Friday, February 27, 2015

The Review of Final Symphony

The day will come when I do not spend the entirety of it listening Final Symphony, but that is not this day. The day will also come when the music does not bring me to tears, but that is not this day either. I made the “mistake” of listening to samples of all the songs on iTunes, and it could not be endured…my lack of this music. It had to be bought; it had to be experienced, and subsequently I had to speak.

Final Symphony consists of arranged music from Final Fantasies VI, VII, and X: an opening overture, one from VI, three from VII, three from X, then three encores from VII, X, and a medley from the series. It is performed by the London Symphony Orchestra, and every single song is good. Now there are some that are better than others and some I do not particularly care for, but it a credit to the composer Nobuo Uematsu and the arranger that even the songs that hit my ear less stellar are still worlds ahead of most of the music I hear. You do not need to be a fan of Final Fantasy, nor do you need to be a connoisseur of video game music in general to enjoy this bliss. In fact one of the reviews on iTunes stated the very same. This album is for people who love good music and enjoy the classical arts. Thus far every single review there has given it five stars.

The opening overture, Circle Within a Circle Within a Circle (the title puts me in the mind of Smashing Pumpkin’s “The Beginning Is the End Is the Beginning") is light, flighty and a very sweet piece. It’s machinations are a bit too frenetic for my tastes, but they do put me in the mind of a series whose main goal is to portray the hope that always resides despite ever creeping darkness. This is one of the shortest pieces at little over four minutes, which is not long to wait before the album spills you into the game that first caught my heart.

Final Fantasy VI (Symphonic Poem: Born with the Gift of Magic)

The title does not lie; this is truly poetry made song. FFVI lovers will rejoice in this masterpiece that binds together the Empire’s music, Terra’s Theme, Kefka’s Theme, and the Mystic Forest book-ended with the Opera that teases so cruelly at the end. The Empire’s music is haunting and dark flowing together with Terra’s more forlorn around 1:30. Kefka’s music, which comes in around 3:30 is playful and childish with that note of the sinister hiding beneath to show the depravity that can lie amongst japes and mirth. There’s an almost classical/ballet sound that enters in its later part with a section that is reminiscent of FFIX’s Vamo All Flamenco in its snapping finger cymbals. I can envision a complex dance flawlessly performed by two people in flowing and colorful clothes while the world burns around them to their utter lack of care. The harmonies to this part are weaving and almost sensuous without missing a beat.

Around 7:50 we enter the Mystic Forest and the main wind instrument almost sounds like a recorder, but it is beautifully accurate for this part of the piece. The strings shiver as if amongst mist filled trees and we the observers have no idea where this haunted path will lead. Near 9:30 the melody starts to mix with Terra’s theme and then spirals into Kefka’s again before dropping us into the disaster/cataclysm music the permeates this apocalyptic tale. Then we are brutalized by the battle theme, which is equal parts harsh and gorgeous. It moves into the Decisive Battle theme afterwards before catching the thread of Kefka’s song that is throughout.

At 13:30 there is an all stop. The music ceases for long moments so we must hold our breaths before a plunge into sorrow for what follows is a lay of despair that I can’t myself place in the game (but you are of course welcome to, if you know!), and this is a precursor to Terra’s Theme. We are left wanting more for the beginning of the Opera closes this out near 17:00. Let us pray that in Final Symphony II we are treated to a full blown and absolutely exquisite rendering of that historic melody.

Final Fantasy X (Piano Concerto): I. Zanarkand

I have little to say about this than you may weep. To Zanarkand has always strummed my heart like a gothic lullaby for it dredges up the image of fruitless search and hopeless pursuit. This melody does no less.

Sadly I was less impressed with the other two songs from FFX, Inori and Kessen. Inori was one of the Songs of the Fayth but it lacked the subtleties that I so enjoyed in other versions. I believe Kessen is supposed to be the battle music, but it is too harsh and grating to my ears. Again, I must impress upon you that even though I did not enjoy these as much as the others, ,they are still excellent melodies. My critique of them is like saying, “That one particular light shaft in Heaven is the barest bit dimmer than all the rest."

Encore: Final Fantasy X (Suteki da ne)

The encore for this game more than makes up for what I missed in the other two songs. Rendered in piano, it brings together the yearning and pain of love unfulfilled not because of lack, but because of insurmountable circumstances. Is any story sadder? Life <strong>is </strong>but a dream…

Final Fantasy VII (Symphony in Three Movements): I. Nibelheim Incident

If FFVI caught my heart, then FFVII stole it and captured my soul as well. This song is all dark tones and minor key, and if I wasn’t already in love with it, I would all more so be. The crescendos will terrify you because you don’t know when they’re going to fall or where they’re going to hit. The music around 2:30 makes me envision in near darkness save for sickly green light a body tumbling in a winding sheet. An ever moving and omnipresent cycle going round and round. It’s unending; it’s inevitable; it’s the paradigm presented in O Fortuna, the wheel of fortune, the wheel of fate. Near 4:00 the beginning of One Winged Angel starts, and I cannot believe I’m uttering this, but it sounds even more disjointed, more distorted like a rent and broken puppet that still must painfully dance. The music in VII has always impressed me with its phenomenal use of the minor key with the addition of cacophony and discord. Minor sevenths are among the ugliest of chords, made to clash with all that is harmonious and never meant for beauty, and yet…here in this narrative of ancient horrors they ring so perfectly. There is not a hint of playfulness here as there was in VI. It is all dark; it is all shadows; there is no reprieve. It’s the coming of the dark mother whose lies you must accept. Near 4:45 is where we find “her,” Jenova’s Theme, and if you listen closely, you’ll realize that this melody is the Prelude backwards and in the minor key (it only took me 17 years to achieve that observation).

Cloud’s Theme is interwoven on top of Jenova’s around 7:30, which is an excellent metaphor for how he overcomes the corruption that was forced upon him. Then at 9:30 the medley goes One Winged Angel. There’s this ever present dark beat there that never subsides. The drums in the song always reminded me of those great, many-tiered ships that needed them to keep the rowers in time and in line. The first part ends here where it should…with the coming of this horror, and the question of what will be allowed to endure.

Final Fantasy VII (Symphony in Three Movements): II. Words Drowned by Fireworks

As the first part is dark and full of terrors, the second is light and joyous and free…in its initial seeming. The long sweeping string strokes see to that as the low oppressive beats marked the first. This is my favorite song with Part I of the VII cycle being a very close second. Cloud’s theme pervades this melody tying the songs of Aeris/Aerith and Tifa together between. Around 4:30 Aeris’s takes the hand of Cloud’s, and a lone viola plays this lament before the entire string section joins in. Then near 6:30 Tifa’s theme brings me to tears. Was there ever a song more forlorn? This section of VII’s symphony ends with a distorted version of Aeris’s song because it is tied to Sephiroth’s…his overshadows hers starting around 10:40. It is very subtle and initially sounds like a little major to minor switching, but then near 11:00 the unmistakable opening to One Winged Angel tears through before seeming to fade, and we think that’s it; we think we’re safe. This is the end of the song. It finishes in darkness, but this is no different from the prior, but no, it fades and then rises again with Cloud’s theme in minor while Aeris’s theme shivers disjointed from behind. And of course the drums, the omnipresent drums that pervade Sephiroth’s leitmotif to beat in warning of what is yet to come. Just listening to it is terrifying, and the last notes that fade are the cacophonous tones of the beginning of OWA as if reminding us the cycle will come again and again and again. Even near the end it refuses to fade until the last moment and my hair stands on end.

Aeris’s, Tifa’s, and Cloud’s songs wind and skirl together in the most beautiful amalgamation I’ve ever heard. Strains of each flow through each other in a sumptuous, glorious swell. It is sweeping and grand and even Seph’s song fits in to make a dark binding in the end with Aeris’s. It is the unity of opposites made to sing.

Final Fantasy VII (Symphony in Three Movements): The Planet’s Crisis

Cloud’s theme and Sephiroth’s song run throughout all three of these pieces to show the struggle against corruption vs. the bending to its will. This medley is literally the end game when all hopes and prayers rest on one dead maid It is based on World Crisis from the OST. We get to hear some of the Cosmo Canyon theme at the start, but even still the concise beats of One Winged Angel creep in. Then around 3:15 is a gorgeous rendition of Cid’s song. The music then tumbles into turmoil. Will we live or will we die? Shall we have a second chance? Around 10:00 we receive our answer and (supposed) salvation. Every single note of this section paints the picture of unending light falling from the sky, but will it save or smite us? The original game left this question in the minds of the players. We of course have our answer now; however, the more existential, “Did we deserve it?” remains to the ages.

Encore: Final Fantasy VII (Continue?)

There is a music box type sound in this medley starting near 3:00 as if everything that’s happened is a child’s woeful dream. There…is a theory about that with respect to Aeris as she is the first and last person you see in the game making the story a <a href="">book end</a> and providing some speculate about what really did happen. Near the end of this glorious extra there is that one strain of music associated with Sephiroth. It is first heard during the Nibelheim Incident in the basement of the Shinra Mansion where Sephiroth waits…initially the melody is hardly even that being only bells and drums, but then the organ comes in what I have heard described as the “music of evil.”

It is as dark and minor as you will ever get, but in Final Symphony at the end it is made pure. In my article Major/Minor Switching I discuss how changing from minor to major usually ends in a cacophonous disaster with my example being One Winged Angel switched from its original E minor to G major. It was just…wrong, but Final Symphony has done what that video could not in taking the brief phrase in Those Chosen and making the switch to minor work. It does not make the song joyous; however, terror changes to forlorn with the barest hint of hope. This is the essence of Final Fantasy VII.

The final encore is a conglomeration of battle themes going between VI and VII, but this is not just the base battle music. It also includes the Fierce Battle theme from VI and of course One Winged Angels falls into place from VII. It ends on a questioning note again with the beginnings of that song.

If I had to give one less than glorious mark to this masterpiece of an album it would be to lament that there were not more songs from FFVI. I adore the Symphonic Poem and wish it had been done in three parts like X and VII were graced with. I have been dying to hear a good orchestration of Cyan’s Theme, and if they did one of VI’s entire ending I’m sure my heart would break. This album has made me add another item to my FFVII remake demands, which were as follows:

  •     PS4 graphics so the entire game looks like Advent Children
  •     Japanese with English subtitles option
  •     No change in the story    
  •     No change in the game mechanics

The additional demand would be that the London Symphony Orchestra perform all of the music and that it be arranged by Germans as was done for this symphony. Arranged by the Germans; performed by the English. No wonder this is more than perfect.

I could not recommend this album more highly. If you do nothing else this week, at least give it a listen. All of the music is available on YouTube so if you are unable to purchase you can still partake. Even if you have never played a Final Fantasy nor listened to another game soundtrack, listen to this. It is not just for gamers; it is for anyone with a discerning ear who desires the chills that only powerful music can bring. For myself I shall continue listening as I have throughout this review and keep my tissues near so I can wipe away the tears that shall surely fly.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Movie Review: Frozen

I was extremely hesitant to see this movie.  So much so that I did do so until this Monday (2/17/14) when it was released on 11/27/13 (yes, it's still in theaters, which is very surprising since it comes out on 3/18/14),  My reasons for hesitancy have to do with reading some less than stellar speculations about how Disney was now out to ruin Hans Christian Anderson's fairytale The Snow Queen, which it's loosely based on.  After seeing the movie, I'd say it's more inspired by or to put it another way kind of a fanfiction of The Snow Queen (but then I could make the argument that everything is a fanfiction of something, which is a whole other blog post).  When I first discovered that Disney reworked and watered down classic fairytales I was extremely annoyed in the way only a teenager can be.  I much preferred the darker and bloodier versions, but now as an adult, while I still do lean towards the morbid, I can see the value in what they've done.  Disney does tend to imply in a way that they were the originator of the tales whether it's done directly and purposely or not, but this seems like it was more for their past projects.  Most of us immediately think of them when we hear such titles as Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or Cinderella, and it's hard for me to presume that they would not want it any other way.

Regardless, I decided to venture out and see Frozen after hearing 99% wonderful things about it from friends and family alike.  I actually went to see it with my brother who was on his second time.  Let me start out with the soundtrack, because this is important.  Prior to even the opening credits, I had chills running down my spine from the haunting beauty of the boy's choir that precedes it..  This was an excellent meta move from a film entitled Frozen.  Like so many things I've been hesitant about (A Song of Ice and Fire, the book series mind you; Harry Potter; The Hunger Games; FFVII), I was completely wrong to wait.

Frozen is about two sisters Anna and Elsa who happen to be princesses, and I mean to say it in that way.  Their being princesses, while integral to some story parts, really is not all that important. They reside in the kingdom of Arendelle with their parents, the king and queen.  Anna is a feisty ginger ingenue, while Elsa, silvery-blond, is more mature and reserved, and this is not just because she is the elder.  Elsa has the power to literally create winter, and when the two sisters are girls, this is just a game.  They romp and cavort through the ice and snow while inside their castle until Elsa accidentally strikes Anna in the head with a wintry spell, stunning her and making a strand of her hair turn ice white.  Their parents seek help from trolls who not only heal Anna but also remove all memories of her sister's magic.  After this Elsa stays mostly locked in her room trying desperately to learn how to control her abilities, while Anna wonders why they've became so distant as the two girls grow up.  During this time, their parents are lost at sea.  Anna and Elsa are left alone in their solitary castle, where they doors have not been opened for years, and they don't even have each other for company.

When Elsa comes of age, the kingdom prepares for her coronation, and Anna, excited to finally see people, wanders the town and meets Prince Hans of the Southern Isles.  The two feel a mutual connection in that they're both sort of goofy and clumsy, even "finishing each others 'sandwiches'" as their duet suggests.  They decided then and their that they're going to get married, and Anna asks for Elsa's blessing.  In a total paradigm twister for a Disney film Elsa tells her that she can't marry someone she's only known for a day, which makes complete sense.  During the ensuing argument, Elsa loses control of her powers and bestows eternal winter upon Arendelle, before fleeing to the northern mountains.  There she comes to the realization that only in solitude can she be her true self without fear or judgment, so she casts off all shackles to literally let her hair down (it's been bound up as tight as she was prior to this, easy but still excellent symbolism) and create a glorious ice palace for herself while singing "the cold never bothered me anyway."  Her clothes change as well to a flowing, diaphanous blue gown, starkly different from her queenly and conservative garb.

Meanwhile, back in Arendelle, Anna is determined to get her sister back and heads to the northern mountains alone leaving Hans behind to take care of her kingdom.  While getting supplies Anna meets Kristoff, a mountain man with his reindeer Sven, who reluctantly agrees to help her since his ice collecting business has been ruined by the winter that never ends.  During their journey north Anna imparts how she got into this situation, and Kristoff gives her a look when she reaches the part where she and Hans were going to get married after knowing each other for one day.  I really liked that the movie had not one, but two characters who had never met nor spoken to each other, call Anna out on how bad of a move that marriage would've been.  It's as though Disney is really trying to make up for all the times that they had this very situation happen, and they're saying, "No no no, we realize now that's not the way to go.  Give us a break, we were just working within the confines of the times of our work!"

While journeying up the mountain Anna and Kristoff meet a living snowman named Olaf much to Anna's greater shock since that was the name she and Elsa always gave their snow creations.  Olaf leads them to Elsa's ice palace where the sisters are reunited, but the snow queen is still terrified of hurting Anna and refuses to return to Arendelle, insisting that her place is here alone in the cold.  Anna persists in her persuasion, which agitates Elsa's emotions to the point where she accidentally uses her powers against her sister again striking her this time in the heart.  Horrified by her actions, Elsa creates a giant snow monster to chase them away so that she won't hurt her her sister nor anyone again.  While they flee Kristoff notices that Anna's hair is turning white and realizes something is very wrong.  He decides to take her to his adopted family, the very trolls that healed the princess the first time.  They tell them that Anna's heart has been frozen, and unless it is healed by an act of true love, then she will become frozen solid forever.

Back in Arendelle, Hans decides to lead a search for Anna.  He enlists the help of the Duke of Weselton, a guest at the coronation who insisted afterwards that Elsa was a sorceress who needed to be taken care of.  He grants Prince Hans the use of some of his men, but makes sure his lackeys understand what they need to do should they encounter the ice queen.  When Hans and his men reach Elsa's palace, the ensuing battle knocks the queen unconscious so that she can be brought back and imprisoned in Arendelle.  Hans pleads with her to undo the winter she so wrought, but Elsa insists that she doesn't know how.

***Warning - Major Story Spoilers Ahead***

When Anna reunites with Hans and begs him to kiss her to undo the frozen curse, he refuses in order to reveal his amazingly unexpected (at least to me) Face-Heel Turn where he reveals he never loved her or had any interest in her.  He merely wanted to marry her to gain control of her kingdom since he has twelve older brothers and nothing else left for him at home.  At no point in any of Hans' scenes did I even get an inkling that he was going to be the main villain, and I was actually scratching my head prior wondering how they were going to reconcile Anna's two love interests in Kristoff the rough, but loyal, mountain man with Hans the slightly silly, but still responsible, prince.  I liked them both!  Hans is good-looking and handled things in Arendelle very well while both Anna and Elsa were indisposed, even doing things like handing out blankets and warm clothing to the people and making sure they had enough supplies.  The only hint that's given is in the beginning of the movie where he tells Anna about his twelve brothers and how they treated him growing up, but nowhere in his attitude is the nefarious schemer Anna sees now.  She is completely destroyed by this news as he leaves her to die from her own sister's touch.  Hans then lies to the people of Arendelle saying that Anna is dead, but they were able to say their wedding vows prior to her demise, essentially making him the king.  He then charges Elsa with her sister's death, but the snow queen manages to escape prior to execution.

Olaf the snowman manages to find Anna and builds a fire at the risk to himself.  She admonishes him for this, and he then delivers one of the most poignant and heartbreaking lines in the film saying, "Some people are worth melting for."  He tells her that Kristoff is in love with her and helps her to the frozen fjord to find him.  Hans confronts Elsa and tells her her sister is dead because of her.  Her ensuing despair at this causes the storm to cease, which gives Kristoff and Anna the chance to reach each other.  However, when Anna sees Hans is about to kill Elsa, she throws herself in between her sister and the sword, freezing solid in that moment so the blade shatters off of her ever winter skin.

Elsa grieves for her sister, but in the midst of her tears, Anna begins to thaw for her sacrifice was an act of true love.  Elsa then realizes that love is the key to controlling her powers and is able to thaw Arendelle and even make it so that Olaf can survive in the summer.  Hans is sent back to his kingdom in disgrace, Kristoff and Anna share and kiss, and the two sisters reconcile with Elsa promising never to shut the castle gates again.

Maybe its the fact that I've romanticized winter or maybe it's the fact that I love a good twisted paradigm, but I found Frozen to be phenomenal.  The enchantress is not evil and the handsome prince is not good (though he had many of us fooled for a while).  I loved the contrast between the two sisters.  Anna, fiery and positive to Elsa, cool and reserved.  The story was first and foremost about the relationship between the two of them.  The romantic aspect was there, but it took a back seat to what really mattered.  It reminded me of Brave in that that film was all about the mother-daughter bond, but I felt Frozen was a superior film due to the extraordinary lengths Anna goes to in order to find her sister and bring her home (not saying that Merida didn't, but I just felt that in Frozen it was more profound).  There is also the idea of the sacrifice.  The "act of true love" wasn't the typical Disney kiss, but rather the true love between siblings.  Even though Elsa was the one who caused her to be in her position, even though Anna believed at the time she was losing her last chance to live, she didn't care and threw herself in front of the blade anyway.  Maybe it's the bravery and self-sacrifice that draws me to this tale.  The willingness to risk everything for the sister you love despite the fact that they'd essentially become estranged while living under the same roof.  Even after all those years Anna didn't care.  She wanted to know why they'd become so distant and nothing was going to stop her from finding out.

This is a movie I would love for all young girls especially to see.  It's continuing a path I'm happy that Disney is starting to take in that there are greater loves than just romantic.  There are better things than a prince's kiss.  Is this the first Disney movie to show the princess ending up with a commoner?  No, of course not.  Aladdin did that back in 1992, and in Brave the princess didn't end up with anyone at all!  It is the first Disney movie I can recall where the enchantress isn't evil, and I love that.  I love that that paradigm has been flipped.  Even though her powers can be very destructive, her intentions are not, and intentions most certainly matter.  Everything Elsa does is out of responsibility.  She locks herself away in order to protect Anna.  She flees to the northern mountains for the same not realizing that she's frozen the entire kingdom.  When this is proven to her, she's absolutely horrified that her people have suffered because of her actions.

Both of the sisters are exemplary characters, Olaf the sidekick is not only a good comic relief, he also provides good insights and the one very poignant line I mentioned above.  The real love interest is someone that Anna actually gets to know (she even meets his family, shock!) before making a commitment, and the villain of the story isn't revealed until nearly the end.  There's much to be said for good timing on a villain reveal.  The longer you leave that, I've found, the better the tale.  There was a bit of a red herring with the Duke of Weselton, but he was more of a silly side note than a true big bad.  I think everyone who knows common Disney paradigms and enjoys when things like that are twisted will get much enjoyment from this wintry tale.  I give it five stars and will be seeing it for the second time later today.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Empathetic Dreaming

Being plagued by disturbing dreams is either the mark of a disturbed mind or perhaps the mark of a writer, which is essentially the same thing.  I was in my parents' old bedroom in a house we no longer own being chased by two men who wanted my attention for a very unwholesome reason.  As I braced myself against the door, I saw that my two swords, replica Masamunes from FFVII were against the wall as they are in my current bedroom.  So I grabbed the longer one (Mercy), flung the door open, and you can guess what happened next.  They both ran onto it one after the other (guess mine was longer after all...)  It's about a five foot blade, and they were taking up about three feet of it, and I could feel it.  Not feel it go into them, but feel the pain in my own flesh.  Then (because dreams are strange like that), there was just one guy bleeding in my upstairs hallway, crying and in pain.  He rolled onto his back and just begged me to make it end, so I stabbed him through the spine and I suppose into the heart, and I felt that, too.

Then I went downstairs, and there were a whole bunch of people, friends, acquaintances, people I didn't recognize, but I knew I knew in that dreamlike way.  I told them all what I had done and they wanted to see the blood on the sword.  It was more than halfway down, painted on the steel, and I wanted to know how to get it off.  Someone said that I could get "white wash," and that would make it clean.  Then the dream shifted into something else, but I remembered this part when I woke, and the beat of my heart was all crooked, and blood stained the back of my tongue.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Point of View

A few weeks ago I was driven near mad by something I just couldn't fathom.  I wanted to know how cats see the world when their pupils are all thin and slivery.  Is it like they're constantly looking through a crack in a wall or a slit in a picket fence?  I had no idea so I brought it to Facebook, but I don't think I was understood.  One response suggested that I purchase cat eye contact lenses (which I'm planning to do anyway for other reasons), but even if I were to do so I'm still seeing the world through a circle whereas felines view it through a thorn.  This conundrum also affected the story I'm working on, Northern Lights, although I was able to cleverly sidestep the question in narrative, it still bothered me intrinsically.  It also didn't help that I'd changed my work desktop background to Grumpy Cat so every time I booted up I was forced to stare at her near luminescent green eyes with slit pupils in her trademark, irritated face.  I've always been good at point of view and empathy, but this seemed beyond even my skill.

Then one day at work I was helping out my friend Andrew on something or other and I mentioned that he should look at the column highlighted in pink.  His response was something along the lines of "Which column are you talking about?" and that's when I remembered that Andrew is colorblind, like totes colorblind, green is pink and down is tooth-fairy.  I can't make this stuff up.  I had to pause for a moment because then I remembered the concept of qualia.  I first learned about this from VSauce on YouTube (and you should totally click those links, because this stuff is just fascinating).  It's complicated and philosophical, but what can be easily taken is that you can never understand how someone else sees the world.  Essentially, you are alone in your experiences and that makes one feel both very humble and very lonely.  Even with the words of a thousand tongues, it's not possibly to convey exactly what you're seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, or tasting nor is it possible for you know what someone else see, hears, smells, feels or tastes.  Because we can only live in our own heads, we can never know how someone else experiences reality.  As a writer this should seriously bother me, because that's what we constantly strive to do, but understanding the antithesis is very useful, because knowing the limitation is liberating; it doesn't have to be a flaw.

Recalling the concept of qualia brought me such peace of mind.  There is absolutely no way I can ever know how a cat sees the word with constricted pupils, just like I can never know how someone who's color blind sees the color orange.  Maybe my concept of orange is really wrong and what I'm actually seeing as orange is purple, but because the majority of the world sees and agrees that orange looks that particular way that's what we call it.  But there's a chance an alien species will come here and declare, "Nah brah, that's purple" and which one of us will be wrong.  This isn't even scratching the surface that we can only see a minute fraction of the visible spectrum, which means were not even on the level of the bees.  Not being able to know is a comfort, because it means I can stop driving myself crazy in wondering about this impossible point of view.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

3 Gates of the Dead Review

Jonathan Ryan's 3 Gates of the Dead came recommended to me by an old high school friend whose opinion I value highly, and I was not disappointed.  I am not usually one for mysteries or thrillers, though I have dabbled in them before (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo of The Millennium Series for one); my usual staple is of the fantasy and fairytale ilk, but I'm more than happy to step out of my boundaries for a good, rousing tale, and Ryan blows this out of the water.  I finished it in two days.

This novel introduces Aidan Schaeffer, an assistant pastor for the Knox church in Columbus, OH.  The story opens with Aidan dealing with the aftermath of his ex-fiancee Amanda's desertion and his subsequent crisis of faith, which was exacerbated by that event along with his parents' death in a house fire.  It becomes very clear that these tragedies were not the cause of his doubts, but merely a catalyst to bring them to the forefront.  I was immediately drawn to Aidan because of this as I have had similar issues, and the questions he was bringing up to his friend Brian were the same ones I've brought up to my husband (who is oddly enough also named Brian).  Aidan is in a far more delicate position than the average Doubting Thomas since his business is to believe and to be a source of unshakeable faith for the congregation.  Despite knowing what will happen he brings his issues to Mike, the head pastor and his boss, fulling expecting to be fired on the spot, but Mike who has also been his mentor for many years, takes this news in stride and tells Aidan that he'll help him on his journey to regain his faith.  Aidan pursued a biology degree in college so he's very level headed and turned to theology because he saw it as a rational step.  The doubts had always been there fueled by indulging in Dawkins and Hitchens, but he'd always been able to keep them at bay until the double whammy of his fiancee and parents.

As most mysteries go, things are never going to remain so "simple" as a crisis of faith and Aidan soon discovers that Amanda has been murdered in a highly ritualistic and frankly eerie way.  He is initially a suspect, but his innocence is soon proven, but this heartbreaking wrench just throws him deeper into territory he is not prepared for.  Both he and the detective who suspected him, Jennifer Brown, are baffled by Amanda's murder as there were strange markings found on her body.  Adding to this is the strange supernatural events that have been occurring: the footprints found in the snow with no forensic evidence to indicate who made them, the findings by a "ghost hunting" group that Aidan is led to, and the cryptic note left by Amanda charging to him to find "Father Neal" and what horrors will happen if he does not.  Aidan Schaeffer is literally a man chased by the dead and haunted by the ghosts of his guilt.

This book gave me goosebumps.  I had to stop reading at around the half way point the night before and do something else before going to sleep.  Aidan is such a well written and relate-able character.  All of the doubts and contradictions he brought up about the nature of God were things that I myself have pondered still without satisfactory answer.  I liked how Ryan was not trying to force religion down our throats, which is an amazing feat in a story about a preacher who has been thrust into a world of supernatural phenomenon.  Usually crisis of faith stories end with the character having an amazing revelation and finding God again.  It's trite; it's boring; it's expected.  This story did none of those.  Aidan's journey back to his faith is still in question by the end, but he has made progress.  While there were a few things I did figure out on my own, they didn't detract from my enjoyment of the story, and far more revelations were utterly shocking.  There were a few things Aidan references that I believe I might have had a better grasp on if I were more familiar with contemporary Christian culture, but these were few and far between.  Ryan did an excellent job explaining most things that weren't common knowledge, but in a way that wasn't presumptuous and that didn't take me out of the story.  Once I started reading I was in.  He wove in the love aspect of the novel very well.  It was an expected angle, too, but came off in a perfectly natural way.  For a pastor Aidan is is very witty and snarky, which I chalk up to his fiery Irish blood.  I also loved the nerd culture references.  In a way that contributed to the creepiness of the tale, because these were so seamless that when the kooky stuff started happening it really got to you because you start thinking, "Oh my God...this is happening in the real world with real people who know about Star Wars and Harry Potter.  Ahhh *chils*"

Aidan's struggle does a lot to present pastors in a different light and this is not a bad thing.  It makes one feel less awful for doubting if people who are in the upper echelons do so it makes it okay for the rest of us.  Most of all, it shows that they're human with human failings and human questions.  It makes me think that faith is not necessarily unshakeable even for those who seem constantly unshaken.  It's more mutable and wavering like the tide, but above all of it really was the message of hope.  The people that really mattered never gave up on Aidan, and I think that says a lot about what true Christianity should be about.

I give this book four and a half stars and I can't wait for the next installment The Dark Bride.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Well of Acension (Mistborn 2) Review

In Sanderson's second installation Elend Venture is the current king of Luthadel with Vin as his personal mistborn bodyguard, but the young monarch holds a very precarious position as his father, Straff Venture, is camped outside his city's gates with an army bent on conquest.  This fact is compounded when another army (that of Lord Cett) shows up, and of course there are still assassins trying for Elend's life.  On top of this, Vin discovers a mysterious Watcher during her nightly patrols who tests the limits of her mistborn abilities.
Sanderson again tells far more than he shows.  The most blatant instance of this comes when Elend meets with Dockson, and afterword the author insists that Dockson doesn't like Elend.  Okay...what?  At no point in the prior exchange was there ANY sign of animosity between these two individuals.  Their conversation was polite and there was nothing in the narrative or dialogue tags to show what Dockson felt.  We don't find this out until afterward where Sanderson tells us that it's so, and has Elend bemoaning the fact.

I also found reason to dislike Vin in this novel among other things.  She has inherited OreSeur the kandra, a creature that can take the shape of people (and later animals) that it consumes.  Vin is still upset that the kandra, well, essentially ate Kelsier after he died in order to impersonate him for a time, even though this was the Survivor's plans all along.  Her treatment of OreSeur just bugs me and seems out of character with someone who has been trodden on and abused her entire life.  Kandra follow a contract that allows them to live in human society.  They are forced to obey their human master/mistress by this with few exceptions.

*sigh*  I am very glad I didn't waste my time finishing this novel.  I tried...I really tried to get through it.  I really tried to let my fascination with the Deepness cut through my ever growing ennui and fuel a desire to find out what the hell that was.  I really tried to maintain my interest despite the stodgy dialogue and constant telling instead of showing.  I tried to latch on to some of the attempted intrigue with Zane who ends up not only be the elusive Watcher, but also Straff Venture's bastard mistborn son who constantly hears "God's" voice telling him to kill everyone he meets especially his father.  I tried to care about this stuff, but it all just seemed so forced and trite.  No one really had a strongly discernible personality, and I honestly just stopped caring and resorted to reading the Mistborn wiki to find out how both this and the third one ended.  Having done that I'm even happier that I didn't waste my time in finishing because I'm less than impressed.  The first novel was okay.  The idea was new and fantastic; what would happen if the villain won.  Brilliance pulled off in a not so stellar way, but I was still able to slog through it.  This one has the two armies besieging our protagonists, but it just doesn't hold a candle to a ragtag bunch of thieves and spies trying to overthrow god (which, let's face it is essentially the plot of every Final Fantasy), and Sanderson's writing just wasn't compelling enough to hold me to this story without those dire odds.  Maybe this one just begins slower because it's mostly about politics, but reading what the end is, I just sort of shrug my shoulders and say, "Eh..."

Two stars and I (obviously) won't be reading the third or fourth or however many of these there are.  Maybe I'll give Elantris a try...but not right now.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

My Adventures in Editing a Paranormal Romance Novel: What I've Learned from Critiques/Reviews

I've been trying to be more attentive to this blog, since I seem to get so caught up in life that I often neglect it.  I'm happy to say that I've written two book reviews in the past month, and although I've always known that reading makes one a better writer, I'm also finding that critiquing makes me more critical of my own work in a beneficial way.

I just now posted a review of Brandon Sanderson's first Mistborn novel, and one of my biggest issues with the story was how much the author told instead of showed.  Because I discovered this paradigm in another, it's causing me to turn a more critical eye to The Serpent's Tale and wonder if there are more instances of this phenomenon that I can cut out in my next edit.  Am I making sure I'm showing what the characters are like through dialogue and action rather than just telling what they're like?  I know for a fact that Maya often remarks both internally and aloud on Uriel's strength, but in the wake of seeing this in Mistborn, I want to ensure that I'm not falling into the show vs. tell trap.

I think an even more important observation is the harsh review I gave of the first Mortal Instruments.  I was disappointed in that book for a variety of reasons.  One, I really, REALLY want to find a novel based on fanfiction that is favorably received by a sizable portion of the population, but I have yet to see this occur. a bit discouraging since my novel is based on a fanfiction I wrote back in the year 2000, and it would be nice to see some validation of such a paradigm while I'm still in the editing stages.  Unfortunately, nearly every novel I've seen that can claim such (50 Shades of Gray, Mortal Instruments) has such glaring issues that I can't call such a claim anything positive.  Of course it's possible that there are novels out there that don't promote this as their claim to fame, but this presents the problem of assumption.  There are many stories I can see parallels in, but I never want to assume that perhaps it's based on something I've read, viewed, or played, because, well I find random and weird connections in everything.  I could begin a conversation course that would end in Death of the Author versus Word of God, but you should already how I'd arrive at that crossroad.  Of course perhaps the novels not making their fanfic base a claim to fame is a good thing and maybe the authors are assuming or targeting their works towards an audience that is clever enough to figure this out themselves without needing it advertised.

Besides the above, Mortal Instruments presented a critique that I desperately want to avoid in my paranormal romance novel.  I absolutely hated the character of Jace, the bad boy (initial) love interest.  He was a complete jackass and douche whom I had no attraction to at all.  I was discussing this with a friend and we decided that you want a character to be a "bad boy," but not a "bad guy."  Essentially, you want to pull off the bad boy status without making the character just an asshole.  They need to show redeeming qualities even before the big reveal as to why the character is a bad boy after all (because you know there HAS to be a reason) aka the character should have a show multiple layers that keeps the reading interested and wondering why they're putting on this veneer of douchebaggery.  But you don't want your reader to hate the character even if the main female lead does or isn't sure.  It's a definite balancing act.  Even worse than Jace is of course anything pertaining to Twilight (cries tiny tears) and I want NO association with that at all.  It's bad enough just mentioning the term "paranormal romance" usually garners it as a response because apparently it's become the paragon of what paranormal romance is.

Fellow writers and intelligent thinkers this HAS to be changed, but this shows that even faulty writing has merit.  It stands as an example of what not to do and how to improve your own works.  It's also encouraging to realize that a novel doesn't have to be perfect to be published as long as the right representation is discovered and convinced.