A review: Wonder Woman

As a fan of DC Comics from childhood to the date, getting a good DCEU movie has been a grueling process. I liked BvS, although it was a flawed movie. Suicide Squad was bad and Man of Steel has some controversial details. So Wonder Woman had a lot on her shoulders if this DC project was to succeed. Did it work?  Read only if you don’t mind SPOILERS.

I will put it this way, at risk of sounding like hyperbole: I haven’t seen such a great origin superhero movie since the first Iron Man movie and for DC, since the first Superman movie. Wonder Woman is so great that she alone has proved that this shared universe has hope. And it did it in the most logical way, by not talking about shared universe, but concerning itself to tell a character story first and leave the shared universe out, aside from the framing device that amounts to less than 5 minutes of the total run. In that regard, WW does what the earlier installments of the MCU did (and have lost ad they have become more formulaic and the universe more expansive), take the best elements of the characters long history (75 years for Wondy) and distillate them into a character study of growth and learning. Yes the background is the codifier for ‘War is Hell’, WWI which was the clash between old war strategies and new weaponry, but at the end of the day is the story of a heroine coming to terms with the fact

Yes the background is the codifier for ‘War is Hell’, WWI which was the clash between old war strategies and new weaponry, but at the end of the day is the story of a heroine coming to terms with the fact that she can’t save everyone as much as she wishes and there is not a single cause for the woes of humanity. But that doesn’t make humans irredeemable, just fallible. Thus the role of a heroine like Diana is to inspire humans to be better, to learn, grow and forgive. And the only way she can do that is by learning to do those things herself. In that way, she becomes better than her parents or her half-brother.

There are some obvious tropes and twists in the film that a keen-eyed writer can see a mile away (mainly the Godslayer weapon misdirection) but those don’t affect the story negatively since they don’t matter, this is the journey of Diana, not a journey to beat a villain. It is a personal journey of discovery. I would say that it is a ‘coming of age’ story enveloped in the superhero cape. It explains the jaded views of Diana during BvS (and how the introduction of Superman and Batman brings her out of her funk). The ending is a bit cheesy, 90’s level of cheesiness. But you know? That’s ok. Superheroes can be cheesy.

I loved the small details that added to the movie: the take on Diana’s origins (both classic & New 52), the foreshadowing of the New Gods, Bruce Wayne’s touching detail, Diana’s day job… all were perfect.

The real gem of the movie is Gal Gadot. She IS Wonder Woman as much as RDJR is Iron Man or Hugh Jackman is Wolverine (yes I know, Linda Carter is also WW). She embodies the character like a form fitting glove. The way she portrays Diana, from naive to jaded, from hopeful to in the midst of despair, from peace lover to the greatest Amazon warrior ever is a testament to her range and love for the character. Wonder Woman is a complex character as she predicates peace but is a mighty warrior. Gal Gadot makes you believe that there is no contradiction there.

Kudos to Chris Pine, he gave us a very human Steve Trevor, a regular man deciding to do the right thing even if he was scared beyond his guts. He conveyed several emotions with just his face. And his chemistry with Gal Gadot sold an otherwise common love relationship in a way that is heartbreaking in a good sense.

In general everyone did a great job (even if a few of the characters are paper thin). The movie took advantage of a great cast (of special nite is Robin Wright as Antiope. She was incredible in the few scenes she appeared).

Music wise, the soundtrack does it work, the theme of Wonder Woman that premiered in BvS is back to great effect. I love the heavy guitar riff. It’s regal, action packed and iconic. Of the DCEU characters’ themes, is by far the best.

The only weak point of the movie is the photography in certain scenes (mostly some combat ones where the cgi a la 300 is too obvious). However, I doubt it is due Paty Jenkins but more an issue of the in photography style that DC and WB have choosen for the DCEU that owes more to Snyder’s vision. When Jenkins introduced her own style, it was magnificent like with Themiscyra.

One of the parameters I use to measure how much I like a story in general is what I call the ‘yearning factor’. Do you know when you finish a story and are left with this bittersweet feeling, a good melancholy vibe that makes you yearn for more stories about that particular character? The need for more to the point you imagine your own extra adventures? The feel to watch the movie over and over because it makes you warm inside? That’s what I call the yearning factor, the need to get more of the story. And WW has it in spades, which is good because given that it aims to be part of a shared universe, will serve an extra hook for watching more about this universe and her role in it.

All in all, this is one of the best superhero movies ever made. I know it sounds like hyperbole, but it is. And it is fitting that one of the members of the Trinity of DCU can claim such stake. If someone can teach Superman and Batman a few things is Wonder Woman. This is a movie about belief and trust, but in story and outside (the trust that WB gave to Patty Jenkins is something that Marvel should examine for once). And it is great that we have now a female lead superhero movie that also works as a positive role for many girls and women around the world. It was about time. And as usual, it had to be Wonder Woman the one to show the way, as it befits the ambassador of Themiscyra and demi-goddess of truth and peace.

Watch it if: you enjoy good superhero films, you like DC comics, kick ass women, Wondy or Gal Gadot. And if you still have hopes for the DCEU project.

Don’t watch it if: if you don’t like DC comics, you don’t like the in-house photography style, you don’t like female superheroes or like the idea of a female director showing how it is done. (but if that’s the case, you shouldn’t be reading this blog either).

Grade: 6 out of 5.

Desirability: I loved the film but my wife liked it so much that even she has agreed we put the preorder of the blu-ray as soon as is possible.

Moana’s Quest and the ethereal villain

 

Let me preface this entry by explaining that this is not a review of Moana. I’m too late for that train. It is more of a reflection upon some comments my wife made me the other day about Moana. For better context: my wife and I grew up with a steady diet of Disney movies, so we are basically Disney children. However where things differ is that my wife is really into Dinsey animated movies, especially the Princess ones to the point that she and my sister in law can recite, word for word, songs included, most of the classics f the om top of their heads. Her all time favorite is the Little Mermaid by the way (and she knows ALL songs by heart. ALL). She tends to watch them with a critical eye I only use for comic related things or my own writing. She didn’t like Frozen and is warm luke to Moana, whilst for me, Moana is my second favorite Disney movie (the first one being the Lion King). Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).

Moana as well holds a special place in my heart, not only for the theme (Polynesian culture is quite interesting) but for the cast and the personality of the characters, it’s a sustainability parable  is colorful, I’m learning ‘You’re welcome’, but most important, it reminds me of our first wedding anniversary last year, where we had the opportunity to go to Disneyworld and watch a featurette on the movie. That trip by itself was a magical thing shared with the love of my life. So for me, the attachment to Moana is more sentimental (which might make this reflection a bit biased).

So it was a shock for me a few days ago, when I finally had money to buy the blu-ray edition, that my wife said that while she liked Moana enough, it wasn’t a good movie for her. I was aghast so I asked her to explain herself and in summary, her biggest complaint is that Moana, unlike other Disney Princess movies (or Disney movies in general) lacks a clear villain, taking away some of the conflicts from the plot. And that left me thinking about what I’m gonna write right now.

Moana, for the most part, is a kid-friendly approach to the Hero of Thousand Faces heroic journey or monomyth as author Joseph Campbell called it (which by the way, if you are planning to write fantasy, it would be a good idea to check that book). From the refusal of the call to the visit to the underground, Moana checks many of the items of the monomyth. However, my wife is right. It doesn’t have a proper villain.

Teka is more a force of nature created by the actions of men (this is important later for the sake of the post), looking for the heart of Te Fiti for spoilery reasons. Other than that it doesn’t have more motivation that just exists. The Kokomora and Tamatoa are not the main villains, they act more as obstacles. But they are not the main antagonist of the movie. And none of them spend time on screen beyond a few minutes to explain their real motivations. They are just there. Compare that to other classic villains like Ursula, Scar, and Jaffar, who are antagonistc villains and you can see that my wife has a point there.

Now the movie does have a few antagonists, but not in the traditional good-bad dichotomy. One of them, in particular, is vital for the story. This antagonist is there to counter Moana’s views and help her with her personal growth. Notice that I’m not calling him a villain because he is not. He is for most of the movie an anti-hero at a crossroads and goes by the name of Maui. You will say: ‘hey he is the deuteragonist, the other hero of the story’. And for the last third of the movie he is. But on the first part of the movie he is there messing with Moana’s plans for his selfish/not-so-selfish reasons and is on a personal growth journey as well. It’s only when he realizes that both journeys share the same ultimate objective that he goes from anti-hero to bonafide hero. To put it simply, he is the Han Solo to Moana’s Luke/Leia, down to the last minute rescue in a falcon shape.

So if Moana apparently doesn’t has an antagonistic villain, where is the conflict? Well, I think that it does has a villain, but is not a physical one.

Stories like Game of Thrones have got us used to the idea that even villains have proper motivations, that deep inside, they believe they are right and that they are the true heroes of the story. Cersei, for example, does at first most things for the sake of her children. Only the Others/White Walkers haven’t shown a real motivation so far, acting more like a boogeyman or a force of nature. Long gone are the days of evil for the sake of evil villains, like Palpatine. But even so, we are still used to think of villains in terms of an actual guy opposing the heroes for nefarious purposes. And this is where Moana deviates from the norm in a clever way.

Remember when I mentioned the ‘acts of men’ as the cause of the crisis in the story of Moana? Well, it was their constant abusing of Maui’s desire for approval (the guy is still hurting from being abandoned as a baby) that pushed too far the balance, making him steal the heart of Te Fiti and creating Tekai as result. The ‘acts of men’ are also seen in the way of thinking uphold by Moana’s father about not venturing away form the island, forgetting completely his culture’s tradition of wayfinding. This is where Moana becomes a sustainability parable: the actions of our predecessors have caused a disruption on the futures of our descendants. I see Tekai as a symbol of Mother Earth lashing out against humankind for their excess, as a representation of climate change for example, or pollution, that withers the land and deprive us of nurturing elements.

It’s only when Moana understands this, that the ‘acts of men’, the loss of their traditional communion with nature, the close minded way of thinking and greed has caused this crisis that she is capable of reaching an agreement with Tekai to return the heart to its proper place and restore the balance. Of all the people of her island she was chosen  by the Ocean, that allied force of nature, because she is not only smart enough to realize this but compassionate and brave enough to raise up to the challenge of breaking with the societal conventions, the popular wisdom of her context to find a new way of life. In this case, the villain is not a physical one, is an ethereal one composed by many negative thoughts that mired her, her family and even Maui and take a final embodiment in Tekai.

Sometimes, the villains of a story, the real ones, are not the guys in black robes trying to conquer the world, but the inner demons, the preconceptions, the baggage that drags the main character down. Those are villains of equal importance if not more and only when the hero realizes that and is willing to overcome them is that they become able to solve the crisis at hand. So I contend that Moana does have a villain and a central conflict, but not in the shape we are used to from other Disney movies.  And for that,  and for having such a kickass female hero that breaks from the traditional role of a Disney Princess (that’s a topic for another post), I think Moana is superb.

A review: King Arthur: the legend of the sword

I’m a sucker for Arthurian cycle reinterpretation (one of my favorites versions is the one written by John Steinbeck). Now Guy Ritchie brings his own take to it.  Read only if you don’t mind SPOILERS.

There is not much to talk about this movie in terms of story. And I don’t mean that as something bad. Arthur’s story tells the most basic hero’s plot. Not for nothing, it has been the template for hundreds of movies, video games and fantasy stories (with a few sci-fi ones). Excalibur is the ur-example of the magical sword. In that regard, I would dare to call it one of the most faithful depictions of King Arthur’s story in years (more that King Arthur with Clive Owen at least). It mixes a vibe that could easily fit Lord of the Rings with that of Excalibur by John Boorman.

Now that I think about it, this movie feels like an updated version of that movie, through the lens of Ritchie, which means that true to his personal style, has running scenes in first person, slow motion in combat and a grittiness that made Ritchie’s brand in movies such as Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Also, there is a London here, well Londinium (Down to some roman buildings as it should be at the time), it wouldn’t be a Ritchie movie without London. Sound hectic isn’t? I would say eclectic. But that’s what makes this movie such a good piece, one that has been underrated.

Aside from the aesthetic, what this movie brings in a interwoven tale of the main features of an Arthurian cycle for modern audiences. Let’s talk about the differences to the regular legend:

  • Humans share the land with a humanoid race named Mages, who are capable of controlling beasts and can enter a parallel world similar to our but with bestial creatures. It is reminiscent of the Underside of the Tuatha de Danaan in Celtic lore.
  • Uther Pendragon is a good king, owner of Excalibur that defeats the usurper of the Mage throne Mordred, to be later betrayed by his own brother Vortigern. He then becomes the proverbial stone where the sword is trapped.
  • Vortigen is in cahoots with dark powers and is a genocidal king. And can transform into a fiery demon wielding a double scimitar (very similar to a Frazetta drawing), through the sacrifice of his wife and daughter.
  • Merlin doesn’t appear in the movie aside a flashback, but his presence can be felt through others. For starters he is the one to forge Excalibur from the staff of the Mage King and with the help of the Lady of the Lake binds it to Arthur0s lineage. His bidding is carried out through a hooded female mage who….
  • …Is actually, Guinevere! Well, just in name, because power and character wise, she acts more like Morgan Le Fay (which makes sense since Mordred is already dead by then and bypasses the issue of the incest from the legend). She is also the one to guide Arthur through his quest.
  • Talking about Arthur, he is the one that suffers the most changes under Ritchie’s approach: after parent’sents deaths here he is left in a river (very Moses) and raised by prostitutes and criminals, learning martial arts and becoming a criminal boss with his own team. He is forced to pull the sword from the stone and then rescued by the Rebellion, formed by the old allies of his father (Djimon Hounsou as Belvedere and Aidan Gillen as Goosefat Bill/Lord Willian, who acts like Sir Kay mixed with Robin Hood). From there he starts a guerilla warfare against his uncle, while training to use the full power of Excalibur and finally things come to a head.
  • Excalibur itself has been changed here. It is more than just an unbreakable sword with glowing runes. Under the control, of Arthur it becomes a magical sword that can unleash gusts of wind and allows Arthur to achieve some sort of sixth sense (it’s when the camera goes into bullet time) that makes him invincible.

The movie ends when Arthur takes the crown, knighting his companions (you find there that his right hand in his gang is actually Sir Tristan), building the Roundtable and dealing with Vikings, while Guinevere looks from afar. It’s a good open ending that closes all the plot threads while leaving room for further adventures. Which we might not get.

Apparently, the movie is bombing (which considering that is going against GotG and Alien Covenant it was expected). But I think the critics are being too harsh with this movie. While it has some defects, it is a good movie. One that I think with time will become a cult movie. For me it is already a must for my collection.

On a personal note, watching Arthur’s fights with Excalibur in hand is exactly how I envisioned the fights of my main characters on my novel Tempest Blades. So if by any miracle I manage to publish the novel and becomes good enough to become a movie or a miniseries, I would love for Guy Ritchie to direct it. This is how Fionn fighting should look.

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Watch it if: you are a fan of Guy Ritchie signature style (like in Sherlock Holmes), you want a more high fantasy version of Arthur or you liked Excalibur.

Don’t watch it if: if you prefer more down to earth Arthurian movies, you can’t stomach Ritchie’s signature style or you are a stickler for orthodoxy in terms of how a movie based on King Arthur’s should be (although this is an oxymoron, considering that not even the medieval romances could agree how it should be and there are tons of versions already).

Grade: 4 out of 5.

Desirability: I will be buying the blu-ray when possible. Just because the photography is that good, and a dvd wouldn’t make it justice.

A review: A Silent Voice

My wife and I just recently watched a beautiful anime movie about human connection and compassion. Here is what I thought.

 

Now that ’13 reasons why’ has put the issues of bullying and suicide on the debate table (whether it does it correctly or a total mess of it, that’s matter for another blog post), I think it is fair to talk about this movie that might be dismissed at first hand but actually does a superb job talking about bullying, redemption, special needs and depression.

The basic story is this: Shoya is a bullied, solitary teenager getting ready to kill himself, paying debts and closing circles. Once he is ready to jump off a bridge, he stops and returns home, where his mother coaxes him into being alive. And thus starts his redemption story. You see, Shoya was a bully himself, and a mean one to that. The object of his bullying was a deaf girl when they were kids. He bullied her for being different so much that he got his school into troubles and in turn becomes the scapegoat and bullied by others for the following five years, losing all his friends and interest in human contact.

Since then he has lived with the regret of his actions, to the point he thinks that he is nothing but trash. However a chance meeting with Shoko, the deaf girl he bullied changed everything. He decides to live his life with the aim of making her happy (she has a sad family life too) as payment for his transgressions. They start to connect, trying to understand each other and forgive each other and in the process they heal their emotional wounds and meet new friends, in some cases even rekindling old friendships.

Most of the depression/ suicide tendencies that the main characters show come from the fact that they hate themselves more than others do and see themselves as a waste of space and the bullying they suffered as something they earned. It’s sounds fucked up, right? But the harsh truth is that many people undergoing depression feel exactly that. In this movie (especially those singled out for a dissability), it is through friendship as a support network, better communication and actually caring for other that the characters are able to overcome their demons and false sense of guilt and move on into a better life. 

The movie focuses more on the aftermath of the bullying and depression side of things, more on how the characters try to move on, but the story is constructed in a melancholic yet hopeful way. The story concludes with an open ending that has an upbeat tone to it. In no moment the film acts as exploitative or creates drama for the sake of drama (contrary to other anime) but it is a logical progression of acts-consequences and learning not only to own that but move from there. Even the characters you might dislike start to earn their redemption because they are fallible humans who also have needs and problems.

The music and the art are beautifully done, but the most striking scenes are those where we get inside Shoko’s head and her struggles to communicate. This is a film I will buy for my lectures on universal design and how disabilities should be understood.

The most important thing is that, while the movie summarizes 7 tomes of manga (which according to my wife does faithfully even if it downplays a bit the uglier parts of bullying), you can see the maturing process of the main cast and how that process helps others to heal their own emotional wounds.

It’s a story about understanding and empathy. It’s a story about learning to forgive yourself and forgive others. About learning to conduct meaningful human interactions in a world where feeling alone in the middle of a crowd is commonplace. But most important, it is a love story, but more than romantic love is a story about loving each other and loving yourself so you can live a life worth living. And that is a really powerful message

Watch it if: you are a fan of ‘slice of life’ anime and are interested in a well-done story about empathy/friendship and bullying/depression in a non-exploitative way.

Don’t watch it if: I can’t think of a reason to don’t watch it.

Grade: 5 out of 5.

Desirability: I will be buying the blu-ray when it comes out. One for my home and one for work.

Top 5 badass mothers in science fiction & fantasy 

Since this May 10th is Mothers’ Day in Mexico, I thought in writing a top 5 list of badass mothers in science fiction & fantasy. Of course, every list of this kind is subjective but it is also a good icebreaker.

5. Lady Jessica (Dune): Bene Gesserit, mother of Paul Atreides, Reverend mother and possibly the only person that would try Voice on God.

4.  Sarah Connor: you have to be one badass customer if the most advanced AI ever created risk destroying the timeline over and over just so you don’t become a mom. John is a what he is because of his mom.

3. Molly Weasley: tell me that you didn’t cheer up with a raised fist when she offed Bellatrix Lestrange. Never mess with a mother’s children.

2. General Leia: granted Kylo is a brat but he takes after his grandfather. Leia is not just a rebel leader. It’s the embodiment of the Rebel Alliance. Luke might be the Jedi but Leia is the boss.

1. Daenerys Targaryen: seriously, you don’t earn the moniker ‘Mother of Dragons’ just for nothing.

Bonus: Martha Kent. It takes to be the mom of steel to raise and educate the most powerful being of the world, maybe the universe. Just imagine the temper tantrums.

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Do you agree with the list? Suggestions? 

The Fascinating Allure of RuPaul’s Drag Race

drag-race-title

Gentlemen start your engines and may best woman win!

This SNL skit made consider writing this blog entry. I think many identify with it and the fascinating allure that RuPaul’s drag race has. And also I write this thanks to my wife.

Now, my wife barely watches cable (she hates it) and the only reason we still have it is due Disney XD and HBO (for Gravity Falls and Game of Thrones respectively). She usually watches vloggers on YouTube or binge watch the strangest things she can find on Netflix (she has good taste in shows btw).

So last year she introduced me to her latest obsession: RuPaul’s Drag Race. I admit that at first I didn’t give the show much stock ( she was watching the middle part of season 7, one of the less interesting seasons in my opinion, despite having great drag queens like Katya & Ginger Minj) and found the ‘lip synch for your life’ a bit silly as form of elimination.

However, my wife insisted me to give it a try and showed me a comedy ‘Hurricane Bianca‘ featuring the winner of Season 6 Bianca Del Río and several other queens and I liked it so I give it a try.

And I was hooked.

From the drama of hypercompetitive Season 5, to the flawless runs of Season 6 I enjoyed watching the show (in a very hectic order). As my wife said, the seasons become more interesting once you choose a queen to root for, to the point that you develop a Top 5 list of favorites (mine starts with Katya at Number 1, I’m fond of the smart comedy queens).

Soon we found ourselves as a couple watching the new seasons, debating our favorite seasons ( mine is All Stars 2), discussing queens and watching YouTube videos by them.

By the way, if you haven’t watched UNHhhh by Trixie Mattel and Katya you are missing one of the best independent comedy shows of our time. It’s so random and smart at the same time that it becomes a tour de force.

We are so into the show that our couple private jokes now include several catchphrases and references from the show) and understand most of the lingo ( we are still novices though). Know I now what’s a fishy queen (someone that looks like a real woman), a pageant or a comedy queen or ‘what spill the t’ and ‘shade’ mean.  Or what’s tucking, which I admit sounds painful to me.

And that made me ponder why this show is becoming a media phenomenon (if you are featured in SNL you have gone mainstream, despite RuPaul’s infamous quote of ‘Drag will never be mainstream’), and why I have become so interested in it.

For starters, despite being a reality competition, it focuses less on the drama and more on the skills and personalities of the contestants. Of course, it has drama, like Alyssa Edwards feud with Coco Montrese, Rolaskatox vs. Jinxs Moonson, Phi Phi vs. Sharon Needles. Trust me, it has plenty of drama. But the drama takes a second place to the actual focus of the show: the artistry that goes into drag.

The queens have to show versatility, comedy, impersonation and acting chops, sewing skills on par to Project Runway, marketing knowledge, makeup, fashion and styling abilities that rival pros of those areas. Even live singing and dance (two former American & Australian Idols and several choreographers are among the queens). All of that in the same episode and against the clock. This race is a marathon distance run at 100mts race speed. Not for the faint of heart.

But also something that endears you to the show is to know the person behind the drag : their personal stories (without being exploitative like in other reality shows),  the sense of community they have. Yes every season has a villain sort to speak and unfair eliminations, but you sense that the rivalry between drag queens is for part on the professional side not personal. They solve their issues like intelligent, mature people and above all they are consummate professionals. There is no body shaming, nor derogatory comments, just humor and fellowship that you rarely find in other fields. So when you are rooting for a queen you do it based in her skills and performance.

This show also has put unde the limelight in a respectful way the struggles of the LGTB community (like Stonewall). It raises awareness of what the LGTB community is and makes you understand them better.

I’m not a fan of reality shows, but this one. For me it is the most professional, fun and endearing show in current tv. You owe to yourself watch it and learn from it. While I’m not an expert on LGTB issues now I have a better idea of what they go through and my respect and admiration has increased even more. My sheer respect for their artistry makes me enjoy the show even more.

I think that contrary to what RuPaul thinks, Drag will become mainstream. Why? Because the world needs this show now more than ever, we need a world where we tolerance, community and acceptance, where you are evaluated on your skills, your grit, your attitude and the gender where you are born into is of no consequence. A world with greater acceptance and equality. That’s why my wife and myself love the show.

Remember: We’re all born naked and the rest is drag. Now sashay away.

Inside Inklings Tower or when fantasy meets industrial design 

I usually prefer to keep my day job (lecturer at a design school) and my other job (superhero vigilante by night… I mean writer) separated, except when I’m thinking on a particular object (like Alex’s collapsing bow) and try to describe it as feasible as possible, inner workings included. The other moments is when my writing job spills into my day job like today. Well more the work at the writers’ collective of which I’m part, Inklings Press

As you have heard we talk about the inner workings of Inklings Press as the ‘Tower’ (hence the name of the new book). And we have a mascot of sorts, enforcer and manservant Herc the Orc: 

Herc knows his best angles for being drawn as French fries.

Now, last semester, two students selected me as their final year project advisor. They were hopeful I would be open to their ideas for project (at my work they are usually ‘encouraged’ to do boring design as furniture). When they told me they wanted to create sets and creatures for a stop motion film I accepted right away( “finally an entertaining project to supervise,” I said). Then Inklings Press jumped in as client for the project and they started to develop the material for a short promo film (think the Pixar lamp animation at the start of their films). They took the drawing of Herc and created a setting and the characters (that can double as collectors’ action figures) for a film inside the Inklings Tower.

Today, these two gifted students, Alanna & Montserrat brought for a midterm evaluation their work and this is the result:










They will start shooting the film soon.

Meanwhile I’m feeling very proud of them.

This is why I studied design. This is why I’m a design teacher now. For times when my students do things like this. Well done girls! 

Welcome to (insert name)! On how places get named

Valendale. Courtesy of Freemaps.org

I’ve been thinking lately about how names of places come to be. It’s an especially jarring task when you are world building either for a book or for your role playing sessions.

Most authors (and DM at that) try to go for the Tolkien route: create bombastic sounding names to put in their locations, buildings, even family names. I have done that. But it usually reads and feels hollow, forced, unnatural. It feels like a tacky label glued onto something. The other route is to create a weird sounding word and use it. This is the method I usually use (taking advantage of the frequent misspellings I have by typing too fast on my phone). While useful for minor things, it sounds forced as well with bigger things, namely location names.

I’m not saying this a diss to anyone, as I said, I have done it myself, both in my D&D sessions and in the first drafts of Tempest Blades (when it had other names like Curry -don’t ask why-, Wings of Thunder and so on). But lately, while I’m revising and editing the novel I find myself pondering more on the topic.

The thing is that Tolkien could get away with it because before being a writer he was a superb philologist that had read, translated and studied several old texts such as the Kalevala and the original Beowulf. He studied how the words came to be before doing it himself. It is said that Middle Earth came to be from the need to give a home for the languages he was creating. Thus every elvish word he used had an etymological origin within the language and context of the LOTR universe. That’s why places like Rivendell or Mordor feel like real places. While we are not Tolkien, the process he followed is not different from what happens in real world.

That made me realize something: most location names in real life are not created that way. Regardless of how they sound now, most of them are not all were derived from ancient words used to describe to others where you lived. It was a way to tell your address in a time where there was no concept of addresses or maps. Rivendell has a meaning like The Shire for their inhabitants not related to any mystic word, but usually coming from a descriptor of a place, like ‘clear water’ or ‘under the waterfall’ or ‘mud city’. There are some names that came from real or legendary persons, usually the ones that founded the place such as Alexandria (Alexander the Great) or Rome (Remus), or where people believed their deities communicated with them or were blessed by them, like Athens and Athena. A few of them come from actual events, legends of what happened there. Names reflect either the place or the history of the people that dwelled there. Even humorous confusions can be used for that.

Let’s take a few examples from real life. In Mexico, there is a state called Yucatan (where Cancun and the Mayan Ribera are located). There are two theories about the actual meaning of the name ‘Yucatan’: one that means ‘yu ka t’ann = listen how weird they talk’, which was said by the locals when the Spaniards arrived and the later thought it was the name of the place. The other says ‘Ci u t’ann = I don’t understand you’, again the locals trying to explain the Spaniards that no, not everybody spoke Spanish back then (kinda what happens now with some English speaking tourists, but I digress).

Now take a look at the home of the Bard: Stratford-upon-Avon. Let’s examine it by parts. Stratford is the result of the combination of the Old English strǣt, meaning ‘street’, with ford, indicating a shallow part of a river or stream, allowing it to be crossed by walking. ‘Upon’ is the relative position of the place with respect to the nearby river the Avon. In turn, Avon comes from the Celtic ‘abona’ (or so I have read, please correct me if I’m wrong). So a literal translation of the name would be ‘Street upon the shallow part of the river’ or something like this. There are plenty locations around the world that sound exotic to us Spanish or English speakers but that to the original inhabitants of the place were common descriptors to explain the place where they lived and which words, with the pass of time became nouns by themselves.

Now, writers in the science fiction, fantasy and science fantasy genres tend to get very ‘imaginative’ with the names of the places and institutions, even the last names (more on this one later) but there are truly a few memorable ones. Everybody knows that ‘King’s Landing’ is the nominal capital of Westeros in ASOIAF. But the name has its history explicit on it. It is the place where Aegon the Conqueror settled from Dragonstone to start his campaign to conquer the Seven Kingdoms. That little piece of world building makes the place feel more real for the reader and not just a wild invention to get out of the issue fast. It can happen that the name was quickly created, but so many things happen there through the story that the name becomes ‘solid’. Which is arguably what happens with most names in Star Wars. Regardless, if you are going to use a locale for more than a passing reference, then dedicating a bit of thought on how that name came to be can help to make the place feel ‘real’ and even get plot points across.

This has changed my approach to how I name places in my stories, mainly in the Tempest Blades universe. I go with the descriptor route, with the memorable event/person or with something inspired in my real life.

For example, in Tempest Blades one of my characters studies at a university that has ‘Mercian’ as a name, because it is located in the Mercian region of the Emerald Island. Yes, it sounds weird, but I chose it for a reason. Mercian comes from Mercia, an ancient 6th-century kingdom in England. I obtained my Ph.D. at Loughborough University, whose coat of arms includes the Offa of Mercia´s cross, and whose current location falls withing the old borders of that kingdom. So while the name sounds weird, it is, in reality, a veiled reference to my alma mater which now has a counterpart in my setting (which in turns facilitates describing the place in the novel). Yes, it is a bit of projection, but I want to see it as an homage to a place that has importance in my life. Some places in my novel are derived from real world places that have captivated my mind.

Then there is Saint Lucy’s, the capital of the Emerald Island and the place where the final battle of the first novel takes places, which was named after a saint that blessed the war effort. You have Ravenhall and Ravenstone, both places named after the Raven, aka the Trickster Goddess (the main deity of my setting) or The Maze, which got its name due to the weird spatial configuration of the place that makes people get lost inside it.

Finally, I have Belfrost, the city of spies. This place will appear in later stories (since it was cut from the first novel). Its name is a contraction of ‘Belger’s Frost’. It’s a city on a mountain range that separates the Ionis continent from the as yet unnamed continental mass where the mysterious grasslands are. It was founded by Belger the explorer on a frosty peak and was the last place where he was seen alive before leaving to explore the grasslands, to never been seen again. Thus the name of the city is a homage to its founder.

I think for the most part this has helped me to give the cities of the setting a little bit more of personality and a connection to the characters and the history of that world. I don’t know if this method will help anyone, as often worldbuilding tends to distract from the actual writing, but at least in my case, it has helped me to solve the issue of naming places while writing without making them feel empty or unreal. They feel more tangible (at least in my head). It has also helped to move plot points in way I didn’t expect but now make sense within the story and have as well allowed me to think on more ideas for future stories.

Before closing this post, I want to mention the last name issue. Most last names in the world were created as descriptors of an animal totem, a  work the person was doing like Archer for example; from the place where they lived (most Spanish last names); derived from first names to denote ancestry (again like most Spanish names or nordic names, e.g. Johansson = son of Johan) or to denote important events on the originator’s life (e.g. my last names comes literally from victory, as my great, great grandfather changed his mouthful of last name to Victoria, to celebrate a battle he won against the Spaniards during Mexico’s Independence War). It’s not a rule of course, but it could be a good guide when it comes to giving last names to your characters.