Review : Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Plot Synopsis (off goodreads because once again I’m lazy)

“I swore an oath to avenge the death of my father. I may be half a man, but I swore a whole oath.”

Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains, and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver.

 Review – My problems with Half A King

It’s a bit odd to be reviewing Half A King because, this book isn’t aimed at me it is aimed at a young adult audience. I knew this before I read Half A King of course but didn’t give it much thought. I have really enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s books and it was off that experience that I picked up his latest story.

When it comes to reviewing the book however I find myself in a cleft stick. How much should my opinion be changed by the fact that the book is aimed towards 10-14 years olds. Even when I started writing this paragraph my thought was that I should make a hefty allowance for this. However, I have changed my mind as I write. So here it is.

It think it was JK Rowling who said that to write for children you need to have a very clear idea of what it was to be like at that age. I’m not sure that Joe Abercrombie does or at least he has underestimated children and sold himself short with Half A King.

Robin Hobb’s words in her goodreads review get to the heart of my point. Hobbs writes that Half A King had “exceptionally tight focus on the protagonist” that she liked. 

I agree with her and I have no problem with a tight POV. After all I think my Harry Potter love is probably clear from my reference to JK Rowling and Harry Potter also has a tight POV focus.

What Abercrombie does in Half A King though is to allow that tightness to restrict the world building. There are hints to the world at large. For example, Yarvi’s mother is a fiscal genius but slavery seems to play its part in her success. Whilst there is a monotheism v paganism cultural war going on that is only hinted at.

Since Yarvi’s character is so book smart and clever from his time studying to become an advisor to Kings and Queens it would have been great to see Abercrombie clash Yarvi’s “book” knowledge against reality where the hoof meets the grass. Particularly in light of the hinted upon slavery. This wouldn’t need to be done by beating the reader over the head with the point. I would have just liked to have been given a broader snapshot of the world as a whole.

Ultimately, the lack of ambition in Half A King prevents a very good readable novel from being a young adult classic. The best children/young adult books stretch their readers in a way that I don’t think Half A King ever quite manages.

Abercrombie seems to have reigned himself in when he was writing Half A King when instead, to write for young adults, he should have been letting his imagination soar.

What Half A King did well

After those critical comments I feel I must temper things somewhat by saying I did enjoy Half  A King a lot. I breezed through it in less than a couple of nights of reading and I only do this when I’m enjoying a book.

Particularly, great was the depth to the characters. Everyone has real flaws and real positives. Whether they are a hero or a villian. There were no Mary Sue’s here which is more than can be said for other books.

Despite, being the protagonist Yarvi’s can be a ruthless unsentimental b***ard and the book does shy away from this. Such touches have always been Abercrombie’s biggest strength as a storyteller and their presence keeps the grimdark feel of his earlier works going strong even with the lack of r-rated material.

Conclusion

If you’re an Abercrombie fan looking for a fix or a someone who enjoys “young adult” fiction then give Half A King a go. It’s very good. With a bit more ambition though it could have been great.

 

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Review : The Way Of Shadows by Brent Weeks

***SPOILER KLAXON***

Plot Synopsis (from amazon because I’m lazy)

The perfect killer has no friends. Only targets.

For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art. And he is the city’s most accomplished artist, his talents required from alleyway to courtly boudoir.

For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned the hard way to judge people quickly – and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.

But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics – and cultivate a flair for death.

Review

Brent Week’s The Way of Shadows had been on my list of things to read for a while. Weeks is one of those “new” writers that you hear about lots if you are reading popular fiction/fantasy and so I began to read “The Way Of Shadows” with if not high expectations then expectations of nonetheless.

After finishing the book I wouldn’t say I was disappointed but I would say I’m nonplussed. The Way Of Shadows is highly generic boilerplate stuff. Readings some reviews on goodreads the sentiments seem to be that people either love it or hate it. I however am firmly down the middle. It is not great and it isn’t awful. 

Essentially, The Way of Shadows mixes the well trodden coming of age story (think Enders Game or Harry Potter) with the kind of grimdark nasty  gritty fantasy that Joe Abercrombie has popularised. After reading The Way of Shadows I’m not sure the two are a good mix (although I may change my mind once I’ve read Joe Abercrombie’s “Half a King”).

The book starts off really strongly. The bad guy character, Rat, is rapist and a sadist. In other words a throughally reprehensible individual. When Azoth “kills” Rat you don’t feel any sympathy for Rat. Even better whilst doing this it establishes some key facets of Azoth’s and Durzo Blinth’s personalities. Azoth loves Doll Girl and is essentially a good guy even if he is apprenticed to an assassin and Durzo Blinth is tortured by demons.

This promising start is wasted however. Weeks seems to want to place Azoth on a downward path because of the work he is doing as a “wetboy” however there is no real change in Azoth’s character. He becomes more skilled at being an assassin. He pines after Doll Girl from afar but throughout it all he remains essentially a heroic figure. Azoth doesn’t have many character flaws except caring too much despite Blint telling him love is a noose. If I’m being harsh Azoth isn’t far from being a Marty Stu.

Now Azoth’s characterization may not be especially daring but you can’t say that it is not a winning formula. The heroes journey is a well trodden path and by having the book told from Azoth’s POV the reader is allowed to learn about the world as Azoth does.

There are two problems with this. Firstly, the exposition of the world is rather clunky. Plot twists don’t surprise because, you had all the relevant information and didn’t see it coming rather they leap out from nowhere and the relevant information is filled in very quickly right afterwards. This is not satisfying.  

More than this though the grimdark stuff i.e. swearing, talk about castration doesn’t fit in nicely with the nicey nice heroes coming of age story. It goes back to what I said earlier about needing to see the characters shaped by the world they are living in.

Initially Weeks does this with Azoth. Azoth is living on the streets and is desperate. As a result Azoth strives and succeeds in becoming Blint’s apprentice. After this beginning though Azoth in particular is just too nice and one dimensional. I never got the sense that his fear of Blint or fear of the streets was driving him become an assassin. I never got the sense that Azoth was staring into the abyss. When this subject is talked about with Doll Girl all Azoth essentially does is say I’m a good guy and this is accepted.

The Way of Shadows felt very much like someone’s first novel. The book is too generic in some places and then not generic enough in other places. Furthermore, if you are going to set your novel in a crapsack world filled with suffering then I need to feel that the main character has been effected by this suffering. This never happened with Azoth and as such The Way of Shadows never really did it for me.

In the end though despite all the criticism I’ve heaped on it I would give The Way Of Shadows three out of five stars. There is good stuff in there but it is hard to find. Plus magic ninja assassin are inherently cool.   When he wrote this Weeks hadn’t yet found his voice. When/if I read another Weeks book I will be interested to see how his talents have developed.

 

 

 

Guardians Of The Galaxy is the big budget Farscape film I’ve always wanted

***SPOILER KLAXON SPOILER KLAXON SPOILER KLAXON SPOILER KLAXON ***

So in keeping with my self-imposed quest to fill this blog with nothing but the latest film reviews I bring you what is no doubt going to be, or at least deserves to be, the biggest blockbuster of the summer.

Right off the bat Guardians of the Galaxy had me on side. Why you ask? From the trailer I’ve seen the movie hasn’t been spoiled. Unlike say the Avengers where the trailer showed the Hulk catching a falling Iron Man the trailers for Guardians of the Galaxy gave little to none of the plot away. Instead the trailers focused on introducing the characters and the tone of the film.  Let us hope this begins a new trend for trailers.

If you were unaware then Guardians of the Galaxy follows Peter “Starlord” Quill, Gamora, Drax the Destroyer, Groot and Rocket (the racoon although I wouldn’t recommend calling him that to his face) as they first fight over an intergalatic orb of world destroying power, then they join forces to escape space prison, try to sell orb to “The Collector” and then complete the transition to heroes/friends by joining forces to stop the genocidal Ronan from committing genocide on a galaxy wide scale.

As you might guess from that brief synopsis the plot isn’t anything fancy. We aren’t talking about Momento here. Things are pretty much just a linear progression from A to B to C to D.

The thing is though this doesn’t matter because, unlike hundreds of other awful films Guardians of the Galaxy goes from A to B to C to D at 10,000 miles per hours in an adventure that is crammed with actions scenes, genuine laugh out loud moments and characters that have there own unique and believable motivations. Plus thanks to the walkman that Starlord carries with him everywhere the film has a jazzy 1970/80s upbeat pop score.

No doubt Guardians of the Galaxy is being compared to the original Star Wars and Firefly but a more accurate comparison for Guardians of the Galaxy is to the late great sci-fi series Farscape. The characters, tone, humour and vision of space are all much closer to Farscape than Star Wars or Firefly and I loved it.

Like Farscape there are great setpieces (although Guardians of the Galaxy has much better effects). Like Farscape there are humourous moments that border on the adult and like Farscape there is believable violence. We actually get to see alien blood something which apparently was cut from the Avengers to stop it receiving an 18 rating. Even the characters kind out fit into the Farscape archetypes.

Witness

Gomara is Aeryn Sun (Kickass love interest) Aeryn Sun

gomara

Rocket Racoon is Rygel (mouthy ass with heart of gold)

rocketDominar Rygel XVI

Drax is D’Argo (angry warrior wanting vengeance)

draxd'argo

Groot is Moya (clever non-verbal being that protects them)

groot moya

Ronan is Scorpios (scary bad guy)

ronan scorpio

and Peter Quill is John Crichton (cocky hero)

quill crichtongun

Aside from the humour, action and Farscapeiness Guardians of the Galaxy does a good job of pulling back and giving a better understanding of the scale of the Marvel universe. In particular it was great to see them begin to set up what a huge and scary villain Thanos is. In many previous Marvel movies the villains have been pretty flat characters (with the exception of Loci) and this always robbed them of being properly menacing.

In the interests of being fair and balanced (although not in a Fox News sort of way) though I must criticise one thing about Guardians of the Galaxy and that is Glenn Close’s character. Glenn Close is a great actor. She was great in The Shield she was great in Damages. In Guardians of the Galaxy though her, thankfully, brief appearances on the screen brought the film to a screeching halt. She didn’t seem to be sure whether she was playing her role for laughs or playing it straight. Furthermore, she did not seem to want to be there. Glenn Close was doing the good old cash grab in a film that everyone else seemed to be really trying in and it annoyed me.

Overall, then Guardians of the Galaxy is a very good to great film. I saw it in 2-D but I kind of think the visuals were so good that it would be worth seeing it in 3D (and that is high praise because 3D is a mostly rubbish Glenn Close style cash grab). For me Guardians of the Galaxy is now the benchmark of success for future Marvel pictures. I had a great time watching it.

 

 

 

 

 

Review of Utopia Season Two

***SPOILER KLAXON***

It’s been a good long while since I have reviewed any TV on the blog so I thought I would make up for this by reviewing three shows in posts over the next few days. The lucky or unlucky or in reality luck neutral shows that I’m going to review are Channel 4’s Utopia, Amazon’s extant and BBC’s The Honourable Woman. I will kick things off with Utopia (at this point the reader should hum some catchy dubstep to themselves)

utopia

If there is going to be a recurring theme to this posting it is a lack of originality and my ensuing disappointment.

For those of you who missed it last time Utopia is a British science fiction drama. After a somewhat original season one Utopia is getting its inevitable US reboot and of course the original UK version is currently airing its entirely unnecessary second season. In order to cash in on the success of the first.

For those of you who missed the first season a brief synopsis is needed for orientation. Originally, I had a nice two paragraph synopsis here but it didn’t flow very well either because, I’m a poor writer or because the plot of Utopia is too crazy to easily explain. So instead here is channel four’s official Utopia Season One in Three Minutes.

Now onto the review!

This new season has exposed for me “Utopia’s” crippling lack of depth. The striking aspect of series one was how the funky music and the alarming bright colours mixed with the OTT violence to give things a cartoon feel. It was a fresh interesting aesthetic that I really enjoyed. Also when combined with the “what the hell is going on?” narrative hook it made for an enjoyable first season.

With the “what the hell is going on?”/mystery factor settled though (we know what the Network wants to do) the lack of depth to any characters becomes very apparent and very grating. Utopia comes across as something written by a precocious teenage boy who has a thing for manic pixie dream girls.

The corollary to this teenageryness is insufferable manner in which the writers are trying to justify the things the bad guys are doing. Murder on a massive scale is seen as the stuff that noble moral characters do because it is necessary and don’t you just know the necessary acts weigh heavily on their soul. Murder/ genocide is thus alright. We shouldn’t hate the characters or at least the writers don’t seem to.

In Utopia the ends justify the means in the most crass way. In the world of Utopia overpopulation is going to lead to huge wars and mass death even perhaps the extinction of the human race. In the face of this threat no action is too extreme, no action is off limits.

What makes this particularly annoying though is that the authors obviously intend this as a stark warning to the real world. And there is nothing I detest more than whiny politic statement convinced of its righteous.

Personally, though I suspect they are over-egging the pudding. Malthusian predictions of apocalypse have long been the scientific equivalent of “endtime” speak. Even if we accept Utopia’s scenario though the logic of the series doesn’t hold.

You see The Network has been spending billions of pounds/ dollars and rubles and billion of man hours developing the Janus virus. Janus will reduce the worldwide human population to about 500 million. Now there are much cheaper, easier and more effect ways to achieve this. For example, education and the mass distribution of contraceptives coupled with investment in clean energy tech and new farming techniques (i.e. grow meat in petri dishes). Given their resources, political control and the fact that they only want to kill because it is necessary these acts shouldn’t be a problem for The Network. They should embrace them wholesale.

None of this is sexy however, it isn’t an edgy TV show. This is the crux of the matter of course. Sometimes cool ideas like Terminator or Jurassic Park are made just because they are cool ideas. The plausibility of the story doesn’t matter. Give me Robot Arnie riding a T-Rex and I’m there.

The difference is that Jurassic Park, Terminator and my upcoming Jurassic Park/Terminator fanfiction got away with their silly ideas because, they were executed really well. Utopia doesn’t do this. The two dimensionality of its characters don’t allow it to.

The second season of Utopia is a real let down that has tainted my enjoyment of the first. It is not on the same level but the following point is analogous. Tarantino said of the Matrix sequels that they ruined the mythology of the first film for him. Well, this second season of Utopia had the same effect.