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I’ve been following Sam Sykes on twitter for a while, and given my affinity for both well-crafted fantasy worlds and action-adventure stories, it was only a matter of time before I picked up a copy of The City Stained Red, the first book in Sam’s Bring Down Heaven series.

At almost 650 pages, The City Stained Red is a doorstopper of a book, but a fast, fun, vicious read. The book follows Lenk, an adventurer that some readers may recognize from Sykes’ previous series, The Aeon’s Gate Trilogy (though reading that series first is by no means a prerequisite for Bring Down Heaven). Lenk has finally decided that he’s done with killing, and wants to put aside his sword and pick up what he believes will be a normal life in the trade hub city of Cier’Djall. He and his friends, Denaos the thief, young wizard Dreadaeleon, khoshicht (Sykes’ clever take on elves) archer Kataria, healer/priestess Asper, and dragonman Gariath have killed scores of people and monsters. With the money owed to them for their services, they could happily retire from their violent lives. However, the man who owes them is not so easily found.

Cier’Djall is a massive, sprawling city, and the wealthy who rule over it have made their gold by selling silk produced by enormous spiders. However, the beautiful silk-draped spire that towers over the city leaves long shadows. In darker corners of the city, some of the poor are disappearing, and the ruling fashas may be to blame. Two rival churches seek to position their armies within the city, and tensions are running high as negotiations between them loom. Then, there’s the small matter of the local thieves guild and their ongoing conflict with a new but powerful cult that claims to have demons backing them. This is reality in the city where Lenk hopes to find Miron Evenhands, the priest at whose behest they have been doing what they do best. Cier’Djall is a bonfire piled high, drenched in oil, and awaiting a spark, and Lenk and his friends are unwittingly bringing lit torches through the gates.

The City Stained Red takes a page from A Song of Ice and Fire by presenting chapters from the perspectives of each member of Lenk’s band of adventurers. After arriving in Cier’Djall, they split up to try to located Miron, each using their unique skills and connections to make their way through the city. Denaos has connections from his previous life in the thieves guild, the Jackals. Dreadaeleon seeks the assistance of the Venarium, the wizard’s alliance. Asper, a follower of the same church as Miron, travels to the various temples in the city. Kataria finds herself in Shichttown, a slum where the non-humans try to live out of the way of the fiercely racist upper class. Gariath attempts to gather information from another dragonman who works as a bodyguard for one of the fashsas. Lenk is trying to cope with the fact that his pursuit of retirement may lose him the closest thing he’s ever known to a family. None of them are remotely ready for what they find.

After a footwar between the Jackals and the Khovura cult spills from the back alleys into the streets, every faction with an interest in controlling the silk trade comes out of their corners swinging, and Lenk and company can do little more than hope to survive.

I absolutely loved this book. Sykes blends dark humor and trope deconstruction beautifully. I’m already reading the sequel, The Mortal Tally, because I couldn’t wait to see what happens to these folks next. Reading about these characters is like watching my college Dungeons and Dragons group in action. There’s violence and bloodshed, but also fervent emotion. It’s a wonderful thing.

“Visit”

I saw the rows of gold and green
Bursting forth from the brown
Below a sky of white and blue.

I took your hand and led the way
Down paths I’d walked many
Years ago, and saw them all anew.

 

So. Overwatch.

It kind of snuck up on me, not going to lie. I remember seeing a few bits and blurbs about it a while back, and getting pretty excited by the sheer variety of the characters (an article about Zarya’s addition to the game really pulled me in). The last new video game I bought for myself (not as a gift for someone else) was Minecraft last summer. Every other game I’ve purchased within recent memory was a used Wii game or a “new” game for my NES or Super Nintendo. My playthroughs of the Arkham Asylum games and Injustice were facilitated by my local library rather than dropping money I didn’t have on a game I didn’t need. But there was something about Overwatch that just called to me. Maybe it was the comparisons to things like Team Fortress 2. Maybe it was the promise of something so drastically different coming from the folks at Blizzard.

So yeah, I’ve been playing a lot. Not so much as some of my friends, but I waited almost two weeks after it came out to start. It arrived as a belated birthday gift, and I’ve been loving it. There’s not a lot of change from one gametype to another. You’re attempting to capture or defend a series of points on the map or escorting/defending a moving payload or capturing/defending a point and then escorting/defending a payload. It’s fairly straightforward, but with each player on either side being able to choose from any one of 21 unique heroes, it’s never the same match twice.

A lot of the joy is in that variety. You can change heroes any time you choose, so long as you’re willing to return to a spawn point (you can also switch at respawn), and so you’re never lacking a character who can counter an enemy’s strengths or offset an ally’s weaknesses. Because of this, it’s really in your benefit to learn to play as many of the different heroes as possible, or at least one for each category (offense, defense, tanks, and supports).

Lucio’s great fun for me. Speed, healing, and a knockback effect let him excel at holding a point when you’re near ledges. Being able to self-heal puts him at the top of the support list for me, even though he lacks Mercy’s oomph as a healer. He’s agile, and in the right hands can harass an enemy team just as well as Tracer. His speed boost can be used from the beginning of the round to get your entire team to the objective sooner, too.

Hanzo. You’ve got to love a sniper with a bow and the ability to climb over a lot of the obstacles in his way. His mobility is second really only to Genji. His ultimate is devestating to anyone who can’t get out of the way. I know that he’s a defensive character, but he’s mobile enough to be valuable to attacking teams as well, depending on the map, especially since his sonic arrow provides enemy recon faster than Widowmaker’s ultimate (albeit for a shorter time and over a smaller area).

Pharah is my go-to offense hero. I’m learning Tracer, and Soldier 76 is ridiculously straightforward for anyone who has ever played an FPS, but Pharah’s range and power maker her one of my favorites. On an open map, she can rain down rockets on an enemy team, with her hover ability rendering her very difficult for most heroes to accurately hit. She can also make good use of her rocket launcher from the ground, saving her jump jet for an emergency escape.

I’ve never been big into MMOs, and so my experience with tanking is rather lacking. Still, Winston makes for a great introductory character to the role. He lacks range with his weapon, but it auto-hits anything in range. Combine that with his leaping, and you can catch a lot of squishier heroes off guard. He can easily be used to clear of room of Symmetra’s turrets by combining his cannon and shield.

And then there’s Junkrat. Stupid fun. I love TF2’s Demoman, and Junkrat takes all of the grendade launcher goodness and adds a pseudo-stun with his steel trap. If I’m on defense, and there’s not already a Junkrat on the team, he’s a sure pick at some point in the match.

So, yeah. I’m learning more of the heroes, because everyone has a place somewhere in the game. Finding which hereos work best together is a lot of fun, and Blizzard is already talking about DLC heroes, maps, and gametypes in the future.

Now I’m going to try to get some actual story writing done. Until then!

Summer reading is here, and the librarians are filled with dread.

Well, not really. Some of the library staff really enjoy it. It’s exhausting, but it’s fun. Now I’m not able to participate in the reading program (since our summer one is for the children and the teens), but that doesn’t stop me from trying to read as many books as I can in a short period of time.

Current books on deck/in progress:

The City Stained Red by Sam Sykes
Time Lord Fairy Tales by Justin Richards
Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis
Kid Eternity by Grant Morrison
Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (an as-yet-unread Christmas gift)
This Savage Song by Victoria Schwab (advance copy acquired at PLA)
Staked by Kevin Hearne (purchased at the signing in Denver, but also as-yet-unread)

Potential re-reads coming up:

Harry Potter 1-7 by J.K. Rowling
The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Dune by Frank Herbert

I just looked back through my book reviews on here and realized that three of them are of Stephen King works (and a fourth, my most recent, is for a book by his son).

I know that I read way more than that. My reading list encompasses a much larger set of interests than my posted reviews would reflect. I’m trying to correct that.

That much being said, does anyone have suggestions for books for me to read/review? I’m always on the lookout for new books, and I’d be happy to have new recommendations.

I’ll lose her someday.
That struck me full-
Force this morning,
While we were getting
Dressed for work.
Whether it’s my own
Stupidity or her
Getting Alzheimer’s
Or one of us dying,
I’m going to lose her.
So I’m going to make
The most out of every
Damn minute until then.

The world is burning, one person at a time. A new sort of plague, a spore known colloquially as Dragonscale, is infecting hundreds of thousands around the globe. It begins with something small. It gets into your head. It grows. You feel fine until you see it on your skin-a small stripe, like a gold-flecked stain. You might even mistake it for a bruise at first. But then you know you have it. You know that you’re going to burn, and it’s only a question of when. No one knows exactly how it spreads, and there’s no sign of a cure short of being killed before you ignite. You’ll smoke a bit first, and then you’ll combust, unless someone decides to end your life before then.

In the midst of the chaos is Harper Willowes, a Portsmouth nurse who sincerely wishes for nothing more than to be able to help others through the crisis. She volunteers her services caring for the infected while her husband Jakob works for the Public Works Department, helping to clean up the devestation left behind by the burning infected. It’s at work that Harper first meets the Fireman. He brings a child in for treatment, not for the Dragonscale covering him, but for a ruptured appendix. After the boy, Nick, is taken in for surgery, the Fireman vanishes. A few days later, Nick is gone as well, leaving only questions in his wake. Then, disaster strikes and the Portsmouth Hospital burns to the ground. Harper escapes, but soon makes two discoveries. She’s pregnant and she has the ‘scale. Believing himself to be infected as well, Jakob snaps and Harper is forced to flee for her life and that of her unborn child.

When all seems lost, the Fireman intervenes. He rescues Harper from Jakob’s pursuit and secrets her away to a small camp where over a hundred and fifty infected are living in hiding, including Nick. Living and thriving, to Harper’s great surprise. While there’s no cure for the spore, the people of the camp have found a way to live in harmony with the Dragonscale, under the leadership of Nick’s grandfather. Harper’s medical skills quickly make her indispensable. The camp, however, is no paradise. As panic grips the nation, marauders seek to eliminate any infected. Harper only wants to survive long enough to deliver her baby, but internal power struggles in the camp threaten to expose them all to the roving Cremation Crews. The Fireman may be the only one who can save them all, but he hides a dark secret of his own.

Joe Hill takes on an apocalypse of his own, one that rivals The Stand in scope and violence (not to mention pop culture references). As the world around them burns, his characters must face the fact that other humans may be a greater threat to them than the Dragonscale ever was. The Fireman is a hell of a ride from beginning to end, and is every bit as intense as the flames it evokes.

The Fireman, hits store shelves on 5/17. Go check it out.

[My most sincere thanks to William Morrow for the Advance Reader Copy of The Fireman, acquired at PLA 2016]

Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (Captain America: The Winter SoldierArrested DevelopmentCommunity) returned to the Marvel Cinematic Universe this week with Captain America: Civil War, the highly-anticipated follow-up to The Winter SoldierCivil War marks the beginning of Phase Three in the MCU, and what a beginning it is.

Civil War is loosely based on the comic book event of the same name, and, like most of the Cinematic Universe entries, incorporates elements from several other storylines in addition to original material. However, it comes as no surprise that this film utterly transcends the rather mediocre source to become something incredible.

The action begins in Lagos, Nigeria. Steve “Captain America” Rogers and his new team of Avengers are following the movements of Brock Rumlow, AKA Crossbones, former SHIELD operative and Hydra agent. Crossbones, last seen at the end of The Winter Soldier recovering from having a large portion of SHIELD headquarters collapse on him, is out for revenge. He leads his own team in an assault on the Institute for Infectious Diseases, stealing a biological weapon to draw out Cap’s Avengers. In the ensuing battle, Crossbones detonates a bomb in an attempt to kill Cap, ultimately failing thanks to the timely intervention of Scarlet Witch. Her powers save Steve, but numerous nearby civilians are still caught in the blast, injuring and killing several.

Enter Secretary of State Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. Best known as the general in charge of taking down the Hulk, Ross is now coordinating with the United Nations to bring the Avengers under international oversight. Reminding the team of the collateral damage they caused in their previous battles in New York, Washington D.C., and Sokovia, Ross invites the Avengers to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would require them to act only when authorized to do so by the UN. The members of the team are clearly conflicted. Tony “Iron Man” Stark is wracked with guilt over his involvement in various incidents, including the deaths of civilians in Sokovia, and feels that signing the accords is the only safe move for the superheroes. Cap, on the other hand, can’t help thinking of the failure of similar initiatives in the past, including Project Insight and the way that people with personal agendas can manipulate and control others. Other Avengers begin to choose sides, with nobody wanting to have to go against their friends.

The rift between Tony and Steve only grows wider at the meeting to sign the accords. A bomb goes off at the UN, killing King T’Chaka of Wakanda, who had been on a diplomatic mission following the use of his country’s greatest resource, vibranium, in the disaster in Sokovia. Steve’s best friend, Bucky, is blamed for the explosion. The ensuing manhunt spirals out of control as Captain America, Falcon, Hawkeye, and Scarlet Witch go rogue in an attempt to clear Bucky’s name, and Iron Man and the remaining Avengers follow orders to bring them in. Fear, paranoia, and doubt begin to gnaw at them all as the two forces clash, and a new enemy, Helmut Zemo, works to drive them to destroy one another.

This film is easily the pinnacle of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, at least at this point. The Russos prove that they are more than worthy of inheriting Joss Whedon’s mantle for the upcoming Avengers: Infinity War films and that the wild success of Captain America: The Winter Soldier was no fluke. Civil War takes us around the world, from Lagos to Bucharest. Our returning heroes and villains sport new gear and strategies that enable them to continue to surprise allies and audience members alike. And while the overall tone of this piece is rather somber, the banter between characters prevents things from getting bogged down. Every major character gets considerable screen time (an impressive feat, considering the sheer number of heroes returning or being introduced), and no one feels like they’re being left out. Chadwick Boseman rules every scene he’s in, balancing the solemnity of T’Challa’s royalty with the ferocity of a man bent on revenge. Tom Holland nails the role of Peter Parker and Spider-Man, capturing the exuberance of the adolescent superhero. I have great hopes for both Black Panther and Spider-Man: Homecoming, as Civil War left me wanting more of both of these characters. I’ve honestly been burned out on Spider-Man for a long time after the last, you know, five movies… but now I’m honestly excited about the character again. As for Black Panther, there’s no doubt in my mind that the new king of Wakanda will be the king of the box office as well.

In short, Captain America: Civil War was everything that I’d hoped for and more. The only true low is that, as the first film in Phase 3, it had to leave a lot left partially unresolved. With Doctor StrangeThor: RagnarokBlack PantherSpider-Man: HomecomingCaptain Marvel, Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, Ant-Man and Wasp, and Avengers: Infinity War all on deck, there’s a lot to look forward to. We’ve gotten a very brief taste of what’s to come, and I need more. If you’ve loved the Cinematic Universe thus far, there’s no reason for you to wait any longer to catch this film. All of the action and humor you’ve enjoyed is there in abundance. And as always, stay through the credits. You won’t regret it.

The massive cast includes the return of Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America, Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man, Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanov/Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon, Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch, Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/The Winter Soldier, Paul Bettany as Vision, Paul Rudd as Scott Lang/Ant-Man, Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine, Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter, and William Hurt as Thaddeus Ross. Civil War also introduces Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther, Martin Freeman as Everett K. Ross, Daniel Brühl as Helmut Zemo, and Tom Holland Peter Parker/Spider-Man.

The following flash fiction piece was written for the latest Terrible Minds Writing Challenge, in which we were given several titles to choose from and write a story to fit that title. Here’s “Still Turnstiles at Station 6.”

 

“For the last fifty years, we’ve been the main entry point for immigrants. Station 6 has welcomed offworlders since the colonies first opened to the general population. However, with the completion of construction on a new series of landing zones via Phobos and Deimos, Station 6 will be transferring operations to these new lunar facilities, and begin shutting down. This shutdown will be gradual, taking place over the next solar cycle. We are proud to have been your Gateway to Mars.”

“How many people are losing their jobs because of this?”

“None. Every Station 6 employee is being offered transfer to operations on the lunar stations. Thanks to an incredible amount of cooperation from the colonial governors on both Phobos and Deimos, funding has been secured to ensure the employment of every single person here continues as long as they desire to keep doing their jobs.”

“What will become of Station 6, then?”

“We’ll begin the process of decommissioning her once the transition to lunar operations is complete. We expect that to take place over the next five to ten years. The oversight council has been working very hard to establish a full schedule. We are talking about taking multiple reactors offline, safely removing the fuel, disposing of it properly, and so on. It’s not something that can happen overnight. On the plus side, the process of decommissioning Station 6 will add an additional thousand jobs to the workforce within the next year. We’re very positive that the shift to the Phobos and Deimos stations will be a much-needed boost for Martian colonists.”

“And once the site is cleared?”

“We’ve been in talks to turn it into an orbiting museum. It would be an ideal site to showcase the history of humanity’s move from Earth. The early rovers from the old NASA operations have small museums near the locations where they ceased to function. It makes sense that Station 6 should hold the same place in our history. For now, though the lines here will slow, and the good folks on our staff will be here until the turnstiles are still.”

“Well, that certainly sounds like an ambitious plan, but I like the sound of it. We’ll be following this story as it develops. For Tharsis 7 News, I’m Ayana Cole.”

 

Things that are happening this week:

Captain America: Civil War (Spoiler-free review coming soon)

Free Comic Book Day (Check out your local comic shops/libraries)

Reading/reviewing Joe Hill’s new novel The Fireman (With utmost gratitude to William Morrow for the Advance Copy)

I’m also working through a heap of holds from the library. My to-read list is ridiculous. Thankfully, I’ll be putting some vacation time to good use. The weather’s getting warmer, and the small ones enjoy time outside, so I’ll try to make the most of it. Reading outside counts as exercise, right?

 

 

 

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