Saturday, 27 September 2014

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them review

I’ve got a friend who loves movies. Much more than me, I think. She saw an interesting two part movies last year while attending the Toronto International Film Festival. It’s called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby but unlike traditional films, this one was split in two parts one subtitled Her and Him. Each of the two movies tell the same story but they follow the point of view of two different characters, one per movie. They work on their own but watched back to back they inform each other. She’s been talking to me about this movie (these movies?) for a whole year so when she found out that yet another version of the movie, this time subtitled Them, was going to be screaned at Cinéfest Sudbury International Film Festival (I’m classy like that), she convinced me to go see it.

Even before seeing Them and having never seen Him or Her, I knew that this was going to be a different movie. For starters, Him and Her have a combined screen time of nearly 3 hours but Them is only 2 hours long. Something has likely been edited out of the combined film and frankly, I think that’s ok because it will assumedly be a different movie that what the viewers of Him and Her have seen anyway. That makes it an interesting movie before you even watch it. Thankfully Them was a good enough movie to make the three movie experimentation worthwhile and I’m confident enough to say this even though I’ve only ever see one of the three movies. I think it’s interesting to point that out that after the movie premiered in two parts at TIFF, the Weinstein Company purchased the distribution rights to the movie and apparently was part of the motivation to combine both movies together. I wasn’t able to find clear details on why Him and Her were edited into Them. It could have been direction from Weinstein Company but I think it's likely other reasons behind this since writer-director Ned Benson categorized his film as a “work in progress” when it was viewed at TIFF. Either way, Them has been released and I was lucky enough to watch it in a crowded theatre and I rather enjoyed it for being a bit unorthodox yet emotionally resonant film about loss and healing.

Before I get to the movie proper, I want to talk about the inaccurate and misleading trailer for Them. I watched the trailer before seeing the movie and other than the foreknowledge I had of the movie’s previously separated point of view movies I didn’t know anything else about Them. Going into the theatre I thought it was going to be a romance film. I knew it definitively wasn’t a romantic comedy and thankfully the trailer didn’t try to make it look like one but it does try to make it a love story and that’s not quite what it is. At least, it’s not a movie about two people falling in love. It was more interesting and layered than that. The trailer didn’t provide me, a potential viewer, with the right set of expectations for the movie. It’s not very important because the movie obviously stands on its own but it’s a common thread in many movie trailers that they inaccurately portray the kind of movie they’re mean to be advertising.

Them begins with a romantic evening out where we’re introduced to Eleanor (Jessica Chastain) and Connor (James McAvoy). It’s a cute scene and it shows the main characters at a point in their life where they were deeply happy. The next scene in the movie shifts gears emotionally and gives us the titular scene of Eleanor’s disappearance. The rest of the movie deal with two things: 1) the reason for her leaving Connor and 2) Connor and Eleanor dealing with the fact that they’ve seemingly separated, putting their marriage in limbo after seven years of being together. In less than ten minutes Benson established the couple and then tore them apart. It’s a bold way to start his first film.

The rest of the plot felt familiar and likely will be to anyone who’s watched drama films. The story’s building blocks are nothing new but Benson uses them and presents them in a way that heightens the story being told. The first half of the movie plays almost like a mystery. By withholding one piece of information, the cause of Eleanor's disappearance, Benson involves the reader in the events of the movie. We’re paying close attention to what all the characters say in the hopes of finding out what happened. It made me feel a little voyeuristic. The characters on screen are all suffering in varying degrees and it felt a bit wrong to be snooping in on them. Once we find out what happen my feelings towards what was happening changed. I became increasingly concerned and worried for Eleanor, Connor and their families. I was worried they wouldn’t be able to recuperate from the event that transpired off-screen earlier in the movie.

Them isn't a movie with twits but it’s a movie with many layers. It leads itself well to thought and interpretation. What starts off as a simple movie builds in complexity as the minutes pass by. The acting by Chastain and McAvoy is impressively powerful and they’re surrounded by many other very good actors such as Viola Davis, William Hurt, Ciarán Hinds, and Jess Weixler. Even Bill Hader plays a satisfyingly serious role as Connor’s best friend. To see such a carefully constructed movie with a detailed script (few words are spoken that don’t contribute to the movie’s story and themes) so superbly acted out by such great actors was a treat in itself. It also helped that Them had something important to say about loss, emotional healing and the power of love.

Most of the movie concerns itself with Eleanor and Connor’s healing process. It can see how this movie would have worked well in two parts, each focusing on one of the characters, because there are very interesting similarities and differences in the way they try to heal themselves. Connor continues to move straight ahead in his life. He focuses on his work as a failing restaurateur as a way to cope with his loss. He does it blindly though, focusing more on hiding his pain with his actions. He starts a fight with one of his patrons, he starts a fight with his best friend and chef and he’s running his business to the ground. It’s pretty clear he also has a great sense of pride as his refuses to ask his father, a very successful restaurateur, for any help even though his father is the one clear lifeline he has since Eleanor left.

Eleanor doesn’t move forward, she moves backward. She also tries to hide the problem but not by acting out. She suppresses it, she tries to hide it and act as though nothing is wrong. After her failed suicide attempt, she retreats to her parent’s home. There she tries equally hard to get them to understand she doesn’t want to talk about what happened. “Why do you need to remind me that something is wrong?” she asks her father. She’s in an environment where people could help her but, similarly to Connor, she rejects that help, though she doesn’t do it out of pride but as a way to try and move past her current situation. Both characters are running in opposite directions as a way to cope with their loss but in doing so they’re simply causing more problems for themselves. They’re also running away from the one other person who survived the same ordeal they did. They’re miserable and emotionally devastated and so they split but that only created another problem for them to deal with: the loss of their spouse.

I won’t tell you how the movie ends or any more about how the characters try and cope with their situation. If you’re interested in watching a writer-director’s impressive debut or a drama that is taken seriously by the cast as well as the crew (it’s really a well put together movie), you’ll eventually find yourself in front of a screen playing The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them. It’s an emotional movie, yes, but it’s not exclusively a sad movie. Unlike many other movies that it vaguely resembles, Them doesn’t deal with a sad subject in a depressive way. Certainly some, if not most, of the characters in the movie deal with a form of depression, they’re not focusing on their pain. They’re focusing on healing. Not forgetting their problem but true healing. It’s a worthy struggle and a lot of it is unspoken and it leaves room for interpretation on the viewer’s part but it’s a worthy subject to deal with. I’d love to tell you I’m happy and proud for Eleanor and Connor but the truth is I don’t know exactly what the future holds for them. All I know is that they’re likely to deal with it together, as a couple. Despite dealing with sadness, Them ends up being a surprisingly hopeful movie.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

‘Salem’s Lot: A Reader’s Confession

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been aware of Stephen King and his impressive (in more than one way) body of work. I can also remember disliking him for just as long. I’m not sure exactly what it is about him and his books that didn’t sit well with me, especially since I didn’t finish my first of his stories until last year when I read The Mist. So where the hell did my dislike come from? I can’t answer that in any great detail but I will say that I tried to read one of his books at one point. Unfortunately, I can’t remember which but my reaction was that it described a great many things but nothing really happened. I also didn’t like horror. I’m still not really a fan of the genre though I will fully admit that there are some very good horror stories out there, in various mediums. I remember watching a few of his non-horror movies. The Green Mile is still a favourite of mine. I remember being stunned by the immensely powerful story of The Shawshank Redemption when I first saw it at the recommendation of my aunt and uncle. Aside from those two movies, I didn’t like King.

For the most part, he didn’t have much of a presence in my life while growing up but that change several years ago when my father was reading The Dark Tower series. He read them in large hardcover and trade paperback versions which had lush, captivating illustrations by various skilled artists. I remember asking him if it was horror as I incorrectly believed that King only wrote horror (despite my previous viewings of non-horror films based on some of his stories). My dad responded that it was more fantasy than anything else. Damn. How dare he? Fantasy’s a genre I’ve enjoyed for most of my life and the idea that an author who I didn’t like (for no apparent reason) would write an entire series in my favourite genre irked me. But it also had my attention because it reminded me that King doesn’t just write horror. I would eventually read several of The Dark Tower comics which I really, really liked despite my fervent opinion that Stephen King was no good and I didn’t like it. Hypocritically, I stuck to this conviction by poorly rationalizing that King didn’t have much involvement in the comic adaptation of his series because it was written and illustrated by a creative team that he wasn’t a part of. Needless to say, my previous opinions of King were nothing short of asinine and hypocritical.

I admit I’ve always been troubled by my dislike of King. Probably because I knew that it was a dislike that wasn’t rooted in anything concrete. I realize now that it was prejudice, pure and simple. Last year I read and watched The Mist. After finishing the movie, I still wasn’t convinced I liked King. It’s was the first completed King story I read and it was clearly a horror story. I really enjoyed it but I wasn’t sold on the guy or his work. Even after that I was a disappointed in myself for feeling the way I did about King. It gave me an unpleasant feeling mostly because amidst all my confusion of like and dislike, I knew that I never really gave the guy or his work a fair chance. I gave him another shot last week. I read ‘Salem’s Lot and I realized something.

I like Stephen King. I really like him.

Don’t ask me what the fuck happened. The best explanation I can give is that I changed and grew up as a reader and King is actually good when you take the time to read one of his books (as opposed to developing an opinion out of thin air).

I didn’t just read ‘Salem’s Lot. I also read about King online. I watched interviews. I read about his work. I got to know the man and I also got to better understand his body of work. Some of the arguments I had used on myself and other people (I know what you’re thinking. I’m an ass. I’m sorry. ) to dismiss his work and importance to literature were also used by other people online. More importantly, they were directly addressed and swept aside by his fans, his supporters, his peers and many critics. Stephen King writes long and boring books. Go read one in its entirety, and then we’ll talk. Stephen King is trash fiction, his work is rubbish. Again, go read one of his books from start to finish and then we’ll talk. Stephen King only writes horror and horror sucks/is boring/is trashy/whatever. No, he also writes things in other genres and some of his horror is based on astute observations of the human condition. The guy’s written non-fiction, even! Give him a fair chance. In fact, give any writer you personally criticism and are uninformed about a chance. I did and I’m glad I did because I discovered an excellent writer whom millions of other fans have been enjoying for decades. Sure, I’m late to the party but at least I showed up in time to enjoy it.

That’s enough of that. Let’s talk about ‘Salem’s Lot.  At over 600 pages this is a large book but it has to be in order to work. In the introduction to the 1999 edition, King writes about some of the writers and stories that influenced him in his writing of this particular story. He also writes about what he wanted to accomplish with ‘Salem’s Lot and it’s because of those goals that the book is longer that what some people think it needs to be. King’s second novel can best be described as a cross between Peyton Place and Dracula. Everybody knows of Dracula but Peyton Place is a more obscure novel written by Grace Metalious. Published in 1956, the book focused on the small town life, specifically the scandalous activities that occurred behind closed doors. The book was hugely popular at the time of its release, staying on the New York Times best seller list for 59 weeks. It even inspired a TV series of the same name that ran from 1964-1969.

The idea King had for a story was to incorporate the arrival of vampires in the small New England town of Jerusalem’s Lot. Though ‘Salem’s Lot is fictional, it’s based on very real little towns. It was the first instance where King wrote about a town as if it was a character all its own. The first 200 pages of the book are nearly entirely focused on setting up the various characters along with their peaceful and simple lives. This slow build has put off some people form the novel and likely I would have found it rather boring at a younger age but I really appreciated the set up. I got to know the people before the tragedy of their situation became apparent. At that point it was too late for me to backup or read without concern for Ben, Susan, Mark, Father Callahan and Matt. I was emotionally invested, King worked his spell on me.

The second third of the book concerns itself with the discovery of the dreadful situation the townspeople are in. The final third is all about setting up the final confrontation with the original vampires and the dozens and dozens of people they’ve turned. At the time of its original release the vampires were not openly marketed in order to keep it a surprise for the reader. It was a suggestion of King’s editor. King was dubious that people wouldn’t be able to put the pieces together but he played along. Today, due in great part because of King’s popularity, it’s widely known that ‘Salem’s Lot is a vampire novel. Some covers even announced it proudly, such as the cover of the edition I read. The vampire “surprise” isn’t what makes this a good book. The pacing, the characters and the way King doesn’t shy away from portraying a vampiric invasion with fanboy glee and a surprising amount of realism. As you can imagine from a book by the Master of Horror, things don’t really end well for the characters though the ending is ambiguous enough to keep readers wondering about the final fate of Jerusalem’s Lot far after they’ve finished the book.

Reading ‘Salem’s Lot was a cathartic experience for me. It helped me become at peace with one of the most popular writers in North America. For several years I was waging a war with him inside my head and all it did was cause uncomfortable feelings about popular fiction, my dislike of horror, and an unappealing, obnoxious and incompletely unfounded sense of superiority that I, unlike millions of other people, didn’t read books by Stephen King. In many ways it’s fascinating that ‘Salem’s Lot is the book that made me change my mind about all this negativity. My thoughts and feelings about King and his work were a kind of negative energy or a type of evil that invaded the quite small town life of my usually open and receptive brain. ‘Salem’s Lot is the stake and the holy water used on me to kill those evil (vampiric) thoughts. Now I’m free to enjoy King’s stories to my heart’s content even if it results in occasionally sleeping with the lights on.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Blog Fantastic 027: Jhereg review

Jhereg is a marvelous book. Vlad Taltos might be my new favourite fantasy series and, Steven Brust, my new favourite fantasy author. I have to say I’m astonished that more people do not talk about Brust and his work online. I can't remember when I first heard of him but there were a few people whose judgement I value and whose preferences in fiction usually match up with mine that have written a bit about the Vlad Taltos series. It's thanks to Jo Walton’s articles and reviews on that I found and read an interview someone did with Brust which finally convinced me to look for one of his books at my local used book store (Bay Used Books).

I thought he was completely unknown to me before I started to read Jhereg but it turns out I’ve read a short story by him in The Sandman: Book of Dreams, a collection of short stories set in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic book series. I remember absolutely nothing about Brust’s story titled “Valóság and Élet” and so I have no idea if I was unimpressed with his story thus explaining why I didn’t remember his name when I heard about his again. I’ll have to go reread it to find out.

You can summarize the story well enough, as long as you don’t go into too much detail. Vlad is a human living in one of the cities of the Dragaeran Empire. The Empire is ruled and mostly populated by people who are descendants of dragons (no, really). He is contacted by one of the crime lords of his House and asked to take on a contract to assassinate a man who has run off with the council’s gold. The novel is about Vlad working on his contract and assassinating his target. That might sound like a tired plot but Brust’s phenomenal world building and hybridization of genres make this novel a memorable read.

Right out of the gate, Steven Brust begins to build a unique series with the prologue of Jhereg. It’s quite wonderful. In fifteen pages he set up his main character, the world and customs of his story. Everything reads well and all of the pieces fall neatly together. It describes a fantasy setting that is a bit unusual but it’s also gripping. I was instantly fascinated with Vlad and his origins. It's a small tale in and of itself. It's about the making of an assassin but it's also more than that. It's also about introducing the world of Dragaera and setting up a few pieces for the rest of the novel. All of this is done, quite masterfully, before the start of the first chapter. 

As much as I want to continue boasting about Jhereg’s uniqueness, I have to admit that its hybrid fantasy as there are many elements from other genres that are a key component of the world Brust has built. You could easily and rather accurately describe this book as being noir-fantasy since, aside from fantasy, the book borrows most heavily from crime and detective novels. The first indication of this is the use of first person narration which is used to good effect for world building (as I’ll explain below) but also gives the book a different feel from most fantasy novels as of the first page. In Jhereg, Vlad narrates the events as they’re happening or shortly after they’ve taken place but he includes information from the past. Some of that helps explain the world and the story and some of it explains the characters and their relationships but it also provides the reader with information on characters who either don't show up at all or who only play a small role in the book.

You can also see strong influence from noir stories in the main plot of the book. The plot is constructed as a detective story in which Vlad is searching for clues and puzzling together the reason why Lord Mellar stole from the House of Jhereg. In doing so he’s uncovering other secrets about himself and the world he lives in. In the last few chapters of the book the assassination of Mellar is written in a way that reminded me of heist films. The assassination contract he accepted requires a very precise and complicated plan to be a successful assassination. Vlad, along with several other characters, plan the assassination meticulously by pooling together all of their information and personal skill. Naturally, this is followed by the execution of said plan and it’s all very satisfying: as a heist and the climax to a fantasy novel. Brust carefully planned the entire book in such a way that all of the elements work to reinforce each other. To understand the detective and heist plots of the book you first need to understand the world in which the story takes place. The catch is that you’re learning about the world at the same time that Vlad is discovering clues about his target and the role his assassination will play in the political setting of Adrilankha City. It’s a delightful cycle of plot, world building, informative narration, and character development which results in a powerhouse climax. Not a word is wasted.

World Building and Structure:
It’s difficult to recall a book in which the narrative and the plot were so intrinsically tied into the world building. They’re so intertwined as to be nearly inseparable. Brust uses first person narration to good effect. Vlad explains certain things to the reader and it works well as exposition because it’s not hiding it exclusively in dialogue or information dumps by an omniscient narrator. Sure, there are some information dumps in dialogue, one particular chapter where Vlad talks to Aliera e’Kieron and the history of Dragaera is presented to Vlad is a chapter devoted almost entirely to exposition and world building. However, for the rest of the novel it’s handled quite well. Brust also uses the first person narration as a way to give us better insight into Vlad’s character and personality. He’s a fascinating protagonist, capable but not invincible. His mind and abilities as a tactician are as important as his skills in sword fighting and witchcraft.

By informing us of the seemingly impossible assassination job the reader is also being informed of the world and the history of the Dragaeran Empire. Brust does this because of his fusion of the detective novel genre with fantasy. By uncovering clues on how to locate and kill his target, Vlad is also uncovering secrets of the world in which he lives. The fact that a lot of what Vlad discovers in the novel is equally new to him as it is to the reader, the reader is not only invested in the plot but is playing a similar role as Vlad. We’re being presented the pieces of the puzzle and we can make sense of it along with the novel’s protagonist. By better understanding the world you get better appreciate the severely difficult situation Vlad is in. The knowledge you gain of Dragaera throughout the book will also help you understand the villain’s motivations and the outcome of the story. In order for the world building to be effective (or for it to matter to the reader) and for the detective story to work, they need to work hand in hand. It’s a skilfully constructed novel but it never reads that way. Brust is quick and sneaky in his storytelling which worked superbly well with this book.  

Sorcery and Witchcraft:
There are two types of magic in the world of Dragaera: sorcery and witchcraft. There are quite a lot differences between the two arts along with a few similarities. For example, sorcery can only be done alone while witchcraft can be done alone or with more than one person. When it is done with more than one person their psionic strength is pooled together then shared equally amongst the participants in the magic. Being assisted by someone during a witchcraft spell can be as much of a hindrance as aid. If someone’s psionic abilities are too strong in comparison to the others involved, it can burn them out and cause serious harm.

Between the two, sorcery is the most familiar as it’s the kind of magic people typically imagine when they think of fantasy. Sorcery is used by tapping into a pool of Chaos, something all people of the Dragaeran Empire can tap into because of their link to the Imperial Orb. To do a spell you need to connect yourself to the Orb and use its chaos energy to fuel and direct your magic.

What’s really interesting though is witchcraft. Witchcraft gets its power from the psionic strength of the person practicing the spell. It’s often ritualistic and it can also be improvisational to a degree. It more closely resembles the kind of magic people discuss in the real world. I was reminded of the ritualistic and trance aspects of magic found in the writings of Grant Morrison, particularly in The Invisibles. It’s very different from the rigidity and detail of magic which you can find in the works of Brandon Sanderson. It’s refreshing and interesting because it’s not something we see often but more importantly it works well within the context of the story and the world Brust has thought up.

Before I wrap this up I want to point out the one element that I found frustrating. The Dragaran Empire is divided into 17 Great Houses of lords and ladies. They are all named after animals. Some are named after mythological creatures while others are named after animals found on Dragaera. J
hereg is one example (what’s a jhereg? It’s a small dragon-like creature with a venomous bite and the ability to speak psionically). Apparently a lot of those animals are based on real world animals but we’re never given a description of most of them! What’s a teckla? I have no fucking clue but it’s mentioned numerous times in this book. I might be a small lizard or something? Maybe a small rodent? I know it’s small. The lack of description of the House animals is frustrating because the members of those Houses embody characteristics of the animals after which their House is named. Brust side steps this a bit by having the book start with a poem that describes some of the qualities of those animals but I feel like there is still a component missing that could easily have been added to the books. It’s the one instance of ineffectual world building that stuck out.

There are many elements found in Jhereg that aren’t new to the fantasy genre or other genres, for that matter. Some of these elements weren’t even new at the time of the book’s original publication but Brust incorporates all of these elements with his own style and makes them sing. The pariticularly interesting world building has the effect of rounding out the book’s tone and style. Add to that Brust’s ability to be very precise with his words and you have a sweet, slim, book. It’s not just short by today’s standard 500+ fantasy novels. AT only 239 pages, Brust gets to the point without rushing anything and it makes for a very satisfying read. Published in 1983, Jhereg is Brust’s first published novel and his first published work, as far as I can tell from my research. That’s amazing! If someone has a list of impressive debut novels I would like to see where Jhereg ranks because I was immensely impressed by this book. There is just so much to love and even though I’ve spend quite a bit of time praising it I’ve also left out a very considerable amount of cool things but being such an incredible book I think you should find a copy for yourself and dig in.

Considered it Covered:
There are quite a few things to enjoy about Steve Hickman’s cover. The detail in the jhereg’s scales is particularly impressive. I also like the little horn he has, something he has on his snout for the purposes of breaking through his egg. The colouring is also very effective, including the use of a solid black background. It’s a simple image, yes, but striking nonetheless. There are only two things I’m not completely sold on though and they are the stripes on the tail and the overly stylized shape of the wings. I can’t help but feel that the tail shouldn’t be striped because it clashes with the solid coloured body of the rest of the jhereg. It also looks like the orange/gold colour of the rest of the body is absent in the tail but that could also be the shading playing tricks on my eyes. As for the wings, they’re aesthetically pleasing but come on, there is no way an animal would have wings like hta.t They don’t look very functional and their curvature is too exaggerated. It kind of looks like an animal that has long stopped using its wings for sustained flight and now only uses them on occasion. I guess I’m not sold on them because they look impractical as wings. Oh well, it’s actually a small complaint at this point because the rest of the cover, particularly the jhereg’s forelegs, neck and head, are just stunning and skilfully detailed. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Miscellaneous Reviews 10: Gaston Lagaffe and Tintin

Gaston Lagaffe vol. 18: Gaffes en pagaille review:
If you’ve ever read a volume of collection gags starring Gaston Lagaffe, you’ll know what to expect in this volume. It’s a collection of joke strips by creator Franquin (famous for his run on Spirou et Fantasio and for creating Gaston and Marsupilami). The Gaston Lagaffe gags originally appeared in Spirou magazine (as far as I know, anyway) and the albums are collections of those serialized gags. This is one of the volumes published after Franquin’s death in 1997 and it collects some of his last Gaston Lagaffe related work. The first half or so of this volume is made up of assorted full page, one panel gags and various pages made up of four “costume” gags (in which Gaston shows off an elaborate, funny or awful costume for a costume party, only to reveal he’s worried about his ability to dance while wearing said costume). It makes for an unusual read considering I’m used to reading half page or full page gag strips but they still manage to delight and provide humorous entertainment.

The quality of the jokes and the quality of the art and storytelling vary a lot. Unlike previous Gaston Lagaffe albums this one is a mishmash of gags selected from various periods throughout the character’s publication. All serious fans of Gaston Lagaffe know that the albums have a complicated publication history and it’s been common to see old and new gags present in albums before but this takes it to a whole new level. Once you get past the halfway mark though, the volume settles into the regular format of one page gag strips. It’s a good collection of gags but the shift in the type of jokes from the first and second half is a little jarring, if only because the first half feels so light and somewhat insubstantial. Not so much because of the quality of the art and the jokes themselves but mostly because this volume isn’t any larger previous Gaston albums and I was getting worried that it would make for an incredibly short read. I was delighted to see that the book changed to its regular format later on in the same volume.

As for the jokes themselves, they’re good. They’re not all great but they’re entertaining and well executed for the most part. As much as dislike the variation in style of the gags in this collection, it allows for an interesting comparison of which format Gaston Lagaffe works best. I enjoyed the single page or single panel jokes but for me, I really prefer the half page or full page strips. I also want to point out that I don’t think this is a good album to introduce new readers to the series. Most of the jokes will still work while other jokes will lack a certain depth if the reader is unfamiliar with the characters that show up without introduction. Since they pop up randomly and without any consistency throughout the book, a new reader might think they’re just random characters and not members of the regular cast. If you’re looking for roaring laughs, a more consistent Gaston, or the best of what the series has to offer, I suggest you pick up on of the classic albums. With over fifteen to choose from I doubt you’ll be disappointed.

Seeing a mix of old gags with some of Franquin’s last few gag strips, I can’t help but think that Marsu Production seems to be going about collection Gaston Lagaffe it in all the wrong ways. I would love to see a definitive multi-volume hardcover collection of all Gaston related material. You could include production notes, interviews, and another other assortment of supplementary material. I’m thinking of something that would honour Franquin and what is considered to be one of his best creations. I think Marsu Production could learn a few lessons from the likes of Fantagraphics and IDW, which have done an excellent job reprinting classic comic strips like Charles Schulz’s Peanuts and Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County, respectively.

My review is based on the French edition published by Marsu Production in 2009.

Les aventures de Tintin: Vol 714 pour Sydney (Flight 714 to Sydney):
One of the series of bande dessinée that I grew up reading was Les aventures de Tintin. To this day I still consider Hergé to be one of the great comics creators but everyone in a while I reread one of his works that makes me doubt it. Vol 714 pour Sydney is one of his more disappointing reads. Unlike many of his earlier works that have suffered a great deal to the critical eye of modern audiences, specifically readers who make claims of sexisms, racisms and other controversial issues, this album exemplifies another one of Hergé’s shortcomings as a writer/artist: sometime he’s down right boring.

This album is boring, not in and of itself, no. It’s boring when compare to other works in the Tintin series. Everything good about this book can be compared to another Tintin story where Hergé did it so much better. The album can be divided into three parts. The first part is all setup but it’s the most enjoyable because, at this point in his career, Hergé is a skilled storyteller and his makes it a considerably good read. Tintin, Milou, capitaine Haddock and Professeur Tournesol are in an airport and nothing appears to be happening but really, what Hergé is doing, is having his very well defined characters interact superbly with strangers and old friends alike. It gives you the sense that yet another excellent Tintin adventure is about to begin.

By the second part of the book though, things start to go downhill. Tintin and his friends end up what can only be described as a run of the mill adventure story. It lacks what made most of Tintin’s adventures interesting: an intriguing situation, intriguing characters, an actual plot. Instead, all we get is Tintin, Haddock and a few other characters running around getting tired up, shot at and beat up. None of it seems to matter because Hergé completely failed to give the reader any reason to be emotionally involved in the story. At this point the reader, like the characters, is just going through the motions.

By the time the third part begins, it’s probably best to just close the book and put it back on the shelf because things get weird. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Things have gotten weird in Tintin before to great effect and I happen to enjoy weird stories. The problem with the way things turn out in this story is that it all feels too easy, overly silly, inconsequential to the story and, most important of all, easy and cheap. It’s not only a bad way to continue the story of the album but it’s quite simply a really bad way to end a story. The island one which Tintin and his friends have been on for most of the book turns out to be site that is regularly visited by aliens. Aliens that end up saving the gang from a violent volcanic eruption . . . or did it? The characters don’t remember because they were conveniently hypnotized before the rescue.

I picked up this volume because I was at my parent’s house a few weekends ago and I wanted to read a Tintin story. I grabbed some of my favourites and I also grabbed this one because I didn’t remember much about it. Well, now I remember a great deal too much about it. It’s definitively one of the most disappointing Tintin albums and I really recommend you avoid it, unless you’ve read all of the others and you really want to read all of Tintin’s stories. My only consolation is that I have a small stack of my favourite stories by Hergé sitting in the next room. I’ll have to read a few this weekend to help me forget the mess that is Vol 714 pour Sydney.

My review is based on the French edition published by Casterman in 1993.

Sunday, 14 September 2014

The Blog Fantastic 026: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe review

The Chronicles of Narnia is one of the many classic series I’ve known about for most of my life but I’ve simply never read. My only experience with Narnia was watching the film adaptation released in 2005. I wanted to read the books then but I clearly got distracted. Actually, it’s probably more truthful to say that there’s always been other series I’ve wanted to read more and that still holds true a bit today. So why read it now? Quite simply, I was reviewing the series and authors I listed in my introductory post for The Blog Fantastic and I realized that I hadn’t really read too many books that I had listed. After reading the third volume of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time I was ready for a break from 600+ pages fantasy novels. I wanted to read another fantasy book but I also wanted something slimmer. All this is a rambling way to say that it was the right time for me to pick up The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and read my first Narnia book.

My initial reaction is that it’s delightfully fun to read. My later reaction is that there isn’t much substance to the whole thing and. As the first published book in the series it serves more as an introduction to the world, some of the rules of magic (what Aslan says, goes) and  the relationship the four Pevensie children have with the magical world of Narnia. That being said, it’s not bay book, far from it, but it’s clear that C.S. Lewis’s reputation and the reputation of the series are not founded solely on the merits of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It can’t be because there just isn’t enough here for a sustained reflection on the story and how it relates to us, our world and (I’d be remiss not to mention it) Christianity.

The main problem I have with the novel is the lack of consequences (there is one example where there is, but I’ll get to that later). Events happen one after another and there are few things that happen afterword to make the characters or the readers stop and assess or absorbed what’s just happened. Mostly it’s because little of what happens has any real impact on the overall story or the experience the children are having in Narnia. Aslan’s death is the most obvious example of this but there is also the question of the stone statues which are inhabitants of the land transformed to stone by the White Witch. All of the White Witch’s magic is cancelled out by Aslan’s magic. When Aslan returns the snow starts to melt and springtime moves across the land. The stone statues are given life again by Aslan. His death at the hands of the White Witch is also cancelled out by his nearly immediate resurrection. The lack of consequences takes away a lot of the threat of from the story. It also takes away some of the wonderment and the charm because it gives readers the impression that nothing “matters”. Narnia has few lessons to teach the Pevensie children and few lessons to teach readers, that is, unless you are willing to accept and internalize the story of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe as Christian allegory. I posit that even if you do that, the story has nothing new to offer.

Another glaring example of the lack of consequences happens in the last few pages. The Pevensies has just returned to the real world after decades ruling in Narnia. As soon as they step out of the wardrobe they are children once again. It’s unclear whether or not they retain the memory of their visit to the magical world. Furthermore, the Professor tells them they cannot go back to Narnia through the wardrobe. They can’t even go back and prove to themselves that it was real and not just something made up. I don’t know about you but that doesn’t give me much more enjoyment as a reader than the kinds of stories where everything was all just a dream. None of it mattered. Of course this would be different if they remembered the experience but I didn’t get the sense that they did. The fact that there are sequels (as well as prequels, from what I’ve read about the series) suggests that the four Pevensies do remember their time in Narnia so this might not be the best example of lack of consequences. Still, if you’re considering this volume on its own, it makes for a disappointing ending once you’ve considering what it means for the characters and the story.

Despite what I’ve just written, I enjoyed myself a great deal while reading this book. I’m very fond of Lucy and I like her the most, I think. I also like some of the other inhabitants of Narnia such as Tumnus the faun and Mr. and Mrs. Beaver. I wanted to like Aslan but I didn’t. He’s pretty uninteresting and that might have to do a lot with my interpretation of him as the character that removes and nullifies all of the conflict of the book and in doing so takes away a lot of what made the story interesting before his arrival. While I liked a lot of characters none of them really had an arc. They were the same characters from beginning to end with the exception of Edmund who is the only one with a character arc. His mischievous and traitorous nature, as accentuated by the magical Turkish Delight, was one of the source of true conflict in the story both inside and outside of Narnia. His guilt and subsequent re-joining of the ranks with the siblings doesn’t fall in with all of the other “cancellations” of plot elements as listed above. While Edmund is given help by Lucy’s magic cordial in repenting his previous actions against his family and Narnia, he felt regret on his own long before the magic cordial broke the enchantment put on his by the Turkish Delight.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a delightful book to read. I enjoyed Lewis’s writing style. I found it to be captivating, comforting and warm, like only British writers seem to be able to do well. It’s a simple writing style but it did the job. The main idea of the book is also intriguing. It’s one of the best things about the book. It’s just such a great idea that I can rather easily forgive my criticisms and recommend this book to fantasy enthusiasts, especially younger readers, because the reading experience really was fun. It’s intriguing to read about the Pevensies discovery of Narnia and their first adventure. It starts quickly and ends just as quickly which resulted in me wanting more. I’m very glad that there are six more books in the series because I’m really looking forward to reading about some more adventures. I’m looking forward to the exploration of the world that has just been introduced in this book. I hope that there is more internal logic and development of the characters, the world and how it all ties in together.

Consider it covered:
My edition of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was printed by Harper Trophy, a division of Harper Collins and it has a cover by Cliff Nielsen. His style of art, on this cover at least, is more photo and digital manipulation of images than what I would consider illustration. As such, this cover is kind of a montage or a collage of images. The composition is nice, we have a focus on Aslan at the bottom and the image is centered on a frozen waterfall which is surrounded by elements found in the story: the White Witch’s castle, stone statues, trees without leaves and snowflakes. Everything is given a blue and white hue which accurately portrays the winter setting of Narnia as it takes place in the story. The inclusion of a semi-transparent image of the White Witch gives the cover its much needed human presence (actually, she’s specifically not human as per the story). I’m not blow away by it, I actually do not like this style of illustration for covers, but it gets the job done and incorporates many elements of the story. It’s certainly a good cover even if it doesn’t appeal to me directly.  

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) review

Every once in a while I think about the kind of reviews I write for Shared Universe Reviews. One thing always sticks out to me and is that most of my reviews are of older works. Not all of them, but a significantly large enough amount of it that it sticks out. I’m thinking about that once again because I’m about to write a review for an anime series that is roughly 35 years old. To many anime fans that seems kind of outrageous because such an old show much be damn near unwatchable for a modern audience. It’s nothing new for me though as I regularly sample entertainment from previous decades and a lot of that ties into my philosophy on how I experience my entertainment. Reading old books in a genre I love, something I’ve been doing with my The Blog Fantastic project, allows me to get a greater sense of the history and evolution of the genre. It also allows me to contextualize works in a loose historical chronology. Most important of all, it creates a dialogue between the more recent works I’ve read and the older ones that preceded it. It’s one thing for a reader of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire to read about Martin’s influence in an interview or an article but it learning of his influences is has very different meaning to readers who have also read the works Martin cites as influential to him and his series.

What does any of this have to do with Gundam? Well, several weeks ago I thought I knew what Gundam was all about but there was a voice in the back of my head (you already knew I was crazy, right?) which said “How can you think you know about Gundam when you’ve never watched the original series?”. Good point. So I watched Mobile Suit Gundam (1979) and I have to say that little voice in my head was right. I’m glad I watched this because as old as it is, it’s an impressive series and it’s changed the way I think about Gundam and anime in general. In other words, Mobile Suit Gundam (from this point on abbreviated to MSG) is old, certainly, but it’s worth your time for being incredibly influential and for spawning an immense anime, manga and plastic model franchise.

Enemy soldiers are people too? Stop making sense!

I don’t want to spend too much time summarizing the events of the series. I want to focus on specific elements and write about what I enjoyed, what worked, what didn’t work so well, and reasons why MSG is an important anime series, let alone important to the Gundam metaseries. For anyone who wants a broad introduction to the setting of the events of MSG, you can check out the introduction post to my Mobile Suit Gundam: The 08th MS Team. There I wrote a piece that works well as an introduction for the Universal Century timeline and for MSG.

As for the series proper, the first dozen or so episodes of MSG are nothing short of stellar. The first episode begins with a bang. The Earth Federation’s new Gundam carrier ship, the White Base, has recently landed on colony Side 7 (also known as Noa) near Lagrangian Point 3. The colony is in the middle of evacuating civilians since the presence of the White Base and the experimental RX-78-2 Gundam is believed to be attracting the attention of Zeon forces. Naturally, three Zeon Zakus enter the colony to spy on the Federation’s activities and everything quickly escalates to a full blown attack on the colony. A young man, Amuro Ray, son of the engineer who built the RX-78 Gundam pilots the mobile suit for the first time in an effort to protect his friends. By the end of the first episode Amuro has already shown an affinity to piloting the Gundam and he, along with some of his friends, are being asked to serve aboard the White Base which is severely undermanned, having lost soldiers in the attack. For the first third of the series the story focuses on the trials the White Base and its crew face as they try to escape the Zeon forces and eventually get officially enlisted in the war effort. 

Those episodes make for a stunning introduction to the series. Not only are they good stories but they set the foundational elements for the rest of the series. Nearly all of the main characters are introduced, some in more detail than others, but they will all get fleshed out as the series progressed. Some of the key villains are also introduced, specifically Char Aznable also known as the Red Comet. In many ways, this exemplary beginning plays the same role for the rest of MSG as the series did for the rest of the Gundam metaseries. But before I get to that I want to talk about the elephant in the room: 35 year old animation.

I can say without a doubt that some people will not like the animation of MSG, begrudging it for being old, unpolished and difficult to watch. Personally, I learned to like it. If you’ve watched anime before, it’s unavoidable that there will be a jarring effect when you start watching MSG. Once I had watched three or so episodes I started to settle in and get used to it. After a while I didn’t mind the older animation and I only noticed just how old it was when I consciously focused on it. If you’re open minded and, like me, can accept that it’s mostly old animation and not specifically bad animation, you’ll be able to focus on the story and the characters as opposed to the fact that most of the explosions are pink and that the mobile suits regularly move as if they’re either made in one solid piece or made of rubber and bend in was they simply shouldn't be able to bend. I think it also helped that I didn’t watch any other animated movies or series during the time I was watching MSG. I imagine if you’re bouncing back between old and new series, this gem from 1979 will always be irritating to watch.

Char "Red Comet" Aznable is one of the best Gundam characters ever. 

It was interesting to watch such and old series though because I realized that there are things about new animation that I like and things that I don’t. Things I like about new animation that I missed while watching MSG was the consistency in the animation. The RX-78 Gundam doesn’t look 100% the same from episode to episode. It also isn’t consistent in the way that it moves. One of the things I dislike about modern animation is the lighting and use of shadows. It’s done well as often as it’s done badly but some series are either over lit or far too dark and shadowing which makes it difficult to determine what’s going on. In contrast, MSG is lit almost objectively. Everything is lit in the same way and you lose that sense of depth and weight that good lighting can provide. There are many other comparisons that could be made between the animation used in MSG and more recent anime series but the point I’m trying to make is that MSG’s animation is not all bad. I’m not suggesting it’s better than today’s animation but it certainly has its charm. Another example is that this old animation has a certain kind of warmth to it, specifically in the motion of characters and the colouring. It has the fluidity of hand-drawn animation that really suits certain kinds of storytelling while computer generation or computer assisted animation fares better with the mechanical designs.

What helps with the (now) sub-par animation is that the mechas, the ships and the characters are really well designed. Many of the iconic visuals of the franchise are lifted straight from MSG or are updated versions of what we first see in this series. It’s from the obvious things like the RX-78 Gundam, the Zakus and the White Base to smaller things like the cockpit of the Gundam, particularly the lever that slides forward and backwards. Even the way that device is used in the cockpit has become a staple of Gundam shows to follow. When a character slams it forward it’s because he is launching into the air or it means that a battle has gotten serious and the character isn’t going to leave any other mobile suits standing.
All the girls have to wear pink, OK? Boys in blue, please. Good soldiers.

As teased above, MSG is a microcosm of the entire Gundam franchise. It’s not just responsible for introducing the iconic design of the RX-78 but of many other things that make up the bread and butter of the metaseries. Let’s make a list of recurring elements that were introduced in MSG, just for fun:

·         Political and philosophical debates about war,
·         The visual designs of the series including mecha designs and the sleek (though blocky) design of the White Base which Gundam SEED shamelessly revamped in their even sleeker design of the Archangel,
·         The way battles are setup and choreographed,
·         The conflict between Earth and the space colonies. Sure this changes from series to series based on the specific factions and political or military organizations, but the main element remains the same,
·         Villains that are later portrayed as heroes or at least more heroic than they were at an earlier point in the series,
·         Characters who wear masks,
·         New mobile suits for important characters or upgrades to current mobile suits (side note: just how many mobile suits and mobile armors does Char pilot in this series?),
·         Newtypes or a more physically and mentally advanced population of humanity,
·         Characters dying and staying dead, and
·         The main character always starts of as whiny, brattish and thinks the entire weight of the world (plus the space colonies) rest solely on their should. In the good series the character grows out of it and becomes an interesting character. In the bad series and Gundam SEED, the main character just gets more insufferable and the series goes on. 

I’m sure there are plenty of other things I’ve missed but I’m also sure there are tropes specific to Gundam series that I’m not even familiar with since I haven’t watched all of the series. I think the above list is enough to support my claim that almost everything Gundam related can trace its source back to this series. That might seem like a dumb statement but it’s important to point out because none of these elements would have endured in multiple variations had the origin versions not been good. Some later series improved on some of the elements found in MSG but chances are they wouldn’t have tried it if it wasn’t for MSG’s initial success with it. Above all else, it’s the characters, complex and properly examined during the show’s run, that tie everything else together into a satisfying series.

Ramba Ral. One of the best Zeon officers. You were too awesome for us.

I have to clarify that MSG is by no means a perfect show. Even when you don’t factor in the quality of the animation, this is a very flawed series. While shorter than your average number of episode for a Gundam series (50 or so) I think MSG would have benefit from even less. The series explodes out of the gate and sustains this wild and manic energy for several episodes before slowing down considerably before the middle of the series. It’s here that things seem to meander around for a while and I admit to taking a break from watching it because I got a little bored. It’s crazy to think that I binge watched the first half of the series only to leave it for a few weeks before returning to it. I’m glad I did because the last third of the series picks up considerably and while it doesn’t quite match the impact of the first third of the show it still ended in a satisfying way, though abrupt, way.

Other criticisms would include the female uniforms. Why are they pink? Why can’t everybody be in Federation blue or command grey? Don’t even get me started about the terrible idea of Gundam transformation. Unfortunately, around episode 10, this idea was introduced and it’s just awful. The Gundam’s cockpit is actually a core fighter (think space jet, and you'll get the idea) which can be used as the cockpit for the Guntank, the Guncannon and the Gundam. It’s the most ridiculous and hokey idea of the entire show but I really started to hate it when I realized the recurring use of the transformation sequence in the show. Aside from seeing the segment repeated over and over (occasionally multiple times in a single episode) I completely disagreed with the idiotic strategy to send out Amuro, the only person abord the White Base who can pilot the gundam, in a ship other than the Gundam because it almost always resulted in the decision to have him transform or transfer into the Gundam mid-battle. Things get even worse later on as more parts are given to the crew of the White Base. The Gundam can now be combined with the G-Fighter to produce the G-Armor, they can detach in mid-air! Wow! Who fucking cares? Not me. It’s lame. I admit I’m a bit consoled by the fact that the gunplay model kits outsold any other kind of merchandise that was produced based on this transformation idea.

Sleggar being fly. Don't get too attached, Mirai.

At the end of the day though, this series isn’t fondly remembered for its animation or use of transforming Gundam sequences. People remember MSG because of the story and how the characters are handled. They remember the series because of how realism was incorporated into the series. Being a long series there are several episodic stories here and there, some of which don’t matter at all to the larger story, but some of those episodes contribute to character development. It’s also pretty sophisticated for an anime series about big robots, mostly because it’s not just an anime about big robots. It’s about characters and how the war influence and impact the characters. Amuro’s development throughout the series is fascinating to watch. The changes he faced during the series affected me also. I’ve cared for him, hated him and pitied him in turn. Complex characters make for complex reactions from viewers and this series is an example of that.

"What do you mean we're getting cancelled? Bummer."

It’s easy to forgive a lot of the show’s flaws as with many trailblazing works of fiction, there is a great deal of experimentation, happenstance, studio/publisher/editor interference, luck and marketing that can have a large impact on the work’s legacy. While animes that focused on giant robots was nothing new, MSG heralded the sub-genre of Real Robot. Prior to Gundam, series that focused on giant robot characters were of the Super Robot sub-genre. Mazinger Z is a classic of that genre. The added realism in which MSG dealt with their robots heralded a new form of story. I’m not an anime expert and I’m certain many other people would be better qualified to place MSG in a historical context, but it doesn’t change the fact that MSG was very different from other shows on at the time. However, it wasn’t popular during its initial run. In fact, it was threatened with cancellation and the studio eventually agreed to end the show on a shorter run (hence only 43 episodes). It took a few years for it to be recognized as an important and entertaining series and its continued legacy as one of the pillars of anime is proof of its status as a classic. Some series in the franchise have gone on to improve this one (something I’m a little familiar with but I’ll get a better idea once I’ve watched more series) while others have made a mess of things and can only be remembered for their action sequences and Gundam designs. The fact remains that for die-hard fans of newcomers alike, MSG stands tall as an inspiring series . . . as long as you can accept its animation style.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

The Blog Fantastic 025: The Dragon Reborn review

This isn’t really a review. It’s more of an assessment of the series from the prequel to the third book in the series. It’s not about summarizing the plot or helping potential readers of the series to make a decision to read or not to read the series. It’s simply a way for me to share my thoughts, confusion and general commentary on the series while making judgements and criticisms along the way. It’s good fun. Participate by using the comments section below.

In many ways, the Wheel of Time is like the yin-yang symbol which is used quite frequently in the series, albeit under different names (the Flame of Tar Valon and the Dragon’s Tooth). Half of it represents the best that the fantasy genre has to offer and the other half represents the worst. Robert Jordan is the kind of genius author who’s unaware of why some people consider him to be so great and doesn’t realize why his biggest critics can so effectively make him look like a hack author. That might read like a personal attack but it’s not. I’m saying this based on his novels I’ve read and on the online reaction to this (in)famous series. Three books and a prequel into the series I have to say that this is simultaneously one of the most entertaining and also worst fantasy series I’ve ever read. Most time the good outweighs the bad but the sheer amount of bad can, and has, turned off many a reader. The biggest negative thing about the series isn’t its length. It’s that it’s long because of the author’s self-indulgence, the use of unnecessary details and incredibly slow plotting.

While the overall story has no huge shocking moments, it has a simple plot in which all of the characters have quests that are connected to Rand’s quest for Callandor, the book isn’t without it’s little twists and turns. I want to emphasize small twists and turns. If there are any large twits they were either over my head or are yet to be important in the grand scheme of things. Jordan’s kind of fond of leaving bits of his books unexplained and having explanations provided in a later book or regularly taking the time to over-explain things (like every few chapters). Jordan is a writer of extremes. He’s incredibly blunt most of the time but he can also be very subtle to the point where he reveals next to nothing to the reader. There is no middle ground and that makes the book pretty frustrating to read based on what chapter you happen to be reading.

One of the things I liked The Dragon Reborn is its structure. There is very little point of view chapters from Rand. Instead, the book focuses on the many other characters in the series and it’s great. That’s what we needed after two books that focused on Rand. It’s a breath of fresh air. I was tired of being in Rand’s head. He’s not a very engaging or interesting character. Rand is bland. Easy joke, let’s move on. Rand isn’t the only annoying thing about the Wheel of Time. What’s also annoying is that Jordan is fond of beating the reader over the head with whatever problem it is that the characters are facing. Perrin is constantly worried about losing control of his wolfbrother powers and turning into a wolf-man. Egwene and Nynaeve are second guessing themselves sick over who is and isn’t part of the Black Ajah. Rand is always worried about losing control of saidin while trying to learn how to use it and not go mad from the taint. Some of Jordan’s repetitions are mandated by the story and actually serve a purpose for the reader but so much of it padding and repetition. By sharing the load of point of view chapters amongst multiple characters and not particularly focusing on one character for most of the book helps with that repetition because it gives the reader a break. Instead of reading about Perrin and his problem for ten chapters in a row – Actually, that’s exactly what Jordan does. Instead of spreading out the chapters evenly amongst characters, he bunches them together for the first half so that the book begins with a lot of Perrin, then most on to a lot of Egwene to end up a more or less balanced mix by the second half. The arrival of Mat’s chapters was very nice. He’s a great character post-healing.  

Aes Sedai and the White Tower seem rather different in this book than they were in the prequel. I think part of it has to do with the fact that Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve have to become super powerful very quickly (meaning, in few books). It’s not really mandated by the plot yet but Jordan seems to think it’s really important that they achieve the rank of Aes Sedai as soon as possible (meaning a few books in Jordan-time). He also wants to make all three of them, particularly Egwene and Nynaeve, two of the most powerful Aes Sedai in a thousand years. It feels like the characters haven’t really earned their level of power.  They’re at a point where their level of skill is way low and staying there while their power levels are rapidly rising. It’s also odd that they are rising so quickly in rank when everything else in this book goes by so slowly. I think I’m also upset that it all seems so easy for them when Jordan is constantly telling us that the training to become and Aes Sedai is brutally hard. I believed him in New Spring because most of the book was about showing me just how hard it was for Moiraine and Siuan. They had to work hard at it and look where it’s brought them; they’re powerful and are knowledgeable on the mythology of the world. Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve are just coasting. They’re away from their magic school tower for months and when the get back to the White Tower two of them graduate their current level and move on to the next. That makes no sense and don’t start telling me it’s because they’ve had practice in real world setting and that’s why they’ve improved on their skills. That’s bullshit. It happened because Jordan wanted is to and that’s it. That’s why it feels so cheap because it is.

The best thing about the series continues to be the world building and the way all of the seemingly disparate elements comes together. The biggest addition to the world building in this volume is the reveal of the Dream World called Tel’aran’rhiod. In the Wheel of Time, people, events, all of existence repeats itself over and over. We learn in this novel that it’s not just Time that repeats itself but there are also multiple mirror worlds that co-exist and mirror each other. In these mirror worlds, events that happen in one happen in all of the others. For example, if the Dark One is imprisoned in just one world, he will also be imprisoned in all of the others. It seems pretty clear that Rand and the gang aren’t just fighting to protect their world but all of the mirror worlds as well. All of Existence, all of the Pattern. I’m not yet certain how this ties into the parallel worlds of the Portal Stone but there does appear to be some kind of connection.

If I understood the book correctly, one of these mirror worlds is the Dream World. That’s what I think anyway but it could very well be separate yet connected to the rest of the mirror world. It gets pretty complicated pretty quickly. Dreams have played a considerably important part in the series so far but the development of Egwene’s power as a Dreamer makes it even more important than it was before. I think we spent far too much time in characters’ dreams in the first couple of books but the revelation that the world of dreams actually matters to the events of the story and that it isn’t just a way for Jordan to include portent and foreshadowing to this already bloated novels is rather exciting. It gives substance to dreams and makes the events that happen in dreams more important to the characters, the story and the reader – even retroactively to the first two books in the series. Hopefully this means that dreams will be used less for foreshadowing and more for actual plot development and action.

While I do not understand the way everything connects, I appreciate that Jordan is developing the series’ cosmology. Like most everything else, it’s problematic. The Wheel of Time turns and weaves the Pattern using the lives of men and woman as the thread (no, not Pernese Thread, this is good thread – thread of Destiny . . . whoaaaaaa). Events aren’t going to be random or chaotic. They’re not even going to be as random and chaotic as works of fiction that don’t deal so heavily with themes of prophecy, destiny and the repeatability of all things great and small. The Wheel of Time, more than any fantasy series I’ve ever read, deals with order, predictability and a strong use of coincidence as plot points. While the land in which these stories are told is large and encompasses hundreds (soon to be thousands) of characters, the main characters are always bumping into each other. The three ta’veren and their friends get split up into groups of varying sizes on a regular basis and for three consecutive novels they’ve always end up together by the end of the book for the big finish. You can dismiss this with the fact that all three novels follow the basic fantasy structure of a quest (the search for the Eye of the World, then the Horn of Valere and finally Callandor). But events, large and small, feel more predictable than they usually are in this genre because of the Pattern and the cosmology of the series. It’s ordered chaos, essentially. Everything weaves together to form a pattern, something recognizable. It might not be recognizable to the characters but for regularly fantasy readers the pattern (the novel’s structure, familiar plot points, etc.) and the Pattern (the history of the world in which the story takes place and how the lives of the main characters will turn out) is there, even if we can’t make it out this early in the series.  Most everything in the Wheel of Time feels very familiar but Jordan distinguishes himself among other fantasy writers by making that familiarity of genre elements part of the story. He further distinguishes himself by the vast size and complexity of the world he created. It’s impressive even if many of the elements of his world are often contradictory or poorly developed (so far. I’m still being optimistic).

Another interesting part of the world building is the development of the Aiel. We get our first Aiel (well, fully Aiel as Rand doesn’t quite count) characters and I have to say they’re pretty interesting. They have unusual concepts for familiar and social structure and they make for interesting reading when they show up in the story. I’m looking forward to the development of the Aiel characters and how they tie into the rest of the story since the end of the novel strongly suggests that the Aiel will continue to be present throughout the series.

I don’t know where else to put this so I’ll just say it here. For a series in which people are always travelling from one place to another, it’s surprising that Jordan doesn’t re-use the Ways or the Portal Stones in this volume. Maybe he’s saving those methods of travel for later on or maybe he wanted the characters to travel the old fashion way (by foot, horseback or on riverboats) in order to have them meet other people along the way, such as the Aiel Maidens of the Spear that Egwene, Elayne and Nynaeve meet. Maybe it’s because if the characters travelled to Tear too quickly the book would have had a reasonable page count. Since I’m on the subject of travel, I’m pretty certain I read a reference to Aes Sedai having the power to fly or teleport. Needless to say, there wasn’t any of that in this book but I wouldn’t be surprised to see it pop up in later novels since Jordan likes to have his characters move around all over the map.

I’ve said it up top: Jordan is a writer of extremes. The more I think about that idea the more I think it holds true. It’s actually helping me understand Jordan as a writer. He’s derivative while also being original. He creates new and wondrous elements in his stories, particularly with the magic system, the world building and the idea of the Wheel of Time and the Pattern. At the same time though, he borrows heavily from existing narrative both real world myths and other fantasy series. I’m ok with that as long as the end result is something original and, by the third book, it’s pretty clear that it is. I’m even able to forgive the Tolkienesque beginning in The Eye of the World. Another example of his dichotomy as a write is his penchant for plain and repetitive language which clashes with his ability to write passages that realistically should serve as examples for unappealing purple prose but still manage to work. Sometimes these books make me grown and other times I get the feeling that he is intentionally subverting genre convention.

Another example of extremes is that Jordan will nearly always take the time to describe people, clothing and other objects in great detail, some of which even get repeated regularly, but he does a poor job of describing sword fighting. Instead of describing the action of the characters that are fighting, he gives the reader vague and frivolous descriptions of various sword fighting movements and techniques. I wouldn’t mind if it was used in combination with descriptions of the actions themselves but, on their own, it sucks. It especially sucks for three reasons: 1) Mat fights Galad and Gawyn and their actions are described. It’s not much more satisfying but it’s there. At the least it shows that Jordan could write acceptable battle descriptions so why doesn’t he? 2) Sword fighting has played a big role in the climax of The Great Hunt and The Dragon Reborn but because of the nondescript narration of those fights, they suck the life right out of the climactic battle! The Wheel of Time doesn’t have much action in it so let’s not make it as bland as possible, please. 3) I can’t help but feel that Jordan is being lazy or is trying to make bad sex jokes: Kissing the Adder, Parting the Silk, Threading the Needle to name a few.  

The use and presence of those extremes make for a reading experience than isn’t as smooth as I would like it. I’m equally challenged and bored by the series. During the first few chapters of The Eye of the World it was painfully obvious that Rand is the Dragon Reborn Jordan went ahead and wrote three 600+ pages novels in which Rand and other characters second guess whether or not it’s true. The weird thing is that Rand and the gang set out on three rather huge quests, one per novel, while the debate of whether or not he is the Dragon Reborn takes place. It’s as if the narrative (and the reader) has decided “Yes, he is the Dragon Reborn” and moved on with the story but the characters, which all think different things, are still very unsure of what is really going on. This third novel gave me the impression that the villains agree with the reader (Rand = Dragon Reborn) but instead of focusing on destroying Rand they’re just doing their own thing, causing mischief and sometimes appearing to help Rand is the most backward ways possible (seriously, what’s Lanfear’s deal?).

At the end of the day, I wasn’t able to overcome my frustrations for The Eye of the World. My reaction to The Great Hunt was much more positive, mostly due to my familiarity with Jordan’s writing style and the fictional universe he created to be able to appreciate the tighter focus and plotting of the second book (while also being surprised and excited at the additional world building). The third book is yet again that combination of “more of the same” and new world building surprises by Jordan. It might be a little bit better than the second book if only because we have so few chapters with Rand as the point of view character. At this point in the series, I can only conclude that while the Wheel of Time is regularly frustrating (frustration must be an important thread in the weaving of the Pattern), it’s rewarding if not quite always enjoyable. I look forward to The Shadow Rising but I’m going to give myself the time to unwind and enjoy other novels that are more consistent in approach than this series.

Consider it covered:
Between the time I finished reading The Great Hunt and before I finished The Dragon Reborn I read somewhere online that Jordan was displeased with most of the covers for The Wheel of Time. I don’t blame him. They’re not bad in their entirety but there are so many incorrect details, strange (and sometimes unsettling) anatomy and suggestions of a lazy artist that I can’t blame him for feeling that way. I mention the possibility that Darrell K. Sweet is a lazy artist because he doesn’t seem to bother familiarizing himself with the books for which he painted the cover. I admit, I liked the Wheel of Time covers more before I actually read the books. Thankfully, some of the covers are better than others while some are just plain awful. I think The Dragon Reborn cover falls into the former.

There are a lot of things that work well for this cover. The best thing about it is the architecture. The Stone of Tear not only fits the descriptions in the book but it also good. I quite like the stone pillars. Sure, the pillars aren’t all the same thickness but I don’t think it takes much away from the painting. It’s also nice that we get to see Mat, Perrin and Rand all on the cover together. It’s equally nice to see the Aiel there too. The main problem with Rand is that he doesn’t look to be nearly as tall described and his clothing is kind of ridiculous.

Some of the things that don’t work as well include the face in the middle of the painting, and the soldiers in the background and Callandor. The only thing I don’t like about Callandor is the type of sword it is. From the descriptions of swords and sword fighting I always picture heron-marked blades of blademasters to be something more akin to a samurai’s katana than the sword of a Medieval knight. In other words, I always pictured something with a single edge and a slight curvature as opposed to something with a double edge and perfectly straight. To be fair to Sweet, I can’t remember any clear descriptions of blademaster swords or of Callandor itself so his depiction still works. Ba’alzamon sticks out like s sore thumb just floating away in the middle of the painting but that’s only true when you look at the full cover. When it’s wrapped around the book and the text is included, his face is smack dab in the middle of the considerably wide spine of the book. There, as part of the complete package, it works really well.  As for the soldiers in the background, I don’t get why they look like conquistadors. They look like they really don’t belong on the cover, even though they’re very small and away from the cover’s focus. All in all, probably the best cover of the first three books.