I’ve known about Alex London’s Battle Dragons franchise since it was new. However, because of the ruthless march of time, I’ve only just gotten around to checking it out. I mean, it’s a cyberpunk with dragons. I know I’ve been disappointed before, but something like this—knock on wood—can’t possibly be crap! Well, let’s FINALLY read the first installment, City of Thieves, and confirm my wild claim. Hopefully.
In City of Thieves, a boy named Abel stays up late to watch the custodial dragons burn some trash. Instead, he sees his older sister parkour her way into his room, where she subsequently gives him a mysterious address and a secret to keep. Apparently, she’s a dragon thief, wanted by gangs and the secret police. Better yet, when Abel checks out this address, he finds—surprise, surprise—a rare dragon, smack dab in the middle of Thunder Wings territory. He is now forced to become its rider and fight illegal battles for the Thunder Wings.
Let’s address the elephant, or rather, dragon in the room: the worldbuilding in this series is actually kind of awesome. I’ve seen so many cases where a cool idea falls flat, and thankfully, this isn’t one of those times. Dragons are everything in the city of Drakopolis, including in the aforementioned illegal battles. Also, like in any cyberpunk works, gangs like the aforementioned Thunder Wings run the city. They aren’t even subtle about it; people in public jobs are openly showing their gangster imagery. Even Abel’s teacher is in a gang!
However, I don’t know what is with American literature in particular, or maybe it’s seriously bad luck on my part, but… well… London’s execution is—surprise, surprise—as aggressively safe as it could possibly be. City of Thieves has a mind-numbingly simple plot, and next to no battles, despite the series’ title. This sucks, since the worldbuilding is so well thought out.
I suppose the “risk” comes with some of the twists that come up. However, can you even call them twists? The story is framed to make you think everyone is a criminal, so when these twists happen, it feels more ridiculous than a case of “Wow! Moral ambiguity!” You might as well throw in one of Team Rocket’s famous disguises while you’re at it.
The story would’ve likely been better if Abel wasn’t the main character. He simply isn’t ABEL to do much of anything, and yet he’s the chosen one of the dragon Lina stole, explained simply as “it loves her so much that it loves her blood relative too.” I was spoiled when looking the book up on Goodreads that Abel has AD-HD (since Goodreaders cannot shut up about representation these days), which is something that is not overtly mentioned in the story. I don’t really know how much that justifies his stupid actions, but I do know that a kid with AD-HD once saved the Greek gods, so… it’s only so much of an excuse. Honestly, what really set me off about him above all else is that he never gets that everyone is a criminal.
This includes his best friend, Roa. In the first of many telegraphed betrayals, Roa reveals themself as a Thunder Wings member. However, it really doesn’t mean crap in the long run. They are still smart, supportive, and a much more capable human being than Abel. The aforementioned gangster teacher, Ally, is probably one of the best characters, but she doesn’t get enough screentime. Even Abel’s mom gets to show that she’s a better character than he is. His older brother, Silas the police officer, is… kind of unremarkable. He’s a one-dimensional stuck-up older sibling, and there’s a plot twist with him that’s so obvious that I legitimately thought it was something that had been established in the opening chapter.
To be honest, Lina should’ve been the main protagonist. She’s cool, knows parkour, and gets to see so much more of the criminal underworld that readers probably want to see than Abel. London could’ve taken some real risks with her, since she would’ve made a great anti-hero.
I sure bashed City of Thieves a lot, but it isn’t bad. It’s just, like a lot of American novels I’ve read, safe. The writing is good; it describes stuff well enough, there’s great humor, and the few battles that happen (all two of them) get pretty intense. The book is just not cyberpunk-y enough.
Final Verdict: 8.5/10
The first book of Battle Dragons is better than I expected, but still not particularly amazing. I’ll probably read the sequel, since the books are short, and light novels eat wallets for breakfast. At least it’s not as pretentious as other cyberpunks. That’s something, right?
I’ve wanted to watch Cartoon Saloon’s Irish Folklore movies for a good while, even more so after getting into European folk metal. COVID is the reason why I took this long to get around to it! In case you didn’t know, the studio’s third movie never premiered in theaters. And so, GKids, for some ungodly reason, exclusively streamed it on Apple TV+, which—to be fair—I could’ve got a free trial and canceled it after watching the film. However, my consciousness didn’t want to. It also wouldn’t solve the fact that the other two movies aren’t up for streaming anywhere. So, I recently stumbled upon the environmentally friendly Blu-ray box set containing all three movies, and decided to get that through Amazon. Sure, Cartoon Saloon still wouldn’t get a cent of commission off of it, but I at least trust Amazon, for they seem to be the only ones capable of shipping anything in this day and age. Anyway, without further rambling, let’s review the studio’s first movie: The Secret of Kells!
In The Secret of Kells, a boy named Brendan lives in the titular town of Kells, run by his anal Uncle… uh… Abbot? Crap, I already forgot his name. Anyway, said uncle wants to build a wall that could trump Trump in order to protect them from Vikings. However, things get interesting when an old geezer named Aiden (and his cat) moves into town, with a magic book that is just one page short of completion. Aiden is too old to finish it. Guess who gets hoisted with the big responsibility.
Whenever I’ve reviewed Disney movies, I never know what to say about the visuals. As aesthetically striking as they are, I admit that the films are quite samey. The Princess and the Frog is probably better looking than most of the company’s films, and that’s because of something that a lot of millennials and boomers can agree on: hand-drawn animation. While it can look crappy and cheap (i.e. TV anime), Cartoon Saloon shows just what the art form is capable of.
There’s so much to say about it, I can dedicate a real paragraph to talk about it! While it’s not as anatomically correct as even Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, The Secret of Kells has its own sense of beauty. Characters are made of basic shapes, which allows them to get really creative with the designs. The way people look lends to their personalities; Brendan is small and cute, while you already know his uncle is a big fat meanie from his height and stiffness. Beyond the cast, the movie does some wild things with the backgrounds; stuff I don’t want to spoil for your sake. It’s colorful, whimsical, and in 2022, still looks timeless. The Celtic world of Ireland really shows through in the natural splendor of the forest outside of Kells. If only Disney kept at the hand-drawn biz; who knows how their newer movies would have looked then!
As my first ever film outside of a natively English-speaking nation other than Japan, I was curious about if there was a sub or dub, like with anime. The answer is that there’s no such thing; it’s English through-and-through, but thankfully, it’s authentically European. Over there, other countries are like states to them, and it’s easy to be exposed to a myriad of tongues. In essence, this means that they can speak English but still have the beautiful accents of their respective regions. It really helps make the movie awesome, although that could just be the pagan weeb in me talking.
Anyway, despite the movie being artsier than Disney, it’s got about as straightforward of a plot. It boils down to Aiden and Brendan working together, under Uncle’s nose, to finish the miraculous last page of the book, and with an inevitable Viking assault capable of occuring at any moment. That’s more-or-less it; Brendan is pretty much just Aiden’s errand boy. Someone probably has a deep analysis of how the movie is an allegory to chauvinist postmodernism (whatever that is), but I definitely didn’t notice it if it was there.
The hardest part of a feature film is writing characters that you’ll grow attached to in that short time, but thankfully, The Secret of Kells does a good enough job with that. Brendan has that childlike wonder, and also becomes like Crockett Johnson’s Harold at one point. He meets Best Girl Ashley, a strange child who lives in the forest and is quite the tomboy. Aiden is a fun and eccentric old man, and conversely, Uncle is—well—we’ve established him. Thankfully, Uncle isn’t exactly a bad Disney parent; in 2009, Cartoon Saloon subverted a trope that it took Disney until—what—Encanto to subvert themselves? Wow, way to sound pretentious. Look, I love Disney, but being the embodiment of the mainstream can bite them in the rumpus room sometimes.
Kind-of-spoiler here, but I’m at least glad that The Secret of Kells doesn’t take the obvious route of making humans evil. Sure, there’s Vikings, who are all polygonal, black, and have red fire, but they are clearly established as their own entity that don’t represent humankind as a whole. Also, this legendary monster that is supposed to be suffering and malice incarnate… most people would just make it a 40-something-year-old man. However, it’s actually just a monster… for once. I hope I’m not wrong about that, or else I’ll look stupid!
Final Verdict: 9.5/10
Surprise, surprise—The Secret of Kells is a really good movie, and I’m stoked to watch the other two. If I wasn’t already sold on Europe via its metal scene, then this might’ve been what did it instead. I recommend it to anyone who misses hand-drawn animated movies.
Pixar’s Brave turns ten this year. Who’da thunk that’d ever happen? Since I’ve done many-a Disney movie retrospective, I thought it’d be time for me to tackle Brave! It’s one I remember fondly, but as someone who hadn’t seen it in at least five years, I can’t exactly go off of that. As such, it’s time to see what it’s like from the perspective of a hyper-critical adult!
In Brave, we are taken back to the good old days in ancient… er… Scotland(?). Princess Merida learns to be a badass from her dad, much to the chagrin of her protective mother. Oh, and dad almost gets offed by a bear in that classic Disney fashion. When Merida becomes a teen, mom gets REAL overprotective. Merida hates this, and in her blind rage, makes a deal with a witch to change her fate (you of course have to read those last three words in a Scottish accent). The witch’s spell turns mom into a bear, and the only way to reverse it is to mend the bond torn by pride (oh, and same for those last six words as well).
I sure didn’t appreciate the Celtic atmosphere when I was younger, but for a pagan metal junkie like myself, I was able to enjoy Brave‘s setting more than I ever have. Europe really is something else, and Pixar—as always—knocks it out of the park when making magical locales. This is the perfect opportunity for some Celtic folk-inspired musical numbers…!
…All two of them. The first is a song I guarantee most Disney fans only know the chorus of; you know, it’s the one set of lyrics that they always use every time Brave comes up in a Disney park attraction. Unfortunately, upon hearing the full song for the first time in years, I found it to be one of Disney’s weaker numbers. The iterations of it that appear in the aforementioned Disney attractions have way more weight and impact than its original use in the movie. The other number is a cutesy, sentimental piece used during a mother-daughter bonding montage. I had completely forgotten about it until seeing the movie for this retrospective, and forgetting a Disney song ever existed is a sure sign that it’s not particularly likable. I really feel like they squandered an opportunity here. While their next Disney princess movie (which also turns ten next year) is set in Scandinavia, most of the songs in it aren’t exactly inspired by pagan folk music.
In case you couldn’t tell, the plot is pretty straightforward. While Merida struggles to mend the bond, she and her mom learn to get along with each other. Things go awry, the dad ends up rallying up the other clansmen to try and kill his own wife, mom realizes that she was being REALLY dense, and the power of love turns her human again. Oh, and they have a run-in with the evil bear from the beginning, who happens to have been a previous customer of the aforementioned witch. Like I’ve said numerous times, you generally don’t see Pixar movies expecting something mind-blowing.
However, there is something VERY unexpected that I felt quite flummoxed by. There’s implied nudity, including during the brief moment after Merida’s very young brothers turn back from bear to themselves, and even the old fart clan leaders ogling Merida’s naked mom when she turns back into a human. There’s also a scene of one of the brothers swan diving into a very traumatized maid’s cleavage. I’m not joking; there’s even a zoom in right into her bosom. If you’re familiar with hentai, this’ll seem like nothing. However… This is a movie for children; a Pixar movie. Man, how different things would become in just four years after Brave‘s release.
While the plot itself isn’t too interesting, it’s one of the more digestible Pixar movie plots thanks to the movie’s seriously star-studded cast. Most Disney characters are super expressive, but to be perfectly real, they were REALLY expressive in Brave. Every character, and every mannerism, were just so memorable. I enjoyed their interactions way more than when I saw the movie the first time!
Merida and her mom are the stars of the show, for they are the entire plot. Merida’s cool and all, albeit a bit immature, but her mom is actually one of the best Disney parents… eventually. She’s insufferable at the beginning, but has some amazing moments throughout, such as when she just ear-grabs her husband and the three clansmen to resolve a fracas. Also, the way she tries to act human even when she’s a bear is just perfect as well. Merida’s dad and her brothers are also very silly and rambunctious. The brothers don’t say a single word, and they’re just as bursting with character as everyone else.
The clansmen and their sons are additional comic relief. They all have very distinct character designs, and are—as expected—full of mannerisms. I wish they had more screentime, but it makes sense why they didn’t.
The weakest character is its main antagonist, Mordu the evil bear man. Like I said with The Princess and the Frog: Facilier was the last true Disney villain. In the transitional phase to Disney’s current system, we get some unremarkable Disney villains like Mordu who seem to exist just to spice things up (and we’ll be seeing another example in that other movie that I said would be turning ten next year). He’s at least got good foreshadowing, but he just seemed to be a plot device for the whole movie.
After All These Years: 9.35/10
I’m gonna be honest, I thought I was going to revisit Brave, and walk out of it thinking it wasn’t a particularly remarkable movie. However, it might be one of my favorite Pixar movies of all time. It’s not groundbreaking, but it just does what Pixar does really, REALLY well in sheer execution. It’s aged really well in every department. I recommend it to kids and Disney nerds.
Holy crap… I forgot that YA novels don’t always have social undertones. Well, technically, Akemi Dawn Bowman’s The Infinity Courts asked questions about the self and smartphone A.I., but since—like many cyberpunks—it comes off as pretentious and ham-fisted, the book ended up being a perfect mindless romp. Now, we have its sequel: The Genesis Wars. Let’s hope Nami actually lives up to the amazing One Piece character she’s named after!
When we last left our intrepid hero, Nami Miyamoto was betrayed and her friends were captured. Now she’s hanging out with a secret collective of different Clans (with a capital C) of warriors who have been hiding from the Residents. As you can expect, seventy-five percent don’t want to fight back because it’s too wisky-woo-woo. As such, she trains up to potentially go and save her old friends on her own.
The Genesis Wars starts off kind of… badly. We are thrown right into her life in the Clans almost a year after she initially found them, because timeskips are fun. There are MANY characters casually introduced as if we’ve known them since the first book, and you have to adjust to these new faces on the fly. Seriously… is it just me or does this happen a LOT in sequels?
This seems like the perfect set-up for a boring sequel where Nami complains about them not doing anything, and we spend eighty percent of the book complaining that nothing happens. Fortunately, that’s not the case. Before long, Nami packs her bags and leaves the Clans behind, which honestly, makes the whole thing seem like padding in hindsight (at least you don’t have to worry about picturing most of the Clan people). In any case, she goes off to War, which is the kingdom of Prince Ettore that is basically every YA dystopian world all rolled into one.
It’s a nasty place, but for the story, it really takes off. Nami finds a group of rebellious humans camping around in War, and unlike the schmucks at the Colony and Clans, these people are actually DOING SOMETHING. Thanks to this, The Genesis Wars has actual wars in it, especially in a place called WAR. There is no end to anime-like, adrenaline-pumping action sequences once the ball gets rolling.
Naturally, the cast improves as well. Nami gets… better-ish. She’s still kind of whiny, but she’s much stronger. She can really pull her weight in Infinity, and most importantly, she looks awesome while doing it. Also, Nami gets a familiar whom she can telepathically control at will. That’s VERY anime, which is always good for YA novels.
We meet many new faces in War, the edgiest of whom is Ozias, a Clan turncoat who wanted to fight the Residents. Like many of the rebels, he is very proactive. Of course, he has some semblance of moral ambiguity so readers can be asked the classic question of “Are the [insert antagonistic entity here] or humans the real monsters?”
Oh, right, there’s Prince Caelan, and he’s still an enigma. We had no idea what his motives were back in The Infinity Courts, and we still don’t know them now. At least there’s a scene where he’s topless. That alone EASILY bumps up the score of the book by at least one point.
Final Verdict: 9.65/10
The Genesis Wars is a rare sequel that’s better than the previous book. There’s more action and intrigue than before. Let’s hope beyond all reason that the forthcoming third—and presumably final book—will be great. If so, then this might become one of my favorite YA series of all time.
I have the longest story with this book. I’ve been battling serious depression over the past two years (longer than that by the time the post actually goes out) because it feels like human civilization is falling apart. Heck, you could argue it’s been happening longer than that; since the #MeToo movement in 2017, it feels like violent protests have been a way of life. Of course, 2020 set a new precedent of despair, when COVID took the world, and simple matters of health became political. That same year, George Floyd was murdered, and divided the human race amongst itself overnight. 2021 began with a terrorist attack on Capitol Hill, organized entirely by American citizens with a political agenda. At the time of writing this paragraph, Russia is invading Ukraine, laying the groundwork for World War III. To top it off, earth is being ravaged by climate change, at a rate that keeps increasing at an exponential rate despite all the efforts that have been put in to delay it. As of completing the book, Ukraine is still at war, and abortion is now illegal on a constitutional level following the result of Roe v. Wade, not to mention a spike in mass shootings.
This is where Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged comes in. I was at a point when I finally figured out how to enjoy life, but now I’m drowning in despair. I can’t begin to list the violent emotions and twisted thoughts I’ve felt. To give you an idea, my mother has considered sending me to the psych ward numerous times. After some intense discussions with her, she offered up Atlas Shrugged. According to her, it would—at the very least—expose the media and these new-fangled activists as the BS-spewers that they allegedly are. I was skeptical, but Atlas Shrugged is apparently one of the most influential novels of all time; second only to The Bible.
Atlas Shrugged, however, is massive. This is the kind of book that I can only read with the new purging of pop culture media that I have committed to. One chapter can take about an hour, and there’s a lot of chapters; over a thousand pages’ worth. I started the book in February 2022, and you’re reading this post not long after I actually finished the book. That’s how much of an investment it is.
Like any hard SF novel, completing it is a monumental task. One aspect of these kinds of books is that merely figuring out the basic premise is a headache that you’re meant to experience, and thus, it feels like discussing any aspect of the novel is spoiler territory, even though it’s super old. So… Here’s a spoiler warning then. Read on if you wish.
Right off the bat, Rand’s prose feels like what a lot of modern writers, whom I consider pretentious, try to be. A lot of Atlas Shrugged is very verbose, and at first, it feels like nothing is happening. However, unlike books such as Monogatari, I wasn’t mad. A lot of passages give you hints pertaining to the book’s worldbuilding and how characters think and feel. The writing is also very poetic, describing things metaphorically but in a way that can be understood by anyone with a basic grasp of the English language; unlike a lot of YA and light novels that vomit nonsensical similes at everything.
You are given your first signs of how messed up the world of Atlas Shrugged is with the initial conflict centered around Taggart Transcontinental, a railroad company. The organization has always been run by Taggarts, and this generation is brother and sister James and Dagny Taggart. When one of their lines desperately needs fixing, Dagny is literally the only person to do anything about it. She orders an untested metal from a company that James doesn’t trust, while his “trusted” metals haven’t been delivered in over a year since being ordered. What jumps out is that she is the only one in the whole organization who’s proactive; everyone else, except a guy named Eddie Willers, sucks.
The story also involves the creator of the aforementioned untested metal, Hank Rearden. He went from slaving away in the mines to owning his own steel plant, an achievement that he knows he’s damn well earned. Dagny’s order for his metal is the first big order his company has ever received. The reason for this is because everyone else is afraid to risk using it.
Right off the bat, Atlas Shrugged should resonate with just about anyone alive, especially these days. Heck, a lot of the stuff brought up in this book is stuff I’ve had internal debates about for years. I one hundred percent relate to Dagny and Hank, who feel like they’re surrounded by morons at all times. Well, I say morons, but a more literal term would be sheep; they just stick to doing what they’re told, with no drive to make anything better. This isn’t even remotely a new trope, but in Atlas Shrugged, it feels more grounded and real. Every writer and their grandma these days would chalk this up to how humans are wired to behave and there’s nothing we can do about it. Good ol’ Ayn Rand, however, presents this behavior as an unnatural, conscious choice that most people—unfortunately—decide to make.
Words cannot describe just how vindicating Atlas Shrugged is. Every other scene, there’s something that feels like Rand literally wrote for me specifically. The inane ignoramity (professional term) of mankind feels like every day of my life since Donald Trump ran for President. On a side note, Atlas Shrugged is significantly easier to digest than what I thought going in. It’s lengthy, sure, but the actual content of the book is incredibly straightforward. If you could get through crap like Of Mice and Men in high school, then Atlas Shrugged will be no problem.
The plot starts off in earnest at the end of part one. Dagny and Hank go on a road trip and stumble upon a mysterious machine, abandoned in a junk heap in an equally abandoned factory. Turns out that this device, if seen through to the end, would literally solve all of humanity’s energy problems and save the world. However, its creator is unaccounted for, and she scrambles to find that creator or reverse engineer the machine, all while surviving the ignorant world she lives in. Survival is not easy, especially when the few smart people that remain start abandoning their businesses unannounced.
Of course, you could look at the publication year saying “1957” and chalk Atlas Shrugged up for yet another McCarthy-ist novel written during the Red Scare. The thing is, due to everything discussed up to this point, I would’ve never guessed this was a Red Scare book because it sure didn’t feel like it at all. Despite the difference in eras, I could attribute so much more about Atlas Shrugged to real life in this day and age than any other cyberpunk I’ve ever experienced. However, the fact that Atlas Shrugged feels even more relevant than it did at the time isn’t exactly a good thing.
If you couldn’t tell, Atlas Shrugged is meant to have only two likable characters, and they are Dagny and Hank. Let’s talk about Hank first, since I’m saving the best for last. He loves his career with Rearden Metal, especially more than the stupid people he’s surrounded by, including his stupid wife. He doesn’t let other people’s thoughts get in his way, including those in the media. It’s ironic that someone who cares so little about people contributes more to their lives than most… or at least he would be if there weren’t politically correct idiots trying to ruin his business.
Meanwhile, Dagny… ho-hoh boy, lemme tell you. I daresay that she is the Best Girl in all classic literature. She’s like Hank in not caring, only better. Her proactive personality feels so modern compared to any other character of classic literature. Dagny is unimaginably badass, and if you told me that girls like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone With the Wind or anyone from Little Women were better, I would absolutely not believe you.
Among these two awesome protagonists whom you’re meant to love, and these wingnuts that you’re meant to hate, there is an anomaly named Francisco d’Anconia. You could argue he’s the main villain of the book, despite him definitely not being an ignoramus like the rest of mankind. He has iconic and inspirational moments that feel amazing, like he really understands how life works, yet he seems to be working against the human race with most of his actions. I’d say he’s the extreme end of Dagny and Hank’s personalities, but at the same time, he could just be a massive troll.
If there are any flaws in the book’s writing, it’s that I always had trouble telling where anyone was in 3D space. The dialogue is the heart and soul of Atlas Shrugged, and it’s so easy to get absorbed in it that they can seemingly teleport to another location. You could also argue that some of the big long passages that convey the book’s themes get redundant (including a seventy page speech that is more-or-less a summation of all the themes explored), but the way Rand thinks is so unconventional, that you kind of need to see it multiple times to really process the full weight of her words.
Final Verdict: 10/10
Why does anyone bother with any classic literature other than Atlas Shrugged? I’ve read crummy books with blurbs that say “I’ll be thinking about these themes for a long time”, but Atlas Shrugged is the first time I truly feel that way about a book. It’s so insane that—scratch that—it’s saner than almost anything else out there. If Ayn Rand wrote and published it today, it would get canceled ten times over. Heck, the FBI would’ve personally hunted her down. Atlas Shrugged would be considered by many to be pure evil, and that’s precisely why it’s a must-read. Just keep in mind that it will not give you hope for mankind; it’s only meant to give you hope for yourself.
Graci Kim’s The Last Fallen Star was one of the better series openers from Rick Riordan Presents. It’s only natural that I would be anticipating the sequel, The Last Fallen Moon. Let’s hope it doesn’t suffer the notorious sequel curse.
When we last left off, Riley narrowly managed to save the world from a vengeful goddess. However, it cost her whole clan’s ability to heal, and almost everyone’s memories of her existence! Now she’s as miserable as the main protagonist of a YA novel. After a brutal attack on her household, she’s fed up, and decides to take matters into her own hands. Riley ingests a potion that temporarily stops her heart, effectively rendering her dead, so she can go to the heavenly realm of Cheongdang and find Saint Heo Jun and convince him to become the new patron of her clan to restore their powers.
So, we have another installment set in the underworld. Classic. In Korean folklore, hell is known as Jiok, and to be honest… I wasn’t exactly impressed with Kim’s vision of it. If you’ve seen Coco, then it is basically the same idea, where modern bullcrap like customs and long lines are integrated into the mythological space. Jiok bears a striking resemblance to New York City, or rather vice-versa, which seems cool on paper, but the critic in me considers that Kim did this to avoid the logistics issues with figuring out where landmarks are relative to each other. The most creative aspect is how Kim retconned the crap out of the different punishments, where they go from chambers of torment to vacation getaways. It’s also a big aspect of the overall story, so it’s not just there for the lols.
Speaking of the story, the plot at least felt like a step up from before. There’s a lot of bobbing, weaving, sneaking, and stealing during the course of Riley’s journey through Jiok and Cheongdang. There’s also a lot more at stake this time around, although I cannot say exactly why, due to spoilers.
Unfortunately, any positives I might’ve had about the cast are kind of out the window. Three protagonists are in focus this time: Riley, Hattie—who is comatose and able to visit the spiritrealm as a result, and newcomer, Dahl. Is it just me or is it a trope for character arcs to reset in between books? Riley Oh is whinier than ever this time around! In fact, most of the book is basically the Riley Oh Torture Porn Train; a lot of it feels orchestrated specifically to dump on her.
We at least get some more screentime with Hattie, but she has some moments that I felt like were there for shock value. Dahl is perhaps the best character thus far. He’s slick and smooth, but has many, MANY secrets underneath. He was born in the spiritrealm, and naturally, he wants to be human because what else would an immortal being want? At least his fascination with toilets is adorable.
With this being the spiritrealm, we get a lot of exposure to characters from Korean folklore. Unlike the Cave Bear Goddess from the previous book, they have way more personality, and better dialogue to boot. Sadly, I can’t discuss any of them due to spoilers.
Final Verdict: 8.65/10
The Last Fallen Moon is a big step up from the previous book, even if it is still rough around the edges. Even as a Japanese culture nerd, who’s always been jealous of South Korean culture for being more accepted by the West, I’ve been able to enjoy this franchise quite a bit. Hopefully the next (and final?) book will be even better!
Well, this is a first for me! I have never read an independently published book before, and Evolution’s Hand Book 1: Executive Action is by the very same Crow from Crow’s World of Anime right here on WordPress! I had a Barnes & Noble gift card leftover from Christmas, and since I don’t read light novels on nook anymore, I basically got this for free. Well, what’s important is that this review is going to help spread the word. That makes up for it, right?
I can’t really discuss the premise of Executive Action in a single paragraph like I normally do. It’s structured like a good ol’ fashioned sci-fi novel. You’re thrown right into the story, and introduced to many characters all at once. You don’t know who’s a main character or not because they all have full first and last names. There are also many different plot threads and POVs introduced right out the gate, making it even harder to know what’s going on. I would’ve devoured this book back in my teen years when this genre was my jam, but now as a weeb reading books for children… yeah, “rusty” would be an understatement here.
If anything about Executive Action is simple, it’s that it’s got the classic cyberpunk trope of “conglomerates ruin everything.” The big, bad company this time around is Terra Consolidated Products. They’ve gained so much traction that even the United Nations is powerless against them. Meanwhile, one of our intrepid heroes—Melchizedek Conrad—is running a small outfit called TranStell. They have a secret technology called Fissures, which expedite space travel, and it is inevitably leaked to TCP very early on in the story.
Crow, despite being an anime blogger, definitely didn’t write Executive Action for anime fans; this is adult fiction, and the first rule of being an adult is no fun allowed. The pacing is deliberate, the characters are grounded, and the “action” boils down to various forms of big business and subterfuge instead of cyborg Hollywood actors gunning everything up. On top of that, there are about as many subplots as characters, and you gotta keep track of them all!
The worldbuilding also keeps in hard sci-fi tradition. In order to be immersive, none of the actual mechanics are explained to us in any way; it’s supposed to be imagined as a contemporary novel in the actual future, instead of a hypothetical future. There are many new ways to address workers, for instance. Also, the notion that America will one day split into several splinter nations comes true in the book’s worldbuilding.
The main plot starts in earnest when a crew goes on their first expedition to the star system on the other side of the Fissure. TCP sends a mole in the form of Quaid Atair, who I of course pictured as Randy Quaid, to sabotage the crew. At this point, Executive Action becomes a long game of Among Us where we already know who’s sus thanks to the power of dramatic irony.
I sure sound like I’m giving Executive Action some flack, but I really mean the opposite. What I’ve described may sound like negatives, but this is simply what this kind of book is. Crow, for all intents and purposes, did everything one hundred percent correctly. The plot and its subplots all progress organically, and it feels like if Fissures were actually discovered IRL, things would play out more-or-less how they did in Executive Action, for better or for worse. In my case, it would be that latter.
As for characters, it’s a huge cast, and you’re generally not given enough features to visualize them, let alone keep track of them (this is also a hard science fiction trope, so it’s not a flaw on Crow’s part either). I’m sure I’ve put my fifteen cents in when it comes to super-grounded characters, but in case you didn’t see it before, allow me to tell you now: I have autism, and thus I cannot understand the appeal nor nuances of “normal” characters who behave very much like real people. It’s why I hate it when reviewers praise a character for “feeling like a real person” because I cannot understand how to arrive at that conclusion. In any case, I did find Matsushita to be the Best Girl. She’s Conrad’s secretary, and to be honest, she should be having his job because she’s better at it and more. She also gets to beat the crap out of someone, which was fun to see.
Final Verdict: 8.35/10
Objectively, Executive Action should have a higher score than this. While not on the level of peak sci-fi like Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, I could definitely see the same level of quality as with any big contemporary franchise of the genre. However, when you start reading manga for children for a decade, you kind of become… er… stupider. I was unable to appreciate Executive Action for what it was, and it’s entirely my fault. If you enjoy business-y, dialogue-driven dramas, then Executive Action is an easy buy.
Oh, and Crow, if you’re reading this, I’m sorry for being harsh. I get the struggles of being a writer, and I truly wish you the best for your new career!
Well, aren’t we lucky this year? Pixar didn’t just give one movie; they gave us two! While Turning Red was great, all the hype was put into the in-universe first installment of the Buzz Lightyear franchise that spawned the popular Toy Story character whom we know and love: Lightyear. It sure looked like a departure from the formula, and those departures tend to be really something. Let’s hope this one meets the company’s high standards.
In Lightyear, the titular character crash lands his ship full of science crew on a hostile alien world. Traumatized from his eff-up, he insists on testing each attempt at reproducing hyperdrive technology. However, each time he does it, time on the planet passes several years because science. By the time he succeeds, everyone he knows and loves is dead, and there are killer robots running around. I feel like the latter is more pertinent.
Before talking about the movie itself, I kind of want to bring up something funny. The visuals, as always with Pixar, are stunning. It looks cartoony, yet photorealistic, as usual. However, keep in mind that in the Toy Story universe, this came out in the early 1990s. That means that CG movies looked better than reality itself, in that universe. I don’t know if that’s supposed to mean something for any Pixar theorists, but I’m just throwing it out there.
In terms of the movie itself, I’m going to be perfectly honest: I’m actually having a hard time trying to find an abundance of positives with Lightyear. For the record, I saw it in theaters, and I’m sure I made it clear how I feel about those. Also, the pre-show had a politically charged climate crisis commercial in it, which put my anxiety on edge for a lot of the beginning of the movie.
Lastly, I—for some reason—expected something with more nuance. Lightyear is not meant to be like Pixar’s usual introspective stuff; it’s a popcorn flick. I generally don’t do popcorn flicks at all, and I have only seen Disney and Pixar movies lately because I know they aren’t popcorn flicks. I’m just annoyed that I had to go through all the usual theater crap just to see a popcorn flick. I get that most people watch movies just like this all the time, and it’s a customary experience for them. Me being disappointed at Lightyear being overall very mindless and driven entirely by sensory-overloading spectacle is entirely my fault.
With all that being said, I’m going to try to discuss the story—without spoilers—in a scholarly way even though it’s simplistic enough to be described in one sentence. The story is, well, not too remarkable, and this is coming from a Disney fan, which is saying something. Although most of the company’s films are straightforward, there’s some kind of takeaway that only adults can really appreciate. The Incredibles, for example, is definitely a popcorn flick, but it’s one of Pixar’s best movies. In addition to pulse-pounding spectacle, we get the complexities such as Syndrome’s character arc, and clever interactions that I never noticed as a kid, such as when Helen and Bob are arguing about which directions to take to pursue the Omnidroid during the climax. Lightyear, as I’ve implied, has none of that. It’s a mindless action romp where Buzz and a ragtag team of textbook underdogs fight the evil emperor Zurg. The cherry on top is that time travel is involved; that rarely leads to a coherent narrative, and this is not one of those times.
I also found the cast to be among the lamest in a long time. Buzz is perhaps the worst of them all; when a toy version is better than the real thing, you know something is wrong. His obsession with getting everything done himself, and completing the mission, is the catalyst for the entire conflict of the movie. The epic, badass space ranger, whose toy counterpart has won the hearts of millions for decades, is a simple case of “you gotta rely on your friends” straight out of a Disney Junior program.
There are only four other protagonists who play a major role in the movie, three of which are those aforementioned underdogs, and I only caught one of their names: Izzy Hawthorne. She’s the granddaughter of Buzz’s idol, but she’s not as competent. There’s some skinny guy who’s scared of everything, and a mad convict grandma. Of these three, I only liked the mad convict grandma. She was the best. Everyone else felt like typical characters, whose arcs most people could predict in their sleep. The other character I enjoyed was a robot cat named Socks (or is it Sox?). He’s basically the comic relief, but he has some utility, such as vomiting tranquilizers.
Zurg in this movie is… er… well, he’s something. I can’t even discuss him without spoiling the movie. Basically, there’s a BS twist that is implied—in context with the universe—Andy, and even Toy Buzz, have known all this time. Since it’s Pixar, I can only assume that the reveal with him has been foreshadowed way back in Toy Story 1, and even the old Buzz Lightyear cartoon that I only remember because it had the voice actress of Shego from Kim Possible in it (MatPat will probably have a video about it if he hasn’t done so already). However, foreshadowing or not, the twist itself approaches Kingdom Hearts levels of nonsensical, and some of the important details are glossed over.
I’m really giving it some flack, so I should highlight some positives. Lightyear is, for all intents and purposes, a sci-fi spectacle drama whose main protagonist is named Buzz Lightyear. However, Pixar manages to really make it believable that it is a Buzz Lightyear movie. All the details are there in the right places, including each line that would inspire the toy’s iconic phrases. They at least did something right.
Final Verdict: 8.25/10
When Disney and Pixar travel off the beaten path, they tend to put out some of their best and weirdest stuff. Lightyear was not one of those times. In fact, this is the most disappointing Pixar movie I’ve seen in years, even if most of those feelings are on me. Regardless, it’s at least an enjoyable movie, especially considering the kind of “cinema” that most audiences have grown accustomed to by now. As long as you enjoy spectacle movies, Lightyear should be right up your alley.
One of the first things they teach you about the Internet is that anything you say on there is permanent. While I never made the mistake of giving away private information to strangers on social media, I have made posts that I now regret. One really damning post was my glowing review of Xiran Jay Zhao’s Iron Widow. Several months after reading the book, my outlook on it has completely changed. I could write a whole additional post about what I’ve been going through that made me love it at the time, and how I’m only just starting to face my personal issues head-on, but I won’t bore you (if you want context, you could read my other YA novel reviews and see how increasingly depressed I got over time).
In any case, I’m not going to hide what Iron Widow is anymore. I still stand by Wu Zetian being one of the few proactive YA protagonists, and the book overall being great as a mindless, anime-like romp. However, if taken with anymore than a grain of salt, it is a toxic and unhealthy tome of Feminism to the most violent, hypocritical extreme. Regardless, I still think Zhao is one of the most promising rookies in the field. With all that being said, let’s see if their middle-grade debut novel, Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, improves on their writing style while potentially being less of a loaded gun than Iron Widow was.
In Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor, the titular Zachary is a passionate fan of Mythrealm, an AR-game that combines Pokémon Go with ancient mythology. One fateful day, he meets a boy named Simon Li, who is the host of the spirit of one of China’s past emperors. Zachary himself is also able to be possessed by the spirit of China’s First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, via his AR headset. The timing of this couldn’t be better, because his mom is captured by demons and needs saving.
I hate that my blog has gotten so political lately, because I wanted to be a breath of fresh air from said politics. However, when you’re reading a book by Xiran Jay Zhao, it’s impossible to not get political. Unsurprisingly for a book published in 2020 onwards, Zachary Ying is a victim of racism; people assume things because he’s Chinese, and he’s even ashamed to eat his authentically homemade Chinese lunch at school. This means nothing for the plot, but it’s there anyway because it’s topical. To be fair, this is significantly tamer than Iron Widow. Of course, almost everything is tamer than Iron Widow in terms of political undertones, meaning that Zachary Ying will still feel very political in and of itself.
Let’s stop getting political for a bit and discuss what makes the book interesting in the first place: its very anime premise. Like in Iron Widow, Zhao is at least able to come up with creative ideas and execute them well. In a world where so many stories involve VRMMOs, the rare instance of an AR game is novel already. One of the biggest criticisms of Iron Widow was that the mechanics weren’t thought out well enough, and Zhao actually learned from that mistake! The basic principles of Mythrealm and the whole spirit thing are simple: the powers of the spirits are determined by how they’re thought of by people in the living world, including their portrayals in videogames. It’s an easy way for Zhao to go all-out and make Zachary Ying maximum anime.
In addition to being more anime, the book is significantly more action-driven than Iron Widow. There’s a fight scene in almost every other chapter, and said fight scenes are absolutely nuts. This is good because subtlety is about as good as it was in Iron Widow, i.e. non-existent. Zhao tells you exactly how to feel, from political views to how to view the spirits pulling the reins. They at least pull a moral ambiguity angle, something that was SORELY needed in Iron Widow, where a mass murderer was considered a messaiah.
So… the characters. Ohhhhh boy. Let’s discuss Zack first. He’s kind of a wimp, even when he has phenomenal cosmic powers. He’s meant to be an audience surrogate protagonist; the Asian-American who knows nothing about Chinese culture and history, and is therefore an incomplete human being. I’m not even exaggerating that last bit; part of today’s “woke” culture is the idea that every person is duty-bound to know and understand their “racial identity” to the Nth degree. Like almost all other books of this kind that I’ve covered, he gets stronger not by becoming more self-confident, but by learning random stuff about Chinese history.
Simon Li feels like he’s kind of there. He basically serves as an infodumper when the ghost of Huang doesn’t happen to be doing it himself. He has a brother in the hospital, but it feels like a shock value thing to make you like him. Oh, and here’s a kicker: the guy possessing his body is the real-life inspiration for Iron Widow’s drunk delinquent, Li Shimin.
Speaking of Iron Widow, recall its protagonist, Wu Zetian. She’s here too, and I honestly felt PTSD from her reappearance. Zetian possesses the body of Melissa Wu, and their personalities are so identical that you can’t even tell who’s speaking out of Melissa’s body at any given time. Surprisingly enough, she’s not as much of an extremist this time around. She’s still the Best Girl, though, if not better because she’s not yelling P.C. P.S.A.s every five seconds.
Every time I review an urban fantasy like this, I’ve said that the actual mythological characters are boring. Fortunately, the many mythological and historical figures that Zack encounters on his journey are some of the best I’ve seen in a long time. They are memorable and faithful to their sources, and have the self-referential humor that you’d think more authors would take advantage of but don’t.
If there’s anything I learned from Zachary Ying, other than a LOT of Chinese history, it’s that I still don’t get Xiran Jay Zhao at all. They say some things that are true, like how Chinese people aren’t all exactly the same as individuals, and a line about not caring about what other people think. However, they definitely portray Americans as a single, racist entity that hates Chinese culture, contrary to hard evidence that proves otherwise. Also, today’s culture literally revolves around people having to be “seen” by America in order to exist. Zhao seems to be establishing themself as a guru of Chinese history, but because of how political they are, and how things are in general these days, I don’t know if their interest is born of passion or civic duty. Their bio says they were “raised by the Internet”, which makes me feel like that their motives are purely the latter. Zack is often condemned for not knowing Chinese culture facts, and to be honest, I felt condemned by the author as well. That’s not how you should feel when learning about a foreign nation’s rich culture.
Final Verdict: 9.85/10
I think I really like this book. It’s a significant step up from Iron Widow, at the very least. Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor is way more creative, and ties into Zhao’s vision to make the world learn Chinese history. It’s just a shame that it still has sprinkles of agenda throughout, otherwise it’d be almost perfect (although many would argue that the political aspects make it perfect).
Regardless, I need to stop getting political. Other than a few rants I may or may not publish, I’m going to try my damndest to stop being obsessed with politics, and to stop reading these politically charged books. I might still find myself consuming more of them (including but not limited to the sequels to books I’ve covered), but if I do, you won’t be seeing them. Anyway… Zachary Ying is great. Just be wary of the potential to get triggered.
The Owl House is a typical modern cartoon. It’s dumb and predicatble, but I like it just about as much as the next guy. Unlike a certain isekai show about frogs, this season has been quite the thing. After this is, apparently, a trilogy of two-parters to close off the show. But in the meantime, let’s talk about what happened.
So, family is a thing sometimes. It’s perfectly normal for sisters to cast curses on each other that sap their magic and turn them into monsters, just as Lilith did to Eda. Since it’s a Disney show, no one died, but Lilith now shares a bit of Eda’s curse. Also, Emperor Belos has a suitcase portal of his own for some reason, and we gotta figure out a way to stop him in the only way we know how…
…By solving self-contained conflicts that slowly build into the overarching plot! This season is where The Owl House starts in earnest. Luz tries to find her way home, we learn more about what’s going on in the Emperor’s Coven, and there’s even a sneak preview of what’s going on back on earth with Luz’s mom. A lot of crazy stuff happens this time around.
To be honest, this is a very character-driven season; most of the plot pertains to character development, for faces both new and old. Might as well start with the driving force of the entire series: Luz and Amity. If the basic signs weren’t present enough in season one, their inevitable romantic partnership is telegraphed so ham-fistedly that it initially comes off as self-aware cringe. Most of their scenes just had Love Handel’s “Don’t just stand there, kiss her!” in my head over and over again. Fortunately, they don’t tease it for as long as 90% of other romances do. Their relationship feels believable, like how they blush every time they hold hands or compliment each other. Plus, it has some legitimate bumps in the road; no ship is built perfectly.
The other residents of the titular Owl House get development as well, including (most importantly), our pal Hooty. I won’t spoil the greatness of his character arc; just see it for yourself (also, poor Hooty…). Eda learns, in the most cliché ways possible, to cope with her literal inner demons. And King, well, we finally learn the truth about him. In addition, Lilith gets her inevitable redemption arc. She learns to be a better person (which is pretty easy for her since she cursed her own sister once upon a time), and she shows emotions other than anger this time around.
But man, R.I.P. Gus and Willow. Gus gets some good character development in a couple episodes, but he’s still pretty much a third wheel. Willow hardly does anything. All of the eggs are in Amity’s basket. Her relationship with Luz pushes her to finally be the girl she always wanted to be. Classic tsundere. A nice touch is when she gets her hair dyed, and the opening sequence is changed to match.
Meanwhile, in the Emperor’s Coven, we learn some more about Belos, as well as his right-hand-man, the Golden Guard, a.k.a. Hunter. He’s one of those morally ambiguous antagonists who’s all edgy and brooding and stuff. Belos continues to be a knockoff Hollow Knight boss. Eda also has an ex named Raine Whispers. They used to be part of a rebel group, but now they’re in the Emperor’s Coven instead? Regardless, I didn’t particularly care for their arc because it’s a pretty uninspired instance of the “used to be good but now bad because reasons” trope.
Sadly, The Owl House is still quite predictable. I saw quite a few plot twists coming, including one of the really big ones that’s meant to absolutely blow your mind. Also, despite how it tries to be a horror show, it won’t seem like much compared to the crap Cartoon Network lets on its airwaves (especially back in the day).
The Owl House has surely established some sort of identity in the sea of childrens’ cartoons (which is hard to do these days when it’s not the 1990s). It’s not groundbreaking, but it’s good. Hopefully it’ll stick the landing!