Book Review: Thin Air by Richard K. Morgan

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I guess cyberpunk never went away. It may have peaked out a bit in the 80s as a science fiction sub-genre but it did not really go away. Hollywood movies and Japanese anime embraced the visual stylings of its noirish futures and kept it alive. I’m no expert on the genre by any means, but I’m old enough to remember the big wave. Roots of the genre could be found in the writings of Philip K. Dick and John Brunner. When William Gibson’s Neuromancer came it seemed to open up a floodgate for writers like Bruce Sterling, John Shirley, and Pat Cadigan. Even veteran writer Norman Spinrad dipped his toes into the genre with Little Heroes. Movies like Blade Runner, the original animated Ghost in the Shell, and of course, Akira would be media influences for decades to come.

Netflix recently adapted the first of Richard K. Morgan’s Takeshi Kovacs novels Altered Carbon. It was a critical success. With its heavy dose of cyberpunk themes, I would argue that if the live action adaptation Ghost in the Shell looked like Altered Carbon then it would have been a much better movie than the generic action film Hollywood cranked out. That was my first exposure to the name of Richard K. Morgan.

Thin Air, the latest book by Morgan, is my first exposure to his writing. Though it is not set in the same universe as the Takeshi Kovacs books, the noirish tones and styling are still present. And it just makes me think that Netflix did a hell of a job visualizing his world. It is supposed to be a standalone book in the universe of Thirteen, first published in 2007. However I could not help but feel a little lost for much of the book especially in the beginning as I am dropped into a decadence soaked Martian city.

Haken Veil is a hard-boiled muscle for hire. After getting arrested on suspicion of killing  some lowlife, he somehow gets drafted into babysitting a Madison Medekwe, a corporate auditor from Earth. The purpose of her particular audit is to find out what happened to a blue-collar worker who disappeared after winning a lottery that would have paid his way back to Earth. True to tropes, things do hit the fan.

The rest of the book involves Veil snarling, swearing, punching, killing, and screwing his way  through the underbelly of the Martian city of Bradbury to figure out the truth. Mix in an overdose of seedy criminals, corrupt officials, prostitutes, and hackers and you get cyberpunk version of a long island ice-tea — a mix of everything on the shelf. Ultimately that mix leaves a sour taste in the mouth.

Thin Air is full of atmosphere and has a strong attempt at world building. But Other than a few side mentions about the gravity and being in domes, the book could really have taken place in any metropolis setting. Sure there are healthy doses of Martian politics but frankly it’s the standard Mars independence from Earth that has become a main trope. The city of Bradbury is full of tough talking f-bomb dropping characters with very little to like about them. The protagonist is not only unlikable but unrelatable. Even after flashbacks, we know little of him and thus have little investment in what happens to his character other than to see the novel to the end. An it does come to an explosive end at that.

Whatever failings that Thin Air has, Morgan does good job of making up for it in nice action set pieces that can be bloody and explosive. As graphic as the action is, the sex is even more so. The first time was jarring but by the third or fourth sex scene it does get ridicules in its graphic depiction of bumping uglies.

The plot does relatively tie up neatly in the end with conspiracies uncovered and mysteries solved. One character twist was pretty easy to spot from the start though. Maybe that was not an important twist as it really did not come as a surprise, only the timing of the reveal.

The world that Morgan created is quite an intriguing one and by the end I had hopes that there was more to the lore than vague references to other events o places like Ganymede. In the end the book was entertaining enough overall but a bit long.

Review copy courtesy of NetGalley

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Why “Rosa” is the Best Doctor Who Episode in Years

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December 1, 1955
Our freedom movement came alive
And because of Sister Rosa you know
We don’t ride on the back of the bus no more

— The Neville Brothers, “Sister Rosa”

This post will contain spoilers, so if you don’t want to be spoiled watch the episode first –or, if you don’t mind, proceed.

Let’s get this out of the way. I absolutely love Jodie Whittaker as the new Doctor. She brings incredible energy and charm to the show and provides a sense of wonder to even the most mundane aspects of the show that makes it all seem fresh again. That freshness is also helped by having a new cast of companions. I think the presence of new producers and a new composer really add to that freshness as well.

Considering how much Doctor who has traveled through time and space, it is surprising how little the Doctor has to fix a timeline. In the case of season 11’s Doctor, not only must the Doctor and her companions have to protect time, but have to battle one the most worst monster of all, racism.

I grew up watching Twilight Zone and Star Trek: science-fiction message heavy shows. Early Who episodes were time travelling history lessons, such as “The Aztecs.” And sometimes, like in “Pompeii” we are presented with fixed moments in time, where Donna and the Doctor can not interfere with the historical significance that Pompeii’s citizens must die. Martha Jones had a few brushes with racism during the David Tennant run. The Twelfth Doctor touched on racism in “Thin Ice” but it was not the core of the story.

The opening teaser is of an actual incident in 1943 where she was forced off the bus for the first time for refusing to use the back entrance for coloreds and taking a seat. In those days you paid in the front and had to get back off and enter through the back of the bus if you were Black.

The TARDIS is acting up, as it typically does. It does seem to take the Doctor and companions where they are needed, though. In this case, it brings them back to Montgomery, Alabama in 1955. The Doctor discovers a heavy presence of artron energy in the vicinity that should not be there so she decides to investigate.

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“I’m getting pretty sick of seeing that sign.” says companion Ryan Sinclair.

When they disembark, Ryan Sinclair passes by a White couple and the woman drops her glove, doing the polite thing he picks it up and offers it to her while tapping her shoulder. He is rebuked by a slap by her husband. Rosa Parks who is passing by intervenes and diffuses the situation. Note that it is Rosa who is able to diffuse it.

It turns out that the source of the energy is another time traveler named Krasko armed with a vortex manipulator — poor man’s TARDIS, inaccurate at best. He is a former prisoner of Stormcage prison who is embedded with a neural inhibitor that presents him from physically harming, let alone killing, anyone. But he is determined to prevent Rosa Parks from making her historic act of defiance against segregation. According to Krasko her defiance is where it all goes wrong for him.

For years, I had been screaming in frustration and annoyance at my television set because of the Moffet effect of manic running around and staccato dialogues from the Doctor that is often drowned out by Murray Gold’s score. In this episode, we slow down and let the events of history speak for itself. We let storytelling actually take place. And each of the companions are not only there along for the gee whiz ride, they each contribute something and become part of the story. In the final moments of the episode, being part of that history can hurt as it turns out that the Doctor and her companions must stay on the bus so that the bus can be full and that not enough White passengers have seats. The Doctor says here that “We must not help her.” And at this point Rosa Parks, not the Doctor, is the hero of this episode.

Much of this episode is difficult to watch. It’s not the maniacal escapism of previous Doctor Who episodes. It takes on racism head on and in a way that is surprising in its unflinching approach to the subject. The simple act of just gathering at a restaurant to plan what to do is dangerous as they get side-eyes from other people and a waitress tells them, “We don’t serve Negroes.”

We have some notable performances from the entire cast and a bit of character development too. Earlier this season, Graham (Bradley Walsh) is introduced as Ryan’s (Tosin Cole) grandfather, but Ryan just calls him his grandmother’s second husband. But you get the feeling that sharing this adventure together brings them closer. Ryan and Yaz (Mandip Gill) seems to be showing some affection for each other too.

The standout performance goes to Vinette Robinson’s portrayal of Rosa Parks. She is almost regal in her strong and determined performance.

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A character moment between Ryan and Rosa occurs after meeting Martin Luther King Jr. at Rosa Parks’ home. Afterward, she asks if he got what he wanted. “I didn’t know what I wanted, but yeah. Meeting you guys. Listening to you all talk, I can’t believe it. It will get better. Not perfect…but better. It’s worth the fight. Thank you, from me and my nan. ” She responds, “I haven’t done anything.”

Yaz has a moment where Ryan talks about being stopped more by police than his mates. Yaz, who is police herself says not by her. “Tell me, you don’t get hassle,” he says. “Of course I do. “Of course I do, especially on the job. I get called a ‘Paki’ when I’m sorting out a domestic or a terrorist on the way home from the mosque. But they don’t win, those people. I can be a police officer now, because people like Rosa Parks fought those battles for me — for us. And in 53 years they’ll have a Black president as leader. Who knows what will happen 50 years after that? That’s proper change.”

Graham has many little moments and one is when he recounts first meeting Ryan’s grandmother who said, you better not be like James Blake (the bus driver who threw Rosa Parks off the bus 1943 and called the police on her in 1955). “And I had to ask her who she was and she said she gave bus drivers a bad name. She had a t-shirt that said, ‘The Spirit of Rosa,’ I wish she were here.” Towards the end of the episode in feeling that they had accomplished their mission he gets ready to get off the bus, but to his horror he realizes he has to stay and be one of those White people to be on the bus so that there are not enough seats. “Don’t get off, Graham. If we get off there will be enough empty seats for White passengers and Rosa won’t be asked to move.” His simple look and line of “No, no. I don’t want to be part of this story,” conveys a heart about to break.

I must take a moment to really compliment the use of music in this episode. The licensed stuff like the gospel piece in the teaser and the use of Andra Day’s “Rise Up” during Rosa Park’s protest moment may be considered cliché. Yet it’s a trope that works for me. But it is also the subtle fanfare by the new series composer, Segun Akinola that stands out. His Rosa theme is evocative of Aaron Copeland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” with a touch of James Horner.

The episode is not a perfect episode. Being British production, the actors portraying Southern Whites are probably British themselves as sometimes accents just seem off. Krasko seems like a plot device villain just to set up the episode, but it could also be possible that he may be something more later on in the season as his defeat does allow him to possibly return.

Science-fiction can entertain, make you think, make you uncomfortable, afraid, and sometimes it can tell a message while doing all these things. Doctor Who’s Rosa does that well. And as Ryan said to Rosa Parks, “Thank you.”

Book Review: Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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For me, Lovecraft Country demonstrates the real power of versity in art. By focusing on people who were traditionally excluded from genre fiction, I’m able to do interesting new things with some very old tropes, while simultaneously exploring aspects of our shared history that aren’t as well-known as they should be. Combining fantasy with realism produces a richer story than would be possible with either alone. And despite being set sixty years in the past, this is easily one of the most topical books I’ve written—though that says less about my skills as an author than it does about the state of the country that I live in.

— Matt Ruff

Note: Though fantasy fiction, this book reviewed is based on real and painful times in American history, particularly the Jim Crow America of segregation and racism against Black Americans was not only the norm, but the institution.

Is it possible to separate the person from their art? Does knowing that the person whose work you enjoy, even admire, is a horrible person change your view of that work? I still have books signed by authors I don’t agree with like Orson Scott Card, but in storage. I still have the Mists of Avalon by child molester and abuser, Marion Zimmer Bradley on my shelf. The creator of the Rurouni Kenshin manga and anime, Nobuhiro Watsuki, was recently convicted of possession of child pornography. I can’t look at these works again without thinking of the wrongs committed by their creators.

I never got into H.P. Lovecraft. I’ve tried to but just never could finish the supposed classic “At the Mountains of Madness.” But Lovecraft was such an integral figure in imaginative fiction that little did I know I was reading works that were definitely influenced by him. From Stephen King and Brian Lumley to the films of John Carpenter, I’ve grown up with Lovecraft lore. Little did I know that this literary giant of imagination, this icon of genre fiction was a racist. I’m not talking about the casual racism of “he was a person of the times” that so many other artists were back then. He was an outright white supremacist.

Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country is not only a book inspired by Lovecraft but one about the racial attitude that Lovecraft shared with so much of America. Through its ensemble cast of African-American characters they will navigate through secret societies, sorcery, other worlds, ghosts, time travel, and Jim Crow America.

From the publisher’s description:

Chicago, 1954. When his father Montrose goes missing, twenty-two year old Army veteran Atticus Turner embarks on a road trip to New England to find him, accompanied by his Uncle George—publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide—and his childhood friend Letitia. On their journey to the manor of Mr. Braithwhite—heir to the estate that owned Atticus’s great grandmother—they encounter both mundane terrors of white America and malevolent spirits that seem straight out of the weird tales George devours.

The book takes its time to get to any incidents of supernatural horrors that are promised. Instead of a straightforward novel we get stories of novella or novelette length that are interconnected with each other culminating in a confrontational conclusion. In the first and titular segment, Atticus, his uncle George (publisher of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, a fictional counterpart to the real world Negro Motorist Green Book) and childhood friend Letitia encounter horrors of America’s racism. From a simple stop at a gas station to just sitting at what is thought to be a safe diner, the experience of being Black in 1954 America can range from demeaning to life threatening. They are searching for Atticus’ missing and estranged father who is in Ardham, Massachusetts. Atticus originally misreads his father’s handwriting as Arkham, hence the origin of the title Lovecraft Country.

This will lead to the introduction of the main antagonist of the book, Caleb Braithwhite, who will directly and indirectly effect the characters for the rest of the book until a final confrontation that is satisfying yet leaves room for a sequel. Perhaps we will get that sequel in the form of another book. But since it is also a forthcoming HBO series produced by Jordan Peele, we may get it from the show.

What Matt Ruff accomplishes here can’t be called a delightful read. In fact much of it is incredibly uncomfortable. Not because of any eldritch horror, but from the historical context of America’s great sin of racism. There is a segment where Montrose Turner, Atticus’ father recounts his boyhood memories of the real life Tulsa Riot of 1921. The memory, as recounted, and as written by Ruff, stabs you in the heart.

Yet, in spite of the real world horrors, there is a strength in the characters that not only allows them to endure but to inspire. There is Hippolyta, George’s wife, who dreamed of being the first Black female astronomer ever since she was a child and continues her love of the stars. She will feature in her own adventure while doing research for the Safe Negro Travel Guide. Her twelve-year-old son, Horace, wants to become a comic book publisher. Letitia Dandridge purposely becomes the first homeowner in a White neighborhood, so that it may open the doors for more Black home ownership in the area. Each character, in their own way, wants to carve a place for themselves in a system that is designed to keep them down.

A sub-theme of the book and it’s characters is that several of them are also geeks. Atticus, George, Horace, and too a less extent, Letitia are readers of the popular science fiction of the era, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs, and of course H.P. Lovecraft. And though Burroughs is problematic, Lovecraft as we now know, was outright bigoted. And perhaps this passage can help me reconcile with my own modern experiences with someone like Marion Zimmer Bradley:

“But stories are like people, Atticus. Loving them doesn’t make them perfect. You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws. The flaws are still there, though. ”

“But you don’t get mad. Not like Pop does.”

“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad. Not at stories. They do disappoint me sometimes.” He looked at the shelves. “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

Atticus gets that stab in the heart, when as a young man, his father shows him a copy of a Lovecraft poem called “On the Creation of Ni***rs.” Except Lovecraft did not use Asterisks. Ruff credits Pam Noles’ article, “Shame,” as an influence. It is about the difficulties of being a Black science-fiction fan in America.

The audiobook is narrated by Kevin Kenerly, whose dramatic performance adds weight and nuance to characters who sometimes undergo some emotional toils. He is a stage actor who is also no stranger to audiobooks.

Among the accolades that Lovecraft Country has received, one of them was a nomination for the 2016 World Fantasy Award. Ironically up until 2015, the World Fantasy Award statue was a likeness of H.P. Lovecraft. It was finally changed after 40 years from pressure to do so.

Some readers may not like the way the book is divided into novellas that are interconnected. Personally I really appreciated it and perhaps he only weak segment would have to be the Horace centered story. But overall, Matt Ruff not only brings to life the hard world of the characters but he manages to infuse them with an authenticity as well. These aren’t great heroes out to save or change the world. They are Black Americans making it through a shameful period of America’s past that is not really all that distant and not one that we have distanced ourselves away from enough yet.

Highly Recommended

Further Reading

A Reader’s Guide to Lovecraft Country
Prince Hall Freemasonry
Cory Doctorow on Lovecraft Country
When Jim Crow Drank Coke
Tulsa Race Riot of 1921
Shame by Pam Noles

Review: Cells at Work – Yes, Anime can be Educational!

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One thing I’ve noticed about modern anime is that sure enough, no matter the show, there will be waifu material in it. Is that a bad thing though? Certainly not — unless you engage in a heated waifu battle-rage wars about who is best girl. That is a given. What is not a given is actually having anime be educational. There have been a few anime that has actually been educational to me, Hikaru no Go, especially with its live action segments after each episode called “Go Go Eigo!” which taught viewers how to play the game of Go. There was The Rose of Versailles which covered quit well the court of Marie Antoinette and what would lead to the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror afterword. I’m sure there are others out there. One anime that does stand out for going out of its way to educate the audience is 2018’s Cells at Work. Yes, kids you can not only have your adorable waifus, but you can get a biology lesson as well — not that kind of biology you pervs.

Anthropomorphized things are nothing new, even to western audiences. Disney and Pixar gave us Cars, Zootopia, and Inside Out. Based on the manga series by Akane Shimizu, Cells at Work revolves mainly around a single red blood cell circulating within the system of a single human body. As the series unfolded I could not help but think, this guy (or gal) has incredibly bad luck and does really horrible things to their body. )There is, in fact, a spin-off manga where the person is in horrible shape, and lives an unhealthy lifestyle like smoking and drinking.) Throughout each episode we encounter a weekly monster virus or bacteria to menace the body and it is up to white blood cells, killer t-cells or macrophages to solve the attacks. Even platelets get in on the action for the episode about a scrape wound. And they are plain adorable.

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Each episode usually focuses on Red Blood Cell trying to go about her usually duties of delivering nutrients through the circulatory system of the body and because of this she is the perfect character to encounter various threats to the body. She does seem to keep encountering a particular white blood cell along the way and throughout the show they encounter such small things as a scrape to cancer cells.  With many of these encounters and as other cells are introduced, we get a narrator’s voice as well as onscreen text that explains the functions of a cell.

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In all honesty the show not that spectacular, but the biology angle and its shear charm are what makes it special. It also helps that it benefits from high production animation and an episodic nature where you really don’t have to watch the episodes in any sort of order. I watched this show with a friend who is not only an anime fan but a biologist and so each episode he added comments of the accuracy of the show and even when it had stuff that was new to him. Either way, he enjoyed it.  There are a few videos of professionals reacting to the show and it’s been quite positive.

Yet it is absolute fun. The cast is not as huge as a typical shonen show, and in fact the characters are designed to look alike since they serve a certain purpose. Red Blood cells wear what appear to be Red uniform versions of UPS drivers and Macrophages are maid. Yet somehow the anime manages to imbue the characters with personality such as our main red cell who has the problem of always getting lost in the circulatory system. The White Blood is rather protective of Red. Which of course in the Internet age means, shipping! The platelets are possibly the most adorable group of characters in years and they do important work too. And dammit the Macrophages just personify beautiful but badass women. Plus they are adults.

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Cells at Work is not typically shonen nor is it slice of life, though there is a lot of slicing going on — get it? I made a pun. It is, however, a very entertaining comedy with action and enough charm to fill up a trailer. The uniqueness of the idea and the enduring quality of all the characters, even the bad viruses make this a show worth watching. It is one of those shows where it just feels good to watch, sit back, and enjoy.  You just may learn a few things along the way too. And if there is one lesson to be learned it is a philosophical one, your waifu is within you.

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Cells at Work is currently streaming subtitled on Crunchyroll. The English manga is licensed by Kodansha comics both digitally and in print.

Black Clover is Shonen Trash – But I Can’t Stop Watching It

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How to win a fight in anime:

  1. fight rly hard
  2. get the shit beat out of you and fall to the ground
  3. get up slowly with blood dripping from your mouth
  4. crack a smile and say something about friends and not giving up
  5. win. that’s it. you automatically win after following steps 1 – 4

— Internet meme

I’m going to put this right out there. I am not a big fan of shōnen anime. I gave up after my first hundred and twenty episodes of Naruto, the first 24 episodes of Bleach. I’ve never watched One Piece, never got into any Dragonball, yet I did like Hunter x Hunter (the 1999 anime, I’ve yet to watch the reboot). And after 75 episodes of Fairy Tail, I’ve hit a wall, even though I actually own all 200+ episodes.

Now along comes Black Clover, the new “King of Shōnen” if you can believe the marketing. In a world where magic is everything and everyone in it has magical powers, Asta an orphan boy is born without magic. Yet he has high hopes to become the Hokage of the Leaf Village The Wizard King of the Clover Kingdom. And on top of that, he is obsessed of one day marrying Sister Lilly Aquaria, who isn’t only older, but isn’t allowed to get married. His declared rival, Sasuke Yuno, who was orphaned together with Asta, and raised together with him is a prodigy magician. He also wants to be the Number One Hero Pirate King Hokage of Leaf Leafe Village Wizard King. And as hot-headed and spirited as Asta is, Yuno is cool and aloof.

At the age of fifteen, both Yuna and Asta are eligible to attend the “Grimoire Acceptance Ceremony” where the wand grimoire chooses the wizard. Grimoires are magic books from a magical library that hold records of spells specific for its owner. Because of that, no other wizard my use it, though a wizard can have it taken away and do pretty much nothing else with it, I guess. As one levels up, more spells appear in the book. It’s not like they learn the spell it just appears because they defeat some enemy or something. I’m sure it makes sense to someone, just not me. Yuno, gets the rare card in the deck unique weapon grimoire, embossed with a four-leaf clover. It’s the Clover Kingdom you see, and you know, four-leaf clovers are special. Poor Asta gets no grimoire since he has no quirk magic in him.

So early on, Yuno is attacked by random bad guy for no real reason. Asta comes to his defense despite having no magical powers, but he is in great physical strength. In the fight, a grimoire magically appears in front of him where he pulls out as massive sword that bares a striking resemblance to Guts’ Dragon Slayer sword from Berserk. And it turns out it’s an anti-magic sword that negates any magic. Nifty, huh?

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So there you have the groundwork. Loud spiky haired kid wants to be #1 at whatever in his world who all his life has been looked down but his greatest strength is not giving up. He gets big weapon that lets him play with the other kids and adventure ensues.

Now no shōnen copying a half a dozen other shonen would be complete without a large cast of supporting characters. And they come in the form of teams of Magic Guilds Knights, protectors of the kingdom in service to the King. Note that the King and the Wizard King are two separate people and titles. Yuno of course is recruited by the elite cream of the crop Magic Knights, The Golden Dawn. Asta is recruited by the island of misfit wizards the Black Bulls.

For tension within you have the nobles who are basically a class of entitled a**holes who look down on wizards from peasant villages like Asta and Yuno. Reminds me a lot of J.K. Rowling’s world. And of course you have a tsundere waifu character in the form of Noelle Silva, a noble who is one of the Black Bulls. She has great magical potential, too bad she can’t control it. She gets better control a few episodes later by getting of all things, a wand.

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But here’s the thing, like eating Jack in the Box tacos at 2:00 in the morning after a night of drinking, it’s delicious bad food. Sure it’s bad for you, you know it is, but it satisfies the palette at the time. Like I said earlier, I’m not a huge shōnen fan, but I am a junk food fan. And possibly in an era where a show like My Hero Academia did not exist, it could well be a great show.

The show does its magical battles well and most of the involve teamwork. That adds a nice dynamic to the usual half a dozen episode battle wrecking everything in sight. In the case of Black Clover it also allows the supporting character to shine and contribute to the story as well. Noel’s story develops nicely within the first season and its nice to see her growth and contribute to the team. Yami, the captain of the Black Bulls may not get to jump into fight as much but when he does we all know that shit’s about to get very serious. Charmy, who is a tiny little glutton and is mainly comic relieve is a pretty bad ass powerful wizard.

I’ve read about 5 volumes of the manga and it seems to work quite well in that form. So where does the anime go wrong? Part of it is that while reading the manga, the full impact of Asta’s near relentless shouting of everything is not as grating. Another thing is that the anime chose to run its first season at 52 episodes. And Season 2 is actually picking up right after. The series is done by Studio Pierrot. If that name sounds familiar, they produced two of the big three of shōnen, Naruto and Bleach. (The third of the big three, Dragonball Z , was produced by Toei Animation, the studio responsible for Sailor Moon and One Piece.) Pierrot certainly knows how to stretch out their episode times with padding, such as recaps at the beginning of each episode, after each commercial break and in the case of Black Clover, closing minis that really have nothing to do with the episode. So basically for each 24 minute episode, you might have about 19 minutes of actual content. And when you have battles that last a half a dozen episodes it can get annoying unless you are bingeing. And you know how Naruto had full on runs of filler arcs? Black Clover suffered with filler episodes, from the very beginning. The good news is that most of that filler was in the early episodes and it seems to be transitioning from one arc to the next with ease.

This could have been eliminated with simply following a standard pattern of seasonal anime of 24 to 25 episodes per season so there is no danger of catching up to the manga. But Pierrot seems dead set on milking this to death. Nevertheless, except for a gap where I stopped watching for a few weeks I kept finding myself going back and anxiously going onto the next episode. The second season seems to be gearing up for a darker tone as Asta

Despite the show’s shortcomings, it can be enjoyable. So if you fee the need to fulfill that anime shōnen gap left by Naruto and Bleach, Black Clover is certainly a decent enough show to fill it with.

Black Clover streams in Japanese with English subtitles on Crunchyroll

Funimation has the English dub on their sight FunimationNow

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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It’s as hard to have a favorite sequence of myths as it is to have a favorite style of cooking (some nights you might want Thai food, some nights sushi, other nights you crave the plain home cooking you grew up on). But if I had to declare a favorite, it would probably be for the Norse myths.

There is little dispute that Neil Gaiman is an exceptional writer with a unique imagination. His American Gods is one of the finest novels of contemporary fantasy today. It draws on myths from around the world and particularly Norse mythology in its portrayal of Odin. It now comes full circle with Mr. Gaiman going back to the source material for his book, Norse Mythology.

Drawing from the Poetic and Prose Eddas, Neil Gaiman presents a retelling of the ancient Scandinavian myths of names we know, Odin, Thor, Loki, Freya. So much of what we have now in modern culture these days retold in cinematic form. Marvel movies are pretty far removed from the source. Nothing wrong with that as the nature of myths evolve. And I must admit that while reading Norse Mythology, I kept hearing the voices of Chris Helmsworth as Thor, Tom Hiddleston as Loki, and Anthony Hopkins as Odin.

It is by coincidence that this is the second book based on classical mythology I’ve read this year this year. Madeline Miller’s Circe a narrative novel told in first person full of passions and covering how one character has witnessed the great age of Greek myths. Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a series of tales beginning with an introduction to the gods and creation to the twilight of the god, Ragnarok. Nevertheless,I can’t help but contrast the two in that both of these books are excellent ways to introduce students to ancient myths. Gaiman’s book, I believe is suitable for young audiences though. Ms. Miller’s book has a few more mature subjects in them.

Even though the book is suitable for minors, don’t let that fool you. It is an engrossing set of stories and told in a comfortable manner that grabs a hold of you by the hand and leads you to a storyteller’s campfire. Gaiman cut his teeth in comic books, and I can see these tales as pieces of sequential art in my mind rather than a movie. Well, except when Thor and Loki are bantering with each other. I see a Marvel movie.

Speaking of Thor and Loki, they come across as somewhat different from their cinematic counterparts. Thor while still strong and powerful also comes across as rather dim. Loki is still brilliant and charming but does not come across as pure evil. He also tends to drink too much and likes to prank the gods. Out of all the character’s he comes across is certainly the most complicated.

The book runs just under three-hundred pages and goes by quickly. It includes a cast of players, a glossary, and notes on each story. It is as if he did write this as a school book. So If you forget something you can reference it easily in the book. The writer’s notes are in the end and are short takes on the sources materials for each story told within the book. I would have preferred that Gaiman added these notes at the beginning of each story though.

One of my favorite tales is “The Treasures of the Gods,” where, through a series of tricks that started as a bad prank against Thor’s wife, the gods of Asgard acquired several great treasures, including Thor’s hammer Mjölnir. It is highly amusing and is the first of the more detailed stories once past the introduction of the main characters.

It all ends in Ragnarok, though. And even though it signals the end of the gods, it comes across as a rather beautiful sequence in the cycle of life. Certainly Neil Gaiman has a gift of prose, and since he also does the audio version, he has a gift for narration as well. Ragnarok certainly comes across as the most beautiful doomsday I’ve ever read.

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.

In the end, this is a very accessible book of stories tied together about gods and their often petty interactions. It’s a comfortable, dramatic, often amusing read. If you’ve not read any Neil Gaiman before then this is a good introduction to him. If you are a veteran Neil Gaiman fan, then this is a nice little entry into his bibliography. Either way, I don’t think you will regret picking this up.

Review: Maquia When the Promised Flower Blooms

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I’m a sucker for anime that leaves me an emotional wreck. And as far as that is concerned, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms left me wanting to curl up in a ball. I briefly mentioned in my coverage of Crunchyroll Expo that this film will make you want to call your mother. My mother passed away three years ago. So it drove home even deeper how important she was in my life, though sometimes growing up, I did not realize or appreciate it. It took me a while to process Maquia and it was a good thing I saw it in an English dub as through much of my experience watching it had my eyes filled with tears.

Screenwriter and first time director Mari Okada, manages to do something that is beyond impressive for a debut directing effort. Channeling influences from her own relationship with her mother, Okada has crafted a film that is layered in nuance and allegory. It does occasionally fall into some melodramatic traps of coincidence and convenience in order to drive the story to where she wants it at times.

The director made her reputation as a writer for anime such as Anohana and Anthem of the Heart.  It is very out of the ordinary for writers to become anime directors, they usually work their way up from animators. In fact, Ms. Okada did not have plans to direct. It was president of P.A. Works Kenji Horikawa who wanted a project from her that was “100 percent Okada.” The result, despite a few flaws, is a piece of work that is both personal and beautiful.

Maquia belongs to a race of beings who are not only long-lived but stop showing signs of age at what would appear to others as teenagers. The world appears to be standard fantasy world that is in transition from medieval to industrialization. When her people are attacked by another kingdom seeking their secret of longevity, she becomes separated from everyone as the population scatters and wanders the countryside alone. She finds a newborn baby boy clutched in the arms of his dead mother who had apparently been killed in a raid. Despite having no idea how to raise a child, she chooses to adopt the child as her own and name him Ariel.

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She is taken in by a peasant family that helps her cover up the fact that she is a member of the immortal Iorf clan. Things start to become difficult as it is obvious to everyone in her village that her son is growing older while she seems eternally fifteen. She eventually has to leave but while traveling finds hardship in finding work to support herself and Ariel. No one, it seems, wants to hire a single mother.

The middle of the film takes place while Ariel is in his teen years. No longer able to pass as mother and son, they now must pretend to be sister and brother. As the kingdom they live in prepares for war with neighboring kingdoms, Ariel like teenagers do, struggles for his own independence away from Maquia. Their relationship becomes strained here and throughout his rebelliousness, Maquia still declares that she is his mother no matter what and will always care for him. Ariel knows this deep inside and joins the guard to protect her as she has always protected him.

Parallel to Maquia’s story is the tragedy of Leilia another Iorf who was captured and meant to be a brood mare for the kingdom’s prince. It is hoped that she would give the royal family immortal children but this is not the case as he daughter is perfectly mortal and she is no longer able to bare any more children. She is cast aside and is a kept from even seeing her mortal daughter.

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The core theme and focus of the drama that unfolds is motherhood, and the sacrifices they often make and the secret heartbreak they endure alone. As Lelia must endure the pain of separation from her child, Maquia must endure over the struggles of raising a child that she knows she will outlive. “I won’t cry. Moms don’t cry.” is an oft repeated line to show the maternal strength to endure.

This is a plot heavy animated film that takes place in a world that is very well realized. It never takes long unnecessary expository moments to tell us what this world is though. We know enough about the kingdoms, and the history as is needed. The reasons why the kingdoms are warring against each other are easy to figure out by just the dialog. If you are aware of high fantasy settings like Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones then the world is not that hard to accept. Despite the familiar fantasy setting, the visuals are still a feast for the eyes. Simply, it’s a beautiful film to look at.

The musical score by veteran composer Kenji Kawai, best known for the classic score to the original Ghost in the Shell movie, adds a score that is full of lush strings and woodwinds. It serves  the film well and if you listen to the score on its own, it is quite relaxing.

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It’s not expected that a first time director make a perfect film, and Mari Okada does make a few choices that are overly melodramatic and seem to stretch how much I’m willing to accept the plot device of coincidences — even in an anime. Ariel, at times seems more annoying than is necessary. Some of the Leilia subplot remains unresolved in the end as well.

Unless your relationship with your mother is something out of something like Mommie Dearest, you will want to call your mother afterward. Despite it’s epic and large scale setting, it is at its core an intimate story designed to tug at your heart and stir your well of emotions. I have no problems recommending this with the Highest of Recommendations. Just bring the tissue.

The US theatrical release is distributed by Eleven Arts Studio, which ran a limited subtitled release earlier in year. They are now doing a limited release of the English dub. Information on showings and tickets can be found here. It begins to roll out on September 21st. No word yet on a home release.

As of this writing, Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms also has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.  That, to me, is rare for a non Studio Ghibli anime.