Category Archives: Fantasy discussion

The Legend of Korra rewatch: book 1, episode 5: The Spirit of Competition

Now that we’re well into the series, with all the key components set up in previous episodes, episode 5 should have given a sense of the true threat of the antagonist, Amon, and his Equalist movement. Instead it felt like a slow-down, a filler episode.

There are two threads running through episode 5: the love triangle and the probending tournament. They’re quite well interwoven, with the emotional impacts of the former affecting the latter. But there’s no real threat. Let’s get into it.

Bolin is so adorable.
Bolin is so adorable.

The episode starts with snow, showing the passage of time and developing a cosy atmosphere. As the Fire Ferrets come in for a team huddle to discuss their training session, looks between characters reveal that Bolin likes Korra, Korra like Mako, and Mako feels uncomfortable. After the training session ends, we see Bolin’s terrible but endearing flirtation technique. He later discusses Korra with Mako, and it’s clear from Mako’s responses, in which he compares Korra to Asami then tries to put Bolin off dating Korra (telling him it’s a bad idea to date teammates, which is good advice but backed up by an ulterior motive) shows that Mako isn’t committed to dating Asami and has feelings about Korra. Korra’s subsequent conversation with Jinora, Ikki and Pema demonstrates she’s interested in Mako too.

By this point, the whole first five minutes of the episode has been focused on romance, with the probending side of it taking a background role. Finally some tournament action starts (and I’ll go into more detail about that in a moment), but it doesn’t last – after Korra is unconvincingly rejected by Mako, she goes on a date with Bolin for fun.

Yeah, Mako doesn't look like he's focused on his relationship with Asami at all.
Yeah, Mako doesn’t look like he’s focused on his relationship with Asami at all.

But before their next match she gets in an argument with Mako about their feelings for one another, kisses him and breaks Bolin’s heart when he sees them. This leads to poor teamwork in the probending arena, before they all realise it’s not worth it and make up. At the end of the episode, the romantic situation is effectively reset, as if none of it happened.

Poor brokenhearted Bolin
Poor brokenhearted Bolin

This romantic subplot is the problem I had with this series the first time I watched it. We’ve got a love triangle here, and it’s so predictable. But it’s also so unnecessary, and that goes doubly for this particular episode. If we just have Bolin start to see Korra as a friend instead of a romantic interest organically through simply knowing her better, and keep Korra and Mako with unacknowledged mutual crushes, very little would have needed to be changed in later episodes to keep the romantic subplot alive. I don’t feel a romantic subplot is necessary at all, but someone did and I can understand the motivation on that, but I think its role in episode 5 is so overdone for cheap drama.

And without the romantic subplot there would have been more time in this episode to set up Tahno and the Wolfbats as a great tournament rival.

So let’s get back to earlier in the episode: at the end of the Fire Ferrets’ training session, Asami brings the new uniforms. She’s tied into the Krew through her father’s sponsorship of the team and her romantic involvement with Mako, and it’s clear she will continue to be an important character, though in this episode she’s still a minor character.

At the team’s first match, the commentator mentions the improvement they demonstrate, and attributes this to more training, as evidenced by the Avatar’s withdrawal from active duty in Councilman Tarrlok’s taskforce. We get the impression that some time has passed and that Korra has been hard at work focusing on her training. The Fire Ferrets’ convincing win illustrates this, and they’re through to the next round.

The Fire Ferrets celebrate their first win
The Fire Ferrets celebrate their first win

When Korra and Bolin are out for a date, Korra finally meets Tahno for the first time – though if she’s been reading her newspapers cover to cover, she’ll already be aware of him as his photograph was in the paper in a previous episode. Tahno is the leader of the White Falls Wolfbats probending team, the reigning champions of the tournament for the last three years, and this encounter shows him as arrogant, vain and not above using underhand tactics, like trying to bait Korra into hitting him, which would disqualify the Fire Ferrets from the tournament.

Tahno thinks he's so smooth
Tahno thinks he’s so smooth, but really he’s just slimy.

It’s a sign of Korra’s restraint, of her personal development under Tenzin’s guidance, that she refused to be baited – but she’s not lost her attitude, and rather than getting into a fight that would have cost her team dearly, she got Naga to roar at Tahno, showing him that she was entirely capable of standing up to him without breaking any rules.

And he's not as brave as he makes out, squealing with fear at Naga's roar.
And he’s not as brave as he makes out, squealing with fear at Naga’s roar.

The Fire Ferrets go on to their next match in a state of disorder thanks to arguments and resentments arising from the romantic subplot – Bolin feeling betrayed by Mako, Korra and Mako angry at one another in spite of their kiss, Korra feeling guilty for having hurt Bolin. They do not perform well, but are saved at the last minute, going through as a result of Korra’s sheer strength and the skills she has learned as a result of their intensive training.

Thankfully Korra's a good enough waterbender, and has luck with her opponents lining up in a row, and manages to make a last-second knock-out.
Thankfully Korra’s a good enough waterbender, helped by luck with her opponents lining up in a row, that she manages to make a last-second knock-out.

With some more time in the episode created by the removal of the romantic subplot, it would have been possible to see more of the Wolfbats, including seeing them in action in the arena against another team – it would, after all, have been a good idea for the Fire Ferrets to observe other matches in order to identify their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. And not just in the arena, but outside it too – how do they interact with fans or treat other teams in public encounters? The show runners could have built up a picture of the threat the Wolfbats pose to the Fire Ferrets, and perhaps go more into Tahno as a direct rival to Korra.

Instead all we see is the confrontation in the restaurant, and the Wolfbats’ opponents being taken off in stretchers after the shortest match ever, which all happened off-screen while the Fire Ferrets were getting over their earlier romantic conflicts.

08-taken-out-on-stretchers

Overall this episode feels like a step down. Fluff. There’s a dangerous criminal out there who is capable of removing a person’s bending, a man with thousands of followers willing to do actual harm to bending leaders and in particular the Avatar, and what does that Avatar occupy her time with? Crushing on Mako and trying to win a competition. The commentator might appreciate her attitude to training, but I can imagine various journalists writing scathing articles about the Avatar taking time out of fulfilling her duties to Republic City to play a game.

Without the romantic subplot of this episode, there was a lot more it could have achieved in developing Tahno as a character. It could have also acknowledged the threat Amon poses, perhaps with reports that Equalist activity is down, or that a prominent Equalist has been captured or an Equalist hideout has been raided and resources captured – something to show that Tarrlok’s taskforce is active, that the threat is currently reduced and that as such it would not be too inappropriate for the Avatar to focus on probending instead of stopping Amon.

Without Amon even being mentioned, and Korra’s activities attempting to stop him barely being brushed upon, there isn’t any sense of threat in this episode. The romantic drama feels empty and pointless, especially once it’s been resolved. And Tahno and the Wolfbats don’t feel like a serious threat even just to their tournament chances, even though they’re reigning champions, because we don’t see them fighting and cannot compare it to the Fire Ferrets’ matches.

Hopefully episode 6 will be more exciting.

Amon. Fear him. Or, you know, forget all about him for an episode.
Amon. Fear him. Or, you know, forget all about him for an episode.
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The Legend of Korra rewatch: book 1, episode 4: The Voice in the Night

This is where the Legend of Korra series really starts to pull away from the standalone episodes. The first three episodes set things up – episode one brought Korra to Republic City and hinted at the problems the city faces. Episode two introduced her to her training, both the traditional methods under Tenzin and the modern methods with her new friends Mako and Bolin. Episode three introduced the series villain, Amon, and demonstrated just what kind of a threat he is.

Episode four attempts to move forward, conducting the last of the setting up and moving the overall plot arc forward.

The problem is there there’s a lot still to set up. There are several threads running through this episode, leaving it feeling disjointed, jumping around.

The threads in this episode can be broken down into three key subplots: Korra vs Amon and her own anxieties; Councilman Tarrlok’s powergrab and manipulations; and Mako’s introduction to and fledgling romance with Asami Sato.

Continue reading The Legend of Korra rewatch: book 1, episode 4: The Voice in the Night

The Legend of Korra rewatch: book 1, episode 3: The Revelation

With episode three, The Legend of Korra really starts to get into the meat of the plot, and the way it moves from the smaller scale of episode two into the series arc is really quite well done. Episode two was heavily focused on Probending, with Korra ultimately joining the Fire Ferrets as a permanent member of the team. Episode three starts with the Fire Ferrets needing to pay an entry fee for the tournament, a fee they cannot hope to afford – so Bolin takes an opportunity that presents itself, and gets himself into trouble in the process. This pulls Korra and Mako right into Amon’s plot and makes it impossible for Korra to simply train with Tenzin and the Fire Ferrets and ignore the revolution that’s happening in Republic City.

Backing up a little, first, though, when the Krew are discussing the 30,000 yuon championship entry fee, Mako asks for ideas, but then scorns the first thing Bolin suggests – an animal circus starring Bolin’s pet fire ferret Pabu. Having dismissed this idea, rather than ask Korra for suggestions or continue to brainstorm as a team, Mako instead says “Don’t worry, I’ll figure something out. I always do”.

01-pabu-circus-tricks
This and all other images used are the property of Nickelodeon and used here under fair use for review purposes.

Continue reading The Legend of Korra rewatch: book 1, episode 3: The Revelation

The Legend of Korra Rewatch: Book 1, Episode 2: A Leaf in the Wind

Apologies for the delay in posting this. I’ve had some problems with my DVD playing software that are now, hopefully, resolved.

The goal of this episode seems to be to introduce two of the series’ main characters: Bolin and Mako, the probending brothers that make up two thirds of the Fire Ferrets. This has been done with a self-contained episode that doesn’t mention the main conflict in the show – Amon and the Equalists – but it does feature prominently Korra’s core personal conflict, her difficulty in learning airbending, and another major theme, Korra in conflict with a figure of authority. Using these conflicts in a scaled-down version of the overall series is an effective way to establish them and their importance in Korra’s story.

It’s a well-structured episode too. It opens with a reminder of the first episode, narrated by the same voice actor as the probending announcer, with the visuals in sepia tone with visual artefacts to give it a feeling of being old, a nice little nod to the time setting of the series, an industrial, almost modern world.

01 sepia opening
All images copyright Nickelodeon. Used under fair use for review purposes.

Continue reading The Legend of Korra Rewatch: Book 1, Episode 2: A Leaf in the Wind

The Legend of Korra rewatch: Book 1, episode 1: Welcome to Republic City

When I first watched The Legend of Korra, I wasn’t too happy with it. I said “I generally enjoyed watching it, but was constantly aware of major flaws in the story” in my first review of the series, and though my second review, just before the second season came out, was more favourable I still didn’t rate it highly.

Now I’ve got the DVDs for all four seasons, and it’s time I re-examined the series. Over the coming weeks I will be examining the show in more detail, looking at the successes and failings in its writing.

Image credit: Nickelodeon
Image credit for this and all images in this blog post: Nickelodeon

Continue reading The Legend of Korra rewatch: Book 1, episode 1: Welcome to Republic City

A response to Graeme Whiting, the fantasy-hating headteacher

A number of the national UK newspapers have reported on a particular blog post from Graeme Whiting, the head teacher of an independant school in Gloucestershire, called The Imagination of a Child. In this post, Whiting rails against the alleged tendency of modern parents to allow their children to read inappropriate fiction.

I will not go into detail on the irrelevance of his account of his own school life, which he mentions but fails to tie into his point. Nor will I explore the message he has about therapy and mental illness, being as I have no interest or expertise in it. I will only say that I very much doubt Whiting’s expertise on such subjects exceeds my own.

On what Whiting has to say about fantasy, however, I have a great deal to say in response.

Continue reading A response to Graeme Whiting, the fantasy-hating headteacher

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales: week 2

In week two of the course, we are now looking at two stories, one written by the brothers Grimm, The Blue Light, and one by Andersen, The Tinderbox. Both are based upon the same traditional folk tale, and the examination of these two stories in parallel is a means for introducing two fairy tale frameworks: the actantial model and the home-away-home model.

Continue reading Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales: week 2

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales, week 1

Fairy tales are one of the roots of modern fantasy, and Hans Christian Andersen is one of the best known writers of fairy tales. With the start of a free online course by the Hans Christian Andersen Centre at the University of Southern Denmark on Futurelearn, I have the ideal opportunity to learn more about this influential genre of storytelling and examine its impacts on the development of fantasy.

My prior experience of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales is limited. I have been aware of many of his tales throughout my life, both as bedtime stories and as Disney movie adaptations, but was unaware until recently just how many of them were in fact written by Andersen. I was surprised to learn that stories including The Ugly Duckling, The Little Mermaid and The Snow Queen (the inspiration for the hit Disney film Frozen) were all written by Andersen.

During this article series I will be commenting on the course content each week and analysing the stories examined in it. I will also seek to understand the influences these fairy tales have had on modern fantasy and examine modern adaptations including Disney movies and other film and television versions.

Week 1

The first week’s content sets up the context in which Andersen wrote his fairy tales. He lived in a period of dramatic technological advances and consequent social changes. After Andersen’s father, a soldier, died, Andersen faced a future in a factory. Instead he set off for Copenhagen and there managed to find patronage and an education that would have otherwise been barred to him, and later opportunities to travel around Europe. Besides fairy tales Andersen also wrote short stories, novels and poetry, and also drew and made paper cuts.

Just as Andersen himself managed to transcend social boundaries – having been born into the working class he gained a middle class education and ultimately became quite wealthy – so too do many of his protagonists. Characters who break the mould are a key theme in his fairy tales.

Andersen’s fairy tales draw upon folklore. Some of his stories are based on folk tales while those of original composition draw upon the traditional elements of folk tales, such as using settings which could be almost anywhere at a nondescript period in history, including magic, and choosing ordinary people for the main characters.

These stories also draw upon Andersen’s upbringing and the struggles he and his family faced living in poverty.

In this respect Andersen is very much typical of fantasy, drawing upon traditional stories as well as personal struggles. A century later, Tolkien did the same, using his research into Anglo Saxon history and culture in conjunction with his personal experiences of war to craft an epic tale.

Next week the course will look at a folk tale, The Blue Light, and one of Andersen’s earliest fairy tales, The Tinderbox. I will, I am sure, have plenty to say about these stories. I have already read the Tinderbox and made a few notes, but with the analysis and comparison that the course offers I am sure I will have even more to say.

Worldbuilding reflections: the ways the myths change

What really struck me when I researched my Phoenix article was the way the myth changed over time. When I started researching it I had a pretty good idea of what I expected to read – a physical description, plenty about burning into ashes and being reborn, maybe a story involving some mythical hero helping or being helped by it. So when I read first the Greek and then the Roman sources and found no reference to the bird actually being on fire at any point, and that these ideas only started to emerge in the later Roman and early Christian writers, it suddenly became a lot more interesting.

I think it’s hard to remember, when working on a world, that myths can and do change over time. They aren’t static. They change as the priorities of the society to which they belong change. To the Greeks and the early Empire Romans, the phoenix represented important aspects of their world: the cyclical nature of it, and the importance of deference to the gods and of carrying out appropriate funeral rites for one’s predecessors. It speaks of the stability of the world and the duties of its inhabitants.

But as the world changed and a new religion rose – a religion with resurrection at its very heart – and the Roman empire started to tear itself apart as emperor after emperor died violently after a short rule, that stability was no longer there, and filial piety was no longer at the heart of imperial rule as it had been during the Julio-Claudian and Flavian dynasties. Instead the key idea of the phoenix became transformation from something decrepit to something young and strong and full of hope – a motif that was perhaps very necessary in such uncertain times. At the same time the pagan elements – the central position of the sun god and his temple – were set aside to keep this pre-Christian pagan myth in line with church doctrine, and enable the church to use that message of hope borne from destruction without invoking pagan gods at the same time.

Then this motif of hope from the ashes of destruction was carried forward and embraced by those to whom it most resonated, who in turn added to the myth with complementary imagery and ideals.

In a fantasy world, each culture should have its own myths and beliefs, and while in a fantasy world a phoenix could well be real – or a dragon, or fairies, centaurs, gryphons and so on – that doesn’t mean that what people believe about those magical creatures, and the way a society views them, isn’t going to be informed by the society’s beliefs, its priorities and its core conflicts. And there’s not necessarily an “end point” to that – a point at which the myth can no longer change. It might seem today as though the core essence of the phoenix is fixed – widely embraced within our global society, so deeply embedded in our society it couldn’t change. But after some five hundred years of there being one singular image of what a phoenix is and what it represents to people – maybe Pliny the Elder felt the same.

Worldbuilding reflections: ancient networks

As part of my 2015 reading challenge, I am currently reading 1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed by Eric H Cline (and yes, as a Brit, writing “civilisation” with a Z physically hurts me). I’m not far thorugh yet but something that struck me in my reading so far is the reach of the networks between the cultures that existing in the centuries prior to the titular collapse. Rulers whose capital cities were hundreds, even over a thousand miles from one another were sending each other gifts of things like leather shoes. Craftspeople from the Minoan culture on Crete travelled to the major cities of cultures all around the Mediterranean and beyond to create fresco wall paintings because it was fashionable.

"Knossos bull" by ArtStudy version 2.0 (Saskia Ltd, Thomson Wadsworth). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Knossos_bull.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Knossos_bull.jpg
“Knossos bull” by ArtStudy version 2.0 (Saskia Ltd, Thomson Wadsworth). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

This was 3,500 years ago, before advanced shipbuilding techniques existed, before the road infrastructure of the Roman empire – or indeed the city of Rome itself – existed. It’s difficult not to think of them as primitive, because of how long ago this was and how different a world it was to what I am familiar with, but really it is still human culture. The people of this ancient time were no less ambitious, no less curious, no less vain than their descendants in classical Greece, with which I am more familiar, or the Roman Empire, or the Middle Ages or the Age of Exploration or indeed the modern day. They had different circumstances to deal with, sure, but every generation has different circumstances than their parents.

It seems to me that when I am working on stories I often think in very constrained geographies and economies. I think of trade as happening between two neighbouring countries, maybe between two countries separated by one other country in between or by a small sea. I struggle to think of alliances and diplomacy and trade and the movement of skilled craftspeople over long distances between vastly different cultures. I manage to think “oh yes, this country exports this metal” but I don’t ever get to the point of thinking, “this particular region is the only known source of this metal, so it gets exported to everywhere”.

Economy is something I need to work on. I tend to think in terms of what gets exported, what’s high quality, what needs to be imported, but I don’t think about the human level when I’m looking at economies. I don’t think about skilled craftspeople moving to where they think there are opportunities. I don’t think about rulers interacting with one another through the sending of gifts and envoys, or restricting the export of materials they don’t want their enemies getting their hands on. I don’t think of the different merchants through whose inventories individual items will pass on their way from one culture to another, and what those merchants have or haven’t seen of the cultures where these items originated or are destined for.

It’s a whole new layer of complexity I have missed until now. A whole new area of human interactions that could provide me with stories to tell.