Tag Archives: fantasy


As you certainly know if you know what book I’m reviewing based on the title alone, the Vlad Taltos books bounce around in chronology, with gleeful abandon. Whether this is part of some grand design on the part of the author, or whether he just writes a new story whenever he thinks of one, and drops it in wherever it happens to fit? Not only do I have no idea, I’m not sure it’s possible to know the answer. (Probably Brust knows, but given his utility at writing a character like Vlad, could you ever fully trust his response?)

Tsalmoth goes back nearly to the beginning, interleaving wedding planning with… well, if you don’t know Vlad, and this is for some reason your first exposure, he is a talented assassin who has leveraged that skill (and the money it brings) into a low level boss position in a criminal enterprise[1]. So when I say his concern is with a simple collections job, you understand the kind of collections I’m talking about. Anyway: the book interleaves planning for Vlad’s wedding to Cawti (also a talented assassin, among other things) with his concern about a simple collections job with a twist: the person who owes him money is recently dead.

That’s the superficial plot summary, but what I’m interested in from the 16th book in a (I’m estimating here) 19 book series (not counting an extensive spinoff selection) is the stuff beneath the surface, which of course means spoilers not only for this book but for a lot of other incidental books. Hence, a cut.

[1] Boy is there ever a lot more to it than that, but I’m doing a baseline introduction here.

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Harrow the Ninth

I have been reading one book for the entire summer. I just… what even is this? And it did not help that I found Harrow the Ninth extremely difficult to read. If I had not come off the high of Gideon, I might have just quit a few chapters in. But then again, it’s the act of reading the first book that made this one so distasteful to me. It’s hard to explain without spoilers.

I mean, everything about this book is hard to explain without spoilers. In the first book, the necromantic flowers of the Nine Houses, and the cavaliers who defend them, are called to the God-Emperor’s home to become the new round of Lyctors, his hands who help him, I don’t know, run the empire or something? This has not happened in 10,000 years, so it’s kind of a big deal. But then they start <spoiler>ing.

This book picks up with the newly graduated(?) Lyctors, learning what it is exactly that the Emperor needs them for, and how to deal with their new jobs as well as the endless aeons of immortality that await them. Simple as far as it goes, except… yeah, legitimately anything I said by way of explanation would be a spoiler of the book’s central conceit. I compared the prior book to Rendezvous with Rama, and I stand by that. Half the joy of both books so far is in the act of discovery under an almost entirely alien set of circumstances; well, “joy” for the reader, I’m not sure that word plausibly applies for the characters, but still, the similarity is real.

Still though, I simply must get this off my chest, and so the rest goes under the spoiler-cut line. But I’ll say this one other thing: half the book is written in second-person. This is awkward and difficult to get used to, far moreso than I’d ever have guessed. A good friend, lost to me for seven years, used to joke about making a second-person shooter video game, and while the untenability of that is obvious… second-person narration is nearly as off-putting. The only difference between this and the game concept is, you can eventually get used to it in print. Or maybe I’m wrong, and you could eventually get used to having to turn around constantly to affect whatever is coming up behind you, or to walking backwards through the places you’re meant to go. I guess the mind can acclimate to anything, given sufficient time and cause.

Oh, actual last thing: I sort of think that saying whether I liked the book or not would still count as a spoiler, for reasons that would probably be obvious to you if you loved the first book and were only a few chapters into this one. But I will say that I have every intention of reading the next book.

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Phantom of the Paradise

Based on no more evidence than what was on the videotape rental shelves at the Hastings in College Station, I’ve long believed that Phantom of the Paradise was a sequel to Phantom of the Mall[1], or possibly vice versa. The short answer is, I was wrong.

The long answer is, well, long. Longer than usual for here, honestly. And it will ramble. …not more than usual for here, as I am, in fact, a Ramblin’ Man. Mid-pandemic, 2021, my niece and her partner, Irish, moved into our house. They were already living together in a parental house, and had tried moving out into an apartment before, with unexpectedly violent results[2]. They could no longer live at any parental house, for various reasons, and were discussing maybe going to homeless living out of car status, so they moved in with us instead,

My son spent most of his second year of life around our roommates, and because of COVID and our best-effort safety measures, he was around almost nobody except family, so Irish was really his first friend. And I don’t solely mean happenstance, Irish was good around the boy. Eventually, they decided to move to Austin, since we basically had to kick them out once the girl’s birth was imminent, last year. I don’t know how well Mary and I succeeded at preparing either of them for being on their own and responsible for taking care of themselves, but we tried. They were basically teenaged adults when they got to us, so I’m hoping the earlier start will give us better luck with these two, the children of our loins[3].

After moving to Austin, Irish got an internship (and later job) at the Austin Film Society, and also made the affirmative decision to proceed with her transition, which included a new name, Lucky. I saw one of Lucky’s films last night, a music video of sorts starring my niece. I cannot do it justice, it was a stop-motion thing over a song called Leprosy by a band I am far to unhip to have ever heard of. It was dark and sexy without question better than some things I’ve seen on MTV. (And if it’s on youtube, I can’t find it. I wish it were.)

To bring things back around to the nominal reason you’re here, I also saw Phantom of the Paradise. It was definitely not what I was expecting to see, but I’m not at all surprised to learn it was Lucky’s favorite movie. There’s this guy who is writing a glam rock opera about Faust, and he runs afoul of another guy who has moved from young Elvis rock star status to aloof, incredibly rich music producer status. That guy, the bad guy, steals the opera to use as the centerpiece of his soon-to-be-opened rock palace, the Paradise.

The first act is slapstick, as Winslow loses his life’s work, learns he has lost it, and tries to get it back. Even the points at which he is horribly disfigured to achieve phantom status are played for dark humor. The rest of the flick might have been horror movie revenge, but instead he finds his Christine and decides to ensure she becomes the star of his Faust. And then things get strange. I know I’ve undersold this last point, because I did not and could not accurately describe just how over-the-top glam rock everything else has been up to now. In a weird way, it reminds me of Jesus Christ Superstar, the scene with Pharisees dancing around on scaffolding while deciding whether or not Jesus is a threat to occupied Israel. Same energy, for sure.

The movie was good, and I’d like to watch it again, as I think there’s more to catch. But yesterday was hard. We drove to Austin, including over an hour of wreck traffic on I-35, got there basically 45 minutes late, handed off the kids to Laylah to babysit[4], and rushed to the theater for Lucky’s memorial. I drove back last night, while Mary stayed to help our niece pack to move out of the old apartment, and now I’m here at home, just thinking about things. Mary says the proper terminology is that we lost Lucky to mental health issues, last month. I guess it might be a stigma thing around other phrases? I do not see that stigma, or rather, I think the stigma is on all of us who survived, not on Lucky who didn’t.

The world is a big, scary, fucked up place, and I wish we were better at taking care of each other than we are. Our niece is also in danger, less danger than she was a few weeks ago when she called the police for a health check and learned what had happened, but in danger nonetheless. I think I have maybe as many as two regular readers here, which makes the thought of posting a gofundme link to help her deal with the bills and the move in the wake of this tragedy feel a lot more pointed and targeted than I want it to feel, but all the same, i’m going to go ahead and post it.

Take care of yourselves, and each other when you can. (Basically nobody took care of Winslow Leach (our phantom), and it shows.)

[1] Viewed earlier this season on The Last Drive-In, and therefore not reviewed. Joe Bob talks too much for me to believe there’s a possibility of an unbiased review, as I’ve probably said before.
[2] Committed against them, to be clear. Nothing life-threatening, but too frightening to go through with the move, as a result.
[3] I know. I’m sorry.
[4] Thank you, again, should you happen to see this.

Dungeons and Dragons: Honor among Thieves

A very long time ago, someone made a movie about (and called, I believe?) Dungeons and Dragons. It was… it was not a good movie.

Honor among Thieves, on the other hand, was a good movie indeed. It’s hard to explain, though, because of the various tacks one could take. Plot? It’s half heist movie, half family drama, and half redemption arc, all rolled into a fantasy comedy made by people who not only understand all the facts about how a D&D campaign works, but also what playing in one is like. Like, Michelle Rodriguez’ barbarian? I have played that character before. (I was a wizard at the time, and it wasn’t strictly speaking a Dungeons and Dragons game, but…) That paladin? Is what I have been waiting to see my whole life that would make me want to play a paladin or have one in a game I was involved with, as opposed to the choice of either a) person with a stick up their ass who exists to ruin the adventure for everyone else or b) person who should have just been a fighter instead, since they never did anything even vaguely religious. (The second one is better, but still, what a waste.) Chris Pine’s bard was… okay, I don’t think anyone can fix bards for me, and delving any deeper would stop this from having an even tenuous claim on being a movie review. But my point is, he made a valiant effort!

So, to sum up, it was a rollicking good fantasy comedy that made me want to go home and sit around a table with my friends doing something similar for multiple hours per week. Movie: check. Full length advertisement for a Tactical Strategy Rules TSR, Inc. Wizards of the Coast Hasbro game: check.

And it had a heart. That’s not nothing.

Gideon the Ninth

On paper[1], Gideon the Ninth seems tailor-made for me to love it. It’s like someone took Rendezvous with Rama, decades of D&D necromancer jokes, and a modern snarky television teenager, and threw them all in a blender, then poured the puree into a puzzle box that is, if probably not solvable for any given reader, at least has a satisfying solution.

And I want to be clear that even though the first few chapters were a slow, uphill start, it turns out I really did enjoy every single one of those elements, disparately and in conjunction. Nevertheless, I have big, complicated feelings about this book, which are impossible to get into without massive story-destroying spoilers. And so, a cut!

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Thor: Love and Thunder

The fourth Thor movie came out in, what, July? We went to see it at the drive-in, and it was good enough in an actiony explosions and rainbosenberg bridges kind of way. Also, like always, I was tired and it was a summer movie, which means starting near sunset for two (and a half, counting previews, etc) hours is a lot later than if we were watching it in, say, February. So I lightly dozed through a lot of it, which caused me to judge what I did see perhaps more harshly than I would have otherwise. This doesn’t matter to you, because I was always going to watch it again for real before writing a review, which not incidentally is why this one is six months late. But it did mean I kept putting it off even though it’s been available to me for multiple months via certain online sources run by mice.

Thor: Love and Thunder has two glaring flaws, the first of which is sort of a spoiler but not especially. So, one of all, he went off with the Guardians of the Galaxy at the end of Endgame. But now he has his own movie. and also, they have their own movie soon. So the possibilities are that these movies a) tie into each other in some way, b) are lopsided because Thor is sharing screen time with a whole team but then isn’t in their movie at all when it comes out later, or c) are wholly unrelated, and the team and thunder god have to be uncoupled. C is bad because it means them going off together in the first place was pointless and poorly thought out, with no planning. You can guess which one happened, I trust.

Two of all, the movie itself is… I am about to say it’s pointless, which is only true insofar as the context of the way the Marvel Cinematic Universe has previously worked makes it true. It adds nothing to an overarching storyline being told in its Phase or in its collection of phases. Or if it does, what it is adding is entirely opaque. And what occurs to me is that neither of these is a flaw of the movie itself. It is a flaw in how Marvel and apparently Kevin Feige are meandering aimlessly from one plot to the next, with practically no connective tissue. This doesn’t bother me in the comics because the comics started out that way and, despite crossing over with each other frequently, rarely have giant events. Whereas the MCU was one enormous event from start to end[game]. But they can’t come out and say, hey, we’re going full comics, just making these for funsies with occasional big events (but of course regular crossovers), as it would piss the public off, after what they got out of the first ten years. But they also can’t not say it, because then it looks like this, with people hating on most of your movies because they don’t make overall sense. Which, of course they don’t, if you didn’t write in any overall sense to be made!

Either that, or Feige got infected by whatever happened when Disney contracted the third Star Wars trilogy without a plan.

Anyway, all of that to say: this was a good movie, as long as you did not have grand scheme expectations. Waititi has the same sense of whimsical fun that made Ragnarok work so well, and if it was maybe amped up a little higher, that worked for me. (I understand why it wouldn’t have worked for everyone.) Hemsworth is having the time of his life, clearly. Various callsback in miniature scattered throughout gave me exactly what I’m also getting from reading all of the comics, and in summation, I’m not tired of what they’re doing yet.

But I do wish they were more certain of what that is, or else that they’d communicate it clearly if they are. The movies are good on a case by case basis, but the overall look is just not very good, you know?

Oh, plot thing, if you need it: a bro with a religious axe to grind gets a magic god-killing sword and starts, er, killing gods. Later, he kidnaps a bunch of Asgardian children, which sends Thor and also Thor (you had to be there) on a quest to stop him from killing those children maybe and still more gods definitely. Also, there are some pretty sweet goats and really a lot of Guns ‘n Roses. And, as you can perhaps envision from the title, a love story.

Amber and Iron

It has been nearly 18 years since I read the first book in the Dark Disciple trilogy. Crazier than that, only 18 years means the review is accessible! The remaining entries of the trilogy have sat on my to-read shelf for maybe as long as they’ve each been out, yet I’m not sure whether I ever would have read them despite my intentions, except D&D[1] is finally releasing more DragonLance source material, which means I am hypothetically all of those 18 years behind on the ongoing plot of the world. (Or they reset / went back in time? I have not, to be honest, read any of the new game material yet to check.)

The downside, if you clicked through, is that the prior book wasn’t, you know, very good. One thing I’ve hoped as things go forward is that the authors were trying to bring the world back to something that makes sense, after the Fifth Age BS that TSR[2] forced on them in the late ’90s / early 2000s. Is that what is happening? I’ve only read a second book out of three, so my qualified answer is: maybe!

Amber and Iron is, on a moment by moment basis, at least okay. I consistently cared about what was happening with most of the characters (kender, monk, a handful of gods, and a, er, dark disciple), and I for sure liked some of the plot elements (the drowned Tower of High Sorcery at the bottom of the Blood Sea of Istar? yes please!). But when I step back and take a look at the story as a whole, man, it does not make a lick of sense.

Did they try to solve the vampiric cult thing? Sure, and reasonably so. Did anything else that happened make sense relative to the previous book? Maybe, but how should I know? Nearly 18 years, I believe I mentioned. Did anything else that happened make a lick of sense relative to itself? Nearly nothing, no, I don’t even know why it’s “and Iron” in the title!

And yet, perversely, I still want to know what happens next. Because it will make this book retroactively make sense after all? Could happen, but it’s not why. Because I want to know what happens to the characters? I sort of do, but that’s not really why either. Because I want to know what happens to Krynn? See, now we’re talking. I love that world in a way I love few others. It’s just always been my jam.

[1] Blah blah blah OGL controversy. For these purposes, take it as read that I super don’t care. If Weis and Hickman take Krynn to a different game system, we can talk then.
[2] Or maybe it was already Wizards of the Coast? How should I know?!

Fairy Tale

I know my reading slowed down when I had a kid. What I did not know is how dramatically my reading would slow down[1] with two kids. Nevertheless, it took me three months to read Fairy Tale, and yes, Stephen King books can be long, but they’re not “three months” long. And this wasn’t even one of the really really long ones from the ’80s.

King wrote a short story a few years back (or maybe a novella) about a kid and an old man and how the kid taught the old man how to use smartphones. Later it got spooky, but that was the core of it, the relationship between the child and the old man and the back and forth of what we have to teach each other. The first half of Fairy Tale feels like an expansion of that short story. And when you get right down to it, the second half also feels like an expansion of my somewhat dismissive “later it got spooky”.

I guess what I’m saying is, yes, King has written better stories about relationships between people, and yes he’s written better Lovecraft pastiches, and yes he’s written better fantasy novels, and… okay, no, he probably has not written a better book about a dog, even if I choked up reading the last page of Cujo aloud to my dad. But none of that is the point.

The point is, the man has not missed a step in 50 years, as far as his ability to make you care about his characters and, more than that, the worlds he creates. I still itch to know what’s going down in Castle Rock these days. I wonder if Salem’s Lot ever got reinhabited. I notice quietly that it’s been 27 years since the last time people started dying in Derry. I wonder how Roland is doing. And that spark is here. I want to see what happens when Charlie Reade decides that maybe it’s time to buy himself a jackhammer.

Best work or not, it’s still really good work. That’s all.

[1] Or arguably, it slowed down because in addition to alternating with comics, I was reading another[2] book. I can see a case to be made for that as the cause.
[2] and lately, two other

The Dark Tower (2017)

With this movie knocked out so quickly, we’re back on schedule, hooray! I mean, we are if we also watch this week’s movie this week, but at least it’s mathematically possible to. Anyway, last week’s movie theme was Stephen King adaptations, which, there are certainly many I haven’t seen, no matter what you might think. However, the most glaring hole is the troubled[1] Dark Tower adaptation from a few years ago, so, we acquired that and checked it out last night.

The problem, I think, is one of expectations. Because this is clearly and obviously not an adaptation of the book or series of The Dark Tower that Stephen King wrote. It has several identical character names, some of them attached to similar characters, even. But the driving arc of the movie is not merely different from but antithetical to the driving arc of the books. So you’ve got a fantasy movie with a built-in audience who you’ve immediately alienated, and what’s left is a movie that would appear to be impenetrable to a generic audience, even though that was not especially the case.

What I could see was a humorously slapdash attempt to make this movie the linchpin of the SKCU[2], even as the series is the linchpin of his library. And I mean, it was less a successful linchpin making and more a constant game of “spot the reference”, but it was also a fun game of that. I caught a lot of them, while being pretty certain I must have missed others. And this is not enough to make a good movie, by a long shot, but I kind of think that if they’d made a more concerted effort, it could have been pretty amazing.

Anyway, long story short: There’s a boy, Jake, and he is having apocalyptic dreams about a man in black who wants to destroy a tower, and every time he attempts this in Jake’s dreams, geologically mysterious earthquakes strike all around the world. But then Jake has a dream about Roland, who is a gunslinger, and who can possibly stop the man in black from succeeding. And then Jake gets swept up in events, and there’s a movie.

I said early on that all of the characters were subtly or dramatically wrong, and I stand by that. But if I didn’t know anything about the characters or their motivations in advance, these would have been acceptable. Idris Elba played his role well and somewhere near the two-thirds mark, they finally convinced me this really was Roland Deschaines, just from an alternate universe with a wildly divergent backstory. I guess what I mean is I liked the movie for what it was, but am sad that they squandered what it could have been.

[1] ie, it was a commercial and critical flop
[2] It is important here for me to note that there is not, in fact, a Stephen King Cinematic Universe.

Miracolo a Milano

The theme for week three of the letterboxd dot com challenge was Italian Neorealism. For the uninitiated (which includes me, for example), that is a specific period in post-war Italian cinema that focuses on reality and daily life stories with no heroes. So from the list available, we picked Miracle in Milan, which is pretty much the opposite of those things? I may have done a bad job.

It is also worth noting that, wait, why is it so far past your week two review? The answer is, haha, we’ve been sick and got behind. Hoping to catch up over a few days? We’ll see!

So anyway, this movie is weird[1]. Like really weird. There’s this kid, Totò, who after experiencing a bizarre childhood punctuated by a cabbage patch adoption and multiplication tables, comes out of the orphanage as a relentlessly cheerful and giving adult who immediately finds himself in a homeless encampment[2], and proceeds to organize it into a pretty cozy and happy shantytown. (I haven’t yet gotten to where the movie is especially weird, to be clear, but saying more would go deep into spoiler towne, whose inhabitants are far less cheerful a bunch than these were.)

I guess the neorealism part is in the characters themselves rather than the plot, which shortly after I ended my synopsis above (about 15 minutes into a 90 minute movie) goes so far off the rails my metaphor is impossible to complete, but the words “wishing dove” and “timely to modern eyes class warfare” are involved, as are the words “ghostly top hat stampede”. But the characters, I was saying, the characters have a lot of daily life reality. There’s the rich family that has fallen on hard times but still has a nanny (also now homeless, natch), who spends most of their time in the shantytown trying to bilk lire from the populace. There’s the really grumpy outsider guy who keeps getting in fights with everyone else. There’s the black man and white women who arrived at the same time and are clearly mutually interested, but who keep staying away from each other because I guess Italy also had miscegenation laws?[3]

And there are more. What I guess I am impressed by, as an avowed watcher of movies that would not want to be called films, is how many of the characters in a cast of hundreds were, okay, not fully realized, but at least memorable. I’m not sure if that’s just difficult to accomplish in more plot-centric movies, or if we’ve lost something along the way, but I bet it’s some of both.

All the same, I’m glad my entry into this subgenre of film history was as plot-dense as it was, because I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed something that was all aimless and bleak like the description of Italian neorealism reads to me. I know I said “entry”, and while I use the term advisedly, one of the other movies we contemplated, The Bicycle Thieves, is by the same writer and director, and I can’t help being a little curious. (I mean, it will not be capital-w weird, I already know that much. But still.)

[1] Also, I never saw Life is Beautiful, but I can tell you with high confidence that `the guy who made it has this movie as one of his major influences. Seriously, look it up later and prove me right.
[2] If you see the wry humor in that, trust me, so did the filmmakers.
[3] That plotline ends in a way that would be spectacularly cringey if I were to describe it, but in its own context was both progressive and earnedly hilarious.