Star Wars TFA – Reaction

So this isn’t really a review – more of a reaction to the movie.  It would be very hard for someone like me to review a Star Wars movie.  Just too close and too invested in the SW mythos and all that entails, which is why my reactions and viewing experience are what they are.

Which is to say…  Saddened and a bit neurotic.  And by the way, spoiler alert – you probably don’t want to read this if you haven’t yet seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

star-wars-the-force-awakens

Continue reading

Hobbit Question

The crew took in the final chapter of Peter Jackson’s version of The Hobbit last evening.  We enjoyed it, of course, thoroughly entertained…  Some will question the pacing, the character additions, the choices of how to portray that Battle of Five Armies on the slopes of the Lonely Mountain.  Did the story and treatment merit three separate movies?  (Studio executives vote yes.)  Was it a good choice to make this Thorin’s story as much as Bilbo’s?  Dwarf-Elf love?  Why do some trolls turn to stone in sunlight while others do not?  Did we really need to add Middle Earth spice worms?

The answers to these important questions depend on your perspective and level of Tolkien scholarship.  For our part, we are content to enjoy the experience – the full Peter Jackson experience.  Extended battle-scenes, harrowing escapes, crazily epic escapes…  But we do have one nerdish question that must be posed…  Spoiler alert.  Read on after the break if you’ve seen the movie…

Continue reading

Marvel’s Guardians

Took in Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy last weekend (along with so many others).  What a fun show!  Marvel Studios continues to hit that action-adventure-humor sweet spot, and we would guess that while the majority of the viewing public never heard of Drax or Groot prior to this film, they’re fans now.

Because no one’s demanded it, we’re going to try a little switch on the review format here.  Instead of the longer summary form, we’ll just go with the likes and dislikes, hits and misses, cheers and jeers.

Four likes

  1.  Cosmic Marvel – The intergalactic, sci-fi area of the Marvel Universe has a lot to offer.  Although Stan and Jack originally created some of the aliens and creatures just to give the Fantastic Four or Avengers someone else to fight, the vastness beyond Earth has provided creators with so many opportunities to tell new stories, mix favorite elements of space opera and sci-fi, and envision new worlds.  Guardians, with its mishmash of alien cultures and locales, uses this to great effect to create that fun Star Wars vibe.  We’ve seen hints of Cosmic Marvel in the Avengers-themed movies (especially Thor), but this one really nails it, with references to old school creations like the Kree and Skrull war, the Celestials, and more.
  2. Set Design/Art Direction – Closely tied to the above, big kudos to the visual arts team.  It’s incredible what they can create on screen these days.  Whether it’s Starlord’s ship (orange and blue, baby!), Ronan’s Dreadnought cruiser, the prison, Knowhere (awesome!), or Xandar, the overall result is fantastic.  Not just because of the vivid colors and attention to detail, but also how these environments interact with the characters without suspending the disbelief overly much.
  3. Chris Pratt – Starlord, man!  As a big Parks and Recreation fans, we already knew about the comic timing, which Pratt applies repeatedly and expertly.  He’s a great choice as that Earth-transplant every-dude.  Of course Peter Quill/Starlord has so much potential as an archetypal character.  With a boyhood spend on earth in the 80s, he has those frames of reference, the music, the lingo.  He knows about Captain Kirk and Han Solo and is fully attempting to pull that off.  Pratt’s convincing in the action scenes, and has the range for the more serious moments as well (although you could feel the clowning right around the corner).  His scenes with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) were fun and Saldana also deserves a lot of credit for her performance.
  4. Writers/Script – The story’s pretty straightforward:  Quest for treasure turns into a mission to stop the evil overlord.  The characters are your typical band of misfits.  But give a lot of credit to the writing team – James Gunn, Nicole Perlman, Dan Abnett, and Andy Lanning.  There’s real economy in their scenes; they set up character traits quickly, and the comedic moments are plentiful without feeling forced.  Drax taking everything literally, Rocket’s antics and tough-guy veneer, Groot…  We also appreciate some of those smaller moments and how they worked in a few Marvel easter eggs like usual.  They didn’t overdo the Starlord/Quill character arc, they didn’t force some grand epiphany upon the character.  And whoever came up with the idea for that final showdown with Ronan – well that writer deserves an award.

One dislike

  1. I thought the post-credit mini-scene (now a tradition) was a little weak and somewhat frightening in an 80’s flashback kind of way.  This isn’t really a dislike, but rather an observation:  the movie had just a little too much violence and a one too many crude jokes for me to bring the kids along.  They’re just going to have to wait, which is too bad, because they want to see Guardians very badly.

 

Books: Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier

In Brief:  Myke Cole’s second book in his Shadow Ops series continues the story of a contemporary Earth in which magic has suddenly reappeared, to be wielded by a small, seemingly random number of people.  In the US, the military has consolidated power and influence over these new mages, training them as elite soldiers and sending them into the parallel world called the Source, to establish a base.  Fortress Frontier follows the renegade Oscar Britton and a new character, Colonel Alan Bookbinder, as they deal with the consequences of this base being cut off from Earth.

Pros:  Cole brings the knowledge and sense of realism of military and special forces veteran (which he is).  His writing is descriptive and effective, and his sense of the various genres – sci-fi, fantasy, military thrillers, comic books – meld together well.  Col. Bookbinder as a lead character will grow on you.

Cons:  The initial decision to move away from Oscar (lead character in the first book) was a little frustrating, and the first few chapters with Bookbinder could have moved quicker.

Review:  The second book in the Shadow Ops series, Fortress Frontier, picks up in the immediate aftermath of Control Point (reviewed here) and actually moves back in time slightly to introduce Colonel Alan Bookbinder.  Bookbinder is a career officer and logistics expert in the Pentagon.  He’s no ground-pounder, as we quickly realize, but one of those competent professionals who keep the tanks fueled, the laptops charged, and the ammo tallied.  But Bookbinder’s life changes rapidly when he comes up latent as a potential magic-user.

Cole weaves in the background and sets up the magic system established previously, with less than 1% of humanity (in a very X-Men mutant-like scenario) discovering they can manipulate other-worldly forces:  magic.  These abilities are organized along basic schools, like elemental (fire, water, earth, air), animal control, shape-shifting, and *other.  Bookbinder doesn’t seem to have a school; he only exhibits an ability to tap and channel magical energy, but because of this the military quickly reads him into its Top Secret magical program and sets him up for training.

Continue reading

Books: The Wise Man’s Fear

In Brief:  Patrick Rothfuss returns to the saga of Kvothe (aka The Boss) in this beautifully written book.  It’s Portrait of the Wizard as a Young Man, with Kvothe telling the continuing story of his days at the University, his ongoing love with Denna, and adventures out in the world.

Pros:  Rothfuss can really, really write, and with Kvothe he’s created a wonderfully accessible and fascinating lead character.  This volume of the story features adventures outside the university, to include a trip to faerie and a sort of internship with a quasi-bushido culture.

Cons:  The books is long, long, long, and the pacing drags for at points.  Also, the sense of tragedy within the third-person frame started to feel strained.

Review:   Since this book was published, I’ve been looking forward to diving in.  It had been sitting on my shelf, awaiting the right time in the old reading schedule (it is nearly 1,000 pages after all).  I was pretty certain  The Wise Man’s Fear would deliver, based on how much I enjoyed the first book (The Name of the Wind), as well as the knowledge that Pat Rothfuss was doing it right, taking some time, and getting the second volume out on what we can assume was something close to his timetable. It was worth the wait.

Kvothe is a wonderful character, flawed, self-aware, sensitive yet prone to temper-induced lapses of judgment.  But always, he’s a kind and decent soul at heart – the kind of guy you can root for.  And it just so happens that he’s the most famous magician of his time.  As in volume 1, Kvothe is telling the tale of his youth to the Chronicler, so most of the book is a 1st person recounting of adventures.  The third person frame takes place in a distant future, with Kvothe surviving as a simple innkeeper, seemingly a shadow of his former self.

Continue reading

Books: The Buntline Special

In Brief: Mike Resnick’s The Buntline Special is a steampunk alternate Western with fantastic trappings.  That’s a lot of genre-melding.  Familiar events in Tombstone proceed down a different path amidst shamanic magic and alternate Tom Edison’s inventions.

Pros:  Resnick is a master of dialogue and a student of the real history of the West.  The characters are so familiar (based on real people we know from history and other media), and its fun to see them reimagined within this setting.

Cons:  The dialogue-heavy and scene-by-scene style really stretches at times.  The pace suffers as a result, and you may find yourself wondering if this story is a novella dressed in a short novel’s clothing.

Review:  The Buntline Special is the first in a series of Weird West tales penned by legendary sci-fi writer, Mike Resnick (check him out).  We’ve been reading Resnick since first discovering sci-fi novels and also enjoy his series of reflections with colleague Barry Malzberg  on the state of business and writing in the speculative fiction world.  So a Weird West series, with obvious steampunk and fantasy element (just look at the cover), written by a great sci-fi author…  We’re in.

Mostly, it’s a fun read that goes quickly.  Mostly, it works.  Here we are in Tombstone, Arizona.  The Earp brothers are feuding with the Cowboys, led by the McLaury brothers.  Wyatt Earp has sent for Doc Holliday and Bat Masterson.  Sound like any one of many familiar movies?  Tombstone is the one that plays in my head here.

Continue reading

Books: House of Suns

In Brief:  Alastair Reynolds’ epoch-spanning, pan-galactic novel features very intelligent, very human characters questing after universal mysteries while confronting the seeds of violence and intrigue sowed from within their own neo-utopian society.

Pros:   Reynolds, who worked for years as an astrophysicist with the EU Space Agency, has an unwavering command of the scale and breadth of his galaxies.  His ideas can be eye-popping and wondrous, and yet they come across as grounded in scientific reality.  The plot is fairly tight, the lead characters approachable (for post-human clones).

Cons:  Reynolds sometimes writes with the detached sterility of an astrophysicist.  The front-loading required to get the plot moving in the first 50-75 pages may require some patience.

Review:  Alastair Reynolds has received good pub on his science fiction novels for more than a decade.  He’s an author I’ve been meaning to read for quite awhile, having started but put down one of his earlier books.  I picked up House of Suns after seeing several good reviews elsewhere; I’m glad I did.

As with any new sci-fi novel or series, the first points the author needs to establish, in addition to the characters, are how the technology works and its relative level of advancement.  We get an early glimpse in HoS with lead characters Pursulane and Campion building and deploying a star-dam for a grateful civilization.  The star-dam is a series of interlocking fields designed to keep the star in place, regulating its energy dispersal as it goes nova, thus giving any nearby inhabitants millions more years to live in the region.  Cool concept, expertly described here.

Continue reading

Books: The Mirrored Heavens

In Brief:  David J. Williams’ first novel in the Autumn Rain trilogy sets a foundation of cyberpunk sensibilities and military sci-fi in 2110.  It’s fast, intense, and sometimes murky.

Pros:  The Mirrored Heavens features a meticulously well-conceived scenario of future political hegemony and military capabilities.  Williams can set a pace and turn a phrase that would make William Gibson or Neal Stephenson proud.  And for anyone who ever wondered what combat would entail if Tony Stark’s Iron Man suit became go-to battlefield weaponry – this is your book.

Cons:  The white-knuckle pace leaves little time for characterization.  Three pairs of characters share the p.o.v. narrative duties, and you may find them blurring together.  Because of the similarities and closeness of these characters, we don’t get to see the political situation unfolding, which detracts somewhat from the sense of espionage-type intrigue.

Review:  The Mirrored Heavens begins with a detailed timeline of the history of the Second Cold War between the U.S. of North America and the Eurasian Coalition.  Reading like the summary of a decent undergrad textbook, the timeline plots out key points in the rise of these two superpowers – their conflicts in Africa and South America, their treaties to avoid all-out warfare, and finally, their agreement over building a structure known as the Phoenix Space Elevator.  This elevator allows materials and goods to move beyond the atmosphere and has fostered a new era of lunar settlement and solar system exploration. Continue reading

Books: The Hammer and the Blade

In Brief:  Paul S. Kemp’s The Hammer and the Blade is old-school Sword and Sorcery with contemporary sensibilities.  Kemp pays homage to Leiber and Gygax, and sets up a pair of of likable characters for serial-style adventures.

Pros:  The lead characters, Egil and Nix, are familiar tomb-raiding adventurers straight out of the AD&D Player’s Handbook.  They are also fleshed out pretty well as the author introduces his magical world and keeps the plot moving.  Kemp obviously knows his Sword and Sorcery, and you feel as if you might bump into The Gray Mouser or Conan or Kull at any moment.

Cons:  The Hammer and the Blade is a self-contained adventure focused squarely on Egil and Nix.  It’s not an epic continent and kingdom spanning tale.  Some may prefer a grander scope.  The setting and styling are also very familiar fantasy staples, a potential drawback for those seeking less familiar worlds.

Review:  The book opens with Egil and Nix in the final stages of a dungeon crawl.  They are professional tomb raiders who’ve been at it for awhile, as quickly established by the author’s rapid quip-filled dialogue.  This is Riggs and Murtagh with swords and warhammers.  In the tomb of an ancient wizard king, they avoid traps and finally face off with a hellspawn guardian.

The author sets the scene and handles the introductions with smooth efficiency and we almost immediately like these two characters.  Egil is a warrior-priest of Ebenor – a deity who was only a god for a brief moment before being destroyed.  Egil is also apparently the only priest of Ebenor (not much use worshiping a dead god who can’t answer your devotion after all), with a philosophy tied to recognizing and venerating the moment.  Nix Fall, aka Nix the Quick, is a thief with a bit of magical training (he takes pride in the fact that he was expelled from the Magician’s Academy), who pulled himself out of the slums with his wits and skill.   Continue reading

Books: The Historian

In Brief:  Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian is a character-driven novel that follows Cold War-era scholars from two generations across Europe in search of one of history’s greatest fiends.  The book lives and breathes through its narrators as they uncover archival clues, lost texts, and letters while trying to avoid the dark reach of their quarry.

Pros:   Beautifully written, with strong accessible characters, The Historian takes the best narrative elements of historical mystery in pop culture (think Indiana Jones, Dan Brown) without dumbing it down.  The descriptive prose and sometime heart-wrenching interactions are first-rate.

Cons:  Not many.  The book is long, sprawling, and never in a hurry.  Could be a detriment to less patient readers.  The action of the final climax is strangely brief and understated – perhaps to avoid clichés or maybe because Kostova just wasn’t sure how to treat it.

Review:  The Historian, as it’s title demands, is about the pursuit of knowledge of the past.  A search for truth, meaning, and understanding through the records and documents of our forebears.  The story focuses on this captial ‘H’ history as well as the personal history of the narrator, Julia, and her family.  Julia is about sixteen in 1972 when she discovers some strange letters in her father’s study.  Addressed to “an unfortunate successor”, they hint at a scholarly search for historical truth that somehow led to the demise of the author.  When Julia confronts her father, he confesses that the letters originated from his mentor and graduate advisor, Dr. Rossi, and begins to tell their tale.  Julia quickly realizes how unwilling her father is to tell this story.  His sorrow and concern are profound, and she begins to understand that he is telling her also about his own past, while hinting at the fate of Julia’s notably absent mother. Continue reading