King Fielder

Milwaukee-based musings on books and sports

NFL Power Tiers – Week 1

Instead of Power Rankings, I think teams (and players for that matter) are better ranked in tiers.  Using tiers eliminates some of the false certainty present in ranking teams in number order from 1-30.  You know, arguing about why is my team number 7, I think they should be number 5, that kind of thing.  By grouping teams by tiers relative to their chances for making the playoffs, I think we get a better picture of where the teams in the NFL are relative to one another.

Elite

Green Bay Packers – Super Bowl champions in January.  The Packers are explosive on offense and defense and only slightly below average on special teams, a big improvement over previous years (and possibly less important with teams now kicking off from the 35-yard line).  The Packers still have room to improve on offense (the running game, dropped passes by the wide receivers) and on defense (pass rush from someone other than Clay Matthews and the departed Cullen Jenkins).

New England Patriots – Same old, same old.  Expect Brady to be outstanding and to make his teammates look better than they are (especially Chad Ochocinco).  Expect Belichick to be cocky and unlikable but to come up with the right defensive schemes to stymie that day’s opponent.

Pittsburgh Steelers – Same old, same old.  A punishing 3-4 defense that thinks it talks tough in the media, but comes off as a bunch of whiners.  It will be interesting to see which Troy Polamalu shows up this year.  The slow, conservative, banged-up and possibly aging version last seen in the Super Bowl or the healthy, risk-taking, slightly overrated (but big-play making) version that we have seen since he entered the NFL.

Definite Playoff Teams

New Orleans Saints – Why all the love for the Saints?  It seems like Vince Young’s “Dream Team” comment (innocuous as it was when taken in context), has turned public opinion against the Eagles as the trendy NFC Super Bowl pick and it seems boring (or at least lazy) to pick the Packers to repeat.  Still, I don’t get it.  I understand the love for Drew Brees and Sean Payton and the rest of the Saint’s offense.  But why isn’t the defense being questioned?  This is the unit that no-showed against the Seahawks in the playoffs last year.  The Saints have added some intriguing players, especially Aubrayo Franklin, but I want to see how this version of the Saints defense plays before moving them up to Elite status.

New York Jets – A team can’t be elite without an elite quarterback… and Mark Sanchez isn’t an elite quarterback.  Barring a change at QB, I think the Jets peaked last year.  They are worse off at wide receiver without Braylon Edwards and Brad Smith.  Rex Ryan is the best defensive coordinator in football, but I can’t see a defense (even a Rex coached one) leading a team to Super Bowl with an average QB.

Baltimore Ravens A team can’t be elite without an elite quarterback… and Joe Flacco isn’t an elite quarterback.  The defense just keeps getting older.  Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs are good, but they aren’t Ray Lewis and Ed Reed in their primes… and Lewis (especially) and Reed (mostly due to healthy) aren’t in their primes anymore.  Would you trust Flacco to beat Brady, Roethlisberger, or even Rivers in a playoff game?  Me neither.

Atlanta Falcons – Seems like it could all come apart for the Falcons with a few bad breaks.  Tony Gonzalez isn’t getting any younger and Michael Turner isn’t the type of running back (workload and running style) to age well.  And did anyone watch the Falcons playoff loss to the Packers and think, boy they need to trade their entire 2011 draft to get a wide receiver?  Sure seemed that the defense was where the Falcons should have been spending their draft picks and free agent dollars.  I think Ray Edwards will look like just a guy when he isn’t playing opposite Jared Allen and with Kevin Williams and Pat Williams between the two of them.  And I’m not a Matt Ryan believer.  His “Matty Ice” nickname is a thinly-veiled (at least to the media) reference to Natty Ice.  I refuse to believe that a guy drafted in 2008 was nicknamed “Matty Ice” by his college teammates in reference to him being cool under pressure rather than because it rhymes with the college house-party beverage of choice.  I have no reason to not believe in him other than the nickname, but I just can’t get over it and the fact that we as a country seem to have bought into the cool under pressure origin story.  Seems much more likely that he went out with his offensive lineman and drank a case of Natty Ice by himself, but see if a story like that ever gets told by Jaws and Gruden on Monday Night Football.

Philadelphia Eagles – Michael Vick will be spectacular for 12-14 games.  Vince Young should be adequate for the other ones.  But I want to see if Jeremy Maclin and Steve Smith are healthy enough to contribute and where DeSean Jackson’s head is at after his brief holdout.  Apparently, the defense has added some playmakers.  Did you hear about this? A cornerback with a name I can’t spell?  Guy by the name of Nnamdi Asomugha But new defensive coordinator Juan Castillo was previously the offensive line coach… I think I’ll wait and see how the defense comes together before considering the Eagles elite.

Playoff Contenders

Dallas Cowboys – They were on many pre-season Super Bowl short lists last year, lost a bunch of close games, had Tony Romo get hurt, and were coached by Wade Phillips.  Romo’s healthy, Felix Jones has lost weight, DeMarcus Ware is a beast, and they are no longer coached by Wade Phillips.  My gut says they end up winning the NFC East, but my head says that they are another Romo injury away from 8-8.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Young team on the rise that has built itself through the draft and is led by a young quarterback.  Sounds like the Packers of a few years ago.  I like how the Bucs are willing to let the young guys learn together on the job.  The schedule will be harder than last year, so their record may be worse, but this is team building for the long term.  Give me the Bucs over the Lions as the NFC to emerge every day of the week.

Houston Texans – The AFC South is rapidly turning into one of the western divisions.  First to 10 wins takes the division.  I think taking Mario Williams hand off the ground to make him a 3-4 outside linebacker is a mistake.  He was disruptive as a 4-3 end, why mess with a good thing?  Reminds me of what the Packers did with Aaron Kampman a few years ago.  It didn’t work then either.

Tennessee Titans – If Matt Hasselbeck stays healthy enough to start 14 games, I think they win the AFC South.  Chris Johnson is the best player in this division and I think he has something to prove coming off a disappointing (for him) season.

Indianapolis Colts – If only because the rich Ewing theory potential in a Peyton Manning-less season.  Manning has a rich history of regular season success with playoff disappointments.  Remember, his Super Bowl win came against the Bears starting Rex Grossman at quarterback.  Not exactly Rodgers outdueling Roethlisberger last year.  I’ve always thought that Manning’s teammates have been underrated because of the focus on Manning’s greatness.  This is the year guys like Reggie Wayne and Dallas Clark can prove that they are great players in their own right.

In the Playoffs because each division “champion” gets in

Kansas City Chiefs – Mostly because I think this is the year the Chargers finally quit on Norv Turner.

St. Louis Rams – Entirely because I think Sam Bradford is the only quarterback in the division with a chance to approach league average.  Bradford can do much better than average, but average is something Kevin Kolb, Alex Smith, and Tavaris Jackson can only dream of.

Just Missing the Playoffs

Detroit Lions – Matt Stafford has never completed passes at a high enough percentage (even at Georgia) to lead a team to the playoffs.  When he gets his completion percentage closer to 60, I’ll start to buy into the hype.  Until then, a great defensive line in front of a suspect linebacker corps and secondary is not enough to get the Lions into the playoffs.

Cleveland Browns – Now, if the Lions had Colt McCoy, I’d move them way up the list.  The Browns will be improved and could makes things in the AFC North interesting, but passing the Steelers and the Ravens is a tall order without more playmakers on both sides of the ball.

Minnesota Vikings – If not for Aaron Rodgers, Adrian Peterson would be the best player in his division. Donovan McNabb should at least be adequate, which is several orders of magnitude better than Tavaris.  However, the offensive line has gotten old (and fat and released in the case of former tackle Bryant McKinnie) and the defense will struggle with out Kevin Williams (finally serving his suspension for using StarCaps… why was everyone so willing to believe that he was using the diuretic to lose weight and not to mask steriod use?) and Pat Williams (not resigned).  This is a team that missed its window and is moving backwards.

Buffalo Bills – Until the Bills can put together a better offensive line (why did they trade Jason Peters again?), they won’t improve, no matter who is under center.

Western Divisions Second – Fourth Places

Denver Broncos – The Broncos are just a shade behind the Chiefs in my book.  Kyle Orton is an above-average starter.  Elvis Dumervil returns from injury and now has Von Miller opposite him.  In the AFC West, that might be enough for 9-7 and 9-7 could win that division.

San Diego Chargers – The Chargers are a perennially overhyped videogame team.  They are great to control in Madden, but all that talent underachieves in the real world.  They are soft, have been soft through the Norv Turner era, and will remain soft.  The players have to hate playing here for GM A.J. Smith (think he’s on Vincent Jackson or Marcus McNeil’s Christmas card lists?) who sabotaged the good of the team last year to make an example of the two free agents.  I think the Chargers fall apart, end up at 8-8 or worse, and have a new GM and coach this time next year.

Arizona Cardinals – Unless Kevin Kolb is Kurt Warner in disguise, it’s more mediocrity in the desert this year.

Oakland Raiders – What a mess.  I thought the Raiders were building something interesting Tom Cable, instead they let him go and shuffle the deck again.  This team cannot succeed as long as Al Davis continues to pull the strings.

San Francisco 49ers – Could Jim Harbaugh be a player/coach?  No?  Andrew Luck here they come.

Seattle Seahawks – The Seahawks don’t even seem to have a plan for building the team.  Other than the great home-field advantage, what do they have going for them?

Playing for Next Year (non-Andrew Luck Division)

New York Giants – Too many season-ending injuries before the season has even started.  Maybe they should be in the Andrew Luck Division.  If Eli Manning keeps throwing picks like he did last year, it won’t matter what his last name is.

Jacksonville Jaguars – Cutting your starting quarterback the week before the season starts cannot be a good sign.  And the presence of Blaine Gabbert means they won’t be looking to draft Luck next year.

Chicago Bears – Jay Cutler can’t help that his face looks like that.  He always looks disinterested and mopey.  And he’ll probably look injured playing behind the Bears offensive line.  I think the Mike Martz orchestrated offensive will put up points, but I don’t think the defense can repeat last year’s performance.

Carolina Panthers – Patience should pay off for the Panthers.  They need to take the time to see what they have in Cam Newton and draft well the next year years.  This is a team that hit bottom last year, but should have a slight bounce-back year.

Playing for Next Year (Andrew Luck Division)

Miami Dolphins – Reggie Bush as a feature back?  I wish the Dolphins luck.  Chad Henne has to play better (or at least change the narrative, I don’t think he was as bad as he was made out to be last year) or he’ll be gone next year.

Washington Redskins – Mike Shanahan is a genius?  Because he had John Elway and Alex Gibbs developed the Broncos signature zone-blocking and single cut running game that Shanahan gets credit for?  Would a genius humiliate a temperamental star like Albert Haynesworth with petty conditioning drill b.s. like Shanahan did last year?  Way to alienate one of the guys you absolutely need to play well before the first week of training camp is over, Mike.  Coaches should work with the players they have and make use of the players strengths, not try to fit square pegs into round holes like Shanahan did with Haynesworth (and McNabb for that matter) last year.

Cincinnati Bengals – They are going to be awful.  And I can see Mike Brown drafting Luck even after taking Andy Dalton in the second round this year, which could even end up being the right move, if we were talking about a different team.  Only this is the Bengals we’re talking about, a team that can’t help but always make the wrong moves.

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Stonewielder – Review

Stonewielder by Ian C. Esslemont is a solid addition to the Malazan world created by Esslemont and Steven Erikson.  The inevitable thing to do with Esslemont’s Malazan novels is compare them to Erikson’s novels and find them lacking.  After all, most (all?) of the readers of the Malazan novels were introduced to the shared world by Erikson, so Esslemont will always have  the stigma of being the “other guy” writing in the same setting.  Is it fair to compare one to the other, knowing that Esslemont and Erikson jointly created the world, characters, and stories of Malaz?  Fair or not, for me, its inevitable, at least for the time being.

I started to write that Stonewielder is a solid addition to the Malazan world, but fails to live up Erikson’s novels.  But that’s not quite right.  If Stonewielder had Steven Erikson’s name on the cover, I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more or less than I did, but I would have regarded it differently as it compares to the rest of Erikson’s Malaz books.  Its not my favorite, its not the best written, but I’d be hard pressed to say its was the worst of the bunch.  But with Esslemont’s name on the cover, my immediate reaction is to put it behind all of Erikson’s novels.

Why then my immediate reaction that Stonewielder is solid, but fails to live up to Erikson’s novels?  Simply, Esslemont “sounds” too much like Erikson in his writing and can only pale in comparison, even when his writing is a good approximation of Erikson’s.  Stonewielder reads like Erikson-lite, which is both good and bad.  The good is the relative lack of introspective, philosophical interior monologues.  (See Tolls the Hounds).  The bad is that characters, even those not shared by the authors, don’t resonate with the depth that Erikson provides.  Which is not to say the characterization is poor, just that it can’t match what Erikson does.  Many of Esslemont’s characters fall short of three-dimensional… let’s call them two-and-a-half dimensional.  I found myself having to check the Dramatis Personae when the view point shifted between characters… was Ivanr the guy with the army of reform or was he the assessor?  A strength of all the Malzan novels is a refusal to spoon-feed back-story to the reader, but oftentimes, Esslemont is too stingy with the back-story and the characters never develop an individuality so that they can be remembered.  Instead, I found myself remembering the setting and backtracking from there to recall the characters associated with that setting.  Particularly disappointing for me was the return of a much-loved (by me, at least) character from Seven Cities.  I wanted to recognize this character from his actions and words, but instead had to rely on his association with a particular ascendant and his choice of weapons to make the identification.

All that being said, Stonewielder is a good read that builds to an exciting conclusion.  The reader is reintroduced to several characters including Greymane and Kyle and several members of the Crimson Guard following the events Return of the Crimson Guard and meets several new characters.  Multiple seemingly disparate plot threads that are spread all over the previously unseen (to the reader) continent of Fist or Korel are all neatly woven into the action-packed and thought-provoking conclusion.  For fans of “stuff happening” or “stuff being explained” with respect to the overall story of Malaz, they should be happy with details about the Korelri, the Stormwall, and our old friend, the Crippled God.  But, as always with a fantasy series worth its salt, more questions are added or left unanswered than actually get answered.

3.5 stars (out of 5)

Mission Statement

OK, a mission statement is a little too grand for what I intend to do with this little corner of the web.  I’ll post my thoughts on books and sports, probably more about books than sports.  And at least 95% of the books I write about will be fantasy or science-fiction.  And the sports posts will definitely be biased towards Wisconsin teams.  In other words, I’m going to write about what I like.  I want to try writing for pleasure, instead of just for work.  Also, I think I have some interesting things to say and my wife has encouraged me to create a blog so I have somewhere to say them.  So, here it is.  I hope it turns into something interesting.

Magician: Apprentice – Review

Hoping for a quick read before the Towers of Midnight arrives (on Monday if Amazon’s track shipment is to be believed), I picked up Magician: Apprentice by Raymond E. Feist.  I just didn’t have the time or energy this week to pick up one of the K.J. Parker books sitting in my to-read pile, knowing that I was sure to get wrapped up in it and therefore either have to put off starting the Towers of Midnight or put the Parker book on hold.

The title, the 1982 copyright date, and the fact that it is “Volume 1 in the New York Times bestselling Riftwar Saga,” all led me to believe that Magician: Apprentice would be a quick moving, but slightly dated, tale of a young boy learning to be a magician.  I was hoping (for better or worse) for something that would have appealed to me as a teenager, when I was first getting into fantasy: the Belgariad, Dragons of Autumn Twilight, something of that ilk.

I enjoy the old fantasy standby of the young boy who is destined for greatness but unaware of his special powers, ancestry, gift for leadership, etc.  There’s a reason the coming of age story is a classic.  Sure, we’ve all met this character time and again: Rand al’Thor, Luke Skywalker, Garion, Harry Potter, Kvothe, Arlen.  He’s an old friend.  We know where he’s going but its a good place to go.  He’ll get into some childish scrape, use his head or heart to get out of the situation, and soon be thrust out into the wider world where he eventually takes his place as one of the most important people (if not the most important person) of his time.

Magician: Apprentice starts strong.  We meet Pug, a kitchen boy in the castle Crydee.  He gets caught in a storm and spends the night at the cottage of Kulgan, magician to Duke Borric.  Pug is able to see a vision in Kulgan’s crystal ball, alerting Kulgan to Pug’s potential as a magician.  On the day of Choosing, when the boys of Crydee are either selected as an apprentice to a tradesman or consigned to life as a farmer or fisherman, Pug is the last boy standing unselected.  Afraid his dreams of being a soldier or woodsman are about to be swept away, Pug is shocked when Kulgan takes Pug as his apprentice.  However, Pug can’t harness his magical abilities through his studies with Kulgan.  It is only in a moment of extreme terror and stress that he is able use his magic to kill goblins attacking himself and Princess Carline.

Hokey-yes.  Simple-yes, especially when compared to Martin or Erikson or even when compared to the Eye of the World.  At this point, I thought Magician: Apprentice  was going to be Pawn of Prophecy, but with more focus on the magic and less on the sword, and with much less tromping across the entire continent.  Unfortunately, this was not to be.

Instead, Magician: Apprentice takes off in a completely unexpected direction.  A warlike alien people are appearing near Crydee through “rifts” to another universe.  The Duke and a select band (which, of course, includes Pug) must set off to warn the Prince.  And in setting off to warn the Prince, Magician: Apprentice leaves behind any focus on Pug being an apprentice magician.  The focus is still on Pug, but he seems to be less of an apprentice magician and more of a young squire learning to be a soldier.  Pug’s inability to use his magic at will seriously hampers his studies as a magician, but there is much more focus on his learning to use a sword and on the type of armor he wears than on anything that resembles magic.

Pug and company tromp across the western part of a continent, sail across a sea, and meet the Prince.  Then, they must warn the King of the alien invaders.  So, Pug and company tromp across the middle part of the continent, sail across a sea and meet the King.  Then, they must return to the west to fight the alien invaders.  Thankfully, Magician: Apprentice leaves out the return sail, tromp, sail, tromp and takes the reader directly to a war camp somewhere in the northwest. It was around this point where I resigned myself to the fact that I wasn’t going to get the story I was expecting.  I expected Pug’s story to be like Harry Potter’s or Kvothe’s but with a single master magician teaching him rather than an entire magic school faculty.  I expected magicians.  I expected a focus on the master-apprentice relationship.  And I wasn’t getting these things.  Which is a problem in a book titled Magician: Apprentice.

Now, I can’t tell you if this problem gets solved in the last 100 pages or so, because I haven’t finished the book yet.  And I’m not sure if I’m going to finish Magician: Apprentice.  The title and first 100 pages or so set up one story, a coming of age story of  an apprentice magician, and what you get in the next 200 pages is a completely different story, a story of unexpected invaders.  Maybe I’d feel differently about the story of a kingdom trying to fight off unknown alien invaders, if I had seen it coming.  The change in the direction prevents the reader from having any expectations of where the story is going.  I knew where the magician’s coming of age story was going.  I picked this book up because I thought I knew where it would go.  Instead, its going somewhere else.  And I’m not sure its anywhere I’m interested in going.

1 star (out of 5)