Thursday, December 5, 2013

Tales of the Blue Death

Short but compelling, this well paced historical fiction novel is set in Victorian London and aims to
introduce young readers to a frightening outbreak of cholera that killed hundreds of residents of Broad Street in a matter of days.

Eel is a street urchin (or "mudlark") who spends his days working at a pub and his nights doing odd jobs. One such job Eel has been lucky enough to acquire is to take care of the lab animals for a Dr. John Snow whose work with anesthetics had earned him reverence of the Queen herself. When Eel is accused of steeling from the pub, he aims to get one of his night employers to prove that his extra coins come from Eel's hard work and not the profits from the alehouse. His first instinct is to talk to Mr. Grigg, a tailor whom Eel has cleaned house for and whose family has befriended the boy. Unfortunately, when arriving at the Grigg's home, Eel finds the tailor has fallen ill. Reluctant to bother Dr. Snow (he is way too important to come to Broad Street to vouch for a mudlark) Eel allows his cushy job to slip away and tries to pick up the slack on the streets. 

Shortly after, Eel finds that Mr. Grigg has passed away from what is most definitely cholera. As the days pass the epidemic worsens. When his friend Florrie informs him that Mrs. Grigg and one of their children is also sick, Eel decides it is time to "bother" Dr. Snow. As it turns out, John Snow is historically linked to this particular outbreak as the one who dispelled the theory that cholera is spread through bad air. In defiance of "miasma", Snow suspects that the disease is coming through contaminated water, and he recruits Eel as his assistant to prove this. 

Eel shows a natural curiosity and respect for science and education that allows the reader to believe that a man such as Snow would trust him. His side story, which is woven neatly within the plot builds his character. Having fled from his oppressive stepfather, a Bill Sykes type called "Fish-eye Bill", Eel uses his money to board his little brother Henry and make sure the boy is kept in school and far from Fish Eye's seedy desires. 

Along with his friend Florrie, Eel is able to help Dr. Snow and gains respect for the work of a physician. The tale of cholera along with the threat from Fisheye keep the plot tense and moving fast. The ending is wrapped up neatly and one might hope that Eel himself could be considering a future in medicine. 

Historical notes included.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Happy Day of the Doctor! "An Adventure in Time and Space" Review

I confess that I am definitely a new fan of Doctor Who.  I had seen a bunch of old episodes as a child but I come from a household where my love of Monty Python was met with bewilderment and while The Beatles were an acceptable British obsession, I had little access to science fiction across the pond.

I'd heard of Doctor Who.  It sounded cool.  I swear that for the longest time I thought the TARDIS was Tom Baker's crazy scarf.  I'm not proud of that.  Especially now that I will definitely consider myself a massive fan of the series.  The mythology mixed with campiness has hooked me!

The 50th anniversary of Doctor Who coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination by a day.  While many history buffs are recalling or reading about J.F.K's final day we are also anticipating the milestone of 50 years traveling in the TARDIS.  What an odd combination.  Yesterday it was all Kennedy and his times.  Today is all about Daleks and space ships that hide in the guise of a British Police Box.  Of course, this strange combination is coincidental.  When Doctor Who first hit the air waves, the British had also just learned of Kennedy's death.  It would be what The Doctor would call a "fixed moment in time".

 Tonight's 75 minutes special, The Day of the Doctor is said to look to the future of the series.  Last night the BBC aired a special that looked back on the origins of how this strange series came to be.

An Adventure in Time and Space is a biopic that aims to shed some light on the conception of the phenomenon that is Doctor Who.  In the early 1960's , Sidney Newman, a Canadian television producer found himself a head honcho at the BBC.  He had come up with several famous series, including The Avengers.  The one with Emma Peele and John Steed, not Captain America and Thor.  He tapped a young female employee named Verity Lambert to develop and produce a children's science fiction serial about a mysterious old man who travels through time and space.  He wanted it to be called Doctor Who.

Not only was Verity one of the very first female television producers, but she was paired to work with Warris Hussein, an Indian born employee of the network.  Both of them were groundbreakers in their fields.  Verity's journey from in over her head to strong champion of her product reminded me so very much of Peggy Olson's journey in the Mad Men.  Warris' contribution was no different.  In a time when old white men where the lords of television, these two came in and stood up to the doubts to bring about a series that is nothing less than a lifestyle for many fans 50 years later.  While I am sure much of the dramatization was contrived within the 90 minute program, it was clear that Verity's vision was secured in the face of strong opposition.

I mean, who would have thought a series about a crazy man in a blue box would capture the hearts of so many?  I still have trouble explaining the premise to people who don't already know it.  It sounds utterly crazy.  It is.  That is why it works.

We are also shown how the iconic monster the Dalek was considered a bust and almost scrapped by Sidney Newman until Verity Lampbert stood up and demanded that he give the story line a chance.  Their design is quite silly, and I appreciated that a set hand made a crack about what appears to be a whisk on one side of their robotic arms.  However, Daleks were very well received as creepy and wonderful.  Even by those who doubted them.  I have a hard time finding them scary, but the Doctor would not be the same without his mortal enemy.

Aside from Verity and Warris' journeys, we also learn about William Hartnell, the man who would play the first Doctor.  British actor David Bradley (Harry Potter, Broadchuch, Game of Thrones) portrays Hartnell, a frustrated 50 year old actor who is constantly typecast as a harsh military man.  When Verity and Warris approach him to work on what is essentially a children's show he is intrigued yet skeptical.  What really draws him in is the idea that he will being playing an older man who comes off as grumpy at times but is also whimsical and nurturing.  Bradley plays Hartnell with a complexity that squeezed my heart a few times.

We are given a view as to how being the Doctor brought Hartnell out of a darker place and allowed him to enjoy life as a hero to thousands of children.  Sadly, his failing health made it difficult for him to work and when Warris and Verity departed, he also became difficult to work with.

We are given a view of a William Hartnell who never wanted to step down from the role.  He wanted production to slow.  He wanted to have less lines to remember.  He didn't want to stop being the Doctor.  In a way, his departure from the show is what makes it so great.  Not because he was sinking it but because it gave us "regeneration", one of the most important reasons that we are still watching Doctor Who today.

Sure, many serials have changed an actor that played a character, but this time the change was not an insult to the intelligence of the viewers.  The Doctor's story is still being written.  Being a non-human time traveler he has the ability to heal himself when his body fails him.  This comes by way of regeneration.  The Doctor "dies" and is reborn anew with a new body and a personality altered based of his experiences.

The film ends with Hartnell's last day filming on set with Patrick Troughton, who would become the second Doctor.  But while it was painful to see a man letting go of a role that gave him such a wonderful escape, it isn't Troughton that brings us full circle.  We are given the shot of "Hartnell" looking to his left to see Matt Smith, our current Doctor looking back at him.  The Doctor hasn't been elderly or crusty for years.  In fact these days he has been more of a dashing heartthrob.  Yet, the Doctor is still the Doctor and this series birthed by several underdogs lives on in the hearts and minds of each fan it has absorbed.

I am one of them.

Happy "Day of the Doctor"!

Monday, October 21, 2013

A conclusion to a surprisingly great fantasy series ends surprisingly.

3.5 Stars
While I tore through the first two in this series I found this last one to be lacking a good deal of the
cleverness that made me love Stanley's books to begin with!

Now that Prince Alaric has the enchanted loving cups sure to make Elizabetta, princess of Cortova fall for him, Molly and Tobias are called to court once more to accompany Alaric on his journey.

Unfortunately for the trio, the King of Cortova has alternate motives for his guests as well as a son who is no doubt a sociopath in training.  Luckily for Alaric, Molly has the gift of sight.

Having been plagued by harrowing visions of a bad ending to Alaric's desired fairy tale with Elizabetta, Molly tries to discourage the young king from continuing with his plans.  Of course, Alaric does not heed her warnings though he does ask that Molly and Tobias accompany him in the ruse of a couple engaged.  This way, he can gain from Molly's insight and Tobias' loyalty, but his close relationship with Molly herself will not cause doubt that his affections lie with the princess.

If you have not read the last two books in this series, I am tempted to say you have done yourself a disservice.  There is much to like and the fantasy elements are gentle and do not take over in regard to character building.  You would also be utterly lost as this conclusion does not stand on its own.  On the other hand, there is so much lacking in this last frame of the story that I would almost say reading the former would only lead to heartbreak in this last book.

What worked so very well in both "The Silver Bowl" and "The Cup and the Crown" were the relationships built between the characters.  Particularly Tobias and Molly in the first book, and Alaric, sweet as he was seemed secondary to this.  Alaric himself was absent for most of the second book and while Molly and Tobias' report grew, we were introduced to not only a whole new playing field (the enchanted land of Harrowsgode, Molly's ancestral home) but other great characters such as Richard.  He was present for all of a sentence in this story as was all of Harrowsgode itself, save for a few references to it and a shallow attempt by Molly to invoke the help of Sigrid, he woman on the inside.

Molly and Tobias' bond, while vindicated in many ways felt disrespected throughout the whole of the novel and while we got some good play between Molly and Elizabetta herself, the complicated romantic and political story lines wrapped up far to neatly and in a way that felt a bit empty and heartbreaking.

Of course, I am not giving this book a bad review.  3.5 stars is not bad at all.  Stanley's writing remains superior and the story wasn't really bad.  It just didn't feel like a conclusion befitting royalty.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Quippy Middle Grade Sci Fi Slays.

4 Stars.

In the first of this series Molly Bigelow an awkward young girl with mismatched eyes learned that she was destined to follow in her deceased mother's footsteps as part of a zombie killing initiative known as Omega.  While Molly was able to defeat Marek, the head of the Unlucky 13 (the 13 first zombies and rulers on Manhattan's undead underground) it did not come without consequences.  Her lack of social skills and secretiveness lead Molly to subject her team to a possible disbandment.  She also discovered that her dead mother is in fact undead and has been watching out for her ever since her change.

While Molly and her team (rich girl Natalie, computer savvy Alex and Krav Maga expert, Grayson) await their trial for misconduct, strange events begin to unfold in the world of the zed.  First, one of the Unlucky 13 is found dead.  I mean DEAD dead, dead, handcuffed to a subway seat out in Brooklyn.  Due to the fact that a chemical deep within the ground of Manhattan causes the zombie phenomenon, the undead will cease to be if they cross over into the other boroughs.  Second, Molly's mom begins to surface more frequently in her life and informs her that if she wants to save her team she must tell the Omega tribunal that they have been invited to work on the Baker's Dozen case.  While this certainly saves the day, it implies that Molly's mother may be dead, but her time in Omega is not.  Also, while Molly is just rebuilding the trust of her teammates, she is not allowed to tell them about her mother's existence and therefore while she saved the day, the team is not allowed to question Molly as to how she knew the magic words for their reinstatement.

With Marek gone, the remaining members of the 13 are on the move and behaving strangely.  In order to keep status quo in Dead City, each of the 13 are required to appear in public to ensure the other zombies that they are still in charge.  If Marek fails to show, someone else may be poised to take over.  Someone worse?

While I am positively sick of the zombie genre, this series stands out for several reasons.  First, the zombies themselves are not your usual stumblers and groaners.  There are three levels to being undead. The first level are sentient and often able to regain most of their former lives and need protection from Omega.  The second are still aware and lucid yet they lack souls.  The third are muscle and more like the zed we are familiar with.  There is also some well written mythology and pseudo science as to how the undead were born into the streets of Manhattan.

Molly and her friends solve puzzles, conduct research at the morgue and razz a few zombies with sarcastic quips as they land punches and kicks.  For sure, the Dead City series channels Buffy the Vampire Slayer in it's finest days.  While Molly and her friends are as much fun as the Scoobies, the story itself feels fresh and the action weaves itself seamlessly with the well layered plot.

Another bonus is that there is no romance angle.  I repeat, this is a book with several young teenage protagonists and there is no romance.  If one were to develop organically it would be fine, but James Ponti does not weigh the story down with any hint of a love web between Molly and the rest of her team.  A lot of fun!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Five older anime series for beginners.

Since I will soon be reviewing anime and manga for a popular website, I decided to do a quick post about five older series to introduce to fans of newer anime, or even those who are just looking for an introduction series.  I made a point to choose each from a different genre so that comparing them to one another would be difficult.  I also made sure that they were at least a decade old.  I would have gone for much older series, however I just don't see a newbie watching Galaxy Express 999 without falling asleep, or Ranma 1/2 without feeling very confused.  No offense to either of those mentioned.  They each have merit in either artistic presentation or pure nostalgia depending on who you ask.  However, what I am looking to talk about are accessible series with tangible story lines.  I want to talk about relatable protagonists and villains that are recognizable as something more than a throwback from a saturday morning in the 80's.

Here goes.

Fushigi Yugi:  Epic Fantasy
The story:
Two best friends (Yui and Miaka) encounter an enchanted book while studying for high school entrance exams at the library.  Transported into a fantastical version of feudal China, both girls find themselves set on opposite sides of a war between two countries and their gods.

The appeal:
My description above is very much oversimplified.  I left it this way intentionally. Aside from what I mentioned originally there is a love triangle and a ton of wonderful characters and villains.  I would venture to say that when I remember Fushigi Yugi, it is the ensemble "cast" of colorful characters and their tragic backstories that really drew me in.  The art is also lovely.  While the manga penned by Yuu Watase is clearly superior to the animated version, a good job is done of adapting Watase's soft images to the screen.  The story has an epic quality about it that kept me interested in what happened next.  There is also a fantastic LGBT character in the series and a lot of humor mixed in with the drama.  The villains are (mostly) well fleshed out and while some are seriously psychotic, none fall into the "mustache twirling" role that could make you roll your eyes.  I love a good villain almost more than I love a good hero.

The negatives:  I recall a lot of whining and crying from the heroine (Miaka).  She is pretty annoying but this can be forgiven when you consider that she is a fifteen year old school girl from modern times.  However, the aforementioned love triangle becomes soapy and if you are not into that sort of thing it can become a real drag.  My biggest issue with the series, is of course the same issue I have with every single one of Yuu Watase's series.  Rape.  Rape comes up in nearly every one of Watase's works.  And while this one actually has a purpose in the beginning, I can't express how much of a hinderance the theme becomes in the second season.  Unfortunately the use of rape to flesh out a female character's background is near epidemic in comic books and their like.  While the general feeling of anger is that these are written by men, Yuu Watase is a woman.  Believe me when I say no one character or gender is immune to this.  Nearly all of Watase's works include at least one scene of a character having someone force themselves on another. The assault is not always successful, but it makes me wonder what kind of demons she has faced to have this theme as a constant.

See also, The Vision of Escaflowne, Record of Lodoss War, Ayashi no Ceres.

Trigun:  Science Fiction/Action
The story:
Vash the Stampede is a notorious criminal in a story set in a Sci-Fi version of the Wild West.  Meryl Strife and her assistant Milly are insurance agents who are unfortunate enough to be assigned to document the damage this bloodthirsty criminal leaves behind in his wake.  Only, Vash is not the murderer they are expecting to encounter.  In fact, he is a jovial if a bit distant hero who actually despises killing and tries in earnest to protect the people who are threatened by criminals.  Sadly, Vash's dark past is always nipping at his heels and causes his very existence to bring misfortune upon the people he wants to save.  Who is this mysterious man in red and can he defeat his demons before they destroy everything he loves?

The appeal:
Trigun has many fans who normally do not generally "like" anime because the setting is so very "American".  In fact, Yashiro Nightow, the creator is in love with American western films and it shows.  The mix of humor and action is pretty riveting and each character is special in both design and personality.  The main villain is a tad cliche but brings about some really interesting philosophical questions about the chain of life that can spark some good conversation.  Milly and Meryl are our eyes and ears and while we get to enjoy their perspective, we also meet and learn to love Vash through their changing perceptions of him.  Twists and turns await us as the series rushes to an ending and we are left thirsting for more.  Also, the art is a lot of fun.  The theme song and the ending songs both kick some major butt.

The Cons:
At the beginning, Trigun is a villain of the week series and yes, many of them are actually mustache twirlers.  If this annoys you, you might have a difficult time getting into it during the first few episodes. The Sci-Fi aspect is slightly confusing unless you are willing to "just go with it".  In short, Vash is not human and without giving too much away all I can say is his existence is better explained in the manga version.  I was fine with this but many people may not be.  He is just a super cool take on the "Lone Gunman"and while I suspect most people wont mind his origin story there could be a bunch who scratch their heads as well.  Also, the animation can be rough at times.  But it was the 90's and this is before everything was super CGI.

See also:  Cowboy Bebop, Outlaw Star, Gungrave, S-Cry-ed

Gundam Wing:  Mecha
The story:
If I'm going to put a Gundam series in here, it will have to be "Wing" because I grew up with it.  I've seen the others but this was my favorite.  During an intergalactic war, five mysterious mecha pilots appear wielding very powerful robots called, "Gundams" (they are made from "Gundomian alloy"...).  They cross the paths of many players in the war including one young Relena Darlian, a spoiled politicians daughter who becomes obsessed with Heero Yuy, the pilot who is chosen to spy on people close to Relena.  After her father is assassinated, Relena's real past is revealed and her connection to the power struggle between the colonized planets and those looking to oppress colonists draws her closer to Heero and the four others.  Unfortunately each of these young men believe they were working alone and their personalities do not always mesh. Can the past and future be reconciled and will greed destroy the happiness of the Colonies?

The Appeal:  Each and every character has such a wonderfully tragic backstory you can't help but be fascinated by the amount of writing that went into their stories.  If you are looking for a political show most  Gundam stories are going to fit that bill.  Wing has politics in spades.  Most of the motivations from each side of the struggle are so relevant that they feel genuinely reflective of our world on any given day.  Intrigue and espionage is woven tightly into each story line and character development is pretty well done.  This is a two season series, so there is time to spend with everyone.  We feel their growth and their pain as well as their triumphs and failures.  Some character relationships are drawn so intricately they feel nearly Shakespearian in their tragedy.  Gundam is a franchise that is constantly being appended and amended in Japan.  With each year a new Gundam series is nearly guaranteed.  Some are better than others.  This is one of the better ones.  While it might help to understand how Wing connects to the other series it can stand out on its own merit.

The Cons:  There are so many characters it is often difficult to keep track of everyone.  The story is also a bit confusing and while I did mention that the story stands on its own, some people may begin the series with the feeling that they opened a book in the middle and are trying to figure out what happened in the first hundred pages.  The story catches up with its own history, but it might feel off putting to those who really want everything laid out in front of them.  It might, for this reason, feel slow.  Some of the characters, Heero and Relena, for instance are positively annoying and frustrating to watch. Heero is constantly threatening to kill Relena and she is forever chasing after him.  If you thought YA heroines of recent popularity fell for the wrong guy, Relena gives them a run for it.  Also, Heero's lack of personality makes her attraction perplexing.  Is he that cute?  Anime cute?  Whatever.  Girl needs therapy.

See also:  Macross, Martian Successor Nadesico, any other Gundam Series.

Love Hina:  Harem

Disclaimer:  I was hesitant to add this one because even though it is over a decade old it is a bit modern compared to others on this list.  However, when I asked advice of which harem series to include this was the pick.  In a way, it is a good choice, because it defines the genre without the fantasy elements that better and older series include.  I already included a fantasy and science fiction on this list so I decided that Love Hina would indeed be a good representation of the "harem" genre of anime.
Truthfully, in the last five years, this type of series has been on the decline and that is not a bad thing.  It has been played out.  Way played out.  A harem anime usually consists of a main somewhat bland male protagonist who is put in a situation where several attractive girls are either living with him, fighting over him or both.  Think Archie, Veronica and Betty as an American equivalent.

The Story:  When Keitaro Urashima was a child he met his childhood sweetheart at the Hinata Inn, his grandmother's boarding house where he used to play.  The two made a promise that when they grew up they would go to Tokyo University together.  Unfortunately she moved away shortly after and while Keitaro remembered the promise and vaguely what she looked like, he could not recall her name.  He was like five years old, so let's forgive him.  Anyway, he is now of age to apply to college and he has never been able to get the feeling of puppy love out of his heart.  He is determined to get into Tokyo U. and find that girl once again.  Sadly, Tokyo U. is a reach for Keitaro who has no outstanding qualities academically.  Hunkering down in cram schools just to pass the entrance exam, Kei's grandmother decides she wants to see the world and gives Keitaro the keys to Hinata to run in her absence.  Hinata Inn is now an all girls boarding house and the residents are weary of having a boy as their landlord.  Can Keitaro earn their trust and get into Tokyo U.?  Is one of his boarders the girl from his past?

The Appeal:
Adding Love Hina is cheating.  As I mentioned before, it is not that early an example of the genre.  It came about during a time when anime was growing tired of harem shows.  However, it is unique in the sense that it (generally) focuses on relationships and does not include a fantasy or science fiction angle. The cast is colorful.  Five or six (or seven?) girls pass through the doors of Hinata while Kei is the landlord.  Each one is unique in her own way.  There is Naru, the main love interest (and possibly the promised girl) a smart girl with a fiery temper and her best friend Kitsune, a lazy plotter.  There is shy Shinobu, the hyper active Koara Su and the serious Motoko, a kendo expert with an aversion to men and turtles.  There is also a turtle.  The turtle is the mascot of the series.  Just go with it.  Oh!  And then there is flaky Mutsumi.  Not a resident of Hinata, Mutsumi lived near the Inn as a child and bears a slight resemblance to Naru.  She is a lot of fun to watch and adds some mystery to the childhood sweetheart plot.

The story is often very funny and mainly consists of Keitaro getting caught in awkward situations while the girls beat on him for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  While there are some sweet moments between Kei and the girls (mostly Naru) this is usually brought to an end when one of their fists (mostly Naru's) send him flying out into the atmosphere so if you enjoy slapstick, then this is a good show for you.  There is a genuine sense of romance which can be very sweet and refreshing since many harem protagonists remain aloof to the women who pursue them.  Beyond this, there are some gentle coming of age side stories that are positively precious.  The character designs are also pretty appealing.

The Cons:  Ugh.  Love Hina.  How many times can Keitaro "accidentally" walk in on Naru changing out of her skirt?  That joke gets old pretty quickly as does Kei falling into someone's boobs.  This isn't terribly classy stuff and while that can be fine, it becomes an eye roller the umpteenth time that trope is used and overused again.  This is the type of thing that gives anime a bad name.  Pervy "fanservice" involving jiggly breasts.  Sure, most of the girls are pretty assertive when this type of thing happens but it doesn't win many points.  The creator Ken Akamatsu is sort of a one trick pony.  He seems to only write harem anime and while Love Hina is his best and most conventional it falls off a cliff a few times.  I would advise against it if a viewer decides they want to watch the specials which proceed the main series.  It will kill it for you.  Don't do it.

See also:  Tenchi Muyo, El Hazard, Ah!  My Goddess.

Sailor Moon:  Magical Girl

The Story:  I cannot make this list without Sailor Moon.  The story is a fun superhero tale with a mostly female cast.  Usagi is a flaky school girl who pulls below average grades in her middle school.  One day while on her way home, she rescues a stray cat who she discovers can talk!  The cat (Luna) tells her that she is the incarnation of a magical hero called, "Sailor Moon" and endows her with various powers to fight the evil which has invaded Tokyo.  Along the way, Usagi discovers other girls in her school who are celestial warriors and they join together to become a team in order to find the missing moon princess.  Hint:  It's Usagi.  No spoiler there.

The Appeal:  Each of Usagi's friends are well written characters and actually far more interesting than she is.  This doesn't mean she is awful, but Sailor Moon isn't everyone's favorite by default.  In fact she has so many character flaws while she is annoying, you can forgive her because it is obvious that she is supposed to be a 14 year old girl.  She is clearly not sure what her role as leader is supposed to entail and often frustrates the others who are sworn to follow her.  In a way, this makes her endearing.  Later a few more mature characters join the team including a lesbian couple and a few gender bendy types.

Sailor Moon holds almost all of the tropes needed for a magical girl series.  A cute mascot, elaborate costume changing sequences and lots of sparkles.  It practically set the standard for the genre since it first came on the scene...even if it is not the first of its kind it is by far the most well known.  There is also the question of the mysterious Tuxedo Mask, a handsome hero who often intervenes in a battle to give Sailor Moon and friends the confidence they need to defeat their enemies.   It isn't really a spoiler to reveal that he is in fact Mamoru, the tall older boy who drives Usagi crazy.  In spite of their constant bickering, the love story between the two is actually quite adorable.  It is nice that the girls do most of the fighting and he exists for moral support. He is often the "damsel in distress".

If you ever watched this show on American television, please realize that it was a hack job and the original series is much better and far more complex.

The Cons:  While a new series is on the way, Sailor Moon (the original) is very dated.  It seems juvenile at times for sure but this isn't the biggest issues with it.  The villains do the same thing over and over.  They arrive, drain Tokyo residents of their energy, cackle and repeat.  The sailor senshi (warriors) arrive, fight, lose, gain the upper hand (usually after Tuxedo Mask throws a rose and tells them they can do it) and eventually win.  Yawn.  This gets better, but some people might get tired of this fast.  Also the motivation of the main bad guys is pretty black and white.  There are some sympathetic villains (mostly the underlings) but the big bads are often your typical cackling overlords.  This improves once you pass the first season.

Also, Mamoru is in college?  Usagi is supposed to be in middle school?  Maybe that kind of thing was overlooked in the late 80's early 90's in Japan but it will potentially (and should) be seen as creepy.  The two are undeniably an anime power couple and yet, did the age difference have to be so large?  The addition of a few annoying characters in later seasons can be a turn off as well.  Also, this show is very sparkly and pink.  Not everyone will love that.

See also:  Magic Knight Reyearth, Card Captor Sakura.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Assassin with a heart of gold. Why not?

3.5 Stars

Here is the thing.  Sometimes I hear many people laud a book that I feel is just alright.  In the case of Sarah Maas' Throne of Glass, I was hoping to add my own applause as so many of my fellow librarians told me it was a must read.

While I can't say that this was a bad book by any means, I didn't love it either.

Celeana Sardothien is the most notorious assassin in the kingdom.  When she was caught (betrayed?) she was sentenced to hard labor in the prison of Endovier for her crimes.  Her crimes of assassinating several people.  We are told this many times.  Celeana is a well known assassin.  The assassin.  I get it.  In fact I was having a bit of "show don't tell" trouble when it came to Celeana's checkered past.  I will get back to exactly how this affected by feelings about the book.

So, yes.  Celeana was an assassin.  She was caught and thrown in a labor camp.  But now the Crown Prince Dorian has sent Captain of the guard Chaol Westfield to retrieve her.  Dorian has a proposal.  For her freedom Celeana can agree to become the King's personal assassin (or champion, because it sounds far nobler) or she can return to jail and rot.  If she chooses the former she can earn her freedom in four years time.  If she chooses the latter...she dies horribly.  The catch is that Dorian's father the King does not trust Celeana or her skills so he has set up a tournament of ruffians to determine worthiness of the title.

If this sounds a little like Hunger Games, don't worry.  The tournament is only a small part of the plot.  Someone has been killing off the would be champions in gruesome ways.  Celeana herself may be the key to uncovering the who and the why.

Now that I have covered the plot I will move on to the issues.

First issue:  We hear Celeana mention how much of a bad girl she's been.  We hear other people talk about how bad she's been.  She clearly has skills.  We see this during the tournament segments of the novel.  As far as Celeana as an assassin goes, I don't need hearsay.  What I need are details.  Names.  Instances.  Body count.  Please?  Call me morbid if you will, but I have a hard time buying Celeana as a boogieman when I don't see blood.  Sure, I heard how she killed a foreman in prison for pushing her too hard but that is entirely different.  I hear about her harsh training which began at age eight, but once again this doesn't paint the big bad wolf.  Compared to say, Katsa in the Graceling series who is also a well written heroine with a brutal past?  We can smell the blood on her hands not only when first we meet her, but even as we grow to love and respect her.  Celeana didn't do that for me.

In a way, this problem is also the strength when building Celeana's character.  She is not just a killer.  She puts forth a good front at first and she has Chaol, Dorian and her guards weary of her behavior due to her reputation alone.  However what we do see (and are not told) is how Celeana adores reading, candy and puppies.  She is indeed a warm and fuzzy type of girl who enjoys a trashy romance novel as much as a historical text.

We get a feel that she has been raised and trained in a brutal environment to be a killer.  That much is true, but the rest of the novel builds her as a person.  This works.  At first we meet her Celeana is arrogant and rough.  When we get to know her she is a full person.  Someone we can like.   Someone both Chaol and Dorian can love?  This brings me to-

Second Issue:  The totally unneeded love triangle.  I didn't read the back of the book so I didn't actually see the tag line, "Two men love her.  The whole land fears her.  Only she can save them all."  However, the love triangle was so painfully obvious from the start.  Of coarse Chaol and the Dorian were gong to fall for her.  It isn't even a spoiler for me to write this.  I won't even reveal who she chooses, but it is also very, very obvious.  I doubt this will change throughout the series, but I challege Maas to prove me wrong.

Non Issues:
I loved the character of Princess Nehemia.  A great female character who was strong intelligent and cunning.  She was a great friend to Celeana and not once did they get into a fight over a love interest.  That is refreshing.  Also, the low magic world where a mystical heritage exists but remains subtle making the setting stand out in a sea of titles with themes of overt high magic.

Sure, I liked it but I didn't tear through it with white knuckles.  I didn't stay up past my bed time to squeeze in one more chapter.

If it were, say, an anime series and not a novel I may have forgiven some of the issues.  I tend to hold YA literature to a higher standard when it comes to certain tropes.

So was Throne of Glass worth a read?  Sure.  Did it have some good qualities?  Yeah.  Was it phenomenal?  It had it's moment. So will I be reading the sequels?  When I get around to it.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

"The Whipping Boy" gets an update.

4 Stars.

Sid Fleischman's "The Whipping Boy" gets an update ala YA dystopian science fiction.

Syd (16), a poor orphan from "The Valve" was born into debt.  This is a common situation in Syd's world, in fact all of his peers have 18 year of debt on their hands at work.  And like his peers, Syd's debt was bought as an infant by a wealthy benefactor who would use him as a "proxy" for Knox (also 16), a spoiled rich boy.  While some proxies are lucky enough to have mild mannered "patrons" who get into only small amounts of trouble in their lifetimes, Knox looks for trouble.  And why wouldn't he?  Knox knows that any crime he commits would be paid for in punishment by his proxy.  While Knox and Syd have never met face to face, Knox is forced to watch "his" punishments on a screen via Syd's body.

While Syd's life has been a virtual hell due to his patron's devil may care attitude, Syd take comfort in the fact that that in two years he will be Knox free and debt free.  That is, until Knox's antics cross a line that raises the stakes too high and society discovers that Syd is not an ordinary proxy.  On the run, Syd and Knox are thrown together on a journey through a futuristic Detroit where the battle between debtors and creditors have been taken to a new level.

Class warfare.  Bored, wealthy society where its citizens dress in ridiculous fashions.   This is some well worn territory for sure.  However, "Proxy" finds a fresh voice in Syd and executes its premise admirably.  I cannot think of another novel in this genre with a character like Syd.  Not only is he non-caucasian, but he is gay and his coming out is not central to the story.  Early on we know that this is who Syd is and while it contributes to all the things that make up his persona it alone does not define him.  In fact, he is a protagonist any teen can relate to regardless of race or sexuality.

While the villains could have been fleshed out a little more I have to applaud some of the plot points.
"Proxy" throws in a few curve balls that keep the plot moving.  The ending itself while not totally unexpected was heart wrenching just the same.  I look forward to spending more time with Syd in further books in this series.