and there are many tender moments.

The new girl, Yuna, shows absolutely no interest in Kazuto. Her character arc is entirely separate from him. He's not even the only player she asks for help, just the only one who figured out her message.

The story's villain is a quite a contrast with the usual. He is much more sympathetic in his goal and his methods show multiple motivations instead of the For The Evulz that previous villains have held.

The battles are fantastic. Most of them are against bosses from SAO that were not seen in the original cannon so there is no reptition. We also get to see Klein's guild, Furinkazan, in action. This means we see the truth of their status as a front-line guild. Their coordination is flawless.

Beyond the battles themselves the film itself looks fantastic. It is crisp, clean, bright and overall stunning.

If I had to name a flaw in the film, it is the speed by which Kazuto climbs the ranks of Ordinal Scale and becomes skilled enough to challenge its best player. It is a montage of what appears to be several days but could be longer. It's a little jarring but frankly, I see it as a Necessary Weasel based on the time constraits of the film itself.
 
Trickster Eric Novels gives "Sword Art Online: Ordinal Scale" an A+


Click here for my review of the chronologically next story (or rather the start of it): Sword Art Online Volume 9 - Alicization Beginning




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, February 13, 2018

Answering review request: The Nosferatu Chronicles - Origins

Susan Hamilton asked me to read her book "The Nosferatu Chronicles - Origins". This is a vampire book that, as it title says, posits an origin of vampires. It has an interesting take on this that I will elaborate in this review. I will Plot, Character, and Polish, and then assign a grade.


PLOT


The main thrust of this novel is an alien race called "the Vampri" struggling to survive on Earth after a natural disaster forced them to abandon their native planet. It's impressive how quickly Miss. Hamilton established the rudiments of their society while introducing her protagonist, Kevak. How their society is structured and stratified, how they live, what they eat, etc. is all established in a non-intrusive fashion. This is done via contrast with the current emergency and all within a couple pages.


As their exodus continues, one truly gets a sense of their desperation. They are starving and grieving and doing everything they can to establish a new normal. Not only do unexpected hazards keep unsettling them but unexpected positive events provide for sharp hope. This prevents their trauma conga line from getting stale and turning into a Deus Angst Machina.


There are other, minor, plot threads that appear at first to have nothing to do with this main narrative. There are a Welsh blacksmith that wants to emulate King Arthur by joining a crusade, a Turkish archer dragged into Ottoman court politics, and a herbalist from Wallachia preparing for a resurgence of a local monster. They are small digressions from the main narrative and eventually connect with it without distracting from or bloating it. Indeed, the blacksmith only has one or two solo scenes before he joins the main event. Then there's the historical Vlad the Impaler, who you KNOW is going to be important later.

 

There are lots of different kinds of vampires here. All of the usual myths and elements are accounted for but given a twist to fit the setting along with original stuff from Miss. Hamilton. Few stories that I have read provide such a fine in-universe explanation for both Our Vampires Are Different and Your Vampires Suck.
1. The Vampri are the original aliens. They look the most like humanoid monsters of the group but they don't drink blood because they're herbivores. They have no vampire weaknesses except sunlight because their bodies can't stand solar radiation.
2. Vampri who ingest human blood become vampri-human hybrids. They look human but have superhuman abilities. Human blood acts like a drug, explaining their traditional horror hunger. They act viciously because adrenaline helps them manage this addiction. The only way to kill them is a headshot.
3. Humans who ingest Vampire blood also turn into hybrids with the same skill set and weaknesses but are weaker as a whole than Vampri. This is why they are called "vampires" or "sub-Vampri".
4. All the other usual weaknesses, like garlic and crosses, are a result of Your Mind Makes It Real. These humans believe they have turned into a folk monster called "Stigoi" and so they also believe they have the same weaknesses. It is implied rather than stated that they are also the weakest of the lot because they were created by a human-vampri hybrid.

 

Despite the fact that crosses are only effective against monsters that think they are effective, there is a intriguing religious element. Kevak comes across a bible in his struggles (among other books such as the works of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) and sees parallels between its contents and Vampri history. It helps him come to terms with his personal grief involving a tragedy that occurred during the evacuation of his planet and also his guilt about his involvement in oppression and murder.

The really interesting part about this religious element is that Vampri society is secular via Outgrown Such Silly Superstitions and even mentions that a similar belief about a deity that is friendly to the poor and downtrodden died out as technology made manual labor less necessary. Despite knowing this, Kevak converts to Christianity and is inspired to be "humanity's Good Samaritan". Furthermore, the staple of the Vampri diet, hemo-crops, are processed into two forms, a wafer for eating and a red liquid for drinking. They certainly provide a "salvation" of sorts.

Wow, that is long, isn't it? I totally didn't mean to do that. Anyway, I like the conclusion. It was surprisingly tense and gripping considering its parameters. It was this sense of "we're so close to making it but something could still go horribly wrong". It closes the book's conflict to provide for a sense of resolution while simultaneously planting seeds for future stories.

 

CHARACTERS

 

Kevak is the protagonist of this story and its hero as well. He is a Science Hero and a family man. As the story unfolds, a Real Men Love Jesus trait develops until he's basically a Good Shepherd. There is lots of personal conflict with him because he is an introspective sort. He grieves and has moments of doubt but it is not wangst.


Mazja is the closest the book has to a Big Bad, yet she's not really evil. I'd saw Lawful Evil at worst. She's basically dragged into villainy through a combination of anger, grief, accidental (and really quick) drug addiction and starvation. One can see how well-intentioned and reasonable she is at the start of things and see her morality erode as time goes on. Indeed, the Token Good Teammate considers her draconian disciplinary measures a Necessary Evil at one point.


Chaluxi presents an interesting question: how does a good man stay moral when only immoral options are available? How he copes with the events of the plot make him an exemplary foil for Kevak.


Vlad the Impaler is multi-faceted here. He is ruthless to his enemies and strict with his soldiers. He is  a caring husband, but also has a number of mistresses. He is chivalrous but is also more severe with his punishments on "fallen" women than men. I did a little research and much of his life here is accurate to real life, aside from the vampire bits, of course.


POLISH


A couple errors here and there. I don't penalize for this unless it is more common.

There was an event that struck me as such a narrative weakness that I was going to mark down a full grade for it. This is because it was a coincidental and foolish behavior with so many points of failure that it broke my willing suspension of disbelief. However, I thought about it and realized that lots of moments, for and against this character, as well as other characters, occurred. This was not a one-time device to heavy-handily shift the plot but a theme of the story. Mistakes happen and random chance events occur; that's life. Or God working in mysterious ways, as Kevak would put it. From that perspective, it was not a narrative weakness at all.


Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Nosferatu Chronicles - Origins" an A+


This has been a free review request. Susan Hamilton wanted an honest review so I provided one.

Click here for my next book review (for fun): Dungeons and Dragons - Player's Manual V3.5


Click here for my previous book review (also a request): The Adventures of Sir Edric

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, February 6, 2018

Answering Review Request: The Adventures of Sir Edric

Thaddeus White asked me to read his novel "The Adventures of Sir Edric". It is about a knight who is far from chivalrous going on adventures similar to such a knight. I want to say it is a parody of epic adventures. It is certainly a comedy. It is also the third book by Mr.White that I have reviewed and I have thus gained a high opinion of his ability as an author. This book is no exception. I will examine Plot, Character and Polish and then assign a grade.
 
PLOT

First, this book is actually two stories. I think they were separate at one point but now they are together in this book. They are "The Adventures of Sir Edric Volume" and "Sir Edric's  Treasure".


The first one is similar to a Redemption Quest but it is played like a stealth suicide mission. The second is more like a treasure hunt. I say it is a parody because of the motivations for these quests and dissonance between what Edric says and what he thinks.


The first is presented as a heroic adventure for king and country but Edric suspects that the king is sending him on a suicide mission in retribution for committing adultery with the queen. The beautiful sorcereress accompanying him, who would likely be a love interest (Defrosting Ice Queen style) in a straight version, is actually his jailer who maintains a low opinion of him throughout. Instead of taking action himself, he foists all the dangerous stuff on his braver and more competent manservant.

The second has the same qualities as the first but a significantly different set up, which makes it the same sort of enjoyable but a different sort of interesting because Edric is in a situation more suited to his true nature.

Much of the comedy in these stories comes from Edric talking like a chivalric and heroic knight while thinking thoughts that instead reflect a pragmatic and misogynistic mercenary. There's also Schadenfreude from the dangerous, embarrassing, or painful things that happen to him, usually as a result of his actions but also like a karmic kick. For readers like myself, there is a third source of comedy in the use of the tropes. Literary concepts like Boring Return Journey are lampshaded, examined, and/or mocked.


Both stories have an ending suitable for this story's tone. I like them. They close the conflict but they are not happily ever after sorts.


CHARACTERS
 

Sir Edric is a noble and used to be an active knight. Now he's more sedate, and by "sedate", I mean only rouses himself to go to a whore house. Aside from this laziness, he has about every other vice you could name: greed, snobbery, misogyny, irreverence, cowardice, lack of empathy, hypocrisy etc. There's one scene where he's pretending to be a monk as a disguise and someone asks him for religious advice, and he does so in exchange for a fee. A Nominal Hero if there ever was one, but it suits him in this world of grey and grey morality. Indeed, the only reason he's not a Villain Protagonist is because he doesn't actively do anything evil, and he usually has something, or in the case of Lysandra, someone, to keep him focused on heroic acts.

 It also makes him a comedic duo with his manservant, Dog. He is the wise guy doing something immoral, pragmatic or whatever, and Dog is the straight man who reacts to it.

 While it is easy to see him as someone who relies on Dog to do all his fighting for him, he's not incompetent. He demonstrates skill with a crossbow, a sword and in quick tactical thinking. It's just that he's pragmatic enough to stay away from immediate danger and talk or trick his way out of a fight in the first place.


Dog is described in book blurbs as "pathologically loyal", which is indeed true. The things he does out of feudal duty truly stretch the bounds of credible belief. That's part of the humor in his character because Sir Edric definitely doesn't deserve it. For instance, "Dog" is not his real name but something Sir Edric decided on because he didn't like Dog's real name. Nor does he get any credit or appreciation. Without Dog, Erick would never accomplish or survive half of the stuff he does.
He is an example of Good Is Not Soft as he is a courteous fellow that still kills enemies with little hesitation.
His past is mysterious because he has skills that do not coincide with some him being some random commoner.
Personally, I see Edric as a supporting protagonist and Dog as the hero of this story. He's much more traditionally heroic with his loyalty, bravery, and feats of daring do, etc. except he is Edric's sidekick. Yes, it is a strange blend of roles which one of the things I like about this book.

 
Lysander is the third character to span both stories. She is an elf sorcercess assigned to assist Sir Edirc on his first adventure, and make sure he doesn't abandon his quest. She is a Celibate Heroine who wears a Dangerously Short Skirt. She appears to follow a standard Defrosting Ice Queen arc but still thinks him a cowardly sex-obsessed jerk in the end. Her humor comes in the form of her being a sheltered academic unused to adventuring, and the banter she has with Edric over his unwillingness to aspire to noble action.

 
POLISH

Both stories look good spelling and grammar wise. However, there is one thing in the second book that is odd.


There is this scene at the start of a chapter that comes out of nowhere. It is not connected to the previous chapter and does not connect to the following scenes. It is an argument that does not have any basis in previous conversations; "how dare you! Have you no respect?" I don't see what that refers to. It can't possibly refer to tripping over an invisible object and the response would make no sense in context. It involves a permanent shift so I can't dismiss it as a Big Lipped Alligator Moment. There is even a text-breaker area of blank space between it and the next scene that suggests it is isolated.

Trickster Eric Novels gives "The Adventures of Sir Edric" an A+ for Temple of Doom, a B+ for "Treasure" and an A+ over all.

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


Click here for my next book review (request): The Nosferatu Chronicles - Origins

Click here for my previous book review (for fun): Medieval Towns - a reader

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 30, 2018

Read for fun: Medieval Towns - a reader

"Medieval Towns - a reader" is a book from one of my college classes. It is only recently that I've had time to fully read it.

This is a book of primary sources related to urban communities in Europe from the Late Roman Period to the Late Medieval Period. It covers mostly Western Europe: British Isles, Iberian peninsula, Italy and Sicily, and the eastern parts of Germania.

It covers a broad range of subjects: economy, religion, marriage and families, social conflict, entertainment (which is mixed with "civic ritual"). The documents available to them vary from court documents and chronicles to private diaries, and from personal letters to royal proclamations. Each one is sandwiched by a paragraph giving background information on it, which I assume to be written by the editor, and a group of questions about it. I presume these are meant to be discussion questions because the answers to many of them are not contained within the documents themselves.

I found them interesting. As a novelist, I expect to make frequent use of this book whenever my story takes place in a medieval European setting.

Something like this is too outside my standard grading system to give an official grade, so I'll just given it a "Pass +".


Click here for my next book review (a request): The Adventures of Sir Edric


Click here for my previous book review (also for fun): Sword Art Online volume 9

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).