Thursday, July 21, 2016

Borderline by Mishell Baker

Disability in Fantasy is not a very popular topic - Not many authors, least of all debut ones, would choose to portray their main protagonist as one with any form of disability. Mishell Baker is a crow left of the murder, as she goes on to break several stereotypes with her smart and sensitive portrayal of her leading protagonist in her debut, Borderline from Saga Press, the opening book in the Arcadia Project series. As someone who suffers from borderline psychotic disorder and has lost both her legs in a failed suicide attempt, I thought Millie Roper, the leading character in Mishell’s book was going down the path of darkness and maybe, this one was going to be a grim, dark read. Yeah, well, this whip-smart urban fantasy proved me wrong. Borderline is slickly plotted and filled with such wondrous characters that I found myself drawn right into this grim but gloriously realized magic-filled world straddling the 'border' between humanity and the faeries. ( In fact after I got halfway through the book, I realized the name of the book wasn’t just about Millie’s psychological disorder but more about this line separating the two worlds.)

It's smart, sharp and engaging urban fantasy, redefining a genre I typically do not read much. But as written by Mishell Baker, Arcadia Project has become one of the shining stars of this genre and I will definitely be picking up anything she writes next.

So what is Arcadia Project? Without giving too much away, suffice to know that it refers to this supernatural division that controls the Gates between the two different worlds. Every human in this world has his/her Echo in the Fey world – while the fey world is about creativity and glorious innovations, the human world represents the greyer more disciplined versions of what the mind is capable of.

Millie, a suicide survivor living out her father’s inheritance at an in-patient facility, is recruited by Caryl Vallo from the Arcadia Project into this mysterious project that, Caryl promises would put her back in the glitzy Hollywood business – a past where she had dabbled unsuccessfully, having been a student at UCLA, done her stint as an indie director and then life had unceremoniously dumped her out, that too from the seventh floor. So Millie accepts, tamely packing her bag up and moving into one of the ‘hostel’ type residences, where script-writers, editors and other movie fraternity trying to get into the elite circles of Hollywood typically shack up. Little does she realize that the entire fraternity in her residence, are all special in their own ways. Her first assignment is to track down a missing ‘fey’ – who has not been going back to the world of Arcadia after his latest stint here. And with twists and turns in this investigation leading to one thing or the other, Millie realizes she’s way in over her head in this complicated conspiracy that begins to unfold. Therapy sessions and checklist instructions for her disorder, don’t feel adequate enough to get her back on her feet. (pun intended!)

Millie Roper is a breath of fresh air. Seriously, with her BPD that Millie uses as a shield from the world, unpredictability and smarminess are wielded like a club against anyone who hurts her (inadvertently) she makes for a very colorful first person narrative. Her snarky comments are sharp enough to flay the skin off your back and yet her wild swings of the mood, make you feel bad enough for her. Unflagging sense of self-awareness and untiringly result-oriented, gutsy and gritty Millie sure won my heart. An incredibly flawed and realistic protagonist who doesn’t know when to let things lie and doesn’t let her list of disabilities (and a long one at that!) come in her way of achieving her goals. There are dark moments, when she breaks down and searches for herself in dark spaces inside her mind but overall, the tone is fun, light and not didactic at all. We are not treated to any inspirational cures for Millie’s own disabilities.

But apart from this wholly realistic and fresh portrayal of the BPD, Borderline is an engrossing urban fantasy set in the glitzy corridors of the moviedom. Los Angeles is present in all its made-up fa├žade, bright studios, larger than life movie-sets, the unflattering ambition barely cloaked that runs through its streets ( There’s this scene where a die-hard fan scriptwriter chases a very famous director down the pacific highway just to get him to read his script! Happens only here!) So story-wise, it starts off as a missing person hunt that soon turns on its head as magic and evil seeps in through that murky border between our world and the Arcadia. Millie’s friends in this investigation, part of the Arcadia project in LA, are all well realized fantastic characters, each of them with their own inner demons and a fascinating backstory to tell. I loved Teo, the latino boy who loves cooking and is Millie’s partner. Their constant bickering and banter makes for some really sparkling dialogues in the plot. And Caryl, damn – where do I start about her. A cold young genius whose Reasonable mind is separated from her Emotional mind, locked up as a dragon ‘familiar’.

I loved the ideas explored in the book, as in the creativity genius that is set off because of ‘Fey’ interaction. Mishell cheekily throws in references, like Walt Disney who probably brought the best in him as he would have joined up with his Echo from Arcadia. For the refreshing ideas, the bold portrayal of a central character with BPD, the snappy dialogues and the amazing set of well-realized characters, Borderline is a thoroughly entertaining, original work of fiction that is a must-read. I absolutely loved it and cannot wait to get back into the corridors of Hollywood with this firecracker of a character, called Millie Roper. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Daredevil - Season 2: My Thoughts

Just finished the final episode of Daredevil Season 2 from Netflix. And I am in bit of a dilemma, as to whether I liked it better than the first season or not. After much deliberation with the magic of that brilliant finale fading from my memory, I decide, not.

So, the Man who knows no fear, the masked vigilante who's  so in love with his city, Hell's Kitchen of New York is back cleaning up the streets at night, after having put his biggest nemesis, Wilson Fiske behind the bars in that stunning first season - that impressed the shit out of me, as a viewer. In fact, I remember I had binge-watched the same, back to back, night after night and couldn't wait for Season-2. Now, that I am finally done with it, though, I cannot say I feel the same level of breathless, frenetic enthusiasm for the franchise.

This is not to say, that the Season 2 wasn't great. It was more of a see-saw for me - and the giant void left by the exit of Daredevil's biggest villain, Wilson Fiske ( Played, ah so admirably well by Vincent D'Onofrio) is now trying to be filled by two new entrants - the comic-enterprise's much loved/loathed characters of Elecktra and The Punisher, Frank Castle. The season has its moments - some of the terribly slick and claustrophobic and utterly mind-blowing action sequences when it comes to the slug-fest. But here, despite having a crowded character-cast with Punisher and Elektra clamoring for the screen-space along with Daredevil and his older cronies, Karen Page and Foggy Nelson, the episodes don't quite level up to the same intensity and pure adrenaline-rush excitement that I felt for Daredevil's maiden outing.

Yes - he's got his leather outfit done. Yes, he get's new weapons. And yes, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal in a true-to-form blunt, gruff and maniacally driven role of the ex-marine who turns into the crimelords' worst nightmare in the streets) is as trigger-happy and menacing and brutal in cutting down the goons, as we thought he should be ( this, in complete contrast to the catholic, extremely guilt-ridden Matt Murdoch, who flinches from taking a life that is so against the very principles of his life) - Elektra (Elodie Young, a late entrant in this season, nevertheless lends gravitas and enough mysterious aura to the role of Elektra, the girl with anger issues and no such compunction against outright blood-letting and murder) is kick-ass, exotic and charmingly deadly. And yet, all of this somehow comes up a little short.

But hey, the show continues to live up to the raised bar it set for itself when it comes to the bone-crunchingly realistic action choreographs, there are several scenes in this one that matches (or tries to), that single-take hallway fight scene pretty early up in the last season. While Frank is content to blow up things sky-high with his guns, just messily exploding heads, cutting a bloody swathe through the criminal fraternity - from a distance with his sniper rifle, Matt joins up with his ex-flame Elektra out in the streets, on star-lit rooftops, in claustrophobic railway tunnels - in beating up the bad guys. And there are just several of them - a sort of cult, known as The Hand that sends armies of trained sword-wielding Ninjas to finish them off. Makes for some amazing hand-to-hand hard-hitting grunt-action that livens up the show to its full glory.

The inherent charisma of the actors still lends shine to the whole franchise. Charlie Cox is just phenomenal. The hurt, the confusion, the vulnerability, the simmering anger and the brooding. It's all still there in his portrayal of the red devil and while upstaged for a bit in the beginning of the season by the heavy introduction of both Bernthal and Elodie, he comes right back into the game by the end. And we're heaving and screaming right behind him in those final scenes, anguish and pain and anger portrayed equally well by Cox.

Karen and Foggy fight their own battles - Karen, played by Deborah Ann Wol switches between a journalist stepping into the empty shoes of Ben Ulrich, the now dead reporter and the legal assistant to Nelson and Murdoch. There are sparks in the middle between her and Matt but the ever murky conspiracies and secrets surrounding Matt's night life quickly douses this out. On Nelson and Murdoch front, there are cracks in the friendship. Matt's conscience does not let him give up his vigilante role when asked by his best friend to do so. Foggy's character has lesser goofy lines and is more mature, Eden Hensen thus losing out trademark wit that defined his character so well. He is relegated to playing the hurt-and-spurned friend who whines about most stuff. The show directors bring back Fiske for a mid-season revival but the excitement is only short-lived. We definitely hope to see more of the charismatic Vincent D'Onofrio soon.

The pacing is a bit off-kilter and the steam is letting off by mid-season when Frank Castle's character has been arrested and is going to be facing trial. The twists and turns of the courtroom drama fail to hold the same level of interest as the slug-fest drama out in the nights of Hell's kitchen. But a new evil arises in Hell's Kitchen, some old enemies resurface and Matt's past comes back to haunt him. The series ends in a very satisfying manner though, with promises of a crackling season three for sure.

There is a lot going on here in the second outing - and not all of it, is balanced and makes for great story-telling. But now, with enough super-heroes in the arsenal, we hope the season-three only takes off to greater heights. The show still has a lot of promise and the intrigue and mystery is built up well enough. While I don't think the show matched the ballyhooed greatness of its maiden outing, Daredevil is still one of my favorite shows ever. Here's to another brooding, punchy powerful outing for the Man who knows no fear. and hey, get Fiske out of that goddamn jail soon!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Red Queen's War: Book One & Two - Mini Review

So I know, last month the Red Queen's War officially came to end - with the third book in the series, The Wheel of Oshiem having got released. And this was the one series where people were raving that put Mark Lawrence on a pedestal, higher than what he achieved with his first series, the Broken Empire. And you know, how much of a scream that kid, Jorg Ancrath was. I had grown to like him.

Here's where I will let you in on a secret - I love Mark Lawrence simply because he is one of the few authors who inspires me to write better. His writing chops are top notch. Be it the razor-sharp story-telling or the brilliant characterization or the lucid narrative that is so riveting and compelling that you cannot help but be amazed and carried away in the flow - and you overlook the fact that perhaps, the story is a bit too dark and grim. With his second series, Mark's definitely taken care of that aspect, the complaints around grim-dark.

Prince Jalan Kendeth, the prince of fools story is much lighter in its tone and is unlike, Jorg's story dotted and splotched with that dreary darkness. It's almost a happy story. But hey, it's the Broken Empire we are speaking of. Where there is always a war going on. And this time, the womanizer and sybarite prince who loves nothing better than his wine, women and wagering gets unwittingly dragged into something way over his head. A fight - that has his grandmother, the terrifying Red Queen ( Mark - Refer to Alice in Wonderland, much?) pitted against the mysterious Lady in Blue and an old foe, we've encountered before, the Death King. The stakes are much above his measly pay-grade as the prince, tenth as heir-in-waiting to the throne. But Jalan's fate is tied up with that of a Northman, Snorri Ver Snagasson, a man hell-bent on avenging the death of his wife and kids at the hands of another set of vikings, perhaps at the bidding of the Death King. It so happens that the Silent Sister, a sorceress whom nobody can see (except Jalan!) and who advises the Red Queen on matters of the rule, has woven a magic that binds Jalan with the light and Snorri, with the dark, and them bound to each other. Which means they've got to be together to ensure they survive beyond this sorcery.

But of course, this is all a ploy in a much larger wheel that has been set in motion. While book-one focuses on the long and perilous journey Jalan and Snorri undertake, to go to the icy freezing North to bring the fight to the Red Vikings who had raided Snorri's village and killed his family, the larger plot of Red Queen versus Blue Lady is held at bay. However, Book Two is where Mark really unfurls the larger conspiracies that are turning in the background. A set of well-placed flashbacks reveals the Lady Blue's hand in moving against everything that the Red Queen is trying to protect. And of course, secrets about the Silent Sister's past come spilling out. Highly entertaining stuff, absolutely mesmerizing story-telling - Mark hits the strides pretty well, fleshing out this series so beautifully.

Jalan makes for a wonderfully entertaining first person narrative - coward, cad and utterly selfish, his revelations and philosophies in life are simple and straightforward. Its the honesty that made him appealing to me as a character. And of course, the humor lightens the tone and kept me in splits throughout. His constant misadventures were a delight to read. But Jalan, who in the beginning, comes across as a uni-dimensional 'tool' of a man, slowly reveals his stronger character towards the end of book-one. Berserker, a name that rests uneasy on his conscience, about how in the face of fear and danger, he could transform into a wrecking machine. But of course, in typical Jalan fashion, he remembers nothing of this and prefers to cloud over his memory about events that he is uncomfortable associating with. This trait of Jalan is a crucial plot-point as several things about Jalan's past gets revealed slowly through Book-two and we know, that Jalan is in fact, the right choice by the Silent Sister to carry her magic and perhaps, be up to the 'task' that Red Queen and her 'advisors' are looking to get done.

That brings us to Snorri - a fiery and fearsome Viking who bellows for the gates of Valhalla every time and whose response to any kind of danger, is to heave up his axe and run headlong into it - is a full-blooded hot-headed warrior, alright. He lives up to the repute of a typical viking in the beginning chapters. But as things slowly turn from bad to worse, (And this is the genius of Mark Lawrence!) we creep under the blanket of bravado to know the real man. A loving husband and a doting father, under the influence of the darkness that surrounds him because of the magic/curse, we sense changes in the big man. He's a man with the big heart and I absolutely loved his characterization in book-one. In spite of being called the Prince of Fools, the first book really belonged to Snorri. His raw anguish at having lost his loved ones, the no-holds barred charges straight into the mouth of danger, be it necromancers, the unborn or the red vikings fortress - all of it paints the picture of man who has loved and lost everything he has treasured in life. And we understand his burning desire for revenge.

Jalan and Snorri make for a merry pair, they play off each other really well and this kept the tone and pace of the story going at a steady clip. We hit a rough note by the middle of the second book, when these two part ways - and I thought, this was where the pacing fell off the wheel. When Jalan alone makes off for the City of Umbertide, having washed off the sins and the magical curse of the Silent sister and wants to make his fortune with the trade assets assigned to him, by his grand-uncle, the Red Queen's brother. We get entangled in the murky debts of bankers and the fear of clockwork soldiers who protect the assets (the legacy of the Builders still at large!) and I thought Mark had lost his plot a bit. But fear not, as several plot points converge after that. Book Two is chiefly about Loki's Key that Jalan and Snorri capture, at the end of Book One. And Snorri's obsession with bringing back his family from beyond the door of Death, is tied up with this Key. a key that is said, to be open any door.

Several new players enter the fray - Karra, a dark-sworn sorcerer, Tuttugu the jolly viking who's the last of the Undoreth tribe of Snorri and Hennan, a kid whose life gets turned upside down when Snorri and Jalan turn up at his doorstep. ( Near the Wheel of Oshiem, no less!) They only add to the crackling dynamics of the story and kept it on the boil, throughout.

The story is headed for a dramatic finale - with The Wheel of Osheim and I cannot wait to get behind that Door ( you know which one!) The second book is more brooding - and darker, not just keeping in with the conspiracies thickening and the multi-layered plotlines now becoming visible, but also keeping pace with Jalan's character development. More mature, serious perhaps and focused. Yes he is Jalan and so he dithers from committing full fledged to any course of action that doesn't see him safe and sound, but there is hope yet. The story is heading off a cliff - and Mark's masterful turn of the phrase keeps us turning the pages even faster. The Wheel is turning, aye - and the world is headed for a big fall but it may be a fall that tests the strength of one such as Jalan. And I would definitely want ring-side seats to watch that turn of events.

Seriously guys - if you haven't read the Red Queen's War, you don't know what you are missing, as a fan of this genre. Mark is doing something scintillating to the Fantasy genre - and you must experience it. Red Queen's War maybe, a better series than even the Broken Empire. It's an absolute berserker scream of a sequel to a book, that carried the weight of expectations after a thrilling debut series - and then heaves it all away, in a show of masterclass. Mark Lawrence, take a bow. You've stamped your class in this world with this series.

(P.S: I would give up my right hand to write like this thorn guy. but then I'm right handed, and then I couldn't write huh? ) 

Monday, July 4, 2016

Well Hello July!

July marking the beginning of the second half of the year, is another manic month of releases - and in a way I realize, this year is going to be one of my worst years in terms of reading/reviewing. I am already at least 10 books behind schedule with respect to my goal. And to add to that, I have decided to focus and finish off this one trilogy by one of my all time favorite authors, Mark Lawrence ( The Red Queen's War ) - am so mired into that universe of the Red March and the Broken Empire, that I am forcing myself to slow down - to relish not just his beautiful writing but the amazing depths of the world that Mark has built - a sort-of post-apocalyptic world, where the Builders' artifacts turn up surprises and shocks quite a few times, lending a new twist to the storyline. But enough of Prince Jalan Kendeth and his world - Back to some of the books in July that I am looking forward to ( and I am consciously keeping this list a bit short, so to focus on my backlogs as well in this month) :

The Waking Fire by Anthony Quinn

His first series, that started with The Blood Song began phenomenally well - I however, haven't finished it after I read the second book. Inspite of being a bigger book, Tower Lord somehow didn't retain the same magic for me. The Queen of Fire, was set to begin after a cliff-hanger in the second book but i haven't got around to it yet. This one, however, is the start to a new series that promises the sky and some more!

The Ghoul King by Guy Haley

I enjoyed the novellas - the first in this Dreaming Cities series by Guy Haley, set in a post-apocalyptic earth of angels, knights and dragons in a world gone to rot, was a very intriguing opener to a tale that had me asking a lot of questions. perhaps, the continuation of the tale will help me with those answers. So Ghoul King, yes - am in!

The Red Queen by Christina Henry

Last year's Alice by Christina Henry ended being one of the top ten books I had read and enjoyed, to my immense surprise. The world is set, the characters well realized and Christina's writing is fervent and frenzied, just like the Hatter's brain. Would love to see where the bloody story ends up.

Nightshades by Melissa F. Olson

Heard great things about this urban-fantasy novel and the first few pages showed a lot of promise! So this is on my plate for sure. Plus I haven't tried any of Melissa's novels before.

What books are you reading in July  ? 

The Girl With All The Gifts – Official Trailer

Well, the full trailer is finally out!
What do you think? [ Personally, am disappointed with the casting, a little.]  While I went absolutely nuts about the book ( I had just discovered the wonderful genius of MR Carey and was trying to find out all books written by him! ) I am bit wary about the movie. It shouldn't end up being just another zombie movie - because, hey it is NOT about the zombies. And I hope it does justice to the mind-blowing and mind-fuck-of-an-ending in a book.