Monday, May 27, 2013

Order of the Scales: Dragons, Destruction and Doom.

Order of the Scales is the third book in the planned trilogy: Memory of Flames set in the Dragon Realms and follows the individual storylines of the different Kings and Queens of the Dragon Realms to a satisfactory closure. 

Stephen Deas continues to do what he does best: skyrocket the tale forward in a brutal breathlessly frenetic manner and kill off people you care about, leaving the world a burnt-out smoky ruin with stragglers and fire-breathing dragons for survivors. If anything, the pacing is even better in the third book as we finally get to the big showdown that the Dragon Realms have been waiting for, for the past two books. All that scheming, skullduggery, backstabbing and bloody politicking finally comes to a grand finale – fiery, brutal and shocking one at that – as the battles for supremacy between Kings and Queens and the awakened dragons and the Adamantine Men comes to a head. It is guaranteed fireworks and wholesome entertainment – bloody pitched battles on dragon-mounts between the ill-fated Kings and Queens and the epic grand-scale destructions under-way when dragons seek revenge against men who have enslaved them for generations.
Order, obviously being the third book doesn’t suffer from the backstory expositions or character arc evolutions that might weigh the pace down. It’s an all-out glorious war here and it spills forth onto the pages in a rude bloody manner, taking no prisoners, going about its bloody destructive business. Only for a breather between the fights, are we taken back to the hapless Kemir, the lone outsider and sell-sword who is stuck with the mighty White Dragon Snow, thirsting for revenge against the little ones (humans). That track was probably the slowest and indeed, I felt for most parts, where was this being driven to.
Switching back to the wily scheming Jehal, the outraged princess Zafir who wants nothing more than Jehal’s head on a pike or body swinging in a cage and rest of the backstabbing lot of Dragon princes and princess’,  the book takes off on a rollicking pace, hidden surprises around every other corner. There are no good or evil among the characters. Each of them consumed by their over-arching desires, greed and -hatred for the Throne in this harsh desolate lands of the Dragon-realms. Deas sits down and gives us readers a deeper glimpse of that wonderful world he has been hinting at over the previous two books and he does this without sacrificing any pace. And still there are mysteries worth lingering for in this overall story arc. And Deas holds onto the suspense without giving a lot away.  Maybe Black Mausoleum finally reveals all but for all the conflicts that was gathering heat over the last two books, we are in for a gruesome surprise climax that will blow your minds away.
Jehal still remains my favorite character, raw human ambition that succeeds but at what cost. A greedy scheming cunning man who doesn’t feel remorse for his ambitious overtures that has spilled many a lives. Deas introduces a far many new twists as well – our first glimpse of the mysterious tai-taikayei, Elemental men who can disappear at will, the Silver Kings or magicians. All these however are brief and are without any hint at explainations. Perhaps the next outing into the Realms will sort that out?
Epic fantasy at it’s gratifying best in terms of pacing and closure – A setting that sparks off political scheming and backstabbing, terrifying man-eating dragons that seethe with rage and fire, jet-setting fiery pace, layers and sub-plots that abound and mystify, breath-taking magnificent dragon-battles. Highly recommended series, purely for the fun and thrill-ride it offers powered on dragon-wings.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Short Story Collection : Wastelands: Stories of Apocalypse Edited by John Joseph Adams

There is always something captivating about the concept of apocalypse, right?
Is it that dread, that helplessness? Or as Joseph Adams claims, it appeals to our sense of adventure, that thrill of discovery, the desire for a new frontier? And yet here we are on the other side of the fence thinking that all this is all in a distant future. We all have had dreams of a desolate, deserted Earth littered with abandoned broken down hulks of concrete and asphalt that stretch from nowhere to nowhere or is it visions of a dying world suffocating on noxious fumes and people wasting away from radiation? 

Whatever be your imaginations of a post-apocalyptic world – guaranteed they are going to be blown away by the visions of these twenty-two different works of genius from over the last two decades, smartly edited and collated in this one slim volume, aptly called the Wastelands by John Joseph Adams.

Wastelands is a definitive collection about an all-too possible bleak future as envisioned through the words of some of the best known authors across genres – Stephen King, Paulo Bacigalupi, GRR Martin, Carol Emshwiller, Catherine Wells, Elizabeth Bear – to name a few. Personally, I would rate at least fifteen stories in that to be gold-standard – hard-hitting commentary on humanity’s ability to persevere in the face of the worst adversities they have ever faced, some that sock you in the head with its grim, bleak tenuous  outlook on such life and others that shine with the light of hope and optimism. For most parts, the setting on the post-apocalyptic earth is what the Americans would called, the dustbowl. An arid, lifeless landscape resembling a desert where plants have wilted and given up on the will to live and humans scrounge by for most parts just to barely survive.  For the others, it is set in the ruins of a city with abandoned bridges and lonely stretches of asphalt leading to nowhere.

That said, while for most stories the tone is grim and serious, the ultimate takeaway is that of hope. Of survival against odds and these odds take various shapes – nuclear radiation, medical cures gone awry, even a theme of Judgment Day and the act of cleansing by Jesus. It runs the whole gamut of how or why the life on Earth went busto! And yet that plays of minimal interest in most of the stories – we focus on the brilliant characterization in each story and learn about their travails in such a dismal world and how they shine despite the circumstances.

For me, stand out stories that clearly struck a chord and also kind of made me ponder about the same for a long while were – “People of Sand and Slag” by Paulo Bacigalupi, “End of the whole mess” by Stephen King, “Inertia” by Nancy Kress, “Dark, Dark were the Tunnels” by George RR Martin, “Artie’s Angels” by Catherine Wells, “Judgment Passed” by Jerry Oltion.

The collection begins with the inimitable Stephen King’s first-person narrative story called the “End of the Whole Mess” – about a writer Howard on his last-gasp-dying breath trying to recount how he and his younger “Messiah” genius brother tried to “correct” the world by inventing this “calming” drug – the side effects are terrible and the whole world goes into utter chaos. It’s a poignant story full of pathos – edgy because it’s written as a self-styled confession by the narrator, begging forgiveness and redemption for himself, having done that final act of mercy for the whole world, which sadly may never be. Terrific characterization as King takes us deep into the narrator’s mind and relives his childhood and growing up and how things came to such a terrifying state as it is now. However as with most King stories, I hated the ending. Sudden and forced, without resolution to the problem at hand.

The most desolate and disturbing of the lot was Paulo’s story about a distant future where humans cease to live – there are only bio-engineered humanoids which survive on sand, can grow limbs, stick themselves up with razors or shiny halogen lamps all over. it’s told from the point of view of one such and it recounts with a complete lack of remorse or even a glimmer of hope of what they do with the last surviving organic dog that the group finds on one of their clean-up missions. It’s a tale of how science has made humans immortal and how they find a “lesser” evolved species, a perfectly normal dog that cannot alter to adapt to the harsher environs of the Earth, forcing the bio-jobs to question their heritage and purpose in life. Very very disturbing, harrowingly real, all too plausible situation that can arise. I salute the genius of Paulo and now have resolved to read the Wind-Up Girl as soon as am through with my current book.

Judgment Passed is perhaps one of the best imagined renditions of a second-coming of the son of God – who whisks away the entire population to heaven or God knows where. A group of explorers returning from space get left behind.  The group is divided on their opinion and wishes – one of them goes crazy to be called upon by God and this creates some effective suspenseful drama. A beautifully original premise, some heavy-duty questions around God and religion and faith,

Artie’s Angels and Inertia are everything that a short fiction should be. Creating unforgettable characters, vivid and layered within just a few pages, drama and emotional turmoil amidst harsh unforgiving external circumstances that forces character arc evolution and at the same time, leaves us spell bound and wanting more – with a masterful conclusion that forces us to question and speculate. Wham! Artie’s Angels tells the story of the “have-nots” and that lotus which grows out of the muck, a smart intelligent boy named Artie who becomes the beacon of hope for an entire riff-raff neighborhood of boys and girls – and who sacrifices a ticket to redemption  as he doesn’t want to break the bonds of friendship.  Essentially more a story about symbolism around hope and sacrifice set amidst a bleak surrounding. 

Inertia is Nancy Kress’s genius, a thought-provoking read about a future colony on Earth              that is quarantined because of a horrific disfiguring disease. An outsider comes one day into this colony and discovers that people living within the colony are far more civilized than the barbaric post-apocalyptic outside world. Can this disease itself be a solution to Earth’s problems? Kress ends the story on a cliff-hanger letting the reader decide which direction It moves onto. But it skims through a lot of interesting arenas – an SF-setting of a quarantined colony, familial issues, futility ( the laid back complacent manner of the residents within), hope ( the arrival of a stranger with a cure for the disease). Great read.

The collection is finished off with yet another good story – around the themes of survival against a pack of man-eating carnivores straight out of your wildest nightmares and pitched against a pair of protagonists who have the odds stacked against them. It’s a gripping adventure but the narrative style – never ending sentences with extremely long run-on passages didn’t help the pacing or general reading style.

There are quite a few other good reads well worth your time and Joseph Adams even goes onto sketch out a bibliography of possible next reads on the same topic.  It’s a fantastic collection and every fan of Fantasy or Science Fiction who has ever salivated around the prospects of a dying earth should get their hands on this one. The end of the world as we imagined it or come alive through the words of such brilliant authors, is a potent image that will linger in your mind.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Riddick: Coming Soon!

You're not afraid of the dark, are you?

sardonic tone dripping sarcasm, dead-pan expression with eyes that glow in the dark, remember Riddick from Pitch Black ?

A sleeper hit that almost escaped the radars, Vin Diesel played the convict whom everybody wants dead on a planet where dark rules and he is the only one who can see at night. I LOOVED that movie. Then came part two - where typical Hollywood fashion, they brought in a newer storyline that touted Riddick to be the last of a once proud, now exterminated race of warriors - the only one who can stop a set of marauding villians, set on world ( oh beg pardon - that should be Galaxy?) domination. Big budget, Hollywood action-fare. a little too lavishly done sets, unbelievable premise, bigger star cast. didn't like it one bit.

Looks like the team's learnt it's lessons - they are going back to that one planet; where Riddick is left for dead once again and he has got to deal with teams of mercenaries flying in to finish the job. At least, the settings are back to the original ones now - an inhospitable planet where dark rules, alien predators right out of your worst nightmares, a bunch of mercs armed to the teeth, some with a personal vendetta against Riddick and classic Vin Diesel with his drawling one-liners and rippling torso out to cheat death once again. will he?

Sit back for the ride - I'm getting front-row tickets for this one!

Sunday, May 5, 2013

WInds of Khalakovo: Ushering in winds of change for fantasy writing

I still haven’t come to terms with this question, do I love Russian literature?

I tried Tolstoy’s epic, War and Peace. Not once but twice. And I failed both times to complete it. Dostoevsky’s short stories made me a fan but his longer books had just too much going on to invest me in as a serious reader, all this at a younger tender impressionable age.
As an adult my tastes veered away from the contemporary into speculative and I was yet to find anyone who brought in the flavors or Russia – the strong smells of vodka, the white snow and the bleak grey hopelessness - into Fantasy or Science Fiction.

And then came Bradley P. Beaulieu – who has written a deep, well researched fantasy novel set in an alternate world of mountainous archipelago completely inspired by the Russian and East European settings. Then more recently, Peter Higgins brought the love and intrigue back to that Soviet-Russian hitting us squarely between the eyes with his excellent oddball genre-bending WolfHound Century ( Here is my review of the same)
I admit, Winds of Khalakovo ( what a lovely sounding name huh? Brings in the image of an exotic wind swept place high up on some mountains! Exactly what the author had in mind I suppose) didn’t so much as knock me down as I wanted a book to. I wanted to love this book when I heard about it. A book that doesn’t follow the hoi-polloi and expound on knights, treacherous backstabbing prince and princesses playing that dangerous game of thrones. Instead here, we have Russian Counts, Prince and Princesses, an indigenous set of people who can bind their minds to spirits of water, fire, wind, sky and earth, flying airships, muskets, cherkeskas and a whole lot of fun with a completely original magic system.

The story is set in the inhospitable lands of Khalakovo, a mountainous archipelago of seven islands and focuses on Prince Nikandr, our protagonist who at the time the book opens is starting to suffer from a wasting disease that is rampant in this province. Nikandr is betrothed to Princess Atiana, the third daughter of one of the neighboring province’s  Duke. But Nikandr is in love with Rehada, one of the indigenous Aramahn whore.  In the larger background, there has always been a constant struggle between the ruling Duchies, who are referred to as the Landed and the Aramahn, nomadic original inhabitants of the archipelago. Among the Aramahn, are these set of people called Maharraht, who possess the ability to call forth spirits from a parallel world to ours and bind these spirits to do their bidding. The Maharaht hate the Landed with a vigor and passion unparalleled and won’t rest until the Landed are wiped out. Meanwhile, among the Duchies the imperial colonists and rulers, power hungry Dukes choose sides when the Grand Duke of the entire Duchy gets killed in a freak attack involving a fire spirit gone rogue.  This leads to a political imbroglio that threatens to spill out and break into an all-out war. In this fray come a mysterious boy and his Aramahn handler who might just have power enough to end the entire world or save it. How Nikandr’s fate is bound to the fate to this new boy and how this swashbuckling complex plot plays out in an gorgeously detailed russo-inspired world forms the main story.

Bradley spins a great tale – Complex plot with multiple POVs, competent prose peppered with brilliant poignant dialogues apt for the bleak setting of the story and riveting details in terms of world building. He’s no stranger to fiction and his writing is what elevates this tale to the level of detail that is being compared to works of Steven Erikson’s Malazan books.

However, when it comes to pacing, the book seesaws like a crazy horse gone wild. especially the first half I had a tough time crawling through. The use of Russian words while probably an instrument to infuse originality did make it a little annoying. But the action sequences were where the structure fell through. Use of airships and fights aboard the same while a cool concept, did bring in some confusion to my reading. But things pick up around part-two. The magic system, with the help of Spirits – called Hazhan who are lured into the mortal world and bound by the Maharraht was perhaps the most innovative system I have read about. Sanskrit names for the spirits – Hava, Jal, Suura, Dhosha etc found me nodding my head and smiling.  

Overall, with a rich gloriously detailed world full of symbolism, Winds of Khalakovo announces the arrival of a super talented epic fantasy author in Bradley who has chosen to tread the brave path – eschewing the traditional medieval euro-inspired fantasy worlds – Lays of Anuskaya is an intelligent series with layered complex characters you grow to love at the end of book one. An intelligent high fantasy full of original magic and swashbuckling adventure. Bradley is no Patrick Rothfuss but he definitely is in for a long successful innings. Winds of change, a breath of fresh air. Three stars.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Movie Review: Iron Man-3

Robert Downey Jr. is to Tony Stark, what Sean Connery meant to James Bond in those heady days. He’s become iconic. With the release of Iron Man-3, where he’s flat out exceeded pretty much any linear yardstick of comparisons thrown at him, Downey Jr. has gone to stratospheric heights of Super-Hero Stardom. 

The third movie in the Iron-Man franchise from the Marvel Comics stable, Iron Man-3 is an all-stops pulled out flat-out entertainer executed on an grandiose spectacular scale. There is nothing to complain in the movie ( ahem. Barring a few deus-ex-machina moments, but heck, for the sake of pure unadulterated entertainment, I am willing to suspend my disbelief and let Tony and gang have their way!)

A hero who is willing to show his human vulnerability and wears it like a shield in fact through the movie, dread-inducing villians ( you got not one, but two of them!), a romantic tension that crackles between the lead pair and a brilliant explosive climax that is a glowering marvel of action-fantasy engineering. What else do you want? Damn, this fits so well into that summer blockbuster pantheon. Tony Stark aka Robert Downey Jr. you made my summer. 

The movie starts with Tony reminiscing one of his older one night stands with a genius bio-scientist in 1999 Switzerland and also his brief encounter with another man who is going to change his life completely later on. He calls this, “Creating our own demons”.

In the present, Tony struggles to divide time and attention between his love interest, Pepper pots ( played by Gwenyth Paltrow who finally gets enough meat to impress the audience and make sure they remember her at the end of the movie) and his hobby of building out metal suits which now respond to heat pattern changes and Tony’s unspoken will.  Hanging like a dark cloud over his tranquil existence is the presence of notorious terrorist named the Manadarin who’s got US quaking in fear and anticipation. When Tony issues an open challenge to the Mandarin, all hell breaks loose and pits Tony against two of the most dangerous adversaries he has ever faced. The movie is a rollercoaster after this with Tony trying to outwit and outsmart the Mandarin. Astonishing twists and reveals later, Tony is joined by his WarMachine buddy Colonel Rhodes, played by Don Cheadle who surprisingly gets to share some good jokes with Tony, in an effort to bring down the curtains on Mandarin’s war of terror.  Some heart-stopping action set pieces that will blow your mind – the mid-air rescue of passengers from the blown-out AirForce One, the brutal hand-to-hand combat dance of survival in an off-kilter sleepy town and of course the complete decimation of the Malibu-residence of the rich boy when Mandarin mounts a missile attack to reduce the fashionable residence to a pile of dust and rubble. 

The difference between Iron-Man 2 and Iron-man 3 is in the treatment which is very apparent. This movie keeps throwing stuff at you and is so well paced and structured throughout that not for a single moment do you feel like your time is wasted. Iron Man-3 has much more soul and depth to the character of Iron Man - giving us a peek into the man behind the mask, the billionaire playboy eccentric genius who wears his heart on a sleeve and mouths insouciant seemingly random mutterings to himself in general. What Shane Black, the new director, has effectively done, is to lay bare that aggrieved panicky extremely humane Tony Stark inside his metal suite – whose electromagnetic heart still has the capability to love and endure. 

For most parts of the movie, Tony is without his metal suit and that I think, has made the movie appeal to a wider variety of audience at varied levels. Robert Downey Jr. is a gold-rated actor and he delivers all the goods that Shane Black requires him to – as that human behind the iron mask. The raw anguish and the helplessness of Tony stuck in the middle of a nowhere town after having survived a hell-raiser bombing attack on his Malibu residence, the playful chiding mechanic who befriends the precocious youngster in love with toys and gadgets, the concerned Stark who cannot hide his feelings from his steady muse, Pepper Pots – Downey Jr sifts through these roles effortlessly giving us a multi-layered matured performance from the man who is so given to playing the indifferent, authority-hating, eccentric genius with his reflexive motor-mouthed mockery of pretty much anything that is thrown his way. We see him in a different light in this movie and man, don’t we love him. All this adds a rich layer to the entire Iron Man movie franchise that is unexpected but dazzling and welcome.

Agreed, the movie completely belongs to Robert Downey Jr. but hey – what makes him so in this movie is the presence of a couple of other super-badass larger-than-life embodiment of evil so black and so terrifying that you would have to applaud the choice of actors who played it. The immensely gifted Ben Kingsley plays the Osama-Bin-Laden inspired fearmonger terrorist called Mandarin who hijacks the US television to broadcast live killing and bombings. The other is Aldrich Killian, a roguishly charming bio-scientist played by Guy Pearce, who has probably discovered a technique by which to mass-produce regeneration of human limbs and thus produce super soldiers who can become lethal human-bombs – running off on an altogether completely different personal agenda which also has some revenge wrapped up in it. As his character puts it so well, “his greatest gift, desperation”  Both act brilliantly pulled off – the desired overcasting of dread and tension spreads through the movie. 

Iron Man-3 is perhaps not the best of the comic-super-hero movies. But it’s the gold standard for pure entertainment through and through and no one can fault that. A darker, edgier, funnier and humane follow-through to the ultra successful franchise from Marvels  -coming close on the heels of that wildly exhilarating ride that was Avengers, Iron-Man 3 more than stands on its own merit as a good movie. Thumbs up, Downey Jr and Shane Black.