John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum Prepares for War

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Si vis pacem, para bellum. “If you want peace, prepare for war.”

I remember the first time I ever saw the movie The Killer and Hard Boiled. It was my first exposure to John Woo. After that, I kept seeking out not only more John Woo films like A Better Tomorrow, I was checking out all sorts of Hong Kong action movies with elaborate stunts and gun choreography.

As Hong Kong’s over the top action films started to decline (that’s a whole separate article there), it was countries like South Korea with high production values that appeared to take up the torch. And it certainly seemed like it, but in reality it would be countries like Thailand, led by instant star Tony Jaa, and Indonesia’s Raid films that would inject adrenaline into the modern martial arts action genre.

The following contains spoilers for John Wick 1 and 2

You can read my recap or watch Keanu Reeves cover the first two films in 60 seconds.

The Matrix films, starring Keanu Reeves, were clearly influenced and paid homage to the Hong Kong action films and anime. Those films were revolutionary with their mix of action and special effects. When the first John Wick (again starring Keanu Reeves) movie came along in 2014, it was not only a great action film, but it changed the way action films would look.  The John Wick films was an intense visual feast of grounded fight scenes and gunfights. It became a resounding success both critically and financially. The premise was simple, John Wick is a retired assassin who was living a normal life with his wife. But unfortunately she dies, and as her final gift to him she has a beagle puppy sent to him so that he would have someone to love. In what seems random, his house is broken into and they not only steal his ’69 Mustang, but kill his dog. And that is it, hell is unleashed on the gang and the gangsters that get in his way for revenge.

So it was inevitable that there would be a John Wick Chapter 2 which continued directly after the first one. It really was like a second chapter in a book. In this sequel though, after finally getting his car back from a chop-shop, he is approached by someone who has a marker on him. It is an unbreakable bond that he is obligated to fulfill. The second film expands upon the lore and mythos of the John Wick world. But by the end, after breaking one of the cardinal rules of assassins, he is rendered “excommunicado” with an open $14 million bounty on him.

On to John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

The third installment of the John Wick franchise has the daunting task of not only living up to the amazing action and stunts of the previous work but also topping it. It succeeds in this in glorious fashion in both fighting scenes and shootouts that come at you one after another, with each sequence being more jaw-dropping than the last.

Chapter 3 opens within an hour of the ending of Chapter 2 with John Wick on the run as every assassin in Manhattan is after him and the huge $14 million bounty on his head. So from the beginning we are thrust into the action. That action is near relentless as we go from one elaborate scene to another. There is an early scene within the first 20 minutes or so where Wick must fight off a horde of other assassins. (Seriously, that is not any sort of spoiler.) Unarmed, he finds himself using whatever weapons he has available, It just happens to be some sort of antique shop or museum full of knives.  But just before that is a great homage to a scene from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Right away, the close quarter fight is brutal and raw – topping any other single set piece in the previous films. Look for a cameo by Tiger Hu Chen, good friend of Keanu Reeves, stuntman and assistant choreographer on the Matrix.

Now, the plot is there to not only serve the action but to expand on the lore of the Assassin’s world. It serves its purpose well — but to talk about it too much past the bare basics would spoil the film. With the price on his head, Wick looks for a way to get it lifted. To do so he must first speak to the man above the High Table, the organization that controls the assassins. Yeah, he has to speak to upper management.

Part of that journey involves a trip to Casablanca, Morocco where he will get some help from Sophia (Halle Barry), who just happens to owe Wick a marker herself. And Halle Barry not only adds additional star quality to an already loaded cast, but joins in on the gunplay action.

In the previous films, John Wick was the lone man against many, but once Halle Barry’s Sofia comes along for the ride we realize he not only has star caliber allies but star enemies as well. In addition to the accomplished martial arts actor Tiger Hu Chen earlier is an appearance by a pair of actors from The Raid films, Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman who play a pair admiring killers in a two-on-one fight scene that involves a lot of breaking glass. But most fun to see of all is Mark Dacascos as the leader of a gang of modern shinobi that Wick faces in the final battle (Come on, you know there would be ninjas eventually). Mark Decascos has had a long career in martial arts roles including Cradle to the Grave and most notably Brotherhood of the Wolf, but some may recognize him as the current “Chairman” from Iron Chef America. His character serves as the main villain and provides a few bits of levity as well. Decascos’ prowess is very well displayed and he seems to be having the time of his life doing such intense action.

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In non combat roles, Ian McShane and Laurence Fishburne reprise their respective roles from the previous installments. Hollywood legend, Anjelica Huston joins in to provide some back history to John Wick. And Jerome Flynn, best known as Bronn from Game of Thrones chews up a bit of scenery in his small role as a member of the High Table.

Lawrence Fishburne and Tiger Hu Chen are not the only Matrix alum to join Keanu Reeves. Look for a cameo by Randall Duk Kim who played the keymaker in the Matrix films to reprise his roll as the underworld’s go to doctor. Director Chad Stahelski not only served as martial arts stunt coordinator for the Matrix films, he was also Keanu Reeves’ stunt double. So this is nearly a family affair.

If I can lay any criticisms on the film it would be near the end in the last set of fight scenes. John Wick really should have died several times, but I guess out of professional courtesy or respect, he’s given a chance to get back on his feet on more than one occasion. But at this point in the franchise, he’s not just a guy anymore, he’s literally a bloody superhero.

A fourth chapter in the John Wick saga has already been announced, which is no surprise since the final scene before the credits roll provides the seeds for a sequel. How they could possibly continue to top the exciting action sequences from film to film is going to be the biggest mystery.

Some action films are generic. Some are outright forgettable. The John Wick films have not only been instant classics but each has been progressively outstanding in its action. This third chapter comes with the Highest Recommendation

Ninjas on motorcycles! Hell Yeah!

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Movie Review: Tolkien

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Like many, I grew up reading the works of J. R. R. Tolkien and his excursions into middle-earth. Even though world building has come a long way since then with other grand epic fantasies, Tolkien paved the way not only with his imagination of his worlds but his sense of history and primarily language.

There are a few things that go into consideration when making a biographical motion picture of such a creator as Tolkien who not only has a large literary body of work but has also been the source of several huge films based on his work. One of the things to consider is what separates the artist from the art and what influences led the artist to create?

This is a Fox Searchlight production. It does not reference the Warner/New Line movies in any way. On top of that, it was made without the involvement of the Estate or family. This last part may leave a sour note, but the fact is that Tolkien estate has never authorized any sort of biographical film about Professor Tolkien, and seem unlikely to.

With all that out of the way. this biopic  directed by Finnish director Dome Karukoski is a fine dramatic picture and portrait of an artist as a young man, but of the bonds of brotherhood that that would impact him for the rest of his life. On top of that is the romance he shared with Edith Bratt, the love of his life — not only the future Mrs. Tolkien, but the Luthien to his Beren.

You can approach Tolkien as a fan of his work, but even if you know nothing about The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit or any of his other works, you can appreciate a remarkable  period coming of age film about fellowship, young love, the horrors of war, and the lasting impact they have on us for the rest of one’s life. People expecting insight or revelations into the creation of Professor Tolkien’s world will have to be satisfied with being offered the building blocks that are at the heart of his imagination.

At a young age, he (the younger young Tolkien is played by Harry Gilby) had always had a love of languages and was an adept reader. He was home-schooled by his mother who would unfortunately die while he and his brother were quite young. He and his brother are put into foster care while Father Morgan,  a gruff priest (played full on Irish by Colm Meany) is his legal guardian. While in school, he forms a friendship with fellow students that would influence the ideas of the bonds of fellowship for the rest of life.

As a teenager (now played by Nicholas Hoult), he meets and falls in love for fellow boarding house resident Edith Bratt. Father Morgan is opposed to this on the basis that it will effect his studies and his admittance to Oxford, and she is not even Catholic.

Even when he is an Oxford student, he is not the not the best at his studies of classics, but would later find his his true calling at the prodding of a philology professor, played by Shakespearean legend Derek Jacobi.

The trailers for this film made me think this was a biographical movie that mixed in the author’s life story with his fiction in surreal fashion like Paul Shrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. I certainly thought so from trailers, but that is not the case. The instances of surreal, dream and nightmare images of reality and fantasy elements mixing together are confined to Tolkien’s experience in the trenches of the Somme during World War I. The Battle of the Somme serves as the centerpiece to the story as most of the film is told in flashback from it.

Tolkien is a film worthy of seeing not only for fans of the Professor, but even for those who are not. It is filled with fine performances by actors of young to old. NIcholas Hoult as Tolkien brings a balanced mixture of a youth that is conflicted with what his heart’s desires and what is expected of him. Lilly Collins as Edith Bratt (who once auditioned for the role of Tauriel for Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy) makes it easy to believe why she would be the eternal love of J. R. R. Tolkien.  It is also supported by a remarkable score by Thomas Newman who may have done one of his best work in years since Shawshank Redemption. Sure, the film could cover the famous years that have been the subject of many documentaries already, but that would make for a trilogy of films if it did.

Overall, this is a very entertaining film. Whether you are a fan or not, it transcends the biopic genre and presents a drama that is well made, intelligent and entertaining. Recommended.

Spoiler Free Avengers Endgame Review

 

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It was one of the greatest gambits in movie history. What began as a tease when the first Iron Man was released has finally culminated into what may be the biggest movie franchise in film history, rivaling, maybe even surpassing Star Wars. When Samuel L. Jackson showed up in the post credit scene of Iron Man and mentioned the idea of an Avengers Initiative, there was as yet no genuine plan for actually making an Avengers movie.

Even more audacious for the Avengers plan was that every member of the team was going to have their own solo movie to introduce us to the individual members of the team. The Incredible Hulk followed Iron Man (witch is possibly the least connected of the Marvel films), then came Captain America: The First Avenger, and on and on. Every movie was connected and every movie had a post credit tease that led to another movie that was upcoming. It led to the first Avengers movie, the Avengers: Age of Ultron, and last year Avengers: Infinity Wars, The Empire Strikes Back, of comic book movies dropped and like that iconic Star Wars movie from then, left audiences guessing on what will happen next.

Now, we have come to Avengers: Endgame, the culmination of ten years and twenty-two films. Was the wait worth it? Hell yes! Clocking in at three hours, it it is the longest Marvel Studios movie, yet the movie is so tightly packed that there is very little slow parts in it. And any part that may seem slow is actually a buildup to the biggest payoff in not only comic book movie history but maybe in movie history.

The final hour of Endgame is the closest that comic panels have ever become realized on the big screen. Do yourself a favor and do not wait to see this at home, or those really bad bootlegs that have already leaked. The inevitable final battle is a jaw dropping feast of sight, sound, and fist pumping fan moments.

But less you think that this is just a bunch of fan service moments action scenes (I’m looking at you, Game of Thrones season seven!) the film gives every character their featured moment. Character’s that were B-list in the past movies are given a story arc that they had sadly been missing before. Hats off to to all the actors bringing their A-game.

Ultimately Avengers: Endgame is a reward and a love letter to the fans who have stuck around for a decade and twenty-two films. There are almost too many Easter eggs, callbacks, and cameos to count, yet non of it is gratuitous or takes you out of the story. At least I did not think so. And of course there is the appearance of Stan Lee in his final filmed cameo.

I of course highly recommend watching at least the other Avengers movies first — and pretty much almost all the Marvel studio films. This really does tie everything together and gives many of the characters closure to their story arcs.  I have no reservations on seeing this multiple times, and I give it the Highest Recommendation.

Why Violet Evergarden is One of the Best Seasonal Anime in Years

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In the piles of anime that come out seasonally it can be easy to overlook some of the good ones. For me, there is just too much anime to stream and watch on Blu-ray and my backlog is huge. And sometimes I’m just not in the mood for certain things. So it’s easy to just start off with the latest moé blob show and complain how current anime is in a quagmire of overly cute lolis, isekai, and shonen trash.

And then Violet Evergarden comes along to to show that anime can be original, emotional, and yes beautiful.

Violet Evergarden is a thirteen episode anime series (plus one bonus OVA) presented by Netflix. Produced and animated by Kyoto Animation, a studio with a track record of high quality titles such as the Full Metal Panic series, Clannad, and the beautiful A Silent Voice, It is an anime that maintains feature film quality in every episode.

The world is one that is similar to early 20th century, post World War I Europe. And that world is just recently recovering from a devastating long war. The differences are subtle, ch as the written language and the technology. And of course it’s history is different.

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We first meet the main character, Violet recovering in a hospital from war injuries that has left her without both hands. She is fitted with mechanical prosthetic hands that give her full motor function. Her last memories are of watching over her severely wounded commanding officer Major Gilbert Bougainvillea. One of the last things he says  to her are “Live and be free.” Violet, having been in the army since she was a child,  is used to following orders and has always carried them out without question and often lethally. She believes her purpose is to only be a military tool. But the war is over and she knows no other life. She has a certain naive quality to her about anything outside her world of military service though.

Claudia Hodgins, a friend and comrade of Major Bougainvillea takes Violet in and gives offers her a job, initially as a postal carrier for his company, a postal service. They write and deliver letters at the request of clients who don’t know how to write. She ends up wanting to be a “Auto Memory Doll.” A service where a person not only writes what a person says to be written, but must see what is in the person’s heart for their true meanings. Normally, people become Auto Memory Dolls, because they understand three words, according to Claudia, but Violet wants to become a doll, because she wants to understand the meaning of those three words, “I love you,” the last thing the Major said to her.

The next handful of episodes are concerned with development of several members of the postal service. The series itself is episodic in nature, yet should be seen in sequence for the development of the main character of Violet as she becomes more in tune with not only her job, but her abilities as an auto-memory doll. The supporting characters are also unique in each of their personalities and have their own back stories that are revealed as the show progresses.

Every episode, though self-contained, is a piece of character development for Violet. It becomes clear that when people say they don’t know how to write, it is more of an analogy that they don’t know how to express themselves from the heart. Almost every episode conveys the importance of communicating inner feelings. And it is the auto-memory dolls, ghost writers for these clients, who draw out a person’s true meaning and feelings while sitting with them taking and listening to their feeling.

One of the most unique and beautiful episodes is a of a playwright who is suffering from writer’s block. By this time in the show, she has been able to connect more emotionally with others and  and grown as a an auto-memory doll in her ability to convey a client’s emotions to paper. Through several days of Violet’s time with the writer, we realize that he is suffering from a great loss that he has yet come to grips with. We are also beginning to know more about Violet’s bloody past when she dispatched enemies without question and with dispassion.

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By the time you get to episode ten “Loved Ones Will Always Watch Over You,” you would have been exposed to peak emotions as it is deals with family love, death, loss, and the eternal love a mother will have for her child. And as much as the ending is telegraphed, the emotions still hit you like a ton of bricks by the end. Episode ten even became a YouTube meme as there are dozens of episode ten reactions posted on the video channel of people reacting to the episode live.

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As the series winds up, Violet’s history unfolds as well. Her sad story as a tool of war is explored more as well as her relationship with the Major. And as the series unfolds, she not only becomes more in touch emotionally but must eventually come to terms that is of no surprise to us, that the Major is never coming back even though his body was never found.

Not just every episode, but every minute, every shot of the series is an example of high quality animation that you would usually find in high budget feature anime films. The music, by relative newcomer Evan Call, is not only beautiful in its work but is remarkable for its ability to carry emotion whether it is in scenes of lyrical beauty or intense action.

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Violet Evergarden is anime storytelling that does not fall into typical genre categories. It is not an action show, a romance, nor cute girls doing cute thing, or even a slice of life, and definitely not any of the dozens of isekai shows out there. It is instead good storytelling set in a near fully realized alternate world. Though some of the themes can be mature, it is handled with care and not gratuitous, especially when addressing the impact of war and the effects of its violence on people.

Violet Evergarden streams on Netflix in both the original Japanese language with English subtitles or in a well done English dub. You would be fine with streaming it either way. It also comes Highly recommended.

Lightning Strikes for Shazam!

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A Little background

The history of Shazam as a property and as a fictional character is pretty long, muddied, and complicated. Reaching back into the days of the late 40’s and early 50’s, where in the wake of the success of Superman, comic book heroes with super powers were the rage. Fawcett Comics created a character named Captain Marvel. It was subsequently sued by National Comics (Later to change their name to DC) because it was too similar to Superman. Fawcett loses lawsuit, Fawcett stops publishing Captain Marvel in 1953.

Fast forward a couple of decades and Fawcett sells property rights to Captain Marvel in 1972. But using the name Captain Marvel on its cover would have been problematic since Marvel Comics already had a Captain Marvel comic. So they used the magic word Shazam! as the title, yet continued to call him Captain Marvel within the pages of the comic books. The public being what it is kept identifying the character as Shazam as opposed to Captain Marvel.

Since the New 52 era of DC, it was finally made official and the Captain Marvel mantle was no more and embraced the name of Shazam as not only the title of the comics but of the character as well. So from this point forward the character will be referred to as Shazam.

And let’s be honest both Shazam and Marvel’s Captain Marvel (though various versions), were not A-list super heroes and were not top seller. Both have been retconned and rebooted (Marvel believes more in soft reboots whereas DC likes huge universe spanning overhauls). And it’s only in the last few years that Marvel’s Captain Marvel title started selling well.

For a more extensive history of Shazam, Youtube channel Comic Books Explained has a great rundown of him as well as the Variant channel.

The Movie Review with Minor Spoilers

The current adaptation of the Shazam comic book does at least one certain thing in the post BvS and Justice League era of Zack Snyder, and that is fully embrace its comic book  roots and also embrace a self-awareness of itself and superheroes. It takes place in a world where the DC superheroes not only exist but they are looked up to. That in itself is a departure in tone from the world darker world Zack Snyder created. But in distancing its tone from that version of the gritty and drab version of the DC Universe, it ends up trying almost too hard in its levity, especially in the middle portion of the film. It is saved by impressive performances by the diverse cast of young actors.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a fourteen year old orphan who has been bounced around from one foster home to another for constantly running away and refusing to get along with his homes. His motivation has been over the years has been to search for his lost mother whom he was separated from at an amusement park. So he finds himself isolated from the rest of the world on purpose in hopes of finding her.

He is placed into a group home run by the Victor (Cooper Andrews) and Rosa (Marta Milans) Vasquez former foster children themselves and now running a big house full of other their own foster kids. His roommate is Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer) a paraplegic wisecracker who happens to be a big superhero fanboy.

One day at school, Freddy is bullied by a couple of older boys who almost run him over with their truck. Billy at first tries to walk away but after one of the bullies mentions that Freddy doesn’t have a  mother, Billy steps in and hits them with Freddy’s crutch. This prompts a chase that ends up with Billy getting away in a subway train.

In a reference to his classic subway origin, Billy is magically transported to the lair of the ancient wizard Shazam, who has been waiting centuries for one who is pure of heart and worthy of being a champion.

Unfortunately, we already know that Billy is not pure of heart. He is selfish and has issues with empathy. He even informs him that such a person does not exist. Yet the old wizard is fading and a great evil in the form of Dr. Silvana (Mark Strong) is loose and possessed by the Seven Deadly Sins. Seeing that Billy may not be pure of heart but he has embers of good in him, he passes on the powers of Champion to Billy. By holding the wizard’s staff (yes, they did crack a joke about that) and saying the name of the wizard, Billy is transformed into Shazam (Zachary Levy). Unfortunately for him, the wizard dies and crumbles to dust.

Billy, in the guise of Shazam, seeks out the help of Freddy. He has no understanding of what his powers are or what he is, so his best bet for advice is the superhero fanboy. For a good portion of the film, perhaps too much, Billy tries to learn about his powers. All the while, Freddy is chronicling everything and uploading his super-powered exploits on YouTube.

As fun as this film is overall, the learning powers scenes do become repetitive. Even though Billy has great powers and has become a local celebrity, he skips school and basically panhandles like a street performer, posing for selfies and firing off lightning bolts in the air for tips. These scenes do end up dragging the pace down and the comedy feels too forced. The running joke of making up a superhero name is funny the first time, but not the fourth or fifth time. Ultimately, by the end of the film, he still has not adopted a mantle. My favorite comedic moment is the obligatory bad guy speech delivered so well by Mark Strong, except Shazam is floating half a mile away and can’t hear him.

Zachary Levi jumps into the roll of a young man in the body of a superhero as if he were born for this roll. Unfortunately his performance comes across as actually less mature than his Billy Batson counterpart which is played a little more subdued. Perhaps that is on purpose to let the Shazam persona show the more gleeful side of Billy but I am not sold.

It’s no secret that a central theme to this movie is the bonds of family, whether they are by blood or not. And without giving too much away, I must praise the family interaction of the rest of the foster children in the Vasquez household. Faithe Herman especially stands out as Darla, the youngest in the household. Her character has the most charm among the kids and her character is the one that Billy connects with most besides Freddy.

Shazam! is full of charm, full of heart, wish-fulfillment, maybe a little too much humor, good action sequences and is just plain fun. Warner Brothers, and DC comics  may have figured out finally with his and Aquaman, that comic book movies can be fun movies. It may not be the perfect superhero movie, but without a doubt, it is fun. This movie comes Highly Recommended.

Review: The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

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Building a believable and realized world is not an easy task. S.A. Chakraborty’s debut fantasy novel, The City of Brass, is a near perfect world-building blend of myth, history, and originality. The layers of lore, myth, and back story is so thick and rich though that there is a slight price paid in plotting and characters.

We are introduced early on to Nahri in as a young Cairo woman making her living as a con artist during the Napoleonic era occupation of Egypt. She gets by pulling little cons, mostly working marks over with fortune-telling scams and the occasional exorcism. He has magical abilities that she uses for her hustles but beyond that she really has no understanding of where they come from. She also does not understand her natural abilities to understand any language she hears. And in true mythological fashion, she is an orphan who has no idea of who her parents are or of anything else about her family.

One day while performing an exorcism of a young girl she interprets as merely mentally ill, she livens it up by incorporating a summons in a language that she thinks she only knows. Little does she know it actually summons a Daeva warrior and awakens the Ifrit Iwithin the girl. That night she is hunted by the fiery Ifrit while Dara, the Daeva rescues her. Realizing that she is at least part Daeva herself (known as a Shafit) and that the Ifrit are now hunting her, they head to Daevabad, a magical city where only Deava’s, Djinn, and Shafits may enter.

Things aren’t rosy in Daevabad, though as there is growing unrest among the Shafits against the pure blood Djinns. Meanwhile the upper-class nobles who still call themselves Daevas maintain a tribalistic disdain for the Djinn, whom they consider usurpers. The youngest prince of Daevabad, Ali, has sympathy for the Shafits who are treated as second class citizens in the enchanted city. He becomes secretly involved with the Tanzeem, thinking he is contributing to a benevolent organization but his naiveté  gets the better of him when they are not what they appear to be.

There is quite a bit of naiveté to go around it seems as Nahri herself gets caught up in the internal politics of Daevabad and its history. She is believed to be the only surviving daughter of Manizeh, a legendary healer who died twenty years ago. She was the last of her kind and it was believed that she had no children. She is named Banu Nahidu, the great healer of the city. Yet she shows herself inept at healing creatures straight out of fairy tales.

Dara, it turns out, is the ancient protector of her family, but with a tainted and bloody past that inspires fear, hatred, and even awe.  He is not only secretive of his bloody past, but his memories are foggy as well.

Though the novel is lean on plot development and is a bit of a slow burn as far as narrative action is concerned, the author makes up for it by incorporating middle-eastern myths and modern world building techniques to bring to life an amazing world in her debut novel which is the first in a planned trilogy. There are layers upon layers of internal lore, mixing known myths about Djinns and Ifrits  along with the author’s own creation. She also mixes in subtle Islamic myths about the prophet Suleiman (Solomon).

Underlying the heavy lore of The City of Brass is subtle and subversive messages of racism, and especially tribalism. The difference between Djinn and Deavas are really in a name. And yet when Narhi calls Dara a Djinn, he is deeply offended by it. He also shows an illogical hatred for those that call themselves Djinn. And then there are the Shafits who are of blood mixed with humans who are treated poorly

This beautiful novel is not without blemishes, however. Some of those are with the way the characters act or react to things, especially that of Nahri. As streetwise as she comes across in the beginning of the book, somewhere in the middle of the book, she seems to become less street smart and spends time having her heart flutter when in the presence of Dara to being extremely naive about the what it will take to survive in her adopted city. She shows little interest in learning about her family history, the history of the Deavas or of her supposed mother and family. This is a little frustrating since a good con artist would learn a few things about their surroundings just by instinct.

Dara, himself does not come across as a very sympathetic character. He is quite short-tempered and bears a centuries old grudge against the al Qahtani, the ruling family of Daevabad. He is also elitist and rather prejudiced against those who have adopted to calling themselves Djinn as opposed to Daevas. And he is especially disdainful of Shafits.

Ali’s role comes across later as the good guy, in contrast to Dara’s bad boy image. Though he is a competent warrior and member of the city’s elite guards, he is also bookish and empathetic to the sufferings about him of the Shafits. He may have the bigger character arc as he will have to deal with his empathy for the suffering against his love and loyalty to his father.

King Ghassan al Qahtani is a surprisingly nuanced character. Not evil, but pragmatic in his rule of Daevabad. He also loves his children dearly, yet will cut will not hesitate to cut ties with them if it became necessary.

This is a very rich and lush book of will engulf you into a world full of Djinn, Ifrits, and many other magical creatures. And yes, there is even a flying carpet. S.A. Chakraborty’s website has a helpful guide to the world of the Daevabad Trilogy. The book also has a glossary in the back. It can come in handy because there is a lot to digest in this world.

The novel closes at a cliffhanger and I have the follow-up book The Kingdom of Copper on my too read pile already. This book is Highly Recommended.

The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal is the Right Stuff for Alternate History Fans

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It seems a lot of alternate history science fiction novels revolve around a major turning point in history. The most popular one is of Germany winning World War II as in Phillip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle and SS-GB. Harry Turtledove has an entire series based on the South winning the Civil War unofficially called The Southern Victory Series. Mary Robinette Kowal’s alternate history in The Calculating Stars is not just one turning point, but several. The first is that Dewey would defeat Truman and become President of the United States, second that the US would be ahead of the Soviet Union in the space race.

Emma York is a former WASP, who flew with many perilous missions in WWII, and brilliant mathematician. She and her husband, Nathaniel, witness the meteorite impact and survive the subsequent shock wave. Since Nathaniel is literally a rocket scientist he is semi drafted into services to help at the local Air Force base.

This sets the timeline for the most drastic change in history. In 1952, a meteorite crashes into the Eastern coast of the United states and destroys much of the east coast, including Washington D.C. It sets up an environmental change that will eventually render the earth nearly uninhabitable. It is decided that the current space program be accelerated to colonize space, first the moon and eventually Mars.

In the hands of other writers, it may be natural to come up with grand ideas and scope of chronicling the race to space and tell a heroic struggle to not only survive the changing climate but to also do the impossible things such as reaching the moon. Mary Robinette Kowal chooses to make this a much more personal story. It is what makes this novel so unique and relatable.

This is all told through the point of view of Emma as she navigates through this invigorated space program and the issues of the era, mainly the sexism that stands in the way of not only her, but others women in participating in the space program beyond being number crunching computers.

After what was meant to be a PR appearance on the 50’s era show, Mister Wizard, Emma gets dubbed with the nickname of The Lady Astronaut. Thus would begin an unwanted focus on Emma and the role women will have in the fledgling space program. You would think it’s a no-brainer as do the women in the book. To colonize space, you are going to need women. But it is is still the mid-50s and not only is the idea of women’s lib not existent, but it is even predating the major civil rights movement. And Emma not only suffers from the upbringing of the time with the haunting refrain of  her mother’s “What will people think?” to her own issues of anxiety.

Emma feels she and many other friends, most of whom are former WASP themselves are fully qualified. It of course should come as no surprise that women will eventually get the chance to join the program. In fact there are few real surprises in the book, but the joy is the road trip to the final destination.

The characters come across as genuine and, yes, at times you may feel frustrated on behalf of Emma and a reluctance to assert herself as you know she can. But then you realize we are reflecting back on an long ago era of thought. And also that she definitely has anxiety problems.

Yet as an exercise in alternate history it also is an exercise in real history, of the WASPs that flew with honor and in sometimes dangerous conditions during World War II and the almost greenlit real female astronaut program of the era.

Unfortunately the end of the book, though not really ending in a cliffhanger left me wanting more. Fortunately there is a second half of the story called The Fated Sky, additionally there are several short stories and novellas that tie into the story of the Lady Astronaut series. The Lady Astronaut of Mars, though it was published first, is a Emma’s reflection on her past as an 80 year old who helped colonize Mars.

Not only is the book an excellent read, but it’s an excellent listen. The author also serves the narrator for the Audible.com exclusive production. It is not often that an author can pull off such an excellent job of voice performance (only Neil Gaiman seems to come to mind at the moment), but Mary Robinette Kowal is used to performing. She happens to also be a puppeteer.

I highly recommend The Calculating Stars.