The Mistborn Trilogy

No one will ever read all of the great books out there, so it was with some trepidation that I dived into the Mistborn trilogy knowing I could use that time to explore some genuinely great fiction.

That was a callous start, yes, but I definitely weighed my pros and cons before dedicating myself to over two thousand pages of paperback fantasy that I wasn’t really given reason to suspect would redefine my conceptions of what the genre could achieve.

I began this series because the initial (misleadingly-presented) premise sounded unique and I’d caught wind of Brandon Sanderson’s name a few too many times to ignore. There were occasions where I thought I had made a mistake and that it wasn’t worth the time investment, but I eventually got through it and liked what the books offered well enough not to regret the experience. I realize that my endorsement there didn’t quite ring as what one might call “stirring” so I’ll start again:

For a thousand years an immortal overlord has ruled the world. The peasant “skaa” population are brutally subjugated while the nobility plays meaningless political games. A small percentage of people are “allomancers,” able to do something cool by consuming one of eight pieces of metal, each granting a different power. Ash falls from the sky, mists churn during the night, and everyone is pretty miserable.

Enter Kelsier: A charismatic skaa thief who’s escaped the Lord Ruler’s labor mines with a plan to overthrow the deified bastard once and for all. To that end he enlists a ragtag crew of his own selection, the most important and newest place on the team held by Vin, a street urchin who, like Kelsier, is an extremely rare “mistborn” with the ability to use all eight of the metals.

It’s a great world and a good set-up, which nicely highlights right away that Sanderson’s two best talents are world building and plotting. His magic system is superbly constructed, and every beat of the story that develops over the next three books is meticulously hammered out, minor details resurfacing to great effect with a lot of semi-expected turns and skillfully-handled reveals.

The trade off: The writing itself is really nothing special and only a handful of characters (Kelsier and Sazed the clear favorites) earn a third dimension.

Yet Sanderson is an earnest storyteller, and his enthusiasm for the world he created does manage to shine through. That goes for a lot, and he manages to imbue an innocence and a truth that makes up for some of the simplicity. Most importantly, I got invested, and my complaints stem mostly from wishing for pure greatness from a story that doesn’t quite get there.

But if you love fantasy, can forgive some of the shortcomings, and appreciate setting and narrative, this trilogy might be worth your time…

…but if you haven’t read the works of George R.R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie, well, no need to settle.

Odds Ever in Your Favor, and All That

It doesn’t take more than a smattering of cultural awareness to realize that The Hunger Games is this year’s first real event movie; the kind of thing everyone at least knows about and most people plan to see, many having done so at midnight premieres (this being the first time my sister has seen a movie at midnight and I haven’t).

I watched it last night, and got exactly what I was expecting: A pretty good, very faithful adaptation of the book. It would have been really bizarre if the movie had ended up as anything else considering the novel is written like a screenplay (Suzanne Collins’ background as a screenwriter didn’t surprise me in the least) that readers don’t put down as much for the fact that it’s insanely easy to get through as for the cliffhanger upon cliffhanger structure of the story.

It’s a not entirely original dystopian future with a totalitarian police state that forces some children to fight to the death every year. You know this by now. You also might hear it compared with Twilight, and while the fandoms do have a good deal of overlap (as the fangirls screaming at the abysmally boring Breaking Dawn Part 2 trailer in my theater last night could attest) and they’re suitable for the same age groups, The Hunger Games trilogy is actually pretty alright, with its teen romance very much secondary to the struggles against the brutal Capitol.

It also has the courtesy not to waste any of your time, but in doing so really fails to build a world that stacks up with some of the other imagined futures out there (Is it unfair to compare Collins to Orwell or Huxley? Okay yes, it probably is.). The film speculates as to the extent of Capitol technology, and manages to overshoot the already-hard-to-swallow genetic engineering of the book to give us instantaneous materialization of living matter. I didn’t quite buy it.

The character work is one of the adaptation’s triumphs, with every bit of potential hinted at in the text realized by the performances of the impressive cast. Literally everyone nails it. I liked Katniss exactly as much as I did in the book, and all the rest of them are far more compelling. It would be worth it for that alone, but the visual and sound design are both exceptional, and save for the unveiling of Katniss and Peeta’s flaming attire (not as stunning as I’d hoped) the world looks and sounds suitably impressive.

The opening act is the probably the strongest, and if every scene had been as incredible as the Reaping I would have fallen completely in love with the film. As it stands we have an adaptation that’s about as successful as it could be, its best and worst points all stemming largely from the source material. This is one blockbuster release where you might as well let yourself get swept up in the excitement.

As someone who thinks each book gets better, I say bring on the franchise and have a Happy Hunger Games.

The Cycle of the Avatar Begins Anew…

Never have I grown so attached to a television show—or indeed, any fictional media that I can recall—as with Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was to me what Star Wars was to kids growing up in the late seventies, and of the two I truly believe Avatar to be superior. I’d go so far as to say it may very well be the best version of the hero’s journey ever told: An earnest, funny, exciting, and all around brilliantly-made series whose creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, combined everything they love about stories both East and West to craft a stunning narrative journey that anyone can enjoy.

Not bad for a Nickelodeon cartoon.

That M. Night Shayamalan was able to so completely extract everything that made it appealing with his theatrically released, live acti0n atrocity is a testament to his astounding incompetence, but that’s a rant for another day. This, happily enough, is a time for celebration.

I (through what might be called illicit means; sorry Viacom) recently viewed the pilot to The Legend of Korra, the hotly-anticipated sequel series to The Last Airbender. To say I had high hopes is, of course, a gross understatement, and I’m thrilled to say that Korra, in its first twenty-two minute episode, shows the potential to be just as gorgeously animated, well written, and all-around wonderful as its predecessor.

Set seventy or so years after the original series, it stars Korra, the waterbending Avatar who succeeds Aang and who I’m very pleased to say has already emerged as a very different sort of protagonist. She’s hugely confident, bold, and eager to live up to her responsibilities as keeper of balance to the world. Where Aang was pacifistic, Korra is confrontational, and her first fight (with some thugs extorting an old man for protection money) is one that she instigates.

Aang was a great center to his show, but the designated hero who struggles with his destiny is never my favorite character. Korra already has the potential to be far more interesting, a fact the creators seem aware of. While the Airbender premiere introduced us to Aang through Katara and Sokka, this time we get Korra’s perspective right off the bat; the two other main characters don’t even show up in this episode.

We do, on the other hand, meet Old Katara (exactly like you’d expect her to be), Aang and Katara’s son and airbending master Tenzin (voiced by JK Simmons, as if I needed another reason to watch), his three kids and pregnant wife (making the airbender count at least four, so clearly the title of the first show was a blatant lie), Toph’s daughter and chief of police Lin Beifong (excessively confrontational, but hopefully they’ll flesh her out).

The two most exciting things about Korra, though, are the setting and the conflict. So many fantasy series don’t bother to advance the technology along with the timeline, but if anything I was surprised how far things in the Avatar world had progressed. Republic City is a thriving metropolis more akin to the sensibilities of the 1920s than the burgeoning steampunk inventions seen in the first show. The absence of the war apparently led to an industrial revolution, introducing automobiles and radio to a world still recognizable as the one viewers loved so much. It’s jarring at first, but I think ultimately we’ll come to love it.

The episode ends with a brief glimpse of the central villain (at least for this first season), Amon, the masked leader of an antibending movement known as the Equalists. Once again Korra goes the opposite route from Airbender, with the hero having to quell a revolution instead of inspire one. That’s what I suspect is the goal anyway, and a bunch of nonbender terrorists sound like fantastic, thought-provoking adversaries who probably have some valid grievances against the way Republic City functions.

The official premiere is less than a month away, and having seen how it all begins I’m more excited than ever. All the trust I had in the creators of this show has only been buoyed by a pilot that skillfully reintroduces the familiar but changed world of the Avatar and sets up a story that has the potential to be as deeply fulfilling as the last.

Enrolling at Greendale

When Community first premiered in 2009 I gave it a shot, thinking it would be the sort of show that I’d gravitate towards.

After several episodes it just wasn’t grabbing me, largely because of something that I would have thought would be a selling point—it was too meta, too acerbically self-aware to allow me to really get close to the characters. Abed in particular would say things I was thinking about the show, and that kind of freaked me out. So I stopped watching, and consequently have spent the past couple of years mildly regretting the decision.

Online I constantly hear about all the bold chances the show takes; the way it layers, builds on itself, and at times seems like an exploration of the very idea of a sitcom and the tropes associated with the entire genre.

I love that idea, and a few episodes (both “Modern Warfares,” the D&D game, the split timelines experiment) have generated so much buzz that I’ve been compelled to check them out. I found them impressive even without being a devoted follower of the series.

So clearly, this was something that deserved another go. Having finally caught up with Doctor Who (my devotion to which I feel will come to define a part of me, as it has so many fans) I figured it seemed like the best time to explore the possibility of catching up with Community

Three episodes in, and I instantly recognize some of the spark that I missed out on before. I cared about the characters, laughed a lot, and actually adored Abed, formerly my main reason for not watching the show at all.

Since there’s no really good way to watch online, I ordered the first two season DVD sets off Amazon, because they’re pretty cheap, the show is perpetually in danger, and it’s been a long time since I’ve bought DVDs of anything.

Community returns to NBC tomorrow, and though I’ll be playing catch-up for quite a while, here’s hoping it finishes strong and, if at all possible, gets that one extra season to finish up the study group’s four years at Greendale.

From this point forward, I’m completely on board.

 

A Journey Unlike any Other

Though I follow the video game industry and stay up to date on the culture, I no longer really play more than a handful of titles a year. Unless I feel something is a must-play, I likely won’t put be willing to put forth the time and money it would take to acquire and see to fruition, but this fortunately has the upside of investing every game I do buy with the sense that I’m embarking on something truly exciting, if only due to how selective I am when it comes to the medium as a whole.

The downloadable game Journey has been on my radar ever since I first saw a screenshot, so I’m very pleased that the timing just so happened to work out in such a way that my PS3 was on hand when it became available earlier today.

It’s a short little jaunt, so I’ve already played it to completion, and I’m happy to report that the first game I’ve seen fit to purchase this year was completely worth the hype, and I suspect will go down as a marker on the road towards realizing the immense potential that interactive media possesses.

The game opens on a vast and gorgeous cel-shaded desert, the immediate surroundings barren save for the thin-limbed, hooded figure you control. After wandering briefly through the dunes an enormous mountain appears in the distance, which you implicitly recognize is your ultimate destination. And onwards you go.

This is a game of exploration and discovery, with simple, satisfying mechanics enabling you to get from place to place. Everything hinges on the sights and sounds, both of which are exemplary. Each new vista could cause some shortness of breath, and a few had me absolutely slack-jawed.

The game’s crowning achievement, though, is how it treats co-op play. Shortly after starting I encountered another, identical traveler. This was another player, our games seamlessly connected online. I don’t know how often it works this well, but my fellow traveler and I very ably went through the rest of the game together, quickly developing what felt like a real bond only through gameplay, since there’s no way to communicate aside from a handy (and practical) chiming sound.

Though we didn’t actually need to interact to progress, we were companions all the same, never straying too far from each other, exploring the world and facing its (few but genuinely terrifying when encountered) dangers. When we reached our destination I wished the other player was physically standing next to me, because frankly I would have liked to give him or her a hug. It’s the best cooperative experience I’ve ever had playing a video game.

Journey doesn’t take much time at all, as it’s very deliberately meant to be played in one go, but that doesn’t make it any less worth anyone’s time or attention. This is a wonderful game, really showing what’s possible with perfectly integrated visual and mechanical game design. Mass Effect 3 may be what everyone is talking about, but frankly I suspect Journey has managed to do a lot more for the medium with a lot less. An utter triumph.

Time, Amis, and Hitchens

And that’s another book that experiments with time completed. Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis is a concise look at a man’s life as viewed in reverse from a passive observer within his head.

It’s a simple but unique conceit that allows for countless sardonic little observations about humanity as, like Memento, it builds to the revelation that the person we’re following has been hiding some thoroughly dark truths about his past.

I’d say it’s worth a look for the reveal of what the book has been about the entire time, and the speaker’s horrible little revelation that things finally make sense (for he never grasps that he’s watching events on rewind, causing the whole world to seem horribly illogical until he confronts something that can only be faced if it were being undone).

I’d rather not be less ambiguous than that.

Coincidentally enough I stopped reading Hitch-22, the memoir of the recently and tragically deceased Christopher Hitchens, to pick up Time’s Arrow right before the exact chapter on Hitchens’ friendship with Amis, a relationship I was totally unaware of.

I therefore got to introduce myself to Amis twice over, and now very much want to seek out some of his other works.

The memoir, by the way, is fantastic. I only regret (for the first time in my life) not listening to the audio book instead. Seventeen hours of Hitchens describing his own experiences is a ridiculously enticing notion.

 

Remember that Time Sarah Palin was Almost Vice President?

There’s something a bit surreal about watching an adaptation of events that I very distinctly remember following when they were actually happening. HBO’s Game Change, chronicling the goings on of the McCain campaign immediately before Sarah Palin was added to the ticket through election night, feels even eerier because of how much real life footage it utilizes.

Obama, Biden, Couric, Blitzer, O’Reilly, Hannity, Cooper, Gingrich, Fey, and others are present in the form of actual clips that I still vividly recalled from 2008. Spliced into the authentic events are Julianne Moore and Ed Harris as Palin and McCain, necessitating that viewers traverse the uncanny valley a bit until it stops being weird that besides the Republican ticket we’re practically watching a documentary.

We chiefly follow events through the eyes of Steve Schmidt, the senior Republican strategist who had a big hand in choosing Palin. Woody Harrelson, as might be expected, is fantastic in the role, a great center to events that come off as entirely believable.

In fact nothing in Game Change really seems like more than a slight exaggeration of what occurred—we have so much of it on record after all, and though the Palins and McCains have said the film is based on a false narrative (as if they could speak to its veracity without actually seeing it, which Palin at least refuses to do) it’s far more telling that Schmidt himself claims the film is accurate, going so far as to call it an “out-of-body experience.”

As such, there wasn’t anything in the movie I didn’t already know or couldn’t have inferred, but it was compelling nonetheless, managing to explain exactly how Palin got chosen and what the fallout would have been like for the people responsible for that decision.

I felt everything was depicted fairly, with McCain in particular coming off as entirely sympathetic, and Palin presented as woman thrust into something she was entirely unprepared for before getting really caught up in her own hype. If anyone doesn’t think that’s what she is, well, I can’t be any more forgiving to her than that.

The most “holy hell this woman came within inches of the White House” sequence might very well have been that of Palin memorizing her answers for the Vice Presidential debate in a thoroughly disturbing riff on the inspirational montage.

And Moore’s Palin watching Fey’s Palin, while bizarre, made the entire thing worth it in and of itself.

So yeah, check out Game Change, and hope that this is forever the story of the closest Sarah Palin ever came to being the world’s most powerful person.