Veteran (2010)

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Gavin Smith’s Veteran makes me think that sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too. It’s an ultra-violent tour de force through a not-near-but-middle-to-slighty-far-away future that, a few decades ago, would have read like a dystopian satire but is entirely played straight. It has a never-ending war with strange aliens, a human conspiracy that has some of the best worst guys I’ve seen for some time and it even manages to sneak in some neat discussion of civil responsibility, the values of democracy and the role and toxic influence of idea’s of masculinity that still pervades our culture.

Mind you, Veteran is not subtle. It goes from 100%-velocity action to full-stop philosophical discussion and then back to the violence. It’s odd pacing-wise, but I did like the talky parts among all the action. And not everyone will agree that it actually manages to have its cake and eat it too, as for some the ultra-violence elements will completely negate anything the book says about toxic ideas of manliness, and vice-versa (some will definitely not like such a discussion intermingled with all the neat action).

For me it worked wonderfully. It’s exactly the right mix of pulpy-adventure and heady thoughtfulness I appreciate in science fiction, even if it doesn’t exactly cover new ground. But sometimes looking at old ideas and talking points from a different perspective and voiced in a simple yet not-stupid way is pretty cool.

Also, lots of big guns, augmented humans up to the wazoo, a penultimate finale that evokes traces of Bester’s Stars My Destination finale where humanity at large gets to decide their own fate, though in this case by setting free the ultimate panopticon society. It’s a pretty wild ride.

Midnight Taxi Tango (2016)

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Almost all long-running urban fantasy series have a larger story arc, and whether the individual volumes succeed that don’t advance the larger story depends often on how good and interesting the design of the monster-of-the-volume is. And while the enemy creatures in Midnight Taxi Tango, the 2nd of the Bone Street Rumba series, are nifty from a purely aesthetic viewpoint, they aren’t exactly exiting in terms of characterization, just some ugly creatures for the heroes to blast away.

Another thing that Older does in the second volume is that he tells the story from the viewpoint of three characters, and from my experience it’s usually the moment when most UF series go astray. Yes, never changing or playing around with POVs is highly formulaic, but this part of the formula is one of the primary reasons why I enjoy reading UF so much.

That said, Older does manages to give each of his three characters unique inner voices, and both of the two new viewpoint characters are interesting. I’m still not sure I like that Older is messing with the formula in this case, but it works more or less (no character is boring, which often makes me want to skip parts with more than one POV in other books) and it keeps you engaged, something that the threat in this volume rarely does, apart from the occasional gruesome imagery (which is probably even more effective if you can’t stand cockroaches).

Compared to the first book, this one feels neither stronger nor weaker. A bit different with some good points and no larger fault than messing with things I don’t like UF authors messing with, yet mostly making it work. For a filler volume it’s pretty good, but admit I would have liked to see Older illuminate the setting more in-depth or advance the bigger plot than this bug hunt.

Half-Resurrection Blues (2015)

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First in a new urban fantasy series. It has some nice world-building that goes some way to make it stand out from the rest of the pack: the main character is half-dead, working for a council of ghosts patrolling (metaphorically) the borderland between the dead and the living.

The plot concerns a unique, terrifying type of creature that seem part of a larger, deadly scheme (obviously, with ghosts around there are worse things than death). There’s also a personal element to the whole thing, as the half-dead main POV tries to find out who he was – before he was killed and came back amnesiac – and his best avenue are two other half-deads, one of whom works for the enemy.

At one point the book was in danger of doing something truly interesting in terms of setting (open the borderlands), but then it backed away from this and instead opted for the more conventional, if still highly entertaining, saving the world business.

Overall, though, is has all the marks of a good UF series I will likely enjoy as long as it runs: neat setting feels fresh, quite good writing, no werewolf-vampire-love triangle and a lots of open questions whose answers will easily string me along.

Clean Sweep (2013)

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This is the first in a series about a magical inn (one among many on Earth) that is open to all the various aliens races, but is a secret to humanity at large. It’s sort of science fiction. Sort of, because it’s entirely filtered through the reading and writing protocols usually associated with urban fantasy / paranormal romance fiction.

The book has vampire and werewolves and many other entities with magical powers and it works like fantasy, but is explained on the surface as science fictional concepts (though most magic is explained as tech so advanced that its almost like magic). There is the usual love triangle common to UF/PR (female main POV, werewolf and vampire love interest) and plot that is right out of an UF novel.

My first reaction upon reading this was that someone has taken Simak’s Way Station, taken out the ambition and adapted it for a different audience. It’s a novel that likes to play in the science fiction playground, but is entirely disinterested in doing anything with it on the plot-level.

This might sound like a negative, but it’s a fun and entertaining read if you don’t expect actual science fictional content. The focus in the first book is to work both as an introduction to all the ‘fantasy’ elements, the inn-system, some of the galactic races and the main characters, as well as to set up plot threads for some of the longer-running plot-lines once the series gets going.

Goth (2003)

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Goth is a typical fix-up novel, a collection of short stories that star the same protagonists and take place roughly in chronological order. It’s about two teenagers who have a morbid fascination with serial killers and their victims, and at times get a bit too close for comfort.

With time the stories go from dark to worse, as it turns out that one of the two teenagers is more than just a bit close (in terms of sharing the same mindspace) to the serial killers they follow and investigate. It helps to stop harm from him and the other teenager, but often the question remains whether he will turn fully dark side.

At one point it seems there’s a trajectory to the overall story-arc, but at the end the book just peters out. It’s still an enthralling and highly compelling read, as the author has pinned down the crazy yet still recognizable human mindset of deranged killers seemingly perfectly (or at least convincingly as far as fictional portrays go). It’s a chilling character study, just missing a good ending.

Killing Pretty (2015)

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The previous book took the meat cleaver to all dangling plot threads and while it was satisfying to see some long-running storylines resolved, it felt pretty final. Where can you go once you manage to beat world-threatening elder gods that are even more powerful than the one big “G” god.

Turns out, the final throwaway line of the last book (somebody killed Death) was more than just a catchy hook and Kadrey managed not only to turn in another excellent Sandman Slim book, but while solving this case introducing lots of new, intriguing possibilities where the series can go that makes me eager to get the next one sooner than later.

Also, it’s cool to see that Stark gets a bit smarter about how he does business (primarily thinking before he starts hitting people) and realizes his responsibilities to his friends, though it’s also fun to see how he still manages to fuck up in hilarious ways (with lots of violence and weird magic thrown into the mix).

The Getaway God (2014)

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The previous novel in the series felt a bit like one step forward, two steps back with no major plot point resolved. As if conscious of that fact, The Getway God makes a clean break, with almost all of the larger, remaining plot points addressed in a highly satisfying way. One past enemy makes a short comeback until he finally bites the dust (again) and the current big boss gets his just desert.

For such a thin book (around 200 pages), it packs a lot of content and reminds you why the series is so much fun to read (ultra-violence, the snarky humor and the plain crazy stuff) and yet Kadrey also manages to give his characters much needed development that makes it feel less like a persiflage of the genre (which it does at times) and much more like an entry the reader can get immersed in for its own sake.

The Curse of Issyos (2015)

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Almost regularly (over the span of a few years) Locomalito has published highly polished retro games that make a lot of commercial attempts at retro games by other indy teams look pitiful. And the most recent one, The Curse of Issyos, is no exception. A great consistent art-style, perfect controls that make the high difficulty bearable, a variety of levels each with their own unique visuals.

The Curse of Issyos is an action platformer with a few action-adventure elements thrown into the mix. As with most Locomalito games, it’s pretty difficult (limited lives, limited continues, but at least a few hit points), but never impossible. You can get two different melee weapons, the spear and the sword, each one useful in different situations. If you find you can’t advance at a certain point, try to get the other weapon to see if it makes a difference. Also there’s a very efficient bow, though ammo is limited.

If there’s one thing above all others I love about Locomalito’s games is the attention to details, from all the surrounding materials he publishes (like the box cover art or the great looking manual) or all the little stuff he adds to his games that just make them such great experiences. For example the overland map in TCoI isn’t exactly mandatory, but its addition shows that even seemingly lightweight elements get their due.

Or the few adventure elements, like talking to other people, the cities and the merchants, all these little things add up and make all the difference. An all the secrets, the little one like hidden coins or the big one, the secret ending you get when you heed the advice about saving one guy, which gives you a new weapon to still the soul flames in the underworld.

The Enchanted Cave 2 (2015)

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Enchanted Cave 2 is a superior sequel in all the right ways. The original Enchanted Cave was a simplistic flash-based, very lightweight roguelike that saw you going down to the bottom of a dungeon for some purpose. Kill monsters, fight the big boss, collect items along the way, you know, the usual.

The sequel is still a roguelike, still very lightweight, still very much the same as the original, but the improvements make all the difference. The original’s levels had, despite some randomization, always the same, very small, square layout with few variations. The levels in the sequel allow for a far wider range of sizes for individual rooms and how the rooms and floors on each level are connected, making for a more organic look and more variety.

Enchanted Cave 2 has a simplistic but effective crafting system that allows for different approaches. You can improve HP regeneration, or instead go for MP regeneration and using spells more often, or you can focus on specific attack or defense effects.

I’m hesitant to call it a pure roguelike, as the game has a sort of metagame going on that allows for some items to survive individual character-deaths, a spell that later on allows you to slip all items past death, as well as a save-function. Still, it’s closer to roguelikes than most games that are called RL’s these days.

Despite the improvements, the game is still rather simplistic, not requiring much of a tactic and or even strategy, just patience and the ability to tell when to break off from a run, save and go at it again later. Still, it’s simple and easy, but fun and the 20-hours or so I spent on going through the game felt like much less time than that and a lot more fun.

The simplicity of the gameplay makes the last 20 levels (of 100) or so a bit more of a grind, but if you don’t try to fight everything and rather make runs to get to the final boss, even that time will fly by.

Shovel Knight: Plague of Shadows (2015)

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So I just finished the new Shovel Knight campaign centered on Plague Knight, and I loved it. Not initially, as the game offers basically the same levels with a new character (Plague Knight), whose control scheme is radically different than Shovel Knight’s.

The first few levels, levels that were rather easy in the original campaign, suddenly became scary death traps. But once I had unlocked a few helpful skills and adjusted to the play-style, the game got much easier (though when I tried to go back to the original Shovel Knight, I had to adjust again).

Usually I’m not a fan of replaying the same old levels with new characters (usually unlocked after finishing the game with the primary character), but the new Plague of Shadows campaign doesn’t just offer a different character with a unique control scheme, but tells a different story that happens in parallel to the primary campaign and integrates seamless with it.

And Plague Knight’s control scheme is so radically different that it really feels like a different game. One that isn’t as easy to get into, but once you do each success feels even more satisfying.