Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Author versus Text - Sergei Lukyanenko

It seems that I've been thrust into this topic once again. Only five days after my post on how to handle issues involving Ender's Game and other fiction by authors I tend to find disagreeable due to their political outlook, I've run headlong into the wall of another famous and (once-)respected author having made a series of political statements that have landed him on my personal shit-list. While I had been able to avoid too much trouble in the past, with most of the authors I've read not actually turning out to be horrible individuals, this one's a bit more personal as it's not only an author whose work I've avidly read, but one who I count as a personal favourite, that being Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko.

While I've fallen out of love with it in recent years, I did once have a strong adoration for the now rather overexposed contemporary fantasy genre. Also referred to as urban fantasy, the idea of contemporary fantasy is that it's a fantastical story of magic and wizardry and monsters that nonetheless takes place in a relatively contemporary and modern-day setting. It's a genre that has in recent years become a lot more popular, with a trend that arguably began with a mix of Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake novels, the World of Darkness role-playing games from White Wolf Publishing, and of course Joss Whedon's far more popular Buffy the Vampire Slayer television series. Recent years have seen a dramatic increase in the number of urban fantasy series out there, and you should find a half-dozen different series on the shelves of your local library or bookshop.

And one of my absolute favourite examples is and always will be Lukyanenko's own Night Watch, which was first published in 1998, and later translated to English in 2004-2006.

I originally dismissed it as being little more than a rip-off of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter, largely because that was how it was being marketed. That was a decision which I later regretted because I discovered upon reading that it had very little to do with Harry Potter. Beyond the surface similarity of being about secretive modern-day magicians, and the fact that there's an owl in the story, there basically isn't anything that would link it to J.K. Rowling's story in terms of tone and style. It was a dark, gripping and beautifully-written novel which explored the secretive and mythical worlds while evoking an extremely different and unique sense of awe from me.

The world presented was one caught in a state of undeclared conflict, with secretive and mythically powerful beings called 'Others' who existed in a precarious and uneasy state of balance divided between the forces of Light and Darkness. To enforce this balance two organisations were created, one for each side so that they could police the actions of their immediate opposites. The Dark created an organisation by the name of the Day Watch, and the Light created the eponymous Night Watch. The protagonist of the story, Anton, is a light magician working as a member of the Night Watch, who winds up embroiled in a complex and nuanced conflict that explores the idea of 'balance' and what that actually means.

It's probably one of the best urban fantasy stories I've ever read, and it now pains me to admit that I can no longer bring myself to recommend it.

Sergei Lukyanenko has been quoted as making severely odious remarks with regards to recent political issues in Eastern Europe. While I won't be repeating those here, and you can likely find them on the internet somewhere, they're enough that I cannot bring myself to recommend these novels any more as they are written by someone whose views are too incompatible with my own sense of ethics and morality. I won't begrudge those who perhaps seek the novel out despite my words here, partly because its quality still ranks it as one of the all-time greats of fantasy, but I personally will not buy or read any more of his novels. For all of their quality, I can't justify it to myself to support or fund his views even indirectly.

I sincerely hope that this topic doesn't turn into a regular feature.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Politics in Fiction - Impossible to Avoid?

Recently I've spent some time attempting to avoid certain areas of real-world politics in some of my online discourse, partly so as to avoid alienating my potential audience. I had been criticised a little for some of my overly specific political statements, and the fact that I do come off as pretty biased, so I've been putting a lot of thought into whether it's possible to fully avoid the discussion of political issues and therefore also the controversy that comes along with them. As this blog is primarily dedicated to editorials and reviews centred around science fiction and fantasy works, along with closely related genres that I haven't gotten around to reviewing just yet, I'm going to make that a bit more specific; this will be about the discussion of politics specifically within those fields.

It occurs to me right off the bat that a lot of the greatest and most enduring works of science fiction and fantasy have at least some form of contentious political statement. For one instance, the ideas presented in JRR Tolkien's highly iconic The Lord of the Rings speak to an old fashioned pastoral and environmentalist outlook. The villains in that story are heavily industrialised empires whose actions are slowly destroying and consuming the ancient and beautiful forests and wilderness of Middle-Earth, transforming it into little more than the brutal machinery of war and destruction. Similarly Foundation by Isaac Asimov is largely about the political manoeuvring of the collapsing Galactic Empire, and the attempts by the eponymous organisation to manipulate the galaxy into forming a new and stronger empire upon the ruins of the old. And of course the most famous works of speculative fiction that most commonly get to be counted as outright classics of literature, such as Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four, Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, are largely built upon a strongly political platform that has in fact earned its own genre label of 'dystopia'.

Big Brother is a nosy bastard

In fact, Nineteen Eighty-Four has strongly shaped real-world political discussions, with accusations of overly-invasive surveillance being likened to the actions of the totalitarian government within that story.

Even young adult and children's fiction tends to have at least some form of political edge, with a famously duelling pair of stories being the His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman and The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis that explore the influence of religion and faith from opposite angles. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight, whatever else you might think of it or its various messages, carries undeniable messages that advocate abstinence and oppose the idea of terminating a pregnancy even in cases where it threatens the life of the mother. The most famous and lucrative young adult novel series of all time, that of course being JK Rowling's Harry Potter, has several very strong things to say against the ideas of governmental corruption, middle-class boarding schools and of course the racist ideas that inform the actions of the villains.

There are many more examples I could list, but I think the point has been made. Almost all of the literature which is in some way relevant to my reviews and opinion pieces happens to have at least a moderate political presence. Is it therefore at all possible to properly discuss these stories without at least acknowledging the various politics involved? And even if it is, should it be done?

I personally don't think so, in either case. In the case of most stories with a political message of some kind, massaging over that political message in favour of simply discussing whether or not the story is well told might well be something of a recurring mistake that I've been making with my own reviews. The messages contained within a given text are at least as important as the story and plot, and the fact is that most subtext is very strongly laced with the moral and political outlooks of the author. Some of course might disagree, and say that the text should exist in something of a vacuum, but I've always held that context is highly important when it comes to overall analysis and judgement thereof.

And to ignore the politics of a work is perhaps, on some level, a disservice to the work itself. To ignore the parts of a work which might be politically controversial is, perhaps, to ignore the parts which most exemplify it as unique.

Perhaps I need to undergo something of a revision when it comes to my reviewing style, and start engaging with the contentious aspects of certain novels a little more.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Review: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again (1937)

As you may have noticed, film and television has over the past decade or so has had a massive influx of big budget fantasy ranging from the very good to the very bad. What most of them happen to have in common however is that they're all adapted from fantasy literature, with Game of Thrones, Harry Potter and of course The Chronicles of Narnia being amongst the most famous.

But there can be no doubt as to what the biggest possible titles are; The Lord of the Rings and its prequel trilogy The Hobbit. They are of course based on the stories of the same name by J.R.R. Tolkien, which told of a fantastical world inhabited by elves, goblins, wizards, dwarves, dragons, and of course the eponymous creatures of the novel I'll be reviewing today. Collectively they tell the story of an ancient conflict rekindled, where the fate of the world hangs in the balance and can be swung either way by the actions of the smallest and most seemingly insignificant of us, and yet also the most courageous. Regardless of your opinion on the films, the novels remain a mainstay of literature in the English speaking world, and The Hobbit in particular is the book that I'll be focusing on today.

The Hobbit, or There and Back Again was first published in 1937 to severe amounts of critical acclaim and a strong amount of subsequent influence upon the fantasy genre. While it would be unfair to say that Tolkien created the genre outright, since I can point to a slew of predecessors, it is almost impossible to overstate the amount of influence that he has had upon the fantasy genre. The Hobbit in particular helped to shape a lot of the earlier ideas about how a fantasy story might conduct itself, being a fun adventure story in which a band of misfits set out to steal treasure from a dragon. It would be very easy to see the influence that this story has had upon the likes of Dungeons & Dragons. 

As should be expected for such a famous classic of the fantasy genre, it has received countless awards and accolades to the point that it would be impossible to list them all. It was in fact so popular upon its release that people demanded that Tolkien create a sequel; eventually in 1954 and 1955, that sequel was released across three volumes as The Lord of the Rings, arguably even more famous and influential. 

The Story
At the beginning of the novel we are treated to one of the most iconic opening lines in all of literature, which has a curious way of setting the stage. The novel's initial opening is quite whimsical for the most part, and almost sets us up for a rather different kind of story, which would be relatively peaceful and uneventful but perhaps an interesting look into the life of our protagonist
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. 
But within a couple of paragraphs it's pointed out that this is the story of a hobbit going on something of an adventure, which the novel reminds us is of course quite unhobbitlike of him. The opening for the most part sets our scene, describing the hobbit-hole as a place that wouldn't be unpleasant to live in - if only I were shorter, I suppose - and of course introduces us to our protagonist, Bilbo Baggins. The actual plot itself turns up pretty quickly after that with the arrival of Gandalf the Grey, whose dwarvish friends sweep Bilbo up on an adventure to steal treasure from a dragon. 

The story from that point is very easy to spoil as this is the kind of story that really is just as much about the journey as the destination. There is of course a pretty epic climax, but I'm loath to reveal anything and would instead recommend that you simply read the book yourself as it is a worthwhile and fun adventure journey with lots of fun locations and events. The semi-comedic tone of the writing really does help things along, and this book works really well as a story to be told to children as it works to keep them interested. However, as the story continues it becomes ever-so-slightly darker and more twisted as it goes on, leading to a somewhat darker finale than you might have originally expected.

If there's one flaw of the storytelling, it's that it perhaps takes a little while to get going and the songs can occasionally be annoying to some readers. 

Still, as stories go it's one of the greatest in fantasy, and the fact that it's relatively short compared to the reputation given to its successor means that it should only take a few days to read through. 

The Characters
True to its title, the book is strongly focused upon its protagonist, Bilbo Baggins and the story arguably serves to chart his growth from coward to outright hero who is shaped to become a better person by the events that he gets involved in. It reaches a pretty epic conclusion, and explores what it truly means to be courageous, and that sometimes the truly right and loyal path isn't always the easiest path. By the end of the story, his growth as a character is more or less what makes the story work. 

He is helped along in his personal journey by Gandalf the Grey, the wise magician who is perhaps quite a bit more than he first appears to be, and of course the dwarves such as Thorin and Balin. Avoiding too much detail for fear of spoilers, they serve a very large role in the story and are characterised well, having various memorable and entertaining moments.

There are other characters encountered at various points, and most memorable are the villains such as the twisted pseudo-hobbit Gollum, and of course the dragon Smaug. Their scenes interacting with Bilbo are some of the best and most entertaining in the book, but I won't spoil much about that except to say that the book would be well worth reading for those scenes alone. Fortunately they're only a small part of what makes it good.

That said, there is a big glaring flaw in that the novel itself is somewhat skewed on the subject of gender equality. While I doubt it was exactly deliberate, the novel does not actually feature a single female character, and I'm aware that this can be something of an understandable deal-breaker for some readers.

Bottom Line
This novel deserves its reputation as being one of the greatest fantasy stories ever written. While it isn't exactly perfect and suffers from a few problems that I've already pointed out, it's a greatly enjoyable story and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys stories about dragons and wizards. Maybe it'll appeal to you even if you don't enjoy stories about dragons and wizards, since it's one of those famously accessible children's stories that gets a lot of adult readership.  

I give The Hobbit, or There and Back Again the label of a Must Read story. It is such a great story that I would recommend it to just about anyone.

Friday, 8 August 2014

Artist versus Content - An Increasingly Prickly Issue?

I had been musing about this subject for a couple of weeks now as a good topic for a post for my blog before having heard that the actress and comedienne Joan Rivers had been quoted making controversial statements about current events in the Gaza strip. I figured that made for a good catalyst to start me off. While I won't repeat her statements here for fear of redundancy and opening up a can of overly-political worms, they have been taken in a rather negative light, and this is merely the latest in a long line of issues in which famous figures whether celebrities or artists have come under fire for having unpopular opinions. And in the case of Joan Rivers, I believe the detractors happen to have a point.

Even worse however are the artists who have come under fire not only for having unpopular opinions, but who have committed graven and unforgivable acts of criminality and brutality. At least one of the latter instances involved a musician who I personally admired the work of, and yet can no longer listen to because he attempted to have his girlfriend murdered; I am not going to be naming names here, but anyone familiar with the case can likely make a decent educated guess. This is of course to say nothing of the more famous case surrounding the former front-man of a rock band who was convicted of several extremely disturbing charges of child molestation.

One has to feel sorry for the other band members and fans in both cases, I suppose.

I'm not someone who follows the whole hazy cloud of tabloid headlines and magazine articles that make up celebrity culture, and don't really have much interest in it, but this specific issue has been overlapping with my primary field of interest for a while. I am, as has been advertised pretty well on here, strongly interested in literature both graphic and prose, with a strong emphasis on fantasy and science fiction. Much to my chagrin, several famous and (once) respected authors in both genres have in fact been revealed as having made statements that were extremely offensive and horrible to experience. The best-known example of the former is the now infamous author of both genres, Orson Scott Card, whose magnum opus Ender's Game was recently made into a blockbuster film.

Anyone familiar with the name of the film will probably also be familiar with the surrounding controversy that accompanied the film's release, with many people advocating a boycott of it. The reason for that is that the author Orson Scott Card is a staunchly homophobic individual who has given out personal statements in favour of banning gay marriage, keeping anti-sodomy laws on the books, and the idea that all gay people are basically abuse victims who were driven insane. A lot of people apparently did not want financial or artistic support being given to a man who held and maintained such hateful and backwards views, and most of my sympathies here are with them. I have not seen the film, nor do I have any intention of doing so. The right to hold an opinion is balanced by the fact that one has to deal with the consequences of what that opinion might evoke when shared with people.

More recently a famous and long-dead author of feminist-orientated science fantasy works was revealed to have inflicted vicious sexual abuse upon her own children. It's very easy to see why people were shocked and appalled at that.

In all of these cases however, we run into a single basic problem. Certainly it's more than possible to adore creators who you at least moderately or possibly even severely disagree with, or who has committed various actions that you might hold them in contempt for, but how far does that stretch? At what point is one's respect or love for a given album, novel, or otherwise be completely and utterly shattered by the artist's own feet of clay? And just as importantly, how far should one's separation of the artist from their art go?

I don't think I have an answer to that, because it's not exactly a simple or objective issue with a right or wrong answer that one can easily point to. The first and most obvious thing one might have to deal with is the fact that everyone has different opinions and subjective experiences of these things, and I suppose I can only really share mine.

There unfortunately isn't any real supporting information amongst my various textbooks on critical theory for what to do with this sort of situation. I'm not entirely sure what they could possibly have had to say about it, but I checked nonetheless.

Orson Scott Card was my first real experience with this phenomenon. I have never read one of his novels, but I'd heard of him spoken of in glowing terms as part of various fan communities, being mentioned next to various names like Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert. He was a very big name in a field of very big names, and naturally I put him down on my list of authors that I ought to read one day. Eventually I ran into the brick wall that was Orson Scott Card's reputation, and began reading various statements from him that led very quickly to the conclusion that I was one of those who didn't want to offer my support to someone with views that I found to be as objectionable as they were.

The next instance was author Dan Simmons, known for his Hyperion books, who was later revealed to have made several anti-Islam statements following the beginning of the so-called 'War on Terror'. In fact going so far as to contribute to the growing number of right wing anti-Muslim revenge stories that were being written in certain parts of the science fiction community. I was unfortunate enough that this occurred after I had already purchased some of his work with the intention of reading it, so that I now have a big spot on my shelf taken up by an omnibus that I'm not sure I'll ever actually read. I'm not doing too well at the goal of avoiding politics so far, but I suppose that is a side-effect of the fact that literally every issue in the world has become to some degree politicised.

In any case I began researching authors after that, so that I didn't accidentally wind up supporting someone whose actions or statements were offensive to me. This does open me up to something of a slippery slope, I suppose; I could very easily turn my library into a figurative echo chamber. Only allowing authors whose views coincide with mine would run counter to the goal of challenging oneself, and tightening my guidelines even further might result in me having nothing left to watch or read.

I must also again bring up that issue of the art itself.

Is it fair to Ender's Game or Hyperion to neglect reading them due to the opinions of their authors, given their somewhat vitriolic nature? But then, how far can one separate out the art from the artist's own variety of opinions anyway? Of course, there are certain situations where one might have mitigating features invoked, and those are of course the situations where the individual artist is not the only one involved. It certainly isn't fair whatsoever to Danny Glover if I never watch Lethal Weapon again due to Mel Gibson, or to the rest of the cast of the film Space Balls simply because Joan Rivers happens to voice a robot in it.

I wonder whether or not that extends to Ender's Game itself. The book might have been the creation of one man, but the film itself was not. It starred a number of famous actors, and had a director, screen-writer, a number of effects artists and other people involved in the film-making processes that I probably ought to learn more about come to think of it. Notably Harrison Ford, who has a long history of supporting gay marriage and various progressive viewpoints, and who stated that he didn't think the views were relevant to the story itself. The director of the film himself stated that he thought the film's message itself served to counter the author's own bigoted views.

They do on one level make a persuasive argument, and I'm not entirely sure I can make a definitive statement on this one way or the other. All I know is that Orson Scott Card's views made me pretty certain that I didn't want to see the film or read the book, but I'm not going to stretch that so far as to say that my own views on that should apply to other people.

I'm never going to say that somebody should never read or watch Ender's Game or Hyperion. As I said, it's a very thorny issue, and one that at least bears a bit of thinking about on a personal level. I know I have my limits, but I'm not going to begrudge those whose whose limits stretch farther.

It would also perhaps be fair to mention that this gate opens in both directions. I have no doubt that there are people out there who find themselves unwilling to read my strongly left-wing and progressive views on the world, who perhaps find my support of gay marriage (for instance) morally objectionable. I admit that I don't understand those views, but perhaps they have an equal and opposite inability to understand mine.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Review: Miracleman #1 (2014)

If you're the type of person who notices this kind of thing, you'll have noticed that superheroes have become pretty damn popular lately, especially in film. Last year alone, we had the release of Iron Man 3, Thor: The Dark World, The Wolverine, Kick-Ass 2 and Man of Steel, and this year will see the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Guardians of the Galaxy and X-Men: Days of Future Past. While I don't like all of the listed titles, and indeed could go on lengthy rants on a few of them, I am enough of a comic-book nerd myself to say that this trend is generally a good thing; if they carry on making good films with good stories, I'll carry on enjoying them. One thing that attracts my attention though is that pretty much all of these films centre on superheroes which live and operate mostly in the United States, with the exceptions being those who operate occasionally in the mythic realms or the farthest reaches of space.

Indeed, just about the only blockbuster comic-book superhero film which isn't about Americans is in fact the 2006 film release V for Vendetta. It was based off of a comic-book written by the somewhat infamous and strange Alan Moore, who was also known for having written Watchmen, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. The latter two, though not really superhero titles in a conventional sense, are also notable for being partly based on British characters, either historical or literary. It's just a pity that their film adaptations had very little at all to do with the source material, and are pretty disappointing as films go.

My review today will focus on a somewhat older comic-book from Alan Moore, which is centred on a British superhero operating in the United Kingdom, with Miracleman #1, released in 2014.

Miracleman has a somewhat strange history in comic-books. The history behind this character is actually so long and so complicated that I could devote an entire blog-post to it, and indeed if there's enough interest I might. That said, all you really need to know about Miracleman is that it started off as a comic by writer-artist Mick Anglo called Marvelman back in the 1950s, and was later revised in a somewhat dark and gritty form by Alan Moore in the 1980s, and a few years later had to be renamed to Miracleman in order to avoid confusion with publications by Marvel Comics. That Marvel Comics later acquired the rights to the character and was responsible for the recent reprinting of these stories is intensely ironic to the point of hilarity.

In the years since its original publication in 1982, this story has become well-known as kind of a prototype to Alan Moore's work on comics like Watchmen, being one of the first comics to present a more 'real-world' look at superheroes. While this point of view became somewhat unpopular after the endless glut of copycat stories in comic-books, especially during the nineties, it's still significant enough in historical terms to perhaps give the first issue of these reprints a glance here.

The Story
At the beginning of the issue, we have a colourised reprint of one of the original stories, presenting a story in which Miracleman and his allies must battle off a band of time-travelling invaders from the 1980s, which to them is the future. It's short and cheesy, but does a good job of introducing the basic concepts of the character, as well as presenting a degree of irony for the reader since we know the real 1980s wound up being nothing like that. The cheesy feel of early comic-books can be offputting to some readers, but I'll admit a personal fondness for that sort of light-hearted weirdness, since I think that comic books can occasionally take themselves a bit too seriously.

One useful concept introduced is the idea of how Miracleman works, the idea of his being a young teenager called Michael Moran who is able to transform himself into a near seven foot tall adult superhero with superhuman strength, invulnerability and the ability to fly by speaking a secret magic word; 'Kimota!'

After the short story, the issue cuts forward to the then-present 1980s, and opens with Michael Moran having a nightmare in which he dreams of flying around in the sky, but subsequently getting caught in a trap which kills or seriously injures him. After he wakes up screaming, we quickly find out a few things about the protagonist of this comic; he's now an adult approaching middle age who seems to have no real memory of his previous life as a superhero. His life is fairly normal, with a freelance job as a journalist, and a semi-happy marriage to a loving wife called Liz, but he struggles with the nightmares of a former life he doesn't remember and the headaches related to it, with a particular difficulty being his frequent inability to remember a specific long-forgotten word.

However, in his job as a journalist he is involved in a robbery and subsequent hostage crisis at the local power station, which suddenly causes his headaches and migraines to start getting worse. This continues until he is dragged outside by one of the criminals, but in the process sees something which reminds him of the dream, and of his magic word. Speaking the word 'Kimota', he is thus instantly transformed and regains most of his memories as Miracleman, and very quickly dispatches the criminals and flies off with a sense of elation at remembering exactly who and what he is.

The third and final part of the story continues with Miracleman returning and trying to explain the situation to his wife. Which sounds like it'd make for a rather akward moment, I suppose;

'How did your day go, honey?'
'Oh, fine; I remembered I was a superhero and stopped a bunch of criminals from stealing isotopes from a nuclear power station to be sold on the black market.'

Though the third act of the story is basically just a recap of the character's basic history, occasionally pointing out how silly things occasionally were, it sets up for later issues with our first hints of a villain. A shadowy and barely-seen figure sees the news of this poorly-witnessed superhero event and deduces that Miracleman must have returned. And after he effortlessly destroys the desk in his office by slamming his fist on it, we realise that Miracleman is not the only superhuman in the world, and that he might wind up coming to blows with a new enemy before too long.

All-in-all, the issue itself does a very good job of introducing us to the character and the world he inhabits, and though it acknowledges the silliness of the concept, it does a good job of introducing the ideas without getting bogged down in the unnecessary decompressed storytelling of modern comics. And it raises a lot of questions and introduces a lot of mysteries to be answered in later issues.

The Characters
Miracleman is an interesting hero in concept. Unlike with a full-length novel, however, we don't have much time to get to know him as a character, but we do very quickly learn a few things about him just from the way that the writer has him act and behave. For all of his instinctive heroism and the idea that he's a superhero, he's still ultimately an arrogant superbeing, referring to his human form as 'old' and 'tired. And he has a temper which shows up every now and then with his punching a hole in the floor when his wife laughs at some of the silliness of his backstory.

There aren't many other characters who get attention in this issue aside from his wife Liz, and most of her role in the story is to serve as a surrogate for the audience when Miracleman gives the abridged version of his history. Given the silliness of the story presented to her, she has pretty much the same reaction that we would, which is either finding it funny or occasionally finding it terrifying when the truth finally hits her that, silly or not, her husband is still a man who could rip entire cities to shreds with his bare hands.

The Artwork
The artwork in this issue was provided by Mick Anglo when it came to the initial 'flashback' story, but the more recent stories were illustrated by Garry Leach. The style presented is somewhat unique in that it presents the characters not with the exaggerated proportions of most comics but instead as more realistic and human figures. And indeed, even in his form as the heroic Miracleman, the main character has a figure more like a male ballet dancer or a gymnast than a bodybuilder, and it gives the comic a very distinctive look that helps to keep it grounded and, for lack of a better word, 'realistic'.

This might seem a strange option for the initial story given the strange and often silly ideas presented, but as later issues would reveal, things aren't exactly as they appear to be.

Bottom Line
Miracleman is the long-awaited return of a classic comic that honestly deserves to be read, and I'm hoping that publication continues. While many may be put off by the occasional violence, and indeed the series becomes very violent as it continues on, it makes for an interesting break with the styles put forth in The Avengers, and is far more effective at exploring the consequences of super-powered violence than the recent and disappointing Man of Steel. That said, the idea of reading comics is something that most people are unused to, and many more might be put off by the strange and often bizarre ideas on show. For that reason I cannot recommend it to beginners.

And indeed, the violence, sexual references and occasional language mean that this story should not be read by children.

All that being said, Miracleman earns a Must Read score, but only to those who are used to comic-books, as others might find it a little too strange at times. While it's one of the more interesting comics out there, and a refreshing look at a more British-orientated superhero, it's perhaps a little too strange at times for some people to take seriously.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Review: A Wizard of Earthsea (1968)

If you're even remotely interested in the fantasy genre, you'll know that the single biggest and most notable high fantasy stories of the past generation have been J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, also adapted into a series of highly successful films by Warner Brothers. It is as many of us already know the story of a boy who finds out that he has the talent to become a wizard, and goes to magic-school in order to learn his craft and ultimately winds up becoming a great hero in the process. Most people are more likely to have seen the films, but they really do not deviate all that much in story as far as film adaptations go.

There is however a much earlier fantasy series with the same basic premise, the Earthsea Cycle by American author Ursula K. Le Guin. It's a little less well known, and its film adaptation was utterly horrible for many reasons that I won't go into here, but the first book is, I think, perhaps a good place to start off my reviews.

A Wizard of Earthsea was first published in 1968, and has become widely recognised as one of the greats of fantasy literature in years since. There are a few reasons for that, and it stands out in just about every area you'd care to mention, including the characters, the story itself, and the world that it creates in order to draw you into its setting. Upon rereading it for this review, I was quickly reminded why and how the story was so great, and why I remembered it as one of the truly great stories of fantasy literature.

It has since its publication received numerous awards, and was at one time voted as being the third-greatest fantasy novel of all time in a poll of pre-1985 novels, being beaten only by The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. A Wizard of Earthsea was soon followed a second novel called The Tombs of Atuan in 1971, and a third called The Farthest Shore in 1972, completing what was then called the Earthsea Trilogy. A fourth novel, Tehanu, turned up in 1990, but was less well-recieved.

The Story
When it comes to the plot, A Wizard of Earthsea is straightforward in its basic concept; it's the tale of a boy who discovers that he has magical potential, and whose ambition outstrips his early teachers' ability to teach him to the point of his being sent to the wizard's school on the Island of Roke so that he might acquire the power he craves. But his ambition outstrips his ability to control his power, and he ultimately winds up summoning a dark entity into the world, which hunts him throughout the rest of the novel and serves as a symbol of his original carelessness. All this leads to an ending which is not something I'd like to spoil here, but it's a rare example of a fantasy story where there actually is no single clear villain and ultimately the protagonist is not fighting to save the world, but merely to save himself from a dark fate.

The story itself strikes a balance between excitement and wonder, exploring its world fantastically and presenting its events without sacrificing style. Since it's a relatively short novel with most copies coming in at least than 250 pages, it moves fairly quickly and doesn't get bogged down in many of the more unnecessary details that fantasy novels often have a tendency to.

The Characters
Our protagonist is a young man called Ged (or Sparrowhawk) and the story follows him from a young age up until his adulthood. He is at first an ambitious and actually at times unlikeable protagonist, someone so obsessed with acquiring power that he'll go to any lengths to achieve it, but who eventually discovers that his powers have a cost. The novel does a good job exploring his growth as an individual and it leads to a satisfying conclusion when he eventually grows into the wizard that he ought to be.

Most of the novel follows his travels alone as a wizard, and Le Guin succeeds at making him interesting enough to carry the story on his own.

There are only a couple of major supporting characters. The first is Ogion, being one of Ged's first teachers and someone who helps him to see the solution to his dilemma. And the second is Vetch, a close friend of Ged's from the magic school at Roke who eventually joins him in his final quest.
Beyond that most of the cast is fairly transient as the plot moves from place to place, though there are a few interesting minor characters, the majority of the novel follows Ged's journeys and there are only a few recurring figures. 

The World
When it comes to worldbuilding, A Wizard of Earthsea is a fairly unique example amongst fantasy stories, as it centres not around a conventional Mediaeval Europe inspired setting but in fact around an islander society. Earthsea is a vast archipelago, and people in the world itself are more likely to travel by boat than by horseback. One additional fact of the setting, very often left out of adaptations, is that the people of the setting are almost always people of colour, with white people being few and far between. The few white people in the novel are presented as barbaric raiders who at times resemble Vikings.

Another interesting point of the setting itself is the ubiquity of magic, and sorcery is often recognised as a simple fact of everyday life in the setting itself. Most islands and villages have a nearby mage, and the magic itself forms a fundamental theme of the book.

The magic in Earthsea is centred around the Old Speech, and most things in the setting, from characters to animals to objects, have a 'true name'. A wizard can use the true name to gain power over that object, from dominating the minds and actions of individuals to transforming them into animals. For this reason most characters naturally keep their true names a secret, with Ged often going by Sparrowhawk for example, and it forms an interesting theme of the story itself as the issue of names is often called into question when it comes to the shadowy entity that pursues Ged.

Bottom Line
I mentioned that this novel is widely recognised as one of the greats of fantasy literature, and I am very hard pressed to find reasons to disagree. The novel was greatly enjoyable, and I recommend it to anyone who has any interest in fantasy. If you enjoyed Harry Potter, this is a good novel to continue with, so that you might see where the stories of boy wizards actually started off.

Ultimately I give A Wizard of Earthsea the label of a Must Read story. It is such a great and influential part of fantasy literature that most fans owe it to themselves to read it.