Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Soldiers Live - book review

It turned out that I needed two weeks for this book. Last week I had my room whitewashed, so I lost three days for preparation and cleaning, and after that I had some business commitments. Anyway, too much time for book of some 400 pages...

Warning - it's hard to write a review without referencing to the previous books, so there will be some spoilers (about previous books), mainly from "Water Sleeps". So, if you haven't read them (although I don't know why would you read this review then), skip to last the paragraphs.

For a reminder: "Soldiers Live" is second book in "The Many Deaths of the Black Company" omnibus edition; it is also the last book in "The Books of the Glittering Stone" and last released book in whole "The Black Company" series. There are two more books announced, but I presume they will start a new phase in life of the Black Company; just like "The Books of the South" did after the original trilogy. I also think new books (I they ever come out) will bring a big turn in theme, just like the turn from a classical fantasy setting (in first three books) to an Indian and Hindu inspired setting (in latter books).

This book presents a great conclusion to the current plot-line. In the last book Sleepy managed to save the Captured from the caves under the glittering plain. We also learn history of the Black company and their place in the world(s) and we are prepared for the last clash. At the beginning of this book, things are in status quo: for some five years, the Black Company is in one of the "other worlds", recruiting, training and preparing; Kina is sleeping under the glittering plain; Soulcather, Mogaba and the Daugther of the Night are having their own petty squabbles. And like in the first book of the series, it will take one were-panther to start the avalanche...

In this book, we see things mostly from point of Croaker, who is currently Annalist again. But we have many POVs from Soulcather, Mogama and Booboo, which is a nice way to freshen things sometimes. Croaker feels most natural as an Annalist, at least for me, probably because he is the original Annalist; he is also much better to read than Murgen. We are introduced to many new characters, mostly wizards. I especially liked later parts of the book that describe Croaker's relation to two of the new players: Arkana and Shukrat.

I don't have anything bad to say about the book. It has many funny scenes (I really laughed when One-Eye's still explodes!). It also has many sad scenes: the name of the omnibus is unfortunately very true (which I found very clever!). It is one of the reasons why I like this series, this play of fun, sadness and stubbornness. You just have to like how strong  these characters are: they get beaten, captured, they friends get killed and they are forced to kill their friends, but they never surrender. As Croakers says: soldiers live...

I have to say that in general, I'm very satisfied with this book, in general and as conclusion of current sage. It presents best sides of the series: world with complex and detailed history; interesting, funny and clever characters; and message to never give up. It is a must for everybody who read previous books. For me, it was the best book since the original trilogy. As of complete series, it is one of my favorites, despite of few poorer books in the middle.

As of my next object of interest, I will watch a relatively new anime "Kimi ni Todoke", which has good rating on AniDB.

Water sleeps - book review

Last week I have spent reading "Water Sleeps". It is the eighth book in "The Black Company" series and I've read it as a part of the omnibus edition "The Many Deaths of the Black Company". The second book in the omnibus is "Soldiers Live", which is also the last released book. In this article, Glen Cook announced that there will be more books in the series, but that is left to be seen. When I read the last book, I will at least know does the current plot end or are we left with another cliffhanger.

Just a warning, there will be few spoiler about last books, so if you didn't read them, skip to the last paragraph.

As it can be read in my previous post about "The Black Company" books, I like this series, but found the last few books poorer that the original three novels. I liked "Books of the South" (with "Bleak Seasons" and "Dreams of Steel") which were written with Croaker and the Lady as narrators, but "Bleak Seasons" and "She Is the Darkness", from Murgen's point of view (in "The Return of the Black Company"), I found somewhat... bleak. My main objections at the time were the unnecessary cursing and a little confusing plot. And now, with a few months detachment, I think that these books just weren't captivating enough. However, I'm happy to say that "Water Sleeps" bring things back to the track.

New narrator is Sleepy, again a character that I didn't except to have any influence or importance. Sleepy was, in last books, a young woman disguised as man, whose entire role in books was to deliver one message, checks some books and get captured by enemy on the way back. Although I should mention that she was announced as the next possible replacement for Murgen as the Annalist, which is a fact I didn't give much importance at the time. Anyway, in this book, she takes the role of the leader of remaining soldiers. At the end of the last book, most of the important characters ended captured and in some kind of stasis. So, here we have Sleepy as a POV-character, few characters from last books (Uncle Doj, Mother Gota, Sahra, Tobo...), only three character from original trilogy (Goblin and One-Eye and Soulcathers as current arch-enemy) and few new named characters (mostly Taglians and Shadowlanders).

Plot continues some fifteen years after the last book; remnants of the Black Company, leaded by Sleepy and Sahra, start the long-planned campaign of misinformation and chaos against Radisha and Soulcatcher (who took the actual power in country). And their ultimate goal is to free the Captured from their sleep under the Glittering Plain. First half of the book follows preparations and increasing chaos in the main city of Taglios, while the second half happens after fruition of their plans and describes their flight from Taglios and run toward the Shadowgate... First part is a little slow in beginning, but you fast get sucked in the story!

I found plot much more interesting than in previous two books. It is enjoyment to follow Sleepy as she puts her intelligence and Company's meager resources against the overwhelming power of Taglios principality. Again we have original jokes, many of them based on religious references from one of the three Taglios' religions, which are in turn inspired on the real religions... Occasional POVs from other characters are also interesting, especially when showing how effective the Black Company's strategies are.

There is one theme that has been a part of this series from the beginning: growing old. Fifteen years is a long time and some characters were quite old already in previous books, and here characters are aware of that. So most soldiers are newcomers and old characters try to impress their rituals and way of living, their morality and traditions, to new people.

One part that differentiates this book from the other books in series is revelations: the secret history of the Black Company and the world itself is finally revealed! And I must say that the experience is a kind of an anticlimax. Not that the revealed stuff is boring or unbelievable; on the contrary, it feels quite common and logical. Actually, so much is revealed that I don't have an idea what the last book will be about...

Style of the book is as we know it from previous books, but somewhat more intense and easier to read. Part of it is probably the fact that plot is much more focused on only few characters and a single plot-line. However, every few pages you will find a new surprise, but in such way that you understand that it was planned from beginning. So, even though I now know the "whys" and the "whos", I can't wait to read the last book. Especially because I know that it is written from POV of Croaker.

In short, "Water Sleeps" is comeback to quality of original "The Black Company" books, but in different tone and with different characters. It finally reveals things that were announced few books ago and does it in great style. For those who have read previous books in the series, this is a must - it will bring back your faith in this series.

In next week, I plan to finish the last book in "The Black Company" series and then I will know is there a point in sequels. After that, I will probably watch some anime.

I don't think I mentioned it before, but I watch new episodes of Naruto Shippuuden on Crunchyroll every week and after few filler episodes, focus is back to main plot-line. I still like Naruto (contrary to Bleach, which I stopped watching a year ago), especially now that things are closing to the conclusion.

Monday, April 12, 2010

20th & 21st Century Boys - manga review

In the past week, I have read the "20th Century Boys" manga. The last chapter I left for Saturday morning and I planned to write a review of it right after reading it, but then I found that I was gravely mistaken. I was aware of the existence of the "21st Century Boys" manga, but I thought of it as some kind of a spin-off of the original manga. That is not true: it contains last two chapters of the original manga, but for some reason it's serialized under a different name. Interesting, this manga doesn't have an anime serialization yet. So it is also a first manga that I have read without watching the anime version first.
When I started reading it, it reminded me of two things: "Monster" and Stephen King. I checked it later, it is written by the same mangaka that did the "Monster" manga: Urasawa Naoki. It is similar to "Monster" in many things: it is a mystery manga where you know the "enemy" from the beginning, but as you watch, you realize that you actually understand much less then you think. As the "Monster", it has a great number of characters, many plot twists, almost super-human bad-guy(s), good guys mistaken for criminals...
Story follows Endou Kenji and his elementary-school friends, who are, at the beginning, mostly boring adults. But, suddenly, a stream of mysterious events starts in his town: missing of a whole family, suicide of Kenji's old friend, disappearance of his older sister... All this is somehow connected to a mysterious religious cult, revolving around an unknown leader called "Friend". And it looks like "Friend" is someone from Kenji's past...
Now semblance to Stepehen King comes to play; first part of the manga reminded me of his novel "It". As in there, story simultaneously follows a group of adults and their younger versions, gradually revealing how the past influences the present. The past time-line shows kids in usual children adventures: building a secret base, visiting the ghost-house, driving bike during summer... And present time-line shows adults panicky struggling against events that were started when they were just kids. As I said, this is just first part (maybe first quarter) of manga. Later, it comes closer to the near-future dystopia. It's hard to review it without revealing any spoilers, but story involves religious cults, corrupted police, Pope, repressing government, biological warfare, mafia... It's a big mix, but it doesn't give impression of random plot elements mixed together without any coherence: here you get bits and pieces of later events from the start. You can see that it was done with some plan in mind from the beginning.
Now, some things I didn't like. First, "Monster" was a "Xanatos Gambit", meaning that main villain is a master strategist, capable of making such plans, that even if things don't go by his plans, they nevertheless lead to his eventual victory, because he has backup plans. And backup-backup plans. And backup-backup-backup plans (you get my meaning)... This series is more a "Xanatos Roulette": a line of events that were planned by villain in such minuscule details that you get impression that he must have "known the script" or had some prophetical abilities. For better explanation of "Xanatos Gambit and Roulette" check provided links for tvtropes.org.
Second, here some characters actually rely on paranormal abilities: we have a prophet and few ESPers. Although Johan from the "Monster" sometimes looks like he is really a super-human, he is just a very convincing person (so much that he is able to convince you to commit suicide). However, in the "20th Century Boys", some characters really are super-humans (not too super, but nevertheless). I didn't mind it very much in this series, more so because these abilities are not completely reliable, but it would be much better without them.
And third... I really liked first (Stephen King-like) part of the manga. And I liked the last chapters. But middle part was a bit inflated, though. I understand: It was necessary to show how the villains are much stronger that the good guys, to introduce us to the new characters and make us feel sorry for them, but it could have been shorter. Ending was good; however it left some things unexplained.
Characters are good, complex and convincing. Some of them are based on too stereotypical ideas (the kick-ass monk, the wandering musician, the sociopath cult follower...), but their motivations and history are explained quite well, so it's not a problem to believe in them. Good guys are well done; they have their own problems, fears and insecurities.
Plot is probably a best side of this manga: it is captivating and believable. There are many twists and you are not sure of many things until the end; but this is a mystery series, so this is how it should be. Although, things could have been brought to end faster if characters had more will for some cooperation between them....
I'm not a right person to judge about visuals, but I don't have any objections to this manga from that side. Characters all look normal, without some exaggerations. Backgrounds, architecture and objects look good, but you will probably not read this manga just for its looks.

To summarize: this is a seinen mystery series, lengthy and not for a casual reading. The strong points of it are plot and characters; while reading you will be interested and excited enough to ask few more chapters... But, in the end, I found it a inferior work compared to the "Monster", a similar manga of same author. So, if you haven't read either, read "Monster" first. Then, if you liked it, read this too. Also, for all you who liked "Monster", you will like this series, too.

For my next object of interest, I will be reading "The Many Deaths of the Black Company".

Saturday, April 10, 2010

The Shawshank Redemption - movie review

After few months, I have watched a movie for once. I like watching movies, but I like books, anime and manga more, so movies get their turn mostly when I'm at someone's house. "The Shawshank Redemption" is a movie that I planned to watch for a long time. I'm not sure is this a world-wide opinion, but this movies has something like a cult-movie status in my country, at least among people of my generation (20-30). Since I somehow missed it on TV in all these years (and it was broadcasted quite often), I already got a "You didn't watch it?!?!?" reaction few times. So I decided to rectify it.

There were some facts that I knew about the movie beforehand: that it was based on a novel by Stephen King and that it's taking place in a prison. So I expected something in line with "The Green Mile": a group of people in prison, brought together by some character with mystic powers.

After watching it, I see that I was half right. This is a movie about the two decades of life in a prison. Main character is Andrew Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins), a young and successful banker sentenced for life in the prison for double murder of his wife and her lover. In the prison, he befriends Red (played by Morgan Freeman) and some other inmates. He has it tough in the beginning, but he is an intelligent and stubborn person so he is able to overcome it. Later, using his knack for making money, he is able to ensure a better life for himself and his friends. Ending was really surprising for me.

It is a very good movie, but I didn't find it as great as I expected. There were few very touching moments in the movie and I rooted for main characters during the whole movie, but it's not a movie to left me wondering and contemplating about it for days after watching. If I watched this 10 or 15 years ago, I presume I would be much more impressed. However, I already watched "The Green Mile" and "The Last Castle", so, for me, this is just another movie about man in prison, making friends there. It is still a good movie, with good characters, capable of surprising with some unexpected plot twist.

I've been reading "20th Century Boys" manga for last week or so. I have one more volume to read, so I will be posting a review about it very soon.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Nodame Cantabile: Finale - anime review

I have surprised myself and finished this anime in three days. On the other hand, it has only eleven episodes. And of course, it is a great and very watchable anime, so I shouldn't be so surprised.

I was just thinking, am I maybe a bit too uncritical, since most of my posts were recommendations? But, I had two books from already established series, that I know it would be good. One book was a reread - also knew it was good. Three mangas I read, all had an anime version that I liked. And I must say I had luck with choosing anime this year - most were good. Last year I wasn't so lucky and has some bad choices. So it's not surprising that I liked everything I wrote about.

Source: AniDB

"Nodame Cantabile: Finale" is similar case to books: it's a third season of anime that I know I like, so no one should be surprised I will recommend it, too (at least to those who liked previous seasons). For now, it looks that this will also be a last season, since manga is not ongoing anymore. There is one special volume, so I presume there is good probability for OVA, but we'll see. Though, there was no actual ending here, so maybe manga will be continued sometime in the future. I, for one, wouldn't object it at the least.

Anime continues story from previous seasons: it follows life of a large number of classical music students, performers, conductors and so on. Two main protagonists are Nodame and Chiaki, young Japanese couple (or "couple"), that are currently studying and working in Paris. Nodame is light, wacky and irresponsible, while Chiaki is strict, hard-working and sometimes insensitive, but they are connected by their love for music. There are many supporting characters, each with distinct characteristics and nature - they are all described very well and in details. This season doesn't introduce any new characters and focus on old cast from "Paris Hen" chapter.

This is a josei anime, so you should know what to expect here: light humor, slice-of-life episodes and romance. There are no tense action scenes or mysterious bad guys - most of time we follow characters performing music, studying music, practicing music and relaxing from these activities. So, you will not stay up late because you really must watch only one more episode, but you will watch this and realize that you just spent two hours watching anime. That is, if you like this type of anime.

Quality remained same: light and pastel colors, constantly blushing faces, everybody tall and pretty. Sounds and music are what you would expect from anime that depicts classical music students. All musical pieces are real: Bach, Chopin, Mozart, Beethoven... It interesting that this anime is actually inspired by real Noda Megumi; this is also true for some other characters. If you like classical music, this will be a bonus for you. I don't consider myself a classic fan (neither music nor literature), but I appreciate it and think that it's good to know it at least on level of recognition.

To summarize: if you liked original "Nodame Cantabile" or sequel "Nodame Cantabile: Paris Hen" you will like "Nodame Cantabile: Finale". If you like josei anime, you will probably like this too - it's like "Hachimitsu to Clover" but with much less pain and suffer. If you think these are girls-anime, then better avoid it.

In next week, I will read some manga, but I'm still undecided which.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Eve no Jikan - anime review

This is anime that I watched in last two or three days. It was streamed on Web, and has 5 short episodes lasting 15 minutes and one longer, 27 minutes. I liked this, because it allowed me to watch it when it wouldn't be able with full, 25-minutes-per-episode, anime. Like before sleep: I usually get sleepy shortly after I got in bed, so there were times when I missed last 5 or 10 minutes of episode because I was napping already.

"Eve no Jikan" describe a time in future (unspecified, but not too far away for our time; let say 10-30 years) when use of androids is becoming common. It deals with topic of how humans thinks of them: older/rational people regard them as another house appliance, while some think of them as regular persons or use them as substitute for living people.

Rikuo is a teen boy who acts awkward to his house-hold android; in first episode, he and his friend Masaki wander (after seeing its name into android's movement log) into a cafe where customers don't make distinction between humans and androids. In fact, we don't know who are which and we learn it in course of series.

This short anime has a lot going on: an organization that fight against seeing androids as humans; a mysterious woman who supports this interaction; unsolved "accidents"... It leaves a lot unexplained, so there is place for prequels/sequels. I actually found out that there is an anime with same setting: "Mizu no Kotoba". And I'm sure that this topic was already addressed in score of other series. There is no action here, just talking and learning new things. Although, it's definetely not boring.

First, I presume, that if you stretch it, this anime teach us how we should act humanly to everybody else, no matter how different from us, because they also have emotions (although, in this case, public is mostly unaware of android's new features). Secondly, it left me wondering how would I act toward a intelligent, speaking android. I would like to think that I would at least be civil (which is much more that some people in series), but is that just a wishful thinking? I'm a SF-optimist (check this) so I hope I will be in opportunity to find it out - even if I have to wait few hundred years for it...

From technical side, everything good: nice design, good colors and SFX. A lot was put in details (I noticed it few times, but I forgot the specifics).

Final verdict: a very nice anime, especially for SF-fans (at least, for those who like some deeper stuff). Even if you don't especially appreciate SF, you will not lose anything if you watch this, and most certainly not time. A recommendation.

I think that my next object of interest will be "Nodame Cantabile - Finale".