Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Rogue One

It takes some extra skill to put together a story when everyone already knows the ending. I think the Rogue One folks did a fine job.
This newest Star Wars film takes place prior to A New Hope. It follows Jyn Erso, the daughter of an engineer forced by the Empire to work on the planet-destroying Death Star. She and various rebellion irregulars track down her father, discover that he has sabotaged the project, and go into the lion's den to get the details to the Rebel Alliance.

We've already known for nearly four decades how the story is going to end, since A New Hope starts with the Death Star plans already in the hands of Princess Leia. (RIP Carrie Fisher...the news of her death broke on the same day I saw this movie.) Rogue One takes full advantage of the fact that nearly every viewer is going to know that story. There are lots of familiar people and places and things that show up as Jyn's story unfolds, from C-3PO and R2-D2 to Darth Vader to the princess herself (pretty decent CGI on that). The journey doesn't end happily ever after for everyone, which might have been depressing if we didn't know what comes next.

Having said that, I also enjoyed the story that Rogue One told beyond just looking for the ways that it links to the larger Star Wars story. Jyn is a flawed heroine, involved in the conflict more for revenge and following her father than for the ideals of rebellion. Just about everyone that accompanies her on her journey is a misfit or outcast of some kind. The story is as much about those misfits coming together to get a job done as it is about setting up A New Hope.

One thing you don't see much of in Rogue One is Jedi. There are references to the Force, and one character who has at least some Jedi skills, but this story takes place in the time when Darth Vader has largely exterminated the Jedi Order. It's a stark contrast to most of the other Star Wars films, where being or becoming a Jedi is almost always a central theme. I was pleased to see that Rogue One worked out well without them.

Just about anything Disney puts out under the Star Wars name is going to make plenty of money, but between Rogue One and The Force Awakens, it seems they're trying to make decent movies as well as cashing in. As long as they keep that up, I'll keep watching them.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Holiday Loot 2016

Happy Holidays! I hope everyone had time to reflect on friends, family, and the meaning of Christmas. And now that we're done with that, on to the loot!
My parents kindly sent me a cash gift that I could use to obtain a new tablet, since mine died a few months back. I did a brief poll of some friends and decided on an ASUS ZenPad 10. It's not the most powerful or feature-rich tablet, but all I really want is a good-sized quality display suitable for reading comics and playing simple mobile games (i.e. Star Realms). This tablet fills that need admirably, at a reasonable price.
From my brother, a fine paper book! Literally and in terms of subject matter. Most of what I've been reading recently has been in eBook format, so this will be a nice change of pace back to basics. And it goes nicely with The History of Writing series from Extra History, which I just finished watching the other day.

I also participated in a Secret Santa gift exchange this year with some folks from the QT3 forums. For my part, I shipped gifts all the way to Norway. The distance meant it was a good idea to keep it small, so the only physical item was a small model Viper ship from Battlestar Galactica - my giftee is a fan of the forum game based on that show. I also added some Kindle books (no shipping costs there): a cookbook full of video-game-related recipes and a couple of sci-fi novels.
From my secret santa came some reading and listening material, along with notes mentioning that some of the posts on this very blog helped with ideas. Star Trek - Ships of the Line is a 350-page book of artwork featuring all sorts of ships from the Star Trek universe (gift idea inspired by this post). The Amory Wars is an epic sci-fi comic collection, which I'd never heard of but looks very interesting. Even better, it comes with an accompanying metal album of songs related to the story! Coheed and Cambria frontman Claudio Sanchez is also the writer of the comics. Looking forward to checking out the set. (Update: There was also Randall Monroe's Thing Explainer book! It came a couple of days later in a separate box.)

Hope everyone out there had a Christmas as enjoyable as mine - happy holidays!

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Nordic Symphonic Metal

This has been a good year for music discovery, mostly through my Spotify subscription.
My tastes have run mostly to melodic and symphonic metal this year. Back in February, I went to a Nightwish concert. That led me to track down the work of Delain, who had been one of the opening acts. With input like that, Spotify's discovery lists found several other similar artists. My favorites to this point are Amaranthe, We Are the Catalyst, and The Murder of My Sweet.

It's pretty easy to see why all of these bands ended up on the same playlists, when you consider the similarities. All have female vocalists, and most have lots of songs with alternating male/female vocal parts. Lots of classical influences in the music, implemented with metal's heavy guitar lines and driving beats.

All those bands also happen to all be from Nordic countries. Something in the water up there produces symphonic metal, I guess. At first I thought that would mean opportunities for live music would be pretty rare, but there are actually quite a few tour dates in the US. Judging from the show lists that I've glanced over on their websites, most seem to spend about a third of their tour time here. I've got my eye on a few dates next year, mainly in the Chicago area.

I'm pretty sure I've barely scratched the surface of the genre. So far I really haven't looked beyond whatever recommendations Spotify tosses at me. Even so, I've got an awful lot of music that's new to me to listen to.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Star Realms: Rescue Run by Jon Del Arroz

Star Realms: Rescue RunStar Realms: Rescue Run by Jon Del Arroz
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought Rescue Run largely because I like the Star Realms game and wanted to support it. The book is set in the game's universe, though the linkage pretty much ends there. The game's fleet-building mechanics aren't really reflected in the book, though players will recognize plenty of names.

Leaving aside the Star Realms tie-ins, Rescue Run is a decent if not particularly imaginative story. Renegade thief is collared by the powers-that-be and forced to join a dangerous mission against an evil oppressive empire - seen it before. The empire in this case is a corporate entity, and the renegade is a somewhat insecure woman rather than the usual cocky ladies man, so it's not entirely a generic formula. There's a love story embedded, of course, with a sheltered-but-empathetic scion of the evil empire falling for the renegade. The characters go through plenty of hard-to-believe close calls and lucky escapes, which is to be expected in this kind of against-all-odds storyline.

As far as game tie-in novels go, Rescue Run is pretty good. The overall story arc and themes were a bit too generic for my taste, but the writing is well executed. Certainly if you're interested in delving into the Star Realms universe, it's worth the read.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Station ElevenStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Station Eleven is set in an alternate-reality dystopia where the present-day world has been ravaged by a massive epidemic that wipes out 99% of the human race. It follows a small group of people both before and after the event, jumping back and forth between the recognizable world of today and the post-apocalyptic struggle for survival.

I didn't get the feeling that this novel is really about the disaster that wipes out most of the world's people. There's no real mystery about the epidemic, which happens almost immediately in the early chapters. No serious attempt is made to explain where it came from or why, just a vague reference to the "Georgia Flu" (the country, not the state).

No, this book is about relationships between the characters, and (for those that survive) how they deal with the new world. I found those characters to be well-defined and interesting to follow, for the most part. It's easy to feel a sense of empathy for both people we see only before the epidemic (like Arthur) and those who survived and struggle to build a new life (like Kirsten).

Unfortunately, the story's format makes it somewhat difficult to stay connected to those characters. It keeps moving back and forth across time - years before the epidemic, the immediate aftermath, twenty years after. I think the author was trying to set up a sense of mystery about how the people we see from the earlier times become those we see later on, but if that's the case then it didn't work for me. There are way too many small hints that make it obvious who "the prophet" is, for example. Or where Kirsten's comic books came from. The eventual explanations are anti-climatic since they're so obvious. I think it would have worked better with less back-and-forth across time, instead focusing on following one or two of the characters more closely.

I still enjoyed reading Station Eleven, even if the back-and-forth-across-time format wasn't to my taste. It's well-written, with a interesting exploration of how people might deal with such a massive change in the world.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Fiction River: Unnatural Worlds

Fiction River is a series of anthologies from WMG Publishing. The first one published was Unnatural Worlds, back in 2013. I recently read it after picking it up in a Storybundle.
Before getting to the stories, a bit about the publication. In the foreward/introduction, editors Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch write about the (then new) idea of Fiction River. Both had worked in publishing in the past, decided it wasn't for them, and had solid success as authors. But the rise of crowdfunding via the Internet mitigated the financial risk of putting together an anthology project, and the editors were able to commission stories by authors from their own personal networks. Fiction River is a good example of new technologies driving innovation in an established industry.

I was pretty sure going in that many of the twelve stories would be solid since I recognized the authors. And this was in fact the case, with names such as Esther Friesner and David Farland, plus stories by each of the editors. I'd not encountered most of the other authors before, but given the experience of the editors, I wasn't surprised to find that I enjoyed most of their stories as well.

While the theme of the anthology is stories that deal with different worlds, the stories treat that theme very differently. Some are literal, such as Devon Monk's Life Between Dreams, where the characters actually walk across multiple worlds. Others are more symbolic, dealing with characters that come from different worlds, such as Ray Vukcevich's Finally Family.

My personal favorite is Esther Friesner's The Grasshopper and My Aunts, which was fairly predictable since I've read a bunch of her books. It's written in Victorian-era style and deals with Greek myths living in the English countryside. Quick moving and humorous throughout.

I like the idea of the Fiction River anthology series, and there's plenty more of them by now. Unnatural Worlds is a good opening effort. I'll probably seek out some more of them in the future.