I’m in the process of finishing up all my Christmas reading and was thinking to myself, “I made some excellent choices this year!”
Books from the list included Pariah by Dan Abnett (early gift to myself), Fear to Tread by James Swallow, Know No Fear by Dan Abnett, a wonderful book on the art and design of The Hobbit movie, the X-Men: Messiah Complex trade paperback, and Priests of Mars by Graham McNeill.
I have a certain bugga-boo about my reading and cannot get through some authors’ words, so I often go back to the same trough again and again. Graham McNeill is no exception here. His contributions to the Horus Heresy series are excellent, commendable works. False Gods hit the nail on the head in witnessing the corruption of the series’ titular character. Fulgrim was a romp in excess and delivered exactly what I wanted to see: a man obsessed with achieving perfection and the path (read: descent) he reaped towards betrayal.
Mr. McNeill also wrote the Horus Heresy account for the actions of the Adeptus Mechanicum on Mars, simply titled Mechanicum. In the world of Warhammer 30,000, he wrote a superb novel about the varying factions on Mars and the priests of the machine cult, showing off divine spirits, taboo techno-automata, and cyber assassins. If you are a fan of the Warhammer 40,000 cult of the Omnissiah, Mechanicum is the novel to read to immerse yourself in their culture and history. Mr. McNeill revisits the cult of the Machine God with his latest work, Priests of Mars.
So does much change in 10,000 years for a cult/religion/culture dedicated to technology, machine-spirits, knowledge, and continued improvement? In a word: no. The world of a techno-priest is much more ordered and hopeful in Mechanicum, in Priests of Mars the servants of the Machine God are in search of technology lost in millennia of conflict and chaos.
Instead of the planet Mars, home of their mechanical religion, Priests of Mars is set on an expedition to the Halo Stars in search of a lost techno-magos. We have an ensemble cast to follow in this novel: the leader of the expedition aboard the super-ship Speranza, a rogue trader captain and his crew with an essential piece of information to the expedition, a few press-ganged serfs to the Mechanicus fleet, a handful of Black Templar space marines, a division of Cadian Imperial Guardsmen, a Legio of Titans and their crew, and an Eldar Farseer with her mind’s eye set on the actions of this expedition. No partridge or pear tree, they were jettisoned out the airlock.
My first critique of the novel is that I couldn’t feel comfortable following one perspective over the other. There’s a handful of Mechanicus priests to follow, the rogue captain, the space marines, the Cadians, the Moderati of the titans, the Eldar Farseer, the poor saps that got press-ganged into shovelling toxic sludge in the belly of the spaceship… I was hoping for a perspective to lock on to and never got it.
But that’s ok because what Mr. McNeill excels at is giving something new and unique to each character. I may not have remembered each of his hard-to-pronounce names, but the imagery of his characters soared over that issue, whether it was the magos with the floating jar-brains, the father/daughter magi-team obsessed with studying astrological bodies, the skitarii-secutor with his fully-augmented battle-body, or the scheming magos with the long cowl and dwarf retinue. Once the self-aware robotic gestalt-entity Galatea entered the mix of techno-brainiacs aboard the Speranza, I silently clapped to myself a little. Mr. McNeill really upped the cybernetic, technological, and sci-fictional ante in a book that is clearly about awesome machines and the madmen that worship them.
The prose in Priests of Mars would do Neal Stephenson proud, it is full of noospheres of data blipping by and tightly-welded cargoholds full of mythos. The creativity on display appeals to both the 40K fanboy who wants to see space marines kicking butt and spraying bolter fire, and also the quiet cyber-dorks who want to hear more about how an ancient ship the size of a continent has a sleeping sentience guarding thousands of years of technological promise. This book is doing its best when it’s showing off something cool like a friendly sparring match between a space marine and a skitarii programmer or when a techno-magos explains to another magos how his plot estimations through the nebulae of the outlying space system are inefficient due to their reading of the information and then swiftly reprograms and calibrates a better plot using math, science, and words I cannot accurately use without spending an obscene amount of time on dictionary.com.
The various characters aren’t deep, nor are they particularly compelling on their own, but the plot moves at a decent clip and shows off plenty of sci-furniture. You do get a dose of the Mars priesthood and the book is swimming in marvels of technology, but I was a little disappointed by the bits that didn’t emphasize them. In particular, the stories of the men who are unlucky enough to be in the wrong bar at the wrong time, only to be forced into space-labor is a completely unique perspective full of toil and conflict. However, I felt this took up too much time and was rushing through those pages to find more of the servos and mecha-dendrites of the actual priests for my reading enjoyment.
My last critique of this book is that it is not finished. This book is reaching towards a finale through all of its pages and does not get there. I wanted to know what happened to the missing magos beyond the Halo Stars, I wanted to know what the Eldar Farseer’s vision was and how her actions affected them, I wanted to see a complete arc of motion from beginning of the exploration, conflict in the middle, and resolution at the end.
Instead, there’s this weak borscht of unresolved revelations, promises to keep moving towards the goal, and not even a message on the last page to stay tuned for the sequel. Graham McNeil and the Black Library pulled this stunt in his Warhammer novel Defenders of Ulthuan in 2007, but failed to supply a follow up until 2011. Well, disappointment from that soured the end of this book as I cried, “Not again! Can Graham McNeill finish one story within a single book?”
I liked Priests of Mars, the scene and scenery really hit it for me, but that lack of an ending was a thorn that I did not enjoy.
Final grade: six and a half hours on dictionary.com
OK, confession time: I might be watching too much television.
In a relatively condensed time period, I have finished two television series through Netflix: The United States of Tara and American Horror Story.
I was reading a completely unrelated review of The Hobbit where a critic of the film said that writers are so much better at creating and opening a story than ending one. It is with professional interest that I contemplate that statement and then think about it in context of those two television series. How well did they end?
If you are not in the know, The United States of Tara is a show about a women, Tara Gregson (portrayed by Toni Collete), and her family dealing with Tara’s living and breathing Dissociative Identity Disorder, or popularly known as having multiple personalities. Tara’s mind is shattered from an early childhood trauma into “alters” that cope for her in times of stress. There’s Buck, a motor-cycle riding, beer-swilling dude on the prowl, “T”, a horny, disrespecting and rebellious teenager, and Alice, the 1950’s housewife that embodies an unrealistic form of domestic perfection that is both comforting and abhorrent.
American Horror Story is a modern take on a classic theme: family moves into a haunted house that acts as a repository of anger, fear, and hate while storing and sometimes releasing the souls of those that have died within. Of course, this family falls apart as the stresses of the house release their worst inner attributes and we get to see, piece by piece, how every family before had been consumed by this magnetic home of death. There’s also the twist of the house’s neighbor, Constance (portrayed by the fabulously creepy Jessica Lange), who used to live in the haunted abode, but knows of every fell deed and ghost within, yet cannot tear herself away from its evil.
So, if writer’s are much better at beginnings than ends, how well did these series start?
USoT develops well thanks to the ensemble cast of the Gregson family and the ensemble of characters within the lead’s psyche. The best parts of an episodes are when Tara becomes an alter to protect herself or protect her family, but the worst parts are when Tara’s alters do something awful to complicate matters or ruin things for her family. The writers (which include Juno’s creator Diablo Cody) do a great job creating interesting characters like Tara’s alters, caring son Marshall, beleaguered husband Max, and Tara’s flaky sister Charmaine. USoT goes three seasons deep, which really follow a pattern of beginning, middle, and end (even if the series creators hadn’t envisioned that kind of symmetry).
American Horror Story is a little less forthcoming with clues, but it operates exactly as you’d suspect by revealing horrors and ghosts before explaining how they became what they are. From the get-go, the Harmon family are falling apart. Vivien recently caught her husband Ben cheating before the move to thier haunted home and just as their intimacy is on the mend, he starts fits of sleepwalking, his former mistress shows up, and a mysterious figure in full body black leather shows up in Vivien’s bed. Their daughter, Violet, begins a friendship with a boy seeing her father for therapy sessions. The boy, Tate, always seems to be in the house (loud and clear hint #1) and has a penchant for violence. Plus, there’s neighbor Jessica Lange doing her best polite bitchiness and meddling. Add disfigured and mangled ghosts from the 30’s, a creepy Frankenstein baby in the basement, and another former resident of the house with half of his body covered in horrific burn scars and you have a great start to a scary story.
How goes the middle of these series?
There gets to be a point in USoT where the viewer leaves Tara’s side. I don’t know if its when her alter T kisses her son’s almost boyfriend, when her alter Buck beats up her husband for breaking up Buck’s relationship with a bar waitress, when Tara becomes a portrait of her four year old self during her sister’s wedding, or the formation of a new alter Bryce, who embodies a step-brother who turns out to be the abuser who shattered Tara’s developing mind. Sometime in the series, the alters take too much of a toll on the family and you want a order restored.
In American Horror Story, we get to learn the background for each ghost, such as Tate’s school shooting rampage (and subsequent death at the hands of the police) and the many abortions performed in the basement by the builder of the home. Even the famous Black Dahlia murder was supposedly performed in this home. Horror after horror is visited, and they’re all pretty great! The grisly, ghouly stuff is much better than the emotional stuff like the Harmon’s marriage slipping away, but its all interconnected. Vivien gets pregnant and the baby (or as it turns out, babies) gives her unbearable pains whenever she leaves the haunted home, which is exactly where she fears to be.
So, how goes the ending? Does it finish well? Are all of its stories tied up? Does it please the audience?
As I was watching the final season of Tara, the best course of action was laid clear multiple times, but the characters around Tara kept putting it off or ignoring the possibility so I had to shout it at the tv several times. “Put her in a hospital!” I shouted. Or, “She needs professional help!!” All the fun of the first season gets drained from the story as her condition wears down the positivity and exuberance of her family. Even the welcome addition of Eddie Izzard to the cast in the third season isn’t enough joy. The story wraps with exactly my own suggestion, Tara commits to committing herself.
American Horror Story wraps everything up in its own way. It would actually reveal too much for my liking to explain how it does so, but each main character gets their story tied off. We’re coming back to American Horror Story in a sec.
Looking back on USoT, I think it was a frustrating watch towards the end, but I got what I wanted out of it. It was interesting to see how Tara’s splintered alters helped her cope with her life, how they screwed things up, and the reactions by family members. Someone in the writing staff must have had someone in their family with this illness or one like it, because its a realistic ride. If the entire show is taken from the perspective of the son Marshall, a developing teen trying to gain a sense of self-identity in the face of his mother’s multiple identities, the show goes from believable naivete that everything is fine to realization that things have to change. Marshall is the most empathetic character and his struggle to know who he is when faced with who he has as a mother is as true an emotional quest that television can show us. Tara’s commitment may have come too late, but I felt it was entirely believable. This series wrapped up pleasantly. The writer/crafter of this ending did so in a way that concluded all arcs and with an audience’s wants and needs in mind.
American Horror Story doesn’t wrap up pleasantly, but the stories conclude correctly. What is curious, however, is how the show’s finale ends. Instead of showing the fate of everyone who has moved into the house, then alluding to the horrors the future might have in store, the show continues in its last episode like the epilogue of an epilogue. We see one more family move in and their reaction to being haunted. We see any and all new ghosts inhabit the house like its a holiday special with the Partridges. This last episode has such a strange and positive ambiance it’s hard to reconcile with the feeling of episodes that precede it. Rather than the grisly, show-no-mercy finale that twists your guts and makes you flinch from all the jump-scares and eerie sound bites, the finale has no punch, no kick. Everything is tied up in a neat little box with wrapping paper like nothing was ever wrong. I was really happy with how the living ended their tale in American Horror Story, but totally nonplussed by how the dead face the ending of this tale. The show ended about forty minutes too soon, someone over-wrote the ending here.
Now, American Horror Story is designed to be a mini-series in its seasons. The current season is about a completely different story line, which is an interesting and fresh idea that I like. I got a little too much ending from its first season, which is odd. Usually you get the sense that something was missing from a series conclusion, but I actually wanted less from the first season.
I want to end the story when the thrill is gone, while leaving only a few buds of a future to come. Tara’s story does that, it ends with a nice arc of completion and a positive acceptance to change. American Horror Story gave me the end, then told me how all the characters would fare, and then showed me hopes and dreams for everyone, except they live in a ghost-life where nothing changes since you’re dead.
All in all, these were great entertainment and decent story crafting. United States of Tara is adult entertainment with hints of the bygone sitcom and American Horror Story is episodic thrills and chills. I do recommend them if they fit your cup of tea.
United States of Tara – 8 personalities sharing one body
American Horror Story – 7 and a half bodies under the porch
(Note to reader: it’s quickly going to get Warhammer 40,000-ey in here. In fact, its going to get Warhammer 30,000-ey in here. If that alarms you, or if you weren’t aware of its existence, please use the side door.)
Something odd happened to me. I know these things can be excused, we are in a recession here in the US, and I did move cross-country in the last year. OK – it wasn’t exactly cross-country, but roughly-a-third-cross country, but I still can’t forgive myself for such a plain oversight.
I missed the release of Dan Abnett’s Know No Fear back in February, 2012.
Yes, I will admit to myself I was not grossly over-excited about my favorite author’s tale about the most exalted and highly decorated (AND MOST BORING) Space Marine chapter of all time, but I still had to read it.
At least it’s written within the Horus Heresy series and those are always a fun read, right? Thinkingaboutit.thinkingaboutit.thinkingaboutit… Yeah, those are always a good read! I mean – I remember that I did read Battle for the Abyss and Descent of Angels had its moments… Yes, its a solid series of positive literature set 10,000 years in the past from a futuristic science fiction setting. Nothing can go wrong there, right?
Well I decided to make up for this and downloaded Know No Fear through the iTunes store to read right away. First, a word about that process. For those of you who have not read the Black Library’s publications through an eReader or other digital version, I have to say that this was an immensely positive experience. This was my first full-length novel in digital format and I was quite impressed and pleased with it. Not only was the download so quick and easy I felt guilty, but the iOS book reader format was incredibly awesome. I found myself highlighting passages, sending them as notes to myself, and switching back and forth between the already-bookmarked Dramatis Personae section of the book (just like I would normally with ink and paper in front of me) like it was second nature. I self-identify as a bibliophile and I found the digital format scary-good. Well done, BL!
Know No Fear is the story of how the year 30,000 version of the Ultramarines came into the universe-shattering conflict known as the Horus Heresy that shapes the world of the year 40,000 (or is 41,000 now?). We finally get a glimpse of the Primarch of Primarchs, Roboute Guilliman, and his legion of legions as they get set to wage war on the behest of newly-appointed Warmaster of Everything, favored son Horus. Yes, of the Heresy-Horus.
Previously in another book in the Horus Heresy series, The First Heretic, we see another of the Space Marine legions, the Word Bearers, get censured by everyone’s leader/father at the hands of the Ultramarines. In the eyes of the Emperor (un-named, but voiced over by Patrick Stewart in my mind), the Word Bearers don’t have the spirit of this whole galaxial crusade down and are dragging their feet in the name of belief and religiosity. Ole’ Emp-y calls on the Ultramarines to torch one of Word Bearer shrine cities as a lesson in time management and that leads the Word Bearers down the trail of shame, denial, resentment, evil, even worse evil, and demonic possession. BUT, that is not this tale. The Word Bearers go bad, worse than bad. They go so far into evil that Stalin would say, “You’re going to do THAT?!?” The Word Bearers find a new set of gods to worship and decide to spread the fun to everyone.
Don’t think they forgot the Ultramarines’s role in their plight. The Ultramarines are the model of efficiency, the best and brightest, and also the most numerous force at the Emperor’s disposal in terms of post-human military might (that’s an Abnett invention there, Space Marines are post-human evolution and don’t forget it). They’re also the furthest away in the galaxy from everything important. So, the evil geniuses that decide to ruin the Emperor’s crusade have to do something about these Ultramarines or their plans will be for naught. The story begins at the planet Calth, where Horus wants the vast majority of the Ultramarines to team up with a force of Word Bearers to eliminate some alien threat on that side of the galaxy.
The format of this book is absolute pinpoint precision, lemme say. Abnett does some of his best planning and mapping out in a novel that I’ve read in some time here. From the beginning, he tells you something you already know: the Word Bearers are going to betray everyone. The chapters leading to this event are titled by a freekin’ countdown clock and you’re still in shock by the events. You know the betrayal is coming, you know that evil is going to have its day, and you know that people are going to die. But he still hits you with the SCALE and SCOPE of it all.
For those of you who know the latest generation of Battlefield video games, you know that creating realistic artificial destruction is an art that is being perfected and executed for entertainment. Know No Fear is the friggin’ Mona Lisa of disasters. Goodbye, Michael Bay & Roland Emerich, your reign is over. I am crowning Dan Abnett as the King of Disasters. He ruins the planet Calth in an unrelenting fury of orbital bombardment, irradiation, demonic summoning, and plummeting space craft. PLUMMETING SPACE CRAFT. It is raining Star Destroyers on Calth and I don’t even think that’s hyperbole.
The story is good, the action – as always – is fantastic. My favorite character, when it isn’t the Primarch, turned out to be the skitarii leader with the faulty optics and an even better dead-pan sense of humor than the usually dull post-human space marines. When a cyborg and a space marine are having a conversation and the robot says, “I dunno, we usually say it in binary and keep it to ourselves,” you’ve GOT to be having a great time!!
Mr. Abnett does the series and the entire Games Workshop brand proud with his efficient and enjoyable Ultramarines. He keeps them human enough with his varying viewpoints and characters while also maintaining their post-humanness in a way that few other authors can, which is great.
Also, there’s a scene that matches the cover of the book EXACTLY! Did you purchase, or withhold from purchasing, this novel because you wanted open-void Space Marine hand-to-hand combat? Know No Fear, friend, that event is just an eventuality.
This book rates 9 and a half Star Destroyers dropped on the surface of Calth.
I love, and emphatically repeat the word love, J.R.R. Tolkien’s books and world of Middle-Earth. They shaped and molded my imagination when I was twelve, awkward and completely unsettled as a human being. I absorbed them: Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and Silmarillion whole. I never went on a family vacation for many years without one volume or the other.
And so, I waited until I saw The Hobbit for the third time before sharing my thoughts on the movie. My sister, best mate, and girlfriend all agreed with me en toto about the film. We thought it was beautifully brilliant, an entertaining film, and completely in line for what we were expecting for this adaptation from Mr. Peter Jackson. I am an unapologetic Jackson fan. The man makes what I want to see.
So, why was I hearing and seeing awful reviews and absolute pans of the movie all over the place? Reviews from the Atlantic and Denver Post were abysmal (the Post gave out 1/2 star out of 4!) and general consensus was that reviewers were not impressed. My sister and I were concerned. Sure, people like us (read: nerds) were going to flock to it, but would the rest of the country like it? Would the franchise suffer backlash? Would New Zealand’s GDP crash after such a glitzy gamble?
So I went today to the movies with this in mind: what’s wrong with this movie? Why did the Hobbit, which I will acclaim higher than Fellowship of the Ring as it is the originator/patriarch/alpha centauri of nearly all that is the Fantasy genre, Dungeons & Dragons, role-playing games, video games and the like – why did the Hobbit not receive world-wide praise?
Observation One: this is an awful preview season. Is EVERY movie in 2013 going to be about the world ending and rebuilding on an abandoned Earth? After seeing the coming attractions for Stark Trek: Into Darkness, After Earth, Oblivion (starring Tom Cruise as Jack Verb-er, sheesh), and Pacific Rim, my cousin turned to me in the theater and said, “I don’t think they want us to live on Earth any longer…”
Seems the only thing the Mayans affected was Hollywood.
So I’m trying to analyze The Hobbit. The beginning has all the same great music, Shire appeal, rich palette, and adventurous panache I’ve come to expect. I love everything about the first ten minutes of the movie. The backstory of Erebor, Smaug, and Thorin Oakenshield is rich, unexpected, and particularly well done. The dwarfs arriving at Bilbo’s house? Giddy. The conference of Thorin & Company plus Burgler and some dwarf-dirging? Lovely. I’m especially impressed with how well they’ve mixed in the Tolkien songs (which I admit to skipping over while re-reading as I am particularly unmelodious) and creating this haunting dirge that plays over and over and over in my head like chippy 80’s pop songs often do.
In comes the walking. I like it. New Zealand needs it. But there’s a lot of walking. It can’t be an epic Middle-Earth movie now without fifteen different scenes of a group of people crossing a mountainous prairie, but I still forgive these. I like looking at New Zealand and counting off in my head, “OK, that one’s Kili, Bifur, Bofur, Gloin, Ori, Dori…” It works for the fan, maybe not everyone else. I accept a 1/2 point loss for these on the review scales.
Then there’s the problem of the dwarfs themselves. How many people have difficulty recalling the Seven Dwarves of Snow White? And those are at least English names with corresponding states of being – not 13 rhyming names of Tolkien’s own linguistic origin. Non-book readers won’t get the dwarfs’ names, figure out who was who, nor which ones they liked most and least. I could tell you each of their occupations… what a damnable nerd. (Aside: poor Nori has one line in the whole film! Bifur at least has the ax-blade wedged in his skull to differentiate him as the “weird dwarf”) That was going to be an issue ANY adaptation of The Hobbit, let alone this adaptation. I cannot accept loss of points/stars here.
But then I came upon the film’s over-arching problem in its last hour: CGI.
Amazing and breakthrough things have accrued through the development and production of Peter Jackson’s interpretations of Tolkien’s books. Whole systems and software were created that made these movies as possible and successful as they’ve been. Gollum is more life-like a character than anything Hayden Christensen has ever attempted (including any meals he’s tried to order, awkward teenage experiences, or awful family gatherings he’s had). The three trolls (Bert, William, and Tom) are wonderfully warped & dim and their interaction as humorous and comical as I wanted it to be without going over a line.
The real problem is when the main characters, fourteen of them, are running through a completely CGI wooden shanty town fighting off 7,419 pale, grubby goblins. For twelve minutes. With little to no dialogue except for battle grunts.
The twelve year old in me loves dwarf on goblin violence. OK, I lied. The twenty-nine year old in me loves dwarf on goblin violence, too, but it can get old, repetitive and over-engrossed. Not only are you asked to suspend disbelief over a fantasy setting with dwarfs, goblins, wizards, and hobbits, but then asked to do so again for thrilling chase stunts where the heroes time perfect leaps, defend themselves without loss while on the run, smash arrows out of the air with their swords, and survive ramshackle avalanches of debris. All made in post-production after the actors staged it in front of that ugly shade of green. Loss of a full point for leaning too heavily on the CGI crutch.
Now, if there was one bone for me to pick, and I had this problem from the first viewing, its the “main” bad guy in this film, Azog the Defiler. What a smooth, albino mess of CGI. I fear nothing about this bozo orc because I see no cunning or emotion, just a fourteen year old geek’s very descriptive essay on the most awesome bad guy ever (Never mind the fact that this is Thorin’s cousin Dain’s nemesis, not Thorin’s. Nor do I care now[I did get “miffed” initially] about Azog and Thorin’s very protracted duel in the film’s climax). Somehow they goofed on this guy when they already had wonderfully done Gollums, Trolls, Balrogs, Nazgul, Eagles, and Ents. But that’s only one poorly done monster out of …..300?
This film is at its best when the camera is directed at the wondrous weapons, armor, props, sets, hairdos (even the fake ones for the dwarf ponies), and food that were created and crafted by hand for this movie. Every detail is pain-staked and exquisite.
When CGI is called for to recreate a thousand rushing goblins and twirling dwarf fighters, the movie suffers. A bit. Not 1/2 a star outta 4, but a bit.
It’s a great movie. I’m waiting for the next two and already loving everything about them.
Seriously, I would watch Gollum fishing for eyeless trout underground in the dark for days on end rather than watch Hayden Christensen give me money.