Otto Von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves – 5/5 Stars

Otto Von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves by Jesse Baruffi

Vigorously entertaining science-fiction super-villain adventure parody that may at first seem like a cross between Naked Gun and Austin Powers, but with a serious and strong plot. In his astounding debut novel, author Jesse Baruffi shows us the ridiculous and far-fetched way heroes are presented, as inordinately stupid supermen who can brush any affliction aside and who mindlessly fight for democracy and freedom, defying natural laws, and of course being unfaithful to their girlfriends!

We have Otto Von Trapezoid, a mad scientist supervillain who is emotionally stunted and has a short temper that sometimes leads to inadequacy and poor short-term decisions. Otto’s personality archetype exaggerates the problems scientists cause when they don’t think while at the same time possessing devastating weaponry. There’s Esmerelda, a master thief who has comical martial arts reflexes, being more concerned with style and appearance, and she has a hilarious disregard for incongruity. While Otto must decide between emotions and drones, Esmerelda must contend with her nasty family.

When the villians meet during a particularly memorable dinner, it is to have a civilised conversation, while of course plotting to end one another’s lives. Otto’s failed attempts were funny because he was so agitated and awkward that he missed his mark and managed to casually thwart Esmerelda’s attempts to do away with him. The protagonist point-of-view focus was well-balanced as we see the developing enmity between both, and the story develops with amusing and crucial incidents that cover betrayal and of course their run—in with Jake Indestructible (no introduction necessary). The villains were imaginatively created; mirrors that deflect projectiles, remote controlled boomerang, ROPE (rocket-operated punching explosive), etc. The villains were not overly negative and when they were treacherous it was artfully done, not cynically, and splashed with inventive humour. Though the main traitor was obvious much earlier in the novel, the scenes were delivered with excitement and energy. There’s a serious adventure beneath the puns, jargon, and mocked clichés that is a battle between good and evil where the reader never really switches sides.

Criticism: I didn’t get all of the humour, or why some sub-characters were presented in the ridiculous way they were, such as Otto’s parents. It’s clear many of the jokes were about exaggeration, and as I continued to read and the main plot developed, I must have got used to the style and found much of it humorous. Also, I thought the distrust between Otto and Esmerelda wasn’t fully explored, even if they did occasionally question each other’s secrecy or motives.

Overall, you do not need to understand all the humour to experience this wildly entertaining read that glues our perceptions of heroes and villains into something original, compelling, humorous, layered, and with a plot that continued to evolve at just the right pace. Astounding!

Otto Von Trapezoid and the Empress of Thieves on Goodreads

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Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean – 5/5 Stars

Shadow of a Dead Star by Michael Shean

Shadow of a Dead Star is science-fiction cyberpunk, set in a future America called Wonderland, where over-reliance on dark technology fuels society, and sexual and materialistic fantasies are prevalent. Commercial status even determines human rights: the population of Seattle is divided between poverty-ridden Old City, the tumultuous Verge, and the dazzling New City; where lights, advertisements, and simulations overload the senses. I was fully immersed in the opening scenes and the author’s technology of the future was concise and clear. There was no room for ambiguity. After 17%, the writing breaks free from minor rigidity, and then the investigation unfolds with tension.

Federal Agent Walken is the exception, or so he believes; he’s a man of flesh who distrusts the widespread implicit faith in machines. Walken must investigate a case of Princess Dolls, little girls modified into sex toys, a practice that infuriates him. When the Princess Dolls are hijacked, Walken is ordered to investigate dubious sources to trace their location. However, he must work alongside “Civilian” Protection (CivPro) officers: who are unsympathetic and uncooperative because corporate interests masquerade behind most civil and public services. All Walken has is his instincts; and they haven’t let him down yet… I easily sympathised with Walken’s remarkable point-of-view, and liked his tough-guy persona.

Shadow of a Dead Star is a terrifying glimpse into a world where individual independence and initiative has been made obsolete: doors with no handles; administrative workers physically connected to the machines they use; and soldier helmets with view-screens instead of visors. Body “branding” is commonplace. Indeed, faith in machines is absolute to the extent that Walken sees himself alone, apart, and distinct from everybody. For readers worried about the rapid technological invasion in the information age, Shadow of a Dead Star reads like a political statement: cyberpunk realism if you like. Expect a few familiar cyberpunk elements, such as brain-riding (hacking), virtual reality, and an “underground” movement. Many of the main and sub-characters appeared typical of cyberpunk, but with relief the author fast-forwards past all pretence.

The sudden injection of first-person thriller action in the latter half kept me enthralled; it was like a first-person shooter video-game. Don’t expect an average plotline either. Just when you think it’s going to lapse into predictability, it takes a sci-fi/horror twist that is so “out-there” that I was horrified, stunned, and yet fascinated because the conclusion made perfect sense. Shadow of a Dead Star concluded but it didn’t fully end, which is something that will no doubt be cleared up in the sequel. Overall, what an experience! What was life like before this meteor-impact of a novel?

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Dark Masters (Tales of Nevaeh 2) by David Wind – 5/5 Stars

Dark Masters by David Wind
Dark Masters is an epic fantasy adventure sequel set in Nevaeh, the future of Earth’s western civilisation. It’s about young psychic-warriors Areenna and Mikaal, whose quest to save Nevaeh can only be achieved by a perilous passage to the Frozen Mountains to learn of an ancient secret. Much of Dark Masters followed a similar formula to its prequel Born to Magic, where Areenna and Mikaal are hunted by unseen or not easily perceived dark forces. These forces test their magical and physical defences, attempting to delay their quest long enough for the Dark Masters to invade. On their adventure, doubts about their abilities and purpose will surface, the most remarkable being why Mikaal has the psychic abilities of women.

In comparison with Born to Magic: David Wind has an increasingly strong grasp of Areena and Mikaal, their emotional and psychic connection, as well their role. High King Roth and High Queen Enaid were included, which was comfortingly familiar and also pleasingly different because they were thrust more often into the plot and action. I liked the greater focus on aouteums, which are like animals that have magical bonds with psychics and are telepathically communicated to, sometimes with an ‘asking’ for requests. It was a clever idea, and warmed them to me. There were some stylish sword-fighting scenes and skirmishes against enemy pawns. I especially liked the magical clashes between good and evil, which were visually atmospheric and convincing. Yet, I would have liked a bit more of this action throughout. Perhaps more so than Born to Magic, I found Dark Masters to have more emphasis on symbolism, with actual symbols and prophetic fore-tellings. In a way, I interpreted it as being that while religious extremism can be a pervasive force of evil, belief systems can unite the ‘good’ Nevaens through ancestry, common purpose, and tradition. Sometimes the storyline captured me so fully, that I forgot of its link to modern-day terrorism and extremism. The author must be applauded for a series of tales that read like they actually happened; they’re that believable!

When the reader learns more about the Dark Masters and of the origins of Nevaeh, the writing and adventure becomes absolutely sensational. As a reader, I was swept into the battle, and there was magic galore. David Wind sets a spectacular final scene, tying the characters, plot, battle, and the greater truth of Nevaeh into a solid, pulse-pounding finale.

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