Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys: Cold and Lovely in Prose

Copyright © 2017 by Ruthanna Emrys
Copyright © 2017 by Ruthanna Emrys

Some of you might remember a review I wrote last year, where I looked into “The Litany of Earth” by Ruthanna Emrys. I was downright fascinated at the way she offered a new perspective on religion, internment camps, and the Cthulhu Mythos, all in one go. I knew I had to read her latest novel, Winter Tide, and see where the adventures of Aphra Marsh would go next. Thanks to a giveaway on Goodreads, I managed to get a free copy to enjoy.

In 1928, the US government rounded up the families of Innsmouth, relocating them by force to internment camps to study their biology and separate them from their faith in the Deep Ones. Years later, a federal agent approaches Aphra Marsh, one of the camp survivors, to help them unravel a plot by Communist spies that involves body-swapping and other dark secrets stolen from Miskatonic University. This means that Aphra will reunite with her brother Caleb and venture back to her home, piecing together what remains of her culture in the face of human cruelty.

Aphra Marsh’s character isn’t all that different from who we saw in “The Litany of Earth.” Her role in this story is essentially the same here: to fulfill a mission from the government to root out dangerous people using dark magic that’s linked to her Aeonist roots. However, she has a large following now, with her young Japanese friend Neko, who wants a life outside San Francisco; her estranged brother Caleb Marsh, who is bitter and still clings to the Old Ways; and her new pupil Audrey, who is eager to adapt and delve into the mysteries of Aeonism. There are also returning characters like the bookseller Charlie Day and federal agent Ron Spector, but I honestly never got all that deep an impression from either of them.

I did like (at first, anyway) the addition of Professor Trumbull, who is much more than she first appears to be. She stood on a different plane than Aphra, steeped in far more mysteries and horrors of the universe, and with far less sympathy for the “lesser” races. I also had to admit that the Miskatonic student Audrey was a surprise when she first appeared, but I soon grew to appreciate her in the same way I did Aphra’s friend Neko.

As for the plot itself? I must admit, I was excited when I started reading, but as one chapter progressed to the next, my enthusiasm began to wane. I went from the thrill of Aphra getting entangled with her rituals and Spector, the man from the FBI, to a slow-paced disappointment with watching her pore over the same books and secrets, with little sense of anything really being accomplished. At some point, I forgot that I was reading a story that had promised (from its back cover blurb) to be something of a Cold War-era spy thriller. Because all I remembered were the many hours spent on the campus at Miskatonic University, where nothing really happened. No confrontations, no subversions or ambushes. Just a story plodding along, but I was still on Chapter 14 when I realized this. Winter Tide is not a book for anyone expecting fierce pursuits or explosive confrontations.

Even so, Emrys knows her stuff when it comes to the post-war era and the eldritch weirdness of the Cthulhu Mythos. She fills her pages with scenes of G-Men storming college campuses, Yith who are fluent in Enochian, subtle hints of socially accepted racism, and guttural prayers to Shub-Niggurath. Longtime fans of Cold War literature can read into the politics that the author puts on display here, and the same goes for Lovecraftian horror fans and the staggering amount of lore that is alluded to or referenced outright.

But is the novel worth a read? Well, if you like delving into the religious rites of strange cultures or digging through layers of Red Scare-style paranoia, then you might like this. I must admit that Aphra Marsh is, by herself, a neat concept for a protagonist, being more alien than her human peers, but still human enough for us readers to feel for her perilous road.

Winter Tide is due for release on the 4th of April of this year. You can pre-order it at the time of this writing through booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Amazon.

Bibliography: Emrys, Ruthanna. Winter Tide. New York: Tom Doherty Associates, LLC, 2017.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Saving the Dream of ’77

Copyright 2016 by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 2016 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

In 2015, Disney proved something: it could tell a Star Wars movie when it released The Force Awakens. George Lucas wasn’t at the helm, and the cast was different, but we could recognize the same elements of the saga in its story and special effects. From its opening scrawl of text to the last notes of the John Williams score during the credits, we knew what we were in for.

Last December, Disney took a chance with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Here’s a film that took a step outside the usual arc: a Star Wars installment with no Jedi Knights, no Skywalkers, and almost none of the familiar faces.

And it proved that, yes, you can tell this kind of story.

Rogue One is set mere days before the events of A New Hope. When an Imperial pilot defects with a message from one of the top scientists, the Rebellion puts into motion a plan to use the scientist’s daughter, Jyn Erso, to retrieve the pilot from a more dangerous Rebel cell. What’s set up to be a simple operation goes astray quickly when the Empire tests out its new weapon, the Death Star, on the planet where all this is taking place. But from there, Jyn, Captain Andors, and the rest of their cobbled-together team will go on a series of raids to track down Galen Erso and the plans for the ultimate weapon before it’s too late.

As you’d expect from a synopsis like that, this isn’t the Star Wars of twirling lightsabers and brilliantly colored starfighter battles, though (spoiler warning) there are a couple of those here. This is the saga with grit and blood on the lens. We get to see what the galaxy far, far away looks like from a pedestrian level, where there is no hope, but a band of desperate Rebels (emphasis on the “desperate”). All the humor in this movie is dark, especially when news of the Death Star breaks. And we can see firsthand what its firepower does to even a city, let alone to a planet.

Now, when I first saw the original photo of the Rogue One team, I had a single thought: “Boy, am I gonna tell any of them apart?” But their dark appearance, while it fits with the film, doesn’t show you how different they truly are onscreen. Every character in the squad stands out. Jyn Erso is the cynical resistance fighter with a heart of gold. Cassian Andors is a quick-witted and coldhearted Intelligence agent. K-2SO is a massive droid with a sardonic wit and extremely efficient killing methods (picture HK-47, but more cinematic). And then you have more optimistic characters like the defector Bodhi Rook, the loyal gunman Baze Malbus, and the Force-worshipping martial artist Chirrut Îmwe (played by the great Donnie Yen) on the other end of the spectrum. Everyone is well-cast in this movie, from its heroes to its villains.

And just to clear that elephant in the room, here’s my take on the CGI effects used to “resurrect” a few faces from the original 1977 film: they’re fine. I know of a few moviegoers who cry “Uncanny valley!” about it, but I think they do a good job within the context of this film. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of trying to insert an entirely different actor into the role and just pretending that nothing’s changed.

If I had a single note of complaint, it would be that the pacing, at times, felt a little rushed. Not that it was bad, but more that it was the kind of breakneck speed that felt more suited for a movie’s Act 3. And once we got to Act 3, that kind of frantic editing was amazing, but it did leave me a little disoriented up until that point. Even so, I loved Rogue One from start to finish. We got to see an amazing story told with a diverse cast and some spectular visuals, all to set up what we know and love about the original Star Wars movies. This was everything that I ever wanted from the prequel trilogy that Lucas gave us in the early Aughts.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is available through Lucasfilm and currently playing everywhere in theaters.

Bibliography: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, and Simon Emanuel. Screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Based on characters by George Lucas. Perf. Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker. Lucasfilm Ltd. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Original release date: December 16, 2016.

Why You Should Watch Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories on Netflix

Copyright © 2016 by Netflix
Copyright © 2016 by Netflix

My last post for 2016 is going to be short and sweet. And while I make it a policy to review content that falls into the category of Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Anime, I’m making an exception for this Netflix original series.

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories has stolen my heart, and I think you readers might enjoy it, too, if you haven’t seen it already. Based on a long-running manga series in Japan, it’s a very simple 10-episode show about a Tokyo entrepreneur, known only as “Master,” who runs a small diner that’s open from midnight to 7 a.m. He caters to an eccentric bunch of people, and it’s the stories of his customers that he delves into, often starting them off with an iconic dish, from egg tofu to corn dogs. Master (played by Kaoru Kobayashi) is never the hero of these stories, but his sympathetic ear is enough to get his customers to see things differently. Their troubles range from attempts at romance to issues with being a parent to the rise and fall of celebrity status.

I love this show more than words can say. The Japanese-language dialogue has a fantastic rhythm, and the actors in each episode are all quite good. I’m also enthralled every time we cut into Master’s kitchen for a glimpse at the dishes he makes. Each episode even ends with a short spiel on how to cook a certain dish. It’s just so charming.

From the moment I started watching, I knew why I liked this show so much. It reminds me of the manga and anime series Bartender. Master isn’t exactly Ryu Sasakura, but they share the same style that encourages their customers through their particular crises. The live-action show is, much like the anime I watched, a good example of the iyashikei genre that’s prevalent in Japan. There’s conflict and drama, but nothing like you’d see in a typical hour-long Western show. It’s more about the quiet, comfortable atmosphere of everyday stories, and we need more of that in the world today.

Midnight Diner: Tokyo Stories is available to watch on Netflix.

Star Wars: The Old Republic and the Art of Time Management

Copyright © 2015 by BioWare and Electronic Arts
Copyright © 2015 by BioWare and Electronic Arts

I know it’s been out for a while now, and what with all the the recent press about the new Knights of the Eternal Throne expansionI decided to finally buckle down and give the MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic a shot.

One week later, I had logged on multiple hours playing through 3 different character paths on a single server (Smuggler, Imperial Agent, and Sith Inquisitor, if you want to know). And yes, I took the free-to-play option. I might be willing to sacrifice ungodly hours of my time on long, repetitive gameplay, but I certainly won’t cough up a few dollars per month for the privilege (not yet, at any rate; if I continue to play the game, I just might).

So, having said all that, here’s a few thoughts about SWTOR and what it offers.

Story-Driven Missions and Side Quests

I have to say, I’m impressed at how well each class you choose has its own in-depth story arc, from the planet you start out on to your journey across the galaxy. Each class has a distinct antagonist (or multiple enemies, depending on your role), as well as a route of progressing as either a hero or villain depending on your choices. While some of the enemies didn’t seem too engaging (I’m looking at you, Skavak), the stories themselves were, even if the missions built into their fabric were a lot of hustling back and forth over the same terrain for multi-part objectives.

A Very Colorful Cast of NPCs

This is to be expected, considering that BioWare is one of the big developers. Your player’s companions all have an appropriate contrast to your story arc’s morality (e.g. Corso will be an idealist to your Smuggler’s cynic, Kaliyo Djannis plays apathetic and mayhem-hungry to your Imperial Agent’s patriotism and loyalty). There’s also the various NPCs you fight, take side quests from, or answer to in the course of your missions, covering just about every personality aspect and quirk there is.

My personal favorite had to be Darth Zash, your superior in the Sith Inquisitor route. She’s so bubbly and genteel despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Sith Lord plotting domination and revenge against so many of her rivals (and with quite the big secret herself). Her character design and her personality were a great contrast to the gloomy Sith Empire, and I couldn’t get enough of her.

Clever Tie-Ins to the KOTOR Franchise

A lot of us were hoping for a more direct sequel to the first two Knights of the Old Republic games. The Old Republic does follow up on their story, even if it’s set centuries later and with a more skewed and dramtic plot. Even so, there’s some interesting allusions to the KOTOR universe, from the use of the games’ soundtracks to a thousand references to the player’s decisions, such as the overall impact of Darth Revan, the fate of Taris, and the future of HK assassin droids.

Many, Many Hours Required

You’d think that I would love nothing more than to be immersed in the Star Wars universe. And you’d be right. Except for one caveat: I can’t give SWTOR the amount of time it demands.

I’ll happily admit that I’m a newbie when it comes to the world of MMOs. I never played World of Warcraft or EVE Online or any of the other big titles. I dipped my toe into the water and nearly got lost in the whirlpool. I’d be playing from 1 to 5 pm, and then again from 8 pm until 2 in the morning, without any sense of time passing, all while staring into the urban decay of levels like Coruscant and Ord Mantell or the lush wilds of Balmorra and Taris.

So is The Old Republic good? Definitely so. The game has a lot of fun missions and character routes that you can take, and the developers put so much time and effort into making the game look amazing. I mean, the cinematic trailers alone won me over (and seriously, is it too much to ask BioWare and EA to remake the prequel trilogy in the style of their game trailers?). But SWTOR is an MMO, which means it’s a big time commitment. If you want to get into it, then do so, but it’s not a game for someone who’s looking for a casual experience.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is free-to-play and available for download from its official site.

One Punch Man: An Anime That Works as Its Own Abridged Series

Copyright © 2015 by Madhouse
Copyright © 2015 by Madhouse

I’ve been on record of saying how bored or unsatisfied I am with so much superhero media hype these days. It’s rare to find a superhero who is himself bored with the whole affair, too.

One Punch Man is one of those concepts in anime that sounds so stupid that it’s actually brilliant. In a world where costumed fighters are common and licensed under the Hero Association, there’s only one known fighter who’s a self-stated “hero for fun.” Here we meet Saitama, a young man who trained so hard that he went bald, but whose punches can destroy towering monsters and demons in a single blow. Much to his disappointment.

Of course, Saitama isn’t alone in his crimefighting business. He has help from the cyborg Genos and the martial arts master Silver Fang, who are the only ones in the show who seem to get just how scary and powerful he really is. They’re also a much-needed contrast, being heroic and noble to Saitama’s selfish, unconcerned style.

I love Saitama’s facial expressions and overall attitude. He’s so unlike your average superhero or shonen protagonist, being rather bored or more interested in smaller, stupid things. But that’s the point, isn’t it? When you can destroy enemies with a single punch, you don’t see challenges the way other people do. Instead, we get a guy who dresses like a superhero, but who’s more concerned with swatting a pesky mosquito or making it on time to Bargain Day at the market. He looks a hero, but he talks and sounds like us, the Average Joes of the audience.

The show plays with nihilism much like another animated series, Rick and Morty, does. For all the villains and arcs that Saitama faces, there’s no overarching point. He breaks everyone’s expectations, and he himself has few expectations about the world. Even the origins of his powers are treated as one big anticlimactic joke early on. Much like the mad scientist Rick Sanchez, our anime hero is just in the superhero business for fun and to get some perks out of his adventures. All the ideals of justice and law don’t matter in the slightest to him, even with more earnest heroes like Genos and Mumen Rider standing up for them.

None of this, however, takes away from the anime’s overall quality. The fights in this show (when they aren’t hilariously one-sided) are about as long and clever as any shonen fighting series. It’s as much a joy for Saitama as it is for the audience to see him take on an opponent who actually proves to be a challenge. And the show itself has so many superheroes to choose from, from cyborgs to martial arts warriors to deadly psychics, all bringing a different flavor to each episode.

At 12 episodes for a single season, One Punch Man is an absolute treat. If you’re looking for something that takes the piss out of the superhero genre, or perhaps an intro to the shonen genre, then this anime is for you.

The English dub of One Punch Man is available through Adult Swim. At the time of this writing, its second season is still in production.

Bibliography: One Punch Man (anime). Directed by Shingo Natsume. Produced by Chinatsu Matsui, Nobuyuki Hosoya, Keita Kodama, and Ayuri Taguchi. Written by Tomohiro Suzuki. Based on the manga by One. Madhouse (studio). Viz Media (North American licensing). Adult Swim (Toonami). Original run: October 5, 2015 – present.