Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Book review: "The Desert Spear" by Peter V. Brett

Last weekend I finished reading "The Desert Spear", a sequel to "The Painted Man" by Peter V. Brett. I was thinking about rereading TPM before TDS, but I wasn't really in a mood for that, so I decided to do a reread when last book gets published. This turned out to be a mistake, before I forgot how fun was TPM and was then pleasantly surprised by TDS, even though I think the pleasure would be even bigger if I haven't spent lots of time trying to remember details from TPM.

"The Desert Spear" came out last year, but there wasn't a paperback edition available to me, so I waited until now. Even when I was reading TPM, I knew that reviews were good but not brilliant. I think this is a fair assessment:  "Demon Cycle" books are not the best or most original or best written fantasy series on the market, but they are very fun to read. So don't expect a new "Lord of the Rings"; but expect a good fantasy book with rich characters and exciting plot, set in not-so-wide but nicely build world.

TDS is a sequel, but it starts with events even before the ones in TPM. Although this is not unique, it is not so common occurrence in fantasy books of this caliber. First part of book is told from point of view of Jardir. He didn't have much appearance in prequel, although his role had very impact. He was also described as something like a bad guy. Now we have simultaneously events from present (of the book), after the events in TPM, and from Jardir's past, which start few years before TPM (since he is older that Arlen, main character of TPM).

We are told about Jardir childhood and growing up in Fort Krasia, one of Free cities (I don't know why I though there are seven of them). Krasnians and their society were introduced in TPM, but here we have a much detailed and wider description of it. It is somewhat based on Islam culture: language, relationship between men and women, belief that death in fight guarantees you place in Heaven, etc. I must say that this is one of least likable societies I have read about. TPM wasn't one of the books that clearly differentiate people on good and bad: there were demons, who were the enemies, but it was their nature. Humans, the good guys, are not in any way all good, clean and decent: they are stupid, dirty, rapists, villains... So, when we got POV from Krasnian society, which was depicted somewhat badly in last book, I expected a turn, where they are shown to have redeeming qualities that are invisible from the outside. Surprisingly, this was not the case: even though Krasnians are not evil per se, or without any qualities, they are still described as stupid, wasteful, fanatic, without consideration and believing in their natural superiority. What is even more miserable is that this assessment is probably true for many societies in past, and even in present. And Jardir is a perfect specimen of his society. He believes himself as smart (and he is compared to some of his fellow citizen), but he doesn't even have the capability to understand how easily he is being manipulated. He did something awful to his best friend (actually, to many of this best friends), but even when he know that what he did was wrong, he excuse himself that is was his right and duty to do it. But in the end, he induces more pity than anger from reader.

His part of the book takes at third of the book, and it last until the events from his past start to concur with the present. Then we have addition of other characters, Leesha and Rojer, know to us from TPM. With them we have a direct continuation of events from the first book, an aftermath of battle of Cutter's Hollow, now known as Deliverer's Hollow. We have depiction of how everybody except two of them start to regards Arlen as new Deliverer, even though he denies it. We also have a closer description of politics in Free cities. There is one new and old character: Reena. She had a small part at the beginning of TPM; now she gets upgraded to a real main character. Interesting thing is that her plot doesn't have much importance in the course of the book. It is strange that author would invest so much in one pretty unimportant character, but her part was in no way dull. From one side it describes in detail life in one small part of the world, and from the other side goes deeply in characterization of few in no way ideal characters.

Things get much more intense later when Arlen gets his POV, after quite long time, and main characters start to mingle. It is always interesting to see the contrast between how character sees himself and how other characters see him. And we have a lot of this in TDS. Also, the clash of cultures is always fun to read. Arlen POVs are very interesting to read, not so much because of his plot, which is very intense in its own right, but because we have one character that we got very acquainted in first book, but then he got very much changed, and this change was seen only from third persons. He often remembers earlier Arlen and it very compelling when you can compare them, because they are in the same time very different and very similar.

All parts of book are very interesting and very fun to read. TPM was stretched over probably more than fifteen years; TDS, after retelling this whole period from point of a completely new character, concentrates on period of maybe three month. Even though the plot is interesting, it is action plot about clash of cultures, something familiar from other books or movies. What are unique to this book are its characters and their description from several different sources.

I also has to mention one more aspect. Even though the demon aspect of this setting doesn't have much coverage in this book, few short pages mean a lot. For first time we have point of view of a demon and we learn something about their way of thinking. This few passages succeeded in making me even more interested in this setting. Also, a nice touch was the indication that this is actually postapocalyptic setting in alternate future of Earth (books about war-machines).

Also, although I can't be sure without the reread of TPM, I think that Brett's writing style got improved in this book, which also adds to enjoyment of this book. Just a few technical details: book has around 750 pages. It also has a preview of the last book, called "The Daylight War", which is announced for 2012.

All in all, "The Desert Spear" is a very good book in its own right, and even better as sequel to "The Painted Man". Not dull in any moment, and with supreme characterization, it will be a good read to every reader who even remotely liked "The Painted Man". If you read the first book, don't miss this one.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Movie review: "The Adjustment Bureau"

So much about my plan to catch up with writing while I am on vacation: I have five unfinished posts... But let's start with the movie review. "The Adjustment Bureau" is fairly new movie. I am not sure how I stumbled on it, but all I knew about it before watching was that it is some kind of mystery thriller.

David Norris (played by Matt Damon) is a young politician with big ambitions. After loosing the elections for Senate, he meets Elise (Emily Blunt) who inspires him to his best speech ever. Even after so short meeting he can't stop thinking about her, so when he bumps into her in bus after few months, he grabs the chance and gets her number. But when he gets off the bus and arrives to work, he finds everybody in the building frozen in time and some strange people doing some high-tech tests on them. He tries to run but they catch him; they introduce themselves as some kind of guardians of fate and order him to stop trying to meet Emily because that would be disaster for whole world. And worst of all, they confiscate the paper with her number, his only contact to her. But after a year, he again sees her in bus and now has to decide: whether to listen to those guardians or to temp the fate...

This is a serious movie which requires your full attention, but it rewards you for that. It is not unique concept (fate and its guardians), but neither is too common, and the movies explores the subject on high scale. Details of those guardians are slowly revealed during the movie (it all gets explained at the end) gives the movie a nice touch of science fiction/fantasy. There are no any big flaws in the plot and settings so you can freely concentrate on the movie. The movie also has the romance aspect, but it is mostly thriller. Characters and actors who play them are all good. Except Damon and Blunt as famous names, we also have Terrence Stamp.

Only flaw of the movie is that is has several long scenes where nothing happens, which are there to emphasize the mood, which could be a bit shorter. But this is not really a serious remark.

"The Adjustment Bureau" is serious and very good thriller for everybody; a bit of playing with SF/F gives it a nice touch. Definitely a recommendation.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Movie review: "Dylan Dog: Dead of Night"

I watched "Dylan Dog: Dead of Night" last week. The movie was so bad that I didn't finish it. Usually when the movie is bad I still watch it, but I was at friend's house and we started watching it quite late, so when I got sleepy I immediately left. They told me later that it didn't improve in second half.

It is a movie about a private detective Dylan Dog who also fights (or had fight) against monsters (vampires, zombies and werewolves). He is now in retirement (at least in case of supernatural cases), but after getting involved in case of finding a perpetrator of rich smuggler's murder, he will be forced to leave this retirement.

There are several things that bugged me about this movie. First, the beginning is the rip-off of "Constantine". I am talking about goofy sidekick who wants more responsibility (I actually though it was Shia LaBeouf, when I first saw him). Second thing was that the main character (played badly by Brandon Routh) looks like in his late twenties, but he keeps talking about his retirement and previous life as he had decades of experience fighting supernatural things.

And third thing was the most offending: monsters. Vampires, werewolves and zombies. Monsters from "Buffy" look as super-serious works of art comparing to these ones; they are on level of "Scooby-Doo".

I won't lose more of my time on this terrible movie, nor do I recommend you to lose yours on watching it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Movie review: "Daybreakers"

This week I am on vacation, so I hope I will be able to finish all the late reviews. One of them is about "Daybreakers" a vampire action thriller I watched last week. On IMDB I found out it is about near future where vampires are dominant and human almost extinct, so they are working on some cure to fix all that.

This is true: movie takes place in near future, after some outbreak where vampires conquered the world and society. Now we have vampires living in nice houses on suburbia, going to work during night, going out to coffee-shops to drink coffee mixed with blood and so on. For the richer, there is even a possibility of modding you car to enable you driving during day. Humans are almost gone: there are few out in wilderness hiding, but most of the remnants are used for blood-farms. World-building is actually quite good and it all feels natural. There are few nice quirks separating the movie from rest of the bunch: fashion based on first half of 20th century (coats, hats and so on), colors and the fact that everybody smokes (since vampires don't have to be scared of cancer). At first sight, it looks like a nice place to live (if you are a vampire). But not everything is so well in world: extinction of humans also means a shortage of blood. And few days of blood-shortage transforms a well-mannered vampire gentleman to feral blood-crazy monster with wings.

Edward Dalton (played by Ethan Hawke) is a talented scientist working on finding a formula for substitute blood. He is also hoping he will one day be able to find cure of those have been turned to vampires against their will (like himself). After chance encounter with some escaping humans, he will hear about someone who was supposedly been able to reverse the process. This will not sit well with his boss who is satisfied by status quo and having a monopoly on blood-resources.

First part of the movie is good and sets a high standard. As I said, world-building is very good and it makes a believable world. Unfortunately, the plot is not so good. After initial introduction, this turns to some action thriller with predictable outcomes. Also, the characters and the actors that play them are not interesting, either. We have a collection of totally bland characters, with almost no characterization or explanation why are they doing whatever they are doing. From the way film started, I hoped for something in direction of "Matrix", but what I got was nowhere it.

Also, effects are not exactly fantastical. This is especially true at the end of the movie, where we are having false blood splashing in liters.

In the end, I can't say that "Daybreakers" is totally bad and that you shouldn't watch it. Just be sure no to have very high expectations, especially if you are a fan of vampire movies.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book review: "Empire in Black and Gold" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last week I finished reading "Empire in Black and Gold", by Adrian Tchaikovsky, first book in "Shadows of the Apt" series. I haven't read book in so short time for a while. It wasn't a smooth read for the whole time, but in the end, I am very satisfied with this book and I am planning to buy sequels.

Description has to start with the setting, because this is the most original part of the book. Book is taking place in world where humans have characteristics of insects: physical, mental and so on; they call themselves Kinden. This doesn't mean that this is book with insects; they are still humans. For example, Ants are able to establish a physical link with their own race members; they are good warriors and are organized in ant-hill-like city-states. Spiders on the other hand are longer-living, matriarchal society, whose members are able to subjugate others to their will (but not always successfully). Fly-kinden are small, like to steal and are able to summon wings for some periods of time. And so on... Plus, with practice and concentration, one can learn to use abilities of other races, so called Kinden-skills.

Additional difference between races is Apt. Apt-races (especially Betlees, Ants and so on) are able to understand science and use mechanical or even more advanced devices. Inapt (Spiders, Moths) can't even understand it. For example, a Spider can use bow, but cannot understand the principle of crossbow, nor can use one. The apt races give this book something of steampunk flavor.

Book takes place some five hundred years after the Revolution, when Apt-races brought down the tyranny of older races (particularly Moths). Now, so called Lowlands, consisting of some dozen city-states are undergoing a renaissance, led by Betlee ingenuity. This led them to be conceit toward less-advanced races. So, when newly established Wasp Empire starts to grow in their neighborhood, they are fast to dismiss the threat. But Stenwold Maker, member of Collegium, has seen the Wasp's violent and expansionism nature first hand. Though nobody believes him, he will endure in his beliefs and establish a wide spy-network. With help of his young protégées (his niece Che, adopted daughter Tynisa, foreign nobility Salma and half-breed student Totho), he will try to thwart the plans of Major Tharlic, a high-ranking Wasp secret-operative.

About the bumpy read I mentioned in first paragraph, I am talking about first hundred of so pages. I had some trouble adjusting to the setting: I kept imaging all the characters as insects. It was somewhat opposite experience compared to "A Deepness in the Sky" by Vernor Vinge (great book, by the way), when reader is tricked into thinking about insectoid aliens as humans. Because of this I kept thinking about this book as some children novel. It was especially annoying because of authors constant forcing of insect names for races: Flies, Beetles, Spiders.... Sanderson did much better with "The Way of Kings", when reader fully realized how alien this world is only when long into book. Anyway, after this start, when action starts, I was already acclimatized and able to dig into plot.

Plot is good, although not something exactly to praise. It is about a group of young people chasing around for their missing friends, a being chased by hostile army. There is also some magic and mystery, and some spying and politics. Nothing especially innovative, but it brings much fun. In tone, it is similar to "Vorkosigan" saga.

Same can be said about characters. All good, but nothing exceptional. There is some seven main POVs: Stenwold, Che, Tynisa, Salma, Totho, Thalric and later Acheos; there is also few minor POVs. What is interesting is that we have views from several confronted parties. Thalric is a high-ranking member of Wasp society: he is intelligent and understands that Wasps and their empire have flaws, but he is nevertheless loyal and optimistic. Totho and Acheos are members of fundamentally different races (pragmatic realist vs. mystic)... When we are mentioning Tohto, I wished the author picked some different name for him; I can't seriously consider someone with that name.

For conclusion, I want to say that "Empire of Black and Gold" is a very good start of new fantasy series (new to me; there is some six books published) that I will read with pleasure. Not book to ponder about much, but book to enjoy and have fun with.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Anime review: "Rainbow - Nisha Rokubou no Shichinin"

I first noticed "Rainbow" last year in, I think, spring anime preview of AnimeNewsNetwork. It had good grades so I decided to watch it as soon it was finished. Of course, this got little delayed, but I watched it now.

I must says first that I almost quite after watching first few episodes. I don't usually abandon anime after I once started (I did it maybe two or three times), but I was very tempted with this anime. First five episodes were quite terrible for me. It wasn't the plot but the characters. Even though this anime is marked as seinen, it doesn't give this impression at first. Sure, it has some disturbing scenes, but it is full of kids, bravado, laments about male honor, friendship and tough love. But after watching all 24 episodes, I see that quitting before end would be a serious mistake. Even though "Rainbow" has a streak of shounen during whole running (the premise that if you try hard enough, you will succeed), it is definitely a great seinen anime, very educational and inspiring.

Plot is split in two parts. First part (first twelve episodes) describes six teen boys that end in prison-like disciplinary school where they meet Sakuragi Rokurota, a boy year or two older than them. Although all boys ended there because of violence and crimes, in their core they are all good guys. And with the help of Sakuragi, their inner core will come to light and turn them into solid men. Unfortunately, not everybody is interested in their well being. They are tormented by sadistic guard Ishihara and perverted doctor Sasaki. Two of them had an additional reason to want their ill: Sakuragi knows about crimes Ishihara and Sasaki did in past. Second part (episodes 14-24; episode 13 is a recap) deal with their life after getting out of school. I liked this part much more than the first, but that is probably because I was finally accustomed to the atmosphere of this anime.

As I said, this series is a curious combination of shounen and seinen. It is idyllic about guys being able to get out of every problem by expressing super-human efforts, but the problems they get into it are always serious and real-life, and they never get without consequences. And most important, they actually learn from their mistakes. Much of the bravado in first part is actually somewhat exasperated teen perspective to life. Even though this anime promotes friendship and trying, it doesn't do it in childish way.

Seconds thing I liked about it was the zeitgeist. Although I can't be sure how precise and true this representation of life in Japan after World War 2 is, it definitely looks believable and real. Consequences of atomic bomb, poverty, PTSP, chasm between old and new generation... I never watched anime dealing with this time period before, I think.

I wouldn't discuss much about the characters, because this is what this anime is about, so I would be impossible to avoid spoilers. There are seven main characters and bunch of side characters (especially in second part), but each one is easily recognizable and memorable. This is anime with one of the best growth of characters during the running. From violent kids to respected and honorable men.

Also, I wouldn't like that you get an impression that this is some serious drama. It has a lot of humor and funny scenes, action, fighting. But everything is done in believable and real-life way.

Visuals are nothing stunning, but nothing bad also. There is lot of good music throughout the anime. One thing that irritated was that female narrator. At least it only happened once or twice shortly during every episode.

"Rainbow - Nisha Rokubou no Shichinin" is definitely a good seinen anime, although I had much problems with first few episodes. A very good watch for those how like anime about real life and real people.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Movie review: "Limitless"

Yesterday my girlfriend and I watched "Limitless" on DVD. I noticed this movie and its good reviews on IMDB so we decided to try it. It was presented as action thriller with touch of SF. We actually watched a second movie after that, but I have napped occasionally during the movie, so I will not write a port about it. It was "Sunshine", a slow space SF where group of astronauts are traveling toward the sun to reignite it, with no communication with Earth. It has a very slow beginning, but it gets much more intense later. So I didn't fall asleep because it was boring...

As I said, "Limitless" is an action thriller. It revolves around Eddie (Bradley Cooper), a not very successful writer. After his girlfriend lefts him, he bangs into his ex-brother-in-law, who gives him some drug for which he doesn't explain the effects, called NZT. It turns out that NZT enables person to use 100% of his brain, enabling Eddie to become completely aware of his surrounding, to remember every detail of his life, with bonus of extremely strong will and self-confidence. After Vern (ex-brother-in-law) gets murdered, a big stash of NZT ends in Eddie's hands. With it, Eddie completely changes his life: he finishes his book, gets his girlfriend back, starts a comet career in Wall Street. But of course, it turns out that Eddie is not the only one who knows about NZT.

The movie is very good from beginning to end. Initial description of Eddie's life, first encounter with NZT, advantages and troubles it merits him. Later, when other players start showing up, things only get better. It doesn't become too complex story, but something that could happen to everybody (in these circumstances). Much focus is put to Eddie's experience of drug's effects.

There is only one thing that got on my nerves, but it's not a flaw of the movie. It is more a flaw in humanity itself because it is completely believable that anybody would do something like this. I am talking about the fact that after getting a limited stash of such wonderful drug (well, not counting the effects), something I think most people would be willing to take, Eddie, who now has superb intelligence and will, doesn't do much to solve his problem of this limited stash. I mean, if I was to get something like this in my hands, first thing I would do would be securing the supply of it...

Technical side of the movie is quite good. There are not much special effects, but movie looks quite good. Actors also did a good job. Except Cooper, Robert De Niro is the only star in the movie.

"Limitless" is a very good movie for everybody. It has a fair amount of action, suspense and fun. A nice watch for anybody!

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Movie review: "Priest"

Yesterday I watched "Priest" over my friend's house. I haven't even heard about this movie before, so I didn't know what to expect.

It turned out that "Priest" is apocalyptic action western about vampires. After the movie it was revealed that it is based on Korean comic-book. Beginning of the movie, where they reveal the setting is quite good. It is an alternative future, where after centuries of war between humans and vampires, humans got the upper hands. All thanks to Priests, super-human-ninja clerical warriors. But now, last vampires are put into reservations and Priests are neglected, scorned by both Church that disbanded them and by society they don't fit in. Not that humanity is in some great shape. They are living in poverty in few last mega-cities, brain-washed by Church. Technology is similar to steam-punk: there are high-level computers and transparent displays, but on the other hand people still manually filling furnaces and using lamp-oils. The western part is presented by the Wastelands, where people live as first settlers and order is watched by serifs having old style guns. Instead the horses, they use motorcycles. Although this list sound stupid put on one place, it actually works very well in the movie.

Plot is starting when a young girl Lucy gets abducted by a pack of vampires, even though there shouldn't be any more of them in the while. Serif she was having a relationship finds her uncle, Priest, and two of them will go out to search for her, contrary to orders of Church. What they will find in the Wasteland is something nobody believed is possible.

Plot itself is not bad, but the realization of it is. Movie places too much in impossible actions scenes. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"-like impossible. Cutting bullets in half with throwing knives, flying/jumping and so on. Also, the last fight and resolution is totally naive and unbelievable. Too bad, because I really liked the first half of the movie.

Interesting how vampires are presented here. They are far from Ann Rice's Lestat or Twilight's Edward. Here they are something between wolves and aliens from the "Alien". They move on four foot, jump and run as wolves; they don't have eyes, have really big and slimy snouts and teeth and they excrete some sticky-looking glue they use to build their hives. And they are almost mindless. Something like zombies from "I am Legend".

There is also a 3D version of the movie, but I didn't watch it. Visuals are quite good. Paul Bettany plays Priest; rest of the cast is mainly unimportant.

One more thing: there is a large probability of sequel. The ending practically spells it, but I think it depends on the success the movie makes in cinema.

So, "Priest" is a not so good action movie with quite interesting setting. It is not something I would really recommend, but if you end watching it you will not be terribly disappointed. Even though I found the plot weak, I will probably watch the sequel if it ever comes out, but just for the setting.