Sunday, May 28, 2006

Review: Forbidden Cargo

Look no further sci fi readers, anime fans, and casual video gamers, because this is your summer reading book.

Rebecca K. Rowe's Forbidden Cargo is a fun page-turner that's heavy on the action.

Despite what the preview may have readers think, this is not a Space Opera. It seems more casual cyberpunk. In places, it brings Neal Stephenson's excellent Snow Crash to mind, but Forbidden Cargo is a less ambitious story with a tidier ending. A little bit Final Fantasy, a little bit Armitage, even a touch of TRON.

Two female nanogens from Mars are kidnapped and brought to Earth. There they become tangled up in a political power play and the after-effects of a morally questionable experiment with smart-intelligence. They search for each other and a way to return home while getting involved with fly games, religious movements, and love.

On the whole the plot is solid. It contains twists and turns that are usually explained. Rowe has a lot of characters, and the book spends chapters with each one. This allows Rowe to move the individual threads forward while never losing sight of where her characters are.

However, for the first one hundred pages the effect is a bit disconnecting. It isn't until the plotlines begin to combine that I feel I have enough time with each character to settle into their story.

My favorite plotlines revolve around the Cadet, Sashimu and Prometheus. These are Rowe's interesting and well-developed characters. Their personal and intersecting plotlines prove the most enjoyable to read. They deal with the Cadet's quest and gaming career, Sashimu's attempts to locate her "sister," and an AI trying to solve a koan.

Whenever Eastern philosophy is presented to western readers who aren't familiar with it there's an opportunity for confusion. Rowe, however, shines. She handles the potentially complicated matter with grace and ease granting it a satisfying and comprehensive conclusion. Rowe also combines Greco-Roman and Japanese mythos to create a fusion mythology that subtly yet effectively works within her story. I particularly enjoyed her use of tengu and kappa, finding the instances added to the anime atmosphere of the book.

Unfortunately, Forbidden Cargo occasionally suffers from the problems of most summer blockbusters that are heavy on the action.

The romantic subplots are predictable, but provide necessary motivation. This is worth mentioning, as in other places character motivations seem undeveloped or unexplained, which results in character behaviour reading as a tad contrived. Hopefully the fast-moving plot will keep most readers from noticing these instances.

For the most part the dialogue is tight—simplistic. There's a lack of flowery speech in future Denver. The language becomes formal when appropriate—usually when characters speak to members of authority or persons of higher class. Various exchanges throughout the book suffer from slightly weak dialogue. Although it's not necessarily "bad," it's it's not "great," either.

The exception is by far the best writing in the book, and I hope you'll indulge me as it's worth sharing:
"My dream was to paint his soul alive. Once, Prometheus and I sought to force things into light; now we sink into infinite darkness."

Beautiful.

Most of the concerns I found while reading this book were basic debut novel blues. Awkward structure, incorrect grammar—that sort of thing. While they distract me from reading, they're forgivable in a first novel.

However, the one thing that I could not overcome is the names. For example, the main protagonist's name is "Sashimu." "Sashimu" is obviously composed of Japanese phonetics, but my attempts to translate it fail because it's not a real name. It is, however, one letter off sashimi (raw fish,) which I constantly misread the name to be.

I think the issue with "Sashimu" comes from how isn't pleasant to say. It's awkward, and its failure to roll off the tongue trips up your brain as you read it. The same can be said for "Imagofas," the name that Rowe gives to the nanogens.

I'm also concerned by the amount of acronyms that riddle the book. Mostly they're fine and I can see how they add to the world. However, some of them are a little cheesy and read like meanings were attached after the acronym was decided. ICK being the example that immediately springs to mind.

Despite these issues, I enjoyed reading Forbidden Cargo and I felt mostly satisfied with its ending. The moments of greatness outweigh the awkward names. I would definitely read the next novel Rowe writes.

Forbidden Cargo is available now from Edge, Chapters.ca and Amazon.ca and will be on Amazon.com in August 2006.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Review: Living Next Door to the God of Love

I finished reading Justina Robson's Living Next Door to the God of Love. Now, I'll be honest. I bought the book because I read the review on scifi.com and went "that is an amazing title. I will buy that book just for the title."

Some people on Amazon.com have suggested that the title is the best part of the book. I disagree. Damien is the best part of the book. After all, who doesn't love a bipolar a gay elf? I do. However, I wouldn't argue that he should have been in the book more. It was the clever under-use of his character that kept him from becoming annoying. Instead he remained a bright spot that made me go "yay! Damien!" each time he appeared in the narrative.

Ok. Seriously. *ahem* I really wanted to like this book, because it started out so strong. One of its strengths is a collection of well-developed characters. (Yet, I can't help but feel that the first-person perspective is conning me into feeling more connected to them that I really should have.) So points to Robson for that.

Also points for a deeply developed setting. The world is crystal clear in her mind, a breathing place of multiple dimensions. I just wish it was as clear in my mind. This is apparently a second or third book in a universe she's developed—no I don't know what the first one was, no I don't know if it's connected.

This created a huge problem for me, as many concepts go completely unexplained. I'm still not sure what an Engine is, or how a Sidebar relates to Earth. I'm not clear on how you get between them. I thought I understood what a Forged was, but if I had to explain it to someone, I don't believe I could.

I don't think it's a matter of Robson being unable or unwilling to explain. Lord knows that with about fifty pages to go she spends fifteen slapping in a heavy-handed bit of exposition. This disappointed me, since for the beginning of the book she'd been so good about not spewing backstory across the page. It just seemed...lazy. I didn't believe the set-up for receiving this information, but the worst thing about the backstory: I found I would have rather read it than the story I was reading.

Oh, sure, a puppy licks your face at the end of the book... but the (non-)events that lead to this "happy" ending are vague and unexplained.

This book makes me think of the first season of Lost. Well-produced, great character-driven writing, lots of building up with various intriguing events and concepts. Then we go into the hatch (re: reach the end of the book) and it falls flat because all those questions don't seem to be answered.

That's what Living Next Door to the God of Love felt like. Cool character-driven writing that ultimately disappoints because....nothing happens. I don't have a sense of the events causing a lasting impact on the characters.

I love character driven writing, but I also need there to be some kind of ultimate destination . Especially in a novel that seems to be building towards a universe-altering climax.

Bottom line? Unlike Lost, there's no following seasons to expand and/or answer the mysteries presented to the reader. There's just this disappointed feeling that I was going to go to Disneyland, but when we got there all the really good rides were shut down for repairs.

Living Next Door to the God of Love is available from Amazon.com, Amazon.ca, and Chapters.ca.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

KH2: Spoilerific!

33? hrs hours into the game.


Worlds passed through:
Prologue (with Roxas)
Twilight Town
The Tower of New Shiny Clothes
Hollow Bastion
The Land of Dragons
Beast's Castle
Brief return to H.B./100 Acre Wood
Olympus Stadium
Disney Castle
Timeless River
Another stop at 100 Acre Wood
Port Royale
Olympus Tournament 1
Agrabah
Twilight Town
Hollow Bastion
TRON 1
Hollow Bastion Heartless War
100 Acre Woods
Land of Dragons
100 Acre Woods
Beast's Castle
Olympus
Port Royale
Halloween Town
Agrabah
100 Acre Woods
Pride Lands
100 Acre Woods
Atlantica First Chapter
Atlantica Second Chapter
MiniGullwings in H.B.
Atlantica Third Chapter
Pride Lands
Atlantica Fourth Chapter
Atlantica Final Chapter
Hollow Bastion
Tron
Twilight Town

Currently:
World That Never Was (DUN DUN DUNNNNNNNNNN)

Worlds Remaining: Sidequests

Plot Points:

So I tried to fight the secret boss—it's Sephiroth, btw. He kicked my level 52 butt. :(

No shiny happy keyblade of mass-destruction for me, and off to Twilight Town I go.

In Twilight Town the girl who has Selphie's hair is all "omg, Goofy, it took us like 10 hours but we remembered that the blue crystal you have is totally the same as the one in the trophy. And you have my coin purse, so OMG, there has to be another Twilight Town that you got that stuff from."

You know what's awesome? The people in Kingdom Hearts 2 have the most incredibly magic computers. Their computers can transport you to alternate version of Twilight Town. You know, like the version Roxas was in the prologue. And Sora's all "wow, I am having a flashback of Roxas beating the crap out of this busted up computer. This is so his world!"

(Roxas flashbacks make me happy.)

And it's really easy to use the computers, because all you have to do is remember that everyone in the game likes to eat Sea Salt ice cream. (WTF.) I'm amazed Sora didn't shove Pence out of the way and go "I can do this, dude, I totally know how to contact Tron."

Oh yeah, and Mickey's there but he keeps taking off and reappearing magically in cutscenes.

Finny f***ing fun, Axel shows up, is bad ass and then gets killed. In attempt to impress Sora, my favorite redhead puts all his being into one attack and clears like... 1000 nobodies. See, if he was the main protagonist, it would have just been a boss fight and hitting the green triangle again and again would have done most of the work.

But, proving he's the best character in the game, he goes out joking about how his heart wouldn't be in it if he went to see Kairi with Sora. Because Nobodies don't have hearts! Oh Axel, you card, you're worse than my characters.




Awww... Axel. :(

I don't care that he's probably Riku's Nobodie and by default a Sephiroth Clone, I liked him. He had a sense of humor. A weakness for bad puns, true. I'm just upset that in the battle where you fight against Nobodies with him, there's no special limit break. I would have loved to see him and Sora do a combo move together. I may have even been able to forgive his expected death if there'd been sweet combo action, because he'd gone out in style.

To further taunt me, after Sora goes to the World that Never Was—which is the coolest thing in all of KH2, btw. Fantastic design. Neon and darkness, skyscrapers, a heart-shaped moon, and...ok...the castle is stupid-looking, but maybe it's better inside.

Donald and Goofy get held back by samurai Nobodies, who are controlled by Roxas. (I can't recall which ones are Axel's.) And Member XIII shows up, complete in his wicked coat. Sora's all "Hey, who are you?" and The other guy in his best I Am The Ghost Of Scar Voice goes "Someone from the dark." And Sora's all "RIKU YAY!" and he's all "I beat a Riku once." And Sora's all "OMFGWTFBBQ NO WAY." And he's all "...dumbass." And proceeds to wail on Sora with dual-keyblade action.

So they fight, and XIII totally owns Sora. No, he pwns him, and Sora's there with his keyblade pinned down and held away and the other keyblade at his throat.

He's a little freaked out because it takes him a Dramatic Moment to realize 'oh yeah, I can call the keyblade to me in a golden pixel flash. DUH!'

Which he does, and somehow XIII completey forgets that 'Wait, he can call the keyblade to him a golden pixel flash. DUH!' and gets slashed. So he drops his dual keyblades and they disappear to ... uh... I guess it's a little pocket demension where Keyblades are kept while you're running around and stuff. You know, Keyblade Space. (Yes it makes perfect sense. So does Love DNA.)

XIII takes off his hood and he's—Cloud Strife! No, he's not. He's Roxas. Please, 30 hours isn't long enough to make me forget what I saw in the prologue. I think, finally, there will be some resolution. In my head, this moment of greatness goes kind of like this:

Sora: "Wait, you're Roxas?"
Roxas: "..."
Sora: "I've been searching for you..."
Roxas: "...I've been with you all along."
Sora: @_@
Roxas: *leans forward and does that annoying hand motion that even Lion Sora does when he's making a point* "I'm your Nobodie. Roxas is an anagram of Sora with an 'x' added. You knew that, right?"
Sora: "...OMG KEWL."
Roxas: "...yeah. I'm the darkness that's in your heart, Sora."
Sora: "Hey... you beat Riku?"
Roxas: "Yes, I'm only a nice person when I've been given your personality by DiZ and then stuck in an alternate Twilight Town while Naname uses me to rebuild your memories like she said she would."
Sora: "OMFG I BEAT RIKU. KICK ASS."
Roxas: "Listen, I'm explaining to you the whole plot of the game. Do you think you could pay attention?"
Sora: "Wait, how come I can't have two keyblades unless I'm in drive form, but you get two all the time?"
Roxas: "Look, you need to wake the hell up and go save Kairi."
Sora: "Can I have your raincoat?"
Roxas: "...dude, I need this, I'm off to get drunk with Ri—Axel."
Sora: "...wait, Axel is Riku's Nobodie?"
Roxas: "Yeah, dumbass, didn't you notice?"
Sora: "..."
Roxas: "OMFG. You so need me to defeat Xenmas, because you're a moron!"

But that's not what happens. That's not even close. Sora, who has a PHOTO of Roxas doesn't recognize him because he's WEARING DIFFERENT CLOTHES.

Roxas looks at him and goes "You make a good other." Which is a vague way of saying "Hi, I'm your Nobodie, but I wanted to beat the crap out of you to know why you get to be the main protagonist and I only go to be in the prologue. But I've decided you're a kick-ass fighter, even if you're a moron, and I'm all happy we got to meet even though it means I'm totally melding with you RIGHT NOW."

He disappears, Sora returns to the real world and is all "hey, who was that guy, and hey what did he mean?"

To which Donald and Goofy inform him that he "disappeared" and they had to fight off Nobodies on their own. Basically, what could have been an incredibly poignant moment is reduced to "...wow, I forget to take my meds this morning, guys!"

I think this might be what de-resolution means.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

KH2: Whoa, Tron, no hugging...

29.5 hrs hours into the game.


Worlds passed through:
Prologue (with Roxas)
Twilight Town
The Tower of New Shiny Clothes
Hollow Bastion
The Land of Dragons
Beast's Castle
Brief return to H.B./100 Acre Wood
Olympus Stadium
Disney Castle
Timeless River
Another stop at 100 Acre Wood
Port Royale
Olympus Tournament 1
Agrabah
Twilight Town
Hollow Bastion
TRON 1
Hollow Bastion Heartless War
100 Acre Woods
Land of Dragons
100 Acre Woods
Beast's Castle
Olympus
Port Royale
Halloween Town
Agrabah
100 Acre Woods
Pride Lands
100 Acre Woods
Atlantica First Chapter
Atlantica Second Chapter
MiniGullwings in H.B.
Atlantica Third Chapter
Pride Lands
Atlantica Fourth Chapter
Atlantica Final Chapter
Hollow Bastion
Tron


Currently:
Radiant Garden

Worlds Remaining: 2 (Twilight Town, & the Land of Boss Fights)

Plot Points:

After doing a world tour, Sora's up to... maybe level 52. But that secret boss that I was supposed to be at 60 to beat? Well, it's not level 60. It's level 80. (WTF.)

Anyway, returning to HB the computer went crazy and was trying to destroy the town. So into computer land we went to stop the MCP.

Man, the 80s were awesome, weren't they? When we thought we could get sucked into video games and forced into the game grid. Oh yeah, and if we lost, we were de-resolutioned. I mean, really, WTF is de-resolution?

And why do older men keep hugging Sora? Although Tron was the first time that the kid look uncomfortable about it. Like whoa, computer program, don't shove your digital bits up against me.

So Tron becomes the new MCP or something and Sora then tickles him by banging random keys on the keyboard. Am I the only one who remembers what happens when Cloudspawn (re: Roxas) touch computers? They break them.

Of course, no one bothers to get Sora to stop messing about with the computer because he saved their butts—yet again.

I guess it goes to show the culture difference between Sora and the previous generation. Squall went to some academy, which explains his technical skills, and the FF7 people lived in a high-tech world, whereas Sora lived on Destiny Island and never had to go to school. The most technologically advanced stuff he had was his clothes.

Anyway, the town is restored to its former glory of... weird luminiscent shit falling from the sky like a nuclear winter. I'd like to point out that Cid, Squall and Cloud at least look believable with their reactions of "...oh this stuff again."

The town changes to Radiant Garden, perfectly timed with Aeris's revelation that was its former name. (Wow, Cetra powers at work. Those Ancients can do amazing things.) The fact that there's no garden doesn't seem to matter. I guess the radiant part comes from the radiactive debris that's beamed into the air so it can rain down on the populace.

Year Two

Yesterday (Friday) marks one full year of dreaming in red.

366 days, four drafts of book one, almost half of the first draft of book 2, some art, a whole lot of KHII mockery, and a more than healthy amount of whining.

Yet, one year later, I sit before the same screen, type on the same keyboard, and find myself making the same excuses.

It's a long, slow process. 1 year of real time is like 5 years of cyber-time.

But enough looking back, and let's not bother wasting time on daydreaming about the future.

That's the thing about dreaming, it happens in the now.

Friday, May 05, 2006

KH2: Sora shouldn't sing, either

29.5 hrs hours into the game.


Worlds passed through:
Prologue (with Roxas)
Twilight Town
The Tower of New Shiny Clothes
Hollow Bastion
The Land of Dragons
Beast's Castle
Brief return to H.B./100 Acre Wood
Olympus Stadium
Disney Castle
Timeless River
Another stop at 100 Acre Wood
Port Royale
Olympus Tournament 1
Agrabah
Twilight Town
Hollow Bastion
TRON 1
Hollow Bastion Heartless War
100 Acre Woods
Land of Dragons
100 Acre Woods
Beast's Castle
Olympus
Port Royale
Halloween Town
Agrabah
100 Acre Woods
Pride Lands
100 Acre Woods
Atlantica First Chapter
Atlantica Second Chapter
MiniGullwings in H.B.
Atlantica Third Chapter
Pride Lands
Atlantica Fourth Chapter

Currently:
Atlantica (This Had Better Be The) Final Chapter

Worlds Remaining: 4 (Hollow Bastion, Tron 2, Twilight Town, & the Land of Boss Fights)

Plot Points:
Y'know, I'm running out of worlds... and the guidebook says if I want the OMGWTFBBQAMAZINGSHHHHSECRETBOSS Keyblade Sora has to be at level 60 or something. How am I supposed to get him up 13 levels? It takes an hour of wandering around smacking things to get him to go up one.

In fear that Pride Lands and Atlantica might make a return in KH3 (yes, there are rumors of it being in production, and Square/BVG would have to be stupid not to continue with a series that's making them so much money,) with the aid of my friend Chris, we've complied a list of substitute worlds:
The Emperors New Groove (llama sora)
The Black Cauldron
Pocahontas
Cindrella (Sora has to help her get her chores done in time for the ball.)
The electric light parade level (where you go blind)
The Matterhorn (where you have to fight the heartless yeti)
Its a small world level (with heartless dutch children)
the shaggy dog/flubber level
Sora and Cloud take part in the Freaky Friday level.

...and for your reminder about Old Walt not being a nice man:
"They could always do a Song of the South level."
"yes sora becomes a tar baby and uses a racist keyblade"
"I think they'd refer to it as "Anti-Form." "

Plot. Right. I should pretend Pride Lands had some relevant plot, but that would reek of justifying why it was in the game.

It was lame and I hate Lion Sora so very very much. Almost as much as I hate Square/BVG for trying to brainwash me into liking the concept. Simba was doing a Cloud Strife impression (re: sulking around and occasionally telling Sora that he couldn't fathom the depths of his emo.) Or wondering what Vadar would have done to get rid of the Scar ghosts.

The ghosts appeared in a Organization XIII-ish doom oily black void of reality. But they were not from Organization XIII. You know why? Because the Organization said "there is no way in hell we are going to be in something so lame as Lion Land. Screw you."

Then Sora used his "I am Scar" voice and somehow managed to sound like Axel. It was so WTF that I momentarily forgot how much I hated the world.

Uh...Atlantica... I've blocked it out, to be honest. It was late and I tried to just focus on what button to push in order to clear the stupid musical minigames so I wouldn't have to hear anymore singing unless it was Utada Hikaru. (Organization XIII also said "there is no way in hell we are going to be in something so lame as mermaid happy land. Screw you." My respect for their evil non-Disney ways grows with each passing hour.)

To illustrate how unenjoyable the past couple hours of KH2 have been... the highlight was when mini-versions of the heroines from FFx-2 yelled at Sora and threatened to take all his items, then gave him a keyblade that was weaker than the one he has. That's right, Dolphin Sora and Lion Sora have out-lamed YuRiPa. The game I refused to play because its main protagonist went around filling out her GARMENT grid so she could transform a la Sailormoon into pretty clothes to do battle.

Oh, there's also Robin Hood, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lady and the Tramp, 101 Dalmatians, Dumbo, The Aristocats, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, Treasure Planet, The Fox and The Hound, The Great Mouse Detective, Atlantis, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, The Incredibles, The Computer Who Wore Tennis Shoes, the Parent Trap, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and The Love Bug.

Really, Disney. There is no excuse for Lion Sora to ever torment me again.