Tag Archives: intrigue

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

Authors: Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience for language, violence, sexual content, and general adult situations

Little could Dr. Melisande Stokes have foreseen the consequences when she was initially approached by the dashing Major Tristan Lyons to do some obscure translation work–work that she had to sign nondisclosure agreements before she could even be told about. Certainly, she couldn’t have predicted that it would get her stuck back in 1850’s England! But then, the entire operation is full of surprises, as any government operation dedicated to reviving magic to time travel by way of quantum mechanics is bound to be. Actually, the whole thing sounds absurd, and yet, the U.S. government seems convinced that it’s actually possible . . . and they’re pouring in the funds to support their conviction. And so, armed with a research budget and their own skills and intelligence, Mel and Tristan form the beginnings of the Department of Diachronic Operations.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. captivated me before I even opened the cover. I mean just look at the cover design; doesn’t it just promise all kinds of fun?! And the story inside does not disappoint. To start out, the whole idea of quantum theory and magic being in any way linked is just mind-bogglingly strange . . . yet at the same time brilliant. If you think about their reasoning, it actually makes sense; there’s an element of plausibility that’s brought into the whole thing. And the way the story plays with alternate timelines and the interplay of quantum mechanics and magic is just fascinating–it’s all extremely well thought out, complex, and convincing. Yet while you have this almost hard science flavor being brought in with all that, there’s also this great sense of humor and people throughout. There are a lot of strong personalities at play in this novel, and they are allowed to roam free and do what they will, which creates all sorts of interesting drama and plot in a very natural, believable manner without being overdone. I also loved the way the entire story is told in documents–the majority of it being memoirs Mel is writing while trapped in 1851, combined with interdepartmental memos, diary entries, wiki pages, etc. It’s modern, expressive, and (again) just a very credible way of presenting the story that’s also full of humor and personality. The one thing that I didn’t love about this story is that it’s essentially a military operation, one that gets really big by the latter parts of the story, and as such, our main characters (that I love) get a bit lost in the shuffle for a while. But they pop back to the surface when things fall apart at the end, so it works out. Definitely recommended.

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The Atrocity Archives

Author:Charles  Stross

Laundry Files, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Warning: Mature Audience, mostly for language

At first glance, Bob Howard seems like a pretty typical IT guy–smart, sardonic, harried by the incompetence of the computer-illiterate in his organization and the demands of his managers. That is, until you consider the fact that he works for a secret government organization whose sole purpose is to protect the world from eldritch entities invading from alternate realities. And Bob’s life is about to take a turn for the weirder as he, bored with desk duty, volunteers to be put on active service. There’s no telling what horrors he’ll run into next.

So, I’ve heard some really mixed reviews about this book, and honestly the author in general. I have to say, for myself, I enjoyed The Atrocity Archives a great deal and plan to read at least more of this series–probably some of Stross’s other series as well. It’s this delightful cross of eldritch horror, office politics, techno-thriller, and spy story, all told with this delightfully sardonic sense of humor. Personally, I enjoyed Bob’s outlook and found him an interesting character to read. And just the ideas behind this story are fascinating . . . higher maths being summoning rituals and opening doorways into other realities, programmers accidentally stumbling on said summonings, secret organizations specifically designed to deal with these. Plus just the whole office drama of the organization and Stross’s presentation of it. I have heard some folks complain about the “technobabble” used in this story, and yes absolutely this book makes me wish I actually understood more higher math and programming . . . but on the other hand, I’m not sure how much more sense it would make even if I did have more context for all the terms. It seems kind of like magic spells used in fantasy novels; like, if you understand Latin, you’ll get a bit of a heads up on what the spell does, but it’s mostly flavor text, and even if you don’t understand, the effects will become pretty clear pretty quickly. I never felt lost because I didn’t understand a term, put it that way. In any case, I found The Atrocity Archives to be a truly engaging and enjoyable book–recommended for those who enjoy something a bit more off the beaten path.

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Solstice (Visual Novel)

Created by MoaCube

My rating: 4.5 of 5

In the far north, a city rests nestled safe in the perilous snow under a magically-created dome. It’s lauded as the Jewel of the North. But as the brash young doctor, Galen, and the mysterious young woman, Yani arrive on the last caravan to the city before the roads shut down for the winter, they find that all is not as it seems. For this is a city that keeps secrets, and those secrets may just spell the end of both the city and the lives of all its residents if Yani and Galen can’t get to the bottom of things before the winter solstice.

By the same creators as the visual novel Cinders, Solstice brings us a similar sort of visual novel. You’ve got a choose-your-own adventure sort of layout, with multiple story paths depending on the choices you make–definitely some replay value there. I haven’t managed to get all the endings myself, yet. The story is described as a “dystopian mystery thriller,” which is surprisingly accurate. You’re trying to uncover the dark secrets of the city and save it, while everyone is trying to keep secrets from you, with a limited amount of time before disaster strikes and everyone dies. It’s actually a quite well-written and interesting story, although definitely kind of dark. The characters are solid, varied, and interesting, including Galen and Yani–both of whom you get to play as at various points. I will caution that the themes and content of this game are a bit more mature, probably in the region of a T+, including murder, language, and some sexual content. As for the gameplay itself, it’s text-based–visual novel, so duh–with the written story overlaying illustration, and text-box choices that you click. The illustrations are quite detailed and attractive; a similar semi-realistic style to that used in Cinders, including small animations to make characters fidget and gesture and such. The music is also quite nice and suits the story well without being intrusive or excessively repetitive. Solstice is a visual novel that I would recommend and will likely replay at some point.

Note: I played this on Steam, and it can be found here. You can also find out more at the official MoaCube website here.

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The Grand Tour: of The Purloined Coronation Regalia

Authors: Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

Cecelia and Kate, vol. 2

My rating: 4 of 5

Following their weddings, cousins Kate and Cecy–along with their husbands Thomas and James and Thomas’s mother Lady Sylvia–embark on a grand tour of the Continent, a honeymoon to be remembered. Or, well, that’s what it was supposed to be. And it certainly is. Memorable, that is. Nearly from the start, the party find themselves confronted with strange happenings–mysterious visitors, falling ceilings, magical illness, secret messages, and strange magical rituals performed in ancient ruins, among others. Certain that something odd is going on, they begin investigating, because really, could these people ever leave something that intriguing alone?

The Grand Tour proved a solid follow-up for Wrede and Stevermer’s first volume, Sorcery & Cecelia, although with some marked differences. If I could compare the first volume to Howl’s Moving Castle, then The Grand Tour could better be compared to one of Elizabeth Peters’s Amelia Peabody stories, just with magic. The dates are completely off, of course, as is the location, but the whole well-to-do British travelers in foreign parts getting involved in mysteries and intrigue involving some antiquity or the other? Definitely fits here. As for the writing, this volume is told more as journals or memoirs as opposed to letters, so the tone is a bit different–actually quite a bit, really. There’s a touch of dissonance at first, to be honest, like the authors are figuring out who their characters are all over again when seen in this different light. After that first bit, though, you get to see more of the characters’ individualities coming through, you get more facets to them than might have been seen if this were also told as correspondence. And the characters are, well, quite the characters. Without the decorum demanded by Regency-era society, they might be quite shocking, and even while attempting to exercise decorum, they push the bounds at times. But in a very enjoyable sort of way. On the whole, I quite enjoyed The Grand Tour and would recommend it to those who enjoy Regency-era stories, historical fantasy, and intrigue.

 

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Sorcery & Cecelia: or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot

Authors: Patricia C. Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

Cecelia & Kate, vol. 1

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Kate has been dragged to London along with her (much more lovely and socially graceful) sister Georgina to be presented to Society. Meanwhile, her cousin (and long-time partner in crime) Cecelia is left in the countryside, staving off complete boredom as best she can. The two quickly begin an exchange of letters, sharing gossip and commiserating with each other’s woes. But somehow the two of them soon find themselves dragged into some inexplicable, magical conspiracy, unsure who to trust or what exactly is happening. But these two cousins are nothing if not sharp-witted, and they quickly begin putting their heads together (through letters sent back and forth) to figure this thing out before either of them ends up in true trouble.

Sorcery & Cecelia is an absolutely charming story! I’ve greatly enjoyed Wrede’s stories before, so that’s not particularly surprising; however, I don’t particularly have a great taste for Regency-era stories, and this most certainly is that. But it just has so much to offer, in spite of that, or perhaps because of. The setting causes so much of the story to be couched in politely-barbed wit, and the effect is quite delightful–reminiscent of The Importance of Being Earnest, I’d say. And the addition of magic to the setting is perfect. Between that and Thomas’s character, there are bits that almost remind me as well of Howl’s Moving Castle (the book, not the movie). The entirety of the story is told in letters exchanged between Kate and Cecy. It’s actually quite brilliant; this book started out as a role-play sort of game between the authors, exchanging letters in character, and sort of just happened to develop into an actual book. Because they’re cool like that. In any case, it works amazingly well. The story starts off a little slow at first, but I found myself quickly falling in love with the cousins’ wit and humor, and as actual plot began really developing, I found myself utterly pulled in. Highly recommended, and I am looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

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Endless Summer (Visual Novel)

Pixelberry Studios

Status: Complete (3 books)

My rating: 4.5 of 5

Along with a group of fellow college students, you find yourself on a plane heading for a Caribbean island paradise. Sounds just about perfect, right? Only, before you even land, things begin to go awry. There’s an extra person on the plane, and no one can figure out which of you isn’t supposed to be here. A freak storm nearly causes your plane to crash. And when you arrive on the island, instead of a bustling tourist resort, you find . . . nobody. Eerie in the extreme, but also kind of tempting since you’ve got a huge resort stocked with food and booze, nice rooms, beaches and pools, and a fun group to hang out with. Only, how long can you have fun before the strangeness of the situation begins to have larger repercussions? And will you be able to find the clues you need and make the choices you have to in order to survive?

Endless Summer is another choose-your-own-adventure style visual novel that’s playable through the Choices app. And the first thing I have to say is, quite simply, play it. It’s a lot of fun, it’s well thought out, and it’s engaging. The art style is unique and in many places quite beautiful–especially the island scenery, of which there is a lot. This story is largely character driven, and they manage to create characters who are interesting and fun to interact with. Of note, a lot of what goes on in this story is driven by your relationships with the other characters, and those relationships are impacted by your prior choices. So choose wisely. The initial plot lands you on this seemingly deserted island with a group of fellow students, but the plot quickly spirals in an ever-expanding whirlpool of mysteries, time travel, strange people, and evil plots that somehow manages to remain unified and coherent in spite of the strange paths it takes. I also feel the need to note that this story is absolutely rife with geeky and pop-culture references–not that you can’t play without a good knowledge of these, but stuff is definitely going to go over your head. Personally, I thought this aspect of the character development was absolutely marvelous. The sole reason I don’t rate this visual novel a 5 of 5–and this is significant–is that a lot of major choices and story paths require diamonds (i.e. real money, in most instances). It’s possible to play, enjoy, and complete the story without spending any real cash–I did it and had a blast doing so. But you should know going in that there are lots of major things you just aren’t going to be able to do, or you should go ahead and purchase a set limit of diamonds before going in, if you choose to spend anything . . . otherwise the spending is just going to get out of hand. But despite that, I would highly recommend Endless Summer to anyone looking for a fun choose-your-own-adventure story that’s a bit off the beaten path.

 

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Ghost in the Game

Author: Christopher Keene

Dream State Saga, vol. 3

My rating: 4 of 5

Noah has made the difficult choice to work for Wona–the company he had believed responsible for his girlfriend Sue’s death as well as the deaths of several other individuals–in order to find those truly responsible and hopefully see justice done. But that choice has come with a cost as most of his friends in the Dream State now see him as having betrayed them . . . which he kind of deserves, actually. He’s trying to fight for the greater good and hope they come around eventually. Of course, working for Wona has its perks, too. Cushy living conditions and great pay IRL, position and privilege in-game–it’s not all bad. But things continue to get more complicated as players in the Dream State find themselves attacked by seemingly untraceable random attackers . . . especially when one of these Screamers, as they quickly become known, shows up wearing the face of Noah’s friend Chloe’s brother, one of several beta-testers who had previously disappeared. Now it’s up to Noah to bring together a functional team and figure out what’s going on and who is behind it all.

As with the first two Dream State books, I found Ghost in the Game to be a treat to read. Keene continues to impress with his world building, giving us a sweeping, imaginative view of the Dream State world in its many iterations. I think I’ve mentioned this before, but I really think that his way of presenting the world and the way the characters interact with it in-game are not only one of his greatest strengths as an author, but it’s also some of the best I’ve read, period. It manages to be immersive, easily understood, and captivating. I really enjoyed that in this volume we move away somewhat from the revenge theme, getting into more mystery, adventure, and relationship building/repair. There’s definitely some intriguing plot going on, which is fun to read, and it’s nice to get more interpersonal development in this volume as well, especially with where Back in the Game left us. I’m still not sure about Noah’s way of looking at the whole situation, but after three volumes, I’ve basically come to the conclusion that he and I just think really differently about stuff . . . and it’s actually kind of neat to have a character that is developed enough that I can draw that kind of conclusion about him. I also quite enjoyed getting to see more of the characters IRL in this volume; combining both in-game and IRL character interactions seems to add a lot to the character development and really flesh Noah’s group out as individuals. I should mention, we get left with a bit of a cliffie, or at least with lots of room for plot development in future volumes, which I am looking forward to. I would recommend Ghost in the Game, particularly for gamers, cyberpunk fans, and LitRPG fans in particular.

NOTE: I received a free review copy of Back in the Game from the author in exchange for an unbiased review, which in no way affects the contents of this review.

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