Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Nancy Farmer's Trolls series

Being The Sea of Trolls, The Land of the Silver Apples, and The Islands of the Blessed.

Oh, Thorgil.

These books actually remind me of Juliet Marillier's in atmosphere, but are somewhat cheerier and quite a bit more action driven. I was actually surprised when I got to the end that Farmer fit so many different episodes into three books, though some of them are just that: episodes that may add a little to the world-building but not so much to the plot or character development. (The chapter "The Sacrificial Stone" comes to mind; creepy, but no further relevance except so far as it reflects the overall theme. It actually stands out because she does such a good job of making other seemingly unimportant details tie in to the plot later.)

I admit, a bit before the ending I thought to myself "This is Norse-inspired, it's not going to end well, is it?" and was (bittersweetly) surprised. (IMPORTANT NOTE, avoid Farmer's blog if you don't like spoilers; she answers a question about what actually happened at the end although I find myself disagreeing with her interpretation.)

So why did I love these books? Honestly, by the end of the first book (which is a pretty good adventure in itself; in fact, all three books could probably stand on their own, but will spoil events from previous books), Thorgil had stolen my heart. The story is nominally about Jack, a young Saxon, who is apprenticed to a Bard who showed up in his village several years before the story begins and started giving orders. As often happens in stories, Things Go Wrong. Jack is kidnapped by Northman berserkers, ends up on a quest, and so on. Along the way he meets Thorgil, a "wannabe berserker" (description straight from the cast of characters) around his age who hates Jack but is also straightforward, loyal and even kind, as long as no one is watching. The wicked sense of humor doesn't hurt, either.

The thing I found most troubling is the statement (and what happens in the plot backs it up) that you get the afterlife you expect. Berserkers end up in Valhalla, druids and heroes to the Islands of the Blessed, Christians in heaven, and so on. There's also a lot of "Christian magic" which, of course, is not much different from any other magic. (The book credits this mostly to Sts. Patrick, Columba and so on who, we're told, were also druids.)

Still, I'd love to see the further adventures of these characters. Whether it will happen is anyone's guess (the third book isn't selling too well, apparently) but even without a continuation these three make up quite a good adventure with deeper themes, history, well-done humor (it relieves tense moments without making them seem frivolous or unimportant) and great characters. There are a few plot holes (the beginning of the second book rather jars with the character development at the end of the first) but it's a lot of fun.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Up and Foreshadowing

I saw Pixar's Up for the first time last night. I think it's a pretty good example of using foreshadowing (and repetition) without destroying tension.

Stop reading now if you want to avoid spoilers; I'm going to go through some of my observations about it.

First, my expectations worked against me at the beginning with the short black and white film. I've seen a number of Pixar's other films in the past (I think the only one I've missed is Cars) and most or all of them are packaged with a short film that precedes the main feature. So, I watched this one without expecting it to be connected to the main story until it transitioned abruptly into color.

I also noticed how many important things are repeated, setting up a rhythm and an expectation of rhythm.

1. At the end of the short film, the narrator states that the hunter promised to return. The hunter then immediately repeats that promise in his own words. You expect him to be back.

2. Carl appears with a balloon in hand, setting up the element of balloons.

I thought Carl and Ellie's story was a great example of economical storytelling. No shot is wasted and there are very few words.

3. The leaf blower and retirement home brochure shows up. By this point you might have started expecting the things that show up to show up again...

4. The scout kid shows up, repeatedly, and is summarily dismissed to look for a legendary bird.

5. The retirement home shows up again...

6. ... and the balloons.

7. Once Carl was in the air, I asked, "But where's the kid?" He shows up, of course, and his entrance is later repeated by another character.

8. The GPS had to go as soon as the kid said "With this, we'll never be lost!" This doesn't show up again, unlike most of the other things in the movie. The kid never uses his trumpet or half of his other scout stuff, either.

9. The kid finds the legendary bird (or it finds him).

10. When dogs show up, you know for sure the hunter is still around, and stubborn and creepy to boot. (Who gives dogs collars that let them talk, especially such a large pack of dogs? The way they serve him later, it's like they take the place of people in his life. Given their slavish obedience to their master, it's no wonder he's grown (more) deranged.)

11. The squirrel gag is important later.

12. The hunter is back. I think one of the dogs in the crowd even said "You're our guests now, temporarily!"

13. The cone of shame. Funny thing about the dogs' collars: they seemed to have GPS on them. Did the hunter occasionally leave to buy more current technology, or did he have those 50-70 years ago? (Considering GPS didn't exist back then, this may be a little plot hole.) On the other hand, he was established as a genius (or thief) already for inventing the talking collars, so he could have invented his own version of the technology.

14. The hall of trophies. The bird has a good reason to dislike the hunter.

15. Another throwaway remark, as far as I could tell: the hunter says those who go into the labyrinth that is the bird's home never return. I wasn't sure if he was talking about people or dogs but I thought this was more a statement on unknown dangers there than foreshadowing of his own character, who shortly proceeds to death threats. It doesn't seem to fit by the end of the movie unless we take it that way, though.

16. I don't remember whether this is before or after the hunter, but Carl's hope that the scout kid won't notice the bird is gone, and said scout IMMEDIATELY waking up and saying "Where's the bird? Oh no, he's lost," etc.

17. They get the house to Paradise Falls, positioned exactly where it was in Ellie's picture.

18. The leaf blower returns!

19. The biplane as they're entering the airship the second time is shown for maybe 5 seconds, but I expected it to play a role.

I don't have many ideas about the fight scene. Maybe it's just a fight scene? It is pretty funny when Carl spits out his dentures on command.

20. The cone of shame returns.

21. Carl's house is ditched the same way his possessions were. (From the end of the movie, it seems it ended up next to Paradise Falls again; I'm not sure how, with the airship traveling fairly quickly.)

22. Carl gets the blimp. Didn't Ellie make him promise to bring her in one at the beginning?

23. The scout kid ends up on the curb eating ice cream and watching cars with Carl in place of the kid's dad.

When the scout kid initially showed up, I thought the guy who wanted to buy Carl's house had sent him or maybe even was his dad, but there doesn't seem to be any evidence of a connection there.


Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sneak preview?

In case I don't muster up a respectable post later, or feel differently...

Right now (~1/3 of the way through with some skipping of awkward bits that I should go back and read) I love this book:


1. Romance. Chapter 1 is great if you've read the previous book (Spell Hunter aka Knife).

2. Adventure and excitement! Or, if you prefer, you get to read about other people suffering adventure and excitement while you are cozily reading.

3. A certain scene with a gun.

4. Characters with real faith and real doubts.

5. So far the main characters complement each other very well: they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. This is a big relief from certain other popular books where there's been a huge imbalance of power. And it looks from a distance like they might be just friends instead of a romantic pairing. I love reading about good friendships and people who don't need to fill up silence with words, because they're comfortable with each other.

6. I have a reasonable guess about who the bad guy is and can still happily assume I'm wrong, because I was so wrong in the first book. Whether my guess is right or wrong, either way it's a surprise.

7. The cover is a beautiful shade of reddish orange at the right angle. I don't think I quite got it in my photo.