Christmas Gift List 2013
It’s that time of year again, folks. The time of year when a big chunk of the world celebrates a massive secular holiday of gift giving, silly songs and fat guys with beards that happens to have the same name as another holiday held on the same day to celebrate the start of the middle child among the Abrahamic religions.
I’m not a religious dude, so I celebrate that first Christmas (and ironically, love the more religion-oriented carols like ‘We Three Kings’, ‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’, and ‘Little Drummer Boy’), the one where you commemorate your bonds with friends and family with the exchange of gifts. It’s a holiday I highly recommend to anyone who isn’t specifically barred from celebrating it due to conflicting religious affiliation (because a lot of people still aren’t down with the fact that there really are two Christmases even when places like Japan have been on the trolley for years).
‘But Vaal’, I’m sure many of you are asking, ‘This blog post came out on the twentieth, meaning there are only five shopping days left! Assuming I even celebrate Christmas at all, being part of the audience of this web serial means I’m such a conscientious and just plain together person that my Chrsitmas shopping was done months ago. Why then would you be putting out a gift guide now, you handsome bastard?’
First of all, thank you for calling me handsome. It always feels nice to hear the unvarnished truth.
Second, you misunderstand, my equally handsome and/or beautiful reader (everyone that reads my stories is also attractive—it’s just a side effect of the prose)
They read this site like ten times a day.
No, no. You see this is a guide to gifts to get for yourself.
See, I know that a healthy chunk of my readership isn’t Christian or sufficiently irreligious enough to care that they’re stealing other people’s holidays (-cough- Winter Solstice -cough-), but whether you’re going to be celebrating or not, you’re still probably going to rack up a few gift cards from well-meaning colleagues, maybe get a Christmas bonus, or will be in driving distance of someplace offering fiscally irresponsible discounts. (Note, this might be Amero-centric, but I’m pretty sure a lot of European countries, Australia and Canada at the very least do this too. Apologies to the person who generates the single hit from the UAE I find in my stats every month).
As such, I’m taking it upon myself to recommend some cool stuff to buy as a gift to yourself this Christmas, along with short reasons why you should own it. Also, this serves as a place where I can recommend stuff that doesn’t normally come up in my usual articles in my on-going quest to spread my own nerdry to each of you, like a plague for your bookshelf/DvD player.
Compiled in convenient list form:
If someone asks for a book recommendation, this is the title I say first.
Simply put, the story is a masterful blend of fantasy and Oceans Eleven-style con movies that takes full advantage of the different narrative styles provided by a 300+ page book vs a 90 minute movie. The end result is some of the best world building and characterization I’ve read in a long time.
The book tells the tale of a young man raised to be one of the greatest con artists in his world’s history as he embarks upon another big score with his crew. With the backdrop of a fantasy version of Venice but with more alchemy and a sprinkle of magic, Lynch’s tale is exciting on every page and full of plot twists that are intriguing instead of annoying.
The story gets extra credit for the fact that it did a couple of things that normally would have driven me into a frothing age if they happened into other stories, but managed to mollify me by still having plenty of heart and wit to spare.
Lies has two sequel books out: Red Seas Under Red Skies, and Republic of Thieves, which I have been waiting for-freaking-ever for and which will be arriving at my house in a couple of days.
Also in the box with Republic of Thieves, is this book.
Now, I’ve plugged the con series Leverage plenty of times. I love guile heroes and con movies and Leverage delivers both in spaces. Plus, a massive chunk of my writing philosophy comes from producer John Rogers, who is a big believer in producing media meant for people to find awesome.
Leverage is a series about a former insurance investigator who brings together a team consisting of the best con-artist, thief, heavy and hacker in the world to rock the modern day Robin Hood thing, taking down the rich and powerful who use that wealth and power to hurt those less fortunate than them.
And then there’s The Con Job. What’s so special about it that I’m recommending it sight-unseen and relinquishing my chance to rec the series lower down where I suggest TV and movies? Because The Con Job is set at the San Diego Comic Con. Yup. They’re conning bad guys at a comic convention in an adventure written by Matt Forbeck, an admitted superhero geek. I have no doubts that it will be epic.
I’ve told the story of this book before: Butcher was in an argument over whether it was concept or execution that made for a good story. Butcher started with the concept of ‘Pokemon meets Lost Roman Legion’ and handily won the argument that event he dumbest concept can be great with proper execution.
FoC (Book One of The Codex Alera) follows Tavi, a young man living in a world where everyone has the services of at least one elemental creature who allows them to control the corresponding element. The problem is, he doesn’t have one of these elemental ‘furies’. This turns out to be a liability when he discovers that a group of epic badasses who get animal companions (like giant ground sloths or terror birds) are about to attack his valley—and a worse enemy is waiting the screw his homeland worse: politics.
Lesser known than Butcher’s Dresden Files series, The Codex Alera presents a sprawling and unique world that doesn’t follow your typical fantasy tropes even when the magic and monsters start to fly. Also highly recommended by Butcher: Spider-man: Darkest Hour, a book that will have you wishing Mary Jane and The Rhino got their own spin-off comics.
You guys are actually lucky that the book section wasn’t all Sanderson, okay? He’s easily my favorite author right now, both for reading his books, and for following his blog and other media. It was a serious problem picking just one of his books to recommend above others because (almost) all of them rock, with well thought out worlds, great characters, and unique magic systems.
I picked Warbreaker in the end because it’s my favorite of his self-contained works and is the one with the most (and best) character development.
It takes place in a world where magic takes the form of Breath, a finite energy that almost all people have in some measure that can animate objects, and centers on two sisters. One, the more obstinate and adventurous of the two, has taken her more demure and pliable sister’s place as the ‘sacrificial’ bride to one o the local gods incarnate.
While she is busy learning the intricacies of both her new husband’s existence and his court, her sister sets out to ‘save’ her from the fate that should have been hers and finds herself forced to become actually self-sufficient in the process.
TV and Movies
For a long time, sci-fi’s mainstream pantheon had only two stars: -Trek and -Wars. And then came the 90’s and a certain film that led to something just as, if not more awesome than those classic, venerable series. And so Stargate ascended into the heavens of great sci-fi.
The basic premise it this: the US government gets a hold of a device that can form a connection, via wormholes, to similar devices on other planets in our galaxy. Unfortunately, the first use of the Stargate and the subsequent rescue mission that followed made an empire of parasitic beings called the Goa’uld aware of our existence.
In order to gather allies, intel and technology, the Air Force authorizes Stargate Command to send small teams through the gate to other worlds. The Alpha team, SG-1 is our focus.
The series has a lot going for it, from the amazing cast of Richard Dean Anderson, Christopher Judge, Amanda Tapping, and Micheal Shanks, to what is simply one of the best franchise-baring concepts in sci-fi: the Stargate itself. I could write an entire article on why the Stargate is such a great Big Dumb Object, but the basic conceit is that it allows Our Heroes to visit other planets without having a ship, forcing them to deal with things head-to head without the barrier of the ship and space between them and their enemies/obstacles.
And at times, the show was hi-larious.
Stargate: SG-1 ran for ten seasons and I highly recommend at least up to Season 8 (9-10 were added after the showrunner thought they were canceled and went through a fairly substantial change in direction—not bad, just different). It had two live-action spin-offs, the darker and grittier Stargate: Atlantis and the high concept, low return Stargate: Universe, which I sadly can’t recommend. A reboot of the original movie is in the works, so maybe we’ll get a new show too.
Sadly, there is no current fantasy series I can recommend. I dislike both Game of Thrones and Legend of the Seeker (granted, I never gave the latter a chance because Sword of Truth, the series it’s based on, was just the terrible.) I might suggest Lost Girl, but I haven’t seen enough of it to give my full seal of approval.
10th Kingdom, however, I’ve watched approximately five billion times and enjoyed every second, so I am ll about suggesting it. In case you missed its appearance in my post about tragically unappreciated works, here’s a primer:
This is a miniseries produced by NBC. The premise is that the Wicked Witch has broken free of her prison (literally, a maximum security prison) in the fairytale world of the Nine Kingdoms and has a nefarious plot to take over involving switching the bodies of her dog and the rightful prince. But transformed prince manages to escape, making his way to our world and Our Heroine, Virginia Lewis, who he then promptly drags into a quest to save the Nine Kingdoms, pursued by a wolf in human form, and a trio of hilarious and bumbling trolls (whose father is played by Ed O’neil)
It’s a fun, clever story with lots of well thought out twists and solid plotting. Not to mention that it’s damn quotable and that we will likely never see its like again in this day and age where parody is reduced to awful crap like Disaster Movie, and fantasy is all about the grimdark.
If you like 10th Kingdom, the early 2000’s were ripe with great fantasy miniseries, including Gulliver’s Travels, and Arabian Nights, both of which were good, but could have been much better.
Truth: I never even heard of the Teen Titans before this series came out and now I’m a big enough fan to write fan fiction and complain about how the team got shafted by the New 52 reboot.
The series takes a lot of flack from people for a) the animesque art style and b) its bent toward comedy. I don’t see either of these as problems and in the case of ‘b’, it’s proof that the complainers haven’t watched a full season. While yes, the show is very light-hearted and at times, even goofy, it is in no way afraid to go to some really dark places, especially for season finales. Maybe it’s because it doesn’t wallow in them (like the comic often did and is as of this writing), I don’t know.
I had a choice here between recommending this or the also excellent series, Young Justice, and chose this one not because it’s necessarily better, but because YJ was cut short (it was meant to have a third season) while Teen Titans manages to reach a satisfying stopping point with each season. Not that you’ll want to stop, but it is a selling point.
For other great animated superheroes, I suggest X-men: Evolution (free on Youtube!), and Danny Phantom. For a slightly different take, try the anime Tiger and Bunny.
I wanted to recommend and anime here, but I’m pretty out of the loop on recent anime. The newest works in my collection are Toaru Majutsu no Index, The Familiar of Zero, and The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. So if I’m going to recommend something old, I’m going to recommend a classic.
Slayers is the story of Lina Inverse, self-described sorcery genius who packs insanely destructive spells and isn’t afraid (read: will at even the slightest provocation) use them and Gourry Gabriev, a dimwitted warrior who thinks he’s protecting her.
While the series’s animation has not withstood the test of time, the story is fun and complex enough to keep you thinking and the cast is deeply memorable. It’s one of the great grandpas of Fantasy anime like Scrapped Princess, Rune Soldier Louie, and the previously mentioned The Familiar of Zero and it’s worth watching for the sense of history alone.
Also, this guy.
Other classic anime you should probably check out: Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Tower of Druaga and Zoids: New Century Zero. I also love Comic Party and (this might surprise you) the first Hellsing anime.
I know music is a very personal taste, but I’m going to put a few recommendations here anyway and give my (non-musical) reasons for it.
While you’ve probably heard tons of parody or filk songs about your favorite sci-fi franchises, and lord knows that enough metal bands do homages to Lord of the Rings and its derivatives (Even Forgotten Realms got in on this with Raistlin and the Rose by Lake of Tears) the gestalt of this; serious, awesome songs about sci-fi is rarely seen.
Ladies, gentlemen and others, allow me to present to you Space Metal, an album that a fan of good sci-fi can set their DVR to. Among others, it features Master of Darkness, a song about the proverbial better between Yoda and the Emperor for Luke Skywalker’s soul, and The Eye of Ra, which recounts the plot of the original Stargate film in operatic form.
Originally, I was going to talk about Blind Guardian here. Thing is, seeing as a LOT of people who read my stuff are also into fantasy and gaming, there’s a good chance you already know about them and their amazing Lord of the Rings-inspired albums.
Instead, I decided to focus on another fantasy inspired album by a band that you might not know about (possibly due to how hard it is to google them): Kayak.
They’re a Dutch progressive band who love concept albums. Merlin is actually the only thing I have from them, but I love it. In a nutshell, it’s a rock opera about the Arthurian Legend (You know, all the King Arthur stuff plus the adapted crossover fan fiction with Lancelot.).
The whole thing is awesome, but of particular note is the absolutely beautiful last track Avalon about the surviving knights interring Arthur (spoilers? Six hundred year old spoilers?) and returning Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake.
Ookla the Mok
No specific album here because I was introduced to Ookla the Mok via a mix-tape that drew from Super Secret, oh kay LA, and Less Than Art, and therefore have no idea which album was best.
Ookla the Mok is best known as a filk band that sings about nerd culture, especially superheroes. They make up a large chunk of my playlist for getting into writing the four color adventures I put out every week. Among my favotire tracks from them are Arthur Curry, Super Powers, The Theme From Super Skrull and Mr. Worf.
And of course…
I should probably be plugging her just-released album Sketchbook, but I just got Vanilla, so we’re gonna talk about Vanilla. (by the way, I mentioned she followed my twitter account, but only just recently discovered how the hell she even knows who I am: last year she toured with The Doubleclicks and Molly Lewis. The name of this tour? Ladies of Ragnarok. Yup. No news on whether any of them cheesed off a Russian electronics engineer.)
Anyway, Call is another artist who draws deeply from geek culture for material, especially Firefly in her earlier work, but unlike more filk-ish stuff, she also sings about what might be called the ‘nerdish condition’, both in terms of geek pride and in terms of some of the awkward positions we find ourselves in. Both funny, musically enjoyable and kind of heartwarming.
And finally, in another post, I told you about how, in honor of the 20th Anniversary of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, the man who did the original soundtrack remastered them and released them as Power Rangers, Redux. This is me reminding you of it again because now I have the CD and holy crap, I forgot how great the music from the show was. Like, for serious, I thought it was just the karate and giant robots that got me pumped watching the show, but listening to this CD will turn you into a goddamn sexual tyrannosaurus (why did I no recommend Predator?).
That’s really all I can say about it because… damn. I bought it out of nostalgia, but it’s now in heavy rotation on my playlist.
Oh, and really, really finally, I have some Christmas gifts to give to some of my pals in the form of plugs for their work:
Samurai Jack #1 by Jim Zub
150 Screenwriting Challenges by Eric Heisserer
The Rest of Heaven Was Blue by Matthew Wilkins
That Weird City by Aaron Jacobs and C. Brian Hickey
And in the spirit of giving, I will also plug my Official Nemesis, Brie McGill’s new book, Alien Bride.
In the spirit of petty, cartoonish spitefulness, I’m adding this badge to the sidebar:
Also, you can just buy my books. If you buy the paperbacks, you get a copy of the ebook free! Get a copy for a friend and keep the ebook for yourself!
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