Review: The Aeronaut’s Windlass

The Aeronaut's Windlass (The Cinder Spires, #1)The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Man, I wanted to love this one. I was ready to love it. I was prepared for it. Consider the background context: Jim Butcher absolutely dominates my list of “Most Read Authors” at a lofty 26 books. I’ve read almost everything that’s flowed forth from his pen and I use the word “flowed” in the most enthusiastic and positive sense: the summer I was introduced to Dresden was a reading feast as I plowed through eleven books with complete abandon. I still remember where I was when reading “Summer Knight,” for instance (I was camping on a beautiful mountain in southern Arizona, if you’re curious).

I remember picking up the Codex Alera books and being skeptical at first, but Tavi’s story drew me in and to this day, I consider the entire Alera series Butcher’s most underrated masterpiece. Alera showed me that I don’t need urban fantasy and wisecracking wizard detectives to enjoy his work.

I started this book in January. It proved to be slow going for me. I’d read a bit and I’d enjoy myself . . . but there was no hook. I’d put the book down for a few days and a week or two would go by as I read something else. I tried changing things up by going with the audiobook version during my walk to work each day . . . but more often than not, I went with a podcast instead. Eventually, I returned to the physical version of the book, mostly so I could finish.

Where do things go awry? The meeting with the Spirearch felt like a poor version of the First Lord from the Alera series and my feeling was the entire thing about “I can’t trust my guard because maybe traitors” was contrived to explain why these untrained kids were being sent off on an important mission.

For how prominently the aeronauts and the ship Predator featured in the title and the opening chapter, it’s quite surprising how little the airships actually figure into the book. Predator spends most of the story docked, with the action on “land” as it were. This was unfortunate, because the Predator and the airships were the most interesting and exciting aspect of the world. The battle at the end is suitably thrilling, but it’s such a small section of the book that by the time it rolled around, I’d be working slowly through the book for almost two months.

Also, the title bothers me. My understanding is that a windlass (in this universe’s context) is basically a barge or a ship that’s slow and weak. But Grimm (the presumed aeronaut in question) never has his ship turned into a windlass, so . . . where exactly is the windlass referred to in the title?

Other problems with the plot included the sudden and abrupt disappearance of the main antagonist, to the extent that I went back and reread a few chapters to make sure I didn’t miss a brief mention of the antagonist’s demise. Turns out, that wasn’t the case and the last few pages show that the antagonist managed to escape.

It was hard to tell whose story this was. Characters move around and disappear for long enough stretches of time that I can’t comfortably saw that it’s Grimm’s story, or Gwen’s. Maybe it’s really Bridget’s? But even she isn’t there for the finale, so who knows.

I’m almost 100% certain I can figure out the identity of the mysterious Enemy. Possible spoiler warnings, although I’m really just speculating wildly: considering the use of the word “unmake,” who’s willing to bet that the giant robot-thing is actually one of these deific Builders and that the oft-invoked “merciful Builders” aren’t quite so merciful after all?

I’m not a steampunk fan, so I can’t attest to how well (or not) this book will fare with fans of the genre. I’ve long been of the opinion that good writing will work regardless of genre and that good stories don’t need to rely on the genre conventions to be good, that the conventions are just fun embellishments or a form of adornment. Thus, I don’t consider my lack of familiarity with steampunk to indicate that “the book wasn’t for me” or “I just didn’t get it.” Hardcore steampunk fans may find otherwise, but that’s there business.

So, in the end, I’m left with a book that I picked through for two months. There are some good bits here, even some great bits; the airships and the chase at the end immediately made me want to go pick up a book about Victorian Era naval combat. You can see the familiar Butcher magic, you can grasp the pieces and see how they could come together to tell an epic story. But those pieces don’t come together here. It’s hard to see the characters as more than their archetypes: stoic captain, mad wizard, feisty aristocrat girl, etc.

I’m not going to write off the series yet. I recall how it took until the third Dresden book before I felt that the author had really hit his stride and found the magic, and so I’m willing to give the next adventure a look when it comes out. I think there’s potential. I don’t hate it when a beloved author works on other projects or other worlds. But on its own merits, I don’t feel the the aeronauts are taking flight and so we’re left with a book that’s merely okay. I liked it well enough, but I didn’t love it.

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Review: The Witcher: House of Glass

The Witcher: House of GlassThe Witcher: House of Glass by Paul Tobin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve been completely sucked into the world of the Witcher since I started playing the third Witcher game a few months ago. Since then, I’ve tried to read everything I can to get familiarized with Geralt’s world and while I know there’s a series of novels waiting for me, this ended up being the first book that I’ve been able to read.

As video game graphic novels go, it’s okay. The story sagged somewhat in the middle and there were some basic assumptions about a certain character that I thought were going to be a plot twist, but ended up as something totally benign. Geralt certainly seems to have far more angst here than in the game and the continued self-references to “I’m a witcher, I don’t…” or “the witcher’s path is a lonely one” ended up getting a bit repetitive.

The art style was pretty cool, however, and there are some enjoyable moments. While the twist that I predicted ended up being completely wrong, there’s a pretty good reveal towards the end. Overall, though, I kept asking myself “why the hell would a master monster hunter allow himself to spend so much time in an obviously evil place?” Despite the fact that the titular House of Glass was full of cursed monsters and strange magic, Geralt didn’t seem to really mind that fact.

Final verdict: a fun, well illustrated graphic novel but somewhat underwhelming for my first foray into Witcher fiction, although the fact that this graphic novel appears to be a tie-in work to the game rather than the original novels might have something to do with that.

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Review: And Yet . . .

And Yet ...And Yet … by Christopher Hitchens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t always agree with Hitchens’ views. In fact, I don’t think I even often agree with them. Despite a brief flirtation with the New Atheists a few years ago, I’m unwilling to consider myself more than a spiritual agnostic. I disagree with his embrace of war and military intervenionism. And yet. And yet.

Hitchens was one of the best goddamned writers of . . . possibly ever. Even when I completely disagree with his thesis, he’s delightfully readable. And I don’t disagree on everything. His more wry observations of life and culture and literature are a true delight and one comes away from a good Hitchens essay with the feeling of shared a drink with a brilliant and eloquent intellectual.

Of this final collection of essays, book reviews, and other short pieces, I will say this; I’m going to miss that voice. His thoughts on quitting smoking, getting healthy, and doing the physical makeover are bittersweet and poignant, the words given an unintended emotional gravitas when you consider how closely they were written before his own death.

This is more of a ‘completionist’ work of Hitchens writing than a ode to ‘the best of the best.’ Book reviews from books that are ten or more years old tend to feel dated, even for books that are remarkable. There isn’t really a true standout piece here and if you were new to Hitchens, this isn’t where I’d start. Despite that, there also isn’t anything that falls flat and nothing that isn’t interesting. It was nice to spend a little more time with a voice that I have missed and will miss. Overall, a very solid collection.

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Review: World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King

World of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher KingWorld of Warcraft and Philosophy: Wrath of the Philosopher King by Luke Cuddy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this book up after a friend recommended it to me in the wake of my review of “Halo and Philosophy: Intellect Evolved.” While I think this concludes my foray into pop culture philosophy for a while, I did enjoy this book considerably more than “Halo Philosophy.” The nature of MMOs as shared simulated spaces (alliteration intentional!) invites several intriguing discussions, especially with regards to the metaphysical. Furthermore, so much of what makes MMOs interesting is the people that play them, and even though a first person game like Halo is also multiplayer, it’s really in the MMO space that one can seriously consider questions of character, identity, and self.

As you might expect, not every essay in this book is going to impress, but there are some true gems. In particular, the essays on the relationship between the character and the self really intrigued me. I’ve played a wide variety of characters over the year, including characters of an opposite gender. Thus, I paid particularly close attention to the essay written by a male player who, rather unintentionally, “toured” as a perceived female gamer for several months.

Is this a book I’d recommend to a non-WoW player? Eh, probably not. The authors generally do a good job of not relying “too” heavily on the game terms, but the largest appeal of these pop culture/philosophy books is how the content of your favorite game (or show, or movie, or whatever) can become the fuel for a philosophical discussion. If you’re not already a WoW player, I’m not sure why you’d be interested in picking up a book about it. That said, this is a very solid philosophy primer and if you’re an MMO player (of any game, really), you’ll find something to mentally gnaw on.

Quick aside: it was a little silly, but I really enjoyed the chapters presented in WoW’s “0/1” quest tracker style, as well as the “+3 to intellect” for completing the chapter. It was a fun bit of attention to detail.

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Review: Purity

PurityPurity by Jonathan Franzen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was so very difficult to decide what to rate this book. Rarely has a book character just flat out irritated me so much . . . but irritated in a way that compelled me to keep reading. (For what it’s worth, I’m referring not to Purity, the main character, but Anabel, who shows up in one of the branching narratives. Purity herself was okay.)

This is often my experience with Franzen’s writing. Can I say that I really liked this book? If I didn’t like it, why couldn’t I put it down? Why did I race to finish it when my library’s due date edged closer? I’m convinced that this is indicative of a subtle talent and a prodigious skill, that I just. Kept. Reading. It’s still incredibly hard to know how to describe that feeling or even if I’d recommend the book. “I didn’t enjoy my time and yes, I was reading for pleasure, but it’s still a really good book?”

The story itself is classic Franzen, a world full of deeply flawed people. Purity herself breaks the mold from previous Franzen protagonists in that she’s actually a pretty likable person and her story is deeply compelling. The woven narrative between multiple characters creates a complex approach that I really enjoyed.

This book’s deepest flaw (aside from Anabel, who just drove me crazy with every page) is at that a book with sex and sexuality as a core theme, it’s a very unsexy book. I’m not sure if this is Franzen’s own writing style, if it’s intentional, or it’s due to the creepy Lolita vibe throughout the work, but I found myself skimming whenever clothes started coming off. Fortunately, that’s only a small percentage of the total book, so it wasn’t too much of a distraction.

I did roll my eyes at the line about how “Jonathan” just sounds like the name of a great writer. Really? Reeeeally?

And so we’re left with a flawed book that annoyed me more than almost anything I’ve ever read for my own enjoyment, but that I still read compulsively and could not put down. I don’t know what to make of that. I’m convinced that it means this work is brilliant. But it’s a weird place to be, mentally, and it makes for a hilariously awful blurb on the dust jacket.

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Review: Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal

Xbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic RenewalXbox Revisited: A Game Plan for Corporate and Civic Renewal by Robbie Bach
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Sometimes a book presents itself as being about something and when you read it, you realize it’s actually about something else entirely. Other times, however, the book itself is pretty clear about its topic, but the reader’s perception is that it’s going to be about something else.

With the exception of the title and the stylish black-and-green color scheme that was the banner of the original Xbox (oh, how I’ve missed that look), “Xbox Revisited” is clear that it’s a business book, not a gamer book. It even says in the subtitle that it’s more about “corporate and civic renewal.” This focus is not hidden! And yet . . . and yet . . . it was recommended to me via whatever computer algorithms seek out those connections. “If you liked Console Wars, you’ll like this book!” So, while it might be a lesson about the recommendation process rather than a comment on the quality of the boo itself, I must admit I came into this book expecting an entirely different experience. And that isn’t really the book’s fault, in this case.

I was hoping for a “Console Wars” style narrative about the development of the Xbox, which has long been my favorite video game console. I was hoping to see more about how it was developed, what it was like in the trenches at the very beginning; in short, how it all happened. Unfortunately, “Xbox Revisited” focuses on the development only at the highest level and summarizes most of that story. Author Robbie Bach even says he isn’t much of a gamer and so isn’t equipped to provide a gamer’s perspective. Thus, while Xbox is the product that’s at the center of the discussion, the book isn’t actually about Xbox.

Instead, the focus is on Bach’s business management theory, which is called the 3P Framework. Not being a business manager myself, I can’t speak to how effective it might be. As a reader, it does feel like a bit of a stretch to take the business plan that worked for a video game console and apply it to the rest of the country. Your mileage may vary.

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I Went To A Thing Called “The Blind Cafe”

As an introvert still getting used to life in a new city and a new corner of the world, it’s easy for me to retreat into my lair and not come out for days at a time. I have books to read, writing to do, video games to play, and Netflix to watch, so . . . really, with so much to do from the safety of my own home, why should I venture out into the wider, scarier world? Well, obviously, that’s not a great way to live one’s life, so even though it involves a mental kick in the ass to get in gear, I try to live by the adage (it’s not really an adage) of “do cool stuff whenever possible.”

Last week, one of the area mailing lists I got sucked into (from Yelp, I think) told me about an event happening called The Blind Cafe. Here’s the basic elevator pitch: you’re served a meal in absolute darkness. No lights, no emergency exit signs, nothing. You’re led into a room, seated at a table, and from there, you get to experience life the way . . . well, the way a blind person does. After dinner, there’s a keynote speaker and a Q&A and the night caps off with some live music. With the exception of the host and a few volunteers, all of the staff for the event were blind; servers, kitchen staff, speaker, etc.

So, what’s it like?

Your mileage may vary, but for this author, it was nothing short of terrifying. In a good way. In the way that a great roller coaster is terrifying. The way paragliding is terrifying. But it’s still really scary.

Our tickets were for the 8:30 event, but since we’re still learning our way around the city, we left early to give ourselves plenty of time. We arrived outside at about 8:00pm and waited outside as the previous group finished up. As people staggered out, most were wide-eyed and blinking. It seemed both promising . . . and foreboding.

We went into a little lobby and checked in. It was a pretty tiny room for about 60ish people, but we were each given a glass of wine, so I was content. Once we were checked in, the host gave a brief introduction and told us what to expect (they asked several times to have phones and watches turned off, so as to not spoil the effect). We lined up in groups of eight to go into the dining area. Each person put his or her hand on the shoulder of the person in front to avoid getting separated. We were advised to go to the bathroom before the event, for obvious reasons.

The door from the lobby to the dining hall was turned into a sort of “light-airlock,” with multiple heavy blackout curtains that we walked through. They were thick enough and heavy enough that it was a little disorienting, which led to the effect. I was plunged into complete darkness with nothing but my hand on Jenn’s shoulder to guide me. We were led to the table and seated. From there, it would be up to us until the keynote.

Dinner was all vegetarian, which was helpful for me (being a both a vegetarian and someone with a pretty serious food allergy). There was some bread that we figured out how to pass around in the dark, although I never did find the butter. After that, it was up to each of us to eat and talk. In complete darkness.

Here are the things that wigged me out: because the room was pitch black, it wasn’t like wearing a blindfold, where there’s always a liiiittle bit of light peaking around through your nose or at the corners. There also was nothing I could do to be able to see; no blindfold to take off, no watch to light up, nothing. You can’t really recreate this experience at home, because even if you turned off all the lights in your house and managed to make it completely dark, you’d still know roughly where you are. You know your house. You might stumble and shuffle, but you know what the area looks like.

It’s profoundly different going into a place you’ve never been before in the dark. I couldn’t tell how big the room was (I tried to estimate based on the sound, but turned out to have wildly overestimated the size of it).

That was the part that really got my anxiety churning: I’m intensely claustrophobic. Claustrophobia takes many forms and for most people, it’s regarded as a fear of small spaces. The tight spaces are part of it, but they’re usually actually a trigger for a larger fear: the fear of being trapped.

In my daily life, I have this little ritual that I go through whenever I start to feel anxious: I visualize where my exits are. I look around for the ubiquitous red or green glowing EXIT signs. I imagine the process if there was, I don’t know, a fire or an earthquake, and what I’d do to get out. I don’t spend very long on it, maybe a few seconds at the most. It works.

The first time I felt that anxiety in the dark, I realized that I didn’t know where those little EXIT signs were. I had no idea of the layout of the room, having gotten disoriented from the thick curtains we walked through. I didn’t know how to get out of the room and that tripped my phobia into overtime.

I will be honest: there were a few moments when I nearly lost it. I thought about saying “fuck it, grabbing my cell phone out of my pocket, and using it as a flashlight, and to hell with the other sixty people who paid to have this experience.” But through some very calm and steady reassurance from Jenn, I was able to keep a lid on my anxiety and got through the first part of the event. I can’t really say whether the food was good or not as I mostly picked at things on my plate due to my churning nerves.

It’s intense. You have absolutely no real idea how hard it is until sight is taken away from  you. I’d thought I’d be fine with it, since I wear glasses and I’m about as nearsighted as a baby mole without them. But there’s really no comparison at all. If a person tells you “I’m legally blind without my glasses,” cuff them upside the head. Being nearsighted is a wonderful world of visual cues and data compared to having your sight taken away. My 20/200 vision can tell me where I am, where the exits are, and where people are. I’ll never take it for granted again.

The keynote speaker was excellent. His name was Rick and he’s been blind for (if I remember correctly, again, I was fighting off a panic attack for the first hour) most of his life. Having his voice in the dark to focus on helped steady my anxiety and his talk was a great one. He invited people to ask questions, anything at all, about blindness, about his life, whatever they wanted. He told us that the anonymity of the dark often encouraged people to ask things they normally wouldn’t in the light, which turned out to be true. Not that anyone asked anything inappropriate, but folks were able and willing to talk about blindness in a real, concrete way. My favorite questions were “what’s the rudest thing a sighted person does, either intentionally or unintentionally” and “do you think a ‘cure’ for blindness would damage or harm blind culture?”

I won’t spoil the answers here, both because I couldn’t do them justice and because I think you really had to be there, in the moment, to experience the profundity of it.

The night closed out with a few live songs. Music really does sound better in the dark. I was able to listen to it in a way I don’t normally listen; normally, music is a background thing, something I listen to while I’m driving or writing or cooking. I never devote my entire attention to it, but when you’re there in the dark, you feel the music in a wholly different way. It’s pretty incredible.

The night ended with the host lighting a candle in a the middle of the room. Just like that: sight restored. We were able to explore the room, which is when I learned that what I thought was an entire ballroom was really a fairly small meeting room with eight tables and a little stage. After that, people started to depart. We stayed around for a bit to recover and to talk with the host and with Rick, to thank them for the experience.

I’ve spent most of this post talking about my fear; how scared I was to be in the dark, how much it triggered my own anxiety. But that’s not really what the event was about and it’s not what I took away from it. It was an amazing experience getting to talk about blindness in a way that was real and deep and honest. It didn’t make me feel pity but it did make me aware of my tremendous privilege. It made me realize how much I take the smallest things for granted.

If you have a chance to take this experience, I recommend it. It’s not something you really do for fun. It wasn’t that way for me. But it was powerful and it felt meaningful. I learned some pretty deep things about myself. You may not be able to learn “what it means” or “what it feels like” to be blind in a few hours, because we’re talking about a topic much deeper and broader than can be encapsulated in such a small amount of time. But you’ll have the beginnings of understanding; you’ll have taken a few steps in someone else’s shoes.

Review: Tomb Raider Volume 1 : Season of the Witch

Tomb Raider Volume 1 : Season of the WitchTomb Raider Volume 1 : Season of the Witch by Gail Simone
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The 2013 Tomb Raider reboot is one of my favorite games. I loved the revised Lara Croft character and I loved the focus on gritty survivalism. There was a bit of mysticism in the game, but it’s fairly subtle, certainly more so than the previous Tomb Raider incarnations. It’s an amazing game and easily the best reboot I’ve ever seen for a character as popular as Lara Croft is.

“Season of the Witch” serves as a sort of inter-quel story set between the events of Tomb Raider 2013 and the new game “Rise of the Tomb Raider.” In this story, Lara and the other survivors of the Endurance are trying to get on with their lives after their horrifying experience on the island of Yamatai. Unfortunately, weird things are happening which draw them back to the island.

The plot, unfortunately, is the biggest problem here. A story about trying to cope with the events of the island could have been pretty cool, but instead we’re drawn into a conspiracy surrounding the Solarii (the antagonists from the game). Wait, why is there a conspiracy about the Solarii? These business suit types are worshippers of Matthias? How is that possible? Based on the game, Matthias was a survivor who was trapped on Yamatai and formed the Solarii as an island cult so he could break free of its supernatural power. The game made it pretty clear that nobody had ever escaped from Yamatai prior to the events of the game. So where did these conspiracy guys come from? How did they know about the events of the island? Why would they worship a guy who, according to the game’s depiction, was really just a sort of feral survivor?

I appreciated how much the story tried not to be obviously supernatural, and the various things that occur are all suggested to be trickery, coincidence, or other artifice. Unfortunately, I could not wrap my mind around the idea that the homeless psycho who was the game’s antagonist was worshiped by a secret cabal. I also felt like “returning to the island” wasn’t really all that compelling.

Despite all that, it’s great getting to see Lara interact with the crew of Endurance more. It helps build on those relationships and makes her connections feel more meaningful. Overall, it’s a decent book with good characters but some deep plot and world building problems. It’s a good read if you’re really hungry for more Tomb Raider stories, especially since it’ll be a few years until the next game (presumably).

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Review: Halo: Escalation (Volume One)

Halo: Escalation (Volume 1)Halo: Escalation by Christopher Schlerf

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Now this is a damn fine Halo story and an example of what I think should be the standard for other Halo graphic novels.

As mentioned in my “Halo: Initiation” review, this book does a much better job of introducing Sarah Palmer as a likable character, as not only is she devoid of much of the arrogance from her previous version, she even apologies to another character for being “unprofessional” at one point, which I think indicates the author has a better handle on her character. The cast is also much larger and more diverse, with a few different plotlines woven together. In particular, I really enjoyed Commander Lasky and Spartan Ray working together and their subplot was, I think, the most interesting.

I’m also a big fan of the Arbiter (he might even be my favorite Halo character, in fact) and so any book that gives him a role will make me happy, even if he’s mostly a side character.

But what made this book great for me, aside from the strong cast of interesting and likable characters, was that it wasn’t afraid to really dive into the plot and world building. We’re getting a look at the universe in the post-Covenant era, full of warlords and feuding and attempts at diplomacy. We see Sangheili that are becoming money-driven information brokers and Jiralhanae that are actually more than just berserker monsters (though only barely).

It’s a world that fills vibrant and alive, and focuses on a story that’s more than just “kill these guys and blow this thing up.” It even brings back a tantalizing glimpse at a story element from the somewhat forgotten game “Halo Wars” which wasn’t terribly popular, but one I really enjoyed. I won’t spoil the details here, but it was great seeing the UNSC Spirit of Fire getting mentioned again.

“Escalation: Volume 1” sets a high bar and I’m eager to see if Volume 2 can continue this level of momentum. Regardless of how the next book plays out, though, I would say this is a must-read for any series Halo fan. It has a bit of everything: action, plot, Spartans, aliens, and action, and it’s all wonderfully balanced. This is what a Halo graphic novel should be.

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Review: Halo: Initiation

Halo: InitiationHalo: Initiation by Brian Reed

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Based on her role in Halo 4, it seems like Sarah Palmer was intended to be the “face” of the new Halo generation and the Spartan-IVs. And on the surface, she seems like a pretty great character; she’s a Commander, which is cool, and she’s voiced by legendary voice actor and perennial fan favorite Jennifer Hale. Unfortunately, her characterization throughout the game is uneven and even somewhat unlikable, and those problems extend to this book which was meant to serve as an origin story for the character.

Palmer’s character is, for lack of a better term, just flat-out unlikable as a protagonist. It’s always great for characters to have flaws, of course, but those flaws do need to be tempered with characteristics that cause an audience to identify with the main character. Even worse, Palmer is uneven, at first disliking the Spartans for being “superior” and then lording that same superiority when she becomes a Spartan herself. There’s also the odd inconsistency in her rank and promotion: originally, her character was supposedly a lieutenant before she became a Spartan, which would make sense, but here she’s a lowly corporal . . . which means that, by the time of Halo 4, she’s jumped how many ranks in how short a time?

Basically, it’s just hard to root for her, and as this story is entirely focused on introducing us to her character, it drags the entire story down, even though the rest of the book is pretty decent. Fortunately, I’ve also read the next book in the Halo graphic novel line, Escalation Volume 1, and that story does a great deal to redeem Palmer’s character.

Thus, I’d say skip this one entirely. It doesn’t do anything for the character except make you dislike her, which is a huge problem for a backstory book.

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