Review: Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

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There was a time when I read practically every Stephen King book as they came out. Eventually I could not keep up and there were a few that I was not too fond of. In recent years, ‘ve tried to tackle the sprawling Dark Tower series. But the last King book I bought and read right after publication would go on to be one of my favorites, 11/23/63. When I heard that a sequel to the novel The Shining was coming out I downloaded it on the day of release. Unfortunately timing being what it was I did not get around to reading it until just before the release of the movie adaptation. And that is how things worked out and we come to Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep.

Doctor Sleep is a direct sequel of The shining and starts off shortly after the devastating events of The Shining. Now being a sequel to his novel rather than the Stanley Kubrick film, it continues with Dick Hallorann being very much alive as well as Danny and his mother, Wendy. A good third to a quarter on the book centers on the  continued repercussions of the trauma that young Danny experienced from the evil that lurked within the Overlook. He is still visited by the ghosts of the Overlook until Dick teaches him a trick to store these ghosts away in special mental lockboxes. This will come into importance later.

By the time we again meet Dan (as he now goes by), he is an adult, and also a complete mess. He is a drifting alcoholic and barely functional enough to hold down a steady job. While traveling on a bus, he gets an intuitive message in his head to get off at a small New Hampshire town. He finds a some peace and friends there as well. And also while there, he confronts the fact that he is an alcoholic and joins Alcoholics Anonymous.

Parallel to Dan’s adult story is that is Abra (like Abracadabra) Stone. Born in 2001, like Dan, she has the ability known as The Shining. But her ability just may be much more powerful than Ddan’s ever was.

We are also introduced to a group of road wanderers who traverse the country in a caravan of RVs and call themselves the True Knot. The True Knot may not look it, but they have a lot of resources at their command and they have lived a long time. They feed on those that have abilities like Dan and Abra. And they do not consider themselves human. They do have the ability to recruit others and make them like they are immortals who must feed on those with psychic abilities to survive. So…vampires.

Dan has achieved success with a few of years of sobriety and has taken a job at the town’s local hospice in the official capacity of an orderly. But everyone has come to call him Doctor Sleep because he has earned the reputation of helping those who are at the moment of death cross over peacefully, though no one really knows how. They just go with it. The precursor that seems to know when it is time for a patient to pass is the hospice’s cat Azzie (short for Azreel, an alternate spelling of Azrael, the Angel of Death) who will enter into the room of the patient which indicates to the staff they are about to pass.

In the meantime, a now older Abra has been able to reach out and occasionally leave messages with Dan, usually innocuous messages of “hello” or “good morning.”  That innocent communication is broken when Abra detects the painful psychic cries of a tortured boy who is a victim of the True Knot.

Everything begins to coalesce into a novel that is both epic and personal as the lives of everyone comes together as Abra, whose ability is so strong that she has drawn the attention of the True Knot’s leader, Rose the Hat. Dan finds himself reluctant at first to get involved but finds that he can’t ignore what they have been doing over the centuries as their victims are primarily children.

Stephen King not only follows up his classic horror novel effectively but also manages to build and in some ways surpass it. Where The Shining was a trailblazing novel by a young writer, Doctor Sleep is the extension from that seminal work by a writer who has matured, gone through more of life, and has learned to juggle multiple characters and narratives to come together into a story that is full of intensity. It does not have the weight or scale as other epics he’s written such as It or The Stand, but it feels like an epic in some ways. And like great epics, there is a gathering of companions that will help Dan and Abra in their fight, and there will be journey across one end of the country to another. And as most readers will suspect right away, there will be a final confrontation with the evil forces at the magnet for past evils, the burnt out remains of the Overlook Hotel.

Doctor Sleep succeeds as both a sequel and as a stand alone novel. It’s not necessary to have read The Shining, but it certainly helps, and I do recommend it. Dan Torrance emerges as one of King’s strongest and most memorable characters. The intricacies and the emotional struggles that Dan experiences as he comes to grips with alcohol addiction over time, feels authentic and may even have come from King’s own experiences with alcoholism. But it is Dan’s hospice persona which is the most emotionally powerful. Anyone who has ever had a loved one go through hospice care may relate to Dan’s ability and some scenes of people who are at their last few minutes of life. He uses his psychic ability to comfort them and ease their passing. In a way he sees this as atonement to the turbulent life he lead as a drunk. And as we go on a journey with Dan atoning for his past sins, we can relate to him all the more because they are common sins many of us may have felt hitting bottom.

Special mention of note goes to the audio edition as read by Will Patton. Will Patton has been the goto narrator for the Dave Robicheaux books by James Lee Burke and for Doctor Sleep, his talents are on full display as he manages New England accents effortlessly.

Doctor Sleep is more than a worthy successor to The Shining, it is a novel with depth and thrills. It may start just a little slow as we are brought up to speed on the intervening years since the events of The Shining but as an example of character build-up it succeeds very well and allows us to genuinely care for our main cast. It also features a villian with an array of cronies that are very memorable. The psychic vampire trope is not one that has been often explored. Carrion Comfort by Dan Simmons comes to mind as the closest to the creatures that King has created here. However you choose to consume the novel, whether by reading or listening, you should not be disappointed.

Final Score: 9/10

Re-watch review: Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining

It seemed like a perfect idea at the time, one of the great horror novels adapted to film by one of the greatest directors of the time. Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining will go on to become one of the most highly regarded horror films of all time. It is also famously despised by Stephen King and as a fan of the book, I can sympathize with Mr. King as it diverges gravely not only in scenes, but in character as well. But if you are not familiar with the source material, then, yes, Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining belongs on the list of classic horror films that is still watchable to this day.

So in anticipation of Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining, I decided to take another look at the film. Using the recent 4K UHD home release for my viewing experience was the perfect way to watch this horror classic as it is the best presentation that it has ever gotten on home video.

Jack Torrance is about to transplant his family and himself to be the caretaker of the Overlook Hotel in the high mountains of Colorado. Right away it is mentioned that the hotel is built atop old Indian burial grounds. So you know bad things are going to happen.

Jack’s young son, Danny is a bit odd and like many kids his age, has an imaginary friend, that he talks back and forth to. We and his parents are privy to this as he uses his finger to inexplicably communicate with his family as “Tony,” his imaginary friend.

The hotel is about to close for the season as winters tend to cut it off from the rest of the world. The parting chef, Dick Holloran notices that Danny has what is known as a Shine or Shining. Like Danny, DIck has it too, psychic ability. Danny has it strongly though and DIck tells him not to worry about seeing ghosts in the hotel, they can’t harm him. But if h ever needs help, give a holler by way of shine, and he’ll come.

So, Jack goes on a murderous rampage, his wife Wendy screams a lot, and Danny calls for help because those ghosts of the Overlook really seem to take a shine to his shine. The story is pretty well known by now.

This is one of Jack Nicholson’s most iconic roles and it is well deserved. From the opening you already get the sense of “Yeah, this motherfucker’s gonna end up trying to kill his family.”

Now, having recently re-read Stephen King’s original novel that Kubrick based his movie on, I can see why King took issue with Kubrick’s interpretation. Yet if one were to watch the film on its own merits, it is in my opinion one of the most effective horror films ever made. Imagery such as the hand holding ghostly twins have been seared into the subconscious of horror fans and non horror fans all over the world.

From the opening notes of music by Sibelius, adapted by composer Wendy Carlos, we feel a sense of something ominous approaching. Accompanying it is long establishing shots of Jack Torrance driving up to the hotel, emphasising that wherever the car is going, it is going somewhere isolated.

Kubrick is known as a perfectionist in vision and his films are incredibly engaging visually. This is true of 2001, and it is even more so with The Shining. However, he has been pegged sometimes as emotionally cold, and in the case of 2001, it is rightly so. Yes, the performances are great from everyone, but we never get a sense of who the characters are in the film other than the basics of their characters.

Jack’s character get the most shortchanged in this interpretation as his past and continuing struggles with alcoholism have been cut down. And it is even in the end that the real Jack and the love of his son that allows his family to escape. Dick Hallorann is played memorably by the late Scatman Crothers, but his character is underused and quickly dispatched by Jack’s axe whereas he was integral in the saving of Danny and Wendy.

Kubrick’s extensive use of the steadicam camera was almost dizzying when it was first shown and was a bit unnerving to audiences that were not used o this new technology of smooth tracking and it was employed as a visual feast to the eyes as we travel through long labyrinthine hallways and eventually a labyrinthian hedge as well.

The 4k Ultra High Definition release from Warner Brothers is a visual marvel I am more impressed by older films receiving 4K transfers than I am modern films. It is because 4K resolution, when taken from original elements shine the best with older films since they were originally shot on film which has a natively higher resolution than 4k. Nowadays with digital presentations, studious cut costs and master their films in 2K and when it comes time for home releases, they simply upscale the 2K image to 4K. In most cases it’s good enough, especially for a HD Blu-ray release which has a native resolution of 2K. But when upscaled to 4K the improvements is often minor. The Shining takes full advantage of the technology of improved resolution and add in the HDR Dolby Vision color enhancement, the color reproduction is the best this film has ever looked since it was first shown. Now, this sounds really nerdy even for me, and I am not savvy enough to comment fully other than to say this movie looks phenomenal on the new 4K release.

Approach The Shining movie as a separate entity than the novel and I think you will find that Kubrick’s vision is a classic in horror and suspense. It’s latests home video release is also the best that it has ever looked and sounded. It is one of the few horror films that was made by a true auteur and visionary director and shows that taking the time to be meticulous in direction and vision, can result in a film that stands the test of time.

FInal Score: 8.5/10

Re-read Review: Stephen King’s The Shining

It’s been close to 40 years since I first read Stephen King’s The Shining, and it was without question one of the books that made me fan of King but a voracious reader as well. I don’t often re-read books for the reason that there are so many books that I have yet to read the first time. Since I had the follow-up book, Doctor Sleep, in my to read list and in anticipation of the upcoming movie adaptation, I decided it would be a good idea to return to King’s classic novel and check back in to the Overlook Hotel. So what is there to discover in this re-read?

The Torrance family is about to have a major change in their lives. Jack Torrance is about to take a job at an isolated and secluded hotel in the Rocky Mountains. Wendy, his wife, and five-year-old son Danny get to spend the Winter in the hotel while it is closed for the season. Jack is supposed to be the caretaker of the property while the rest of the staff are gone.

It’s a cliche story idea now, but at the hands of King who is one of the greatest influences of modern horror, it is a story that remains gripping to this day. The Cabin in the woods and isolation is the trope. In this case, it’s the hotel at the top of the Rockies and isolation. So of course horror ensues.

Jack looks forward to the time away from distractions. He plans to use a lot of the isolated time to work on his play. And as a recovering alcoholic, he is glad that the hotel’s supply of alcohol is taken away during the off season that he and his family are staying at the Overlook.

Danny, is a young boy with a peculiar power, a “shine” as the hotel’s cook, Jack Halloran,  calls it, a psychic ability. That ability is often pre-cognitive but in a place as old as the Overlook with its dark past, it also let’s Danny see the ghosts of the hotel.

Wendy feels the most happy being able to spend time with her family in the big luxury hotel.

And then there is the Overlook Hotel itself. It is a magnet for malevolence and dead spirits — not the friendly kind, either. This is a case where an abode is a character onto itself. It has a dark history and an even darker personality to go with it. Yes, it is indeed haunted and the spirits that inhabit it are the suffering spirits who have all met their ends in dark and often violent means. They all seem to coalesce into a single entity.

Danny’s presence in the hotel is a draw to the Overlook’s malevolence and it seems to want the family to not just stay but to die there as well. It is able to reach into Jack’s mind to poison his thoughts and make him slowly lose his grip on sanity, especially in the vulnerable state of being a recovering alcoholic.

This is Stephen King’s third novel and even after all these years it still has the powerful ability to grip me and keep me on the edge of my seat in tense unease. During my re-read, it does show some signs of its age especially in the way of technology as antiquated telephone technology (how many these days remember feeding quarters into a payphone and getting operator assistance?).

The characters are still memorable and though it may seem like a slow burn at first, it is an intentional choice by King to get us to become familiar with the characters. And those who may have only watched the Stanley Kubrick directed adaptation may find some surprises. Jack Torrance is not as mad as he is portrayed by Jack Nicholson. Rather, he is a writer who has achieved some minor success yet is not as successful as he wants to be. He genuinely loves his son and even in the end fights against the darkness that consumes him.

King was going through his own struggles with alcoholism at the time he wrote The Shining and it comes across as deeply personal, which would help explain his vested interest in the integrity of his story and criticisms of Stanley Kubrick. Now What Kubrick did in his film was truly remarkable and is often scary, but it is definitely a Kubrick film than a King film. Yet, The Shining is also one of the greatest horror novels of all time and is well worth at least one read through.

FInal Score: 10/10

Review: The Dragon Republic by R.F. Kuang

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R.F. Kuang’s second book in her Poppy War Trilogy, The Dragon Republic, is not only as impressive as her first novel, The Poppy War, but is actually more mature in its writing style and confidence in storytelling that shows through the further world-building lore that is based heavily on Chinese history. There will be spoilers ahead for The Poppy War as this review will assume that you are already aware of the events, especially the end of that book.

After the events of The Poppy War, Rin and the surviving members of the Cike are on the run as the she is now enemies with the Nikan Empress who betrayed the nation to the invading Mugen Federation. She is also haunted by the death of Alton, the only other member of her Speerlie race. And even though she ended the war with the Federation by effectively committing genocide, chaos is left in its wake as soldiers without a nation to return to have resorted to wandering the country as bandits.

She soon finds herself joining with the warlord of the Dragon province who is also the father of her old school rival Nezha. It is the Dragon Warlord’s plan to lead a rebellion against the Empress and instituting a government based on democratic republic. As cynical as Rin is about this form of government she joins for the sake of vengeance against the traitorous Empress. Her best friend, Kitay,  from Sinegard Academy joins in the cause as well. Nezha, scarred and matured by the war is now a general under his father’s leadership.

New to the narrative is the nation of Hesperia. They come across as the equivalent of the Western European powers, equipped with firearms (something that the Nikari people have not seen) and airships, they are an imposing figure that allegedly supports the idea of a Dragon Republic. But they hold back on actual military support as they believe the Nikan people are not civilized enough yet. They also have their own agenda involving the spreading of their single deity religion and the examination of Rin’s shamanic power so that they can cure what they consider to be a manifestation of chaos.

The grim portrayal of Kuang’s world continues on an even broader scale as the scale of Rin’s observations on the war torn country around her expands to the multiple provinces. The effects of country that has just survives an invasion but now thrown into a civil war are all around her. There are mass exoduses and refugees fleeing from one place to another to escape conflict. On top of that is the lack of food for a population being overrun by conflict.

Rin still suffers from being more impulsive than she is smart — even though she is very smart. She is also still obsessed in following in the footsteps of Alton as a leader, even using his trident for which she is ill suited as a wielder. Her problems are even more compounded when her first face to face fight against the Empress results in her being cut off from her shaman powers.

Amid the cast of ambiguous characters with ambiguous motivations, Kitay stays the most true, and perhaps most innocent of characters. He also remains Rin’s truest friend. As in the previous novel, he anchors Rin as a moral compass and is the voice of reason. It doesn’t always work though. Fellow warlords and other generals tend to disregard some of his advice. Even Rin will give into her impulsive self than listen to reason much of the time.

Nezha’s character is much more fleshed out in The Dragon Republic as more is revealed about his family background and his motivations. His character arc is all the more intriguing when he and Rin come to know each other better and he also becomes a good friend to her. But he is also conflicted as a general and son of the Dragon Warlord who ultimately sees Rin as more of a tool of war and a bargaining chip that he throws to the Hesperians to study in exchange for their promised support. It becomes clear that the warlord is willing to sell her out if it is in his best interest.

The images of the after effects of war are haunting. There are many observations of starving peasants or bodies of civilian casualties littering field or floating in rivers. The Dragon province becomes a destination point for refugees fleeing starvation and band of former Mugen Federation soldiers now reduced to raiding defenseless villages. There is starvation and a definite lack of resources for these refugees which is made abundantly clear in the narrative.

Kuang’s structure and tone has definitely improved since the last book and events flow more naturally in the same three-part structure that was the structure of the first book. We also learn more about the shaman magic that Rin and others (including the Empress) have inherited. More is also revealed about the founding of the Nikan nation by the founding shamans. And with the introduction of the Hesperians, we get conflict not only in cultures but of religion as well.

Things coalesce in the third part of the book and it can seem to move quickly as groundwork that had been laid out throughout the narrative comes to a head as most of the novel’s plot threads come together with battles, betrayals and loss. As this is meant to be a trilogy, the novel ends at an appropriate point that does not feel like a cheap cliffhanger, but will still leave you with anticipation for the third and concluding book in the trilogy.

Ms. Kuang has grown quite a bit as a storyteller from her debut to her second novel and her ability to weave complex ideas has grown with her. He displays some great depictions of military tactics and action. She also manages to juggle a bigger cast and more complex issues such as politics and the plight of wartime refugees. Her main character, Rin has to go through a lot of development and emotional growth which she did not manage to handle as well in the first book. And the complexities of Rin’s character arc throughout the book is often filled with frustration, anger, and raw emotion as she has to examine what her place in the world is with or without her shamanic powers.

The Dragon Republic is more than a worthy follow-up to The Poppy War and I for one am in great anticipation of the final book because this is an amazing story that has been captivating from the beginning.

Final Score: 9/10

The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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The Poppy War is the debut novel of R.F. Kuang and draws inspiration from Chinese history, myth, and wuxia martial stories. It starts off quite lightly with a heroine that is easy to root for in the beginning. But it turns itself into a grim and dark tale when she must make some devastating choices in the course of a terrifying war. There are some spoilers in this review and I consider it necessary because it may be unsettling to some.

Rin was raised as a war orphan from the previous poppy war against the Mugen Federation. She lives with a family who treat her as nothing more than a servant. They can’t wait to be rid of their imperial obligation, and even plan to marry her off for money. She has other plans. Rin has a knack for learning and decides to train herself for the national entrance exams, which theoretically are not only open to all classes, but give an egalitarian opportunity for upward social and economic mobility by entering a university.

Unfortunately for a girl like Rin, even if she were to pass the exams, she has no money to pay for a university education. Her only chance is to score in the top one percent of the test takers to enter the Imperial War college in the capital city of Sinegard. It doesn’t come easy for her, but she studies and struggles hard enough to make it.

While there however, she finds that the egalitarian idea of the university is not as it seems. She finds herself shunned for her poor background as well as her darker skin. Her only real friend is Kitay, a fellow student, who is from the noble class and has an eidetic memory. Though his memory is photographic, he isn’t necessarily the best student. He is uninterested in martial studies and prefers the comfort of books.

Academy life is not easy for Rin, but she works hard at overcoming the many obstacles that stand in her way, including a Draco Malfoy like figure named Nezha. For her second year it is time for her to become apprenticed to a master to pursue her discipline. Rather than follow the course discipline of  strategy, which she excels at, she chooses the arcane and ridiculed discipline of lore, that is of course taught by the school’s most eccentric instructor. And she is the only student.

School life abruptly takes a dark turn as the Mugen Federation begins a war with her country of Nikan by invading its shores. The relative innocent school life is soon replaced by having to fight for real and not in the practice field.

As I’ve mentioned before, much of The Poppy War is based on real Chinese history and it is quite clear that the Empire of Nikan is analogous to China, and that the Mugen Federation is modeled after Japan. The setting is a cross between the Song Dynasty of the first millennium and the 20th Century’s Second Sino-Japanese War. In the strained history of China and Japan, one of the worst stains in history is the Rape of Nanking. China’s official death toll was 350,000 men, women, and children over a six week period. That atrocity is not often taught outside of China. And it is this bit of genocide that influenced R.F. Kuang to write the book initially.

With that warning out of the way, the chapters that do address the equivalent of the Rape of Nanking are graphic, but they are also related after the fact. It is gory, but compared to the real world equivalent, it is pretty tame.

Rin, the protagonist is no Mary Sue, for sure. All her achievements, as great and hard earned as they are in the academy, are illustrated by the author in an almost montage fashion. Some may find time too compressed at some points as there are passages mentioning that it took her a certain amount of months to get something right. But to me that saves the book, an already 500 plus page novel, becoming even longer with unnecessary exposition. Epic fantasy veterans may have a perception that the novel actually reads like a three books in one. This may come from the fact that there are three major parts to it, with the final third being a definite turn towards a dark resolution that does a better job of showing a person’s turn to the dark side of their nature than the Star Wars prequels.

Rin starts off likable and comes across as an almost stereotypical young adult protagonist. But what she initially shows as spunk and determination, we soon realize is impulsiveness and a hot temper. It will be that anger that eventually drives her forward in the final third of the book, to what may initially seem on the surface as the typical heroic finale, but ends up being a disaster of epic proportions. That temper and tendency to lash out also alienates her from the rest of her fellow students.

Nezha, who is initially Rin’s main antagonist, is himself not villainous and is more of a rival. Their antagonism is a clash of egos and class. Yet there is a reason that Nezha is favored among the teachers, he really is bright and accomplished, despite his arrogance and social status. But he and Rin’s fates will become intertwined as the novel goes on, and not particularly for the better.

Kitay remains the most relatable character, as he has no pretensions about his class or upbringing. He ends up being not only Rin’s best friend, but her only friend. He actually grew up with Nezha and shrugs off his insults, whereas they grate on Rin. His goal in life is just to be an imperial scholar serving the empire.

Kuang greatly impresses with her debut novel, and if you are like me, you will have some fun times trying to look for the references to real life Chinese history and legends. Of course the references to the real Rape of Nanking are no joy, but it really could have been a lot worse in it’s depiction of slaughter. Her characters stand out as multi-dimensional. And in the case of Rin, perhaps that multi-dimensional characterization is to a fault. I found myself rooting for her for much of the early portions of the book, and also found her frustrating later on. All this time, I had to remind myself that she and the rest of her fellow classmates are still students in their late teens forced to confront the horrors of war. She has a particular habit of leaping before looking and not caring about the end results of her actions.

The fact that these characters are in their late teens comes across as genuine. Yes, they are afraid, and they are appalled by the true horrors of war. They often make bad decisions when they are thrust into situations of command. The protagonists are far from perfect tropes and have definite flaws. Alton, former darling and superstar of the Academy in particular will make bad decisions that will have dire repercussions for the entire country.

Rebecca Kuang wrote this novel when she was 19 and coaching debate in China during a gap year. She graduated with a degree in Chinese History from Georgetown University a few days after The Poppy War was released. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Chinese Studies at Cambridge.

The Poppy War was nominated for Best Novel of  2018 for the Nebula Award, Best Novel for the World Fantasy Award, and best new author for the Hugo Awards. It won the Compton Crook Award for best novel from the Baltimore Science Fiction Society. She is off to a very impressive start to her career. Her follow-up novel The Dragon Republic was released in August.

Kuang joins a growing list of Asian authors winning accolades and recognition within the science fiction and fantasy genre that bring a fresh perspective with their world creation. The Poppy War certainly is a different fantasy take from standard fantasy tropes cluttering the shelves. Its serious views of war and the aftermath of battle will haunt you. There is no glory or greatness in war, only pain, and death. I am glad to have read this book and look forward to reading more from Ms. Kuang.

Final Score: 8/10

 

Review: Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

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Catherynne M. Valente’s Hugo nominated novel, Space Opera, tries its best to channel the spirit of Douglas Adams. And it does so well occasionally but in the long run its homages and self aware attempts style trip it up. What could have been a science fiction comedy of absurdities ends up being an uneven mixture short novel that feels like it could have been a novella.

We are not alone. Yes, there are not only other intelligent species out there in the galaxy, they are not sure if humans are sentient. So in order to gain acceptance into the galactic circle of civilized worlds they must prove they are sentient by participating in something called the Metagalactic Grand Prix – a singing competition. The participants must come from a list of acceptable singers that the council has picked. Unfortunately the list is all full of either dead people or people that are incapable of participating. The only one of the list able to compete is washed up glam rock star Dinesh “Decibel” Jones. The act doesn’t have to win, they just don’t have to be last.

Yeah, so the people of earth have to participate in an inter-galactic Eurovision competition. And if Earth finishes last, the human race gets eliminated and evolution is allowed for the future development of other sentient beings. Dinesh is reunited with his one surviving band member Oort St. Ultraviolet. With no real clue on what they have to do and no knowledge about how backstage machinations can take them out even before they reach the stage.

Catherynne M. Valente packs the book with some very colorful prose. And your mileage may vary, I though it was a bit too much flowery prose. You can forget any sort of science in this science fiction setting. You can, however, expect some intriguing aliens with some really bizarre backstories and unique personalities. But yet it does fly in the face of our expectations or even perceptions of reality. I am assuming that this is a conscious choice to be so esoteric and poetic. It has a time travelling Red Panda. Come on, you can’t tell me that’s not different.

Valente’s universe of strange aliens are without a doubt colorful and creative. Some feel almost dreamlike or straight out of a drunken hallucination. Your mileage may vary. Ultimately though it is a silly premise and while it is inventive, it unfortunately feels like a comedy skit that has been dragged on a little too long. Now, looking on the reviews on Goodreads, it is clear that I am in the minority in my opinion. That’s fine. It’s just my opinion and some things I just don’t get into as others. You are free to like whatever you like. And there is definitely much to like about Space Opera. Decibel Jones and Oort St. Ultraviolet are an interesting pair that pair off of each other believably as old bandmates that have since gone their separate ways. The prose is certainly engaging but often left me with the feeling of “what did I just read?”

Space Opera is nominated for the 2019 Hugo award for best novel of 2018. I wish it luck. It is definitely different and an interesting ride.

Final Score: 7/10

Review: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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Most good ‘fairy-stories’ are about the adventures of men in the Perilous Realm or upon its shadowy marches. Naturally so; for if elves are true, and really exist independently of our tales about them, then this also is certainly true: elves are not primarily concerned with us, nor we with them. Our fates are sundered, and our paths seldom meet. Even upon the borders of Faërie we encounter them only at some chance crossing of the ways.

J.R.R. Tolkien

While Disney has been in the habit of sanitizing and reducing the fairy tale into children’s entertainment with musical numbers, it has been through fantasy writers that they have retold with more complexity but also been deconstructed, and even subverted. From Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber to Tanith Lee’s Red as Blood and Sheri S. Tepper’s Beauty, traditional fairy tales were explored and retold with the writer’s own creative take. It s good to know that the nuanced mature adaptation of fairy stories is safe in the hands of author Naomi Novik. Though Spinning Silver is a standalone novel, it dips from the well of Eastern European fairy tales and folklore like her previous novel Uprooted. Novik crafts a tale that weaves together the personal stories of multiple women that eventually coalesces into a larger narrative involving the fate of both a fairy and human kingdom.

Miryem is the descendant of a family of moneylenders. Unfortunately her father is not very good at it and lets so many debts go uncollected that she and her family are on the about to go broke themselves. With her mother sick, and her father unable to collect debts, she sets out to do it herself. She becomes quite effective at it and is soon able to secure either coin or trade to take care of her family and provide for them. Using a bag of silver coins, she manages to buy and resell items in the local market where that same bag is now filled with gold coins. This gives her the reputation of being able to turn silver into gold.

Wanda is the daughter of a a farmer who is in such debt that there is no way he can repay it back in his lifetime. He agrees to let her work off her debt at Miryem’s household. While there she is treated more like another member of the family and begins to learn Miryem’s “magic” of being able to count and read. It also gives her a respite from her drunk and abusive father. She is also able to receive extra coin for helping collect debts and secretly saves it to provide for her brothers.

Irina is the daughter of the local duke who would like to marry her to the kingdom’s Tsar. But to him and others, she is not remarkable enough to catch his attention nor particularly beautiful. Yet she does draw the attention of the Tsar for reasons that will become apparent after they are wed. Suffice it to say that though her story starts for us about midway through the series, it helps to tie the narrative together into a whole.

There are two additional POV characters, Stepon, Wanda’s younger brother and Magreta, Irina’s doting but loving handmaid and surrogate mother.

Co-existing beside the main world that Naomi Novik has created is a fairy realm inhabited by the Staryk, human-like beings who have historically raided humans and taken their gold. With them comes bleak and cold winters. Their Staryk king decides to one day leave a bag of silver at the door of Miryem’s home with the expectation that it be returned to him as a bag of gold. Striking a bargain with the Staryk king, will set a chain of events that will embroil the fate of both worlds in danger and will hinge of the guile and bravery of the three women to save both worlds and strike a balanced peace between them.

Novik weaves together a compelling story that feels almost historical in its telling. The human world, though it is completely fiction is grounded in many things based on our world such as Judaism and Christianity. Titles such as a tsar and duke, and Eastern European sounding names draw us into a world that is familiar, but still fantastical.  It is has its roots in the tale of Rumpelstiltskin but Naomi Novik takes that as merely the small base to work with and the end result is an incredibly rich novel of storytelling and character development.

Naomi Novik may best be known for her Temerie alternate history fantasy series where dragons and their riders fight in the Napoleonic Wars. Uprooted, based on Slavic tales of Baba Jaga was the author’s first published foray into the fairy tale genre (Novik has written quite a bit of fanfiction and may to this day.) Spinning Silver has a much more expanded cast of characters than Uprooted and the balance of the different POV characters is handled incredibly well for the most part. It may, however, get confusing at times if you take a short break and pick it up again, You may, like me, initially be confused on whose viewpoint you  are reading. It doesn’t take very long to figure it out though and your mileage may vary on that. Lisa Flanagan does a very good job at narrating the audiobook, but does not make any major changes in her voice work for the different viewpoint characters.

Spinning Silver also delivers a story that does not pit your standard good vs. evil (okay, there is kind of a big evil character, but tell more would be a spoiler). One of the harshest threats in the novel is not only Wanda’s drunk and abusive father but also his willingness to barter her away, at first to pay off his debts and later to marry her off just for more booze. Her situation is only an example of the underlying story of women in this society that rise above their expected duties in life. In Miryem’s case, it is her assuming the duties of becoming not only the provider for her household but the head of the family’s business. Irina has to be brave in the face of dark forces and assumes a powerful role as Tsarina when her husband is revealed to not be the person rest of the kingdom thinks he is.

Naomi Novik has really accomplished a very special achievement in storytelling with Spinning Silver. It is not just a well spun tale, but as good stories should, it manages to get you emotionally invested int the characters and about their fates. The novel has been nominated for both the 2019 Nebula and the Hugo award. As of this writing, the Hugos have not been awarded yet. It is well deserving of any awards and accolades it has been given. Reading Spinning Silver is Highly Recommended.

Final Score: 9/10

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.

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.