Star Wars: Leia, Princess of Alderaan – Claudia Gray

Finally catching back up on my Star Wars book reviews, I want to share my thoughts on Leia, Princess of Alderaan by Claudia Gray. This is a novel that really took me by surprise. I went into this book with low expectations. But ended up with a page turner that captured my attention from start to finish. From my experience, novels that feature Leia as the lead character have always felt slightly subpar. One recent exception to this was Bloodline, a book that was also penned by Claudia Gray. Claudia Gray really seems to understand what makes the character of Leia Organa interesting and has no problem whatsoever getting that to translate to paper. In fact, she does such a wonderful job that I find myself hoping she remains the de facto “Leia” author for some time.

This book focuses on Leia as a young girl, several years before events of Episode IV. It provides a lot of background information on her days growing on Alderaan, her introduction into galactic politics, and even how she came to be a member of the rebellion. This novel also does a masterful job of entwining characters and lore from both the original trilogy and prequel era in a relevant and cohesive way. Often times, when authors try to blend these two eras of Star Wars together, the result ends up feeling forced or gimmicky. Not this time.  If that wasn’t enough, this book also introduces the character of Amilyn Holdo and the planet of Crait – both featured in The Last Jedi.  This helps to further cement them into the ongoing narrative. Again, this is handled expertly in a way that only Claudia Gray could manage.

The Last Jedi was a film that was very divisive for many Star Wars fans, myself included. For many, the character of Admiral Holdo seemed injected into the movie with no backstory or real purpose. It is books like this one that just might be able to change the minds of those fans who have a hard time understanding just who that character is and why she so important to Leia. (Still, this should have been covered to some extent in the film itself, but I digress.) Fans who find themselves on the fence about the direction Disney is taking Star Wars would do themselves a favor by cracking open this book. It’s novels like this that keep that classic EU feel that so many fans love, but still manage to stay within the confines of the official canon.

Story: Very well written. Claudia Gray is a wonderful author and a boon to the Star Wars literary world. Great info on Leia Organa and the early days of the rebellion. Fans curious about Alderaan will find many of their questions answered here.

Recommended:  For all fans. Especially those that might take issue with some of the story decisions in The Last Jedi.

 

 

Empire of Imagination – Michael Witwer

 

I love to read. When it comes to books I consume everything I can get my hands on. Most of the time I read fiction, but occasionally I enjoy non-fiction as well – especially biographies. A while back I posted a review of Richard Garriott’s autobiography Explore/Create. Being a fan of RPG games, it was just the type of non-fiction I enjoy. A few months later, I found myself itching to read something similar. That’s when I found Empire of Imagination, a biography about the the Dungeons & Dragons founder, Gary Gygax.

That’s right. For those that might not be familiar with Mr. Gygax, he is the original inventor of Dungeons & Dragons. A game that he created out of love rather than for profit.  This book covers Gygax’s life from his early youth all the way until his final days, with of course, the main focus being his time as CEO of TSR. Gary, while beloved by many gamers and grognards, was infamous for his temper and over-indulgent behavior. This book takes a very unabashed look at every aspect of his life. Nothing is off the table here.

Each chapter starts with a mock D&D session that ties-in with the overall theme of the upcoming content. This is an interesting presentation that starts off strong, but eventually ends up feeling a bit weak after a few chapters. Despite being a biography, the book is written in a strange mixture of both historical narration and dramatization. I found this to be a bit odd. Writing out real-life events in a fictional-style narrative tends to cast doubt on the authenticity of the story being told. I have no doubt that the author took a number of liberties when discussing Gary’s life in this regard. However, in the end, I feel like this was nothing more than an artistic decision.

Having been a fan of D&D for many years, I thought I knew nearly everything there was to know about Gary Gygax. This book opened my eyes to a number of details about his life I was unfamiliar with. Namely, how his youth and his deep-rooted love to his hometown inspired his artistic vision. For this alone, I found it to be an excellent read.

If you’re a fan of D&D and you’re interested in learning some of what went on behind the scenes in the glory days of the game, this might be a book for you.

Story: Despite the odd presentation, this book is well written and interesting. Gary Gygax is an interesting case-study. When it comes to running a business Gary seemed to have his heart in the right place, but ultimately made a number of bad decisions that he ended up paying for until the end of his days.

Recommended:  This is a book that’s likely to only be appreciated by hardcore D&D grognards or those with a working interest in tabletop role playing. I personally found the book to be insightful and interesting, but admittedly it’s only going to appeal to a specific audience.

Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View – Various Authors

It has been a while since I posted a review of a Star Wars novel. In truth, I think I suffered from a bit of Star Wars burnout leading up to the release of The Last Jedi. I indulged on so many different books and other Star Wars media at the time, that once the movie was released I found myself needing a break. Now, a few months later, we are on the heels of Solo: A Star Wars Story, so I’m getting back into my groove. This time, I’m taking a moment to talk about a rather interesting entry in the new Star Wars canon; From a Certain Point of View.

This book is a collection of short stories that actually tell the tale of A New Hope, but from the viewpoint of various characters. (Hence the name of the collection).

As expected with any short story collection, some of the tales included in the volume are better than others.  It starts off strong with a story told from the perspective of Captain Antilles. This story does a wonderful job of bridging the gap between Rogue One and  A New Hope and serves as a perfect launching point for the book. But it is then followed by a slightly dull, but still interesting, tale about the Stormtrooper who stunned Princess Leia.

This ebb and flow continues for the first half of the novel. But then everything comes to a grinding halt when we reach the “cantina scene” from the movie. At this point, we are dished out what (felt to me) like too many random short  stories about the various  aliens found in the Mos Eisley Cantina. This portion of the book actually reminded me a lot of the old Expanded Universe novel Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. In fact, several of the stories here offer retcons to some of the tales told in that old collection.

The last half of the novel is where things really pick up. There are some really insightful stories about Obi  Wan, Yoda, and even an interesting poem about Emperor Palpatine. It all makes for a very eclectic, if not refreshing book.

All in all, I found this collection to be a mixed bag. Some of the stories are very well done and interesting. Others almost read like satire and feel like throwaway content. Without sounding too controversial, I was also slightly irritated to see more of what seemed like “political shoehorning” in this collection. One story in particular reveals a homosexual relationship between a Stormtrooper and an Imperial officer… Ok. But, why is that important? I feel like if given some context or an important plot point this would make more sense. But to me, it just felt like it was tacked-on for the sake of having something LGBT friendly in the book. But, whatever – Inclusion, I guess.

Despite some minor flaws, I found this book to an overall worth addition to the new Star Wars canon. I enjoyed the “point-of-view” aspect to it, and I hope see more novels follow the same format.

Story: Mixed. Some of the short stories collected here are masterfully done. Others, not so much.

Recommended:  For all Star Wars fans.

 

 

 

Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

Nerd Culture is a stock that is currently rising. Everywhere you turn people are embracing retro nostalgia and pop-culture icons of yesteryear. Video games are mainstream. Dungeons & Dragons is mainstream. Horror, Sci-Fi, Fantasy – all genres that were once coveted only by the nerdiest among us are now celebrated en-masse. For proof of this, one needs to look no further then the smash box-office hit Ready Player One. This film is nothing more than a huge amalgamation of video games and retro pop-culture.

Of course, the film is based on a book of the same name. I first read this book about six months ago at the suggestion of my oldest son. At first, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had never heard of the novel. But upon taking up his suggestion, I was pleasantly surprised by what I found.

Let me say up front, that having both read the book and having viewed the film, they are very different. The film follows the basic plot of the novel, but strays off on its own path. While similar, the book and the film are two completely different experiences. I like the film just fine, but the book seems the have a charm that feels a bit more personal. It just works a bit better in my opinion. If I had to guess, I imagine that many of the differences had to do with licensing issues. It’s easier to get certain things in print that it is to get them on the big screen.

In a nutshell, the story of Ready Player One takes place about two decades in the future. War, pollution, and political unrest have turned the world into a pretty unpleasant place. To escape reality, a majority of the population retreat to a V.R. world called “The O.A.S.I.S”. This virtual world offers both entertainment and even job opportunities. When the founder of the O.A.S.I.S. dies, it is revealed that he has hidden a secret Easter Egg in his program. Whoever can find it will inherit his fortune and control of the O.A.S.I.S program. Of course, people go nuts looking for clues in hopes of winning the contest. Hunters begin studying every aspect of the creator’s life and interests in hopes of uncovering some clue that will lead them to the prize. This results in a resurgence of popularity in late 70’s and 80’s pop culture. However, five years after his death no one has come close. The biggest competitor still looking for the egg is the corporation that currently manages the O.A.S.I.S. Their hope is gain complete control of the virtual world so that they can monetize it. Eventually, one young man manages to uncover a clue that leads him on the path to claiming the egg. But the closer he gets to winning the more danger he finds himself in.

It is said that Richard Garriot, creator of the Ultima video games series (who’s book I recently reviewed here), partially served as the inspiration for James Halliday (the creator of The O.A.S.I.S). But honestly, I also suspect that D&D founder Gary Gygax was just as big of a muse. In fact, the book makes several mentions of Dungeon & Dragons. Naturally, this resulted in more than a few smiles from me as I thumbed through the novel.

If you’re like me and you tend to get hung up reading only specific authors or books from various fantasy series, it’s important to switch things up from time to time. Ready Player One is a great change of pace. As a child of the 80’s this book is a great nostalgic trip. I recommend reading it before going to see the film. This one is recommended.

Story: Entertaining and over-the-top. The writing style can be a bit iffy at times, but the book itself is largely enjoyable. The more versed you are in pop-culture the more you will get out of this one.

Recommended:  This book is a must-read for nerds and pop-culture fanatics. Retro grognards like me will find a lot to enjoy. That being said, the book has found a solid audience with mainstream readers as well.

Explore/Create – Richard Garriott

 

It’s been a little while since I posted a book review that wasn’t Star Wars related. In fact, I think my last one was a review of Stephen King’s Carrie back in November of last year. So, this time I wanted to change things up a bit and discuss an autobiography that I finished a few months ago: Explore/Create by Richard Garriott.

Richard Garriott is an American video game developer and entrepreneur. He is best known as the creator of the legendary Ultima games, a series of classic RPGs for the personal computer. He is also lesser known for being a private astronaut and all-around adventurer.

Even though I’ve not really discussed it on this site before, I’ve been a lifelong fan of the Ultima series. In fact, starting next month, I plan to spend a little time reviewing the series in full before jumping back into my regular backlog reviews. As a die-hard Ultima fan, I was shocked to discover that I had overlooked the fact that Garriott had authored a novel about his life and career. Somehow, I had missed the news that this book even existed. No sooner did I learn about it, I snapped up a digital copy and fired it up on my Kindle.

As far as autobiographies go, this book is a little odd. First, it focuses on two different aspects of Garriott’s life, his love of exploration and of artistic creation (hence the name of the novel “Explore/Create“). Each chapter is designated with one of those two labels. Chapters tagged as “Explore” focus on Richard Garriott’s real life adventures and amateur scientific excursions. For example, his experiences on the International Space Station, or his trips to Antarctica. Chapters labeled with the “Create” tag, are more geared towards stories about his game developments days.

With this in mind, readers who are only interested in Garriott’s career can skip any of the “Explore” chapters and just get right into the meat of what interests them the most. For me, I did read the entire book of course, but I personally took a greater interest in the stories and anecdotes regarding his work on Ultima and his career at Origin. I found some of his “Explore” adventures to be interesting, but often a bit braggadocios. Richard Garriott strikes me as the type of guy who enjoys his wealth and doesn’t mind flashing his status around. Which, is OK, I suppose. But it comes off as a little silly in print.

I believe all of the stories presented in the book are factual. I don’t think Garriott is spinning any tall tales here. But admittedly, some of them are presented in a very over-the-top fashion. For example, there’s a section early on in the book where he details an event involving a prowler on his property. The whole encounter actually ended with Mr. Garriott holding the trespasser at gunpoint while he waited for the Police to arrive. That is interesting enough on its own, but the way Garriott portrays it is just a little much… I believe the quote was something to the effect of “So then, I grabbed an Uzi and made my way up stairs!” I audibly snorted when I read the line.

I suppose such a grandiose presentation and having a bit of an ego comes with the territory. The man has certainly earned his lifestyle. And despite coming across as a bit of a blowhard, he seems to be a nice person. I’ve had a few dealings with him on Twitter over the years, we’ve sparred on political topics, etc – but despite our difference of opinion, Richard Garriott has always been civil and respectful. That’s more than I can say for some people.

In summary, this is a book that will appeal most to old school gamers, science nerds, and techies. There’s very little here that might inspire the average person to want to thumb through these pages. Once you crack the cover, the book itself is well done, but again, it is certainly not going to appeal to everyone.

Story: Interesting and insightful. It comes off as pretentious at times. By his own admission, Richard Garriott sometimes sounds like a privileged rich kid who lucked out and landed the career of his dreams. However, he also manages to be self critical and humble when appropriate. For those interested, this book provides lots of insider info on the indie game scene of the early 80s – interesting stuff.

Recommended:  For fans of Ultima and old school CRPGS. Science nerds and PC-culture fans.

 

Star Wars: Guardians of the Whills – Greg Rucka

The week is here! In a mere two days Star Wars: The Last Jedi will finally be released in theaters across the world. So, to celebrate I’m posting my review of the final “Rogue One” novel; Guardians of Whills.

This novel focuses on the characters of Chirrut and Baze, two characters that I found particularly interesting from the film, Rogue One. As a result, I had really high hopes for this novel. Sadly, of the three Rogue One tie-ins, this novel was my least favorite. But that being said, it’s still a decent read overall- just not as good as Catalyst or Rebel Rising. Of all the “young readers” releases, this book is one of the few actually seems to feel aimed towards a younger audience. This, in itself, is not a bad thing. But, I suppose I just expected to see these characters in a bit of a grittier setting and situation. To me, they seem better suited for a slightly more mature novel.

The book itself is a quick read. It also does a pretty decent job of providing a little backstory to the world of Jedha as well as providing some interesting info into the Church of the Force. But again, I feel there is so much more content to be explored here that was left untouched. It’s a shame and I really hope that we see some more detail in the future regarding “The Whills” and just what role the Force plays outside of the Jedi and Sith. Who knows, maybe we’ll get some of our answers in a few days.

It’s difficult to provide any more details on this book without running the risk of spoiling plot points, so I’ll end the review here.

Story: Interesting. But there is so much untapped potential around these characters that remains largely ignored.

Recommended:  For hardcore fans and young children.

Carrie – Stephen King

Before moving on other things, I wanted to take a moment to post another book review. Having finished up Parasite Eve a few days before Halloween, I found myself wanting something else to read that was still in the spirit of the season. This time of year, I usually find myself curling up on the couch with my favorite novel of all time, Dracula. But this time, I decided I wanted to go in a different direction. When one thinks of horror novels, Stephen King is often the first author that comes to mind. I’ve always been a casual fan of King’s work. In my youth, I’ve read a number of King’s books. The Stand, It, Needful Things, The Shining, etc. I’ve also enjoyed his short stories quite a bit. But, there’s a ton of his novels that I’ve never taken the time to read.

So, I found myself browsing his library on Halloween morning looking for something to keep me in the spooky mood of the day. Then, the thought occurred to me to read through Stephen King’s works much like I do with the games I review on this site. So, beginning with this post, I’ll be reading and reviewing all of Stephen King’s works by order of publication. So, for that reason, I loaded up his debut novel Carrie on my Kindle Paperwhite and settled in under my blanket. This was not my first reading of the novel. I initially read Carrie maybe ten years ago. But to be honest, I only remembered the basic gist of it. Many of the finer details were lost over the years.

The story of Carrie is a classic. The novel focuses on the character of Carrie White. A chubby teen girl who is the epitome of social misfits. She’s awkward, riddled with acne, and she’s the daughter of an EXTREMELY religious single mother. The story begins with a scene of extreme bullying at the hands of her schoolmates. It is shortly after this event that Carrie realizes that she has telekinetic powers. As the story proceeds, the continued hazing and abuse by both her schoolmates and mother drive Carrie over the edge, resulting in a murderous rage.

The concept of the novel is quite original and riveting. This was true when the novel was published in 1974 and is still true today. The book itself is masterfully written. In fact, it’s difficult to believe that this was an author’s debut outing. With this in mind, no one can deny King’s claim to the throne as one of America’s modern literary geniuses.

The book itself is told through a mixture of both standard storytelling, mock newspaper clippings, scientific articles, and interviews of those who witnessed the events portrayed in the books. The ultimately conclusion of the story is laid bare early on, but the details leading up to the finale keep the reader glued to the pages. Again, it’s masterfully done.

If you’ve never read a Stephen King book, this is a fine place to start. It’s a relatively short read and it’s very approachable. Despite being his earliest novel, it’s still one of his best. Not to mention, it’s perfect for this time of year.

 

Story: Unique and well written. The perfect introduction to Stephen King.

Recommended:  For mature readers who enjoy chilling tales and paranormal phenomena.

 

Parasite Eve (Novel) – Hideaki Sena

Happy Halloween! Since we’ve already discussed a few creepy games, I thought I’d end October this year with a couple of scary book reviews. I’ve often talked about my plans to include more non-Star Wars book reviews to the site so what better way to start than with a Halloween theme? Plus, this book actually dove-tails into the next game that I’m going to review. I’m talking about Parasite Eve, a very popular Playstation game from 1998. Many gamers will be familiar with the title. But did you know that the game is actually the sequel to a Japanese horror novel? Well, once I learned this I decided to pick up an English language version of the book so I would have the full backstory going into the game.

Up front, I’m going to tell you that this review is going to be very spoiler-filled. There’s not really a way I can find to discuss this book without ruining the story. So, if you’d prefer to read the novel completely blind, this is your warning….

Parasite Eve is a strange book. In a nutshell, the whole concept of the novel is that the mitochondria in our cells are actually intelligent parasites that have been using humanity for a symbiotic relationship while they wait for mankind to become powerful enough to be worthy of a takeover. The book follows a scientist who loses his wife in a car accident. The mitochondria in his body influence him subconsciously to donate her kidneys for research. At the same time, the mitochondria in the body of a young girl who recently received another kidney transplant, influence her to stop taking her medication, causing her new donor kidney to be rejected.  The idea here is that she will ultimately receive the dead wife’s kidney… because you see, the body chemistry of the two women is perfect for breeding a new human/mitochondria hybrid that will take over humanity and rule the world. It’s actually quite a bit more complicated than that, but that’s close enough. Weird, huh?

The premise is actually pretty interesting and for the most part the book is very well done. However, it does tend to get very dry and technical at times. I feel like the author actually has a real background in the field and decided to share his knowledge in the form of a horror novel. In doing so, he tends to over-explain and use a tad too much technical jargon for my taste. In many places, it tends to drag the story down. Then again, being a translated a novel, a good portion of this might have a lot to do with localization. It’s always difficult to translate a novel from one language to another and keep the same flow and momentum as the original author. With that in mind, I find the pacing of the book to be easy to forgive.

Even so, the book has a weird feel to it. It starts off odd, but very believable. The theory of a self-aware mitochondria is certainly fantastic and science fiction, but it’s presented in a way that’s believable. Then, literally in the turn of a page, we drive right off the cliff into complete Japanese weirdness. The story goes from science-based fiction to a total acid trip of monstrous proportions. There are literally giant vaginas made of rebellious mitochondria trying to eat people – completely out of nowhere. It was not at all what I was expecting.  It is the sum of every weird alien anime you’ve ever seen put to paper.

That being said, it was quite an interesting read. I found it to be oddly appropriate for the season, albeit a bit more disgusting that actually frightening.  I’ve certainly never come across anything like it.

All in all, this is not a book that I can recommend for the general public. But perhaps fans of the video game series would be take interest in the novel. The games were tremendously popular, so I’m very curious now to see how the story presented in this book can continue in game form.

Story: Very unique and interesting concept. A bit laggy at times, but considering it is a translated novel, very well done. Certainly a refreshing concept, but ultimately a gross and horrific story. Not for everyone.

Recommended:  For fans of the Parasite Eve series and folks who like Japanese alien manga. But general readers might have a hard time digesting this one.

 

Other Reviews In This Series:

Parasite Eve (Novel) –  Parasite Eve  –  Parasite Eve II   –  The 3rd Birthday

Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition is here

Starter_Ex1_ToCth

Updates to the site have been slow lately because I’ve been grinding away at some pretty big games. So in the meantime, I’ll take a quick break from the video games to talk about the new D&D. That’s right, it’s finally here: Dungeons & Dragons 5E!

Initially, when I discussed D&D I expressed some concern over pricing. It’s true the that new core rulebooks will carry a hefty pricetag, but thankfully Wizards of the Coast did something I never expected. They have announced that the basic version of the game will be available for FREE.

That’s right, all you have to do to mozy on down to www.wizards.com/dnd to download a free PDF version of the basic D&D rules. This covers character creation, magic rules, combat rules, and a little bit more. It’s certainly enough to teach the very basic mechanics and get a character prepared.

In just a few days, an inexpensive Starter Box Set will also be available for purchase in most book stores. For $20.00 you will get a printed and slightly expanded version of the rules, a set of game dice and a few other trinkets and tokens. This package is meant for new players or anyone who wants to get their hands dirty a bit before the full rule books are released in the coming months. However, to be clear, Wizards is stating that the free PDF is all a PLAYER will need to actually enjoy the game.

So what am I taking away from all this? Well, I think the move of making a free version of the game is a good idea. But I get the feeling that Wizards is trying to steer people into the direction of playing their “live hobby store events” instead of focusing on the classic “play at home” players. What I mean by this is simply this: Wizards of the Coast wants you to download the PDF, create a character and then take your character to your nearest authorized retailer where you will then join other players in an officially sponsored event. Participation gets you a certificate and the whole nine yards. If I understand thing correctly, your character can be used at ANY officially sponsored event regardless of location. Now I guess that’s cool. But I’m not used to playing D&D that way.

Of course, people can still play their own campaigns at home. And they most certainly will. But I worry that the allure of playing an “official” campaign combined with the potential roadblocks of finding an open seat, and locating a shop to play in may also turn some players off. Thus, making the ranks of D&D players dwindle rather than swell.

Personally for me, the nearest WotC sponsored game is over 40 miles away. That makes it difficult.

Ok enough ranting. I’m impressed by what I’ve seen with the 5E rules. It is most certainly a new and fresh take on the game mechanics. Yet, it manages to have a touch of that old school 1E feel that I love. I have high hopes for this edition.

I will certainly be buying the starter set. Once I do, I’m going to start keeping my eyes peeled for a game. Be it some local people or one of these official events. I WANT TO PLAY.