An Inheritance of Ashes

It’s a poetic title that turns out to be literal.

An Inheritance of Ashes, by Leah Bobet, follows the story of a sixteen-year-old girl, Hallie. After some sort of apocalyptic event in which mankind’s modern cities all fell (for reasons left unexplained), Hallie’s family has kept a sizable farm for at least three generations. In addition to the farm, Hallie and her sister inherited from their abusive father a number of grudges, feuds, tempers, and an apparent inability to communicate properly unless driven by extremes. If dealing with themselves, each other, and their rural community wasn’t enough as they struggle to keep their farm and survive the oncoming winter, the fallout of a desperate war in the south against some kind of evil god and its followers – a war which has scarred and lamed one the young men who is a neighbor to them and has apparently claimed the life of Hallie’s brother-in-law shortly before the birth of her sister’s child – seems to bring the entire world down against them.

And yet it may well be Hallie herself, the choices she makes, the risks she takes, and the desperate secrets she foolishly chooses to keep, which pose the greatest danger of all. Not that she doesn’t have her reasons, and fairly good ones from her perspective, for what she does. However, in a time when any choice made can bring demons and armies straight to one’s doorstep, the will of a teenage girl can be dangerous indeed.

The story which unfolds is one of hope in hopeless times. Such hope is found not in the towering figures of heroes and villains who are larger than life, but in the humble, everyday virtues which we so often underestimate. It takes courage and determination to hold onto those few things which matter most, no matter the unending ordeals involved. Family, charity, forgiveness, these are mighty things, but they require a form of open, honest communication that sets aside pride and fear. People’s vision of all these things, and each other, can be so easily clouded, not least because everyone wants to be right, and not have to accept when they have been wrong. Which, people often are, as not many things are exactly as they think them to be, with their limited perspectives. Yet, as everyone muddles there way through the relentless despair of the world, there may yet be hope for their salvation, and perhaps gaining, or even regaining, a few precious things along the way.

These are very heavy, significant themes, but the way they play out is incredibly grounded and realistic. And it’s rather refreshing, in an era where almost every story is about either saving the world and/or coupling up, to see a story that tackles something as relatable, and yet still overwhelming, as simply keeping one’s home, life, and family intact. It’s the pressure of the real world brought to life on the page, and Leah Bobet accomplishes this with exquisite detail and imagination.

That last does actually leave a few things to be desired, at least as the story works towards the climax, and all hell breaks loose, and the narrative suddenly skips forward by several hours or most of a day. There’s a slight loss of weight, of force, behind the impact of a crisis when we skip over such dire moments. It makes me wonder if Bobet felt it would have been distracting – I disagree, but I’m not the published author, here – or if it’s simply not her strong suit. There wasn’t much violence described in the book at all, most all of it happening off-screen, so to speak.

I was also a bit disappointed in how we never learned what it was that made all of humanity’s cities fall into ruin. Or why there were apparently little pockets of reality tearing open between alternate dimensions, alternate worlds. Or if the two were somehow related. But I suppose those were actually immaterial to the story itself. Those would have been about the setting, instead of about the story and the people in it.

Oh, and about that title, which was poetic and literal? Heh, it goes into spoilers, but suffice to say it doesn’t refer only to a farm or a legacy that two girls inherited from their father. It is related to a custom in this world, of burning the corpse of a fallen soldier and delivering the ashes to their loved ones. This entire story is about how Hallie comes into the possession of some ashes which she intends to deliver to someone else.

And it is a riveting story, filled with sincere emotion, real-world concerns, and themes which give the story significant meaning.

It is very well-written, well-crafted, and well-told. I have very little but praise for An Inheritance of Ashes.

Rating: 9 stars out of 10.

Grade: solid A.

Posted in Books, Tuesday Review | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #367: Count His Friends

“If you need to know the measure of a man, you simply count his friends.”
– Ebeneezer Scrooge, A Muppet Christmas Carol

Scrooge is saying/singing these words at the end of the movie, after he has been reborn from a miserable, old miser into an open, generous, and, above all, loving person. His newfound zeal for life and love is so great that, where he was previously alone and solitary, he now finds himself surrounded by friends, more than he ever thought possible.

I want to remark here that there is very much a difference between being popular and having friends. Popularity is just a matter of charisma and how well one fits what others want. Friendship is a more lasting bond of love that doesn’t much care about either charisma or selfish expectation. It’s a tie forged between mutually open hearts which give warmth to each other. As such, I do believe that the number of friends one has, rather than a faceless horde of temporary admirers and selfish users and abusers, can be seen as an indication of what sort of man one is. In short, is he open and loving, or cold and alone?

Now, that does not mean that we all have to be obnoxiously outgoing in order to be happy. It just means that it is better to fill our lives with love, to give and receive it in turn. Some love others by being outgoing, and others love by quietly listening. Some show love by doing something, by helping out any time someone needs it, and others show it in simple gestures, a smile and a handshake. Some are there any time we need help, and some are simply always there, a shoulder to lean on or cry on.

There are all sorts of ways we can open up to and love each other, and one of the great endeavors of life is simply to find our way of so doing.

I like to think that, as removed and impersonal as the internet can be, I am opening my heart to the world in some way through this blog. Here, I share much of myself with all of you, my wonderful audience. I like to believe that a little warmth of some sort reaches out from me to all of you, and I am glad when a little of that warmth is returned to me. But the world is a very large place with a lot of people, so I fear my heart alone cannot warm every corner of it. The distance between hearts online is very real, though it can present a very convincing, even intoxicating, illusion.

But I can share my warmth more with those immediately around me. There’s my family, my coworkers, my neighbors, my friends at church, every one them having the same need for the warmth of love as I do. So I let my light shine in as many ways as I can think of, in helping out, in offering a few words of kindness and good humor, in listening and learning and sharing my thoughts (sort of like this blog), in spreading as much cheer as I have. It’s a modest contribution, I admit, but the point is that I try.

I am, in my degree, a friend to those around me, and I believe they are friends to me in return.

That is not a bad thing, ya know?

And I know that I have a few very good friends, my dearest friends, no matter the distance between us. I am supremely thankful for that.

Posted in Movies, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged | Leave a comment

Paper Mario: The Origami King

I had no idea what to expect from Paper Mario: The Origami King. It turns out, I should have expected one of the best and most compelling Mario games I have ever played, and probably ever will play.

I was unfamiliar with this or any previous Paper Mario games, so my first question was how Mario gets turned into paper. As it happens, it’s set in a Mario world where everything and everyone already is paper. From there, the creativity behind this game is on continual, shining display, creating a gameplay that is interesting, unique, and believable within the confines of this paper world. The use of origami and paper mache, contrasting 3D with 2D characters, was especially imaginative.

The premise of the story is, as per usual, Mario needs to save Princess Peach and the Mushroom Kingdom, traveling through the various realms and beating various foes in order to do so. However, the first twist – after making everything paper, that is – is that the enemy is not Bowser. No, the enemy this time is King Olly, the titular Origami King, and he is surprisingly powerful. His rampage quickly damages all of the realms, and his ambitions and activities prove him to be an enemy, and a very real threat, to everyone from Mario and Peach to Bowser himself.

Mario has a lot of work to do, traveling the world, setting things right, rescuing King Olly’s many victims, defeating his minions, and repairing the world itself, which has been torn up so badly that there are literal holes in it. Joining him is the Princess Olivia, Olly’s sister and his intended queen, who refuses to stand by and let her brother’s mad, destructive schemes play out. Mario does most of the work, but Olivia, in addition to providing guidance, humor, and tremendous heart, can transform her origami body in various ways, gaining access to great power at times of great need. And she’s not Mario’s only helper! No, as he is walking the world, facing down enemy origami troops, fighting paper mache giants, defeating the elemental “vellumentals” of earth, water, fire, and ice, matching wits against the tactics and devastating attacks of various enemies based on the tools used in making origami – colored pencils, staplers, scissors, etc. – and repairing the world itself of all the damage Olly has done… well, he’s going to need all the help he can get!

Olivia loves to help! 🙂

This is where the narrative really starts coming into play. Most Mario games, in my experience, don’t really have much of a story, per se, but this one definitely does. It starts out the way most Mario games do, with the “go here” and “do this” and such, but it’s all the characters that Mario interacts with which really drive the story. There’s Olivia, of course, driven to stop her own brother, and conflicted about the necessity of it. And there’s Mario’s brother, Luigi, who pops up to help. But as each new realm introduces us to new friends and allies, we explore more of the world and grow attached. Best of all, in my opinion, is the new depth that is given to Bowser and his minions.

It starts off in small, surprisingly potent ways. Meeting a few minions who are actually nice, until they get turned into origami soldiers and enslaved. Bowser is reduced to a helpless state for most of the game, and his personality shines through as he fights on anyway to try and save his underlings.

Then we meet a Bob-omb in search of his lost memories. While he’s partially a comic relief character, we enjoy him and his personal journey so much that when he selflessly, and without hesitation, sacrifices himself for his new friends… well, it’s a heart-breaking loss, and one that Mario and Olivia themselves need to work past in order to continue on with their world-saving quest.

We meet and work with a few of Bowser’s more notable underlings, including Bowser Jr. and Kamek the sorcerer. We see many of his minions brought low in many ways, but they rise up to fight alongside Mario in an all-out battle, and we have to save them all a few times. By the time we reach the all-out assault on the enemy’s castle, and the final confrontation with our mutual enemy, it feels perfectly natural – no, it feels outright thrilling – to fight in an alliance with Bowser’s forces, whom we have come to know and feel for in a very short amount of time.

It is magnificent!

King Olly’s best work is uniting his enemies against him.

And then, at the last, the final sacrifice which is made to repair the world, and save everyone… well, it is magical. The victory is well-earned, and the joy well-founded, though the sorrow which tinges it is also genuine.

In short: it’s a really good story in a vivid, unique world. And the soundtrack is phenomenal!

I do have one small qualm: the new battle system may have been unique and fun, but it got a bit tiring pretty quickly. The idea is that the enemies are placed on this circle around Mario, and we can rotate or slide sections of this circle to ideally place them for maximum effect when we attack them, either by jumping on them or hitting them with a hammer. However, one can only move the pieces so many times, and there’s a time limit. I can understand the why of that, but it was infuriating to try and solve these puzzles with such limits on both time and the number of moves one can make. Even more annoying was how it happened every single time an enemy made contact with Mario, wearing down our health and his weapons! (seriously, the one thing I hate most about Breath of the Wild is how the weapons all deteriorate and break, and Origami King didn’t even have the weapons last very long)

Still, even that is somewhat balanced. The battles might have been wearying and frustrating, but the rewards for winning a battle were greater than beating an enemy in an ambush (which sometimes avoids the battle). The boss battles inverted things with the enemy in the center and Mario having to arrange the circles such that he could get the items on the circles, avoid the traps, attack, and survive, and I would be lying if I tried to say I didn’t enjoy the challenge. And, ultimately, the minion battles prepared us for the boss battles, which prepared us for the final battle. So, everything served its purpose.

And as much as I hated replacing the weapons which broke, I very much enjoyed getting new, higher-level weapons as the game progressed. 🙂

So, all in all, with the pros and cons of the battle system, combined with the music, the unique animation, and especially the stories and characters… well, it’s one of the best and most compelling Mario games I’ve ever played and ever will play. 🙂

Rating: 9 stars out of 10!

Grade: solid A-Plus!


Posted in Games, Tuesday Review | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #366: Cherish it All

“There’s not a thing I don’t cherish.”
– Cloud Strife, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children

Hailing from one of the most popular installments of one of the most famous and long-running video game franchises, Cloud Strife is absolutely one of the most famed male protagonists and swordsmen within the gaming community. In the animated movie sequel, he is still dealing with the fallout of the apocalyptic events of the game, as well as the personal losses he suffered. In the midst of his lingering pain, he has become distanced from those his closest loved ones, and such distance is easy to mistake for a lack of caring. However, he comes back into his own and, during the climactic final battle, when his enemy mockingly asks him what he cherished, what can still be taken from him, this is Cloud’s response.

This is what gives him strength to keep fighting: what he still has in his life to be thankful for.

This week, my country celebrates Thanksgiving. Though we often quickly forget to stay thankful, I still appreciate the spirit of the holiday. As such, I wanted to express my own gratitude for everything with which my life has been so richly blessed.

I cannot exactly say that there is not a thing which I don’t cherish, but I can reasonably say that there is not a thing which I won’t have cherished at some point.

I was born in a land that was good and free. I was raised by two loving parents who did their best to teach me right from wrong. I have always had access to everything I need, and I have lived in relative comfort for most of my life. I have always had a roof over my head, a warm, soft bed to sleep in, clean water, good food, and clothing. I was educated as a child and I went to college, though the latter may not have resulted in any degrees for me. I have lived my life constantly surrounded by a sea of stories to consume and learn from in every available medium. I have enjoyed advanced technology that we take for granted as much as the clean air I have always breathed. I actually have more stuff than I strictly-speaking have space to put it all in, and I have very-possible ambition for more, especially in regards to my personal library of books, DVDs, and music. Oh, the music! There is so much music and art produced, so much beauty and meaning to be found! I have enjoyed the fruits of countless people’s countless hours of labor and sacrifice, manifesting in everything around me from simple pencils to sweet candies, from electric devices which handle laborious tasks like laundry to the wonders of transportation, from effective hygienic products to the miracle of modern communication, the internet. I have my dogs, and have almost always lived in a residence which had pets or livestock which I could bond with. I have real friends who saved me when I was lost in the darker hours of my life. I have a worthy, loving family, and I am grateful for every moment I have with them. I have the blessings of truth and hope within my life. I have a job, which is not to be taken lightly in this economy. I even have all the struggles and pains of my past, which have made me stronger, wiser, and more caring. I have all the wonders of nature and all the marvels of man at my fingertips. I have this blog, where I can be and share myself with the entire world.

And that’s just what I can think of off the top of my head.

I have so much to be thankful for. I could never name or count all of my blessings.

What of you, my wonderful audience?

I would love to hear from you what it is you have to cherish in your life.

Posted in Games, Movies, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The First Lupin the Third Movie

Having seen the original anime on Adult Swim, I was surprised by just how kid-friendly this movie is. I do not complain, though I do worry a bit about the kids who walk unknowingly into the anime expecting something more like the movie. I wonder if there’s an argument to be made here about keeping a franchise consistent in the sort of audience it is intended for, ie, if something is intended for kids, don’t pervert it, and if something is intended for adults, don’t make a child-friendly lure that will bring them into it.

But as for the movie itself, on its own, Lupin the Third: The First is a delight. It’s hilarious and exciting with zany, over-the-top action, a thrilling adventure, and a heart-warming tale mostly about a thief and a budding archaeologist as they rise to meet the legacy left by their respective grandfathers. The title, of course, indicates it to be the first in what is intended to be a series, and I rather hope that happens.

Leading the cast, of course, is the man himself, Arsene Lupin III, grandson of a notorious gentleman thief from France. His partners and costars from the anime show up, including the gangster-like Jigen, the samurai swordsman Goemon, and especially the feisty femme fatale Fujiko. And who could ever forget the noble, stubborn inspector Zenigata? But they’re generally in a more supportive role rather than taking the lead. No, that falls to the lovely Laetitia, a young lady who is already accomplished in the archaeological community from an academic standpoint. She dreams of becoming so much more, starting with going to a most prestigious university. Unfortunately, she is trapped in a terrible situation involving a manipulative parental figure and, oh, right, a number of Nazis leftover from World War II.

That would obviously be the cast of antagonists, right there. One can always call on Nazis to be the villains of a story set one or two decades after the war. Obviously, they want power enough to conquer the world and such, so, in this instance, they are searching for a certain treasure: a weapon of terrible power left behind by an ancient civilization. They have a good place to start their search, as it was once found by a thief and an archaeologist several decades ago. However, these two intrepid explorers feared the danger of what they had found, but they also had hope for future generations, that humanity might become ready for it. As such, instead of simply burying their tracks forever, they left behind a trail of clues and riddles which only the worthy would be able to decipher, beginning with a mechanical tome, one which has a formidable lock.

Two generations later, Lupin and Laetitia follow in their grandfathers’ footsteps in a race with the Nazis, including the same people who murdered Laetitia’s family when she was a child.

So, we have old mysteries, modern adventures, personal stakes, global stakes, evil villains, unorthodox heroes, and a lovely lady lead. What more is there? 😉

Well, there’s the animation style. I’ve seen a lot of “modern” CGI which is, quite frankly, absolutely horrific to behold, so that was something of a concern of mine. Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about. Instead of going with anything either too realistic or too simple, the animators struck a balance with something fun and cartoony. Indeed, one could describe it most simply as a 3D rendition of the anime’s style. Not bad, not bad at all!

There’s the music, which while not especially unique or memorable, certainly fits the movie perfectly. It’s not the work of masters, there won’t be any awards for it, but setting the perfect music for any given scene is a feat in and of itself.

There’s the direction, the voice acting, the pacing of the plot, all of which were quite well done. The plot did begin to feel a little long and predictable towards the end, but I suppose they did have to give the villains their little moment of triumph. Though, in the words of another rascal of particular renown, a moment was all they could spare. I had no particular qualms with the acting, especially that of Lupin’s legendary Tony Oliver, the return of Michelle Ruff as Fujiko, and a relatively lesser-known actress, Laurie Hymes, as Laetitia. Hymes’ performance was my favorite.

Basically, Lupin the Third: The First is just a really fun movie, and, unlike the anime, fun for the whole family. 🙂

Rating: 8 stars out of 10.

Grade: B-Plus.

Posted in Anime and Cartoons, Movies, Tuesday Review | Tagged | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #365: Standing on the Line

“Captain Montgomery once said to me that for us, there is no victory. There are only battles. And in the end, the best you can hope for is to find a place to make your stand. And if you’re very lucky, you find someone willing to stand with you.”
– Kate Beckett, Castle
Season 3, Episode 24, “Knockout”

My country had its Veterans’ Day holiday this last week. We didn’t really do much to honor them as a country, which I think is not a point in our favor, but I really wanted to have an appropriate quote last week. I count myself blessed to have something more akin to honoring our veterans this week, at least. They all signed up to give whatever was asked of them and more, all for the sake of people like me who get to sleep in safety and who will never know most of them. That is an immense thing which cannot be honored enough, I believe.

When Beckett says this, she is speaking as a police officer at the funeral of Captain Roy Montgomery, a man who took her under his wing and mentored her as she became an officer and a detective on his force in New York. He taught her everything he could, watched her back, and he died in her defense. He was a warrior, a protector, and a hero to his last breath, though he was haunted by the extended consequences of mistakes he made in his younger days. Even so, he carried on, never looking for glory or power or even peace. He just fought on in defense of others in an incalculable degree of sacrifice.

That is what they do. Soldiers, officers, firemen, paramedics, and the people of any other occupation who give everything they have, whatever it is, in service to those around them: give their all.

Every story about our existence, in every religion, mythology, fairy tale, movie, and dogma, is about the final victory. It’s about winning. Doing it all, winning it all, overcoming everything, so everyone good is happy. The fairy tale ending, “Happily Ever After.” And I do believe that happiness awaits us in due time, but in the meantime, we live here, in this hard, unforgiving world, where everything amounts to a never-ending battle. Winning literally isn’t everything. We don’t “win” in this world, we just do our best.

So the soldier fights, rank upon rank, generation after generation, with no end in sight. The police officer protects, often in a lifelong commitment, witnessing some of the worst horrors of humanity, while also being vilified, again, for unending generations. The fireman braves the inferno, the paramedic risks life and limb and any number of diseases, and all of them witness enough tragedy and heartbreak to break even the strongest of men, despite all of their best efforts.

And though they bear the brunt of humanity’s pain, they are not alone. Teachers try to save and cultivate young minds, never knowing which of their students is trapped in Hell at home. Honest leaders in office try to keep things running smoothly despite a myriad of influences which seem hellbent on mucking everything up. Counselors try to rehabilitate troubled youth or hardened criminals. Utility workers work in any condition to maintain the infrastructure of entire cities (imagine being a lineman in Alaska, climbing power poles to conduct repairs in a raging, sub-zero blizzard so residents can heat their homes and not freeze to death). Lawyers, librarians, authors, bankers, entrepreneurs, parents, priests… everyone has some part to play in holding back everything that is wrong with the world and maybe, just maybe, fixing some small corner of it. And janitors clean up the mess so things stay hygienic.

All of us, together, each doing our own part… that is what keeps society going. That is the line we hold every single day, and we we hold it together.

So, to all who serve, in any capacity, I am thankful for your service and your sacrifice.

With all my heart, I salute you.

Posted in Sunday's Wisdom, TV Shows | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Keeper Chronicles Are a Keeper

The Keeper Chronicles, by JA Andrews, is a fantasy trilogy consisting of A Threat of Shadows, Pursuit of Shadows, and Siege of Shadows. There is so much to say about these three books that I can hardly even select a place to begin, and all of it is good. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that this is a truly masterful addition to the fantasy genre in particular and to literature in general.

Andrews takes all of the stereotypical fantasy tropes and doesn’t simply use, discard, or mutate them… she reinvigorates them, giving them renewed life and meaning in our increasingly jaded, cynical world. With her vivid, enchanting descriptions, her characters’ frequently delightful turns of phrase, an elegant, gripping plot that is driven by those same characters, and so much more, she recaptures the magic of fantasy itself in ways I think I have not seen since my own childhood, as I devoured the works of Lloyd Alexander, CS Lewis, JRR Tolkien, and Brian Jacques. Brandon Sanderson might be my most favorite author and a master in his own right, but not all fantasies have to span galaxies and eons. There is beauty and excitement to be found in the simplicity of forests, mountains, and endless fields, as surely as there is such to be found among the stars. Andrews brings that more grounded, personal magic to life with wonderful, concise, enchanting skill.

Each book in the series follows a different main character, with those of previous works returning to expand on their respective tales. Each tale begins with a personal goal to save or protect someone dear to them, and this strong, personal motive leads them, as naturally as the flowing of a river, onto the larger stage, where they struggle to protect entire nations and peoples from slaughter and torment. The colorful cast includes elves, dwarves, and humans of several cultures, not to mention a dragon that just keeps coming back, much to the consternation of a particular dwarf. Each of these races is given new depth as the world is explored, and that world, unlike a sad majority of fantasy worlds these days, is bright with bewildering beauty (as opposed to being some dystopian cesspool).

It bears mentioning that the Keepers themselves, whom the series is named for, are the magic-users of a particular kingdom, but that is only a small part of what they do. Indeed, they don’t do that much magic to begin with, but measure out when they use it, to make the most difference at pivotal moments. And theirs is not the only magic system either, as another culture uses magical stones and another uses blood magic or something like that, but I digress. What Keepers really do is keep knowledge, keep stories, keep records of the people and their names, and this they share, keeping the history and identity of their nation intact, and thus keeping the nation itself intact. It is a small, subtle, important role which they play, as they watch over their homeland, and they are generally venerated for it.

I may have found the Lloyd Alexander of our day.

The language of Andrews’ writing is vivid and detailed without bogging the reader down in irrelevant details. (Robert Jordan could have learned a thing or two there!)

The plot spans the known world, but plays out on a very personal level for each of the heroes and villains involved, which is no small feat. Even the backstory, that of a terrible villain who rampaged across a swathe of the world, turns out to have been played out at a personal level, not only an epic one, and the same for the young man who inherits this villain’s dark legacy and continues his vile work.

The content of the story is… well, clean, for lack of another way of putting it. There’s no needless sex, violence, language, or other “mature” content. It’s just good, clean fun as found in the classic fantasies of old, which I daresay we could use a good deal more of these days. It leaves a good deal of room for the characters themselves to shine, and shine they do. They wrestle with themselves, their desires, their hopes and fears, and they ultimately make the best choice they can, despite the personal pains they must overcome to do so, and in the end they reap the harvest of love and happiness. That is what ultimately separates the heroes and villains: the heroes choose the happier, more difficult path.

The saga is intriguing at the beginning, riveting throughout the middle, and very satisfactory at the end, even as one must finally turn the last page, set down the last book, and say goodbye to these characters… for the moment, at least. 😉

With all of that said, hopefully with an avoidance of spoilers, JA Andrews may certainly expect me to pick up her next book! Heck, I already read the story of Tomkin and the Dragon, and I look forward to bingeing the next trilogy, a prequel entitled Keeper Origins.

Rating: I give this series a solid 10 stars out of 10.

Grade: A-Plus!

Posted in Books, Tuesday Review | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #364: Follow and Lead

“I don’t know if I can lead. But the real question is, can you follow?”
– Faith Lehane, Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Season 7, Episode 19, “Empty Places”

This comes near the end of this classic series. Throughout the entirety of the show, Buffy, as the central protagonist, has been the one in charge. She’s been the alpha of her group of friends, always refusing to follow anyone else while they have always followed in her wake as naturally as if they were carried in an ocean current. I mean, that’s what most of our lead characters do these days, right? They blaze the trail and others simply follow after. But that’s not the same as actually leading, I think. Indeed, when it comes time to lead people who are not her close friends, Buffy biffs it a bit, expecting others to fall in line when she has never done so herself.

Not everyone learns how to lead, but I find that the best leaders know how to follow.

By that, I mean that they know how and when to swallow their egos and their pride. They know when to respect the authority and expertise of others. They know how to give orders because they know how to take them.

Myself, I am much more of a follower than a leader, and I am perfectly happy with that. I can take orders and follow instructions. Now, if those instructions should happen to include leading a few people, then I seem to be able to lead a little, because I am still following. I have an authority greater than my own to lean on. I do far less well when left entirely to my own devices and my own authority. It’s difficult for me to simply “take the lead,” as they say. I am rather afraid of the day I find myself having to wield an authority that is entirely my own. Perhaps that is simply because of my own doubts, and perhaps it has something to do with how I’ve seen so many people in positions of authority behave: with the absolute stupidity of their egos.

I am convinced that many – if not all – of the problems which arise from bad leadership are rooted in the ego.

People gain just a little authority, a little power in their sphere, and they lose their heads. They forget how to work with others, how to treat others, and how to do the job they tell others to do. What is it about taking one or two steps up the ladder of authority which causes people to forget about the ground beneath them?

The one person who seems to never forget the ground is the one who is crawling on it.

This, I believe, is why the first thing the army does with new soldiers is to break them down, to bridle the ego. From there, every step upwards from the bottom ought to be earned, with the first qualification of leadership being the proof that one can follow. The second qualification being proof that they remember the ground even after leaving, ie, they remember how the world actually works for the people they lead.

Posted in Sunday's Wisdom, TV Shows | Tagged | Leave a comment

The Not So Well Written

In the wake of a slaughter of wise scholars and the theft of a dangerous spell book of dark summoning magic, it falls to a young mage to pursue the truth and save the world from impending devastation. Farden is his name, and in spite of his youth he is already powerful, with a substantial reputation preceding him, but he is also deeply troubled by many things: the specters of his past, the forbidden desires of his heart, and a debilitating addiction to a dangerous substance. Can this man, powerful and weak in the same breath, uncover the conspiracy which pursues him even as he pursues it, stop the machinations of an ancient evil, save the world, and find his happiness?

The Written, by Ben Galley, is the first in the Emaneska series. Emaneska is a fantasy world, drawing some inspiration from Nordic legends and Greek myths. It features mages, murder, and mystery, love, loss, and liberation, mystical creatures and monsters, intrigue among nations, and so much more.

And it all falls very flat.

The best part, and the best-written part, is the prologue. It’s poetic, vivid, and starts the story off with a bang. Even so, it was easy to predict, even then, that this dark, mysterious figure was using the wise men and about to betray and kill them all.

From there, it went steadily downhill. The story felt contrived and predictable, the tension was boring, the world-building was mediocre, the characters were two-dimensional, and the language used to describe everything began to feel so rote that I found myself skimming to get to the end so I could move on to something else.

A “Written” is apparently a mage whose magic comes from the runes which are tattooed on his or her flesh. No one else is allowed to see it, because to see it, let alone touch it, can and will drive a person mad. Exactly how one can have sex – which, they do – without touching something that covers major portions of the body is never really addressed. Either way, the runes give them abilities based on which symbols they chose and how well they can use the power said runes grant them. And Farden is very powerful. …supposedly.

Honestly, I was very unimpressed with the magic, and with how it was used. Nothing was ever really explained, there were no particular limits set, yet the “powerful” Farden seemed pretty limited to me. And I don’t just mean when he chewed or smoked a drug that renders one unable to use magic for a time. I mean even when he was at full strength. He was pretty much just a swordsman with a few little magic tricks.

On which note, though he was apparently a one-man army and specialist, Farden kept needing to be rescued. Most often by a dragon who swooped in to save him several times. Said dragon took an immediate liking to Farden and they became close friends within a day.

I did want Farden to find happiness, of course, but between the lack of admirable qualities – outside her appearance – that I found in his love interest, and how primarily physical their relationship seemed to be, and a subtle indication that he may have also had sex a few times with his maid prior to being Written with magical tattoos… well, I never really felt it, ya know? The “big reveal” of his lover’s duplicity wasn’t even very shocking to me, though, I will admit, the part where she was very deliberately trying to have his child, to be raised up as a weapon of evil, did make my blood boil a little. But even that was not much.

And then there were all the “just because” moments. The moment when an evil sorcerer was sent by the main villain to kill Farden, but did so too soon, but too long after the villain had tricked Farden into smoking his drug, so he was able to use his magic again. And the moment where a bird is apparently some form of instant communication across a distance that took a ship a couple of weeks to travel but the bird apparently is able to get there instantaneously. And the moment when these wise, old mages died the service of their duty, after having apparently known something about the danger among them without ever doing anything about it. Seriously, there were so many plot holes that it was starting to look like Swiss cheese.

All in all, I would say that The Written had a good start, had a promising idea, had hopes for an interesting, international fantasy setting, and simply bungled a great deal in the execution.

If you like it, then, of course, more power to you – and, of course, at least Galley has actually published an entire series, unlike myself, so I must give him due props for actually doing what I have only dreamed of doing – but it still seemed like a bit of a hack job to me.

Rating: 4 stars out 10.

Grade: D.

Posted in Books, Tuesday Review | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Sunday’s Wisdom #363: Normal Bravery

“Bravery isn’t special. But that means everybody has it.”
– Maka Albarn, Soul Eater
Episode 51, “The Word is Bravery”

Over the course of the anime Soul Eater, there is a great deal of conflict. There are battles fought between armies, showdowns between figures of godlike power, and collisions between witches and reapers. The young heroes face diabolical enemies, terrifying monsters, horrific scenes, and traumatic ordeals. Most of all, though, the first and last, what they face is fear itself. Fear is what drives their most formidable enemy, a creature of madness and terror whose entire existence has been consumed by fear, and by the vain attempt to never feel it again. Imagine this foe’s uncomprehending frustration, then, with those who neither flee from what they fear nor eliminate fear from what they feel, but instead answer fear with courage, with bravery.

As with all cowards, bravery is something which this vile enemy has no understanding of.

There are many within the story of Soul Eater which seek for greater power. The villains, certainly, but also the heroes. Yet, where the heroes seek to achieve ever greater heights of skill and strength, they do so that they might be more effective against their enemies, to protect people. But the final villain sought power as a means to fight his own fear, to gain so much power that he need not fear anything, because nothing would be able to hurt him. To him, power is what elevates one above fear, and to be above fear is something special, not normal, not ordinary.

I think we can see something of that in many of our stories. When we think of courage, we look to all-powerful heroes like Hercules, Superman, Thor, Goku, and countless other overpowered protagonists, figures which are larger than life, special above all, set above the need for fear, because they are practically invulnerable. They don’t need to work at anything, it’s all easy, so they can never fail, never falter, never fall, and never feel fear.

There is a certain legitimate root to that, as power is the first visible tool of our defense, securing our safety from the monsters which surround us. But we can gain all the power we want, and kill or otherwise disable everything which threatens us until there is none such remaining… and still we can be afraid. Ensuring our security for a moment does not free us from fear.

There is no such thing, really, as being entirely free from fear. Not by means of power, at least.

But fear can be overcome. It can be mastered. It can be answered with courage.

Courage is not an absence of fear, but a choice to act in spite of it.

And that choice does not depend on what we can do. Bravery is not dependent on power. Indeed, some of the bravest people ever to walk this world have been among its most powerless.

A young woman who defied the Nazis and was hanged rather than give up her comrades in the shadows, or another young girl who stole and preserved the books that they wanted to burn, or a small group of soldiers which faced the oncoming horde in the Battle of the Bulge. The regular people who participated in the underground railroad to help escaping slaves, or who were hanged by the KKK for not submitting to them, or who marched against Jim Crow, facing fire hoses and dogs for what was right. The colonists and pioneers who left their homes and braved unknown wilds in the hopes of making a free life for themselves and their posterity.

All of these were brave, courageous people who faced down tyrants and savages, hatred and bigotry, even the formidable wrath of nature itself. Surely they were all afraid at times, yet the pressed on. And they were all perfectly normal people.

Bravery is not a special thing. It’s not reserved for the powerful, the strong, the invulnerable, the people we think shouldn’t need to ever feel fear at all. No, it is ours, a normal, everyday thing found in normal, everyday people, who deal with normal, everyday fear… every day.

Not everyone chooses to be brave, of course. Many surrender to fear and let it drive them to do unspeakable things. But we all have the capacity for it.

We don’t have to be special to be brave.

Posted in Anime and Cartoons, Sunday's Wisdom | Tagged | Leave a comment