Feb 172019
 

Two thoughts.

Despite what I wrote earlier, I remember skimming the first two books in this series over the course of a couple evenings in a friend’s home the summer of 2000. I also saw the first two (or three?) movies. Reading this book, I remembered a couple of the scenes. But now that I’m done and starting the third book, I’m excited. The rest are all new.

That matters because, second, Rowling is a good writer! In these first two books a world has been created, a deep problem set-up (which I can figure out nothing about beyond Voldemort is bad and is coming back), and a whole host of living and likable characters have been introduced. I like Harry, Ron and Hermione. I like Dumbledore and Mrs. McGonagall, and like disliking Snape and hope he won’t be a bad as he seems. Most importantly, the children here are doing their best and their blind spots are real, their fears understandable, the courage they find believable.

So I’m looking forward now to reading fresh for real. It’s exciting.

Feb 172019
 

I read the first of these books, A Darker Shade of Magic, a few years ago on a plane going somewhere. I loved it—and was unexpectedly horrified by the cruelty of life in White London—but I was also very much in the throws of my initial struggles with reading fantasy and science fiction. (More on that soon probably.) So I read it, loved it, put it aside and left the trilogy unfinished.

Eventually, maybe the following summer, I checked the second book, A Gathering of Shadows, out from the Bibliotheque Nationale and began reading it by the river. Its scope and focus had changed, the world and the problems it faced had become orders of magnitude larger and its opening chapters were near perfectly constructed. My own problems were, however, still frustratingly similar: 120 pages in, I decided that summers were better spent reading books I didn’t have the time for in winter because of the concentration they required and put aside this book unfinished. This on its own amounted to clear evidence of foolishness, stupidity and a deep illness of the mind and soul, but (or perhaps thus) it took time to work through and get over it.

When I did finally tear up the hedge—sowed and cultivated in grad school and then carefully tended during those tense years before tenure—that kept the science fiction and fantasy novels I loved out of the wondrous garden of Literature, the final two novels in the trilogy were near the top of the list of books I set out to read.

I loved the series. The world is complex but appealing, and the magical tournament of the second book was great. There is darkness running through everything though—literal and metaphorical darkness—and the costs of surviving it are high. People lose things and people are lost. By the end, I was sorry to be done.

Here’s the important insight that sorrow left me with though: the sorrow was about the people and their relationships. The characters had been sketched out in a combination of realist description and of magical traits and action that were at root metaphorical and the portraits that emerged were not simple cut-outs. Two men enter the story in love by divided by a break-up one doesn’t understand. Both are powerful and confident (but for different reasons), both are confused by the actions of the other, both need each other and try ineptly to find their ways back across their broken hearts and very concrete social situations. And their friends and family, good people but none of whom understand (or in some cases know) what has happened between them, wind up part of a fight and making things harder. When the two earn their relationship back, it was glorious and felt real. And this relationship was very much a side plot until the last book.

The other relationships were just as rich, just as complex and, in their variety, they what make the novel work, not the magical rivers, the overlapping Londons or bleeding but badass wizards. These relationships can be amorous. They can be friendly. The one between the two male leads is fraternal: a sad and ruined older man finds himself a villain, first against his will but then freely in order to do good, but in his rough and brutal way takes care of a younger man, equally powerful but naive, helping him grow to the point where he can survive after they have saved the world. And there are so many more people and relationships in this book. This is great writing and great imagining and I loved it from first to last.

Feb 042019
 

The world doesn’t need me to say anything about the Harry Potter books. In fact, when I mentioned to my brother that I was going to read them along with my twelve-year old niece who is right obsessed with them, he suggested I was probably the only person on the planet who hadn’t yet. When I told him I hadn’t seen the movies after the first two, I’m not sure he knew what to say and just told me the third was his favorite.

All of which is to say that I’m reading these books more-or-less fresh and without much to influence the experience other than ambient cultural knowledge. So what do I think?

This first book is definitely for children, which makes it a quick read, but the characters are well done and the tone genuinely happy. I laughed aloud more than once. So it’s good, and I’m definitely looking forward to the next.

Dec 162018
 

It’s been awhile since I’ve read something, liked it for the first few chapters, but then chapter by chapter liked it less and less. This book is like that.

Johannes is not a pleasant or endearing character. His brother is, but he’s very much off-stage for long stretches of the action. And story-wise, the book is essentially a series of self-contained “bits” or set pieces that are wrapped up in the end with a few long final chapters suggesting just enough character growth to justify a happy ending.

None of which is necessarily a problem. Lord knows I like plenty of deeply risible claptrap. And this book is better than that.

It’s just that it’s a book that plays to a particular taste. You’re either going to eat up the constant winks, nods, puns and, most importantly, Johannes’s Victorian Gothic posturing or you are going to find them dropping like bricks, one by one and page after page, onto your last nerve. 

Dec 152018
 

The second book in The Broken Earth trilogy shifts the narrative in ways that I found disorienting for the first half of the book.

In part this was because—as was the case in The Fifth Season—narrative point-of-view is so central to the effect the book is aiming for. Again the principal point-of-view is a disorienting second person and it’s used to put identity—who is speaking? to whom?—and my efforts to “identify with” on centerstage as questions. By the end of the book, I’d finally clued into the fact that in being constructed as challenges, these concepts were also being thematized.

I was also slow to catch on to the new narrative stakes. Narrative lines established in the first book seemed to have faded into the background here without me having a good sense of what was taking their place. With the point-of-view holding me at arms length from the characters, my uncertainty about the direction of the story initially made for shaky (pun intended) reading.

Only once I was past the mid-point had I settled back in enough to catch on to the true source of my problems: the scale of the story had changed dramatically. What I’d understood as a of coming of age fantasy—a young country woman is brought to town, educated, discovers she’s important—wasn’t. Or at least it wasn’t simply that familiar story and resemblances to it were a distraction. The stakes here were social, historical and philosophical and the narrative was reaching for and attempting to establish the cultural resonances that support strong allegory.

I’ve already read The Stone Sky as I write this, so I should probably go ahead and admit that this second book in the series remains my least favourite. But seeing how successfully the final book arrives at the deep allegorical force this book is building toward makes me admire this one for all the work it does to make that final triumph possible.

Mar 132018
 

I read this book in a rush, caught up in the world and the characters. This is great fantasy writing.

I also really like that nothing here is a revamping of Germanic or Nordic mythology and that this isn’t a world of wise, white men helping young white men discover themselves and save the world. That’s a shift from the norm and it feels right.

Narratively, this book takes all kinds of risks with point-of-view and plotting. Yet somehow, by the end it pulls everything together. It’s a feat of strength and makes the book extremely satisfying.

Feb 132017
 

Sunday wasn’t a great day, and as the afternoon wound down, I flipped over to Netflix to see if anything would catch my eye. For some reason, I clicked “play” on this movie which had never before tempted me in the slightest.

Looking back now, it’s hard to reconstruct exactly how it happened that I sat through it to the end, but I did, and as a result, I can say without reservation that Mortal Instruments is the biggest mess of a movie I’ve seen in ages. It’s gasp-inducingly bad.

And yet, there is Jonathan Rhys Meyers in black leather and rat tail braids. There is Lena Headey doing nothing but lying there asleep in scene after scene without ever getting a chance to wake up and kill her kid or fuck her brother. And there is Godfrey Gao in briefs and a dinner jacket mixing and mingling at a party. And there he is again striding smartly across an empty set in a fitted black robe with a cavernous hood that isolates and sets off his perfect profile. Also, there are vampires

These things alone should, by all rights, have made this movie wonderfully “bad” and carved it out a place in my magical gallery of guilty pleasures, regardless of what else was going on in the dreadfully silly (and terribly cast) main plot. Yet they don’t, they can’t, the rest is just too awful.

Which is tragic.

Sep 252016
 

games-of-thrones-i

I’d seen this season a long time ago and was uncertain about whether to continue watching the show. But by last Spring, I’d accepted that it had become a cultural phenomenon and that I should make an honest effort to see what it was about.

Because a friend had given me all of the books when he’d moved a few years ago and was cleaning his shelves, I decided that I’d read them over the summer rather than bothering with the adaptation. This plan was a bust. The books are well-written but, to my eye, are detailed beyond all reasonable bounds. Halfway through the first one, I realized that reading them would take all the effort and energy required to puzzle together a history of medieval England, but without the payoff of being true. So I dropped the series without regrets and without any nagging curiosity to pull me back.

I did have the first two seasons on my computer though, and so at the end of summer, I decided that I would start from the beginning, watch them both, and see what I made of them. And I’m glad I did.

The first season is much better than I remembered, and with the knowledge of the half of the book I had read providing context, I saw the places where the writers are making very clever choices about the adaptation. The omissions and elisions make the television series reasonable in a way the books struck me as not being. So absent a drastic change that pushes me away, it appears I’ve lined up my TV viewing for the coming winter.

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Sep 032016
 

My brother, my sister and I have played World of Warcraft for years. It’s fun, but it’s also a way for us to find time to talk and to hang out despite living thousands of miles away from each other. So when the release date for Warcraft was announced, we knew that there was really no way we were not going to see this movie, reviews be damned. And yes, the reviews were absolutely awful.

Here’s the thing: watching the movie I understood the complaints of every single reviewer who found themselves sitting in a dark theatre watching the silly portentousness of it all. Their suffering must have been real and was surely terrible.

But the movie wasn’t for them. It was for me and my brother and my sister, who laughingly compiled our list of all the very cool (but yes, if you want to be a killjoy, also very silly) things we hoped we’d see. And I’m happy to report, almost everything was checked off our lists, including a sheep. Even better, we got to see a major scene near the film’s midpoint echo one of our favorite moments from the early storyline of the last expansion. So for us, this film was a complete and total win and we were ecstatic.

But once it was done and I was home, the film got me thinking about a couple things. The first is that, despite its budget and blockbuster sheen, Warcraft was a small film in the sense that it aimed to be nothing other than a niche product appealing unashamedly to the specific segment of filmgoers who were ready to enjoy it for what it was. And in this way it reminded me of Krull, my go-to example of an amazingly effective stab at pure-fantasy filmmaking.

And that target audience? They turned out and bought tickets to watch it. My theatre was full of men and women of all ages, all of them clearly gamers, all of them laughing and having a good time together, and all of them clearly chill (except for the Fury Warrior sitting two rows up with a snack ready to go in each hand). It was a great crowd, and crazy as it sounds, I kinda felt like, once the end credits were rolling, that we should all share our specs, guilds and realms so that we could hang out afterwards. I was attending a WoW party in my hometown, and I was a bit sad when we all got up and disappeared back into the world.

Second, I realized that this film does something at the level of production that was different from what I’d seen before. Films with product tie-ins or that adapt popular stories or properties are as old as cinema itself. So it’s easy to mistake Warcraft as more of the same. But I really don’t think it is.

Now I haven’t dug around or done the necessary research—so consider this bar talk slash intuition translated into print—but in every other example of a non-incidental tie-in or adaptation that I can think of, the Hollywood film operates as the hub of the cross-media and licensing strategies. In those cases where the non-Hollywood properties have seemed to have some level of independence and this hierarchy has begun to blur, I can’t think of one where either 1) the film didn’t flop terribly; or 2) a studio or conglomerate didn’t buy the property (or its owner) outright. In both cases, the priority of the film and studio in the cross-media story world is clearly reestablished.

Warcraft has not followed this pattern. Despite frenzied accounts to the contrary, the film did not flop and there will be sequels. But neither did it shift the story focus to a new film-driven franchise. Blizzard intended Warcraft primarily as a means to develop and to support the core game by providing backstory for the recent Warlords of Draenor expansion. They also aimed to support and generate interest in the next expansion, called Legion, by reintroducing ideas and themes from earlier expansions that the new game content would build upon. In support of these goals, Blizzard appears to have insisted on controlling the film’s narrative and its presentation from script development forward even though doing so reportedly put the project at risk more than once due to studio objections to their demands.

To my eyes, the film that came out in theaters this summer looks like the movie Blizzard wanted to make. It supports the emerging game story and fits seamlessly into the cross-media collection of supporting works being issued as book series and animated videos that develop and introduce that story to various audiences. The film is larger in scale than these other works, but in terms of narrative, it seems to be on equal footing with them.

Stated differently, the game and not the film remains the hub of Warcraft‘s story world, which means Hollywood is not in charge of this story machine; it is just one of the gears. I think that makes this situation something new and very much worth watching as it develops.

May 092016
 

Phoenix CoverIt was a dreary day and the seriousness of life was getting to me and I just wanted to get away. Phoenix was on my shelf. I grabbed it, settled in and tagged along as Vlad had adventures.

I have history with Vlad. I’ve known him since university. He can be difficult and has rough edges, even some anger issues, but his heart’s in the right place and he takes care of his friends. He also keeps a sense of humor even when things get rough. I like him.

I also like Steven Brust, or at least, the man I imagine him to be. A talented writer with a light touch and the power to be funny and enchanting, and also, on this particular night when things were getting me down, a steady voice telling me a story, pulling me out of my bubble and making things better.

I don’t think I can have enough books like these on my shelves.