Sunday, August 29, 2010

Book review: "Seasons of War" by Daniel Abraham

Once again, I am late with both my reading and posting this blog. I had troubles with my notebook last weekend and this week I had very tight schedule because of my work. Reading manga and watching anime is currently postponed for a while (except "Naruto" anime once a week on and manga at Last weekend I finished "Seasons of War" (and lo, only now I am writing a post) and currently I am reading "Night of Knives" by Ian C. Esslemont. Next is "The Born Queen", last book in "The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" series. Depending on when will I finish it, I'll maybe jump to some short anime (I have two anime downloaded and ready), but then a special treat (for me, at least) is on: a reread of few last books of "The Wheel of Time". It will definitely include "Knife of Dreams" and "The Gathering Storm". Since Leigh Butler's reread on is somewhere on the middle of "Winter's Heart", I will maybe start with "Crossroads of Twilight".

Not, we'll get back to the book in topic. "Seasons of War" by Daniel Abraham contains two last books in his "The Long Price Quartet". In my blog about first two books, you can see that though I appreciated book's quality, I wasn't really into them. I am very happy to say the quality is still on most high level in this sequel, but I am now very much into it! While first two books carry their own weight in importance (I mean, as scope of events in books), I now see them only as introduction. An introduction where reader is shown history and social and political picture of the world. I was interested in story and fates of the characters, but not in same way and magnitude as in these last two books.

The story is a natural sequence of first books. As in first two books, it depicts a confrontation of two civilizations: one is old, build on Islamic world, decadent and dependent on only one resource: the andat. Andats are only supernatural or magical things in these books. They are solidifications of ideas: a poet who summons his andat can use him to perform actions connected to his essence. For example, andat Stone-Made-Soft can be used for alternations of stone's (or similar materials) internal structure; it can vary from making small stone sculptures to sinking continents. The other civilization is down-to-earth, businesslike, greedy and dependent solely on their skills. At least that is what it look on surface. Abraham's creations (both world and characters) are not one-dimensional or simple. There are both good and bad sides to everything. There are people in Khaiem (the civilization build on powers of andat) who understand that their greatest strength is at the same time their biggest weakness and want to rectify it. Also, not all Galts (second civilization) are aggressive and paranoid conquerors and schemers. In some way, it had a feel of reading historical fantasy, like Guy Gavriel Kay's books. Though, he has much more emotional books (or this is just me?).

Main characters in last two books are the same one as in first two. I was aware of this fact before I read all books (I've read it in some review on Amazon), but I was surprised how well this works. In first book ("A Betrayal in Winter"), Otah and Maati (two main characters) are 18 and 16 years old (or close to). And every next book present them some 15 years older. It was a very interesting situation to see 60 year old Otah comparing himself to his younger versions. This kind of comparison (young vs. old) is very common in this series. Other characters appear and disappear in course of books; some appear again, but some are gone forever.

I wouldn't go too much into stories of each book. Actually, you can consider this as a review of whole series, First book is a thriller-type book; second is a political intrigue. Third book broadens the scope: it describes a world war. And last book is much more leisured, brining old characters to one last adventure on the road.

What impressed me very much was how third book ("An Autumn War") was analogy of American aggression on Iraq (and possibly future on Iran). Andats are kind of biological or nuclear weapons (in power, if not in form). So author dwells about the question do the Galts have the right to attack cities of Khaiem to prevent them in using andats on them, even though they have no proof of intention. This is especially interesting if you consider the fact that in Khaiem is in first two books presented as the good side. As I said, both sides have their own reasons and justifications for their acts. It is on the reader to decide (or not) who is right, because Abraham doesn't give his own conclusion. If you read these books, I think you will agree with me that, even though not just, solution of third book was very poetical.

Stressing again, characterization is Abraham's high point. There are no simple characters here! They all question themselves, their decision and world around them. And they all act very natural: they make mistakes, get scarred and panic, have regrets for previous decisions....

Not connected directly to content of the books... Covers (at least the ones I have) are terrible! I don't see what that armored guy at "Shadow and Betrayal" cover has anything to do with, well, anything, but samurai-ninja with two absurdly long swords (cover on "Seasons of War") definitely doesn't belong there!

For final conclusion, I can't to not recommend these books. With reservation that they are not for broad audience (which can be read from their relative small popularity). If you read fantasy only for relaxation and escape from everyday problems, then skip this books. Because they force you to think carefully about characters and their problems. Also, be prepared to the fact that books leave a bit melancholic feeling after reading them.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Book review: "The Blood Knight"

I just keep being late with this blog... I already started a new book and still haven't written a post about this one, which I've read two weeks ago. But, here it is... The second paragraph is for those who haven't read the first part. After that, text contains spoilers about first two books.

"The Blood Knight" is the third book in high fantasy series "Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" by author Greg Keyes. I picked this series because I wanted to read something of a "classical" fantasy: medieval knights, princesses, few myths and monsters. I was a bit fed up with original and innovating books and I wanted to read something easy, for a change.  In my opinion, this series is quite similar to Feist's original trilogy ("Magician", "Silverthorn" and "A Darkness at Sethanon") or even much more to Williams' "Memory, Sorrow and Thorn" (in setting, mostly). These are very nice books and I enjoyed reading them. This is not a series to provoke flame wars or to have a large fan base, but this is not an objection. It's a nice and short series that you will enjoy reading and then forget after few days or weeks (depending about your reading rate). And after few years you will be able to reread it with them enjoyment...

For first two books, you can read my reviews here and here.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Is there no more Karsa?

Lately the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series is often on my mind.

First reason is "Malazan Reread of the Fallen" on I've been expecting in for a while and now that it's here, it's even better than I expected. In my opinion, main reason of its popularity (the reread, not the series) is because Amanda, one of rereaders, is actually reading it for the first time. It's very, very funny (and little mean) to watch her stumble and try to foresee what's coming next. This is impossible, of course. It reminds me on my own experience when I started reading MBoF. For the record, I actually read the second book, "Deadhouse Gates" before "Gardens of the Moon". Also, it feels very good to be reminded how these books are good.

Second reason is that blurb of "The Crippled God" I found here. I think I will like the last book very much!

Anyway, I was thinking about these books (while showering) and how I can't wait to find out what happened after "Dust of Dreams" when I realized that there was no mention of Karsa for long time. Not just him, Kruppe and the rest. Since "Toll the Hounds", if I'm correct. And blurb mentions only characters and plots from "Dust of Dreams". So, what if Karsa has actually done his parts in these books? Maybe Erikson plans to write a new series, featuring Karsa and later events? I think he said he doesn't plan to stop writing books in these setting after finishing this sequence, but I can't find where I read this. From one side, I would like this series to continue, or its successor to start. On the other side, I'm afraid that it would be bad compared to the original.

In any case, these are just my speculations. We will see in few years was I right.

Movie review: Killers

Yesterday evening I watched a movie "Killers" with my girlfriend. From a quick watch at IMDB, I expected a simple and easy-watching romantic comedy, which I exactly what I got. I was even positively surprised with the level of jokes and overall feeling of the movie.

About the plot: Spencer (Ashton Kutcher) is professional hitman, working for the CIA, while Jen (Katherine Heigl) is young women recently dumped by her fiancĂ©e. They met in Nica: he performing his mission and she on a recovery trip with her parents (father is played by Tom Selleck). Spencer is already questioning his line of work, and when he meets Jen, he decides to quit (against the wishes of his boss!). Three years later, they are happily married and fighting petty problems, when their lives are interrupted by Spencer's past. And then starts the action....

First part of the movie (the introduction, courting, the wedding) is done really fast and smooth. I expected poor jokes about Spencer's occupation interfering with start of their relationship. Instead, we fly trough this start and stop when they are already settled and having no problems. Main part of the movie is when Spencer's past start creeping in his life, and then in hers, too. This part is mostly action (three martial-arts scenes, car chase, etc.), interrupted with their verbal fights (the funny part). As I said, I liked the jokes; they were not sleazy or childish.

Biggest objection I have is the end. It is low below the rest of the movie. I guessed who the bad guy is some time before the end, but I couldn't believe it because it was too naive and unbelievable. Even so, if they really wanted to it that way, they could do it better. Though I admit, there were some nice jokes at the end. I believe the movie could have been much better if it was just a little longer.

Just a remark: there were two surprisingly violent (graphically) and bloody scenes, which is not common in comedies of this type. But I consider this a plus!

In a few words, a movie you will forget two days after watching it, with no memorable scenes or jokes, but a nice way to spent hour and half of your life. I'm not sorry in any way for watching it.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Manga review: Naruto

Wow, this took me longer that I thought it will, almost three weeks! On the other hand, it has more than 500 chapters for now (505th was the last I've read so far), most of them 16 pages or more, it's no wonder. Include with that the fact that I've read it on-line (, so it takes time to load it...

I have a special attachment to "Naruto". It is the first anime I watched when I started regularly followin anime several years ago. Before that, I watched only "Dragon Ball" (original and Z), "Sailor Moon" and "Hellsing" randomly and on TV (except "Hellsing", I got that on DVD). I really got into anime after getting "flat" (unlimited monthly bandwidth) and discovering wonderful world of torrents.

I don't really remember why I picked "Naruto", but it showed as a good decision. Unlike "Bleach", which I liked for first 50 episodes and later it became repetitive and boring, I find "Naruto" still interesting and watch it regularly. After original 135 episodes of "Naruto", I actually watched some 30 episodes, before really understanding what "filler" means. And then came "Naruto Shippuuden" with its super-slow episodes; I'll  always remember the fight with Sasori, which took some 6 or 7 episodes. But now I really like this anime, and judging by manga, there will be some really interesting stuff in future.

Let's get back to the review. First, "Naruto" is shounen action manga (and anime) about ninjas. Author of the manga, Kishimoto Masashi, is a fan of Toriyama Akira, author of "Dragon Ball", so I think that those who liked "DB" will like "Naruto", also (at least, that was the case with me). Manga features an imagined world, consisting of several countries, where each (or at least the bigger ones) has a ninja village. Ninjas perform various tasks (missions), for their sovereign lords, citizens of their own country, or even for foreigners. In case of war, they serve as army. Series is not based on real ninjas; you can expect "magical" skills, talking animals, super-strength and super-speed, etc. As this is shounen manga, it doesn't encumber with "smaller" details: existence of electricity, uncommon political situation or other things like that. Instead, this series focus on interesting fights (and unique skills of characters) and passionate and emotive relationships; primary, the friendship between two main characters, Naruto and Sasuke.

Main character of this anime is Uzumaki Naruto. At the beginning of the show, he is some 12 years old student in ninja academy. His main interests are making pranks on teachers and creating troubles; also, he's poor at ninja skills and has no friends. Reason for him being alone is that at the day of his birth, his village (Konohagakure) was attacked by super-strong demon fox. To prevent destruction of the village, Naruto's parents sacrificed themselves and sealed the fox inside him. For some "reasons", this is kept as secret from Naruto and kids his age and younger. Of course, all the adults know the truth (at least partially) and they ostracize Naruto because of fear, anger or grief. Naturally, kids take after their parents, so Naruto is left friendless (except his teacher Iruka).

But Naruto is not too depressed with his fate; instead, he dreams of becoming a Hokage (leader of his village and strongest ninja there). That was, all villagers will be forced "to acknowledge" him (I stress this because this is the main theme of first part of series). In the meantime, he uses his pranks as a way of getting attention. Soon after the graduation at academy, he will be joined in team with two of his classmates: Sasuke and Sakura. Sasuke is a boy from renowned ninja-family of Uchiha, best student of the year (two of them are joined because the school tries to make balanced teams - Naruto is the worst one). Sakura is a normal girl, excelling in theory of ninja skills, but unremarkable in practicing them. She is also infatuated with Sasuke (as every other girl in class); in same time, she is Naruto's love interest. Even though three of them don't have much in common, after first mission they will develop bonds that will form their later lives.

As I mentioned in one of my previous posts, I always find hard to review a long-running manga. And "Naruto" is really long-running. With five hundred chapters it's the longest manga I ever read. In anime adaptation, it has around 250 original episodes and some 100 filler episodes, and anime has quite a lot to catch up with manga. My meaning is that it's hard to write about story because I can't write only about beginning of the story which is only an introduction (that would be meaningless because story changes after a while), but also I can't write about later stages that are important (at least, not without revealing spoilers). So, I will just say that "Naruto" actually HAS a story, as opposed to "Bleach" and "Dragon Ball". I am mentioning these two again for two reasons: I watched them; and they would be "Naruto's" direct competitors. As I understand it, there is also "One Piece", but I haven't watched or read it. "Dragon Ball" doesn't have an overall story - it just a "new opponent-new training-new fight" pattern. "Bleach" has some kind of story, but I think it's just a cover for same patter as in DB. Again: "Naruto" has a story. It is not a masterpiece of storytelling, but it is there. It is a story about friendship between Naruto and Sasuke; about picking the hard choices and not relenting. I also has many other motives and themes, but you will have to read it (or watch it) for yourself.

On the other hand, "Naruto" IS a shounen action series about ninjas. As I mentioned before, the world is nicely imagined, with no irritating flaws. There are lots of characters, but they are divided in groups (check "Cast Herd"), so it's not hard to follow who is who. Each character will have its own unique powers and skills and they are quite original. Meaning, they are not just a fifth variation of the same power - each have its place and rules. Characters are mostly well done (no one irritated me or made me lose faith in author's taste) and unique. Series has a lot of funny moments and inside-jokes; it made me laugh often. Fights are very good, dynamic and intense. They are not like second World Martial Arts Tournament in DB (which almost made me cry) or Goku vs. Freeza fight, but "Naruto" has its moments.

As I read manga after I watched anime, I noticed that I actually like anime version better. Despite the fillers, anime takes time to broaden and elaborate situations, without inserting unnecessary elements (if you ignore fillers). That was mostly evident after I passed events that are serialized in anime. Manga brings distilled events and skeleton of the story, but I think I will enjoy it in full really after watching the anime. But I will have to wait awhile for that.

And now, the final conclusion. In my opinion, if you are in search for long-running fighting shounen series and have even remote interest in ninja, I think you will like "Naruto". If you watched and liked "Dragon Ball", you will like "Naruto" (maybe even more; I did). If you are reading manga, then it's OK. But if you start watching anime and you don't become a fan (as me), I would advise you to find out which episodes are fillers, if you don't want to completely lose interest in series. For original episodes, fillers start after 135th episode. And for "Shippuuden", check this.

Also, allow me to recommend an anime that I found better that both "Naruto" and "Bleach". It's "Kekkaishi", a shounen action anime about young boy exorcising evil spirits. Unfortunately, it has only 52 episodes, but series is still ongoing, so I hope for more.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Movie review: The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

Well, it's been more than two weeks since my last post. Reason for that is that is spent it reading "Naruto" manga. Post about that will follow soon, in day or two... Also, I had a very busy two weeks at work (working on Sunday and during night got me really sleep-deprived), but next week I'm on vacation. So I expect at least two more posts. I plan to read "The Blood Knight", third book in "The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone" series. Also, there will definitely be some anime on the schedule, probably "Durarara!".

Now, let's get on with the movie. I saw the trailer for "The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus" few weeks in movie-theater, before watching "The Eclipse". Trailer looked very good: great cast (Heath Ledger, Johny Deep, Jude Law, Colin Farrell), a bit childish, but impressive CGI and epic story. After watching the movie, I can say that trailer is very misdirectioning, because this movie is quite different from what I expected. But not in a bad way; this is one of the most quality movies I watched in long time. By quality, I mean in acting, consistent and interesting plot and strong and educating images.

The story is variation of "Faust" by Goethe. I never read the original work, but I learned about it in high school, read extracts (big book of extracts of classical masterpieces for high school was one very, very useful book in high school; despite reading two-three books a week, I was never able to force myself to read school-assignments) and read or watched different adaptations ("If at Faust You Don't Succeed" by Roger Zelazny come immediately in mind), so I know the premise in general.

In this movie, Dr. Parnassus made a deal with the Devil few centuries ago: he will gain immortality in exchange for every product of his loins when he/she reaches sixteen years. Present time: Dr. Parnassus and his troupe, consisting of Anton, Valentina and Percy, are traveling Britain in road-show, trying to win the souls for the good side. Dr. Parnassus is grumpy drunkwith wild stories; Valentina is rebellious teenager with no knowledge of her destiny; Percy is "vertically-impaired person" with bad attitude; Anton is young man, the only one with passion in their troupe. They are traveling in cart led by horses, using scrapped costumes and cheap tricks, so is't given that they are not very successful. And why are they so special (except that doctor is more that thousand years old and talks with the Devil)? Because, when they succeed in getting a customer, they transfer her (by means of the "magic mirror") in doctor's mind. And there, customer's surrounding, it's world, is defined by their own psyche. Ultimately, customer is provided with the choice: good or bad. The bad is presented by Mr. Nick, the Devil, a nice, laughing older gentleman, who is ready to give you just what you want, be it a free shot of whiskey, or security of mother's skirt. The good is presented with gigantic stairs where customer must put some effort in getting over them. You can guess who has the better score. But, the troupe will get a new chance, when they save a hanged man; he has no memories of his past, but he can do the talk like he is born for it...

Characters are made as caricatures (drunkard, angry midget...), but acting is very good and you can easily believe in them. I wouldn't go too much further in describing them, because this movie is about characters.

Story is very interesting and it's never predictable. I didn't know it beforehand, but I wasn't surprised when I saw that movie is directed and partially written by Terry Gilliam, member of Monty Pythons. There is a clever trick with character played by Heath Ledger, but I don't want to spoil it. In any case, when "it" first happened, I wasn't really sure. Even more, I missed it second time.

As I mentioned, CGI and desing of the world inside the mind of Dr. Parnassus looks childish, but that is done intentionally, so don't be put off by it.

In short, one very strong movie and a fun to watch. Unfortunately, I don't think it will be much accepted because it asks for non-casual viewer. So, don't watch it before sleep or something like that...