Friday, July 3, 2015

The Testament of Tall Eagle review


    There is a serious problem in fantasy, albeit it's kind of a minor First World problem which only exists for privileged geeks who are snobby about their literature tastes (like me), and that is a lot of fantasy is kind of samey. As a friend of mine who is an author said, the vast majority of fantasy literature looks like some variant of The Lord of the Rings or Dungeons and Dragons. He said this, despite the fact that he was writing a Dungeons and Dragons-esque novel, to me, who had written a novel deconstructing some of the The Lord of the Rings' themes.

    Which  means what I'm about to say comes from a place of massive hypocrisy.

    Specifically, there's too much Medieval European fantasy and not enough set in other settings.

    History is full of various interesting times and places to be inspired by. Ancient Rome, Napoleonic France, Czarist Russia, mythological China, and so on. Part of what makes the Witcher so good is that it's inspired by Medieval Eastern Europe, which is pretty different from Western Euope. Even moving fantasy to modern day has resulted in a gigantic thriving subgenre from The Dresden Files to my own Esoterrorism.

    So what about Native American fantasy?

    Written by a white guy?

    I was cautious but optimistic.

    One of the biggest things which has plagued the First Nations of the United States has been the "Magical Native American" stereotype. White people plundering their cultural heritage for New Age beliefs, very often against tribes' will, and using them as stock characters. This, despite the fact Native American mythology is incredibly rich and diverse. Full of awesome tales of gods, heroes, fun, and humor. Could John R. Furtz write a novel whcih avoided all of the baggage which accompanies the past 300 years of exploitation and cultural appropriation?

    I think he did, yes.

    The Testament of Tall Eagle follows the adventure of the titular character as he goes through his rite of manhood, proceeds to discover his affinity with Eagles, finds out the world is being threatened by monsters from another dimension, meets a race of humans from another world, and proceeds to deal with the more personal problems of tribal politics. It is very much a fantasy novel and while issues of dealing with the White Man and ancient tradition are there, they are minor issues to the larger epic storyline.

    The fact this isn't set on Earth anymore than Drizzt's adventures in the Forgotten Realms gives the author a bit more freedom and you can't really say a magic-using character is a "Magical Native American" when every other character is a Native American. Hell, they're not even Americans since this is a fantasy world like Toril or Krynn. Readers can and should judge Tall Eagle as an awesome fantasy protagonist on his own without predisposition, the same way Conan is a Cimmerian but this gives no insight into real-life Celts.

    Tall Eagle is a likable character who, if a bit on the stately side, is no more so than Connor Kenway from Assassin's Creed 3. He can and does a great number of stupid things in his desire to do the right thing with these flaws making him a more likable protagonist. Watching his empathic and sensitive nature clash with his own people's beliefs as well as those of other cultures is an enjoyable read. I also responded well to his very human desire to continue loving a woman he wanted to take as a wife but who was taken by another man. That is a plotline which transcends cultural boundaries.

    I also approve of John R. Furtz giving us a series of villains and complications for our hero to deal with. Tall Eagle has to deal with rivals inside the tribe, rival tribes, the expected evil Europeans (though they're, again, not European), giant monsters, and his own self-doubt. The author crafts a rich world full of strangeness and oddity that, nevertheless, feels quite grounded.

    I could easily see more books set in the setting without feeling like it was played out. The fact he managed to introduce concepts like aliens, alternate dimensions, and Cthulhuoid monstrosities without overwhelming poor Tall Eagle also shows he was pretty good at conveying information in a culturally appropriate context. When confronted with the fantastical, Tall Eagle reacts with astonishment but rolls with the punches.

    One area I was surprised by is that I really enjoyed the love story between Tall Eagle and White Fawn. We don't get to spend much time with either but their longing is conveyed in the few scenes they get together before things go to hell. I was actually surprised to find I didn't know where the story was going with them, especially when Tall Eagle's other love-interest was introduced. While I continued to root for Tall Eagle and White Fawn, the story kept me guessing and props for that.

    A small complaint I do have about the novel is the use of scalping by Tall Eagle's tribe as a method of dishonoring defeated enemies as well as ensuring their ghosts do not haunt them. The history of that particular technique has a long and ugly sort of history which I think would have been best avoided in this book. Otherwise, I have almost no complaints about his conception of his Fantasy World Native Peoples.

    This is a good book and while I would have preferred a more causal, less formal set of interactions for the characters, I note that actually wouldn't have been true to the practices of the tribes which inspired Tall Eagle's people. If you want a change from your usual fantasy diet of goblins, elves,, and guys in platemail you could a lot worse.

9/10

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Tales from the Borderlands: Episode 3: Catch a Ride review


    The third installment of gaming's most funny action-adventure series in at least five years.
Catch a Ride begins following the cliffhanger ending where Rhys must choose between trusting Handsome Jack and Fiona for who is going to get them out of their current predicament (which is being held hostage by Pandoran criminal August and Hyperion executive Vasquez). Really, I almost regret trusting Fiona because I think trusting Handsome Jack might have been funnier in this madcap exercise.

    We're about halfway through the Tales of the Borderlands episodes and the plot is shaping up to be that most archetypal of Borderlands quests: to find and loot a Vault. In a way, I'm almost disappointed this is what the game is about because they were doing a wonderful job keeping me interested in the characters without getting the Eridian's leftover junk involved.

He has forgotten he doesn't have a hand-blaster.
     One thing I liked about this installment is that it's possible to kill one of your enemies from the previous two chapters: Vasquez and August have proven to be incredible pains in the ass and villains you love to hate. When I was given the option to eliminate one of them, I seized upon the opportunity and was pleasantly surprised I could do it. I've often complained in the past about the inability to make meaningful choices in these games so this one amused me. I doubt the other candidate will live much longer but it felt good seeing it happen. [Note: I've been informed the character who dies always does no matter your choice--a pity.]

    Indeed, Catch a Ride is pretty good about following up on the emotional weight of previous episode's content. My Fiona chose to shoot her adoptive father Felix and, thus, lead to his accidental death at the hands of a Hyperion bomb. This allowed me to feel immensely guilty when a certain character's arrival triggers a revelation about the measures he took to protect Fiona and Sasha.

Vallory just doesn't have the inherent hateability of abusive-stalker August or rich douchebag Vasquez.
    We also get what I presume to be the "major" villain of the series in Vallory introduced. While she was foreshadowed in the previous episode as the force we should be watching out for, I wasn't really all that impressed with her character. Vasquez and August both had more intimidating introductions so discovering she's just another Pandoran crime-boss didn't really persuade me she's all that impressive. I was hoping we'd find ourselves set against whoever is in charge of Hyperion now but I suppose there's still a couple of episodes left for that.

    Another major character character introduced this time around is Gortys, who turns out to be our substitute for Claptrap. An adorable child-like robot, it speaks in a cute squeaky voice that seems designed to invoke paternal feelings in even the hardest hearts. However, frankly, I prefer the good-old Claptrap units and wish we had one of them join the party. While "our" Claptrap is supposedly the last of his line, there's nothing preventing our heroes from finding one and repairing it.

This makes sense in context.
    A character I didn't expect to play a big role in the game but who did was Athena, ensemble darkhorse of both the original Borderlands game (via DLC) and the Pre-Sequel. I'm not, honestly, a big Athena fan. When my favorite character, Lilith, decided to execute her in the Pre-Sequel, I was on her side because Lilith > Everyone Else on Pandora.

    Likewise, I'm not a huge fan of her fanbase, which tends toward the rapid. However, she acquits herself well and I like the relationship she has with Janey Springs as well as the option to realize her one-woman-war on the Atlas Corporation has passed to the amoral rather than vengeful. We also get a tie-in to the Pre-Sequel as Brick and Mordecai, two of my favorite Vault Hunters, come to collect her for the framing story from Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel.

     While I'm not one of those people who think Handsome Jack should be in everything Borderlands, I must say I'm really enjoying his presence in Tales (at least his A.I. clone). He's quite a bit more likable than the original version and watching him try to make friends despite being, you know, evil is delightful. I chose to have my Rhys make friends with his digital ghostly buddy and I hope they're able to take Hyperion back from, well, whoever the hell is presently in charge of it.

Not so much this.
    Catch a Ride's strongest appeal, indeed, is probably the fact we're actually allowed to see the characters of Rhys and Fiona change rather than remain the static archetypes they began as. Rhys gets a story arc with the option to pursue a romance with Sasha while Fiona realizes she has the potential to become a Vault Hunter every bit as deadly as Athena. Well, maybe not as deadly as Athena, but at least as deadly as the Fragtrap or Doppleganger.

    The zany comedic action of previous installments continue and I'm really starting to believe Telltale should continue this series past this game. They manage to capture the essence of Pandora and its quirky oddball fun. There were a few parts which were a bit slow but, overall, I find this section to be highly recommended.

9/10

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Time of Contempt review


    ‘Nothing. But what about Kaedwen, Dandelion? Why didn’t Henselt of Kaedwen come to Demavend and Meve’s aid? They had a pact, after all; they were bound by an alliance. But even if Henselt, following Foltest’s example, pisses on the signatures and seals on documents, and the royal word means nothing to him, he cannot be stupid, can he? Doesn’t he understand that after the fall of Aedim and the deal with Temeria, it will be his turn; that he’s next on the Nilfgaardian list? Kaedwen ought to support Demavend out of good sense. There may no longer be faith nor truth in the world, but surely good sense still exists. What say you, Dandelion? Is there still good sense in the world? Or do only contemptibility and contempt remain?’
    -Geralt of Rivia, The Time of Contempt

    The Time of Contempt is a really hard book to review which is ironic because, really, when I say that, I just mean it's a really hard book to review because of the last twenty pages or so when things go from a really-really well done book and my favorite in the series to super-super uncomfortable. For those who wish to know what precisely I'm talking about, I'll say a main character is sexually assaulted. There's some controversy about this event not just because it is happening to a fan favorite but also because of the event is depicted with questionable consent. The victim also rationalizes it away afterward.

    It is deeply ****** up.

    To be fair to Andrjez Sapkowski, it's supposed to be deeply ******* up. However, the age of the character as well as the bond which had been established between the reader and them is one that makes it doubly horrifying. Readers will probably be able to figure out which character suffers such if they continue on with this review so consider yourself warned.

    Except for the last thirty pages or so, The Time of Contempt is perhaps the best in the Witcher novels. It is a book which provides an immense amount of world-building to the Witcher universe. We get a multidimensional look at the Second Nilfgaard War's beginnings, progress, and horrors. We also get an expansive look at mage society in the North before the actions of Vilgefortz and Francesca Findabair destroy it. There are some great moments with Ciri, Yennefer, and Geralt as a family plus some great comedy.

    Also some truly terrible bits.

    A major theme is the terrible things people do in wartime as well as the moral compromises they make, which erode everything which is good about them. When Nilfgaard invades, the majority of nations lose their resolve to resist and fall over one another betraying their neighbors. Nilfgaard has re-envisioned itself as the "victim" of the First Nilfgaard War so they have begun engaging in large-scale atrocities to avenge themselves. A Sorceress betrays the Scoia'tael to be slaughtered by the North because it's the only way to guarantee her a crown and a homeland despite the fact it comes from a human monarch (which they were supposedly trying to resist).

    Geralt, Yennefer, Dandelion, and Ciri are the only ones to remain true to themselves.

    Well, no, Archmage Tissaia also remains true to herself.

    It just destroys everything good in her world because of it.

    The depiction of mage society in the Witcherverse is an intriguing one, for as long as it lasts. Mages in the North live lives of incomparable luxury and decadence compared to most people due to their powers and neutrality. They live forever, look beautiful, indulge themselves in nonstop sex, and can have fresh crab teleported in from the sea.

    They're also a major force in politics while never being threatened by it. However, the Nilfgaard War has split the mages in a way which is imperceptible. Some believe Nilfgaard's triumph is inevitable and others believe it should be resisted at all costs. The Old Guard of the Mages like Tissaia believe the idea is RIDICULOUS that mages would choose their homelands over their fellow sorcerers. After all, the North is full of evil tyrants and Nilfgaard is worse.

    So, why would they?

    Nationalism is a funny thing.

    I enjoy the depiction of Vilgefortz as well. While I initially took him to be a rather one-dimensional Jaffar-esque Evil Sorcerer, his conversations with Geralt really fleshed him out as well as the moment when he finally cut-loose with his wuxia staff skills. Vilgefortz is a self-made mage in a society of people who live lives of total privilege and had to build himself up from nothing. When he sees Geralt, he sees a kindred spirit, and there's perhaps something else there if I don't miss my guess (and Geralt is oblivious to). Watching Vilgefortz cut loose as the equivalent of Darth Vader in a world of squishy wizards was also damned impressive, bad guy or not.

    Ciri is a hard character to write about this time around since eighty-percent of the novel has her being one of the most adorable Young Adult characters in fiction. Watching her fight the "basilisk", her relationship with both her parents, her adventures with her unicorn, and other stuff lulls you into a false sense of security before going for the throat. It's an emotional gut punch, yes, but not one I really think which was necessary. I'm fine reading about trauma and torture but having it happen to a fifteen-year-old isn't high on my lists of enjoyment factors.

    The geopolitics of the book are well-done and a highlight. Aside from Westeros, I can't think of any book series which has done as nearly a good a job establishing the various powers and how they interact in the setting. Despite their limited screen-time, I got a strong sense for Foltest and Henselt and other major powers in the Continent. The fact Sapkowski was able to do it in a single book instead of an entire series of novels is a testament to his writing capabilities.

    Geralt and Yennefer are also people who deserve commenting on as they both have some delightful moments together. They are a fabulous couple, even if I prefer Triss in the games, and they're just entertaining to watch. I'm especially fond of their "date" where poor Geralt is forced to dress up for the Platonic ideal of the "rich person's party with no decent food and too much gossip." There are many couples deeply in love in fiction but very few who are entertaining to watch. Our heroes are always entertaining and you can tell both love Ciri more than anything else in their lives.

    In conclusion, I should give this book a 10 out of 10 but I can't because of the ending leaving me feeling queasy about the whole process. Many believe an author making you feel is something that should be lauded but, bluntly, I don't think an author making you feel lousy is a good thing.

8.5/10

Modern Testament review


    "Biblical beings, although ancient and iconic, struggle to be understood and find their place in today's society. Humanity has changed since their creation during the days of antiquity and they along with it. These tales chronicle them on their journey of self-worth and purpose. They're stories of discovery we're currently writing every day in our own Modern Testament."

    I don't often have time to read single issues of independent comics but a friend of mine, Frank Martin, was nice enough to share his recent work. Despite our friendship, I'm going to attempt to review this comic fairly before sharing a link to those who possibly want to pick up a copy.

    Modern Testament is an urban fantasy anthology which assumes Biblical mythology is true with angels, demons, God, and the Devil actively working behind-the-scenes in the modern world. The take on mythology is decidedly cynical, much like Kevin Smith's Dogma, in that while angels tend to be good they are not perfect nor are demons particularly evil. We only get three stories in the first comic so there's only a limited amount to say about the take but I enjoyed all three stories.

    I enjoyed the depiction of the various mythological characters with the first story dealing with a angel who needs to get his mojo back, a demon who possesses a young woman so he can bring their family back together, and the Horseman of Famine who is really irritated about the fact the world is so full of gluttony as well as excess. You can't go wrong with a demon who loves Al Pachino's Scarface is all I'm saying.

    Of the three stories, I'd have I liked the Horseman of Famine one the most. While not an enjoyable story, it was an effective piece of horror dealing from the perspective of a man who could not be reasoned with and was driven by alien evil impulses. The message about appreciating the benefits of our modern 21st century lifestyle while remembering it could very easily go away is a good one as well.

    One thing the three stories share in common is a general malaise about the state of the world and how humanity has seemingly left behind ideas of absolute good or evil. There's no point in tempting humans to sin if they're doing a fine job of it themselves and there's no point in doing good if they're just kind of coasting in mediocrity. The book isn't preachy as it doesn't depict these qualities as inherently WORSE than the binary Manichean lives of yesteryear. In short, it's more about angels and demons needing to change than humanity going back to the old ways.

     The art style of the book depicts a gritty world with realistic-looking humans contrasted to the heroic and monstrous nature of the Biblical divinities. It's interesting that the most vile and monstrous character in the book, Famine, is the most normal looking. He represents the darkest impulses of humanity compared to the more mischievous demon in "The Bad Guy" and heroic titular character of "Fallen Angel."

    The comic is only thirty-two pages so there's only so much which can be said but I enjoyed the art, the characterization, the mythology, the world-building, and the message. If it is expanded into a full-blown series or at least a graphic novel available on Amazon.com then I will certainly buy it.

9/10

Buy at Insane Comics

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Legend of Korra: Book 2: Spirits review


    I was a big fan of the first season of The Legend of Korra (reviewed here) despite the fact it had numerous flaws. Part of the issue was that Korra pushed the envelope in terms of storytelling with the relatively simplistic plotline of "Evil Empire versus Plucky Rebels" from A:TLA being replaced with a much more complex one involving class-relations as well as scapegoating.

    Which was good because more intelligent storytelling was always welcome but it was limited by the series' size as well as the need to keep it simple for its intended audience. Really, I wish they'd been able to do a full twenty-six episode series for the first season's story as it seems they could have gotten much deeper into the chaos of Amon and company.

    The second season, by contrast, makes things significantly simpler and not in a good way. There's a lot of very good ideas in Spirits but they're scattered unevenly throughout. The best episodes of the season don't involve Korra at all and are almost completely divorced from the main plot. The "issues" of the first season are thrown out the window for a straight fight between good and evil.

    Bluntly, Spirits just isn't very good.

WHAT!? YOU DON'T LIKE SEASON 2, CHARLES!? NO!
    The premise is Korra returns to the Southern Water Tribe a hero only to be torn between her family when her religious fundamentalist uncle from the North unilaterally takes over the kingdom with his advanced military. Korra tries to believe the best of her uncle but, quickly, finds out that he is involved in a complicated plot to reunite the spirit and human worlds in order to (what else) take over the world.


    Meanwhile, Bolin finds himself in a controlling abusive relationship with the Northern Water Tribe's princess before somehow ending up a world-famous actor in the newly-created motion picture industry. Asami struggles with the guaranteed bankruptcy of her company following the Equalist crisis while Mako tries to distinguish himself as a Detective.

    There's plenty of good moments in Spirits but they are dissonant as well as don't jell together very well. For example, I absolutely love the plot of Bolin becoming a movie (or "mover") star with the bits we see of his series being homages to the old Flash Gordon serials crossed with wartime propaganda. They are, quite possibly, one of the funniest things I've ever seen in any cartoon ever. Likewise, I love the character of Varrick, the sleazy Howard Hughes-esque Water Tribe billionaire who is trying to play all the various sides together. He's a bad person but, damn, if you don't want him to win anyway.

    Unfortunately, they're contrasted against the character of Unalaq being a one-dimensional charisma-less character who doesn't display any real emotion across the entirety of the series. He's vaguely evil right up until the point he becomes really evil and his plot doesn't really make any sense. If you're going to portray a character as an evil religious fundamentalist, perhaps you shouldn't make him the equivalent of a Satanist. Which, as I'll explain below, doesn't even make any sense in the world's mythology.

Unalaq is the worst kind of villain - the boring kind.
    Character development is also reset from the first season. Korra is back to being the same hot-headed and unsure of herself figure she was before. Worse, her relationship with Tenzin is unnecessarily hostile. Mako, Asami, and Korra are back to their original love-triangle, which just makes Mako look like an unlikeable cad. Even Bolin doesn't come off very good during all this since there's an extraordinarily ill-advised plot to make him a stalker after having him abused in a "funny" way by his unwilling fiance.

    The decision to move the majority of the action from Republic City to the South Pole was also a mistake. Republic City was such a dynamic and gorgeous setting that the relatively banal and monochrome South Pole is just a step down. Even the series seems to realize this as they quickly move back to Republic City for most of its subplots, all of which are more interesting than the main parts of action. The signature steampunk style of Korra is a major part of its appeal and this absent from the South Pole or Spirit World sections.

Hands down, the best element of Season Two. He knows it too.
     I will take a moment, more, to praise the character of Varrick. In a season which was largely lacking fun and zaniness, he was a breath of pure joy in every scene he appears in. The fact he turns out to be a villain was disappointing because, Aang dammit, he was just awesome. If they were going to make any character a villain, they should have made him either the main one or at least his primary henchmen because that would have given us more screen-time with the character.

    While I was initially excited to learn more about the spirits and the Avatarverse's mythology, the majority of them are one-dimensional monsters which just exist to be punched or be vaguely racist to humans. If these are the equivalent of the universe's gods, then they're not worth worshiping. The only time they really come alive and are interesting is during the two-parter about the First Avatar, which is an amazingly fun pair of episodes but distract from our main heroes too much. They also introduce a dualistic morality between a "Good" Ultimate Spirit and an "Evil" Ultimate Spirit which makes no sense in the cosmology.

     Despite that, the episodes "The Beginning 1 and 2" are a highlight of the series. They take us back to the prehistoric times of the Avatar universe and while things are not too disimilar in technology or culture, they show a world which absolutely horrific and alien for humans. Mankind is forced to live in isolated enclaves on the back of giant turtles as survival in the wilderness is almost impossible. The protagonist is a lovable rogue who evolves into an all-loving hero who becomes the perfect sort of man to serve as the host of the Avatar's spirit. These are must-watches for any Avatar fan and it's almost a pity we have to see them in such a weak season.

The introduction of a dualistic "evil" element to the Avatar mythology is dissonant and confusing.
     I think part of my problem with this season is the larger conflict between the Northern and Southern Water Tribes were lacking context. The Northern Water Tribe is clearly more economically prosperous as well as religious but we don't know what other sorts of differences exists between them. Important characters for explaining these sorts of differences, like Katara or her daughter, were noticeably absent from the series' plotline. The civil war plotline could have been removed without noticeably affecting the season (except, perhaps, to cut away some of the fat and leave more room for Varrick).

    In conclusion, I don't necessarily think Spirits isn't worth watching but I can't help but think you'd do better just to watch the Varrick sections on Youtube as well as the episodes, "Beginnings, Part 1 and 2." The rest of the season is well-done but just doesn't really resonate in any way which captures the fun of not only the original A:TLA or Legend of Korra. Thankfully, the next two seasons are back to form and then some.

5/10

Thursday, June 25, 2015

An essay by me on Dark Fantasy, Fantasy, and Grimdark


    I thought everyone might be interested in an article I did for Ragnarok Publications which deals with the various types of fantasy which exist and is a two-parter. Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, and Grimdark: The Underbelly of Dreams, Part I isn't very long but I think has some very cool bits.

    You can check it out here.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

My first interview for "The Rules of Supervillainy"


    I'm pleased to say that I've gotten my first interview out for The Rules of Supervillainy and, to a lesser extent, Esoterroism. Sonja Perrin was a great interviewer and I really enjoyed her questions about my books and writing.

http://slperrin.com/2015/06/interview-with-charles-phipps/