Review: The Underground Railroad

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Underground Railroad is grim, surreal, fantastical, and darkly satirical. It also rings true–as the acknowledgments attest, this is a fictional narrative built from a tradition of real stories from escaped slaves, from oral histories and the exemplary works of that antebellum literary genre. Its first sections are especially brutal to work through, as the violence and casual disregard for humanity of a slave-holding plantation are described in gruesome detail. The novel quickly deviates into moments of reality-straining fantasy, though, with a literal Underground Railroad, a skyscraper in South Carolina, and a hodgepodge mix of attitudes/philosophies/policies regarding race and labor that feel vaguely anachronistic when encountered from state to state within a narrative period of months. It’s a jarring experience, and it encouraged me to think of the book as not just pseudo-historical fiction but allegory for the contemporary systemic racism and injustice in America, and for continued racist policies post-slavery like black codes in the Jim Crow South or America’s flirtation with eugenics prior to the Second World War. While radically different in style and tone, the subject matter and surreal approach to a fictional slave narrative invites positive comparison to Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canda.

It took me a while to read this because it was hard to read. Not the writing, and not for lack of interest in the characters (and speaking of, the escaped slave protagonist held my sympathy and interest, but I had a dark fascination with the slave hunter antagonist with his bounty hunter iconography and bizarre black-boy sidekick). The sheer brutality and suffering and often a deep sense of hopelessness and despair, with only the faintest glimmer of hope and with so many senselessly tragic endings, made this very challenging to continue to engage with. It was worth it.

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Review: Children of the Jedi

Children of the Jedi (Star Wars: The Callista Trilogy, #1)Children of the Jedi by Barbara Hambly

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From what I gather, people typically love or hate this book. In a book in which Luke falls in love after entering into a remote relationship conducted through computer chats with a dead person, I think it’s reasonable to expect that it would be polarizing. My own feelings about it did not reach either extreme, however.

There were things I liked. I liked this depiction of Leia as a strong statesman who has not fully pursued her latent Force abilities, and who is haunted by her witnessing of the destruction of Alderaan. I liked the treatment of the Death Star architect war criminals, and Leia’s complicated feelings on that subject. I liked the fleshing out of Elder Houses and some of Leia’s background in Alderaanian royalty (though I like what the new canon has done with this far more). I liked C-3PO’s role in the plot, and I liked that he wasn’t treated solely as comic relief or an afterthought; I find that I really like whenever someone finds something for Threepio to do in a story. I liked some of the weird science philosophy musings on the nature of sentience and the division between synthetic and organic intelligences, but I didn’t expect a Star Wars story to ask heavy questions about the nature of consciousness and what defines a person as distinct, or whether someone can be replicated in a move from organic to robotic (which the book cutely distills to a question of identity as to whether someone might be “another Corellian of the same name”). I similarly liked Hambly’s effort to wrangle with the limitations of the Force when it came to mechanicals. And I liked the new alien races and many of the new characters–I especially loved the nature-loving ex-stormtrooper Triv Pothman and the Force Ghost of former Jedi adventurer Callista.

There were also things I did not like. I did not like the pacing of the book, and the tone often felt very not-Star Wars, whatever that means exactly. It often was slow, reflective, and grounded. For a Star Wars story, I found these elements to be somewhat boring. Also, Luke is really wrung through over the course of the story; in an effort to limit his god-tier Force powers, the narrative breaks him down physically and mentally. He acts like a heroic Jedi throughout, though torn by his personal connections (in other words, he acts like Luke). But it is exhausting to read how exhausted he gets, how much pain he experiences. He is in perpetual excruciating pain and operating with pretty extreme sleep deprivation for much of the book. It’s a bit much, but I get that authors often struggled with how to use Jedi Master Luke. I similarly did not care for his relationship with Callista (and definitely prefer that Luke ends up with Mara, who is a more interesting partner for him). They fell in love too fast and with too little reason. How she is brought back to life is also rather morally questionable. And while R2-D2 gets to be useful, I really hate how he almost kills Han and Leia (even if he didn’t have control of himself at the time).

There are other things that I don’t feel strongly about. Han and Chewie were more support characters, but they were portrayed accurately. The battle moon that serves as the central threat of the novel is just a Death Star Lite, but at least it’s not another literal Death Star. The supporting threat of a cyborg augmentation that allows a Force-user to control droids seemed wildly bizarre to me. The Ismarens would have been more interesting villains if more time had been spent on them, although Roganda, calculating and bitter former concubine of Palpatine, felt at least like a unique sort of threat. There are a lot of tropes that don’t feel like they should be in a Star Wars story, like what amounts to a minor zombie threat, although I recognize that zombies (or something similar) have ended up in use in many Star Wars stories, so it’s hard for me to identify what exactly felt off about it. Mara Jade and Lando Calrissian have insignificant cameo appearances, and they’re not really out of character but they don’t really have the chance to act in character, either. Finally, the novel is necessarily dated by its release before the prequel trilogy, so a lot of the details about an enclave of Jedi children, and the apparently accepted presence of Jedi families, no longer make a lot of sense, even though I could accept the broad idea that Jedi would care for Force-strong younglings.

I liked the writing and the weirdness, even though I didn’t like how everything worked as a Star Wars story about the Big Three heroes of the original trilogy. I’d be interested in reading non-Star Wars works by Hambly. I don’t regret reading this book, and it’s definitely not the worst Star Wars book I’ve read. On the other hand, I wouldn’t join with those who love it in recommending it to others. It was, if nothing else, an interesting experience.

Some Sunday Star Wars thoughts

I’m obviously very delighted by the return of The Clone Wars. It’s wild to reflect on how my relationship with the show has evolved–and how I’ve evolved as a person. I think I’ve already beat that drum on this site before, though. It’ll be interesting to see how much the show’s conclusion crosses over with Revenge of the Sith. And the whole season is a fascinating artifact, partially prepared while Lucas was still involved in the series. To what extent? How much does the final season reflect his vision for The Clone Wars, or for Star Wars overall? If we talk about Lucas’s vision for Star Wars, is that the saga films plus TCW, or all that minus the last season? (What about the Ewok movies, which he prepared stories for and in which he served as executive producer?)

And what of Dave Filoni? He’s often been presented as sort of the storytelling heir to George Lucas, but he’s of course coming to Star Wars with his own perspective and impulses. I find myself viewing Rebels as closer to what George Lucas would have done with Star Wars if he stuck around–but is that right? (I could see something like Underworld having gone the animation route eventually.) How does Lucas privately view the state of Star Wars today? Does he feel his vision is most fully realized through some particular media or through a specific story or through an individual storyteller? Or is he still mostly just bitter about the loss of creative control in the sale?

I think it’s safe to say that the films don’t track with how he would have wanted the story to go, for better or worse. I find myself increasingly viewing every non-Lucas-involved project as another Expanded Universe franchise deviation, a way to keep money flowing into the machine. At one point, that was guided by a flawed auteur with a unique vision, who still seemed to enjoy making his own Star Wars projects in his own sandbox. In Kathleen Kennedy, there is some sense of continuation, but I get the impression that she’s better at getting movies made than being a storyteller. And I think she’s done an overall good job of shepherding the franchise post-Lucas! But while Lucas did not write his movies all by himself, and while he didn’t even direct all of them, he still was the man behind the story throughout his films. The books and comics and games could do their own thing because they weren’t his story; there was room for others to dabble in his universe, but he still held the keys to the most visible presentations of that galaxy far, far away.

I think that there’s something lost in the removal of the single, personal vision. Still, creators like Dave Filoni and Rian Johnson (and the creative team behind The Mandalorian, including Filoni but also Deborah Chow, Rick Famuyima, Bryce Dallas Howard, Taika Waititi, and of course showrunner Jon Favreau) certainly show the benefit of other perspectives bringing their own personal ethos to the franchise. No version of Star Wars is perfect. Every creator brings their own flaws, and the fundamental nature of the franchise is to filter through so much pop culture history that it’s hard to keep problematic elements entirely out of the distillation process. But these creators feel like they’re bringing something new and fresh to the franchise. For that matter, I think there’s a lot of good content in Star Wars literature, and there are probably more consistent successes by a more diverse range of artists now than in the old Expanded Universe–especially when keeping in mind that this is only about eight years from the reboot and corporate transition (wow, it’s almost been a decade already?). In contrast, J.J. Abrams’s films, though fun to watch, bring nothing of substance–they feel more like the production-by-committee, formulaic Marvel movies that have grown so stale for me.

What’s my point? I don’t know for sure (and writing without a point is probably always bad writing). This is something I return to every now and then, and I think that I’m just barely scratching at much deeper conversations about the nature of art, including pop art, and consumerism and popular culture and late-stage capitalism and nostalgia that have been explored in much greater length by many other writers over time. I guess I find myself returning to my hesitancy about the great beast of manufactured pop content that Star Wars represents. It’s funny that my concerns dissipated somewhat after the purchase by Disney. I guess I was just hopeful for the reset. Here we are, though. I’m not bitter. And I’m certainly not over Star Wars, Disney or otherwise. This isn’t a manifesto. Just half-formed reflection born out of equal parts eagerness and uneasiness.

Thankfully, the release of expectation, the recognition that this Disney era of Star Wars isn’t exactly “official,” no matter who “owns” Star Wars, allows me to enjoy the stories I want and to disregard the rest. It’s been a few years in the making, but I’ve cooled in my urge to simply consume every new “canon” Star Wars story coming out. (A seemingly impossible goal at this point, given how many stories have piled up and in light of my persistent refusal to read solely new Star Wars content.) I doubt that this will be the last time that I touch on the subject, but I don’t know if I’ll ever find a satisfactory conclusion to it.

Reviews: Bloodline / Xenozoic

Bloodline (Star Wars)Bloodline by Claudia Gray

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I like Claudia Gray’s Star Wars writing. I love Leia as a character. Gray’s Leia, Princess of Alderaan was a fantastic story about this beloved character by a writer I enjoy. Bloodline possesses these same traits, and yet I struggled with it. Partially, I’ve just found myself busier than usual for a while now. But I also found myself again and again making a choice to read other books or comics. It’s not that the writing’s worse here. And Gray did a fantastic job writing an older, wiser, wearier version of Leia (a version that was written and published before the Leia of Princess of Alderaan). That said, I guess I just found myself bored with it.

Bloodline follows Leia over two decades after the Battle of Endor. She’s a respected senior legislator, pragmatically trying to keep together the political faction of the Populists, who believe in decentralized government and who are in opposition to the Centrists, a party with a strong authoritarian streak. Government has ground to a standstill because the increasingly polarized parties refuse to cooperate, and there is no strong executive in government to create compromise or shepherd policy. The novel concerns itself with two major developments: the neutral planet of Ryloth, home to the Twi’leks, seeks aid from the Republic to uncover a rapidly growing and incredibly influential new criminal cartel while the Centrists advocate for the creation of a First Senator to bring order to the government and to force the legislature into actually producing results once more. Leia takes the initiative in investigating the crime cartel, even as she is nominated to be the Populist candidate for First Senator.

Over the course of the novel, Leia forms a bond with Ransolm Casterfo, a younger and more idealistic senator who initially comes off as villainous because of his love for collecting Imperial armor and his belief that Empire is the best form of government. We come to find that he is an honest, principled man who may believe in a strong central government but who still hated the abuse of authority as represented by figures like Darth Vader or the Emperor. And in the end, he finds himself in opposition to most of the other Centrists, some of whom are actually backing the crime cartel while others celebrate the Emperor and want a return to tyranny.

Leia also finds other allies among the younger generation, including a former racer turned senatorial aide and an overly eager starfighter jockey. They have their own subplots and interrelationships. (The racer has a particularly unexpected mystery that appears abruptly and quickly explains her career change late in the book.) These other characters are important because they represent the generation to follow Leia, but their importance is undercut by their lack of use in later stories. Meanwhile, Han only briefly appears, living his life as a manager of a racing team, and Luke and Ben are known to be off training but otherwise only appear in the story by reference.

This is Leia’s story. In some ways, it makes sense to table other key characters. It also allows for emotional vulnerability, as she is cut off from her traditional supports. However, the absence of Luke and Han feels big enough to be distracting at times. And while we see Leia forming the core of what will eventually become the Resistance, the new characters don’t ever really get wings to do their own thing; they’re caught in Leia’s gravity.

Ransolm Casterfo leaves the biggest impression, proving to be a strong foil and ally for Leia throughout the book. In Ransolm, Leia sees hope for restoring balance to the Republic. She sees the potential for compromise, for reaching across the aisle. Without getting into more specific spoilers, it is enough to say that that hope is crushed, leaving Leia with only the option of forming a covert Resistance in anticipation of the threat of imminent civil war to come. Ransolm is an interesting character, but his fascist cosplaying and admiration for an authoritarian government are never really adjusted or adequately challenged. Loving an empire so long as evil cultists don’t rule it doesn’t stop you from being a fascist. Yet after admonishing him repeatedly, largely from a place of pure emotion, Leia eventually just accepts that this is part of his identity. One could certainly chart real-world analogies in this book, and I’m not sure the implications of a character like Ransolm and Leia’s relationship to him are all that great.

Still, if I said that Ransolm was why I struggled with this book, I’d be lying. I was just not particularly engaged with the pace. It’s a lot more talking and reflecting than in a lot of Star Wars stories, but the ideas being discussed aren’t very deep. Star Wars always seems to struggle when it attempts to accurately portray politics, and I think that’s where the book falters a little bit as well. It’s trying to be too granular, lacking the usual bombast. Yes, there are big revelations. Yes, there’s a bombing, a duel, and at least two intense chase sequences. But that’s more par for the course for a contemporary political thriller, not the usual excess and swashbuckling adventure of a Star Wars story. At the end of the day, I just wasn’t as compelled by the story being told here. But there’s nothing really bad about the book, the ideas, or the depiction of the characters. I guess this one just wasn’t really for me!
XenozoicXenozoic by Mark Schultz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve long loved just about anything with dinosaurs in it, but the pulp action, gorgeous art, environmental messages, and sense of history contained within Xenozoic makes it so much more than just a collection of fun stories about prehistoric beasts.

I vividly remember two Xenozoic stories from my childhood, which I encountered in the colored re-releases under the Cadillacs and Dinosaurs brand. Those two stories are “The Opportunists,” in which one of the two protagonists, scientist-ambassador Hannah Dundee of the Wassoon tribe, manages to turn the annoying pterosaur scavengers around the City in the Sea into an early threat detection system for mosasaur attacks, and “Last Link in the Chain,” in which the other protagonist, eco-warrior mechanic Jack Tenrec, becomes stranded in the wilderness on a return from patrolling for poachers and finds himself hunted by a ferociously determined theropod. (There’s a lot of wild and expansive lore in this series, and I trust that concepts like Wassoon, the City in the Sea, or the spiritual order of Old Blood Mechanics will quickly make sense if you start reading this comic.)

I’ve been itching to read the full series for years and never got around to it. It didn’t seem to be widely available, but I think I also dreaded the potential that my nostalgic fondness would be shattered by reality. I finally broke down and bought a collection of the black-and-white original Xenozoic Tales, and I was happily surprised to realize that it’s still great. Those two stories were still full of spirit, dynamic art, and excitement, and they weren’t even the best stories in the series, I’ve found. With age, and the context of the whole series, I more strongly appreciate the environmental and political themes underlying the series. I also like the wild mad-science pseudo-explanations for the resurgence of a variety of prehistoric life from multiple eras of Earth’s history in the wake of man’s near-extinction. Interestingly, for a series spanning the late eighties through the mid nineties, Schultz quickly hints that the characters are living in a world following environmental collapse from climate change, with a history of atmospheric deterioration and rising sea levels. From the beginning, much of the story is set in a flooded New York City.

A cool thing about Schultz is that he’s clearly willing to improve his work over time, rather than sticking to an established and familiar appearance. His art style grows and evolves over the series. Characters change, become more distinctive. The prehistoric creatures, dinosaurs especially, get updated over time to make them more in line with evolving understandings of what they looked like. In comparison to Jurassic Park, which largely started off on the edge of scientific perceptions of what dinosaurs were like in the flesh but then allowed the images to stagnate as science moved on, the continued (though gradual) evolution of the depiction of dinosaurs is thrilling (and also serves as a fun glimpse into the evolution of pop culture paleoart).

The only disappointment about this collection is that it ends. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that I want more. It ends in the middle of a major plot arc! There’s a lot of story still to be told! I sincerely hope that Mark Schultz eventually returns to this project. If you like dinosaurs, classic cars, pulp adventures, or comics, you really should check this out!

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My Favorite Stories of the Decade

Well, this is over a month late, but I wanted to reflect a little on the media I’ve consumed over the past decade. It’s hard to think about this clearly; my memory doesn’t work linearly enough to easily track the different stories I’ve come across over the past ten years. It’s wild to me that I’ve been out of high school for so long that it’s been almost 13 years now, but at the same time, it feels like it’s been even longer than that. A lot of my tastes and opinions have evolved considerably since my late teens and early twenties, which feel sort of like a single, solid lump of time, even though we’re talking about a period as long as almost two decades ago and as recent as 6 or 7 years ago. Many of the stories that defined my early adult sensibilities were first encountered during that period. I didn’t even start reading comics until late into high school or early into college! These shifting memories are even more complicated because on many occasions, I’m not encountering a film or book or game until years, or even decades, after its release.

I haven’t had this blog long enough yet to say that I really have traditions, but I do like to post a start-of-the-year recap of my favorite games I’ve played in the past year. Since we’re entering a new decade (even though this blog hasn’t been around for nearly as long), it seemed like a fun opportunity to look back over a longer period. But this site is, if nothing else, an ongoing catalog of What I’m Into Now, and that’s bigger than just video games. If I’m writing about any single thing on this site, if I could encapsulate what my mission is here, it’s to record how I react to stories across various media.

So, for a look back over a decade, I wanted to do more than just my favorite games. What were my favorite stories across video games, books, films, and television shows? But I have to then consider how I’m narrowing that list. For my video game retrospectives, I normally include all games I’ve played within the review period. I could simply include all stories I’ve experienced for the decade, but that’s just too broad, and too susceptible to inaccuracy. When did I really first watch this movie, or play that video game? What if I’d read something in my childhood but rediscovered it as an adult and fell in love? Is it fair or useful to compare an established classic with a new, unproven work?

What I settled on was a data set that only included works published within the past decade, from the start of 2010 through the end of 2019. Whereas my year-end reflections encompass five games, a list of ten favorite stories seemed appropriate for a decade–ten stories for ten years. That number becomes more interesting if I actually make it only one story per year. I’ve only been writing this blog for a few years now, and I’ve thus written more about (and paid more attention to) stories I’ve encountered in those last few years, and therefore my list would naturally lean heavily toward the last few years of the decade. To counteract this, I’ve decided to include only one favorite for each year, although I’ve allowed myself some latitude with television and have still included some runners-up for particular years.

With those rules in mind, here’s my current list of favorite stories from the 2010’s. Whether that list would be the same in another month or year or decade remains to be seen…Regardless, let’s get to it, starting with 2019 and working our way back to the beginning of the decade.

2019: Kitbull (Rosana Sullivan)

This is such a touching story. Beautiful animation, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking. Some people might view it as a little too saccharine, but I am here for it. I like short fiction, and this is a cute and compelling short film that demonstrates how a minimalist story can communicate something much bigger than its individual moments.

2018: Christopher Robin (Marc Forster)

Look, I loved Winnie the Pooh as a kid. The characters have always held a special place in my heart, and I’ve never really let go of that. Christopher Robin is to Winnie the Pooh as Hook is to Peter Pan. The cynical view would be that this movie is a nostalgia grab. But I still found that the movie spoke to me, aided by excellent performances and lovable interpretations of the stuffed animals. This is the kind of movie I could contentedly watch again and again.

Runner-Up: BlacKkKlansman was funny, challenging, and different. It offers wacky performances and outlandish storytelling with sadly too many truths and connections to reality. Probably the better film of the two I’ve indicated for 2018, it’s also one that I’d be less likely to return to.

2017: The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild (Nintendo)

2017 was absolutely the hardest year for me to isolate a single favorite. At the end, I’ve picked one, along with three runners-up. My favorite (for now) was The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. It might be my favorite video game of all time. It actually made me interested in Zelda. It had just enough characterization and backstory to keep me invested, but the story was so pared-down that you were often making up a narrative as you played through the game. More than any other Zelda game I’ve even attempted to play, this was the game that really showed the joys of exploration. That included exploring the world, but also exploring alternative options to combat and to puzzles. I just want more of this! I can’t wait for more news about the Breath of the Wild sequel.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson). I’m personally pleased that this list isn’t overrun with Star Wars stories. I picked The Last Jedi because it made some of the boldest choices since The Phantom Menace and The Empire Strikes Back before it. Each of these films took the franchise in a new direction and did new things with how these movies are made and what they mean, for better or worse. At the same time, no Star Wars is perfect. And for many, I just named the best and the worst of the franchise in comparison to The Last Jedi. Even setting aside the bigoted trolls, this film has resulted in a deep divide among fans and general moviegoers. For me, I love this movie and think it’s one of the better-made, more interesting Star Wars films, but it is a slower-paced movie with a clunky middle section, and as a result, I’ve always preferred The Force Awakens as a film to watch over and over again. After The Rise of Skywalker, I now feel that The Last Jedi was the pinnacle of the sequel trilogy. This isn’t some wildly experimental film, but it really highlights how safe J.J. Abrams played it with the other two movies.

Runner-Up: Star Wars: From A Certain Point of View. This was a collection of short stories that retold various moments of A New Hope from the perspective of supporting characters. It helped fill in moments in the new canon, even while remaining a sort of canon-lite bit of storytelling given its dependence upon, well, subjective viewpoints. This had a lot of strong writing, too. “The Kloo Horn Cantina Caper” by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Matt Fraction remains my single favorite bit of Star Wars writing ever.

Runner-Up: Kita Kita (written and directed by Sigrid Andrea Bernardo) is a weird, subversive, surprisingly sweet rom-com about two lonely Filipino expats living in Japan. The third act takes such a surprising twist that is initially absurd and ultimately sentimental, and it is that third act that makes the film. It’s a rom-com that stayed with me after watching, and I think it’s worth holding out as special for that reason alone.

2016: A Fox In Space (Matthew Gafford)

This fan production by Matthew Gafford attempts to retell the Star Fox story with a more “mature” perspective, plenty of humor, and an animation and sound design that echoes cartoons of decades past. So far, besides several in-production clips, only one episode has released. I don’t remember how I even found out about it. But I’m something of a Star Fox fan, and I’ve always thought that it would be fun to see an ongoing cartoon or comic that really mined the setting and characters while providing a more compelling narrative and a deeper lore. This fan pilot does that, whether or not we ever get a full second episode or beyond.

Runner-Up: Zootopia (written and directed by Byron Howard and Rich Moore) is another movie that I can just watch again and again. It’s sweet and funny. It’s a little overly broad in its allegories about race and class, but it still has something to say for a younger audience (especially in that even a good person can hold prejudices they have to work to identify and overcome, and experiencing discrimination in one area does not mean that you can’t also benefit from privilege in other ways).

2015: Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg)

I love Tom Hanks. I love Steven Spielberg. I love a good movie about an attorney working within or against the system to attempt to do good. I love spy stories, especially Cold War spy stories. How could I not love this movie? I hadn’t thought about it much recently, but my wife brought it up recently as one of her favorite movies of the past decade, and I found that I agreed.

2014: The Lego Movie (Phil Lord and Chris Miller)

Instead of a boring licensed-product kids’ movie, The Lego Movie was wild, raucous fun, loaded with a goofy, sardonic sense of humor and altogether too many references to the wide number of franchises that Lego has worked with. Lord and Miller are such a creative writing/directing team, and this movie has some tremendous voice acting performances. And The Lonely Island’s “Everything Is Awesome” is just such an ear worm, even while representing the bland consumerist society that we should work to shake ourselves free of. This is a movie layered in irony and contradiction; that a Warner Bros. production even attempts to interrogate some of the hypocrisies and fallacies of the very culture the studio and the Lego toyline are a part of is really something.

2013: A Natural History of Dragons (Marie Brennan)

I think I somehow got this eBook free through some sort of promotion. Or maybe it was just heavily discounted. I didn’t seek it out, and I didn’t know what I was getting into. It won me over quickly, though. I was often chuckling at the witty language from the first few pages, and the story moved along at an exciting pace. This book is fantasy filtered through a contemporary reaction to Jane Austen and H. Rider Haggard. This book was so clever and original. I’ve never moved on to the later books in the series, but I’d always be happy to recommend this first book.

Runner-Up: Pacific Rim. Guillermo del Toro always makes interesting, unique genre films. Pacific Rim was such a fun movie, a joyous homage to the very Japanese staples of kaiju and mechas. Still, it’s a light, airy romp; it’s not much deeper than face value. I think it’s a lot of fun, and it stuck with me. That’s enough!

2012: Mass Effect 3 (BioWare)

On my first completion of Mass Effect 3, I thought the ending I chose was tragic but fitting. I chose Synthesis. It felt right, after all that I had come to learn about the relationship between synthetics and organics over the past three games. It felt like a satisfying conclusion to the evolving storylines and character relationships that had begun with humans shooting Evil Synthetics back in the original game. I liked that I still had a choice, but with the way I’d played Shepard, with how I’d interacted with so many synthetics and even bonded with a few, with how we’d brought peace between Geth and Quarians, this final decision felt like the right choice.

I liked the fusion of gameplay elements from the first two titles. I liked the exploration, the resource-gathering, the sense of a desperate fight against an overwhelming opponent. I liked fleeing from Reapers across the galaxy as I tried to reach out to new worlds.

I was shocked to realize that so many people hated Mass Effect 3, and that so many people hated it because of how it ended. Of course I’d love a happily ever after for Commander Shepard, but he became a part of everyone in the end; he became an epic hero to always be remembered. And that ending felt like an ending made for me; everyone played a slightly different character, with a different gender and appearance and background and set of personality traits. Their choices and experiences were all slightly different. We had to end it somehow, and the few choices available felt thoughtful. I saw the conclusion as beautiful and meaningful, more than Shep somehow managing to kick All The Reaper Ass would have been.

Regardless of how contentious the ending proved to be, this story was deeply affecting to me and felt like a satisfying conclusion to the saga.

2011: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks)

It’s kind of wild to realize that it’s been almost a whole decade since we last had a new main title game in The Elder Scrolls franchise. This might be my wife’s favorite RPG. For me, I appreciated the return to the weird that made me love Morrowind so much, that felt lacking in Oblivion.

The two factions in the great civil war that centers much of the game are both despicable, more flawed than honorable, and it’s easy to simply stand apart from them. Underneath the senseless violence that straddled a war of religion and a war of secession, there was a larger existential threat brewing that most people in the state of Skyrim were oblivious to or refused to care about. In a way, that works as a nice allegory for contemporary society and the impending existential threat of climate change.

I’ll be honest: I’ve never finished the main story. My wife has, but I couldn’t maintain interest. I spent dozens of hours in the game nonetheless, wandering the world, uncovering secrets, fighting monsters, taking on jobs, making friends. Once more like Morrowind over Oblivion, the game was at its most fun when you were making your own stories, not worrying about the main plot, and it didn’t try to keep shoving that main plot in your face like Oblivion did with its Oblivion Gates. Then again, I’ve played through the main stories of Morrowind and its expansions at least a couple times because they were so engaging and weird and ambiguous! Morrowind rewards textual interpretation, and I didn’t feel the same experimentation with ambiguity and competing narratives in Skyrim. And while Skyrim was weird, it wasn’t quite as original as Morrowind. The fourth title clung to The Lord of the Rings, and the fifth to Conan the Barbarian, but the third pulled from everything and in so doing made something that felt wholly original.

My feelings about Skyrim are complex, but I still lost myself in that world for hours and hours on end.

2010: Adventure Time (Frederator Studios, 2010-2018)

Adventure Time almost spanned the whole decade, but it started in 2010, so it’s standing in as my favorite for that year. It was quirky, irreverent, fantastic, bizarre, and funny, and it managed to tell so much story in so little time. Aimed at kids, but with interesting concepts (especially in the later seasons) and a strong focus on the complex emotional bonds and fluid relationships shared between the characters, and a tendency to reward attention to detail, it was just as fun for adults. Plus, it’s loaded with references to anime, old cartoons and video games, and Dungeons & Dragons. It refused to be just any one thing, and even by the end of the series, it juggled beauty and horror and an epic scope with sweet character moments and silly gags. It was great.

Now that I’ve reached all the way back to 2010, please let me know what your favorite stories of the past decade have been!

Review: The Witcher, Season One

I liked Netflix’s version of The Witcher. It’s not perfect. I hope there’s more of it.

I’m not a “fan” of The Witcher, exactly. I liked the first game, but it was a weird game lacking in polish, with a difficult-to-adjust-to combat system that was completely overhauled in later games, and it was bogged down with a misogynistic depiction of women and sex. I was hooked by the complicated morality, the bizarre assortment of characters, and the unique lore. That led me to reading The Last Wish, and I truly loved Sapkowski’s character and setting (even if I didn’t love the writing/translation style). I’ve tried to get into the second Witcher game a couple times, and I really do intend to invest myself in it enough to complete it some day so that I can feel free to move onto the third game. I have Blood of Elves somewhere in the house, waiting to be read. It’s an interesting setting with a unique moral perspective that (unfortunately) all too often fails to treat women with respect; it’s fairly unique in its use of Polish myths and fairy tales and classic fantasy to do something darker and more complex, and yet because of its source material, a lot of it feels familiar. It inhabits a unique ethnic identity instead of a generic European-style setting, but it is still a European-style setting, and I could understand readers or viewers or gamers preferring to look for voices and settings that haven’t been promoted as much. I like the idea of what the Witcher is but I see its flaws and can understand why someone wouldn’t like it. And I come to the series as someone familiar with the source material but not overly so; I won’t get all the references, and I won’t know how every adapted storyline originally appeared, but I’m not taking this all fresh either.

It turns out that I knew more of the story than I was expecting. This first season largely adapts plots from the short story collections of The Last Wish and Sword of Destiny; most of what I hadn’t read had been referenced in what I’d played. When we get to the titular Witcher facing the striga, cursed heir to the throne of Temeria, I realized I was seeing the third depiction of a particular story, a story that had first appeared in The Last Wish and had then been depicted in the opening cinematic for the first game (while becoming a major plot point of that game). Still, every story, whether I knew it or not, was engaging and moody and prone to sudden bursts of graphic violence, so I never lost some degree of suspense.

I’ve said a lot about what I do and don’t know about The Witcher. If you don’t know anything at all about it, all you really need to know is that the protagonist is Geralt, a “Witcher” who has been mutated through magic and trained to fight monsters; he wanders the land, taking on odd monster-hunting jobs for gold, but his mission is complicated by his reluctance to kill anything intelligent and by the villainy of many of the humans seeking to hire him. As much as he cuts through monsters, he also cuts through a great deal of men and bullshit. While he opts to project the image of an aloof killer, he is typically thoughtful, witty, and surprisingly kind. He especially tends to take the side of outsiders like him, though the bigoted human majority doesn’t approve of this. He hates royalty and wizards, but he frequently becomes ensnared in their schemes, finding himself the ally or rival of many of the powerful.

The show captures a great deal of this. Without access to his unique headspace, however, Geralt often comes off as more of a cold-blooded assassin than a warrior-poet. We see glimpses of it, but he is depicted more in the grumpy, near-silent mold of the video-game version of the character, mostly left to say “fuck” or “hm.” That said, Henry Cavill does everything he can with what he is given, and every “fuck” or “hm” has a slightly different meaning and intent, conveyed through tone and body language. It’s really not that bad, either; Geralt has plenty of moral debates with the characters he runs into, often has to make difficult choices between the lesser of two evils, and occasionally encounters or develops a friend.

Geralt’s closest companion is Jaskier, played by Joey Batey. Even if you haven’t watched any of the show by the time you’re reading this, you’ve probably heard some of his catchy tunes by now, or seen someone encourage you to toss a coin to your Witcher. Batey plays Jaskier pitch-perfect (pun intended): smarmy, self-assured, arrogant, charming, promiscuous, and worldly yet somehow naive. He’s the emotional soft-boy counterpart to Geralt’s almost parodic depiction of traditional masculinity. And they become best buds! How sweet is that? Jaskier feels like the most accurate translation from book to game to television (fun fact: he was known to me and many other English speakers as “Dandelion” prior to this because his name is Polish for “Buttercup” and the translator apparently wanted to avoid some of the American associations with that word).

Geralt’s eventual on-again, off-again lover is Yennefer, portrayed by Anya Chalotra. I don’t know Yennefer as much as Geralt, Jaskier, some of the other sorcerers and sorceresses, or even some of the royalty, but I had a general idea of her somewhat toxic relationship with Geralt. I had no idea of what she went through to become a sorceress, however. It took me a while to pick up on, but the story is actually told in three separate timelines, and much of Yennefer’s story takes place farthest in the past, as we see the trials and travails she underwent prior to meeting Geralt. I was most invested in Yennefer’s story by the end. Yet as much time as was spent, it still feels rushed. I never felt that I fully understood her, yet understanding her and her development over the series is critical to a few key moments (including the climax of the season). I would have liked to have even more time with her as a sorceress in training, to see her adapt and improve and struggle and scheme, to see what sort of power she wanted to have and how her decisions brought her closer or further away from that power. We only get glimpses in the end. Most troublesome, the show spends altogether too much time on her transformation from a humpbacked girl to a beautiful woman via a painful magical procedure that starts with a hysterectomy without anesthesia and then a truly horrifying set of enchanted physical changes that put her through agonizing, gruesome pain. The fixation on this woman’s horrific pain to achieve her goals was questionable to me. And while the show has some messaging that the transformation is to appease the royalty sorceresses work with, rather than to correct some “fault,” the show does not escape reinforcement of traditional beauty standards at all costs. (Fascinatingly, it’s paired with moments from the striga fight, and we are left with the impression that her transformation from humpback to beauty is comparable to the striga’s transformation from monster to innocent-yet-feral girl.) Again, more time with Yennefer before that, and more understanding of what she wanted and why, might have made me more accepting of that scene.

As I mentioned, there are three timelines at work. The series jumps between these points. Yennefer’s story is the farthest back in time; Geralt’s story is near the narrative’s present; current events follow the young princess Ciri (Freya Allan) as she flees from the destruction of her kingdom in search of Geralt for protection. I won’t get into the “current” timeline because the whole of the show builds toward it and the significance of Ciri’s story.

All in all, this show pushed my tolerances for graphic depictions of violence, gore, and pain. The fight scenes were often quite brutal. There was weight to these moments, even when the fights themselves were quick. Often, the camera would pan over fallen bodies and severed limbs. Yet the most grotesque gore was typically only shown in flashes; sometimes, a moment of violence would be alluded to but not graphically depicted. I’m not sure that the decisions made ever felt fully consistent, but I appreciated the occasional reprieve.

If you’re looking for a replacement to Game of Thrones, this isn’t it. It’s smaller in scope, focused mostly on four characters (Geralt, Yennefer, Ciri, and Jaskier). There is magic, and there is a feudal society, and there are dragons, and a great war is coming. But it’s typically focused on the smaller moments, as Geralt just tries to make his way through the world. The show is about his beliefs and principles, how they evolve and how they stay the same, how they compete or coincide with the beliefs and principles of others. I’m glad for that. I’m glad for the personal, narrowed focus. I never really got into A Song of Ice and Fire or its television adaptation for a number of reasons, but I think the most useful distinction here is that it was a sprawling alternate historical fiction epic disguised as a fantasy series, and The Witcher is about this one character operating in a strange, alien world. You might disagree with my depiction of Game of Thrones; I only read the first couple of books. But I hope you can at least see the distinction I’m trying to draw here.

I liked the show. I didn’t think it was perfect. I don’t think the source material is perfect. I’ll keep watching if they keep making this show. I might get around to reading the Witcher saga. I might finally get into the rest of the games. But if you don’t like it, I understand. It’s not for everyone.

Changing hunters

In my review of Tales of the Bounty Hunters, I started by saying that I wanted to some day talk a little more about how these bounty hunters have changed in their depictions between Legends and the Disney canon. That day has come. I’ll admit that the timing is awfully convenient, what with a show about bounty hunters in the new Star Wars canon premiering this Tuesday. It’s truly just a coincidence, though, or if it isn’t, my subconscious was primed for thinking about bounty hunters given the marketing for this show. Either way, it’s not exactly new ground for this blog (examples one, two, three, and four for consideration).

One thing this post is not meant to be is a biographical sketch of the characters from Tales of the Bounty Hunters, or a careful examination of the differing details of their interpretations across Legends and canon sources. You want that, go to Wookieepedia. What I want to do is talk about how I reacted to some of these changes, and how my opinion might have changed in revisiting a work that was so nostalgic for me.

To begin, I found Dengar’s transition from Legends to canon to be most welcome. In the new canon, he’s consistently been portrayed as a sarcastic, playful personality. He seems to enjoy being around people, even if he’s still a little bit of a sociopath. We are still missing a lot of details in his arc, but we see him go from a member of Boba Fett’s bounty hunting team in The Clone Wars to an aging, sardonic loner desperately yearning for a reconnection with others in the Aftermath books. It seems like his adventures during the reign of the Empire are still mostly untold. I haven’t kept up with the comics in a long while, but it seems like they’ve slowly included some Dengar appearances in which he seems to be much more grizzled. It’d be interesting to learn why exactly he became more hardened and violent and if those wrappings ever became actual bandages.

Regardless, Dengar’s fun now. He’s charismatic on-screen (and on the page), even if most of the other characters find him annoying. I’ll take this depiction over “Payback,” the dour ex-Imperial serial killer bent on revenge from Legends. Plus, the broader story of Dengar now appears to have all the elements of a story of loss, pain, and recovery that formed the core of the older version of Dengar. We’re still missing what caused that pain for him in the middle of this arc, as far as I’m aware, but maybe we’ll see it someday. I prefer Dengar finding salvation in found family over a romantic entanglement, anyway.

Bossk also seems a lot more “fun” in the new canon. He’s loyal to Boba Fett in The Clone Wars, at least. I’m fine with this version of the character; he’s not a mentor, exactly, to Boba, but maybe he’s a sort of weird uncle. That we don’t really have a clear picture of how Boba and Bossk fell out is an unfortunate gap. Bossk’s fate is equally unclear; by the peak of the Galactic Civil War, we only have a snapshot with his cameo on board the Executor. I don’t really know how to feel about this version of Bossk. The original incarnation of the character was so scary, vile, and outright evil. Then again, it’s interesting that Bossk’s character traits went on to largely define Trandoshans as a whole, then in the new canon, with greater individualization within species, Bossk is given a friendlier identity while a faction of Trandoshans is still characterized as Wookiee-hunting psychopaths within The Clone Wars.

Meanwhile, IG-88 doesn’t really seem to have been changed at all. There are a lot of other IG-model droids, from the Clone Wars onward, and these other versions often get used instead of IG-88 himself. That’s been a deliberate choice; in an interview with IGN, Dave Filoni explained:

So a droid like IG-88, if you know the Expanded Universe and the Star Wars history, there are a lot of stories around him or what might’ve happened to that particular droid. So out of respect for people that have been with this franchise a long time, it’s like, “well if we do something with this space, would that be contradicting those stories?” So it’s better just to say, “Well, there’s other droids,” it’s not like it was a unique assassin droid.

I appreciate Filoni’s tendency to bring in things from Legends as reasonable and to leave Legends elements ambiguously canon where possible instead of always explicitly contradicting them with new material, but I also find it ironic that he says that it wasn’t a unique assassin droid, when “Therefore I Am” is very much so about how IG-88 was a unique prototype (something already undermined in Legends with ideas like the IG lancer droids). That all said, I wouldn’t mind a revamped version of IG-88 that more fully explores the contradiction between his lofty ideals for a droid revolution and his practices of overwriting programming and operating through brutal violence. Why does he want the droid revolution? What are his end goals? Something more than simply being disgusted with organics could be really interesting, especially in the wake of L3-37’s debut (and IG-88’s plan to become the Death Star II could provide an interesting mirror to L3’s becoming part of the Millennium Falcon).

Zuckuss and 4-LOM became such weird, splintered characters in Legends. Zuckuss had multiple personalities; 4-LOM had a memory (and personality) reset. These elements appear to have been attempts to explain too many stories about these characters from different writers with different visions who didn’t bother to make for a consistent presentation. That said, I like the earlier versions of these characters. Zuckuss is a thoughtful, meditative, tradition-bound member of a mystic hunting tradition. 4-LOM is a constantly adapting droid who believes that he can program himself to allow for intuition and to maybe even access the Force. It doesn’t seem like the duo have appeared much in the new canon yet, so it’s hard to say how their personalities will cement.

Boba Fett has had the biggest transformation, from weird zealot-murderer to vengeance-obsessed clone; in some ways, he’s become more like the old Dengar. I like the newer version of Boba Fett better. The biggest mark against Boba Fett is that he has an unsatisfying ending. His death was treated as a sort of joke in Return of the Jedi. In a way, Attack of the Clones makes his death more of an inescapable tragedy; his “father” tried to raise a better version of himself, and Jango’s untimely death set Boba down a path that would see him die in a similarly unceremonious way at yet another elaborate execution gone wrong. Legends tried to make Fett virtually indestructible, overcoming the Sarlacc so that he could go on to be a continuing threat to Han and his family. But I think Fett’s life from Kamino to Tatooine has a better, self-contained arc, even if his on-screen death will always be a silly footnote.

As a special addition, I have to mention Greedo. Greedo’s formative Legends tale was in “A Hunter’s Fate,” collected within Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina. There, he’s a young hotshot who’s basically goaded, unprepared, into a fight with Han so that his bounty hunter “friends” can in turn collect a bounty on the inept Rodian. Whatever happened in that cantina–Han shooting first, second, or simultaneously–fits comfortably with this narrative. Greedo was unprepared and couldn’t outgun Han. Greedo’s new canon version is actually frustrating to me; he’s been in operation for at least a couple decades, with an active involvement in the underworld of the Clone Wars era, and yet he still bumbles a point-blank shot at Han. It’s a wonder that such an incompetent gunman could have survived in his line of work for as long as he did. If Lucas had simply left Han to shoot first, this wouldn’t bother me as much–Han would have been taking out a threat proactively, before the dangerous hunter could get a shot off. But if Han fires second, or even simultaneously, it becomes difficult to understand how Greedo, with weapon rested on the table before him the whole time, could have screwed up so badly.

Obviously, the above only reflects my opinions and interpretations of these characters. Bounty hunters are on my brain. I’d love to hear which versions of the characters you prefer and why, or even which versions of the characters you’re more familiar with. And as a separate prompt, are there any other characters who have had particularly successful/unsuccessful transitions from Legends to the new canon? Do you see new characters, like IG-11, that are filling the role of a Legends character in new stories? I hope to see some interesting replies!

The Verdict: Bone Wars

Seems every time I claim there won’t be a change to my posting frequency, that’s exactly what happens. Consider last week’s missing post an anomaly, though–it’s been a busy month, and not just with the new job and new volunteer role. In just over a month, Sam and I have been to two weddings and participated in several more social events than I’m used to. It’s been fun but time-consuming, and we’re both just tired now!

Honestly, the most fun I’ve had in a long while was just yesterday. We went to “The Verdict: The Bone Wars” at the Indianapolis Children’s Museum. It was an adults-only night of food, drinks, live entertainment, and dinosaurs. The “live entertainment” portion was a mock trial, presented by local attorneys and actors, that addressed the rivalry of paleontologists Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh in the 1870s. If you were trying to find a more perfect confluence of subjects that were more in line with my interests, it would be difficult: history, paleontology, and law, all accompanied by as much delicious food and as many strong cocktails as I could want.

While there wasn’t a real trial to replicate, the ridiculous antics of the friends-turned-rivals provided more than enough fodder for this reenacted dispute. That said, and while it’s all in good fun, I was surprised that the audience ultimately found for Cope, here in the role of plaintiff in a lawsuit for libel, when there wasn’t all that much evidence presented (within the mock trial) that Marsh actually published anything clearly libelous. The central complaint, his continued mockery of Cope’s reversal of the Elasmosaurus reconstruction, seemed quite firmly rooted in fact. And both men were involved in enough skulduggery and field site dynamiting. I think people just felt sorry for Cope!

What was also cool was that the reception and after-party events were hosted in the museum’s “Dinosphere,” so we could wander around and look at the fossil displays. It’s been years since I was last there. Friendly and informative staff were on hand; I learned a little bit about fossil prep and storage, and even a little sauropod anatomy, from a paleontologist working in a display lab on site, and I learned about developments in fossil reconstructions and displays, as well as future plans for the Dinosphere in light of the Mission Jurassic project, from a museum exhibit interpreter. Plus, the Extraordinary Scientists-in-Residence for Mission Jurassic answered audience questions and provided their perspectives on paleontology past and present after the mock trial ended. So it was all really informative and entertaining!

This was the second year for “The Verdict,” and while the use of a paleontology theme is just a one-off, Sam and I are both very interested in attending future years’ Verdict events.

I’m in a particular dinosaur-focused mood now, so I’m rather eager to get to some books that I’ve been sitting on. There’s Donald Prothero’s The Story of the Dinosaurs in 25 Discoveries: Amazing Fossils and the People Who Found Them, a library hold waiting in my pile of books; Brian Switek’s My Beloved Brontosaurus: On the Road with Old Bones, New Science, And Our Favorite Dinosaurs, unread in my own personal collection; and Michael Crichton’s posthumously published Dragon Teeth (which just so happens to be about the Bone Wars), a book I keep meaning to get around to but haven’t bothered to obtain yet. We’ll see when and if I get around to them all, though.