Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Anime review: "Shingeki no Kyojin"

Well, this hasn't happened in a long time: that I finished an anime season in a day. I watched first two episodes at Friday evening, and spent whole Saturday watching until I finished all 25 episodes!

"Shingeki no Kyojin" (or officially "Attack on Titan", which doesn't make sense) is a shounen action anime. The story places as in future, where humanity has been reduced to medieval level by appearance of non-sentient, human-eating humanoid giants called Titans (imagine giant nude zombies). Humanity is currently behind tall walls place in several concentric rings, enjoying relative safety for last hundred years. It all changes with appearance of a Colossal Titan and an Armored Titan, that together are able to penetrate the walls at one place and release other Titans at people. During this fatal defeat, we are focused Eren, Mikasa and Armin, three kids living in town where the breach happens. After managing to stay alive, but witnessing Eren's mother being eaten alive, Eren vows to slay all the Titans. This brings the three of them to join the training for the Survey Corps, only people that still fight against Titans on their own territory...

My first impression was that good, because I like vivid and strong colors in anime. Next I thought how the anime was a bit over the top with imagination and not very consistent (flesh-eating giants, 100 years of solitude). I was especially off-put with the claim about walls being set in circle with 250km diameter, when you could obviously see the other side of the wall! But then things started to unravel slowly, and I was hooked.

So, even though "Shingeki no Kyojin" is primary an action anime, it has a large dose of mystery. And not the type where character finds solutions which no one would ever realize, they solve them gradually by getting more information. Also, the setting reveals very gradually (there are some info-dumps, but not too clumsy), so almost every episode you learn something new. There was a few surprising reveals (especially the last one!), but they were done nicely and consistently. What I did dislike were too long intros and recaps of last episode at the start of each.

There is really a bunch of characters and you will sometimes have trouble to know who is who. They are typically shounen, so don't expect miracles, but they are pretty solid and interesting. The good thing is that they grow much during the show. I really liked how the author was not afraid to kill them.

And this brings us to the atmosphere of "Shingeki no Kyojin", which is the best part of it. This is a very brutal anime, with lots of tragedy, death and sorrow. I didn't expect so much pain in shounen anime. There are nice changes between fast action pace and slow reminiscence and melancholy. It is compared much to "Claymore" - I agree with this comparison, even though the anime is original enough. Action is pretty good, if you can suspend your sense of mechanic. There is even some comedy, and pretty good one (I really liked Sasha).

I've read some comments about this show having horrible design and animation, but I disagree. I admit that it is simple and not beautiful, but I think it goes great with the atmosphere. I really like the discrepancy between Titan's look and behavior. Voice acting and sound were OK, but OPs were terrible. I didn't even try to listen EDs.

All in all, I really enjoyed "Shingeki no Kyojin". It simple enough for shounen fans, but with enough details for other to enjoy, with great dark and violent atmosphere and lots of mystery. I can't wait for the next season.

Book review: "War Master's Gate" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Well, I am going onward with "Shadows of the Apt" series by Adrian Tchaikovsky. I finished the ninth and so-far last book in series, "War Master's Gate", which means that for the first time I have to wait for sequel to come out. This is too bad, because the series became great in last few books!

"War Master's Gate" is the first book in series that breaks the usual pattern, but the things have come to a level where everything is epic and you can't separate magic and technology storylines. It continues the events immediately after last book, "The Air War". This means that the war for Lowlands and Collegium continues where it stopped, minus the focus on air duels - even though they still play a large role in this book. General Tynan tries for the second time to conquer the Collegium, but Warmaster Stenwold Maker has his own trick to throw at them, and this time, the air supremacy in on Bettles' side. Up north, General Roder was on a way to attack Sarn, but he is stopped by direct order and appearance of Empress Seda, who has personal interest in the forest that hides the Mantis holds Etheryon and Nethyon. Sarn also has a new Tactician, who will prove a menace for both Sarnesh enemies and allies. And in the forest itself, Cheerwell and Seda confront directly, in race to conquer the old and dark power, not suspecting that this power is there to guard something even more terrifying...

It's good thing that I read the previous book not so long ago, because the series has progressed so far that you really need to be familiar with rich setting and large cast of characters. Even so, some references to past events were blurry to me. As I said, the book continues immediately after the events in the last one, and it feels very much like it. Again we have a big focus on military, sieges, defense, air machines and so on. There are no much new inventions, but Tchaikovsky uses marvelously what he brought so far, and makes a very consistent and unique setting. On the side of magic, here we have as large upgrade as we had with technology in "The Air War". We learn much about history, see some direct uses of Moth and other magic, and see first evidences of a new player to come.

Plot is very complex, mostly because it is shown from so many POVs. Constant jumps are maybe a bit tiring, combined with short chapters - but at the same time it forces one to read on. There were lots of surprises throughout the book, especially because they came as surprises to the characters themselves (the Hornets, for example; or Empress' orders for Spiders). The book ends in several cliffhangers, like the fate of Che and Seda. Similar is with Stenwold Maker - his part look a bit obvious, but maybe it is the exact opposite. The ending is very strong and emotive; especially between Tynan and Mycella, and Eujen and Straessa. A great part of the book is the epilogue, with afterlife in Collegium, and first appearance of the Worm.

Characters are also phenomenal, both old and new. We actually don't spend much time with most of them, but because of fast POV changes it feels like we do. The number of character in series has grown much, even the important characters. At the beginning of the book we have a superb scene with Che, her first impact on the Ants, Mantids and rest. Tchaikovsky became great in presenting all sides of the conflict without playing favorites. When the fight is told form Wasp's POV, you are rooting for Waps; but when the same battle is told from Collegium's POV, then they are your favorite. Also, he is not afraid to really kill the characters. The fate of Mantis race was a very sad and powerful scene, and it was masterfully told from several side: the sadness, the anger, the fear! Also, again a nice moral ambiguity with Collegium and Sarn turning themselves to Wasps to defend from Wasps.

I can honestly said that with last few books, and especially with "War Master's Gate", this series became one of my favorites. Great battle scenes, both technological and magical; powerful and emotive scenes from both sides of conflict; and revelation that will shake the plot so far. An excellent book.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book review: "Wings of Wrath" by C. S. Friedman

Last week I finished reading "Wings of Wrath" by C. S. Friedman, a second book in her "The Magister Trilogy" series. First book, "Feast of Souls" I have read during summer vacation and found it all right.

"Wings of Wrath" continues the story set in the first book, but focuses on another set of characters. While all the characters from "Feast of Souls" are here, this time two old characters, Rhys and Sideria. We follow Rhys investigating a disturbance in Wrath, where he comes into knowing Kamala, a main character of the series. The two of them will find out how Souleaters were able to come back and learn the unexpected story behind the Wrath. Sideria, the Witch-Queen, now left to die alone by Magisters she considered friends, is full of anger and bitterns. So when a mysterious stranger offers her a new source of power and life, she is eager to accept it. We also follow are old characters, Colivar, Ramirus and Gwynofar, but also a new characters Salvator, second son of High King Danton.

I must say that "Wings of Wrath" has a very interesting beginning. I was surprised with partial distancing from the plot of previous book and focus on new characters. This leads to new developments, although Friedman nicely closes the book with a parallel to "Feast of Souls". I wasn't entirely satisfied with the ending because it felt much like "deus ex machina" solution, but globally it fits well. I liked the part with Kamala saving Rhys - it reminded be to a classical D&D story. There were few good surprises throughout the book, like with Petrana.

As expected, the middle book in series brings out the expansion of setting and a turnover. We learn more about the current setting, but also about what brought to it. And as is typical for the second books, we learn more about the other side and see them in different light. I wasn't very affected by Rhys' and Kamala's discovery inside Spears, but I presume that as religious fanatics they would be. As I said, the ending was a bit stingy with explanations, so I have a feeling that the last book will be rushed to be able to answer all the questions. Even though I like this game with Colivar and his "memories", will Friedman be able to pull it through?

As for characters, I must say I am very impressed by Friedman's Kamala. She is really not a classical main character. We actually don't spend much time with her. And when we are, she is reserved with her thoughts to reader. She has flaws and she is far from a typical "good" main character. And she definitely doesn't have luck in picking boyfriends... As for other characters, they are a mix. Colivar is a great and mysterious character, Ramirus, Sideria and Salvator solid ones. Gwynofar, on the other side, was neglected and different from the first book. I also found all Northerners not interesting.

As I mentioned in my review of "Feast of Souls", I wasn't very impressed with Friedman's writing. Her editors weren't best also: I found adverb "heady" three times in few pages, which was sloppy.

But in summary, I am satisfied with "Wings of Wrath". It was a solid second book, with advantages in setting and refreshed characters. We will see how the series will end with "Legacy of Kings", but so far so good (but not excellent).

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Anime review: "Genshiken Nidaime"

I have watched the original first few seasons of "Genshiken" six years ago. I forgot much of it, but I remember it was one of my favorite anime in that time. When I saw a new season is coming up, I was of course very interested and watched it as soon as I got the opportunity.

"Genshiken Nidaime" takes a year after the last part. All original cast has a role in this one, but more focus is those still in college and formally in Genshiken (Ogiue, Ohno, Sue, Kuchiki) and three new characters Hato, Yajima and Yoshitake. In the first episode it turns out that all member of the new Genshiken, except Kuchiki, are girls in love it BL (boy love), or "rotten girls"...

There is no point in going deeply in the plot of "Genshiken Nidaime" because it is not a series with real plot. "Genshiken" was always focused more on daily or school life of characters and their relationship. The difference between the previous seasons and this one is that here there is a big focus on subjects like boy love, cross-dressing and similar. "Genshiken" always touched similar topics, but not in such way. It didn't bothered me, but nor did I find it very compelling. There was a lot of talk about bullying and accepting different people.

A big focus is put on relationship between the new character Hato and Madarame, and his obsession with Kasukabe. There is a good scene and resolution between her and Madarame that I think all the old fans will like. I am sidestepping talking much about the character because there are few surprises and I don't want to reveal any spoilers.

As I said, I don't remember much about the original, but I think that visually it was even better than this one. "Genshiken Nidaime" has unattractive design and animation. Voice acting was good, but there was no other attractive music. I think the production was poor. Also, I don't remember the original having so much fanservice.

For conclusion... If you haven't watched the original "Genhiken" and you like daily life and otaku anime, you definitely need to watch it. As for "Genshiken Nidaime", it is for the fans who wants the continuity and they will find it good. But I think that even the most avid fans will find it poorer that the original.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Anime review: "Nurarihyon no Mago"

I don't know why or when I put "Nurarihyon no Mago" in my wishlist, but I have watched it last week because I felt like watching some simple shounen action anime. It turned out that I should have picked something else.

"Nurarihyon no Mago" is a typical shounen anime. Nura Rikuo is a high-school boy, proper and a do-gooder. But he is also grandson of leader of strong Nura demon clan, legendary Nurarihyon. He lives with his grandfather, mother and numerous demons from the Nura clan. Despite his inheritance, he refuses to follow his demon side and wants to live as a human, together with his friends from school, who are unaware of anything. But things are getting complicated in demon world and Rikuo's thirteenth birthday, mark of demon's majority, is coming close...

As I said, "Nurarihyon no Mago" follows typical shounen tropes. A kid who doesn't want to accept his other side, being pushed into it by circumstances and care for his friends. Also, there is a stream of gradually stronger enemies, culminating in fight against leader of another demon clan (based on tanukis).

But in realization, this anime doesn't suffice. First few episodes are very bad, too generic and childish. This is also true for the main character, who is bland. There is a predictable pattern - Rikuo is attacked, defended by his demon friends/servants until they prove to be too weak and then his alter ego appears who wins everything with no effort, paralely spattering cool sayings.

There is no concern for consistency: e.g. when a building explodes, what happens with destroyed parts? Another: one room is breaking apart, while people in the next one don't realize a thing. There are only confused explanations about relationship between demons and humans. Prior history and Rikuo's origins are totally neglected, even though missing of his father just begs for explanation. The ending is pretty dull, especially the last fight. Also, what was the point with the sword??

I don't even want to go into characters. They are tropes, with no background, no dimension and no character. They also scream and shout a lot.

I had big doubts after first three episodes whether to continue watching it. There are few good episodes in the middle, but even they are nothing to be proud of. I finished it more to confirm my opinion that this is a bad anime.

Design of characters and background is also bad, so the anime doesn't have anything commend itself on visual or audio side. That CGI train was especially irritating. There are 24 episodes.

All in all, "Nurarihyon no Mago" is one of the worst anime I have watched in a long time, and I wouldn't even recommend it to most avid shounen action fans. If you want to watch a really good shounen anime with demons, watch "Kekkaishi"!

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Book review: "Perdido Street Station" by China Miéville

I have finished reading China Miéville's "Perdido Street Station" almost two weeks ago, but I had so hectic last two week that I didn't have time to blog about it. I actually read this book a long time ago once, borrowing from the library. I had a notion that I remember this book quite well so I was reluctant to buy it, but I wanted to reread it before going to next two books ("The Scar" and "Iron Council"). So I decided to buy it after all - and ended quite surprised how much actually I have forgotten!

"Perdido Street Station" is one of those books that are really hard to describe, especially their plot. Whatever I write, I will miss the point. But here is a try... "Perdido Street Station" tells a story set in very imaginative setting, the City of New Crobuzon, which includes magic, alchemy, science, science fiction, insect races, magical races, demons, spider-gods, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, flying people, oppression, horror, religion and education, among a bunch of other things. In the midst of it is Isaac, a underground scientist who, working on another project, happens to free a strange breed of gigantic moths that feed on people's conscience. Moths start to terrorize the whole City and Isaac becomes target to both the totalitarian regime the rules the City and by a drug-lord that was making money by moths, which forces him to try to catch the moths on his own...

I haven't read much books by Chine Miéville (only this one and "The City and The City"), but even I know that he is famous by his imaginativeness. And this is quite obvious here, especially in the first part. First part of the book especially, but also the book in whole is written in "look at my beautiful garden" form (I borrowed this from Jo Walton and her review of "Aristoi"), where Miéville plays and shows off his imagination. But this is a good thing because he builds a great setting - the list I mention in previous paragraph is only a part of it, notions I could describe in one word. He sometimes goes quite deep in details, like with descriptions of khepri's society, or with the handlingers. But here is also the problem of this book. Even to me, who like this kind of stuff, this wild and weird setting managed to become too tiresome on occasions. Imagination is good, but there has to be some boundaries. Luckily, this happened only few times while reading the book, so it can be forgiven.

It would take too much time to mention all great ides Miéville shows, but I have to note the Weaver and the daemons. I am really curious what more can he think of in the next two books with same setting to keep this level of freshness...

As with the setting, there is a bunch of characters in the book, but only two of them can be said to be main characters. Isaac is one, of course. He is an eccentric, a genius dropping out of college, hanging out with artist and working for the criminals. On the other hand, he is fat, clumsy, and not really someone you could look upon to. This is what makes him such a lovable and aspiring main characters. The other one is Yagharek. We don't get much from him, and I don't want to reveal spoilers, but those short intrusions with his POVs were really impressing. Miéville succeeded in giving him a very powerful voice, for all his tacitness. As I said, there is bunch of other characters, but with the exception of maybe Lin and Derkhan, they are not too important. But you can be sure that they are written in detail and flamboyant as the rest of this book.

His writing is very good. Although he can become tedious with the details, it can be forgiven. The book is violent, dark and graphic. And after finishing it, I realized that it is maybe a bit too depressing, with no happy end too much pain. Also, the book has a lot of morally questionable or rightly unfair decisions. A big example is with the sick old man in the end. The government, who is in the beginning described as comically evil, turns out to be the real villain.

Another thing I wanted to mention is my surprise with how much of this book I have forgot. When I started reading it, I had a misconception that I know it from the beginning to end, especially the plot. First I was surprised by the quantity of details I really had no recollection about. But the real surprise came when I finished two thirds of the book and realized that I have no idea how the book ends! The moth-hunting, I had no idea about it. I felt like I was reading a different version of the book, with the same beginning but a different ending. And to thing how much pride I put on my memory...

So, if you like weird books, a lot of details and imagination large as an ocean, "Perdido Street Station" is a book for you. You can think about China Miéville as a dark and gritty version of Terry Prachet, having fun on the tropes. Not a book I would recommend to exclusive fans of classical fantasy a la Tolkien.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

"Vorkosigan Saga" reread: "The Vor Game" by Lois McMaster Bujold

I am going forward with my reread of the "Vorkosigan Saga" by Lois McMaster Bujold, so last week I finished "The Vor Game", the second book featuring adventures of Miles Vorkosigan.

"The Vor Game" takes place few years after "The Warrior's Apprentice". Miles has spent last three years in the Imperial Academy, training to become a normal (as he can be) Barrayaran officer. After finishing it successfully, he gets another test before being let to proceed with his career - a 6-month post on Kyril Island, one of most extreme and stressful bases on Barrarayar. After almost managing to avoid any troubles, he is forced to choose between his career and his conscience, which again lands him in political troubles. All this is just a prelude into his new adventures that will once again join him with his Dendarian Fleet. Miles will be forced to manipulate both his friends and his enemies. But this time, much more depends on Miles - life of his Emperor, and fate of several planets.

Even though "The Vor Game" was written after several other books in the same setting, it is not such a smooth read as was "The Warrior's Apprentice", at least in the beginning. Bujold introduces a lot of expansions on the setting and throws in a lot of unfamiliar terms (fast-penta, galactic history and relationships, and so on...). Nevertheless, this doesn't damage the enjoyment of reading this book. Again, Bujold was able to make a SF setting far in the future without disclosing the technology behind it - instead focusing on characters and the plot. Again, the book is darker than I remembered it.

There are lot of similarities between plots of "The Vor Game" and its prequel, but as I said before, this one is for bigger stakes. First part of the book (one third, maybe) is focused more on Barrayar, and it brings it much closer that the first part had. But as the book goes forward, so the plots becomes much faster and risks bigger. My favorite part of it is the head-to-head negotiation between Miles and Commander Cavilo near the end - some really good fast-talk. It is funny and thrilling at the same time.

Characters are Bujold's forte, starting with Miles. You can see he has grown, but he became more solid and thicker in the frames that were set in "The Warrior's Apprentice". Other characters are also great. In this book we are first time really introduced to Simon Illyan who will have a large role in series, as one of most important reference points for Miles. If I have to point one thing that I didn't like, that was the easy shortcut that Bujold took with Admiral Oser.

"The Vor Game" continues and expands the formula Bujold wrote with "The Warrior's Apprentice" - a thrilling and rushing military SF. Except if you are a really hard-core hard SF fan, this is a book and series I would recommend to anybody

Anime review: "Mardock Scramble"

I don't remember when I first noticed "Mardock Scramble", but I had it in my AniDB wishlist a long time. The last movie of three came out more than a year ago now, but I had to wait till few weeks ago for subs to appear. And now, I have finally satisfied my curiosity.

"Mardock Scramble" has a very appealing premise: a cyberpunk action thriller. Although I don't really like cyberpunk in literature, I always have a soft spot such anime. And this one looked pretty ambitious, so I thought this one was worth of wait.

The main character of "Mardock Scramble" is Rune Balot, a teen girl forced to a life of prostitution. But her current customer, Shell, turns out to be really insane, burning her in his car. But Rune is saved in last second and "revived" in artificial and upgraded body by Doctor Easter and his partner upgraded Oeufcoque, members of special law-unit "Scramble 09". She has to choose whether to die or to live and testify against Shell. But to stop her from testifying against him, Shell hires Boiled, Oeufcoque's former partner, another experiment with artificial body and unique abilities...

At first, I was thrilled with this anime. It started very intense, with interesting futuristic setting that is mostly implied and not explained, gritty and dark. The animation looked old and new at the same time, CGI heavy. First part ended in a cliff-hanger so I eagerly proceeded with second and third one... To be left pretty disappointing in the end. Not by the ending itself, but by the whole anime, which doesn't live up to the hype.

As I said, "Mardock Scramble" has an interesting, cyberpunk setting. Flying and automatic cars, human enchantments, artificial sentient beings - on one side. On the other hand: drugs, prostitution, government unable or unwilling to stop the crime... But anime fails to develop and use it properly. All we get are vague implications of unclear technology and society. There are anime (or books) that manage to pass only hinting at the setting, but this is not one of them. Well, to be fair, setting is not really that bad objectively, but I expected much more from it.

As for the plot, this was my biggest disappointment. In the essence, I understood there is a story about Rune trying to testify against Shell, and he trying to stop her using Boiled. But everything except that I am not very clear with. This is again connected to undefined setting: why was Shell allowed to attack the only witness against himself, why was there an antagonism between Rune's protectors and Shell's protectors... I was not able to follow half of their talks, and I don't believe it was because of bad translations. And that part in the casino (which is not short) - it's pointless and confusing (even if you know how to play poker, roulette and black-jack).

I also had problems with the overall style of the anime. It was a dark cyberpunk, so one can expect it to be brutal, violent, gritty, with lots of nudity and sex. And as you can see from my choice of literature and anime, I don't have any problem with it - on the contrary. But most of it here was unnecessary and unexplainable, just for fan service. I don't mind it when something is gritty, or dark, or real setting; but what's the explanation of a girl showing up for fight-to-death dressed only in duck-tape.

So, ultimately, I expected much from "Mardock Scramble", but I was left disappointed by it. Not really bad, but if you want to see a really great cyber/SF anime, go watch one of the "Gost in the Shell" anime.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Book review: "The Belly of the Bow" by K. J. Parker

Yesterday when I finished with reading "The Belly of the Bow" by K. J. Parker, I was left very surprised, stunned almost... Let me tell you why.

When I've read "Colours in the Steel" two months ago on my vacation, I found the book very interesting: somewhat dark, eclectic, very well written, surprising in its lack of plot. Its sequel, "The Belly of the Bow", is similar in these points. Two years after the fall of Perimadeia, Baradas Loredan finds himself living on island of Scona, not by his choice, and earning his bread by making bows, a skill he learned as a kid on a farm. He shares island (among few thousand other people) with The Scona Bank, led by his sister Niessa and brother Gorgas, unwillingly. The Scona Bank is at war (their definition is more leaning to a commercial dispute) with neighboring island Shastel and its government, The Foundation, which is several times larger, richer and more populate - which doesn't means they have an advance in this kind of war. As conflict between these two organizations and islands grows, other familiar characters as ex-Patriarch Alexius, self-appointed Doctor Gannadius, Venart and Vetriz, etc., again come into play. And this time, it turns out that Principle (we'll not call it magic) has even more importance than before...

You will notice that in last paragraph I mentioned "the lack of plot". Even though the book itself has a plot - the war in large and small - there is no overall plot or theme to the series. Except in style and characters, and partially in setting, there is almost nothing (yeah, I know it sounds paradoxical) connecting these two books. This doesn't mean that it is a boring book. Parker paints a really detailed story, about war, society, magic... I need to say again, magic makes an important part here, and it becomes a bit more explicit (although not understandable). There is a great scene when the Clerk of Work (I think this was the right title) reveals all the knowledge he has.

Again, Parker's writing is interesting to read. Not for everybody, but I really like the abundance of technical descriptions and small details - you can see that he really got into this stuff he writes about. I admit though that sometimes he drags those descriptions too long. There is much down-to-earth common knowledge displayed as humor and contrasted to high and noble ideas - like the whole Foundation-Scona Bank situation. Also, there is lot of small daily-life scenes and common activities, and Parker usually succeeds in making them interesting or funny.

Even though "The Belly of the Bow" takes place in completely different location than "Colours in the Steel", you can't say that Parker was very generous with revealing the setting. Oh, you have a feeling he has a very defined and rich setting, but he is showing it only in minimal amounts. I've read know that all his books take place in the same setting, so I found this an interesting approach.

Contrary to last book, where it was evident who the main character is, this time situation is different. Oh, Baradas is nominally the main character, but this book is as much about Gorgas as is about him. And other characters get a lot of importance also, especially Alexius and Gannadius (although indirectly, I would say). And Parker really did a great work with Gorgas, who is at the same time a monster and an innocent. He goes into much detail with him, making him very reasonable and capable. I was impressed by his persistence and long-view approach to life, like with the sleep thing.

Unfortunately, there is a point that will sour this book for some people, and that is Baradas. His part is pretty bleak, full of self-pity, acting as a child, and being pretty much a spoil-fun. Things get pretty depressing around the middle of the book, when Scona and Foundation problem becomes larger, and when Baradas travels home (the last third gets more exciting, then). But the real shocker is at the end of the book - you will know when!!! I really didn't see that coming in the end and I am still not sure what to think about it. But this definitely candidates as a crossing of Moral Event Horizon! But in the end, I am really interested what will happen in the last book and how this trilogy will end...

So, even though "The Belly of the Bow" has similar style and quality as "Colours in the Steel", with great characters and depiction of society, it has one very dubious scene that will possibly ruin this book for some readers. Therefore, I cannot recommend it without reservations. Ultimately, my will depend on the last book in series, "The Proof House".

Monday, September 30, 2013

Book review: "The Air War" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Last week I finished another book in "Shadows of the Apt" series by Adrian Tchaikovsky.Again I must say, this series keeps getting better and better...

Following its usual cycle, which I mentioned in my review of "Heirs of the Blade", "The Air War" is a larger-scope book, as expected from even-numbered books. And this one really has a big scope: an all-out invasion of Lowlands and environs by the Wasp Empire! We see that all the preparations in previous books has come to fore and it is again time for war. Two armies are set for the Collegium, from two different directions. But this time it is also another kind of war: the air war, the war of technology and machines... But at the same time, the world that has been focused on advance and science for the last centuries, the Apt, is on the brink of reversal. The Wasp Empress Seda targets another throne: the Queen of old magic, and to reach her goal she won't hesitate to wake an old darkness...

"The Air War"  doesn't just feel like a large and long book (like its predecessor), it really is. To fully enjoy the book, you should be fairly familiar with the setting. So if you haven't had a reread, now would be fine time to have one. The book has a very military setting - Tchaikovsky really make a good tension of preparation for war, with logistics, numerous characters and jumping around the world to show how Wasp Empire affects everything and everyone. The book was superb from the beginning and I just couldn't stop reading. There really is no point to getting deeper into details of plot - it is what you could expect from Tchaikovsky's previous works: war, espionage, command chain, old vs. new, etc.

There are quite a few new characters introduced here, and they don't feel at all forced. They successfully freshen up the cast. The book doesn't focus on Stenwold, even though it is in essence his book, but more on little characters. Presenting both sides of the conflict, Tchaikovsky made a great ambiguity - who to cheer for? Seda, Stenwold, Laslo, Totho, those Fly-bombers,...??? But it is more complicated than just two sides; when you add Rekef, other secret intelligence, and other involved parties, you get a pretty mess of morality. There was a scene that with a big moral question in the book (the murder of that Fly) - will Collegium become like Wasps if they defend themselves successfully or will they manage to retain their ethics?

When the series started, it always had just enough magic in it to be properly called fantasy. But it usually focused more on technology, thus belonging more to steam-punk. So I was surprised when this series became so explicit with magic. And as Tchaikovsky was inventive with his technology, like torsion engines, compressed-air guns and so on, so original he is with his magic. And I think he has even bigger surprises for us in later books. On the other hand, the technology gets a large upgrade. He was obviously inspired by World War I air-battles.

There is a great and intense big battle in the end of the book. It is simultaneously displayed from many different POVs with fast changes, which makes it very exciting and intense. The book ends in a cliff-hanger - not a big one, but certainly nothing is resolved yet.

With "The Air War", Tchaikovsky had reached a level of quality that I haven't expected from this series when I first started with it. He mixes an original setting with a set of quality characters, all set in an interesting and intense plot. Again, a recommendation to all fans of his previous books!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Anime review: "Sakamichi no Apollon"

"Sakamichi no Apollon" (or "Kids on the Slope") won several awards last year and it is a josei, so it was given that I would watch it sooner or later. It turned out it was later.

"Sakamichi no Apollon" tells the coming-of-age story of three friends: Kaour (Bon), a rich boy with no friends, due to his often transfers and movings; Sentarou (Sen), a troublemaker who often misses school; and Ritsuko (Richan), Sen's childhood friend whose father owns a music store. For some unknown reason, Sen takes liking on Bon and the two of them start hanging out at Richan's place, playing jazz sessions. Because actually, Sen is a passionate drummer, while Bon learned piano since childhood. The three of them live through first loves, occasional fights and jazz music.

This is a pretty short anime, with only 13 episodes, so there is no long story like in "Nana" or "Hachimitsu to Clover". But on the other side, plot sometimes skip months and in such way covers really much time. In the end, it covers their whole high-school. It made me surprised several times, like with that early confession - I didn't really expect it so soon. The beginning was also good and got me hooked immediately: light, with no real subject, but hinting at drama and future topic.

The anime covers an unusual epoch - the 50s in Japan. This is the first time I watched anime covering this period of time. There is an interesting sub-story of Jun'ichi and Jurika, including political activism, student riots and Japan's after War history. Music is an important part of this anime, but not the main topic - character's relationships are what this really is about.

It is really a coming-of-age anime and it has some good drama. Not the usual awkward moments you would expect: Bon always says wrong things instead what he really wants, but it is so with most people. Anime doesn't go in making extreme emotional reactions, but goes lightly about it.

The ending was very surprising. Josei anime usually have some kind of bitter-sweet ending, but this really took me by surprise.

The animation and design is good, but not something extraordinary. Voice acting was very good, though. I don't like jazz usually, but even I was able to enjoy the music here.

"Sakamichi no Apollon" is a short but very good josei anime. Not among the best of genre, but with good and likable characters, fast story and some really nice drama. A good anime for everybody who likes josei.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Book review: "Feast of Souls" by C. S. Friedman

I haven't read anything by C. S. Friedman before, but I had one or two of her series in my wish-list, since I encountered her name on several top-lists and reviews. I was choosing between "The Magister Trilogy" and "The Coldfire Trilogy", and finally picked the former, for no special reason, and bought "The Feast of Souls", the first part.

"The Feast of Souls" takes place in imaginary medieval world. Among regular people, there also exist witches and Magisters. Witches (both male and female) are able to do magic (witchery), but it costs them their life-force - the bigger the spell, the larger the price. Usually witches die in the middle years, except they are miserly with their power. On the other hand, Magisters, who are all males, have unlimited power, and they guard their secret hard. Magisters usually act as advisers to kings and rulers, but in truth they are the secret power behind thrones. In such world a young witch Kamala comes to a hermit-Magister Ethanus to teach her how to become the first female Magister... Several years later, Prince Andovan, one of sons of the most powerful King Danton Aurelius, become sick with the mysterious illness called Wasting. His search for the cause will set him on a course to Kamala, and both of them toward their destiny as ancient enemy of humanity begins to appear again - the soul-eaters!

As it is, such setting as in "The Feast of Souls" is a pretty much typical for fantasy. Medieval society, magic, Princes and Queens. I admit that the witches/Magisters thing is clever, but you are able to guess most of the details pretty soon and accurate. Even after first quarter of the book I was hoping for something to come and surprise me. I did get my satisfaction in second part of the book when Northlands and the Ancient Evil come into play. I must admit that the ikati come as nice villains and looking forward to learn more details. I also liked focus on Magister's society and rules in later stages, which are pretty detailed.

The plot is also typical, but it has its strong points. There are several players that are left unknown, so we have enough reveals to expect in second and third book. Again, the ikati storyline is the most interesting part of the plot. The big part of suspension is curiosity how Kamala and Andovan will be able to sort out their differences, because it is obvious from the start that they will be forced to do so. And we are not left disappointing - their (or better say, his) resolution is very surprising and interesting - and leaves her consistent.

There are lots of characters and again, lots of to discover in further books. Kamala doesn't really become a character until the second half of the book. Friedman writes her well, giving her much and important doubts to dwell upon. Andovan is pretty much common characters, but that doesn't mean he is boring. I especially liked Colivar's characters - and hope to learn more of his history. Queen Gwynofar is a very interesting character. Although this is not the rule, female writers usually create very good female characters (or at least more complex) and so is the case with Friedman.

Again, I liked the second half of "The Feast of Souls" more that the first. I really have to admit the book had a good ending - surprising and clever. And opening space for the next book.

Of Friedman's writing I can't say much. She has interesting characters, and gives some exciting chapters, but doesn't insert many original and unique fantasy elements.

All in all, "The Feast of Souls" is a solid fantasy book - not the best I have read, but far from worst. I have enough interesting parts to justify continuing with the trilogy. I think readers who focus on characters more than on plot or setting will be more than satisfied with this book. Also the fans of Robin Hobb.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Book review: "The Dying Earth" omnibus by Jack Vance

I have been aware of Jack Vance, his opus and his fame for a long time, but I don't remember reading anything his before. When I saw the omnibus containing all his "Dying Earth" stories, I decided it was an opportunity to fill up my knowledge of older classics, and of course, to read something good.

"The Dying Earth" is not a novel. Even its parts are not novels, but a collection of short stories. First part, "Mazirian the Magician", is just a collection of short stories, with stories connected only barely with setting and some characters. The second two parts, "Cugel the Clever" and "The Skybreak Spatterlight", are novels (actually, fix-ups) telling stories of travels of Cugel, who travels the world trying to get home and exact revenge against a magician who sent him away. And the last part, called "Rhialto the Marvellous", is composed of three longer stories with common characters. Just to clear it up, these are mostly comic stories.

First, "The Dying Earth" is different from anything I have read so far. Maybe "Discworld" stories by Terry Pratchett are the closest thing to it. The world is full of magic, maybe even too full. It reminded me on old Conan stories. There is literally magic on every step: spells, creatures, objects... Vance doesn't even care to try to be realistic The "plots" takes place on Earth, but long in future, when the Sun is closing to its death and magic is again present on the world.

The style of the stories if definitely vintage, not something you would mistake for a modern fantasy. A bit pompous, you could say. Many concepts here looked familiar to me - and I realized that many modern fantasy writers copied Vance's ideas. I was there Chine Miéville got his idea for "The City & The City", and some other ideas used by new authors. If Vance patented his stories, every fantasy writer would have to pay him royals for using his book.

Since these are stories, you don't get to know the characters too much. This changes a bit in Cugel's stories, where we spend much time with him. But when Vance decides to focus on a character, he can do wonders (e.g. Drofo the worminger-sage). I found it unusual at first how everybody just keeps running all around the world; nobody stops to make any strategy. Women are mostly either victims or evil, or sometimes innocents in need of male guidance.

As of my impression. First part consists of six stories loosely connected. I can't say I really liked them, but they were OK and sometimes funny. Two Cugel novels were much, much better. They had a structure, a regular main character, an ultimate goal. And they were very funny! They are a bit long, but I didn't mind it at all. On the other hand, Rhialto's stories are not quite as good. Vance is obviously trying too much where he was effortless before, and I wasn't able to enjoy them. And even though you can't say that this book was planned to be consistent, these last three stories were even more inconsistent with previous...

But all in all, I had more good times than bad with this omnibus. "The Dying Earth" is definitely something that any real fantasy-fan needs to read, at least just to know where many of ideas came from. Maybe not a book to buy, but definitely a book to read.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"Vorkosigan Saga" reread: "The Warrior's Apprentice" by Lois McMaster Bujold

When I was in high-school and library was my only source of books, and very limited one, "Vorkosigan Saga" by Lois McMaster Bujold was one of the series that I would read every year or so, including also ASoIaF, "The Lord of the Rings", "Hyperion Cantos" and few others. Since I refocused myself on buying new books I haven't reread these books, which means some 10 years. But Bujold has published two new books in series recently and before reading them, I decided to reread all previous books. This is not going to be a classical reread when I read all books in one go, but instead an occasional reread, one book every few months. Also, I mean to include only the main books in sequence

In "The Warrior's Apprentice" we start the story of Miles Vorkosigan, the main protagonist of the series. A victim of unsuccessful assassination attempt on his parents, Miles was left physically deformed and undeveloped, which is considered a great shame and disadvantage on his planet Barrayar. Barrayar is very strict society, based I would say partly on Soviet Russia and partly on Medieval Europe, and quite militaristic. They have a feudal system and until few dozen years they lived as in medieval times (consequence of prolonged isolation from other human cultures), but recently they again acquired means to interact with other planets. This, of course, caused many changes on their culture which is now a mix a feudal society and high technology democracy (swords and spaceships). It is understandable that as a freak and invalid Miles is feeling awkward in his surrounding, especially as heir of famous noble family, distinguished by its past victories. Additionally, Miles' father is former Regent of Barrayar Empire and current Prime-Minister. After failing to join the Imperial military academy (both his and his father's and grandfather's dream), Miles is feeling like having no reasons for life anymore. To past the time and to help his childhood friend to see some of the world (universe), they travel to Beta Colony, his mother's home-planet, where they will more or less blindly wander into an adventure including space mercenaries and civil war on another planet...

Books in this series always have interesting plots, even though they are driven primarily by Miles' characters. Such is this one: after using his cunning and intelligence to pull himself and his followers from one trouble, Miles usually manages to entangle to another, more dangerous one. Add to this his basically chivalrous nature (especially toward women and weak) and the fact that his family is one of the crucial members of his culture, you can surmise that these plots are pretty vivid. Nevertheless, Bujold's writing makes all this feel natural and consistent. 

Point of view is third-person, but it reveals much of Miles inner working, which is probably one of the biggest appeals of the series. It relies very much on his hyperactive behavior and his byzantine plots. Other character will get more (much more) place in further books, but in this one we focus mostly on Miles and more-or-less only superficially get to know other characters. Miles presents a very interesting plot, with his physical deformities but great mind. His motivations are also very intriguing - even though his society hates or dismisses him, all his life he tried to become a part of it. This will prove even more the focal point of series in later books.

As I mentioned, setting is SF, with advanced military technology, worm-holes for space traveling and other wonders. On the other hand, we have Barrayar, which is such an antique society (it is considered almost barbaric by others). Later we will get to know other, even more quaint places. Bujold made a very successful mix, drawing both fans of SF for the setting, and fans of fantasy for the plots and characters. Because, in essence, replace technology with magic and you get a classical fantasy book. Technology never gets much background explanation and this makes it still feel fresh (even though some of the books were written 20 years ago).

I remember these books as very easy and fun read. So I was left a bit surprised how dark this first book actually is - and further books are even darker. Sure, we get a happy end (or a kind) in every book, but main characters do die or suffer irreparable damage. And they deal with it. Innocent and weak also suffer and our protagonist is not always able to save everybody. So, a pretty realistic books - not gritty but not sunny also.

So, as a start of the series, "The Warrior's Apprentice" is a very good book. Interesting, with flamboyant main character but also with a dose of realism, with solid setting, it is a book I would recommend to anybody, not just fans of specific genre. One of my favorites...

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Book review: "Emperor of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence

I don't usually read sequelling books immediately one after another, but like to spread them over some time, maybe insert a reread now or then. But after reading "Prince of Thorns", I just couldn't resist reading "King of Thorns", as I also couldn't resist reading "Emperor of Thorns" immediately it was published last week. With this, I finished "The Broken Empire" trilogy by Mark Lawrence.

"Emperor of Thorns", similarly to KoT, has three plots-lines. The main one, the present, is happening two years after Jorg Ancrath's defeat of Prince of Arrow and becoming a King of seven nations, instead of just one. As the book starts, Jorg is just preparing for a journey to the Congression, a meeting of rulers that happens every four years and on which the Emperor can be chosen. Jorg is going there pretty sure he will be selected Emperor, because if he is not, he will pretty upset... Second plot continues immediately his adventures at Horse Coast, expanding them eventually to continent of Afrique. And while in KoT we had Katherine's story, here we have Chella's story, a POV by character opposite to Jorg from the first book.

If you have read first two books in "The Broken Empire" trilogy, you know what to expect: blood and violence. In my review of "King of Thorns", I said one or twice that Jorg felt softer than in "Prince of Thorns", not killing or maiming people randomly. This is also true here; as Jorg says, he has overgrown killing people on whim, but it doesn't mean that he will balk of anything necessary to protect those he cares about. And people, Jorg actually openly cares for somebody in this book. This makes him at the same time softer and harder than before. Softer, as I said, because he is not a loose cannon anymore; but harder, because he will not stop at anything defending what is his.

I really have to congratulate Mark Lawrence for making Jorg develop so much, but making it feel so natural. And also for successfully making such brutal and unique character, more evil than villains in some books, a protagonist and a person to root for. Because, it is quite impossible not to root for Jorg. And if you have any liking for anti-heroes, gray-morality or for gritty literature, you will just adore this book.

I see that I am not lonely in this sentiment, because my e-book edition had more highlights than last 10 books I read together. And consider that the book was out only few days when I have read it... This will be one of the top books of this year.

The plot is pretty interesting, especially the main one. As the book was coming to close, I kept wondering how Lawrence will be able to resolve all the started threads, but I have to admit that he did it magnificently. This book and trilogy has just a great ending - it leaves just enough questions unanswered, but gives a decent resolution of the story. Jorg keeps pulling rabbits out of his hat, but rarely it feels like something forced - Lawrence makes him pretty believable and consistent. The pace if constantly intense and there is not time for leisure. There are just so many powerful and memorable scenes in the book.

A small objection could be raised that the identity of the main villain is revealed pretty early in the book. Not openly revealed, but there are enough clues to guess it almost at the start. But this doesn't hurt the story much. Also, the plotline dealing with events in Afrique belittles the events in "King of Thorns" a bit, revealing Jorg knew about future more than enough to fix a score...

Setting was vastly expended in KoT, compared to PoT, and in "Emperor of Thorns" it gets filled decently. As I said, enough questions are with no answers to keep us waiting for more, but there are no inconsistencies. When I started reading this series, I would never be able to guess how perfect blend of SF and fantasy it would turn out to be in the end.

Again, I have to repeat my opinion that "Emperor of Thorns" will be one of the top books of this year: thrilling plot, superb main character, with unique and gritty way of presenting the story. A big recommendation for this book and the trilogy to anybody who likes dark stories!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Book review: "Colours in the Steel" by K. J. Parker

This is the first book I have read by K. J. Parker, and my reaction is: why haven't I found about him before? I can't say I was familiar with him prior to this book, but I noticed this name here and there, mostly good references and comparisons.

"Colours in the Steel" is the first book in "The Fencer Trilogy" by K. J. Parker. The story introduces as to the wondrous City of Perimadeia, a commercial and technological center of the world. Except these two things, another thing differentiates this city from the others: its unique legal systems, based on fencers (advocates) who duel to death to resolve the cases. Bardas Loredan is an advocate with quite a few years in the profession (over 10, which is very long for this kind of job), but not especially successful or known for it. A routine case of commercial law and fight with a newcomer will lead to unexpected turn of events: a deadly curse from newcomer's cousin, friendship with highest leader of magicians, and responsibility for defense of so-far-undefeated City against savage (at least until now) barbarian hordes led by young new chief Temrai...

First, I knew I was going to like Parker after reading first few pages. The writing was superb, full of light humor throughout all narration, subtle instead of forceful. I like this very much in books. It is a great fun to read "Colours in the Steel", even though the theme of it is not - imagine style of Erikson's short stories about Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, expanded to a real, serious book. As I said, there is nothing evidently extraordinary, but writing is actually superb and makes you expect more and more of this book. Another thing that reminded me on Erikson is how Parker uses the same trick of introducing a totally unimportant character, focusing on in for few pages and then discarding it. The book is not grimdark, but it isn't exactly shy of grittiness.

Setting is unique. I understand that all Parker's books are set in this same setting, only different parts of it. This book focuses exclusively on City of Perimadeia, with only few mentions of neighboring countries. But you get the feel that setting is competently imagined and consistent. It is based on classical medieval setting, but a lot of focus is put on commerce, technology and society. Actually, Parker even sometimes gets too technical with descriptions of technology. It's not boring, and you can see that he understands what he is talking about, but it can be tedious to read through. Setting is also humorous - like the Holy Pirates, and so on. I will enjoy discovering other part of the setting in next books.

There is no widespread use of magic in the setting, even though already-mentioned Order and its Patriarch Alexius play a great role. Instead of magic, you have (at least for now, we'll see in next books) only the Principle, which encompasses the nature and everything, and sometimes can be used to work wonders... Like the curse over Bardas.

Plot is good, but it is secondary to this book. It is used mostly as a mean to introduce the setting and the characters. And the characters are simply great. Bardas Loredan is perfect anti-hero: not young any more, prone to wine, lazy, not really honorable, cynic. It is really a pleasure to read about him and see the world through his eyes. Other POV characters, Alexius, Temrai, others... are all also great. Especially Temrai, who constantly wonders about his choices - which are sometimes morally questionable, so it is good that he wonders. The plot is pretty simple and predictable, but this didn't damage my joy in reading this book. If you are expecting a happy end and laugh after it, don't - this is not that kind of book. I appreciate how sometimes we skip weeks or months and characters have their own life in the meantime. Also, even though the book finishes the started plot, there is lot to discover behind it - and I wonder where this will take us to.

As I said, I am somewhat disappointed in myself for not discovering Parker before. But if sequels of "Colours in the Steel" prove as half as good as this one, it means that I have a dozen good books to read in future. I recommend this book to all fans of darker and anti-heroic fantasy.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Reading plans for vacation

Well, I am finally going on real vacation, for a week at least. I finished with "Heirs of the Blade" by Adrian Tchaikovsky recently, and I plan to read at least two or three books in several days or weeks.

First on schedule is "Colours in the Steel" by K. J. Parker. I don't know much about the book nor about the writer, but I heard some interesting and approving words about the author, so I will give it a go.

Next I plan to read "Emperor of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence. First two books very simply great, and advance-reviews promise an even greater ending of trilogy, so I can't wait.

After that, I don't really have fixed plans, but I will maybe give a chance to some SF. I had some ideas about rereading the "Vorkosigan Saga" by Lois McMaster Bujold, before reading last two books in series for first time. This series was one of my favorites, just to mention.

Book review: "Heirs of the Blade" by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I've been following Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Shadows of the Apt" series for quite some time now (counted in books, at least, not in years). Even though it cannot be said I am super-excited whenever I read another books in series, it is still an interesting series and I would recommend it to anybody who wants fantasy in a bit of different wrapping - steampunk, insect-based races, magic vs. technology... "Heirs of the Blade" is the seventh book in series that I have read and there is at least couple more to go.

"Shadows of the Apt" follows a curious cycles: odd books are focused more on smaller stories of particular characters, while even books are more epic and deal with world-scope events. "Heirs of the Blade" is typical odd book, dealing with story of Tynisa and Che. After her father's Tisamon death few books ago, Tynisa wandered off in search for some kind of resolution, depressed and feeling guilty for numerous deaths she was not able to stop. In her search, Tynisa has come to Commonweal, a home of her dead love Salme Dien. She is about to find that Commonweal is not an idealistic and romantic place she imagined based on Salma, full of valiant knights and caring nobility. On the other side of the world, in Khanaphes, after following Che, a shade of Tisamon escaped and is now on course to haunt Tynisa. Cherwell, now accompanied by Tharlic, is aware of that and is willing to do what it takes to stop it, even if it means embracing her new destiny of Inaptitude...

As I said, this is a smaller scope book and is mostly concentrated on Tynisa and Che. But we do get some glimpses of story to come, by POVs of Wasp Empress Seda, a future Queen of dark magic; by Angved the engineer, and by Preada and Ammon. I did expect more from these plot-lines, but they end pretty abruptly. I presume they will be the focus of next book in series, "The Air War".

The good thing about the plot is that is ti pleasantly confusing and pretty unpredictable. It is really hard to guess what will happen next, but it doesn't fell forced and unnatural. I don't know why, but I came to think about this book as very long, even though it is only some 350 pages.

We follow mostly the well-known characters like Che, Tynisa and Tharlic, but there are some old appearing again, like Gaved the Wasp and Seda. The new characters, especially Dal Arche and his bandits, and Varmen, are also very good. I always wondered why focus Che as a central character, but now the things are coming to place. And Seda is one pretty impressing character...

Tchaikovsky become much better with words in time. He was all right before, some sometimes he did insert some clumsy phrases - now the story is nicely flowing. I like how different people tend to concentrate of different things: some on architecture, some on military and defenses, some on architecture... He also did very well with presenting strangeness of Commonweal. And the scene with beetle-stag and mantis is an awesome one - it presents how unique the setting is very well. Another think that deserves mention if the final duel, which was written with much details and realism.

I know this is a somewhat short review, but it is not necessary to say more than that if you liked previous books in "Shadows of the Apt", you will more than like this "Heirs of the Blade". A recommendation for both the book and the series.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Anime review: "Berserk"

"Berserk" is among the first anime I have ever watched (among first 10, of more than 200 that I watched until now) and it was one of my favorite ever. I even read the manga, at least the published volumes at the time. Curiously, the manga is still ongoing after more than 20 years! So when I saw that something new from the franchise has been coming out, I was excited. My excitement waxed when I saw it was a collection of three movies with the same material as the original anime series, but there was no chance in me missing that. So when the movies were finally dubbed, I jumped right at them...

These three movies in "Berserk" franchise depict the youth of the main protagonist, Guts. A parent-less child, he has grown up with a mercenary band and later become a freelancer wielding in impossibly big sword. During one his jobs, a siege, he single-handedly slays a famous mercenary. This attracts the attention of the Band of the Hawk and their charismatic leader, young Griffith. Initial reluctant, Guts is forced to join them, but later he distinguishes himself and become one of the leaders, strucking a great friendship with Griffith and love-hate relationship with Casca, another young, but female leader. The Band exploits the long-lasting war between Tudor and Midland, so much that King of Midland promotes them to nobility...

I realized that I almost described the whole plot of the movies... The reason for it is that these three movies depict only the "Golden Age arc", which is only the prequel of this story. The real action actually starts after, but this story is also very interesting. Especially when the more fantastic elements of it come forward: the Crimson Behelit, Zodd the Immoral, the God Hand... After mostly classical medieval fighting anime, this aspect of anime is very surprising and increases the tensions... Especially when the Eclipse comes!

"Berserk" belongs to dark fantasy and action genres, with lots of fighting, blood and violence. It is somewhere between shounen and seinen series. I really liked the setting, which changes much from realistic medieval to full fantasy, including a lot of themes. As setting, character change and grow (or descend) during the anime. It is no wonder this is one of most appreciated mange for lots of people.

But this is all applicable to the series itself; but what about these three movies?

The movies are pretty much true to the manga, but they skip some of the details. To those unfamiliar to prior anime or manga, this shouldn't mean much by itself. But on the other way, the original anime, "Kenpuu Denki Berserk", which was 25 episodes long, had much more room to show details and establish a more complex setting and provide the viewers with full "Berserk" experience.

Also, the "Golden Age" arc is not the beginning of "Berserk" manga. Mange starts with current Guts (I will avoid spoilers) and his fight against Apostles, and then he has a long flashback to his past - which is actually the "Golden Age" arc. Original anime follows this principle so it is more successful in hooking new fans. These movies concentrate solely on the "Golden Age" which, in my opinion, is poorer choice. Because, if they have any attention to continue the plot with new movies (and I read rumors that they do plan so), they will be forced to skip this part.

One of the most notable aspects of this anime is the very extensive use of CGI animation. While I don't like it myself, some people do - but I think that most will agree it was done not so good here. It just doesn't look natural. It has some advantages, like that architecture is very detailed and realistic, but moving people are just bad and too generic.

The anime stays true to violent nature of "Berserk", which means that there is a lot (really, a lot) of blood, nudity, sex, violence. When I saw the animation, I though they will "adapt" the show to wider audience; but they didn't and I appreciate that.

I don't remember the music from the original anime, but here is very good.

The final verdict? Even though I liked this new adaptation of "Berserk", I would not really recommend it. For those unfamiliar to the series, I would direct them to the original anime "Kenpuu Denki Berserk", which captures the feeling and experience of manga much better - this version is inferior in this respect. The movies are not bad, but I would really recommend the only to those who haven't watched or read "Berserk" for long time and just want a quick reminder. To everybody else, go watch the original.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Book review: "Blood and Bone" by Ian C. Esslemont

Even though I liked "Return of the Crimson Guard" and even "Stonewielder", after debacle with "Orb Sceptre Throne" my enthusiasm for work of Ian C. Esslemont has dropped down considerably. His new book in Malazan setting, "Blood and Bone" has been out for couple of months. I would usually buy it as soon as it was out, but this time I just wasn't into it. Especially after reading some tepid reviews on Amazon. But in the end, I consider myself a Malazan-fanboy so I just could not leave it unread for long.

As is usual for Malazan books, there are multiple plot-lines, all connected by the fact they are happening on Jacurucu, a continent only mentioned by Erikson and Esslemont until now. Thaumaturgs, a ruling mage-class of largest nation on Jacurucu is on the move: there is another invasion targeting the Jungle of Himatan, which covers whole east half of the continect and is ruled by Ardata, Queen of Witches and Mother of Monsters. Led by Commander Golan, the army will find itself attacked not by enemy soldiers, but something even scarier, the Jungle itself: heat, humidity, wild animals, inhabitants from nightmares, bugs and diseases... But before they even reach the Jungle, on their way they will travel through poor villages between their nation and Himatan. In one of such villages, young woman named Saeng, with unique connections to the dead of Jacurucu, will be saved by her brother Hanu, who was taken some years ago to become Thaumaturg strongest weapon, stone soldier of jakshaka. In the meantime, in south, members of several Adwami tribes, including the young prince Jatal, are gathered by the call of foreign warleader called Grey Ghost, who asks of them a temporary truce and offers a common goal: the greatest raid on Thaumaturg capital ever! And on Stratem, remnants of Crimson Guard have gotten a new contract, by Ardata herself: to get rid of Skinner and his Disavowed.

Somewhere I have read that this book is intended for Malazan fans and nobody else, and I would agree with this statement. Even though is much simpler that Erikson's books, "Blood and Bone" would be incomprehensible to non-fan. There is no real introduction to characters, setting and plots, and it is expected to be familiar with prior events to appreciate all nuances and details. So, if you haven't at least read Esslemonts previous books, don't even try reading this one.

I must say I was pretty surprised by this book, and pleasantly so. The pace is pretty slow, but the book is very interesting. Some would consider it dragged and too slow, but I kind of liked it such. Esslemont even gets philosophical a la Erikson on some occasions. Esslemont is not natural at being mysterious in writing as Erikson is, but here he tries and succeeds most of the times - even though he can get tiring sometimes.

What I really liked in this book were the characters. There are some old characters, but most of them are new. There are even some old hidden as new. In general, Esslemont is much better with his own characters than when he uses and recycles Erikson's. I liked Jatal, who is noble and honorable so much that you know that it will not end well. Pon-lor starts as side-character but in the end becomes one of most important and best. Commander Golan and his nemesis Thorn are simply a great duo. But all other are interesting, too. I can only compliment Esslemont in succeeding making all parties look good and nobody bad.

Even though the book takes place on Jacurucu, you will not found it too revealing about its secrets. I know I am boring and repetitive, but Erikson would be handling it better. Nevertheless, it is interesting as it is. I liked how we get a context of where this book fits in. The descriptions of the jungle and the dangers luring there are pretty good. I was surprised how gritty and even disgusting things became on several occasions, like with the worm-parasites!

All in all, "Blood and Bone" was a pleasant surprise. Again, the book is not on par with Erikson's, but it provides the Malazan fans with an interesting plot and a revelation of new part of setting. So I would recommend it to all fans of Esslemont - though pure fans of Erikson should be careful with it.