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Ghost Rider / Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
Ghost Rider / Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
DVD ~ Nicolas Cage
Price: $9.99

1.0 out of 5 stars Scraping at the DOOR..., May 11, 2015
The Ghost Rider is a motorcycle-riding flaming skeleton fueled by satanic magic, who hunts down evildoers. In other words, the most metal superhero ever conceived of.

You would think it would be impossible to mess up a concept that awesome. And yet, they managed to ruin not one but TWO Ghost Rider movies, mostly by casting Hollywood's loopiest actor as a hardcore supernatural action hero. While the special effects are excellent and Ghost Rider's rampages can be awesome, the plots are slow and riddled with gaping holes, and the second movie in particular is an incoherent mess.

"Ghost Rider": As a teen boy, Johnny Blaze accidentally made a deal with the Devil (Peter Fonda) in exchange for curing his dying father. Of course, it didn't turn out well, and Johnny ended up with his soul belonging to El Diablo. About ten years later, Johnny (Nicolas Cage) has become a famous daredevil who is incapable of being harmed by his stupid stunts, due to that whole satanic pact thing. He's haunted by the knowledge that someday, the devil will call on him... and by his same-age-but-looks-much-younger ex-girlfriend (Eva Mendes).

Then the Devil's son, Blackheart (Wes Bentley) steals a contract that holds a thousand evil souls, which gives him incredible power for... some reason. So the Devil transforms Blaze into the Ghost Rider, a flaming-skulled motorcycle rider who brings the punishment of hell on the wicked. I guess the Devil can't defeat his wayward son, but someone who got all his powers from the Devil can. Figure that out.

And in the sequel, "Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance," the Devil (now played by a disgusted-looking Ciaran Hinds) is pursuing a young boy and his mother for nefarious purposes. A French priest (Idris Elba) contacts Blaze and makes a deal with him: his priesthood will.... somehow lift the curse of the Ghost Rider if Blaze saves the boy. Even though Blaze intentionally kept the Ghost Rider powers at the end of the first movie, he has now decided that they are bad and he wants them to go away.

Of course, this means that he has to go up against the Devil's minions, including gun-toting shock troops (REALLY?!) an undead demon who can cause anything he touches to rot away. But he soon discovers that both sides of this conflict are out to do something unforgivable -- so Blaze must call on his terrible powers once again, and discover what the power of the Ghost Rider truly is.

So what is the biggest death knell of the "Ghost Rider" duology? That would be Nicolas Cage, who is capable of great acting on occasion... but more frequently gives us memeworthy scenery-chewing and deranged laughter. He is also too old for the role (the first movie indicates that Blaze should be in his early thirties at most), and just too eccentric and non-threatening to ever be a terrifying, glorious creature worthy of a metal album cover. He's also a massive nerd and a dork, and it shows.

The best part of the story is probably the action sequences with the fully transformed Ghost Rider, which involve explosions, streams of fire, and a scene where a mining machine is turned into a vast flaming chainsaw. Of course, the mythology and rules change randomly according to what the plot demands, but.... it looks cool.

But the rest of the time, it's mesmerizingly awful. The first movie is pretty generic and bland, with the token love interest and a hole-filled plot. And the second is a mesmerizing stew of wretched ideas, bad dialogue ("You're the devil's babymama"), and editing that might give you a seizure. Seriously, I have never seen so much shakycam combined with random fast-forward and slo-mo in any movie ever, which succeeds in making an already ridiculous story even sillier.

And the movies are, quite simply, weird. There are countless bizarre things that are never explained or even played for comedy, like Roxanne consulting a Magic 8 Ball for relationship advice, or an anecdote about Ghost Rider peeing fire. It's like the movies are trying to be funny, but they play everything completely seriously.

"Ghost Rider / Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance" reminds us why we were lucky to be spared a Nicolas Cage Superman and Batman. There is some amazing action, but it's crammed into incoherent, nonsensical masses of plotholes and insane weirdness.

Percy Jackson Pbk 5-book Boxed Set [Paperback] Rick Riordan (Author)
Percy Jackson Pbk 5-book Boxed Set [Paperback] Rick Riordan (Author)
by NEWEST EDITION (2014) (new covers w/poster)
Edition: Paperback
24 used & new from $29.94

4.0 out of 5 stars Son of (a) god, May 11, 2015
If you know anything about Greek mythology, you'll know that their gods had a tendency to produce demigod kids by the dozen. And the "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" series is all about a boy who discovers that he's the offspring of a god, and the other demi-god kids that he gets to know at a very, very special camp. Rick Riordan spins a clever fast-moving adventure that mines ancient mythology and gives it a modern spin.

Percy Jackson has always been a troublemaker, but he's shocked when some truly strange things begin to happen in his life. After a minotaur attack, he learns that he's at a special training camp called Camp Half-Blood intended for demi-god children, and that his best friend Grover is actually a satyr bodyguard. Though Percy is understandably resistant to the idea, he soon makes friends in the sharp Annabeth and the bitter Luke (and enemies with the kids from Cabin Ares).

Oh yes, and he finds that he's the son of the god Poseidon... which is a problem since the "Big Three" gods have sworn an oath not to father any more kids, due to a rather ominous prophecy.

As a result, Percy finds himself in the middle of some epic cosmic battles -- he must recover Zeus' master lightning bolt before the world is thrown into chaos; he must venture into the Sea of Monsters to get Grover and the Golden Fleece; clash with the Titan Atlas; embark on a journey into the legendary Cretan Labyrinth to save the camp; and finally battles against Lord Kronos to save Olympus.

The Percy Jackson series is all a little Harry Potter in concept -- ordinary kid discovers he has magical powers, and is taught in a specialized school/camp while fighting against the forces of evil. Rick Riordan spends the first half of "The Lightning Thief" exploring the whole idea of Camp Half-Blood and the demi-god kids -- but after that, the series pretty much flows quickly to the slam-bang end.

Riordan has a snappy fast-moving style, and he peppers the story with plenty of plot twists and monstrous action. And he has quite a sharp-edged sense of humor -- the snarkiness is a bit annoying in the first chapter, but after that he produces some fun dialogue ("With great power... comes great need to take a nap"). And he does a good job with the concept of gods and monster surviving over the center of the western world, as well as spoking some fun at the gods' behavior.

I found Percy rather annoying in the first couple chapters, but Riordan slowly evolves him from a rather bratty, rebellious kid to a reluctant budding hero who will take on literally anything to keep his loved ones safe. Annabeth is an excellent counterpart to Percy, smart and measured if rather haughty in attitude, as well as the timid Grover, embittered Luke, punky Thalia and moody Nico. And the gods are portrayed in a rather clever, tongue-in-cheek way.

It has a couple slow spots, but Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians series is a solid, fast-moving little fantasy series, with likable characters and plenty of wit.

The Brokenwood Mysteries, Series 1
The Brokenwood Mysteries, Series 1
DVD ~ Neill Rea
Price: $32.49

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Toodle-pip!, May 10, 2015
If you go by mystery TV shows, then just about every city or town in America and the UK has elaborately-murdered corpses cropping up all over the place.

So why should New Zealand be denied the fun? Hence we get "The Brokenwood Mysteries," which focuses on a pleasant little down in the land of the long white cloud that just happens to have a number of mysterious corpses. While the first season of this series isn't dramatically different from other shows like "Midsomer Murders," it has a pleasantly languid air and a quirky side that sets it apart.

In "Blood and Water," Detective Inspector Mike Shepherd (Neill Rea) is sent to the rural town of Brokenwood to investigate an alcoholic farmer found dead in the river. Since the dead man was commonly considered to be an abusive beast who probably murdered his own wife, everyone assumes that he simply committed suicide... but Shepherd isn't convinced. As he digs deeper into the town's ugly little secrets, he discovers that both murders -- and the victim himself -- are not what they appear to be.

In "Sour Grapes," the annual Brokenwood wine contest hits a sour note when one of the judges is drowned in a vat of wine. The immediate suspect is a brilliant but socially inept woman whose wine inexplicably didn't win the competition, but Mike quickly sniffs out a bunch of other desperate competitors who might have wanted this judge dead -- debt, sex and prestige being just a few of the motives -- and a merry-go-round of suspect vintages.

In "Playing the Lie," the local golf committee stumbles across the body of one of their own -- Adele Stone, a cutthroat cougar who angered everyone who knew her, including the rest of the committee and her own sullen daughter. So there are no shortage of suspects for Mike to sift through, as he tries to deal with a "Clubhouse Bandit," an illegal weed-killer, and the possibility that the world's least exciting major sport could have driven someone to murder.

And finally, "Hunting the Stag" when a literal stag trip ends in murder when the potential groom is found shot dead through the head. It seems like a tragic accident, but all three of his friends had discharged their rifles with nothing to show for it -- and they insist they didn't kill him. Furthermore, the bride doesn't seem as grief-stricken as she should be. Mike suspects that something darker is at play, and must figure out the killer's identity before someone else dies.

One thing I've come to expect from movies and TV out of New Zealand is a kind of quirky edge that you don't find from most other countries. And while it's sublimated to murder in "The Brokenwood Mysteries," it's definitely there -- Mike'sT country music and tendency to talk to the dead bodies, the eccentric Russian forensics lady, and the cheery Maori jack-of-trades living next door to Mike. Oh, and did I mention that Mike's new house has a vineyard? For no real reason?

Don't worry, the crimes are still treated with seriousness -- each episode has a fairly brutal murder, leaving behind a string of seemingly unconnected clues that eventually prove that the obvious answer isn't the right one. Wrong wine, gun ballistics, odd pieces of clothing. There's also a running subplot about a mysterious woman who is hiding in Brokenwood, and whom Mike somehow knows.

In short, it has much the same whodunnit rhythms as many other mystery shows, especially ones from the United Kingdom, but it has a humorous edge ("You are aware she's in an aeroplane? "Yeah, but just a small one!") and a more languid, laid-back pace. It also makes New Zealand look pretty pleasant -- lushly green, with mist-wrapped forests and little farms, sunlit and sometimes redolent with recent rain, with white-painted buildings on either side of wide roads.

Mike Shepherd also makes for a pretty likable protagonist -- an unshaven cop who goes with his gut, listens to cassettes of country music, talks casually to corpses and claims to have an unknown number of ex-wives (only one has been confirmed). And while wheels are always turning in his head, Rea's mellow performance gives him the sense of great clarity -- he doesn't let himself be swayed in his estimations by a person's job, their reputation or their abilities.

While Sims can be irritatingly grumpy at times, Fern Sutherland makes a solid conventional foil for Rea's unshaven maverick; Pana Hema Taylor makes a fun neighbor who wanders over to offer beer and a smile. He does border on a deus ex machina at times, though -- he always seems to know someone or have bits of expertise relevant to the cast.

Country music and country murders litter "The Brokenwood Mysteries Series 1," which takes the small-town mystery model and shifts it down to New Zealand. A pleasant if not groundbreaking little show.

Kingsman: Secret Service
Kingsman: Secret Service
DVD ~ Colin Firth
Price: $15.96

12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Are we going to stand around here ALL day, or are we going to fight?, May 9, 2015
This review is from: Kingsman: Secret Service (DVD)
Here's an idea for you -- James Bond in the style of "Kick Ass," with a side of Harry Potter. Awesome? Awful?

Yeah, "Kingsman: The Secret Service" -- based on Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons's comic book series -- could have been the biggest, most grotesque flop in years. Instead, it ends up being a quirky, clever spy thriller that uses all the cliches in fresh ways -- it has the updated villains and razor-edged violence of newer spy movies movies, combined with the style and Empire sensibilities of the older ones. Also, Colin Firth as a secret agent.

Smart but aimless, Gary "Eggsy" Unwin is like thousands of other working-class British youths -- he lives in a rotten little apartment with his neurotic mother and abusive stepfather, and has gotten in some scrapes with the law. The one unusual thing about him is that when his father died under classified circumstances, and a mysterious man named Harry Hart (Colin Firth) left him with a medal, a phone number, and a code phrase for if the Unwin family ever needed help.

When he's arrested for car theft, Eggsy calls the number and is promptly bailed out by Hart. He soon finds out that Hart isn't just an aristocratic gentleman -- he's a Kingsman agent who can easily take down a whole pub full of thugs. So when Eggsy is offered a new life as a Kingsman, he takes it immediately. There's only one opening, but his street smarts, kindness and intelligence put him far ahead of the Oxbridge-educated youths he's competing against.

While he's undergoing a grueling training regimen, the Kingsmen are investigating a plot involving a kidnapped professor, a dead Kingsman agent, and the lisping billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Celebrities and world dignitaries are going missing, and Valentine's plans for the world may be the most devastating ever. Can the Kingsmen — new and old — bring him down?

“Kingsman: The Secret Service” is a fascinating take on the whole secret agent cliche. It both subverts (Eggsy) and affectionately homages (Harry) the whole idea of the upper-crust secret agent who loves fine liquor, fine suits and dangerous missions -- and unlike many a homage, is entirely entertaining in its own right. This is the kind of movie where a diabolical villain has a giant cheesy prison where he keeps everyone who won't agree to his master plan!

And it has some gloriously over-the-top action scenes, including some Bond-style goons (including an acrobatic assassin with bladed prosthetic legs) and stylishly gruesome violence (flips, flying teeth, heads exploding with fireworks), which are glorious when handled with the sort of sleek, elegant style of the Kingsmen (one of them catches a glass of fine whisky in mid-fight because "It would be a sin to spill any"). Paired with that is a wicked sense of humor, such as a villain who plans to kill everyone on the planet... but can't cope with the sight of blood.

But it also has a surprising amount of substance, mainly by looking at the class system still unofficially in place in, among other places, England. The leader of the Kingsmen makes it clear that he wants "the right sort" to be these positions, and Eggsy has to complete with a bunch of people who have all the advantages in life. "... judging people like from your ivory towers, with no thought about why we do what we do." Kids like Eggsy can do great things, but only if given the opportunity.

What flaws does it have? Well, the whole "Kingsman education" sequence is skimmed over as quickly as they can manage (partly by putting Harry in a months-long movie coma), but it STILL kills all momentum going on in the movie. Things don't pick up again until Eggsy is almost finished.

The elder Kingsmen are a who's-who of beloved British actors -- Michael Caine, Mark Strong, and of course Colin Firth as a gloriously gentlemanly agent who can take out a whole pub full of thugs with only an umbrella and a watch. He has good fatherly chemistry with Taron Egerton, a brashly endearing youth who just needs a door opened to show off that he's smart (despite not knowing a pug from a bulldog), strong and compassionate. And of course, Jackson is clearly having the time of his life as an old-school destroy-the-world villain who serves McDonald's at his exclusive dinner parties.

Despite losing its way in the training montage, "Kingsman: The Secret Service" is a fun, wild adventure that blows a kiss to the old-timey spy thrillers, while also carving out a niche of its own with bladed feet. Smart, sleek and entertainingly violent.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 21, 2015 3:09 PM PDT

Vampire Hunter D [Blu-ray]
Vampire Hunter D [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Artist Not Provided
Price: $17.99

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars He's a dunpeel, May 9, 2015
He looks like a medieval cowboy, rides a cyborg horse, and roams a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Vampire Hunter D is undeniably one of the coolest vampire-slaying antiheroes out there.

And his coolness is on display in "Vampire Hunter D," a classic anime that mingles together a Wild-West sensibility with gothic horror and plenty of sci-fi weirdness. There are some aspects of the story and its world that could have used some explaining (what exactly is the purpose of all those weird mutant creatures?), but it rides high on atmosphere and a strangely appealing "dunpeel" protagonist whose mission is to rid the world of all vampires.

Farmgirl Doris Lang stops a sword-carrying man on a cyborg horse, demanding that he hand over his sword. When he demonstrates that he can defend himself, she reveals that she was just testing him, and she needs his help. Doris has been bitten by the vampire Magnus Lee, and needs this young man -- who calls himself "D" -- to save her and her little brother from the vampire. And they need his help fast, since the locals will deal swiftly with a suspected vampire victim.

Fortunately, D is all too willing to hunt down and kill Lee, because his mission is to destroy all vampires... even though he is part vampire himself. But to deal with Lee, D must venture into a disgusting, labyrinthine castle, dealing with demonic serpent-women, lethal mutants, and the Count's own cruel daughter Lamika. And if he's not careful, the most ruthless of Lee's servants might actually be able to kill him.

The world of "Vampire Hunter D," originally concocted by Hideyuki Kikuchi, is a pretty fascinating one. It's over ten thousand years in the future, in the waning days of a vampire empire that ran the whole planet, and Earth is overrun with vampires, werewolves, mutants, dinosaur-like animals and cyborgs. It's a gloriously rough, wild kind of world, sort of a postapocalyptic Wild West where mankind is constantly threatened by monsters.

And that setting is both a blessing and a curse. It gives it a fresh, un-cliched approach to vampire horror, and presents the powerful hero with some genuinely terrible threats. On the other.... it means it's cluttered with a lot of weird, freaky-looking things that exist for the purpose of being weird and freaky-looking.

The story itself is a dark affair, haunted by a grinding sense of increasing fear as D sinks deeper into the twisted castle and its even more twisted inhabitants. Most of the story takes place in darkness, with splashes of color (like the undulating green hair of the serpent-women) that briefly break through the overcast animation. It also has a LOT of gore -- D's favorite move seems to be to slice his opponent in half, and then just keep going. Lots of splatters of blood, impalement and chunks of flying creature.

The only lighter moments come from D's left hand.... seriously, his left hand has a sentient face in it that can suck things into itself like a black hole, and which even can do CPR when he's out of commission. This character is never really explained, but his dry, wickedly barbed commentary keeps things amusing.

D himself is the story's greatest selling point -- powerful but not invincible, clearly with vampiric tendencies but determined not to give in to them. He's a graceful, silent figure that quietly wafts through the story, dominating every scene -- and every person -- he comes across, and capable of great kindness as well as great brutality. Beside him, most of the other characters seem pretty unimpressive, from the foppish creepy mayor's son to the bored, elderly Count Lee -- the one exception is Rei, a brutal mutant whose only goal is to become a Noble, and who has a very personal grudge against D.

As for the animation, it's... rather dated. It has that stylized 1980s look, with girls with round faces and men with long angular bodies. And it has an odd tendency to vacillate between animation that is fluid and beautiful... and some very awkward, choppy editing and awkward looped animation that simply hasn't aged well. D's impalement, for instance, looks more silly than horrifying as he floats at a forty-five degree angle and yowls with his arms outstretched.

While it has some flaws -- mainly the dated animation -- "Vampire Hunter D" is a literally dark, gory adventure that takes us into a future where vampires rule. If nothing else, watch it for the brutal violence and the very atypical take on vampires.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 12, 2015 7:36 AM PDT

Marvel's The Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Marvel's The Avengers: Age Of Ultron
Price: $14.99

3 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you step out that door, you're an Avenger (spoilers), May 5, 2015
The Avengers came together to save the Earth from being conquered. Now there's a new threat to the Earth that wants to tear them apart before it destroys the world.

And throughout "The Avengers: Age of Ultron," there is the feeling that the fragile bonds holding the team together are unraveling, and that this is one overwhelming threat they might not be able to take down. Joss Whedon fills the second Avengers movie with plenty of delightfully snarky dialogue ("Stark is a sickness!" "Aw, junior, you're gonna break your old man's heart") and rich character development, but at times it does feel a bit top-heavy in the action department.

After the team reclaims Loki's scepter from HYDRA, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) has a (not) brilliant idea: use the scepter to create an artificial intelligence for worldwide "peace in our time," and don't tell anyone on the team except the reluctant Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). The AI -- called Ultron (James Spader) -- does eventually come to life, but it's not the benevolent peacekeeper Tony envisioned. It's a cynical, hostile creation that bears more than a passing resemblance to Tony himself, and has a very twisted view of how to bring about world peace. It also has a personal hatred for the Avengers.

In mere hours, Ultron has loaded himself onto the Internet, and begun manufacturing bodies for himself using an old HYDRA lab. He's also acquired pair of minions -- young twins Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) -- who have been given superpowers by HYDRA.

And since Wanda has the ability to warp minds -- including the Hulk's, causing him to rampage through an African city -- the Avengers soon find their resolve shaken, and their global reputation in tatters. Since Ultron has unlimited bodies, and is creating a new invincible cyborg one, the Avengers have no idea how they can stop him. Their only hope is to unleash an unknown new power on the world -- and if they fail, the price will be the extinction of the human race.

"Age of Ultron" had some pretty big shoes to fill, since the first "Avengers" movie was profitable, well-written and both funny and wrenching. And it doesn't quite have the same narrative cleanness and smoothness as the first movie, partly because it works across the world, darting around from the coldly sterile CERN to a dusty South African city to a wild, frenetic battle involving a flying semi-trailer truck. If anything, it's even more action-packed than the first -- the battle that ends the FIRST ACT is bigger and more explosive than what most action movies can muster.

Fortunately, Whedon keeps this from being a mindless explosionfest by sometimes slowing the story down, exploring the characters' scars and traumas during the quieter moments. Lots of humor is woven into the otherwise grim story ("Don't take any from my pile!"), along with some deliciously snarky dialogue ("What's the vibranium for?" "I'm glad you asked that, because I wanted to take this time to explain my evil plan..."). Despite the bleakness of the overall story, he brings some heart and warmth into the seemingly hopeless, chaotic clash with Ultron.

The problem? That would be Natasha, whose main plot thread in this movie is to angst a bit, flirt with Bruce, and be captured by the villain so her love interest can rescue her. It feels like Whedon doesn't want to write any female character who isn't a Wounded Superpowered Teen Girl (such as Wanda) so he simply went with the laziest, most sexist route.

And it's a shame, because most of the other characters are fleshed out well. Wanda's ability to shoot thready red energy into people's heads and manipulate their minds leads to the team doubting not only their unity, but their own selves -- Bruce retreats into his shell after a brief Hulk rampage, Tony's obsession with safety ramps into overdrive, and even the confident Thor is rattled by a terrible vision that... well, won't really be resolved in this movie. And while Olsen and Taylor-Johnson's characters aren't explored too deeply, one wrenching scene explores the root of their rage and resentment.

And of course, there's Ultron. James Spader gives a glorious performance as the titular AI; Ultron comes across as a warped, genocidal version of Tony himself. He's smart, obsessed with upgrading himself, often goes on rambling tangents ("Humans make... small humans..."), but with a core of rage behind it all.

Whedon stumbles badly with the characterization of Black Widow, but otherwise "The Avengers: Age of Ultron" is a powerful, well-written action epic -- wild, funny and wrenching in turn. And of course, the groundwork is laid for future adventures...
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 5, 2015 8:15 PM PDT

Avempartha (The Riyria Revelations, Vol. 2)
Avempartha (The Riyria Revelations, Vol. 2)
by Michael J. Sullivan
Edition: Paperback
27 used & new from $0.49

4.0 out of 5 stars The tower in the river, April 30, 2015
Verified Purchase(What's this?)
Royce and Hadrian saved a king and princess, freed an ancient wizard and exposed a terrible conspiracy to usurp a country. Frankly, that's more than can be expected of any pair of legendary thieves.

But they end up in the thick of things again in "Avempartha," where a seemingly simple mission pits them against an unkillable monster and the increasingly dark machinations of the Novron Church. It's not quite as epic in scale as Michael J. Sullivan's first book, but it adds more depth -- and more enemies -- to his fantasy world, as well as laying the groundwork for some truly nasty complications in the future.

Royce and Hadrian are approached by Thrace, a young girl from the village of Dahlgren, which is being ravaged by an unseen monster. Even though she can't pay them very much, they're interested in the problem because she was sent by a "Mr Haddon," aka the wizard Esrahaddon, whom they haven't seen since they freed him from his nine-hundred-year imprisonment. When the thieves arrive in Dahlgren, they find a broken community haunted by the deaths of loved ones, including Thrace's grief-stricken, very stubborn father.

Esrahaddon soon reveals that the monster is a Gilarabrywn, an unkillable magic creature left over from long-ago wars with the elves. The only way to destroy it is a magic sword INSIDE the tower. Which is on a cliff. Surrounded by a very deep river. With no way in.

But more complications arise when the Novron Church sends representatives to oversee a strange contest -- the person who successfully slays the Gilarabrywn will be considered the Heir of Novron. Of course, it's all a scheme to put a puppet emperor on the throne, under the control of the church. Royce and Hadrian are more concerned about getting the only thing that can slay the monster, which turns out to be a bit more complicated than they expected....

"Avempartha" is built on the foundation of "The Crown Conspiracy" -- while the assassination plot has been foiled, there are still shadowy people who want to manipulate whole countries. The Novron Church is conspiring to create a new empire under their control, the elves are preparing to invade (and nobody knows or cares about it), and old magics are wearing away and causing massive problems. And even though they aren't trying, Royce and Hadrian end up right in the thick of things AGAIN.

It's a sign of Sullivan's skill that he manages to create a story that feels both epic and intimate -- "Avempartha" is basically a story about two guys trying to kill a not-dragon, but it has all these plot threads that stretch across whole kingdoms. And he imbues it with a sense of history, as Esrahaddon laments that a land that once thrived on culture, technology and magic has fallen into stolid ignorance and primitivism. It gives the feeling of a once-great civilization that has decayed, and its history is mostly forgotten.

The story moves somewhat slowly, unwinding slowly as the final clash between the Gilarabrywn and the Riyria guys approaches, and more and more people turn up to cause trouble. Sullivan's prose is robust and well-detailed without being overpowering, and he manages to convey the ethereal majesty of the elves without being too stereotypical about it. And despite the seriousness of the situation, he weaves in some quirky humor (a dramatic heroic confrontation between a knight and the Gilarabrywn... ends with the knight getting anticlimactically flattened).

Problems? The villagers are rather nondescript as a whole, and none of them seem to have basic common sense like "to avoid monsters, everyone gather together." And Thrace is a bit twee and annoying compared to the smart, no-nonsense Arista.

Royce and Hadrian are much the same as they were before -- Hadrian is a swordsman with Leet Skillz and a massive soft spot, and Royce is a mysterious, cynical thief -- but Sullivan hints that they are a lot more than they appear to be. And Esrahaddon gets to take center stage as the wise, inscrutable wizard who has been robbed of most of his power due to the loss of his hands, as well as his ability to feed himself. He plucks at the heartstrings when he grieves for the beautiful civilization that he'll never see again, but it's also clear that he can be incredibly manipulative.

The epic story that began in "Crown Conspiracy" moves to a new arena in "Avempartha," laying the groundwork for more trouble, more political strife, and possibly an invasion or two. On to book three!

Tokyo Ravens: Season 1, Part 1 (Limited Edition Blu-ray/DVD Combo)
Tokyo Ravens: Season 1, Part 1 (Limited Edition Blu-ray/DVD Combo)
DVD ~ Caitlin Glass
Price: $40.27
20 used & new from $35.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars I want you to be an omnyo mage!, April 30, 2015
Onmyōdō was a form of yin-yang magic/natural science that was practiced in Japan for many centuries -- think Druids, but with more Taoism.

It also hasn't been practiced in a few hundred years. But in the world of "Tokyo Ravens: Season 1, Part 1," it has endured into the twenty-first century and is a recognized, state-supported way of dealing with big disgusting monsters and the occasional world war. The first half of this anime series is a pretty spotty affair -- it has likable characters and is both epic and spellbinding when it deals with actual onmyoji stuff... but for some reason, there is a lot of high school drivel crammed in there too.

Harutora Tsuchimikado is part of one of Japan's oldest and most respected onmyo families, despite a "Great Disaster" caused by a spell gone wrong by the legendary Yakou Tsuchimikado. Despite this heritage, Harutora has no supernatural abilities, and absolutely no ambition. He just wants to hang out and enjoy his final high school year with his friends Touji and Hokuto... until a rogue onmyoji appears in town, and Hokuto is brutally killed. Even weirder: she turns out to be a magical shikigami being controlled by an unknown mage.

Enraged, Harutora asks his awkward cousin Natsume to make him her familiar, which will give him supernatural powers and allow him to get revenge for Hokuto. Despite Harutora's inexperience and Natsume's ineptitude, they manage to save the day... but now Harutora and Touji have to go to Tokyo to attend an elite academy for onmyo mages.

Harutora soon finds that not flunking is the least of his problems -- adorable but overzealous familiars, hostile classmates, and having to hide Natsume's gender. Yes, Natsume is pretending to be a boy for.... some reason, which causes the obvious hijinks (especially with dorm mothers obsessed with pretty teen boys getting it on). Unfortunately, they soon encounter the darker side of this magical world -- a fanatical cult of Yakou worshippers, Touji's inner monster, and a supernatural threat that could level the city.

The biggest problem with "Tokyo Ravens" is that it can't make up its mind what it wants to be. It wants to be a lightweight high-school comedy, but it also wants to be a twisted, action-packed urban fantasy series about ancient magic. So it swings like a pendulum between wacky hijinks (Misunderstandings! Romantic tension! Arguments! Hiding in love hotels! Field trips!) and explosive battles between monsters and mages. And there's no real transition between these two kinds of stories.

And frankly, the school stuff is pretty awful -- a giant mass of school/comedy cliches, with gags that you can see coming a mile away (oh noes! People think Harutora is gay because Natsume pretends to be a boy! WACKY!). The show hits its stride when it sticks to the darker magical stuff, which is kept tightly intertwined with the character development. For instance, a running subplot is that Touji has an evil oni that feeds on his dark thoughts and threatens to turn him into a monster, which is triggered by the magical chaos running rampant in Tokyo. And of course, Natsume is being stalked by mad-eyed cultists who will kill anyone who gets in their way.

The action scenes are the meat of it, despite some painfully obvious CGI models (that spider-demon is just painful to watch) -- lots of explosive colorful energy, swords and the occasional dragon. And the government agency that uses onmyo mages is a pretty interesting one -- being on the "good" side doesn't mean that some of them aren't deranged and/or nasty.

One of the series' stronger points is Harutora -- despite being kind of dim (it literally takes him ten episodes to figure out who Hokuto really was, despite the OBVIOUS HINTS), he's depicted as a slackerish, good-hearted guy who just kind of goes with the flow and doesn't take anything too seriously unless pushed. It's also a bit rare to see an anime action hero who is actually the coolest-headed person in the cast.

And they do a good job developing most of the supporting characters, such as the seemingly too-cool-to-emote Touji, who has an ugly dark side at war with his altruistic impulses, or the feisty and rather loud Kyoko. The problem is Natsume -- not only is she one of those romantic interests who whines, blushes and has tantrums all the time, but she is revealed to have been secretly stalking Harutora for YEARS. Presumably this is supposed to be because she has never had any friends, but she still seems creepy and passive-aggressive.

"Tokyo Ravens Season 1 Part 1" is at its best when it focuses on the omnyo magic instead of the school hijinks -- and its biggest handicap is the wild swinging between these two genres. It's a fun show, but it could have been a lot more.

The Moonstone
The Moonstone
Price: $0.26

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The mystery of the Moonstone, April 30, 2015
This review is from: The Moonstone (Kindle Edition)
Before there was Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, there was a tale of drugs, suicide, a stolen Indian diamond and a reported curse.

Specifically, there was "The Moonstone," a long and twisting Victorian tale that is considered the first mystery novel in the English language. Wilkie Collins's writing can be a bit dense at times (well, it IS a Victorian story) but it also has a cast of quirky characters in a very colorful story, and an unusually forward-thinking approach to class. How many other novels of this type have the BUTLER as the narrator?

After ten years in continental Europe, Franklin Blake returns to England to bring his cousin Rachel Verinder her eighteenth birthday present: a massive diamond called the Moonstone. It was left to her by her vile uncle, possibly as a malicious act -- three Hindu priests are lurking nearby, hoping to reclaim the sacred gem stolen from them long ago. Everyone except Rachel really wants the diamond split up, so it will no longer be a danger.

At the same time, Rachel is being wooed by two men -- the somewhat irresponsible young Franklin, and the prosperous but less attractive Godfrey Ablewhite. And a timid, deformed young maid named Rosanna has fallen desperately in love with Franklin (though he's completely oblivious to this).

Then after a dinner party, the Moonstone vanishes, leaving a smudge on a newly-painted door as the only clue. It seems that only someone in the house could have stolen it. But it doesn't turn up in any police sweeps, the priests have alibis, and Rachel flatly refuses to let Sergeant Cuff investigate further. She also refuses to speak to Franklin again. And after several months, Franklin learns of some new clues that could reveal who stole the Moonstone. With the now-retired Cuff and a disgraced doctor's assistant helping him, he sets out to unravel the mystery once and for all.

"The Moonstone" contains a lot of the tropes that later detective novels would use -- reenactment of the crime, red herrings, the culprit being the least likely suspect, and an English country house where you wouldn't expect a theft to take place. It even has TWO detectives -- a quirky police sergeant with plenty of brains, and a gentleman who is bright but kind of inexperienced.

Collins' prose can be a bit bloated at times, but he keeps it moving fast with lots of romantic drama and a hefty dose of humor (the insufferably pious Miss Clack: "Oh, be morally tidy. Let your faith be as your stockings, and your stockings as your faith"). He also switches between different perspectives throughout the book -- part is from the butler Mr. Betteridge, part is from Miss Clack, part is from Franklin Blake himself, and there are little snatches of text from various other people.

And it's quirky. Very quirky. At times it feels like the Victorian equivalent of a Wes Anderson movie, between Betteridge's fanboy preoccupation with Robinson Crusoe (which he uses for EVERYTHING) or Cuff's love of roses (which you wouldn't immediately associate with an elite police detective).

But there is a serious side to Collins' writing as well. Yes, "The Moonstone" has some uncomfortably sexist or racist moments, but he was never afraid to take a jab at the foibles of his own society -- hypocritical piety, stainable reputations or then-legal drug addiction. He also takes an unusually compassionate approach to the servant class in the character of Rosanna Spearman -- though she is plain, deformed and has a checkered history, Collins never mocks her or her hopeless love of Franklin.

He also provides us with a wide range of characters -- from wild young men to stately ladies, from a genial butler to the mysterious priests who are the likeliest suspects... but didn't actually do it. Rachel's melodrama can be a bit irritating at times (why didn't she confront Franklin?), but Franklin grows into a more responsible, thoughtful young man over the story, and he's balanced out nicely by the age and experience of the quirky Cuff and Betteridge.

"The Moonstone" is still a delightful read -- a powerful and sometimes tragic mystery, tempered with quirky humor and a likable cast of characters. While a bit overlong at times, it's still an outstanding little whodunnit.

Legion and the Emperor's Soul
Legion and the Emperor's Soul
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Paperback
30 used & new from $7.10

5.0 out of 5 stars Invisible friends and faux Emperors, April 30, 2015
It seems that Brandon Sanderson is a font of creative ideas. When he isn't churning out books for multiple series -- both in and out of his multiverse Cosmere -- he's writing numerous short stories and novellas.

And two of the best examples are compiled here: "Legion," about a man with many imaginary friends who complicate his life and "The Emperor's Soul," a Hugo-award-winning novel about the extreme efforts to keep an empire from collapsing into chaos. This shows the range of his artistic talents, as one story is set in the same fictional world (though a different part of it) as his debut novel "Elantris," and one is a fast-paced little thriller set in our own world.

Stephen Leeds is known as "Legion": he has several "aspects" that he hallucinates, each with valuable skills and knowledge that allow him to do almost anything. One is a deductive genius, one is an elite soldier, one is a linguist, and so on. While technically crazy (and of great interest to the medical community), Stephen is able to use his aspects to make a comfortable life for himself doing rather unusual things.

For instance, a woman named Monica approaches him with a very odd mission: find a scientist named Balubal Razon, who has somehow developed a camera that can see back in time. Now he's gone to Jerusalem to find out if Jesus Christ truly existed (although how he would know where Jesus was is at any exact point in time never really explained. Maybe he just planned to walk around and photograph everywhere). So Stephen, Monica and the various aspects set out for Israel. But soon they find that locating Razon isn't their only problem, because a dangerous terrorist group also wants his camera.

Then in "The Emperor's Soul," the expert Forger Shai is in prison, awaiting execution by the Rose Empire, when she's offered a chance to earn her freedom. The Emperor has been assassinated, and while they were able to fix his body, his mind is now gone. His advisors have bought some time by claiming that he's grieving for his wife, but that will only last ninety days. They need Shai to do something terrible: Forge a new soul for the Emperor.

Not only is this act considered an abomination, but it's incredibly difficult because forging ANYTHING requires extensive, intimate knowledge. Shai has no choice, so she begins learning everything she can in order to create a soulstamp for the Emperor -- which is no easy task, since she has to know what kind of person he truly was. But the hardest task may be planning her escape, especially since she's now enmeshed in a deadly political scheme.

Brandon Sanderson is a master of the doorstopper fantasy epic, but "Legion" and "The Emperor's Soul" prove that he's just as good in shorter works -- these are compact, rich stories that aren't as complicated as his usual fare, but have ingenious ideas at their core. In one story, we have a man whose odd schizophrenia has manifested itself with many different "imaginary people," and in the other we have a magic system that can turn any item/person into what it MIGHT have been, by reweaving reality.

With these premises, Sanderson comes up with two very different stories, both rife with political intrigue (terrorists, a malevolent usurper) and presents them very differently -- "Legion" is more of an action thriller with guns and explosions and a magical camera, whereas "Emperor's Soul" is more of a small, subtle story that rarely leaves Shai's room. It still has action (martial arts and some particularly grotesque sorcery), but the focus is mostly on the magic that Sanderson has dreamed up, and the ways it works.

And he creates some very unique, likable characters as well -- Stephen is a guy who is constantly surrounded by his "aspects" and all their various quirks and eccentricities, but who finds it difficult (due to the talking-to-the-imaginary-friends stuff) to deal with ordinary life. And Shai is a truly likable heroine -- she's clever, tricky and knows plenty about human psychology, but she also has a kind heart. Her appreciation for the art of Forgery, and in making things better through it, has some intriguing implications for the new Emperor.

One high fantasy, one urban fantasy. One a globe-trotting thriller, one an intimate exploration of magic. "Legion" and "The Emperor's Soul" show that Brandon Sanderson is capable of a pretty wide range of fantasy/sci-fi stories, and the Hugo Award is just the icing on the cake.

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