Tuesday, 18 December 2012

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey": A Film Review

For my 100th blog post, I'm welcoming Louisa Klein to Flight of the Dragon with a review of the newly-released "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey". I cannot express the depths of my jealousy - it doesn't start screening here in Australia until the day after Christmas! Everyone's talking about and I can't see it. I guess I'll just have to wait... In the meantime, we have Louisa's review. Enjoy!
This is probably the most difficult film review I've done since Lost in Fiction started. To cut a long story short, I do think you will find this movie FREAKING EPIC, adventurous and entertaining. All actors are great, even those with minor parts. Special effects are BEYOND AWESOME. That said, if you, like me, are one of those fantasy geeks who know every word of the Hobbit by heart, you'll be, if not disappointed, at least a little bit perplexed.

First, let's not forget that the Hobbit, contrary to the Lord of the Rings, was a novel expressively conceived for children. Tolkien declares it several times in his letters, his publisher,  George Allen & Unwin Ltd, printed in 1937 a first edition of The Hobbit after his ten year old son 'reviewed' enthusiastically the manuscript Tolkien had sent over. The Hobbit therefore entered the publishing world as a book which nowadays would be considered 'midgrade'. A light-hearted children's book.  

The story is told in the form of an episodic quest, and most chapters introduce a specific creature, or type of creature, of Tolkien's fantastic world. The only 'main plot' is the killing of Smaug the dragon, nothing more.

The film is very, very different, to a point that in the UK is for children who are 12 or older so, almost a ya movie. To make a children's story palatable to young adults and adults and to stretch a short book into three episodes of over two hours each, you have to add a lot of stuff and Peter Jackson added an awful lot of things Tolkien would have never ever even considered.   

First of all, there is no character named Finbul and no horde of warg riders who pursue Thorin & Company. And Azog, the white orc who is seeking revenge, actually died in the Battle of Azanulbizar. Azog's son, Bolg, does appear in The Hobbit to get revenge, but appears only at the Battle of Five Armies at the end of the story.  This whole orc thing is really too reminiscent of Lurtz and his fellow Uruk-hai pursuing the Fellowship in The Fellowship of the Ring. It also transforms a children's story into an unnecessarily violent action film but, hey, we are aiming at teenagers here, right? They want some action.

And what about the infamous Necromancer? When Tolkien wrote the Hobbit, he didn't have a clue of what would come next. In fact, as he clearly states in his letters, he thought of it as a standalone novel, not the first book of a series.  Although Gandalf mentions the Necromancer several times, The Hobbit has no passages in which any character actually encounters the Necromancer, and the Necromancer's appearance is never described. (In The Lord of the Rings, the identity of the Necromancer is revealed to be Sauron, who, according to Tolkien's descriptions and illustrations, took the from of a giant man with burnt, black skin).  Tolkien didn't know who Sauron was at the time, nor had a clue about Gollum's magic ring which, in the Hobbit, it's just a clever trick to give Bilbo an easy out of the goblins' mountain.
As for Galadriel, here again played by the beautiful and talented Cate Blanchett, she does not appear in The Hobbit.  And that's because, when he wrote it, Tolkien hadn't invented her yet. Plus, Peter Jackson hints that Gandalf and Galadriel had like a fling or something when they were both younger I mean... Aehw! 

Speaking about the other characters, they are, well, mostly the funny characters of a children book. Thorin’s quest for the treasure of Lonely Mountain comes across in The Hobbit as greedy and selfish by contrast with the cause that binds the protagonists together in the Rings novels, and the quest’s progress is a series of embarrassing but exciting misadventures. Thorin wants, to put it clearly, his money back. He is far from being a noble warrior; dwarves are, in the Hobbit, a bunch of odd, gold-oriented funny characters, created to make children laugh.  

The book explains how Bilbo became an unlikely hero, and how he got his hands on the One Ring, but it rarely portrays his quest in a positive light, given how much time Thorin and his company spend puffing themselves up, then getting into trouble and requiring rescue.

The conflict between the original Hobbit material and the material generated by Jackson and his collaborators might, again, leave the real purists perplexed, but doesn't it make "The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" a bad movie. At its best, it recaptures the Rings movies’ breadth, detail, and staggering sense of beauty. Jackson retains the sense of an entire world created on a vast scope for a film. 

If you are looking for good two hours of real entertainment, this movie is definitely what you are looking for!

About Louisa Klein:

Louisa Klein is 25, lives in the UK but was born in Germany and brought up in Southern Europe by a German dad and an Italian and French mum, which made her a little confused at first. She has a degree in Medieval Studies and a postgraduate one in Marketing. She’s been working in publishing on and off since she was 17 and currently is a freelancer and a storyteller: her first is the urban fantasy “Supernatural Freak”. At night she puts on a mask and fights British crime. She gets very little sleep.

You can find Louisa at any of the links below:


Book blurb: When paranormal expert Robyn Wise is offered an outrageous sum of money to cure a boy who is turning into a dead tree, she's very sceptical. A politician ready to pay that much to make his son stop growing branches instead of hair? Come on! She's more likely to be abducted by aliens. This is a trap. Or much worse. And, of course, it's much worse.

The child is turning into a dark portal, created by a powerful entity determined to absorb Fairyland's power. This means that not only queen Titania and her court are in danger, but the very balance of the magic fluxes. 

She'd rather stick a pencil in her own eye, but to learn how to destroy the portal, she has to sneak into the Wizardry Council, a place full of wizards who are hiding something—though it’s certainly not their dislike of Robyn.

There, she discovers a secret that could help to overthrow Fairyland's enemies for good, a secret that puts her in the midst of an ancient and deadly war, and not as a bystander, but as the main target.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Worldbuilding: What Goes Wrong If You Don’t Get It Right

In fantasy, we ask a lot of favours of our readers, the key one being suspension of disbelief. We take liberties with reality, and for this to work, the reader needs to accept those departures as fact. If they don’t, the entire plot will fall down. 

This is true across the whole gamut of fantasy sub-genres (and a lot of science-fiction too). If you’re writing an urban fantasy about an underground society of werewolves, or vampires living amongst us, you need a plausible reason why humans haven’t noticed. If they’re running around killing people indiscriminately and leaving a trail of bloody corpses, the reader isn’t going to accept no one’s noticed. 

This is why often these societies in urban fantasy have rules about not killing/feeding on humans, or have particular methods of doing so. Men in Black, while science fiction, has a similar problem – one solved by the neuralyser device. This is all worldbuilding – adding elements to the real world to explain and/or allow the reader to accept the departures from reality that we write about.

In high/epic fantasy, we take it a few steps further and build a world from the ground up. It’s often a completely different planet, with different people, different culture, different laws, ethics and societal values. You can do almost anything within the framework of a high fantasy world.

Provided it’s consistent with and explained by your world. 

You can’t, for example, set up a society in which women have no power or rights, and then have your female protagonist blatantly disregard the rules. In reality, she’d be arrested, stoned, killed, or punished in some other manner. If, in your book, she’s not, then that’s unbelievable (an early mistake of my own). 

You make the rules, but you have to play by the rules you invent. 

Another thing said about fantasy is that it’s even more important to ensure the characters behave true to our understanding of human behaviour than in other genres. The reason for this is because we are already asking the reader for so much suspension of disbelief in relation to the world of the story that the reader is more likely to notice when characters don’t behave true to form. 

Why is this relevant to worldbuilding? Because characters are a product of their world, their time, their culture and society, and their personal experiences.

Am I belabouring the point? Maybe, but I have a reason. 

You may have seen my review on The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. I formed certain views about the sexual practices in that book amounting to the torture and debasement of humanity for no reason except sexual gratification – and I mean psychopathic torture, not consensual BDSM. A few people have remarked ‘but yes, it’s fantasy’ – and I’d like to make the point that it doesn’t matter. I’ve been reading fantasy for 22 years, and writing it nearly as long. ‘It’s fantasy’ isn’t an excuse for poor writing.  

So let’s look at worldbuilding using that book as a case study. 

The reason the book didn’t work for me isn’t because of the sexual practices depicted, but because of the worldbuilding – or lack thereof. 

So here are a few of the questions I asked that should have been answered by the worldbuilding and weren’t:

  • Why were Princes and Princesses offered up by their parents to this kingdom knowing the physical and sexual abuse and humiliation and degradation their children would be subjected to? I’m a parent, and I can attest to the fact that the maternal instinct to protect is very powerful. Even the notion of someone treating my daughter this way stirs a primal, even feral, violence. It’s very difficult to accept a parent would tolerate this treatment. I assume the reason they do is twofold – one, they underwent the same experiences, and are essentially broken i.e. they were mistreated to the point their will broke and they will now do anything to please their tormentors. A kind of Helsinki syndrome. Two – the threat of political retribution, war, total annihilation and destruction of their kingdom. Unfortunately, neither of these reasons are spelled out – I’m making assumptions;
  • Assuming my assumptions are correct, why should I not be enraged that these people have been essentially tortured to the point their will is broken? No good reason for my acceptance of this act as anything other than vile torture is offered. Also, in all the hundreds of years this has been going on, I’d think one father would have snapped and marched to war rather than see his daughter or son mistreated, but if so, no mention is made of it.
  • Why does an entire society (not just a few sociopathic individuals) think this behaviour is OK? I got pulled up by an editor because a scene in which a tavern full of men accepted, condoned or participated in a rape was unrealistic. How much more so then a whole society? Terry Goodkind does a good job of this in his Sword of Truth series, offering religious and political ideologies fed down from the Emperor, and condoned and encouraged at his order by soldiers and priests, as the reason an entire culture behaves in a given way (albeit some of this compliance is procured solely by fear and there are still a few non-conformists, as in any society). No explanation is offered by Anne Rice, and we see none of the members of this society fighting against or protesting it’s cruel practices. Historically we have examples of cultures that were fairly brutal, but these are cultures in which essentially ‘might makes right’, and women are treated hardly any better than animals. How do we explain the apparently cultured and educated mistreatment of captives in Sleeping Beauty by a culture where women seem to have relative equality? I can’t.
  • Even if there was a good reason, my god, wouldn’t you get bored? I was bored just reading about all the spankings. Submersion in even the vilest kind of debauchery eventually gets boring. This is why serial killers escalate in violence – they need to engage in more extreme behaviour to get the same high. And I’m expected to believe this culture has existed for hundreds of years without varying the boring old spanking routine? Puh-lease.

See what you get if you don’t build your world properly? A reader asking very hard to answer questions. If a reader develops this kind of attitude to your book, they won’t be coming back for more. 

Please, build your world properly. Make sure it explains and moulds the behaviour of your characters. Make sure your characters aren’t flagrantly breaking the rules of the world with no consequences. Make sure there are rules, because in the absence of a compelling framework for this new world, we’ll default back to our own.

Getting your worldbuilding wrong can make getting anything else right very difficult.  ‘It’s fantasy’ is not an excuse. 

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Friday, 7 December 2012

The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty: A Review

The book is described as retelling of the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. ‘Retelling’ is a loose description, since the events of the story in fact take place after Sleeping Beauty has been awoken.

My use of the word ‘story’ is also necessarily loose. Does the book have a story? I can’t say I actually noticed one in amongst the gratuitous sex, violence and depravity, and I was, in fact, looking very hard! The main character has no goal I could discern, unless it is to please her new masters, and that is not an especially hard goal to achieve. A goal of escaping would be readily understood and easy to relate, but the thought does not even cross the idiotic girl’s mind. There is no real conflict. 

The story, such as it is, is that Sleeping Beauty is awakened not by a kiss, but by rape. I’ll say it, although the book avoids use of the word until page 84 or something like, but I call a spade a spade, and it’s rape. The Prince who awakens her comes from a kingdom that appears to be feared, for the newly awakened parents of Sleeping Beauty readily accede to the Prince taking away their only daughter – after he parades her naked and gropes her in front of them. I have difficulty conceiving the father who would have tolerated this in front of his very eyes, no matter how much he felt he owed the man who’d broken his enchantment. 

Taken from her home, Beauty is introduced to a society where many Princes and Princesses are sent as ‘tribute’. These Princes and Princesses are kept naked, abused, humiliated, and mistreated in the grossest way imaginable. 

The book is touted as BDSM, but I call foul – this is a grossly misleading statement. BDSM is a consensual sexual activity between adults, at least one of whom is usually submissive and takes pleasure in being so, and at least one who is usually dominant and takes pleasure in being so. True BDSM relationships are characterised by a surprising amount of power resting in the hands of the submissive, who possesses the power to stop proceedings by use of the ‘safety’ word. 

What occurs in the Court of the Prince is not consensual, and we have another word for activities that would have been BDSM if only they were consensual, and that word is torture. The activities are imposed by the will of the captors on the helpless captives, and comprise torture of the most humiliating and debilitating kind, designed to break the spirit and turn a human being into some kind of malleable dough that can be reshaped as the torturer desires, into a willing slave, desperate to please, with no thought or concern for themselves. If you were to transpose any member of the Court of this Kingdom into the TV show, Criminal Minds, they would be the most despicable kind of psychopath, kidnapping women and torturing them into compliance – most definitely the unsub!

I’ve read Kushiel’s Dart, which I thoroughly enjoyed, but The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty only infuriated and sickened me. I distinguish the two books on this basis – Phedre, the protagonist of Kushiel’s Dart, is touched by the gods, and derives genuine pleasure from her own pain, and enters into liaisons consensually of her own free will and possesses the ability to cease proceedings by use of her signalle. The activities embodied in Kushiel’s Dart are in fact BDSM. On the odd occasion that Phedre endured actual torture, rather than consensual BDSM, and despised her body’s own response, it was a sacrifice she voluntarily made for the lives of others. 

The perverted relationship between Mord-Sith and 'pet'
of which this book reminds me
By contrast, the slaves of the Court do not consent to proceedings, have no power to stop the abuse by use of a safety word, and do not naturally derive pleasure from their pain – rather, they are conditioned to never feel pleasure without pain, thus forcing the brain to form associations between the two (much the same way Valerian House in Kushiel’s Dart trains its initiatives, except Valerian does not humiliate and break its adepts). Eventually the pain-pleasure sensations become so closely entwined, the captives experience a sexual response to the infliction of pain. 

It is difficult for me to say where the story goes after Beauty is brought to Court – it doesn’t really go anywhere. The book becomes nothing but a long progression of physical and sexual abuse, rape, and deliberately degrading and humiliating activities. Beauty is kept naked, raped, forced to unclothe her master and perform other tasks with her teeth, to perform sexual acts on her master and other people, kept on hands and knees, spanked and physically abused in other ways, tied up as an adornment, and driven like a horse. Although a multitude of ways are invented to punish her, they vary little in substance, and most consisted of some kind of spanking. I am now heartily bored of spanking, to the point where the production of another paddle produced an eye roll and a stifled yawn. 

I didn’t relate to, or like, any of the characters in the book. So far as Beauty goes, I have no idea what her character was before her enslavement by the Prince, and she breaks to his will so quickly I almost despise her weakness. She scurries to obey after only being paraded naked and spanked a few times, and never once does the thought of escape cross her mind. I concede escape may not have been feasible, nor an attempt wise, but she doesn’t even think about the matter enough to draw any such conclusions! She says only nothing can save her, even though she’s not tried to save herself. 

Other characters describe Beauty as rebellious, or graceful and dignified under pressure, yet all I see is a frightened girl desperate for approval, scurrying to escape a spanking with tears down her face. There is nothing of dignity about the character that I can discern, and certainly nothing rebellious! Whatever it is these other characters see, it has not been adequately communicated to us, as indeed the case with many of Beauty’s emotions – she says she feels certain things, but I am not feeling them with her. This may be due to significant use of passive language and ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’. 

But at least Mord-Sith
acknowledge what they do is torture...
The Prince, his mother the Queen, and the Court are cruel and cold-hearted. They describe the slavery as ‘providing perspective’ and ‘understanding’ to the slaves, and yet none of them are subjected to such treatment, or would even consider it necessary, and the hypocrisy revolts me. This is not an improvement process, but a justification for deriving their own pleasure. 

Twice the book put me in mind of Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth series, and not in a good way. The Court’s philosophies on slaves remind me of Jagang’s theories within the Old Kingdom – people should have no personal pride, and should serve the good of the people with no sense of self, a principle which of course did not apply to Jagang and similarly does not apply to the people of the Court. This was a revolting philosophy in that book, but no one pretended otherwise – the quest was to destroy Jagang and his way of life. Here it is accepted, lauded, embraced by all members of the kingdom, right down to the common people. Everyone seems to be depraved, and I have yet to meet a character who had much in the way of common decency, because even the slaves are recruited into degrading and mistreating each other.   

The second instance is that the members of the Court remind me of the Mord-Sith, pushing, and poking, and prodding, humiliating, and degrading, and hurting their slaves until they break, and once broken, become malleable and compliant. The Mord-Sith at least have the excuse of having been taken and tortured and trained as girls in exactly the same way they now train their pets. The members of the Court have no excuse, and commit the same gross injustices in nothing but the name of their own pleasure and amusement.   

My main issue with the book is that it appears to be nothing but a recounting of the grossest forms of abuse against humanity for gratuitous purposes, and the book attempts to pass this off as legitimate BDSM when it is anything but, and an exploration of the human psychology of seduction and desire, when I’m not seeing a lot of seduction, only a lot of cruelty. I support the consensual ideology of BDSM, but when you take away a person’s free will, subjugate them, abuse them, and rape them, it’s nothing but torture.

Other nitpicks with the book included:

  • Excessive use of telling and passive language;
  • Cliches – the spilling of blood on the taking of virginity is such a cliché. It in fact only happens in less than half of all cases. What I wouldn’t give for a book where having sex with a virgin produces no blood!
  • Inaccuracies – early in the book the Prince causes Beauty to ejaculate. I have difficulty accepting this. Female ejaculation is little understood even in this modern age, but it’s generally accepted it requires a comfortable, relaxed woman for the process to take place. Rape and abuse are hardly conducive to creating that outcome. I also struggle to believe so many tasks can be performed with only the teeth. Ever tried to carry a boot any distance in your teeth?
  • Internal thoughts are written identically to dialogue, sometimes creating confusion as to whether something is spoken aloud or only thought;
  • Infodumping – one character, Prince Alexi, tells his tale of abuse and humiliation over what seemed liked three long chapters. Yawn. Also, I suspect any man who was forcibly sodomised so many times by so many men and so many improvised implements in such a short period of time would almost certainly have sustained internal injuries resulting in death!

In short, the book sickened me, made me furiously angry, and otherwise largely bored me. The erotic scenes were repetitive and lacking in imagination, and the books lacks relateable characters, conflict, tension, or basically anything interesting beyond the abuse of fellow humans.

It ended with Beauty about to be shipped off to some even worse torture than had already been inflicted upon her (this time at her own instigation) and I honestly can’t say I’m inclined to read the sequel. 

No, wait – there is one scenario in which I would read the sequel. If every member of the Court (and possibly the castle) was stripped naked, covered in honey, and staked out over an anthill! Failing that, maybe if Richard Rahl came along and lopped off all their heads. 

Yeah, Richard, off with all their heads!

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