Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Sarah Hoyt's Darkship Revenge

Have you ever sat in a cab at three in the morning with no fare in the back reading when you should have been taking a nap? Have you ever gotten home from a thirteen hour shift driving a cab knowing you only had five hours to sleep before you went back and did it all over again and sat starting at words on a cell phone screen anyway? If not I'm guessing that either:

A.) You've never read Darkship Revenge by Prometheus Award winner Sarah Hoyt.
B.) You don't drive a cab and work midnights.
C.) Both.

First the disclaimer: This is the third book in a series.  I think it would work pretty well as a stand-alone but I've read the first two.  The reader may want to start with Darkship Thieves and Darkship Renegades. Then again,  you don't really NEED to unless you're anal about reading a series in publication order like a certain blogger we all know and lone.  *COUGH*

The story centers around Athena Hera Sinistra, daughter of Goodman Sinistra, ruler of one of the seacities in Hoyt's future Earth. Athena is an interesting character, possibly in the sense of the ancient Chinese curse. She was raised to be a body donor for her father. He did what he had to do to attempt to control her. It didn't work very well. I wouldn't want to be the guy who tried to control Thena. I guess that makes me smarter than him. Then again, Daddy Dearest was gene-engineered to be smarter than the rest of us, sooo... yup. Smarter than anyone who would try to control this chick. She's a little out there. But what do I mean by a littler out there? Either she is;

1.) Totally off her rocker (I don't believe this but she seems to.)
2.) A little "off" (Totally possible)
3.) A sociopath who somehow manages to care about her family, if not anyone else (I'm thinking no, but some of Thena's thoughts about herself seem to tend in this direction)
4.) A hardcore pragmatist who  ignores humanistic concerns (This sort of works, but not really. She does act like her nuclear family and her in-laws. Also, her treatment of the boys in the story is both pragmatic and humanistic.)
5.) The only sane person left (This options scares the hell out of me. What she does works too well to be crazy, but if THIS is what sane looks like...)

Since Wonder Woman was my last review, let me say this as well: This is how you do an empowered female character. Thena is a take-no-prisoners, no-holds-barred type who sees what needs to be done and does it. She won't take know for an answer and she survives things that would kill most people. Thena doesn't give up when she has a goal in mind, ever. She has the protective instinct in spades and she cannot be stopped when it comes to defending her own.

Thena has a child in the first few pages of the book and, while she doesn't think she will make a good mother, she actually does in her own fashion. I mean, I'm not sure that having an infant strapped to your chest during a firefight is all that great of an idea even if you can't find a babysitter but Thena manages to do it without getting either one of them killed so... It's all good... I guess? Right?

The supporting cast is also impressive.  Thena's husband Kit lives and breathes as much as if he were sitting next to you on the couch. The kids Thena and company end up saving come across as true to life as well.  I started out wanting to hate these kids but the time the story was over I wanted to adopt one.  (I'll admit that it didn't hurt that they had named themselves after famous fictional characters.  OK,  so maybe I'm a little testy about a story that includes a Christopher Robin but no Tigger but I'll get over it.)  Nat, Luce,  Simon all seem real. I could almost feel the stress these guys were going through myself.

The story itself has a relentless pace. I've heard it said that if an author feels their story becoming boring they should drop a mountain on their characters. Well, I'm guessing that Hoyt believes in pre-emptive strikes and that the Himalayas are missing a few peaks, because the hits keep coming and the action doesn't stop.

Part of why I like this story is because I love a good villain and Hoyt's Good Men are the type of person I can totally love to hate.  Anyone who would send down a plague to wipe out most of humanity in order to enslave the leftovers is worth killing.  What they do to the children in their care is quite frankly disgusting as well.  Hoyt has obviously taken great care in gifting us with people we can root against.  She's done a damn fine job. It's not often that an author can make me hate a group of characters badly enough to want to choke them all to death but Hoyt manages it with aplomb.

The technology in Darkship Revenge is either really cool or horrifying. Gene-engineered space plants that grow power pods that you can run a city with are sweet.  Characters fly around on anti-gravity powered brooms. Flying cars are everywhere. And of course,  the plio revolves around defeating a biological weapon that is devastating.

There is one facet of Darkship Revenge that drives me batshit insane.  Hoyt's characters shoot at each other with weapons called burners.  They're kind of a cross between a phaser pistol and a welding torch.  In and of itself that's okay.  The problem emerges with the unbelievable shooting skill her characters display under pressure.  I mean, the miracle head shots displayed in  The Walking Dead make me crazy but what these characters do with burners is at least an order of magnitude more difficult.  That being said,  it's called The Rule of Cool for a reason. All in all though,  this book kicked ass.

Bottom Line: 4.75 out of 5 Brooms

Darkship Revenge
Sarah Hoyt
Baen,  2017

Darkship Revenge is available at the following link:

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Writing From a Different Perspective - Guest Post by Jon Del Arroz

A question I get asked a lot from reviewers of For Steam And Country is: Is it weird to write from a first person perspective of a sixteen year old girl?
The answer is yes. It took me several passes to actually dial in what Zaira Von Monocle’s perspective would be, and I had to work extremely hard to get her to the point where she’s the fun character in For Steam And Country that my advance readers tell me they love.
I’m going to give a little peek behind the curtain as to my learning as a writer, and my process as I came up with all of this, in hopes that it is both interesting to readers, and potentially helpful to newer writers.
When I first conceived the novel, I knew that I wanted to write a Steampunk fantasy, to create a fantasy world of kingdoms and airships, alchemy and swashbuckling, high adventure that most books in the steampunk genre had shied away from. Most books in the genre either went going something darker and grittier, or dipping further into romance. I also wanted to make it somewhat YA (I consider the finished product a tweener between YA and regular fantasy, though it’s perfectly suitable for all ages), which I thought would allow me to take a lighter tone.
YA fantasy novels take the first person perspective more often than not, allowing for a real sense of feeling like you’re inside the head of the protagonist, or at the very least sitting across from them while you take high tea. A recent trend has them in first person present, which makes people really feel in the action, but I didn’t want to go that far, as it’s very few and far between I read a book in the present tense that doesn’t annoy me.
I actually had this plan to write in the first person perspective from the onset, getting to worldbuilding and character creating. In keeping with YA, I wanted to keep the protagonist young, and also to the market, having a female perspective seemed the way to go. I looked at the idea and thought, “wow, do I really want to write a 16 year old girl in the first person?” It sounded pretty daunting, and like it required a lot of work to keep realistic. Once I looked at the job from that perspective, I viewed it as a writing challenge to myself.
Very little gets me motivated like a challenge, competition, even if it’s something as small as posing the question to myself if I could pull something off. In fact, a lot of my best work comes out of such challenges. It sounds silly, but in writing, self-motivation is about the most important skill you can learn. It’s hard to go through scenes, especially some of the heavier ones, and it’s much harder to edit. If you have other goals that trick yourself into feeling like a game, then you’ll more often than not breeze through something that seemed at first like a chore.
And this turned out hard to do, not in the sense of it took me a long time to write--I actually had so much fun with this world and with these characters that I breezed through my first draft-- but when I went through it the first time, the character didn’t come across as a good protagonist at all.
In my figuring this out, I observed teenagers, and tried to remember what it was like to be a teenager myself. Frankly, I found teenagers to be a bit rambunctious, acting without thinking, and extremely low in self-confidence (for the most part, there’s always exceptions). And I wrote my character as such. In my early submissions drafts that I sent out to agents and editors, the character whined a LOT. She was combative, teasing her love interest a bit too hard. Honestly, it felt very realistic to me from what I’ve seen of a lot of teenagers, but those behaviors grate on a reader if they’re too pronounced, and I found that many of the editors didn’t connect with the character because of that.
I later learned the value of connection over realism in writing, something I wish I would have learned a lot easier and sooner. Readers want to see some flaws, some mistakes, but they don’t want that to be overwhelming, don’t want to find a person annoying. And in a heroic adventure, some of those life quirks need to be toned down rather than be presented as too realistic.
I let the book sit for awhile, wrote Star Realms: Rescue Run, and released that to quite a bit of fanfare. When I looked at this novel again, I saw it was close, but I needed to push that perspective character to the next level. I thought of who this character was, and how it would have shaped her so she’s different than just a normal teenager. Zaira’s lived mostly abandoned, on her own except when the neighbors checked in on her. She’s had to work for herself, farm for herself, wash her own clothes, cook her own meals for a couple of years now. That’s a pretty hard life to have 14-16, and one that requires a lot of work. As such, she’d be tougher. The whining had to go. She’d also have a very strong sense that she could do anything herself, including going in and doing things like flying an airship (minor spoiler, but I think you probably figured out that airship flying occurs by this point!). That has negative effects like stubbornness, which provide for some good conflict that a reader can relate to more. With those major facets of her personality in mind, I rewrote the book. And this time, everything clicked.
Even though there were heavy rewrites, I flew through this last pass because I made a character that was compelling and fun for me. And that’s what it takes to make something compelling and fun for a reader.
Authors often strive too hard for realism, to the point where it makes a lot of works bland and boring. Something that we can’t connect with because we’re not wishing we were in that person’s movie. And that’s what the author has to create. We as readers want people to rise up and be heroes, to meet challenges, to exceed expectations. That’s why we escape into fantasy in the first place. Realizing that changed my world, making Zaira Von Monocle into the farm girl-turned-hero that she ended up being in For Steam And Country. She’s still got her inexperience, but her wide-eyed sense of wonder and being willing to take on big challenges makes her a fun protagonist. I hope you enjoy reading about her as much as I enjoyed writing her.
Jon Del Arroz is the author of the Alliance Award nominated and top-10 Amazon bestselling Space Opera, "Star Realms: Rescue Run." His second novel, "For Steam And Country," is just out. He hails from the San Francisco Bay Area, is a guest contributor to the Hugo Award-nominated Castalia House blog, and regularly posts to Twitter: @jondelarroz @otomo

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

DC's Wonder Woman Starring Gal Gadot

(*SIGH* Before I get into the fun  part, especially with this being a DC Comics related post, I have to share my thoughts on the passing of Adam West. I want to cry. I've been a fan of his since before I can remember. One of the local independent TV stations used to carry Batman episodes back to back on weekends. I've always loved them. So Godspeed Adam West. That's another piece of my childhood gone.)

(I got to go with my kiddos! Check us out in our 3D glasses!)

For the longest time I've been a DC movie hater. Seriously. I'm guilty. I will admit to a bit of an obsession with Wonder Woman though. I watched the live action TV series in re-runs as a kid. I loved the Super Friends/ Justice League cartoon. I haven't watched a Batman movie since the Clinton Administration. I'm a blatant Green Lantern fanboy but I was disappointed by the GL movie. For whatever reason, though they go this one right. And not just a little right. Wonder Woman was everything I wanted the GL movie to be and more.

I'll be honest in stating that I was a bit disappointed that the movie was set in World War One as opposed to World War Two, when Wonder Woman's birth took place in the comics. I'm not a true hardcore purist but I do have enough purist tendencies that I was  bit annoyed with such a massive change in timing. That lasted about ten minutes into the movie. I don't want to give too many spoilers but the story just worked.

Wonder Woman has always been a story with one half based on Greek myth and the other based on the real world. The movie exemplified that. When  you've got an invasion of the island of Themyscira  by the German army (the World War I version, not the Nazis) it can't be anything else. German troops are from the  real world. Themyscira is from myth. Poison gas is (horrifyingly) from the real world. Ares, God of War, is from Greek Myth. I could go on. There is a point here though:

The Wonder Woman mythos has always depended on the ability of the writer to blend the two worlds well and here they've done it flawlessly. The blend is seamless. I'd say they transition back and forth well, but the bottom line is that there is no need for the TO transition. They two are straight up blended. The writers did a wonderful job with this script. There are no two ways about it.

Oh, and another thing: If Wonder Woman doesn't win the Oscar for best special effects someone needs their ass kicked. Someone as in, like, the entire Academy. If there is a problem finding someone to do it, I will volunteer as tribute. Everything about this film looks gorgeous, from the Lasso of Truth, to the explosions, to the poison gas, the costuming, everything. The fight between Diana and her target is epic. I hate to say it, but I'm almost wondering if they stole some people from Marvel because this movie is beautiful.

Of course the true key to any adaptation of Wonder Woman is the title character herself and Gal Gadot knocks it out of the park. She is Diana, Princess of Themyscira. She has the look and the personality just right. The only actor I've ever seen play a super hero this well previously is Robert Downey Jr. Yup, you heard it hear first: Gadot plays Wonder Woman as a well as Downey plays Tony Stark. Coming from me, that's high praise indeed.

Granted, Diana grew up on an island where she was the only child and there were no men. She does not have a working knowledge of modern society because she didn't grow up in it. The first time she sees a baby she marks out but it all makes sense. She wasn't raised in a normal environment and so she isn't used to normal things. Gadot plays this part of her character to a t and I'm wondering how she did it.

Of course, a good Steve Trevor always helps as well and Chris Pine nails it. He plays the perfect soldier: The mission means everything. All else is secondary. He falls in love with Diana and makes you believe it. He's got the cocky thing down (and Trevor is both a pilot and a spy, therefore making him cocky as hell) but he's level headed enough to wish he didn't have to fight and he makes you believe all of it. Very few actors will ever fit into a role they way Gadot does in this one, but he comes close.

Any story is improved with a good villain and Wonder Woman delivers those in spades. Whether it's Ares, Greek God of War, a German general who wants the war to continue, to the evil Dr. Maru inventor of a horrifying chemical weapon that can destroy gas masks (and also a woman with a career in STEM) there are plenty of people to root against. It's always good to see the protagonist win, but it's even better when you want to see the bad guys lose. Oh, and speaking of women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics:

I've heard a lot of debate about whether or not Wonder Woman is a feminist movie. Consider the following quote:

"You are stronger than you believe and more powerful than you know" - Antiope to a young Diana Prince

Consider the fact that Diana does things her way, places her mission over the mission of the men she is with (albeit while ultimately believing that her mission is more important and will complete the mens mission for them.) and completes it by defeating a man. Consider the fact that she is expected to fail and succeeds anyway. This is a woman who takes her own counsel, who does not back down when confronted by anything and who does not let anything deter her from her path. Diana is a woman who kills a Greek god using only her own innate power. In short, this is a feminist film.

Yes, I've heard the complaints that Wonder Woman is not a true feminist because she is a straight white woman and in good shape, but check facts: It is not necessary to be a fat lesbian person of color to be a feminist. I'm not generally a fan of expecting kids to find their role models in the entertainment industry, but if my girls go that route I want them to watch this movie and see something to emulate. Yes, this is the message I want all young girls everywhere to hear: You can be what you want, do what you want and achieve anything with or without a man.

It's worth noting that both of my daughters loved this movie so much that they thanked me for taking them when we went on Saturday, then again when I saw them on Sunday and again when I saw them today. My youngest was a bit scared of the poison gas scenes (Honestly, so was I. I've read about what that crap can do.) and even the older of the two called them "creepy". They're both kind of right but this movie wouldn't work if it was all wine and roses.

My only complaint her is kind of lame, but I'm going to put it out there anyway. This is an awesome film. It needs a sequel. I'm not sure where they left room for one though. The main villain is deader than disco. His two accomplices have been wiped out. There is no unfinished business. Dammit, I want another Wonder Woman movie. DC better figure this out and get me one. You finally got one right DC. Follow up. And for the sake of all of your fans PLEASE use the same writer and director. You can still screw the next one up. I would prefer if you didn't.

Bottom Line: 5.0 out of 5 Bullet Proof Bracelets

Wonder Woman
DC Entertainment, 2017

Some Wonder Woman related merchandise is available at the links below:

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Christopher Nutall's Ark Royal

What happens when humanity becomes confident that they're the only species in space and gets comfortable? What happens when no one plans for conflict with an alien race? How about if humanity is so worried about border skirmishes with other Earth nations that they're not looking outward for trouble? Well, if they're in Christopher Nutall's Ark Royal they start off getting their asses kicked. It makes sense.

Ark Royal features a few classic tropes that just make my day. The first and most obvious is old-ship-comes-out-of-mothballs-to-kick-ass. I like this trope, but Nutall does it better than most, simply by providing a reason that the Ark Royal is able to light it up. Simply put the Ark Royal is armored. The new ships are not. The older ship can take a beating that would leave nothing of the newer ships but a debris pile. I like the trope and it's even better when it makes sense. Nutall got this one straight as well.

Ark Royal is a tale of redemption not just for the ship but for her crew and her captain. The vast majority of the crew was stationed on the ship because they were problems. Commodore Sir Theodore Smith is the captain of the ship... but he should have been cashiered because of his drinking problem. He starts off the book hung over and craving another drink. He manages to bring himself back from the abyss though. The whole crew does.

In a weird sort of way (and I'm not sure if Nutall intended this or not) the redemption of the crew is also the redemption of humanity. The human race has become complacent. It has done nothing to protect itself from outside attack. Humanity has not armored its carriers. It has no workable plans in place to protect itself from attack and no one trained to handle a peaceful first contact. Yet, when the Ark Royal's crew gets itself together, things get better for the Earth. The first victories against the aliens are led by a recovering alcoholic and his misfit crew.

It's odd too that the Ark Royal is a ship of the British Royal Navy but is put together from parts of only God and her captain know how many various nations. Honestly, I'd almost bet that the captain would have to sit down and count. This reflects the fact that all nations of the Earth are going to need to work together to repel the alien threat. Again, I'm not sure if Nutall meant it this way or not but the ship again takes on the mantle of the entire human race. The juxtaposition is a fascinating aspect of the story. I'm just not sure it was intended.

Nutall's alien invaders are mysteries throughout this first book. I like this approach. The humans know nothing about their enemies. They just know that these things showed up and started killing people. They're not even sure why or what the enemy wants. They work out how to fight them based on trial and error. It's all they can do. I am often a fan of the reader knowing things that the protagonist does not but this time I think Nutall has done the right thing.

Now, I will grant that there are eight books that follow this one (Ark Royalis the first in the series) and at some point I hope that Nutall makes more of the alien thought process known to his readers. That only makes sense. In an ongoing series more will most likely be revealed. I just started this series though, so I can't comment on whether or how it happens.

The combat scenes in the book work well. It helps that the aliens aren't stupid. The Ark Royal has a weapon that the ships they've fought previously have already abandoned and it catches them flat-footed.It makes sense in the context of the story. Just as important though, is the fact that the aliens respond and find an intelligent way to fight back. This leads humanity to adjust their tactics... and so on. This is how wars actually work in the real world though, so that makes sense. Both sides use whatever information they can find about the other side against them.

Commodore Smith's superiors don't trust him as much as he would probably like and that makes sense too. He is a known alcoholic. It's interesting though, to see how the loyalty of the people under his command shines through when they're asked to spy on him. It's twice as interesting to watch how the perceptions of one particular character change over the course of the book. Nutall does a good job showing the interlocking and sometimes conflicting duties and loyalties of a member of the military. Loyalty is key but it's not always clear which loyalty is more important. Nutall shows this clearly and his characters agonize. It fits. The battles with family/marital loyalty make sense as well. He even teases a problem with for the next book. I'm betting dollars to doughnuts that I've figured out at least part of it, but I could be wrong. I haven't bought it yet. (Sorry, Mr. Nutall. Rent was due.)

Smith and crew are hardcore and resilient. They think outside of the box. In short, they're precisely what they need to be to defeat a force that superior in both technology and numbers. It's often a close run thing but they fight and/or find a way through. Their missions turn out at least marginally successful because they refuse for them not to. This is a crew you can really admire. I'd go to war with them.

I'm trying to find something to complain about and it's just not working. I'm not going to say that this is a perfect work of Science Fiction but there are no MAJOR flaws that I could detect.I was never thrown from the story. The only characters I found annoying were the ones that were supposed to be annoying. I'm no expert on the tactics of space combat but everything in the book made sense from a fan's point of view.

Bottom Line: 4.75 out of 5 Mass Drivers

Ark Royal
Christopher Nutall
Self Published, 2014

Ark Royal is available at the link below: