Wednesday, November 30, 2016

[Book Review] The Masked City

The Masked City (The Invisible Library #2) / Genevieve Cogman

Previously Reviewed:

The Masked City starts up on the heels of the events in The Invisible Library.  Irene and Kai have their hands full with magical and political shenanigans that an alternate London infected with elves can throw at them.  Add in the complications of dragon families (Kai) and other duties that pull in different directions, things get messy quite quickly for this Librarian and her apprentice.  This story continues in the same narrative style and flow as it's predecessor, merging wit, magic, and fantastic contraptions all together.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of Roc (Penguin RandomHouse) in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Return of the Read - Book 5, Chapter 2

The Fellowship and the narrative at this point is well and truly shattered.  Frodo, Samwise, and the Ring are within Mordor, Boromir slain, and Gandalf and Peregrin to Gondor, Aragron seeking the Paths of the Dead with Gimli and Legolas, and Meriadoc entering the service of Thoden.  Each living group still works towards the same ultimate goal, but their actions and efforts are connected with shepherding different forces and strands of the story.  With what foggy memories I have of the last time I read this book, I believe further fracturing will continue.  This may however be the rawest separation.  Merry and Pippin nearly never are seen without the other.  The Merry and Pippin who will meet again will not be the same, and will have changed without the other.  Now each is without the other and facing drastically different decisions and personal growth, though in interestingly parallel paths.

Personally, I always feel a company of Rangers showing up signals some sort of excitement and adventure.  Then when one comes with a message for Aragorn bearing the words "The days art short.  If thou art in haste, remember the Paths of the Dead."  Well, you know some sort of destiny claiming shit is going down.  Arwen's gift, as we will soon see, just further supports that.  Not that the title of this book isn't a big spoiler...

Of course, the nature and source of the summons that brought the Dunedain is up for discussion, Galadriel, Gandalf, or even Elrond or Arwen, though no one seems to think of the latter two.  The wisdom and sight of Elrond is well considered in other areas of the story, and not only do they come bearing a banner made by his daughter, but his sons ride as well.

Gimli remarks that he and Legolas should have wished for some of their own kin, which leads me to wonder the situation within the Mirkwood.  Legolas replies "I do not think that any would come... They have no need to ride to war; war already marches on their own lands."  After The Hobbit a blow was dealt to the shadows that lay over the Greenwood, but it remains marked as the Mirkwood.  What did his kin and lands face when he left to seek Elrond's council and join the Fellowship?

The Lord of the Rings is often considered something of a bro-fest due to the strong lack of female characters even in supporting roles.  I have to say though, painful romantic pining aside, I like a lot of what Tolkien does with Eowyn here (and it's worth noting how Alan Lee also painted her as well, dressed for war not the hearth - she's made out far more traditionally feminine in the film up through here, including wearing a courtly dress in camp).  Her voice is strong and powerful, calling out the role she is dealt again and again regardless of her ability to fully serve.  She is right to fear a cage, that is too easily the shape her life can take.

Under the ground, in a cavern even Gimli balks at entering, Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, and the Dunedain take the Paths of the Dead, with an army of fallen gathering behind them.

After the darkness of the last few chapters, and the ending of the last film, we get a celebration of the lives lost and of the lives that remain.  Order has been shuffled around a little bit, as in this post-battle wake we see Merry and Pippin bringing their own joy of life to the party, and the Palantir handling does not come up for a few scenes.  But more than that the overall feeling here is of hope, even with the acknowledgement of lurking shadow.

Mixed in the points of this chapter is some content I've already touched on, namely dealing with Arwen and Elrond.  Arwen choosing mortality and the (seriously belated and obviously aided by magic) reforging of Narsil.  So moving on. 

The rest of this chapter has to be sought out in the film, split into several sections that seem to attempt to connect these events happening into a more linear rather than parallel narrative.  The gain is more growth of Theoden as a leader and a character, the loss is deliberate planning to travel to the Paths of the Dead, instead they oddly camp at the entrance way (yes Legolas, the horses are restless), and get Aragorn staring uncomfortably down a ghostly chasm.  We lose some of Eowyn's more powerful dialog, and get it reinterpreted instead instead as a defense of Merry fighting.

I'm of mixed opinion regarding the dream sequence, but I suppose they wanted to loop in Aragorn as to Arwen's decision on a mystical level before he finds out from her father.  I'm not a fan of some of Elrond's dialog, but I rarely fail to enjoy Hugo Weaving's delivery.  My problem here is the "lets add extra drama and internal conflict" in what's a rather powerful build up regardless (plus, Aragorn should have had the sword already).  Why remove the company of Rangers, the simple message of council, Arwen's gift, and instead have him almost sneak off in the night with only Gimli and Legolas for company. 

Again, I'm still left wondering why the hell they would camp on the edge of a place considered so cursed, but I guess it shortens travel time, and Legolas serves well to rely the otherwise expository information.  Visually, the journey they make differs from what I expect based on the text, with the ruined city and it's defiant ghostly king.  The brief armed stand off gives the claiming of destiny and some drama that I suppose was felt otherwise unfulfilled by a proclamation in the darkness.

[Book Review] Dark Orbit

Dark Orbit / Carolyn Ives Gilman

I'd managed to both hear a lot about Dark Orbit and yet retain nearly nothing about it going in.  It seemed like it would be a good Virtual Speculation pick, so I threw it on the list for October.

On the surface Dark Orbit is a SpecFic re-imagining of Country of the Blind (with less xenophobia).  Saraswati Callicot spends her life leaping across decades as she explores new worlds reachable only through FTL travel.  When she's sent on a new mission to secretly keep an eye on Thora Lassiter and the trouble that may seek her out, she expects little issue.  But the world they visit defies expectation or experience, and presents dangers that could never be anticipated.

In many ways this is a book about perception.  How our perceptions shape everything we encounter, and how others perceptions shape us.  For all that the story involves both a murder and a missing persons investigation as well as natural disaster, the narrative tends towards the cerebral over action yet retains some of the grandeur of a space opera.

Discussion Fodder:
  • How does the story discuss the concept of self?  How does translation and reconstitution effect the self?  What about beminding?  How does perception of the characters shape and effect the narrative?
  • Does, as Thora say, understanding destroy unfamiliarity?  What exactly does that mean?
  • What exactly is beminding?  Is it unique to the application of wending, or is it something that ties into real life?
  • In a conversation between Ashok and David we hear "That's what buzzwords are.  Tranquilizers."  "Thought suppressants, you mean."  What do you think the roles of buzzwords are?
  • How does the story handle blindness?  What did the author get right, what is wrong?  How do the characters (mis)interpret sightedness and blindenss?  What examples of assistive and adaptive technology show up?
  • The women of Orem worship Witassa, the Shameless One in secret.  What is the power of shame or of being shameless?
  • How does the narrative balance mysticism and science?

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

[Book Review] How to Train Your Highlander

How to Train Your Highlander (Broadswords and Ballrooms #3) / Christy English

She’s the Hellion of Hyde Park…
A foolproof plan to avoid marriage:
1. Always carry at least three blades.
2. Ride circles around any man.
3. Never get caught in a handsome duke’s arms.
Wild Highlander Mary Elizabeth Waters is living on borrowed time. She’s managed to dodge the marriage banns up to now, but even Englishmen can only be put off for so long…and there’s one in particular who has her in his sights. 
Harold Percy, Duke of Northumberland, is enchanted by the beautiful hellion who outrides every man on his estate and dances Scottish reels while the ton looks on in horror. The more he sees Mary, the more he knows he has to have her, tradition and good sense be damned. But what’s a powerful man to do when the Highland spitfire of his dreams has no desire to be tamed...
In most ways this is your standard fiesty-lady historical romance, and if that's your itch to scratch I heartily recommend it.

I tend to be a bit pickier at times, so this didn't really hit what I was looking for.  Decently constructed, and let's be honest, I'm a sucker for a deadly and intelligent leading lady.  But the courtship drama is a bit over drawn-out, and Duke Harry's ideas of exerting his male dominance in a relationship and in the bedroom had me rolling my eyes at best.  I'm really not sure how, outside of a BDSM romance, threatening a grown woman with a spanking is supposed to be a part of courtship.  I might have not minded if Mary Elizabeth did some damage to his august personage, he kind of deserved being put in his place.

I definitely picked up the book because of the title.  With a title that, to me, riffs off of How to Train Your Dragon, I wanted a little more humor and certainly more fieriness in the characters.  What I got was a little more run-of-the mill than I hoped for, but by no means is a poorly written book.

Advance Reader Copy courtesy of SOURCEBOOKS Casablanca via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review; changes may exist between galley and the final edition.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Return of the Read - Book 5, Chapter 1

Two-thirds of our way through Lord of the Rings now.  If you're a little fuzzy about what we've read on our journey so far make sure to stop and read through the Preface to get back up to speed.  Hopefully with life settling down for me again I'll be able to stay on top of the schedule again.

However, for now we'll have to leave Sam and Frodo and go back to the other members of the Fellowship.  In particular, we're back with Pippin and Gandalf, as they ride to Minas Tirith.

This is our first visitation of Minas Tirith and of Gondor, and Tolkien gives us both its splendor and it's ruin.  Architecturally, the city still stands glorious, but it has diminished over the years as the population diminishes and age takes its toll.  To me the strongest signifier of Gondor's decline is the tree.

Denethor is a man deep within his grief and constrained by his pride.  There is a madness underlying his speech and action, born from many sources but perhaps triggered by the hurt of loss.  I also wonder at the seeming glamour of him, where he has a majesty that perhaps diminishes the perception of Gandalf's power.  Some of it does come from his lineage, a heritage that interestingly Faramir possesses and Boromir did not.  More than most men, Denethor has the potential to be great, as does his surviving son and as does the rightful King of Gondor.  We can't completely fault him his pride either, his family has stood as Stewards for generations, all but kings, and they stand as the wall between sides in a conflict that has spanned the ages of Middle Earth.

Pippin makes a gamble, swearing himself into the service of Gondor, though he may not have perceived it as so.  I wonder if the symbolism of his father's name was deliberate, or something that came together as the story developed.  With the depth invested in these stories, I lean towards a deliberate act to give Pippin's father the name Paladin, a title/honorific for a knight renowned for heroism and chivalry.  Regardless of actions and destiny to come, right now his sworn service comes with advantages, some possibly helped by the seeming harmlessness of the friendly little halfling.  Were he a spy with nefarious intent things would go poorly for Gondor, as it is, just virtue or his friendly nature and connection to rumors of hope, Pippin learns quite a bit that could serve to advantage.

In addition to everything we've read, we get a few scenes thrown in here between when Gandalf and Pippin ride off from Aragorn and company.  In particular we get the Reforging of Narsil.. which should have happened back when they were gearing up to set out (the shards of Narsil reforged into Andurill), as well as a vision by Arwen that imparts a bunch of (what I believe is) appendix and supplemental material regarding Arwen's future life with Aragorn.  It gives us a little more time with Jackson's interpretation of Arwen and Elrond.  It's not my particularly favorite scene, it lacks the weight it deserves for the emotional conflicts present.

But then we get back to the business at hand, with Pippin and Gandalf riding into Gondor.  I cannot fault the city as shown to us on the screen.  It definitely is a thing of grandeur.  The tree is more specifically brought to our attention, but not exactly in relation to it's dying state, just that it is a tree of Kings and Denethor is not a king but is a proud man.  Most of the lead up to the meeting between Gandalf, Denethor, and Pippin is stripped away... and in this case I think it was a good decision.  The result is a very strong scene, and one that reveals more Denethor's pride, anger, and grief.  I think it serves to the narrative benefit to cut out Pippin's social successes among the soldiers and townfolk.  Instead what we get are some very powerful, and a few lightly humorous, moments between Pippin and Gandalf that might be otherwise lost.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 4, Chapter 10

My summary of this chapter: Samwise is the goddamn hero of this book, and honestly, a better friend and protector than Frodo ever is.  They may be friends, but the dynamic favors Frodo strongly, perhaps due to lingering status as Sam's master/employer.  Frodo inherited the Ring, but he's never really been all that full of the Tookishness that pulled his uncle through all sorts of adventures.

Without Sam, this story would be much shorter and with a darker end for our friends.  Starting in The Fellowship of the Ring, I commented that Sam was the true heir of Bilbo... and I think this chapter really encapsulates that.  Among other things, we have parallels between Bilbo vs Smaug and Sam vs Shelob with actual references to the difference between her and a dragon.  Sam, not Frodo with his noble and elvish air, is the hobbit to surprise others with his courage, dedication, and even wits.  Of course, Sam, like Bilbo, is also the one to wish he was at home by the fire with a good meal.

When Sam wears the Ring we get descriptions of how his perception and perhaps even place in the world changes, and I think this might be what inspired how they portrayed the experience of wearing the Ring in the movies.
"The world changed, and a single moment of time was filled with an hour of thought.  At once he was aware that hearing was sharpened while sight dimmed, but otherwise than in Shelob's lair.  All things about him now were not dark but vague; while he himself was there in a grey hazy world, alone, like a small black solid rock, and the Ring, weighing down his lieft hand, was like an orb of hot gold.  He did not feel invisible at all, but horribly and uniquely visible; and he know that somewhere an Eye was searching for him."
Then think about how the world shifts when anyone dons the Ring in the films.  The color drains away, voices sound both distant and threatening, and the searching Eye.

Of course, we have one full book left so things will not end here, with orcs finding and taking Frodo into custody, and the revelation that he's merely poisoned.  Whoops.

Before wrapping this up, I also want to take a moment to talk about the orcs.  We generally think of the orcs as not much more than violent, blood-lusting, barely intelligent or verbal thugs.  But, they really aren't.  Well, they are a bit violent and prone to what we might consider less civilized behavior (though the Klingons would disagree on that point), but we do need to remember that they are a mirror of elves.  What Sam overhears could be the words from any fantasy setting soldiers.  There's nothing particularly nasty about their words, nor anything particularly inhuman either considering their discomfort with Shelob, the Nazgul, and others under Sauron's banner.  Even their fears about a great warrior loose behind their lines speak of a humanity of sorts that we often forget the orcs are capable of, instead generally seeing them as a nearly unstoppable and faceless enemy.  Not that this is completely uncalled for - they are fearsome and ruthless, prone to cruel humor, and not above eating the flesh of other humanoids.  But they are also aware that very little in the world looks upon them with favor and are afraid of things that go bump in the night.

When looking at how this scene is mixed into the film I feel I need to start with the fact that "The Choices of Master Samwise" is scene 33 out of 60 in The Return on the King.  There is some logic from a chronological stand point and from the intent to build to suspense, but it's also a bit disorienting for this sort of comparison.

Sam's heroism here loses the internal motivation and reactions, and parts of it are more matter of fact and less desperate.  His grief comes across well but I feel like the scene could have benefited from expressions of Sam's fear mixed with his bravery.  We don't get much insight into the orcs, Jackson doesn't spend much time showing them as more than warrish brutes, just giving us enough conversation to clue us in that Frodo still lives.  I like the complexity Tolkien gave, but in cinema it is easier to keep the enemy as just the enemy, especially when the film already sprawls.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Lord of the Rings : The Towering Read - Book 4, Chapter 9

Spiders.  Not a fan here, and clearly neither was Tolkien.  This isn't the first time we've come across giant hobbit-eating spiders in Middle Earth, and not the first time the Ring bearer has encountered one.  Shelob... is something more than just a large spider however.  "She that walked in darkness had heard the Elves cry that cry far back in the deeps of time, and she had not heeded it, and it did not daunt her now."  She is ancient and intelligent in her own right, bearing power and rational thought when faced with a threat, and not exactly a spider depending on how you read "an evil thing in spider-form."

Out of all the passages intended to evoke unease, this chapter probably tops it not only for me but for many readers.  The writing is evocative in setting and pulls on a unease many people feel in regards to spiders.

I'm not sure what I think about the addition in the film of Gollum framing Samwise for the loss of the rest of the food.  It does incorporate some of the better lines we'd otherwise lose, and gives us action instead of more walking and huddling.  But it unconvinces me, parts feeling out of character and overacted.  The best parts are carried by Sean Astin, and I say that as someone who is usually a great fan of the life Andy Serkis brings to Gollum.  We've started entering the part of the film where I just really don't care about Frodo... it's just so much forced angst and a permanent look of nausea.  Seriously, I keep expecting Elijah to vomit.

Side note, is it just me, or is Frodo's hair awfully fluffy and luxurious for someone roughing it?  My hair would be half flat to my head and the other half sticking up in a squirrley faux-hawk.

Interestingly, we don't get the penultimate chapter of The Two Towers until scene 29 in The Return of the King.  Looking back at what we've watched so far, much of the stronger parts of this translation do not feature the Ring or the Ring bearer, with instead a narrative focus on the adventurous heroics rather than the descent into darkness required to save the world.  This shift isn't new to The Return of the King, but it feels more marked as we start the final movie.

One thing we do gain from the splitting of Sam and Frodo is a more realized sense of betrayal within the lair, and much of the lair is well built to inspire disgust and fear.  Unfortunately, for me, Shelob only half succeeds.  At times she succeeds in instilling arachnid-inspired chills, but parts seem almost comical and a level of fear is almost lost by the visual reveal.