As I predicted, the Golden Compass movie was an embarrassment. I was in a mall with Andrew and Atul on our way back from the airport yesterday and we saw a poster for it and all said "Yeah, I know it's probably going to be bad, but we're here, so I wouldn't mind seeing it." Big mistake. Blah. Do not watch this movie.
They removed all reference to anything remotely religious; the bad guys are simply "The Magisterium". Not the Church. Oh, no, definitely not the Church, nothing to do with the Church, goodness me. Apparently the Magisterium likes to put big, cheesy, ornate, golden, capital letter "M"s on everything they own -- buildings, vehicles, jewelery, etc -- to identify it for the audience. It reminded me of how Dr. Wily in the Mega Man games puts his big "W" logo on all his stuff. It was very silly and cartoonish. I guess the director wanted a prominent logo which was Definitely Not A Cross.
The servants of the Church, in the book, are morally ambiguous and tormented men, wanting to protect people from the effects of sin, but trapped in a misguided ideology that makes them go too far in trying to do so. To say these nuances were lost is an understatement. The servants of the Magisterium in the movie are saturday-morning cartoon villains; they might as well be rubbing their hands together and cackling about how much they love being EVIL.
Even worse, though, was that the movie ends before the final, critical scene of the first book. It was a strange choice to say the least; I guess they didn't want to end on a cliffhanger the way the book does? Which makes no sense, because if they're intending to film the next book than a cliffhanger is exactly where they'd want to end, and if they're not intending to film the next book, then their story simply ends with most of its plot threads unresolved and its main characters riding north in Lee Scoresby's balloon. Their ending robs the story of much of its power, as the audience is allowed to walk away still thinking that [CERTAIN CHARACTER] is a good guy, and that [CERTAIN OTHER CHARACTER] is safe from harm.
Maybe they just wanted a "happy" ending, and didn't care what they had to leave out to get one? The irony is that the audience is in for Quite A Shock at the beginning of The Subtle Knife, assuming that The Subtle Knife ever gets made and that its plot is not so divergent as to be a different story entirely.
The fight between Iorek and Iofur also missed the point entirely. (Iofur is named Ragnar in the movie, and this change is one I can buy, as the original names were confusingly similar.) In the book, this duel is a fight between two ideologies for the soul and future of the bear culture. Will the bears maintain their traditions and be bears, or will they imitate human civilization and assimilate? In the movie, all that motivation was skimmed over, and it was just a brawl between two bears who want to be king.
Missing the point, missing the point, missing the point. I can accept that some things have to be changed or left out to make a movie, but geez, the movie spent like five minutes on the scene of Lyra crossing the crumbling ice bridge, which has no effect on the plot and could easily have been replaced with more character development. The fight with the Tartars dragged on and on, because the movie for some reason felt the need to show us the death of every single nameless Tartar. I started feeling bad for them, even though they were just supposed to be mooks. That's more time that should have been spent on making the bear-fight matter or making the Magisterium into better villians or showing us the proper climax of the story.
Or they could have dropped the witches. All their important lines were already cut, so the story wouldn't have lost anything further by having the witches left out entirely. I found myself wondering why they were there at all, since they added so little; they were there because they looked cool, I guess. Even Lord Asriel had his scenes cut down to the point where his reason for being in the story was unclear.
I can accept a story being changed and simplified for cross-medium translation, but what's left of it has to make sense and stand on its own. The Golden Compass movie fails, in all aspects except special effects, which seem to be the only thing that Hollywood cares enough about to put any effort into.
In conclusion: I am a grumpy old curmudgeon who hates movies and cares way too much about children's fantasy novels.
Friday night at my board game party, the topic of the Dragonlance animated movie came up, because somebody there didn't know it existed. He needed to be told of the horror. Me and Sushu actually own a copy of this train wreck on DVD. The conversation reminded me that I never got around to blogging my Dragonlance rant, so here goes...
This movie is a really, really special kind of bad. I think the scene with the monks sums it up best. (This is the only version of the video I could find, so just ignore the Portugese subtitles on top of Hebrew subtitles and the Michael Jackson in the corner. Even though they're the only good things about this clip.)
No, this is not a dream, or an Internet parody. They really made a whole movie like this. The dialogue is terrible, the voice acting is worse (surprising as there are some supposedly decent actors slumming in it). 2d and 3d animation are melded together in the most awkward way imaginable, highlighting the weaknesses of both. Even if you sit through the whole thing, you never get used to the animation. Every scene finds new ways to drag the art of animation down to depths that would embarrass a Saturday-morning cartoon.
(My favorite part about the monk scene is that none of the Draconians in the movie ever show any signs of being able to speak English at all, except in this one scene and only when hidden in monk robes.)
Um, no. The movie sucks by being too slavishly faithful to the book. There are way too many characters squeezed in and no time in the movie for most of them to get any character development, or in fact to do anything except stand around in the back of the party like cardboard cutouts and occasionally make a one-liner to express their one-dimensional personality. But OH NO, they HAVE TO BE THERE because they're in the book and some internet nerd might complain if the all-important Tasselhoff Burrfoot, say, were taken out to tighten up the screenplay! The movie doesn't even try to be accessible to anyone not already well-versed in stupid D&D lore; when watching it with Sushu we had many "You would know this if you had read Lord of the God Kings!" moments, with me in the role of Gabe. Why the hell is valuable space in my brain being taken up knowing about Kender, Gully Dwarves, and why Raistlin's pupils are hourglass-shaped? Gah!!
I'm going to commit gamerdork heresy and state that blame for the stupidity of the plot and characters belongs to hack novelists Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weis, and not the film animators. Unlike most long-time D&D geeks, I never thought the Dragonlance books were all that great. Even when I was a dumb kid reading the original trilogy during lunch breaks in high school, I had a lot of issues with it. The plot is nothing but a bunch of magical McGuffins, and the characters are whiny and have no personality beyond their Fantasy Ethnic Stereotypes. The third book in particular was a wall-banger. (Dear lord look at the fanboys orgasming all over that Amazon review thread). Major events happen off-screen, NPCs do the important jobs while PCs watch, subplots appear out of nowhere, and critical conflicts hinge on arbitrary magical objects that were never mentioned before. (That dude with the jewel in his chest? WTF?) And the dwarf unceremoniously dies for no apparent reason. Like, literally, he's just walking along when he has a heart attack and dies.
It's not just that you're reading somebody else's D&D campaign. It's that you're reading about a campaign you wouldn't want to play in.
And remember, this is what 12-year-old Jono thought of these books. 12-year-old Jono thought the fucking Sword of Shannara series was good. What would I think of Dragonlance if I read it now, now that I have developed taste, now that we have books like Game of Thrones around showing that fantasy doesn't have to suck? The fact that the Dragonlance novels were New York Times Bestsellers proves only that people in the 80s were desperate to read any crap as long as it had dragons and wizards on the cover.
James Maliszewski at the old-school D&D blog Grognardia argues that Dragonlance was a huge influence, for the worse, on the development of both fantasy fiction and role-playing games in the 80s and 90s:
whereas Shanarra and Dragonlance are both quite obviously Tolkien knock-offs in broad outline -- being epic fantasies whose settings are pastiches of Middle Earth -- Dragonlance, by being associated with D&D, is the one that probably formed the imaginations of more future fantasy writers. This next generation of writers would, instead of imitating Tolkien, imitate Weis and Hickman, thereby starting the process by which D&D -- and fantasy RPGs in general -- would be snakes swallowing their own tails creatively.
I never played any of the Dragonlance adventure modules for 1st and 2nd edition AD&D. Even though I read the novels at the same time as I was getting into D&D I had no desire to do so, which should tell you something. But from what I hear about them, they were the first major published adventures based on prescripted plot. Previously, adventures were maps of locations where you could go adventuring at your own pace; post-Dragonlance, they shifted to being Epic Storylines that player characters would be thrown into. They had pregen characters (i.e. you WOULD be playing the characters from the book) and those characters had to act a certain way to move the plot forward. Certain events were required to happen or you wouldn't be able to play the next adventure in the series. In other words, they were the first published adventures to require heavy railroading on the part of the DM to function.
This approach was already well-established by 1994, when I got into D&D. Every sample adventure I read was full of "When the PCs do this..." and didn't say what the GM was supposed to do if the PCs didn't do that. Game texts at the time didn't explain any other way to play, because at the time they mostly didn't explain how to play at all, except to warn us that Dungeon Crawling Was Immature And Bad And You Should Aim To Have A Story Instead. The old-school D&D tools for fun nonlinear adventuring had been lost or hidden by the post-Dragonlance gamerculture bias for Story Good Dungeon Bad. It took me a while to realize that the pre-scripted approach to story creation Just Doesn't Work, and is guaranteed to make gaming miserable every time you try it. But when we tried to play without a scripted storyline, the result was usually a bunch of random fights and wandering around, and no story at all.
I didn't figure out how to make role-playing reliably fun until 200-fucking-7. And now I know that Dragonlance gets some of the blame for that.
So! In conclusion: Dragonlance! Terrible movie, terrible books, AND it helped ruin both role-playing games and fantasy fiction. What's not to love?
Just finished Assassin's Apprentice, which is the first book in the Farseer trilogy by Robin Hobb. I had heard this series mentioned in the same sentence with George R. R. Martin's stuff as "non-crappy fantasy" so when I randomly saw the paperbacks for sale cheap at a bookstore, I grabbed them.
The first book had me losing sleep last week to stay up late reading it. It's been a while since a book has done that to me.
No "motley team of elves and dwarves is chosen by the Prophecy of the Plot to journey to the other end of the map inside the front cover to do arbitrary actions with magical jewelry" plotlines here. Much like Westeros in the Song of Ice and Fire series, the Farseer trilogy's setting is a realistic medieval world with just the slightest touch of magic - mostly telepathy. But the story is mostly about the narrator, a royal bastard who doesn't even have a name for the first half of the book (everyone just calls him 'boy'), and the web of court intrigue that he is inevitably pulled into as he grows from a boy into a man.
The fantasy politics angle is well-done. Like the setting, it reminds me of Song of Ice and Fire, except somewhat more sedate (as Robin Hobb doesn't seem to have the same need as Martin does to turn the whole kingdom upside-down every other chapter.) It's on a more personal level, as much of the focus is on the evolving relationships between the main character and a large cast of royalty, townsfolk, and teachers. The king thinks the best use for the kid is to make him into a weapon for 'the dark side of diplomacy', an assassin who can be used with plausible deniability by the kingdom. He doesn't have much choice in the matter so he spends most of the first book being trained in the various skills that he'll need. It actually reminded me a little bit of Harry Potter just because the personalities of his teachers, both good and bad, loom so large in this first volume.
He also goes on his first couple of missions, and discovers the nature of dark threats against the kingdom. In less talented hands this setup could have degenerated into a very silly story of medieval James Bond stuff, but it doesn't. One reason why is that the narrator, despite being called an assassin, cares a whole lot about people and their lives. He spends much time torn between duty to his superiors and his distaste for killing. In fact he goes to great lengths to avoid killing anybody and to come up with alternate solutions to some pretty knotted dilemmas. When I was reading this, Sushu kept asking me: "Has he assassinated anybody yet?" and I kept answering "Not yet. Maybe he's not gonna." and she kept saying "Worst Assassin Ever!". (Finally she went and read spoilers on Wikipedia.)
One of the things that made it a fun read is how the main character's point of view colors everything he describes. He's not an unreliable narrator, but he'll often describe something while completely missing the implications. Sometimes it's obvious to the reader that he's getting played, but he has no idea. The boy is really perceptive in some ways but has a lack of common sense that's realistic for someone his age.
Also, he's got a certain amount of untrained telepathic talent (this is not a spoiler as it is given away in the blurb on the back of the book) but at first he doesn't realize that he has anything unusual. He'll walk into, like, a stable, and as part of describing it he'll mention what all the horses are thinking and what the dogs are smelling, as if it was the most natural thing in the world to know that. It only slowly dawns on him that other people can't sense these things.
This is the kind of fantasy I like: Relatable, believable human conflicts, moral ambiguity and psychological richness, with an extra layer of resonance and wonder added by a few well-chosen fantastic elements. I hope the second and third books live up to the promise laid out in the first one!
So after I finished Assassin's Apprentice I was real excited to read the 2nd book in the series, Royal Assassin.
But it's disappointing so far. All the narrative momentum that the series had built up in the ending of the first book has been wadded up into a ball and thrown down a bottomless pit. And the name of that pit is "Teen angst". The first several chapters are all "Waa, waa, I'm a teenager now, my life sucks". I'm 50 pages in and the plot has gone basically nowhere. Not promising.
by Patrick Rothfuss, is a good book. I started it on Stephen's recommendation, and finished it on the airplane today.
It's not your typical fantasy novel. It's a funny, sad, and most of all very personal story. There's not a world at stake, or even a kingdom; there's a map inside the front cover but it never really matters because this story is not about world-building or about getting from point A to point B. It's just this dude Kvothe, telling the story of his life, the choices he made, the risks he took, the tragedies he suffered, the things he learned. It's not an ensemble cast: it's a fantasy biography, all about one single character, and getting really deep into his head.
And it works because Kvothe is such an interesting character. He's far from noble, and he's not out to save the world. Most of the things he does are motivated by either petty revenge, trying to impress the ladies, or trying to scrape together enough money to buy a decent meal and a pair of shoes. He's endlessly curious about everything and has a brilliant mind, able to quickly master just about any skill he applies it to. He's also proud, arrogant, has no common sense, and doesn't know when to quit, so of course he's constantly biting off more than he can chew. Every time the odds are against him, he just raises the stakes. This makes him an immensely fun character to read about; he's not the type to sit around waiting for adventure to happen. Reading this book I was constantly slapping myself on the head and saying "Kvothe, you idiot, this is SUCH a bad idea..." but I had to turn the page and find out what would happen.
In fact Kvothe reminds me of nobody so much as a fantasy-world version of Richard Feynman. They both hang around universities picking locks, playing music, infuriating the authorities, following their scientific curiosity, and messing around with the building blocks of matter and energy.
And the magic Kvothe studies is so logical and predictable that it might as well be the physics of an alternate universe. Sympathy, as in "sympathetic magic", involves using willpower to create bonds between similar objects and then manipulating the bonds to effect transfers of energy. It's reliable and well-understood; "arcanists" speak of energy conservation laws, they calculate the percentage efficiency of energy transfers, they build user-friendly artifacts, and so on. When he first makes it work, Kvothe is almost disappointed at how non-magical and utilitarian it feels.
There's another kind of magic, though; one who knows the true Names of things, can call them and they will obey. Basically nobody in the book understands how Naming works, but people who study it too much have a tendency to go insane. That's not enough to scare off Kvothe, who spends much of the book seeking the eponyous Name of the Wind anyway.
Kvothe, being raised in a troupe of traveling entertainers, is well aware of the power of stories. His thorough knowledge of typical fantasy tropes makes him Dangerously Genre-Savvy. He often contrasts "what would have happened in a fairy tale" against what actually did happen; meanwhile the stories told about Kvothe's exploits grow ever more embellished and further removed from anything he actually did. There are stories within stories in this book, as well as competing versions of the same tale; the versions of stories told by different nations and religions both illustrate the differences in their cultures and hint at a common history whose details are long forgotten. It's like a thesis on how traveling minstrels served to transmit and preserve culture in a world before printing presses.
I loved the writing style. It's not in-your-face "Look at me, I am a WRITING STYLE!" but it's not the typical fantasy schlock either. It's subtle, thoughtful, meditative. Poetically pessimistic. Serene. Sprinkled with very dry humor, and shot through with genuine emotion. The tragic parts are told with the distinct voice of one who has lived through them. I was sucked in from the very first page, where a silence is described as "..the patient, cut-flower sound of a man who is waiting to die."
The book makes skillful use of foreshadowing. We know from the beginning that Kvothe is going to get kicked out of the University, and that something bad is going to happen involving a woman, because he tells us right up front. You might think this would kill the tension, but it actually raises it, because every woman he meets, we're like: Is this "THE" woman? And every time he goes off following another terrible idea, we're like: Is this going to be the one that gets him expelled?
I can't remember the last time the same book had me laughing out loud, and then a chapter later, had me choking back actual tears. But The Name Of The Wind did.
Book 2 of the inevitable trilogy is supposed to come out soon, I hear...
...but this handmade House Targaryen banner hanging outside my local bookstore is still pretty cool. I guess we can tell what side these guys are rooting for.
Why was it disappointing? To try to describe this without spoilers... it felt like a thousand pages of setup and no resolution. Which is weird, for the fifth book in a series! There were two big events he seemed to be building towards, and I couldn't wait to read about them... and then they don't happen. Although they still might happen in book 6, I guess. (But how long is it going to be before book 6, and can he stay alive long enough to finish book 7?)
I think the reason there was so much build-up in this book is the same as the reason for the delay. I feel like book 3 was so cataclysmic that it resolved most of the big plot and character arcs that had been in play up until then. The War of Five Kings was over, and Westeros wasn't exactly happy but it had settled into a new status quo that was fairly stable. However, it was still far away from where he wanted to end the series.
Which would explain why book 4 felt like so much filler and side-plots and "setting tourism" (i.e. "Hey, we haven't seen much of Dorne yet! Let's set some chapters there!"). The main plot was out of momentum, and Martin didn't know how to get the main characters from where they were at to where he needed them for the conclusion. So he just kind of set the main characters aside for a book.
And then during the 5-year delay I imagine him throwing away a lot of possibilities that didn't quite work. I remember at one point he was talking about doing a time skip, but that hasn't happened so I think he abandoned the idea. Reading book 5 I felt like he had finally come up with something satisfactory for the ending of the series; but it was so different from what he had been planning up until then, that he needed a whole book to spin everything up for the new direction. I think when the series is done it will feel like books 1-3 were one trilogy, 4 was filler, and 5-7 were a second trilogy. That's my theory anyway.
Aside from the structural problems there were a whole lot of really great individual scenes and plot twists and character moments in the book. In particular, Jon and Daenerys, who both started the series at the bottom of the totem pole getting kicked around by fate, reach book 5 in positions of substantial power, and then spend the book having to make one really tough decision after another. The problem with being the one calling the shots is you're also the one to blame when things go wrong, and often there's no decision you can make without pissing off a substantial power block. So both Jon and Daenerys are faced with a series of really gnarly moral and political dilemmas. They both want to do the right thing, but what they consider the right thing goes against the culture of the people they're trying to lead, and they've both got enemies who will take advantage of any signs of weakness. Both of these plotlines lead to some really juicy character decisions.
Tyrion's story is a lot less satisfying. He spends most of it in chains, slung over somebody's shoulder, or riding on a boat. Seriously there was a lot of boat-riding. Some of those chapters could have been cut out without losing much.
Also: the Boltons are incredibly sick fucks. The storyline involving them is gross and disturbing.
All in all, there was just enough good stuff in the book that I haven't given up on the series yet. But the weakness of the ending made me angry.
(And not once during the whole book did anybody dance with any dragons. What the heck!)
Going to the Ghibli Museum made me want to catch up on the more recent Ghibli movies I never saw, so after I got back from Japan I watched Howl's Moving Castle and A Wizard of Earthsea.
Ugh. They were not good.
Howl's Moving Castle had a lot of interesting elements in it, but they didn't seem to add up to much. A lot of time was spent setting up the war and setting up The Witch of the Wastes and then neither of them did anything in the resolution. It felt like one of those roleplaying sessions where the players all lost interest in the original plot hook and focused on a side plot until it became the main plot. I haven't read the original book so I can't compare, but from Sushu's descriptions it sounds like they took a unique story and crammed it into the "generic Ghibli movie" mold.
I can compare the Wizard of Earthsea movie, though, and wow. As a huge fan of Studio Ghibli and an equally huge fan of Ursula le Guin's Earthsea trilogy, I was originally pretty excited to hear that the former was animating the latter. Then I heard it sucked. But dayum I was not prepared for this level of suckage. It was way beyond "disappointing". It wasn't just that it completely missed the point of the books (thought it did): it completely failed to work on the most basic level as a piece of narrative fiction. There are whole scenes where nothing remotely relevant to the story happens at all. Just beautifully animated scenes of dudes plowing farmland and eating stew, and plowing more farmland and eating more stew, for what feels like forever. I got so bored I started yelling at the screen, "Plot! Plot! Where did you go, plot? Are you ever coming back?"
The story, such as it was, is a fanfictiony mash-up that pastes elements of the first and fourth books onto the basic idea of the third (The Farthest Shore). This is an odd choice since it means Ged isn't the main character; he's the Wise Mentor Guy who leads Prince Arren around offering spiritual-sounding but extremely vague advice.
There's an intro scene where a king and some wizards fret about the magic seeping out of the world and the balance of nature and stuff, then we never see any of those guys again. Almost all of the movie takes place on land, which is a damn shame. Ged drags Arren to live in a farmhouse with a woman he knows from Book Two. They eat stew and plow fields for so long that this movie should have been called "Farmhand II: The Plowening". Ged goes off to do Wizard Stuff we never get to see. The standard Miyazaki tropes show up: Generic-faced destiny girl? Check! Viscous black goop representing black magic or industrial pollution? Check!
Finally about half an hour before the end the movie shifts gears and starts rushing towards what feels like the climax of an unrelated story. There's some fights and about three speeches in a row about how Death Is An Important Part Of Life And The Cycle Of Nature So Trying To Be Immortal Is Really Bad. This was a big theme in the book, but the difference is that good writers like Ursula le Guin express themes by having characters live them. The characters in this crappy movie just randomly decide to make heavy-handed philosophy speeches that come out of nowhere and have nothing to do with the story.
The only decent things about this movie are a well-animated midair fight between two dragons (which has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of the movie) and a nice drum-and-flute song called Kachoufuugetsu -- which we're now learning to play in our taiko class.
Yo, it's happening. First two episodes are online already. I just watched them and they look promising! Great animation, cool music, pretty backgrounds, solid characterization, funny jokes, sweet martial arts, inventive setting, hints of major plotlines to come: what's not to like?
Kind of unusual for a kid's show to be like "Hey kids! 70 years have passed, most of the characters you like have died of old age, sorry." That's how the Avatar Cycle works, though. They're being true to their mythology. I'm pretty excited that they allowed technology to progress enough in the intervening time that their fantasy setting has effectively been transformed into an early modern setting with some fantasy elements. I can't think of another series that's made that jump (except maybe Final Fantasy, but that has no continuity anyway). I'm looking forward to lots of stories about crime and political corruption and future shock. (Kid-friendly, of course.)
Guess what! Apparently the really, actually finally (posthumously) last book in the Wheel of Time series is nearly done and has a release date of January. So that's good, I guess! I'm glad the fans who were dismayed by Robert Jordan's untimely death will finally get the conclusion they've been waiting for.
I wonder if I should read the series now?
I have some friends who were big fans, but I never got into it because it looked like it was never going to end. I didn't want to get invested in such a long series without some promise of resolution. But now that the end is in sight, maybe I should give it a chance? (perhaps skipping Book Ten, "Crossroads of Twilight", which is infamous among fans as the book where the plot progression slows down so much it actually moves backwards.)
And... wow. The recap of the first book is enough to confirm my suspicion that the series is Not For Me, after all. Even in summary form, the plot moves too slow for my liking!
It's not just the endless traveling scenes, the scenes where characters describe stuff we've already seen to other characters, the angsty interior monologues, or the constant prophetic visions of doom. (If you read fantasy, you get used to dealing with a certain amount of padding.) It's not even the cornucopia of Tolkien-esque high fantasy cliches. I can deal with those.
What's frustrating me about this recap is the constant backing-down from conflict. Every time conflict starts building up towards something interesting, just as it looks like things are going to get good, somebody backs down or sneaks out of town, or some powerful magic woman shows up to rescue the heroes, heal their wounds and make everything better. The resolution is pushed off for later. It's a constant tease: "This is going to be a really cool confrontation when it happens! ...but it's not time for it to happen yet, not in this book anyway." Things revert to the status quo and the journey continues.
Contrast with Game of Thrones. Though I've got problems with GoT too (especially the last two books) -- at least it's a series that gets shit done. Conflicts ignite, escalate, explode, somebody wins, somebody loses (and probably dies) and as a result the balance of power in Westeros is transformed. Several times per book, at least. And no magic lady shows up to rescue the heroes. Everybody has to live with their mistakes. Every choice has consequences, and the consequences are usually deadly.
In Wheel of Time, the bad stuff is mostly teased - warnings about what will happen if somebody fails, prophetic dreams, various characters angsting about their dark fates, etc. But it seems like a safe bet that all the main characters will make it to the end to play their assigned roles in the final battle. In Game of Thrones the bad stuff happens to people, brutally, on-screen. Sometimes with build-up, sometimes by surprise. Sometimes you cheer, sometimes you curse. Either way, something changed. The plot has irrevocably progressed. Things at the end of the chapter are different from how they were at the beginning.
I'm not saying nothing happens in Wheel of Time. From the summaries, there's some parts that sound pretty cool. Obviously things happen, or the fans wouldn't have stuck with it; but nothing happens without hundreds of pages of buildup first. It's a certain type of fantasy that I guess appeals to a certain type of reader - people who really enjoy immersion. If your primary enjoyment comes from just spending time in your favorite imaginary world, with your favorite imaginary characters, then maybe you don't need the plot to move forward at a rapid pace.
They're two very different approaches to plotting.
Oh, one more thing I gotta point out. Wheel of Time has this concept called "ta'veren". I find it absolutely hilarious. "Ta'veren" are people who are sacred to destiny; their lives are the most important threads of The Pattern of fate, which is "woven" by The Wheel of Time. Their very presence causes improbable coincidences to happen around them, in order to make stuff work out the way fate requires.
The Pattern pays no heed to human plans, Siuan. With all our scheming, we forgot what we were dealing with. Ta’veren. Elaida is wrong. Artur Paendrag Tanreall was never this strongly ta’veren. The Wheel will weave the Pattern around this young man as it wills, whatever our plans.
(The Great Hunt, chap 5)
Let's try replacing a few key words:
The Pattern Plot pays no heed to human plans, Siuan. With all our scheming, we forgot what we were dealing with. Ta'veren The Main Character. Elaida is wrong. Artur Paendrag Tanreall was never this strongly Ta'veren a Main Character. The Wheel Author will weave the Pattern Plot around this young man as it wills, whatever our plans.
Yeah... these characters are basically admitting that they're trapped in a fantasy novel plot, and complaining that the main character is a Mary Sue. Terry Pratchett plays this kind of stuff for laughs; in Wheel of Time it's SERIOUS BUSINESS.
In early drafts of Yuki Hoshigawa I had a conceit that she was a "weirdness magnet" who would attract strange events. I dropped this idea when I realized it's redundant -- every fictional protagonist has the "weirdness magnet" ability just by virtue of being a fictional protagonist. No need to hang a lampshade on it.
I watched the first two seasons of this show this summer in Shanghai, so of course I had this song stuck in my head a lot. Went around humming it all day, etc.
My thoughts on the show itself (Minor spoilers ahead!)
The casting is pretty good for the most part. The actors who play Tyrion and Catelyn especially are just amazing, to the point where you forget there's an actor playing them; that's the real Catelyn right there caught on camera accusing the real Tyrion of trying to murder her son.
The costumes and sets were real nice. And they did a good job of conveying the plot almost entirely through conversations between characters; most of the big (and expensive to film!) battle scenes are conveyed indirectly, left to the imagination. It could have been a disappointing choice; in a movie you would definitely want to see that stuff, but for a TV series mostly focused on character interaction, it works.
The bad parts: wayyyy too much "sexposition". That's where they have an infodump to give you (which in the book would be an internal monologue or just a descriptive passage) and half-assedly attempt to make it interesting by combining the infodump with a sex scene. It's just as ridiculous as it sounds, and it happens in almost every episode.
Imagine if you were trying to have the hot sex with some sexy royal person and they were like "LET ME EXPLAIN TO YOU THE LEGACY OF MY PEOPLE!" the whole time. you would be laughing too hard to keep going.
Speaking of sex scenes, I didn't like how they changed the relationship between Dany and Drogo. In the book, Drogo cares about getting Dany's consent; granted she's not in much of a position to say 'no' due to the power dynamics, but the fact that he asks makes him a more likeable character than most of the scumbags in Westeros, and it makes their developing romance almost believable. The TV show, though, plays it as a straight-up rape scene. Guh! I don't want to see that! Also it makes the later romance arc into a "fall in love with your rapist" story, which is a sick and horrible trope.
I was afraid Wreck-It Ralph would be all pandering to the nostalgia of 30-year-old video game grognards (hello) but I was happily surprised.
The writers kept the cameos from famous games mostly in the background (Ralph's in a villain support group with Bowser, Dr. Robotnik, and M. Bison; they meet in the ghost rectangle in the middle of the Pac-Man board) and kept the focus where it belongs, on the original characters. The three games invented for the movie -- a racer, a first-person shooter, and an old-school single-screen action game -- are believable and fully realized in a way that tells me the writers know and love video games.
I'll nominate Ralph as the best movie about video-game characters yet made. Remember the flood of video-game movies in the 80s? Remember how much they sucked? I know this is geek heresy, but I thought even the original TRON was unbearably boring; the characters had no personality. Maybe a generation had to pass before the culture could absorb video games enough to make a good movie about them.
I think I realized something about myself. I've got a reputation as a guy who hates all movies, but that's not true. Turns out I just hate movies aimed at grown-ups. Most of my favorites - e.g. the works of Ghibli, Pixar, and Jim Henson - are movies aimed at kids.
Why is that? Because I'm an emotionally-stunted man-child who refuses to grow up? Probably. But also because I want two things out of a movie. One is meaning: themes, character development, a coherent philosophy. The other is fun stuff: cool visuals, dynamic scenes, originality, humor. If your movie has cool fight scenes but no themes or character development, if it's just about colorful dudes punching each other (ahem, Avengers), it makes me bored. If it's got Big Themes but it's dour and dreary, all talking heads and long meaningful pauses and rain, that makes me bored too. Most grown-up movies fall hard on one side or the other.
And OK most kids' movies are dreck (previews for some truly atrocious ones were attached to Wreck-it Ralph) but smart kids' movies are one of the few genres that allow themselves to be fun and meaningful at the same time. Kids lack experience, but they're not dumb. Smart kids' movies, by treating kids with respect, tell stories that are relevant for everyone. I dare say that some kids' movies get at things about the human condition that "grownup" movies are afraid to tackle. Contrast, say, the opening sequence of "Up" (still chokes me up just thinking about it) vs. the wanky wish-fulfillment of "Avatar". One of these is telling us the truth about life and it isn't the one supposedly aimed at grown-ups.
Wreck-it Ralph is about self-discovery, finding your place in the world, the meaning of heroism, the emptiness of material rewards, seeing people as more than their job description, trying to break out of the box that other people use to define you... there's a lot of good stuff in there and it holds together really well on repeat watchings. Ralph isn't the only dynamic character; Vanelope is hilarious and has a decent character arc of her own, being almost a co-protagonist. The movie is a whole lot better on the female-representation front than most of its source material (unfortunately) is.
On the fun-stuff side, Wreck-it Ralph captured what I love about my favorite video games -- the worlds you can explore, the characters you can be, the friendships and rivalries with other players, the thrill of honest competition, the quest to get farther than you've ever gotten before, the innocent joy of an activity that has no purpose except to be fun. I would play the hell out of Fix-it Felix Jr. and Sugar Rush if they were real games. (Hero's Duty not so much - I hate rail-shooters.) The plot has some great twists, the environments are wondrous, and we get to laugh at characters from wildly different genres trying to interact despite their divergent expectations about game mechanics (and equally divergent bodily proportions).
There is also a pretty cool visual, during scenes where a certain character hacks the source code of his own game (!) which does a decent job of visualizing what programming feels like.
This was a good year for smart kids movies! Besides Ralph, I was surprised how good Paranorman was. It's a stop-motion animation by the makers of Coraline, about a boy who can see ghosts; sadly it seems like almost nobody saw it. I loved Paranorman's portrayal of a creaky New England town (much like the ones I grew up in) and all the little extra touches they put into the animation. I thought the gradual reveal of the central mystery was well done, and I approve of its message - don't want to give spoilers so I'll just say it's a story about how fear turns people into monsters.
Also saw Brave last week. It's not Pixar's best, but middle-of-the-road Pixar is still really good relative to most studios' output. It has amazingly gorgeous backgrounds, but at first I thought it was going to be boring because it seemed to be following the typical Disney Princess "no mom I don't wanna marry this bozo I'ma run away" narrative. But then it takes a different turn. No handsome prince character rides in to resolve everything; in fact all the male characters are background. Instead the story is all about repairing a broken mother-daughter relationship. It's weird how rare this is a subject for a fairy-tale movie. (How many Disney character moms are even alive and present, let alone get their own character development?) It made me think a lot about my relationship with my own mother (who has been going around saying "it's yerr FATE" in a fake Scottish accent ever since seeing the movie).
I'm reading Journey to the West, the classic Chinese novel, or rather I'm reading the abridged translation of it by Anthony C. Yu.
(If you're not familiar: Journey to the West is based on the true story of a Chinese Buddhist monk, named Xuanzang or Tripitaka, who journeyed to India in order to bring a copy of the original Buddhist scriptures back to China during the Tang dynasty, ~800s AD. But over the centuries it's been embellished into a mythological fantasy, starring Tripitaka's companion, Sun Wukong the Monkey King, who steals the spotlight for much of the story. Sun Wukong is the inspiration for Goku in Dragonball and numerous other adaptations in Asian pop culture as well.)
Since it's Significant Cultural Literature and also hella old, I expected it to be somewhat dry. But it's fun! It's totally whimsical and humorous. The irrepressible Sun Wukong basically wages a prank war against heaven, running rampant through the pantheons of three religions, extorting tribute from the Dragons of the Four Seas, stealing the Peaches of Immortality and beating up the Ten Kings of the Underworld with his superior kung-fu, before he's finally out-pranked by the Buddha himself. Buddha imprisons him in a mountain for 500 years and then binds him into Tripitaka's service.
The story is told in this digressionary style that keeps going off on random tangents. Even the tangents have tangents. It takes fourteen chapters before anybody even starts journeying west! And that's in the abridged version! I hate to think how many side-quests the full version has. It's also constantly busting out poetry. When they cross a mountain there's poetry about how scary the mountain is; when they put on armor there's poetry about how cool the armor looks; when they fight there's poetry about how fierce the battle is. There's more poetic interruptions than Lord of the Rings.
Anyway, I wanted to share a quotation with you because I think it says something interesting about Chinese culture. This bit is from a tangent within a tangent. Taizong, the Tang Emperor, is dying due to a curse. The ministers and the Queen Mother are already arranging his funeral. But his loyal advisor Wei Zheng has a plan. Wei Zheng says:
"Let Your Majesty be relieved. Your subject knows something which will guarantee long life for Your Majesty."
"My illness", said Taizong, "has reached the irremediable stage; my life is in danger. How can you preserve it?"
"Your subject has a letter here", said Wei, "which I submit to Your Majesty to take with you to Hell and give to the Judge of the Underworld, Jue."
"Who is Cui Jue?", asked Taizong.
"Cui Jue", said Wei, "was the subject of the deceased emperor, your father: at first he was the district magistrate of Cihou, and subsequently he was promoted to vice-president of the Board of Rites. When he was alive, he was an intimate friend and sworn brother of your subject. Now that he is dead, he has become a judge in the capital of the Underworld, having in his charge the chronicles of life and death in the region of darkness. He meets with me frequently, however, in my dreams. If you go there presently and hand this letter to him, he will certainly remember his obligation toward your lowly subject and allow Your Majesty to return here. Surely your soul will return to the human world, and your royal countenance will once more grace the capital."
When Taizong heard these words, he took the letter in his hands and put it in his sleeve; with that, he closed his eyes and died.
I love the idea that dying is just another formality which you can easily work around if you have connections in the underworld bureaucracy. Also, your bros are so important that a little thing like being dead won't stop you from paying back a favor. Such is the power of guanxi.
I haven't posted too much tabletop-minis-game-related stuff on this site up until now, but hey! I'm getting real close to painting completion on my Circle Orboros army (for the game Warmachine/Hordes) and I wanted to show off some of my work. WARNING turn back now if you don't want to read extreme levels of miniature painting geekery.
This is Megalith. I just finished painting it few days ago. I tried out several new paint techniques that I haven't used before, and I'm quite happy with how it came out.
The story is that he's a construct of wood and stone, magically brought to life by the druid Baldur The Stonecleaver. The vines and branches that make up his body are still alive, so he regenerates damage, he can put down roots into the soil to avoid being knocked down, and he can create an area effect of undergrowth that tangles up enemies. He also channels his controller's magic, and crushes things with his Rune Fists.
In short, he's totally awesome in-game, the linchpin of many tactics, and he deserves a cool model to match. The default Megalith model is OK, but he's got his arms up in a pose like he's doing the YMCA dance. I decided to make some modifications.
So step 1 was to repose his arms, which was not easy, because he's made of metal, and only designed to go together one way. But a lot of hacking with a tiny saw and drilling with a Dremel tool let me get his arms down. It left a lot of gaps that had to be filled with greenstuff (epoxy putty). I tried to sculpt texture into the greenstuff to match what was already there; luckily, wood grain/vines/rope are among the easier textures to sculpt with a pointy stick.
I also sculpted greenstuff roots to extend out of his feet and spread across the base, representing the idea that he's sinking roots into the ground. The "rocks" on the base are just pieces of bark I picked up from the backyard.
The kit came with an awkward twig piece which is supposed to stick out of his back, but it looked wrong. Too abbreviated. So I extended it with some branch pieces I clipped off a Woodland Scenics brand tree armature (made for model train layouts) to make my Megalith into a proper tree-monster. Took some more pieces of the tree armature and had them growing out of the roots on the base, like new plant life is bursting up out of the ground wherever he walks.
Of course if I glued all that on permanently, he would be too tall to fit in the foam bag I use to transport my minis to games. So I made the tree assembly removable, with a pin that plugs into a socket on his back. Disguised the join as best I could.
I use a desert color scheme on my Circle Orboros; forest-themed druids have been done to death, and besides, every ecosystem probably has its own druids looking after it. Druids know that the desert isn't just a barren wasteland but a fragile and intricate ecosystem that needs their protection.
I basecoated him using a Tamiya "light sand" color spraypaint that I got from a Gundam model shop in Seattle. I love this color; it's the perfect desert-tan color that I've been trying to achieve. My only regret is now I want to touch up the tans on the rest of my army to match it better.
After the basecoat, I used an old toothbrush dipped in wet paint to splatter a fine mist of brown, black, and white dots randomly over the model. They don't show up individually but the idea was just to give the stone surfaces the illusion of a rough, stony texture. It's a subtle effect but I'm quite happy with it.
Next I mixed up a shade color to wash into the recesses to give the model more definition. Usually I would just use a darker version of the base color, but I decided to add some hue contrast as well, so I mixed green and orange to make an ugly greenish-brown. I really like the warm/cold contrast it adds and the hint that moss has been growing in Megalith's recesses while he was standing around.
I drybrushed GW Bleached Bone, always stroking down from the top, to apply a subtle highlight to the sun-facing raised edges.
The runes and crystals are all done with GW Hawk Turquoise, a color I use throughout the army; I chose it to complement the desert yellows and reddish-browns while serving as the "sky" of an earth-and-sky theme. For the runes, and the eyes, I just mixed the turquoise with a lot of white, watered it down, and let it flow into the crevices. For the crystals on his fists I tried a bit of an optical-illusion effect: i.e. that's not a reflection, it's just various shades of turquoise paint with a dot of white paint at the top.
I used mostly inks and drybrushing for the wooden parts. If I do any more work on this model, I would want to add a little more contrast to the wooden parts, maybe make the vines stand out more from their background.
After all the paint was dry, I ripped up some clumps of Woodland Scenics synthetic foliage and glued them onto the branches. I drybrushed the clumps with GW Camo Green to give them a bit of color variation.
The last new technique I tried out on this model was painting a freehand vine pattern along the front edge of the base. (To avoid any ambiguity about which way your models are facing in a game of Warmchine/Hordes, you're supposed to mark the base to indicate the 180 degrees of the model's "front arc".) Usually I just do two lines on the edges of the front arc, but I wanted to try something a little fancier. Not sure if I'm going to keep doing it; I like how it looks up close, but from a distance it just turns into a blur.