Book Review: “Double Eagle” by Dan Abnett

de-abnettWhen I was a child, one of my favorite activities was to browse books about fighters and bombers and envision dogfights between them. I would read all kinds of books on World War 2, and particularly enjoyed those that involved these big air battles. I’ve also been a fan of the Warhammer 40k Universe (hereafter WH40k) and its fiction. I have only played the tabletop game once, but I think the universe is extremely interesting and engaging. Thus, when I saw Double Eagle at a book store some time ago, I snagged it. A book about dogfighting in the WH40k world? What could go wrong? It’s been sitting around waiting to be read for a few years, but I finally got around to it.

Dan Abnett has written a number of engaging and realistic characters in this narrative. Each protagonist has realistic motivations and interesting development throughout the book. I quite enjoyed reading about the characters and how the reacted to the changing events.

Unfortunately, the enemies are flatly one-dimensional, in contrast to the full-bodied main characters. There is one antagonist who keeps popping up, but even this “Killer” lacks any serious development beyond a desire to toy with the protagonists. This problem is made even more obvious by the contrast with the protagonists. IT would have been awesome had even one of the “bad guys” been given some kind of backstory to flesh them out.

Another major problem with the book is the lack of description of the vehicles involved in the combat. I don’t think I missed this anywhere, but it largely seemed like the planes and carriers involved were just given names for descriptions. I understand that this is set within a known universe that involves miniatures and the like, but the lack of description for the vehicles throughout the book made it difficult to envision the combat. The combat itself is pretty well-written, though not as interesting as I’ve found other works by Abnett. There are vivid enough descriptions of how the fighters and bombers fly about in the various dogfights. However, because of the lack of in-depth description of the vehicles or even their armaments, it all collapses down into whatever readers can come up with to fill in the blanks. I even found myself surprised at one point to discover one type of plane was a bomber rather than a fighter. I think this is pretty inexcusable, even for a work set within a known universe.

A similar issue comes up with the stage upon which the story is set. There is a map in the front pages of the book, but this is about as far as the description of the planet itself goes. Little time is dedicated to letting readers know what kind of planet is being fought for, why it is in the middle of this fighting (apart from being involved in a Crusade), or why readers should care about it. This lends itself to an overall feeling of blandness that colors not just the vehicles but also the setting on which the scenes are staged.

wanted to love Double Eagle, and the protagonists do a good job trying to sell readers on the concept, but in the end the serious lack of development of antagonists, world, and vehicles made it difficult to get into. Abnett has much better works out there.

The Good

+Realistic, full-bodied protagonists
+Decent action

The Bad

-One-dimensional enemies
-Little description of vehicles involved

The Verdict

Grade: C+ “Intriguing characters are hampered by the bland backdrop upon which they are set.”

SDG.

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80s Fantasy Movie Review: “Excalibur”

excalibur-poster

I’m not sure if you can get more 80s epic than this onto a single poster.

I have embarked on a quest to watch a number of 80s Fantasy flicks and share my findings with you, dear readers. Here, I review “Excalibur,” the tale of King Arthur. This is another one I hadn’t seen before, so my reflections are from that perspective. There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Review

“Excalibur” is really hard for me to judge. At times a grand epic with awesome fights, grand scenes, and epic stories, it threatened to sweep me away in its glories. Unfortunately, at other times it is weird, grotesque, and confusing to the extent that it made me want to skip scenes entirely.

I think the biggest problem with the film is that it bites off more than it can chew. It throws so much of Arthur’s story at viewers that it sometimes feels like a lesson in legend, but it does so in a fashion that fails to grasp several of the moments that it wants to be epic. Much of the story seems unexplained to the point that it is just assumed that you as the viewer know what’s happening, and that you must think it is epic. I admit only a passing familiarity with the story of King Arthur, but this movie made me feel like a complete novice. There’s a lot there, and the scope of it is pretty cool at times, but that same scope is daunting.

Another huge flaw is the weirdness of the move in parts. Unneeded nudity is scattered throughout (and has its own weirdness, like one sex scene that has Bambi featured on screen [not actually Bambi]), and some really gross moments happen (like seeing ravens picking at the flesh of dead men hanging from trees).The music isn’t great, apart from some pretty awesome insertions of O Fortuna into the flick, such as the final battle. The scenery also didn’t seem like it was utilized as well as it could have been.

On the other hand, the fighting scenes are pretty exciting, with numerous notable and exciting battles on horseback and off. The story is pretty epic, despite being really hard to follow throughout. Enemies rise and fall, and the theme throughout seems to be of a dream that humanity cannot quite grasp–spoken to by Merlin–that human hearts contain the potential for great evil that is all-too-often exercised so needlessly. The ending is pretty epic as well.

So yeah, this is gonna be a really tough movie to grade. You know that thing that teachers do in which they can’t decide what grade to give you so they give you A-/B+? I’m about to do that to the nth degree.

The Good

+Progressively gets more epic
+Arthur’s accent is sweet
+Cool round table
+Patrick Stewart is in this
+Really cool plot, if a bit too much

The Bad

-Merlin is too young
-Super creepy/weird/scandalous/unnecessary scenes all over
-The music’s not great (except for O Fortuna)
-Gratuitous weirdness and gross/weird factor

The Verdict

My Score: A-/D- “It oscillates between awesome and ‘what the heck!?'” [Okay, if I was forced at gunpoint to pick a grade, I’d give it a “B” but it is a really strong/weak B. Okay, maybe a B-. An A? D? F? I prefer A-/D-.]

Conclusion

A really epic and really not epic story of King Arthur. I’d watch it again, but only with the ability to skip through about 35% of the movie.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Time to Watch some 80s Fantasy Flicks– I describe my quest to watch a bunch of 80s fantasy movies. This post also features links to all the reviews done so far.

A Ranking of 1980s Fantasy that would please Crom Himself– The original list of movies that made me embark on this quest.

SDG.

Star Trek: TNG Season 5: “Power Play” and “Ethics”

ethics

Oh, what are we up to now? Casually casting aside centuries of medical ethics and practice, are we?

I’m going through “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and reviewing every episode, complete with commentary and a grade from A-F. I’ve also included a score and comment from my wife, who has never seen the show before. There are SPOILERS for each episode below.

“Power Play”

Plot

The Enterprise investigates a distress call only to have O’Brien, Troi, and Data taken over by alien energy beings. They attempt to hijack the ship in order to bring aboard more of their beings, but their initial attempt fails, only to have them instead take hostages in Ten Forward. As the hostage situation continues, the crew attempts to find ways to thwart the aliens, which largely only infuriate them more. Ultimately, Dr. Crusher finds a way to put the beings in stasis, just in time to save the ship.

Commentary

“Power Play” is a pretty intense episode based on a premise we’ve seen plenty of times before: foreign entities attempt to take over the ship. The reasons it managed to avoid feeling like a major case of deja vu were first, by involving secondary characters deeply in the drama and danger; second, by making tertiary characters more central; and third, by having just enough twists to keep viewers interested.

It was a great decision to make Chief O’Brien and Ensign Ro deeply involved in the plot, because it made the episode feel fresh despite having a plot that has largely been done before. Moreover, involving characters like Keiko O’Brien in the danger as well, because this made it feel as though someone might actually be in danger. Again, we know that unless an actor decides to leave, no main character is going to die off in TNG, so when characters who might recur show up and get in danger, it feels more real than when Riker gets in trouble for the hundredth time.

The plot itself is straightforward, but having the twist where the aliens weren’t actually what they claimed to be–marooned Starfleet people–was a bit unexpected and made it seem all the more genuine.

Also, here’s an epic quote:
Data: “Lieutenant, I must apologize for my inadvertent misconduct toward you.”
Worf: “No apology necessary.”
Data: “Your restraint was most remarkable.”
Worf: “You have no idea.”

“Power Play” is the kind of episode that could have gone very poorly, but featured enough unique plot points to rehash a similar story without feeling old or overdone.

Grade: B+ “Engaging and foreboding, ‘Power Play’ is enough to keep viewers entertained.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: A- “I really enjoyed the suspense of figuring out who was possessing their bodies and the problem-solving that the crew went through. Also, Dr. Crusher saves the day!”

“Ethics”

Plot

Worf gets severely injured and may have permanent paralysis. This leads to his decision to try to end his own life, because for a Klingon, his life may as well be over. As the crew struggles to come to grips with this decision, Dr. Crusher has a showdown with Dr. Toby Russell, a neurological specialist, over whether to try a risky procedure that could regrow Worf’s spine. When tested methods fail to satisfy Worf, he makes the decision to ask Riker to help end his life. Riker argues that Worf must instead ask Alexander and explain it to his son. Dr. Russell, however, intervenes and suggests the risky surgery to Worf, who accepts. After apparently dying in surgery, Worf pulls through and it appears his functions will return to normal. Dr. Russell receives a stern lecture from Dr. Crusher.

Commentary

There are lots of lectures and even tongue-lashings in this episode, which was largely an exploration of ethical problems related to medicine and euthanasia. Despite this focus on the ethical questions the episode raised, there is a solid amount of plot here, even acknowledging the mostly throwaway side plot of a rescue mission the Enterprise is taking on. Sure, it’s not full of action, but the plot here centers around the characters, and the amount of investment the series has put into these characters shows through.

See, I think it must have been a tough sell to say “Let’s make an episode in which most of the main characters spend the whole time talking.” But, it weirdly works. Riker’s reservations about helping Worf were spot on. Picard’s insistence on maintaining respect for different cultural norms was also in character, though perhaps a bit more heated than one might expect. Dr. Crusher’s insistence on thoroughness and her scathing critique of Dr. Russell is probably the highlight of the episode. At the end, she acknowledges that the risk saved Worf, but her lines about the need for medical procedure and testing in environments with less risk was both in character and also on point.

The acting throughout is also great, which it would have to be if we’re supposed to believe the people are actually struggling with the issues being raised. Even Worf’s interactions with Alexander were touching.

Perhaps the biggest issue with the episode is one hinted at in the previous episode: as a viewer, you pretty much know Worf will pull through. I mean I knew this because I’ve seen the series and Deep Space Nine, but even before, you always knew the main characters would somehow make it out. I’m not sure if this episode would have worked if they had chosen a secondary or guest character to be the focus of the episode, but it would have been more dramatic as a viewer to have someone to whom something like paralysis or death could actually be permanent.

Overall, though, the episode was intriguing and emotionally powerful. It wasn’t the most exciting episode, but it was good to watch.

Grade: B+ “Lots of lecturing, but the questions it raised were deep, and the drama centering on Worf was very solid.”

Wife’s Grade and Comment: B+ “‘Ethics’ featured some excellent acting but the story suffered from unexplained canister collapse and too many monologues.” 

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Star Trek: TNG– For more episode reviews, follow this site and also click this link to read more (scroll down as needed)! Drop me a comment to let me know what you thought!

SDG.

Re-Read of “The Legend of Drizzt” – The Dark Elf Trilogy

drizzt-IIt has been many years (13 or so) since I read the tales of the Legend of Drizzt Saga. For those who are familiar with this series, the name evokes memories of adventurous tales of grand action. For the uninitiated, these books are perhaps the definitive experience for those wanting to read fantasy works set in the universe of Dungeons and Dragons. Nerd hats on, everybody. I recently decided to re-read the adventure and picked up an omnibus edition labeled “I” for the Legend of Drizzt. Interestingly, they opted to put the prequel, “The Dark Elf Trilogy” first rather than putting them in published order. No matter! We begin our foray into the Drizzt saga with the Dark Elf Trilogy.

The Dark Elf Trilogy

I’m not going to summarize the plot (see summary here [click each book for more summary]), but the basics are that there is a Dark Elf (AKA Drow) named Drizzt Do’Urden growing up in one of the cities of the Drow, Menzoberranzan. He and his father, Zaknafein, do not conform to the moral corruptness and insatiable lust for power that perpetuates in Drow society. Because of this, Drizzt rejects his people and flees into the Underdark, where he meets some friends as he avoids encounters with his deadly family. Finally, he emerges on the surface.

I have to say I enjoyed re-reading the trilogy very much. The world is particularly well developed, with a true sense of vastness and complexity that makes readers excited to explore further. The story also has a pretty broad scope, stretching across years, conflicts, and realms in order to bring it to fruition. The setting is pretty phenomenal.

There is surprising depth to some of the moral issues raised in the book, despite having a fairly simplistic view of good and evil (see characters, below). Drizzt’s struggle to reconcile his moral compass with his upbringing is intriguing, and his father’s own struggles observing Drizzt is emotionally engaging. It’s pretty impressive that Salvatore included a decent depth of these issues in a series that is, at base, a tie-in for a role-playing game.

The action, when it happens, is always intense. Although the action scenes are perhaps not as well-executed as some other stories’, they are engaging and hard-hitting when they do happen. I was never bored or put off by them, which is sometimes hard to do. Too much action or poorly written action is worse than no action at all.

That said, there are some pretty big issues here. The most obvious one is there are major issues with pacing in these books, particularly in Exile. It felt like there were stretches of 50 or so pages in which almost nothing happened. Drizzt is in a tunnel. He is lonely. He encounters a beasty. He is sad. These sections drag on for seemingly interminable lengths and make reading the books at time feel like a chore. Thankfully, the style they’re written in makes them very quick reads, so it is easy to churn through these sections, but it remains a major difficulty with the trilogy.

Another issue is that most of the characters lack depth. There is little backstory or even hints of backstory to them. Characters are sorted into simplistic black-and-white good-and-evil categories that make it difficult to care much about what backstory there is at points. There are exceptions, like Zaknafein, but overall there just isn’t much to care about for the other characters.

Overall, “The Dark Elf Trilogy” is an enjoyable read that I’m glad I took the time to go back through. It’s been a long time since I’ve visited these books, and I’m intrigued about what will come next!

The Good

+Overarching plot very interesting
+The world of the Underdark is unique and well-developed
+Impressive scope
+Surprisingly deep looks at moral issues at points

The Bad

-Pacing issues abound
-Most side characters lack depth

The Verdict

Grade: B- “It drags at times, but ‘The Dark Elf’ Trilogy is an intriguing introduction to a fantasy legend.”

What do you think?

SDG.

80s Fantasy Movie Review: “The Last Unicorn”

80s Movies have the best Posters. Seriously.

80s Movies have the best Posters. Seriously.

I have embarked on a quest to watch a number of 80s Fantasy flicks and share my findings with you, dear readers. Today, we reflect on “The Last Unicorn.” One of the only animated films on the list, I was pretty excited about this one because 80s and Unicorns pretty much are synonymous in some weird sense to me. Anyway, here goes! There will be SPOILERS in what follows.

Review

First off, can we all just agree that Prince Lir is the original brony?

Anyway, “The Last Unicorn” has some undeniable charm that just wriggles its way into you as you’re watching, despite it being absolutely terrifyingly strange. The plot itself is a neat fairy tale: a unicorn discovers she’s the last one in all the land and looks to find out if that is actually true. After being rescued from imprisonment by Schmendrick, an aspiring wizard, she discovers that she must track down the Red Bull, which has apparently chased all the unicorns into the sea for the pleasure of King Haggard. Ultimately, with the help of a pirate cat, Molly, and Prince Lir, the unicorn manages to fight back against the Red Bull and cast it into the sea, releasing all the other unicorns and tumbling King Haggard’s tower to the ground.

At times, the story is genuinely disturbing, at other times it is lighthearted. King Haggard, for example, is extremely disturbed. He once saw a unicorn and it made him happy. So what does he decide to do? Use the Red Bull to gather them all and throw them into the ocean so they will be trapped there forever, such that whenever the wave rolls in he can see them and delight in their misery. I’m not making this up. On the flip side, it’s hard not to take some joy in there being unicorns, a talking pirate cat, and other fun characters to uplift the heart from the genuine darkness of the main plot.

It’s very much like a fairy tale, but that brings its own pitfalls along with it, such as the complete lack of explanation or background to many key plot points (like the Red Bull). Moreover, there is an awful lot of 80s weirdness here. A busty elderly woman/tree attempts to smother Schmendrick after a failed attempt to use magic, for example. Awkward! Another example: the butterfly near the beginning of the movie randomly calls the unicorn “Mary Jane.” It’s the 80s folks.

The soundtrack by AMERICA, in my opinion, leaves something to be desired. It is also a huge part of the movie, as characters just burst into song at random. The theme song is kinda catchy but I’m just not sold on the breathiness of the lyrics or the strange folksy style. Just not my cup of tea.

Despite these criticisms, there is something that just captures you and draws you in as a viewer in this movie. It’s got that haunting sense of loss to it that the best fairy tales have,. Even though it ends happily, I can’t help but feel a sense of loss and even foreboding about it. I have a feeling this one’s going to stick with me a while.

The amount you enjoy this movie will depend on how much of the weirdness you can swallow. I enjoyed it well enough, but I don’t think I’ll watch it again.

The Good

+Pretty animation with some anime style
+Super creepy bad guy
+Catchy theme song even if it’s not the greatest

The Bad

-Weird moments abound
-Music is REALLY 80s/breathy
-Creepy!
-Plot elements largely unexplained

The Verdict

My Score: C+ “Super weird but still has some undeniable allure.”

Guest Verdict (My wife, Beth): B+ “It was a charming and enjoyable unicorn story.”

Conclusion

“The Last Unicorn” isn’t a terrible movie. In fact, I think it’s kind of good… it just really wasn’t my cup of tea.

The Movie poster is not my property and I use it under fair use.

Links

J.W. Wartick- Always Have a Reason– Check out my “main site” which talks about philosophy of religion, theology, and Christian apologetics (among other random topics). I love science fiction so that comes up integrated with theology fairly frequently as well. I’d love to have you follow there, too!

Be sure to follow me on Twitter for discussion of posts, links to other pages of interest, random talk about theology/philosophy/apologetics/movies/scifi/sports and more!

Time to Watch some 80s Fantasy Flicks– I describe my quest to watch a bunch of 80s fantasy movies. This post also features links to all the reviews done so far.

A Ranking of 1980s Fantasy that would please Crom Himself– The original list of movies that made me embark on this quest.

SDG.