Authors I Love – Brandon Sanderson

All right, so, I’m starting a new thing which is just what it says on the tin: authors I love.

These aren’t just authors that I read; these are authors I follow, whose books I buy as soon as I get a chance. These are the authors for whom I’ll read everything they write just because they’re the ones writing it

First up? Brandon Sanderson.

mistbornWhat does he write?
Epic fantasy.

How did you first hear about him?
In a news story linked from Fark.com, when it was announced he would be finishing off the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death. A lot of people were really excited and couldn’t stop talking about Mistborn, pointing to it as an example that Sanderson would do a good job of completing the WoT books.

What was the first book of his you read?
Mistborn.
I loved the premise, got hooked in the first couple of pages, and then stayed up until 1:30 a.m. finishing it because I literally could not put it down for the last 150 pages.

Of course, then November started and I couldn’t read anymore of his stuff until NaNoWriMo was over.

How many of his books have you read?
Six of them. I’ve read:
Mistborn
The Well of Ascension
The Hero of Ages
The Alloy of Law
Elantris
Warbreaker

I also own The Way of Kings and The Rithmatist, thought I haven’t had a chance to read them yet.

Why do you like his work so much?
One major reason is his worldbuilding, specifically in regards to magic systems (a strength he’s well aware of, because if you listen to the Writing Excuses podcast, Sanderson regularly refers to himself as “the magic system guy”). All of his magic systems are fascinating and I love the way they tie into his worlds. In some cases, they actually help drive the plot (as with Elantris).

In addition, he’s very good with relationships—friendships, family relationships, and romantic relationships. He does a fantastic job of building the relationships realistically, and since I’m such a hardcore romance reader, I love to see that done well in epic fantasy.

Not only does he do epic well, but he also writes an amazingly fun adventure story. I intended to just start The Alloy of Law and read for about an hour, and then I ended up reading the entire book in a day.

What’s your favorite book of his?
Mistborn
. A high fantasy heist/con story? BE STILL MY HEART. It was fabulous, and the whole series was one of the best fantasy trilogies I’ve read in years.

What’s your least favorite book of his?
I would have to say Warbreaker, and that’s simply because I didn’t like the magic system in that one as much as I did in Elantris and the Mistborn world, and the ending fell a little flat for me. Other than that, it’s still a very good story with some great twists and two of my favorite character arcs ever.

Where should a new reader start?
The two best places to start, in my opinion, are either Mistborn or Elantris. Obviously I’m partial to Mistborn, for reasons, but it is the first book of a trilogy, and Elantris is a standalone novel. So if you’re not quite willing to hop all the way into a trilogy, then Elantris would be the better place to start.

Book Review – Endymion by Dan Simmons

I read Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion, the first two books in Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos, in 2010, because I was looking to expand my science fiction horizons. (Pretty much the same reason I read The Moon is a Harsh Mistress last year.)

Both were dense, not just in writing but also in subject matter, but they were fascinating stories, though I got the sense I was only grasping about half of what Simmons wanted me to. Though I liked the books well enough and could definitely appreciate the skill with which Simmons wrote, they were hard as hell to get through at times. Once I’d finished them, I figured I was done.

Endymion by Dan SimmonsThen I was at the used bookstore and spotted a copy of Endymion, book three of the Hyperion Cantos, and I picked it up and read the first sentence.

You are reading this for the wrong reason.

My attention. You have it.

I bought it and started reading it in 2012. Obviously, it took awhile for me to finish. This is in a large part because I spent most of last year rewriting my WIP not just once, but twice, and at the end of the day I wanted a book I could read quickly and that wouldn’t require me to parse futuristic technological terms and philosophical discussions.

But over the past two months, I’ve sat down and read it. And discovered the rich, multi-layered world I’ve come to expect from Simmons, along with a protagonist I loved in Raul Endymion.

Endymion takes place nearly 300 years after The Fall of Hyperion. Raul is a Hyperion native, working as a guide for hunters that come to the planet, just one of the many jobs he’s had over his 27 years.

By that time in my life I had learned a little bit about sex and much about weapons, had discovered firsthand the power greed has in the affairs of men and women, had learned how to use my fists and modest wits in order to survive, was curious about a great many things, and felt secure only in the knowledge that the remainder of my life would almost certainly hold no great surprises.

I was an idiot.

I love this guy.

Raul is sentenced to death after he kills a man in self-defense, but wakes up after his execution to find he’s been rescued by an ancient old man with a favor to ask. Raul’s mission, should he choose to accept it, is to rescue 12-year-old Aenea from the Time Tombs and keep her safe from the various forces that seek to destroy her. Because Aenea is the new messiah, and her message will shape the course of humanity.

After 300 years, we see how the events of The Fall of Hyperion have affected the formerly interconnected worlds of the Web. Worlds that were one beacons of civilization are now nearly empty, the population dead from starvation or infighting. Worlds that were popular tourist destinations when terraformed have been reclaimed by nature, and the remaining humans there eke out a scarce existence.

Rather than the Hegemony, the prime governing body is now the Pax, which has grown out of the Catholic Church, a religion that was nearly extinct during Hyperion.

The Pax makes use of the cruciforms, cross-shaped parasites that attach to the body and can completely resurrect the host from just about any kind of death. This gave the Church the boost it needed to become a major force in the universe, with billions of people scrambling for the promise of literal eternal life.

And the Pax, with its massive armies and nigh-unlimited resources, is after Aenea.

The book alternates between two viewpoints for the most part: Raul’s, in first person as he transcribes his memories of meeting Aenea, and then Father Captain Frederico de Soya, the Pax captain in charge of Aenea’s capture, in third person present tense.

I by far preferred being in Raul’s point of view, in a large part because it always takes me a bit to get used to present tense. Simmons does it well, but my personal issues with it were still there, enough so that I would groan when I saw viewpoints had switched again. (De Soya himself is a good character, don’t get me wrong, and I liked him, but I had the most trouble reading his sections.)

It didn’t help that de Soya’s sections also seemed to be more crammed with description, like the four solid paragraphs that take up three-quarters of a page detailing the hierarchy of the Church, when the salient bit of information from this info-dump is tucked at the very end of the final paragraph.

I understand adding context and sometimes exposition is required, particularly in science fiction and fantasy novels where you’re dealing with so much new stuff, but damn. Dude, cut to the chase already.

In fact, if there was anything that annoyed me about the book, it was that: the occasional forays into too much description or too much philosophizing. And poetry excerpts. Thankfully these weren’t long, but damn, I hate poetry excerpts in novels. (At least we didn’t go into three pages of Elvish poetry a la Tolkien. Yeesh.)

Generally, I liked Raul better not only as a narrator, but as a character as well. He doesn’t see himself as a hero by any stretch of the imagination, but once he promises to protect Aenea, he sets about doing the best job he can despite the overwhelming odds against him.

He has a sense of humor that comes across in both his narration and his interactions with others (“Bring on the velociraptors!” made me giggle out loud), he and makes an effort to lighten dire situations with a joke, even if it falls flat.

He’s not perfect, and he’s not terribly well-equipped for the job he’s doing. We see his doubts, his fears, and his determination; we see him fall and get back up; we see that maybe Raul is, at heart, the hero he doesn’t believe himself to be.

Would I recommend this book? It’s difficult to say. I’ll almost certainly pick up The Rise of Endymion because I want to find out what happens to Raul, but I don’t have the gripping “must know NOW” sense I did after finishing some other novels (Cinder and Changeless spring to mind). I think that’s because I know it’ll be a tough read, and I have to steel myself for it.

Endymion may not be easy to read, but it is a well-written novel with a rich and fascinating world. If you’re a fan of science fiction and haven’t read the Hyperion novels, I would tentatively recommend them as long as you know what you’re getting into.

I don’t think you have to read Hyperion or The Fall of Hyperion in order to enjoy Endymion (the story is comparatively stand-alone), but it would add much more to your experience if you did.

And if you’re not a science fiction fan, you might want to look for a slightly easier introduction to the genre.

The Barenaked Archives – Kingdom of Heaven

Kingdom of Heaven posterFrom 2003 up until 2007, I was lucky enough to have “movie reviewer” as my job description. As such, I’ve built up a *lot* of reviews for just about every movie that came out during those years, as well as reviews of classic movies.

The Barenaked Archives are reviews that I did for two previous websites. Sadly, they are both gone, so this is now the only place online you can see these old columns.

Ever since Gladiator revitalized the sword-and-sandals epic, we’ve been subjected to Hollywood’s notion that, if one movie in a genre is a hit, you ought to drive said genre into the ground with every script you can greenlight in the hopes that at least one of them will reproduce the aforementioned triumph.

Unfortunately, this means that we as viewers have to put up with a lot of stuff that makes the contents of a toilet after a drinking binge look good. Troy was entertaining, but hardly epic, and the less that’s said about Oliver Stone’s lackluster Alexander, the better. (And believe me, “lackluster” is being very kind.)

This weekend, the man who resurrected the genre in the first place, Ridley Scott, returns with his Crusades epic Kingdom of Heaven. Of course, that means everybody’s wondering if he’ll be able to duplicate his Gladiator success.

Well, Kingdom of Heaven isn’t Gladiator. It is, however, a surprisingly good film that feels like a breath of fresh air for the genre and reinforces the idea that, if you want an epic made, go get Ridley Scott to do it.

Kingdom of Heaven is the story of Balian (Orlando Bloom), a French blacksmith who has lost his wife and child. He’s asked to accompany the knight Godfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) and his men to the Holy Land.

Balian is swept up in the politics in Jerusalem, which is held by the Christians in a shaky truce between King Baldwin (Edward Norton) and the Muslim general Saladin (Ghassan Massoud). However, there are factions on both sides that would rather have war. Balian must find it in himself to protect Jerusalem and its people from those that would destroy them.

The acting is solid all around, which is a great relief. Prior to this film, Orlando Bloom has had mostly supporting roles alongside heavyweights like Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp. Kingdom of Heaven is Balian’s story, which means that the bulk of this movie rests on Bloom’s ability to move into the leading man slot. Fortunately, he’s up to the task, and holds his own while sharing the screen with a very strong supporting cast.

With names like Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, and David Thewlis, you certainly can’t go wrong. Edward Norton stands out as Baldwin, the leper king, who spends the entire movie behind a silver mask. Brendan Gleeson is delightful as Reynald, one of the Templar knights who wants war with the Saracens. He is what he is, and makes no apologies for it.

Visually the film is absolutely gorgeous. Massive, sweeping shots of the landscape remind you of why widescreen is a good thing. The costumes, the cities, the deserts, and the sea…all are breathtakingly real.

You can practically feel the heat coming off the screen when the army marches across the desert. They even have a scene where thousands of vultures circle over battlefield littered with the corpses of soldiers. Tell me the last time you saw that in a film.

The siege of Jerusalem near the end of the movie is fantastic, one of the most realistic depictions of a siege that I’ve ever seen on film. They make use of all the artillery (siege towers, ballistae, giant crossbows, hot oil, battering rams, you name it). The defenders of Jerusalem worry (albeit briefly) about catching plagues from the dead and whether they’ll have enough supplies to withstand a long siege.

That’s not to say that the movie is perfect; in fact, it has a few flaws. For one, you can tell they they’ve cut out a lot of the story, whether to make a shorter running time or to appeal to the masses (or both).

For instance, in the aforementioned siege sequence, I would’ve liked to see more from the preparations they had to make. The love story between Balian and the princess of Jerusalem, Sibylla (Eva Green) also feels rushed, like quite a bit has been chopped out.*

At points during the battle sequences, the movie suffers the same faults as Gladiator with lightning-quick editing and shaky camera work that makes it hard to tell what’s going on with whom.

Those searching for political messages can try to find them, but I doubt they’ll be able to find one. Scott doesn’t make the Christians the peaceful, perfect good guys, nor does he show the Muslims as evil bloodthirsty savages. The factions are balanced, with chivalrous people and warmongering people on both sides. The digs at fanatical religion are subtle but there, and it’s interesting to see that in a big-budget Hollywood picture.

Kingdom of Heaven may not be a flawless film, but it is a very well-made one that’s really solid all around. It’s more than worth the two-and-a-half hour running time and is a welcome change from what Hollywood’s been shoving at us.

*Author’s note: Guess what? I was right. Below is the review I wrote about the Kingdom of Heaven director’s cut, released in May 2006.

Director’s Cut

I don’t normally review DVDs (and this won’t be a full review), but I’m going to make an exception.

I would really like to meet whatever executive at Fox watched Ridley Scott’s 3-hour-long cut of Kingdom of Heaven and said, “It’s too long. Cut out all that character crap and keep the battles.”

Because, you know, things like “background” and “motivation” have absolutely no bearing on the story’s logic whatsoever. Why does Sibylla (Eva Green) have a complete mental breakdown? “Oh, they don’t need to know.” How come a simple French blacksmith suddenly knows how to defend a city in siege combat? “We don’t have to explain that.” What happens to Guy after he’s paraded around on the donkey? “He’s a villain. Who cares?”

The theatrical version of Kingdom of Heaven is proof that somebody with veto power had absolutely no idea how to tell a story. The four-disc director’s cut of Kingdom of Heaven is proof that maybe next time, they should just leave Ridley Scott alone.

The first twenty minutes alone have so much added it’s honestly a shock to see what had to be cut, and truly it’s unfortuante. It gives so much more insight into the characters, especially Balian (Orlando Bloom), the priest (Michael Sheen), and Godfrey (Liam Neeson), or at least enough that their actions make sense.

It’s the same thing with Sibylla’s character, who gets an entire subplot added. In my original review of Kingdom of Heaven, I remarked that the love story between Balian and Sibylla felt “rushed, like quite a bit [had] been chopped out.” Turns out I was right. It also turns out that Sibylla had a son, who would’ve been heir to the throne. That part alone clarifies so much about the political situation in Jerusalem, and it makes her a much more sympathetic character.

If you had problems with Kingdom of Heaven because they left a lot of things unexplained or people acted with no motivation, then check out the director’s cut. Yes, it’s almost an hour longer, but it flows so much better.