The Defenders – the First Five Episodes

I’m up to episode five with the Defenders, and I’m enjoying it so far, except for Iron Fist. But let’s leave that until later. Let’s heap some praise on this before I unleash the disdain. One word of warning: if you haven’t seen the other series, you’ll like get lost among the relationships, motivations, and dynamics. You could certainly muddle through if you are focused, but it’d be rough going through parts.

It was great seeing all the characters again, and I have to give major kudos for how well each character is followed, their essential inner conflict illustrated and their relationships highlighted in very succinct but full vignettes. It was great reconnecting with the characters and they were all true to their own series. Well, most of them, but I’ll get back to that later.

The events that happened between the characters individual series and this are communicated mostly in either quick visuals or asides. We thankfully see very little of Basil Exposition. This is just a part of the generally strong writing that understands most of these characters and gives us more of what we initially loved. The only problem with all the re-introduction is that there’s also a lot of stage-setting happening in parallel, and most of the first half of the eight episode series was pretty slow. There were a few action scenes, but not much and nothing too impressive. Things pick up after the heroes unite late in episode three, but that’s a long wait.

And then there’s Iron Fist. I am absolutely biased in that I love the Iron Fist of the comics who is absolutely not the Iron Fist of the Netflix series. I guess expecting four for four was too much, but it saddens me that the character I love the most is the one they fucked up (in my opinion). Iron Fist is the first character we meet, and the attempt to address the general failure of the Iron Fist series to make Finn Jones credible as the greatest martial artist on the planet failed due to the complete incomprehensibility of that first fight scene after he gets involved.

What is most frustrating is that there are glimpses of the Danny Rand of the comics – enthusiastic, flippant, friendly, optimistic – and I think Finn Jones captured that really well. The angry, angsty Danny of the Netflix series just seems as petulant here as he did in his own series. What’s worse, Colleen Wing, who came off pretty good in Iron Fist, is inconsistent here, almost like the writers didn’t know what to do with her so when they wanted someone to react in a certain way, they could always get Colleen to do it.

On the plus side, there are a couple of fights which better showcase Danny as Iron Fist, as a master martial artist, but this again is tragic to me because it illustrates the failed potential. There could have been a good Iron Fist series and we could have had a good character in the Defenders, but I guess the showrunners figured angst sells.

And to them I would point to Wonder Woman. Diana in that movie is much more like Danny Rand in the comic books than what we see on the small screen. She is not conflicted, though she is sometimes confused. She is a warrior par excellence and she revels in that. She revels in her ability to help, to protect people. That’s Danny in the comics. And he’s not perfect. He’s a tactical genius not a strategic one. That’s why he and Luke Cage make such a good team in the comics – they complement each other.

Anyway, if you aren’t as invested in Iron Fist as I am, you’ll get a lot more enjoyment out of the Defenders. It’s a good series,but not the best. Still, it gets back to the quality of the pre-Iron Fist shows. Iron Fist and Colleen Wing are, unfortunately, the weakest links. I haven’t even gotten into the villains, who are all interesting and presented pretty well, but that can wait until I’ve finished watching and have a more complete idea of the show and its arc.

I give the first five episodes of the Defenders 4 daring power fists of Jones out of 5. If you liked the other Marvel Netflix series, you’ll like this one. It’s slow to get going, but it’s nice to be able to spend time with most of these characters again. Iron Fist remains (sadly) the weakest of the characters but (thankfully) even he has some bright spots.

You can find out more about the Defenders at Wikipedia and IMDB.

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Killjoys: A Quick Review

I’m on episode three of season one of Killjoys, a Syfy original about interplanetary bounty hunters. It’s interplanetary rather than interstellar because these bounty hunters work a collection of four planets known as the Quad or the J Colonies. It’s obviously inspired by Firefly without being a slavish imitation of it. There’s also a hint of Cowboy Bebop, though moreso just the idea of sci fi bounty hunters than characters or feel,

Given that this is a Syfy original, I had very low expectations. So far, the series has exceeded them. The SFX are fine and the cast does a pretty credible job of providing believable characters. It’s not top tier film-making, but I think there’s a lot to enjoy and a lot of inspiration. There are some good ideas along with some groaners – the conglomerate that runs the colonies is know as . . . “the Company,” . . . wow, must have reached deep for that one. There’s nothing here, though, that wouldn’t be out of place at a game table, so I think RPGers will have some patience for it.

I give Killjoys (so far) 3.5 locked and served warrants out of 5. This isn’t prestige TV, but if you have a chance, give it an eyeball.

You can find out more about Killjoys at Wikipedia, IMDB, and Space (in Canada).

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Marco Polo (Season One)

I’ve just finished season one of Marco Polo on Netflix and I have to admit to quite enjoying it. That “I have to admit” is mostly for myself, as I watched the first two episodes about a year ago when it originally came out and walked away. I had to get myself into the Braveheart meets Gladiator zone of “historical” entertainment and then it worked. It’s enjoyable with some fun characters, smarmy intrigue, good martial arts and absolutely horrible battlefield scenes.

So this isn’t about Marco Polo. Well, it is, but it is in the same way that Forrest Gump is about late 20th century history. Polo gets shoe-horned into a bunch of important points in the period, even when he should not be there. The series understands that we basically know that Marco Polo went to China and that’s about it. We know the Mongols were tough as nails and were barbarians. That’s the level of knowledge this series assumes you have and if you have more than that, you might not have a good time. That is, until you get into that headspace that allows for the return to the Roman Republic after Commodus’ assassination and Franco-Scot noble William Wallace dressing like a 17th century Highlander while usurping Robert the Bruce’s pivotal role in assuring Scots’ independence in the 14th century.

The writing is fine but it’s not original. There’s a lot of stock characters, stock dialogue, and stock political tension and intrigue. Marco Polo gets to be involved in the aspects of Kublai Khan’s reign and conflict with Song Dynasty China that he almost certainly was not. He also gets to learn martial arts from a blind monk, and that’s really what I came back for. That was so much like Nefertiti Overdrive – throw in some martial arts, it’ll make it better! – that I had to come back. And I am glad I did.

Marco Polo is absolutely not great, but darn is it entertaining. It’s also nice the number of roles it provides for non-White actors. Heck, even the main Caucasian isn’t North American. He certainly did better with martial arts than Iron Fist did in Iron Fist. In fact, I would have been happier to have Claudia Kim (Khutulun), Tom Wu (Hundred Eyes) or Chin Han (Jia Sidao) play Danny Rand in Iron Fist given how well they pull off their fight scenes.

But this is bad history. The broad strokes are fine, but the details are almost all wrong. And the battle scenes do not please me. There are some great fight scenes – when it’s character fighting character – but when the Mongol host faces the Chinese army it really fails. I mean, it’s not alone in this – I’m looking at you, the Two Towers, with your cavalry charge downhill on loose shale, and you, the Return of the King, with another cavalry charge against a wall . . . a wall! Still, those scenes were merciful few and relatively short, whereas the rest of the series is pretty fun.

I give Marco Polo season one four hastily erected for false tension trebuchets out of five. That’s for entertainment value rather than quality. It’s a great costumer with action and drama, and a lot of fun characters and situations that draws one along with its story even when one is shaking one’s head.

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New Daughters, New Glory

I’ve written before about the novel I was working on called Daughter of Glory. About a year ago, I was looking at updating it and considering how I might best present it. Just recently I was plotting out a story of two young sisters who are caught up in political and religious turmoil that separates them from their parents. I recognize the similarity of the two stories and was thinking I could merge them, bolt the story of the two sisters onto Daughter of Glory.

But that’s a bad idea for two reasons: 1) it will never fit perfectly and 2) even trying to do so is lazy.

“Sorceress” by nanami-yuki

Daughter of Glory was high fantasy with elves and dwarves and archmages throwing lightning around. I envisioned the two sisters’ story (let’s just call it Two Sisters) as low fantasy, with some magic but no other races. Cultures, oh my yes, but not elves, dwarves, fairies or orcs. The amount of re-working that would need to happen would be immense and would likely show.

And, really, why would I even want to? Yes, I had a huge amount already finished on Daughter of Glory, and that might give me a leg up (not necessarily would, but might), but that’s its own kind of trap. Have I not learned anything since I originally wrote those words? Am I not a different writer now than then? I believe the answer to both is yes. Using the words written by that other writer, that me from many years ago, is a cheat that could lead to a worse product. It might be easier, but easier is not better.

So in the end, I think I need to pursue Two Sisters and abandon Daughter of Glory. If I do want to return to Daughter of Glory, I need to use that which is written as a guideline, rather than a shortcut. Those words were written, and they served their purpose – practice. The development of that idea helped me to improve my writing. Its work is done.

But my work goes on.

You can read more about Daughter of Glory here.

Art for this article from nanami-yuki at deviantART.

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Wonder Woman, A Review

On Father’s Day I had the rare opportunity to view a movie in its native environment – the theatre. The whole family went to check out Wonder Woman, and I am so glad that we did – certainly for my wife and daughters but also absolutely for me.

There are certainly problems with this movie, and if an “Everything Wrong With . . .” video happens, it’ll probably reach into 20 minute+ territory, but y’know what? I couldn’t care less. We could do the same with Superman or Raiders of the Lost Ark. Don’t care. Love those movies, and I love this one.

Do I need to explain the plot? It’s World War I and an errant American spy working for British intelligence breaches the isolation of Themyscira where we have watched a young girl grow into a consummate warrior. Her sense of honour forces her to leave her home because she believes she can help stop the war and save innocent lives.

To say this is a bright film misses the fact that it focuses on the tragedy of war, both for those involved in the fighting and for those caught in the middle. But it is a bright film – bright like Superman, and a recent Directors’ Guild of America interview with director Patty Jenkins reveals the truth of this. Superman was an inspiration to her, and in the interview she explains to its director – Richard Donner – just how much he influenced and inspired her.

This movie honestly has everything I love: great action, solid characters, heroics, nobility, and a light touch. The actors inhabit the roles and even the supporting cast are given enough personality to make me care about them, and each had a few moments to shine. None of this matters if the main actor isn’t believable and charismatic. Gal Gadot is both. She really embodies Wonder Woman in the way that Christopher Reeve embodied Superman and the way I think Chris Evans embodies Captain America. These characters are all noble warriors who fight not because of a love of war but to protect those who cannot fight for themselves. They are selfless and truly heroic. The movie delivers on this.

My daughters loved the movie. I can’t say it was a revelatory to them as many situations related elsewhere, but they were very pleased to see a woman be the hero and the leader. My wife may have loved it more than my daughters, saying it was great to see a woman who was so physically dominant, so capable, and unyielding in her beliefs and righteousness.

I got to say, I feel the same.

I give Wonder Woman 4.5 invisible invisible planes out of 5. This is a fantastically enjoyable movie that has some plot holes and other problems, but I could not care less about it. This is an amazing movie and the easily rivals Nolan’s first two Batman movies and Donner’s Superman as the best DC superhero movie.

You can find out more about Wonder Woman at Wikipedia and IMDB.

You can hear the Patty Jenkins interview here.

You don’t know about the “Everything Wrong With . . .” videos on Youtube?

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I’m An Imposter

In honour of the Imposters funding (Todd Crapper and Josh T. Jordan on the same project? The collected awesome of that project will undoubtedly create a singularity of awesome, but instead of nothing escaping the event horizon, it will constantly release awesome into the universe), let me put on my imposter hair-shirt for just a moment.

Recently, people gave me a bunch of money to update Sword’s Edge. They continue to drop money they have earned with their hard work to get me to ship physical products to them. Somewhere else on the internet today, somebody bought a bunch of adventures I wrote between 2004 and 2005 (with a slight detour into 2008). Every time I look at the amount of money somebody spends on my stuff I get the feeling that they are going to be the one to realize I am a fraud. That they are going to turn around and say: “Why am I paying you for this shit? You suck at this.”

I was the spotlight author in issue 79 of the Canadian speculative fiction magazine On Spec and I described myself as a hack. That’s kind of how I have always envisioned myself. I am a worker, not an artist. If I get paid for stuff, it’s because it’s good enough, not because it is good.

I read games that other designers create and I read fiction that other authors write and I am often inspired to attack my own work with more gusto, but then I look at my stuff and I compare it to their stuff and I often think that the world would be better off if I just stopped.

The weird thing is that while people paying money can trigger this, the fact that people will pay me money is one of the signals that I use to continue to work. There are people who have bought all my games, and that boggles my mind. There are people in this world that actually see my name attached to something and decide to buy it. It is really weird to both be terrified and energized by the fact that people pay money for my stuff, but there it is.

I’m an imposter. Please feel free to be that person who calls me on my BS.

You can find out more about the Imposters here.

The amazing Josh T Jordan runs Ginger Goat.

The awesome Todd Crapper runs Broken Ruler Games.

You can read some reviews of On Spec issue 79 and my place in it, both complimentary and not so much.

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Through the Gate in the Sea: A Review

I was quite thrilled when I heard that Through the Gate in the Sea was available. I’m a fan of Howard Andrew Jones’ work, and while I consider his non-tie-in fiction to be his strongest, I will always buy a book with his name on it. As such, I have all four of his Pathfinder novels. As you might imagine, I’m positively inclined toward his fiction, so that’s the bias I bring to this review.

I have a hard time deciding if I like this or its predecessor, Beyond the Pool of Stars, better. Like Beyond the Pool of Stars, Through the Gate in the Sea reads much more like heroic fantasy with touches of epic fantasy rather than gaming fiction. There are hints throughout that yes, this is rooted in the rules and expectations of a role-playing game, but this does not dominate the flavour of the book. If you cringe at tie-in fiction – which I honestly generally do with a couple of exceptions – you needn’t fear this novel. It is not as strong as the Desert of Souls or the Bones of the Old Ones – Howard Andrew Jones’ two novels with Dabir and Asim, his best works for certain – but it is riveting.

Basically, Through the Gate in the Sea takes off soon after Beyond the Pool of Stars ends, with main character Mirian Raas, a marine salvager, trying to help the lizardfolk with whom she has forged a familial bond, find more of their lost people. This allows for one of the best POV characters in the novel: Jekka, a lizardfolk warrior. Jekka is Mirian’s blood brother, and while he is a cool customer, the chance to find more of his people after losing all of his clan save his cousin, fires him up.

There’s a great villain, a fantastic anti-hero with whom I can definitely sympathize, the playwright-hero Ivrian, and much more. The characters are all excellent and believable, but this – along with brisk, exciting pacing and swashbuckling action – is one of Howard Andrew Jones’ strengths.

The only quibble I have with the novel is that there is a group of adversaries that seem unnecessary. They have a function in the story, but then kind of drift off and don’t have a really impactful exit. I was expecting more given how well Howard Andrew Jones sculpted the main character of this group, and I don’t really want to say more so as not to spoil anyone’s suspense. It’s funny, because I can easily imagine in real-life this exact situation – oh jeez, those guys are pretty tough, this could be a problem . . . wait, what happened to them? In fiction, though, one carries expectations. So maybe I’m talking myself out of the quibble in that it’s actually believable in the way that reality is crazier than any fiction, but for the story I would say I didn’t find it satisfying.

That one quibble apart, Howard Andrew Jones delivered exactly what his name on a cover promises – strong plot, exciting action, and great characters. That’s what I love.

I give Through the Gate in the Sea 4.75 non-submersible, highly mobile, undersea transports out of 5. If you dig fantasy – and especially if you dig heroic fantasy with a hint of high magic and epic threats – you’ll dig this. As with all of his books, I highly recommend this Howard Andrew Jones novel.

You can find Through the Gate in the Sea at Paizo here and Amazon here.

You can learn more about Howard Andrew Jones here.

I reviewed Beyond the Pool of Stars here.

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Logan: A Review

Thanks to the wonders of repertory cinemas, I had a chance to see Logan last week. It seems this was good karma for helping a friend in need, and it was more than an adequate reward.

I’ve been a Wolverine fan for quite some time. It’s likely because he was the first mainstream Canadian superhero teenage me found, but there were also some very significant Wolverine stories back in the day, and the Wolverine mini-series written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by Frank Miller cemented Logan as my favourite super. When James Mangold seemed to be bringing aspects of that mini-series to the screen in The Wolverine, I was cautiously excited – cautious because of X3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine.

The Wolverine was certainly better than XMOW, but it didn’t do the mini-series justice. Still, it seemed like it would be the best we would get. Then along comes Logan and its obvious borrowings from Old Man Logan.

Let’s be clear: Old Man Logan worked very well as a deconstruction of many comic characters and tropes, but much of what the work referenced would be lost on movie audiences. Many of the story points would be likewise pretty extreme (like the Hulk clan’s origins). However, I thought an older, bitter Logan would be a great character and with the rumours that this would be Hugh Jackman’s last hurrah as Wolverine, a story taking aspects from Old Man Logan sounded perfect.

Logan is not perfect, but I think it’s as close to that as we can expect. There were parts of the film that dragged for me, but I recognize their purpose. Jackman and Patrick Stewart deliver, and Dafne Keen as X-23 was also quite good. Sometimes Boyd Holbrook as Donald Pierce or Richard E. Grant as Zander Rice chew some scenery, but it is relatively restrained for what it is and likely an attempt to make the villains more entertaining, given that they are evil guys doing evil things with flimsy justifications – they are 2D villains pretty much.

The weakness of the villains, though, didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the movie, and enjoy it I did. While there were few surprises – as much as I hoped there’d be a curveball somewhere along the way – it was a fantastic ride. This is the Wolverine movie all others should aspire to be. And I believe there should be other Wolverine movies with a new Logan now that Hugh Jackman has departed. Like Sean Connery’s Bond, whomever follows Jackman is going to have a hard time of it, but I wish them well.

Along with the pathos, there is lots of action, and it is good without being great. There were no action scenes that left me stunned, nothing here that I had not seen before elsewhere, but that’s okay. Again, given this intellectual property’s track record, good translates to great when you are in the theatre watching the movie.

So I’m going to give Logan 4.5 unmentioned spoiler special villains out of 5. Although there were no surprises, the action was good and the acting from the leads was great. The movie could have been improved by taking some chances with the plot or making the villains more believable, but this was a

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Hard West

Since I have put my master’s program on pause, I’ve had some time to play some computer games, and an interesting one that I’ve just started is Hard West.

Now, being a PC player, I don’t have access to Red Dead Redemption. I really liked Call of Juarez: Bound in Blood and Gunslinger, but the only other Western-themed computer game I’ve been recommended is Gun, which I started but which never really held my interest. Hard West is something different – a turn-based tactical shooter. That’s cool, because gunfighting is what I was looking for, but the story elements are a bit lacking. Not that there’s not a story, there are multiple stories, but the player’s input into the stories is minimal. This is the same as the Call of Juarez games, which are Western shooters on rails.

Right now, I’m finding the game fun and the mechanics of the fights – with the importance of cover in reducing damage, and the importance of luck in avoiding getting shot – but it’d be nice if there was more customization of the characters and less of a railroaded story. The graphics are quite good, but it takes a while to figure out how to do anything on the map, and I started my second playthrough after a couple of scenarios as I began to realize just what I could do.

I may need to get back to Gun and see if maybe my initial impression was perhaps too quickly formed.

I would give Hard West three and three-quarters rounds from a Volcano pistol out of five (And, yes, Hard West does have a version of hard-hitting hand cannon from Volcanic Repeating Arms). It has a great combat system and graphics, but it is lacking in character customization and player input into the story.

You can find out more about Hard West here.

It is available on Steam here.

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Artist as Protagonist

A recent episode of In Our Time focused on the Japanese artist Hokusai, and the discussion turned to Japan at the time and Hokusai’s place in both the artistic community and the politics of the time – he apparently had a good relationship with the Shogun. It made me think of the artist as a protagonist outside the changes to a nation or culture but who can be a lens to view that.

I’ve had a few false starts with these kinds of stories, originally inspired by the movie Painted Fire (Chi Hwa Sun – not See Uhn as the announcer in the trailer pronounces it). This was a movie by Im Kwon-Taek, who is the finest Korean director bar none in my opinion, and starring one of Korea’s greatest living actors, Choi Min-Sik. The difference was that while the character of Jang Seung-Up was also an entré character for the politics of that period, he did not have the self-awareness or the savvy of Hokusai – at least as the one is portrayed in the movie and the other in the podcast. I think both would be interesting, with Hokusai much more of an insider and Jang much more of a rebel.

Guy Gavriel Kay used this device in his Sarantine Mosaic duology – Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors – in which a mosaic artist is plucked out of the settings version of Italy following the fall of its Roman Empire and whisked away to Sarantium – the stand-in for Constantinople. Crispin, the artist-protagonist in this story, is a mixture of the two. He’s not as worldly as Hokusai and not as wild as Jang Seung-Up.

All that to say I think the device would be a lot of fun to play with, but I would need a story in which it could work. Further, I think the character could work really well in a story-centric RPG in which the artistic ability might be useful in some abstract way. Were I to play one, it would definitely be much more Jang Seung-Up, with a large helping of uncertainty and confusion that people actually care about what he’s producing.

By the way, on the day this is published (11 Apr 2017) there are still a few more days on the Sword’s Edge Kickstarter. Head on over an back it if you haven’t already. Thanks!

You can find the “Hokusai” episode of In Our Time here.

You can find information on Painted Fire here and the trailer here.

You can read about the Sarantine Mosaic here.

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