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. 

 December 16, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
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.

 December 15, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
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.

 March 13, 2018  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
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.

 February 13, 2017  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
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.

 September 25, 2016  TV Logs Tagged with:
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.

 September 3, 2016  Movie Logs Tagged with: , , ,
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.

 May 9, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: ,
May 082016
 

Hero of Ages coverMonths after finishing The Hero of Ages, I still catch myself lost in thought, imagining its characters and scenes or picking my way through aspects of its plot. It is the last volume of Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series (I’ve written briefly about the first and second), and I think it’s near perfectly done. Rather than going on about everything I like though, I’ll just point out three things that seem especially noteworthy.

First, I loved that each book is complete in itself. In each one, a group of characters has a specific goal that will “solve all the problems of the world” [spoken with portentous voice and reverb] and in each book the characters overcome great difficulty to achieve their goal. Yet in the first pages of both the second and third book it becomes clear that they seriously misunderstood the situation, that their solution wasn’t in fact one, and that it may have even made things worse. This is not however a case of a successful book spawning sequels that undo the work of the earlier resolution of the plot with a twist in order to create more business. Instead, by the end of the last volume, it becomes clear that the characters are learning more about their situation and that incidental chains of events running through the early books are actually essential plot points in the later ones. In a sense, the characters think are in an epic fantasy—“grow up and become the hero who destroys the material embodiment of evil before the forces of good fall”—but by book three it’s clear that they have also (an perhaps more importantly) been participating unwittingly in a mystery novel and a political thriller from the very beginning.

Second, these books are not fantasies of individual victory. Individuals succeed throughout and these small victories are meaningful and exciting. But the story also confronts the reality of their failure, loneliness and death. Characters build relationships with each other only to be separated and forced to operate independently. Alone they make decisions in with little information, hoping that their relationships are trustworthy but without having any reliable ways of discovering if what they are doing helps or even matters. It seems to me that this aspect of the books echoes (but only echoes) the notion of glory in ancient Greek epic. (And in this regard, its seems worth noting that every heroic figure in this book ultimately dies valiantly in battle.)

Finally, this series, although heavily and carefully plotted, does not trod along telling what happens. Instead, it traces its plot, indicating it rather than detailing it. All of the pieces are there. The causal links are clear. The separate lines of action intertwine. (And by the last book, major events are happening in many different locations, each separated from the other and developing independently.) But the full implications of the plot’s complications and complexity are left implicit. Enough information is given to figure out all of the connections and nothing is hidden, but they are not stated directly. As a result, the story leaves room to imagine and explore what happened after you’re done moving through the first telling.

These books have helped me remember what great fantasy novels can be like and I can’t recommend them enough.

 May 8, 2016  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Dec 052015
 

Well of Ascension CoverThe follow up to The Final Empire offers the best second act I’ve read in a long time. Very dark, disturbingly violent and, by the end, things are bad bad bad.

This series departs from the typical solemnity of a medieval scholar’s three-part epic form, something captured in the big, Manga-style pay off of the final scenes. There Vin, the woman protagonist, drops from the sky and slices the enemy leader (and his horse!) in half with a single blow from a sword that’s bigger than she is. She then proceeds to take out the rest of the army’s leaders one by one.

This scene is spectacular and over the top, but it also feels very much of our Final Fantasy/World of Warcraft moment. This is not just another rehash of timeworn, pre-Christian mythologies, and the form of the spectacle broadcasts that.

 December 5, 2015  Book Logs Tagged with: , ,
Aug 282015
 

final empireAn oddly non-mythological fantasy novel that reminds me of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi (think The God Makers rather than Dune). It’s wonderfully, refreshingly good. So good in fact that my urge to read slowly and soak up everything mostly beat out my urge to race to the end to find out what happens.

Some observations:

  1. The back story and world systems (magic, politics, etc.) are effective, not exhausting. They suggest a large and fantastic world without belabouring details.
  2. The world feels human because of its limits. There’s no Marvel-style superhero healing. When people are hurt they have to heal and it takes time, leaves scars. Communications operate through mundane systems: letters, messengers. The delays and physicality involved create genuinely engaging tension and open spaces for the plot to develop.
  3. The plot is both complicated and complex but never plods as a means of suggesting scope or striking an epic pose. Instead, reversals allow an interplay between the slow and the fast that creates surprise. The war that characters are building for happens earlier than planned, off-stage and once news of it arrives, it has already failed catastrophically. (One character made a believably stupid error of judgment.) The intrigue intended as the set-up for greater intrigue later turns out to have been the real intrigue from the beginning. (The characters misjudged when planning.) Yet everything is built to and motivated. The first out-of-the-hat plot surprise that I can think of occurs in the final pages of the book and, because it’s the only one, is just great great great.
  4. The plot reaches completion. The centuries old, omnipotent despot is killed. There is no holding back, no attempt to defer across the de rigeur trilogy format.
  5. Story-wise, the book is a heist narrative crossed with a coming-of-age story and two non-sacred messiah tales. That’s a lot of story structure for a few hundred pages, but it’s all coordinated perfectly and develops with grace and clarity.
  6. The leader of the rebels insists on smiling when he can do so honestly and understands that there are always secrets behind any secrets he uncovers.  The narrator does too, and it make this book really enjoyable to read.
 August 28, 2015  Book Logs Tagged with: , , ,