Tuesday, January 28, 2020

THE WITCHER, episode 1 on NETFLIX. . .

. . . was awful.

So, having heard that Netflix was doing this adaptation, I read the first book of Andrzej Sapkowski's series, which the bookstore had, and ordered the rest. The Last Wish (1993) was pretty good --straight-up sword and sorcery, mostly, but a cool interweaving of fairy tales, some fine writing, a few surprisingly moving parts. I especially liked the first short story, "The Witcher."

But this Netflix adaptation.

Some people complained on Twitter that the plot was bewildering. Thanks to having read The Last Wish, I managed to piece together what was going on

The real problems were twofold.

First, the acting. Mainly, none of the male actors did it, or even tried doing it. Henry Cavill, who plays Geralt of Rivia, joins Jamie Dornan (the guy from the Fifty Shades of Grey Movies) and Joel Kinnaman (Altered Carbon) as physically amazing-looking male actors with the expressive range of wooden spoons.** Cavill is especially bad, though, because the director's instructions evidently included, "Try for grim, silent, brooding. A man of few words, but imposing. Maybe a dark past."

Unfortunately, rather than imposing or grim, the result was simply dull. The little girl who played Marilka was hilarious, but her part was finished after the episode's first 10 minutes, and her vivaciousness just made Cavill look ten times more statue-esque. Worse, Cavill completely flubbed all the funny lines from the book, e.g., "Good prophecy's should rhyme." And it almost physically pained me to see him trying to deliver Geralt's "The Lesser Evil" speech with anything like believability -- "phoning it in" might be too kind. Sadly, in The Last Wish, Sapkowski's short story about lesser evils is maybe his most complex and interesting. Episode 1 of The Witcher just botched it completely.

The other male actors were just as bad. Stregobor was another intriguing (though unlikeable) character from the book, but the actor decided to read every line as if it Portended Ominous Doom . . . this cliché in fantasy film just won't die, apparently. Really, scripts have to earn their ominous doom -- not just have a gravelly-voiced baritone actor say doom-like things before the plot has even properly begun.

Which brings me back to the second issue. This Witcher adaptation is evidently going for a grimdark / gritty atmosphere. Okay, fine. You're obviously copying Game of Thrones and Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, but it's currently popular, this is sword-and-sorcery, so whatever.*** The first problem, though, as mentioned, is how badly the series failed to pull grimdark off. "Boring" does not equate to "intimidating," and what why were so many actors speaking in Dread Whispers, even when having totally normal conversations talking about totally normal things? Speaking of that whole princess sub-plot, by the way, the less said, the better.

The second, problem, though, is that Sapkowski's book isn't grimdark at all. Geralt of Rivia actually has a bit of personality, and while no one will confuse him with Mr. Chuckles, much of Sapkowski's material is surprisingly PG-13. It's one thing for an adaptation to put its own spin on things, but it always astounds me when an adaptation completely fails to recognize what made the original fun in the first place.

**Actually, Joel Kinnaman can at least deliver his lines, but he's never going to win any academy awards.

***It's possible that the series is building more off the video game, which I haven't played or seen.

Saturday, January 25, 2020

Elspeth Cooper's SONGS OF THE EARTH

And while I'm on a roll, I'll tackle this 2013 book from my reading list two years ago, written by Elspeth Cooper (great name!) for her Wild Hunt series. Like The Summoner, I just couldn't bring myself to read more than half the book, although I did try twice to do so. This book, though, I discovered from a website, Fantasy-Faction.com, which listed Songs of the Earth as having a really cool, new, innovative system of magic. Alas, not so much. Beyond the fact that the bland hero can "hear" music coming out of the earth itself, the magic is mostly standard "magic power"-type stuff -- nothing truly environmental or anthropocentric, more's the pity.

Otherwise, everything about the plot (something about a clumsily-handled intolerant Church) was as land as the hero himself. A few commentators on Goodreads praised the book's secondary readers, but I never quite got that far myself.

So, there's that.

Thursday, January 23, 2020


In this book, the first volume (2001) in Canavan's Black Magician trilogy, let us return to GoodReads again: it's a "cute little start to what seems to be a simple and inoffensive fantasy trilogy" (Jen3n) and  "fairly gentle book that lacks threat and (for much of it) tension" (Mark Lawrence). Both remarks are 100% on the mark with this one.

Compared to the last two books of epic fantasy I mentioned in this blog, though, The Magician's Guild arises up to the level of competent-if-undistinguished, at least.

The good guy protagonists, Rothen and Ceryni, are both basically, well, "good guys." Not much depth to them. The main female lead, Sonea, is another typical fantasy tomboy girl who, in this instance, is also ridiculously mistrustful. The bad guy, Fergun, is not quite the mustache-twirler as in the last two books, but it's close -- only a bare slight twist at the end gestures to some possible complexity.

But, overall, the main conflict in this book is a rather obvious class antagonism. It centers on the magicians who rule the city and the slums which need a periodic purging. I say "obvious" because, although the dwells are constantly angry at the magicians, Canavan's wizard-guide figure Rothen makes a perfectly defensible and uncomplicated defense of the Purge's necessity. So, even without reading the rest of the trilogy, her solution is basically, "The ruling class is right to do as it well, but maybe they could be slightly less arrogant about it."

There's also a dull, bland "does teenager A love teenager B" storyline that, well, blech.

Still, at least The Magician's Guild wasn't actually a painful experience. Check this one off my list.**

**** Incidentally, much like the first book in Kingmaker, Kingbreaker by Miller, I found this book referenced in Edward James's keynote to ICFA 2017, later published in JFA

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


Unlike Gail Z. Martin's The Summoner (see last entry), I actually finished this book (2005), the first in Karen Miller's Kingmaker, Kingbreaker series. This one I discovered not through C. Palmer-Patel's book on heroic epic fantasy but through an essay by Edward James on the fantasy trilogy. Alas, even though I finished this book, curtesy of some hardcore skimming, it was just as awful and poorly written.

  • Miller has a gift for dialect. She gives the main character, Asher, a pretty cool working class accent. Words like "slumskumbledy" are just hilarious.
  • The cover's pretty cool
    •  . . . although, note, see how I'm trying to pad out this list with comments about the cover)
  • As with The Summoner, "the bad" is everything else.
The main villain, when he comes 5/6 of the way through the book, is another one of those cardboard mustache-twirlers. (Seriously, some archetypal villains such as Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul can work, but Miller and Martin aren't even going for archetypal.) There's a prophecy, too, which apparently explains how Asher achieves any success despite being an unlikeable nitwit. Pro tip: if you find yourself invoking a prophecy every time you wish to explain what will happen in the next few chapters, you're not going to create much tension or interest.

But the plot itself is just cheesy and un-stomachable. Here's a depressingly accurate synopsis of the book's first half (borrowed from reader Beth over at GoodReads):
  • Asher runs away to find his fortune in the Capitol. Asher sees the prince riding through town. "Man, that guy is an idiot."
  • Prince seems to recognize Asher. Prince: "Hey what are you doing here?"
  • Asher, "None of your business."
  • Prince, "I like you, want to work in my stables although obviously you can't handle a horse and you are impertinent?"
  • Asher, "Why would I want to do that though I have no other options and no skills?"
  • Prince, "I'll pay you well."
  • Asher, "I want more."
  • Prince, "Done!"
  • Asher somehow makes friends though he is just as rude and coarse with everyone else.
  • Prince, "Asher, I want to you come help me judge a special case at court."
  • Asher, "You're an idiot."
  • Asher sees the case where a man is obviously taking money from his innocent cousin.
  • Prince, "What should I do?"
  • Asher, "The guy is an idiot." Prince, "You are such a great judge of character." Asher, "You are an idiot."
  • Prince, "Yes, unrivaled judge of character. Will you be my first and most trusted adviser?"
  • Asher, "Why would I want to make twice as much money and be so privileged?"
    •  (And here poor beleaguered Beth from GoodReads stops reading the book.)
Incidentally, both The Innocent Mage and The Summoner received awful ratings over at GoodReads. I've never really gotten into the site, but I'm discovering that it does have some pretty savvy reader commentary on there.

Gail Z. Martin's THE SUMMONER

For someone who studies fantasy, particularly epic fantasy, I realize that I don't particularly read a lot of epic fantasy. At least stuff written after the year 2000, anyway. So, after reading C. Palmer-Patel's The Shape of Fantasy: Investigating the Structure of American Heroic Epic Fantasy (Routledge, 2020), a worthwhile structuralist account of the genre, I made the concerted effort to read Gail Z. Martin's The Summoner (2007), the first book in her Chronicles of the Necromancer series. Considering that this book is about -- wait for it -- a necromancer, it was a natural starting point for Palmer-Patel's chapter on the heroic epic hero's confrontation with death.

I'll divide this quick review into the good and the bad.

  • It's epic fantasy mixed with ghost stories! 
  • The cover of the book is sweet.
  • Um, vampires? I think there's vampires, at least according to GoodReads, since I didn't bother reading much past 200 pages. But vampires are cool.
  • Pretty much everything.
The good guys are . . . good, I guess? But let's go with bland instead. The hero-prince-necromancer fella never achieves any more depth than "lead protagonist." There's a bard, and a fighter / guardsman, and a mercenary whom Martin vainly attempts to make sound mysterious and grimdark hard. The evil usurper prince is just as bland, a figure who twirls his mustache and hates upon the common people with almost every sentence he utters. Sadly, The Summoner just repeats every genre fantasy trope. Beyond the ghosts and a thinly described multi-aspect Goddess figure, there's just nothing original or competent here. And those ghosts, btw, are not scary or even spooky. In fact, I had a tough time wondering why all the main characters were superstitious, given that this storyworld seemed pretty chill with the concepts of ghosts otherwise. The prince-necromancer dude keeps wondering to excess what his friends will think once they discover his abilities, but nothing ever comes from this plot point.

The writing itself is just bad, filled with clunky dialogue, wearisome exposition, and characters who "chuckle" or "grin" every other paragraph. The jokes are heavily forced "Oh this character likes pretty girls! This character likes drinking!" types of things. Video game fantasy jokes, basically. And evidently Martin decided that tension, suspense, and horror are simply extraneous concepts when dealing with an epic fantasy ghost story.

So, needless to say, I think I'll be skipping the rest. But sometimes reading a book like this, which is so amateurish that I cannot believe an editor ever found it publishable, makes me wonder why I've devoted so much scholarly concern to epic fantasy.***

But then, last week, I read Brandon Sanderson's Warbreaker, and I remember again how awesome the genre can be in the hands a good writer.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


Last night, I spent a few hours tweaking a review for stylistic clarity after originally submitting it last July. No content changes, but there were a few phrasings that made me unhappy, and since the review was scheduled to be published in June 2020, or 5 months from now, I figured plenty of time remained until publication. Alas, no. The reviews editor just told me that it has already been edited and sent off. Very disappointing, to say the least.