Monday, May 22, 2017

Current Reels: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Fights an Ego-Centric Future

Quill gets introduced to his father's "perfect" world
Marvel's fast-talking, sarcastic group of space weirdos are back to take on the greatest threat to the galaxy yet - narcissism.

James Gunn returns to the director's chair to bring together the intergalactic hellraisers once more in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2. In this roundup, viewers begin to get a sense of what makes all these characters tick.


Set to the tunes of Peter Quill's "Awesome Mix Volume 2" given to him by his mother, viewers are tossed into the action from the get-go. This time around, the Guardians are on the run from a haughty and vengeful race of aliens known as "The Sovereigns" that are hellbent on creating a perfect human being. When all seems lost, our favorite antiheroes are unexpectedly delivered from their fate by a deity named Ego, who reveals to Quill that he is his long-lost father. Thus begins a battle of the flawed versus the supposedly flawless, and the disastrous effects of focusing too heavily on the "selfie".  

What makes the Guardians so compelling is they are all works in progress; each one of them on the mend from some past trauma. These are no mere caricatures, but full-fledged beings that have their own cultures, planets, and stories to tell, which make them interesting and relatable - even if they are assholes sometimes.The double-edged sword of a sequel from a writer's standpoint is on one hand, there's no "gear up" needed since the viewers are already familiar with the characters and the universe. On the other, it is trickier to grab the audience's attention from the start without a built-in plot springboard. James Gunn and Dan Abnett (who is also the writer for the Marvel comic) elaborate on the diverse cast's hopes and fears and their relationships with one another, while leaving plenty of time for snappy comebacks and good old fashioned space shoot 'em ups. 

The continued theme running through both Vol. 1 & 2 (which you can read more in my review of the first movie here) is family is what you make of it. I was gratified to see the stories of Nebula, Gamora, and most notably, Yondu (my personal favorite) expanded upon. We learn more about Yondu's past with the Ravagers, his relationship with Quill, and his own personal demons. He goes through hell, but on the plus side, gets a serious upgrade to the most deadly of mohawks! We even get treated to a cameo of the greatest underdog of all - Sylvester Stallone, playing Stakar Ogord (basically space Rocky) who banishes Yondu for misunderstood misdeeds. A weaker script would've taken the easy route with Nebula (played by the impeccable Karen Gillan, best known as companion Amy Pond in Dr. Who)  and reduced her complexities hinted at in Vol. 1 into a cold-blooded villainess. Instead, the story explores further her relationship with her sister, the inscrutable Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and we learn of the atrocities she suffered at the hands of her father, Thanos.

Yondu, Rocket and Groot get in some dude bonding time
What makes this second serving all the more enjoyable is it never takes itself too seriously. Ego waxes philosophical on the 70s classic "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" by the one-hit wonder band Looking Glass (fun fact: this tune fueled the writing of this review). Poop and dick jokes abound. The only true weakness with this feature is certain gags that worked in Vol. 1 are stretched to the breaking point in Vol. 2, reducing what could have been big laughs to mere chuckles - for instance, the sequence of Baby Groot continuing to bring back the wrong item to Rocket and Yondu would've been just as funny with three fewer items. Drax calling the newcomer Mantis "ugly" when he really means "beautiful" got old pretty fast. And as adorable as he was, I could've done with less gratuitous use of Baby Groot.

The sets, effects, action, and makeup are all of the top-notch quality we have come to expect from Marvel blockbusters. What sets Guardians ahead of the pack is the solid storytelling around themes that we can all relate to -family, belonging, and the quest for self-love, which make for a satisfying - if on occasion, emotional -  big-screen experience.

Jackaroo sez: Despite the need for thoughtful pruning of tiresome gags, Vol. 2 succeeds in reminding us, in the words of another 70s classic, "We all need somebody to lean on."









Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hong Kong International Film Festival Spotlight: "Beast Cops" Reflects on the Human Condition


Gordon Chan, right, director of Beast Cops at HKIFF
 During the 41st annual Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) held his past April, several films were shown as part of a series called "Paradigm Shift: Post-97 Hong Kong Cinema." The late 90s were an important crossroads for filmmakers post-handover, when Britain officially transferred power of Hong Kong over to the People's Republic of China and ushered in a new era of cinema focusing on local culture and history. I was lucky enough to see Beast Cops on the big screen and speak briefly to one of its directors, Gordon Chan, who also wrote and directed Fist of Legend with Jet Li, another of my personal favorites. A thoughtful dramedy about the human condition cleverly packaged as a cop thriller took home Best Picture and Best Director (Gordon Chan and Dante Lam) in the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1999.

The disheveled trio of ordinary heroes

For someone living in Hong Kong, it was an unexpected delight to recognize many of the scenes that were filmed in my neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui (pronounced Jim-Sa-Joy) on Kowloon island. What elevates this film from a boilerplate cop drama into a thoughtful commentary about human existence is a script that combines light-hearted humor with philosophical musings about life and love, and how even the most flawed of characters can be a true hero.

"I wanted this film to be, ultimately, hopeful," said Chan after the screening, who was kind enough to answer a few burning questions of mine. "The studios wanted a comedy, but I wanted it to be more than that - a reflection on the human experience."

The story centers around Tung (Anthony Wong), a disheveled, out of shape street cop with dubious morals. He mostly cares about reeling in a paycheck and staying on the good side of gang leader Fai, known as "Big Brother." However, circumstances change when Big Brother goes on the run after a hit on a business rival goes wrong, and puts his trust in Tung to keep his territory on the up and up. To make matters worse, Tung finds himself having to show his new boss, fresh-faced Michael Cheung (Michael Wong) the ropes of the neighborhood without implicating himself. Worlds begin to collide as Cheung falls hard for Big Brother's abandoned girlfriend Yoyo (Kathy Chow), a hard-as-nails madame, and their relationship quickly becomes exclusive. Meanwhile, Pushy Pin (Patrick Tam), one of Big Brother's underlings, attempts to move up in the ranks, taking advantage of his old boss's absence.

Mr. Chan's autograph!
While the high-octane action sequences are visceral and well-timed, much of the film centers around Tung and Cheung facing the challenges of daily urban life - finding an affordable place to live (no easy task in this city), and dealing with the comings and goings of unscrupulous roommates, particularly Skinny Sam (Sam Lee), Tung's sex-addicted colleague; the travails of relationships. The cuts from one scene to the next are sudden at times, lending itself to uneven pacing, but not to such a high degree as to take away from the overall enjoyment of the storyline.

It is in the quiet moments where the story holds its true power. The desperation on the face of Tung when the married woman he has been having an affair with tells him she is going back to her old life without him, stating she doesn't love him. "But I love you," he mutters softly as she slinks back into the night, and the shadows of the evening fall around him like a curtain addressing the end of a final act.The profound sadness on Skinny Sam's face when his presumed date shows up with her husband, and he motors away with the bouquet of flowers still attached to the backseat.

The climactic, bloody brawl finale between Tung and Pushy Pin is satisfying on a raw, primal level as well as from a cinematography standpoint. Instead of the buff, young Cheung taking down the crime boss, Chan chooses to have the every-man do it because it has been his responsibility from the beginning. Tung is not superhuman - far from it - and the audience feels empathy as he psyches himself up for the confrontation in his car with the aid of alcohol and some dubious-looking pills. The fight is shot from a variety of standpoints; through broken fluorescent lights, down dingy alleyways, through the blurred vision of our unlikely hero. Knives are brandished, blood flows, and inwardly I found myself cheering for Tung as this washed up cop finds the true grit inside to put an end to this cycle of crime once and for all.

SPOILER ALERT: Chan shared with me that Tung was originally supposed to die, but he felt that would've changed the tenor of the movie completely, which I agree with. "I wanted to send a message of hope," he said. Perhaps hope not only for the characters in his story, but for the city of Hong Kong.

 

Jackaroo sez: At its essence, Beast Cops is a story of highly flawed characters that ultimately see the best potential in themselves and in one another. While the pacing is uneven at times, the film's payoff in the final scene more than makes up for any of its minor inadequacies.


 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Back From the Past: Samurai Jack Season Five Premiere Skirts the Edge of Reason

Even a beboppin' robot doesn't dull the dark edge of the new season
It has been 13 years in our time since Samurai Jack was on the air, but 50 years have passed in Jack's world.

It seems appropriate then, that our valiant time traveler should pop back to finish in detail what he began - the destruction of the (all together now) "Shapeshifting Master of Darkness" Aku. The long-touted 10-episode return of this sci-fi animated series occurred last Saturday, March 11, on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. In episode 1 of Season 5, Jack roars back onto the screen, but isn't one bit triumphant. Gone is the simple white gi and magical sword. Gone is the smoothed back bun. Here, we have a wild man on a motorbike looking like he freshly drove off the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. With a full beard and long black hair left to blow untethered in the wind, we get the sense our classically unruffled hero has finally HAD it with Aku and hacking around in the future. Phil LaMarr returns as Jack's stoical voice, and the episode opens with him saying in a strangled, breathless tone, "Gotta get back...back to the past." What was once a witty phrase for a fun theme song now sounds like a desperate mantra to maintain sanity. Even Aku as a bodily presence has vanished, and his loyal cult followers are in a veritable fervor for his great return. For now, he is merely a voice on the phone ( by Greg Baldwin, a successful recast from the original Japanese actor, Mako, who passed away in 2006). Even the wise-cracking, beboppin' robot Scaramouche, (show veteran Tom Kenny) wielding a sword that doubles as a tuning fork (!) can't dull the dark edge of this new season.

Even the comforting familiarity of "the bad old days" are gone. All is NOT as it should be.

Jack...you okay man?
Let's "back to the past" for a moment. I have loved this show ever since its debut during my college days in the early 2000s. Director Genndy Tartakovsky's influence is immediately recognizable - bright colors, sharp lines, and minimalist style. Who better to create an animated tale of a lone samurai?  While I enjoyed Tartakovsky's other ventures, such as The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory, those shows I could take or leave. Nothing about them ever stuck with me. But Samurai Jack is different. An animated tapestry; it didn't look like anything else on TV and still doesn't. But aside from its visual appeal, what always set this series apart was it's reserved and effective ability to SHOW rather than tell a story. With elegant animation and well-conceived plots that balanced heavy themes such as gender issues and self-worth with humor and whimsy, it succeeds in both style and substance. I began to realize this was no ordinary show when I watched episode 6 of Season 1, "Jack and the Warrior Woman," where (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Aku transforms himself as a woman named Ikra who offers to "help" Jack steal a jewel for a higher, positive purpose. Jack is still new at this "saving the future" thing at this point, and he knows there's something off about Ikra, but he's wooed by her shapely body and her incredible battle skills. Plus, let's face it - Jack's a pretty lonely guy. As such, when Ikra reveals herself to be Aku at the end of the episode, you can tell he is rattled pretty bad - I mean, how easy can it be to handle having romantic/sexual feelings for your greatest enemy? (Side note: this episode also is a great example of the show's incredible creative ability to come up with an endless array of background characters - that dude with scorpions on his face in the opening montage is particularly badass.)

 Although the show ran for four seasons, it vanished as suddenly as it arrived. The show's wrap-up felt peremptory. Tartakovsky mentioned in a recent interview for NPR that he was "burned out" by the studio's creative differences at the time and other projects competing for his attention, so instead of struggling onward, decided to end the show in the most graceful way he could. But it was pretty clear there was still more to tell - and the show's fan base has agreed. 

While the show has classically tested Jack's psyche, it is clear from this first episode that this encore final season is going to show us exactly what Jack has been put through mentally as a result of Aku and - hopefully - how he will intend to rise above it. Being on Adult Swim - which was just a fledgling concept in the series' heyday -  has allowed the show to go into darker territory, which by doing so realizes its full potential rather than veering onto a radically different path. Despite our time-worn hero, Samurai Jack hasn't skipped a beat - it's just finally been allowed to become the grown-up show we always knew it could be.

For a limited time, you can stream the season as it airs here. 





Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Current Reels: Everything is Awesome about The LEGO Batman Movie

The classic superteam buckle up for one wild ride!
Dictionary.com defines the word "earnest" as "serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous." No doubt The LEGO Batman Movie endeavors to be earnest in almost every aspect of geek culture.

Emmy-winner Chris McKay, who directed 2014's The LEGO Movie, is back in the driver's seat for this feature, bringing his wonderful knack for features that are both delightful for kids and kids at heart. In a little less than two hours, this film simultaneously succeeds in being a great Batman AND Lego movie as well as a parody of both. It is essentially a toast rather than a roast to the franchise. Much like the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic series reboot, it is the magical result of a bunch of creative adults who grew up in the 80s and 90s given plenty of resources and time to play with.

The amount of detail thrown into this film is astounding. Limelighting a huge swath of genres from Harry Potter to Dr. Who to Lord of the Rings, no geeky stone is left unturned. Easter Egg surprises for diehard comic fans abound for those with an eagle eye. Lighthearted digs at the Marvel Universe abound- for example, the password for the Bat Cave is "Iron Man sucks" - a character often paralleled with Batman since they are both billionaire self-made superheroes. McKay and his creative team find any number of ways to pay homage to the Batman franchise through the ages, with throwbacks aplenty to the campiness of the 60s Adam West series, which I grew up watching as a kid on Nick at Nite. Even fans of rom-coms don't escape unscathed.

Obscure Batman villains such as "The Eraser" get time to shine
One would think so much detail would lend itself to a muddled mess, but the thoughtful pacing makes all the difference. While plenty of color and light gets thrown at the viewer,  it succeeds in not being a complete barrage on the senses. Taking a queue from this film's predecessor, McKay allows the action to wind down at critical points for thoughtful reflection on important themes such as the dangerous effects of self-inflicted solitude. While the quest for and importance of family (there's even a moment in the credits where the phrase 'Friends are the Family You Choose' pops up briefly) are well-worn tropes, this film's sincerity freshens it up. The animation by Animal Logic, an Australian company based in Sydney and Los Angeles, is a glorious marriage of computer animation and live LEGO sets. Even the flames shooting out from the city and the Bat Jet have the look and feel of plastic accessory molds.

Will Arnett returns to lend his gritty, sarcasm-laden vocal talents to the famed DC superhero, making him possibly the best character voice yet since Kevin Conroy, well-known for his work on the 90s Batman: The Animated Series. Zach Galifianakis's take on The Joker makes him a sensitive psychopath, and under McKay's watchful eye we finally have a plot that meaningfully acknowledges the long-term twisted "bromance" between The Joker and Batman. Without giving away too much, The Joker ends up being the lynchpin that ultimately forces Batman/Bruce Wayne to address his deeper emotional issues rather than continuing to shut them down. In essence, all The Joker really wants is Batman to FEEL. The welcome presence of Harley Quinn as a badass supportive buddy (let's face it, this particular Joker is about as gay as one can get with a PG rating) encouraging "Mr. J" on his quest is a welcome change from the darker, often abusive relationship between the two. In truth, ALL the characters are genuinely likeable. Robin, as voiced by Michael Cera, succeeds in being the bouyant rather than boorish boy wonder; the subtle adult jokes about his given name "Dick" blissfully zooming over his head. A delightfully eclectic group featuring everyone from iPhone's "Siri" to Conan O'Brien, Eddie Izzard, and even Mariah Carey rounds out the talent admirably.

There is also a surprising amount of excellent music throughout the course of the film, from Batman beat-boxing to 80s hits such as the late great Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" as well as the surprisingly complex, soaring orchestral music Scottish composer Lorne Balfe (read more about his involvement here.)

Jackaroo sez: The warmth and heart of the clever story runs concurrent with the humor and action, rather than underneath or above it. In poking fun at itself, it may succeed in being the best Batman movie yet. Only major flaw - needs more Catwoman! 

 

 





Tuesday, January 31, 2017

New Year, New Adventures, and Hunting for the Wilderpeople

Sam Neill roughs it in New Zealand with Julian Dennison
 "The art of survival is a story that never ends."  - Christian Bale, American Hustle

 It's been awhile, friends. Many things have happened since my last update - getting married, my father having unexpected major surgery and recovery over the Christmas holidays, and the most dramatic - moving to Hong Kong. My now-husband accepted a teaching position at HK Polytechnic University in the Kowloon section of the city, and now I'm writing and editing from the other side of the world. It's amazing how the sea of life tugs you into the undertow, and things that are important  - like my writing, like this blog - get lost in the quest for survival.

But now we are officially into the Year of the Yin Fire Rooster here in Asia, which calls upon us to take "intuitive action" - precisely what writing is. My New Year resolutions are to spend more time loving and doing activities that I love, such as writing for you, my dear readers. As the lit-up Samsung sign in Hong Kong Harbor told me my second day here, "Be Fearless." Fresh starts my loves! Without further ado, enjoy my review of Hunt for the Wilderpeople - an indie feature by Majestical Pictures Limited I was lucky enough to watch on the plane ride over to Hong Kong (make the most of the journey!) that speaks to the personal themes in my life lately - survival, family, and learning what's truly important. 

What could a wise-cracking city teenager and a cantankerous old man have in common? A penchant for trouble, of course! Hip-hop loving orphan Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) doesn’t expect much when he gets sent to his latest foster home in the wilds of New Zealand (filmed entirely on location) that includes warm-hearted Bella, (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hec (Sam Neill), a disgruntled backwoodsman who'd much rather spend time with his beloved dog Zag than this chubby city slicker kid. However just as Ricky becomes accustomed to his quirky new family, tragedy prompts the authorities to send him packing. Ultimately, Hec and Ricky decide to make a run for it along with their dogs, prompting a nationwide manhunt, misunderstandings, and general hilarity.
Ricky gets down to business.

Making a movie that succeeds in being thoughtful and funny is no easy task, and yet "Wilderpeople" does it effortlessly. The overarching theme is that family is what you make of it.The lush cinematography of the New Zealand countryside are worth the watch alone, but the brilliant chemistry between Hec and Ricky is what makes "Wilderpeople" a standout. Neill has long been a favorite of mine, ever since his turn as Merlin in the 1998 miniseries, with a penetrating gaze that always looks untamed. His deadly serious demeanor coupled with Ricky's happy-go-lucky attitude makes for humor that is both biting and self-deprecating.  At one point when Ricky and Hec are hiding under some brush to escape officials scouting the woods, Ricky likens the moment to when Frodo, Sam, and the other Hobbits are hiding from the Ring Wraiths in the Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring movie - also filmed in New Zealand - a reference which of course goes straight over Hec's head.

The supporting characters hold their own - Rachel House is wonderful as Paula, the stone-cold director of the child welfare service determined to get Ricky back by any means necessary - whether with trail mix or a SWAT team. As the weeks turn into months, the strange duo find themselves increasingly relying on the kindness of strangers, many of whom are a more than a little strange themselves - such as Psycho Sam, played with brilliant abandon by Rys Darby.

(HERE THERE BE MINOR SPOILERS MATEY): Bella's death is paradoxically both perfunctory and profound. How and why she died is left to the imagination of the viewer, because what is truly important to the story is the different ways Ricky and Hec react and grieve her passing, and it is the results of those reactions that give her too brief role in the story great meaning. (HERE ENDS THE SPOILER).

Underneath the ridiculousness runs strong themes of family ties and how those bonds of love can be tested and ultimately, triumph in the face of life's challenges. Ricky learns how to rough it in nature, gaining Hec's respect, and Hec learns how to love again. Currently available on DVD and streaming.

Jackaroo sez: While lesser films would try to tack on a tidy wrap-up moral lesson for the viewers to take home, "Wilderpeople" is an organic adventure about the messiness of life, how we survive, and the people along the way that help us do so.






Sunday, October 30, 2016

Halloween Retro Reel Review: Meet Joe Black is "A Whisper of a Thrill"

Something wicked this way comes - Brad Pitt takes a turn playing Death 
Meet Joe Black, by every conventional critic wisdom, should not be a good movie. Nothing short of a sweeping epic should be three hours long, it is glacially paced, and truth be told, not a whole lot happens. It centers around the lives of people that have more money than I will ever have, and has cornball written all over it. And yet, it is hypnotic; mesmerizing - and two hours in, I found myself unable to look away. Why?

Loosely based on the 1934 (and far more light-hearted) film Death Takes a Holiday, an impossibly young Brad Pitt plays Death, who has come for William Parrish (Anthony Hopkins), a communications tycoon who is just about to turn 65. Death makes a deal with William, saying that he will let him live until his birthday if he acts as Death's guide into the world of humans. Parrish, not having much of a choice, agrees to the deal. When Death insists upon meeting his family and business associates, William is forced to come up with a code name - Joe Black. Joe slowly infiltrates himself into every area of William's life - including his daughter Susan (Claire Forlani).

What comes next is a great deal of meaningful glances, gorgeous cinematography, and some seriously awkward moments. Pitt does an admirable job acting like someone who is not used to being in a human body. He stares too long with those uncanny blue eyes, has stilted movements, and - as is only appropriate for Death - makes people uncomfortable with his presence. There's a solemnity Pitt brings to the role that belies his young age at the time of this movie. Watching Hopkins and Pitt in a scene together is like watching two great lions trying to outdo each other in the ring - they both have such a powerful presence in and of themselves that the lush scenery they are surrounded with almost feels like overkill (no pun intended). It is directed by Martin Brest, who is also known for Scent of a Woman, one of my top 10 favorite films of all time. If there's one thing Brest loves more than anything it is human interaction. How do people relate to one another, and why? Brest is a genius at bringing out the best in his actors, and combined with a thoughtful screenplay, what they don't say to one another is as equally important as what they do say. Brest teams up once again with Thomas Newman (who adores clarinet solos, mandolins, and minor keys) to compose one helluva score for Meet Joe Black that should be counted in the cast list due to his haunting themes doing most of the talking during the several scenes of extended silences. FUN FACT: Thomas Newman also composed the music for Road to Perdition - also on my top 10 list. His work is always haunting, sweeping, and unforgettable.

It is no mistake the three central characters - Parrish, Susan, and Joe - are never in the same frame for very long. The characters are quite literally having their own personal experiences with Death; and those experiences cannot easily be shared in the same physical space. (MINOR SPOILER) I could write a whole separate blog post about the sex scene between Susan and Joe, and all the allegories that could be made to the idea of "the little death" as a euphemism for an orgasm, and the irony surrounding Death experiencing an act, at its basest function, being used to create life. While some may find the whole scene off-putting, for me it seemed to grow organically from the emotional intensity of the writing - and let's face it, Pitt is easy on the eyes!

 Hopkins and Forlani share a father/daughter dance
The film is marketed to be a romance, but it is actually a cleverly disguised serious commentary about the relationship between fathers and daughters, and coping with the hard truth we all must face - our parents will die someday. I am very close to my father and he is about the age of William Parrish in this film. I found a catch in my throat during the scenes with Susan and William, talking about living life to the fullest, and never settling for less. There's also a touching moment when William comes to terms with his overbearing eldest daughter Allison (Marcia Gay Harden), who knows on some level Susan has always been the apple of his eye. In a great piece of script, she says, "I've felt loved, and that's all that matters. So, never mind favorites. You're allowed to have one. The point is, you've been mine."

Not that Joe Black is without its flaws. There's a somewhat glossed over company scandal kerfuffle headed by Susan's boring ex that seems pasted in. A schlocky meet-cute scene in a coffee shop. Despite two hours of quotes about making the most of life, William Parrish spends a great deal of time in his office, Gatsby-esque, before joining the swinging birthday party thrown just for him. The film tries to end itself about five times, and eventually resolves in the best bittersweet conclusion that even allows Death to have one of the most human of experiences - coping with loss, and thus, coping with his very existence.

This is not a film for everyone. It takes a great deal of patience and a viewer as interested as Joe in its exquisite scrutiny of the human experience and all its ups and downs. But it does help us to pause and think about our finite existence and remind us that sometimes the meaningful moments in our lives don't always arrive in big bangs, but often in soft whispers and quiet embraces.

Jackaroo sez: More than a remake, it takes an idea and creates something wholly original. Despite its slow pacing and lengthy run time, it is a thoughtful, meditative scrutiny on what it means to be human. 




Saturday, August 27, 2016

Fantasy Audiobook Spotlight: Kings or Pawns expertly blends intrigue, humor, and heart

When it comes to high fantasy, author J.J. Sherwood wastes no time in bringing her audience right into the heart of the action in Kings or Pawns: Steps of Power:The Kings, Book 1, ushering in a new saga whose threads of intrigue would challenge even the elaborateness of Game of Thrones. 

The story takes place Elvorium, the capital of Sevrigel, which, as the name suggests, is inhabited by elves that has been corrupted by terrible leadership for decades. These elves are a far cry from the ethereal, felicitous creatures of Tolkien's world however; these are hard-fighting, hard-partying souls. Indeed, despite having a large cast of characters, Sherwood (who looks a bit elvish herself) takes the time to flesh them out fully and meticulously. Jikun Taemrin for example is one of my favorites with his frosty exterior, his long white hair and "azure eyes" marking him from the north, and yet inwardly he's a big softie. In one of the lighter moments towards the beginning of the novel his friend Navon finds Jikun's journal of terrible poetry which he begins to delightedly recite aloud, much to Jikun's dismay. Navon is a good foil for Jikun's stuffy nature, always encouraging his brother-in-arms to try to live a little...and maybe dabble in the occasional necromancy, which is illegal in Sevrigel.

Author J.J. Sherwood
The other major plotline running through the book is that of Hairem, the idealistic and naive elvish king of Sevrigel who finds turning the tide of deep-rooted corruption in his kingdom will not be so easy. Add in a fierce warlord hellbent on laying waste to their world and it becomes downright impossible. Of course, no great fantasy epic would be complete without some supernatural darker forces whispering their way towards wreaking havoc...

I found the audiobook much easier to dive into than the printed version mainly because of the good-humored way Matthew Lloyd Davies voices the characters in his polished British accent, fostering empathy and successfully interpreting the quick wit that Sherwood imbues within her solid writing. Some narrators have to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear as the old saying goes, but Sherwood is so confident in the tale she has to tell and her sentence structure so spot-on that reading this aloud must have been a true joy. Sherwood also credits her editor, the unsung heroes of the publishing world, on her website for making Kings or Pawns as polished as it is.

Davies also has great pacing, speeding up during moments of high tension but generally keeping a measured tone throughout. His crisp enunciation and consistency bouncing between so many different characters also helped me as a listener to keep track of who's who and what exactly is happening. I particularly enjoyed the self-depracating tone he gives Jikun (I had flashbacks to Stephen Fry's vocal interpretation of Marvin, the depressed robot, in his narration of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) , which is in direct contrast to Navon's more light-hearted inflections, further highlighting their "odd couple"friendship. Hairem's timbre is posh but uncertain, which is perfectly suited to his situation.

This is a mostly male-driven novel and I would've preferred a few more warrioresses sprinkled throughout, but Alvena, the mute handmaiden to Hairem that he has a particular affection for, proves to be an unlikely but essential plot device as the tale begins to weave its intricate tapestry.

Jackaroo sez: Audiobook was easier to delve into, but plot picked up quickly. Would've preferred more cats involved, but overall, a solid debut of a new series with excellent writing!

Like the sound of this? Enter to win your own signed  hardcover copy of the book and other fantasy swag here!