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September 29, 2010

Melting Stones by Tamora Pierce

CoverMelting Stones is the latest book by author Tamora Pierce. It’s the story of a young mage named Evy. For those of you who read Pierce, you will remember that Evy’s last appearance was in the Circle Opens book, Street Magic. In which the long time character Briar Moss finds Evy and begins teaching her how to use her magic.

For anyone who does not read Pierce’s work regularly, there are two different realities, or universes, in which she usually writes. The first is the Tortall universe, which includes her first series, Song of The Lioness, and usually involves characters who are at least marginally involved with the main character from those books. It is geared toward older readers, teens and young adults.

The Circle of Magic books, however, are geared toward younger readers, and this is the universe that Melting Stones belongs to. This collection includes the books from Circle of Magic, and Circle Opens, as well as stand alone books like The Will of The Empress, and Melting Stones. I mention these other books because they are the stories of Evy’s teacher and first friend, Briar Moss, as well as her guardian Dedicate Rosethorn. They are also all good reads.

In Melting Stones, Pierce has taken the opportunity to create a character unlike any other she has ever written. Most of her main characters, particularly the young girls, are driven people, ready and eager to go out in to the world and do something great. They are all hungry for knowledge, and skills, and willing to listen to their beloved teachers because they provide these things that they need so desperately. Evy is different.

Evy was a hungry street child when Briar saved her in Street Magic. She isn’t yet so far away from the streets that she’s forgotten what it was to be hungry and alone. She also went through a war with Briar and Rosethorn, a war that has only been made mention of, though a book about the events has been promised. After this sort of life, Evy is understandably falling out of love with Mankind in general. She is attached to Rosethorn, because Rosethorn shows her love in her own crotchety sort of way. But even Briar she has reservations about, because he left her alone to go "adventuring," as she sees it (Though in truth he’s off risking his life with his sisters. You can read about that in The Will of The Empress). And so, unlike many of Pierce’s characters, Evy is mostly out for number one. Until, that is, she sees what kind of life results from those pursuits.

In Melting Stones, Evy, Rosethorn, and an assortment of new characters are off to an island that is having a strange problem. Their plants are dying, and their water is being poisoned. Rosethorn, and a Water temple dedicate named Myrrhtide, are there to find out what is wrong. Evy, who’s magic centers around stones, is there mostly to tag along with the only person she really likes. This situation changes when it is discovered that the problem lies in a volcano that is about to erupt on the island. Evy finds out that the volcano is being caused by a pair of beings that she names Flame and Crimson. They have the mentality of children who are bored, and want to break out of their underground world and see something new. While these creatures, who are basically lava beings, understand that breaking out into the open sky will kill them, they don’t understand, or don’t care, that it will also kill everyone on the island.

Knowing that she can’t stop them forever, Evy must instead find a way to slow them down, while Rosethorn and Myrrhtide do their best to get everyone off of the island.

True to the fact that this book is intended for children, there is an inclusion of a character that I found interesting as a character, but moronic in what the character was. It is the heart of a mountain, which has decided to travel with Evy instead of staying inside of his mountain.  His name is Luvo. Again, he is an interesting character, but a very child like one.

All in all though, Evy’s story has been a fascinating one. She has changed and grown, and her stories continue to be fascinating. I would suggest giving Melting Stones a read. Once again, Pierce has proven that she is a writer to follow.

September 22, 2010

Crackdown 2: A Brave (not so) New World

CoverAn addictive sandbox game with a sci-fi twist, Crackdown 2 picks up where the 2007 original left off. The player controls a genetically modified clone soldier of the shady but powerful Agency, an arm of the government scrambling to maintain its Big Brother-like control of Pacific City. Referred to as "Agent," the player customizes the character by choosing one of several men's faces (sorry ladies) and an armor color, and begins the journey after a brief training session.

The Agent's progression is tracked through five basic attributes: Agility, Driving, Strength, Firearms and Explosives which are leveled by a combination of finding a variety of orbs and destroying enemies by various means. For example, to raise the Strength attribute enemies must be killed with melee attacks, improvised weapons like thrown cars or light poles, or by discovering carefully placed Mystery Orbs that give an incremental across the board ability boost (Agility Orbs scatter rooftops, unique renegade orbs that improve Agility and Driving must be chased and grabbed). Raised attributes are demonstrable in not only the Agent’s physical strength and speed but also access to superior weapons and vehicles. At the beginning players will drive everywhere, only to eschew cars almost entirely when Agility is high enough to run and jump across the rooftops to travel as the crow flies.

Agent uses every tool at his disposal to reclaim hostile strongholds and activate light beacons as the primary missions, with two main enemy groups in opposition: the Cell, "freedoms fighters" led by activist (and former Agency researcher) Catalina Thorne, and a zombie-like horde of nocturnal enemies referred to as the Freaks, whose origin is revealed via discoverable audio logs scattered
throughout the city. The stronghold and beacon missions drive the story, complemented by welcome distractions common to sandbox-style games such as road races and vehicle stunts.

Mandatory cinematics and the voiceover of Agent’s handler provide an outline of the story, but the details are filled in by the previously mentioned collectible Audio Logs. Crackdown 2’s addictive nature comes from the use of collectibles (numbering over one thousand) to enhance the player and open more of the world as well as new abilities. The graphics are great but not excellent and may serve as a source of frustration to original Crackdown gamers as there is little improvement (the map layout is identical as well), while the game’s sound could benefit from more music and louder gunfire. The controls are responsive, but small lapses in the consistency of climbable surfaces occur. Overall, gamers will find Crackdown 2 an engrossing and addictive sandbox experience.

GRAPHICS:      4/5
SOUND:      3.5/5
CONTROLS:  4.5/5
OVERALL:      4/5

September 21, 2010

Dean Peters

Dean Peters is a new voice to the blogosphere and ARWZ. He is a voracious consumer of film and video games, with his interest in sci-fi/fantasy coming from the tried and true favorites of zombies, vampires, the dream world and a very late introduction to the Star Wars series.

September 15, 2010

Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card

CoverWhen I read the first book of this series, Empire, I was frankly a little disappointed. It somehow didn't "scratch the itch" for an Orson Scott Card story. The premise suffered from some believability issues in my estimation, and... well, something just seemed to be missing. Couldn't put my finger on it and couldn't figure out exactly why. I thought maybe Card's own politics were getting in the way.

To a certain extent that may have been true, but after reading Hidden Empire and enjoying a true return to form, I have come to believe differently. Empire suffered, I think, because it was based on a premise that did not originally come from Card's imagination. He was brought into the project by video game makers who wanted to create an entertainment franchise surrounding a game about a near future American civil war. I believe now that's what was missing, a concept of Card's own creation.

Hidden Empire contains just as much of what we can presume are Card's political opinions, but it has the same essence of story and characters that I have come to expect from Card's fiction, and was sorely missing from Empire. His starting concept of a plague hitting the African continent is much more subtle and believable than the American civil war he spins in Empire and as a result Card is able to do much more interesting things with it.

He challenges his characters to make moral and ethical decisions while facing this new crisis and challenges his readers to imagine what we might do in their place. There is action for certain, intricate political machinations, but the most compelling part of this story, as with any of Card's stories, is emotion. We as readers care what is at stake for the characters while we are fascinated by the twists and turns the story takes.

While Card does reveal many of his conservative viewpoints, along with more than a few plugs for Fox News, his perspective on politics, history and the future, and the way it all gets woven into the story, is fascinating and educational. Some of his views (if we presume most of the views expressed are his, to some extent) aren't traditionally conservative, at least not fully, such as requiring all land vehicles to be electric so to conserve fossil fuels for jet and rocket engines. 

This series gets a bad rap for Card's conservatism. The first book deserved a bad rap, but not for the politics, rather the ho hum story execution. Hidden Empire is a return to everything I love about Card. If I get Card in top form, then I have no problem taking the conservative politics right along with him.

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