Author Archives: Chris

Aftermath: Empire’s End

If you are looking for a book that explains why there’s wreckage all over Jakku in The Force Awakens, then Empire’s End is the book for you! If, however, you are looking for information on where Leader Snoke and the First Order came from, well, you’ll hear somewhere between one to five percent of that story, tops. (Which to be fair, at least until the trilogy of movies is over, you had to know that nobody would be allowed too close to direct backstory, in case the writers wanted to do it on film instead. I mean, you had to know that, right?)

On the bright side, I’m still very much enamored of the characters in this trilogy, and it’s nice to see someone telling a full-sized story in the Star Wars universe where Skywalkers are relegated to a side role at best. (There have been other such stories prior to 2015, but really not very many.)

Just in case there’s confusion, I should note that the book does a lot more than explain Jakku wreckage. But it’s the third book of a trilogy, so why go crazy with spoilers? It continues to do well what the other books also did well: present a living, breathing galaxy reacting to Palpatine’s demise and the birth of a new Republic, while telling a personal story about several people on both sides of the lingering conflict. In other words, if you care about Star Wars, this has star warsy stuff worth caring about.

Annihilation

Thanks, random invite to a sneak preview from Alamo Drafthouse! The last one of these I got was for Mother!, which I liked quite a lot. This time, Annihilation. Which, like the last one, is pretty hard to describe, but unlike the last one, doesn’t hold together quite as well on reflection. That’s not a big criticism, mind you. I really liked Mother! a lot. Just not in a rewatch it kind of way, whereas this one I think I could.

See, Natalie Portman, because reasons, is going on a mission into a weird area of land called the Shimmer, in which (per the sentence long description on IMDB) the laws of nature don’t apply; and also previous missions have not ever returned. From there, a movie length mind trip[1][2] ensues, in which Natalie is accompanied by Jennifer Jason Leigh, Jane the Virgin, and the Valkyrie on a quest to solve the mystery of the Shimmer.

That’s quite enough to say, I suppose. It’s nice to see a movie with very few men just a few days after seeing a movie with only one white person. It would be I guess nicer if it didn’t also have the feeling of being bread and circuses while I ignore the shitshow outside.

[1] As you can tell from the poster’s color palette alone
[2] One reason for a rewatch, besides that I’m not afflicted with underlying disturbed feelings from this movie, is that I know I missed a lot of things and would find the second time rewarding towards deciding if I think they stuck the landing or not.

Black Panther

It took me until Monday night to see Black Panther, which was in a way annoying but in another way heartening. Tickets all Sunday afternoon and evening were sold out down to the front couple of rows, you see. This pleases me, both for the studio and the character. And not having seen it on Thursday night, it’s not like my review was going to factor into much of anything at all, so.

The thing is, T’Challa is a compelling character and Wakanda is a compelling nation. There is a book that I have not read called Guns, Germs, and Steel that lays out an (as I understand it) compelling case for the idea that European dominance of the colonial and modern world has a lot more to do with geography and resources than with any innate superiority of its peoples. Enter Wakanda, a small African nation whose technology is far ahead of any part of the world not personally owned by Tony Stark, because that happens to be where a huge chunk of vibranium[1] landed lo these thousands or millions of years ago, and the Wakandans happened to get there first. And you can say that this is so much wish fulfillment. Probably that’s true? But it’s awfully comfortable saying that if you happen to be the person whose wish was fulfilled by reality instead of the person whose wish was not.

And to a large extent, that’s where my review ends, because as cool as the Black Panther is, and as fun as it was to see him rushing around the world fighting some of his biggest name enemies from the comics, and as well realized as his fellow Wakandans each were, and as socially and historically relevant as Killmonger’s origin story is, the real star of this movie was Wakanda. And they did that country up right, every bit as well as Asgard or Ego have been presented in previous MCU flicks.

[1] It’s what Captain America’s shield is made out of. More to the point, it’s virtually indestructible and has a number of rather intriguing properties in addition to this that make it a boon to scientific and military advancements over time. It’s, y’know, handwavium.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Did you know that they are still making Harry Potter movies? It’s true! But I got distracted and never actually saw Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them until now. (Not Black Panther like you’d think. I tried, but all the theaters with assigned seating were sold out down to the front rows today, so I still don’t get to go until Monday. That’s like five days of avoiding spoilers, you guys. Then again, I managed to go more than a year with functionally no spoilers on this Harry Potter thing I’m nominally reviewing, and that includes steadfastly ignoring the newest third of the Harry Potter exhibit on the Warner Bros. studio tour.)

So, a thing worth mentioning is that this technically was not a Harry Potter movie, seeing as how it was set in 1927, some 50 odd years before the boy who lived was even born. There’s this guy Newt Scamander, who wrote a book called Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and this is a story of him hanging out in America with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts, back when nobody really liked them (the beasts, not suitcases) and they were illegal to have instead of worthy of being studied and written about, and also there was a pre-Voldemort wizard bad guy that everyone is nervous about.

So if you care about cool magical creatures (you should) or how American wizardry differs from British wizardry in time as well as space (maybe you should?) or about characters who all share a sense of wonder about this whole magic thing even though they were born to it instead of being thrust into it as a cipher stand-in for the reader, and also they all care about each other and have genuine undeniable chemistry, both as actors and as characters (you definitely should, as this kind of thing honestly doesn’t happen that often), this is the movie for you. In a way, it’s better than its source material.

Not that I don’t like Harry Potter, but chosen ones who learn about the universe as the reader or watcher does with constantly ratcheting stakes are kind of a dime a dozen these days, whereas successful post facto world-building is a rare gem indeed.

Rider, Reaper

I liked this Deathlands book somewhat less than usual, for a variety of reasons, which I will now elucidate.

1) The plot was not organic, and instead was in service of a clear goal that took me out of the writing. See, albino knife-throwing murder machine Jak Lauren left the group a long time ago, to start a life on a ranch in New Mexico. Yet, the in media res opening of Rider, Reaper immediately took the happy ending away from him, solely so the series could have him back. Clumsily enough so that I didn’t even realize it was that style at first, and instead thought I had accidentally picked up the wrong book. (On the bright side, I like him. But man, the clumsiness. Maybe if his family had been murdered during one of the stretches of time when everyone else hadn’t been right nearby, and then found him along the way instead? I dunno.)

2) Due to circumstances, they team up with a group of Navajo warriors to take down the bad guys of the week, and those warriors are portrayed as hot-headed savages worthy of a team-up with 19th century cowboys showing that the white way is manifestly the correct one, instead of 22nd century survivors of a society-ending nuclear war. It was just so bad, and all the moreso for me being used to this series’ shockingly common egalitarianism. Ugh. I am pretty sure the author hasn’t changed yet and won’t for a long time, so I hope it is a one-off problem, and not a sign of things to come due to editorial changes or some other permanent shift.

All that said, the set up of the next few books is pleasing to me, and I continue to look forward to where things are going. Please oh please let this be merely a small bump in the road.

Hush (2016)

I’m excited by the Olympics, because it apparently means nobody is airing any opposing television, which means I have time to watch movies! Hence Hush, the random horror movie on Netflix I picked to watch a few nights ago when Mary had already fallen asleep but it was very early.

Premise: deaf-mute lady author in the woods. Later, a guy in a creepy mask shows up and stalks her, because sometimes shitty dudes with crossbows gonna be shitty. Then, seventy minutes of ratcheting cat and mouse tension. Tiny cast, ironically great sound editing, and otherwise, either you like this kind of thing or you don’t, y’know? Obviously I do, and this was an excellent example of the genre with basically nothing to disrecommend it.

 

Bright

When I was in LA in mid-December, I saw posters everywhere for a Netflix movie called Bright, starring Will Smith. It was to be released in like a week, but I had never heard of it before that weekend. No idea why, really. I mean, I suppose the fact that 90% of LA billboards are advertising for the screen instead of like 20% here in Dallas could account for part of the reason?

Anyway, it looked interesting. See, it’s the modern world as we know it, except orcs are the stand-in for the downtrodden classes, elves are the stand-in for the wealthy and powerful classes who don’t want to be bothered with having to acknowledge that there even is an underclass who got a raw deal, and humans are the stand-in for, y’know, whoever fits in between the two extremes I just detailed. Oh, also, there was a Dark Lord a long time ago, and people hate orcs because they were on his side then. Institutionalized racism at its finest, folks!

And, frankly, that’s the problem with the movie in a nutshell. Someone decided that, oh, cool, we can highlight the massive race and class problems in America by using fantasy race stand-ins! …and then they didn’t really do anything else with the idea except point at it over and over again. For example: at one point, cop Will Smith and his orc partner (who is the first ever orc policeman, and if you guessed that both every orc and every cop hates him, then you already see my point here) are interviewing some hispanic folks in a house, and they’re speaking Spanish, which Will Smith knows and the orc does not. But it’s okay, because Will Smith doesn’t speak orcish when they’re in the orc gang hideout, and, oh, wait, why do elves speak elvish and orcs speak orcish, but humans have all the same languages we’re already used to since it’s regular earth? It’s possible this shouldn’t bother me as much as it does, but it’s just so damned shoddy!

Anyway, yeah. Buddy cop movie with high tension between the nominal buddies, and there’s a lot of magic floating around via all-powerful wands that most people can’t touch without just exploding to death, and of the people who can, mostly they’re only elves, but also the world is so shitty that people would go ahead and grab a wand anyway if they were just laying around because hey, if you don’t explode, cosmic power is yours for the wishing. And I’m pretty okay with that as a setting, but man, the clumsily (and, worse) lazily-handled race stuff ruins the whole thing for me.

But I hear it did well and there’s a sequel, so maybe they can focus on Dark Lords and magic next time, or at least have someone set them straight on how to not build ridiculous caricatures that we’ve all seen before. (I should say: the opening credits of the movie highlight the tensions and problems of both their world and ours extremely well, so much better than the plot or dialogue ever came close to.)

Aftermath: Life Debt

Life Debt is the second in a trilogy of books that falls between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens in the new Star Wars continuity. I have more of a feeling than I originally had that I will learn very little about how we got from there to here, after having read this book. That’s disappointing, but not enough to take away from my enjoyment of the book for itself.

The cool team of rebels (or whatever you call them instead when the Empire is kind of defeated although not entirely but for sure there’s a replacement or at least alternative government in place) from Aftermath is back, to do Princess Leia a favor. See, the new Republic government is focused on fighting the Empire over systems with tactical or political value as they gradually try to put out the flames, instead of on who is suffering; and one Han Solo owes a Wookiee of his acquaintance a free Wookiee home world.

Only now they’re out of contact, and Leia asked those people I mentioned from the last book to go find him. And thus, a plot! Also, there’s some seemingly (but I’m afraid ultimately not) relevant byplay among the Imperial remnants, trying to figure out who will come out on top and how they will crush the new Republic, you know, like you’d expect them to want to do. Wake me up when one if them is named Snoke and I’ll care more about where that part of the plot is going.

But the laser battles and ship battles and infiltration plans and whatnot? Definitely still Star Wars, and that’s fine by me.

Blood Follows

There is one problem with publication order, and that problem is when small run publications are later gathered into collections. Well, to be fair, it’s not a problem with reading; you just read the part of the book that contains the story you were reading in publication order, and then put it down until later. But it is a problem for me specifically, since I include links to the book I read from, and yet the book I read Blood Follows in is not strictly the original book itself, since it’s a collection. Like, it’s fine now, but what about when I have the same cover and the same link for the next story I read from this collection? (It turns out I used the cover of the original small batch publication, so that may help a little.)

(It’s possible[1] I’m thinking about this too much.)

So, in Memories of Ice, one of the subplots I did not mention was that of the necromancers Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. This is because despite touching on the main drive of the story at several points, they really have nothing to do with anything that’s going on. Despite that, they are fascinating characters. Well, the one who murders people and uses their parts to build constructs in pursuit of some nebulous goal that may not rightly exist[2] is not especially fascinating. But the one who accompanies and protects the crazy one because it gives him a chance to further his own necromantic research, and who presents as a polished and urbane yet evil supergenius in the vein of Dr. Doom, he is fascinating. And their manservant, Emancipor Reese, is usually played for comic relief, but in a way that makes you care about him. He’s stuck in a situation, and making the best of it. (Well, trying and mostly failing to, whence comes the comedy.)

Anyway, though, Blood Follows. This is a short book that gives an answer for why these characters were in the main sequence book: because Erikson is as fascinated by them as I am. We join our characters several years earlier and half a world away. Emancipor Reese has just lost another in a long string of employers to unfortunate death (this time at the hands of a murderer stalking the streets of his city for the past fortnight), and he needs to find a new job fast, lest his wife and probably non-biological children think even less of him than they already do. Also, there’s a reasonably cool police detective type trying to solve the murders.

By and large, this is a story that you will care about if you care about the characters you already knew, and otherwise, you will not. In part this is because Erikson is a far worse mystery novelist than he is a fantasy and war novelist. In part, it’s because even to the extent that the mystery worked, too many characters emerge as major players in the final act, and it is seen through the eyes of someone who has just as little idea of what’s going on as the reader does. This can work in the first book of an epic series, if your reader trusts you and in the meantime the story is written masterfully. It works a lot less well when the story is barely a hundred pages long and the things the reader didn’t really understand revolved around characters he (by which I mean I) doesn’t really expect to encounter ever again.

This isn’t to say I didn’t like it. It is to say that if I wasn’t already invested in the world and the main characters, I probably would not have, though.

[1] probable
[2] That is, I don’t really think he has an endgame in mind (nor that, even if he does, I’ll ever learn it). It’s more like he’s playing with legos to see what he can make.

Minty: The Assassin

While at my folks’ for the weekend, I ended up diving into the free streaming service Dish Network has to offer, in search of the Maze Runner movies. Unsuccessfully, as it happened, but while plumbing the depths of the “action movies from 2010s” section (since they don’t seem to have a search function), I stumbled across Minty: The Assassin, which probably was a mistake.

Minty (and the other characters) are comic book characters who exist in real life in the world that writes comics about them. This is not really a new idea; it pretty much lines up exactly with how Marvel has always run its comics division, for example. Anyway, after a series of really inexplicable vignettes in which we are introduced to Minty (her power is like Popeye, except she eats chocolate), her vampire potential girlfriend, and her mentor Big Boss, the meat of the movie begins when Big Boss is kidnapped by a psychic surgeon and used as bait to lure Minty to his tower. She fights her way up the tower past various colorful level bosses, losing bits of clothing as she goes, only to discover (okay, spoiler alert I guess, but seriously, don’t watch this) that it was all a set-up. The point of the kidnapping was to get her naked to the top of the tower, because Dr. Brain Bender is actually a creepazoid fan of her comic, and he wanted to see her with her clothes off.

Leaving aside the inherent contradiction of stripping her down in pursuit of an anti-sexism plot, the movie nevertheless had the germ of a good idea there. He’s clearly a bad guy, and he’s clearly a crazy loser, and you can at least imagine someone taking the message to heart. ….except that the final 15 minutes is exploitative in the extreme, of the characters and the audience alike. The fact that the bad guy gets assassined in the end really doesn’t make up for how sleazy the path to his death was.

Avoid.