Archive for February, 2016

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Emperor Mapidere was the first to unite the island kingdoms of Dara under a single banner. But now the emperor is on his deathbed, his people are exhausted by his vast, conscriptive engineering projects and his counselors conspire only for their own gain. Even the gods themselves are restless. A wily, charismatic bandit, and the vengeance-sworn son of a deposed duke cross paths as they each lead their own rebellion against the emperor’s brutal regime. Together, they will journey to the heart of the Empire; witnessing the clash of armies, fleets of silk-draped airships, magical books and shapeshifting gods. Their unlikely friendship will drastically change the balance of power in Dara…but at what price?

The Grace of Kings is epic fantasy of the highest calibre. It’s full of political intrigue, rebellions and treachery, heroes, gods and war. That’s the shorthand version of a review. However, such a fantastic book deserves more consideration.

Ken Liu is a masterful world builder for one. The landscapes he creates, populated by a variety of societies and people is enthralling. It underpins the scope of his plot which, in sheer magnitude, is epic. Secondly, the feel of his storytelling is equally unique; striking me as a mix between Greek mythology and Japanese feudal history. Finally, it is the characters that sew this whole novel into such a wonderful accomplishment. Though what starts as a ensemble cast, slowly becomes a story of two men locked in a battle to achieve the same goal yet from opposite ends.

It is this idea that is so intriguing. The rebellion to dethrone the emperor at the heart of the book turns in on itself as all those who engineer it become caught in the desires and fetters of power. Hubris and greed overcome many until it is left to Kuni and Mata, street thug and deposed nobel respectively, to end the empire’s reign of oppression. But, their goals are achieved through very different means and for very different reasons.

This, in my opinion, is where the author shines. The two protagonists are the products of their experiences and, as a result, it is their perceptions of situations that then shape their actions. This may seem logical but it’s rare that an author stays so true to his characters. Kuni may be a street tough but only because he prefers to get drunk with his friends and refuses to get a job as a youth; a path that turns him towards the edges of society yet one that sees him become a champion of the people. Mata may be a nobel born to a line of great warriors but his actions betray a character weak in mental fortitude that sees him caught up in abstract ideas of nobility, honour and societal class.

It is these traits that go on to create the conflict between the two heroes of the rebellion. Both want an end to war and oppression yet Kuni does it to free the people while Mata seeks to impose his idea of order on the world. In the end both must use the same means: warfare. Again, Ken Liu shows his intelligence highlighting that power and leadership corrupts not just those at the forefront but also those who stand in support; the advisors and commanders who make decisions to protect that ‘power’ and muddy the water of perception further.

The Grace of Kings does political intrigue like few other fantasy books. The rebellion is a wonderful foil for studying ideas of power, heroism, perception and self-reflexion. Yet, whilst this is a fantastic book that clearly and cleverly considers the human condition it is also, just as importantly a brilliantly work of fantasy. There’s plenty of huge, exciting battles and sieges, wondrous creatures and strange landscapes, interfering gods and subtle magics. It’s a true epic and Ken Liu is a talented writer with much to say.

Review copy
Published by Head of Zeus

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I started watching this film knowing little about it. I didn’t know it was based on an unpublished graphic novel, written by the man who ended up directing the movie – but I’d love to read it. Nor did I realise I’d see Tom Cruise fight a cloned version of himself and win via triangle submission* – but it was one of the most enjoyable combat scenes I’ve seen in a while. And, though I had to watch it over two days (making the most of my son’s nap time) it was a hugely atmospheric and engaging film.

Another title on my catch up list, Oblivion set an intriguing tone from the outset. The sleek design element coupled with the stark and empty post-war landscape created a wonderful dichotomy that furthered the atmospheric battle at the heart of the film. It’s not just a battle between the perceived good ‘humanity’ and the bad ‘scavengers’; it’s the battle within Cruise’s character (Jack Harper, Tech 49) between his own self, his reality and his future.

This isn’t a sci-fi story that breaks much new ground, if I’m honest. However, the plot line was dealt with very smartly, slowly revealing that the baddies were actually the goodies and vice versa. That reveal, and the consequent clone fight between Cruise (Tech 49) and Cruise (Tech 52) then set the scene for some epic heroics from the lead protagonist. Yet, it also tested the water with the concepts and philosophy of what makes a human. Is it belonging? Is it memory and shared experience? Is it love and the desire to live? That fight is the spark behind these questions as both clones, though apparently memory-wiped, continue to have visions of a woman – the real Jack Harpers wife, Julia (played by Olga Kurylenko).

All these questions were brooked but ultimately they were answered with a very entertaining and explosive set piece finale. The aliens were vanquished and humanity once more showed it’s strength through sacrifice and solidarity. Once again, Tom Cruise puts in another solid sci-fi performance in a thoroughly enjoyable film. Atmospheric and brilliantly designed, it might not dig too deep but Oblivion is a great slice of sci-fi action.

(*To an actual grappler, this wasn’t one of the best executions of the famous triangle choke, in fact it was nearly all wrong, but it is nice to see the continued inclusion of the submission based martial arts in movies.)