Monday, January 16, 2017

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart

Bridge of Birds
A Novel of an Ancient China that Never Was
Barry Hughart
Book 1 of the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox
Historical Fantasy

I pick up a lot of books with the intention to somedy read them. Bridge of Birds was one of those. With my enjoyment of martial art movies and samurai movies, I'm always on the lookout for fantastic fiction in that vein of genre.

Bridge of Birds is a novel of an Ancient China that never was, and while it has some supernatural elements to it, it is more of a detective story than anything.

The young and naive Number Ten Ox, the tenth son in his family, is strong as an Ox, but is not a great fighter nor a great swordsman.

Master Li on the other hand, is an enfeebled and ancient scholar who plays the role of detective and is also not a great fighter nor a great swordsman.

Despite that, these two get in a considerable amount of trouble.

In terms of writing style, Barry Hughart brings us the tale through the eyes of Number Ten Ox in first person view. It's a great method as Number Ten Ox has a great sense of observation and it makes the novel a fast read. It's also an entertaining novel that moves from one chapter to the next. Of the three books I've read this year, I've enjoyed this one the most.

The author uses repeition to bring home ideas and characters. If at the end of the novel you're not laughing at master Li Kao, a scholar wit ha slight flaw in his character, you're probably not going to enjoy the book as Hughart ties things together nicely with throw backs to earlier points.

The Ancient China that never was is filled with fantastical characters and monsters. There are mazes that flood, abandond cities surrounded by magma, guarded by an invisible mosnter of gigantic size known as the Unseen Hand. There are characters seeking redemption and unredeemable villains.

And in all this, the young and somewhat simple Number Ten Ox. A man on a mission to save the accidentally poisoned children of his small village. A man on the hunt for the Great Root of Power! The original Ginsing itself!

This also makes me smile as recently I had opportunity to go to a Korean resteraunt that specialized in all manner of foods that were prepared with Ginsing. Little bits of lore about the history of the plant as well as mythology of it were scattered throughout the novel.

In terms of it's telling, the book touches on a lot of genres and types. We have ancient myths that are sprinked with fairy tales. We have historical sounding bits added to ghost stories. We have pscyhological bits like racial memory added to deliberate attempts to destroy records of the past to ensure secrets are safekept.

I don't know how he does it, but Barry Hughart takes all these elements and blends them together into a story that's fun, fast paced, and makes you wonder not only how will this duo gete out of their current situation, but how will they get into the next one!

If you're interested in how the series sounds, I'd recommend the digital omnibus on the Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox. At $9.99 it's a little over $3 per e-book.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Gates of Fire

Gates of Fire
Written by Steven Pressfield
Historical Fiction

Steven Pressfield was known to me for his non-fiction book, "Do The Work". It's a sequl of sorts to his other non-fiction book, "The War of Art." The former was good if a bit short, the later I've not read.

The story behind Gates of Fire is well known to most modern audiences. Frank Miller put forth a frentic energized version in his graphic novel "300" which was later turned into a movie.

Note, this was not the first movie to capture the tale of the 300. The 300 Spartans was out well before Frank took his interpetation.

Steven Pressfield's book Gates of Fire isn't a frenzied tale of blood soaked madness in rapid fire. It's an unwinding tale told by a survivor of the original battle at the  Gates, one who is captured by the Persians and feels compeled by Apollo to tell his tale. It winds in and out of different time periods providing the reader with a great scope of the region than 300 dudes going to a blood soaked pass to fight.

It's well told and flows smoothly. The narroator brings us around various cities and regiions while providing his own history which is filled with tragedy of the times. I'd trust Steve Pressfield's descriptions of the Spartans having actual armor and a variety of methodologies over Frank Miller's warrior nudists.

Another benefit of a tale told longer, is there are more characters with their own stories prior to getting to the Gates. This allows the reader to see the daily lives of both those who life and breath the Spartan way, and those like the narrator who while a Freeman, are not of the caste but serve under it willingly as this allows them to serve under the best.

One of the nifty things that Steven Pressfield's book brings to the table, are nicknames. For example, we get "Suicide", a warrior who fights alongside the Spartans and rushes into battle eager to die and yet never does. We get "Rooster", a short onery fellow who hates the Spartan's despite his father being one as he identifies with his mother's people. Yet it is Rooster who provides opportunities to the Spartan's that they would not have had without him.

Gates of Fire is tale of the military at it's core. The strengths necessary to fight off "this factory of fear" as some of the Spartans refer to their flesh. To love their brothers enough, to love their cities enough, to love their civilization enough, to fight not to win necessarily, but to provide courage and inspiration to those that will come after them.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

The Ten Thousand by Michael Curtis Ford

A Novel of Ancient Greece

The cover boldly proclaims “In the ancient world, one army was feared above all others…” With such a proud figure on the cover and such loud proclamations, I gladly picked up The Ten Thousand. I was fortunate in that the cover notes that this is a worthy successor to Steven Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, which I also managed to snag. Each book bought for a mere $1 apace.

The Ten Thousand is not filled with battle upon battle. Rather it is a well written novel of how Xenophon became a leader of the Ten Thousand, Greek Mercenaries who in this case, lost their patron half way across the world, and how Xenophon had to lead them back to safety.

The writing is highly descriptive without being overly boring. Michael Curtis Ford brings even small characters to mind with a few well placed bits, such as telling an old story that even modern readers should be familiar with. There were several sequences I initially though he was babbling, wasting pages, but they come back to fruition later on in the novel, one of the earliest sequences I thought fascinating but wasteful, nearly at the very end of the novel itself.

In short, if you want to read a historical novel of Ancient Greece, a well written, well researched novel, one based on the book Anabasis, then The Ten Thousand is a fantastic way to spend a few evenings.

For role players though, what can be gleaned?

1.       The environment must play a part in your campaigns. The initial trek to met with destiny takes the Ten Thousand away from their familiar coastal areas and through harsh desert terrain. Have you ever wanted to actually use your desert sourced theme books? Do so. On the way back from crushing defeat, the army moves through blinding, killing, snow. Want to use those winter themed books? Do so. The world is small enough that ever environment should play it’s role in your campaign.

2.       Start After a Loss: The book really picks up pace after the army that the Ten Thousand are but a small part of, meets disaster. That’s when the heroes of the book must come together and fight as one. This can be done at any level but you have to be willing to start with loss. The caravan is overrun. Waterdeep is destroyed. The Prime Material Plane is vaporized. The city of Sigil falls into the Abyss. After opening with such a crushing defeat, the players should be motivated to do what they do best!

3.       Historical Context Builds Culture: “Some three hundred years earlier, Sardis, even than a great city, had been overwhelmed by hordes of pale-skinned barbarians who had swept down from the north in endless numbers like packs of ravenous wolves, devouring all its riches and mingling their wild barbarian blood with that of the refined and delicate natives. It was said that so many men and women were killed during the barbarians brutal sweep through the city that when the carnage was over, thousands of children were left wandering the streets, homeless and wailing. The offspring of royalty mingled with those of the lowest cowherds, and the children’s identities were obliterated through the effacement of their outward customs and manners as they scrounged for scraps in the gutters. It was finally decided that no one could determine their origins with certainty, for every child claimed to have been sired by the king, and so they were simply lined up in the market like so much chattel and auctioned to the highest bidder, as slaves of the barbarians or for adoption by surviving Sardesian adults. Since that time, each baby has been imprinted with a tiny, discreet tattoo shortly after birth, usually along the hairline on the nape of the neck, depicting an identifiable family symbol such as an animal or a letter.” A few sentences of background and you’ve got a cultural bit that almost instantly identifies people from Sardis. Great stuff.

4.       Unique Characters: Description can be a boring and tedious thing but making sure that the players remember the main attractions of the event is important! “Clearchus was as terrifying an individual as Proxenus had led us to believe, and worse. His face was so homely and pockmarked as to be almost comical, but he had an evil, jagged scar running halfway down the side of his temple, which he was constantly picking at, keeping it inflamed, perhaps intentionally, for effect. His beard was so ragged and lice-infested as to raise eyebrows even for a Spartan, and he never smiled – in fact, he hardly talked except to cuss out his men, and could barely chew for the rotten blackness of his teeth.”

If you’re looking for inspiration, The Ten Thousand deals it out chapter after chapter.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Season Updates

In the real world, I've been out of employment for five months. Part of a small layoff at my old job at a company I'd been at for nineteen years. 

I have recently found new employment in a contract position with Medline. Pay is great but no benefits. 

It's also a bit out of the way compared to my old job. Instead of fifteen minutes, it's roughly an hour there and another hour back. 

My initial work was Monday-Friday doing the regular training and learning bits. During this time I've had to create documentation because for many things, it was all hand delivered. Always a poor way to handle issues. 

This relying on subject matter experts though isn't a new thing. It was a common sight at the old job too. Only a handful of people knowing how to do a thing without it being documented.

With me on board, there are two other new hires. We've all been doing our share of recording things.

And it's not that current employees are unfriendly. No, they are relatively so. But they're not teachers. When they go to show you how something is done, it's zip zip zip. No screenshots, no written documentation, no waiting while you write things down because they are handling vital issues, so it makes thing difficult to ensure that you've got every step necessary down. 

This makes things a bit more challenging then they need to be.

There are some things documented. The documentation in those areas is very handy. Well written and generous use of screen shots. 

But sometimes it's wrong. And it's copy protected so we can't update it. So you wind up making a copy of it for your personal use and anytime the correct file does get changed, you're now out of synch. Minor things but telling things.

The job uses PL/SQL, and it's been a challenge to take my MS Access skills to this field. Fortunately, I've always studied SQL because there are some things in MS Access that you still need SQL to do. And I've always been interested in "big data" and databases in general. It's a good way to organize things.

So long story short, I've been busy with a new job.

I'm still reading comics, still reading books. Lately, those books have veered away from fiction and into non-fiction. Some interesting results there. Did see Rogue One and will definitely have to post about that soon.

Anyway, I hope the holidays are treating everyone well and that everyone is ready for 2017 to be a better year than 2016. 

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Thor: Thunder In Her Veins

I read my comics in digital format for the most part. I buy comics when they are on sale.  Getting a comic for $2.99 seems a good deal to me! 
Let me start with the art. Great stuff. It's not the best I've ever seen Thor. I've been reading comics since the late 70s. I've seen George Perez, Walter Simonson, John Buscema, John Bryne. Art is subjective and this may be some people's personal interpretation. It's fun stuff, and I like it. 

Next, let me talk about the writing. There are crisp bits that stand out. The whole title "Thunder in Her Veins" is a play off of the situation the Thor finds herself in. See Thor is Jane Foster. 
Jane has a long history with Thor. A former love interest, a former nurse, a former doctor, and now a cancer patient. She is not doing well. But the writing. "The flesh is weak but the thunder is strong" is solid. 

The whole cancer thing? This aspect of the character bores me to tears. It bores me for the same reason the "Odinson" losing an arm bores me. It bores me for the same reason anytime Vision is physically destroyed. Anytime Wolverine is injured. It's meaningless. 
She has cancer because she chooses to have cancer. That's it. In a world of gods and magic and various cures for anything, for Jane to have cancer is a weak plot device.
Thankfully the series doesn't use it too much. In most of the collection, Jane is Thor.
The series works the war of the Asgard mythology worlds. The dark elves, the light elves, the trolls, the fire giants, the frost giants and of course, Asgard.
In the middle of all this? The new and the hunted Thor.  
Outside of Jane's cancer, the 'boring' stuff continues to be the choice of characters. Cul the 'Serpent' wasn't that interesting when a whole event was dedicated to him. Here he comes off as more boring if possible. More useless. If he's pulling Odin's strings, it'll be even more worthless and wasted. His whole "Corps" of the hammer using individuals who look like Thor wannabes from the late 80's metal hair band even worse.

Odin being an ass in and of itself continues to be annoying. It's not that he should "NEVER" be such, it's just it's been done so many times. Do we really need it again? 
Now Thor being a legacy character has a lot of history. This, however, is an interesting mix as there is Jane's personal history, and then the history of the 'Odinson.' Sometimes they correlate in interesting ways. 
For example, one of the Odinson's oldest foes is his adopted brother Loki. Jane has suffered many times at the hands of Loki since she was Thor's love interest.
So when the two meet?
 It doesn't go well.
This is a recurring theme for the new Thor. Acting out with initial violence or being perceived to do such.
In an interesting twist on things, Loki, in part due to his popularity in the Avenger's movie and of course, his role in the Thor movie, and in the first resurrection of Thor back into the Marvel universe in the first place, Loki has gone through MANY changes.

He's been Loki: Agent of Asgard . He's been Kid Loki, a member of the Young Avengers.  He's been good, bad, and everything between.

One of the most interesting takes, though, is when the new Thor meets this version of Loki.

This is a version that does surprisingly well in this new battle between Thor and Loki.

The top notch art and the solid storytelling make it a fight worth remembering and one that would be hard to beat if this collection didn't quickly surpass it.

So another one of those classic fights, "Thor vs. Odin" right up to bat! And man, I love that bottom panel. Captures the energy just right.

And this full splash page? Another great example of why I'm enjoying the art in this collection. You can feel the blows!

Thor vs Odin is often a one sided fight. It's usually one that Thor quickly loses. But the 'new' hammer seems to have several tricks of its own. I'm almost wondering if the hammer is possessed by 'the real' Odin and that it's moving on it's own ways and methods.

And regarding Loki and character growth? Who knows what games he's playing. He's written remarkably well here. The complexity hinted at in the blow.

I can get why some people don't like "Thor" as a woman without a name change but peeps, I tell you, you're missing some great classic comics. Solid art, solid writing, and while I'm not a huge fan of everything, there's more than enough to get me waiting for the next collection.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

My Hero Academia Vol 1

I like Super Heroes.

I like anime.

So a series about a preteen in a world of superheroes where something like 80% of the population has a super ability and he does not, but he wants to be an actual hero comes out, I'm interested.

So +Hulu has My Hero Academia season one available to stream.

And hey, Amazon had the first volume of the Manga on sale.

So for those who are curious, the manga and the anime follow each other pretty closely.

It also ties into the recent posts of legacy, of passing down values or taking values and bringing them to a new generation.

Midoriya is a youth in a world of 'quirks.' These 'quirks' tend to fall into the useful to the useless. They are similar to 'mutant' abilities in the Marvel Universe but are often highly augmented by technology. Much like the other series, Bunny & Tiger, there are heroes who do it for the money, those who do it for the popularity, and those, like All Might, the blonde United States Hero, the most powerful of them all, who does it because it's the right thing to do.

Now the thing about 'quirks' is like in DC or Marvel, there's the technology factor. When you get super smart people, for example, you get technology that goes way beyond anything available in the 'real' world. This means cloning, genetic modification, etc... So there's a bit of that going on as well.

Midoriya though, has no quirk. This is devastating for him because he grew up watching All Might and had a serious case of hero worship. Of doing the right thing. Of being an actual hero, not for the money, not for the popularity, not for the arrogant righteousness of it, but to help others.

Despite not having a quirk, and being teased relentlessly by former friend Bakugo, a youth with an impressive quirk who himself dreams of being a big hero, mainly for the popularity, to set new roads and records for himself, Midoryia keeps dreaming. He takes notes. He observes how super hero fights go, how tactics work.

And then he gets to met All Might. It's amusing to note that even the character recognizes that All Might is "drawn in a totally different style," a less than sublet nod to western comics.

Midoryia flat out asks All Might if he can be a hero. All Might tells him to not become a super hero but rather, become a police man or something that does help people.

And then he surprises All Might with his bravery and his actions, going to save Bakugo from a super villain.

All Might decides that Midoriya will be his pupil and that thanks to All Might's own unique quirk, "All For One", a quirk that can be passed down to others, Midoriya is back in action and has the potential to be one of the greatest heroes of all.

All Might does this because he is in Japan originally to find an appropriate heir. In a previous battle, All Might was badly injured and cannot stay in his quirk form for long and his powers are fading. His nonquirk form is less than flattering.

Midoriya, by being like All Might, inspired by All Might indeed, is just the type of hero that All Might is looking for. Even without quirks, with no thought to his own safety, Midoriya charged in to save someone else's life.

This impresses All Might.

And as a reader, I was impressed by how All Might works with Midoriya. How he gives him a plan to let Midoriya accept the All For One power without it destroying him. How he works with him in almost all things. It's great to see an actual mentor-apprentice relationship where

My Hero Academia is a fun title that like it's characters, has it's share of quirks. For example, if Midoriya never wept again, I'd be impressed. The kid has more tears than Steven from Steven Universe, which is damn impressive.

The art is solid. The storytelling solid. There are elements going on in the background that are building up. If you have Hulu, check it out, otherwise check out the manga it's based on. Fun stuff.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Creed (2015)

Lately, it seems I've been on passing the torch theme.

In Kevin Smith's Green Hornet, it's from father to son.

In Project Superpowers, it's the same characters taken out of commission magically and brought to the present day where they are sorely needed.

In Creed, it's the illegitimate son of professional boxer Apollo Creed coming of age and seeking out a mentor who knew his father in a way that only professional fighters would as Adonis Johnson Creed gains tutelage under the skillful hands and eyes of none other than Rocky Balboa, whom Creed affectionately calls "Unc."

The young Creed does a great job of being both outcast and silver spoon child. His youth finds him in a prison center for children separated from others for his continuous fighting. In walks Mary Anne, wife of Apollo Creed, and offers to take in the youth.

For those, like me, who've forgotten, Mary Anne is Apollo's wife. Adonis is not her son. It turns out Apollo had an affair and this son was born after Apollo died.

Mary Anne raises Johnson in style, providing him with a good life. Life much better than Rocky himself enjoyed at the end due to those issues he suffered in Rocky V. Still, Johnson isn't happy with a desk job and spends time fighting in Mexico where his record is 15-0 with those 15 victories being knockouts.

Quitting his day job, he seeks out Rocky for "real" mentoring. Rocky's reluctance to enter the ring in any guise again quickly folds under the determination and spirit he sees in Johnson. Soon the two are working as one with Johnson gaining greater skill under his teacher's watchful eye.

The impressive thing here is how Stallone pushes himself into the background. If you've seen Stallone's other recent movies, you know that despite his age, he's in fantastic shape. In Creed, there's none of that. He's well hidden and concealed behind layers and layers of clothes. This allows actor Michael B. Jordan to shine as Creed.

After bonding with the training, the opportunity comes for young Creed to start his professional career. Boxing is, after all, a business. Adonis claims another KO victory. This prompts more attention onto him, especially when people learn that he is the son of Apollo Creed. He'd been fighting under Adonis Johnson up to that point.

His "rival" in this instance has some build up. One of the professionals that Adonis fought early in the film laid him out soundly. That professional in turn was knocked out at a weight in by the fighter that now Creed has the opportunity to fight: Pretty Colan.

I've mentioned before how showcasing the strength of an enemy can be done by destroying a formerly shown strong rival to the hero? Yeah, hook, line, and sinker here. Colan's so strong he breaks the other guy's jaw at a weigh in. Scary right?

But Colan is going to jail for gun possession. To earn extra money, a fight with a "Creed", even if he is young and untested in the professional ring, is seen as a sure thing.

And this leads into more training!

Now on some levels, there are obvious callbacks to the original Rocky movie. The unknown against the great champ. The theme of "going the distance." The idea of mentors and their values. The numerous training montages. These are all solid devices.

But the film goes a little further in character development. Adonis is no Rocky. He's had a different life. While there has been the struggle, especially in acceptance of never getting to talk to his real father, he later young life was a breeze in comparison. His training under the legendary Rocky is no small thing either.

But the film pushes further. Rocky becomes a sort of father figure for young Creed. But is also diagnosed with Cancer and after seeing the treatments fail to help his wife, Rocky declines them, prepared for death.

Adonis and Rocky decide they will fight together! It's an interesting choice as they don't shy too much from the effects of chemo and the damage it causes to both the physical aspects of a person, or the appetites of a person. Especially telling when it's an Italian who's been shown to enjoy eating rich food.

Creed has some technical bits that were off when I viewed it. The use of Green Screen is blatantly obvious in the last fight where the two boxers are clearly the only thing in the actual room and everything else has been added afterward.

But that's a minor complaint in all. I suspect as the screens get better, especially with Ultra Definition or HD 4 or whatever professionals are calling it now, those flaws in old movies will only be more obvious. It'll be like watching DVDs of old 50's horror movies and laughing at how obvious it all seems.

I'm not a sports fan but Creed is a worthy addition to the Rocky series and sets up things to move forward with or without Rocky as a contributing cast member. If you've enjoyed the original Rocky and the recent version of it where Rocky is older but still fighting, Creed is in that vein.