Apr 272014
 

HalbertAndTempleKnight

With the recent PC release of Dark Souls II, I thought I would take some time to talk about the series, why I think it’s so damn good, and why you should be giving it a try (or maybe a second try… or third). Once you get past your initial learning stages, and accept the fact that you are absolutely going to die, and die often, you can start to appreciate just what an impressive achievement they are.

Dark Souls, like Demon Souls was before it, is an unbelievable experience. Every bit as difficult as you may have heard, it brings the difficulty level back to the levels seen in early generations of video games (before accessibility became all-important). While those games often could be unfair in their difficulty, Dark Souls rarely is (unfair). Controls are precise, and most enemies are quite fair, if absolutely brutal. Death is a learning experience, one you will go through quite often, as every mistake can cost you your life. But for those who persevere and accept this for what it is, an absolutely beautiful game series awaits.

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I’ll be honest, it took me several tries to really get into these games. I have had Demon Souls forever, and bought Dark Souls during some random Steam sale (of course). I had a hard time even getting through the first areas, and finally decided that I did not have the time to get good enough to really enjoy and appreciate what the game offered.

Once Dark Souls II was announced, I figured the time had come to give it another shot. I decided this time to spend a bit of time with a beginners guide, picking up some tactics and tips to ease up a bit on the initial learning curve. And honestly, if you have any issues getting into the game, I absolutely recommend doing this. The secret really lies in taking things slow, being deliberate with your attack timings, and above all… KEEP THAT SHIELD UP! Once I had started to get a taste of the world, and defeated a couple bosses, I was sold. I still died a whole ton, but I knew why I had died, and I was determined to fix that weakness. Which probably just revealed a second weakness… but after a few tries I would inevitably get the hang of things. Once you finally beat that boss, I don’t think there is a game out there that can match the feeling of total accomplishment.

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Beyond that feeling of accomplishment, these games are beautifully designed. Often this means the settings themselves, with each often having several jaw-dropping moments as you move to a new area (Anor Londo, I’m looking at you). But even more often, especially in Dark Souls, it’s how the world itself is designed. The layouts are amazing, and each area has tons of hidden items and locations that all seem perfectly natural. It’s fantastic just exploring (until you run into a new baddie).

Are they difficult games? Absolutely. If you do not think you have the time to really learn the system and how to play, then that very well may be true and they won’t be the game for you. But don’t let that stop you from at least giving it a try. Combat is fantastic, each weapon is well balanced and feels real, and every death can be explained by a lack of skill. This of course means that your skill will constantly grow as you play, which is a pretty rare occurrence anymore. If you are looking for an immersive and challenging action-rpg, I absolutely recommend picking one of these up and giving it a try.

 

 

Apr 242014
 

Every now and again, you come across a game so pretty you forget you’re playing it for a moment. Thankfully Ustwo, the company and maker of Monument Valley – a mobile iOS game/ M.C. Escher painting in the form of a game, thought of that in advance by creating a game with an option to take screenshots.

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Like a cross between Fez and Journey, Monument Valley is the simple tale of a girl in white on a quest. For what and why is relatively unimportant as you click through the puzzle levels. In this game you twist and turn platforms using the Escher-esk optical illusions to find unexpected bridges and pathways to reach your destination. The only real obstacle you face are the “Crows” (sorry, not a Game of Thrones reference) who insist on standing in your way and sometimes cawing at you.

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Monument Valley is designed to be virtually stress-free. As you play, a soothing soundtrack and playful audio created by Stafford Bawler floats through the gameplay. It’s a perfect game to pick up and put down again as needed – though be warned. It’s a rather short game so you may find yourself at the end wishing for more.

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Having such a beautifully designed and simple game makes sense however, for a company that is actually a graphic design and digital product studio, focusing on non-game mobile apps. According to an article by Buzzfeed:

Ustwogames started in 2011 as team without much direct experience in the gaming world — the staffers were app developers and graphic designers — and its first game, Whale Trail, was a minor success. Buoyed, Matt Miller, one of Ustwo’s founders, decided to hire directly from the gaming industry to add to the Whale Trail team.

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Although games were not its primary focus starting out, Ustwo has built a gaming team which has created an amazing visual experience with interesting puzzles with great visuals and audio. Although only available through iOS at the moment, there are talks of additional levels – as well as the possibility of other platforms, including Android and PS Vita, according to an article on game review site Polygon.

If you have an iOS device I definitely suggest picking this one up. It is a little on the pricier side for an app ($3.99) – but there are no in game purchases, and although I don’t normally feel this way about puzzle games, there is a replayability in its zen-ness. Pick it up here and check the website out here.

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Apr 102014
 

This is your only warning that there be spoilers ahead!

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It’s that time of year that we can all finally go back to fearfully wondering which of our favorite characters are about to be killed off, yet again. Well, except for those of us who have read the books that is, we already know who is about to die (can you sense the smug? Mwah ha ha). Except for where we don’t… because HBO likes to mess with our heads and occasionally kill some other character, because damnit, G.R.R.M. just didn’t take it far enough! A frequent criticism of his I’ve heard.

Anyway, where was I? Oh right! The fourth season of Game of Thrones has officially kicked off, breaking the viewership record for the show in the process. This introductory episode changed the tone somewhat from some of the prior seasons, as we are starting to get to the part of the series that has slowed down and focuses more on exposition. Not a bad thing at all, but definitely a different direction than the first three seasons, and we get a bit of a taste of that here. Definitely a very solid episode, but nothing yet that really sets the bar for the season.

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The majority of the episode took place in King’s Landing, where Jaime has returned to his family, albeit missing a wee bit of his hand. The scene where Tywin melted down and re-forged Eddard’s sword to create two new ones, one of which went to Jaime, was a very cool scene that was definitely overflowing with symbolism. Followed by Tywin demanding that Jaime give up his spot in the Kingsguard in order to rule at Casterly Rock. Jaime flatly refuses this and leaves (and of course then suffers the spite of both Cersei and his-probable son Joffrey). Jaime has quickly become one of my favorite characters, and even considering his pretty evil deeds in the past, it’s hard to not feel compassion for the guy, misguided though he may still be. Oberyn Martell also made his triumphant entrance, demanding satisfaction for the brutal killing of his sister and her children at the hands of the Lannisters. He is going to become one of the more intriguing storylines in this season, looking forward to that!

I thought the bits with Daenerys and Jon were the flattest of the episode. The scene with the dragons was pretty badass, sure, but it’s hard to disguise the fact that she is pretty much just wandering around in the desert, not taking back her throne like I want her to. I do like the new Daario, but we didn’t really get much of a chance to meet him, so looking forward to seeing him in future episodes. Jon had to deal with some of the repercussions following his little escapade beyond the wall, but nothing really has come of this yet.

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My favorite parts of this episode was the scenes with the Hound and Arya. Arya has long been one of my very favorite characters, in book and show, and her relationship with the Hound is a pretty interesting one. The Hound himself has become a bit of a fan favorite, which I think is mostly due to Rory McCann’s excellent portrayal, but he and Arya form quite the effective team. This culminates in an excellent fight in an inn with some Lannister men, where Arya is able to retrieve her sword and kill Polliver, the man who murdered her traveling companion Lommy in the last season. Arya is out for revenge, and this was a big move from her character, as her method was quite deliberate and cold-blooded. She is out for vengeance, and Polliver wasn’t even on her list! I can’t wait to see what this odd duo gets into in the next few episodes.

 

 Posted by at 9:56 pm
Apr 082014
 

CyclesWell, I have finally finished the second paperback of Y: The Last Man, and there is certainly a lot to catch up on since we left our dear Yorick and his companions with several paths ahead of themselves at the end of Unmanned. We begin book two still in Boston, with Yorick bartering for passage on a freight train, though the group’s destination is still not immediately clear to the reader. After some “resourcefulness,” all are safely on board, and quickly discover that they will be sharing the space with a fully-stocked pigpen. And yes, don’t worry, fabulous puns ensue.

We soon learn that the chosen destination is Dr. Mann’s lab in California, which Yorick is none too happy about. Agent 355 seems concerned, too, and apparently rightfully so: after a short interlude (in which we find out that Yorick’s sister Hero has gone a bit off the rails [ha, my own pun!]), a pair of armed and apparently racist thieves show up. Caught off guard, Yorick is not wearing his disguise, and the thieves immediately discover that at least one male has survived the plague. The thought seems to barely register, however, before Yorick takes action despite (yet again) Agent 355’s warnings to stay back. He tackles one of the thieves, but it doesn’t go well: the thief quickly judo-rolls and throws both Yorick and shoulder-perched Ampersand through the open boxcar door and into the night. Worse yet, Agent 355 bashes her head when she dives after him.

Yorick is discovered, unconscious, on the side of the train tracks and given safe haven by Sonia, a woman from nearby Marrisville. After waking up, the two instantly bond, and Yorick finds himself describing his relationship with Beth as “complicated.” It is a surprising turn of events, given his fixation with traveling to Australia thus far. Still, he quickly recognizes the need to find Agent 355 and Dr. Mann, and prepares to leave. Before he is able to depart, however, he runs into the other sixty-six women of the town, who represent yet another important group of women that we have not yet seen in Vaughan’s post-apocalyptic universe: a no nonsense faction that rationally tends to their own basic needs. Sure, in the first book, Vaughan introduced us to the congresswomen searching for the next President, but here in book two he also acknowledges the distinct likelihood that a group of individuals would be able to overcome their differences in order to react to the distinct and immediate needs of a day-to-day order. It is an impressive feat considering we find out that the group is made up of convicts who escaped from a nearby prison, but it is not unrealistic.

Despite this positive note, a rather unfortunate development comes to pass, as Yorick’s love life becomes exponentially more “complicated.” First, he kisses Sonia in the woods, and second, in a concussed haze, Agent 355 weakly mutters, “I want you…Yorick.” While I was angry that Vaughan has contradicted his main character’s previous statements, and I personally hate Yorick’s decision, I am simultaneously impressed by the statement Vaughan is making: Yorick is the last man on Earth, but that doesn’t make him the smartest or best one. A similar idea applies to Agent 355, as I see it. She is one of the smartest women on Earth, but that doesn’t mean she can’t (mistakenly?) fall for the imperfect eponymous character.

Speaking of heroes (More puns! I regret nothing!), Yorick’s sister has now discovered that her brother is the man they have been following, and thanks to a tip from the woman who got him and the group onto the train at the beginning of book two, she knows just where he is. You might not consider a sister finding her long lost brother a bad thing, but unfortunately for Yorick, Hero is just as complicated as the rest of the cast. Brainwashed, she and the rest of the Daughters of the Amazon show up just as Yorick is having self-righteously berating the residents of Marrisville for their colorful past. Luckily, they are not as petty, and refuse to allow the Daughters to take the last man in the world into custody. Again, however, Yorick puts himself in extreme danger by turning himself over to them (Agent 355 is a bit too unconscious to disagree with his decision this time), and he is rewarded with a gun to his head, held by the leader of the Daughters, Victoria. In a tremendous show of violence, Sonia steps outside and deftly launches an ax into Victoria’s head, only to receive an arrow from Hero’s bow in her chest. After Sonia dies in his arms, it is Yorick’s turn to be angry, and he stops just short of executing his sister, demanding instead that the residents of Marrisville lock up the Daughters in the old prison.

The real fireworks come just before the end of the book, however. Hero reveals that it wasn’t the Daughters of the Amazon that attacked Dr. Mann’s lab. Cut to the Daughters of Israel, stealing a Blackhawk helicopter and receiving intel from a shadowed individual in a Secret Service office: “The boy is in a small town in northern Ohio called Marrisville.” We further learn that Hero is already on her way to escaping from prison, and, not that it’s a big deal or anything, there are at least two men other than Yorick alive. They’re just on the International Space Station!

Overall, I was less fond of the second book than the first. While I understand the literary need for it, after being presented with a fantastic and imaginative post-apocalyptic, nearly all-female future in the first book, the complications presented in the second made it more difficult to love it quite as wholeheartedly. Still, in my opinion, the work is probably quite a realistic view of such a future, and I would be doing a disservice to our readers to say that you shouldn’t pick up a copy.

Apr 042014
 

night broken

If you are a fan of urban fantasy and haven’t read Mercy Thompson, I am disappoint.

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The 8th installment of Mrs. Brigg’s Mercy Thompson was released on March 11th and has quickly taken its place as one of my favorites in this series. Despite the fact that I frequently had to fight from tearing it in half or throwing it across the room. But more on that later.

There are spoilers, ahead. If you have not read the novel, you better run out and get it. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

 

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Alright, we are all set now? Good.

This installment starts with a normal Sunday morning at the Hauptman house, so of course there are werewolves everywhere. The phone rings and we are about to be introduced to the toughest enemy that Mercy and Adam have had to face so far: Christy, Adam’s ex-wife. And she needs their help. And to stay in their home.

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Needless to say, I knew this was going to be a rough one.

Christy has encountered a man who started as an interesting fling and ended up being a crazy stalker. And she is so afraid that she has run to the one person she knows can handle anything: Adam. Her ex-husband. Mercy’s new husband. Mercy is still walking on eggshells around the pack because of the whole “being a coyote shapeshifter” thing. And maybe some of the trouble that seems to follow her around. But… really. That’s hardly her fault.

As the story progresses, we begin to see how adept Christy is at managing (read:manipulating) people to where she subtly makes Mercy the “bad guy” while making most everyone in the pack bend over backwards to make her feel better. Every dinner is a chess match. And really, we know Mercy is much better with a blunt instrument. Like maybe a walking stick with a thirst for blood. Mercy comes out the loser in these engagements. Hence the aforementioned book throwing.

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The real “big bad” of the story is a volcano god from the Canary Islands. (There’s a sentence you don’t hear often.) The legend goes that he was so enamored by the sun that he stole her and kept her as his lover until she was freed and he has been searching for her ever since. And somehow he thinks she is Christy. Well, volcano god, there are a lot of things I would call Christy and “sun goddess” DEFINITELY does not make the top ten. But, I digress…

VOLCANO GOD. Right. Well, this is a nasty one. He is so far from home that he must take something with him as a power source: namely two giant beast dogs from hell. Which they have to defeat to take him out, of course.

One of the most interesting components of this story, in my opinion, was that we met Mercy’s half-brother, Gary Laughingdog. Who seems to have a slightly different reaction to Coyote than Mercy does. Namely, he hates him.

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I should probably be less amused by this. But I love Coyote. His sly, somewhat dark, sense of humor is fantastic. And his disregard for rules and playing by them. Except when it keeps the ones he loves safe.

Anyway, yada yada yada, the good guys win. But it comes with a price this time. Mercy dies. And even with a broken neck and being gnawed on by a giant demon dog from hell, Mercy saves the day.

Source: replygif.net and also those amazing blue eyes.

YOU GO, GIRL.

She turns the tide of the battle and manages to let Adam and the pack kill the other demon dog, sending Volcano God back to the Canary Islands. But we get to hear a little bit of the conversation as Mercy lapses in and out of consciousness and it does not sound good.

But Mercy’s father is NOT Coyote. So he pays her a little visit and VOILA! no more broken neck. Man, it would be nice to have Coyote as my not-father.

So, we end with a not-dead Mercy, a banished big-bad and Christy is blue. Da-ba-di-da-ba-dye.

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All’s well that ends well… with a walking stick.

Overall: I really enjoy that Briggs doesn’t shy away from tough emotions. And there are several times that I was so angry that she would bring Christy into Mercy’s & Adam’s lives, but it was done reasonably and realistically. It never crossed that line into sitcom-y and to that end I was very impressed. I occasionally think that the mythology gets away from Briggs- we are constantly introducing and updating the mythos- but it never completely contradicts itself or gets boring (though a little difficult to follow). Mercy was definitely true to character this entire novel (but possibly a little more mature) and was everything I have come to love about the character. Her selflessness and need to protect those she loves are still her main traits. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

4/5 stars.

Apr 032014
 

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I was recently introduced to The Dresden Files series, by Jim Butcher, after hearing it mentioned several times watching the Day[9] Daily (show on Starcraft II, it’s pretty great). Mystie and I also went through his Codex Alera series early last year (another very good read!), and I am about halfway through the fifth book now. It has quickly become one of my favorite book series of all time, and I can’t wait to get further in, as each book seems even better than the last.

You may see a lot of posts regarding some of the similarities the series shares with the Harry Potter series. Dresden is a wizard, working in a modern-day Chicago as a private investigator, dealing with crazy, supernatural beings that are generally unknown to the public. This of course raises a good few difficulties for him, as there are few characters who are willing to take his career and abilities at face value, to say the very least. Oh and they share the same first name. However, from here the stories are quite different. The Dresden Files function as a well-crafted mix of mystery, fantasy, and light horror, told in a first-person perspective by Dresden.

Speaking of the perspective, it really is what makes these books shine. Harry is a fantastically interesting, hilarious, and sympathetic character. His asides to the reader and himself, as well as his banter with the secondary characters, is top-notch. It perfectly nails the idea that Harry is equally parts lucky and talented in his encounters with the villains (except for the rare times that he just kinda, well… kicks-ass). He isn’t some perfect, all-knowing wizard. He has flaws, many of them in fact, and we as readers get a very intimate portrayal of them all.

Honestly I have no problem recommending this to any fantasy fan. If you loved Harry Potter, I think this is the perfect step into more of an adult version of that type of story, even better if you like a good mystery. But it’s the character of Harry himself that makes this such an easy sell, as he is easily one of my favorite-written characters ever. I can’t wait to see where the series goes!

 Posted by at 1:07 am
Apr 012014
 

contact

For this edition of “The League of Books” we are trying a different format. After finishing the novel, Mystie posed questions for Ben to answer and Ben posed questions for Mystie to answer.

The responses are below: WARNING: SPOILERS.

Did you have any trouble or difficulty in identifying with Ellie as a main character due to her being a female? Did you feel she was well-written and/or realistic?

“No I didn’t have any difficulty identifying with Ellie as a main character. It’s actually a very refreshing change, and I thought Sagan did very well at making her a realistic character. I think there is a very real aspect of the book that addresses the fact that scientific fields tend to be male-dominated, and while obviously the reasons behind this are not really addressed, I think Sagan does a good job of showing Ellie as a positive example of why that is a problem. If not for that, I would think it’s kind of a shame that someone would have issues identifying with Ellie because of her sex. There are many other things that I think I had more trouble identifying with, based on her profession or maybe her relationship with her parents, both things that are pretty far from my sphere of experience. But those differences are some of the things I love about books, or video games, any sort of heavy-narrative driven plot. So getting a female perspective is an important part of that, but the more you see well-written female characters in both books and movies, and go away from some of the pre-conceived notions of what is “male” and what is “female,” the more you tend to see how small that particular difference actually is.”

—Ben

Contact is a very non-traditional science fiction book. What are some things you liked and disliked about this?

For a good portion of the book, it read like a realistic fiction novel; there was a lot of political intrigue and social commentary. A lot of this I really enjoyed, it made the more fantastical premise seem all that more attainable and brought a new credibility to the science that Sagan wrote about. However, I got bogged down in the middle of the book and found it hard to keep going as I was a little burned out on the realism of it all. When I read science fiction or fantasy, a lot of the reason that I am reading it is to get away from the normal- to enter a world that is full of wonder and might be a little less than realistic. When I finally got the to the science fiction section, I ate it up. But then it was over too fast. =(“

—Mystie

When you got to the end of the novel, did you remember that Ellie had driven herself to science with her self-teaching about pi? Did you like that everything sort of came full circle at the end?

“I have mixed feelings on this one. I thought it was very cool when the aliens introduced it during their meeting, but after that in the last few chapters when she was searching for that pattern, I kinda thought it had become a bit much. I think it would have been a very cool thing to just leave it as something the aliens had found, and left it open-ended and mysterious, maybe still end with Ellie searching for it. I think this still would have brought things full closure, while being very intriguing as well. As it was, I thought it was still a cool plot-device, but it was then wrapped up in kinda an awkward and rushed way, and didn’t feel very satisfying to me.”

—Ben

What was your favorite part/passage of the book? Why?

“I think that this will probably be the same passage for a lot of people, but the traveling that The Five did when they entered The Machine would be my favorite part. I think that the idea of this “Subway Station” in the sky gave the chance for Sagan to write these extremely skeptical scientists staring around wide-eyed, like children at their first amusement park. And the feeling that humans are “children” in a galactic sense as this “Subway Station” that is easy for these races to manipulate is so far out of our range that humans could not understand it while they were building it.”

—Mystie

Did you enjoy the ending of the book? Did you feel fulfilled in the conclusion of the story or were you wanting more?

“In the actual conclusion I will say I was not completely satisfied with where it went. I liked that the travelers were not really believed, and that there was still work to be done to get there, slowly (would have been too easy for everyone to believe and change right away). But it just wrapped up too easily, and I was a little disappointed in that. The revelation concerning Ellie’s father in particular just was poorly done in my opinion, as it really seemed to carry little weight. However, the parts leading up to the conclusion, basically their entire voyage, I thought was excellent, and probably my favorite part of the book (maaybe the introduction beats it out). “

—Ben

What do you think Sagan had in mind by the “higher intelligence” implied at the ending of the book?

“To me, the message felt like “science and God are not all that different”. Which would fit with the rest of the theme of the book, which felt a lot like “we are all Earthlings”. We need to rid ourselves of bigotry and hate to rise above our differences and become the kind of human race we would be proud to show off to the rest of the Universe. The impression that I got from this book was that there was a moral message inside this incredibly interesting story: that humans are not that different from one another and we should be bound together by our belief in something larger than ourselves. And he does this in a realistic manner in the story; countries do not automatically drop arms and embrace one another but as they are bound together in their goal of building The Machine, the stockpiles of nuclear weapons diminishes and wars are not started as countries need each other to complete their goal.”

—Mystie

There aren’t too many relationships that Ellie has in the book. And the ones that she does have are fairly shallow. Did you believe her relationship with der Heer? Did you find it emotionally satisfying?

“I liked the idea of what (at least what I think) he was going for with this relationship. der Heer seems all politics, he is very concerned about his reputation and wants to basically become a successful politician. Ellie is all business, couldn’t care less about her reputation and is mostly trying to increase her and others understanding. For a brief time at the beginning of their relationship, these are aligned and they can get along and have a decent relationship, but it doesn’t last. I like that Sagan was not going for a “perfect romance,” and tried to show something that just wasn’t gonna work. But I don’t think he pulled that off very well, as there wasn’t really a clean break through the rest of the book. Ken just mostly ignores her, and even kinda looks the other way as others criticize her. There doesn’t seem to be much of a reaction from Ellie on a lot of this. I think some of that was Ellie was definitely emotionally distant from most of the characters, but I just think this was awkwardly done overall, he could have done a better job of showing it one way or another, instead of just coming across as indecisive.”

—Ben

Why do you think Sagan had the travelers return without any proof?

“This would agree with my answer above. The idea that “faith: believing in something you can’t prove” is necessary in both religion and scientific discovery. I felt that Sagan had/has great respect for religions and that he is simply offering the idea that maybe science and religion can exist together. There is also the feeling of “not yet”. Humans are not quite ready to be part of something larger than themselves until they can unite and become HUMAN rather than Chinese or American or Brazilian. I did not get the impression that the “aliens” were trying to cause the damage that they did by allowing The Five to come back without proof; they just made the decision that humanity was not ready to be a hub on the “Subway Station”; either the damage that they would cause or the damage that an alien nation could cause to the Earth without the ability to fight back.”

—Mystie

OVERALL, HOW DOES IT COMPARE TO THE MOVIE?

“Ha, this is an interesting one, and I’ll try to avoid any spoilers of the movie since you haven’t seen it. Maybe part of this was seeing movie before reading the book, but it was incredibly noticeable what they changed and why they did it to fit a movie. I’m not sure if thats a good or bad thing, but for the most part I think the changes were very transparent, in terms of the reasoning behind them. I actually really like the movie as well, it helps that I can understand what all they did, but I think they did a good job at getting some of the major themes of the novel itself. And one of those themes that the movie holds, and perhaps even highlights, is one that can’t have been a very popular “hollywood” move, and so I applaud them for that.”

—Ben