I had an awesome streak of reading excellent books and seeing pretty good films for a couple months.  Which is, in part, why the last few weeks have been pretty disappointing in these same departments.  Each of the following are things I had high hopes for but didn’t end up feeling very satisfied with, written up pretty briefly and without major plot spoilers.

Among Others – Jo Walton

This book has won or been nominated for a ton of major fantasy and science fiction awards, and I’ve seen a lot of glowing reviews online.  I went in pretty much blind, assuming by the hype that it would be, at least, something I’d feel I should have read.  After finishing it, however, I have to say I’m pretty unimpressed and found it mostly forgettable and mediocre.

Among Others is told from the first-person, diary-style point-of-view of Morwenna (Mor), a Welsh teenager who sees fairies and is convinced in the reality of magic.   Mor also happens to be disabled, which seems to be a thing in YA lit recently (I don’t have anything insightful to add on this, but I’m sure it is  worth thinking about).  The novel uses the frame of the boarding house story and focuses on typical teenage themes, albeit in the framework of a world with hidden magic going on (from the protagonist’s p.o.v. anyway).

All of this is fine and good, but the book suffers from weak characterization (lots of teen fiction stereotypical characters here, and Mor’s relationships, especially with her twin sister, just don’t do much to make me care about them), a relatively mundane story, and a lack of magic.  It doesn’t do much that other books focusing on real teen girl issues haven’t covered already in better fashion.  And it’s not really a fantasy book so much as a typical teenage drama with some magical realist elements that may or may not symptomatic of the protagonist’s mental illness.  Actually, if the book had gone fully in the direction of the magic-as-mental-illness, I think it would be pretty innovative and interesting.  But it stays at a mundane level that will probably appeal mainly to a very specific target audience (though one that is under-represented in science fiction and fantasy): young women who read genre fiction.

So why is everyone falling over themselves praising this book?  It’s probably because it is an insider’s book chock-full of references to science fiction and fantasy, and the bulk of the reviews I’m thinking of were written by insider-types (who also decide on awards nominations, btw).  I’m betting Walton spent more time writing in and developing the references to Le Guin, Vonnegut, Delany, Tolkien, and the like than working through the relationships the story ought to be focused on.  As someone who is sort of an insider, I found the constant, overt discussion  of genre fiction occasionally clever and insightful, but mostly distracting, and I bet it will be off-putting to the more casual reader of SF/fantasy. Because of this, there are very few people I would recommend this book to (those who I would probably already picked it up because, well, they are insider-types).

Railsea – China Mieville

Mieville is, along with Paolo Bacigalupi, one of my current favorite authors of science fiction, and I really wanted this Moby Dick-inspired YA book to be awesome like most of his other work.  Unfortunately, it’s not.  I’m not sure if the author was hamstrung by writing for a YA audience (Mieville’s work often uses pretty heady philosophical themes), or if he was concurrently working on his fantastic Embassytown and that led to this being neglected/rushed, but the story here is clunky and just plain doesn’t work very well.

Which is too bad because the story’s world is amazing and has a lot of promise (and I’d love to see this world adapted to film).    The concept of a future, sort-of post-apocalyptic earth wrapped with railroad lines that provide passage across dusty wastelands, which are inhabited by dangerous giant rodents and insects, is great, and the development of the “molers” in the manner of whalers was pretty cool and innovative.  I do hope Mieville returns to this setting with a better effort in the future (like what Bacigalupi did in going from Shipbreaker to The Drowned Cities).  However, this novel is bogged down by over-writing (should have been about 70 pages shorter) and an intrusive narrative voice from a dated postmodernist trend that should have been put down in the eighties (maybe this will be clever and new to some of the target YA audience, but I thought it passe and unnecessary).

Batman: Year One (film)

This is one of those cases where a too-faithful adaptation of great source material proves to be a flaw.  I certainly don’t envy those who have to decide how to alter or add to a book as beloved and seminal as Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One, and I get not altering something that is so damn good to begin with as a principle, but what is the point of this even existing if it is pretty much identical to the comic?  Sure, there are some minor shifts, and animation and comics are two different things, but my overall takeaway was: Why didn’t I just read the book again?

I’m not sure what I expected from it, and it isn’t bad by any stretch, so maybe I’m not being fair.  It does, however, seem like merely a way to cash in on the current popularity of Bat-stuff, and there is this niggling thing where I can see people not reading the comic and watching this instead (I’ve taught the comic and know this would be the case in my class, as if reading a comic is too much work).

John Carter (the poorly-titled film)

There are parts of this film that are utterly awesome.  The CGI Tharks, Woola, and the battle scenes are testament to how far computer animation has come (watch this then watch the arena scene from Attack of the Clones and laugh at the latter).  And I’m also not some Burroughs super-fan who is upset that this isn’t precisely A Princess of Mars (I am happy they kept the basics of the frame narrative, though).  I do, however, think there are a few major changes from the book that don’t work very well: like spending time explaining the space travel mechanism and not having white apes at all (c’mon, really?), and there are obvious and stupid problems in the title not even mentioning mars and the film being PG-13 instead of R.  The main thing wrong with this movie though, and it is far better than the box office flop it turned out to be, is the main character’s casting.

While the writing is mediocre, I still would have really enjoyed this film for what it is if Taylor Kitsch wasn’t so bad as John Carter.  He has this youthful, Johnny Depp-ish thing going on that just doesn’t work for the kind of character anyone familiar with Carter expects.  And he does a pretty good job flattening the character and rendering him not very likeable.  Alternately, Lynn Collins is pretty well-cast as Dejah Thoris (I’m really glad they gave this to an actress who wasn’t a scrawny 20 year-old).

All-in-all, the film wasn’t bad, but it could have been a lot better.  As an aside, I noticed a lot of similarities to Prometheus that I certainly did not expect in this movie.

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