Author Archives: Darmok

SF Review: Empire of Silence By Christopher Ruocchio

Empire of Silence is a fascinating and flawed work of epic science fiction.

What’s It About?

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio follows Hadrian Marlowe, heir to the Archon of Delos – the absolute ruler of an entire planet. Hadrian isn’t sure he wants to rule a planet though – he’d rather become a scholar and travel the galaxy, exploring strange new worlds and such. 

Sensing his uncertainty, Hadrian’s calculating father favours his second son to become heir. Before the situation can be resolved though, unforeseen events send Hadrian on a trek across the galaxy – but not in the way he’d been hoping for.

Also, he destroyed a sun – or rather, he will destroy a sun. Framed as the life story of an older Hadrian, Empire of Silence begins the Sun Eater series, which follows Hadrian throughout his millennia-long life to answer these simple questions: How did he destroy a sun, and why?

The UK cover is awesome!

What Did I Think?

Sold when Ruocchio was just 22, Empire of Silence is a major achievement – especially in worldbuilding. Its universe is BIG – one of the biggest I’ve read, and he does a fantastic job of conveying that sense of scale to readers. Aside from the plot, I am excited to read the sequels just to see more of what Ruocchio has created. From the variety of alien ‘xenobites’ to the many different intergalactic superpowers, it’s clear that this universe is far from empty.

Though Empire of Silence is basically Ruocchio’s version of Dune for the first chapter or two, change comes very quickly. It is no more derivative than anything else in an established genre and develops some awesome and unique worldbuilding. I also enjoyed the plot structure, with Hadrian’s story told in four or five distinct sections. It allowed for a deeper examination of the world, and from more perspectives, than most first-person point-of-view stories achieve. Conversely, using this structure had a few downsides, such as introducing too many characters and weird pacing. I still liked it though.


On a smaller-scale, Ruocchio has also developed a varied cast of characters – though aside from Hadrian, we don’t see any of them as often as I would have liked. As a protagonist, Hadrian is . . . alright. His inner struggles are layered and interesting, and despite his stereotypical origin story he remains a unique character. In terms of preference though, I just wasn’t that into him. 

He is a bit of a Gary Stu, and too pompous for me to really root for. In fairness, Ruocchio clearly recognizes how pretentious Hadrian is – he’s a far better character in this regard than Red Rising’s Darrow. Despite this, I really wish Ruocchio had toned him down – but a lot of it seems like he just couldn’t help himself. I also think Ruocchio bent the plot around Hadrian a little too much, and not always believably.

After Hadrian’s most pretentious and ponderous moments, Ruocchio regularly had him think something like “oh, my old teacher always told me I was too melodramatic.” I cannot express how annoying this small thing was to me. It’s like Ruocchio wrote the passage, recognized how self-aggrandizing it came off as, and then tacked on that extra thought as if to excuse it. That doesn’t make it better – especially the fourth or fifth time he did it.

Craft Complaints

Most of my other complaints deal with Ruocchio’s writing. Empire of Silence – from mixed metaphors to adjectives that make no sense – has purple prose (in my opinion). If you appreciate authors who are economical about their word choice, you’ll probably struggle here. This is a nitpick, but Ruocchio’s use of “decade” and “quarter” as quantities bugged me (ex. “a decade of legionaries”). In other cases, I appreciate his intentioned word choice, but when there is a simple and more common alternative, use it!

I also wish he’d included somewhat less literary and historical references. Like, yes, it’s impressive how well-read Ruocchio was at 22 – but I wish he could have restrained himself in showing it off. I get that, in context, Hadrian is well-read in English literature, but particularly in such referencing he felt very author-inserty. To be fair, this somewhat bothered me in Hyperion too, though not to the same extent. 

Speaking of Hyperion, there are many references to it and other media in the book, and it’s fun to spot them. For example, I enjoyed the multiple Kingdom of Heaven references, though I wonder if Ruocchio knows he lifted a short scene pretty much directly from the film (he probably does).


Another issue relating to craft is that I’m not a fan of how Ruocchio handled the frame story of old Hadrian recounting his life. For my taste, his thoughts and observations intrude far too frequently on the events we’re reading about – disconnecting me from the immediacy and emotion of them. For example, old Hadrian spoils a character death before it happens. 

To end on a positive, I love how short the chapters are – these 250,000-word book has close to eighty of them. The ending is contrived, but I understand why Ruocchio did it and I’m excited to start book two! From what I’ve heard, Ruocchio improves significantly as a writer throughout the series, and there’s nothing I disliked in Empire of Silence that can’t be fixed. 

If you’re interested in more sci-fi recommendations, check out my review of Hyperion by Dan Simmons!

★ ★ ★

The post SF Review: Empire of Silence By Christopher Ruocchio first appeared on Reader's Repository.

Brandon Sanderson and Crowdfunding


On February 28th, 2022, a downcast Brandon Sanderson released a short video informing fans that he was launching an important video the next day – and he wanted us to watch it. Speculation was rampant. Sanderson is one of the world’s most popular fantasy authors, with mega-bestseller series such as Mistborn and The Stormlight Archive. Would this announcement jeopardize the completion of those series? Was Sanderson facing health issues?

The next day, he uploaded a video titled “It’s Time to Come Clean.” Clicking on the video, I was terrified. Five minutes later, I was as happy as I could have been.

It turns out that, in secret, Sanderson wrote FOUR secret novels over the last two years – in addition to the novels he owed to his publishers. And he was selling them all through his company, Dragonsteel Entertainment, via a Kickstarter campaign. Sorry publishers.

Supporters were given the choice between eBook, audiobook, and premium hardcover editions – and even some exclusive ‘swag boxes’ for fans with $500 USD or more.

Naturally, the fans went insane. And after the campaign raised $15.4 million USD in the first 24 hours, so did the publishing world at large. At $31 million USD raised to date – the biggest Kickstarter EVER – Sanderson’s stunt has generated a lot of discussion, even appearing on major news sites. Let’s talk about it – specifically about crowdfunding.

Crowdfunding in SFF Publishing

Within fantasy publishing, platforms such as Kickstarter and Patreon have become increasingly successful for authors – and Sanderson’s Kickstarter has centered them in discussion even more so than before.

But how big of a deal is it really? As sci-fi author John Scalzi notes, no one else in the genre is capable of replicating Sanderson’s level of success in crowdfunding. Sanderson has spent decades building a fanbase, a YouTube channel with 350,000 subscribers, and possibly “the largest support team of any novelist in the world.” Authors like Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin have the popularity to do this, but not the infrastructure.

All considered, it’s unlikely that any other author will make $31 million anytime soon. But there has been an undeniable trend towards crowdfunding in fantasy and science fiction publishing lately – one that Sanderson’s Kickstarter will only further accentuate. 

Crowdfunding Rewards Engagement

Bestseller and Hugo winner N.K Jemisin, for example, makes $5,000 on Patreon each month. Self-published authors such as Michael J. Sullivan have made Kickstarter central to their careers. Even successful traditionally published authors – such as Fonda Lee and Brian McClellan – have dipped into Patreon for side projects ranging from short story collections to podcasts. 

In short, everyone’s getting into crowdfunding – traditionally and self-published. Well, not everyone. As much as I love Sanderson’s work, I can’t help but see his Kickstarter success as the biggest example of a growing – and worrying – trend where genre authors are forced to become entertainers and marketers in order to succeed.

Crowdfunding success heavily depends on an author’s internet presence, and their charisma. What about authors who don’t want to be businesspeople? What about authors who don’t have on-screen charisma? Today’s internet culture rewards authors who can play at being influencers, and punishes those who just want to write. Would I like Sanderson’s books as much if I hadn’t watched hundreds of hours of YouTube videos on his channel? Definitely not.

Brian McClellan and his author guests discuss this constantly on his podcast. A recent episode with Evan Winter focuses heavily on “the side of work being a creative professional that distracts us from actually creating” and “how [Winter’s] background in marketing helped him launch his first book.” McClellan himself has also adopted the “hybrid model” that Sanderson advocates, and supports his podcast via Patreon. Even traditionally publishing, authors need to become their own marketers these days.

Christopher Ruocchio, for example, is a traditional published sci-fi author with decent sales, who also runs a YouTube channel, has a Patreon, regularly communicates with fans on Discord, and independently publishes novel-adjacent short stories. 

There’s lots to like here, make no mistake. Crowdfunding makes short fiction viable again, and it allows writers to leverage their fanbases to help them quit their day jobs and focus on writing earlier than traditional publishing would allow on its own – N. K Jemisin did exactly this.

But as much as I like seeing authors succeed without traditional publishing, I worry about these new forms of gatekeeping that independent publishing introduces. Some of my favourite authors, like Susana Clarke, would never be able to break into this social-media-centred market today.

The post Brandon Sanderson and Crowdfunding first appeared on Reader's Repository.

Reading Widely is Overrated

Disclaimer: My essay is NOT meant to discourage reading widely. Any fantasy author will tell you that reading in many genres is critical to improving your writing – none of them are only influenced by fantasy. Instead, my goal is to advocate for the alterative benefits of a more focused reading life. Ideally everyone would do both, but who’s got the time?

A while ago, I was digging through some boxes of SFF novels at a used book sale. A guy came up to me and asked if I’d found any copies of Fahrenheit 451 or Dune. I responded that I hadn’t and showed him some other titles I’d found – genre staples like The Forever War and The Eye of The World. He declined them, explaining that he was only interested in the real classics – he was on a quest to read the 2-3 biggest titles from every genre. That’s an admirable goal, no disrespect to him, but I couldn’t help feeling sad that he was missing out on so much great SFF.

But aren’t I missing out by only read SFF? Yes, undoubtedly – but I’m gaining a lot too. Reading widely is a commonly discussed – and valuable – habit, but today I’m going to argue for reading narrowly.

Genres are Ongoing Conversations

Selection of hardcover epic fantasy novels

Genres are conversation, and only reading one or two classics means that you’re ignoring everyone except the loudest person in the room. 

Take A Game of Thrones for example. George R.R. Martin was responding to all the authors writing derivative and Tolkienesque quest narratives and was himself in dialogue with contemporaries such as Tad Williams and Robin Hobb. If you only read A Song of Ice And Fire, you’re joining the conversation halfway through. You’ve got no idea who he’s responding to, and you’ll never hear how others respond to him.

Alternatively, by reading The Way of Kings without reading A Game of Thrones, you can’t properly contextualize it as Sanderson’s response to the genre’s prevailing grimdark movement. Every text that’s worth reading gives readers plenty to discuss on its own – but viewing it within its wider genre context enriches the experience.

From there, you can read lesser known, but still influential, works in the genre. Want to better understand the transition from Tolkien to modern fantasy? Check out Wars of Light and Shadow or A Crown of Stars, or any of the other epic series that emerged in the nineties. Plus, reading and supporting lesser-known authors is what keeps publishing alive.

Personally, I’d rather have an in-depth and in-context understanding of A Song of Ice And Fire than a surface level understanding of ten different classics. 

No novel is written in a vacuum, they all have genre context, but it is important recognize that fantasy novels also have non-genre context. Joe Abercrombie cites A Game of Thrones as a key influence, of course, but also Western novel Lonesome Dove and Shelby Foote’s multi-volume history of the American Civil War. Heck, I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells was influenced by the classics of Russian literature.

Essentially, if you’re doing your due diligence on your genre of choice, you’ll end up reading widely anyways.

In Fantasy, We’re Part of the Conversation Too

Sure, I can read Romeo and Juliet or The Great Gatsby, but what can I say about them? Critics and academics have studied these texts for decades and centuries. Thousands of authors have responded to them. And even if you think you’ve come up with a new interpretation, chances are there’s already an indie movie or modern retelling that beat you to it. 

It’s similar for modern mega-hits – people with far larger platforms than you have already defined the conversation, and it is much more difficult for us to interrupt. For fantasy novels, especially those outside the few biggest series, us fans have a real chance to share original analysis and have it heard. We can define conversations. 

A lot of authors will even engage with fans directly. Between Reddit, Discord, BookTube, Tumblr, GoodReads, and even BookTok, we have many opportunities to meaningfully contribute. There is value in discovering the classics for yourself, but I personally find it so much more exciting to participate in conversations that are ongoing.

When Evan Winter releases Lord of Demons (next year!), anyone can host a BookTube discussion about it or make an analytical Reddit post – and in doing so help shape the conversation.

What Can a Classic Give You That a Modern Fantasy Can’t?

Cover of Jade City by Fonda Lee

Well, lots: a stronger vocabulary, knowledge of history, an understanding of literary allusions, etc. But you don’t need to go back to the 1800s to get at the fundamental questions.

As George R.R. Martin (quoting William Faulkner) so often says, “the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself” – and any fantasy novel worth reading will do so. As a bonus, it’ll probably be more accessible, relevant and have more diverse representation. Want an examination of family? The Green Bone Saga by Fonda Lee is great for that, you don’t necessarily need to go all the way back to Little Women or Wuthering Heights.

Additionally, most good fantasy authors – unlike lowly readers like myself – have read the classics, and they’re building on those works as much as the work of their genre contemporaries. It’s okay to let some stuff go, every generation of writers builds on the last.

Only reading select classics is a lot like taking a survey course in college – think “Intro to World History” or “Accounting 101.” I’ve loved some of them, but I always feel like I’m only seeing the tip of the iceberg, never getting a look at the immensity hiding under the sea.

Again, classics have value; I’d like to read more in future. Read what you want to read, but don’t feel bad if all you want to read is fantasy. It’s worth it.

TV Review: Buffy the Vampire Slayer (Seasons 1-3)

By now, I’ve seen most of the hit SFF TV shows of the 1990s and 2000s: The X-Files, Doctor Who, all of Star Trek, etc. I’m disappointed it took me this long to get to Buffy.

Debuting as a mid-season replacement in 1997, Buffy The Vampire Slayer has everything that I look for in television. Serialized storytelling. Comedy that doesn’t undercut the drama. Complex yet morally upright characters.

Mild spoilers to follow (nothing too specific though)

What’s it About?

16-year-old Buffy Summers moves to Sunnydale, a small town, after accidentally burning down her old high school. Also, she’s the Slayer – a Chosen One who stands alone “against the vampires, demons, and the forces of darkness.” 

Instructed by her Guardian, Rupert Giles, and aided by her friends, Willow Rosenberg and Xander Harris, Buffy encounters all manner of unlikely and grotesque enemies – and even a few allies along the way.

“I May Be Dead, But I’m Still Pretty.”

What Did I Think?

Buffy stares at camera, young man (Angel) gazes at her in the background

High school. Vampires! Overbearing parents. Evil mummies! Buffy the Vampire Slayer is a lot of things: comedy, mystery, horror, coming-of-age drama, monster-of-the-week extravaganza. Amidst all this – and while upending some tired tropes – the show develops a unique tone that is remarkably consistent.

From the beginning, Buffy’s zany monster-of-the-week formula gives it a lot of freedom in storytelling – often using supernatural elements to explore teen issues like bullying, identity crises, or the pressure to succeed. So, while week to week we might see an insectile substitute or murderous ventriloquist puppet, main conflicts usually center on character growth for Buffy or another of the young leads.

To be sure, the worldbuilding makes no sense. None. Why would anyone go to a school where dances are synonymous with monster attacks? How come no one with more experience – such as the Watcher’s Council – ever helps Buffy prevent the end of the world?

Who cares? Over time, Buffy increasingly pokes fun at its own premises – one character even voices my above questions – reaffirming its inconsistent worldbuilding doesn’t matter when the characters are true-to-life. Significant and traumatic events always have emotional follow-through, and all the characters change realistically from episode to episode. There’s a whole episode named “Consequences” all about the ramifications of certain characters’ choices.

“The Big Moments Are Going To Come. You Can’t Help That. It’s What You Do Afterwards That Counts.”

Relatedly, I love how the show’s serial elements develop. Though I’ve avoided too much googling because of spoilers, I know that Buffy is considered a precursor to television’s Golden Age – an obvious fact while watching each season’s arc play out. As much as I love shows like Breaking Bad or Stranger Things, watching Buffy has made me nostalgic for seasons with 22+ episodes. Here, big events happen often, but they have a lot more breathing room in between. A character’s shocking betrayal might be followed by a few standalone episodes where the big events factor into character behaviour without consuming everything.

Young man (Xander Harris) smirks while leaning on a locker
Oh Xander, how I despise you.

Unlike modern shows, Buffy has time for low-stakes storylines, where viewers can simply enjoy the characters and the show’s eclectic vibe. One of the best aspects of this is how much screen time the villains receive. I love all of them – from irascible vampire Spike to family-values necromancer Mayor Wilkins. Special shout out to Principal Snyder, played by Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Armin Shimmerman, for being such a wonderfully unpleasant goblin of a character.

I don’t love everything though. For one, Xander Harris is far more whiny, unlikeable, and douchey than the writers seem to think he is – and a few key storylines are ill-considered at best. There’s also occasional homophobia and some culturally insensitive storylines made worse by the lack of non-White characters. I’m hoping that’s something the writers recognized and improved as the series continued.

Unlike its unfortunately scummy creator, Buffy is a show with a lot of heart – elevated by the passion and on-screen camaraderie of the leads. Starting with Season Four, I’ll be watching both Buffy and its spinoff series, Angel, in release order. I’m betting one or both will end up on in my top ten. Or top five.

★ ★★ ★

My Top Ten Sci-Fi Shows

On conservative estimate, I’ve seen an alarming 1288 episodes of sci-fi TV. To put my time to good use, here’s a list of my ten favourite shows – hopefully you’ll find something on here that interests you.

10. Red Dwarf (1988 – Present)

Four men on a spaceship point at the camera goofily

What it’s About: A mining ship home to the last survivor of mankind and his oddball inhuman crewmates.

Why I Love it: One of the funniest shows I’ve watched – sci-fi or not. Though varying in quality, Red Dwarf succeeds by the chemistry of its leads and the alternatively clever and insanely stupid comedy.

Favourite Episode: Meltdown (S4:E6)

“Mr. Fibble is very cross.”

9. Star Trek: Lower Decks (2020 – Present)

Four Starfleet crewman, with one young woman headlocking a disgruntled crewmate

What it’s About: Low-level crewman on the USS Cerritos bickering, bonding, and complaining as they travel the galaxy.

Why I Love it: One of a few shows (alongside Community) that succeeds at being a parody, loving homage, and a great show all in its own right. Lower Decks overcame its growing pains within the first few episodes and has remained consistently hilarious ever since – while also maintaining strong character arcs. The best Star Trek show since . . . well, more on that later.

Favourite Episode: No Small Parts (S1:E10)

“It’s always weird revisiting planets from the TOS era.”


“It’s what I call the 2260s. Stands for ‘those old scientists’ – You know, Spock, Scotty, those guys. Seems like they were stumbling on crazy new aliens every week back then.”

8. Doctor Who Reboot (2005 – Present)

L-R: Actors Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant, Jodie Whittaker, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi, all in their costumes as The Doctor

What it’s About: An immortal called ‘The Doctor’ swapping faces and gaining friends in his never-ending adventures in time and space.

Why I Love it: One of the first shows I really got into and loved. From adventure to commentary to comedy, Doctor Who at its best delivers great stories rooted in aspirational characters. I gave up during Chibnall’s tenure and am unbelievably excited to see Davies’ return and subsequent much needed budget infusion.

Favourite Episode: Vincent and the Doctor (S5:E10)

“You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world!”

7. Dark (2017-2020)

A hooded figure gazes into a cave, with darkness all around

What it’s About: Mysterious happenings in the quiet town of Winden bringing its citizens togethers in ways no one could have expected.

Why I Love it: The only show here that I’ve not finished, but undeniably one of the best. Dark expertly manages its large cast and sprawling narrative amid an atmosphere of unceasing dread and tension while delivering some of the most shocking reveals on TV.

Favourite Episode: Endings and Beginnings (S2:E8)

“Sic mundus creates est.”

6. Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1993)

Cast photo of the crew of the USS Enterprise: Geordie, Guinan, Dr. Crusher, Captain Picard, Worf, Riker, Troi, Wesley Crusher, Data

What it’s About: Captain Jean-Luc Picard and the crew of the USS Enterprise-D encountering the unbelievable and all too real in a galaxy of infinite diversity.

Why I Love it: TNG taught me the true power of science-fiction: to confront the issues of day in the unfamiliar milieus of imagined tomorrows. Despite a saddening number of unwatchable episodes, when TNG was good it was damn excellent; Captain Picard remains one of my favourite fictional characters ever. It inspired my life-long love of Star Trek – and my internet username.

Favourite Episode: Darmok (S5:E2)

“Let’s make sure history never forgets . . . the name . . . Enterprise.”

5. Stranger Things (2016 – Present)

Six teenagers in '80s attire gaze upward in confusion

What it’s About: Small town kids caught in the middle of big-time problems – and monsters?

Why I Love it: Season One of Stranger Things is one of my favourite seasons of TV. Ever. And the rest is pretty good too. Endlessly entertaining and always heartfelt, made even better by the perfect cast and awesome soundtrack.

Favourite Episode: The Upside Down (S1:E8)

“We never woud’ve upset you if we knew you had superpowers.”

4. The X-Files (1993 2002)

Mulder and Scully discuss a problem in a cluttered office, centering a UFO poster captioned 'I Want to Believe'

What it’s About: FBI Agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully encountering just about everything paranormal that you can imagine – and a bunch more stuff you can’t.

Why I Love it: The X-Files never shied away from risk – for better or for worse – pushing television forward and resulting in a plethora of fantastic episodes. The core dynamic between Mulder and Scully is one of the medium’s best – and the overarching narrative is even good sometimes. I’m glad it was never rebooted.

Favourite Episode: Home (S4:E2)

“The truth is out there, but so are lies.”

3.  Babylon 5 (1993 – 1998)

Cast photo from season 1: Garibaldi, Londo, Ivanova, Delen, Sinclair, Winters, G'Kar, Franklin

What it’s About: The space station Babylon 5, all alone in the night against enemies new and old, human and alien.

Why I Love it: Star Trek shows the future we could achieve; B5 shows us the one we’ll actually get. J. Michael Straczynski’s vision – alongside the efforts of his crew – gave TV viewers something they’d never seen before: a serialized story planned from start to finish before the first episode even aired. Near unparalleled in SF in terms of theme, plotting, and character arcs, Babylon 5 holds a special place in the canon of great television.

Favourite Episode: Severed Dreams (S3:E10)

“No one here is exactly what he appears.”

2.  Firefly (2002)

Two men and a woman in Western attire stand outside a rusted gate, guns pointing forward

What it’s About: The Serenity and her ragtag crew travelling the galaxy for fun, freedom, and profit, without ever finding much of anything other than trouble.

Why I Love it: From complex characters to intense action to humour that doesn’t undercut emotion, each episode of Firefly is a complete package. It has a unique passion and soul, as storylines and characters delving deep into heroism and humanity without ever becoming too pessimistic. Really though, I love Firefly because it’s fun.

Favourite Episode: Pilot (S1:E1)

“Curse your subtle inevitable betrayal.”

 1. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993 – 1999)

Cast photo from season 4: Worf, Quark, Odo, Dax, Sisko, Jake, Kira, O'Brien

What it’s About: The diverse crew of the backwater space station Deep Space Nine, which increasingly becomes more important as the series goes on. 

Why I Love it: Deep Space Nine puts its franchise’s tenets through the wringer, showing us how important they truly are. Star Trek is my favourite franchise, and DS9 is the main reason. In many great storylines and standalones, DS9 expertly crafts satisfying character arcs for everyone in its massive cast. Season 6 is my number one season of all Star Trek. More than anything else here, DS9 feels like home – and its a show I’ll be rewatching for the rest of my life.

Favourite Episode: In the Pale Moonlight (S6:E19)

“So, I lied. I cheated. I bribed to cover the crimes of other men. I am an accessory to murder. But the most damning thing of all . . . I think I can live with it.”


So that’s my top ten sci-fi TV shows. What about you?

Film Review: Reign of Fire (2002)

Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey fight dragons – what could go wrong? Unfortunately, everything. 

What’s It About?

The year is 2020, and dragons reign in England. It all began decades early when London miners uncovered a buried dragon – the first in a species-wide reawakening. No matter how many were killed, the tide could not be stopped. Futilely, governments deployed nuclear weapons, which only devasted population centres as the dragons soared freely above.

In the present, the remaining inhabitants of Northumberland, England live together in a fortified castle, led by Christian Bale’s Quinn, the son of one of the London miners. Life is hard and getting harder, causing many to give up. One day, a corps of Americans arrives, led by Matthew McConaughey’s Denton Van Zan, stirring up both hope and trepidation.

What Did I Think?

On paper, this film has a few things going for it. I like both Bale and McConaughey, and the ridiculous premise suggests just the kind of wacky fantasy I enjoy. On paper.

On the screen . . . it ain’t good. 

At 81 minutes, Reign of Fire is short for a fantasy epic, but somehow even makes that runtime feel too long.

My most general complaint has to do with how inefficiently paced the film was. The overlong opening flashback sequence and subsequent narration from Bale are redundant, and neither offer much more substantial description than I did to begin this review.

Off to kill some dragons!

The opening flashback – following Bale’s traumatic childhood experience in London – does set up his (weak) character arc, but the same could have just as easily been done in a much shorter sequence. For example, as a nightmare he has or replacing the other story he tells the children in his care.

Because of all this, the inciting incident – McConaughey’s arrival – doesn’t happen until thirty minutes in – well past the first third of the film. After that, the film trudges on through its simplistic plot, with a climax enabled by one of the stupidest movie reveals I’ve seen.

“Only one thing worse than a Dragon. Americans.”

As a fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I don’t mind wacky premises – I love them. However, once that premise is established, I expect movies to have some logic and realism within the established framework. Not so for this movie.

To make matters worse, the film suffers from largely boring characters.

This is made worse by the lost potential of starring a bunch of Hollywood leading men before their careers took off.

Bale’s central conflict between hope and despair is both uninteresting and underexplored. Gerald Butler – Bale’s sidekick in the film – was supposed to bring some levity to the film but was too underutilized and at odds with the bleak atmosphere to do much good. The film’s only female character has no defining traits. The only spot of colour in this dark and dreary film was McConaughey. On set, he apparently refused to go by anything other than “Van Zan,” and his over-commitment pays off in his unhinged and campy performance.

The film also suffers in the worldbuilding department. 

There are one or two cool images – such as the tank-like fire trucks Bale’s people use, but overall, the setting is boring, and altogether far too contained (the mere $60 million budget was surely a factor).

It’d be remiss not mention the few positives though. Though we don’t see them very often, the CG dragons hold up reasonably well, and there are a few striking combat scenes. Additionally, there is one scene I genuinely love – where Bale and Butler reenact the conclusion of The Empire Strikes Back as a legendary tale of knights and heroes for the children under their care.

I first became interested in Reign of Fire when it was mentioned on the Intentionally Blank podcast, but unfortunately their brief discussion of it is more interesting than the film itself. I wish the movie had leaned into the crazy premise and zany side of McConaughey’s character, that might have made a more fun film.

I knew it was a bad movie going in, but I was hoping for more of a “Haha, this is so bad” bad movie rather than a “Oh, this is just bad” bad movie. I was disappointed.

★ ★

The Necessary Contradiction of Epic Fantasy Prologues

Spoilers For: The Eye of The World (Prologue & Chapter 1), A Game of Thrones (Prologue & Chapter 1).

In epic fantasy, prologues generally open before the events of the later story and describe some mysterious or wondrous events – such as great displays of magic. Then, as quickly as they begin, they end, raising many questions but offering no answers. Readers are left with a sense of wonder, dread, or confusion. Then, invariably, the opening chapters follow a farm boy worrying about the harvest – or something equally mundane.

Lews Therin roams his ruined castle, dead wife visible in the background.
From the grapic novel adaptation.

Take The Eye of The World by Robert Jordan for example, the classic opening novel of The Wheel of Time. Its prologue opens on a great castle, the inhabitants massacred by “lightnings that had flashed down every corridor” and “fires that had stalked them.” A madman, Lews Therin Telamon, called The Dragon, roams the castle, searching for his wife while unknowingly walking over her corpse. Another man – an enemy – appears, and reveals that Lews Therin himself caused the destruction. They speak of the “Rings of Tamyrlin,” “the Nine Rods of Dominion,” a battle at “the Gates of Paaran Disen.”

“This war has not lasted ten years, but since the beginning of time. You and I have fought a thousand battles with the turning of the Wheel, a thousand times a thousand, and we will fight until time dies and the Shadow is triumphant!”

In his madness, Lews Therin somehow Travels instantly to a new location, “a flat and empty land” beside a river with “no people within a hundred leagues.” Here, he draws “on the True Source deeply,” and summons a fiery “bolt that str[ikes] from the heavens,” raising molten rock “five hundred feet in the air.” Killing himself in the process, Lews Therin erects a mountain that bisects the river. 

The scene ends with the other man Travelling to the new location and cursing Lews Therin: 

“You cannot escape so easily, Dragon. It is not done between us. It will not be done until the end of time.”

What just happened? 

On my initial read, I picked up on the great battle between good and evil but was otherwise hopelessly confused – and overawed. Between all the events mentioned, the titanic displays of magic, and the cyclical conflict across the eons, I knew I was in for a truly epic story.

Then, Chapter One opens on young Rand al’Thor, a farm boy, trudging home alongside his father and worrying about the harsh winter season.

What happened to the awesome magic? Why did Jordan do this?

In short, it’s all about setting a reader’s expectations.

While potentially jarring — especially for readers unfamiliar with the genre — this narrative transition is critical.

Consider: why do people read epic fantasy? Largely, we do so to experience extraordinary elements of the world-building: impossible locations, nonhuman species, battles between good and diabolical evil, and of course, magic.

But authors can’t just front-load their stories with crazy world-building — that would overwhelm readers. Lots of readers give up on Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson for this exact reason. Readers need time to explore the world-building, we want to learn why things exist before we see them in action. 

An Other stalking towards a fallen solider.
Art by Magali Villeneuve

But if authors don’t front-load the cool stuff, how will readers know about it?

That’s the problem.

To solve it, authors in this genre are forced to compromise between attractiveness and accessibility in their opening chapters. In the above example, Robert Jordan uses his prologue to showcase the attractive aspects of his massive world and insane magic system, and his opening chapters to introduce an accessible character and setting. So, while readers follow Rand and his friends around the Two Rivers early in the novel, they have the expectation of great things to come.

Another classic example is A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin. Martin uses his prologue to create a sense of dread and introduce a terrifying fantasy race, the Others, and his opening chapters to introduce House Stark and castle life – a familiar millieu for experienced readers. We know the Others are out there, but also that we aren’t ready to see them again just yet.

Other examples include Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb, The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson, The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter, and The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin – all great books.

In these stories, the prologue is a teaser for greater things to come. An expectation. A promise.

The most common way for fantasy writers to introduce their worlds to readers is by following a naive and callow main character. The reader and protagonist embark on an adventure, discovering the strangeness and intricacies of the novel together.

Using this strategy, writers are freer to develop character and setting in the early parts of their novel, having assured impatient readers of what’s to come.

Classic SF Review: The Fall of Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Though I enjoyed The Fall of Hyperion, I didn’t like it as much as Hyperion.

I loved Simmons explorations of so many genres in Hyperion, especially how he changed his prose for each one. Here, Simmons shows off some great technical writing – including narratively justifiable first-person present – but I miss the variety of styles he included in the first novel. 

In addition to missing the way they were written, I found myself missing the characters themselves. They’re still there, of course, but most of the page count is devoted to two new point-of-views, neither of whom I liked quite as much. And when we do get the old characters, they’re all in the same situation. I missed the variety.

None of this is to say The Fall of Hyperion is worse than Hyperion, but rather that the elements of the first book that I liked most weren’t there. It makes sense: book one is a collection of stories about individual characters, book two is the story of the space opera that was unfolding behind them. I think I preferred the main plot when it was in the background.

To be sure, many of the new elements are great. My favourite scenes in the book were those with the lyrical and insane AI, Ummon. Simmons did a great job of making character’s lifelong traits and struggles (which we learned about in Hyperion) relevant to their immediate and dire circumstances, and the choices they had to make. 

Having already laid the foundations, Simmons was also able to add depth to his worldbuilding and reflect on this imagined society even more critically. He clearly subscribes to the idea that pain and struggle breed innovation – which makes sense – but I almost feel like he takes this message a bit too far, especially in the ending. The themes were reinforced so heavily that, even from early in the novel, I knew there was only one way the book could end. 

It’s probable that Simmons intended the novel to crawl inexorably to this conclusion, as the characters slowly realized that there were no other options – but I just wasn’t excited by it. The ending in general fell flat for me – some of the twists were a bit too obvious – and, though I won’t spoil how it was done, the final tone and neatness of the ending struck me as a little incongruous with the overall story.

I read this one slowly – took about a month – and overall wasn’t motivated to keep reading. I had fun when I did but was never itching to get back to it. At least right now, I won’t be continuing with Endymion and Rise of Endymion. I’m glad I read the first duology in the Hyperion Cantos, but there’s just so much more out there to read.

★ ★ ★