Friday, June 30, 2017

A Book Review: City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett (The Divine Cities #1)

Fantasy literature often evokes images of fire breathing dragons and spell slinging wizards. Not anymore! Modern practitioners of the genre have been challenging its conventions, presenting to readers with ripping yarns of all sorts and kinds. Those who still equate “fantasy” with “medieval castles and magics”, should make a trip to a bookstore, where modern fantasy novels are waiting to defy your expectations.

In fact, if you are looking for a fantasy novel that is NOT about wizards, dragons and medieval European castles, then allow me to introduce you to a book - City of Stairs. This book, written by Robert Jackson Bennett, became the finalist for three awards in 2015. It is also the first installment in a trilogy known as “The Divine Cities”.


A night train brought new arrivals to the city Bulikov, the City of Stairs. From the carriage's door emerged a peculiar duo, who stepped into the morning chill. Of the duo, one is a slender, harmless looking woman. A pair of glasses rests on her nose, and the brown skin distinguished her as a visitor from the Saypuri Republic. Next to the Saypuri woman stood a colossal man, one-eyed and scar-faced, his yellow hair and pale complexion marked him as a Dreyling, a wild man of the north.

The woman introduced herself and her giant companion as Shara and Sigurd, a pair of lowly diplomats on a cultural exchange mission. In reality, Shara is an accomplished spymaster, who came to Bulikov to investigate the murder of a gentle historian. As Shara peeled back the layers of mystery, she unmasked a conspiracy that may shift the geopolitical balance between her country and the Continent.

My thoughts on this book:

City of Stairs is a slow burner, and it took a while for me to warm up to this book. The opening chapter, set in a courtroom, was boring and slow (even its characters were yawning in boredom). It was not until the second chapter, when the author suddenly unleashed his power of storytelling. This is when the story began to grip me. It's world was fascinating, and its characters were vividly portrayed.

The world in this book, though fictional, elicits czarist Russia and the Mughal empire. The worldbuilding is intricate and detailed. This is unique and refreshing, it sets City of Stairs apart from most fantasy novels, it does not follow the formula of a pseudo medieval European theme. The most interesting aspect of its world, I found, was the magic system. What's so interesting about it? The hallmark of fantasy, is the inclusion of supernatural elements in its worldbuilding; Jon Snow came back from the dead, Gandalf can throw fireballs, and Aslan's roar can shake the very earth itself. If there is no supernatural, then it is not a fantasy book. The question, where did the “magic” come from?

In City of Stairs, people could perform supernatural deeds, known as “miracles”, which were sourced from the gods. In this book, many gods once existed in its world and every nation on the Continent had their own god, All except an island people known as the Saypuri, who were godless. With the power of the gods, the Continental nations enslaved the Saypuri people. After centuries of oppression, the Saypuri finally rebelled against the Continent and killed every god with a secret weapon. After the gods died, the miracles ceased, and the Continentals lost their vantage. In their place, the Saypuri people became the strongest of all nations due to their command in superior technology. This is the premise for City of Stairs. Not only did this book explore the tension between magic and technology, but more interestingly, it asks the question:

If miracles came from the gods, then where did the gods come from?

This question is indeed, a central mystery of the book, and I leave would-be readers to discover the answer on their own. Otherwise, City of Stairs also explored, how censorship can affect human relationships in a society. I found this theme very interesting.

City of Stairs combined the best of fantasy, detective fictions, and spy novels. It has two protagonists, Shara and Sigurd. Both of these characters defy the archetype of fantasy. In her mid thirties, Shara was an experienced spymaster, and a knowledgeable historian. She possessed little martial prowess, but she wielded her deductive powers as a master detective. It was a lot of fun to follow Shara's journey and watching her solve the murder. It was equally as intriguing to see her playing a game of cunning and politics. Unlike most heroes in fantasy, Shara is not the stereotypical, young hero destined to save the day. No, Shara is a flawed character. She made mistakes and paid for it, and she had regrets in her life. This realistic, well-rounded portrayal of Shara made her character memorable and likable. The second protagonist in this book is Sigurd. Upon the first glance, this 7 foot giant, grizzled and one-eyed, appeared to be a stereotypical barbarian in fantasy. As the story unfolded, however, readers would quickly discover that Sigurd is not an oaf. This silent, and apparently simple character soon revealed himself as an individual with a mysterious background, one with a fascinating history. It should suffice to say, while these two characters are likable, but you will want to find out more about them after the book is finished.

Admittedly, City of Stairs started slowly. The early parts of the book took its time to build the world and establish the characters. This also means, this book may find more appreciations in the eyes of the adult readers. It is worthwhile to persevere through the first 100 pages nonetheless. Once this story gets going, the book shifted into a higher gear, and one would feel the draw to read one chapter after another, until the adventure reached its end. I think this is a thoughtful, and unique fantasy novel. If you like fantasy but you want to read something different, then make sure to check out this book.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

A Book Review: Blindness by José Saramago

  An old woman with a walking stick stepped into a morning train and found herself in a carriage jam-packed with people. The old lady could not find a seat, and no one wanted to vacate a seat for her so she stood near the door. The train started moving, and she swayed from side to side like an old tree struggling against a storm. I saw her from my comfortable seat at the upper compartment and a thought came to me: "what would I do if this is my mother?"

"Excuse me, would you like to sit here?" I called out to the old woman and my voice boomed in the carriage. Meanwhile, I stood up and took a step towards her, my hand gestured to the seat that I vacated just a second ago. She smiled and told me there was no need, because she was getting off at the next stop and it was too much hassle for her to climb the stairs.

I turned my head and discovered an astonishing sight; in those passing seconds, an young woman with a pretty face took my seat. Did the young woman hear the conversations between the old woman and I? Did the young woman know I was vacating the seat for the old lady? While I stood and contemplated those questions, I must have had an incredulous and bewildered look on my face, because the young woman looked at me and her beautiful visage suddenly flushed with embarrassment.

"I am so sorry", the young woman said to me and she began to stand up, her tone was sincere and her eyes were downcast with guilt. I felt bad for her. I sighed and told the young woman it was ok and she should just continue to sit there. As I walked away, I caught a glimpse of the young woman squirming in the seat despite my assurance to her that it was fine.

Maybe I over-think everything, but I came away from my train experience with a realization - our society is a complicated web of relationships and its ingredients, such as accountability, empathy, fear, bravery, cowardice, sharing, etc., depend on our ability to see! But more than often, even when our eyes are working properly, we will choose to be blinded to the things that we do not wish to see, so how is that different from being physically blind? Perhaps this is why José Saramago, the winner for Nobel Prize in Literature, wrote Blindness to remind his readers, that we stop cherishing our own souls when we stop cherishing the souls of our fellows, and everyday the human dignity is shredded by those who replace the many truths in this world with an omnipresent lie.

Blindness tells a harrowing story, about a city struck by an epidemic and its people collectively becoming blind. This book is not for the faint-hearted. The story is raw and brutal, narrated in an unusual style where the author wrote VERY long sentences separated mostly by commas, with no quotation mark to indicate the dialogues. It suffices to say, Blindness is no easy reading. Under José Saramago's lyrical prose, the book tackles the worst and the best of human nature, where it presents, mostly, a pessimistic outlook for our species. Yet, in its beautifully rendered characters, we also find traces of what made humanity, humane. This book will give you brain explosions but this is exactly the reason to read it. I highly recommend this book.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Movie Review: Wonder Woman (3D)

75 years after her creation, Wonder Woman finally receives her own movie. While the Amazonian princess is unleashing her charms and super powers at the box office, the critics are joining hands and praising her first cinematic outing with a thunderous applause. 

Finally, the DC cinematic universe is getting it right.

Indeed, DC has had a turbulent ride in its cinematic endeavors. It is impossible to talk about the DC cinematic universe without mentioning, Zack Snyder’s convoluted superhero flick, Batman Vs Superman. Late in 2016, Warner tried to salvage Batman Vs Superman with an extended version of the film. The extended cut, running an additional 30 minutes, improved Batman Vs Superman. Alas, the extended cut arrived too late to the rescue! It could not change people's initial impression of the film: Batman Vs Superman was average, and it just didn't live up to the hype. Meanwhile, I thought the best thing about Batman Vs Superman was neither Batman nor Superman, but the character of Wonder Woman. When the credit for Batman Vs Superman started rolling on the screen, I wanted to know more about Wonder Woman's story.

“Who is Diana Prince? She embodied the best qualities of both Superman and Batman, yet she is also graceful and mysterious”.

A year later, Warner released a Wonder Woman standalone movie. This is the 4th installment in the DC cinematic universe. How was it? This film exceeded my expectations! Not only is Wonder Woman one of the better superhero movies, but it also re-energies the superhero genre. It suffices to say, Wonder Woman is a really good movie and you should go see it on the big screen.

Set in World War I, this movie unveils the mysterious origin of Wonder Woman (AKA Diana Prince). The journey of our beloved heroine opened on the mythical island of Themyscira. This is where Diana was born and raised by her mother, Queen Hippolyta of the Amazons. What is the history? Thousands of years ago, a jealous Ares, the god of war, wished to destroy mankind. In a battle of the gods, Zeus mortally wounded Ares. The thunder god then charged Diana's people, the Amazons, with the sacred duty to safeguarding the world.

Themyscira, and the Amazonian way of living, were all Diana ever knew. Until one day, an American spy crashed landed his warplane near the island and told her about the conflicts of the outside world. Diana decided to leave her home and fight in a war to end all wars, thus began the legend of Wonder Woman.

From here, this movie presented the audience with two and half hours of fun, excitements, and a compelling story. Gal Gadot's performance as Wonder Woman is stunning. She is the perfect fit to the role. Just like Hugh Jackman is Wolverine, Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman. I like the way this movie portrayed Wonder Woman, she is both confident and capable.

Remember this movie is set in World War I. It was a time when the society viewed the status of women lower to men's. Then you have Wonder Woman, who just left her island to fight in World War I. Not only had she never heard of misogyny and sexism, but her superpowers also made her stronger than every man. This created a very interesting tension between her and the foreign culture she found herself in. Yet, in all of this, Wonder Woman consistently showed her quality, not by undermining those around her, but by asserting: “these are my skills, and this is what I can do”.

I admire Wonder Woman's natural confidence. For her, gender equality is not a movement, ideology, or entitlement. Instead, it was something as natural as the sun and the moon; and I really, really like that. Five minutes into the movie, I found myself enjoying the film and spellbound to the story of this inspiring character.

Chris Pine portrayed Steve Trevor, and he brought an equally as brilliant performance to the movie. He had a very good chemistry with Gal Gadot, and his character, noble and courageous, reminded me of Captain America. Over the movie's course, they developed a romantic relationship, but it felt very natural and not forced. In my opinion, Steve Trevor is a “man's man” in this movie, a man with a big heart. What do I mean? In the story, he never undermined Wonder Woman. Steve Trevor was a very confident character. He knew what Wonder Woman was capable of, so he supported her and helped her shine. Together, Wonder Woman and Steve Trevor made a really good team.

The DC cinematic universe, influenced by Zack Snyder, is famous for its desaturated tones. But Wonder Woman, directed by Patty Jenkins, is perhaps the most colorful DC film up to date. The movie opened its first act on the Amazon island and it was an eye-catcher. The cinematography in the first act is vibrant and colorful. This is a welcomed change from its predecessors. After Wonder Woman arrived in London, however, the tone and the atmosphere did take on a dreary, smoky look, emulating the ambiance of World War I. This also means, Wonder Woman is a hybrid between a war drama and a superhero flick. But where Wonder Woman stands apart from the legions of comic book superheroes, is her high emotional intelligence, and it made her story inspiring. I like this movie's message - love is what you need to get through a war.

There are three sets of major action scenes in this movie. None of these actions scenes are gory or graphic. This is a pleasant surprise considering the movie is about war. The first major battle scene was really good. The second one, however, was the best part of this movie. It was well choreographed and emotional. I won't spoil it for you, I think you will see what I mean when you get there. The final major battle scene, on the other hand, had some overly done CGI effects and it reminded me of the messy ending in Batman Vs Superman. In fact, I would say 75% of this movie was marvelous, but the film lost some of its steams in the last 25% of it. This is mainly due to the poorly developed villains. The bad guys in this movie were interesting, but I thought the film failed to capitalize on their potentials. This movie made me feel, the villains were there because they needed some bad guys for Wonder Woman to fight against. Meanwhile, I would have liked to see more story expositions for the villains, and what motivated them.

Yet, these minor flaws could not tarnish the radiance of Wonder Woman. This movie single-handedly saved the DC cinematic universe universe from its original negative trajectory. Meanwhile, it also rekindled moviegoers' enthusiasm in the superhero genre, which has been showing signs of fatigue in the recent years. If you are going to see only one superhero movie this year, then pick Wonder Woman. Watch her story, and be inspired by its wonder.


I watched Wonder Woman in 3D. The three dollar question: Is it worth watching it in 3D? Here is my take. There have been some excellent 3D releases in the past few months. For example, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them boasts some impressive 3D effects. The 3D effects in Wonder Woman, however, was average at the best. A few money shots in this movie were reminders that I was watching a 3D film. But on the whole, this 3D conversion just didn't have enough “pop out” scenes to make my jaw drop. Having said this, fans of the 3D format may want to check out this movie in its 3D glory nevertheless.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

A Book Review: Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames

What if mercenaries are like rock stars in the fantasy world?

Yep, Sword and Sorcery, and... rock and roll. This idea lit up in the head of one budding author, Nicholas Eames, and he weaved a 492 page epic fantasy story out of it. If you want to know how this idea plays out, then check out his novel, Kings of the Wyld.

By Crom, I swear this is the best fantasy novel I've read in 2017!

I suppose, you would like some more descriptions for the book? All right, then can someone cast the spotlight to the left, shine it on that awesome book cover. Now, can you see those five old men standing there? They are a mercenary band called Saga. These old timers may have retired from mercenary works, but back in the days, Saga was the cream of the crop, the deadliest, meanest, most respected mercenary crew this side of Heartwyld.

In those days, a boogeyman had a nightmare when he dreamed of Saga.

Twenty years ago Saga disbanded and hung their swords on the wall, the crew went on their separate ways. But the time has come for these old boys to reunite for one last gig. One of the band member has his daughter missing, so they are reuniting to rescue her. Two decades in retirement may have rusted Saga's monster slaying skills, but with some practices, the rusty bits will come off and their swords will cut again.

And so into the monster-ridden Heartwyld walked five men. At their head is Saga's frontman, Gabriel, AKA Golden Gabe. His face, once handsome but now wrinkled, is a testimony for the passage of time. But the legendary sword, Vehllicor, is still strapped to his back. Fire burns in Gabriel's eyes, his determination to save his daughter Rose, may yet melt away the timidness wrought by the years in retirement, and returning Golden Gabe to the world. Next to Gabriel strolls a bear of a man - Clay Cooper, AKA Slowhand. A formidable shield, Blackheart, rests on Clay's back. A family man, Clay's adventure days are over. But his friend needs help, so despite his aching knees, Clay will go to the end of the earth with Gabriel to find Rose.

Trailing behind Gabriel and Clay walked a peculiar duo; a king and a wizard. For the king, a pair of priceless daggers, Grace and Roxy, embraced his enormous waist. The king's name is Mattrick, AKA Skulldrummer. He was a rogue before he is a king. Matty is hideously out of shape but he can still wield those daggers like a whirlwind. Treading shoulder to shoulder with Matty, is a wizard known as Arcadius Moog. Twenty years ago Moog's hair was already white. The sand of time has since introduced a bald patch to Moog's wizardly top. But you gotta watch out for Moog, not only does he carry a magical bag that will make Santa Claus envious, but he is also the only wizard over the age of 8 who still believes in Owlbears, which makes Moog a dangerous man indeed.

At the band's rear treads a tall and silent warrior. His name is Ganelon. A long, double ended axe sits on his shoulders. When it comes to the art of fighting and monster slaying, Ganelon is the least out-of-practice member in the band (why? Read the book and you will see). This also means, messing with Ganelon is a terrible idea, because he can easily detach your head from the neck like plucking a watermelon on a farm.

So there you have it, the descriptions for Saga, they are Kings of the Wyld. These guys may be old and rusty, but they are preparing to kick some serious monster butts in this reunion tour. Glory never gets old. If you are reading this book, then you better savor every single word in this story. This is Saga's best, and the last gig, and there will be no encore.

Indeed, despite being the first book in the series, Kings of the Wyld is a stand alone novel. Yes, you read that right. It is a stand alone novel. This fantasy novel nicely ties up every thread at its end, and it doesn't leave the story hanging until the sequel. The author said, the two sequels following Kings of the Wyld will follow two new bands. This also means, you can read this book now without having to wait for the series to “complete”. But this book is so damn good that if you read this book, then I can guarantee you will want more of it.

It is difficult to pin point, what is it that made Kings of the Wyld so good. I suppose its charm comes from a combination of colorful characters, humor, worldbuilding, and the themes. While my above descriptions (for the characters) may not be well written, but it should be easy to see, the characters in this book are a mirror to the rock musicians in our world. In the world of Heartwyld, the mercenaries are treated with prestige, holding the kind of fame and fortunate as rock stars in our culture. The difference, rock bands play music in touring concerts, but these mercenary bands in Heartwyld do “gigs and tours” in the wilderness, slaying monsters and accumulate glory. The humor in this book uses a tongue in cheek mirroring of the rock bands, and it works really well with its themes, about nostalgia and growing old.

Yet, Kings of the Wyld is not a story about 5 aging comedians going to their last adventure. The world of Heartwyld is dark and grim like Joe Abercrombie's First Law universe. Meanwhile, the characters in this book were mercenaries, they have witnessed enough violence and horrors to haunt them for 10 life times. Underneath the jokes and the comedic reliefs, not only are our five heroes fighting their inner battles, but they are also rekindling the old friendships. The author has a deep understanding of the human nature, this book is as much about male bonding/friendship, as it is about the love of a parent for the child – there is nothing a parent wouldn't do for the child. Kings of the Wyld is the kind of book that will make you laugh, then holding your breathe over actions and fights, and suddenly moist your eyes with heart breaking moments. I did not want to wave goodbye to these five characters when the book reached its end. Fortunately, I own the book so I can read it again. In fact, I am going to re-read this book very soon. Furthermore, in the fantasy genre where most books are about coming of age stories, Kings of the Wyld offers a refreshing take for the genre, telling a story from the perspectives of old people instead.

The worldbuilding in this book is fun, vast, and imaginative. Nicholas Eames knows his fantasy tropes well and he was having fun with it. Almost every known fantasy bestiary made its way into the book, and Nicholas also added a few new creations of his own. Meanwhile, the world of Heartwyld, as I mentioned before, radiates the kind of grimness and darkness that can only be rivaled by the likes of Joe Abercrombie. I think Kings of the Wyld lands on a good balance between epic fantasy and its grimdark cousin. This story may not be set in a world of sunshine and rainbow, but it sure has heart.

Starting from page one, Kings of the Wyld hooked me right into its story. This book is going straight into my list of favorite books. It is certainly one of the best books I've read this year. This is an impressive debut and I eagerly anticipate Nicholas' next book. I might just re-read Kings of the Wyld before moving on to the next book on my TBR. Yep, that's right. I am going to re-open this book to chapter 1 – A Ghost on the Road, and go through the adventure all over again. Meanwhile, if you are a fan of fantasy literature, then do yourself a favor and get this book NOW.


On his website, the author mentioned every chapter in this book is inspired by iconic rock songs, from Neil Young, ACDC, The Rolling Stones, Led Zepplin, Bob Dylon etc... I think the connections between the chapters and the songs are very interesting. Check out the author's website here.