Review — The Boys

It’s been a long time since I’ve reviewed anything (one nonfiction book, a convention?, and a podcast are all that I’ve done in the last year), and it’s been especially long since I’ve done any piece of media. Wait. I still haven’t done a review of Yesterday? Putting that on my to-do list so I don’t keep forgetting. Anyway, I recently watched Season One of The Boys, which was different in a lot of ways. Two things to note here: I won’t throw in any spoiler-related commentary until the end, which will be obvious. The second thing is that it really deserves its R (X?) rating, as there is lots of swearing, gore, and sex. This review itself won’t be too graphic, though, so if you’re just interested in my thoughts, you’re good to go.

Now, I don’t really watch TV shows. As a rule, they are very time consuming and require your full attention, so as a rule of me enjoying efficiency and multitasking, I tend to spend my free time elsewhere. I was interested in The Boys though, because its premise was very similar to one of my favorite book series The Reckoners, written by Brandon Sanderson. (You can read my review on the first book here). To sum up both plots, the premise is that superheroes are evil and exploiting the world to suit their wants and needs (mostly wants), and the main characters are a group of normal people teaming up to take them down. In The Boys, this takes the form of “the superheroes are all apart of a super big corporation that only cares about making money, so superheroes are the posterchildren for printing fat stacks.

So, ups and downs of the first season? Well, I’ll start with the bad news, which is that exactly one character in the entire show has any likability (if you really need a hint, it’s Starlight), and everyone else is either evil and self-righteous, or consumed with revenge. (Okay, I do also like Mother’s Milk and Queen Maeve, but I’m not exactly rooting for either of them to succeed). Since I didn’t like any of the characters, basically anything anyone did disappointed me. “Oh, no, what have you done…? Oh no, not you, too… Really? Was that necessary?” And so on. Nothing that happened was satisfying, it was just… interesting enough to keep me going. Side note: I think the casting on this show is amazing, it’s the characters themselves that make me wince.

The show would be a lot better if Hughie, the main character, is likable. But he just isn’t. When his girlfriend is killed at the beginning of the first episode (the inciting incident, it’s in the trailers), he gets wrapped up in everything in order to get revenge. When he’s faced with some difficult decisions, he makes interesting choices for sure, but he is never painted in a light that makes him relatable. Maybe that’s subjective, but I had a hard time agreeing with any of the decisions he ultimately made. (I’ll also say that he often operates in a moral grey. When he did the ‘right thing’, sometimes I shook my head in confusion, but when he did the ‘wrong thing’, it felt out of character. His personality can be confusing sometimes.)

That said, the story was interesting, and expressed compelling social arguments, which I love. And all of those things were introduced in a very believable way. This doesn’t happen in the show, but if I’m running for president and I get the opportunity to set my opponent’s house on fire with the guarantee I will never be found out, why wouldn’t I do that? A lot of the stuff the character actions in the show fits that mentality. It also has some really good humor, like when Butcher is talking about the Spice Girls, and when the conversation ends the scene cuts to “elsewhere” and The Spice Girls is playing.

If you had asked me if I was enjoying the series after any episode, I would shrugged. It definitely wasn’t a ‘no’, as I continued watching it, but I often felt too uncomfortable with what was happening to really say I liked it. The season finale though, is really good. I love how all the pieces were put in place for the second season, because it gave me hope that I can finally start cheering some of the characters on.

Alright. Spoiler Free section is over. Now for the episode commentary.

I have three big issues with the first season. The first is the most glaring issue of the fact that Compound V is so secret and so hard to get, but later we find out basically anyone with money knows about it. I simply cannot believe that it could be so well hidden if simple folk like Starlight’s mom know the full “truth” of what is going on. That’s a simple fix, too. Tell people you can make their child a superhero as long as they grant custody for a few weeks and sign a waiver saying the kid might die in the process. The parents are provided no details on how they are superfied. Done.

Second issue is also based in my suspension of disbelief. There is no way in a million years that Vought would have The Deep “out” himself after what Starlight said at the convention. I believe it is conceivable that the public wouldn’t settle down, but basically throwing away one of the Seven to save some PR is ridiculous. What they probably would have done was hire some random guy to confess publicly, hand him ten million dollars, then shove him off to Antarctica in case anyone wants to crucify him for something he didn’t actually do. There would definitely be people lining up to take the fall if there was enough incentive. It seems especially weird that they ship him off since they don’t make any moves to replace Translucent or The Deep after they’re both gone. Why did Lamplighter need to be replaced if the other two weren’t important enough for it? I get that he publicly retired (which I just know will be revealed not to be the case), but it still seems weird that The Seven is now The Five and Vought is doing basically nothing to acknowledge that.

My last problem is that I hate how Butcher shot Starlight at the end of Episode 7. It does nothing except frustrate the viewer. It didn’t even advance the plot! Butcher might have assumed she was luring Hughie into a trap, but the fact that Hughie runs after she is shot makes it really hard for me to believe that she could ever see any good in him, especially with how that conversation ended. “Hey, you made my job even more of a nightmare than it already was, lied to me about being a nice person, ruined my whole perception of reality, then had your friend shoot me so you could run off without redeeming yourself? Uh, no, I don’t think I’m going to be seeing you again, sorry.” But also, if they wanted to go that route, it stands to reason that she should become an enemy of the Boys at least for a while. Instead, Hughie redeems himself in thirty-minutes as far as the audience is concerned.

As far as the final episode goes, though, I thought it was fantastic. Homelander really pulled a curveball on me in the situation with Butcher, and the reveal that Butcher’s wife is still alive (and has a son) wasn’t really surprising, but it was compelling, and made me very interested to see how that interaction plays out. I’m also really glad that Starlight finally joined the “good” side, and now that all the main characters are playing for the same team, I feel like I can finally root for them. Mostly Starlight though because everyone else sucks.

P.S. I don’t want to know more about Black Noir. I loved scenes like where he stole the piano from that guy with just a look.

Me — WorldCon 76

I spent this past weekend in San Fransisco attending the 76th WorldCon. I would call this the third convention I’ve ever attended, the first two I’ve experienced being BlizzCon (to which I’ve been several times), and Anime Expo (to which I’ve been twice). To my knowledge, there are two “types” of conventions, one for seeing events and people, and another for meeting people and making connections.

I’ll be honest, I only attended WorldCon for one day, so my experience is obviously very limited. So much so that I don’t even know exactly what I may have missed. I will say though, the panels I went to were pretty interesting and I learned quite a bit in some of them. It’s a very casual atmosphere—panelists talk about stuff for about an hour, then audience members ask questions, and then afterwards you can generally go up to the panelists and talk to them individually if you really want to.

On one of the panels I was at, Brandon Sanderson made a surprise appearance, which was cool. (Later in the day there was an insanely long line to a panel we wanted to see, and found out that it was because he was explicitly listed as a panelist, so that’s why.) Funny enough, the panel we saw him on—a discussion about medieval wounds and injuries—he had almost no useful information to share. The other panelists were surgeons and doctors who were experienced in the field, and Brandon was just “the writer” among them, so instead he just became the guy that asked the questions.

The Con was honestly much, much smaller than I had anticipated. For a world famous international writer’s convention I expected everybody and their grandmother to be there. Instead, it was a few dozen small-ish rooms that seated about a hundred people each, with hour-long lectures going on in each room throughout the day for 5 days. I don’t know if that sounds boring to you, but I for one wish I could have attended so many more panels.

The main downfall of my entire trip there was that distance and time was a huge deterrent. Living in Southern California means that driving up to San Fransisco would take about 8 hours (if you’re being conservative), and my travel buddy and I both lead pretty busy lives. I took the day off work Friday, and she and I drove up then, went to WorldCon Saturday (which was about an hour away from the convenient place we were staying) and then drove back Sunday, because we needed to be home for Monday. Overall a pretty expensive trip for only a day of experience, but I don’t regret it. Sometimes it’s nice to just leave for a while.

So, would I recommend WorldCon? Depends, but I think there are only two types of people that would really enjoy it: Writers who are interested in learning new things (probably from people in the field they so respect) or readers that want to meet their favorite authors and hear stories about the worlds they’ve created. I’d imagine there are a few people that fall through the cracks of those categories, but if I saw any of them there this weekend, they slipped past me.

Also, from my experience of this weekend, I realized that aspiring writers tend to have a “look”. I can’t really describe it, but the crowd here was very distinct from say, Anime Expo, or BlizzCon, or even just public crowds wherever.

Me — “Who is your Mary Sue?”

You probably hear all the time about how budding writers fall into the trap of writing a Mary Sue as the main character of their story, or at least some prevalent character. If you haven’t heard that, maybe you’re accidentally doing it.

For those of you that don’t know, a Mary Sue is basically a character that is perfect in every way. They have no flaws to speak of, they’re super attractive, smart, talented, you know, everything.  They follow the “Rule of Cool” to its extreme, forgetting realism and ending up with a boring character. Good characters have flaws they have to face, after all, so a character without flaws is generally pretty boring.

But it got me thinking: We must all have a Mary Sue floating around in our head somewhere, right? Even if we’re cognizant of the fact that we can’t put an amazing being of perfection in our story and retain a compelling tale, we still like to fantasize about those perfect characters, right? (I actually don’t know if everyone does this, but I certainly do, so bear with me.)

I then came up with a thought experiment for myself. If I could make a character, or even several characters, without worrying about anything, what characters would I make? If I didn’t have to worry about making the characters too powerful, too cliche, too edgy, too anything, what would those characters look like?

Well, stay tuned for that, because I’m still working on their abilities and personalities. As you could probably expect from an epic fantasy writer such as myself, they’re all fantasy-based people with demi-god level power. Something interesting that I’ve noticed, though, is that I’m instinctively considering backstory and flaws. It’s difficult to curb that instinct, because giving somebody the title “The Corrupted Flame” implies backstory, but I am intentionally avoiding giving them flaws and backstories unless that is part of the “Mary Sue” I attach to them. It defeats the whole point to give characters flaws to make them more well-rounded, because the whole exercise is imagining these people in their most awesome form.

I’m struggling a bit because I have about 4 different archetypes of “Mary Sue”, but they come in slightly different species. One of them is the archetypal paladin, white armor with gold accents, harnessing the power of the Light to strike down his foes and defend his realm. Another is a vengeful angel sent down to incur the wrath of her god. These Mary Sues, I’ve found, are actually the same character, just different flavors.

It’s a strange balance to strike—imagining the identities of these characters without thinking too hard about it. After all, it should be intuitive. What is the coolest thing you can imagine?

And then, I realized something. What if fantasy book series are just about your protagonist’s journey to earning their “Mary Sue” status? I mean, think about how powerful characters like Rand Al’Thor from The Wheel of Time, Tavi from Codex Alera, or Kaladin from The Stormlight Archive get the more you read. If a character arc is about overcoming their flaws, they are, by necessity, becoming more perfect. So I bet you could pretty easily begin a book series with the end “Mary Sue” in mind, making the perfect hero, and then working backwards and imagining how your protagonist gets from Point A to Point Z.

Life — The Three ‘Me’s

I measure a lot of my success based on the progress I’ve tracked for myself, and how much further I am from my goal. I have endpoints for three distinct things I want to achieve in life, and those endpoints are actually people. Figures whom I admire for very distinct and different reasons, but all who have become something that I want to match (or surpass) in the coming decades. Now, I’ve talked about all of these people before, so I’ll include links to previous posts where I talk about each more singularly.

The first person is probably the most obvious and the most distant goal, and that is Brandon Sanderson. Now, obviously he has achieved things in the sci-fi and fantasy world that is extremely impressive. Having such a name for himself and working on multiple highly anticipated book series is nothing to sneeze at, but the reason he’s one of my endpoints is that he has such a knack for worldbuilding and putting giant concepts into edible chunks. I doubt he’ll ever be as famous as J.K. Rowling because his world is so expansive, but success isn’t necessarily measured by a paycheck. I’m the furthest away from achieving anything he did because he’s so far out of my league professionally, but his ability to constantly write new and diverse worlds never ceases to amaze me. Brandon Sanderson is therefore my aspired “Professional” identity.

My aspired “Hobby” identity is Matt Mercer. Him being an endpoint represents everything I want to achieve in my free time. Not only is he an amazing dungeon master for D&D, but he is also an incredible voice actor. His status as one of my endpoints is a little more ephemeral, because I also attribute this to my career as an improvisational actor and teacher. I don’t really care about doing anything with my abilities as a voice actor, improv actor, or dungeon master, but these are all nonetheless a part of my life, and I want to be able to be awesome at each in my own right. In this sense, I don’t think I can ever achieve this endpoint by virtue of the fact that he does those things as a professional and not as a hobbyist, but they are aspirations of mine all the same.

Lastly, and this may or may not be the most accessible goal, is my “Social” identity, whom I attribute to Sean “Day9” Plott. He is a streamer that plays games like HearthstoneDota 2, and made his name for himself by talking about Starcraft. The reason he’s on this list is because I think his most admirable quality is his personality. When you’re watching him play, (and I think this is pretty rare for streamers), the focus of the content is not on the game, but on him and his reactions to it. He’s built a community with the people that watch his stream, and is very engaging with his viewers. Not only that, but he also loves to tell stories and give advice. Day9 is an extremely charismatic person, watching him would be enjoyable even if I had absolutely no interest in the game he was playing in. While I have no intentions to have any sort of ‘online personality’ (outside perhaps this blog), I want people to have that sentiment towards me, as well. I want to draw in people based on my social character, not my accomplishments or anything like that. This endpoint is the hardest to gauge because, while all it takes is a change in character, that’s by no means easy. In fact, it’s pretty contradictory to the way I’ve lived my life up until recently. I’m taking steps, but it’s difficult to say how far the path leads, and I doubt I’m on the most direct one there.

I think a lot of people might interpret this information and incorrectly conclude that I’m not happy with where I am. On the contrary, I think I’m doing okay. But I think it’s healthy for us as people to have goals, both short term and long term. And it’s okay to have goals you will probably never achieve, because you’ll still get somewhere by trying. I would be lying if I said I expected to actually accomplish any of these endpoints (except maybe one). But that’s not really the point. All of these are markers to help me find the path I want to take, and while I might not get where I’m going, I’ll probably be content with wherever I end up.

Review — Mistborn Era 1

The book series that Brandon Sanderson is most well known for (save, perhaps, the Stormlight Archive), in addition to being one of the few works he’s published that I haven’t talked about, I figured that this is a good a time as any to state my thoughts on it. I’ll reserve my thoughts on the other books in the Mistborn series for a later date, though, as the Wax and Wayne (Era 2) isn’t quite finished as of writing this. This post will be with minimal spoilers, because I would really encourage you to read them if you haven’t already.

Overall, I think it goes without saying that there’s a good reason this trilogy is so popular. I would personally tie it to one distinct feature of the trilogy, but let’s save that for later. There’s a lot that is great about these books. One of my favorite things is the magic system. There are a few people in this world that can ingest certain metals and harness their powers. Somebody that can use tin can “burn it” to enhance their senses like hearing and sight. Somebody that burns steel can push metal objects away from them, and by contrast somebody that burns iron can pull metal objects towards them. If you have this ability, you can only burn one type of metal, unless you’re one of the lucky special ones. A mistborn can burn all types of metals.

This trilogy is sort of a dystopian fantasy, because everybody is living under the ruthless tyranny of the Lord Ruler, who is a god-king of this society. The skies constantly rain ash during the day, and at night mist shrouds the land. The main characters are the most subjugated race of people in this world, and a brave few have plans to change things.

So, the best thing about this series is that it is full of plot twists. But these twists aren’t really “surprise, I’m your sibling!” like Star Wars or anything like that. Rather, as the series progresses, your entire understanding of the world and how it works is constantly growing and evolving. Every book in the first Era made me think “Wait, what?!“at some point, because questions are answered in ways that are impossible to predict the first time you read it. That isn’t to say that things aren’t foreshadowed, because they are, but rather the conclusions that you jump to about the situations are rarely accurate.

This series is part of Sanderson’s Cosmere, which is his big universe that has a bunch of books that take place on different worlds that will all, eventually, connect. But all of his books are standalone works, as well, and while the scope of the size of the Mistborn universe gets larger with every progressive books, it expands naturally. It’s also a great introduction to the Cosmere as a whole.

My biggest qualm with this series is the second book. I personally hate romantic subplots because they’re always so contrived and annoying. To often they’re thrown in because it is either expected to be there or to get more people interested in the book. I don’t really know what it is, but it happens a lot. The Well of Ascension does this a lot, which is really annoying. There is too much “I don’t know what [my partner] sees in me, I’m worthless” on both ends of the romantic subplot, and it does nothing but anger me. Provide more character depth? I suppose, but there are better ways of doing that than putting chapters of insecure whining.

All that said, this book series is great. The first book of the second era, The Alloy of Law, is arguably one of my favorite books of all time, but the second era spoils the first era, so while you can skip it, obviously there would be a ton of spoilers if you backtracked, which kind of ruins the strongest point of the series as a whole.

Given that this book series aren’t the thick door stoppers that the Stormlight Archive books are, this would probably be my first series to recommend to somebody that wants to read some Sanderson fantasy. (I might also recommend Steelheart, but it’s not part of the Cosmere and is more sci-fi than fantasy.)

Review — Alcatraz vs. the Evil Librarians

The last set of larger fiction works by Brandon Sanderson that I had yet to read, this one is a middle grade fantasy series about a boy who finds out our world is run by a cult of evil librarians, and its up to him to save it. He, like many people in his family, has a talent. His is the ability to break things. Doesn’t sound like a talent, I know, but as you read it comes in handy on more than one occasion.

As Sanderson wrote this, he set out to break many rules of writing, like breaking the fourth wall, skipping back and forth between chapters, explicitly lying to the reader, etc. It’s a very odd series because of that: it isn’t a simple book series written for kids. It’s pretty funny to come across pages of screaming with no context simply to be ridiculous.

I realize how off-putting that may sound, but I would say its actually the best thing about the series in general. You can’t read this as you would normal books, and while it is targeted towards younger readers, it of course has jokes that they wouldn’t get. It also has a real, cohesive universe with a compelling plot and, as per Sanderson usual, a magic system.

The way I would characterize the writing of this series, and coincidentally the thing that I liked the least about it, is that the narration (not necessarily what’s happening in the actual story), is ludicrously silly. It does things (like pages of screaming) just to be funny, and its things like this that prove it was written for kids: its simply on a lower level than I would have liked to read it on. That said, I know a few kids that would love this series because of that, so its not really a bad thing.

The best thing about this series, for me personally, was the entirety of the last book. It’s all fun and games for pretty much the first three, but when bad things actually start to happen, Sanderson proves that he doesn’t “talk down to” his readers by adding a far more serious and darker last book. It’s nothing like the transition of the first and last Harry Potter novels, because as I said this series is characterized by silliness. It’s simply to say that while the narration and characters are silly, the plot and situation they find themselves in most certainly is not. As a spoiler I will most certainly not detail, the last book also had a couple twists that caught me way off guard, so I particularly enjoyed that, as well.

All-in-all, it’s a very well written series, as is always the case with Brandon Sanderson. It’s definitely not the first book I would recommend to anyone unfamiliar with his works, unless they were younger than thirteen. I think this is the perfect series for somebody in that age range that loves to read, primarily because it stands so far apart from everything else on the shelf. And even if I didn’t love this series, I still can’t wait for the next book (which isn’t really part of the original series).

Review — The Rithmatist

Finally jumping back into consistently listening to audiobooks, second on my list of things to catch up on was Brandon Sanderson’s The Rithmatist. If you know anything about the author, you’ll know that he loves inventing magic systems. This book is no different, but instead of taking place in his universe of the Cosmere, this one is a stand alone, alternate (steampunk) universe of our own. I would hesitate to call it an alternate history novel, because really the world is so different that it didn’t diverge at one point so much as being set on a planet similar in geography to earth. It’s a short book, at least as far as Sanderson novels go. It also doesn’t have a sequel, and to my knowledge the next one barely even has a title. It’s scheduled to release in 2017, but I see very little chance of that happening. I have no idea how many books he plans on putting into this series, but if its like any of his other series, it’ll be at least a decade before he finishes a third book.

In this book, the magic is chalk drawings. It’s easiest to imagine them as “summoning circles”, i.e. pentagrams or what have you, but that’s not their purpose. You draw a circle around you, and, if you’re fighting another rithmatist, you attack the opponent’s circle using chalk monsters called “chalklings”. Very few people in this world are rithmatists, in fact, and that culture seems to be very secretive and exclusive to non-rithmatists. Joel, the main character, is a normal student that loves the study of rithmatics, but isn’t a rithmatist himself. This, as you can probably guess, leads to some interesting conversations as he all but tries to be somebody he knows he can’t.

In regards to Brandon Sanderson’s works specifically, there isn’t really anything special about this book. The strangest thing about it is that it’s set in an alternate universe to our own, but the plot, characters, magic, etc., are all pretty typical of his work. that isn’t to say it’s not a good book, it simply didn’t have any awesome, inspiring, or impactful moments that I look for. (I’ve blogged about moments like this!) It doesn’t really have any huge plot twists, and the ending isn’t surprising. Not predictable, exactly, but not surprising either.

The interesting thing is, while this book didn’t knock my metaphorical socks off, I definitely want to read the next book. Pieces fell into place that I want to see to fruition, and the ending left me with questions I want answers to. Again, no huge plot twist (like the ending to every Mistborn book ever, the scale of which always makes me question my understanding of that entire world), but still. I like these characters, and if their personalities aren’t unique, their position and relationships to each other is something I want to see expanded on. Joel reminds me a lot of Tavi from The Codex Alera, since they have a lot of similarities, and I’d be interested to see if his story ends the same way Codex Alera does.

So while this definitely isn’t the first Brandon Sanderson novel I would recommend to somebody, it’s a strong book in its own right, and provides a good taste for Sanderson’s style without throwing somebody into the full force of the Cosmere.