Category: Reviews

Review: The Stone Sky by N.K.Jemisin

The Stone Sky is propelled by its own gravity. As the Earth’s lost moon returns, the massive fissure across the planet’s equator continues to spew ash and lava-hot fragments. The sky is dark and the rain is acidic and survival rests on hard choices, discipline and stonelore. Independently Essun and her lost daughter Nassun are seeking the same answers and the same powers.

As with the previous books, we have three interweaved accounts. Essun and Nassun form two, continuing from the events of The Obelisk Gate. The third takes us thousands of years into the past, to an apparent utopia with a dark past, on the brink of creating unlimited power through the creation of gemstone obelisks.

In my first rambling review of The Fifth Season, while I was trying to get my head around a story that left me feeling shaken and awestruck, I talked about how utopian fiction is connected both to dystopian fiction but also apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. In Western literature, Plato’s Atlantis myth lurks at the root of each of them. For Plato Atlantis was a model of a better society, for modern readers that society and the rigid stratification of roles in Plato’s Republic can be seen as the prototype of fascism and fascist-like models that have plagued us for millennia.[ETA I mangled Plato somewhat there – conflating Atlantis with Plato’s ideal of ancient Athens. Apologies :)] In modern popular culture, Atlantis has been reimagined again as a parable of hubris or the sin of Frankenstein – letting intellectual desire surpass moral constraints.

Syl Anagist is N.K.Jemisin’s synthesis of the Atlantean tropes, less clearly regimented than the society of the Stillness we see thousands of years later, but still dangerous and brutal and willing to treat people as tools and objects. Syl Anagist is the source of the “Dead Civ” remains scattered through the first two books. Beautiful and majestic and replete with wonders, it is both a city, a nation and the whole world. We are constantly reminded that in Syl Anagist life is sacred.

It is no spoiler to say that Syl Anagist is doomed. The chapters detailing its demise are numbered as a count down, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. We know that the Earth will lose the moon and that the planet will become the tectonically seasonal monster of The Fifth Season. The fantasy elements (magical powers, sentient rocks) of the story become more distinct, while the science fictional elements (futuristic cities, incredible technology) become more overt. The human tragedy becomes more intense.

The future world, the one in which most of the books is set, has descended further into physical disaster. The former community of Castrima is now a band of refugees heading towards an empty city in a brutal march which many won’t survive. In a different novel, this struggle would be an account of good and evil but Jemisin avoids treating even monstrous people as monsters. There is no character that appears in any one of the trilogy who is not granted some compassion by the writer – not Schaffa the murderous guardian, nor Jija the child murdering father. Yet this compassion is not at the expense of a strong moral centre to the story and a channelled anger at the use of hate to dehumanise and to brutalise a society.

Is The Stone Sky as good as the previous books? I’m not sure the question can be answered or makes sense. It can’t possibly have the same impact as The Fifth Season but it feels to me like the right end to the trilogy. There is a sense of understanding of the world by the end of the book that feels like a resolution even though some questions remain. I’m not sure if the conflict between the Stone Eater factions is clear to me, nor am I entirely clear about the nature of the Guardians. However, some of that comes from reading too quickly.

It is not a happy end to the trilogy but it is a good end and an end that is not devoid of hope.

Review: The Defenders (Netflix) – minimal spoilers

inside-out-emotions-groupImagine Pixar’s Inside Out but for grown-ups – each character represents one of the four key emotions: Guilt, Petulance, Sarcasm and Luke Cage. Luke Cage is an emotion now or at least he should be – some sort of combination of every positive association with masculinity you might want, with a deeply smooth voice and an excellent soundtrack. In the early episodes at least, the soundtrack shifts whenever the focus is on Luke Cage – perhaps it does that for the other Defenders as well and we just don’t notice.

The colour scheme between Inside Out and The Defenders doesn’t quite match (there’s no blue defender) but they each have their own, which play out in the titles but also cleverly on screen. Daredevil red, Cage yellow, Iron Fist green and Jones purples – which is a bit unfair to Jessica Jones in that she gets her colour defined by her archenemy. Hiding out in a Chinese Restaurant, the four Marvel superheroes of Netflix’s gritty MCU-connected shows, initially have the neon lights of each of their colours casting shadows in the background.

But red is the main colour of the show because really this is a sequel to Daredevil season 2 and to a lesser extent Iron Fist season 1. If you liked either of those two or found them at least watchable then you’ll enjoy The Defenders. If you’ve only enjoyed Jessica Jones, then you may find the show less rewarding. I’m avoiding spoilers but I think it is no surprise to say that the immortal Ninja clan The Hand are the main villains – so the story connects most tightly with Daredevil and The Iron Fist. That isn’t to say Luke Cage and Jessica Jones don’t get plenty of screen time, just that the story isn’t particularly their territory.

Less brutal than Daredevil and less silly than Iron Fist, the show does strike a decent balance. However, where Daredevil 1, Jessica Jones and Luke Cage all dealt with threats that operated on a personal and social level, The Defenders is more conventional fare: evil people are up to no good and need to be stopped. Mind you, when the chief baddy is Sigourney Weaver that’s not such a bad thing.

Fight scenes are impressive and the pacing is good. The story is sort of silly but in a good way. But the main event is comic-book tradition: superheroes team up! The comic-canon combination of Luke Cage and Iron Fist works quite nicely – Danny Rand is still the same shallow character from the previous series but Cage makes him look more like an over-eager sidekick who is capable of personal growth.

Unfortunately, the strong supporting cast from the related shows get less chance to shine in what is already a crowded cast. I’d hoped that Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) would get a stronger role, given her appearance in each of the other Marvel Netflix shows but inevitably she has to take a backseat to the main superheroes.

Worth my Netflix subscription for this month? Yup.

Season Final! The Book Club Roundtable Discussion Club Non-Audio Podcast Club

atomicavatar[FIRST WITCH] When shall we three meet again? In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

strawpupavatar[SECOND WITCH] When the hurly-burly’s done, When the podcast’s lost and won.

timavatar[THIRD WITCH] That will be ere the set of sun.

atomicavatar[FIRST WITCH] Where the place?

strawpupavatar[SECOND WITCH] Upon this blog.

timavatar[THIRD WITCH] There to meet with Camestros.

atomicavatar[FIRST WITCH] I come, Graymalkin.

atomicavatarstrawpupavatartimavatar[ALL] Fair is foul, and foul is fair, Hover through the fog and filthy air.

camavatar[Camestros] OK people! Today we FINISH this. Susan – ready?

susanavatar[Susan] Ready!

camavatar[Camestros] Timothy – ready?

timavatar[Timothy] Locked and loaded.

camavatar[Camestros] OK viewers,

susanavatar[Susan] listeners

camavatar[Timothy] readers

strawpupavatar[Straw Puppy] Woof

atomicavatar[Mr Atomic] …cleaning…

camavatar[Camestros] welcome to the final episode of this season of the Book Club Roundtable Review Club Non-Audio Podcast Club!

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Review: Killjoys (Syfy, Netflix)

Canadian television – apologies to Canada but while there must be Canadian TV shows I can’t think of any. The shadow of the TV behemoth south of the Canadian border looms large. So a Canadian answer to Firefly doesn’t immediately sound likely. [eta: apologies to Canada, I’d forgotten about Orphan Black among others]

I watched a couple of episodes of Season 1 initially, just because it appeared on the list of things people were nominating for a Dragon Award (it didn’t get onto the final ballot) but not long after it also got a positive write up in the Guardian.

Those first episodes were not great though and I pretty much decided not to bother watching the rest of the series. Then, once again bored on a train too noisy to read comfortably and having exhausted all available episodes of Rick and Morty, I watched some more and…it got better.

The initial premise of the show was this. On a planetary system with a bunch of human colonised moons (known as the Quad), a kind of freelance, bounty-hunting, law enforcement agency called the RAC catches (or sometimes kills) wanted criminals. The bounty hunters are known as Killjoys because “joys” are the local currency and they (occasionally) kill people. At the start of the season, the two main characters are a two person team Dutch (an ex-assassin) and Johnny Jaqobi (a less amoral and more geeky pilot) as well as their (stolen) spaceship/AI Lucy. The initial episodes involved the arrival of Johnny’s brother Da’vin into the system, an ex-soldier with psychological trauma.

While not terrible, it also wasn’t great. The three main actors were good, in particular, Hannah John-Kamen as Dutch managed to stop her role as sexy-badass-assassin from being actively bad and say corny lines with conviction. The stories themselves were a bit dull (mainly catch the baddy of the week) and while the premise of the show was original it all somehow felt terribly derivative. The Firefly DNA was obvious but also a heap of tropes from everywhere and everything just piled up together in the apparent hope that something would stick. Dutch’s backstory as a child raised to be a deadly killer who got away from that life etc smacked of a show that wanted depth just by throwing tragedy at its characters.

Episode 5, the midway point of Series 1, managed the first story that had some real strength. The crew find a derelict space ship, climb aboard to get the salvage and find things that aren’t what they seem. A decent episode with enough twists and nasty premise but also a bit of shift in direction.

From that point on the show spent more time on the bigger story arcs, let the three main characters play off against each other with both more humour and emotions and it got better.

It still tries too hard for ‘cool’ and ‘sexy’ and doesn’t always manage to hit its target of Wheedon-style humour. Given it also wants gritty, violent and central characters with a past of psychological trauma, it also sails into consequences of plots that it doesn’t always handle well (in particular, without giving spoilers, violence between people after a sexual relationship). However, even then it is clearly trying to navigate issues in a way that is positive.

Although it doesn’t have much in common storywise with Torchwood, Killjoys finds itself often in that same tonal-minefield. Violence, sex, psychological abuse, mixed with questions about torture, life-or-death decisions and hitting the not-nice SF tropes around mind control and consent is heavy stuff…and mixing that with quips and comradery doesn’t always work. But like Torchwood, it often finds a route through and a strong cast keeps it going.

Season 2 is much stronger by being more willing to accept that ‘space bounty hunters’ is a pretext for a show rather than a basis for each episode. Conspiracies, ancient warrior monks, super-soldiers, green goo, it piles on the silliness with confidence that a show like this needs over the top story lines and thinks that don’t make sense if you think about them for too long.

Should you watch it? Lots of fight scenes. Fans of classic Doctor Who will enjoy the frequent use of old quarries repurposed as different planets (sorry ‘moons’). The bad guys are an evil corporation and rich people. Lots of shooting. Episodes 1 to 4 of season1 are a bit meh, after that stronger but sometimes more problematic.

Season 3 is apparently airing or will be soon but is not yet on Netflix.

Pod the Third of The Book Club Roundtable Discussion Club Non-Audio Podcast Club

Der Untergang der Titanic

Live Podcast Coverage

camavatar[Camestros] Welcome back, loyal viewers!

timavatar[Timothy] (listeners)

strawpupavatar[Straw Puppy] (woof)

camavatar[Camestros] This is the exciting third episode of the Book Club Roundtable Review Club Non-Audio Podcast Club. A bit of a change in the roster this week. Susan can’t make it and Timothy’s long term collaborator and all-round trickster Straw Puppy is here to take her place. Welcome on board Straw Puppy.

strawpupavatar[Straw Puppy] woof

timavatar[Timothy] Ha, ha, great joke there Pups.

camavatar[Camestros] Sooooo, we still seem to be stuck reading Run Star: Realms Rescue…

timavatar[Timothy] Correction, Dragon Award Nominated Star Realms: Rescue Run.

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Review: Cleverman (Season 2)

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Aboriginal superhero series just finished its six-part second series last week. Ambitious and challenging it has made several changes from the first series and was overall more in command of its own style and approach.

To recap. In a country that appears to be Australia (more on that later), the urban population are dealing with the emergence of a different kind of human. Dubbed “hairies” or “subhumans”, these people had been living in small numbers deep in the bush but recently many had moved to the city. With distinctive hair and extra strength and speed, the reaction of the government has been one of fear resulting in the hairies being rounded up and separated from the rest of the population.

In season 1, the focus was on the inner-city district in which the hairies were contained, living side by side with the city’s Aboriginal population. Warru West, an Aboriginal (Gumbaynggirr) community leader was acting as community manager for the population. Meanwhile his half-brother Koen is running a bar and also a shady sideline involving people smuggling. Things change for both of them when Uncle Jimmy West (played by the inimitable Jack Charles) intentionally has himself killed by a supernatural monster and bequeaths his role as “Cleverman” to Koen rather than Warru.

Season 1 spent a lot of time on backstory and establishing the relationships between characters. At the start of Season 2, Warru had betrayed his own family and principles and is working with the increasingly oppressive government. Koen, on the other hand, has accepted that he now has both powers and responsibilities but is unclear how to deal with either.

Aside from the overall improvement in pacing, Season 2 has developed in multiple ways:

  • The overall setting is now more clearly its own alternate world – the City is to Sydney as Metropolis is to New York. The emphasis visually is on very modern buildings (even when showing suburban houses) to create an impression of a very sterile and alienating place. This alt-Australia setting was there in Season 1 in retrospect but now it is much clearer and hence less jarring that the whole socio-political conflict of humans v hairies is apparently confined to just one city.
  • The CGI monster that played a role in Season 1 was also killed in Season 1 and hasn’t been replaced. There are still times when the show falls into the Doctor Who trap of nearly-but-not-quite good enough special effects when a more low-key approach may have been just as effective. However, I think the showrunners are getting more adept at creating a sense of magic.
  • The show is using more locations and there is more sense of movement. In particular, great use was used of the natural bushland in this season.

Yes, it is still far from perfect but mainly through the difference between its ambition and the capacity to carry all the themes in a six-hour series.

Review: Dunkirk (2017)

The star of the film is time and Christopher Nolan presents another cinematic inquiry into the subject. Whereas Memento weaved two timelines together (one forward, one backwards) and Inception embedded nested timelines within each other, Dunkirk takes three timelines and shows them in parallel but each one following a different cinematic approach to time. He does this overtly, telling us in text which timeline is which and over what span of time they run:

  • The Mole – a week
  • The Sea – a day
  • The Air – an hour

But where Memento and Inception use time partly as a gimmick and partly to explore questions about the mind, Nolan uses time here to create a near constant sense of panic and urgency. Behind that is a film score that uses orchestral tension and incessant ticking to maintain the mounting urgency.

Each of the three stories focuses on a different aspect of Dunkirk. The scenario is offered with minimal explanation – neither Germany nor the Nazis are ever mentioned and “the enemy” is never shown as a person. Only anonymous bombers or torpedoes are shown, as well as occasional gun fire.

But the de-personalisation extends partly to the British soldiers on the beach. They appear to have been intentionally cast to be nearly interchangeable – floppy haired and gangly. Even Cillian Murphy is not immediately recognisable. Likewise in the “Air” story, the Spitfire pilots remain masked for most of the film. Kenneth Branagh is the only recognisable actor for most of the film.

Only with the Sea timeline does Nolan let much characterization appear, as the civilian crew take their small boat across the channel as part of the flotilla of little ships that eventually aid in the rescue of the British Expeditionary Force.

The film touches on notions of bravery and fear but they rarely take centre stage. The emphasis is on people desperately coping with disaster. The near constant threat of drowning adds to the sometimes oppressive atmosphere of panic, as soldiers find themselves escaping sinking ships.

The final third of the film brings the three timelines together, as we start to see events repeated from different perspectives, and stories interacting.

The film takes no stance on war if anything the depersonalisation of the conflict makes the events look more like some sort of natural disaster. Only in the closing parts of the film is there a sense of history or victory or sentimentality in the events.

Extraordinarily well filmed.