Thursday, January 27, 2011

MBotF reread: "Gardens of the Moon" by Steven Erikson

It is almost a week since I finished "Gardens of the Moon", but I have been somewhat busy lately, so only now did I found time to write this post.

Following "Malazan Reread of the Fallen" on is having one side-effect I haven't counted on. I felt like I have read this book only couple of months ago, so reading it again didn't have the same potency as usual. Thankfully, I am almost on the point of outrunning the Tor-reread, which is now somewhere after the beginning of second half of "Deadhouse Gates". I don't feel like doing a complete review of 12 years old book; there are countless good reviews out there. I will just note a few of my comments and opinions.

(First time seeing this cover)

This is the first book in the series and it was written almost 10 years before it was published, and it that time Erikson couldn't be sure this would be accepted as series. Nevertheless, book doesn't have the feel of being a stand-alone novel (contrary example: "Wizard's First Rule"; transition to its sequel doesn't feel natural at all and is very abrupt). Instead, thank to Erikson style, it give a feel of being plunged in the middle of long-running series. Erikson doesn't explain many things in the first run; he throws a bunch of information at readers, and then explains it layer by layer (and by layer and by layer).

This book, as whole series, is very complex, multi-layered and overwhelming book. It introduces few dozens of characters (I mean the important ones...), three continents, several human and non-human races, one of the most complex magic systems ever, real-life-like politics. But as I said, this if only the first book in series. Later books only get more complex and full. And the content of it: you name, you got it. Demons: checked. Sorcery and wizards: checked. Fighting and armies: checked. Gods and religion: checked. Mystery: double and triple checked...

I actually can't find anything bad to say about it. Only objection one could name about it, is that it can be too complicated for some readers. Not everybody likes their books this complex. But for those who like multiple plots and POVs, epic, gray-morality, etc. will be thrilled by this book. If you don't like it, don't even try its sequels; if anything, they are even more Malazan!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Movie review: "Season of the Witch"

Last weekend girlfriend and I decided to go to cinema, and between "13" and "Season of the Witch" we picked the later. I don't usually like Nicholas Cage's movies, but it turns out this wasn't so bad after all.

First scene of the movie is very realistic and violent scene of hanging and drowning of three witches. During night, one of them comes back to life and kills the priest responsible for it. Then we are switched to a completely different scenery. In this movie, Cage plays Behmen and Ron Perlman plays Felson. They are buddy-buddy pair of knights, fighting infidels in the Crusades. After a massacre of civilians, they are sickened by war, and especially by Church which preaches the war as just and holy. They dessert and start a journey to their homes, but they get caught eventually, in a town besieged by plague. In fact, whole country is plagued. They are offered freedom in exchange for transporting a young women accused of being a witch and a source of the plague, to a remote monastery. Disappointed by Church, they decline at first. But Behmen thinks girl innocent and abused by Church, so he decides to escort her, hoping she will get a fairer trail in the monastery. A company is assembled and thus the journey starts...

First part of the movie is nothing exceptional, but it is done decently good. Cage and Perlman make a funny pair (I was reminded of Gibson-Glover relationship from "Lethal Weapon" series) and they don't look stupid at it. Atrocities of the war and its consequences are shown very solid and convincing. But journey, the middle part of the movies is really good! We are shown some very confronting facts and everything is left to audience's imagination. You can't be sure what is really going on and who is good and who bad. Very mysterious! There are few especially good and intense scenes (the maze, the bridge and the wolves). Until the end you are left to wonder...

...And then comes the end which leaves nothing to imagination, which sucks. It is not a bad ending; it is very emotional and intense. But after all those psychological games that left me in guessing what's going on, they reveal it all. And final bad guy feels a bit stupid and unimaginative. I would prefer ending being left undecided and mysterious, and then this would be really great movie. The positive side would be that ending is surprising; I don't think many persons would guess it.

In the end, "Season of the Witch" is a nice movie, with somewhat spoiled ending. But definitely a nice way to spend an evening, especially if you like fantasy.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Movie review: "V for Vendetta"

Few weeks ago I decided to watch some of the "older" movies (up to ten years old) that I missed. There are lots of them, so I am currently using IMDB USA box-office archive. This week I watched "V for Vendetta". I didn't know much about the movie prior to watching it. I know it was an adaptation of comic and that main character wears some crazy mask (I checked Wikipedia, they say it is Guy Fawkes' mask; I presume that scene at the beginning of the movie depicts Fawkes' dramatized "execution"). I believed this movie would be about French revolution or something like that.

But, it turns out this is actually contemporary, alternate-history SF-ish movie. It lasts two hours and it really has a lot of plot in it. First part of the movie is confusing and intriguing at the same time. It takes some time to start rolling. We first meet Evey, while she wanders through some streets after curfew. She almost gets raped by some under-cover policemen, but in the last moment she gets saved by a guy in black, wearing (my first association) a musketeer's mask and wielding swords and knives. Man introduces himself as "V" and in flourishing language invites her to watch a musical performance with her. It turns out that this "performance" is actually bombing of British parliament. This starts V's terrorist activity against fascist and repressing British government.

There are three things that are great in this movie. First, the world-building. It is near future England and it is very dystopian. After some nuclear war that USA was involved with, England isolated itself from rest of the world, lead by charismatic and autocratic leader Adam Sutler. Regime is very racist and homophobic; government strictly controls media (especially television, where Evey works) and secret police is almost almighty. Worst thing about it is that people have grown with this situation and they consider it normal. That is the ultimate goal of V's anarchism: changing people conscience about them.

Second is the plot. For a comic-book adaptation, plot is marvelous and quite believable. V almost doesn't have any special powers nor is he some genius. Plot is very surprising, shown from multiple POVs and it is never boring. There are many funny scenes, especially at the beginning. But the movie overall is very somber. I especially liked the ending; it was very emotional and epic, on more than one level.

Third, the characters. Three main characters are V, Evey and Finch, the police inspector on V's case. During the movie, we know almost nothing about V. We find out a bit about his history, but we never really get to know him, his motivations and such. But we instinctively know he is the good guy. A bit twisted guy, especially shown in his relationship with Evey, but good guy nevertheless. Definitely very interesting character; especially the fact that he never, ever shows his face! Evey has some very traumatic experiences and she does a lot of growing up. In some aspects, she is the actual protagonist of the story. Inspector Finch is also a good guy, albeit on the bad side. We follow him as he realizes that, while unsuccessfully trying to stop V. Rest of the cast is also done very well.

Interestingly, I think this is the rare case where the adopted material is better than the original. I cannot be sure, of course, because I haven't read the original comic-book, but I've read a synopsis of it and it looks much more flamboyant than the movie.

Just to mention, movie has almost none special effects; it counts more on the inner quality then the visuals (even though the production is not bad in any aspect). And I mean this as a compliment.

"V for Vendetta" is a great movie. A combination of SF, thriller and drama, it asks for concentrated audience. But my opinion is that the movie is worth of it. Definitely a recommendation!

Friday, January 14, 2011

Just started a re-read of the "Malazan Book of the Fallen" by Steven Erikson

Well, as the title says, I am announcing that I am planning to read The Malazan Book of The Fallen again and I am starting today. By MBotF, I mean Steven Erikson's books from "Gardens of the Moon" to "Dust of Dreams". Yeah, that's NINE books. Last book in the series, "The Crippled God" is coming out in late February, so I have to be ready. It's been more than a year (probably even two) since I've read earlier Malazan books. Now is the time to be sure in my knowledge of events and plots. For example, few months ago I boldly speculated that Karsa will not be appearing in the last book. Then few weeks ago I stumbled on some comments that made me realize I was wrong.

Well, nine books... If it takes a week for a book (and I am being very optimistic here), I will be done somewhere at the beginning of March. Hopefully, I will receive "The Crippled God" by then.

I am not sure how this will reflect on my posting regarding this re-read. I definitely plan to post something, but whether this will be detailed reviews of these books, or just collection of short thoughts, I haven't decided yet. If I watch any movie in the mean time, I will definitely write about it.

I also want to point out the MBotF re-read on I am having great time reading those posts. Mostly because Amanda, one of the reviewers, is reading these books for the first time! Her occasional mistakes are very funny. Unfortunately, they go by a pace of two-chapters/one post by week. Truth to say, post are very long and the comment queue even longer, so I don't complain.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Anime review: "Katanagatari"

I´ve noticed "Katanagatari" on AniDB calendar quite early, few months before it started to air. One look at the picture and I judged it a shounen anime for young kids and forgot about it. I browse the calendar quite regularly, so I once noticed two things: unusually high rating (over 8.5 at that time) and that is belongs to seinen category. But it really piqued my interest when I found out it is made by the same author that made "Bakemonogatari", Nishio Ishin.

"Katanagatari" is a surprising anime in many aspects. First a word of warning. This anime has a strong front of shounen anime, even though it is not. And if you watch it as shounen, it is not very good. Judging by comments over the Internet, to some people this anime just didn't sat right. Be of an open mind and watch two-or three episodes before dismissing it.

I won't go deep into the plot. At the beginning of "Katanagatari", an army strategist Togame arrives to an isolated island. This island is a home of last successor of Kyotoryou, a peculiar sword-style that uses no swords at all. He was a savior and a hero in the last rebellion against Shogunate some twenty years ago; he ended exiled on the island because Shogun started to consider him a threat. Instead of him, Togame finds his children Schichika and Nanami. Togame needs help of Kyotoryou to find twelve legendary swords made by Shikizaki Kiki, legendary swords of the Sengoku era. Swords have divine characteristics attributed to them and whoever collects them could present a threat to Shogunate. So Togame decided to preemptively collect them. Her previous helpers, ninja-village of Maniwa and samurai Sabi Hakuhei, both betrayed her when got a possession (or in a possession) of the swords. Although reluctant at the beginning, after being attacked by one Maniwa squad-head, Schichika decides to help Togame, while leaving Nanami of the island (she has weak constitution). This is the main plot; it stays the same one throughout the anime, but it changes many layers. I was thrilled with the plot because it was very surprising. And not in that wild way when author just throw concepts and events... Many things are nicely forshadowed and indicated. So, the plot gets the best grades!

As I said, at first look, anime looks very shounen, like something for younger kids. Animation is very simplified and childish: use of chibi-animation; characters from Naruto look like designed for some seinen drama compared to these ones. Maniwa-corp's members all look like half-human, half-animals; Togame is short girl with three-meter long white hair and Schichika a tall boy wearing only long pants... But I liked it at first sight. For some people, it just rubs the wrong way. The world-building was also very good; I especially liked special skills of Maniwa-corps and of the owners of the swords.

Characters are the best point of "Katanagatari"! At first, you expected to be one-dimensional and cliché. And they are most of the time. But every now and then, they will surprise you by their actual depth. Not revealing too much spoilers, let's just consider Schichika. He is a sword, with no feelings or remorse, killing everyone and anyone at Togame's request. He obeys Togame just because he decided she is appropriate person to command him. But, he is conscious of all this and questions his actions during the course of the show. But, contrary to shounen anime, he doesn't just decided "This is bad! I have to stop killing people". He thinks "Why is killing bad? Is it really wrong of me to use Togame as excuse for my actions? Maybe this is enough as a reason for an existence: being a sword for my owner?" and so on. This is just one example of philosophical questions analyzed in "Katanagatari". Most of the characters ask such questions about their motivations and morality. There was a strange variation of a love story between Togame/Schichika and it really had a unexpected course. Definitely not a shounen, this anime.

"Katanagatari" have some more faces. Humor is an important part of the series. It is achieved mostly partly through dialog, especially between Togame and Shichika.Partly it is done in overall design of the show: it is plainly ridiculous. Also, there are also puns and ecchi scenes, which were done very well. Even though this is a fighting anime, action is really simple and unimportant. Schichika has like seven moves and he shows them in first two episodes. But this is not a bother; action is second here to everything else.

Now, a bitter-sweet point: the fourth episode. If you don't like this episode, you will not like this whole series. This is the best episode of the show and has some really great author-solutions. I will not reveal anything, but after watching it you will be surprised, angry, delighted and scared, trust me! Be prepared to revelation of probably the best evil-character of the year! Even though, its real evilness is very questionable. The bad side of this is the fact that crescendo of the show is somewhere in the middle. And after it follows two somewhat weak episodes. They are not bad, but they are not on the level of those before it. Last few episodes are again good. And the end.... It is something special. I never saw that coming...

Oh, I almost forgot to mention that every episode lasts 50 minutes, so this is actually long as normal 24-episode anime.

My final words about "Katanagatari" are: try it! If you don't like it, I can understand it. But this is one of the best anime of the last year, and people how can appreciate it will be delighted by it. I could talk much more about it, but I wouldn't like to reveal anything, because each surprise (and there are many of them) is worth of it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Best SFF Novels of the Decade Readers Poll - on

I would like to point your attention to and their "Best SFF Novels of the Decade Readers Poll". Title says all. You can vote for as many book you want, only condition being they are published 2000 or after, and of course, being science fiction or fantasy.

These were my votes:

My first instinct was to go there and vote for "The Wheel of Time" and "Malazan Book of the Fallen", as dutiful fan. But then I stopped, thought about it a bit and decided to be more objective. So I went over the list of my rated books on Amazon, and then sifted this list. Here are the reason for my votes:

"The Blade Itself" was first book in Joe Abercrombie's "The First Law" trilogy. Book has a nice plot and well (but nothing exceptional) imagined world. What outshine it are the characters: its collection of gray, eccentric and witty characters is almost matched only by George R.R. Martin's. Later books in series and one stand-alone novel were very good, but not good as the original.

WoT had some great additions in last two years and I first wanted to note TGS and ToM as my candidates. But, after few minutes, I realized that, even the books were great, part of that greatness was caused by hyping them (Jordan's death, uncertain future, Sanderson's appearance). Golden times of WoT were the nineties. Even though TGS and ToM are in no perspective bad books and I enjoyed reading them, that enjoyment was greater with WH, CoT and KoD. Thus my vote.

Similar for MBoF. Whole series has great books, but I noted only those I enjoyed best. Objectively speaking, this is the best written series I have ever read.

"Storm of Sword" is a part of one of my three best series. Two books before it would also be on the list if they were published after 2000. Fourth book, "A Feast for Crows" is good, but not good as those, so I omitted it from the votes.

Unfortunately, I haven't read "Under Heaven" by Guy Gavriel Kay yet, for I am sure it would be among my votes, because I love his books (except "Fionavar Tapestry"). "The Last Light of the Sun" also came after 2000, but I enjoyed it slightly less the others, so it's also out (but for small margin).

All novels from "Vorkosigan Saga" would be on the list, but unfortunately most of them were written before 2000, and I still haven't read "Cryoburn". Even though not hard SF, they are nevertheless one of funniest and exciting books ever.

I like Terry Pratchet's books, but "The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents" is the only of his later books I have read. I read his first 8-9 books, but they were all written long ago. His books are extremely imaginative, funny and true. This book looks like children-book at first glance, but it's very serious and dark book.

"The Years of Rice and Salt" by Kim Stanley Robinson is a very interesting book about alternate-history Earth. I recommend it to all, not just SFF readers.

While writing this, I also realized that I haven't read much SF after 2000. I would like not it to be so, but currently I barely have time for reading fantasy. Read other people's votes, I also realized that there are many more books to read!

Movie review: "Clash of the Titans"

I have been thinking about watching "Clash of the Titans" for some time, now. I like Greek myths in general, and I vaguely remember the original as being a nice movie (though, I was a kid when I watched it). On the other hand, comments on the Internet were not very grateful about the movie. But, with no idea what to watch last weekend, girlfriend and I decided to give it a try.

I was ready for Hollywood's butchering of the original myth, but I must say I was surprised (in bad way) about the extreme of it. There is original Perseus and Andromeda story behind it, but buried very deep. In this version, Perseus is son of Danae and Zeus, but the reason for Zeus' advance on her was because Zeus wanted revenge on her husband Acrisius, for leading a rebellion against gods. Later, after his mother, foster-father and sister end dead, Perseus gets involved with the city and king of Argos, who is current leader of rebellion against gods. He will be semi-involuntary sent on quest to get a head of Gorgon, which is the only thing that can stop the Kraken, a creature that is threatening Argos. There are lots of crazy things inserted in the plot, but the Djinns were most offending. There is also a travel to underworld, giant scorpions, Hades' plot to overthrow Zeus, flying lizard-men...

I would stomach all this if the movie was any good, but it's not. For me, it was just a jumble of scenes with not much connection between them. Effects were nice, and action too, but it was all a bit overdone. Characters were one-dimensional and uninteresting and plot was surprising only in meaning that things didn't follow logically.

I presume I am a little biased here, but "Clash of the Titans" really isn't good. It wasn't worst movie ever, but it really failed to keep me interested. I can't really point anything that can attract a viewer to it.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Book review: "Stonewielder" by Ian C. Esslemont

"Stonewielder" is a fairly new book by Ian C. Esslemont (November 2010) and third book in his "Malazan Empire" series. His first book "Night of Knives" was short and, in my opinion, only testing work, which depicted events and characters most fans of MBoF knew very good already from Steven Erikson's books. In his second book, "Return of the Crimson Guard", Esslemont used concepts, themes and settings Erikson already presented (Esslemont had full right to do so, since he is a co-creator of them), introduced some new (or "new") characters and then worked on them in completely new plot-line (but parallel to Erikson's). Result was very action-packed and intense book that I enjoyed very much. His third book, "Stonewielder", is again completely different book, but I'll say it immediately: I loved it!

In this book Esslemont does for the first time something Erikson has been doing in his every book: introduces new stuff. Particularly, sub-continent of Korel and its unique peoples and nations. It also clarifies some history between Malazan Empire and this place. There are several plots we follow in the book. Main one is Malazan second invasion of Korel. Here we have some "old" Esslemont's characters (Greymane, Kyle, Rillish), but no Erikson's; and whole new and unique cast. Exception are some gods that appear in both Erikson's and Esslemont's book. I hope this will become a trend; each of them developing his own cast and plots in common world, with occasional mixing!

(Again, what's with the boats??)

Back to the book... As I said, main plot is Malazan second invasion. We follow it from several viewpoints: Fist Rillish (character from RotCG), Cadre mage Devaleth (I think this name is a blunder; it sounds too Tiste Andii) and Suth, the common soldier. All three levels are done very good, but Suth's especially. I usually like the look from view of "ordinary" Malazan soldier (Fiddler, Hellian and bunch of squad's from "Dust of Dreams"...). Suth did some real growing up in this book; from self-centered youth searching fights to prove himself, to experienced Malazan veteran looking after his comrades. Then we had Ussü, one of leaders of Malazan first invasion, who are not very happy for the arrival of their successors. We also have Bakune, a judge from city of Banith. He is really honest man, although somewhat blind to reality of the world. His stubborn investigation of suspicious deaths will put him in position opposed to Church of the Blessed Lady, which is a very dangerous position on Korel. Fact that his city will be overrun by Malazan's will not be helpful, also. Next is Hiam, Lord Protector of the Stormwall and leader of all Korelri. He is uncommonly wise and thoughtful man, but share's a flaw of Korelri: belief in their total supremacy in both martial and moral aspects; also a belief that no one would be crazy enough to attack them, when they and the Wall are the only thing that stands in the way of dreaded Stormriders. They are in for few surprises... In Empire of Jourilan we have Ivanr, who is half-Thelomen ex-champion now sworn to pacifism; he is being pushed to position of a leader of religious uprising against the Lady and he doesn't really like it, but he doesn't have much choice. At last we have Corlo and Shell, both members of the Crimson Guard; Corlo is prisoner on the Wall, while Shell and her squad are coming to Wall to free him and his co-prisoners. Not, these were only the POVs; we have a bunch of crazy Malazan (world, not the empire) characters that give these books their flavor. Overall, plot is good; there were two or three big surprises and multitude of smaller ones.

There is also one more sub-plot, following Kiska (from NoK) and Jheval (new/old character) on their quest in Shadow Realm. I must say I am a bit confused about the meaning of this course of events, both in itself and in greater scheme of things. So, even though there are some interesting and funny scenes here (I was surprised when it was revealed who the priest is!!!), I will ignore this for now (for now being until the next book that explains it).

As I said, characters in this book are all Esslemont's, and most of them new. Only flaw is that there are actually not much of them. Dramatis Personae is only two and half pages long, and I got used to five or more. But on the other hand, book itself is not long: only 640 pages. What matters is quality, not quantity. And there are no flaws is this section. There are bizarre, there are serious, there are funny and there are sneaky characters. And not one of them is single-faceted.

Writing is better than in "Return of the Crimson Guard"; it is light-years away from "Night of Knives" writing. I am glad Esslemont more often uses inner-monologues and philosophical musings; it is one of key characteristics of "Malazan brand". Although, I must say that he still lacks Erikson's edge. Erikson drives his characters much more to extremes. On the other hand, Esslemont's writing is much more focused and followable. In the immediate start of the book, there were few blunders that made me wonder of quality of it, but they don't repeat later. Example of this was Greymane/Kyle sequence with school of martial arts, which was very un-Malazan, in my opinion. Also, there is a name of Beneth, which made me wonder for a time.

I must point out one thing: the Wall. Even though it was mentioned long ago in Erikson's books (not so long in time, but long in number of books; I can't say exactly where), I never expected it to be so similar to George R.R. Martin's Wall from ASoIaF. Korelry Stormguard and Night's Watch are also very similar; especially in the beginning. I am curious who invented which first. Erikson and Esslemont invented their world quite a long time ago, but are only now revealing the details; on the other hand, "A Game of Thrones" is out since 1996.

For conclusion: "Stonewielder" is a great book and a recommendation to all Malazan fans. Esslemont's books are steady getting better and better. For those who never heard about Malazan, go start one of best fantasy series with "Gardens of the Moon".

Future is bright for this series. Next month will see the publication of "The Crippled God". But then it's not over; Erikson will write a bunch of novels and novellas (according to Wikipedia). Esslemont will write at least three more, "Orb, Scepter, Throne" being the first.

Also, a note. From now on I am going on self-proclaimed ban on reading. I have two important PhD projects to finish in next few weeks, so I will not start reading until they are done (Because I know they wouldn't get done then). And after they are done, I plan to do a reread of whole "Malazan Book of the Fallen" series, so I can be ready when last book gets out.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Anime review: "Ayakashi - Japanese Classic Horror"

I stumbled across this anime few times before, but first time I seriously considered watching it was after watching "Mononoke". AniDB article about it claimed it shared one of the characters. It is relatively short (11 episodes), so I watched it last week, between "Daggerspell" and "Stonewielder" (post about it will be next).

"Ayakashi - Japanese Classic Horror" is 2006 anime adapting three Japanese classic horror stories. The three are completely different in setting and style, even in animation, so I will describe each of them separately.

"Yotsuya Ghost Story" is based on "Yotsuya Kaidan", Japanese most famous ghost story (at least according to Wikipedia). It is a tragical story about Iemon and Oiwa. Iemon is a ronin who wants to marry Oiwa, despite opposition from her father. He slays him and then uses his death as a mortar for his marriage, claiming he will help Oiwa as a husband to revenge her father. Everything is well for some time, but slowly Iemon's true face starts to show. He finally abandons Oiwa for richer and younger woman, who poisons Oiwa. This is the start of tragedy where everyone connected to two of them will end dead. Iemon refuses to admit any guilt and slowly sinks into madness, seeing Oiwa everywhere. There is also a parallel tragic story, about Osuda and Yomoschichi, which is interwoven with the first plot.

Story is interesting but not especially original. Probably you even saw it or parts of it, since it was adapted and partly used numerous times. It is not really scary also. Animation is decent, although looking older than 2006. Most interesting details it the way it is represented: story is narrated by the "original" author of the story, who claims he was inspired by Oiwa's ghost to write it. He also claims that the story is cursed and everybody who takes part in screening, acting or writing it ends dead.

"The Legend of Tenshu" is completely different kind of story. It is a love story between Himekawa Zusho-no-Suke, a young falconer, and Tomi-Hime, ruler of Forgoten Gods, kind of powerful and scary demons that feed with human flesh. This a complete mini-anime and I am wondering why is haven't been expanded to full-sized anime. It even has comedy-relief characters. Story is interesting and tense; there is action, comedy, romance... Again, animation is a bit weak, and design of characters could have been more original. But story is definitely good.

Last, "Bakeneko" is a star of this collection. It features the medicine-seller from "Mononoke" in one more exorcism adventure. Or better to say, this is the original story, that was later extended to whole series. It has original animation, original characters and great story. I loved it. This was only really scary story; not in visuals, but in setting and style. For those who didn't watch "Mononoke"; don't be put off by seemingly archaic animation. Definitely a recommendation!

My next post will be about "Stonewielder" by Ian C. Esslemont.