Review: Empire of Sand by Tasha Suri

The dreams of Gods were too huge, too beautiful, simply too much. They were everything that lived and everything that died: a great, weaving circle, the cycles of creation and destruction that molded all things. They were a knife to the hand and a field of metal and blood. They were glass and flame, earth and water, the way birth feels and a blinding tightness akin to dying. They were creation. Creation, in its headiest, purest form. She wasn’t made for this. She was small, far too small to survive.

I am beginning to think that we are at a new golden age of fantasy literature. I grew up on a steady diet of Tolkien, Terry Brooks, Stephen Donaldson, and too many Forgotten Realms novels than were healthy for me. Between Tolkien, the D&D world of Forgotten Realms and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of time, the worlds were imaginative yet had a lot of similarities to each other. These were tropes I grew up on and always went back to because they were familiar territory and easy enough to jump into. They were also influenced by many of the same Euro-Nordic and Celtic myths. As much as I love those, it is incredibly refreshing when something new comes along or in some cases something that is from a perspective based a different on history and myth

Tasha Suri’s debut novel Empire of Sand is a book influenced by the Murghal Empire without being a book about the Mughal Empire. It stands in its own universe of myth and lore. The world that she creates is very well realized, both epic in it’s scope yet is a personal journey. It’s use of magic is believable in not only that world but seems like it would have worked in ours a long time ago. The magic rituals seem to be based on Indian classical dances, mainly the Bharatanatyam.

Mehr is the privileged daughter of the Governor of Jah Irinah who serves under the auspices of not only the Emperor, but of the godlike Maha who is the real power behind the Ambhan Empire. His mystics pray for the fortunes and prosperity of the empire and or misfortunes of their enemies. Yet as privileged and sheltered as she is, she is an outcast in her own palace. her heritage is only half Ambhan as her mother was of a race considered barbarous, the Amrithi. Her mother, rather than let vows bind her to her father, she left to join her people out in the desert not to be seen again. Though Mehr is an outcast, her younger sister Arwa has been taken under the wing of Maryam, their step-mother. Yes, there is a (sort of) wicked step-mother. What mainly alienates her from everyone is that Maha still chooses to follow the ancient rites of her people such as ritual dances and the belief in daivas, djinn like creatures descendant from the gods.

It is not only beliefs but the power that manifests when she performs the ancient dances that draw the attention of the Maha’s mystics. They come to her father with an arranged marriage proposal. By tradition she has the right to turn down the proposal and her father advises so. but it is not a good idea to turn down the mystics, so to save not only her family’s honor but heir lives, she chooses to marry a servant of the Maha.

What will follow is the revelation of the truth behind the Maha’s power and his monstrous personality.  Mehr’s journey becomes our journey as it is her point of view we follow except for a couple of brief chapters. Her journey is a personal one where she discovers the strength of the powers hidden within her rituals and power of vows that are truly binding. With all that going on, the foundation of the story and her motivations is a love story between her and Amun, the Amrithi man whose vows to the Maha and his mystics practically make him their slave.

Ms. Suri’s world building hints at a deeper and richer history than we are presented with. And that is a good thing. The illusionist’s best trick is leaving the audience wanting more. Since this is the beginning of a series (but the book can stand on its own) we can expect more of the mysteries of this world to open up on us. What we do get revealed to us is a world where the dreams and nightmares of sleeping gods can shape the very fate of an empire.

I cared a lot for Mehr’s struggles whether they be mundane ones or life threatening ones and found her to be a strong heroine who has to grow stronger as the world crumbles around her. There are moments of violence and physical abuse in the book that may be unsettling to some but it is never exploitative.

 This is a highly readable book with relatable characters and I can’t wait to get to the next installment.

Current editions of Empire of Sand contain an interview with the author and a preview of the folow-up book Realm of Ash. I originally received an advanced copy through NetGalley but went ahead and purchased the book to suppor the author.

 

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Review: Fantastic Beasts The Crimes of Grindelwald

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I am not the most hardcore fan of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books or the movies. I still find them incredibly entertaining and imaginative. And perhaps it’s my age where I’ve seen fandom devolve from healthy debates to full on battles within fandom that keeps me from going overboard with my fandom. I’ve been through it with Star Wars, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. But I’m at an age where as much as I love these properties and their world I don’t want to center my life around it. They are fun and can be enjoyed for what they are or even dived more deeply for some sort of hidden meaning that is or is not apparent.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is going to piss some people off. Some of it will just be fans who just want to recycle the experience and whimsy of the Potter Books or marvel at the fantastic beasts from the previous film. I didn’t want any of that. Your mileage may vary. This is definitely a dark film which means it’s right in my wheelhouse.

The first film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, saw a new protagonist in Rowling’s world come to the screen. Newt Scamander, played haltingly by Eddie Redmayne, comes to 1927 New York with his magic suitcase full of magical creatures (It’s bigger on the inside).  Soon enough magical shenanigans and property destruction ensues. Beneath that though is fact that Gellert Grindelwald, a dark wizard who believes wizards are meant to rule over humans. He is caught in the end.

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald picks up a few months after his arrest and the film opens with an elaborate escape as Grindelwald is being transferred by Thestral carriage to the wizarding prison of Nurmengard.

Meanwhile, back in London, Newt Scamander has his travelling privileges revoked because he basically broke New York but also because he refuses to become an Auror like his brother Theseus. The Ministry believes that not only is Credence, the young Obscurial from the previous chapter is alive but is in Paris and wherever he is so will Grindelwald be, because — plot.

After Newt refuses the Ministry’s offer to become a dark wizard hunter, along comes Albus Dumbledore (played by Jude Law) who also tries to convince Newt to go to Paris because Credence is in search of his real family and he may be related to someone they both know. It is also revealed that Dumbledore was behind the machinations of Newt ending up in New York in the first place. Newt again refuses.

Newt does go to Paris, though. He brings along Jacob Kowalski who had obviously recovered his memory from the obliviating rain from the previous film. Jacob and Newt are looking for Queenie who left in a huff because Jacob thinks even though England has no wizarding anti-miscegenation laws, their marriage would be harmful for her. So Queenie leaves to join her sister, who not only is an Auror but is also looking for Credence. So plot devices compel Newt forward and to once again become reluctantly involved in the worldly problems of wizards.

What will follow is basically a laying down of the foundations for the next three films since it is projected to be a 5 film series. Now there is plenty of hijinks involving following Credence around as he follows clue to his real life before being adopted in America. Along the way, someone is also hunting him. The dude is the living McGuffin of this movie.

We are also introduced to a very human Nagini, who is described as a Maledictus. A witch with a blood curse that not only turns them into a beast but will eventually permanently make them so. Somewhere along the way, Grindelwald acquires a handful of disposable and frankly unremarkable minions.  Honestly, I think they are there just for Johnny Depp to have someone to talk to.

For a five movie series, there is a lot of information and plot details that are revealed especially in the third act where there is a long scene where hidden histories of some of the characters are revealed eventually revealing who Credence is (is allegedly is). A lot of it does no add up though because of established lore, so there is going to a lot o debate online about that.

I am not going to spoil that for this review but I may get into it in a deep dive in a later post. But the motivations of Grindelwald becomes more clear and we get more background on why Dumbledore can not go against Grindelwald directly.

Crimes of Grindelwald is far from being a perfect film but it is not a bad film. I truly enjoyed it but there are lots of questions I have as far as established history is concerned. Either Rowling made a mistake in the writing and her timeline or she is retconning he lore. And she has been known to retcon before. Nevertheless it is her world and we are along for the ride.

The movie really could have been three hours long mainly because the last act seemed to throw so much information at the end. The final act is solid once you get past the first act of establishment and meandering plot-points.

The visual effects are as can be expected from the series, well done with some nice scenes of the wizarding world. Now concerning the world, the various Ministries of France, England and the United States do not look like the Dickensian world that we have seen in the Harry Potter.Ministers and Aurors wear modern (1927 modern) suits and not robes. The Parisian alternate world, instead of looking like London’s Diagon Alley, it looks like 1927 Paris.

The cast does well with the material they are given. Frankly the love triangle (quadrangle?) does not really work and it seems to show in their performance. Dan Fogler as Jacob and Allison Sudol as Queenie are an incredibly charming couple and the one we instinctively root for. I hope it works out though as there is some Empire Strikes Back level of stuff that goes on by the end of the film.

I’ve heard the Harry Potter franchise described as this generation’s Star Wars. On that note, I’ve seen all the Wizarding World movies and have enjoyed them all, some more than others. Some Star Wars films I outright hated. And with Crimes of Grindelwald we get an appealing movie that moves the narrative forward rather clumsily at some points. It still remains fun and entertaining. But be aware that it is dark.

Recommended with the caveat that if you are just a casual fan, you may have to catch up and if you are a rabid fan, you may be nitpicking this for days.

Review: Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: Circe by Madeline Miller

 

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My experience with Greek mythology was first instilled by the movies of Ray Harryhausen. I loved Jason and the Argonauts as a kid and still do to this day. I may have read some condensed little bits of Greek myth while in middle school. It was not until I attended college that I was exposed to Ovid’s Metamorphosis. And although I found Homer interesting, overall I thought The Odyssey was pretty dry. Maybe it was just the translation I read.

Madeline Miller’s new novel, Circe is in no way dry or boring. It takes the old myths that we are familiar with and weaves them together into a narrative that is captivating, engaging, and fresh. Reading Circe is akin to sitting is a great hall after a meal while a poet recites tales of love, passion, loss and magic. The lights are dim and a crackling fire is burning on the hearth.

Circe is the daughter of Helios, Titan god of the sun. A seemingly black sheep of the family she is exiled after showing kindness to Prometheus who was punished by Zeus for bringing fire to mortals. It is here that Circe’s story begins to take off. She is exiled to the island of Aiaia. On this island she hones her craft of herbcraft, referred to as pharmaka. To the gods it is considered witchcraft.

But even in exile she receives visitors. The first is Hermes, the messenger of the gods. He doesn’t care about her exile status and finds her fascinating. He brings her news of the outside world, of the wars of man and the petty squabbles between the gods.

We later get glimpses of Circe’s family. Her sister is Pasiphaë, wife if King Minos of Crete, and mother of the Minotaur. Her brother is Aeëtes, King of Colchis and keeper of the Golden Fleece. Through her eyes we get a unique perspective on the old myths that so many of us grew up on.

Circe is probably best remembered as the witch that Odysseus encounters and basically shacks up with for a year while returning from the Trojan Wars. And true to the spirit of her narrative, Miller presents a different perspective on the familiar tale as told by Homer.

Madeline Miller has managed to take the old and present it as something that is fresh, and told in a style that is engaging and hard to put down. The language flows smoothly and is almost conversational in ton. It’s perfect for the first person perspective that it is written in. Of special note, the audiobook, as narrated by Perdita Weeks, is exceptionally performed with nuanced storyteller like performance. It is Perdita Weeks’ first book narration and I hope to here more of her performances.

Humbling women seems to me a chief pastime of poets. As if there can be no story unless we crawl and weep.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is the perception of women in the world of the Greek myths. Miller explores that not only with Circe, but with Medea and Penelope as well who had been given short shift in most other interpretations. Jason and Odysseus are not the heroes that they have often been portrayed as and the reason why Circe changes any men that come to her island to pigs is understandable and as far as I’m concerned better than some deserved.

What Miller has done is something special and hopefully can be taught alongside Homer and Ovid in Classics courses in the future. Despite it being a retelling of stories thousands of years  old, its style is modern, and relevant. Highly Recommended.

Jade City by Fonda Lee

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Jade City is my adult debut and it also marks my foray into epic fantasy. It came about from watching kung fu movies and thinking, “You know, I’m a long-time student of martial arts, so why can’t I punch through concrete or fly thirty feet into the air yet?” I started envisioning a society where magical jade granted special abilities to warriors with the proper training and bloodline, and the idea merged with my longstanding enthusiasm for mafia stories to become this modern gangster family saga. It’s the most intense, ambitious thing I’ve ever written, and there’s more to come.

— Fonda Lee

Some of my fond memories of growing up was watching plenty of Hong Kong martial arts films as a kid. With the advent of home video, I discovered the gangster genre, which included of course healthy doses of John Woo movies, starring his muse Chow Yun Fat. I also became fans other directors like Ringo Lam and Johnnie To. Growing up, my favorite pieces of American Cinema was and is to this day The Godfather and The Godfather Part II.

Fonda Lee and her first non-YA novel Jade City blends together so much of what I loved in movies from my youth: wuxia, heroic bloodshed, gangsters, and brotherhood. It gives us a world that is heavily influenced by Asian cinema and culture without it being an entirely Asian specific culture or country. What comes out is an original fantasy alternate world that feels like our own yet is incredibly unique and fresh.

Jade is a vaulable substance that allows certain members of society to channel magical properties that enhance strength, stamina, and reflexes. Jade users are known as Green Bones and at times their powers are almost legendary. But in reality they can only can use it properly after very long and thorough training. For the untrained the allure of jade can be seductive and even touching it can have addictive properties, instilling a lust to possess and wear it. Those that are properly trained can become strong fighters and when in single combat duels or other fights to the death, the victor will take their dead opponent’s jade, making them even more powerful.

The city of Janloon is a post “War of All Nations” city on the island of Kekon that has power divided by two ruling clans. Though on the surface, it may seem as these are criminal organizations they are responsible for keeping the peace. They are regarded as protectors of their territories and of the people who live in it. It is almost feudal. Kekon was once colonized by foreigners and goes to say that their is quite a bit of prejudice against foreigners and especially those who are half-blooded.

The Kaul Family run the No Peak Clan and they are highly regarded with its elderly and ailing patriarch, the Torch, a hero to the people. His grandson, Lan, is the current Pillar of the clan, the leader. His younger hot-headed brother, Hilo, is the Horn, the head of the troops, or fists. They maintain a steady peace in their territories. Their biggest rival, the Ayt family of the Pillar of the Mountain Clan is its biggest rival and has aspirations of total control of the city. Within this conflict is family struggles of power, how those who have it don’t want it and those with the greatest power potential is groomed for great things at a young age.

The rivalry between factions come to a head when gang war breaks out and effects the whole city. Battles rage in streets for territory and shops and restaurants are even at play for the loyalty of their proprietors. Within that war, heroes, such as they are, will sacrifice and suffer loss. Bloodshed rains down by duels of bladed weapons, talon knives, or moonblades as they are called. And what gangster epic of heroic bloodshed would be complete without gunplay?

One running theme in the book is of people having to heed a call to a duty they are reluctant to assume. Some family members find themselves in situations where they doubt their ability to lead but because of family loyalty and honor they must. Shae, the young sister of the family is reluctantly drawn back in to the family affairs after leaving for some years and even abandoning her jade. Lan must come to the grips of handling a war that he was not meant to fight since he is not considered a wartime Pillar and must earn the respect of his soldiers. Hilo will later have to assume more responsibility than he had ever wanted or asked for.

The world that Fonda Lee creates is a rich one filled with history and atmosphere. It has a unique usage of titles and honorifics for its large cast of characters. Frankly I wished there was an appendix in the book. But that richness is what makes the world so immersive as well. This book may be heavily influenced by Asian cinema, but I of course kept imagining it as a perfect venue for an anime adaptation with a jazzy soundtrack like Cowboy Bebop’s. Jade City’s world is definitely one I’d like to visit again. And since this is the first of a planned trilogy and the second book Jade War is forthcoming I will gladly plunge into this it all over again. Highly Recommended.