Friday, September 30, 2016

What Makes a Legend ~ A review of David Gemmell's "Legend"

I have to be upfront here. I'm not a proper reader of science fiction or fantasy. By that I mean I don't tend to read what is considered standard in either genre these days. Of course I read books in the genre, just not what everyone else does.

Let me explain.

Tolkien is one of the most influential and fascinating authors that I have ever read, and I consider his books close to as perfect as you can get. But I don't read epic fantasy. I don't have any interest in those that take the same setting and characters he did, change a few of the names, then proceed to tell the same story only not as good. If you regularly read the genre then you know what I'm talking about.

This doesn't mean stories based on European myths and legends can't be excellent in their own right. There is a lot to mine there. But that's not what fantasy became. For longer than I've been alive, Tolkien was shamelessly aped and plundered over and over again. That was, until George R. R. Martin came along and subverted everything. Did he change the genre? No, writers just began aping him instead.

If you wish to know why most of my fantasy reading comes from pulps, manga, comics, and stuff older than Tolkien then now you know.

Science Fiction isn't much different. I like Heinlein's juveniles, but I find a lot of what is considered "classic" science fiction (read: pretty much all who wrote under John W. Campbell) far too dry for my taste. I read stories that strike me when I look over their plot description, and authors like Arthur C. Clarke are ones that I have to struggle to pick their book up. The topics they choose to write about stir nothing inside me. Does this make me an uncultured rube? No, being a fan of Invasion USA does. This is just a taste thing.

The fact of the matter is that inventive concepts and ideas are nice, but they don't make a story. I have a problem reading a book if there is not a clear protagonist and antagonist, even if the latter is not an explicitly stated character but an environment or hurdle. Good against evil might be considered a shallow battle in the literature world, but it is always fascinating to me. This doesn't imply characters have to be pure black and white, just that there is objectivity beyond what the character believes is black or white. Even the most adamant relativist admits there are good and bad people in the world. Stories should be the same.

Anyway, that's a long way to say why I don't read a lot of the fantasy written over the last few decades. But then I was told of a writer who came along in the 1980s named David Gemmell. Now, I'd heard the name before, but I've heard the name of many authors over the years. Knowing the name and reading the works are two different things. I never took the time to learn what made this author different from the rest of the Tolkien-lite brigade out there. Well, now I have.

David Gemmell does not plunder Tolkien, I'm happy to say. What he does, is write a sword and sorcery tale that invokes the spirit of the pulps and classic fantasy, while being modern enough in storytelling to hook both types of fans. He writes of good and evil, heroes and villains, and what makes the line between them. He's like a bridge. In short, he is one of the best fantasy writers I've ever read.

The first Gemmell book I read was one called Morningstar. It was about an anti-hero rogue, and the bard that follows him, and how the former slowly changes into the rumored hero called "Morningstar", as they face tragedy and adversity together. It's one of Gemmell's few standalone novels, and it is an excellent place to start.

But I did have a few quibbles. The first person narration, especially at the beginning and end, was sticky. It was awkward to read compared to the rest, and felt forced in to make in uniform with the proper book. Owen, the main character, is more of a pacifist than anything, which works for the story, but it makes his scenes around women awkward and leads to some quite pathetic scenes for his character. The ending was also abrupt and awkward due to a sudden shift in POV at the end.

Despite that, it was an excellent read. As a whole, it was a great fantasy book that managed to hit all the right notes for me.

Legend, however, is another story. Released in 1985, it was Gemmell's first book, and though it shows that it is in some places, the story really is a marvel.

The story is centered on Dros Delnoch, a fortress on the edge of Drenai, which is about to erupt in the first skirmishes of a war. The dying Earl of Dros Delnoch sends out a call for warriors to defend their land from the invaders, and that is where the story begins. Our main characters slowly come together to form the first (and in many ways, last) line of defense against the invaders. Where it goes from there is stunning.

Death is all over Legend. David Gemmell had cancer when he first started writing this story, and it rolls off every scene and character. Death is even a minor character in the story. You can't escape it. Characters despair, hope, change, stay the same, and become heroes in the process. The villain (who even muses over the fact that he is one) is a prodigy who has reunited the scattered tribes of his land, and is now looking to rule everything. His army dwarfs the size of Drenai's trained men, and it has left many in the land dreading what is to come. There are many points when it is mentioned that Dros Delnoch is but a footnote in his rise to power over the world, and that is no idle threat. This war will not be much of a challenge to him.

The battle for Dros Delnoch is a hopeless one. The Drenai are outnumbered, with only their cleverly designed fortress, warriors, and leaders, to protect them from the hand of death squeezing their neck. Things quickly go from bad to worse, but still the heroes fight on. This leads to an ending that is as stunning as it is perfect. The nature of reality can be strange. If you are a fan of fantasy, and sick of the nihilism currently infecting it, this book is the cure.

Make no mistake: this is a fantasy book. There are warriors, there is sorcery, there is mysticism, there is encroaching evil, and there are exotic sights and sounds. David Gemmell makes the world of Drenai his own, and ends up telling a tale of heroes that should still be read today. The superversive sense of wonder and awe is here in full force.

In many ways, it's hard to imagine this from a fantasy book from the 1980s. That is the era where Tolkien pastiches were everywhere and hard to get around. But this is a whole other level from them.

Will I be reading more David Gemmell? Well, let me say this. I've been mostly centering my reading on pulps and old fantasy and science fiction recently, but David Gemmell remains near the top on my list. In my opinion, Legend is on par with anything on Appendix N, and those that came after, and I would vehemently disagree with anyone who says different.

I would highly recommend this book to any reader of fantasy or science fiction, especially of the older style. If you prefer the nihilism of modern fantasy, well, I can't see you finding much enjoyment out of this. There are far too many heroes and a downright insulting amount of hope.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Currently in editing mode!

I'm rounding the bend to finishing my first full book. After much editing, advice, rewrites, and growing, it's quite nearly in the state for public consumption. I can't wait to put it out there!

As a result, I'm currently revamping my "Works" page to deal with this. It will be entirely different in a couple of weeks. So if you're new here, keep that in mind.

Because of this rise in activity, I don't have a proper a post this week for you, So instead, here's some classic video game music. If you have taste, you should like them as much as I do.

Instead of obvious greats, here are some overlooked classics.

This was before video game music tried to ape film scores and lost a lot of their energy. There are many more I could have listed instead.

Anyway, have a great weekend!

Friday, September 16, 2016

The Anti-Hero Question

Since the 80s, there has been a certain type of protagonist that has taken the spotlight from the traditional role of heroes and villains. It's not the reluctant hero, or the reformed villain, but the hero that isn't really a hero at all. He still reigns supreme today.

I'm not sure what brought about this change, except for certain audiences love of moral ambiguity, though these characters soon ended up choking out a lot of the fun of comic books. Reading lighthearted fare like Whizz Comics now is next to impossible without an intolerable dose of "irreverence" and winking humor. It's pretty much grimdark, or obnoxious comedy, with no in between.

But that's not what I'll be talking about here.

I want to talk about the most popular examples of this type of character, and what makes them so well-liked. What makes them work, and if they are really heroes at all.

The first is one of the most popular examples of an anti-hero.

Jon Bernthal as "The Punisher"

The Punisher is the most popular example on an anti-hero. The Netflix Daredevil series had possibly the best portrayal of this sort of character that I've seen. Well, next to Paul Kersey in Death Wish, where he was not touted as anything but a vigilante. The Punisher is usually treated as invincible and unstoppable. He was clearly certain writer's and audiences favorites as he won battles he never really should have. The Netflix version was different. The Punisher there was portrayed as broken, and very fallible.

Now, he wasn't portrayed as a broken, weepy ball of wussy who won't do anything. That's a different sort of anti-hero. He was portrayed as a desperate man, hitting back at the injustice of the world in the only way he knew how. He became a different sort of soldier, to fight a war that he had every intention of dying in. It was a suicide mission.

He isn't a hero. In the Netflix series, he actually comes very close to being a villain at many points. There's no ambiguity about it. He almost kills innocents, he has no value for life, and he teeters on the edge of self-destruction. The Punisher is just a murderer with a vendetta.

The difference is that as the series goes on we learn more about Frank Castle the person. We know that he isn't as dead inside as he thinks. He is still a human being. There are still flashes of the good man he once was. But he buries it deeper and deeper into blood with bad decisions. It becomes a question if he can ever truly find his way out again.

That makes him interesting as a protagonist, but not as a hero. And it's not because he kills people. Not totally, anyway. Sometimes, it is the right decision to make to kill a threat that cannot be stopped by other means. Would the Punisher kill the Joker, for instance, I don't think many would argue it the wrong decision. It depends on the context. But going out and murdering every two-bit thug in the city is not heroic. Shooting a purse snatcher is hardly the paragon of retributive justice.

I like this version of the character better because he is not treated as someone to look up to. He's not treated as invincible. There's a very well done courtroom scene where several people try to paint Frank Castle as a hero with pretty speeches, and it clearly bothers him a lot. This eventually boils over at a particularly heated moment. His reaction to what they say shows a very clear 180 degree turn from where he was at the start of the series. He knows what he is, and it's not something anyone should aspire to.

But the Punisher is merely the most popular example of an anti-hero. Are there other types of anti-heroes beyond this? I can only really think of one, and I'm not sure if I can call him an anti-hero. You'll see what I mean.

The Shadow

The Shadow is a vigilante. But he's a different sort from the Punisher. He is a being who steps out of the corners of criminals' minds. He faces them down with the reality of their deeds and though he might murder them, it is something he must do for justice itself. He punishes the unrepentant so that the innocent may remain so. Is he an anti-hero?

This is where an argument can be made. Nobody knows what the Shadow actually is. Is he a person who made it his job to take on crime? Is he some being that has been tasked with judging the guilty and sending them to Hell? There is no canonical answer to these questions. To me, that's what makes him a fascinating character, and more than he first appears.

Is he the physical manifestation of Justice? It's never explicitly stated what he is, but that is a possibility. If he is, then is he really an anti-hero? It's hard to argue that he is, if his Justice actually does transcend man's law.

But it can still be argued. That's what makes his case an interesting one.

This was actually one of the problems with the Alec Baldwin movie from the '90s. Along with some sex jokes that didn't fit the tone, The Shadow's abilities were given a sort of origin (as opposed to the men of Kent Allard and Lamont Cranston, who are separate from those issues) robbing him of mystique and power in the process. He still has much mystery, but the Shadow was humanized, and it hurt the character. It remains the weakest point of the film.

The Shadow has agents who work for him, all in special roles, to destroy the evil gripping the city. They are saved by him, and in turn work for Justice itself. They do not question what they are fighting. They know it is evil of the worst sort.

When he confronts villains, he tells them straight out what they are, everything about them, and they are always the unrepentantly evil type. He confronts evil to crush it, not to let it slither away. They are like if Batman lets the Joker walk away. How many lives would be saved if they were stopped from their deeds to poison the lives of men?

This makes the Shadow a far more interesting character than the Punisher, at least as far as heroics are concerned. The Shadow faces evil itself, and extinguishes it, so the light can shine. He has a very specific purpose. He reminds villains of the eternity that awaits them, before he delivers them to it. There aren't really any other heroes like the Shadow.

But all this avoids my question. Is the Shadow a hero, or an anti-hero?

I think this would depend on what your view on a hero is at his core.

A hero is a champion of the people, someone that can be looked up to as an inspiration, or a symbol of justice. But what is the right way to be that hero? What is the right way to administer justice, keep mercy alive, and fight the darkness without succumbing to it? That makes for some good speculation.

The Shadow is a force beyond us. We can't be the Shadow like we can be the Punisher. He is a pure being of Justice, who administers mercy to the truly lost and empty (see the first novel), and is looked up to as a symbol of hope that this world can reach daybreak and escape the night. He may not be what heroes are known for being today, but he has many of the best qualities of the best heroes.

But then we get to the murder issue. This is not something that used to be a problem, even Batman used to kill, but as comics have gotten older, so has the debate on this issue grown. Suffice to say, we have ask if killing is ever permissible.

The argument would be that because the Shadow kills, that makes him an anti-hero. Does it? As alluded to earlier, and pointed out in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, this is not a black and white issue. Not when you are fighting on the side of justice against evil. How many would have been saved had Batman (or the justice system) killed the Joker instead of bringing him to the police over and over? Is that really justice to let unfettered evil walk away with a slap on the wrist, and free to continue their ways? We know the Joker will never repent. So why should he live to murder hundreds of others? That is not justice.

It must be noted, again, that the Shadow is not Batman. He's not the Punisher. The Shadow does not hurt or kill innocents, he does not hunt the truly repentant, and he knows more about the villain than most heroes know about their villains. He knows exactly who he is pursuing. Would he kill someone who truly would throw away the sword and reform? I'm not so certain he would. Of course, I haven't read every Shadow story, but as an administer of Justice, he would have bigger fish to fry than chasing down such a person. This is a man who went after Nazis, for crying out loud. He knows what evil is.

That's a long way to say that you could make a case either way. He could be read as a hero, or an anti-hero. And it's what makes the Shadow such a fascinating character to speculate about. I personally consider him a hero, a being of Justice, the Reaper himself, coming to extinguish the night so the dawn may rise. He is a being quite separate from us.

But you could argue it the other way just as easily. The Punisher is really only one thing, and there is little debate about that.

The difference between these two characters is purely in execution. Quite literally. They both make the reader ask questions of the concept of heroes and villains. What really is a hero? Is he someone who fights evil without succumbing to it? Or is he someone who destroys evil without destroying himself? Is he an upholder of Politically Correct values, or does he fight for something more noble, and far older than himself? This is the question the reader must ask himself.

The only conclusion I can come to it that evil exists, and it must be fought. How we fight it can always be argued, but it should never be argued that it exists. Should we fail to recognize it, we will lose ourselves to it. It will never truly disappear as long as existence stumbles onward, so we must remember to be vigilant. There is a line, and no mater how blurred we might try to make it, it is always there, and waiting for us to cross it.

Live in the hope that one day the weed of crime will finally be uprooted. Until then, keep digging.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Retro Gaming Returns!

Yes, the gaming world has been through some trying times recently. And by recently, I mean at least a decade.

One of gaming's most important franchises is the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise. This series is mostly known for its first four games (and portable offerings) being so great that they could compete with Super Mario Bros. and such. The games are so good, I still play them just like I do the old Mario games.

But times changed. Sonic entered the 3D space and had some growing pains (Mario did too, in my opinion) and has since been overtaken in popularity by many new franchises over the years. That doesn't mean Sonic is a bad franchise, however. Sonic Colors for the Wii and Sonic Generations for the Xbox 360, PS3, and PC, are two of the best games in the series. The latter even features 2D levels like the old games do, only in glorious HD 3D graphics.

All that said, there's something about the old games that hasn't quite been matched.

Sega, celebrating the 25th anniversary of their most enduring franchise, agrees. To get Sonic the Hedgehog back to prominence where it belongs, they decided to try something new, yet old. What did they do, you might ask.

They revealed this:

A full fledged new Sonic the Hedgehog game done in the style of the old games. 2D graphics, the same character physics and controls, and the same speed and jump gameplay. It's as if they are making the Sonic game the ill-fated Sega Saturn never got.

I'll be honest, ever since the PS2 generation of gaming, I've begun to drift. The games were no longer simple, creative, and fun, but overwrought, needlessly convoluted, and all samey. As someone who grew up on Nintendo and Sega games, it wasn't what I got into the hobby for. It became a chore to keep up with.

That doesn't seem to be changing, but at least it seems the old guard is well aware at how far away we are from what made gaming fun in the first place. Nintendo still makes games as great as they did back in the day, and it looks like Sega is keeping up.

If you don't believe me, well, just check out this game.

Sometimes, going back to the past is the only way we can move forward. Just because something is old doesn't mean it has no value. This is a fact the gaming industry needs to realize before it falls into more of the rut of milking a successful formula dry instead of seeing just why it worked in the first place.

Hopefully the game industry will learn this before their sales entirely crater out. A video game world without Nintendo or Sega is not one I want any part in.

As an aside, this is currently my most anticipated game of 2017. If that doesn't show my age, nothing will.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

"But I Wanna be a Hero, too!" ~ My Hero Academia Volume 5 review

*Be aware of spoilers!*

In this volume of My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi, we reach the end of the Sports Festival and learn much about the heroes' internal battles as well as the villains' next plot. This is the volume where My Hero Academia fully hits its stride.

I've mentioned before that My Hero Academia is my favorite currently running manga. My opinion remains the same. The reasons why are plentiful, but I will try to be brief.

My Hero Academia is written by someone who loves heroism for what it is at its purest level. It glorifies self-sacrifice, eschews selfishness, promotes good, and is never afraid to show evil for what it really is. Every character in the series is given a chance to see just why they want to be a hero (or a villain) and it never stops being both inspiring and invigorating for the reader.

Take this volume, for instance. It's the first without our protagonist, Izuku Midoriya, on the cover. That's because, as the subtitle mentions, this is the origin of Shoto Todoroki, one of Midoriya's classmates. Todoroki is a quiet guy who keeps to himself, but something about the way Midoriya acts and throws himself into his heroism has started to stir something within the loner. He comes off at first as something of an anti-hero, but that quickly falls away. This volume mainly deals with Todoroki as he explores just what kind of hero he can be, and if he is approaching it from the right angle.

But it's not just that. This volume also deals with Katsuki Bakugo, Midoriya's childhood friend, dealing with his own shortcomings as a hero as he ends up both taking on a girl without losing his overbearing pride, and facing a match where his opponent will not show him everything he has. His massive pride is almost obliterated. This is the moment that Bakugo begins his journey of becoming a real hero. He wants to be someone who will not fall flat next to Midoriya in everything that matters. This will return in future volumes.

Other events include characters like Tenya Ida, and Ochaco Uraraka beginning to coming into their own as characters, and the realization that a villain unlike any other is at large. This volume is packed.

While My Hero Academia is a a superhero story, which means tons of big action and spectacle, it is also a shonen manga, which means growing up and doing the right thing at any cost. It remains the best of both worlds. This makes it not only a terrific read for fans of either, but also for those who might have fallen away from them with age. This series will remind you why you enjoyed superhero comics and shonen manga in the first place. The kid version of you knew something you didn't.

At this point, the series has my full 100% recommendation for any fan of action or adventure. While the first few volumes were mainly world-building and character establishment, from this point on it's all good versus evil, heroes making their stand, and villains trying to ruin it all.

While western comics are falling into political preaching and stale retcons out the wazoo, and eastern comics are reveling in pornography and nihilism, there still remain series like My Hero Academia out there to carry the torch for tradition. This is why we read in the first place.

Good is good. Evil is evil. That's the way it is, and always will be.

Highly recommended.