Thursday, November 13, 2014

 Why I Like the Changing Face of the Doctor

I've mentioned before that I'm a big fan of Doctor Who. I've been a fan for over 20 years. I met my husband and most of my friends because I am a fan of Doctor Who, so the series has had a big impact on my life. One of the things I like most about the series, aside from it being science fiction and quintessentially British, is the fact that the actor who plays the Doctor changes fairly regularly. That's a troubling issue for some fans, who become so attached to the current actor that they have trouble adapting to the changes. I've heard of fans who stop watching when a Doctor changes. But the change is what I look forward to, no matter how much I'm enjoying the actor who's currently in the role.

When I was a girl, my family regularly watched the television series Gunsmoke. It was a family tradition. For those not familiar with this series, it was a Western genre series that ran in the US from 1955 to 1975. In that respect it has similarities with the long-running Doctor Who. But for the entire run of the series, the lead character was Marshall Matt Dillon, the marshall of Dodge City, Kansas. The series was also on radio for nine years prior to being adapted for television, and the main character of the radio serial was also Marshall Matt Dillon, though portrayed by a different actor.

Marshall Dillon never retired - at least not permanently. He wasn't killed by some random outlaw, though he came close a few times. He remained the marshall of Dodge City for 20 years. The town doctor was also played by the same actor for the same length of time. During the majority of the tv series run, the Long Branch Saloon was run by Miss Kitty, who was a romantic interest for Dillon. They never married, and never seemed to progress their relationship beyond close friendship.

The point I make in describing Gunsmoke is that it never substantially changed. Every week one could rely on seeing the same familiar faces doing the same things. Marshall Dillon tracked down the bad guys. Doc Adams bandaged gunshot wounds and provided comic relief moments of banter with deputy Festus Haggen. Miss Kitty provided expository dialogue opportunities and worried about the marshall if he got hurt. The characters never grew, they never pursued new opportunities. The town never changed in size or population makeup. The only major changes that ever occured happened in the late 1980s, when the series was revived in the form of several tv-movies.

Doctor Who also has elements that never change. It's always about the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey who travels through time and space in a vehicle that looks like a 1960s British police telephone booth. He's usually accompanied by a young human woman who acts as his platonic companion and a surrogate for the audience. They get into trouble and usually end up saving the day. But every few years the Doctor's companion will change. Sometimes he has more than one traveling companion. Occasionally his companions are males, or the companion might not be originally from Earth. He's even had a few companions who weren't human. Now and again he doesn't have a companion at all for a short period of time.

More importantly, the Doctor himself changes. Typically every three or four years the actor portraying him departs and is replaced by someone else, who is deliberately chosen because he looks entirely different from his predecessor. He may be significantly older or younger, taller or shorter, have a different hair color, speak with a different accent. This new actor is under no obligation to play the role in the same way as the previous performer; in fact, it's encouraged for him to bring new facets to the part. The Doctor may suddenly manifest new talents, skills or interests that he never previously demonstrated. It's possible that in the future the Doctor may even change race or gender. And yet, the audience is expected to accept this new actor as the same person.

The production team also changes periodically, and each new team changes the tone of the series somewhat. Gunsmoke probably had changes in the production team as well, but although some of the more racist and misogynistic elements softened as the series moved into the 1970s, the essential elements never changed. The new producers weren't permitted to have Matt Dillon die or retire, he wasn't allowed to marry Miss Kitty or any other woman. The setting didn't move from Dodge City to some other location. People in Dodge City didn't start buying cars and the town wasn't electrified. The series really didn't acknowledge the passage of time - or the aging of the actors.

Doctor Who has changed with the times more than Gunsmoke ever did. The Doctor has lost his entire species. He's fallen in love with - and lost - one of his companions. In the earlier days of the series he didn't try to change history, but in more recent episodes he's made obvious and significant changes to historical events. He's backtracked over his own timestream. He's encountered his previous and future selves. He's even reached the end of his own lifespan. Some of this malleability is a function of this being a science fiction series about a time traveler, but some of it is also the willingness of the producing network to allow more flexibility, and of the audience to be more accepting of change.

It's this malleability that I like about the series, and the character. I don't want to watch another Gunsmoke populated by essentially static characters. I look forward to seeing what the new actor does with the role, how the actor interacts with new companion characters, what direction the new producers will take the show. Doctor Who has now been on television screens for 30 years. Imagine what sort of programme it would be if it was still what it was when it began in 1963. It would still feature the Doctor as a somewhat irascible old man, perhaps still traveling with his granddaughter and two London schoolteachers. If the series production team hadn't been willing to accept drastic change when original star William Hartnell decided to step down, we'd probably be experiencing what viewers of soap operas often see when an actor leaves and a new person is brought in to play the same role - the actor will still resemble the previous actor, still play the part the same basic way. Each replacement actor for the Doctor would have been another older man, trying to play the Doctor as the same irritable and imperious character. I probably wouldn't be watching Doctor Who any longer if that was the type of series it was. I would have lost interest long ago.

I can understand the desire for beloved entertainments to be changeless, to consistently bring us that familiar character and setting we enjoy. Our lives are full of so much change that it's comforting to know some things don't change. But I firmly believe that if Doctor Who didn't change, it wouldn't have managed to become the longest-running dramatic series in television history. I challenge those viewers who have a hard time accepting when the Doctor changes to realize that this is an essential element of the series, without which it wouldn't be the show that you liked. Give the new Doctor a chance. You might grow to like him even more than you did the previous one.

MOVIE REVIEW: Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer (2013)
Directed by: Bong Joon-ho
Starring: Chris Evans, John Hurt, Ed Harris

Several months ago I saw the limited-release film Snowpiercer. I’ve read that the limited-release situation was due to the distributing studio’s confusion about what to do with it. I can understand to a certain extend why the studio didn't know how to market it: it's a Korean-American joint production, produced primarily in the Czech Republic, based on a French graphic novel. It has elements of dystopian science fiction, and some action scenes, but it's not really a sci-fi film or an action film. Many parts of it reminded me of the sort of surreal, quirky films produced by Terry Gilliam - which is ironic when you realize that the character portrayed by John Hurt is named Gilliam.

But what I really want to talk about here is what the movie made me think about. This is going to require a lot of spoilers, so if you don't want the plot elements spoiled for you, stop reading now.


The basic premise of the film is that to combat global warming, a chemical is released into the upper atmosphere to cool the planet. The technique works all too well, and the entire world is engulfed in a severe ice age that apparently destroys all life. To preserve humanity from extinction, a huge train is developed that can carry thousands of people on a globe-spanning track, smashing its way through ice and snow like a locomotive icebreaker. It runs on a sort of perpetual motion engine so it doesn't need to stop for fuel, and has an enclosed ecosystem to provide all the necessities for the passengers.

The passengers on the train are divided into two classes: those in the front who live in luxury dining on a wide variety of foodstuffs, and those in the rear who live in crowded and horrible conditions, eating only protein bars provided to them by the people in the front. A small group of the rear passengers decide to stage a revolt and take over control of the train. They are led, reluctantly, by Curtis (Chris Evans), who gets a great deal of advice from Gilliam (John Hurt). Curtis's devoted follower is a younger man named Edgar.

In the first third of the film we see armed guards from the front of the train come to count the rear passengers, and then take away some of their children, ostensibly for medical examination. When the father of one boy resists, he's punished by having one of his arms put outside the train until it freezes, then the arm is smashed with a sledgehammer. A few scenes later we see a number of older men who are missing limbs, including Gilliam, and I assumed that they must have been subjected to the same type of punishment.

In the last third of the film, Curtis and his band of rebels have made their way to the front of the train, but only Curtis and two others are left: Namgoong Minsu and his daughter Yona. Namgoong is the man who designed the security gates that separate the train cars. Curtis wants Namgoong to open the last door into the front car of the train, where Curtis will find the train's creator and ruler, Wilford (Ed Harris). While trying to persuade Namgoong to open the last gate, Curtis tells him a story about what happened at the rear of the train when people first boarded seventeen years earlier. The people from the front sent armed men to take all the supplies from the passengers in the rear, leaving a thousand people without food or water. The rear passengers finally resorted to cannibalism to survive. One day when a group of men had killed a woman so they could eat her baby, an old man cut off his own arm so they could eat that instead. The old man was Gilliam. The baby was Edgar, and Curtis was one of the killers.

This scene exposes so many elements of the plot that it's a challenge to describe them all now. First, it reveals Curtis's motivation for revolting against Wilford: he isn't a selfless messiah leading his people to salvation, he's a man with a terrible guilt and shame trying to expiate his sins. This also reveals why he defers so much to Gilliam: Gilliam's sacrifice changed his life. In an earlier scene it is shown that Curtis has a large scar on his right arm, but the cause isn't explained. As Curtis tells Namgoong his story, he reveals that he had attempted but failed to cut off his own arm in imitation of Gilliam's sacrifice. Curtis's story also explains why he is so attached to Edgar, and why it's obviously torture for him to choose when Edgar is taken hostage by the front guards and Curtis must decide whether to rescue Edgar or take advantage of an open gate that will let him get closer to the front of the train.

It wasn't until after I left the theater that I started thinking about the other things Curtis's story exposes about the organization of the train. Clearly, since the armed men from the front took the rear passengers' supplies, the train wasn't originally meant to carry so many people. The passengers at the rear were either allowed to board the train in a last-minute act of compassion, or - this is what I think is more likely - they forced their way onto the train. Wilford and his people must have made a decision to let the rear passengers starve in order to save resources for themselves. When the rear passengers turned to cannibalism and Wilford realized they weren't all going to die, efforts were made to develop the protein bars to feed the extra mouths. The train's carefully designed ecosystem couldn't support producing more of the food items that the people at the front were eating, so they devised a plan in which another source of protein was used for the rear passengers. But the train couldn't be made any bigger, and rather than integrate the rear passengers with the rest of the population, which would probably have caused shortages and conflicts for everyone, the unwelcome additions were left to live in what limited space was available.

As Wilford reveals to Curtis when they finally meet, the entire revolt was engineered as a way to reduce the train's surplus population. Curtis has been Gilliam's patsy all along, his guilt and shame used against him to manipulate him into leading a rebellion that would result in the planned deaths of 74% of his friends and companions from the back of the train. Curtis only sees Wilford's decisions as cruel and inhumane, because he's blinded by his own emotions. He doesn't recognize how torturous these choices must have been for Wilford - just as torturous as his own decision to abandon Edgar so he could get through the gate to the next car, or his final decision to destroy the train in order to set everyone free.

A couple of weeks after I saw the film, I ran across an article asserting that Snowpiercer’s plot contains elements of Gnosticism.  I find the author’s arguments pretty compelling, although I’m not certain the Gnostic influence was a conscious decision on the part of the screenwriter or director. As author Hughes points out, this type of story is also told in other films, like The Matrix and The Truman Show.

Although it may be a challenge to suspend one's disbelief that a train could keep running in such harsh conditions, or that it could support an entire population of people for seventeen years, the social and emotional messages the movie sends overcome the peculiarity of that plot conceit. Snowpiercer made me think, and for that reason, it's a movie worth seeing. And by the way, if you think Chris Evans is just Captain America, this film will make you think again. If I hadn't known he was in this movie before I went to the theater, I might not have recognized him.

BOOK REVIEW: Bitter Night

Title: Bitter Night (Horngate Witches series, book 1)
Author: Diana Pharaoh Francis

I've seen Diana Pharoah Francis at several sf&f conventions in recent years, and found her a good speaker on panels about the craft and business of writing. While listening to her speak about urban fantasy a few days ago, I decided it was time I read one of her books. During the panel, I logged on to Amazon and downloaded the Kindle edition of Bitter Night.

Although Bitter Night doesn't fit the description of urban fantasy given by one of the other panelists because it lacks a detective element, I would classify it as fitting in the urban fantasy genre. It's set in the present day, but features magic and magical creatures. Francis has designed an interesting magic system for her world. In her setting, powerful witches form covens with less powerful witches and claim territories. Each witch has a cadre of magic-enhanced bodyguards. These bodyguards are divided into two groups: Shadowblades, who are vulnerable to sunlight and can only work at night; and Sunspears, who are vulnerable to darkness and can only serve during the day. Each unit of Shadowblades and Sunspears has one person designated the Prime, who commands the rest of the unit. All of the Shadowblades and Sunspears are magically bonded to their witch by compulsion spells, but they must willingly accept the bond.

The main protagonist of Bitter Night is Max, Shadowblade Prime to a witch named Giselle whose territory is centered in Montana. But unlike most Shadowblades and Sunspears, Max hates her witch and constantly thinks about killing Giselle. It's revealed early in the story that Max believes Giselle tricked her into accepting their magical bond, and consequently she thinks of herself as enslaved to Giselle rather than as the witch's willing servant. It quickly became obvious to me that Max's conviction was completely wrong and her obsession with getting revenge on Giselle was foolish. But of course the character doesn't have the benefit of the reader's perspective.

Max is an unusually powerful and tough Shadowblade, her fierceness and strength fueled by her resentment toward Giselle. Other characters seem able to sense this power in her and are attracted to it. I'm beginning to wonder if Max has some magical talent of her own that will be explored in later books. She's also unwilling to recognize just how devoted her Shadowblades are to her, or how much she means to Giselle. In this she reminds me somewhat of Jim Butcher's urban fantasy hero Harry Dresden, who never realizes just how powerful and frightening he is to other people.

Francis provides a lot of conflict and danger for Max to face. Max's world is about to experience a magical apocalypse. The Guardians, god-like beings to whom the witches owe fealty, have decided that humans have depleted too much of the world's magic and it's time to clean house. Max goes through the tortures of the damned - literally - to protect Horngate and Giselle not only from a rival witch but from the Guardians themselves. There's a lot of exciting cinematic action in the story. Max is like an action movie hero, endlessly suffering injuries that would cripple or kill an ordinary person. At least she has her magical enhancements to explain her ability to withstand horrific wounds and keep fighting.

While overall I enjoyed the novel and read it quickly - always a good sign - there were some elements I found a little disappointing. Max encounters another Shadowblade Prime, Alexander, who instantly finds her attractive. When given the opportunity to leave the witch to whom he's bonded and follow Max, he hardly hesitates. Of course he's an extremely attractive man, which smacked a little too much of a romance novel for my taste. The Guardians also have servants referred to as angels, which when described sound an awful lot like anime characters. The two angels who appear in Bitter Night are both defined as masculine and physically muscular, and they wear the sort of clothes I would expect to see such characters wearing in an anime series. It would have been nice if the angels had seemed less human. But I suppose to a certain extent Francis is playing to an audience that enjoys supernatural romance, so the men have to be attractive even if they aren't human.

Despite the drawbacks I've described, I found Bitter Night an enjoyable read and am looking forward to reading the next novel in the series.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

May the Fourth Be With You

Today is May 4, Star Wars Day.  My Facebook and Twitter feeds are full of people commenting on their affection for the Star Wars films (and plenty of people dismissing the three prequel films).  All of this discussion has reminded me of my affection for the original trilogy, especially the very first film (first in terms of release date, not continuity chronology).

I was 17 years old when Star Wars -- A New Hope was released. I first saw it in a theater in another town, with a church youth group.  I was awed, amazed and thrilled by the special effects.  I had never seen anything quite like it, as cliched as it is to say that.  Here were gorgeous spacecraft unlike any I had ever seen before.  Here were robots that looked like they could really exist.  Here were aliens that looked like aliens instead of people.  And of course, being about Luke Skywalker's age myself, I felt an emotional connection to the young hero.  I didn't know about 'Mary Sue' characters in those days, and I didn't find Luke's whining nearly as annoying as I do now.

I didn't know how Luke, Leia, Han and Chewbacca would escape from the garbage compactor.  When Darth Vader killed Ob-Wan I was crushed.  When Luke found that his aunt and uncle had been slain I felt his despair.  When Luke's X-wing made its run down the channel to the exhaust port, I recall that I was gripping the arms of my theater seat the way I would have gripped the sides of an amusement park thrill ride.  This was one of the most exciting, engrossing movies I had ever seen.

I was in love with this movie.  After it made its way to the new twin theater in my home town, I went to see it three more times.on my own.  I purchased the soundtrack on 8-track cassette and listened to it repeatedly as I awaited the release of the second film, wearing headphones in my darkened bedroom or college dorm room as I replayed my memories of the movie in my mind.

Years later, when VHS videotapes became available, I purchased copies of all three of the films and watched them repeatedly.  I never watched The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi as many times as I viewed A New Hope, but I had affection for all of them, an affection that mellowed with time but never completely waned.  I was eager for George Lucas to produce the promised additional films.  Like millions of other fans, I waited decades for him to fulfill that promise.

By the time Lucas finally did follow through and produce more Star Wars films, some of my initial enthusiasm had faded.  I had seen what happened when someone came back to a beloved saga years later.  It wasn't the same.  The Star Trek films had shown me that.  Still, when The Phantom Menace was released, I went to see it with high hopes.  I wasn't as disappointed as many fans of the original trilogy.  I've always been pragmatic about changes to the story.  Twenty-five years had passed, after all.  It was no surprise that George Lucas had changed his mind about some of the details of the universe and characters he had created.  But I came away feeling a bit dissatisfied.  I didn't despise Jar-Jar Binks, but I thought the character was unnecessary.  Why not just let C3PO resume his comedy relief role from the original films, instead of introducing a new character?  I was unimpressed with young Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker. He wasn't a good actor, and Lucas' script had made him too young, so that his later obsessive affection for Padme Amidala was a bit repellent.  I found myself wishing that The Phantom Menace had been a film about Qui-Gon Jinn and young Obi-Wan Kenobi rather than about Anakin.

The next two films continued the trend of making me wish that George Lucas had chosen to make different stories.  Anakin didn't become any more appealing or sympathetic when he was played by Hayden Christiansen.  The once strong and clever Padme became a helpless victim to be pitied when she fell in love with Anakin (I don't object to May-December romance, but Anakin was made to seem like a stalker and it was unconvincing that an 8-year-old boy would become romantically attracted to a teenaged girl).  I wanted to see more of Obi-Wan's story, and more detailed development of Anakin's turn to the Dark Side.  There was just something missing from these movies, something that failed to take me back to the thrill of watching A New Hope over and over when I was younger.  Perhaps no film would have brought me the same emotions that I felt when I watched that film for the first time at age 17, but it would have be nice if the prequels had come a bit closer to that goal.

It's recently been revealed that since Lucas sold the Star Wars property to Disney and JJ Abrams was named to take the reins of a new film series, at least one of the new films will feature the original cast.  Much as I'm happy to see Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford together again, I feel a bit of trepidation about returning to those characters after so many years.  The actors are all in their sixties now, and while I think people over thirty deserve more leading roles in films, I'm uncertain where the story will go. After so many years the characters should have grown and changed.  Will they be allowed to do that, or will the script (and the audience) expect them to behave the same way they did nearly 40 years ago?  If they are allowed to be older people who have lived full lives between the end of Return of the Jedi and the beginning of the first new film, what kind of story will the movie tell?

Despite my concerns, I know that my undying affection for that amazing little movie I saw when I was 17 will make me go to see the new film, at least the first one.  As long as Disney and Abrams treat those beloved characters with respect, I will likely see whatever they care to produce. It's Star Wars, after all.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Movie Review: 47 Ronin

47 Ronin (2013)
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada

When I first saw a trailer for 47 Ronin, I can't say I was super-excited to see the film.  It seemed to me like a movie to see in a matinee rather than pay full price.  Ultimately I didn't see it in a theatre at all.  After having seen it, I now realize that I was completely misled by the trailers.

What the trailers led me to believe I would be seeing was a film in which Keanu Reeves plays a "chosen one" who leads the titular 47 ronin in an epic battle to save feudal Japan from demoniic forces.  But that is not what happens in the film

SPOILER ALERT:  For the remainder of this review I will be discussing the film's plot.  If you haven't seen this film and you want to see it without spoilers, please stop reading now.

This film is not really about Keanu Reeves' character, Kai the half-breed.  It starts out making you think that's what it's about, and the trailers certainly make Kai appear to be the hero, but he's not.  The film begins by showing you Kai's life, but it gives you no opportunity to really get to know him.  You feel sympathy, but not empathy.  Then about a third of the way into the film, the story stops following Kai and starts devoting most of its attention to the ex-samurai Oishi (Hiiroyuki Sanada, Helix, Onmyoji).

Kai and Oishi then join forces to become the film's heroes.  They are not trying to save their world from demons, although there are some otherworldly forces at work.  Their lord was killed by the lord of a neighboring province, who is about to marry the dead lord's daughter.  Kai, Oishi and the other ronin want to rescue the girl and take revenge.  The revenge part of the tale is familiar territory for anyone who has seen some Japanese samurai flicks.  Here it's been populated with some supernatural elements and the somewhat forced inclusion of Reeves.

After Kai and Oishi decide to go and save the girl, there are a more supernatural scenes, including a sudden infodump about Kai's past that seems rather out of place.  Then they gather the rest of their lord's former samurai, now all declared ronin by decree of the shogun,  and go to storm the evil lord's castle in a fairly exciting series of fight scenes.  Kai gets to fight the witch who has been carrying out most of the evil lord's misdeeds, so he can personally save the girl, with whom he's naturally in love.  Sadly that love story is very poorly developed and it's hard to take it seriously.  But someone working on this film must have seen a few samurai movies, because it suddenly swerves back to a more familiar style for this type of film by having a tragic conclusion.  The shogun does not waive punishment for the ronins' transgressions.  Their reward isn't happily ever after, it's to be allowed to honorably commit seppuku instead of being hanged as common criminals.

The first flaw I saw immediately was some bad scriptwriting. The screenwriters needed to learn an adage that many fiction writers have heard over and over:  Show, don't tell.  The film starts out with a lengthy voiceover telling us about Kai's past.  It would have been a much better film if the filmmaker's had filmed that infodump as scenes instead.  It would have integrated Kai into the story better and perhaps made him a character you could empathize with.  Later on in the film when one of the ronin is mortally wounded in an ambush and before he dies he apologizes to Kai for having throne stones at him when they were younger.  If we had seen a brief scene of that character as a child throwing stones at the younger Kai, we would have felt something when the character died, and we would have perhaps been moved by Kai's response to the man's apology.

The second major disappointment comes after Lord Asano dies and Oishi and the other samurai are declared ronin.  Oishi is thrown in a dungeon.  Then we see a title: "One year later."  We learn through later exposition that while Oishi was languishing in prison supposedly having his spirit broken, Kai has been sold into slavery to the Europeans and has been used in a sort of gladiatorial sport that has turned him into a mindless killing machine.  Why couldn't we see any of that onscreen?  A few minutes of Oishi in prison, suffering and trying to maintain his dignity, a few minutes of Kai being forced to fight for his life.  That's all we needed.  I would have much preferred that to scenes of the villain Lord Kira and his witch posturing together.  It would also have been good to see what motivation the witch had for helping Kira steal Lord Asano's territory.  But Kira and the witch were presented as villains who were villains only because the film declared them so.

This article gives some possible explanation as to why the film turned out such an awkward mish-mash.  Sadly someone involved apparently thought that American audiences wouldn't know anything about samurai and wouldn't go to see a movie that didn't have a recognizable American actor in it.  I don't think Keanu Reeves is as terrible an actor as some people do, and I don't think he ruined this film.  He just wasn't given enough to do, and the movie couldn't decide if he was the hero or if the ronin were.

Despite the flaws I described above, the film isn't completely without merit.  The magical effects are quite appealing. Hiroyuki Sanada is excellent at Oishi.  Keanu has a couple of good moments throughout the film. The costumes, while not historically accurate, are quite lovely, especially all the armor.    Even while I was complaining about the narrative awkwardness, I kept feeling there was a kernel of a better movie trying to escape.  It's too bad that studio interference prevented that kernel from sprouting and growing.


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review: Throne of the Crescent Moon

Throne of the Crescent Moon, by Saladin Ahmed

I just finished reading the book, which is a fantasy novel set in a Middle Eastern culture in a locale that sounds very similar to Egypt.  It isn't a long or deep novel, but I enjoyed reading it.  But I couldn't help all the way through feeling a bit like I was reading a roleplaying campaign.  That is not a flaw.

The story follows a small group of characters living in the vast and crowded city of Dhamsawat.  The primary protagonist is Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, an aged ghul hunter who has been at it for decades and is beginning to feel that it is time for him to retire.  He is ably aided in his calling by his assistant Raseed bas Rassed, a Dervish of the Lodge of God.  It wasn't difficult for me to think of D&D character classes that would suit Adoulla and Raseed; Adoulla might be a cleric, or perhaps a wizard, and Raseed could best be described as a lawful good monk with paladin tendencies.  The other characters are a little more difficult to define in D&D-ish terms, but I would probably label Dawoud a sorcerer, Zamia a druid, and Litaz an alchemist (not a stretch, since she's described as such in the story).

Aside from entertaining the gamer in me by evoking such thoughts, the story also entertained by not being set in a medieval Europe analog.  I've read plenty of stories set in places that sound much like Europe or Britain, or occasionally the Roman Empire.  It was nice to read something with a different cultural spin.  Ahmed's writing is full of flavorful phrases that evoke a city of domes and minarets with marketplaces full of exotic spices, silks, gems, and magic talismans that actually work.  Interestingly, there is much reference to religion, a feature often lacking in fantasy unless a character is a priestess or avatar of some deity.  Every character makes reference to the deity of this world on a regular basis.  But despite the clear Arabian Nights feel, this world isn't Islamic, or at least not rigidly Islamic.  There are idols and representational artworks everywhere.

Another feature I enjoyed was the variety of viewpoints used.  Each of the characters I named above serves as viewpoint character at some point in the tale, so the reader gets to know a little about them all.  That style of writing can be frustrating to read if there are too many characters to follow, but here with only five it works nicely. The characters are from two different age groups and several cultural backgrounds, so they provide the reader a window into the world in which Dhamsawat exists, as well as giving different views on the action.

I won't spoil the story by giving any details of the plot.  Suffice to say that Adoulla and his friends must try to save the city from a terrible threat.  They also get embroiled in some political intrigue involving a rebellion against the Khalif, but that is kept to a minimum, which was all right with me as I'm not fond of political intrigue in my fiction reading choices.

On the whole I enjoyed the story a good deal and wouldn't mind if Ahmed decides to write a sequel or another story in the same setting.  If you enjoy fantasy and would like to read something with a different cultural feel, give Throne of the Crescent Moon a read.

A Word on Behalf of Adverbs

I feel compelled to say a few words on behalf of the much-maligned adverb.

I'm currently reading Stephen King's On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft.  Like a number of other writers (including the inimitable Strunk & White), Mr. King abhors the use of adverbs in writing, especially in dialogue attribution.

If you don't remember your grade school grammar lessons (or Schoolhouse Rock), an adverb is a word that modifies a verb, adverb, clause or phrase.  They are usually the words ending in -ly: swiftly, softly, quickly, slowly, angrily, sadly, unflinchingly. Dialogue attribution in writing means the phrases where the writer identifies which character has spoken a line a dialogue: he said, she said.  Many writers like King believe that adverbial dialogue attribution is a Very Bad Thing: "He said angrily", "Joan shouted furiously".  

I am a believer in moderation in all things, and I can see where too much use of adverbs in dialogue attribution can be undesirable.  It's possible to show that he said it angrily by using other descriptive vocabulary instead of stating it as part of the dialogue attribution.  But I also believe that adverbs are part of our language and we should use them sometimes.  They can be the ground black pepper sprinkled judiciously (see what I did there?) on top of our vocabulary salad.

William F. Nolan once commented that if you want to reduce your word count, remove all the adverbs.  But I feel that excising the adverbs will leave your text a bit bland.  I find it rather dull to read a story in which all the characters only say their dialogue and never say it with any kind of flavor.  I intend to keep using adverbs in my writing, now and then, when they seem most effective.

This has been a public service announcement on behalf of adverbs.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Adventures in Adventureland - Catching Up

So last year I had great intentions of documenting our Pathfinder Kingmaker Adventure Path campaign here, but I have fallen woefully behind.  At the time I last posted about it we had taken a break, and now we're taking another one. My intent here is to get this caught up, but because there are 6 months worth of game sessions to catch up on, I'm going to have to make it an abridged update.  Some of the information may not be presented in the correct chronological order.

In the intervening months since the campaign picked up again last August, our party came into possession of a fort that had been taken over by our enemy the Stag Lord, but we wrested it away from him with extreme prejudice - he was actually present and we slaughtered him.  We had also learned that he was really just a figurehead, a puppet being manipulated by Nerissa the necromancer.  Although the fort had an unfortunate field of undead surrounding it, a piece of ground sacred to the goddess of undeath Garona (sp?), we took over the fort and made it ours.  In a hidden room below the semi-ruined fort, we discovered a hill giant named Munguk locked away in a cage.  After he was freed we befriended him.  We found that he wasn't able to stray far from the fort - whatever curse Nerissa had placed on him held him there.  We took advantage of that to give Munguk the task of guarding the fort in our absence.

We also took a chance on using an amulet we had acquired to contact Nerissa herself and let her know we'd slain the Stag Lord and taken the fort.  She warned that she was sending some forces to punish us, but her "punishment' didn't pose a great threat to our party.  We found some new settlers and craftsmen in the area to start rebuilding the fort, which we renamed New Hope and designated our stronghold.

Along with gaining a fort, our party found some worgs that were likely were-worgs, and discovered that a deadly vampire lich who had been imprisoned by the dwarves centuries ago had been released from imprisonment.  This was bad news, but at that point our characters weren't sufficiently powerful to try tracking down the lich.  All we could do was fight against Nerissa's plots and schemes to control the Stolen Lands.

We befriended the lizardfolk living on an island in a large lake in the southern part of the territory we were trying to reclaim, and they in turn gave us access to some extensive dwarven archives they had salvaged from dwarven ruins in the region.  We also aided a local dryad druidess by destroying an evil plant creature that had invaded her territory.  .We recruited all sorts of farmers, loggers, boatbuilders, and carpenters to settle the territory around New Hope and help build its economy.  We also recruited a band of gnome explorers to map the territory and document any threats we should take care of to keep the settlers safe.

One such threat was a group of trolls and cyclopes serving Nerissa, who had occupied an ancient elven ruin.  Our group was able to eliminate the trolls and clear the ruins, which of course was very satisfying for my elf cleric.  Later we had some more trouble with trolls, as well as facing off with an image of Nerissa.

While we were out and about dealing with monsters and menaces, a cleric of Garona settled at Oleg's Fort, the town where our adventures began.  There were reports of people joining the cult, and also of children disappearing.  Investigations revealed that some women had babies that were never seen again.  When a full moon approached that would give this priestess greater power, our party decided to make our move.  But when we tried to destroy the shrine of Garona that had been created outside the town, we were transported to another plane of existence.  It took us a while to get out.  While there we fought against this priestess and her minions, most of whom were under some kind of mental control.  We rescued some children they had kidnapped to use as future cultists.  We also managed to interrupt what we thought was a ceremony to free a lich, though eventually what we learned indicated that the priestess had actually been trying to siphon power from the lich for unknown reasons.

We were met there by a celestial being, who gave us information about a special weapon we would need to reassemble to fight the vampire lich.  After the celestial returned us to Oleg's, we continued our task of clearing dangers from our territory.  In an old mine we fought a huge spider that had a message about the lich in its stomach.  Later we returned to a cave where we had seen what was possibly another necromancer, and realized that the lich had probably been imprisoned in that cave at one point.  My cleric consecrated the cave and established a shrine there.

After all this, our territory and economy had increased enough that Garrick the inquisitor/monk could be declared a duke.  My cleric is now the magister of the dukedom.  A new town has been established, Thorn's End, and both New Hope and Oleg's Fort - now Olegton - have grown.  Olegton includes a bunkhouse especially for our characters where we can relax when we visit there.

But all was not well in the dukedom.  A rival group of adventurers had settled in a nearby existing town, Varnhold, but contact with Varnhold had been lost.  We decided to investigate and explore the possibility of incorporating Varnhold and its surroundings into the dukedom.  In the mountains near Varnhold we found a dragon living in a cave.  We made a deal with the dragon that we wouldn't bother him as long as he didn't take any cattle from the ducal subjects.  We also learned that the dragon had a deal with the vampire lich.  After parting from the dragon we went to Varnhold, where we found all the buildings empty except for spriggans.  The spriggans told us that the lich had taken away all the residents.  A swarm of storm crows swooped over the town daily, apparently looking for more townsfolk or visitors.  Using some personal items we found in the town, we were able to do a 'sending' to some of the missing townsfolk and learned they were being held as slaves at the lich's tower.  All of them were forced to wear slave collars, for which the only key was held by the lich.

As I mentioned above, the game is on hiatus again.  Our GM has had a lot of health issues recently and feels he isn't able to give his best to the game, although he's still with us as a player.  In the meantime another player has offered to GM a new Pathfinder campaign.  Should I decide to document that game here, I'll try to be more regular about it.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Remembering Things We Would Prefer to Forget

Recently a friend drew my attention to this article about the treatment of slavery by Southern plantation tourist attractions and museums.  It brought to mind some thoughts I've had about this and related topics, and I decided to transcribe those thoughts here.

First, while I find slavery abhorrent, believe it has no place in modern society, and am saddened that it still exists in the 21st century, I do not believe we can apologize for or make amends for the slavery white Americans inflicted on black people in the past.  We are not responsible for what our ancestors did.  In the past, slavery was acceptable.  Apologizing for that belief held by people we never knew seems insincere to me.  We can feel regret for what they did, but we cannot feel true remorse or apologize sincerely because we ourselves are not the people who committed the offense.  Resentment over things that happened before any of us were born hinders us from moving forward.  Apologizing, or trying to make amends by setting up memorials, or making films like 12 Years A Slave, just give people an opportunity to think, "It's all right now, I don't have to feel badly about slavery anymore," and then stop thinking about it.

What we should do is remember.  We should remember what slave owners did to slaves.  We should remember so we can avoid doing that again.  We should also remember, as the article points out, that slaves did not simply live in misery all the time.  They had full lives just like everyone else.  Even when they faced being permanently separated from their families, they still had happiness sometimes.  If we assume that their lives were nothing but pain and sorrow we diminish them as people.

We also need to remember that America was not the only country where slavery was practiced.  It has been practiced by almost every major culture in history.  The Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Celts, Chinese - all had slaves.  Many African and Native American tribes practiced slavery.  Slavery has been a common example throughout history of how humans treat the "other", people who are different from themselves.  Different tribes, different cultures, different languages all have given us an excuse to say, "Those people aren't us, they aren't really people.  It's all right to take everything from them and force them to live where we tell them and do what we want them to do, without any compensation." 

Even when it wasn't called slavery, there were still many practices of oppressing and marginalizing other people.  Thralls, serfs, bondsmen, indentured servants - all are forms of slavery, situations where one person gives up freedom, sometimes willingly, most of the time not.  Medieval serfs couldn't decide to move or work for a different lord.  Indentured servants had an opportunity to pay off their debts, but until they were able to earn enough to do that they had no freedom.  Shanghaied sailors were subjected to a form of slavery, kidnapped and forced to work on a ship they had not chosen for little or no wage. Servants in the households of Victorian England might have earned wages, but the restrictions set on them by their employers weren't much better than slavery, and the wages weren't enough to live on.  Factory workers during the 19th century didn't have much better lives than slaves, either.  They didn't have to fear their children or spouses would be sold and sent away, but they had few options for improving their lives.  Even in the 20th century here in the US, mining companies virtually enslaved their miners, forcing them to live in company-owned housing for which they became indebted to the company, and paying them in company currency called 'scrip' that was only good at company-owned stores.  The miners couldn't leave because they were in debt to the company, and they couldn't strike for fear they would be evicted from their homes.  And many women are still enslaved for sexual purposes, deprived of any means of support and blackmailed into cooperation by threats of violence against themselves or their children.  Slavery hasn't gone away, we've just changed its name.

Let's stop wringing our hands over what our ancestors did, and instead remember it and vow to ourselves that we will not allow this to happen again.  Let us not look on those who are different from us as less than ourselves, or unworthy of the same freedom we have.  Let us treat everyone with respect.  Let us fight to prevent others from being enslaved or oppressed.  That is the best response to slavery we can give. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

I Want That, Part One

Apropos of nothing, here are some things I want that I will probably never acquire.  Sigh. Being a materialist is such a disappointment. I don't have a Pinterest account, so this is where they will be immortalized.  Until next month when I find something else I dearly desire but cannot have.

Free People Sargeant wool coat  Can't find this anywhere in a larger size, so I'll never even know if it would fit.  Maybe it didn't come in a larger size. I have actually touched one, but it was an Extra Small.

Or this one, although I'd prefer a longer coat.  Never seen one "in the flesh".
Free People Military wool coat. 

If I can't have that one, I'd take this Alexander McQueen coat..

Completely impractical as a coat, but very smart-looking.
Newport News velvet coat.

Frye Veronica slouch boots  I love Frye boots.  But they are so expensive. 

These are cheaper and probably not bad boots.  But they are difficult to find in my size. 
Steve Madden 'Fairmont' boots.
I actually have a pair of these.  They're are very comfortable. Lucky Brand 'Sweet N Straight' cords  Sadly, I ripped the knee on the first wearing - I snagged a buckle on my boot on the trouser leg (no, the trouser leg did not get caught in my bicycle pump).  The style has been discontinued, so I'll probably just have to patch them and live with my misfortune..

Velvet frock waistcoat / sleeveless dress 
It's pretty.

Well, that's enough of that.  For now.