Tag Archives: fantasy

Film Review : The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug

The barrel escape fromThe HobbitAfter negotiating the Misty Mountains, Bilbo Baggins and the party of dwarves make their way to the Lonely Mountain and their date with a dragon, pursued constantly by a band of murderous orcs hellbent on killing Thorin Oakensheild and adding some urgency to what would otherwise be a gentle stroll of a plot.

Another year, another Hobbit film. I was pretty lukewarm about the first film (my review), it was OK but seemed like a really good 90 minute film crammed into 3 hours. The Hobbit : The Desolation of Smaug (HobDoS) is also almost 3 hours long but I am glad to say that it hangs together a lot better and some clever choices have been made in what to add to bulk up the plot.

The Hobbit was never a story that would support 9 hours of film, it is a thin book, episodic and repetitive in nature as befits a story designed to be read to sleepy children. The producers of the films have had to scratch around to additional material to pad out time and to make the films fit in stylistically with the Lord of the Rings movies. In the first Hobbit film, this meant stretching out the fight scenes with the goblins to a ridiculous degree and adding some tediously canonical foreshadowing that made no sense unless you already knew the story. Somewhere during production of HobDos the decision was made to just start inventing new stuff and the film is much better for it. The journey through the elvish kingdom is enlivened by an unlikely love triangle and Laketown becomes an impoverished city of political intrigue.

The additions are all a little Shakespearean and make for entertaining viewing. What the new stuff isn’t is very Tolkenesque, and the seams show when scenes that are taken verbatim from the book (Bilbo talking with the dragon) are juxtaposed with 21st century comedy action fare (the dwarfs battle plan) and the horror styling of Gandalf’s pointless side quest. The over-the-top action scenes are still very long and sometime nonsensical but they do not outstay their welcome so much this time around.

Once again, I got sucked into paying extra for the high frame-rate 3D version. The 3D is very subtle this time around and I didn’t notice any problems with the high frame rate although I don’t know whether that is due to changes in the process, the crew learning how to light scenes for the new cameras, or just me getting used to the way it looks.

HobDos is an improvement on the first film and I enjoyed it.

Book Review : Deadhouse Gates

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

The Malazan Empire is completing its purge of the former nobility, sending thousands to the slave mines to die. Meanwhile a huge rebellion has reached boiling point amongst the tribes that inhabit the plains between the empire’s seven cities. Meanwhile a heavily outnumbered group of loyal empire troops struggles to fight its way across the continent while protecting tens of thousands of refugees. Meanwhile some characters from the first book arrive, among them an assassin who will carry a sacred book into the heart of the rebellion (unknowingly being followed in the meanwhile). Meanwhile, his companions head off somewhere else, while escapees from the slave mines do some other stuff meanwhiley.

Deadhouse Gates cover artLike its predecessor, Deadhouse Gates tells a bunch of overlapping stories, although this book amps it up to eleven with an incredible amount of plot going on simultaneously. The point of view changes very frequently and I found it almost impossible to keep track of who was who. By far the best parts are the passages that follow the Malazan refugees and their tireless protectors as they struggle through the desert under the leadership of the brilliant Coltaine. This is basically a rip off of Spartacus but no worse for it. Other parts could probably be jettisoned without losing much however the multiple viewpoints do allow for a couple of genuinely surprising reveals.

The good news is that the writing has improved immeasurably since Gardens of the Moon, Deadhouse Gates is a very readable book. The bad news is that it still has a very D’n’D plot, with events happening because they must to advance the plot rather than seeming to arise organically as a result of previous actions and incredibly arcane and powerful objects just falling into characters’ hands at the right moments. The whole world was apparently created for the author’s role playing game in what must have been a real humdinger of a campaign, but this makes for an oddly constructed story. Huge coincidences drive the plot as the novel jumps from action set piece to action set piece. You can just about hear the dice rolls, and anytime a character doesn’t speak for a while you get the feeling like the rest of the players sent someone out to pick up the pizza.

Speaking of action set pieces, Deadhouse Gates is incredibly bloody even by the standards of grimdark fantasy. I doubt there is an 800 word stretch in the whole novel where nobody gets their liver ruptured or their face staved in. The action is pretty well written though and the talkiness of the first book is greatly diminished.

Only recommended if you really like this sort of thing.

Book Review : Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson

The already vast Malazan empire is in an expansionist mood although discontent simmers within the ranks of the armed forces. Powerful wizards on both sides clash with arcane sorceries leading to huge loss of life. Only two free cities hold out against the oppression of the empress and the air is thick with magic, vile treachery, and the unsubtle touch of the gods themselves.

Cover art for Gardens of the MoonGardens of the Moon is a complicated book, there are a lot of overlapping stories going on and many of the characters are secretly not-what-they-seem so it can be hard to keep track of who is who. The incredibly silly names do not help matters; along the way the reader will meet High Fist Dujek, Anomander Rake (Lord of Moon’s Spawn), Sergeant Whiskeyjack, mage Tattersail, love interest Challice D’Arle, and elder god K’rul – none of whom are really that interesting. It is this sort of thing that gives fantasy a bad name (could be worse though).

On the other hand the setting is pretty great. There is whole backstory of the empire lurking under the plot not to mention a very unique system of magic, which is important since half the characters seem to have some sort of magical power. Also, unlike a lot of fantasy, there are plenty of females to mix things up and less of the standard casual racism. This strikes me as a tad unrealistic but it is a refreshing change of pace.

The novel’s biggest flaw is the dialog. Gardens of the Moon is a dialog-heavy tale but almost all the characters speak with the same (very modern sounding) voice, using the same flat tone whether they are addressing a lover, a demon or a thief in a back alley. Even worse, all the named characters tend to talk only to each other, as if the novel was a cheap TV show that can’t afford to spend money on extras that speak. Much of the story is supposed to take place in a teeming city, but it feels deserted and most scenes take place in one of a handful of locations.

I am sick of books that will not end properly to encourage you to buy the next one so I was happily surprised to find the Gardens of the Moon comes to a pretty satisfying ending for a book that spawned a bunch of sequels. I struggled through GotM because a friend reckons that the first of these sequels, Deadhouse Gates, is one of the best fantasy novels he has read. This might be a low bar, but I am reading it now. Deadhouse Gates does seem like an improvement but I am reserving judgement until I reach the end. UPDATE: reviewed here.

As for Gardens of the Moon, I cannot recommend it unless you really like this sort of thing.

Rage of Thrones

So season three of Game of Thrones has started.

View on youtube
Actually, the adaption of Game of Thrones has been pretty great so far. In some ways it is even better than the books, mainly due to stuff actually happening in a timely manner. Also, instead of G.R.R.Martin’s vivid descriptions of breasts in every chapter, we actually get to see breasts. This behind the scenes look explains the creative process.

The books are crazily ambitious but the pace has been slowing with each successive novel. I suspect that the next book will cover in detail what each of the 85 characters did between the hours of 8:30am and 11:30am on a particular Tuesday morning, including what they had for breakfast, if anything scary made their bowels turn to water, and if they saw any nice breasts. It is these colourful threads that the novels’ rich tapestry is woven from.

(Axis of Awesome also have this unrelated but amusing song which is worth a look.)

Review: Three Collections of Short Stories

David Falkayn Star Trader CoverDavid Falkayn : Star Trader by Poul Anderson, compiled by Hank Davis
ISBN: 9781439132944

Swashbuckling David Falkayn and his diverse non-human crew travel the galaxy looking for trading opportunities to further enrich his benevolent yet non-too-scrupulous patron. Most of the stories involve the group meeting primitive civilisations and attempting contact which goes badly. The resolution will usually involve the traders figuring out some facet of the native’s culture or physiology that caused the misunderstanding.

I’ve never heard of David Falkayn before, but apparently he stars in a lot of Poul Anderson’s stories. This collection (edited and sycophantically introduced by Hank Davis) covers a lot of ground, from early works written in the 60 to quite modern stuff. The theme that the cultural differences between the traders and the groups they meet can be solved through knowledge and mutual understanding is solid, although some of the resolutions feel a little contrived and almost patronising. The best stories involve the crew interacting with superior cultures that have figured out something about humans that they are using as leverage.

Also, for an author that goes to great lengths to paint complex and sympathetic aliens Anderson sure writes some laughably sexist stories.

Recommend, but if you like this sort of thing.

Tales from Earthsea CoverTales from Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
ISBN: 9781451768435

A collection of shorter tales set in the world of Earthsea, the storied archipelago setting of the Wizard of Earthsea novels the I devoured as a kid. These stories are not particularly linked to the main plot of the earlier books and stand alone nicely. Perhaps not Le Guin’s best works (they seem a little unambitious compared to her great novels), the writing still bubbles and flows like a cool stoney brook and it was a pleasure to dip my feet in again.

Recommend.

Robots the Recent AI CoverRobots : The Recent A.I. edited by Rich Horton & Sean Wallace
ISBN: 9781607013181

Now onto the hard stuff – a recent collection of robot tales. Usually these compilations are a mixed bag but I have no complaints about any of the stories, which are nicely varied but uniformly excellent. Most of the works are straight forward yarns (robot detective stories, thrillers, etc), with a sprinkling of the more experimental stuff that is usually skippable but works well here. There is lots of thoughtful and exciting writing on display.

Highly recommended if you like this sort of thing.