Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Book Review: The Stealer of Souls by Michael Moorcock (Elric of Melnibone #1)

People like to write stories about heroes. From The Iliad, Beowulf, King Arthur, The Chronicles of Narnia, to The Lord of the Rings, our literary history is full of heroic stories. What makes a hero's story compelling, is the hero's ability to reduce the world down to a singular focus. A focus where the only thing that matters to the hero is the completion of a quest, be it about winning a war, rescuing a damsel in distress, questing against an overlord, or slaying a fire-breathing dragon. When heroes are questing, nothing can deter them from their destinies.

The hero's ability to reduce the world to a single focus is an attractive quality for some. It rallies people to support a hero's cause. However, if we look at this from another perspective, then the typical heroic stories appear narrow-minded, where the hero's worldview is overly black and white. In a typical heroic story, there are only two ways to live; you are either with the hero's worldview wholeheartedly, or you are against him. In a typical heroic story, there is no room to question the justice behind a hero's viewpoint.

Yet, the real world is not black and white. In reality, things exist in shades of gray. For more than 40 years, the fantasy genre tried to echo the reality of our world in fantastic stories. Over the decades, fantasy fictions evolved and gradually matured. Today, we have a sub-genre in fantasy called “grim-dark”. Grim-dark fantasy novels often feature characters struggling with personal battles instead of in a “good vs evil” conflict involving the whole world. In grim-dark fantasy novels, characters encounter life-changing events, causing them to doubt the justice behind their positions, often leading to reconfiguration of their worldviews. (The prime example for this, is the story for a character called Karsa Orlong, from Steven Erikson's masterpiece, The Malazan book of the Fallen series.)

In other words, in today's world, adult readers can relate to characters in grim-dark fantasy novels. Gone are the days when people equated “fantasy” to “juvenile stories”. If you are still not convinced, take a look at who is target audience for HBO's smash hit TV series, A Game of Thrones. So the question is, when did the evolution for fantasy fictions begin?

Apparently, one of the most influential figure that shaped modern fantasy, is legendary British novelist, Michael Moorcok, who authored 70+ sci-fi books. He is sometimes dubbed as “Anti-Tolkien”. Michael Moorcok's most iconic creation, is an anti-hero called Elric of Melnibone. A doomed, frail, albino prince from a dying kingdom who drew stolen vitality using his sentient, vampiric sword. Elric saga was originally published in 1960s. Half a century later, this saga's DNA can be seen in the roots of modern fantasy. In 2008, Del Rey republished the saga in 6 paperback volumes. These books sat on my bookshelves for over 3 years. Recently, I finally had the chance to begin reading them. Today, I will like to bring you a review for the first volume in Elric saga, titled “The Stealer of Souls”.


Elric of Melnibone, an albino and weakling, is the exiled sorcerer king of the dying Bright Empire. Elric sails the Seas of Fate with his ancestral blade, Stormbringer, an evil, sentient sword that steals souls and feed Elric with unhuman vitality.

Elric detests his sword, but he cannot afford to part with it. Due to his natural deficiency, Elric is a pathetic weakling barely able to walk without the stolen vitality gifted him by Stormbringer. Yet, just as Stormbringer gifts Elric with superhuman strength and unparalleled battle prowess, it also curses Elric to a life of grief and doom

In his melancholy, Elric wandered the earth, seeking mental sanctuaries from his nightmarish existence by loosing himself in bloody adventures. Adventures that ultimately entangled Elric in an ancient conflict, where Elric will reluctantly become the decisive intervention in the struggle for cosmic balance between law and chaos, entropy and stasis...

My thoughts on this book:

I love The Stealer of Souls, and after reading this book I am pretty sure I will like the whole Elric Saga.

However, this book is not for everyone. Why? Some people may find Elric saga too dark for their tastes. Elric's story is really, really tragic and depressing. So if you don't like stories that are too dark, or if you are easily saddened by tragic stories, then Elric saga may not be for you.

Now I have said the warning, let me share what I liked, and disliked about The Stealer of Souls.

The Stealer of Souls is not a full length novel. Instead, this book consists of several novellas following the chronological order of Elric's life. Each novella is sectioned into several short chapters. In this book, the use of short chapters sped up the pace in The Stealer of Souls, making this book a cracking read. In regard to the writings in this book, my opinion is while Elric stories are engrossing, but the paces are uneven. The introduction in each Elric story was too hasty, and the story's background was not as flashed out as it could be.

The true brilliance of this book lies in its characterization. Elric of Melnibone is a striking and memorable protagonist. I don't think he is a likable character (nor is he meant to be likable), but I felt a lot sympathy for Elric. Sometimes treacherous and cowardly, Elric is a deeply flawed character who formed a symbiosis relationship with Stormbringer, an evil, sentient sword. Stormbringer is a necessity for Elric's survival, but it is also Elric's source of agony. Because Stormbringer has a mind of its own, it controlled Elric more than he controlled it, and the sword often brought death to both Elric's loved ones as well as his foes, leaving Elric to a pitiful and guilty existence. A a result, he pursued an unsolvable, metaphysical quest to no end. The characterization of Elric is remarkable because he is a tragic symbol, representing the search for meaning and purpose among the echoes of a universal struggle between order and chaos. Elric saga was written in 1960s, imagine how revolutionary this character was when it first embraced the fantasy genre half a century ago!

A good story always has a compelling protagonist, and a good antagonist. Elric saga has, in my opinion, a truly fascinating and unique antagonist. In The Stealer of Souls, Elric faced down many opponents. However, none of his opponents is the main antagonist. Instead, the saga's main antagonist is actually Elric's sentient sword, Stormbringer. This sword has a sinister mind of its own. It controlled Elric in the heat of combat, stealing his opponent's souls as it cuts them down then fed the stolen vitality to sustain Elric's deficient body. Elric is addicted to this sword's power, and his survival depends on it. However, this sentient sword is just as likely to cut down Elric's friends as his foes, sending Elric into deep depressions and therefore further enslaved by Stormbringer's will. I don't want to spoil the story, but let me just say by the end of the book, I realized Stormbringer is the mastermind behind Elric's tragic life and the sealer of his fate (which is really ironic).

The Stealer of Souls captivated me from the first page to the last. I was still thinking about this book for days after closing the final chapter. Some stories in this book may appear rushed with uneven pace, lacking attention to details. Yet, it is undeniable that Elric saga is probably the most influential work in shaping modern fantasy fictions. Furthermore, Elric and his sword, Stormbringer, are some of the most interesting and memorable characters in the genre. Even by today's standard, the story of Elric is still highly unique and revolutionary. So if you are not easily saddened by tragic and dark stories, and if you are a serious fantasy fan, then I would highly recommend The Stealer of Souls.

I am reading Del Rey's republication for Elric saga, and these stories are presented in the order of publication dates. This means Del Rey's version is NOT following the chronological order in Elric mythos. The result? The final conclusion for Elric's story appeared in this book (The Stealer of Souls), which is the first installment in the series. In other words, The Stealer of Souls may confuse you. For me, it is too late to change because I already purchased Del Rey's version. However, if you are reading this review, and you are interested in exploring Elric saga, then apparently these two Elric Omnibuses, published by White Wolf Publishing, followed the chronological order. They are titled: 1) Elric: Song of the Black Sword and 2) Elric: The Stealer of Souls.

Friday, July 24, 2015

A Book Review: White Night by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #9)

When I closed the final page in White Night, the 9th novel in Jim Butcher's beloved urban fantasy series, The Dresden Files, I was both entertained and disappointed.

I was entertained because this book has all the right ingredients to make a fun, exciting story. I was also disappointed because this book recycled all the “right ingredients” from his previous books. In other words, White Night feels like just another The Dresden Files book. It feels like a book I have already read.

I may be sounding pretty harsh here. Yet, I can't help but begin this review with criticisms. This is because the most frustrating thing about The Dresden Files, especially this book, is not that it is a bad book. In fact, White Night is a very well written book. You can't find any fault in the mechanics of Jim Butcher's writings and storytelling. But White Night is a frustrating book, because it had so much potentials, yet the author is not doing anything new. This means whatever potentials this book had, were pretty much destroyed and this book is reduced to another “episode” in The Dresden Files. Ok, it's time for me to move on from this rant, and begin this review with a synopsis for White Night.


They say blood is thicker than water. This is certainly true for Harry Dresden, Chicago's resident wizard and paranormal investigator. All right, so what is Harry's dilemma this time?

Harry was hired by Chicago PD to help investigating a few suspicious deaths in Chicago. These deaths appeared to be suicides, but they were linked by one commonality: All victims were amateur practitioners of magic. Harry smelled something fishy here, so he pursued the clues, only to discover that all traces of murderer point to Thomas Raith, who is Harry's half brother....

Harry always knew that magic can get a guy killed, but this time, will magic get his only family arrested?

My thoughts on this book:

White Night is a well written book. It has adrenaline pumping actions, suspense, and a well-knitted story. If this book was the first entry in a new series, then it would have been an amazing book. But here is the problem, White Night is the 9th book in The Dresden Files, and it feels like another The Dresden Files novel, and it is repetitive.

By now, most The Dresden Files novels follow this structure:

  1. The police hired Harry to investigate a strange murder case
  1. Harry goes to the crime scene, and finds clues suggesting supernatural entities are involved.
  2. Harry investigate the clues, and discovers the culprits are vampires (surprise surprise, what else is new?)
  3. Harry fights a climatic battle against vampires and wins the day.
  4. Proceed to the next The Dresden Files novel, and repeat 1 to 4.

Personally, I found 3) the most annoying. I am so over vampires. I desperately hope Jim Butcher can use other villains than vampires. I mean come on, there is a legion of legendary, terrifying monsters at the author's disposal to be cast as villains, but why is he always using vampires? Why not refresh the series with Harry taking down an esoteric cult seeking an artifact of evil power? Or what about casting a forgotten, evil god from mythology as the villain? There are so many other options out there, but The Dresden Files novels just keep on returning to vampires...

Book 7 (Dead Beat) and book 8 (Proven Guilty) in this series were really good. They both broke the “vampire villain” mold that plagues this series, with interesting plots and memorable, bizarre villains. I am really disappointed that White Night, being the 9th volume in this series, has returned to the use of recycled plot device and vampire as villains. I think this is a sign that I should take a break from this series. Perhaps one day I will come back and continue reading the adventures of Harry Dresden. But for now, I need to read something different.

A Book Review: Half A World by Joe Abercrombie (Shattered Sea #2)

Half a Word is the second book in Joe Abercrombie's new trilogy called Shattered Sea. Joe Abercrombie is a master practitioner in the genre of grim-dark fantasy. Interestingly, Shattered Sea trilogy is not grim-dark fantasy but YA fantasy. This is Abercombie's first endeavor to writing YA fantasy novels. 

What is YA fantasy? The hallmark for this genre is a story about coming of age. Normally I don't like YA fantasy. This is because today's YA fantasy books use too many tropes and they all feel the same (tropes such as a teenage “chosen one” struggling against some evil authority in a futuristic, dystopian world). Personally, I prefer “grown up” fantasy novels about morally ambiguous characters fighting with swords and magic. However, Shattered Sea trilogy grabbed my attention, because 1) Joe Abercrombie imported aspects from grim-dark fantasy into his YA books, and 2) These books are set in a Viking-like fantasy world.

A few months ago I read Half A King, the first book in Shattered Sea trilogy and I really liked it. So I venture into Half A World, the second installment in the trilogy. I read this novel in 2 sittings, it tells a very engrossing story and it is a good book. Let me begin my review by proving a synopsis.


Shattered Sea batters the unwavering shores of Gettland with cold, bitter waves. The people of Gettland are a hardy, war-like stock. War is their way of life, and they pray to Mother War for courage and strength. In Gettland, both men and women are trained in martial combat. Although it is men who are expected to take up the esteemed status of warriors. Although once in a while, a girl may be touched by Mother War and become a warrior. For example, a girl like Thorn, whose single aspiration in life is to become a warrior of unparalleled skills so she can avenger her father.

Thorn is shunned by her fellow countryman, because woman warriors are subjects of taboo in Gettland. A training accident beat Thorn's life to a new low, where she was accused of murder by the master at arms. Her sentence was death.

Brand, a young Gettland warrior with a stout heart, saw injustice in Thorn's sentence and testified in favor of her innocence. Brand's testimony spared Thorn's life, but they became indebted to Father Yarvi, the King's minister, who is working to avert a coming war in Shattered Sea.

This is how Thorn entered the service for Father Yarvi, where she is to become the centrepiece in a struggle involving half a world...

My thoughts on this book:

Half A World tells an engrossing story and there are many things to like about this book. Firstly, this book is very well written. Joe Abercrombie's writing is both descriptive and atmospheric, and the world of Shattered Sea is depicted vividly as a dark place of high adventures, with dangers lurking around every corner. This novel is also action-packed, and Joe Abercrombie's cinematic writing injected much energy and excitement into the action scenes. Half A World is a well-paced novel, and there are rarely a dull moment in this book.

The characterization in Half A World is what made this novel stand out from the masses of YA fantasy books in today's market. Joe Abercrombie poured the strengths from grim-dark fantasy into the characterizations in this book. This produced a book where every character's motivation is properly explained, and no character can be categorized simply as good or bad. All characters in Half A World, both protagonists and antagonists, are deeply flawed yet have redemptive qualities. This also means there are many likable characters in Half A World. For example, I even found a character called Grom-Gil-Gorm very likable, though he is the main antagonist in this book (I will not spoil the story, but I am pretty sure most readers will like Grom-Gil-Gorm's character after reading this book). Half A World presents a story that encourages readers to understand every character's motivation, then see things from each character's perspective. I personally find Abercrombie's “grim-dark” approach to fantasy characterization far superior to most fictional characters in today's YA books.

The story in Half A World is a continuation from its predecessor, Half A King. This means Half A
World is not a stand-alone novel, and I would highly recommend reading Half A King before venturing into Half A World. Having said this, Half A World provides a refreshing story. While it is a continuation from the previous book, but in this installment, the story changed the POV character. In Half A King, the main POV character was Yarvi, a crippled prince who became a King's minister. In Half A World, the story mainly revolves around Thorn, and her intriguing journey to become one of the deadliest warriors in Shattered Sea. Thorn's tale is both a coming of age story, as well as a story about defying the stereotypes imposed by the culture. Although the story changed POV in Half A World, but Father Yarvi remains a crucial character in this book, who uses cunning and stratagems to serve his country and people. I think Yarvi is a very interesting character. His actions are neither black nor white, but they exist in shades or gray. He did things because they are necessarily for the greater good.

Half A World is a solid entry to Shattered Sea trilogy. I like how Abercombie brought aspects from grim-dark fantasy into the characterizations for his YA novel. The characters are memorable, and the story is engrossing. Apparently, the third and final book in this trilogy, titled Half A War, is going to be released in July this year and I can't wait to read it. In the meantime, for fans of more “grown up” fantasy novels, I will say don't dismiss this trilogy too quickly just because it is categorized as YA fiction. Shattered Sea trilogy has many qualities that will please both grim-dark as well as YA readers.

P.S. This review is based on a reading of a sparsely illustrated, limited edition for this book, printed by Subterranean Press.  

Saturday, July 18, 2015

A Movie Review: Ant-Man (3D)

In 2008, Marvel Cinematic Universe launched with Iron Man. Since then, the studio presented a dozen superhero films to moviegoers worldwide. The qualities of these movies vary, where some movies are better than others. The biggest Marvel movie this year, was The Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. This might be an unpopular opinion, but to be honest, I didn't like Age of Ultron, I thought the story in Age of Ultron was flat and uninteresting, it felt like a tired, burnt-out movie assaulting the audience with too many bombastic action scenes. Most importantly, I began to weary of these Marvel superhero movies after viewing Age of Ultron. I wondered, if Marvel's adventure for Earth's Mightiest heroes was finally running out of flares.

Then a trailer for Ant-Man came along and it grabbed my interest. I was immediately sold to the idea of a superhero whose power is to shrink himself to the size of an ant (how cool is that?) Prior to the movie's release, people were skeptical about Ant-Man. I think the skepticism is understandable, because after all, the concept of Ant-Man is a bit weird and could be inaccessible for some. But not for me, I love strange and new ideas, so I was determined to check out Marvel's latest tale for Earth's tiniest hero.

The result? Ant-Man may be tiny, but this movie has great wonders. I loved every minute of this movie, and if you like superhero movies, then you should definitely check it out. My love for this movie drove me to write a review for it. Here it is.


Scott Lang is modern-day Robinhood. But his career as a well-meaning thief didn't work out for him. He was arrested, imprisoned, and he lost his family. After serving his sentence, Scott emerged from the prison a new man. He wished to start fresh, burying his thieving career in the past then find
gainful employment, so he can be a role model for his daughter. The problem is, for a a man with criminal record, getting a job is not easy. It seems the door to redemption is shut for Scott. Feeling disillusioned, Scott decided to return to his old trade, which is thieving.

Scott and his three friends were lured by the rumor of riches stored away in a safe in an old man's house. Together, they plotted an elaborate plan of thievery. Little did Scott know, that these are all parts of an intricate plan by Hank Pym, a scientist and the original Ant-Man, who is planning to groom Scott into the torch-bearer of Ant-Man legacy, in term preventing the shrinking technology from falling into the wrong hands.

My thoughts on this movie:

If you ask me to describe Ant-Man, I will describe it as a superhero heist movie. Yes, you read that right. The central plot of Ant-Man is about a heist. This movie not about saving the world from the clutch of some supervillain. This also means, in comparison to The Avengers movies where stories often involve the entire world, Ant-Man is not as epic and the story is relatively straight forward. But this is not a bad thing because Ant-Man has many attractive qualities that other “big heroes and epic stories” don't have. Firstly, there is a lot of humor in Ant-Man, and the humor is genuine. The humor blends naturally into the storytelling in Ant-Man, and the story is coherent, fun and exciting. Every scene is well executed and the story unfolds at a smooth pace. I can see the makers of Ant-Man poured a lot of heart and soul into the crafting of this movie. In fact, I heard Edgar Wright, the original director and script writer for Ant-Man, spent 8 years developing this movie before he split with Marvel. Apparently, in the final production, Wright's successor stuck with his original vision for Ant-Man. So when I was watching Ant-Man, I could see there is a lot of heart behind the making of this film, it is not a hastily put-together production to grab cash.

In terms of characterization, Ant-Man's main protagonist, Scott Lang, is probably the most relatable character in Marvel Cinematic Universe up to date. In Ant-Man's story, Scott Lang is not high and mighty like the characters from The Avengers. Instead, Scott Lang is just a man who made some mistakes earlier in his life, and he is trying to find a second chance, another shot at life so he can be a role model for his small daughter. The opportunity at being Ant-Man became Scott's chance of redemption. In other words, the father-daughter relationship is what motivates Scott Lang to be Ant-Man, inspiring him to be better than himself, and do the impossible. I like the character of Scott Lang because he is genuine, and his motivation is believable.

There are two more vital characters in Ant-Man; Hank Pym and his daughter, Hope van Dyne. In this movie, Hank Pym is the original Ant-Man. He resigned from S.H.I.E.L.D in 1989, after discovered the agency was trying to duplicate his shrinking technology. 25 years later, Hank's relationship with his daughter is troubled, but together they are trying to stop the shrinking technology from falling into the wrong hands. Hank and Hope's storyline is parallel to Scott Lang's, where both storyline have a common theme, revolving around the father-daughter relationship and redemption. In other words, not only is Hank Pym grooming Scott Lang to carry the legacy of Ant-Man, but these two men have a lot in common because they are fueled by the same motivation: A second chance at restoring the broken relationship with their children, and be a role model for them. I like this theme in Ant-Man because it imbued human aspects to these characters who are meant to be comic book superheroes, making them believable and relatable characters.

At this point, I would like to make a quick comment about the acting. Scott Lang is portrayed by actor Paul Rudd. He fits the role perfectly, and he did an excellent job at bringing Scott Lang to life. I think from now on, Paul Rudd IS Ant-Man. Meanwhile, Hank Pym is portrayed by actor Michael Douglass, who delivered a memorable performance in this movie. I would love to see an Ant-Man prequel featuring Michael Douglass as a younger Hank Pym. Finally, Hope van Dyne is portrayed by actress Evangeline Lilly. Her performance and role in this movie is just as good and memorable as her male counterparts, and I can't wait to see how the character for Hope van Dyne will evolve in the sequel.

Having said this, I don't think Ant-Man is a flawless movie. The one weakness of this movie is the characterization of the antagonist, Darren Cross, AKA Yellow Jacket. I will not spoil the story, but let me just say the problem with Darren Cross' character, is that his motivation is unbelievable. The movie did explain what motivates Darren Cross, but it is just not convincing. As a result, Darren Cross didn't come across as a menacing or dangerous villain in this movie, and his character was weak.

The action scenes in Ant-Man are beautifully choreographed and presented with stunning visuals. The fight scenes are fun and exciting to watch. I especially love the scenes when Scott Lang shrank himself in Ant-Man suit, and ran along the ants performing feats of derring-do. I saw this movie in 3D, and the action scenes looked spectacular in 3D. These days, almost every Hollywood blockbuster is released in 3D, but not all of them are worth paying the extra dollars for. However, Ant-Man is one of those movies that deserves to be experienced in 3D. So if you are going to watch this movie, then make sure you grab the 3D ticket. You will not regret it. 

In my opinion, Ant-Man injects the long-running Marvel Cinematic Universe with new fuels. This movie offers a unique and interesting superhero unlike any others that came before. The story in Ant-Man is exciting, featuring a cast of relatable and likable characters. The action scenes are spectacular, and the movie is abundant with good humor. Ant-Man may not be a flawless movie due to the antagonist's weak characterization, but this is about the only weakness of this film. Ant-Man may be Earth's tiniest hero, yet it was never about the size but about the heart, and this movie has lots of it. I highly recommend Ant-Man, this is a good movie so don't miss this one out.


  1. Every Marvel movie has a post credit scene. Ant-Man is no exception to this tradition. In fact, this movie has TWO post credit scenes. So if you watch this movie, then make sure to see both post credit scenes before you leave the cinema. I was not aware of this when I watched the movie, and I missed the second one. (But all hail to the internet, I managed to catch up on the content in the 2nd post credit scene)
  2. After watching Ant-Man, I will think twice before crushing an ant next time.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A Book Review: Proven Guilty by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #8)

How will you react if your most feared movie monster manifests physically in front of you?

"That's crazy talk!" You said. 

Everyone knows movies are fictions and monsters don't exist, right? 

Well, let's step into the world of The Dresden Files, a series of urban fantasy/mystery novels. The world of The Dresden Files is a world where anything can happen and rationality doesn't always find employment. As a result, strange things often go bump in the middle of the night. Does any of this interest you? If so, feel free to read on because today, I will like to review Proven Guilty, the 8th installment in Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files series.

Firstly, here is a synopsis for the book.


Take a moment and imagine this scenario:

You are watching a horror movie. Suddenly, a terrifying monster from the film comes out of the big, silverscreen, creeping towards you. Meanwhile, you stare at the monster wide-eyed, paralyzed in your seat while cold sweat drooping down your forehead. Your brain goes numb and waves of terror assault all faculties of your consciousness. The line between fiction and reality blurred, as sanity retreats from what's left of your shattered mind.

 "Is this really happening?" You wondered.

But you know one thing; a monster just came out from a horror movie, and it is coming to take your life.

What will you do? Call Ghostbusters?

Nope. I will tell you what you can do. If you are in Chicago, then you can call Harry Dresden, the world's first and only professional wizard for hire. Harry's area of expertise is “taking care” of supernatural monsters and he knows what he is doing. Buying Harry's service might cost you $$$, but when a supernatural monster is after you, it is highly recommended to let your wallet take the damage instead of your body.

But occasionally Harry performs a paranormal investigation for free. Especially in a time when an old friend's teenage daughter, Holly, called him for help. What's the case? Spooky things sprawled in cinemas around town, where people are being attacked by “crazies dressing up as movie monsters”. And the police thinks Holly's boyfriend is the prime suspect, because everyone KNOWS monsters don't really exist. This is when Harry comes in to prove them wrong...

My thoughts on this book:

In my previous book review, I wrote that Dead Beat, the 7th installment in the series, is my favorite book in the lot. After reading Proven Guilty, my opinion remains unchanged and Dead Beat still takes the crown as my favorite The Dresden Files novel (so far). However, having said this, Proven Guilty is a great novel. While it may not be as good as Dead Beat, but it is still far better than the earlier installments in the series.

This novel's vein is pumping with much strength. For starters, Proven Guilty has an excellent plot. This fast-paced novel is shaped as a detective story and coupled with explosive actions. There are many unexpected twists and turns in the story which will thrill readers with suspense. The story maintained readers' interest high at all times with a shroud of mystery that reverberated in the plot until the last page of the book.

Jim Butcher wrote effectively yet descriptively in Proven Guilty. There is a cinematic quality to his writings, and every scene in this book is depicted vividly. Jim Butcher's writings also imbued Proven Guilty with a noir vibe, making Harry Dresden's world a dark, but captivating place to visit.

Proven Guilty introduced new characters. The most noticeable new character is Holly Carpenter, the daughter of Harry's old friend, Michael Carpenter. Jim Butcher did an excellent job at portraying Holly, and her character is very impressionable. At the end of the book, readers could see how events from Proven Guilty transformed her character. This is a mark of good character development, and it seems Holly may play a vital role in the future books to come. Meanwhile, Harry continues to be a likable character. He is a powerful wizard, but he is not the strongest wizard. Harry can be outmatched by opponents more powerful than him, so he often relies on helps from his friends. He also makes mistakes and suffer the consequences. The “powerful yet vulnerable” Harry made the story engrossing and unpredictable.

Humor is a trademark in The Dresden Files series. Proven Guilty is no exception. The story inserted comedic reliefs in between the suspenseful, intense story. However, while humors are not in short supply in Proven Guilty, but I think the jokes in this novel are not as funny as in its predecessor, Dead Beat.

Proven Guilty is a solid entry to The Dresden Files series. This book has a healthy dose of mystery and suspense, while remembering to spice things up with fast-paced, explosive actions. The characters are likable and impressionable. Overall, while Proven Guilty may not be as good as Dead Beat, but it is still an excellent novel that guarantees plenty of fun and entertainment. If you have already ventured into The Dresden Files novels, then make sure to check this one out.

Monday, July 6, 2015

A Book Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

46 years ago mankind set foot on the moon. Where is the next stop? The answer seems to be Mars.

Mars resides at an average distance of 225,3 million km away from our earth. For centuries, Mars captured the human imagination with its dramatic red color, inspiring more science fictions than any other planet in our solar system. Outside fictions, Mars draws enormous interests from the scientific community. Scientists eagerly anticipate the potential knowledge that could be unveiled from exploring Mars. Knowledge that may shed light into our own existence in the universe. Meanwhile, Mars is also the major candidate for interplanetary colonization. This is because Mars is arguably the most habitable planet in our solar system after Earth. The space program focuses heavily on Mars, where NASA is planning to send humans to Mars in 2030s. So 2 decades from now, mankind will likely set foot on Mars. The technology already exists to get people there, and going to Mars is no longer the stuff of fictions. What an exciting era we are living in!

But the environment on Mars' surface is hostile to humans (due to a lack of atmosphere and low temperature rather than green Martians). This means, a mission to Mars involving astronauts comes with high risks, and must be meticulously planned and executed with fine precision. Any incident or miscalculation during such a mission can create life-threatening dangers for the astronauts. In fact, take a moment and imagine this disastrous scenario: You belong to a team of astronauts who landed on Mars. Then a terrible accident struck. Your are left alone, stranded on Mars with limited supplies. The communication facilities are broken. Everyone thinks you are dead. How will you survive on Mars and seek rescue?

The above scenario is the premise for The Martian, a critically acclaimed, sci-fi thriller written by Andy Weir and published in 2011. A movie adaption of this novel, directed by Ridley Scott, is on its way to the cinema in October this year. I read this novel during a weekend and absolutely loved it! The movie adaptation could be good, but I highly recommend this book even if you are planning to see the movie. In this book review, I wish to provide a short, no-spoiler overview for this novel, then explain why I recommend this book.


Astronaut Mark Watney is one of the first humans to walk on Mars. But will he become the first human to die on Mars?

Why do you mean Mark could die on Mars? Ok, this is what happened.

Six day ago Mark and his crew landed on Mars. The code name for their mission: Ares 3. They were about to write a new page in history, when a fierce desert storm assaulted their camp, forcing them to abort the mission and evacuate. During the evacuation, an accident nearly killed Mark, knocking him unconscious and separated him from the rest of the crew. Mark's teammates thought he was dead. With a heavy heart, his team evacuated from the surface of Mars and returned to their spaceship.

When Mark regained consciousness, he found himself lying alone in the sea of pebbles on Mars. He is stranded on the red planet with limited supplies. As if his ordeal is not disastrous enough already, the storm also destroyed the communication devices, eliminating any chance to contact his crew and NASA.

So here is Mark's dilemma; even if he can somehow send signals to NASA, he will still run out of supplies and starve to death before they can rescue him. Furthermore, time and supply are not the only enemies threatening to kill Mark. In Mars' hostile environment, a single wrong move means a quick death. Yet, Mark Watney is not about to lie down and die. Padded in his space suit, and armed with his quirky humor, Mark steadfastly engaged waves after waves of obstacles, initiating “project Mark Watney survives”. The first ever “made on Mars” project in history. In this project about survival, Mark will tax every revenue of his scientific knowledge and engineering skills, and subject his iron determination to the harshest trials. If Mark fails, then he will gown down in history as the fist permanent resident on Mars... in death.

My thoughts on this book:

I absolutely loved The Martian! In the process of writing this review I did some research about this book on the internet. I discovered the fascinating background story that gave birth to this novel. The Martian's author Andy Weir, is a computer programmer by trade. He is also a huge space nerd. According to an interview, Andy revealed before The Martian took the shape of a novel, it was originally an idea that he came up with for a mission plan to Mars. He designed this plan based on existing technologies. When Andy began to work on the disaster scenarios for his mission plan, then it evolved into a story, which Andy molded into a novel by creating a fictional character called Mark Watney.

This means, while The Martian is identified as science fictions, but every scientific fact mentioned in this book is legitimate, and almost all technologies mentioned in this book are either in existence or can be made (including the ion engine). In other words, The Martian is a believable, scientifically accurate “sci-fi” novel, grounded in real science and existing technology. Does this mean The Martian is a dry, academic novel? Nope, not at all. In fact, this “realism” is integrated perfectly into the storytelling to create a captivating novel.

Speaking of the story, The Martian tells a very simple story, but it is a gripping story that will move you emotionally while keeping you at the edge of your seat. The book is divided into two narrating arches. The first arch follows Mark Watney's endeavors to survive on Mars, and it is presented in the form of log entries. From these log entries, readers come to know Mark's character, who is a very positive guy packed with an abundance of good humors. Some of his log entries are so funny that I could not help but laugh heartily until my stomach began to ache. Mark is a very likable protagonist. When I was reading this book, after I read the first 5 pages, I already liked Mark and wished he could survive his ordeal.

Mark also narrated his thought processes, and how he formulated solutions to tackle the insurmountable obstacles facing him on Mars. These narrations are very technical. I was fascinated by the science and technology in Mark's narrations (probably because I have a perceptual interest in these things). However, I have heard some readers were overwhelmed by the technical descriptions. I do not think the appreciation for this novel is hinged on understanding the technical stuff mentioned in the book. Instead, I think the technical stuff serves as a part of the characterization, where Mark is portrayed as an individual possessing excellent problem-solving skills, and he is highly capable of critical, and rational thoughts. These qualities are a part of him and played roles in the storytelling. In other words, have you seen the TV series, MacGyver? If so, then reading how Mark Watney solved problems to survive on Mars, is like watching MacGyver perform feats of engineering ingenuity to combat the bad guys. Yet, Mark is not flawless. In this book, he made human errors that can kill him. This made Mark a very believable character, and readers can really feel the sense of danger for Mark as he tried to survive on Mars.

The second story arch follows the NASA workers, Mark's teammates (and the rest of the world, so to speak) who tried to rescue him. I really liked this part of the story, because every character has an egalitarian quality about them. They set aside their petty differences, and worked together to save Mark at personal costs and sacrifices. After I read the book, I realized the book never provided enough descriptions to help me visualize the physical appearances of these characters. Yet, their characters stood out so vividly in my mind and I felt like I knew them. This is another aspect I love about The Martian, the book does not overly describe the details, but the characterization is so impressionable that I felt I knew every character and their personalities.

The second story arch is also tied to the main theme in The Martians. That is, human beings have this basic instinct to help each other out. This instinct transcends our differences like gender, age, culture or nationality (Actually, as a side note, we can also observe this instinct in animals from experiments). Yeh sure, there are some jerks out there who don't give a crap, and sometimes the world looks like a cold place where no one cares. But when we walk down the street and see people lining up to donate blood at Red Cross, or when we turn on the TV and see people organizing rescue teams to help victims struck by natural disasters, then a realization dawned on us that as long as there is human compassion, then we are not really alone or isolated in this universe, even if we are millions of kilometers away from Earth on Mars.

I am not going to reveal if Mark Watney survived or died at the end of the book. I think you should read the book to find out. The Martian is the best stand-alone novel I've read in years. If you are going to read one fictional novel this year, then I recommend The Martian. If you are planning to see the Ridley Scott movie in October, then I still recommend reading The Martian before watching the movie. The bottom line is, The Martian is a fine novel and it is worth taking out a few hours of your time reading it.

P.S. People often say you should not judge a book by its cover. In the case of The Martian, this novel has both excellent contents and a stunning cover. I don't usually talk about book covers in my reviews, but I really like the book cover for The Martian. The cover arts is simple, but beautiful and striking. It totally captured the essence, and the atmosphere of the story.

Until the next time, happy reading!

Thursday, July 2, 2015

A Book Review: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #7)

Polka will never die!

The legendary quote (above) latched onto my mind, when I finished reading Dead Beat, the 7th novel in The Dresden Files series. You may be wondering, what on earth is “polka will never die”? Well, read the book to find out. But I'd say if you do read this book, then as you reach the scene when Waldo Butters declared “Polka will never die”, it will make you grin wide from ear to ear.

The Dresden Files is a series of urban fantasy novels. It is (currently) 15 books in length and new books are still coming. This series attracted a huge fandom and received numerous literary awards in recent years. I ventured into this series (on and off basis) in December last year. After reading the first 6 installments in the series, I thought these novels are fun reads, but they are also very repetitive. In other words, my opinion was while The Dresden Files novels are entertaining, but I didn't think the series was radiating brilliance.

However, after reading the 7th installment, Dead Beat, my opinion changed. This novel is probably the best book in the series yet. I had a great time reading it. So without further delay, let me begin my review with a synopsis for this book.


Magic can get a guy killed.

This is especially true if you are Harry Blackstone Copperfield Dresden, the world's only professional wizard/paranormal investigator, who works as a consultant for Chicago PD. You see, sometimes when things go bump in the middle of a dark night, not even the police know what to do. This is why they have a special unit in the department to take care of these “unusual cases”. And this is where a guy like Harry Dresden finds employment, offering his area of expertise in exchange for metallic-smelling dollar notes. Because remember, money smells just as good to a wizard as to everyone else. After all, we all have bills to pay.

But it is not always about the money. Under a windy October sky, a deadly vampire blackmailed Harry, threatening to destroy the reputation of Karrin Murphy, who is both Harry's friend and the head of the special unit in the PD. Harry is not the kind of man who puts up with blackmails, but this time it is different, because if he does not comply then his friend's reputation is going up in smokes. So Harry acquiesced to the vampire's demand, then set out to recover something called “The Word of Kemmler”.

Harry only has 3 days to accomplish this mission. As if the problem is not big enough already, 6 necromancers popped up in Chicago town and they smell like big, big trouble. All this goes to say, Harry is about to experience a Halloween he will never forget...

My thoughts about this book:

The main protagonist, Harry Dresden, is a paranormal investigator by trade. In the earlier installments of the series, the plots tried to incorporate elements of detective fictions yet this feature was not well realized. Dead Beat succeeded where the earlier installments failed, in that it successfully blended detective fictions with an urban fantasy novel. Sure, the plot is still pretty straight forward, but the story manged to weave a veil of mysteries around it. Mysteries that are kept secretive from the readers and only revealed at the end of the book. This creates an engrossing story where the tension kept the readers in suspense.

The second, major improvement in Dead Beat, is that Harry is now a vulnerable character. He is still a powerful wizard, but he can be beaten in a fight. And when he is beaten, he stays down. This change to the storytelling is crucial in eliminating the repetitiveness found in the earlier installments. In the earlier installments, whenever Harry was beaten in a fight, he always found some “inner strength” to help him win the day. The plot device of “finding inner power” was used so frequently in the first 6 novels that it became a trope. Thankfully, Dead Beat has erased all traces of this trope. The result? The story is more intriguing and unpredictable because of this change, and readers can feel the sense of danger, as Harry took on legions of powerful, unholy nemesis in his perilous quest.

Dead Beat maintains trademarks of The Dresden Files series. The first one is the humor. Dead Beat tells a very intense story, but humors also punched in at the right moments, showering readers with comedic reliefs that will surely bring laughters to their voices. For example, I love Waldo Butters' memorable, and legendary quote, “Polka will never die”. The scene when Waldo Butters, a friend of Harry's, pronounced this quote I laughed until tears came out of my eyes. It was a golden moment!

Secondly, Dead Beat tells a story that moves with the pace of lightning. Exhilarating actions, narrated in Jim Butcher's cinematic prose flew across the white pages in black ink. Some actions scenes reached a new level of epicness, making this a very entertaining book to read. It will not disappoint both fans and newcomers to The Dresden Files books. However, if you are looking to start this series, I would strongly recommend start reading from book 1, titled Storm Front.

The first 6 books in The Dresden Files were ok but not great, but I persevered and read the 7th installment. I am glad that I did not give up on the series, because it turned out this is a really good novel. I hope Dead Beat marks the turning point in this series, and the strengths that made this novel good will carry on to the next one. For the first time since I ventured into the world of The Dresden Files, I am actually looking forward to reading Harry's next adventure, titled “Proven Guilty”.

In the meantime, happy reading!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Book Review: The Complete Lyonesse by Jack Vance (Lyonesse #1-3)

Jack Vance is a very famous author of fantasy fictions. Despite his high reputation, Jack Vance's award-winning fantasy epic, Lyonesse trilogy, remains a classic that many fantasy buffs have heard of, but have never read. Published in 1983, Lyonesse trilogy is deeply rooted in Celtic and Arthurian legend, and the trilogy narrates a stunning, beautiful story. It is a mystery why Lyonesse trilogy is under-appreciated.

I came to know Lyonesse trilogy's existence, from George R.R. Martin's “recommended book” list on Goodreads. I purchased an omnibus edition, published by Gollancz and titled “The Complete Lyonesse”. This is a solid, hefty tome counting to 1000 pages, and sparsely illustrated by award-winning illustrator Les Edward. This book contains all 3 novels in Lyonese trilogy; Suldruan's Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc. After I read this book, my opinion is that Lyonesse trilogy is a must read for all lovers of fantasy literatures. Therefore today, I would like to provide a review for this book, giving would-be readers a brief overview of what they can expect from Lyonesse trilogy, and why I highly recommend this book.


Before the coming of Arthur Pendragon and the age of Camelot, there was a forgotten era when fairy magic and chivalry walked side by side in The Elder Isles, an ancient land southwest of Cornwall. The Elder Isles was a land fated to doom. Yet, memories of knightly quests, beautiful damsels, arcane sorcery, and kings at war decorated the story of this mysterious land.

On The Elder Isles laid a kingdom called Lyonesse, reigned by the brooding, ambitious King Casmir, whose queen gave birth to Princess Suldrun. Who, due to her gender, was not favored by
her parents. As Suldrun came to age, Casmir seek to reap political leverage by marrying her to his allies. Suldrun refused the marriage arrangement, thus angering the king, who punished Suldrun by exiling her to a secluded garden.

On a moonlit night, the midnight tide washed ashore to Suldrun's Garden an uncounsious, but handsome stranger. He was prince Alias from Troicinet and Suldrun saved him. Young love soon kindled between Alias and Suldrun. However, their love was destined to tragedy, opening the first chapter to a wondrous tale. A tale where a baby prince would exchange his fate with a baby fairy, an exchange that will forever re-shape the history of The Elder Isles.

My thoughts about this book:

The Complete Lyonesse collects all 3 novels in the trilogy; Suldrun's Garden, The Green Pearl, and Madouc. This trilogy is grounded in Celtic and Arthurian legend, where the story referenced to icons in Arthurian cycles, such as the Round Table an the Holy Grail. Furthermore, the narratives in Lyonesse trilogy resemble these classical legends in tones, the mood, and settings. In other words, Lyonesse trilogy is a modern classic crafted in the true fashion of Celtic and Arthurian legends.

I think Lyonesse trilogy is an unique creation in the fantasy genre. These books impressed me as a series of dark fairy tales inter-connected by a main story arc. Please note I described this trilogy as “dark fairy tales”, meaning this trilogy is not suitable for children. Having said this, the tones and the atmosphere of this trilogy is unlike the modern “grim-dark” fantasy genre. What I mean is, Lyonesse trilogy is “dark”, in the same way that Le Morte d'Arthur is dark. Where both cycles told stories cast with realistic, sometimes flawed characters, whose fate could be tragic and disturbing in the story's telling.

Jack Vance wrote beautifully and elegantly. He commands excellent English. Vance's writings are intricate but not verbose, his style differs from most best-selling authors of our time. This also means Lyonesse trilogy is not a page-turner. Skimming will only pave the way to confusion. However, it is worthwhile investing time and energy to decipher Vance's writings, because a reader would surely come to appreciate Vance's beautiful use of words. But I would also like to comment, I think the storytelling in Lyonesse trilogy sometimes suffers from uneven pace. 

For the most parts, the stories in these novels are engrossing. The stories flowed smoothly, but every now and then, some little parts would slow down the story, choking up the flow. The uneven pace does not ruin this trilogy, because the strengths of this trilogy outweigh this one weakness by a large margin. I also want to mention, the uneven pacing problem is more common in Suldrun's Garden, but gradually improved in the later books of the trilogy.

Lyonesse trilogy features a cast of intriguing characters. The main protagonist in the first two novels, is Prince (who became King) Alias. I particularly like his role in the first novel, Suldrun's Garden, where the the second half of the novel narrated his tale of becoming the king of Troicinet. Yet, the most intriguing character from Suldrun's Garden, is none other than Princess Suldrun herself. She is a well developed character, and her tragic romance with Alias haunts me with bitter sweet memories that lingered in my mind long after I finished Suldrun's Garden.

The main antagonist in Lyonesse trilogy is King Casmir. He is a brooding, ambitious man who emanates a powerful presence. He attempted to seize the governance of The Elder Isles under his reign. He is ruthless, and showed little fatherly love for his daughter Suldurn, treating her as a bargaining chip to gain him political leverage. I opine King Casmir is mostly a vividly portrayed, believable character, but the story didn't really explain his motives so his character is not as mufti-dimensional as he could be.

In contrast, the motives of Prince/King Alias, the main protagonist, is well expounded. He hates King Casmir for his cruelty against Suldrun, a cruelty that cursed their love to an inevitable doom. However, as the main protagonist Alias seems too perfect. He (almost) never made any mistake. This means, while Alias is also a vividly portrayed, believable character, but his perfection deducted some intrigues from his character.

The pace and the tone of the story changed in The Green Pearl. This novel mostly focused on Alias' struggles to establish himself as a legitimate ruler of his kingdom after the events in Suldrun's Garden. Once again, I like the story about Alias' struggles as a young king, but he is still too perfect and his character appears two-dimensional. The story in The Green Pearl bridged Suldrun's Garden, and the final book in the trilogy, Madouc. The Green Pearl retains the charms and the magic from Suldrun's Garden, and it is a lovely novel despite some minor problems with characterizations, and the occasional uneven pacing of the story.

My favorite novel in this trilogy, is Madouc, which concludes the story of Lyonesse. This novel has a lighter, more humorous tone than the previous two novels. The main protagonist in Madouc, is Princess Madouc. She is a half fairy, and her mother exchanged her for Alias' son, Prince Dhurne, when they were both little babes. As a result of this, King Casmir thought Madouc was Suldrun's child, and she grew up in the royal court as a princess. King Casmir treated her in the same way as he treated Suldrun, a bargaining chip to be married off in exchange for political leverage. However, Madouc's fairy nature rendered her an unruly, independent child. Whose will often led her to contrast the strict conducts at the royal court, making her a subject of controversy among the society of nobles.

Madouc focused on Princess Madouc's journey to find her true parentage. Let me say I absolutely loved the portrayal of Princess Madouc and her character. Her adventures (and misadventures) are funny and engrossing. Her character is touched by innocence, good wits, humor, and alive with determination. All the while, Madouc's conducts are tinged with little mischief here and there. It is a combination of these qualities that made Princess Madouc my favorite character in Lyonesse trilogy, and I would unhesitatingly add Madouc in my top 5 female characters in fantasy fictions.

My brief review does not do Lyonesse trilogy justice, but I hope it had provided would-be readers with some ideas about what to expect from it. The story of Lyonesse is both beautiful and magical, and the characters are likeable and vividly portrayed. While these books may occasionally suffer from uneven pacing, but the strengths out-weigh the weaknesses by far. This is a classic tale every lover of fantasy fictions should read and treasure, especially if you like Celtic and Arthurian legends.