In search of the Perfect Fantasy Movie

When did it all start? This love of fantasy. Hmm. It was 1977, I was four years old and it was the Summer of Magic or Sci-Fi if you prefer. Star Wars came out. And forever it has shaped my destiny. I saw it seven times. I even lied to my mother to get her to take me one more time after that. I fell in love with the beautiful princess and discovered there was a power in the universe even greater than the ability to destroy a planet. And I also learned that lightsabers are. The. Coolest. Things. Ever.

I proffer this for debate.  Is Star Wars the greatest fantasy movie of all time? Is it the perfect one? Is there such a thing? I guess it depends on what you classify as fantasy. For many years I held the position that Star Wars was a Sci-Fi film. It had spaceships, aliens, technology etc., however I turned that view around when I learned about the tropes within fantasy. But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.

After Star Wars I got into Fantasy reading. It was my favourite Genre – I immersed myself in it loved it. Then I got into D&D and FF and it all got a bit mad. I could play fantasy, I could read it, move it about a table. But I couldn’t watch it (except in the colourful world of my imagination).

One thing that I was constantly frustrated with was the lack of good fantasy films (we’ll talk about TV next time).   Where were they? I mean, I know it was the late 70s/early 80s but come on – what with all those historical epics starring Charlton Heston knocking about the place, why not throw in some red hot orc vs dwarf with fireball spell action? I’ll stop for a moment and lay out the ground rules of what I’m actually talking about now. I know fantasy is a broad church and defining what I mean by the perfect fantasy movie is going to stir things up a bit. I wanted to see elves, dwarves, wizards, fighting evil things, big battles, great characters, good dialogue, a rich and a magical world that was still believable and populated by real folk who swore and got drunk etc.

You might be starting to pick up on my bag – the works of Glen Cook and Steven Erikson would give you a steer! So that’s what I wanted. But could I find it? It wasn’t easy. Whilst Sci-Fi was running rampant with some classic movies, it seemed that Fantasy could only manage cheese.  It inhabited the realm of the B movie – cheap sets, wooden actors, bad action. And lots of them were Italian. Honestly – how could they get it so wrong? Easy. There seemed to be no-one out there who fully understood how to handle fantasy material and how to create a compelling drama within the rules of a fantasy universe. You know, subtle things like internal logic, characters that you care about, good dialogue, gravitas, that sort of thing.

There was a film. It was called Hawk the Slayer. Perhaps you have heard if it? A modest, British production that tried to box above its weight whilst being hamstrung by a limited budget and effects. But you know what? It was the first time someone had actually tried to make a real, proper, fantasy movie (did I hears someone scream Harryhausen?). It had everything in it, a real sense of an alternative medieval history. There were elves, dwarves, wizards, bad men in helmets, lots of fighting and spells. There was an awesome repeating crossbow. And there was a mad hippy synth groove soundtrack. I loved this film. Yet there had to be more.

Then my big brother got a VHS rental of Conan The Barbarian. Now this was more like it. Raw, gritty, bloody with added Arnold. It felt I was watching a fully realised universe, an epic. Now I know the Howard fans may disagree with the interpretation, but the world that was created in this movie felt complete, whole. I found no faults in its logic and was not upset with what I was shown as the story unfolded (let’s not talk about Conan the Destroyer….oh dear).

The 80’s did pump out a number of films. The Sword and the Sorcerer and The Beastmaster were ok but sort of felt like American movies trying to look like an Italian ones.   I do have a soft spot for Krull, though. Funnily enough, another British creation which also suffered from having a dreadful American actor in the lead role. The plot was a standard hidden fortress rehash, it had tons of British thesps (including Bresslaw who played Giant in Hawk The Slayer) and had a lot going for it in creating an interesting, visually pleasing fantasy world. The Slayers where also pretty cool, yet it wasn’t a smash. Probably because it had the faint whiff of cheese and the public just weren’t up for it. Ah – my wife has just berated me. “What about Ladyhawke?” she has just cried in outrage. Alright, she has a point. It was a lovely, gentle movie (except

for the fighty bits) with a great left-field cast.  The trouble was, it’s an 80’s movie and has got the worst music in a battle sequence ever to assault my earlobes. It utterly robs it of any dramatic intensity.

Lucas gave us Willow. I am strangely ambivalent about it. An interesting cast, the film looked good and there was a world there to explore, but it just…didn’t hang together. You know what, it reminds me of Snow White and the Huntsman – another quite entertaining movie. I think that it’s because there are occasional leaps in narrative that says “Oh that happens and then that happens but don’t worry about it because it isn’t important”. Argh. It matters to me. You can’t just give me a fait accompli and just expect me to accept it. I can’t, I won’t. I’ll take the betrayal to my grave.

The 90s were a pretty barren decade. Was there anything? My mind is a blank

Then the year 2000AD arrived (and I panicked about what my favourite comic was going to call itself).  There was the Dungeons and Dragons movie. Geesh, the cartoon series was better than this and that had a baby unicorn! Things were looking grim. Enter a certain Kiwi director whose work I had followed with great interest since I’d gotten hold of a pirate copy of a movie called Bad Taste. A work of genius. Fun, crazy, gory and starring the boys from the Astro Investigation and Defence Service.  Step forward Mr Jackson. Now I’m not going to say much about this other than, like Milius and Conan, with LOTR we got a fully realised depiction of a fantasy world – with everything in it. This film changed the landscape. Suddenly Fantasy as a movie genre was cool(ish) but it was accepted in a way it never had been before. A global audience embraced it and was amazed by it. Yes! A genuine swords and sorcery epic! An actual bone fide good movie. I wept for joy. I do every time I watch these beautiful creations. I don’t care.

One last thing before I start my conclusion and please, bear with me. Uwe Bolle. Yes, him. He made In The Name of the King. It was his attempt at duplicating Jackson. We could spend a long time discussing why this film was terminally bad. But you know what, I actually almost enjoyed it. The casting was drastically off (except for Statham and Rhys-Davies and having Perlman always gets you an extra half-star) the editing was often atrocious and I could go on. There were some huge battles with some extra martial art madness thrown in and it also had what, for my money, is still the best wizard duel I’ve even scene committed to celluloid. I kid you not. The spinning sword standoff is a really good piece of work. Right. I’ll stop talking about it now because someone wants to fight me in the boxing ring…

Thus, for most of my 39 years on this earth, my quest to find the Perfect Fantasy Movie has been long, hard, frustrating and of course, entirely subjective.  Have I found it? Perhaps. The LOTR trilogy is the most complete fantasy movie sequence that has ever been created. I adore it. I couldn’t believe it was possible to see an army of elves fighting an army of orcs. But it was and it looked amazing. And we’ll get to see dwarves fighting goblins soon. Heaven!

So there we have it. Though I do wonder what would happen if the Warhammer franchise could be made to work on the big screen….Oh and what about Star Wars?  Dammit. Maybe that’s the best fantasy movie that’s ever been made. Argh. Can’t decide brain aneurism.

Why Star Wars is coming to Fantasy Book Review

When you come to Fantasy Book Review, you probably come because you want “reviews” on “fantasy books.” It’s a pretty decent assumption, right? It’s in the name, it’s what we’re all about.

Image: Star Wars

So you might find yourself asking, why are there now Star Wars reviews up on Fantasy Book Review?

Well I can answer that for you, as I’m the one who’ll be leading the charge through the Star Wars universe.

When you think of Star Wars, what do you think of? Space? Battles? Lightsabers? Jedi? Bagels?

All of these are likely, and each in and of itself could immediately make you think Sci-Fi (let me work on how the bagels makes you think Sci-Fi, I can make something of it). But take another look at all of those ideas that make up Star Wars and you might see a similarity to Fantasy in there as well.

Space? Just another setting.

Battles? Uh, Lord of the Rings anyone?

Lightsaber? Just a shiny sword.

Jedi? Another word for sorcerer.


And look at the whole picture as well. The good versus bad, dark versus light, the Dark Side versus the … well, what was the other half called?

Beyond that we see a lot of archetypes that Star Wars uses that are similar to those used in the Fantasy genre. ‘Princess’ Leia, the princess from a lost world; mysterious powers bestowed upon a boy from a rural nowhere town; the used feel of the universe compared to the sleek and shiny Star Trek universe.

You can even be really nerdy like Keires on the official Star Wars forum;

“…you can find the typical D&D team (in episode 4, for example): an apprentice-knight, an expert-knight/magician, a mercenary, a princess… Instead of a dwarf and an elf you have two droids (dwarf-size and elf-size!)…”

George Lucas, the creator extraordinaire behind the Star Wars universe, describes the movies as Space Fantasy, which is probably the best way to look at it. The universe isn’t really based on “science” like Star Trek or Babylon 5. The hyperdrive just exists, without any scientific explanation as to how. The same can be said for the power generation for Death Star and Super Star Destroyers, how Coruscant hasn’t just collapsed in on itself under the pressure of all that city, and why everyone speaks basic except for the Sullustans and Wookies.

In Sci-Fi, these things would normally be explained; in Fantasy, they just ‘are,’ whether by being magic or simply unexplained by the author.

Long lost family, redemption for the bad guy, swords and sorcery, wise old men (and Yoda’s) and princesses in distress all cry Fantasy. So it comes really as a natural conclusion for us here at Fantasy Book Review to include Star Wars in our collection of reviews.

As for that bagel? Here’s my attempt at it being Sci-Fi;

Nah, I’ve got nothing.

Note – the prequel trilogy definitely make this classification a little murky, considering its sleek ships and attempt to explain the Force, but as with most Star Wars fans, we’ll simply ignore the movies and move on.

The New Jedi Order

A look at the list of Star Wars novels will see the Star Wars expanded universe split into several eras. There is the Rise of the Empire era, the Rebellion era, the New Republic era and the New Jedi Order era (as well as the Legacy era which follows). For the majority of those periods of time the books that fill it are a collection of trilogies, duologies and individual books.

Image: New Jedi Order

However, towards the end of 1999, the beginning of a single line of books, published under the title The New Jedi Order, or more commonly referred to as NJO, was started. The brains trust behind the Star Wars novels decided it was time for a change, and the change would leave a lasting impression on the Star Wars universe.

The New Jedi Order is made up of 19 novels, plus a collection of short stories, ebook novellas and comic books. Published between 1999 and 2003, the series wrought heavy changes in the Star Wars universe.

Possibly one of the biggest changes was the dark tone that the series took. Death and destruction were brought to the fore, and the death of several major characters had fans outraged and unhappy. Most unfortunate was the untimely release of Star by Star, a book that bore striking resemblance to the September 11 attacks and was sadly released so soon after said tragedy.

Though not as unloved as the prequel movies, the NJO books were not the huge success within the Star Wars fanbase that the brains trust had hoped for.

Star Wars novelist Timothy Zahn felt the series was too dark and had stayed from the “feel” of Star Wars, and later Editorial Director of Del Ray expressed his regret over some of the grimmer aspects the series portrayed, and of the main villain, the Yuuzhan Vong.

For those with the “trust” of continuing the Star Wars universe in this format, it is only fair that they are seen to be taking the blame for something that some fans did not like. However it is a little sad that the backlash was such that they were forced into such a decision.

Being only three books in, I’ll admit that maybe the series deepens in its “grimness” and actually strays from the Star Wars ethos. But so far all I’m seeing is Star Wars characters dealing with a level of violence they had yet to encounter. This is not a bad thing, and helps deepen the characters out of the “good guy/bad guy” stereotypes that were originally conceived in the movies.

So stay tuned to Fantasy Book Reviews newest section focusing solely on the Star Wars universe for more NJO reviews as I get through the books. I’ll keep the spoilers to a minimum except for three deaths which cannot be overlooked (I’ll make sure to warn before the review).

Books making up the NJO series;

–        Vector Prime by R.A. Salvatore (25 ABY)

–        Dark Tide I: Onslaught by Michael Stackpole (25 ABY)

–        Dark Tide II: Ruin by Michael Stackpole (25 ABY)

–        Agents of Chaos I: Hero’s Trial by James Luceno (25 ABY)

–        Agents of Chaos II: Jedi Eclipse by James Luceno (25 ABY)

–        Balance Point by Kathy Tyers (26 ABY)

–        Edge of Victory I: Conquest by Greg Keyes (26 ABY)

–        Edge of Victory II: Rebirth by Greg Keyes (27 ABY)

–        Star by Star by Troy Denning (27 ABY)

–        Dark Journey by Elaine Cunningham (27 ABY)

–        Enemy Lines I: Rebel Dream by Aaron Allston (27 ABY)

–        Enemy Lines II: Rebel Stand by Aaron Allston (27 ABY)

–        Traitor by Matthew Stover (27 ABY)

–        Destiny’s Way by Walter Jon Williams (28 ABY)

–        Force Heretic I: Remnant by Sean Williams & Shane Dix (28 ABY)

–        Force Heretic II: Refugee by Sean Williams & Shane Dix (28 ABY)

–        Force Heretic III: Reunion by Sean Williams & Shane Dix (28 ABY)

–        The Final Prophecy by Greg Keyes (28 ABY)

–        The Unifying Force by James Luceno (29 ABY)

Other additions to NJO;

–        Boba Fett: A Practical Man by Karen Traviss – eBook Novella set after Vector Prime

–        Emissary of the Void by Greg Keyes – short story set after Balance Point

–        Recovery by Troy Denning – eBook Novella set prior to Edge of Victory I: Conquest

–        The Apprentice by Elaine Cunningham – short story set after Dark Journey

–        Ylesia by Walter Jon Williams – eBook Novella set after Destiny’s War

–        Equals and Opposites by Nathan Butler – comic book set after Force Heretic I: Remnant

–        Or Die Trying by Sean Williams and Shane Dix – short story set after Force Heretic II: Refuge

The New Rebellion by Kristine Kathryn Rusch reviewed

Set: 17 ABY

Somewhere in the galaxy, millions suddenly perish—a disruption of the Force so shocking it is felt by Luke at his Jedi academy and by Leia on Coruscant. While Leia must deal with an assassination attempt, a rumored plot against the New Republic, and allegations that Han Solo is involved, Luke seeks out a former Jedi student who may hold the key to the mass destruction. But Brakiss is only the bait in a deadly trap set by a master of the dark side who is determined to rule as emperor. He’s targeted Luke, Leia, and Leia’s children to die. Then billions will follow, in a holocaust unequaled in galactic history.

One of the things I love about the Star Wars universe is the concept of ‘the Force.’ It might seem overly spiritual to some or thoroughly tacky to others, but I really like the concept of everything being linked; everything being able to affect everything else.

That aspect of the force plays heavily in Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s ‘The New Rebellion,’ published in 1996 and another New York Times bestseller. As the blurb above reads, the galaxy is yet again hit with another mass murder, similar to the one we saw in the beginning of the Star Wars universe, in the first movie Star Wars (A New Hope) when Obi Wan Kenobi feels the death of the planet Alderaan and its inhabitants. This time though it’s Luke – as well as Leia and her kids – who feel the death of millions.

The book naturally follows Luke’s hunt for the perpetrator of this crime, but isn’t left sitting in that idling hunt for justice.

Leia Organa Solo is in the Senate chambers when an explosion goes off. Many senators and aids are left dead, and the prime suspect soon becomes Han Solo, Leia’s husband. Leia is forced – as a result of a new group of senate members being allowed in – to allow investigations to continually prove her husband is at fault.

R2D2 and C-3PO are naturally involved, as are Leia and Han’s children; Jacen and Jaina, and their little brother Anakin. Though young, the children make for a really enjoyable addition to the cast.

I really enjoyed this book. It was well written and deeply set in the Star Wars universe. It is these well written books that really make the Star Wars novels a part of the universe in a way that other properties aren’t able to manage. The subplots with Lando, the children, the droids and a young plucky mechanic really enrich the story.

Star Wars: Republic Commando: Triple Zero by Karen Traviss reviewed

Set: 21 BBY

Following the eruption of the bloody Clone Wars at the battle of Geonosis, both sides remain deadlocked in a stalemate that can be broken only by elite warrior teams like Omega Squad, clone commandos with terrifying combat skills and a lethal arsenal….

For Omega Squad, deployed deep behind enemy lines, it’s the same old special ops grind: sabotage, espionage, ambush, and assassination. But when Omega Squad is rushed to Coruscant, the war’s most dangerous new hotspot, the commandos discover they’re not the only ones penetrating the heart of the enemy.

A surge in Separatist attacks has been traced to a network of Sep terror cells in the Republic’s capital, masterminded by a mole in Command Headquarters. To identify and destroy a Separatist spy and terror network in a city full of civilians will require special talents and skills. Not even the leadership of Jedi generals, along with the assistance of Delta squad and a certain notorious ARC trooper, can even the odds against the Republic Commandos. And while success may not bring victory in the Clone Wars, failure means certain defeat.

The second book in Karen Traviss’s Republic Commando series took the whole idea into a very different world. Triple Zero is set one year after the Battle of Geonosis, and thus almost a year after the first book. The commandos are brought to Coruscant where they’re to deal with terrorists who are working on the capital planet of the Republic.

But this book expands the idea that was presented in Hard Contact of four commandos working in the Clone Wars, and takes it to a whole new level. We get flashbacks to their training, their mentor is introduced as a major player, and the brotherhood of clones is evolved well beyond what Hard Contact hinted at.

In fact, beyond the attempt to take out the terrorists working on Coruscant is the beginnings of a huge plot arc that will see the clones’ mentor attempt to acquire a measure of peace and a future for them. Differences in training between various squads are brought into play, rivalries are explained and set up, and Jedi are introduced into the story and given the chance to be something other than the heroic Obi-Wan or the petulant Anakin.

This book was really a great read. I loved the growing relationship between Etain and Darmin, and was fascinated by the lives of the clones; both the flashbacks and their current lives. The minds and personalities of the clones are a brilliant juxtaposition to the almost invisible-cannon-fodder idea we had of them before. They are all different from one another with their own quirks and foibles.

Traviss really knows how to write a great story, and though it might not be in the same league as Zahn, Stackpole or Allston, the Republic Commando stories create and set up characters every bit as vivid and mesmerizing as Thrawn and Fel and Horn.