Saturday, December 29, 2012

Year in Review -- Sort of

I've been letting this blog sit idle over the holidays, while I've been enjoying time with my wife and friends, and a few days off of work.  I'm almost reluctant to break that, but I have a tradition of doing a year in review, and I'm reluctant to break that as well.  So, instead of not doing it entirely, I'm just going to do a lazy and sloppy job of it, and that way I can have it both ways.

The most relevant news for this blog is that I've begun blogging regularly again.  At least twice a week, which is not exactly phenomenal, and I've kind of slacked off during the holidays, but it's better than I've been doing.  In honor of the new blogging, I redesigned the blog.  On the other hand, maybe it was the other way around.

Kristin and I went to a lot of conventions this year: Boskone, Readercon, WorldCon, and World Fantasy.  We also went to visit her brother and his family, her parents and sister, and my family.  All this traveling used up most of my vacation time, so I didn't have enough to travel for the holidays, so it's just been some relaxing  in Boston for us this holiday season.

Also a big story is that my short novel, A Phoenix in Darkness, was finally published at Black Gate.  I'm fond of that story, and I'm glad that John O'Neill wanted it for his magazine, as one of the first stories published in the new online format.  It is an older story, though, and I like to think that I'm a better writer now than when I first wrote it, so there are some places where I wish the prose was more polished and the plotting cleaner and the pace smoother.  But I'm sure that five years from now I'll look at the stories I'm writing now and wish I could revise them, and if I waited for stories to be perfect before they were published, I'd never publish anything.

In other news, I now have a book under contract, meaning that it will be published someday.  Unfortunately, I don't know the release date yet, and the publisher hasn't yet announced it, so I'm keeping details under wraps for now.

I've also begun blogging occasionally at Black Gate.  I'll be doing monthly reviews of self-published books, the first of which should be out soon.

So it's been a busy year for me, and I've had a lot of fun.  I'll be back in a couple of days with my New Year's Resolutions, such as they are.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Review of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Kristin and I saw the first episode of The Hobbit last night, in "glorious" IMAX 3D. We didn't feel that the 3D added much, and because it was done with polarized glasses, the movie tended to get blurry whenever we tilted our heads, but overall the experience was fun.

My strongest impression of the movie was that it was too long. Peter Jackson, the same director who did The Lord of the Rings, split the book into three parts, and this part, at least, had considerable filler and flashbacks. Thorin Oakenshield's backstory was interesting, and probably worthwhile for the story they're trying to tell, but did we really need ten minutes or so of the older Bilbo working on his book and discussing the Sackville-Bagginses with Frodo? That seems like it was just an excuse to have an Elijah Wood cameo.  And did the fight between the rock giants add anything? Did the running fight with the goblins have to go on for quite so long?  In case you're wondering, I'm thinking the answer to these is no.

Since you can't get eight hours worth of three movies just from the book alone, there was always going to be plenty of additional material. Some of it was rather silly. Radagast, the brown wizard and Gandalf's peer, came across that way. However, while I wish his character had been treated more seriously, I approve of his inclusion and what it means. Radagast was the means of introducing the audience to the necromancer who is responsible for the darkening of Mirkwood. That necromancer barely gets a mention in the books, but the wizards' battle against him is an important chapter in the events preceding The Lord of the Rings. I take his presence and Radagast's introduction to mean that Peter Jackson intends to give this battle a full treatment, of which I approve.

Other silly parts were pretty unavoidable, as they were lifted directly from the book. The dwarves singing as they cleaned Bilbo's dishes while flinging them around, for example. Actually, the treatment in the movie was probably more serious than in the book, and helped to give some insight into dwarves. The dish washing scene showed them working together with preternatural coordination, and in this sense the song becomes a work song, meant to keep rhythm as the dwarves work together in concert. A scene of dwarf smiths working together in the prologue served both to foreshadow and explain this. I would have liked to see more of this coordination, especially in the fight scenes. It came through in the fight with the trolls, but not so much in the fight with the goblins. That was partly because there were hundreds of goblins, and the running battle, where each dwarf has to fight off a dozen or so goblins at a time, made it hard to show this. Plus the scene was so frenetic that I may have missed what there was of it. I hope that Peter Jackson does show more of this dwarven coordination in the future, as it helps to give them more character, and explain how they can be such a powerful influence on Middle Earth without the magical power of the elves.

Speaking of the dwarves, one problem with both the movie and the book is that there are a lot of dwarves, and it's hard to keep them all straight. Peter Jackson did a decent job of making them visually distinctive, but for the most part only a few of them stand out. Thorin himself, the twins Kili and Fili, the old warrior, the deaf dwarf, and the youngest one--see, I'm forgetting their names. But these did and said stuff that made them memorable. The other six, not so much. With three movies, I hope Jackson has a chance to develop them more.

So what did I think, overall? Some parts of it work better than others, and it's not always because of whether it was in the books or not. And I think the movie could have been at least half an hour shorter, if not more. But if you're a Tolkien fan, or you liked The Lord of the Rings movies, it's not a question of if you'll see this movie, but when. And being both of those myself, I think this was worth seeing.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Review of Cold Days by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files have been around for a while. Cold Days is, I believe, the fourteenth book in the series. Like any long series, there's a lot of backstory and supporting characters, and it's easy to get lost if you haven't read the previous books. But that same history gives the characters and conflicts a lot of richness. We've had over a dozen books to get to know and care for these people, starting with Harry himself.

After having spent the previous book as a ghost, Harry Dresden is back from the dead. This is not a good thing, as it defeats the purpose of his suicide by assassin. Harry's sold his soul to the Winter Queen of Faerie, Mab, to become the Winter Knight. That grants him a great deal of power, but it comes at a price. For one, it means that he has to become Mab's assassin, killing anyone she wants dead. Worse, the Winter Knight Mantle is changing him. Winter is sometimes called the wicked side of Faerie in the books, but that's not entirely accurate. Winter isn't evil, but it is primal, reflecting the part of nature that's about survival of the fittest and procreation of the species and the ultimate end of all nature: death. The changes the Mantle causes, and Harry's fear of them, are the reason for the aforementioned suicide by assassin. Too bad Mab and Demonreach, the genius loci of Harry's island, won't let him escape that easy.

The story starts with Harry going through rehab in Mab's palace. Weight training, motor control, assassination attempts--that sort of thing. Once he graduates from that, he's off on his first assignment, to kill an immortal. Along the way, he discovers that someone's attacking his island, intent on freeing what's imprisoned there, with possibly disastrous consequences for the Midwest. Fortunately, both plots come together in a spectacular finish.

The greatest strength of this book is its place in the series. We get to see old friends, and learn how things have changed since Harry's been away. This is also the greatest weakness of the novel. Old problems get brief mentions and remain unresolved (the Swords of the Cross, for example), new problems get created but remain unresolved (Molly's new role, Mac). And when old mysteries do finally get answered, it's often unsatisfying--I didn't find Demonreach's true purpose as interesting as its promise. Ditto for the Gatekeeper's role in things. On the other hand, sometimes the payoff is surprisingly good, such as the purpose of Winter. (The fact that it was one and the same as the Gatekeeper's role is what diminished the latter's reveal.)

However, I think that the biggest disappointment with this book is that it didn't feel like Harry did a whole lot. Sure, Dresden always spends much of the book floundering around, trying to figure out what's going on. But he usually manages to get his act together and beat the big bad at the end. This time it felt like he kept on floundering until someone else had to do the job for him. Oh sure, he was still there, hitting stuff, but at each step he'd been manipulated to where he was supposed to be, and at the end, he doesn't even throw the deciding punch himself.

Ultimately, this didn't feel like a book so much as an episode. That's not entirely a bad thing, and a series this long isn't ruined. by a book or two where the hero never really gets his act together. Failure is part of the drama. But I hope that Butcher doesn't make a habit of it.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

First books to review

If you're a regular reader of this blog, then you probably know that I'm reviewing self-published books for Black Gate. To that end, I've set up a submission system via which authors can ask me to review their books. This weekend, I selected the first two books to review, and asked their authors to send me review copies.

This does not mean that I've rejected all the other submissions. It's not even a sure thing that I'll review the books I've requested, though I most likely will. I expect that I'll be doing one review a month, and it's quite possible that I'll dip into the submissions I've already received when it's time to find a new book to review. In the meantime, I'm still accepting more books to review in the coming months.