Tuesday, December 10, 2013

OPINION: 'Hate' Language in Entertainment

Tonight I watched Drew Barrymore's directoral debut, Whip It, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was a well-made, thoughtful and entertaining film, with some excellent acting and messages. But it did kinda use two deaf characters (and actors? I'd have to look that up) as comedic relief without them ever really having a part otherwise. And then we get to the hate language. For a film about a girl who rebels, descends (further) into alternative culture, loses her virginity, and so on, it avoided everything you'd expect. And yet it just has to slip in a transphobic comment. The main character's best-friend uses a transphobic slur in reference to roller derby players, and it's never called out or even really implied to be wrong. But I still watched the rest of the film, despite it managing to heavily undermine its own message - plus another blogger explained it much better than I could.

It lead me to recall other times I stopped watching things due to its use of hate language, or at least its use of language to spread hate and/or ignorance. Another example of an entertainment show doing this is Harry Hill's TV Burp. TV Burp is a family show which satirises and mocks other TV shows, with commentaries and jokes about the shows that have been on recently - soaps feature quite frequently due to their fluid storylines and often less-than-stellar acting. On a repeat of an episode, Harry Hill showed a clip of Coronation Street and its transgender character, who has been in the show as long as I can remember (heck, I actually caught the episode where she explained herself to another character), and I believe the context was something about this character and wanting or not having children (I wasn't paying too much attention, but I did see this coming a mile off), and Harry Hill's comment was something along the lines of "the problem here is... well, put it this way. Two postmen and no letterbox". Yeah. Subtle, Harry. Real subtle. Around the same time, I was watching Ice Age 3 and Simon Pegg's character tells the main cast how he essentially performed Gender Reassignment Surgery on a T-Rex (quoting from memory here, but something like "I turned a T-Rex into a T-Rachel").

I've also dropped radio shows and even refuse to watch certain comedians/actors because of comments they've made unscripted - I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue had a very, very lazy trans joke relating to Thailand (with all credit going to Tim Brooke-Taylor), and there's the well-known and overly-frequent trans jokes coming from Jimmy Carr on shows he's on (he's done it numerous times on QI now, I believe), and I'm just getting a bit fed up.

I don't believe entertainment shows should really get a pass on hateful language or behaviour, and that is slowly changing. I tried to rationalise the comment in Whip It - the Harry Hill one was flat-out unacceptable - and I realised I couldn't. And this is where I think my opinion is. In entertainment shows, the vast majority of the time the words are scripted. That means someone has written them, they have been read a multitude of times, corrected, altered, changed, and so on. The decision to keep them - or to add them - is entirely conscious on someone's part. It might be the author of the screenplay, or the director, or maybe the actor/reader didn't object to them. So when a character shouts a slur in anger in a film, in almost every instance - if not every instance - it will have been scripted, rehearsed, shot numerous times and so forth. What that means is that if a film or a scripted show uses a slur, then it must clearly mean something by it. Maybe it "just" means it's written by ignorant people, but when it happens in a film that can quite easily be considered feminist and progressive? It's not just ignorance. It's... hateful. It shuts the door on people, it makes them feel worthless.

To go back to the initial example, Whip It made me feel welcome, worth something and even lifted my spirits to start with. And then it turns out it doesn't even respect me. How can a film with such a great message be so hateful? And this is one case that applies to me. Think of all the films with homophobic, sexist, racist and other hateful content. The films that promise warmth and change, or even just fun, and then shut the door in your face, breaking your nose in the process.

Funny thing is, this is why I decided to boycott BioWare. My boycott of Rockstar (at least Rockstar North, anyway) is for the same reason I refuse to have anything to do with Jimmy Carr - it's just distilled hatred.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

2014 Reading Plans

So, here we are, the final day of November. In 14 hours, we'll be in December and on the home-straight to the end of the year (and I've not even had my birthday yet), and it's at this time of year that reviewers and bloggers start to think about the next year and what it may or may not bring. There's a general idea of what books may or may not come out in the coming year, and some like to plan to try to fit those books in. I'm a little different, though.

I think first of all it's good to look at what's coming out next year, and what I'll be getting. I've already got a handful of pre-orders placed for next year's books, and they are:
Baptism of Fire - Andrzej Sapkowski (Gollancz; Feb)
Fortune's Pawn - Rachel Bach (Orbit; Feb) [Note: The US edition is already out, as is UK Kindle. This is the UK MMPB]
Blood and Iron - Jon Sprunk (Pyr; March)
Antiagon Fire - L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (Tor US; March) [Note: This is the MMPB, the HC is already out]
Alabaster: Pale Horse - Caitlín R. Kiernan (Dark Horse; Feb) [Note: Re-release/Update of the earlier Alabaster prose collection]
So as you can tell, I've got my first few books of next year down. I'm also expecting we'll see another Drakenfeld novel from Mark Charan Newton, I know L.E. Modesitt, Jr. has another three or four novels out, there's a new Stephen King out in the first half (or so) of the year, and of course there's a fair number of comics/graphic novels to get. Out of the ones I've mentioned so far, I think Jon Sprunk and Andrzej Sapkowski have me the most excited, but I've heard a lot of good about Fortune's Pawn, so that's certainly something to look forward to.

Aside from 2014's releases, I've got a really big plan that I'm hoping I'll actually go through with, and I'm planning to in the first couple of months of the year. Having watched the three extended editions of Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings adaptations, the extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey and now waiting on the theatrical release of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, and on top of that having played The Lord of the Rings Online a little more and LEGO Lord of the Rings, I've decided it's finally time to re-read the core books of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle-Earth franchise. I'm going to rebuy the books in their illustrated forms, starting with The Hobbit (w/ Alan Lee illustrations), something I bought ahead of time, and then move into The Lord of the Rings, then - if all goes well - The Silmarillion and The Children of Húrin. I won't really go into the rest of the works finished or edited by Christopher Tolkien, because I have to admit that's a lot of material and I'm not sure I'd particularly be able to enjoy it.

I'm also hoping that I'll be able to get The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain and perhaps even Earthsea under my belt (I already own the vast majority of the core reading material for these series, if not all of it), and considering their styles and pre-young-adult positions, they should be fairly quick and enjoyable reads for me.

In terms of more modern releases, I'm going to do my best to press on with L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s Saga of Recluce, especially as I've only read three of the sixteen (soon to be seventeen and eighteen) novels in that series, and towards the end of the year I'm hoping that I'll be able to read the second sub-series of his Imager Portfolio (starting with Scholar, ending with Rex Regis). I'll also be continuing with my Stephen King reading, as I have a collection of his books that grows faster than I read them.

Amongst all this, I'll be dipping and diving in and out of series, finishing a few here, starting a few there, reading odd books and so on. I'm certainly hoping I'll get to Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian at least.

And there we have it. My vague reading plans for 2014.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

OPINION: Another Review Controversy

Another day, another controversy. Sigh.  It seems like we can't go five minutes without one sometimes, and it's getting a little tiresome, but it's the cost of progress and a side-effect of a system that's ever-changing whilst ever-expanding. Anyway. Today a controversy appeared in the form of L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (a favourite author of mine, I must confess) replying to a negative review of one of his books, the 2002 science-fiction novel Archform: Beauty. I think it's worth looking at both the review and Modesitt's replies, because I think this is one of those cases where no-one looks particularly good. Firstly, I'll look at the review and then, with that context done, we can move on to the comments that caused the controversy.

The review, posted on Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature, is a fairly negative one. Opening with the score of 2 out of 5, it's clear the reviewer didn't really like it. They're also, shall we say,
dismissive of the author? I'll quote the opening paragraph:
"I had never heard of L.E. Modesitt, Jr. before seeing this beautiful little paperback on the shelf of my favorite second-hand bookstore. Sounded good so I picked it up—one of those blind faith purchases. Surprisingly, he’s been writing since 1982 and has more than forty novels, thirty short stories, and a collection published. At this point in the introduction, I would usually note, “This author is most famous for his…” or “Most notably, this author has written…”, but in this case, all that fails me."
Modesitt is a NYT Best-Selling Author, but he doesn't hold a huge profile in the community, a not-uncommon position to be in. That said, he's incredibly prolific and his Imager Portfolio books once again attracted buzz about his work. What the reviewer is doing here, however, is admitting they've never heard of him or his work, and can't be bothered looking up his most famous works (note: it's basically his Recluce Saga series, which gets its 17th and 18th, if my maths is correct, entries in 2014). The first half of the review comprises of the blurb and essentially an overview of what it's about and some of the details, so we can skip that.

The review proper opens with a quote from the book, and... yes, it's definitely a Modesitt quote. The reviewer makes fair criticisms about the characters, but then makes a point I find highly amusing. That point is "There’s nothing intricate or enlightening from the words uttered other than the occasional glimpse of opinion which Modesitt decided to slide into the novel as a substitute for a soapbox.", and I find this amusing because this is essentially what Modesitt does. Modesitt does not write light-hearted, happy-go-lucky, singing-and-dancing fiction. His books almost always contain discussions about human nature, morality, religion, economics, social behaviour and so-on. That's what he's done for three decades now (two as of Archform: Beauty), so any Modesitt reader would know what to expect. It's essentially like criticising Stephen King for using slurs in his work. The third paragraph is essentially the same, and can probably be discounted.

The penultimate paragraph uses hindsight to criticise the science in the book, using an example of some technology that released *after* the novel as a reason as for why Modesitt's approach to technology is wrong. Well, that doesn't make any sense. Science-fiction authors are often ahead of, or wildly behind, the curve of scientific and technological progress. Remember Arthur C. Clarke talking about moon bases? Yeah, never happened, did it? What matters with technology and science in sci-fi novels is that it makes sense in that  specific context, and that the author makes you believe that it makes sense. This is contrasted by the final paragraph, which praises the foresight in other regards - see? Like I said, authors are either behind or ahead.

The closing line is about as constructive as a block of TNT, in which the reviewer says they won't try his (better) works. Well, brilliant. It's a review that doesn't really go into what was good or bad about the book, but essentially just slates it (bar that one moment of praise) and the reviewer states they probably won't try anything else. You can see why this review might be a little problematic. It's not really constructive, and the reviewer seems to revel in their ignorance and apathy about Modesitt's work. And then this happens...

Oops. Oh, Mr Modesitt, did you have to? Commenting is bad enough, but that's a really bad foot to start on. It's a complete and utter breach of blogging etiquette. Yes, the book got great reviews, and it's actually probably quite good (I've got it, but not read it), but that doesn't really have much relevance. We then descend into a discussion in the comments about opinions and accuracy. And, to be fair, Modesitt does not actually say anything that is untrue. Just because you have a viewpoint, it doesn't mean you're right (nor wrong), for example. This goes on for a short while until we have perhaps Modesitt's third failing (after the first comment and then continuing to comment), which is when he states he writes books for people who think.

Yeah. Now, this has me conflicted. Firstly, it looks very arrogant and is quite confrontational, and I'll agree it was a misstep. But, you know? As someone who's read maybe ten or so of Modesitt's novels, it's *true*. Modesitt does not write fiction that is 'light'. He does not write fiction that is necessarily easy or unchallenging. His books challenge the way you think, they go into the ins-and-outs of morality, about how balances must be maintained, about how evil people can do good things and good people can do evil things, and many other things. Anyone who reads Modesitt with even a hint of regularity can tell you that. If you don't like that in books, chances are you would not like Modesitt. This blog post is a perfect example of what Modesitt is like, or of course we can have a quote from the book in question. Criticising Modesitt for writing what he does, and has always written, strikes me as very odd.

I think it's a case of both parties looking bad here. The review was pretty poor as reviews go, mostly because it feels like it doesn't really go into anything except "this book had things I didn't like or expect therefore it's poorer for it". It criticised Modesitt for the very things he's loved by his readers for. The reviewer came off as disinterested and even dismissive of the author's bibliography, and it's clear from the opening that they couldn't even really be bothered to research his work. Modesitt is in the wrong for breaking etiquette and for responding in a rather bizarre (and arrogant-sounding) way. So I don't think either gets away cleanly.

But to be honest? I think the reviewer comes across worst, especially with this little addition later on:

Tip for you here, Ian Sales: A good author can write a bad book. A bad book does not a bad author make, right? Calling an author "shit" because you don't like what they've done is not an opinion, it's an attack. It is the book that is bad, not the author. And just because you don't like a book, doesn't make it "shit", okay?

So yeah, that's what I'm thinking. I think both parties involved have really not done anything to stop this happening, and whilst I don't think the reviewer necessarily instigated it, they've certainly not helped their own case by arguing back and then by posting (and arguably endorsing) a 'verbal' attack on the author. Modesitt shouldn't have commented, especially in the way he did, and for most people I think that's the core of the matter. But no, I do not believe either party is innocent, here.

Friday, November 15, 2013

REVIEW - Raising Steam by Sir Terry Pratchett

Ah, 40 Discworld novels. 35 for adults, 5 for younger readers, and over a dozen tie-in and supplementary books. It's hard not to see Discworld as being one of the core pillars of contemporary British fantasy, and indeed it's been published for 30 years now - longer than I've been around. It's definitely a big thing, and rightly so, yet with a series so long, it's only natural that some books would be weaker than others.

Raising Steam is the third Most von Lipwig novel, and takes its place as more a sequel to the City Watch novels (particularly Thud! and Snuff) as opposed to following on from Going Postal and Making Money. Moist's life is, again, becoming too safe. His marriage to Adora Belle Dearheart is pleasant, and both the Post Office and the Bank (and the Mint, by extension) are doing well, leaving Moist devoid of danger and instead a stack of paperwork. That is until a plucky young man finishes his father's work and brings the steam locomotive to Ankh-Morpork, instantly changing the future and the prospects of the world. And that brings me on to my thoughts, and I'm totally not going to start this off with an animated image that's meant to represent what I thought of it...

Oh, yes, actually I am.

Oh, boy, where to start with this novel. I'll confess I've never been particularly keen on Moist, but I found myself okay with him in this novel, yet I wonder if that's more because he didn't really seem the same. Indeed, that's a statement that can be applied to many characters in this book. It's happened before in previous books where characters seem a little different, but never before have I read a Discworld book where the main characters seem so changed. Adora Belle was almost unrecognisable, with her manner of speaking changing out of nowhere. Other well-established characters make appearances, and again, they don't feel quite like they did in earlier books. Whilst Moist was arguably improved, with other characters I just felt like I was reading about... well, other characters.

In terms of the plot, it wasn't particularly deep nor interesting. It felt like a rehash of plots we'd seen before, with additional time-jumps and an extended and extremely anti-climactic finale. The book seems to take place over the course of roughly a year (which is much too short for the events in it, of course), yet this time scale is barely communicated at all. There's also a few plot diversions that seem to be vaguely explained at the time but as the book goes on, you wonder if there was actually a point to them. At times it seemed like it was going to expand on certain things, but then forgot to. Characters seem to jump about the place, appearing where you thought they couldn't and out of the blue, and I was left wondering what was happening on more than one occasion.

I tend to find that the Discworld books are relatively inoffensive, yet Raising Steam came close to Raising Vexation in me a few times. The language used was occasionally problematic, but the way some characters were described made me a little uncomfortable. To start with, there's a word that creeps in twice, a pejorative term with links to travelling ethnic groups, and both times its use is completely avoidable, and for emphasis I've underlined it.
"And Harry was a good employer, but also not today, because today his stomach was giving him gyp by means of the halibut to which the phrase long time no see could not happily be applied" (p.27)

" 'I surely do, Mister Lipwig! I believe in the sliding rule, the cosine and the tangent and even when the quaderatics give me gyp, yes, I still believe' "(p.339)
Some would argue the pejorative meaning of 'gyp', if you replace it with 'trouble' then you have the same effect without using a potentially loaded term. I found it unusual to find in a Discworld novel, let alone twice. The issue with language doesn't end there, with such words as 'sissy' finding their way in.
"...but it must also not be so gentle as to imply that either the giver or the receiver is a sissy." (p.359)
This particular word seems entirely out of place and indeed against the flow of various aspects of the novel, although it must perhaps be noted that sexuality is never really something that seems to be touched upon in Discworld (unless it's the male gaze).

Oh, yeah. Strangely for a Discworld novel, we're almost entirely free of references to bosoms (there's one possible joke and a breastplate reference), yet we're told something from Moist's viewpoint and it is, as far as I could tell, the only single comment of its kind, and it caused me to set my teeth a little.
"... and Captain Angua, try as she might, looked stunning in her uniform, especially when she was angry" (p.179)
Of course, you might accuse me of being over-sensitive, but add into this moments where a member of the City Watch refers to dwarfs as "lawn ornaments" (p.284) and it feels as if the book is just riddled with unnecessary comments and even potentially xenophobic and racist implications. That's not to say the book is in itself racist or any of these things, but there are a lot of parallels that could be made, and when one considers the progression of Discworld (increasing equality for the races, the recent inclusion of goblins, female dwarfs, etc.), it seems like such comments and outbursts go against a lot of what Discworld is actually good at doing. 

Is it all bad? No, not at all. But it certainly doesn't stand out as one of the strongest Discworld books, with its sudden change in tone for numerous characters and its weak plot, not to mention its somewhat dull closing scene which leaves the impression we're in for yet another novel of this style. Whilst I laughed a few times, I had to push myself for too much of this book, and I can't say I particularly enjoyed most of it. Some of the details were brilliant, but for the most part, I didn't find this that entertaining. The few moments of Pratchett's trademark wit and wisdom were buried in a relatively mediocre story, and conflicted with his own use of certain words.

I'm sure some people will love Raising Steam. I'm sure some people will call me a heretic or something less pleasant for this review. Fine. I'll admit I'm not exactly one to love every Discworld novel, and I can dwell on the negatives more often than the positives. Hardcore Discworld fans might not appreciate the reiteration of facts, new or less-experienced Discworld readers will perhaps be left confused as this book relies somewhat heavily on the stories of Thud! and Snuff, and everyone in between will probably be okay with it. But this is not the strongest outing in Discworld - maybe not the worst, either - and I struggle to find anything overwhelmingly positive about it. Do I recommend it? If you're a Discworld fan, yes. If not? No, I can't. There's so many better Discworld books, in terms of quality and reader friendliness. Raising Steam is, if nothing else, a disappointing read, although I shall certainly not abandon the Discworld franchise.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition

(Note: For this review I have watched the film only once (I never saw the standard cut), and have not viewed any extras or commentaries. There WILL be spoilers ahead, but I will try to keep them vague.)

The Hobbit is, without a doubt, one of the most famous, popular, influential and loved fantasy novels of all time. Almost every reader of modern fantasy has read it, and many love it, and rightfully so. Whilst it isn't problem-free when held up to modern sensibilities, it still remains a cherished book that graces many people's shelves. Coming almost a decade after Peter Jackson's (mostly) excellent The Lord of the Rings adaptation, The Hobbit seems a strange move. Shouldn't it have been done first?, many asked. Why two - and then three - movies, considering it's so short? How can a 2-300 page book aimed at younger readers end up as almost twelve hours of film, the same length of time as Tolkien's longer, deeper, more adult work? Well, apparently it's quite easily done.

Released in cinemas in late-2012, with the extended edition (~13mins of new/extended footage) hitting early-November 2013, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition is a near-three hour journey through Middle-Earth. Unlike The Lord of the Rings, however, it takes a more jovial tone and isn't afraid to literally sing and dance its way through the story. Within ten minutes of the film, you're swept up into an epic story reaching across years of Middle-Earth's history, amazing set pieces and vistas with the view panning across them, revelling in little details. Whatever you may think of the film, the world design is nothing short of spectacular.

I do have problems with this film, though. Heck, I wouldn't be me if I didn't. The Lord of the Rings was prone to waffle and dull scenes with actors standing around looking dazed (I'm sorry, Liv Tyler. I loved you as Arwen but dear gods she was dull), and at times it seemed like it was cutting corners to get to the next big set piece. The Hobbit doesn't quite do that, because many of the scenes are 'the next big set piece'. And many are gloriously done, and a joy to watch - so much so that I found myself wishing I had a HD screen and a Blu-Ray player to better enjoy the stunning vistas.

The special effects are still too wooden and fake at times. It's hard to describe but many times it was clear that you were watching some CGI because movements weren't quite right, or it defied any real sense. I'm put in mind, in particular, of an action scene towards the end of the movie in the Goblin King's lair, where the dwarves and Gandalf escaped in an... unconventional way, and that part of the scene looked wrong. Sticking with the visuals theme, I'm still not entirely sure I'm okay with the design of the dwarves, nor even some of the acting, but they didn't break the film for me. I thought, over all, Dwalin, Balin and Thorin were the better dwarves, Glóin and Óin being two others I like in theory, but seemingly not having huge roles. The others I could largely do without, mostly because they either have a look that doesn't quite fit or they just feel wrong.

The Dwarves: Click to Enlarge
The tone of the film also seemed to be at odds with itself, especially when compared to the earlier The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whereas the earlier films were mostly sober and serious, The Hobbit seems to try to blend that with exaggeration and humour, and it doesn't particularly work. The dwarves mostly look utterly ridiculous, some barely even wearing beards, others with over-the-top hairstyles. It feels, at times, like an over-ambitious parody than genuine design, and it's a shame. They don't feel like they quite fit in the film for the most part. This is then added to with the Goblin King's... well, it can only be described as a Disney moment (and it was so incredibly out of place), and the scene with the three trolls, and I just wasn't sure what they were trying to do with the film. At times it threatened to be a self-aware parody which tapped on the thin glass of the fourth wall, and at times came exceptionally close to breaking it, and not in a good way.

I think there's some good things to take from this film, though. We have expansion of some roles, some bits of history and behind-the-scenes moments that were added to great effect, deepening the story and addressing issues that existed beforehand. It was also quite good to see a certain fan-favourite cameo return, and in a blink-or-you'll-miss-it moment there's even some female dwarves.The attention to detail is generally excellent, and it creates a believable, beautiful world.

Returning to compose is Howard Shore, once again doing an excellent job. Some motifs from The Lord of the Rings (particularly The Shire pieces) resurface, and this time the dominate theme is the melody to The Misty Mountains, the song sung by the dwarves (which took the internet by storm when it was released ahead of the film). It's an epic soundtrack that compliments the film perfectly, and one I'll certainly enjoy listening to.

To conclude, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - Extended Edition is a conflicted and confusing film, unsure whether it wants to build on the sober trilogy it precedes, or whether it wants to be a brighter, funnier, happier story. These two threads intertwine and conflict, resulting in a film that feels inconsistent and unsure. Yet for its issues, it is an enjoyable film, although likely won't be as popular and defining as Jackson's earlier Lord of the Rings trilogy. Whilst the split to three films may concern some people, based on the first movie alone I feel it is a wise choice, and one that should pay dividends. I'm definitely looking forward to next month's The Desolation of Smaug, and next year's There And Back Again.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

THOUGHTS: Female Design in Star Wars: The Clone Wars (TV)

Like many geeks of the past forty or so years, I consider myself interested in the Star Wars universe, if not quite reaching the levels of 'fan' that others do. I don't own any Star Wars novels, posters or collectables (beyond my Ahsoka figure and a LEGO set), I don't buy Insider, I've got a small collection of the comics and games, and I have all six main films (and the two LEGO spin-offs) on DVD. And as a fan of animation, it's only natural that I have Star Wars: The Clone Wars on DVD - I bought the Season 1-4 boxset earlier this year after watching the movie. And, to be honest, I don't think it does anything new. Whilst I have enjoyed various episodes (I'm currently in the second half of Season 2), it's felt flawed from the start though it hasn't quite reached the lows of the prequel trilogy. Yet. But I have one big problem. And I have to ask 'Why?'. And post a gif that contains my reaction to each occurrence of it.

The problem is not entirely within the contradictory messages, the hypocrisy of the Jedi order and the handwaving of major details, nor the restrictive niche into which the series fills, it's how it portrays women - in more specific terms, my problem is with the visual design of the female characters. Of course, it must be pointed out that Star Wars has never exactly been excellent when it comes to women, but The Clone Wars arguably reaches a low point for the franchise. The main 'good' female cast is Padmé Amidala and Ahsoka Tano, Anakin's lover and padawan respectively, and occasionally characters such as Aayla Secura, Luminara Unduli and Barriss Offee appear in either supporting or (co-)lead roles. On the 'bad' side, we have Asajj Ventress and Aurra Sing, with other less well-known characters again appearing in supporting or short roles. The female cast is rather vastly outnumbered by the male cast, even when you count most of the Clone Troopers as a singular entity (due to their shared history and voice actor).

And yet, again, this is not uncommon for Star Wars, and whilst problematic, isn't really part of the issue. Almost (if not) every female character is wearing tight clothing. I mean really tight. There's also a focus on breasts, too, and that becomes quite unsettling when you realise there's droids with breasts walking around and a 13 year old girl wearing a top that puts the focus entirely on her chest. There's also not much variety with respect to how women look. Even with the more... eccentric-looking alien species, they've almost got 'attractive' characteristics, whether it's their face, a large bust, wide hips & a big butt, etc., these attributes are present in the vast majority of the female characters.

A lot of this comes down to the clothing that the characters are dressed in. It's tight, it's revealing, it's largely a bit daft. Let me make a simple comparison. This is a shot of a number of the main characters. Which characters have bare skin?
Indeed, it's the two female characters. Ahsoka has an almost completely bare torso (bar her bandeau top), and Asajj has a hefty amount of her décolletage on display. All other characters are covered. Still think I'm barking? How about Aayla Secura? She's got a LOT on display there. Ahsoka's redesign covered her front up a lot more, but it added a cleavage window that Daenerys would be proud of, not to mention leaving her back almost bare.

This is a shot I took during an episode where Barriss and Luminara are present, and it gives - in a single shot - a rough idea of what I meant by tight clothing.
Both Luminara and Barriss appear to have been vacuum-sealed into their tops. Despite their clothes being covering, they leave utterly nothing to the imagination. And yet, Anakin's top doesn't conform to his chest, instead fitting comfortably. And it's everywhere in the show.

It isn't even limited to the show, it moved into the supporting material such as the comics, comics being a medium well known (ha) for excellent and tasteful portrayals of women, and even the children's magazines. At times we see how badass characters like Ahsoka can look, but on the whole it's painted over with designs that don't apply equally to all characters, and instead it seems like the males get the respectful designs and the females get the scraps left over from making the male costumes, or at least clothes that are a size too small.

It's a shame, because this is genuinely affecting my enjoyment of the show. I find myself distracted by these issues frequently in almost every episode, and that annoys me somewhat.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

First Episode Thoughts: Atlantis (2013)

Broadcasting earlier today on BBC One was Atlantis, a new fantasy TV show to fill the gap left by the now-finished Merlin (with which it shares two producers), and it stars Jack Donnelly as Jason with Mark Addy, Robert Emms and Aiysha Hart, amongst others. There didn't seem to be a huge build up to it, with the first episode broadcasting around 8 months after being announced, and it's only in recent weeks that it seems like it's been marketed - the first promotional shots of the main cast were published just three weeks ago! Hence, I wasn't expecting it for a while yet and hadn't managed to get too excited. There's only one way to sum up how I felt about Atlantis, and like all good tumblr and Twitter users, I know that's with a gif. So I hereby present the gif that best summarises how I felt.


It's essentially a show for an older family - younger children might be a bit scared by it, as suggested by its 8:25pm broadcast slot - and in it Jason discovers Atlantis whilst searching for the wreck of his father's ship. Misadventures ensue, and finally Jason climbs into the house of triangle-obsessed Pythagoras (Emms). Here we also meet the third member of the party, Hercules (Addy), and the show is ready to move on to its first Atlantis-based storyline. It is time for seven Atlanteans to be picked to be sent to try to kill the minotaur (read: sacrificed), an event that will bind Jason, Pythagoras and Hercules together...

At its most adventurous, Atlantis is a very predictable show. It also seems to be stuck somewhere between comedy and serious drama, much in the same way as the recent runs of Doctor Who. It can't decide which it wants to be, and as such its jokes aren't particularly funny nor does it ever manage to be particularly serious. When the show tries to trip you up by throwing a curve ball, it's really easy to see where those balls will go, and not one aspect of the episode genuinely surprised me. I was also put off somewhat by Mark Addy's rather weak performance as Hercules (a target of ever-so-clever fat jokes a few times), which made me think less of a (slightly washed up) hero of legend and more of his role as Andy the Butcher in the sitcom Trollied, a role that was repetitive and tiresome. Indeed, I'd go as far as to say that his Hercules is fundamentally a carbon copy of his Andy.

The script was reasonably good, but it suffered heavily from the aforementioned predictability. Some as-yet-to-be-discussed plot points weren't so much implied as made blindingly obvious, and it made sure it repeated key points (for example, Jason's destiny) enough times that you couldn't miss them, not that they actually needed pointing out in the first place. And, as author Adrian Tchaikovsky pointed out (as did some of his followers), the show actually managed to make some fundamental mistakes with respect to some of its aspects. I also felt it needed to be slowed down somewhat, as it wasted little time getting us to Atlantis - there was no build up, no real context, just... BAM! We're going to Atlantis, strap in!

I don't think Atlantis was bad, it just wasn't hitting the right notes. Whilst the visuals were lovely and the soundtrack had me interested, the plotting was weak and the show closing on a repetition of an earlier fat joke really summed the whole experience up. It's unoriginal and it's repetitious, at least for the first episode. I am definitely on board for more, but it really needs to up the ante and soon, because a few more weak episodes and it won't even come close to the popularity of Merlin. It played it much too safe, causing it not to arrive with a bang, but instead it closed the door quietly and excused itself.

Friday, September 27, 2013

QUICK REVIEW: Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

It seems like fairy tales are once again in vogue. We've had, over the past couple of years, Jack the Giant Slayer, Snow White & The Huntsman and various others... along with Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters, which released in 2013. Starring Jeremy Renner (possibly best known as Hawkeye from the 'Phased' Marvel movies) and Gemma Arterton (of St. Trinian's fame), it's a shamlessly gory take on the tale by the Brothers Grimm. The cast also includes Ingrid Bolsø Berdal (best known to English-speaking audiences as Angua in the Sky adaptation of Sir Terry Pratchett's Going Postal) and Robin Atkin Downes (a prolific voice actor), amongst other lesser-known American and European actors.

Essentially, the story is that Hansel and Gretel made a career out of hunting witches since that night, and now adults, they're famed across the country for their ability and many successes. The plot isn't exactly strong, and the characterisation can leave a little to be desired, yet it still manages to be quite entertaining. I felt Renner and Arterton did rather well as the heroes, and I bought into them as much as is possible. The supporting cast also performed rather well, with the potential exception of Famke Janssen as the 'big bad', with her character and performance reminding me a little too much of Coraline's Other Mother.

The film seems to have a strange reverence for ultra-violence, and for attempting to create shocking scenes. We see a few suicides, matricide, hangings and so forth (including what may have lead to rape), yet not once does it even come close to actually being shocking, which undermines the dark atmosphere the film tries to create with numerous night or poorly-lit scenes, as well as the darker colours of the costumes. Another aspect it tries to add in is Hansel living with diabetes (referred to as 'the sugar sickness'), which seems to be forgotten at points in the film, treated almost flippantly in others, and leads to an extremely obvious plot moment.

I'm a little conflicted over the film's attitude towards women, too. Assuming it's set in Germany as it implies, it seems odd that Gretel would be wearing trousers, let alone such incredibly tight leather ones (the film thankfully spares us unnecessary, gratuitous shots of her backside) and even though she spends most of the film with some décolletage on display, barring one scene it's never picked up upon in a sexual manner. Yet whilst I felt this was mostly positive, the main witches generally were covered from neck down to toe (possibly to save time in make-up, the visible make up being rather well done) and it provided an interesting contrast, I wasn't sure why Gretel would be wearing such restrictive clothing for such a combat-heavy career (nor why her legs are clearly so cleanly shaven). There's also a LOT of violence against women, perpetuated by both men and other women, but this may be skewed by the unusually high proportion of female characters and its focus on witches as the enemy.

To conclude, I felt Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters was a fun, but flawed, film. It was a little too violent without any real reason to be, and it didn't seem able to decide whether it was serious or comedic. Yet if you can get past the extreme violence, there is an entertaining film here, and one I wouldn't say no to a sequel of.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

OPINION: Why the 'Dredd Day of Action' is Pointless

Roughly a year ago, Dredd hit cinemas in the UK to, well, quite a high level of success. It was the first 18-rated film to hit the #1 spot in a short while, and feedback was pretty good. Three to four months later, we hit the DVD/Blu-Ray release and it's almost impossible to find a copy in a supermarket by the end of the day, causing it to essentially sell-out. Yet with its relative flop in the US, the film never hit the target it had to greenlight a sequel.

Today, Rebellion launch their 'Dredd Day of Action' campaign launches, encouraging Dredd fans (and 2000AD readers) to stump up some cash on the comics, the film (not the '95 Stallone film which the current owners have denounced - despite the fact it's a more faithful, fun and enjoyable adaptation) and even special merchandise created just for today, in order to send a message that a Dredd sequel is wanted. Oy. No, really, that's basically the point. Buy this t-shirt that applies to a single day to tell someone you want a sequel! This comes off the back of a petition that circled social media which attempted to garner whether people were interested in a sequel.

Criticisms of the film aside, I just don't have faith that a Dredd sequel would be a good idea. The way the first film was handled essentially knee-capped it before it even hit cinemas, and that's arguably why it failed.

Firstly, an 18 rating heavily limits the interested group, especially in a country where comics are perceived to be for younger people (said people have obviously never picked up an issue of 2000AD), but it also cuts out a group of 2000AD's readership. And, really, the film could have been toned down to a 15 with very minor changes, and that would have definitely paid off in terms of opening it up to more viewers.

Secondly, the film released almost exclusively in 3D. 2D showings were in roughly 20 cinemas and on a highly restricted basis, I think it worked out about two or three showings a week compared to the four or five (at least) showings a day for the 3D version. 3D still isn't particularly accepted as a sole option, and by limiting it to just 3D for the majority of the country, it again closed itself to a number of viewers.

Thirdly, and finally, the stocks of home release copies were too low. Selling out may sound good, but in fact it's not a particularly good thing, because it puts a cap on the amount of money you can make that first day (if not week), and you need copies on display in order to shift them and raise awareness. No copies? No sales. No sales? No profit. No profit? Less chance of a sequel.

These three factors *in the UK alone* damaged the potential Dredd had to succeed, and that's visible in the fact it didn't hit the target for Dredd 2. If we had assurances that these three problems would be dealt with for the sequel, I think there would be a definite chance that it would succeed, and the benefits to the British film and comics industry would be huge.

But as it stands? No. Not at all. I don't think Dredd was a particularly good film, I don't think the casting was even close to strong (bar Lena Headey as Ma-Ma, but she essentially phoned it in anyway), the design was weak and really it just didn't work as a Judge Dredd film. But those are my opinions, and I seem to be in the minority in that, but they don't change the fact that Dredd's release was mishandled numerous times in numerous ways.

And that's why I think the campaign for a sequel is pointless. It doesn't address the issues at all.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Indie Time: Crypt of the NecroDancer

In another proposed feature that will no doubt be forgotten or unofficially stopped after this post, I've decided to try to post a little bit more about indie video games, a constantly-growing and evolving subset of the gaming field, and one I have a fair amount of interest in.

First up is a title I've pre-ordered called Crypt of the NecroDancer, the debut title from Brace Yourself Games. It is a roguelike, but unlike similar titles its key draw is that it is rhythm-based, so much so that the game can be played with a DDR mat. Using your own music or the game's included Danny Baranowsky soundtrack (Baranowsky composed the soundtracks for Super Meat Boy, The Binding of Isaac and, most famously, Canabalt), the in-built beat-detection system will shape itself to the music and change the flow of play.

It looks to be fairly fun, too. As someone who's put well over 100hrs into Dungeons of Dredmor, and has been following the alpha (soon to be beta?) of Claustrophobia: The Downward Struggle, another roguelike isn't something I'm particularly excited about as such, but the combination of a female protagonist (Cadence) and rhythm-based gameplay really make this title stand out for me.

With a launch price of $15USD (although a pricier $25 soundtrack edition is available) and no playable alpha/beta as of yet, it's a little pricier than other games of its type, but the feedback has been excellent at conventions and online, and it's really shaping up to be one of the next big indie hits. I'm looking forward to the early access later this year!

Crypt of the NecroDancer currently doesn't have a launch date, but it is available via the official website for $13.49 ($22.49 for the soundtrack edition) via the Humble Store, netting you a Steam key and a DRM-free version.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

REVIEW: Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton

Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton
The Lucan Drakenfeld Novels #1
Published on 10/10/2013 by Tor UK
Uncorrected ARC provided by author
Hardcover and DRM-free ebook formats

I am Lucan Drakenfeld, second son of Calludian, Officer of the Sun Chamber and keeper of the peace. Sometimes people get in the way of that ambition...

Receiving news of his father's death, Drakenfeld is recalled home to the ancient city of Tryum and rapidly embroiled in a mystifying case. The King's sister has been found brutally murdered – her beaten and bloody body discovered in a locked temple. His determination to find the killer quickly makes him a target as the underworld gangs of Tryum focus on this new threat to their power.

Embarking on the biggest and most complex investigation of his career, Drakenfeld soon realises the evidence is leading him towards a motive that could ultimately bring darkness to the whole continent.

The fate of the nations is in his hands.
- Blurb from the ARC

Drakenfeld, the first of Mark Charan Newton's Lucan Drakenfeld novels, takes place in a world heavily inspired by that experienced by the ancient Romans. Unlike many fantasy novels, Drakenfeld is a crime novel with few violent scenes, allowing the story to take a steadier pace that revels in exploring the details and asking questions rather than rushing in a blood-fuelled rage towards the end page, and yet whilst action scenes are rare, the book never feels sluggish or boring. Lucan is rarely standing still, instead moving from place to place in the search of clues and answers, meeting new people and experiencing the flavours of Vispasian life.

In the second strange turn for a fantasy novel, there isn't much of a magic system here. Supernatural aspects flavour the text and the story from time to time, but there are no wizards or druids in long, flowing robes throwing magic bolts at each other, instead Newton has opted to just add a little bit of flavour to spiritual and religious systems shown in his world. These elements serve more to add to the world-building rather than directly influencing the plot, yet their influence on the story and the characters is undeniable. Rather than the forms of magic we traditionally think of, we instead see these gods and spirits work through inspiration and aspiration.

Newton keeps to his fairly distinctive style that I enjoyed in the Legends of the Red Sun series, as well as continuing with his excellent commitment towards a diverse world, yet never is the world particularly 'utopian'. On top of this, Newton's approach towards sexuality is as accepting as his readers will now expect, yet never does it feel like he is trying to make a point, instead using it to shape a world where who you are is more important than what you are, and even when a character's sexuality is questioned, never is it judgemental or exclusionary. Male prostitutes work on streets steeped in the blood of gang warfare, women can unquestionably hold power whilst the underclass struggle to feed themselves – these dynamics that are so simple in hindsight, yet they bring this world to truly life.

I can't think of anything I particularly disliked about this novel. Any issues I had with the story – bar one or two plot points I guessed myself many pages before they happened – are likely due to my inexperience with crime novels rather than anything on Newton's part. His writing is clear and easy to read, his characters likeable and interesting, although I must confess they're a little similar in voice. But not one aspect tarred this read, nor took me out of the book.

More Cadfael than Conan, Drakenfeld is a refreshing change of pace. Newton crafts a vivid, living world that mixes modern thought with ancient aesthetics and tastes, whilst expertly mixing together crime and historical fiction with a hint of fantasy. For those new to Newton's writing, this book is a perfect starting point, and those who are already fans will once again be captivated by his fiction.

Highly recommended!

(Thanks to Mark Charan Newton for supplying the ARC!)

Monday, September 2, 2013

QUICK REVIEW: Star Trek: Into Darkness

What happens when you take the fairly dire Star Trek, remove none of the issues, add a ridiculous plotline with further questionable backing and some British actors? You get a near-complete waste of two hours.

I mean, really? Come on. Let's look at this. Star Trek is meant to depict a fairly utopian (in principle) society, one where racial divides are broken. Fine. So we have a relatively diverse cast, and then it goes and shoots itself in the foot before we even get anywhere. Firstly, Benedict Cumberbatch is cast as Khan. Yeah. You know, that old dude who was played by a Native American actor originally? Yeah. They cast the character with a white guy. Oh and Simon Pegg (English) plays Scottie (Scottish) with a ridiculous accent too. Yippee. On top of that, the dodgy sexual politics of the first film continue. Aside from Uhura and Blonde Lady Who Gets Her Kit Off (Except For Her Conveniently New Looking And Matching Underwear Set), the only other women exist in unnamed roles, in Kirk's bed or dead within minutes (or running around in a panic), and I'm pretty sure that aside from the scenes where they are either naked, in tight clothes or in a jumpsuit (which is also oddly enhancing), they're always wearing skirts. Short skirts. Jeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeez. And Karl Urban's performance is even WORSE than it was in the first film.

Visually the film is quite pretty, albeit overly bright in some places and too dark in others, but it has one flaw that wound me up. A number of scenes are done with what I assume to be a fish-eye lens, and with it in widescreen it distorts the image slightly which can be distracting, especially when you see a character's head *magically get thinner* as the focus changes (this is most noticeable when Dr. McCoy is stood behind Mr Sulu in one scene). The costume design doesn't seem to make too much sense, though, from Uhura's tight clothing on the Klingon planet to the made-especially-for-Cumberbatch black threads. It just looks too well put together, as if planned.

In terms of the plot and the script? Poor. Utterly poor. It doesn't seem to make too much sense (unless you're watching it with your brain switched off), and aside from some good moments, it falls back on familiar 'tropes' too much, especially when it comes to Urban's lines. They're just so ridiculously over-blown and forced that you do nothing but shake your head in frustration. Damn it, Karl Urban, I'm trying to enjoy this film, not pick it apart. Or something. There was one line in particular that stood out to me as a prime example (ha) of how utterly awful the script was. The other big bad guy said a line which contained "our way of life will be decimated", which makes utterly no sense with the correct meaning of decimated.

I don't know what else to say. Star Trek was passable, but not particularly good, and it has a whole heap of problems, especially for a film created post-2000. But for Into Darkness to not correct those flaws is unforgivable, and for it to whitewash a character (especially around the same time as the white casting of Johnny Depp as Tonto in Disney's The Last Ranger) is doubly so. This film does not make progress, it does not entertain. It takes the sledgehammer wielded by directors like Michael Bay and wreaks havoc with a franchise that can and should be handled with much more respect and tact.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

OPINION: Why I'm Now Boycotting BioWare

Oh, BioWare, we've had hundreds of hours of fun together. I've loved and hated your characters, followed your stories, read some of the supplimentary material, lusted over your merchandise... but I'm sorry, our relationship needs to end.

I'm a little behind on this, but I found out about a certain character in Dragon Age 2 that really put me in a funk for the day. In Dragon Age 2, you can visit a brothel and - at a premium rate - hire a transgender Elf by the name of Serendipity. She also appears in the Mark of the Assassin DLC as a guest (according to Dragon Age Wiki). She's fairly plain looking, but has a very strong jaw and a large nose, and is voiced by a male who is making no effort at all to disguise his deep voice (or he's exaggerating) - and yet she has a 'normal' female elf body in-game.

Don't believe me? Well, this video sums it up:

This, according to BioWare's David Gaider is not a bad representation. Nope. This, by the way, is David Gaider, lead writer of the Dragon Age games and the writer of two or three Dragon Age novels. He is one of BioWare's most well-known employees, and is one of the front line people in terms of speaking out in support of QUILTBAG issues. Well, to be more accurate, 'LGB' issues. Because BioWare have never done the T right. In the first Dragon Age title, Dragon Age: Origins, you again have the ability to visit a brothel and hire services. One service you can hire is a "Female" Dwarf (yes, with the quote marks), again another offensive reference.

These characters are problematic for various reasons, not least because BioWare are seen as being one of the most QUILTBAG-friendly major games developers, with games that cater to same- and opposite-sex attractions, including holding the distinction of creating one of the very few gay characters in the Star Wars universe (Juhani, who appears in Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic). So for one of the most friendly, accepting major companies with a huge QUILTBAG following to create *two* offensive trans characters? It's just not on. It's even worse when the lead-writer and one of the most vocal supporters *minimises* the offense transpeople take over it.

Both trans characters that BioWare have created have also been sex workers. Irrespective of your opinion on sex work and its ethics, it's a fact that a number of transwomen are forced into sex work in order to earn money to live on, as well as to fund the hormone treatments and expensive surgeries they may desire. They also gave one a masculine deep voice with masculine features and referred to the other as "female", both of which minimise and reduce the potential to 'confuse' them as being female, because we all know transwomen aren't women... right? Oh, wait, *they are*, and BioWare have gone out of their way to make sure we know that these two characters aren't to be considered female. That is offensive because, again, many transwomen struggle with successfully living as their chosen gender without being seen as 'masculine' and many struggle with feeling too masculine, in terms of facial structure, build or even both. It's a cheap shot, and one that plays to hurtful stereotypes, ones that are used to physically, mentally and emotionally harm transwomen on a daily basis. It's even *worse* when you realise that, actually, no other elves (male or female) actually have such strong features in the game. It's really only Serendipity who does.

Combining this situation with other things I've found problematic about BioWare - the sexist designs in the Mass Effect franchise, the ridiculous body types in The Old Republic, Mass Effect's unbalanced and unfair same-sex romances  - and I've just been pushed that little bit too far. But, you know, I don't think BioWare are all *that* bad. They have made progress for QUILTBAG representation in gaming, they have bowed to fan pressure and added more same-sex romances into Mass Effect... but this kind of stuff just isn't acceptable. It's too much for me to take with a pinch of salt, and to make the same problematic mistakes TWICE is just not acceptable from a games studio with the QUILTBAG fanbase that they have.

I loved BioWare games. I have spent hundreds of hours in them, probably spent hundreds of pounds on them, and I've got multiple copies of a few of their titles. But this is where it ends, because I cannot support a company that makes such blatantly distasteful characters about a very vulnerable and downtrodden minority, a minority I am part of and one I want to see much better representations of. I think transpeople are very much a minority in games, and we need to see more, but this is not the way to do it. At all.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

QUICK THOUGHTS: David Weber's Upcoming 'Tales of Honor'

This morning when I logged onto Twitter I found a few tweets from sci-fi author David Weber (whose Star Kingdom/Stephanie Harrington books I buy without fail), and one of them announced a new comic series about Honor to debut in 2014.

I believe Evergreen Films are the company in charge of the in-development Honor Harrington movies (another yay), but it's Top Cow that has me jumping for joy whilst being somewhat cautious. Top Cow are a large, but relatively specific, publisher who for the most part are hand-in-hand with Image Comics, who publish titles like The Walking Dead. Top Cow's list of major properties is their Artifacts universe (Witchblade, The Darkness, etc.), CyberForce and a handful of others, whilst in the past they've published Tomb Raider comics, Mark Millar's Wanted, J. Michael Straczynski's Rising Stars and a number of other titles.

So whilst Top Cow are a prominent publisher with good links and the capacity to do Honorverse justice, I have concerns that if they use in-house creators that we will end up with something *very* un-Weber like. Weber is typically a very sober author with a love of detailing, and very little interest in (over)sexualising his characters. Top Cow own and publish Witchblade (and many other over/hyper-sexualised characters). I am concerned that the comics will go against a lot of Weber's style, but of course it's early days yet.

But here's to hoping for an Alex Ross cover!

Saturday, July 27, 2013

OPINION: *That* Emperor of Thorns Review Apology

A couple of days ago, the Twitter-sphere had another minor explosion in the wake of Marc Aplin's review of Mark Lawrence's Emperor of Thorns, in which Aplin called out popular reviewer Liz Bourke over her comments on the earlier Prince of Thorns. There were claims of sexism being thrown around, and essentially it became a large mess. It wasn't aided by Aplin altering his review and then issuing what was essentially an aggressive non-apology.

I think the best place to start is with Aplin's non-apology, as can be found on the Fantasy Faction forums (titled 'Upsetting Liz Bourke') and website. I will quote the full apology (as found on the forum at ~10am on 27/7) and offer my opinions on how it made matters worse.
Dear Miss Bourke,

I apologise if I offended you. However, being an advocate of 'good' fantasy books, it kind of hurt to hear you slander one of the very best.

In addition, I have to say, I found parts of your review quite insulting; and not just your comments towards the author either, but to me as a reader and as a person. For reference, the bit that most offended me - for there was much more - was as follows:

If you like bleak, bloody, and gruesome novels about cold-blooded unprincipled sociopaths who achieve their murderous dreams, then this book will be perfect for you … Me, I need to go scrub out my brain.

To me, that seems an attack on my character - am I weird for enjoying this book? Are the many Fantasy-Faction readers who don't need to scrub their brain weird too? I'm not so sure I like 'cold-blooded unprincipled sociopaths who achieve their murderous dreams' (it is also worth pointing out you have only read the first book and therefore cannot say whether he achieves his dreams or not), but what I like is the fact that I'm setting out on a journey with this character who sheds the shackles of my expectations and who, I can proudly say, I'm excited to follow and see where he ends up.

Many people would say that great literature is the deviation from expectation and  very often, therefore, constraints. If that's true, Mark Lawrence certainly deserves all the attention he has been getting. I'm just sorry you were so offended and couldn't enjoy it to the extent such a large percentage of the community has.

Once again, sorry.

Marc Aplin
The very first paragraph itself is problematic. It basically reads as "I'm sorry if I offended you but you're wrong because I like it". It's not slander to criticise a book, because slander is to tell baseless lies that defame a character or an organisation. On top of that, it is wildly out of place in an apology, because it shifts the blame. It is now not his fault for being offensive, but Bourke's for sharing her opinion in the first place.

Here we go again into "it's your fault 'cos you started it" territory. It's not Aplin's fault for making the comments he did, no! It's Bourke's fault for writing a review two years ago that levels a heavy criticism at Prince of Thorns. It is a bleak, bloody and gruesome novel about a cold-blooded, unprincipled sociopath who achieves his murderous dream. How is this offensive? It is a commonly-accepted fact, by those on both sides of the debate. I will admit I think Bourke's tone is somewhat strong in that quote, but I don't think she is exactly wrong.

Then the next paragraph, which switches the Victim-Aggressor blame back to Aplin. It's *his* character under attack. But this is where he makes two huge mistakes that blow wholes in his apology and truly and undoubtedly reveal how fake his apology is. The first is by saying "I'm not so sure I like 'cold-blooded unprincipled sociopaths who achieve their murderous dreams'" after spending a review (and the first part of the apology) fawning over the series, calling it one of the 'very best'. If you don't like those kinds of characters, then you would not think The Broken Empire books to be so good, because they do revolve around that kind of character. And here we go into the second massive mistake, in which Aplin calls Bourke out on not having read the sequels ("(it is also worth pointing out you have only read the first book and therefore cannot say whether he achieves his dreams or not)"). I think this shows just how desperate Aplin was to portray himself as the victim here. Bourke's review came out *when Prince of Thorns did*. There is no way she could have read the following books! Her review was contextually correct for the time it was written.

Aplin picked up on something he tried to play off as offensive, and then again tried to point out that Bourke was wrong. But she wasn't in either case, and on top of that we are talking about *her opinion*. It is based in her interpretation of the book, and on that book as a singular read, because that's what it was. Aplin is free to love the books, Bourke is free to hate them. Neither viewpoint is wrong, because they are opinions.

The final paragraph returns to patronising Liz Bourke, yet throws in heaps of praise for Mark Lawrence, whilst again taking the victim stance. Aplin plays it off as if Bourke's dislike of the book offends him whilst making her seem wrong for it with 'I'm just sorry you were so offended and couldn't enjoy it to the extent such a large percentage of the community has.' See? It makes Bourke look like a minority in disliking the book (actually, those of us who hate the book are a minority).

Taken as a whole, the so-called apology is an exercise in blame-shifting and fanning the flames. It's reminiscent of Hugh Howey's behaviour after being called out on a controversial, sexist blog post he made, in that they both fumble to make the blame seem as if it lies elsewhere, whilst at the same time digging themselves deeper. Liz Bourke wrote a review that criticised the book two years ago (and she was not alone in that), and there were also long, critical reviews of it that called it out for what it was.

Even if you don't believe the original review (which as since been edited and can only be found via archives, unless someone has saved it) was sexist towards Liz Bourke, it's impossible to deny that the subsequent apology was a sham and only made matters worse.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

REVIEW - We Can Fix It by Jess Fink

Jess Fink is one of those names that keeps cropping up in comics circles, yet whilst she's never worked on mainstream comics (to my knowledge), her sexually-charged comics and approach to sexualities has seen her become a prominent figure in independent comics and her work is frequently discussed on major comics sites. We Can Fix It is a semi-autobiographical comic, and it has surprising similarities to the hourly comics fad which saw releases like Marc Ellerby's Ellerbisms and The Everyday by Adam Cadwell (obligatory Great Beast plug now over).

We're shown various parts of Fink's life via a jumpsuit-clad futuristic version of herself, as she attempts to correct her mistakes in the past in order to better herself as a person. It's also the story of a young woman wrestling with her sexuality, her identity and the world around her. It's about her trying to account for the mistakes she's made in the past, but also the consequences of trying to correct them.

There is a surprising honesty to this comic, too, with Fink not shying away from details of her sexual life and her use of drugs, or even some rather traumatic events involving her family. This honesty gives an emotional link, and if you don't agree with some of what Fink may have done in the past, you can't help but identify with the situations she's in on some level. Amongst the crude jokes, there are deep messages that we can all learn from and they easily push this comic into the realms of excellence.

A highly recommended read. We Can Fix It is available digitally via ComiXology, and is also available in paperback. Both editions are published by Top Shelf.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Thoughts - 2013.5

We're entering June this coming weekend, and that puts us in the sixth month of the year. A month later, in July, over half of the year will have gone. Doesn't time fly when you're playing nun?

Well, what can one say? I've played two excellent major video game releases from this year - Tomb Raider and BioShock Infinite - and of course I've enjoyed others. In terms of books, I can't say I've particularly kept up with this year's releases. I read Alison Croggon's Black Spring, a gothic tale in the spirit of Wuthering Heights and Malinda Lo's utterly sublime Adaptation (think teen drama-meets-The X-Files), but little - if anything - else. I've been faithfully purchasing 2000AD every week, and that has also had some really good stories in it. With American comics, I've been following a few here and there, but my interest is waning as time goes on, but the collected editions of last year's The Creep and Alabaster: Wolves (both from Dark Horse Comics) were brilliant.

So now it's time to sit back and get ready for the second half of the year. The DVD release of Cloud Atlas, Treecat Wars; the third Stephanie Harrington novel from David Weber & Jane Lindskold, the start of a new series with Mark Charan Newton's DrakenfeldSaints Row IV hitting the stands - and much, much more. With the second half of any year often seeming the busiest, perhaps it's time to clear those shelves a little, finish those unfinished games and watch the movies we bought months ago that are now covered in dust, just in time for the first wave of goodies to hit.

Onwards, questers, for the Sword of Asnagar awaits!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Opinion - Merida's Redesign

Over the past couple of weeks, a lot of sites have been talking about the redesign of Merida, which was done in order to 'welcome' her into the Disney Princesses franchise as the eleventh member. She's now alongside 'classics' like Snow White and Cindypants, as well as more recent characters like Mulan, Rapunzel and Tiana. And, well, this whole debate has driven me absolutely batty.
Merida's redesigned dress (pilfered from The Mary Sue)
The new design caused a lot of sparks to fly because Merida's figure had been changed to something  more conventionally attractive (wide hips, small waist), her dress had become even tighter(!) fitting, more low cut and quite sparkly. I did notice that they've kept the split elbows from the film, however, which is very much a good thing, and I have seen notions that her Princesses dress is based off the one she wears at the end of the film. In terms of going against that - it's clearly not her 'daytime' dress (something most of the other princesses share as a theme), so it would obviously be more elaborate. We also see in the film itself that she wears a corset, which goes some of the way to explaining her figure. The final piece of the puzzle was an image of Merida in a slightly seductive pose, looking over her shoulder.

Whilst I agree with a number of the arguments against it (e.g. the 'slimming' of her figure), I think you have to bear in mind that the Princesses line is *highly* stylised, and both Merida and Rapunzel (who is never mentioned in this respect) had to be changed from 3D animation to 2D. This on its own would need to bring changes in order to allow Merida to seamlessly fit in with the visual look. As it stands after the 'reversion' of her design, she sticks out like a sore thumb. I don't agree that her hips needed widening or her waist thinning, I think those two aspects were certainly unnecessary, though it may be worth mentioning she still manages to have one of the widest waists of the group. And this is why I find this argument to be very insular and problematic, as it doesn't actually address the issues at play. Merida's redesign is not the issue here *at all*. It's actually one of the least problematic designs in the range! Have a look at, say, Rapunzel. It looks like she would snap at the waist in a light breeze - Jasmine is no different in this respect, either. How about Snow White's expression, often drawn with a slightly coy "come hither" vibe? SHE'S FOURTEEN. Truth be told, most of those expressions are quite worrying when you really think about them.

Disney Princesses: Flowery are our names, seduction's one of our games.
(Note also how Merida is rather incongruous with the style)
To put it another way, it feels like attention has been placed on a minor issue within the larger picture. This backlash shouldn't just be about the way Merida was redesigned, it should be about what Disney have done with the franchise as a whole. It should be about how the range sexualises a whole range of characters, teen or otherwise. It should be about how they are focused with pushing these same few ideals over and over again - something Brave was heavily praised for going against. Even Mulan and Tiana (The Princess & the Frog) were both films (well, counting Mulan 1+2 as a single film here, as they really should be) that subverted the typical messages that girls are shown every day.

See, I do think there's a good counter argument against Merida's redesign. She is one of the least sexualised characters within that range, and this was something that should not have been ignored with Merida. A major aspect of her story was about how she wished to live her own life at her own speed, and not be forced into anything she didn't want. She wasn't interested in a romantic partner and she was even willing to go against the traditions of her culture in order to remain a free spirit.

But, you know, I think there's a ray of light that is managing to get through some of the thick clouds surrounding this issue. If this range gets more kids watching Brave, Mulan, The Princess & the Frog, then we have to take that as a victory. Whilst the messages are occasionally handled in a hamfisted manner (e.g. Mulan's relationship), they show kids that being true to yourself is more important than what others think, but that you also have to make it happen for yourself. Tiana's struggle at the start of her film is, to me, one of the best messages I have seen in a film of its type. She's not just wishing on a star, she's working to make her dream happen. And those kinds of messages are very important.

To summarise; I do see the issues with the redesign. But I don't see them as being issues that only apply to Merida, and to single her out is to do her and the idea behind it a disservice. We should be looking at the whole range and how those characters are depicted and marketed. Snow White's coyness, the neglect of Tangled's story for Rapunzel. We should not be ignoring Merida, no, but we should not be focusing our efforts on her, because her design is a small piece in a much wider, more problematic system. Getting Disney to revert Merida's design changes nothing in the grand scheme of things. It is a hollow victory, because the wider issue has not even been touched upon.

And yes, I do actually like her 2D design.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Opinion - Armour, Art & Attitude

As a fantasy and science fiction fan, and one with artistic tastes at that, I spend some of my time browsing tumblr, DeviantArt and other sites looking at genre-related art. I'll admit it's typically related to either book covers or art for tabletop/card gaming, as a number of artists do both, but it's almost always fantasy art that I look at. Combine this with my interest in female characters, and you can see where this is heading.

Ouch. (Source)
I could, of course, link to the recent article on Tor.com where boob armour is discussed, albeit without actually adding anything to the debate. I could link to an article by a blacksmith about fantasy armour, I could link to repositories of reasonable armour, I could even link to a tumblr feed about obscene poses women are typically represented in, or any other examples of ridiculous behaviour along those lines. I'd be here all day, week, month or year finding these examples. And that'd still just be a fraction of them.

See, I think it's important to make a point before I truly go into this. It's not about being angry about artists drawing pretty women. I don't have a problem with that as such, as I know there is a definite attempt to present aesthetically pleasing people in most art, hence the perfect figures and faces. I also think that argument could be a bit problematic in itself, as attractiveness is definitely subjective, but it leads me onto a point I think I should make. You can have cute and/or pretty women in armour, no problem. They could be the toughest warriors to have existed. But that doesn't negate - on any level - how armour works nor the point of it. Red Sonja's large chest and striking features do not make armour somehow less functional, thus she can go without it, as an example.

So, in fantasy art you tend to have two main styles of art. You have Realistic & Sensible, and you have Fantastical & Impractical, which I'll refer to, respectively, as R&S and F&I from here on. You will also typically find that R&S art is more anatomically correct, whereas F&I is frequently exaggerated. Let me present two examples, of different styles, artists and genres, to give a rough idea of what I mean.

This first image is titled, ahem, "hottie warrior 4" and it's by an artist on DeviantArt by the name loztvampir3, and you can find it here. As you can see, she is wearing armour that is mostly insubstantial, leaves various weak points unprotected, and she's drawn with a disproportionately large bust. In fact, I think you'd struggle to find anyone with a bust that size and shape who hasn't had extensive surgery, and even then I think it'd be a push.

It is, therefore, easy to put this particular piece into the Fantastical & Inappropriate pool, due to the lack of protection and the over-sexualisation of the wearer.
This next image is by an artist whose work I quite like. This is Donato Giancola's Joan of Arc (a page about this piece can be found here, on Donato's site) and it shows a fairly average looking woman in what is easily a historically accurate set of armour. It is a sober and respectful piece of work, showing Joan as a warrior - a loved one at that - not as a woman.

Of course, this isn't to say that you can't have femininity in fantasy art. You can, certainly. It is entirely possible, and reasonable, to draw armour with what we would consider 'feminine' touches, although with plate armour this - as discussed elsewhere - is highly impractical and typically a trait of F&I styles. This femininity can be represented any way the artist wants, either in terms of the armour itself or with other touches. I'm going to present another two examples and compare them to show how femininity can be represented in different ways. I'm going to use pieces from the same artist, a DeviantArt member by the name of Ruloc, from the same themed set.
These pieces are titled Storm Caller and Kethil Wyvernsbane respectively, and depict two characters that are played by Pathfinder fans. As is clear, both characters are female, but this aspect is represented in two different ways. With Storm Caller, the character's build - though mostly obscured by a steel cuirass - is clearly of a build we'd consider feminine, and this is further compounded by her facial structure and hair style. There is no reasonable doubt that this character is in fact female, yet this is clearly shown without any unreasonable or fantastical approaches. The character of Kethil is represented in what we'd consider a more feminine manner, she's wearing clothing that accentuates her figure and makes it clear she has breasts, and her hair and face again suggest a female character. As she is not wearing armour, the artist - and player - are able to take liberties with practicality, though I'd personally argue the character's outfit is entirely reasonable. But again, this is handled in a modest way by Ruloc, without focusing on any sexual aspect of the character.

This brings me to another point, however. Can armour be revealing, and impractical, without being distasteful? And I think I can happily say yes to that question. This is when it comes down to a matter of taste, and perhaps even respect. I also think one can allow for some degree of handwaving when it comes to cultural sensibilities - after all, some (if not all) Celtic tribes used to run into battle naked wearing naught but their torques and a coating of woad (a dye made from plants), although this would have been a mixture of cultural beliefs and genuine tactics, i.e. putting fear into the enemy. This doesn't apply as much to, say, an Elven ranger in the forests, but there are places where rules can be relaxed a little. The one issue I have, however, is the amount of bare skin typically on show.
Is it not sensible to suggest that the character in question may have a shirt on underneath? Something to sit between the armour and the skin, reducing the chance of chafing or discomfort?

I suppose this brings about a point about context. A work which bends the rules (or even violates them) should be taken contextually. If a character is in a humid, warm forest, it is reasonable to suggest they may wear lighter armours - even show skin - in order to keep cool. If they are in dungeons, caves or even zones of a low temperature (e.g. mountains), it would make sense that they are covered in order to keep warm and dry. They wouldn't reasonably be walking around with bare legs and bare chests - they'd die, essentially. One could argue the same for sandy areas - suitable clothing would be worn to keep the heat and sand away. Bikini armour might be good for getting a tan, but it'd be uncomfortable if the sand got into it!

Finally, I'm going to move on to the 'Attitude' part. To me, this argument is very much a part of the Sexism In Genre debate. It is tied to the way women are viewed, portrayed and represented in fantasy fiction (and, to a lesser degree, science fiction). Without wanting to make huge, sweeping generalisations, I personally find that the vast majority of fantasy art is made to portray women - of any type - in a sexual, attractive manner. It is not about showing how good a warrior she is, it is not about showing her skills, it is about making it clear she is attractive. This can be evidenced by the lack of sensible armours, by the accentuation and exaggeration of the character's busts - contrary to how armour (and breasts) actually work, and by the poses said characters tend to be found in. Whether it's in a comic or general themed artwork, there is a culture of deliberately representing women in these ways, whether they're the heroine or a monstrous creature. They might not have a pretty face, but they'll have perfect breasts (often accentuated in some way) or an attractive figure.

To conclude;
The attitude towards female armour, particularly in fantasy art, really needs to be changed - and now. Women are portrayed, in the majority of pieces, as sexual in some manner. This may be their pose, their expression, the accentuated bosom, or even the armour itself. They are represented in this way at the expense of reason. Revealing armour does not protect - it endangers. Boob-plate armour does not protect - it endangers. Loose hair, loose cloaks and loose clothing do not protect - they endanger. Whereas men are typically shown as bastions of strength and power, women often seem to be shown as if they are merely playing - perhaps why their armour can often look like they should be sold next to the "Sexy Nurse" and "French Maid" outfits. These characters are not treated seriously, and thus cannot be taken seriously. A female warrior would not be concerned about whether her breasts are accentuated by armour, she would be concerned about having her weak points protected - the very point of wearing armour. Armour is worthless if it does not protect, at which point it becomes heavy - and cumbersome - decoration.