Mistborn: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

51E+7V-PDyLUtah. America’s El Dorado. Not, of course, in the sense that there’s anything valuable there. It’s more of a matter of no one really knows if it exists or not, and no one ever goes there. Tis a barren, inhospitable landscape with few resources save for dirt, salt, wives, fake moon landing studios, and jokes about Utah. Oh, and Brandon Sanderson novels. For those of you unfamiliar with the name, Sanderson made his fame by taking over the Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan made everyone worry about George R.R. Martin’s health. Since then, his name has appeared on top-100 fantasy lists with such a high frequency that he violates FCC regulations. So I thought I’d read Mistborn: The Final Empire to see what all the fuss is about. In short, the book was good enough that I had to resort to jokes about Utah to fill out this review.

The Mistborn series tells the story about magical assassins with pica. By swallowing bits of metal like a desperate pill popper, the mistborn—also known as allomancers—gain special psychic abilities. However, like most things in life, these powers are inherited from the rich people who see no moral conflict in murdering countless poor people rather than let them possess anything nicer than secondhand clothes, tuberculosis, and a house where all the walls have charred around the electrical outlets. Fortunately, a few of the riffraff have rich uncles who didn’t want to be woken from their naps for the daily peasant hunt, so a few lower-class allomancers slipped through the cracks. Bring those elements to a boil, simmer, and season with some light fantasy tropes: kingdoms good, empires bad, government bureaucrats really bad (and are depicted as such by dressing as teenage metal fans who want to stick it to their parents by gaging their ears—and eyes and spine—with comically large railroad spikes). Naturally, the plot aims to scour the empire of oppressors, a story element that authors will continue to force-feed us as long as humans can feel persecuted for either being systemically disadvantaged and even murdered by authority figures based on race, or for having to see a menorah while shopping for Christmas ornaments. Ultimately, Mistborn: The Final Empire follows a group of rabble-rousers as they depose a tyrannical god-emperor the only way they know how—by using the tactics of Sun Tzu, Machiavelli, and Jane Austin.

That’s right. Mistborn follows Vin, a young mistborn thief recruited from the streets of Luthadel, as she impersonates a noblewoman to gather information by attending lots and lots of fancy parties. Say what you will about this unusual twist on the classic epic fantasy format, I really enjoyed how Sanderson conflicted his protagonist by putting her in a position that highlighted the social inequity of the Empire while necessarily coming to see the nobility as human beings similar to herself. Plus, I’ve always thought Charlotte Bronte really let down her readers by not addressing the obvious question, “What if the mad woman in the attic were also a ninja sorceress?” Vin meets a boy, of course, who moved to Luthadel after leaving his previous home in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. Yet while Hugo’s college students wanted to revolt and change the world by overthrowing the French government, Sanderson’s aristocratic youths more closely resemble actual college students in the fact that they talk about changing the world before deciding to raise awareness and then abandoning their quest in favor of a drunken 2 am visit to the Waffle House.

The world Sanderson creates is as concise as it is expansive. And I know that sounds like saying “women are as enamored of me as they are repulsed by me,” or “those nine boxes of Oreos were as delicious as they were healthy,” but for all the detail he gives us in Final Empire, none of it is wasted. Everything falls together perfectly in a way that makes me want to chuck my computer into Lake Superior and go live on a Tibetian mountaintop because I’ll never be as talented at devising fiction as Sanderson. He uses every piece of information he gives us, working toward an ending that feels important, and not just in a way that you’ll have to remember for the final exam. The characters are brilliant, and not in the way that Ender is brilliant because Orson Scott Card tells us that sadistic tendencies in a toddler are signs of the next Stephen Hawking. No, Vin and company learn, incorporate information around them, and act in ways that could genuinely outsmart your average two-year old, reality TV viewer, or president of the United States.

Long have I awaited a fantasy novel of this caliber. Prophetically, I knew one must arise. I foretold this as I have foretold that my last several job applications would fall silent into the void, or that a 500 pound woman with creaky knees would sign up for my CPR class, but after a string of failures, Mistborn: The Final Empire came as a breath of fresh air after being trapped on an elevator with a bunch of fat guys eating Taco Bell. Sanderson’s work deserves attention, and I only hope that the next thing I review can live up to such quality; pay attention in weeks to come for my review of Google Cardboard’s Raccoon Simulator!

Casino Royale – Ian Fleming

CasinoBetween my recent attempt to finish FFXII fast enough to merit a felony-level speeding ticket and late night news coverage and my exploits as a CPR instructor, breathing into plastic dummies and explaining to people that, “No, these people won’t have the decency to crawl up on a table before the pass out just to accommodate the fact that you weigh six hundred pounds and your knees hurt on the ground,” I’ve gotten a bit behind on my entries. To add to that, living in 1938 Nazi Germany with a leader who is constantly both on the brink of war and looking at his own people like he’s trying to decide how much zyklon b he’ll need to get has somewhat dulled my capacity for humor. So I might as well try to distract myself from the next two and a half minutes by talking about an iconic Cold War hero responsible for fighting communism, killing foreigners, and causing enough collateral damage to be blacklisted by every insurance agency on the planet.

I imagine quite a few of you will disagree with what I intend to say about Casino Royale based on a fundamental quality of popular culture. Since superhero movies* have been popping up like genital warts—hideous, self-replicating spectacles that only exist because most of the population lacks the capacity to make intelligent decisions—I can only assume that most people like them. Superheroes, that is. Not genital warts. However, while these people might possess the vicarious narcissism to view lack of meaningful conflict or character development as a virtue or the cognitive dissonance to treat someone who tempts every psychopathic cosplayer into battle with no regard for collateral damage as a “good guy,” I find that as a use of my time, it ranks somewhere between standing in line at the grocery store and ignore my cat when he smacks me in the head at 4:00 am to tell me he’s hungry.

*And, I can’t believe I have to include this, the Spider-man Broadway musical.

Enter James Bond. Not the James Bond whose liver burns alcohol like a sterno can, who can cause more damage to a BMW than I could afford to pay for in my life and still convince his boss to give him an Aston Martin a year later, and for whom the genital warts analogy is a strikingly apt comparison, but a James Bond who never got over his childhood fear of falling asleep and traded in his teddy bear for a loaded Beretta. This broken, high-strung Bond draws from Ian Fleming’s real-life experience as a naval intelligence officer, where he developed a network of spies in Spain, planted false documents to lure Nazi U-boats into mine fields, and based on the plot of his novel, I assume, used the English treasury to feed a nasty gambling addiction. While I appreciate the realistic, vulnerable Bond, I have to wonder about the veracity of the novel’s content when he served primarily an administrative role during the war and his biographer literally says he had, “no obvious qualifications” for the job.

The novel’s plot begins with a scheme to bankrupt the villain, Le Chiffre, the treasurer for the Russian organization, Smersh an organization so paranoid and xenophobic that it makes American politics look like someone told a racist joke and gave away the punchline halfway through. Le Chiffre fills Smersh’s coffers by gambling, making him only slightly less dangerous than Wall Street. Bond is sent to the Casino as the best card player in the English Secret Service, an organization that apparently feels the best way to protect the country is to pick the employees who they owe money to and send them out on dangerous missions. While I’ll refrain from the finer details of the plot, suffice to say that the Secret Service botches the mission—as we might expect from people who keep tabs on spies with great talent in games of chance—and Bond ends up at the mercy of Le Chiffre.

Normally I wouldn’t give away quite so much about the story, but this is a special case—at the villain’s defeat, the reader is only two-thirds of the way through the book. Now, I’ve remained proverbially hungry after a few meals, but if I followed Fleming’s guidelines on when to stop, I’d finish off a plate of shrimp, the plate itself, a tray of silverware, the hostess and the front door of the restaurant before I went home. Casino Royale is the perfect book for the spy-thriller fan who loves to sit in the movie theatre for an hour after the credits. I can’t even express my confusion over how the creator of the most sexually active character in history can’t figure out that if you keep going for too long after the climax, it’ll just rub us down until we’re irritated and bored. So while the more realistic, vulnerable Bond makes the outcome a little less certain than your average Man vs Turkey Sandwich conflict, I don’t think an audience who appreciates a politically high-stakes game of baccarat will necessarily stay tuned in for the story of a man’s challenging road to physical recovery.

If I had to salvage some cohesive glue keeping the pages of the book from dropping out like narcoleptic readers, I’d say Fleming intended the book to be less about international espionage and more about the pseudo-romance between Vesper Lynd and James Bond. This does come off as almost a parody of a Disney princess, developing a life-long and fulfilling love based on as much personal information as can be obtained by exchanging business cards. Naturally, the relationship ends abruptly—and I say that confidently as the only people who think that’s a spoiler are currently waiting for the coyote to catch the road runner, or they’re positive that the professor’s plan is sure to get Gilligan and company off the island this time. Read for the character development or even the romance, I kind of like it. The sheer and abject depression that Bond sinks into at the realization that his job holds him in the lifetime stranglehold of a gang, poisoning all other aspects of his life with danger and paranoia, really goes a long way to explain why James Bond is the way he is. Because otherwise, I’m afraid I just wouldn’t understand why any man would want to travel to the most interesting places on earth and have anonymous, consequence-free sex with countless beautiful women and experience rejection less often than a customer in a McDonald’s drive-through. Completely baffling.

The Maze Runner – James Dashner

Maze

Let’s play critical mad libs. I’ll give you a list of phrases, and you fill in the blanks to write a review about any movie, book, or game you want! Here are some popular ones:

“It’s like (title) meets (another title)!”
“Fans of (title) won’t want to miss this!”
“Picture (title), but on a (recreational drug) trip!”
“Come see this year’s (last year’s big success that nothing could ever possibly live up to)!”
“It’s (title) for (kids / grown-ups / the elderly / hamsters / guys who sell inflatable dolls at sex shops)!”

And if all those fail, you can’t go wrong with:

“Die Hard (on / in) a (vehicle / building / world heritage site / piece of furniture / inventory item from sex shop)!”

With this criteria laid out, my job becomes easy. “The Maze Runner is like Ender’s Game meets Total Recall, but for kids! Fans of Divergent won’t want to miss this. Picture Battle Royale, but on a heavy dose of pot. Come read this year’s Hunger Games. It’s like Die Hard in a post-apocalyptic sci-fi reproduction of the Cretan labyrinth!”

The point, of course, being that The Maze Runner might be a fun read, but it’s been done before.

The Maze Runner is your pretty standard, run-of-the-maze, dystopian teen murder porn. Thomas wakes up one day with a case of memory loss that would make Willie Nelson re-think his life choices (if he could remember them). Questioning the boys who find him, he learns that he’s been put in a sausage-fest hunger games in the middle of a labyrinth stocked with some spare Silent Hill monsters the game’s creators had lying around.* The boys have no clear objectives, and operate simply with a desire to map out the maze, whose walls change plans more often than the Trump administration’s, and to show up those Lord of the Flies douchebags by having a fully-functioning and ordered society.

*presumably, who were out of work after Silent Hills was canceled.

The book is okay, if you liked the Hunger Games but really didn’t like the way your head hurt after all that social relevance and critical thinking. Since the boys have the memories of a frat boy on Sunday morning, there’s no context for the maze. For all we know, the world could have become super-right-wing and wants to punish these kids for self-love, or it was destroyed in a nuclear war and the boys were stuffed away like heritage seeds by a confused biologist, or it could take place in modern times after The Bachelor ended and TV audiences ached for the next inane reality show to clear out all that pesky brain power growing in their heads. But without that, it’s kind of like being stuck on a bus in the middle of a traffic jam—the creatures around me are interesting in a grotesque can’t-look-away sort of way, and I definitely saw a lot of disturbing things that raised some weird questions, but I didn’t feel I was heading anywhere important, at least not any time soon.

The author tells us over and over that these kids are of above-average intelligence, which makes the book suffer from Ender’s Game Syndrome. Orson Scott Card kept repeating that Ender was intelligent like a younger sibling trying to get us to punch him in the face, but the only idea he ever gave us to support this idea was that Ender discovered a strategical advantage in beating and/or killing his enemies. Likewise, the Maze Runner constantly shows Thomas solving the mysteries of the maze through his brilliant strategy of having someone tell him the answers. Generally, if an author tells me a character is smart, I expect to see something clever that I wouldn’t have thought of myself. But Thomas never figures out anything on his own, and can’t even figure out what the mysterious acronym stands for when it is literally spelled out for him on a sign.

The book also fails to build up the gravity of the situation by not knowing who to kill or when to kill them. I’ve been more attached to red shirts from Star Trek than I have to the people who get taken by the maze monsters. I could tell you right now that they kill Adam without spoiling the story for you because after Thomas finds out that Adam is dead, the next line in the book literally tells us that Thomas didn’t know Adam and had never talked to him. Granted, you don’t want to swing to the George Martin extreme and build a world where characters drop dead like they dust their crops with anthrax, but a sudden death of an important character now and then might shatter the impression that running through the maze is about as dangerous as getting up to pee in the middle of the night.

I know I usually read through an entire series before reviewing it, but something told me this time around I needed to review the first book by itself. I think that was my brain’s way of telling me I needed to seriously think about whether I even want to read the rest of the series. Or maybe I could do something more productive like create a hedge maze in my backyard and re-create scenes from the movie. By which, I mean The Shining.

Thrawn trilogy (Heir to the Empire, Dark Force Rising, the Last Command) – Timothy Zahn

1-heirI might as well sacrifice one more day of applying for jobs or revising my novel in order to do something that really matters, like telling you what Jedi knights drink. It’s hot chocolate. Apparently the Jedi drink hot chocolate. The early scene in Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy where Luke tells C-3PO about the amazing drink Lando told him about pretty much encapsulates the uncanny valley of any Star Wars story not directly influenced by George Lucas. There’s just something off about this series, like when someone tells you, “I am just an average earth human

The story begins with the shattered remnants of the Imperial fleet taking a page from the Confederate South’s playbook, hoping to rise again after the war of rebel aggression. Super-top-secret Grand Admiral Thrawn, a phenomenal military tactician with a chiseled jaw, the eyes of Hannibal Lecter, and the smooth, beautiful skin of a deeply-tanned smurf, has discovered Palpatine’s old mountain full of secrets, and wants to use them to get out of the corner of the galaxy the rebels put him in to think about what he did. On his way, he discovers an old Jedi (apparently Palpatine’s order 66 was implemented about as effectively as Trump’s Muslim ban) who’s about as stable as a Jenga tower on the San Andreas fault. Fortunately, he had also just discovered a species of lizard that repels the Force, so the Jedi’s attacks had less of an impact than a carefully placed spit ball. Thrawn postulates that the Emperor had a habit of using the Force to coordinate battles (not very surprising, since we know that Qui-Gon cheated at dice, and I’m pretty sure Yoda rigged a few synchronized swimming events in his 900-year life), and strikes a deal with the new guy to do the same.

Meanwhile, Luke is drinking hot chocolate, Han knocked up Leia, Lando’s still trying to be a respectable businessman, the New Republic senators are laying a trap for Admiral Ackbar with no sense of irony whatsoever, Chewie still hasn’t torn anyone’s arms out of their sockets, and Jabba’s replacement has decided to forgo the lard-induced hedonism and actually hire his sexy sidekick—who just happens to want to murder the crap out of Luke—as his top aid.

2-darkI actually tried reading this series twice when I was younger, and both times I lost interest around the beginning of the third book. I finished this time around, but I know why the series struggles—the villains and the heroes interact about as much as I do with large sums of cash. The original movies were entirely about interaction between heroes and villains. Vader captured and tortured Leia in a way that would make Ned Stark proud. The second act of a New Hope put the heroes directly into the enemy lair, proving my mom wrong, that you can mix your lights and your darks and expect them to come out just as clean as before. Obi-Wan confronts Vader about his regrets over being a lousy teacher (trust me…any teacher who looks back at their first few years understands the urge to let your students have a free swipe at you), and Vader personally hops in a tie fighter—a ship that has the same safety rating as a bottle rocket—to take on Luke at the end. And that’s just the first movie! The Empire Strikes Back continues that trend of interaction, but changes the dynamic into that crushing disappointment you feel when you finally look up your biological father only to find out he’s waaaaay more right-wing than you’re comfortable with.

Meanwhile, Thrawn spends the trilogy sitting behind his desk like an eighth grader with an erection. He makes an intriguing character, to the point where I wished Zahn would focus less on Han and Leia and tell us more about Thrawn, but the only conflicts he has with other characters is with the Jedi he hired without checking his references. Since the Imperials immediately start bickering like Bill and Hillary, they never really get their act together in a way that threatens the heroes, and as soon as Leia starts accepting friend requests from the same species as Thrawn’s bodyguard, the bookies stopped accepting bets on the Grand Admiral’s death. Worst of all, because of this lack of interaction, the anti-Force Lizard League, and because Bonkers McNotasith doesn’t actually use a lightsaber, we never get to see Luke use his newfound Jedi powers for anything more than wisely settling a dispute between two guys in a bar. Because Star Wars fans really only wanted an intergalactic episode of Judge Judy. So with no one to fight, anytime we see Luke pull out his lightsaber, it’s usually to cut open a door, emergency escape route, or especially tightly-sealed jam jars.

However, the trilogy did make it onto several lists of top sci-fi and fantasy novels of all time, so there must be something worth reading. Even though Zahn treats the original cast like a rich kid who was given last year’s toys for Christmas (even going so far as to play up Vader as an incompetent, bumbling meathead with a short fuse—and mind you, this was years before the prequel trilogy had been written), his original characters have a lot more appeal. Thrawn truly comes off as a genius tactician, capable of predicting his opponents’ every move. The crazy Jedi gives off that same creepy, get-me-out-of-here vibe that my doctor did when he started spouting right-wing conspiracy theories during my last appointment. Even the new gangster in town, Talon Kardde, manages that Han-Solo-esque charm without feeling like a Han Solo clone. But the real star of the show is Mara Jade, the Ahab to Luke Skywalker’s Dick. Uh, Moby Dick, that is.

3-lastIf anyone has a conflict comparable to Luke’s do-I-kill-my-dad problem from the original trilogy, it’s Mara Jade. For that alone, Zahn should have written the entire book to focus on her. She’s Force-sensitive, but carries a mysterious vendetta against Luke, and while she has good reasons for it, she’s never quite clear if she wants him dead, or if she’s being manipulated by voices and dreams sent to her through the Force. Unfortunately, lacking any clear protagonist, Jade gets far too little screen time, as Zahn has clearly favored scenes of the original heroes having conversations in bars, so the one character who could give the Star Wars books an actual Star Wars feel is rarely present. But if you liked the cantina scene in A New Hope, boy are you in luck! Unless you liked it for Obi-wan’s spontaneous dismembering of the other patrons, or for the clever character development where Han Shoots Greedo in Cold Blood, thereby introducing us to the fact that Luke might be heading into deep space with a potentially crazed murderer. But if it was the dialogue and the setting you liked…good news.

So perhaps it’s a good book, but doesn’t know exactly why it’s good. I think when George Lucas extended the original trilogy to the prequels, he pretty much established that that’s the Star Wars way. Disney has taken subtle inspiration from Zahn’s novels, so it’s possible they’ll throw us a nod to Mara Jade or Grand Admiral Thrawn in episodes VIII and IX. But then again, Disney has managed to produce an episode VII where every line is less memorable than, “Mesa Jar-Jar binks.” You’ll probably just want to read the books.

In other news, I just started Final Fantasy XII. Be prepared for a lot of book reviews and possibly a few off-weeks. I’ve never finished that game in less than 100 hours.

The Elfstones of Shannara – Terry Brooks

elfstones-of-shannaraNow that our president has the motivations of a Bond villain and the brain of a kumquat, I think there’s one question on all of our minds: What post-nuclear-apocalyptic world would I most like to live in? McCarthy’s The Road? Bethesda’s Fallout? While selecting your favorite hypothetical misery, let’s not forget that science fiction doesn’t have the monopoly on the nuclear apocalypse (at least not under American business practices, where at least a half dozen corporations are vying for that monopoly themselves), and that there’s one apocalyptic landscape that actually doesn’t sound too damn bad: Shannara.

Well, technically the landscape is call “The Four Lands,” which I think perfectly encapsulates author Terry Brooks’ descriptive style of writing. Forget the clever names and fantastical languages of Tolkien! Just call everything what it is! Valley in the forest? That’s the shady vale! Ultimate lord of evil and practitioner of magic? He’s the Warlock Lord! Poultry slathered in enough grease to give half of North America heart attacks? Kentucky Fried Chicken! I didn’t even mind so much that the plot of The Sword of Shannara read like the draft had been turned in on tracing paper with The Lord of the Rings still attached; it was that Brooks simplified the adventure to the point where his nuclear landscape about elves, dwarves, and gnomes with magical swords and monsters just didn’t feel real enough. When Gandalf told Frodo he had to venture out with the One Ring, Frodo understood, “This is dangerous. I might end up being skewered by a nazgul, tortured, then dropped into a pit of lava…and that’s a best case scenario!” When Allanon told Shea Ohmsford he had to find the Sword of Shannara to defeat the Warlock Lord, he sat there smiling like a stoner listening to someone waxing on about the health benefits of blacklights. And his father, upon hearing of this quest, decided it was about time his boy leave home, go out into the world, and probably wind up in some situation where the terms “entrails,” “troll” and “chamber pot” would likely be used in conjunction. And while Frodo comes home battered and weary with a deep respect for the horrors of war and a clear case of PTSD, Shea returns from his adventure a little worse for the wear, but with a smile on his face and a sack of magic rocks.

The Elfstones of Shannara marks the point where Tolkien stopped, but Terry Brooks kept going. It’s no coincidence that the MTV series chose to start here (to avoid a lawsuit by Peter Jackson…it’s also no coincidence that they filmed in New Zealand and cast John Rhys Davies), as the reader first gets to hear plot ideas that hadn’t been abducted, beaten into submission and been forced to dance in some dive bar for 20% of all the singles stuffed into their g-strings at the end of the night. The book shifts the action to the elven kingdom of the Four Lands, where thousands of years ago, the elves rounded up a bunch of demons that were running around shredding the curtains and making a mess of the carpet, shoved them all into a magical closet called The Forbidding, and planted a tree in front of the door. At the beginning of the story, the tree is dying, and Allanon sets out to find Amberle, the elven girl charged with watering the tree, to make her do her job and fix up the tree. But rather than go himself, he decides to locate Wil Ohmsford, Shea’s grandson, who is studying with the gnomes to become a male nurse. Apparently, Allanon has fallen off the wagon because he thinks Wil would be an excellent bodyguard for Amberle because he inherited his grandpa’s sack…of rocks.

While Gandalf was a mysterious character whose actions all fell into place at the end of the story, I still wonder about Allanon’s judgment. Not only is Wil about as witty and charming as a box of cat litter, he does little to nothing through the whole story, influencing the plot about as effectively as the power of positive thinking in the cancer ward. Yet while he could often be mistaken for a potato in the middle of a conversation, he somehow has two beautiful women pursue him throughout the book (which, based on some of the guys I knew in high school, might be the most fucking realistic thing about this fantasy novel…either that or it has something to do with Wil being a doctor.). Amberle is the only character with a real inner conflict, and Eretria, from a band of Rovers who are probably still racial stereotypes even if they’re not outright called Gypsies, is the only one with an intriguing back story. There’s a fairly interesting side plot involving the younger elven prince who unexpectedly becomes king while fighting back the demons, but other than that characters come and go like the story takes place in a public restroom, and they all have less development and characterization than the Taco Bell cashier who always tells me my change in pennies.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from the Johnny Quest syndrome (where something nostalgic turns out to be bland, poorly written and just a little bit racist), but even so it wasn’t painful to read. I know that’s like saying, “Eat at Chipotle! It won’t give you a lot of gas!” But the main draw of fantasy stories comes from magic and adventure rather than meaningful character development, and at the very least the adventure is there. There’s no shortage of demons to stalk, shriek and shred their way through minor heroes until the Elfstones light them up like someone dropped a Zippo onto an oil spill. Brooks’ books have always been rather hit or miss, and I still prefer this one to any of the others I’ve read. There’s a blurb for the next edition, “Elfstones of Shannara: Not bad for Brooks!”

Legends of the Dark Crystal – Barbara Kesel

legendsJanuary 25th, 2017

Day 5

President Goldfinger has been in office for five days. He’s already hacked apart healthcare, fired all U.S. Ambassadors, waged personal war against the CIA and the media, forced poor people to pay more for housing, ordered an oil pipeline through a Native American water source, started redecorating the White House to look like Scrooge’s money bin, enacted Orwellian language with his “Alternative Facts,” created jobs by refusing to hire people for anything ever, took the first steps to crashing the economy with his own version of the Great Wall of Gyna, cut funding for arts, and threatened to invade Chicago. And it’s only 9:30 on Wednesday. Assuming that in the last two months, he hasn’t resigned, been impeached and/or committed, or drowned after seeing his reflection in the D.C. reflecting pool and falling in when he tried to grab it by the pussy, I’m sure we all need something to take our minds off of the horrible atrocities. So here’s a story about an evil race of greedy, conniving, narcissistic monsters who destroy an entire planet in their lust for power and declare war on an entire race of people who they want to lock up for no reason other than draining their essence and feeding it to their emperor (which, if there hasn’t been a White House executive order yet…just wait).

Legends of the Dark Crystal, a two-volume manga released in 2010, takes everyone back into the world of Thra in order to give us more of what we wanted from the movie…gelflings, apparently. Lots and lots of gelflings (You know, just once I’d like to see one of these things grow into an adult gelf). The story focuses on Lahr and Neffi, who both sound like they’re on Thra as part of a Scandinavian gelfling exchange program. Neffi is a weaver and Larh herds mounders (giant cattle that look like someone runs a christmas tree farm on top of a muppet). Both of them begin the story away from their respective tribes when their villages come down with a serious case of crabs. The Skeksis have sent their garthim—the monsters from the movie that look like someone cross bred a lobster and a kabuto beetle in a pile of radioactive goo—to harvest gelfings for their essence. Skeksis have no brains for sustainability. Rather than start a gelfling breeding program (which, I’ll concede, might not exactly attract the same target audience as the movie), they just round them up and drink them all like mountain dew at an all-night LAN party. And the rest of the story is about Lahr and Neffi warning other gelflings about the raids and trying to rescue their villages.

To be fair, the book does focus on the Skeksis about as much as the movie does, which is probably the perfect dose. Much like drunks, republicans and small children, their antics are entertaining, but if we see too much of them the novelty wears off and we start eying up the exits. There’s a major subplot following the Chamberlain trying to manipulate his way into favor with the emperor. In one scene, he employs the castle vermin as spies, which gives him a weird sort of Stewie Griffin vibe, briefing his toys before battle. But barring that one scene that strikes fear in the hearts of Smurfs, Care Bears and plastic army men, the Skeksis feel like they could school George Martin characters on how to connive and plot and ruin a country.

The sole problem I found with the Skeksis is their design. Henson’s studios did an excellent job of making each monster look like it withered out of its own, unique reptile-fruit hybrid. But in a black-and-white manga, it’s a little harder to discern one from another. The Chamberlain gives of his characteristic whimper like he’s standing around in an art museum trying to look thoughtful and deep to the people passing by, but when that’s not there to clue you in, each Skeksis’ beak changes in length, they’re all the same height, equally cranky, and dressed like they’re trying to shoplift lawnmowers out of Sears. I’ve had less trouble discerning individual squirrels from each other than figuring out which Skeksis was which.

The gelfling plot is enough to carry the story, but will be damned if it’s lifting it up one more flight of stairs! Lahr and Neffi are a bit bland, but if you remember the movie, Jen wasn’t even vanilla enough to flavor a bucket of ice cream. That story was carried entirely by the Skeksis, Augrah, the confusingly hot gelfling girl, and her rabid dust bunny, Fizzgig. So ultimately, the tone is about the same, except for the fact that it’s no longer as sombre as a documentary about starving orphans. The story, though, while not being quite up to the movie quality, flushes out the world of Thra some more, adding history and variety to the landscape.

Shadows of the Dark Crystal – J.M. Lee

shadowsIf books were children, the treatment I’ve given them lately may not land me in jail, but I might get a stern talking-to by Social Services. Oh, the ironies of teaching literature, spending all day long with books and coming home without enough energy to charge a cell phone while it’s still on. If I had book shelves beneath my stairs, I could compare myself to the Dursleys, literally keeping Harry Potter in the pantry all the time. As such, I feel that the last few books I’ve read, I’ve been about as fair and balanced as a rusted-out bathroom scale shoved in a closet in a Fox News studio. Fortunately, I’ve found one I can get through and enjoy without the regret of wasted time and money you get when the high class escort girl you hired isn’t the one from the picture on the website. What’s more, the book stems from the world of the 80-minute Jim Henson production, The Dark Crystal. Managing to make a movie-based book that expands the lore and, what’s more, manages to capture the Jim Henson feel without the muppets, is a task that ranks up there with slaying the Nemean lion, destroying the One Ring, and reading a presidential ballot when you want to vote for the guy who hates words. But somehow, author J.M. Lee managed to bring skeksis back with his book, Shadows of the Dark Crystal.

skeksisThe book serves as a distant prequel to the Dark Crystal film, set way back in a time when gelflings weren’t harder to find than a Mormon strip club. In fact, the skeksis employed them as guards in their palace, and the gelflings served with a sense of pride, patriotism, and Stockholm syndrome that would rival that of even Hispanic and female Trump voters. (Preemptive apology for any political tone in today’s post, but I’m writing less than a week after the election, and we in the U.S. are currently a little worried that our hallowed democracy and electoral college will soon be replaced with “Trial By Stone!”) Naia, a swamp gelfling, receives word that her brother, one of the aforementioned guards self-flagellating themselves in service to Trump’s Satan’s Parakeets, is on trial for treason. The only thing preventing the skeksis from beating him over the head with a lead bucket of propaganda for an hour—mostly to tenderize the meat for later—and using the remaining pulp to thicken their soup is that they can’t find him. But since punishment is always entertaining whether or not there’s a legitimate crime to go with it (as per standard Republican philosophy), the skeksis insist that someone stand trail in his place, and call for a member of his family (dear God, I’m glad Trump can’t read. This book would give him too many ideas.). From there, Naia begins her journey to discover a horrible, dark, and twisted secret that anyone who’s seen the movie kind of already sort of knew.

For starters, she discovers the Crystal is no longer pure and white, but dark and corrupted (which finally breaks the trend of Republican comparisons, as the GOP is somehow all four of those at once). I thought about marking that as a spoiler, but again like the Republicans, anyone who’s paying attention has known that since 1982. Furthermore, the dark secret Naia needs to tell the world is that the skeksis have been eating the gelflings, draining their essence and turning them into empty husks to use as slaves, much like…okay, do I even have to keep saying this? [sigh] Sadly, we’ve been promised that the federal minimum wage is going the way of the gelfling.

Enough political stuff. Let’s return to a cheerier subject: a world ruled by the iron fists of a group of bloated, decomposing lizards with a wardrobe that looks like a drag queen who’s been run through a wood chipper.

Author J.M. Lee does a marvelous job showing us things we’ve known about for 35 years. And while that sounds like my normal humor rhetoric, I’m actually serious. Jim Henson, the Rembrandt of Muppetry, does such an amazing job of creature design and world building that the finer aspects of his own story fly by like a heavy dose of gamma radiation—it may be invisible, but it’s still there, and it affects us deeply, way down inside, in a way that changes us forever. Before reading Shadows of the Dark Crystal, I had always looked at the essence-draining like any other ticking clock in an adventure movie. But the treatment Lee gives it in his book would send chills down Stephen King’s spine (although considering he’s responsible for a book with a climactic showdown with flying clams who devour an airport, that may be a low bar to jump).

Naturally, no book would be fun to write about if it were flawless enough to be the child of Mother Theresa and Jesus. The pacing, especially in the early-middle part of the book, drops with a lot of introspection and a burgeoning love plot with a gelfling singer-songwriter one-hit-wonder that thankfully pays off like a Wells Fargo savings account. Ultimately they don’t shoehorn the romance in, but like the Wells Fargo account, it makes me wonder if there were a better way I could have invested my resources. I mentioned Jim Henson’s world building and creature creation before, which admittedly is responsible for much of the film’s success and everyone’s fascination with mangy vultures dressed like Elton John if he were in the Thriller video. Lee, on the other hand, could start a game of Minecraft with the goal of making a birch tree. Almost none of the creatures he creates are unique or expand the world in any way. Granted, if he had done something stupid like create a race of Big Bird monsters, I’d probably be even angrier, but the reason I read novels like this is because trying to get my fix of an excellent movie that’s only 80 minutes long is like trying to enjoy a box of porn that contains nothing but a DVD with the sex scene from Terminator, a screenshot of Jennifer Connelly from Career Opportunities, and a Medieval manuscript illustrated by a monk who lived in an entirely male community for sixty years.

the_skeksis-yearbook

And I thought my yearbook photo was bad…

Fortunately, despite the flaws, the novel delivers. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m assuming Trump was inaugurated about a week ago, which means I have to find a gelfling before the Great Conjunction or he’ll live forever. In which case, I’m moving to New Zealand.