Sunday, 22 July 2012

Author: Cate Rowan
Release Date: August 2010
Price: $3.94

This is an unlikely tale of love. Our hero, Kuramos, is Sultan of Kad, father of three children, and husband of six women. Our heroine, Varene, is a royal healer from Teganne, where they don't practice polygynous marriages (yes, polygynous, the people Kad aren't wild about a 'multiple husbands' scenario). She is brought to Kad after a mysterious illness strikes the people closest to the Sultan—his wives and children—as well as certain other members of the royal household. With his own physician dead of an unrelated accident, Kuramos must turn to his enemies, requesting that Teganne send their own healer to aid him. Soon Varene and Kuramos find themselves intensely attracted to each other, but both are struggling with the vast cultural and social differences that separate them and challenge their ideas of what true love should look like.

This is another story that I began as a free read on my kindle, and purchased after reading the first 10%. The price is a bit higher than the other tales I have reviewed so far (in fact, at $4.00 it is close to what I pay for my beloved Terry Pratchett books when they are on sale) but I think it is worth the cost. This romance was unique and surprising. The story is told in the third person, typically from Varene's or Kuramos's point of view. At first, while in Varene's point of view, I bristled a bit at her sense of superiority over Kuramos's culture. I feared that this book might simply endorse old colonial stereotypes. But I was pleasantly surprised. Those colonial views were Varene's, not the authors, and they slowly changed over the course of the book. The book neither endorses nor outright condemns polygyny, though over the course of the book the general sense is that a monogamous relationship is preferred. However, Rowan explores the vast cultural web of her fictional country of Kad, creating a society in which the reader can see the logic of accepting multiple wives, even if this is not endorsed as a positive arrangement. Rowan demonstrates that things are rarely black and white.

There are, however, several things that bothered me about this book. The first is very minor. All the characters in this tale are hundreds of years old. Kuramos, for example, is over 200. But there doesn't seem to be any real point to this longevity. It doesn't serve any function in the story, leaving me wondering needlessly about it for far to long, only to realize that this aspect of the fantasy world Rowan has created is essentially inert in the story. I say this is minor because Rowan has written other tales in the same universe, and in those tales it may well be that this longevity serves a purpose. If not, it seems to be difference for difference's sake, which I found mildly annoying. It was as though the author was whispering in my ear 'see, this is a fictional world' every time someone's age was mentioned.

The second thing that bothered me was more substantial, and more problematic to blog about; the ending. I don't want to give the ending away, since I found this to be an entertaining read and I don't want to spoil it for others, but I must express some of my dissatisfaction here. The main plot arc of the mysterious illness striking members of the sultan's family mostly wraps up surprisingly early in this tale. Basically, that plot arc is all but finished by the time you are a little more than half-way through the book. As I looked at my Kindle's indicator and realized that I was almost 60% of the way through, and the mystery was mostly solved, I was puzzled. What was the rest of this book going to be about? Just the romance?

Basically, yes. Not that there wasn't a lot to explore in the romance. There was cultural differences, scars from previous relationships, and six wives to deal with. That's a lot. But I felt a bit cheated. Romance novels without story-lines just seem a bit boring to me. I was losing interest as I flipped through the pages. Near the end, there are some surprise plot twists, but they felt to me as though they came right out of the blue. There was little foreshadowing of these events, and I began to feel as though these was less of a coherent story than an attempt to rekindle my interest late in the game with some stuff pulled out of thin air. I think the mystery could have been handled in a more suspenseful way than it was, and I got the impression that the story was somewhat sacrificed to the romance.

Finally, the conclusion of the romance story arch also left me feeling a bit dissatisfied. I wanted another chapter or two illustrating how things would play out. And I'm not entirely convinced that I buy everyone's motivations and decisions. We are dealing with eight people in this relationship, effectively: Varene, Kuramos, and the six wives. I don't feel that I got to know all the characters well enough to accept their decisions (and with one in particular, I don't buy the decision at all as fitting with the character I came to know).

However, Kuramos was a strong, sexy and appealing male lead. Varene was an enjoyable and sympathetic female lead, and the surprise of having a romance in this unique situation kept me reading. I'm impressed with the angle, and with how effective it was.

Friday, 6 July 2012

Distributor: Nickelodeon
Dates Aired: 2005-2008

This was, I think, a brilliant children's TV show. But you may not know how brilliant it is. There are probably two reasons for this: First, unfortunately for the show James Cameron decided to make a move entitled “Avatar” in 2009 which effectively wreaked havoc with any google-search attempt to find the TV show. Now, anyone trying to find the TV show has to know the full title (including the sub-title after the colon) in order to get what they are looking for. Second, and arguably more damning, is the live-action film adaptation of the TV show that came out in 2010 under the title The Last Airbender. This film really did not do the story justice. If your first exposure to the characters, world, and storyline of Avatar came from this film, then no one would blame you for failing to be curious about the TV show.

But really, you should encourage your kids to see this show. Hell, even if you don't have kids, you should check out this show. Let me tell you why:

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a world where there are magic wielders known as 'benders'. These benders can control, or bend, one of the four elements: earth, water, fire or air. Each of these elements also represents a group of people, the Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, Fire Nation and Air Nomads. However, the Avatar (of which there is only one in every generation) can bend all four elements, and also has mystical connections to the spirit realm. The fantasy world is heavily influenced by Eastern religious and philosophical practices, and even the motions carried out by benders were modeled on different styles of martial arts. A lot of thought, care and planning went into creating this world. Each of the four groups of people has unique clothing, hair styles, food preferences, and bending styles, leading to a real sense that we are dealing with four different cultures here. In addition, the religious beliefs and the mythology surrounding the Avatar are well crafted and explained. This is a surprisingly rich fantasy world to find in a children's TV show.

The story centers on Aang, who you may have guessed from the title is the 'last airbender'. The Fire Nation, we are told, started a war against the other nations over a hundred years ago. Their first act of war was to wipe out the Air Nomads because they knew the Avatar was among them (and he is obviously their biggest threat to victory). However, Aang was not captured and instead wound up at the South Pole frozen in a block of ice for a hundred years, only to be discovered by Water Tribe brother and sister, Sokka and Katara. From here, these three children set out to teach Aang how to wield the awesome power and control the daunting responsibility of being the Avatar, while also seeking a way to stop the Fire Nation's slow rise towards world domination.

We see Aang as a twelve-year-old boy who wants to be reckless and have fun, but doesn't want to shoulder the responsibility he has inherited by virtue of his birth. He struggles against his calling, even running away at times. He is not simply a 'little adult' but really is a child asked to take on more than he thinks he can manage. Because he is twelve, Katara is fourteen, and Sokka is only fifteen, this show begins as a bit of an irritant for an adult audience. I won't lie, I found some of Sokka's jokes to be extremely lame and annoying, and at times I was irritated with the children for acting so irresponsibility. I may have even literally yelled at the screen a few times during episodes where the kids are off having fun and playing games. I think I said something to the effect of:

Hello, guys? There's a WAR going on, remember? How is eating iced mango fruit juice, or going to see a play going to help here? Come on! Focus!”

But, they are children. The show is written for children. And, oddly, throughout the show's three seasons, I came to know and like them all, even Sokka.

The relationship between Sokka and Katara reminded me of my own relationship with my brother. We might poke fun at each other, call each other names, and find ways to gross each other out, but at bottom we love each other. (I know, that's not something siblings are supposed to admit, so if you're reading, Kiddo, just skim over this sentence and pretend I didn't say it!) That same sibling rivalry is found here. Sokka teases Katara mercilessly, raising her to anger as no one else in the ever-expanding group of supporting cast can, but it is always shown that he cares about her, and that she cares about him too. The main characters are real, believable and fully three-dimensional, a rare thing in a children's cartoon show.

Don't get me wrong, I love the Power Puff Girls, Danny Phantom and The Fairly Odd Parents, but there isn't a lot of depth there! Even shows like Teen Titan which show more depth and character development often slide into the easy way to deliver depth: angst-filled depression where every character has this horrible back-story that they must overcome. Sure, it brings depth. But at the cost of copious amounts of black eye-liner.

In fact, surprisingly, all the characters in Avatar are believable, including the enemy. (Unlike, say, Aku from Samurai Jack. What exactly is his motivation other than evil=fun? Not saying I didn't enjoy Samurai Jack, its just refreshing to see an 'evil' character that isn't one-dimensional. Actually, scratch that. Aku makes a valid point; evil is fun.)

Zuko, exiled prince of the fire nation, set with the task of capturing Aang in order to regain his honor, starts the series as a typical 'bad guy'. He's brooding, angry, inflammatory (get it, fire-nation prince? Groan.), and doggedly pursuing Aang with a vengeance. However, over time we begin to see why Zuko is like this. We also learn, especially in the third season, that the members of the Fire Nation are humans. They are not just plain evil for the sake of being evil. In addition, we learn early on that members of the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes have their flaws. The message is clear. No one is a stereotype. Every culture houses both good and bad people, and every person has their virtues and their faults. This is a pretty sophisticated idea. In fact, I know a fair number of adults who haven't grasped this. (What, enemies are people too?!)

Finally, and perhaps most surprisingly, this show does not treat children like idiots. Often children's shows are so simplistic that you know how the plot will end shortly after the opening credits roll. And your kids know it too. Because, lets face it, kids aren't idiots. Nope, kids are probably the ones teaching most of us how to use the bewildering technology in our homes, like a tiny army of domestic IT specialists. This show respects that fact and kept the surprises coming. Not all the plot-twists were surprising, but enough came out of the blue to keep me guessing.

So I recommend Avatar: The Last Airbender for exhibiting careful world-building with attention to detail, for having deep and realistic character development and for encouraging all its viewers to think instead of just being spoon-fed. Great little gem of a show.

Besides, you have to get caught up on the back-story, because Nickelodeon has just aired the sequel The Legend of Korra this year! It wrapped on June 23rd with a 2-hour season finale. And once you've realized how awesome Avatar is, get ready to squeal like a Power Puff Girl because the sequel is set in a steampunk world. Squee!!!