Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Shannara Chronicles (Netflix)

The Shannara Chronicles, a recent TV show currently available on Netflix, is enjoyable and made all the better for its completeness. The Elfstones of Shannara, the second book in Terry Brooks’ fantasy series, begins and ends within the TV series.


In The Shannara Chronicles, an old tree called the Ellcrys is dying, and as it dies, it releases demons from the Forbidding where they were imprisoned. Will (the half human, half elf heir of Shannara), Amberle (the elven princess and last of the Chosen who care for the Ellcrys), and Eretria (the human rover without a family) must carry the Ellcrys' seed to the Blood Fire, then bring it back to heal the tree before the last leaf falls and a demon army is released.

I was unimpressed with Brooks’ first book, setting it aside out of boredom and frustration with its poor writing style, so I never read the book this series is based on. The author's stilted writing style and heavy reliance on dialogue over action carried over, but credit must be given for the legacy it began of Tolkien imitation.

Tolkien Imitation

And it is imitation. There are references to Aragorn and Gandalf in the nobler characters (especially Allanon, the wise druid), and the demons, other than the changeling and the harpies, are orcs by another name. The dialogue is stilted, full of stereotypical fantasy lines such as Eretria: "Did you hear that?" Will: "I don't hear anything..." Eretria: "Exactly." 


The plot was intriguing. I like the idea of carrying a seed. It was certainly a beautiful prop. The "plot twist" where Amberle herself becomes the seed probably worked better in the book. As it was, I didn't care about the characters enough to be invested in their shock, only mildly upset that the prop I like so much went unused!


I have no respect or sympathy for Will. He slept with both girls and never faced consequences for avoiding making a choice between them. As a result, the relationship among the three of them was always tenuous and there was no sense of fellowship. The girls were constantly pitted against each other and Will never stopped playing the field. The characters themselves had difficulty committing to the quest. As a viewer, I held back emotional investment in their teenage angst and became disinterested in their fates. 


The show's best aspect is the setting, but even here it lacked continuity. Usually it seemed the whole story took place within a few acres of land, but then the characters would fall off a snowy mountain and land in a shallow river without a mountain in sight. However, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, the show's creators, managed to craft a fantasy world among the ruins of our own. The Four Lands are visually impressive.


The show has been signed on for another season, and, despite my criticisms, I look forward to it. There is a great deal of potential if the characters grow into something more substantial!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Overload of Fantastical Ideas: A Brief Review of The Woman Who Died a Lot

I grabbed The Woman Who Died a Lot by Jasper Fforde (2012) off the shelf at the library. I wasn't disappointed with the story, but the world itself left me unsatisfied.


Thursday Next (the main character) is not your typical heroine. In this book (I didn't read any early ones in the series because, as I said, I just grabbed it off the shelf.), she is an older woman who has dedicated her life to fighting literary crimes. She is convalescing from an attempt on her life which has left her in a great deal of pain and mobility trouble, but she still feels disappointed when she is assigned a cushy job as the chief librarian of the Swindon All-You-Can-Eat at Fatso's Drink Not Included Library instead of her exciting old job chasing bad guys.

However, her life is anything but boring. Day Players--temporary synthetic people expertly designed to look like Thursday for unknown reasons and by an unknown party--replace her frequently and download her consciousness, and her daughter Jenny doesn't exist.

Library Copy
Two catastrophes are on the way: a smiting by an angry deity and the earth's collision with an asteroid in 37 years. The super corporation Goliath intends to benefit from both and achieve their goal of complete control/world domination. Thursday Next and her family work together to thwart them.

Overload of Ideas Inadequately Explained

This is a perfectly legitimate storytelling technique, most notably employed by Lewis Carroll. The author fills "fairyland" with so many bizarre things that the reader is in a constant state of disorientation. Angry deity, MadCon (a mad scientists' convention), the Blessed Ladies of the Lobster religion (also known as "the Lobsterhood"), the disbanding of time travel when someone reached the end of time and realized that no one had ever invented the time machine, etc.

It's like having a mirror flashed in your eyes repeatedly.

In this particular story, the technique does not mask weak plot or characters, but it is a distraction. There is too much going on. Perhaps, if I had read the beginning of the series (this is book #7) and grown to know the characters and concepts over several books, my impression would have been different.

As it is, the story is full of "buzzword" concepts that tickle the nostalgic sensibilities of book lovers, such as the "Dark Reading Matter," which is like heaven for lost books, oral tales, the imaginary friends of dead children, and unicorns. Nothing is lost, and the contents of destroyed books can potentially be recovered.


Personally, I find this type of storytelling unsatisfying. I enjoy complete worlds and stories that make me feel at home in them. The Woman Who Died a Lot made me feel like I was being dragged along, even though most of the random things came together in the end.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

On E-books

I finally bought a Kindle two weeks ago to take with me on vacation. Have I betrayed authors, the history of print, and my own values? Something inside me still feels that way, but I've come to some recent conclusions to ease my conscience.

1. A story is still a story even if it isn't a book.

Yes, turning pages and the smell of paper is part of the reading experience, but a good story should make you forget about those things anyway by taking you outside of yourself and placing you in the action.

2. Classics and books in the public domain are more accessible.

People who don't usually read classics because they are intimidatingly thick, dusty, and boring-looking may be more likely to try them out in electronic form, if for no other reason than they are free! I, myself, downloaded several that I've been meaning to read.

3. Less financial risk for publishers means more authors are likely to debut electronically.

E-books may make it easier for beginning authors to break into the industry. Perhaps their first book isn't great, but they grow through the experience!

4. The best books will still be printed.

There will always be a demand for physical books. For one, readers are simply too sentimental to allow their children to grow up in a house without them. For another, there is something special about physical books. Fenando Báez writes in A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, "It is unlikely that anyone has heard of a sacred computer or automobile, but we all know of sacred books" (14). The experience--the ritual, even--of reading a physical book is profound.

5. E-books have become the new paperback.

They are cheaper, so most of them will be crappy romances for reading on the beach. The demand for the will be driven by people looking to save money on their emotional thrills, not caring, necessarily, for quality. However, as the contents of the book become more valuable, the price of an electronic copy draws closer to the price of a physical copy, making the purchase of an e-book over a physical book less worthwhile, just as it is with paperbacks.


I am no longer worried that e-books threaten the existence of physical books and the publishing industry. It does disrupt the demand for paperbacks and stores selling exclusively new books have found their profits cut into. My only remaining concern is people attempting to save money by illegal downloading. Obtaining a free copy of a book without permission was much more difficult with physical books and really does harm the industry.