Saturday, July 25, 2015

Thoughts on Ant-Man

Just saw "Ant-Man" on a whim.

I hadn't really planned on it. I was going elsewhere and noticed there wasn't a line, so I changed gears and popped in to catch the film.

I really have to hand it to Marvel Studios. What kind of sorcery does one have to perform to make a hero like Ant-Man become somewhat engaging and cool?

It was a nice build on the Marvel mythos. Paul Rudd was surprisingly-good as down-and-out ex-thief Scott Lang. I'm no Michael Douglas fan, but he was pretty solid as Hank Pym, the creator of the technology that allows for Ant-Man to be a thing. The rest of the cast were okay. No fantastic stand-outs, but no lemons.

I loved the Avengers tie-in and Anthony Mackie's walk-on scene. That was fun stuff.

The action was solid and the effects entertaining. There was a good mix of humor to keep everything going as well.

The two "epilog scenes" were good stuff too. I guess the next film is "Captain America: Civil War" and are leading up to that film. Should be interesting.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Review: "Queen of Fire" by Anthony Ryan

Some time back I got my hands on a copy of "Blood Song" by Anthony Ryan. The tale of Vaelin Al Sorna, a young warrior of the Faith born with the mystical Blood Song in his mind, was one I found truly engaging. I must have re-read that story a dozen times before the sequel "Tower Lord" came out.

I can't say what exactly resonated with my interests so much in Vaelin's story. The intriguing split points-of-view were clever - one in present tense as an account by a historian and one in past tense told from Vaelin's perspective.

Whatever it was, it really worked for me.

"Tower Lord" was enjoyable, but different. In the second book, Ryan opted to go with more points-of-view, giving us not only Vaelin Al Sorna's view, but that of young Reva, a would-be assassin, that of Frentis, a fellow warrior of the Faith and friend of Vaelin's, and that of the Princess Lyrna, who would become Queen of the Unified Realm.

"Tower Lord" was a much bleaker book and took the narrative, and the characters, to a much darker place. It also developed Vaelin's Blood Song ability to show just how dangerous Vaelin could be.

Then it ended on a dire cliffhanger.

"Queen of Fire" concludes the "Raven's Shadow" trilogy and the narrative of the battle against the evil being known as "The Ally". In that respect, I have to say I was glad to get a bit of closure but I still found the book a disappointment.

"Queen of Fire" lacked the engaging narrative I found appealing in "Blood Song" and the urgent thrill I found in "Tower Lord". It felt rushed and choppy in many parts. It built up the vile evil of the Volarian Empire and doesn't spare details of just how horrific the Volarians and the touch of the Ally can be, but it almost feels like it dwells a bit too long on those bits while glossing over other details from the previous books.

There were questions I have to say I didn't find answers for. How did One-Eye get his dark powers in "Blood Song"? Was he a tool of the Ally? That was always a bit ambiguous. What happened to (spoiler)Sister Sherin? Where the hell did the romance with (spoiler)Dahrena come from? Why didn't (spoiler) the mason from book one return?

Honestly, "Queen of Fire" felt rushed and a bit jarring. Didn't feel like a proper sequel to the previous two books but rather a hasty bow to tie up a plot that got a little too complex.

I'm kinda bummed. I was really looking forward to this book.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Reviews: "Of Sea and Shadow" and "Of Shadow and Sea" by Will Wight

Wow. I really haven't paid much attention to this blog lately.

The twenty or so people who read it must feel underwhelmed. Sorry folks!

So a week back I finished the second of two books in the latest series by Will Wight.

The series, called "The Elder Empire", currently consists of two parallel stories:
  • "Of Sea and Shadow"
  • "Of Shadow and Sea"
I'm listing them in the order I read them but I don't think it really matters. They're the parallel stories of Captain Calder Marten and of Shera, a Gardener in the Guild of Consultants.

Set in a world of high seas, black powder weapons, weird magic, and a somewhat... Lovecraftian... theme, the stories tell tales of events after the death of the Emperor of the mighty Aurelian Empire that saw the liberation of humans from the inhuman and godlike Elders and their horrific Elderspawn.

"Of Sea and Shadow" tells the tale from Calder Marten's point of view. A member of the Navigator's Guild and captain of The Testament, a magical ship with some truly disturbing properties, Calder is also a Reader - a person capable of reading the Intent of an object and manipulating it to his ends (essentially this world's "magic"). With his impulsive wife, eccentric crew, and strange pet Shambles, Calder finds himself accepting a pair of passengers for a well-paying job.

He should probably have reconsidered.

Things go horribly wrong, not to surprisingly, and Calder finds himself at odds with the mysterious Shera, an apparent assassin for the Consultants Guild.

You see, the Empire may no longer have an Emperor, but it still has its guilds:
  • The Am'haranai, also known as "The Consultants" who fix problems and have eyes everywhere.
  • The Blackwatch, who kill Elders and Elderspawn and use their powers for the good of the Empire.
  • The Greenwardens, who seek to preserve Kameira, the strange hybrid beasts that roam the world with their strange powers.
  • The Champions, warriors without peer who are bonded with Kameira for incredible powers.
  • The Imperial Guard, charged with protecting the Emperor's person and - with the Emperor gone - seek to raise a new one.
  • Kanatalia, also known as the Guild of Alchemists, they make stuff.
  • The Luminian Order, who seeks to cleanse the world of the taint of the Elders.
  • The Magisters, the most powerful Readers in the Empire.
  • The Navigators, sea captains, con artists, and pirates who are the only ones capable of navigating the deadly Aion Sea.
  • The Witnesses, they who record all.
Calder holds many secrets and has no love of the Empire. Still, the needs of his job, a desire to find something precious lost to him, a thirst for revenge, and deals with dangerous things puts him on a dangerous course.

"Of Sea and Shadow" tells the tale of Shera, a young foundling brought into the Consultants Guild as a "Gardener", the never-spoken-of assassins in service to the Aurelian Empire.

Shera isn't any assassin, though. She's one of three hand-picked and trained by the Emperor himself. She knows better than anyone the dangers of someone trying to raise an Emperor. So Shera is tasked to deal with the passengers of one Captain Calder Marten of the Navigators Guild.

And that's when things go truly sour.

Both stories are solid and enjoyable. I liked the brash, daring, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants antics of Calder Marten and I have to say I absolutely LOVE his "pet", Shambles. His crew are fascinating oddballs and I loved the twists and turns as Calder's past started to come to light.

Some parts of "Of Sea and Shadow" felt a little jarring. Some deus-ex-machina he pulled out seemed forced, but that didn't dim my enjoyment.

I have to say I narrowly prefer "Of Shadow and Sea" and seeing things from the perspective of the lazy-but-oh-so-deadly Shera, who can fall asleep anywhere and is not someone you want upset.

Will Wight wove together two complimentary and fascinating tales. I can't wait for the next books in the series.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Reviews: "Child of Fire", "Game of Cages", and "Circle of Enemies"

At the recommendation of a friend, I picked up the four books of the "Twenty Palaces" series by Harry Connolly. I finished the third one today.

Set in the modern day, the world of the Twenty Palaces is a world where magic is real. It's cast by ritual and involves putting spells on something (like a ribbon, a piece of paper, or a sword) or on someone (in the form of a tattoo).

Magic comes from three spell books that have been lost. The Twenty Palaces Society is a group that wants to keep magic out of the hands of others and is willing to kill anyone necessary to accomplish their goal. But it's not just enough to keep magic out of unsafe hands. There's also the predators.

In the Twenty Palaces world, there's things out there in the empty spaces outside of what we know to be reality. Those things are hungry and really want to be summoned here where they can feed. And they really, really don't like being imprisoned.

It turns out that most renegade magic users tend to try to summon predators for the powers they may grant. And they lose control. And then the predators feed. Predators are so dangerous that they can actually scour all life from the Earth, so when the Twenty Palaces Society learns someone's mucking about with predators, they destroy everything necessary to ensure that predator is dead.

Whew! So that's the setting. Enter Ray Lilly, Connolly's protagonist.

Ray used to be a car thief and petty criminal. He has a dislike of firearms (a childhood accident crippled his best friend) and has managed to get out a recent bought of legal troubles. He's now working for Annalise, a peer of the Twenty Palaces Society (and scary badass) as her "wooden man". He doesn't have to take this thankless job... he could just let her kill him.

Fun times. So Ray's job is to do what Annalise tells him, and she's not inclined to tell him much. He's a "wooden man". He's not expected to last long enough to matter. Lucky for Ray, he's got a couple of spells of his own to help him out, one of which he managed to cast himself.

And so we enter "Child of Fire". With Annalise, Ray goes to a sleepy Oregon town to investigate some magic. It doesn't take long for a tattooed ex-convict and his scary, tattooed, homicidal boss to wind up in trouble with what's going on and before long, Ray's having to step up against a powerful predator.

"Game of Cages" takes place a short time after "Child of Fire". Ray's living a normal life and trying to do what ex-cons do when they go straight. But a part of him misses the insanity and the rush of life in the Twenty Palaces Society. When a Twenty Palaces investigator gets him to accompany her on a job, he jumps at it. And winds up in a deadly struggle between magicians as they vie to claim a captive predator. It's no shock that the predator gets loose...

This leads into "Circle of Enemies". Ray's recovering from the events from "Game of Cages" when he's lured back to Los Angeles by his old gang friends. It turns out an old enemy is implanting Ray's friends with predators as part of a game with very high stakes.



So I loved the three books and am starting on the prequel - "Twenty Palaces" - now. Connolly's got a good, gritty world with some seriously messed-up Lovecraftian stuff going on. His narrative style is engaging and I find I like Ray Lilly as a character. There's a few points, mostly in "Game of Cages" when the story drags a bit, but every book has some solid payout.

I'm tempted to compare it with Jim Butcher's "Dresden Files" series. Both series are told via first person point-of-view. Both series have a hard-bitten protagonist in a modern world that possesses magic. Both are outsiders and both get the crap kicked out of them a lot. Both are badasses.

That said, it's an unfair comparison, I think.

Butcher's Dresden and Connolly's Lilly are just very different characters in too many basic ways. Both are awesome but they just aren't the same.

I have high hopes for "Twenty Palaces" and hope Connolly decides to revisit the world at some point. I've tried his foray into more traditional fantasy "The Way into Chaos" but haven't felt the story grip me in the same way as the "Twenty Palaces" books. I suppose I should give it another try at some point.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Late to the clone party

I'm finally hooked on Orphan Black. I got season one recently on DVD and have finally had time to sit down for a binge watch. I'm a disc and a half in and... wow.

For those who are unfamiliar, it's the story of Sarah Manning, a small-time grifter who is on the run from her abusive boyfriend and trying to get custody of her daughter.

Sarah sees a woman who looks just like her commit suicide. Sarah uses the opportunity to fake her death and assume the woman's identity. What follows is a series of weird events in which Sarah finds out she is one of an unknown number of clones. The clones are being monitored by an unknown party and being killed off, either by that same party or by someone else.

Sarah's life gets insanely-complex as she tries to figure out what's going on to save herself, her sister clones, and figure out how to get a life going with her daughter.

"Orphan Black" is utter genius. The stories are suspenseful, well-written, and well-paced. They really fly based on the insanely-good acting of Tatiana Maslany, who is able to play the varying roles of the clones.

It's good to find something original and solid out there. I'd almost given up hope. Thank you BBC!

Friday, May 8, 2015

BART

I gotta say: overall I like BART.

For those not of the San Francisco Bay Area, "BART" stands for "Bay Area Rapid Transit". The name is a bit of a joke at times (it's often not all that "rapid" and has moments when it's not even "transit").

It's an aging rail system that is in dire need of upgraded equipment and expansion of capacity.

This week had more than one snag in it, including a perfect storm of debris across the tracks, some jackass walking on the tracks, a power outage in a station (crippling one of the lines), and - best of all - a crack in the tracks of a main station. Not a small crack, mind you. A good six to twelve inches of track was missing from the footage I saw.

That was not a fun day to commute.

The bummer with the Bay Area is that public transit is a bit limited. Oh, there's the AC Transit buses, I suppose. And there's the odd ferry, if you happen to be fortunate enough to live near one. And there's CalTrain, for the Peninsula dwellers as well as Muni for the San Francisco dwellers.

But BART is the main lifeline of public transit for the greater Bay Area.

We're supposed to get new cars for the trains in a couple of years. I wonder how disastrous the increasingly-crowded trains will be by then?

Books

My recent BART fare has included:
  • "The Shadow of What was Lost" by James Islington. An interesting world in which magic users of a certain type are bound to magically-enforced rules and shunned by society as a whole. A slightly different flavor of magic users was obliterated twenty years before the book and the fallout from that dominates the story. It's an interesting tale with multiple protagonists I enjoyed following but I found the antagonists a bit opaque and absurd. Overall a fun offering and I'll look for the next in the series.
  • "Enchantress" by James Maxwell. Another tale in a fantasy world. This one involves a young woman learning to be an enchantress while her brother becomes some kind of badass warrior. Honestly, I thought this was entertaining enough but a bit choppy. The chapters with the brother were jarring when compared with the heroine's tale. And some of the other POV characters seemed really random. It was a fun read but I'm still deciding if I want to get the next book.
  • "Way into Chaos" by Harry Connolly. I got about a quarter in and found it kind of tepid and not terribly engaging. It's still sitting, waiting to be finished.
  • "Child of Fire" by Harry Connolly. The first novel in Connolly's "Twenty Palaces" series, this is very different fare from "Way into Chaos". It's set in the modern world with a sort of Harry Dresden feel to it. I've burned through about two-thirds of the book already and am trying to pace myself to finish it. I have the rest of the series and am kind of excited to get through it while wanting to savor the fun.