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Friday, September 30, 2016

Reading/Watching Log #9

I'm so close to finishing my very last assignment, yet I also managed to get a lot of reading and viewing done this month, finally making a decent dent in that giant TBR pile stacked up against my wall, and the never-ending stream of shows that I've been meaning to watch.
In any case, I ploughed through assassins, vigilantes, Templars, werewolves, Russian aristocrats, post-apocalyptic hit-men – wow, it was a really violent month.

Daughter of Blood by Helen Lowe
This is the third book in Helen's Wall of Night quartet, preceded by Heir of Night and The Gathering of the Lost, a High Fantasy with all you'd expect from the genre: a vast array of characters, in-depth world building, a malevolent supernatural threat, and a swords 'n sorcery setting. But to crouch it in such clichéd terms is to sell it short, as Daughter of Blood manages to pull off the holy trinity of fantasy fiction: a. a sprawling plot, b. character development, and c. detailed world-building.
If you can nail these three elements, you've got yourself a good book – but you'd be surprised at how often writers only manage to nail down one or two. In this case, Daughter of Blood is a strong continuation of its predecessors, and there's a careful balancing act between all three of the aforementioned fantasy staples. Best of all, it's a Doorstopper, taking me the better part of three months to get through it. Sometimes you just want to sink into a giant story.
Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas
These books seem to be everywhere at the moment, so I picked the first one up at the library – and honestly, wasn’t that impressed. Having finished it I realized that the main problem is that there are two stories at work here: one is a super-serious fantasy and the other is a fluffy teen drama. Neither one is bad on its own, but they make for pretty weird bedfellows.
Celaena Sardothien is a famous assassin freed from slavery in order to compete in a competition to become the King's Champion. That sentence alone brings up dozens of problems, mostly to do with the anonymity of assassins and the oxymoron of being a "famous" one, but she's entranced with the promise of freedom that comes after four years of service. Also to her liking are the books, fancy dresses, lollies, puppies and attention she gets in the interim.
You guys know I don't use the term Mary Sue very lightly, but between Celaena's name, her pure-white hair, her harem of male admirers, her physical prowess (despite spending a year doing backbreaking hard labour) and assortment of lovingly described outfits, she ticks quite a few of the boxes. The main problem is that she simply doesn't think or behave like an assassin at all – heck, she doesn't even assassinate anyone across the course of the story; her skills are all hearsay.
Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas
The second book is a surprisingly big improvement, and many of the Mary Sue-ish qualities Celaena had in the first book are actually justified here when we find out more about her background and heritage (I expect something similar will happen with Rey in the next Star Wars film).
This time around the plot and characters feel better developed, and are genuinely surprising at times – there was at least one twist I didn't see coming. Celaena is a lot less obnoxious, the love triangle is dropped, and the greatest assassin in the world is (gasp!) actually allowed to kill a few people this time around! More than that, the cast of supporting characters are given agendas and subplots of their own, instead of simply orbiting Celaena.
Unfortunately (SPOILERS) Celaena's friend Nehemia falls to the black best friend cliché – killed off in a gruesome manner that only serves to motivate the white protagonist, which is a damn shame since Nehemia was one of the best characters in either book. But there's some nice playing around with gender roles: just as Celaena's job as an assassin is never questioned on the grounds that she's a woman, one of her marks is revealed to be a male courtesan to high-born ladies; also not treated as particularly strange or surprising.
The Templar Legacy by Steve Berry
I'd say this book is basically The Da Vinci Code lite, but then, The Da Vinci Code itself was pretty lite. It's got everything you'd expect from the "secret historical conspiracy concerning Jesus Christ" genre: one-dimensional characters, incredibly short chapters, mysterious sects, coded messages, and bonkers religious theories. Come to think of it, the theory espoused here isn't that bonkers – though to my mind, that kinda defeats the purpose of these books. Give me Jesus founding the Merovingian dynasty through his child born of Mary Magdalene, or go home.
What the book does that differentiates itself from The Da Vinci Code is explore the mysteries of Rennes-le-Château, something I was surprised Dan Brown never did (though he named one of his characters after Bérenger Saunière). Berry drops all talk of the Holy Grail in favour of his characters looking for the great secret that gave the Templars their great power and wealth during the Middle Ages – it's a fairly standard adventure, but one that seems genuinely interested in portraying Rennes-le-Château accurately, and dismantling some of its myths.
If anything, it's inspired me to replay the Gabriel Knight trilogy, specifically Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned, in which you search Rennes-le-Château for the Holy Grail, the bones of Christ, and vampires. What's more, it's game that predates both this AND Dan Brown's bestseller by several years.
Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris
This is actually the first book I've read by Joanne Harris, but I can confidently state that I love (or will love) ALL her books. She delivers a sensory experience like no other: on every page is the warmth of the earth, the smell of wine, the sights of villas and vineyards and rolling hills of the French countryside – it's like taking a holiday without going anywhere.
In the face of all this, the plot is almost irrelevant. But there's one anyway: an author who has lost his muse buys a French cottage on a whim, all because it reminds him of the elderly gardener he used to spend his childhood visiting. Yikes, when described like that it sounds awful, but it's actually a light and dreamy narrative of a creative mind run dry; one that alternates between chapters of his childhood on Pog Lane Hill and adulthood in Lansquenet, France.
Teen Wolf Season 1
Just in time for the announcement of the show's fifth and final season, I get cracking on the first. I'm not entirely sure why I had this on my TBW list, as even the show's fans seem a bit lukewarm about it, but supernatural high school drama is practically its own genre at this point, and sometimes you're just in the mood for it.
Confession: I've never actually seen the original Teen Wolf movie, and know next to nothing about it expect that it most likely features a protagonist who is both a teenager and a werewolf. That's the basis of the MTV show, with one Scott McCall getting bitten by a creature in the woods, and undergoing a strange metamorphosis as a result.
It's got all the usual suspects: the sweet but kinda bland Nice Guy hero, his fidgety motor-mouthed Best Friend who always seems on the brink of a nervous breakdown, the Jerk Jock who feels threatened by our protagonist, the stunning Alpha Bitch, and the oblivious Love Interest in the thankless role of the oblivious love interest.
And yet its originality is in the details. For instance, Scott is a genuinely nice guy, Lydia has a genius-level IQ, Jackson's best friend is gay, and Stiles seems to have a real (albeit undiagnosed) nervous condition. It means that though the plots are either predicable or so out-of-left-field that no one can understand let alone predict them, there's an unexpected depth to the characters.
It also led me to coin a phrase that has so far not taken off: "Stereked." If you get Stereked, you are made to believe that a minor part of any given project is actually a major part due to the excessive attention and adoration that fandom lavishes upon it. It's derived from the Portmanteau Couple Name for the Derek/Stiles ship, comprised of two characters that have virtually nothing to do with each other throughout the course of the show and are fairly indifferent to each other whenever they do interact. However, on account of them being two attractive white males, the slash shipping skyrocketed, and for the longest time I had no idea that Scott McCall even existed, let alone was the main character of the show. (I assumed that Derek was the titular Teen Wolf).
So if I wanted to use the term in conversation, I might say something like: "Before I started watching Avatar: The Last Airbender, the fandom Stereked me into believing that Zuko and Katara were a viable possibility, instead of just a crackship."
Daredevil Season 1
So I probably should have watched Daredevil before Jessica Jones. Not only did it come first chronologically, but it was not-that-compelling in comparison to its sister-show. I've already admitted I'm a little tired of the superhero genre anyway, but the whole "broody male violently fights crime whilst angsting about it" has definitely run its course for me.
There were a few things I liked: that Matt Murdock's love interest is actually the first among his group of friends/allies to discover his secret identity (and she's played by the fantastic Rosario Dawson, who also pops up in Jessica Jones and Luke Cage), that the villain is given a tragic background which doesn't excuse his actions in the present, that the Girl Friday has her own subplot that isn't contingent on just answering the phones, and Foggy. But despite some interesting structuring and great fight choreography – the internet made sure I knew about the single-take hallway fight long before watching the episode in which it featured – I never got sucked in, especially in comparison to Jessica Jones.
Matt's struggle between fighting crime as a lawyer or as a vigilante is a foregone conclusion (no, he's not going to become a murderer, just pummel people within an inch of their lives) and the final confrontation between him and Fisk is just a fist-fight in an alley. I'll eventually tune into season two, mostly because I'm curious about Elektra, but ... well.
Into the Badlands Season 1
I didn't know what to expect from this one, as I had only seen GIFs on Tumblr posted by a mutual follower who seemed really enthusiastic about it. The images were intriguing (as was the presence of my two favourites, Sarah Bolger and Emily Beecham) and after tracking it down it became obvious by its production values and six-episode season that it cost a FORTUNE to make.
Dystopian futures are a dime-a-dozen these days, but the strength of Into the Badlands comes from its visual style. A mash-up of feudal Japan and the plantations of the American South is not a combination I've come across before, but aside from the wuxia-style fights and abundance of powerful women, its most surprising feature is just how colourful it all is. Fields of blazing poppies, rich green forests, bright kimonos – it's a far cry from the usual grey tones of a typical dystopia.
The plot follows Sunny, a young soldier (or clipper) who wants to escape his current life working for the ruthless Baron Quinn, hoping to find a brighter future beyond the Badlands with his pregnant girlfriend Veil. Such a thing is easier said than done, but the appearance of a wildcard – a boy called MK who turns into an unstoppable destructive force every time he bleeds – opens up possibilities.
It's a strong setup, and the world-building is excellent ... but I dunno, it's just missing something that's hard to articulate. The plot has all the political intrigue, backstabbing and betrayal you could wish for, but though I liked Sunny, Veil and MK, I was never 100% invested in their lives. It's the ideas I enjoyed, not the manifestation of those ideas:
For instance, the character of the Widow (played by Emily Beecham, the great character actress you've probably never heard of) is fantastic in premise: a woman with a host of adopted daughters called "butterflies" after the shape of their throwing-stars, who seeks to undermine the current political system by exploiting MK's abilities and seizing power for herself – all in high heels. It's a great character pitch, and yet the character is not complex enough to become really invested in what she's trying to achieve.  
But it's fun and gorgeous to look at, so I'll tune in for season two.
War and Peace (2016)
Believe it or not, I knew absolutely nothing about Tolstoy's novel before watching this miniseries beyond the fact it was set in Russia, and that there was presumably a war at some stage. I mean, everyone knows that Anna Karenina eventually throws herself in front of a train, but War and Peace was a complete mystery to me. In a way it worked to my advantage, as I wasn't too bothered by what must be a huge contraction of the novel's events.
The BBC did its usual trick of loading the cast with British thespians, so even the tiniest role was played by a person who probably has at least three BAFTAs on their shelf, but it pays off by making sure everyone is memorable by dint of the actor portraying them. Even Lily James, who I had pegged as a fine but unmemorable performer, puts on a surprisingly good show here.
It focuses mostly on the three characters of Pierre Bezukhov, Natasha Rostova, and Andrei Bolkonsky, who are collectively looking for a purpose in life against the backdrop of Napoleon's conflict with Russia. Like most epic historical sagas (Gone With The Wind and Les Misérables come to mind) it combines familial domestic struggles with far-reaching political ones, and a cast that keep bumping into each other no matter how unlikely.
The emphasis on the aforementioned trio is understandable, but a few others seem rather superfluous in comparison (you could cut Aneurin Barnard's character from the proceedings without losing anything), and up until the final two episodes, there was a distinct lack of Russian atmosphere to the setting. Aside from Helene's wedding headdress and a couple of musical cues, for the most part the production felt it could have been set in Britain – or indeed anywhere else in Europe.
That's just me though, and it clearly did its job since it's spurred me to tackle Tolstoy's novel.

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