Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Just started a re-read of "A Song of Ice and Fire" by George R. R. Martin

I finally decided to read "A Dance with Dragons", fifth book in what is probably currently most famous fantasy series around: "A Song of Ice and Fire". My initial plan was to wait for the paper-back edition to come out, since I didn't want to buy a hard-cover. I was also in process of buying first four books, and bought "A Game of Thrones" and "A Clash of Kings". But as I recently bought Amazon Kindle, this made me change it since now I don't have to wait for anything.

Anyway, before reading "A Dance with Dragons", I will be doing a reread of whole series so far, to refresh my memory. ASoIaF is one of my favorite series, and I have read first few books many times. But I haven't read them since I stopped going to library (some 4-5 years, now) and this will be the first time to read them in English.

I plan to make a post for each book.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Anime review: "Nisemonogatari"

Huh, I just checked, it was more than two years since I have watched "Bakemonogatari". I thought I was last year... Anyway, "Bakemonogatari" - one of my favorite anime. I was, of course, thrilled when I read that a sequel, "Nisemonogatari", is coming out. But, recently, just few weeks ago, I read a discussion on AniDB where people compared BMG and NMG, and many complained that the latter was too much ecchi?!?! I didn't like this, but I hoped for the best.

Now, after finally watching "Nisemonogatari", I must say I that this is one strange anime, even stranger that "Bakemonogatari", and I am not sure I can express my opinion of it coherently. Actually, I am not really sure even what my full opinion is. But on the other hand, let it be noted that I enjoyed it very much and I gave it 9 out of 10 on AniDB.

Anyway, in topic there are no much differences between BMG and NMG. We still follow Araragi Koyomi helping different people (well, girls), overcome their problems connected to supernatural creatures from Japanese and other mythology. As before, this anime consist 95% of talking, whether in dialog or monolog. It is like BMG just took a hiatus from airing and now continued. It has two cases/stories, both involving Koyomi's sisters, Karen and Tsukihi. And this time, difference between real and fake makes a large deal. Thus the name: Bakemonogatari = Ghost Story; Nisemonogatari = Story about pretending (or something close).

As with BMG, where we were plunged into setting without much explanation who is who and what happened previously (and some things obviously did happen before), some events have happened between BMG and NBM that are often referenced but not really explained. Oshino is gone somewhere and Shinobu plays a much, much larger role (and a great one). From one side, I hate not knowing what is going on here, but on the other hand, I really like this way of delivering information - here are the references and you pick what you can. It really entices me to watch new sequels just to find more references, although I will probably end up with more questions than answers (kind of like "Malazan Book of the Fallen"). What I should have done was to watch BMG again before I started watching this sequel, although this is not guarantee that my sense of confusion would me weaker.

So, you are now probably wondering where the strange part is. Well, I am pretty much sure that "Bakemonogatari" didn't revolve around sex as much as "Nisemonogatari". And while my memory regarding this can be somewhat faulty, I am positive that it didn't include any incest. Well, this is not hentai and there is no real incest, but innuendo is quite strong. And not only incest, anime plays with other fetishes like lolicon and harem. There is also lots of fanservice. But all this doesn't feel like ecchi anime, but more like the anime mock it. I am not really sure how to explain this. Also, I presume that this all would sound strange to someone not into anime, so don't even try to tackle this anime if you are a beginner.

There are few things I would like to highlight. First, I would like to see more of Senjougahara. I found her character fascinating in first season - this time she felt much subdued. On the other hand, Shinobu, who played a marginal role in BMG, was the top character for me this time. And I especially liked the ending...

There is not really much I can say in conclusion. Even if you loved "Bakemonogatari", there is no guarantee that you will like "Nisemonogatari" (contrary is true - if you hated BMG, you will hate NMG, too). High quality is still here, just that it have taken some new, strange routes - only for those with acquired taste.

Some time later...

Well, it turns out I was wrong: there are people who hated BMG, and liked NMG. I just read the recommendations on AniDB page of "Nisemonogatari" and there are no two opinions alike. Some hate it because it's too much like BMG; others love it because of it. Some love it because it's not like BMG; others hate it because of it?! To some it's too ecchi, to other it's not enough... As I said, a strange anime.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Book review: "The Cold Commands" by Richard Morgan

I have read "The Steel Remains", first in "A Land fit for Heroes" by Richard Morgan almost a year ago and I liked the book very much. My only objection was ending, which didn't make much impact nor was epic as expected from building up. I know this sounds conflicting, because ending is what usually make the biggest impression, but this just wasn't such a book. It had a great characters and world-building, was very gritty and violent and I liked it because of that. If its story wasn't epic enough, it was nevertheless a great enjoyment to read through it.

While I was buying its sequel, "The Cold Commands" (I bought a Kindle edition), I encountered some poor reviews of it, which made me think I made a bad investment. But these reviews, with my experience from first book, actually made this book better for me, because I knew not to expect an epic fantasy.

I am not sure that this book has a real, overall plot. Instead, we follow our three main characters, Ringil, Archet and Egar, in another set of adventures that in the end make them gather once again. Since last book, Ringil Eskiath, a League noble-man, war hero and exiled homosexual, has set himself to self-proclaimed war against slavery. But after he angers enough people, he will be forced to flee and abandon his efforts. Egar Dragon, a Majak barbarian with taste for pleasures of the city has decided to abandon his steppes and once again enjoy in decadence of Imperial City of Yhelteth. There he "acts" as bodyguard of lady kir-Archet Indamaninarmal (wrote it properly in only two attempts), but actually does much and grows bored. Archet herself, as senior adviser of Yhelteth Empereor and last Kiriath on this world, has gotten a mission to wait for some kind of messenger. The meandering stream of events will lead these threes friend together and they will once again be forced to confront the menace from last book, the dwenda.

OK, I know this "sounds" like a plot, but trust me, it is not in real sense of the word. "The Cold Commands" serves as a classical transitional book, from introductory and world-building first one, to closing third one. So, instead on plot, it focuses on characters and world-building, with fascinating results. We learn new information, about now finished war against lizards, about dragons, dwenda, Kiriath, Grey Places, and so on. I really like how Morgan made this sound like some strange mix of SF and fantasy, with references like "The cat is nor dead or alive", and with the concept of Helmsmen. He also succeeded with making Grey Places a very confusing and intriguing place.

Characters are also on high level. Ringil is this time described as bad-ass anti-hero ("Ringil Eskiath. Faggot dragonslayer."). If you like to read about tough guys spitting in the face of the world and authority, this is you book - Rambo (in first part) looks like a kitten compared to him. But you have to give him the credit; he doesn't do it without any reason or purely out of spite (although spite does make large portion of it), but because loyalty and his own sense of honor. Egar is done much better than in last book. His plot-line unfortunately doesn't hold much meaning, but he is a very fun and intense character to read about. Archet felt very subdued throughout whole book and not as competent as she was described previously, but I presume that forcing yourself off from very addictive drug makes you like that. Well, there is another reason for her anxiety, and I must admit that I didn't understand it until the very end.

Again, I have an objection regarding the ending. This time, I found it somewhat confusing and I didn't get it completely how Ringil did what he did. But this is only a small objection, and I think that a reread would help me with understanding. Not a real complaint, but more of an observation - don't expect some artistic writing and language. This book is very down-to-earth and gritty.

Well, since I am mentioning grittiness, I have to warn you: this is one of the most violent and gritty books I have ever read. Close description of gang-rape, sex, detailed memories of very war, very bloody and violent description of fighting... Also, if you have something against scenes of gay and lesbian sex, this is not a book for you.

But, I you like action-packed books about ass-kicking anti-heroes, with really clever world-building and gritty characters, then "The Cold Commands" IS a book for you. I really enjoyed it and am looking forward to the sequel and last book in trilogy.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Book review: "Salute the Dark" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last week I finished another book in Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Shadows of the Apt" series that mashes up fantasy with steampunk, "Salute the Dark". This book was supposed to finish the first of the mini-cycles in series. Well, it does, and does it in very good and surprising way.

Minor spoilers about previous books ahead.

There are several plots here, some on large scope, and some on private, single people way. After the recovery of Shadowbox, a powerful magical item, and after all those feinting and minor skirmishes, thing have finally come to apex. Wasp Empire has finally decided to show its full muscles and large armies are coming to Lowlands to decide its fate and those of its allies. After finally succeeding in committing all those bickering city-states to common cause, Stenwold Maker doesn't have any more options, except going north to Commonweal and asking will they join the fight against Wasps. On the other side of the world, around Exalsee, Taki, Nero and Teornis will each try to do their best in rising Spiderlands against Wasp invaders. And in the center of the Lowland, Sarn and Collegium are preparing for sieges. Balkus and Parops are leading their own contingent allied with Sarn, while Salma is leading his rag-tag army in largely successful guerrilla-offensive against closing Wasp Army. Acheos has come back home, trying to find and provide help in Tharn. Che has decided to rouse Myna once again, this time with help of their new and untrustworthy ally, Major Tharlic. A bit further in the Empirse, city of Szar has already rebelled, but Totho and his mentor Drephos are coming to crush them. Tisamon, drawn to madness by pressure of his "betrayals" has decided to throw his life away, while Tynisa is trying to save him. But all their efforts will be to naught, if Uctebry the Moquito Magician succeeds in his plan and opens the Box of Shadows.

I don't know for further books, but these four books set a pattern: 1st and 3rd were slower and narrower, only introducing new places and people, while 2nd and 4th made some big developments and action. Since 5th is a start of a new cycle, I presume it will again be only introductory. But let's get back to this book. Even though it is quite short, 450 pages, it feels larger. Often important and epic events are described only off-hand and shortly, which contributed to the pace, but this worked quite well in my opinion.

One of the main topics of Tchaikovsky's books so far was the difference between new and old, usually presented through war and fighting. Inapt races are described as anachronistic, but at the same time romantic, where their way of fighting is "clean" and "honorable". The new Apt races are only interested in efficiency, so they usually got defeated badly. And now we have the new Wasp weapons of mass destruction, which are so efficient that they even freak out other Wasps.

Although I had some inkling about this being the last book of this part of the series, I was surprised how concluding and definitive this ending was. Tchaikovsky closed all plot-lines started in previous books and if he decided not to continue the series, nobody would be able to complain anything about unresolved story. Even bigger surprises were the fates of main character. So far, Tchaikovsky didn't look like a writer ready to terminate characters in such definitive way.

The only large flaw of the series is still characters that I am unable to connect to. Even after four books, I can't say I really care about their problems, pains and fates. Pity, because with this, "Shadows of the Apt" would be one of best ongoing series. Also, a touch of humor would also improve things.

Nevertheless, with "Salute the Dark" Tchaikovsy decently continued qualities he introduced in first three books: original blend of fantasy and steampunk, solid and fast story, with good characters. If you liked prequels, you will definitely love this one. And let's hope that next one, "Scarab Path" will be even better.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Anime review: "Steins Gate"

I noticed "Steins Gate" several times while searching for anime I could watch, but I didn't like the the fact that it was adapted from dating-sim, and I thought the premise too goofy (something about micro-wave and time-machines). Also, I wrongly understood that there was no overall story, but that it was episodic anime. But few weeks ago I didn't have anything else to watch and somewhere on AnimeNewsNetwork read something about "Steins Gate being the best anime of the season", so I decided to give it a try after all. And it was bingo!

Main character, one Okabe Rintarou, is an idiot, plainly said. He is an almost grown man, constantly wearing a lab-coat and hangs in some room he calls his laboratory with two his friends (male hacker Daru and female childhood friend Mayuri) where they "invent" useless and usually not-working gadgets. More so, he calls himself Houin Kyoma, a mad scientist and next evil overlord. When he is in public, he constantly talks to his turned-off mobile phone, pretending he is chased by some Organization and fantasying improbable scenarios. But what happens when one of his crazy theories turns out to be the truth, and a fixed-up microwave in their apartment is really a time-machine?

"Steins Gate" starts quite slow and nothing much happens in first couple of episodes, but after that it turns in one of the best time-travelling works I ever watched. Sure, if you are a moderate science-fan, you will be able to find holes and inconsistencies in their theories. But if you are able to go with the flow, you will find this a great anime about consequences implications of time travel. I really liked how they used modern and popular references, like CERN and LHC. What differentiates this anime from similar is that they really explore the implications of time traveling, not just as a instrument of plot, but from psychological and philosophical side - what happens to time-lines he travels from, how many times can someone watch the same bad thing happens, how lonely is to meet persons again and again when they have no recollections of you, and so on. This is a kind of animated mix of "Groundhog Day" and "Conspiracy Theory"

Story is quite good, fast and it changes several times. After initial slow start, you get several fun episodes where they discover abilities of their time-machine and here start the twists. Surprisingly, episodes after 10th become quite dark and serious, not something what I would expect at the start. My worst part of the anime was three or four episodes toward the end (where Okabe has to cancel the effects of his actions) - they are too much like dating-sim and not much happens. But ending itself, two last episodes, is simply great.

Of course, all characters are good, but Okabe is quite something. You just have to love his way of speaking - pretentious rambling, making up funny names for others (and usually guessing the right spot), his "mad scientist" laugh... On the other hand, during the course of anime he proves himself surprisingly grown up, serious and caring. But fear not, he doesn't lose his goofiness. He is the primary generator of humor and are quite many funny scenes. Most of the other characters (except Daru and one other guy) are of course young girls - this was made after dating-sim after all. They are not so much developed as Okabe and they are typical characters you would expect from such anime, but this doesn't mean they are bad - on the contrary.

Visual side of the anime is good, but nothing impressive. I did like the voices of characters, especially Okabe's.

In the end, I just want to say that you must not think less of "Steins Gate" for being adapted from dating-sim - it is one full-blooded seinen anime, with great plot and character development, suitable for anybody. Consider it especially if you like harder sci-fi.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Movie review: "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy"

Last week my girlfriend and I decided to go to movies and "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy" was the only movie with good enough description and playing at acceptable time. Garry Oldman was also one of the reasons I wanted to watch it.

The premise of the movie is very simple and straightforward: Cold War England, head-quarters of intelligence service, retired famous spy, a traitor.

This straightforwardness is at the same time the best and worst part of it. This is really a hard-core Cold War spy movie: there is not much action; characters take much time revisiting past and thinking why someone acted as he has. There is some stealing of documents, pretending that you are somebody else... If you like such movies, you will be very satisfied. But on the other hand, this is not anything more than a spy movie. In first few minutes you learn that there is a traitor, and in last few minutes you learn who it was - everything between is one curvy, but single line.

Performance of this movie is really on the top level. Member of the secret service are all a bit eccentric, so there is much humor, but it is of that quiet and intelligent type. On the other side, there are also few hard and cruel scenes, because life of a professional spy is such. Beginning of the movie is somewhat slow, where nothing happens. Gary Oldman is a main actor, but in first half hour, I don't think he says a word (although he is on screen). There are also few other famous British actor, so this part is good.

All in all, "Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy" is not a movie to be excited about (except if you are a fan), but a good enough movie for anyone.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Book review: "The Dragon's Path" by Daniel Abraham

First I would like to say that recently I have finally bought Amazon Kindle. I was playing with the idea for some time, but my initial decision was to wait a year or two for this technology settle properly. What made my change my decision was very mundane: a lack of space for books. I am still living at my parent's house and have a relatively small room with only two bookshelves on the wall. So when I recently come close to filling them fully, I realized that I will have to invest in a new one, but I was already tight with space. This also made me thinking, what will I do when I move out (probably to some apartment): bring all my 100+ book with me? So I decided to make thins investment -which turned out to be much smaller than I thought will be. I decided to take the basic version, even without 3G (only WiFi), because I have a good smartphone I can use for Internet (Samsung Galaxy S II). Now, after completing my first book I am very satisfied. I was able to read without any problem, even easier that with real book - you can choose font-size you like, "paper" was not too bright and there was no gloss. You can change pages easily and move between chapters. Built-in dictionary is also useful. Device itself fits very nicely in hand, and in lap, which I important to me because I like to read when I am eating. Only drawback was that I wasn't able to see all details on the map in book. But all in all, I am more than satisfied with Kindle and I don't plan to buy any more paper books, except in case where there is no Kindle edition.

So, first book that I read on my Kindle was "The Dragon's Path" by Daniel Abraham. I have read his probably most famous work for now - "The Long Price Quartet". I think these are exceptionally well written books, but although I had enjoyed them, I can't say they were among my favorites and I haven't made any special connection to the setting or characters. After "The Dragon's Path" was published last year, I read some very good reviews about it, telling how Abraham retained his quality but wrote much more classical epic fantasy work. I concur with these reviews, because I found it extremely enjoyable, a kind of book you try to read in one sitting. I hope this will be a start of great series, one called "The Dagger and the Coin Quintet".

There are four main characters in "The Dragon's Path" and story is told from their point of view (in third-person narration), although two more characters get each a small chapter or two. Captain Marcus Wester was a famous captain and warrior, but after a jealous betrayal by his lord, he found his place as a leader of caravan guards, a mere mercenary usually leading half a dozen men. His latest job is to take one of the last caravans from Vanai, a soon to be besieged trading town, one of Free Cities neighboring the Antea Kindgom. Cithrin is a young girl of seventeen years, who lost her parents at four years and since has been a ward of Medean Bank in Vanai, living there and learning to be a banker one day. But because of closing siege and pressure from ruling Prince, a leader of this branch of bank decides to move its riches secretly. After the murder of person who was supposed to take it from the town, Cithrin is forced to take his place masked as Tag the Carter, a place in caravan guarded by Captain Wester. Geder Palliako is a knight in army that is coming to conquer Vanai. He is a good and likable guy, a minor noble, but because of this goodness and his social awkwardness he is often bullied and teased by his peers. After one such joke, where his superior burn his favorite book, the firmly decides to take his revenge on him. Last one is Lord Dawson Kalliam, one of the strongest and most important nobles in Antea, now a man in his middle years with grown up children. His constant feuding with one of his peers will take him to discover a possible plot against his King - first only by reducing King's power by installing a farmer's council, but later with much worse consequences.

The setting Abraham came up for his new series, "The Dagger and the Coin Quintet", is one that fantasy fans will find more familiar then in "The Long Price" quartet, but on the other hand, one with enough originality to not be a common one. But the best part is that Abraham is very scarce with details and although he made a very believable and realistic setting with so few, he left much more for fans to explore in next books.  Few thousand years ago all land was united in the Dragon Empire, one literary ruled by dragons. Thirteen races of humanity were then designed and created by dragons, with Firstbloods (regular humans) as first. Other races are also human, but with specific traits (some are larger, some are smaller, some have reptilian features, and so on). Due to infighting between dragons, their Empire collapsed and the only that is left from then are the Dragon Roads, indestructible jade roads that connect new kingdoms and cities. Technology is classic medieval, but commerce plays a big role. There is magic which is wide known and taken for normal, but it is rare and weak (cunning-men can heal minor wounds, make some weak physical effects like calling the wind, and so on).

But what make this book exceptional are the characters. Marcus and Cithrin present the lower side, common people. They are both realistically written and both are neither perfect nor plane. Marcus is troubled by death of his wife and daughter, and during book his decision are influenced by the fact that Cithrin remind him to his daughter. As his companion ask him: does he do things because Cithrin remind him of her, or does he act differently in spite of it. Cithrin is a classical young character thrown into circumstances over her head. She is spiteful, sometimes weak and sometimes full of herself, but always interesting to read - there are few big turns and surprises with her story. I read some reviews that say that her part was too full of boring economics, but I didn't found it so - at the contrary, I found the realism of it very refreshing.

So, Marcus and Cithrin are great characters, but Geder and Dawon are above this - two really thought-provoking characters. Geder is one character many will be sympathetic for, even find connection to. He is thoughtful and oversensitive, likes books and reading - although he is nice guy, he is a target of teasing by his companions. It makes you forget that he is a knight, trained in killing people, and even though he is only minor nobility and not very rich, he had a protected and easy childhood - not so much compared to his peers, but miles above common people. And what he will do during this book... We can't call it really evil because there were no evil intentions and he does it from naivety, but I don't think he would fare well on the International Court of Justice in Haag! And as for Dawson... He is intelligent but wise, sure in himself but not too demanding of others. He is rich, powerful and loyal - a lord everyone decent could look up to without jealousy. He likes dogs and you just cannot dislike him. But at the same time, he is racist, chauvinist and elitist. He thinks about other races as slaves and less than animals - common people he regards maybe some better than animals. When you read his talk about raising pig-headers, you are disgraced that you are both humans. But what is much worse, he sound very convincing and sensible! Abraham did a great job with him - it's like Abraham is using Dawson to invite and challenge you to prove him wrong and to prove yourself better than him.

Other characters that we meet though book are also interesting. The acting troupe for some reason reminded me much to "Tigana" by Guy Gavriel Kay, although without any specific reason.

Book is some 600 pages long and is really easy to read. It is well rounded and has a completing ending. But you have to have in mind that this is only first book in series and that will have at least four more. What it does is introduce the setting and some players - real action will only follow. Threat of the Spider Goddess is only indicated, but I am looking forward reading more about it.

In many ways "The Dragon's Path" reminded me to "The Darkness That Comes Before" by R. Scott Bakker - original setting with history and realism, interesting and flowing story, amazing and provocative characters, combined with great writing. If sequels retain this quality, this series deserves to be placed among the best fantasy series out there now.