No-Spoiler Review: Steelheart (Brandon Sanderson)

Ever since Brandon Sanderson took the helm of the Wheel of Time, I have not been able to get enough of that guy’s work. Recently I picked up a signed copy of Steelheart from the local bookstore as part of an “I’m sorry for our bad customer service” apology. It was on my eventual to-do list, but with Sanderson’s other works waiting to join my library, a book marketed to teen readers was lower on my priority list.

I am so glad that the bookstore screwed up and I got a copy of Steelheart; it was well worth it!

The short and sweet of my review: Great book, genre is a post-apocalyptic heist as rebels try to take down the oppressive dictator in command of an army of super heroes. Worth the read for any age despite marketing as Young Adult Fiction.

The book is set in strange type of post-apocalyptic setting–some time in our future, civilization as we know it ended when people randomly started to develop “epic” superheroes, hence the namesake of an entire group of people called “epics.” The worst one of them all is called Steelheart, who rules Chicago with an iron steel fist. The main character, an older teenager is the only person to have any clue to the sinister epic’s weakness.

While reading the book, it reminded me in many ways of a mix between The Matrix and Revolution. The bad guys rule a post-apocalyptic world, while the good guys heroically fight as rebels. The “team” of rebels is made up of stereotypical roles: the geek, the comic, the muscle, the hard-to-read attractive-yet-deadly girl, and the mysterious and awe-inspiring leader… only with a teenager throwing a wrench into the team chemistry.

One of Sanderson’s skills is in writing a good heist story. He did it in the first Mistborn book, and again in the subsequent novella Alloy of Law. All of his stories have a fun twist at the end, so it is understandable that the heist genre was invented for Sanderson to use, not vice versa. Steelheart is no exception; it is everything I would want from a heist story, especially set in a fantasy/sci-fi setting.

There was only one glaring problem with Steelheart: it was way too short. Like all Sanderson books, it comes with the promise of a larger series, but after being spoiled with Words of Radience a few months earlier, it was odd being able to finish a Sanderson book solely during recess and lunch during a few weeks of jury duty. It also says something that it took all my self control to save the book for those breaks, rather than finish it in one sitting at home.

I give the book an 8/10. It missed one point for being too short, and one point because the shortness prevented some further character development, although Sanderson still did a masterful job.

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5 Things I Hate About Star Trek (and 5 things I love too)

Lately I have been watching a lot of Star Trek. After watching all of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, andVoyager, I began going through the entire franchise, in chronological order. (Except for the movies. Darn you, Netflix, for not having them all.) Right now I am in season 2 of Voyager, which I am watching simultaneously with Deep Space Ninein their approximate orders by air-date. For the record, most of my hours watching the show were while staying up late because of a baby, or in the background while doing something mundane, or just an episode here or there to unwind. I am a binge-watcher, but not a “in my mom’s basement” binge-watcher!
During my recent chronological experience, I realized not just how much I love Star Trek, but also how much I hate some of the show’s elements at times! So… here is my top 5 list of things I hate in Star Trek:
  1. Kes. I despise Kes and everything that comes with her, more than anything else in Star Trek! Neelix’s idiodic jealosy is bad enough, but everything about her screams “plot-driven character development.” There is nothing about her that is worthwhile that is not there just because it was necessary for an episode’s plot.

    Stupid Kes!

  2. Holodeck Episodes, for being not just overdone, but under-thought. I understand that the writers recognized it was a gold mine of ideas, and I even forgive them for it… but they went way overboard. I can’t count the number of times I have wanted to scream at a Starfleet engineer for being too stupid to have the power system of the Holodeck be self-contained to a single power cord that could just be pulled in the case of a malfunction. Program won’t close and you have crewmen stuck inside? Pull the plug. Hologram trying to take over the Enterprise? Pull the plug. But that would have made too many boring episodes not work…. Caveat: I can’t remember the name of the episode, but the one involving a hologram within a hologram… that one was an exception to my loathing of this plot device.
  3. Spiritual episodes (Chakotay, Klingons, a few of the Prophets’ episodes), for being boring and for running against Roddenberry’s rule. I am an extremely religious man, and while I admittedly have mixed feelings about Roddenberry’s firm rule of “NO RELIGION” in his shows (both a blessing and a curse depending on the writers’ own views), it irritates me to no end that his rule was ignored, but only so long as it suited a “minority” religion, or when it made for a boring episode. My biggest beef is Chakotay. Besides being rather boring, these episodes are a prime example of when “tolerance” gets annoying. The very idea of the episodes reeks of “We don’t care about your ‘mainstream’ religion, so here, we’ll focus on this one instead.” This violates Roddenberry’s rule, and much worse, is hypocritical of its own philosophy. As for the Klingons and Prophets, those just tend to be boring, especially when the episode is dealing with religion, not using the religion to spur along the plot. Episodes about the Emissary or about the Klingon Afterlife are not the same as episodes about an anthropological view of how Bajorans view aliens, or of Klingon politics.
  4. Benjamin Sisko. Granted, when he shaved his head, he proved himself right, claiming that he felt like a new actor. But especially the first two seasons, and pretty much any moment in the series when he was forced to act incredibly happy or angry, I have wanted to scream “You had countless actors to choose from, and you chosehim?” Avery Brooks has his moments, but his emotions are so fake that I do not understand why he was allowed to be the lead of an A-list show, when he woudl be more appropriate for a casual role in a Lifetime movie.
  5. Wesley Crusher. How could I make a list like this without including Wesley? Really… does this one require an explanation? To be fair, _________ is a great actor. I love his self-depreciating comments on Wesley, and his subsequent roles after appearing in Star Trek are wonderful. Wesley, however, is a victim of poor writing, and maybe some poor directing as well.

 

Bonus #6: She-who-should-not-be-named, who took Dr. Crusher’s place for a season.
To be clear, I love Star Trek… but these are just some pet peeves of mine that I wanted to get off my mind! In the interest of showing an alternate side of myself, here is, with minimal explanation, my top 5:
  1. BIG space battles. (Usually in DS9, but the tail end of one is seen in First Contact, and there are a couple in Voyager) What’s not to like? 
  2. The Borg!
  3. Worf, especially after he got a pony tail.
  4. Picard’s interaction with children, or being ordered to take a vacation.
  5. The Doctor!
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Why Stardust is my favorite movie. (Spoiler-Free)

Recently, while watching Stardust, I remembered why it is one of my favorite movies. It is hard to rank it with epics like Lord of the Rings since it only spans a couple hoursImage, rather than providing a masculine alternative to Pride and Prejudice—the needlessly long one. Stardust is more like the Kiera Knightly edition, in a different category entirely.

If you are not familiar with the film, here is a brief spoiler-free summary (at least, the amount of spoilers you might suspect in a movie listing synopsis or a trailer): To prove his love, Tristan ventures across the wall into a mythical kingdom retrieve a fallen star. At the same time, the star, in the form of the beautiful young woman Yvaine, is also sought after by an evil witch in search of immortality and devious young princes eager to hold the pendant she wears. There is a lot more to the story, but as Dr. Riversong likes to say, “Spoilers!”

 

I hesitated to write this post because I am certain I will not do the movie justice. For lack of a better description—when I watch Stardust, my artistic energy is moved. It is moved in the same way I am moved by a stunning performance from a grand orchestral piece such as the 1812 Overture (a cliché, but a great example nonetheless). It is the same feeling felt by an artist standing before the Mona Lisa, or even a football fan sitting down to admire Doug Flutie’s miracle play or the ending to the 1982 Big Game. It is that feeling when your chest puffs as you are filled with endorphins and adrenaline as you experience euphoria. So, my actually-not-so-over-the-top explanation done, here are some of the things that get my creative juices excited when I watch Stardust.

 

1. The music.

I used to buy the soundtracks to all of my favorite fantasy/sci fi movies. Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Narnia, Pirates of the Caribbean, even Batman Begins… then I got more serious in my musicianship. I played in an orchestra (a darn good one too) for the first time, having previously done mostly concert bands like you might find in a high school, with the occasional musical sprinkled in. While concert band is great, it felt like the first time I picked up a 500-page installment of a fantasy series after an entire life of Encyclopedia Brown and Hank the Cowdog. (Ok, I’ll admit, bad analogy for me. I readRedwall before even hearing of those two. My teacher made me read them because I’d read Redwall over a dozen times in 4th grade and he thought I should expand my horizons with something juvenile.) Nothing against those books, but it wasa whole different—and complex—universe.**

Why go into my musical taste and history? Because Stardust is one of only two movies I have seen since my former musical phase where I have actually purchased the soundtrack. (I purchased the Hobbit, though I generally only listen to about 4 tracks from any of the Middle Earth films. I bought this one exclusively for the main Dwarf theme and its reprise in the credits. ) I still enjoy the main themes from anything John Williams, but in Stardust, I actually thoroughly enjoy the entire soundtrack. Sure, a few tracks such as Lamia’s Inn are not a 10/10, but as a whole, the entire soundtrack is just so… invigorating! While my favorite soundtracks have 4 or 5 good tracks and a dozen more that I skip over, Stardust is amazingly consistent in its mystical intrigue. My favorite musical moment is during a sequence when, during the middle of the piece, a character plays a few notes of the soundtrack using an on-screen keyboard, evidence that the director joins the composer as being a man who knows how to incorporate a great soundtrack rather than just lay on music tracks over moving images.

 

2. The little things.

By “little things,” I mean subtle details, whether important or not, that go a long ways towards enhancing the story, whether visually, musically, or through continuity. My favorite is the name of the king’s child
ren—each one’s name is based on birth order. (Child #7 is named Septimus. Child #1 is named Una.) Such a small detail, but for some reason I have always absolutely loved it. For another example, Yvaine, the star, glows when she is happy. That is neat in itself, but there are moments where her glowing grows brighter or softer. Sometimes it is the focus of the scene; other times, it is just a minor detail making the movie consistent with itself. Yet another example is the piano scene in the soundtrack already mentioned. Yet another example is the “Slaughtered Prince,” an inn referenced in the film’s opening sequence, shown in oneof the final sequences, and more importantly fits a overarching comic thread throughout the film (in which somehow, the macabre scenario of princes killing each other actually is quite humorous). I could go on, but there are numerous small details, some that matter a great deal to the plot, and others that are available only to the viewer watching for those fine details.

 

3. The romance.

Ok, I’ll admit it… I’m a guy who doesn’t mind a little romance. In high school, I even instigated a movie night selection in which all of the guys in my youth group chose A Walk to Remember. I don’t mind the romance as long as it is not over-done, cheesy, or detracts from the real story. (In A Walk to Remember, the romance story and her cancer story are hand-in-hand, rather than the romance stealing the whole show.) On the flip side, it bugs me whenever romance is inserted just for the sake of including a romantic twist in an otherwise unromantic movie. Fortunately, in Stardust, the romance is the motivation (the main character’s whole purpose is to prove his love), but it actually makes the fantasy storyline stronger, not unlike how “true love’s kiss” is an integral in many masculine-friendly fantasy stories. And it is pretty cool when she literally glows because of their love. (I just hope that when she has kids, her delivery doctor wears sunglasses, or he will go blind.)
**For any concert band fans out there who are outraged at the comparison, I’ll grant you– there are exceptions, such as Gustav Holst, but a good 95% of concert band literature out there is George Cluny or Ben Affleck, while Orchestra is Christian Bale, if Batman is the art under production.
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Things I don’t like in Star Trek

I love Star Trek. No, I LOVE Star Trek. It is an awesome show, and sitting through and watching each episode, bad ones and all, has been a fun experience over the last year and a half. (Late nights with the baby, the show has been a lifesaver.)

But, like All Good Things… (pardon the Trekkie pun) there are a few things that I cannot stand!

  1. Kes
  2. Dr. Pulaski
  3. Wesley Crusher’s boy-genius dialogue (but for the record, Wil Wheaton is awesome, even if his character suffered from poor writing and concept)
  4. Cmdr. Riker’s trombone “playing”
  5. The poor acting for Travis Mayweather and Benjamin Sisko
  6. The Prime Directive, especially Janeway’s adherence
  7. The way Riker leans his head to his left when walking
  8. Most of season one, especially Tasha Yar, Worf pre-character-development, the ugly jumpsuits
  9. Warp 10 and its inconsistent effects (even when utilizing a theory that different eras had different units of measurement)
  10. Star Trek: The Motion Picture (30 minutes of floating through space cut out, it might not be that bad of a movie)
  11. The animated series. After 10 minutes, I sampled another episode in the next season, but no. They are all terrible, in plot, animation, writing… every single aspect made me so happy that the series is not canon, so I don’t technically have to watch it to have seen every star trek episode.
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Book Review: Way of Kings (Spoiler-Free)

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In my latest Brandon Sanderson venture, and my last fun project of the summer before lengthy graduate school reading lists, I tackled the Way of Kings. Visually daunting, I actually found the thick volume to be the perfect length, if not a few chapters too short. Needless to say, it was enjoyable in typical Sanderson fashion, particularly in the high quality I came to expect after reading the Mistborn Trilogy.

The format of Way of Kings is intriguing; since the book is the first volume in the Stormlight Archive, it is speckled with an archival theme, as well as the theme of a story spanning more than just the immediate plot. Case in point, the book opens with a prelude to the series, and a few thousand years later, the next chapter holds the prologue to the book. (Seven years later, the first chapter occurs, with another jump of a few months for chapter two, where the timeline stays fairly constant, minus a series of flashbacks leading up to the first chapter.) For its archival flare, there are drawings interspersed throughout the book. These drawings are taken from the sketchbook of a main character and work wonders in helping to describe the alien life, as this book does not happen on Earth, even though it is in a medieval setting. This authorship tactic enables a more natural telling of the story, as main characters do not have to think about the anatomy of every little creature just for the reader’s benefit. For example, a chull, a beast of burden, is very similar to a hermit crab the size of an ox, with no claws, and as docile and domesticated as an ox. This sketchbook method prevents the description from detracting from the storytelling.

One interesting aspect of Way of Kings is the use of flashbacks for a main character. His story line is deliberately withheld from the reader (and his fellow associates) throughout the story. Normally, I would absolutely hate this; the character’s life is defined by a tragedy, and I expected cliché-filled back-story to emerge, but to my pleasant surprise, Sanderson avoided the awkward storyline that might be given to Ross in Friends and actually made the flashbacks interesting, not awkward for the knowledgeable reader, and important to his character development. On numerous occasions, he avoids typical plot-driving clichés, making it all the more enjoyable.

Another authorship element that I found intriguing was the character perspective. Each section of the book has between two and four main characters whose perspectives rotate by chapter, with a few interludes between featuring a minor character for a short section. This refreshing method kept each character’s story fresh for the reader, even if seemingly running full-course merely halfway through the book.

No Sanderson book can be complete without a magic system. The magic system used in this book, however, is not heavily explored, but surprisingly, I did not mind– essentially, he used this thick book to introduce the series, and I got the distinct impression that magic would play a much heavier role in subsequent books, perhaps immediately, given the nature of the book’s slight cliff-hanger conclusion. Although the magic system is not explored in detail, it does play a prominent role throughout the story, although that role largely falls in the realm of subtle hints as the reader eagerly pieces together the story’s magic and mythology. While not doing it justice, the magic system involves the ability to adjust any object’s (or one’s self’s) gravity, as well as physical benefits of healing. (Although the open-ended conclusion to the book leaves open the possibility that there are much more options than introduced to the reader.) This is a majorly over-simplified version, however revealing more would violate my limited-spoiler intent.

While it is hard to compare a series containing just one book as of yet (book two debuts January 2014), this may be my favorite Sanderson work yet, although as the second and third Mistborn trilogies unveil, this opinion is certainly malleable. Sanderson continues his trend of offering very subtle plot-line hints throughout the story, without falling victim to the clichés that seem to heavily trend in this kind of plot in other authors’ attempts.

As is probably obvious from my ravings and faultless description (except perhaps that it was too short, or that the magic did not play a large role as it was merely introduced), this is a book well-worth reading. Do not let its size scare you off– it is well worth the read.

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Star Trek references… from Star Trek: Into Darkness (spoilers)

I saw Star Trek: Into Darkness this week, and while I enjoyed the movie, what I loved most were the nods to the original franchise. I read somewhere that it ripped off Star Trek II, but I don’t think the author really understood what was going on.

A few references, some more obvious than others:

  1. Kirk and Spock’s reversed roles – Remember in Wrath of Khan when Spock saved the Enterprise, at his own demise? In his last moments, he and Kirk shared and intimate “live long and prosper” moment on opposite sides of a clear partition. In Into Darkness, we first saw this in the trailer. Of course, Trekkies were supposed to see the reference and wonder about Spock’s mortality. My first thought: Kirk is the one dying, not Spock. During Into Darkness, there is a moment when Spock shouts Kirk’s infamous (and cheesy) line, “KHHAAAANNN!!!!” — right then, I realized I was right. Spock’s use of Kirk’s line foreshadowed the later scene when Kirk “dies” of radiation poisoning, in eerily similar circumstances to Spock 1.0 in Wrath of Khan.
  2. The entire Eugenics storyline – The series of episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise dealing with some of Khan’s distant cousins (and explaining Dr. Seung’s interest in robotics, leading to the creation of Data) delved a bit bit more into the genetically-engineered super-human destruction machines of which Khan represents. In Into Darkness, there are some physical features explored that were introduced in those episodes, not just in Khan’s episodes in The Original Series. Even better, Khan’s discovery is explained (in the original timeline, Khan was not discovered for another 14 or 15 years) — a remark is made that, after the destruction of Vulcan, Star Fleet did some rapid exploration, motivated by self-preservation. One disappointing aspect left out: Khan’s wife. I’m a bit surprised Khan did not try to wake her up at some point, even if just to get her help. (An army of super-humans could accomplish his mission even more effectively…)
  3. The mother of Kirk’s son – In Wrath of Khan, Carol Marcus, creator of the Genesis Device, reveals that Kirk is the father of her son. In Into Darkness, we do not know she is Carol Marcus, though perhaps die-hard Trekkies should have expected it, since her name was Carol, and Kirk was obviously attracted to her. That leads to another interesting question… were those same die-hard Trekkies supposed to wonder if the mysterious torpedoes were actually part of the Genesis Project?
  4. Admiral Marcus’s big secret involved Section 31, a top-secret organization that doesn’t exist. This covert section of Star Fleet, often acting against the core values that so annoyingly add stupid plot devices (hello, Prime Directive), is mentioned in Enterprise, as well as a story arc in Deep Space Nine. Non-canon sources also attribute events of Undiscovered Country and Insurrection to the section.

Those were the only explicit reference I noticed. Did you notice any others?

(Also, on a side note, was anyone else annoyed that Spock 1.0 was unwilling to share more with Spock 2.0? The timeline was already contaminated… sharing his knowledge would cause absolutely zero timeline contamination, so why not share? And for that matter, why didn’t the Temporal Integrity Commission appear from the 29th century to stop Vulcan’s destruction?)

EDIT: As a friend pointed out, Khan’s wife came from aboard the enterprise. While my basic premise remains intact, that fine detail is rendered moot.

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Book Review: Elantris (no spoilers)

Note: All of my reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted in the title. This review does contain spoilers pertaining to the book’s setting and magic system, but there are none pertaining to the plot.

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After the Wheel of Time series introduced me to his work, I read Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy (and later, the related novel Alloy of Law, as well as Warbreaker), and instantly fell in love with his books, to the point where I can confidently say that right now, he is my favorite author. Naturally, as I further explore his authorship, I needed to read his first book, Elantris.

Elantris centers around the lives of the Teoish princess Sarene, her betrothed, Prince Raoden of Arelon, Hrathen (a gyorn–a powerful religious leader from the rival religion Shu-Dereth, and its home nation of Fjordell), and Hrathen’s attempt to convert Arelon to Shu-Dereth, in an effort to spare the nation from Fjordell’s military might. The book centers on three main story-lines: upon arrival in Arelon, Sarene encounters an unsettling discovery about her upcoming marriage; Raoden endures the misfortune of banishment to the once-great city of Elantris and its defunct magics; and Hrathen tries to prevent the destruction of an entire nation–unlike his last assignment, he hopes to conquer a nation through religion instead of revolution.

Like all of Sanderson’s works, Elantris focuses on a unique magic system, bound by Sanderson’s rule that any magic must have an interesting flaw to counter its power. In this case, the magic system involves drawing complex symbols in the air. For example, drawing one complex symbol will allow you to heal the injured, while another might result in instant teleportation, or another in providing the functions of a simple lantern. The flaw of this system, however, is two-fold: its power weakens as the user’s distance from Elantris increases, and even worse, ten years prior, the magic simply stopped working when Elantris fell.

In typical Sanderson fashion, small inconspicuous details matter, providing a satisfying “aha!” moment near the end of the novel. Everything leading to the end is designed to offer hints that, for the most part, are more recognizable in hindsight, yet unlike an episode of HouseCSI or Bones, where the first 38 minutes have little bearing on the final reveal, the book does a good job of building to this climax.

My one critique of Elantris is that it seemed weaker than Sanderson’s other works. It is a good book, but it is apparent that it is his first novel. Of his six books that I have read (granted, three are a trilogy), this one provides the weakest buildup to the plot and is the least riveting. There are great scenes and a high level of satisfaction as characters escape danger or unravel mysteries, but the intrigue and suspense was a slight let-down from my high expectations from his other books. That said, Elantris really was a good book–it just shows how much Sanderson has improved his craft through experience, and possibly mentorship from his publisher, Tor Books.

Who would like this book: Anyone who reads fantasy novels, especially Wheel of TimeLord of the Rings, or any other Sanderson books. I could even see a hint of the Ender franchise in the book (although only a hint).

Who would not like this book: Anyone who hates intrigue because it does not have enough action. If Star Trek is boring because the 42-minute episodes does not have at least 41 minutes of space battles, this this is not the book for you. While it has action, its political intrigue provides the bulk of the plot conflict.

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