Friday, May 31, 2013

Splendors and Glooms

A wonderfully Dickensian read, this book tells the story of three vastly dissimilar children. Parsefall and Lizzie Rose are orphans, who work for the master puppeteer Grisini. Clara Wintermute comes from an affluent family, but a sad one, as her mother is constantly in mourning for her three siblings who perished from a sickness. The one bright spot at her birthday celebration is the puppet show performed by Grisini, Parsefall, and Lizzie Rose. But when Clara goes missing the next morning, Grisini (not without cause) is blamed for her disappearance, and he flees, leaving Parsefall and Lizzie Rose alone in London. When a mysterious letter appears, including fare to a remote house in the country, the two children elect to chance the journey. With them, they bring a puppet that looks suspiciously like Clara Wintermute...

Each character seems to hold true to the historical context, while demonstrating their own purpose. While Clara finds the puppet show to be captivating, she is repulsed by the dirtiness of the puppeteers, as would a girl of her social class at this time. As she gets to know the two children who work the puppets, she grows fond of both, to the point where she is willing to risk her life for them. Similarly, Lizzie Rose is an orphan, but had a loving relationship with her parents, so she works hard to maintain what they taught her, while Pasefall has no memory of his parents whatsover and so is willing to do whatever it takes to survive. As the three children are manipulated by the old woman who owns the manor house where they stay in the country as she tries to trick them into removing her curse and instead transferring it to themselves, the old woman finds their bond hard to break, as they work to protect each other.

This book is reminiscent of gems such as Joan Aiken's The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Midnight is A Place. It incorporates a grim Dickensian tradition with magic, both dark and light. It's both delighting and dramatic, with all the fun of a puppet show.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Under the Never Sky

image courtesy of Veronica Rossi's website

Aria has lived her entire life inside a Pod. After the coming of the Aether, a destructive wind, it's been the only way for her people to survive- locking themselves inside myriad Pods, and distracting themselves by accessing the Realms, a virtual reality that's "Better than Life." It's true, the Realms are wonderful, but when Aria hasn't heard from her mother in over a month, she goes looking for her- and turns off her Smarteye, which allows her access to the Realms. Her venture goes horribly, terribly wrong, when a fire allows one of the Outsiders to access the Pod. The fire results in the deaths of three people, and her banishment from the Pods. Without any real skills or endurance, she fears for her life in the blasted wasteland beyond.

Perry (or Peregrine, as is his proper name) is wandering, trying to get away from a quarrel with his brother when he decides to try and enter a Pod to get medicine for his dying nephew. He saves Aria from the conflagration, taking her into an outside exit, safe from the flames. After he is almost caught in the blaze, he flees, with only Aria's Smarteye and an apple from the orchard. Little does he know that the Smarteye allows the Pod-Dwellers to track him down...

Though at first glance this book is a seemingly derivative sci-fi adventure, it's worth a second chance. Aria and Perry, the characters through which we experience this story, have refreshingly distinct voices. While Perry has accelerated abilities due to mutations, we don't get a hint of the horrid imbalance common in such stories- Aria holds her own as a character, even though she's been thrown into a completely alien world.

"After a while, he realized that she was managing to keep a relatively straight course too. He'd wanted to see her panic. She hadn't, and that streaked* him even more." - Under the Never Sky, page 152
*annoyed, rankled, disturbed

Aria's relationship with Perry is allowed to grow over the course of the novel. I never once felt as if the author was shoving the characters together and forcing the relationship. They are both highly distrustful of each other, flinging slurs at each other at first, which is understandable as Aria sees Perry as a Savage Outsider and Perry sees Aria as a spoiled, sheltered Mole. As they learn to rely on each other, they grow close. Both Perry and Aria are shown to care deeply for their loved ones, and it is this love which partially allows them to grow closer to one another.

The plot is dynamic, and the world-building is great, without being excessively technical and overly detailed. But it is the wonderful characterization which made me love Under the Never Sky. I look forward to the sequel.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Robin Hood BBC: Series Review

Swashbuckling flair, Princess-Bride-esqe humor, and anachronism set this TV series from the BBC apart. It's Robin Hood, but as a TV series intended for teens and their families. It's a fun, medieval adventure series that grows darker with each episode. I'm going to examine this TV series season by season.

Season 1

Please don't think that the first episode is indicative of the season. The first ten minutes are pretty lackluster... right up to the point where Robin (Jonas Armstrong) meets Marian (Lucy Griffiths) again. He's been gone to fight in the Crusades with his manservant (and best friend) Much, but left her behind. Naively, he imagines that she'll welcome him back with open arms, but her response is anything but.

When Robin discovers that the town of Lockesly is under the cruel rule of the Sheriff, who threatens Will Scarlett, his brother Luke, and Alan a Dale with the noose, he is made an outlaw for trying to rescue them.
The Sheriff is a wonderfully nasty villain- he's a true baddie, without any redeeming qualities, snickering about cutting out tongues and starving villagers. His second in command Guy of Gisbourne (portrayed by Richard Armitage) is also quite the villain, though he

The first season follows Robin's adventures as he forms his gang of outlaws in Sherwood forest. He and his band face the problem of competition with other outlaws (something that I always wondered about), deal with the Sheriff's hold on the townspeople, and rescue a group of Saracens from slave traders. One of these Saracens, a young woman named Djaq, who joins the band, acting as a medic for their group. She and Marian form the female contingent of the band, for while the band work as outlaws, Marian acts as a spy within the nobles, feeding information to Robin. However, as she acts within this role, she attracts the attention of Guy of Gisbourne, who repeatedly pressures her to marry him. Just a heads-up; I found Guy's "overtures of love" to be exceedingly painful to watch, as he even threatens to have her arrested to force her to promise to marry him when the king returns.

Season 2

The energy of the series really picks up in Season 2. As the Sheriff begins to consort with hooded knights, Robin uncovers a conspiracy authored by the Sheriff and Prince John to slay the king before he returns home from the Holy Land. the main thrust of the action is concerned with resolving this plot, as the Sheriff wants to exacerbate the conflict, carrying on with the 'holy war' in order to more easily kill the king.
Robin and Marian grow closer and closer in this season as well, when Marian leaves Guy of Gisbourne at the alter, after he pressured her into marrying him.
This season was my favorite, mostly because the season seemed to fully forsake the gawkiness of the previous season, while still retaining its charm, and picking up in pace. It also got much darker. Gisbourne became a much better developed character, as he begins to question the Sheriff. In fact, he is shown to disregard the Sheriff's orders when he believes Marian's life to be at stake, showing that while his means of pursuing her were wrong, he geniunely feels for her. Honestly, they could have stopped with season 2, and I would have been quite happy.

Season 3

Spoiler Alert!!!

After Marian's death in the Season 2 finale, I was surprised to see that there was another season. After Marian's death, Robin's story seemed to lose its speed.

End Spoiler Alert

With the emphatic ending of Season 2, I found another season excessive. Will and Djaq also left during the previous season, so I found it hard to carry on watching a TV series which lacked nearly all of my favorite characters. The emotional pull between Robin and Marian was gone, and the addition of a new female member of the gang- a village girl named Kate- became Robin's new love interest, a character that I'm hard pressed to find compelling. Robin also has a fling with Isabella, Guy of Gisbourne's sister, who becomes the new Sheriff. Season 3 of Robin Hood lacked focus, as it did not seem to have an overlying story arc as Seasons 1 and 2 did, and thus failed to deliver any closure.

Final Opinions
My opinions on this TV series are mixed: while I enjoyed Seasons 1 and 2, save for the pilot, I am not enthusiastic about season 3, due to a lack of drive within the plot. The series would have better with only 2 seasons, as Season 3 lacks many of the central characters.
While the costuming is decidedly low-budget and thus not period accurate, the acting is quite good throughout. I especially the depiction of Guy of Gisbourne as a dark character but not a necessarily evil one; Richard Armitage does an excellent job portraying Guy's multifaceted personality.
 If you enjoy the Robin Hood mythos and don't mind a little stretching of the narrative, this TV series is most definitely for you!