Monday, April 27, 2015

Book Reviews: Vicious by V.E. Schwab

I’ve done posts before on my reader weaknesses and one of those particular weaknesses are characters with super powers. I’m especially fond of stories that play with the struggle of having power and show the dark underside of the issue. Villains and antiheroes with power always intrigue me. So I was of course drawn to Vicious by V.E Schwab. But did it appeal to my already high expectations?

Plot- Victor and Eli started out as college roommates—brilliant, arrogant, lonely boys who recognized the same sharpness and ambition in each other. In their senior year, a shared research interest in adrenaline, near-death experiences, and seemingly supernatural events reveals an intriguing possibility: that under the right conditions, someone could develop extraordinary abilities. But when their thesis moves from the academic to the experimental, things go horribly wrong. Ten years later, Victor breaks out of prison, determined to catch up to his old friend (now foe), aided by a young girl whose reserved nature obscures a stunning ability. Meanwhile, Eli is on a mission to eradicate every other super-powered person that he can find—aside from his sidekick, an enigmatic woman with an unbreakable will. Armed with terrible power on both sides, driven by the memory of betrayal and loss, the archnemeses have set a course for revenge—but who will be left alive at the end?

The Characters- What I love about Victor and Eli is that neither is necessarily the villain or the hero. I mean, we see things from Victor’s perspective but he and Eli are morally on equal ground as far as I’m concerned. But one fights to destroy others with powers and the other fights to protect them. But they’re still both morally ambiguous. The closest thing to a moral center is Sydney, a girl with the stunning ability to bring back the dead. She is likable and I enjoyed her as much as I enjoyed her considerably darker sister. Over all each character is distinct and likable even through the unlikable things they do. And I love how the book approaches power and how it corrupts ambitious young minds.

The Good Points- I’ve raved about the concept and the characters, but I really have to continue on that front. The characters are the focus of this book and the concept surrounding them makes the novel. This novel reads like something out of a comic book and yet far more cynical than most would approach heroes. And don’t get me wrong, I love superheroes. I’m a Marvel girl at heart. But stuff like Vicious gives me life. It dives into the psychology of flawed human beings and lets the intrigue of the characters stand tall. The book is also just really cool. The writing is cool. The images are cool. The story is cool. I found myself whispering that over used word under my breath at many parts. The pacing and jumps through time are handled deftly and never feel forced or confused. A well-crafted story on every level.

The Bad Points- I wanted more. This is the kind of world I could get lost in but as far as I can tell, it ends with no intention of a continuation. I almost wanted a more expansive story so I could meet more of these super powered humans. And I guess my demand for more ultimately means the book was doing something right.

Overall, Vicious is a fun, intriguing and super cool book for any lovers of super heroes and contemporary fantasy. It made not have an optimistic view of human nature, but its exploration is fascinating. Read it and see for yourself!

Final Rating- 5/5 stars 

Friday, April 24, 2015

Villain Spotlight: Bellatrix Lestrange and Zane Venture

For our villain spotlight this week, I’ll be looking at two very different characters that both, none the less, fall into the ‘crazies’ category.

First is Bellatrix Lestrange, of Harry Potter fame. In the books and especially the movies, Bellatrix is sadistic, crazy and loves every minute of it. As one of Voldermort’s top death eaters, she is a force to be reckoned with it. And she is nuts. 

Helena Bonham Carter brought her perfectly to life in the movies, having her skip about, laugh and sing at all the most inappropriate moments. The aftermath of Sirius Black’s death and Dumbledore’s death are noticeable examples. And she’s so happy, it’s almost hard not to laugh. And you feel terrible for it.

She’s makes you hate her and love her all at once, drawing in your interest. Which is what any good crazy should do. They should fascinate you and make you want to know more.

The second villain is just as much an interest magnet. Zane Venture, from the Mistborn trilogy, is a mysterious, powerful character plagued constantly by voices telling him to kill everyone around him. He has a great presence every time he’s on the page and you want to know more about him. Also, everyone should read that trilogy, because I said so.

Unlike Bellatrix, however, Zane tries to suppress his madness. He is a much more serious character and has a lot of elements of a mastermind in him. But I still place him in the category because he really is pretty off his rocker. A little less obviously than Bellatrix, and he carries himself entirely differently, but he is none the less a crazy.

That’s the key to a crazy villain. They don’t have to make sense, but they should tempt the audience to want to make sense of them. Get that right, and you have a solid villain like these two baddies. And a little excitement for any plot.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Villains and Villainy- The Crazies

Welcome back to Villains and Villainy! Last week, we looked at the masterminds, some of the villains who have the most fun, hands down. But if there are any villains that are more fun to watch, it’s the crazy ones.

Like Azula... who is crazy, but I will be looking at for a different category

These villains are completely nutty and don’t operate on the same rules that the heroes do. They have off the wall reasons for doing things, or perhaps no reason at all. And they’re always a delight to watch.

In fact here's a battle between two nutjobs from Baccano. Gotta love 'em

It should be noted that I do not mean ‘crazy’ in the sense that a villain has a mental illness. While this might be true of some in the archetype, I recommend against using a mental illness as a cheap, easy explanation for why your villain does what they do. Also, misrepresentation of mental illness is a problem and it needs to be avoided.

No, when I talk about crazy villains, its all in their carriage and how they handle life. There may not be anything technically wrong with them, but there world view is twisted into seven kinds of knots.
The fun think about this villain type is that it has so many possibilities and levels. A villain can have a touch of crazy or be absolutely gone. The key is to find the balance that will make your story the most interesting.

For instance, a villain has to be sane enough to offer a challenge for the heroes. If they’re completely nuts, they won’t be much of a threat. And yet, they’re also unpredictable which makes it hard to predict their movements. Their off the wall view on life can often lend to interesting spotlights on the human condition. It helps us see human beings from a different angle and its endlessly fascinating.
The crazy villains often have so much fun with what they’re doing as well, and I can get behind any character who has a passion for what they do. But they do not necessarily have to enjoy what they do. They can be disturbingly crazy as well, not enjoying what they do but still believing in some way, that what they’re doing is ultimately right. In my spotlight this Friday, I will look at two different villains who each handle their insanity very differently.

The key thing to remember with crazy villains is that they still need rules. You can’t excuse yourself from the mechanics of reality. And if you do choose to give them a mental illness of some kind, be damn sure you research it, because mental illness does not need misrepresentation.

Every nutty villain has rules. But these are rules that make sense to them. And as long as they make sense to one person, you have a solid foundation for a crazy.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Villain Spotlight- Rumpelstiltskin and Petyr Baelish

Forgot to post this last Friday so we're skipping the book review this week and instead doing this late villain spotlight!

Today I get to spotlight two of my favorite villains. Rumpelstiltskin from Once Upon a Time and Peytr Baelish from Game of Thrones. These are two highly intelligent villains with intricate plots that spread over several years. And they both have such fun with what they do, its hard not to enjoy it with them.

First there’s Rumpelstiltskin, also known as the Dark One, also known as the Beast and the Crocodile (Once Upon a Time is complicated). He has a long time plot spanning multiple seasons of show. He has no qualms with manipulating anyone to get what he wants. But what is it he wants? Not more power or anything evil like that. He wants to find his son, who he lost a long time ago, and reconcile with him. The one deal he ever broke resulted in him losing the thing he cared most about and that has driven him since then. He’s lost himself along the way and succumbed to the darkness, but his end goal never changes.

Until season 4, but that season doesn’t exist as far as I’m concern.

Most of the series, Rumpelstiltskin functions as a troll. He trolls all the characters and has them all dangling on strings. He’s clearly the smartest one in the room and everyone else is playing catch up. And he’s just so… delightful. Props to Robert Carlisle for such an amazing performance.

Next is Petyr Baelish.

He’s an interesting character who, far from being the main villain at any point, is always in the shadows behind all the real players, pulling strings and slowly making his way to the top. His goals are not particularly honorable. He wants to end up on the iron throne as much as anyone else. But unlike most of his adversaries, he’s patient and extremely smart. Parts of his plan are still unfolding even five seasons in. Also he has this monologue.

He’s surprisingly honest about his devious intentions and that honesty somehow tricks some people into thinking they can trust him. When they shouldn’t. Like, it’s the worst decision you could make.
I’m really interested to see where he goes in future seasons. He’s a terrible person, but he’s so good at it, and works very hard at his plotting. Hard work and genius are hard not to respect… even when coming from someone like Baelish.

Those are my spotlights for this week. What are some of your favorite mastermind villains? Let me know in the comments.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Villains and Villainy- The Mastermind

This week we look at one of my favorite villain archetypes: The Mastermind. This is the villain who has everything planned out. They’re the valedictorians at the school of evil and have everything planned out miles before the hero does. Sometimes they are the main villain and sometimes they work from the shadows, an unseen threat. Either way, they’ve got the world on strings.

One of my favorite traits in a good villain is intelligence. I think it makes for a lot of interesting dynamics, especially when the hero’s main virtue is intelligence. Two masterminds against each other is the stuff that legends are made of. Think Moriarty and Sherlock. 

An intelligent villain can also help a more impulsive, brawny hero grow. If the protagonist would rather act before think they often have to change in order to match a villain’s careful planning.

I think I just get great enjoyment when the hero thinks they have everything figured out and the mastermind pulls one over on them. They are very versatile villains. But there are still plenty of bad ways to write a mastermind.

Some of the most enjoyable villains are the ones who enjoy themselves. And in the case of masterminds, this is often the case. They’re smarter than everyone and they know it. Its often most fun to watch a villain when they are enjoying themselves. But they can’t be cartoony in the same way. Bond villains tend to be masterminds, but they’ve become such a stereotype they’re more a joke than anything. Mostly because they do stupid things. Like not kill Bond.

Because you suck at murdering!!!
No, masterminds have to have humanity to them as well. They need a method to their evil because everything they do is methodical. They need a goal and sometimes that goal can be perfectly sympathetic. Sometimes not. You have flexibility with masterminds over how evil you want to make them.

The most important thing is have fun. Bask in the genius of your villains. It will push your heroes to the brink and make the plot infinitely more interesting. And let yourself go along with it. Sometimes its fun to slip into your characters, especially when they’re the smartest one in the room.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Book Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

On a list of things that took me way too long to get around to reading is this lovely book. I heard much praise surrounding the Book Thief and upon the release of the movie, I decided I probably should finally take it on. I did. And there were tears. Copious… copious tears.


1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier.

Liesel, a nine-year-old girl, is living with a foster family on Himmel Street. Her parents have been taken away to a concentration camp. Liesel steals books. This is her story and the story of the inhabitants of her street when the bombs begin to fall.


It's a small story, about:

a girl

an accordionist

some fanatical Germans

a Jewish fist fighter

and quite a lot of thievery.


The Characters- There are so many memorable characters in this book. Liesel is strong and plucky, but none the less a child and it is fascinating to see her navigate the struggles of growing up in Nazi Germany. Her adopted father is friendly, funny and tremendously likable, her close friend is a combination charming and sad, her mother is stern but likable and the Jewish fist fighter, Max, is a testament to human strength and will to survive. I adore all of these characters and how Liesel interacts with them. But perhaps my favorite character is the narrator, Death himself. The way Death is characterized, as an overworked entity with occasional profound insight or quip, is brilliant. I love Death. I feel bad for him, honestly. And it’s such a fresh perspective that makes the story wholly unique. A+ for an interesting angle!

The Good Points- This story has a very unconventional structure, but it works quite well. It gives the grand and small scale of the war, being versatile enough to jump heads, hone in on characters and show us the massive tragedy all at the same time. The characters are what drive this book, as the plot revolves around their interactions. However, I must say, the very concept of a book thief during Nazi Germany is genius. The story was also full of genuine emotions and it is one of the few books to make me cry. Not just cry. I sobbed at the end. It was a bucket of feels I wasn’t prepared for. And any book that can make me feel gets massive points.

The Bad Points- There aren’t many bad points. The disjointed way of telling the story may or may not work for you but it will all be a matter of opinion. And in my personal opinion there are nearly no bad points to speak of.

The Book Thief is an emotionally honest book, charming and devastating all at once. I’d recommend it highly to any of those in the small group who have not read this book. Its likely you already have but if that’s the case, reread it. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.

Final Rating- 5/5 stars

Friday, April 10, 2015

Villain Spotlight- President Snow and the Lord Ruler

Time to spotlight some villains who perfectly fit the archetype of the tyrant: President Snow from the Hunger Games and the Lord Ruler from the Mistborn trilogy.

Let’s start of with President Snow, who all things considered, has more bad points than good points in the books. And honestly I didn’t find him entirely interesting in print, probably because we didn't see as much of him. The movies on the other hand? Give Donald Sutherland the part and give him some extra scenes and you have a more better developed character.

In the movies we see Snow in his element. We see him as a dictator but also with his Granddaughter. We see him in his garden, trimming flowers because, hey, he has hobbies. And there is a certain method to his cruelty. Like with this quote:

It shows how much Snow really understands the human mind. He’s a terrifying villain but there are brief, glimpses of his humanity. He does want to prevent war because a war will be devastating for both sides. I mean, he’d prefer that things only be devastating from one side but, still.

On a larger scale from Snow is The Lord Ruler from the Mistborn trilogy. Which by the way, if you haven’t read these books, you’d better because they’re amazing and I adore them. The first book of this series starts with a small group plotting to overthrow a man who has ruled for a thousand years as practically a god. We don’t see much of the Lord Ruler but when he comes out, he does so in a big way. Talk about a villain having presence. He radiates it. He feels like a man absolutely secure in his power. A big bad in every definition of the word. Honestly, if he had no redeemable human characteristics, I still would have given him a pass because dang.

But, Brandon Sanderson doesn’t like simple answers. And after we have well learned to hate the lord ruler, we begin to see the reason for everything he has done. And I can’t begin to give them away because you should just read the books. But its really incredible the level of complexity Brandon Sanderson added to this character who could have been just a typical tyrant. Its incredible. And he’s definitely my favorite tyrant character I’ve read in any book or seen in any movie.

Those are my spotlights for this week. I know there are a lot of great tyrants but some will fit into later categories. These two I thought defined what I was looking for in a good tyrant. I hope that looking at these two as examples will help you in your own writing.

May the odds be ever in your favor!

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Villains and Villainy: The Tyrant

Kicking off the villains series with a vengeance, let’s start with a very popular archetype: The tyrant.
Read any dystopian fiction lately? Then you know all about the tyrant. This villain is the person at the top of the food chain, the ruler of a country who rules with an iron fist. This is the person who inspires rebellions and causes a few lone heroes to stand up and demand justice for the common people. Its no surprise that this villain is popular. They set off conflict on a large scale and often times, taking them down is a monumental task.

But there are ways to write a good tyrant, and there are ways to write a bad one.

I think the biggest danger in writing is the tyrant is making them boring. Its really easy to do, considering how popular this archetype is. In a lot of cases, we may look at the big bad for a dystopian novel, shrug and say ‘seen it’. So they execute people for no reason. So they start wars that sweep across the land, leaving ashes and death in their wake. So what?

What’s important about writing a tyrant is that we get into their head. Because no tyrant really sets out to be a tyrant. That’s what makes them interesting. They set out with a noble cause and ultimately think they are doing the right thing. That’s the key. Don’t just show us reasons to hate them. Show us reasons that they might be justified.

I’m gonna throw out some examples that will not be in my villain spotlight on Friday. These examples happen to be from Avatar: The Last Airbender and the sequel series, Legend of Korra.

In Avatar the Last Airbender, there’s the fire lord Ozai. He’s bad news: a powerful fire bender who is obsessed with conquering the rest of the world and destroying the avatar. He’s got some cool things in his favor. He’s got an awesome design and presence and he’s voiced by Mark Hamil of Starwars and Batman the Animated Series fame. But he’s not that… interesting. He’s just kind of evil. We don’t see why he became this way or why he does most of the evil things he does. He’s an obstacle, but not much of a character compared to his children Azula and Zuko (both of whom I will look at later in this series).

Then there’s Kuvira, from Legend of Korra. This is a woman who clearly has good intentions. She’s tough, organized and disciplined and her soldiers are loyal to her. She does help the earth kingdom, as long as they accept her rule. She pushes her regime on others by force if necessary, but she believes the ends will ultimately justify the means.

Now of course, she’s ultimately as tyrannical as any of the other dictators, but seeing the positive sides of her is important. We see the help she gives and the parts of her that make a good leader. And she’s also just kind of a bad ass. 

Her fighting style is amazing. Though I’m ultimately more interested in the characters of the original show, I can’t deny that Legend of Korra had some really memorable villains.

So are you writing dystopian or fantasy fiction hinging on a tyrant? Don’t just make them evil. Even the worst people in history had virtues. If you want your tyrants to be interesting, make them human first and villains second.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Book Reviews: Annihilation by Jeff Vandermeer

So I have the extreme fortune of knowing the author of today’s book. Jeff Vandermeer is one of the founders of Shared Worlds, the creative writing camp I attended for three years during high school. He saw the earliest versions of HOUR OF MISCHIEF and was an excellent mentor. I have him to thank for making me stop my characters from ‘growling’ and ‘setting my ellipses free.’ I could talk about how awesome he is all day, but we’re here to talk about his work. The shoe is on the other foot Mr. Vandemeer. Now I shall critique your work and expose it’s failings to the world! Just kidding… it’s kind of awesome. Let’s hop right in!

The Plot- Area X has been cut off from the rest of the continent for decades. Nature has reclaimed the last vestiges of human civilization. The first expedition returned with reports of a pristine, Edenic landscape; all the members of the second expedition committed suicide; the third expedition died in a hail of gunfire as its members turned on one another; the members of the eleventh expedition returned as shadows of their former selves, and within months of their return, all had died of aggressive cancer.
This is the twelfth expedition.
Their group is made up of four women: an anthropologist; a surveyor; a psychologist, the de facto leader; and our narrator, a biologist. Their mission is to map the terrain and collect specimens; to record all their observations, scientific and otherwise, of their surroundings and of one another; and, above all, to avoid being contaminated by Area X itself.
They arrive expecting the unexpected, and Area X delivers—they discover a massive topographic anomaly and life forms that surpass understanding—but it’s the surprises that came across the border with them, and the secrets the expedition members are keeping from one another, that change everything.

The Characters- What’s that? Is that four female main characters that I see? Four main characters who are women but not defined by their gender? I believe it is! I was very excited to discover this when I first heard about the book. There really aren’t enough books who say ‘the gender of our characters doesn’t really matter but let’s make them all women’. So A + for that. It’s really hard for me to talk about the characters otherwise, however, for fear of spoiling it. As the summary says, all of the expedition members are keeping secrets. We have access to the biologist who is an interesting character herself with a rich back story and intriguing world view. But the other three characters become known to us gradually. I don’t want to spoil it but I must say, the psychologist is interesting J

The Good Points- Jeff Vandermeer's imagination is weird. That’s always been the wonderful thing about him as a writer. He’s weird and excessively creative. This suits him quite well when writing a horror type story. There are many parts of this story that shock you to your core. But none of the scares are cheap thrills. Its all very otherworldly and fascinating, like something you’ve never read before. And really, I think that’s the biggest reason I would encourage people to read this book. You haven’t read something like it before. Its just… such an interesting dive into the explainable and into the often disturbed psychology of human beings. But don’t read it late at night. For the sake of sleep, just don’t.

The Bad Points- There aren’t really critiques I can give this book that aren’t matters of personal preference. For instance, I can’t quite give this book my highest rating because, while the characters were fully fleshed out and interesting, they weren’t the kind of characters I can emotionally connect to. That’s nothing against the writing. It’s just my taste. Other than that, there’s no reason you shouldn’t read this book. Unless you’re easily scared… Just kidding, you should read it anyway.

Overall, Annihilation is frightening, thought provoking and unique in the best sense of the word. One might think I’m biased since I know the author but, you know what, Stephen King recommended this book too. So there. Read it. You will not regret it, even if your sleep schedule does.

Final Rating- 4.5/5

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Villains and Villainy- Introduction

Now that my editing series has drawn to a close, I think it’s about time that we start a new one! This time on a subject dear to my writer’s heart: villains.

Honestly, is there anything more fun to write than villains? There’s something fascinating about them no matter their type. It’s the hero that leads the story, but it’s the villain that strings them along and creates a truly interesting web of a plot. And a poorly written villain can make a story fall flat in an instant.

I’ve raved about various types of villains in the past. But I figured, there are so many shades and colors of villains that they deserve their own series. So for the next several weeks, each Wednesday, we’re going to be exploring a classic villain type and how to do them justice in your writing.

And every Friday starting next week there will be a Villain Spotlight, drawing attention to some of the best written villains in books, movies and TV shows. There are of course, a lot of amazing baddies to pay homage to. I’ll be look closely at some of my personal favorites but feel free to offer up suggestions of some of your favorite villains. I know there are so many to choose from and I want to talk about as many as possible.

In the meantime, have a pleasant week!