Friday, 29 November 2013

On Kings and Other Titles

Well it's a common trope in fantasy that we are in a medieval setting and of course every medieval setting must have an authority figure of some sort, and that of course is the king.

Here is an appropriate music video to get you psyched up and thinking about kings:

Awesome music aside, it's rather telling we are always thinking of kings in  fantasy setting. It's actually very unusual in human history to see anything but some variant of the king-vassal relationship in politics and daily life. Our modern political system is less than a few hundred years old, and would be seen as phenomenal (or idiotic) by most previous societies on earth.

In fantasy though one can always count on seeing the good/evil king sitting on his throne surrounded by scheming lords and advisers in his court. Unfailingly we see the fates of kingdoms resting in the hands of plucky heroes, we see crowns being won and lost, and we see kings as characters and come up with the issue of ruling.

Though some must ask; why all the time kings? Can't we see emperors, samurai, daimyo, caliphs, sultans, chiefs, viziers, and pope's engaged in such situations as well?

My answer is that of course we can, there just seems to be a lack of them out there.

I personally doubt that it has anything to do with uninterested authors or less than receptive audiences, but in reality most likely has more to do with that all these titles and positions of authority, in varying degrees to one another, can be summed up under that millenia old word and phrase for a ruler, and that is king.

The title of king is of course one that could be easily translated into many languages or extrapolated from whatever word locals use to call their ruler. The position, and the authority that rests with it, is going to be much the same. Whether a sultan ruling from a palace in India, or an African chief ruling over a great swathe of the Savanna with his warrior armies, the position, power, duties, and authority is going to be very similar to what we would consider a king.

In writing of course this can get cliche to some people, but I tend to disagree simply because of the powers and duties any ruler (no matter what title we give him) will have when it comes to making himself the leader of a pre-industrial (or even post-industrial for that matter) nation. Slapping a fancy made up word on the position is not going to hide the fact that this person is for all intents and purposes, occupying the same position as a medieval European monarch.

This of course should not discourage authors from trying something new and attempting to experiment with the accepted idea of how kings rule and set up authority. Writers should by all means attempt to subvert and play with the tropes we've long accepted as part of the fantasy genre, and we should be seeing people experiment with different political systems and theories for setting up how kingdoms run and govern themselves.

From the Confucian principles that governed Imperial China, to the religious inspiration that justified the rule of the Caliphs across the Middle East, it's important for writers to set their sights on other modes of ruling and how a ruler gets his authority and how a vassal is beholden to him.

While I've heard some authors say that its hard to keep people interested in a character once he becomes king (S.M. Stirling famously saying that it's boring because its all meetings and reports) and that they lose much of the action and drama that could be presented I have to strenuously disagree! In fact in my humble opinion, once a character becomes king and faces the difficulties of ruling it can become a defining moment in a series!

They have to deal with plots, counter plots, swirling alliances and petty grievances, marriage proposals, siring heirs, leading armies in battle, managing the affairs of the kingdom, dodging assassins, and in a fantasy setting this can be offset by some more mystical elements being thrown in! It's sad that some authors seem to miss this. You don't necessarily need a king to be a main character, they can just be secondary characters sitting off to the side advising or hampering the main character.

For instance look at King Elhokar from The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. Elhokar is a young paranoid king who rules a nation mostly in name but still has the power of his office. He is a supporting character to Dalinar (one of the main characters) and at times both helps and hinders Dalinar's actions. He is hardly boring and has a number of fascinating character tics which make him function well and give him a distinct personality.

Then just look at the in depth look at kingship and authority which A Song of Ice and Fire gives to us. We go from kings who are bad to kings who are not so bad in a brief time. The story looks at people who do have power and agency (much like a king would) and shows that despite the fact they still have to deal with petty politics and somewhat mundane matters (Eddard hearing petitions from smallfolk and lesser nobles was a scene which I've heard some people found tedious) but duly demonstrates that showing a man of authority in action shows off his character through how he carries out those actions. Stannis is another good character to show that kings are not all just dull reports and meetings, but people driven by a call to action and a personal sense of justice. Though we haven't seen any POV's from him yet, we have seen his character in action on the Game of Thrones television show which truly helps get a feel for the man and what he does.

In Joshua Johnson's The Cerberus Rebellion we get a POV from the point of view of King Eadric who is the character that starts off the book. Here we see the character of the man who rules the nation. He is far from a boring character and his varied attitudes towards his advisers and vassals is one which frames his interactions with the rest of his realm. We get to see he is a 'big picture' person who looks at the larger issues in his realm while neglecting his vassals smaller needs seeing them as irrelevant to his plans as a whole. This of course is what ends up getting him in hot water.

For another fabulous POV of people who eventually become rulers one need look no further than the Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan. There are many characters who are (or become) rulers in their own right and they were some of the most fascinating character arcs I'd ever read.

So personally I think having a ruler as a main character is something that can really be used well in a piece of fiction, whether you are examining the authority and rights of rulers, or simply making them characters in the grand scheme of things its fascinating.

All in all kings are force in fantasy that will be sticking around for quite some time, whether we call them emirs or shogun is a matter of semantics in terms of what force the character represents. They may be heroes, they may be villains but they capture the romantic vision we have of epic fantasy and they do it quite well.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Winter Has Come

Hello again readers. This is more of a general post since due to my workload recently I've lacked any specific major topic to post about. Here though I'm going to outline a few idle thoughts and ideas.

First off of course is that outside a few brief moments of writing a few hundred words here or there, dabbling a bit in world building and updating and editing notes I actually have not written very much recently. Sadly this will probably be a continuing problem until well into December as my exams creep up on me. My biggest problem is not distracting myself with new projects and instead just sticking to one or two that I wish to be concentrating on.

Mostly though, I have been successful at keeping my eye on the prize for two main projects, one of course is Service to the State, which is coming along healthy for a first draft, and another manuscript that has been idle for a while. I'm going to resolve to sit down and finish both first manuscripts when I can while only dabbling in one other side project I have at the moment which may, or may not be a good idea.

Now aside from my other writing woes I'm pleased to announce the first snowfall of the season has arrived! I woke up this morning quite happy to see a white curtain coming down around my home and the new carpet of snow covering the road and cars around me.

I always feel pleased when I see the first snowfall. Mind you, historically this has not been the case.

Most people were always dreading winter when it came as it meant an end to the growing season, a series of shorter days and cold bitter nights. Unlike today with our modern central heating most people would have to have gathered enough firewood during the year and stored it away (hoping to heaven it was all nice and dry) in order to both heat their homes on the long cold winter days, and in order to safely cook their food and enjoy a hot meal.

I personally thank God for the fact I don't live in such a subsistence society or have to worry about not having enough wood for winter, however, I also thank my father for the foresight of having a wood stove in our home. As people should no winter storms can be brutal and cold, burying things under a smothering blanket of snow and snuffing out our wonderful electric lights. And as anyone who lived through the terrible Ice Storm many years back can attest to, modern homes are not well designed to do without central heat.

So personally, I hope to one day live in a home where I can take advantage of the best of both worlds and not have to worry that if my power goes out that I'll freeze or not be able to cook any food.

Winter can be a dark and dreary time. There is a reason why the words of House Stark in a Song of Ice and Fire are "Winter Is Coming", both a clear warning and a pragmatic look ahead for the dangers winter could pose to such a society.

On a related note to that, the superb blog Race for the Iron Throne has finally come to what I consider the 'turning point' of a Game of Thrones where the War of the Five Kings heats up, as well as examining an interesting section of politics in Westeros, most notably the politics of the Northern Houses who are sworn to the Starks.

No doubt the commentary is going to get very interesting as we near the exciting climax of Game of Thrones itself and then set out to the big war aspect of A Clash of Kings.

On an unrelated note about my own blog, most readers have probably seen that the Weekly Word has not continued as hoped. I found that trying to make a weekly serial of random news updates and facts was more difficult than I thought, especially as serializing my blog didn't sit well with me, and seemed to also make the blog posts unappealing.

I've instead decided to simply do little posts like this with my thoughts and ideas, intersposed with random reviews and blog series about certain subjects. It feels like potentially a much better outlet for creativity and random thoughts than anything.

We'll just have to see won't we?

On another, more final, note relating to my blog, I will finally be posting another book review as I've almost finished an exciting book by author Saladin Ahmed, and I can't wait to share my thoughts on the subject, so stay tuned for that. I've also finally seen the movie Pacific Rim and I may potentially be reviewing it here, though I'm leery of doing so as everyone and their dog has done that already!

Well that's all for today readers, look to my coming again at sunset sometime in the next week. I'll be puttering around the web, and of course be hard at work on other things.

Until next time!

Friday, 8 November 2013

A Brief Note on Amazon Ratings

No this isn't an add.

Hello again readers! Here now I bring you a short and humble opinion piece. This piece has everything to do with writing a review of something on Amazon. Now personally I'm no stranger to Amazon reviews and have seen and been seen by many other inhabitants of Amazon. Though I really only browse the book and Kindle section I have noticed some trends.

The first trend I've seen is for people to give either really short positive, or really short negative reviews. This is something I personally abhor. Small barely three sentence reviews tell a casual browser nothing about the book other than that you liked or disliked it. I've seen reviews that are 500 characters that really only said, 'I liked it, the author did a good job' or on the flip side 'I hated it, the author can't write at all'. I'm sure I don't need to elaborate on how unhelpful either of these reviews are.

People who are browsing the review section are generally looking for something just a bit more than tiny snippets of opinion. Most of the highest rated reviews I've read on Amazon have been ones which are at least two full paragraphs of text. They briefly illustrate why a reviewer liked or disliked a novel and explaining what they thought overall about it. Sort of like a brief mini blog review.

On the flip side of all that though, there are people who post entire blog reviews on the review section. Now from a personal perspective I don't mind this nearly as much as other people, I want deep insightful reviews which give me a look into what I'm buying, but some people merely want brief snippets of the good and bad. This is what generally makes me think the 'blog format' review on Amazon is a bad idea. Most people will skip over such long reviews it seems and simply look for shorter, less intense pieces.

These are the two extreme's that I find in the review section on Amazon. So in my own humble opinion I think people ought to try and meet somewhere in the middle.

Shorter, neat and concise reviews giving the straight up honest likes or dislikes (and importantly, reasons)  of a reviewer are best. They are honest and tell people what to expect when reading the book. More importantly they generate lots of either good or bad publicity for a novel, and drawing publicity (in any form) are incredibly important to aspiring writers.

Sadly I myself am guilty of some of these very same things, and I will be working to improve upon them and write detailed, well thought out, and ultimately fair reviews in the future. So look forward to me practicing what I preach, and rightly call me out on it if you see otherwise!

Here is an image of what I consider to be a good review done by myself (unfortunately, yes there is a spelling mistake in it, but I really can't go back and fix it):

So there we go readers! Some Amazon etiquette and a mini-review of a book from me all in one! I dare say that it was a productive post! Take some time to browse my own humble reviews if you like, and remember this little piece of proper discourse on the internet when you next go to write something!

Until next time readers, until next time!

Monday, 4 November 2013

Ender's Game

Hello again readers and welcome to my first post for November. Here I am going to be reviewing and commentating on a hot new film, Ender's Game which is of course based on the work of the same name by author Orson Scott Card.

In this review I'll be speaking on both the film and the controversy surrounding it, of which yes, there is quite a bit.

As an important (I think) aside, I have read neither the book Ender`s Game or any of Card`s other work save for one of his 'how to' books on writing and the book Empire. This isn't something I usually do but I felt that I wanted to see an awesome sci-fi movie and had too many other things on the go to stop and read the novel first.

Without further ado, let's sit back and take a look at Ender's Game!

The film starts out with a brief intro showing the first Formic invasion stating how the invasion had just barely been beaten off and that humanity was unprepared, which cost millions of innocent lives. Now humanity prepares for the next inevitable invasion. In order to win they need to get a commander who can lead them to victory. To that end humanity has established the Battle School where children are brought to train in the art of combat and leadership.

We start off with our title character Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield) as he fights another classmate in a scuffle over Ender's crushing defeat of said classmate in a simulation. The fight leaves the classmate bruised battered, and ultimately broken as Ender crushes him so that the bully will never pick on him again.

Little does Ender realize that this is all an elaborate test set up by the commander of Battle School, Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) who is a mentor figure and kingmaker looking for the next great commander to fight that battle against the Formics. For Ender's brutal beat down of the bully, and his justification that he wanted to ensure the bully never picked on him again he is promoted and sent to Battle School.

However, he is separated from his caring and empathetic sister Valentine (Abigail Breslin), and his sociopathic and overtly violent brother Peter. Ender has deep personal issues about which sibling he takes after most, he is terrified of his brother Peter, and loves his sister Valentine more than anyone else in the world. Who he most emulates is a character point the film latches onto really well and garners quite a bit of sympathy for Ender as he struggles with who he really is.

Meanwhile Ender excels in Battle School outperforming his fellow cadets in almost every way, along the way he makes friends with characters such as Bean, Petra (True Grit's, Hailee Steinfeld), Ali, and student antagonist, Bernard. Eventually he preforms so well that he is given command of his own army (Dragon Army) so he can prove his worth in the fighting to come.

I don't want to spoil the plot for those who haven't seen it, or to bore those who already know all the details from the novel. Needless to say the film is excellent in its pacing and how it touches on all the moral issues and the different ethical and personal relationships the characters in the film have.

From addressing the morality of child soldiers (brought up in a wonderful performance by Viola Davis) to the proposed genocide of the Formics in order to ensure they can never harm humanity again, and to the attitude to do what it takes to absolutely win the film touches upon many important issues. I particularly felt the impact of the child soldiers discussion where Colonel Graff begins to care more about the necessity of winning over the morality of what happens to your enemy or the men you train to win. I was also impressed by the view that doing whatever it takes to win isn't necessarily the right thing, even though it may be the practical thing.

Now the film itself was well acted. Harrison Ford was an amazing Colonel Graff and every moment he was on screen was pure gold, and Asa Butterman proved himself as a truly capable actor taking on the role of Ender, I was blown away. I for one was at first worried the producers would subvert Ender's character for Ford's when I first saw the trailer, but thankfully those fears were unfounded and the dialogue and sub-plot between the two was woven into the film quite well giving us the dual perspectives of the trainer and the trainee in an interesting comparison of goals and motives. Ben Kingsley's later role in the film is just fabulous, and despite his late appearance the film is much better off for him being in it. Truly you would have been hard pressed to put a better cast together.

That's not to say none of the actions weren't over the top or just a bit goofy. Some of the actions the director had Butterman undertake were fairly cheesy. His over the top arm gestures at some points were visually distracting and seemed pointless, taking away from the focus of some otherwise dramatic moments. The character of Bonzo also seemed to have a perpetual scowl all the way through the film, but that didn't detract from his characterization, just from the range of emotions he could show.

The supporting cast played their roles wonderfully as well, none of them can be said to have screwed up. Whether it was Breslin as the compassionate sister guiding her little brother, or Steinfeld as the friend and companion to Ender the dialogue and interaction between the characters came off nicely and didn't feel stiff or forced in any way. The reactions and emotions seemed raw and real to me, I was quite pleased when watching them.

One beautiful thing about the film was the amazing diversity the cast offered. Gone is the all white cast of buff space marines, here we have children (boy and girl) from all over the world, of radically different backgrounds. Muslims, black, white, Asian, and Latino, we have a diverse and truly global cast represented on screen. It felt like a united effort by the Earth, Hell the International Fleet's commanding officer (and Graff's superior) is a Middle Eastern man! We even have the wonderful Nonso Anozie as Sergeant Dap, a humorous supporting character for Ender.

Visually I would say the film is nothing special. It establishes all the shots it needs and incorporates the free fall mechanics into scenes (especially the Battle Room setting) well and used just enough CGI to keep the flow smooth and believable. The film won't be winning any awards for breaking new ground in CGI or camera shots but it uses the shots and imagery effectively for what there is.

The film gave us only a small number of locations to see and it worked with the film just taking these areas and running with them, from Ender's home, the Battle Station and the International Fleet outpost, we get just a small series of sets that are all incorporated into the characters daily routines, making them feel that much more real.

The musical score was well done as well. I hate to say nicely simplistic, but they established wonderful tension and atmosphere with a small set of musical cues that ran fabulously from start to finish. I was caught up in the emotion of it all and staggered or stressed by the music in the correct spots and it was used to good effect to set the tone of each scene.

Finally however, I come to the controversy which surrounds this film. Much of the controversy comes from Card's outspoken anti-homosexual and gay marriage attitude, and the fears he might use this film to soapbox those views. Thankfully though those fears proved unfounded. However, many felt they should boycott the film in order to keep Card from obtaining royalties or funds he might get from the ticket sales. This was done to prevent him from reaping the rewards to continue with his 'homophobic agenda'.

Now while Card has said some legitimately nasty things about the homosexual community, and while I personally disagree with those views I will say this; just because the author holds these views does not make it right for people to boycott this work, which contains nothing that reinforces those views. Authors personal opinions and their works can be (and in many cases are) separate from each other. Those who decided to boycott the film just because Card (who had very little control over what went into the film) held these views not only cheapen the hard work of the actors and crew who made this film, but also prove their own ignorance since Card will not be receiving one red cent of the ticket proceeds.

The fact is that yes, Card has said some bad things, but those are also his personal opinion, which as far as my knowledge goes, does not extend into his works, and it certainly comes up not at all in this film. I quote the film's producer Robert Orci "the movie should be judged on its message, and not the personal beliefs of the original author," and I hold the same view.

So I would end this review with a plea to those who might be considering boycotting the film or who currently are to give it a chance. The film isn't about homophobia, hating gays, or demonizing gay marriage. It is a film which is well acted, well put together, and raises some thought provoking moral questions about war, it's consequences, and just what measure a non-human's life holds.

If you'll put away whatever disdain you have for the author of the book, you can go see a fantastic film which doesn't disappoint and stars Harrison Ford once again rocking around in outer space.

Until next time readers!