30 May 2011

Movie review: Thor

One of the best Marvel movie adaptations since Iron Man; Thor sets the bar high in the wake of the other Avengers' origin movies.

It has to be said that my anticipation and expectations of Thor were both fairly high. Thor is my favourite non X-Men Marvel character, and I have a soft spot for Miss Portman. Luckily, I was not disappointed, and I'm now more excited than ever for Joss Whedon's The Avengers.

Thor tells the story of how the titular god of thunder (Chris Hemsworth) disobeys his father Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and seeks vengeance on the Frost Giants of Jotunheim, resulting in him being stripped of his power and banished to Midgard (Earth). There he meets Jane Foster (Portman), an astrophysicist researching inter-dimensional gateways. While on Earth, Thor must earn the right to his power in order to save the Nine Worlds from destruction at the hands of Loki (Tom Hiddleston).

The feel of the Marvel comics on which the movie is based is definitely present throughout Thor. The battle between the Asgardians and the Frost Giants is particularly well executed; the power of Mjolnir is never overused (something I was worried might happen) so we get to see how much of a badass Thor is without him being too powerful.

The best performance of the movie had to come from Hiddleston as Loki. There is something very theatrical about his performance that adds both to the mischievous and sinister sides of this character. Also noteworthy are the Warriors Three: Fangral (Joshua Dallas), Hogan (Tadanobu Asano) and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson). Their camaraderie and banter make for a light hearted but not overly comedic  compliment to the movie.

The only downside is that the movie is unevenly split between Earth and Asgard. Since Thor is an origin story, I would have liked to have seen more of a fully powered Thor on Earth, whereas most of the time was spend on Asgard (though the sets and environments of Thor's homeworld are amazing). It seemed that his screen time on Earth was all too short to develop any proper relationship with Jane Foster, and to demonstrate his power as god of thunder. 

In short, Thor is a well put together origin story that sets the bar high for the following Avengers' movies. It is probably the best Marvel adaptation since Iron Man; with a superb cast and brilliant effects, Thor is definitely one to watch.

25 May 2011

Archaeological Fantasy with A.J. Walker


 How does being an archaeologist affect my writing?

Being a professional archaeologist and a struggling author, I'm often asked how my research affects my writing. I suppose everybody's job affects their writing. Kafka was a bureaucrat, and that certainly affected his writing!

I like my job more than Kafka did, so my books have a more positive outlook on life, despite the fact that my characters go through hell and back to earn that outlook. Our jobs make us look at the world in a certain way, especially a job that trains you to observe like archaeology does.

Archaeology tries to reconstruct the past through its physical remains. This means we get obsessed with objects. I mean, really, really obsessed with objects. How a bracelet is designed can tell you about its origins, the status of the person who wore it, and analyzing the metal can tell you how it was made and where the metal was mined. This, of course, tells you about ancient trade routes. The art on the bracelet may have social or religious significance that tells you about the beliefs of the wearer.

As I write I'm very aware of the objects my characters use and their significance. I'm also aware of the differences in costume and traditions of various peoples. When Kip Itxaron, the goblin heroine of my fantasy novel Roots Run Deep, heads out into the world, she meets a wide range of different peoples. Their houses, clothing, and tools are all different. For example, when she visits the Mountain Cantons high up in an isolated mountain valley, she see a mountain village for the first time.

At the center of the valley, Kip spied a clear lake as blue as the alpine sky. Long wooden piers jutted out onto the water, atop which stood rows of houses with steeply gabled roofs.

This architecture is inspired by the prehistoric lake dwellers of the Alps, who built their houses out over the water in order to preserve the scarce farmland. Further up in the mountains she visits the Lost Tribe of the Goblinkin, who have similar architecture. Their town, however, is built atop stone jetties because they're so high in the mountains there's not enough wood to build piers.

Is all this detail necessary? Much of the knowledge behind it will never be seen by the reader, but it helps build believable cultures. Besides architecture and tools, archaeological training helps you understand how cultures adapt to their surroundings. The mountain Goblinkin, for example, practice polygamy and polyandry. This ensures there will be a next generation in a land where men and women are always dying from avalanches, exposure, and predators. Kip gets in an embarrassing situation because of this.
Kip awoke to the sounds of clattering crockery. Sleep and the warm, naked body beside her beckoned her to return to pleasant dreams of sunny mountains, but the noise continued. Reluctantly, she opened her eyes.A moment later, they popped open wide and she sat straight up.A woman was preparing breakfast at the hearth.The goblin gave Kip an unsurprised look and went back to her cooking.Kip shook Indartsu. He mumbled and turned over. 
“What is it?” he asked in a voice heavy with sleep. 
“Who's that?” Kip demanded. Indartsu opened one eye, then closed it again.
“Emazte, my wife.” 
“Your wife?” 
“Yes, who else?” Kip shook him until he opened his eyes and looked at her. 
“You're married?” 
“You knew that,” Indartsu replied with obvious confusion. 
“How in Hades am I supposed to know that if you didn't tell me?”
Indartsu ran a finger along one of the scars crossing his cheeks. “My marriage scar.” 
“This scar means I'm married. Don't the lowland goblinkin have them?” 
Kip looked over at the woman, baffled. “And your wife doesn't have a problem with this?” 
“Why would she?” 
“You're married!” 
“So? She doesn't mind if I take a second wife. She already has a second husband. That's where she was last night.” 
Kip groaned and fell back into bed.
So the moral of this scene is: be careful what you do in a foreign culture! If you're exploring a fantasy world, it's best to bring an archaeologist along.

About the author
A. J. Walker is an archaeologist, medievalist, and author of Roots Run Deep, a fantasy novel published by Double Dragon. Visit him at his blog for more about his writing and his popular Medieval Mondays series. You can follow him on his Twitter profile.
See all posts by A. J. Walker

21 May 2011

Post apocalyptic fiction and why we love it

Well, it's May 21st and The Rapture has not happened. I bet there are a lot of shame faced uber religious types out there right about now. Be that as it may, it got me thinking about how the idea of Doomsday is such a fascinating subject, and how quite often we tend to think of what happens beyond Doomsday; when Mankind has picked itself up and dusted itself off from the aftermath of the End of Days. This is where post-apocalyptic fiction comes into play.

Don't get me wrong, I'm no connoisseur of the genre; in fact, I've only started getting into post-apocalyptic fiction in the past few months. However, I've allowed the floodgates of awesome to open before me (the floodgates of awesome is a real place, trust me) and I've found a few examples of post apocalyptic fiction in books, movies, TV and video games that show the reasons why the genre is ripe with potential.

The Fallout series (video game)

Made world famous in 2008 with Fallout 3, this series shows the bleak world after a massive nuclear war and the fractured human social structure that attempts to survive in its aftermath. Playing through the game lets you see the utter desolation of the world (known as 'The Wasteland') and how people cling to the remnants of their former civilization. Throw in giant cockroaches and mutants to do battle against, and you've a staple post apocalyptic story right there.

The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell

One of the first post apocalyptic novels I've read, Bell uses the now all too familiar trope of the zombie apocalypse as the setting for his novel. However, Bell doesn't rely on mass zombie feeding scenes or tiresome gorey deaths to show the reader the nature of the world he has created - he does so by showing everything through the eyes of a teenage girl who was born well into the post apocalyptic world. Her experiences, her loneliness and her attempts to connect with other humans are what makes this a great read.

Planet of the Apes (original movie)

I consider this to be a classic post apocalypse movie, made all the more awesome since you don't become aware that it is a post apocalyptic movie until the absolute end (you all know what bit I'm talking about). This was a very cleverly done movie in which the elements of post-apocalyptic fiction were in place desolation and wasteland, an alternate group of 'other survivors' who have to be battled against), but not overt enough to let the viewer not straight away what was really going on.

The Last Train (British TV series)

This one tells of a group of British commuters who are accidentally cryogenically frozen prior to a catastrophic asteroid collision. When they eventually thaw out, they are greeted with a Britain that is plagued by feral dogs and acid rain. This adds in the immediate feeling of unfamiliarity, much like Planet of the Apes, this very much feels like an alien world to the characters in the show. In addition to this setback, there are other survivors who attempt to kill the 'time travellers'.

What links these post apocalyptic stories together? Many themes are different, but what elements remain the same, which run through all stories in the genre? Loneliness and desolation are two of the main features. These new worlds are barren, with very limited resources, which causes a massive amount of internal conflict. Added to this, most post apocalyptic fiction has two distinct groups of 'survivors', both of which are very territorial. This opens the story for a lot of external conflict. It seems that post apocalyptic fiction is so well loved as a genre because it throws humanity into the worst situation it could possibly think of (worse than the end of the world, since they have to live in the aftermath), making their triumph all the sweeter.

If there are any post apocalyptic works you think I should read/watch/play in order to expand my horizons, please let me know. How was your Rapture Day, too?

18 May 2011

Fantasy Art Showcase: Todd Harris

Tune in next Wednesday (25th May) for a guest post by author A.J. Walker, author of Roots Run Deep, publishing by Double Dragon Publishing. A.J. will be writing about how being an archaeologist and Medievalist influences his writing.


Owl Lady
I've not done a fantasy art showcase in a little while so here's some little slices of awesome from Los Angeles based artist Todd Harris.

What strikes me most about Todd's work is the line work, which reminds me a lot of Mark Silvestri (comic artist of Wtichblade fame).  His painting style makes him well suited to the fantasy genre, and I'd love to see his work in a graphic novel or two :) Take a look at some more of his work below (click the images to go to the relevant page on Todd's blog).


Windmill Outpost


16 May 2011

Review - Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick (Tor)


Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick
Published by Tor
Paperback – 384 pages
Published April 2011
Review copy given by Pan Macmillan

Drothe is a Nose, an informant who finds and takes care of trouble inside the criminal organization he’s a part of. He also smuggles imperial relics on the side.
When his boss sends him to Ten Ways to track down who’s been leaning on his organization’s people, Drothe discovers hints of a much bigger mystery. Someone is trying to stir up trouble between lower-level criminal organizations, including the one Drothe belongs to. And there’s a book rumored to contain imperial glimmer (or magic) that a lot of very dangerous people seem to be looking for - including two crime bosses known as the Gray Princes.
When Drothe discovers the book, he finds himself holding a bit of swag that can bring down emperors, shatter the criminal underworld, and unlock forbidden magic…that's if he can survive long enough to use it.

The city of Ildrecca is split into two halves - the Ildrecca of the Emperor and his army, and the Ildrecca of the Kin - a pseudo shadow empire of thieves, murderers and gang bosses. The focus on this less than desirable half of the city lends a breath of fresh air to such stories that are contained within a single city, and Hulick's world has a tonne of potential for expansion in later novels. There is a deep rooted mythology surrounding certain aspects of the city (e.g. The 'Angels' as well as the character of the Emperor himself) that enriches the story and its characters. Hulick's use of 'cant' (the dialect used by the Kin) further serves to created a full bodied tale.

Drothe is a brilliantly crafted character. There is a limited sympathy with him as he is the lackey of one of the 'Upright Men' - the crime bosses in Ildrecca, but his courage and honour allow the reader to identify with him and root for him above all others in the story. Drothe is forced to make the wrong choices for the right reasons, putting himself and the people he cares about in jeopardy in order to do so. To say he is a reluctant hero is an understatement - he flat out refuses to want any part of the goings on around him, yet his desire to do what he believes is right puts him into the firing line constantly.

The interplay between the criminal factions of Ildrecca is well written and east to follow, despite the presence of double and triple crossers. Huclick has you guessing in the right places and gives you enough information to figure out what is really going on at the right times. This is all interwoven with some brilliant action scenes and swordplay. The limited use of 'glimmer' (magic) in Among Thieves is an asset, since magic is both outlawed and dangerous it is rare and reluctantly used.

Among Thieves is the best book of 2011 that I've read to date, and that this is Hulick's debut novel makes it all the more exciting. It is a brilliantly written tale of betrayal, honour and shadowy puppet masters in the criminal underbelly. It will have you gripped from start to finish. I'm putting this in line for my favourite of 2011 already, and it's got my vote for best debut novel I've read so far. Very highly recommended.

10 May 2011

U-Z (The very late A-Z of Fantasy Writing)

I've managed to get a temporary solution to the whole 'dead laptop' thing so I can hopefully get back to posting reviews ASAP. Though I realise that I've failed the A-Z challenge by a hell of a lot, I'm all for making back lost time. So without further ado, I bring you the condensed conclusion of Mithril Wisdom's challenge!!

U is for Ultraviolence - gratuitous use of graphic violence and sexual assault (I'm looking at you, Terry Goodkind)

V is for Verbiage - the tendency for some fantasy authors to bombard the reader with words in order to make their work seem more 'epic' (less is more, people!)

W is for War - A good all out scrap between two armies, or the threat of impending conflict, is a very useful tool to drive the story.

X is for Xenophobia and racism - In fantasy, this is very often divided between the 'northerners' and the 'southerners' if it's used at all. The use of racial types and xenophobia are a good way of enhancing the cultural history of a world, and add conflict too (Glenda Larke's The Last Stormlord excels in this).

Y is for Yeard ( I couldn't resist) - A combination of beard and ponytail, made famous by Terry Goodkind.

Z is for Zombies - Because zombies have become the new vampires in fantasy popularity, and what list would be complete without them!!

That's the A-Z challenge finally done! My apologies for taking way longer than necessary to get it done. In other news, expect reviews of Douglas Hulick's Among Thieves and the new Thor movie very soon!