“Death Masks” Review

dm

Having just finished the fifth Dresden book, I have the feeling that my plot summaries are just gonna get more complicated from here on out. This book practically promotes that by giving you a veritable laundry list of stuff that occurs in the book on the back of it. Let’s not waste time and see just what’s in store.

After making a failed appearance on a TV talk show, Harry Dresden gets pulled into two dangerous outings. The first is with the Duke Ortega, a Red Court vampire who’s eager to defeat Dresden in a duel to the death to end the war between the vampires and the White Council. The second is with Father Vincent, who seeks Dresden’s help to locate the missing Shroud of Turin, an artifact which may or may not hold powerful properties. But several outside parties are interested in retrieving the Shroud for themselves, and Harry must find a way to prevent them from using it for their own purposes. On top of all of this, Susan, Harry’s half-vampire girlfriend, returns to Chicago for her own reasons. Will Harry be able to come out unscathed from these events?

As you can see, there is a lot going on in this book. All of these plotlines start up within the first 5 or so chapters, and I couldn’t help feeling a little overwhelmed at first. Luckily, as a testament to Jim Butcher’s writing, the plots are given time to breathe and are woven into each other over time. I heavily enjoyed the Shroud plot in particular, as it brings back Michael and Marcone, as well as introduces a couple new Knights of the Cross as well as new villains known as the Denarians. They’re basically a group of fallen angels/demons trapped within silver coins who manipulate humans in order to possess them, thereby freeing themselves. Between them, the Knights and the Shroud, there are quite a lot of religious undertones in this one, but I found it extremely well done and without getting into preachy territory. I especially liked the Denarians due to their nature and each one having its own personality and appearance. And their leader, Nicodemus, is shaping up to be a truly intimidating villain, one I can definitely see coming back time and time again.

Susan’s return allowed for some major chemistry to be dredged up between her and Dresden, and her purpose in the story was overall well done. I felt the direction they took with her was believable and left room for her to appear in the future. As far as the duel plot, while I didn’t care much for Ortega, I did appreciate the brief return of Thomas (though he was majorly underused) and the introduction of Ivy (aka the Archive) and Kincaid. Both of them were characters I’m sure I’ll see again, and I loved their personalities for the few scenes they had. This also applies to the two Knights, Sanya and Shiro, who I found likable in their own ways.

That being said, I have a couple major gripes with this one.The first would be with the ending chapter. Several things get addressed, but a few left me questioning if I’d get answers in later books or if they were just implied. One follows immediately after an amazing moment involving Marcone and Dresden, but my major gripes with the ending were that some stuff felt rushed. There’s a final appearance by Nicodemus that felt not so much tacked on as it did shoved into the final chapter, though the results of this appearance I’m positive will come up in a future book. There’s a minor plot involving Murphy making sure Dresden steers clear of the police that gets wrapped up a little too cleanly. And there’s also an implication involving Ortega that I felt was an extremely disappointing cap-off to his role in the book.

But speaking of that, my biggest gripe is with the entire duel plot. Simply put, I felt like it wasn’t needed, at least not in this book. It would’ve been easily served in another vampire-focused one and still have gotten the same results. I know that I don’t have to wait every year or so to read these, but I didn’t feel the war needed to be brought up yet again in a book with such an interesting and fresh main plot. The payoff of the duel didn’t at all feel worth it, and the possibility of making Ortega stand out from his fellow vampires by not being a total scumbag ultimately didn’t happen. I kept feeling like this subplot was constantly interrupting the main one, and because of that, I didn’t care for it by the end.

All that said, the strengths of this one definitely outweigh the weaknesses. I’m excited to find out more about the Denarians and find out more about Nicodemus. I’m wondering what interactions Dresden and Marcone might have from this point on. And if there’s something positive about the duel plot, as pointless as it felt, it’s that I can’t wait to see more of Kincaid and Ivy in the future (and hopefully see this war conclude sometime soon). Overall, this book introduces some major elements that makes it worth checking out.

I give “Death Masks” an 8.5/10.

My Current Obsession: Gravity Falls

gf

Since I plan to blog about the next installment of “The Dresden Files” next week, I figured I’d take this week to talk about my favorite cartoon of recent memory, (more so than “Adventure Time”) “Gravity Falls.” The show returned this past Monday after a brief hiatus (and is about to have another one sadly) and will be continuing its second season. I can’t honestly remember the last time a Disney cartoon, let alone any cartoon, has hooked me this much from the very start.

For the uninitiated, “Gravity Falls” is a series by Disney that follows twin siblings Dipper and Mabel Pines as they spend their summer in Gravity Falls, Oregon, with their great-uncle (“Grunkle”) Stan. Stan, along with his employees Wendy and Soos, runs the Mystery Shack, a museum that promotes fake attractions to bring in tourists. Dipper and Mabel very quickly discover that strange things DO exist in Gravity Falls, and there’s an underlying mystery to the town and the supernatural-filled journal they discover there.

My reasons for loving this show are varied, but the biggest one has got to be the writing. Since the very first episode, the writing has hit the right comedic punches as well as creating some poignant serious moments. I haven’t found any episode to be outright bad or even extremely weak. This show throws in everything from 80s/90s references to memorable but sometimes insane characters, and the writing hits the right notes nearly every single time. Speaking of characters, there are a ton of supporting ones, but the main cast are what really capture the show’s diversity. Dipper is very much the straight man despite being awkward and downright sarcastic at times. Mabel is very outgoing and a bit crazy most of the time, though she is capable of being serious on the rare occasion. Stan is a pure cynic and kind of a jerk, though he’s clearly secretive. And Soos and Wendy, while often used as comic relief, have both gotten boosts in character thanks to some background reveals. Even these brief descriptions don’t do the characters justice, as their personalities really do shine through the writing itself.

Another reason I love this show is the atmosphere. While it can be fun and…well, cartoon-y, the tone can just as easily shift into one that’s more mysterious and even very dark. The overarching mystery to the town is brought up on occasion to keep you invested outside of an episode’s main plot. Take this week’s episode, “Northwest Mansion Mystery,”  for example. There’s a ghostly mystery plot that carries the episode on its own, but there’s also a scene to tie into the overarching mystery that’s been building since the end of Season 1. It’s those little touches that make me want to know more week after week. I’m also a sucker for anything supernatural (so long as it catches my attention), so the use of it in this show is very much appreciated. At times it’s even easy to forget that it’s a Disney cartoon aimed towards a younger audience, due to how many nightmarish things tend to pop up in it.

That brings me to my final reason for loving this show: the animation. The show has been topping itself since Season 1 in terms of how good it looks, but it’s the little things that I especially love. The lighting and shading effects never seem out of place, the colors can be bright and vibrant one second and dark and gloomy the next if the scene calls for it, and the facial expressions are great at conveying a big range of emotions. Each episode runs smoothly and you can tell a lot of thought and care has been put into them. The improvements on all of those things have been noticeable in Season 2, and despite not being educated in animation, I have to wonder if it’s even possible for them to top themselves in Season 3.

I really can’t stress enough how much I love “Gravity Falls.” It’s easily one of the best written shows I’ve seen recently, period. There’s the right balance here of humor, mystery and serious themes for both kids and adults to enjoy. I really hope this show gets a few more seasons under its belt, because in a medium filled with mediocre/mind-numbing cartoons, this is the kind of quality entertainment that kids should be exposed to.

Being a Gamer

gamer

Well, another birthday is coming up for me tomorrow, and rather than dwell on being another year older, I figured today I’d talk about my favorite hobby/past-time: Video games. As a birthday present to myself, I pre-ordered “The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask” in the hopes of finally completing it for the first time. And while I impatiently wait for it to ship to my house, I started thinking about my gaming hobby.

Games are kind of a strange medium when you think about it. Much like books and movies, they allow you to escape into the fantasy (or semi-reality) of other worlds and stories. The major difference is, of course, that you are in control the majority of the time. You might not get a say over the direction a story goes, but you DO guide it from point A to point B through the gameplay. Unlike those two pieces of media I mentioned, games are also pretty costly from a consumer point of view. A book of 100+ pages can be anywhere from $8 to $30 (give or take) and a film of about 2+ hours can be about $25 to $40. Games, on the other hand, can range in length from 4 to 60+ hours and be anywhere from $30 to $60 dollars brand new. That’s not even getting into downloadable content or pay-to-play. It’s a thankful thing that I tend to be choosy with my purchases, because it’s definitely the most expensive hobby I’ve taken up in my life.

As far as being a gamer, I’ve never run into much drama concerning my gender (and no, I won’t be discussing GamerGate here). A lot of that can be attested to me not being much into online play, and nearly all of my girl friends have played games at least once in their life. But I remember even back in high school, there were times that girls playing games was seen (by other girls even) as just a thing to attract guys. As in, they only played games or said they did for the sake of guys, instead of just because they liked doing so. These comments were never directed at me specifically, but even back then it ticked me off to hear it. It’s for that reason among many others that I can’t stand the moniker “girl gamer” because it pushes the stigma that “gamers” in general are guys and tries to act as though girls are in a separate category. Given that more and more girls are getting into video games, it’s a moniker that I hope will die off eventually.

I’ve said in the past that I’m a Nintendo gamer first and that remains true even today. But I never liked the idea that one console is vastly superior than another. Every console over the years has had their pros and cons, and while I mainly get Nintendo for their licensed games and overall cheaper systems, I’ve enjoyed plenty of games from as early as the PS1 to as late as the Xbox360. I still want to give some games on the PS4 and Xbox One a fair shake once I’m able to get my hands on them, be it via owning them or while visiting friends. Having spent some of my early years being entertained by the Atari 2600, I’ve become the type of person who doesn’t get hung up over graphical power or hardware specs. For me, as long as fun games are continuously being produced on all consoles, I’ll forever be a happy gamer.

Ultimately, being a gamer is something I’m proud of. While gaming isn’t my sole hobby, it’s the first one that comes to mind due to it being ingrained in me since childhood. And until the day comes that I can’t physically play games anymore, I will never stop being a gamer in some capacity.

I <3 Superhero Media

DC-Marvel

It’s become common lately in Hollywood to put out movies based on comic book heroes. Marvel was already far ahead of the curb since Blade and has only gotten stronger with their Marvel Universe film series of late. DC has had the likes of Batman and Superman time and time again on-screen and are now looking to basically catch up to Marvel with their own possible film series. Throughout the decades, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a well-known superhero/superheroine who hasn’t had a film at some point (though there are TONS of exceptions, of course). But my love for superheroes in media wasn’t always due to the movies, though Marvel certainly has helped with that. No, my enjoyment of them, even before I ever tried picking up a comic book, started with TV.

I’ve lived outside of town my whole life, far enough for us to not have cable. Before we invested in a satellite dish, I had to live off of 3-4 basic channels. Luckily, some of these carried cartoons any kid could enjoy, and one of the ones I followed on occasion was “Batman: The Animated Series.” I consider it my first true foray into anything comic book-related, and it was an awesomely brooding series with great stories and a fun cast of characters. It even led me into watching similarly “dark” shows such as Gargoyles. I’m also pretty sure it peaked my interest enough to watch one of my first comic book films, Tim Burton’s “Batman.” I’ve always enjoyed Batman’s villains just a bit more than the man himself, and I’m willing to bet a large part of that was from the performances “Batman: TAS” had to offer.

I ended up dabbling in other superhero cartoons as the 90s and early 2000s wore on. Some of these were “Teen Titans,””Static Shock,” and  “X-Men: Evolution,” Yes, I know, I missed out on a ton of shows, and I have since caught bits and pieces of some, such as both the 60s and 90s versions of “Spider-Man.” But for the most part, my interest in superheroes was heightened by the “X-Men” live-action movie from 2000. It wasn’t till around this time that I started looking into live-action TV shows as well.

While Marvel has continued to keep my attention mainly through their films (I watched “Mutant X” a few times and recently tried “Agents of Shield,” but I was too disinterested by the end of Season 1 to continue), DC has kept my attention mainly through television. Despite not being too hooked on either “Gotham” or “Constantine,” I’m currently enjoying the second season of “Arrow” thanks to its ongoing story and interesting characters. But back in the early 2000s, once comic book movies started making an impact again in the market, a little show came along that caught my attention: “Smallville.” It followed the life of a young Clark Kent as he grows and matures before taking on the name Superman. The show had its strengths and weaknesses both with characters and stories (including some very Buffy-esque first couple of seasons), but it was a show that you could easily get into without really knowing a thing about the Superman mythos. As the series went on, however, I started getting burnt out on its constant season renewals and the often confusing shifts in storytelling (seriously, why did Lana ever need to be there as long as she was, or come back for that matter?). But to this day, I don’t regret sticking with it for as long as I did because it had a lot of merit, opened up more of the DC universe to me through Clark’s allies and foes, and, most importantly, made me actually like Superman (who I normally find kinda bland).

I think for me the reason I love this genre so much is the creativity involved in it. With superheroes, you can have many crazy scenarios happen while also getting to the heart of the hero/heroine – what drives them to do what they do. This even applies to the large variety of villains they have to deal with. The great thing about comic books in general is that they have such rich history to choose from, no matter how many times the stories might be reinvented. As well, the entertainment value is always high, be it because of the action, comedy, drama, or mythos involved, and I’ve always loved being able to come into a film or show not having to know every bit of backstory from the comics. Sure, it adds to the experience whenever a references comes up, but the accessibility of this genre is what keeps me coming back over and over again. And until the day comes that superhero shows or movies peter out of the market, I’ll be gladly waiting to check out the next one to come along (“Avengers: Age of Ultron” anyone?).