Review: The Orc of Many Questions by Shane Michael Murray

(“A book with nonhuman characters” from the Reading Challenge)

I got this book specifically because it seemed like it would have an unorthodox take on orcs, and I was not disappointed.

The story follows a young orc (a “blunc”) who unusually has a fairly sharp mind and a very inquisitive nature; not attributes that are looked on favorably in his tribe. Large, powerful orcs who can be successful in raids against the humans, elves, and dwarves of the world are the ideal, this being the only way that the orcs can procure food, weapons, goods, and “entertainment.” Talking-Wind wants to know why his people are stuck in this life of constant raiding, and even has some hints that life was not always like this for orcs, but he has more questions than answers, and little time to search for them. Talking-Wind’s curiosity draws unwanted attention not only from the other young orcs, who are all too happy to bully someone smaller and weaker, but also from the dragon that demands regular tribute from the orc clan. When the dragon comes for him, Talking-Wind needs all his wits in order to have a hope of surviving long enough to get all of his many questions answered!

This book was a lot grosser than I was expecting, which perhaps should not have surprised me given the subject of the story; there is some gore, but mainly a lot of unpleasant bodily functions! This does not detract from the story, but might be something to be aware of.

It also does a good job with starting to break down the standard fantasy trope of “orcs are evil because they are evil,” which has bothered me more and more in recent years. A certain well-known fantasy series that shall not be named recently doubled-down on this, after spending several books/years looking like they too might be reversing or at least questioning the trope, which annoyed me. Partly for that reason, I’ve been looking for stories that do better and don’t automatically go the route of saying that some races are actually evil by nature. To me, that makes for much less interesting villains/enemies. Easier to kill with a clean conscience, perhaps, but not much else.

There is a sequel which I have not gotten to yet, but do hope to read soon! I would recommend this one to anyone who is interested in a subversion of typical fantasy tropes, anyone who likes a very down-to-earth-complete-with-bodily-fluids type of story, or anyone who happens to be interested in orcs as a fantasy race.

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Review: The Dinosaur Lords by Victor Milán

My first thought when I finished this book was “I have died and gone to heaven…or maybe just to Paradise.”

In many ways, this is just another Alternate-Medieval-Europe fantasy (though quite well-written); it has bloody battles, secret (and not so secret) religious fanatics of various flavors, and plenty of political intrigue. I appreciated the author’s way of using languages; the book is written in English, but he uses a blend of English and other languages to give the sense of the different countries, for instance giving titles in both Spanish or French as well as in English. It leaves the reader not needing to guess what unfamiliar words mean, while still getting to see them, learn them, and appreciate the varied vocabulary.

In many ways, it is just another fantasy…but it also has dinosaurs.

Some reviewers have made the point that this story is not a Medieval Jurassic Park. I agree, and would then add that I think it’s much better than that. If you are a Jurassic Park fan and your favorite part is that a bunch of people run around screaming and then get eaten by the dinosaurs, this may not be the book for you (though some people do get killed/eaten by dinosaurs in the story).

I think the best way to describe it is to say that dinosaurs exist in the world of Paradise; they are animals that inhabit the land, and people have learned to exist with them, much as we exist with the many animals around us today. There are some unique challenges to life with dinosaurs, given their often-large size and definite ability to cause harm to humans, but in this world those are challenges that people have undertaken. Some dinosaurs still roam the wild, and are hunted for meat or sport or self-protection by the humans. Many have been tamed or domesticated to one degree or another; they are beasts of burden, war-steeds, pets. The dinosaurs in the world of Paradise feel real, because they are part of the landscape and the ecosystem and the culture; much better than attractions at an amusement park.

To many of the characters, this is all dinosaurs are: part of the landscape, a familiar backdrop to everyday life. But to a couple of the characters (and to the author, I believe), the dinosaurs are more than that: to these characters, dinosaurs are a source of awe. Even as they fully understand and constantly deal with the realities (pleasant and otherwise) of coexisting with dinosaurs, they never lose the lingering edge of breathless wonder at the existence of these great creatures. That, more than anything, was what sold me on this book’s premise and world (and not surprisingly, those two characters are my favorites so far!)

I did enjoy the story itself, and am interested to see where it goes in the next two books of this (I believe) trilogy. This is a very adult book – plenty of gore, sex, violence, and foul language. If you don’t mind those things, then I would recommend it to fans of dinosaurs (the author seems to have done his research fairly well), fans of epic medieval fantasy, and fans of stories with battles and political intrigue.

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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TV Review: BBC Sherlock, Season 4

Heads up, this one is long and chock full of spoilers below the cut. TL;DR – As a long-time BBC Sherlock fan, I am disappointed with Season 4.

I will say upfront that I was able to largely enjoy each episode of Season 4 as I was watching it. The acting was still excellent, and there were certainly scenes and parts of episodes that were fantastic. But once I had seen them all and had a chance to step back and look at the season as a whole, I had more and more problems with it. Ultimately, I am disappointed in the writers for not really living up to their own standards, which they set quite high during the first three seasons.

To be honest, I was worried about this season from the moment that Moffat and Gatiss started making public comments that season 4 was going to be especially “dark.” My worries were not unfounded. Let me see if I can articulate what I mean.

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Song Review: The War Was In Color by Carbon Leaf

I’m honestly not even sure if song reviews are a thing, but I’ve been in love with this song for months and really want to talk about it, so I’m doing it anyway.

So, I first discovered The War Was In Color through this fan video that someone made based on the first Captain America and Avengers movies, which is honestly kind of perfect, so I would definitely recommend watching that. But the song is also really gorgeous just by itself, so that’s what I’m going to focus on here: it is a tribute to those who fought during World War II, from a U.S. perspective.

I happen to be involved in a big WWII project at work right now, so I’m already feeling a bit invested in the time period and also pretty emotional about it. That makes the lyrics for this song hit me a little harder even than they did when I first discovered it.

I see you’ve found a box of my things –
Infantries, tanks and smoldering airplane wings.
These old pictures are cool. Tell me some stories
Was it like the old war movies?
Sit down son. Let me fill you in

I love the imagery here – it’s just a box of old photographs, but to the WWII veteran, it’s a lot more than that: “infantries, tanks and smoldering airplane wings.” These are the pieces of the war that he remembers, not the two-dimensional pictures. I like also the imagery of a younger family member actually asking a veteran about his time in the war, and the veteran being willing to answer and speak about it.

Where to begin? Let’s start with the end
This black and white photo don’t capture the skin
From the flash of a gun to a soldier who’s done
Trust me grandson
The war was in color

There is something about the last line of this verse/the title of this song that really hits me. Even as an historian who knows better, it is still sometimes easy to get caught up in the immediate depictions of the war that are readily available to me…the black and white photographs, newspapers, and movies of the time. There are other artifacts as well, of course, that are not black and white (colorful propaganda posters, flags, etc.). But so many of the direct photographs of that era are black and white, that it can be easy to forget: like life for all people, in all places and all times, this war too was in color. It was immediate and real…the present for many millions of people, even if it is the past for us now.

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Quick Review: Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

I just finished Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister by Gregory Maguire, and I enjoyed it a lot!

Personally, I am a big fan of new or different takes on traditional fairy tales, and so this take on Cinderella appealed to me. It is almost historical fiction as much as it is a fairy tale, set in Holland during the 1600s, during the early parts of the tulip craze. I felt that the story moved along at a good pace (although I was occasionally confused as to how much in-story time had actually passed), and I was definitely able to immerse myself in the world. There were some unexpected twists as well, especially at the end.

Does anyone have other recommendations for good fairy-tale retellings? I am a fan of Mercedes Lackey’s Elemental Masters series, and I know that I read some others when I was younger, but don’t recall them too well now.

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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