Monday, July 30, 2012

Acacia: One of the Best Realized Secondary Worlds Ever!

Anthony Durham David is no stranger to history – Having gained fame through his historical fiction, “Pride of Carthage”. And this time around, he brings in his entire skills at historical fiction and momentous research skills into this new epic fantasy series – Acacia – beginning with the War with Mein – an wickedly fascinating fantasy tale with set in a wonderful secondary world, the scale of which I have never seen in a long time. Never have I loved a world so rich, so visceral, with back stories, histories and steeped in detailed folklores that vary from place to place within the Known World. The last I fell in love with the entire setting of a fantasy novel – was perhaps, Westeros or harking even further back, maybe the Middle Earth. The Known Worlds of Acacia comes very close. In its scope, richness and depth. 

Not to say, it’s just the world-building that is master class in this book. Durham’s got it right when it comes to the complex characters, thunderous battle and action scenes that take your breath away and above all, his easy prose that is so good that it borders on the literary without weighing down the plot or the story. His prose – while not exactly first person narrative – mostly from a third party POV helps excel in drawing out the surroundings around characters, creates the vivid visceral images of the happenings.
It’s epic in all manners – spanning across two generations of the Akaran dynasty tracing the lives of the four royal children as they grown up in the shadows of war and hostile conquest, burdens of a world changing spell or curse hanging heavy on them and promises of something even more spectacular to unfold in the following books as Durham hints at mysterious races outside of the Known World that might converge on and destroy it. The plot rolls along, said from the POV of the four children – split into 3-parts - part-one deals with “King’s Idyll”, part-two fleshes out the “Exile” and part-three brings all threads to a shattering climax.

I had read this  book a while back - but realized had stopped it midway as I found it too slow and plodding ( beset as I was with this maniacal desire to finish Erikson, sadly still pending!) I picked it up again recently - now that the series is complete and found out to my delight, what a wonderful gem this is.

Part-1 is probably the slowest, as Durham introduces the various sub-plots in action here and painstakingly draws up the canvas on which the Known World exists – he does this brilliantly peppered with myths, legends and folk tales that throws up the picture of a land steeped in history, this also gives us a lot of juicy titbits which we desperately want to follow, but the pacing pulls us up and forces us to sit back and go along with the royal children’s lives. So Aliver, Corinn, Mena and Dariel are growing up within the confines of the Acacian Palace in a kind of idyllic existence unawares of the storm gathering outside. The Storm is the race of men called Mein – whose ancestors have been slighted and driven away from their original homelands by the Akaran ancestors and are bristling and preparing for revenge for a really long time. It strikes homeland in the form of an assassin who kills the beloved king Leodan and sets in motion a huge war. Meins sweep through Acacia and their chieftain Hanish Mein takes control of the Acacian kingdom. 

Part-2 and 3 are excellent in terms of plotting, action and closure – personally I loved part-2 much better where the action and plots peak up to dizzying levels only to plunge sharply down and pick up to higher levels by the end of the book. It picks up nine years later and deals with the children or grown-ups now, in exile - the different men or women they have grown up into. Aliver who has transformed into this formidable warrior and who personifies the prophesy that he has to grow into, Corrin remains back at the palace, and unwittingly transforms into Hanish’s lover. This was one hell of a character – Corrin and in terms of growth and conflicts, you wouldn’t find a better written role ever. Her conflicts, confusion and transformation was some of the best written scenes, for me. But the character I most enjoyed was Mena. She grows up in an island archipelago – called Vumu – having taken on the role of a priestess and embodies the “Maeben” – an angry goddess of the sky. She grows into this part, the rage and violence searing into her personality and changing her forever. I just loved this spunky priestess. Kick-ass personalization here. The youngest prince, Dariel also has enough heart-stopping action moments, having grown up to be an infamous sea-raider. I found this part exhilarating following the various adventures they are part of. Part-3 is when the strings are drawn closer – with the help of Council man Thaddeus Clegg who brings together the four kids in the titanic struggle to put an end to the Mein rule.

An epic in all sense, Durham has satisfactorily concluded the conflicts presented in the first part, leaving us with tantalizing hints about momentous stuff to follow. I, for one, will be taking the plunge.
Loved this book one – already started with book-two and loving it so far. Four and a half stars.

Monday, July 23, 2012

The Staggering Epic Concludes with the Rise of the Dark Knight!

As the credits rolled past with the haunting “Batman” soundtrack developed by the inimitable genius, Hans Zimmer, playing in the backdrop – I couldn’t help feel sad. Sad that this colossal movie franchise has finally come to an end. And what a conclusion to one of my all time favorite movie trilogies! Everything that I looked for in a series conclusion.  Darker, more fantastic with the action amped up to beyond the “maximum” level, with a hero that your heart bleeds and cheers for. A massive, grim and brutal conclusion, but a satisfying one nevertheless.

What began with an eponymous low-key start in the “Batman Begins” took on spectacular mind-boggling proportions with the second installment, “the Dark Knight” that just blew the minds off people, taking the bar to an entirely new level. Nolan’s been known for his intelligent movies, movies that tickles your grey cells and of late, made on fantastic budget – huge beasts meant to boggle your minds and transport you with visions of catastrophe of apocalyptic proportions and final redemptions. He belongs to the rare few who have tackled the post-9/11 terrorist issues on such a grand scale while keeping in with the sensitivity and gone on to make box office blockbusters out of them. This movie keeps in with the tradition.
So an out-of-shape ( a physical invalid and a mental wreck) Bruce Wayne has taken retirement after his girlfriend, Rachel got killed eight years ago by the raving maniacal Joker and his alter ego, “Batman” has been cast as a criminal in his own hunting grounds, the murder of citizen’s hero “Harvey Dent” being thrust on him. And nothing can force this A-class mopper to come out of hiding.
Well almost nothing – Selina Kyle, a slinky super sexy cat burglar (played by the charming and talented Anne Hathaway, one of my favorite actresses) decides to hit the Wayne Manor for a seemingly small burglary and this sets off an interesting confrontation between her and Wayne. In spite of obvious differences between two, the attraction and sexual tension that crackles in the air is unmistakable and we get the feeling, this is going to carry on further.
But Selina has mixed up with the wrong side of the law and leads Wayne to the sinister and pure evil personified “Bane” – the antagonist of the movie, played by Tom Hardy – a slab of muscle with a wicked looking respiratory-mask that digitally alters his voice and helps him breath normally – who by the way, does get a brilliant opening scene – very similar to Dark knight for Joker – where the entire atmosphere is tense and broody – like the rainclouds gathered over a mourning  and his brutal brooding self is thrust onto the audience. 

Bane is holed up in the sewers of Gotham city with his terrorist brethren and planning on a “Revolution” – the scale of which has not been witnessed before. Indeed - by the end of the first forty-five minutes – when we see Gotham crumple into anarchy and terrorism, collapsing into rubble and dust – we realize we haven’t seen an annihilation of a city on this grand a scale. The football ground caving in with the explosions resounding while the lone player outruns his unlucky comrades sucked into the bowels of the earth – was one helluva scene. The mournful soulful anthem sung before the explosions creates the sense of looming disaster, a kind of fearful anticipation for the apocalyptic reckoning that Gotham is treated to. Fantastico! 

With his city going under the control of the total psychopath Bane – Batman has no other option but to swing back into action on his bat-Mobile – this time, he gets company in the form of earnest newbie cop, Blake (fresh faced Joseph Gordon Levitt – a terrific performance by this talent powerhouse!) and old friend, commissioner Gordon (Gary Oldman reprising his role, almost ghost-walking through the movie as it’s the third time he is playing the same role with same expressions of self loathing, confusion and fear)A word for Gordon Levitt : Spell binding performance, as with the earlier movies, even this one is full of tortured souls and earnest cop Blake plays it to the core: an orphan who looks up to Batman and who understands the “anger” that seethes beneath the fa├žade. Among a force of timorous cops, he stands out as the man who knows no fear (a pun on our leading hero J )
Only Marion Cotillard was the weak link in this shining armor: she definitely was not cut out for the role written for her which in itself was not truly convincing –She plays Miranda Tate, a board member on the Wayne Enterprise, and small time lover for rich boy Wayne.
As with Dark Knight, Nolan uses a similar ploy in this movie – where he plunges us and the heroes of Gotham city into the stygian depths of hellish hopelessness (here, pictured as a prison within the bowels of earth where Bane was brought up and where he escaped from – into which he puts a broken bodied Batman) and then in the final act, brings us back to the surface where hope and redemption shines through brilliantly. My only concern was that Bane, while bringing his own share of unadulterated evil and persona to the screen, definitely was not up to the bar set by Joker. While Joker’s vendetta against Batman was more of a cerebral nature and he enjoys the games against Batman, Bane vs. Batman was more of a slugfest – shuddering, bone-crunching and extremely physical. 

All said, this movie brings about an emotionally satisfying conclusion to the trilogy – a plausible movie glossed over with lot of breath-taking CGI effects, toys bigger than ever, villains meaner than ever and a hero that rises out of the gloomy smog of evil that encapsulates our favorite city Gotham. A smash hit for sure. Four and half stars out of five!

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Book Review: The Kings Bastard

Australia has had numerous imports into the world of fantasy - Karen Miller, Glenda Larke ( Stormlord Series ) Rowena Cary Daniels comes from the same lineage of such illustrious authors. And this marks the debut of an ambitious series. I know I'm late to the party as this book came out a few years ago, Rowena has gone on to write some fairly explosive stuff as follow up on this one, making her a major figure in the fantays literay landscape but this definitely ain't gonna be on my A-lister. It's a solid effort no doubt and I enjoyed it to a fairly large extent. But I do have some reservations. Maybe blame the forces of Joe Abercrombie or some of the publishing houses like Night Shade Books that pack a punch with some noteworthy debuts that literally force you to drop very thing else and get sucked into them. So when recommendations on Goodreads mentioned this as a "Good Book" naturally my expectations were pretty sky high.

Coming down to the book itself, standard High Fantasy tale rife with court intrigue, a delightful system of magic and a lot of wonderful new magical beasts : That is probably how I would remember this one.The story is set in the kingdom of Rolencia where winter is ending and with change over of seasons, the walls between different worlds is thinnest and magic from the other worlds, known as Affinity is seeping into this world. Courtesy Affinity, the kingdom of Rolencia is full of magical beasts, most dangerous and deadly. the story is mainly told from the POV of three major characters, the Kings children : Byren Kingson, the twin brother to the heir, Lence, their younger brother Fynns who has Afinity and hence has to be brought up in the Abbey, something akin to the Shaolin Monks Where they are taught to control the magic and become the chief fighting force for the kingdom. And the youngest, fiercely loyal Piro, a young firecracker of a girl all of thirteen but already devious and clever enough to meddle into the Kings political affairs. Into this pretty family comes the Kings Nephew from a brother earlier disowned by the king, Illnien Cobalt, spreading poison into the this tranquil household. tension developes as Lence, the heir gets influenced by their cousin and starts to develope megalomaniacal delusions of grandeur.

I like my fantasy drenched in blood and gore, politicking and intrigue is fine as long as it builds up to a fine climax soaked in blood and some body count. But well, while Kings Bastard has its fair share of action, it sorely lacks the punch. The opening chapter itself starts with a hunt and a prophesy, setting things up pretty nicely for what was to follow. Easy lucid and fresh writing - Clearly writing dialogs and plotting is Rowena's forte. And in spite of some wayward writing and clear lack of logic at certain instances, I was swept into the narrative. A cornerstone of any fantasy tale is the world building and Rowena handles this pretty adeptly, giving us back stories and explaining titbits of this strange magical world, while leaving us with some juicy bits to be explored, am assuming in the forthcoming titles. A major grouch for me was the character building. While its straight forward as to who the negative characters are, the "heroes" aren't that impressive. Byren obviously has the Lin share of responsibility to move this story forward and is easily the character that was s up to win the readers heart, I found him a little too boring. earnestly straightforward, too strong and too much of a winner, with most things going right for him. His younger brother Fynn is probably more of an interesting character snce he's got mountains of problems to deal with. stuck alone in n Abbey where the other other boys and even some monks are set to make life difficult for him. Piro is clearly Rowena's tribute to GRRM's Arya Stark. Modelled very closely on the young firebrands character from Song of Ice and Fire.

Enough said, she provides for some interesting conflicts and gets the plot racing forward. don't get me wrong - this probably is like a miniature GRRM in case of the court intrigue, but minus the fantastic action that GRRM revels in. and that for me, was the dampener. for me, if characters stop their fights to start talking mushy nonsense, I would rip their heads away. You are in the middle of a bloody sword fight, you gotta conserve our breath and get out or get killed. You don't stop to talk!!!! anyways, a decent read if you are getting into this Genre. two and a half stars.