Friday, November 30, 2007

Elantris and Wind

My wife and I had a discussion, of sorts, last night as to whether the myth about men being incapable of understanding the female mind is true. It seems likely that this belief arises less from men's inability to follow the thought processes of their female counterparts than from their unwillingness to acknowledge that when they arrive at different conclusions each conclusion just might be equally valid. Ultimately, this is a door that swings both ways, so take note women.

For my birthday my wife bought me the fantasy novel Elantris by Brian Sanderson. It was a safe bet on her part since I had mentioned to her several times that I wanted to read it. It turned out that she ended up reading it before I did. When she was done she told me that she had enjoyed it, but that she thought it was more of a "guy" book than a "girl" book. She told me the same thing last night after I finished reading it. I had kept that thought in mind while I was reading the book, but by the time I finished I had decided that it seemed more like a book that would appeal equally to either gender.

When I asked her how she arrived at her assessment, her answer was that it didn't have enough romance. Well ladies, it's true- if your idea of a good fantasy novel requires that its characters spend much of their time sending each other furtive glances and whispering sweet nothings in one another's ears, then yeah, you might think Elantris falls a bit short. It does portray a romantic relationship between two of its main characters, but it's a relationship that's stymied by circumstances beyond their control.

But c'mon gals, you don't really expect me to believe that the only thing you're interested in reading is mushy-eyed exchanges between hopelessly besotted amorites- right? Elantris is appealing because it explores several topics relative to the human experience, only one of which is love.

Particularly interesting to me was the way it dealt with the meaning and origin of religious faith. If you're like me, reading Elantris may well cause you to ask yourself what faith is, where it comes from and what its relationship is with logical understanding as well as with pious devotion.

But don't fret. I'm not trying to get you to read a book that's long on theological philosophising. The theological aspects are woven seamlessly into- and contribute meaningfully to- an entertaining tail of political intrigue, exotic magic, and for the stereotypical male, a bit of swashbuckling action.

This is not Tolkienesque fantasy. The setting is sort of late rennaisance. The are no magical or exotic creatures. No one is sent on a quest to save the world. The main characters are the opposite of the humble backwoods nobody sent out to fulfill his destiny. The story revolves around a once-mighty city whose power- derived from magic that's tied to the earth itself- has failed. It's inhabitants, once seen by the common people as gods, are now in a fallen state and despised by those who once revered them. The story follows two characters as they set about to restore the fallen city of Elantris to greatness. If you read it I doubt you'll be disappointed.


I'm no literary pundit (I love making overwhelming understatements like that) but when you see the things people are saying about The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, and then you read the book, you start wondering whether this won't be the beginning of the next Harry-Potter-like book craze that takes the world by storm. The Name of the Wind is good. It's really good. It's as good as fantasy gets.

It's a story about a young wizard, Kvothe, whose power was once so great that there wasn't anyone who didn't know his name. But the story begins after his fall from grace. Something- we don't know what, yet- caused him to make the world believe he had died. His faked death allows him to live under an assumed identity as an innkeeper in a tiny backwater village where his apathy towards his magic leaves it unused and atrophied and no one bothers to give him, a simple innkeeper, a second thought. Until an unexpected visitor arrives who knows exactly who Kvothe is.

This is the first book of a projected trilogy. The meat of this book is spent on Kvothe's retelling his own story to his visitor, a biographer of sorts who makes a living chronicling other peoples stories. Kvothe tells the man about his childhood and adolescence. It's a story rich with emotion- heartbreak, despair, love, infatuation, anger, compassion- and Rothfuss is able to portray these emotions so that they ring true. If that's all this story had it would still be good. But it's not just good, it's brilliant. Rothfuss is able to take the emotional truthfulness of Kvothe's story and set it in a world so richly detailed with history, mythos, geography and society that you can't help but be swept up in the realness of it all.

Kvothe is a character who is easy to sympathize with and his story will please those who crave action and adventure as well as those who prefer the characters they read about to be well developed and true to themselves. It's likely to please an array of different literary palates.

An added bonus is that this trilogy was originally written as a single volume. That's right- book two and book three have already been written! So fans of the book won't have to endure near-endless waiting while the author works on the sequels. Book two is due out in April and book three is supposed to be released sometime in 2009.

If you like good fantasy fiction and you take your time in getting around to reading this book then you'll only kick yourself for having waited so long once you've finally read it.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

World's End, Flyboys, Out of Africa and Húrin

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End
What a mess. I had really hoped that this film would make up for the disappointing offering that was Dead Man’s Chest. No such luck. The first movie in this series was so entertaining. What happened to Jack Sparrow’s clever antics, and the clear cut adventurous storyline that made it so appealing? Instead of a laugh-filled rollicking adventure, World’s End tries to wrap together a laundry list of mostly uninteresting plot lines while delivering a mixture of violence, jokes, and violent jokes that was nigh unto nauseating at times.

Where Black Pearl offered ample servings of Captain Jack’s humorous undertakings, this film attempts to bribe its audience into laughing by offering a delusional Sparrow trapped in his own version of Hell, trying to sail a ship manned by dozens of versions of himself through a desert wasteland. The film dragged on, trying to outdo it’s predecessors with supposedly epic battle scenes and one fall-flat joke after another. And just when I thought the series had reached new lows and couldn’t get any lamer, someone decided to insert the wedding-scene-to-end-all-wedding-scenes. C’mon—a bride and groom killing people with swords while they’re getting married? I’m sure whoever did it thought they were being real clever putting that in there. But it wasn’t clever. It was dumb. And I was insulted to think that someone thought it would make me laugh, or get excited, or whatever it was they thought I would do.

Finding out how the Pirates story ends is the only reason that I can offer for seeing this movie to anyone who might still be deliberating the issue. So it goes without saying that if you’re not a Pirates fan to begin with then there’s really no reason at all to watch this film. If you’re looking for good entertainment, watch something else, like Flyboys.

This movie got a lot of bad reviews. “Cliché war film”, they said. “Uninteresting characters”, they said. “Predictable and shallow”, they said. I found it to be none of these. I haven’t watched that many war movies, so maybe I’m not qualified to say whether or not it’s cliché as a war film. And of course the characters weren’t examined in depth. When you’re trying to tell the stories of why 6 different men decided to go to war, and what happens to each of them as the war changes them, you don’t get to fully develop any of them. But that’s not a bad thing. I’ll take an underdeveloped cast of main characters in a compelling story that makes sense any day over fish-people slicing and dicing pirates in a disorganized excuse for a plot.

The film succeeds because it gives a broad view of what was going on in the aerial theatre of the war before the US decided to join. And it does it in an entertaining way. It offers the audience interesting characters and gives us reasons to care about them. No, the characters are not deep and complex, but that didn’t make me not care when they died in combat or when they were successful. In fact, the bits and pieces of their stories that the film does offer are still quite fascinating, and they form an interesting mosaic as they bump against one another during the progression of this film.

Bottom line—I enjoyed this film. It was entertaining, and it gave me an appreciation for an part of history that I new very little about before. (Yes, I did my homework and the film is, for the most part, historically accurate.)

Out of Africa
My wife brought home a couple of movies Friday night. One of them was Out of Africa. “It’s famous” she said, in a sort of half-apologetic way, as if that were a good enough reason to watch it. The title sparked some vague and distant idea in my brain that maybe I had heard of it before, but I wasn’t sure. Whenever she brings home a movie that I probably wouldn’t have picked out myself, had I been the one at the movie store, I feel some sense of duty to put on a front of moderate disinterest, at least initially. This was one of those times. But the front doesn’t usually last long, and more often than not I end up watching the films.

When this one was over, my general impression was that it could be used as an excellent primer on how to ruin your life by way of promiscuity. Meryl Streep plays the antagonist- a Danish woman at the turn of the 20th century whose life plan was to marry the wealthy Dane she had been sleeping with and let him support her for the rest of her life. Her plan falls apart when her lover tells her that he refuses to marry a woman who everyone knows isn’t a virgin. Her humiliation forces her to decide that she needs to leave the country. So she convinces her lover’s brother, who has money and land in Africa, to marry her and let her run a farm on his land. He concedes out of… friendship? …pity? ...lust? …a sense of honor? I wasn’t exactly sure. Ultimately, the marriage fails (big surprise), and in the meantime Streep’s character begins an affair with a lone-wolf type safari-hunter/naturalist played by good old Robert Redford. Streep’s husband feels guilty for having given her syphilis, so when they divorce he lets her keep the farm. (Nice of him since part of it was paid for with her money, I think.)

There are a lot of interwoven themes present in this film—ideas related to the unfortunate lot of the natives who get pushed off their land by invading European colonists, strong-willed women trying to make a place for themselves in the world—you know, noble stuff like that. And they might have actually seemed noble and worth making the movie for if it weren’t for the fact that film tries to make its audience admire and respect a character who is at best tragic and pitiable. Like I said, all the difficulties and suffering that this woman encounters in her life would have been avoided if she and her lovers would have chosen faithful marriage over extramarital sex. So was there anything at all redeeming about this movie? Well, it did have some great cinematography. From what I’ve seen in movies and on TV, Africa has a lot of natural beauty, and this film did a great job of making me appreciate that a little more. The acting was good. (Though I’ve since learned Redford didn’t bother learning an accent, as did Meryl Streep, even though the real-life person on whom Redford’s character was based was British. I guess someone thought it would be cooler for him to be an American.) Or at least the acting would have qualified as good if it hadn’t been for the annoying fact that much of the dialogue was incomprehensible. Let’s see…. uhm… I can’t really think of anything else to praise about this film. Basically, I don’t recommend it.

The Children of Húrin
The Sunday Times of London had this to say about The Children of Húrin:

“Although JRR Tolkien aficionados will be thrilled, others will find The Children of Húrin barely readable."

I don’t consider myself a Tolkien aficionado. I mean, aren’t those the guys that go to those conventions dressed up like elves and rangers and wizards? I’ve read The Hobbit twice and the Lord of the Rings once—I enjoyed them both immensely. I tried reading The Silmarillion, but, like others, I was put off by the epic/mythic style of storytelling and couldn’t get through the first story. But The Children of Húrin doesn’t read like The Silmarillion.

The narrative often lacks the depth of detail you might expect from Tolkien, which is ironic, given the epic scope of this story. Or maybe not—maybe it’s entirely appropriate for this kind of tale. It doesn’t matter. If you’ve ever fallen in love with Middle-earth and have longed to return to it by way of a fresh new story, but couldn’t will yourself through The Silmarillion or The Book of Unfinished Tales, or any of that other posthumous stuff then this book is for you. The narrative is complete enough to be satisfying. The characters and places are intriguing—the story takes place in parts of Middle-earth that were long since immersed by the time Bilbo Baggins ever met his first dwarf, so to you and me these places are new and fresh while still bearing all the satisfying familiarity of Middle-earth. (I understand that this story was published, in shorter form, as part of the Silmarillion, so perhaps it won’t be as fresh to those who have already read that book.)

This story has all the requisite elements that made me fall in love with Middle-earth the first time around—elves and dwarves, orcs, dragons and balrogs, epic battles, heroic deeds preformed with legendary weapons, and of course that great European-folklore fantasy feel that Tolkien perfected.

But it’s definitely not a good-triumphs-over-all kind of story the way The Lord of the Rings is. Nor is it a happy there-and-back again adventure like The Hobbit. It has the feel of a Greek tragedy. (Oedipus Rex comes specifically to mind, but I let you find out why.) The main character finds little, if any, happiness in his life. Indeed, he spends the better part of his life either in exile, or running away from imagined enemies, supposing himself to be a fugitive. Most of his attempts at doing good or bringing about justice ultimately cause grief and anguish for himself and those around him. Often he is able to thwart his enemies and do harm to those who would do the same to him. But the successes he is able to accomplish are continually contrasted with the negative side effects that his actions create.

The story doesn’t have a happy ending. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. Quite the opposite in fact. The return to Middle-earth that this book offers is worth the read alone. But a story, even a fantasy, doesn’t have to have a happy ending to be a great story. I certainly wouldn’t recommend this as an introduction to Tolkien’s work. But, if you’re a fan of Middle-earth you should definitely read this.