Sunday, January 19, 2020

Solid, yet Tropey: The Eye of the World

Maybe I'm late to the game for the Wheel of Time series (there are like a million installments, after all), but I couldn't help thinking while I read the first title, Eye of the World, that as much as I liked it, I wasn't surprised by it.

The start of this truly epic fantasy series starts in a small farming village that is invaded by Trollocs, monsters who won't stop coming until they've captured the three young men of the  village their evil sorcerer/god master wants, because they can unlock the key to his destiny and taking over the world.

So to save their families, and the world, a band of untried young men set off into the world for their first taste of adventure, with a powerful Aes Sedai sorceress (whom they don't trust) to help them understand their own destinies. And each of the men will discover things about themselves that have been laying dormant for years, or even centuries.

All that sounds great. And it was. There was lots of adventure in this first title, and lots of genuinely interesting and different elements of magic that kept a sense of variety within the text. Some of the highlights were dream powers, animal bonding, and an accursed dagger. Jordan is also really good at describing different places and magical activities, so that I could very vividly imagine the story in my mind without having to fill in the gaps myself. This has not been true for a lot of recent books on my fantasy shelf, so that was refreshing. And I certainly did feel the scope of the evil the world is up against, and was intrigued by the revolving chronological cycle (the Wheel of Time, duh), that is set up to have recurring ages of myth and legend that may be so long past that they are forgotten. I love awakened heroes, maybe even more than I love enchanted forests. It's a tie. And I really liked seeing the interplay between fate and human agency, and how these men are "weaving a new pattern," so that you don't feel like you're plodding along toward some inevitable conclusion.

That being said, there was nothing truly unexpected in this book. No major plot twists or shockers, and nothing that I haven't seen before in the grand scheme of fantasy literature. But that could be a chicken and the egg conundrum; that Jordan has been so influential that I've unwittingly read many books inspired by him before reading the source of the inspirations. That's not to say I didn't enjoy it, but it did lack that sense of novelty, and of suspense. Part of this impression was compounded by some imbalances in pacing. Yes, it's an epic, and so we get every detail about every thing, but there were certain segments that did drag, because the description was a bit too precise and leaned toward long-winded. I shouldn't get bored when reading a chase scene because it takes to long to explain, you know? That's one of the things I wish all fantasy writers could work on doing to uplift the genre - better balance between immersive details and heft, and stuff that weighs down the pace of a story.

I will be back for more, and I'm excited to see this adapted for the screen, but: all the same, the nagging corner of my mind that says "I'm not all that impressed" is discreetly making itself known.

K. Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Solid Second Installment: A Conspiracy in Belgravia

A Conspiracy in Belgravia (The Lady Sherlock Series Book 2) by [Thomas, Sherry]Despite shying away from the glut of Sherlock Holmes pastiches out there, I've grown attached to the Lady Sherlock series by Sherry Thomas. The second book in the series, A Conspiracy in Belgravia, was a solid contribution. That's always a good thing for me, because far too often that sophomoric slump rears its ugly head-secondary books have to stand on their own two feet with compelling plots of their own, since the characters have been previously established.

This book did that, with a new (set) of cases and intrigues that focused not only on all the ways that Charlotte is a sleuth of impressive skill, but it also drew the narrative net tighter around the characters we already knew - Charlotte's sisters, the "fallen" women who take her in, and the wife of her childhood friend Lord Ingram - the one who "got away." In that way, we get to see a character that was greatly demonized in the first book for the cold relationship between her and her husband. The growth of this character dynamic between the married couple with Charlotte intimately involved is promised to continue in the third installment (I won't spoil it now, but I can't wait for that). Along with that you get a good dose of the sinister, suspicious, and criminal that you expect of any Holmes story, and that sits very close to home.

All in all, nothing incredibly new about this new mystery, but that clearly wasn't the point - it was more about looking at the characters that Sherry has built more closely, and that was an excellent choice. Full steam ahead.

K. Rating: 5/5

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Prepare to Fall in Love is Right! - The Spindle Cove Series

I'm new to reading the straight romance genre, but after a few bad apples I came across Tessa Dare's Spindle Cove series. I have to tell you - I'm hooked.

A Lady by Midnight (spindle cove Book 3) by [Dare, Tessa]The connecting thread is Spindle Cove itself, a quaint coastal English village full of rakish dukes, military officers, and women who don't fit the mold of conventional English life. Spindle Cove is   their safe haven from the unforgiving conventions of Regency-era Britain, with its many rules and constraints. Here, each female protagonist is unique, with her own interests and quirks, and therefore utterly out of place in such a conformist society. That also means she's the one of a kind sort of woman this very human, realistic, and swoon-worthy men can change their lives for.

There is a bit of formulism in these stories, but I suppose that's the trap of reading romance. It's hard to not assume they're going to live happily ever after, when that is one of the definitions of the genre itself. But within those confines Dare has managed to keep each new couple's adventures fresh and exciting. Even if you know the ending, you relish the journey. And that's what counts.

I highly recommend this series to people who love historical romances with saucy encounters. You won't regret it!

K Rating: 4/5

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Perfect Apart and Together: Bid Time Return

People who come to this blog occasionally will probably have heard me rave at least once about how much I love Somewhere in Time, the time travel romance starring Christopher Reeve and based off Richard Matheson's novel Bid Time Return. I finally got around to reading the book, after many viewings of the adaptation, in which Matheson wrote the screenplay. All I can say is - wow. I'm pretty sure this is one of my favorite stories of all time, across all genres. Yup.

Somewhere In Time by [Matheson, Richard]So, to the book: I loved the things that were in the book but not in the movie- things that couldn't possibly be, like Matheson's writing style itself, especially in the beginning, when Richard Collier is talking to himself through a tape recorder. The sharp jaunty nature of his speech is really powerful, especially in one of the opening scenes where Richard is walking through a historical museum and feelings of unease wash over him. The way in which Matheson describes the threat of these inanimate objects, as if they could reanimate at any time, is so intense and powerful, that you remember just how terrifying a prospect time travel, or even the concept of time itself, is.

I also appreciated the greater discussion of the process of time traveling itself, and the description of Richard's multiple attempts, which make their way into the film through a dialogue with a professor (a scene I've always loved). The fact that Richard is losing his mind and becoming obsessed is even clearer in the book than it is in the film, and carries through to how he interacts with the past once he's able to "put down roots," as he says, and remain in the past even after sleep, a mental process which always threatens to erode the mental bond he forges in wakefulness.

The character of Elyse is a bit different in the book, as is her manager William Robinson. He's much  more of an intriguing character in the film, as one of the major shifts in the script was to suggest that he may also be a time traveler- and clearly, a more successful one. It's much better than the book's explanation of Elyse's initial reaction to Richard. She talks about her abstract interest in the occult and fortune-telling, which could have been interesting, but didn't go anywhere. The Robinson theory is much tighter. And in the film, the pocket watch is a boot-strapped item, something that exists in a timeloop. That is also unique to the film, but is of absolute importance when thinking about the dramatic ramifications of time and time-travel on the characters.
Somewhere in Time Poster
In short, through both the written word and silver screen, Matheson has created something that's untouchable. It's for this reason that no other time-travel story compares. (Yes, I did write one of those, and no that doesn't alter the statement I just made).

Of course I watched the movie, again, and of course now I'm going to voraciously read all of the other tales of his I'm aware of through adaptation, and see where they go. I have a particular interest in What Dreams May Come.

K Rating: 5/5

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Solid Historical Thriller: Heresy

Heresy (Giordano Bruno Novels Book 1) by [Parris, S.J.]As a historian, when I read historical fiction, I expect the world-building to be as robust as it would be for a fantasy title. Heresy delivered, while also providing a thrilling murder mystery tied deeply to the biggest conflicts of the period - the religious wars in England.

Though at times I felt that this investigation could have moved at a slightly quicker pace (I listened, rather than read, so that could be the issue), there were no details or scenes that were superfluous or didn't add to the thickening plot of one Oxford professor after another being murdered in the sensational manner of the saints/martyrs. The political and religious tensions between Catholics and Anglicans were palpable, as was the very precise and authentic perception of the emerging theories of Copernicus and his ilk. I greatly, greatly appreciated the exactitude and attention to detail that brought these intellectual movements to life and made them so organic to the plot itself. And also, accessible to people who may not know as much as I do about the Scientific Revolution and the ideas that drove it. Even good historical descriptions can tend to feel like so much window-dressing, but here the plot was tied to the period inextricably, and that is quite a grand feat indeed. All of the characters were distinctly plotted out, and their motivations and character came in all shades of gray, another major accomplishment.

I especially liked the flavor of secret societies and hidden messages - it added a little something special not often seen these days, especially in this style.

I'm happy to have found a historical series that I can sink my teeth into, and the premise for the second title of Giordano Bruno sounds all the more enticing.

K. Rating: 5/5

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Mesmerizing: The Witcher

I was happy to learn about The Witcher adaptation on Netflix on the horizon, but I have to admit, I was not excited by their casting of Henry Cavill as Geralt. I came to this franchise through the Witcher 3 game, and was of the firm believe that the actor playing Geralt needed to have a gruffer look. 

The Witcher PosterWell. I stand corrected. Henry Cavill is Geralt of Rivia. He's absolutely perfect, and his love of gaming and of these characters in particular shows, and shows well. The voice he puts on is absolutely amazing, and everything I hoped it would be. So is the dry humor that I've come to love Geralt for. 

Enough gushing about Geralt. Time to gush about the production values, the setting, the costumes (except for many of Yen's - they were ridiculous), and the fights - ohmygod, the fights. I could have taken a lot more of those wonderful combat sequences, and the choreography that felt really unique and exciting and utterly compelling. Especially Geralt's first big fight done in one take. That was absolutely incredible, and I was grinning ear to ear for a long time. I haven't felt this excited about a series since Castlevania. I devoured this show, and am very very glad that it will be getting a second season (at the least). I hope it gets a thousand.

The show was fleshed out by really interesting characters, some familiar some not, of course. But all the casting is well done, and Yennefer, Ciri, Tissaia are all super interesting, as is the way the world is slowly being established in the show in a way that should satisfy both newcomers to the content and die-hard fans. It was very clever to intersect multiple timelines at the start of the show so that the characters could be established in their own right, and then bring them together to see how all their stories weave and fit together. Much better weaving here than on, say, Game of Thrones, where the tiniest snippets of people no one cares about took away from the things that were actually exciting here. There was a care and balance brought to each of the main story threads, which made is super satisfying to see develop and connect as the season progressed. 

Also, Jaskier is hilarious, and the on-screen chemistry between him and Geralt is just perfect.
The Witcher is an absolute delight, a genre fan's paradise. Those numbnuts who panned it without watching it are...well...numbnuts. 

K Rating: 5/5

The Wild West in Space: The Mandalorian

The Mandalorian PosterI'm aware that everyone has been talking about this since the first episode aired, but here at Bathory's Closet I review seasons, not episodes. That way you get a bit of hindsight. So: The Mandalorian: great first episode, good droid design, poor intermittent characters and episodes, picked up again at the end.

Those are  my feelings in a nutshell. Yes, Baby Yoda is super cute, but more importantly, it's sort of a game-changer to have a Yoda, which raises all kinds of questions that I hope this show will eventually answer about yodas, their powers, their numbers, and how/what this little mind-bender has survived.

I say Western because that's how the majority of the show was structured - with these episodic adventures and episodic characters. Towards the end, we see the reason for that, as all these parties come together for season finale and a dramatic confrontation with the vestiges of the Empire seeking out the yodaling, but actually watching the show was not all that exciting in the middle, because many of those episodes didn't appreciably further the plot, or maintain the tension from the first episodes revelations. The writers saved me from boredom in the last two episodes, but then that makes three total that were well-written and well-executed. Not...great.

Especially when you consider that this was the only original content that was launched with the Disney+ service, which is attempting to be competitive with Netflix and the like, which, I will add, also released high-profile genre programming: The Witcher. And that, my friends, was damn near perfect. More on that in a minute. In the meantime though, hopefully Disney will realize its mistake of thinking name recognition is enough in the streaming content game, and of hyping a service and a bunch of shows (ahem, Marvel) that aren't even close to being ready. Because that's my real problem with The Mandalorian. It just wasn't enough. It wasn't a strong enough showing for a Disney launch. My hope is that they too recognize this. In the words of the immortal Xena: "Don't be sorry, Gabrielle. Just improve."

K Rating: 3/5