Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book review: "Shadowheart" by Tad Williams

I first planned to do the re-read of complete "Shadowmarch" series by Tad Williams, but when I got the last book, I didn't have the will to do it. First two parts didn't leave me the best after-taste - they weren't bad but neither was really good. Third part improved things quite a bit, but nevertheless I didn't felt like reading two thousand pages of not-so-great fantasy immediately after reading two great pieces ("The Judging Eye" and "Scar Night"). But this last book in series almost (but not quite) made me regret my decision.

Since I will reveal some major spoiler for previous books, I will advise you not to read more if you haven't read them.

In my post about "Shadowrise", I elaborated about some similarities between Williams' "Shadowmarch" and "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" series. Although they had very similar starting point, their curses ended very much different.

As in first three books, in "Shadowheart" we have several differentiated POVs, but while before one POV equaled to one chapter, things are bit different here. Since the events converge in series' namesake - Shadowmarch castle - main characters' story-lines get pretty mixed up. In last book Prince Barrick carried the last hope of Qar (Elves) to their main seat - castle Qul-na-Qar - and in the end he was able to deliver it. But things have changed much for him - now HE is the last of of Qar. After receiving the gift of Fireflower from the Blind King Ynirr and learning the real truth behind his blood, he is left with two burdens: to learn how to live with the overwhelming voices of Fireflower and to make peace with his new People, the Qar. Both of this will become even harder after he is forced by current events to go to Shadowmarch with Queen Sarqi.

Much more to the South, Princess Briony, Barrick's sister, is also going to Shadowmarch. She is doing this in company of Sianese Prince Eneas and his small but substantial army called Temple Dogs. Briony, as poor Princess without much power, must try to compel Eneas and his fillings toward helping her country's needs, but without promising much. Somewhere parallel to her, young Quintan, after escaping Vo, now wanders the unknown countryside, trying not to end in hand of Autarch.

In Shadowmarch itself, things are bad. In the castle under siege, Hendon Tolly is using the poet Matt Tinwright for some unknown, but certainly magical and dark purpose. Around it, Autarch and his humongous army are at the same time besieging the castle, fighting Qar and Funderlings, and preparing for some Sulepis' mad plan that includes magic mirrors, gods and blood of King Olin. And under it, Funderlings have made a shaky peace and alliance with the Qar, and now are preparing to stop the Autarch together, although in poor conditions for this.

What is Autarch really planing to do here? What Gods are doing about it? And what is Flint's part in these events? All this and more will be answered in this book!

The biggest problem of this book and the whole series is commonness of its characters. In cases when Williams comes up with some original idea (e.g. Fireflower and its effects, of Jiyukin in second book), they really flourish then and are interesting to read. For example, Princess Briony: she is a decent enough character, clever and troubled, with some depth. But all in all, she is a typical spoiled-princess-growing-up character and she acts like that. Prince Barrick is complete opposite - he starts as a stereotype, but once he gets in Williams original setting (Shadowlands, Qar, magic), he becomes interesting to read - especially in this book. Now that I think about it, "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" also had this problem, although it was less pronounced.

Story, on the other hand, is much more interesting. Although there are lots of clues what in general is happening, Williams successfully masks the specifics until the very end. I must say I was surprised and delighted with the last plot-twist - although the big-bad was a little downplayed and final resolution was hinted several times from the beginning of the book.

I must commend the ending. Usually, ending consist of 5-10 pages where, after defeating the enemy, heroes have a little celebration, explain few things and go home. Williams invested some effort and really explained what happened, who ended where and gave the characters a deserved conclusion. This was so unexpected that I was expecting another twist or hidden master-mind, even though they defeated the obvious one.

What I didn't like was the "mysterious cloaked stranger". After building some much hype around him, I was pretty disappointed when his identity was finally revealed. I understand that Williams wanted to play a joke on us, but it pretty much failed.

All things considered, "Shadowheart" is quite good book, with some flaws, but ultimately interesting and fun read - best from these four books. Unfortunately, this cannot be said for complete series. "Shadowmarch" tetralogy is not Williams best work, nor is so unique and good is this thickly-populated genre. Not bad, but I would have better spend my time and money on some better piece. For those who really, really liked "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" or really don't have anything else to read.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Book review: "Scar Night" by Alan Campbell

"Scar Night", and whole "The Deepgate Codex" trilogy by Alan Campbell has been in my wish-list for few years now, but somehow there was always something with higher priority. Since I planned to have a two-week vacation around Christmas and there were no high-profile books on schedule right now, I decided to include SN to my reading-pile. From reading blurbs and comments on Amazon, I knew that book took place in some unique setting and that included vampires and angels - not the usual characters in my favorite books. Phrase "urban fantasy" was also thrown occasionally.

I have to admit I have been wrong about this term. I thought that urban fantasy means some combination of classical fantasy elements with contemporary setting - kind of "Twilight", "Vampire Diaries", "Buffy", etc. Although I don't immediately judge this type of books/series as bad, they are not my typical pair of sleeves. So when I read one praise of front cover telling how good urban fantasy book this it, I half-way reconciled with this being a wrong choice. After reading it, I am happy to say that I learned two new things: "Scar Night" is a great book and urban fantasy only means that the story takes place in some kind of a city (whether historic, imagined or contemporary, it doesn't matter). This would mean that the "Perdido Street Station" by China Miéville, a book I really liked, is also an urban fantasy even though I didn't realize it.

Now, let's get back to the book. "Scar Night" takes place in very unique setting of Deepgate city. This is a large city build completely on network of chains and suspended over enormous chasm. Why would someone do a thing like that, you ask? Because the chasm is a home of Ulcis, the God of Chains. Three thousand years ago, Ulcis was banished from the Heaven and thrown in this deep pit. Calis, his greatest angel and leader of Ninety-Nine (other angels) helped neighboring tribes of establish there a city and a religion. And this religion tells that all loyal believers, after death and being thrown in Ulcis' pit, will found their new eternal life there and join Ulcis' armies that will one day retake the Heaven. Now, three thousand years later, Deepgate is the only city on continent and its airships control all territory in surrounding - except small conclaves inhabited by nomadic infidels Heshettes. Dill is a young angel and only surviving descendant of Calis. Since his role will be mostly ceremonial, he has been ignored and left to wander the Temple alone. Now has come the time for him to take his role as figure of faith.

This is where our story starts. I don't see any way of describing it in some details without revealing major spoilers. Let's just say that, although somewhat predictable, plot is very well written and never boring. Pace is good, with lots of things going on. I presume you will be able to guess many things once you reach middle of the book, but there will be few surprises and you will not be disappointed.

First few chapters were somewhat hard to read. It is a quite original setting and Campbell really doesn't pamper the reader, so I was confused at first. But after this initial hardship, story flow without any turbulence - this was one of those books you just can't stop reading.

As the setting, characters are also unique point of this book. Dill, presented from the start as main characters, actually doesn't have much importance as one would expect. He servers as one of POVs and through him we learn much about setting and plot, but he is not a factor in the story. Mostly he is just following what others and fate prepare for him. Sure, he makes few important choices and does a lot of growing up, but I get a feeling this was only introduction to his character and he will play a bigger role in later books. Rachel is probably the real main character of this book. Nicely written female character, one that doesn't accept things as they are and fights her fate; with her troubled background, she makes one enjoyable character. Carnival is another strong female character, but a more tragic one - something of a fallen angel. Devon is one perfect mad scientist - I must say I was surprised about his later importance and role, but I was also delighted with his story. Other supporting characters (Presbyter Sypes, Fogwill, Clay...) are all nicely written.

One of the biggest positive surprises was Mr Nettle. When he was introduced at the beginning I didn't like him, but later he become a real star of the book. I must say I was a bit disappointed with ending, because it didn't deal with his fate as much as it should have, but I hope that this only means that he will appear again. For those who had read "The Stars My Destination" by Alfred Bester, it is enough to say that Mr Nettle was obviously made with Gulliver Foyle as model. His adventure in the Maze was one of the best parts of the book.

I've read somewhere that Campbell has a role in making of Grand Theft Auto. I don't know how important that role was, but I can totally believe it. This book is very gritty and brutal, as is humor in it. I am accustomed to all kinds of abnormal jokes and stories, but I was surprises with the joke Devon played on Heshettes with the rags - it was an original joke, but a brutal one. Nevertheless, the humor in the book is very good and it made me chuckle quite few times.

My only objection to the book is actually only a potential objection. The book is good as it is - it is a compact and encapsulated unit, with no loose ends. It has definite ending and the only thing that announce a sequel is last few sentences. If this sequel proves to be a good book, then all is OK. But I am afraid that it could turn out to be just an unplanned sequel whose only purpose is to pull more money from the people who liked the original. I presume we'll see after reading this sequel, "The Iron Angel".

As it is, "Scar Night" was one great book. It has original setting and unbelievably good character; although the story is a bit more predictive, it is still complex and enjoyable. A definite recommendation for those who like grittier and darker fantasy.

Happy New Year, by the way!!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book review: "The Judging Eye" by R. Scott Bakker

It feels like it had been a long time since I had a book that I couldn't leave out of my hands, but "The Judging Eye", first book in a new trilogy by R. Scott Bakker that continues its "The Second Apocalypse" series, was such book. I admit that I lowered my expectations since reading "The Thousandfold Thought" several months ago - the book was weaker than its prequels, although the ending and detailed glossary/history saved it. But after reading TJE, I think I can say that it was the best one in the series so far.

Events in this book happen some 20 years after the events in TTT. After seizing the Holy War, marrying Esmenet and being sanctified as the new Prophet, Anasûrimbor Kellhus has become a first Aspect-Emperor in thousand years. Under his rule, he united the whole Three Seas - mostly by conquest, using his skills, sword and sorcery - the so-called Unification-Wars. Now, he is its absolute ruler, son of God, whose world is divine law. And now, he is finally putting in motion the plan his father has predicted with his Thousandfold Thought: the Great Ordeal, the final fight against No-God and Consult. His wife and Empress Esmenet, his half-brother and Holy Shriah Manethiat, and myriad of their advisers, ministers and helpers will stay to rule in his name, while he will lead the united might of Man against Sranc and finally Golgotterath. With him are his old allies and loyal subjects from the First Holy Wars, his two oldest surviving sons and daughter, and all rulers of Three Seas. But will he be able to lead such a host, counter the Consult and remain the absolute ruler at the same time?

Although Kellhus is presented as the most important characters, we see very little of him. We have three main plots and five important POVs. First there is a completely new character, Sorweel. As son and successor of Harweel, the King of Sakarpus, land north of Three Seas that had not accepted Aspect-Emperor as their Savior and Suler. Unfortunately for it, Sakarpus is now in the way of the Great Ordeal on their journey. Kellhus and his armies easily defeat Sakarpi warriors and shatter the walls that once resisted even the No-God. To preserve peace and use this city as base station for their journey, Kellhus uses his words seduces Sorweel, the King's son, and makes him his ally, at least in name. He also charges his son Moënghus and Kayûtas to befriend him and make him ally in earnest. Now Sorweel must choose between the love and memory of father he respected or the people who he admires, but who killed his father and people! Through his POV we follow the Great Ordeal. This part of the book is very similar to the prequels: army on marches, fanatical soldiers, tactics and strategy, and so on. We are briefly introduced to Kellhus older sons, who I presume will have much larger role in these events, especially Moënghus, considering the question of his father.

The next subplot is told from the POVs of Esmenet, a well familiar character, and Kelmomas, her and Kellhus youngest son, twin brother of Samarmas. In the absence of her Holy Husband, the role and responsibility of ruling the whole Three Seas has fallen to Esmenet, once an illiterate whore from Sumna. Not all were willing to accept the rule of Kellhus, and now the ancient cult of Yatwer, a Goddess of the earth and fertility, popular around slaves and lower castes, has put itself as their enemy. It looks like the Goddess herself resent Kellhus his power and will try to pull him down. Esmenets charges would be easier had she the support and love of her family, but it turned out that Kellhus seed is to strong, so that those sons and daughter that survived are not normal. They received some blessing from their father, being unnaturally intelligent and observant, but they are also incapable of love and trust. Fortunately for Esmenet, it looks like the youngest two, twin brothers Kelmomas and Samarmas are exception to this rule. But little does she suspect that Kelmomas is a snake in their family, ruled by evil voice in his head and his own ambition. How much damage for them will he be able to do before he is discovered? I can't exactly pinpoint why, but this part of the story reminded me much on later Dune books. We have heroes who we once known as regular people, that are now regarded as Gods, we have inimical religious cult and we have precognitive kids. This was the weakest part of the book for me, but only relatively to other two.

My best part of the book was the story revolving around Achamian. Once friend, believer and teacher of Kellhus, he now turned to the old and bitter man obsessed with founding the Kellhus' origins and hiding from the Empire that couldn't care less about him. He turned off from the world and dedicated on finding clues about Dûnyain, Kellhus "tribe". He found the unexpected ally in the dreams for Seswatha, founder of his former order, whose life is a subject of dreams of every Mandate Schoolman. It looks that dreams Achamian dreams are unique and reveal previously unknown details of Seswathas life - like the location of map with location of Dûnyain's hiding-place. Then he gets found my Mimara, Esmenet's daughter from her whoring days, who escaped from her mother and foster-family, and now wants Achamian to teach her the Gnosis, ancient magic of North. And then he finds out the Great Ordeal is already on the way and that all his trials could end in vain. So he is forced to once again embark on a journey to Sranc-infested land to the long-lost Libraries of Sauglish. But to travel there he will need help of people who are accustomed to this harsh environment - a band called Skin Eater, member of Scalpers, hunters on Sranc-scalps.

I liked this part best for two reasons. First is because we learn much about this setting via character of Cleric, first Nonman character in series. I was very surprised when he was first introduced because I didn't expect someone like him this series. And later, the more time we spend with him, the less we knew about him. I love such mysterious character and would be ready to buy the sequel just to learn who he is! The second reason is because this sub-story is some kind of homage to Tolkien, whether intentional or not, or more specifically to Moria. When Achamian, Mimara and Skin Eather were first forced to travel to underground and lost city of ancient Nonmen because of the snowed pass in mountains, I immediately felt disdain and expected a failure. Instead, Bakker pulled this marvelously and made this part a culmination of this book. If you liked the travel through Moria in "The Fellowship of the Ring", I guarantee you will like this part, too.

The book is not fast paced, and some reader could find it hard to read or annoying. It has a lot of long descriptions, internal monolog, and full pages pass by without anything happening. Looks like Bakker took after Erikson in his later books. I liked this, but I understand that many will not.

All in all, "The Judging Eye" was a very pleasant surprise where I expected a weaker book. With it, Bakker infused a new life in his series. All those who liked "The Darkness That Comes Before" should continue to here.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Anime review: "Samurai Champloo"

This is my second time watching "Samurai Champloo" - first time was at January 2008, short time after I started watching anime. At that time it was one of best anime I watched, and in my mind stayed that even after I watched many times more shows. I didn't have any plans to watch it again, but I didn't have idea what to watch so I decided to remind myself of its greatness.

What I didn't know at the time of my first watching, "Samurai Champloo" was made by the same guy who made "Cowboy Bebop": Watanabe Shinichiro. These two anime share much in common - mixture of genres, stress on music, humor, even design of characters. For SC, this mixture is a blending of samurai anime with slapstick comedy and history. Anime follows a journey of three main characters. Fuu is a teenage girl whose mother recently died, and after losing everything in fire (caused by two other main characters), she decided to start looking for her father, "samurai who smells on sunflowers". Jin is a young ronin, silent, careful and emaciate - we don't learn much about his past until later in show. Mugen is Jin's complete opposite - loud, flamboyant and a criminal. What they two have in common is their unmatched skill with swords and the fact that they are running from world. So without anything better to do with themselves (and with some blackmail from Fuu), they will join Fuu in search for the mysterious samurai.

This main plot actually doesn't have much importance until last three episodes (out of 26). Anime comprises of mostly unconnected episodes following the trio traveling over Edo Japan. Adventures they fall into are based either on real historic events or popular myths of that time, but colored in anime's original and extreme nature. For example, we have a story about popularization of ukiyo-e paintings in which Ukiyo-e is only a pretense for getting young girls kidnapped and sold to sexual slavery. Several of the episodes reveal more of character's past, but we never actually learn exactly what happened to them to end as they are. Anime is mostly light in tone and in bigger part consist of humorous scenes, but in several instances get very emotional and strong (in sense of shounen anime).

I must admit that I didn't like "Samurai Champloo" this time as I expected, contrary to "Baccano!" which I adored even more the second time. Don't get me wrong, I still think it is a great anime, but it didn't give me as much laugh as first time. The problem may be that it had a big impact on me so I remembered all the best scenes very clearly, so they didn't surprised me as at first watch. Also, maybe I expected too much.

Colors and animation is what you would expect from an older anime (2005), but design of characters is still over-the-top. The same can be said for music, which consist mostly of hip-hop. There is also one great Japanese old country song in episode 13 (or 14).

Still, "Samurai Champloo" is one great anime, a one of the masterpieces of famous director. Although maybe not appropriate for novice anime fans, I think this is one of anime everybody should watch eventually.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

TV show review: "Game of Thrones"

Few days ago I finally finished watching first season of "Game of Thrones". Finally, because this 10 one-hour episodes stretched over more than a month. If someone read my post about it when I started watching it, it could be noticed that I liked the show very much. After finishing it, I can say I still like it very much, but with one reservation.

For those who don't know (if there is someone who doesn't), "Game of Thrones" is based on the first book of "A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R. R. Martin, similarly called "A Game of Thrones". It deals with events in Medieval-based fictional kingdom (and around it) called Seven Kingdoms. It involves dynastic struggles, court politics, fates of big royal families and individuals, and introduces few overall plots that will be dealt more in future seasons. The series is renowned for its complex plot and especially its realistic and numerous characters. It is also famous for its grittiness and gradual introduction of magic: setting includes dragons, blood magic and some unknown creatures, but they are more present in later books. This first season deals mostly with Stark family and presents them as main characters. They are one of more rural noble families, residing in distant and sparse North. Events starts with King Robert Baratheon arriving to invite Eddard Stark, his best childhood friend, to became the new Hand of the King (prime-minister) and come to King's Landing to help him rule. This will not sit well with House Lannisters, probably the most powerful family, whose member is Queen Cersei. Eddards coming to the capital will force revelation of some plans and hidden secrets with potential to throw the Seven Kingdoms in turmoil. Other major plot involve Eddard bastard son Jon Snow, who will join the Night's Watch, organization trusted with holding the Wall (gigantic ice structure on edge of the North) and defending the Kingdoms from savages and maybe other, worst things. Another plot features Daenerys Targaryen, daughter of previous King Aerys II ("the Mad King") and her older brother Viserys. Targaryens were dynasty before Usurper Baratheon and they establish rule over Seven Kingdoms by use of dragons (now long gone). At the start of the series, Daenery is being married to Khal Drogo, leader of nomadic Dothraki, which will allow Viserys power and an army to reconquer the Seven Kingdoms. These are only the starting plots which will expand much in later seasons (or books).

For those previously unfamiliar with the books, or those who don't read at all and like fantasy, this show is a premium. High production, good cast, sex and violence, great plot and characters. All this is bound to catch wide audience - which was evident from the popularity of the show. I don't have many friends who read, but everybody who watched this show found it at least good or better. Many people expected some cheap Hollywood show with simple plot and shallow characters and were delighted to find the complete opposition. As I mention, the show is sparse with magic and classical fantasy elements in this first season and this probably helped to attract viewers who would in other case dismiss it as to fantastic and unrealistic (which is what one of my friend said for "Lord of the Rings" trilogy). First season focuses much more on court politics and it can be almost mistaken for some quasi-historical series based on alternative Medieval Europe.

Much of the GoT forte is in its characters. They are very numerous and feel like real people, which is always appreciated. Although this season features Starks as main characters and therefore "good guys", it nevertheless makes no assumption to picture them as saints, smarter or better than other people. They are presented as more naive, but this is more from their remoteness from the capital and court games. Sole exception to this is Ned Stark, who is (with maybe addition of Bran) who can be said to be "better" than others - although his honor doesn't make him more than most tragic character.

As I said, plot deals mostly with mundane elements like court, wars and power, while fantastic parts are only implied or briefly touched. I wouldn't go deep into explaining, because I would hate to spoil new viewers the greatness of this story, but believe me that it is great.

All in all, "Game of Thrones" is a terrific show for all kind of audience and probably one of best this year. I look forward to the next season, which is expected at spring.

As I said, there is one reservation, but it involves only the fans of books. Contrary to let's say "Lord of the Rings", for which I complained that they made too much changes and simplifications to attract more viewers, "Game of Thrones" show follows "A Game of Thrones" book closely and truthfully, as much is possible for this medium. Not all plot details and characters facets could have been revealed and presented, but show provides the basic spirit and feel of the book. Sure, there are some small changes, and even some additions, but this was kept as minimal as possible. But at the same time, this is a catch. As someone who has read the books several times (especially the first one), I quickly realized that I knew what will happen next in even the small details. So after initial thrill, I found that I don't have much more reasons to watch this series left, except to look for mistakes and complain at them. Since I watched it with my girlfriend who is not familiar with ASoIaF, I also found great temptation in not revealing any spoiler to her. But for those who read the books maybe once, or long time ago, or just want a quick reminder before going to next books, this is still a great catch.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Book review: "Blood of the Mantis" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last weekend I finished "Blood of the Mantis", third book "Shadows of the Apt" series by Adrian Tchaikovsky. Although not the best fantasy series I have read, this is one with great potential and very unique, and I will happily continue to follow it. An additional point for Tchaikovsky is that he publishes two books per year, so you don't have to wait much.

First book in series, "Empire in Black and Gold" was a solid, although slightly unambitious introduction to the setting and characters, a typical quest story. Second book "The Dragonfly Falling" was much different: it greatly expanded the setting, added more character and introduced a larger story to the series. Now, the third book, "Blood of the Mantis" is again a return to the structure of the first book - a quest story.

We have two main plot-lines, parallel in time but also in other things. Events take place shortly after the end of TDF. One group of our heroes is sent on a mission to lake of Exalsee: Che and Nero. They are sent there to warn citizens of few cities around Exalsee to the danger of the Wasp Empire, who set them as another goal. There they will find some new allies and new dangers and enemies. On completely another part of the world, group consisting of Tisamon, Tynisa, Thalric, Achaeos and two more is also on a quest of a lake. In this case, the lake is Lake Limnia and the quest is to retrieve the Shadow Box, stolen by Spider spy and mercenary named Scylla. As expected, they won't be the only pretenders to ownership of the Box, but what they will discovery there will be surprising too all, including the readers.

Parallelism of this two stories is a smart detail: both on the lake, both fighting against Wasp, discovery more about world. This is especially apparent when Che and Achaeos share their dream and both lakes got mixed in it. This book share much with first one, but it is similar to the second one on one thing: setting expansion. I must say I was quite surprised when I saw the map expanded much on both north and south. Judging by what little I know about sequels, I think (and hope) this will not be the last expansion. While most of the book is focused on these two groups of characters, we get glimpses from other ones: Stenwold trying to from alliance of Lowland cities against the coming threat of Wasps; Seda joining with Uctebri against her brother Alvdan, the Wasp Emperor; Alvdan and Wasp Empire's incoming internal troubles; Totho and his change; and others.

Main characters stay the same, with maybe a couple additions, but we meet much new supporting characters. While they are all written well, with depth, multi-dimensional, having doubts, feeling uncertain, they are at the same time the weakest part of the series. I don't know is it only me, but I am unable to make any emphatic link with them. I read about them, find them interesting and exciting, but I don't care about them. Which is a shame because they are really good characters. I especially like those in Wasp Empire: Seda, Alvdan and Gjegevey. Judging from where the plot is taking them, I think we will see much more of them.

Tchaikovsky's writing also got much better than in first book. It is much more expressing, but not too boring with long and unnecessary description. Polish language and Croatian (my native) have much in common, and I have noticed that he uses some familiar phrases that do not belong to English but probably to Polish. I wonder does he write his manuscripts in English or in Polish?

This series most original trait is the combination of steam-punk and fantasy, and how these two correlate and don't correlate. In these last two books we have been introduced to some characters that are exception of their races: Drephos, the Moth scientist; and new character Tegrec, an Inapt Wasp. Maybe there will be some with both traits? Also, I like how Tchaikovsky is building up his setting and its history: the dread invasion of underground Slugs; the rebellion of Assassin-bugs, and so on. I hope we will learn more about them, as in this book we learned more about Mosquitos.

It is good that Tchaikovsky looked up to the best (Erikson and Marin): there are no good or evil characters. Wasps have been pictured as bad guys for most of other races, but in truth they are not more bad that others, just more ambitious and more successful with it.

BotM was the shortest book in series so far, with some 430 pages. It was not too short neither too long, but I like a bit longer books, so I hope that sequels will be longer.

There is not much that can be objected to "Blood of the Mantis", but there is many things that it can be praised for: unique and detailed setting, interesting character and smartly written plot. With every new book the series so far have gotten better, so "Shadows of the Apt" and "Blood of the Mantis" have my recommendation.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Movie review: "Breaking Dawn - Part 1"

I've been having a stream of busy days, so I keep being late with my blogs. I watched "Breaking Dawn - Part 1" the weekend before last, but I didn't have the time nor the real will to write it. I mainly watched this movie because my girlfriend was a fan of books and the first movie. Now even she is not sure whether will she watch the last part.

"Breaking Dawn" is an expected sequel of plot started in previous movies. After all problems that have had, Bella and Edward are finally getting married. Their wedding will prove to be a hard thing to swallow for few, especially for Jacob, but it will at last made them happy. But during the dreamlike honeymoon, Bella will end pregnant, which could prove to be a problem nobody expected, especially when the baby start to suck the life of her mother.

There is not much to say about this movie. If you are a fan, you will watch it, but not necessarily like it. If you have it, then you are not even interested in this. For those who went only as a company for somebody and don't have any firm opinion of the serial, you don't have to be afraid - the movie is not bad too much.

Sure, you will understand more if you have watched previous movies because characters don't get much introduction, but you don't have to know past events because the plot is pretty much self-sufficient. If you think a little about it, this part deals with a serious problem (abortion), although I am not sure what would  be the final message. First part of the movie has some sleazy jokes (the wedding) and is somewhat slow (the honeymoon), but later the pace speed up.

Of course, the characters are still over-dramatic and fake, but not obnoxiously so - either they got better or I got used to it. The movie actually makes fun of itself (the graduate hats and this) which can be only applauded.

All in all, "Breaking Down" is not a movie I would recommend anybody to watch (too weak for fans, too bad for the rest), but it is not a total disaster and one can even enjoy the second half of it.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Book review: "Under Heaven" by Guy Gavriel Kay

I haven't read Guy Gavriel Kay for several years now, since I singed out of library. Before, I used to re-read one of his books every few months, resulting in reading his opus (6 books in library) every couple of years. You can say that he is one of my favorite writers, although I don't count him in Big n (n being 3, 5 or some similar number of favorite writers) for simple reason of him not writing long epic series. He recently (last year) published another of his novels (he published some urban fantasy novel and a collection of poetry, but I don't like urban fantasy and can't read poetry, so I don't count them) and I was somewhat unsatisfied because buying it didn't fit in my schedule. But my local bookstore has a promotional month(s) when you get three books for two, so I decided to treat myself with this.

Although Kay dislikes branding of his books as "historical fantasy", I don't know how else this should be labeled. I allow that it is mostly historical fiction, but there is a touch of fantasy and for me this is a definition of historical fantasy. This is true for this "Under Heaven", too. Actually, "Under Heaven" is a typical Kay book. We have a historical setting and real historic event as theme (An Shi Rebellion, which I didn't know first thing about). We have larger-than-life characters (most of them male, but females are in no way withhold), with unreal levels of honor, cunning and passion that feel real nevertheless. We have a meandering story, with lots of jumps in time and space, short POVs from characters that will never be seen again, changes between POV and narration types. And at last, we have a main character who is a smart and able guy, suddenly finding himself in highest circles (royalty) where he feels inadequate, but actually acts marvelously and then ends removed from important events and future.

In "Under Heaven" this is Shen Tai, second son of famous, now passed away, General Shen Gao. Since their customs obligate sons to mourn their father for two years (except if they are members of army), Shen has chosen something unorthodox (but not forbidden): to spend next two years in isolation, burying the bones of soldiers fallen at Kuala Nor (site of many battles between Kitai and Tagur). Shen's intentions were sincere and innocent, but his actions have now attracted the attention of royalty: one of wives of Taguran Emperor, daughter of Emperor of Kitai, has given him an extravagant gift of 200 Sardian horses (equivalent of Bill Gates giving you 100 million dollars - not big money for him, but you are suddenly in everyone's focus). Now Tai has to find a way of dealing with horses without shaming his family or offending the Emperor or anybody powerful, avoiding machinations of his ambitious brother and enmity of First Minister (whose newest concubine was once Tai's favorite courtesan) - all this in rigid and custom-obsessed society on a brink of rebellion... Of course, this is not all, but if this is not enough to attract you, nothing more will.

As I said, this is a typical book for Kay. We are following one important, but not the most important, character during turbulent times, based on some historical epoch. In this case this is 8th century China: not my favorite history topic, nor one I know much about. Since I don't know much about it, I have to trust that Kay was not making all this up; based on his previous book, I think the setting was truthful as much as possible. The same cannot be said for his characters: they are always too ideal, whether as good or as bad guys. But this make them fun to read about. His storytelling is also specific: a chapter starts with present events, then we a transfer to completely (seemingly) irrelevant time or POV and then this two lines connect. But he does it so good that it feels natural and simple.

About this book particularly: I liked most of the book, but ending was a bit rushed. His books are not usually overly long (relatively), but I think this was a shorter one (560 pages). He does a great beginning: introduction to setting and characters, acceleration of main plot. But then things end too fast. I can't say that ending is unsatisfactory or doesn't feel closed, but I think a hundred more pages of plot development would be a bad thing.

As those who have read his previous books, there are always some fantastic elements present there that don't make much worldwide impact (except in "Tigana"), but make a tremendous personal impact of main characters. It is also present here, and I must say I was surprised how direct it was.

Different people like different Kay's books. My favorite book is "The Lions of Al-Rassan", while I find his most ambitious work to be "The Sarantine Mosaic", and I also adore "Tigana". I less like "A Song for Arbonne" and "The Last Light of the Sun". For some people is the other way around. I found "Under Heaven" better than these last two, but not good as my favorite. Kay's fans will notice that I didn't mention "Fionavar Tapestry": I read only the first one ("The Summer Tree") and I hated it - I really don't connect this book to Kay.

Nonetheless, I would recommend "Under Heaven" to every Kay's fan or anybody who like historical fantasy or is a sucker for romance. Realistic setting, great characters and enjoyable plot make this a very good read!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Anime review: "Usagi Drop"

I finished with "Usagi Drop" last Sunday, but since I was on a business trip for the whole week and didn't have the time to write a review. And now, unfortunately, my impressions are a bit faded, so I will kept this short.

I didn't have any big wish to watch "Usagi Drop" because I didn't find the AniDB description appealing (some guy taking care of some child). But I this was only summer/fall anime with such big grade and it was fairly short (11 episodes), so I decided to fit in between books. I was pleasantly surprised in the end.

It turns out that the description was pretty much correct. Daikichi is around 30, leaving alone and having a moderately good career in some company (still on low position, but with good prospects). One day he receives news that his grandfather has died. When he travels there for the funeral, he finds out that his grandpa had a daughter, who is now 5 years old. Disgusted by his family treatment of the child, Rin, he decides on a quirk to take Rin home and take care of her. Rest of the show shows their slow bonding, adapting to each other and small home problems that any single parent can have.

To make it completely clear, there is no plot for this show. It just displays some slice-of-life activities and similar of Daikichi and Rin: going to nursery school, deciding between a job and a child, meeting other parents, first fever... The show doesn't actually has an ending; there is Daikichi's realization that he is happy for his decision of taking Rin, but there is no real ending. It all points to the conclusion that this is only the first season and that it exist mainly to introduce the setting and characters. Wikipedia and AnidBD articles about "Usagi Drop" confirm that (beware of big spoilers; also, it turns that course of series is quite different of what this anime made me expect).

To make another thing clear, I really like this anime. It has a nice, slow and relaxing pacing and it is very enjoyable to watch. There is some humor in here and almost no drama. If you like anime that show daily life of (relatively) regular people (e.g. "Minami-ke" or "Kimi ni Todoke"), then this is your show. Although not much is happening, show in never dull ; there is just no much action. It focuses more on characters and their relationships and their growing-up; it makes you wonder how would you behave in similar situation. Even though anime focuses much on children, there is no moe; kids are shown quite realistic (for an anime).

Anime is pretty good looking, with unassuming colors and lots of details. I liked the voices of characters, although I can't say anything specific of it. I didn't like the OP and ED; they were too generic and childish.

"Usagi Drop" is not a wide-audience anime, but those who like slice-of-life anime and character development are sure to like it. Do not spurn it just because of unusual theme. Let's just hope that next season (or seasons) will be as good.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Movie review: "Immortals"

This Saturday I went with my girlfriend to the movie to watch "Immortals". We decided this on impulse, so I didn't know anything about the movie, except that it was somehow connected to the Greek mythology. In front of the movies, I notice a movie poster saying something on the line "made by the same people who made 300", which was a turn-off for me, because I didn't like "300". More so, before entering we met two friends, of whom one claimed the movie was terrible, while other said it was OK. So you can expect that I wasn't very thrilled for the prospect of watching it.

"Immortals" is very, very loosely based of few Greek myths. We have King Hyperion (marvelously played by Mickey Rourke), a crazy and violent ruler, who decided to take revenge on god because they didn't answer his prayers. His revenge consists of finding the Epirus bow and using it to free the Titans, who will then presumably kill the God. Since he is not on best terms with humanity also, he gathered an army, turned them to blood-crazy torturers and went postal all over Greece. We then have Theseus, who is a simple villager trained by Zeus (my friend who didn't like the movie argued that Theseus is son of Zeus, but there was no implicit claim on that; one of his co-villager said that his mother was raped by some villager and that Theseus is a product of that rape). After attack on his village by Hyperion and his sentence to salt-mines, he will there met a Prophetess Phaedra, who will mark him as Greece's only hope for salvation. With a band of fellow prisoners, he will start a journey to stop Hyperion and his mad plan...

Some spoilers ahead...

Though, it is not a spoiler to say that Theseus will win. Let's face it: "Immortals" is just this kind of movie when that main character is a good guy and he has to win. If you accept this fact and see this movie just as an action hit with cool 3D effects, you can have a good time watching it. Plot is not overly predictable, actor are not too bad (except Rourke, there is no more stars) and action is good. Just be prepared to large amount of blood, gore and violence.

But, have they changed one small detail in movie, things could have been much different. If Hyperion and Titans won (and I don't buy that vision at the end), I would say this is the best movie I watched in last five years! I mean, for the whole movie Hyperion is on the go, killing and raping everybody, having the largest army ever: he looks unstoppable. And then we have this one guy, good with sword, but just one guy. Care to guess who will win? Theseus was down, with knife-hole in his stomach and severely beaten by Hyperion. If in that moment Hyperion stick his knife in him and calmly walked away, I would have stand on my feed and give it a clap. Creators of this movie had a perfect chance to make a biggest surprise since "The Sixth Sense".

As it is, "Immortals" is a decent enough action blockbuster with 3D effects. Lower your expectation and have a good time with it.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Comment: "Game of Thrones" TV show

I started watching "Game of Thrones" recently, so I just wanted to make a short comment about it. I plan to do a review once I finish it.

As you may know it, "Game of Thrones" is a TV series based on the first book in "A Songs of Ice and Fire" series by George R. R. Martin, "A Game of Thrones". I have watched first three episodes at the beginning of this week, but I then had a business trip and will have another one next week, so this show will be going to hiatus. And as far as I watched it, it is great!!

It follows the book very accurately, which is a great plus since this is a great book. I have recently watched again "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and was disappointed how different movie was from books. Of course, not everything could be followed exactly and in enough details, but for now, spirit of the book was truthfully transferred.

My only objection, and a minor one, was how character of Jon Snow was depicted. If I didn't know better, I would think that he was slightly arrested in development. But I believe this will be rectified in next episodes.

As for now, I would recommend "Game of Thrones" to any fan of ASoIaF.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Book review: "The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach" by Steven Erikson

I have recently bought a collection of short novels by Steven Erikson, set in Malazan World and featuring Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, two minor comedic characters from "Memories of Ice", and their even funnier manservant Emancipor Reese (aka Mancy the Luckless). Truth to be said, I expected them to be a bit lengthier; it is less than 400 pages long.

Stories from "The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach" are not intended for everybody - it is clear that Erikson wrote them for fans of his books. He usually isn't one to give clear explanations and introductions to his settings, but this is even more pronounced here and it is especially true for first story. I presume that second two could be read by anybody, but a good portion of jokes and references would be lost on those who never read main Malazan books. This collection is intended for fans who can understand the humor of accidental vomiting in a bowl of worms and excusing it as an offering for Drek.

First story, "Blood Follows", is what I expected of it. It describes Emancipor's first encounter with Bauchelain and Korbal Broach (I don't know why, but he is always referred as Korbal Broach, never only Korbal or Broach) and it takes place in town of Lamentable Moll. He has just lost another employer (another on a long list of dead ex-employers, thus Mancy the Luckless) and after getting drunk in his honor, he goes to apply to mysterious job-offer. At the same time, Lamentable Moll is in panic because of line of gruesome murders where victims lost a part of their bodies. Sergeant Guld, a famous investigator, is feeling he has come to edge in his search for perpetrator...

Second one, "The Lees of Laughter's End", is similar in its dark tones to the first one, but very different in realization. It takes place exclusively on a ship: we have Bauchelain and Korbal Broach with Emancipor; young seer that talks with her dead mother; Captain that know nothing about shipping and relies completely on her First Mate; three ex-soldiers with one brain between them; stolen statues of unknown origin and power; ship's crew scared out of their skins. If this is not enough, ship is currently traveling over Red Road, where every kind of potential can get realized...

The last one, "The Healthy Dead", is typical for Erikson, and deals with the topic of rulers with good intentions. City of Quaint was a normal city few years ago: corrupt rulers, unhappy citizens, poor peasants. A normal kind of city. But the latest king has decided to makes his citizens more healthy, for their own good, regardless of their willingness. Bauchelain and Korbal Broach end up hired by the locals to put things back in order, but they will do it in their own, unexpected way...

One thing I like about Erikson is that he doesn't take sides. There are many examples of this when a character (or group of them) that has been depicted as evil, turns out to be a just a human, neither good nor evil. Good and evil are very relative terms in Erikson's books. But he did a truly marvelous thing here: he took two characters that would be deemed as evil from any other writer and wrote a book with them as main characters, without taking sides. Bauchelain and Korbal Broach here do some really evil things. I mean really evil: the missing ear scene is quite morbid, but the scene with Bloodwine is especially noteworthy; people get killed and mutilated in unexpected amounts. But not in one instance does he take opinions and try to judge. He does make fun scenes, but in every one we can find the suffering of victims. If his intention was to shock us and make us think about good and evil in people, he succeeded completely.

On the side of humor, he did his regular job, which means great. You will find here a regular collection of his extreme characters. As I said, you should me familiar with this setting to appreciate all the jokes. Action takes place somewhere on the continent of Korel, which is part of the world not much explored by Erikson. Only three main characters here are known from before, but you will find other ones familiar too, in style if not in substance.

His writing is typical: lots of dialogue, but also lots of monologue. I have been recently reading Raymond E. Feist's books, and it is marvelous how different these two are in their style. For Erikson is normal to read four or more pages where no one said anything and nothing happened but some characters discussing some metaphysical subject; with Feist, you will be surprised to find one such paragraph.

If I haven't been clear enough about it, this book is even more violent and bloody than Erikson usual, just that you know.

"The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach" is a great collection, but intended primary for fans; as such, I would advise it to any fan of Steven Erikson. Great fun to read, but also a thought-provoker.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Comment: "The Lord of the Rings" movie trilogy

For the last several weeks I re-watched "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy with my girlfriend. We have been both busy, so we couldn't connect enough time to watch whole episode in one sitting (and these movies ARE long), so the whole thing dragged for some time. Because of this I won't make a usual review, but will just write some comments.

First, I really like LOTR. I have read those books over dozen times: while I was a member of library, I used to read them one a year at least. I read and liked "The Hobbit", "The Silmarillion", etc. I also watched the movies at least four times completely and lots of times in fragments (when they were played on TV). My firm opinion is that a person cannot be a serious epic-fantasy fan without liking Tolkien. Sure, there are better books, longer, more complex, more realistic, etc. Sure, Tolkien had flaws, like with female characters or black-and-white morality. Nevertheless, "The Lord of the Rings" is still one of best things epic fantasy can offer: rich and complex setting, numerous and detailed characters, excellent writing, and what is most important, feel of epic that can be used to describe and define this whole genre.

After all this said, I have to admit that I didn't like the movies this time. I don't know is that because of my growing up (last time I read these books I was in second or third year of colleague, some 5-6 years ago; now I have a job and steady relationship, although reading is still one of my priorities) or because all those excellent books I read in the meantime. Except LOTR, library had first four volumes of ASoIaF, "Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn" trilogy and first two R. Scott Bakker's volumes to show from epic fantasy genre (there were tons of low-fantasy books, like different Forgotten Realms series) and since then I have read a lot of best-selling epic fantasy series (WoT, Feist, Eddings, Erikson...). Nevertheless, I still have fond memories of LOTR and I don't think I would find the books less valuable now. But this time I couldn't enjoy in good sides of the movies; instead I was constantly nagged by flaws.

I know that they couldn't fit the whole book in this short time and that some compromises had to be made. It is normal to dismiss details of settings and less important characters and I think that right choices were done in this department. What I seriously dislike are the simplifications and alterations that were made to draw a wider audience (what they call a Hollywoodization).

First movie is very decently done and I don't think I have anything to complain here. There is one of my favorite scenes ("You shall not pass!"), which was done superbly. They dropped many things from introductory parts (run from Shire, Tom Bombadil), but that understandable and it's more important the movie kept the feeling of the book (except the wizard fight). Second movie is more questionable. I really liked how they captured the anger of the Ents, but lots of things get mauled. They concentrated on the battle of Helm's Deep, which is far from the central point of book; also, fight was overly-dramatized. Saruman is second big complaint: he is shown as evil characters, corrupted and weak; while he is all this, he is far more complex. Third movie was the worst. There were too many changes and I didn't like any scene with Aragorn. They made the same mistake with Denethor as with Saruman. The siege of Minas Tirith looks to easy... List of complaints is long.

I was always proud to talk with non-reader about LOTR books, how complex and good they are. With movies, this wasn't the case; I often felt obligated to defend the books because of someone's bad opinion of movies. I will be watching "Game of Thrones" soon, so I did they do an excellent job with it, or just decent.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Book review: "A Darkness at Sethanon" by Raymond E. Feist

With this book I finished my little re-read of Feist's books I have home. I actually have "Krondor: The Betrayal" also, but I have issues with this internal mini-series. Raymond E. Feist started to write this five-book cycle featuring Jimmy the Hand's rise and I remember that I really liked it. He finished three books and then got in some quarrel with publisher of video-game based on these books and never finished it. Anyway, I plan to get some more books before re-reading this one. Things also get a bit confusing about the order books should be read. "Krondor: The Betrayal" is happening shortly after "Riftwar Saga", but it was actually written much later; next book published after "Riftwar Saga" was "Prince of the Blood", which is something of a stand-alone novel. If you now include in this "The Empire Trilogy", which was actually written by Janny Wurts and is taking place on Kellewan in this same time, you get a pretty good mess. I resolved it by skipping "The Empire Trilogy" and reading "The Riftwar Legacy" (Krondor books) before "Prince of the Blood".

I tangled myself in description of reading order while I should be talking about the book... As in last post, there are some minor spoilers for previous books.

Events in "A Darkness at Sethanon" start off a year after those in its prequel, "Silverthorn". There were no new attacks by Murmandus or the Enemy for the past year, but now things are stirring up again. Nighthawks are again active in Krondor, so after some trouble with them, Prince Arutha and his old retinue is again joined by Martin and Baru and they start their travel to the North, looking for final confrontation with Murmandus. There they will find friends and enemies they never expected to see again. In the same time, Pug has finished his education with allies found at the end of previous book and is joined with Tomas, his oldest friend. Two of them will start a journey with ultimate goal of finding the one person who understands all this mess: Macros the Black.

This sounds like very simple plot; and believe me, it is. As before, plot is simple, straightforward and fast. This doesn't mean it's dull; Feist provides us with enough surprises and twists that it stays interesting. Also, considering pace with which events happen, reader doesn't have the time to stop and think much how plot is "easy".

Biggest complain can be directed to characters. While interesting and funny, they are just too shallow and already-seen. At times, I was feeling like I was reading some cheap love-novel, especially when Martin meets his love-interest (love at first sight, duty before love and all other clichés...). But as with plot, speed can cover a lot of mistakes. Also, this is where he really starts with recycling of characters.

On the other hand, world-building (or better said setting-expansion) works great. Feist is able to twist elements he introduced in "Magician" completely around and still sound plausible. This will happen continuously with his books, but he still has one of largest and interesting settings, which he can always return to and work the details.

The book ending was a bit too much "happy-end", but this is nothing that it shouldn't be expected. This book is quite larger than "Silverthorn", but it doesn't feel so; it is very easy to read.

All in all, "A Darkness at Sethanon" is a solid continuation in same tone as his previous book. Not a great achievement in fantasy genre, but a simple book with likable characters that is a great fun to read. Who was able to enjoy "Silverthorn" is certain to have fun with this one.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Book review: "Silverthorn" by Raymond E. Feist

It took me much less to read "Silverthorn" than "Magician", primary because former is almost twice as short (400 pages), but also because it is much simpler book. It many ways, this book is first one in long batch of similar books. This also means that if you don't like it, you should stop reading Feist and be satisfied that you have read "Magician".

This post includes spoilers about "Magician", although minimal.

Events in the book take place a year after those in previous book. Lyam, Arutha and Martin are slowly getting familiar with their new roles (King of Kingdom of Isles, Duke of Krondor and Duke of Crydee); for last few months they have been on a tour through Kingdom. Pug, his family and Kulgan and Meecham has been busy with establishing an academy for magicians, while Tomas has peacefully resided in Elvendar. The book starts with young thief Jimmy the Hand (a minor character from "Magician") thwarting an assassination on Arutha. This will lead to short cooperation between Arutha and the Mockers (thief organization in Krondor) and Jimmy's becoming a member of Arutha's team. Another attempt of assassination will end with Princess Anita's poisoning and revelation that not only Arutha's life is in stake, but a fate of whole world, as new enemy arises in North. A team of heroes will gather to quest for a cure for Anita's poisoning, Silverthorn.

As I said, this books marks a starting of a trend in Feist's books: one part of characters (Arutha and his people in first few books) dealing with more mundane and current troubles, while other team (usually led by Pug) exploring the magical root of these troubles. This is also a first book that will feature Jimmy the Hand as one of main characters. As I said in my previous post, he is one of my favorite characters, and I presume he was the reason why many readers continued reading Feist. Because, who doesn't like to read about young man with poor origins rising up using his natural skills and with, all spiced up with witty remarks and humor.

Plot and pacing is even faster and more straightforward than in prequel. This is a typical quest-plot, full with action and short dialog. I thinks there is not one description or internal monologue longer than half page (contrary to let say Erikson, where you will find characters thinking about stuff irrelevant to plot spanning several pages). This book is on about dynamic: characters are constantly talking or doing something. Plot itself is nothing extraordinary, but best comment about it is the fact that this was my third time reading this book and I was still able to enjoy it. I think it can be said that book is self-contained; although it serves to prepare stage for next one, all plot-lines are resolved and there is no cliffhangers at the end.

Similar things can be said about characters. Most of them are known from previous book and they are still predictable and enjoyable as before. My only complaint is that they behave even more as you would expect them to. Not all the time, but sometimes dialog looks too generic and clumsy.

Feist was clever in his world-building; even though you will find here elements with no clear backing in "Magician", setting still looks believable. He kept things opened in first book and these elements he introduced here don't feel too intrusive or inconsistent (Terry Goodkind was especially bad with this, for example). It is worth to note that he doesn't delve too much in magic and its nature: it works and that is enough. Sometimes he will describe some elements of it, but most time, a character will simply wave his hands or say a spell and something magical will happen.

For conclusion it can said that "Silverthorn" is a transitional book, taking elements (setting and characters) from "Magician" and putting them in a new, but smaller plot. As I said at beginning: try this book and if you like it, feel free to continue with Feist.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Movie review: "What's Your Number?"

Last Saturday I unexpectedly ended in movies. Girlfriend and I couldn't agree what to watch, so we decided to go to soonest-playing movie acceptable to both of us, which turned out to be a romantic comedy "What's Your Number?" From description I expected this to be something of a girls-movie (contrary to e.g. "Bad Teacher", which was more boys-movie), which was true, but I didn't have any problem with watching it. If you like romantic comedies, I don't see any reason you shouldn't like this.

After being left by another boyfriend and losing her job at same day, Ally also finds out that average number of men for woman to sleep with is 10. After some recounting, she comes with the number 19, which doesn't help her mood so she decides that the next persons she sleeps with will be her husband. This fails after her sister engagement party; so not to breach critical number 20, only option left for her is to "use" some of her ex-boyfriends. So she decides to find each of her past loves, with the help of her neighbor and ladies-man Colin.

What follows is stream of bizarre and crazy ex-boyfriends, with other expected plot-devices. Nevertheless, movie was interesting during whole play-time (106 minutes) and I had some good laughs. What more can you expect from a romantic comedy?

It turns out, the movie has a deeper message. In one moment, her mother says "Ally, stop being creative". I think this is a horrible thing for a parent to say. Second part of the movie very clearly promotes idea of being who you are and not changing just to satisfy others.

Another thing that comes to mind is the main actress (Anna Faris). I found her strangely familiar, but only after reading it on IMDB this I realize that it is the same actress that starred in "Scary Movie". If I didn't read it, I would never guess. Other than her, I recognized nobody, but acting was OK for comedy of such caliber.

A very good movie if you don't expect more than fun, with hidden serious message.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Book review: "Magician" by Raymond E. Feist

First, I just want to make a quick note to clear things. This book is sometimes split in two volumes "Magician: Apprentice" and "Magician: Master". I have the combined edition, so this post is about both volumes.

"Magician" is the first book of quite long "Riftwar Cycle", by Raymond E. Feist. Books in cycle are separated in sagas that usually consist of three books each. Currently, there are 29!!! novels in the cycle and I have read 17 in this cycle. I must admit, I read this book on computer several years ago (I did this with only one other series: "The Belgariad" and "The Malloreon" by David Eddings), so don't have all books in my collection. I have five of them now and I am buying sequel volumes as opportunity presents.

Feist is an uncommon writer. "Magician" is I think the only original work in this whole cycle, and even this book doesn't introduce much original fantasy elements. He is notorious for "borrowing" from others, and even more, from himself. He recycles his characters and plots. When someone dies and he was popular with the readers, you can expect one of two things: either he will be found alive in some other part of universe or he will be replaced by his grandson who bears a striking resemblance to his deceased ancestor in the way he looks, talks and thinks. If some characters is old, he will maybe get a potion that restore his youth. If the good guys have become so strong that no one in universe can even dream about defeating them, invasion from another dimension will occur. You get the picture... This is not rare: lots of writers do this when they have no more ideas and want to earn money on previous glory; mostly they will fail and loose audience (for example, Eddings for one, at least for me). What is strange is that I actually like his books. Sure, they are not the pinnacle of fantasy genre or writing in general, but they are very, very fun to read. Judging from some reviews I have read of Feist's books, other people have noticed this, but it doesn't stop them from enjoying his books. I have read "Magician" twice before, but didn't have any problems enjoying this book once again.

"Magician" is a fast book, so it's hard to describe plot without spoilers. You will not find long sequences where nothing happens, no multiple-pages monologues. The book starts with Pug, who is one of few characters that will stay in the series as a constant. I wouldn't call him a central character, but one of several such. He is an orphan kid, living in castle/town of Crydee as kitchen boy. After meeting with town's magician Kulgan, he will be selected as his apprentice, although as much from pithy as from talent. After saving Duke Borric's daughter, Princess Caraline, from some trolls, he will be promoted as Squire. His luck will rise in bad times, because they will find evidences of forthcoming invasion to their Kingdom, and even more unlucky, by invaders from another world! This is just a start of the book and we will follow him and other characters coming through different adventures. We will follow Pug as his luck falls and raises on both worlds, as slave, magician, scholar... His childhood friend Tomas will be very soon separated from him, but in his misfortune he will find a suit of armor belonging to long extinct and mythical Valheru, which will change him drastically; you will have to find out for yourself either to good or bad. Prince Arutha, son of Duke Borric, a youth more older that his years, will have to take responsibility and take charge of defense of Crydee will his father is fighting of the invasion by alien Tsurani... There are lots of other characters, many of whom get their own POV sequence; since flow of the book is fast, this is just description of start-up situation. We fill also meet pirates, crazy kings, mystic sorcerers, old dragons, and much more.

This was the first book that introduced Midkemia, the world that this whole humongous series will mostly take place. Here we are introduced to the Kingdom of the Isles, a classical medieval kingdom. East part is more populated and has been long tamed ago; it is a place of humans and cities. West part, with Crydee as major town, is much wilder place, where people are still in danger of nature. Except humans, here we can find dwarves, elves, goblin tribes, dark elves... Interesting fact is that humans and dwarves (and goblins, I think) are not native to Midkemia and have arrived only after elves have been freed from Valheru, the ancient masters of this world. Of course, Midkemia is much larger, but we will be introduced to its other parts in sequencing books. The world to Tsurani on the other hand, Kelawan, is based on Asian cultures, Chinese mostly, and is a lot less interesting place, but it has some important parts. Worldbuilding is one of Feist's strong-points. He didn't invent much and borrowed races and concepts from others, but Midkemia is very interesting place. He also took great care of details, invented a nice history and in general developed one of better settings in fantasy. A special plus that he didn't leave it static: through almost thirty books we will see it comes through some great changes.

Feist's characters, on the other hand, are at the same time his strength and weakness. They are great fun to read; they are funny, witty, honorable, good looking... On the other hand, they lack substance and depth. An elven prince will always behave as an elven prince should; the same is true for serious and responsible prince, pirate with foul mouth but good heart, loyal general, and so on. They are just too stereotypical and predictable; but there are so much of them and Feist puts them through such diverse situations, that they are never boring. Even Jimmy the Hand, one of my all-time favorite characters of all times (I would immediately buy a new book that features him) is basically just a witty scoundrel.

From technical side, Feist's writing is similar to his characters: nothing innovative or stunning, but easy to read and enjoy. His pace is fast and it makes an almost 700 pages book look like a longer one without being cramped.

Raymond E. Feist's "Magician" is a nice book for those who only want to relax and enjoy some good old-fashioned fantasy. It is detailed and complex in just right amount to be interesting without being tiring. A book that every fantasy-fan should read; rest of this series is more for fans.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Book review: "The Thousandfold Thought" by R. Scott Bakker

This weekend I finished "The Thousandfold Thought", last book in first trilogy of "The Second Apocalypse" by R. Scott Bakker. As I wrote in in my posts about its prequels ("The Darkness That Comes Before" and "The Warrior Prophet"), I read them before in Croatian. This was the first book in this series that I haven't read prior, and judging by first two books, I had some big expectations for it.

I will presume that you have read both "The Darkness That Comes Before" (TDTCB from now on) and "The Warrior Prophet" (TWP), so beware of spoilers.

As was with TWP, story of TTT continues directly after its prequel. There is a long multiple POV abstract of previous books for those who don't remember everything that happened. Actually, I would advise everybody to read it, because it reveals some stuff that I didn't get or even notice while reading TDTCB and TWP. For example, I was wondering what was Kellhus getting from seducing Esmenet; well, except the tremendous influence on Achamian. I didn't understand why he allowed her to get pregnant with him. Abstract reveals that his main motive was using Esmenet's inborn intelligence to produce superior children in their union. Similar fine details are revealed.

Although what exactly happened at the end of TWP stays a bit murky, the effects of it are clear: Kellhus has acquired the possession over almost whole Holy War. There are only two sides still rebelling after him: Conphas, with all his legions, and Cnaiür. All other, even the Scarlet Spires, are now forced (whether they realize it or not) to listen the Warior-Prophet, the Voice of God. This means that for first time all this men and power, even somewhat weakened by prior conflicts, is focused by single will. And this will finally directs it to Shimeh.

Conphas decides not to yield to Kellhus, so he and his men get disarmed and sent back. Of course, Kellhus doesn't trust him even then and sends Cnaiür to keep him in check, at the same time removing the liability presented by Cnaiür. But he doesn't know that recent events brought once proud Scylvendy to the brink of madness, and that he was already seduced by the Consult, using the same weapon Kellhus used against him: Sërwe. Esmenet has risen from a simple whore to the Holy Consort and uses her unexpected intelligence to rule and organize newly found sect of the Warrior-Prophet. Achamian finally decides to reveal his final secret to Kellhus, the knowledge of Gnosis, powerful magic of old North. He also decides to finally reveal the existence of Kellhus (the Anasûrimbor) to his order, the Mandate. Consult either doesn't stand still, using his agents planted long ago, and planting some new ones...

The series continues with multi-POV/multi-plot structure started in previous books. But contrary to them, it has some problems with pacing and structure. It focuses on inner workings on characters for long stretches and then switches to advancing the plot on several pages, after which it returns to characters. Sometimes this style of writing works well. Guy Gavriel Kay is quite good with it and uses it all the time. Here it didn't work well. Advances were quite abrupt and shallow in explanations, so the reader is forced to grasp the implications on his own. I am not against this approach, but although I consider myself an advanced and fast-catching reader, I was left in dark for a lot of things. If book ended in such way, I would really have doubts about continuing this series. Thankfully, there are two things that saves it.

First is the ending. Even it is a bit too much fast-paced and not completely clear, it provides a satisfactory ending for this trilogy and prepares a glorious path for the next one. We have some really good action at the end, on several fronts. A plus is that it stays unpredictable till the last page. I also liked how things clicked perfectly; it is obvious that Bakker planned things. On the other hand, some things stay too unclear; I hope this was also intended.

Second thing, which surprised me when I first saw it, was Encyclopedic Glossary at the end. Book has around 600 pages; this glossary takes some 120 pages of it and it is comparable to the one at the end of "Lord of the Rings" (not THAT good, of course). We have not only simple names of people and places; there are stories and histories. All things and concepts that were only briefly mentioned during all three books here are (in some length) explained: First Apocalypse, Nonmen and Inchoroi, Tusk... It was a really enjoyment to read it and my understanding of the books is now much better; too bad that a lot of people will probably quit it before reaching this place. As a review from Amazon said: "Bakker asks his readers not only to enter his world, but to study it". What I consider a plus, some will regard as a flaw.

Other than these two things, I liked Esmenet's "court" plot. I like politics and espionage in books. It also shows a complexity of Bakker's characters: we have religious fanatics who are fanatic to the core, then those who believe but still retain their ambitions, and those who just pretend. I also liked explanations of magic, Gnosis and Psuke. Magical confrontations at the end were quite something.

So, to conclude: "The Thousandfold Thought" is a book weaker and harder to read than its prequels, but whose ending succeeds in pulling it above the standard. It also looks like a necessary part of great series, even though this remains to be seen. Only for those who like complex books and found first two books to their taste.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Movie review: "Contagion"

Yesterday, unplanned, I went with my girlfriend to watch "Contagion" to movies. Thankfully, without 3D...

"Contagion", as the name says, is a movie about a deadly virus spreading uncontrollably and killing a large part of human population. There are lots of movies and shows about this topic ("The Stand", with fantasy-religious elements; "Outbreak", a more militaristic version; "I Am Legend", with zombies...), but for some reasons, they are always popular (actually, as all movie of catastrophe are). This version relies on very realistic approach and strong movie cast.

The movie follows the progress and events around new and unknown virus. It has several points of views on the same plot. We have the review of last days of life of first victim (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), moderately successful continuation of life of her husband (played by Matt Damon) and his daughter, who has tough time adapting to the necessary isolation. Then we have dr. Mears (played by Kate Winslet) who is primary in charge of the outbreak and bravely goes into the diseased population; her boss dr. Cheever (Laurence Fishburne) who is desperately trying to organize investigation of cure while being constantly pressed by public and military; dr. Orantes (Marion Cottilard), a WHO member who is sent to search for the source of the virus. We even have a "bad guy", blogger Alan Krumwiede (Jude Law), who doesn't hesitate to use this catastrophe for his own promotion. These main stories are often interrupted with random inserts showing the degradation of society as the panic grows...

All in all, "Contagion" is very good movie, with obvious high budget and very good cast. It is easy to watch, but it has some depth on the other side. A very good way to spend two hours.