Midway Checkpoint: The Wheel of Time Show’s Jam-Packed Ambitions

Back in September, I allowed myself to get a little pre-hyped for Amazon Prime’s The Wheel of Time series, and I promised that I would check back in after the first couple episodes. The Wheel of Time show currently has six episodes released, and I have watched the first five, so I am definitely overdue for this post.

Spoiler warning: I will be discussing events in the TV show only, through episode 5–which maybe means this isn’t really spoiler-y. Anyway, anything that has happened in the first five episodes is fair game for this post. Although I am a current book reader I will not bring up any events from the books that have not yet been depicted on the show.

Honestly, I don’t feel like there’s a whole lot to spoil at this point in the series, which is maybe part of the problem I have with it so far. These first five episodes feel so packed with plot-building, and world-building, and characters, and movement that I have to imagine it’s difficult for casual viewers to keep track of everything and everyone that’s happened so far.

In five short episodes we’ve seen seven primary characters–Rand, Mat, Perrin, Egwene, Nynaeve, Moiraine, Lan–come together, split apart, and (almost) reunite in Tar Valon, while also meeting half a dozen other characters who appear to have some part to play this season. Stepin, Liandrin, Alanna, Logain, Eamon Valda, and Aram all seemed poised to round out a pretty full cast of characters and factions with whom that party-of-seven would have to contend. Stepin has already off’ed himself, and Aram seems to have exited the story for now, but this is still a list of characters I would…

a) never have expected to meet or be asked to care about in the first place,

b) never have expected to meet this quickly,

and c) don’t think quite fit together in an 8-episode season that is now more than halfway over with no clear central conflict having yet emerged.

The one through-line of all of this is that no one knows who the Dragon Reborn is yet, which, fine, that’s a mystery for people who haven’t read the books. But it doesn’t feel like a conflict to me.

I think my point here is that this show, so far, feels like an oversized plot that does not take the necessary steps to make me care about these people. I care, at the moment, because I’m reading the books, but that’s not enough when viewing this show in isolation.

Onto more positive notes…

Okay, I don’t want to be all cynical about this show, because I am enjoying it for what it is. The acting is great overall, the landscapes and set pieces are stellar, and the story has a compelling pace.

Listening to a podcast interview of showrunner Rafe Judkins has me confident that the man behind the curtain knows what he’s doing in trying to adapt a massive story to the small screen, where we do not have the luxury of 400 pages to tell the first part.

The first three episodes, which were dropped all at once on Prime, are heavy on lore and trying to get the viewer to even understand what the hell the Dragon Reborn is supposed to be. In hindsight, it makes perfect sense that Prime decided to present the first three episodes all at once. I think episode one on its own would have been too jarring for most people; it moves at a break-neck pace, introducing a host of characters and tons of lore, has a thrilling climax, and then ends with barely a moment to breathe.

Episode 4, in which Nynaeve discovers her ability to touch the One Power in stunning fashion, is when I decided I liked this show. I can see past the overloaded plot if we get moments as powerful as that a couple times per season.

Three more to go

Looking ahead, it’s hard to believe that this season is only going to be eight episodes. I really have no idea what sort of “ending” this first season could possibly have, unless they decide that season one is just a prologue.

All in all, I’m enjoying watching this show, but I have lingering concerns that the showrunners have tried to pack too much into so short a season for it to have much meaning. I hope to be proven wrong.

Steve D

Book Review: BRAIDING SWEETGRASS draws you in and inspires

I recently listened to Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This is another book I happened across while browsing Goodreads, and I gave it a shot to broaden my reading list a bit.

I can’t remember the last time I have been so completely inspired by a book — inspired to take action, but also emotionally.

Kimmerer’s book is a wonderfully woven selection of stories from her personal life, her career as an ecologist, and her own rediscovery of her Potawatomi heritage.

She cleverly leads the reader on a wandering journey as she tells of her own experiences as a student, a teacher, a mother, a scientist, an Indigenous woman, and a being with personhood (other beings with personhood include trees, plants, animals, rivers, basically everything in the natural world), to discuss the damage we have done and are doing to indigenous culture, to the natural world, and by extension, to each other.

I must admit that I found this book hard to follow during the early chapters. Kimmerer seemed to be telling random stories with no clear direction. But this series of vignettes begins to paint a larger picture as she describes a project she worked on with a fellow grad student to prove her hypothesis that sweetgrass would grow better with a human caregiver selectively harvesting it — a notion that goes against traditional Western science’s insistence that humans are separate from the environment, rather than an integral part of it.

In their experiment, Kimmerer, her colleague, and their team demarcate plots of sweetgrass and treat each one according to several variables. There were those they did not harvest at all, those they harvested by snipping at the stem, and those they harvested by pulling entire clumps of sweetgrass from the dirt. Over the course of two years, they consistently found that the plots where they were actively harvesting sweetgrass grew back better the next season. They did not wipe out an entire plot by harvesting, but instead let the sweetgrass regrow on its own terms. And they were right. This technique showed that the plots which were untouched did not regrow well at all — the older taller stalks of sweetgrass went untouched and prevented new growth, eventually choking out younger stems until their plots suffered.

There are almost too many lessons to try to take away from this book in one reading. From sustainable gardening and agriculture to on-the-ground conservation efforts to throwing support to indigenous communities’ efforts to reclaim their language and traditions, this book highlights a long list of efforts we need to make to provide a more sustainable future.

I came away from this reading both angered and inspired, frustrated and hopeful. Kimmerer does not offer hard and fast solutions — there are too many, and too complex, to enumerate in a single volume — but she does present the reader with a call-to-action, to begin pushing for change, or at least enacting change in our daily lives.

I like the idea of a larger, more sustainable garden that we can harvest vegetables from, and allowing sections of our yard to grow “wild” with shrubs and bushes native to our area and beneficial to the other fauna and flora. I also know that I need to identify local organizations focused on ecological restoration and sustainability, but finding these can be tough, at least at first.

It’s still difficult to pin down specific steps I can take as an individual towards a more sustainable future, but this book has laid the path. We just have to follow it.

Steve D

Book Review: KNIFE OF DREAMS sets up an epic final act for THE WHEEL OF TIME

I recently finished reading Knife of Dreams, The Wheel of Time #11. You may remember that in my previous entries about some of the books in this series, I have lamented the plodding pace of the narrative, especially for particular point-of-view characters.

After a few books’ worth of dragging plotlines, Knife of Dreams finally brings some real momentum to this series, and ties off a few narrative threads in the process.

For the most part, the reader spends several chapters with a particular character at a time, watching their narrative unfold in more depth. Unlike in previous books, however, there is actually forward progress with the main characters, and Jordan even returns to each character towards the end of the book to see where they’ve landed.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and was glad to find it spent the most time with only three of the primary characters: Mat, Perrin, and Elayne. There are check-in sections with Rand, Egwene, and others, mostly serving as compelling placeholders for things to come in the next book(s).

The three or four smaller plot lines that are all tied off in this momentous installment is clearly guiding the reader and each of the characters towards one thing: the Last Battle. With only three books left in the series — I say that as if each book wasn’t more than 600 pages — Knife of Dreams is definitely setting up the end game for the series.

I’m not ready to forgive the narrative slog that was books 7 through 10 (especially 10). I can see that groundwork that Jordan was laying for the mini-climaxes in previous books. I’m just not convinced that it needed to take as long as it did to get to this point.

Anyway, I feel like I’m over the hump of the middle part of this series, and I’m ready to jump into the final three books, which were completed by Brandon Sanderson after Robert Jordan’s death. The Gathering Storm (book 12) will be my first introduction to Sanderson’s writing, so I’m excited to see how he adapts Jordan’s story and narrative style. Then I can start reading Sanderson’s own work!

Steve D

Book Review: Gaiman’s NORSE MYTHOLOGY brings new life

I love reading mythology, and especially the Norse myths. I was first introduced to them as part of a world mythology book I read as a kid. The intricacies of fantasy universes like Redwall and Middle Earth would each serve as a form of mythos for me, providing me with clear moral codes and heroes and beings of immense power to admire and emulate.

A few years ago, I read The Norse Myths, a collection of the mythos collected by Kevin Crossley-Holland, pulling primarily from Snorri Sturluson’s recordings of them in 13th-century Iceland. This annotated compendium exposed me to a much more academic view of mythology, which was just as enthralling as the children’s stories I’d read previously.

This is all to say that Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is not my first pass at these stories, and it will certainly not be my last. Even still, I cannot emphasize how much pleasure I took from this particular telling

I listened to the audiobook version of this, and I don’t know how anyone can read Gaiman any other way. He is a master storyteller as both a writer and a narrator, and his inflection, his voices, and his enthusiasm for the story enliven everything he narrates. Listening to Gaiman tell a story is like someone lighting a candle in pitch black that illuminates the book in your mind for the first time.

Gaiman presents the Norse myths in a style that is remarkably accessible to the modern reader but does not detract in any way from the power, the wonder, and the downright strangeness of these stories. His chapters are renamed as well to appeal to a modern audience. Rather than regaling us in epic-style prose in “The Lay of Thrym”, Gaiman instead recounts a fireside tale of “Thor’s Journey to the Land of the Giants”, which he describes with a nod both to the hilarity and the foreshadowed danger of Thor allowing Loki to dress him as the goddess Freya in order to trick the powerful giant Thrym.

As is expected with any Gaiman story, the dialogue is punchy and entertaining, and his dry sense of humor permeates both the absurdity and the fatalism of the Norse myths.

By the time the reader reaches “The Last Days of Loki” and “Ragnarok”, the weight of the end times lends greater meaning to Gaiman’s words, and to the hopefulness with which he describes what comes after the end times.

I thoroughly enjoyed this listen and will absolutely be listening to it again… perhaps on a road trip with my kids as part of their introduction to the Norse myths.

Steve D

Book Review: STARDUST, a perfect fairy tale for adults

Stardust by Neil Gaiman, cover illustration, fantasy, fairy tale story, short stories

Stardust is the first book I’ve read by Neil Gaiman, and hearing the Audible version that he narrates was a real treat. Gaiman is one of those authors who I’ve seen a lot of references to online, but I could not have named one of his stories. Now I’m kicking myself for never looking up his work before.

Stardust is an incredibly enjoyable story in an authentic setting. The typical English village of Wall where the story begins feels completely mundane in the best possible way, from the little farmhouses that sit on its outskirts to the tavern where the locals pass gossip and the general store where they place their orders for the proprietor to pick up in the nearest large town.

Sitting just outside the village, however, is a stone wall with a gap in it, which is always guarded by two of the villagers, and which the residents of Wall are not allowed to pass through. Through this gap every nine years comes a market of bizarre beings from the land of Faerie, the land beyond the wall. Tristan Thorn, a young lad from Wall, one day decides that he must journey into Faerie to find a fallen star.

Thus begins Tristan’s journey with an intriguing cast of characters and intricate plot building. Even though there is not a ton of world-building or exposition, the world around Tristan feels like it’s full of history, both everyday and fantastical. Every character speaks and acts with such quirks that you can’t help but think that there are unique stories behind each of them — an incredible example of the writers’ adage that each character is the hero of their own story.

The plot was compelling and the arc of the characters felt very natural. Tristan was quite a savvy protagonist, especially for a teenager who had never left his village before, but I think this is established well enough early in the story that it doesn’t feel out of place.

Gaiman is a wonderful narrator whose cadence enhanced the listening experience, more so because he narrates it in the style in which he intended it to sound. The voices he creates for each character are distinct enough while keeping the listener immersed in the story.

I already have a couple more Gaiman stories queued up on Audible, including his telling of Norse Mythology, which — come on. How can I not read that?

Steve D

Book Review: THE GRAND DESIGN and thinking about the cosmos

I recently finished listening to The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow on Audible. This is one of those books that had appeared in my recommendations, and it seemed like an accessible introduction to physics, cosmology, and quantum theory. Continue reading “Book Review: THE GRAND DESIGN and thinking about the cosmos”

#Review AGENT 355 – Revolutionary spies and one remarkable woman

Agent 355 by Marie Benedict, cover illustration, book review, short storyAnother Audible Original short story!

I recently listened to “Agent 355” by Marie Benedict, the fictionalized story of a New York woman who became an integral part of General Washington’s famed spy ring in and around New York and Long Island. I liked it! Continue reading “#Review AGENT 355 – Revolutionary spies and one remarkable woman”

Book Review: “The Minuteman” versus Nazis in America

The Minuteman by Greg DoanhueThis will be a short review for a short book, but I just wanted to draw attention to another Audible Original: Greg Donahue’s “The Minuteman, The Forgotten Legacy of Nat Arno and the Fight against Newark’s Nazis”.

A brief overview of the life of professional boxer-turned mob enforcer Nat Arno, “The Minuteman” describes how a New Jersey street tough became one of the most outspoken resistor’s of the Nazi presence in the US before World War II. Continue reading “Book Review: “The Minuteman” versus Nazis in America”

Book Review: Diving into H.P. Lovecraft

Back in December I started a 23-hour collection of H.P. Lovecraft’s prose work on Audible. This seemed like a not-crazy idea at the time because I had a forty-minute commute home from work every day.

I’ve been working from home for over two months, which means far less designated audiobook listening time. Anyway, I finally finished this collection last week. This review is not about the work of Lovecraft himself, but more about how this collection was put together and narrated, and what I’ve taken from it as my first true introduction to Lovecraft’s work. Continue reading “Book Review: Diving into H.P. Lovecraft”

Mini Movie Reviews #2: Deceit, Discovery, and Disney

Another week in quarantine, another crop of movies to talk about. Like last week, none of these movies are particularly new, but they once again show a weird range of genres.

Vice, 2018, streamed on Hulu

Christian Bale in Vice (2018)This movie, featuring Christian Bale as Vice President Dick Cheney both before and during his time in the White House, had intrigued me when it first came out, so it didn’t take long for Hulu to convince me to watch it.

Spoiler-free review

This film was really well done. Bale and Steve Carell (as Donald Rumsfeld) were incredible. I also found it funny in an incredibly cynical, laugh-as-the-world-burns kinda way. I always had the feeling that Cheney was the NeoCon mastermind behind the W. Bush administration. If Vice is even partially true, he was more of a shadow-president than I realized.

The Planets, 2019, streamed on Amazon Prime

The Planets (2019)This was a documentary series we found originally produced by the BBC. The US version was narrated by Zachary Quinto, of Star Trek fame, who was fantastic. It took us less than one episode to get hooked.

Spoiler-free review…?

There’s nothing really to spoil here. If you have even a passing interest in science, the universe, or why Pluto is not technically a planet, go watch this series.

Through six episodes, it tells the story of how the worlds in our solar system were formed. Simultaneously, it tells the story of all of the probes and rovers we have used over the decades to get this information. Cassini, Galileo, Voyager; the engineers, scientists, and others who participated in these exploration projects are interviewed throughout the series to discuss what they learned about each planet their spacecraft explored, and what new questions it rose.

Not only do they provide visually stunning computer-generated renderings of what each planet looks like, but they also provide actual footage of each mission, where available. I really can’t rave about this series enough. I want to watch it again.

Frozen II, 2019, rented on Amazon Prime

Kristen Bell, Idina Menzel, Josh Gad, and Jonathan Groff in Frozen II (2019)We had my son at home for the last two weeks in self-isolation, since there was a chance we had been exposed to COVID-19. All is well, but after working from home with a toddler for two-plus weeks, I cannot count the number of times I have heard the soundtracks of FrozenMoana, and The Lion King, in their entirety over that span.

Don’t get me wrong, all of that music is great, but it was a lot.

We decided to rent both Frozen movies on Amazon Prime last weekend, because I hadn’t seen either, and I felt like I already knew the gist of the stories from the music anyway.

Spoiler-free review

I genuinely enjoy Disney movies, so it’s not hard to convince me to watch one. The first Frozen was good. I can see why it was so popular with kids, and it definitely has some great messages, but nothing about it really jumped out aside from Kristen Bell’s and Idina Menzel’s vocals.

But guys… Frozen II is a great film. The story of how Elsa got her powers and what it means for her and the kingdom of Arendelle is compelling, the story is not quite so predictable as its predecessor, and the artwork is unbelievable. Every scene with rushing water or waves in this film is gorgeous.

Anna still gets her heroic moments while Elsa gets to show off some of her powers, and the other characters are interesting without bogging the movie down. I really enjoyed this, and I wish I had watched it again before our rental expired.

More Recommendations!

I’m really enjoying how many movies and series I’ve had the chance to watch recently. It’s one of my favorite things to do and just haven’t had much chance to do it in recent months. I’m looking forward to a new batch of movies over the coming weeks.

What have you been watching?

Steve D