Second Swing of the Hammer

So….

I went and saw Thor: The Dark World yesterday.  Thor was always my favorite comic book hero growing, probably due to my love of Norse mythology as kid that predated my comic-reading days

(Aside:  yes, I realize that Marvel's Thor deviates from actual Norse mythology, and I plan to have a blog post on that issue in the next few weeks.)

The plot concerns the return of the dark elves from their home of Svartalfheim (literally, "dark elf land"), one of the nine worlds which also include Asgard (home of the Gods), Midgard (Earth), Jotunheim (Land of the Giants, seen in the first Thor movie) and others.  The dark elves are headed by their semi-immortal leader Malekith, who seeks to undo the universe and return it a state of darkness, extinguishing non-dark-elf life in the process.

I wondered about the presence of Malekith, since the first Thor movie featured the Casket of Ancient Winters as a relic of the frost giants of Jotunheim.  In the comics, it belonged to the dark elves and Malekith, who used it to set free an ancient fire demon known as Sutur, who planned to set the nine worlds afire and usher in Ragnarok.  So elements of both movies are drawn from Walt Simonson's epic storyline, widely considered to be one of the best runs in the comic's history.

The movie has a series of convenient coincidences to propel the plot, such as Jane Foster's unlikely involvement in the world-breaking events, which seem like just a good reason to get her back with Thor.  At the end, Malekith is of course defeated (what, this is no spoiler!) through a fair display of deus ex machina, but it's a comic movie, so okay.  There are some clever surprises and a few neat sequences, including Thor's hammer trying to return to his hand while is tumbling between worlds, causing erratic flight corrections to hammer's path.

Dialogue was serviceable, the best of which is the non-stop yakking between Thor and Loki, which varies from fraternal to bloodthirsty.  Tom Hiddleston plays Loki with an impressive intensity of emotions, as previously.  Anthony Hopkins returns as Odin with much less reserve and spends a lot more time chewing the scenery.  Sif and the Warriors Three are back and have about as much impact as they did in the first movie.  There are some early hints of a love triangle between Sif, Jane, and Thor, but that was quickly discarded in favor of the action.  It's too bad because two minutes of development could have made that aspect much more interesting for the characters.  Darcy & Erik Selvig (who played a pivotal role in the Avengers), also return – again – with minimal story impact.

The real star of this film, though, is Chris Hemsworth.  He plays Thor with confidence, he appears to both be growing into the role and as an actor, and I think he is probably the number three guy which the public associates a comic book character, after Hugh Jackman (Wolverine) and Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man) – which means he can milk this for a long time.  As of last night, Thor 2 has pulled in about $150 million domestically and $330 million overseas.  I'd say Hemsworth has established his bona fides as a superstar.

And I have to say, I am amazed at just how well the Marvel movies have turned out over the past 10-12 years.  Sure there have been misfires but short of Nolan's Batman trilogy, the DC comic movie universe has been almost a complete failure.  Ironic since the DC comics themselves are often considered to be better written.

Of course, I stayed through the credits to watch Marvel's preview stinger, which will be totally non-sensical to anyone who isn't a comic fan, but (highlight for spoilers) I bet money it points to next year's Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and it was cool to see Benico Del Toro as the Collector. So there is that.

Overall, I was satisfied.  It was pretty typical comic book fare.  Fans of Marvel's movie-verse will eat it up, others may be left wanting.

Hammers away.

Best Fantasy Books

Interesting little site for those who love – as I do – epic fantasy fiction.  Best Fantasy Books breaks down what they consider to be the best 25 books in fantasy, followed by 25 "great" books and 25 more "good" books.  It's not so much the rankings but the decent write-ups and the suggestions with the entries that I like – as in, "If you liked Game of Thrones, you might like X, Y and Z as well."

Anyway, it's worth checking out.

Reviews from the Kindle Aisle

I have become addicted to cheap fantasy.

(Muse:  Knowing what you fantasize about, you can color me shocked.)

Not that kind of fantasy, you nattering buffoon.  Spec-fiction fantasy.  A few months back, Mrs. Axe gifted me with a Kindle card and rather than download one magnum opus from a big author for $20, I decided to experiment and try some lesser-known authors, who had put their books out there at a low rate, hoping for a nibble.  Basically, I shot low to see what I would get, in terms of quality.  Going into this I did have a few ground rules:

1) I set my upper limit for any one book to a soft $2.99, though I could be persuaded a little higher.
2) I did look for books with good reader reviews, and lots of them.  Someone with two reviews, both of which were five stars, could easily be the author themselves under dummy accounts.  When they had two hundred, it seemed less likely.  3 stars was about my cutoff.
3) I would read at least one quarter of the book before passing judgement – and if I didn't like it, I would not feel guilty about finishing, since I paid little for it.
4) I will eventually go leave my own Amazon reviews, to help others as the reviews help me.  (This, I have not done yet.)

Overall, I was pleasantly surprised.  The books – and authors were a mix.  Some caught my attention; others aroused no more than polite interest, even though they were put together well.  A few blurbs:

Night of the Wolves (The Paladins #1), by David Dalglish.  This was an interesting little jaunt.  The story concerned two main characters, Jerico and Darius, Paladins from opposing orders, who are both assigned to a rural countryside area, where they preach their faiths and attempt to win the approval of the townsfolk.  In the meantime, the leader of a roving pack of intelligent wolf-like monsters from beyond the river attempt to unite the tribes of his kind, in best Genghis Khan style, for an attack on the human lands.  I rather liked this one.  The characters were distinct and full of flawed doubt and questioning.  The setting – while not inspiring – was functional and consistent.  There are other sub-plots moving around, including an apparent war between the paladin factions, straining the relationship between Jerico and Darius, even as they deal with the wolf problem.  The story is told in multiple limited third-person view, so you get a view from a number of character heads (though it was about two more than was comfortable).  Dalglish's website lists a number of books, so he's been quite prolific for the last few years.  This first book was free, so for those who like old-fashioned sword-n-sorcery battle tales, I recommend it.  I plan on getting the other two books in this series and going from there.  Amazon review rating:  4 stars, which seems about right.

War of the Fae, Book 1 (The Changelings) by Elle Casey.  This is a YA novel (which I didn't realize when I got it – so much for careful scrutiny of the reviews, right?) and as such, I think it's serviceable.  The tale opens with smart-mouthed Jayne Sparks, an over-smart teenager with a quick mind and quicker mouth.  After she and a male friend run away from trouble, they find themselves caught up in remote wilderness with several other runaways, where they are tormented by a variety of mythical creatures.  This one was okay.  I get that I was not the target audience, so maybe that's why I saw the twists and turns coming pages before they happened.  The writing and the gauntlet the characters run were a little reminiscent of Hunger Games (which was itself inspired by the Japanese novel Battle Royale).  Jayne is too precocious and sure of herself for me, especially for some of the character wrinkles that are later revealed.  The other characters come off as tentative or lacking individuality.  Technically, the book is well-paced and descriptive, and I stayed entertained long enough to make it to the end.  I can imagine teenaged girls really liking this one; as an old fart, I thought it was decent but that's about it.  Amazon review rating:  4.5 stars, whereas I'd give it 3.5.

The Black God's War (Splendor and Ruin, Book I), by Moses Siregar III.  The plot concerns the son and daughter of a king, both of whom inherited powers of war and peace by virtue of their ties to the Gods.  When their father insists on a sustained war with their ancient enemies, they ply their gifts as best they can, though the girl Lucia is beset by visions of yet another God, who torments her with promises of doom and death – for her and all her people.  You know, I should have liked this one.  The Amazon page acknowledges a few awards & praises the book has earned, the plot concept is sound.  It was right in my wheelhouse.  But try as I might, I just could not get into it.  I read about 100 pages in and finally put it down.  I am not sure why but it just wasn't my cup o'tea.  Amazon review rating:  4.5 stars but I can't give it one.

Adrianna's Fairy Tales:  Erotic Retellings, by Adrianna White.  Okay, I am still not sure why I read this.  The book retells three classic fairy tales from an erotic point of view:  Naughty Cinderella, Riding Red Hood, and Beauty and the Beast with Two Backs.  Up front, I would say there isn't enough erotica in the stories to justify the title.  When I want some smut, I expect some smut.  Even the notoriously bad 50 Shades series had more sex in it, page for page, than this did.  The writing was technically sound and the dialogue between characters felt natural but the characters themselves felt uni-dimensional and were not very interesting.  Plus, too much direct exposition.  We learn Cinderella is street walker because the author says it outright, rather than letting the described events make the point.  Even though it has a sale price now, it was free when I grabbed it – but I cannot recommend spending $4.99 on it.  Amazon review rating:  3 stars, but I would have to go 1.5.

I have a handful of others that I have not yet finished reading or yet discarded but when I do, I will be back with some more reviews.

Cheerio!

An Unexpected Review

So ….

Even in my desert oubliette, we still get a little bit of culture over here – and in this case, "culture" would refer to being able to see new releases at the same time as in the States.  So I was able to take in "The Hobbit:  An Unexpected Journey" this last week.  Bottom line?  If I had to throw a "tl;dr" tag on this one, I would say that if you were devotee of Lord of the Rings, you would probably enjoy this one too.  If not, you might get bored.

I'll start with the negatives.  For one, it was waaay too long – and I say this as someone who still respects and honors Tolkien as the Godfather of the genre.  Peter Jackson took the 1200 pages of the Lord of the Rings series and stretched it to about 11 hours, in the extended versions.  The Hobbit is only 300 pages and at the rate of the first film, is on track for around nine hours of viewing time.  Naturally, this results in new material having to be added to fill in between gaps in the book.  I don't think a filmmaker has to be a slave to the source material and I don't mind new interpretations – but adding material for the purpose of drawing it out seems pointless.  Just tell the story.  Highlight for spoiler:  the scene with the stone giants was the absolute worst offender, having no impact on the film, other than to slow the pacing and show off special-effects wizardry.  It could have come out and saved eight minutes, without any harm.

And with all that screen time, the characters come across as cardboard-ish.  There are thirteen dwarves; even before the movie, I could have named all twelve (pause while you collect yourself from the revelation that I am a nerd).  But by watching the movie, you really don't get to know them very well.  Thorin, the leader and king in exile, is sketched out better than most but spends most of the film in a perpetual grumpy state.  He doesn't quite chew the scenery but close.  Just not enough time was devoted to character development.

Now having said all that, I will note a few positives.  The cinematography was unbelievable.  The Hobbit looks even better than the Lord of the Rings series; the vistas of New Zealand are absolutely breathtaking and the CGI effects blend flawlessly.  The goblin-infested mines in the Misty Mountains, the expanses of the Shire, Rivendell, the interior shots of Erebor (the Lonely Mountain) were all visually appealing.  The musical score was another success, and well-metered:  it was low-key at the right times and epic when needed.  I also have to say I enjoyed seeing the old actors from LotR return.  Ian McKellen (Gandalf) has noticeably aged and appears more withered than before – but Cate Blanchett (Galadriel) is, if anything, even more beautiful and regal than in the previous movies and does not appear to have aged a day.   And on whole, I enjoyed the translation of the musical numbers from the novel.  The singing dwarves added much-needed moments of levity to an otherwise bleak and depressing film.  The action was interspersed with exposition and chatting at the right intervals, so it paced fairly well.  I give the whole thing a B.

There are two more Hobbit movies scheduled:  The Desolation of Smaug (2013) and There and Back Again (2014).  At the end of the day, I think the three movies could have been compressed into two.  Despite that, I'll probably still be in line to see them both, and end up with them on DVD.

Just 'cause.

Little girls and big bows (and not the hair ribbon kind)

So ….

Since I came to the Middle East, I have been very much enjoying my Kindle.  It’s perfect for exercise time, since I don’t have to hold it open.  As I mentioned above, I downloaded The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, as it was on sale.  I finished this morning in the middle of a four-mile power walk on the treadmill.

Short summary:  set in Panem, a dystopian future America, the story concerns teenager Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers to take her conscripted sister’s place in the Hunger Games, a gladiatorial contest pitting youngsters from around the country in a grisly battle to the death, until only one remains.  Katniss is plunged into the Games, with nothing but her bow-hunting skills and wits to save her.

What did I think?  Well, it was a mixed bag.  On the plus side the characters are believable and varied.  Katniss has a lot of turbulence under the hood and Collins lets the veneer crack at just the right times.  The melodrama never felt overbearing and I think the pace was dead on.  There was little deus ex machine; with only one real exception (a forgivable one in context), the characters mostly thought or fought their way through the plot in plausible ways.  I thought the world-building was thorough and was revealed in manageable chunks for the reader, to let the true nature of the society sink in.  And I can’t deny that it was a quick, pleasant read.  As light entertainment, it appealed.

In the neutral area, I can see the young adult appeal.  The writing style is quick and tumbles loose the way an adolescent thought process might.  It’s written in present tense, which tends to exhaust me reading-wise but after a while, I got used to it.  I don’t think the book gains anything from it, though.  I’ve read any number of “lessons” to be drawn, criticizing religion, godlessness, femininity, feminism, capitalism, and communism, and the Iraq War.  I think you will take away whatever you want.  Dialogue was passable.

On the downside, I saw the major plot twists coming a mile away.  That’s not necessarily bad (I am as much a sucker for cheesy entertainment as everyone) but it did lessen the suspense.  At no time did I think Katniss would die.  Also, the populations of the Districts seemed too small (District 11 is said to have something like 8K pop) to sustain themselves, let along others.  A dozen districts with similar pops and a capital full of useless choads would have had a total pop of 200K or so, which isn’t enough to sustain the industrialized wonder that is the Capital.  I am sure I am overblowing it but those kind of details tend to annoy me.  Finally, while the book has – as someone else put it (forgive me for not citing) – “it’s own cultural baggage,” the idea itself is derivative enough.  It’s been compared to the Japanese book Battle Royale (which I haven’t read) and the Stephen King books The Long Walk and The Running Man, both of which, in my opinion, were a more adult treatment and deeper character explorations.

Overall, I would call it a slightly above average – maybe a “B-,” if I were forced to give it a grade.  I know there are two more books (here and here for those who care).  I'll watch the movie once it makes its way over here.

I’ll probably read the others … you know, if they come on sale.

The First Avenger

Mixed feelings today … I left my phone in my car, so I missed a chance to head downtown with a couple friends for a few beers.  But afterwards, instead of sitting around doing nothing, I went to see Captain America, so I made lemonade out of the lemons.

The plot of Captain America opens in the heady days of WWII, and concerns a young man named Steve Rogers – an underweight weakling with lots of health problems – who feels a strong sense of patriotic duty, but is betrayed again and again by his poor health, which keeps him from enlisting.  He meets Dr. Abraham Erskine, who tell Rogers that he can make him into something more.  A screening process and some experiments later, Cap is born.

Cap vies with head of Hydra Johann Schmidt (ably played by sure-thing villain-actor Hugo Weaving), revealed to be (highlight for spoilers) the Red Skull, one of Cap's oldest enemies and one of the most persistent and troubling villains in the Marvel Universe.  Along the way, there is plenty of action, explosions, and ever a few clever one-liners.  Tommy Lee Jones plays Col Phillips, the Army officer in charge of the special research division that gives Cap his powers, with the same terse wit he employed as Agent K in Men In Black.  Hayley Atwell is a servicable Peggy Carter; though her character was thin and predictable, Atwell does the best with what she has … but she is clearly intended as eye candy.  Cap's role was actually well-written and Chris Evans milks it for every high and low, every cheer and angst possible.

Cameos from the Marvel universe abound, for those who know where to look.  And, as always, an bonus scene awaits anyone who can sit through the credits to the very end (and who doesn'tt have to run to the restroom).

All in all, it was rather enjoyable and it was the plot line was basically faithful to the Cap's origin in the comics and subsequent transplant to modern times.  I enjoyed the mixture of myth and science employed in both Cap's creation and the weapons and devices employed by Hydra.  Fantasy or science-fiction?  Like a lot of comics, it's science fantasy.

The stage is certainly set for the Avengers next summer.   My bet is the Super Bowl for the first major commercial / trailer.

Requiem in dragons

So….

I came off my much needed vacation yesterday.  Some health issues made the time off really necessary but I am back now, feeling hale and hearty.  The high desert air of the Mogollon Rim and a couple weeks off did me some good.  More good news:  Mrs. Axe returned my draft of Omega Mage, all marked up, so I am running through that and making updates.

Over the last few months, I’ve been providing a beta review of a trilogy called Song of Dragons, by a certain Daniel Arenson (website here).  The story concerns a race of shape-shifting dragon humanoids, hunted to near extinction by a jealous rival.  The names of the main characters are taken from the Requiem Mass by Mozart but the naming conventions blend nicely with the rest of the story.   The characters are decently fleshed out – including a very chilling antagonist – and the setting carries an air of sad nobility coupled with the decay wrought by the villains.  Daniel’s writing is straightforward; he made some word choices I would not have but the story reads decently and provides enough imagery so that the reader should always be able to visualize what’s happening.

(I’ll give him this, too:  Dan’s tips for writing – also on his website – are presented in a far better manner than my collection of drivel on writing plots on this very blog.)

Overall, the first two books read well.  I was probably a little harsh on Daniel in my reviews, but my that’s just me.  I’m looking forward to the third, to see how the plot threads tie up.

Daniel has the first book of the trilogy up for sale at his site.  Check it out.