Saturday, November 30, 2013

Book Review -- The Black Gryphon

The Black Gryphon was the first book by Mercedes Lackey I read. I love the image of multiple species, even genetically created ones like the Gryphons being able to work together. In this first book of the trilogy you have Humans, Gryphons, and the shy Hertasi are caught in a war as the Warlord Ma'ar seeks to expand his territory.

Urtho, the Mage of Silence, was the banner our good guys rallied around. He's also the one who created the gryphons. The titular character, Skandranon (Skan) Rashkae, is a highly intelligent gryphon who has his feathers dyed black so that he cannot easily be seen against the night sky. He also has more than a little bit of an addiction to adrenaline, and is mildly convinced he's invincible. This results in two main things: 1) He ends up being an idiot and 2) he is Urtho's best operative. 

The other main character is a Kaled'a'in Kestra'chern, who goes by the name Amberdrake. As this trilogy is a prequel, the Kaled'a'in are the ancestors of the Shin'a'in and the Talye'edras who feature predominately in later (and earlier) books. A Kestra'chern is a cross between a therapist, masseuse and priest. Their primary job is to see to the mental health of their charges. Probably obviously, Amberdrake is Skan's. 

If you are looking for a book with some damn fine character growth, then I have no trouble recommending this one. The only character who doesn't grow and learn is Ma'ar. He is the Magnificent Bastard who through his charisma, no one (read Uther) really noticed he was slaughtering their next door-neighboring countries until it's already Too Late. 

Like many of Lackey's earlier books, there is an impressive level of character development and believable change throughout the story. She is a master of bringing racism, homophobia, and general differences between people to  the fore, and then showing the characters that aren't nearly so different as they think.

Zhaneel and Winterheart undergo the most obvious changes and growth, but to say more than that would be to give away some of my favorite portions of the book. 

Overall, The Black Gryphon is one of the best fantasy books in my personal library. 

When I was at Dragon*Con this year, I got to meet Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon after one of their panels. Larry and my dad hit it off majorly talking about classic cars, and my dad's new Fiat 500 Abarth and out of it, I got this print of Skandranon himself. It was the highlight of my time at Dragon*Con.  

On the off-chance either Larry or Misty stumble across this blog, thank you. That was my first con, and my interactions with the two of you were absolutely fantastic. 

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Day of The Doctor

It's here! Today is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. Grab your fezzes, sonic screwdrivers, and popcorn. We get one more episode/movie with David Tennant, remember why we finally accepted Matt Smith as The Doctor, and find out just how John Hurt both is and isn't The Doctor.

I have avoided even the trailers that have released over the last few weeks, as well as turned off all the Doctor Who in my Facebook feed so as to avoid any spoilers.

The Day of The Doctor airs at 2:50 pm Eastern.

I will post some reactions after the show, and possibly a few during, it depends on if I can get internet set up in the location I will be watching at.


And it is over. Warning:

John Hurt is a Doctor, he was very believable. I loved seeing him interact with Matt and David. I loved seeing Matt and David interact. Clara was a more minor role, Jenna Coleman did a good job. She wasn't a damsel in distress this time, which was nice, her in that role always annoys me. We also got our first glimpse of Capaldi as the next Doctor. But I can't tell if we're supposed to call him the 13th doctor now or not. They strongly implied that Hurt's Doctor is actually the 9th, as in the credits they did a fly-by of all the Doctors faces and Hurt was immediately prior to Christopher Eccleston.

BBC aired it without *any* commercials during the show, which was amazing. There wasn't anything to pull you out of the story.

We found out why Elizabeth the First was so hostile to the 10th when he saw her with Martha.

The Zygons were really a fairly minor role. Almost a MacGuffin rather than a proper bad guy.

I will admit I was disappointed that Billie Piper was only there as the "Bad Wolf," not Rose. Makes it impossible to place where in the timeline this story is supposed to take place.

Also, the Doctors were able to save Gallifrey. They locked it in a pocket universe inside a painting. How this is supposed to jive with The End of Time I doubt we'll ever know, considering Moffat's tendency to ignore a fair bit of the cannon from the 9th and 10th Doctors era. There were no big gold hats/collars, and no Timothy Dalton.

The end cameo by Tom Baker, and the appearance of Baker's 4th Doctors Scarf throughout was epic.

It also looks like we will be returning to Trenzalore for this years Christmas special. It has been strongly implied that this episode has re-written a lot of the Doctors history for the last 400 years (the modern series). So we'll see. Now I am going to be eagerly anticipating the Christmas special. and we are going to have to wait until about this time next year to see Season 8.

Happy watching!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Lego Marvel Heroes Review

So my super sweet husband gave into my begging and got me Lego Marvel Super Heroes for WiiU. Yes, I could have gotten it cheaper on DS, and yes, he could have gotten it for his Xbox 360 and actually gotten the achievement points for it, but dammit, I wanted a WiiU game. The poor console had been barely used since I finished Pikmin 3 earlier this fall. And this makes me sad because I like my WiiU.

I should also note that I played primarily on the GamePad. The switching between the TV and the gamepad wasn't as smooth as it is for Nintendo titles, but it was still easy. I didn't have any lag. The gamepad's battery survived being played almost constantly Saturday and Sunday.

I'll admit, I've been a fan of the X-men comics and cartoons since the early '90's but didn't know much Marvel lore overall until the Marvel Universe movie series started. So, I'm a little bit late to the game.

As such, I can't really speak to how true the game is to the comic-version of the Marvel world, but I do have to say there was something unbelievably awesome swinging around Manhattan as Spider-man, or starting at street level and flying up to the helicarrier as Ironman or Thor.

The story was good if a bit predictable, [spoilers]Loki is the bad guy again, and it used the same MacGuffin as the Avengers movie, the Tesseract., which having seen Thor, The Avengers, and Thor: The Dark World felt overused.[/spoilers]  The plot did manage to move forward well, though I wish we would have had more options for which characters to use during the initial play through of each level. The first time you play a level, the game assigns which characters will be needed to complete that level successfully, and so there is little exploration initially. This causes the linearity of the levels to stand out and start feeling old by the end of the game. This was, however, offset by the free play mode that is unlocked for any just-completed level. The free play mode allows for on-the-fly switching between characters during the level, allowing for maximum exploration based on needed abilities and skills.

Second admission. I've never played a Lego game before. This was my introduction to the franchise. As such I found the mechanics easy to learn, although some areas gave far too many hints (Agent Coulson I'm looking at you) and others were trial and error until you found the right piece of the background to break apart and turn into a useful item. I liked the mechanics of building a shield for Captain America to stand on to aim lasers, and a 4 for Mr. Fantastic to use to turn into a special item/action.

I found the controls to be a bit fidgety. It felt like each button did too many tasks, too few of which were context-dependant. For example, if you were Ironman, a double tap of b was fly. Then holding B was go up, and holding A was go down, with a double tap for land. But if you held the left thumbstick in the "up" position, this would "lock" you into accelerating in that direction. Nice if you are trying to get to the helicarrier, annoying if you were just trying to get to the top of a building.  Or in fights, Y was your main attack, but a to-long press and you would go into aiming mode. Further, there was no way to select between near or ranged attacks for the characters who had both. You are stuck rapidly pressing Y and hoping you hit the enemy who was attacking you. This leads to visually neat (the characters to multiple different combinations, and there are variations between all the characters I've played with), but tactilely disappointing battles. I would have liked to have some use of either the bumpers or the triggers to perform different kinds of attacks.

Overall I had a lot of fun playing it, I beat it in 15 hours, including some but not all of Deadpool's side missions, and none of the special unlockable characters. The result was it felt a lot shorter than it really was, due to my beating it over one weekend of play. I am usually extremely slow at completing games, even short ones. This feeling of shortness would lead me to recommend waiting to purchase it until the price drops below $50, especially if you are fast or have played Lego games before and know exactly what to look for to solve the puzzles.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Comment Weirdness

I just changed my settings from Blogger-based commenting to Google+ based commenting, and it looks like this may have caused some weirdness with the first comment being the post itself, shared onto G+. I'm working on fixing this, but I'm not sure where in Googles code this occurred. As such I'm working on cleaning it up by hand.

UPDATE: I have turned off the combined G+ commenting. Besides looking weird, it had removed my ability to track comments and pull them out of moderation. Proceed as you were.

Book Review--Sabriel

This is a new post series I am going to be starting now that we are settled in our third new city and state of this year.

For my first book, I am going to do one that I consider an old friend. Sabriel by Garth Nix contains one of the most novel magic systems I've ever come across. Add that to one of the first independent female leads that I can recall reading, and it becomes pretty clear why it's one of my favorites.

Sabriel is the daughter of the Abhorsen, of whom her father is the last of a clan of magic users who specialize in necromancy to the purpose of laying Dead back to rest.

There are two basic divisions to the magic system: Free Magic and the Charter. At the simplest, the Charter is a language used to mold and control Free Magic into "safe" or useful spells. Further their is a division of Life and Death, with each being an actual place. Once someone or something dies, its spirit passes into Death, and from there through nine Gates. Each makes it more difficult to return to Life as you pass it, and once you pass the Ninth, that is referred to as the "final Death." As Death is such a major focus, it should come as no surprise that Necromancers are a not-uncommon type of mage. All Necromancers in this world are recognizable by the bell bandoliers  they wear, containing seven bells. Mages who specialize in the Charter are known as "Charter Mages" and those who use pure Free Magic are "Free Magic Sorcerers."

The bells:

  • Rannat he first, the smallest bell. Ranna the sleepbringer, the sweet, low sound that brings silence in its wake.
  • Mosraelthe second, a harsh, rowdy bell, the waker. The bell whose sound is a seesaw, throwing the ringer further into Death, as it brings the listener into Life.
  • Kibeththe walker, a bell of several sounds, a difficult and contrary bell. It can give freedom of movement to one of the Dead, or walk them through the next gate.
  • Dyrim a musical bell, of clear and pretty tone. Dyrim can return the voice that the Dead have so often lost, but Dyrim can also still a tongue that moves too freely.
  • Belgaeranother tricksome bell that seeks to ring of its own accord. The thinking bell, the bell most necromancers scorn to use. It can restore independent thought, memory and all the patterns of a living person, or slipping in a careless hand, erase them.
  • Saraneth the deepest, lowest bell. The sound of strength, the binder, the bell that shackles the Dead to the wielder's will
  • Astarael, the Sorrowful. The banisher, the final bell. Properly rung, it casts everyone who hears it far into Death. Everyone, including the ringer.

The plot is a fairly straightforward, though as an inverted Damsel in Distress to Badass in Distress, as it is actually Sabriel's Father who is in need of rescue. (Links go through to TVTropes. You have been warned.) This drives home the fact that the Abhorsens, while tending to be awesome, are also fallible humans.

I quoted the information about the bells from the Old Kingdom. This is a site operated by Nix himself that has much more information as well as excerpts from the novels.

Happy Reading!

Sunday, November 10, 2013

OSX Mavericks and new iMac Review

Well, we are finally settled into the new apartment. The movers where awful, everything is scratched at minimum and flat out ruined at worst.

So while we are fighting the movers to replace or fix our stuff, we decided to retire the 2009 Dell that was our desktop, and upgrade to an Intel Haswell/Mavericks iMac.

I opted for the 27-in with a 2560X1400 display. 3.2GHz quad-core Haswell processor, 8 gig of RAM, and a 1 Tera HDD. This set up also includes a NVIDIA  GeForce GT 755M.

So first impressions of Mavericks is that it really doesn't feel much different from several of the older versions of OSX that I've used over the years. However, we did decide to invest in an AppleTV to take advantage of the wireless desktop extension to the TV in the living room.
This. Is. Awesome. I prefer using a wired mechanical keyboard and a Logitech mouse for my serious typing or gaming, so I'm not much of a fan of the bluetooth keyboard and mouse that come with the iMac. But when these are combined with the extended desktop onto the TV and the fact that Mavericks considers both screens to be primary, it's brilliant. I have my good keyboard hooked up to the actual iMac, and the bluetooth one out in the living room with the TV. This is probably about 15 feet away from the actual computer, and I have had zero connectivity issues so far. 

I've been on Windows computers primarily the last several years, so I'm re-getting used to the maximize/minimize/close buttons being reversed, and having the toolbars for all programs up top. 

The dock still works well, and this is something I've worked hard to imitate on any of my Windows computers that I use on a daily basis. 

I've already downloaded and tested Steam, and it works exactly the way I'm used to. I am disappointed at how few games are actually Mac compatible, 9 out of my 30-odd games. As ubiquitous as Mac/Linux has become the last several years, I was expecting a much higher compatibility ratio. This makes me wonder just how effective the Steam Machines are going to be at playing all games, considering that SteamOS is a Linux platform. 

I'm having fun with the App store, Launchpad, and Mission Control. 

Having free access to the full versions of Numbers, Pages, and Keynote is going to be really nice.