Dragons Luck — Rising Spirits

We went over Dragons Wild a bit ago, and I didn’t hate it, but I didn’t love it either. “Mediocre” is the word that comes to mind, but it feels a little harsh as I type it out. Oh well. That’s the one I’ll use.

Anyway, despite not being blown away, I picked up its sequel from the library and gave it a look. And I have to say, while it’s far from perfect, it’s a genuine improvement.

The setup here is that Griffen, the first book’s primary protagonist, has been asked to moderate a convention of supernatural entities which is coming to New Orleans. This he agrees to, despite not knowing a thing about what he’s getting into. In addition, a dragon named Flynn who’s near the top of the power pile pays Griffen a visit with the intent to either recruit or depose him, the dragonslayer George decides to meddle with Flynn’s plans, the insane sister of an antagonist from the first book comes into town with her own agenda, and Griffen’s sister Valerie finds out that she’s pregnant by that same antagonist. And that the crazy sister wants to kill her.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but it pulls it off fairly well. As with the first book, Griffen is underwhelming as a protagonist. He’s coming into his own a bit more here, and I was liking what I was seeing, until some of his perceived conniving turned out to be genuine gullibility. He takes on the moderator job with no idea what he’s in for, and while his actions there actually aren’t bad once they get going, he spends most of the book before the convention freaking out about the convention.

The rest of the plotlines are of a higher caliber, though. Valerie continues to be a more interesting character and protagonist than her brother, as she deals with her own position in the city and the fallout from her pregnancy and the murder attempts being made against her. I’d honestly be okay if the series was actually about her, rather than Griffen. Hopefully the rest of the books in the series continue to treat her well, else we might be in for some rocky sailing. The side characters are good too, with some fun interactions between them, but obviously that’s not enough to carry a book. Adds to the quality, but doesn’t sell the product.

Regarding those next books, though, there’s a significant inflection point here in that Robert Asprin passed away between this book and the next in the series. The last two titles were written by Jody Lynn Nye instead, who’s written a number of posthumous additions to Asprin’s different series. It’ll be interesting to see what that does to the style and quality of the books, but for now, I enjoyed this one enough that I’m willing to find out.

If you’re interested in seeing some of my own work, maybe give the Fairytale Dragons anthology a try? My last posting provided a sample from one story in the book, and my next will be from the other. See if they strike your fancy!

A Sample of “Gingerbread and Ash”

This week, I’m going to provide a sample of my short story “Gingerbread and Ash” from the Fairytale Dragons anthology I was featured in late last year. If you like it, consider picking up the book! I might provide a sample of my other story that was included later.

The deer carcass twitched as Marita sliced into its shoulder, its eye glazed with a sheen like oil on water. Some residual magic, perhaps. After three years of famine, magic was the only explanation for how the witch could provide this much meat every day. It was how she snared Marita and her brother, after all.

“Don’t you look at me,” Marita said, rolling the deer over to get at the other shoulder. “She treated you gently, far as I’m concerned.”

The cabin door creaked open on rusted hinges. Footsteps shuffled inside, but Marita didn’t turn away from the carcass. If the witch wanted something, she’d say so. Otherwise, best not to draw her attention.

“Are you not done with your chores yet, child?” The witch’s voice was like a shovel scraping through mud and gravel. “The sun climbs high, and here you are still.”

“I already cleaned the outhouse and swept the floor. I’m almost done.” The chores were pointless—every day the filth returned as if it were never gone—but the witch didn’t seem to care. It was probably her doing that brought it all back each night.

“See that you are faster tomorrow, child.” The rocking chair by the fireplace creaked as the witch settled into it. “Your sweet brother is hungry, I’m sure. I don’t know why you seem so set on starving him.”

Scowling, Marita finished the butchering and rinsed her hands in the basin beside the oven. It lurked against the cabin wall, cold and dark, an iron beast large enough to swallow a whole deer. Or a whole person.

Continue reading “A Sample of “Gingerbread and Ash””

Alita: Battle Angel — An Oil-Stained Gem

We’re venturing off the dragon-beaten path again this week. Although I could see some sort of cyberpunk mecha-dragon fitting into the setting, maybe.

Back in 2019, a little movie called Alita: Battle Angel came out. A Western rendition of a classic manga, it launched to uneven reviews but a ton of fan support, including campaigns to get a sequel made. I remember being interested in it at the time, but never got around to actually watching it.

Well, a bit ago I did get around to watching it, thanks to my local library and my 100 New Things goal for the year. And I have to say, I had a lot of fun with it.

Here’s the setup: in a paradise-city-hovering-over-ruined-city setting, a cybernetics doctor named Ido finds a broken android in the garbage pile raining down from Zalem, the aforementioned city. He gives her a new body and the name Alita, since she’s missing both a body and all her memories (why are there so many amnesiac Japanese protagonists, anyway?), and she tries to find out more about herself and her world, as well as going after the people who start hunting her.

The reviews for this movie had praise for Rosa Salazar’s portrayal of Alita, the setting, and the action, but criticism of the screenplay. Having seen the movie twice now, I have to agree with that. The plot is a bit janky at times, and the movie ends in a weird place. This didn’t present itself as strongly to me the first time I saw the movie, but it came up in conversation after the second time and stood out a little more.

Thing is, it’s not really a breaking issue for me. Maybe all the anime I’ve been marinading my brain in over the last year has helped with that, but it is what it is.

Either way, the acting was indeed solid, especially Salazar and Christoph Waltz — who plays a good guy, shock and awe! — and the action’s also pretty sweet. They don’t have many compunctions about shedding blood or cyber-blood here, and that’s fine by me. The setting is another thing that worked well; the city is full of texture and grime and grit that lends it an air of verisimilitude, even though it’s full of cyborgs. I love that level of gritty detail, and that level of creativity with the details as well.

Sadly, the odds of us getting a sequel to this movie don’t seem great. It was a 20’th Century Fox production, and they’ve been bought out by Disney since, so it falls to the House of Mouse to grace us with a sequel if they so deign. I’m not hopeful about that, but I can see a road to it happening, in theory. Fingers crossed that we do. And fingers crossed they don’t screw it up.

Highfire: Low Humor, High Action

I’ve got fond memories of the Artemis Fowl novels from back my childhood. I got into the series when there was a few out, I think, so for a little bit there it was something where we’d get new books to look forward to every so often. I tried one or two other Eoin Colfer novels back then, but only one of his adult novels before, the frankly forgettable Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sequel And Another Thing.

How forgettable was it, you ask? Well, I forgot all about it until I was writing this review. If I’d remembered my low appreciation for it, I might have had different expectations for Highfire.

Here’s the setup: dragons used to rule the world, but now, there’s only one left: Wyvern, Lord Highfire, who goes by Vern and lives in a swamp shack in Louisiana with only a dragon-blooded man named Waxman and a satellite TV for friends. His life of vodka-fueled lonesomeness gets broken up by a young smuggler named Squib, trying to protect his mother from a crooked cop named Hooke, who’s planning to take over the local drug-running operations. And then things get messy.

To be fair, the book is not completely without merit. I think some of the humor was okay. I have no issue with the setup on paper. The action scenes are actually pretty solid – probably the best bits of the book, since the things that annoyed me about it were in least concentration there.

And some of the characters were all right. Squib had some understandable issues and motivations going on. Him working himself ragged and trying to go legit for the sake of his mother is solid enough, especially given what a piece of human excrement Hooke is. Vern and Waxman had a good setup.

And the plot itself was fine enough. The setup of Squib trying to keep Vern happy, Hooke trying to take over the local crime ring, the ways in which the characters collide and make life miserable for each other, that works. And there are stakes at play too. Not everything works out all sunshine and roses, which is a good thing.

The real problem comes from the book’s sense of humor. So much nastiness, so many crude jokes that weren’t even funny. It’s predictable from Colfer, given the existence of Mulch Diggums, but still. Wasn’t expected, wasn’t appreciated, dragged the book down. Maybe that sounds like a small thing, but honestly, the book was not enjoyable in total, and the worst parts were when everyone was lying around talking.

I still have fond memories of Artemis Fowl, so I’m not trying to rag on Colfer here out of some animus with him personally. I just didn’t like this book, and I’m glad I chose to go to the library for it rather than bookstore. I don’t see myself adding it to the collection. Call it a case of good ideas, spotty execution, and underwhelming totality.

Dragons Wild: Pretty Tame, Actually

This week we have another of those legion of books I burned through back in high school, returned from the grave for new consideration. I’m not sure what I thought of it back then – I only really remembered one particular exchange of dialogue – but revisiting it today, I’m failed to be blown away. More like… led on a idle, occasionally interesting walk.

The book opens with our protagonist Griffen in a meeting with his uncle, hoping to get a job, but instead getting the revelation that he and his sister Valerie are actually dragons. Turns out dragons are hiding amongst the human population of Earth, and while most dragons have some degree of human blood in them, Griffen and Valerie are basically pure-bloods and therefore heavy-hitters in the culture. Since Griffen is old enough to start manifesting his powers, that means that his life of idle gambling is about to grow far more exciting. With Valerie and a friend who turns out to be dragon-blooded, he travels from Ann Arbor to New Orleans to take shelter with a dragon-led gambling cartel, and then plot happens.

The dragons in this setting are weird. It’s indicated in the book that the whole “scaly winged fire-breathing reptile” image doesn’t apply in this case, aside from when the dragons want it to apply. For example, when his shapeshifting kicks in Griffen can manifest scales, but Valerie doesn’t shift like that; she just gets bigger. This isn’t a bad idea, necessarily, just a weird one. The other weird thing about the dragons in this book is how relatively irrelevant their species is. They just… don’t do anything draconic. It’s significant that they have dragon blood in them, but it’s not relevant. Griffen is put on a pedestal for being a pure-blood dragon, but even he can’t actually do much, so the whole plot revolving around him basically amounts to a forward investment with no sign of payoff. So that’s a weird hierarchy.

For various reasons, Griffen and the plot orbiting around him is the worst part of this book. It’s unearned, his reactions to things aren’t terribly convincing, the way people info-dump and bestow power upon him doesn’t make a ton of sense… He just doesn’t work. There are hints of a more active and powerful character there, as he starts to come into his own, but for the rest of the book, he just doesn’t work.

Valerie is actually a better character, although she’s not around very much. She’s got the same dragon bloodline as her brother, obviously, but for her it’s more of a liability. Dragon culture specifically tries not to tell their womenfolk that they’re dragons so that they can better control the bloodlines, and nobody is giving Valerie power the way Griffen’s getting it. She gets a new home in New Orleans, but she doesn’t get much else. So she’s in a much worse position in life, and the way she reacts to her life’s upheaval and Griffen’s ascendance is pretty believable.

Overall, it’s not a terrible book, but not a great one either. Call it a mediocre one. Its characters are its weakest link, and that’s not a recipe for success with me. Despite that, I’m still tempted to pick up the next couple books in the series and see how the franchise develops. Time will tell whether I get there or not.

The Ruin of Kings: Monsters, Dragons, and Assassins, Oh My

I forget why I bought this book, to be honest with you. I think it was for a summer reading program at the library where I needed a specific sort of book to satisfy some condition or other… I don’t know. It’s fine. I don’t have a book-buying problem, you do.

Anyway, The Ruin of Kings is about a noble scion named Kihrin, who’s had something of an exciting life. First he was growing up on the streets, then he was living in a palace with a family with a penchant for idle torture, and now he’s a slave with a chunk of his soul trapped in a medallion, forcing him to obey anyone holding it or die. To top it all off, in the prologue, he’s imprisoned and slated to be sacrificed to a demon, being guarded by a homicidal shape-shifter who wants to have a story-time.

Yeah, he’s got a few problems, you could say.

To me, the most interesting element of what this book does well is the narrative structure of it. As you start the book, you start with a first-person chapter where Kihrin is telling his story moving forward from one point in time, explaining how he got to the present-day revealed in the prologue. But the next chapter is a third-person viewpoint told by his jailer, starting further back in time and explaining how to got to the point where he started. And it continues to alternate as you read further. It’s a clever device and well-executed, with the odd interjection from the characters as they snipe at each other in the present day. Hopefully it’ll be brought back in the next novel in the series in some fashion.

The second thing this book has going for it is the humor. It’s a dark fantasy novel, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not a grimdark one. There’s plenty of humor there, swinging from the gallows though it may be at times. It keeps things lively, keeps you from getting too bogged down in all the awfulness.

The third thing is the lived-in feel of the world itself. Without getting into spoilers, Lyons does a great job of making the setting feel like it not only has a history, but like that history is still playing out, rather than just being a dead, static part of the background.

As far as negatives go… sweet pity, but this is a joyless world. And I mean joyless. But it doesn’t create the sort of macabre fascination that 1984 or Warhammer 40k might manifest.If it weren’t for the aforementioned humor levels, this book would be a lot harder of a read.

Also, this setting’s magic system plays kind of loose and fast with the reader’s understanding at times. But the funny thing is, only at times. Some parts of the system are well-explained and comprehended, but other times things happen that come out of left field. It’s not a major issue, but my Sanderson-centric brain tends to snag on such things.

Finally, as far as the dragons in this book go… well, that feels like it might be telling. Suffice to say that what we get here, combined with the fact that the series is named “A Chorus of Dragons,” has me interested to see where things go from here.

All in all, it’s a pretty good read, with some reservations. I’ve got the sequel on order already, and we’ll see how this plays out in the long run.

Revisiting Dragon Goes House-Hunting: Still Hunting

Last April, I reviewed the first volume of Dragon Goes House-Hunting, a manga about a… dragon who… goes house-hunting. It’s a pretty self-explanatory title, what can I say. Basically, it’s a slice-of-life-ish story about Letty the cowardly combat-inefficient dragon looking for a home where he’ll be safe from crusading heroes. When I reviewed the first volume, I gave it points for the art and the humor, but dinged it for lack of plot. (Yes, I know I called it a slice-of-life, but as it turns out, Wikipedia classifies it as shonen, so I’m going to bow to its wisdom and judge it like shonen, which means I want a plot, dang it.)

Anyway, I’m now four volumes deep into House-Hunting. How has it progressed? Am I any more content with it now than I was then?

Ehhhhhh… no.

The series hasn’t really changed beyond its introduction. I’m doing this by memory, as it’s been a bit since I read them, but the basic issues of lacking a solid hook to keep me invested is still there. Letty’s situation has developed a bit over the course of volumes 2 and 3, but volume 4 was devoted to the backstory of Dearia the demon lord realtor, moving the pace of current events forward basically not at all. As it stands, the series is up to six volumes in English and seven in Japanese, but I feel no real drive to go read the others.

And that’s a bad thing. That’s a critical mission failure. And it makes me sad, because I don’t want to hit the series with that. I don’t dislike it, unlike some others I could name. But it’s just not cutting it. The plot hasn’t snared me, the characters haven’t hooked me, and there’s nothing really dragging me back in.

Maybe I’ll pick up the next two volumes anyway. Maybe things will kick into high gear and we’ll end up somewhere better. I mean, the series got an anime adaptation that started this year, so someone likes it more than I do. In theory. I’d still say pick up the first volume if it tickles your fancy, but for now, it’s not a series I can wholeheartedly recommend.

What I can recommend much more heartily is My Hero Academia Vigilantes and Witch Hat Atelier, but, in the words of Alton Brown, “that’s another show.”

To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars: No Dragons, But Plenty Of Fun

Yup, we’re venturing away from dragons this week. To a degree, anyway, because Christopher Paolini clearly has written a dragon or two in his time. But there are none in To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars, or TSIASOS, which is no easier to say but somewhat easier to type. What there are, though, are some solid characters, some good action, and some fun times to be had.

So what’s it about? The initial setup is a xenobiologist named Kira stumbling across an alien remnant on a planet scheduled for colonization, which proceeds to wipe out the rest of her crew. So far, so Alien. Things start to diverge when the discovery of this alien causes other aliens to show up to the party, and the entirety of human space gets thrown into chaos. Kira has to find a way to resolve things and deal with the alien bonded to her, but of course, that proves to be more complicated than it migth seem.

This is Paolini’s first book not set in Alagaesia, his first novel since Inheritance, his first sci-fi book… look, there’s a lot of room for firsts when your entire prior bibliography is contained in one series. He talks at length in the afterword to this book about how the struggles he had producing this book, the skills he had to relearn after spending so many years working on the Inheritance Cycle, and all of the research and stuff that went into it. I definitely appreciate the latter. TSIASOS has some serious Expanse vibes, between the grittiness of the setting and the hard-but-not-always sci-fi elements. It’s a good feel (the Expanse books are awesome, after all) and works well here, but there’s definitely more of the fantastic here than I’ve run into in the first couple books of that series.

(I can also sympathize with Paolini’s difficulties in producing the book from a technical angle, having spent my own extended length of time bashing at a novel to the detriment of the practice of other skills, but that’s another story. Aha.)

The stand-out elements of the book for me were the characters that Kira starts working with as the story progresses and all of their interactions, along with the aforementioned world-building and the dimensions it added to the action. That stuff felt good, both in terms of flow and visuals. Kira herself isn’t bad, and gets a lot better as she develops over the story, but plays best with others, if you know what I mean.

Unfortunately, I think the weakest points of the book for me were the two parts you normally want to be the strongest: the start and the ending. The characters at the start just weren’t interesting enough, and the ending gets weird. I won’t go into spoilers, but it didn’t work for me entirely.

That said, is it worth reading? Have Paolini’s skills gotten better over the years? Do we get any references to the Inheritance Cycle to make long-running fans smile? Are there threads left dangling for sequels to explore? The answer to all four is a resounding yes. Find a copy and enjoy. In the meantime, I’ll be waiting to see what Paolini comes up with next.

Spirited Away: A Japanese Fairytale Dreamscape

First outdoor photo of the year!

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been on a bit of an anime kick lately. Somehow, this is seeping out into the rest of the family as well, like some sort of memetic virus, and we’ve been digging into my Studio Ghibli collection lately for some of our family movie nights. One classic that’s been revisited lately was Spirited Away, and as it qualifies as a dragon-related product, and I’ve been reading To Sleep In A Sea Of Stars lately rather than anything draconic, we’re going to talk briefly about that this week.

Discussing Spirited Away is a mildly intimidating prospect. This movie is legendary. One of Ghibli’s most successful works, the first and only anime movie to win an Academy Award for Best Animated Picture (according to Wikipedia, anyway). To criticize it is to invite accusations of heresy, possibly followed by attacks by horrific witches and little sootballs.

But that’s no reason not to talk about it. Especially given how freaking good this movie is, and how relatively accessible it is to people outside of the anime community. More on why I say “relatively” later on.

The plot’s doubtlessly similar to others you’ve seen — a young girl named Chihiro and her parents wander into a spirit-world, and when her parents are cursed, Chihiro has to find a way to survive in that world long enough to save them and make it back home. There’s a certain Alice in Wonderland vibe there. It’s a setup we’ve seen before. But the execution here is way different than any other example I can think of, with a lot of really good elements to it.

If you’ve seen a Ghibli movie before, you know what a treat they are for the eyes. The animation and art style in this movie is awesome. The characters are expressive, the action is good, the spirits and monsters are suitable alien. The sound design is also excellent, as is the soundtrack itself. “The Sixth Station,” and the scene that goes with it, remains one of the most beautifully melancholic pieces of art I’ve ever had the pleasure of enjoying.

What about dragons, you ask? Yes, there is a dragon, otherwise I’d have to categorize this as a non-dragon review. Yes, he is awesome. I won’t get into it, because you should just watch the movie, and I don’t want to spoil anything.

Now… for the tricky part. The stuff that works less well. This mainly revolves around two points: population and pacing.

Pacing’s the easy one — this movie takes its time. I’m not saying its bloated, mind you. It takes its time in a similar way to how Blade Runner does, putting more emphasis on the Milieu element of the MICE quotient than other movies might. But that invites the same criticism that can be leveled at Blade Runner, and that’s that it can be slow. Not a deal-breaker for me, but maybe more of a problem for some.

The population’s the more tricky one. Spirited Away is packed full of creatures and spirits from Japanese folklore, which creates a weird phenomenon for the Western viewer with a poor understanding of that background (like me). There’s a deeper level to the world-building and the themes present there which we just don’t get. In a way, that’s a detriment to the movie, because it robs us of all that subtext. On the other hand, Chihiro doesn’t seem to have a good idea of what these spirits all are either, so it sort of puts the viewer in her shoes — both are looking at an alien world full of things they just can’t understand.

At the end of the day, though, neither of those factors stop it from being a great movie, and one that’s worth having in your library for those random days when you feel like revisiting it.

House of Dragons: Five-Man Dysfunctional Band

Once again we find ourselves in a situation where I haven’t quite finished the book for this week’s review, but according to my Kindle, I’m 77% through it, and that’s plenty enough for me.

House of Dragons is one of a group of books I picked up last December, planning for my “100 new books/shows/etc. in 2021” goal and taking advantage of the cash-back-at-Amazon perk on one of my credit cards. I read through the sample, decided it was good enough to take a chance on, and circled around to it more recently. And I’m happy to say that so far, it was a chance well taken.

The setup is fairly straightforward: in a pseudo-Greek setting, complete with veiled references to the Iliad, an empire has arisen that controls the world by the might of their armies and their dragons. Whenever the emperor dies, their successor is selected by a battle of wits between the scions of five noble houses, each chosen by the dragon-god of the empire for the competition. Whoever wins gets to rule. The other four get to be executed, by whatever means the new emperor or empress pleases.

What follows is a pretty entertaining series of competitions as the five chosen candidates vie against each other to see who can rise to the top. Each of them has something going on that gives them an edge at different parts of the plot, but also a handicap — like the war hero who’s so sickened by his deeds that he’s sworn a vow of pacifism, or the dragon handler who’s lived her whole life as a servant, but knows dragons and their capabilities better than anyone else there. It keeps the competitions interesting, since no one person dominates for the entire span of the games. I also find it entertaining that the group of candidates manage to form a proper TV Tropes-style Five-Man Band despite the fact they start off literally as mortal enemies, given the fates of those who lose, and not particularly liking each other either.

As far as the dragons go, they’re there, but they’re of the beast variety, incapable of speech or anything like that, and therefore don’t have a tremendous impact on the plot as actual characters. There is no Toothless-like being here, in my mind. What they are good at, though, is playing off of their riders when they are on screen, and that seems like a deliberate choice by the author. One of the characters describes the dragons as being the souls of their riders at one point, and in at least one case that feels very accurate, whether any of the characters themselves recognize it or not.

Of course, as I said above, I’m only three-quarters of the way through the book. It’s possible something will happen in the remaining chapters to change my opinion, but honestly, I suspect that’s not going to happen. I’ll give House of Dragons a hearty recommendation if you’re looking for something light (but not too light) to read, and I might give the rest of the series a try one of these days.