#REVIEW: Upon the Flight of the Queen, by Howard Andrew Jones

Back in February I was able to get my hands on an early copy of Howard Andrew Jones’ For the Killing of Kings. I enjoyed it quite a bit, and said so, as I’ve been known to do, and miraculously just recently ended up with an early copy of the second book in the trilogy, called Upon the Flight of the Queen. I finished it today, a few days before release– the book comes out on November 19, next week.

I’ve been a fan of Jones’ for a while; he basically writes modern sword-and-sorcery, which is a genre that’s directly up my alley. The Ring-Sworn books are a bit more European in tone than the previous books I’ve read by him, and the first one basically ended up being a sort of fantasy murder mystery for about the first 2/3 of it, only the setup was that most of the characters were pursuing the rest of them for the murder that the book started with, while the main protagonists were looking for the shadowy villains who were actually responsible for the killing.

Upon the Flight of the Queen is, unapologetically and directly, a fantasy war novel. Killing of Kings ends with an invasion, and the entirety of Queen bounces back and forth between several locations all simultaneously being invaded by a group called the Na’or, who are 1) generally not very nice, 2) have dragons, and 3) are sort of allied with the Queen, whose role in the story I’m not going to talk about all that much because spoilers and I’ve probably already said enough, although if you’ve read the first book you’re already aware that something not quite kosher is going on with her.

The strengths of the first book were the characters and the fact that Jones never stopped stepping on the gas for basically the entire length of the story. This is much the same, really, except that the book’s timeline is really compressed compared to the first book– it takes place over no more than a couple of weeks, at most, I think, and there’s absolutely no point where the author lets the momentum of the book flag at all. Now, one mistake I think I made: I’ve read, conservatively, probably 75-80 books since Killing of Kings, and it might have been smarter of me to have reread it before jumping back into the sequel. There are a lot of characters and a lot going on in this book, and I spent a bit more time trying to figure out what was going on than I generally like to, which I think is more my fault as a reader rather than the fault of the book– which is, after all, book two of a trilogy, which one might not reasonably expect to stand on its own all that well. I also could have benefited from a map. Fantasy books should always have maps, even if they don’t need them. This one involves war and invasions so it needs them.

The first two books in the Ring-Sworn trilogy came out ten months apart, so one assumes Volume 3 will be out sometime next year. I didn’t love this one quite as much as I did the first volume, but I’ll make sure to reread them before the third book comes out. If you enjoyed For the Killing of Kings, I’d go hunt Upon the Flight of the Queen when it comes out next week.

In which I saw SEE

So it turns out that if you buy an iPhone nowadays you get a free year’s subscription to Apple TV+, a service I’m not fully certain that I knew existed until discovering that I had a free year’s subscription to it. And it also turns out that if your brother and sister-in-law are spending the night at your house and the boy has been put to bed and you stare at each other long enough, you’ll end up watching that new Jason Momoa show that all of you have vaguely heard of but nobody really knows anything about. Because Jason Momoa is really, really pretty, and it doesn’t matter much what he’s actually in so long as you get to look at him while he’s in it.

(Jason Momoa is one of a very small number of exceptions to my otherwise lifelong heterosexuality. He’s my goddamn imaginary boyfriend and I dare any of you to make a thing out of it.)

Here are some good things about See, which has had four episodes released, and which I have watched two episodes of:

  • It is well-acted. Not only is Jason Momoa in it, but another main character is played by Alfre Woodard, who I would watch reading a phone book. All of the characters are compelling and interesting.
  • It is absolutely god damned gorgeous to watch. Lay aside my Momoasexuality; I don’t know where this show is filmed, but I want to live there, and the people who designed the sets and found the locations deserve whatever the highest awards in their fields are, preferably more than once. This is one of the most beautifully-shot TV series I’ve ever seen, and I don’t know what the budget is for it but I suspect it’s an awful lot.
  • It is well-directed across the board and when it wants to be it is wonderfully spooky. A character called the Shadow is introduced in the second episode and the way the Shadow moves and is filmed is a fucking masterclass in creating suspense out of basically nothing at all; she literally just walks around or stands in a corner and she’s the creepiest damn thing I’ve ever seen.

Here is the less good thing about See:

  • It may have the single most ludicrous premise of any entertainment product I’ve ever encountered, and I am the person whose review of Snowpiercer is literally the number one result on the Internet when you search for the words “Snowpiercer stupid” on Google. It is bone-shakingly, astonishingly, unbelievably, paralyzingly dumb on a huge number of levels, and the fact that it manages to be compelling enough that I’m probably going to watch at least another episode or two is a fucking miracle and a testament to the three items above.

Here’s the premise of the program, which is a distant future post-apocalyptic fantasy show: a virus wiped out all but two million people and blinded literally everyone who was left. All future descendants of those people were also born blind. Now, “centuries” (it doesn’t say how many) later, one man has been born with sight and impregnated a woman with twins, and the twins have also been born able to see.

The show is far enough in the future that there are no remnants of human society left– everything is broad expanses of wilderness, with no ruined buildings or rusted cars or anything like that, although we have seen one (1) pile of tires and there appear to be enough plastic water bottles left that a guy is able to make a point of using three a day to send messages down a river in a scheme that is so stupid that I refuse to describe it here. There is a dam left that appears to provide a small amount of hydroelectric power to the people who live near it, and there is at least one working record player and one copy of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day available on vinyl so that a lady can masturbate to it while she prays.

Yeah, that’s what I said. This woman is supposedly a queen and she “has to pray” twice in two episodes and both of them involve orgasms and one of them is juuuuust a little rapey. Where the show is not stupid it is absolutely batshit nuts. This is one of those places.

It is far enough in the future that the very concept of vision has been reduced to a heretical idea that nobody really believes in any longer, but clothes are still dyed and one weird religious thing features everybody in matching black robes and jesus my worldbuilding questions about clothing alone could take up another thousand words. Needless to say, while I’ve only watched two hours of programming and there is plenty of time to get deeper into worldbuilding later, these folks have no manufacturing, no agriculture, they cannot hunt because no one on Earth can convince me that a society of blind people can capture enough meat to stay alive, and their technology level appears to be firmly set right around Hollywood Viking, except with guide ropes stretched everywhere.

(Writing has evolved into a sort of Aztec quipu thing, with lots of knotted ropes that people “read” with their fingers, and the big religious ritual scene has huge knotted ropes hanging from the wall, which is a cool way to approach scripture, but there are no children anywhere other than the two infants, which makes me wonder about how education works.)

There is a big battle scene between Jason Momoa’s village and the “Witchfinders,” who introduce all sorts of questions on their own, and it’s fascinatingly shot but if you’re already wondering how you tell who is on your side when you’re at war and everyone is blind, you shouldn’t expect great things in the answer. There are also occasional little hints about some characters having what boil down to supernatural senses of hearing and smell, and possibly a touch of magic scattered here and there, but they haven’t gotten into that much.

Oh, and Jason Momoa kills a bear. Just before he kills the bear he is carrying two babies around with him on a tray. That’s not a joke or an exaggeration. He drops the tray when the bear attacks him, but the babies are still on the tray when he finds them again after the bear gets killed.

So, like, if you happen to have Apple TV+, which I suspect not many of you do, I think you should watch this, because I want to have some people I can talk to about it, but get a beer and some popcorn first and be prepared to mock the hell out of it when you’re not in awe at the scenery or the direction. I’m committed to watching the four episodes that are out now, and we’ll see how long I stick to it once episodes are weekly.

In which I finally saw SPIDER-MAN: FAR FROM HOME

Spider-Man: Far From Home holds the dubious distinction of being the Marvel movie that it took me the longest to get around to seeing. I’ve seen nearly all of them on opening weekend, excepting only this, maybe one of the Thor movies, and Avengers: Endgame, which was derailed for a few weeks by the Ongoing Medical Calamity beginning on the day it was released. This one not only came out during the Calamity but also released on a weekend when I was at a convention and thus out of town. As we don’t really have family-based babysitters available at the moment, we just … never got around to it, until I abruptly remembered it existed and rented it from iTunes last night.

And … meh? Let’s go with meh.

That’s not entirely fair, as basically everything I liked about the first movie was also something I liked about the second, in particular Tom Holland and Zendaya’s performances. Holland is indisputably my favorite onscreen Spider-Man by an impressive margin, and Zendaya does a great job shifting as needed between a sort of forbidding cool and unwilling teenage awkwardness. Jon Favreau’s Happy Hogan also probably has his best turn on-screen, and listening to him and Peter talk about Tony is one of the film’s highlights, especially the scene on the plane toward the end of the movie. No, it’s the story that falls down here, and about half of what I didn’t like about the movie is actually Avengers: Endgame’s fault.

To keep it brief, because this isn’t a review of Endgame, a post I never actually wrote: the basic plot of this movie makes no goddamned sense at all, because literally every second of time where Tony Stark knows Spider-Man is alive is on screen in that movie, and then Tony dies, and there is no time at all for him to set up even a single second of the machinations that this film depends on for its plot. My wife made the argument that he set everything up in advance believing that they would be successful and undo the effects of what this movie calls the Blip, and I suppose that’s an argument you can make but I can’t buy it. That’s not a Tony Stark thing, that’s Batman-level planning, and frankly “let me pin a lot of the future of my tech on this dead person coming back to life right before I die” is probably a planning stretch even for Batman.

(Frankly, I feel like the Blip is probably the worst possible way they could have solved the immense story problem that Avengers: Infinity War set up, but that’s a whole other post, and I never wrote it. I think the idea is heinously dumb, and Endgame had a ton of great moments but overall the movie was a clusterfuck.)

The other problem is that I either don’t understand how Mysterio’s powers work in this setting, at all, or I do understand how they work and they’re dumb as hell. So unlike the traditional comic book Mysterio, who actually is able to trigger hallucinations, all of Movie Mysterio’s abilities are linked to these Stark drones that are creating holograms, right? Real holograms, that have no physical presence and aren’t, like, made of hard light or some other fanwank type of stuff? And all of the destruction that the holograms cause in the movies is actually caused by the drones, which, I dunno, blew up the giant column that the hologram just supposedly punched, only without leaving any physical evidence (like, say, bullets) behind? I mean, at no point during the movie is it implied that these drone-things are battering rams. The hologram, which is pre-programmed except where it isn’t, punches something and it looks like it got punched to death, only what actually happened is that the robots shot it or hit it with a rocket or something, and doesn’t the fire monster melt a whole lot of shit? Was that shit actually melted or are we just not supposed to think about that? How much water during the water-monster’s attack was holographic? Did no one wonder where that water went?

(Also: Spider-Man’s powers are kind of fundamentally useless against giant monsters made of water or fire, which is why in both of those battles he doesn’t actually fight the monster, he just jumps around tossing (useless) rocks or trying his best to keep giant things from falling over. The final fight against the drones is awesome, but these were bad giant monster choices for a Spider-Man movie. And part of the reason they had to set it up this way– were the rocks he threw real, by the way? Where did they actually land, since they didn’t hit the monster?– was because if he had ever tried to punch the thing he would have realized it wasn’t real, because Mysterio’s powers in this movie are real real dumb.)

(Did no one notice the giant fire monster wasn’t hot?)

Anyway: they literally show Mysterio rehearsing one of the fights, for crying out loud. So this is all set up in advance. The holograms at times involve Peter’s clothing. And they make a big deal about how Peter uses his “Peter tingle” (I don’t think these films have ever used the phrase “spider-sense,” and I thought “Peter tingle” was hilarious) to fight the last batch of drones, only there should never have been a moment in the movie where the holograms activated his spider-sense and he should have noticed that. All of which could have been avoided if Mysterio’s abilities had been a combination of hard-light, actually physical manifestations of something or another and hallucinogenic gases like the comic book character’s are, which could have plausibly interfered with the, uh … Peter-tingle.

I dunno, maybe this is inside baseball comic-book geek stuff, but that’s what I am, and this film fell down in a bunch of ways that I’m not used to seeing from Marvel movies. I am, for the first time, not hugely psyched about a decent-sized swath of the upcoming MCU product, although there’s certainly a lot that I am, and, well, I set up my Disney+ subscription yesterday, so they’ve got my money. But this is definitely a lower-tier Marvel movie for me despite my affection for the cast. And you’ve already seen it, so chances are I’m not talking anybody out of it, right? We’ll see how long it takes me to get into the theater for Black Widow when that finally comes out.

EDIT, A FEW HOURS LATER: I’m apparently still thinking about this, and this is absolutely one of those movies that keeps falling apart more the longer you think about it. And what the hell is Mysterio’s long-term plan here? Because he keeps making noises about being a big giant (fake) hero like some sort of low-rent Syndrome from The Incredibles, only Syndrome’s gadgets gave him actual abilities and his plan to sell them to everybody made sense, and Mysterio just has his fake holograms, which he apparently wants to continue to use to be Earth’s Mightiest (fake) Hero and not, like, make a giant pile of money or something like that, which seems like a better use for the technology? Dude literally needs a scriptwriter because he can’t think on his feet fast enough, and the one time he has to ad-lib he blows the whole thing and Nick Fury figures out he’s a fake. Are we supposed to notice he’s an idiot? Was that the idea?

What’s this dumbass gonna do when Galactus shows up? Did Earth acquire no new heroes during the Blip? Is his plan to continue to just fake being a superhero, like, forever? How is this not the biggest Underpants Gnome plan of all time?

Bah.

Also, and this will probably be dealt with in future films, and is more a Hmm That’s Interesting than a plot problem, but how long have those two Skrulls from Captain Marvel been running around pretending to be Nick Fury and Maria Hill? Was that actually Fury and Hill who got dusted during the Snappening, or the Skrulls? Because that would actually be kind of cool if the Skrulls have been letting Hill and Fury do double-duty all this time and Fury’s actually been chilling in orbit. My wife pointed out that Real Fury probably doesn’t let Skrull Fury have Captain Marvel’s beeper, which is a legit point, but it’s still fun to think about.

#REVIEW: The THRONE OF GLASS series, by Sarah J. Maas

Right around exactly a year ago, Kingdom of Ash, the final novel of Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass series released in hardcover, and I found that a bunch of my friends were reading it and talking about it, and talking about it with the sort of reverence only due to the end of a major, major series. And I’d … never heard of it. I eventually bought the first book, though– any time more than a couple of my friends start talking about a book at the same time I’m going to check it out; I’m predictable that way– although I didn’t get around to actually reading Throne of Glass until February.

That was seven books and five thousand and eight pages ago. The final book came out in paperback a couple of weeks ago; I’d been spacing out my reads so that I didn’t finish the series too far away from the last book’s release, but if you click through my Monthly Reads you’ll notice I’ve read a book or two from this series most months since reading the first one in February. And I finished the final book, the thousand-page Kingdom of Ash, perhaps fifteen minutes ago.

I need y’all to understand something.

Fantasy literature is in my damn blood, kids. I first read The Lord of the Rings— the entire trilogy, plus The Hobbit— in second grade. I have been reading epic fantasy for my entire life. I am fully and entirely qualified to make the statement that I am about to make.

The fact that Sarah J. Maas’ name is not spoken among the fantasy literature community with the same reverence as Tolkien, or Eddings, or Brooks, or Sanderson, or Jordan, or Rothfuss, or Martin, or any of those motherfuckers is a Goddamned crime, and I can attribute said omission to nothing other than the purest sexism.

In fact, I would go farther: Throne of Glass is better than a lot of these men’s magnum opus megaseries are. It is, for example, undeniably better than Wheel of Time or A Song of Ice and Fire, although I admit no individual book is as good as A Game of Thrones. It is better than Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. Better than, if not, perhaps, as beautifully written as Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind.

And because Sarah Maas is a woman, and because the series was (criminally, incorrectly) slotted into YA, a designation that I think probably hurt a couple of the early books until she was selling enough to be able to write whatever she wanted, I had never heard of the Goddamned series until my (entirely, incidentally, female) friends told me about it.

George Martin is taking literal entire generations to produce individual books. Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear released in 2011, four years after The Name of the Wind, and the third book has no release date. Sarah J. Maas released the first book of Throne of Glass in 2012 and it is 2019 and the series is done. Or, to put it another way, the entire five thousand page series has been released since A Dance With Dragons or Wise Man’s Fear came out.

When these long series come out, the tendency is to go to filler early and painfully. The entire second book of the Wheel of Time series could have been reduced to a prologue chapter of the third book. Martin’s tendency to pad out his work until it is completely out of control is legendary. And a certain other series that just launched recently managed to feature unnecessary filler material in its first book.

The series comprises six main books, a three-novella prequel novel, The Assassin’s Blade, that should be read second, and a “side novel,” Tower of Dawn, that should be read in between the fifth and sixth main-sequence books, and in that entire time the only time I felt like the series was spinning its wheels was in Heir of Fire, which spends a lot of time doing plot work before blowing a hole in the entire series and upending everything you thought you knew in the last hundred and fifty pages or so. There’s no fucking filler.

I am prone to hyperbole, I say that all the time, and I nonetheless cannot overstate what an amazing achievement this series is, and how grateful I am that so many people made sure I had seen it. If you’ve ever read a fantasy megaseries in your life, you owe it to yourself to read these. They are a highlight of an extraordinary year of reading. Go get started; it’ll take you a while.

#REVIEW: Salt and Sanctuary (PS4)

Part of me feels like reviewing this game is pointless, because it came out way the hell back in 2016, but I never pay attention to the year books came out before I write about them, so to hell with it: I first downloaded Salt and Sanctuary for my PS4 a couple of months ago, played it for a couple of hours, and for whatever reason it felt unreasonably hard and didn’t click. I jumped back into it for no good reason a week and a half or so ago, and it immediately proceeded to eat about 20 hours of my life between then and beating it on Sunday. So I’ve been playing quite a bit of it later, and watching videos about it when I wasn’t playing it. I don’t know why it didn’t hit at first, but maybe running a mage build made all the difference.

Anyway: S&S is a 2D Soulslike combined with a Metroidvania, which is an utterly impenetrable sentence if you don’t speak fluent Gamer Nerd, so let me unpack it for you: difficult combat, tons of different ways to build your character that will lead to you fighting with anything from magic and giant hammers to whips and guns and scissor-swords, difficult boss encounters, penalties at death, collecting materials (in this case, salt) from defeating enemies that you can use to level up and are lost if you die unless you defeat the beast that killed you, and an absolutely enormous map (that’s only maybe 2/3 of it, if that; I don’t think there’s a complete map on the internet anywhere yet, which is unreal) with tons of shortcuts and secrets and replayability and lots of backtracking. Combine all that with a seriously cool, unique art style and we have something I’m going to be very into:

It’s an interesting combination of cartoony with gory; killing enemies results in a surprisingly satisfying explosion of blood and body bits, and the overall aesthetic is just Lovecraftian enough that it never got old, although in general I found it a bit too dark a lot of the time– you will be lighting a lot of torches in this game, and there’s a particular enemy that lives in completely dark areas and keeps a light on its forehead like some sort of bipedal angler fish, and the way my build worked out I often had to choose between being able to see and being able to attack it, because you can’t hold a torch and a two-handed weapon at once, and all of my weapons were two-handed. Which got complicated.

Another thing the game does well is the addition of what it calls Creeds, which are basically your character’s religion; there are about seven of them, three or four of which are available at the start of the game. When you find a safe area in the game (a “sanctuary”, where you can level up and there aren’t any enemies) sometimes they are already dedicated to a creed and sometimes you can choose what creed to dedicate them to; you collect items throughout the game that can let you add things like blacksmiths and vendors and fast-travel points to sanctuaries, but you can only add them to sanctuaries that belong to your creed. Sanctuaries can be converted between creeds, too (and you can change yours,) but that can lead to violence if done too many times to the same creed. Connecting vendors to a collectible item leads to a bit of strategic thinking about where to place them, but if you find all of the guides you can put a guide at nearly every sanctuary, so it’s not as big of a deal: more important is that the vendors and such also add bonuses to areas, so you get a salt bonus if you add a Stone Leader at a sanctuary, for example.

I just finished my first run, and it’s distinctly possible that I’m about to dive right in with a second, although I’ve got my eyes on a couple of other games too. But any game I play through twice before heading off to something else is pretty special. If you’ve found that your tastes in games line up with mine in the past, check this out.