Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Shamelessly lifted news items: Agincourt, The Hobbit, and Styrbiorn

A few news items of interest, lifted shamelessly from other blogs and/or newsgroups I subscribe to:

Bernard Cornwell's Agincourt headed to the big screen. I enjoyed Cornwell's take on this legendary battle from the Hundred Years' War a lot (if you're interested, my full review can be found here at The Cimmerian), if not as much as The Warlord Trilogy or The Saxon Stories. I'm already giddy with the thought of seeing French knights charging English longbowmen and the ensuing slaughter in the mud. And Henry's pre-battle speech, of course.

E.R. Eddison's Styrbiorn the Strong to be reissued. I plucked this bit of news off a new blog I recently added to my roll, Tolkien and Fantasy. Styrbiorn the Strong is a book I've long had on my "to be read list" but haven't yet obtained, as it's been long out of print. This new edition by the author of the incomparable The Worm Ouroboros is due out in August and I'll be purchasing it with glee. How can you go wrong with Eddison's style combined with a rousing viking tale?

Hobbit titles, dates revealed. So we've got the dates--December 14, 2012, and December 13, 2013--and the respective names of the two-part film: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and The Hobbit: There and Back Again. Sounds promising! The associated news that Orlando Bloom is reprising his role as Legolas is decidedly less so. I actually don't mind this deviation, provided that it's a minor role and doesn't involve Bloom single-handedly slaying Mumakil (or wargs, or the entire Bodyguard of Bolg) at the Battle of Five Armies. This is Beorn's turn to shine, and he had better not be upstaged by an uber-elf.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Entering the Lists in Defense of Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe

There’s a school of thought that views the Middle Ages as a dark gulf between the Classical Age and the rebirth of reason known as the Renaissance. The Middle Ages were, to paraphrase science fiction author David Brin, an unhappy time of small-mindedness and fear, marked by the squabbles of petty nobles, ignorance, superstition, and religious persecution.

Thus, any historical fiction that dares emit a whiff of romanticism of the age is viewed by some as anathema, a whitewashed but corrupted view of “reality”.

But as time marches on and new discoveries and scholarship come to light, we’ve realized that these times weren’t quite as dark and backwards as we once believed. And that allows us to revisit old works of art like Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe with a fresh perspective. My recent re-read of Scott’s 1819 classic of historical fiction reminded me of the following reasons why it’s still relevant and worth re-reading.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Celebrating ten years of slaying dragons

This past weekend we celebrated the tenth anniversary of our current D&D group. As anticipated we did something really crazy on our 10th anniversary and ... played a game of D&D!

The hostess prepared an awesome diorama: A green dragon cake on top of a hoard of golden (candy) treasure, surrounded by crumbling columns. You can't see them in this photo but a horde of treasure-hungry heroes advance on the monster. Other nasty creatures stand lurking on the perimeter. There's another dragon in the foreground whose mouth contains the party's halfling thief, Shem.

In the photo below, I strike the killing below, beheading the beast with one swipe of a +3 butter knife. That's me on the left, with Chris, our DM, at right.

Here's to 10 more years of slaying dragons.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Thor kicks ass!

I rarely get to see “big person” movies these days. Thanks to my two young daughters, my most recent movie experiences include Tangled, Yogi Bear, and Toy Story 3 (the first and last are recommended. Yogi Bear... not so much). So naturally when the chance to see a grown up movie with a friend of mine finally rolled around, we saw … Thor.

…okay, so Thor is suitable for most kids, too. But let’s face it—these recent Marvel movies are geared just as much for current/former comic book fans in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who want to see spectacle and experience nostalgia for the heroes of their youth. That described my anticipation for this film. And Thor delivers!

I’ve always liked the character of Thor. I was never a big collector of the comic back in the day (Captain America and Savage Sword of Conan were my favorites), but for a time I did collect The Avengers, and next to Cap, Thor was always a favorite. I was (and still am) interested in Vikings and Norse mythology so I felt a natural attraction. I also liked the fact that Thor provided some much needed muscle on the Avengers and could fight guys like Goliath and Ultron in toe-to-toe battles that tore up city streets and knocked over buildings.

Overall, Thor was a very good film and I enjoyed myself immensely. I haven’t seen all the super hero films, but I enjoyed this one more than Spiderman and Batman. It felt bigger and more otherworldly and suffused with glorious comic-book eye candy (Asgard, and in particular the Bifrost Bridge, looked great). I liked the big, bold, dramatic acting, which plainly had a Kenneth Branagh influence. Heimdall was very cool character.

Given that Thor is a God of Thunder from another plane there are naturally going to be cultural clashes when he comes to earth. These made for some of the funniest and best scenes in the movie. My favorite bit was a scene in which Thor is eating in a diner and has his first cup of coffee. Enjoying it, he slams the empty mug down on the floor, shattering it into a thousand pieces as he shouts, “Another!”, as if he were in some great mead hall in Asgard. I laughed out loud. I also loved the scenes in which Thor loses his powers and is a mortal man but doesn’t realize it until he’s overpowered by a group of scientists, or finds himself at the wrong end of a stun-gun.

The best thing about the movie is the actors, which I wasn’t expecting. Chris Hemsworth was very charismatic and played an entirely convincing Thor. I had never heard of him previously but can see him blossoming into a big time action star. Anthony Hopkins was good as Odin, bringing the gravitas to the role one would expect. The guy who played Loki was great (though not quite as buff as the Loki I remember from the comics), both scheming and sympathetic. And the love interest between Natalie Portman’s character and Thor worked for me. It was done simply and sincerely and left you feeling the pang of separation.

I thought Thor had some problems. S.H.I.E.L.D. struck me as far too inept/gullible. There was a fight between Thor and a steel-encased guardian that ended in anti-climactic fashion, given the big build-up of the guardian’s powers. Thor is exiled to earth and loses his powers, and when they are restored I wanted to see more of him in action, flying and exhibiting great feats of strength and skill with Mjolnir. Alas, he was whisked off far too quickly to Asgard at film’s end for the final climactic show-down with Loki.

Also, I never really understood (or cared) what Portman’s character was trying to do with her pseudo-scientific project. And I would have liked to have seen a little more of the culture shock that would naturally result when you get an alien God walking the streets of earth. By film’s end Thor seems pretty comfortable in jeans and a flannel shirt, which seemed entirely too quick and convenient.

But in the end Thor left me both saying “wow” and wanting more of this character—which is probably exactly what the film makers intended, given that Thor, Iron Man, and the forthcoming Captain America are all coordinated build ups to 2012’s The Avengers, which is now pretty much a must-see for me.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

ST Joshi on Lovecraft

Courtesy of The Lovecraft Ezine, a fascinating audio interview with H.P. Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi. One of the many interesting bits:

My belief is that what Lovecraft was doing here was what one Lovecraft scholar David E. Schultz has called an "anti-mythology." By that I mean this: The purpose of most mythologies and religions is, as it were, to reconcile humanity with the universe. That is, to say, to explain the place of humanity within the confines of space and time. Lovecraft reverses that, by saying, whereas religion says, "yes, human beings are at the center of the universe, and are the special product of the benevolence of an all-powerful god," Lovecraft says, "no, human beings are completely insignificant. They are at the mercy of these titanic forces that really care nothing about them, and that can brush them aside and destroy them without a moment's thought."

That reminds me: One of these days I need to buy a copy of the massive I Am Providence. If it wasn't so darned expensive...

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Top 100 Fantasy Books of all time … or not

Confession: I’m a top 10/top 100/top whatever list addict. If I find an article on a subject about which I’m even remotely interested, and written in the form of a numbered list, I’ll generally stop to read it. That chance increases when said list is arranged in ascending or descending order of quality.

I fully admit that many top 10/ top 100/top whatever lists are contrived hit count fodder (slugging something a “top 10” anything is guaranteed to increase the number of visits to your web site–you’re welcome Black Gate editors!), but occasionally these lists serve a worthy function. For example, if I’ve just finished The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich or Flags of Our Fathers and am looking for another good World War II title, I’ll Google “top 10 world war 2 histories.” This practice typically generates a good suggestion or two–and another “top 10″ article to read.

Top 10/top 100 lists are also flashpoints for debate, often stirring up vigorous agreement or righteous anger and indignity. I generated an angry response with my Top 10 Fantasy Fiction Battles of All-Time, in which former Cimmerian blogger Al Harron took me to task for excluding Robert E. Howard, and also for including some borderline “fantasy” choices. Hey Al, let’s still be friends, okay?

Which leads me to the point of this post. Have you ever typed “top 100 fantasy novels,” or “top 10 fantasy books,” into your search bar? If not, I’ll save you the work. You get this site, the “Top 100 Fantasy Books”.

To read the rest of this post, visit The Black Gate website.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Damnation Alley by Roger Zelazny, a review

I count the first two Mad Max films among my all-time favorites. I’m a sucker for anything post-apocalyptic, but more importantly, they’re tense, well-made, well-plotted, and reasonably well-acted films. (I liked the premise and some of the ideas in Beyond Thunderdome, but it falls short of the first two). In addition, the car chase/crash sequences are among the best ever put to celluloid, even since the advent of CGI.

So it was with great anticipation that I began Roger Zelazny’s 1969 novel Damnation Alley, which combines post-apocalypse, and tricked-out battlecars, and a tough ex-biker with nothing to lose.

A brief synopsis of Damnation Alley is as follows: Ex biker gang leader Hell Tanner (yes, that is his name) is offered a full pardon from L.A. officials if he agrees to deliver a vaccine to plague-stricken Boston. Sounds easy enough, but this is a North America post-nuclear war, and the heartland of America is now known as Damnation Alley, a vast wasteland of mutated monsters, roving biker gangs, lethal hail and lightning storms, and pockets of deadly radiation. Flying is impossible as the sky is torn by hurricane-force winds and deadly storms, and full of swarms of oversized bats and other monstrosities. They only way to cross this stretch is by car. Armored, eight-wheeled vehicles armed with rocket launchers, machine guns, and flame throwers are used for this purpose.

This is all cool stuff, and Damnation Alley isn’t bad, but based on the premise it should have been better. It reads like a short story artificially stretched to novel length (192 pages, paperback), and it wasn’t until after I read it that I found out that’s actually the case. Damnation Alley was published as a short story in 1967 and expanded into a novel two years later. It felt padded to me, like Zelazny tacked on a repetitive series of encounters with various monsters to increase the page count. I wanted to learn more about the collapse of society, the problems faced by the survivors in a massively depopulated country, more about the gangs and their motivation, etc, but was disappointed with its lack of depth. Zelazny also introduces a couple of bizarre nouveau writing sequences that jar with the rest of the novel (for example, he describes a radiation-driven storm with a three-page run-on sentence. Odd).

But there is much to like about Damnation Alley. Hell Tanner is the best thing about the book. If you’ve ever seen Escape from New York, think Snake Plissken, mix with Max Rockatansky, and you’re 95% there. In fact, I’d be surprised if Escape director John Carpenter and Mad Max writer/director George Miller hadn’t read Damnation Alley at some point. Like Rockatansky in The Road Warrior, Tanner starts Damnation Alley as 100% hard-bitten mercenary, seemingly caring for no one but himself. But as the story progresses he comes to realize the innocent suffering and catastrophic waste of the plague and the mission becomes personal.

Zelazny keeps the action moving with some fun sequences, a few memorable minor characters (including a tough biker chick and a mad scientist) and bits of unexpected, brutal violence. If you can get past some of the head-scratching bits (why does nuclear war cause gila monsters and snakes to grow to 20 times their normal size? Why would a nuclear exchange target mid-America, and leave the big coastal cities unscathed?) it’s a fast, enjoyable read.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Digging Battle Beast

Heavy metal has always been my favorite genre of music. My listening tastes do include other genres, from country to the oldies to mainstream pop/rock, but in the end I always find myself circling back to metal (at one time I wondered if the psychologists/ sociologists who view metal as a symptom of adolescent rebellion were right and that I’d “grow out of” it, but at the ripe old age of 37 I’m proud to say I don’t ever see that happening. Rock on, whimps and posers leave the hall!)

And yet there are times when my enthusiasm for metal wanes. It usually involves events around the aging and mortality of the metal legends that I grew up with. For example, Judas Priest announcing their farewell tour and KK Downing hanging up his axe, Iron Maiden sounding tired on their new album, and of course, the worst news of all, Ronnie James Dio dying from stomach cancer. On my worst days, I think metal will go the way of grunge, leaving fans like me with naught but memories of leather-clad lead singers and a lingering case of tinnitus.

New metal acts are hitting the scene every day of course, particularly out of Europe, but I don’t like most of them. I actively despise nu metal acts like Korn and Limp Bizkit (I had to force myself to actually type “nu metal”), while black metal/death metal and its growling, cookie-monster style vocals just don’t cut it for me. That’s why for all the praise I’ve seen heaped on them I can’t get into Children of Bodom, for example.

But once in a while a new band emerges that gives me hope, bringing new blood into the genre while preserving the old “classic metal” or “power metal” sound that I enjoy. Bands like Blind Guardian and Edguy. The latest is a band called Battle Beast, a group of young Finns who just put out their first album, Steel. I also found out that they’ll be at the Wacken Open Air festival in August, a major event which not just any old metal band gets invited to play.

Here’s my favorite Battle Beast track, "Armageddon Clan". The lyrics are straight out of The Terminator.

"Show Me How to Die" is pretty awesome, too.

One of the things that attracts me to metal is the soaring vocals, which is why Maiden, Priest, and the Dio-fronted Black Sabbath are my favorite bands, and why I’m partial to Blind Guardian and Edguy. That’s also why Battle Beast has grabbed my attention. Should one hear a blood-drenched Valkyrie singing on the fields of some ancient northern battlefield, I would imagine it would sound a lot like Battle Beast’s frontwoman Nitte Valo. She can really belt it out.

I’m not saying these guys are the next coming or anything, but they’ve got a sound I enjoy and an old-school vibe pleasing to the ear. Plus a cool album cover.