N.K. Jemisin – The Stone Sky (2017) Review

The Stone Sky

  • Genre: fantasy, science-fantasy, post-apocalypse
  • Series: The Broken Earth, part 3
  • Pages: 416

The final book of the Broken Earth trilogy. The story continues right where The Obelisk Gate left it. Essun is still with Ykka and the Castrima comm, but they are on the move after the disastrous conflict with Rennanis. Castrima is still an experiment to see whether roggas and stills can muster enough faith to live together. Nassun attaches herself to Schaffa, who is a sort-of stand-in father for her. Schaffa himself has changed enough from being a regular Guardian to make Nassun’s attachment something other than Stockholm syndrome. They too are on the move, including the loyal Obelisks that follow them in the sky. Hoa, the stone boy, gets his own point of view chapters.

The Stone Sky is not a high-octane story full of action. Like The Obelisk Gate, it follows Essun and Nassun on rather slow paths of personal change, with the difference that they now both travel for long distances. While a deeper exploration of past civilizations is also included and is quite interesting by itself, it is the emotional connections and relationships between the characters that make this novel great. The final third is a whirlwind of both epic and emotionally hard-hitting scenes, where the fate of the characters and the whole planet itself are intertwined.

The beauty of N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy lies in her mature exploration of trauma. Essun and Nassun are very realistic and traumatic characters, but the entire world and society in this series revolves around trauma. There is personal trauma and geological trauma, and Jemisin makes an elegant equation between the two, where the Orogenes form the link in between. Tectonic stress equals unresolved emotion. A city built upon a geological fault line equals a dream or a personality built upon pain. She explains one with the other. What, for example, are the Guardians if not the guardians of keeping a dream alive, only to prevent the healing of a deeper pain? Jemisin’s world-building is a layout of the human psyche, even including a traumatized father Earth.

The Fifth Season (2015) started with the destruction of the world, which was an emotional liberation and the start of a story of emotional healing. The first novel followed Essun in various moments in her life, showing how her personality was shaped over time through repeated traumatic experiences. In her first meeting with a Guardian, for example, her hand is broken and that pain is the foundation for a change in character. The Obelisk Gate (2016) kept following her journey of personal change after the great rift, all the while exploring how we are the product of the people we meet in our lives. A parallel journey shows her daughter Nassun, who is also being chiseled by fateful encounters, going down a similar path of trauma as her mother. A meeting between them will surely be earth-shattering, both literal and emotional. Thus, The Stone Sky (2017) becomes about confronting yourself via your own children.

Jemisin’s world-building is incredibly grim and the sources of pain and trauma are always oppression of one people by another people. She magnifies this to an extreme, and frankly, these messages are so overblown that it takes me out of the story. Every chapter ends with an historical account of Orogenes sacrificing themselves or doing good and getting murdered for it. I get it. Stop repeating it again and again. But the ultimate question becomes: is this a world worth saving? Will the Castrima experiment of roggas and stills living together work out?

This book series has a very strong emotional core that is easily as well-crafted as its world. In fact, this world-building does not quite work for me when talking about the social structures, even though the orogeny is fascinating and Jemisin’s research into geology brings a depth to it. But the main reason that the story works is the character-building. Essun and Nassun feel like real people and their emotional struggles are realistic. They play out in a way that makes me suspect that Jemisin poured a lot of herself into this series.

The Stone Sky is a great conclusion to a series that I’m sure will stand the test of time as a classic. This is the best series to ever feature a mother as the chief heroine, with a masterful treatment of all the heavy, emotional relationships that come with that, including a deep, respectful treatment of trauma, confrontation and personal growth. Add to that a fascinating, unique science-fantasy world that ties directly into Essun’s personal struggles and we get a work of singular power.

  • My rating: 9/10
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Dave Hutchinson – Europe at Midnight (2015) Review

Europe at Midnight

  • Genre: science fiction
  • Pages: 303
  • My rating: 8.5/10

Much like its predecessor, Europe at Midnight is a fragmented novel. Dave Hutchinson’s remarkable science fiction series is about the fragmentation and fragile unity of the continent Europe. Our own version of Europe lies somewhere in the middle of two extremes. It is fragmented by geography, history and cultures, but a countervailing force nevertheless leads to reasonably stable countries, cultural mingling and to institutions like the European Union and, dare I say it, shows like the Eurovision song contest, so that the current political shape of Europe looks like it is hanging in a precarious equilibrium.

Hutchinson’s first novel, Europe in Autumn (2014), explored deep fragmentation; a continent of hundreds of nations. The protagonist of that novel, Rudi, jumped the sprawling borders as a member of a secret spy society. Like a John le Carre novel, Rudi dealt with Estonians, Hungarians, Poles and many others in Central European cities, eventually ending up on the trail of a secret. This secret hinted at a deeper reality and a hidden countervailing united force. Europe at Midnight takes off from there. Chronologically, it plays out during the events of the preceding novel, but thematically it tackles the second idea of a united force. And just like the fragmentation was more visible in Europe in Autumn, so is the united force a more concrete reality in Midnight.

The core storyline follows Rupert ‘Rupe’ of Hentzau, who slowly discovers that he finds himself in a situation straight from The Matrix. It’s a bit hard to follow, for Hutchinson throws us into the deep end, but we slowly get the point that his world is not the one we know. Instead, he lives in a fascinating version of a college campus that doubles as an independent country, were students and professors form social classes, and his society finds itself in a post-East Germany situation after the fall of the wall. A second storyline follows a secret agent in London named Jim. Both stories are thrilling, full of crime and mystery. After every wall is another wall, many of them invisible.

The story is… disorienting to say the least. I’m not sure I am smart enough to follow every turn and the story does move very fast. Hutchinson throws you into unknown situations time and again with unknown characters, and each time he works his way back to a part of the puzzle that we knew already. It takes a bit of faith to stick with it and the barrage of names and fake-names gets confusing, but it also clicks together again.

What’s interesting is that the hidden mystery that is also a tissue underneath Europe, is presented as a very British thing. A very conservative British thing that does not accept outside cultures. Hutchinson toys with Britishness, the way Susanna Clarke did in Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell but in a more contemporary way. Britain has always kept itself apart from the rest of Europe, thinking itself a separate continent, exemplified by their recent departure from the EU. Hutchinson seems to disagree with this sentiment strongly. What exactly is he saying here? That Britain has a strongly conservative streak, and that it is actually deeply enmeshed within Europe, and that this may lie largely hidden and unrecognized? Perhaps. Various ideas about Britishness, old and new, are tried out and their relationship with the rest of Europe differs each time. The Fractured Europe books are short reads, but flirt with many such interpretations.

Hutchinson’s prose is once again a joy to read. I love this guy’s writing. He is sharp and witty without being edgy; intelligent, wry and comedic. Not only that, but he visits all the cities in Europe that have been my own travel destinations in the past ten years and I love to read about that. The characters don’t come across as deep or rounded, since he is too busy cutting and pasting together a complicated plot, but the way it all comes together is quite a journey. This SF series is one of the more sophisticated and layered of the last decades.

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Brandon Sanderson – The Way of Kings (2010) Review

The Way of Kings1

  • Genre: Epic Fantasy
  • Series: The Stormlight Achive 1
  • Pages: 1252 (paperback)

Just look at this book! The paperback is so fat that the author’s name and the title are written horizontally on the spine! I’m feeling quite some trepidation, since I have never read any Sanderson novel and here I am, jumping right into the deep end of the pool like a shivering kid. I always dismissed Sanderson as the most generic epic fantasy writer, even though I didn’t know his work, but I will give it a shot. And I have to admit that the orange-and-teal cover looks very generic, even though the artwork is nice.

Well… here I go. *jumps*

After the first few chapters it is clear that The Stormlight Archive will be a series in which magic and fantasy are much more on the foreground as for example in A Song of Ice and Fire. The world Sanderson creates is suffused with magic, to the point that little sprites (spren) appear everywhere as floating little spirits. There are giant crustaceans as pack animals and sorcery is full of streams of energy. The world itself, the weather, biology and geology, are unusual too and receive lots of attention in Sanderson’s creative efforts. The world Roshar and particularly the Shattered Plains is a quite unique and fascinating setting.

A very good decision made is that he restricts his massive story to only a handful of point-of-view characters, and he chose some interesting people to follow. That’s another way of Sanderson’s in making a story go easy on you, and quickly makes you invested. They all receive good introductions and Sanderson is very adept at drawing us into his characters’ struggles and making us feel who they are and what moves them. The characters are very well developed and it is easy to root for them.

Kaladin is a young fighter who once was a soldier and wants to be one again, but right now he is a slave and ends up in a whole lot of unfortunate situations. Kaladin is a confident, ballsy guy whom you would like to cheer on. His story develops quite slowly, insisting on showing us every step in his development. Shallan is a young woman of a troubled house, making a last desperate effort to prevent her family from falling into poverty. Shallan is a woman with a personality I can identify with very closely, although her witty talk was unrealistic. Dalinar is an ageing general who receives visions that may have great import. He is an older, thoughtful guy whom you just feel has a very important role to play. He is so unsure at the moment, but following him will be very interesting. It is my understanding that The Way of Kings focuses mostly on Kaladin, and subsequent novels will focus on Shallan and Dalinar.

Sanderson’s style is very readable in the sense that you won’t have to work to understand the text, but, like George R.R. Martin’s, neither is it exceptional. His writing is very measured and balanced. His text is just easy reading and he has a very good sense for how much exposition is needed to introduce characters and how to restrain descriptions so that the story keeps flowing forward. At first, at least. Action scenes are highlights, as he expertly orchestrates the rise of tension, and the pages are devoured quickly. Although his writing does not stand out compared to some virtuoso writers, Sanderson is impressively solid. An allrounder.

The Way of Kings2

The tight focus on just a handful of main characters makes The Way of Kings much more emotionally involving to me than other mega-series like Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. This is a clear strength of Sanderson’s writing, although the Malazan series created a far deeper sense of time, history and godlike entities. Sanderson’s approach to world-building differs from Erikson’s, focusing much more on the biology and geography. There are interesting versions of classes and privilege in this book, such as a class system based on eye color and the idea that it is considered unmanly to be able to read.

I am going to be a bit negative now. I know that Brandon Sanderson is an incredibly popular writer, but I’ve got to mention that this novel has flaws as well.

I am not impressed with the names he conjures. Kaladin, Dalinar, Adolin, these sound like they come from a World-of-Warcraft name generator and picked only because they sound dynamic. And seriously, how am I supposed to pronounce a name like Tvlakv? That’s just alphabet soup. Palindromes also don’t impress. Sanderson also loves to connect words to make them a thing, like stormlight, highstorms, highprince, stormfather, brightlord, shardblades, lighteyes, everstorm. (The story has a lot of storms.) While Sanderson is an expert world-builder, he uses these “established techniques” that were fresh a few decades ago but start to feel like a requirement for epic fantasy today.

After 800 pages, I was begging the text: please, make something happen. Tolkien went from Bilbo’s birthday to Helm’s Deep in so many pages. The novel steadily plods on for hundreds of pages without there being a clear direction to the story. The individual scenes are all riveting while from a larger perspective there are no stakes yet. We do not know what is important, nor is there a clear adversary. After 300 pages, all the characters are neatly introduced and it feels time for the story to take it up a notch, but that doesn’t happen. We have essentially a 900-page introduction without much plot.

Not all the storylines worked for me. Shallan’s “relationship” with a certain priest bored me. He was borderline creepy. If I were Shallan and he would approach me with another jam sandwich, I would roll my eyes hard. Their witty banter felt forced. Jasnah does not talk like a real professor, because real professors are still human (most of them at least). She was insufferable. I could also have done without all the flashbacks to Kaladin’s youth. It didn’t seem all that important to understanding who he was and it halted the story in its tracks.

Overall, The Way of Kings is still a fine novel. I am impressed with this world. I feel invested in these characters and I am looking forward to book two: Words of Radiance. However, this novel did feel bloated and the writing was not all that special. I doubt if this series is going to redefine the genre. Nevertheless, the world Sanderson creates here is fascinating and I am interested in learning more about it.

8/10

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Toni Erdmann (2016) Review

Toni Erdmann1

9/10

Maybe you have heard the news, but this wonderful German film is getting a Hollywood remake, starring Jack Nicholson. I am sure Nicholson will do a fine job, but please see this one as well with the original German actors, because the casting is fantastic and this film is wonderfully strange and touching. I have a feeling that the original Toni Erdmann, which was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars, will be the subtler film and that Nicholson will be too aggressive for the role.

What’s it about? Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a strange guy. He is always putting on shows for everyone; doing practical jokes, even for the mail man. He likes dressing up, putting in false teeth, and he constantly makes up weird stories. Underneath all this surface level excitement, he is an ageing and rather lonely man. He dresses up to make himself more interesting, perhaps. Not many people take him seriously. His own family tires of his antics. His greatest grief though is that he is estranged from his daughter Ines (Sandra Huller), a successful businesswoman who travels all over the world. Successful, but stressed and emotionally closed herself.

When he learns that Ines has business to attend to in Bucharest, he flies to her, forcing her to spend time with him. So far, this is quite the tragic story of a silly, old father who cannot connect with his daughter. A daughter who has other things to worry about, such as ingratiating herself with her CEO. Then, when Ines thinks that Winfried finally went back home, he suddenly turns up in a wig, calls himself Toni Erdmann and poses as her CEO’s life coach. And it seems to get him places.

Toni Erdmann2

This movie is hilarious. The serious, sad first hour makes you feel heavy at heart, but then comes a release when the ridiculous Winfried worms his way into his daughter’s professional life as Toni Erdmann, telling everyone nonsense stories. The film is incredibly realistic, without score, without any flashy editing. Just plain, uncompromising reality. The jokes are just thrown onto the screen in an underplayed way, making them both funny and embarrassing. Half of the time I didn’t know whether I should be laughing or feel sad, so I just did both at times.

The movie is very long, but no scene is really superfluous. The slow pace and tempered tone is there to establish these characters fully in nuanced ways. It’s filled with scenes of Ines trying to do her job and of Winfried having odd encounters with Romanians. While Winfried stays in his roles of Toni, Ines runs along to watch over him and in some roundabout way they do get closer, even though they cannot seem to do this in their real life. Winfried also manages to get Ines into embarrassing situations again and again and it feels as if he both tries to shake her loose and to take petty revenge for her distance. Never has there been such a roundabout way of family members working out their issues.

And then there is the 10-minute embarrassed nude scene. it’s brilliant, full of unexpected twists. It’s like a microcosm of Winfried and Ines’ relationship. Ines, exposed but trying to make everything work, and Winfried, trying to connect behind a cover.

Funny and sad, nuanced and touching. Toni Erdmann is a brilliantly written, original work. I loved it.

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Manchester by the Sea (2016) review

manchester by the sea

I am very late with this one, I know, but I had to find some courage to start it.

This is about a man who is so locked up in unprocessed grief that he finds it impossible to engage with society in any normal way. Lee works in Boston as a handyman, just maintaining living blocks and doing his job. Emotionally he is completely flat. He does not give a shit about anything, really. He is a walking zombie, maintaining a posture to just live and survive. It becomes clear that there lies a tragedy in his past, which he has found impossible to process. When his brother suddenly dies, he is forced to engage with the remnants of his family. Most importantly, his nephew who is left without a father. The responsibility falls on his shoulders to take him in, but that leads him back to the necessity of facing his own emotions.

What Manchester by the Sea does masterfully is that people like Lee who are emotionally locked up are often not aware of their own situation. They do not fully realize how jarring their behavior can be to others around them and they cannot bear to really be aware of their own situation. For that, they would have to face that grief that is too much to face right now. Casey Affleck gives us Lee as a character study where you can just see the man folded in on himself. During the first hour, we see him interacting with nurses, with his nephew, with other adults, and it is just painfully visible that there is something off about him. He does not have the emotional reactions that you would expect from normally functioning people. He can barely carry the responsibility of a job, let alone that of a surrogate father.

The first hour therefore may seem slow, but it is beautifully subtle showing of a person who is “off” and the effects this has on his surroundings. Affleck’s performance is perfectly on point; measured. There are many scenes that are very uncomfortable to watch because of Lee’s stoic behavior, and that builds a tension throughout the movie where you want that dam to break; you want Lee to let it go, to let open the floodgates. The tragedy that occurred was his own fault and it is his own shame that is the barrier inside him.

The strongest, most heartfelt scene is delivered by Michelle Williams, playing Lee’s ex-wife. It is true that everything is Lee’s fault, but when even his ex-wife reached the point of forgiving him, then the only one still standing in Lee’s way towards redemption is Lee himself. And he not only stands in his own way, he also stands in his ex-wife’s way and in his nephew’s way.

There is a release of sorts, but it is similarly understated as the rest of the film. I find the understatement beautiful. It brings a realism to the film that is hard-hitting. In addition, the film is shot in winter in New England, which is both beautiful and stark and cold. It mirrors the emotional dimension of the story perfectly. Manchester by the Sea is both a hard and subtle film that understands emotions very well and is supported by superb acting by both Affleck and Williams.

9/10

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Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017) Review

Valerian

So I just saw Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and the only reason that I went to see this movie was to see special effects. And boy, was that a good decision, because while the visuals are dazzling and the world-building was quite nice, the story and the casting was really off. Secretly, we might have hoped for a new version of The Fifth Element (also directed by Luc Besson) but while The Fifth Element had Bruce Willis and Gary Oldman, Valerian had mostly miscast actors.

So, this is the story of two special agents named Valerian and Laureline and judging by the story that the film tried to sell to me, these are two professional partners who harbor hidden feelings for each other. In the first scene where Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne play their respective characters, they ehhh cavort with each other, but there is no apparent chemistry between them. It is more as if they are just used to making witty remarks to each other. There is no emotion. But then Valerian tries to convince Laureline to marry him and it wasn’t clear to me whether he was joking or serious. Their connection was as if they were still wondering if there was anything between them, and as if they were still thinking about going on a first date. But the way Dane DeHaan delivers it is like a whining guy, and Cara Delevingne comes across as if she secretly hates her partner.

Later on in the film, there are more moments where romance is forced onto this couple, and each time it felt totally disconnected from reality. There is a scene where an alien gives Valerian advice about love, and how he should love Laureline with all his heart, but their romance was so absent that this scene made no sense at all. I was wondering: aren’t you a bit forward with this, alien? What if he doesn’t have feelings for his partner, wouldn’t that make this advice misplaced?

Valerian2

Another problem with Dane DeHaan and Cara Delevingne is that they are playing secret agents who are taken seriously as such, and seem to carry themselves with some authority. But they are just two scrawny kids and there is no reason why a general should even take them seriously. DeHaan is no Bruce Willis. He doesn’t carry the film as an experienced secret agent who can deal with crime. Unless Luc Besson thought that he was making Spy Kids, this just felt silly. Even Jean Reno would have made a better choice, the way he played in Wasabi. Reno has the action and deadpan comedy down, and this film needed something to counterbalance the color carnival of silly special effects.

That was the beauty of casting Bruce Willis in The Fifth Element. Willis is a low-key, grounded guy who doesn’t take shit. He stood outside this weird and dazzling future. Valerian would have benefited from a similarly grounded guy to balance out the tone of the film.

Like in many of Besson’s films, there is a lot of weirdness for weirdness’ sake. Some of it works, some doesn’t. There is a scene where our heroes go to a market in another dimension, and immediately the camera focuses on some weird tour guide with a turban who gives a whole show, but meanwhile the film hasn’t explained well what we are doing there and what the main characters are on about. The film shoves weird stuff in front of you in the way that it obstructs the flow of the narrative.

The universe of Valerian holds the potential for dozens of stories. All that this movie does is open the door and show a few short stories that take place inside it. Honestly, it wasn’t a strong start, but I hope Besson will create more Valerian stories because I do like this universe. Let’s just hope that DeHaan and Delevingne will grow into their roles and that their connection will be explored in a better way.

6.5/10

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David D. Levine – Arabella of Mars (2016) Review

Arabella of Mars

  • Genre: Science Fantasy
  • Series: The Adventures of Arabella Ashby 1
  • Pages: 382

The year 1812. England and France are at war. Arabella Ashby has a pleasant life running through canyons on Mars. She lives there as a young lady with her family and their chitinous Martian servant. But this is not proper behavior for an English lady, and her mother decides to take her and her sisters back to England, Earth, where “the slightest display of audacity, curiosity, adventure, or initiative was met with severe disapproval.” When her father unexpectedly dies on Mars and her cousin Simon hears that the Martian estate is ripe to be appropriated, Arabella is locked in the pantry while Simon sails the interplanetary atmosphere to Mars. Arabella escapes and, disguised as a male sailor, follows her cousin’s trail.

Adventure on the high seas between Earth and Mars! David D. Levine takes his inspiration from the adventure tales and science fictional romances of the late 19th and early 20th century. There are shades here of Jules Verne and Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars series, and the film Treasure Planet. The name Arabella sounds similar to the SF film Barbarella, a story with which it shares an adventurous spirit, although Arabella of Mars is more clearly written for a modern young adult audience. I hate to use the young adult label because of its negative connotations, but just as Terry Pratchett’s Tiffany Aching novels are immensely readable, so is Levine’s writing a delight.

Speaking of writing, Levine adjusted his style to something more formal and old-fashioned to reflect the stiff Regency-era culture it is set in. It takes a moment to get used to, but it works quite charmingly and draws attention to Levine’s good vocabulary and writing skill. Plot-wise, not every twist and turn feels realistic and some characters make abrupt decisions that feel forced to move the story along. I suppose only Arabella is well explored as a character while the rest are closer to walking tropes. And I suppose too that Arabella’s story is predictable. She is a heroine with modern values who doesn’t fit into that society. Naturally, this is a coming-of-age story of a smart young woman in an unjust world.

I don’t want to be too nitpicky because this is a very readable book. It is also nothing really exceptional. It is just very solid with some interesting characters and locales and an adventure plot that chucks along at a reasonable pace. Just know what you get yourself into. If you are looking for some hard SF, note that Arabella of Mars is creamy science-fantasy fudge, where the science-fantasy element not even feels essential to the story. It might as well have been set in Australia during the British Age of Empire. There is a lot of sailing in air currents and Levine seems to know his business when it comes to sailing.

For an adventure novel, this story is terribly tame. Arabella has a well-balanced personality and her adventures on the ship keep granting her the right opportunities to prove her worth to the sailors. An odd education by her father taught her precisely the few things she needs to find her place on board. Every conflict is quickly solved and takes up no more than 20 pages. So, this is almost a novel with a dozen small short stories inside them, which may be an artifact of Levine being a short story writer. In a way, it reminded me of Becky Chambers’ The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet (2014) where small conflicts happen while a woman tries to adjust to an interplanetary voyage.

Arabella of Mars is beautifully written, but as a series of quickly-solved problems it did not thrill as much as I hoped it would.

7.5/10

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