Sunday, 17 July 2016

Three Things Warcraft Could Learn From Lord of the Rings

In 2001, when the first installment of the Lord of the Rings movie franchise, The Fellowship of the Ring (FOTR), came out, I went to see it simply as a sucker of fantasy.  I had not read the books, couldn’t tell Gollum from Gandalf.  Three hours later, I emerged from the theatre a converted member of Middle Earth, and like all the beautiful and hideous denizens there, I wanted to get my hands on the precious (Ring).  More importantly, I was impressed by the magic of Peter Jackson, who had brilliantly brought Tolkien’s complex fantasy series onto the big screen and made me fall in love with it.

Fast forward to 2016, the long awaited movie of Warcraft finally arrives.  As with Lord of the Rings, I have never played the Warcraft game, know nothing about that sprawling universe.  The trailer promises that orcs and humans are to put aside their enmity and unite against a common threat that could destroy both their worlds.  Sounds good to me.  I went into the theater hoping for the thrill of magic, of fantastic characters and landscapes, of epic battles between good and evil.  Warcraft has all these elements, and yet it fails to make me care.  Why?

Both FOTR and Warcraft are based on original materials involving expansive landscapes filled with characters living under the shadow of evil.  Yet their story structures vary, resulting in immersion for the viewers in the former world and indifference towards the latter.

It’s impossible to talk about the many ways the Warcraft movie has failed to engage the audience without delving into the plot, so if you don’t want to know the story details, please stop reading now. 

Problem #1: Where Should We Begin?

The Warcraft movie opens with an orc chieftain Durotan bemoaning to his heavily pregnant wife Draka about their world Draenor, which is dying. (Gosh, what’s with the orcs and names beginning with “D”?).  In a subsequent gathering of the orc clans, the warlock Gul’dan explains how fel magic has allowed him to create a portal into another world, but this gateway feeds on life and they are running out of prisoners to sacrifice to keep the wormhole open.  Gul’dan plans to use the portal to reach and raid the connecting (human) world for a new supply of captives.  That way, the magical gateway will stay intact long enough for the entire orc population to migrate to this new land.  Feeling that they have no other choice to save their community, Durotan and Draka join the first group of warriors to travel through the gateway and reach the human world of Azeroth, thus igniting the conflict between the two species.

I have been told that orcs love fighting regardless of their body condition.  It would have been nice if this important piece of information came from the movie instead of a Warcraft gaming veteran whom I spoke to afterwards.  Without this background info, it was impossible to imagine why the heavily pregnant Draka would want to plunge into the unchartered route of the portal and engage in a war against an unknown species in an alien world.  So when she went into labour while still in the portal’s wormhole, I was disappointed by her decision as well as the writers’ choice for an opening.
The orcs’ dying world of Draenor… still looks pretty green to me.
Simply telling us that Draenor is dying and the only solution is to seize the human world is not enough to make us care.  It just doesn’t.  Unfortunately, this contrived premise is the foundation upon which the story is built.  The result is a saga with shaky credibility that viewers find reluctant to follow.
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Sauron and his Ring
In contrast, FOTR has a brilliant opening.  It shows how Sauron has invested much of his power in the forging of the One Ring that can rule over the other Rings of Power owned by leaders of elves, dwarves and men.  Wearing the One Ring enables Sauron to have dominion over all the other clans in Middle Earth.  After losing his Ring finger in a battle against Isildur of Gondor, Sauron is reduced to a spiritual presence anchored at Mount Doom.  Unable to resist the evil power of the Ring, Isildur keeps it and is later killed by the orcs.  Gollum finds and owns the Ring for five hundred years before he loses it to a hobbit named Bilbo Baggins.

Unlike Warcraft which begins by pitching orcs against humans, FOTR starts with identifying the source of the problem in Middle Earth: the One Ring.  By explaining its creation and its dangerous, alluring power, it tells us what is at stake, namely that the Ring needs to be destroyed or the world is doomed. It makes all the subsequent hardship and sacrifice understandable and sympathetic, allowing viewers to feel for the characters.

It is worth noting that this prologue for FOTR is Peter Jackson’s idea.  The book begins differently with details of Bilbo’s upcoming birthday party and his secret plan to leave his assets including the Ring to his nephew Frodo while he leaves the Shire for an adventure.  Jackson has a good reason for tampering with the original materials.  The novel and the movie are two different mediums, and the audience interact with them in different ways.  Jackson has a lot to pack into the three-hour movie, and he doesn’t waste any time by showing us first and foremost why the story is important.
Gul’dan in front of the portal generated by fel magic
If Warcraft is to take its cue from FOTR, Warcraft should begin by explaining why Draenor is dying.  We learn much later in the movie that the introduction of fel magic into Draenor is the reason for its demise.  Thus the origin, nature and power of fel magic and how Gul’dan became corrupted by it should have been clarified in the beginning.  Knowing that would have made the nonsense that follows make a lot more sense.

Problem #2: Who Is The Hero?

There are numerous characters in the Warcraft movie, and “main” characters alone amount to a dozen.  Among the orcs, we have the chieftain Durotan and his wife, Draka, his friend Orgrim Doomhammer, evil Gul’dan, his associate Blackhand and a half-breed slave girl named Garona.  In the human world of Azeroth live King Llane, his wife Lady Taria, military commander Auduin Lothar, magi Medivh, Khadgar and Alodi.

For a long time, Durotan appears to be the central orc character with Auduin Lothar being his counterpart in Azeroth.  Two-thirds into the movie, Durotan is killed by Gul’dan, and no one in Azeroth including Auduin Lothar has any idea how to stop the orcs and their fel magic from invading their world.

The only person who has a pivotal role in the movie turns out to be the slave girl Garona.  She is a half breed and fluent in human language.  One would assume that she is half orc, half human, but why?  The worlds of the orcs and humans were not connected before the portal, so the presence of human blood in her veins is questionable, and her lineage frustratingly unclear.  Why does this matter?  Because as a captive of the humans following the initial confrontation between orcs and men, she is the all-important translator for the two warring groups, not to mention the recipient of Auduin Lothar’s affection.  She is instrumental in convincing both sides to engage in a peace talk.  By the time she is revealed to be a most important person in the story, the film is half over.  This discovery does not delight but confuse the viewers about whose story the movie is telling.
Auduin Lothar and Garona… quickly falling in love
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Like Warcraft, FOTR also boasts an enormous cast consisting of Frodo and his servant Samwise, Gandalf and the Fellowship which includes Strider/Aragon, Legolas, Merry and Pippin, Grimli and Baromir.  Still, it is clear very early on who the most important person is: Frodo, the Ring bearer, who must take the Ring to Mount Doom, the one place where it can be destroyed.  Having established this premise, we can feel frustration for Gandalf while he is imprisoned at Isengard or dread upon the rise of the Uruk-hai orcs, and yet, we never lose track of the one person that matters: the powerless hobbit with the dreadful task of melting the Ring.
Frodo (left) and Samwell
Using FOTR as an example, Warcraft should have focused on Garona, perhaps telling the story from her point of view.  Her story is actually the only part of Warcraft that is interesting.  As a half-breed, she is the classic outcast who doesn’t belong anywhere in any world.  The dilemma she faces in the end is meant to be heartbreaking.  When fighting on the side of the humans and the orcs are clearly winning, King Llane suggests that she should kill him.  Doing so, he says, will earn her respect among the orcs and give her the ability to bring peace to Draenor and Azeroth in the future.  Had we been following Garona’s story from the beginning, we would have felt the profound sadness of this climactic scene when lacking better options, she digs her dagger into the king and runs towards the orcs, his head in her hand.  Instead, the power of the moment is lost to the chaotic, ill-defined plot.

Problem #3: Where Do We Go From Here?

Of all the things that are so out of focus about Warcraft, having a sequel is the one certainty that the creators are willing to declare.  In the final scenes, we see commander Auduin Lothar hailed as the new king of Azeroth, Garona becoming the reluctant leader of the orcs.  Lying in a carrier floating along a river, Go’el, the son of Durotan is being picked up by a group of humans.  The series of events are laid out like a red carpet for the sequel.  However, with the rest of the movie lacking a clear direction, we are unsure who we are to fear and who to root for.  Should we worry about Garona’s precarious leadership?  Or should the focus be on Durotan’s infant son, the baby that Draka gave birth to right after she landed in Azeroth?  What about Auduin Lothar, who now has this love-hate relationship with Garona?  Is he the hero in this movie?  Many things are happening, but the one thing that matters is tragically absent from these scenes.  Fel magic which started the saga is not mentioned at all, nor is there any information about Gul’dan’s plan. Unable to interpret this open ending, viewers simply withdraw from the story.
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The Black Gate of Mordor
Like Warcraft, not everything is resolved at the end of FOTR.  Frodo and Sam continue their journey towards Mordor, while the others in the Fellowship go to save Merry and Pippin, who are taken by the Uruk-hai.  Even though the characters are heading in different directions, the main agenda remains clear: the Ring must be destroyed.  We can only fear for Frodo for the dangers lying ahead.  With his fellow hobbit Samwell as his only companion, the odds are piling up against him and the next movie cannot come out soon enough.

If Warcraft was to have a similarly engaging ending, it would have to build a much tighter story from the ground up.  Knowing what is at stake and who the protagonist is would have made a big difference in the viewers’ experience of the movie.  At its current state, the Warcraft movie is a noisy mess suffering a delusion of grandeur.  In this golden age of epic fantasy, a simple tweaking of plot structure is all this movie needs for the chance to enjoy a status similar to that of Game of Thrones and perhaps even, the crown jewel of them all, the movie series of Lord of The Rings.

Friday, 1 July 2016

Your Guide to Must-Read Fantasy Trilogies

This is a follow-up article to my previous Epic Fantasy Series. First of all, a big thank-you to everyone who has read and commented on the post. Quite a number of you have asked for a list of favourite trilogies, so here it is. 
Before we get to the list however, let me clarify a couple things.  First, I have decided to cut this guide short at 9 entries instead of the standard 10. Among the series I have read, there is simply none that could occupy the tenth spot. And second, before you ask, no, I do not want to put in Lord of the Rings. Everyone knows Lord of the Rings. JRR Tolkien wrote the story as a single book, and turning it into three was a publisher’s decision for commercial reasons.  Its status as a trilogy is tenuous.  
This list below is organized from the oldest to the newest trilogies, and the last few entries are incomplete series at the time of writing. 
Finally, the fantasy trilogies discussed here must fit the following criteria:
  • Series must be about the same time-period/characters/over-arching plot
  • Series must be three novels that are regarded as a complete set
  • Finally, series must be fantasy.

The Fionavar Tapestry

Guy Gavriel Kay


Trilogy Status: Completed 1986                 Average Novel Length: 400 pages

The Fionavar Tapestry is one of the first trilogies I have ever read and it holds a very special place in my heart. It is one of Guy Gavriel Kay’s earlier novels and a large departure from his normal work, which is historical fantasy. The Fionavar Tapestry is high fantasy, drawing inspiration from classic characters including King Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. The story follows five young adults as they are transported to Fionavar, a world thrown into chaos by Rakoth, the Unraveller.  Upon discovery of their true identities, our protagonists plot against Rakoth in an attempt to save Fionavar. The best thing about Kay’s writing is his poetic phrasing and his emotional punch. Even if you use this as a gateway to his other writings, The Fionavar Tapestry is worth your time.


Dragonlance Legends Trilogy 

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman

Trilogy Status: Completed 1986                 Average Novel Length: 400 pages

Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman are staples of the fantasy genre, having a large hand in creating the Dragonlance Series.  They have written standalone works, such as the Deathgate Cycle, that are considered classics as well. If you want to break into the world of Dragonlance, there is no better place to start than the Legends Trilogy, a story about the rift that grows between a pair of twins: Raistlin the sorcerer and Caramon the warrior.  Raistlin is forever in search of more power, and his hunger leads him down a dark path. Caramon is called upon to rein his brother in and their battle rages across different times and places.  At one point, Raistlin even attempts to kill a god and usurp her throne.  Legends is widely considered to be one of the best Dragonlance trilogies.



Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn   

Tad Williams

Trilogy Status: Completed 1993       Average Novel Length: 600 pages (final novel 1000+)

Tad Williams is known for several different series, but my personal favourite has always been Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn. Following a young boy named Simon, the story catalogues his journeys through life, where he eventually finds service under a rebel prince and helps him battle against the dreaded Storm King. The strength of the story lies in its central character Simon. We follow him as a child, through his teenage years, until finally he is an adult in the third novel. Watching Simon grow in his power and position is very rewarding, and it ties together the whole series very well.


Liveship Traders Trilogy

Robin Hobb

Trilogy Status: Completed 2000                 Average Novel Length: 850 pages

Robin Hobb has written many trilogies, including the very popular Farseer Trilogy. However, for my pick, it is the Liveship Traders Trilogy. Character development is outstanding in this series, and Hobb has a true talent for creating characters that are well-rounded and convincing. Her ability to portray the internal struggles of a family is what truly sets this series apart.

The story follows the Vestrit family, whose careful plans are thrown into chaos when the father dies at an unexpectedly young age.  All of a sudden, the burden of the Vestrits’ survival rests on the shoulders of the daughters who, as prompted by their mother, are forced to make difficult decisions about their lives.  The less experienced of the two siblings is given rein of the family business simply because she is married.  Her adventurous sister has to give up her dream to be a sailor and pursue marriage.  These changes in their lives create a massive rift that threatens to pull the women apart, resulting in the poignant, heartbreaking family strife that Hobb writes so well. 

Old Kingdom (Abhorsen Trilogy) 

Garth Nix

Trilogy Status: Completed 2003                Average Novel Length: 500 pages

The very first fantasy novel I had ever read was Sabriel, the first in the Old Kingdom trilogy. It opened my eyes to a world I never knew could exist. Having one of the most inventive settings out there, Sabriel follows a young woman on a quest to save her father, the Abhorsen, a necromancer with the duty to keep the undead where they belong.  With him imprisoned and the ghastly creatures threatening to burst through the gates of Death, Sabriel bravely assumes the dreaded role and carries the seven bells designed to bind and banish the undead.  Her only ally is a cunning monster precariously tamed by a tiny bell around his neck.

The system with which Garth Nix develops and organizes magic is unique, and the story is immensely enjoyable. I cannot recommend Sabriel enough; the coming-of-age story of her apprenticeship as the Abhorsen is perfect for young adults and teenagers.  Although she is not the protagonist in the last two novels of the trilogy, Sabriel remains in the series throughout, collaborating with others in her extended family against the evil powers in the Old Kingdom.  Readers young and old should find much excitement in these novels.


The First Law

Joe Abercrombie

Trilogy Status: Completed 2008             Average Novel Length: 250 pages

As we move forward in time, our novels take a turn for the dark. Joe Abercrombie is considered one of the best writers of dark fantasy right now, and for good reasons. The worlds he paints are dark and brutal, full of despicable characters. However, Abercrombie throws in enough dark humor and writes his characters so well that you want them to succeed in their quests. The First Law trilogy follows a pack of grim heroes as they attempt to fight against the invasion that threatens to crush the Union, both from the Vikings in the North and the Empire in the South. What is really important here is Abercrombie’s ability to write characters that are so morally ambiguous, sometimes pure evil, and yet he somehow makes you love them and cheer for them on every step of the way. The trilogy also opens up the world to several stand-alone novels that are also very good.

The Broken Empire 

Mark Lawrence

Trilogy Status: Completed 2013            Average Novel Length: 400 pages

I think when Mark Lawrence set out to write the Broken Empire trilogy, he thought “how can I take all of the clich├ęs about good characters and invert them?” The story follows young Jorg, a boy who suffers the death of his mother and brother at the hands of his father, the King of Ancrath. Instead of seeking the resolution of his inner demons, Jorg turns his pain into anger and ambition. By the time he is fifteen, he is ready to kill his father and claim his throne. This series is dark, and you are hard pressed to believe what our protagonist is doing is right. However, Mark Lawrence keeps the story galloping forward and you are swept up in the rush. It’s a great novel for those who are tired of the hero who can do no wrong.

Kingkiller Chronicles 

Patrick Rothfuss

Trilogy Status: Incomplete            Average Novel Length: 700 pages

Speaking of a hero who can do no wrong, the final trilogy in this list is the epitome of this concept. The Kingkiller Chronicles is the tale of young Kvothe, a famous adventurer known throughout the land as the Kingkiller. However, the retelling of Kvothe’s youth is done by none other than Kvothe himself, known to others as simply an innkeeper. This mechanic is very intriguing, because Kvothe claims that he will not embellish his life as others have, and then proceeds to tell a story about a boy so talented and amazing that he literally succeeds at everything. Pat Rothfuss has done an extremely good job of combining elements of Harry Potter (notably the schoolboy learning magic part) with enough foreign and more adult elements that it becomes a whole new story. Immensely enjoyable and utterly irresistible, you cannot help but love every moment of Kvothe breezing his way through his tumultuous yet eventful life. 

Special Mentions

Book of the New Sun 

Gene Wolfe

Series Status: Completed 1983            Average Novel Length: 300 pages

The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe is something I feel I have to include in this list. While it is not a trilogy (it is 4 novels, and the edition I read was combined into 2 books), it deserves special mention. The novels are short enough that it should take just as long to read as a trilogy.  It is a series that everyone should at least try.

The story follows a young man, Severian, who is raised to be a torturer and executioner, but is expelled and sent into exile by allowing a prisoner to commit suicide rather than be tortured. The story follows his journey to find a new home. Told from a first-person perspective, the concept of the unreliable narrator is always looming. Every so often, the things he describes are so fantastical you are not sure if they are real or if he is hallucinating. For those who are willing to read a novel that challenges you, the Book of the New Sun is enthralling. Severian’s journeys are mystifying, amusing, terrifying, and heartbreaking. There are scenes you cannot find elsewhere, including a hilariously misguided morality play, a rescue by time travelling robots, a visit from aliens, and more unexpected twists than anything else I have read.

The Book of the New Sun is high fantasy on acid.  I have thoroughly enjoyed this series, even though I cannot claim to understand one single moment of it, and that is what makes it so very unique and entertaining

The 10th Trilogy?

Thus concludes my list of favourite trilogies. There are a few series that could have made this list if they stuck in my mind a bit more, and some titles have to be left off due to their not being in the right format. For example, the three novels in Django Wexler’s Shadow Campaign series are some of my favourite reads recently. I have just discovered that two more novels will be added to the series, which is exciting. However, it makes the series unfit for this list, which is unfortunate. So, I leave it to you, my readers, to point me in the direction of a contender for occupying this coveted 10th spot. I look forward to reading your recommendations.