Categories
Comics/Books Reviews

Review: A Cast of Stones

Author: Patrick Carr
Publisher: Bethany House
Genre: Fantasy

I hesitate to admit it, but this series is overtly Christian fantasy. With the three persons of the Godhead called Deas, Eliason, and Aurae, it’s not pretending to be anything except what it is. I hesitate not because I’m ashamed of reading Christian fantasy (I write for GUG, after all!) but because I’ve certainly read my share of terribly written “Christian fantasy,” though I won’t name names here. So I understand that saying this is Christian fantasy might just turn some people off.  But I hope you’ll bear with me, because this is actually a very well-written and engaging tale.

Content Guide

Violence: Typical fantasy violence and deaths of enemies.

Sexual Content: There are a few very gentle innuendos, but nothing I found objectionable.

Drug/Alcohol Use: The main character, Errol, begins the story as a drunkard even though he’s only in his teens. The ill effects of ale are described in a realistic way and, after sobering up, he often speaks of that time of his life in a sorrowful way, so it’s not encouraging drinking.

Spiritual Content: As I mentioned, “Deas,” “Eleison,” and “Aurae” are often mentioned. Though there is no mention of the Cross, one scene shows two priests celebrating their version of the sacrament. With that said, ambitious and even evil priests are depicted.

Language/Crude Humor: Nothing I found objectionable.

Other Negative Content: Frequent references to drunkenness in the early chapters. References to consorting with spirits and demons, along with demonic possession.

Positive Content: Our hero may start as a drunkard but he ends as… well, a hero, for a powerful tale of redemption. Many positive portrayals of priests and their church.

Review

There is so much I love about this book I hardly know where to start the review. Let’s start with the first character we meet, Errol Stone, an orphan and drunkard. We start the story with him face down in the dirt outside the village tavern. However, he soon meets a church messenger with an important letter for two priests who’d taken up residence in a remote cabin a few years ago. Errol agrees to take the letter so he can earn some money for more ale, but from such an unpleasant motive a magnificent story is born.

Once Errol gets to the priests’ cabin, he idly picks up a perfectly round stone sphere. Looking at it closely, he sees letters in it, though he can’t read. And thus his whole life is changed. The sphere is a “lot,” and only “readers” can read a lot. To everyone else, they’re just plain carved spheres. “Casting lots” is the primary system of magic in this world, and is used as a form of divination. With the proper question and the materials to shape lots — either wood or stone — a reader can answer any query with perfect accuracy. Identified as a reader, Errol is forced by one of the priests to accompany them back to the capital and headquarters of the church.

Unfortunately, both the church and the nation are in turmoil, as the king is old, dying, and has no heir. Nobles and even churchmen are vying for the throne, leading to adventures along the road from the sleepy village to the capitol. Along the way, Errol learns more about the art of casting lots along with other things, including how to defend himself with the staff. Most importantly, Errol learns a lot of things about himself, and that’s where Carr’s writing really shines. The scenes where he’s describing the reasons he’s taken to drink while only in his teens are actually a little bit uncomfortable to read — at least for me — because they’re so real and described so well, but they make Errol a fully formed character, with real human motivations, emotional wounds, and frailties.

Carr’s characters are the reason I’ve become such a fan of his writing. He has a wonderful gift for making characters that come alive because they, like us, are motivated by our past, both the good and the bad. We are, after all, as much a product of our failures as our successes, and that comes out in these books. They feel shame and jealousy, just like we do, as well as hope for the future.

Overall, if you are looking for an extremely well-crafted and engrossing fantasy with a unique and very interesting magic system, whether you’re Christian or not, you could do far worse than A Cast of Stones.

[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00AHY0RLQ]

Categories
Comics/Books Novels Reviews

Review: A Star Curiously Singing

Author: Kerry Nietz
Publisher: Freeheads
Genre: Cyberpunk

“Christian cyberpunk.” That’s not a phrase you hear a heck of a lot, probably because the world of most cyberpunk novels is dark and dismal, with pretty much zero discussion of spiritual matters. If you’re not familiar with cyberpunk, Wikipedia defines it as, “a subgenre of science fiction in a futuristic setting that tends to focus on a “combination of lowlife and high tech” featuring advanced technological and scientific achievements, such as artificial intelligence and cybernetics, juxtaposed with a degree of breakdown or radical change in the social order. It really became a subgenre of its own with the release of 1984’s Neuromancer by William Gibson. However, in A Star Curiously Singing, former software developer Kerry Nietz pulls it off Christian cyberpunk with a fascinating opening to his DarkTrench saga.

Content Guide

Violence: Not much, but it does exist, mostly of a high-tech nature. There is at least one encounter that could have turned into a sexual assault as well.

Sexual Content: As I mentioned above, there is at least one scene that makes you wonder if a sexual assault is coming. And there are mentions of robots being used as sexual partners.

Drug/Alcohol Use: Somewhat surprisingly for a cyberpunk book, there is no mention of such things.

Spiritual Content: The world (at least what we see of it) has been taken over by Islam and there are numerous references to Islamic beliefs and titles. The name of Allah is not mentioned, but the shorthand “A” referring to Allah is very common.

Language/Crude Humor: Very little if any.

Other Negative Content: As I said earlier, references to Islamic beliefs are common, including the concept of needing to have your good deeds outweigh your bad to get to paradise. There is also frequent references to mind-control through painful corrections for forbidden thoughts. Slavery is also a persistent theme. And yes, slaves are considered expendable.

Positive Content: Despite being all but erased from society, God manages to get His message through to our hero, through a most unlikely source (not gonna spoil it!)

Review

I’ll be perfectly honest here… it was the name that drew me to this book. The concept of a star that sings was just too unique for me to not take a look at it. And when I saw that it’s a Christian cyberpunk, well, it was “shut up and take my money” time! 

As I said in the section above, this book presents us with a world under Sharia law, where every whim can be made into law. There’s even a mention that the rulers considered banning red. Our narrator is a “debugger” designated DR 63 (DR for Data Relocator), but he prefers to be called “Sandfly” or “Sand” for short. Sand tells us the story in first-person, so we’re right inside his thoughts, including the forbidden ones for which he gets a “buzz,” i.e. a jolt of pain delivered by the implant in his brain. It’s the ultimate form of slavery, where you don’t even have freedom of thought.

Sand is given a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, to fix a bot that went where no bot has gone before. The “Abduls,” or “Abbys,” as Sand refers to his masters, have built an interstellar starship (named DarkTrench, from which the series takes its name) and sent it to another star with a human crew assisted by bots. However, one bot exhibits unusual behavior so it and the entire crew, bots and humans alike, are quarantined. Sand is chosen to go up the space elevator to the orbital station where DarkTrench is docked to not only fix the bot but determine what made it malfunction, so future bots can be protected from similar effects.

Geeks of a certain age will be pleased with in-jokes dropped here and there in the story. Sand gets his tools from a store that the owner says was once a comic book shop, and the most frequent expletives are “Clark” and “Crichton,” or even both together for added emphasis. I think most science fiction geeks will recognize those names.

The writing flows easily, and it really feels like a flow of consciousness narrative from inside Sand’s head. It’s also clear from the story that Sand wouldn’t have succeeded without the help of God. However, the story is not without flaws. There is one scene that really feels like it was just tossed in there to increase the word count; it really doesn’t connect to the story in any meaningful way. A certain item is obtained which is used later, but that item could have been put in Sand’s hands in many other ways that I can think of. Also, the period when Sand is trying to uncover the reason the bot malfunctioned kind of drags. Again, it feels like the author is trying to get his word count up to a certain threshold.

However, even with those flaws, this is a book I’ve returned to reread several times. The story is fascinating, as is the way the author describes Christianity without using any of the old familiar terms. There’s no mention of sanctification, grace, crucifixion, or even Jesus’ name. But this is still very clearly a Christian book, just using different words. “A~A³” (A not A cubed) is the term used for God, and a frequent phrase is “he stoops,” bringing to mind Philippians 2:5-8. Avoiding the usual Christian buzzwords makes this a great book to give to your non-Christian friends, especially if they’re fans of science fiction and/or cyberpunk (though if they’ve stumbled across certain reviews, including this one, they might be aware of the book’s Christian viewpoint). They won’t be turned away by the language and it might just spark some questions about the nature of this God who stoops.

[amazon text=Buy it from Amazon&template=carousel&asin=B01A2R1RIO, B01A2P4P76, B01A2KLBB4]

Categories
Comics/Books Novels Reviews

Review: The Thorn of Dentonhill

Author: Marshall Ryan Maresca
Publisher: DAW Books
Genre: Fantasy

Fair warning: This isn’t your usual fantasy. No dragons and hoards of gold, no elves or dwarves, and no saving the world by killing the evil god. In many ways, this is closer to a superhero novel. It takes place in a single city called Maradaine, the hero’s nemesis is the local drug boss, and the hero’s goal is simply to put the boss out of business. This hero is a talented student of magic, though he’s far better at practical applications than the theory.

Content Guide

Violence: Lots of violence, mostly reminiscent of a Spider-Man or Daredevil story. There are a couple of deaths.

Sexual Content: Occasional mention but no actual acts are described.

Drug/Alcohol Use: A good deal of drug use in this book, but it’s always described in a very negative way. Occasional references to alcohol and taverns.

Spiritual Content: The world appears to have a religion similar to Catholicism. Only one God is mentioned (and capitalized), as well as several saints, saints’ days, and churches named for saints.

Language/Crude Humor: While there is no swearing as we know it, there are a few instances of harsh language. No potty or sexual humor.

Other Negative Content: Some of the drug runners are presented as the kinds of men that would use a woman for their pleasure then discard them. Assassins are also sent after our young hero. Several street gangs are mentioned, including small crimes such as pick-pocketing. Our hero is something of a dark hero, using violence and occasional theft in his quest to stop the drug trade.

Positive Content: The hero ends up thwarting the villain’s plans in the end. Self-sacrifice is often mentioned, as is doing the right thing even when it’s difficult.

Review

I very nearly categorized this as a superhero novel, because that’s what it really feels like. There’s honestly not a lot of the exploration of, say, Shannara or Lord of the Rings. This is an action-packed romp with a magic-using vigilante attacking the local drug dealers, wanting to hurt the drug lord that controls at least part of the city of Maradaine.

Our hero doesn’t have a “code-name” at the beginning of the story, but partway through he tells the drug lord that he intends to be a thorn in his side, and thus picks up the name “The Thorn.” He also picks up (well, okay, steals from the drug lord) a couple of magical artifacts while interrupting a smuggling operation, and decides to use them in his fight.

Unfortunately, he’s also a student of magic at the University of Maradaine and has to be there for classes, which means his late nights sometimes cause problems. Again, very similar to, say, Peter Parker having to balance being Spider-Man with his day job.

It’s obvious that Maradaine is a well-fleshed out setting as the city is almost a character in itself. It has good neighborhoods and bad, street gangs, churches, a university, and parks and monuments. In other words, it is just like thousands of cities across the world. It also has a police force that doesn’t seem to do a lot to stop the drug lord’s business.

Overall, the story is well-written and entertaining. Maresca knows how to drop clues here and there so that at the end it all sort of clicks together and you get the big picture. There are a couple of loose threads, but that’s probably deliberate as a hook for the next book. However, with that said, it is clear that this is the first book in the series; there’s not a lot of sub-plotting going on, though there are a few small but entertaining scenes that don’t connect to the main story (which could be seen as a good or bad thing).

Speaking of the next book, there are currently eight books set in Maradaine, with two more available for pre-order, two trilogies and two duologies that might turn into trilogies themselves. Picking up The Thorn of Dentonhill might just be the start of an enjoyable reading experience that could last a while, because Maresca shows no signs of stopping now.

[amazon template=thumbnail&asin=0756410266]

Categories
Dramas TV

Review: Live PD

Genre: Reality, Documentary, Crime
Rating: TV-14
It may not be very geeky — there are no spaceships or wizards — Live PD has quickly become a national phenomenon, showing what cops face all across our country with very little editing. The show follows multiple departments in several states, both rural and urban, and all sorts of calls are featured.

Content Guide

Spiritual content: Very little; while some of the officers and deputies they follow are Christian — I remember one deputy telling a DUI suspect to lean his head back and look up at those beautiful stars God made during a field sobriety test — overall there is pretty much no discussion of spirituality.
Violence: Quite a lot. Suspects who resist may be involved in physical fights. Tasers are common, as are firearms. Shots are rarely fired, but it does happen.
Language/crude humor: Most of the profanity is bleeped out, but some make it through anyway, such as S***. Crude humor is occasionally attempted by suspects.
Sexual content: Cops are involved in dealing with prostitutes and other sexual crimes, occasionally “adult toys” are discovered while searching a person, vehicle, or residence.
Drug/alcohol use: Drunk and high suspects are among the most common encountered.
Other negative themes: Numerous references to pretty much every crime in the book, from speeding to homicide.
Positive Content: With all of the above, you might be thinking this show is nothing but negative. But those things are just what the men and women who pin a badge on their shirt every night have to deal with. The true stars of the show, the officers and deputies are shown doing what they are called to do: Help protect innocent civilians not only by dealing with lawbreakers, but also responding to accidents and medical calls. Sometimes the cop is the first one on the scene and needs to take immediate action to save a life.

Storyline

“America, this is your ride-along.” Those are the words that introduced the nation to what has become a TV phenomenon. At a time when there’s been a very vigorous debate about policing in our country, Live PD (or LivePD) shows what cops see on a nightly basis on a near-live basis; there is a delay built in so they can bleep certain words or quickly switch away from overly disturbing scenes such as accidents involving children or scenes that may be too gruesome for a “regular” cable channel. During the show, commentary is provided by legal and police experts from a studio in A&E’s New York headquarters.
The departments followed vary; at the beginning there were six, but they have since increased to eight. Only one of the original departments is still being shown, that being Richland County (around Columbia) SC. Some departments have dropped out, and new ones have joined. This map shows both past (blue dots) and current (red dots) departments.

Presentation

Live PD shows us near-live coverage of actual officers (for brevity’s sake, I’ll be referring to police officers, sheriff’s deputies, and state troopers all as “officers”) during some of their busiest times: Friday and Saturday nights. During the show, they switch back to the studio and occasionally the control room for commentary and updates from analysts.
The main host is Dan Abrams, who is also the chief legal affairs analyst for ABC News, pictured standing on the left in this photo. The permanent analyst is Tom Morris, Jr., who is a crime reporter and has been a Washington, DC police officer. He is seated on the right in the photo. The third man in the center is Sgt. Sean “Sticks” Larkin of the Tulsa, OK Police Department. Originally one of the officers followed by Live PD, he became such a fan favorite he was brought in as a semi-permanent analyst and stayed even after the Tulsa PD dropped their association with Live PD. Occasionally they give Sticks a weekend off and bring in another officer (or sometimes two) who’s become a fan favorite on Live PD. Together, these three give an analysis of what just happened, explaining terms that may not be familiar to most viewers and discussing why the officers did what they did.
In order to fill times when nothing TV-worthy is happening live, A&E will show pre-recorded and edited events from the departments they cover, with a note in a corner of the screen indicating it happened earlier. They also take advantage of slow moments to show three special types of segments, each with Tom Morris handling the narration. The first is their “Crime of the Week,” typically featuring body or dash cam footage of a notable police event in a department they don’t ride with. The second is a “Wanted” segment where they feature a person police are seeking urgently, generally for a serious crime; these come both from departments they ride with and those they don’t. The third and arguably the most important is the “Missing” segment, where they partner with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) to highlight a case of a missing child. NCMEC Media Director Angeline Hartman is shown via video giving the details of the case. Both the Wanted and Missing segments have had success in finding the people in question, and those are announced on later shows.
Live PD has developed a huge Twitter following who have taken the name “Live PD Nation” and who have started “watch parties” where groups of people will gather at a designated place to watch the show together. Recently, some departments are beginning to sponsor their own watch parties as well, which also serve as community outreach. The fans on Twitter have even helped officers with some of the cases shown live, usually in the form of spotting something thrown or dropped by fleeing suspects the pursuing officer didn’t notice — probably because they were focusing on catching the suspect! The word goes out Twitter and either the department itself sees it (I believe all of the currently featured departments have Twitter accounts), or one of the people in the studio will see the tweet and relay the information to the department. Another instance of Live PD Nation coming to the assistance of officers happened recently when a pickup with a, shall we say, distinctive rear window decal was found abandoned in the snow after an apparent slide into a pole. People in the area recognized the pickup on TV and informed the department where they could find the owner.
Live PD has also spawned several spinoffs: The first one was called Live PD: Rewind which is an hour of the best parts of an episode. Later, they added Live PD: Police Patrol, which features incidents previously shown live with a short commentary from the officer(s) involved afterward. On the Lifetime network, there’s a show called Live PD Presents: Women on Patrol focusing on pre-recorded clips of female law enforcement officers, some of which are from departments not shown live on the main show. Finally, the most recent spinoff is Live PD Presents: PD Cam, hosted by Sean “Sticks” Larkin, which showcases dash, body, and sometimes helicopter camera footage from departments also not usually shown on Live PD.
One thing many fans complain about is the bane of American TV: Commercial breaks. While we understand A&E needs to pay the bills to keep the cameras running, sometimes they pick times during high excitement moments to go to the ads. Perhaps someday some company will offer to sponsor the show with minimal or no commercial breaks as long as their name is mentioned often.
Though much of the coverage is definitely what you might call “gritty,” there are a few bright spots. One that comes to mind is when Richland deputy Kevin Lawrence pulled over a couple of college kids and found drugs in the car. Engaging one of the suspects in conversation, he asked the young man if he could make it onto the Dean’s List that semester. The young man said he could if he worked hard at it. Kevin then made a once-in-a-lifetime deal with the suspect: If he could make it on the Dean’s List, Kevin would drop all the charges. I’ll let Kevin explain what happened himself from his Twitter account:

In summary, I believe Live PD is doing a lot to help inform the debate on policing in America. Rather than short, edited clips, we get to see a lot more of the story and the background, often beginning to follow the action when the officer is still in the car on the way to the call. We get to see what both sides were saying and doing long before it’s all over for good or ill. This is not to say every officer in America is a saint; there are people in every profession who really shouldn’t be in it, and law enforcement is no different. What Live PD is doing, however, is highlighting the good that peace officers in America do every day and night, from pulling victims from accidents where the car is starting to burn, to administering Narcan to overdosing victims, to getting stray animals back home. And yes, arresting the bad guys so they can’t hurt innocent people. Whether or not you’re a supporter of law enforcement, watching even one episode of Live PD is almost certain to be educational. You might just find it fun to ride along with cops and wonder, along with the rest of us, what’s going to happen next.
Categories
Gaming News

Wizard 101 Shoots Itself in the Foot with Promotion

Early November 15, 2018, kid’s video game Wizard101 announced a new promotion that’s running from now until November 18. It’s a “the more you buy the more you get” sort of promotion, which is troubling enough on a game marketed squarely at kids.

However, one intrepid Twitter geek ran the numbers and what he found is alarming, to say the least:

https://twitter.com/cizorj/status/1063105633212420097

You read right. You have to spend more than I pay to rent my apartment for a month, and spend it within 3 days, to get the top bracket of bonuses in this promotion.

It’s no surprise that the Wizard101 Twitter account has been in damage control mode all day, but their damage control has been of the “keep saying it’s good and people will buy it” type. They did post a helpful FAQ, which I dug into to find this little gem myself:

The highlighted text means that if you don’t get the top tier of bonus gifts this time, you can’t pick up from where you left off the next time it comes around, you have to start all over (and likely spend another few hundred dollars to get the top tier that time as well).

This is quite possibly the worst idea for a promotion Wizard101 parent company Kingsisle has ever come up with, but as of this writing they’re not saying anything about pulling it back, they’re sticking with it.

So, in a game aimed directly at kids, this company is promoting the concept of “Spend! Spend! Spend! Then spend some more!” I don’t think that’s a message any parent, Christian or otherwise, wants their kids to see in a video game. Kingsisle should be deeply ashamed of this, cancel this “promotion” immediately, and never bring anything like it into their games again.