Friday, August 31, 2012

Book Review (#2): I Shall Wear Midnight

I Shall Wear Midnight (by Terry Pratchett - though that's Sir Terry Pratchett to you, commoner!)

So here we are - the fourth and concluding volume of the Tiffany Aching series set in Pratchett's Discworld universe. For those of you sadly benighted enough not to already know, Terry Pratchett is arguably our finest living literary satirist, and despite operating primarily within the typically ghettoized fantasy milieu has earned enough recognition for it to be knighted by the Queen of England. Pratchett being an Englishman, you see. That tends not to happen otherwise.

Though the Tiffany Aching series is nominally YA, you wouldn't particularly know it - it reads pretty much like any other Discworld novel. The YA title seems to have been slapped on it as much because its protagonist (Miss Aching, of course) is young - fifteen-going-on-sixteen in this book. And I swear to God if any of you start so much as humming that thing from the Sound of Music just because the ages are close, I will reach right through your computer and slap you.

Ahem. So, totally-not-completely-empty-threats aside, here's what's going on - as you'd expect if you've read the prior volumes Tiffany Aching, young witch of the Chalk (a rural shepherding region that has never had a witch before), confronts a supernatural threat to herself and her community. And again, she'll do so with the help (whether desired or, indeed, actually helpful) of the Nac Mac Feegle, a clan of little blue pseudo-Scots notable for ferocity and capacity for both destruction and alcohol (which tend to be closely linked) that is wildly out of proportion for their minuscule size.

This time, the threat is (eventually) revealed to be the Cunning Man, an incorporeal spirit of spite and hate that far in the past used to be a human witch-hunter of remarkable brutality. Now it exists only to spread hate against witches as a kind of supernatural memetic plague, and also apparently to try to possess a witch (Miss Aching here, of course) to use her to do as much damage as possible. Not sure where that last part comes from to be honest - the first part makes sense, but the second? Well, whatever - it's in there.

So how is it this time around? Well, Pratchett seldom disappoints - even his lesser volumes tend to be better than the best of most. His ironic tone lends itself to both humor and unexpected insight as well as it ever has (that's well, in case you've still not got the point), and he manages to build the plot to an appropriately exciting conclusion - rather better than in the preceding volume, to be honest. His emphasis on how successful witchery is more a matter of perceptions and simply doing for the community what the community won't for itself than of dramatic magical affairs (except for when suddenly it's not, of course) is as welcome a grounding touch as ever, too.

Pratchett also gives writing a romance a shot here. He's attempted romantic elements before, and it's generally not been his strongest suit. Perhaps it's simply that the arch and ironic tone that serves him so well in other arenas is not necessarily best for something as earnest as romance (particularly of the youthful variety, one might expect). But he manages it here rather better than you might expect from what was just written. The build-up is as much in the background as anywhere, so one might complain that it comes almost out of the blue when it bursts forth so near to full-formed. But any such complaints ought to be silenced by how Pratchett uses it to end the book - with a concluding sentence that's as near to perfect as can reasonably be asked for.

So how good is it? It's damn good.


To check it out for yourself:

Or to get started at the beginning with the first couple books in the series together:

Friday, August 24, 2012

Movie Review (#1): Nude Nuns With Big Guns

Nude Nuns With Big Guns (directed by Joseph Guzman, written by Robert James Hayes II, and starring Asun Ortega)

So, speaking of pulp and exploitation...? Yeah, we're gonna be looking at some of that today. You probably didn't already realize that from the movie title and poster - that's why I was careful to fill you in like that. Thoughtful, that's me.

To put simply, this is a movie that is almost painfully dedicated to fulfilling its premise - by my count, the first nude nuns are onscreen inside of 60 seconds of the beginning of the movie (barely, but it still counts!), and you should have no fear of encountering any shortage of them thereafter. Hey, a film doesn't earn the personal endorsement of Danny Trejo for nothing.

You see, a bunch of Evil Catholic Priests (with the help of an Evil Mother Superior) are running cocaine to a gang of Evil Mexican Bikers, with the nuns being made to handle the preparation of the stuff. And as you might remember from for instance American Gangster, the girls doing that have to be in the buff to make sure they don't make off with any of the product (this accounts for the aforementioned first appearance of the titular (hurr hurr - "titular") nude nuns). Except in this case, they naturally keep their nun veils (you know, those funky nun hats) on. Because otherwise how would you know that they were nude nuns? Logic!

Our hero, Sister Sarah, gets her heroic beginning when she makes a singularly inept attempt to steal a key of coke from the Evil Bikers that gets her immediately found out (though not without getting one of her completely blameless sisters killed in the process!) and then handed over to the Evil Bikers by the Evil Priests so she can be doped up and forced into prostitution. Well, okay - so that's not a very heroic beginning.

No, her true heroic beginning comes when she's given such a massive dose of heroin that she hears God speaking to her, telling her to kill everyone for justice. You know, the way He does. When the hippie/doctor who administers the heroin for the bikers hears this, he does the natural thing that any of us would and hands the Nude Nun a pair of Big Guns. Which she immediately uses to murder the man who just (inexplicably) helped her. And thus, her campaign of frequently naked vengeance against all the priests and bikers who wronged her begins!

And oh, what a Roaring Rampage of Revenge it is. Except that it's mostly not. This movie tries its hardest to fulfill the Exploitation archetype to its fullest, but this is the item on its checklist it falters most in marking off. Acres of nude female flesh? Check. Softcore rape? Check. Nunsploitation angle nunsploited to the fullest possible extent? Check. Lesbianism... oh yeah, did I mention that Sister Sarah (the heroic Nude Nun, remember) is also a lesbian? Because of course she is. So check! But bloodsplattered badass action scenes? ...Eh. Sure, the film makes an effort - it's just that through a lack of either budget or imagination (or both), the actual Bloody Vengeance scenes mostly fail to actually thrill. I don't know if a gunfight can ever actually be called sedate, but a number of the ones here seem to be out to test the thesis.

Further, they tend to get spaced out more than you'd likely expect from a film that puts "Big Guns" right in the title. Instead, we get scenes like one where we spend some time with the Evil Mexican Bikers (don't get the wrong idea from that, by the way - they have a black member too! who is their designated rapist. so clearly not racist!) as they encounter an American family who drop into the auto repair shop they use as a front a la Sons of Anarchy. Y'know, this One Big Happy Family you can see here in a behind the scenes shot:

Naturally, nothing but good things happen for them in this encounter:

Does this scene advance our plot? Nah. So what are its functions in the film? I'm glad I had you ask that, imaginary interlocutor! Because really, this all has only two points. One, to remind us that the Evil Bikers are in fact Evil Bikers. That's something the film takes very seriously, by the way - at a later point the Evil Biker Leader helpfully admonishes his minions (and of course us, the viewers) "remember - we're the bad guys!". Thanks, Evil Biker! If you hadn't said that, I probably would have forgotten. And the second point? Why, to give us a good look at some exposed pseudo-jailbait titties, of course (oh yeah - check!).

Still, the film does eventually come to its bloody climax as Sister Sarah produces an old-school Tommy gun from a never explained source (but as if anyone watching really cares) and launches a full scale assault on all the still-surviving Evil Bikers at their brothel/alternate HQ. To rescue her lesbian nun lover who's currently being softcore raped by the Evil Biker Leader upstairs. Of course. Still, this is definitely the best action sequence in the movie, and the film makes its best effort to (with true exploitation logic) balance out any possible prior misogyny in the movie by having the Evil Biker Leader's cock graphically blown right off. No, seriously - we see the severed thing lying there on the floor, and then the guy actually picks it up and stares at it as he wails in what seems to be as much existential agony as physical pain. And then the nuns blow him away execution style, naturally.

So that (aside from a concluding scene to set the potential for a sequel) is Nude Nuns in a nutshell. So what's the verdict? If you're looking for an absolutely shameless exploitation flick that aims to titillate and offend as much as it's capable, you're probably going to find your money's worth here. If that sounds abhorrent to you... then hell, congratulations to you on making it all the way to the end of the review. You earned 'em, buddy.

To check it out for yourself:


P.S.: Up before midnight! Technically still counts as a Friday update!

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

'Sploitation and the Neo-Pulp Aesthetic (Essay #1)

So, sorry about the hiccup in posting - circumstances, etc.; that damn Real Life cropping up, basically. Thank God I've got the internet to help keep me from having too much of one of those! I mean no wait I totally go to parties constantly and have so many girlfriends always I'm definitely a super cool man guy for sure.


I said I was going to try my hand at one of those more essay-style blog posts that you see around, and so I shall. Let's see how it goes, shall we?

Today's topic, boys, girls, and assorted netlarvae, shall be Pulp! Yeah, that's right - this glorious old stuff:

Which, of course, remains conspicuous by its presence (as it should always be meant to be) right up to our own more modern day:

Kinda hard to miss what he's going for there, isn't it? Since it's, y'know, the actual goddamn title itself. But then, while he's been accused of a lot of things, not many have ever accused Tarantino of subtlety (God bless him). Hell, he's even quite deliberately and explicitly tried to recreate, at least in some form, the classically Pulp grindhouse films of yesteryear, with of course the aid of his co-conspirator in cultural mischief Robert Rodriguez. Oh, and a frickin' fake trailer that was made up for those wound up getting made into its own spectacularly over-the-top feature film - and if that's not Pulp, what the hell is?

And of course, you can't really talk about Pulp without also talking about Exploitation, as intertwined as the two have generally been and perhaps by their natures must be. After all, Pulp seems to be that stuff that the Masses like, and doesn't everyone know what disgusting base little proles they are? So if it's Pulp, it's probably Exploitation too - may as well tar it with two forms of critical disapproval at once. And of course, probably the form of Exploitation that comes to mind most readily (and not just because you're filthy internet creatures) is Sexploitation - and that's certainly a tradition well rooted in pulp. I mean, just look at the chica in the first cover posted, the one from the good ol' days - apparently in the future, spacesuits will be designed based on the premise that blondes' skin is impervious to vacuum, so why bother covering it up. But exploitation can take many forms - blaxploitation being another famous one, though more so historically than presently (a latter-day homage here or there notwithstanding). In fact, I'd argue that it can perhaps take (at least almost) any form, because I'd define exploitation in this sense as meaning any time a cultural item takes a thematic element and uses it to exaggerated/heightened effect - whether it's female sexuality (or somebody's idea of it) or black culture (or somebody's idea of it), or something or anything else. Hence why I use the more generalized suffix form 'sploitation in the title rather than the word exploitation itself.

For instance, I'd argue that while The Boondock Saints probably most readily brings to mind its delightedly lurid and definitely pulp-tastic use of violence, its exaggerated/heightened employment of Catholic iconography and imagery could probably qualify as a form of exploitation as well (Catholicsploitation? Cathsploitation?). Hell, its use of such was so exaggerated/heightened that it managed to draw the opposition of the actual Catholic Church itself (which is something pedophilia had yet to do, so that's pretty impressive). The Church (with the capital C) actually went so far as to forbid any Catholic church (with the lower-case c) from permitting the film from filming inside them. So those scenes in the movie set in a Catholic church? Yeah, that's actually a Protestant church that the producers just stuck a giant styrofoam crucifix (yep - styrofoam. sanctity as done by show business.) in the middle of for shooting. Which all just goes to give evidence that this does in fact qualify as Exploitation by fulfilling another of the crucial criteria for said - namely, Pissing Somebody Off. For that matter, an upcoming review will cover another example of what might be considered - inter alia - to be Cathsploitation (yes, that's the one I went with. it's shorter.).

So, now I've talked a bit about Pulp, and quite a bit more about Exploitation (or 'Sploitation, to use the term from the title that I am increasingly beginning to regret, because I'm starting to notice it actually sounds kind of  dumb). But why? Isn't this just cultural trash? What's really worth noticing about it, much less actually discussing like it might even be worth something?

Well. I suppose one of the main items you could bring up is that if fiction is a mirror we hold up to ourselves (to wax pretentious for a moment), there just might be something worthwhile in having a mirror that can show us something of our id - of the raw animal hungers and needs that really drive so much more of what we do than we care to admit - not just the carefully crafted superego we've layered over it to hide it from the world, if not ourselves. Of course, Pulp isn't what it is because of any such pretensions or aspirations. Pulp is heightened and lurid and oh-so-often oh-so-delightfully demented simply because it loves to be, and because we love for it to be (remember the bit about the mirrors?). And it's not just another kind of mirror. It's just plain old goddamned fun, thumbing its nose at everyone and aiming right for wherever it thinks what's sometimes sneeringly called the lowest common denominator lies and with no apologies for it. And do you know what? That raw bubbling ferment of "we'll try it, because why not" can be just the kind of cultural stew that new things sometimes need to grow. Just read the first segment there that mentions all the people who came out of the relentless Roger Corman pulp machine and try to look me in the eye and tell me that that's all just a big mess of coincidence - that there wasn't anything happening there. Just try. I want to see if you can do it.

But don't get me wrong - Pulp isn't just there to produce other things. There's such a thing as good pulp, just like there is with virtually anything else. And good pulp can be appreciated in its own right, as no more - or less - than just that. Pulp will appeal to your basest instincts and desires. It will get in your face. It will cross your boundaries. It will lead you into a mad world where anything is possible if only it's outrageous enough, and where if you love the strange you will never be disappointed.

And let us all be thankful.


P.S.: Oh, and just on the off chance that the people reading this might be interested in this sort of thing, apparently there are "Extended and Unrated" versions of a couple of the items mentioned above:

You know - strictly For Your Information.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Apologies go here

So, sorry for the lack of a post - I'm trying to hold the blog on at least a MWF schedule, but unexpected circumstances + lack of a contingency for such... you know how it goes. But I'll have a post (planning on trying a bit of an essay rather than just another review this go-round) up as soon as practical, and I swear I actually am planning a regular schedule for this blog. For rizzles, man. For the very rizzliest of rizzles. Hmm. Did I just conjugate that pimp slang properly? ...Does anyone on this plane speak jive?

So uh anyway. See you soonest! And for God's sake, don't call me Shirley.


Friday, August 10, 2012

Online Game Review (#1): Uprising Empires

Uprising Empires (by Targa Limited)

So, this is a free-to-play (though if you noticed the "VIP Features" button on the sign-in screen above, you may have already realized that not everything is quite so free) online strategy game. It's set in roughly medieval times in the Middle East, so playable "races" - which feels pretty uncomfortable to say when everyone you're referring to is human, even though it's the terminology the game uses - are the Turks, the Byzantine Empire, the Mongols, and the Kingdom of Jerusalem (which for the historically impaired was the most prominent of the states set up by the crusaders). In play terms, race - you know what, I'm just going to say "faction" instead - faction differentiation is pretty minor. The units have somewhat different base stats across the different factions, but every faction still has basically the same set of units. The only obvious difference is in the unit artwork.

The game objectives are to gain control of more cities - either by building or conquering them - to upgrade their resource-producing, unit-producing, and research buildings, to advance through various "Ages" (shades of Age of Empires, anyone?), and of course ultimately to gain UTTER DOMINION OVER ALL THERE IS MWAHAHAHA. Evil laughter optional. There's also a light RPG element in that you can recruit XP-gaining heroes (who can also be equipped with various items in the usual way) to lead your armies and cities to enhance their attributes in battle or resource production, respectively.

Combat is only lightly strategic. You have no direct control over your units or what they do - once the attack is launched, all that's left for you is to cross your fingers and wait to see the damage. So how is it strategic at all then? Here's a shot of the army organization screen for reference:

As you can see, your armies are arranged into an "order of battle" - first line, second line, etc. Your enemies' armies are arranged the same way, and your first line will fight their first line, and so on. Since some types of units will do better against other types of units than others, the strategy comes in arranging your order of battle to optimally match the weaknesses in your opponents'. That's why it's vitally important to get information on enemy players by sending Spy units to their cities before you attack them. You can also attack NPC sites for materials to create or enhance hero equipment (and gain resources), but no reconnaissance is required there - they give their order of battle away for free if you just click on them and look. Didn't want to make it too complicated for the newbies, I guess.

Resource gathering isn't much to write home about. You build resource buildings (capped at four per type of resource per city) that generate resources at a set average rate per hour, with the rate increasing if you spend resources to upgrade the resource buildings. God, I said "resources" a lot in that sentence. You can also attack NPC sites for the resources held there, but good luck getting enough to even cover the costs of replacing the units you'll lose doing it. More interesting is the option to rob other players' cities - sending your armies to raid their storehouses of stockpiled resources and carry them home, making their loss your gain.

Perhaps the main twist the game has to offer is the alliance system. See, the absolute maximum number of cities any player can control is no more than six. So if you want a shot at ultimate victory, you'd better form or join an alliance. Once you're in one of those, you'll be able to help accumulate "Alliance Gold" (distinct from regular boring normal gold), that the alliance can use to put items (not hero items - more "boost wood production in given city by 25% for a day" type items) into the alliance store, where members can buy them using Fame, a currency they accumulate based on the amount of work they've done to benefit the alliance. After you've advanced far enough, you can also participate in a type of battle where the point is to steal Alliance Gold from other alliances for your own - a lot like the Rob battle option mentioned above, except for alliances. Alliance Gold can also be used to increase the level of the alliance, thereby improving the types of items that can be purchased for the alliance shop. Oh, and also increasing the member cap of the alliance. Yeah, there's a member cap. Meaning that most likely it'll be necessary for your alliance to make alliances with other alliances. God, I just said "alliances" a lot. This review is making me repeat myself too much (yes it's the review! no it's not a sign of poor writing! shut up!).

Anyway. The endgame is also (conceptually) interesting. Though I've yet to see it in action, the idea is that the game world starts out separated into four regions. In each region there's a Capitol City surrounded by four spread out Major Cities - all of these are heavily defended NPC cities that, assuming players are able to conquer them, will come under regular attacks by powerful NPC armies, not to mention attacks from other players who'd rather that city was theirs, thanks. But if you (or more likely, your alliance) can get all of them, then this initiates a process of regional "consolidation", the barriers between regions dissolve, and the regions can duke it out with each other and fight for possession of the previously totally-locked center region - control of which gives victory in the whole game. At which point another game starts up on another server or whatever, but nevermind.

But there's a major, major flaw with this game. See, there's only a few ways for an online game to make money. There's selling subscriptions (works great for World of Warcraft, but not realistic for a browser game), there's advertising (annoying)... and then there's the method Uprising Empires uses. Which is not just annoying, but elementally unfair. It's unfair because the game lets you purchase in-game advantages using your real-world money. Well, technically, it lets you purchase in-game currency using real-world currency, which you can then spend on in-game advantages, in a design choice that seems to accomplish nothing other than to add a layer of utter pointlessness into the whole sordid affair. And then there's their "VIP" subscription system, which is another level of exploitative crap I won't even get into. Why is this unfair? Because it means players with enough money (or little enough lives) to blow their cash on an online game will always have a disproportionate advantage over people who just want to play the game and can't afford to spend on things like that. Personally, I like to play games to get away from the ways the real world is shitty, not to be reminded of them by having them replicated in the game. And then rubbed in my face. Because, see, when I said Uprising Empires didn't use advertising, I just meant advertising from third parties. Advertising for their - to put it bluntly - cheat-for-cash services is constant and inescapable.

So, given such a significant flaw, how is a game supposed to lure in players from the internet? Hmm.... hmm... wait! By God, I've got it! They can just use sluts!

See, here's the recruiting screen for Uprising Empires:

Skimming over how "100% Free" actually means "100% Free Except For the Stuff That You Have to Pay For", that's a totally representative female Mongol on the right there. Let's analyze this a bit shall we? Judging just by her outfit and its utter impracticality for essentially any other line of work, it seems fair to conclude that she's probably a prostitute of some kind. But... she's carrying a weapon. So... some kind of warrior prostitute? Somewhere, Frank Miller just got an erection and he doesn't know why.

And yes, this is completely representative of the depiction of females in this game. For one more example, players are given a player avatar when they select a faction (yeah, still sticking with that word choice). Here's what you get if you pick "Byzantine Empire" and "Male":

And here's what you get if you select "Byzantine Empire" and "Female":

...Yeah. Leaving aside the not just biologically but gravitationally improbable breasts, does that outfit and utterly unnatural pose say more "yeah, I'm a serious would-be conqueror of the world" or "please, allow me to bear your children, mighty one! oh God, how did I wander out of the kitchen?!" to you? Oh but wait, she's got a weapon! Strapped to her totally-exposed supermodel-caliber thigh because why not, but still. Definitely a weapon. Danger averted! Gender equity achieved!

I mean, sure, I don't really know how she's supposed to be actually effective with it in a fight given that she's wearing what I think may actually be the opposite of armor. Not to mention that it seems likely she'd be all but paralyzed from crippling lower back pain resulting from her physics-defying (no, physics-mocking) rack, since as far as I can tell the one part of their historical setting that game-maker Targa Limited adheres to with absolute dedication is that bras hadn't been invented yet. But still! It's a weapon and dammit just stop thinking about it already.

And oh yeah - one last little thing. Remember when I said that that was a totally representative female Mongol earlier? Well, I didn't just mean representative of how women are portrayed. I also meant representative of how, apparently, basically everyone in the Middle East was essentially white. I'll bet you didn't know that, did you? Here's the female Turk avatar:

Since I said we're not focusing on the depiction of women anymore, we'll just skim right over the come-hither pose and harem girl outfit (sans even token weapon this time, but no nevermind dammit). Instead, I'll just not even note the essentially white skin and features (hey, there are some Turks who actually do look mostly like that - although there are also many who don't, who just coincidentally don't seem to show up here quite so much), and instead only point out that she's got freakin' red hair. I mean, come on. Is the idea supposed to be that this is a representative of a Turkish-Irish crossbreed, that common Middle Ages phenomenon? Honestly. Are they even really bothering to pretend not to be open about what they're doing at this point?

So. Given all this, why have I played this game enough to be able to review it for you all? All literally several of you at this point, but nevermind that. Because, to my secret shame - well, I guess it's not so secret anymore - I've actually gotten a bit hooked on it. What can I say? I like empire building, and I'm a big fan of this historical era, even if it's not exactly treated with reverent respect here. So, uh. In case this review has (somehow) convinced you that this is a game you would in fact like to start playing, here's my recruitment link! And if you'd like to join my alliance, it's called Holy League, it's in the SW region of the Saga 2 server, and it's for Jerusalem and Byzantine players only because I started as a Jerusalem player and it bugged me that Turks and crusaders (or Mongols and freakin' anyone, for that matter) would be in the same alliance the way they are in all the others. Because as has been clearly shown, this is a game where historical accuracy should be considered as having paramount importance.


P.S.: Some of you might be wondering how exactly I'm not a hypocrite for picking on Uprising Empires for its female characters when I was just singing the praises of Empowered, which if anything positively delights in its own pinuperrific imagery. Short answer? There's a difference between putting sexy girls in your work in a way where they're still people, or even in doing it in a deliberately over-the-top pulp fiction sort of way, and doing it in a way where you've clearly just decided that slapping in some ambulatory f*ckmeat is just the way to pander to the emotionally stunted man-children who are your target demographic. One of these things is on the right side of that line. One of them isn't.

And being on the wrong side of that line, by the way? It's not just anti-feminist (or whatever - most who know me in real life could assure you political correctness isn't exactly one of my main concerns in life). It's just fricking insulting.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

New Comics Review (#1): Empowered Volume 7

Empowered Volume 7 (by Adam Warren)

Yes, Adam Warren's saucy supes series (mm, alliteration) has a new entry! For fans of the series (like me), this is definitely good news, because this particular series updates only in volumes, not in individual monthly (or monthly-ish, depending on the creators) issues. So it's been significantly over a year since the last one of these. Long wait, yeah?

But since we're coming in at Volume 7 here, a little bit of rudimentary backstory is probably called for. "Empowered" got its start as a lighthearted chronicle of the travails of its titular (hurr hurr - "titular") character - that's the blonde on the cover -  an aspiring superheroine with an unfortunate tendency to wind up subdued and tied up by the bad guys because she loses most of her superpowers when her "supersuit" gets torn or damaged - and it's VERY fragile, sadly for her. Upshot? Crossover between superhero action (set in a comical sendup of the Very Serious backdrops of many superhero stories - the founding members of the supergroup Empowered is a lowly associate member of all met at a support group for people who acquired their superpowers through - ick - "metahuman STDs". use protection, kids. unless you want superpowers? kind of a mixed message, actually.) and pinup-style cheesecake.

Speaking of jokes - here's the Caged Demonwolf (an unholy demon spirit from outside space and time... currently trapped in alien power-draining bondage gear (what?) and sitting on Emp's coffee table) on his appreciation for popular music:
Yeah. Be careful what you get him started on.

But as the series went on, things progressively got... well, darker. Sure, the jokes and the saucy shenanigans stuck around. But genuinely frightening villains, occasionally gruesome mayhem, character development, and (no spoilers) genuinely affecting character death showed up too. The usual verdict among people who follow the series is that it's grown beyond what it was, and has pretty consistently gotten better with each passing volume. And I'm 100% on board with that myself too.

So here we are at Volume 7. Without spoiling too much of what's come before, the Ayakami clan of ninjas (yes, there are ninjas - why wouldn't there be ninjas?) are coming after Empowered's very bestest BFF Ninjette, sometimes also called Kazue Kaburagi - that's the ninja girl in Emp's arms on the cover. And that's the Ayakami clan as in the ENTIRE Ayakami clan. As in all of them. And they are most definitely out for blood. And to stop them? Well, our dear 'Jette is gonna have to get just a mite bloody herself. How bloody, you ask?

That bloody. Ouch.

And who does 'Jette have for backup? None of her friends, because she refuses to involve them in such a Charlie Foxtrot (to be polite) of a mess. More principles than common sense there, you ask me. But I guess you didn't.

No, 'Jette (I like the dimunitive, okay? so sue me.) only has Oyuki-Chan, a potty-mouthed and rather scary ninja from 'Jette's former clan with some SERIOUS personal issues with 'Jette - and incidentally, the redhead from the cover. And she's only helping because she owes 'Jette - or Kaburagi-San, as she prefers to address her - some great past debt, and ninja honor demands it (or whatever). And how much help is she beyond the limits of that, if 'Jette needs it?

That much. Damn, that was so cold I think I got frostburn just from looking at it.

But anyway. Upshot is, between all the entertainingly brutal ninja violence and some (naturally effed-up and disturbing) looks into 'Jette's backstory - including some insight into Oyuki-Chan's debt - this is an unusually Ninjette-centric volume. In fact, as Emp complains - or actually doesn't complain, just semi-passive-aggressively insists loudly that she's not complaining (oh, Emp) - the title character is effectively co-starring in her own book this go-round. Oh, she definitely still gets her share of screentime, for both the aforementioned saucy shenanigans (and I bet you internet kids are wondering why I couldn't have posted any excerpts of those), and even for some potentially down-the-road significant character-development/insight related to her eensy little bondage problem. But fundamentally, this volume is really 'Jette's story. And while I wouldn't want that to be the case every volume (seriously, Emp definitely grows on you as a character, especially when she manages to overcome her insecurities enough to lay down some - naturally still unappreciated - whoopassery on some super-deserving supervillains), that's a-okay with me here. Highly recommended, this one.

To pick it up:

Or to start where it all began and get the whole story from the beginning:

The Deluxe Edition is available on this one, by the way, if you don't mind shelling out for the primo version.


Monday, August 6, 2012

New Book Review (#1): 1636: The Kremlin Games

1636: The Kremlin Games (by Eric Flint, Gorg Huff, and Paula Goodlett)

So for those not already familiar with the series, this is part of the 1632/Ring of Fire series created by Eric Flint. The basic premise of the series is that a small West Virginian town from roughly modern times was transported back in time through mysterious means (the aforementioned "Ring of Fire") to the year 1632 (title of the series making sense now?), and also transported through space to land right smack dab in the middle of the Germanies - yes, plural: they weren't a united nation back then - and the viciously bloody 30 Years' War. Various shenanigans ensue that aren't terribly relevant right now. Right now all you need to know is that while the premise is unabashedly silly (in the prelude to the first book Flint writes an "explanation" that's basically a masterfully deadpan satirical send-up of any book that bothers trying with a supposedly plausible rationale for their "Connecticut Yankee" anachronistic transplantation scenario), the implications are generally treated seriously and intelligently.

So, what's the deal with this particular book? In particular, if this is Eric Flint's series, why are there two other authors listed? Well, it goes like this: on a couple of books, Flint collaborated with David Weber, a well-established SF/F author. On rather a larger number of books, Flint has collaborated with no-names who generally have few if any publishing credits to their names aside from their collaborations with Flint. There are a couple ways to look at this. One is that Flint is generously giving new authors a chance to break into the field a bit (which is legitimately hard as hell for most people, by the way), and flesh out some of the corners and events of his fictional universe more thoroughly than he could practically manage writing by himself. What a great guy! The other is that Flint has basically converted much of his series into a kind of literary franchise operation where Flint stamps his name on books other people write, and maybe provides some overall direction, but otherwise doesn't do much other than rent out the name of his series and collect royalties. What a... hmm.

So, probably unsurprisingly, one of the main characteristics of these "franchise" type books (as opposed to the "mainline" books that Flint still writes himself), is that they're generally not as well written. This is mostly the work of enthusiastic near-amateurs, and it shows. The prose in this book can be called serviceable, and not much more. The other thing that's often true of them is that not too much of genuine significance actually happens in them.

And this book is no exception on that front. The basic plot (spoilers alert!) is that Bernie Zeppi, an undermotivated and underemployed former auto mechanic is recruited to work for the Gorchacov clan in Russia helping them to take advantage of the "up-time" technological advances made possible by the arrival of Grantville. And he does that, while eventually (of course) discovering genuine passion for making the world better, etc. This produces such exciting developments as better roads and, after several setbacks and (ugh) "misfires" toilets. Also (inexplicably in large part backgrounded) are some political machinations and rumblings primarily over the oppressed status of serfs in Russia, that ultimately culminate in the book's Designated Villain (seriously, it talks about how he views Stalin as a wonderful role model from the future, how his whole family is infamous for corruption and oppressing serfs - you get the idea) from the upper Russian nobility overthrowing the czar and seizing power as the new "Director-General" of Russia. Bernie and the Gorchacov forces rescue the czar and escape into the east with some vague notions of starting some "New Russia" with no serfdom because since the book also needs some Designated Good Guys, then this is of course the position the freakin' czar of Russia (a class of person historically renowned for their progressive credentials, of course) naturally lands on. And then... the book ends. This is, really and actually, pretty much the whole book. Oh, there's certainly some other stuff - a Gorchacov who stays in Grantville romances and eventually marries a girl from Grantville (which has no apparent significance), there's a minor battle with the Poles that the Russians win (but that has no apparent significance, other than providing virtually the sole taste of military action in the entire book), there's a slow-burning romance (VERY slow-burning - it's never consummated or even acknowledged by either party in the whole book) between Bernie and the chief Gorchacov noblewoman - but as suggested, none of it seems to actually mean anything for the most part. I'm just going to hazard a guess here - these authors were getting paid by the word.

Now, this "New Russia" business sounds like it could potentially (emphasis on potentially, given the record thus far) set up some interesting stuff down the road. But essentially all this book is, is the set-up. The book-length, 406-pages-long, full-price setup. If there's a sequel (and I suspect the franchise will inevitably demand one), then that might be genuinely worth reading. But this one? Pretty much just for absolutely die-hard 1632 fans and people who are sincerely fascinated by the mechanics of engineering toilets.

If you wanna buy it anyway:

Or if you'd rather jump onto the (vastly superior) beginning of the series: