An Anatomy of Space Operas

Space operas are arguably the quintessential form of science fiction. With stories that feature alien species, artificial intelligence, advanced technology, and large-scale wars, space operas are in fact what most people think of when they hear the words ‘science fiction’.

Growing out of the Western fiction and sea adventure narrative traditions, space operas have always been adventure tales that focus on the voyage to and exploration of new worlds. They explore issues of war, peace, and diplomacy within and between factious empires bent on colonizing the universe. They also often examine larger nationalistic and imperialistic concerns, such as the foundation, preservation, and destruction of empires. Stories within this genre often have a sense of largeness or grandiosity—there are huge casts of characters, wars on unimaginable scales, and beautiful settings that evoke awe and terror.

These stories often contain time machines, wormholes, teleportation, and faster-than-light travel; parallel and pocket universes; and cryogenics and cloning. They focus on societies where highly advanced technology is ubiquitous and merely provides the background to the story.

Space opera stories first began to appear in the 1920s in Amazing Stories and other science fiction magazines. Though they were originally well-received in general, by the 1940s they had lost their appeal, and were seen as banal, unimaginative stories bereft of any literary or scientific merit.

The term ‘space opera’ was coined in 1941 by the writer and critic Wilson Tucker, in reference to the ‘horse opera’ genre of bad Westerns, as well as to the ‘soap opera’ genre of histrionic radio and television shows that were sponsored by soap and detergent companies.

Tucker used the term as a pejorative to describe cliché-ridden, derivative pulp. Many science fiction writers tried to disassociate themselves and their work from the space opera genre because they were embarrassed by its melodrama and loose scientific reasoning. At the time, there was a strong sentiment within the science fiction community that science fiction should be painstakingly accurate in its engagement with scientific fact, and that writers should only extrapolate on current scientific theories using rigorous logic. Most writers of space operas, however, gleefully departed from this tenet and abandoned logic in favour of constructing emotional plots with high-stakes.

Tucker famously defined space operas as “the hacky, grinding, stinking, outworn space-ship yarn” with a focus on “world-saving”. Though perhaps unnecessarily critical, Tucker’s definition does offer a useful starting point for understanding the conventions of this genre.

Most significantly, space operas deal with space-ships—this is where the influence from nautical fiction and sea adventure stories comes in. Space operas often involve long and tortuous journeys through uncharted parts of the universe, and often much of the story takes place within the confines of the space ship. Traveling through space also allows stories to incorporate concerns with diplomacy and territory, and the arrival at harbours allows for the introduction of issues of commerce and trade.

The word ‘yarn’ emphasizes that this genre is made up of adventure tales; the stories are exciting and filled with conflict that moves the plot forward. Space opera stories almost universally focus on ‘world-saving’, with epic battles between heroic individuals and irredeemable villains bent on the destruction of planets or the enslavement or genocide of various species.

Most of Tucker’s distaste for space operas is directed towards the genre’s repetitiveness and formulaic plots, which he believes bars high literary achievement. Because of the unimaginable vastness of space, popular space operas could go on ad infinitum by expanding the known universe in which the story takes place. There could always be another planet to explore, another black hole or supernova to evade, or another war or disaster to prevent. Although one might think that the never-ending frontiers of space would provide limitless inspiration for stories, many writers of space operas would simply stick to the tropes of Westerns and sea adventure fiction. Perhaps the overwhelming potentiality of space was simply too daunting to fathom, and in the face the unknown writers retreated to the familiar. Regardless, this perpetuation of tropes was seen as indicative of an arrested imagination.

By the 1970s, the negative cultural connotations associated with the term ‘space opera’ had been shed, and it was seen as simply a descriptive term for the subgenre. Despite concerns over its artistic merit, space operas have always held a position of prominence in speculative fiction and continue to have a strong hold over our cultural consciousness.

Perhaps the most iconic space operas are Star Wars and Star Trek, but there are many other ground-breaking examples of this genre. Lois McMaster Bujold’s military space opera The Vorkosigan Saga and the satirical space opera The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy show just how much diversity is possible even in a supposedly trite genre. Dan Simmons’s Hyperion series is often classified as an example of a postmodern space opera. And space operas continue to be popular around the world. In Japan, the anime franchise Gundam has spawned dozens of shows, novels, and video games.

With Ann Leckie’s phenomenal Imperial Radch Trilogy, space operas have once again become popular. The first novel of her trilogy, Ancillary Justice, won the Hugo, Nebula, Arthur C. Clarke, BFSA, and Locus awards for best novel. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Leckie’s trilogy is her exploration of gender. All characters in the Imperial Radch Trilogy are referred to using feminine (she/her/hers) pronouns, regardless of gender.

Leckie’s success will only make more readers interested in reading space operas and more publishers interested in publishing it. And if nothing else, her success shows that the space opera genre has not yet been exhausted of all possibilities—there’s still a lot left to explore out there.

In honour of one the most important subgenres of speculative fiction, over the next few weeks The Spectatorial will be publishing a series of articles that explore some of our writers’ favourite space operas. Fasten your seatbelts; we’ll be going at warp speed.

-Alex De Pompa, Editor in Chief

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Impractical Immortality: Do You Really Want to Live Forever?

holy grail
Image from moviepilot.com

Well, do you? Really?

The idea of immortality, in one form or another, comes up frequently in speculative fiction: elves, Timelords, divine beings, cursed humans, and undying monsters are all easy to find between pages and on screens. Immortality is often a flexible concept, ranging from gods that are all-powerful and cannot die but can—with the right spell, artifact or leverage with another rival god—be subdued, to creatures that can be slain but never fall prey to disease or the ravages of time. The latter includes Tolkien’s eternally beautiful elves and the sometimes benevolent—but usually malicious—Immortals of author Tamara Pierce’s fantasy kingdom Tortal.

Freedom from mortality may sound appealing to some of us, but as a wise wizard once said, “Humans do have a knack for choosing precisely those things which are worst for them.” Immortality is easily one of the worst things that heroes and villains have ever sought after.

For starters—there’s a catch. Always. Immortality comes at a price.

Sometimes the magic that makes you immortal also makes you susceptible to other, unfriendly forms of magic, or you find yourself unable to leave the cloister that the Sangrael is housed in, lest you lose all that you’ve gained. Maybe you get eternal life, but not eternal youth with it. I’m sure the Greek goddess Iris’ lover, who was granted the former but not the latter, would have much to say on the subject.

It is also likely that your immortality is dependent on you having your magic McGuffin on or near your person at all times, meaning that you’re at a disadvantage in life. Your magic ring or medal will be stolen, I promise you. It’s only a matter of time. In this case, the price of immortality is a life of looking over your shoulder, guarding your prize because your eternal life depends on it.

In other cases, the cost of immortality is too hideous to contemplate. Aloysius Crumrin, the aged warlock in the Courtney Crumrin comic series, is offered eternal life by an old flame—in the form of vampirism. He turns immortal life down but does accept her last elixir vitae; the potion lets him live a little longer despite his wasting illness. “Do I want to know what’s in it?” he asks the vampire. “No,” is her firm reply, and seeing as she herself keeps living by draining the life of others, it’s for the best that Aloysius doesn’t question her further.

And of course you’ll be lonely. How could you not be? You’ll outlive everyone you love.

In Ella Enchanted, the fairy godmother, Mandy, tells her goddaughter Ella that the Faeries tend to earn the ire of even their dearest human companions: “We’re immortal. That gets them mad…. [your mother] wouldn’t speak to me for a year when her father died.” The benefit of living to see a whole family line grow is somewhat tempered by knowing that you will have to bury them all.

Similarly, Skysong, the baby dragon who is born in Tortal away from other dragons and is raised by human mages, will outlive her guardian and all the mortal animals who become her friends.

And speaking of being lonely, it must be said that Captain America—who managed to survive a crash landing in the Arctic and being frozen there back during World War II—is starting to look very lonely, having outlived most of his comrades. He is stuck existing in a world that he doesn’t really belong to.

Even if you do your best to fit in the world you find yourself in, you won’t. Yuta, the protagonist of a manga series called Mermaid Saga, tries to live like a normal man after gaining immortality. But his wife can hardly fail to notice that, though she grows old over the years, he remains the young man she married. “I’m afraid of you,” she tells him. And who could blame her?

Finally, just what are you going to do with all that time?

Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged devotes himself to insulting everyone, forever. If that sounds lame, consider that living forever will leave you running out of hobbies soon enough. You will run out of places to see and things to do because you will simply have too much time on your hands. If you have no plan, you’re doomed.

All that can truly occupy the immortal is watching history being made. This is a dubious prospect; ask the elves of Middle Earth. They never fail to seem jaded about the decisions made over the years, or the doings of the mortals around them. Elvenkind has simply seen too much to fully trust any other race; they remember too much.

Watching eras pass is bad enough, but living through them is much worse. Yuta lives through feudal wars, famine, the bombings of World War II, and murderous multigenerational feuds among those he befriends. Madame Xanadu loses her young lover in the witch-burning fervour of the Spanish Inquisition. And Wolverine seems to do nothing but get caught up in somebody’s war. For every triumph of humanity there are a dozen failures. History is a harsh place to live.

Take the Fame lyric “I’m gonna  live forever” literally and what you have is masochistic madness.

In the genres that ask “what if…?” any exploration of immortality yields fascinating answers. The concept of immortality and the presence of immortal characters in fiction forces us to take a long look at the way we live our lives. An immortal traveler who has seen far too much once said that “A longer life isn’t always a better one.”

What happens if you do away with mortality, a fundamental part of our humanity ? Nothing that we would ever really want.

-contributed by Miranda Whittaker

Calling All Storytellers: An Original, Contemporary Fairy Tale, Please!

When I think of fairy tales, I think of mythical creatures, anthropomorphic objects and animals, happy endings, and valuable lessons fully revealed at the end. The ones recorded  by the Grimm Brothers, Hans Christian Andersen, and Charles Perrault have justifiably become classic fairy tales, with great popularity and numerous literary, film, musical, and theatre adaptations. Recently, the musical film Into the Woods, which came out on December 25, 2014, was a crossover adaptation of the Grimm Brothers’ “Cinderella”, “Jack and the Beanstalk”, “Little Red Riding Hood”, and “Rapunzel”. That film was in fact an adaptation of the stage musical of the same name by James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim, which was itself an adaptation of James Lapine’s book of the same name. And that’s just one specific revival of the classic fairy tales.

On the top of my head, within the past decade (give or take a couple of years) these are some of the film adaptations of fairy tales: Ella Enchanted, Enchanted, A Cinderella Story, Another Cinderella Story, Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror, Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Jack the Giant Killer, Beastly, the four Shrek films, the three recent Disney princess films, and so many others. And apparently there’s going to be more film adaptations this year, including one of Cinderella and one of Beauty and the Beast, which I’m not too surprised about; these fairy tales are as old as time with practically no copyright laws, and they help today’s storytellers get their creative minds going with at least the basis for a story.

But where are the contemporary fairy tales?

How can there be so many adaptations, but no new, original stories? Surely some brave people have attempted to create fairy tales with new teachings of morality that are relevant to our time. Yes, some of the aforementioned (and other) adaptations of the classic fairy tales may have snuck in an extra moral lesson or two, like Disney’s Frozen with its rejection of the idea of love at first sight. But where are the fairy tales with their own original premises and new, relevant moral lessons?

As you try to think of those fairy tales of our time, keep in mind that fairy tales are short stories. I was almost going to pose the idea of The Lord of the Rings as a fairy tale, after seeing it listed as a fairy tale on Wikipedia (another reason to take Wikipedia’s words with a grain of salt). If you think about it, it does fit the genre, especially since J. R. R. Tolkien’s own definition of ‘fairy stories’ from his 1965 essay “On Fairy-Stories” describes his own literary works so well. But then I remembered that fairy tales are short stories. Oops.

Unfortunately, short stories aren’t taking the world by storm as novels and novellas are doing, so we could have missed those brilliant contemporary fairy tales. The only fairy tale-like short story I can think of on the spot is The Paperbag Princess by Robert Munsch. You know, that princess that teenage girls dressed up as for Halloween in high school. It’s a short story because it’s a children’s picture book, it has fairy tale elements and motifs, and it teaches girls the valuable lesson that women don’t need a man to rescue them because women are capable of helping themselves. It seems like it could be the first of our contemporary fairy tales.

Now all we need are fairy tales with moral teachings on equity and diversity, discovering one’s actual passion(s), integrity in one’s work (to be applicable to any kind of work), making the choice between what’s right and what’s easy (thanks, Rowling, but maybe a short story with that lesson for the children would be best), and on feminist values (because The Paperbag Princess really only made the prince a wimp for comical effect and wouldn’t be proper in relating the genders equally).

I certainly haven’t read all of the fairy tales ever published (yet), so perhaps one of them was progressive for its time. But if not, do you know of any short stories that could be classified as contemporary fairy tales? And is there a valuable teaching pertinent to our time that I missed and should be the moral of a fairy tale? Let me know!

-contributed by Brenda Bongolan

Imagine Magic! In Defense of Fantasy Literature

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.”

― Dr. Seuss

Illustration by Dorothy Anne Manuel
Illustration by Dorothy Anne Manuel

Fantasy has been a part of the literary tradition since literature began.

In fact, the case could be made that fantasy was the first literature of ancient culture. From Jewish folklore thousands of years old to the Greek epics of Homer such as the Odyssey and Roman tales like Virgil’s Aeneid, the first stories of literature were about the fantastical. They were about magic, and monsters, and mad heroes going on impossible journeys.

These stories are taught in schools and are respected as great classics. So when did some people begin to lose respect for the fantastic? At what point did people decide to relegate fantasy to the fringes of literature under the classification “genre fiction”?

Today the fantastical dominates both the big and small screens. Fantasy is everywhere, and is more wildly popular than ever before since today’s special effects are finally able to capture the magic we have yearned to see for so long.

But what about on the page? See, the thing that makes the written word arguably the greatest mode of storytelling we have is that there has never been a special effects budget, or necessary run time, or props. When something fantastical is described in the pages of a book, the only possible limit is what you can imagine. That is what sets literature apart from all other modes of storytelling: the reader is an active participant in the experience of telling the story.

More than any other kind of writing, fantasy forces us to push the limits of our imagination. Unlike other genres, fantasy requires us to imagine things for which we have no real reference. If you ask anybody what a dragon looks like, they can tell you—they will describe to you exactly what they think it looks like. If you ask someone what it would feel like to fly, or to turn into an animal, or to do magic, they can tell you.

But there is no frame of reference for these things—nobody (or at least none of you muggles) has actually seen a dragon. And yet in a way we can do it. Fantasy makes us imagine things that are impossible or nonexistent. It opens up entirely new worlds for our minds to explore.

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Illustration by Dorothy Anne Manuel and Kristine Buerano

 

Fantasy, as Dr. Seuss says, is an important part of life. It can lend us perspectives that other forms of literature cannot, trapped as they are by the conventional laws of the universe. Fantasy can shrug off those conventions and follow its own story through to the limits of its own potential without having to concern itself with what is real or possible.

As well as providing an escape, fantasy allows us to be captured in truly human stories. Even in situations so far removed from anything we ourselves could face, we can still connect with and be moved by characters in fantasy worlds. Fantasy can be a perfect outlet for exploring the human condition and connection. It strips away all the unexciting necessities of everyday life and replaces them with (way better) tasks such as homework from Hogwarts or learning to ride a dragon.

Fantasy can still be about human connection by letting us learn from our protagonists while rooting for their quests and friendships. We cry when things go wrong for them and we cheer when things go right. Fantasy also lends itself to creating incredible antagonists, evil creatures whose terrifying powers and plans can surpass the realm of possibility.

Fantasy also allows for social commentary and allegory. Fantasy can tackle problems of the real world—problems of race or social class—and present them in a more accessible fashion to younger or less educated readers. By doing so, fantasy opens them up to new ideas, which they can see reflected in everyday life.

Everybody has fantasies. Deep down, some tiny part of us wants there to be something bigger going on, some magical happenings behind-the-scenes, or some impossible monster lurking in the woods. We want to imagine that our reality is somehow bigger than it is.

It has nothing to do with belief or what we know to be true. Sometimes we all want to imagine magic.

And that is what makes fantasy such a vital part of literature and life. It brings out our imagination.

So why do we seem suddenly embarrassed by this?

Let’s put magic back on our reading lists!

-contributed by Ben Ghan

Getting Dragons on Screen: The Cycle of Readers and Viewers

At its birth, the literary elite refused to accept fantasy as a legitimate genre. Fire-barfing dragons, scantily clad elves, and steel-swinging hunks could not possibly make for capital “L” Literature. Even after the explosive popularity of J.R.R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time, and yes, even J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, fantasy remained at the fringe of critically acclaimed Literature. While Papa Tolkien, arguably the creator of the modern fantasy genre, and his peers became literary stars, fantasy did not quite manage to crack into mainstream culture.

Recently, something has changed and fantasy’s Berlin Wall has crumbled. What launched fantasy into the global consciousness? For better or worse, the answer is the screen.

Game of Thrones, the adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire, is the most watched television series on air. Martin popularized contemporary fantasy by breaking Tolkien’s rules against gore and sex. The Harry Potter movies, adapted from Rowling’s books, are some of highest grossing box office hits in history. The symbiotic cycle of page to screen transforms readers into viewers and viewers into readers. Screen adaptations spike book sales. You watch an episode of GoT then you buy the book. The opposite is true as well. You read a Harry Potter book then you watch the movies.

The mutually beneficial relationship between the book and the screen has marked adaptations, especially of fantasy works, as the safest way to make movies.

Hollywood and cable networks are hungry for surefire hits. Standalone movies are dangerous because their success is questionable. Studios may pour $100 million into a flick that may bomb in the box office. To circumvent this unpredictability, producers with dollar signs for pupils turn to books. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has sold over 150 million copies. Besides religious texts like the Bible, it is one of the bestselling book ever. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone hit 107 million. No surprise, these colossally popular books were made into movies. Pre-awareness and preexisting audiences make screen adaptations of bestselling books a no brainer. The final Harry Potter movie and the last Lord of the Rings stand as 4th and 8th highest grossing movies of all time, sans inflation. Peruse the “now playing in a theatre near you” list and you’ll see that every other movie is “based on the novel by [insert bestselling author here].”

This trend of adapting books into movies is especially important to fantasy. Fantasy lends itself to the visual. Fantasy authors create entire worlds that ignite the mind’s eye and the filmmaker’s passion. Battle scenes, mystical landscapes, and explosive magic all sear their way into the reader’s brain and clamour for visual adaptation. On top of their already visual nature, our beloved fantasy books boast a plethora of devoted readers.

Tolkien and Rowling’s box office numbers prove that fantasy books are viable targets for adaptation. That said, we persnickety readers of fantasy have also proven that crappy adaptations of our favorite books will flop. Movies like Eragon, The Golden Compass, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, The Brothers Grimm, Inkheart, Beautiful Creatures, and Mortal Instruments all wheezed their way through pathetic box office showings and endured countless critical lashings. Look any of these adaptations up on Rotten Tomatoes and you’ll cringe.

All in all, however popular it is, cultivating a successful screen adaptation of fantasy works is treacherous. Hollywood gurus option boatloads of New York Times bestselling fantasy works. While oftentimes, nothing comes of these options, we can expect a tsunami of our pet books to either drown us in their fetid waters or buoy us up into imaginative ecstasy. Either way, wear a lifejacket.

-contributed by Danny Vedova

A Love Letter To Dragon Age: Inquisition

emily's inquizzie final
Illustration by Lorna Antoniazzi

2014 was a good year for dragons— and dragon-themed games.

Dragon Age: Inquisition, the third instalment of Bioware’s well-received Dragon Age series, made a name for itself in the stomping ground of video game fanatics and fantasy lovers alike last November. Fuelled by teasers that had been coming out since early March, the game took off quickly and unrepentantly swept the market of its competitors. Dragon Age: Inquisition, these authors are happy to say, won Game of the Year from a number of notable video game publications. And for a good reason.

Inquisition is a visually stunning game with fun gameplay, challenging and varied combat, and huge open areas to explore for hours on end. The settings, history, creatures, and characters (both NPCs and PCs alike) all combine to create the beautiful, tragic, and enchanting world of Thedas. Expect to invest many hours in this game, as it is a tour de force of speculative fiction.

This game has been routinely praised for its gorgeous, humongous open world areas. They are not only wonderful to look at—favourites of ours include the Emerald Graves and The Western Approach—but they also have substance. Each area has a rich history spanning multiple centuries. For someone interested in the elves of Thedas, this game has particularly juicy information. Even simple farming towns, such as Crestwood, have their own charm and backstory. Each setting is far from the generic Medieval Castle #63 and Battlefield #145 that too often appear in fantasy. The regions are diverse, rich, and endlessly entertaining to explore.

This wouldn’t be a Dragon Age review without mentioning a hugely important aspect of the series: dragons. And, oh, they are beautiful. Each of the ten unique dragons in this game have varying levels, designs, and modes of attack, with only one thing in common: they are all damn hard to kill. They are hands down the most challenging combat in the game, and if you’re anything less than level 19—maybe 18 if you’re feeling lucky and have ample healing potions—you will get roasted. Or electrified. Or frozen. The dragons are completely inconsequential to the main quest, but don’t miss out on seeing these beautiful beasts, and definitely don’t miss out on taking Iron Bull with you (you’ll thank us later).

And now for characters. They, without a doubt, are the highlight of the game. Bioware is known for creating interesting and diverse characters game after game, and Inquisition is no exception. Each and every one of the companions and advisors has interesting and unique reasons for joining the Inquisition, and their quests make up for anything lacking in the main quest plot. There are old favourites, like the awkward prince charming-esque Cullen and the storytelling dwarf Varric, as well as new favourites, such as the charming pyjama-wearing elf Solas and the louder-than-life qunari Iron Bull. There are women of colour characters, such as the adorable Josephine and the ambitious Vivienne, and a fantastic transgender man, Krem, of Iron Bull’s mercenary group The Chargers (who will also capture your heart). The romances range from fun and flirty, to heartbreaking, to downright naughty. Getting to know these characters, through friendship, romance, or rivalry, has absolutely been the best experience of Dragon Age: Inquisition.

And just as the NPCs are wonderfully diverse and unique, so are the PCs. They are the most varied and customizable characters presented in any Bioware game thus far. Players can choose between four races, two genders (with room in between, as previously gender-exclusive customization such as makeup, hair, and, now, Adam’s apples, are open to any character), four voices, and endless facial features customization. But this is just one aspect of how to personalize your character—the options for how your PC responds to any given circumstance or conversation are also diverse, and can have substantial impact on the game’s storyline thereafter.

We thought we’d talk about our own personal experiences with the game to explain this a bit better. One of the writers of this piece, Emily, has dedicated over 300 hours to this game and has six characters so far. They are all vastly different, not only in terms of how they look and who they romance, but also their personalities, preferences, and opinions.

inquizzie - lorna
Illustration by Lorna Antoniazzi

Emily: Each time I’ve played the game I’ve had an almost completely different experience. For someone who loves creating their own characters with elaborate backstories and complex personalities, there is endless potential here. There is also the potential to fall madly in love with the character you have created, as I have (very egotistically) done. Mina Lavellan is a tiny, sweet, open-minded, loving, and very sad elven mage who just wants to Do The Right Thing™.

There’s definitely the option to be a kind creator and make a happy, powerful character who is totally cool with being in charge of everything. I decided to take the road less traveled and create a character who always looks like she’s crying and leads by doing what her friends tell her to do.

I also have characters who are more the Daenerys Targaryen-type who just wants to get this End of the World thing out of the way to continue having a good time. But the character I fell in love with is my sad elf. I love Inquisition, and while part of the reason for that is the settings, history, dragons, and characters, it is mostly because I was given the chance to create my own character and I sadistically created the saddest and most ill-equipped leader in the history of Thedas, who still somehow manages to save the world with a little help from her friends.

The second writer (and illustrator) of this piece, Lorna, is new to the Dragon Age world, having clocked only 50+ hours in this one game.

Lorna: Consider this post and aforementioned illustrations a personalized love song from Emily and I—the drawn characters are, after all, representations of our own PCs. The art of Inquisition, which first attracted me to the game, is stunning and deserves more credit and space than this post will allow, but I’ll try. Each companion in Dragon Age: Inquisition comes with their own artfully rendered tarot card symbolizing his or her history, personality, and possible futures—and often it is only in retrospect that you will be able to glean all of the symbolism and meaning each one possesses. Not only that, but often types of characters or creatures will also feature stylized cards (though not tarot ones) that are equally wonderful to look at. If you have a strong appreciation for aesthetics, this game is for you. It was for me.

Dragon Age: Inquisition deserves all of its 10/10s, and 5/5s, and 8/10s (looking at you, Eurogamer). It is a masterful combination of setting, character, aesthetics, and interesting political plot, and I happily foresee another play through in my future.

Well done, Bioware.

-contributed by Emily Maggiacomo and Lorna Antoniazzi

Hopelessly Hobbited: A Tolkien Addict’s Review of The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies

One last time.

THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES

These words, though spoken by Thorin as he prepares to lead his company of dwarves into the Orc-Dwarf-Elf melee, also speak clearly for Peter Jackson. In the course of his own journey, fraught by battles (of the legal variety), fire, illness, and injuries, Jackson managed to channel fresh energy and enthusiasm into an already time-tested classic, a classic which essentially gave birth to the epic fantasy genre. Transforming many mechanical and artistic aspects of film technology, Jackson raised the bar to a level as yet unmatched by any other fantasy adapted for the screen.

So as the film’s release dawned, the ironic words “no pressure” had never been more relevant. As this die-hard fan rushed to the first showing on opening day, expectation mingled with excitement was nearly palpable in the impressively filled Ultra AVX theatre, particularly for a Wednesday matinée. Not only was The Battle of Five Armies the conclusion of The Hobbit trilogy, but it also represented the last of Peter Jackson’s film forays into Middle Earth. It bore the responsibility of satisfying old and new fans alike—fans who  number far into the millions. Balancing the demands of textual integrity (particularly of a piece so beloved and well-established), the intricacies of the cinematic medium, and massive fan expectation is not an easy task for any director. But Jackson had done it before.

BOFA 3

From the beginning, Martin Freeman more than pulls his weight as Bilbo, revealing new facets of his character and inhabiting his hobbit skin with effortless panache. Richard Armitage, too, shines in his masterful portrayal of the increasingly paranoid dwarf king Thorin, who is beginning to descend into gold-obsessed madness as he holes up in the treasure-filled halls of his reclaimed mountain kingdom. Armitage’s handling of Thorin’s death was particularly skillful. In each of my three viewings of the film, sizable portions of the audience erupted into (sometimes noisy) tears as Thorin breathes his last.

Smaug, too, does not cease to impress, opening the film with a brief yet somehow majestic rampage. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance is one aspect of the film which all sides must agree is a triumph. Unfortunately, it is with Smaug that we see the last of secondary characters knowing better than to overstay their welcome.

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The Legolas-Tauriel-Kili love triangle proves once more to be the film’s canker. Already burdened by a clumsy premise and a fairly ridiculous execution, The Battle of the Five Armies finds the accursed subplot lumbering further into focus. Cheapened by tragically clichéd lines (warning: contains “Why does it hurt so much?” and “Because it was real,” without a hint of irony) and a drawn-out death scene (complete with a slow-motion tear-roll), I found myself doing an actual face-palm. The baseless relationship between Tauriel and Kili does not manage to expand the role of women; instead, her character disappears after Kili’s death having contributed absolutely nothing to the plot. In truth, Galadriel accomplishes more in her five minutes at the beginning of the film than Tauriel does in two films.

Nevertheless, golden nuggets are plentiful in the film—and not just in the treasure horde of Thror. Moments of warmth and humanity are largely provided by Bard and his children, but also by Bilbo’s loyalty to his Dwarf friends and his courageous defense of them. Humour, too, is gracefully woven into the story, provided primarily by the shameless Alfred, the late Master of Lake Town’s greasy grunt, and Bilbo’s impish quirks. Perhaps the most masterful moment of humour is found in the wordless interaction between Bilbo and Gandalf as the latter casually and irreverently pulls out the pipe weed for a post-battle smoke.

The Battle of Five Armies undeniably lives up to the epic grandeur of the Middle Earth saga. The immense entertainment value of the film is undisputable; it is a compelling story thrillingly adapted that still manages to find ways to surprise an audience that thinks they know it all because they already know how everything ends. With well-choreographed and impressively animated battle sequences, there are exquisite moments of awe and delight— Elves sail gracefully over Dwarves hunkered down for battle into a knot of oncoming Orcs and the Elven king Thranduil catches six Orcs by the horns of his elk stallion and decapitates them all in a single elegant stroke. You are constantly reminded that this is a film world built with the loving reverence of another fan—this is Jackson’s Middle Earth.

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Jackson ends an era with a significant bang, and it is with gratitude and with great sadness that this fan must reluctantly, in the words of Billy Boyd, bid Middle Earth’s cinematic representation “a very fond farewell.”

(For now.)

-Contributed by Emily Willan