Tag Archives: High fantasy

The Lord of Some Rings – or, how I learned to love “The Sword of Shannara”

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Yes, “The Sword of Shannara” by Terry Brooks has awesome/awful/epic cover art, doesn’t it?

As I get older, I find myself less and less bothered by what people think about the things that I enjoy – hence, I’ve chosen to return to Brooks’ first novel, after abandoning it previously in a fit of peevishness over the debt owed by the novelist to some obscure fantasy novels written by a British academic, back in the day.  My reason?  It’s not original, it’s not clever, but it is fun – if you allow yourself to just enjoy it as fantasy novel candy, rather than genre-busting, transformational literature which alters the landscape of the form forever after.

In many ways, it doesn’t surprise me that Brooks would eventually go on to pen the tie-in novelisation for “Star Wars – Episode One: The Phantom Menace” as his work has a fair bit in common with George Lucas’ ultimately divisive sci-fantasy blockbuster.  Both writers lean heavily on breathless plotting, well-established archetypes/tropes and a sensibility so at odds with the critical establishment that it could well be deliberate.

Neither can be said to produce what might be referred to as high art and both are doing very well, thank you kindly, out of their nerdy, un-hip, Saturday morning serial brand of adventure yarn.  And, on the evidence of “Sword of Shannara”, the 1977-vintage Brooks and Lucas were slightly confused by girls and, not knowing how to write such mysterious creatures, didn’t bother to.

This is knowingly nerdy stuff, folks, with all the plucky Dwarves, ethereal Elven warriors and mysterious Rogue leaders that you could yearn for/fear of in fantasy fiction.  Your tolerance for it may directly correlate to how much you can handle post-Tolkien fantasy and whether or not your brand of escapism cleaves more to the grimy, neo-realistic worlds of George R.R. Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan.  I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with either, but I do find myself drawn more to a more optimistic take on extraordinary events – which, for an often cynical soul like me, is quite a turnabout.

As ever, the idea of ploughing through many years worth of trilogies and series by an author fills me with some trepidation but I’ll report back if “…Shannara” continues to entertain me as it has been doing for the last week or so.

 

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Month Late Film Reviews – “Snow White and The Huntsman”

There’s something to be said for going to the movies a little after everybody else has moved on to the new hotness.  The cinema is less crowded, as everything’s now gone digital, there’s no obvious degradation in image or sound quality and the ‘talk and text’ crowd are elsewhere: What’s not to like?

Well, it helps if the film was worth the wait and, in this case, I’m not sure that it was.

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I had been quite looking forward to this movie since the first trailers arrived and promised a fantasy-centric take on the fairy tale and subsequent glimpses at footage promised a film which isn’t entirely delivered by the end product.  British director Rupert Sanders certainly can deliver eye-popping special effects, decent action sequences and clearly works well with his cinematographer Greig Fraser – the imagery throughout the film is up there with anything that you’ve seen from Peter Jackson or Guillermo Del Toro (the latter influence being particularly evident in an encounter with a troll, which is right out of Pan’s Labyrinth‘).

Where this film really falls down for me is in the way that it betrays the logic of the story it has telling – though this is a fantasy flick, you might reasonably expect there to be some logical consistency at play somewhere in proceedings, as to suddenly ditch the rules of the world you have created betrays a certain lack of confidence in your audience or your tale.

Let me give the example which really rankled with me – as the audience, we find ourselves inhabiting a world where trolls, dwarves, magic and all manner of High Fantasy tropes wander the countryside in clear defiance of Him Upstairs and what organised religion would have us believe as the established order of things.   We get frequent references to Heaven and a central character reciting the Lord’s Prayer at one point.

We’re not dealing with a C.S. Lewis-like, heavily foregrounded religious analogy – we’re watching a story which desperately wants some of that sweet, post-“Harry Potter” fantasy cinema cash and yet gets scared enough of offending devout believers with disposable cash that it has to find some, wholly inconsistent way of abruptly jamming unwanted Christian dogma into a film not requiring any such addendum to work well – it’s so out-of-place that it genuinely annoyed me.

How Very Black Metal? None More Black Metal. Charlize Theron as Queen Ravenna in “Snow White & The Huntsman”…

Besides, I can’t imagine many God-fearing families being that delighted with their carefully screened outing to the cinema when the film also tries to interject a rather better-handled and more interesting feminist subtext into the story – for the most part, I actually warmed more to the villain, Queen Ravenna, than the titular heroine, especially when we get a brief flashback to her childhood and events which offer context for her behaviour, whilst not condoning it.   She’s bad to the bone, but we can legitimately blame Patriarchal Royalty for the rot setting in and wholly buggering things up for the citizenry.  Huzzah!

So, to sum up – the story wants to be kind of feminist and yet God-fearing, whilst originating from an American media conglomerate who would be queueing up to condemn the desirable, simple-minded monarchy depicted as being essential to the well-being of a country in their product.  Yes, no confused messages there at all.  Ahem…

The acting’s reasonably okay, which is the biggest surprise that I took away from this film – Charlize Theron is superb as Ravenna, getting her teeth into the heavily costumed, frequently hysterical wronged queen and budding despot in a way that she wasn’t allowed to in Ridley Scott‘s largely bobbins disappointment, “Prometheus” (blame an underwritten role for that one).  She steadfastly dominates the screen whenever she’s appears,  in a turn which somehow bestrides the middle line between high camp and convincing character turn.

“You take the left 500 Twi-Hards – I’ll take the 800 on the right…”

She’s mostly matched by Chris Hemsworth, who is likeable if not always completely understandable as the unnamed Huntsman – he’s a chipper and convincing action hero in this foray outside the Marvel Cinematic universe and he does a good job of showing something of an arc between the alcoholic bum we meet at the outset of the film and the rather more engaged, focussed hero with a cause we see the climax of the film.  His accent, though, is utterly ludicrous – a generic Celtic mash-up hailing from somewhere between Melbourne and Glasgow and never quite settling in either for more than twenty seconds at a time.  It’s to his credit that this doesn’t detract from his other work in the role.

To Kristen Stewart, then – she’s genuinely quite good.  If the “Twilight” flicks have put you off watching her in anything else, try to get over that and give her a chance in this film, as she does the best accent of any of the non-Brits on show and makes for a pleasingly matter-of-fact fairytale heroine, low on vanity (everybody in this film has to cope with being soaked by a seemingly omnipresent, roaming rain cloud which is so prevalent in scenes that you expect to see it in the cast list somewhere) and high in earnest conviction.  She copes well with a dreadful, cod-Shakespearian speech which is meant to rally the troops at the end and instead just baffles – they all suit up and follow her, so I suppose it worked.

In the supporting cast, I should mention the likes of Nick Frost, Brian Gleeson, Ian McShane, Toby Jones, Eddie Marsan, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone, who assay your Seven Dwarves despite not being of applicable stature – there’s some serious, undercover effects wizardry at play in their scenes but the film doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with what is a daft amount of acting talent – if a sequel does arrive, we might hope that the makers find these guys something decent and worthy to do in it.

Overall, then?  Decent but not earth shattering – a high fantasy tale which seems a little embarrassed of its roots and wants to ground the action in an occasionally glum, realistic milieu which should help provide a comparison to the fantastic elements when they arrive but instead just helps to make the film’s identity that bit more confused.  Some decent acting and amazing technical feats are rather undercut by a script which doesn’t really have a concrete point of view – if I graded films, I’d probably give this a C.  There’s definitely room for improvement in many areas, which is what a sequel should set out to do.

And if they could avoid having the endlessly annoying Florence & The Machine on the soundtrack next time around, that would be quite lovely…

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Fat Reads, Groaning Bookshelves

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This post is inspired by a thread over at the nerd-friendly Sword & Laser reading group over at Good Reads – blimey, sci-fi and fantasy books are a bit on the portly side, wouldn’t you agree?  Not for many world-building fantasy authors the notion of a quick and dirty, 260 page novel – that’s barely a preface in the realm of the elves and darkling folk!

As much as I love the process of getting a new book, cracking the covers and disappearing into a new world, I still get a little intimidated when I pick up Markus Heitz‘s “The Dwarves” (my latest read) and noting that it runs to 733 pages – that’s a commitment and a half, particularly when you consider that this book is but the first entry in a series (Book two, “The War of the Dwarves”, is a girthy 752 pages, book three “Revenge of the Dwarves” is 800 pages and the final “The Fate of the Dwarves” is back to a manageable 752 pages).

That’s a long time to spend reading about diminutive bad asses with lovely beards and lethal axes, I’m sure you’ll concur.

One of the criticisms of this kind of fiction is that it tends to urgently need the services of an editor to weed out florid over-writing and excessive descriptions of armaments and architecture but that’s not necessarily a problem for me – I don’t need detail to aid my immersion in a fantasy universe but it does help to have a sense of what things look like and from where in history the author may have drawn from.  Educational and nerdy – my favourite combination!

The only problem with this kind of fiction – other than the hipness or lack thereof, which doesn’t bother me for a second – is that I’m going to need bigger book shelves sometime soon.  That or the local branch of Oxfam are going to get a bumper donation of older books next week.

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