Wolfwalkers: An Example of Peak Animated Cinema

Is COVID STILL ongoing right now? Holy crap… that thing is immortal. Anyway, I’m bringing it up because today’s review is of a 2020 film: Cartoon Saloon’s Wolfwalkers, the final installment of their hit Irish Folklore Trilogy. It never got to see the big screen. GKids is a great license holder, but they make… decisions… when it comes to distribution of the products (either that or the original rights holder restricts them?). Wolfwalkers was an Apple TV+ exclusive! I say “was” because the only other way to watch it is on the trilogy Blu-Ray boxset, and that’s how I watched it for the first time!

In Wolfwalkers, a British girl named Robin and her dad move to Ireland (where no one likes them) to help take out a pack of wolves living in the nearby forest. Naturally, she’s not allowed to help even though she really wants to. Also naturally, she goes into the forest anyway. Still quite naturally, she meets a titular wolfwalker named Mave, and they hit it off. VERY naturally, this won’t exactly fly with the humans back in town!

Where do I start with this movie? Well, probably how it looks, since that’s the first thing you see. Like the Cartoon Saloon movies before it, Wolfwalkers is gorgeous. Also like the Cartoon Saloon movies before it, they don’t stick with the exact same look. For this movie, they use a more pencil-sketchy look—to the point where you can actually see some of the skeleton shapes for people’s bodies—that feels very much inspired by Disney’s xerox era films. However, while those Disney movies clearly scream budget cuts, this technique somehow makes Wolfwalkers Cartoon Saloon’s most breathtaking movie. They do some seriously crazy stuff in this one, and they already pushed the envelope before. 

“But how’s the story?” you ask. Well, it’s a Cartoon Saloon movie, so it’s not exactly avant-garde. Wolkfwalkers is a pretty typical story of friendship, self-discovery, the piousness of early Christians, their inability to understand nature, and the subtle nods to how our society is now. Okay, it’s not exactly the latter, and I—once again—appreciate that from Cartoon Saloon (clearly, they ran out of gut-crushers after The Breadwinner). For a 2020 film, I was dead certain that this would be about racism, and you can argue that it is with how humans’ fear of wolves is explored. However, it really isn’t (other than literally one scene with these Irish bullies), so you can just enjoy it for the Celtic escapism that it is and stop trying to take away the childlike wonder from the few people who still cling to it (looking at you, art critics).

Speaking of childlike wonder, that—like the other two films—is just how the movie feels. While visuals can just be used as sensory-assaulting fluff for the blockbuster-savvy, Cartoon Saloon always knows how to do the most without excession. Wolfwalkers never skipped a beat, advancing at a tight pace while having time for the details that matter. Most notably, this one is not only the longest (by about ten minutes); it also has the shortest resolution, coming down to the wire about as much as any Disney movie.

Oh, and speaking of “down to the wire”, Wolfwalkers hits the hardest of the Irish Folklore Trilogy movies (obviously, The Breadwinner will break your heart and subsequently annihilate the pieces at the subatomic level, so we don’t compare it to that). With multiple layers of conflict, from Robin’s dense dad to the mean Law Protector, there’s plenty of butt-clenching to be had throughout the movie. Though it’s rated PG, you might want to be cautious if you have young’uns. 

The characters, however, are kind of the weakest link in the movie. They aren’t bad per sé, but Cartoon Saloon is already showing its own brand of tropes. Robin—like Brandon and Ben—is a troublemaker, who learns valuable lessons of friendship and acceptance when she meets the aforementioned wolfwalker. Said wolfwalker, Mave, is—like Ashley and Cirsha—the unquestionably Best Girl, full of expressiveness and snark, who you want to root for but ends up suffering the most. Robin’s father, Mr. Goodfellow—like Uncle Abbot and Ben’s dad—is insufferably dense because of past trauma related to loss, and is just trying to keep his kid alive and healthy, but needs to have the truth of the matter drilled into his thick skull. There are also the usual several unnamed NPCs who serve as occasional comic relief. The similarities end, however, with the aforementioned Law Protector. Large, angular, and a devout Christian, he’s the only true villain in the Irish Folklore Trilogy. Unlike the complex, insecure parents of the main protagonists, he is just evil.

Small aside, though. Wolfwalkers was the only movie in this trilogy where the Blu-Ray Disc experienced hiccups. Honestly… it would’ve been better to rent the first two movies and do a free trial period with Apple TV+. I really don’t like Blu-Rays, or DVDs for that matter, at all. Fortunately, I discovered that GKids seem to have some contract with Apple, for a lot of anime movies I otherwise can’t watch are available for rent without having to also subscribe to Apple TV+. So… expect some more anime movie reviews on occasion.

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Final Verdict: 9.85/10

I thought Wolfwalkers would be the worst of these movies for very obvious reasons. However, it was actually the best. Thanks, COVID. I hope Cartoon Saloon makes more movies… because The Breadwinner is the only one left and I am too sensitive to watch it right now (or ever). In any case, I highly recommend this amazing company’s films to anyone. They’re that good (and better than live action).

Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is Baby’s First Crash Course in Shinto

I’ve known about Netflix and Tonko House’s project, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, since its initial announcement in November 2019. Over the course of the three years it took for the show to drop… a lot has happened, on both a global and personal scale. We have at least seen an explosion in diversity lately, but I feel like a lot of it just becomes clout instead of doing anything substantial for the good of humanity. Despite that, I decided to watch Oni anyway; it’s short, so it’s not like I had to worry about time.

In Oni: Thunder God’s Tale, a bunch of yokai (who are actually kami because the terms are technically one and the same) live together to protect the world from the Oni. A large dude named Naridon enters their domain with a child. He lives there and raises his kid, Onari, who trains to fight the Oni. However, she doesn’t exactly have any powers (referred to as kushi) because Naridon is a bit of an oddball. Sounds like the perfect setup for a coming-of-age story!

Before discussing the story at all, I must praise Tonko House for their absolutely stunning job with the visuals. Tsutsumi brings that experience as a former Pixar animator to the table for sure. Oni, being in brand with the studio, is an ode to stop-motion animation, and simply put, it’s the most beautiful display of the style I have ever seen. Every motion and detail is perfect and full of life. I can’t really express how visually appealing the show is; you’ll have to watch it yourself.

Furthermore, the show does a better job presenting a mythological world than almost any other case I’ve experienced in Western culture, especially compared to the literature department. It hits all the right notes, and teaches you the basics of Japanese culture and Shinto folklore in memorable ways, instead of mindless exposition dumps that insult the viewer for not having encyclopedic knowledge of the stuff going into it. If only there was more soulful stuff like this out there to teach children about other cultures.

As far as the story goes, it’s pretty straightforward stuff. However, it’s told with much more chutzpah than a lot of the crap that spews out of our screens these days. Oni isn’t exactly deep or profound, but it’s not mind-numbingly predictable either. It showcases the strictness of Japanese society all too well, with how much pressure the children are given to excel, especially for poor Onari, who doesn’t know what her power is. It’s not heavy all the time, though; there’s plenty of adorable humor sprinkled throughout.

Being only a four episode miniseries, Oni doesn’t exactly have time to tell its story. While it kind of sucks that I waited this long for such a short show, the length is to its benefit; if it was allowed to go on longer, it could’ve easily gotten boring. Oni, especially in the first half, is basically a character study. There isn’t much adventuring whatsoever, and there’s a lot of dialogue. Honestly, it would have been a REALLY bad show if it went on for twenty-four-plus episodes. Fortunately, it does what it needs to do in the time given.

As you can expect from a program aimed at kids, the characters are quite simple, and are hard-carried by how they are presented in execution. Unsurprisingly, the studio did a great job making them memorable and likable (well, except for the people who aren’t meant to be likable). Onari herself is plucky and full of energy, and as the main character, is the one who must find herself. However, the real star of the show is the tragic hero, Naridon. Although he’s doofy and the least expressive character in the show, I was somehow able to tell that he carries a lot of baggage. If Tonko House actually meant for you to pick up on that, then kudos to them. 

Out of Onari’s classmates, the only one who isn’t a jerk is her kappa friend… Kappa. He’s the socially awkward and sensitive kid that you just want to hug all the time. Unfortunately, everyone kind of exists to fill the class and be, as I said, jerks. Even her teacher, Tengu-sensei, is kind of one too. Once it’s found out that Naridon is a big hotshot, he puts too an unfair amount of stock into Onari; they couldn’t give George Takei a better character to voice? Even Naridon’s brother, Putaro, is kind of your typical jealous younger sibling. Holy crap, I said the cast was great, but in retrospect, a lot of them really aren’t. Well, props to Tonko House for clearly telegraphing whom the audience is meant to root for. At least the school principal is a cool dude.

If there is anything of note to add, it’s what you could argue is the show’s biggest flaw. In essence, it loses its whimsy by the second half. While still excellent all the way through, it’s… well… how do I put it? Basically, in some regards, Tsutsumi isn’t that much different from typical modern writers. Oni has social undertones that have been around since humans put pen to paper, and it kind of sucks that this is just another one of those cases. Fortunately, it’s one of the more respectable instances of it, and they kind of—as the kids say it—jabait you in a way.

Sidebar: I swear if The Dragon Prince becomes darker next week, I’m going to be really angry and sad. However, you won’t be hearing my thoughts on it until November 19th since I’m going to Walt Disney World again!

Actually, hang on, there’s just another small nitpick, and it’s this weird case where subtitles appear to translate text on various background objects that don’t really matter whatsoever. Well, obviously, they do matter as little details to make the world feel alive, but you know what I mean; none of it matters to the plot. Ironically, this DOESN’T occur during the one instance of actually relevant onscreen text.

Well… okay, there’s one more issue I have with the show; not really the show but its circumstances I guess. While it’s nice and all, it doesn’t do Japanese culture any favors. In this age of inclusivity in American pop culture, people seem to think that nothing exists unless observed by the American mainstream. As someone who’s read manga for ten years and studied Japanese culture directly for four, Japanese mythology is alive and well in its actual origin point: you know, Japan itself. From Nura: Rise of the Yokai Clan to In/Spectre and beyond, Shinto is everywhere, much to the locals’ famous claims of not being religious. It is odd that, with how common Shinto is, most of those I.P.s fail to break through into the mainstream, with Spirited Away being the only one to have managed it. Not even Oni is mainstream; Netflix really didn’t do much to promote it at all, and I spent two years thinking production was axed by COVID.

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Final Verdict: 9.75/10

As far as representation is concerned, Oni: Thunder God’s Tale is by far the best portrayal of Japanese mythology in all of Western entertainment (at least out of what I know of). To be less hyperbolic, it’s just a really cute, amazing show that doesn’t overstay its welcome. If you wanna raise a kid who will swim outside of the mainstream, then Oni is an easy must-watch. In fact, if you’re a parent, you should probably watch it with them.

Song of the Sea: This Time WithOUT Feeling?

I finally got to see Cartoon Saloon’s The Secret of Kells after years of buildup. I loved it, so naturally, I did the next logical step: also watch their second film, Song of the Sea. Time to stop beating around the bush and discuss the movie already! 

In Song of the Sea, a boy named Ben is subject to the classic family tragedy: his mother runs away, and a new baby sister, Cirsha (is that how you spell her name?), is left behind. As you can expect, dad is depressed, and Ben hates Cirsha because he blames her for his mother’s presumed death. Well, things escalate when she starts playing with the magic conch that Ben inherited from mom, because she’s a magical child who’s destined to free all the Celtic spirits from their stony prisons caused by Macha the witch stealing their emotions.

Sound complicated? Well, Cartoon Saloon has clearly upped the ante since The Secret of Kells. The plot is more involved, there’s more at stake, more influenced from Celtic mythology, and they go RIGHT for the jugular, Disney-style. The movie has a much more adventurous feel, since they are shipped off to live with grandma in crappy London (well, that’s how it looks in the movie), and have to hoof it back to their secluded island to reunite Cirsha with her patented magic onesie. 

Oh, right, I almost forgot to remind you of the supremacy of hand-drawn animation. Man, I miss experimental Disney, but Cartoon Saloon at least shows some sign of trying different visual styles. Song of the Sea is set in the modern day, forcing them to use shapes and colors unlike what had been seen in The Secret of Kells. The characters are still made of simple shapes, but there’s a lot more roundness going on, versus the many polygons in the previous outing. As expected, they do wild things with shapes and depth that—not to sound redundant—showcase how awesome hand-drawn animation is. 

Anyway, back to discussing the plot! Despite it being more complicated than the other movie, Song of the Sea is still pretty straightforward for the little ones to follow. Just like last time, the artstyle lends itself to telegraph the mood of the given scene and what certain characters are like without them speaking a word (this helps since Cirsha can’t say anything anyway). Weirder stuff happens, like Ben navigating a tunnel made of facial hair, but it’s pretty standard fare for the most part. The most interesting aspect of the movie is a parallel that can be made between two different characters, and the movie never really states whether or not they are one and the same. It’s something that adults will probably notice their first time through, though.

There is a lot more suspense than last time, as well. The stakes aren’t just higher; Ben has some close shaves as well. When Macha’s owls get the memo about Cirsha being a selkie, they pursue quite relentlessly. There’s also the caveat of Cirsha’s life slowly draining away every second she’s not in her onesie. Good thing dad chucked it into the ocean!

As with the previous venture, the characters are kind of the weakest part. Simple and effective is once again the name of Cartoon Saloon’s game, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with the cast, I’m not entirely willing to slander strangers on the Internet in their names either. Ben is a classic piece of crap kid with a redemption arc who eventually warms up to his sister. Cirsha, on the other hand, is the second best character. She’s cute, and has a lot of character for a mute girl. The BEST character is the dog, Cū. He literally swims across the ocean to unite with the kids after they are taken to grandma’s house. 

Something I failed to comment on regarding The Secret of Kells, which is also consistent with Song of the Sea, is the perfect pacing. Both movies tell their stories effectively, and I never felt like they were rushed nor overstayed their welcome. It’s doubly impressive since they give a lot of time for resolution following the climax, unlike SOME studios. 

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Final Verdict: 9.65/10

Song of the Sea is really great. Cartoon Saloon does a fantastic job reminding me of that experimental phase of Disney from way back when. I have one movie of theirs left in this trilogy (and I don’t plan on seeing The Breadwinner because it will probably gut me into oblivion), and I will watch it… someday. When I have time.

The Secret of Kells: Yes, I’ve Finally Watched it for the First Time

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!

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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.

The Last Fallen Moon: The Main Protagonist Dies in this One

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. 

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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!

Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor: How is it Even MORE Anime than Iron Widow?!

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.

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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.

Ballad & Dagger: We Don’t Talk About San Madrigal

If you’re reading this post, then that means I have managed to complete the first YA novel published under Rick Riordan Presents: Daniel José Older’s Ballad & Dagger. But before we begin, we need to talk. No, I’m not breaking up with you! Anyway, the past two years have been really rough for me. COVID tore us apart physically, and the murder of George Floyd followed up on the mental side of things. The latter is what really broke me. Since his unfair death, some very influential, and politically extreme, individuals have been on a steady growth rate. And only a couple of months ago, I began to realize that almost my entire world—both I.R.L. and online—have been viewed through a lens provided by the political party that those aforementioned individuals follow. My parents insist that the followers of those people are few and far between. However, if they are really so few in numbers, how have they nonetheless influenced virtually every aspect of Western pop culture for the past two years? From South Park doing pandemic episodes, to childrens’ picture books teaching today’s generation how to be woke, the biggest conglomerates in the world now lick the boots of those people, regardless of their quantity. While I am struggling to comprehend life as I now understand it, one thing is certain: Ballad & Dagger will more than likely be the last novel of its kind I ever read.

In Ballad & Dagger, Mateo Matisse is a starving artist who just wants to play the piano. Sadly, fate has other plans for him. On a very special night for his little community in Brooklyn, someone announces that the long lost island of San Madrigal, where said community originated, will rise again. All it needs is the children who contain the three founding spirits’ souls. Naturally, Mateo is one of them. Oh, and some girl murders a guy for some reason.

Refreshingly enough, racism isn’t a big theme in this one. Or rather, you’re not constantly bludgeoned with it. The most brutal aspect of Ballad & Dagger is the fact that San Madrigal sank like Atlantis. As a result, the three big families that make up Brooklyn’s Little Madrigal are not inhabiting San Madrigal, and you’re supposed to feel miserable for them. The word “diaspora” is a favorite in the book, because apparently, the idea that home is where you’re surrounded by the people who love you is invalid. 

In case you’ve read some of the action-packed books from Rick Riordan Presents, just keep in mind that Ballad & Dagger is more like Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, in that it is way more slice-of-life oriented than other installments. While trying to find the two remaining demigods, Mateo lives his normal life, hanging out with his friend, Tams, and the famous folk rocker, Gerval. Without the occasional blurb of supernatural horror, it’s easy to forget there’s anything supernatural in the book.

Things do ramp up in the second half, though. Sh** hits the fan, to say the least, and Mateo’s little community starts crumbling out from under him. A lot of the sequences are legitimately powerful. However, you have to put up with a lot of fluff to get there. 

My biggest problem was that I couldn’t connect to almost anyone. Mateo is one of two characters who felt engaging at all. As narrator, his feelings come in full force, and he ends up with quite a lot of baggage in the second half. The female lead, Chela Hidalgo, is the aforementioned girl who murdered the dude in the beginning, and she’s alright. She gets some legitimate character development, but is a pretty standard YA protagonist through and through. And yes, their transition from friends to lovers is as sudden as any YA romance novel (oh spoilers, as if it wasn’t obvious enough that a YA novel has romance).

Everyone else felt like a plot device. Tia Lucia was there to be the wise old lady, Anisette was there to be the political extremist b****, etc. Gerval plays a pretty pertinent role, but in the end, his character arc will feel very familiar to anyone who’s seen a Saturday morning cartoon.

Sadly, I must also criticize the book’s worldbuilding. Riordan’s blurb says that San Madrigal is “as real as Wakanda or the Shire or Earthsea”, and I don’t get it at all. All that is divulged of the island, back when it wasn’t underwater, is that people worshiped the three gods who get trapped in the chosen ones’ bodies. Sure, its history plays a role in the plot, but that’s about it for the actual culture, beyond what you see preserved in Brooklyn. There is also next to no folklore present, except for some ghost who’s just there, and these weird mutant things.

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Final Verdict: 8.5/10

I do respect and admire Rick Riordan. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never gotten my fetish for Japanese culture and folk metal. However, almost every time I read one of the Presents books, I am utterly flummoxed at what he saw in it. Ballad & Dagger is a great read by the second half, but there are so many urban fantasies that are more than just fifty percent enjoyable. I don’t really know what to think about it, but I do know that I’m pretty much alone in my stance. Maybe you’d enjoy it more than I did!

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.

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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!

Blood Scion: This Might be the Most Brutal YA Novel of All Time

Other than the amazing cover art, I honestly don’t know why I decided to read Deborah Falaye’s Blood Scion. Sure, I’ve read many books that deal with the topic of racism. However, with the exception of Tristan Strong, I can’t tell you if my glowing reviews of books like Legendborn and Blood Like Magic were based on the actual quality, or the guilt-stricken White man who’s tried to run from his American heritage his whole life. Also, I’ve been getting more and more into folk metal. Thanks to this sub-genre of music, I’ve begun to feel like these diverse books give off an understandable but grim rage and hatred that have caused me extreme mental anguish these past two years. Yet, here we are, with you reading my review of this book.

Why do I even bother going over the premises of these kinds of books? If you’ve read any of the aforementioned books, this’ll sound familiar: a girl named Sloane Shade is Yoruba, a race of innocent folk whose lives were turned upside down by the White supremacist Lucis menace. What’s worse is that she’s additionally a Scion, descended from Shango, the Orisha of Fire; Scions are an extra no-no in this world, and the Lucis do not hesitate to off them. She, like her mother before her, has stripped herself of her culture and heritage to keep her rinky-dink little village (and grandfather) safe from the Lucis, who tend to execute the relatives of those they deem criminals. And if it couldn’t get any YA-er, she gets drafted into the Lucis military to fight as a child soldier against the Shadow Rebels, who are Scions that refuse to hide. Cool. Might as well infiltrate their archives and get to find out what happened to her presumably dead mom!

Are people so P.C. that everything has to give a disclaimer warning? This is the third book I’ve read that’s done it, and the other cases came out in 2021 at the earliest. Anyway, if you couldn’t tell, Blood Scion checks off a lot of items on humanity’s laundry list of social issues that give me despair from the fact that they’re all still ongoing. In case you’ve never read a YA novel that deals with these issues before, let’s go over them thoroughly. 

The big one is racism. The Lucis persecute the Yoruba, and treat them as slaves. Some are taken from their homes to rot on literal plantations. This also technically counts as colonialism, since the Lucis are invaders who happen to have better technology. On top of that, we also have what I believe is called internalized racism, since the Yoruba have been brainwashed into hating their own heritages. There’s also mysogyny and sexual assault, since the Lucis are very much portrayed as rapists, such as one who tries to do such a thing to Sloane in the first chapter before he gets burnt to death by her power.

There’s also the child soldier thing. Yeah, that’s a bit messed up, especially since Sloane has essentially been drafted to kill her own brethren. Anyone who goes A.W.O.L. gets shot dead, plain and simple. Basically, it’s Divergent but harsher. The final cherry on top is cultural appropriation, which is shown when the Lucis queen, Olympia, is casually wearing Yoruba garb for shits and giggles.

Despite how fascinating West African culture is, I feel like a lot of authors who dabble in it paint a pretty bland picture. In fact, Tristan Strong paints the only picture I would call lively. Fortunately, Blood Scion isn’t “just take typical Western fantasy tropes and change the name” like a lot of other novels. There is a bit of a science fiction spin on worldbuilding, since the Lucins have electricity and whatnot, while the dark skinned villagers don’t have crap. *Sniff* Aaaaaah… the fresh reek of colonialism. Thanks I hate it.

Blood Scion is written as you’d expect any YA novel to be; verbose, full of adjectives, and in the present tense. It’s effective, but doesn’t at all stand out from its contemporaries, especially when compared to Xiran Jay Zhao. Nonetheless, “effective” means “effective.” Blood Scion sinks the dagger into your heart and twists for maximum laceration. Falaye hams in the brutality of how Sloane’s people are treated; a brutality that you don’t have to look too hard to find in the real world.

I thought that with COVID, the war in Ukraine, and this being the eighth-or-so book of its kind that I’ve experienced, that I would be desensitized to Blood Scion. Nope, that didn’t happen. I found myself overcome with the all-too-familiar, soul-crushing despair caused by White supremacy.

Despite how brutal Blood Scion is, it still has a lot of the tropes that occur when the main protagonist is sent to some kind of disciplinary facility to train in some form. In order to make an underdog story, Sloane starts out as a bad apple in a bunch of cosmic crisps. On top of that, we have the “impenetrable fortress” with the most convenient blind spots. It takes suspension of disbelief when they have spotlights, guards, and trained jaguars patrolling the place, yet they magically don’t get caught when sneaking out one night. Also, everyone and their grandma has smuggled some kind of weapon into the camp, meanwhile when they see Sloane they’re like “Oh my god, TEA LEAVES?! Nope, we gotta confiscate that.” 

The biggest flaw of Blood Scion is its cast, in that if you’ve read any YA novel besides Iron Widow, you’ve seen them all before. Sloane is literally Bree, Zélie, Rue, and Voya; yet, to my luck, she’s probably the weakest among them. Like many YA girls, she’s all talk and next-to-no walk other than random, arbitrary spurts of badassery. Like I said before, she gets pummeled in camp in order to make her an underdog. On the other hand, Best Girl Zetian would’ve just torched the place and been done with it. Sure, there is an actual stipulation in that Sloane can’t risk getting caught, but she still ends up using her power at least once, to save someone who just so magically happens to be Yoruba as well. Most notably—minor spoilers—there is no catharsis with her character arc, at least not at present since there is a forthcoming sequel and all. The training regimen is meant to strip kids of their humanity, and sadly, that’s inevitable with Sloane. I don’t even want to say any more about this, lest I puke.

On to all the other relatable and wholly unremarkable characters! Malachi is a bully who at least has a believable motive to hate Sloane; his parents died in a fire she caused by accident. However, all that does for him is make him a Saturday morning cartoon bully who is interchangeable with literally any YA male of his kind. Sloane’s supporters are relatable teens named Izara, Nazanin, and Jericho. Beyond their tragic backstories, they’re kind of deadweights.

Among the White supremacist Lucis, we have the somewhat human Dane Grey. He isn’t the most racist guy at camp; instead of killing Sloane, he just humiliates her instead. The rest of the Lucis? From Lieutenant Faas Bakker, to Queen Facism herself, they’re monsters, and I hate them. I hate them because they exist in this world, and are running it to the ground.

There is a silver lining here. Blood Scion really goes off the rails toward the end. Falaye legitimately caught me off-guard with a lot of developments, and pulled off things that I didn’t think any YA author had the gall to do. It also really showcases how convoluted the issue of race has become.

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Final Verdict: 9/10

Is this even an impartial score? Despite its flaws, Blood Scion was pure pain and suffering for me. It was full of such sadness and rage, and Sloane didn’t even feel like a particularly empowering character (although that could be because any YA protagonist other than Zetian feels like crap). In all honesty, I don’t even know if I have the mental fortitude to read the sequel, let alone any more books on this topic. Is this really supposed to help with racial healing? If you wanna try and find out, then be my guest.

Tristan Strong: The Only Rick Riordan Presents I.P. I Truly Love

I’m a big ol’ weeb, but even then, I acknowledge that West-African culture is no slouch. Disney’s Animal Kingdom introduced me to how beautiful and creative it is. Naturally, I would be all for reading Kwame Mbalia’s Tristan Strong trilogy, published under Rick Riordan Presents.

The titular Tristan Strong is stuck at his grandparents farm out in the boonies when a weird doll thingy steals the journal of a dear friend of his. He chases it, and ends up punching a tree, which releases a demon into the magical world of African folklore. Oops. Now, he has to find this dude named Anansi and fix this mess.

In every YA novel I’ve read, it felt like there was a PSA about how bad racism is on every other page. In Tristan Strong, it definitely rears its ugly head, but in a thoughtful and creative way, such as a living slave ship as the antagonist of the first book. And relatively speaking, that’s the LEAST brutal it gets! Book two deals in violent protesting, which was very impactful during its initial 2020 publication. The final book gets unapologetically brutal; it is straight-up nightmarish (I don’t use hyperbole, so I literally mean that word by definition). 

Going off of Tristan Strong alone, I’ve found African mythology to be one of the most interesting in the world. Tristan Strong really caught me by surprise. I get that there must be some creative licensing, but the African folklore assets felt like more than just “Oh, some gods of such-and-such element.” The implementation of it has more creativity and personality than any of the other Rick Riordan Presents books I’ve read. Anansi the trickster becomes a smartphone app, for example, and there’s a rapping vulture in book two. That’s only the tip of the iceberg!

If there’s any flaw, it’s that the cast isn’t 100% stellar. I wasn’t too big of a fan of Tristan himself at first, but after reading Legendborn, I’ve come to appreciate the fact that he’s got more to him than just the P.C. culture trope of “Hey, I’m Black! Love me or you’re racist!” He has a compelling character arc, a lovable enough personality, and one of the more unique superpowers in the Rick Riordan Presents imprint. Tristan starts off as generic, but he eventually has to deal with trauma and his own anxieties. 

Sadly, most of the other protagonists feel kind of there, such as female lead Ayanna. Most of the gods, while very cool because of how some of them are historical figures, fall under the Rick Riordan trope of being exposition dumpers who can’t do anything and leave saving the world to a twelve-year-old. There are silver linings, though. Gum Baby, the aforementioned doll thingy, is amazing. She’s sassy, sappy (literally; she vomits tree sap), and memeable. Of course, Anansi is a great supporting protagonist. I felt it fitting to picture him as Miror B from Pokémon Colosseum.

Most Black empowerment novels I’ve read had a cartoonishly evil White supremacist as its main antagonist. Of course, Mbalia can write a truly evil villain without having to grab us with an easy hook like that. Tristan’s foe is simply named Cotton. That sumbitch proves himself to be one of the deadliest in any Rick Riordan Presents book—scratch that—in any book with Riordan’s name on it; including Riordan’s own books!

Tristan Strong did to me what few other books I’ve read have done: moved me to tears. While other books are appropriately brutal, they never once made me cry. Tristan Strong did. At some point in the middle of the third book, I just put it down and sobbed uncontrollably for several minutes. It was a necessary meltdown, because Tristan Strong only scratches the surface of the real injustices that have occurred throughout American history.

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Final Verdict: 10/10

Tristan Strong is awe-inspiring. Although the first book can be a bit of a slow burn, the series as a whole is practically perfect. It’s so good that the other Rick Riordan Presents books don’t remotely compare. There is only one franchise of Western literature that I enjoy more than Tristan Strong, and I mean that literally. I highly recommend this trilogy for anyone who has the heart to care about humanity.