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!

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.

Turning Red: Kung-Fu Panda But Wholesome

Full transparency: Pixar’s Turning Red was the studio’s first movie since Toy Story 4 that I did NOT want to see. I know that they generally undersell their masterpieces in the trailer, but Turning Red didn’t even LOOK like a Pixar movie. The idea, the character design, the inclusion of at least one famous popstar in the music… It looked like Blue Sky Studios, or any of the non-Disney studios whose movies tend to ONLY appeal to kids. However, with the war going on, there is a chance this could be Pixar’s last movie ever made, on account of the possibility that we’re all going to be vaporized in a nuclear explosion. Also, these movies—regardless of quality—are important to support the Disney industries that I truly care about (that and the fact that I do not use Disney+ often enough). Let’s see if Turning Red describes what my face looks like after watching it!

In Turning Red, Meilin Lee enjoys a quaint life in Toronto, Canada. Unfortunately, she has the classic case of overbearing parent. Oh, and the classic case of turning into a red panda during heightened states of duress.

So… despite all my build up to a negative review, I ended up having my words eaten pretty thoroughly. Right off the bat, Turning Red has a lot of personality, from anime-like flourish, to watching Mei’s dad cook dinner. It also has the level of humor expected from Pixar; whether that’s a good or bad thing is up to your discretion.

Of course, the actual plot is more straightforward than a Saturday morning cartoon. When I said that the idea wasn’t interesting, I meant it. Turning Red is a classic story of a girl with an overbearing parent who inevitably learns to accept herself for who she is. The main “MacGuffin” is a K-Pop concert that Mei wants to attend without her mom’s permission (I know that band is multinational, but I don’t care; boy band=K-Pop). 

I don’t want to sound pretentious here, but I have to mention something that I’m pretty damn sure EVERY review of the movie will be incredibly hoity-toity about: Pixar acknowledges periods. This is the first time in the studio’s history, and it has absolutely no bearing on the quality of the movie to me. Maybe my opinion would be different if I was an actual woman, but I digress. Of course these days, when people have to constantly vomit their humanity to the world, this minor thing that comes up twice in whole movie is way more important than any of the other content.

The cast of Turning Red is as Pixar as you can expect. We already discussed Mei, but the real stars are her friends: Miriam, Priya, and Abby. Packing quirky personalities of their own, their chemistry with Mei is priceless. The mom is, more-or-less, the antagonist of the movie. If you’ve seen her type of character trope before, then you can probably guess how her arc resolves. However, the real MVP is the dad. He has one scene with Mei, and he basically tells her what’s important in life. If he had done it sooner, then a large portion of the conflict of the movie would have never had to transpire. Classic Saturday morning cartoon tropes.

If there is anything negative that I can actually say (other than the generic idea), it’s the setting. Canada is a really lovely place (at least according to its pavilion in EPCOT), but it’s really easy to forget that Turning Red is set in Canada at all. If it rained even one time, I would’ve assumed it was in Seattle. In fact, the movie frequently shows the Canadian flag on T-shirts and stuff, as if they knew you’d forget. In all honesty, I’m just salty that they didn’t set it in Quebec, where the beautiful French architecture is.

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Final Verdict: 8.75/10

Turning Red was way the heck better than I thought it would be. It’s a fun and cute movie to tide us over until Lightyear comes out. It’s no masterpiece like Soul, but it at least has some soul. 

Ashes of Gold: The Sequel Curse Strikes Again

J. Elle’s Wings of Ebony was one of my favorite books of 2021. As someone who loved it, I would naturally want to read its sequel, Ashes of Gold. However, what other plot points could there be to explore? Only one way to find out!

Rue’s first year at Ghizon’s magic school was pretty lively. She ran away almost immediately, reconciled her relationship with her father, captured a White supremacist Ghizoni general, and—most importantly—made out with a strapping young man. Of course, the job isn’t done. She still has to take down the Chancellor, a.k.a. the mastermind behind it all. 

To be perfectly honest, I already had concerns for this one right out of the gate, simply because I wasn’t grabbed immediately like in the first book. It starts with Rue and Co. getting captured by the Chancellor’s goons, sure. However, Rue ends up displaying the tired trope of “doing a reckless thing and screwing up”, which ends up haunting her throughout most of the novel. This is one reason why I felt like she was downgraded in Ashes of Gold, which will be elaborated on later.

Fortunately, they escape pretty early, but they still have a mean ol’ White supremacist to take down. The goal ends up being to use a spell to bring back the Ghizoni people’s ancestors (sorry, Ancestors) and have them restore their descendants’ magic. Pretty simple, right?

However, that wasn’t exactly the case. A lot of Ashes of Gold is Rue and Co. traipsing around town and seeing how beat-up it is now, giving us more and more reasons to hate the Chancellor. Unfortunately, that’s about it for half the book. There’s some action, but it felt less impactful this time around.

It’s been exactly a year since I read Wings of Ebony, and I haven’t reread it since then. As such, I forgot who a lot of supporting characters were. Like, who are Zora, Shaun, or Bati? Was I supposed to remember them? I do, however, want to rectify my failure to elaborate on Bri’s character arc, since it’s kind of fascinating… and uncomfortable. Basically, Bri seems to represent those White people who want to fight racism, but simply don’t understand enough of the issue to contribute substantially. Rue has had to savagely tear into Bri multiple times throughout the duology, and she gets even more hate in this book simply because she’s Grey (a.k.a. the Ghizon’s equivalent of being White). To be fair, she is incredibly dense. One example is of her complaining about poor people stealing food; girl, it’s pretty damn obvious why someone would be reduced to committing those crimes.

I remembered loving Rue in Wings of Ebony. In Ashes of Gold, however, she’s… flawed. Sure, a good character needs some flaws through which to grow. However, Rue seems to be nothing but flaws this time around. She isn’t fierce or powerful, and is constantly hounded by the failed encounter with the Patrol at the beginning of the novel. And instead of bettering herself, she spends the whole book trying to get the damn Ancestors to fix everything for her.

Fortunately, things do pick up toward the end. There are sufficient twists, and the climax is satisfying enough. There are no plot threads left unresolved (as far as I could tell at least).

One thing to consider about me not having overwhelmingly positive thoughts on Ashes of Gold is the fact that I’ve since read Iron Widow. That book is just *chef’s kiss*. It’s so good that it makes a lot of YA novels—including the ones I like—seem like crap. And sadly, J. Elle’s works ended up not being exceptions. With that being said… 

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Final Verdict: 7.85/10

Ashes of Gold is a solid conclusion to a great duology. However, there’s a lot better you can do, such as Iron Widow and Tristan Strong. 

Disney’s REAL Edgiest Animated Feature: Treasure Planet Retrospective

The turn of the 21st Century wasn’t the worst era of the Walt Disney Company’s history, but it sure was one of the strangest. Following their Renaissance Era in the 1990s, they did some weird stuff. First off, they made a lot of cash-grabby, low-budget sequels to existing I.P.s that nobody asked for. In addition to that, any new I.P.s were serious departures from their classic formula, and it wouldn’t be until Princess and the Frog that they went back to the way things were. That era came with cult classics like Atlantis: The Lost Empire (which I covered on its twentieth anniversary last year), The Emperor’s New Groove (which I’d do a retrospective on if I didn’t have it memorized), and… an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, Treasure Island. For the latter, they changed the genre to science fiction, and named it Treasure Planet, which I had not seen in over fifteen years until watching it for this post. Oh, and by the way, being someone who doesn’t read classic literature, I never read Treasure Island, so don’t expect any intellectuality whatsoever here.

Just in case you’ve somehow never heard of Treasure Island, allow me to give you a run-down. A boy named Jim Hawkins finds a map and is like, “Wow! Treasure Island!” He goes on a pirate expedition to find the place. And since the novel is super-old, the product description now spoils that one of the pirates, Long John Silver, is secretly the main antagonist. Treasure Planet is pretty much the same, except he has no dad, and his house burns down because it’s Disney (oh, and it’s in space).

There ended up being a lot more to say about Treasure Planet than I thought initially going into it, and it’s pretty much impossible for my train of thought to not go all over the place. What immediately stands out is that this is probably the edgiest core animated feature Disney has ever put out, even more so than Big Hero 6. This was the early 2000s, and everyone—even Disney—was embracing full edge culture. And as we discuss the various components of the movie, you’ll see just how edgy it is.

One thing I do remember as a kid is how much the setting blew my mind, which isn’t saying much, of course. To be honest, though, Disney was pretty creative with a lot of aspects of the movie. One example is a spaceport that’s literally in the shape of a crescent moon. Also, in trying to blend the pirate and science fiction themes, they ended up inadvertently predicting NASA’s Lightsail project. Just keep in mind that they do some things that require major suspension of disbelief, like when they survive a supernova and escape a black hole from well within the event horizon. The movie has some intense action sequences, in case you couldn’t tell from the aforementioned supernova and black hole. They are some of the most violent in Disney’s animated films, more so than in Atlantis.

Again, I have no idea what Treasure Island was like, but Treasure Planet definitely has some of those beloved Disney clichés. One of the worst is the case of Jim Hawkins’ father, who isn’t dead, but missing. It’s definitely different from Disney’s usual emotional hook of killing the parents, but it feels half-assed here. For starters, his dad doesn’t appear at all at the beginning when Hawkins is a toddler (before he left), so it’s kind of just thrown at you when he turns into an angsty teen. They also never explain what happens, which can technically be construed as something to leave up to interpretation. It’s possible that he tried to go to Treasure Planet on his own, or that Long John Silver could be his father. Since I don’t like to psycho-analyze and retcon Disney movies, it’s one of those things that has to be glossed over. There’s also some other silly hiccups, such as the death of this one red-shirt guy. He’s murdered by a lobster dude, and they pin it on Hawkins, which is later just overlooked (it’s as if that guy was killed for shock value). Lobster guy gets away with the crime, leaving Hawkins to have an abnormally easy time getting over what he thinks is him committing involuntary manslaughter. Other than that, Treasure Planet is pretty straightforward. They go to the titular planet, find the treasure, escape before it blows up, and learn that the real treasure is the friends they made along the way. That last part is quite literal, because the bread and butter of this movie is the relationship between Hawkins and Silver. Due to how I like to do things, we’ll get to that when we discuss the characters.

The worst part of the movie is probably the soundtrack. I don’t remember a single song in the movie, and that’s saying something for Disney. What stands out in Treasure Planet’s soundtrack is its one musical number. Remember ‘Immortal’ from Big Hero 6? That wasn’t the first edgy alt-rock song by a hired band for a core Disney movie, but the second. They have a montage/backstory for Hawkins, and just like everything in the early 2000s, it’s a sad and moan-heavy punk rock ballad that doesn’t fit at all with Disney, even more so than ‘Immortal’. Whatever this song is called, it’s now my least favorite Disney musical number of all time. 

Treasure Planet has a rather wild cast of characters; and unfortunately, a lot of them are now my least favorite Disney characters of all time. Jim Hawkins, for example, has become one of my least favorite—if not, straight-up least favorite—lead protagonists the company has ever put out. He’s brash, whiny, gullible, has no shortage of sarcastic comments, and has a frat-boy’s dream hairstyle. Disney tried way too hard to make an edgy teen protagonist, and I didn’t like him whatsoever. At the very least, one unique quality is that he’s a lead protagonist who gets no romance.

However, that doesn’t mean there is no romance in Treasure Planet at all. This movie’s lucky bachelor is a scientist named Dillbert who is stupid rich and associated with the Hawkins family for some reason. The fact that he’s rich means that he could’ve paid to have Mrs. Hawkins’ inn rebuilt, but he really wanted an excuse to go to Treasure Planet. Thankfully, Dillbert ended up being the best character in the movie. He comes off as the hoity-toity type, but he’s got an unexpectedly large amount of character that made him more fun than the actual comic relief characters (more on those two later). 

His wife ends up being… er… Look, I did a good job remembering the cast of Atlantis last year, but they literally use the lead female protagonist’s name once in the whole movie. And that’s because she’s the captain of the ship, and insists on being referred to as Captain or Ma’am. Whoever she is, imagine Mary Poppins as a pirate and that’s basically Captain Ma’am in a nutshell. On another note, she has either become more or less controversial over the years (I honestly don’t know which) because she’s a cat-girl. So uh yeah, if you’re offended by that kind of stuff, then this movie is not for you. 

Usually, Disney has a good track record of making cute characters who exist for gags, but Treasure Planet has two of my least favorites in that category. The first one is a blob named Morph. Imagine Figment but ten times more annoying. He shapeshifts and stuff, but that’s about it. Most of his attempts at being funny come off as incredibly annoying, and if I had ever found him funny as a kid, then shame on my house and my cow. 

Additionally, there’s B.E.N…. who isn’t much better. Fun Fact: for all this time, I had thought that this guy was voiced by Robin Williams. He has a spastic, spontaneous personality, much like the characters that Williams has played. However, B.E.N. is actually voiced by Martin Short, which was a huge mind-f*** for me. I must say… as much as I like Short, he was pretty screwed with this role. B.E.N. is just very boring. I don’t know, but none of his lines felt funny, even though Short tries his damndest to make them funny. One standout thing is that B.E.N. is a fully CG character among a cast of hand-drawn ones. For 2002, he moved better than something like RWBY, which is both impressive and sad. 

The problem with both Morph and B.E.N. is that they do that thing where they inadvertently work against the protagonists simply because they’re stupid. Well, the former was technically working with Silver, but it’s the same basic idea. Morph constantly busts Hawkins’ chops and steals the MacGuffin, while B.E.N. constantly gets the bad guys aggroing on Hawkins. I can’t really say anything else about them. They just really suck by Disney standards. 

At the very least, they have one of the most subversive—but tragically forgotten—Disney villains of all time: Long John Silver. I have no idea how Silver’s character arc is in the source novel, but Treasure Planet’s Silver is (I presume) the one Disney villain with a redemption arc. He pretends to give a crap about Hawkins, but then actually gives a crap about Hawkins, and years later, someone (probably) writes a long article about how the two are secretly gay for each other. Silver isn’t particularly interesting, and only stands out when compared to Disney villains. As a small side note, if this was how Silver’s character arc originally was, then I hate him because that probably makes him responsible for the whole “villains must be complex no matter what” stigma that everyone thinks is an absolute rule in storytelling. Thanks, Stevenson!

I always discuss visuals last for some reason, and the visuals in Treasure Planet are stunning. This thing has CG everywhere, and it’s aged pretty well. It doesn’t look as jarring as you’d think for something that turns twenty this year (eighteen as of when I actually watched it for the post). And as you’d expect, the characters have that Disney attention to detail which makes them feel alive, even if none of them are particularly interesting.

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After All These Years: 8.6/10

Other than a few dumb plot contrivances (and lackluster soundtrack), Treasure Planet is a tragically underrated Disney movie that deserves a bit more love. If you’re one of those people who only follows Disney because they own Star Wars and Marvel (which Disney didn’t ruin, because they were already ruined well before being bought out OOOOH SNAP), then Treasure Planet is an easy recommendation. Just don’t think you can use it to write a book report on Treasure Island without reading it.

Iron Widow: To Make a Great YA Novel, Just Add Anime

There is no shortage of Feminist power fantasies these days. In fact, I read one such novel back before COVID broke out: part one of Suzanne Young’s Girls With Sharp Sticks trilogy. It was good, but it was so generic and predictable, I’d rather not spend my time finishing it, because I figured a better Feminist power fantasy would come up. Sure enough, that happened in 2021, when Xiran Jay Zhao published their debut novel: Iron Widow.

In Iron Widow, we are taken to an alternate version of China, set hundreds of years in the past but with futuristic technology (what is this, Star Wars?). The alien menace known as the Hundun threatens the nation of Huaxia. Fight fire with fire, as they say, and by “fire”, I mean they build Gundams out of defeated Hundun. These mechs, known as Chrysalis, must be piloted by a male and female team. However, unlike those anime where the mech is powered by sex, the Chrysalises are powered by sexism, and the woman pilot more-often-than-not can’t handle the strain of her husband’s qi. Wu Zetian’s older sister was killed, not in battle, but murdered by her husband Yang Guang. Naturally, Zetian voluntarily sells herself to him just for an opportunity to murder him. What could possibly go wrong?

Unlike Blood Like Magic, the disclaimer at the beginning is fully needed. No, that’s an understatement. The only other book this viscerally brutal that I read was Legendborn, and even then, the searing social commentary was only prevalent like 60% of the time. In Iron Widow, every page is a reminder of the twisted world in the book, not too different from the twisted world that men created. I won’t spoil anything more about this aspect of Iron Widow’s worldbuilding, but just know it’s beyond brutal.

The main draw with Iron Widow is the very anime-inspired SF world, versus Girls With Sharp Sticks’ nothing. Zhao did their homework with this one, that’s for sure. The terms are easy to follow, and there isn’t an overabundance of Things That Have Common Nouns With Capital Letters As Their Names. I admit that I was enthralled by the mechs, especially Guang’s, which is a kyubi; Zhao knows the fastest way to a weeb’s heart is to make a yokai Gundam. 

The writing is great to boot. I had a great sense of 3D space and what stuff looked like. Plus the battles were spectacular, with no shortage of anime flair. Like I said before, the portrayal of sexism is unrelenting and bludgeoning, written with exquisite and tormented poetry. The only problem I had is that I couldn’t quite picture the Hundun. They seemed to be a generic robot menace, though. 

Anyway, how’s the plot? Well, it’s a YA novel, so it’s predictable. However, Iron Widow manages to be one of the best YA novels of 2021 all the same. Like in Wings of Ebony, the book cuts out the fat to get to the good stuff. Exactly seventy pages in, Zetian successfully murders Guang during the first major battle. She then becomes the rare instance of an Iron Widow (title drop), which is something that is—naturally—covered up. In order to maintain control of her, she is paired with the strongest guy they got: Li Shimin, who happens to be a convicted felon. The bulk of the story is her building a relationship with Shimin, while trying to survive the system that’s so jerry-rigged against her.

Boy-o-boy, the cast is… something. Zetian is so manufactured it’s almost funny; but you know what, women get so much crap, I’m not even mad. She is as uncompromising and fierce as it gets. Nothing—and I mean NOTHING—breaks her. She’ll slander anyone who disagrees with her, and has no remorse when she murders Guang. Most of the men are one-dimensional sleazes, but like in Girls With Sharp Sticks, there’s that one likable guy. And it’s Shimin of all people. Whoda thought that the guy who’s hyped up to be a monster… isn’t? I never predicted that exact thing as soon as his name came up for the first time. Another predictable thing is Gao Yizhi. He’s the childhood friend, who spends a good portion of the book abandoned by Zetian so she can pursue her goal. However, he uses money to get into the camp, and exists as the good boy to contrast Shimin’s naughty boy. This sounds like the start of a cringy relationship, but to my pleasant surprise, these three protagonists’ relationships with one another ended up being one of the best takes of the love triangle trope I have ever seen.

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Final Verdict: 9.8/10

Xiran Jay Zhao has single-handedly made me give a crap about YA novels again. Iron Widow puts them in my book as one of the most promising new writers going into this decade. My butt’s already clenched waiting for the sequel, and more importantly, the possibility that Zhao can actually follow-up. If only they would write a middle-grade novel to tide me over… oh wait, they are, and it’s coming out later this year. Anyway, Iron Widow is my favorite YA novel of 2021 (too bad it isn’t 2021 anymore so no one cares), and I highly recommend it.

It’s a CRIME That They Aren’t More Popular: Catalyst Crime — Self-Titled Album Review

Well, it’s the end of the year, and it’s pretty much decided that Spiritbox is not only the new band of the year, but the decade (okay maybe that last bit is overselling them but still). However, that didn’t stop new bands from coming out after-the-fact. One example is a group that debuted during my most recent Disney trip: Catalyst Crime. Time for me to give them some limelight!

Catalyst Crime is made up of people from the States and Europe. According to Encyclopaedia Metallum, they consist of drummer Gerrit Lamm, bassist Matt Federoff, his daughter vocalist Zoe Marie Federoff, keyboardist Jonah Weingarten, and guitarists Kaelan Sarakinis and Chëna Roxx. Aaaaand that’s literally all I know about them.

The cover art is pretty eye-catching, featuring a model, wearing exotic-looking clothes, and clutching a human heart. And for the record, the model isn’t Zoe Federoff herself; that’s something I can see potentially confusing people.

Catalyst Crime’s style, at least for this debut, is pretty garden variety symphonic metal. It has a quiet, yet aggressive sound that reminds me of Angel Nation, an underrated band whose third album I plan to cover whenever it’s released. But as someone who admits to reading battle shounen manga over and over again, I don’t necessarily think Catalyst Crime being garden variety is bad; there’s just only so many ways to describe a band that doesn’t brand itself as having twenty subgenres.

Unlike Icon of Sin, however, I already saw potential for Catalyst Crime to grow. As expected, the songs have that catchiness which makes me fall for European metal hook, line, and sinker. And speaking of falling for things, the reason why I even got into this band was because of the track ‘Cognitive Dissonance.’ That song features Jake E, one of the former vocalists of Amaranthe, which happens to be one of my favorite bands of all time.

The best part of Catalyst Crime thus far is Zoe Federoff’s performance. She is no doubt the most soprano voice I have ever heard in metal. Of course, that’s not a bad thing (especially since Simone Simons and Megan Targett are sopranos, and I love their singing). Her growls are equally high in pitch, and don’t fall short of expectations.

If there is any problem I have with Catalyst Crime, it’s that I did feel a bit ripped off. They claimed to be “cinematic” metal, putting them in the ballpark of Dark Sarah, another one of my favorite bands of all time, which incorporates theatrical elements into their metal style. I didn’t really feel that with Catalyst Crime. But as someone who doesn’t know anything about musical theater, it could just be that they were influenced by a different composer than Dark Sarah was.

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Final Verdict: 8.65/10

They’re no Epica, but Catalyst Crime is off to a great start. And sadly… I did rate it slightly lower than I did Spiritbox’s debut. Eternal Blue has much more going for it at this stage, while Catalyst Crime is very straightforward. Regardless, this is a promising new face in metal, and it goes without saying that I would recommend it to symphonic power metal fans.

Cynicism in Entertainment: When is it Too Much? Can There be Too Much?

This is probably something you can type into Google and find a scholarly Harvard thesis on. But since this topic has been bugging me for quite some time, I thought I could put in my two cents. I feel like the amount of cynicism in entertainment, or lack thereof, has been largely under debate since forever. And it’s something that’s come to a head for me on a personal level since the start of the pandemic, and as of finishing Volume 8 of RWBY. For this post, I’ll try to lay down both sides of the coin in a civil manner. There will be spoilers for RWBY and Re:ZERO among others throughout this discussion.

The first thing to bring up is the fact that darker times are hard to face in real life. And for some people, the SOLE counter to that is in Escapist fantasies such as those put out by Disney. That company has continued to inspire hope for generations, and is almost at the one-century mark of its running. On the flipside, Disney doesn’t make the bad things go away in real life. You will not only be faced with personal issues, but societal ones as well (more on the latter later). Even if you watch something like Soul for example, which has the lesson of living life to the fullest, you’ll still have to toil at school or a job even if you take that lesson to heart. 

But let’s flip it back again, and discuss the question I asked at the beginning: When is cynicism too much? At the point I’m at in Re:ZERO and RWBY, there have been so many deaths that it has completely desensitized me. The fourth (or is it fifth?) arc of Re:ZERO starts with a child being thrown from the top of a building, after which an entire crowd of people explode into blood and guts. This happens after the main character has died and respawned after at least a dozen gruesome deaths, including being eaten alive by hundreds of demon rabbits. And RWBY? There’s death everywhere! RWBY is particularly controversial because it started off as a very silly battle shounen, then took an incredibly dark direction following the passing of its creator. And for the record, it has legitimately made me depressed. While I have no doubt that any American drama is still darker, RWBY is the most cynical work of fiction I have ever consumed. It has literally made me think to myself: “Life was not God’s gift to us; it was a punishment.”

To define how cynical a narrative work is, you should first find a definitive answer to how dark real life is. The problem is that everyone suffers in different ways and amounts. Re:ZERO seems exaggerated, since I definitely haven’t lived a life where I watch a close friend die right before my eyes every single day. But what about someone living in the Middle East? There are refugees for a reason, you know.

But here’s the kicker. While I have written off stuff as “torture porn”, and accused people of reading too much into social media, I must admit that I’ve become like that as well. The pandemic has affected the lives of pretty much every human, yet instead of bringing people together, it bolstered existing issues and—in essence—ruined everything. It doesn’t take long to find news about fully vaccinated people dying of COVID, countries re-entering lockdown (heck, the bands I follow are still having gigs cancelled left and right), governments stripping unvaccinated people of human rights, California slowly burning to the ground, the slaughterhouse that was Travis Scott’s Astroworld concert, and other human failures. You don’t even need these past couple of years to see how miserable life has always been. America has violated its own Constitution, and created racist and misogynist propaganda since its birth. How can I write off series as torture porn, when they seem perfectly apropos to actual life?

The argument I see the most in favor of cynicism is that it makes the story more mature and intellectual. But sometimes I feel like it’s actually more childish than even Disney. One example that comes to mind is Dungeon Busters, which is an urban fantasy that shows the political ramifications of RPG tropes existing in the real world. I want to say it’s a really thoughtful series, but I’m not sure I can. Trump is portrayed in it as a whiny brat who wants to nuke everything. I don’t know if that portrayal is actually mature, and since we’ll probably never know what Trump was truly like during his term, I can’t say that Dungeon Busters’ Trump is effective. Also, there’s a scene where a supporting protagonist shows a deep prejudice towards Americans entirely because of America’s past crimes against Japan, such as the atomic bombings at the end of WWII, decades before her birth. You’re meant to sympathize with her. However, in real life, Japan allows and welcomes American tourists with open arms (at least before COVID). I can’t judge if such deep-seeded grudges are actually mature or not. I just can’t.

Another example I can place is the famous videogame, A Way Out. I’ve seen three playthroughs of it on YouTube, and that final plot twist will always be infamous. You know, the one where Vincent was actually a police officer trying to nail Leo, and Harvey—the game’s villain—at the same time? It’s SUPER cynical, because it basically implies that your closest friend will stab you in the back someday, that no one can mutually agree on anything, and that there’s no point in ever trying to be nice to anyone. They completely throw away logic (such as parts where Vincent commits other crimes while undercover and endangers civilian lives) in order to make a purely cynical gaming experience, and cause mental whiplash for the people playing by turning the game from co-op to PvP right at the end, with a different—equally sad—ending based on who lives. Does that really make it better, though?

There is no end to different examples of arguments over whether or not cynicism is too much. But regardless, I’m starting to think that there can never be too much of it. Thanks to what COVID has done to me, in conjunction with social media being itself, I have lost all hope. How much cynicism can you handle? Let me know in the comments!

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?

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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.

This Town Ain’t METAL Enough for the Two of Us: Untamed Land — Like Creatures Seeking Their Own Forms Album Review

These days, it’s easy to assume that America’s culture consists mainly of racism, memes, and failed promises. However, this nation—as much of a zoomer as it is—has about two centuries of history, and thus, about two centuries’ worth of culture. And one extreme metal outfit known as Untamed Land has set up a roaring campfire in the wild west, ripe for some Americana storytelling. 

Untamed Land hasn’t been around for too long. The band was founded in Ohio by Patrick Kern, and—like Mammoth WVH—he’s the only member. Today’s album review is of its second record, Like Creatures Seeking Their Own Forms. I already listened to its debut, 2018’s Between the Winds, and I was sold pretty darn quickly. Let’s see if the follow-up, well, follows up.

Most atmospheric bands I’ve seen have very hand-painted-looking, beautiful cover art of landscapes that don’t at all look like it would belong to an extreme metal band. That is also the case with Untamed Land’s previous album art. Like Creatures Seeking Their Own Forms, however, is a lot different from that. It’s darker, with a sketchy, cross-hatching-covered aesthetic. The Neanderthal-looking dude in the center is kind of creepy, but the background art has a weird, abstract beauty. Something about the red sun on the right, contrasting the weird castle-looking structure on the left… I don’t know. I just love how it looks.

In terms of the basic style, Untamed Land has what you expect: a lot of riffs, the “duduholaduhdoladuhdola” guitar thing, and some “AAAAAAAH!” screechy vocals (those are professional Layman’s terms, btw). And to be honest, THIS is the band I should’ve compared to Sojourner, instead of Stormruler. Like Sojourner, Untamed Land is slower and more ambient.

But what’s different from Sojourner is, of course, the actual theme. In addition to the essential metal components, Untamed Land uses… er… crap, I have no idea what the instruments I’m about to describe are called, so I’ll use my professional Layman’s terms again! If you’re familiar with Clint Eastwood and High Noon, you’ll recognize the very U.S.-Western-style saloon piano, cowboy trumpet, and twangy string instrument (see? Professional!). But as novel as these additional instruments make the band sound, it feels like they come from a synthesizer. I’m not so hard on that, since the intent gets through well enough.

Like Creatures isn’t just the same thing over again; in fact, as with the cover art, it’s much darker than its predecessor. While the previous album feels like a cowboy shoot ’em up starring Clint Eastwood and Daniel Boone, this album—by comparison—feels like telling ghost stories by the campfire. However, the more somber theme doesn’t make it less epic; expect the same extreme riffs, rumbling drums, and very un-cowboy-ish growling.

If there is any tangible flaw with this album, it’s the record’s short-lived-ness. Despite it being considered full-length, it’s really an EP; there are only seven tracks, two of which are shortened versions of existing tracks. I don’t want to sound like that guy who’s all “NEXT ALBUM WHEN”, but the fact remains that this was a three-year wait following Between the Winds; I can only assume it’ll be a similar case in years to come. With less than twenty tracks total in its discography, coupled with the band’s novelty, expect new music withdrawal to hit fast.

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Final Verdict: 8.8/10

Yeeeeeeeeee-haaaaaw! Untamed Land has proven itself to be one of the most novel and underrated metal projects in recent years. And not only that, I feel like I’ve learned a little bit about the nation I was born and raised in. Recommending it now is a hard sell right now because there isn’t much, but what is there is worth its weight in California gold. I reckon you’ll like it if you give it a chance!