Odds and Ends

*waves*

In some ways, this blog seems to have lasted a bit longer than average, I suppose burn out is kind of unavoidable. On the other hand, burnout makes me sad because reading (well, non-academic/work-related reading) should be, above all, fun and lately I just wasn’t having any. Outside of The Crown’s Game (which I definitely recommend you go pre-order if you haven’t already) ARCs just haven’t been doing it for me lately. So to that end, I think I’m going to really pull back on those, and not just grab them because I can and I’m going to reduce posting to once a week, aiming for Friday’s, I think.

In other news, I’ve been putting even more time into Digimon Cyberstories and have some further impressions of the game:

  • There are some randomly included anime cutscenes that make me go 1) where are these the first twenty hours and 2) can I just have more of them? More would have really elevated the presentation, as it is they feel incredibly random and almost distracting because they’re so infrequent.
  • The depth of the Digi-volution/De-digivolution system is really quite deep, but also easily exploitable.
  • The game doesn’t get hard, it gets cheap – think spamming attacks to raise Speed to the point that you can’t even get a hit in. Thankfully, as far as I can tell, the worst offenders are all optional. Sadly, they’re also the only way to unlock the ability to obtain some of the most powerful forms in the game, which is a disappointment. Thankfully, you shouldn’t need them to actually beat the game (you can, in fact, beat the game without doing them.)
  • The free DLC is nice, though definitely aimed at end game layers. Casual fans not apply, because the majority of those cases are those cheap bosses I mentioned above.

All told, my main recommendation stands – it’s a good game to pick up only if you’re into classic JRPGs (it wouldn’t be my first recommendation for a newbie and certainly won’t convert fans of Western style) – but I am a bit more impressed with the game than I was when I initially wrote my review, so there is that 🙂

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Summary:

Fans of Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, and Maggie Stiefvater will embrace the richly drawn, Norse-influenced alternate world of the United States of Asgard, where cell phones, rock bands, and evangelical preachers coexist with dragon slaying, rune casting, and sword training in schools. Where the president runs the country alongside a council of Valkyries, gods walk the red carpet with Hollywood starlets, and the U.S. military has a special battalion dedicated to eradicating Rocky Mountain trolls.

Signy Valborn was seven years old when she climbed the New World Tree and met Odin Alfather, who declared that if she could solve a single riddle, he would make her one of his Valkyrie. For ten years Signy has trained in the arts of war, politics, and leadership, never dreaming that a Greater Mountain Troll might hold the answer to the riddle, but that’s exactly what Ned the Spiritless promises her. A mysterious troll hunter who talks in riddles and ancient poetry, Ned is a hard man to trust. Unfortunately, Signy is running out of time. Accompanied by an outcast berserker named Soren Bearstar, she and Ned take off across the ice sheets of Canadia to hunt the mother of trolls and claim Signy’s destiny.

Review:

First things first: this is a trilogy where each book has its own protagonist and an interweaving story. The first part is fairly obvious. The second, not so much. This story appears to be set in the same world, only half-way through the book do you realize the story was taking place before only to suddenly catch up to the start of the first book before going on and dealing with the after-effects. It’s just kind of strange and perhaps could have been handled a bit clearer.

That out of the way, a lot of what was enjoyable from the first book remains here: the world is still a fantastic bland of modern America and Nordic traditions, the characters remain likable, and the story does get poignant enough in parts that it actually made me cry. There’s a nice romance too between Signy and Ned the Spiritless.

So why then am I not quite satisfied?

It’s the ending. Like the first book, this too is about the Gods meddling with the lives of mortals, but where was the first book it really felt like outside influence, this felt much more direct which isn’t supposed to be what they can do and when the story wraps up, it just kind of feels like “Okay?” It does apparently tie into the third book, but it’s not necessarily a compelling hook that makes you go “I want to know what happens next!”

So while I happy to have read the book, I still leave feeling underwhelmed and debating if I even want to bother with the third, which does make me kind of sad.

Verdict: Borrow It

Available: Now

Buy It (Now!) The Crown’s Game – Evelyn Skye

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Summary:

Vika Andreyeva can summon the snow and turn ash into gold. Nikolai Karimov can see through walls and conjure bridges out of thin air. They are enchanters—the only two in Russia—and with the Ottoman Empire and the Kazakhs threatening, the Tsar needs a powerful enchanter by his side.

And so he initiates the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill—the greatest test an enchanter will ever know. The victor becomes the Imperial Enchanter and the Tsar’s most respected adviser. The defeated is sentenced to death.

Raised on tiny Ovchinin Island her whole life, Vika is eager for the chance to show off her talent in the grand capital of Saint Petersburg. But can she kill another enchanter—even when his magic calls to her like nothing else ever has?

For Nikolai, an orphan, the Crown’s Game is the chance of a lifetime. But his deadly opponent is a force to be reckoned with—beautiful, whip smart, imaginative—and he can’t stop thinking about her.

And when Pasha, Nikolai’s best friend and heir to the throne, also starts to fall for the mysterious enchantress, Nikolai must defeat the girl they both love . . . or be killed himself.

As long-buried secrets emerge, threatening the future of the empire, it becomes dangerously clear . . . the Crown’s Game is not one to lose.

Review:

I’m not going to beat around the bush: I loved this book. Loved. This is one of the rare books that was even better than the some of the hype implied.

First off, I loved all the characters major and minor. Everyone felt distinct and fleshed out, aside from one side character none of them felt cartoonish or over the top. I especially like the balance that Skye manages to achieve with Vika and Nikolai. Both of them want to want, both of them understand that success means the chance to live and that killing their competition is the best way to do that and so they really do try. At the same point in time, they have their humanity. They’re relieved when they fail. I think a lot of authors (especially YA authors) would have fallen into the trap of having one of them be like “I’m not going to play the Game! I’m not going to kill!” and she avoided that. I also liked how she acknowledged the political tensions of the time without turning it into a story where Vika joined the rebellion. She promised to serve the Tsar, and she will. It’s refreshing.

The magic was well done – evocative and enough of a framework to know the rules they are playing by, but not over-expained. It just comes off as exquisite and exquisitely done. I found myself looking forward to each Turn to see what they’d do next.

Finally, the pacing was spot on and the three main point of views all worked well making the book come together in a real elegant way.

My quibbles were few: there was a side-story with a character introduced late in the book that I don’t think ultimately added that much to the tale and I think she could have found another way to achieve the same end result. There was also a revelation at the end of the book straight out of the Book of YA Tropes that felt pointless. Really though, these were small and neither detracted anywhere near enough to consider not recommending this book.

This is a wonderful bit of fantasy that you should check out without second thought. Evelyn Skye is running a pre-order campaign that you can check out here if that’s your game. When I wrote this review, Amazon had it for $11.09, an absolute bargain, so go forth and pre-order!

Verdict: Buy It

Available: May 17th

 

BookCase.Club March 2016 Review

So. I think we can all agree that subscription boxes are a thing now, and there’s practically nothing out there that doesn’t have an affiliated box. Last year I broke down and gave Ipsy (a make-up based service) a try for five months. Although I ultimately decided that I wasn’t getting enough products that I liked to continue on, I never did shake the desire for another service. I knew that if I wanted to try again, that I would absolutely go for a book-based service. Problem is, I was having trouble finding one that met my needs because I had a couple of concerns:

  • Price – Book based boxes are not cheap with most boxes going for anywhere from $20-$30/box before the cost of shipping
  • “Bookish items” – Quite frankly, I don’t really care about these extras. Most of them will either end up gathering dust as clutter or just getting thrown out. This ties back to price as well, as they do increase the cost of the box itself.
  • Genre Limits – The boxes mostly serve the biggest genres – contemporary, romance and young adult. Problem is, I don’t really read much in those genres (outside the YA books that are mostly review copies) so a box that is for them doesn’t really appeal.

Enter Bookcase.club, a box that seems almost tailor made for me.

  • Price – a very reasonable $9.99/month +$5 SH for two new books which may include hardbacks! The focus seems to be on backlist titles that maybe didn’t get as much fanfare, which is a bonus.
  • No bookish items. I can see how that would be a deterrent to some, but I honestly rather the money go towards books, so I see this as a big plus.
  • All the genre choice. As of the writing of this post, you can pick from: romance, paranormal romance, sci-fi/fantasy, young adult, mystery/thriller, or children’s picture books (of which you get four). As an added bonus, you can change your genre at practically anytime – or so the website claims. I’m finding the process a little confusing (a bit on that in a moment) but I do like the promise of flexibility.
  • Bonus charity support: they donate one new book for every new/recurring subscription.

So how did my first month go?

I placed my order on February 28th. Given the way these things normally work, I have expected to be told I’d start with the April box, but nope! On February 29th I received my tracking number! The box didn’t arrive until 3/8, 8 days since tracking went out. A bit on the long end, but there was weather back east and it did seem to delay other packages from the East Coast so I’m hoping that it doesn’t normally take quite that long. I will say that their support team is pretty fast to respond to inquiries, which is a nice plus.

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The box

The packaging isn’t as flash as Ipsy’s signature hot-pink bubble mailers, but it’s definitely nice and sturdy. For the crease on the front, the books arrived in pristine condition. The books themselves were surrounded by some heavy paper to keep them from slipping and sliding. I’ve got no complaints.

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Not shown: the included card that has a quote and a listing of the month’s selections on it.

The box is definitely as advertised: no frills here. I do wish the card that was included with the box gave a reason for the selections, instead of an abbreviated synopsis. This box is touted as being “personally curated”, so I’d love to know what the curator enjoyed about these particulars books.

Especially because…well…I’m kind of underwhelmed by the selections this month.

The Gillian Anderson co-authored book is about a child psychologist who happens to get embroiled in some very X-File-esque things. Mmmhmm. It also holds a 3.30 on Goodreads right now which is pretty terrible by the unofficial rating scale of under 3.5 = fail.

Fortune’s Pawn seems to hold more promise – female driven space adventure – but hardly mold-breaking science fiction. While clearly neither book was a huge hit, there’s nothing about either book that necessarily makes me feel like these were overlooked gems – and I think the cards talking about why they picked those books could help with that.

All told, while I might give Fortune’s Pawn a chance, A Vision of Fire doesn’t call to me at all and I’ll probably be giving it to the Goodwill the next time I do a shelf-clean up.

I’m also not entirely thrilled that both books were science fiction, as I was hoping for some fantasy this month.That aside I do like that this box sent two first-of-series books, and I wonder if they’d do the same with their other boxes. It’s part of the reason I wanted to give the paranormal romance box a shot, the other reason just curiosity to see what they would send. The website is a bit confusing though, and it appears that if I want to change the theme that I’ll need to do a new subscription. I’ve reached out to the company and will update the post when I figure out how that works.

Finally, as far as a value goes it’s okay, it’s nothing to write home about, as you’d pay the same amount or a little less for these books through other book jobbers (think BookOutlet.com). You’re paying for the curation, so if the picks are underwhelming, you lose the value of a box like this.

Since I did do a pre-pay for three months, I’ll go ahead and see how these play out and reassess. Hopefully next month will have books that feel like they were worth picking up, as opposed to books that just happened to be cheap for them to get their hands on. I’m a bit underwhelmed, but there’s still time to change my mind!

Do you subscribe to a book club? Do you like it? Let me know in the comments below!

 

JRPG Review: Digimon Story: Cybersleuth

And it’s time for another JRPG review! I’ve been a Pokemon fan for ages, and have owned Nintendo’s latest portable to be able to play the latest game off and on, but inevitably always sell off said handheld because there just weren’t enough other games I wanted to play. So when I got the itch to pick up a new game, I got the next best thing: a Digimon game. For those of you who don’t know, Digimon is Pokemon’s younger and less kid-friendly knock-off franchise that has nonetheless managed to hit its 15th anniversary. Not bad for a knock-off, eh?

Anyway, Digimon Story: Cyber Sleuth was released in 2015 as a PS4 and PS Vita title and released here in the US in February 2016. Is it worth a pick-up? Let’s take a look.

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Graphics: Funnily enough, the anime-inspired game looks like an anime. Cel-shaded people and Digimon traverse a static CGI-painted world. The “cyber” elements of the game are depicted in very Tron-esque neon blues and it all looks quite nice. That said, there are some graphical glitches to be found. My character often clipped with the larger Digimon models making it seem like the pair had merged into some kind of unholy beast, and my guest would often disappear on elevator rides to where I started to question whether or not they were supposed to – even though logic dictates they shouldn’t. It’s not game breaking, but considering that we’re not pushing any graphical limits here, it’s disappointing to see and you’d hope for more polish. Overall, it does work and it looks nice, just don’t expect to be wowed.

Sound: Unlike the graphics, the sound work leaves something to be desired. Music is there, but outside of loops like the dungeon theme that you hear so many times that you can’t not get them stuck in your head, it’s forgettable. The game is only voiced in Japanese as is presented with English subtitles. This is both good and bad, as battles tend to have intro’s and outros that are probably the same one or two phrases repeated over and over and over again. At least you can’t understand them? Bye the by, the protagonist is unvoiced, probably a cost saving measure but nonetheless annoying as even most Digimon have voices. There’s no character customization beyond gender, would it have been so hard to have two reads done?

While we’re here, I do want to bring up the messy translations Sometimes it’s as little as having another character call your female avatar as “he” instead of “she” but other times I’m wondering if some of the issues are caused by a team who speak English competently, but not natively. For example, there’s a scene where the old detective is saying that a certain investigation is going slow. The implication being that he wants to go slow, so he can do it right. The other character nods sagely and replies, “haste makes waste.” While that idiom technically works, the context they’re using it in doesn’t quite make sense. Furthermore, many of the characters seem to go from smart to navie/stupid in a conversation and back again and again I have to wonder if it isn’t the translation making iffy writing somehow worse. The combination does detract from the story and I found myself smiling and nodding along with the protagonist at parts because the explanations were so convoluted that I just didn’t care and you may tune out too.

Story: Since I brought it up, I’ll just say that the story is servicable. It sets up the world nicely, but ultimately winds up being a fairly standard affair of Bad Company Doing Bad Things and it being up to you to figure out what. There are some touching moments, but really the more enjoyable stories come in the form of the side-quests which evoke everything from a bit of J-Horror to Digimon being addicted to boxing and taking selfies to just wanting to put their CD out for the world to hear. It’s the side-stories that kept me going, and they often have the best humor that isn’t impeded by the translations since the stories are shorter and simpler.

Gameplay: For better or for worse, this game feels like it was designed for the Vita and ported to the PS4, and not the other way around. I say this because the game uses a “case” system to move things along. Most of the side cases and even many of the main story cases can be completed in 20-30 minutes or less, making it perfect bite-size gaming. On the downside, the game feels incredibly linear. You can’t go explore unless the game tells you to explore. You have some freedom in the order you pick up cases (and the side cases are purely optional) and there are a few things you can mess around with on the side, like both “offline” and online battle arenas and the like, but this game is still 90% linear as many cases and tasks are only opened up to you after others are completed. I personally don’t mind, but your mileage my vary. I would also be remiss if I didn’t say that the “investigation” side-quests (obtained by sending the ‘mon on your Digifarm out searching for them) are EXTREMELY repetitive (Go to place X, run around until you find the shiny, return, repeat) and really the only reason to do them are you occasionally get some good rewards out of them.

As far as the battle system goes, this takes your basic Pokemon-esque rock-paper-scissor mechanics and both simplifies it and makes it more complex. On the face of it its simpler, because there are only four main types – data, virus, vaccine and free. where it gets more complex is that each one of those four types is then divided into elemental attributes like fire, water, plant and so on. Ideally, when you send out your Digimon you’re going to be looking at both type and attribute, as they do stack. That 2.0 damage a virus can do to a data Pokemon can become 3.0 if you add the right elements into the mix. But that’s ideally. Realistically, as long as you’re leveling properly and upgrading your Digimon when you’re able, you can often pay less mind to that secondary level of mixing, unless you’re in a boss fight or you just want to speed things up and get the fight done a bit sooner. Additionally, your health and SP points all replenish upon level up and between that and there are plenty of terminals that let you access the Digilab where you can heal up for an inconsequential amount of Yen, so you shouldn’t have to do too much health management, unless again, inside certain tougher boss battles. Overall, Pokemon fans should find this game easy to pick up and it’s definitely accessible for casual fans as well. It’s an easier game overall.

Finally, I do like how the game builds in mechanics for you to increase/decrease random encounters at your discretion and that said mechanic is available practically right away and is the only thing that makes the search quests bearable as the monsters in a given dungeon stay the same even as you level. I also like that how it wears off when you leave floors of a given dungeon so you can’t accidentally keep it turned on in areas where you really should be participating in those random encounters to ensure you stay appropriately leveled. If a game is going to use this kind of mechanic, this ability should come with it.

Verdict: Buy it on Sale. This an unapologetic old-school JRPG and fans of the genre/Pokemon fans should find something to like her. The general lack of polish, however, makes it hard to fully recommend, let alone recommend to newbies unless you’re looking for a relatively easy way to dip your toes in the waters. Western RPG fans who expect deeper story and character customization should steer clear.

Available: Now

Skip It: The Crown Tower (The Riyria Chronicles #1) – Michael J. Sullivan

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Summary:

A warrior with nothing to fight for is paired with a thieving assassin with nothing to lose. Together they must steal a treasure that no one can reach. The Crown Tower is the impregnable remains of the grandest fortress ever built and home to the realm’s most valuable possessions. But it isn’t gold or jewels the old wizard is after, and this prize can only be obtained by the combined talents of two remarkable men. Now if Arcadius can just keep Hadrian and Royce from killing each other, they just might succeed.

The Riyria Revelations and The Riyria Chronicles are two separate, but related series, and you can start reading with either Theft of Swords (publication order) or The Crown Tower (chronological order)

Review:

As mentioned in my review of The Death of Dulgath, the Riyria Chronicles are meant to be prequel stand alone novels set in the same world as the Riyria Revelations. It’s probably a good thing that they are stand alone, because depending on why you are reading the books, it may well be one you want to give a pass to and for a number of reasons.

First and foremost? If you’re reading these books because you like Hadrian and Royce together, you need to know that the two don’t start talking until the half-way mark of the book. And the Royce-less first half of this book just isn’t that interesting. While it does well to paint Hadrian as naive, it’s just kind of dull and leaves you wondering when we’re going to get to anything interesting. When the pair do meet up, however, you can instantly see that spark that made the first six books so popular. It made me wistful for more.

The other reason you might want to skip this one? Quite frankly, the plot is kind of a stinker. That big impossible heist? So not impossible that (spoiler alert!) it happens off screen. The reason that they just HAVE to work together? Because. Literally. There’s not an actual logic-basic reason for them to do so, it’s just because the old wizard has this hunch that this pairing will be Special and makes them work together so Royce can discharge a debt to him. I found it cringe-worthy and almost rage-quit the book because it’s so contrived that it’s hard to believe that the desired end result of them working together would really happen.

Finally, this book almost half-a-dozen narrators, at least one or two too many that don’t add enough to the story before disappearing to have warranted their inclusion.

Ultimately this is just bog-standard fantasy that lacks the charm that elevates the other works. If this had been my introduction to the series, I don’t know that I’d have bothered reading any other because it just felt so underwhelming. Thankfully, I have and I still do plan to eventually read The Rose and the Thorn at some point in the future and I hope that I’ll get sucked back into this world.

As for you? Well, if you don’t mind the basics, it’s an okay enough read. But if I could make different choices during the Kickstarter, I’d picked up Theft of Swords instead. This book really was made for people who already love the characters, and I think that lack of emotional investment made this a much rougher read than it otherwise would have been for me.

Verdict: Skip it

Available: Now.