Category Archives: fantasy

Dear Hollywood: Stop Doing It Wrong!

So it seems like names are already being thrown around for Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit. I’m sure the studio has already compiled a list of actors currently appearing in teen dramas on The CW to compete for the role of Bilbo Baggins.

We can all agree that there’s only one person out there who can play Bilbo (played in Jackson’s original trilogy by Ian Holm)…

And, that person is…

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Rome, Tolkien Style

I have a problem with fantasy. Actually, that’s not entirely true. I think what I really have a problem with is epic fantasy.

In theory, I should love anything with magic, swords, monsters, and ridiculously heroic types. In theory. But, much like Communism, I find that epic fantasy works much better for me in theory than it does in practice. Thankfully, when I need a magic or monster fix, I can go to urban fantasy; if I want to read about a bunch of guys hacking at each other with swords and spears, I’ll pick up a historical novel or one of Robert E. Howard’s Conan collections. So, what the hell is wrong with epic fantasy?

Most of the epic fantasy that I’ve tried to read falls into one of three categories. First, the author has clearly scanned Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and simply ran a find-and-replace on some of the character and place names. Second, the author has pulled together transcripts from several games of Dungeons & Dragons and is using them as “research.” Third, the author tries to do something so “different” and “unlike everything that has come before” that it becomes too convoluted to even begin to read. There are exceptions, of course. Personally, I enjoyed the first Dragonlance trilogy. I also really enjoy Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series. And, apparently, I really love Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series.

I’ve been irrationally obsessed with a devoted fan of Jim Butcher for a few years, ever since I read his first Harry Dresden novel, Storm Front. I won’t go into just how much I love Butcher’s private eye and professional wizard. I won’t. Suffice it to say, it’s enough that when I found out that Butcher also had a series of “epic fantasy” novels, I was significantly intrigued. Intrigued enough to run out and buy the first two books in the Codex Alera series, but still reticent enough that they remained untouched for over a year. Last week, I finally picked up the first book in the series, Furies of Calderon, and immediately hated myself for waiting so long.

The first thing that stands out about this series is the setting. Most epic fantasy that I’ve read is set in a world that is loosely based on Europe during the Middle Ages. However, Butcher’s Alera is patterned after the Roman Empire. Or, to be more specific, a Roman Empire that has had one thousand years to evolve and develop, creating something that’s a blend of both Roman and Medieval politics and society. Alera is a realm of Lords, Senators, Citizens, and Centurions. The Aleran countryside is divided into Steadholts, large farms akin to the feudal estates of Europe.

The magic found in the series is unique, as well. It’s not the usual wizened old guy with a beard and a floppy hat or some staff-waving mumbo-jumbo. I’m not even totally positive that it can be classified as magic. The Alerans possess a seemingly innate ability to control the elements or, more specifically, the spirits–what the Alerans call furies–that inhabit the elements of earth, wind, fire, water, wood, and metal. Most Alerans become skilled in manipulating one or two elementals, aided by personal furies who act like familiars. In addition to being able to control the physical aspects of a given element, furies also bestow certain super- or preternatural abilities upon their wielder. For example, those who possess watercrafting abilities can use them to heal, read emotions, or alter their appearance, while earthcrafting can grant increased strength, tracking skills, and the ability to inspire lust in others. And, like a game of rock-paper-scissors (or Battle Beasts), specific elements can negate or counteract another.

In the first book of the series, Butcher introduces readers to Tavi. Tavi is a young man living on his uncle’s Steadholt in the Calderon Valley–sight of a great battle between the Alerans and the Marat, a savage people who bond with wild animals the way Alerans do with furies. Tavi is your typical fantasy hero. He’s intelligent, loyal, brave, and has an uncanny ability to get himself into and out of trouble. Tavi stands out because, unlike everyone else in Alera, he has absolutely no furycrafting ability. Everyone, including Tavi, view this as a huge handicap. Of course, this wouldn’t be an epic fantasy novel unless Tavi learns that he can overcome his apparent weakness and tap into his own strength and intelligence.

Just like the Dresden Files, Butcher’s Codex Alera series doesn’t shy away from the usual tropes of the genre. Butcher is a self-professed fan of traditional fantasy literature, and his love for the genre is evident in this series. Codex embraces and plays around with the motifs of fantasy literature without insulting them. There’s a lot of Frodo, Wart, and Harry Potter in Tavi. These similarities might lead some people to criticize the character, calling him stereotypical or clichéd. These people need to pick up a dictionary and look up the word archetype, and then commit ritual suicide to atone for their stupidity. As a fan of Butcher’s other series, I think Tavi is an interesting counterpoint to Harry Dresden. In Harry’s world, he’s the one with the power, while his friends have to get by in the real world like everyone else; in Tavi’s world, everyone has power and he’s forced to stumble around, grasping and groping, like someone locked in a dark room.

Furies of Calderon does an admirable job establishing this new world, from the decent and hardworking steadholders to the backstabbing skullduggery and political infighting of the Lords and Senators. And, as always, Butcher manages to excel at both life-and-death combat and lighthearted personal moments. There are a few bumps along the road, though. Some of what the furies are capable of doing doesn’t always seem to fit logically with their given element. Also, it sometimes falls victim to bouts of Tolkienitis, stringing together a bunch of words to make a more fantastical word to describe something fairly common in the real world, or using a completely fabricated word for something rather than the perfectly good English word that we’ve all agreed upon. There’s even a siege towards the end of the novel that was very reminiscent of the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers–but, that’s okay since that was my favorite part of Tolkien’s trilogy.

Minor quibbles aside, as soon as I finished Furies of Calderon, I immediately picked up the second book: Academ’s Fury. And, it’s entirely possible that I’ll need to run out and buy the third book before Christmas.

I Scream, You Scream: A Review of MY SOUL TO TAKE

My exploratory expedition into the land of YA urban fantasy continues with Rachel Vincent’s My Soul to Take. I was lucky enough to pick up an autographed ARC of the first book in Vincent’s new YA series, Soul Screamers, at Book Expo.

MSTT

Something is wrong with Kaylee Cavanaugh

She doesn’t see dead people, but…

She senses when someone near her is about to die. And when that happens, a force beyond her control compels her to scream bloody murder. Literally.

Kaylee just wants to enjoy having caught the attention of the hottest guy in school. But a normal date is hard to come by when Nash seems to know more about her need to scream than she does. And when classmates start dropping dead for no apparent reason, only Kaylee knows who’ll be next…

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I have a confession to make: I don’t like teenagers. I never really cared for them when I was one, and now that I’m slowly making my way through my thirties, I like them even less. For this reason, I tend to avoid stories that are strictly teen-centric. Unless, that is, they are grafted onto something “weird.” You’ll never see me watching The O.C., Gossip Girl, or Beverly Hills 90210, but I never missed an episode of Buffy, Roswell, or Veronica Mars. That’s why I like YA urban fantasy. It’s much easier for me to read a book about teenagers if they happen to be fighting demons, faeries, or grim reapers.

That brings me to Rachel Vincent’s My Soul to Take. From the blurb above, I think it’s safe to assume that you’ve all figured out that Kaylee is, in fact, a banshee–or, to be more accurate, a bean sidhe. A teenage bean sidhe, living in Texas. Yeah…that’s why I love urban fantasy. I love the way authors mix standard fantasy elements–whether it’s vampires, demons, faeries, or wizards–with the “real, modern world.” The worldbuilding aspect is my favorite part of urban fantasy, seeing how the author fits these two pieces–the fantastic and the mundane–together.

Anyway, Vincent’s first Soul Screamers (God, I love that name!) novel is amazing. My Soul to Take is an origin story, introducing us to Kaylee (love that name, too!), her family and friends, and the newly-discovered “hidden world” she inhabits, including the rules regarding bean sidhe and death. Unlike standard folklore, Vincent portrays the bean sidhe as a race that includes both men and women, with each gender having specific powers and abilities. And, since the bean sidhe are closely tied to death, Vincent gives us a glimpse of the delightfully bureaucratic “collection agency” known as Death, complete with interns and regional reapers.

Ideas are all well and good, but if an army marches on its stomach, a novel marches on its characters. I don’t care how interesting a world is or how cool a concept may be, I’m not going to get very far without great characters. Kaylee is a great addition to my list of spunky, smart-mouthed heroines. I love Kaylee’s dad, Aiden, and her Uncle Brendon (I’d love to see a separate series where the two brothers travel around fighting evil…sort of like Supernatural: All Growed Up). Then there’s Sophie Cavanaugh and Nash Hudson, two characters who could have easily been little more than ciphers. Sophie is Kaylee’s cousin–a bubbly, blonde dancer. While she can occasionally be an out-right bitch, Sophie isn’t just another “mean girl.” She isn’t an inherently bad person, she’s just someone who’s used to getting what she wants–from her parents, from her teachers, from boys–making her a perfect foil for Kaylee, who pretty much has to work for everything. Plus, there’s a great running gag about the teachers at their school assuming that Sophie and Kaylee are sisters, which doesn’t sit well with either of them. That leaves Nash Hudson, the “hottest guy in school” mentioned in the blurb above. When Nash is introduced, he’s set-up to be the stereotypical alpha-male high school jock…but, dammit if Vincent didn’t make me like the kid. In the span of about five pages, Nash goes from being the book’s douchebaggy Parker Abrams to being the supportive and trustworthy Riley Finn.

So, yeah, I loved My Soul to Take. If you’re a fan of YA fiction or urban fantasy, you should totally check it out when it’s released in August. As for me, I’ll be patiently awaiting the release of My Soul to Save.

I Think Girls With Pointy Ears And Swords Are Hot…So Shoot Me.

I think a lot of people are surprised when I tell them that I’m not a big fan of fantasy*.  The truth is, a lot of the fantasy that I’ve read in the past has been either an obvious rip-off of Lord of the Rings, or else it’s trying so hard to be “different” that I feel like it’s a jumbled mess.  However, I’m starting to explore the world of Urban Fantasy, and I’m enjoying it so far, partly because its use of a “real world” setting keeps the epic Tolkienocity (TM) to a minimum.  I also like stories where ordinary people come face to face with supernatural (or otherwise otherworldly) shit and just have to deal with it in whatever ways they can.

I think that’s why I liked Lisa Shearin’s Magic Lost, Trouble Found so much.

magiclost

Sure, it takes place in a fantasy world with elves, goblins, dwarfs, faeries, and dragons, but it’s a lot closer to a standard Urban Fantasy novel, many of which draw on the tropes of hardboiled and noir detective stories.  It came as no surprise that Shearin is a fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, since Raine Benares–like Harry Dresden–is both detective (called a “seeker” in this world) and mage.  Raine is also sarcastic, smart, spunky, and pretty good with swords.  She also happens to be an elf (y’know, if you care about that kind of stuff).  Like every good private detective, Raine walks a delicate line between law and order, having friends and associates on both sides–just like Dresden, Spenser, Fritz Malone and Philip Marlowe.

I’ll definitely pick up the second book.

*: The exception, of course, being Robert E. Howard’s Conan stories…those kick serious ass.

City of Bones: The Joy of a New Discovery

I just finished reading City of Bones, the first book in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series.  I should start off by saying that I don’t read a lot of YA fiction (except for the new Young James Bond series and Harry Potter, of course) and I haven’t really gotten hooked on urban fantasy (except Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series).  By now, you’ve probably guessed that City of Bones is a YA/urban fantasy novel.  What you might not have guessed is that I absolutely loved it.

There’s a good chance that I would never have picked up City of Bones if it wasn’t recommended by Jen.  It’s one of her favorite books, but that doesn’t always make a good recommendation.  I think the real reason she recommended it was that she knows how much I like the Dresden series, Harry Potter, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  She also, rather tongue-in-cheek, mentioned the fact that it’s set in New York City, with large chunks taking place in Brooklyn.  The key to a good recommendation is knowing what the other person likes, not what you think they like (that kind of thinking led someone to tell me I would “love” A Confederacy of Dunces, which holds the distinction of being the only book I’ve ever hurled across the room in disgust).  My old boss had an amazing knack for recommending books after you told him three or four of your favorite books–I don’t think a single book he told me to read was a letdown.

Now…where was I?  Oh, right:

City of Bones is the story of fifteen-year-old Clarissa “Clary” Fray.  Clary fits right in with my all-time favorite female characters–Willow, Fred, Kitty Pryde, Kaylee, and Hermione.  She’s a little socially awkward, but with enough brains and spunk to see her through.  Clary’s world is turned upside down when she learns that there is a secret, hidden world that no one can see.  No one, except her.  It’s a world of demons, vampires, werewolves, witches and warlocks.  A world patrolled by a group known as Shadowhunters.  Right there, it’s already hitting the happy part of my brain where Buffy, Harry Potter, and Harry Dresden live (not to mention Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere).

To be honest, I was expecting a pretty standard story.  That’s not what I got.  Sure, there were a few things that I called pretty early on.  But, Clare’s narrative throws so many curve-balls that everything I had figured out for myself paled in comparison.  I’m itching to get my hands on the next book in the series–City of Ashes–so I can revisit this world and see what Clare has in store for Clary and the others.

Let’s Cast…THE DRESDEN FILES

I’ve sung the praises of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series numerous times in this blog.  How can you not love a series that stars a private detective who just so happens to be a wizard?  There was an attempt by the Sci-Fi Channel to make a series based on Harry Dresden’s adventures.  It was okay…but it wasn’t really Butcher’s world.  (I will say this: if not for the Sci-Fi Channel, I might never have picked up Storm Front and would currently be living a Dresden-free lifestyle.  Which would be, y’know, just wrong.)  One of the main problems is that the world in Butcher’s novels is a fairly complex one.  There are wizards and vampires and faeries.  White Councils and Wardens and Red Courts.  Another problem is that folks probably have very different ideas of what these characters look like.  But, never one to shy away from hypothetical controversy (actual controversy is a different story…that can stay over there), I’ve decided to cast a Dresden Files movie.

The Plot: Like I said, there’s a whole lot going on in Butcher’s books.  There are more secondary and tertiary characters than in Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter combined.  There’s a history–not just Harry’s personal history, but the history of magic and wizards, in general.  There’s politics and war and diplomatic wrangling.  Plus there’s whatever case that Harry is working on in a given book.  See, a lot.  So, I have no idea what the plot of a Harry Dresden movie would be.  Would it just be the plot of the first book (Storm Front), or something that deals with one of the longer arcs in the series?

The Cast (In addition to the characters who have been there since page one, there are numerous characters who first appeared in later novels, but have since gone on to become more or less permanent fixtures in Harry’s life.  I’ve picked some of the more prominent, while knowingly ignoring others for reasons of time and space.  Also, some of these may be SPOILER-y, so if you haven’t been keeping up with the Dresden books, you may want to turn back.  Thank you, that is all.):

Clive Owen as Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden

It’s not easy finding someone to fill Harry’s leather duster.  He’s an irreverent wise-ass in the best hardboiled tradition.  He also happens to be a little above average height and somewhat lanky.  Now, I would never call Clive Owen “above average height and somewhat lanky”; however, I think he’s proven that he can handle hardboiled wise-assery in both Sin City and Shoot ‘Em Up.

Naomi Watts as Sgt. Karrin Murphy

The “small, but fierce” Sgt. Murphy is not only Dresden’s friend on the Chicago Police Force, but also one of his few friends, period.  Despite being a petite blonde with a cute button nose, Murphy can kick ass with the best of them, including winning numerous martial arts competitions.  If nothing else, Watts is a petite blonde; but, I also think she could probably pull off Murphy’s tough-as-nails exterior.

Michael Bowen as Warden Donald Morgan

As a Warden for the White Council, Morgan acts as both Special Forces and Internal Affairs for the wizard community.  He’s been around since book one, keeping an eye on Dresden because the Council feared that Harry was (or would soon be) dabbling in the dark magics.  I was this close to casting Keith Carradine when I decided to go for a non-Carradine Carradine: Keith’s half-brother Michael Bowen.

Rashida Jones as Susan Rodriguez

Susan was a tabloid reporter for The Midwestern Arcane (think Carl Kolchak, but hotter).  She was also Harry’s girlfriend, at least before she was infected by a vampire of the Red Court.

Cillian Murphy as Thomas Raith

Thomas Raith is a vampire of the White Court.  White Court vampires feed off of emotional energy; in the case of the Raith family, the emotions they prefer are lust, passion and/or desire.  Thomas, like all White vampires, radiates sexual energy, making him pretty damned irresistible even if he’s not trying to be.  As half-brothers, Thomas and Harry share several physical attributes, although Thomas takes it to a more idealized “Greek god” degree.  Cillian Murphy could almost be a prettier version of Clive Owen…if you squint just right and look away from the screen.

Nathan Fillion as Michael Carpenter

Michael Carpenter is a Knight of the Cross.  He is charged with using one of three swords–which happen to have one of the nails from Christ’s Crucifixion forged into the blade–to combat the forces of Hell.  Michael is a devout man, whose faith sometimes confuses (and angers) Harry.  But, Harry never doubts Michael’s friendship, love for his family, or ability to be where he’s needed when he’s needed.  Fillion (in addition to being the obligatory Whedonite on these lists) has that quiet strength that you need for Michael.

Jason Lee as Bob the Skull

Wizard’s don’t do so well around technology invented after 1950, so Bob acts as Harry’s laptop and magical database.  Bob is a spirit of the air who inhabits a human skull in Harry’s basement lab.  Since he takes on the personality traits of his owners, since coming into Harry’s possession, Bob has become a bit of an obstinate smart-ass.  He’s also a bit of a letch, so you need someone who can leer with their voices, and I think Jason Lee has one of the more inherently leer-y and smart-ass-y voices around.

Adrian Pasdar as “Gentleman” Johnnie Marcone

“Gentleman” Johnnie is the top dog in Chicago’s human underworld, although he frequently finds himself embroiled in many of Dresden’s supernatural cases.  Marcone may be a mobster, but he also possesses an almost Old World code of honor, which is probably how he managed to get himself appointed as a freelord under the Unseelie Accords (a set of loose rules that govern the members of the magical world).  Pasdar has made a career playing cold, calculating individuals who aren’t above bending the rules if it serves their personal ends.

Donald Sutherland as Ebenezar McCoy

The cranky and crotchety McCoy (maybe it’s the name?) is a senior member of the White Council, as well as Harry’s old mentor–well, the one that survived.  He’s also the Council’s Blackstaff, a wizard who is allowed to operate outside of the Seven Laws of Magic to do the Council’s “wetwork.”  Honestly, the only reason I picked Sutherland (other than the fact that he’s awesome) is that I think he looks positively deranged when he’s all scruffy and dishevelled–doesn’t he look like a centuries-old wizard from the backwoods of Missouri?

Monica Bellucci as The Leanansidhe (or Lea)

Lea is (quite literally) Harry’s faerie godmother.  She’s a powerful member of the Winter Court of Faerie and, as such, is not to be trusted.  She’s not above deceit or manipulation (or pain, to be honest) to get what she wants.  Bellucci has an almost otherworldly quality about her that would fit Lea perfectly.  Plus, it’ll be fun to see her get to play opposite Clive Owen again.

“You Can Kill the Creature, Link, By Taking Its Life.”

Sandeep Parikh–filmmaker, co-star of Felicia Day’s The Guild, and all-around nice guy (I should know, I got a chance to chat with him in San Diego)–has a new series up on atom.com. The Legend of Neil tells the hilarious story of what happens when a slacker from Trenton (Tony Janning) passes out while playing Legend of Zelda and wakes up in the game.

The first two episodes are online, and new installments are posted every Thursday. Take a look:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Go. Enjoy.