Monday, October 1, 2018

Rewatching The Village and the Start of Inktober

We're officially into the autumn season and October (and Inktober*) has begun. That means our household is in for our annual spooky/Halloween/autumn movie marathon. One of our favorites to bring out this time of year is M. Night Shyamalan's The Village. It's been at least a year, if not several, since I last watched this one but it still makes me happy as both a consumer and creator of stories. However, it's not perfect, so I want to talk about what I (still) love and what doesn't quite work for me after all these years.

Love: Ivy and Lucius

These two are the heart of this movie (along with Ivy's father), and they are a demonstration of Shyamalan's ability to craft strong characters beset by extraordinary circumstances. Ivy is brave, but still experiences almost crippling fear. Lucius is passionate, but has trouble expressing that passion. Their story unfolds slowly but elegantly, and the climax of emotion and wit that is "the porch scene" will forever be one of my favorite scenes in cinema.

Not So Much: The Final Sequence

Don't get me wrong. I love Ivy's line "There is kindness in your voice. I did not expect that." The way she wins over Kevin and the final scenes in the village are well done and necessary to the story at hand.

But after the reveal of Noah as the Creature, the movie feels a little . . . flat. The emotion of the journey has been played out, and we (like Ivy) are a bit numbed and in shock from the chase through the woods. In hindsight, I think the reveal of Noah should have been held back a few more minutes to add emotional weight to Ivy's success.

Love: The Chase in the Woods

This scene is like a modern take on the Little Red Riding Hood tale, with a little color swap for flavor. And it's so well shot that even knowing how it plays out almost beat for beat (years after my last viewing), I still get creeped out by it. It keeps the tension just right and brings back all the right elements from earlier in the movie (Mr. Walker's line about rumors of creatures, the game the boys play on the stump).This is Ivy's final triumph on her hero(ine)'s journey; retrieving the medicine for Lucius is essentially a given at this point (another reason why the following scenes feel a bit tedious).

Love Yet Not So Much: The Quiet

This movie is so quiet that the first time I watched it I missed half of what happened. This isn't a loud movie filled with action sequences and rock music. The score is almost unnoticeable, here to undergird the story rather than lead it. The dialogue is often whispered or spoken in a normal conversational manner so that it's clear no one is trying to be heard in the back of the theater.

This adds to the artistry of the film. It draws you in close to these characters so you can learn about them intimately. But if you aren't prepared for this, you'll lose not only much of the film, but much of the experience of the film as well. It took me a few viewings to appreciate that, but now that I do it's one of my favorite aspects of the film.

Love: An All-Star Cast that Doesn't Act Like It

There are some fairly big/recognizable names in this movie. Bryce Dallas Howard. Joaquin Phoenix. William Hurt. Brendan Gleeson. Cherry Jones. Sigourney Weaver.

Yet most of them aren't in the spotlight for long. None of them are flashy. There's no emphasis on these actors and actresses making an appearance. They're simply the characters, part of the story. It's part of the beauty of this film. It doesn't try to be a Hollywood blockbuster. It simply is itself: a character-driven story with heart and hope. And that, ultimately, is why I love The Village.

*(Yes, I will be doing Inktober again this year. The pictures will eventually make it to my blog, probably in one or two posts. I'll be continuing my 100 Myths series of drawings from earlier this year, so be ready for lots of mythical figures!)

What about you? Do you enjoy The Village? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Autumn Tag

In the words of the indomitable Samwise Gamgee, "Well, I'm back."

Sorry for the unexpected absence of the last couple months. I experienced an unexpected career change earlier this year and while the transition has been fairly smooth, I haven't had a lot of blogging in me. I've told myself to just take the plunge and get back to it, but it took Mirriam's awesome autumn tag to finally get me back here. So without further ado, the Autumn Tag:

Favorite Autumn Activity

Walking. I love walking in the autumn when the air is crisp and smells of woodsmoke and dead leaves and the promise of adventure. There's a certain kind of wanderlust that appears in autumn that isn't always about reaching faraway lands but sometimes just about getting 'round the corner.

Favorite Autumn Music

The Harry Potter soundtracks, the Nightmare Before Christmas soundtrack, the Lord of the Rings film soundtracks

Spooky or Cozy Autumn

Both? Probably more cozy than spooky, but I like a little spookiness. Nothing creepy, but a hint of danger and uncertainty? Bring it on.

Ghoul, Ghost, or Monster

Monster; there's always a chance at humanity beneath.

Favorite Autumn Shows/Films

Hellboy II: The Golden Army, The Fellowship of the Ring, Grinch Night, The Corpse Bride, Practical Magic, Over the Garden Wall, Gravity Falls (okay, it's set in summer but it feels like autumn), Stranger Things, Disney's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

Favorite Autumn Food/Drink

Apple cider (hot, not cold)!!! All the Thanksgiving foods (especially cranberry sauce, cornbread dressing, and pumpkin and sweet potato pie), and of course baked goods (though I'll eat those all year long).

Favorite Autumn Reads

Something Wicked This Way Comes, 'Salem's Lot, The Graveyard Book, Uprooted, the Redwall books, The Lord of the Rings

Favorite Autumn Challenge

I've done NaNoWriMo off and on (mostly off) for the last decade, but after trying out Inktober last year, I think it may be my new favorite. I'm excited to try something new with Inktober this year, and maybe I'll even try NaNo again.

Favorite Autumn Quote

"I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers." -- Anne of Green Gables

"But when fall comes, kicking summer out on its treacherous ass as it always does one day sometime after the midpoint of September, it stays awhile like an old friend that you have missed. It settles in the way an old friend will settle into your favorite chair and take out his pipe and light it and then fill the afternoon with stories of places he has been and things he has done since last he saw you." -- 'Salem's Lot

Monday, June 11, 2018

Monday Musings: The Final Attolia Book (So Far)

Well, it's finally happened, friends. We have reached the (current) end of the Queen's Thief/Attolia series. Now, since Megan Whalen Turner is already working on book six, this isn't the final conclusion, but it's the furthest we can read for now.

Thick as Thieves continues Turner's trend of opening up a new perspective on the world of Attolia with each new book. This time, we're treated to a Mede perspective--specifically that of Kamet, slave and secretary to former Mede ambassador Nahuseresh (antagonist of The Queen of Attolia). Kamet is recovering from his master's response being passed over for a small governance in the country when an Attolian soldier appears offering him an escape from the empire.

Kamet, ever the proper slave, laughs in his face and decides the Attolian doesn't know him well at all.

Then his master is poisoned; Kamet is the obvious suspect, so he flees, hoping to get out of the city before he's caught. He runs into the Attolian and agrees to go with him (just to escape, mind you).

Their escape is anything but smooth. This is an Attolia book, after all. They face lions, slavers, angry merchants, and the emperor's special guard along their journey. At every step, Kamet means to leave the Attolian behind just as soon as he can slip away.

Throughout the journey, Kamet passes the time by telling his Attolian compatriot stories of legendary Mede friends Ennikar and Immakuk. Unlike the stories in the previous books, these are presented in a poetic style that evokes a different culture from the pseudo-Grecian Little Peninsula. These stories, as their predecessors, add a spice to the recipe of the novel. Watching the parallels of the stories match the present day events is always a delight in these stories; in this case, the parallels are thinner and therefore more rewarding when spotted.

For careful readers, the Attolian's identity is no surprise, but when Kamet finally chooses to call him by name the effect is profound. Their friendship (and lack thereof) is one of the most wonderful things this book provides. Kamet's journey is much like that of Gen, Attolia, Costis, and Sophis in the previous books; his perspective on his life and culture (much like ours) must be reassessed and undergo change. What the result will be, as always, depends on Gen's ability to understand people. (And also on the interference of the mythical deities and their chosen ones.)

Though Thick as Thieves is not a thriller of court intrigue like The King of Attolia, it is still a strong entry in the series. It is like A Conspiracy of Kings in that its journey is as much internal as external. It is Kamet's growth (slow though it seems) that we are interested in. The journey is long and tedious (mostly for the poor Kamet and his friend) but its destination is worth every moment.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Monday Musings: My Least Favorite Attolia Isn't as Bad as I Remembered

I can remember when A Conspiracy of Kings was gearing up for release. Everyone I knew who'd read the first three Attolia books was on tenterhooks because we were finally getting Sophos back into the story after two books and lots of unhappy hints in The King of Attolia.

Sadly, this is the last of these beautiful covers, since Greenwillow changed the styles for Thick as Thieves.

Then the book came out, and we all felt a little let down by it. Not that the story wasn't good; it just felt a little flat after the brilliant intrigue novel that was KoA.

On this reading, I went in knowing that it was a slower book. A book that wasn't meant to be filled with court politics in the same way as its predecessor. Instead, ACoK is a character novel. Not a character novel in the sense of many "literary" novels that follow a character's "growth" and generally bore the public to tears (something they'd never admit to their book clubs). A character novel that focuses its action on the main character's internal journey as compared with his (or her) external journey.

A Conspiracy of Kings is the story of Sophos' growth from boy to man and from prince to king. His attempts to imitate Eugenides fail not because Eugenides is a poor role model (though he is in some ways) and not because Sophos isn't experienced enough to pull it off (which he generally isn't); Sophos fails to be Gen because he isn't Gen. And he can't be. Gen isn't the king the country of Sounis needs; Sophos is. Or at least, he will be by the time we're through.

There's a certain intimacy to the Attolia novels. The Thief is told from Gen's perspective and (even as he doesn't quite spell out everything for us) we feel close to him throughout the novel. The Queen of Attolia, despite the distant perspective of the omniscient narrator, allows us glimpses into the private chambers of queens, thieves, and ambassadors. The King of Attolia confines itself almost entirely to the court of Attolia and the perspective of Costis. In each of these stories, we feel entangled in the events playing out before us. A Conspiracy of Kings is no different. Though it switches up the narration yet again (with two large sections of first person narration by Sophos and two shorter omniscient sections), it maintains the intimate storytelling approach Megan Whalen Turner has accustomed us to.

It's no mistake that the first person sections are Sophos' narration to Eddis. Their courtship runs parallel to Sophos' development as a king (and a person). He is motivated to action for love of his country. He is motivated to speech for love of Eddis. By telling the story outside Sophos' head unless he is narrating to Eddis, Turner shows us how inextricably linked these two plotlines are. Sophos must succeed in both or fail altogether. If he can save his country, he will also be able to wed the woman he loves. If he cannot, then the Mede will have won and all their countries will fall.

In taking A Conspiracy of Kings on its own terms and not as a mere follow-up to The King of Attolia, I found it to be a solid entry in the series. I expect that it, like Thick as Thieves (which I'm still reading but have seen similarly mixed reactions to), will feel more integrated and important when the sixth and final book is released (I'm estimating sometime around 2021 if Turner's previous publication history is any indication [4 years between TT and QoA, then six till KoA, then 4 till ACoK, then 7 till TaT]), much as The Thief and The Queen of Attolia feed into The King of Attolia and make it feel like the payoff of the previous two books.

Have you read A Conspiracy of Kings? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, May 28, 2018

Monday Musings: Attolian Intrigue and Eddisian Cleverness

After finishing The Queen of Attolia last week, I picked up its sequel, The King of Attolia almost immediately. The twists and turns of QoA's finale left me craving more, and boy does KoA deliver more.

The King of Attolia picks up where its predecessor left off: with the marriage of Irene (Queen of Attolia) and Eugenides (Gen, Thief of Eddis, now King of Attolia or Attolis). After offering glimpses of the wedding night from various parties within and without the Attolian capitol, the story moves to Costis, a young squad leader in the Queen's Guard.

He's in trouble, you see. He punched Gen for baiting Teleus, the Captain of the Guard.

By rights, Costis should be executed.

But Gen has other plans. He makes Costis a lieutenant and assigns him to be Gen's personal guard and sparring partner. It makes Costis' life difficult, but his brothers in arms support him in his trials.

No one in Attolia likes Gen, except his wife. Everyone sees him as a buffoon, a puppet king who stole the queen and forced her to marry him. His attendants make Gen's life unbearable and he is unable to do anything about it because the only way to make them stop is to bring in Attolia's authority, proving that Gen isn't king.

In many ways, this book is about Gen proving to everyone -- himself included -- that he is king. And more than his reputation relies on his success. Attolia must be united to stand against the Mede Empire, who are intent on conquering Attolia and its neighbors. Without Gen as king, and the unified barons supporting him, that won't happen.

Costis, of course, does not know or care about Gen's reasons for being king. Not at first. Turner does a fine job of making us see the perspective of the Attolians, who have heretofore been the enemies or antagonists of the series. After Gen's bout with despair and his near-failure to save Eddis from its wars and Attolia from the Mede in the last book, his depression and ineptitude in this book are convincing.

Right up to the moment when the reader (and Costis) understands that they are meant to be convincing. Just as Eugenides is playing the court of Attolia, Turner is playing the readers and their expectations. (As she has for three books now; no comment on the later books until we get there.)

If The Thief is the opening act and The Queen of Attolia is the escalation, then The King of Attolia is the payoff. The court intrigue and broad perspective of QoA are honed in on the court of Attolia for this book. The narrowed perspective does nothing to lower the stakes; it simply impresses on us how the international politics of the series affect everyone from Queens and Thieves to soldiers and servants.

Gen is at his finest form here. He is clever, endearing, and infuriatingly stubborn as always. The stories that so many loved in The Thief get another reprisal with Phresine's tale. The reality of the gods and the often unsettling nature of that reality return in a smaller but no less moving way compared to the end of QoA. And in this book, more than any other so far, Turner displays her talent for characterization. These are complicated, real people she presents to us on the page. The problems they must solve are difficult and never waved away because of expediency. In short, The King of Attolia is a masterwork of young adult literature. It carries the emotions of its characters home, presenting small, intimate moments at the right times to reveal more than we thought existed in the hearts of Gen, Irene, Costis, and the rest.

(And with the knowledge of what comes in books 4 and 5, it's fun to see the seeds of those stories planted here.)

Monday, May 21, 2018

Monday Musings: Circles are the Perfect Shape

And yes, that is a Tow'rs reference. Go listen.

I just finished rereading The Queen of Attolia (only a year after I reread The Thief in hopes of reading the whole series again before getting to Thick as Thieves). As I plotted out how to do this month's ThrowBook Thursday post (delayed from last week due to a sick Samwise, who's now on the mend), I realized that I'd already used QoA for last year's TBT in May.

I'm pretty sure I blinked. Then I laughed. Then I said, "What the heck, let's review it again anyway."

Everything I said last year remains true (minus me thinking QoA has multiple myths; it just has the one). But I want to add a few things that I appreciated even more on this, my third time through the book:

  • Eugenides and his sass. "I'll stop shouting, but I won't sit down. I might need to throw more ink bottles."
  • Attolia and everything we learn about her history
  • Ruby earrings (if you've read the books, you'll get it; if not, watch for them)
  • Gen's father and his appreciation for our Thief
  • Eddis' blend of love and exasperation for Gen and his escapades
  • Multiple heists and plot twists
  • Moira's messages
  • Gen's encounter at the end of the book. It reminded me of Strange near the end of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (and hopefully that's not a spoiler to anyone).
This book has got intrigue on a small scale (within Attolia's court) and a large (the international wars and rumors of wars). It fleshes out characters who were only mentioned in passing in the previous book and sets up events for what's likely to be the rest of the series. (The fiery vision from the end has yet to be addressed fully. Here's hoping that book 6, already in the works last year, will tie things together.)

Even if you haven't read The Thief, you'll probably enjoy The Queen of Attolia if you appreciate snark, court intrigue, and plot twists. This is one book I highly recommend.

But QoA isn't the only thing I was digging into this time last year. I also had an idea for a project called Swanlight that I've mentioned very briefly once or twice before. In fact, the other day I was doing some research on setting and atmosphere and thinking "Maybe I'll finally start this thing." The next day one of my Facebook memories was a post about the idea in its original form. Oh, and remember how I mentioned wanting to read Uprooted again? I read it in May last year. In fact, its take on magic partially inspired the magic system of Swanlight.

Maybe May is another creative peak season for me. I'll have to keep an eye on it. (And you can keep an eye out for Swanlight snippets/beta opportunities once I get going on it full-time.)

Have you read the Attolia books? Which one is your favorite? Do you think you'd enjoy having Gen over for dinner or would you prefer to keep your interactions with him limited to fiction? Let me know in the comments!

Monday, May 14, 2018

Monday Musings: Dan Wells' The Devil's Only Friend

I've previously written about my love for Dan Wells' John Cleaver books, specifically the third in the series, I Don't Want to Kill You. I finally picked up book 4 (after saying recently that I probably wouldn't get to it till later this year; my reading muse is a fickle beast) and let me tell you: Dan Wells (still) isn't pulling any punches.

After reading the novella/short story "Next of Kin" that (sort of) bridges the two John Cleaver trilogies, I wasn't expecting this book to pick up where it did. John has left Clayton to work with the FBI in tracking down the Withered -- the demons of the previous books -- but life isn't all that great. He doesn't actually get to kill the Withered, which means that his usual routine of getting to know a Withered's weakness and then put them down is disrupted, providing him with all of the build-up and none of the release. What's more, his teammates don't exactly see him as trustworthy, given his psychopathic tendencies. Add to that Brooke's deteriorating mental state (apparently having millennia of other people's memories in your head can really mess with you), and John is feeling pretty isolated.

When an operation to take out one of the two Withered in the city goes wrong, John and his team must regroup and try to work out what's going on. More Withered arrive in town, and John finds himself communicating with one Withered behind his team's back and feeling a strange kinship with another. (If you haven't read "Next of Kin," it covers about the first half of The Devil's Only Friend but from another character's perspective. I recommend reading the two close together, but I don't think the order matters particularly; they both spoil each other to an extent.)

The style of this fourth John Cleaver book is a bit different from the previous books. Whereas before the small town of Clayton and John's methodology provided a fairly intimate tone, The Devil's Only Friend feels more like a mainstream thriller with John as the star. It loses none of John's wit and personality, but the FBI team and larger conflict remove some of the intimacy of the earlier books.

Wells still forces John (and the reader) to grapple with some heavy moral questions in the course of the story. Is John the same as the professional hitman on the team? Is there a difference between killing someone to protect others in immediate danger and killing someone as a preemptive measure? How far can one go down the path John has chosen before there's no difference between him and the Withered he hunts? As usual, John has to arrive at his own answers. No one offers them to him on a silver platter.

While the horror of this book is lessened, the violence is still intense, especially at the climax as John is forced to confront not only a powerful Withered but a traitor within his own team. As I said, Wells doesn't pull punches.

If you enjoyed the previous books, you may find the shift in style a little off-putting. I think this is still a solid entry in the series and I'm looking forward to the next one (after I give myself a less-intense breather book).

Have you read The Devil's Only Friend or any of the other John Cleaver books? I'd love to discuss them with you in the comments!