Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Grace of Kings ( Dandelion Dynasty # 1) by Ken Liu

Growing up, history was my favorite subject (Given that my mother was a history teacher and at least till Tenth I absolutely loved sinking back into the legends that make up our world in the annals of history! After Tenth grade though, the sciences took over!) The Grace of Kings is epic fantasy yes - but it oh so beautifully reads like my favorite historical lesson. (Impossible not to draw parallel with the Classical Age of Ancient China, the rise and fall of dynasties that make up the rich layered tapestry of this nation's history!)

Ken Liu has swept through every award possible with his short fiction - and we were so glad and super excited that we were finally getting a full fledged novel from him! So with respect to the expectations, it was of course stratospheric and breaking beyond the outer edges of every space-barrier discovered or not. But with The Grace of Kings, the opening salvo in the Dandelion Dynasty, Ken proves beyond any spec of a doubt that he can walk away with his head held high. And we also know that he's just getting started with this. He's building his own dynasty in this genre fiction, full of gems, burning bright and carving that space unique to himself.

His first novel is a riveting tale of war & politics, love & friendship, honor & betrayal mixed up with some annoyingly meddlesome Gods in a landscape that draws parallel with perhaps, an alternate version of ancient China and yet, is a wholly original, fresh and brilliantly imagined world. It's a rip-snorting fantasy ride, epic and grand in scale that thumbs its nose at the currently-in-fashion gritty, dark, in-your-face narrative style common to many of our favorite stories ( am thinking Joe Abercrombie, Brent Weeks and the ilk) and instead, settles for a rendition that unfolds much like a history text-book opening, page after page. It probably takes away the intimacy that I am used to with my fantasy protagonists but it works so beautifully to draw out a well rounded view of the grand scheme of politics in this world that is just mind-blowing! Fringe characters who influence the events and have a say in the turning of the wheels. Minor events that can catapult the world into apocalyptic wars. It's heart-wrenching and haunting, then it goes cold and remote in parts, then takes up a pedantic approach at times, in terms of methodologies of war and deceit detailed and then it's shocking and emotionally draining. Its a roller coaster of a ride through this amazingly detailed and immersive world of Dara. Religion, culture, mannerisms, symbolisms, traditions, vocations, food and culinary quirks, logistics, the clever and cunning inventions - the smallest of the details that make up each of the different island kingdoms of Dara, all brought alive so unobtrusively and so well. The world building, it is just friggin' brilliant. Period.

The plot, simplistically, is about the rise and fall of fortunes of two men - favored by the Gods, admired, feared and loved by the people of Dara in equal measures who grow up to overthrow the yoke of tyranny and then by a strange twist of fate, end up as enemies fighting for different ideals.
As I said before, Ken's style of narration might just throw you off as you tend to be distanced from events and people and yet, Ken invests readers to care much about his two leading men. Two men who are as different as can be. Kuni Garu, a young man with no fortunes and confused about his future, whose compassion and quick thinking are his greatest assets. Mata Zyndu, son of a deposed duke, thirsting for revenge, an angry young man for whom nothing is greater than his ideals and honor.
In the fight against Emperor Mapidiere who broke the pact between the different kingdoms to conquer and annex all of them under one rule, Mata and Kuni join hands through different twists and turns of the fate to unite and take the fight to the empire. The two main leading characters go through a whole process of evolution as the world around them changes by turns. It seems like there is a clear black and white to the proceedings by the second half of the book but there again, Ken introduces new characters whose entry changes our perspectives of these two. Especially Mata. I really really loved this guy! Zealot, idealistic, hot-headed and impossible.

But more than Kuni or Mata, there are fringe characters who actually stole my heart. Luan Zya, a philosopher and strategist who tries to murder the emperor by dive-bombing at this imperial procession right in the beginning of the book - and later pops back into Kuni's life to be one of his main-stay advisors. Or Rat, Mat's die-hard follower whose ideals are defined by his hero's towering acts of valor. Princess Kikomi, a short but powerful cameo whose actions redefine the term 'sacrifice' and which boomerangs back on the imperial forces. Kindo Marana, merchant, accountant and then peerless military general and strategist, whose habits of seeing logic or structure in anything around him serves him well on the battlefield. Gina Mazoti, the shrewd military general (a lady!) who makes her entry in the last quarter of the book and stays firmly in our hearts! There are quite a lot of these characters who actually pop into the narrative at random intervals and set the ball rolling in completely directions.

Ken straddles a dangerous edge, opting in for an omniscient point of view of narration to do justice to the grand scale of things in Dara but for me, it worked. Big time! There was no other way he could have turned this tale around.

As I finish the last few chapters of Grace of Kings, (which by the way is sort of an emotional tsunami and the rise and fall in fortunes is dizzyingly twisty!) I knew this is a special tale. A tale that is just beginning, grand in scope and equally so, in execution. And I know there is no one better than Ken Liu to wield the reins here and guide us down this history. Blending mythology with history seamlessly, Ken's Dandelion Dynasty continues with The Wall of Storms coming out on Oct 4th. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

September Books ( Better late than never!)

Better late than never, I say. Swamped down and struggling to plow through the list of to-be-read pile of mine, I wanted to let you guys know these are the gems from September that I want to definitely read up and for which, am super excited about!

Of Sand and Malice Made by Bradley P Beaulieu

A prequel novella in the same world as The Twelve Kings that brings back Ceda and her gang, and this time three inter-connected adventures set in the bustling Sharakhai - bring back the blood soaked prophecy, the magic, the sheesha-dens and amazing adventures in the desert. Bradley is doing it again. Twisting the tropes, rewriting the rules of this genre. I loved it. You should get your hands on it. Out now, from DAW books.

Cold Forged Flame by Marie Brennan publishing is experimental to the core - Marie Brennan takes a break from the adventures of Lady Trent and Co. to write about this absolutely nutty fantasy-thriller about a woman, with no memories of her past sent out on an improbably quest in a landscape that might not be what it may seem like. More power to her imagination, I was hooked and will be looking forward to more of her stuff.

Ferryman Institute by Colin Gigl

Touted to be a breakout debut fantasy of this year, the premise of this sounds too good to be true. An immortal ferryman who assists souls to make their journey over to the 'other' side as the protagonist? Who meets this young girl whom he inadvertently saves - his best decision or his worst nightmare. Ahem, Sounds a bit like Transporter in the undead lands, reel me in baby!

Comes out Sept 27, Gallery Books.

Mortal Song by Megan Crewe

I am usually intrigued by all things Japanese - starting with Shogun by James Clavell that influenced my young mind in school. So when this 'thrilling & heart-wrenching" YA fantasy set in modern-day Japan came into my radar, I knew I had to get my hands on it. Looking forward to read this soon.

Comes out, 13 Sept 2016 From Another World Press.

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

Fran's debut won a truckload of awards, Updraft. Set in a brilliantly realized world up on the clouds (set on living bone!), populated with heroic and gritty protagonists, the series continues to build on it's strengths in this sequel. I never did catch up on Updraft but this month, I am rectifying that mistake. And soon!

Comes out Sept 27, Tor books.

Masked City by Genevieve Cogman

I loved The Invisible Library, that was Genevieve's first book in this series and her dazzling debut. Pure exhilarating fun read. And I cannot wait to get back to the world where these librarians maintain order against the chaos and of course, the amazing characters in it. So this was a no-brainer for me, the paperback version releasing in the US this month.

Necrotech by K C Alexander

Hardocore, post-cyberpunk in a tech-plagued future dystopia. You had me at cyberpunk! So this smacks a bit like Altered Carbon from Richard Morgan and promises to be hair-rising ride through this altered futuristic world where flesh-and-machine fusion enhancements are a way of life.
Next up on my TBR!

Came out Sept 6, Angry Robot. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Of Sand and Malice Made ( A Shattered Sands Novel) by Bradley Beaulieu

Bradley Beaulieu is one of my go-to-authors in present day fantasy - breaking new grounds with every single release of his - and so, it was with barely restrained excitement, that I plunged back into the ruthless but gloriously realized desert world of Sharakhai, Of sand dunes and dark horrifying prophecies, of blood magic and the terrifying consequences. Of demons and their curses. It was a welcome return back to the wind-lashed sand-dunes in the Mother of Sand, the sheesha-dens and the roaring fighting-pits - right back into the lives of Cedahmin Ahyanesh and her friends, one more time.

Ceda was one of the most formidable heroines/protagonists introduced to the fantasy genre last year and I was more than happy to partner up again, this time against demoniacal forces formed of the whims of the desert-gods who decides to wreck havoc in her life. Of Sand and Malice Made is a three-part novella that traces the life of our protagonist, a couple of years before the events of the Twelve Kings. And this mainly is her story of her being pitted against an ehrek, a djinn of sorts with twisted desires whose fate gets intertwined with Ceda's.

We meet Ceda as a sixteen year old up-and-coming fighter in the pits, popularly known as the White Wolf, setting out for her fight as the novel opens up. Ceda, also has recently started her night-runs, smuggling messages and artifacts for Osman, an ex-fighter who's made the big league and has his own businesses now with a stake also in the pits. one of her missions gets thwarted and lands her in trouble with a high-society lady, who unfortunately is also under the protection of Rumayesh, an ehrek or a mythological magical creature formed of the whimsical fantasies of a deranged desert God.

Ceda's adventures puts her in direct conflict with Rumayesh and she also attracts the attention of a couple of Godlings or God-children, in this city for their own vested agendas. The webs run deep and wide and soon, Ceda finds herself enmeshed in this unexplained game of cat and mouse with the ehrek in her city and it's not just her own life at stake but her loved ones.

As you can make out, this tale is deeply, richly and un-apologetically magical. Gods, curses, blood magic and prophecies; Bradley owns all these elements in his rollicking desert tale in a manner so original that it didn't feel for one bit, unnatural or forced. For new readers, this book forms the perform pit-stop to hop on into Ceda's life without feeling overwhelmed. But if you haven't read his Twelve Kings yet, then you should be rushing off to buy it.

As you can imagine, this book is solely about Ceda and her fears and misgivings make her a realistic protagonist to back up. The uncertainties of a sixteen year old living in this harsh desert world and the deals she makes to get by in life. Of the other characters, I really liked Brama. The boy, another gutter-ren growing up in the streets of Sharakhai was a nicely etched out character who gets caught up in the schemes of Rumayesh through his own folly and greed. Emre and Osman, some familiar names from the first book in the Song of the Shattered Sands series make their appearances as well in this world that is already familiar to fans of the neo-arabian-nights-esque tale.

A fitting addition to this absolutely gorgeous and lush epic fantasy, if you haven't read this series as yet, then Of Sand and Malice Made is an apt springboard into this magical world of sand dunes and killing fields. You won't be disappointed. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Movie Review : Mouna Guru ( Tamil, 2011)

Been a long time since I saw a movie that I came away impressed and wanted to write about. One of the new movies that I have been wanting to watch, is this hindi action-thriller called Akira, starring Sonakshi Sinha.

Hyped up as a high-octane action thriller from the makers of Ghajini, A R Murugadoss directed Akira promos looked pretty promising. But the initial reviews I read, really put me off. But good things are worth waiting for, huh. So I did find that this one's actually inspired by a 2011-Tamil thriller, called Mouna Guru. I had never heard of this movie but figured, I might as well watch the original. remakes never do justice, we know that by now right?

First day of the long weekend, finding myself alone at home with the doggies for company, I did just that. Verify that the original beats the remake, by a far bigger margin that I had expected. Relatively low budget, this one doesn't have any 'stars' and is also the debut directorial by Santha Kumar. Apparently this went onto become a sleeper hit and has been remade across other south indian languages. This really piqued my curiosity and I knew I had to see the movie. Even so, I kept my expectations in pretty much a tight rein.

The movie starts off very un-dramatically, focusing on this serious college youth, Karunakaran ( Played by a stoic looking Arul Nidhi) who's life revolves around his studies in Madurai. We learn nuances about the young man - in terms of his kind heart ( A scene early on where he rescues a cobra and sends it to out the wild) and that he's an extremely righteous man who cannot abide by to see any wrongs committed. A bit hot-headed as well, this combination obviously doesn't bode well for him in this restrained society. A scuffle with a policeman lands him in trouble, getting rusticated from the college and thus, having him move into the big city Chennai pattanam where his brother, manages to find him admission through his contacts.

Initial forty minutes, the movie plods along at a sedate pace - setting us up with Karuna's character, a nice but brief love-story with Aarthy, his sister-in-law's sister ( Iniya: Immensely talented in this bit-role!), the brief conflicts at college with the good-for-nothing ruffians who disrupt the classes and likes. The pace really perks up (literally plunges down into a rabbit-hole with no brakes!) with the introduction of John Vijay's character. He's mean, to dirty rotten core of his character's heart and plays the nasty cop role with aplomb, giving menace a new meaning. That's the start of where the movie really started to shine.

ACP Marimuthu and his close coterie of cops, three others, witness a road accident - and decide to hush it up and make away with a bag full of money in the car. But the secrets spill - and the body count starts to go up. The screenplay is twisted but taut, never letting up - leading different threads to entwine and enmesh, further plunging the movie down darker places. One thread ends up at Karuna's hostel one night and implicates him as the one trying to exhort money from the ACP to keep things hushed up. Karuna is taken away by the ACP's gang and they decide to do away with loose ends through a staged encounter, deep in the forest reserves on the TN-AP Border.

Hats off to the cinematographer Mahesh Muthuswami and of course, the debutante director Shantha Kumar for sticking true to the dictates of the thriller genre. I was on tenterhooks throughout the movie, despite the cliched settings. The encounter scene deep in the forest, is testimony to this. It's a creepy, hauntingly claustrophobic scene where the gun jams just as the Inspector Rajendran is about to shoot Karuna in the head. Timed to perfection and a proof that, in such relatively unknown small movies, thriller as a genre still thrives and flourishes in Tamil.

Things fall off the edge of a cliff after that - with the narrative just rushing ahead like a steam-engine at full throttle with too many things happening all at once. Karuna is the unwitting victim of the twisted egos and deep-seated greed in the heart of people who run the political system. But he isn't taking this lying down. Things explode after a particularly well-shot escape scene in the mental asylum after which Karuna decides to take things into his own hands and takes the fight to the people who screwed up his life.

Arulnidhi who plays the lead character, does well in flashes and bits. He has to play this restrained character who is chomping at the bits to let go and fly off his handle, but lives within the constraints of living in this society that turns a blind eye to wrong-doings. Initially this act comes across as forced, wooden and stoic but he gradually settles into the role. Especially the parts of a short romance which I liked purely because of Iniya's lively act, I would have liked this chap to live it up a bit. But hey after the first half, he really does come into his own. Definitely maturing as an actor but long way to go.

The supporting cast is absolutely brilliant. Each cameo done so well, memorably etched out in that script. The Father who is the head of the school or the mentally unstable friend in the asylum who helps Karuna escape, the police-gang in cahoots with ACP and best of all, crime-inspector Palaniamma ( played by Uma Riyaz Khan) who really stole the scene with her character of that 'one' morally upright police-woman in the system who strives to do the "right" thing. Wonder why she doesn't get more roles ?

To sum up, if this weekend you decided to shell out a thousand bucks on your neighbourhood cineplex - then don't! I think you are much better off staying at home, watching this movie which is the original of the Sonakshi-Sinha action-fest Akira ( which by the way, is a damp squib that even Sonakshi-rambo-Sinha's pyrotechnics cannot save! Yes. Despite Anurag Kashayap. Despite A R Murugadoss. This female-lead Ghajini is better off with full on memory-loss!)

A seriously under-rated well-made thriller that is a gem to have come out of this movie industry too busy worshiping "super-stars" delivering illogical blockbusters. Hats off to Santha Kumar and his team. Afternoon well-spent. 

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Waiting on Wednesday ( 08.31.2016 )

A recurring meme, every wednesday in the blogosphere (Hosted by Breaking the Spine) , here is where I list down some of the most anticipated titles I am waiting to my  hands on and read! 2016 till now has been a stellar year in some of the best titles coming out in this genre.

This week, my pick would be, The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu, the celebrated writer whose 'novel' debut last year rocked the genre fans worldwide ( Grace of Kings, by Saga Press) releasing on Oct 4, 2016.

"In the much-anticipated sequel to the “magnificent fantasy epic” Grace of Kings, Emperor Kuni Garu is faced with the invasion of an invincible army in his kingdom and must quickly find a way to defeat the intruders.
Kuni Garu, now known as Emperor Ragin, runs the archipelago kingdom of Dara, but struggles to maintain progress while serving the demands of the people and his vision. Then an unexpected invading force from the Lyucu empire in the far distant west comes to the shores of Dara—and chaos results.
But Emperor Kuni cannot go and lead his kingdom against the threat himself with his recently healed empire fraying at the seams, so he sends the only people he trusts to be Dara’s savvy and cunning hopes against the invincible invaders: his children, now grown and ready to make their mark on history.”

Monday, August 29, 2016

Cold Forged Flame by Marie Brennan ( publishing schedule has this frequent habit of derailing me from my reading schedule. And they did it yet again – forcing me to pick up Cold Forged Flame by Marie Brennan. Marie Brennan is a name that should be familiar to me, but sadly I haven’t jumped onto the bandwagon of readers, who are enamored by her series, A Natural History of Dragons and the subsequent sequels, detailing the adventures of Lady Trent and co.

So Cold Forged Flame was a book I went in, without any preconceived biases – and damn, it helped. The book is a relatively straightforward, fast-paced scorching tale of self-discovery and also, survival. Written in first person, with an unreliable narrator who suffers from amnesia, thus setting up the intrigue and mystery right from get go. Old trick in the book, executed so well by a writer of master-class. Marie really hooks us into this tricky and dangerous quest of the un-named narrator who wakes up to the clarion call of a war-horn summoned against her will by a tribal chief to do his bidding.

As we proceed, Marie does a bang up job of transporting us into this highly imaginative atmospheric world that the narrator has woken up into, a harsh, treacherous landscape that may not be what it seems at first sight. Despite the length, I was fully absorbed into this mission and had my heart in my mouth for pretty much throughout the story – action and conflict peppers the narrative, the prose is never clunky and the flow is maintained throughout. And yet, even after I read the story, I had tonnes of questions about the world. About the people, the races and everything. Which is always a good thing. While yes, this one does tie up all the conflicts presented from the start, there is definitely room for a lot more flexing, in possibly a series where we will see our amnesiac narrator back in ripping form. There is suppressed violence, juxtaposed with the never-ending search for answers, within her mind. It’s a strange combination that seems to work very well with this form. I absolutely loved it.

The revelations when it comes, are very well timed. I am sorry – but speaking anything further about such, might just give away the essence of the story. So suffice to say that, despite its length, this novella packs a wallop, with its highly imaginative storyline, the conflicted emotions of a narrator you will find mysterious and intriguing enough to follow to the ends of this wonderfully engrossing world. Go ahead. Read it.

It comes out Sept 13th from (I received a Netgalley ARC in return for my honest review)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch

Cheesy as it sounds, love is the central premise that makes up the core of Dark Matter, the latest by Blake Crouch. Blake shot up to be one of my most-awaited authors, after I had blown through the first two books of the Wayward Pines trilogy, and even pre-ordered The Last Town. The series was the fastest ever that I had read through – the same holds good for his latest, Dark Matter. I blasted through the book in one day!

It’s a propulsive definitive thriller with a solid science-fictional conceit at its center, that of multi-dimensional realities and identity crisis. But hark, am getting ahead of myself. So here's the byte-sized version: 

Jason Dessen is a mild-mannered local college professor in Chicago who gave up on what could have been a grandiose scientific career with breakthrough research and inventions, all for a happy marriage with his middling successful artist wife, Daniella and has a fifteen year old kid, Charlie. We peek into his almost ‘boring’ life as a chill evening, Jason gets called out to meet up an old Harvard room-mate of his, now a successful scientist who was holding an evening meet up to celebrate his latest achievement, winning the Pavia Prize. However, things take a sinister turn as he’s coming back – a masked intruder (in a white geisha mask) kidnaps Jason and then injects him with something unknown, and just before he passes out, Jason hears the words, are you truly happy. He wakes up to find his world upside down, in a top secret scientific facility, people celebrating his return from a ‘coma’ and that he’s engineered/invented one of the most mind-boggling breakthroughs of his century for the human-kind. The rest of the breakneck narrative focuses on Jason trying to unravel this ‘reality’ as his life gets yanked out from beneath his feet. It gets murkier and finally lends itself to a nail-biting show-down as we sift through the heavy mounds of silt – of ‘alternate dimension realities’ – but never losing steam, as Jason, our protagonists believes in only one thing. To get back to the love of his life – his wife and son.

The plotting is phantasmagorical as we, along with Jason try to break down this into a science problem, sifting through hypotheses with proofs or reject the same. We deal with the problem of ‘identity’ as we as the reader are taken in for a wild ride. A multi-verse concept isn’t novel, almost being a science fiction trope but the way Crouch breaks it down – not treating us to a ‘word-salad’ on quantum mechanics ( The explanation of that fish in a small pool being taken out and confronted with the reality that there are other pools, smaller and bigger!) but respecting the reader’s intelligence, worked for me. Revelations hit us from far left, twists and turns galore. It works at different levels as a thriller as Jason races back to his ‘own’ world to confront his reality. However, apart from Jason – I would have loved to see more of ‘Daniella’ as a character, the core of his existence that drives him. Other characters like Amanda, the psychiatrist at the Velocity laboratories, would have formed interesting side characters but were ultimately sacrificed along the way as Jason’s hunt becomes feverish. The ‘hunt’ sags a bit a bit after the mid-way point and it does become predictable but ultimately, the resolution sit squarely with our perceptions for ‘love triumphs all’, that is a heartfelt and resonant conclusion to this thriller.

A fleet-footed thriller with the liberal sprinkling of science-fiction ‘masala’, this new offering from the Blake factory definitely is a juicy candidate for the big screen. Almost pitch-perfect for it to unfold on large-screen. I absolutely loved it and Blake Crouch retains the top spot for my favourite go-to thriller writers. Full five stars for the top class flighty entertainment fare dished out. This isn't going to be a brainy literal super-book, no. This is just pure fun, a thriller crafted so right with elements of different genres mashed up, that I bet you cannot stop reading this, once you get started. Go ahead, I dare you.  

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Borderline by Mishell Baker

Disability in Fantasy is not a very popular topic - Not many authors, least of all debut ones, would choose to portray their main protagonist as one with any form of disability. Mishell Baker is a crow left of the murder, as she goes on to break several stereotypes with her smart and sensitive portrayal of her leading protagonist in her debut, Borderline from Saga Press, the opening book in the Arcadia Project series. As someone who suffers from borderline psychotic disorder and has lost both her legs in a failed suicide attempt, I thought Millie Roper, the leading character in Mishell’s book was going down the path of darkness and maybe, this one was going to be a grim, dark read. Yeah, well, this whip-smart urban fantasy proved me wrong. Borderline is slickly plotted and filled with such wondrous characters that I found myself drawn right into this grim but gloriously realized magic-filled world straddling the 'border' between humanity and the faeries. ( In fact after I got halfway through the book, I realized the name of the book wasn’t just about Millie’s psychological disorder but more about this line separating the two worlds.)

It's smart, sharp and engaging urban fantasy, redefining a genre I typically do not read much. But as written by Mishell Baker, Arcadia Project has become one of the shining stars of this genre and I will definitely be picking up anything she writes next.

So what is Arcadia Project? Without giving too much away, suffice to know that it refers to this supernatural division that controls the Gates between the two different worlds. Every human in this world has his/her Echo in the Fey world – while the fey world is about creativity and glorious innovations, the human world represents the greyer more disciplined versions of what the mind is capable of.

Millie, a suicide survivor living out her father’s inheritance at an in-patient facility, is recruited by Caryl Vallo from the Arcadia Project into this mysterious project that, Caryl promises would put her back in the glitzy Hollywood business – a past where she had dabbled unsuccessfully, having been a student at UCLA, done her stint as an indie director and then life had unceremoniously dumped her out, that too from the seventh floor. So Millie accepts, tamely packing her bag up and moving into one of the ‘hostel’ type residences, where script-writers, editors and other movie fraternity trying to get into the elite circles of Hollywood typically shack up. Little does she realize that the entire fraternity in her residence, are all special in their own ways. Her first assignment is to track down a missing ‘fey’ – who has not been going back to the world of Arcadia after his latest stint here. And with twists and turns in this investigation leading to one thing or the other, Millie realizes she’s way in over her head in this complicated conspiracy that begins to unfold. Therapy sessions and checklist instructions for her disorder, don’t feel adequate enough to get her back on her feet. (pun intended!)

Millie Roper is a breath of fresh air. Seriously, with her BPD that Millie uses as a shield from the world, unpredictability and smarminess are wielded like a club against anyone who hurts her (inadvertently) she makes for a very colorful first person narrative. Her snarky comments are sharp enough to flay the skin off your back and yet her wild swings of the mood, make you feel bad enough for her. Unflagging sense of self-awareness and untiringly result-oriented, gutsy and gritty Millie sure won my heart. An incredibly flawed and realistic protagonist who doesn’t know when to let things lie and doesn’t let her list of disabilities (and a long one at that!) come in her way of achieving her goals. There are dark moments, when she breaks down and searches for herself in dark spaces inside her mind but overall, the tone is fun, light and not didactic at all. We are not treated to any inspirational cures for Millie’s own disabilities.

But apart from this wholly realistic and fresh portrayal of the BPD, Borderline is an engrossing urban fantasy set in the glitzy corridors of the moviedom. Los Angeles is present in all its made-up fa├žade, bright studios, larger than life movie-sets, the unflattering ambition barely cloaked that runs through its streets ( There’s this scene where a die-hard fan scriptwriter chases a very famous director down the pacific highway just to get him to read his script! Happens only here!) So story-wise, it starts off as a missing person hunt that soon turns on its head as magic and evil seeps in through that murky border between our world and the Arcadia. Millie’s friends in this investigation, part of the Arcadia project in LA, are all well realized fantastic characters, each of them with their own inner demons and a fascinating backstory to tell. I loved Teo, the latino boy who loves cooking and is Millie’s partner. Their constant bickering and banter makes for some really sparkling dialogues in the plot. And Caryl, damn – where do I start about her. A cold young genius whose Reasonable mind is separated from her Emotional mind, locked up as a dragon ‘familiar’.

I loved the ideas explored in the book, as in the creativity genius that is set off because of ‘Fey’ interaction. Mishell cheekily throws in references, like Walt Disney who probably brought the best in him as he would have joined up with his Echo from Arcadia. For the refreshing ideas, the bold portrayal of a central character with BPD, the snappy dialogues and the amazing set of well-realized characters, Borderline is a thoroughly entertaining, original work of fiction that is a must-read. I absolutely loved it and cannot wait to get back into the corridors of Hollywood with this firecracker of a character, called Millie Roper. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Daredevil - Season 2: My Thoughts

Just finished the final episode of Daredevil Season 2 from Netflix. And I am in bit of a dilemma, as to whether I liked it better than the first season or not. After much deliberation with the magic of that brilliant finale fading from my memory, I decide, not.

So, the Man who knows no fear, the masked vigilante who's  so in love with his city, Hell's Kitchen of New York is back cleaning up the streets at night, after having put his biggest nemesis, Wilson Fiske behind the bars in that stunning first season - that impressed the shit out of me, as a viewer. In fact, I remember I had binge-watched the same, back to back, night after night and couldn't wait for Season-2. Now, that I am finally done with it, though, I cannot say I feel the same level of breathless, frenetic enthusiasm for the franchise.

This is not to say, that the Season 2 wasn't great. It was more of a see-saw for me - and the giant void left by the exit of Daredevil's biggest villain, Wilson Fiske ( Played, ah so admirably well by Vincent D'Onofrio) is now trying to be filled by two new entrants - the comic-enterprise's much loved/loathed characters of Elecktra and The Punisher, Frank Castle. The season has its moments - some of the terribly slick and claustrophobic and utterly mind-blowing action sequences when it comes to the slug-fest. But here, despite having a crowded character-cast with Punisher and Elektra clamoring for the screen-space along with Daredevil and his older cronies, Karen Page and Foggy Nelson, the episodes don't quite level up to the same intensity and pure adrenaline-rush excitement that I felt for Daredevil's maiden outing.

Yes - he's got his leather outfit done. Yes, he get's new weapons. And yes, Frank Castle (Jon Bernthal in a true-to-form blunt, gruff and maniacally driven role of the ex-marine who turns into the crimelords' worst nightmare in the streets) is as trigger-happy and menacing and brutal in cutting down the goons, as we thought he should be ( this, in complete contrast to the catholic, extremely guilt-ridden Matt Murdoch, who flinches from taking a life that is so against the very principles of his life) - Elektra (Elodie Young, a late entrant in this season, nevertheless lends gravitas and enough mysterious aura to the role of Elektra, the girl with anger issues and no such compunction against outright blood-letting and murder) is kick-ass, exotic and charmingly deadly. And yet, all of this somehow comes up a little short.

But hey, the show continues to live up to the raised bar it set for itself when it comes to the bone-crunchingly realistic action choreographs, there are several scenes in this one that matches (or tries to), that single-take hallway fight scene pretty early up in the last season. While Frank is content to blow up things sky-high with his guns, just messily exploding heads, cutting a bloody swathe through the criminal fraternity - from a distance with his sniper rifle, Matt joins up with his ex-flame Elektra out in the streets, on star-lit rooftops, in claustrophobic railway tunnels - in beating up the bad guys. And there are just several of them - a sort of cult, known as The Hand that sends armies of trained sword-wielding Ninjas to finish them off. Makes for some amazing hand-to-hand hard-hitting grunt-action that livens up the show to its full glory.

The inherent charisma of the actors still lends shine to the whole franchise. Charlie Cox is just phenomenal. The hurt, the confusion, the vulnerability, the simmering anger and the brooding. It's all still there in his portrayal of the red devil and while upstaged for a bit in the beginning of the season by the heavy introduction of both Bernthal and Elodie, he comes right back into the game by the end. And we're heaving and screaming right behind him in those final scenes, anguish and pain and anger portrayed equally well by Cox.

Karen and Foggy fight their own battles - Karen, played by Deborah Ann Wol switches between a journalist stepping into the empty shoes of Ben Ulrich, the now dead reporter and the legal assistant to Nelson and Murdoch. There are sparks in the middle between her and Matt but the ever murky conspiracies and secrets surrounding Matt's night life quickly douses this out. On Nelson and Murdoch front, there are cracks in the friendship. Matt's conscience does not let him give up his vigilante role when asked by his best friend to do so. Foggy's character has lesser goofy lines and is more mature, Eden Hensen thus losing out trademark wit that defined his character so well. He is relegated to playing the hurt-and-spurned friend who whines about most stuff. The show directors bring back Fiske for a mid-season revival but the excitement is only short-lived. We definitely hope to see more of the charismatic Vincent D'Onofrio soon.

The pacing is a bit off-kilter and the steam is letting off by mid-season when Frank Castle's character has been arrested and is going to be facing trial. The twists and turns of the courtroom drama fail to hold the same level of interest as the slug-fest drama out in the nights of Hell's kitchen. But a new evil arises in Hell's Kitchen, some old enemies resurface and Matt's past comes back to haunt him. The series ends in a very satisfying manner though, with promises of a crackling season three for sure.

There is a lot going on here in the second outing - and not all of it, is balanced and makes for great story-telling. But now, with enough super-heroes in the arsenal, we hope the season-three only takes off to greater heights. The show still has a lot of promise and the intrigue and mystery is built up well enough. While I don't think the show matched the ballyhooed greatness of its maiden outing, Daredevil is still one of my favorite shows ever. Here's to another brooding, punchy powerful outing for the Man who knows no fear. and hey, get Fiske out of that goddamn jail soon!

Monday, July 11, 2016

Red Queen's War: Book One & Two - Mini Review

So I know, last month the Red Queen's War officially came to end - with the third book in the series, The Wheel of Oshiem having got released. And this was the one series where people were raving that put Mark Lawrence on a pedestal, higher than what he achieved with his first series, the Broken Empire. And you know, how much of a scream that kid, Jorg Ancrath was. I had grown to like him.

Here's where I will let you in on a secret - I love Mark Lawrence simply because he is one of the few authors who inspires me to write better. His writing chops are top notch. Be it the razor-sharp story-telling or the brilliant characterization or the lucid narrative that is so riveting and compelling that you cannot help but be amazed and carried away in the flow - and you overlook the fact that perhaps, the story is a bit too dark and grim. With his second series, Mark's definitely taken care of that aspect, the complaints around grim-dark.

Prince Jalan Kendeth, the prince of fools story is much lighter in its tone and is unlike, Jorg's story dotted and splotched with that dreary darkness. It's almost a happy story. But hey, it's the Broken Empire we are speaking of. Where there is always a war going on. And this time, the womanizer and sybarite prince who loves nothing better than his wine, women and wagering gets unwittingly dragged into something way over his head. A fight - that has his grandmother, the terrifying Red Queen ( Mark - Refer to Alice in Wonderland, much?) pitted against the mysterious Lady in Blue and an old foe, we've encountered before, the Death King. The stakes are much above his measly pay-grade as the prince, tenth as heir-in-waiting to the throne. But Jalan's fate is tied up with that of a Northman, Snorri Ver Snagasson, a man hell-bent on avenging the death of his wife and kids at the hands of another set of vikings, perhaps at the bidding of the Death King. It so happens that the Silent Sister, a sorceress whom nobody can see (except Jalan!) and who advises the Red Queen on matters of the rule, has woven a magic that binds Jalan with the light and Snorri, with the dark, and them bound to each other. Which means they've got to be together to ensure they survive beyond this sorcery.

But of course, this is all a ploy in a much larger wheel that has been set in motion. While book-one focuses on the long and perilous journey Jalan and Snorri undertake, to go to the icy freezing North to bring the fight to the Red Vikings who had raided Snorri's village and killed his family, the larger plot of Red Queen versus Blue Lady is held at bay. However, Book Two is where Mark really unfurls the larger conspiracies that are turning in the background. A set of well-placed flashbacks reveals the Lady Blue's hand in moving against everything that the Red Queen is trying to protect. And of course, secrets about the Silent Sister's past come spilling out. Highly entertaining stuff, absolutely mesmerizing story-telling - Mark hits the strides pretty well, fleshing out this series so beautifully.

Jalan makes for a wonderfully entertaining first person narrative - coward, cad and utterly selfish, his revelations and philosophies in life are simple and straightforward. Its the honesty that made him appealing to me as a character. And of course, the humor lightens the tone and kept me in splits throughout. His constant misadventures were a delight to read. But Jalan, who in the beginning, comes across as a uni-dimensional 'tool' of a man, slowly reveals his stronger character towards the end of book-one. Berserker, a name that rests uneasy on his conscience, about how in the face of fear and danger, he could transform into a wrecking machine. But of course, in typical Jalan fashion, he remembers nothing of this and prefers to cloud over his memory about events that he is uncomfortable associating with. This trait of Jalan is a crucial plot-point as several things about Jalan's past gets revealed slowly through Book-two and we know, that Jalan is in fact, the right choice by the Silent Sister to carry her magic and perhaps, be up to the 'task' that Red Queen and her 'advisors' are looking to get done.

That brings us to Snorri - a fiery and fearsome Viking who bellows for the gates of Valhalla every time and whose response to any kind of danger, is to heave up his axe and run headlong into it - is a full-blooded hot-headed warrior, alright. He lives up to the repute of a typical viking in the beginning chapters. But as things slowly turn from bad to worse, (And this is the genius of Mark Lawrence!) we creep under the blanket of bravado to know the real man. A loving husband and a doting father, under the influence of the darkness that surrounds him because of the magic/curse, we sense changes in the big man. He's a man with the big heart and I absolutely loved his characterization in book-one. In spite of being called the Prince of Fools, the first book really belonged to Snorri. His raw anguish at having lost his loved ones, the no-holds barred charges straight into the mouth of danger, be it necromancers, the unborn or the red vikings fortress - all of it paints the picture of man who has loved and lost everything he has treasured in life. And we understand his burning desire for revenge.

Jalan and Snorri make for a merry pair, they play off each other really well and this kept the tone and pace of the story going at a steady clip. We hit a rough note by the middle of the second book, when these two part ways - and I thought, this was where the pacing fell off the wheel. When Jalan alone makes off for the City of Umbertide, having washed off the sins and the magical curse of the Silent sister and wants to make his fortune with the trade assets assigned to him, by his grand-uncle, the Red Queen's brother. We get entangled in the murky debts of bankers and the fear of clockwork soldiers who protect the assets (the legacy of the Builders still at large!) and I thought Mark had lost his plot a bit. But fear not, as several plot points converge after that. Book Two is chiefly about Loki's Key that Jalan and Snorri capture, at the end of Book One. And Snorri's obsession with bringing back his family from beyond the door of Death, is tied up with this Key. a key that is said, to be open any door.

Several new players enter the fray - Karra, a dark-sworn sorcerer, Tuttugu the jolly viking who's the last of the Undoreth tribe of Snorri and Hennan, a kid whose life gets turned upside down when Snorri and Jalan turn up at his doorstep. ( Near the Wheel of Oshiem, no less!) They only add to the crackling dynamics of the story and kept it on the boil, throughout.

The story is headed for a dramatic finale - with The Wheel of Osheim and I cannot wait to get behind that Door ( you know which one!) The second book is more brooding - and darker, not just keeping in with the conspiracies thickening and the multi-layered plotlines now becoming visible, but also keeping pace with Jalan's character development. More mature, serious perhaps and focused. Yes he is Jalan and so he dithers from committing full fledged to any course of action that doesn't see him safe and sound, but there is hope yet. The story is heading off a cliff - and Mark's masterful turn of the phrase keeps us turning the pages even faster. The Wheel is turning, aye - and the world is headed for a big fall but it may be a fall that tests the strength of one such as Jalan. And I would definitely want ring-side seats to watch that turn of events.

Seriously guys - if you haven't read the Red Queen's War, you don't know what you are missing, as a fan of this genre. Mark is doing something scintillating to the Fantasy genre - and you must experience it. Red Queen's War maybe, a better series than even the Broken Empire. It's an absolute berserker scream of a sequel to a book, that carried the weight of expectations after a thrilling debut series - and then heaves it all away, in a show of masterclass. Mark Lawrence, take a bow. You've stamped your class in this world with this series.

(P.S: I would give up my right hand to write like this thorn guy. but then I'm right handed, and then I couldn't write huh? )