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Book Review: Harbinger of the Storm, by Aliette de Bodard

Harbinger of the Storm, by Aliette de Bodard
Blood stained the room, stains of various sizes, all the way down to small drops marring the frescoes. It had not been quick, or easy.

Ordinarily I would have knelt, closed the body’s eyes and said the death rites; this time, it seemed like the body was scattered over the whole room. So I just stood there, and said the prayers I always did.

We live on Earth, in the Fifth World

Not forever, but a little while

As jade breaks, as gold is crushed

We wither away, like feathers we crumble

Not forever on Earth, but a little while…

Acatl is Tenochtitlan’s High Priest of the Dead…coroner, funeral director, keeper of the unseen boundaries between the the world of spirits and the world of men, and reluctant detective, when the need arises. He’s a humble, soft-spoken man who’s grown considerably into his duties since last we met him, but now he’s confronted by a new and terrifying challenge.

The Revered Speaker, ruler of Tenochtitlan, is dead, and court intrigue swirls around the naming of his successor. Acatl would prefer to be left out of the political maneuvering, but when one council member is murdered—and more horrifying deaths follow—he has no choice. The murderer has violated the ancient barriers and employed a forbidden magic that threatens to wipe Tenochtitlan and its inhabitants from the face of the earth and usher in the next epoch of history, ready or not.

But how can the priest of a second-rate deity stand against a horde of demons hungry for an apocalypse of blood and fire?

In Harbinger of the Storm, the second volume of Aliette de Bodard’s Obsidian and Blood trilogy, we move deeper into the inner workings of her circa-1400s Aztec society, as seen through the eyes of her unlikely hero, Acatl. This is a world where magical power is tangible, a thread woven through every activity of life, no matter how simple, and the strongest magic derives its power from blood sacrifice. The Aztec society exists in a symbiotic relationship with gods and goddesses who depend on humanity’s devotion while manipulating it to serve their own imponderable agendas. Both men and gods are in turn subject to a fate beyond their control but enigmatic in its vision of the future. War and violence are expected, existence is haunted by fear and uncertainty, and comfort is found only in the daily routines and rituals, constantly seeking the gods’ capricious favor.

Acatl is a man of unique spiritual sensitivity, comfortable in his own skin and in the small universe of his priestly duties, who finds himself pulled out of his comfort zone with distressingly accelerating regularity. He becomes entangled in a confusing royal succession disputed by factions whose motivations and loyalties simultaneously define the complex web of alliance that holds Tenochtitlan together and threaten to tear it asunder. He’s the only man at court without political ambition or instinct, and he must somehow keep these forces in balance, solve the perplexing murders, and, just maybe, survive. It’s a classic fish-out-of-water scenario, where an outmatched individual must find the strength and ingenuity to defeat an overwhelming adversary. Acatl is humble, principled, and determined to protect the people who look to him for leadership. It is those traits, not physical power, genius, charisma, or even magical talent, that see him through. He possesses great courage, but he reminds us that courage and fearlessness aren’t necessarily the same thing. He’s an appealing protagonist, very much in the spirit of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael or G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown.

Like the first volume, this story is free of explicit content, with little on-stage violence, but there’s also no flinching from the truth that Aztec religious rites often involved human sacrifice, and there’s blood just about everywhere in the temple precincts, dried or dripping. Acatl’s rites for Michtlantechuhtli, the Lord of Death, however, don’t involve human sacrifice, since his clients are already dead and there’s not much point in it. While wearily accepting that it’s the way of things in his culture, it’s clear Acatl would be quite happy if the gods who demand human sacrifice gave up their thirst for blood altogether.

This is a fine story, well-researched, enjoyable as both a mystery and a window into a vanished culture unfamiliar to most of us. Give it a read, but start with the first book, Servant of the Underworld, which introduces Acatl and his community, since the second volume moves at a fair clip and doesn’t dwell much on backstory, though it stands well on its own. As you might expect, it ends on a note that makes it clear that the resolution is only temporary, and more danger and mystery awaits Acatl and his allies in the final volume, Master of the House of Darts, which I’ll be reading and reviewing soon.

More posts about Aliette de Bodard and her stories.

Aliette de Bodard’s author website

Link to purchase Harbinger of the Storm

Link to purchase Servant of the Underworld

Link to purchase Master of the House of Darts

Link to purchase the Obsidian and Blood trilogy in a single volume

>>This review is based upon an electronic copy of the book I bought with my very own cash money because I have enjoyed other stories by Ms. de Bodard and thought this one would be worth reading. I was right. FTC busybodies looking for conflict of interest should inquire elsewhere.<<

 
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Posted by on April 5, 2014 in Book Reviews, Writing

 

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Drive By Sci Fi #3: Hard Time

My object all sublime
I shall achieve in time
To let the punishment fit the crime, The punishment fit the crime;
And make each prisoner pent
Unwillingly represent
A source of innocent merriment, Of innocent merriment!
Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado

The twofold topic of crime and punishment has yielded bountiful fruit over the years in science fiction, providing endless speculation on the future of law, law enforcement, civil justice, and criminal punishment, and perhaps no representative of the genre has made more salad from this particular harvest than that icon of television, film, and popular culture, Star Trek. Many of its futuristic scenarios implied things wouldn’t stray far from the familiar: investigations, inquiries, inquests, courtrooms, courts martial, jury trials, imprisonment, exile, and executions (usually averted at the last minute). Occasionally we’d be treated to a fun anachronism, like trial by combat.

Punishment was often surprisingly harsh, given Star Trek’s rosy view of the evolution of future society. One of my favorite Original Series Trek moments was Spock’s dispassionate summation of the various forms of execution jovial con-artist Harry Mudd would face were he ever brought to justice:

mudd

Well, I suppose it’s better than stranding me on an asteroid with a few hundred robot duplicates of my ex-wife.

Mudd: Do you know what the penalty for fraud is on Deneb 5?

Spock: Guilty party has his choice. Death by electrocution, death by gas, death by phaser, death by hanging…

Mudd: The key word in your entire peroration, Mr. Spock, was… d-d-d-DEATH.

The issue of justice in sentencing, how to make, in the words of the Mikado, “the punishment fit the crime,” came to mind the other day in the form of a couple of articles discussing advances in our ability to manipulate memory, and possible applications this and other biotech developments might have in the criminal justice system.

obrien-hardtimeThe ideas floated in this article seemed hauntingly familiar. Then I remembered one of my favorite episodes from Star Trek: Deep Space 9, “Hard Time,” in which stalwart DS9 engineer Miles O’Brien is arrested on an alien world, charged with espionage, and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Virtual prison. O’Brien lives every moment of that 20 years, indistinguishable from reality, in the space of a few hours. Then, he’s released to Federation custody to put his life back together. He has to orient himself to life outside prison, re-forge friendships, and re-learn his job. But he’s still haunted by the ghost of something horrific that happened during that time he was captive within his own mind, and it nearly destroys him. It’s a tour-de-force of brilliant acting by Colm Meaney, who plays O’Brien, and Craig Wasson, who portrays O’Brian’s illusory cellmate. Watch the whole thing, if you get the chance.

suluparadise

It’s paradise, my friend.

We’re approaching the ability to insert false memories in the human mind, distort its perception of time, and automate these effects with computer technology. So many delicious opportunities here. A convict could experience a lifetime in prison in mere hours of real time. A violent criminal could re-live his misdeeds from his victim’s point-of-view, over and over again, until he was rehabilitated—or so emotionally and psychologically broken that he could never harm anyone again—all in a brief space of time with no danger or need to kill or even physically injure the criminal. Prisons and all their expensive and inherent evils would be obsolete, as would the engines of capital punishment. Justice could be specifically tailored to the perpetrator, the crime, and the desires of victims and their families.

Everybody wins. Right?

Well, maybe. There are some thorny ethical issues here, not the least is whether this sort of treatment constitutes torture and invites abuse. Proportionality of sentencing is threatened, as well. It could be easier for judges to issue excessive punishments—it’s all happening in an imaginary world, anyhow. What does an illusion of 100 years in prison matter if it’s only taking a few hours of real time on a soft couch, and nobody gets hurt?

There’s also no guarantee this technology could remain restricted to use by a legal, accountable authority. Imagine the likely outcome if the ability to lock someone in a virtual hell found its way into the hands of terrorists:

We have your daughter. Oh, please, sir, relax…we’re not barbarians. No harm will come to her, but if you don’t cooperate, she’ll be spending 24 hours in our “private resort.”

The most chilling part of this topic for me is people’s readiness to entertain the idea of creating that virtual hell, for any purpose. Much ink has spilled in the last few years about the incomprehensibility of a loving, merciful God consigning anyone to Hell, no matter how heinous their crime or unrepentant their heart. We poor, feeble human beings would never consider sending someone to eternal punishment. We’re better than that.

Mm-hmm. We’d do it in a heartbeat. We’re already talking about it. We’re halfway to figuring out how to make it happen, and we don’t have to worry about being constrained by any of that “loving, merciful” jazz. On this issue, my faith in the beneficence of my fellow man is rather limited. A source of innocent merriment!

We have an affinity for hell.

 

 
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Posted by on March 31, 2014 in Opinion, Technology, Writing

 

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Weekly Weimaraner #19

image

Good to the last drop.

My Lovely Wife captured Josie enjoying a tasty Macchiato with double whipped cream, hold the coffee, at Starbucks yesterday. Spoiled much?

 
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Posted by on March 22, 2014 in Family

 

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Book Review: Jesus of Nazareth – Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, by Joseph Ratzinger, Pope Benedict XVI

jesus-of-nazareth-2I read the first volume of Joseph Ratzinger’s three-volume opus on the life of Jesus a little over a year ago, intending to read the second volume during that year’s Lent.

I finished Part Two a couple of weeks ago. Whether the delay was due to my own absentmindedness or perhaps because I wasn’t prepared to absorb the second book, it’s been a wonderful and relevant enrichment during Lent this year. Like the first book, this isn’t Catholic dogma, and there’s no reason for Protestant readers to shy away from it. This series is a solid, well-researched, engagingly-written, and Biblically-focused examination of the life and person of Jesus, penned by an eminent theologian with a pastor’s heart. There’s probably a copy at your local library. Check it out.

This is a more challenging read than the first volume, mostly because it’s packed even fuller with insights that take some time to digest. Nearly any paragraph could sustain a solid week or two of Bible study. Where Part One surveyed the broad scope of Jesus’ ministry years, Part Two zeroes-in on Holy Week, and the books are about the same size. This reflects a quantum leap in the level of detail—Ratzinger drills deeply into the significant events surrounding the Crucifixion and Resurrection, examining them both in their immediate context and their larger significance to the mystery of the Incarnation, and the Pope Emeritus has a lot to say in answer to the question, Who is Jesus, and how did his life, death, and resurrection transform our relationship with God?

As in Part One, Ratzinger employs a wide range of Biblical scholarship and analysis in support of his narrative, while continuing his gentle critique of the historical-critical method of Biblical scholarship that pursues a “historical” Jesus but neglects the role of faith that illuminates the Scriptural account and reveals the meaning that permeates it. His method and intent are important to understand before delving into these books, so I strongly recommend reading Part One first, where he discusses this in detail.

In Part One, Ratzinger presented Jesus as the new lawgiver, the perfected “Moses” leading his people into the Promised Land. In Part Two, tracing the events of Holy Week, he shows how Jesus is revealed as the new, perfected High Priest, simultaneously God and Man, King and Intercessor, Priest and Sacrifice.

He spends a lot of time examining how Jesus prayed during these days—the High Priestly prayer at the Last Supper, the intercessory prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the words from the Cross. He also delves into Jesus’ prophetic discourses and instructions to his disciples that set the stage for the emergence of the Church that will carry on his ministry to the world, a calling and example epitomized in his washing of the disciples’ feet. Holy Week culminates in Jesus’ death and resurrection, wholly unprecedented and revolutionary events with implications that Jesus’ followers, guided by the Holy Spirit, would spend generations unpacking.

Not one to shy away from the hard questions, Ratzinger takes on the controversies surrounding the four Gospel narratives and shows how their harmony is preserved despite differing perspectives, emphases, and timelines. He concludes with a very simple and practical evidence of the reality of these events and this person he’s shared with us in the pages of his book, displayed in the aftermath of Jesus’ ascension into heaven:

The conclusion surprises us. Luke says that the disciples were full of joy at the Lord’s definitive departure. We would have expected them to be left perplexed and sad. The world was unchanged, and Jesus had gone definitively. They had received a commission that seemed impossible to carry out and lay well beyond their powers…And yet it is written that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy, blessing God. How are we to understand this? In any case, it follows that the disciples do not feel abandoned. They do not consider Jesus to have disappeared far away into an inaccessible heaven. They are obviously convinced of a new presence of Jesus…they know that he is now permanently among them, in the way that only God can be close to us.

This is the Jesus revealed to us in Holy Week, the joy and hope of those who believe. Not absent, but ever and always present with us in a new way.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2014 in Book Reviews, Faith

 

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Curb Your Enthusiasm…

This happened last night. The key moment begins at 2:34:

Christian spec-fic novel Amish Vampires in Space gets a cover shot and mention on national television from a big-time celebrity on an American cultural institution, The Tonight Show. This is a good thing, right?

Well, it was 25 seconds of a five-minute comedy spot called “Do Not Read,” sandwiched between “Cooking the Dutch Oven Way” and “Stylish Napkins.” It was a punchline, not a promotion.

C’mon, Fred, lighten up. There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

Amish Vampires in SpaceMaybe. The book was flashed to an audience of millions, and Mr. Kimmel didn’t really say anything bad about it. Besides, It’s a foot in the door to begin a conversation, something like, “Did you see that crazy Amish Vampire book on Kimmel last night?” “Yes, and I’m so glad you asked…” Even Twitter scammers began using the title to attract hits on their tweets, so it’s gone viral, after a fashion.

Folks in the Christian spec-fic community were understandably jazzed: Finally, we got noticed. We’ve arrived. We’ve stepped onto the cultural stage. It would have cost thousands of dollars to buy a promotional slot on that show. That kind of free advertising is a gift.

But when I put the manner of the debut together with the response, I felt a little sad. It was like somebody at the cool kids’ table noticed us, and it made our day. “Hey, nice jacket, dweeb!”

Are we so desperate for attention that a talk-show gag feels like affirmation? We’ve been ignored for so long inside and outside the Christian community we’re excited to see this book presented as a joke, in the company of items emblematic of the worst products of American mass-market publishing.

ascsKerry Nietz is a fine writer and deserves wider exposure. His Freeheads series is a wonderful example of original science fiction written from a Christian worldview that defies conventional wisdom and expectations. Amish Vampires in Space, despite its notoriety, was orphaned in the sale of Marcher Lord Press because the new owners decided it didn’t fit their publishing vision, so I’m sure Kerry appreciates any public buzz at all about the book.

There’s certainly lemonade to be made from this lemon, and I admit It was cool to see a book written by someone of my acquaintance on television, whatever the circumstances. What would genuinely excite me would be a follow-up invitation for Kerry to appear on the show to talk about Amish Vampires in Space. Instead of the message, “Don’t read this book, it’s a joke,” we’d get, “Creative guy with a sense of humor wrote an interesting story.” That would be the sort of arrival on the cultural stage I could celebrate without mixed emotions.

Or, we could accept Jimmy Kimmel’s offer at the end of the video and send him more Christian spec-fic to lampoon in “Do Not Read” before anybody else gets the idea.

There’s no such thing as bad publicity, right?

 
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Posted by on March 12, 2014 in Writing

 

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Short Takes

Because I’m on the road, and there’s no time for long takes.

Francis MarionWhere Did the Fox Live? Right here. I’m on a work trip in South Carolina, home of one of my boyhood heroes, Revolutionary War commando Francis Marion, aka “The Swamp Fox.” This region is full of marshy pine forests where Marion and his irregulars led the Redcoats a merry chase and employed innovative guerrilla tactics to sustain Colonial resistance in an area that had been practically given up as lost to the British. The U.S. Army Rangers trace their origins, in part, to Francis Marion.

His life and military career are not free of controversy—he was a slave owner and participated in a brutal campaign against the Cherokee during the French and Indian War, details absent from the laudatory, romantic biography I found in my school library.

avatar_rift_1Still Saving the World: NetGalley is a cool service that connects reviewers to publishers by providing access to electronic advance review copies of new books—including graphic novels and comic books. Dark Horse Comics has been running a popular graphic novel series based on Avatar: The Last Airbender for some time now that continues the story where the television show left off, and I snagged a NetGalley review copy of the latest installment, The Rift, Part One, written by Gene Luen Yang (whose 2-volume graphic novel Boxers and Saints I reviewed here a few weeks ago) and drawn by Japanese comic art team Gurihiru.                .

Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and a trio of Air Acolytes witness the seating of the first coalition government with representatives from both Fire and Earth Nations, then they travel to a sacred site to celebrate an ancient Air Nomad festival—but trouble’s waiting for them. Aang runs headlong into an unexpected conflict between his desire to resurrect his lost Air Nomad heritage and his vision of global unity among the Nations, and Toph stumbles into emotional tension between her past and present lives. It’s an intelligent, entertaining story that ends with a juicy cliffhanger.

Story, characters, and art preserve the feel and appeal of the original and continue to nicely fill the gap between ATLA and The Legend of Korra while weaving a tale that stands quite well on its own merits and strikes a good balance between thoughtful interaction among the characters and dynamic action. The Rift, Part One hit the streets just a few days ago—if you’re a fan, or if you’re simply looking for a solid fusion of comic art and storytelling in an intriguing speculative universe, pick up a copy.

nodamecantabileMusic Hath Charms: Hardworking, prickly perfectionist Shinichi Chiaki wants to achieve his dream of becoming a symphony conductor, but his abrasive introversion is holding him back from greatness. Lazy, childish Megumi “Nodame” Noda is a piano prodigy, but it looks like she’ll never come close to fulfilling her potential. Can these two misfits somehow supply each other’s missing pieces and make beautiful music together?

Not a chance.

Well, maybe there’s a glimmer of hope. Nodame Cantabile is a cute romantic comedy filled with wonderful classical music, but this anime suffers from stereotyped characters and uneven animation quality. Megumi is embarrassingly ditzy and infantile through most of the early episodes, though she gains depth as the story develops, and Shinichi begins as such a dismissive jerk that he threatens to be completely unsympathetic, though he also gains humanity and likability as we learn more about him. Bottom line, there’s an infectious thread of joy and love for the masterpieces of classical music woven into this series, and given a little patience, it’s a fun watch. 24 episodes, English-dubbed, free-streaming on Crackle.

jesus-of-nazareth-2On the Down Low: Lent is here again, but I won’t say anything about how I’m observing it this year, other than to note I’m reading the second volume of Joseph Ratzinger’s Jesus of Nazareth—Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem to the Resurrection, which I intended to read last year at this time but did not. It’s a bit more theologically dense than the first volume, which focused on Jesus’ ministry years, but it’s well worth the effort. I’ll post a complete review after I’ve finished it.

You can find my reflections on Lent, and devotional resources from previous years, here.

 
 

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Movie Review: The Wind Rises, by Hiyao Miyazaki

The_Wind_RisesI make it a practice not to review films by Hiyao Miyazaki, because it’s like telling people bacon tastes really, really good, but The Wind Rises is the retiring master’s last feature film, and it’s thought-provoking in a way unlike anything else he’s ever done.

Even if a Miyazaki film isn’t specifically about flying, you can still expect flight to be central to the story in some fashion. Nausicaa pilots a hang glider. Kiki flies a broom. Chihiro rides a flying dragon. Howl transforms into a giant bird. Porco Rosso is a pig—and a fighter pilot.

Those stories are all fantasies, but The Wind Rises is about a very real dream of flight, and a real person who devoted his life to that dream.

Jiro Horikoshi is a brilliant young man marinated in visions of flying. His nearsightedness makes it impossible for him to become a pilot, but he buries himself in aeronautical journals—and learns foreign languages so he can read them cover-to-cover. The shining blue skies of his dreams, where we first meet him, are filled with soaring aircraft. One of his heroes, an Italian aircraft designer named Caproni, appears in the dreams and takes Jiro aboard his wonderful flying machines, sharing his vision of a future where anyone can hop onto an airplane and be whisked around the world in a few hours.

“The wind is rising, and you must live.”

Jiro's dream.Even as he encourages Jiro to become an aeronautical engineer, Caproni issues an ominous warning. Flying, he says, is a dream—but a cursed dream, and powerful people will use it to kill and destroy.

The Wind Rises vividly illustrates this eternal dilemma of the creative mind, and shows us what it means to be driven by a cursed dream. The same ideas can be used to harm or heal. Technology can save lives or take them. Today’s transport is tomorrow’s bomber. Might it be better for Jiro to abandon his life’s work so it can’t be perverted for destruction? In another dream, Caproni asks him if he’d rather live in a world with pyramids, or without them, and Jiro decides he’d rather embrace a future where the creation of wondrous things is possible, even as he acknowledges they might require a terrible price.

Jiro fulfills his boyhood aspirations, becomes an engineer, lands a job at an aircraft factory, and struggles through a series of imperfect prototypes, eventually designing what will become the Mitsubishi A6M Zero, arguably the finest fighter aircraft on either side of World War II, a masterwork of innovative structural and material design, incredibly lightweight, fast, and agile. Before long, his terrifying premonitions are realized: Jiro’s beautiful, masterful creations are taken by the Japanese Empire and used as brutal engines of aggressive war, eventually overcome by new Allied aircraft with bigger engines and overwhelming firepower.

Crashed test aircraftIn the end, he’s left with nothing. None of his airplanes return home.

Is it his fault? Miyazaki never definitively answers that question, but he portrays Jiro as a kind, heroic young man who only wants to create beautiful things. Jiro is discouraged and saddened by the path his nation is taking, but he shrugs his shoulders and presses on, unlike his German counterpart, Hugo Junkers, who refuses to cooperate with the Nazi regime and is put under house arrest.

We’re left to wonder, along with Jiro, if his life and talent were squandered. Jiro’s physical nearsightedness is a metaphor for his difficulty engaging with the world around him. He sees most clearly in his dreams, and they preoccupy his waking life. He’s not oblivious—Jiro remarks early on that Japan is on a course for disaster, but he feels helpless to intervene in any meaningful way. All he can do is keep living his life and building his airplanes. People will fly in them, and their survival will depend on Jiro’s skill.

Jiro finds love, but like his airplanes, it’s an ephemeral dream fated to shine brilliantly and all too briefly. He pours his soul into each moment with the woman he loves, nonetheless. Is it worth the pain? Once again, Jiro says, “Yes.”

Dream airplaneThis is a beautiful film. We may not see this level of artistry again in hand-drawn animated film anytime soon. It’s filled with sweeping panoramas, incredible detail in both foreground and background, fluid motion, and a dizzying world of flying dreams. We see the genius of Jiro’s engineering mind as aircraft wing surfaces peel away to reveal detailed cross-sections with parts that stress, and fail, and are redesigned within his imagination—lighter, stronger, more efficient.

Critics have accused Miyazaki of glorifying war in this film, of muting its true horror, of glossing over the Japanese sneak attack on Pearl Harbor (and Jiro’s role in making it possible). Other critics claim he isn’t patriotic enough and paints Japan in an unfavorable light. I’ve found that if you’re making critics on opposite ends of an argument uncomfortable, you’ve probably struck a good balance in your storytelling. I left the theater feeling that I’d witnessed something both sad and beautiful, that war is ultimately a titanic, tragic waste, but selflessness and nobility can be found in people on both sides of any conflict.

Jiro Horikoshi dreamed of flying. It was a dream worth living, and The Wind Rises is a movie worth seeing.

Teens and up. There’s nothing objectionable in this movie beyond some harrowing scenes of natural disaster and the aftermath of war, and some period-appropriate smoking, but it moves at a leisurely pace. Younger children (or adults looking for an action-packed movie night) may get fidgety.

 
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Posted by on March 7, 2014 in Media Reviews

 

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