Runaway Deception, Denae Christine

Runaway Deception, Denae Christine

Runaway Deception (Royal Deception Book 2)

Symon abandoned the throne of Arton after the death of his father, leaving his treacherous uncle in functional charge of the country and his mother and a twelve-year-old soon-to-be-royal, Lana, as the only bulwark against the coup. Fleeing through the countryside, Symon accidentally falls in with the rumoured band of renegade animal shifters known as the Hoard, and decides to remain with them, hiding who and what he actually is, as his uncle’s Inurite army imprison and kill animal shifters across Arton.

Author Denae Christine has created an interesting and satisfyingly complex society of shape shifters in this series, their roles and discord lending insight into the intricate world building behind the books. While the author’s technical skill is clear, and the social structure as intriguing as the biology, I didn’t find that Runaway Deception really went anywhere. It’s difficult to explain without horrific spoilers of this book or the first in the series, but the status quo at the end of book one, essentially, is the status quo at the end of book two; Symon missing, Lana in trouble, treacherous uncle in charge of Arton and doing unspeakable things.

I also must confess that I found Symon hard to relate to as a protagonist; in some core aspects, he appears to be as self-centred as a gyroscope, and while this story is a YA, and Symon is a teenager, it was hard for me to find much sympathy with him. It made reading a book almost entirely about his adventures while running away from his throne a little tougher a proposition than it might otherwise have been.

The quality of the story-telling, however, earnt this book a solid three stars despite my not-infrequent desire to see Symon turned over someone’s knee and spanked – it’s well-paced, well-thought out, and an enjoyable read.

Antioch, Gregory Ness

Antioch, Gregory Ness

Antioch: The Sword of Agrippa Book 1

Antioch follows the story of Roy Swenson, a scientist in an age where science has become reviled by extremists and scientists are hunted and killed on the streets; and in another incarnation, the story of the young Marcus Agrippa, following his Caesar to Alexandria to start a series of events that will echo through history. Other events in that time, less public, still shadow Roy’s life two thousand years later, as he struggles to find support and funding for a ground-breaking research project in one of the few remaining oases of education – the ancient city of Prague. Somehow, the two lifetimes are inextricably linked…

Author Gregory Ness has created a compelling contrast between the two timelines; Egypt in the time of the Caesars, and a close-future society where the vogue for denying science has become even more fashionable. The talking points of Swanson’s research offer interesting food for thought – I would have been happy to see those storylines developed a little more; in this first novel, Agrippa’s timeline dominates the story, and interesting as it is, I felt it rather overshadowed the other. The book is also clearly preparing the way for the next in the series, with a cliff-hanger of epic proportions to lure the reader on. That said, the book was a pleasant read, offering a tempting mix of myth, mythology, and science to pull a reader into the plot.

Eye of the Storm, Frank Cavallo

Eye of the Storm, Frank Cavallo

Eye of the Storm

Gathered in the wake of a series of reports of odd weather and odder events in one of the most remote areas of Kyrgyzstan, a group of scientists, TV personalities, and mercenaries hope to establish the truth – or the lie – behind the stories of Neanderthals in armour attacking army and air force detachments in the area. On the other hand, no matter how prepared, no team is ready for chasing a flight of pterosaurs into the eye of the storm in a helicopter – and that’s not even the strangest thing Dr. Fayne and Eric Slade will face in their adventure.

Frank Cavallo’s Eye of the Storm offers an adventure of peoples and creatures caught out of their times and worlds; a fantasy take, if you will, on Arthur C. Clarke’s Time’s Eye. Anna Fayne’s ill-fated group is merely the latest of a series of unfortunates and adventurers who have been caught up by the storm, and now they share a world with everything from completely alien species to mammoths, ancient Etruscans, and pterosaurs. I found this was by and large an enjoyable read; some of the characters and interactions felt to me as if they would have benefited from a little more polishing, and the overarching aim of the plot took a little while to come clear, but generally the story hung together well. Definitely worth the read.

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda

Mass Effect: Andromeda (PC)

So I’m going to drop way out of my usual tree and actually review a game. Mass Effect: Andromeda, to be precise. A sci-fi game, but still. Not generally my field. I’m reviewing this one because the original Mass Effect trio made for one of my favourite games ever (admittedly the last one had the kind of god-awful SNAFU of an ending that should go down in the history books, but enough people have flamed ME:3’s ending that I don’t need to repeat).

Anyway, even with the ME:3 ending that made me give serious thought to tracking down the developers and introducing their heads repeatedly to a wall while repeating ‘Do NOT fuck up an otherwise awesome series with an ending like that’, I jumped on Mass Effect: Andromeda. You know, just in case they’d pulled their heads outta their asses and gone back to ME:2 levels of awesome.

Having played it through, my answer is a qualified ‘meh’. As you can see, I rated it 3 stars, rather than the 100 out of 5 I’d’ve unhesitatingly awarded ME:2. Why am I being so mean, and who the hell do I think I am to comment, anyway?

First off, I write sci-fi plots. I have for over twenty years, and so I have a solid base of experience to pull on when I say that this plot was weaker than lite beer. There was no character development; the crew comes across as a bunch of teeny-boppers on a road trip compared to the originality and depth of the ME original crews. The dialogue was bloody dull; I’ve never skipped through so much character interaction on a first play through in my life, and the romancing…well, let’s not get started on that, I’d be here all day. High-level overview: they got a ten-year-old American boy to write it. Which is a shame, because someone had clearly put a lot of work into the actual programming since the days of ME:1. Not that there’s actually anyone interesting to shag in the Mass Effect: Andromeda universe: Reyes Vidal is about the only one with any life in the character, and he’s really a walking, talking Hispanic bad-boy stereotype. At least he’s an entertaining one.

So I loathed the crew, the dialogue was insipid, and the plot had weak points you could drive a cruiseliner through. Why did I keep going? Fair question. I guess I enjoyed the original ME so much I hoped Andromeda would miraculously pick its ass off the floor and get back in the fight, and also, the graphics were stunning. If you take Mass Effect: Andromeda to the cleaners on every other point (and you pretty much can) all the inspiration the rest of the game so badly needed ended up in the planet building. Varied, gorgeous, and by and large very solid – I didn’t end up stuck up to my knees in a rock, which made a welcome change from other games that shall remain nameless.

Kedara was my top favourite Mass Effect: Andromeda location – think of Kedara as the Omega station of the Andromeda galaxy, and you’re not too far off. Whoever came up with it had also clearly spent some time in Iceland, or somewhere very similar, so as well as offering the best range of characters who actually, well, had some character, the scenery was great, and not too tortuous to explore (Havarl, to take a totally not-random example, was a right shit to get around in).

In terms of opposition, there isn’t that much variation planet-to-planet. There’s your good mates the kett, in their four basic flavours of Chosen, aka redshirts, Destined (or something) which are redshirts with shields, Anointed, which have armour, and Ascendant, which are multi-level bastards whose main challenge lies in killing their regenerating shield so you can kill them. There are planetary monsters which also don’t vary all that much: some places they’re called adhi, other places challyrion, and if the kett get their paws on them, they’re called wraith and can cloak until shot. Basically, they’re much the same creature, and if you think Komodo dragon crossed with a porcupine you’re not far off. The Remnant bots are very consistent everywhere (logical when you think about it) and none of them are too hard to kill until you come up against destroyers and architects, either of which can repeatedly spoil your day. You’ve also got rogues of all species, called Roekaar if they’re angaran (because double vowels make everything sound more official), and exiles if they’re human, turian, krogan, or asari.

It’s in facing the opposition and gearing up to face the opposition that a major weak point of ME: Andromeda comes to light. You don’t have one convenient location to buy new and exciting ways to introduce people to their next life and another convenient location to decide which armour / weapons you and your team will actually use on a given mission. Oh no. You have merchants – separate ones – for armour, weaponry, car parts, and any other items the space-faring teeny-bopper needs, or you have to scan shit (lots and lots and lots and lots of shit) to accumulate ‘research points’ so you can build and mod instead of buying. Once you’ve got your research points, you have to scroll through a lot of options (over a hundred), research your gun or armour or mod, and then go somewhere new and different to actually build the damn thing. Once built, you go somewhere else AGAIN to equip it – and you can’t select weaponry for your team at all. In fact, short of taking a series of action stills, there’s no way to even find out what your team’s carrying, which makes mission planning rather more hit and miss than any of the previous MEs. Basically, kit is a major pain in the ass. If you have the patience, there are some pretty kick-ass bits of mayhem you can build. My personal favourites were the Dhan shotgun and the Isharray sniper, but then I derive malign enjoyment from a good sniper perch and exploding heads.

And let me not miss the opportunity to bash the bloody, benighted scanner missions. Oh yes. Someone in game design had a serious hard-on for that damn scanner. You have to trace conduits to achieve missions, scan beasties (preferably not when they’re gnawing your face off), and scan everything up to and including email terminals and cots to get your research points. Kill me now.

The other thing you do repeatedly on most stops is drive. Your vehicle is a six-wheeled ATV that’s a step up from your wheels in ME:1, a step down from ME:2 (because, seriously, how do you beat a hovercraft with a super-speed option???), and doesn’t blow up too easy. However, it’s unexpectedly entertaining, because the one part where the Mass Effect: Andromeda team must have gagged and bound their usual dialogue writer and got someone else to write is for the chats between your team mates while spending time with you driving around. Peebee and Jaal are especially awesome for long drives, even if you pay for bringing Jaal along in most serious fights. Never, ever, take Liam anywhere unless you really need the sanctimonious little shit, but Cora and Drack are also surprisingly funny, and Peebee and Vetra have their moments.

And the ending? I felt free to smear the ME:3 ending (along with almost everyone else, BTW), so what of ME: Andromeda? Well, to be honest, the Mass Effect: Andromeda ending was kind of the mwarp-mwarp-mwarp variety. You shoot a metric shit-ton of things you’ve shot a hundred times before, and Tann and Addison promptly do what they do best after snarky comments and road-blocking – make you make the actual decisions. There’s a lot of open plot threads left over, making this ending more of a cliffhanger than anything else. I’m not a big fan of cliff-hangers in books or anywhere else, because, while it makes a certain amount of sense in terms of desperately trying to attract people back for the sequel, a cliff-hanger makes unflattering comment on your ability to write something that will lure them back whether or not the heroine is poised on the precipice in your final scene, and it’s also damn annoying, especially with the persistent rumours going around that the ME:A’s developers’ delicate egos were so bruised by the less-than-flattering reviews that any sequel is likely years out, if it happens at all.

So, overall? I’ll probably play it again, road-test another character type, think longingly of the ME:2 game before the epic fuck-up propagated at the end of ME:3, and then go and play the original ME again for contrast, because I am desperately short of sci-fi games that aren’t just Alien vs Predator ego-shooters. However, overall – this could have been a great game, and spawned another clutch of relatively intelligent, well-plotted sequels. Instead, it flopped like a pregnant pole-vaulter, and the plot and dialogue team have a lot of that shame to wear.

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The Azrael Initiative, K Hanson

The Azrael Initiative, K Hanson

The Azrael Initiative (Kayla Falk Series Book 1)

Kayla Falk is an engineering student, whose biggest concern is her graduation project. Unlike most students, she even has a guaranteed job waiting for her at graduation: working for her best friend’s dad. Her plans are looking good, but sometimes the sayings about best-laid plans love to prove themselves, and an attack on her university throws Kayla, and her best friend Olivia, into the middle of something neither of them had ever considered. When two teens beat off a terrorist cell, it’s not only the news outlets that take notice…

The Azrael Initiative is a strong contender in the YA adventure field, picking two teens out of utterly normal lives and catapulting them into extraordinary circumstances. I found that the storyline was well-constructed, with enough breadcrumbs leading to the twist to make it plausible, but not enough to be a dead giveaway. However (without dropping a ton of spoilers) there were some elements that made suspending my disbelief tricky as I read, not least that neither of our two heroines apparently asked any more questions than ‘where do I sign?’ before involving themselves once the pivotal tragedy had struck. The convenient villain’s diary that gives away the whole background was another. On the whole, though, this was an entertaining, well-paced read, and the absence of useless females was a refreshing change.

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