The Pandava Novels: Rick Riordan Presents’ Wildly Inconsistent First Series

Rick Riordan’s new publishing imprint, Rick Riordan Presents, is a great chance for other cultures to shine in the arbitrarily all-important spotlight of American popular culture. It all started with Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series. Is it a good first impression, or is it a hollow Percy Jackson knockoff? 

The Pandava novels begin  when the titular Aru Shah accidentally releases a villain named the Sleeper from a magic lamp in her mother’s museum. Fortunately, it turns out that she’s the reincarnation of one of five famous Pandava warriors, and she’s gotta go on a quest to whoop his booty before the Sleeper makes a big mess out of existence itself.

The writing of Pandava is a mixed bag. While the dialogue is fantastic (well, it’s fantastic if you like nonstop mainstream pop culture references), the descriptiveness of setpieces is a bit bare-bones, even if the ideas themselves show some level of passion and creativity. The action is exciting, which is at least something it has over the Storm Runner series. 

The characters are where Chokshi put most of the eggs into the basket, and they’re great, perhaps comparable to Percy Jackson’s cast. While Aru is a bit generic, everyone else is a real hoot. Her Pandava sister, Mini, is hilarious, due to her infinite knowledge of ways that they could die. Brynne is the typical, hot-headed, older-sister type, but she’s got a plethora of snide remarks to compliment her muscle. Brynn, introduced in book two, is a tomboy with some decent one-liners. Unfortunately, the weakest link ends up being the final two Pandavas: twins named Sheela and Nika. They occasionally move the plot forward, but when it comes to legwork, they do virtually nothing (and also have no personality).

The character who really won me over was Aiden, introduced in book two. As one of two lead male protagonists, he is super nonchalant, and he never fails to snap a cool pic with his camera, Shadowfax, regardless of the urgency of their situation. The other guyfriend is a naga prince named Rudy, who is as funny as his love for himself.

Sadly, that’s where the positives end. Oftentimes I found some aspects of Pandava to be… iffy. For starters, I felt like Chokshi was more concerned about putting as many characters from mythos in Pandava as possible. I get the excitement of wanting to share your culture with audiences, but cohesion comes first. If I was writing a book like this, I would’ve come up with the story first, then used my research to figure out which characters from mythos could appear at any given time.

There are also many, MANY times that Chokshi infodumps the actual tale of the folklore character instead of, you know, actually giving them a real character arc in the story. In doing this, she also fails to use the reliable technique of making us fall for plot twists through justified lying by omission. At least two developments are easily telegraphed because she tells us literally everything about them all too soon. In context, it’s probably meant to be a cruel irony; a major theme of the series tries to be how these characters don’t want to do what legends foretell and end up doing it anyway. However, I feel like that’s simply a poor excuse to use a smooth-brain twist on par with a Saturday morning cartoon.

While we’re on the topic of the characters from legend, i.e. what’s supposed to make us interested in the series to begin with, let’s talk about how awful they are. They are like Rick Riordan’s trope of “gods who could solve the problem but don’t” on steroids. They’re not only cynical and mean, but I forgot half of them over the course of me reading this series since 2019. Also, where was Best Girl Kali? You’d think that someone as mainstream-savvy as Chokshi would use one of the more iconic Hindu gods, but nope. Apparently that, of all things, would be selling out.

Another flaw is that I felt like Pandava got heavy-handed. From book two onward, Chokshi tried an interesting take on the portrayal of the antagonists of Hindu mythology, and created a morally ambiguous story. While the attempt is pretty good, the problem was how the results were handled, if that makes any sense. Basically, what I’m saying is that there are frequent instances of the narration itself telling the reader what questions they should be asking instead of letting them figure it out from context. I don’t know if Chokshi or the editors or someone else made this choice, but it definitely was a choice that comes off as undermining the intelligence of children. I’m sorry, but that’s something I cannot stand. Kids might be “dumb” at times, but that’s because of the many adults who numb their minds (and give them social media accounts).

And honestly, I felt like it went downhill from there (hot take, I know). There is just so much padding thanks to these numerous “trials” that keep getting shoved down the kids’ throats. With each book, I just cared less and less. And yes, it persists into the final book. Not gonna lie, I only resolved to finish Pandava because I wanted to roast the series on the Internet.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 7.5/10

The Pandava series is… fine. It has good humor, sometimes solid writing, and a metric-ton of love for itself and Hindu mythology. It’s just not the awesome thing that Riordan and a lot of people say it is. Like, have I been reading an alternate crappy version of it? At times, it’s ham-fisted, conceited, and has some annoying, smooth-brain plot developments. It would’ve been a rock solid trilogy, but as a quintet, it’s a slog. There’s no harm in reading Pandava, but I feel like it’s overall a net loss of time. 

Anyway, with that, I’m off to Disney AGAIN! Next post will be on May 7th, and it’s gonna be a doozie!

Heavy and Colorful: A Look at Diversity in Metal

Metal has come a long way from leather-clad men with crazy hair. It’s a living entity that’s constantly growing, and has even come to welcome those in marginalized cultures. With all this color mixed in, the genre has exploded into a rainbow of infinite creativity. Let’s go over a small trickle of these diverse bands.


Wagakki Band

As a weeb, I have to start by discussing a Japanese band. Early on, all my music posts were exclusively about Japanese bands. And if I had to pick one for this post, it would be Wagakki Band.

Since the early 2010s, this group has combined the gentle beauty of traditional Japanese folk music with that of Western rock and metal. Despite the duality, this combo works really well. They’ve gotten enough acknowledgement to be allowed a collab with Amy Lee from Evanescence in 2020 (even though I think Wagakki Band is better than Evanescence and the honor should be Lee’s). 

The problem is that they’re a bit inconsistent with their style. Even during the course of the same album, their musical style has ranged from folk metal to folk pop, the latter of which completely abandons Western instrumentation and has simplistic, easy melodies. Their newest work, 2021’s Starlight EP, is the lightest thing they have ever released. As they become more popular internationally, I worry that they will be forced to sell out and not be metal in the future. But I guess we’ll never know until their next full-length album comes out!


Living Colour

I was reluctant to listen to this band, considering the searing nature of their lyrics; however, I gave them a try. Living Colour, known for their first hit single ‘Cult of Personality’, is an iconic example of a band consisting entirely of Black men, which was very rare at the time, since a lot of metal bands only had White guys. Beyond that song is a discography spanning six full-length albums in an ongoing career of over three decades, and they’re working on new music right now. 

The band combines funky fresh beats with hot n’ heavy metal. Naturally, a lot of the lyrics are sociopolitical commentaries on America, and—of course—racism is involved. The lyrics are brutally honest and, well, brutal. Living Colour is the only band to have me break out into uncontrollable sobbing. The song in question is ‘Flying’, their tribute to the 9/11 attacks. Of course, the rest of their stuff doesn’t slouch. Their newest album, Shade, is my favorite work from them thus far. Given the past couple years, expect their next outing to be brutal.


The Hu

Due to my anxieties discussed in the New Year’s update, I might have BS’d myself into loving this band. In fact, you probably heard of them, since they are hugely popular worldwide (based on what I read about them). Regardless of if I should like this band, I’d rather listen to The Hu than any popstar.

The Hu are from Mongolia, and incorporate the corresponding folk traditions into their music. However, the fusion between Eastern and Western is very loose; there really aren’t any electric guitars at all. Despite that, the musical style—using the Mongolian instruments—is undeniably that of Western rock. Although considered metal, The Hu really aren’t “heavy.” The songs are very catchy, and definitely feel a lot more like Mongolian rock n’ roll than folk metal.

But for whatever reason, I find myself captivated by the band, even though, as a pure metalhead, I shouldn’t be. The singing techniques sound really cool, and the instruments are neat to boot. Maybe they’ll get heavier when they follow-up their debut album, The Gereg, but we’ll never know until that next album comes out! 


Myrath

I had zero African bands on my docket for the longest time. The only African band I had heard of was South Africa’s Vulvodynia, a super duper violent death metal outfit; no thanks! I wanted African folk metal, but there were slim pickings. Of those pickings was Tunisia’s Myrath, and while not exactly what I was looking for, I ended up developing an interest in them all the same.

Incorporating Middle Eastern instruments, Myrath is a brilliant progressive folk metal band, although they lean toward the Western end of the fusion. Their style gradually shifts toward power metal (as shown in the embedded MV) which might be off-putting for some, but the songs are still fire, so it really just shows the band’s versatility. 


Alien Weaponry

Alien Weaponry is one of the more recent examples of metal being used as an instrument to fight for civil rights, and quite a successful one at that. This New Zealand outfit is descended from said nation’s native people, the Maori. Sadly, New Zealand’s British-run government has been systematically stamping out what little of the Maori remain (read this article for more details). With metal, Alien Weaponry seeks to represent their heritage and raise awareness of racism.

Unfortunately, I found them to be my second least favorite band on this post. The songs in which they incorporate their Maori language are great; they have a tribal and barbaric sound (which is exemplified by the fact that they perform with no shirts on). However, that’s only half the battle. A lot of their music is sung entirely in English, and when they do this, Alien Weaponry seems like a completely different beast. While the lyrical theme of racial injustice is still part of it (albeit in a different language), the all-English songs feel very contemporary and garden-variety by comparison. I usually do a three album rule if I can at least see potential for the band to grow (a rule that may or may not have been inspired by the notorious three episode rule for anime), so I’ll keep my eye on them for now. As it stands, Alien Weaponry is a pretty typical Western-style outfit with a Polynesian paint job.


Voice of Baceprot

This young Indonesian outfit seems to be the most popular band out of everyone on this post. Of course, they happen to be my least favorite as well. However, that’s not a particularly fair assessment since they have only two singles and several covers of early 2000s metal songs that I don’t like. 

What makes them attractive is that they are seriously young; I think they’re still teens. They’re also all girls who practice Islam, which apparently forbids music (at least where they’re from). VOB has become insanely successful, not only gaining a large swathe of metal fans, but the favor of political figures as well. Their critics, on the other hand, are so passionate as to threaten the girls’ lives. I don’t mean they are Internet trolls; these people have made actual, cruel attempts to murder the members of VOB.

I wanna support them, but what they have put out so far doesn’t impress me. Voice of Baceprot sounds like a very basic hard rock band. Their lyrics are definitely heavy, but the music just doesn’t accommodate. Regardless of what I think, people love them, and I’m willing to bet that a potential full-length debut album will be the most anticipated metal debut of the decade; likely the one thing that can dethrone Spiritbox. You can give them a try I guess. If you watched the embedded music video, you’ll have already heard 50% of their discography anyway.


Whispered

Okay, so this is the most unorthodox band I have on here. I have included Whispered only  because I want to bring up the concept of “cultural appropriation”. Like Wagakki Band, Whispered incorporates Japanese folk into heavy metal. Unlike Wagakki Band, Whispered are from Finland. 

I read up on cultural appropriation, and I’m afraid that Whispered might fall under it, and their very underground status is probably what’s kept them from any upheaval. The music is really good, basically a more extreme version of Wagakki Band, with that over-the-topness of European metal. It’s actually a really, really good band. I’d almost say they’re better than Wagakki Band. They incorporate the rare fusion of melodic death with power metal, and have taught me that Wizardthrone was not at all the first band to do it (in fact, Whispered would make a perfect replacement for them if they were to disband).

Whispered is taking its sweet time, with only three albums out in the course of a decade, and no set date for the fourth album has been confirmed. The lyrical themes are mostly bushido stuff, and sometimes cover Japanese mythology, but both check out based on my own knowledge of the culture. 

I don’t really know the nuances of cultural appropriation. The first and foremost thing is that it’s supposed to be offensive, but how do you know for sure? When I read up on it, I saw one example of Justin Bieber being accused just for wearing dreadlocks. Maybe he was wearing it “wrong(?)”, but I don’t know how you can be racist by wearing a cool hairstyle. Whatever the case may be, I’m concerned that the current mindset on racism will make it so that only people of a given ethnicity can be inspired by the corresponding culture. That sounds like the opposite of what needs to be done to me.


Arka’n Asrafokor

Despite the massive burst of inclusive media, there’s still a long way to go. As I mentioned before, I wanted African folk metal, specifically that of West Africa; the kind that’s represented at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Animal Kingdom Lodge. Togo’s Arka’n Asrafokor is the first band that came up when I searched, and according to what I’ve read, they’re the only metal band from Togo to begin with.

Like many underground units, they need time. Since its formation in 2009, the band has only released one album—2019’s Zã Keli—under its old name, ARKA’N. The album isn’t just novel; it slaps. As it says on the tin, it is a fusion of metal, and those old-timey African vibes. Using English, French, and their native Ewe, there are a lot of different vocal performances you’ll hear. I particularly love when they harmonize in the latter. 

According to my research, Zã Keli was very well-received when it came out, and most people who’ve listened to the band are already devoted fans. However, the fact still remained that I needed to Google Search this specific type of music for me to find them by happenstance. From what I read about them, the process of finding the necessary equipment was exceptionally difficult where they’re from, and that would probably explain why the album took so long to make. I hope that the stars will align with them in the future, because this is a band I want to see become more mainstream. While a lot of the diverse stuff in the mainstream emphasizes how great each culture is, they don’t really showcase either of those cultures “together”, if you catch my drift.

Unfortunately, it really seems that Arka’n Asrafokor is one of a kind, not just in Togo, but the world. Like I said, this is the only result I got for “African folk metal”, and that makes me feel sad. I wish this band takes over the world going into the 2020s. PLEASE.


Conclusion

We have a long road to travel to reach racial tolerance. In the meantime, these bands—and many more—are here to stay and won’t take no for an answer. Maybe someday, metal will remind us that we’re all human beings. If not, then pop will probably take that mantle instead. Hopefully, you’ll have been encouraged to broaden your horizon of music!

Encanto: Smart House but Cranked up to Eleven

Does anyone remember the one good thing about COVID-19, i.e. when movie studios streamed new movies as an additional option on release? Nowadays, studios are like “Yeah, we can go back to making theaters the only option again”. And guess what, Disney’s Encanto is no exception! As the first animated movie since Moana to have potential future Disney Legend Lin-Manuel Miranda at the helm, risking my life would be more than worth it (albeit a bit inconvenient). 

Encanto begins when the Madrigal family narrowly escapes what I presume to be the Conquistadors. They get saved by a candle, of all things. A candle that creates the enclosed world of Encanto, with a magic house at the center. Over the course of fifty years, every Madrigal is blessed with a gift. And like any media ever with a “gift” system, our main protagonist, Mirabelle Madrigal, gets nothing. And like any media where that happens, it’s the person without a gift who has to save everyone.

Disney movies will always be very predictable, especially since this is their sixtieth animated feature. As soon as you hear Abuela utter the T-shirt-worthy phrase, “Make your family proud”, you know the theme, or rather, themes. Encanto is about family and trauma. Specifically, it’s about how families place burdens on one another because they want to keep things peachy keen.

One of the most interesting aspects of Encanto is its setting. Being enclosed from the rest of the world, the house—La Casita—is where the bulk of the movie takes place. This makes it feel much more compact than most Disney settings I’ve seen. Of course, that doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of Disney magic. La Casita has as many surprises as its personality!

Speaking of personality, the cast is full to bursting with it. Mirabelle is probably one of the best female leads Disney has cooked up. She’s not banging you over the head with feminism (although that was never a Disney issue as much as an issue with Western culture in general), but she shows that she’s a big-hearted girl who loves her family. 

But wait, there’s more! Mirabelle’s family is… big to say the least. Each person, from Best Girl Luise, to drop-dead gorgeous Isabel, have fully realized character designs and flaws. Bruno is likely my favorite character, what with his tragic backstory and quirky personality. Abuela is kind of a weak spot, being a traditional bad Disney parent like Miguel’s grandma in Coco. But you know what, at least Abuela had a more tangible reason to be dense! Hang on, did I say Bruno was the best character? No, that’d be La Casita; the house, like a loyal animal companion, is the only one to actually stand by Mirabelle from start to finish (okay, technically Antonio did too, but he’s not a magic house).

Of course, what always separates Disney from what I’d call the “superficial at best” mainstream is how much stock they actually put in to bring their stuff to life. As expected, every aspect of the movie is intricately well thought out, down to every particle. Also, they once again manage to perfectly border photorealism without ever entering an uncanny valley. 

Last but not least is the one thing I was looking forward to the most in Encanto: the soundtrack. Between Hamilton, Moana, and Mary Poppins Returns, master maestro Lin-Manuel Miranda hasn’t only crafted top quality numbers, but a high quantity as well. Sadly, Encanto has a whopping not many songs. What’s there is top-notch stuff, but as of writing this review (mere minutes after seeing the movie), I already have withdrawal! Next Lin-Manuel Miranda movie when?

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 9.85/10

Honestly, I don’t remember having been so captivated by an iteration of the traditional Disney formula in quite some time, but that could also be because the last two years have felt like a lifetime. Encanto is a masterpiece of Latinx culture, introspection, and most of all… family! I highly recommend it to any Disney fan, and to anyone who wants a brief respite from the depressant that is being alive during a pandemic.

The Tale of Princess Kaguya Movie Review

Cropped out the poster of the movie

Just in case you haven’t read my profile, I’m gonna let you in on something: I’ve been intensely studying Japanese culture since earlier this year. And as such, I already knew how Ghibli’s adaptation of The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter, titled The Tale of Princess Kaguya, would turn out. And thank Jizo that I did! You’ll see why later in this post.

To sum it up, it all begins when an old bamboo cutter finds a baby girl inside a bamboo stalk. Since this is a Shinto story, he doesn’t bat an eye whatsoever at this find, and decides to raise her. Before we know it, bamboo stalks start oozing gold and his daughter is in the lap of luxury! 

Normally, I’d discuss visuals last. But since the paint-like art style of Kaguya stands out so much, I gotta talk about it first. My first instinct is to chalk it up as gimmicky. However, the implementation of the different textures of the brush, as well as colors, helps the movie convey mood and motion better than most modern TV anime. The simplistic designs also help make characters super expressive and movements to be consistently smooth and fluid.

But the question becomes: “If you took away the unique artstyle, is the movie still any good?” Narratively speaking, Kaguya is more-or-less a family drama of the “Kid just wants to be a kid but gets all of it yanked away from them on account of their dumb, money-grubbing parent(s)”, a la Citizen Kane. I personally don’t care much for family dramas as a narrative theme, and I only chose to watch this movie because of my familiarity with the original story.

And I made a good call, because otherwise I don’t know if I would’ve liked Kaguya otherwise. At two and a half hours, this adaptation of a folk take that takes about five or ten minutes to read takes its sweet time. Despite how she’s supposed to be rapidly growing, it takes about the first hour for her to actually become a teenager and for the core narrative to start in earnest. Leading up to that, you end up deathly curious as to what her origin is (well, you’re meant to at least), but find yourself just watching a kid just bumbling around with other kids for a while. As admittedly boring this first act is, I greatly prefer it over the alternative, which is to have the sh** go down within the first five minutes before you can acclimate yourself to her childhood. Because of this, it actually feels emotional when the aforementioned sh** goes down.

But the thing is, despite how expressive the characters are in the animation, most of them are very unremarkable. The titular character, Kaguya, is probably the only one you’ll remember over time. Like in the story, she’s a real rambunctious rascal, and merely wants to live out that Cindi Lauper dream of girls just wanting to have fun. Watching everything crumble around her is pretty darn engaging, as sadistic as that sounds.

Her parents are polar opposites, with the “bad” parent being the dad. He starts as this jolly old fart and becomes an utter ass in his hunger for glory. Fortunately, Kaguya’s mom still gets her daughter, but she can’t do much. Time period and all that. Most other characters, besides Best Girl Chubby Loli Servant, aren’t that interesting.

The background music is nice. It’s obviously traditional, old school Japanese classical instruments, and it’s very beautiful. I noticed, in the opening credits, that the music is by the same guy that did Children of the Sea (if only it premiered in American theaters *glares at GKids*).

One big issue I can see viewers having with Kaguya is its final act. I can’t even imagine what audiences thought when they first saw it. I mean, this movie spends almost two hours building up this big family drama, and just when it’s about to go down… from straight outta left field… POW! Sudden new development! But there was no way around it. Here’s a fun fact: that ending is canon. I’m not joking; this movie’s ending isn’t Ghibli taking any serious creative liberties; they are following the source material. From a narrative standpoint, it is a very BS note to go out on, but there ya have it. Maybe someday, Disney will do a fluffier adaptation and retcon it like they did with the Grimm brothers, but for now this is what we get. I would’ve been livid if I wasn’t familiar with the source material, that’s for sure.

~~~~~

Final Verdict: 8.5/10

It’s slow-paced, relatable, and cynical; no wonder it was so successful in the West! In all honesty, despite how good The Tale of Princess Kaguya is overall, I can’t easily recommend it. It is very slow, nuanced, very cultural, and that ending… Hoo boy! For all intents and purposes, this is probably the best version of her story. But movies are an inherently bigger investment than a cute little folktale, so the crotch-kick at the end hurts more than reading the original. It all depends on what medium you’d prefer. I’d recommend Kaguya if you want a reprieve from the cheapo anime that they churn out like Jeff Daniels in that disgusting scene of Dumb and Dumber, or if you’re studying Japanese culture and want to know about one of its famous folktales.