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Wednesday, 26 September 2018

Final Fantasy Type-0 by Hiroki Chiba, Tetsuya Nomura & Takatoshi Shiozawa

In addition to enjoying books, I am also a bit of a keen gamer. Not a very good one, mind you, as my hand-eye co-ordination and reflexes are about what you'd expect from someone with a desk job whose primary hobby is reading. One genre of game that I do get on with is the humble RPG, especially if it's one with turn-based combat. Take that hand-eye co-ordination, I didn't need you anyway. A prime example of the genre that I have never had a chance to play is the Final Fantasy series, so when I got a manga adaptation of one of their spin-off games, Type-0, I thought that this would be a prime opportunity to see if I would like to try this game in the series.

Final Fantasy Type-0 follows the cadets of Akademeia's Class Zero, an elite group of twelve students whose magic is unparalleled in their country, to the point where they are considered to be a myth by many. But their strength is tested when, shortly after two other elite cadets transfer to them, their country is attacked and they find themselves at the centre of the battlefield.
Adaptations of games tend to be one of two things. On the rare occasion, they are things of beauty and comparable in quality to the original product. Much more commonly, it's a complete dud for one reason or another. Final Fantasy Type-0 is unfortunately in the latter category, simply because I had only the barest idea of what was going on. As I haven't played the game, I can't judge how much gameplay the manga covers, but it feels like there is far too much being crammed into a tiny space. In the first chapter alone, the reader is expected to remember and recognise 12 separate characters with little to no introduction, when they are introduced mere moments before entering a big chaotic battle scene. It's far too much to take in in one chapter, and you can figure out who maybe a couple of characters are.
It's kind of a pity that the creators decided to take this route, for two reasons. Firstly, you can see that there is a lot of lore that could be lovingly expanded on and explained properly with more time and space. As it is, cool concepts are introduced and just sort of left for the audience to ponder by itself. For example, in the main characters' country, the crystal that gives them magic also makes them forget people who have died. There's a line about how it's to stop people being held back by fear and grief, but it the development it gets is nowhere near enough for such an arresting idea. Hell, you could make an entire book about that alone, without even getting to the other stuff that Type-0 is trying to look at.
Secondly, it frustrates me that such good artwork effectively goes to waste on a story that is all sound and fury, but no real substance. I might not have known or understood what the hell I was reading, but it was hella pretty to look at. If this had been the start of a slower, better paced manga, then this art would have been the cherry on top.

Final Fantasy Type-0 is very pretty and has a lot of cool concepts to explore, but it tries to do way too much in a single volume of space, leading to a confusing mess. Honestly, I wouldn't mind getting into the lore of this more, but I'd prefer to do that through the game rather than this. I hope that this makes at least marginally more sense if you read it post-game. 1.5/5

Next review: Balam, Spring by Travis M. Riddle

Signing off,

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

The Stone Road by G. R. Matthews

After my first experience with TBRindr and G. R. Matthews, I was quite looking forward to revisiting both. I was also curious to see how The Stone Road would compare, seeing as the last book from G. R. Matthews was very firmly in the science-fiction genre, whereas this looked to be closer to the Wuxia genre. Something so different in tone, I wanted to see how he pulled it off.

War has raged between the city states of Wubei and Yaart for thirty years, and a delegation from Wubei has been summoned to try and broker peace. For two men, the treaty will be an important turning point in their lives. From Wubei is Zhou, a junior diplomat who is desperate to forge peace by any means, both for personal advancement and to ensure that his infant son can grow up never needing to fight and die for his homeland. From Yaart is Huang, a soldier who has just been recruited into the Jiin-Wei, an elite group of soldiers, magicians and spies, and has been given his own orders about how to influence the negotiations.
I really liked The Stone Road, more than I was expecting. Wuxia is a genre that has long fascinated me, but I've never really known where to start with it. While this is probably not a proper example of the genre, it's close enough given the circumstances. So let's start with the good points of The Stone Road. First, there are the two main characters, Zhou and Huang. On the one hand you have Zhou, who is largely well-intentioned, but stubborn and opinionated enough that he seems to make enemies wherever he goes, while Huang is a lot more realistic about his place amongst his superiors, but is beginning to experience doubt and guilt about what he must do to protect his home and family. On balance, I do prefer Huang as he seems more prepared for everything that transpires, but there are a lot of parallels between the two men that I would be fascinated to see develop in later books.
Second, there was the plot itself. While I won't go into spoilers, I will say that The Stone Road covered a lot more than I was expecting when I first started it. The diplomacy part covers only a fraction of the novel, and the rest is several months' worth of fallout from its conclusion. With such a big scope, there is the risk that the narrative could get a bit winding and self-indulgent, but Matthews manages to keep it tight and punchy throughout.
There were a couple things that bugged me a little, but they're not huge issues in and of themselves. The first is that unfortunately in my copy there were a couple of editing flubs, the most egregious being a word missing from the end of a sentence, that kind of highlighted that it was a debut independent novel; much as I am a firm believer that indie novels are something to keep an eye on, it's the sort of mistake that would be ironed out by a professional editor. Not enough to make me want to stop reading, but it does disrupt the immersion somewhat.
The second thing that bugged me was the magic system described in The Stone Road. Magic is introduced pretty early on via the Fang-shi, a group of what are essentially court magicians, who seem to be able to channel innate magical capabilities via talismans and symbols. So far, so good. A bit vague, but it had enough structure to please me. Then about halfway into the novel, people called Wu are introduced, who have some kind of strong link to their animal counterpart in the spirit world and can call upon this spirit to enhance their abilities and cast other magic. With that, I am now confused about how the two are meant to co-exist. Are they tapping into the same power source, or are they totally separate? If they are tapping into the same power source, why bother with Fang-shi when the Wu seem to be so much more useful? I suppose that there will be more explanation into this as the books continue, but it does sort of bother me, having two apparently incompatible systems of magic in the same place and time.

Definitely a series that I would like to keep an eye on. The characters are well-written, with some pleasing parallels that I imagine will be expanded on in later editions. The plot is full of intrigue and a lot more scope than I was expecting. The only thing that bothers me at the moment is the two different, equally vague magic systems that don't get as much time devoted to them as I would like. Still worth a moment of your time, especially if you're fed up with Medieval Europe as a fantasy backdrop. 4.5/5

Next review: Final Fantasy Type-0 by Hiroki Chiba, Tetsuya Nomura & Takatoshi Shiozawa

Signing off,

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Pirates! by Celia Rees

I have had Pirates! on my bookshelf for a long while, having originally read it when I was back in high school. I remember enjoying it at the time, and as I was feeling nostalgic I thought that I'd give it another read and see how it holds up against my older brain.

Pirates! follows Nancy Kington, the daughter of a sugar merchant, who is forced to move to her father's plantation after a storm that simultaneously ruined her father's health and fortunes. Dismayed by the treatment of the slaves that have funded her comfortable lifestyle until now and by how quickly her brothers are willing to marry her off to maintain their fortunes, she decides to run away and try to reunite with her sweetheart, William. Accompanied by one of her late father's favourite slaves, Minerva, she joins a pirate crew to try and outrun those pursuing her, and to pursue her own fortune in kind.
Re-reading Pirates!, I can definitely see why I enjoyed it as a teenager. The main cast of characters are sympathetic and interesting, and there is a lot of swashbuckling adventure to be had. Nancy is a bit of a worrier and a bit prone to melancholy, but a decent enough sort to be stuck with as a first-person narrator. If I'm honest, I always stayed because of Minerva, the fearless slave-turned-Pirate Queen, who rocks a set of breeches like a pro. I'm pretty sure she may have set off my personal love of cross-dressing women just in time to be introduced to Shakespeare's Twelfth Night and I will be forever grateful. There are a few other colourful characters to be found in the crew. There's Broom, the roguishly charming, if a tad bit dense, pirate captain. There's Graham, the morose doctor whose sensibilities are more suited for the damp of the British countryside than they are for a pirate ship roaming the Caribbean. And of course, there is the relentless antagonist, Bartholome the Brazilian, a mysterious figure who seems to have an almost satanic attunement with the sea and its treasures.
The main issue that I have found when re-reading this book as an adult is that it now seems to lack bite, and the romance seems a bit tacked on. While I found that the plot seems to hold up overall, I've since read and seen pirate stories that are more ruthless, more bloodthirsty and just overall more exciting. Reading Pirates! as an adult, I could see just how much the setting had been watered down for its audience. I don't necessarily think that that's a bad thing, considering the audience that the book is aimed at, but it was something that I hadn't taken into consideration with this re-reading. I would definitely still recommend the book, but perhaps not to those whose tastes are more hardcore.

Thoroughly enjoyable and definitely worth a recommendation to any young teens that you may know. It may come across as a bit tame and safe if your tastes run to the more violent or bloodier end of the spectrum, but is still a fun enough romp if you have the time. 4/5

Next review: The Stone Road by G. R. Matthews

Signing off,

Friday, 7 September 2018

Silent City by G. R. Matthews

My thirst for new books is never-ending and probably ill-advised at this point, but it has prompted me to join a group called TBRindr, which matches reviewers with indie authors who are in need of reviews. And I was soon to get my first request, from an author by the name of G. R. Matthews. He has sent me two books to look at, the first of which is Silent City

Silent City follows Corin Hayes, a down-and-out ex-soldier whose only remaining comfort is to be found at the bottom of a bottle. Following the murder of his daughter and a subsequent industrial accident that he was responsible for, he has been living paycheck to paycheck. One day his regular drinking spot is intruded on by Devra, a representative of the corporation running the underwater city that he lives in with a tempting offer: a regular job that makes use of the valuable skills that he came out of the military with. But on his first job with them, he soon finds things going horribly wrong. 
Sometimes you hear horror stories about books that have been independently published, particularly with regards to lack of quality. So I'm quite glad that my first review for TBRindr has been such a solid entry. I'm going to start with something that I don't usually focus on first: the worldbuilding. For me, Silent City hits pretty much the perfect note when it comes to developing his world and balancing it against the characters and plot. My main complaint with a lot of books that have very strong worldbuilding is that the characters and plot can seem underdeveloped or boring in comparison, which is rarely what you want to read. With Silent City, there weren't the sort of long and complex information dumps that make me want to throw a book across the room. Additionally, it was a setting that I haven't seen explored much, which makes me intrigued to see more of it. A severely diminished humanity that must hide in pressurised domes beneath the sea, with no hope of returning to a surface that has been poisoned beyond human intervention? I am so there, thalassophobia be damned. 
That leaves the plot and characters. The plot is going to be rather difficult to discuss without quickly getting into spoiler territory. I will say that, on the whole, I enjoyed it and found it quite tense in places. I would have liked a few answers at the end, but as this is the first in a series I think I can forgive a bit of mystery being set up. 
Which leaves characters yet to tackle. Silent City is a first-person narrative, and it definitely falls prey to one of the primary problems with this particular point of view: beyond the main character, Corin, the characters aren't really fleshed out all that much, and what we do get is coloured by Corin's personal biases. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be nice to get a better idea of who some of the other characters in this interesting world are before they get their lungs crushed by massive water pressure. As for Corin himself, he is the sort of character that wouldn't look out of place if he were transplanted into 1930s America or other setting suited to the Noir genre. He's hard-drinking, dour and down on his luck, but stubborn and tough enough to fight his way through the sticky situation that he manages to find himself in. Not the most original of characters perhaps, but he's well-written and has a potential soft centre that could be entertaining to uncover. 

Silent City is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and is definitely worth a look. The characterisation is a bit thin at the moment, and the plot seems to largely be set-up for later in the series, but for a first book in a series I'm willing to forgive a bit of mystery. Any flaws that the book may have are balanced out by some truly stellar worldbuilding, which combines all the griminess of cyberpunk with the majesty and terror of the sea. I'd be more than happy to continue the series. 4/5 

Next review: Pirates! by Celia Rees 

Signing off, 

Monday, 3 September 2018

The Orange Eats Creeps by Grace Krilanovich

The Orange Eats Creeps was a book that I've been intrigued with for a while, if only because of the unusual title and blurb. I was definitely getting a Chuck Palahniuk vibe from it, so I was kind of looking forward to it, but otherwise I wasn't really sure what I was getting into.

A girl with drug-induced ESP, one of a group of self-described slutty teenage vampire hobo junkies, describes her life hitching rides across the Pacific Northwest. While her companions seem content to slum around gas stations and convenience stores, she intends to use her ESP to try find her runaway foster-sister and establish whether she has been murdered or not.
I still have very little idea of what happens in The Orange Eats Creeps despite having just finished it. Of all the books that I could have read as an audiobook, this one seems the least suited for it. The problem is that the book has a very strong voice, but a significantly weaker grasp on plot and continuity. So there's a distinctly teenage-style voice narrating a series of very similar scenes at convenience stores, punk concerts and scuzzy shared digs, which makes it all start to blur into an indistinguishable morass of sex, drugs and teenage apathy. I'm all for a strong voice in writing, but it needs to be grounded in something like character or plot, otherwise it's the literary equivalent of shouting into the void. Maybe that's appropriate for this book, but it doesn't lead to a particularly fun time.

A strong voice, but it doesn't have the same strength when it comes to plot or characters, or anything else that you are likely to care about. Admittedly, this was possibly the worst choice of novel for an audiobook, but it made for some serious spacing out moments. 1.5/5

Next review: Silent City by G. R. Matthews

Signing off,