Monthly Archives: August 2010

Bearers of the Black Staff

Terry Brooks’ Legends of Shannara duology is a direct continuation of his Genesis of Shannara trilogy, except that it’s set five hundred years later. This duology is exceptional for Brooks  because his Shannara books have mostly been written in sets of three. This comes as a change of pace for the fantasy writer. Not oddly, it feels a little rushed.

In the last Shannara book, The Gypsy Morph, a human boy that was also a fairy creature with magical powers named Hawk led a chosen few group of humans and mutants and Elves on a biblical exodus to a secure valley in the Rocky Mountains. He used his powers to become a magical mist that protected that valley. Because he could. The rest of the world got nuked, but not the valley, because it was protected by a magical mist.

The sequel, Bearers of the Black Staff, starts with that magical mist fading away and the inhabitants of the valley becoming exposed to the outside world. Said outside world is filled with mostly mutants, who have started calling their new species fairy names like Trolls, mostly to match up with the continuity of the books that come later in Brooks’ Shannara saga. The book itself is mostly about the inhabitants of the peaceful valley coming to terms with the realization that their remote world is about to be shattered.

The biggest antagonist to this realization is a religious figure named Skeal Eile, who holds the religious title of Seraphic and is leader of a cult called the Children of the Hawk. The Children of the Hawk believe that Hawk will return like Jesus (remember, Hawk was a messiah figure in the last three books) only after the protective mists failed. They are proved to be wrong, but the Seraphic holds to his own socio-cultural power for the sake of remaining powerful.

This is obviously Brooks’ commenting on conservative, militant religious zealotism. You could apply this commentary about power-hungry fools clinging to their faith to any religion in our world—be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish or whatever. The problem is that Brooks expresses his socio-religious commentary mostly in long-winded scenes where characters meet and debate in the kind of councils that are cliché to fantasy literature. These scenes read like descriptions of the C-SPAN channel, and are about as exciting.

When it comes to fantasy, I want to read about badasses with big swords and magical powers punching and zapping each other. There is some of that in Bearers of the Black Staff, but not enough for my taste.

There is also a lot of generalized exposition. Brooks masterfully ends his chapters with exciting cliffhangers of characters being attacked by wild beasts or realizing that their allies are in fact traitors to their causes. But when he next picks up with those characters, he usually starts his narrative not with the fallout from the cliffhanger, but instead some time later. And he’ll fill in the narrative gap of what happened between with several pages of dry exposition. This is why the book feels rushed. Brooks should have taken the time to expand these exposited scenes and fill them in with rich details. Instead of glossing over the conflict that occurs between a cliffhanger and the next plot point, he should have delved into it and given it nuance.

I should mention that the title derives from the black staff one of the characters, Sider Ament, carries. This staff was apparently handed down from generation to generation from one of the magical badasses that inhabited the valley at the end of The Gypsy Morph. Part of this story is about how that staff came to be in Sider Ament’s hands, and who will carry it next.

There are other characters in this story aside from Sider Ament, of course. He is not even the protagonist, although the narrative is fractured enough between different characters that it’s hard to tell who exactly is the central character. If there is one, he is Panterra Qu, whose strange name has nothing to do with him being earthy, despite it being derived from “pan.” The names in Bearers of the Black Staff—and indeed most of Brooks’ books—are so strange that I often wonder if he came up with them by slapping silly syllables together and seeing what sounded funniest.

I am being overly harsh. I enjoyed reading Bearers of the Black Staff. Mostly I enjoyed it because I enjoyed the books that preceded it, and wanted to see what happened to the people Hawk led into the protected valley. I also read Brooks’ other Shannara books, which occur some time later in the chronology of Brooks’ fantasy world, and I wanted to see how that world evolved and came to be. Bearers of the Black Staff is written so that it can be accessible to new readers, but it will be best understood and enjoyed by Brooks’ regular fans.

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Avatar: The Last Airbender

I don’t like things that are for children. I don’t like cartoons, especially not anime-style cartoons. But for some reason I liked this American anime cartoon series called Avatar: The Last Airbender.

This is a high-concept fantasy series. Because it is an anime-style cartoon, the civilizations in this fantasy world are heavily based on aspects of Asian culture and spirituality. Its story is set in a fantasy world, complete with a map that appears during the opening title sequence.  In this world, people called “benders” have the ability to manipulate the elements around them. You don’t need to know much more about the backstory other than the little bit of exposition that comes with the titles. That goes something like this:

“Water, earth, fire air. Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked. Only the Avatar, master of all four elements, could stop them. But when the world needed him most, he vanished. A hundred years passed and my brother and I discovered the new Avatar, an airbender named Aang. And although his airbending skills are great, he has a lot to learn before he’s ready to save anyone But I believe Aang can save the world.”

This bit of dialog is spoken by Katara, a waterbender girl who, as she said, discovered the Avatar named Aang with her brother Sokka. The three of them, along with a flying Bison named Appa and a winged Lemur named Momo—yes, this show is weird—embark on a journey together with the mission of training Aang in the ability to bend all four elements and to defeat the fire nation. They get sidetracked a lot along the way.

In a lot of ways, Aang is like Caine from Kung Fu. He’s bald, and a martial art expert. He travels from place to place, meets people, gets into adventures. The difference is that he has two friends and two strange animals who accompany him. And he also has a sense of humor.

Aang’s travel buddies, Katara and Sokka, both serve important narrative roles. Katara is a waterbender, so she can teach Aang how to waterbend. She’s also hot in a Lolita kind of way, so she serves as Aang’s primary love interest. Sokka is powerless, brave, and stupid, so he mostly serves as comic relief.

What’s impressive is how well these characters are developed. At the start of the series, they’re children who cannot fully grasp the importance of their deeds, who never stop laughing and playing games. By the end, they’re teenagers who fully understand that they’re at war. Along the way, they befriend a badass earthbender who is also a little girl named Toph. They also deal with the kinds of issues that young viewers might relate to, like the difficult courtship of young love, and familial strife.

Even the villains are fully realized characters who grow and evolve. One of the chief antagonists is a Fire Nation prince named Zuko. He starts out as a whiny bitch who must hunt the avatar to regain his honor for reasons that at first seem trite and cliché; later, he settles into the role of an outcast anti-hero, and his motivations become apparent. That’s good writing.

The show is divided into three seasons—or “books”—named after the elements Aang has to learn—water, earth and fire. The first season is mostly episodic, and the second tells a more mature ongoing story. The third season takes a little while to get up to steam, and contains a number of filler episodes, but it finishes with an astounding climax.

What else is there to say? This cartoon is extremely well animated. I’m someone who doesn’t watch many cartoons, but I recall the animated shows from the 90s where a layer of simple animation would be layered over a backdrop. You could always tell which door was going to open, or which item the hero was going to interact with, because it was less detailed than everything around it. But Avatar has a surprising level of details, both in its characters and the amount of the background that’s animated. More often than not, everything on the screen is fully animated. And the animators even used shadows and shading to give the idea of detail.

I don’t know much about animation, so I’m probably wrong about the specifics of why the animation is done well. But I do know that the action scenes in Avatar: The Last Airbender look really cool. It’s just a well produced show.

There is one problem. Because this was a show for children produced for the children’s network Nickelodeon, the producers couldn’t or wouldn’t depict or even talk about death. They could show mass acts of violence as long as it was clear that nobody was actually killed. In some ways, this played into the show’s moral message; Aang was a pacifist, and he spoke of non-violence and spiritual balance more often than he beat people up.

Often, the show skirted its mandate against violence by showing the Avatar literally launching enemy soldiers into the atmosphere; but it only got so far with this nonsense when depicting a war. There are moments where the mandate against depicting violence lessened the dramatic stakes of the show. Katara and Sokka’s mother was killed by a Fire Nation soldier, but the actual act of her death couldn’t be shown. Several other important deaths happened off screen.

These sorts of things made me aware that I was watching a kid’s show, that I wasn’t part of the target audience. It made me wish this show had been made fore a more mature audience.

But it’s still better than the bad movie that was based on it.

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Lie to Me

Lie to Me is an enjoyably mediocre show about Tim Roth yelling at people in a cockney accent.

It’s a lot like that other enjoyably mediocre show House you probably watch in that it’s about a quirky genius with a team of minions who solves mysteries. This character, cleverly named Cal Lightman—because he sheds light on truths—is not a medical doctor. Rather, he’s a genius who can use science to tell when people are lying. Like Doctor House, Lightman is played by a British actor; unlike Hugh Laurie, Tim Roth doesn’t try to mask his accent in this show. If anything, he hams it up.

Every episode centers around Lightman puzzling his way through some mystery. Usually these mysteries are cliché TV plots. In one, he has to discover the identity of a corrupt cop in a police force. In another, he has to determine if a beautiful trophy wife murdered her husband, or if she really loved him (spoiler: she loved him, but jumped Lightman’s bones immediately after he croaked). Stuff like that.

Lightman is aided and abetted by a team of minions. He has Dr. Gillian Foster, a psychologist; Ria Torres, a hot Hispanic chick; Eli Loker, a guy who has a crush on said hot Hispanic chick; and Ben Reynolds, an FBI agent whom Lightman can use to legally beat people up. Their characters are so uninteresting I had to use Wikipedia to look up their names just now.

Cal Lightman also has a daughter, Emily. His relationship with her is genuinely sweet, endearing and protective. Emily is spunky and cute, and dates boys Cal doesn’t approve of. His scrutiny of the boys she dates provides moments of humor. His love for her gives the show a heart it desperately needs. Their relationship works onscreen mostly because Tim Roth seems to enjoy working with young actress Hayley McFarland.

The show is stupid. It is mired with cliché TV plots and cliché TV characters who act poorly. It tries to be interesting by making its detective character, Lightman, a scientist. But his science of detecting lies based on twitches in his subjects’ facial muscles is absurd, even if it is based on true science in the way that Titanic was based on a true story.

There has been relatively little progression in terms of plot or character development over the show’s two seasons. Lie to Me is purely episodic. Watching episodes back-to-back will give you a headache. The only noticeable change over the course of the sow is that Tim Roth has become more accustomed to becoming Cal Lightman, and the writers have increasingly written the role to accommodate Roth’s mannerisms.

And Tim Roth is engaging enough of an actor that I’d be entertained watching him recite the alphabet. This show plays to his strengths. His character is British, aggressive, and smart. Roth enjoys chewing up screentime as Cal Lightman. He slouches, he presses his face into his palms, and when he’s feeling aggressive he snarls.

He, unlike everyone else in the cast, knows he’s in a bad show. And he makes the most of it.

Me, I’m willing to watch Tim Roth work to pay his bills. It’s less boring than other things.

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