Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book review: "Legacy of Kings" by C. S. Friedman

It's been almost two weeks since I have read "Legacy of Kings", the last book in C. S. Friedman's "The Magister Trilogy", but I was away on a business trip so only now has time to write a review.

In last book, "Wings of Wrath", the secret that Souleaters are returning came out, with dark history of the Wrath, magical border that kept them in the North. Now, in "Legacy of Kings", Souleaters have a new Queen, magically joined with Witch-queen Sidarea, so humanity must join forces to repel them once again, or go through annihilation of their civilization. This time, they have Magisters and they don't know will this prove a blessing or a curse. Because, Magisters have a dark secret, hidden even from them, and known only by one Magister - Colivar.

"Legacy of Kings" interweaves several plots. We follow High King Salvator, who has to find a balance between his monkish past, his new responsibility as king, and legacy of his father and heritage. Curiously, Queen Gwynofar, one of central characters of last book, here is downgraded to a side-character. We follow also the enemies, Sidarea and her female Souleater; Nyuku, leader of male Souleater and their companion; and Nasaan, new character who is not aware who is he putting his chances with. Most interesting plot-line is that of Magister's, especially Colivar. Plot oscillates between being familiar and following fantasy tropes, to being unpredictable in small details.

After the setting was expanded in second book, I didn't really expect any new additions. Sure, we finally see some of the southern kingdoms, and desert definitely proves interesting new place, but it is all familiar from previous books. The big revelation is of course connected to Magisters and their connection to Souleaters. Much of it will be as you already guessed, but Friedman was very good with details.

There are almost no new characters in this book (except Nasaan, I think), but we find out some new things about our old friends. Kamala is finally in focus of events, which was not so in first two books. I especially liked her trick and transformation in the end. All Magister are interesting characters, especially Colivar, and during the course of book they change much. It is hard to reconcile complete lack of empathy (by definition of Magister) and still be able to write a likable character. But despite them being interesting, I can't say I really connected with any of the characters.

For summary of "Legacy of Kings", and the whole "The Magister Trilogy": these are solid books, with interesting plot and characters who grow, but without a spark that would make them a hit. They are written well, so even the old fantasy fans won't have problems with them, but all in all, this is not a series that deserves any special recommendation.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Anime review: "Blood Lad"

Few months ago I saw an announcement for the "Blood Lad" and got an impression of some vampire-otaku comedy, which sounded nice, so I decided to add it to my wishlist. In the meantime I saw few good review of this series and I gave it a try last week.

"Blood Lad" starts with showing Staz, the main character, loosing time. He is a boss of a province in the demon-world and a vampire. But more important for the show, at least in the beginning, he is obsessed with Japanese culture, plays eroge, collect figurines and reads manga. So when his underling brings him news that alive Japanese girl, Fuyumi, is wondering his section of demon-world, he is in frenzy to meet her. Coincidentally, during this encounter he gets challenged by some upstart and while he has no problem in defeating him, unfortunately Fuyumui loses her life and becomes a ghost. Staz, being more or less a good guy, promises to bring her back to life, which will put him in line against female space-jumpers, his estranged and sadistic brother, demon world's aristocracy, etc.

"Blood Lad" starts very shounen and slapstick, and it stays like this during whole this season. So if you don't enjoy first one or two episodes, you will not like it later. You know the recipe: powering ups, big fights, lots of falling down, crazy costumes or character's designs... But for me, it hits the spot. It stays goofy, but it does get more serious later, as more complex plot elements start, so it can be enjoyed by more mature viewers. On the other hand, if has some pretty violent scenes. There are few nice jokes referencing other anime, manga and games - like "Dragon Ball".

Plot starts very simple, with Staz's quest to restore Fuyumi to life, but it soon becomes apparent that there are deeper currents going around. Not that Staz is necessarily aware of them. Unfortunately, the season ends when it starts to get very interesting. So I join the other reviewers - give us another season! I watched the OVA - it is direct continuation of the series, but also doesn't give a satisfactory (or any) conclusion.

There is not much to say about characters. They are typical for shounen anime: shallow, one-dimensional, somewhat ridiculous. But that is exactly what you need sometimes. There are constant additions, so we will have to wait for next season to see how they hold up.

When I started watching "Blood Lad", one of my first questions was "boing?". Yes, it definitely is. But even though this show has all female characters drawn anatomically dubious and it gives occasional fan service scene, it is far from ecchi.

I really like the visual side of this anime: bright, vibrant colors, good design of characters, fast-flowing animation. But here, voice acting is also very good! I especially liked Braz, who has a great voice - like a real vampire, low, quiet and snake-like.

To summarize, if you like wacky shounen anime with some fights and fanservice, "Blood Lad" is an anime for you. Especially that it has only 10 episodes, so you can finish it in a day or two.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Book review: "The Scar" by China Miéville

Few months after finishing "Perdido Street Station", I tried the next book set in the same setting, "The Scar". I was wondering will Miéville be able to pull it again.

"The Scar" is, as "Perdido Street Station", set in setting of Bas-Lag, but this time we are far from New Crobuzon. In the book we follow a New Crobuzon refuge Bellis Coldwine. After some problems back at home (connected to Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and the events in PSS), she is running away, traveling by ship, with destination of New Esperium, a colony established by New Crobuzon. But during the voyage, her ship is taken by mysterious Armada, a floating city made of connected ships, whose existence was kept a secret for more than a thousand years. Struggling to find some way to escape, she is dragged into experiment whose goal is to summon an avanc, a gigantic otherworldly being. But as things go further, she realizes that the avanc in only a first step in plan made my one of Armada's rulers, the Lovers.

So, we are back to Miéville's imagination. I must admit that he did very well - he managed to expand the setting of PSS, introduce a bunch of new elements, one more bizarre than another, and without being inconsistent. As before, I noticed again a wink at "The Dying Earth", with seawyrms used for pulling and some other examples. Maybe I'm wrong, but "Perdido Street Station" felt much more technologically advanced than the "The Scar" - even though they have analytical engines and guns here, but too much swords, pistols and muskets. But I presume that Miéville wanted to go this book more piratical feel, which he certainly did. This pseudo-science he writes about is very interesting. Although , some of his descriptions are a bit too grotesque and too-much-information, especially about the Remade.

PSS was also full of implied places and organizations, but here, the setting feels much more expanded through time and space: The Gengris, High Cromlech, The Ghosthead Empire, The Malarial Queendom... Even the names are great.

The main character is Bellis Coldwine, but she is more an observer that doer. Oh, she does some important deeds, but she is mostly manipulated into doing them: by Sillas Fenec and by Uther Doul. I liked how all our misconceptions about the both of them were broken till the end of the book. The second main character was Tanner Sack. Even though he was well written and his sections were interesting, I just didn't felt any respect for him - he started and ended as victim.

The plot was very good but not as strange as were the setting and the characters. It had enough small surprises to feel interested the whole way, but neither is this the book written for the plot. Then ending will some consider a cheating, but I kind of liked it: it is one of those uncertain endings with ability to modify the whole book, depending on will you believe it or not.

As I hoped, "The Scar" ended being a similar book to "Perdido Street Station" in style, but with completely new elements that enabled it to feel fresh and original. I would recommend it to anybody who liked "Perdido Street Station".

"Vorkosigan Saga" reread: "Cetaganda" by Lois McMaster Bujold

As I planned, I continue with my "Vorkosigan Saga" reread, inserted occasionally between other books. This time it was "Cetaganda" - as I said I was reading the books in internal chronology order, starting from "The Warrior's Apprentice".

In "Cetaganda", Miles and Ivan are sent on a diplomatic "mission" - as high nobles of Barrayar they are to attend the funeral of Cetagandan Empress. Cetaganda, as in Barrayar's greatest enemy. And they are told to behave. This changes even before they set a foot on Cetagandan territory. The two of them are victims on random assault, during which Miles come into a possession of some Cetagandan trinket. A trinket that everybody wants back and that can decide the future of Cetaganda...

"Cetaganda" is a book little off the tracks. By that, I mean that even it fits in internal chronology, it is more of a side book. You won't miss anything if you skip it (well, nothing except much fun). Events here don't affect later books, except in small details (like the medal, or as old love). So I was a bit in doubt to read it or skip it, since I remember it quite well and know that it is not very important in larger scheme. But as I also knew it was a very fun read, I decided to reread it.

Miles is here between big roles. He is not a young inexperienced leader as in past books, nor is he hyperactive professional megalomaniac as in next few following books. He continues his habit of manipulating his superiors when they (potentially) bother him. He also continues to "bully" his cousin Ivan, even though Ivan more or less lets him do it. All other characters are pretty well written, even those that only appear once or twice. Bujold can make them feel three-dimensional just in few sentences.

As for plot, it is combination between action, detective investigation and a little bit of comedy.

Bujold continues to do well with setting. It is imaginative so much it would not pass any tests, but it is written so unobtrusively that everybody just accepts it as it is.

One of my favorite parts of this book is in the end, when Miles receives his medal. And I like the scene where this same medal appears in few books later!

As I said, "Cetaganda" is not an important book in this series, but if you skip it, you will miss all the fun. A great book for all fans of the series.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Anime review: "Monogatari Series: Second Season"

I've been eagerly waiting for next season of "Monogatari" series since first seeing early announcement for it. I like a lot of anime and genre, but if I had to pick, this kind of weird-humor series would be my first choice (like "Durarara!!", "Baccano!", "Tatami Galaxy", "Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei"). So I felt unreasonable joy and expectation before watching the last season!

I first waited for all episodes to come out - I didn't want to be forced to wait. And before watching "Monogatari Series: Second Season", I did a rewatch of all previous shows, in order they came out: "Bakemonogatari", "Nisemonogatari", "Nekomonogatari (Kuro)". First, it was a good thing I did it, because I really did miss two episodes in first season, because they were released as specials. And second, it really put me in the mood for fresh season.

The new season, "Monogatari Series: Second Season" consist of five arcs. Surprisingly, all these arcs deal with previous girls, while I expected introduction of new characters. But don't take me wrong - this is a superb show and there is no feel of recycling old themes. It's hard to write a one-paragraph blurb since all arcs are very different, but if you liked old seasons (especially if you like original "Bakemonogatari") you will love this one!

First arc came as a surprise. First, there is no Araragi - he is absent and is only mentioned. This means that we see story first time from other people's eyes and it give us a different perspective, especially on Senjougahara and Hanekawa. And Senjougahara is very funny here.

I was again reminded how this show greatly uses nonlinear storytelling. We see (or they are mentioned) a bunch of new characters and previous events that we know nothing about, but everybody talks about them as they were shown. And later when they really are displayed, they came out completely different that we expected. Like constant mentions of first meeting between Araragi and Shinobi (which should be shown in announced movie "Kizumonogatari"). Also, a lots of stories remain unresolved (I hope they are saving it for later). This first arc uses another dirty trick by those missing Black Hanekawa scenes - you will know what I am talking about, believe me.

Another trait of this season is that it the show lost much of it cuteness and became more morbid, serious and violent. It always did have these elements, but they were not so evident mixed with playfulness and fanservice. This is so evident that even the faces changed - Tsukihi is much more rugged than in "Nisemonogatari".

Second arc is good, but not as epic as other ones. I didn't expect a time-travel/zombies story - it didn't really fit in my idea of "Monogatari". But it was quite good in the end. I especially liked Oshino's letter to Araragi.

Next comes the third arc, with introduction of that ominous Oshino Ougi and with Sengoku Nadeko. I never liked her in previous shows, but I really didn't expect what happened here. It is another arc that is not told from Araragi's POV and where he is almost nonexistent.

Fourth arc is similar to second one - not so epic, but good in its own way. We learn much about Shinobu's past, which was a surprise to me. We also spent more time with two new characters. Well, Ononogi Yotsugi was introduced before, but only shortly. She was a great character in this season, especially with her strange ways of talking. The other one was Gaen Izuko - very mysterious characters who adds several layer of confusion to all that has happened. We will see more of the in the future, mark me. Also, this arc is a pretty sad one.

And then came the last arc, the masterpiece! It is told from point of view of Kaiki Deishuu! Yes, him. The one man I would never expect to told a story, especially concerning how he lies to everybody including himself. Add to that the fact that this arc is told in by-the-book noir style (including the raincoat), it is really something. I was swept with last two episodes (especially the cliffhanger in penultimate one).

It reveals some unexpected facts, about relationship between Senjougahara and Kaiki. I was surprised how Araragi was made to look like a child in last episode - let an adult resolve the situation! I later realized that this arc had not one ecchi or fanservice scene. Anyway, now they have to make a sequel, they can't be so cruel not to reveal further story.

Now, little bit about technical side. There are 26 episodes in this season, but episodes 6, 11 and 16 are just recaps, so feel free to skip them. The visual side of anime is on the standard level for this series, maybe somewhat darker and rugged. There are several OPs and EDs, of which I really liked only one. Be careful, because there is sometimes more story after ED and sometimes there isn't. Oh, and I didn't like the short haircuts.

Well, in the end, there is not much to say that I consider "Monogatari Series: Second Season" the best anime of 2013 (with "Shingeki no Kyojin" on second place). Even better than the original "Bakemonogatari"!

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book review: "Curse of Mistwraith" by Janny Wurts

I have noticed "Wars of Light and Shadows" series by Janny Wurts before (it was on a list I studied some years ago), but somehow I never resolved to read it. But few weeks ago I noticed it again on series "Under the Radar" and decided to give it a try. There are several series that I have started, but I am waiting for next installment to be published ("Shadows of the Apt" by Adrian Tchaikovsky, "The Second Apocalypse" by R. Scott Bakker, "The Stormlight Archive" by Brandon Sanderson"), so I am able to start another one in between.

First book in the series, "Curse of Mistwraith" starts a story about the long war of two brothers. Lysaer and Arithon are born of same mother, but their fathers and their families have been mortal enemies for generations. Lysaer's father is King of rich country Amroth while Arithon's fathers commands a kingdom of pirates. After Arithon is captured and almost executed, intervention of Arithon's and Lysaer's grandfather, the High Mage, sees them both exiled of their world through gates into unknown world. Once there, they learn that their lines has been High Kings of this world Athera and that their destiny is to defeat the Mistwraith, magical enemy that has been suffocating all life for last five centuries. But before, they have to find peace between themselves...

I must admit that I didn't like "Curse of Mistwraith" in the beginning. It started all high and noble, with stereotype characters, simplistic motives and predictive plot. Also, Wurts' pretty hard style of writing, full of uncommon words (I didn't reach for thesaurus so much for a long time) didn't help getting into this book. But as the story progressed, the style also expanded, and story and characters got increasingly more complex and interesting. For example, at the beginning there is no politics, neither on high level, nor between characters - but this changes later, and politics plays a more important role (unfortunately, it doesn't get as realistic as in some books).

Wurts' writing is very detailed and lots of effort is put into details, which interestingly all come into place with others. As I said, the book started with very noble style, but later in the book there is humor, violence, and even sex and prostitutes. Too bad there is no direct cursing, only occasional mentioning of gods. But even so, there are some funny jewels, like "... Dakar spoke phrases that cast biological doubt upon Arithon's already illegitimate ancestry". Still, Wurts is a bit too noble on human nature: I don't think some clans would wait 500 years for their prince to come and then the clan-leader would eagerly give away his position.

Plot starts simple, but later gets decently complicated. There is a lot of twists, not all unpredictable. In general, after you pass first quarter of the book, things get nicely interesting. Same is true for characters. The cast is not enormous as you would expect for a first novel in ten-books series. Interestingly, the Big Bad is not revealed, nor the overall theme for the series. Of characters, I liked Elaira's part: she was witty and contrary from the beginning. As an epic fantasy, the book contains some typical elements, like the group of sorcerers, and of course, a grumpy silent wizard that leads our heroes.

There was one thing that was irritating throughout the book: Wurts' tendency to refer to Arithon as "the Master" (from "the Master of Shadow"). I hope she drops it later.

So, "Curse of Mistwraith" presents a nice introduction into a new series. It has somewhat misleading start, but later gets pretty interesting and fun to read. My final recommendation will depend on next few books - there is no point in reading a book if you will not complete the series.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Book review: "The Proof House" by K. J. Parker

After "The Belly of the Bow" I was dreading to read its sequel, "The Proof House". But K. J. Parker's writing is so good and he has more books in the same setting, so I just couldn't skip this one.

In "The Proof House" we again meet with Loredan family and their friends. Few years after the events at Scona, Baradas Loredan is currently a sapper in Empire's army, besieging the town of Ap' Escatoy, a siege that has taken some years. He more or less accidentally terminates the siege and becomes a hero of the Empire, which earns him a sinecure at the so-called Proof House - a factory for producing and testing armor. But this position won't last long, because Empire has decided to conquer the Plains, ruled by King Temrai, and who better to lead it than Temrai's old enemy, Baradas...

First, the setting gets another large expansion, with introduction of the Empire. It is a vast, continent spanning empire, where you need weeks to travel over it even by usage of fast carriages at Post Service. It is ruled by Sons of Heaven, tall and aesthetic people based on Arabs (partially). You can get best impression of Empire by the importance it puts on Perimadeia, Shastel, Scona and Island - it dismisses them completely. I read somewhere that Empire will take a much larger role in following books.

One of distinct features for this trilogy was scenes that deal with the Principle. I can't say exactly what, but they are different here than in last two books. More strange, and more abstract. And of course, the explanations actually confuse you more.

Story is typical for Parker, with lots of unexpected twists and side-stories. Temrai's plot is funny at the beginning, but you ask yourself for how long, because this is Parker after all... There are a lot military scenes and parts, which are done with a lot of details and expertise. Politics play a large part, especially with the Island sub-story.

There is no new characters in "The Proof House", except few unnamed Sons of Heaven and one Island trader, so you know what you can expect. They are really a piece of work. I don't want to reveal any spoilers, but you can expect bleak ending for most, or you could say all, characters... There is a place in the book where Iseutz does a great summation of the Loredan family. Baradas is really scary, which I didn't realize before.

But I presume that you are wondering about the feel of this book. After that surprise in "The Belly of the Bow", I was prepared for everything in "The Proof House". It is a very bleak book, mixing fun and revulsion between scenes. Casual storytelling of violence of war reminds me of Erikson, even though with more extreme examples. One important feature: battles are only lost, never won. This is not a sick book like middle one, but the ending... I don't know whether to laugh or cry...

I have to mention that Parker is a great writer - for first two chapters he is focused only on hear, taste, smell and touch - there is not one clue enabling you to visualize the scenes.

All in all, I am satisfied with "The Proof House". It is not for everyone's taste, with its violence and bleakness. But if you like "Colours in the Steel" and survived "The Belly of the Bow", I think you will enjoy this one. For the whole "The Fencer Trilogy", I give it a solid passing mark.