Aug 31, 2010

Book Porn - The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

So, The Way of Kings is out today, and for those of us not privileged with ARCs, this was the first time we could actually see how the book looks. And it looks fantastic! Michael Whelan's beautiful artwork shines even more "in the flesh", the way it continues onto the spine is amazing, and the maps inside the covers are also wonderful. I don't think I've seen a better looking non-limited edition hardcover in a very long while. So I decided to post some pictures, just in case you are - like me - shallow and cool enough to be susceptible to the influence of gorgeous covers when you are deciding what to buy.

I apologize about the flash. Unavoidable, unfortunately.

Aug 30, 2010

What Has Been Seen Cannot Be Unseen!!!

The cover art for the UK paperback edition of Mark Charon Newton's City of Ruin is out, and boy, is it horrendous?! Whatever possessed the good people of Pan MacMillan to do such a thing? Without further delay, behold:

Honestly, what were they thinking? But Newton himself seems to like it, judging by his blog entry, so I guess that's fine...


Aug 29, 2010

Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief - Rick Riordan

My affair (more of a guilty slumming really) with Percy Jackson started - as most of my Young Adult frolicking (this came out so wrong...) - with a movie adaptation. I have mentioned before that I have this superpower where I get really annoyed if I haven't read the book a movie is based on. And with me trying to watch everything SFF-related that comes out, I simply had to read Rick Riordan's Harry Potter clone.

And yes, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is exactly that. The similarities are glaring and unseemly, shamelessly exhibiting themselves in the reader's face just so he won't forget what he's dealing with. Surprisingly enough, once you get over the feeling of nauseous deja vu, The Lightning Thief is actually not half bad.

Young Percy Jackson is a loser. Dealing with dyslexia, anger management issues and the fact that he gets kicked out of every school he is put into before even a year's passed, it is fair to say he is a troubled kid. Add to that an abusive step-father, and we've got the perfect recipe for a disturbing Chuck Palaniuk pretentious slice-of-life slash post-pubescent-nihilistic-wisdom novel.

Instead, we have Rick Riordan, and luckily, since no more than a few pages into the book one of Percy's teachers turns into a Fury and tries to kill him, and he finds out that his actual father is none other than a god of Olympus. All the ancient myths are true (except, let's hope, for the golden rain thing, as even Hentai is rarely that kinky), and not only that, but dear old Perseus Jackson is actually the chief suspect of the theft of Zeus' Master Bolt - the weapon he forged to defeat the Titans. With Percy's mother seemingly fallen victim of a monster sent by Hades, he has mere days to find the real thief and prove his innocence. But for that to happen, he has to figure out a way to leave Camp Half Blood - the place where demigods like him - the Olympians' offspring - come to live and train to be heroes.

The Lightning Thief is a fun and fast-paced read, intensely formulaic and unfortunately a tad too predictable, but still decent. The irreverent way in which Rick Riordan manages to completely bastardize and Americanize Greek mythology is actually quite enjoyable, if one is not naturally irritated by such things (but then one would be missing on a lot of God of War merriment, so one is obviously to be pitied). What's especially nice is the fact that even though the story is lightning-fast (see what I did there?), Riordan still takes time to build some world, and explain how said world works. Another solid point in favor of The Lightning Thief is Percy himself. No cringing-at-authority with this teenager, no worries about grades or whether the potion is going to come out right. No, Percy Jackson speaks his mind, speaks it loud, and in a sarcastic voice. Even when he's all emo and sad, you kind of sympathize, instead of wishing for him to grow a pair and stop whining.

And yet, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is not Harry Potter. That is only natural, after all, I know of only seven books that are. Still, Rick Riordan seems to have missed the point of what actually makes Joan Rowling's series so good. It is not the hidden mystical world concept itself, although that plays a part too. It is the richness of it. The little detail and the big history, and the background. The Lightning Thief doesn't have that. What's more - being based on a non-original concept, it is not only predictable (after all, if you've read the mythology, you simply know how certain characters would react), but it also feels too much like a theme-park. Percy and his friends (yeah, he gets his own Ron and Hermione) travel throughout America and meet various monsters and characters from the Greek myths, but it never feels like a real world. It's like they don't exist outside of guest-starring in his story, like they don't have independent life of their own.

I will not go into Rick Riordan's style of writing. This is a YA book, and a derivative one. Suffice to say the writing is adequate, and at times even inventive. And considering what a fast read The Lightning Thief is, I'd say it does its job.

All in all, Percy Jackson and the Olympians is shaping up to be a decent Harry Potter clone, not nearly as good but good enough to be worth checking out. It is a YA book through and through, and also very predictable, but it's fun, has a really cool protagonist and will take up no more than an evening or two of your time.


P.S. Accidentally, don't listen to what people say - the movie is also very decent, and Logan Lerman is perfect for Percy's role. Check it out.

Aug 28, 2010

Malazan: The recent books - Reaper's Gale

The Letherii Empire is on the verge of collapse. Its emperor, Rhulad of the Thousand Deaths, is edging ever closer to true madness while agents of his chancellor make certain that he is isolated from everyone that truly cares about him. Meanwhile, the Letherii secret police terrorizes its own people, and Tehol Beddict's scheme nears completion. Other threats are drawing near - the Letherii's neighbors are preparing for full-scale war, while the Edur fleets are returning, bearing Karsa Orlong and Icarium Lifestealer - both destined to clash with the Emperor. But the fleets are pursued - the Malazan 14th army is come to give reckoning for the damage the Edur have done to the Empire's shores.

Against this backdrop, a group of travelers seeks the spirit of Scabandari Bloodeye - the ancient Tiste Edur Ascendant whom Fear Sengar hopes could rein in his people and thus save his mad brother. But with the hopeful Edur travels another, and his goals are far from clear. Silchas Ruin, younger brother to Anomander Rake, is Scabandari's most hated foe, since the treacherous Edur was the one who betrayed his Andii allies and imprisoned Silchas under the roots of the Letherii Azath.

With such a setting, Reaper's Gale is bound to be epic. And epic it is, but for some reason it is not good. The second of three consecutive disappointments, the seventh tale in the Malazan Book of the Fallen deals with the repercussions of the events from Midnight Tides, as well as tying some loose ends from Memories of Ice. Unfortunately, Erikson does a half-assed job of it, and many resolutions are... less than satisfying. Entire plot-lines are dealt with "off-screen" in an extremely lazy manner (a couple of important support characters actually drown by mistake, if you could believe that!), including the one dedicated to Toc the Younger, whom we saw last in Memories of Ice. It is disappointing to the extreme, not to mention utterly frustrating, as it happens entirely too often, and basically there is no story-line that isn't affected.

Reaper's Gale is just haphazard. Dealing with so many awesome story-lines with such an amazing potential, it should be an easy job for the writer of Deadhouse Gates and Midnight Tides to turn it into a masterpiece, but instead Erikson seems distracted. It is as if he was aware that he should write the book, but somehow couldn't be bothered to actually think of a coherent frame in which to put the events.

There is, of course, the usual amount of Epic Epicness, Amazing Revelations and of course, Tehol and Bugg's dialogues are ever a joy to read. There are some pretty funny moments, despite the general Gloom and Doom feel of all the later books in the series. One story-line in particular - of the most obscurely menacing, brooding and threatening character in the story - ends in such a hilarious anticlimax, that it almost made me wish the entire book was done in this style.

Unfortunately though, Reaper's Gale is not a comedy. It is Dark, Philosophical and Filled With Regret And the Ashes of Hope, as usual, but unfortunately fails to deliver any sort of concentrated punch on any of its many fronts, and so the reader is left (that is, I was left) with the general impression of a big, gray miasmic cloud of blurry epic drama, with main characters having unspecified revelations instead of breakfast and dying for lunch. I mean, at some point it just stops having any sort of impact.

Still, without being sure why, I'd say that the book is slightly better than The Bonehunters. Instead of having big chunks of nothing happening and only two moments of really cool stuff, here the whole book is filled with some vague stuff, but at least the story is constantly moving. Also, a few plot-developments are actually positive and bring hope, instead of pouring buckets of diarrhea on the characters as is their usual lot in the Malazan series, the poor shmucks.

It is, at this point, completely irrelevant whether I will recommend Reaper's Gale or not. Obviously, if you've reached this point, you are going to read it, and if you haven't, you're not likely to jump straight to the seventh book of the series. But it is still a generally unsatisfying read that further disillusioned me from my hopes of Malazan Book of the Fallen being the perfect fantasy.


Next: Malazan: The recent books - Toll the Hounds

Aug 27, 2010

Cracked cracks six Sci-Fi techs

I stumbled upon this hilarious list of Six Baffling Flaws in Famous Sci-Fi Technology. Like most Cracked stuff, this is pure delight to read, particularly the part about the Technodrome from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Go check it out.

Aug 26, 2010

World Fantasy Awards 2010 Shortlist

I have to admit that I haven't read a single title in this list, and to my shame, I'm only interested in two of the novels. Still, the WFAs are a good way to find books that one would otherwise miss. So, here's the list:

Blood of Ambrose, James Enge (Pyr)
The Red Tree, Caitlín R. Kiernan (Roc)
The City & The City, China Miéville (Macmillan UK/ Del Rey)
Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (Underland)
In Great Waters, Kit Whitfield (Jonathan Cape UK/Del Rey)

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, Kage Baker (Subterranean)
“The Lion’s Den”, Steven Duffy (Nemonymous Nine: Cern Zoo)
The Night Cache, Andy Duncan (PS)
“Sea-Hearts”, Margo Lanagan (X6 )
“Everland”, Paul Witcover (Everland and Other Stories)

Short Story
“I Needs Must Part, the Policeman Said”, Richard Bowes (F&SF 12/09)
“The Pelican Bar”, Karen Joy Fowler (Eclipse Three)
“A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, As Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc, or, A Lullaby”, Helen Keeble (Strange Horizons 6/09)
“Singing on a Star”, Ellen Klages (Firebirds Soaring)
“The Persistence of Memory, or This Space for Sale”, Paul Park (Postscripts 20/21: Edison’s Frankenstein )
“In Waiting”, R.B. Russell (Putting the Pieces in Place)
“Light on the Water”, Genevieve Valentine (Fantasy 10/09)

Poe, Ellen Datlow, ed. (Solaris)
Songs of The Dying Earth: Stories in Honor of Jack Vance, George R.R. Martin & Gardner Dozois, eds. (Subterranean/Voyager)
Exotic Gothic 3: Strange Visitations, Danel Olson, ed. (Ash-Tree)
Eclipse Three, Jonathan Strahan, ed. (Night Shade)
American Fantastic Tales: Terror and the Uncanny: From Poe to the Pulps/From the 1940s to Now, Peter Straub, ed. (Library of America)
The Very Best of Fantasy & Science Fiction: Sixtieth Anniversary Anthology, Gordon Van Gelder, ed. (Tachyon)

We Never Talk About My Brother, Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon)
Fugue State, Brian Evenson (Coffee House)
There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried To Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya (Penguin)
Northwest Passages, Barbara Roden (Prime)
Everland and Other Stories, Paul Witcover (PS)
The Very Best of Gene Wolfe/The Best of Gene Wolfe, Gene Wolfe (PS /Tor)

John Jude Palencar
John Picacio
Charles Vess
Jason Zerrillo
Sam Weber

Special Award – Professional
Peter & Nicky Crowther for PS Publishing
Ellen Datlow for editing anthologies
Hayao Miyazaki for Ponyo
Barbara & Christopher Roden for Ash-Tree Press
Jonathan Strahan for editing anthologies
Jacob & Rina Weisman for Tachyon Publications

Special Award – Non-Professional
John Berlyne for Powers: Secret Histories
Neil Clarke, Cheryl Morgan, & Sean Wallace for Clarkesworld
Susan Marie Groppi for Strange Horizons
John Klima for Electric Velocipede
Bob Colby, B. Diane Martin, David Shaw and Eric M. Van for Readercon
Ray Russell & Rosalie Parker for Tartarus Press

Aug 25, 2010

RIP Satoshi Kon

Satoshi Kon, director of such amazing anime movies as Perfect Blue, Millenium Actress and Paprika, passed away this Tuesday due to pancreatic cancer. Kon was 46 years old, and his loss is a tremendous blow to the industry, as he was among the greatest names to have ever worked in Japanese animation. His movies have won numerous awards both in Japan, and outside, and his unique style was always instantly recognizable among the sea of mediocrity that anime can often be. May he rest in peace.

Source 1 and Source 2

Aug 24, 2010

The X-men: First Class movie is slated... to be utterly bad

I rarely go out of my way to proclaim gloom and doom for movies, but the new info that came out a few days ago, concerning the upcoming X-men: First Class (directed by Matthew Vaughn) is really making it impossible to keep quiet. I get that people in Hollywood don't want to follow the comic books exactly. It's a smart move, and I'm all for that, especially considering how follow-unworthy a lot of those comic books are. But honestly - making the movie take place in the 60s, with no Scott and Jean, and having Emma Frost be the same age as the Professor, thus completely skewering any sort of continuity... it just borders on absurd. Why even use those characters, if they are not going to have anything in common with their original relationships? Also - yes, we get that the Professor and Magneto were friends and allies, but later their different world views teared them apart. Could we possibly move on now? How many movies exactly does it have to take before producers get it into their thick skulls that there are other important characters in the X-men universe?

However this goes, X-men: First Class seems determined to not have anything in common with the comic books, which makes me wonder why even bother. It's not like the movies depend on the original medium to make cash, it has actually been the other way around for years. So why not make the fans happy and give them a story that resonates with the comic books they love for a change? Is it too much to ask?

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 4

Freshman year in UC Sunnydale. Buffy and Willow jump into college life, while Xander must find what his future is, and Giles is struggling with the fact that after quitting the Watchers' Council he no longer has a purpose. But something is brewing under the UC Sunnydale campus - a threat that has nothing to do with the supernatural, and everything to do with governments sticking their noses where they so don't belong.

Season 4 is possibly the weakest of the later Buffy seasons. Its main story-arc is unconvincing and its central villain rings hollow. Where this show is concerned, however, "weakest" means "still pretty damn good", and ironically, one can find here three of the five best episodes in the entire show, as well as some very important character-developments. It is the first major change of scenery for the Scooby gang, as hardly any of the old places from the previous seasons are visited (understandable, considering that Sunnydale High got burned down in Season 3...). The change is welcome, however, because it feels completely natural.

The most important new character of the season is of course Riley Finn (Marc Blucas) - TA in one of the classes that Buffy and Willow attend in UC Sunnydale, but also a part of the secret government military program called The Initiative. The most important aspect of Riley's role however is the fact that he is Buffy's new romantic interest, much to most fans' chagrin. In truth, he is a fantastic character. Completely Joe Avarage (if Joe Avarage was about seven feet tall, with chiseled jaw and athlete's physique of course), nice in an oafish way, stable, understanding, immensely polite, Riley is the very opposite of every other character on this show, and the contrast works beautifully. What does not work beautifully, unfortunately, is his relationship with Buffy. Both actors do their best, but there is just no chemistry. However realistic and wholesome a character Riley is, he never feels more than a place-holder in Buffy's life, and Season 5 actually will solidify that impression.

On the not-so-controversial side we have the return of Spike who becomes a regular member of the cast (or rather - James Marsters does). After some tinkering on the Initiative's part, the most badass vampire in the world is rendered harmless to humans which makes for a lot of hilarity and impotence jokes, as well as giving a chance for all kinds of awesome interaction between him and the Scooby gang. Another guest-star made regular is Emma Caulfield's ex-vengeance demon Anya who becomes involved with Xander. She is an amazing comic relief character, who manages to not get any nuance of tact or politeness in a way that's distinctly her own and makes her not a substitute, but an equal to the missing Cordelia. The last (and - for now - least important) new addition to the cast is Tara (Amber Benson) - Willow's new friend who is also a witch, and perhaps something more.

Season 4 is centered around belonging and growing apart. Xander feels left behind, Willow goes through heavy changes, Buffy is obsessed with her "spanking new boyfriend", while Giles and Joyce feel that they have no purpose in life. And yet, as all those plot-lines converge in the next to last episode (explanations will happen, be at peace), the characters seem to have found a new bond, a symbiosis where everyone plays a part in a greater whole. This is the first season of the show that actually gives foreshadows of what is to follow next. Particularly the last episode - Restless - is big with the hinting, concerning the major plot-line of Season 5, as well as the archetypes characters will become toward the end of the show.

A few episodes merit special mention. Chief among them is Hush - one of the crowning jewels of the entire show. More than half of this episode is done without any dialogue, as a group of fairy-tale demons called the Gentlemen arrive in town and steal everybody's voices so that nobody would be heard screaming while they cut hearts out at night. Heavy on the subtext of communication and the various ways we manage to not understand each other, Hush is also one of the most effective horror-wise, as the grotesque skeletal Gentlemen are truly demonic in a way that nothing else in the entire show has ever come close to. Suffice to say that they float a foot above ground, their broad steel-toothed smiles never drop from their skull-like faces, and their exaggeratedly courteous gestures are chilling to the extreme. All the actors perform wonderfully in this episode, and there is quite a lot of spot-on comedy too. All part of the quirky idiosyncratic experience that is Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Who Are You? deals with body-swapping, and gives two important cast-members the opportunity to step into the other one's shoes. Both perform great, and it is a wonderful character-building episode for one of them, but unfortunately I can't say more without ruining the surprise.

Superstar is one of my favorite episodes in the show. Dealing with an awesome "what if?" scenario, it manages to play both comedy and drama, while at the same time giving a completely obscure character - the short looser Jonathan (Danny Strong), introduced in Season 2 - the spotlight to such a ridiculous extent that even the opening is re-cut to feature him there.

Restless is another gorgeous piece of art. The last episode of Season 4 is not a climax, but an epilogue (the ending of the current story-arc happens in episode 21 - Primeval), and it is entirely a dream sequence, or rather - four dream sequences, as Willow, Xander, Giles and Buffy fall into an unnatural sleep in Buffy's house. There is no way to describe the utter wackiness of the episode. Restless is weird and confusing, both alluding to the future and playing with characters' hidden fears.

Willow's dream is a Twin Peaks-esque vision - complete with the heavy red curtains - of all her friends playing roles in a surreal version of Death of a Salesman. Buffy's Chicago outfit with the short black hair and provocative femme-fatale/burlesque dancer dress is especially memorable, as well as her dazzling monologue:

But what else could I expect from a bunch of low-rent, no-account hoodlums like you? Hoodlums, yes, I mean you and your friends, your whole sex. Throw 'em in the sea for all I care. Throw 'em in and wait for the bubbles. Men, with your groping and spitting. All groin, no brain. Three billion of ya' passin' around the same worn out urge. Men... with your sales.

Half of the dialogue in this episode is severely symbolic and/or meaningful, and the other half is complete nonsense. I think it's easy to judge where this particular piece of brilliance falls. However, the Willow sequence shows more than anything else in the season how much she has grown up and matured since the beginning of the show. There is almost nothing in common between the nerdy clutz from Season 1, and the gorgeous self-aware and confident woman that she is in Season 4. Everybody else's dreams hold wicked cool elements, and in each and every one of them is featured the Man With the Cheese (I wear my cheese. It doesn't wear me.) who Whedon admits to have put there purely for absurdity's sake.

In its entirety, Season 4 is a step down in quality from Season 3. However, it holds many pearls of character development, as well as few of the best Buffy episodes ever made. And as much as fans might be bothered by Buffy and Riley's relationship, there is still a lot to love here. Plus - witches. "Sometimes I think about two women doing a spell. And then I do a spell by myself." That is to say, even at its weaker, Buffy the Vampire Slayer is still many laps ahead of most every other show, doing drama better than dramas, comedy better than comedies, and entertainment as art in the best possible way - with a big heart.


Aug 23, 2010

Malazan: The recent books - The Bonehunters

Two months after the events of House of Chains, the Malazan Fourteenth Army is moving west, pursuing Leoman of the Flails and the last remnants of the Whirlwind who flee towards the city of Y'Ghatan. Meanwhile strange black ships have begun raiding the coastlines of Quon Tali and Seven Cities - scouts of the new Letherii Empire who seek challengers worthy of their immortal Emperor. But with Icarium and Karsa Orlong the Edur might have stumbled upon champions that even the twisted power of Rhulad Sengar's sword can't deal with. Meanwhile dark politics and shadow games have shifted the powers in the Imperial Court, and all is not as it seems in the Empire's heart.

The Bonehunters is the first book to show a noticeable drop in the quality of the series. Quite a lot bigger than Midnight Tides, it has less than half the plot-development and three times the aimless blabbering. Every soldier in the Malazan army seems to hold a PhD in psychology, sociology and philosophy, and it seems that every soldier does get their own PoV. The pointlessness of existence, the death of dreams, the dust of... uh... dust and other quirky topics seem to be the order of the day, going absolutely nowhere, serving no purpose whatsoever - be it plot or character development - and generally only manage to annoy the hell out of the reader.

The real drama with this book comes with the realization that it is the first one in the series to be a "bridge". There is no distinct story-arc here, like in the previous five books, no self-contained story-line with recognizable beginning and end. The Bonehunters starts at the middle and ends more or les in the same place. Most of its tremendous bulk is dedicated to traveling (and aimless blabbering, let's not ever forget the aimless blabbering), with basically two huge action sequences - one at the middle and one at the end - that take around a hundred pages each. The battle of Y'Ghatan being the supposed focus of the novel, it is a little surprising when that story-line is dealt with halfway through. But then focus shifts to Malaz Isle and the intrigues surrounding Empress Laseen, and the finale is a gigantic city-sprawling convergence where characters are at their most over-the-topness since the beginning of the series. It is not very well structured and with its exuberance it sort of misses the point.

Erikson's style doesn't seem to change noticeably between books five and six, yet The Bonehunters is a much slower read than the previous ones. It is not the quality of style, but the balance of it. Pointless introspection (and as someone practically worshiping Scott Bakker, I hope you will believe me when I say that I actually love introspection when it's done right) takes up way too much space, and suddenly the series stops feeling like it wants to tell a story, instead giving the impression that all stories end with tears and despair, so why even bother telling them. There are some very unfortunate decisions plot-wise (a trend that only worsens in further installments) as characters with a lot of promise meet an untimely demise that does nothing to move the plot forward or make any relevant point. The only argument in defense of this syndrome that I've heard - that we are not all heroes in real life, and sometimes good people die for no reason - is, forgive my French, retarded. The Malazan Book of the Fallen is anything but a representation of real life, and I expect a certain amount of, well, structure and internal logic from my epic fantasy...

The Bonehunters was a huge disappointment to me, after the glory that was Midnight Tides, and even though it is hard to distinguish between it and the two other disappointments that followed it, I think it's still my least favorite in the series. However, the book does have its good moments (especially the Y'Ghatan sequence is amazingly well done and would've made a lot better climax to the book than the actual one was), plus if you've gotten this far, it would be a lot bigger waste of your time not to press forward than it would be reading this book. Besides, a lot of people actually liked it more than I did. Unfortunately, it was the first sign that no, the Malazan Book of the Fallen was not to be the exception to the rule - the one epic series to not drop in quality halfway through. I guess that's what makes disappointment even more bitter.


Next: Malazan: The recent books - Reaper's Gale

Aug 22, 2010

Comics: The Walking Dead, Volume Five: The Best Defense

As Rick, Glen and Michone go out of the prison to investigate a helicopter crash, they come upon another community, run by a savage man who calls himself "The Governor". By the time they realize how dangerous he is not only to them, but to the people left in the prison, it may already be too late.

The Best Defense is the long awaited jolt of actual story-line that the series was in such a desperate need of. A new threat is introduced, and while nothing much happens in this volume (you died of shock yet?), it promises a lot of changes in the survivors' status quo.

Unfortunately, the story is headed into a place I don't like. Half of Volume 5 is dedicated to blood, mutilation and torture, and it is no fun. I didn't sign up for this to go through torture-porn fest. And even though I realize it is Kirkman's right to take any course he wants, I'm just not ok with the fact that he has chosen the easiest - that of Mad Max and cheap revulsion-inducing brutality. Just like his ham-handed attempts at character building, his depiction of the evil face of surviving humanity is schematic and formulaic at best. I think the only thing his bad guy didn't manage to do in this one single volume, was eat a baby while raping it to death at the same time.

The Walking Dead has been a stable 6-7/10 ever since it started. I liked the author's premise, I also liked the execution of the beginning. But ever since then the series is a middling affair of overly pretentious boredom, and this new turn of events promises to be a middling affair of pretentious violence. After all the hype for the series, I really hoped it would get better. Instead, it's just doing different kinds of mediocre. Well, I'll keep reading it for now, but it's becoming less and less something I enjoy, and more and more a chore I do for this blog's sake...


Aug 21, 2010

Adam Roberts' take on The Wheel of Time

I was reminded today of the hilarious reviews of the eleven volumes of Robert Jordan's The Wheel of Time series, done by SF writer Adam Roberts on his blog. I used to be a fan of the series, back when dinosaurs roamed the Earth and nobody had ever heard of Lady Gaga, and it still holds some mildly warm place in my heart, despite the horrendous state of affairs it had reached by the time Jordan passed away. Obviously I don't agree with all that Roberts says of the books (especially the earlier ones), but the reviews are way awesome and well worth the reading. So here's a LINK to a post that collects all eleven reviews, as well as a funny FAQ done by the author in response to the many comments that they generated.

Ender's Shadow - Orson Scott Card

Fourteen years after the publication of Ender's Game, and only three after the conclusion of the Speaker for the Dead trilogy, Orson Scott Card decided to return to the Enderverse in a very interesting way - by revisiting Ender's time in the Battle School through the eyes of another character - little Bean whose minor role in the original novel gave Card enough freedom to tell quite a different story.

Bean has grown up among the many gangs of homeless children on the streets of post-war Rotterdam. A child of unnaturally sharp intellect, he was self-aware mere days after his birth, and his life has been a lot more vicious than Ender's. Eventually he is found by Sister Carlota - a nun who works for the International Fleet, scouring the world in search for children to recruit in the war against the buggers. Bean is sent to the Battle School where he quickly realizes that he is a lot smarter than everybody else, including the school's tactic genius - Ender Wiggin himself. At first, he finds it difficult to like the boy that every eye in the station is focused on, but eventually Bean becomes one of his most trusted allies. Meanwhile he begins uncovering the many layers of deceit that the adults have built around the children in the school, refusing to play by their rules and opting instead to be their equal.

Ender's Shadow is not the same type of book that Ender's Game was. For one, it is much more smoothly written - decade and a half of experience will do that - but it is also a lot more... ordinary than the original story. Themes of child abuse, exploitation and morals are still noticeable, but this is a book about plot. And since we already have one Ender's Game, I'd call this a good thing, as Bean's story is a tremendous leap forward in the world-building of the Enderverse.

Bean himself is a drastically different character than Ender. He is twice as smart as him, but he also lacks his compassion and humanity - the very qualities that turn Ender into the potential savior of mankind. That is not to say that Bean is an emotionless robot. In fact, he makes quite the progress in the book, and by the end of the story - the climax being Ender's last "game" - he is not only an integral and passionate part of the team (as well as outside overseer, becoming the reluctant secret liaison between the children and the adults), but a key factor in the end result.

Unfortunately, coming back fourteen year later to revisit the same story from a different perspective, hides certain risks, and Card wasn't able to evade all of them. There is one particular problem with Ender's Shadow that rears its ugly head every time Bean and Ender interact. Originally, Bean was not intended to be the supernatural genius that he turned out to be. He was just another kid in the group, maybe smarter than some, a vulnerable mirror image of Ender himself when he first came into the Battle School, but nothing out of the ordinary. And while Card can tell it however he wants in Bean's own private time, whenever he and Ender meet, he must, for consistency's sake, act like he acted in Ender's Game. And that leads to him swallowing his tongue and being uncharacteristically speechless and slow-thinking in every scene he shares with Ender, just so his reactions could look the way they did in the original. This discrepancy is quite annoying, but luckily, said interactions are few and far between.

In the end, Ender's Shadow is not the revelation that Ender's Game is, but it is none the less a terrific book. Card's style is more mature and sure-footed, his story-telling skills are honed to perfection, and his world-building is way more complex, revealing many aspects of both Earth, the Battle School and the International Fleet that previous books haven't touched upon. Ender's Shadow is the beginning of the so-called "Shadow series" which - just like Ender's story - sharply changes direction after the first installment. In this case, it leads to the intrigues and war that break out on Earth after the end of the Game, and the ways that different countries try to use the genius children of the Battle School for their own ends. I am planning to reread those (as well as the Speaker trilogy) and will review them some time in the future. Meanwhile, I greatly recommend Ender's Shadow, especially if you've liked Ender's Game. But even if you haven't, it's quite a different type of story and might still win you over.


Aug 19, 2010

A lot of Dick over at the SFFM Reading Project

I posted two reviews of Philip K Dick books in the SFFM Reading Project blog this week. Here are the links:

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch

Time Out of Joint

Check them out. A lot of other new stuff there as well.

Movies: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

My relationship with the Scott Pilgrim comic book kind of ended halfway through the first volume. It just left me uninterested, although I appreciated it to an extent. Trailers for the Scott Pilgrim vs. the World movie looked all kinds of awesome though, so I couldn't pass it up. And boy, am I glad I didn't!


OMG! This movie is so insanely amazing! It is hard to imagine, but with all the coolness oozing from the trailers, they don't show even a tiny bit of all the profound gorgeousness contained within. Scott Pilgrim vs. the World puts the "cool" in "geek", and puts it in a big way. The story is appropriately retarded - 22 y/o Scott (Juno and Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist Michael Cera) is "between jobs" and in an indy band. They suck. He is dating a high-schooler. She is Chinese and from a Catholic school. Then he meets Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead of Death Proof fame). She is not a high-schooler, she works for Amazon and she uses Scott's head because there is a very convenient subspace highway passing through there (don't ask - it's that kind of movie). Obviously he falls madly in love, and Ramona's kinda whatever about it but decides to hang around. Then along come her Seven Evil Exes. And if Scott wants to date Ramona, he has to defeat them. In Japanese fighting game style duels. With specials. And combos...

There are so many references to old-school gaming (mostly Japanese), manga and anime in Scott Pilgrim that it would take up the whole review just to list them. Suffice to say Scott plays a Final Fantasy II melody on his guitar, and all fights in the movie have things like health bars, "K.O." signs, and leave it at that. From the ridiculous pixelized Universal logo with its retarded MIDI theme to the gorgeously cheezy "door" ending, this movie is made to appeal to geeks everywhere, but it's so well made, that honestly - you have to be a little dead inside not to like it. Obviously Michael Cera is the perfect choice for the role, but in truth there is no one in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World that doesn't perform at top level. Even so-so actors like Chris Evans (Lucas Lee, Evil Ex No. 2) and Brandon Routh (Todd Ingram, Evil Ex No. 3) are hilarious.

There is no element that doesn't go over the top in this movie, and it would easily fall apart, were it not for the brilliant direction. Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz' very own Edgar Wright has done a masterful job and Scott Pilgrim is a cornucopia of great moments, putting not only the "cool" in "geek", but also the "tasteful" in "absurdly extreme". Kudos to the cinematographer Bill Pope (not surprisingly all three Matrix movies among many others) as well! The cuts are fast, practically no scene is left uninterrupted, and the camera and characters act like they are in a manga - meaningful fatal looks, sudden close-ups, you know the drill.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World sports a funky soundtrack, as most of the non-story revolves around Scott's indy band (they suck). Obviously most of the OST album is comprised of indy music, and many of Sex Bob-Omb's tunes (oh yeah, forgot to mention their name sucks too) are actually done by Beck. It is not the kind of music that I would listen on its own, but for this movie it is spot-on.

No perfection is perfect, obviously, and neither is Scott Pilgrim. Around the final act things begin to drag a little, and serious drama gets a tad more serious than the movie requires. The cheesyness of the ending also shows a tiny bit more ambition than it should, but it's all good, we forgive small transgressions such as these. And who cares anyway?! You have Tekken-like battles, enemies burst into coins when beaten, Scott gains points for beating Evil Exes, and there is a scene involving Ramona and a huge hammer! And if it all seems like the ungodly progeny of a 16-bit japanese game and a J-pop music video with fake Canadians as the main characters, well so much the better I say! Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is comprised entirely of victory, and it is a major score for geekiness!


Aug 18, 2010

Ender's Game - Orson Scott Card

Ender's Game is not easy to review, and I expect to fail miserably in the task. Thing is, everybody knows this book. It is among the most important works of Science Fiction, and it's almost impossible to say anything new about it. So I won't even try. I will just go with the flow and see where it takes me.

Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is a child prodigy growing up in a near future Earth that has suffered horribly in the first wars with the alien Formics - usually called "buggers" - and is now preparing for an inevitable last conflict, united under the shaky alliance of the Hegemon, the Polemarch and the Strategos who compete for dominance while developing the International Fleet. In a world where strict birth-control laws are in place, Ender is a third child - an exception that earns him hatred and isolation from his peers. He is soon selected by the IF to train in the elite Battle School - a space station orbiting Earth, where genius children are prepared to lead Humanity's armies in the war against the buggers. But from the very beginning Ender is forced to use all his intellectual powers to win in a game more deadly than anything he has faced back on Earth. A game created by the grown-ups and as such - infinitely unfair.

It is easy not to like Orson Scott Card. In fact, he makes it exceedingly easy with all his bigotry, homophobia, religious zeal etc. etc. etc. To be perfectly honest, I stopped keeping track of his outbursts a long time ago. The reason? I don't want to know. I don't want this knowledge to cloud my perception of his earlier books. Because they - and especially Ender's Game - are among the greatest examples of SF ever written.

There are any number of ways to perceive this book. It has been banned from high schools for its themes (real and imagined both), and it has been used in teaching courses in military schools. It has been praised for the realistic way it depicts gifted children, and it has been ridiculed for the unrealistic way it depicts gifted children. It is accused of being an undercover justification of Adolf Hitler's actions, and it is a beloved symbol for intelligent children wishing to be treated as equals to adults.

But Ender's Game is - above all else - a novel that a lot of readers take personally, and that is the reason why people are so passionate about it. Like Card himself says in an introduction for the book, kids love it not because they love Ender or pity him (as most adult readers do), but because they are Ender. He rings true to them as he rang true to me when I first read the novel in my early teens. And - again as Card says in the introduction - this is possibly among the chief reasons for many cases of adults disliking Ender's Game. Because the recognition that a child could be that intelligent and perceptive, that aware, takes a lot of us to a scary place - one we may not wish to visit. Sure, Ender is an exaggeration - a 7-year old acting like a 40-year old - but at the same time he isn't. He is a lonely child doing the best he can under a pressure that no human being should endure. And he feels a child to the reader.

Another topic that often pops up when discussing Ender's Game, is that of child abuse. How far can we go in the destruction of an innocent and immensely vulnerable human being while still being able to justify our need to do so? Is it "right" to do it? Does any end justify those means? The book gives no easy answer to those questions. Or - the other side of the coin - how far can Ender take his actions and still be considered "innocent" by the reader? A lot of criticism for the book is focused upon this problem. Ender is depicted as a child, and one manipulated by adults into becoming a mass murderer. Does he have a choice? Yes - in the end he does. But to me, this is a ridiculous criticism. Because even if Card's own opinion of Ender's morals and those of the people controlling him might remain unclear, Ender's vision of himself is perfectly obvious. In fact, the entire Speaker For the Dead trilogy is a direct result of the way he feels about what he does.

Ender's Game is a simply written book. It is plain and direct - quite on purpose, as Card wanted to avoid all the "literary" games and details that draw attention away from the story and characters. In a way, it is almost surgical in its decision to not sugarcoat anything, and the atmosphere of the book is at times painfully intense. The writing might be simple, but that makes it no less masterful, and even though that was Card's first novel, it is still among the very best the genre has to offer due to the wonderful marriage of ideas, character and style.

So, is Ender's Game still relevant today, 25 years after its publication? Most definitely. It is an important book, extremely complex and multifaceted in its simplicity, and as controversial as it is brilliantly written. Anyone who considers himself a reader of SF has to read it. Whether you will like it or not depends on what you will see in it. Chances are that whatever it is, it won't leave you indifferent.


Aug 17, 2010

Comics: The Walking Dead, Volume Four: The Heart's Desire

After the cliff-hanger of Safety Behind Bars, Rick's group manages to solidify its claim on the abandoned prison. However, the arrival of a newcomer and the pressure building over Rick due to his leadership might break the survivors apart.

Kirkman's The Walking Dead saga is supposed to show us the life of people trying to survive the zombie apocalypse. That is all good and well, but honestly - I am getting tired of it. True, relationships change, casualties continue to pile and by the end of the volume a radical change in the way things are run is introduced. But, really, it just feels like same old same old. I don't care about any of the characters anymore, as Kirkman uses them only to hammer points home with the subtlety of a retarded rhino.

Instead of improving, the writer's style and characterization seem to worsen. In The Heart's Desire we are witness to the most inapt, clumsy and illogical aggressive argument I've seen in a while, where characters seem to yell numbingly cliched accusations seemingly just so they have an excuse to continue pummeling each other. Rick is supposed to be on the verge of snapping, but we only find that through others' declarations of it, as the way he reveals it is by being a chaotic douchebag - not exactly a textbook representation of snapping... On the up side, the stilted explanatory prose is a bit less, which leads me to hope that Kirkman might have caught up on the fact that showing always tops telling.

There are a few really good moments in The Heart's Desire, and I'm still inclined to continue reading the series, especially after the end of the fourth volume. But after 24 issues, I think I am now qualified to say that with all the hype I've read for The Walking Dead, I expected a lot more from it. The character building, the relationships and the "realism" are nowhere near good enough to warrant this endless soap opera, and since they are the main focus of the series, we don't really get much else from it. Still, hope is like the undead - tough to kill and always comes back. So I'll just keep reading.


Aug 16, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 3

It is time for the Senior year of Sunnydale Class of '99. But after the events in Season 2, Buffy has been expelled, and nobody even knows where she is. And even when she gets back, can things be the same again? But personal problems are the least of her worries, as another enemy rises - one that has been with the town since its creation. And on top of that, a new Slayer arrives - the rebellious Faith, whose priorities aren't even close to Buffy's.

Season 3 is a self-aware and intelligent piece of entertainment, showing beautifully how Buffy has blossomed into maturity. It lacks the emotional impact of the previous season, as the threat of the Mayor (portrayed fantastically by Harry Groener) is not nearly as personal as that of Angelus was. At the same time though, the overall quality of the episodes - and especially the stand-alones - is immensely higher. Very few episodes fall flat, and there are many brilliant examples of genius story-telling on some of which I'll focus later. The season also introduces the "Dark Slayer" Faith (Eliza Dushku, who also plays the main character in Whedon's latest TV show, Dollhouse) - a tainted but sobering mirror for Buffy, showing the ways her calling could go wrong. Other new additions to the cast are the ex-vengeance demon Anya (Emma Caulfield) who will play a major part in later seasons, as well as the new Watcher Wesley Wyndham-Price (Alexis Denisof) who is more or less a joke here, but will turn into an amazing character in Angel.

There are many themes in Season 3, but one of the most important is that of overcoming insecurity. Every character has some sort of rite of passage, and not all of them manage to get through those. Human contact is also a major theme, with the evolving relationship between Buffy and Angel, as well as the twisted father-daughter interactions of Faith and the Mayor. The topics of domestic violence, High School isolation and repressed anger also have their own episodes. Mayor Richard Wilkins III himself is one of the most brilliantly conceived bad guys in the Buffyverse. His schizophrenic jumps between a stable pillar of society and American values, and a sick maniac wishing to rule the world are both hilarious and chilling. The way he is used to actually tell the main characters all the important painful truths they keep denying is beautifully realized.

This is a season that marks the ending of a lot of staples for the show, and clearly shows that Joss Whedon is not only not afraid to shake the status quo, but actually revels in shaking it. Season 3 sees the characters graduate High School to enter a new stage in their lives. It also marks the departure of two fan-favorites - Angel and Cordelia - who were transferred to the spin-off Angel (whose first season corresponds with Buffy Season 4). Angel and Buffy's relationship had run its course and it was a smart choice for him to get his own show, but it is a surprise how much Cordelia is missed in further seasons, despite her amazing character development in Angel. In any other TV show, she would have been a cardboard cliche, a walking joke for the main cast to stamp on. Not in Buffy. Charisma Carpenter's talented acting and Whedon's inspired screen-writing turned Cordelia into a multilayered and intricate character, one that was essential for the show, and loved by virtually everyone.

Like I said earlier, Season 3 has the highest overall episode quality so far. After the ponderous prologue of Anne and the rather long-winded Dead Man's Party, the season quickly finds its pace, and by its epic ending in the two-part Graduation Day, it has soared to really impressive heights. Highlights include the amazing Band Candy that takes a cliche idea - adults acting as teenagers - to show a really disturbing side of both Giles and Buffy's mother Joice. It is a remarkable character-building piece, and insanely funny too. Lovers Walk sees practically ALL relationships suffer some sort of blow, and gives us a drunken guest-starring Spike who has been dumped by Drusila after the events of Season 2. The Wish - one of the two best episodes in Season 3 - is a genius "what if" episode that sees Sunnydale turned into a vampire play-ground where Buffy never came. It also introduces Vamp Willow - a kinky, sadistic and bi-curious creature of evil self-indulgence that Alyson Hannigan portrays with an obvious delight. The Zeppo is a masterfully crafted exercise in the mechanics of point of view, showing Xander take the spot-light while in the background the gang faces their BIGGEST CHALLENGE EVER!!!... of which we see nothing and couldn't care less. Easily the best episode in the season, it is also among the best in the entire show. The post-modern twist of plot-structure is nothing short of brilliant and while Xander's story is intricate and engaging, everybody else's problems are made to look cliched and over-the-top melodramatic. The Prom gives us Season 3's most touching moment, which - surprisingly - has nothing to do with relationships, but is instead one of recognition and appreciation as Buffy sacrifices her own happiness so that her friends may have an unforgettable Prom.

Season 3 had some problems during its original airing. Two episodes were postponed, one for a good reason, and the other - as a knee-jerk panic reaction. The former is Earshot, in which the main story-line revolves around an implied plan to commit mass murder in the school. As its airing turned out to coincide with a real High School massacre in Colorado, it was postponed. Actually, that is rather lucky, since if it were aired just a bit earlier, Buffy would have become one of the main targets in the pop-culture witch-hunt that inevitably follows every such tragedy (ironically, this tendency is touched upon in another episode of the season - Gingerbread). Still, even though it was more or less understandable, Earshot was not focused on High School violence, but on isolation and fear - the two concepts that are eating at the core of every High School student everywhere, but seem to be especially prominent in American culture. The joke is on WB though - they were so worried about Earshot and its implied student massacre, that they completely ignored The Prom that actually had a student trying to kill all his class-mates. But I guess student massacre is ok, as long as it's Hellhounds and not guns...

Graduation Day, Part II was also postponed, since it dealt with a huge and violent showdown happening in school and involving students. As many critics pointed out at the time, it was ridiculous to do that to a show such as Buffy - one of the very few TV series to actually portray teens as serious and reliable people who strive to do the right thing and are guided by a sense of integrity and responsibility. WB only managed to become a laughing stock with their fear of touching upon a sensitive subject, while everyone else saw that to postpone an episode that is all about making the right choices and facing consequences borders on the surreal.

Despite those bumps in its way though, Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a glorious piece of TV art, and the best of the first three seasons. It marks the ending of an era in the Buffyverse and is as sure-footed as a TV show could ever be in this age of censorship and sensitivity issues. And even if it lacks something of the punch of the Angelus-Buffy drama from the previous season, its overall quality is so great, that it rises head and shoulders above any competition.


Aug 15, 2010

Malazan: Novels of the Malazan Empire - Night of Knives

Something very strange happened in 2003. Suddenly it was announced that Steven Erikson was not the sole inventor of the Malazan world. He had a partner in crime - the Canadian archeologist Ian Cameron Esslemont. According to what Erikson revealed in interviews, they co-created the world as an RPG setting back in the early 80s. After that they agreed to both write books in it, sharing some story-lines but generally focusing on different aspects of the Malazan tapestry. Currently, Esslemont's Novels of the Malazan Empire are two - the short novella-like Night of Knives and the longer Return of the Crimson Guard - with the third one, named Stonewielder, expected to come out by the end of the year. He states that he is planning at least three other books in the series.

Night of Knives was first published in 2004 as a limited edition hardcover by PS Publishing. I still remember how impatient I was for it to come out. It was a time when I was still madly in love with the Malazan world, and the discovery of another voice telling tales in it was great news to me. The book is set between the prologue of Gardens of the Moon and the "present", within a 24 hour period on the island of Malaz, following the events that saw Empress Laseen ascend the throne of the Empire. There are also some Jaghut shenanigans, some guest-stars from the Book of the Fallen and a few really cool flashbacks showing the First Sword of the Empire - Dassem Ulthor himself. What the book also has, unfortunately, is the annoying cliche teenage heroine Kiska who - we were to believe at the time - would play a part in Erikson's books as well. Thankfully, said "part" represented a half-page cameo in the background of a scene in The Bonehunters, but this doesn't give Esslemont any points for going the way of annoying cliche teenage heroines.

Night of Knives is - honestly - nothing to write home about. It is mildly cool in a spin-off way, but it adds nothing to the backstory of the Malazan world, even though it is set in one of the most important moments of the Empire's history. And since at the time it was marketed as really important to the world-building, some disappointment was inevitable. Esslemont's writing is adequate, but couldn't compare to Erikson's in his good years, and unfortunately Night of Knives was published right after Midnight Tides - arguably the best of Erikson's work - so the comparison wasn't in the new installment's favor.

Still, the book is far from bad. It is just not on the scale of what the reader is used to when dealing with the Malazan world. More of a spin-off novella than the beginning of another epic Malazan story (which was, btw, originally the case - it was years later that Night of Knives came to be regarded as the first in a series, instead of a prologue to one), it just lacks enough focus to deliver anything more than mild entertainment. If you are a fan, you will enjoy it immensely, but if you aren't, this book isn't a good place to start. From what I hear, the following Return of the Crimson Guard is a vast improvement both in terms of plot, and writing style, but I haven't yet found the courage to try it. I will though, at some point, because Esslemont deals with story-lines that I really care about, some of which - like Silverfox and her T'lan Imass army - started in the Book of the Fallen. I can only hope that the Novels of the Malazan Empire will get better with each new installment This world has a lot to offer still, and if Esslemont is able to deliver an epic of his own, than what could be better?


Next: Malazan: The recent books - The Bonehunters

Non-fiction: The Complete Slayer - Keith Topping

I have never been a huge fan of official guides to movies and TV shows. They are usually filled with completely pointless trivia and inconsequential facts, and rarely touch on the deeper and more interesting aspects of the work. Buffy's guides are, unfortunately, not an exception to this rule, and even though the show itself is overflowing with subtext, symbolism and interesting themes, the three parts of The Watcher's Guide offer not nearly enough insight into the minds of Joss Whedon and the rest of the people responsible for this amazing work of art.

Unofficial guides are riskier though. Some of them can be so devastatingly amateurish as to make you wish self-publication was punishable by death, and publishing books required an officially sanctioned IQ test. And yet sometimes an exception appears - one that proves that a truly dedicated intelligent fan could always do a better job than any "professional" (a similar case could be made for anime fansubbers VS official subs). Case in point - Keith Topping and his "unofficial and unauthorized" guide Slayer.

Keith Topping is a British writer and journalist who has written a huge number of movie and TV show guides as well as other media- and fan-fiction related literature. His first Buffy guide - Slayer: The Totally Cool Unofficial Guide to Buffy - comes out in 2000 and covers the first three seasons of the show. Since then every subsequent season has seen either a revised version of the guide, or its own separate entry, until in 2004 Virgin Books released The Complete Slayer - a hefty Lord of the Rings-sized volume that features each and every episode of the show, as well as the unfortunate movie that preceded it.

Now, I realize that at first glance the words "episode guide" do not evoke excitement. But that is only if you think "official". In Mr. Topping's case we're talking about a book that is easily one of the most engaging and informative Buffy-related non-fiction works ever written. Each entry in The Complete Slayer begins with the airing dates for US and UK, the Director, Writer, Story and Cast credits and a quick synopsis. They are then divided into separate labels that mark different aspects of the show, most of which are basically recap. Some of those are featured in every episode, and some are specific to only a particular one.

Dreaming (As Blondie Once Said) is Free - this entry features in every episode where a dream is presented or even mentioned. Nothing much to say, but it's actually pretty cool that someone paid attention at the fact that Buffy did such amazing dream sequences.

Dudes and Babes - as is probably obvious - deals with all romantic/dating aspects of the episode.

Authority Sucks! - every attempt at controlling the Scooby Gang from an authority figure of any sort.

Mom's Apple Pie - aspects of traditional American life, either simply portrayed, or used for a setting of a catastrophe.

Denial, Thy Name is Joice depicts the many amazing ways in which Buffy's mother manages to fool herself into believing that everything is ok with the world. Funny thing is, this label sometimes changes names if another character is particularly prone to denying reality in that particular episode.

It's a Designer Label! - one of the more pointless (to me) entries, which focuses on the clothes - good or bad - that characters wear in the episode.

References is pretty much self-explanatory, although I have to point out that the author has missed some. However, with a show that pop-culturey it's impossible not to.

Geek-Speak goes for the most Whedonesque lines in the episode, particularly those that reference comic books and other geeky stuff. For obvious reasons focused around Xander and some particular characters in Season 6.

Valley Speak - the slang used in the show. Or, as Whedon puts it, "twisting the English language until it cries in pain".

I Just Love Your Accent focuses on Buffy and her friends making fun of the way Giles speaks, and anything British in general.

Bitch! quotes the most outrageous, mean, snarky and sarcastic lines. Usually from the girl-cast, but not always.

Awesome! - the scenes that most impressed Mr. Topping. They are usually pretty close to my own favorites, although he seems more focused on action than me.

Cigarettes and Alcohol - another uninspiring label which - very much like the fashion one - lists the usage and mentions of - wait for it! - cigarettes and alcohol!

The Drugs Don't Work - Same as the above, for... I'm not even gonna say it.

Don't Give Up The Day Job appears when a member of the cast or crew is or has been known for a different kind of profession.

A Little Learning Is a Dangerous Thing - whenever some form of studying is being done or mentioned.

The Conspiracy Starts at Home Time is featured whenever some mystery is alluded to, that has something to do with a bigger story-arc.

'You Might Remember Me From Such Movies and TV Series As...' - the most famous roles of guest stars in that particular episode.

Logic, Let Me Introduce You To This Window is by far my favorite section in every episode (because I am a very mean person), and it is present in every single one. It lists all the logical errors, as well as shooting mistakes and all kinds of mishaps detectable in the episode.

Quote/Unquote - the most notable lines. Only, not my personal favorites usually. It's strange how the author rarely picks the quotes that I've liked the most.

Notes is my other favorite. Before delving into listing of facts we've learned from the episode, its first paragraph is always dedicated to Keith Topping's personal (and usually very informed) opinion of the episode from the point of view of professional reviewing - plot structure, ideas, acting, all that joy. It's surprising how often his opinion matches mine there.

Those are the most commonly appearing entries. There are others like Critique (which covers the media reaction for particularly important episodes) or Soundtrack (when there's a memorable song), but most are too rare to list.

In the end, it's obviously a matter of which - if any - of those things interests you. I have to admit that I skip some of them, like Designer Label, Day Job or You May Know Me... But I find most of the others very interesting, and I really enjoy reading the entry of each episode that I've just seen. It's a habit that I formed around the time I started watching Angel (Topping's Hollywood Vampire is the Angel version of Slayer, and I'll review it some other time). Now, as I rewatch Buffy, I'm finding the guide particularly useful in making the most interesting and fun parts of the show stick in my memory. I'd recommend it to everyone who is a fan of the show or is just now planning to start watching it. It's a great read, and extremely helpful, as Mr. Topping has obviously spent an incredible time on every detail of every episode. Plus, all that encyclopedic information that some people inexplicably care about.


Aug 13, 2010

Cover Art for Adam Roberts' By Light Alone

I stumbled upon this cover in A Dribble of Ink, and just had to post it here. I've never read anything by Roberts, but the plot-synopsis looks really promising for this one, and the gorgeously Bioshock-ish cover just begs me to read it. Ok, so cover art works on me. What can I say, I'm shallow. By Light Alone is due to come out next spring.

Aug 12, 2010

Buffy The Vampire Slayer - Season 2

Summer is over, and Buffy and her friends start their Junior year in High School. But all is not well in Sunnydale, and the Hellmouth attracts two of the most dangerous vampires alive - the irreverent bad boy Spike and his demented lover - the seer Drusila. And even that threat pales in comparison to what awaits Buffy. An enemy much older and much more sinister... and also much closer to her heart.

Season 2 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is perhaps the most defining one in the whole show. It introduces so much of what makes the Buffyverse great, I don't even know where to begin. Many fan-favorites make their first appearance here. Let's start with Spike. Everybody loves Spike. Originally meant to be a one-episode villain, James Marsters' performance of the British vampire who shows little respect for propriety and the Ancient Traditions Of Evilness, but a lot of love for good old-fashioned human fun, was so evocative that Whedon decided to keep him as the season's baddie and even beyond. And knowing how that character develops through the seasons, I think everyone should be deeply grateful for that decision. Although not nearly as important a character (she makes another appearance in Angel), Drusila is no less memorable than her boyfriend, and Juliet Landau's powerful depiction of the completely crazy and twisted psychic - in turns vulnerable and innocent, and depraved and deeply erotic - is absolutely superb. Other new addition to the cast is Seth Green's adorable Oz - Willow's new monosyllabic love interest who has a couple of secrets of his own.

But the highlight of the season is, undoubtedly, the return of Angelus. Sure, we already know that Angel's souless alter-ego was a sadistic monster that put most other vampires to shame, but it is not until Angelus emerges from within the tortured do-gooder that we realize how horrific - and insanely charming - he really is. The mindfrak he proceeds to inflict upon Buffy is nothing short of brilliant, and the most powerful theme in the season, as it shows that Buffy the Vampire Slayer can do adult drama just as well as smart comedy. Tragedy strikes more than once - real tragedy, measurable in real-world pain - and it is in Season 2 that we realize this is not going to be a show of easy victories and cloudless skies. Characters suffer horribly, and they grow or are broken by this suffering. Even when the day is saved, you are left wondering whether the sacrifice was worth it. Adult themes are used freely, and in more than one instance the problems that characters have to deal with, are less than comfortable and quite real to the teen-age audience of the show.

Of course, this beautiful television achievement would be impossible without the superb performances of the cast. Sarah Michelle Gellar is amazing in her depiction of the Slayer's drama - she is surrounded by friends as no other Slayer has been before, and it gives her great strength, but it is also a weakness, and in the end, she is always alone. Anthony Head is also spot-on in his role of Giles, Buffy's Watcher. Season 2 shows a lot more of Giles' past and his personality, and - as is always the case with Whedon - we find that appearances can and usually are deceiving. James Marsters doesn't do a lot of character development, as in Whedonspeak "lack of soul" equals not only "lack of conscience" (for that is what it all boils down to, this soul business), but also the inability to evolve. Yet, what he has to work with, is bloody brilliant, mate! His faux Brit-accent (Marsters is California-born) is hilarious and he exudes so much sex appeal and raw coolness that no heart is safe from him. David Boreanaz is by far the weakest link when it comes to acting (at least for now), but Angel/Angelus' role is so cool that he couldn't possibly botch it.

A lot of relationships - romantic and otherwise - develop and change throughout the season, and another new concept is introduced through them: that every action matters and has lasting repercussions. Buffy the Vampire Slayer is not a show with one-episode problems. Even the "monster of the weeek" episodes feature character development, and that is the main reason why you can never really know why so many people love the Buffyverse from just watching random episodes of it. It is also the reason why the show had a hard time acquiring new fans. You have to see the whole thing. You have to follow the characters from their fledgling beginnings in Season 1, and let them grow before your eyes. I am yet to see a TV show that comes even remotely close to the character-building that the Buffyverse has.

Still, Season 2 is hardly perfect. The rhythm is all over the place as - after the strong beginning of When She Was Bad and School Hard - we have the outrageously bad stand-alones Inca Mummy Girl and Reptile Boy, while at the end, after the horrifying tragedy of Angelus-driven Passion and the disquietingly adult themes of the ghost story I Only Have Eyes For You, the show opts for another filler - the admittedly awesome Go Fish - before finally reaching the two-episode finale Becoming.

Yet, with an overall quality as high as Buffy's, it is but a minor bump in a ride that leaves you so much in love with the show, it is sometimes hard to bear. Even knowing all the plot-twists, I found myself sniffling and trying to swallow through the lump in my throat in quite a few instances. And Season 2 is nowhere near the best seasons in the show. What it is, is the true beginning of Buffy the Vampire Slayer - the season that showed what the Buffyverse was capable of, and built the foundations for what would turn out to be one of the greatest TV shows ever made.


Aug 11, 2010

Cover art for the e-book edition of Robert Jordan's Knife of Dreams

More Michael Komarck awesomeness. I've been in love with his work ever since that Jaime Lannister cover of the ASoIF artbook, and since then he has given us some truly amazing art. Of course, I would rather slit my wrists with a toothbrush than actually read Knife of Dreams again, but the cover is still all kinds of brilliant.

In other news, the cover of Terry Goodkind's next "Richard and Kahlan" novel - The Omen Machine - is also circulating the internets, but I am not feeling in a generous mood and don't wanna sully this post dedicated to Komarck's beautiful artwork with it...

Aug 10, 2010

Star Wars: Vector Prime (The New Jedi Order, Book 1) - R.A. Salvatore

Ok, so I'm a Star Wars fan. I know, it doesn't get any less elitist than that, but "a fact is still a fact" as they sing in Chicago. Thing is, like with most of my hobbies, the sheer number of them prevents me from delving into any particular one in full depth. What that means in this case is that while I've read some books and comics, played some of the games etc., I don't have that much first-hand experience with the Expanded Universe. However, The New Jedi Order series, despite its rumored uneven quality, has always seemed like a worthy chunk of EU story, so I turned in that direction.

Vector Prime, written by everybody's favorite R.A. Salvatore, features no emo dark elf philosophers whatsoever, and very few last names comprised of two nouns. That is to say, it is not your typical Salvatore book, which doesn't mean it's not written in his usual quality - chunky prose, mediocre dialogue, no characterization to speak of, and action sequences that are cringe-worthy in their sheer lack of dynamics. Still, without wishing to offend anyone, I don't really go to read a Star Wars novel expecting a literary masterpiece, and as an introduction to the extragalactic Yuuzhan Vong's invasion into the New Republic, Vector Prime does an admirable job.

The war between the New Republic and the Imperial Remnant has finally reached its end, but the fledgling galactic government is far from stable. And when the enigmatic and charismatic Nom Anor starts to rouse a revolution on a far-away planet that threatens to unbalance the whole sector, the Republic tries to intervene. Meanwhile the remote scientific observation station of ExGal 4 witnesses a strange comet-like object coming from outside the galactic edge. Astrophysicist Danni Quee decides to investigate, unsuspecting of the horrible threat that she has discovered. In the end, it all boils down to Jedi Masters Luke Skywalker and his wife Mara Jade Skywalker, as well as the Solo family to prevent a catastrophe with galactic proportions. And not everyone makes it out of the mayhem alive.

Vector Prime was pretty controversial when it came out, as it was the first novel to actually do away with a central character from the original movies. It is not a huge spoiler as this is well known, but I'll still refrain from giving names. Still, fans were in turns enraged and ecstatic with this new development, as a good writer could do quite a lot with this in terms of character-building. Well, Salvatore is hardly the first name to pop into my head when I think of good writers, but he still manages to show the cracks into the survivors' idea of their own invincibility. What's more important, he also showed that the Star Wars universe can do serious as well as entertaining, and sometimes heroes die. Even beloved ones.

Still, Vector Prime is by no means a "good" book. The plot is all over the place, the pace mood-swings between "uneven" and "nonexistent", characters make with the dumb for the sake of plot-development, and the general impression one gets is of an uncertain pilot episode in a TV series. Unfortunately this particular series is written by almost as many writers as there are books in it (if I am not gravely mistaken, that is 11 writers for 19 books), so I am still gathering courage to start reading the next part of the NJO - Michael Stackpole's Dark Tide dualogy. Still, some day, maybe sooner than later, if my biyearly urge to read SW fiction hits me again.