Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Witches' Forest (Mishio Fukazawa)

It was one of those days again -- I needed a quick fix but my visit to Book Sale didn't yield much success in the YA department. I found a number of choice titles, though: Thomas Pynchon, Julian Barnes, Paul Theroux. At the last minute, I decided to add the Tokyopop translation of Mishio Fukazawa's Witches' Forest. It promises to be an RPG fantasy, which I didn't mind at all because I usually love that sort of thing.

Reading Witches' Forest definitely reminds me of the role-playing games that I play and the shounen anime that I watch --- so much that a part of me wished I had a manga in my hands. However, despite being a really easy read there is nothing much here to recommend. This is the story of Duan Surk, a Level 2 card-carrying member of the Adventurers Club, lost in the Witches' Forest after a pathetic stint with the army and accompanied by his grinia (lizard) Check. He teams up with the older and much more experienced fighter Olba October and then later, the fire-mage Agnis Link. It's pretty straight-forward, filled with familiar tropes and two-dimensional characters that make the plot trite and predictable.

But one reason that kept me going until the end was that the story acknowledged all those tropes and cliches -- embraced them, in fact. The characters had boss battles at the end of nearly every other chapter. They Leveled Up whenever they defeated a monster. They spoke of earning Experience Points. The book even has character profiles and adventurers' tools that poke fun at themselves (ropes that never break, lanterns that never run out of light). Given all of that, the entire story is actually very meta. Now if only it was half as interesting.

Witches' Forest is actually packed with a lot of action that if I were to turn it into an anime, I'd have a healthy monster-of-the-week shounen series in my hands. But then again, there is so much more to shounen anime that this story doesn't quite capture. So don't expect too much from Witches' Forest unless you're ten and very new to RPG. Otherwise, its charm might not work well on you.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Scribbled: The Breath and the Verse

Apparently, you can view a bottle containing Thomas Edison's last breath in the Henry Ford Museum, but there are also reports that there are 41 other bottles around. How do you know which one contains his final moment then? Oh, you had to be there.

My poem "The Forty-Two Last Breaths" appears in TAYO Literary Magazine's 3rd Issue (Print Edition). Do check it out, and if you're feeling generous, support the cause. TAYO Literary Magazine 'is dedicated to the creation, cultivation, and promotion of Filipino and Filipino-American arts and culture.'

Thursday, November 17, 2011

She Lover of Death (Boris Akunin)

I've had this on my Amazon wishlist for a few years now but just bought it last September, not realizing that 1) Boris Akunin also wrote the Sister Pelagia series that I often see in local stores; 2) She Lover of Death is part of a different series; and 3) I wasn't starting where I should.

Despite my ignorance, there were plenty of things that I liked about She Lover of Death. In turn of the century Russia, suicides seem like all the rage. They seem to stem from a suicide club called the 'Lovers of Death,' which attracts the young and innocent Masha Mironova, who renames herself Columbine when she moves to the capitol from her provincial hometown, in pursuit of a boy. But it is not love that awaits her in Moscow but death. Her infatuation pushes her to join the suicide club but it is her desire for change and transformation that urges her to stay. The club operates with a limited membership, with new members only inducted after one has left their circle. The leader of the Lovers is the enigmatic Prospero, a much older man who makes the impressionable Columbine forget about her former infatuation. She is quickly initiated into the ways of the club: the Lovers read poems about Lady Death and hold seances, where their medium Ophelia announces whom Death has chosen next to be her bridegroom (or bride, as in the case of the female members). As a rule, that member must encounter three signs before the hour of his suicide, and so far all of them have seemed to go readily to their early graves leaving behind their macabre poetry. But Lavr Zhemailo, a reporter for the Moscow Courier, manages to sniff out this practice, but he's not the only one interested in finding out more about the club. Erast Fandorin, master of disguise and infiltration, is convinced there is more to this than mere suicide.

I like how there are different perspectives at work in the narrative: Columbine's diary, Zhemailo's newspaper articles and commentaries, ZZ's agents' reports, and even the Lovers' poems. They added layers to what I thought would have been an otherwise dry and straightforward mystery. I wish I had known more about Erast Fandorin (or as he was known in this novel, Prince Genji or Erast Petrovich Neimless). I can only blame myself for not doing my research. Because this title comes in the middle of the series, the author already supposes that the reader knows a lot about Erast Fandorin, and Mr Akunin focuses on the character Columbine instead. Here, I can only see glimpses of the charm and the methods that have made Fandorin into a popular detective but I'd readily chalk this up to my failure as a reader rather than to any inadequacies in the writing. There are references made here to Fandorin's incredible luck, which piqued my interest enough to read the earlier titles.

But Columbine's story is far from disappointing. Her character intrigued me, and her motivations, no matter how strange they felt to me, mix naivete with passion. In her, the reader sees a character seduced by Death as an ideal, an end to suffering, an end to a life of being ordinary. I always welcome reading books that give me unexpected insight into something very contrary to what I think, and despite my desire for a richer mystery, I found She Lover of Death still worth my while.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Battlehawk (MP Ericson)

I’d say that Battlehawk may be the one to try if you like a quieter sort of fantasy, but somehow that statement doesn’t seem to give justice to the action in this book. Though the novel doesn’t have any dungeon-crawling or dragon-slaying, it still boasts of its fair share of sword fights and battles, calling to mind the weight and grimness of early European history.

Battlehawk is the story of brothers Galchai and Hauel, raised to be swordsmen who will fight to take back their southern kingdom. While they differ in skill and perspective, the task of raising their people back to their former glory and freedom rests on their shoulders.

The novel flows easily, at least at first. I like how in the first eight pages, the author throws you in the middle of the story and expects you to pick it up quickly without burdening you with massive info-dumping. I think it was this kind of restraint that encouraged me to pick this novel up in the first place. It does well to open with Hauel and Galchai as children. Not only does it show the family dynamics, but it also allows the reader more insight into the protagonists’ personalities than the rest of the novel does. I also applaud its treatment of a kingdom in exile, beggared by the years.

Unfortunately, the transitions were a real problem for me. As the brothers grew older and the various tribes and rulers moved closer to the brink of war, I was kept guessing on how much time had really elapsed between events. I had a smoother time reading the first third of the book, leading me to eventually give up on constructing a more concise timeline.

I was also anticipating a pay-off that never really materialized. Based on the story summary, I thought I’d see a definitive showdown between Galchai and Hauel. I had to remind myself that not every difference of opinion must lead to outright conflict or confrontation.

There were other minor details that bothered me. The first page speaks of 'a door hooked open,' and to my mind, a door can either be hooked/latched or open, but never both at the same time. A few pages down, a duel between Hauel and his cousin Robar concludes with 'After that, it was all over. Within moments, Hauel lay on the ground, panting and writhing (page 5)'. But it is Hauel who wins that fight and not Robar. Maybe these can still be corrected in future versions of Battlehawk.

My biggest regret, however, is the minor role given to women in the book although the ending foreshadows a change of direction. Unfortunately, this feels like too little, too late. If one of the lessons of the novel is that society must not exclude feminine wisdom and perspective, then why did it seem like every decision made by women in this novel — at least decisions that the protagonists listened to — led everyone to harm? I wish that there wasn’t such a wide disconnect between intent and application so that the conclusions made at the end of the book are properly justified.

I still think that Battlehawk delivers a fairly enjoyable reading experience. The battle scene towards the end of the book is something I commend. Ms Ericson gives it proper treatment. She doesn’t just turn it into a cut-away scene or dismiss it in a summary. Instead, she allows the action and the drama time to steep and then utilizes these into a fitting climax for her story. In the end, I think Battlehawk would have rated higher if I had found the rest of the novel consistent with its promising beginning and moving conclusion.

This review is cross-posted to Adarna SF. The author provided a free copy for this review.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Battle Royale (Koushun Takami)

While I thoroughly enjoy Japanese anime/manga/cinema/literature, I've always felt a little uncomfortable around the film Battle Royale. I like it enough, don't get me wrong. It's become iconic in its depiction of violence and fear, as it depicts the story of 42 students from Section 3-B of Shiroiwa Junior High who have been chosen to participate in the Program. The novel opens in 1997, and in this alternate timeline, Japan is part of the Republic of Greater East Asia. Its totalitarian government is behind the Program, 'a battle simulation [...] instituted for security reasons (p25)' where a junior high class is selected and its students forced to face each other and fight to the death until only one survives. It's the kind of movie I really don't want to watch again.

Given that, I don't really know why I agreed to read the source novel when my friend Oz foisted her copy on me. I was certain I was going to get more of the same violence I remember from the film, perhaps even more. What I didn't expect was a clearer look at the lives of each of the students. Even if they only appeared for a few pages, the students were given motivations and back stories by Mr Takami's skillful pen. This way, I really begun to see more than just typical cannon fodder, something that was not clearly evident in the film adaptation, though of course I can see why a different media would choose to treat the material differently. For the first time since I watched the movie, I understood what made Shuya Nanahara the most ideal protagonist in this situation. Shuya, a former star shortstop, is athletic, well-liked, calm under pressure -- and what's more is that he exercises estraint and aggression in equal measures. There is enough warmth and charm in him to enable him to get close to his other classmates at certain points during the game, thus affording us readers a better glimpse of their interactions and their beliefs. Through his eyes we see pacifists and sociopaths. We encounter cowards and idealists.

Shuya teams up with two of his classmates, Noriko Nakagawa and Shogo Kawada. Shuya feels a certain sense of responsibility over Noriko, his best friend's crush, and vows to protect her until the end of the Program. Shogo is a different story: an older, mysterious classmate whose survival skills greatly increase the group's chances for survival. Shuya and Noriko don't immediately trust Shogo, but eventually the two defer to Shogo's knowledge. This makes for some interesting dynamics. Shogo never wrestles the unofficial leadership position from Shuya despite the difference in their skills, acknowledging that he needs the protection Shuya offers as well. There's strength in numbers, especially when one of them is as athletic as Shuya. Shuya's trust also keeps Shogo from being targeted -- though not mistrusted -- by the others in their class. In the film, I actually questioned Noriko's role: superfluous and stereotypical. From start to finish she was a damsel to be rescued, pure and innocent, more disadvantages than strengths in a game like this. But it was the novel that enabled me to see her more as a symbol -- the hope buried underneath Pandora's box -- making her as essential to the purpose and message of the story, if not to the action.

When I finished the novel, I found myself reacting differently to it than I had to the film. Maybe it's because I'm a little older now and my perspectives have changed. Maybe the fundamental differences between both media naturally push my biases towards the written form. Whatever the reason, I am glad that I gave the Battle Royale novel a chance. Not only has it made me want to look for my old film CD and consider picking up the manga version as well (co-written by Mr Takami and Masayuki Taguchi), it's also given me much food for thought about fear and desperation in a collapsing society.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011's Moleskine Star Wars Giveaway

I know, I know. I haven't had a book review here in weeks. First, there was that trip. Then, there was this.

I was fresh out of college when I first heard of (under a different name then, if I remember correctly). I'd buy books from Jasper and other members of the auctions community. I would even meet up with him at Megamall (I lived in Muntinlupa then). I got a lot of fantasy books that way, including a signed hardcover edition of Neil Gaiman's Stardust that was the pride of my collection before he started visiting the Philippines. I think if I dig really hard through the mess of my room, I can still come across old deposit slips made out to Jasper's name.

Now that is already on its thirteenth year (thereabouts), it's giving away this lovely Star Wars Moleskine. It's enough to make my fangirl heart swoon. I first heard about Star Wars when my uncle took me to see The Empire Strikes Back. It was the second movie I ever saw at a movie theater (if you're wondering, ET was the first one, and Ladyhawke was the third.I had to watch all these in Laguna and at that time, I think it was safe to assume that we got our movies really, really late). I've been addicted to Star Wars ever since -- put posters up in my room, collected Kenner figures, followed the canon and EU, and of course, stood in line and watched the movies religiously. I actually paid the lost book fine at our school library just so I could keep their copy of Empire. The lengths I'd go to...

And in case someone knows anyone selling Malla and Lumpy merchandise? I'm in.