Monday, July 23, 2012

Book review: "The Sword of Shannara" by Terry Brooks

When I started buying books from Amazon (also, kudos for this), I checked Wikipedia and other resources for examples of epic fantasy, especially for longer series. In such way I found about "The Wheel of Time" by Robert Jordan, "Malazan Book of the Fallen" by Steven Erikson, "Belgariad/Malloreon" by David Eddings, "The Rifttwar Saga" by Raymond E. Feist... There are many series, most of which I haven't still read, although for the most I have plan to read them eventually. Since I was self-restricted on one book per month, I had much spare time, so I would usually read detailed synopsis, sometimes even for the whole series. One of these was the whole "Shannara" series by Terry Brooks. This was one series that I didn't really like from what I read about it - it all smelled me too much of sucking money from the fans (something like Feist). Repetitive stories, jumping back in time, mixing it with urban fantasy... But the first few books sounded OK, and I found it mentioned a lot on blogs I follow, so when an e-book containing first three books of the series (the original "Shannara Trilogy") become available (for fair price, even) I decided to buy it. Even if it was bad, it would be an education experience - reading on of the classics of fantasy. This is my review of the first book, "The Sword of Shannara".

Since this is one of classics and it was written in seventies, the usual fantasy plot was somewhat expected. Two brothers, Shea and Flick, are living peaceful lives in Shady Vale. This is all interrupted when they are visited by Allanon, who they know only as wandering mystic, historian and philosopher. Allanon explains Shea, who was adopted in Ohmsford family, that he is a direct and only living descendant of ancient Elven King Jerle Shannara, and us such he is the only person in whole world capable of wielding his heritage, the Sword of Shannara. This is necessary because an old enemy of mankind, the Warlock Lord, is again on rise and is threatening to destroy all civilization. So Shae must journey to Paranor, old Druid Keep, to find the Sword and defeat the Warlock Lord. On his journey he is joined by his brother Flick, their friend Menion, and later by Balinor (Prince of old Human Kindgdom of Callahorn, dedicated to guarding the Human frontier), Handel (a Dwarf), and Durin and Dayel (two Elven nobles). And of course, Allanon, who is in fact the last Druid. On their journey they are opposed by Skull Bearers (black winged minions of Warlock Lord), Gnomes and Trolls.

If this reminds you to "The Lord of the Rings", this is because "Sword of Shannara" is pretty much blatant (and worse) copy of it. There is an escape from remote and peaceful valley without guidance, scary black pursuers with blood-freezing screams, a party composed of all free races... There is even a tentacle-monster living in a lake and a journey under a mountain. I know that many fantasy series found their inspiration in LotR (some would say even my beloved WoT), but not in this way and not this much. Later in the book things start moving off from Tolkien and start sounding original and interesting, but damage was already done at this point.

One good thing that Brooks does is in making a setting with interesting history, one that is connected to our present one. The bad side of it is that it is revealed in a big and obvious info-dump on the very beginning. It would be much more convincing if he had found some gradual way to reveal it. Also, there is very little sense of novelty in this book. Our heroes visit the villages of Dwarves and Gnomes, but we found almost nothing about them - like they are not different and they visit them every day. In fact, everything I know about the Gnomes in this book is that they are "yellowish" and "smaller than man" - almost nothing about their physical look, society, intelligence, habits... Similar for other races.

I usually refrain from second-guessing the characters, because this is the death of books (you know, why just they didn't kill Sauron or destroyed the Ring and saved themselves from troubles), but this book has so many problems that I just couldn't stop myself. Most of it sounds unconvincing and inconsistent. Shae founds out a complete reversal of everything he knew and believed, immediately accepts it and calmly proceeds with planning what next he will do. Handel is taciturn, moody, cheerful, grizzled, scared of basements (a racial trait of Dwarves!!!), brave, masterful tactician... I know people are complex, but not this much. All enemies are stupid, clumsy, gullible and incompetent - while our heroes are lucky, smart and dexterous. 

Then there are problems with Brook's writing. First, enemies are totally indistinctive - there is only two named enemies, one of the being the main big bad. Constant in-paragraph changes of POV are slightly irritating, especially at first. I couldn't make a mental picture of any characters - I couldn't even determine the age of Shae and Flick (somewhere between 16 and 36). Using contemporary expressions like "robotlike appearance" and "Spartanlike barracks" didn't help. My favorite was description of Hendel stalking on his "catlike feet" - a Dwarf with a "catlike feet"!!!

Tolkien received some objections for lack of strong female characters, but here there is absolutely no female characters in first half of book (except two (two!) mentions of Hendel's absent wife and Dayel's absent fiancĂ©e each). No one has wife, mother or daughter - especially not Gnomes, Trolls or Dwarves (there was some vague impression that Humans live in families, so I presume they include women). And when that one female character appear (her name is Shirl Ravenlock and she is a redhead Princess - I didn't know ravens are red) her only purpose is to be an object of love and something to protect for one of main characters. She actually says that her only wish is to support him (from away, I presume).

In conclusion, "The Sword of Shannara" is a terrible book, worse even than those by Terry Goodkind (if there wasn't Terry Pratchet, I would say that the name Terry was cursed). You know that feeling when you are read a good book and you just can't leave it without reading another page/paragraph/sentence. Well, I didn't felt in once while reading this book. What's worse, I am now stuck with reading the whole trilogy.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Anime review: "The Flower We Saw That Day"

Sometime around last weekend I finished watching "The Flower We Saw That Day" (or "Ano Hi Mita Hana no Namae o Bokutachi wa Mada Shiranai"). I really don't know how I missed noticing this anime before, nor do I really remember how I found it - I am usually more organized about this things. Before watching, I had a vague impression of being something similar to "Hachimitsu to Clover".

So, "The Flower We Saw That Day" is a story about a formal group of friends, told mainly from the story of Yadomi Jinta (or Jintan for friends). When they were little, Jintan, Anaru, Jukiatsu, Tsuruko, Poppo and Menma were best friends, a group called "Super Peace Busters". But after an accident where Menma lost her life made the group grow apart. But life got even worse for Jintan: soon after he lost her mother due to illness, which turned him into hikikomori, not going to school and rarely leaving his house. But one hot day of summer, looking as she would look if she was alive, Menma appears in his house visible only to him, and asks him to fulfill her wish. A wish that will need him to reform the former group - which will not prove easy...

In basis, this anime is a melodramatic story about group of young people, mixed with daily life and romance categories. So yes, it is pretty much similar to "Hachimitsu to Clover", probably the top-most reference in such type of anime. I was hooked up from the first episode, which is very dynamic and strange at first. One difference is that it is a bit more focused on male audience - or maybe it would be better to say that it is less focused on women audience - making this a seinen anime. The second difference is much more important - it involves super-natural element, character of Menma. Anime plays pretty well with this concept - is it really Menma's ghost that only Jintan can see, or is it just his stress, as he tends to believe. I really like this this game, so I was very disappointed when they revealed the truth around the middle of the show. There is a lot of drama and revelations, which are mostly not easily predictable.

Anime jumps regularly between the present and the past, a time of childhood of "Super Peace Busters". All characters are pretty well developed, the main six and few supportive. I really like when they invest in making characters wear different sets of clothes!! Also, it is obvious that they have a life out of scope of plot - they have part-time jobs, hobbies...  

Animation is pretty good and detailed, and I once again compliment of design of characters, and especially their clothes. Voices were also good, but I can't say I remembered much of OP and ED songs. There are 11 episodes, which is perfect - they would probably become over-dramatic if they stretched it to more episodes. This way episodes stay very intense. Also, ending is left somewhat undecided, which makes you wish for another episode telling what happened after - but I don't think there is a room for sequel.

"The Flower We Saw That Day" is an anime for the fans of "Hachimitsu to Clover" or for those who liked "Clannad" or "Ef - a Tale of Memories" and now want something more serious. It has a nice plot, interesting and deep characters, a bit of supernatural and tragedy. It is not the best in genre, but I don't think it will disappoint anybody who is a fan of such anime - at the contrary!

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Movie review: "Snow White and the Huntsman"

This weekend my girlfriend and I went to movies to watch "Snow White and the Huntsman". We were talking about it or "Prometheus", but this one was playing at better time. We first saw the trailer for it few months ago and decided we will definitely go watch it because it was great. But as movie came out, I found few reviews proclaiming it as a disappointment, and telling that trailer was misleading. Now, after watching it, I think they are half-way right: trailer is misleading, but the movie is not as bad as they said.

"Snow White and the Huntsman" is an movie-adaptation of the classical fairy-tail, but with additional elements and a bit darker and more violent. After Snow White's mother dies, her father the King is in great mourning. One day he rides out to defeat a strange, black-glass army that appeared at his boarders. The army is defeated fairly easy, and in their mist they found a prisoner, young and beautiful Ravenna, who immediately catches the King's eye and heart. But on the night of the wedding, it turns out that she is actually a witch and a Trojan horse - after killing the King, she lets in the real army lead by her brother Finn, imprisons Snow White, and starts her long-year tyranny. But now, after several years and her beauty is starting to fade (despite the countless lives of innocent girl she had spent saving it), her only option is to takes Snow White's youth...

After this point, new elements starts creeping in, but mixed it classical fantasy (and Snow White's) tropes: the Dark Wood, huntsman, dwarves, fairies, poison apple... Don't expect miracles, this is not LotR, but story is OK. There is only one scene that was too much (with that elk, you will recognize it), and there is a bit of pathetic drama toward end, but all-in-all, it was a satisfying movie.

I was positively surprised with the character of Ravenna. In the fairy-tail, she would be an evil-stepmother - no reasons, not history, just evil... But in the movie, there is a revelation how and why she became what she is now - also revealing her weak side.

The dwarves were pretty funny, as it was intended. Beith kept reminding me on Ian McShane - and I was pretty surprised after I later read that this was Ian McShane... I don't usually comment on the physical looks (either good or bad), but they could have found someone prettier to play the role of Snow White - Kristen Stewart is not the one to be "the only one looking fairer in the whole land" than Charlize Theron.... Chris Hemsworth had a pretty decent part, as had Sam Claflin.

A big NO for the "rumored sequel"!

All in all, not as good as it could be, but better than I expected. A "Snow White and The Huntsman" is a nice action-adventure movie based on a darker version of Snow White fairy-tail.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

TV show review: "Game of Thrones", second season

I didn't mention it before, at least I think, but I have been watching the second season of "Game of Thrones" as episodes were coming out, so I wanted to make a few short notes about it.

This season was adapted from "A Clash of Kings", a second book in "A Song of Ice and Fire" series by George R. R. Martin. But contrary to the first season, which followed "A Game of Thrones" book quite faithfully (with reduction necessary to transform 800+ pages book to 10 hours show), this wasn't true for the new season. Yes, in general it is the same content, but plot, structure and characters have been changed - the degree is of this change is negotiable. To me, who have read aCoK half a dozen times and consider myself a fan of ASoIaF, this change was too large. I presume for a causal read, someone that read it once and had no big interest in the series, this was not so important. But I spent most of my time bitching how they changed this thing or that...

On the other hand, although I can't be a real objective observer, for a TV show, it is a good stuff. A large cast backed up with good acting, interesting and complex plot, unique setting (for a TV)... I think that everyone how doesn't have anything particular against fantasy can enjoy this show. Most of the people who I talked to about "Game of Thrones" liked it, except for those few who didn't like it because it was fantasy. But these same people didn't like "Lord of the Rings" or "Star Wars"...

I didn't like how Tyrion was softened, but they made it up for him with last episodes - and that explosion was really something! On the other hand, they made a success with making Joffrey look as the ultimate prick. Arya's plot was OK, but it was a bit over-the-top mixing it with Tywin's. Daenery's parts were a complete disaster, in my opinion. Jon's part was good, although it lacked complexity it has in book. They destroyed Bran's part, but I think they did it OK with Theon's. Although I am not sure what to think about him, after "A Dance with Dragons".

I am curious what will they do with the third book, which is quite longer that first two - split it into two season, rise the number of episodes or reduce the book content...

For conclusion, although I can't say I really liked this show, I think that second season of "Game of Thrones" is a good and enjoyable show. I am planning on watching the third season - and probably complaining all the way..

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book review: "Iron Angel" by Alan Campbell

I was very busy this week (had two whole-day trips) so I didn't found time before today, even though I finished "Iron Angel" by Alan Campbell last weekend. This is the second book in trilogy called "Deepgate Codex", and sincerely, I haven't expected much from it. You know the drill: new author, first trilogy, second book - it usually ends badly. But "Iron Angel" just proved me wrong...

"Iron Angel" is separated in three parts. First part is what I expected - after defeating and killing god Ulcis, ex-Church angel Dill and ex-Spine (Church assassins) Rachel Heal are on the run from Deepgate. Even though they finally come on friendly terms with immortal and invincible Carnival, her craving for blood separated them, so now they are on their own. Chased be Spine, who took over things in Deepgate, they will soon learn that there are other enemies to consider. Rys, god of flowers and knives, had sent his elder brother Cosnipol, god of brine and salt, to investigate Ulcis' death and avenge him.

So far, if you have read enough books, this is a pattern you probably recognize - after defeating the big bad in first book or season, our heroes find themselves in trouble after finding out that big bad was only a captain. With defeating him, they just forced his superiors (real big bad) so turn his attention toward them. Another trope is when it is revealed that big bad was not so bad after all and he was actually keeping poor and weak people from the real big bad (e.g. "Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann" in anime, or "Mistborn" trilogy by Brandon Sanderson in books). First part of the book follows the first trope, while second and third are closer to the second one.

Reading second part was like reading a totally new series. Only things connecting it to "Scar Night" was Dill as main character and seeing things from his POV. In third part we lose even that, although some old characters come back. Plot and setting expansion introduced in these two parts is quite big. As you noticed, I am trying to avoid spoilers, so you will have to believe me that they are both great. I am only sorry that I didn't reread "Scar Night" before reading "Iron Angel" (I didn't expect such turn-around), so I can't be sure if setting is consistent. I was especially surprised and delighted by resolution regarding PRC management - I am only sorry that the effect will be spoiled in my second reading. There are some real clever details that make this setting very complex. Plot in general is very interesting and completely unpredictable.

Pace of plot is very fast, maybe even a bit too fast. I wouldn't mind this book being a hundred or two pages longer (it is only 500 pages long) - but I am a fan of complex settings and I am always hungry for new details. But on the other hand, that would make "Iron Angel" less impressive book - such hard pace make it very intensive and it's not letting you relax. One of best points of this book was its description of Hell (whole second part) and characters connected to it. It was done really originally and the effect of it was surreal. Or maybe weird. In any case, it was great and unexpected. You should be warned that there is a lot of graphic violence, and even more blood. Blood is actually one of its structural elements.

Characters are very nicely written and interesting. They remain a bit mysterious because their reasons and motivations are left hidden. But when Campbell devotes himself to them, he makes them feel believable and real. There is a bunch of new and important characters: Hasp, Alice Harper, Mina Green, John Anchor... My only surprise was that Carnival was almost nonexistent in this book - but maybe she will have a larger role in the last book.

The biggest surprise comes at the end - and then book ends with an enormous cliffhanger. It almost made me immediately go to Amazon and buying its sequel, but I was able to stop myself.

"Iron Angel" was a terrific book introducing massive amount of new elements, a big surprise when I expected weak and tepid sequel. If last part, "God of Clocks", is good as this one, "Deepgate Codex" will be promoted to one of my favorite short series of all time. A recommendation to everybody who searches for a bit of unconventional fantasy.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Movie review: "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides"

This weekend I watched "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" with my girlfriend. I liked first three movies in PotC series, and the fact that this part is based upon a very good book of the same title by Tim Powers was an additional treat. That is, until I watched the movie.

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" has the weakest plot of the movies from the series so far. It features Jack Sparrow in search for the Fountain of Youth, sometimes with and sometimes against notorious captain Blackbeard. In this mess are also included long known characters as Master Gibbs and Captain Barbossa, and some new one as Angelica (ex-nun, daughter of Blackbeard and Jack's past love), Ponce de Leon, Spanish Armada, sirens... PotC movies were always flamboyant, but usually there was some sense and consistency to the plot - now there is almost none. And connection to "On Stranger Tides" by Tim Powers is almost nonexistent - there is some voodoo present, and I presume that character of Philip is loosely based on early Jack Chandagnac from the book. Characters are also worse than in previous movies, without much sparks - I especially disliked Barbossa this time.

All in all, quite disappointment if you expected much from this movie, whether you like first three movies or the book it is allegedly based upon. On the other hand, "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is decent enough pirates-based comedy for a lazy afternoon, to watch with your family.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Anime review: "Fate/Zero" 2012

Last week I finished watching "Fate/Zero (2012)". I don't think there was any real reason to split this in two seasons because it directly continues first, unfinished season that ends in cliffhanger. These two should be watched together, as one anime with 25 episodes - even the numbers of episodes confirm this.

(some cool picture I accidentally found)

As I said in my first review, it is a fighting anime featuring a contest for Holy Grail between 7 pairs of Masters and Servants. It includes magic associations and mages, Church, legendary and real heroes (Gilgamesh, Alexander the Great, "King Arthur"), mercenaries with guns, and many other elements. The premise is simple, but plot is complex (for an anime) and fast, full of convoluted plans, and it is interesting to follow.

This second part of "Fate/Zero" anime is much more intense than the first one, and it actually contains some real fights between Servants - all fights in first part ended in draw or were interrupted. I already said that it is much faster than first, and it is also much more violent and crueler. I was surprised several times with what happened to characters, especially with Emiya Kiritsugu in his recollections. Characters are the same and there are no new additions, but we learn more about history of few of them. I was very pleased and surprised with the ending - also, I found the scene with nude Gilgamesh quite hilarious.

This part finally explains the connection between "Fate/Zero" and "Fate/Stay Night", but you can learn even more from Wikipedia article. I also caught some references to "Kara no Kyoukai".

Anime retains high visual and audio standards set by first part and are really good. I was impressed how CGI was inoffensive (I usually hate when they use CGI of generate large number of doll-like soldiers...).

All in all, everything good I said about first part, stays good in second or gets even better. "Fate/Zero" (both parts) is one of best fighting anime I watched, a superb dark fantasy set in contemporary setting and combined with much violence and action, all packed in impressive animation - as its over-9.00 AniDB rating proves.