Category Archives: Reviews

So Bad It’s Good: Zoo

Amongst this show’s greatest hits are: a Zambian protagonist who’s mother tongue is Swahili; a raging civil war with a marauding rebel army in a Southern African country which could be Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, or Nambia for all I know; and actual wild horses (the last horses thought to be wild were discovered to be feral instead). Okay, the wild horses part doesn’t really crack that top three list, but the other truly wild stuff is spoiler-tastic.

Intrigued yet? You should be, Zoo was so bad it made the turn into good. Not great, mind you, just good. So what is this show actually about? Based on the book of the same name by James Patterson. Zoo was billed as “a global thriller about a wave of violent animal attacks against humans sweeping the planet” by CBS, where it originally aired. I don’t know about it being a thriller but the madness was certainly thrilling on occasion.

Perhaps the best part of Zoo is the fact that, throughout it’s three seasons of ever-increasing WTF, the show seemed to take itself more and more seriously, instead of realising its key draw (being terri-good) and just going with it. Ironically, that makes the ride even better, because there’s nothing that says “we’re really trying to make sense here” like havoing rebel armies traipsing through parts of the world that haven’t been at war for literal decades.

Quite apart from that, our characters really grew into their rolls and improved as actors from season one through to three. The villains were convincing, the side characters compelling, and the main cast were… alright they were really hit and miss sometimes with which characters the showrunners clearly thought were compelling at any given moment. But that’s forgivable. The animals were revolting, after all!

Other than a bunch of fantastic nonsense, what can you really expect from Zoo?

Well, a not-insignifiant amount of white saviour-ism is coming your way. But if you can bear down on the pain and get through it, you’re in for quite the journey of… erm… discovery? The show has one of the best character arcs I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching (hint: it’s one of the women) and some remarkably consistent and wacky villains. It features a hero with limited charisma, who’s relevance to the plot is largely biological, supported by a stellar group of professionals (well… and Mitch). You definitely get the “so he’s the main character because the writers said so, huh?” feeling more than once. But fear not! Our whole ensemble get their moments in the sun.

Mood Rating: Stay hydrated through this one, kids, it’s gonna be a weird one.

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Scandroid Album Review

Scandroid is a self-titled, full length album released in November, 2016. A cyberpunk tale, this album follows its protagonist Red as he roams the streets of Old Tokyo for the elusive revolutionary sound which will gain him entry to Neo Tokyo – a flying behemoth in whose shadow the ruins of Old Tokyo lie. Accompanied by a suite of lyric videos that serve as visual aids as you delve into this cyberpunk dystopia, Scandroid is an album well worth experiencing. So, let’s begin!

2517

The year is 2517, and we are in Old Tokyo. This synthwave track sets a steady pace, the strings a constant companion for the occasionally driving, occasionally frantic drumbeat. Older minds than mine note that the sound is reminiscent of the Blade Runner movie score (the original, not that other one) so I’m just going to roll with that assessment. By itself, 2517 puts you in mind of a relentless march towards something, and as an intro track, serves to bring you calmly into the storm that is the…

Salvation Code

This is what we’re looking for in Old Tokyo. A dance-worthy rhythm carries Red’s story to our eardrums. Lyrically heavier than 2517 (which is not hard, to be honest), Salvation Code gives context to the listener. Red searches for the Salvation Code, whose transmissions, “coming from [Red’s] savior” are “analog and digital” – indicating that the end goal is to bring the two together. But who’s this savior? Why is there a divide? Is Red alone?

Aphelion

At least one of our questions is answered rather swiftly. Red is not alone in the streets of Old Tokyo. Aphelion, an android, also walks the “empty streets”, and the two seem to strike up a romance. The lyrics strike a sombre note, and the synth beat gives you the feeling of being swept up in an epic, if tragic love story. Aphelion being the point in the orbit of a planet, asteroid, or comet at which it is furthest from the sun, you can understand why we get such lyrics as “so far away from you, my winter has begun”. This song is half-ballad, half-dance track and leads smoothly into the rest of our journey.

Shout

This 80’s hit is surely one of the most recognisable songs in the world, and the cover fits perfectly in the theme of this album. Now that Red and Aphelion are on this journey – analog and digital – we start to hear more of the retro sounds of the 80’s (to which this album can easily be seen as an homage) which are integral to the Salvation Code. The song serves as an anthem, declaring that the current world order is something that we “can do without”. The Salvation Code will help Red and Aphelion usher in something else, and they are marching towards that future.

Destination Unknown

This instrumental track zooms in at breakneck pace, invoking images of our revolutionaries running through the streets, fleeing forces unknown, going towards a, you guessed it, destination unknown. The song alternates dizzy highs and vertigo inducing drops which simulate the kind of adrenaline rush one might experience whilst running for one’s life.

Connection

After this frantic chase, Connection offers us a different look at the situation in which Red and Aphelion find themselves. Themes of defecting, deactivating and stepping outside of the accepted parametres of human-machine relationships are dominant here. Red and Aphelion are essentially, well, engaging in some very taboo intimacy. The pair forsake perfection in favour of making connection, and the uptempo electric guitar in the chorus brings us along for the ride. The lyric video is a voyeuristic look at our singer playing an arcade driving game, overlaid with lyrics, sound waves and all sorts of grainy goodness as he tries to drive inside the lines. Make of that what you will.

Datastream

In my opinion, the sexiest song on this album, Datastream seems to be a flashback to a past relationship. Whether this is Red or Aphelion’s reverie is a little unclear to me, but given that Red is our POV character, I’m going to say this is his memory. Which makes the lyrics very interesting, given that Red is most likely fully human. Synth, electric guitar and an ever-present drumbeat drive this song forward, pushing home the intensity of the lyrics and the sentiment behind them. The chorus speaks for itself:

Open yourself to me 
Prepare to entwine 
Breathing in binary 
Our systems aligned 
Searching for frequencies 
And scanning through time 
Both lost in the datastream 
That’s linking our minds 

Empty Streets

This song, another flashback, gives more insight into Red’s past. Through the lyrics, and the lyric video, we learn that Red’s previous lover is gone, replaced by a clone, and that whilst the streets of Old Tokyo are frequently referred to as being empty, they are, in fact, littered with drones and have other residents. Red, though human, is made of “blood, circuit and bone”, which may explain his quest to find a new path outside of binary thinking. At the end of the lyric video, we see Red and Aphelion meet for the first time. The song itself is frantic, putting you in mind of the kind of haphazard behaviour one might exhibit whilst listless due to loss.

Awakening with you

This is the origin story of how we came to have an Old and Neo Tokyo – the awakening of Atom 7k and EEV. Watch the lyric video because, well – the story is awesome.

Atom & E.E.V

A soulful instrumental, Atom & E.E.V gives you time to sit, hydrate, and think about what you’ve just listened to, learnt about and… yeah… enjoyed. I’ve got to say, by the time I arrived at this point in the album I was ready to call myself a retro synthwave fan and buy merch. Let this song mellow you into the oncoming conclusion of this concept album. Here, we get a glimpse into what the Salvation Code may sound like, as analogue instruments solo over heavy, pulsing digital instrumentation.

Neo-Tokyo

Perhaps symbolically, this video sees us enter the game we’ve so far only seen from the analogue world. In the lyric video Red is on a motorcycle, driving to… look, at this point I don’t know if the destination is still unknown. But all this time, we’ve been watching Red. And we get a look inside his head, where he’s thinking about Aphelion, and how, in the streets of Old Tokyo, they look up and dream of Neo-Tokyo, who’s shadow hovers above. Our lovers and dreamers are determined as ever to make it to their personal heaven, and the Salvation Code is the key.

Pro-bots & Robophobes

Whilst Datastream is the sexiest song on the album, Pro-bots & Robophobes stands out to me as the best track (we all have our opinions!). It captures the essence of this album in 4 minutes of story-telling, eerie and determined vocals with driving synth underpinning everything. The lyric video, with a totally different visual style to what we’ve seen before, offers us a glimpse into what the war which led to the divide between Old and Neo-Tokyo was like. Hint – it’s humans. We are the problem. Watch it below to get all the same feels as I did:

Eden

What is a concept album if not a mind-ensnaring tumble through the creator’s mind? Eden, which has an official video (yep, not a lyric video, a video video) pulls us firmly out of the digital world and into the analogue. And what a transition! Red (Scandroid’s Klayton – you may know him from Celldweller) wanders through “Eden”, where lyrics about an eternal where “I am yours and you are mine” are juxtaposed over a dead city. Presumably, this is Old Tokyo, through whose ruins he wanders, looking at old religious iconograpy, encountering a simple bot still running though its humans have long been gone. We’re looking at the fall-out of a war where two sides which worked hand-in-hand found themselves suddenly opposed – and destroyed Eden in their wake.

Singularity

And so we reach the conclusion of our journey – without a lyric video to tell us what ever really happened. Singularity’s video brings us back into the arcade, but it’s a still image. So… Did Red finally make it to Neo-Tokyo only to discover it a barren “Eden”? Was the quest all for nought, as he wandered the brilliant streets whose vast foundation cast Old Tokyo into shadow? Where is Aphelion? Did Red starve to death (because there’s literally nothing edible in sight in Eden)? In the end, Scandroid leaves us with more questions than answers – which is fitting for a cyberpunk saga.

All in all, this was a solid album, displaying all the best parts of nostalgia whilst skipping over all the worst. Give it a listen if you’re looking to dip your toe into synthwave, cyberpunk, or retro music… or you just like concept albums.

Mood Rating: Enter the datastream, and get in touch with a world beyond the binary. Let Scandroid take you to a world where humans realised their potential as creators… then messed it all up. Because it’s so on brand.

Earthend Saga – The Audiobooks

Like many millennials, I grew up with The X-Files. To this day, there’s something irresistible about the odd lighting, barely congruous storylines, interminable will-they-won’t-they between Scully and Mulder and, of course, the cases in the show that I can’t bring myself to admit isn’t that great and let go of.

Maybe my love for The X-Files… is an X-File itself? Ok, that’s a reach but not by a lot, really.

Suffice it to say that when I stumbled across Gillian Anderson’s Earthend Saga I was *elated* and resolved to read the whole thing. But life happens, and time was scarce so I decided to finally try out this new fengled audiobook thing that I’ve been hearing about.

The Results: I am a convert. Audiobooks are awesome. And the three books which comprise the Saga? Well… erm… yeah. Mixed feelings. But read on to find out how it went down!

A Vision Of Fire

This book started decisively. The characters were introduced swiftly, their personalities established and their relationships to each other and the world around them clarified. Because it was my first audiobook, I thought that was all due to the medium but no – Gillian (and that guy Jeff Rovin) just did a really great job.

And my little X-File-loving heart was so happy when I realised that the plotline was essentially an X-File.

Perhaps that’s not quite fair. A Vision Of Fire deals plainly with the supernatural. Children are having visions which manifest themselves in real-world, frightening and life-threatening ways. And at the centre of it all, just trying to help her patients, is child psychologist Caitlin O’Hara. Her quest to help one young girl in New York ends up taking her around the world, where she meets other children who have suffered similar visions and their consequences.

She meets others who have tried to help, and (refreshingly, if you remember Scully) allows her scientific mind to ponder the possibility that what her patients are experiencing – and what the mystics who claim to understand the phenomena are saying – is something no current science can explain.

A Vision of Fire meanders a bit, but always comes back to that sweet spot between intrigue and plot. Gillian’s voice lulls you as effectively as is chills you as you listen to the story of Caitlin O’Hara and her encounters of the… third kind? Fourth?

Whatever. You know what I mean.

A Dream Of Ice

The second installment of this Saga picks up on the heels of the first. Caitlin O’Hara, renowned child psychologist and incredibly competent single mother ) that didn’t seem like a big deal in the first book, but it is in this book) is coming to accept that there are things in this world not imagined by our science. And that these things don’t have the best of intentions for us.

Anyway, this being a trilogy, one character and her supporting cast can’t be expected to carry three books.

So, enter artefact-hunter extraordinaire Mikel Jasso – who comes complete with an employer who is the head of a shady organisation (quirky support characters included). He’s been trotting the globe, hunting what he initially thought to be artefacts of a long-dead, but likely primitive civilisation. He’s done some questionable things to get his hands on these artefacts in the past, and he’s fine with that. Because it is the science and discovery which matters. Mikel could easily have been a caricature of his character archetype, but he’s saved from that by some clever characterisation and… probably… being narrated by Gillian Anderson.

Both Caitlin and Mikel are, of course, embroiled in the unfolding realisation that, long ago in the frozen landscape of the Antarctic, there thrived a people who’s ingenuity was eclipsed only by their stunning inability to accept that there are natural forces with which we should not tamper.

Sound familiar? Lol yeah, hi global warming.

Whilst Mikel’s journey is that of a solitary scientist, collecting historical artefacts which prove themselves to be more than shiny, humming rocks, Caitlin’s journey in this book is far more personal. Her son, Jacob, is acting strangely. A generally happy and well-behaved child attending a school which caters well for his needs (he’s deaf), Jacob one day has an incident so severe that Caitlin is called. She finds her son traumatised, seemingly by nothing at all – but she knows that what ails her boy isn’t some kind of fit, or tantrum.

Galderkhaan comes home to roost in this second book of the Earthend Saga, which includes a fresh hell for Caitlin as souls from the past catch hold of her son and are determined to drag themselves back into the land of the living – an eventuality which Caitlin stopped in the first book with a rather dramatic scene at the UN . By this point, our heroine has learnt a couple of tricks from her tangles with deceased souls, and sets about to find a way to once again stop Galderkhaan from bleeding out of the past and into our present.

Meanwhile, Mikel’s shiny stones are wreaking havoc and his mysterious employers are coming to understand that they’re playing with a type of fire (that’s funny, see, since this is the book about ice) they can’t contain. This doesn’t stop them from forging on, though. Because LOL humanity and also there are three books in this Saga.

A Dream of Ice was more personal, and as a result more frightening to listen to than A Vision of Fire. Better paced writing and Gillian’s low-pitched narration drove this book forward with little room to get bored or lost. In my opinion, the series peaked in this book, and could easily have ended on the book’s cliffhanger and still been a favourite of mine.

Alas, the show must go on.

The Sound Of Seas

Even the name tells you that this book didn’t really know what it was trying to accomplish in the series.

But if being unnecessary was an effective deterrent against existing then a lot of my favourite things and least favourite people wouldn’t exist – then how would I build character?

So yes, I powered through the third installment through a combination of determination to finish what I started, and excitement to write about it for TAGG.

The Sound of Seas picks up, again, where its predecessor ended. Caitlin O’Hara has gone Super Saiyan, tapped into some pretty awesome powers, and inhabited a dead person’s body in search of her son’s soul. In the time and place where she is inhabiting said body it is still very much alive, as is the Galderkhanni civilisation which she has thus far had mostly terrifying post-extinction contact with.

And Mikel Jasso is in the same place as her, though in a different time. He’s joined an Antarctic expedition in the present, with the intent of finally learning the secrets of the shiny rocks which are actually described as tiles all through the books. I just like the phrase “shiny rocks”.

Whilst Caitlin experiences the wonder of Galderkhaan in the past, Mikel explores its simultaneously awe- and fear-inspiring ruins in the present. Caitlin’s story lost my interest at numerous points in this final book, whilst Mikel’s was gripping, and almost relatable.

Almost, because if I went through what he went through in this book, I’d have chosen to lay down and give up sometime after the first bone broke. But Mikel perseveres, and we are treated to a tale which traverses the space between now and then, real and ethereal and ultimately shows us that nuance can be highly overrated.

As Mikel’s story comes to a head and we finally see the true power of this civilisation which refuses to fade away – Caitlin’s story meanders its way to finding some meaning.and an ending which is satisfactory mainly because I was ready for the end to come.

The Sound of Seas was worth listening to, despite all my grumbling, if only as a means of closure. Where A Vision of Fire was occasionally slow, and A Dream of Ice kept packing punches all the way through, The Sound of Seas left me glad to have a conclusion to the Saga and not wanting to go back.

In Conclusion: The Earthend Saga was a lovely entry into the world of audiobooks. I’ve been a bit harsh in the review because I went in with the highest of hopes and found a trilogy which was good, verged on great in the middle, but ultimately landed resoundingly on good again.

Mood Rating: Listen to this trilogy if you’re a fan of speculative fiction which dabbles in thriller territory; a newcomer to the audiobook world like me and you want a taste of the potential; and – most relevant, really – a fan of Gillian Anderson.

Brimstone Angels by Erin M. Evans

Source: http://forgottenrealms.wikia.com/wiki/Brimstone_Angels?file=Brimstone_Angels.jpg

All the shades of Farideh

All the shades of Farideh (via slushlush.com)

 

Havilar and Farideh are twin tieflings abandoned at birth and raised by dragonborn. Careless Havilar has an innocent soul and a penchant for trouble, and careful Farideh feels the weight of the world, her tainted bloodline – and her sister – on her shoulders.

In a summoning ritual gone wrong, Farideh ends up bound in a warlock’s pact with a handsome but sadistic cambion devil, and they are thrown out of the village. A lone dragonborn accompanies them out of compassion, and the three adventurers, often perceived as monsters themselves, begin to make a name for themselves as monster slayers.

But once they reach the encampments in the ruined city of Neverwinter, their simple plans of slaying monsters to make a living get tangled up in a devilish snare six layers deep. It will take every ounce of the twin’s skills – and some borrowed besides – if they are to have any hope of staying afloat in the deadly designs around them.

As far as plot goes, without ruining the book for anybody, the description is pretty much it. We follow several characters throughout the book, but the main two are Farideh, the twin who entered into a pact with a devil for reasons she can’t quite articulate; and Lorcan, the cambion with whom she made the pact.

Evans weaves us into the lives of the twins as they are forever changed and the unconventional family must flee their home village, becoming bounty hunters to survive as they seek out a way to get Farideh out of the pact. Meanwhile, Farideh seems to develop ideas of her own about her pact, the fiend who offered it to her and the exact use of the powers she gains along the way. We are taken along on the journey and brought into the minds of our heroines and their counterparts to explore the meaning of family, the burden of power and heritage and to find out just how far we will go to attain personal freedom whilst trying to “do the right thing”.

The villains are a great bunch, too. We have on one hand, villains who seem to be evil because it’s their nature and they really enjoy it; on the other we have a villainess-in-waiting who’s evil is more a matter of perspective. And, of course, we have Lorcan. He’s devious, self-interested and definitely up to no good, maybe with a touch of evil thrown in… but a few times you find yourself wondering just how despicable is he, really?

So, before I get carried away and ruin the book for you… let’s get into the highlights, eh?

Versatility- Evans manages to write a book which appeals both to long-time lovers of D&D and the Forgotten Realms setting and to newcomers to both D&D and fantasy.

Explanations of what things like tieflings are, and the hierarchy, history and politics of the Nine Hells are woven into the story so that newcomers feel comfortable (not too comfortable, though. It’s a dangerous place!) and familiar with the setting. At the same time those of us who’ve campaigned our way through Faerun once or twice don’t get bored with long-winded descriptions of the history of Neverwinter, every fantastical creature that crosses our paths and what the Spellplague is.

Realism- I know it sounds strange to say that a story which follows the adventures of the tainted descendants of a powerful and evil warlock, their scaly, fire-breathing adoptive father, and a runaway kid with sketchy access to divine magic following the making of a deal with a half-devil from the Sixth layer of the Nine Hells… is realistic. But you’ve just got to trust me on this one.

Writing believable characters and story arcs is difficult in any genre but when you delve into fantasy it’s tempting to throw away any sense of rhyme and reason and have things happen simply because it’ll look cool. Evans does a wonderful job of depicting characters who have realistic reactions to their situations and surroundings.

Our late-teen heroines are, predictably, crushing hard over boys who are best left alone. Our badboy extraordinaire, Lorcan, doesn’t suddenly and inexplicably reform his manipulative ways and heal from literal centuries of physical and emotional trauma simply because he meets a girl. And nobody is exactly forthcoming with the deeply personal and sordid details of their past just because it’d be nice for all our heroes, heroines and antiheroes to bond over a camp fire.

‘Regular’ people are also suitably sceptical and suspicious of folks with black pools for eyes and horns on their heads. Just because you’re in a fantasy setting, doesn’t mean that everyone is comfortable with horned and scaly people running around doing magic and wielding weapons with deadly precision.

Characterisation- Related to the above point, Evans builds strong and relatable characters.

I’ve read a lot of books and watched a lot of movies (oh, the sparkles!) that were let down by poor character analysis and development. Evans’ characters don’t feel like caricatures or stand-ins for concepts. They feel like people. Farideh and Havilar are separate and distinct personalities in their own rights, but as is so often the case with twins, you get the feeling that they’d be incomplete and miserable without each other. Even though they fight and misunderstand each other constantly, when push comes to shoving a claive into an enemy’s torso they’re inseparable. Their adoptive father Mehen is clingy and overprotective in the way that you’d expect someone who’s lost all the people they ever loved to be. As for that shady priest and the runaway… they’re interesting people, too.

Because I’m an impatient reader, especially when there’s an event that’s been foreshadowed and I’m trying to get to it ASAP… I’ll admit I skipped a few pages. I can’t say there was anything wrong with the pace of the novel. In fact, the fact that I only skipped literally a few pages is a testament to how engaging the book was.

Recommendation: Put on your most epic music playlists (I’m a fan of Versus Music on YouTube), call in sick from work or school for the next day or two, arm yourself with a large selection of snacks and enter into one of the most iconic fantasy settings of all time with your new friend Farideh and the badboy extraordinaire, Lorcan.

Trivia: I looked up the meaning of a few of the names in the book. I didn’t find anything for Havilar, but Farideh is apparently Persian and means “delightful” whilst Lorcan is Irish and means “silent”, “fierce”, or “little fiery one”. You learn something new every day!

I’ll finish up with a cautionary note. The book not only contains some explicit content, but also some rather mature context. I’m not saying not to gift it to your 15 year old nephew or niece (I dearly wish somebody had given me this type of book when I was 15), but it’s definitely not a kids’ book. I’d say it’s a 14+ kind of novel, and there’s definitely no upper age limit.

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You can find Erin M. Evans on her website and follow her on Twitter and Facebook from there.

Get Brimstone Angels and its sequels at your nearest bookstore  or from an online distributor.

If you’re interested in finding out more about D&D, check out Wizards of the Coast’s website and the Forgotten Realms wiki

 

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