Review: "Across The Nightingale Floor" by Lian Hearn

Billed as "Asian Fantasy," Across the Nightingale Floor is an epic tale of revenge, intrigue, and love unrequited. At least, that is what the book jacket says. The writing style could have ascended me to a higher plane of enlightenment, but its absent plot, vapid characters, and stilted dialog made me want to commit hari-kari.

As I'm working on a book of my own and promoting my latest release, finding time to read is precious. And, like many fans of SF/F/H, I've got a reading list that is longer than my right leg! It's frustrating because there are books written by colleagues that I'd like to read so I could talk to them about their books and vouch for their work with a clear conscience. There are other books I want to read because they either come highly recommended or sound like something right up my alley. As I am into my anime, a lot of people were hardly surprised to find Across the Nightingale Floor on my "To Read" list. This is Book One of the Tales of Otori, penned by Lian Hearn. I was thrilled to see Asian Fantasy begin to make a showing, providing a delightful alternative to Celtic Fantasy. So anxiously I opened up Nightingale Floor and prepared myself to enter a world and a series that was described as an Asian Lord of the Rings.

After reading a description from our hero about how great it felt to take a piss, I knew I was in trouble. Had it been for comic relief or something along those lines, I think I would have been okay?but this was a "moment's peace" for our hero, and only a dark omen for what was to come.

This epic Asian Fantasy centers around a young boy who loses his entire family in a Conan-esque raid on his village. Lord Iida, it seems, has major issues with this group of people called "The Hidden" and whenever these group of pacifists are found, they are wiped out. Why? Well, Lord Iida's an evil Asian warlord, and as we who write Asian Fantasy all know?

First Rule of Evil Asian Warlords: Wipe out pacifists!

The boy gets in a few lucky shots and even manages to unhorse the mighty evil warlord.

Second Rule of Evil Asian Warlords: Don't let a pacifist make you look stupid.

The boy's about to be cut down, but a skilled swordmaster named Shigeru (a/k/a Lord Otori) saves the day. Lord Otori takes the young orphan-sole survivor, gives him the new name of Takeo, and pledges to turn him into a master swordsman as well.

This is how Across the Nightingale Floor begins, but after we get to know Takeo, the first person POV suffers a jarring switch to third person and we meet Kaede. She pretty and smart, but as she is Asian this means she has to be whiny, victimized, and helpless to resist becoming a pawn in a game bigger than her puny existence can fathom. Now why are we getting to know this girl? You'll have to get ninety pages into the book to understand.

And how does Across the Nightingale Floor create a plot that can involve Kaede, Takeo, and Lord Otori. Well?you'll have to get a few more pages into the book to figure that out?like about one hundred and fifty pages?

So, let me cover the good. When Across the Nightingale Floor is at its best, Lian Hearn paints breathtaking landscapes, atmospheres and settings. Her ability to worldbuild and set a stage blew me away. She was brilliant, in particular, where Takeo tests his skills as an assassin and serves as an ?angel of mercy.? Quite a powerful scene.

Now, the bad. All this beautiful scenery and few-and-far-between moments of inspiration are ruined the minute the characters opened their mouths. The dialog was so canned I half-expected an advertisement for ?La Choi Chinese Food? to appear in the back of the book. Even at the opening when Takeo is mute, I really wanted him to shut the hell up because the more he talked, the less I liked him. And if the dialogue wasn't enough, the character development appeared to be straight out of bad kung-fu theatre. I was appalled at how the author toted ?her frequent stays in Japan? inspired the Tales of the Otori and yet presented fortune cookie-cutter cutouts that didn't make it past the second callbacks for The Last Samurai. And as she had cardboard Asian stereotypes for her cast, Hearn tries to weave something resembling a plot around trite device after trite device. For example, we have Takeo who meets Kaede who is promised to Lord Otori in a marriage that will seal alliances. You think Takeo and Kaede will fall in love at first sight? You think? Later on, Takeo and his teacher, Kenji, are on their way to swordfight practice when they come up to Kaede and her servant, Shizuka, who are currently tearing it up in the dojo. Kenji, Takeo's ?ise instructor, thinks it would be good fun for Kaede and Takeo to spar together. You think Takeo and Kaede are going to try and work out their sexual frustrations in this bout, only to cast a covert look of desire that everyone else notices? You think?!? Just take every over-the-top soap opera clich?ou can think of, slap a kimono on them, and you've got Across the Nightingale Floor, a story that redefines predictability.

And you know the "Cast of Thousands" that sometimes appear in books? Don't bother with a scorecard or a program to keep track of who's who. In Across the Nightingale Floor you meet:

  • Shigeru
  • Sadamu
  • Shizuka
  • Shirakawa
  • Kenji
  • Kaede
  • Ichiro
  • Chiyo
  • Takeo
  • Takeshi
  • ?and so on and so on.

Good luck in trying to keep clans, people, and places straight because the author didn't bother to vary the names all that much.

By now you might be wondering why I'm spewing out this bad review so passionately. Here's the downright butt-ugly truth of this book: IT ISN'T FANTASY. I was looking for something?anything?that would make this book a Fantasy, and it just wasn't there. Perhaps publishers, booksellers, and even the author believed this pretentious nonsense as Fantasy on account of The Tribe and The Hidden, two societies that have "enigmatic backgrounds." Maybe they thought turning Takeo into a super assassin overnight (and I mean it?between a single page, Takeo goes from being Jackie Chan to Jet Li?) would add in an element of Superhero Fantasy, but if Across the Nightingale Floor is Fantasy, then The DaVinci Code is SciFi. So after I got over the initial shock that in Hearn's Asian Fantasy there was no Fantasy, I continued to read it as if it were a Japanese fable. Didn't help. If you want a better example of Asian Fantasy done as a Japanese fable, take a look at Sandman: The Dream Hunters by Neil Gaiman and Yoshitaka Amano. As far as Nightingale Floor is concerned, don't let the hype fool you. The only thing "mythical" about it is the proportions it takes on how hackneyed it is.

Still, Lian Hearn has two more Tales of the Otori out on the bookshelves, Grass For His Pillow and Brilliance of the Moon, and I give her credit for conning her agent, publisher, and readers on asking for more. I was told by someone "It gets better in Book Two." Funny, that's exactly what I was promised after seeing Phantom Menace and Matrix: Reloaded.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn
Published by: Riverhead Books (Part of Penguin Putnam)
ISBN: 1573223328
Genre: Fantasy (HA!)
Author's Webpage: www.theotori.com
  [Read more...]

Review: "Thomas the Rhymer" by Ellen Kushner

It is happening everywhere. Perfectly good movies and TV shows are being remade by Hollywood left and right. Stepford Wives, Starsky and Hutch, Around the World in Eighty Days, the Time Machine, Vanilla Sky, the Ring. Etc, etc. ad nauseum. I hear that Evil Dead is going to be remade. I weep.

Apparently, the big screen is not the only medium in which remakes are popular. There are many authors that have written successful versions of children's stories and fairy tales. Gail Carson Levine wrote the popular children's novel Ella Enchanted, a marvelous reinvention of Cinderella. Anne Rice wrote the popular oh-so-not-for-children's novel The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. Ellen Kushner brings us Thomas the Rhymer, winner of the World Fantasy Award.

The blessed difference between these novels and the flicker-shows is that the books are actually pretty damn good.

The Gist: The book is based on the ballad of Thomas the Rhymer, a traveling minstrel who is loved by the men of royalty for his music and song and by the women of royalty for his other talents.

Getting caught outside during particularly bleak weather, Thomas is taken in and befriended by a peasant couple, and falls madly in love with Elspeth.

One day, the Queen of Elfland comes upon our fair Thomas, who suddenly says, ?Elsie who?? and rides off to stay with the queen in her enchanted land for seven years, during which he is not allowed to speak.

Seven years later, after no speaking, some heroics, and a fair amount of sex, Thomas is sent back to earth with the gift of the tongue which cannot lie. The gift inflicts poor Thomas with the gift of foresight and the source material for Jim Carey movies.

Thomas and Elspeth marry and live happily ever after. That is, after Elspeth calms down a bit ?cuz the lout ditched her for seven years.

The Good: If you like romance, you'll like this book. If you like romance mixed with magical surroundings, you'll love this book. If romance is your thing, buy this book. The characters are sympathetic, the prose is poetic, even beautiful. You will not be wasting your time.

The Bad: If you want an engaging story, you won't like this book. I have a feeling women will enjoy this book much more than men. It's a romance, a mild one by romance-novel standards, but a very feel-good, magic in the air, a song in the heart kind of romance. And while the book is exquisitely written, left me flat most of the time, since that just isn't my thing.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Thomas the Rhymer by Ellen Kushner
Published by: Spectra; June 1, 2004
ISBN: 0553586971
Genre: Romantic Fantasy
Author's Webpage: www.ellenkushner.com
  [Read more...]

Review: "Seven Seasons of Buffy"

I try to avoid reading books out of order, and while it usually wouldn't matter in this case, my having read Five Seasons of Angel before this one brings a couple of things to mind... the foremost being that while editor Glenn Yeffeth obtained fewer essays for the Angel collection, he also seems to have obtained more highly engaging essays for the it than for the Buffy collection. While that may sound like a minor slam of the Buffy collection, it's not... it's a big time golf-clap salute.   [Read more...]

Review: "National Treasure"

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks are gearing up to put Dan Brown's bestselling thriller on film, but producer Jerry Bruckheimer apparently tries to beat them to the punch with National Treasure which plays like The DaVinci Code...on steroids.   [Read more...]

Review: "Five Seasons of Angel"

You know that a pop culture staple has gone far beyond the normal range of fandom and reached saturation when serious academic studies relating to the psychology, philosophy, and morality of show and of its characters are being published.

To my knowledge, only Buffy the Vampire Slayer (with two academic conferences dedicated to it so far) and Godzilla fall into that category, but Buffy's spinoff, Angel, should be right beside them.   [Read more...]

Review: The Incredibles

What Monsters, Inc. did for monster movies and creatures in the closet, The Incredibles does even more for comic book heroes and James Bond flicks.   [Read more...]

Review: The Crazy Years

I can tell you this: Spider is funny, and he's smart, and you can't go wrong with a combination like that. Warren James, host of Mike Hodel's Hour 25, says that science fiction allows us to see the world through another set of eyes. Take a chance and take a look at world through the eyes of the Spider.

Rating: 4 out of 5   [Read more...]

Review: The Grudge

Ok. Before I start this let me just tell you that, like Joe, I hate horror films. Maybe I've seen too many movies, maybe I just don't scare easily, but I have not seen a horror film since Alien that has scared me in the least. I rarely jump in a theater, and most of the time I end up yawning and drifting off as the movie's shallow bunch of characters make stupid and unrealistic choices.

Rating: 0.0001 out of 5

As example, a typical horror film scene: You're in someone else's dark, creepy house. You're alone, and you hear strange noises coming from upstairs. You go to investigate but find no one around. (Did I mention, this is not your house?) So you decide, after snooping around for awhile, that there is no one in any of the rooms. But, of course you can't stop there, go back downstairs and leave this mystery to the owner of the place. Instead, you are going to whip out your Zippo and take a peek up in the attic that you have to get to by crawling into a creepy closet while standing on a shaky box. (Not your house, did I mention this before?) Oh, and lest we forget, the whole while you are ransacking this person's domicile, you are seeing and hearing strange noises and dark apparitions. What a shock when the moment you stick your head up in the attic, something bad happens.

Who in their right mind would do this in real life? The answer is No One, and thus is the reason why I hate horror films. They are not scary and they are normally written with the assumption that the audience has no brains. It's insulting, and I normally leave them in a foul mood.

So? needless to say, when I decided to go see The Grudge I was not expecting much. Sarah Michelle Gellar-Prinze is the featured star, and since I am a huge Buffy fan I figured a nice shower scene or some other titillating shot would be worth my sitting through a two hour yawn-fest. No such luck, this movie was rated PG-13. So I then saw that Sam Rami directed it. I thought, ?Maybe this will make the movie bearable,? No such luck there either. This movie is a train wreck of bad writing, horrible characters, and unconvincing plot points. It is confusing, and completely transparent in its delivery.

Sarah is our main character. She is living in Japan and working for some company that takes care of old people, having something to do with school. (It's never really explained, you don't care) The story revolves around an old woman that is mostly catatonic and barely functioning - enter a young girl who plays out the afore mentioned horror film scene above - and our stage is set. A typical ghost story, set in a creepy house, people getting killed by making stupid choices and refusing to enlist the help of anyone for fear they will be considered crazy. I would tell you the details of this film, but it would be a waste of your time. Take every movie made in the last 4 years and you have it. Take the evil ghost and its basic story from The Ring, add the sound track from Fear.com, shake in a bit of plot from just about every other film made, and you've got The Grudge. And good luck trying to follow what is going on in this movie. The individual stories jump back and forth from character to character and even backward and forward in time. If you go, be sure to bring something to write with so you can take notes. You'll need it to understand the final explanation as to why all this is happening. Hint: it has to do with the fact that they are in Japan, and that the Japanese believe that when someone dies in a bad way, the house becomes bad. (Or something like that, I didn't have a pen!) 'Course, that is only because it is in Japan. If this was anywhere else... who knows.

I left this movie wondering who would watch this film, then it dawned on me that this movie was not made for you and me. If you are a teenage girl, this movie will scare the pants off you, and if you are a teenage boy, make sure you take your girlfriend to see it. As for the rest of us, wait for it to come out on DVD, then rent Ernest, Scared Stupid instead. You'll get more out of it in the end.   [Read more...]

Review: "The Tattooed Wolf"

If you like short, satisfying reads between your Harry Potter or A Song of Ice and Fire, ten pound seat-raisers, then buy the tree-killer or planet-friendly version of this book.   [Read more...]

Review: Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

The summer began with Van Helsing returning to the days of the creature feature and the Hammer House horror films. It ends with a return to the days of mechanized monsters and Saturday afternoon serials.

Move over Indiana Jones. Make room for Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow!

RATING: 5 out of 5

Okay, let me start this review by saying that everything I said early in the summer about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow being a stinker I take back. I'm not only choking on my ill-chosen words?I'm dry-heaving on them.

In my defense, it had all the makings of a lemon. First, there was the title. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? You've got to be kidding! Have we completely run out of original ideas that now we are recycling cheap serials and dressing them up in over-the-top special effects? Then there was the Jude Law factor. Jude Law was one of those actors I put in the same class as David Spade and Matthew McConnehey. How do these guys get work? I've described Law as a human brake in all the other films I've seen him in. He just bores the hell out of me, and he was the lead guy. Well, that gives me another reason not to see this film. The trailer looked slick, and that was a warning as well. Sometimes, when teasers and trailers look too cool, that's a warning to me. But the big red flag for me was its release date?being pushed back from early summer to mid-summer to September.

Ouch.

Still, there was that morbid curiosity about a movie carrying a title like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and not blinking an eye at that. It was when I heard its director, Kerry Conran, was a raging Mac geek and he hard-wired all his G4s and G5s and created sets for this flick. Apparently three-quarters of this film was all shot in a blue screen setting, the sets and setting computer generated in order to give the film an "old-fashioned" look. Allright, I was hooked. I was now curious about this odd film that had everything going against it.

Maybe I'm a sucker for the art deco. Maybe I've got a thing for the cliffhanger serials with their impossible escapes from impending doom. Maybe I'm a pushover for a tough chick in an eyepatch. Whatever the case?I loved every minute of it!

So let me take you back to 1939, but this is a world where Hitler never came into power. Oh sure, there was a World War I, insinuating there was another World War earlier but there is no Third Reich?although there is a third zeppelin bearing the name Hindenburg. There is a Radio City Music Hall, and they're even showing The Wizard of Oz, but there's no organized air force or national army. Instead, the world relies on a mercenary flying squadron under the command of Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan. Since the Bat Signal was out for repairs, Cap gets the call that downtown Gotham is under attack by giant robots. So turning his tricked-up P40 Tomahawk towards the city, Sky Captain takes on these lumbering leviathans and saves the city.

Of course, he couldn't help but think, ?That was too easy.? He was right.

A second wave of robots?this time, winged hawks that are a lot faster and nastier than the first group?take on Sky Captain, his base, and the entire city. He finds his base in shambles, his gadget expert and head mechanic Dex Dearborn kidnapped, and a clue pointing the way to Nepal.

Now, you would think this rescue would be a piece of cake for our bomber jacket-wearing hero, but he's got company on this little adventure: ace-reporter and all-around-pain-in-the-tail-rudder Polly Perkins (Gwenyth Paltrow playing Lois Lane better than Terri Hatcher and Margot Kidder put together!). She's along for a ride in the sky as she's tracking a story involving disappearing German scientists who are all running from the Dr. Totenkopf (played by Sir Laurence Olivier), an evil renegade scientist who's carrying out his plans to create the perfect world.

Yes, I said, "played by Sir Laurence Oliver." You have got to see it to believe it.

Not seeing Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow on the big screen would truly be a missed experience. As I mentioned earlier, writer and director Kerry Conran set out to create something very familiar but also something quite different. If anyone remembers the somewhat forgettable Dick Tracy, Warren Beatty wanted to capture the feel of a comic book so he shot everything using only primary colors. Nice idea, Warren, but something was missing from the effort. (Maybe if he hadn't been playing ?Hide the Baloney in Breathless Mahoney? with Madonna, he would have made a better picture.) Conran, however, captured not only a comic book look with his Macintosh-created sets, but he also captured the feel of the Saturday morning serials using just enough shadow and soft-focus to give Sky Captain a ?Neo Film Noir? atmosphere. There was also some terrific touches such as the robots' death rays sounding remarkably like the Martian's death rays from Geroge Pal's War of the Worlds, and how Conran would use a halo effect around notes, newspapers, and maps to emphasize what our heroes were cluing in on. You can help but smile at how world-wide travel or emergency signals broadcast across the country is depicted. Pure fun and romance there?

And this film has, in my opinion, one of the funniest last lines for a movie!

If you happen to miss Sky Captain? on the big screen, no need to worry? the film will still work on the small screen on account of its charm, sense of fun, and cinema cliffhanger approach to things. On the big screen, however, you truly appreciate how innovative and to what lengths Conran went to in creating this old-fashioned comic book romp.

And I would be amiss if I didn't mention another outstanding highlight of this film?Angelina Jolie who outdoes her Lara Croft performances and redefines ?cool? in her role as Francesca ?Frankie? Cook, captain of the British Amphibian Manta Squadron. Jolie is so ultra-hot in this flick that she proves beyond the shadow of a doubt you can make an eyepatch sexy!

As passionate as I was over Hugh Jackman and his monster mash Van Helsing, I am equally enthusiastic (if not more so) over Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, an unexpected September surprise. And in a strange way, we have come full circle in our 2004 summer onslaught of movies! Sky Captain ends the season in the same vein that Van Helsing started it: nostalgically looking back to films of yesteryear (in this case, those terrific pulp Science Fiction-Adventure?) and recapturing their magic!   [Read more...]

Review: "Ella Enchanted" - The Movie

Have you read the Ella Enchanted book review yet? If not, you can check it out here.

Some movies I find quite easy to review. Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope is a great movie. Star Wars Episode I, The Phantom Menace, not so much.

There is one type of movie that I believe defies reviews, and that is the goofy comedy. I honestly believe that these are movies that you either like or don't, and to hell with logic.   [Read more...]

Review: "Ella Enchanted" - The Book

The DVD for Ella Enchanted has just come out recently, so I decided to go for a 2-4-1 deal. With my book review, you also get a brand new, one of a kind movie review at no extra charge! (Only at participating stores. Check local store for details. Offer does not include state and local taxes. Void where prohibited.)   [Read more...]

Review: "Bride of the Fat White Vampire" by Andrew Fox

God, I love the sci-fi-fantasy-horror-magicrealism-pagan-mystic genres, cause every once in a while you come across a book like Bride of the Fat White Vampire, by Andrew Fox. Funny, clever, and highly entertaining.   [Read more...]

Review: AVP: Alien vs. Predator

I don't believe I'm about to do this...

RATING: 5 out of 5

Surprised? So was I. So was I.   [Read more...]

Review: The Bourne Supremacy

The Bourne Supremacy sports the tagline "They should have left him alone." And after seeing this sequel, I kinda wished that, too.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5   [Read more...]

Review: Spider-Man 2

Simply put: This is the greatest comic-book film ever made. Spider-Man 2 leaves the original in the dust, raising the bar for the comic book film and delivering on so many levels.

RATING: 5 out of 5   [Read more...]