My evening with Independence Day: Resurgence

4:16 pm

I have the house to myself tonight. My wife is going to her work Christmas party. Okay, more specifically, I have some time to myself after I have fed my boys, supervised their nightly ablutions and put them to bed. Then I can watch a movie I’ve been meaning to see: Independence Day: Resurgence!

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Honestly, I meant to see it at theatres when it came out a couple of years back, as I have a lot of fond memories of the first movie. But, eh, I never quite got around to it. Babysitters not being forthcoming, my wife and I knew we’d only get one shot at seeing a movie together at the cinema that year. Resurgence was the fifth choice in 2016 after Finding Dory, Rogue One, The Jungle Book and Warcraft. I had seen the trailer for Resurgence on YouTube and didn’t really care that much, but maybe it might recapture some of the feels from the first movie. And I was kind of curious what had happened after the alien invasion. Kind of.

Yet somehow, Finding Dory won out as the date movie of choice that year, and I eventually snuck out to see Rogue One on my own. I managed to pick up a second-hand blu-ray of Warcraft really cheap last year and watched it when I was home sick from work, and it was the definition of okay. I did enjoy The Jungle Book, but don’t recall when I saw it. Anyway. I wasn’t exactly going to burst into flames if I didn’t see Resurgence, as the story was pretty much done in the first film. But on a whim this afternoon I picked up Resurgence along with the first film at supermarket for 10 bucks. This seems like a fair price and not a terrible way to spend an evening.

Should be okay. I have vague memories that this is an alternate history where the alien tech has been retrofitted to 90s tech and spun off from there. That actually could be cool. And, hey, they managed to bring back the original director.

How bad could it be?

8:56pm

Okay, the boys are asleep and I’ve finally managed to put my phone down. Time to movie!

9:05pm

Sort of weird that the world is now united. Something tells me that’s not how it would go down if there was some kind of global disaster or alien invasion. Also, there are third world countries that now have access to vastly superior alien tech. How would that affect the balance of power? What would capitalist societies do with the technology? Actually the world looks pretty much as it does today, only with more flying stuff and ray guns. Didn’t the aliens have biomechanical armour? Didn’t they control their technology telepathically? Didn’t their ships have shields? Why haven’t humans exploited that technology? No sense of wonder. So many missed opportunities.

9:06pm

The moon has earth-like gravity. Huh.

Oh, stop it Julian. You’re over-thinking it. The first was a big, dumb action blockbuster and so is this. You’re not normally this nit-picky these days. Just sit back and enjoy it! The effects are pretty at least.

9:16pm

Wait. Will Smith isn’t in this one, is he? That’s, um, oh. Okay. There’re a few characters from the original, but mostly new characters. Hang on. They’re meant to be the kids from the first movie. My bad. They are still pretty much new characters though. And no Will Smith. Apparently, his character died on a test flight. Hmm.

9:18pm

The new characters… Who ARE these people? I don’t just mean in terms of their bios—who are they as characters? I don’t really have any sense of what they are like? There’s the hotshot pilot, his wise-cracking sidekick, the first daughter (is that the term? Probably not), the son of the hotshot pilot from the first film… But they’re all kind of cardboard cut outs I’ve met a million times before. It isn’t necessarily a problem that it’s formulaic—but formulaic and lacking personality is criminal. The first film is formulaic and cliché, but the actors brought a lot of energy and charm to the parts. The characters shared a chemistry. You knew who they were in the very first scenes—the characters don’t need to do super heroic deeds to be memorable. It can be something as simple as a shared joke or a way of walking. Everyone here looks tired. Like they don’t really want to be in the movie. Everybody is world-weary, even the young players. That isn’t a good sign.

9:34pm

Oh good, the aliens are here! Time for the movie to start.

9:36 pm

My wife is home! Gosh, that wrapped up early. I happily hit pause and we chat about the Christmas party.

9:45pm

Back to movie. The aliens’ new gravity weapon is actually pretty cool. Weaponised gravity is a genuinely terrifying concept. But couldn’t they just wipe out the entire planet in one shot? Actually one of the characters makes the point that this gigantic ship could just smash through the planet. But, erm, it doesn’t for inexplicable reasons.

10:12pm

I’m sleepy. That’s kind of interesting—the other night I watched Die Hard and despite being physically exhausted the film was so engaging that I didn’t feel like sleeping at all.

Resurgence is not great. I didn’t really think it would be– I went in with low expectations. It’s not terrible either. It’s just not a whole lot of fun.

There are aliens smashing stuff and humans scrambling to survive and I just am not feeling it because there’s no one character to care about. There’s Jeff Goldblum, I guess. We are halfway through the movie and nobody has really done anything.

I could stay up, I suppose. Is this movie worth being tired tomorrow? Is it worth sacrificing a bit of sleep to see how this turns out?

10:15pm

I put the remote down and stagger to bed. I’ll finish watching it tomorrow.

Probably.

It’s okay, I think as I pull back the covers. I got the first movie on DVD at least. And it comes with the second film as a bonus feature I’ll probably never watch again.

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Review– Troy: Fall of a City

Salvete, readers!

I finally finished the Netflix/BBC retelling of the Trojan War. It has taken me a while as I like to take my time when I’m watching a show I find interesting. ‘Interesting’ is probably the word for Troy: Fall of a City, in a good way for the most part. It’s a rich, complex adaptation with some amazing production values. It takes its time to convey the plot, but the characterisation has the chilliness of a Greek tragedy. Which makes sense, because that’s precisely what it’s meant to be.

Mild spoilers below.

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I was amazed by the sheer scope of the show’s storytelling, and was surprised that it drew not only upon the Iliad but also the Odyssey and Aeneid, as well as Sophocles and Euripides. I get the sense that the show-runners wanted to convey the full sweep of the Trojan War and approach it from as many angles as possible. This ambition is simultaneously the show’s strength and its weakness. Though the cast is enormous and the story is rich with intrigue and tension, we never really spend enough time with any of the characters to become overly invested. I seldom had the sense that it was anybody’s story in particular, or a sense of the characters’ development or growth. The difference between this story and HBO’s Rome is striking. I think casual audiences would prefer to cheer on a likeable viewpoint character whom they could follow through this sea of names and faces. Troy: Fall of a City really needed an everyman character like Lucius Vorenus or Titus Pullo to work as a straightforward heroic narrative.

That said, the show plays with a lot of the tropes of Greek myth in a really clever way which absolutely drips with irony. A good example is a scene where Achilles slices an enemy’s Achilles tendons before he kills him. Another is where Hector declares that he would rather a short life with his family than a long one alone– a brilliant inversion of Achilles’ choice to have a short life as a warrior than a long one as a family man. The show also manages not to make the Trojans look like idiots for bringing the horse into the city, and that is actually quite a feat. The writers included gods in the story and succeeded in invoking a sense of the numinous rather than high camp. I’ve never seen that before.

Troy: Fall of a City differs greatly from the 2004 film Troy in that it doesn’t glorify war, and perhaps you’re not really meant to like any of the characters. There’s no honour or love to be won on this battlefield. Instead, the show captures the brutality and pathos of a Greek tragedy. It doesn’t have any of the warmth or human moments which fill Homer. One of my favourite scenes in the Iliad is from Book 6, where little Astynax interrupts an argument between his parents by crying at the sight of his father in a crested war-helmet. Andromache laughs and sniffles at the same time as Hector whips the helmet off and cuddles his son to calm him. It’s a tender scene, simultaneously sad and funny. You won’t find many such moments in Troy: Fall of a City. It’s mostly bluster and blood.

There’s no talking horses, either. But whatever.

It isn’t meant to be Homer, but a tragedy staged for the screen. It differs from most sword and sandal epics in that it’s a meditation on the horrors of war, told in a thoughtful and unrushed manner. The characters could be more approachable, but then, you don’t necessarily  go see a Greek tragedy because you want to cheer on the heroes as they rush toward their doom.

Until next time,

Valete

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Review: Cassandra by Kathryn Gossow

Salvete, readers!

Given the current LoveOzYA theme is ‘country,’ it seemed a good time to share my review of the historical fantasy novel, Cassandra, which is set in rural Queensland.  In her debut novel, Kathryn Gossow interweaves Greek myths with a coming-of-age story to great effect.

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Ever since she was bitten by a snake as a toddler, Cassie has experienced glimpses of the future. Her visions are as frightening as they are confusing: she sees betrayal, death, and the devastation of her family’s farm. Everybody dismisses her prophecies. As her family tears itself apart, Cassie must find a way to prevent the doom which threatens them all—even at the cost of her own sanity.

If you’re at all familiar with the Greek myth of Cassandra, your eyebrow may be raised. The story is strongly influenced by the epic cycle of the Trojan War.

Gossow evokes a sense of the otherworldly while capturing the storm and stress of a difficult adolescence. Make no mistake: this is not some kind of antipodean Percy Jackson, nor is it a light read. The novel deals with confronting themes—substance abuse, infidelity, sexual assault, and the breakdown of the family unit—but never descends to the level of sensationalism. Thanks to her sensitive characterisation of Cassie and her family, Gossow overcomes the challenge of crafting a sympathetic teenage character. I don’t remember the last time I read a story which captures the loneliness and isolation of youth so well, the desperation for a sense of connection.

Life fills every page. The narrative voice captures the protagonist’s sense of curiosity and wonder. It is heavy on metaphor and simile, without slipping into purple prose. Gossow imbues her description of the Queensland landscape with sensory details. You feel the shudders as a serpent creeps over young Cassie’s skin, hear the warbling of magpies in the backyard. One of the great strengths of the novel is the sense of authenticity in its portrayal of rural Queensland of the 1980s. Cassandra is peppered with pop culture references sure to provoke nostalgia in many readers. Crank up the Midnight Oil and pop a tape in the Betamax! As an aside, I grinned like a loon at the reference to Doctor Who, which has as much significance for the younger generation today as it did during the 80s.

This story might be considered a case of magical realism, albeit with a classical flavour. The story is chock-full of mythological allusion. The most obvious example is Cassie’s best friend, her intellectual neighbour Athena. Athena’s bearded father crafts images of humans and is a philandering troublemaker, just like his mythological counterpart, Zeus. Let’s be frank, 90% of problems in Greek myth start when Big Z can’t keep it in his pants. Yet the mythological influence is understated—Gossow’s Athena might not have a mother, but I don’t imagine her being born directly from her dad’s head as in the Homeric Hymns. The presence of the gods is manifest throughout the novel, but the supernatural elements are for the most part limited to Cassie’s visions. Even then, we are invited to view them in New Age terms—one of the keys to Cassie’s clairvoyance is her mastery of tarot. The decision to interpret ancient concepts of the paranormal using a modern one absolutely pays off. The mythological allusions are naturally integrated into Cassie’s journey toward adulthood, and never feel forced or intrusive. On a deeper level, though, I feel Gossow deserves praise for her creative exploration of questions at the heart of Greek myth regarding human agency and predestination. To what extent can humans control their own destiny? Is it a blessing or a curse to know the future? Gossow has the wisdom to avoid prescriptive answers. It is enough, perhaps, simply to question.

As a Queenslander who is more than a bit partial to Greek myths, I’m really glad this novel exists. Cheerfully recommended.

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Book Review: Heart of Brass by Felicity Banks

Salvete, readers!

Welcome to my review of Heart of Brass, the first of the Antipodean Queen trilogy by Felicity Banks.

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Steampunk is a subgenre of speculative fiction in which I’ve only occasionally dipped my toes. It’s so extensive, I have never been quite sure where to start. Heck, it’s more than a subgenre, it’s a subculture. Quick introduction for the uninitiated: in the world of story-telling, steampunk occupies a unique space, somewhere between historical and science fiction, sometimes with elements of the supernatural. The writer of steampunk creates a world based upon the late nineteenth-century fascination with technological progress. Taking their cue from authors like Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, whom I loved as a kid, steampunk authors pepper their worlds with futuristic ‘what if’ ideas. What if we never abandoned steam power in favour of internal combustion, but pushed the technology to its limits?

Unlike Verne and Wells, however, a steampunk author isn’t so much elaborating on the present as they are drawing upon notions of the past. Therefore I’d argue that effective steampunk needs to carry a sense of historicity as well as the fantastic. It’s all very well to create a world where folk whizz about on steam-powered motorcycles and wear goggles as a fashion statement, but effective steampunk also needs to capture social mores and attitudes of the Victorian era. And this can be the triumph or the downfall of the genre. Some readers find the subgenre Eurocentric, homophobic or misogynistic, a celebration of archaic attitudes which belong to an imperialist age. How refreshing to find Heart of Brass has none of these negative qualities!

Banks’s novel bowls along at a terrific pace and is filled with fantastic detail, yet the real brilliance of Heart of Brass is its subversion of the unsavoury aspects of the genre. Through deep and sympathetic understanding of the period setting, Banks has crafted a more vibrant tale. By setting the novel in late convict-era Australia, Banks tells the story from the viewpoint not just of the coloniser but also of the colonised. Our protagonist, Emmeline Muchamore is a proper young Englishwoman who carries a dark secret— or rather, a bright shiny one. Her steam-powered brass heart is a source of scandal in London high society. When it goes kaput, Emmeline steals the silver the needs to make repairs. Convicted of petty theft, Emmeline is transported to the distant colony of Australia—or Hades, as she initially calls it. Caught in the fever of the gold rush, Emmeline is swept into an adventure with a pair of ballooning bushrangers and marauding prospectors astride tin horses. In the bloodbath of the Eureka Rebellion, Emmeline’s love of all things imperial is challenged for the first time.

Full disclosure: as an Aussie who is more than a bit partial to adventure stories, I’m really happy the phrase ‘ballooning bushranger’ now exists.

The novel aptly demonstrates that inclusivity enriches a story. Without giving away too many spoilers, Banks includes marginalised characters from the viewpoint of a Christian protagonist. Historically, it makes sense for Emmeline to be part of the Church of England. Yet the Christian viewpoint never drowns out the voices of Aboriginal and queer characters. Banks put in the hard work to ensure that her work is culturally sensitive, consulting Dr Anita Heiss in the preparation of her manuscript. Inclusivity works best when marginalised characters are integral to the narrative, not added in a display of tokenism. The heroes of Emmeline’s world are the dispossessed and the outcast, and she doesn’t shy away from showing Emmeline’s internal conflict when she is confronted by her own privilege. The result is a more complex and dynamic story.

It’s not really a criticism to say that the story left me with a few questions which I would love to see answered in the sequels: for example, it’s never made entirely clear why Emmeline’s father replaced her organic heart with a biological one, or how artificial intelligence works in mechanical beasts the heroes encounter. I know that Heart of Brass exists in a world with its own internal logic, but it’s a world I’d like to explore in greater depth.

All in all, this is a cracking read, and I can’t wait to read the recent sequel, Silver and Stone. Fingers crossed for Ned Kelly-style power armour at some point in the series!

Until next time,

Valete

An Unexpected Blog Post

Salvete, readers!

I’ve been feeling the urge to re-read The Lord of the Rings books for a while, now. Real life has been giving me a rough time lately, and I find that picking up an old favourite is a wonderful consolation. Sort of like nestling under a blanket with a hot cup of tea. Not coincidentally, I often do this very thing while reading.

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Picking up the book again is exciting!

The last time I read TLOTR was in junior high school, and I desperately tried to convince my friends it was cool, and nobody believed me until the movie came out. After that, folks couldn’t get enough of my Gollum impression.

Who knows what I’ll find on my journey back to Middle Earth? Odds are that Thirty-Year-Old Julian will react to the story a bit differently to Teenage Julian. I’d like to think I know a bit more about story-telling and criticism than I did back in those days. Present Julian loves the Aeneid and Beowulf and Norse myths a lot more than Teenage Julian did. And certainly my values have shifted a bit since I was a kid. If they hadn’t, then I would be worried. Will I be at all sympathetic to Tolkien’s portrayal of women, or of race? I wonder. Acknowledging Tolkien’s limits doesn’t necessarily mean I don’t appreciate his achievement, does it?

Does it?

Starting next week I’m going to blog my nerdy reactions, chapter by chapter. I’m not stopping my writerly posts, but once a week or so I’ll share new insights, favourite quotations, and reflections on how Tolkien engages with story-telling traditions from medieval and classical literature. As a story-teller and writer of fantasy, it will be interesting to think about Tolkien’s impact on the genre. I may just take a crack at trying to understand some of the languages of Tolkien’s world. I never really tried that before, as I thought that was too nerdy. Sorry, Past Julian, but I’m pretty sure that ship has sailed.

What am I saying? I’m not sorry at all.

I hope you’ll join me on the journey, folks.

Until next time,

Valete

Book review! Runestone: Book One of Viking Magic

Salvete, readers!

This week I’m reviewing the first book of the Viking Magic series by Anna Cidor, Runestone. It’s a middle grade historical fantasy based on Norse mythology, so it’s kind of my thing.

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Historical fantasy occupies a unique space in the world of genre fiction. You’ve got to deal with the unreal world of the supernatural, but within the constraints of historical authenticity. Writing for children brings its own set of challenges. Where do child protagonists fit in a world whose concept of childhood was so different from our own? How do you forge a connection between past and present? And if you’re writing about Northern Europe of the Middle Ages, you’ve got to deal with the Tolkien factor as well—so many features of the Norse sagas have become fantasy tropes via The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Anna Cidor deals with these challenges well by side-stepping many of the clichés about Viking society.

The newborn Thora’s father has no interest in raising a daughter. He wants a strong young boy to help him out on the family farm. Oddo, meanwhile, is born into a family whose children learn magic before they can walk. To save Thora from being abandoned in the woods, the village midwife switches them at birth. Years later, Oddo shows no aptitude for farming, but constantly has to suppress his talent for magic. Thora loves working with her hands and making things grow, but has no magical ability whatsoever. When their paths meet, Thora and Oddo embark upon a journey to discover where they fit into this world.

It’s a simple story, well told. Oddo and Thora are charming characters who inhabit a world rich in detail. In the construction of her setting, Cidor pays as much attention to the natural world as the artificial, from the soapstone crockery to the alder wood trees. Her research into Norse social history really shows. The rhythm of the characters’ lives is determined by the seasons, as it should be for an agrarian culture. The characters live on the land and occasionally play at being warriors, not the other way around. If you wanted a story of axe-wielding sea-raiders or horned helmets, you’ve come to the wrong place. The system of magic is thoroughly embedded in medieval folklore and thus integrates nicely into the setting. I can’t fault Cidor’s research or her dedication to world-building.

That said, I question a few of the decisions in terms of authenticity. At times, the dialogue jars as it veers from the quaint to the modern. On the one hand, I think it makes sense for the dialogue to be idiomatic and casual. There’s nothing worse than highfaluting old-timey speak in historical fiction. On the other hand, well, the word ‘okay’ in a medieval setting just doesn’t feel right. While I appreciate that this world is essentially the author’s own, I never really got a sense of the geography or historical period. We get a fairly generic Northern European landscape, and the characters don’t seem to identify with any particular clan group. Anything resembling organised religion is notable by its absence. We get a kind of paganism minus gods—not one of the Asgardians rates a mention. This seems particularly odd when the story is about Viking magic. Surely Odin should at least be referred to, given that he was so closely associated with magic? I think adding a further layer of historical detail would have helped the story to feel less like a medieval fantasy and more like a fantasy novel which happens to be set in the middle ages.

Yet for every quibble there’s a stroke of genius. For instance, I love the use of ‘seethe’ as a verb for using a spell, rather than the more usual ‘casting.’ I’m guessing this is a transliteration of an Old Norse word for sorcery, seidr. If I’m right, this simple word-choice shows real sympathy for the historical past. Touches like this outweigh any drawbacks. With its likeable protagonists and compelling narrative, Runestone is an excellent first volume of what promises to be a thrilling series for children.

Until next time,

Valete

Review– Roman Empire: Reign of Blood

Salvete, readers!

In my last post, I mentioned that I finally cracked and got Netflix. What did I watch first, you ask? Did I go to Stranger Things? The Crown? The Expanse? A Series of Unfortunate Events? Daredevil? Jessica Jones? One of the many shows which demonstrate we are living in the golden age of television? Oh my, no. Me being me, I typed ‘Roman’ into the search box, and this led me straight to Roman Empire: Reign of Blood. Ooh, I think, Netflix takes a shot at Roman historical drama! Netflix has a Midas-like effect on TV shows, right? They can tell any story they want, free from the constraints of network television. Surely this was going to be a different take on Commodus’s story? They wouldn’t just repeat a bunch of lazy Hollywood tropes, would they?

Heh, heh, heh. Silly Past Julian.

Basically, Roman Empire: Reign of Blood follows the Roman emperor Commodus from his boozy adolescence to his rise to power. Comparisons to Gladiator are inevitable; it features many of the same historical characters. The show is a ‘docudrama,’ alternating between scenes of fictional dramatization, interviews with various talking heads, and sequences in which vast swathes of story are narrated by the venerable Sean Bean. Given that Sean Bean dies in every movie, I can only assume the narrator was crushed by a vending machine on his way out of the studio. It’s an interesting idea to merge documentary and drama, but by trying to appeal to fans of both genres it fails to please either.

The problem is that by relying on narration and interviews to carry so much of the story, the viewer never really gets the chance to get to know the characters. The series doesn’t show us who these people are so much as it tells us. We’re told in the narration, for example, that Marcus Aurelius is a great philosopher. But we never see this—not in the pilot at least. As a piece of historical fiction, I have my issues with Gladiator, but the way the writers worked lines from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations into his dialogue was a clever way of telling us he was a philosopher. Here we’ve just got to take Ned Stark’s word for it. The drama scenes feel unfinished. Just when we might get sucked in, it cuts away to somebody talking at us. It would have been far more effective to do either a documentary or a drama, but not both simultaneously. Of course, I’m not sure they had the budget to tell the story as a drama. I can’t help but admire the tenacity of the film-makers as they to make everything look bigger than Ben-Hur, but there’s no getting around the fact that the sets are tiny. Seriously, don’t try to tell me that Commodus is fighting in the Colosseum when it looks smaller than a college amphitheatre.

Any shortcomings in the production values would have been overcome by deep characterisation. I, Claudius had a budget not much greater than old-school Doctor Who, but still was absolutely riveting. Roman Empire is content with sword-and-sandals clichés. We’ve seen this story a million times. It’s basically a bargain basement version Fall of the Roman Empire, with gratuitous sex and violence thrown in for fans of HBO’s Rome. You know what made HBO’s Rome great? It wasn’t the boobs or the blood. The show worked because it subverted stereotypical portrayals of the Romans and invested so heavily in the characterisation. You won’t find that here.

It might seem like I’m venting my spleen at the show, and that’s probably because I am. As a classicist invested in historical fiction, I get frustrated when the same stories get trotted out over and over. Greco-Roman antiquity is such a vast, rich, fertile place for the imagination. There’s a world of stories out there. Did you know that the Roman empire gave us the first romance novels in history? There’s got to be more to historical epics set in antiquity than a bunch of sweaty dudes shouting and swiping at each other with sharp bits of iron. There’s got to be more to Roman female characters than maternal figures and scheming manipulators, more to their sexuality than simply performing for the male gaze. I love Agora not because it’s particularly faithful to the primary sources—it’s not—but as an intellectual character study of Hypatia. I love Centurion because it’s a survival thriller that just happens to be set in antiquity. Novelists have done so many interesting things with the Roman world—detective novels like those Lindsey Davis, children’s adventures such as Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries. Tansy Rayner Roberts goes so far as to invent a whole new subgenre in Love and Romanpunk.

By and large, TV and movies just haven’t caught up yet. This is a crying shame. I would argue that Greco-Roman antiquity is uniquely suited to long-form story-telling, as it allows writers the time and energy it takes to get readers to invest in what is essentially an alien world.

To put it bluntly, we don’t need another Gladiator rerun.

So there.

Until next time,

Valete