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.

Movie review: "Horrible Bosses"

Although we used to watch movies at my friend's place at Friday, for some time now we have been re-watching the complete "Seinfeld", which is one of our all-time favorite shows. But this Friday we made an exception for other friend who doesn't like it and watched some movie, a comedy "Horrible Bosses".

The movie follows three main characters who all have problems with their bosses: Nick is working in some large firm where he is constantly overused and degraded by his sadistic boss Dave; Kurt is very satisfied with his work and boss until he dies and gets replaced by his son, an immature cocaine-addict; Dale is having problems with his sex-crazy boss who is trying to seduce him. This is all going for some time until one night, during drinking in a bar, they start fantasizing about killing them. After stress becomes even stronger, they decide to turn their fantasy to reality. Of course, nothing will go as they plan...

As comedies goes, this one is a typical. It has a predicting and not-too-deep plot, but jokes are usually good and fairly intelligent. There is some toiler-humor but not too much. Biggest curiosity of this movie is the stars that play in it (as support characters): Kevin Spacey, Colin Farrell, Jennifer Aniston, Donald Sutherland and Jamie Foxx.

"Horrible Bosses" is not a movie that will be long remembered, but is a good comedy for various audience and it can give a fun for hour and a half.