My 2015 in Film (Part 2)

 

Cinema Screen

 

My 2015 in Film (Part 2)

A continuation of my ramblings about the 2015 released films I saw.

 

 

Self/less (2015, dir. Tarsem Singh)

I was surprised by this film.  Admittedly it had Ryan Reynolds in it, and I can watch him in almost anything, but I actually enjoyed this film, even if it was fairly obvious where it was going and what was going to happen.  Anyone familiar with SF literature will recognise the story arc, old rich man downloads consciousness into new body… hijinks ensue, but it was well presented and acted, and pretty enjoyable.  And who doesn’t love Ben Kinglsey?

 

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

The M:I franchise demonstrates what the Bond movies are severely lacking, an ensemble cast and a sense of humour.  This is an absurd, fun, exaggerated action movie that provides chewing gum for the eyes and popcorn for the brain.  It doesn’t matter that the plot is ridiculous.  It doesn’t matter that both the hero and the villain are both over-qualified super spies.  The stunts are amazing, the action is glorious, and you get what was advertised.

 

Pixels (2015, dir. Chris Columbus)

What could have been a fun, nostalgia filled trip down computer memory lane turned out to be a fairly tedious and unfunny Adam Sandler film.  Who would have guessed?  The visuals were great, the references to the old arcade games were fun, but unfortunately it had Adam Sandler as a hero and contained all the annoying dialogue and unfunny jokes we have come to expect from him these days.

 

Fantastic Four (2015, dir. Josh Trank) aka Fant4stic

This one surprised me.  It got a lot of hate online before I had a chance to see it, and I was therefore pleasantly surprised.  As far as superhero reboots go, and they are all the rage apparently, this was actually pretty interesting.  Trank’s earlier effort Chronicle (2012) clearly had a strong influence on what he was trying to do here, and I found it a lot more engaging than most of the superhero destruction fests on offer.  Admittedly the last ¼ of the film was a bit of a let-down and felt rushed and skated over, the character of Doom was under-utilised, and the finale felt ‘meh’.  It could have been really engaging, as the acting was pretty good, the origin story was an intriguing update marrying the New 52 with older continuity, and the effects were pretty damn interesting.  I enjoyed this one.  So much so, that I would actually look forward to a sequel by the same director with the same actors.

 

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015, dir. Guy Ritchie)

I loved the trailer for this film.  Seriously, the trailer is great.  Watch the trailer.  What can I say?  This is a polished, stylish, smooth, hollow film.  I don’t have any nostalgia for the TV show, so there was nothing there for this film to build on.  It looked great, it seemed to have all the story elements that it should, it just felt soulless and cold to me.  It was like a pretty, empty, shell of a spy film.  The costuming was great though.  I really liked the suits that Henry Cavill got to wear…

 

Hitman: Agent 47 (2015, dir. Aleksander Bach)

Computer game adaptation sequels are never likely to be amazing works of cinematic genius, but this has some excellent fight choreography and some impressive action sequences.  The story trips along predictably, but entertainingly, the acting wasn’t offensive, and the dialogue wasn’t particularly cringe worthy.  It is a step up from the Uwe Boll films at least.  What more do you want from a computer game franchise film?

 

The Martian (2015, dir. Ridley Scott)

A film in which Matt Damon needs to be rescued … again… as an internet meme is currently pointing out.  This was actually a good film.  It was enjoyable, smart, interesting, and only slightly strained incredulity.  It was also surprisingly fun and some excellent moments of tension.  I had a great time watching it, and, unlike Interstellar (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan), didn’t come out of it regretting having listened to the hype.  Damon is brilliant in this, and it convinces me further that Elysium (2013, dir. Neill Blomkamp) being awful had very little to do with him and much more to do with the fact that Blomkamp is over-rated and not actually that talented.

 

The Last Witch Hunter (2015, dir. Breck Eisner)

Hey, Vin Diesel is great.  I will watch anything he is in (see Furious 7 above for proof… hell, I even watched The Pacifier (2005, dir. Adam Shankman)).  This film is part fairytale, part Urban Fantasy, and part Fantasy Epic, but seemed to be desperately trying to be a modern Sf action movie.  It felt a lot like Van Helsing (2004, dir. Stephen Sommers) and I, Frankenstein (2014, dir. Stuart Beattie), but was better than Seventh Son (2014, dir. Sergey Bodrov).  I don’t know why it is that so few Fantasy films actually work well.  Especially when there are so many great Fantasy works out there that prove that it can be smart, engaging, grown up, and riveting.  But this, unfortunately, is another one to watch when there is nothing else on.

 

Spectre (2015, dir. Sam Mendes)

Despite Mendes’  protestations to the contrary the opening shot of this was remarkably similar to Soy Cuba (1964, dir. Mikhail Kalatozov), and that was probably the best thing about this bloated, cold, sterile, humourless, dour, tedious instalment in the Bond franchise.  It was almost bad enough to make me want to watch the Pierce Brosnan Bond films again.  When did Bond get so boring?  Even Christoph Waltz (playing exactly the same character he always seems to play) couldn’t save this film for me because there was no intimacy between him and Bond, the threat and antagonism seemed so impersonal and distant.  The stunts were good but lacked the style and sense of ridiculous fun that the M:I seem to have cornered the market on.  It felt like this was a film going through the motions of being a Bond movie… Opening cinematic stunt sequence?  Check.  Under-used female co-stars?  Check.  Unbelievable romance sub-plot that won’t go anywhere?  Check.  Car chase?  Check.  Ridiculous villain with nonsensical plan?  Check.   Casino Royale (2006, dir. Martin Campbell) seemed to breathe fresh air into the franchise… but now that air seems to have gone stale at best, and as rancid as a fart in a space suit at worst.  But they managed to make Quantum of Solace (2008, dir. Marc Foster ) look better by comparison.

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015, dir. Francis Lawrence)

I am not a Hunger Games fan.  I am just saying that up-front so you know.  I am also not a huge fan of films that split a book into two in a desperate grab for more money.  Despite that, I thought that this was the least tedious and awful of the films.  It was certainly a lot darker and grimmer than I expected (I only managed to make it through the first book and couldn’t face the rest of them).  Jennifer Lawrence is a great actor and I love watching her films (hence forcing myself to watch this one), and Philip Seymour Hoffman will be missed… but I was left fairly nonplussed by this.  It hit me squarely in the ‘meh’ zone.  Just not for me I guess.  Everyone else seemed to really enjoy it.

 

Creed (2015, dir. Ryan Coogler)

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this Rocky/Not Rocky film.  Sure the story was predictably by the numbers but Michael B Jordan was pretty good in this and Sylvester Stallone plays the aged champ turned reluctant trainer with ease.  The boxing matches seemed a lot more convincingly choreographed this time around, and there was a decent human and humane element running through the film that only occasionally lurched into full bombast.   Not a bad film in my not so humble opinion.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J.J. Abrams)

I have already reviewed this… twice, so don’t have much to add, except that, upon further reflection (and by this I mean that I have shamelessly stolen the thought from a friend), Kylo Ren is actually a pretty interesting and scary villain as soon as you start to think of him as one of the mass-shooter teenager types who rages through schools killing innocent children and teachers.  His lack of empathy, his dialogue, and his desire to re-enact the murderous acts of a previous monster matches disturbingly well with the profiles of those individuals who have shot up schools and universities.  But if you want a review you can easily click on the links to the right to find the two more detailed discussions of TFA.

 

The Hateful Eight (2015, dir. Quentin Tarantino)

I didn’t like it.  Cinematically it had some wonderful shots and some clever framing, but ultimately I didn’t care how or why any of the characters would die.  I am not a huge Western fan, so the homages to previous Westerns were lost on me.  The story was contrived and slightly tedious, and even though the dialogue was very sharp in places and some of the acting was great, this one just wasn’t for me.

Review: Trial of Intentions (Vault of Heaven Book 2) by Peter Orullian

Trial of Intentions

 

Short Version:

An epic fantasy that plays with genre tropes, but not always in the way you expect.  Fantastic worldbuilding that includes a fascinating magic system that permeates the world and its sciences, interesting plot choices that cater to but nor are beholden to classic fantasy storytelling, and a Book 2 that can act as a book 1 for new readers.  It is a massive improvement from The Unremembered.  A book to read.

 

Longer Review:

When I am wrong, I am happy to admit it.  Ok, so happy is probably the wrong word.  Grudgingly.  Yes, when I am wrong, I grudgingly admit it.  I went into reading this book with some trepidation.  The first book, The Unremembered, contained hints of a greater story, intimations of fantastic ideas, and it suggested that the author had the best of intentions with the story he was telling.  But, as my earlier review of it suggests, I was less than impressed with the execution, in fact I was pretty damning.  However, those hints of depth, the small elements of creativity, and the chance that some of those things could come to fruition made me try the second book.  When I started reading Trial of Intentions my first thought was ‘Is this the same author of The Unremembered?’  The setting was the same, the characters had the same names, and the threats in the world were the same… but the writing was better, the character development was better, the focus of the story was better, the plot was more interesting, the world was more sharply realised, and it no longer seemed stereotypical or trite.  So, let me (grudgingly) say that I was wrong.  This is a book worth reading.  This is a series worth reading.  And Peter Orullian is an author worth paying attention to.

 

Trial of Intentions begins shortly after the climactic events at the end of The Unremembered, so the characters are in the midst of processing what exactly has happened to them, what it means for the world, and wondering where they go from here.  Given the severity of the confrontation at the end of Unremembered there are devastating ramifications for each of the characters.  They have been changed, but don’t yet understand how and this is very good for the story.  This functions as an initial re-introduction of Tahn, Mira, Sutter, Wendra, Vendanj, and Braethan that very briefly recaps what has happened to them and highlights just how their characters have been altered by events and begins to address what this means for them as well as suggesting avenues for character development.  But before it descends into tedious character introspection and exposition it is nipped in the bud at the best moment and action descends in the form of a fairly epic battle.  But make no mistake, Orullian never forgets about the character elements, he now just works them into the action and story so the reader can see their characters develop and not simply be told that the characters have developed.  Oddly enough, this habit of alluding to previous events while actively engaged in new ones, adds depth to the story and a sense of history to the narrative and it is something that Orullian never loses sight of.  This results in Trials actually functioning as an entry point into the series and renders The Unremembered as slightly superfluous.  But the upshot is that we are presented with characters who are now much more interestingly constructed, who are trying to work through complex and powerful emotions, who are active participants in the grand narrative, as well as their own personal stories, and who have no time for navel gazing as the fate of the world is at stake and the barbarians are at the gate.

Speaking of the barbarians.  One of my great dissatisfactions with Tolkien’s classic The Lord of the Rings is the lack of voice given to the Orcs.  The brief glimpses we have of their culture, lives, and perspective, are vastly overshadowed by the power of the heroic narrative.  They are generally just brutal, monstrous enemies that are irredeemably evil and need to be destroyed without compunction or pity.  Orullian directly challenges this stereotypical position of demonising the enemy into a monstrous voiceless other and gives a series of POV chapters to one of the residents behind the Vale in the land of the Quiet.  Kett, the Inveterae, is a member of one of the many races that are imprisoned in the Bourne.  The short chapters dealing with his story add a great deal of depth and complexity to the conflict and emphasise the ‘two sides to every story’ adage.  While this is just one POV among many, it is refreshing to see that the world of ‘the enemy’ is as complex and as contradictory as that of the ‘allies’.  The introduction of Kett and the world behind the Vale also gives the story more balance in terms of what is coming and is a very welcome addition to the story.  The threat of invasion is that much more real and powerful because the reader witnesses the preparations and begins to get some insight into what motivates the Quiet.  Without this the enemy would remain a shambling horde of monsters and vague threat who, despite the effort Orullian has made to ensure they are distinct from Orcs and Trolls, would just be standard fantasy hero-fodder.

Of my many complaints about the first novel, it appears that Orullian has already anticipated them because most of my questions and areas of criticism have been roundly and solidly addressed in this story.  Where Unremembered was solely focused on Tahn’s quest, blindly followed Vendanj around on an extremely linear travelogue, and had the hero-centric narrative that has become stereotypical in the genre, this volume has a truly ensemble cast and presents a variety of story type.  Each of the characters now feels a great deal more rounded and has their own motivations for their actions, as well as exhibiting more complex emotions.  But more than that, the characters now feel active instead of passive.  They are executing plans.  They are attempting multiple approaches to solving the problem.  They are engaging in their own stories.  And each of those stories, while part of the greater narrative, is relevant, interesting, and distinct.

The orders of the Sheason and the Sodalists are finally explored and explained and Orullian works these facets of the story into the broader narrative so that they don’t feel like asides or expositionary lumps.  The events and crises in both the orders, especially the investigation of the Sheason order, from various perspectives, is one of the real pleasures of the book.  In particular, the view of Thaelon, as both the leader of the Sheason and the more private view of him as a father, is genuinely engaging and interesting.  Seeing his relationship with his daughter, and with the various other Sheason, adds depth and definition to both him and the order, making the entire concept and organisation that much more believable.  Seeing the schism within their ranks and how it affects him as well as the others gains a great deal more potency and emotional resonance as a result of this.  In terms of the wider story being told, the decisions made, with the best of intentions [pun intended], end up having severe ramifications for the conflict to come, as well as provide engaging exposition for the magic system and raising interesting questions about morality and order.

As with the rest of the book, the events actually affect the characters deeply instead of the characters merely paying lip-service to what has happened and carrying on as the narrative dictates.  Orullian presents characters being shaped and changed by what they see and experience and this makes them more rounded, understandable and relatable.  Due to their flaws, their decisions, good and bad, they come across as ordinary people trying to do their best in the most desperate of circumstances.  In other words, we can believe in them as people, not just characters or narrative functions.  This also results in both the micro- and macro-level of storytelling feeling more real, feeling more authentic, and giving the narrative a cohesive weight.

The conflict within the Sheason order is actually directly related to the events in Recityv and the politics of the city and the political storyline really comes alive in this volume and forms the major thrust of the book.  Set in Recityv and focused on the Convocation of nations, it blends the political manoeuvrings of the city from the perspectives of both Roth and Helaina with the stories and perspectives of the Sheason Vendanj, the Sodalist Braethan, the exile Grant, and even finds purchase in the magical, musical training storyline of Wendra in the Descant Cathedral.  Of all the plot threads that run through the story, this was the one that both captured my interest as well as slightly frustrated me.

On the positive side, Orullian demonstrates some great character writing.  Roth, the primary antagonist of this volume is a real piece of work.  He is despicable, arrogant, self-serving, ambitious, fervent, and fanatical, and yet, Orullian gives the reader insight into what actually motivates this man.  Roth could easily have become a caricature of an overly-melodramatic villain with moustache twirling plans, but what makes him truly fascinating and horrifying is his steadfast conviction that he is in the right.  Even more worrying is that some of his arguments and reasons sound eminently reasonable.  He is no frothing at the mouth mad-man, but a calculating and passionate advocate for a particular world view.  Orullian managed to create a character compelling enough to hold my interest, fascinate me, and, at the same time, make me want to stab him… in the face… with a saw-blade… repeatedly… So as a villain he is compelling, has depth and understandable motivation, and wants to save the world from what he sees are its faults.  The fact that those are the very things actually protecting the world puts him clearly in the villain camp, but we can understand why he acts the way he does.  Like Kevin Spacey’s character in House of Cards (2013-) he is someone whom you love to hate, but whom you can almost admire.

Helaina, on the other side of the political conflict, is also another character who grows leaps and bounds in this story.  She is very much the mirror of Roth.  He came from the streets, she was a child in a wealthy merchant family.  He is a fanatic who will sacrifice anyone to achieve his ends, she is a moderate who wants to work with people to bring them around to her way of thinking.  Yet both want what they see as best for the people, they are both willing to do what is necessary, even if it isn’t the most popular decision, and they are both convinced that their way is the right way.  Just like Roth, she has a vision for a better world.  Unfortunately for her, Roth’s vision and her own are entirely incompatible and are mutually exclusive.  Because of the constant opposition from the League of Civility she is struggling to hold the city, the land, and the world together in the face of an impending invasion from magical creatures and is in danger of losing everything to Roth before the Quiet even invade.  Her allies, the Sheason and the Descant, are directly threatened by the League.  Potential political allies are being manipulated or threatened.  She is beset on all sides yet displays enormous strength of will under the trying circumstances.

The back and forth between Roth and Helaina is fantastic to read, but… and there is an unfortunate but here… but, Orullian seems far too fond of Roth and lets the narrative become a little too contrived in order to keep Roth alive and important as an antagonist.  No matter what he does, no matter how despicable the act, and no matter how many times characters come into direct confrontation with Roth, no one ever seizes the opportunity to kill him.  He is built up to be the sole voice of the Civilisation movement, and not once do any of the heroes really try to take him out.  All of the conflicts result in Roth walking away, only to reappear about a chapter later and do the same things again.  Not only that, but he appears in almost every single League plan and important scene.  For the leader of a huge organisation that spans countries, he doesn’t seem capable of delegating at all well.  At times, despite being told how large the League is, you get a sense it is just Roth, a few friends, and a random collection of nameless foot-soldiers.  It also becomes a trifle frustrating that he can clearly engage in treachery, treason, murder, arson, blackmail and a host of other offences, but that even in the midst of chaotic insurrection the heroes fail to kill him.  It ends up feeling a little too neat.  A little too artificial and forced.  This is truly unfortunate given the strong elements of authenticity that Orullian has worked into the rest of the story and the world.  But it should be said that the vast majority of the Recityv storylines are fascinating and compelling reading.

Also in Recityv is Wendra’s story, mostly located in the Descant Cathedral.  While the Sheason practice a form of magic called rendering the will, Wendra is a Leiholan, a person with the ability to create magical effects with her singing.  While magical music is not exactly new, Orullian gives it passion, power and persuasiveness through his prose.  A guiding concept of resonance flows through the book and magic system, and goes to the core of the interpersonal relationships in the novel, and the fact that we are all shaped by our encounters with other people.  Wendra’s raw song, shaped by pain, betrayal and loss, is evocatively rendered on the page and like her character, it evolves and changes over the course of the story.  Once again, Orullian gives his characters the ability to be shaped by their experiences and we see this clearly in Wendra’s decisions, which might be right for her, but not necessarily right for the rest of the world.  Wendra is no longer the captive in need of rescue, and she is increasingly the commanding figure at the centre of the story.

Her interactions with Belamae, the Maesteri of the Descant, and her lessons in magic and music theory are a welcome change of pace and tone from the political storyline, and give the reader a more comprehensive understanding of what is at stake here, as well as how the magic actually works.  While Belamae is something of the kind, avuncular mentor, commonly found in fantasy, even he has a past and has made mistakes which round out his character and make him more than the magical maestro Dumbledore to Wendra’s Potter.  What is also nice to see is that despite the fact that Wendra has this incredible magical talent, she still needs lessons and practice in order to use it.  Mozart may have been a musical prodigy, but he still needed to learn how to read and write sheet music.  Wendra demonstrates time and again over the course of the story that she has raw power, but like the Sheason storyline and the themes of the political plot, her story asks questions about how, why, and when power should be wielded.  It asks the reader to consider the interaction of personal judgement, societal benefit, concepts of right and wrong.  It asks about intentions.  Orullian isn’t afraid to show his characters making mistakes, or to show heroes doing something morally questionable, just as he isn’t afraid of showing us the ramifications of this, the personal and wider cost, but he also ensures that all these aspects resonate and echo with one another.  There is a underlying tone and theme to the entire novel and this complexity and depth adds a significant richness to the entire endeavour.

Sutter and Mira probably have the least imaginative storyline presented, and one that feels more like a minor thread to the main political story.  In effect it is a fantasy travelogue to secure allies that visits two locales that may seem a bit familiar to fantasy fans.  The peaceful, hidden garden-like home of the Laeodalin (who are definitely not Elves because they don’t have pointy ears) and Ir-Caul, the home of the Smith King (who is definitely not a Dwarven king obsessed with being a blacksmith because he is tall).  But even here Orullian ensures that there are personal motivations and ramifications for their actions, and gives their scenes a sense of intimacy and truth.  Mira and Sutter have a chance to start to develop on their own, away from the burden of Tahn’s storyline, and away from the more commanding presence of Vendanj.  Of the two, Sutter gets more time to develop as a character while Mira still has things happen to her.  On a minor note, I found the incidents in Ir-Caul to be a little straining of incredulity and smacking of narrative convenience.  Some of that is expected in fantasy writing, and to be honest, occurs in lots of other books, fantasy or otherwise.  I am not going to castigate an author for the same sin that so many others are equally, if not more, guilty of, but it was still a little annoying that the entire conspiracy unravelling hinged on happenstance, incredible strokes of luck, unlooked for information from random characters, and a slightly trite romance story.  But, it was still an engaging story and it kept me reading.

The last major plot thread belongs to Tahn himself.  On the one hand I admire Orullian’s choice to place Tahn on a quest not to defeat evil, nor find a weapon to destroy the invading army, but to find a way to stop the war from even starting.  So rather than trying to defeat the enemy, Tahn seeks a way to stop them becoming an enemy.  I also admire that this ‘quest’ occurs in Aubade Grove, the fantasy equivalent of MIT and Harvard.  That’s right ladies and gents, Tahn goes to university to essentially research and give a PhD defence to a bunch of academics who may or may not have been infiltrated by agents of the Quiet.  It is a bold decision and was very interesting, but, unfortunately I am perhaps a little prejudiced about this storyline because of my background in academia.  This is no fault of Orillian’s, but knowing what academics are like, and understanding the process of a PhD viva made Tahn’s plan of action seem ludicrous in my eyes.  Plus, his new found aptitude for physics, mathematics, astronomy, rhetoric, and philosophy, while explained, just stretched my suspension of disbelief too far.  Despite this, it is an engaging storyline and illustrates just how full and deep the world of the story is.  Orullian links the magic with science and expresses it in a fairly convincing way.

All in all, Trial of Intentions is a great book.  It has everything that fans of fantasy clamour for, and some things they didn’t know they wanted.  If you like epic fantasy, or quest fantasy, if you like fallible heroes and interesting villains, then this book is worth a read.  I know that I will be anxiously awaiting the next book.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Review: The Unremembered (Author’s Definitive Edition) by Peter Orullian

 

The Unremembered

 

 

Review: The Unremembered (Author’s Definitive Edition) by Peter Orullian
Book One of The Vault of Heaven Trilogy

 

[Edit Note: Having just read the second book I am really glad I stuck with this series.  So while the review below is fairly negative, Book 2 Trial of Intentions is by far the better book, and the promise in this series finds fruit in the second volume.]

 

Short Version:  A solid epic fantasy that hits all the right notes, but perhaps in a slightly too familiar tune.  It might not blow you away, but it does promise a much deeper and rewarding story in subsequent volumes now that the foundations have been laid and the author feels freer to explore the world he has built.

 

Longer Review:  The publishing history of Peter Orullian’s first volume of the Vault of Heaven trilogy is a fascinating story in and of itself, one that resulted in a new version of the first book being released that is significantly shorter and quite different from the original release.  As this is the author’s preferred edition, the latest edition, and the one that now serves as the first book of a trilogy, the review below is of it and not the original publication.

 

Fans and authors walk a tightrope when it comes to epic fantasy.  As fans we want more of the same, only different.  Like the Lord of the Rings, only different.  Like The Shannara Chronicles, only altered.  Like the Wheel of Time, but new.  Familiar enough that they feed the same appetite, but different enough that they don’t feel like carbon copies.  But we also complain loudly when authors aren’t original enough, aren’t innovative enough, and conversely, when they are too innovative, too original.  Authors want to produce recognisable fantasy epics but ones that are unique.  They want their stories to cater to the tastes of the fans, but serve them something they haven’t had before.  There are formulas, tropes, conventions (not the comic-con kind), and stereotypes, and an uneasy, tacit agreement that some should be used, others subverted, and that, in the end, the whole should be a new dish made out of familiar ingredients.  I say all this, because in almost every fantasy epic there are recognisable and familiar aspects.  Those that deviate too far from the beaten path often lose the reader.  Those that stay beholden to established patterns become predictable and not particularly entertaining.  What complicates this further is when the story being told in a volume is a book one, a first step into a new world, the opening of a narrative that is to be at least three volumes long.  Judging a play by its opening act can be a mistake.  Judging a mystery novel by its opening chapters robs the reader of the conclusion.  But in those instances, the whole is present there in one sitting.  For fantasy trilogies, the whole story, spanning three volumes might be thousands of pages long.

 

So what has this to do with Orullian’s The Unremembered?  Quite a lot it turns out.

 

I don’t set a lot of stock in plot summaries because, by their very nature, they distil the story down into a few lines bereft of context, flavour or character, and are bland generalisations of what you find in a book.  But they do give you an idea, however vague, of what you are about to read.  So, with my provisos in place that this is not truly representative of what is actually delivered in the book…

 

A brief summary of the plot will have fantasy fans groaning as it appears as stereotypical and unoriginal as you can get.  A young boy with a special magical gift (in this case with a bow), on a journey with a magical and wise man, accompanied by a close friend to provide occasional comic relief, a warrior woman, a sister with a magical ability with song, and an apprentice warrior scholar.  Ok so the last one might look a little out of place.  They are on a quest to journey to a mystical place in an effort to save the world from a mystical evil.  A dread magical evil that had previously been banished from the land, but the barrier holding the evil back is failing.

 

So on the face of it there is little here to suggest that Orullian’s book is anything but ‘unremembered’, as off-hand I can think of several series that have very similar plots and remember them quite well.  The over-arching story of The Unremembered is very familiar and well-trodden.  Although it should be pointed out that it is well rendered, well told and interesting, but the story itself seems like the foundation work for a bigger story, a larger story, and, at the end of the day, a much more interesting story.  As I read I kept waiting for the world to drop away as some amazing plot development sprang into the fore, but that never materialised.  There are hints of this grander narrative, the tantalising glimpses of a rich history that will be developed in the future, flashes of plot points that look dead set to blossom into a rich, deeper and more original tale in future instalments, but as it stands, The Unremembered is a solid foundational epic fantasy that does all the plodding groundwork of laying out the bones with none of the real pizazz as it relentlessly pushes the characters through the plot.

 

But well drawn characters can make even the most well established stories come to life.  Yet, unfortunately, once again, while the groundwork appears to have been laid for all the characters to become much more interesting in the next book, this volume fails to give them the necessary moments to shine and stand out.

 

Tahn (a name that autocorrect loves to change to Than) is the typical, slightly naïve youth with a mysterious past, mysterious power, and mysterious destiny.  All very mysterious.  As the central protagonist there are strong shades of every other young, slightly callow, boy-destined-to-be-great character from fantasy.  But the story ends just as he experiences something that might actually change him into someone much more engaging and unique.  This is not entirely unforeseeable as the story focuses on Tahn’s journey toward the rite of passage that will make him a man.  He is not badly written, he is not overly annoying, he is just not fully developed here.  He is the bare bones of the character he will become, the opening refrain that introduces the symphony.  Adding to this lack of development is the significant effort expended by the other characters, and by the author, to keep Tahn unsullied as a character, to keep him pure and prepare him for the magical judgement.  But, as a result, the muck and grime that gets under the fingernails of great characters is simply missing here.  He never gets the folds and careworn creases that make the character feel real.  There is so much potential to his character that this story never quite gets to, and yet… and yet… there is a strong promise that the story and his character will explode with the next volume.

 

Vendanj, the Sheason (wizard monk) is almost the typical grumpy wiseman leading the quest group.  He utilises the Will (similar to the Force from Star Wars if I am brutally honest, or The Will and the Word from Eddings’ Belgariad) but he is at least a great deal more pragmatic and dangerous seeming than many of his epic predecessors and peers.  By the end of the story we have been granted glimpses of his interesting backstory and of the wider conflict he is part of, as well as moments of depth and complexity to his character.  But in terms of development, much of his time is spent forwarding the plot to the next stop in the quest journey, pushing focus onto Than as the most important person in the universe,  and being slightly mysterious for the sake of being mysterious.  It is not all bad though, the cost of wielding the Will appears to be pretty high and despite the narratively convenient moments of respite from attack, it appears that future Vendanj may have a significant bill to pay concerning his use of power.  Also his conflict with the political forces of the world as well as the magical ones, and the schism forming in his own religion suggest that Vendanj’s story will grow in originality and complexity.  He has the potential to be a great addition to the pantheon of guiding mentor figures of fantasy as he has feet of clay, and there are hints of more than superficial brusqueness and irritability to his portrayal.  But the reader isn’t given the opportunity to truly experience his unique flaws and we have yet to bear witness to the cost of his actions, all that is yet to come.

 

Wendra is Tahn’s sister, and by far the most interesting of the assembled quest-party.  Admittedly she has a rape and lost child backstory that grates the teeth a little, and her arc in the book involves her being captured, but she has definite character and strength of will.  She is no damsel in distress, and, while the kidnapping plot is a little stale by this point, Wendra never feels like a helpless victim waiting to be rescued.  Her ability to shape song into magical effects, while still in its infancy in this volume, is one of the high notes of Orullian’s book.  Magical music and singing is hardly original in fantasy stories, but Orullian imbues it with a complex vibrancy that makes it believable and really brings it to life.  To borrow a term from the book, he imbues it with resonance.  One of the major strengths to Orullian’s writing here is his use of this magic system, and affinity with how music is magical and powerful.  While only the first few notes of this system are played out on the page, it does promise to be a fascinating and powerful aspect of future books.  Yet, returning to Wendra, due to the nature of the story focusing on Tahn’s journey, she is given pretty short shrift here, even if the ending once again promises a lot more from Wendra in the books to come.  But all the seeds are there for her to really grow and become a dominating figure of the larger story as her power, will and character rival her personal tragedies and losses.  Of all the characters she seems to have the most potential to be realised, and, given the importance of song to the magic system and to the world, as well as Wendra’s ability, she will undoubtedly have a much more important role in the later books.

 

Mira, a Far, one of the magical races of the world, is a warrior who will die at the edge of maturity (which seems to be around 18 or 20) like all the members of her semi-magical race.  Blessed with supernatural quickness and apparently no need to sleep, Mira is the warrior protector of the group.  She is knowledgeable about the magical threat the world faces, but isn’t really forthcoming about her mysterious race, the magical backstory, or the strange history of the world despite the fact that it would seem to be useful information for the group.  While she has a number of action scenes her main purpose in the story seems to be to serve as Tahn’s first crush and to dispatch the occasional enemy.  But, as I seem to keep saying for each of these characters, the ending of the book should have significant and far reaching ramifications for Mira that will make her a great deal more interesting and rounded as a character in later volumes, rather than simply acting as an alluring, yet aloof love interest for the hero.

 

The Sheason Vendanj is aided by the novice Sodalist, Braethen.  If the Sheason are magical warrior monks who fight demons, the Sodalists appear to be learned warrior monks who use swords to fight demons.  Yeah, I am not really sure what the relationship between the two orders is even after reading the book.  But Vendanj uses magic, Braethen uses a sword (albeit a magical one).  Again, despite this being a fairly lengthy book, there never seemed to be time to delve into Braethen’s character.  Sure we are told his backstory a couple of times, but we never get the sense of how this shaped him, how his background made him who he is and helped him choose this path.  In part because we have no context for the choice.  His father was an Author and Braethen disappointed him by becoming a Sodalist, and his major accomplishment in the novel is finding a necessary passage in a book he once read when his father was training him as an Author.  Nope, still don’t get why him being a Sodalist is important or what it even means.  And yet, oh how this is getting repetitive, the strange sword, the mystery of what Sodalists are and his burgeoning partnership with Vendanj promise that he could become a great deal more interesting in book two.

 

Sutter, Tahn’s best friend from home, comes from humble beginnings, provides occasional comic-relief, but seems more to be there to ground Tahn and be a supportive sounding board for him rather than to be a character in his own right or the hero of his own story.  Once again, a development late in the story leads to Sutter becoming a great deal more interesting, but the investigation of that development seems destined for later instalments.  This feeling of being under-used and unnecessary to this particular part of the story is also true of the young boy, Penit, the stereotypical ‘young rogue’ who was a player in a travelling troupe of actors but whose family were killed.  Penit is necessary for part of Wendra’s story more than anything else, and, despite some nice moments, seems wasted in the novel.  In fact, he becomes more an object than a character as the novel progresses.  In what is now seeming a haunting refrain, the end of the novel does promise interesting developments for Penit in the sequels and his character could suddenly become a lot more interesting and important.

 

The late addition to the group is Grant, an exiled traitor and former special soldier who takes in abandoned children in a wasteland, training some and placing others with surrogate families.  Of all the characters, Grant feels the most rounded.  His backstory is explored over the course of the story from a couple of different perspectives, adding detail and nuance that is missing from the other characters’ histories.  But, perhaps more importantly, the reader gets to see some of the ramifications of his history, and how it has shaped him and his world view.  He is not the usual stereotype of grizzled veteran that one might expect to see in such a traditional quest group line up, as there seems to be a real sense of identity to his character that is a little lacking in the others.

 

As to be expected there are a few other characters who come into play and although each could possibly be developed further, the same problem seems to exist with all of them.  In this story they exist as embryonic characters who have not had the chance to fully develop independent of their role in the plot.  They are tools of the narrative, plot functions, story roles given lines.  Much of this is due to Orullian pushing plot and story at the expense of letting the characters live through the experience and trusting the reader to be interested in them and not just the events.  But through it all, his writing demonstrates that he has a strong conception of who these people are and he clearly has plans to reveal more about them and their struggles.

 

Despite these complaints, there is real promise in this story, and there are definite signs that further instalments will be better.  For a start, the pieces have been laid in this book for political turmoil pitting a powerful, quasi-military order against the main civilian government.  There is a suggestion of lots of political intrigue, manoeuvring, and shenanigans to come as the self-appointed guardians of right, The League of Civility, are brought by this book into almost direct conflict with the Regent of Recityv, the Sheason order, and, of course, our heroes.  Additionally, while the magical menace of this particular volume seems to use pawns in the form of Orc and Ringwraith analogues, revelations at the end promise a greater diversity of foe, and a more complicated rationale for their attempted conquest and destruction of the human lands.  By promising us a war to come on two fronts, one mundane and one magical, Orullian is really raising the stakes and complexity for the later volumes’ story, and therefore, while some of what has occurred in The Unremembered seems well-worn and uninspired it appears that Orullian is using those very aspects as the building blocks for a much greater narrative.

 

Many of the criticisms I have raised here are a harsh judgement centred around a single, central flaw of the book, and that is an earnest and focused dedication to telling the story rather than showing it.  Despite this, there are many moments when it is clear that Orullian has the talent and ability to deliver something greater than the sum of its parts, and some of his writing really sings.  But, as a whole, The Unremembered is too busy rushing through plot to let the natural story evolve.  If this is taken as the opening act of a play it forms the solid basis for subsequent acts, even if it doesn’t quite deliver on its own.

 

 

Review: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Book 2)

Well of Ascension

 

Review: The Well of Ascension by Brandon Sanderson (Mistborn Book 2)

Short Review: A sequel that feels pedestrian and somewhat underwhelming until the reveal and twist ending.  An ending that saves the book.  A fascinating continuation and evolution of the characters from book one.

 

Actual Review:
Book 2 of Sanderson’s Mistborn series begins shortly after the end of book one.  The Lord Ruler is dead by Vin’s hand, Elend is now king of Luthadel but has set up a quasi-democratic council to rule with him, a new religion has sprung up that worships Kelsier ‘The Survivor’, and several armies are descending upon the capital in order to seize the fabled atium reserves of the Lord Ruler.  As one would expect when the despotic tyrant of an empire dies, there is chaos across the land as nobles vie for power and control.

The second book of a trilogy, as this initially was before the series began to build larger, can often be something of a problem child for authors, but Sanderson’s narrative moves the story along without any of the usual signs of trouble even if the pace and focus of the story are very different to The Final Empire.  Eschewing the great caper storyline of the first novel, Sanderson instead focuses more on the political turmoil created by the death of the Lord Ruler and the subsequent collapse of the empire he had ruled and controlled with ruthless efficiency.  So rather than producing more of the same, Sanderson gives the reader something that they didn’t know they wanted, a story about what happens after you kill the Dark Lord™.   And rather than ‘they all lived happily ever after’, things seem to go from bad to worse for our intrepid rebel alliance.

While still the central character, Vin is no longer the sole focus of the story and she now shares narrative space with Elend and the Terrisman Sazed, as well as my favourite, the kandra shapeshifter.  For some readers this shift into a split focus may rob them of some enjoyment, particularly if they had built up any great attachment to Vin.  But Vin’s journey in book one from street urchin to extremely powerful and competent mistborn didn’t have much further to go in that vein, so the change to focus more on her competence and character growth, rather than her abilities is a welcome development.  More so as she finally gets paired with a genuine challenge in the form of Zane, a fellow mistborn, who seems just as at ease with allomancy as she is, and is accompanied by the kandra, OreSure, who acts as both sidekick and foil to Vin.

This shift in focus leads to Vin developing as a character, rather than pushing the over-arching plot along, and as mentioned, may make her sections seem less essential than before, although no less action packed.  She gets embroiled in numerous scrapes and battles, and Sanderson doesn’t exactly shy away from using her as an action set piece.   In fact, in comparison to the first book, Vin’s body count in this seems a lot higher.  The trend being representative of the fact that she moves from young trainee and apprentice, to active agent, assassin, and bodyguard, in effect, growing up.  While there were sections of Final Empire devoted to the slightly tedious and repetitive ballroom scenes in which Vin dabbles in ham-fisted court intrigue and gossip, in this book she devotes her time to being mistborn and embracing her more destructive skill-set.  This change provides most of the much needed action and excitement in this novel, and with OreSure, much of the witty repartee.  So it isn’t really a bad thing at all.

One of the most surprising developments in this novel is how the character of Elend evolves.  While somewhat nondescript and wet in the first novel, and fairly unconvincing as a love interest for Vin, his character arc and development here is extremely welcome.  Rather than assume that he automatically grows into his leadership role as some destined hero, Sanderson brings in another Terris character, Tindwyl, who takes it upon herself to instruct Elend in the ways of kingship.  Her lessons with Elend and his slow growth into a strong king form a solid plot thread that ties the political arc of the power struggles in Luthadel together.  The amateurish, arm-chair revolutionary dilettante of book one is slowly replaced over the course of the novel by a leader, a king, a man of character.  This development of his character, punctuated by Tindwyl’s acerbic comments and with all Elend’s growing pains exposed, forms a fairly fascinating story as he painstakingly ‘fakes it until he makes it’ and becomes the leader Luthadel desperately needs.

The change in Vin’s storyline to a more action-oriented one, and the focus on the development of Elend as a leader make for some fairly engaging and interesting reading.  While very different to the caper-focus in the first novel, this is actually entertaining and fun.  They both grow into believable characters who demonstrate a growing depth and complexity that was somewhat missing from the first book in which their characters were predominantly defined by their function and role within the story.

But the book is not all good news.  A strange issue arises in the fabric of this story.  Elend’s plan for a democratic republic, or at the very least a democratic council of regents, falls flat.  A combination of self-interest, corruption, ignorance, and ambition leads the council to fail and Elend is voted out of office.  But rather than leave it there Sanderson has Vin step in and essentially place Elend on the throne as Emperor and Dictator through the use of magical and physical force.  In effect making Elend a tyrant emperor… like the one they spent all that time overthrowing in the previous book.  In his defence, Elend has only the best of intentions and is doing it for the good of the people and the country, and we can trust him because he is the good guy.  Uh huh.  Yeah.  Sure.

I think that this is one of my problems with this novel, the undercutting of each storyline in a way that negates its relevance.  If Sanderson’s characters had cause to question their becoming the very thing they rebelled against, instead of paying lip-service to the idea but dismissing it because they, the narrative, and the reader accept them as heroes, then this would be very clever.  But Sanderson just nods at this occasionally without ever actually engaging with it.  In fact, the narrative gose to show that they are right and justified in establishing a tyranny.

Sanderson goes to great pains to outline Elend’s benevolent desire to create a just and representative government and then, by the end of the novel, has him, supported by his powerful friends, overthrow it and seize power.  And we, as readers, are meant to agree with this.  So the novel reads as fairly anti-democracy as it will always be corrupted by cronyism, avarice, and ambition, and is actually pretty pro-tyranny.  Elend’s position as a tyrannical ruler promises to be efficient, direct, and because he is a good man, relatively fair, at least from the point of view of someone who agrees with his position, like Vin… the person who makes him Emperor.

In the first novel it is clear who the good and bad guys are, or at the very least, who the sides are and which side we are meant to root for.  Even if by the end things grow more complicated, the struggle is clearly delineated.  But in this novel, the bad guys are dispersed, threatening but not really evil or even that worrisome.  The stakes seem less high, less relevant, and less specific.  The main reason Elend opposes handing the city over to any of the lords leading the other armies is so that he can protect his new type of democratic government… that he himself then is part of overthrowing.  For their own good of course.  Elend wants to protect the freedom of the skaa and all the citizens from a tyrannical dictator who will simply take control and rule them… the way he does at the end.  The political storyline then completely disappears in the dying pages of the book to be replaced by the overarching mystical storyline that, until the end, has been fairly sketchy at best.  So it feels like the majority of the book was simply killing time for an all-important magical scene at the end, and therefore the ramifications of the politics are actually inconsequential, the characters actions are inconsequential, the majority of the developments and plot points are inconsequential.

Actually, the Koloss themselves, the mercenaries who make up one of the armies, also bothered me a little in this novel.  Newly introduced in this story they are presented as violent, savage, practically mindless, dumb brutes; they are monsters.  Sanderson then tries to make them more interesting and perhaps sympathetic by showing how they are being manipulated and used by one of the lords.  Ah ha, so this is going to be like the skaa storyline about freeing an oppressed people?  Nope.  Vin swoops in at the end and simply takes control of them, mind and body.  For their own good of course, and for the good of the people of Luthadel.  Never mind that this is a complete invasion and violation of their agency in a way you would think that the scrappy insurgents from book one would rally against.  The Koloss have even less power and freedom, and even fewer rights than the skaa, but they are a monstrous threat, so apparently it is fine that Vin uses them as living weapons and imposes her will on them.  So it is a good thing that Vin, just like Elend, is a good dictator.

Because of all this I am left wondering at what the moral centre of this story is meant to be.  The first book was a clear struggle for the freedom of the enslaved skaa by a ragtag group of rebels and rogues.  To depose a tyrannical ruler and encourage self-governance.  To remove the corrupt and decadent nobility who profited from the oppression of the people.   Yet each of these positions is essentially negated by the actions of Vin and Elend by the end of book two.  Elend, a noble, is now emperor with magical powers (something that has worked out so well in the past for Luthadel).  The skaa are indeed free in that they are no longer slaves, but have no say in how they are ruled, and have been pretty much left to fend for themselves with no money or means to actually find a place in society.  The nobility, while reduced in influence, still hold almost all the power, wealth, property in the land, and are the only ones who have had access to education meaning that they will continue to lord it over the rest of the populous.  So after overthrowing the Lord Ruler, Vin et al essentially set up almost entirely the same situation, but with less competence, experience, or effectiveness.  The major change simply being that they are now the elite power living off the people.  This is a fairly depressing outlook on life, ‘hello to the new boss, same as the old boss.’  While no doubt more ‘realistic’ than the heroes winning the day and succeeding, it goes against the narrative grain constructed by the narrative tone and perspective.

Then we come to the dénouement, the conclusion of this particular volume.  The enemy armies are threatening and meant to be impossible to beat, but rather than having a plan to defeat them that Elend, Vin et al will execute as a team and that has a slim chance of winning, once again it comes down to a magical save in the 11th hour.  So the whole point of having Elend set up a council, learn to be a great leader, and all the political posturing comes to naught and has almost zero impact on the actual story.  To have a deus ex machina end this book as well as the first one does not bode well for the series.  Especially as the idea of three hostile armies threatening each other and the city should have proved fertile ground for intricate political manoeuvring and Machiavellian intrigue.  What Sanderson leaves us with is closer to high school politics and ham-fisted, juvenile intrigue, rather than imperial statesmanship as each manoeuvre ultimately has almost no real bearing on the narrative.  That isn’t to say that the battles and fights aren’t fun to read, it is just that it seems to come down to Vin having super-special magical powers and just so happening to stumble across a magical secret in the nick of time… again.   So rather than the other characters actually being effective, there being real consequences to the heroes’ actions, and there being a discernible reason for the plot of three quarters of the novel, everything hinges on a surprise ending.

While much of this will no doubt be built upon in the third book, at the end of book two I wondered why I was meant to be supporting these characters at all.  Vin is a murderer and assassin, Elend has become a dictator, and the majority of the book has focused on a storyline that has almost zero relevance for the important reveal at the end.

But it is here that Sanderson saves the book.  The reveal.  The twist.  The all-important over-arching magical narrative.  Were it not for this I would have been extremely disappointed in the ending as it panned out.  While I might call shenanigans on the use of deus ex machina and immaculate timing yet again, it is nonetheless an intriguing end.  An ending that makes me want to read the third book immediately.  And isn’t that what a good story is meant to make you do?  Admittedly, although the fact that the book requires a twist ending that mostly comes out of nowhere to save it might seem a cheat, there are enough hints, references, and intimations dribbled through the book to make it seem a natural part of the world and overall story arc.  Even I will admit that I was hooked on finding out what was going to happen next.

But ultimately I thought that this was a fairly uneven book.  The early storylines that held my interest turned out to be fairly meaningless for this novel.  The hook and twist ending, while vital for the series as a whole, made the majority of the book’s action seem irrelevant filler, even if it did ensure that I immediately queued up the next instalment to read.

 

Review: Daredevil (Netflix, 2015)

 

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Review: Daredevil (Netflix, 2015)

 

I recently reviewed Jessica Jones and it seemed only fair to give Daredevil a review too.

Short Review:
Great superhero show that borrows from police procedurals and organised crime dramas like The Sopranos in an order to create tension, drama and believable realism in a dark, gritty and action filled New York setting.  With its visceral, consequence ridden violence,  Daredevil attempts to show what superhero vigilantes would be like if they actually existed in the real world, never once hiding the emotional and physical wounds their actions cause.

 

Actual Review:
Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, is a lawyer by day and a vigilante by night.  He lives a life focused on justice, and, with the irony only a comic book can use straight-faced, just as justice is blind, so is he.  Unlike the majority of Marvel’s other superhero properties on the big and small screens, Daredevil is less concerned with the grand epic battles of superheroes deciding the fate of the world in an orgy of cinematic violence and destruction, and it centres itself on individual struggles, believable conflicts, and the everyday crime and grime of the big city.

Set in the Hell’s Kitchen area of New York, shortly after the events of Avengers (2012), Netflix’s 13 episode Daredevil is part of the expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe but holds itself apart.  Like its sister show Jessica Jones, it will also (presumably) be connected to Netflix’s planned shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist.  Coming to Daredevil after seeing Jessica Jones certainly removes some of the power and impact of the series, but despite some strong similarities they seem to be two very different shows.  Jones was a compelling drama based in a detective noir vein that explored abuse, whereas Daredevil is more an organised crime drama that can’t resist action and a good scrap.   

Charlie Cox plays Matt Murdock, the titular Daredevil, a vigilante who stalks the streets and rooftops of his neighbourhood at night in order to stop the crime and corruption plaguing Hell’s Kitchen.  If this were not arduous enough, by day he is an attorney who has recently left a high price law firm in order to set up his own practice with his childhood friend Franklin ‘Foggy’ Nelson (Elden Henson).  The central antagonist for the series is Vincent D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk, The Kingpin, a businessman and crimelord, with the main arc in the first season centring around Deborah Ann Woll’s Karen Page, who discovers some evidence of Fisk’s criminal empire and becomes a target whom Murdock must protect.

While there are several other supporting actors who, for the most part, turn in some great, believable performances, the weight of the show really rests on Cox and D’Onofrio’s shoulders.  Cox portrays Murdock as a deeply conflicted man.  On the one hand, as a lawyer he has a chance to pursue justice through due process and the law.  To take criminals down and put them in jail.  To be part of civilisation and help society heal itself.  On the other hand he sees how justice is routinely suborned and manipulated by the wealthy, the corrupt, and the criminally well connected.  His answer to this is to take the law into his own hands, to do the things that the police are unable to do, to fight for the heart and soul of his city, his neighbourhood and the defenceless, and ultimately become a vigilante outside the law.

Despite Cox being English his American accent is surprisingly convincing (well, at least to my untrained ear).  But that is the least of his accomplishments in the role.  It is a tough sell to convincingly pull off both the civilian role of the lawyer as well as the masked vigilante crime-fighter, and yet Cox manages to make both personae seamlessly match.  Coupled with this is Cox’s compelling character performance in his character’s moments of introspection and self-doubt, particularly in regard as to how his violent street fighting justice runs in conflict with his character’s Catholic beliefs and his role as a lawyer.  Cox also manages to convey both the vulnerability of being blind in a sighted world, but also how his disability does not define him.  Certainly there are a number of knowing moments when Cox plays up Murdock’s blindness and the audience knows he has a ‘radar’ sense of the scene in front of him, but for the most part Cox and the production team seem to genuinely try to portray his blindness with sensitivity and realism.  It is a surprisingly complex and nuanced role for those expecting the usual caricatures of superheroes and their melodramatic soap-opera personae.

As Daredevil there is a visceral realism to the scrapes and fights that he finds himself in and actively seeks out.  Each fight, each punch and kick, has a hard meaty content to it, so that every blow lands with a believable primitive weight, and part of that is due to the damage that his character takes over the course of the series, emotional and physical.  While many superheroes seem to be able to fight from morning to night without any real sense of damage or repercussion, Daredevil is visibly worn and exhausted by his conflicts and the evidence of his beatings mounts episode after episode, from cuts and bruises to cracked and bleeding knuckles.  Even more compelling is that these physical scars and markers are accompanied by emotional damage, both to Murdock and those who are close to him.  The price he pays for his heroism is steep, and to the credit of the show and the character, we see him questioning it and flinching at the cost.

An additional note in relation to the action and fight sequences concerns the brilliant choreography that reflects both Daredevil’s brutal, raw and yet effective fighting style, and the physical toll that such intense fighting exacts.  The show is also very careful to try to avoid boring repetition when it comes to the fight sequences and experiments with different styles of shots and approaches to keep the action feeling fresh and inventive.  As a result the action never feels as tired and samey as say 40 minutes of Superman throwing yet another villain through a building.   It really is rare to see superheroes this human, this weak, and this fragile.

Opposite Cox is D’Onofrio’s Wilson Fisk.  The reveal of Fisk, while telegraphed and hinted at in the first few episodes, is delayed until the viewer is really committed and has had a chance to identify with Murdock and settle into the storyworld created.  This means that a great deal of anticipation is built up around D’Onofrio’s eventual introduction, and he doesn’t disappoint.  As far as comic book villains go he is one of the most believable and realistic villains around.  He has no superpowers, no special abilities and doesn’t seem hell bent on world destruction or domination just for the hell of it.  D’Onofrio presents Fisk as a cold, calculating business man who has understandable goals, understandable motivations, but is undeniably morally reprehensible in his choice of methods in achieving those things.

D’Onofrio plays Fisk beautifully as a true villain, not a cackling baddie, and if anything he initially underplays him.  It is such a relief to see a character actor unafraid of leaving the audience wanting more take the role of a villain.  Fisk is presented as tightly controlled, soft spoken and is all the more chilling because of it.  There are constant hints of the depths of his rage and power that leak out at the edges of the performance, and because he refuses to chew the scenery his power is that more palpable.  It also adds weight and power to those moments when he does indulge his rage and anger.  He is the Tony Soprano of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and like Gandolfini’s Soprano, Fisk is not entirely without sympathy, even if he is the bad guy, commits evil, and is a brutal murderer.

A fantastic strength of the show is that Fisk and Murdock are set up as mirrors of each other and the show is at pains to show the viewer just how similar the two men are.  They are both criminals who break the law to get their own way, and aren’t afraid of using violence to enforce their will and vision of the area.  They are both locals who grew up in Hell’s Kitchen and want it to be better.  But while Kingpin is focused on the future with his grand plans of re-development and gentrification funded by organised crime, Daredevil stands for a more conservative, and perhaps nostalgic, approach that fights for the rights of the everyday citizen.  They are two sides to the same coin, and yet the audience is never in doubt as to who is the villain and who is the hero, even if the characters themselves are sometimes unsure.

When people talk about superheroes becoming grittier and more realistic, they usually mean darker, more violent, and aimed at an older audience, and yes Daredevil is all those things, but it is also more mature.  Psychological realism, fear and tension, trauma and repercussions for violence all figure in this show that borrows far more heavily from award winning HBO dramas than it does from colourful capes.  Daredevil is superheroes for adults who want more from the stories than disaster porn and sociopathic quips delivered while killing nameless bad guys.  Daredevil is about good storytelling, compelling characters, gripping drama, and believable action.  Watch it and you will see that the potential for superhero stories far exceeds what has so far turned up on the big screen.

 

Spoiler Filled Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)

 

 

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I have posted a spoiler-free review of Star Wars the Force Awakens already, so if you still haven’t seen it you might prefer to read that than read this spoiler-filled review.

If you have seen it just skip down to the bold title below.  This whole section is just to prevent people seeing spoilers.

Seriously, this one has spoilers in it.

For those that don’t want to read spoilers you need to look away.

Not kidding here.

There are spoilers below.

 

Alright then, I think I have done my due diligence in trying to prevent spoilers unknowingly ruining someone’s day.  If not, then at least I tried.

Spoiler-Filled Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)
<With more than a little snark… ok a lot of snark… and some ranty grumbling>

 

There is a line from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) that sum up the experience of watching the new Star Wars film.
‘I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?’
The Force Awakens just leaves you feeling whelmed.  Or, in modern parlance, meh.  In fact a friend of mine suggested it was really Star Wars: The Requel given its uneasy status as both reboot and sequel.  Alternatively, we could call it Star Wars: The Next Generation.  Part of this was due to the unsustainable hype and level of expectation built up before the film’s release, and partly due to the nostalgia tinted glasses with which we view the originals.  But the bottom line is, if you liked Star Wars: A New Hope you will like this… because it is the same film.

Or, as I more politely and tactfully said in my original Spoiler Free review:

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens JJ Abrams had a nearly impossible task, he had to please old fans and acquire new ones, pay homage to the old films, undo the errors of the prequels, and yet also create a new Star Wars for the new generation.  The film had to appeal to children and adults alike and therefore had to indulge the older fan’s nostalgia but not let it dominate the storytelling, have enough action and visual effects to entertain today’s jaded youth but refrain from the frenetic screen clutter that plagued the prequels making the actions sequences migraine inducing blurs of sound and light, and, above all else, launch a new mythic storyline.  Given that this was not just a film but also part of a multi-billion dollar media franchise and of one of the most beloved film franchises of the modern age, to say expectations were high is perhaps a bit of an understatement.

So because anticipation was so great, because expectations were so ridiculously high, it should come as little surprise when I say that The Force Awakens is a mixed bag.  It isn’t terrible, and it isn’t amazing.  It had its high points and it had its weak moments.  There were some great lines and some misses.  In Abrams’ defence, no matter what he produced it was not going to be able to please all the fans all the time, so I am actually surprised at how much I enjoyed this.  If we are measuring it solely against the prequels then in this regard Abrams cleared it with a parsec to spare.  Against the original Star Wars: A New Hope… that is a more complex comparison.

 

Let’s start with the good.  Sitting in the cinema, the screen darkens, the lights go out, the logos appear and then… STAR WARS accompanied by Williams’ iconic overture.  In that one moment of giddy excitement you relive the first time you saw Star Wars.  Get used to that feeling, well not the excitement part, because for the next two hours you are going to feel like you are, in fact, re-watching Star Wars: A New Hope with a dash of Empire and sprinkling of Jedi, but not in a good way.

 

But I said I would start with the good, so we shall carry on with that.  Firstly, it sounds fantastic.  It has the John Williams score so it sounds like Star Wars, and he has reworked some of the themes and tracks to give a Star Wars feel to the new characters.  But, perhaps more importantly, The Force Awakens has Ben Burtt’s sound effects all cleaned up for the modern audience.  The TIE Fighters engines scream, and their lasers whine, while the X-Wings have their own jet-engine roar and the blatt blatt of their blasters.  There is the familiar snap hiss of lightsabers followed by their distinctive crackle.  BB-8 has cutesy droid noises that are similar to, but separate from, R2-D2’s chirruping.  Stormtrooper laser blasts vie with the distinctive fire from the Rebel Alliance Resistance blasters.  These sound effects, more than anything else, really give you a sense of the Star Wars universe.  The ships and costuming can change, either dramatically or subtly, but as long as it sounds ‘right’ I can forgive a lot.

Actually the costuming was pretty great too.  The Stormtroopers have been revamped slightly but are still recognisable in their iconic white armour with black trim.  Rey’s desert robes are sufficiently desert-y.  The rebel Resistance pilots wear the familiar orange flight suits.  Han Solo has the same outfit on that he had thirty years ago.  Chewie still has no pants.  The First Order officers look sufficiently like Nazis/Imperial officers that we can’t fail to make the connection between them and EVIL™.   And Kylo Ren has the black helmet, the sweeping cloak, and clearly the best tailor in the galaxy.  No one says being evil means you have to dress poorly, and let’s face it the Sith have always been snappier dressers than the Jedi.

 

Speaking of how it looks, it is pretty.  It is by far the best looking of all the Star Wars films.  Abrams utilises CGI to enhance and supplement the practical effects and tries not to let them completely dominate the screen.  This is especially true in the action sequences, particularly the dog fights and the X-Wing trench run attack run (yes, another one, only this time the trench is a lot shorter) on the third Deathstar Starkiller Base to target a tiny over-looked weakness in the base design.

[Side note: At some point someone is going to execute all the structural and military engineers at the Sith Academy… or at least let them go with extreme prejudice.  Once is a mistake, twice is carelessness, but three times?  That is outright criminal negligence.]

While the digitally re-mastered versions of the original trilogy and the prequels were slathered in gobs of CGI that obscured or obfuscated the action, Abrams actually showed some real restraint.  Even the dreaded lens flare that blinded Star Trek audiences in recent years was scarce.  There seemed to be enough on the screen to denote action and ‘epic space battle’ but not so much flashing rubbish that you couldn’t follow the action sequences or run the risk of triggering photosensitive epilepsy.  Abrams also tried to have the camera follow one main actor or moving piece at a time so that the audience’s weary eyes could actually track the action.  For the most part he succeeds, and this results in far more interesting action scenes that engage the audience.

 

There were also some beautiful cinematic landscape shots, particularly in the early scenes of the young Luke Rey scavenging from the old AT-ATs and ruined star ships crashed around the desert planet of Tatooine Jakku.  As Rey enters Mos Eisley Niima Outpost Abrams has thankfully done away with the slapstick CGI comedy that cluttered the screen in the re-mastered New Hope and gone with predominantly physical effects to give a lived in and distressed look to the settlement.  It actually looks like a crappy outpost in the arse end of nowhere.  The move of the cantina Maz Kanata’s bar from Mos Eisley to the forested Yavin 4 Takodana adds a little variety to the landscapes depicted in the film.  As does the inclusion of the snowy wastes of Hoth Starkiller Base.  Unfortunately no equivalent of Cloud City and Bespin featured heavily, so I am sure they are saving that for the next one.

 

Another positive was the slightly more diverse casting of this film.  Rather than the usual selection of pale white faces intermixed with strange aliens, we get to see a couple of non-white actors… on screen… in potentially important roles… That sure is a lot of progress.  Huh, I think my sarcasm font isn’t working.  But seriously, it was great seeing John Boyega emerge from the blood splattered Stormtrooper helmet and show a human face inside the armour.  The weird way that a laser blast through a fellow Stormtrooper’s armour (presumably cauterising and burning a wound) allows him to smear his facemask with blood might seem an extraordinarily convenient way to mark Finn out for the scene, but it seems harsh to pick at such an unsightly and easy plot scab.  While the transition of FN-2187 to Finn might have felt a little uneven and rushed, Boyega was pretty good on screen and created a likeable and surprisingly complex character that had feet of clay.  Certainly Boyega has laid the groundwork for Finn to develop far more fully in the later instalments of the franchise.  Hmmm that might be a very useful phrase for this film… ‘lays the groundwork for the future instalments’ and the second part of that phrase, ‘rather than giving us a complete film in and off itself this time around.’

 

Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, the greatest pilot in the galaxy (as we are told at least three times) was underused in this film.  Isaac is clearly capable of great performances, but there was just no room in the script for him or his character apart from a couple of short scenes and the odd flight shot.  His torture scene at the hands of Kylo Ren, in no way reminiscent of Leia being questioned by Vader in A New Hope or Solo being tortured in Cloud City, wasn’t the best opportunity to showcase Isaac’s acting skills but he still manages to turn the scene into something memorable.  In fact, Isaac did his damndest to steal every scene he was in with infectious devil-may-care charm and some smouldering looks that may have been aimed at Finn rather than Rey.  Could Star Wars finally have an openly gay hero?  Probably not, but we can always hope.  But as the stand-in for the new generation’s Han Solo Isaac put in a good performance, and it bodes well for the future that Abrams kept him in instead of killing him off… ‘laying the groundwork for the future instalments’.  Admittedly, it would have been nice to not constantly be told that he was the greatest pilot in the galaxy and simply shown that, but perhaps such subtlety was lost on the editing room floor in order to carve out more space for needless fan service and homages to the original trilogy.

 

Rey, The Force Awakens’ Luke Skywalker stand-in, is ably played by Daisy Ridley.  Her initial wordless scenes demonstrated her ability to convey character and emotion without the need of dialogue, which says a lot about her acting chops and Abrams’ direction.  Unfortunately, for no real reason, she has a strong English accent, despite the fact that no character on the planet around her has a similar one.  Apparently some accents are just genetically predetermined.  She presents a fascinating character and it is great to have a female hero Jedi-in-training on the big screen and in live action.  If as much care had been given to her later scenes as those early ones, this would have been a far superior film, albeit with fewer scenes stolen directly from the original trilogy.  Given that Abrams was cramming so much into this film, Rey’s force sensitivity blooming into full-on command of the force felt rushed, not because of the character of Rey, or Ridley’s portrayal, but because Abrams didn’t give the character the room to breathe.

 

I am really looking forward to seeing her in action in the later films when she gains even more control over her considerable force powers as she clearly ‘laid the foundations for development in future instalments’.  For those that think she learned the Force far too quickly, there is a great scene when Kylo Ren is torturing her and you see her watch what he is doing and learn from it.  And, later, she attunes herself to the Force, giving herself to it, and we witness her channel it.  Again, Ridley portrays this wonderfully on–screen without unnecessary dialogue… then again, considering the number of people complaining about this maybe the dialogue laying everything out for the audience wasn’t completely unnecessary.  I liked it though.

 

Han, Chewie and Leia are back! Well sort of.  Don’t get me wrong, seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca stride aboard the Millenium Falcon (despite the absurd coincidence) was fantastic.  It made no sense and was completely out of place, but it was still a great moment.  Just in case fans didn’t get their A New Hope fill with that one particular moment we also have shots of the holographic chess game and a target drone.  And Rey and Finn hiding in the smuggling compartments.  And the earlier scene in which Finn fires the quad lasers at TIE Fighters which is clearly completely different to the almost identical scene in A New Hope because it is in a planet’s atmosphere and not space.  And a later scene of it needing repairs.  But seriously, those moments of fan service were not completely wasted, just a little redundant, and felt more like copies rather than homages.  Time on these scenes could have perhaps been better spent on more original content rather than re-hashing the plot and scenes of A New Hope.

 

So despite the ridiculously tenuous reason for the Millenium Falcon to be on Jakku, and apparently the only Corellian freighter still flying in the Galaxy, and the billion to one shot that Solo could track it as soon as it left the atmosphere from light years away… it was still great to see it.  I mean, it just wouldn’t have been the same if it had been a different junked up Corellian freighter on Jakku that Rey and Finn flew away, and that Solo and Chewbacca had found them and used parts from it to repair the Falcon.  That would have been close to believable and clearly believable, rational, or even ‘likely, have no place in this film.  It isn’t so much that the coincidences in this film are absolutely, mind-bogglingly, astronomically staggering, (it is a film that has science fiction wizards with laser swords after all) it is the fact that not a single person seems to think that the coincidences are at all noteworthy.  Plot convenience can excuse some level of quirky twists of fate, but some discretion or even half-hearted attempt at believability would have been nice.

 

Speaking of sins of convenience of ridiculous proportions, wasn’t it handy that Luke’s lightsaber turns up in Obi Wan Kenobi’s trunk in the one bar that Rey, Han et al decide to swing by?  It is not as if hundreds of Jedi were killed across the Galaxy during the Empire’s purge and that she could have found anyone’s lightsaber just then.  Or that Kylo Ren could have taken it and kept it as a keepsake on his nightstand next to the melted face mask of his grandfather.  Nope, Rey has to find Luke’s ancient lightsaber that has been knocking around for decades but is thankfully still fully charged and in excellent working order.  And it was helpfully stored in Obi Wan’s travel trunk, that at some point after his death, Luke had gone back to Tatooine to collect, then deliver to a bar owner on a different planet.  Uh huh.  That isn’t a fan Easter egg, that is a staggering series of unlikely events.  Plus, it was lucky that both a resistance informant and a First Order informant were drinking in that exact bar and had enough cell phone coverage to contact their various bosses, light years away I might add, in a manner that is coincidentally reminiscent of Garindian informing on Han and Luke et al in Mos Eisley.  I mean, in that case he just contacted the local guard post, so it made sense, but here we have interplanetary communications that result in both sides arriving at near identical times.  That is some grand happenstance right there.

 

The meeting between Leia and Solo was an emotional one that surprisingly missed the opportunity to reprise their famous exchange.  When Solo was leaving I was expecting him to say ‘I love you’ and for Leia to respond ‘I know’.  But clearly Abrams though that copying that scene would be stealing too much from the earlier film… either that or the inversion of the dialogue was too original.  Hard to tell.  But, seeing as Chewie does not go to comfort Leia after Solo’s death, nor she to him, it is possible that their estrangement was rougher than was shown.  It made far more sense for random people she doesn’t know and who didn’t really know Han to show emotion in that scene.  Although, this could possibly be foreshadowing the future films by laying a foundation that Rey is in fact Leia and Han’s daughter, the twin of Kylo Ren.  They just abandoned her on a desert planet to be raised by strangers because that actually worked out well for Luke.  Sorry, I am still meant to be on the good things about the film.  Han Solo and Chewie are in it.  We also get a couple of scenes in which Han tries out Chewie’s bowcaster gun that he has been carrying around for nearly over thirty years that apparently Han has never fired, or even seen fired.  It was cool to see though.

 

I was disappointed by how little Carrie Fisher got to do in the film.  Given the amount of time that Solo and Chewie were on screen, it would have been nice to see Leia be a bit more hands on, and show us what a bad-ass general she is.  But perhaps they are just laying the foundations for the future instalments.  As it is, her appearance feels like a wasted cameo inserted solely to appease the fans.  I mean they have a female Jedi-wannabe, why would they add another significant female character that could demonstrate strong leadership skills, a forceful (geddit?) personality and be a bad ass general to boot?   Instead she is pretty much relegated to Hans ex-squeeze, Kylo Ren’s ex-Mom, and has Mon Mothma level dialogue.  If Chewie needs a new co-pilot I am voting her.  Rey can hang out in back and fix the ship and shoot the guns.  I want Leia up front and calling all the shots.  But she does figure as part of the heart of this film for the older fans.  I am not sure what the younger and newer fans will make of her.

 

And oddly enough that that brings us to the bad ‘guys’.  Before diving in with the main adversaries, let’s have a moment to talk about Captain Phasma.  A bad-ass Stormtrooper Captain, who wears really cool chrome armour, leads Finn’s squad, and her… yes I said her… we have  female Stormtrooper everyone… and her main job is to tell Finn off.  That’s it.  But because she doesn’t chastise him enough, or send him to the naughty step, he runs away to join the Rebelllion Resistance, thus laying the blame for what happens almost solely at the feet of about the only female Stormtrooper we have ever knowingly seen in Star Wars.  To make matters worse, she is solely responsible for turning off the shields of the entire planet from that one tiny control room, that is conveniently located next to where Rey is being held, and near the thing the Resistance have to blow up… all on a planet sized base.  Is that lucky or what?  I sincerely hope that she turns up in the later ones, because she was criminally underused, and was definitely more intriguing than General Hux.  Is anyone else getting the feeling that female characters are getting short shrift in this series… again?  Although I should point out that there are a couple of female officers knocking around on both the First Order side and the Resistance side.  I don’t think we get their names, or even significant dialogue from them, but at least they are there.  The Resistance even has a couple of female pilots, although I am guessing that they earn about 70 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts.

 

Before getting to General Ranty McShoutyface we need to talk about Kylo Ren, Discount Vader Darth Vader Jr. Darth Emo Emo Vader AKA Ben Solo.  I thought that the prequels had cornered the market on angst ridden, overly emotional, mewling, whining, Sith teenagers.  Apparently I was wrong.  When we first meet him Kylo Ren is menacing.  The face mask, the breathing, the weirdly modulated voice, the scary lightsaber, the cool force powers, dressed all in black and flanked by the faceless Stormtrooper hordes in contrasting white.  Damn that guy was scary.  He was cold, cruel, pragmatic, and a galactic bad ass.  He orders the murder of civilians without breaking a sweat.  He freezes a laser bolt in time without blinking.  He was the villain we all wanted to hate and fear.  Then he takes off the helmet and lo and behold the worst helmet hair in history and has the self-control of a puppy in heat spotting a nearby leg, thereby becoming the villain we all simply hate.

 

Even long ago, in a galaxy far, far away they must have had conditioner.   Apparently the Empire’s First Order’s mission is to locate a hair products factory in order to sate the styling needs of their young Sitholescent.  Either that or the helmet has magical powers to tame the worst mane of hair and to regulate his emotionally charged outbursts.  I understand that the Sith are meant to be slaves to their emotions, or something like that, but really?  His temper tantrums and ranting delivery of spittle inflected lines made me long for him to put the helmet back on again and glue it there.  Admittedly it did lead to one of the best moments of the film when two Stormtroopers see the ranting down the hall and just turn around and leave him to it.  I like to think those troopers were called Steve and Bob and they headed off to have some coffee by the water cooler, talk about their day and complain about their psychotic boss… before being blown up by the Resistance.

 

I am not particularly familiar with Adam Driver, but I have to imagine that he has turned in more nuanced performances than this.  Actually, I know he can, because the scenes when he is wearing the helmet are great.  So I lay the blame for his scene chewing, whingeing solely at the feet of the director who apparently said ‘cut, that was great.’  In the original films we saw Vader use controlled anger and occasionally lash out.  We saw the Emperor cackle with evil, sadistic glee.  We saw how the dark side uses emotions and amplifies the negative ones.  We didn’t really hear about how Palpatine’s mum and dad never really loved him enough, or didn’t understand him.  I know, I know, he is meant to be evoking the brooding Anakin from the prequels, but why resurrect that mess?  Anger, rage, wrath, these are dark side emotions that can be channelled into a chilling performance as we see in the scenes when he is wearing the mask.  When the mask was off I kept waiting for him to offer to read some of his poetry about being misunderstood.  Poetry that he wrote in a black notebook, that had black pages, and that he wrote on in black ink.  And that he recites while he smokes some French cigarettes and drinks organic espresso.

 

And while the scene with Ren confronting and killing his father on the bridge over the giant pit was clearly completely and utterly different to Vader confronting Luke in Empire… nope, apparently the sarcasm font is not working again.  What would have made that scene better would have been if the outcome hadn’t been so heavily telegraphed.  I don’t think anyone in the cinema was shocked to see Ren kill Solo except for the fact that Solo is a hero and we are conditioned to expect them always to live.  I mean it is not as if a previous Star Wars film had an older mentor figure allow himself to be killed near the end by a Sith while the young Jedi apprentice watches…oh wait.  Well at least they didn’t follow that up with them blowing up the massively powerful, completely indestructible base by exploiting its one tiny flaw… damnit, not again.  And despite this Abrams couldn’t find the space for the ‘I know’ line.  Placing the scene in a bigger room, with a longer bridge and inverting the reveal to basically, ‘I am your son’ doesn’t really make it an original scene.  It barely qualifies as a fig leaf to cover the plagiarism.  I get it.  The whole of Star wars represents this cyclical problem that, until the Force is balanced, will keep repeating itself.  A bit like Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  I know that Ren is meant to be channelling Anakin, to be an echo of that character.  But just because it is a deliberate copy doesn’t excuse the fact that it is blatantly a copy and therefore unoriginal.   I know it is a story ‘cycle’ but that doesn’t mean you have to take it literally.

 

But Kylo Ren is not the only bad guy, we also have Grand Moff Tarkin Jr. General Shouty McNutbar General Hux, a man-child who can chew more scenery than an entire mound of termites in a sound stage, and has the ability to make sour faces at the drop of a hat.  It is like an evil Ron Weasley is in charge of the Deathstar.  It wasn’t that I didn’t find Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of Hux unwatchable, far from it, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  It was that I couldn’t believe for a second that he had survived long enough to be a general in an army and no one had ‘accidentally’ dropped a live grenade at his feet.  If there is a dark Sith Lord overmaster in control of all this and manipulating everything, why the hell would he put this clearly unhinged, whiney, adolescent, nutbar in control of a vast military force?  Not only that, but his best mate is a sociopathic killer with exceptionally poor impulse control and anger issues.  So the fact that Hux never got a lightsaber to the face/back/chest/vital organ of your choice, is even more ludicrous than the contrived plot device to get Han and Chewie back on the Falcon.

 

In Gleeson’s defence, he wasn’t exactly given many subtle scenes, and the whole Nuremberg rally scene begged for spittle-loaded ranting.  But when we compare him to the subtle menace and sadism of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, a very similar role… very similar… like really, really similar… Gleeson doesn’t really come off well.  But, again, I think that this one can be laid at the feet of the director saying, ‘awesome take. But can you do the next one with more insane, eye-rolling, ranting and perhaps a bit more spittle?’

 

To round out the baddies we have holographic Emperor Voldemort, Darth Gollum, mysterious Sith master and debunker of urban myths, Snopes.  Sorry, that should be Snoke. Supreme Leader Snoke in fact.  Not just any leader, but the Supreme leader.  Diana Ross being unavailable of course.  Apparently Emperor Snoke would be too on the nose… if he had one.  Unfortunately Andy Serkis is a bit of a victim of his own success.  You want a guy to hiss and cackle in a motion capture suit, call Andy.  Admittedly he has worked pretty hard to make Snoke completely different to Gollum, but the CGI department didn’t get the memo that said to stay clear of Voldemort rip-offs and so he ends up being less distinctive or mysterious as a villain than the Emperor was.  So his performance is perhaps influenced by things far beyond his control.  His character does beg the question though, just why is it that behind every bad guy there is another bad guy who is old, brooding, and spends all his time training up pawns?  If we go behind him is there another even older guy?  Rumours are, of course, flying around that this is Darth Plagueis or perhaps even a clone of the old Emperor.  To be honest, it doesn’t really matter.  He is the old guy pulling the strings behind the scenes.  The man behind the curtain, and the guy who will eventually be taken down in the last film.  Who he actually is, or what his name is doesn’t really matter.  Senator Palpatine, Emperor Palpatine, Darth Sidious, Darth Hideous, Darth Don’tcallus… doesn’t really make a difference.

 

I know the prequels introduced the asinine rule that there are only two Sith, a rule that makes no sense.  I mean, if the only way to become a Sith Master is to kill your own master, why the hell would you ever take an apprentice?  You know what they are going to try to do at the earliest opportunity.  Why would you train them?  To give them a fighting chance to take you out?  Maybe a Sith master can only have one apprentice, just like a Jedi Master, but that doesn’t mean that there is only ever one Sith Master.  I don’t imagine they all hang out or have a union or anything like that.  Maybe they meet up for the odd Ewok barbecue or casual slaughter.  But I doubt that the order would survive for very long if you could only have two members.  So I am holding out the slim hope that there are actually a whole bunch of Sith out there, of which Snoke is one, or the head of the order, or on the run from a band of bigger, badder Sith.  And do all Sith Masters have to be creepy old dudes?  I am fairly sure that there are canonical female Sith.  And there must be a couple of spry, youthful Sith knocking around somewhere.  Why is it that we are once again presented with a Sith Lord and his evil walking frame?

 

But as you might have gleaned thus far, I had some problems with the film.  Mainly in the fact that it so slavishly follows the originals, not just in plot, but in characters and action sequences.  Fan service, homages, excuse it all you want, but Abrams flat out copied entire sections of the earlier films, and repackaged them for the modern audience, just like he tried to do with Star Trek.  But it seems that everyone is going out of their way to excuse this, to rationalise it, or to forgive it as the price we pay for a new Star Wars film.  The thing is, this isn’t really a new Star Wars film, it is the oldest one all tarted up and hot to trot for a new audience.  Ok, so it is the first instalment of a trilogy and the whole story will eventually be revealed… but is it too much to ask that each film be its own film and not an extended trailer or foundational step for the next one?  We are seeing this more and more in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, in which each film seems to be there solely to lay the groundwork for the film that is to follow it.  Where each film is in essence an extended trailer and set-up to further the franchise.  Instead of doing that, can’t directors, studios, and producers trust that their audiences are smart enough to join the dots between films?

 

Almost as bad is the need to spoon feed the audience.  Seriously, we don’t need every single detail ironed out and neatly fed to us in a series of intrusive lampshading and heavy-handed foreshadowing scenes whose sole purpose is to sell us on the next film.  Admittedly, The Force Awakens is not as guilty of this as Marvel, but the big scene with Ren killing Han Solo was so heavily foreshadowed that it completely ruined the impact.  Why not have it come out of left field?  Why not have it shock the audience?  Why drop all these hints that this exact thing was about to happen?  Why have the deliberately ambiguous, clumsy dialogue that we know it ambiguous solely to tease the scene a few seconds longer?

 

Now, after reading all this you might think that I really hated the film, but I didn’t.  As I said at the start it was ‘meh’, it was ok, it was decent.  Neither atrocious, nor brilliant.  Certainly I was entertained.  And for those of you that think that being entertained is enough, then great, enjoy.  But I think of it more as being promised a steak dinner with all the trimmings and then being served a limp, cheap takeaway burger and someone saying, ‘Well you aren’t hungry any more, so what’s your problem?  It is food and you are full.’  My problem is that I was led to believe I was going to be getting a steak dinner and what I got was cheap, admittedly tasty, meal but far from the expected quality.  And this brings us full circle to the expectation game.

 

Hype might sell tickets, but, in my case at least, it really harms the viewing experience.  Added to that is being ‘force’-fed the marketing, products, interviews, promotional spots, trailers and TV-spots, the endless fan speculation that begins after the film is announced and continues practically unabated for the entire production time, post-production, pre-launch, launch and so on, before rolling seamlessly into speculation about the next one.  It seems to be a never ending machine that like the ouroboros feeds upon itself in an endless cycle of consuming and regurgitation.  In the cinema waiting to see this film I was treated to four separate advertisements that either directly referenced the film or were selling something tied into the franchise.  Come on.  I was already there.  I had already bought my ticket.  I didn’t need more Star Wars ads.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun movie that will no doubt attract new fans to the franchise, and it has already shattered box-office records, but it is not without flaws.  Some of which are pretty damning of how studios, production companies, and directors view their audiences.  Yet despite them serving us yesterday’s warmed-up left-overs we respond in the fashion of Oliver Twist and ask for more.  So it seems sour grapes to complain that the reason we keep getting such flawed, unoriginal films is because we keep supporting them with our wallets.  We know it will entertain and do well because it did so the first time it was released in the 1970s.

 

 

Review: The Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman with JH Williams III

Sandman Overture

 

 

 

 

Review: Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman with JH Williams III (artist), Dave Stewart (colour), Todd Klein (Letterer) and covers by Dave McKean

 

Sandman Overture, like all the Sandman stories is a wonderful collaboration between Gaiman as author and the artists and comic professionals who bring the story to life and give it the distinctive visual vibrancy and immediacy one has come to expect from the series.  Indeed, despite my great admiration for a lot of Gaiman’s work, were it not for the artistic input from his collaborators this 6 volume story would have lacked a lot of its punch.

 

If you are already familiar with The Sandman you can skip this paragraph.  The central character of the series is Dream, one of the Endless.  The Endless are the anthropomorphised expressions of abstract ideals that through their existence define the universe.  Destiny, Death, Destruction, Dream, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.  Each of the Endless are immortal, for a given value of immortal, and each has enormous power, especially within their sphere of influence.  For Dream, that sphere is, of course, dreams, but more than that, it encompasses fiction, stories, narratives of all sorts, and, to a certain extent, reality.  Because by defining the unreal we know that the real exists as all else.  The Sandman series officially ran from January 1989 to March 1996, and was followed by anthology editions, and several spin-offs and related titles.

 

Sandman Overture is a prequel (what is with the popularity of prequels these days? Are we so afraid of moving on that we want more of the same?) and focuses on the events that immediately precede the opening of the first issue of The Sandman or the opening chapter of Preludes and Nocturnes.  So essentially it tells the story of what weakened the character of Dream so much that he could be caught in the spell of the Victorian occultist Burgess that began the series back in 1989.  Throughout its pages it drops hints and mini-reveals that add resonance to the main series, and, to some extent, explore the relationships of the Endless.  It is an essential purchase for The Sandman completist or collector, but in many respects it is a bit of a let-down.  Given Gaiman’s great strength as a short story author, and his command of this material, this universe, and this character, I have to admit that my expectations were high.  Perhaps too high.

 

Gaiman’s Sandman has never been afraid to eschew standard narrative conventions and a fair number of issues have been as experimental as any modernist novel, so it is somewhat disappointing that the story presented here, despite appearances, it actually fairly pedestrian and prosaic.  The plodding travelogue, barely spiced up by exotic locales, moves inexorably toward a climatic finish that is robbed of power through the use of a plot device already seen in the main series, a deus ex machina, and, reader foreknowledge of the outcome… it is a prequel after-all.  We already know that Dream wins out, albeit in a weakened state, so much of interest is in how he wins out… which, unfortunately, is why the already used and heavily foreshadowed plot device and the deus ex machina are so disappointing.

 

To be fair to Gaiman, in many respects his hands were tied about what he wanted to do with this story.  It had to fit existing continuity, it had to end a certain way, and, if he wanted to please fans, it had to contain nods and cameos of certain characters and story elements.  No matter how high he wanted to raise the stakes, no matter how cataclysmic he made the challenge to Dream, the story was still going to end up in the same place.  This is, unfortunately, one of the major problems with many prequels, particularly those set just before the events of a well-established series.  So it is hard to fault Gaiman here, as there was little he could do about this particular aspect.  Therefore, unless you have almost no knowledge of the main series, there is very little dramatic tension present, at best there is some curiosity.  But, if you have no knowledge of the main series, much of the detail, context and required knowledge for unpacking the story is absent as few characters are explained, few relationships are actively detailed, and context is a thing left far, far behind.

 

This lack of context for readers unfamiliar with the main series makes the story fragmented and disjointed, full of characters who appear and disappear without meaning or context, and therefore it doesn’t really function as an entry to the main series.  So for the un-initiated it paradoxically appears to be both a simplistically linear travelogue and a strangely broken and nonsensical journey that lacks context.  For the initiated it is both a strangely pedestrian story, and delightfully insightful in regards to the storyworld, as it caters to the encyclopaedic need to know more about the world, and yet moves inexorably to a known conclusion.

 

It really is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

 

However, for those familiar with the series there are lots of details and nuggets of information and context revealed in this volume that will probably make you want to re-read the whole series from start to finish yet again.  This is definitely a volume that is an addition to the main series, rather than a stand-alone story.  Small moments in this story are deliberate nods and developments (or pre-echoes, as it is a prequel) of moments and character revelations in the main series.  The story itself is the expanded version of something actually referred to in the main series, giving a feeling of deepening the diegetic reality and building the world and universe out deeper and wider.   Yet… and yet… the story remains deeply underwhelming, bland and prosaic.  Where the main series followed Dream on a gigantic character arc that fleshed out his character and revealed his fatal flaws, and it jumped around backwards and forwards through his timeline letting us see multiple aspects of Dream, this is a fairly static portrayal of the character, locked in the least sympathetic aspects of his personality.  The emotional resonance of the main series is missing, primarily because you cannot deliver the same impact in six issues that you did over a long running series.  But while many of the individual issues of the main series focused on the stories of other people with Dream as a character in them, this focuses almost solely on Dream, and as a result adds information and background, rather than depth to his character, because Gaiman cannot change him here, his future is already set.

 

This lacks the style and power of stories like ‘Ramadan’, or the historical meta-commentary found in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, it lacks the narrative cohesion of The Dream Hunters and seems more like the fragmentary stories of Endless Nights without the framing of a story anthology.  It is burdened with the need to live up to an epic story cycle and to do so in only 6 issues whilst touching on cameos and appearances that will delight fans of the series, and it is just a shame that it does so at the expense of the story.

 

Perhaps one of the most damning aspects of the whole story is that it reduces Dream’s main series arc into one of simple predestination devoid of freewill and character growth.  A ramification that may or may not have been intended.  Certainly, it was an aspect of the main series that inspired debate and posed the question about inevitability created by decision, and inevitability created by fate.  However, in this volume, Gaiman comes down heavily on the pre-ordained, fate aspect, and therefore robs Dream’s character of agency and freewill in the main series.  This might not be a big deal to some, but to me this diminishes Dream as a tragic figure and turns him into an empty puppet.

 

But the comic is collaborative effort, and it is the artwork that really sells this volume and makes it worthwhile.  JH Williams III along with Dave Stewart present the reader with intricate, varied, and stunning pages and panels, that run the gamut of artistic styles.  You will be hard pressed to find a single page that exemplifies the book, except in terms of quality.  The book really does look gorgeous and it leaves you wanting a massively oversized version so that you can really take in all the detail.  While some of the pages and panel organisations cause you to rotate and spin the book in your hands, trying to puzzle them out, other are simply visual feasts that your eyes can devour again and again.  So many of the pages play with lay-out, panel design, and eye-tracking, to make you look, read, and look again.  This book is worth the purchase price for the artwork alone.  This is a book that engages the eyes, that challenges the brain, and that makes you pore over every page to take in the detail and sumptuous colour.

 

In summary, unless you are already a committed fan and collector of all things Sandman or you are a fan of beautiful artwork , this isn’t a great graphic novel.  But if you love artwork, if you love The Sandman then I am assuming you have already bought this and added it to your collection and won’t care about this review.

 

 

Spoiler Free Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens (dir. JJ Abrams, 2015)

Star_Wars_Episode_VII_The_Force_Awakens

 

Short Version:

A new Star Wars for a new generation.  Plenty here to please old fans and new.  Finally an SF franchise that JJ Abrams’ sensibilities mesh with instead of clash.  No Jar Jar or midi-chlorians.  Better than the prequels.

 

Actual Review:

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens JJ Abrams had a nearly impossible task, he had to please old fans and acquire new ones, pay homage to the old films, undo the errors of the prequels, and yet also create a new Star Wars for the new generation.  The film had to appeal to children and adults alike and therefore had to indulge the older fan’s nostalgia but not let it dominate the storytelling, have enough action and visual effects to entertain today’s jaded youth but refrain from the frenetic screen clutter that plagued the prequels making the actions sequences migraine inducing blurs of sound and light, and, above all else, launch a new mythic storyline.  Given that this was not just a film but also part of a multi-billion dollar media franchise and of one of the most beloved film franchises of the modern age, to say expectations were high is perhaps a bit of an understatement.

So because anticipation was so great, because expectations were so ridiculously high, it should come as little surprise when I say that The Force Awakens is a mixed bag.  It isn’t terrible, and it isn’t amazing.  It had its high points and it had its weak moments.  There were some great lines and some misses.  In Abrams’ defence, no matter what he produced it was not going to be able to please all the fans all the time, so I am actually surprised at how much I enjoyed this.  If we are measuring it solely against the prequels then in this regard Abrams cleared it with a parsec to spare.  Against the original Star Wars: A New Hope… that is a more complex comparison.

Just in case anyone has missed the numerous plot summaries, speculations, in depth interviews, featurettes, spotlight specials and extensive trailers and cast videos, a brief detail-light summary of the set-up is as follows:
There is a new villain, a dark militaristic force in the galaxy the First Order, led by a slimmer and slightly more sartorially elegant Darth Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

There are two new young heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), who, despite their disparate backgrounds will undoubtedly turn out to be instrumental in saving the galaxy.

There is a new cutesy droid, BB-8, that is attempting to take the place of R2-D2 in our hearts, and comes close to doing so.  Adorkable is the word that springs to mind.

And there are X-wings, Tie Fighters and all the classic elements of Star Wars galore.  So rather than attempting to re-invent the wheel as the prequels did, Abrams went with tried and tested crowd pleasers.

So let’s start by discussing a couple of the really good points without getting into too many specifics as I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone.

The opening wall crawl.  There is something about the logo appearing and the wall crawl against the starry background while John Williams’ overture assaults the brain that will forever be ‘cool’ in my book.  When the music started I couldn’t help it but grin and feel excited.  What was even better was that there was no mention of a trade embargo, sanctions, disrupted negotiations or a diplomatic deadlock in a bureaucratic senate in the scrolling text.  It then pans down in classic fashion to a shot of a giant spaceship.  I hope no one regards that as a spoiler, not least because it is a bland and generic version of the events, but also it is the classic opening and it occurs in the first couple of seconds of screen time.  Not a single, horrendously racist caricature to be seen in the first minute.  So already it is well ahead of The Phantom Menance.

It was also great having new characters to carry on the story.  Star Wars: The Next Generation, if you will.  As much as I loved the story of Luke, Han and Leia… and was less enamoured with the prequels going back in time to set up the story of Luke, Han and Leia, it was genuinely nice to have new characters, about whom I knew next to nothing, who promised to lead the story into new territory.   Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a nice change of pace for the Star Wars cinematic universe in that we finally have a competent, intelligent, talented, and independent female character who is centre screen as a hero and not a spunky support or love interest to the main heroes.  Strongly reminiscent of the young Luke Skywalker (they clearly shop in the same desert paraphernalia shop) it seems that Rey is going to be central to the entire new trilogy.    Rather unkindly my brain automatically labelled her as Discount Keira Knightley and I haven’t been able to shake the comparison.

John Boyega’s Finn is a surprisingly complex character who wants to be a hero, wants to do the right thing, but is plagued by crippling self-doubt and more than a smidgeon of self-loathing.  A curious mix for a hero in training, especially as he veers from the super-competent to the blaringly incompetent in a violent see-saw fashion as the script demands, but it is certainly engaging to watch.  Both Rey and Finn promise to develop even more fully as the series continues, and that is only a good thing as they have an odd dynamic on screen, and it will be nice to see them settle into their roles and see what they can create.

Opposite them is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who, at first glance, appears to be a bargain basement Emo Vader.  Face mask, metallic voice, red light saber, dresses in black, temper tantrums because it is just so emotional, and will force choke you as soon as look at you.  However, he soon becomes a great deal more interesting and, as his backstory and motivations are explored, his character develops a depth and complexity that Vader never quite achieved in the original trilogy.  Admittedly, he is not quite as dominating on screen as Vader, nor does he have the gravitas of James Earl Jones’ voice, but in a number of regards he is a lot more chilling and arresting on screen.   Thankfully, unlike Tom Hardy’s Bane and Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight Rises you can actually understand what Driver is saying even when his face is obscured, something I was actually concerned about.

There are a couple of other characters, more in supporting roles this time around, that I sincerely hope get more screen time in the next one.  Not least the roguish Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who is the best damned space pilot around (as we are told on numerous occasions… so it must be true), the scenery-chewing, mewling evil General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), arch villain and champion of the galaxy sneering competition 7 years running Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, and the decidedly under-utilised Captain Phasma, Gwendloine Christie’s retro-futuristic chrome trooper.  Despite my desire that they all get more screen time, none of the characters feels entirely superfluous and each adds to the story in significant ways.

In terms of action, Abrams seems to have learned both from the mistakes of the prequels and from his experience on the Star Trek films, and provided something that had satisfying explosions, lots of lasers pew-pewing, and some good light saber action without the need for a warning about photosensitive epilepsy or necessitating chugging Dramamine in large quantities.  Hearing the metallic whine of the distinctive TIE fighter engines with their unmistakable laser blasts, and the roar of the X-Wings’ engines coupled with the more splat-like noise of their weapons was a glee inducing moment for me.  The screen never felt empty during the action, but was never so busy that you couldn’t actually track the action.  It was also thankfully free of omnipresent lens-flares.

As is to be expected of Abrams, there are some beautiful looking cinematic shots, some really vivid tableaux, and he uses many of these to establish the ‘lived-in’ feel of the Star Wars universe.  That distressed look that makes the ships look used rather than fresh off the assembly line, the clothes worn and frayed, the equipment chipped and nicked.  Little details like this throughout the film give a real sense of authenticity and greatly add to the believability and immersiveness of the story.  This becomes all the more necessary when the staggering coincidences start to mount up.  I mean, I am all for a million to one shot working nine times out of ten, but there are some really astronomically improbable coincidences cropping up in this film with frightening regularity.

For fans of the original trilogy, TFA is, at its heart, an attempt to re-make it and update it while pretending to be a new chapter.  And that is perhaps what I found least satisfying about it, there was too much of the old in this.  There were too many similarities to the original trilogy.  There were too many moments that were a mirror or echo of vintage Star Wars.   This is Abrams’ Trek all over again.  Not quite a reboot, and not quite a sequel.  Fan service and in-jokes litter the screen, and in-depth exploration of character and story are sometimes short-changed in order to move onto the next sequence, the next plot point, and the next ‘must-see’ moment.  At times the nostalgia was dripping so heavily I was surprised the camera didn’t suddenly switch to a sepia filter.  There were other moments that only really had impact or meaning if you were already deeply invested in the Star Wars mythos.  But in this I suspect that Abrams’ hands were somewhat tied.  He couldn’t not have those nods to the originals, but for my money, he spent a little too much time genuflecting at the altar of Lucas and not enough time carving his own mythic cathedral.

Related to this problem was the fact that the film felt liked it was rushing from scene to scene to hurry up and get to the good part… only to rush past that to the next good part… and so on and so on.  It was as if Abrams was so excited to be showing the audience all the different ‘cool’ things that he forgot we don’t need to see them all at once, or even at all.  In fact, some of the moments when Abrams pauses to take a breath were scenes that were probably not that necessary.  I have no idea why Hollywood has decided its audiences are so stupid that they need almost every element of backstory of every character belaboured and shoved in their faces.  This is compounded further by the relentless assault of action sequence after action sequence.  Consequently, we are less emotionally involved in many of the conflicts because we still haven’t gotten to know the characters or feel tension as they just seem to ricochet from one meaningless action set piece to the next.  Admittedly, superhero films tend to be a lot worse.

To be any more specific than this would be to dance merrily through spoiler territory, an area that I am already uncomfortably close to, so I will have to forgo discussing the most egregious scenes.  However, all in all it was a good film.  It was an entertaining film.  It sets up the next film to develop the mythos and storylines further.  There are some revelations that make for moments of high drama, as well as some unanswered questions and plot hooks that will have me seeing the next one as soon as it comes out too.  Who am I kidding, I am probably going to see this one again at least another four times before the next is released.

Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn Book 1

 

Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: The Final Empire is book one of the Mistborn series, and part of Sanderson’s expanding, and increasingly intriguing, Cosmere universe.  It follows the adventures and coming-of-age narrative of young street urchin Vin, and her participation in a rebel plot to overthrow the ostensibly immortal god-emperor of the land, the Lord Ruler.

On the face of it Mistborn has all the markings of a walking fantasy cliché.

We have a young hero who it just turns out has incredibly and unbelievably rare super-special magical powers, and not only that, but has an uncanny affinity for them and learns how to use them absurdly quickly and to an extent that puts all others to shame.  Not to mention a secret bloodline that has ramifications for the upper echelons of society.

We have a scrappy group of super-talented rebels (or quest group for those that are familiar with RPGs) faced with an impossible task that you know that they are somehow going to pull off.  Sort of like a million-to-one shot that works nine times out of ten.  Luckily each member of the group has one specific talent that adds to the plan and pretty much defines them as a character.  For example, Breeze can soothe people’s emotions, Clubs can hide their allomantic activity, and Ham is incredibly strong.

We have the slightly sinister mentor, Kelsier, who, it turns out, has a few dark secrets in his past.  Thankfully he is lucky enough to take a chance on rescuing a young orphan girl, the super-special hero mentioned above, who becomes essential to his plan succeeding.

There is an immortal Dark Lord™ that has been ruthlessly subjugating the masses for a very long time, is obscenely powerful, and appears to be definitively evil for the sake of being evil (ruling with an iron fist, being mean to puppies, and guilty of living alone in a large, foreboding, yet tastefully ostentatious palace which possesses no chamber pots or bathrooms).

The society of the fantasy world has not really evolved or changed in hundreds of years with technology, fashion, literature, and science all remaining relatively static, and made up of two peoples; The Nobles, privileged, spoiled, and decadent, and the Skaa, oppressed slaves.

There is an evil corrupt government bureaucracy and evil military religion that maintain law and order in the land in cruel and vindictive ways.

And lo, there is also an ancient prophecy knocking around that must be fulfilled.

Now if there was an awkward and unnecessary romantic sub-plot and a dragon you would have a full house in fantasy cliché bingo… ok so there is an unnecessary romantic sub-plot but there isn’t a dragon.  Maybe even Sanderson thought that dragons at this point would have been overkill.

It is to Sanderson’s credit that he utilises these stereotypes knowingly, and provides enough subversion so that they don’t completely weigh down the narrative in ever increasingly obvious ways.  But in terms of story there is little here that will be of any surprise to a fantasy reader, until the end, but to give that away pretty much spoils the story.  In this case, the end, at least, partially justifies the means… so to speak.

Mistborn is set on the world Scadrial, a secondary world that is plagued by nigh continual volcanic ash falls, nightly planet-engulfing mists, and orbits a weak red sun.  Despite the seemingly alien nature of the planet and the occasional reminders about the ash and the mists, most of the book feels like it is set in a fairly standard and familiar pseudo-medieval fantasy world.  The strangeness of the landscape never quite leaves the page to enter the imagination, and there is a certain feudal European feel to the entire planet.  Given that worldbuilding is something so important to many modern fantasy narratives, and is also a frequent point praised in Sanderson’s work, perhaps a closer look at the world of Scadrial is necessary here.

The world essentially has two classes of people, the nobles and the Skaa.  The Skaa, although they physically resemble the nobles, so much so that they can be easily confused for them, are a slave race.  Sanderson didn’t use anything as clichéd as colour or some sort of physical characteristic to differentiate the two races, actually, he doesn’t really use anything to differentiate the two races apart from the name.  But choosing a slave race name based on a word for a type of Jamaican music is perhaps a little too on the nose for me.  Regardless, despite the fact that the narrative insists on, and then actually explains how, the two races are physically different, the narrative also depends on the fact that there is no real physical difference between them.  Yes, it is indeed that contradictory.

Oppressed and subservient to the nobles, the Skaa’s only hope lies in the Skaa rebellion.  For centuries a small pocket of rebels has tried to overthrow the Lord Ruler (Dark Lord™) without success.  That is, until, Kelsier, the survivor of the prison quarry, the Pits of Hathsin, returns to the capital, Luthadel, to organise an uprising.  He rounds up a crew of magically talented individuals, and in the process rescues the protagonist of the novel, Vin, from her time in an evil criminal gang, by recruiting her to his good criminal gang…

But luckily for the reader there is never any doubt about who to support as the Skaa are treated as slaves, apart from those Skaa who own their own independent businesses or are semi-successful merchants, but we never meet any of those apart from two of the main characters who are in Kelsier’s crew.   But the vast majority of Skaa are treated as slaves and are horribly abused by the evil nobles and therefore Kelsier and his crew are undoubtedly good freedom fighters, thieves, murderers and conmen.  Sanderson makes sure to show the Lord Ruler and his minions killing people in cold blood to prove a point and to cow the public, just like Kelsier does to the nobles.  Have I mentioned that there are some issues with the worldbuilding?

The world of Sadrial possesses two major forms of magic, the first, and the focus of the first novel, is allomancy, while the second, feruchemy is more important in the later books.   Allomancers, those gifted with this exceptionally rare ability, can ‘burn’ certain metals to create amazing effects.  Essentially they ingest small pellets of specific metals that create reservoirs of power that they can tap to create very specific effects, such as the ability to pull metal toward them, or push metal away from them.

Only the rarest of the rare Allomancers (alloy-mancer, like necromancer) can ‘burn’ more than one metal, and those few are called Mistborn, hence the title of the book.  As it turns out, almost the whole of Kelsier’s crew are Allomancers, it is what makes them so special and effective, and Kelsier himself is a Mistborn.  It just so happens that Vin, our hero, is also a Mistborn.  Given the tight focus of the novel on Vin’s adventures with Kelsier’s crew this gives the unfortunate appearance that almost every character has this exceptionally rare magical ability and therefore it is not rare at all in the novel.  But we are also led to believe that despite the fact that this is rare, there are enough noble allomancers that a strong enough trade in allomantic metals exists, and that Skaa workers are trusted enough to run these businesses* and there are enough allomancers that noble houses have entire houseguard squads made up of low level allomancers who wield no political power nor hold positions of authority within the houses.

(*While never explicitly stated that the metallurgists who provide the allomantic metals are Skaa no noble would risk buying their metals from another noble house that they may be at war with, and if Sanderson had each noble house produce their own allomantic metals then, no matter how logical this would be for the world, Kelsier and his crew would have difficulty in accessing the necessary supplies)

Sanderson is at pains to lay out and explore the strengths and weaknesses of this fairly original magic system, and if you enjoy reading about how different magic systems are used, then this will be a major strength of the novel for you.  A good third of the novel is focused on Vin slowly training, experimenting with, and growing to command her powers.  To give Sanderson his due, these sections are much more entertaining and engaging than comparable training sessions found in a multitude of other fantasy works.  Indeed the action sequences detailing the use of allomancy, both the aspects of training and later in combat, are extremely well executed with cinematic flair.

So as long as you don’t think too hard about the actual ramifications of the rules of the world, the physical descriptions of the people and the landscape, and the fact that the rules of the magic system become flexible according to necessity, and just go along with the flow, the worldbuilding in this novel is great.

But… and this is an important but…

But while much of what I have said thus far has been a little damning, Sanderson does weave a fairly compelling tale.  His prose trips along in an amiable fashion.  The character of Vin is engaging and interesting, and it is genuinely nice to have a central female hero who exhibits depth and backstory, and also isn’t raped.  Kelsier possesses some elements of moral and character complexity that become more apparent as the plot trundles on.  The crew is made up of colourful characters that round out the story and give it some interest as their sense of camaraderie is explored and they grumble and gripe at one another.

More importantly, it is the events and the central mystery of who the Lord Ruler is and why the world seems so strange and yet incomplete, that provide the much needed intrigue and interest.  The reveal and twists at the end of the novel are enough, even after all that I have said, to make me like the novel and read more of the series, as it turns out that so many of the clichés, the tropes, the ‘mistakes’ and weaknesses of the worldbuilding are very deliberately constructed on Sanderson’s part.  So much of what seems contrived and artificial actually plays a part in the broader context that the novel reveals in its last few chapters.

Granted, I will never rate this as among the best fantasy novels I have ever read, but Sanderson weaves a compelling story by acknowledging and engaging with the flawed nature of his world building, even if some flaws are perhaps unintentional, and focusing the story on explaining how this came to be.  And it is this surprising plot thread that convinces you to keep reading.  So rather than being an epic quest or a standard story about overthrowing a Dark Lord™, this is actually a mystery, and if you aren’t careful some of the cleverer aspects of the world will sneak by you.

Review: Assail by Ian C. Esslemont

Assail
Assail
(Book 6 Malzan Empire) by Ian C. Esslemont

Assail marks the culmination of Esslemont’s Malazan Empire series and is the final chapter of a series that has significantly explored and expanded the narrative universe co-created with Steven Erikson.  In this volume Esslemont has set himself a foreboding task in that expectations are always higher for the final novel in a series, even more so if the book is set in the most mysterious land of the fantasy world that has only ever been hinted at.  Luckily for readers, Esslemont delivers, although not necessarily in the way some might want.

The impetus for the main story of Assail is the revelation that the glacial coverage of the mysterious continent has receded sufficiently that previously impassable terrain is now accessible.  In fact, vast gold-fields have been exposed, prompting a mass rush to the land in order to exploit the natural resource.  As a result, all manner of people and groups are making their way to and through Assail including Imass, the Crimson Guard, prospectors, private armies, and long absent migrants finally returning ‘home’.

Assail
focuses on tying up the story of Kyle, the young guardsman first met in Return of the Crimson Guard, the Crimson Guard themselves and the investigation of their mysterious vow.  Another significant thread concerns the story of the Imass and Silverfox, which has woven through both Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen as well as Esslemont’s series.  Lastly, there are two related threads directly concerning the continent of Assail itself.  The first is focalised through the perspective of Orman, a young warrior, and explores Assail from a native’s perspective, playing with perceptions of culture, tribalism, barbarism and honour.  The other is split between the various prospectors and outsiders hastening to stake claims and set up frontier stations and explores the foreigners’ perspective of Assail.  In particular the story of Reuth, a young navigator tasked with getting his uncle’s ship to the gold fields of Assail. Both the stories of Reuth and Orman parallel one another, while being neat contrasts of the different approaches to life, Assail, and the journey to adulthood.  They also create a strong resonance with the story of Kyle, both his introduction in RotCG, and as a reminder that even as one actor’s story ends, other agents in the world will continue.

However, each of these potentially disparate tales is interwoven and lends itself to a nuanced and balanced investigation of the continent and its cultures and forms a genuinely cohesive story.  Despite the focus on Assail itself as the setting and background of the story, Esslemont has included several sections that focus on the travelling to Assail, most notably the various sea voyages and what that entails for the prospective parties.  This brings a significant diversity of story mode, setting and even genre to the book that otherwise might have superficially appeared to be a fantasy travelogue of a Scandinavian influenced continent.

Starting with some obvious points that nonetheless need noting.  As with the other novels in the Malazan Empire series, the style is once again a narrative told through multiple point of view characters.  While several of these characters are key to the narrative, Esslemont also uses witness characters to provide perspective on the events from outside the key actors’ perspectives.  As a result there is a pleasing change of perspective as instead of always sitting on a hero’s shoulders, the reader now has access to a broader narrative palette.  This is particularly interesting when you consider that this allows Esslemont to demonstrate how the events of the story reach further than just those acting or being acted upon.  Such a broadening of scope has the effect of consolidating the world-building (diegetic reality) and adding to the impression that the story-world is ‘real’.  It also neatly dovetails with Esslemont’s own background as an archaeologist and anthropologist who sees history as an interlocking system of events and not solely the result of the actions of a few great men.

Structurally Esslemont writes true to form with most of the first third of the book being used in set-up and foundational work.  He carefully re-introduces old characters (from his previous novels and from the wider Malazan universe) while also introducing some new characters to the story and familiarising the reader with the new setting of Assail.  By creating a pleasant blend of the familiar with an enticing mix of the new, the leisurely pace means that no reader is left behind.  This is not to say that there aren’t some interesting set pieces and action sequences along the way, but both Erikson and Esslemont are known for their deliberate crafting and building in the earlier chapters of their novels in order to set the board for grand finales.  The second third of the novel starts moving the various pieces around as the characters reach and explore the continent of Assail, tracking their interactions and near misses, and building toward the last third of the novel which handles the convergence of events and the resolution of the story and series.

It is with the last third of the novel that Esslemont both conforms to and defies his standard structural approach.  The last third of the novel contains multiple scenes of battle, action and a convergence of events, but if it is an all-out battle ending that you are longing for, you will be disappointed.  What Esslemont delivers is, in almost every way, far more satisfying.  He brings home multiple story threads and characters from throughout the series in an emotional and narrative convergence that provides a sensitive and resonating narrative closure.  While this is probably something of a risk for Esslemont given the desire in many fantasy fans for blood, gore and battle by the ever increasing bucket full, that he pulls it off should mark his increased prowess and command as an author.

It is of no surprise that the world of Assail is exquisitely realised.  In Blood and Bone Esslemont depicted the sweaty, steamy closeness of a jungle landscape with such clarity that it became a character in and of itself that was integral to the story.  In Assail, the various landscapes, climates and scenic types deployed by Esslemont are rendered in a beautiful cinematic language that gives a visceral quality to the description and helps lift the narrative off the page.  The various landscapes and settings reveal several influences on the book and have been well tied to the various themes and plots running through the volume and series.  Notably, the Odyssey and Sinbad inspired sea and sailing sections, in which several different attempts to reach the continent are described and reveal the dangers of even trying to get to this part of the world.  The wind-blasted, desolate coastline that emphasises the unwelcoming and foreboding nature of the land, but also the isolationist nature of the population and how cut off this is from the rest of the world.  The long rolling prairies and plains of Assail that evoke a sense of Esslemont’s Canadian homeland, a land that appears lush and welcoming, but has hidden dangers, and, like the beaches, emphasises the unwise and unwelcome intrusion of people into a world and space that does not want them.  But it is with the Alaskan and Scandanavian inspired mountains and glaciers that the book really finds a defining landscape that evokes the true nature of Assail.  The terrible beauty of the biting cold, the virgin forests filled with snow, the blues, greens and whites of glacial flow.  This is a harsh, pitiless, unwelcoming world to the human invaders, but a beautiful, sublime home to those people who live in concert with the land.   Each of these landscapes has been rendered with an eye for cinematic description that evokes the transcendentalist sense of nature’s beauty, as well as the brutal reality of inhospitable climes.

This descriptive backdrop neatly fits with the detail of the wider world which is also superbly rendered, in part due to the early books in the series, but also due to Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series which features the same world.   By building on what has gone before, and assuming the reader’s foreknowledge of the world, Esslemont has been able to focus on what lies directly around the characters and this has led to a style that creates a perception of the fictive reality as something witnessed and existing, without needing to utilise endless exposition or overly-long descriptive passages.   The assumed knowledge is not necessary to enjoying the story as it unfolds, but it does add significant depth, breadth and colour to the story that uninitiated readers might miss.  As the narrative builds on this realised world and weaves the characters and their actions into it in order to build a cohesive story that reads and feels ‘real’, ultimately, it results in an immersive reality that the reader witnesses through the perspectives of the various point of view characters and creates a believable, solid weight to the story world that helps sell the more fantastic elements.

Given that the impetus of the story is based on the revelation of suddenly accessible gold-fields, and that the glaciers have retreated and exposed hitherto impassable sections of this relatively pristine land, there is a strong element of the frontier gold-rush myth to some of the storytelling.  While frontier stories are not that uncommon, the parallels to the current attitudes to exploiting natural resources in Canada and the US certainly form a strong undercurrent to this aspect of the story.  Esslemont’s description of the frontier mentality has far less of the noble mythos that has surrounded American gold rush stories, and presents a vicious reality about the unscrupulous plundering of natural resources over the objections of natives and indigenous inhabitants.  There is a strong suspicion that his experience of current mining and oil drilling in Alaska may have influenced some of the elements in the story.

The matter-of-fact destruction of natives and native environments by outsiders, in the name of progress and financial greed, is contrasted and compared to the tribal conflicts of the native inhabitants perpetrated on one another in the name of tradition and blood feuds, which are anything but dispassionate.  Esslemont succeeds in creating a credible series of tribal cultures and relationships that balance the tropes of the barbarian and the noble savage with a more objective perspective in an attempt to convey the complexity of tribal and clan societies without overly venerating or damning them.  These violent, destructive story threads are held up in comparison to the logical extension of their core premises in the story of the Imass and their genocidal pogrom sweeping through the land in an effort to cleanse a perceived racial taint.

As a series generally conceived of as high fantasy adventure epic, these are weighty, divisive and loaded issues that one would not expect to find.  However, part of Esslemont’s talent as a writer is to weave these contemporary concerns into his fantasy narrative seamlessly and make them appear as part of the very fabric of the fictive reality.   Not only that, but many aspects of these issues are presented without authorial comment or overt bias, letting the reader absorb the facets of the conflicts and appreciate the factors that led to characters making these decisions.  There are few obvious antagonists or villains in the story.  Indeed many of the foes faced by the characters are sympathetically or realistically presented in an effort to show the moral complexity of world, while the characters themselves are not always on the side of ‘good’.  Assail is a book of characters, not a book of heroes and villains.  By not directly signalling good or evil, and steering clear of fetishizing violence and idolising dark anti-heroes it may be that Esslemont has created too realistic a moral universe for his readers and some will overlook the actual complexity of morality at play.

Over the last few years Esslemont has faced significant and vicious criticism from many fans of Erikson’s Malazan series.  His work has been viewed or even dismissed as a companion piece to the real series.  His portrayals of characters and places in the world have been dismissed as less than authoritative.  His strengths as an author have been overlooked and his weaknesses have been exaggerated.  Despite this, Esslemont has continued to produce fantasy novels that exemplify the best that fantasy series have to offer and has continued to improve as a writer, an author and as a storyteller.  With Assail Esslemont has written a fascinating, thoughtful, exciting and engaging read.  It is a fitting finale to the Malazan Empire series, and a great book.  He masterfully weaves myth, legend, character, land and story together to create something that fulfils expectations but remains engaged with concerns of our own world.  He has always stood shoulder to shoulder with his co-creator, Erikson, but perhaps now he himself will believe it.

(Originally reviewed in NYRSF)