Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Hero and The Crown (1984)

The Hero and The Crown (1984) by Robin McKinley follows the story of Aerin. Born of the king by a norther witchwoman, she's a redhead in a world of cinnamon skinned people. Even so, she is the daughter of the king, and great thing lie before them if she can survive the trials that they pose.

This is very much a coming of age novel, spread across five years of Aerin's life. It's a little bit of a romance, but not enough to categorize it as a romance.

I'd love to be wild about the novel. Looking at its list of praises, the novel certainly impressed many people. I'm not one of them. While the writing was there for me, the story wasn't. I found the through thread non-existent. I felt like the story changed three times, each time too early, challenging the writer how to continue the story. I felt like the story ended three times, and because she hadn't hit her word count, she kept the story running for two chapters after that.

Where the story works, it works wonderfully. At many places, the novel make the character very present, especially in relationship to her horse.

Just as often as the novel felt special, it also felt petty and detailed, often regaling us with administrivia rather than story. These stretches killed any sense of energy or endearment. They felt like padding while the writer vamped, doing her best to think of what would happen next.

I felt that the Aerin wound up a bit too special sometimes where she needed no extra specialness, and I feel that she accidentally did the right thing where she really needed more cleverness. Both of these things distanced me from the character. I don't require plausibility from fantasy novels, but I do require agency from heroes when agency matters, rather than hand-waving "somehows" leading to their success. This book had a few too many of them for me.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Howl's Moving Castle (1987)

Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones is the story of Sophie, who lives in a fairy tale world. When her father passes away, the family splits up, she has an unfortunate encounter with the Witch of the Waste, and much to her consternation, gets turned into an old woman, but she can't talk about it.

Among fairy tale worlds, there are different styles of fairy tales world. This is the sort of world where wizards and wizards are just accepted parts of the landscape (and the subjects of gossip), magic is commonplace, everybody knows the expected tropes, and nobody's really surprised by anything. In a word, it's a comfortable fantasy world with a few uncomfortable characters, one of them being Howl, who lives in a moving castle.

Not surprisingly, Sophie winds up inside the moving castle and proceeds to make herself useful by using no magic at all, much to the consternation of the lady killer Howl.

Wynn tells her story as a series of vignettes and moments, wandering through the tale with little attention about where exactly it is right now, instead providing sufficient entertainment, whimsy, and delight to keep you moving along with the story anyway. Yet, despite all the magic, it's not a story of high magic, but of high heart.

I did find that the subplots got just a little too busy. Towards the end, I lost track of who was enchanted with what and how, so I lost some of the book's effect in sorting out the fast approaching ending.

Like all fairy tales, the book ends with a happily ever, but only after after taking you the long away around to get there. It is a fairy tale, after all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Not-So Secret Sources of Cthulhu

The Secrets Sources of Cthulhu does a nice job of connecting up the Cthulhu mythos with Theosophy. I generally support this association.

What I don't support is the title of the article, the SECRET sources of Cthulhu. In the 1920's, theosophy was no secret. It was widespread and well known. You could easily buy books describing theosophy. Indeed, the 1920's was rife with spiritualism. In the time period that Lovecraft was writing, these things were obvious.

Perhaps the FORGOTTEN sources of Cthulhu would be a better name.

I've been thinking about writing an article like this myself, but more in table form comparing and contrasting theosophy with Cthulhu. I feel very confident in saying that the Cthulhu mythos is just garden variety theosophy turned on its head. In theosophy, spiritual beings are preparing us to ascend, teaching us better ways, so that when the next age comes, we become greater. In the Cthulhu mythos, horrible beings hate us, their teachings drive us toward depravity, and when the next age comes, they plan on wiping us out. Their mystical books don't enlighten you, they drive you mad. Our relationship with greater beings is not based on benevolence, but malevolence. Really, with just a bullet point table, you'd see the comparison in sharp relief.

This all makes me think that Lovecraft really hated theosophy. In that, I finally find a point where I agree with the man.

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2003)

The Birthday of the World and Other Stories (2003) by Ursula LeGuin is a compilation of Hainish stories. As usual for LeGuin stories, they both hurl themselves deeply into the cultures of future and far away civilization, yet also have a clinical feel to them, feeling distant for all their immediacy. These stories come with all the quality, all the frustration, and all the idiosyncrasies of LeGuin. In my opinion, the stories all make for a good read, but not all the stories make for a satisfying read. If you are unfamiliar with LeGuin, these stories are not a place to begin. If you are familiar with LeGuin, then you'll know what you're getting into when you begin this collection.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Beauty (1978)

I feel confident asserting that Beauty (1978) by Robin McKinley is one of the best fantasy novels of the 1970's. The thing is solidly written and paced, from beginning to end. Where there are opportunities to pad the story, stretch it out, or make it into something more, she deftly avoids all such traps. Where she is given to description, she picks the most interesting things to describe while avoiding all the uninteresting things. She writes enough to tell the story, tells is with great heart, then concludes.

You know the story of Beauty and the Beast. There's nothing new there (except when there is). The cunning women drops us into a family drama, and this drama is what carries the story. Beginning the story, they are rich, but bad fortune ruins them, so they move to the country. They're a lovely family, not at all dysfunctional, yet not at all sappy. It's this bittersweet that gives the story its pop. By the middle of the tale, you'll want to give up all your belonging and move in with them.

The Beast himself is still the Beast. He's a tough nut to crack as a character, and in this story, his nut still ain't cracked. You'll understand why Beauty may grow to love the beast, but that affection won't extend to you. He's still a set piece with the emotional range of a scarecrow with a speaker stuffed inside. "Will you marry me?" it asks. And like a scarecrow that would ask that question, tends to feel a little creepy.

Honestly, if this hadn't been a fantasy at all, and Beauty had found someone in town, I'd've been more satisfied. Becoming a princess at the end just didn't feel right for Beauty or right for her family. It's like winning the wrong reward. Yeah, it's impressive, but it's not satisfying. However, that's a problem with the original tale, and not of McKinley's invention.

Even with all these flaws, the story is still marvelously told. If you ever see a copy, pick it up.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Eclipse of Illusion (JRPG)

Eclipse of Illusion is built around the classic, 8-bit style Final Fantasy framework, only taking far less time to play through. There's nothing new under the sun here, but there's also nothing bad. This game is like going to a diner and ordering eggs, bacon, and hashbrowns. There's nothing special about it, but it is exactly what it needs to be.

While this game won't blow you away, but you'll be entertained for your money. Your characters will advance up jobs, you'll fight monsters, you'll summon suits of power armor, and you'll fight bosses. You start off as nobodies and end up saving the world. In between, they hit all the beats, even giving you your own airship.

Once you're done, there's a new dungeon, some super-hard bosses, rare weapons, and the like. If you choose to play again, you'll start at your current level with all your gear.

The combat system is straight forward. You have an AUTO mode for the fights, which isn't brilliant but will serve you most of the game. If you've played enough JPRGs, you'll recognize all the mechanics.