Book Review: Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements

Hi there!

Swords and sandals. Political intrigue. Betrayal. Each of these describes some quality of the common perception of the Roman Empire. Whether you buy into this popular perception or prefer the drier, more factual approach to nearly a millennium of history, Rome’s influence can be felt to the present day. Just ask the producers at Starz. Spartacus: Blood and Sand started in January 2010 on their pay cable network and was watched by an estimated 3 million viewers its premiere weekend. Since then it has aired two more seasons – a prequel Spartacus: Gods of the Arena in 2011, and Spartacus: Vengeance in 2012.

The success of the Spartacus series has spawned a new series of novels based in the hero’s world of Rome – Spartacus: Swords and Ashes by J.M. Clements is the first – which brings Spartacus to the funereal games in Neapolis for a friend of Batiatus named Pelorus. Pelorus was murdered by a slave in his own house, the tattooed Getae witch named Medea who must pay for her crimes. Batiatus soon finds himself in the middle of a political bout between Gaius Verres, the soon-to-be governor of Sicily and a young Cicero from home hot on the trail of new prophecies of Rome.

Honestly I wasn’t sure what to think of the book at first. I watched the first episode of Spartacus: Blood and Sand and quickly decided that the stylized blood and combat was not my cup of tea back in 2010. I was sad to hear of star Andy Whitfield‘s battle with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and the fact that he eventually lost the battle. The series has lived on however with Liam McIntyre in the lead role along with the rest of the cast – John Hannah (The Mummy) as Quintus Lentulus Batiatus, Lucy Lawless (TV’s Xena: Warrior Princess) as Lucretia his wife, Viva Bianca as Ilithyia, and many more.

Swords and Ashes captures some of the backhanded double-dealing I would expect in the Rome of “Et tu, Brute?” of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, as well as the foul treatment of slaves and the quickly-changing-fortunes of competitors in the arena. And once the second half of the book took off, it was a sprint to the finish. The first half was a bit of a slog for me, considering my lack of experience with the TV series itself, but Clements manages to keep things moving enough that even non-fans like myself can enjoy the book.

And it was really Clements’ imagery that kept me reading throughout… “The snow-covered ground became a clash of pinks and crimsons, darkening with the death of the day, not from the sunset, but from life-blood splashed in torrents. Warm steam rose from the ground, creating an unearthly mist, as if the surviving warriors were surrounded by the departed souls of their fellows.”

If you are a fan of Spartacus, the series, or simply looking to add a bit more swords-and-sandals to your reading pile, Spartacus: Swords and Ashes manages to capture a bit of the glory of Rome and the spectacle of the arena with words!

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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DVD Review: The New Adventures of Robin Hood, Season One

Hi again…

Once upon a time – in the mid-1990s, television was invaded by a group of Greek heroes and gods led by Sam Raimi. The first invasion came in the form of a demigod (Hercules, played by Kevin Sorbo) and his friend (Iolaus, played by Michael Hurst) who would right wrongs, save people in distress, and kill monsters or foil devious godly plots. The second invasion was led by a tall woman with amazing warrior skills (Xena, played by Lucy Lawless) and her friend (Gabrielle, played by Renee O’Connor) who basically followed in the same adventure paths as their male predecessors.

These were of course the two TV seriesHercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess – that aired in syndication from 1995 to 1999 (for Hercules) and 1995 to 2001 (for Xena). Both series used tongue-in-cheek humor, occasional sight gags, exaggerated action, and the hero’s journey to explore various story lines roughly based in myths and legends. Both series were very successful and enjoyed long lives in syndication around the world.

And though I knew that other production companies were probably trying to come up with ways to ride their coat tails, I can’t say that I remember any that ever gained much traction on our local television stations in Colorado. So The New Adventures of Robin Hood managed to slip under my radar when it aired for four seasons from 1997 to 1999, airing on TNT from 1997-1998.

The basic idea was to take the stories of Robin Hood and update them in the mold of Hercules and Xena. Add a bit of magic, adventure, witty dialogue, and humor and voila you have a series! So how did I miss it?

Well, Warner Brothers is now releasing the first season of the series for the first time on DVD and it will only be available through the Warner Brothers online store. This is the first of several WB TV series never before released on DVD that they will make available in this fashion.

The first season of The New Adventures of Robin Hood starred Matthew Porretta as Robin, Anna Galvin as Lady Marion Fitzwalter, Richard Ashton as Little John, Martyn Ellis as Friar Tuck, Christopher Lee as Olwyn the Druid/Wizard, and Andrew Bicknell as Prince John. The interplay between Porretta, Galvin, Ashton, and Ellis was quite good I felt and there was an obvious camaraderie there that worked well for comedic and serious elements of the storyline.

And where Xena and Hercules fought creatures from mythology, this series has Robin and his band dealing with other historical groups – Mongols, Vikings, witches, druids, dragons, and even an Arabian knight. Quite the mix of people from a wide variety of times and places in history and tales.

On the four DVDs included in the Season One collection, you get all 13 episodes chock full of adventure, bad puns, and more. Though there are no extras, every show pits Robin and the gang against Prince John and other bullies and monsters in the forest. Presented in full-screen format I had to wonder if there were parts of scenes that may have benefited from a wide-screen approach.

Though the special effects and fight choreography wasn’t the best, I felt in most cases that the core set of characters – Robin, Marion, Little John, and the Friar – really held each episode together. Watching with my two daughters, we especially loved Ashton as Little John. Though the character was a bit dim at times, his good-natured approach to life showed in every scene and lightened the mood when necessary.

That said, I’m guessing that the budget for the series was pretty low. If you watch several episodes back to back you’ll notice many cut scenes were used again and again, such as watching a group of Prince John’s men crossing over the same river multiple times in multiple episodes.

And the “magic” used throughout the series, from magic arrows and armor to illusions of dragons, was quite low quality. I couldn’t tell if it was an early use of computer-generated graphics or not, but it looks quite outdated now. You can see an example of this from the episode “Robin and the Golden Arrow”.

I did find it odd that though the first season cast had Anna Galvin as Marion, the image on the cover of the DVD features the cast from season two, which had Barbara Griffin in the role. The lack of extras on the DVDs was a bit disappointing as well. I was hoping to see some of the behind-the-scenes action between the cast and crew more along the lines of the Hercules series on DVD (the first time), which included at least a few features.

I have to admit we had a good time watching Robin and his merry men. If you’re looking for another take on the Robin Hood legend, be sure to check out The New Adventures of Robin Hood at the WB shop.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Dragons of Autumn Twilight… Ugh

Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn TwilightImage via Wikipedia

Hi all…

Ok, so by now most of you know that there are a few things on my top 10 list… Among them are roleplaying games (like Dungeons and Dragons), cartoons, and movies. Well, I found a combination of the three that just made me want to cry, and not in a good way.

Yes, I’d read the reviews. Yes, I’d seen all the negative press… But it’s like being drawn to the scene of an accident like a rubber-necker… I couldn’t help but watch.

So when Netflix delivered Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight to my mailbox, I was hopeful but knew deep inside it was a mistake to watch it. I should’ve listened to myself. It was a mistake. Ugh.

Here‘s the IMDB link.

Let’s set the stage…

In the mid-1980s, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman created a new series of novels for TSR at the time, who was the steward of the Dungeons and Dragons franchise. This new series of novels focused on a small set of heroes in the land of Krynn who were fighting against evil dragons and gods. It was initially a trilogy — Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter night, and Dragons of Spring Dawning. They were a sensation in the 80s. I have to admit to enjoying them in high school and college myself. And of course the authors went on to create other series in the Dragonlance worlds over the years, including the Lost Chronicles trilogy which started in 2006 and has its third book coming out this year.

[rating:1/4]

Now, I have also talked about the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon series from the 1980s that was pretty cheesy, yet had a good following. You can read my article about that series here. But that was the 1980s — full of grand stories, bad animation, and it was the norm for cartoons on television.

We’re now in 2008. We’ve had amazing series come and go over the years. The Batman and Superman Animated series from the 1990s as a good example. And we seem to be in the waning period of great animation where companies are more interested in quantity than quality.

That unfortunately is what happened with this Dragonlance movie. It’s definitely one of those cases where the books are SO much better than the movie. Continue reading “Dragons of Autumn Twilight… Ugh”