Sunday, February 23, 2014

Book review: "Legacy of Kings" by C. S. Friedman

It's been almost two weeks since I have read "Legacy of Kings", the last book in C. S. Friedman's "The Magister Trilogy", but I was away on a business trip so only now has time to write a review.

In last book, "Wings of Wrath", the secret that Souleaters are returning came out, with dark history of the Wrath, magical border that kept them in the North. Now, in "Legacy of Kings", Souleaters have a new Queen, magically joined with Witch-queen Sidarea, so humanity must join forces to repel them once again, or go through annihilation of their civilization. This time, they have Magisters and they don't know will this prove a blessing or a curse. Because, Magisters have a dark secret, hidden even from them, and known only by one Magister - Colivar.

"Legacy of Kings" interweaves several plots. We follow High King Salvator, who has to find a balance between his monkish past, his new responsibility as king, and legacy of his father and heritage. Curiously, Queen Gwynofar, one of central characters of last book, here is downgraded to a side-character. We follow also the enemies, Sidarea and her female Souleater; Nyuku, leader of male Souleater and their companion; and Nasaan, new character who is not aware who is he putting his chances with. Most interesting plot-line is that of Magister's, especially Colivar. Plot oscillates between being familiar and following fantasy tropes, to being unpredictable in small details.

After the setting was expanded in second book, I didn't really expect any new additions. Sure, we finally see some of the southern kingdoms, and desert definitely proves interesting new place, but it is all familiar from previous books. The big revelation is of course connected to Magisters and their connection to Souleaters. Much of it will be as you already guessed, but Friedman was very good with details.

There are almost no new characters in this book (except Nasaan, I think), but we find out some new things about our old friends. Kamala is finally in focus of events, which was not so in first two books. I especially liked her trick and transformation in the end. All Magister are interesting characters, especially Colivar, and during the course of book they change much. It is hard to reconcile complete lack of empathy (by definition of Magister) and still be able to write a likable character. But despite them being interesting, I can't say I really connected with any of the characters.

For summary of "Legacy of Kings", and the whole "The Magister Trilogy": these are solid books, with interesting plot and characters who grow, but without a spark that would make them a hit. They are written well, so even the old fantasy fans won't have problems with them, but all in all, this is not a series that deserves any special recommendation.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Anime review: "Blood Lad"

Few months ago I saw an announcement for the "Blood Lad" and got an impression of some vampire-otaku comedy, which sounded nice, so I decided to add it to my wishlist. In the meantime I saw few good review of this series and I gave it a try last week.

"Blood Lad" starts with showing Staz, the main character, loosing time. He is a boss of a province in the demon-world and a vampire. But more important for the show, at least in the beginning, he is obsessed with Japanese culture, plays eroge, collect figurines and reads manga. So when his underling brings him news that alive Japanese girl, Fuyumi, is wondering his section of demon-world, he is in frenzy to meet her. Coincidentally, during this encounter he gets challenged by some upstart and while he has no problem in defeating him, unfortunately Fuyumui loses her life and becomes a ghost. Staz, being more or less a good guy, promises to bring her back to life, which will put him in line against female space-jumpers, his estranged and sadistic brother, demon world's aristocracy, etc.

"Blood Lad" starts very shounen and slapstick, and it stays like this during whole this season. So if you don't enjoy first one or two episodes, you will not like it later. You know the recipe: powering ups, big fights, lots of falling down, crazy costumes or character's designs... But for me, it hits the spot. It stays goofy, but it does get more serious later, as more complex plot elements start, so it can be enjoyed by more mature viewers. On the other hand, if has some pretty violent scenes. There are few nice jokes referencing other anime, manga and games - like "Dragon Ball".

Plot starts very simple, with Staz's quest to restore Fuyumi to life, but it soon becomes apparent that there are deeper currents going around. Not that Staz is necessarily aware of them. Unfortunately, the season ends when it starts to get very interesting. So I join the other reviewers - give us another season! I watched the OVA - it is direct continuation of the series, but also doesn't give a satisfactory (or any) conclusion.

There is not much to say about characters. They are typical for shounen anime: shallow, one-dimensional, somewhat ridiculous. But that is exactly what you need sometimes. There are constant additions, so we will have to wait for next season to see how they hold up.

When I started watching "Blood Lad", one of my first questions was "boing?". Yes, it definitely is. But even though this show has all female characters drawn anatomically dubious and it gives occasional fan service scene, it is far from ecchi.

I really like the visual side of this anime: bright, vibrant colors, good design of characters, fast-flowing animation. But here, voice acting is also very good! I especially liked Braz, who has a great voice - like a real vampire, low, quiet and snake-like.

To summarize, if you like wacky shounen anime with some fights and fanservice, "Blood Lad" is an anime for you. Especially that it has only 10 episodes, so you can finish it in a day or two.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Book review: "The Scar" by China Miéville

Few months after finishing "Perdido Street Station", I tried the next book set in the same setting, "The Scar". I was wondering will Miéville be able to pull it again.

"The Scar" is, as "Perdido Street Station", set in setting of Bas-Lag, but this time we are far from New Crobuzon. In the book we follow a New Crobuzon refuge Bellis Coldwine. After some problems back at home (connected to Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin and the events in PSS), she is running away, traveling by ship, with destination of New Esperium, a colony established by New Crobuzon. But during the voyage, her ship is taken by mysterious Armada, a floating city made of connected ships, whose existence was kept a secret for more than a thousand years. Struggling to find some way to escape, she is dragged into experiment whose goal is to summon an avanc, a gigantic otherworldly being. But as things go further, she realizes that the avanc in only a first step in plan made my one of Armada's rulers, the Lovers.

So, we are back to Miéville's imagination. I must admit that he did very well - he managed to expand the setting of PSS, introduce a bunch of new elements, one more bizarre than another, and without being inconsistent. As before, I noticed again a wink at "The Dying Earth", with seawyrms used for pulling and some other examples. Maybe I'm wrong, but "Perdido Street Station" felt much more technologically advanced than the "The Scar" - even though they have analytical engines and guns here, but too much swords, pistols and muskets. But I presume that Miéville wanted to go this book more piratical feel, which he certainly did. This pseudo-science he writes about is very interesting. Although , some of his descriptions are a bit too grotesque and too-much-information, especially about the Remade.

PSS was also full of implied places and organizations, but here, the setting feels much more expanded through time and space: The Gengris, High Cromlech, The Ghosthead Empire, The Malarial Queendom... Even the names are great.

The main character is Bellis Coldwine, but she is more an observer that doer. Oh, she does some important deeds, but she is mostly manipulated into doing them: by Sillas Fenec and by Uther Doul. I liked how all our misconceptions about the both of them were broken till the end of the book. The second main character was Tanner Sack. Even though he was well written and his sections were interesting, I just didn't felt any respect for him - he started and ended as victim.

The plot was very good but not as strange as were the setting and the characters. It had enough small surprises to feel interested the whole way, but neither is this the book written for the plot. Then ending will some consider a cheating, but I kind of liked it: it is one of those uncertain endings with ability to modify the whole book, depending on will you believe it or not.

As I hoped, "The Scar" ended being a similar book to "Perdido Street Station" in style, but with completely new elements that enabled it to feel fresh and original. I would recommend it to anybody who liked "Perdido Street Station".

"Vorkosigan Saga" reread: "Cetaganda" by Lois McMaster Bujold

As I planned, I continue with my "Vorkosigan Saga" reread, inserted occasionally between other books. This time it was "Cetaganda" - as I said I was reading the books in internal chronology order, starting from "The Warrior's Apprentice".

In "Cetaganda", Miles and Ivan are sent on a diplomatic "mission" - as high nobles of Barrayar they are to attend the funeral of Cetagandan Empress. Cetaganda, as in Barrayar's greatest enemy. And they are told to behave. This changes even before they set a foot on Cetagandan territory. The two of them are victims on random assault, during which Miles come into a possession of some Cetagandan trinket. A trinket that everybody wants back and that can decide the future of Cetaganda...

"Cetaganda" is a book little off the tracks. By that, I mean that even it fits in internal chronology, it is more of a side book. You won't miss anything if you skip it (well, nothing except much fun). Events here don't affect later books, except in small details (like the medal, or as old love). So I was a bit in doubt to read it or skip it, since I remember it quite well and know that it is not very important in larger scheme. But as I also knew it was a very fun read, I decided to reread it.

Miles is here between big roles. He is not a young inexperienced leader as in past books, nor is he hyperactive professional megalomaniac as in next few following books. He continues his habit of manipulating his superiors when they (potentially) bother him. He also continues to "bully" his cousin Ivan, even though Ivan more or less lets him do it. All other characters are pretty well written, even those that only appear once or twice. Bujold can make them feel three-dimensional just in few sentences.

As for plot, it is combination between action, detective investigation and a little bit of comedy.

Bujold continues to do well with setting. It is imaginative so much it would not pass any tests, but it is written so unobtrusively that everybody just accepts it as it is.

One of my favorite parts of this book is in the end, when Miles receives his medal. And I like the scene where this same medal appears in few books later!

As I said, "Cetaganda" is not an important book in this series, but if you skip it, you will miss all the fun. A great book for all fans of the series.