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  1. BattleTech

    03 May 2021 - 03:08 PM

    The Warrior Trilogy Book 1: En Garde by Michael A. Stackpole


    The year 3027. Three hundred years ago, the great Star League, which united all the worlds of humanity in a peaceful, golden age of technology, fell into ruin. From the chaos emerged the five Successor States: the Lyran Commonwealth, the Draconis Combine, the Federated Suns, the Free Worlds League and the Capellan Confederation, each ruled by a Great House. At the centre of them all and controlling ancient, holy Terra is ComStar, a mercantile consortium turned religious institution and the arbiters of interstellar communications. Political intrigue is rife, and warfare is conducted by vast, towering war machines called BattleMechs. The period of chaos known as the Third Succession War has come to an end and the Great Houses are rebuilding, but stability is no guarantee of safety. The Allard family, in noble service to House Davion of the Federated Suns, is placed in the centre of huge events when one scion is disgraced and sent into exile on the game world of Solaris VII and another joins the legendary mercenary army known as the Kell Hounds.

    BattleTech is the franchise that stubbornly won't die. Starting life in 1984 as a tabletop miniatures game, it quickly spun off a series of over one hundred novels and more than a dozen popular video games (most famously, the MechWarrior and MechCommander series) before petering out in the late 2000s after an ill-advised reboot (the Dark Age setting). After a few years in the doldrums, it suddenly spun back into life with a new edition of the tabletop game and two well-received video games: 2018's turn-based BattleTech and 2019's real-time simulator MechWarrior 5 (which is getting a wider release this month on Steam and Xbox). Capitalising on the moment, franchise-holders Catalyst Game Labs have started making the immense backlog of novels available again vie ebook and Amazon's print-on-demand service.

    Arguably the best-known and regarded of the BattleTech authors is Michael A. Stackpole, whom in later years would gain much greater fame and success as a Star Wars author (particularly of the X-Wing series, alongside the late, great Aaron Allston). Stackpole has built a career on writing fast-paced but also character-based military SF and fantasy. Like Dan Abnett (his Warhammer 40,000 counterpart, or the nearest equivalent), Stackpole knows that writing good military SF isn't just about the action and explosions, but creating interesting characters and telling the story through their eyes.

    En Garde, the first book in the Warrior Trilogy, was the fifth-published novel in the BattleTech line but is widely regarded as the best novel to start with. The earlier books were published when the details of the setting were still being worked out and are prone to bouts of early-installment weirdness. They were also not as well-written as Stackpole's work, and tended to be smaller in scale. In contrast, En Garde is a book at times so epic it becomes dizzying.

    The novel packs more storylines and characters into its modest 320 pages than some 1,000-page epic fantasy novels. At the start of the book it appears that we'll be following Justin Allard as he tries to clear his name after being wrongfully exiled as a traitor. However, Allard's experiences rapidly turn him into an apparently rage-fuelled antihero as he murders and backstabs his way through the crime-ridden underbelly of the gladiatorial world of Solaris VII. His much more sympathetic brother Daniel, a member of the Kell Hounds, finds himself on the front lines when his mercenary company is targeted for extermination by the ruthless intelligence agency of the Draconis Combine. Elsewhere, very high-level political intrigue unfolds when Princess Melissa Steiner of the Lyran Commonwealth has to travel incognito to the Federated Suns to discuss an alliance with Prince Hanse Davion, a prospect bitterly opposed by the other three Great Houses and many factions within their own empires. Yet another subplot follows a dishonored MechWarrior of the Draconis Combine who is offered the chance at redemption by forming and training an elite new military cadre (a fascinating idea which, unfortunately, mostly happens off-page). On top of all that, there is a framing story revolving around the priest-businessmen of ComStar, who preach neutrality and serving all of mankind's needs but, predictably, are up to their elbows in everyone else's business and trying to pull everyone's strings.

    Stuffed to the gills with political intrigue and crunchy, mech-on-mech action, En Garde moves fast. As Stackpole's first novel and written under an unholy deadline (the entire trilogy, totalling north of 300,000 words, was written in under ten months), the novel lacks the polish of his later works. There's a noted prevalence of exclamation marks, especially in Justin's storyline: Justin is a big fan of making threatening speeches to his enemies, which are sometimes icily effective and sometimes feel like a five-year-old on the playground explaining why he's so tough and about as intimidating. Dialogue favours exposition, which is often clunky but at least does a good job of explaining what the hell is going on. I do feel like an appendix of in-universe terms and maybe some head-of-chapter preambles explaining the factions (like those in Frank Herbert's Dune) could have been a more elegant way of getting this information across to the audience, rather than a few too many "As you already know but I will explain anyway..." style conversations.

    But Stackpole makes many of the characters complex and interesting: Gray Noton is initially presented as an antagonist but becomes a much richer character as the novel progresses, whilst expertly flipping Justin's storyline from a predictable "clearing his name" narrative to a more elemental story of utter vengeance makes for a much more morally murky storyline. A few characters do get short shrift, but hopefully they will rise more to the fore in the succeeding volumes of the trilogy.

    There are a couple of other issues stemming from the background material more than Stackpole's writing. The Capellan Confederation and Draconis Combine are fairly obviously based on China and Japan, and a few wince-inducing stereotypes ensue, such as House Kurita's warriors being obsessed with honour, relaxing in tea houses and sometimes inexplicably wielding katanas against enemies with assault rifles. To be fair this actually plays a key role in the storyline, with Justin's half-Capellan heritage marking him out for racist abuse, but it's unsurprising that later iterations of the BattleTech franchise beat a retreat from these kind of stereotypes, with the Confederation and Combine receiving a great deal more nuance. It doesn't help that they are presented as the "bad guys" at this stage, whilst Houses Davion and Steiner, more European-American in inspiration, are the "good guys." Very fortunately, Stackpole upends this idea as soon as the very next book in favour of the setting's more familiar equal-opportunities moral murkiness, with all the factions having good and bad elements to them.

    Warrior: En Garde (***) is a slightly dated but still readable slice of pulp military SF, with interesting characters and a fascinating universe (very much Game of Thrones meets Pacific Rim, with a light dusting of Dune). Some clumsy exposition and iffy dialogue are offset by a relentlessly readable pace and some very enjoyable action set-pieces.
  2. Dread Nation by Justina Ireland

    12 April 2021 - 03:08 PM

    Dread Nation


    Baltimore, 1880. Seventeen years have passed since the dead on the battlefield of Gettysburg rose, sparking a plague that has torn America part. The Confederacy has surrendered and accepted equality...on paper. In reality, the southern states (and even some of the northern) have liberated former slaves only to turn them into soldiers, cannon fodder to fight the undead menace. Jane McKeene, trained at Miss Preston's School of Combat, is destined to become a babysitter for the wealthy and privileged, until she discovers that people in Maryland are going missing without explanation. Her investigation uncovers a conspiracy with far-reaching consequences for the fate of the Union, and for herself.

    The American Civil War remains the bloodiest conflict fought in American history, its outcome still debated and contentious a hundred and sixty years later. It has been used before to spur SFF novels. Several of Harry Turtledove's novels have delved deep into "what if...?" scenarios where the consequences of a Southern victory are assessed (unsurprisingly, things do not go well), whilst the Deadlands franchise of tabletop games and novels has explored the consequences of a supernatural schism taking place on the same day as the Battle of Gettysburg.

    Dread Nation starts from the very same premise and likewise explores a world where the full reckoning of the recent human catastrophe has taken a back seat to the supernatural menace, including the rapid onset of steampunk technology to aid in the fight against the undead. But the book has a different tone, as Ireland uses the premise to explore complex racial issues and politics whilst always keeping an eye on delivering a gripping narrative.

    After a slightly slow start, Dread Nation quickly catches fire and never lets up. The book is fearlessly inventive in how it uses its alternative history and supernatural trappings to explore real sociological and historical issues whilst also delivering satisfying characterisation. Jane McKeene, our protagonist, is complex and has an interesting background, whilst also being intriguingly flawed. Jane is something of a hothead who has issues making short-term sacrifices for long-term gains, and the novel partially explores how Jane becomes more strategic in her thinking, both in how to deal with the undead but also the considerably nastier human foes she encounters during her adventures. The book has several other major characters, explored through Jane's eyes, such as her frenemy Katherine, a rival at school who reluctantly becomes an ally when they agree to team up to investigate a mystery.

    The novel is a fine action story as well. There's satisfying fight scenes and some solid zombie killings (a full-scale battle between a town's worth of defenders and a zombie horde is the highlight here). Ireland solves the age-old question of "fast or slow?" by deploying both kinds, and there's some nice background on how America has adapted to the presence of the undead although, at least in this first volume, there is no explanation for the origin of the threat.

    The richness of the novel is let down a little by its villains, who feel a bit "generic Stephen King bad guy," being corrupt sheriffs and fire-and-brimstone racist preachers. They get the job done in providing numerous obstacles for Jane and Kate to overcome, but occasionally risk becoming caricatures.

    Beyond that minor hiccup, Dread Nation (****) is a rewarding, fast-paced story which combines real history and events with zombies to create something that is compelling reading. A sequel, Deathless Divide, is also available.
  3. Discworld by Terry Pratchett

    23 March 2021 - 05:11 PM

    Discworld #1: The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett


    Ankh-Morpork is the greatest city on the Discworld - a flat planet carried through space on the back of four elephants standing astride a giant turtle - and has seen fire, flood, famine and even the odd barbarian invasion during its long history, but even it is unprepared for the arrival of a much more devastating threat: tourism. Twoflower is the first visitor to the city from the distant Agatean Empire, and is happy wandering around taking "pictures of the sights" with a magic box and soaking up the authentic atmosphere. This behaviour in Ankh-Morpork would normally result in him having the lifespan of a mayfly confronted by a supernova, but luckily the wizard Rincewind has kindly volunteered to be his guide and protector in return for not having his extremities removed by the city's Patrician, who is anxious to avoid insulting a foreign power with an army in the millions.

    Unfortunately, Twoflower's attempts to introduce the concept of fire insurance to the hardy and creative business-owners of Ankh-Morpork results in an enforced flight from the burning metropolis and the beginning of a long and very strange journey across the Disc, taking in dragons, spaceships and the fabled temple of Bel-Shamharoth along the way. All the while the only spell that has ever managed to lodge itself in Rincewind's mind is very keen to get itself said, which could be a very bad idea indeed...

    There is no more disheartening notion than the one which has sadly been reality for the past six years: the Discworld series is complete. There will, never again, be a new Discworld novel (or any other) published by Terry Pratchett. This state of affairs was once unthinkable: almost annually between 1983 and 2015 - and sometimes two or even three times a year - a new Pratchett book would be released and cheerfully climb to the top of the bestseller lists, glowing in critical acclaim and adulation. It was easy to take Pratchett and his books for granted, that is until there were no more.

    But whilst that state of affairs is sad, it does mean we can now sit down and consider the Discworld series as a whole, and its position in the wider fantasy and literary canons. Pratchett was a funny, human writer, a reluctant (but accomplished) worldbuilder, a canny satirist and a fierce critic of human nature. His books fairly overbrim with intelligence, vigour and, occasionally, genuine anger at the state of the world. Discworld was the mirror he used to shine a light on real-world concerns, sometimes just to gently poke fun at them and sometimes to eviscerate them with savage, forensic analysis. If he occasionally faltered - there's a few (and only a few) books he wrote mid-series which sometimes felt a bit too reminiscent of earlier books - it was only briefly and usually still entertainingly.

    A lot of that came later, though. The first book in the series, The Colour of Magic (1983), was conceived as a one-off, an attempt by Pratchett to improve his writing career that was, if not in danger, than certainly faltering. His debut novel, The Carpet People (1971), had been a successful children's book but Pratchett had been reluctant to get typecast as a kids' writer. His next two novels, The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981), had been adult-aimed science fiction, with a more serious edge. They'd been greeted with near-total bafflement and faded into obscurity almost instantly. Despite that, Pratchett had been tickled by the idea in Strata of a flat planet and, having failed to make the subject sing in SF, reworked it into a satire of fantasy tropes. This proved much more successful and The Colour of Magic became a near-instant, surprise hit.

    The Colour of Magic exists in a bit of an odd state when viewed from 2021. As a satire of fantasy, it works. It's funny and breezy and succeeds because it has a serious edge to it as well. Pratchett is smart enough to know that it's much better to satirise something you love, and that a lot of comedy that despises what it's poking fun at just ends up being obvious and mean-spirited. Pratchett was a deep-seated, genuine fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny, Jack Vance, Anne McCaffrey, Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft and the book overflows with affectionate pastiches of those authors (well, apart from Tolkien, which Pratchett thought was too obvious). So Rincewind and Twoflower meet barely-concealed analogues of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, with Ankh-Morpork here feeling like Lankhmar with the serial numbers filed off, before teaming up with Conan the Barbarian Mk. II and getting into trouble with Budget Cthulhu and an entire civilisation of Dragonriders of Pern-wannabes. A few Zelazny-isms get trotted out, with Ankh-Morpork being apparently the ur-fantasy city, the one all other fantasy cities are but shadows of, like Amber if Amber had a massive homelessness and civic disorder problem. Pratchett's erudite wordplay also recalls Vance's Dying Earth, although even Pratchett struggles to match the sheer vocabularic firepower of on-form Vance.

    Taken on its own merits, this is all entertaining, if risking being dated horribly: the authors who were the touchstones of any self-respecting fantasy collection in 1983 certainly are not in 2021. Fortunately, Pratchett uses the satirical strokes of the setting to propel his own narrative and his own characters. Rincewind, a wizard who can't use proper magic due to a powerful uber-spell sitting in his brain, scaring off all other comers, works as the Only Sane Man protagonist who frequently responds to any given situation exactly how most people would (i.e. running like hell) and only finds himself motivated to apparently heroic action through the threat of an even worse punishment or by coincidence.

    Rincewind isn't quite at the Harry Flashman/Ciaphas Cain level of "selfish coward whom things work out for anyway," but he's at least nodding in that direction. Twoflower is also an engaging character, his early appearance as a hapless buffoon quickly replaced by his characterisation as an intelligent observer of events unfolding around him, which he sometimes feel doesn't apply to him as a tourist (despite no-one else knowing what a tourist is).

    Of course, The Colour of Magic also has to be contrasted against the later Discworld novels. In that light, the novel may be considered an absolute primal example of Early Instalment Weirdness, with a lot of things that clash with later books. Pratchett's writing style is much less polished here, his sense of humour a bit broader and more obvious than normal, and character development is less-assured. Both the Patrician and Death are characterised much more differently to their later appearances (with Death's motivations and character being heavily retconned just three books later, in Mort), to the point that some fans have pondered if it's actually a different Patrician here. The book is solid, but also a bit disposable. Readers approaching the novel from the knowledge it has forty successor books which have cumulatively sold a hundred million copies and is one of most critically-acclaimed fantasy series of all time, may feel a bit baffled at the slightness of this work.

    The book is also oddly-structured, in being four self-contained, episodic narratives that have been combined to form a novel-length work, like a fixup novel. I'm not sure why - Pratchett never seems to have considered individually publishing the four episodes as short stories in magazines - but it both gives the novel a feeling of pace but also of being rushed, with each of the sections of a very short novel (which is barely 280 pages long in paperback as it is) roaring along at manic speed before transitioning to the next episode.

    If you want to find out why Pratchett is one of the 20th Century's best-selling British authors and most popular fantasy authors of all time, The Colour of Magic (***) may disappoint or leave you a bit puzzled. This is embryonic Discworld, slotting pieces to place to serve as the foundations for later greatness. But as a stand-alone, affectionate satire of fantasy, and not just the usual suspects, it remains quite entertaining. The story continues (for the only time in the series) directly into the sequel, The Light Fantastic.
  4. Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott

    22 March 2021 - 04:08 PM

    Unconquerable Sun by Kate Elliott


    The great Phene Empire once ruled a vast swathe of space, but it has been beaten back by the Yele League and the small, powerful nation of Chaonia. The Republic of Chaonia, long disregarded as a flyspeck irrelevance, has risen to greatness under Queen-Marshal Eirene, a gifted military strategic and politician who has united her people, brought the League to the negotiating table and now plans a bold move against the Empire which will grant Chaonia immense power. But the Empire is aware of her ambitions and moves to forestall her. Internal politics also threaten the Republic, and at the heart of them is Princess Sun, the Queen-Marshal's daughter and presumed heir who burns with the need to prove herself, earn her mother's respect and bring defeat to her enemies.

    Unconquerable Sun is the first novel of the Sun Chronicles, a military space opera from Kate Elliott, one of SFF's most consistently rewarding authors over the past thirty years. Elliot started her career in space opera with the Jaran series but has become best-known for her accomplished epic fantasy series: Crown of Stars, Crossroads and Spiritwalker. Unconquerable Sun is both a genre homecoming but also an impressive historical analogue, an attempt to retell the story of Alexander the Great in a far-future, SF context.

    Going into Unconquerable Sun, there were things I was expecting as normal from a Kate Elliott novel: impeccable worldbuilding that takes from a wide range of influences and merges them in original ways; excellent characterisation; richly-detailed political intrigue; and a canny and knowing sense of humour. These are all present and correct. What I wasn't quite expecting was the novel to be as foot-slammed-on-the-accelerator action-packed as it is. Elliott's always done well with battle sequences, military maneuvers and tactical elements in her prior fiction, but it's always previously felt like a secondary element, with the characters more more emphasised. Character remains foregrounded in this novel, but they are generally explored and developed whilst under fire (either on the ground or on starships). This isn't just space opera, but full-on military SF, and Elliott does it proud.

    The worldbuilding is pleasingly complex, with the Chaonia Republic (here presumed to stand in for Macedonia) squashed between the Yele League (a guessed analogue for the Hellenic League of ancient Greece) and the Phene Empire (Space-Persia) and still bristling from its occupation by the Empire some decades previously. There's also the rules on interstellar travel, which can be conducted (albeit at still-achingly-slow speeds) by standard FTL engines (here called knnu drives) but mostly by beacons, fixed wormhole-gates linking systems together. Centuries previously, the beacon network suffered a catastrophic failure which destroyed most of the beacons, leaving only the periphery intact. Chaonia, Yele and Phene (among other, more distant powers) are therefore great powers still dwelling in the shadow of a vast vaster, older history, most of which was lost in the collapse. Readers keen to discern the relationship of these powers to Earth will find a few scattered clues to what happened, but not much more than that. Hopefully, this element will be explored further in later books.

    Each of the major powers is also explored in depth, with the Empire being ruled not by a single ruler but a council of enigmatic "Riders," who are somehow telepathically-linked at all times (even over interstellar distances) in a way no one else understands. This gives the Empire a tremendous strategic advantage in warfare (since FTL communication is otherwise impossible) which the Chaonians hope to overturn by other means. Another key element is the space-borne civilisation of the Gatoi, who dwell on vast fleets constantly moving between the stars. The Gatoi serve the Empire as apparently-honoured mercenaries, but the Chaonians believe there may be more to this service than appears, leading to an alliance between the Queen-Marshal and a Gatoi renegade which Eirene hopes will bring the Empire down. The alliance is controversial, given it produced Princess Sun (whose legitimacy is constantly challenged because she is thus only half-Chaonian) and the long-term effectiveness of the project is in doubt. Political intrigue follows, particularly between Sun's father and House Lee, loyal servants of the Republic who are dubious of the alliance. Other worldbuilding elements feel more whimsical, such as a Chaonian reality TV show which has real power in terms of PR and politics, but is surprisingly well-developed.

    On the character front, the book is told predominantly through three POVs: Princess Sun herself, through whose eyes we also get to know her retinue of allies and friends, the Companions; Persephone Lee, who tried to flee her family's smothering control five years ago to enlist in the military under an assumed identity; and Apama, a Phene pilot who is assigned to a military taskforce with a bold agenda and gradually discovers that she is far more important than anyone first suspected. Persephone tells her story in the first-person, whilst the other two stories are told in the third, an intriguing narrative device which breaks up the structure nicely (and leads to the suspicion that maybe Persephone is telling the whole story in flashback, with the other chapters being compiled from other accounts).

    Unconquerable Sun is a novel of immense richness: excellent characters, terrific and detailed worldbuilding and a high concept (genderswapped Alexander the Great in spaaaace!) which in lesser hands would have been superficial but here is developed and explored in some depth. It's also a face-paced space opera with more spectacular space battles than you can shake a Star Destroyer at. Perhaps the only negatives I can consider is that perhaps a tad more build-up of the factions and players could have been accomplished before all hell breaks lose and stays loose for the rest of the book (around 150 pages into this 520-page novel), and Elliott's tendency for characters to engage in gossip, sartorial discussions and comical banter in the face of imminent death occasionally feels incongruous. That said, this isn't a book that's interested in realism more than it is in myth-making, and the feeling that you're dealing with Greek heroes transplanted in time and space makes this element more engaging.

    Unconquerable Sun (****) is original, fast-paced, action-packed but also rich in character and fascinating in its worldbuilding. It is available now in the UK and USA.
  5. Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn

    12 March 2021 - 01:05 PM

    Of Honey and Wildfires by Sarah Chorn


    The West is the home of shine, a substance which can power weapons and be used to do everything from preserving food to being used in medical treatment. The economy of the known world is starting to depend on shine. Ultra-rich businessman Matthew Esco has used mechanisms unknown to seal the shine fields away from rest of the world through the Boundary, through which he only controls access. He sends his son West to learn the ropes of business and prepare to take over from him, but Arlen is a very different sort of man. Meanwhile, a young girl named Cassandra grows up without her pa, a free spirit harbouring a personal grudge against the Esco family and determined to help liberate the Esco company's indentured workers.

    Of Honey and Wildfires is the second novel from Sarah Chorn and is rather different to her first novel, Seraphina's Lament. Lament was a dark, bloody and grim book of collapsing empires and people with unusual powers rallying to a greater cause (for both good and ill). Of Honey and Wildfires is likewise a novel with epic ramifications across a continent, but it's also a much more personal story of acceptance, loss and struggle.

    There is a tighter focus this time around, with the story dominated by the POVs of Arlen Esco and Cassandra (Cassandra's friend Ianthe gets some page-time as well), whose stories are linked although they do not know it. Cassandra's father, Chris, is a rebel trying to bring down the system and has been absent from most of her life due to the struggle, something they both regret. Early in the book Chris kidnaps Arlen, who is then made aware of the atrocities and sacrifices his father's company enacts in the name of profit.

    There are exotic shine-powered weapons and displays of what appears to be magical power, but Of Honey and Wildfires is a novel much less interested in the typical trappings of fantasy than it is in character. Each character is explored in impressive depth over the course of modest page count (the book barely cracks 300 pages), stripped back to their soul with their motivations laid bare. It's a gradual process in some cases, with the non-linear storytelling (which moves between events in the present and many years ago) helping with the deconstruction of the protagonists.

    That's not to say that worldbuilding and plot are neglected. Chorn carefully builds up the world and the rules of how it works through the story and characters, creating a vivid setting. I was particularly impressed at how naturally the plot - which seemed to be developing quite slowly with the page limit counting down - came together in the last few pages when it looked like quite a lot would be left hanging. The plot construction of the novel is highly impressive given its focus on the characters. It's also good to see another novel joining the still small but growing "Fantasy Western" subgenre.

    Of Honey and Wildfires (*****) is a book about trauma and about how childhood decisions and absences shape lives and destinies and identities. It's a short, emotionally raw novel showcasing formidable writing talent, and after the promising (if slightly less polished) debut of Seraphina's Lament, it's baffling why the author hasn't been picked up by a major publisher yet.



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    22 Jan 2021 - 09:19
    Whoa ... meaning of life. Happy birthday
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    05 Mar 2020 - 09:29
    Sorry, missed your birthday this year. Hope it was a good one.
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    22 Jan 2019 - 11:51
    Dun dun dunnnnn ...
    Have a good one.
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    22 Jan 2018 - 08:24
    Same as below. Better make it a good one because it's 40 next year.
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    22 Jan 2010 - 15:32
    Happy Birthday, now go out and get wrecked :)
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