Book: The Red Rising Trilogy

"Red Rising"

His wife taken. His people enslaved. Driven by a longing for justice and the memory of lost love, Darrow will stop at nothing to bring down his enemies… even if he must become one of them to do so.

I’m doing something a little different this time; instead of posting about just the first book, I’m going to write about the whole Red Rising trilogy. Why? Because as I put the first book down, I realize that I really didn’t have much to say about the book, because while it was enough of an enjoyable read, it didn’t really feel like that much different from another dystopian novel. Specifically, The Hunger Games.

You have a caste system. The ones at the bottom are oppressed, and the ones on the top are the oppressors. You have a reluctant hero who is transplanted from the bottom to the top. And then the revolution begins. It’s not exactly paint-by-numbers, sure. Red Rising is different enough from Hunger Games that you don’t put it down and turn your back on it. But the only thing that really set it apart from the aforementioned dystopian series was the fact that author Pierce Brown is amazing at describing warfare.

Red Rising, during its first few chapters, was a little boring with all the exposition needed to set up the new world. But once the action starts? The whole book becomes a breeze to read. And I’m glad I’m not the kind of reader to just give up on a book just because I don’t enjoy the first part. Because the rest of Red Rising? It was exhilarating…even when it feels like it was running a very familiar course.

But I enjoyed it enough that I decided to jump onto the second book as soon as I can. And it’s Golden Son that really sets the trilogy apart from other dystopian series. Because our reluctant hero, as you can tell from the first book’s back synopsis that I quoted above, doesn’t remain a reluctant hero. He leads. And he makes mistakes. Multiple mistakes. And in a series that grapples with the idea of humanity, making mistakes is exactly what we want our characters to do.

Sure, it does get frustrating when things don’t smoothly for heroes. But that’s what makes for a good read, right? When your heroes, smart as they are, can still face obstacles that don’t look down on them; challenges that develop them even further.

Pierce Brown definitely delivers on great character development; most of which aren’t surprising, but only because the characters he created–heroes and villains alike–are so complete that none of their actions feel left-of-field, even during plot twists.

Both Golden Son and third book Morning Star show that the dystopian genre can still deliver fresh takes. They show that you don’t have to dumb down your heroes, or your villains, to make a compelling story. That you don’t have to rewrite the same story, dressed differently, just because the first one worked. Although, I must say, Morning Star does feature a few chapters where the narration becomes frustrating. Not because the writing isn’t at par with the rest of the series, but because it becomes a little obvious in holding facts back. I think it’s four chapters that could’ve been condensed to one, if Pierce Brown had employed the no-holds-barred storytelling he used in the first two books.

All that said, I’m still of the opinion that the Red Rising trilogy is one for the ages. A must-read for fans of dystopian fiction… Or and any sci-fi, fantasy, or warfare book lovers for that matter.

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Book: The Grinning Niño of Barang (The Dark Colony Clasificado)

"The Grinning Niño of Barang"

In the oppressive midnight of Martial Law, a band of knights investigate a religious artifact in the festive town of Barang, Bulacan…

…Where, beneath the banderitas, an ancient evil awaits.

For the past couple of years, I haven’t been keeping up with the local literary releases outside of the Romance Class publications–so I was pleasantly surprised to find this title at the last Komikon. To be honest, I kind of gave up that The Dark Colony was going to have a second book, since it’s been four years since the first one came out.

Now, I didn’t pick this book up because of the synopsis. I didn’t even know that it wasn’t a comic book until I started reading it. All I knew, going into it, is that it’s from Budjette Tan, creator of Trese. And I have to give major props to JB Tapia because I didn’t even realize that it wasn’t Tan writing until I got to the Afterword. (Although, in hind sight, I should have. Tapia also wrote the first Dark Colony book. Tan just helped create the world. But the world-building is similar to Trese‘s, and it is exemplary.)

That aside, I thought The Grinning Niño of Barang was a more solid story compared to the first installment of The Dark Colony. The plot is straightforward, the objectives are clear, and the villain is fully realized. I wish I can say the same thing for the heroes though.

Don’t get me wrong. The protagonists aren’t stereotypes nor are they cardboard cutouts, but we see more of their weaknesses that they don’t feel balanced. I wanted to root for them. Badly. But as I reached the midway point, I feel like I only want to root for them because I didn’t want the villain to win.

On other other books, I would rave about the humanity of these characters. How they weren’t just heroes who come in and save the world. But when you’re reading a book about the supernatural, about good versus evil, you do want a bit of goodness in your heroes. Just a little bit of goodness can go a long way. And save for the narrator, none of the characters feel like someone you would want to root for in a fight. They’re real, yes, but not the heroes we would want.

Which is unfortunate, because I feel like The Grinning Niño of Barang succeeds where the first Dark Colony story failed: it gave us a clear story, a clear origin, and a fight to champion. It made us want to know more about this world, and the war that the good guys are fighting. Unfortunately, it also failed where Mikey Recio failed–it still didn’t give us a likeable character whose story we would want to follow.

Book: The Dam Keeper

"The Dam Keeper"

Life in Sunrise Valley is tranquil, but beyond its borders lies certain death. A dangerous black fog looms outside the village, but its inhabitants are kept safe by an ingenious machine known as the dam. Pig’s father built the dam and taught him how to maintain it. And then this brilliant inventor did the unthinkable: he walked into the fog and was never seen again.

Now Pig is the dam keeper. Except for his best friend, Fox, and the town bully, Hippo, few are aware of his tireless efforts. But a new threat is on the horizon–a tidal wave of black fog is descending on Sunrise Valley. Now Pig, Fox, and Hippo must face the greatest danger imaginable: the world on the other side of the dam.

I picked this book up because I thought the artwork was cute. I’ve never heard of The Dam Keeper before an artist I follow on Tumblr reblogged it, so I was not aware that it stemmed off an Oscar-nominated animated short film–and that it won awards from the San Francisco International Film Festival and the New York International Children’s Film Festival.

But even without knowledge of the short film, The Dam Keeper‘s synopsis quickly catches its readers on pertinent information. You wouldn’t need to have seen the short.

The Dam Keeper sets off by establishing the world Pig exists in. We find out who he is, who the other characters are in this story, and then we find out what pushes him to live life. The book tackles the complex issue of loss and surviving, but it does so in a way that it’s very easy to follow.

I don’t know if this is being marketed as a children’s book. What I do know is that it doesn’t look down on its readers. It trusts you enough to not feed you every little detail, while making sure that you know where each character is coming from.

What I liked the best about the book though is how the character of Pig wears his emotions for all to see. There’s sadness in the words he speaks. And, props to the artists who drew the book, they drew Pig’s sadness and resilience beautifully.

This is a beautiful book, and I don’t think there is anything I can write that would give justice to just how beautiful it is. So instead, I will say this: find a copy. Buy it. Read it. And see for yourself how masterful The Dam Keeper is.

Book: United As One

"United as One"

They hunted us for our legacies.
They are coming for you now too.
They know you have powers.
They fear how powerful we can become–together.
We need your help.
We can save the planet if
We fight as one.

They started this war.
We will end it.

I read this last year. I thought about skipping writing about this since it’s been so long, but the completion-ist in me didn’t want to go ahead to the new Lorien Legacies series without at least posting about the finale of the previous one.

So–

If you’ve been keeping up with the I Am Number Four series of books, United As One provides a very satisfying conclusion to the novels. The previous book, The Fate of Ten, stumbled in providing plot movement–and that actually leaves a problem for this last book. Which I will get to.

For the most part, United As One reads like a series finale of a television program. Things really come to a head, and you don’t know which of the protagonists will survive until the end. But the first few chapters felt a little cramped, with no wiggle room for breathing. I feel like some elements of United As One‘s first act would have benefited being introduced in the previous book.

I just hope they apply their learnings from the previous series to the one that’s currently being written now, Legacies Reborn.

And this is pretty much all I can write, because this is all I remember from my reactions after reading the book last year. There’s a lesson here for me as well: never disappear from blogging, unless you don’t have plans of ever returning.

Book: Si Janus Silang at ang Pitumpu’t Pitong Pusong

"Si Janus Silang at ang Pitumpu't Pitong Pusong"

Bago naglaho si Janus habang naglalaro ng TALA, nakita ni Manong Joey sa utak nito ang hinahanap nilang paraluman.

Sinundo ni Renzo si Mica sa Balanga para protektahan ito sa Angono at dahil may kaugnayan ito sa paralumang nakita ni Manong Joey kay Janus.

Samantala, nasa Kalibutan pa rin sina Manong Isyo para hanapin si Mira na malamang na nakuha ng mga mambabarang. Walang kaalam-alam ang lahat kung nasaan na si Janus hanggang sa makita ni Manong Joey na humihiwalay ang anino ni Renzo sa katawan nito at maaaring matagal na pala itong ginagamit ng Tiyanak!

Two years have passed since the second book off the Janus Silang series was released. Since then, the titular character has appeared in comics form, on stage, and was acquired by a television network to be turned into a soap opera. I don’t know what happens to Janus Silang in the future, but getting turned into a franchise seems to have worked in his favor. At least, novel-wise.

Janus Silang’s third book is the strongest offering from the series yet. Although I have qualms about author Edgar Samar’s decision to dive right into the action, I must say that the pacing in this installment is the most solid it’s been since the title first launched.

The characters all get proper development this time around–especially Mica. She who became almost an afterthought in the second book is given the right spotlight, and is used perfectly to balance the world of the fantastical with the normal. I also have to applaud Samar for Mica’s participation in this book, setting her arc up perfectly–and giving her a satisfying resolution. Well, a satisfying one for this book.

Plot-wise, Pitumpu’t Pitong Pusong has what it’s predecessors don’t: a clear structure of where the characters have come from, where they are going, and where they end up. Twists are used sparingly, making them more effective. And it is clear now that Samar knows where he is taking his story, whereas it seemed like he was just pulling things out of thin air before.

And most importantly, for me, the book doesn’t read like an educational book anymore. Old Tagalog words are still sprinkled throughout the narrative–but they feel more organically woven in, used by characters who understandably speak in a more archaic way. But in general, the words used by the novel are more colloquial. More relatable. Easier to read.

Honestly, when I picked up Janus Silang at ang Pitumpu’t Putong Pusong, it felt like a burden. I bought the book because I wanted to know how the story goes. After all, I do like the premise of the series. But after two books that weren’t as engrossing as I hoped it would be, I sort of lost hope that things would get better with the new book.

I’m glad that I was wrong.

Janus Silang at ang Pitumpu’t Pitong Pusong is the book that I always wanted the series to be. And I am praying that the next installments would keep this quality.

Television: Encantadia

"Encantadia"

Eleven years ago, when I was still in college, local network GMA-7 embarked on an ambitious journey to create a fantastical world where magic and monsters exist. And although my initial intention in watching the first episode were less than honorable, I was instantly hooked.

Encantadia was nothing like anything else on television–in the Philippines or abroad. Sure, we had the Lord of the Rings, but that was a cinematic event. On television, Game of Thrones was still six years away, the Shannara Chronicles had ten years more to go. One of the earliest completely fantastical television shows, Legends of the Seeker, began in 2008. And all of those are television programs that aired once a week with a lot of time to prep and produce each episode. Encantadia was a soap opera that aired five days a week.

I’m not saying that to build up an apology for what the program was–mostly, because if you’ve seen the original series, there really isn’t anything to apologize about. Encantadia rolled with the punches and dealt with limitations and restrictions through twists that made the show all the more interesting to watch.

A new generation of viewers were born in the era of Encantadia then. Smart viewers. Viewers who liked to be challenged. Viewers who then dreamed of seeing more programs like Encantadia.

I was one of those viewers. Fast forward to ten years later, and I’m now part of the team that’s shaping the “requel” of the series that got me interested in Philippine television again.

Now, before you ask– “Requel” was a term coined to distance the new Encantadia from the string of remakes being done by the local television networks. From MariMar, to Panday, to Pangako Sa ‘Yo, the series of old soap operas being remade for new viewers was leaving a sour taste in the mouth of their target markets. It’s either the remakes were too similar to the original, or they were too different.

That’s what Encantadia 2016 is striving to avoid.

By re-telling the original story with new twists and new information, new viewers will be able to follow what happened before without boring the viewers who have seen the original run (or has since streamed the original series on iFlix). We’re reshaping the narrative so things that happened originally are told in new and surprising ways. That way, we get to keep the old fans on their toes–while tipping our hat to the fact that they know where things are going.

But all of these retelling serves only one purpose: it’s to get all viewers (old and new) abreast to the ending of the original series. It’s to familiarize everyone again with the characters that were loved before. It’s to set up a new chapter alongside the old ones.

Because a “requel” isn’t just a retelling. It’s a sequel too. And I am telling you: the fan in me? The one that dreamed to write his own fantasy series because of the original Encantadia? He’s very giddy at the plans that are being set up and planted in the first part of Encantadia 2016.

I am promising you: this is going to be one heck of a ride.

Encantadia airs weeknights after 24 Oras, on GMA Network in the Philippines.

Movie: Captain America, Civil War

"Captain America: Civil War"

Marvel’s “Captain America: Civil War” finds Steve Rogers leading the newly formed team of Avengers in their continued efforts to safeguard humanity. But after another incident involving the Avengers results in collateral damage, political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability, headed by a governing body to oversee and direct the team. The new status quo fractures the Avengers, resulting in two camps-one led by Steve Rogers and his desire for the Avengers to remain free to defend humanity without government interference, and the other following Tony Stark’s surprising decision to support government oversight and accountability.

When I watched The Avengers: Age of Ultron, I was a little underwhelmed. Although I did enjoy watching the film, I had notes throughout on what I would’ve have done (storytelling-wise) that could have made the film better. But, now that I’ve had a few months to have some perspective on how I felt about the film, I understand that I was coming from a place of high expectations. The first Avengers film struck me speechless, and I was expecting the same for Age of Ultron. That was unfair. So when I first saw the trailer for Captain America: Civil War, I told myself to manage my expectations.

The Captain America films has been my favorite of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The First Avenger was an amazing film that perfectly told the story of the classic Captain America and made it palatable to modern viewers. The Winter Soldier topped that by twisting expectations, and delivering the most non-superhero film that starred a superhero. In both films, the cast of characters had been manageable. There were only a handful, and each one of them played an integral part in telling the story. And then here comes Civil War with the problem that truly plagued the second Avengers film: an overly large cast with rich stories that remain untapped. Each one bursting to tell their own journey.

Civil War served them all well, without forgetting the fact that this is a Captain America film. That this closes his trilogy.

And what a closer it is. (Seriously. The film’s last shot? Not counting the after credits? It gave me goosebumps.)

I don’t know how many times my jaw dropped watching this film. The fears and questions I had while watching the trailer were all explained away, and most of the stuff that internet people have been concerned about made a lot of sense for me. As the credits rolled, all I could think of was this: I didn’t have to manage my expectations at all. Because while Civil War is no Winter Soldier, the film is still a solid Captain America film. And that is what’s important, right?

Civil War has more superheroes than either one of the Avengers films, but each one plays out their part and stays in their lane. A few breakout as scene-stealers, but none of them steals the movie from Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan. Not even Robert Downey Jr., who tones down his Tony Stark to give his most somber portrayal of the character since he was first handed the iron helmet. And it works.

Everything works.

There have been a lot of reports that it’s Spider-Man who people will remember from watching this film, but I disagree. Spider-Man is set-up wonderfully, yes. Tom Holland does give a nuanced take that balances the drama of Tobey Maguire’s version with the levity of Andrew Garfield’s take on the hero. But this is not his film to steal. He serves a purpose, and one of his scenes actually underlines the movie’s theme without being blatant about it. His scenes still pushes the Captain America story forward, while providing a break from the film’s serious tone. Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely still leaves Spider-Man’s story to whoever will be writing the webslinger’s own film.

As they do for the Blank Panther who makes quite the splashy entrance, and yet doesn’t overpower the strengths of the other characters.

The writers and directors Anthony and Joe Russo must be commended on using characters that haven’t been established yet to further the plot, without making the plot about them. They serve their purpose, but their own stories are purposely left out for their own films, without making moviegoers feel like they were shortchanged with these characters.

And I love how they use the absence of certain characters to push the story even further, to make the characters more three-dimensional.

But the best part of the film is how the number of superheroes isn’t overwhelming. Which… If these are the people working on the next two Avengers films? I think we can all rest easy, because we’re in good hands.

Captain America opens today in the Philippines. And I would like to thank my friend Chris Cantada for inviting me to the premiere of the film last Monday, April 25.

And, obviously, I didn’t get into the nitty gritty details of the film. I keep having to check myself that I’m not dropping spoilers by accident. But, if you’ve already seen the film and want to discuss it with me, hit me up in the comments. (This also serves as a warning to other readers to not read the comments section, if you don’t want to be spoiled.)