Sunday, May 29, 2011

Manga review: "Blame!"

I first noticed "Blame!" while reading "Right Turn Only!!" on AnimeNewsNetwork. It was described as hard SF manga and it ways "Reader's Choice" (don't know real significance, but stands for some kind of recommendation). When I confirmed it is not still coming out (because I already have too much ongoing manga on schedule) I decided to read it. It turned out as a great choice.

"Blame!" is a hard SF manga by Nihei Tsutomu. For me, hard SF imply that work's (be it movie, book or anything else) primary and most characteristic is science fiction, and that it wouldn't be the same with it. For example, Miles Vorkosigan series is set in science fiction setting, but it is primary detective/thriller action; you could change the setting and still have the same feeling. On the other hand, "Eon" by Greg Bear is primary SF, although it has elements of other genders. Manga is a bit bad medium for hard science fiction because it lacks the space for explaining the science and technology, but "Blame!" nevertheless has this feeling. Funny, I am already contradicting myself: "Blame!" could work in another setting, a fantasy one. But as Arthur C. Clarke used to say: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic"...

The motto of this mange is "Adventure-seeker Killy in the Cyber Dungeon". Wikipedia also regards this as a cyberpunk manga, although to me it doesn't have the cyberpunk feeling I know from "Neuromancer" or "Snow Crash". I wouldn't go deep into the plot, especially since there is not much of it. Main character Killy is wondering trough mega-structure The City searching for people with terminal net genes. Problem is that there are not much people; most of them are dead from conflicts with hostile cyborgs and AIs or malfunctioning safety services, so most of his search consists of fighting them.

Things sometimes get very confusing, so I can't say that I really understood 100% of this manga. I think I would need at least one reread to get it completely. First two volumes are especially hard to understand, but when you start with third one, you will already be hooked up. The manga has 10 volumes.

Setting is really great. I am a sucker for mega-structures. Imagine this: you have a incredible large room you can't even see walls; there is 13 of them inside one structure; this structure is just a small part of one level; there are some 10 levels (I can't remember if it was particularly said how much there is levels)! The City if mostly empty, but there are still great numbers of peoples. Trans-humans, cyborgs, robots, crazy AI's, people reduced to animals...

There are not many characters. Main one is Killy, who doesn't talk much, but doesn't hesitate to fight. Scientist Cibo become his partner after he saves her from death. She is much more talkative and gives the most of explanations (not that they are always understandable). Except two of them, there are not many characters that last for more than one or two volumes.

I found ending especially well, although it stays both unexplained and unresolved.

For conclusion, "Blame!" is a very good SF manga, but I don't think it's for everybody. Often confusing, slow paced and lots of tech-speech makes it unsuitable for people who expect a light read, but if you like SF for itself, you will probably like "Blame!".

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Movie review: "Just Go with It"

Yesterday I watched "Just Go with It", a romantic comedy starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. I usually don't really like Adam Sandler, but he has few good movies. I knew what to expect from this movie in general way: a light romantic comedy which doesn't require much thinking or focus. And this is exactly what this movie offers.

There is not much to say about the movie. Danny (Sandler) is a plastic surgeon, Katherine (Aniston) his assistant. He is playboy using false wedding ring to get women in bed, while she is single mother focused on her kids. Danny finds a younger girl Palmer that he really likes, but tangles himself in complex net of lies. Things will culminate on a trip to Hawaii where they are joined by Katherine's children, Danny's brother and Katherine's high-school nemesis (played by Nicole Kidman).

Jokes were actually pretty good. Even though there are kids in the movie, which for me usually signifies a bad movie, this is not really movie for kids. There is mild cursing and sexual associations (some of which are very funny). There is a bit forced faces and screaming but not too much to feel stupid for watching. Acting is good for comedy of this level.

All in all, "Just Go with It" is a nice comedy to watch and forget after two days. I think that everybody except demanding audience would be satisfied with this movie.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Book review: "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson

Last two weeks I've been reading "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson. I have to confess that I have been having prejudices before starting to read it. As most know, Sanderson is most famous for two things. One is his "Mistborn" trilogy, which I have read and like, but I don't hold it in any special regard. It is a very good trilogy, but there are better ones. The other thing, that probably made him famous, was that he was selected to finish "The Wheel of Time" series. WoT was for a long time by most favorite series (currently I would pick "Malazan Book of the Fallen", but I still adore WoT) and Sanderson did and is probably still doing a great job with it. Except that, he wrote "Elantris", which is a single-book fantasy with good reviews, although I didn't read it yet, and some other minor stuff.

So it's not like he has 20 master-pieces behind himself and that his name guarantees a hit. "The Way of Kings" was one of hits of last year in fantasy circles, but somehow I was thinking that it was because of large base of WoT fans (some convoluted idea of being famous by association; The Wheel of Time-Brandon Sanderson-The Way of Kings) and big promotional campaign (most prominently by

After reading it, I freely admit I was wrong. I was very impressed by this book. I can't say that fantasy books are my career or that I am some kind of professional reader or reviewer, but reading has been my most prominent hobby for more than 20 years; I own more than 70 fantasy books and I have read and reread probably few hundreds of books, most of that fantasy and lot SF. I am just saying this to prove that I am not very easily impressed and that I can make an objective opinion. I expect it would be more influenced by WoT (although Sanderson claimed to write it years before his involvement with WoT), only with more scientific and colder approach of Mistborn.

In WoK ("The Way of Kings") we have three protagonists. Most prominent one is Kalading, a young man who ended in slavery after being betrayed by his lighteye lord (lighteyes are kind of nobility in Alethkar, Kaladin's homeland). Kaladin is not exactly a typical innocent hero-to-be kid. I mean, this IS an epic fantasy novel, so we can expect some tropes, but Kaladin has seen some of the world. He was trained as a surgeon by his father, he has been a soldier and he has been betrayed. On the other hand, he is young and has not seen much of his world, nor does he know everything he is capable for. His main characteristic is that he always try to save people around himself, but his curse is always to fail. He will find himself in really unwelcome conditions: sentenced to be a figurative cannon-fodder in conflict on Shattered Plains, where high-princes of Alethkar wage war against barbaric Parshendi. In really inhuman conditions, surrounded by dredge of people, he will have to try hard not to succumb to circumstances and make his and his fellows life better.

Shallan, on the other hand, has very different life. A lighteyes of high status, she was pampered by her father and brothers, leading a life without much responsibilities. Now, after the death of her father and in danger of her family ending in ruin, she is now forced to commit herself in dangerous and desperate course of actions. She is sent by her brother to try to become a ward of notorious Princess Jasnah, famous heretic scholar and sister of King of Alethkar. When she is successful in that, she is to steal Jasnah Soulcaster, source of magical power they could use to restore her family's wealth. But she will find both parts of this plan very dangerous; not only because of circumstances, but because of her own morality.

Dalinar Kholin is one of most powerful people in world: high-prince and uncle to Alethkar King, warrior of great renown and owner of Shardblade and Shardplate, which make their carrier an unstoppable machine of war. But after death of his brother, previous King, he finds himself different than hot-headed warrior of his youth; he is now more concerned about future of Alethkar and his people. His has also become follower of strict and archaic Codes, which makes him unpopular between more easygoing fellow nobles. But his problems have become much greater lately: he is troubled by fits during the highstorms, during which he has strange visions and keeps being warned that the end of the world is coming: a true Desolation.

Although the book is not without flaws, in every aspect it is great. Let's start with worldbuilding. Although I don't think Sanderson took Erikson as a model (I don't even know if he ever read it), there is a similarity between two of the how them. Sanderson in this book reveals very little of his world in details, but he indicate much. We also don't have any wise counselor that is used to explain how things work, but we have to discover it by ourselves. I am not claiming that this book is in any way similar to Erikson's (I don't think it would be easy to mimic him, not in style, nor in scope and complexity), but I like this approach with both of them. I am looking forward to future books to find out more. And world itself is extremely unique and imaginative. It is not modeled about typical settings (like medieval, Middle East or oriental), but you realize how strange it is only after few hundred pages. At least it was like for me: I realized how different Roshar (the name of the world) only it was somewhere at quarter of the book. And we visited only a little part of the world. But the thing I appreciate most is that I am not sure if anything of this real. I am halfway expecting something like in "Tsubasa Chronicle" (can't remember any adequate literal example): our heroes arrive in medieval world only to later discover that this was a virtual game played by real people. It's not that I can give any proves to these claims or that I expect something exactly like that, but I feel there is something more to all of it.

Characters are also great. I already described three main ones. They are done very realistic and believable. There is more of supporting and important characters, several of we have POV perspective, but not as much as you would expect from book this large (1000) pages. Most of them are also done well, and as for world, I hope they will be described and explored more in later books. Also, I liked how we don't have any big-bads in this book. There are several characters that we see as negative ones, but they are not really evil. Nor there is any real evil being that tries to destroy the world or evil organization that helps it. We get only few indications in later parts of book, and few unexplained facts at the very end. I really don't know who the bad guys are or what is in stake, but I really like it this way.

As I said, there are several flaws. The world and characters are good, but there were few instances that felt too naive and trope-ish for me. The most prominent one was Rock and his Horneaters. They are described like something I would expect in some children book. The dynamic of the royal court could also be done much better; it was too simple in this instance. And the revelation who is behind Shin Truthless really didn't fit well for me (although I like the relative grayness it). But I admit a possibility that this will turn well in next books...

The style is not something I am very competent to judge, but I didn't have any problems with it. I've seen some complaints about relative slowness of the plot, but this is an advantage to me, I am patient. There is some very good visual art inside the book which helps to see what author is describing. There is no long internal monologs and over-lengthy descriptions some would find boring. The book consists mostly of action and dialogs, while explanations and descriptions fit nicely between them.

As single book, "The Way of Kings" works very well. It is a definite recommendation for everybody who like fantasy, and especially epic fantasy, and do not expect something experimental. It is a classical epic novel and a great start of new series. As for whole "The Stormlight Archive" series, I will have to wait for several more sequels to give it a final opinion. But judging from this book and Sanderson's integrity as a writer, I expect it to be a success.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Anime review: "Kimi ni Todoke" 2nd season

Huh, I finished watching second season of "Kimi ni Todoke" before almost ten days now, but last week was quite hectic for me, so I didn't find time to write about. And things are already fading from my mind... Good things that I made some notes.

"Kimi ni Todoke" was one of my favorite anime of last year. It is shojo romance anime with many comedy elements, dealing with Kuronuma Sawako, nicknamed Sadako ("The Ring"), strange, but strong girl, whose shyness and quirkiness get her estranged from people. In first season she wins over some of her problems, getting several good friends. But focus of the series was on her relationship to Kazehaya, a boy from her class. Interesting was that she only regarded him as a friend at first, never realizing that they could be something more.

In this season, things continue directly after the first one. There is even episode zero that recaps a bit of events, so you won't have problems with remembering facts. Different from last season, biggest focus is put on Kuronuma-Kazehaya relationship and this is at the same time the biggest strong-point and biggest weakness of anime. Because, at least in first half, Kuronuma loses her voice every time she is near Kazehaya. Which means we have very slow (especially first two) episodes, full of long scenes where nothing happens. On the other hand, we have Kuronumas inner thoughts revealed in these scenes, so they are not boring. Just very infuriating, because you start to wish that she finally speaks something. Basically, things got reset back to starting point between them. Fortunately, events become much more interesting and faster pacing in later episodes. It got all elements of high-school anime, but they are all present nicely.

Characters are the same as in first anime, with exception of Kent, who is here to provide a counter to Kazehaya. Well, there is Kent's friend, but he only has few lines. As I said, most focus is put on Kurnouma and Kazeaya. I would wish that there were more parts with the rest of cast, because they were very interesting in first season. Here we have only one or two short scenes featuring Yoshida, while the private lives of the rest of the cast is ignored, which is a pity. Nevertheless, they are well features in show. Pin was especially good as comedy relief.

Visuals are good, although I think a bit weaker than in first season. I can't say anything good or bad about audio.

From one side, this season provides an almost definite ending. Things can always be continued, but they are concluded as it is by this ending. On the other hand, I see that manga is still ongoing. If they continue with adaptations to anime, I hope they will put more focus on side-characters.

Second season of "Kimi ni Todoke" is definitely weaker than first one, but it is still a very good watch. If you liked the first one, you will like the second one and will not be disappointed.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Movie review: "Thor"

This weekend I went and watched "Thor" in the movies. I didn't watch it in 3D; I didn't even know it was playing the cinema with this option, but I don't think I would have gone there even if I did know. I don't see the appeal of 3D technology when watching movies. Sure, I like when a book has visually appealing cover, when paper has good quality and font is nice, and in case I really like the series, I will add extra money for better edition, I usually go for the cheaper paperback edition. This is more of a topic for some book review, but I've been thinking lately about investing in e-reader. I prefer paper editions, but in long-terms I think that e-books are better choice.

Now, let's get back to the movie. I know before that "Thor" was based on Marvel comics, which was (of course) based on Norse mythology, but I did not know any specific. I never watched any cartoon adaptation nor did I read the comics. I also knew that the movie was discussed often in SF/Fantasy community and that expectations were big. I had no expectations before watching and I must say I was positively surprised.

"Thor" is in my opinion a nice introduction to this franchise. There is a lengthy portion at the beginning of the movie that explains history, characters and concepts of Asgard, place where Thor, Odin and rest lives and where half of the movie takes place. I wouldn't go deep into explanations and plot, because you got the movie for that. In short, Prince Thor is the son of King Odin, Loki is his brother and after they get in trouble with Frost-Giants, Thor ends up exiled to Earth.

Plot is nothing exceptional or convoluted, but it hasn't any obvious flaws. As I said, there is good intro to lead you into this universe and movie is neither slow nor rushed. I especially liked when the guys from S.H.I.E.L.D. arrived. I was quite surprised. I know that often super-heroes share the same universe, and here is the case with Thor and Iron Man (and some others).

Characters and acting are good for this type of the movie. Thor is played by Cris Hemsworth. I never heard about him before, but he very good in this role. Natalie Portman is playing Thor's love interest, but I think she was wasted in this role. Anthony Hopkins plays Odin and I must admit that I didn't recognize him. Rest of the cast is good, although I didn't like Thor's companions: too generic and predictable.

Best thing that can be said about the movie is that it is not pretentious. Usually in super-hero movies you like him; then he does something really stupid and has to redeem himself to audience. Here this is not the case. Sure, Thor does some stupid things, but they are all believable and normal. I was very surprised the way he reacted to his brother visit in S.H.I.E.L.D. tent. When I think about it, I like this movie much more that I liked "Iron Man 2".

For conlusion, "Thor" is quite good super-hero movie, with no big flaws and a nice evening watch. I don't know about the fans, but as a part of general audience, I like the movie and would recommended it to any who like this kind of movies.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Book review: "The Steel Remains" by Richard K. Morgan

I've been reading positive reviews about "The Steel Remains" since it was out, so it has been in my wish list for a while. I've ordered it while I was rereading "Malazan Book of the Fallen" and it waited me for a month or two, and now it finally came its turn. Several years ago, while I had time to be a member if local library, I read one of Richard Morgan's hits, "Altered Carbon". I remember it as a good book, a SF action-thriller, but since I've read it only once, I don't remember much detail.

The sword on the cover has a cool mirror-effect

I loved this book literally from the first sentence:

"When a men you know to be of sound mind tells you his recently deceased mother has just tried to climb in his bedroom window and eat him, you only have two basic options."

What a great way to start a book. From the very start I was remind of Joe Abercrombie's "The First Law Trilogy". It has the familiar combination of grittiness and humor, only with Morgan it is bit more of grittiness and little less of humor. Nevertheless, it has that same feel of fantasy that deals with real people; people who are weak, dirty, curse a lot, but manage to surprise you more than not. So don't expect clear differentiation on good and bad...

Story follows three main characters. Ringil is an ex-soldier, hero of last war, now fallen on lower branches of life. He's living in a small village, using remains of his glory to get drinks and room in local inn. You get first indication that Ringil was more than he is now when his mother, a member of one of most powerful noble families, comes to force him into finding their cousin, sold to slavery. Although he is reluctant of come back to capital, to people who betrayed him and life it disappointed him, his mother's wishes are hard to decline.

Two second main characters are Egar Dragonbane and Archeth. Egar is member of nomadic horse-warrior tribe Majak. In his youth he was a mercenary and also a war-hero. After returning to his tribe, he is now a rich leader, having everything that a man could wish for, but finds his life among almost-barbaric people too dull, especially compared to sophisticated life in neighboring Empire of Yhelteth. Archeth is one of most trusted advisors of Emperor of the same Empire, mainly because she is a last member of her race, advanced and long-living people of Kiriath. Her life will again become exciting as she is sent to investigate a strange attack on one of the coastal towns.

First, I liked the worldbuilding. Morgan has something of a Erikson's approach. He plunges you in the middle of a world and don't explain you much. You get brief references to the world throughout the book, and you do your best connected them to whole picture. For example, you get mentions of Lizard Folk and Kiriath, two inhuman races during the whole book, but even after reading it whole, you don't have a complete picture of who they really were and what happened to them. I like this approach because it gives you an impression of a solid world, one that has a life of its own. Also, I always like when fantasy mixes with SF; as with Erikson's K'Chain Che-Malle, so with Morgan's Kiriath.

Characters are great. Ringil is a main guy. At first he is described as just one old veteran, with one heroic act to single him from the mass. As book follows him to capital, you find out that he was, and still is, much more. He has one trait that forced him to abandon his rightful place as a son of powerful noble family: he is openly gay in a world that ostracizes homosexuality. And by ostracizing, I mean torture and death, except in case you happen to be rich and powerful. This hypocrisy, combined with what he considers a betrayal of his war efforts, left him disappointed in humanity, especially to higher classes. Egar is also great. He is a middle-aged warrior that had a touch of sophistication in big city capital and can't find his rest now when he is back to his people. And Acrheth is very interesting, since she is of different race. From her POV I think we get most facts about the world. Although that doesn't mean she is just an info-dump-machine.

Unfortunately, book is great only till last quarter or so. At one point, one all three main characters come together, it just starts to fall apart. Story is good until that point, but after it gets too predictable and uninteresting. It fails to give an impression of well-rounded conclusion and it lacks any exciting parts: it just falls into usual fantasy tropes. And worse than that, characters do the same. Egar, who is very insightful characters for the most of the book, becomes just a wise and friendly barbarian; Ringil a snarly but good commander and Archeth an elf. I was quite disappointed with this ending. But, considering how book was good until that point, and how good was worldbuilding, I have hopes for the sequel, "The Cold Commands", and plan to order it soon.

As I mentioned, I have read "Altered Carbon" only once, but I remember that main character's name was Takeshi Kovach. I wonder if name Takavach in "The Steel Remains" is a hidden reference to it?

The book has quite graphical description of violence and sex. I noticed on some user reviews that some people were offended with such detailed depiction of sex between two men. So if this really bothers you, maybe you should skip this book.

"The Steel Reamins" is one very innovating and gritty book, with exceptional worldbuilding and characters, but unfortunately with weak ending. Nevertheless, it is a great read for fans of darker fantasy, so I recommend it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Great review of "Malazan book of the Fallen" on SFsite

As the title says, there is a great review of "Malazan Book of the Fallen" on SF Site that I would recommend to all who plan to start it to read before. Author really succeeded on compiling everything imporant about the series on one article. Visit it here!

Anime review: "Shiki"

After more than three months of forced rest from anime, I watched a new anime, called "Shiki". It was one of the hits of last year, some mystery with vampires, so I was looking forward to watching it. In the end, I was satisfied, although with some reservations.

I will start with the reservations. "Shiki" is a vampire anime, it is clearly from the second episode or so. And it brings absolutely nothing new to the concept! Not one shred of originality (except one detail, revealed in the later parts). It follows all those naive tropes that have been know since original "Dracula", present in books and shows (yeah, I am talking about "Buffy") for century or something like that. I will abstain of revealing them to avoid spoilers. In most cases I would stop watching or reading a work so low on originality very early... Anyway, anime takes place in (big) secluded village (or combination of villages) where nothing interesting ever happens. In first episode we meet Megumi, who is not satisfied with this situation, and who daydreams about escaping to big city, preferably with Natsuno, a boy recently arrived from a big city. Things are looking brighter as they have some mysterious rich family settling in. Suddenly, Megumi is found in the woods, with amnesia and signs of anemia. But things don't stop here; next you know, anemia is spreading and local doctor Toshio don't know what to do...

Second thing that come is mind is design of characters. It looks like mix between shounen action anime (on trail of "Bleach" or "Sengoku Basara") and dating sims (e.g. "Clannad"). You can guess people's roles after few seconds of watching. For instance, main character is manly, tall, silent guy in his fifteenth year (coincidely, this description can be applied to second main character, except the difference in years). And for God's sake, that guy has wolf ears on top of his head!!! And I am not even starting with the look of that Kirishiki guy... Vampires all have bad complexion, black eyes with red pupils and long canines... I mean, a little subtlety. Also, most female characters have big breasts and there is some fanservice, just to know what to expect.

Also, after few episodes you get a complete revelation of bad guys, so the mystery part is not very subtle, also.

So why watch this anime, you ask? I can't quite explain it why, but "Shiki" really has good atmosphere, unexpectedly considering all these objections. I watched first four or five episodes in on sitting, on windy evening/night, and turning the lights off before going to sleep wasn't exactly a comfy decision. Even though characters are so clich├ęd, you nevertheless root for them.

And never mind that some things get explained very early; there are still many things to ponder about. Especially when the view starts to shift to the other set of characters. At the beginning I didn't expect to see any alternating POVs. Ending is quite surprising; I didn't believe they would take it to such extreme. Especially the conclusion of main character and one of main villains... What a bang!

So, all these objections from the start are just some unique quirks of this anime, nothing to really complain about.

On the other hand, there is one serious question/objection that you are able to raise after watching the whole anime: I don't get the moral of this story? I mean, it is questionable does it have any. Position of victims changes from one side of characters to their complete opposites, but without any explanations, redemption or anything similar. I like when characters are grey, but this is not the case; in here black and white just changes the places. On the other hand, it does leave you thinking about it. Why would someone deserve a punishment and why would there been need for effort before redemption? If the authors were aiming at this, they hit the bull's-eye, but I suspect that this was just a side-effect of unclear intentions...

In the end, "Shiki" is good vampire/mystery anime, although not much more than that. I did enjoy it much, and it has good grades at AniDB, so I recommend it to all who like these type of anime. On the other hand, I you never watch it, you won't miss any masterpiece.

A final note: the end is pretty inconclusive. In fact, the end practically begs for sequel, so don't be surprised if one comes out.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Movie review: "Cloverfield"

Almost a week ago, I watched "Cloverfield". I didn't know much about movie, although I remembered that I made a fuss when it was first out. I also knew that it had something with either aliens or monsters, invading some big city, and that it was made from first-person perspective, with "amateur" camera.

It turned out I was mostly right. "Cloverfield" uses POV-mode made popular by "The Blair Witch Project", giving impression of being filmed by amateurs, while in the midst of action. And action is this movie consists of group of people running from their lives. Group of young people (twenties, by the look of it) gather around on goodbye-party for Rob, who is leaving for Japan. Hud, Rob's best friend gets a task of filming everything and making interviews with attendants. Except Rob's problems with his ex- or wanna-be girlfriend Beth, everything is going fine until something crashes in New York and starts a city-spanning panic. Rob, Hud and several other characters comes to edge of salvation, only to go back to save Beth in midst of alien invasion.

Most of the movie is great. It has a slow introduction, you are just starting to know the characters, party is starting to cool down, when action bangs wildly. Group of friends wondering, running, sudden attacks, a fateful decision... Unfortunately, it's hard to keep this level of intension for whole movie. Near to end, you get used to it, and what were once heroic decision and actions, now look like fool's moves. Also, things are getting a bit too unbelievable for at the end. In short, I didn't like last 20 minutes or so. I catch myself few times in wandering around in my head instead of really following the movie.

But as I said, most of the movie is really good. Movie easily succeeds in creating a atmosphere of mystery in the first part. Later, as we learn more about the threat, it looks very convincing. I must say that aliens are done very well. But after the part in military base, things went down for me.

Ending is ambitiously imagined and special, although it failed in making all the emotional impact in me. But I presume that lots of people will like. Actually, lots of people did like it, since this was one of hits in 2008.

"Cloverfield" is a good mystery/SF movie, although with potentially weaker ending. Nevertheless, it is a good evening watch, with much fun and action, for SF fans as much as for general audience.