Monthly Archives: July 2006

Kushiel’s Scion

From time to time, I browse my local Half-Price Books. Well, more accurately, there are two that are right close and another that is along a path I follow with semi-regularity, and I tend to be in at least one of them at least once a week. So, you know, a lot. I’ve always been okay with used books, and the thing where I have a lack of income has turned that into something more like necessity. But, my point is, regular freaking customer here. So when I saw a hardback copy of a new Kushiel book from Jacqueline Carey, completely without having been aware that the series was set to continue, I just snagged it and went. Only later did I learn of the unlikelihood of finding a used copy of a book that had only been out for about a week. So, hey, neat. Go, me!

And then, a pair of incredibly busy weeks made me not only read it more slowly than one might guess, but also resulted in the review being a solid week late. The details have faded a little bit, but I can only assume that Kushiel’s Scion is about the further adventures of Phèdre, discarded child, high class prostitute, and now peer of the realm as she attempts to select and customise an incredibly ugly and inexplicably popular rectangular car without bankrupting her beloved Terre d’Ange or allowing the swirling intrigues of the court to distract her from her goal. Or, possibly, it’s about something else?

So, yeah, no. In fact, it’s about her adopted son Imriel, whose legacy is nearly as convoluted as her own. Birthed as part of a plot by his infamous mother and Phèdre’s longtime adversary to steal the throne for which he is third in line, raised unwitting of his heritage or rank in a remote monastery, kidnapped into slavery and sexual abuse at a tender age (completely coincidental to his past), and now raised to adulthood in the household of the most famed citizens of the modern age, our young Imriel has had a lot to overcome. And this book is as much about overcoming it as it is about introducing the hero of a new trilogy full of the same style (and, I think, quality) of political intrigue, lush travelogue and vivid characters that made the original so enjoyable.

Best of all, it being an introductory novel in no way hinders any of the other qualities one looks for in a book. You have the tried, true, and almost never trite trope of exploring the present by revealing aspects of the past. You have a tightly contained and incompletely explored thematic question of what it really means to be good, a question that haunts Imriel daily due to the dark passions that came to him through his bloodline and his fear-disguising hatred of his exiled mother. And lest you think that ‘incompletely’ indicates a criticism of some kind, let me hasten to assure you that the opposite would be the case; the temerity to consider such a complex question as solved would be the point where I’d think far less of an author, rather. And you have an excellent hook into what promises to be an even stronger second entry. The downside, of course, is that I’m once again in the middle of an ongoing series I’d thought closed off and complete. But, you won’t find me complaining too loudly about it. I’m a sucker that way.

Superman Archives, Volume 1

My recent birthday was marked by a non-anonymous donation of multiple graphic novels (I, for the most part, have been exclusively Sandman in that arena up to now) in order to get me jumpstarted on the genre, which I’ve always approved of in theory but managed to miss the age at which one gets in on the ground floor, as it were. So, for the most part, my comics education has been movie-based. Not that there’s a ton wrong with that, but it certainly has limits.

So, I went with comforting and familiar for my first hit. DC’s Superman Archives, Volume 1 contains the first four seasonal collections of the Superman material originally published in the first several Action Comics, as well as some newspaper daily stuff. (Superman in a 3-4 panel newspaper comic? That’s just really weird to me.) A particularly cool thing about the book is that it includes everything in the collections, including ads for contests or joining fan clubs and screenshots for the pages where you can order all kinds of stuff for absolutely free, no money necessary! Apparently, in the late 1930s, a lot of companies had as their business model ‘Get small children to sell stuff door to door for us in exchange for cheap crap that will break in the mail on the way to them’. And people make fun of internet companies that wanted to provide everyone in America with a free barcode scanner? Well, okay, that’s pretty dumb, but still, so is the child salesman approach.

But anyway, comforting and familiar, right? Yeah, I screwed the pooch on that guess. Original Superman is just weird. I mean, yeah, I knew he couldn’t fly yet. The superhearing and vision even waited a few episodes to show up. No kryptonite yet, which made him more than usually overpowered relative to everyone else, but that was certainly a feature in its time, so I won’t judge them negatively on it. And the spontaneous ability to control his heartrate and other such physical functions? Just a precursor of the wackiness that would come in later years. But that’s not really what I mean. No, it’s more the personality of the guy. He was just a freakin’ bully. Kidnapping innocent people for their own good, all kinds of vigilante justice, bodies littering the ground behind him as often as not and the electric chair for most of the people he bothered to bring in. Furthermore, he had all kinds of ludicrous detective-y skills that would have much better suited Batman, if he had been invented just yet. Seriously, the ability to perfectly disguise yourself as other people, only with the use of makeup? I mean, even if I were to cave on that aspect, where would Clark Kent learn how to apply makeup, other than from the magical study manual of Plot Necessity? Oy. Plus, he had a very adversarial professional relationship with Lois Lane. So, it was all very jarring. On top of that, the plots were really kind of twee. This industrialist is trying to corrupt that politician, in order to generate a war that will help sell munitions, or else maybe a construction company is killing folks in order to snag a lucrative contract. I hear rumors of an alternate history Kal-El who landed in a Siberian gulag instead of a Kansas farm, but the fact is, old school Superman was already firmly on the side of the people in their inevitable revolution against the corrupt capitalist system. Kinda redundant.

On the bright side, the end of the book showed promise, in the form of (just as you’d expect, really) mad scientist Luthor. Not that he’d quite worked out how to be a reliable nemesis, but the grandiose plots with extensive collateral damage classified as acceptable losses? Those were present right from the start, to the comic’s overall benefit. In that same span is when Lois turned into her own character, rushing off into danger in a most unladylike fashion at every turn, well ahead of the women’s lib movement. (And, okay, she did require a man to get her out of all these hairy situations, but it was 1939. You can only expect so much.) As she’d only been a foil to reject Clark and make people feel bad for him, that’s a definite improvement. And, towards the end, Superman was showing hints of his squeaky clean Boy Scout image. I know it seems bland and boring, but when contrasted against a figure with sensibilities as dark as Batman’s who also has the power to take over the world if he felt like it? Very uncomfortable to read about that guy in a superhero comic setting. Although it would probably be compelling in the hands of a modern, less pulpy writer.

The actual book is very pretty, although I have the impression that future volumes are drastically overpriced. The insides are also good, with multiple short stories in addition to the all the comics and random stuff I mentioned earlier. A weirdness toward the end is that the short stories and occasional single page comics have nothing whatever to do with Superman, and instead gravitate toward cop/detective or science fiction for the stories and lame cartoons about a wiener dog’s trials and tribulations. (One of the science fiction stories had a bit of awesomeness about someone visiting the Museum of Interstellar Travel, in 1982. When, you see, interstellar travel had been around for so long that it was historical. I love stuff like that.)

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest

Here’s what happened. I went to the movie, ’cause, dude, pirates! And I watched it (still no Snakes on a Plane trailer. Jerks.), and at the end of the movie… nothing. No opinion whatsoever. So I did what any sane movie reviewer would do. I joined my friends for their kid birthday party evening viewing and watched it all over again. And if I had substantially more income than I do, I might convince myself to perpetuate this lie through another showing tonight, as my house is dead. But in fact my income retains its non-existence, and at any rate I am overdue on this review and another one exactly like it. (I may even cut-and-paste, so if it looks like there’s an error with a review posted twice in a row, rest assured, it’s on purpose. (I’m still lying, here. (OR AM I???))) Without further ado, then, my completely honest and spoiler-free review of the movie. Spoiler stuff will fall below the cut, as ever.

First, the raw impressions: It was pretty well unforgiving of people who had not seen the original. Chock full of quotable one-liners. Buckles were swashed harder than ever had they been swashed before. The people who made this have with at least 96% certainty played Katamari Damacy. Sufficient Cthulhiana to put me well down the road toward being convinced that maybe Lovecraft had a good point about the ocean. The plotlines were substantially more adult than last time. The humor was correspondingly more childlike. I expected five returning characters, and got eleven (or thirteen, depending upon how you count), which is pretty cool. “Undead monkey!” A multitude of characters with complex motivations bumping up against each other in realistic ways, and the corresponding double- and triple-crossing that ensues. Plenty of thematic concern with who’s good, who’s bad, and why, concern that was left unresolved by the end of the film. (The scene with Jack swapping out hats during the barfight, for example, was particularly noteworthy.)

A lot of things were left unresolved by the end of the film, in fact. Going into it, I was reminded a lot of the Matrix trilogy. You have an initial standalone film, and once it succeeds at making bank, the creators carry on with their originally planned longer story. I liked the second Matrix movie a lot, although it wasn’t quite as strong as the original. Much like here, you see. The one bright spot is that I have no reason to believe At World’s End will spectacularly flop, so that correspondence is basically over. So, that was my impression going in. And coming out? I have no complaint with cliffhangers that will be resolved in a reasonable amount of time, as seems to be the case here. My impression of the trilogy structure was altered a little bit, though. And hmm, delving into that requires spoilers, so I’m going to have to wrap things up here.

In short: Slightly weaker than the original, mostly in that the humor wasn’t quite up to snuff. The storyline was darker, which I for one am all about, and the characters had a lot more depth. As time passes, I’ll probably end up liking this one better, but right now, no matter how much it made me laugh, the original made me laugh more and in better ways, and as a result of having watched it just a couple days ago too, it looms larger in my mind on that scale, as that was the expectation I had walking into the theater.
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The Killing Dance

I probably got to the next Anita Blake thing a little too quickly, but sometimes you just need a paperback in a hurry, to avoid getting too wrapped up in something big. And I’m sure I had a good reason at the time, though I can’t really remember what it was anymore. Be that as it may, the more important part of this story is that with The Killing Dance, the vampire hunter / necromancer chick’s ongoing stories of mayhem and angsty love have turned a corner.

I like that the stories have continued to get more engrossing. This time, the main plotline is about how person or persons unknown have put out a hit out on Anita, to the tune of a cool half a mil. As if that weren’t bad enough, things are coming to a head with her werewolf boyfriend’s pack leadership issues and with her personal love triangle between said boyfriend and the vampire master of the city. Which, okay, is probably every bit as trashy as it sounds. But a long-standing characteristic of mine (let’s call it a feature) is that I tend to be a fan of trashy, as long as it is also competent. This series surpasses that bar, if not by an excessive amount, and so onward I read.

Except, that corner I mentioned? I saw it coming in the setup phase, that this was probably going to be the last volume that didn’t regularly devolve into softcore erotic lit. Little did I know, I had been too optimistic by exactly one volume. So, yeah, things have pretty much fallen apart on that front. The sad irony is that the plotting stuff has continued to improve, and so I really do want to know what’s going to happen next. I have a sense that in no more than two additional books, the scales will have shifted too dramatically, though. I am going to dub this particular quality (or lack thereof, really) in an ongoing series “porn bloat”. Proper usage goes something like, “Can you believe the porn bloat in Winter’s Heart? Does Jordan seriously expect us to believe that every single feminine ceremony in the world involves boobies? Still, I can hardly wait for HBO to pick it up! ‘Cause, boobies!” (It’s possible that a more proper usage of the terminology would leave off the last two sentences. Still, though. Boobies! (Can you believe the porn bloat in Shards of Delirium?))


That thing about how I don’t go more than a day without typing up a movie review? It reminded me that I did watch a DVD last week without saying the slightest word about it, or really even considering that it needed to be reviewed. Perhaps this should be taken as an indictment of the film in question, though generally speaking I found it to be perfectly adequate in its teen raunchfest niche.

Marred only by an overly clever title and the sin of having reached its topicspace second, Waiting… is a tidy little grossout comedy about a day in the lives of the staff of a suspiciously Bennigan’s-like restaurant, including just about everything you’d be tempted to include if this had been your premise: annoying customers, tampered food, disaffected youth, incestuously intertwined love lives, and… okay, you probably wouldn’t have included the penis-showing game; that uniqueness is really what makes it the highlight of the show. Certainly the trite coming-of-age piece masquerading as the main plotline contributed far less to any potential enjoyment. So, okay, maybe it was marred by three things instead of two. But that’s forgiveable, because of how awesome the rap over the end credits was.

Outbound Flight

A trend I have noticed: when I read a book and can’t make up my mind how I feel about it, I sit on it for several days without doing anything, in the hopes that my mind will clear up. In contrast, when I watch a movie and don’t know how I feel about it, I wait no longer than a day, and then if I’m still failing, I’ll tell a little story about some event that happened around the movie, and the haze will magically lift from my mind, and a reasonable review is sure to be born. It has occurred to me just now that perhaps there is a lesson there regarding how I deal with my book reviews. Which is easy to say, and all, but typically books take longer than movies, so it’s harder to encapsulate a relevant story from the timespan. Nevertheless, I soldier on, because the important goal to accomplish right now is the review; integrating stories can wait.

I think the biggest flaw in Outbound Flight that has kept me on the fence about it for so long is that it’s so much a vanity prequel. Sure, it’s Timothy Zahn, which means that it’s never less than competently written, and that it is frequently a joy to behold. (See the climactic tragedy of the final 50 pages, or any scene in which Thrawn is throwing his brain around.) But at the same time, there are great swaths of the story that I can’t convince myself matter to the overall Star Wars tapestry. Even worse, the inclusion of Obi-Wan Kenobi and his Padawan of Doom seemed so unnecessary as to be essentially a cheap stunt.

Ultimately, because of the author I’m going to rule it to be an okay book. But there’s a tightly plotted 80 or 100 page novella in here filling in the last missing pieces of a 15 year old jigsaw puzzle that would have been a horror to market and an absolute delight to read. I’ll say this, though: I’m lucky all my books are packed away, or I’d cave in to the compulsion to reread the original Zahn trilogy that kicked off the Star Wars resurgence. Not that it would be a truly bad thing (and in fact I’m sure it would be quite fun), but my backlog is much too large as things stand without that kind of digression.