Joe Abercrombie – The Blade Itself (2006) Review

The Blade Itself

The first entry in the First Law trilogy, an immensely popular fantasy epic among those who like that sort of thing (I include myself). Abercrombie was one of the essential voices in establishing the “grimdark” subgenre of epic fantasy that came up in the ‘90s and ‘00s. Inspired perhaps by George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and joining writers like Steven Erikson, R. Scott Bakker and Mark Lawrence to tell tales full of violence and morally grey characters.

I’ve seen these books standing in stores for nearly a decade now – a testament to their ongoing popularity. They have made history already, inspired other writers, and the greyness and grittiness may not be as fresh anymore as they were when these books first came out. Many writers followed down the same path. But good writing is good writing, and Abercrombie still surprised me with a good, solid fantasy novel and some memorable characters.

Abercrombie’s grimdark approach has the kind of grittiness where you can feel the wet dirt and pine needles under your fingernails in cold, muddy forests. He has an intimate narration style in which he dives into his characters’ thoughts and gives descriptive close-ups in the action, and so creates a sense of “realism”, or at least a full sensory immersion. His series is not as full of violence as I expected from the cover, really, and he has an excellent command of establishing compelling characters and writing action.

The Blade Itself is strongly about characters and less about plot. Story-wise, the book is more an introduction to the series and a slow burn towards bad stuff happening. As such, the book starts lagging in the middle, because nothing seems to be moving forward. The quality of his prose jumps and dips from one chapter to another. The first chapters have some strong introductions, but, later, it comes across as a bit try hard with everyone speaking with exclamation marks and grunting and snarling. I found some of his characters’ reactions a bit far-fetched. It’s obviously a debut novel with some rough edges.

But Abercrombie has a delightfully twisted and deadpan humor that keeps the prose fresh and easily digestible. It’s prose that shows great promise, and luckily for us, he kept writing. So, with no plot to speak of, all the focus is on a couple of flamboyant characters and dark humor. Two characters in particular stand out.

Logen Ninefingers and his journey reminded me of the film The Revenant where Leonardo DiCaprio crawls through the mud, foaming at the mouth. Logan is the no-nonsense “cool barbarian” with a violent past, who got experienced and tired of it all. Inquisitor Glokta is the wonderfully disgusting bastard, head of the King’s inquisition. He used to be a great swordsman, but with his body broken by torture and always walking with his distinctive cane, all he is now is cynical. He’s still sharp and lost the ability to fear or to care about anything, really.

Two other main characters were just a bit so-so. Jezal the arrogant noble youth might have been an inspiration for Mark Lawrence’s Jalan in his Red Queen’s War series, but he didn’t inspire me.

I have to admit, I find it hard to understand how The Blade Itself is a breakthrough in anything. The plot and world-building are very standard, with a faux-medieval kingdom, a sultanate, barbarians and non-humans in the north and featuring a barbarian, a lordling and a wizard. I’ve read a million books like them. Perhaps if I had read this series before starting on Mark Lawrence and R. Scott Bakker, it had made a bigger splash. What it has going for it is that it’s a very solid variation on a theme, with a couple of interesting characters and the prose slants entertainingly towards sarcasm. I do hope that the next novel will turn the First Law books into a more distinctive series.

7.5/10

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Justice League (2017) Review

Justice League

First thoughts are that this was way better than Batman v Superman (2016). The story is at least comprehensible, which is low hanging fruit when it comes to improvements and the least they could do. So, in a rather straightforward fashion, we have a big bad guy who wants to destroy the world, and our heroes need to team up and work together to beat him in the next two hours. You know, just like every other superhero movie ever written. It’s a safe bet, and DC is not about to take risks.

It does feel like a terribly rushed story. This is an artefact of DC comics trying to push a universe while skipping the establishing chapters. We are introduced to a couple of new heroes who receive only a few minutes of introduction. They each have one or two moments of interaction with their fellow heroes, but we are still far away from feeling any team spirit. This is The Fast and the Furious with Superman being Don (Vin Diesel), but without the warm feelings of family. There are also some kind of objects like in the transformers movies, and an infodump brings us up to speed with the bad guy of the week.

So, most of the storytelling problems have improved compared to the previous DC films, going from abysmal to serviceable. One deep problem remains, though. The characters have so little… character. This too is a consequence of rushing the films. Superman is a blank slate, and his relationship with Lois Lane evokes to emotion whatsoever. The Flash is the film’s attempt to add some levity, but it comes from a mentality where the comedic lines are forced into the story, instead of really fleshing out the Flash’s character. Cyborg just has no character; he is just the robot guy. Batman doesn’t raise much interest and feels a bit useless. Only Wonder Woman seems present and interesting, and Aquaman has a few nice moments.

There are one or two memorable scenes. Both are arrival scenes. The arrival of the villain and the subsequent part with the Amazons is riveting, and in the second half when the great hero of the story returns. Unfortunately, when the final struggle starts, all the tension deflates quickly and the bad guy is summarily dismissed within a few minutes. Again, the story feels rushed. I’m reminded of the last seasons of Game of Thrones, where characters seemingly jump from one end of the continent to the other.

The big baddie is called Steppenwolf (I have no idea why he is called Steppenwolf, I’m not familiar with the comics and the film doesn’t explain it). All I know is that he looks as if he walked out of an animation from a video game from the early 2000s. The special effects in general are not strong in this film, but Steppenwolf is especially cartoonish.

So, all in all, Justice League proves that DC Comics can at least make a generic, half-decent superhero flick. It’s more damage control than celebration of the old comics. It’s also a shame that the series rushed into the justice league storyline, which should have been an exciting climax. But the many problems in establishing interesting characters and working up any sympathy for them makes this climactic film feel soulless and hastily put together.

Maybe one or two more films from now, I will truly get to know these heroes and care about them. I’d rather see another Wonder Woman film or an Aquaman film first. The premature ejaculation that is Justice League left me cold.

6.5/10

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Good Time (2017) Review

good time

7.5/10

Nick Nikas is mentally handicapped. When his criminal brother Connie, also not the smartest person in the room, decides that Nick is not in the right place at his day center, he “liberates” his brother and takes him along on a bank heist. You can probably guess that it all goes south from there. One bad decision leads to another, and the film escalates into a whirlwind of crime and stupidity.

Half crime drama, half dark comedy, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. At times really violent. At times really funny. In any case, the film is bloody intense. It has a fast pace, pumping synthesizer music; and my heart was pumping along. The story follows just one night of events. The mentally challenged Nick ends up in trouble, and his brother has one night to get him out of it. The sad thing is that is actions are totally misplaced.

The camerawork is very distinctive. With a tight zoom on the characters we see everything through the eyes of Connie (Robert Pattinson). Yet it isn’t easy to identify with anyone because they are all complete morons. Connie is a criminal and a manipulator, and yet he is very loyal and caring towards his brother. Pattinson does an amazing job playing a nervous, shady guy. It’s almost a shock to find out that his brother is played by the writer and director of the film, Benny Safdie, because he is so believable as a mentally handicapped guy. Wait, is that a compliment?

So, they make one bad decision after another. The whole film revolves around crime and a downward spiral of stupidity and violence. The plot is completely unpredictable, and the film has some really strange sequences. It seems to slow down in parts, then suddenly everything escalates again. The plot is also strangely disjointed and seems to move in chapters. It doesn’t go as a normal Hollywood story would go the way we recognize them.

There are in this movie three or four amazing sequences, full of tension, that are amongst the best scenes of the year. But between them you wonder where the story is going and what the point of it is. I suppose there are a couple of cycles of crime and stupidity that make up the movie, like four short stories, each time escalating to something dramatic. But these short stories don’t really tie up everything neatly. The first and last hardly connect. Therefore, at the end I am left with a confusing feeling that we started at one place and ended at a totally different story.

It’s a good feather in the cap for Robert Pattinson, who is trying to shrug off the Twilight films legacy. His relationship with his brother is an “Of Mice and Men” story, combined with Dog Day Afternoon. Yet the style is closer to those nighttime movies like Drive. Overall, it is one of the better films of the year. Electric, full of tension and energy and with a heart. The only danger is that you end up annoyed with all the characters.

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James S.A. Corey – Caliban’s War (2012) Review

Calibans War

  • Series: The Expanse, book 2
  • 7.5/10

Not long after the events of book one, Leviathan Wakes, all hell breaks loose on Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. A military standoff between the UN and Mars turns bad, but an even more worrisome event happens on the surface, something that has to do with the trouble on Eros. James Holden and his crew of the Rocinante are sent out to Ganymede by Fred Johnson for some undercover intelligence work. From thereon, a new adventure awaits for Holden and his crew.

Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck introduce three new characters for us here. You may already know Chrisjen Avasarala if you watch the TV show; a hard, political woman in the high ranks of the UN on Earth. She is a great character and a welcome addition to the series as a very distinctive voice in the land of politics. The books have her use a lot more cusswords, which fits her well and is quite humorous. Down on the surface of Ganymede we also meet Bobbie, a tough female Martian marine, and Prax, a botanist whose daughter gets abducted just before the troubles break out.

Which means more point-of-view characters. Which also means more jumping around the solar system. The alternating point-of-view of Holden and Miller in Leviathan Wakes had an elegance to it, and Caliban’s War approaches that elegance once Holden meets Prax and once Avasarala meets Bobbie. All the lines merge together nicely.

Caliban’s War is remarkably similar in structure and plot to Leviathan Wakes. The trouble on Ganymede feels like a repeat of the panicky crowds on Eros. Once again a girl is missing, and her disappearance is connected with clandestine experimentation, and war is created as a coverup. Holden and crew chase after the leads to find her. Meanwhile, Avasarala at the UN is trying to find out what is going on.

What the series is missing the most is interesting futuristic ideas. This is mostly a tale of space rockets, tough guys and moons. The tension between Earth, Mars and the asteroid belt reflects many situations here on Earth, like the Cold War, and countries fighting over the resources of poorer regions. Maybe that’s the point, but it’s hardly a fresh story. It’s also a tale of characters, of Holden, Naomi and Amos, Avasarala and so on, but they stay very flat. It’s also a tale full of plot, but the plot is copied from the first book.

The series has good things to add to the body of science fiction. Mostly, it is nice to see planets and moons like Ceres, Ganymede and Io being referred to as if they are countries. These names have a familiarity to the people of the future who travel to them and live on them, and I would like to see our future go that way. I hope that the characters keep growing, because that is the only way that the series will keep being worth it. It was nice to see Amos taking care of Prax, showing that Amos is not just an emotionless jockey. Holden though is annoyingly naïve, and Naomi still lacks personality; she’s just there as Holden’s love interest.

Caliban’s War’s greatest addition to the Expanse series is Avasarala and the political games surrounding her. Her thread gives this future society another dimension for us readers to chew on, and between all the young, naïve, impulsive characters, the wizened and sharp Avasarala contrasts nicely. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Prax and Bobbie. They weren’t very interesting, and even standing Avarasala is a matter of taste. Abrahams and Franck seem to have rather basic ideas about what is “awesome”, and those include rockets, zombies and a cursing grandmother.

All in all, it’s a nice adventure in space with a fast-moving plot. It’s exactly what you would expect it to be and doesn’t rise above it.

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Review

Thor Ragnarok

7/10

The third Thor movie is not as fresh as it wants to present itself. It is shiny on the surface like a prize-winning pumpkin, but moldy inside.

The first plan of attack in Marvel’s effort to make a successful Thor movie was to step away from the direction that the first two movies were going. Thor and Thor: The Dark World were dragged down by all those meaningless scenes on Earth. Thor’s relationship with the Earth woman Jane (Natalie Portman) was so uninspired that the screenwriters just dumped the whole plotline (“we broke up”). Instead, the writers had to take inspiration from the crazy (and highly successful) Guardians of the Galaxy movies, and Thor: Ragnarok indeed feels like a third Guardians film.

Marvel has the excuse that all of these films need to come together anyway for the Infinity War duology later, so plagiarizing their own Guardians sequence is no different than working to merge these film series. I’m surprised the Guardians didn’t even show up. The second step was Guardianize the Thor sequence, meaning to (1) reach back to 80s nostalgia and replace the orchestral bombast with synthesizer tunes, and (2) to add a dollop of humor in the Marvel way, meaning very on the nose.

It was funny enough, which does work better for these kinds of films than heavy drama. But it did feel as if the writers approached Jeff Goldblum and begged him to “please make it funny. We’re counting on you.” He is here not to play a character but to give a performance as himself. Add some wacky aliens and Bob’s your uncle. Parts of this felt like Varelian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and that’s going down a slippery slope with Jupiter Ascending waiting at the bottom.

The third step was to take the most basic, chewed-out plot that you could find and spray-paint the movie over it. Here we have another Big Evil, ready to be defeated within two hours. Suddenly, Everything We Know Is Wrong and Thor had an older sister who wants to take over the house. Thor is kicked out, gathers some companions and comes back to save the universe. Is any of this interesting? It’s interesting to look at.

I did have some fun with the movie, but the more I think about it, the worse it gets. Most of the comedy and wacky locations felt forced and halfway through Thor’s imprisonment I just wanted them to get on with it. The story was abandoned for this whole sequence on the garbage planet with the arena and it all had nothing to do with anything. It was nice to see Mark Ruffalo again, but Bruce Banner’s connection with Thor sadly never materialized.

Cate Blanchett as Hela enjoys herself a great deal and her acting is the best of the movie, but there is no real emotion anywhere. The family connections between Hela, Thor and Loki don’t mean anything. Nothing means anything and everything is a joke. Hela is just a random angry villainess. Her motivations are a cliche and her scenes are info-dumps, and we don’t get to feel any emotion about her past and her return to her family and the place of her childhood.

Some of it worked fine. Some jokes were on point and Blanchett, Ruffalo and Goldblum put in entertaining performances. Hemsworth has a good comedic timing. The plot was too boring and formulaic and the whole thing felt like such a product.

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Peter Frankopan – The Silk Roads (2015) Review

The Silk Roads

“A New History of the World”

Peter Frankopan is annoyed that the history lessons in the Western world focus so much on the Western world. Understandable, sure, there is only so much time for teachers to teach children history, but more importantly, Frankopan is annoyed with the way history is presented as a flight of stairs, from prehistory through Greek and Roman civilization, then the Dark Ages, Renaissance, the scientific revolution and modern times. He argues that what happened in Europe was often a peripheral affair and that the world always turned around the axis that runs from the Mediterranean to Far Asia. This is the trade route of the Silk Roads, which was a conduit of globalization since ancient times.

An extremely interesting topic. This middle and central Asia is a blind spot for most people, full of unknown history, unknown geography and unknown cultures. A place so vast that rivers stop without reaching a lake or a sea. A place that every few centuries unleashed a terrible conqueror who swept out of unknown places to terrorize the rest of the world. Frankopan argues that there are ways to tell the entire history of the world through the interaction between cultures along the Silk Road. And so to tell an alternative account of history, as it were, with less bias.

Frankopan is far more interested in raising people’s excitement than to tell a painstakingly accurate history. If you’d ask me, he presents the Silk Road as so much a region of wonder that he is busy framing history just as much as the historians whom he is annoyed with. He talks about “The East” as a romantic idea; as a one-thousand-and-one-nights fantasy penned by a Victorian-age writer. He complains about historians glorifying the West, but then performs his own feat of glorification.

But to be fair, that framing mostly happens around the book, with a heavy dose of marketing added on top. The content of the book itself is still fascinating to read because Frankopan does indeed talk about a lot of neglected topics, like the Greek influences in India and the trade between the Roman Empire and Ancient China. He sheds a light on all those wondrous events that happened around the edges of empires and within the interplay between cultures.

To be even more fair, this is an amazing history book. It’s one of the best I have ever read and very clearheaded and fascinating. Frankopan deals with all the topics that I wanted to know more about, but were never addressed that well in other books, and touches on topics that I didn’t even knew I wanted to read about. The Silk Roads is above all very readable and accessible. Having just read Norman Davies’s Vanished Kingdoms, Frankopan makes Davies look almost unreadable. Frankopan does not allow himself to get bogged down in details and keeps a firm eye on the flow of the narrative. He is a born storyteller and his book fills in an important void.

One thing he shows very well is how events on one end of the planet have an effect on the other end. For example, when Spain and Portugal were robbing the Americas of silver, that silver found its way east and made the Moghuls in India rich enough to build monuments like the Taj Mahal. So, Indians were building wonders of the world, while “Indians” in the west were indirectly suffering for it. Another example is how the tensions between Britain and Russia in Central Asia provided fuel for the outbreak of WW1.

Frankopan’s focus on the Middle East is more difficult to maintain after Columbus’ voyage to the Americas. The focus of global power effectively shifted to Europe, and for the rest of the book, Frankopan takes “the Silk Road” to mean basically everything that lures the Europeans and Americans to the Middle East, even though there is no actual road being crossed anymore. Also, Frankopan being a British historian, he spends many pages detailing the British Empire. You have to make choices when narrating the entire written history of humankind; occasionally he glosses over important parts while expanding others more.

The book ends with an appropriately damning review of British and American meddling in the middle-east in their quest for oil and their lack of future perspective. A typical “the world is changing” speech ends the book, in which Frankopan declares in high language the downfall of the west and the rise of central Asia. I am not as convinced about these visions as he is, because the future is rather unpredictable with so many transitions going on (especially in energy production). It’s still a great work of history and highly recommended.

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Jeff VanderMeer – City of Saints and Madmen (2001) Review

City of saints and madmen

  • Genre: fantasy/new weird
  • Series: Ambergris 1
  • My rating: 7.5/10

Before VanderMeer jumped into writing full novels (and became one of my favorite authors), he wrote a couple of novellas, all set in a colorful, gnarly fantasy world and surrounding the fictional city Ambergris. A city where artists and philosophers are held in high popular regard; a city that celebrates a squid festival, and whose sewers and caves hold a population of creepy, mysterious mushroom people who radiate a strange influence over the city, also known as gray caps.

City of Saint and Madmen is a collection of four Ambergris novellas, and subsequent editions have accumulated other short stories, letters, notes, tidbits and appendices, bloating the whole thing to doorstopper size, but also constructing a remarkably detailed and compelling vision of the city Ambergris. It is world-creation on a meta-level. With all this detail and character, Ambergris takes its place alongside other beloved fictional cities, like Mieville’s New Crobuzon, Leiber’s Lankhmar, Pratchett’s Ankh-Morpork and Harrison’s Viriconium.

City of Saints and Madmen is nowadays the first entry of the “Ambergris” series. Interestingly, each novel winks at a totally different genre. I thought that the follow-up novels Shriek (biography) and Finch (noir mystery) were absolutely masterful, and marked VanderMeer as a very intelligent and talented writer. I loved the creepy mushroom weirdness of the city.

The novellas of this collection are different genres again.

Dradin, In Love, is our introduction to Ambergris. The naïve Dradin is a missionary, just arriving in the city, and falls head over heels in love with a woman he sees in a window. VanderMeer seems a writer who is also in love, but with his own writing. He makes Ambergris a full sensory experience, full of grisly details and descriptions of age and decay. It is a place of sickly passions and carnivalesque madness. The story is a bit predictable and wordy, but sets the tone nicely for Ambergris as a place of passions and illusions.

City of saints and madmen2

The Hoegbotton Guide to the Early History of Ambergris, by Duncan Shriek. A supposedly non-fiction work about the Ambergris that we just learned about in Dradin, in Love. It’s very readable and quite interesting, but dropping a block of history into a story collection is a rather clunky way of building a fantasy world. Historian Shriek loses his focus towards the end and “over-focuses” on the mystery of the gray caps. We learn much more about Duncan Shriek in the later novel Shriek, and this novella is of more interest after reading that novel.

The Transformation of Martin Lake. Ambergris is again a city of smoke and mirrors, and painter Martin Lake finds out some deeper, gruesome reality. A good balanced novella. While reading, the same names keep on popping up, Ambergrisian celebrities who may at one point enter the story themselves. This way, the short stories weave together a larger whole, like a wicker basket.

The Strange Case of X. Aaand this is where VanderMeer rudely shakes you awake that he is not merely interested in cooking up a secondary world. He inserts himself as the writer of Ambergris into the story, and so calls into question the truth and validity of the text and the existence of Ambergris itself. This story fits the theme of the real Ambergris being hidden behind layers of illusion and interpretation, but now the whole collection is a meta-approach to world-creation and textual games. The collection almost lost me here and I didn’t find this perspective welcoming.

The entire second half of the collection is made up of a dozen odds and ends. Some of it, like the notes made by patient X, have some relevance to the earlier novellas and deepen the textual games and layers of mystery, while other pieces, like a paper about the King Squid, are entertaining enough but may leave you scratching your head why this was written in the first place (and its enormous fake references list smells like a work of modern art). My guess is that VanderMeer just wanted to have a good time and play around with the fantastic and joke at conventions of scientific writing (and fantasy writing).

I’ve seen VanderMeer’s worldbuilding equated with that of Tolkien’s in depth. That would be true if The Lord of the Rings ended after 3 short stories, and then included an academic treatise on Hobbit tobacco, a family genealogy of the innkeeper at Bree, all the letters exchanged between Gandalf and Saruman, pamphlets about the industrialization of Saruman’s land, a short story written in Elvish that we would need to translate, a history of Elf-Dwarf relations, and a 40-page reference list of the books Gandalf read about the Ring (annotated in turn by Elrond).

I’m being mean. There are some excellent short stories in the notes – especially the King Squid one and The Gate. In general, City of Saints and Madmen comes from a place of love for the weird, surreal and for writing, but it is more an art project than a work of fiction writing. This is an artsy approach to the fantastic from a very self-aware place. M. John Harrison’s Viriconium collection might be the best comparison.

I enjoyed most of the entries in this collection, but wished for more storytelling. The artificiality of it did not give me what I like the most in this genre. It felt as if VanderMeer was holding back from storytelling itself. And for all its detail, it does not operate on the same level as most fantasy series. In this sense, the sequels Shriek and Finch did the Ambergris world greater justice. This collection is an experiment, and for me the conclusion is that you can’t beat an actual story in making a world come alive.

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