Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Waiting on Wednesday: Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien De Castell

Continuing on with our (ir)regular featured Wednesday meme of counting down to the releases of those highly anticipated books this year, we are fully jazzed about the upcoming conclusion(?) to the The GreatCoats series by Sebastien DeCastell from Jo Fletcher Books, Tyrant's Throne.
Falcio, Kest and Brasti, where will you guys go next ?

After years of struggle and sacrifice, Falcio val Mond, First Cantor of the Greatcoats, is on the brink of fulfilling his dead king's dream: Aline, the king's daughter, is about to take the throne and restore the rule of law once and for all.

But for the Greatcoats, nothing is ever that simple. In the neighboring country of Avares, an enigmatic new warlord is uniting the barbarian armies that have long plagued Tristia's borders--and even worse, he is rumored to have a new ally: Trin, who's twice tried to kill Aline to claim the throne of Tristia for herself. With the armies of Avares at her back, led by a bloodthirsty warrior, she'll be unstoppable.

Falcio, Kest, and Brasti race north to stop her, but in those cold and treacherous climes they discover something altogether different, and far more dangerous: a new player is planning to take the throne of Tristia, and with a sense of dread the three friends realize that the Greatcoats, for all their skill, may not be able to stop him.

As the nobles of Tristia and even the Greatcoats themselves fight over who should rule, the Warlord of Avares threatens to invade. With so many powerful contenders vying for power, it will fall to Falcio to render the one verdict he cannot bring himself to utter, much less enforce. Should he help crown the young woman he vowed to put on the throne, or uphold the laws he swore to serve?

Tyrant's Throne comes out on April 4th, 2017. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Defender by G X Todd

Defender is an eminently readable debut - remarkable in it's grey and dismal rendition of a dystopian world where people, hearing voices in their head, have all chosen to end their lives, making Earth a barren desolate landscape. Population is thus scarce in GX Todd's post-tragedy America and so that makes a lone traveler named Pilgrim who rides through this lonely landscape something of a rare breed - doubly so, because he has come to a sort of non-violent agreement with the voice in his head, which he refers to as Voice.

Their squabbles and arguments are colorful and so when the Voice convinces Pilgrim to stop at a roadside lemonade stand, for a teenage girl selling lemonade, Pilgrim just gives in without argument. And even decides to take her on as a passenger. The first human being he has spoken to, in one hundred fifty one days straight. While there is a premonition that warns him against this, he relents anyways and soon discovers, that Lacey - the precocious highly self aware girl, wants to hitch a ride all the way to a little town called Vicksburg in the next state, to reunite with her sister and family. Having lost her grandmother a few years back, Lacey has never stepped beyond her house or the small town she lived in - and so for her, this is the grand adventure she has been waiting for. Instinctively trusting this strong silent stranger to keep her safe and being naive, to the destruction of the world around her or the fact that humans have degraded to the levels of savages, on the brink of survival. This adventure ride soon becomes a edge-of-the-seat thrill-ride for their very lives when both run into this violent gang of survivors, led by a monster of man Charles Dumont who has been rounding up all folks with that 'inner voice' for a sinister purpose.

Defender, as is highly acclaimed by John Conolly and Lee Child, will slot in neatly in that shelf next to Stephen King's The Stand or even McCarthy's The Road. But it stands by itself in terms of the originality and the fresh voice. (pun intended) Todd doesn't waste time exploring or even bothering to explain to the readers, the cause of the apocalypse. Instead she focuses on the 'inner voice' that every body hears and is forced to listen to. The sardonic Voice inside Pilgrim and the interactions (petty squables!) between Pilgrim and Lacey makes for a very entertaining read, helping develop our perspectives of these characters. Pilgrim probably comes across as a trope we've seen before in apocalyptic books; The strong man of few words, much like Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, walking into a desolate town as the unchallenged new sheriff, a hard-ass yes but one with a heart of gold. A mystery man who holds his cards too close to his heart and the gaps in his memories, add to the unreliable narrative as events unfold like a house of cards, crashing down. Lacey is utterly lovable; her guileless innocence and complete trust in the goodness of the world makes us like her but we know, the world is going to rip apart this veil and toughen her up. There is tremendous growth in her character by the end of book one and we know, she is going to kick some serious ass in this series.

The first and second act of the book, are like jack-rabbits on steroid, leaping past you as pages fly and we are set on this inexplicable collision course with this mystery man called Dumont. Of further interest to us, is this enigmatic Flitting Man, a character we never meet and yet, pulls the strings behind the show of what Dumont and the evil Doc is trying to achieve.

There are no answers in this first book and that, in addition to the long- dragged out but shallow tying up of the climactic struggles in the third act of the book, actually mars the overall reading experience for something that should have been flat out brilliant. The prose is sharp and shiny, the narrative grim and grueling and the characters, that of Pilgrim and Lacey, are real and rounded. The use of the bleak imagery of this world as well as the blunt and shocking violence at times are all well justified in this thrilling debut and I cannot speak enough of the talent that GX Todd brings to this crowded genre.

There are still tons of questions lined up - especially about the Voice(s) and the future looks even grimmer and bleaker with the Flitting Man still at large. All in all, a refreshing debut that showcases a masterclass in the making, GX Todd's Voices series is a thrill-ride cleaving straight through dystopia and haunting voices inside your heard. Definitely one of the best debuts for 2017.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Movie Review: The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie actually came from nowhere, for me. I had not watched the Lego movie which came last year and so wasn’t really prepared for the outrageously funny jokes that lit up the movie, the writers riffing on everything the fantasy books/superhero comics ever threw at the large screen. The smart-alec quips, the ripping fast narrative and the depth of the characterization that came to fore was something pretty unexpected. I basically went because, the dark vigilante is my favorite superhero. (Yup: I own t-shirts emblazoned with him, Watches with his motif engraved into it, Car-Bumper Stickers with the bat-mobile motif. The works. And am not ashamed!) And I was happy to be landing back in the troubled Gotham city once more. The comic books and of late, the movies or even the TV Series set in this city, about the Batman or his fringe characters have all been exceptionally grim and dark. And so this personally for me, was a slam-dunk winner; watching a fast-talking highly intelligent child slapping his Lego toys together and then taking them apart, all the while chattering non-stop, coherent in bursts in a stream of consciousness that will knock you down with its imagination.

The Lego Batman Movie is smart, subversive and an animated ‘superhero’ spoof that even parallels DeadPool in terms of the irreverence and joke-a-minute intensity. It’s basically the brooding bat-vigilante like you’ve never seen him before. Jiggling up that tight cape a bit loose, letting his cowl down and letting it rip in rare moments of absolute beatbox-ey rhythm. It’s a pleasure to watch this version of a superhero, we’ve seen plumb the dark depths of stygian darkness in search of his own soul while crime-fighting to save his city. And this time too, make no mistake, he’s still got insecurities galore – and an army of villains landing on Gotham to take it apart but the manner in which he discovers himself, while saving the city, (And himself in that process) is such a brightly executed pirouette that would have the audiences jumping in glee and clapping. 

So in terms of narrative, it’s a straight forward storyline. Batman has to save the city of Gotham from the army of super villains, led by his arch-nemesis Joker. But this time, he’s not alone. The newly appointed Commissioner of Police, Barbara Gordon puts down the rules that it ‘takes a village’ to save the city and ‘not some unsupervised adult in a Halloween costume karate-chopping poor people.’ Which dents Batman’s plan for all the glory and fun to be coveted by himself. He needs to learn to work with Barbara – and join forces with the stiff-upper lipped Alfred Pennyworth, whom he refuses to acknowledge as a father figure and the incessantly persistent Dick, the orphan who longs to be ‘adopted’ by Bruce Wayne/ transform himself into an eager student/sidekick to the Batman (Robin!) even as Joker, who takes offense at the casual-handed apathy handed out to him from Batman, plots revenge. To be acknowledged as the greatest villain Batman has faced and is ‘obsessed’ with. This is a hilarious twist on the trope of the ‘star-crossed forever-lovers’ and Chris McKay and his team writers, given access to the entire treasure trove of Warner Bros characters, start going at it, with an unrestrained glee. The self-referencing gags in Will Arnett’s gruff voice, pouring irony and poker-faced sarcasm into every single line of Batman’s, are never-ending. 

Rosario Dawson voices the fire-brand ‘commish’ on whom Batman has a huge ‘crush’ while Ralph Fiennes gets on with the British-accented Butler and Michael Cera lends his voice to the geek-nerd ever-eager to please, Robin. The ‘spurned-enemy’ act of Joker is voiced to perfection by Zach Galifianakis, skewering to pieces the intense psychosis that Christopher Nolan built into his character. And no, we aren’t complaining. 

The finale act features fire-balls and explosions with the entire cast of villains from the Warner Bros vault coming out to play: Godzilla, Voldemort, Wicked Witch, King Kong, Gremlins, you name them. Oh hey and there is even Superman, voiced by Channing Tatum, ‘the superhero leader of the Justice League’ whom Batman despises and is jealous of. Fluid CGI on blocky Lego characters works really well. The action is non-stop and some of the stunts pulled were fascinating to watch on screen. But I think the best thing about the movie, is the carpet-bombing of cultural references from across the super-hero comic books and fantasy universe, nothing is safe as Batman and his cronies go all-out to prove that brooding is boring. 

So the Caped Crusader breaks out of his bat-rut, moves onto accept his greatest fear, of having/losing a family ( other than ‘snake-clowns’ which are not really a thing now!) and re-unites with his greatest villain, Joker in a city of Lego Blocks that can be put together, if we work together. Oh and I cannot help but share this, Batman going full-cheese-out with his horrendous yet funny one-liners during this fight-scene alongside Robin. 
“We’re going to hit them so hard that words that describe the impact are gonna spontaneously materialise out of thin air.” Kaboom! Pow! Wham! 

This, by far, is the BEST BATMAN movie I have ever seen. I shall stop with that.

And the music. Oh my God……Oh. I shall stop.

End Credits are usually in white.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Last Sacrifice by James A Moore

James A Moore is one of the three, in the Three Guys with Beards Podcast. Christopher Golden and Jonathan Maberry being the other two. Now I've read ONE book of each of these three guys. If I were to rank them, I would say I loved Jonathan Maberry best, Tin Men by Christopher Golden next and the open act of the Seven Forges series is the one I liked the least. Sadly, I didn't get back to finish the Seven Forges.

But then, I happened to come across the premise for The Last Sacrifice. Brogan McTyre, a warrior whose family gets sacrificed to appease the Gods, now decides to take the battle to entirely new level. He defies the Gods and challenges them. And this act has catastrophic consequences on the entire world, the angry Gods raining down hellfire and damnation on everybody. This sounded like one hell of a plot-line. Angry gods, their pets called Undying and some stubborn fool of a warrior, who doesn't know where to draw the line.

But when I actually started reading The Last Sacrifice, the first few chapters were a headlong rush of blood to the head. Brogan and his battle-scarred group of war mercenaries, on their way back home discover that his entire family has been taken away by the 'Grakhul' - messengers of the Gods in the mortal realm - to be sacrificed. Brogan, crazy with grief and anxious to save them, sets out to the very end of the world, to save them, aided by this group of loyal warriors, all of whom have fought and survived together, led by his best friend, a quiet and enigmatic man called Harper who has been the only mortal to have 'interacted' with this group called Grakhul. You would expect this quest to last over at least a hundred pages, in the traditional form of any 'fantasy' book. But the pace of the book takes you by the scruff of your neck and pushes your nose to the grind-wheel as things take flight.

The quest ends in a disaster in just over a few pages but Brogan's act of defiance in having stopped this sacrifice to the Gods ( and hence, the name The Last Sacrifice) angers the Gods and sets out a violent cataclysmic chain reaction that sees cities and empires being destroyed through floods, torrential rains, earthquakes and landslides. Brogan further defies them by kidnapping the entire race of 'Grakhul', pale-skinned northerners who are responsible for the sacrifices - and selling them off in slavery. The Undying or He-Kisshi, servants of these Gods, winged creatures of horror that defy explanations, are set out to retrieve the Grakhul. Bringing into the conflict, Slavers who had bought the 'goods'. And to make things complex, two of the intended 'sacrifices' escape from the Undying, grievously wounding one of the He-Kisshi that sets off a track for a personal vendetta.

All in all, it's certainly a combustible explosive mix of things that go around here, in this bleak, grim but gloriously realized world (Think of the Highlands of Scotland being ruled by dark violent whimsical Gods!) that James has created for the Tides of War. The pacing is just relentless Well, with a wide array of characters and the whole bloody world heading off the cliff you wouldn't expect less. While not preachy or heavy-handed, James touches upon thought-provoking stuff throughout this violent and darkly fantastic sword-and-sorcery drama - Like good men forced to do evil stuff in a world that's coming to an end. There are side-stories here that may well spin off another heavy tome of dark fantasy but James keeps it reined in, focusing on, chiefly - yes Brogan and his quest to kill Gods that took away his family but also on the other sub-plots that round off the apocalypse coming to a head.

If I had to pick some faults, then it would have to be with the wide array of characters, While we focus on Brogan's struggle, there are countless other plot-lines that seemed to distract. And not all of them tying in with the major story-arc. There are character names that seem too similar to each other and leading to fair amounts of confusion. The POV's switch around randomly and we don't get to spend enough time with each, except perhaps Brogan. Like for example, I would have loved to get inside Harper's head, a man given to smiles and a supernatural sense of calm in the middle of chaos. The slavers' angle really didn't gel so with me but comes with a gut-wrenching twist by the end that sets up for some amazing things in the series to come. And so with Myridia and the Grakhuls, making their way to the prophesied destination. But this is a tale where there are no 'heroes'. They are all 'humans', flawed to a fault and with well realized motives for all their actions. Even so, with the Undying!

To sum up, James throws in elements of horror, dark fantasy, low magic and some amazing world-building into this boiling mix that somehow seems to work. Spinning off the staid old genre story-lines into a new direction with this epic take on God versus Man, The Last Sacrifice is a solid start to the sordid grim-dark tale documenting the end of a bleak violent world. The lines between heroes and villains blur as Gods seek to end the world.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Movie Review: The Great Wall

The Great Wall was another one of those movie, where the trailer really did cover it all and the movie itself, didn't have much else to offer.

One of the biggest movies from China last year, director Zhang Yimou ('House of Flying Daggers') ties up Hollywood production values with Asian sensibilities to bring to life, one of the countless 'legends' about the staggering Great Wall of China in this movie - an epic fantasy adventure about mythical creatures that live in the North beyond the Wall who are out to annihilate the whole world - with the Wall and the Nameless order of brave, selfless soldiers the only protection against them.

The story arc brings nothing new - we've seen the barbarian from the west joining in on the fight to save the world, bringing his own cunning war tactics and selfless bravery to the fore in an Eastern setting. So the charismatic Matt Damon, William, a mercenary running from his past and in search of the elusive 'black rock' that could reverse his own down-in-the-dumps fortune, stumbles onto the Wall and the mysterious war that the world doesn't know. The Nameless order conscripted to patrol the wall and repel the advances of this intelligent race of demoniacal beasts ( Think of Orcs crossed up with Dinosaurs that communicate through their vibrating skins that trumpet complex signals!) that run riot, every sixty years. Will gradually gets indoctrinated to the ways of the soldiers, Trust or xin-ren forming the basis of his war, rather than money. The story leaps forward, in battle sequences, accelerating in size, scope and peril. Stakes keep mounting as the Tao-tie rise, locusts-like, swarming up the battle-ramparts of the wall, cunning and bestial at the same time, aiming to wreck havoc and eat anything up for the sake of their Queen.

The warfare sequences that forms the majority of the movie, is simply astounding. The fantasy elements, the inventiveness of the weaponry, the overall visual experience is a definite treat. Creative, stunning and very smooth. The drama however, falls a bit flat as the story-line follows predictable patterns and is a very familiar take on the monster-story. Matt Damon brings in depth and character yes, but too little, too late. The Chinese commanders remain just cardboard cut-outs with no backstories. There are brief moments of levity - especially the bonding between Matt and Pedro Pascal ( Oberyn Martell from the Game of Thrones), his buddy from the mercenary days whose sole aim is to get the black rock and flee back to his own country. This saves the movie from being a total expressionless disaster. Jing Tiang who plays the commander of the Crane Corps ( an all-female aerial combat specialists troop who take the first fight to the monsters, free-falling and diving down the ramparts of the Wall, armed with spears and harpoons! This by the way, was fucking awesome!) has the biggest story-arc among the Commanders and is the sole one, who can speak English and thus, connect to the barbarian and show him the ways of 'Xin-Ren' - and redeem his soul. But even she, appears wooden and stoic in close-up frames.

But for the watered down screenplay that tries to please a global audience, this Chinese visual spectacle would have been a wonderful import to the West. There is this climax scene, set in the Capital of the Kingdom as the monsters are running amok, the threat of a zombie apocalypse imminent and there is resplendent colored glass windows shattering inside these tall pagodas even as white balloons full of soldiers in the air, are exploding outside. This is so distinctly romantic - and Chinese. Only the Chinese can pull this off.

If you must see, then go. Not for Matt Damon but for some spectacular action set-pieces that combines Wuxia with Game of Thrones.