Sunday, March 2, 2014

Book Review #17: The Rithmatist, by Brandon Sanderson

The Rithmatist is the third book I’ve read by Brandon Sanderson (I’m on a bit of a Sanderson binge right now).  While different from most of his other works, The Rithmatist is still a fun and worthwhile read.

The Rithmatist takes place on a fictional version of the United States, known as the United Isles.  The setting is one I’ve never seen before knows as Clockpunk, similar to Steampunk except that everything is powered by springs and clockwork gears.  Joel is the son of a dead chalkmaker who wants nothing more than to be a Rithmatist- someone who has the power to bring chalk drawings to life.  Attending school at one of the academies that trains Rithmatists, Joel suddenly finds himself in the middle of a murder mystery when Rithmatist students begin vanishing.  With the help of a timid Rithmatist professor and Rithmatist student, Joel must solve the mystery before another child gets kidnapped- or worse.

The first thing you’ll notice when reading The Rithmatist is that it was written for a younger audience than Sanderson usually caters to.  Young adult readers, fans of Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, will likely find this book to be written in a style that they can connect with better than, say, Elantris or Mistborn.  The worldbuilding is not as prevalent as in his more mature stories, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  You still get a decent idea of what the United Isles are like, with their spring- and clockwork machines and Old America style of clothing.  Also interesting is that the story is not set up as an epic quest, but as a murder mystery.

The focus, like most other young adult stories, is on the characters, which are a bit of a mixed bag.  Joel is the fairly unremarkable protagonist.  He is the story’s obligatory normal guy who wants to be something special.  His attributes, like having an uncanny understanding of Rithmatics, are interesting, but he himself is pretty forgettable.  He never says anything memorable or reacts to problems in any way that is unexpected.  His mentor, Professor Fitch, was a more memorable character.  He’s a great teacher when in a controlled environment, but when confronted he loses his nerve.  Much of the story involves him learning to grow a backbone.  Melody is the final main character, and she’s a bit hit or miss.  Her knack for overdramatics can make her both endearing or annoying, depending on what part of the book it is.  I, personally, found her far more tolerable when she manages to calm down and act normal.

As the title would suggest, Rithmatics make up the main part of the story.  At its core, it involves two people (known as Rithmatists) drawing lines with chalk to attack each other.  However, Sanderson has added in a surprising amount of depth to it.  The pages of the book include several drawing of various defenses one can set up, and the theories for drawing chalklings and how they work.  The action can get hectic, but Sanderson manages to clearly depict it with minimal confusion.  If there were to ever be a real life version of this game made, I suspect it would hold up as strong as other games like Yu-Gi-Oh or Magic: The Gathering.

While other Sanderson books are known for their impressive plot twists, The Rithmatist is fairly straightforward.  Yes, there is a plot twist, but it wasn’t nearly as surprising as the ones I found in Warbreaker and Mistborn.  This isn’t a complaint, as the story is still told very well, but I found that it was worth noting all the same.

In the end, The Rithmatist was a very enjoyable read.  I’ll definitely be picking up the sequel when it comes out.  I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did Mistborn and Warbreaker, but that’s a case of personal preference.  Those who want a rich, fast paced fantasy story that’s different than anything else on the market need look no further than The Rithmatist.  Those expecting a quest style story set in a world that could rival Tolkien’s creation may be disappointed, but might still find a story they’ll enjoy.

I give The Rithmatist an 8.0/10!

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book Review #16: Mistborn the Final Empire, by Brandon Sanderson

It’s been clear to me for a while now that Brandon Sanderson has one of the most unique imaginations I’ve ever come across.  His worlds, his magic systems, and his characters are all second to none.  While saying this may get me drawn and quartered by the fantasy community, it is my humble opinion that he has surpassed the father of modern day fantasy, JRR Tolkien, because his worlds are incredibly detailed, but those details never get in the way of the plot itself, making them easier to read for people like me.

Mistborn: The Final Empire takes place in, you guessed it, the Final Empire, a desolate land where ash falls from the sky and the nights are shrouded by mists.  The Lord Ruler reigns over his kingdom with an iron fist from his palace in Luthadel, pampering the nobility and enslaving the skaa.  One such skaa, named Kelsier, is determined to stir up a rebellion that will dethrone the Lord Ruler and destroy the nobility, leaving the once oppressed skaa to rule in fairness and equality.  While most people consider him a madman, Kelsier has a secret that might just tip the balance.  He is a Mistborn, a rare person who has all of the fabled allomantic powers.  Enter Vin, a lowly street thief who thinks she doesn’t have a friend in the world.  When Kelsier discovers that she, too, is a Mistborn, he takes her under his wing and integrates her into his plan.

The first thing I noticed about Mistborn: The Final Empire was how different it was to almost every other fantasy book I’ve ever read.  It does not take place in a medieval fantasy setting, a la Lord of the Rings.  This is more Victorian aged, with people wearing suits and hats carrying dueling canes.  It’s not steampunk, though, either, since the world lacks the needed technology for such a setting.  But the Final Empire is still a fantasy world, as can be seen by the massive towers that dominate the cities for nobility to live in, which would not have been possible to build in a normal world.  And the buildings are not all that is impressive.  The fact that ash falls from the sky like snow, and the way that mists magically appear to cover the landscape every night are also very interesting details.

The world itself is not the only thing worth mentioning, though.  The magic system, known as allomancy, makes for a very big part of the plot, and is different enough to keep the reader interested.  Allomancy consists of people swallowing metals, which their bodies can then “burn,” giving them special powers.  Some metals allow you to act like a magnet, pushing and pulling against any other nearby metals.  One makes you superhumanly strong, and another allows you to manipulate people’s emotions.  And, as I said before, there are the Mistborn, the rare people who are able to use all of the powers while everyone else is limited to only one.  I was also impressed by the Steel Inquisitors, the fearsome executioners for the Lord Ruler’s church, who actually giant nails pounded through their eyes, out the back of their heads, giving them all the powers of a Mistborn as well.

The characters were all fun to read about, and were fleshed out so that they could all be told apart just by their speech.  Kelsier is the jokester with a tragic past.  Vin is the shy girl who must learn to trust people- maybe even love them.  Hammond and Breeze are fun to read individually, but when they come together and start bouncing sarcastic remarks off each other, you’ll be hard pressed not to laugh out loud.

I think it’s plain to see that I really enjoyed Mistborn: The Final Empire.  However, I do still have some complaints about it.  First of all, it felt like Mr. Sanderson began to use the same phrases over and over again in short periods of time.  I can’t tell you how many times characters roll their eyes in pretty much every conversation, and I wished the author had used a different way of describing their annoyance.

I also took issue with how little the characters’ actions seemed to play a part in the story.  Very rarely does a major plot twist occur that was brought about by the actions of a character.  More often, they were simply in the right place at the right time to see/hear/do whatever was needed to move the story forward.  It could be argued that this was intentional, I suppose, since it’s made clear from the start that Kelsier’s plan to overthrow the Final Empire was almost idiotic to believe in, so whatever good fortune may come their way would have to practically be divine intervention.  Still, I would have enjoyed the story more if it seemed like the characters were actually doing things more often than things were just happening around them.

This is the second Brandon Sanderson book that I’ve read, the first one being Warbreaker.  While I enjoyed Warbreaker, I have to admit that I was left disappointed by how utterly rushed the ending seemed to be.  I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t worried about the same thing while going through The Final Empire.  Fortunately, Sanderson paced things out much better in this book than in Warbreaker, and managed to tie things up in a far superior manner.

Mistborn: The Final Empire was a great book.  It’s not perfect, but hey- there’s no such thing as a perfect book.  I had a couple of issues with the descriptions and the way the plot played out, but those didn’t stop me from enjoying the book.  Far from it!  If you’re looking for a fantasy novel that is fun, fast paced, and different, then you need look no further than Mistborn: The Final Empire.  Now I just  need to see if I can get my hands on the other two books in the trilogy…

I give Mistborn: The Final Empire a 9.0/10!

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Movie Review #17- Monster’s University

I’ll admit, I was a bit apathetic about Monster’s University.  It’s predecessor, Monster’s Inc, while fun, was never my favorite Disney Pixar movie.  I thought the idea of seeing Mike and Sully develop their friendship in a prequel was a neat idea, but frankly it wasn’t on my priority list of movies to go see.  Now that it’s out on DVD, though, I was pleased to find that I actually really liked it- perhaps even more than the original movie.

The plot is simple: it’s years before the events in Monster’s Inc, and Mike and Sully are attending classes at Monster’s University.  Mike wants to be a scarer and has worked his entire life to be able to attend the school of his dreams.  Sully, on the other hand, comes from a long line of successful scarers, and fails to see why he should take his classes seriously when he’s got a scary appearance and a wicked roar.  The two of them quickly become rivals, and end up getting kicked out of class.  Hoping to be reentered, they team up with the sorority of misfits and enter the Scare Games to prove their worth.

So, the movie was fun.  Really fun.  The first thing that jumped out at me was how much of the backstory from the first movie they explained.  Randal, the antagonist from the first movie, makes quite a few appearances as his nerdy younger self named Randy, which I thought was cool.  All the characters that will appear in the first movie have been given facelifts to make them look younger, but still recognizable.  Mike is a lighter green, and less pudgy.  Sully is thinner, has a slight hairdo (furdo?).  Randal is lighter purple, thinner, and ganglier.  It’s neat to see how these characters looked at different points in their life.

The voice acting in this movie is great.  At first, I was worried that it would be full of annoying characters, but this was proven false.  While the characters are all lively and funny, none of them grated on my nerves like I thought they would.

That’s about all I can think to say about it.  The movie was funny, it had its exciting and suspenseful parts, and can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike.  If you’re looking for something to get your child for Christmas (or maybe even yourself), you can’t go wrong with Monster’s University.

I give it an 8.5/10!

Book Review #15- Emaline's Gift by Brad Francis

The first thing I need to say about this book is that it was written by a very good friend of mine. Brad Francis and I have never met in person, but our conversations over Facebook have always been enlightening and helpful- and oftentimes, quite amusing! Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s take a look at his novel, “Emaline’s Gift!”
“Emaline’s Gift” takes place in modern day Washington DC. Emaline is a 13 year old girl just trying to beat the boredom during summer vacation. Her whole life, however, is thrown upside down when a young man with mysterious abilities rescues her from a gang of psychotic teenagers. The young man, Anthony, is a Magi, one descended from the same Magi who visited Jesus as a child. The attacking teenagers are with the obeah, those with similar powers to the Magi’s, but fighting for the other side. Emaline suddenly finds herself in the middle of a battle between God and Satan, and the choice of who she will follow will determine her entire fate.
Brad Francis is a very good writer. “Emaline’s Gift” is written in the same style as Harry Potter or Percy Jackson, appropriate for children without being too tame. He describes the Magi and Obeah’s personalities and abilities vividly, and no two characters are the same. The action is intense, and the stakes are always high. What I found most impressive, though, is how Brad managed to keep the focus on God at all times. Even when the Magi are in a firefight (literally) with the Obeah, he makes sure the reader understands that their powers are not of their own doing- they’re gifts from God. The Magi will constantly stop and pray to strengthen their actions, seek God’s will, and… well, pretty much everything they do revolves around prayer. It was refreshing to see this take on spiritual warfare, since anything else would make the Magi seem like wizards and not holy warriors.
But, as good as Brad’s writing is, I do still have a couple of complaints. First off, the characters will often give monologues that don’t sound natural. It’s like if I walked up to someone and began to describe in perfect detail an encounter I had with somebody- when that person had been there to see it. The other thing is that, at some points in the story, Brad will break the fourth wall. The story is told in third person, but the invisible narrator telling us the story will occasionally voice the reader’s thoughts instead of the characters, saying things like, “At this point, the reader might be wondering…” or, “If the reader thought [this], they would be wrong.” It wasn’t TOO distracting, and in the end it didn’t affect how much I enjoyed the book, but it DID distract me enough to pull me out of the story whenever it happened- if only for a few seconds.
All in all, though, “Emaline’s Gift” is a great read! It’s a refreshing take on the battle between Heaven and Hell, with some very creative aspects thrown in that add a lot of flavor. Brad stumbles a couple of times in his narrative, but those really aren’t that hard to overlook. I recommend this story to anyone looking for a good Christian fiction story!
I give “Emaline’s Gift” by Brad Francis an 8.5/10!

Book Review #14- The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

Oh my, where do I even begin with this one? How about with “THIS IS THE GREATEST FREAKING BOOK I HAVE READ IN YEARS!”? With “The Name of the Wind,” Mr. Rothfuss has created the single most fantastic piece of literature I have had the pleasure to experience in… man, I really don’t know how long! And not only that, but if his writing here is any indication, the rest of his “Kingkiller” trilogy will be an amazing treat as well.

So, the story… There is no better way to describe this than “a story within a story.” It begins simply enough, with a group of men sitting in a bar, eating dinner and telling stories, when one of their friends stumbles in, carrying the corpse of what they can only describe as a demon. The next day, a man named Chronicler wanders into town and identifies the innkeeper as Kvothe, a man known throughout the land in legends and tall tales. Determined to learn the legendary man’s true story, he convinces Kvothe to allow him to record it, in his own words, so that the world might know the truth behind the legend. Kvothe agrees, but his story will take three days to tell, he says. The first book encompasses the first day.

Right off the bat, I could tell that Rothfuss had everything planned out well in advance before he began writing. He skillfully makes hints and subtle references to things that will not be revealed until later on in the story. Many of the characters you meet obviously have interesting histories, but you’ll be disappointed if you expect Rothfuss to let you know what they are right off the bat. In fact, many of the things he hints at are left for explanation in the SECOND book- if that! While this may sound frustrating, I can tell you that it is not. That’s because the focus on the story isn’t what’s going on in present day, but what happened long ago. When Kvothe tells his story, the narrative switches from third person to first person, and then switches back when he takes a break. And while hardly any answers are given and almost nothing is really resolved, I wasn’t left feeling cheated, like Mr. Rothfuss was cliffhanger-ing me into buying the second book. The answers aren’t given, the questions are EXPANDED!

Rothfuss writes with skill like I’ve rarely seen. The action scenes are few and far between, but that didn’t dampen my enthusiasm to keep reading because the author has this weird way of making the most mundane of things sound intriguing enough to keep my eyes glued to the page. Walking with a friend? Amazing. Eating dinner? Exciting. Going to school? Riveting. The reason for this is because of Rothfuss’ characters. While he obviously put a lot of thought into the world he’s using, it’s also obvious that his attention was devoted to the people in it. I’ve said many times that the characters in a book feel like real people, but Rothfuss does it better than any other author I’ve ever read. It’s the characters that bring this story to life, and the way they interact with each other results in chapter after memorable chapter.

Okay, I admit it: I’m fawning right now. No book is perfect, right? So, I’ll use this paragraph to describe my one real complaint with the story. It’s that when Kvothe tells his story, he turns himself into what other readers call a “Mary-Sue” (or perhaps a “Gary-Drew,” in this case). That means that the character is so perfect that they have no flaws. Kvothe describes himself as the undisputed hero, his only negative traits being that he sometimes has a bad temper, and a tendency to think overly highly of himself- and even then, he justifies his feeling this way with the circumstances he happens to be in. And now that I’ve put my one gripe forward, let me now counter it by saying that this may be intentional. Kvothe is, after all, telling his own story. Perhaps he’s TRYING to make himself sound overly heroic and perfect. Perhaps this will be addressed further into the trilogy. We’ll have to wait and see.

There’s not much else I can go into that won’t take up another ten pages of text. Rothfuss has an intriguing magic system called Sympathy, but the rules kinda went over my head, and I found myself just nodding my head and rolling with it. I like how there are multiple versions of every legend going around in that world, be it folklore, religious, or campfire story. And while I wouldn’t have minded a few more answers, I cannot say that I was disappointed with this story in the least. On the contrary, I’ll have to tie myself down tomorrow to stop from running out and immediately buying the second book!

It is my pleasure to give “The Name of the Wind” a well deserved 10/10!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Video Game Review #9: Nier

Wow, how long has it been since I’ve written a video game review?  A long time, apparently!  How about I remedy that with Nier?  Nier is one of those hidden gems.  This action JRPG was released on the PS3 and Xbox 360 to little fanfare, which is a shame because it has the best story I’ve heard in a video game in years!  It is easily on par with that of Kingdom Hearts and Metal Gear Solid, my two favorite games of all time.

Nier is about a nameless father (I assume his name is Nier, but since you get to name him it doesn’t really matter) and his daughter Yonah.  It begins in the middle of a large city, where the world has apparently ended, and the father and his daughter are the only survivors.  Yonah suffers from a mysterious disease known as the Black Scrawl, which causes black writing to appear all over her body.  On top of that, an army of monsters known as Shades have set their sights on her, and her father is the only one able to protect her.  After nearly losing their lives to these beasts, the father is contacted by a mysterious speaking book, which offers him the power to save his daughter in exchange for his soul.  Flash forward over a thousand years (seriously!) and you find that the father and Yonah are still alive, living in a medieval style world, where only bits and pieces remain of the world we know and love.  Yonah still suffers from the Black Scrawl, and the father is determined to find a cure for her, even if it means killing every Shade on earth.  He soon comes across ANOTHER talking book named Grimmoire   Weiss, who quickly joins his party, along with a scantily clad woman named Kaine and a young boy named Emil who turns anything he looks at to stone.

All right, the first thing you’ll notice about Nier is the combat style.  Deviating from the turn-based style that prevails in most Japanese role playing games, Nier has a real time combat system that, in all honesty, is hardly more than hack-and-slash.  You have one button for a normal attack, which you can hold to charge up for a bigger attack, and another button for a great big attack.  Jumping an attacking will either perform midair slashes or a ground shattering (literally) ground pound.  You have three types of weapons (one handed swords, two handed swords, and spears), but apart from a couple of different animations and a difference in how quickly they swing, the combat is exactly the same for all three.  If this game hadn’t had such a powerful storyline, I likely would have found the fighting to be quite dull.  Every fight plays out almost the exact same way, with no awesome cinematics or quick time events to liven things up- whether that’s a bad thing or not is up to you, but in my opinion the combat quickly became monotonous, not to mention easy, and the story alone kept me hunting down Shades to slaughter.

 Another thing worth noting here are the graphics.  These are definitely not the best that the PS3 can do, and there were times when I wondered if the PS1 might be able to do better.  Such as, when a human possessed by a Shade reveals his true form, you’d expect it to be convincing, right?  Instead, you see a cloud of smoke erupt around the person, through which you can still clearly see the character model until it simply vanishes and is replaced by a Shade.  Seeing as how this came from Square Enix, makers of the always stunning Final Fantasy games, I found it very strange that so little work was apparently put into it.  Here’s the thing, though: I know I sound like a broken record, but the story was so good that I didn’t care!

One thing the game DOES have going for it is the amazing soundtrack.  From the moment the game boots up to the final boss, you will be assaulted with the best songs ever put in a video game.  Tracks that other games would have saved for the final level are used in minor dungeons in Nier, and the boss battles are accompanied by the most tense, ominous choir pieces I’ve ever heard.  This is the type of game you really can’t help but buy the soundtrack for.

The thing that irked me most about Nier was the content.  This game is rated M for Mature, and for good reason.  Thing is, IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE!  Everything that was put into the game that made it need an M rating was POINTLESS!  The game would have been just as good, maybe even BETTER, had they not used those things at all.  First of all, the game is bloody.  It’s not gory, it’s not gruesome, it’s just bloody in that every time you slash something, be it an animal you’re hunting or a monster you’re fighting, it releases buckets of blood.  Why did it need this?  It added NOTHING to the game!  My other two complaints stem from the same character: Kaine.  She is the attractive young lady who can kick some serious butt with her twin blades.  Thing is, she has the most ridiculous outfit I’ve ever seen in a video game.  I’ve seen plenty of female video game characters that adhere to the “chainmail bikini” method of dressing, but Kaine takes it to a whole new level by wearing bedroom clothes.  I kid you not, if you position the camera in the right place, you can have a clear view of her butt crack.  Again, this added NOTHING to the game outside of blatant fan service.  On top of her outfit, Kaine also has a mouth that would make a sailor blush.  When you boot the game up, before you even reach the title screen, the first thing you hear is Kaine’s voice spew about thirty second’s worth of vulgar dialogue, and this is a trend she continues throughout the whole game.  While the other characters will swear on occasion, Kaine just never stops.  Now, I realize that SOME bad language can add depth and emotion to the story, but there’s a fine line between making a story more adult, and bringing it straight back to being childish again, and Nier shamelessly crosses that line.  If it had, in any way, benefited the story, I would have been fine with it, but the only reason I can think of that the creators had for making it like this goes along the lines of, “Oh, nobody wants to play a T rated game, right?”

The final thing I wanted to note about Nier is how the story plays out.  It is very confusing the first time you play, because it only gives you the father’s point of view.  Upon beating it, though, you are given the option to begin again with a New Game + mode (in which you keep all of the experience, skills, and weapons you gained the first time around).  Thing is, you don’t start the game from the beginning.  It drops you right into the middle of the story, and promptly provides you with BRAND NEW cutscenes that explain the story in a way you hadn’t thought about before.  And while these are just as good as the story the first time around, I found that I didn’t feel the need to go through the game three more times (yeah, it does this to you that many times).  As it turns out, the boring gameplay and lackluster visuals had finally caught up with me, and I didn’t feel like playing through the game a second time when I could just as easily find the alternate cutscenes and endings on YouTube.

Nier is a game with more flaws than it has any right to have.  Fortunately, the story is its saving grace, and it does its job marvelously.  While I couldn’t be bothered to play through a second time, the narrative and the characters will remain with me for far longer than my memories of boring combat and bland graphics.  Not to mention that more than a few of the songs in the soundtrack have made themselves a permanent home in my iPod playlist.  Even Kaine, with all of her annoying traits and oversexualized clothing, could not ruin the experience for me, and I recommend Nier to anyone who enjoys being told an awesome story while they hack and slash through uncountable foes.

I give Nier a 9.0/10!