Kubo and the Two Strings

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Kubo and the Two Strings is a humbling technical achievement and a beautifully crafted animated film, but its plot sometimes stumbles into narrative incoherence in its attempt to expound on its philosophical themes.

Kubo is the latest film from the stop-motion animation studio Laika, makers of such gems as Coraline and The Boxtrolls. Laika is probably the premier stop-motion animation studio currently in business, owing in no small part to their willingness to push the boundaries of what can be achieved with stop motion from film to film.

Kubo is, in that respect, their coup de grace. It is beautiful, fluid, and alive in a way that seems all the more real for the fact that they’re essentially hand-manipulated puppets. A few things, such as water and weather effects, are added in CGI post-production, but it’s actually quite staggering to watch the film and then watch making-of documentaries where they reveal just how much of the movie owed to the tireless work of animators who painstakingly animated the characters down to the individual strands of their hair, frame after frame.

Even painstaking effort wouldn’t amount to much, though, if the film had turned out creatively uninspired. Kubo, however, doesn’t disappoint in that regard. Its Japanese aesthetic and brilliantly realised landscapes provide a stunning background for the story to play out. In particular, the opening scene, where Kubo’s mother rides out a storm in a boat in a quest to reach dry land, is one of the most visually and emotionally arresting cold opens I’ve ever seen in an animated film.

The thing about Kubo that prevents it from being a perfect film, however, is the matter of its overarching story playing second fiddle to the film’s preoccupation with its themes.

The story seems simple at first blush: Kubo sets out with his allies, a monkey and a beetle-like samurai, in a by-the-numbers heroic journey to collect pieces of armour and weapons needed to best a godlike evil.

But as the film wears on, the battle turns into something of a treatise on themes of humanity, storytelling, and the value of ephemerality, which is, admittedly, very Japanese. The heroes fight against a heavenly foe whose perfection is bought at the expense of their humanity. They seek an eternity of bliss, and that goes against the notion that great stories must have a beginning and an end, must incorporate joys and sorrows in equal measure.

These kinds of conflicts don’t really have that much purchase in the real world, and it isn’t quite clear where the film is trying to go with it. Good stories need an end, to be human is to be imperfect, lost loved ones persist forever in our memory – the narrative is a bit clumsy in trying to get its messages across in a way that makes the story seem more like a constructed fable – like a rendition of an actual story through the eyes of a storyteller with an agenda – as opposed to a real, organic story.

That’s not to say that such fable-like plots have no place in literature, but I think that Kubo that on balance, it’s heavy on its thematic preoccupations and light on its characters. Which is a shame, because the chemistry between Kubo, Monkey and Beetle is one of the most charming parts of the film. Beetle, in particular, is a riot. But they receive short shrift just as it gets going (and, indeed, the scene plays out in the most tropey manner possible). From then on, the plot loses some coherence as it quickly ushers in the third act – the showdown between Kubo and his enemy, somewhat reduced into them fighting while shouting out their irreconcilable philosophical differences at each other.

We’re supposed to get it, to grok it by then, on a primal level, in order for us to root for Kubo. But the things that Kubo is fighting for, while compelling in theory, get muddled by the intricacies of the metaplot about how his heavenly grandfather wants to make him inhumanly perfect by taking away his eye, which is supposed to remove his memories so that he will turn away from the imperfections of the world and ascend to a higher plane – and you get the picture. Too many macguffins, too many odd plot devices, all in service of an abstracted theme that needs exposition to really hammer them home to the viewer in a compelling way – exposition that the film doesn’t have time for, and would occur at the expense of character development.

But you know what? Despite the fact that the plot, in my mind, ended up a muddled by its abstract message, it would be unfair to fault the film’s creators for shaping this beautifully crafted film into a vessel for the messages they want to convey. It is their prerogative, and the message is a beautiful and important one, if slightly contrived to fit into the strictures of the plot and short running length (which in itself must have been an issue of expectations management and budget). Kubo is a work of painstaking craft, tremendous beauty, and great courage, and it deserves its place on the pantheon of animated greats.

I give this film: 4 out of 5 Swords Uncomfortable

 

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The King’s Blood (Dagger and Coin #2)

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In The King’s Blood, upheavals occur, characters come into their own (for good or ill), and the shape of the overarching conflict begins to emerge. And it is an ideological one that should be familiar to students of TOK.

 

The book’s a faster-paced follow up to the first, and also the stage for the setting up of the overarching conflict – which, at its heart, is a philosophical one.

The emerging antagonists of the book are a cult who worships an entity known as the Spider Goddess, and they have the power the sense truth and falsehood through the timbre of a person’s voice. They also have preternatural powers of persuasion. In  that sense, they represent a classic epistemological fallacy – the conflation of certainty and truth. They can determine whether someone is saying something they believe is true, but they cannot know if something is objectively true. But what makes them so dangerous is that they can manufacture certainty in people – in essence, generating their own version of truth. Their goal is to spread a singular version of truth to envelop the entire world – one that they manufacture for their own expediency.

This is a powerful theme to explore in a fantasy setting, because it is able, like few other mediums, to explore topics of faith and epistemology in a way that steps on few toes. And Abraham is deconstructing the idea of religious faith in his own clever way – the priests of the Spider Goddess are the ur-cult, and the memetic transmission of their faith – the idea that certainty in something is a sufficient precondition for truth – is mediated in MacGuffinish fantasy terms – actual magical mechanisms of action – in order to bring out this theme in stark relief.

Abraham is also developing one of the most compelling antagonists I’ve come across in recent times – a character whose evil is mediated through a gamut of motivations – personal insecurities, revenge, faith that certainty is sufficient for truth. Geder Palliako, the man who unwittingly finds the Spider Goddess cult and brings them back to his kingdom, only to have them manipulate him into establishing a foothold for them. He was portrayed as a slightly buffoonish bookworm who happened to, through a series of serendipitous events, turn into something of a war hero.

He exemplifies a sort of banality of evil – he is awkward, affable and generous to those he considers friends, but implacable in his hatred to those whom he perceives have slighted or betrayed him. Wielding the truth-telling priesthood as his weapon, he goes on inquisitorial rampages to root out dissent in the name of protecting his young king, which is presented as a genuine sentiment, starts wars of conquest, and proposes the wholesale slaughter of the noble classes of conquered kingdoms. He thinks he does it out of love for king and country, and he derives legitimacy from the illusion of certainty that the priesthood affords him.

Although the circumstances behind his rise in the first book are a little dubious, plot wise, the sheer number of layers that undergird his motivations make him one of the most interesting antagonists I’ve encountered in a while.

Other characters are less compelling but just as delicately painted as complex weaves of motivation. Dawson Kalliam continues to provoke in terms of his mixture of (to modern liberal sensibilities) distasteful and intensely sympathetic traits. Kit, an apostate former priest of the Spider Goddess who serves as the main philosophical voice of its fallacies, exudes perfect warmth, wisdom and charm. Of all the major POV characters, I personally find Cithrin, the up-and-coming head of a branch of a bank in the world of the series, the least interesting, but that’s more a matter of taste – her motivations are a complex weave of reckless ambition and almost self-destructive excess.

With The King’s Blood, therefore, The Dagger and Coin is shaping up to be one of the most compelling character-driven, thematically complex fantasies in a while.

I give this book: 4/5 stag-piercing lances

The Dragon’s Path (Dagger and Coin #1)

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The Dragon’s Path is an understated but competent start to a fantasy saga that offers, for the genre, an unusual degree of psychological realism.

Daniel Abraham is, of course, one half of the James Corey writing duo that came up with the vaunted Expanse series. But he also wrote the acclaimed Long Price quartet, which is one of the few fantasies that made pains to distinguish itself from the Western cultural milieu that informs most fantasy of its ilk.

In comparison, The Dragon’s Path reads more like a traditional fantasy, a pseudo-feudal realm of nobles and commoners. But some elements of the fantasy setting here are quite original.

The world of Dagger and Coin is fantasy post-post-apocalyptia, built on the ruins of an advanced civilisation of dragons that ruled over humanity. These dragons built invincible roads and created great cities, and also genetically engineered twelve races of humanity from primal stock – “Firstblood” – to serve their various whims, from war to beekeeping.

The races of humanity is an interesting concept insofar as it is a much more compelling allegory for race. Unlike elves, dwarves or orcs, who are portrayed in much fantasy fiction as being of the great Other, the races, while biologically adapted for different roles, share a common humanity, and they understand this. In a lot of fantasy there has always been the undercurrent of alienness that lurks beneath depictions of non-human races, because the races are portrayed as having fundamental differences, whether cultural or genetic. This muddles any message of tolerance based on a shared sense of identity.

In Dagger and Coin, the thirteen races intermingle – and while some kingdoms may have dominant species, many are cosmopolitan watering holes for all races. The world has remade itself with an understanding of the common origin of the various races. And yet, racism and discrimination exist. This makes those thematic elements ring more true – because they are closer cognates to reality.

The Dragon’s Path is a slow opening to the series, insofar as much of it seems to serve as buildup to far more momentous happenings in subsequent books. But that slowness does not translate to lack of substance. Indeed, The King’s Blood distinguishes itself in taking its time to paint full-bodied pictures of its point of view characters. Abraham does so in a way that almost seems to transcend judgement – he has the gift of humanising them in a way that neither moralises nor panders. The characters simply tell their stories through his writing.

One character in particular illustrates my point – that of Dawson Kalliam. He’s the fantasy equivalent to a conservative Republican, a lover of tradition and a firm believer in the great chain of being, with himself near the top of the hierarchy. He’s combative, imperious and supercilious, an easy character to despise. He connives and schemes to secure influence at court, sacrificing armies on a whim. He owns house slaves and regards the common folk barely better than cattle. An easy character to despise, and yet, I can’t find it in myself to dislike him. His one redeeming feature is a great and sincere love for Clara, his wife. Abraham always has a way to humanise his characters in a way that makes them into fully-fleshed out characters, rather than parodies.

And this translates to the world that he writes about. A world rife with racism, where slavery is a common practice, where cities are burned to satisfy strategic whims. But when Abraham writes characters, he doesn’t force a contemporary moral lens on them, making them mouthpieces to proselytize modern creeds of morality – they are perfectly situated in their own cultural and historical milieus. Abraham is a master at this kind of effortless, organic worldbuilding – a place where magic is not fetishized and is seen (by a population used to their services) as just another extension of the natural world, where the remnants of the dragons have faded and become an indelible part of the landscape and culture of the world.

The biggest flaw of the first book is that it does suffer from some slightly difficult to parse leaps in logic. Some of Dawson’s machinations and plots seem somewhat far-fetched in their viability. Sometimes, the actions of some minor characters can seem like they were put there just to serve as a pretext for some character building, in ways that can seem a bit contrived.

But, while The Dragon’s Path is a slow starter to the series with some plot-related teething problems, it succeeds in its deliberate setting up of the fundamentals of what makes its characters tick, as well as in Abraham’s delicate, convincing, and original worldbuilding.

I give this book: 3.5/5 divided cities

The Nightmare Stacks (Laundry Files #7)

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After the false start to the new-style Laundryverse that was The Annihilation Score, Stross returns with what really feels like a second wind for the long-lasting series of novels about fighting the occult.

The Nightmare Stacks continues the basic premise of deconstructing fantasy genre tropes that began with the vampires of The Rhesus Chart and continued, albeit weakly, with superheroes in The Annihilation Score. This time, it’s about elves – faeries, the fae, the Unseelie, except given a darkly subversive twist – they are genetic human-ancestor offshoots predisposed towards magic (and psychopathy), united under a single rapacious empire bound together by an absolute hierarchical chain of geas-mediated relationships: a sort of feudal Japan gone off the deep end. They’ve long since destroyed their planet after they initiated their very own CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN scenario, and they’re planning to invade.

It’s a wacky, brilliant, and totally Strossian premise – the kind of demented twisting of fantasy tropes into something totally plausible under the worldview and parameters of the Laundryverse, while retaining some key elements from the original trope to maintain that sense of folk authenticity. I think the fluoric acid-spewing dragon riding bloodsucking geas-bound faeries of The Nightmare Stacks might be Stross’ most inspired fantasy riff so far.

There’s a new point of view character – none other than Alex Schwartz, the investment bank analyst turned vampire first introduced in The Rhesus Chart. Now a Laundry employee (with a massive paycut), Schwartz serves as our hapless, neurotic point of view character. Schwartz is socially awkward to the point of parody, and the sorts of things that occupy his attention are the eerily mundane worries of a 20-something year old still trapped in the cocoon of parental expectations and unable to get out.

Schwartz’s character is fresh – it might be said of him that he is Stross’ way of staving off the power inflation trap, of having a successively more powerful Bob face commensurately deadlier foes until they’re throwing buildings at each other or something. And Schwartz’s low base gives Stross space to have some sort of character development, which does happen with the introduction of Cassie, an enigmatic character that becomes Schwartz’s love interest and his impetus to step up to the demands of being a Laundry agent on the scene.

Of course, Cassie isn’t what she seems to Schwartz at first – and I won’t elaborate here – but cringey as their relationship could have been, Stross manages to pull it off in a sort of awkwardly sweet way, even if some of the leaps in the relationship do stretch the bounds of credulity at times. But hey, who’s to question puppy-love between two people inexperienced in its mysteries?

And as Schwartz’s and Cassie’s relationship develops, so do the forces of a desperate and dying elfin empire marshall in a last-ditch effort to save their civilisation by conquering another. The tenor of The Nightmare Stack’s antagonist is interesting and different because at no point do their efforts appear to present a credible existential threat to humanity – Sleeper of the Pyramid these elves are not, even if they are a rapacious bloodthirsty bunch.

But Schwartz’s and Cassie’s burgeoning relationship sets a parallel tone to the narrative conflict – turning it from a matter of threat and counter-threat to intimating the possibility of rapprochement – one that the attentive and careful reader would have extrapolated well in advance of its rather abrupt arrival at the end of the book. First vampires, then superheroes, and elves – humanity is going to need all the help it can get to battle the real horrors of the vasty deep, when they come in a torrent of necromantic energy that pours through the holes in the thinning void between universes.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 elfin cosplay outfits

The Annihilation Score (Laundry Files #6)

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The Annihilation Score, is, unfortunately, a somewhat unsatisfying entry in the brave new world of the Laundry series.

Score is the first novel not told from the perspective of Bob Howard, Laundry IT geek turned seasoned-despite-himself field operative. Instead, it focuses on Mo, a fellow Laundry wetworks specialist and Bob’s wife. Mo is a seasoned veteran in her own right – she wields a powerful occult weapon, a violin shaped out of human bones and powered by their agony, recovered by the British in World War II, with a mind and malignance of its own.

In previous books, her own adventures were somewhat of a side-show to Bob’s own crises-of-the-week, but the stuff she got up to was just as, if not grimmer than, Bob’s. And their decade-long marriage is on the rocks because of the pressures of maintaining a life of normalcy while being the carriers of vast and horrific thaumaturgic prowess. Oh, and their respective occult powers are possibly lethal to each other, causing them to have to live apart.

The issue with Score is that it’s just not as fun to read as the other Laundry books. It has a psychologically grim outlook – depicting Mo entering the throes of a work-induced nervous breakdown, beginning an affair behind Bob’s back, and trying her best to tamp down on the new emerging threat of the book – i.e. people developing superpowers as the walls of reality thin and CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN approaches.

The way Stross writes Mo isn’t the way he writes Bob – to his credit, he’s self-aware enough to try to give Mo a unique voice, while acknowledging that the years of cohabitation with Bob have given her the propensity to acknowledge some of his verbal tics when employing them for effect. But Mo, despite everything, comes off as not the most likeable of characters. It’s an uncomfortable admission to make because it invites the idea that strong female characters that exhibit dominant traits are given short shrift by readers who expect more conformity to gender stereotypes.

But Mo gets up to stuff like going on dates with superpowered police officers, and comparing Bob unfavorably to them in some departments, and after you’ve been in Bob’s headspace for a while, it can seem disquieting and uncomfortable. Should we judge Mo poorly for indulging in marital indiscretions? Or should we be sympathetic and buy her (seemingly self-serving) narrative for her actions?

But Mo’s characterisation isn’t actually why I felt dissatisfied with Score. Score is not just a less fun book due to its narrative perspective, it  its premise – superheroes – is also just not in keeping with the strictures of the Laundry universe.

Just as Rhesus Chart was about vampires, Score focuses on superheroes. People are developing magical powers and the cultural lens of the superhero is being applied by the general public to apprehend the phenomenon. But Stross doesn’t really explain the mechanisms of action by which some of these superpowers manifest – superheroes who can defy the physical laws of the incumbent universe, or who grow horns and fur – the established rules of the Laundry universe don’t explain how those kinds of abilities can manifest out of the whole multiverse-premise. Hitherto most of the occult stuff could be explained, but superheroes just don’t really fit, either thematically or logically, in the Laundry universe, at least, not in the way their powers were explicated.

Score is also a lot more about bureaucracy than it is about battling occult horrors. Much of the book deals with Mo working with a team to set up and run a Transhuman Policy Directive, a police unit tasked, ostensibly, with providing a role model for superheroes and clamp down on vigilantes. This is bureaucracy as it is, played straight – without Bob’s usual snark or odd turns of phrase to assert the absurdity of it all.

And the threat – the Big Bad – that Mo faces in Score is far more of an abstraction – her personal demons, her mind-controlling violin that makes her dream of dancing, a cartoonish villain called Dr Freudstein (and the entity that he represents), the vague threat of a superpowered humanity, predatory politicians – adds up to a narrative arc that is at turns unfocused as it is frustratingly meandering.

And when it comes to the denouement and the big narrative revelation, I was left nonplussed at the convolutedness of the villain plot and the relative triviality of its machinations, compared to the world-destroying stakes of previous offerings.

So, Score – a book about superheroes, bureaucracy, and mental breakdown – one that somehow doesn’t quite fit into the Laundryverse.

I give this book: 3 out of 5 prom tickets

The Rhesus Chart (Laundry Files #5)

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What an interesting change in direction for the series.

The Laundry series is clearly heading into the first stirrings of CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN, the codename for the apocalypse via incursions of Lovecraftian horrors from beyond this dimensional brane, as a result of exponential increases in computational density.

Where the previous books have dealt in all manner of Lovecraftian threats, spacetime horrors, ocean-dwelling aliens and possessed cultists, The Rhesus Chart deals in something closer to the standard fantasy-horror trope: vampires.

Stross does a great job of reconciling vampiric lore within the greater framework of his Lovecraftian-inspired mythos. Vampires are humans who, having been infected with a certain species of extradimensional demon parasites, are given your usual vampiric powers in return for acting as a vector for said parasites to consume the minds of other people through spooky action-at-a-distance blood transmission.

Stross also abandons the whole tradition of writing his novels as spy thriller pastiches. Of course, it is perhaps a bit of a tall order to find an author to ape for this book: a story about investment bankers turned vampires (in what must be a snarky reference to Goldman Sachs as vampire squid) who use agile scrum methodology to discover the extent of their new powers. The kind of humorous quashing together of modern geek tropes and classical horror icons is a uniquely Strossian niche. In a way, therefore, The Rhesus Chart does feel like a portentous next step for the series, a kind of authorial declaration of independence from a self-imposed series of stylistic subservience.

And things do really get moving in The Rhesus Chart, entering a period of rising action after a series of tumultuous events that presage a new, more uncertain world in which our expanded coterie of protagonists must operate.

I did find some plot points difficult to accept, like how our newly-minted vampire bankers didn’t realise for a very long time that the people they were feeding on (all cleaners who worked for the one cleaning agency) were all dying, and also the machinations of the Big Bad are a series of complex moving parts with multiple points of failure that require the kind of precision machining – classic supervillainous overthinking, but fun to read about.

But overall, The Rhesus Chart is Stross at his best – fast-paced, imaginative, humorous, geeky, horrifying, and an absolute blast.

I give this  book: 4.5/5 syringes

The Apocalypse Codex (Laundry Files #4)

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The Apocalypse Codex takes the series to new cultural milieus.

Codex, while a continuation of the Sleeper-in-the-Pyramid plot thread introduced in The Fuller Memorandum, is a different beast. The series takes us to a new battleground – the United States. While previous books in the series have taken place in the relatively secular and cloistered United Kingdom, Codex is able to draw upon a vast cultural fabric of religiosity and mass religion, which a far more prevalent in a place like the continental United States.

The narrative introduces us to two new characters, Persephone Hazard and her companion Johnny McTavish, contractors that work outside the formal bureaucratic remit of the Laundry. Stross has stated that Codex is a deliberate homage to the Modesty Blaise novels by Peter O’Donnell (with Hazard as the Blaise stand-in). The pastiche is lost on me, but the idea of a self-actualised female adventurer of means resonates, having been adopted to varying degrees from Lara Croft to Nancy Drew. Hazard and McTavish are interesting additions to the Laundry world, their presence indicative again of Stross trying to expand the scope of the narrative universe that he is finding himself spending more time in.

Codex, I must confess, embodies a particular form of terror for me – the idea that mass religious movements of the megachurch variety could be fronts for any number of apocalyptic designs. For such religions, their faith and doctrine are memetic viruses, traveling from host to host in ever cascading ripples, exponentiating. Codex is a nightmare vision of that process as physicalised by the use of isopod-like alien mind-destroying parasites cleverly disguised as communion wafers.

And also, of course, the brand of eschatology espoused by millenarian sects gives them an incentive structure to actively bring about their envisioned apocalypse – after all, if you truly believed that the Second Coming would lead to the salvation of man and the formation of a heavenly kingdom, wouldn’t you want to see it hastened, and, doctrine permitting, hasten the process? Dogmas that espouse certain brands of eschatology and proclaim that it is possible for human agency to speed it along are the perfect templates for occultic villains – especially if they think they are doing it for the greater good.

Stross (taking Bob Howard’s point of view) doesn’t have many kind words to say about such sects, and his discomfort with them bleeds through as a kind of allegorical commentary on mass religiosity in reality. I don’t know if it’s necessarily nice to allegorically compare megachurches to an apocalyptic cult with woman abductees forced to become baby-making machines in a twisted extreme of quiverfull philosophy, or the use of mind-controlling isopods to make faith-zombies, but it’s certainly a wonderful recipe for occult horror.

The series also gives us a bit more on the American occultic spy agency, the Black Chamber. These delightfully horrific fellows were introduced in Jennifer Morgue as an agency only barely less evil (in tactics) than the forces they were arrayed against, and given that the crisis in Codex is one that impacts American national security, they are seen operating in fuller force in all their ethics-free, sociopathic glee. Portraying the American occult agency as a bunch of psychopaths has some contemporary sociopolitical heft – American intelligence agencies, both internal and external, are not the most trusted of institutions in the American experience, what with their wiretapping, their MKUltra mind control programs, and their hidden flying saucers in Area 51. The Black Chamber is just a parody of those tropes in occult form.

All in all, a good addition to the ever-expanding Laundry universe.

I give this book: 4/5 telepathic fake tattoo stickers