The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

December 31, 2007 at 3:49 pm (Brandon Sanderson, Reviews)

Brandon Sanderson - The Final EmpireIt’s fairly well known by now that Brandon Sanderson has been selected to complete Robert Jordan’s beloved saga, The Wheel of Time. I didn’t bother reporting the news here; many other blogs had it covered, and I didn’t feel the need to jump on the pile. Furthermore, I didn’t really have anything to add to the topic. Am I happy that the series will be finished? Yes. How do I feel about Sanderson being the one to do it? I don’t know; I’d never read his work. But if this guy is going to be finishing A Memory of Light, then I need to know what I’m in for. And a slew of other people picked up his books with the same sentiment. Of course, I was already planning to take a look at Sanderson’s Mistborn series, all the announcement really did was bump it to the top of my list.

I approached The Final Empire with mixed expectations. I wanted to love it. If this is the man to complete The Wheel of Time, then he’d better be good. But at the same time, I wanted to hate it. If A Memory of Light turns out to be a disappointment, then at least we’d have a scapegoat. Either way, it’s not going to be the same as it would have been had Jordan been able to finish it. But will it be good enough?

Brandon Sanderson has been known to site Robert Jordan as a major influence, and I think that it shows in his work. Their writing styles are vastly different, sure. Jordan is stricken with an extreme, and sometimes irritating, attention to detail, while Sanderson takes a more minimalist approach. He pays less attention to the scenery, and more to his characters. Which is not to say that there is no depth to his world; he just doesn’t get bogged down with descriptions of how everyone is dressed. But while their writing is so dissimilar, elements of the story in The Final Empire rings with an echo of The Wheel of Time.

Sanderson takes and interesting, and, I believe, unique approach to epic fantasy – this is no quest of a prophesized savior to unite the land and save the world from a supernatural threat. Sure, that in there, but it happened a thousand years in the past. The Final Empire, book one of the Mistborntrilogy, deals with what happened after. And what happened was that, apparently, the Hero of Ages failed. The world is now controlled by the tyrannical Lord Ruler. The common people, or skaa, have been reduced to slaves, working in mines and on plantations, beaten into submission by the noble class – the nobles themselves being the descendants of those who supported the Lord Ruler in bid for domination.

But the Lord Ruler can’t keep everybody in order. Throughout the history of the Empire, there has been rebellion. However, the Rebellion has been fairly useless; the people just too deflated down to insight enough passion to overthrow their dark Lord.

Besides the ineffective rebellion, an underground of thieves has also sprung forth. Outlaws band together and devise plans to rob the merchants and nobles, always hunted by the Empires enforcers, the Obligators and the Inquisitors. The story in The Final Empire follows one such thieving crew. Their plan? To rob the Lord Ruler. But they don’t want his money, or at least not just that. Hired by the Rebellion’s leader, they will attempt to steal the Empire itself.

The Final Empire features two main characters:

Charismatic crew leader Kelsier. Former prisoner at the Pits of Hathsin, and the Pit’s lone survivor, Kelsier is determined not only to take the Empire away from the Lord Ruler, but to kill the Ruler himself – a feat that most consider impossible.

Vin is an orphan, conditioned to mistrust by her older brother, Reen. Beaten and betrayed, Vin is abandoned in the underground, working under a reckless crew leader, until she’s rescued and recruited by Kelsier.

These two characters are well realized. Both of them almost pitiable for the psychological wounds that they must overcome. Kelsier, despite betrayal and imprisonment, is able to view the world with undaunted optimism, while Vin comes to it with unrelenting paranoia. Vin is smoothly transformed from an urchin to a socialite, and Kelsier from a prestigious thief to a legendary leader and potential megalomaniac. Indeed, one can’t help but wonder along the way if Kelsier will succeed in unseating the Lord Ruler only to replace him, with the nobles and the skaa changing places. The same tyranny but with different victims.

My only complaint about The Final Empireis with the supporting cast. Specifically, Kelsier’s crew. There is a diverse set of personalities – the haughty and manipulative Breeze, the strong-arm and amateur philosopher Hammond, the sour old Clubs, the practical and efficient Dockson, and the passionate, former Rebellion leader, Marsh. Every member has his role to play, and they do it well. Only they do it, for the most part, from behind the scenes. I just felt that they were a bit underused; what was supposed to take a full team ended up more as a two-man operation.

The story progresses with Kelsier, Breeze and Hammond trying to rally the people and build an army, while Vin and Marsh infiltrate the ruling class as spies.

Like many others have said before me: the magic system is where The Final Empirereally shines. Sanderson sets up a detailed, job oriented system called Allomancy, which involves the ingestion and burning of certain metals, each having their own magical attribute. The system is very specific in what the different metals are able to do. Those who are able to use this power are called Mistings, and are limited to one power a piece. Then there are the extra-special people, Mistborn, who can use the whole bunch. Mistings are rare, and Mistborn even more so. Naturally, our two heroes are both Mistborn. They’d have to be. Right?

It’s a difficult system to explain, so I’m not going to attempt to sum it up any further. Indeed, the author goes through much effort to explain it within the book, and I think that it needs those lengthy explanations to be understood fully. Even though the plot sometimes got stalled by it, the system itself was interesting enough that I didn’t mind.

Wait a minute. Wasn’t I talking about how Sanderson compares to Jordan? Well, outside of the level of detail in the magic system, which he manages better than Jordan, each chapter is begun with an excerpt detailing parts of the Hero of Ages journey to save the world from the mysterious Deepness. Written as journal entries in the Hero’s own voice, they often express self doubt of whether he is qualified for the job. It is those passages that resonate with Jordan’s influence. Even though we see precious little of him, the Hero’s tale holds a similarity to that of Rand al’Thor, and raises many of the same questions. Does the Hero fail? Or does he succeed and, corrupted by power, become the Lord Ruler? It is a mystery that permeates The Final Empire, never allowing you to fully grasp what actually happened until he wants you to know.

Besides the mystery of the Lord Ruler and the Hero of Ages, there are many others questions that compelled me along the book: What is the power of the Terris people? Why did Vin’s brother, Reen, abandon her? How did he betray her? Are the nobles really as bad as Kelsier believes them to be, or are they secretly just as oppressed as the skaa? How do the Inquisitors function? What does the mysterious eleventh-metal do?  Where did the mists come from? What was the Deepness? Can the god-like Lord Ruler even be killed?

All but one of those questions are answered in the end. Have to save something for the next book after all.

But one more question remains: Is Brandon Sanderson the right choice to finish The Wheel of Time? I think so. He’s already written a story that, except for the different magic systems, could serve as its, unofficial, sequel.

Overall Impression: Fantastic.

Final Thoughts: The Final Empire is exciting, clever, and, at times, thought provoking. With religious overtones, and deft political maneuvering, the plot is well paced, and manages to stay intriguing all the way through.


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December 29, 2007 at 6:12 am (Random Thoughts)

It took nearly a month, but I received my first ever spam comment today.  It’s so sweet that I have to share.

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Too bad Askminet doesn’t tell me what post that comment was made on.  I’m not sure what it really matters; I’m just curious.

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Christmas Gifts

December 29, 2007 at 5:53 am (Acquisitions)

I hate Christmas.  Spending “quality time” with family?  Throwing my hard earned money on frivolous trinkets for other people?  Increased traffic from so many people clamoring to get to the malls? No thank you.  But the one redeemable quality of the holiday – books.  While all of my own money is locked up buying gifts, I can at least count on some of those people to come through with a new title for me.  Or better still, a gift card to the book store.  It’s better that way, in fact.  First off, I don’t get books that I’m not interested in, or already own.  And second, there is no guilt over dropping a hundred dollars or more on books while there are other bills that need to be taken care of.  I had to spend it that way!

This year was my best yet in terms of book yield, picking up ten new titles:

Daniel Abraham – A Shadow in Summer
Mark J. Ferrari – The Book of Joby
Guy Gavriel Kay – The Lions of Al-Rassan
George R. R. Martin – Dreamsongs Volume I and Dreamsongs Volume II
A. Lee Martinez – Gil’s All Fright Diner
K. J. Parker – Devices and Desires, Evil for Evil and The Escapement
T. A. Pratt – Blood Engines

It was tough deciding which ones to read first (I want to read them all – now), but a few of them have found there way onto my tentative to-be-read pile, knocking other titles out of their way. And Dreamsongs I I have already started (though I’m going to read through it intermittently alongside another, primary, book – so it will probably be a while before I get a review up for it).

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December 26, 2007 at 12:02 pm (Movies)


A little late, but I saw Stardust over the weekend.  All told, I enjoyed it.  Was it ruined by Hollywood tampering?  I never read the book, so I can’t compare.  

It was a fairy-tail adventure story, hapless young man with questionable parentage saves a beautiful girl from sinister forces.  As such, it was very predictable.  There was some good humor as well from, most notably, the princely ghosts and Captain Shakespear.

First MirrorMask, and now Stardust, I’m becoming increasingly interested in checking out some of Neil Gaiman’s other works.

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The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

December 17, 2007 at 7:56 pm (Joe Abercrombie, Reviews)

Hoe Abercrombie - The Blade ItselfI had heard such a buzz about Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, book one of The First Law trilogy, that upon its September US release date, I rushed out to the store to find a copy, and immediately began reading it.

The first thing that I want to make clear, Joe is a fantastic writer. He has a flair for characterization that I’ve not seen matched by another author (for what that’s worth). His characters came to life, the very prose dripping with personality, not to mention a crisp sense of humor. Each character’s PoV chapters were so variegated, that I might believe they were written by different authors. In short, this is a character driven story.

The Blad Itself has many PoV characters, but three seem to warrant the title of “main character:”

Logen Ninefingers, the Bloody Nine, a legendary barbarian warrior. His name is respected and feared in the Northlands that were his home, and has now been exiled from. Logen is surprisingly refined for a savage, marked by an acute practicality. He is also reluctant to fight, though perfectly capable of handling himself when the need does arise.

     “Wells bent down and tested the flesh round the wound while Quai peered cautiously over his shoulder. ‘It’s mending well. You’re a fast healer.’
     ‘Lots of practice.’
     Wells looked up at Logen’s face, where the cut on his forehead had already faded to one more pink line. ‘I can see. Would it be foolish to advise you to avoid sharp objects in the future?’
     Logen laughed. ‘Believe it or not, I always did my best to avoid them in the past. But they seem to seek me out, despite my efforts.’” – page 146

Captain Jezal dan Luthar is a arrogant snob. Self-absorbed and untrustworthy, he has no real ambition but to live in pampered leisure. In order to achieve his goal, he needs to first make a name for himself. To do this, he has entered the Contest, a renowned fencing tournament, that to the winner goes fame and the likeliness of position. Under the training of lauded instructor and former champion, Marshal Varuz, Jezal trains for the prestige that he deserves, though not without complaint.

     “He wiped his face, and then-his favorite part of the day-gazed at himself in the looking glass. It was a good one, newly imported from Visserine, a present from his father: and oval of bright, smooth glass in a frame of lavishly carved dark wood. A fitting surround for such a handsome man as the one gazing happily back at him. Honestly, handsome hardly did him justice.
     ‘You’re quite the beauty aren’t you?’ Jezal said to himself, smiling as he ran his fingers over the smooth skin of his jaw. And what a jaw it was. He had often been told it was his best feature, not that there was anything whatever wrong with the rest of him. He turned to the right, then to the left, the better to admire that magnificent chin. Not too heavy, not brutish, but not too light either, not womanly or weak. A man’s jaw, no doubt, with a slight cleft in the chin, speaking of strength and authority, but sensitive and thoughtful too. Had there ever been a jaw like it? Perhaps some king, or hero of legend, once had one almost as fine. It was a noble jaw, that much was clear. No commoner could ever have had a chin so grand.” – page 311

Inquisitor Sand dan Glokta, an embittered cripple. A former winner of the Contest, and possibly the greatest swordsman of his day, he was left mangled in a conflict with neighboring Gurkish Empire. Once a tortured prisoner of war, he learned firsthand how to break a man. Now Glokta works in the House of Questions, along with his two assistants Practical’s Severard and Frost, putting his experience to use rooting out treasons against the Union.

     “What a place. Glokta stifled a smile. It reminds me of myself, in a way. We both were magnificent once, and we both have our best days far behind us.
     ‘It’s big enough, wouldn’t you say?’ asked Severard, picking his way in amongst the rubble towards a yawning doorway under the broken staircase, his lamp casting strange, slanting shadows as he moved.
     ‘Oh, I’d have thought so, unless we get more than a thousand prisoners at once.’ Glokta shuffled after him, leaning heavily on his cane, worried about his footing on the slimy floor. I’ll slip and fall right on my arse, right here in all this bird shit. That would be perfect.
     The arch opened into a crumbling hall, rotten plaster falling away in sheets, showing the damp bricks beneath. Gloomy doorways passed by on either side. The sort of place that would make a man nervous, if he was prone to nervousness. He might imagine unpleasant things in these chambers, just beyond the lamp light, and horrible acts taking place in the darkness. He looked up at Severard, ambling jauntily along in front, tuneless whistling vaguely audible from behind his mask, and frowned. But we are not prone to nervousness. Perhaps we are the unpleasant things. Perhaps the acts are ours.” – page 162

So there are the characters, but what do they do? Sadly, not much. We see Logen in a couple of fights. Jezal spends most of the book training for the fencing match, and agonizing over his love interest Ardee. Aspects of the upcoming war against the Northmen are brought out through Bayaz, the First of the Magi (using Logen as an intermediary), and Colonel West. Glokta tortures anybody he can get his hands on, in remarkably inventive ways. And that’s about it for more than 500 pages.

It looks like the main plot of The First Law revolves around the conflict between the Union and the Northern barbarians, but the book shuffled through so much characterization that it wasn’t made clear until the book was almost finished. Not that I mind a little characterization. Or even a lot of it. But I think that The Blade Itself goes a little overboard. Memorable characters will only go so far, if they don’t actually do something.

The plot dragged so badly, that after 340 pages, I had had enough. It was boring me silly, and I could force myself to press on no longer.

I don’t know if I needed the break, or if I just put it down too soon, but when I came back to it last week, I found the story much more enjoyable. The last couple hundred pages started to pick up steam, and an actual plot materialized.

As much as the pacing bothered me, I can’t put down The Blade Itself too much. Indeed, I think that it should not be judged on its own merit. It was not the first episode of a trilogy, but the first third of a story that is being spread out into three volumes. At that, I think that The First Law should be judged as a series. But, alas, I have not the other books, and so cannot speak for the series as a whole.

Overall Impression: Regrettably Mediocre

Final Thoughts: Joe Abercrombie’s The Blade Itself, while enjoyable, is ruined by an unfocussed plot. By the end, though, it picked up enough to offer hope for the next volume, Before They Are Hanged.

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Rating System

December 11, 2007 at 5:22 pm (Random Thoughts)

If anybody has been reading my reviews, not that there are many of them, you may have noticed my lack of a rating system. Such an odd choice considering that the generally accepted system is to offer a judgment on the book by a scale, be it out of 5, or out of 10. What good is a review without a rating?

Literature is art, and art is subjective. And old trope, to be sure. But that doesn’t make it untrue. As such, I don’t feel that I can quantify art. I cannot justify it to myself. Furthermore, I’m not really qualified to. What right do I have to slap a number on art? I am no expert, just some guy who happened to read a book.

And how accurate are those scales anyway? When so many factors need be considered for a rating – strength of prose, characterization, plot comprehension, originality, entertainment value – how can we be sure to come to an accurate score? Well, I submit that one cannot. Even the scales themselves are subjective. Whenever I look at a review, and see a score of “7/10” on the bottom, I see that as a bad mark. After all, if it were any good, it would have gotten at least an 8. But is 7 really all that bad? Surely it’s not a great book, but is it so low that it shouldn’t be worth consideration? And then I see another that scores “5/10.” Well, that says to me that it was awful. True, it’s only halfway down the scale, and that should indicate mediocrity, which is still not bad. But perceptions are what they are.

Now, one could shrink the scale to 5. A little less specific, but it also leaves less room for misinterpretation. But if a 4 can be anywhere between a 7.5 and an 8.5… That’s a pretty significant difference when you think of in those terms.

How can I rate to a scale when I can’t even decide how they work?

So if literature is art, and I cannot put a numeric rating to art, then what is the purpose of this blog anyway? It’s purpose is opinion. Nothing more. What value is my opinion? That’s up to those reading it to decide.

In my reviews, I will try to give a comprehensive summary of the work. I will try to be informative on the technical aspects of the novel. I will try to expound on it’s themes (where I notice them). Will I succeed? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe sometimes. I can guarantee no more. But what I will do, is give an honest opinion about it. And if there are any external factors that may be skewing my perceptions, I’ll be sure to make it known.

I think, the most important thing in a review, is whether or not the book was any good. That’s what we want to know, why we’re reading it in the first place, right? So I do it in a very broad sense. While a novel can be crafted of beautiful prose and technical accuracy, it can also be droll. While it can be sloppily written, it can also be fun. Poor characterization but an intriguing plot, and vice versa. Yeah, but was it good?

I’m going to make recommendation on this blog, as I would to any friend in the real world. When someone asks me what I thought of a book, I don’t toss numbers at them (maybe some people do). I say, “yeah, it was pretty good,” or what have you. That’s what all I’m going to say for my “Overall Impression.” What help is that? Admittedly little.  But that’s what the rest of the review is for; to clarify my vague assessment. If you don’t feel like reading my lengthy word vomits, then I’ve included the “Final Thoughts” section. Just a quick little summary of my opinion.

Is it worth reading? Again, that’s up to you.

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The Skewed Throne by Joshua Palmatier

December 10, 2007 at 5:49 pm (Joshua Palmatier, Reviews)

Joshua Palmatier - The Skewed ThroneThe Skewed Throne is the debut novel from Joshua Palmatier.

Such a boring intro is fitting for this book as that’s about how enthusiastic I was while reading it.

At the start we are treated to a short info dump about a mysterious White Fire that burned through the world a millennia ago, and then again a few years before the outset of the story. What it does is never explained (apparently it just wanders through, without actually burning anything). Nor is where it came from.

The Skewed Throne tells the story of Varis, orphaned at 6 years old, she survives on the Dredge, and in the slums of Amenkor beyond, for 8 years before the opening of the novel. The book spans 3 more years.

It follows dual timelines, the present, which shows Varis’s mission to assassinate the Mistress, and the past (which dominates the book) chronicling her rise to super-assassinhood, and other events that lead up to her present-day mission.

We start in the Dredge, what appears to be the only main thoroughfare in the slums of Amenkor. Varis is a gutter rat, stealing what food she can to survive. Attacked in an ally, she is observed by Erik, a “Seeker,” as she fights off her assailant.

Forgive me for being a little hesitant of reading any book that features a character titled “Seeker.” I can still taste the foul residue of Goodkind clinging to the word. If it hadn’t been for the glowing praise it was represented to me with, I might have abandoned it here.

A Seeker, in this novel, is something of a bounty hunter/assassin. The Mistress dictates who needs to die, and the Seeker sees that it is done. As refugees pile in to the slums of Amenkor, Erik’s work becomes increasingly more difficult. So he uses Varis to locate his marks for him. She sits along the Dredge, finds the men he is looking for, follows them to the hole they live in, and then leads the Seeker to them. Wherein they are killed mercilessly.

Just for kicks, Erik teaches Varis how to fight, though for how serves his use for her, I don’t know.

“Varis soon realized that some of those marked for death were not guilty.” That from the back cover. One time does she notice it, little good it does anybody, and she does little to find an explanation. It’s not even what drove her from the Dredge; that came from a rivalry with another gutter scum named Bloodmark.

After Varis flees to the upper-city of Amenkor, where the rich folk live, and we are treated to some lackluster political maneuvering until the story reaches it’s climax.

Being that this is fantasy, she, naturally, has a special ability: “She had a gift for ‘Seeing’ the true nature of people…” That is also from the synopsis on the back cover. “The true nature of people” is a broad overstatement of a simple ability.

     “I peered out from the darkness of the slums now, huddled low, mud-brick pressed into my back. On the street, men and women moved back and forth. I watched each of them as they arrived, caught their faces, scanned their clothing. That man wore tattered rags but carried a dagger at his belt. Yet there was no danger in his eyes. Hard, but not cruel. He carried nothing else, and so he faded from my mind, nothing but a darker blur against the dull gray of the world. Unconsciously, I kept track of him-of all the people-but he’d ceased to be interesting. Not a target; not a threat. Gray.
     A flash of fine clothing and my eyes shifted. Not truly fine clothing-frayed edging, a tear down one side of the gray shirt, breeches stained, oily-but better than most. He wore boots, one sole loose at the heel, the nails visible when he walked. He also carried a dagger, hidden, his hand resting over the bulge of its sheath at his side. He walked quickie, tense, and his eyes…
     But he turned before I could catch his eyes, his torn shirt and loose sole vanishing through a doorway.
     He faded.
     I settled into position next to the wall, wincing once over the bruise on my chest, and let the flow of the street wash around me. When the pain receded, I focused on the street, squinted in concentration, and felt a familiar sensation deep inside.
     With a subtle, internal movement, like relaxing a muscle, the sensation rushed forward.
     The world collapsed, slowed, blurred. Buildings and people faded, grayed. Those men and women I’d determined to be possible threats slid into washes of red against the background gray, like smears of blood, moving through the flow of the street. Occasionally, I’d concentrate on one person and they’d emerge from the gray, sharp and clear, so I could watch them, consider them. Casual glances would draw others out of the gray, their actions entering the field momentarily, and then I’d lose interest, determine they carried nothing I could eat, nothing I wanted, and the people would return to gray.”
-page 24-25

A lengthier explanation maybe, but it much more clearly states the process of her ability. Varis did not see “the true nature of people,” but was able to detect only whether or not they were a threat. A threat to her specifically. When she dipped into her “Sight,” the good guys (or not so much good guys, but those who were inconsequential) came up gray, and the bad guys red.

Going “beneath the river,” as Varis commonly calls it, seems to work much like the “Void” from The Wheel of Time. It is a state of extreme focus. Only with discoloration.

It seems a truly black and white, or red and gray as it were, assessment of the world. Until people start coming up a combination of the two colors. At which point a great opportunity for explorations on morality is passed by, as the author never bothers to explore those characters in any depth. The phenomenon gets a fleeting notice, and is then brushed past to advance the plot instead.

Beyond the thermal-vision of the “river,” Varis also has something of a spidey-sense infused to her by the White Fire. She gets a burning sensation, sometimes in her chest, sometimes in her limbs, whenever someone is going to do her, or those she cares for, harm. Her abilities are never really made clear, and he seemed to making up new levels for the convenience of the plot.

     “The depths beyond the Dredge began to shift, as they’d done when I’d followed the hawk-faced man. Except now, five years after the Fire, the decay had crept closer to the Dredge itself, like a blight on the city and its streets. Mud-brick slipped to crumbling granite. Streets narrowed to alleys, then narrows, shortened and filled with heaps of decaying filth. Mildew thickened to slime, streams to sludge. The reek of the Dredge deepened, stank of piss and shit and rot. The light darkened, as if the depths of the Dredge were sucking it away, swallowing it as it swallowed everything that lingered too long, that hesitated. Soon, everything north of the River would be subsumed. I could see it happening, could feel the blight of the city on my skin.” –page 123

Of all the complaints that I may find in The Skewed Throne, poor imagery is not one of them. The above excerpt clearly describes the cities decay. But numerous references of its deterioration are tiring. Phrases like “the smell of rotten butter and piss and blood,” and “blood and piss and shit,” spring up every few pages, bludgeoning the filth into reader. It was edgy the first time. But only the first time. The overuse of these phrases create a forced grittiness that detracts from its believability.

When the story moves to upper-Amenkor, the focus shifts from the outer-decay of the environment, to the inner-corruption of the people. A social statement perhaps?

The prose is in the midst of an identity crisis. It’s written in a first-person narrative that lacks the intimacy normally associated with the voice, instead opting for the florid detail more befitting a third-person perspective. I wonder why he didn’t just go with third- person? The story would have flowed much more smoothly. As it stands, the writing is not bad, but it is a little disorienting.

Varis is a well realized character, even if nobody else is. The author takes the effort to explore the morality associated with some of her victims, and brushes by those that she doesn’t feel personally responsible for, lending her a vague sense of ambiguity. But it comes off as more of an outlet for the author to highlight the difference between murder and self-defense.

I have a few more lingering complaints. The layout of the city was unclear, and could have benefited from a map. Apparently the author believes that people have black blood, as not a drop of it comes out red. And in the present day scenes, Varis is hinted at as being a great assassin, but when the flashbacks are done, very little has taken place to actually make her so effective; her skill mostly resulting from her “gift.”

Overall Impression:  Mediocre.

Final Thoughts: The Skewed Throne manages to be interesting without becoming engaging, and Varis appealing but not compelling.

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Underworld – Rise of the Lycans

December 10, 2007 at 12:25 am (Movies)

 Underworld - Evolution

Peeking around IMDB brought to my attention this little movie project.  Underworld, a long favorite series, is now filming its third chapter.  I really need to make better effort to keep up.

Prequel story traces the origins of the centuries-old blood feud between the aristocratic vampires known as Death Dealers and their onetime slaves, the Lycans. In the Dark Ages, a young Lycan named Lucian (Sheen) emerges as a powerful leader who rallies the werewolves to rise up against Viktor (Nighy), the cruel vampire king who has enslaved them. Lucian is joined by his secret lover, Sonja (Mitra), in his battle against the Death Dealer army and his struggle for Lycan freedom.”

Sounds good to me.  I was always curious about the origins of the Vampire/Lycan war, and wanted to see more than the few pieces that were added into the first movie.  I can barely contain my excitement.  Though I am going to miss vampire-dominatrix Kate Beckinsale.

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Pirates of the Caribbean – At World’s End

December 9, 2007 at 6:03 am (Movies)

Pirates of the Caribbean - At World's End

I finally got to see Pirates 3 today.  Honestly, I don’t know why so many people have been complaining about this movie.  Sure the pacing slowed down quite a bit, and the plot got a little confused with all of the scheming going on, but it was still a good movie.  Johnny Depp was entertaining as usual, though I thought that Geoffrey Rush stole the show, and Keira Knightley is still sexy (she needs to do nothing more).  Then it ended with a monster of an action sequence, and the promise of a part 4.  How was it disappointing?

Maybe I just have soft standards.  No matter.  Pirates of the Caribbean is still, despite its flaws, my favorite movie series.

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Death Masks by Jim Butcher

December 3, 2007 at 5:55 pm (Jim Butcher, Reviews)

Jim Butcher - Death MasksI came into Jim Butcher’s Dresden Filesseries a few months ago, the uproar that was going on at Westeros bringing it to my attention.  In the four books that I’ve read through thus far, I’ve only been disappointed once, and that with Summer KnightDeath Masks, the fifth book in the series, fortunately pulled the series back on track.

This book makes me want to start spouting off a bunch of clichéd movie taglines like “rollercoaster ride!” and “takes no prisoners!” Eugh, even the feeling of that temptation disgusts me. But regardless of my own revulsions, it really was “action-packed.” The frenzy came on early and drove the story along to the end.

Ortega (wait, isn’t that a salsa brand?), a Duke of the vampire’s Red Court, has come to town to challenge the affable Harry Dresden to a duel. The stakes? If Harry wins, Chicago will become a neutral zone in the war between the Red Court and the White Council. If Ortega wins, it may curtail the war altogether. The Shroud of Turin, the ancient artifact speculated to have covered Jesus of Nazareth in his tomb, has been stolen, and, surprise surprise, brought to Chicago. And the Vatican, naturally, has recruited the redoubtable Wizard PI to find it. The police have turned up a handless and headless mystery corpse, and Murphy, head of Chicago PD’s “Special Investigations” division, is looking for a little unofficial, and unpaid, consultation to aid in its identification. The Denarians are running loose and have it in for Harry.  And on top of all that, Susan, Harry’s half-vampire ex-girlfriend, is back in town.

What seems at first like a plot overload, especially for such a short book, quickly dissolves into two rival storylines: the duel and case of the missing Shroud. Two villains, the Duke and the Denarians. With the latter taking up the majority of the focus.

The Denarians , or the Fallen (as in Angels), don’t follow the same rules as the other demons we’ve met up to this point. Ancient coins serve as prisons for the fallen angels, but they are also their route to power. Humans who come into possession of the coins are tempted and beguiled, by the demon trapped inside, into turning over their own will in favor of Denarian control. They’re pretty much indestructible, vulnerable only to the sacred swords wielded by the Knights of the Cross. Conveniently, a team of Knights are on hand to deal with them.

The two cases threaten to get in each others way throughout, helping to increase the tension of an already hectic story.

The humor is crisp and remains Jim Butcher’s greatest attribute. Harry brandishes his sharp wit on nearly every page, and serves up numerous amusing one-liners. Sporadic pop-culture references help to lend the story a more authentic real world flavor. But Harry’s personality has infected the rest of the cast, specifically Susan and Thomas, making the characterization a bit redundant. Jim Butchers penchant for wisecracks kept it entertaining, and he did throw in a few more serious characters to keep it from getting out of hand.

Despite the intimacy of the first-person narrative, Harry still manages to retain an element of mystery. [Jim Butcher] continues to parcel out information on Harry’s background and family, offering just a pinch more in each book.

The action itself has gotten better as well. I’ve always found that action sequences come off as clumsy when using the first-person perspective. To remedy this, the brunt of the fighting is handled by Susan, Michael, and the other Knights of the Cross, allowing us to pull away to something resembling a more traditional third-person view.

The prose is simple and straightforward, alleviating the need to dig for clues within the text as many of the more ambitious epic series require. And we are treated to some interesting plot twists that are believable without being overly predictable.

But it’s not all good news. The action an comedy take their toll on other aspects of the story. Though it’s probably nit-picking on my part.

I understand that he’s trying to keep the story set in a real world timeline, but without any political references, mentions of current events, or concern for the latest technological advances, it’s pointless. The story is set a year after the last volume, (indeed, all of them so far have been set a year apart), but it could easily have taken place two or three months later. It would have been more readily believable considering that nothing has actually happened in that time.

Between the third book, Grave Peril, and the fourth, Summer Knight, we had a lot going on. There was Harry’s downward spiral, and obsessive research to find a cure for Susan’s condition, and various attacks on the White Council by the Red Court. In the gap between that and Summer Knight and Death Masks? Not so much.

The war against the vampires has ground to a standstill. Even though the vampires were winning, they apparently decided to let up. It seems as though the author has lost interest with the Vampire War story arc, only two books after it was introduced. Either that or his neglect is a stalling tactic so that he can drag it out over a few more volumes.

Besides the annual movement in the war, Harry also seems to only get big cases on the same schedule. If we have a year between each story, then by the end of this series Harry will be close to 50. So he’ll retain his virility by the fact that wizards age more slowly than regular people, which works fine to justify the action, but he’s pretty high profile and people are going to notice that he’s 100 years old and still has the body of 25 year old. Harry could take a lesson from the Highlander immortals who were more circumspect.

After the fist book, Storm Front, the investigative aspect has taken a back seat, and serves as more of a façade than anything else. After all, how else is he going to get into these situations? The first lead seems to turn up the villain, and start the action extravaganza that stretches the next 300 pages. And the cases are always solved within a few days. Not that I’m complaining too much; I didn’t pick these up because I’m a fan of Mystery novels.

Death Masks was uncharacteristically rife with consistency errors, with the details sometimes shifting within only a few paragraphs. I blame sloppy editors for those. Other times it was more broadly confusing, which falls on the author himself. If I’m noticing this trend now, as imperceptive as I am, then other more discerning readers have probably long since become annoyed at this.

So what’s next? We’ve already averted the end of the world with the threat of a second ice-age, and now it’s a stand off with demons trying to bring about Armageddon. I don’t see how he’s going to be able to raise the stakes much higher the next time around, but I am looking forward to seeing it.

Overall Impression:  Pretty good. 

Final Thoughts: Death Masks, and The Dresden Files in general, is mindless fun that will satisfy the guiltiest of guilty pleasures. 

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