Wednesday, May 30, 2012

King's Masterpiece : Dark Tower Series : 1. The Gunslinger

In THE GUNSLINGER, Stephen King introduces readers to one of his most enigmatic heroes, Roland of Gilead, the Last Gunslinger. He is a haunting figure, a loner, on a spellbinding journey into good and evil, in a desolate world which frighteningly echoes our own.

In his first step towards the powerful and mysterious Dark Tower, Roland encounters an alluring woman named Alice, begins a friendship with Jake, a kid from New York, and faces an agonizing choice between damnation and salvation as he pursues the Man in Black.

Both grippingly realistic and eerily dreamlike, THE GUNSLINGER leaves readers eagerly awaiting the next chapter.

What can be said about "The Gunslinger" and "The Dark Tower" that hasn't already been said? In truth, probably very little. But here goes...

I approached this series as a steadfast avoider of King's works. Growing up as a child, I'd seen a few of his films and read none of his books and for the most part I believed King's body of work to be a thing I would never actively seek out. That's not to say it was bad or that it was even distasteful. But I'd ignorantly resigned myself to the fact that all of King's works were of the horror genre, and that simply did not interest me. So vested was I in this belief that as I entered my teens and became more and more aware that King's stories spanned a much broader swathe of the literary buffet table, even so I was unwilling to give King's books a chance.

I'd seen "It" as a child and it properly frightened me. I'd seen both versions of "The Shining". I'd seen "Misery" several times before I was 14. These were all films that made me 'uncomfortable'. Yet I found "Misery" to be a fascinating film and willingly returned to. I saw and enjoyed "The Green Mile", only to discover later that it was a work of King's. The same was true for "Schawshank".

The evidence was slamming me in the face like a brick that there were great stories to be enjoyed by Mr King, and yet I steadfastly refused to give most of King's work a chance. "The Dark Tower" certainly wasn't going to receive a moment of my attention. My friend mentioned he was reading the series and how good it was. Indeed I was aware of the series, as you couldn't enter any bookstore without seeing them everywhere. The series had recently (at the time) been republished in anticipation of the the release of books VI and VII, concluding the series. The lasting image in my mind was that acid-green cover to "The Waste Lands" all over every bookshop window in town. It looked looked said "Stephen King" on the cover. Despite having a healthier appetite for the horror genre than I'd had in my youth, despite knowing full-well that King wrote excellent stories, despite actually knowing absolutely nothing whatsoever about the plot of the books I couldn't have possibly cared less.

It was about two years ago when I stumbled upon a story surrounding the planned film adaptation of the series that I began to take interest. The story mentioned very briefly (a single paragraph) that (and I'm paraphrasing), [Stephen King's epic, inspired by such works as J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings' and westerns such as 'Gunsmoke' and Sergio Leone's "Man with No Name Trilogy" starring Clint Eastwood, would soon be adapted into a major motion picture series.]

I was flabbergasted. I was a life-long Tolkien fan myself and couldn't believe that this man whom I'd spent so much of my time actively avoiding could possibly have anything in common with my favourite author of all-time. I immediately began researching "The Dark Tower" (initially expecting to find that the author of the aforementioned article would surely have made some grave error). I soon learned that Stephen King had indeed been inspired by Tolkien in his youth, as had so many of his generation. I read that King had decided that he wanted to write a fantasy (not horror!) epic of his very own...but that he didn't want it to be concerned with elves, wizards and dragons as there was so much of that around already. It had been done well (by Tolkien) and it had been done a lot (by everyone else). The market was saturated.

Instead, King opted to wait...and contemplated what would become "his" epic. This eventually came to be published in a seven-volume series (soon to contain an eighth) beginning with "The Gunslinger"...which is what this review is really supposed to be about anyway.

The very fact that a 'fantasy' series could involve a 'Gunslinger' rather than...well, rather than what I was accustomed to seeing in my fantasy stories...was enough for me to track down an online-copy of the first chapter of "The Gunslinger". Like so many before me, I was hooked from the first line.

"The Man in Black fled across the desert, and The Gunslinger followed."

An absolutely perfect way to begin a tale, and I rank it just as highly as ever I have Tolkien's own introduction to his world, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." It's a short line...a memorable line...and it instantaneously demanded my attention. It forced me to read on, made me want to know more.

Who was this Man in Black? Why was he fleeing and who was he fleeing from? Was he fleeing from The Gunslinger, or was he unaware he was being tracked and was simply fleeing for other reasons? And who was The Gunslinger? Why did he chase this unnamed man, who must surely be a villain (being so attired)?

We soon learn that The Gunslinger is Roland Deschain, and his role as "Gunslinger" could be equated to "Keeper of the Peace", "Preserver", even "knight". It is or was his task to stop his world from 'moving on'...but he has failed in his task to do so. The world has moved on Roland is the last of his kind and nothing is as it used to be. The changes which are happening are linked to the mysterious Man in Black, and the mythical tower, which supposedly stands as the centre the intersection of many words or universes. A change is happening there, and not for the better. Roland's quest is to reach this tower for what ultimate purpose is not known. Will he succeed? what friends and enemies will he make along the way? The choices he makes will affect not only his world, but all worlds including our own. But is it choice, or is it Ka..."destiny"?

I approached this series as a lover of Tolkien's works. It is with such an eye and mind that I have unavoidably cast judgement upon Roland Deschain and his world, his friends, his quest and his stories. Tolkien believed that an author does not 'create' stories. The stories are already there like leaves on a great tree of stories. An author simply finds or selects the story and it is his job to tell it in a successful way a task he referred to as 'sub-creation'. Tolkien believed that with any genre this sub-creation was the difficult part of storytelling, and the trick to successful sub-creation was to do so in such a way so as to encourage your readers to invest in and believe in your story. Once you question it once you begin to think that what you're reading doesn't work or make sense, the spell is broken and the art of sub-creation has failed.

Tolkien believed this to be particularly difficult when dealing with the fantasy genre. After all, it's much easier to get a reader to invest in and believe in a story concerning 'real world' events such as modern or historically factual warfare, a detective story, a romance novel, murderous thriller than it is to ask a reader to believe a man can fly, or that dragons walked the earth, or that hobbits used to be as natural a part of this world as men. If you can tell such a story sub-create it successfully and your readers are invested and come along willingly to where you take them then you truly have made something special.

I am proud to say that Stephen King has made a convert of me. Not only am I enamored with King's sub-creation of all things concerning Roland, but I have a strong desire to read other works by King, particularly those which "link" or "connect" with "The Dark Tower" (e.g., 'The Stand'). That is perhaps the greatest praise I can offer, considering my previously ignorant and stubborn unwillingness to try to meet him halfway. 

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mythology at its best!!!

As soon as I had read (and reviewed) “The Immortals of Meluha“, I knew I had to read the sequel. It was too interesting to leave the trilogy midway and not know what happens next. 

"The secret of the Nagas" is the second part of the Shiva trilogy and is a sequel to the book "The immortals of Meluha. It's a fictional account of the famous Indian god Lord Shiva. The second book begins exactly where the first had ended, in the land of the Chandravanshis, Swadweep. Shiva is trying to find the Nagas who have killed Brahaspati, a brother like figure to Shiva. While on the trail he discovers various facts, meets different people making him ponder about good and evil while also uncovering many interesting facts about the Nagas. Various events lead him to question his mission and if it actually serves it's purpose.

The Secret of the Nagas is a fitting sequel to the Immortals of Meluha. This book leaves you with the same experience as the previous one although it's never repetitive and even more adventurous. As you read more you seep into Indian mythology discovering various facts about gods, rivers, war techniques, customs of various sects, religion, cultural practices while never being disengaged from the plot. As, in the first book Shiva is always on the move, traveling to different places. His relationship with Sati and other central characters evolve and many new characters are also introduced. The author gives a very good back story to each character and does a very good job in providing the perspectives of different cultures through the characters.

Being Indian, I have grown up on stories of different gods giving numerous examples of bravery, good and their quest in the destruction of evil. But, there was always an alien connection with the stories, in the sense that the stories told comprised of people who were more than the average human making the characters always larger than life and non-believable. The best part of this trilogy is, it sort of dispels that notion and treats the protagonist, Shiva, like a regular individual but with the exception that the destiny of God awaits him, making it lot easier to relate with the character. 

All in all, the book was a fantastic read, continuously engaging and adventurous. The suspense and the interesting dialogues never let the book get boring. The negative points of the book are that the writing lacks at times, not providing the "punch" that maybe needed in certain situations. Also, Shiva's character can be further explored but the author always limits himself. He never delves into his feelings, the reader is left with a certain disappointment that, most of the time, only his actions rather than his feelings are written about. But, the plot is executed perfectly and the pieces fit into the puzzle without any blemishes. So, I would definitely recommend this book. 

This is definitely a must read and like I said when reviewing The Immortals of Meluha: "Should you read this book? Definitely. But if you hate cliff hangers (which is how this part ends) then you may be better off waiting for all the books to be released before starting on this." Part 3 : Oath of the Vayuputras is sue for release sometime next year.  

Monday, May 14, 2012

An excellent work and a great take in Indian Mythology

Part 1 of the Shiva Trilogy from Amish Tripathi. One of the first books by an Indian author to be introduced by a viral video on youtube.

The story of The Immortals of Meluha is set in 1900BC and operates on the premise that Shiva was a mortal, a simple man whom legend turned into God.

Amish summarises his fundamental premises as:

"I believe that the Hindu gods were not mythical beings or a figment of a rich imagination. I believe that they were creatures of flesh and blood, like you and me. I believe that they achieved godhood through their karma, their deeds. With these premises, an interesting read is assured."

While parts of the story are rooted in mythology and some parts are corraborated by history - like the description of town planning by the Meluhans - most parts are pure speculative fiction.

The story is very interesting and keeps you gripped. I don't want to reveal too much of the plot here, so let me try to avoid that while sketching out the basics.

The Suryavanshis are the descendants of Lord Ram who have created an extremely stable society based on strict rules and regulations. An ideal state except for a few rules that Shiva finds unfair. Shiva is a Tibetan immigrant, invited to Meluha (the land now known as the Indus Valley Civilisation) and slowly recognised as a saviour and deliverer from evil.

The evil being the Chandravanshis - who live on the opposite side of India in Swadweep between the Ganga and the Brahmaputra, that also holds Ayodhya - the birth place of Lord Ram.

At times the philosophy in the book sounds like it comes from the Matrix - "You don't earn a title after you have done your deeds... It doesn't matter what others think. It's about what you believe. Believe you are the Mahadev and you will be one"

But there are some statements that make you think and reflect and question previously held assumptions. Amish belives that the cry of Har Har Mahadev actually stems from the thought Har ek Mahadev - Each one of us, has it in us to be a Mahadev.

A lot has been said about the language in the book. While the setting is 1900BC, the language is 21st century AD, with Weapons of Mass Destruction and Departments of Immigration. At times it is difficult to reconcile the two. Amish in an interview said that he had a huge struggle with his editor/publisher about this issue. He wanted the dialogue to be more authentic and his publisher wanted it more modern.

I can empathise with the editor/publisher. The language makes this an easy book to read and will defintely increase sales. But purists searching for authenticity will be disappointed.

Personally I enjoyed the book. I can't wait for books 2 and 3. I have my suspicions, but will try and be patient. :)

Should you read this book? Definitely. But if you hate cliff hangers (which is how this part ends) then you may be better off waiting for all the books to be released before starting on this.

If you are in the least bit interested in Mythology, I guarantee that you will be intrigued.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

The Avengers : The Hulk steals the show!!

I saw the AVENGERS this weekend and, at the end, my face hurt from grinning so big. The movie unspoiled its contents and the awesome bits never stopped piling up. I am so wired I can't form a coherent thought, and so here, instead, is a salvo of stream-of-consciousness impressions, in whatever order.

Mark Ruffalo is simply terrific as the Hulk's alter (and calmer) ego. I actually prefer his interpretation of Dr. Banner over Bana's and Norton's. Ruffalo steers away from the deadening angst that made me fidget in earlier Hulk pictures. He finds a balance. This Banner exhibits a dry sense of humor but exudes this quirky, low simmer edginess. And I love Ruffalo's interactions with Downey, Jr., two swaggerful eggheads matching their test tubes against each other and applying big words. I like that there's respect between their two characters. There's an intriguing twist involving Banner's relationship with the Hulk, of which I won't say more. The Hulk - and this seems to be a unanimous impression - steals the movie.

Comic book geeks like me have recently been dogging Marvel's latest company crossover event, AVENGERS VS. X-MEN. And, yet, this film demonstrates that, sometimes, there's nothing more exhilarating than eyeballing an epic hero vs. hero scrap. Mjolnir, meet the Hulk's face. Have you ever wondered what happens should Thor's enchanted hammer go up against Captain America's indestructible shield?

The plot revolves around the far-ranging machinations of Loki, Asgardian god of mischief. Those who've read the AVENGERS' origin in the comic books should note a smidgen of familiarity, but only a smidgen. The Tesseract artifact plays a part. The bad guys Loki recruits as an invasion force aren't Skrulls. Not exactly. Certainly they pose an extinction level threat, alarming enough that some assembly becomes required.

Captain America is well utilized here, although I'm hating his awkward modern-day costume. I vastly prefered his more practical WWII outfit.

You and me, let's kowtow to Joss Whedon. His storytelling has big scope; it has grandeur. He orchestrates a sprawling, high-profiled cast and just about gets away with not slighting anyone. He does rely some on your familiarity with the character development sunk into the prior films. He manages to tie in various plot threads from previous Marvel pictures. Although Stark, Cap, and Banner get the lion's share of the spotlight, Whedon devotes time and space to side characters like the slinky but lethal spy, the Black Widow, and the likable, unobstrusive Agent Coulson. If you assume the Black Widow's defining action moment surfaces in that early interrogation scene, you'd be all kinds of not right. Scarlett Johansson ticks off Whedon's Buffy box, not only in things assskickery but also in terms of strong character beats (the Widow's dialogue with Loki happens to be an acting showcase). She's so much more here than when she was showcased in IRON MAN 2. But if I could pick out two people who may have been underused, they would have to be Maria Hill and Hawkeye. I do feel that Cobie Smulders was wasted.

I love that, like in the comics, Thor never gives up on his half-brother.

The first half hour is essentially a slow burn set-up, but it keeps you engaged. And at times Whedon does sacrifice narrative for those wild action sequences, and that's okay, because Whedon treats us to a series of marvelous cape-on-cape violence (in true Marvel fashion, these heroes harbor instant grudges against each other). But all those violent "misunderstandings" merely whet your appetite. Joss doesn't disappoint. The extended climactic combat sequence - as the Avengers hold the line against a horde of grotesque invaders from deep space - is off the charts and immensely gratifying. I'm reminded of the 1990s X-Men cartoon in which the camera would often track the X-Men in frenzied action, as they hurtle in and out of the picture, occasionally mingling with each other only to break off again into individual skirmishes. I was mesmerized by Whedon's sweeping, organic approach to the battle scenes.

No surprise, there are heaps of whip smart one-liners, plenty of them generated by a smirky Robert Downey, Jr. - and yet even Chris Hemsworth's regal thunder god elicits chuckles. No contest, though, the brutalizing Hulk - rendered to savage life in astonishing CG - captures two of the film's biggest laughs.

For pure escapism and sheer fanfare and fan service beyond expectation, THE AVENGERS is the best superhero movie I have ever seen. I have to see it again. But you, you make sure to stick around for the embedded scene during the post-credits and then for the post-credit scene. You may wet your pants.

Hours and hours later, I'm still big grinning. Joss Whedon actually pulled it off.

P.S : But seriously there is a movie that's been keeping people getting goosebumps all over when they see the trailer. You guys know what am talking about right?? yes, the epic conclusion to the Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight series : The Dark Knight Rises. Am waiting for it to hit the big screens =)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Mocking Jay : A powerful, unflinching look at the effects of war

This was a brilliant conclusion to the trilogy. I can only compare it to "Ender's Game" - and that is extremely high praise, indeed.

When I first closed the book last night, I felt shattered, empty, and drained.

And that was the point, I think. I'm glad I waited to review the book because I'm not sure what my review would have been.

For the first two books, I think most of us readers have all been laboring under the assumption that Katniss Everdeen would eventually choose one of the two terrific men in her life: Gale, her childhood companion or Peeta, the one who accompanied her to the Hunger Games twice. She'd pick one of them and live happily ever after with him, surrounded by friends and family. Somehow, along the way, Katniss would get rid of the awful President Snow and stop the evil Hunger Games. How one teenage girl would do all that, we weren't too sure, but we all had faith and hope that she would.

"Mockingjay" relentlessly strips aside those feelings of faith and hope - much as District 13 must have done to Katniss. Katniss realizes that she is just as much a pawn for District 13 as she ever was for the Colony and that evil can exist in places outside of the Colony.

And that's when the reader realizes that this will be a very different journey. And that maybe the first two books were a setup for a very different ride. That, at its heart, this wasn't a story about Katniss making her romantic decisions set against a backdrop of war.

This is a story of war. And what it means to be a volunteer and yet still be a pawn. We have an entirely volunteer military now that is spread entirely too thin for the tasks we ask of it. The burden we place upon it is great. And at the end of the day, when the personal war is over for each of them, each is left alone to pick up the pieces as best he/she can.

For some, like Peeta, it means hanging onto the back of a chair until the voices in his head stop and he's safe to be around again. Each copes in the best way he can. We ask - no, demand - incredible things of our men and women in arms, and then relegate them to the sidelines afterwards because we don't want to be reminded of the things they did in battle. What do you do with people who are trained to kill when they come back home? And what if there's no real home to come back to - if, heaven forbid, the war is fought in your own home? We need our soldiers when we need them, but they make us uncomfortable when the fighting stops.

All of that is bigger than a love story - than Peeta or Gale. And yet, Katniss' war does come to an end. And she does have to pick up the pieces of her life and figure out where to go at the end. So she does make a choice. But compared to the tragedy of everything that comes before it, it doesn't seem "enough". And I think that's the point. That once you've been to hell and lost so much, your life will never be the same. Katniss will never be the same. For a large part of this book, we see Katniss acting in a way that we can only see as being combat-stress or PTSD-related - running and hiding in closets. This isn't our Katniss, this isn't our warrior girl.

But this is what makes it so much more realistic, I think. Some may see this as a failing in plot - that Katniss is suddenly acting out of character. But as someone who has been around very strong soldiers returning home from deployments, this story, more than the other two, made Katniss come alive for me in a much more believable way.

I realize many out there will hate the epilogue and find it trite. At first, I did too. But in retrospect, it really was perfect. Katniss gave her life already - back when she volunteered for Prim in "The Hunger Games". It's just that she actually physically kept living.

The HBO miniseries, "Band of Brothers", has a quote that sums this up perfectly. When Captain Spiers says, "The only hope you have is to accept the fact that you're already dead. The sooner you accept that, the sooner you'll be able to function as a soldier is supposed to function: without mercy, without compassion, without remorse. All war depends upon it."

But how do you go from that, to living again in society? You really don't. So I'm not sure Katniss ever really did - live again. She just ... kept going. And there's not really much to celebrate in that. Seeing someone keep going, despite being asked - no, demanded - to do unconscionably horrifying things, and then being relegated to the fringes of society, and then to keep going - to pick up the pieces and keep on going, there is something fine and admirable and infinitely sad and pure and noble about that. But the fact is, it should never happen in the first place.

And that was the point, I think. 

By the end of the book I realized how true and how perfect the ending was. This book series was never a "fairytale" story. In war things don't end with sunshine and butterflies. They end with broken people trying to pick up the pieces of there life and put them back together the best way they can. That is the most heroic effort of all. Not killing President Snow, not defeating an entire army all by yourself. No, a true hero is someone who has been through hell and decides to still try to move forward despite the pain and difficulty of each day. Kudos to Suzanne Collins for giving a generation of people far detached from real war, the chance to realize that it isn't glorious or rewarding. It's heartbreaking and you are never the same.