Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Best of the Best 2010

This year I continued shifting this site more and more towards reviews and commentary and less and less about my illustration work. I did reviews for a number of sites and publishers but the lion's share of my reviews were for Black Library. This year I reviewed lots of books, some games, and ran some opinion pieces on publishing and art. The following are my picks for Best of the Best for 2010:

Best Sci-Fi Novel:

SOUL HUNTER by Aaron Dembski-Bowden.
Black Library, March 2010
Released in March and it still sits on top of the heap (with some close company*). SOUL HUNTER I feel made the single largest impact on my reading, perceptions and assumptions about how Warhammer 40k Stories are told, especially regarding Chaos Space Marines.
*Honourable Mentions: A Thousand Sons by Graham McNeill, Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett, Path of the Warrior by Gav Thorpe, Firedrake by Nick Kyme, The First Heretic by Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Crosscurrent, Paul S. Kemp (Del Rey/ Spectra).

Best Fantasy Novel: 

SWORD OF JUSTICE by Chris Wraight.
Black Library, July 2010
Chris Wraight again blew me away with his ability to characterize big named characters as well as keep "the little people" interesting. Wonderful plot, great twists, and a story anyone could get in to and enjoy. Turned Ludwig Schwartzhelm and Kurt Hellborg in to realistic, breathing fallible characters. Bravo!
Honourable Mentions: Grimblades by Nick Kyme, Prince of Wolves by Dave Gross (Paizo), The Crown of The Blood by Gav Thorpe (Angry Robot), The Shadow King by Gav Thorpe. Triumff by Dan Abnett (Angry Robot).

Best Cover Art:

Path of the Warrior by Gav Thorpe, art by Neil Roberts

Enforcer by Matthew Farrer, art by Marek Okon
The Erevis Cale Trilogy by Paul S. Kemp, art by Raymond Swanland
Aenarion by Gav Thorpe, art by Jon Sullivan

Sword of Justice by Chris Wraight, art by Cheoljoo Lee

Best Editor of 2010:
We usually don't get to see who the editor is for most novels, so unfortunately we have no real way of knowing who does what, recommends X or Y, how much guidance or help an editor gives an author, etc. The only real time we see this is in the anthologies and this year we've had several good ones.
Christian Dunn, Black Library is responsible for gathering the best talent and getting books edited and off to press. When editors aren't sorting out grammar, plot and pacing issues, they are herding cats trying to get those bloody authors to get their work in on time. Editors are the unsung heroes of any publisher.
Honourable Mentions: Nick Kyme, Lindsay Priestley.

Best Author 2010:
Nick Kyme, Black Library.
While none of Mr. Kyme's novels hit the #1 spot in my categories, he was easily neck and neck in the #2 spot in every category applicable to him. An editor cum novelist Nick has been a powerhouse: cranking out quality after quality, top shelf books every time. His consistency is amazing. His previous works on the Dwarfs are stellar, and his current work on Grimblades, and both Salamanders novels (and an audiobook) are amazing.
Honourable Mentions: Aaron Dembski-Bowden, Dan Abnett, Gav Thorpe, Graham McNeill, Paul S. Kemp, Chris Wraight.

I'd like to take a moment to thank all the above-listed folks as well as the MANY others who have written, edited, drawn and painted this year's novels (and respective covers). I read a LOT of really great material and you make people's lives more exciting. You bring stories to life. Thank you all! 

Best wishes for you in 2011!

Jeff Preston
Reviewer: The Emperyan.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Review: Ultramarines: A Warhammer 40,000 Movie

Special Edition Collector's Set
72 minutes

Captain Severus, a revered veteran warrior with a considerable reputation, has received an urgent request for assistance from the remote backwater planet Mithron. Mithron has only one site of strategic importance, a shrine defended for countless generations by a full company of Space Marines from the Imperial Fists Chapter. What dreadful fate could have overcome them that they ask for help? ...http://ultramarinesthemovie.com/movie/story

The Warhammer 40k movie. This is something that has been discussed for decades. Every fanboy of Warhammer 40k has dreamed of it...and now it is here.

So what do we have?

Well...it's CGI. This is to be expected. I think we all knew it would be. Now since it is 2010, the level of perfection capable with CGI is amazing. Throw enough money at a studio and they can make something gorgeous. Look at Avatar for films and the Trailers for Warhammer: Age of Reckoning, Mark of Chaos, Dawn of War and Dawn of War 2. We know what can be done.

As Avatar evidenced, a pretty picture is nice and all, but the story has to be good. It has to be Warhammer 40,000.

For the writing they got Dan Abnett to do the screenplay. I think it is safe to say that Mr. Abnett knows 40k. It shows. The story is good. I wish there was more of it: it was a bit short. The prelude is in the little hard-bound graphic novel included in the Special Collector's Edition, but really, I wish they would have "filmed" that as well. 72 minutes is an awfully short movie.

The CGI was pretty good. The facial capture work, very well done albeit a little static and stiff. It works ok, Space Marines aren't exactly the most expressive folks so it's passable. The animation of the characters, not as good. It looks stiff. They move like animation from Terminator 2 or maybe Toy Story. mechanical, not motion-captured. The models for Space Marines and their gear is pretty good. The skins good as well. Scoring this as 50% good, 50% not so good.

The environments were mixed. The space-based bits were excellent. The Battle Barge, the interiors and exteriors as well as Mithron from space and the star field, totally good. However when you get to Mithron it is stark and like basic CGI class 101: a flat desert with occasional rocky bits sticking up. Not good. However once you move in to the crags and then to the monastery, it turns really sharp and looks excellent. There's a reason for this of course.

This is something that should have been realized in pre-production but when you have sparse settings, the eye will look  for imperfections. The way to resolve that issue is to either have really exceptional, realistic environments (so for a desert it needs to be photo-realistically imperfect) or clutter it enough with rocks, crags and "stuff" that your eye stops looking for it. That's why the craggy bits and monastery bits work...they have enough there to make us simply stop looking for patterns that are "wrong". Anyhow, the environments get a 50% score as half were good and half not so much.

The story is solid. You have a bunch of scouts that get elevated to full battle brothers and taken by the Captain to Mithron to investigate the goings on. The vibe is on target. The dialog witty and appropriate. Nothing grossly out of place like female Astartes or the Emperor becoming a woman or anything like that. I'm sure that there will be a few purists that will balk over scouts being elevated to a tactical squad right off the bat, or the apparent age of the Captain, Apothecary. Really, it doesn't matter to me and I give it a good solid 90%

The vocal work was solid. I hope so, they got top shelf talent to do the voice work. They did well in vocal work as well as the motion capture for their faces, so that part was solid as a rock. I can't help but wonder how this would have turned out if the funds spent on voice talent were instead spent on the animators, but that is neither here nor there. A solid 90%

Audio effects were solid as was the sound track. Actually, the sound track was brilliant, I'm trying to see if they are going to release it for download or something because it's especially good. The sound effects like how the thunderhawk, bolters, explosions...good. They could have had a little more depth and the sound off the DVD had to be turned up for the voices and down for the gunfire. I'll give this am 80%

Presentation and Collector's Edition goodies. The packaging was good, I like the metal tin. The special features were cool albeit limited. Most of the imagery we had already seen on the website so it wasn't so great. The little featurettes were class though and made up for it. Also included was a hard-bound comic book. The pencils were okay, inking weak, coloring weak, story good, lettering good. Overall for the presentation, I have to give it a 70%

Overall it's an enjoyable film I've watched twice and enjoyed both times. I do admit that the Dawn of War trailers looked better (lets not even compare it to the upcoming Space Marine game from THQ.) but the story makes it worth watching as does the soundtrack.

3 out of 5 Stars.

Review: Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett

Prospero Burns by Dan Abnett
448 pages
Advance Review Copy

The Emperor is enraged. Primarch Magnus the Red of the Thousand Sons Legion has made a terrible mistake that endangers the very safety of Terra. With no other choice, the Emperor charges Leman Russ, Primarch of the Space Wolves, with the apprehension of his brother from the Thousand Sons home world of Prospero. This planet of sorcerers will not be easy to overcome, but Russ and his Space Wolves are not easily deterred. With wrath in his heart, Russ is determined to bring Magnus to justice and bring about the fall of Prospero...http://blacklibrary.com

First off, I'll explain my bias. I loathe Space Wolves. Always have. I've always felt they were oversimplified Space Vikings. Thick-necked killers one step away from being khornate bezerkers. The way they were portrayed seemed lame. Why? Because I spent a decade researching and studying Migration Period cultures of Western Europe and *MY* view of the Germanic and Norse cultures was that they were SO much more than simple killers, rapists and pillagers. Seen through the looking glass of their contemporaries they were fantastically deep cultures and I thought that Space Wolves, loosely based upon them, completely missed that point. In addition, I've always been a Thousand Sons fan and I found Graham McNeill's companion to this especially moving.

Add to this that Dan Abnett, like any other author does not hit a home run every time at bat. Don't get me wrong, I still think Dan Abnett is a rockstar of an author and one of the top 3 authors at Black Library, but I feel that some of the stories published have lost a bit of the Cold, Dark and Grimness of the 41st millennium and begun to take an almost superheroic bent (This is understandable in any long running series of course). What I mean is that while Mr. Abnett's Horus Heresy Novels have been stellar, I think the Gaunt's Ghosts and even Ravenor series seem almost four-color in comparison*. Heroes that are HEROES and do almost nothing wrong, make all the right decisions, moral compasses that always point true north and the mistakes they make are so minor that they are oversights instead of true flaws. My wonder was whether Prospero Burns would be along the lines of Gaunt's Ghosts/ Ravenor or the lines of Legion or Eisenhorn where the protagonists delved deeply in the realms of grey and moral ambiguity.

Let me start off by saying my worries were misplaced completely.

As soon as I started reading Prospero Burns I was witness to a scene that was told in a manner that could have been orally explained by a skald by a fire in a longhouse in ancient Jorvik. Dan Abnett's wording, pace and the way he describes the dialog is perfect. The reader has no choice but be transported to a different place, a different time. You're no longer just reading a book, but you are immersed in a way that I have never seen or experienced before.

There are many brilliant dialogues and as the protagonist awakens and explores, so does the reader. This is deftly handled, as usual. Each of the characters is brilliantly defined. They are all imperfect in a way that I think only Astartes can be. The verbal banter between characters, especially the Vlka Fenryka is so appropriate in comparison to the real-world Norse analog. Same with many of the simple beliefs, mannerisms, little bits of superstition. Aside from being a Warhammer 40,000 story of the Space Wolves, it would be an awesome sci-fi alternate history novel for folks in to that sort of thing. I can't believe how well Dan Abnett really nailed it. Mr. Abnett has absolutely NAILED the perfect vibe for Sixth Legion.

The novel follows the protagonist, aptly named Kasper Hawser who comes to Fenris to learn of the Wolves of Fenris. He is a unique man and interesting in many ways that is detailed over hundreds of pages. As he learns of the Vlka Fenryka so does the reader. As he gets pulled in to the plot...so does the reader. Most importantly you learn about why the Sixth Legion exists, and it is a grim purpose, exposed through direct witness to how they carry out their role in the Great Crusade.

The events of the Great Crusade unfold on through the Council of Nikea and soon after to the razing of Prospero. To be frank, Prospero is the end of the book and only takes maybe a hundred pages tops. We know what happens at Prospero. Dan Abnett is not one to dally over long on battle-porn. His battle scenes are poignant, direct, and have a point.

There are some brilliant plot twists and reveals that catch you sideways as well as characterizations that will surprise you. My initial fears and prejudice were GROSSLY off the mark.

The cover art by Neil Roberts is as always glorious.

In summary, it's a brilliant novel. A PERFECT counterpoint to Graham McNeill's  A Thousand Sons. The author is able to grab the reader, pull them IN to the story, drag them through the muck, and blood, burn their eyebrows off, then neatly tuck them in to bed at the end. It's really genius storytelling. Dan Abnett is truly a master at his craft.

5 out of 5 Stars.
*Don't get me wrong. While I feel that Gaunt's Ghosts and Ravenor (among others) may not have the same dirty, hopeless, grim feel, they are still fantastic novels. I don't think I've read a Dan Abnett book I didn't like. The above listed novels admittedly have some of the characters I love the most in them. I don't consider myself a "Fan" of any writer per se, but I certainly respect the skill of the authors to make me think, second-guess and outright change my prejudices as well as pull my emotional strings...and Mr. Abnett is a master at this, regardless of the "appropriate tone" (in my own opinion) or not.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Review: Salamander by Nick Kyme

Salamander by Nick Kyme
416 pages

Hailing from the volcanic world of Nocturne, Space Marines from the Salamanders Chapter are in search of an ancient artefact that leads to a world overrun by Chaos. They are the fire-born: implacable warriors with iron hard determination. But all is not what it seems as far more dangerous foe is revealed. As bitter rivalries break out amongst the Salamanders their endurance will be tested to the limit. Will the Salamanders survive long enough to discover the truth about this world and the revelations that will shake the very foundations of this Chapter forever?...http://blacklibrary.com

So I received Firedrake to review but hadn't read Salamander yet, so to get the full effect I picked up Salamander at Barnes and Noble...and finished the book in a night. Granted, it was a long night: I finished at 3:30 am.

Mr. Kyme starts it off with a bang: an action packed, emotional prologue that sets the stage nicely. The main characters are vivid, you can't help but get a very clear picture of them. Tsu'gan the noble-born hothead and Dak'ir, the low-born contemplative. Surrounding them are a number of very cool characters that are nicely fleshed out and make this a very characterful novel. The insight in to the Salamander Chapter is awe-inspiring. A progenitor chapter finally fleshed out in detail!

The plot is very well conceived. Very smart. There are some exceptional reveals and some additional mysteries presented. The reader is certainly kept on their toes. The author does a fine job of "splitting the party" and keeping several simultaneous threads going strong: his pacing is very good. I have to admit there are times I got a bit confused on the relationship between the antagonist and the protagonist were.

As I turned the pages, the author led me down a primrose path, setting the stage and tweaking my emotions. Of course like any good author he has plots within plots, and things going on behind the scenes we don't know of, so he's able to keep the tension going and surprises coming. Well done Mr. Kyme.

The finale is powerful. I really didn't see it coming. Maybe it blindsided me, maybe I allowed myself to be. Either way, the end is action packed and it left me anxious for more.

The Salamanders Chapter is very much a "Good Guy" chapter. They have a high regard for humanity and are very honorable in every way. I think they shine in their own way as much as any other progenitor chapter. The author REALLY gives them a very distinct vibe and I love it. I can see some others not digging it as much, preferring Mortificators, Exorcists, Blood Drinkers and other more...gritty, dirty chapters.

Mr. Kyme is also able to write at the down and dirty individual/ squad level, space combat/ strategic level as well as the top end Heroic/ Chapter Master level. This is exceptional as some authors don't seem to give the grit or grandeur the proper feel: Nick Kyme handles this deftly.

The cover art by Cheoljoo Lee is fitting, crisp and clear. Very much an iconic Salamander image. Well done Cheoljoo Lee!

Nick Kyme is on a roll! He's steamrolling his way through the 40k 'verse and taking no prisoners!
This is an exceptional introduction to the Space Marines for anyone who hasn't read about them yet, or a stellar into to the Salamanders for anyone already familiar with Adeptus Astartes. Even for those unfamiliar with the Warhammer 40k setting, this is just some damn good sci-fi/ military fiction.

4.5 out of 5 Stars.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Review: The Magicians by Lev Grossman


Viking Adult - a division of Penguin Group

Published: August 2009

ISBN: 978-0670020553

Reviewed by Earl Davis


Quentin Coldwater is brilliant but miserable. A senior in high school, he's still secretly preoccupied with a series of fantasy novels he read as a child, set in a magical land called Fillory. Imagine his surprise when he finds himself unexpectedly admitted to a very secret, very exclusive college of magic in upstate New York, where he receives a thorough and rigorous education in the craft of modern sorcery.

He also discovers all the other things people learn in college: friendship, love, sex, booze, and boredom. Something is missing, though. Magic doesn't bring Quentin the happiness and adventure he dreamed it would. After graduation he and his friends make a stunning discovery: Fillory is real. But the land of Quentin's fantasies turns out to be much darker and more dangerous than he could have imagined. His childhood dream becomes a nightmare with a shocking truth at its heart.


Every story has been told at least once. It’s the ultimate truth that all writers face. In the end, the prestige lays in how the storyteller can convince the audience to ignore that truth and accept the tale as something fresh.

The Magician doesn’t just fail. It stumbles around the stage imitating the images, themes and ideas already handled expertly in other novels. It borrows (and I use the term loosely) from J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis, E.L. Doctorow and J.D. Salinger so heavily that I’m forced to wonder if Lev Grossman has a fetish for authors who use initials in place of given names.

Make no mistake, writing is a craft and Lev Grossman is a craftsman. While reading, The Magicians, I couldn’t help but imagine him; brow furrowed, back hunched, wrists bent through endless hours over his keyboard. I can taste the stale caffeine and smell the man-funk that accumulates from sitting still for far too long in the same spot. Then at last, after months and months, triumphantly his finger strikes that final period and his creation is complete.

Unfortunately, his creation isn’t his own. This novel broke my heart. I wanted it to be great because Grossman deserves it. He’s earned it, but in the end The Magicians is nothing more than a well-polished amalgamation of other works. In a way, it reminds me of the art forgers who can copy beautiful oil paintings of the Great Masters, but they live in the utter frustration at never hearing the Muses’ call.


I’d recommend this novel for any new writer as a case study. Everyone else should steer clear.

2 out of 5 stars