Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace

Envy of Angels (Sin du Jour, #1)Envy of Angels by Matt Wallace
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Everyone else sees a legion of undead clowns worshiping a giant chicken, right?" If that sentence makes you want to read more, then Envy of Angels is the book for you.

If the modern world was home to fantasy races (goblins, demons, etc), and they had formal events just like normal folks, then they'd need someone to do the catering. That's the basic premise behind the Sin du Jour series, of which this is the first book.

Wallace writes with a light and humorous style, suited perfectly to the fantastic-but-not-too-serious subject matter. I ran across quite a few lines worth a chuckle, and the parody of a certain segment of the fast-food industry is great.

I enjoyed all the characters, though none had a lot of depth. That's not surprising in a fairly short book with quite a few different characters. I haven't yet read further into the series, where I expect one would learn more about many of them.

I'll be seeking out more of the Sin du Jour series. If the later books are as good as the first, I'll go through them all and be looking for more.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Cracked! A Magic iPhone Story by Janine A. Southard

Cracked! A Magic iPhone StoryCracked! A Magic iPhone Story by Janine A. Southard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from a book with "Magic iPhone" in the title, to be honest. Urban fantasy, to be sure. An immortal elf, not too surprising. Set in Seattle, that fits (if not as obvious as Silicon Valley would have been). And less-than-ideal romance, sure, that works in any story. But there's less focus on either the magic or the technology than I would have expected.

The focus of Cracked is much more on relationships, particularly the three main characters. Morena and Suzyn dominate the first half, and Magic Guy (that's the aforementioned elf, who is fine with the nickname) makes it a trio later on. Morena spends a lot of energy on romance, but that's not really what the story is about. It's about friendship, and realizing that while everyone may need someone, traditional romance isn't the only solution.

There is magic involved in the story, of course, but it doesn't dominate. Morena and Suzyn never even acknowledge that it exists. The iPhone of the title plays a large role in driving the plot, but it's not until late in the book that the magic is really front-and-center. For most of the story, there could have been no magic at all, if you allow for some pretty strange coincidences.

The novel is set in Seattle in 2013, and there's a lot of specific references that make sense in that context. I suppose in 50 years it might be difficult for younger folks to relate, but right now it works just fine. It certainly helps if you're familiar with the Pacific Northwest, but I don't think it's necessary. Enough is explained that anyone should enjoy a good portion of the references, even if some of the more subtle things go unnoticed.

The story is a fairly quick read, and easy to follow. There's not much in the way of page-turning action or suspense, but the characters are enjoyable and well defined. I found myself happy to keep reading to find out what they'd do next. Give Cracked a try, and you'll likely find yourself doing the same.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Blood Blockade Battlefront

Blood Blockade Battlefront is an anime series about an alternate New York where a hole to another dimension has turned the city into a crossroads for all kinds of non-humans, mixing with the human population. A magical barrier keeps the intersection between our world and "Beyond" contained, preventing the two dimensions from destroying one another.

The protagonist in Blood Blockade Battlefront is Leonardo Watch, an unremarkable human except that his eyes have been replaced by a powerful artifact that lets him see nearly anything, no matter how well hidden or disguised. He got those eyes when an unknown entity took his sister's sight in exchange, and he's in New York looking for answers and to find a way to help her. Leonardo joins a group called Libra, a secret society that works behind the scenes to curb dangerous magic and non-human attacks. The other members are much more skilled in terms of fighting prowess, but Leonardo's vision is a huge asset in tracking down threats. He also meets a brother-sister pair who call themselves White and Black, who have a similar history to his own.

There's a good balance in Blood Blockade Battlefront between advancing the plot, developing characters, humor, and action. Some shows focus on one or two of those things largely to the exclusion of the others, and that can work fine, but I appreciate that the writers put the effort into using all those aspects. The humor in particular is often understated and dry, but fits in well, usually at the expense of one character flaw or another. Action encompasses not just fighting but also other scenes, like high-speed chases. Actual fighting is largely limited to the combatants shouting names of their "secret techniques" at one another. Not my favorite style, but it's not over-used here so I can put up with it.

Blood Blockade Battlefront reminds me a bit of Monogatari, in a few different ways. Both deal with confronting supernatural threats outside the public eye, use some pretty strange visual aspects, and have occasional weird perspective shifts. All of this is much less pronounced in Blood Blockade Battlefront than it was in Monogatari, though. The character types and development felt similar to me, too. However, there's no harem aspect and more action in Blood Blockade Battlefront, which is all to the good. If you liked Monogatari, there's a good chance you'll like Blood Blockade Battlefront too.

I enjoyed this first series of episodes for Blood Blockade Battlefront, and look forward to the second set later on this year.

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Great Pumpkin Runs 2017

The folks who organize The Great Pumpkin Run stay busy in the fall, organizing races in ten different cities this year. I went to two of them, near Lansing and Grand Rapids.
Both events took place at cider orchards. Early in September, I drove over to Uncle John's Cider Mill north of Lansing. And a few weeks later at the end of the month, I went up to Klackle Orchards in Greenville, north of Grand Rapids. It took me an hour or so in each case, since I live south of Grand Rapids.

Both of these cider orchards are popular family outing places even when there's not an event like The Great Pumpkin Run. Play areas for the kids, band stages, cider and donut vending, etc. Fortunately the races happen early in the morning before the rush of regular visitors arrive. I'm glad I signed up for the early race waves, because there were a ton of people showing up even as I was finished and leaving. Traffic was pretty heavy, especially at Klackle.

The race routes went through apple orchards, as you'd expect, as well as pumpkin fields and some forest trails (in the case of Uncle Johns). Part of the Klackle course even went through their corn maze. Probably not going to set any personal records on those courses, but they're a fun change of pace from road routes. My GPS said that both courses were a bit under five kilometers, which was probably intentional as there were a lot of twists and turns, plus the finish lines were uphill from the starting area.
For the adventuresome, runners could sign up to carry a pumpkin around the course. I have enough minor back pain without carrying extra weight while running, thank you, but I saw quite a few other people doing it. One guy had a huge pumpkin that he had balanced on one shoulder as he made his way around the course. Weird, but impressive.

Always nice to have a little cider at the end of a run, and the orchard routes are interesting as long as it's not raining. The Great Pumpkin Run was fun, though I probably won't do two of them in future years. One per year is plenty!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Orconomics: A Satire

Orconomics: A Satire (The Dark Profit Saga, #1)Orconomics: A Satire by J. Zachary Pike
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since it's right in the title, it's no surprise that Orconomics: A Satire pokes fun at the high fantasy genre. It's more than just a parody, though, with some interesting extrapolation of what could happen when such a world runs into some of the more sophisticated and manipulative ideas of the modern world.

The world that Pike has built in this novel has all the familiar underpinnings of high fantasy. Many races - Elves, Dwarves, Goblins, and so on - roam the land. Wizards throw fireballs and delve into forbidden magic. Kings and queens and various heirs to thrones are (at least nominally) in charge. Heroes of all stripes go on quests of all kinds. A pantheon of gods, some modern and active, others ancient but never totally forgotten, are served by temples and priests. The author makes quite a few references to other such worlds - Tolkien's Middle-Earth, role-playing games like D&D - so there's no doubt of the foundations.

This world, though, has progressed further than the typical high fantasy setting. Technology is mostly the same, largely in the medieval era, but other areas of society have innovated. The hero profession has been institutionalized and drives the economy. Powerful financial houses invest in heroic quests and wield great economic and political power. Manufacturing of magical items is done at scale with assembly-line techniques. Traditionally evil races (orcs, goblins, etc) have begun to integrate into society.

The story follows a small company of largely disgraced heroes, who are forced together by circumstance to join the followers of a mad goddess. Motivated by the opportunity to regain their status in society, the group takes on a quest and stumbles through repeated danger. Interpersonal relations in the party are tense at best, but improve over time, and eventually the group works together well enough to complete their task. At which point it all falls apart, setting our heroes against pretty much all of society.

I liked pretty much all of the main characters, who start largely as fantasy stereotypes and then develop more depth. I thought Pike did a fine job capturing the feel of a misfit adventuring party, and then giving the reader reason to care about each of the less-than-perfect characters. Even the least likeable (for me, the "bard") have redeeming moments.

Pike's writing style fits nicely into the story and setting. There are a few awkward placements of jokes that fall flat (at least for me), but that could just be differences in sense of humor. On the whole, I found the book to move along at a good pace with plenty of interesting happenings along the way.

Orconomics was a fun read, though I suspect anyone not familiar with high fantasy worlds might feel a bit lost at some of the references. Pike is writing a sequel, which I'm certainly interested in taking a look at once it's finished.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Hidden Figures (movie)

I'm a sucker for pretty much anything to do with space travel. Hidden Figures takes place at NASA in the 1960s, so it definitely falls into that category. But it's the extraordinary story of black women overcoming racial and gender stereotypes that really drives this film.

Three women standing in the foreground. In the background a rocket is launching.
As a computer nerd with a moderate interest in history, I'd heard of Dorothy Vaughan, a supervisor and self-taught programmer who worked with the first computers at NASA. Only the basic outlines, though, without much of the personal detail that the movie shows. And the stories of Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson were entirely new to me.

There's a lot of casual racism and sexism portrayed in the film, as you'd expect when the setting is the early 1960s. In quite a few spots, I found myself thinking "I'm sure glad we're past that" - segregated fountains, separate coffeepots, refusing to let a woman into meetings, colored-only bus seating, etc. But then there were other parts that I think haven't changed as much as I'd like. Mistaking Katherine for a janitor, for instance. Or high-level decisions being made in meetings consisting entirely of white men. Anyone who thinks that society has moved past the issues portrayed in this film needs to look a bit more closely - there's been progress, but there's still plenty to be done.

The tension of the space race and cold war is worth noting, too. For people of my generation and older, it's not all that remarkable - we grew up with the Soviet Union always out there, with nuclear holocaust looming if either side blinked. But anyone who can't remember the world before 1991 has never known that tension, so references to "duck and cover drills" and the fierce patriotism felt by the entire country when opposing the Soviets has got to be an alien concept. I thought the movie did a good job of portraying this, though of course I'm not exactly the target audience.

As with most historical movies, not everything is perfectly accurate. I'm no expert, but I did read a few articles afterward about where the movie made some changes. From what I found, I think the film makers did a fine job of making sure the concepts were communicated, even when they couldn't use the exact people or events. And when they did follow the historical record, everything I read said that they did an outstanding job.

I really enjoyed Hidden Figures, and recommend it to anyone. I hope it's a part of inspiring the next generation of mathematicians and engineers, regardless of who they are or what they look like.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept.

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. tells a story of politics, intrigue, and long-lost royal scions on a vaguely old-world-European fictional continent (shaped for some reason like a bird).

ACCA Volume 1 Manga Cover.jpg
The series takes place in the kingdom of Dowa, which is divided into 13 territories which are mostly autonomous. An organization called ACCA provides most of the essential services in the entire kingdom, operating mostly independently of the monarchy. The main character, Jean, is an ACCA inspector who visits each of the 13 territories in the course of his job.

Each of the territories is a themed caricature - a desert region with only mining industry, a super-fertile region where everything grows to huge size, a Las-Vegas-like tourist region with casinos, etc. Much of this is just side flavor in the story, but two territories in particular have more significance. One is Furawau - a Middle-East-style region with large oil reserves, made very rich by that bounty of natural resource, and controlled by a single large family. The other is Suitsu, where travel restrictions and a very strict division between nobility and commoner have resulted in economically poor conditions and rebellion.

The story takes enough twists and turns that it's not easy to talk about it without spoilers, but it's probably no surprise to anyone that Jean gets caught up in intrigue that affects the entire kingdom. This takes the form of a coup, timed to prevent the ascension of a new ruler to the throne. Prince Schwann, the heir apparent, is dismissive of ACCA and plans to dismantle it. The powerful figures behind ACCA have no intention of going quietly.

In the last few episodes, particularly the last one, the path the story took isn't particularly credible. There are a lot of plot twists, which are very exciting but not very believable. Perhaps with a bit more explanation and/or groundwork to set up the sudden shifts, it would have felt more realistic. As it was, it felt like deus ex machina at the end.

ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. has some fairly pointed commentary on social and political systems. Condemnation of the restriction of freedoms in Suitsu is an obvious one. Strength through diversity is emphasized, as ACCA incorporates people and resources from all 13 territories. The dangers of autocratic rule is a central theme, both in terms of the kingdom monarchy and the hereditary control in Furawau and Suitsu. At the same time, there's a heavy emphasis on maintaining culture and tradition, exemplified by the fact that no one advocates actually overthrowing the monarchy - just replacing the prince.

There are some fairly silly side themes in ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept., too. Many of the characters have a fascination with sandwich bread, which for some reason is only made in the Badon territory. Jean is a heavy smoker in a society where almost no one else smokes, and giving him gifts of territory-specific cigarettes becomes a plot device. These sorts of things add a lighter side to the series - silly, yes, but I think it mostly worked well to balance out the heavier intrigue plot points.

I thought ACCA: 13-Territory Inspection Dept. was reasonably good for a short series, despite what felt like clumsy writing in the plot twists at the end. Not bad if you like the intrigue theme.