Sunday, June 30, 2013

Book review: "Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence

I have noticed "Prince of Thorns" by Mark Lawrence immediately after it came out, even though I don't remember how (I think of, and it's been sitting in my Amazon wish-list ever since. My initial enthusiasms dropped after reading few reviews describing it as grimdark and unnecessary gritty. But last Sunday I decided to give it a try - and finished it at Monday's morning...

"Prince of Thorns" is told from first point of view and narrated by Honorous Jorg Ancrath. When the story starts, he is fourteen years old and a leader of brutal and violent bunch of bandits called the Brotherhood. Killing a brother for challenging him as leader is a normal occurrence. Attacking villages, burning people and raping their women is what the Brotherhood do - and Jorg is a scariest of them. But Jorg is a more than a simple bandit: Prince Jorg, the only heir of kingdom of Ancrath. Jorg was always a precocious child and had the best of tutors. But when he was 10 years old, his beloved younger brother and mother will brutally killed in front of his eyes. Thrown in the bush of briars, he accidentally survives, but something has snapped in his mind... After his father the King decides not to seek vengeance against Count Renar and accepting some material amends, Jorg escapes from home in seek of revenge, but as the book progresses, it will turns out that there are more complex game being played around...

First, if you want to enjoy this book, you just have to accept that Jorg is fourteen and leader of bandit gang. We could now discuss psychological and physical problems of a teenager leading bunch of big old men, but this is out of the point - it is fantasy after all. If you can accept it, you are ready for one hell of a ride.

This book is really grimdark - very brutal and graphically violent. Killing and burning people, raping and visiting whorehouses, unstable relationships in families - you have it all. But after you finish the book, you can notice that most (but not all) of this brutal stuff is in first part of book. Like Lawrence wanted to make a state about this being a gritty book and wished to make an impact. He succeeds in both point very well, and I noticed that "Prince of Thorns" is very successful book, so you can presume that people very hungry for it. Hype for "Game of Thrones" and ASoIaF proves it, as it does the success of Joe Abercrombie's "First Law" series and its sequels, and Richard Morgan's "A Land fit for Heroes" series.

This is not just the story of revenge. It first starts as it, but as it goes on, you will notice that Jorg has other goals of just revenging himself against Count Renar. He wants to prove himself to his father (who is maybe even bigger psychopath than Jorg, in class of Tywin Lannister), but more than that he wants to "win the game" and become the Emperor (we will get back to it later). But he is not the only with a larger agenda, especially when you meet Sageous. The story in general becomes much wider after they return to the Tall Castle. Another interesting thing is the parallel story of four years ago, that explains what happened after Jorg's brother and mother were killed, how he escaped and how he met the band. It also gives more background and explains how Jorg became the man (he is definitely no child anymore) he is.

The characters are also very deep. Since it is told from first POV, you get to know Jorg the best. He is just a crazy and violent psychopath at first, but you will soon see that there is more to him... You know that typical young fantasy hero, who is strong and tall good with sword, has natural affinity to magic, and it is also intelligent, outspoken and charming? Well, Jorg is exactly like that, only he is the anti-hero, using all this traits for getting his goals through, never mind who gets killed or injured along the way. He is terrible, but you have to root for him on account of his gutsiness and "never bend" attitude. Nevertheless, Lawrence is smart enough writer and makes him have some weaknesses, not to make him irritating. It reminds me much on Richard Morgan, whose Ringil is also so confident, but you see him afraid and insecure sometimes. Other characters are interesting and have several shades to them, but Jorg is the star of the book. I liked the short descriptions of Brothers before chapters - they were quite funny (in gristly sort of way). There was also a touch of Black Company camaraderie and Croaker's humor in Jorg's descriptions of his fellows.

Another surprise is the setting. In the beginning, Ancrath is just a typical medieval kingdom, and so it the world. Sure, there are some ghosts and some, let's say magicians, but this is typical fantasy at first. But as the book advances, you realize that this is actually a post-apocalyptic world!! The story takes place in Europe, castles are actually skyscrapers, and some of the magic is actually technology. I liked this turn of events very much. There is some really magic here also, but it fits very well.

Lawrence writing was very easy to read, without being too simple, and the book has very fast pace. Unfortunately, it is quite short - only 350 pages. But, at least is very intense read. Another small objection I have is that Jorg is sometimes just too lucky, even for a fantasy-story protagonist.

So, it can definitely be said that "Prince of Thorns" is not just a "gritty-book". It starts very violently and simply, but it expands in every way: story, characters, setting. For fans of Martin, Abercrombie and Richard Morgan...

Monday, June 24, 2013

Anime review: "Bakuman", third season

Few days ago I finished watching third and last season of "Bakuman", adapted from manga about drawing manga.

This season continues "Bakuman" plot where it left in previous season. Mashiro and Takagi have finally made a manga they are satisfied with (PCP - Perfect Crime Party) and they struggle to make it better not to lose their place in Shounen Jack. They have not lost their dream of getting an anime adaptation, so Mashiro can marry his love Miho (a condition set in middle school). Takagi is supported by his wife Kaya (also met in middle school), while two of them compete against other manga-artist present in Shounen Jack, most of them familiar from previous seasons, but with some additions.

This season if a bit different from previous two (if I remember correctly) by being more episodic - there are several arcs that are almost independent between them (especially Nanaime's). But by and large, there are no much changes from first and second seasons, so if you are a fan of "Bakuman", you will be more that satisfied with it.

I cannot be sure because I haven't read manga, but it feels a bit rushed in places, like they had to squeeze too much material in it. But at least the pace is good and there is no dragging... Ending is as expected, but very solid. And I like how it is clearly showed that Mashiro and Takagi won't lose their motivation, even though they fulfilled their dreams. It is interesting how the author succeeded in having an shounen battle-anime feel when the story couldn't be less apart from such.

Characters stay the best part of "Bakuman". As I said, there are no many new additions, but we got to know older ones much more, and there are some changes in their relationships. Niizuma, who is on one hand very funny, improbable and exaggerated character, is shown to be very dedicated and consistent. I like how Hiramaru gets more serious, even though he is still hilarious - and Joshida makes him a great pairing. Also, we got a bit of romance, spread throughout the anime. Rest of the characters are also solid (Fukuda, Aoki, etc.).

It was very nice to see some modern mobile phones, and android references, too. But that can be expected since this anime was finished a year ago and is set in present.

The worst part of "Bakuman" is really bad and old-looking style of characters and drawings. Thankfully, this is character- and story-driven anime, so it doesn't matter much. Interesting how we have very poor art, but it becomes good (or at least more detailed) when it comes to manga they are drawing. Voice acting and music is solid, but nothing to praise much. There are 25 episodes in total.

In short, "Bakuman" continues with style and spirit of previous seasons, so if you liked it before, you will like it here also. I would recommend this series to everybody who likes otaku-stuff and daily-life anime, and fans of "Genshiken".

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book reivew: "Century of the Soldier" by Paul Kearney

Well, it is almost three weeks ago that I have read this omnibus, "Century of the Soldier", which comprises last three books from "Monarchies of God" series by Paul Kearney, but I've been too busy to make a post about it. Good think I took some notes, because I would be lost what to write.

I have read the first omnibus, "Hawkwood and the Kings" almost a year ago and had a good experience with it, which I described in the post. Again, in "Century of the Soldier", it is hard to make a short description because these are actually three books, and the last one happening almost 20 years after the middle one. But I will make a presumption that you have read the first two books. In essence, there are two main lines. In the east we have Corfe, as one main character, with bunch of other characters, fighting against the Merduks who are once again massively invading Torunna. In the West, we follow events in Henbrion, King Abeleyn's fight to reconquer his throne, helped by wizard Golophin, and return of captain Hawkwood from the far West. And the last book combines these two plots in one, where our heroes fight against the might of the Second Empire, a militaristic theocracy empowered by magic (Dweomer) and werewolves (among other things).

There are several things that differentiate this series from other. There is much sex, especially at the beginning of the first book in this omnibus. Even though I remember some of it from first omnibus, it definitely wasn't so bold. But I was much more surprised by brutal and graphical description of was violence, especially Merduk's rape and plunder through Torunna. Battle scenes are also pretty graphical. Kearney sometimes use trick Erikson often uses: talking through perspective of unimportant character that is later not even mentioned again.

I also liked how Kearney doesn't follow the tropes. We have an uncommon romance between younger man who is one of main characters, and (much) older woman. When I think about it, all love and marital relationships in these books are, well, not very healthy. There is also much of nice ambiguous morale - Golophin and others have to choose the side; Corfe and his love to his "daughter"...

Another specialty of this series is its magic system, Dweomer, but also its coexistence with gunpowder and cannons. Nothing much new compared to first two books, but this is a solid part for Kearney. This is not a classical fantasy - it is a historical fantasy but with a nice touch of magic, maybe akin to Guy Gavriel Kay's books.

What is not a solid part of Kearney is his narration, which is very sterile. In these three books I failed to make any connections to characters, so even when they make unexpected decisions (like Bardolin) or even die (and Kearney is not afraid of killing main characters, which will become more evident later), I just don't care. There was no real spark to interest me in fate of people.

I like Corfe's part in first books (there's no Hawkwood in first book), and things got pretty heated up in second book (which I like better). But pace is too fast in occasions and changes come to abrupt, which results in sudden and not-so-solid resolutions. I would have appreciated it more if the pace was consistent throughout the books.

There are very non-cheerful book - even when they are winning, our characters are not happy. Also, there is virtually no humor (except if you count Murad) and bantering between soldiers is bad (which I really take it as serious flaw).

All in all, "Monarchies of God" have some good points: interesting setting and unique magic system, realistic and gritty tone, complexity. "Century of the Soldier" has all this virtues, but I will remember it more by its flaws: not making any connection to characters and strange pace. Even though the overall impression of the series is more good than bad, I don't believe I will buy anything more by Paul Kearney - there is much more solid things out there.