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Thursday, April 6, 2017

More Wolfram Tests

Monday, January 16, 2017

Forgotten Realms posts

It's weird to me that the most hits I get on my blog come from Forgotten Realms novels written in the 90s.  Looking for vintage pictures?  You tell me!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Hunger Games by Susan Collins

So, this was the first book in a while that I couldn't put down. As usual I'm 8 years too late, but even though the Hunger Games isn't truly fantasy, I thought it worth reviewing. At the very least to bolster my stats. Which, by the way, I'm proud to report are at nearly 30K hits. Averaging about 500 a month now. Leave a goddamn comment people!  I did see the movie for this book, though I did not see the two sequels.  And, all pictures of Katniss in this blog, are of the talented Jennifer Lawrence. And for the purposes of SEO, Jennifer Lawrence is hot, Jennifer Lawrence is sexy, Jennifer Lawrence is a goddess.  Glad that's over.  She's ok, I have no dog in that fight.

I recall, when Harry Potter came out, being late to get on that train as well. I had a conversation recently with a tenured anthropologist who shall remain nameless, wherein she basically encapsulated my feeling about Harry Potter, pre-reading:  "I've been reading adult fantasy my entire life, why am I wasting my time on this kids stuff?" Of course, as anyone who has actually read the novels knows, the rewards are startling, immediate, and not at all vindicating for a former hater. So for Susan Collins (btw, while I do not understand the her reference, I know exactly where Susan Collins was standing in Central Park when that photo was taken--GOD I MISS NYC).


This is classified as teen lit, but teen lit, The Hunger Games ain't. Seriously, I'm not really sure why it's classified as such, other than that the two main characters are teenagers. The Hunger Games themselves are about the yearly slaughter of 23 young people for spectacle and sport, something which is neither trivial, nor funny. The dystopian society Collins has created is simply awful, and yet completely real. This is social commentary at its best, and The Hunger Games really needs to be added to the English curriculum in years to come. And the writing is actually really excellent. Much better, in fact than J.K. Rowling's prose. (That was an early turn off for me, in my Sorcerer's Stone reading.) "Collins’ adjectives are often used in a utilitarian manner, to describe processes (as in “One of the heaviest days of betting is the opening, when the initial casualties come in.”).Collins' prose is terse, spare, and utterly fitting for the bleak subject matter. And for all of that, the level of detail that I demand (and I demand copious amounts) is largely there.

Katniss, bringing the bow and arrow back for the new millennium
The other elements that make teen drama: are an over emphasis on sexual tension, sexuality, hormones, and teen drama. Well, this book ain't that either. Katniss is a largely asexual creation. And none of the anecdotes of the story feature any overt sexuality. There is frankly a lot of kissing. But it is all in the context of duress, where the heroin feels that she must provide a show to save both her life and that of her compatriot. Therefore the uncomfortable romance of the novel is one driven by political expedience. I think this novel could even be called feminist lit as, the subject of Katniss' body becomes everyone's business, and the ideas of disinterest, individualism, power, and objectification are all explored in some very subtle ways, and other more direct approaches. I will read this book to my daughter one day, not all that long from now, either.

A strange, but supposedly accurate map of Panem

Even though everyone in the world has either read the books, I think I should provide some basic info.  In this future, the world has largely destroyed itself (likely through Nuclear war/winter.  A surviving remnant of humanity (though there may be others) has organized itself into 13 outlying districts and a major metropolitan area in the Rockies which feeds on the mercantile production of the outlying districts.  Each district provides a different commodity, though that in itself is a very strange, unlikely economic reality. It does make things easy for young readers I suppose. While it is certainly true that there are regions of the world which provide principally one export (oil based economies for example) in any sophisticated economy, such single export based economies are unlikely. And if it were true, a coal based economy like District 12, would likely be a good deal richer, providing as it does a major energy export. (Adherents to the series might say that nuclear power, in District 13 might have done for the District 12 what nuclear power did to coal rich regions like Wyoming and West Virginia. My counter would be: what District 13, it was destroyed, even with nuclear facilities in District 2, the price of coal would have skyrocketed.) Regardless of how unlikely such a scenario would be, the districting provides a useful structure for the books, a lot like "races" in a fantasy book. At one point in this post democratic society, a 13th district rose up, complaining about the excesses of the megalopolis, and the unfair treatment of those in the districts. And of course, brutal war followed that, destroying the 13th district altogether.

Following the war, for whatever reason, the Capitol decided that a ritualistic killing of young people was the best way to keep the districts in line. While this invention can be debated, it really forms the crux of the book, so there's little point. What matters is that the contestants for these games are randomly selected, but they can volunteer if they want. They have no recourse for selection, and they know that all but one will be killed in the game's arena. Our heroine, an aggressive, ornery, teenager named Katniss Everdeen is not picked. Instead her sister is, and she rushes forward to take her sister's place. The early pages of this novel feel a lot like Shirley Jackson's famous short story, The Lottery, where winning means death.

The rest of the book is one brutal killing after another, mixed with harsh social commentary on life in the Capitol, describing the profligate, media-driven, obsequious and superficial 1% of Panem. These critiques are stinging, though as always with such platitudes, it is easy to point "to the other guy" as the one who lives in excess. Still, I had to admire the grittiness of the tale. These were hard-bitten cynical people who had endured real suffering: starvation, beatings, cold winters, mal-nutrition. These are real things and they are not frequently in adult fantasy, let alone young adult fantasy. To add to this, Katniss is not a particularly eloquent character. She is terse, and represents SELF-ALIENATION to a fault. She is really a very difficult character to like, which for fiction of this kind adds a great deal of charm. Her relationship with her sole surviving parent is sketched out in rather broad strokes, but her mother's depression following the death of her husband, caused Katniss to withdraw in a wonderfully original way. A parent's failure to parent, whether it be for mental illness, or even death, is nigh-unforgivable to a child.
The tracker jacker nest that kills one of the participants

Perhaps one of the markers of real fiction, of fiction that actually makes the grade is the ability to show a character change. And Katniss does, and it is not the one that the reader wants--one more reason Hunger Games is a really phenomenal and unpredictable story. She does not get kinder, she does not fall in love, she does not turn into the Capitol's creature. Her personal growth is, to my opinion, a fairly subtle shade. She's very introverted, very in her-own-world, and as she becomes the media star of the Hunger Games, and then the wider symbol of a subversive movement she becomes if not a thrilled participant, certainly a willing one. Also, like many selfish people masquerading as selfless people, she begins to understand that people other than her sister depend on her.

One thing about Katniss which I find off-putting as a dyed in the wool liberal is her willingness to kill, and the ease with which she does so. That said, the other main character, her male counterpart in the games, Peeta has enough conscience for both of them.

SPOILER ALERT: I think the lack of love triangle with Peeta, Gale, and Katniss is an unusual one for a teen drama, and it drives the whole series forward. (A whole genre of fanfiction exists to explore this relationship) Katniss, who loved and revered her father, became emotionally crippled when he died in a mining accident. And with her mother's depression she was forced to assume too much responsibility for a child to have to endure. Perhaps as a consequence to this traumatic event her emotional growth really stopped at this time. There are two boys however, Gale and Peeta who have developed an abiding love for Katniss, and have multiple instances to prove said love. In all cases, Katniss rejects/or is completely ambivalent to this love. It's not that she can't choose, it's that she can't choose to not have either. This seems highly unusual for all fiction, let alone teen fiction. It also seems to be a pretty strong feminist interpretation of womanhood. The other important relationship, touched upon briefly, is the relationship Katniss has with her mother. It's a relationship described mostly by its absence. Our heroine does not crouch in the hard rain of the arena, desperately crying for her mommy, as any reasonable person would. But the anger and resentment against her mother is tangible in its absence. In some respects, I felt like this gaping hole was a problem, unbelievable. At other times, I felt that the absence spoke more eloquently than the pages of backstory would have.

The Hunger Games was such a good novel I read all three books in three weeks. Basically pushing off all other assignments. I think, ultimately, that is the highest review a bonafide reader can give.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Horselords by David Cook, Forgotten Realms 1990

This was a surprisingly good book for genre fiction of the time period. However two publication years into the forgotten realms books and still at the far outskirts of the world, places that haven't even heard of the great city of Baldur's Gate. Still with this, and the last Realms book I reviewed I'm seeing a pattern. The first two years of the Realms gave a snapshot of the interior of the realm. Now we are fleshing out the outskirts. This book reminds me a tad of Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts Empire series. It however is most definitely a vintage example of Orientalism. As I discussed here, I am on the fence about such uses of fantasy. On the one hand, done well it provides a welcome relief to standard European fare fantasy, on the other it imposes it's own set of tropes, stereotypes and racist or otherwise bigoted commentary. On the whole, I think Cook skirts the worst things about Orientalism and concentrates on character development and story. One last general note: as Iron Helm had been about the founding of the Americas, Horselords is about Genghis Khan and the The Great Wall of China. That is a history that I know nothing about. But it isn't hidden or hinted at, it is written very clearly as a parallel. Remember that Ed Greenwood's initial conception of The Realms was as a nexus or hidden world, a reflection of all worlds and a fairy realm to our own. Meaning that the epic history told in the Empires Trilogy is meant to mirror our own world.  Viewed in that light it is kind of neat, and readjusts our expectations for cliches.

Belive it or not, there is no fan art for Horselords
Character: there are basically four characters in the whole book. The lead is a priest character, a swami named Koja. He is a unusual in that unlike many D and D priest characters, Koja is entirely weaponless. That said, it doesn't matter since he is a hostage for the entire course of the novel. It is an unusual story in many respects: Koja is a weak character, indecisive and lacking in confidence. The main arc of the story is his Stockholm syndrome toward the Khan of Khans: Yamun. He abandons his church, and his nation. And he does not love the Khan either, like real life, we are swept forward by events with little in the way of epiphany. To be fair to Koja, he does wrestle with these demons, just not very hard.

The next character is Yamun, the great Khan. His character is fairly clich├ęd, forbidding barbarian King. If anything he's a little more cuddly then many such characters. One thing about Yamun's character, his desire to conquer the Dragonwall is inviolate. He is unable to even consider compromise, and never questions his own judgement. I feel this was a very deliberate choice by Cook, and I don't know, in the end if it reads as one-dimensional or as complex. After all not all characters have to be mealy mouthed and full of internal conflict to be interesting. Often in real life the most interesting people are the most blind. In many respects this novel surpasses the genre of stock swords and sorcery fiction. Much of the story is the interaction between Koja and Yamun, and it takes on the sort of oscar seeking biopic you might expect from Anna and the King. Koja is cut off from all he knows, but did not have too many ties to that world as it was, having lived as a monk. That said, there are many unanswered questions, why was he chosen as a negotiator, and what of his life before he is made captive by the Khan. We are never told, and while the book has many positive elements to it, the lack of background it evinces for its characters is a major failing.

Cliche: Orientalism is probably the worst, the book is replete with customs and inferences drawn from ancient China. As a white person, I don't feel overwhelmed by said stereotypes, but I'm sure I might feel differently had I even a jot of Ghengis Khan's DNA. That said, apparently, like 10% of the world's population has Genghis Khan's DNA so maybe I do have some claim there.  Fun fact, the term Khan, used in many fantasies is a Mongolian word for King. Although the web link is silent on which came first Genghis, or the Khan. Another cliche, The Good Advisor cliche, is highly evident for obvious reasons.  Koja's conflict over how to advise the Khan, particularly in light of the serious conflict of interest is only lightly delved into it.  It's the sort of thing that all of the Forgotten Realms novels tends to fail at: none of the characters have history.  We do learn of Yamun's ascent to power, and his relationship with his mother-in-law and first wife, Bayalun, but of the advisor we learn little beyond his cloistered life as a yogi of this temple.  I hate to cite the Stockholm Syndrome cliche, over played and tired as it is, but any discussion of Horselords has to at least mention the fact that Koja's relationship to Yamun should be a hostile one.  One cliche certainly not in evidence are the typical Dungeons and Dragons cliches.  There is not a single dwarf or elf in the place.

Completeness:  The world of Horselords is the outskirts of the traditional Forgotten Realms.  Even in Iron Helm, there was mention of the standard Realms, characters and outside influence from the realms we've come to know and love.  Not so Horselords, not even the gods are similiar, and the Shou Empire and the Tuigan hordes of Yamun seem to not take place in the same space at all.  Inspite of this, the novel is written well enough that this subrealm seems entirely plausible.  The Tuigan as a people are entirely tribal and believable as wandering marauders with little interest in outside realms, save war.  The Khazari, a tributary nation conquered by the Shou Empire provides some depth to the political landscape.
The Great Wall of China, of which this book is about.

One thing that disappoints about David Cook's Horselords is the ending.  A sort of standard double cross is planned, and SPOILER ALERT is never hatched, but is discovered well before the trap is sprung.  While the double-cross was standard stuff, it was the dramatic conclusion to the novel, and without it, the ending was sort of uninspiring.  I wonder what happened there.  It was all set up... The novel is the first of a trilogy, so perhaps it was hacked to death and given this rather contrived ending to pick up the drama in later novels.  Regardless, the next in the series, Dragonwall is next on my FR list.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Chronicles of Shannara on MTV, Season 1

The Sword of Shannara was the first big fantasy novel I ever read. I still remember walking into the Walden Books on Main Street in the New England town in which I grew up, and sorting through the titles in their tiny fantasy section.  I remember the glowing sword on the cover.  I remember turning back to that cover again and again, trying to imagine the three main characters fleeing the Skull Bearers in that flight to to the Silver River.  I remember hiding the book in high school in that same New England town so that I wouldn't get teased by my peers.  I remember that same book being thrown around a classroom while I struggled to get it back like some scene in a John Hughes movie.
   When I heard that the Chronicles of Shannara was being produced, I contained my excitement.  It's a new dawn for fantasy, or at least, it is compared to what I grew up with.  Given the success of Game of Thrones, it was no wonder really that classic fantasy was sought after to produce.  In fact, a television friend of mine even asked me for some recommendations.  That was back before I left the center of the universe, NYC.
When I saw that it was MTV that decided to produce it, unlike some fans, I wasn't perturbed.  I liked "The 100."  Now that I'm officially old, seeing teen melodrama doesn't irritate me, it amuses me, and I admit a certain enjoyment of the eroticism in shows filmed to titillate the chattering class.  I'd been meaning to review the Sword of Shannara for eons, and I am now doing a reread.  However, the Chronicles begin at the second book.  There is an interesting history to that second book, given briefly by Wikipedia.


   To begin with, since this is a film review, I am not going to adhere to my usual rubric.  I will simply comment on that which seems appropriate.  First, the style.  It is immediately apparent that this was filmed to capture the Hunger Games generation.  I admit that I have only seen the first movie, and have never read the books.  However, the starting scenes of the book show a very Hunger Games competition to become Chosen to the Ellcrys.  The whole thing is filmed to maximize on a teen audience, from broad declarations of love and loyalty, to sex scenes that never occurred and gratuitous kissing/flesh, etc.  None of this bothered me, and since I have not read The Elfstones of Shannara in twenty years I cannot yet comment on accuracy.  Though, it seems pretty obviously NOT accurate.  Again, I don't care so much.  I care for the lingering success of my genre, for its mainstream appeal, and for what I believe to be the ultimate benefit: chiefly, the liberalizing of America.
The Space Needle in Seattle
In another shameless appeal to the younger generation, the show really rams home the post-Apocalyptic nature of the Shannara world.  If I were a producer, I'd be saying, "Look at The Walking Dead, people LOVE this stuff!" At one point in the first season, the teens fall into an old ballroom decked out for high school prom (minus the skeletons).  Though the books are pretty over-explanatory, the Druid Alannon outlines the entire history of the world in the first 100 pages of "Sword," they do not reference a single ruin or artifact of the old world until the Scions of Shannara, the fourth Shannara book written by Terry Brooks.  The action in the Elfstones of Shannara (Season 1) occur several thousand years after the Apocalypse.  There isn't a single car, bridge, or building remaining.  Though the Hadeshorn lake is likely still a remnant of radioactive poison.  In Chronicles, Season 1, ruins are ubiquitous.  At one point, Will Ohmsford even asks his co star "don't you ever think about how remarkable ancient humans were?"  This just doesn't happen in the books.  Nonetheless, I like it, though it feels a lot less like fantasy this way.  And the imagery the shows creators show is stunning, if not quite as original as some of its progenitors.
 
Poppy Drayton. Just gorgeous.
Let's talk actors, the series stars, Austin Butler, Poppy Drayton, Ivana Baquero, all three of them pretty hot.  Though Poppy (I'm sorry Poppy, but if I'd rather be named Amberle than Poppy) is really stunning as the elf princess.  I can't say much for acting.  Not that it's bad, I just can't say much about it.   Hers is not a character inflected with obvious weaknesses.  She is a strong, smart woman, and she faces adversity with will and strength.  Strong characters can be somewhat boring, it's true.  Maybe she's a good actor, maybe not.  Even though I spent a decade as an actor in NYC, I've never felt qualified toIt's been too long since I read the book, but I'm pretty sure that Ivana Baquero's character is made up for the series.  Again, so what?  She's hot too, and gets to take Will's cherry in the first episode or so.


Austin Butler, I'll "spare" you the images without shirt
Will (Austin) is an interesting choice re hotness.  Granted, as a straight man, maybe I'm wrong, but I do not think he is a particularly good looking man-boy.  But what I like about him is his sort of soft, innocent, and caring appearance.  Will Ohmsford is sort of an interesting character overall.  In fact, all of the Shannara boys are, including Shea Ohmsford, (Will's father in the series, like great great great grandfather in the books), he is not a swash-buckling hero, he's not even a swash-buckling hero in training.  He isn't a mage, or sorcerer's apprentice either.  If he is anything at all, he is an apprentice healer.  An odd choice for a hero.  This grants a fair amount of depth to the young Will, allowing him to play the caring, feeling role normally reserved for female characters. On the otherhand, the two women get to enjoy more traditionally masculine roles.  Amberle, a young warrioress elf, and Eretria, a thief character.  However, this welcome role reversal does not make these characters particularly deep.  Far from it, but it seems like MTV certainly tried to have strong female roles.  Even if both women fall for one dude.  Like many MTV properties, they even had some lesbian foreplay at one point, titillation for the younger crowd.
Ivana Baquero, naked, in a bath, with Poppy Drayton
   One of my concerns about Shannara was going to be the casting of Alannon.  Alannon is a different sort of Old Wizard cliche.  Young seeming, but silent, withdrawn, and timeless, there is nothing funny about the dark druid.  He is a druid, and falls more under the Druid cliche, though these druids are not worshipers of nature, but worshipers of the old order of men, purveyors of the knowledge of the Age of Man.  I loved Alannon growing up, and having him as a fixture in a series whose faces changed with each book was a welcome sight, even if a grim one.  As one character states, "when Alannon shows up, you know you're in trouble."  Regardless, I can state with confidence that the casting of Manu Bennett is almost perfect.  He is strong, reserved, and stately.  He even brings a little bit of grim humor to the role.  He is a tad good-looking for the role, something I was nervous about at first.  But my reservations were quickly abandoned. Having begun my reread of the Sword of Shannara, I can state that Manu reflects the druid pretty well.
Manu Bennett as Alannon
   One aspect of the show that falls short for me is that there is something flat and one dimensional about the world created by creator's Alfred Gough and Miles Millar.  It's hard to define.  When you read the Sword of Shannara you can't tell that it's Earth until Alannon literally tells you. In my mind, this had the opposite effect you might expect.  The world is less familiar as a post Apocalyptic America then it is a world with a dynamic history and geography of its own.  The beautiful vistas Gough and Millar create make you think of High Apocalypse novels, not of High Fantasy.  I don't know why this matters, but it does.  In some respects many fantasies take place in a post apocalyptic vision.  The characters walk through ancient, haunted ruins, surrounded by a bygone era of grandeur, forever lost.  Tolkien's Middle Earth was very similiar in that respect.  The world of the Fellowship is a shadow of the world before The War of the Elves in the Second Age. Ruins are in the very bones of High Fantasy.  And the swords, torches, and horses are the very outcome of low tech society that has lost its way.
   I think perhaps that one of the Chronicles Season One's failings is that while it discusses the history and frequently alludes to events that have occurred, it skips the prosaic matters that make fantasy worlds real.  Traders on the road, the petty local politics of tyrants, the class struggles hidden, yet glorified by false visions of feudalism.  The world of the Chronicles is shown to be a dystopian vision of isolated communities and roving bands of killers.  While the Sword of Shannara actually makes a point of literally telling you that this decentralized version of the land is political choice (something in my reread I find unpleasant) it is ultimately lying about this because there are local politics and trade: decentralized political systems are a red herring.  Gough's vision of the land of Shannara could take place on the same set as The Walking Dead.  But it's just not true.  The Apocalypse happened two to four thousand years prior, and world wars, which the land has experience many, are not apocalypses--just terrible.
   Regardless, it appears that there will be a second season of the show.  And I'm glad.  There was a time, perhaps when I was both jealous of a younger generation taking fantasy on, and grateful that my preferred medium was successful.  But I am jealous no longer.  With a daughter of my own, I am thrilled to see fantasy living and expanding past what my generation had done for it.