Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 14

While our adventurers huddle in the dark caverns, Smaug's approach brings terror and horror to the citizens of Lake-town.

Tolkien does a lot with very few pages in this chapter.  The battle is framed, and the motivations and intentions of our actors are laid out.

The guards of Lake-town (which I now realize is named Esgaroth) mount a defense against the incoming dragon while the Master seeks to save himself among the confused panic.  We get their determination and desperation, as well as Smaug's cunning and hunger.

We also meet Bard, not a man haunted by legacy or the derision of the town, but a man known for his grim-outlook but also for his worth and courage.  He stands as the captain of the archers holding the line against Smaug's wrath, and as the man the thrush brings news from the mountain.  The black arrow is one of legacy, but not one of legend, an arrow that has served Bard and his father well over the years.  An arrow used by a normal man with a normal bow.

Tolkien also shows us that the Master isn't in a position of power based on fear alone, but on his skill at oration.  He knows how to sway a crowd, to redirect wrath onto a target of his choosing.  He is a man of greed, but also a chameleon at need.

Maybe it's just me, but watching Smaug fly from the mountain, all I can think of is how happy he looks.

So... I've been a little harsh on Bard's role in the film.  I do understand the need to establish him as more than just the "grim-voiced man."  But let's be honest, Smaug wrecking havoc would have still been amazing in a rendition more true to the text.  There's no battle here, just citizens running in fear and Assassin's Creed level stunts framing Bard's efforts to take out Smaug, sprinkled with some slapstick.  Add in the iron ballista bolt of fate (and really, he thought he'd be able to shoot that thing with his regular bow?), and I'm just left feeling like it's a lot of gold plating without any substance.  The heroism of the moment that they took all this effort to build up around Bard, the underdog, takes away from Bard as a pillar of strength.

The Master's follies and selfishness are amplified, but done so though Fry's excellent acting ability.  I could have done without some of the slapstick.  As for Albert, I can't tell whether I hate him, or love to hate him, and honestly, I'm OK with that.  Obviously much of the Master's role after the escape from Lake-town was shifted to Albert.  Gods, he's a despicable worm.

I'm having trouble cutting out profanity at the stupid love story line.  So let's just leave it as a brief restating as I feel that the love triangle demeans Tauriel and resulted in excessive and stimulating additions to the movie.

As for the other additions not otherwise covered we know that Gandalf's incarceration is limited, and at least at the end of this the dwarfs are all finally ending up in the mountain together (since we're filling out things in chronological order).

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

[Book Review] Mythmaker

Mythmaker / Marianne de Pierres (Powell's Books)

Previously reviewed: Peacemaker
Virgin’s in a tight spot. A murder rap hangs over her head and isn’t likely to go away unless she agrees to work for an organisation called GJIC with Nate Sixkiller as her immediate boss. Being blackmailed is one thing, discovering that her mother is both alive and the President of GJIC is quite another. Then there’s the escalation of Mythos sightings, and the bounty on her head. Oddly, the strange and dangerous Hamish Burns is the only one she can rely on. Virgin’s life gets… untidy.

Mythmaker picks up immediately on the heels of Peacemaker, with Virginia tangled up in the aftermath of the Mythos incursions and revelations about both her mother and GJIC.

Unfortunately for Virginia, things are just getting worse.  Local law enforcement has a axe to grind, the Mythos appearances are increasing rapidly, and agents are instigating war between factions for their own gain.

Like Peacemaker, we have a potential near-future that blends together Science Fiction and Fantasy, but with a lighter touch of Western due to most of the action taking place within heavily urban confines.  In many ways, Mythmaker is a story about the past, and how it shapes the present, and Virginia's past is haunting her with a vengeance.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Angry Robot via Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 13

Trapped in the dark, our party is forced into action by necessity.

Bilbo and the dwarfs spend days in the darkness, waiting on the dragon's return, and it's again Bilbo who takes the lead.
"Come, come!" he said.  "'While there's life there's hope!' as my father used to say, and 'Third time pays for all.'  I am going down the tunnel once again.  I have been that way twice, when I knew there was a dragon at the other end, so I will risk a third visit when I am no longer sure.  Anyway the only way out is down.  And I think this time you had better all come with me."
The Dwarfs, making quite the dwarfish racket too, follow the hobbit's lead to some extent.  These dwarfs are cautious, worried about their own skins, even when all signs indicate that Smaug is no where in residence.  Most notably is the lack of light.  They're in the middle of a mountain, and Smaug himself gave off a burning glow.

Ultimately I think it's guilt more than anything that makes the dwarfs step forward.  Balin is the one who points out that it is "about our turn to help," though once they are among the treasures a sort of bravado fills each dwarf.
"Though they were much relieved, they were inclined to be grumpy at being frightened for nothing; but what they would have said, if he had told them at that moment about the Arkenstone, I don't know.  The mere fleeting glimpse of treasure which they had caught as they went along had rekindled all the fire of their dwarvish hearts; and when the heart of a dwarf, even the most respectable, is wakened by gold and by jewels, he grows suddenly bold, and he may become fierce."
Their proud bravery sends them searching, and in particular Fili & Kili find "golden harps strung with silver" to play, long ignored by Smaug.  It seems that dragons have no interest in music, which may be one of the most marked differences between dragons and dwarfs?  Though perhaps the other difference is dragons are creatures of appetites, while dwarfs become overcome by theirs to their detriment.

What follows next highlights the scale of this fortress within the mountain.  After arming themselves, they travel for five hours to the old look-out post.  This under-ground domain is a marvel.

I clearly got a little ahead of myself when critiquing the movie in the last chapter review.  In my defense, three chapters were jumbled together for various reasons.  The short version is that all of my bitching about the extra content in Laketown should have waited until next week.  On the bright side, I'll probably try to keep it short for next week.

Also, the bit about finding the remains of their ancestors was in the book all along, I just forgot about it.  So that wasn't a neat addition, that was a detail from the text.

Alright, so let's just ignore how everyone was outside to witness Smaug's fall, be it because they were stupidly left behind, or because they were taking some fresh air.  The good news is, we're all back in one place.

I am happy that Bilbo is attempting to be the voice of reason, but Thorin is sliding pretty hard into evil overlord territory.  I feel like the decision was made to combine all of the dwarven love of gold into Thorin himself.

I can't go too much into direct relation of chapter to movie, at this point it's too shattered with too much added in.  The focus on reunion of the party, of Thorin's growing paranoia and "dragon-sickness," and on the demoralization of the dwarfs under Thorin's increasingly unstable rule.  We do get a few moments of Martin just being Bilbo, which I still find enjoyable and a highlight of this experience.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

[Book Review] Anywhere But Here

Bookburners: Anywhere But Here (Season 1, Episode 2) / Brian Francis Slattery, Margaret Dunlap, Max Gladstone, and Mur Lafferty

Episode 1 was an eerie bite-sized read filled with demonic books, magic, and possessions.  Episode 2 just goes into a whole other universe of creepy weird.  A demon reaching out through a book to possess your brother is horrific, and the aftermath brutal, but Sal Brooks is learning that's just the tip of the iceburg in her new line of work.

Things might have gotten much worse if not for the disappearance of two little girls alerting the neighbors to something wrong.  But still things had progressed to a point of no return and it's up to the Bookburners to perform triage.

Entrancing and weird, a great continuation of the story.

I still desperately want to LARP in this setting.

Episode 1 review here

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Serial Box via Netgalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

[Book Review] Wrong Number, Right Guy

Wrong Number, Right Guy / Elle Casey (Powell's Books)

On first glance, May is the type of girly-girl who you'd expect to be a ditz.  Which means she sticks out like a sore thumb when she walks into a dive bar frequented by biker gangs, all dolled up in pink with her chihuahua-mix in her purse.  Of course, first glance leaves out the fact that she's been running her own business for years and is the rock her older sister relies upon as a single mother with three kids.  Which ultimately is what brings her to Frankie's, and into Ozzie's life, after she mis-attributes a wrong number text.

First impressions aren't so great between May and Ozzie. For one thing, he's sporting a beard that puts May in mind of a "duck dynasty nut job."  For another, someone's shooting at them as he knocks her down and half drags her out of the bar.   Now Ozzie's cover is blown, and May's been implicated as an accomplice and is at risk.  What starts out as an offer of protection turns into an offer of employment... and maybe something more.

I'm going to start this by saying that I'd totally read more in this series.  It's a light read, with a great touch or humor, and a fun romance.  Not saying that everything makes sense to me, like saying they love each other at rather early stage of their intimate relation, but some of that is really a personal preference thing.  I mean, the whole dogs-in-purse thing just leaves me puzzled more than anything, and now I'm going to start wondering how many of those dogs are on puppy pads inside said purses.  But we get actual consideration of the fact that the characters are working adults who have other relationships and responsibilities in their life, something that often gets no more than a casual nod at best, and the dogs are kind of adorable.

Also, as someone who's really not a fan of facial hair, the whole beard thing had me laughing again and again.
"Listen, Ozzie, I'm sorry for the horrible beard comments. It was just... way bigger than a beard has a right to be. I couldn't help myself."
Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Image Comics via NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.

The Hobbit : An Expected Journey - Chapter 12

Wherein Bilbo is sassy to everyone, we get to meet a dragon, and Laketown pays for everyone's hubris.

I've said it before, and now Tolkien is saying it, the dwarfs are not heroes.  This is not their hero story, it's Bilbo's.
"The most that can be said of dwarves is this: they intended to pay Bilbo really handsomely for his services; they had brought him to do a nasty job for them, and they did not mind the poor little fellow doing it if he would; but they had would have done their best to get him out of trouble, if he got into it, as they did in the case of the trolls at the beginning of their adventures before they had any particular reason for being grateful to him.  There it is: dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company, if you don't expect much."
Bilbo's been gradually finding the strength and depth of his courage all along, largely by discovering that doing the right thing often means doing something incredibly uncomfortable rather than simply fighting off monsters.  Perhaps the real lesson here is how much of fear lies in our minds.  The battles are not all visible, many are within.
"Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did.  The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it.  He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait."
Of course, along the way of finding his courage, Bilbo got his sass back.  He definitely starts the book with a little bit of sass, with that oh so auspicious first meeting with Gandalf.  Now he calls out the dwarfs on their timidity, their reliance on others to solve their challenges, and that maybe, just maybe, that they need to step up their game if they want to reclaim their home from a dragon.  You go Bilbo.
"But they could think of no way of getting rid of Smaug - which had always been a weak point in their plans."
Just a minor weak point...

Bilbo is barely the same hobbit as when he left his home.  He's grown in confidence, courage, and leadership.  He's gone from just the surprising problem solver, to coming up with ideas that actively affect the shape of the party's activities.  Tolkien calls him the "real leader in their adventure," a role that perhaps he assumed some time ago, in his repeated efforts to keep the dwarfs out of trouble.  Luck may have been a large part of his earlier successes, but he's still consistently showing more thought and initiative than any of the dwarfs.  And now he's off to beard a dragon in his den.

The interactions between Bilbo and Smaug has long been one of my favorite parts of the book.  I love the exaggerated courtesy in which one talks to dragons, the game of riddles and compliments.  A telling chapter overall, in the matching of wits, and in the twisted truths that Smaug tells, sewing discord without telling falsehoods.

The interaction with Smaug leads to probably the most pivotal statement in the book.  Thorin promises Bilbo that he may select his 14th share of the treasure.  Unlike the dwarfs, Bilbo doesn't really have any strong desire for wealth, though the dragon's hoard is enough to tempt even a hobbit.  But Thorin's words effectively give Bilbo carte blanche for the plot-changing actions he takes later on.

Of course, in the end of all of this, we have an irate Smaug flying off to Laketown to exact vengeance for the insult and theft sponsored by the dwarfs.

In the film we're really seeing Balin stand out here.  If any of the dwarfs mirror Gandalf, it's him.  He's far more of a keystone and noble than Thorin is.  Balin offers guidance, grounding, support, and reason.  And, tying into the mirroring to Gandalf, Balin too says "It never ceases to amaze me... the courage of hobbits."  Perhaps more importantly, Balin is the one who really touches on the deterioration of Thorin, saying to his face that "You're not yourself."

Thorin...  Thorin is very dramatically unhinged and angsty.  Man, I probably would have loved this when I was a teenager.  Or maybe not, he really is far too much of an ass.  I mean, the proper response to "The dragon is coming!!!!" is not "I don't care, do you have my rock?" and threatening the messenger with your sword.  At this point, Thorin stands as leader by dint of pre-existing loyalty and some fear.  I suppose it could be argued that Thorin is feeling the effects of the Ring, and in the book the dwarfs know about it by now, but I'm disinclined to accept this as an explanation because the object of his fixation is the Arkenstone.  Any hostility and suspicion he lays on Bilbo is not due to the Ring, but indicative of his growing paranoia and Bilbo as the only one who could have encountered the Arkenstone at this point.

Now, I get that walking on a literal landscape of treasure makes it hard to sneak, but what about the quiet movement skill possessed by hobbits?  Come now, Bilbo, we know you can do better.  But man, what a hoard, it looks like the treasures of multiple empires.

But man, they nailed so much right here.  The design of Smaug is amazing, and Cumberbatch's voice is now what I hear in my head when I read Smaug's lines.  We have some excellent attention to detail, both in the CGI and small things like the beam of light from Smaug's open eye.  I'm willing to forgive a lot of sins for this.

I really wish there was more of the interplay between two of them.  One of the delights of this story to me is the almost playful nature of their verbal ripostes.  The nature of the exchange has been completely and utterly changed.  From a game of wits, to a game of cat and mouse.  There is no slyness on the part of Smaug, no withholding of insight here.  By the end of it all, Smaug just seems whiny, as he flies off to Laketown.

I'm not even getting into the bit about Smaug detecting "something made of gold, but more precious."  A teenager could take tips on eye-rolling from my reaction.  Something about creatures of darkness immediately sniffing out the ring, particularly when it's in such a subdued state, just rankles.  The ring-wraiths themselves can only vaguely track the ring when Sauron's power is awakened, yet the dragon narrows in on it in a snap.  And of course Smaug would know about the "madness" of the Arkenstone...

Clearly decisions were made to trim a bit from Bilbo's solo jaunts into the Mountain, which I can accept generally why this might be done.  Of course, the trimming is offset by the whole addition of the dragon-dwarf chase scene.

I'm not sure if I completely can forgive the dwarf vs dragon fight.  Yes, it is more heroic than hiding out in a cave, and I do love more time devoted to Smaug, but it's a bit ridiculous.  Among other things, the architecture really isn't conducive to a dragon of his size, and he's able to literally shoulder down support pillars carved from the mountain itself but gates slow him down.  I'm also not convinced of the thermodynamics involved with that golden statue (and they knew the mold would just happened to be there?), but it was visually stunning.  For all my complaints, I cannot fault the artistry of this passage.  Just, it all felt like the weirdest game of Mousetrap ever.

Now, for the added content.  I could go on for a long time here, so I'm going to make a concerted effort to keep it short even if that means leaving stuff out.

I do like the dwarf backstory shared through to the remains of their ancestors.  This adds to the central story neatly, without detracting.

Gandalf is in a bad place and Bard clearly has a glorious heroic destiny coming to him.  Clearly, how could we not know with such dramatic hints hammering us over the head.


So here's an idea; if a set of additionally fabricated characters/plots cancel each other out, how about we don't include them in the first place?

Also, this is the most YA romance scene ever.  So glowy and fated.  And what is Kili using as a pillow?  A bowl of walnuts?  This is a serious question, I'm really confused.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

[Book Review] Bitch Planet (Volume 1)

Bitch Planet (Volume 1) / Kelly Sue DeConnick & Valentine De Landro (Powell's Books)

I don't even know where to start with this review.  I'd been aware of Bitch Planet for some time, and it totally seemed like my jam from what I heard, but I just didn't get around to reading it.  And then I did.  Holy shit.


Embracing the outrageousness of 70's exploitation films, Bitch Planet channels the irony of a culture that calls women who dare to push against objectification "angry feminists," into a piece about the anger of those who feel the caging bars of cultural expectations.

The comic is magnificent with a sort fervent insanity that reminds me of what drew me into Tank Girl.  There's an embracing of women's bodies as they are, and a celebration of rebellion against controlling gender expectations.

These women have a reason to be angry.  Not quite chattle in a society that explicitly tells them that they are flawed.  Too loud, too religious, too atheist, too extreme.  Not thin enough, not friendly enough, not compliant enough.  Your husband cast you aside for a younger, prettier, woman?  That may be all it takes to end up exiled from Earth, incarcerated as a noncompliant on an auxiliary outpost.

Bitch Planet is angry and feminist, and is glorious.

There's a fantastic interview with DeConnick over on NPR, I strongly recommend listening to it.

Advanced Reader Copy copy courtesy of Image Comics via NetGalley; differences may exist between uncorrected galley text and the final edition.