Of Great Houses, Power Crystals and the ability to speak ‘cat’

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Jim Butcher is an American best-selling author, best known for his long-running Dresden Files series of contemporary fantasy/ mystery novels. He’s written one book a year for the past 15 years and they keep popping up whenever I browse Amazon for best-selling books in scifi/ fantasy. I haven’t read a single one as I have no interest in the sub-genre, but I’ve always wished to read one of his books, as surely someone with so much success must be a good writer.

Well, my wish has now been fulfilled because Mr. Butcher has started on a steampunk series and the first entry The Aeronaut’s Windlass was published a few months ago.

Steampunk is one of my favourite scifi sub-genres – a type of alternate history set in Victorian or pre-Victorian times, but with advanced mechanical automation and technology.

There are also steampunk novels that are not set in our world, like Alastair Reynolds’ Terminal World which is set on a Mars of the far future where some societies are operating at steampunk tech level. The Aeronaut’s Windlass is similarly set in an unnamed world where instead of nations, we have spires that tower for miles over a misty surface.

The story centres on two warring spires, Spire Albion and Spire Aurora. Albion, as the name suggests is an analog of Great Britain and Aurora stands in for Spain. Spire Albion’s society is identical to that of feudal Britain. Members of high society belong to any number of Great Houses with their own pecking order, Houses Lancaster and Astor being among the richest and most powerful. The Spire is ruled by a Spirearch, the current ruler being His Majesty Addison Orson Magnus Jeremiah Albion.

So far, so normal. Now come the interesting bits.

While gunpowder was the source of power in our world, it’s crystals in this world. Giant crystals tethered inside airships help them levitate and create a protective force field called a shroud. Smaller crystals are used to power ‘light cannons’ on the ships and even smaller ones placed in hand gauntlets allow the wearer to fire blasts of energy in battle. The crystals are grown over several years and are very precious. A destroyed or damaged crystal means a tangible reduction in the Spire’s firepower until a new one of similar size is ready for use.

Another interesting element is that meat is grown in vats and there are ‘vatteries’ all over the spire to provide food for the populace.

Now it gets weirder. Cats occupy a very special place in Spire society. They are very few in number, are as intelligent as the humans and have organized themselves into Clans, some of which are aligned with the Great Houses. Since the cats are generally aloof and arrogant, they are not particularly liked by the general public. A very select group of humans have the ability to speak Cat and are therefore held in very high regard by the Cat Clans but are treated with some degree of hostility and distrust by other people.

While this sort of plot element could easily push a story into the realm of farce, Mr. Butcher keeps it all very straight-faced. When fantasy and scifi authors build imaginary worlds, they run the risk of going into excruciating detail and boring the reader to death, or keeping it too superficial and therefore straining credibility. I’ve only read a quarter of the book so far, but I like the way the layers of this world are being peeled away in every chapter; it’s the sort of journey of discovery I enjoy when reading a book.

The characters are a mixed bag. The humans are rather stereotypical – feisty noblewomen, spoilt rich noblemen, heroic rich noblemen, brave and dedicated ship captains.

Fortunately, the cats make things interesting. Well actually, there’s only one that’s appeared so far. I became an immediate fan of Rowl, the heir apparent of House Silent Paws. He suffers no fools and fiercely protects his ward, the human Bridget, who comes from one of the poorer Houses, Tagwynn (Rowl lovingly calls her ‘Littlemouse’). Bridget and the impetuous Gwendolyn from House Lancaster are both in training at the Spirearch’s Guard, the elite force that defends Spire Albion from Auroran attack. The two ladies become good friends and have to deal with the usual mix of friendships and rivalries that emerge in these situations (think of Top Gun or The Officer and a Gentleman).

The two most boring characters are the captain and the XO of an Albion merchant ship called the Predator – Messrs. Grimm and Creedy. I literally cannot sit through any part of the book when the two of them are together on the ship. Grimm is serious, Creedy is earnest and it’s just impossible to describe how boring it is when two such men speak to each other, even in the heat of battle. I hope to God the heroic guy on the cover of the book doesn’t turn out to be Grimm. That would crush me.

Keeping the cats company on the interesting end of the scale are the etherealists (sort of like wizards). One of them, Efferus Effrenus Ferus is hilarious; think Dumbledore on weed…lots of weed.

At the quarter-way point in the book, things are just warming up. There are some mysterious and dangerous creatures living in the hidden depths of the spires. There are a few people who are called warriorborn, who Rowl refers to as ‘half souls’. I am looking forward to the reveals on these as the story progresses, provided I can get past the boring Grimm-Creedy bits!

The Aeronaut’s Windlass was a 2015 Goodreads Choice Awards Nominee in the Fantasy category. The second book The Olympian Affair is likely to be released in early 2017.


Deadpool hits the sweet spot between comic and graphic

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In the 15 or so years since Fox’s X-Men made superheroes into big box office business, we have had more than 30 Marvel films and about 10 from rival DC. Most of us refer to them as ‘comic book movies’, but the discerning fan (ahem!) would say that they are ‘graphic novel adaptations’. While comic books refer to slim periodicals with serialized storylines, graphic novels are generally thicker publications with epic, self-contained stories. It can also be implied that graphic novels are targeted at older audiences and therefore contain more sex and violence compared to the weekly comic periodicals, although those lines are quite blurred these days.

If one were to draw the same parallels on the big screen, then indeed most of the Marvel films so far have been ‘comic book movies’, designed for family viewing with appropriate doses of humor, as in the case of The Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man. Others like the X-Men films and the DC Comics Batman films directed by Chris Nolan have been fairly grim and intense, but without any blood or gore. The only R-rated superhero films so far have been the two Punisher movies in 2004 and 2008, both of which sank without a trace…the relentless darkness and violence severely limiting their box office potential.

So, it’s really quite remarkable that we have today an R-rated superhero film Deadpool, which has hit the sweet spot between comedy (mostly in the form of profanity) and graphic violence. I just finished watching it and while it’s mostly entertaining, I think the real credit for its record opening weekend should go to the marketing department at Fox. For several months now, some smart people at Fox have been churning out everything from posters to public service messages to introduce this cult character to a wider audience. This ‘Touch Yourself Tonight‘ PSA video on testicular cancer is particularly funny.

As a result, awareness of the movie was sky-high and has led to this monster box office success. Reynolds is perfectly cast as Deadpool and he must be feeling very vindicated as this is a film that he has personally campaigned over several years to get made. His first outing as Deadpool in X-Men Origins: Wolverine wasn’t particularly successful and then he starred in the disastrous Green Lantern DC Comics film two years later. At that point, his superhero career must have appeared done and dusted. But a leaked test reel for Deadpool scored such high acclaim for its perfect combination of action and humor that the studio decided to take the plunge.

The end product is pretty entertaining, but is very dependent on humor and action to keep the momentum going. The extended opening action act which runs for quite a bit of time (as it is interspersed with flashbacks) is genuinely brilliant and you’re pretty much hooked from that point on. Serious scenes, whether they are of Reynolds with his love interest (played by Morena Baccarin) or of Reynolds’ torture by nemesis Ajax (played by English actor Ed Skrein), seem to run out of steam very quickly. The script writers cleverly use humor as a tool to patch up holes in the plot or get through a corny scene; just get Deadpool to break the fourth wall and admit to the audience how lame it is!

Overall, definitely worth watching if you don’t mind profanity and violence, mixed in with superb action choreography. Maximum effort!

Of course, you should stay back for the post-credits stinger. Hint – it’s an homage to a post-credits scene from a beloved 1980’s movie!

Feeling good about second chances: Begin Again, Music and Lyrics, The Rewrite

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Yesterday I watched two very similar dramedies, both set in the entertainment industry. Combined with a third that I had seen a few years earlier, they could form a loose triple-header strung together on the common theme of feel-good films about second chances.

The films are Begin Again from award-winning Irish director John Carney and two Hugh Grant films –Music and Lyrics and The Rewrite – directed by his long-time collaborator Marc Lawrence.

All three have a formulaic storyline of an entertainment industry whiz kid fallen on hard times. He has hit a creative roadblock and is no longer in demand. His personal relationships are as troubled as his art and he must now go back to the basics to get his life back on track. A chance meeting with a bright but unsettled younger talent helps him rediscover his passion and connect with himself as a person.

The best of the three is Begin Again (2013). This is because the two leads – Mark Ruffalo and Keira Knightley – are top class actors who bring their A-game to every film they act in, be it epic or intimate, dramatic or comedic. The supporting cast of James Corden, Hailee Steinfeld and Catherine Keener act like real people and are relatable and engaging. There’s the additional joy of seeing music industry icons Adam Levine, Mos Def and Cee Lo Green in various significant roles. John Carney is clearly a director who can bring the best out of actors and non-actors alike. Mr. Carney made waves in 2007 with the musically-themed drama Once, which went on to win an Oscar for Best Song. So, it comes as no surprise that the songs in this film (performed by Adam Levine and Keira Knightley) are also genuinely good. One of the songs, Lost Stars received an Oscar nomination for Best Song. I also loved Ruffalo’s 1963 Jaguar Mark X; I’d love to drive around town in one of those!

The two Hugh Grant-Marc Lawrence films are not in the same league, but sail along on the strength of Grant’s charm, his chemistry with his female leads and some interesting/ eccentric characters providing comic relief.

In Music and Lyrics (2007), Hugh Grant plays one-half of a successful 1980’s pop duo called PoP! (yes, it’s a send up of Wham!), now bereft of work. He takes on a song-writing job for an up-and-coming teenage pop singer Cora Corman (played by Haley Bennett in her acting and singing debut). Afflicted by writer’s block and running out of time, Grant discovers that his temporary housekeeper (Drew Barrymore) has studied creative writing and seems to have a knack for writing pop lyrics. As is normal with romantic comedies, the two fall in love, then come into conflict and eventually reconcile to a happy ending. As in the case of Begin Again, the film had some unexpectedly catchy songs, including Way Back Into Love, performed in the film by Grant and Barrymore and then again by Bennett in concert. All credit to Hugh Grant for singing those songs in spite of his limited vocal range (though not as painful as listening to Pierce Brosnan singing in Mamma Mia!); Hollywood actors have yet to discover the Indian film industry’s solution of playback singing.

Seven years later, Grant reunited with director Marc Lawrence for The Rewrite, which repeats the same formula, this time with Grant playing a washed up Hollywood script writer who takes up a teaching job at a university to pay the bills. Marisa Tomei is the accidental love interest who helps him rediscover both the joys of writing and some much-needed humility. Ironically, for a movie about script writing, this movie’s screenplay is rather shallow and I almost switched off after 20 minutes. Eventually, the actors themselves save the film, Besides Grant and Tomei, seasoned character actors J.K. Simmons and Allison Janney liven things up as senior faculty members and former Australian soap star Bella Heathcote has an interesting role as a student who competes with Tomei for Grant’s attention.

Of course, all these films pander to the male fantasy of having an attractive young woman who looks up to the middle-aged man and cares enough to both inspire and challenge him; a change from his existing relationships where the give-and-take seems to have fossilized. From that perspective, Begin Again avoided the cliché of a romantic hook-up; there is a brief moment towards the end when this seems possible, but better sense prevails and the characters stay good friends. Several years ago, Mr. Holland’s Opus explored a similar relationship between Mr. Holland (Richard Dreyfuss) and his charismatic, talented music student.

Regardless, these movies do give us some insights into the entertainment industry and the creative process. And more importantly, these guilty pleasures with their charming leads, catchy tunes and light comedy provide enjoyable escapist entertainment (Hugh Grant’s character from The Rewrite would tell you that last bit’s an alliteration).