Review: Lore Olympus by Rachel Smythe

A Facebook ad brought this comic to my attention two days ago, and it really pulled me in (as in, I made Poor Life Choices and stayed up until 2am on a work night getting caught up on it).

Lore Olympus is a modern/alternate take on Greek mythology, centered around the story of Hades and Persephone, but including the full cast of Greek gods and goddesses. The basic premise of the comic is that Mount Olympus and the Underworld are modern cities, while the mortal realm is at the time of Classical Greece. Demeter, Persephone’s mother, doesn’t like many of the other gods, and has chosen to live in the mortal realm, and that is where Persephone was born and raised. At nineteen, she has recently come to Olympus to study at the university, to get some freedom from her mother, and to learn about the more high-tech world that is open to the gods and other mythological creatures (nymphs, centaurs, etc.). Persephone is staying with her friend Artemis.

Hades (at 2000-something, as he puts it), is the King of the Underworld, ruling his night-time kingdom alone while his brothers Zeus and Poseidon are long married and have at least superficially happy families. Though he doesn’t necessarily like to admit it, Hades is lonely.

The story opens with Hades being stood up by his date for one of Zeus’ parties, and going anyway only to be very taken by Persephone, who has come to the same party with Artemis. Hades then proceeds to Say Stuff about how beautiful Persephone is within hearing range of Aphrodite, which leads to the Goddess of Love enlisting her son Eros to pull a prank on Hades. The prank ends up giving Hades and Persephone a chance to meet and to talk, and to discover that there is something that clicks between them, though neither is quite willing to acknowledge it.

The story proceeds from there, with Persephone slowly meeting more of the Olympian gods (for good and ill), slowly getting to know Hades, and slowly getting to know herself a bit better, looking for confidence and purpose and struggling against a conviction that her powers are “not very important.”

I like a lot of things about this comic. The art style is bold and fun, both in the drawing and in the use of color to differentiate characters; the artist plays with the idea that as gods, these beings might have very differently colored hair and skin (Persephone is all pink, for example, and Hera all golden) rather than having the usual mortal tones. There are some scenes showing the modern city-scapes of both Olympus and the Underworld that I thought were truly amazing, and there are many more gorgeous moments throughout.

Another thing I like is that the gods and goddesses, while certainly empowered with a certain amount of modern technology and ideas, are still recognizably their characters from the traditional stories, with all the shenanigans, shape-shifting, relationship drama, and sexual escapades that implies.

And, perhaps most of all, I really like Hades and Persephone as characters, and I like the relationship as it is starting to grow between them. There is more to either of them than most of the other gods see or acknowledge; Hades is hated and feared by many as the King of the Underworld, and Persephone is seen as young, naïve, and unimportant. In each other, they find someone who sees them more for who they really are: Hades as a gentleman (wavering often between dignified and dorky), with much greater depth of feeling than most understand, and Persephone as a young goddess who is very intelligent and has not yet begun to tap the depths of her potential. I also personally enjoy stories about relationships with a notable age difference, so that aspect of them is interesting as well.

The story is gripping, and also made me laugh aloud many times as I was reading it. The artist is exploring some darker themes as well as the humor, but Greek gods and consent issues are not new. Although Persephone and Hades are the main characters, we meet and get stories for many of the other gods as well, which fills in the world and pulls in more of the original stories. I would recommend this comic to anyone who likes modern and/or alternate takes on mythology, or who is looking for a good romance.

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Review: The Dragonoak Trilogy by Sam Farren

I believe I came across this trilogy first on Tumblr, and primarily because the author, Sam Farren, keeps ball/royal pythons, and I followed them for posts about their snakes. On seeing that Farren was also a self-published author, however, and being intrigued by the description of the first book, I decided to give it a try, and was glad I did; this is one of the more unique fantasy worlds that I have read in recent years.

(Some spoilers past this point.)

The series follows Rowan Northwood, a young woman from a rural village who has recently failed to hide the fact that she is a necromancer: someone with the power to snatch death away from or push death into other living beings. While her family stand with her and the local villagers are tolerating her presence as long she stays out on her family’s farm, life is not comfortable for Rowan. Taking a chance when one of her country’s famed Knights comes through the village, Rowan goes with her, following her to the neighboring country of Kastelir.

The title of the first book, The Complete History of Kastelir, struck me as a bit ambitious when I first read it, assuming that it was meant to be taken literally. The entire history of a country in a single book?

But the complete history of the country of Kastelir is exactly what I (and Rowan) learned through the course of the book. As a nation, Kastelir is relatively new, formed only a few decades previously out of a land of warring groups. By the end of the book, Rowan has (just barely) survived Kastelir’s fall, and has lost the woman whom she was beginning to love.

The Sky Beneath the Sun finds Rowan far to the south, in a completely different part of the world, along with the handful of friends and allies who escaped Kastelir at the end. Everything is new (and hot), and Rowan finds it mostly a welcome distraction from her grief. Unexpectedly, it also gives her a chance to learn more about herself, to learn that the commonly-used word “necromancer” does not at all begin to encompass the truth of her powers and the kind of being that she is. Through these revelations, a betrayal, and the eventual realization that their work in the land that was once Kastelir is not done, Rowan must decide where she will set the limits on her own power.

The final book in the series, Gall and Wormwood, sees Rowan and her friends returning north across the sea first to what remains of Kastelir, and then eventually back to her birth country of Felheim, where the heart of the conflict truly lies. It takes not just a better grasp of her own powers for Rowan and her allies to unravel the war that has been going on much longer than any of them realized, but also a rediscovery of their world’s more distant past.

The author of the Dragonoak trilogy created a truly unique world, that has breadth and depth enough that it is easy to feel the weight of its history even as the characters do. Farren’s take on what at first seems like a straightforward fantasy element like necromancy, turns into something unlike any other version of necromancy that I’ve seen. There are dragons and phoenixes, though even they are not quite what one might at first assume. This may be the first time that I have read a story in which the main character is dyslexic (though she does not use that particular term for it), and must work around her inability to read, though it is largely something that she just accepts about herself.

I enjoyed the whole trilogy, and would recommend these books to anyone who likes fantasy stories with original worldbuilding, queer characters, or a good story about the heroes fighting for (and winning) the right to live their lives in peace.

Quick Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

I recently finished the first of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, and as with his other work that I have read (mostly the Mistborn trilogy) it really pulled me in. It took me a little time to get into it at first, but after that it was difficult to put down, even the supposedly “slower” parts. Sanderson has created a large, complex, and very interesting world, and I’m now eager to read the rest of the series!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jasnah Kholin and Kaladin are my two favorite characters so far, although I like Shallan and Dalinar as well. Jasnah is a very interesting person, and I like her thoughts and attitude, her deep love of learning, and her determination to get to the truth about her world. I like Kaladin for his determination to not give up, and to make the most of whatever situation he finds himself in. Revelations at the end of this first book now make me especially eager to know what happens next.

Sanderson does a good job of building different cultures in the different geographical parts of his world, and showing how they vary depending on their distance from some of the world’s dangers (such as the highstorms), and how they interact with each other and have influenced each other over time.

I would recommend this to anyone who like long, epic fantasy stories, with many characters and complex world-building.

Review: The Kalevala

(“A book that was originally written in a different language” from the Reading Challenge)

The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland. As with many of the older epics, this one is a modern-ish (early-1800s) written collection of stories that were originally an oral tradition, spoken or sung. And, in this particular case, then also a translation from Finnish into English. I’m sure that some of it gets lost in translation, but overall I found it very interesting and I enjoyed it. It took me a long time to actually read all of it (3 years or so), both because it is very long, and because I could read a good chunk of it at a time, but then would need a break before I would feel like reading more. I read it primarily to get some further inspiration for The Wizard of Suomen, not so much in plot or story-line, but more for the feel of ancient Finland as a place, and for some of the descriptions of things and land and animals. I would say that any inspiration for TWoS is more aesthetic than anything else. (The following is more a collection of my impressions than a proper review, so be forewarned. There are also a few slight spoilers.)

The story traces several heroes, and here I will use that term in the older sense as meaning a great warrior or great master of something, rather than the more modern connotation of “a really good person.” The three main heroes whose stories are told are Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen. (Or at least, those are their usual names. Sometimes the same character was given multiple names or epithets, so it was a little difficult to follow at times. Don’t ask me about pronunciation, I wouldn’t dare try.)

Inasmuch as there is a main character in the Kalevala, it is definitely Väinämöinen, who is an old wizard and musician of great power. He has many adventures, and uses his very-cool-seeming powers to either accomplish great deeds or to get his way. As a modern person, I found him kind of arrogant and annoying at times, but I think that is partially a symptom of my perspective.

Ilmarinen was the only one of the three that I really liked particularly much. He is a blacksmith of great skill, and seemed to get the short end of the stick in many of the stories, but always pushed through and worked hard anyway. My impression was that he was younger than Väinämöinen, but other comments I have seen about the Kalevala seem to indicate that he is an older man too, so I’m not really sure about that.

I really hated Lemminkäinen, who struck me very much as a spoiled, whiny brat who only wanted to get his own way and whose mother very much enabled him. I was pleased to reach the point in the story where he is killed on a quest to the underworld, because by that point I really felt like he deserved it. But then of course he turned out to be the one who got the “my mother will gather my body parts, put me back together, and bring me back to life” story arc, so my relief was short-lived.

The fourth character who gets a large arc, Kullervo, is pretty much just straight-up evil. I think it was prophesized at or before his birth that he would be evil and do lots of horrible things, and he then spent much of his life turning that into a self-fulfilling prophecy, so I liked him even less than Lemminkäinen. Granted, he was also treated very poorly by almost everyone around him, so it’s understandable why he would be angry at everything, but still. (Tolkien apparently found this character fascinating, and his story of Túrin Turambar in The Silmarillion is based on this character Kullervo in the Kalevala.)

There was a lot of interesting repetition and exaggeration, which may or may not have come through the translation well, but fits with what I would expect from an oral tradition. One of my favorites was the description of an ox that was “neither the largest nor the smallest,” but its size was given by stating something like it would take a weasel seven days to run around its head.

The land called Pohjola (possibly the area we know as Lapland today) is always described as “ever-dismal Northland,” which I found very amusing (and again, not surprising!)

The last Rune was the strange story of a young maiden who becomes impregnated by a lingonberry and does this strange virgin-birth thing, which I strongly suspect was added to the tradition after the introduction of Christianity. I often wonder what changes have been made to these traditional stories and epics since the introduction of Christianity into those lands; it would be interesting to know what they were like prior to that time, but of course nothing was recorded in those days, so we will likely never know.

While I didn’t always like the characters, the Kalevala as a whole was an interesting and enjoyable read! I don’t have much to say about the specific stories/adventures, I guess, but they were fun to read. The Wikipedia entry about it seems decent, and I might go through the summary of the story at some point, just to clean up my knowledge of it; there were a few things that I was never quite clear on. There is also interesting discussion there about the man who wrote it down originally and the translations and that sort of thing. I would recommend it to anyone who likes the old epic sagas, who is interested in Finland/Finnish culture, or who is interested in a source that Tolkien drew some of his inspiration from.

Quick Review: Sahara (2017)

This was a cute animated movie about snakes! Being a snake person myself, it was exciting to see a kids’ story with snakes as the main characters and good guys, rather than being the bad guys as they are so often portrayed.

The story is set in the Sahara Desert in Africa, and follows the story of a young cobra named Ajar. Ajar lives in the desert with the other venomous snakes, but is bullied and not accepted. He tries to escape to the local oasis where the green serpents (which maybe were supposed to be modeled after the boomslang? Unclear.) live. Here he runs into Eva, a green serpent who cannot stand life in the oasis anymore, and they try running away together. Eva is captured by an evil snake charmer, though, and so Ajar, his scorpion best friend, and Eva’s brother set out to cross the desert and rescue her.

There is very little accuracy in how the snakes are portrayed (early on, the venomous ones are shown eating a watermelon), but the story is cute and the animation was good. The music got a little strange at times, but was enjoyable.

If you are looking for a fun, not-too-serious movie, then I would recommend this! (It is a Netflix original movie.) If you will be really put off or desperately disappointed that the snakes are not portrayed accurately, then I would probably hold off. Personally, I hold out hope that someday we may get movies not only with snakes as the good guys, but also portrayed as carnivores/with correct movements and anatomy/etc. But, in the meantime, I will take (and support) a cute movie that at least doesn’t portray them as evil or scary.

Movie Review: Wonder Woman (2017)

I went to see this opening night, and was not even a little bit disappointed.

As a brief, spoiler-free review: Visually stunning, with good music, I would recommend it to fans of superhero/action movies. Setting it during World War I rather than World War II worked with some of the themes about human free-will in interesting ways (and contributed to some of the aforesaid stunning visuals). I thought the setup used to frame this (Wonder Woman’s origin story) was well-done. I am not greatly familiar with the DC universe, so this take on some of the Greek mythology struck me as strange, but interesting. Definitely recommended.

More in-depth thoughts (with spoilers) below.

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Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (movie)

I should preface this review by stating that, as a general rule, I very much dislike zombie movies, zombies being the main type of horror-genre monster that actually frighten me. Those that fall more into the humor genre than the horror (such as Shaun of the Dead), have been more tolerable, but I do not usually seek them out.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was an exception to that rule, and I was glad of about 30 seconds into the movie.

(I should probably also preface the following by saying that I have read the original Pride and Prejudice and loved it, but have not seen any film versions of it. I have also not read the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Cut for spoilers.)

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