Stranger Things (2016)

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Ola: Stranger Things, the newest Netflix’s darling, is a heady, serialized mix of Alien and E.T. in the 80’s guise. If that sounds weird, well – it should. Stranger Things is pretty messed up, and proud of it. And it should, because no matter how weird it all sounds, watching that series is a ton of fun. Plus a dribble of revolting goo, but we’ll get to that later.

All right. We’ve got a small town somewhere in Indiana, in the middle of nowhere, with its fair share of those living the trivialized version of American Dream and those who just don’t fully fit the norm. Among the latter are four nerdy boys aged 11, who play D&D with the blind devotion of someone very young, and excel at theoretical physics, want the outside world to be a place more mysterious and strange than anybody could dream of, and not much else ;).

The real action starts when one of them, after a 10-hour long D&D campaign at a friend’s house, doesn’t come home. He was last seen on a road called Mirkwood by the geeky boys, a road heading through the local woods, right next to a huge, federal power plant. Yeah, you can already hear the low, ominous sounds of the Jaws soundtrack…

Piotrek: Excuse me, there was plenty of action during the D&D session. They had to fight The Demogorgon! A bit incorrectly according to some experts, I’m a Warhammer guy so I wouldn’t know. But they got me by that point.

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A few words about The Witcher comics.

The game is great, books – also, I believe so, though the world is not unanimous on that, maybe my perspective is distorted by the fact it’s the first significant Polish fantasy series, and still one of the best, with uniquely Polish humour and perspective on things. Not wholly translatable into English, I’m afraid.

Maybe one day I’ll read the translation, I’m a bit curious. But it’s the only major franchise I’m experiencing in my mother tongue, it’s just so very Polish in every way. A hobbit I’ve met near Novigrad yesterday was a joke at a terrible LotR translation from the deep 90-ties (how I hated it, but for a moment it was the only one available in bookshops…), even the curse words are so cool…

Anyway, the author of Wiedźmin/Witcher books is, of course, Andrzej Sapkowski. Paul Tobin wrote, Joe Querio drew, Carlos Badilla colored and Nate Piekos lettered a few comic books taking place in The Witcher© universe.

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Two volumes I’ve read so far, House of Glass and Fox Children, were clearly spiritual children of the games, not books, but since we’re talking about the greatest cRPG series ever, it’s not exactly an accusation. Something I’ll probably repeat many times in the ever coming Wiedźmin book review – Sapkowski is a very interesting writer, but ultimately, whatever his Polish fans might think, one of many. The Witcher’s creators are geniuses of their trade.

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Daniel Keyes, Flowers for Algernon (1966)

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Another book from my summer reading list, and another heavy hitter, winner of Nebula and Hugo awards, a solid presence on many “Best of SF” lists (check here and here, for example; these are just the top of the pile, – if you don’t like them, pick another 😉 the internet is full of lists and Keyes’s book is on most of them). It’s a short book, mere 216 pages in my SF Masterworks edition from Gollancz, but like another recently reviewed classic, A Canticle for Leibowitz, it carries a lot of weight. Flowers for Algernon is a SF must-read and a tear-jerker, an intimate, nuanced psychological portrait of a man coming from darkness to light, as the Plato’s quote on the first page slyly suggests. But is he really?

The protagonist of the novel, Charlie Gordon, is a 32-year old with IQ of 68. And yes, the age is important – when the book begins, Charlie’s nearing his 33th birthday. He works at a bakery, sweeping floors, cleaning toilets, doing all the simple, menial jobs a person with sub-normal level of IQ can do. What sets him apart from others like him is his drive to knowledge, his willingness to learn. And he gets his chance to become smarter when the local university starts looking for a human subject for their experiment in the area of neurosurgical augmentation of brain functions. The experimental therapy had been successfully tried on animal subjects before and the results were promising enough to induce the scientists into going to the human-testing phase. Charlie becomes the first person to undergo this kind of brain treatment and he’s obligated to document the changes in him in the form of written “Progress Reports”. Flowers for Algernon are constructed as Charlie’s diary, a complete set of the intimate, sometimes painfully honest reports he had been writing throughout the experiment. We witness the changes, minute at first and then accelerating with breathtaking speed, seeing his transformation from a boy in man’s body to an adolescent genius blowing up all possible IQ scales, to a grown, mature man accepting the world as it is. But the changes don’t stop there.

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Chris Wooding, Retribution Falls (2009) – short review, and a few words about the Witcher game.

Witcher 3 is as good as I hoped. One of the best cRPGs I’ve ever played. That means, waay less writing time. Reading… I’m safe on that front, my commuting takes an hour each way now and I’m actually enjoying it. It’s fairly easy to focus on reading, and I can always find a good seat, I’m getting the tram on its first stop. From one edge of my city to the other. Well, I don’t complain – books 🙂

So, on my way to Oxenfurt, I’ve prepared a flash review of a nice book. Witcher books – that review is coming, but I’ll need to refresh the saga before that. I finally will, hardcover, containing short stories preceding the novels, is already waiting for me to finish The New Weird. I don’t think I’ve read them this millennium… and, hopefully, it won’t be just a review of books, but also a few words about the way different mediums complement each other. If only more great book series had their video games of equal quality (and made by people so obviously in love with the source material…). Sapkowski is no Tolkien, but one thing Tolkien never had is a video game studio to make a game worthy of his writing. Sapkowski himself is sadly unable to understand that (video in Polish only, from a recent con) and repeatedly states his disregard for games in general and Witcher games in particular. Me – I see them as something great, and a hope that the new media will be able to creatively build upon the great narratives of their older cousins.

For the time being, something completely unrelated:

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Joe Abercrombie, Half A King (2014)

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The first installment in the Shattered Sea trilogy, and a bold move from the author called by many “Lord of grimdark” (ugh, I actually wrote it). Why bold? Because Half a King is a YA book. YA is a category with somewhat blurred boundaries, usually containing youths from age 12-15 to early 20s. It shouldn’t come as a surprise then, that the traditional theme for YA novels is coming-of-age of the main protagonist. And among the novels often described as YA are such timeless wonders as Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies or The Catcher in the Rye. Of course, you can also find there such wastepaper accretions as The Twilight saga… The spread is quite shocking and I’m sorry to say that the quality of YA seems to be lower in our times. I believe that it’s because people often think that writing for young people is easy, that you just need to limit your vocabulary and simplify everything. Well, it’s not easy. And if you think young people like to be talked down to, your memory needs a solid prod. Otherwise you’re in for a nasty surprise.

As you see, the YA bar is set quite high, at least for me. Did the grimdark guru meet the, admittedly high, expectations? Half a King got Locus Award for the Best YA Book in 2015, so it looks like he did. Alas, I cannot fully agree with this verdict. I know, there’s a lot of gushing over this book in the internet, especially from fellow authors on goodreads… I won’t expound on it, at least not this time :P, but it looks to me like a mutual admiration society. Abercrombie takes a risk but plays it safe this time, a bit too safe for my tastes. And I’m not talking about the amounts of blood and gore, there’s plenty of that, but about the plot, worldbuilding and characters. They’re overly simplified and predictable, bereft of suspense and – and I have trouble believing I’m actually writing this – bland.

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Adrian Czajkowski, Spiderlight (2016)

Adrian Tchaikovsky is one of this blog’s favourite contemporary writers. Ola reviewed significant portion of his published works and all of it was judged worthy of readers’ attention.

But he can be slightly intimidating. Big volumes, often whole series of them… and here is something different:

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A quest to kill the Dark Lord, undertaken by a team consisting of a wizard, a warrior, an archer and a thief, led by a Priestess of Light. Many of us participated in such stories thanks to tabletop (or computer) rpgs, but books like that are rarely great. Often tie-ins, most of them are at best decent. I like to read one every now and then, but I don’t find them as good as I did as a teenager.

But this is Czajkowski. So I felt secure.

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