Friday, November 30, 2012

God's War by Kameron Hurley (Bel Dame Apocrypha#1): Book Review

Ready for a wild ride into a bug filled wilderness of Kameron Hurley's fertile brain ? ( Sorry couldn't resist that after having marveled at the sheer awesomeness of her first book!)

Kameron Hurley’s debut effort God's War - Part One of a Trilogy called Bel Dame Apocrypha has won hearts and brains all over the speculative fiction world. I got the copies free courtesy of a free giveaway by Night Shade Books - just before the release of the Third Book, Rapture.

God’s War shatters boundaries setting new horizons for writers of science fiction or fantasy of any kind. Whoever said SF cannot be married with Fantasy should probably talk to Ms. Hurley. She’ll give you an earful.  This book is a second world fantasy novel but with advanced technological settings that scream “science fiction” – though I really think that Ms.Hurley probably would be the queen of “Bug Fiction” or “BugPunk” as she terms it. 

Bug Punk. Ugh! Does it bring on visions of creepy crawly insects fitted with some machinery? Ha ha. Hurley goes on to create a fascinatingly gripping new world vision that runs on bugs that substitute for advanced machinery. Hooked ? Wait, it’s gets more interesting and crafty. Hurley builds her bleak desert planet world with painstaking care – a world where two nations have been constantly at war and as a result, life is a cheap resource and boys or men are rare as they are all at the “front” – most don’t survive the war. As a result, It’s a world occupied by tough as nails life-hardened women who fit right into this harsh cruel world where women go to “breeding farms” to have children, take to boxing for sport and sell their “wombs” to make money.

Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert” 

The very first sentence of the book captures the bleak pessimistic settings to the strange world, called Umayma where there are two suns, one blue at that and humanity relies on bugs to drive various low-and-high tech machinery. Bugs are controlled by Magicians and shape-shifting, albeit frowned upon, is not uncommon.  With it’s strong overtones of sexuality, race and religion, the planet reminded me of the Dune world as created by Frank Herbert.

Indeed, what drives pretty much most of the story is not the plot, that is choppy and eloquent in parts, but it’s delightfully fun characterization and wonderfully inventive world-building. The author throws us right into the middle of this hostile desert planet – and hopes for us to swim through the tons of strange new customs – a lot inspired by the Muslim culture ( what with the naquabs, muezzins, mosques etc and the Book! And a lot of India in the book too – Dhotis, Rotis and even bar-maids who do a “Namaste” with both hands folded and bowing down. Though all of this is cleverly restrained and woven into a flowing narrative of the story)

Nyxnissa Dashem or “Nyx” is probably one of the strongest female leads I’ve read in any book in the recent past. She’s devoid of emotions, is a practical no-nonsense “bounty” hunter, and is willing to go to any lengths to protect her team. In a world devoid of men, Nyx has a love-hate relationship with the second protagonist of the book, a “weak” magician called Rhys who is a foreigner to Nyx’s country. Even though his parts bring in a grounded balance to the narrative ( as you don’t always want to stick around in the festering hot headed brain of Nyx whose only solution to a problem is through violence) Nyx was such a strong counterpart that she completely drowns out his perspectives to the story. The story starts and ends with her. She’s not nice; who loves nice girls anyways huh? But frankly, it’s hard to just like her at one shot. She’s crude, she’s inclined to violence ( don’t get me wrong, some of the most wonderful action set pieces springs from this proclivity of Nyx to get into ridiculous situations because she uses her hands and legs more than she uses her brains) but she’s real. And she has a zany broken sense of honor that she’s not willing to let go of. Like trying to save her misfit bunch of bounty hunters.

While I enjoyed this opening ride into the Bel Dame Apocrypha series, I haven’t completely committed myself to it. It’s a hard read but an immensely satisfying one at that. Since what Kameron Hurley has done here is to completely throw that “Guidelines for writing Fantasy” tome out the window – she’s stuck to her creative guns (Big double barreled shotguns full of creative juices that spray out Bugs, Blue Suns and Shape Shifters J) and produced a remarkable novel, worth all the hype it’s been garnering in the world of speculative fiction. Ahem, got nominated for a Nebula too I think.

Four stars. For the wild ride powered by BugPunk and a wonderfully strong female lead who can kick and fight her way out of hell if need be.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Movie Review: Looper

This one’s been on my wishlist ever since it released. Touted to be an intense high-action caper and dubbed “The Matrix” of this decade, Looper is one hell of a mind-bending ride with suspense, action and drama all folded in neat little surprise packages throughout the movie. This definitely is one my top favorites for 2012. 

Rian Johnson, the writer/director for Looper proves yet again that Science Fiction can be super entertaining. In the leagues of Avatar and yet, a lot more brainier and thought-provoking venture that forces you to rethink the ethics of time travel. This movie is built on the premise of time-travel but as Bruce Willis puts it, “I don’t want to talk about the time-travel shit. If we start, we will be sitting here all day making diagrams with straws.” If we do dwell on the “what-ifs” and “how-abouts” that comes pre-loaded with the concept of time travel, we will definitely be dragging ourselves into a quicksand with no escape. So as the director prompts you to do, we should pretty much stick to the twists and turns of the movie, of which, rest assured, the movie has lots. 

So Joe (Joseph-Gordon Levitt, now definitely one of my favorite leading actors – I first saw him in the sleepy hit “Look-out”, graduating from strength to strength, flush from the success of Dark Knight Rises) is a “Looper” – these are assassins who do clean up jobs for their mafia bosses ( who are thirty years in the future, 2074) – the “jobs” are sent back in time to 2044 landing in abandoned cane fields on a white tarpaulin where Joe and his brothers finish them off with a wicked-looking “blunderbuss” ( a homage to the Westerns I imagine). Joe’s got his life pretty good – the cash, the girl and a “steady” job. The catch to the job is that the assassins have to “close the loop” by killing a future version of himself, thus cutting off all ties with the mafia bosses. The future setting is pretty bleak – the streets are full of garbage, literal and human – something akin to the Blade Runner – life is cheap, floating motorbikes and shiny sports-cars are rare but available to the rich ones.  Joe’s life takes a U-turn when his future self (An Angry Looking Bruce Willis) turns the tables on his younger self and escapes into the night. That is called “Letting the Loop Run”. With this starts a mad chase and action caper with the younger Joe trying to “close the loop” while the older one tries to keep the younger one alive. Confused? Well hang on. 

Bruce (Older Joe) has his own hidden agenda. The older version of Joe has basically come back in time to save his wife from being killed in the future; by erasing this mysterious super-villain known only as the Rainman who controls the future.  The younger Joe on the run from the mafia escapes into the country land onto an abandoned farm where he befriends a tough cowgirl (Emily Blunt looks every inch the tough farmgirl trying to etch out a single mom’s living strutting around with a long rifle and mouthing profanities at the drop of a hat) – Strange little twist of fate where Young Joe falls in love with the mom and vows to protect  her son – who, full points for guessing – is of course the Rainmaker’s young self. How this neat little puzzle gets solved is worth watching out for. I loved the movie for having brought all the loose little ends tied together in a perfect little way that blew my mind away. 

As far as performances go, Levitt proves yet again he is an understated class actor, still a little under-rated by Hollywood and gives us a brilliantly layered performance – maturing from the easy-going blunderbuss-toting, junkie rich wastrel into a young man mature beyond his years, who connects the dots and takes on the responsibility of protecting a young mother and her toddler son.  He keeps the dramatic over-the-top action caper grounded. Bruce Willis, riding high on frustration and angst running against the grain of time out on a revenge mission, has his moments in the movie and delivers yet another stellar performance. Especially the fantastic scene in the diner where he confronts his rookie younger self and teaches him a thing or two on survival, easily one of the best in the movie. But overall, I definitely liked Levitt more as the hired gun caught in noman’s land in between vulnerable and badass and carrying off the role with elan and aplomb. Even Emily Blunt – Looks like she’s become a hot favorite to play lead heroines of the intelligent Science Fiction movies, remember Adjustment Bureau? – has a meaty role that she gives full justice to. Jeff Daniels, as the mafia boss, running the loopers in 2044 kinda lacked teeth and didn’t cut it enough for me. Peirre Gagnon, who plays Cid, the mystery boy also caught my attention – definitely one of the better child artiste performances. 

Overall, a neat little addition to the Science Fiction DVD Collection : Even though second half does get a bit weary, it’s a solid work of A-grade film-making. Engrossing and entertaining, the director never lets the heavy duty time-warp confusions affect the story telling. It takes diversions into the lands of love and loss, solitude and sacrifice and still comes out as a thought provoking science fiction tale with a heart.
Full five stars.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jab Tak Hain Jaan: Movie Review

I’m diverting from my single minded focus on reading and reviewing SFF Books just this once. It’s after all a Shah Rukh Movie release – that people all over India have been waiting for close to a year now. It’s a ritual and we pay our respects to the King Khan of Bollywood once again bright and shining on the big screen. Bringing together the trio of Masterclass genius Rehman, Gulzar and Yash Chopra, Jab Tak Hain Jaan was touted to be the biggest release of this year; Diwali release, assured block buster, 100 Crore club ( it’s ridiculous, the ease with which so many movies these days make it to the 100-crore elite club, huh?) 

I probably saw the first look trailer a few months back – Gulzar’s sublime poetry voice-overed by the intense voice of SRK as he himself, looking super bad-ass in military fatigues complete with dark goggles and unshaven mean and smoky looks riding a bullet set against the beautiful landscape of ladakh and complimented by the eclectically mesmerizing background score of AR Rehman. It was enough for me to cancel all appointments for the night of Diwali and set reminders to buy advance tickets to watch this sure-fire runaway super hit movie. 

Well. That was then. We all know how Bollywood is getting up there on par with Hollywood in packaging the movie in slick 2 minute trailers that leaves you panting for more and sadly disappoints as the reel expands into a full 2 hour ( or MORE!) movie. The final result is super disappointing, to say the least.
If you like colorful terms, well here: Colossal Disaster of Epic Proportions.

Let’s get more specific. The movie follows the fate of two star-crossed lovers who are too stubborn and egoistic to just settle down in life accepting things as they are. Inane promises made to the “upper-wala” and to oneself keep them apart throughout the movie. One becomes a daredevil soldier who defies death and is known as the “Man Who Cannot Die” while the other pines away in London. Throw in a lively spunky gangly teenage kid who fantasizes about “having sex with men from all over the world with different accents”, has her life ambitions to be part of the discovery channel team and of course falls head over heels in love with the older mature mystery man after reading his diary. A neat little love triangle, you say?
Ha ha! A Yash Chopra movie always has to have one but due to series of Die Ex Machina events happening, it all gets resolved happily. Like for example, an accident that happens twice to the same man. And one of the ladies is happy to let it all go in the hope that she gets him in the next birth. 

Anyways, a torturous first half happens in London where Shah Rukh tries hard to play a peppy street musician and Katrina Kaif plays the princess in the castle. Meera (Katrina)  a rich snooty kid about to get engaged to her “best” friend discovers love and happiness when Samar (SRK) takes her out one night to experience the movie “STEP UP 3-D” in real life. An eye-sore of a dance and probably one of the weakest songs of this movie ( Ishq Shava) later, the lovers realize and squash their love because of promises made to God. (“Sir Jesus”) – a meaningless sequence follows where Meera discovers her mom who had ditched her father for a wine-toting poetry-spouting lover boy and ran away when she was twelve. Setting her mom as the shining example in life, she decides to free herself and let it go. ( And she actually lets go of pretty much most of her sharm and haya as well – deciding to romp around cold London streets in skimpy clothes, doing an impromptu strip dance in the London tube trains, romancing inside phone booths and roof tops..Phew! Hot, sure. But did we need that? )

Part two takes us back to the lovely lush landscapes of Kashmir and Ladakh – this was the best part of the movie lit by the sunny presence of Anushka Sharma, who plays the wannabe-discovery channel reporter who wants to cover Samar who is now a bomb- squad specialist in Indian army. She’s perky and as chirpy as a chipmunk on a sugar rush. She brightens up the screen effortlessly since this is a part that’s tailor made for this tall actress. The movie shifts back to London after Akira (Anushka – “Tum Japanese ho?”) finishes shooting the documentary and wants Samar to come for a day to meet her sponsors in Discovery.

After this, the movie goes on a downward plunge with no brakes as Yash Chopra puts us through torture after torture. The story of how the star crossed lovers destined to meet and part again plays out to form the climax. In terms of acting, Shah Rukh as the badass die hard Indian soldier is a mature understated act of master class. Katrina looks a little worn out and gets to mouth meaningless prayers and promises (when she is not stripping of course!) Anushka as I said, is a saving grace.
There are no other characters in the movie. Rishi Kapoor and Neetu Singh play the older couple so much in love and have a blink and miss appearance. Anupam Kher is wasted. Nobody else merits mention.

It’s two and half hours or more of a long drawn out love story – of a man spurned because of faith and who decides to embrace death since he has to prove a point to break his lover’s faith in God. Really?

Watch the trailer. It’s a full FIVE stars trailer. Buy the music CD for the genius of AR Rehman combined with the ethereal poetry of Gulzar. If you’re hell bent on watching, then maybe you should step out to buy popcorn during the first half of the movie, come back to watch the beautiful Kashmir captured in the second half, jive to Jiya re and then go back home feeling good about yourself.

And hey Happy Diwali!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Book Review - The King of Crags: Book 2 in Memory and Flames series

Second book in the Memory and Flames series. Stephen Deas still plays to his strengths, that is a jet setting story burning on rocket fuel with multiple POVs, bloody battles fought in the air, some bits of magic thrown in for good measure, not a lot of world building but enough hints to visualize a fantastic one, and giant fire breathing mad dragons hurtling through the air and slamming into each other, searing up everything around them.

A good book that is again a breathless frenetic read. Deas has obviously sacrificed some quality for the sake of scorching pace that he sets up again. Book Two is even faster than Book One. Frankly in terms of plot, not too much really happens. Book One had all the set pieces being arrayed in place and now all of it comes to play. An all-out dragon-war in the realms of the dragon lords.
What made Stephen Deas call this book, the King of the Crags, is still a mystery to me. Book One builds an aura around this strange king who has never stepped out of his own lair for ages and Book two promises to pitch him in as one of the leading players. Alas! Deas himself seems to have got carried away in the the swirling mad pace he’s going for in this book and forgets to give us anything substantial about this mysterious character. And one more thing about the author, he’s definitely not averse to some head chopping, so if you grew to like your Kings or Queens, well just watch out.
A few new characters are in - though they seem wish-wash pale compared to the strong ones from Book One. Jehal and quite a few of my favorites still rule the roost, though again the first few pages, till Part-One, about 18% of the book, reads like some new story and a little insipid one at that. Jehal still retains that grey cloak and we truly dont know his motives. I know I might get lynched for saying this, but for some reason, he reminded me of Tyrion Lannister from the Song of Ice and FIre series. ( yeah go ahead, hit me!) His banter with the Night Watchman of the Adamantine Palace, Vale Tassan was definitely one of the better lighter moments in this book. Vale’s character is new – a servant to the orders of the Speaker of the Realms, he is portrayed as the strong silent man forced to play out to the whimsical fancies of their petulant girl-Speaker Zafir. But now that I think about it, his cynicisms made him almost a carbon copy of Jehal’s snarky characterization.
From part-two onwards, we're transported back into the scheming ruthless world of the kings and queens now scurrying to get support for the war that is imminent. It takes off on wings from this part on and the whirlwind pace is sure to suck you in with the fates of these power mongers.
Sadly for me, Snow White the rogue dragon who was quite the star in Book One, really didn't have much to do in this book except for hunt and kill cattle for food and survive. Hopefully she comes back in Book three ? World Building falls by the way side – but hints through legends and stories abound – of the strange new world these dragon lords fight over.
The final few chapters of the book where war breaks out, Stephen Deas really applies himself into the glorious details. A dragon-war fought in the air with your fire breathing monsters shrieking and slamming into each other nicely sketched out. The feeling was as if I was right there harnessed to the rider's saddle on top of the beasts - definitely un-put-downable.

Overall I am a little disenchanted with the series but hopefully book three will put things back on track. Will pick it up a while later. Jehal and his scheming lover girl, Zafir can wait. For now i give it three stars.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

Everybody who has read Guy Guvriel Kay has been gushing unequivocally great things about him. I as usual, am late to the party but having started off with one of his BEST Ever works, Under Heaven (published in 2010), I think I know pretty much how you guys feel about GGK. He’s an exquisitely talented writer. Under Heaven is easily one of the best pieces of literary fiction or historical fantasy (it sits easy on any shelf I would wager) that I’ve ever read. 

“Among the ten-thousand noises and the jade-and-gold and the whirling dust of Xinan, he had often stayed awake all night among friends, drinking spiced wine in the North District with the courtesans.”
So starts this literary epic that waltzes and dances to the words as woven by Guy Gavriel Kay – you get to “feel” the tone in that very first sentence that belies the depth of this multi-layered novel. It is deep, haunting and beautiful in ways that defies description.  Making a historical fantasy based on the Tang Dynasty of China – making it complex and truly epic in scope and deftly managing to balance the epic nature of his narrative, interweaving it with such authoritative expositions on a foreign culture is a skill for which the author needs to be lauded. I was swept into this beautiful world that smacked of traditions kept alive for eons, where culture was defined by poets, humility could win you the emperor’s blessings and arrogance could gift you untimely gruesome death, cruelty and ambition is cloaked in beautifully evocative poems. It’s a world full of Machiavellian machinations to win power and a single man gets irrevocably drawn into the dangerous double-crossing games of politics played at the courts when he gets a generous gift.
Under Heaven is the tale of one man, Shen Tai – Second son to a famous general in the Kitan Emperor’s army – who is trying to honor his father’s death by trying to bury thousands of dead men by a lakeside on the borders of Kitai and Tagur ( perhaps a faint resemblance to the sprawling China and neighbouring Mongol?)
Tai’s tranquil world (not so tranquil if you consider this: “Tai was several days' ride west of the fort, beyond that last outpost of empire, with the dead: with the lost crying at night and the bones of over a hundred thousand soldiers, lying white in falling moonlight or under the sun”) is shattered when a Kitan Princess married off to the Taguran Emperor to bring about a shaky peace, gifts Tai two hundred and fifty Sardian horses in recognition of this thankless valorous deed. This gift brings him into the cross hairs of the players in the court of the Emperor as this gift alone has increased his stature and people would kill to get their hands on such a gift.  It sets off a chain of events that changes the fate of Kitai Empire forever.
From here on, Tai’s life is turned upside down as he has to return back to the world he has given up two years ago. The plot builds at a rapid clip from here on as Guy brings in Kanlin assassins ( reminds you of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon doesn’t it?), dancing courtesans skilled in playing the pipa music and pleasuring a man beyond his wildest dreams, the power players of the Court including the Emperor, a drunk poet who can re-write history with his skills at word play and lots and lots of interesting minor characters that enliven this eastern epic fantasy. He sketches back-stories stacked one on top of the other about Tai’s older life. This includes his ex-lover Spring Rain, a courtesan and now concubine to First Prime Minister to Emperor and his elder brother Shen Liu who is now chief advisor to the same guy.
While Tai is busy trying to come to grips with the fast moving lanes of the life back in Xinan, a parallel narrative tracks Tai’s sister Li-Mei who has been ransomed off as a princess to a native tribe leader as wife to one his heirs. This wick burned slightly slower for me – even though it had its moments. A wolf-man rescues the princess and she comes back a full circle to her beginnings. How this is tied to Tai’s tale of survival among the polite but cruel and ruthless political heavy weights is very interesting and I wont spoil it for you just yet. 

Guy has built this beautiful world based on 3rd century Tang dynasty of China that will haunt you with its very many novel customs – Little things spring out at you, be it the importance of tradition, honoring a man’s stature as decreed by his position or lineage, custom of greeting by bowing low with left fist to the right hand to show respect, the number of bows decrying the amount of respect. The folklores of fox-daijis who are femme fatale spirits who can kill a man through wild sex, wild geese that carry the souls to the underworld, the shamans of the wild Bogu tribe who can steal souls.  The various places described in the book: Lush and truly captivating, be it the pleasure houses of Xinan, the imperial orchards of the Emperor or even the lake side home of the protagonist.
Characters are a tour-de-force in this book. They live and breathe and mesmerize you. Especially the Women. Such strongly etched out characters – be it the beautiful Spring Rain who tempts fate by being brave enough to face her master’s wrath by sending Kanlin assassin to save her ex-lover or the devoted Wei Song whose dedication to the Kanlin cause is only matched by her unwavering loyalty to Shen Tai, the man she is assigned to protect (Have to confess, she reminded me SOO much of Zhang Ziyi!!). Or the exquisitely beautiful Consort to the Emperor Wei Jing who plays her own dangerous games, tempting emperors and men alike. Or of course Tai’s sister Li-Mei fashioning her own strange fate in the wilds beyond the Kitai empire.
Add to this ensemble other equally interesting minor characters like Tai’s brother who is a brilliantly clever courtier, the jealous and arrogant First Prime Minister, a scheming heir to the Empire, a drunk and loyal poet known far and wide as the Banished Immortal, the fat barbarian general who is known to be the dangerous man alive in the empire and many many more. 

But what truly elevates the book to the levels of sublime is the writing itself. Poetic and lilting, a lovely enmeshing of fact fiction and fantasy that readers might be hard pressed to find anywhere else. This book truly is a classic in its genre and you shouldn’t miss yourself this treat by a truly master class writer in the genre of historical high fantasy.

Five stars and truly deserving more.