Star Wars authors at Origins Game Fair

Ohio has several good yearly conventions, and the one for gamers is Origins Game Fair every summer in Columbus.  My husband B headed down for four days to meet some friends and play some games.  While he was there, I discovered that two of my favorite Star Wars authors were also in attendance!  So I gnashed my teeth that I had stayed home and sent B to go meet them. 🙂

He went first to Timothy Zahn’s booth.  Zahn is best known for kicking off the old Star Wars Expanded Universe books with the Heir to the Empire trilogy, and he recently brought one of his best-loved characters back into SW canon with Thrawn (which is on my to-read list).

B got to chat with Zahn for a little bit, and with a promise of my undying love in return, he procured me a signed copy of one of his books.  Scoundrels is a fun little heist story featuring Han Solo and Lando; I reviewed it here a few years back.  B knew I already own the Heir to the Empire trilogy, and Zahn was kind enough to suggest that he sign bookplates for my copies of those novels as well.  There was a lot of squeeing when B got home with this surprise.

I asked B if he told Zahn that Mara Jade is my favorite EU character, but sadly he had not.

Next, he found Michael Stackpole’s booth.  Stackpole is known for his excellent Star Wars X-wing series, and I have read a few of his fantasy novels as well (check out reviews here and here.)  Sadly, Stackpole had already sold out of books, but B got to chat with him for a bit as well.  He was able to inform him that I named my laptop after his X-wing pilot character Corran Horn (it’s silver, like his lightsaber).

In retrospect, I’m not at all surprised that these two authors should be at Origins, because they are both known to fans as big gaming nerds and frequently attend cons.  They’ve both written in game universes like WOW and Starcraft; Stackpole just finished a novel set in the Pathfinder universe, a tabletop RPG setting similar to D&D.  Stackpole has also been a game designer his entire career and is a board member of GAMA, who runs Origins.

So, who knows?  Maybe next year I’ll make it down to Origins to meet them both in person. 🙂


2015 Reading Review

I read about 35 new books this year.  That’s fewer than normal, but I also didn’t read as many comics/manga this year, and I re-read a lot of books (including some long ones).

Here’s some highlights of 2015’s reading adventures:

Genre Fiction

Talion: Revenant
(Michael A. Stackpole)

talionThis fantasy stand-alone by X-wing author Stackpole is a perfectly plotted and paced book.  It’s standard fantasy in some ways, but very inventive in others.  If you liked Stackpole’s writing in his Star Wars books, I think you will like this one also.

Here’s my original review (in the middle).


Caliban’s War (James S. A. Corey)

calibanswarI liked this follow up to Leviathan Wakes as much if not more.  The characters are really excellent, and the pacing keeps you on the edge of your seat.  I’m in the middle of the next book, Abaddon’s Gate, right now, but I’ve gotten stuck because it kind of slows down in the middle.  But overall I highly recommend The Expanse series.

Here’s my original review (at the bottom).

Indie Books

An Ordinary Knight
(H. L. Burke)

27245120I came across this short book when it happened to be free on Amazon for a promotion, so I gave it a chance and I’m glad I did.  It follows Percy, our “ordinary knight,” on his quest to save the cursed Princess Matilda.  While it follows a traditional fairy tale format, there are some cute twists and deconstructions of tropes that make it fun and fresh.

I almost didn’t put the cover on here because I don’t think it fits the book well.  There is some romance, but it is clean, and it has a very quirky sense of humor–think The Princess Bride.  It would appeal to a wide age of readers.

(Luther M. Siler)

22907118If you liked that other Martian adventure novel this year, you might like this one, too.  It shares the same theme of using science to solve problems and help people.

Skylights follows the crew of the Tycho on the second manned mission to Mars, intent on finding out what happened to the first one.  It is enjoyably suspenseful, and joyfully tech-positive.

Here’s my original review.


Howl’s Moving Castle
(Diana Wynne Jones)

2294528How had I never read this book before?!  It is amazing.  The characters, especially protagonist Sophie and wizard Howl, are amazing, and the writing is beautiful and clever.

I had never watched the Miyazaki animated movie either; I loved that, too, though it is different from the book.  I highly recommend both!


I am Princess X
(Cherie Priest)

17408897A very creative novel-comic hybrid that blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, with a little bit of adventure and suspense thrown in (but no romance at all).  It was original and captivating and great.

Here’s my original review.

I read some “grown-up” books for once

And from 3 different genres, no less.  Some brief reviews:

gonegirlGone Girl (Gillian Flynn)

I’d put off reading this one for quite awhile because I was worried that, being a thriller, it would be scary.  It was not.  It was worse: it was depressing.  This book is full of awful people doing awful things to each other.  (It probably didn’t help that I was reading it around Valentine’s Day.)

I don’t mean to trash the book; it has a lot going for it.  Gillian Flynn does some wonderful stuff with unreliable narrators, and her use of Amy’s diary is very clever.  I though ending fit perfectly; in fact, I would have been disappointed if it ended any other way.  But it just wasn’t enjoyable for me to read; pretty much the only character I felt anything for was Amy’s cat.

I still mean to watch the movie; maybe I’ll enjoy it more.

3/5 stars

talionTalion: Revenant (Michael Stackpole)

If there was ever a book that needs a sequel!

I was already a huge fan of Stackpole’s from his Star Wars: X-Wing series, and I enjoyed his other fantasy novel Once a Hero.  But this story actually exceeded my expectations.  You won’t find any deconstruction of fantasy tropes here; this is a story where the heroes are strong and handsome and the princesses are pretty.

It’s the plotting that really sets this book apart.  It starts in medias res, then jumps back and forth between protagonist Nolan’s training days as a teenager and his current missions as a Talion Justice.  The story manages to somehow reveal every piece of information exactly at the proper time.  There are several interesting twists at the end, and I only managed to guess one of them.

You can buy a DRM-free ebook version from the author himself for only $5.  Stackpole has actually talked about writing a sequel called Talion: Nemesis; it seems it’s just a matter of his finding the time (and funding).  I hope it will happen!

5/5 stars

calibanswarCaliban’s War (James S.A. Corey)

The second book in The Expanse series delivers more of the same sci-fi thrills, this time with an extra dose of politics.  We’ve added 3 wonderful new viewpoint characters including a biologist (yay genetics!) and the girl-power team of UN Asst Undersecretary Avasarala and Martian gunny Bobbie Draper.  I didn’t realize how bad I wanted Bobbie on the crew of the Rocinante until Alex obliquely suggests it himself, like “Cap, we’ve got to get ourselves one of those.”

This book is a little darker for Holden, who’s still dealing (not always effectively) with the trauma of the events of the first book.  There are fewer “holy shit” moments here as well…but there’re two big ones at the very end.  Yet I found the ending a bit happier than the first book; it was kind of weird.

As in all good sci-fi, these books look at current-day issues via a fictional futuristic lens, giving them an interesting perspective; my favorite part of this book was the crew’s use of crowdfunding and the issues surrounding it.

4/5 stars

Blast from the past

Recently I was wandering through a used bookstore and came across an older novel by one of my favorite Star Wars authors, Michael A. Stackpole.  Once a Hero was published in 1994, a few years before he was writing the X-wing series.  It was his first (published) stand-alone fantasy novel.

A couple of things to mention about the cover.  First of all, the art is …you know, I’m not quite sure what word I’m looking for.  Let’s just say that if I judged this book by the cover, I never would have bought it.  The scene is not really even relevant to the story.  Like the cover designer thought, “Let’s see, it’s a fantasy novel…so we need…a hot elf, a sword, and a guy on a horse.  Perfect!”

The blurb on the back cover is equally strange.

It seems like a normal summary…except the events described are not even hinted at until page 390 in a 513-page book.  I spent a good chunk of the book convinced it was a publishing error, because what I was reading did not resemble the blurb.

But the contents of the book were worth more than the $2.50 I paid for it (Detour: I’m definitely in favor of supporting authors with sales–I bought all Stackpole’s X-wing books new–but Amazon currently has Once a Hero paperback listed for $24.30.  So you might want to try the Kindle version for $4.99…or better yet you can just go direct to the source and buy it in paperback or epub format at very reasonable prices)

Stackpole has a distinctive voice as an author; I could tell I was reading one of his books.  One of my favorite things about his writing is that his characters frequently use the structure “I’d not…” instead of “I wouldn’t…”  I could see similarities between Neal Elfward, the protagonist of this book, and Corran Horn of his X-wing books.  But he also introduces another neat linguistic quirk for Neal, who often starts sentences with “I’m thinking…”  For example, from Chapter 6 (speaking of his Dreel companion Shijef):

“Why would you want a Dreel as a slave?”

“I’m thinking you have a point….We had a contest, he and I, and he lost, so he became my slave.”

“Better than the other way around.”

I smiled.  “I’m thinking I’d not have been a slave.  Dinner, more likely.”

Stackpole writes well in both 1st and 3rd person, and he does both in this book, switching between 1st person for Neal and 3rd person for Genevera, a female elf living 500 years later.  I enjoyed the dual perspective; it gave a fuller picture of both the past and present, and both characters were interesting and substantial enough for it to work.

Subtle, thorough world-building is a highlight of this novel.  There is even a nice map by Liz Danforth, a frequent collaborator of Stackpole.  This may be due in part to the story’s roots: it apparently began as a D&D campaign.  On Stackpole’s website, we find this reader comment:

Hi Mike, I was wondering if you have written and published anything more on Nuris Elfward who you wrote about in the “Zombies” module for ad&d back in ’87. I have recently introduced my daughters and their friends to ad&d gaming and ran this module. Love your work. Best regards, Jim.

Stackpole responds:

Jim,  I never did anything else with Nuris per se, but that background and all got reworked into my novel Once a Hero.

If you take a look at the original module, it’s pretty interesting to see where certain story elements originated: the Netherese/Reithrese, Nuris/Neal’s reawakening, the sword Cleaveheart, and the creepy architecture of the villain’s lair.

Once a Hero was a fairly long read, as it is pretty detailed, and frequently jumps back and forth between past and present.  But there are some really great characters, and a great mix of action, humor, and romance.  And it is a little cleverer than the standard hero’s journey.  If you’re looking for a stand-alone high fantasy, this is definitely one I’d recommend.

Tl;dr ⅘ stars Elaborate twist on hero fantasy; perfect for Stackpole fans or D&D players

Who is the Pilot? (Reached review)

Reached by Ally Condie was a book that I felt I *should* read rather than I *wanted* to read.  I gave a fairly lukewarm review of the first two books in the series, Matched and Crossed.  But I am a completist, and I hate leaving books and series unfinished.  I requested Reached from my library as soon as it came out in November, and as the months passed waiting in line for it, I actually forgot I had done so, so little was my interest.

But after reading Reached, I feel comfortable recommending the series as a whole.  All three individual books left something to be desired, but I think together they have some very interesting ideas, and if you like dystopia and scifi and love triangles, they are worth a look.

Each book in the series has a slightly different setting and theme, looking at different aspects of dystopian society in a thoughtful way, less action-packed than other current YA selections.  The first book develops the idea of forbidden love in a rigidly controlled Society.  The second book has the characters fighting for love as well as survival in the real world outside of Society.

The third book is about a virus.  As in, a biological plague.

Yeah, not what I was expecting either.  As the Rising makes its move to liberate Society, it uses not brutal violence, but rather a tactic that will play upon the populace’s emotions: the rebels have helped introduce a plague, and then they will bring the cure.  The Rising will be welcomed with open arms.  But complications arise, and our three main characters have to step in to save the day.

The concept is interesting to me (and if it is to you also, I recommend another book about rebellion and plague warfare: the Star Wars X-Wing series by Michael Stackpole, specifically The Krytos Trap).  I liked that Reached added more scifi elements; the concept of the three colored tablets has always been one of my favorite things from the series.  And I feel that if I’d read this book 10-15 years ago, it would have gotten me intrigued about its biological concepts (like “mitochondria” did in A Wind in the Door).  But as an adult scientist, I sometimes felt like I was reading a (bad) primer on epidemiology and the scientific method.  There was too much science to overlook it as a mere plot point, but not enough to satisfy a biologist.

All the focus on the Rising and the plague leaves less time for the characters’ relationships.  I did not see any of the passion or even tension that characterized Matched and Crossed.  The love triangle even becomes a little perfunctory–which is fine by me, since I didn’t care for it in the first place.

What really kept me reading the book was the writing.  I would definitely be willing to try whatever Ally Condie comes out with next.  She has a lovely style that works well with a first person narrator; Cassia’s viewpoint is particularly strong in this regard, managing to be lyrical, intelligent, and relatable at the same time.  I loved Condie’s integration of poetry and art to support the book’s themes; like the characters, my exposure to such things at that age changed and expanded my worldview.  Xander’s perspective was also a nice addition, filling in a lot of missing info.

One of my favorite motifs of the book was the question of the Pilot’s identity.  There is a man who leads the Rising and calls himself the Pilot.  But is he really the Pilot or just a (really good) pilot?  Is there only one Pilot or many?  Or none?  This leads into some even bigger questions.  Should we always follow those who put themselves forward, or can we choose other leaders?  How do we decide when to lead and when to follow?  What qualities do we individually look for in role models and leaders?

As the conclusion of the series, Reached is solid overall.  It ties together plot points, characters, and themes from various books well, while still managing to save a few surprises for the end.  However, certain parts of the book’s resolution feel just a little too tidy: biologically (cure for the plague), politically (peaceful transition to new government) and personally (fourth side to the love triangle).  Yet it leaves us with the curious feeling, just at The Hunger Games did, that despite the revolution, not much will actually change.  After all, the Rising has now tried to play God, just as Society did.

Tl;dr: 3.5/5 More scifi, less romance, good writing, very tidy ending