Category: Reviews

Review: Swordheart by T. Kingfisher

This book positively sparkles with snappy dialogue as if it were a 1940s romantic comedy…but with swords, talking badger people and a possibly demonic bird.

We are back to the world of the Clockwork Boys, a few years on since the end of the Clocktaur wars. There are no shared characters but the shared fantasy setting relieves the story from having to spend time on additional world building. There are hints of broader trouble brewing but unlike the Clockwork Boys this is a less conventional fantasy quest.

Halla is a middle-aged woman whose troubles begin when she inherits a large amount of money — an event that leads her to being imprisoned by her relatives as they plot to marry her off or kill her. Enter a magic sword and the ancient swordsman trapped within: Sarkis of the Weeping Lands. The story takes Halla on a quest to get legal aid but with no shortage of encounters with religious fanatics, roadside brigands and semi-transparent jelly monsters.

Not unlike later Terry Pratchett works, the book is a very funny fantasy story but not a parody of fantasy stories. It knows and owns the fantasy tropes it uses and mines them for their funny and incongruous elements without being dismissive of them. The interplay of the two central characters is wonderful with delightful banter and sexual/romantic tension.

There are clever additions to the setting, in particular, the Order of the White Rat — a religious order that is basically a citizen’s advice bureau and pro bono lawyers. Sort of paladins or Templars but whose battlefield is court rooms and legal briefs. It is both a clever subversion (particularly given the previous book was focused on a demon hunting paladin) and makes perfect sense given the existing parameters of  the setting.

There are darker elements, particularly as more of Sarkis’s past is revealed and the themes of coercion, gas-lighting and imprisonment of Halla by her relatives are an on-going sense of menace.

Yes, yes, I know most of the people who read this blog have probably bought this and read it already but you won’t be disappointed if you haven’t. 🙂

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Doctor Who: The Witchfinders

Is the world ready for gay bad guys? Not that there’s anything new about bad people being coded as gay in popular culture (e.g. Hitchcock’s Rope or Diamonds are Forever) but how about in a more progressive age in a show that’s been accused of being ‘too PC’? Well it’s Alan Cumming and the bad guy in question is King James the Sixth/First — a man with far too many contradictions to fit into this review. Cumming ramps up the hyper-posh version of the Scottish accent to create a twinkly eyed paranoid sadist with an over-exaggerated sense of drama. That’s pretty much most of the episode, Alan Cumming has extraordinary fun as the Scottish King in an over the top performance that is very entertaining. I’d watch a Blackadder like sitcom that was just Alan Cumming as King James badly hunting witches and chatting up men.

Sandwiched either side of Alan Cumming is a story about the Doctor dealing with witch trials. The setting is Lancashire near the real-life Pendle Hill famous for a different set of witch trials. The Yorkshire-based companions of the Doctor find their worst fears confirmed, as Lancashire turns out to be occupied by frightened peasants, religious bigots and alien mud monsters. [I can’t recall any other episodes set in Lancashire, although Clara Oswald was from Lancashire]

The emphasis on historical episodes this season also means the show has adopted a sort of Prime Directive ethical imperative not to interfere with history. Luckily its a rule that the Doctor follows more in the breech than the observance.

With the Doctor having to tackle mass murder, a Satan-obsessed Alan Cumming and alien mud monsters, there isn’t much space for the three companions. Even so, they all get stuff to do and Graham gets a hat.

The final shift into a conventional alien menace plot feels a bit of a let down given the rest of the wild stuff going on prior. The alien character design this season has largely been top-notch but this was more ‘classic’ Who 🙂

Alan Cumming plays King James fighting alien mud monsters. What more can we ask for?

Ye Olde Skull & Lobster: Reading Vox Day So You Don’t Have To: Part N+1

When P.Z. Myers is cited positively and unironically by Vox Day, you know there’s something amiss with the universe. There’s heresy in the air and right-on-right attacks going down.

On the one hand, we have Jordan Peterson: transphobic right-wing purveyor of semi-coherent self-help books for people frightened by women going to university. On the other hand, we have Vox Day: a man who regards the terrorist child-murder Anders Brevik as a hero and who pushes a violent nationalism based on pseudo-scientific race theories. While we could see Peterson as at least being more moderate than Day, we can’t ignore that Peterson is a kind of gateway drug into the morass of confused thinking based on male resentment at a changing society. What Vox has in toxicity, Peterson has twice as much in reach.

Who is the more appalling of the two? Perhaps we need another candidate…

[more appalling people after the fold]

Continue reading

Proper Review of the Consuming Fire

No but really one character does swear a lot.

The sequel to The Collapsing Empire is yet another example of part 2 of a single novel. Which is an issue mainly because the first part of the book is in a sort of mid-book plot plateau. For a complete story, having a middle bit that has to spin its wheels a little while characters react to the initial action is not a bad thing. In John Scalzi’s interdependency, starships exist hyperspace flow shoots with zero momentum and are essentially stalled when they reach a new star system. Likewise the Consuming Fire is initially on impulse engines only, if not drifting in space.

There’s a lot of talking and plotting and counter-plotting that is important because this is supposed to be a world of plotting and counter-plotting. However, it feels inconsequential even at the time. Of course it is MEANT to be futile in the face of a systemic collapse of the hyperspace routes that hold the Empire together. Meanwhile, the story is plotting a new course and warming up its engines.

Don’t get me wrong, I *like* dialogue but it is a relief when the story charts a course towards a newly opened bu short lived flow shoal and heads off into some space exploration action. From this point on the novel picks up the same momentum and sparkle from the first novel. New revelations, some clever twists to the backstory and the Empereaux getting some control over her life pulls the story along to a satisfactory conclusion.

There’s plenty of set-up for the sequels but there is a definite end to this particular arc. Initially disappointed, the book finally delivers enough to make me intrigued by future stories of how the Interdependecy survives (or not).

Review: Salvation by Peter F Hamilton

In the nearish future, humanity is living prosperously with the development of portal technology that allows people to zip easily around the world or off the planet. Medicine too has advanced thanks to extraordinary treatments courtesy of some beneficent aliens who are briefly visiting our solar system in an ark ship destined for the end of the universe. A team of influential but skilled people are brought together for a mysterious investigation into what appears to be a crashed spaceship.

Meanwhile, in the far future, a team of teenagers are being trained to fight a war of survival against an alien threat that is systematically exterminating humanity.

Salvation has several common features with Dan Simmons’s Hyperion. The near future plotline is told in a Canterbury Tales-style — a set of travellers take turns telling a story from their past, with each story revealing more of the wider backstory to the events in the book. The far future plotline adopts a brutal-training-of-young-people plot to train them for a war of existence against an implacable foe.

Like other Hamilton books, the story revolves around an apparently unbeatable enemy bent on humanity’s destruction. There are sympathetic revolutionaries, corporate security bad-asses, dubious ethics and prolonged action sequences. The whole adds up to something that feels familiar without directly resembling any one book in particular. Unlike Hyperion‘s structure, each of the traveller’s tales is similar in style (near future techno-thrillers with a minor mystery in each which is tangential to the broader mystery of the crashed spaceship they are travelling towards). I found the near-future characters tended to blur into similarity, with insufficient difference between the styles of story they related and their roles within it. The arc of the far-future story felt too obvious in its overall direction but at least the characters felt more distinct.

It’s is still entertaining, Hamilton knows how to keeps a story moving and to tease a mystery but it is a very conservative experiment in structure for Hamilton. He’s been writing complex multi-character narratives for sometime but paradoxically this one felt less varied in its multiple-prespectives than usual.

Entertaining but no surprises. Book one of a series.

Review: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (Netflix 2018)

[Content warnings on violence and abuse]

It doesn’t take much to convince me to watch a Coen Brother’s movie but I’m really not sure what I watched. It’s not the violence (which is frequent) that is disturbing but the repeated air of darkness joined with strong (often sumptuous) images that combine to form a nightmare quality.

Told as a portmanteau film of six Western stories, even the structure is more reminiscent of ghost stories. That’s not to say the stories themselves are ghost stories (although the first has a man’s soul leave his body and the last one strongly hints at a supernatural events).

The settings are an intentionally confused mishmash of Western genres. An immaculately dressed singing cowboy engaged in Tarantino-esque shoot outs, aging prospectors, city-slickers, rough frontier justice and wagon trains to Oregon. The stories are each separate but the shift from one to another feels vertiginous.

This is not a deconstruction of the Western genre nor a celebration of it. Rather events sit within an uncritical and unexamined framework of the genre as different characters deal with vagaries of death and morality. In particular, Native Americans are presented simply as a recurring ‘savage’ threat — which makes sense in the context of reproducing the genre and reproducing the prejudices that informed the genre but also, therefore, reproduces the prejudices of the genre.

The most disturbing of the six stories, Meal Ticket, is an almost dialogue-free story about an actor with no limbs who performs in a tiny travelling theatre operated by an old man (Liam Neeson). Characters rarely speak to each other in the story. Instead, the spoken words are primarily the actors repeated performances (reciting ‘Ozymandis’, parts of Genesis and The Gettysburg Address). The contrast between the tiny theatre and the bleak, wintery surroundings of the frontier towns, amplifies the nightmare quality to the story, along with the repetition and looming sense of violence.

I can’t say I’d want to recommend this but I also can’t deny that the sum total of it is something I found extraordinary. It is the sort of film that gets stuck in your head both with its narratives and visuals. There’s probably not a good time or right mood for a film like this.

The Concerning Fine by Tim Catzi: Part 2 of the Colluding Umpire

Chapter 1
The Countess Moggymotheaten of the House of Moggymotheaten surveyed her surroundings on her palatial spaceship.
“F-ck, f-ck, f-ck,” she said using her customary choice of vocabulary.
“Would…” asked her lawyer and occasional ex-lover Buggles Tinternabbeygiftshop, “…you like to me to…take care of this unfortunate incident for you?”
“Of course I want you to f_cking, f-ck take f_cking, f-ck, f-ck care of f_cking it. F_ck” said the Countess.
Then for good measure she repeated the word “F_ck” sixty seven more times at varying distances from Buggles Tinternabbeygiftshop’s face.

Chapter 2
Across the Interminabledependnecy a thousand human habitations drifted through a pithy and not wholly irrelevant info dump that, with a few asides, discussed much of both the history and the underlying physics of the setting of this novel.

True, most of the population of the Interminabledependnecy already knew this, having sat through (as a largely un-talkative population) the first novel of this series and beside which they had all presumably gone to school or something, although the exact details of how these people lived is beside the point as we’ll largely be looking at the lives of particularly sweary aristocrats for several more chapters.

Chapter 3
The Emperatrix Betty Niceperson considered her options which despite the massive power of her position was highly limited. Not naturally being a sweary aristocrat left Betty Niceperson at a distinct disadvantage when negotiating with the powerful families of Interminabledependnecy. She simply did not know how to say “F_ck” with sufficient vehemence to make herself understood. She had experimented with saying “gosh darn it” but it hadn’t had the same effect.
Just then Buggles Tinternabbeygiftshop arrived with his customary vague threat from the Countess Moggymotheaten.
“I’m sorry,” explained the Emperatrix, “I’ve completely lost track of which person was my half-brother and which person was the Moggymotheaten scion I was supposed to marry and which one was trying to murder me.”
“The simple answer,” explained Buggles, “Is they are in fact all exactly the same person with different names. It’s a technical term we call SRAMP.”
“SRAMP” said Brunomars Nicechap, the Emperatrix’s pet physicist from the first book.
“Some rich arsehole merchant prince,” explained Buggles acronymically.
“I see,” said Betty,” but how does that help with the imminent collapse of the Empire?”
“It doesn’t,” explained Buggles, “I just accidentally wandered in from the earlier chapter.

Chapter 4
“F_cccckkkkkk” continued the Countess Moggymotheaten for at least another few paragraphs.

Chapter 5
Brunomars Nicechap stood in front of the crowd of angry looking space geologists.
“Please,” he pleaded, “you have to believe me that the whole Interminabledependnecy is going to collapse!”
“Of course we believe you,” said the scientists, “your math checks out and anyway the whole thing started to collapse in the last book. We aren’t idiots.”
“But, but, we’ve a whole chapter to fill with you guys not believing me.” said Brunomars Nicechap.
“Maybe we could just all sit here and check our emails instead?” suggested the scientists.
Which is what they did.

Chapter 6
“F_cccckkkkkk” continued the Countess Moggymotheaten for at least another few chapters.

Chapter 7
“What was I doing again?” asked Buggles Tinternabbeygiftshop of the Emperatrix.
“I think you were still supposed to be in chapter 1 getting orders from the Countess Moggymotheaten.” suggested Betty as nicely as possible.
“There’s not much point, she’ll be swearing for another six chapters at least.” said Buggles.
“Well we could have sex instead?” suggested Betty.
“Only if it is perfunctory and somewhat unerotic,” suggested Buggles.
“F_ck,” said the Emperatrix.

Chapter 8
Then the Interminabledependnecy collapsed.
“F_ck” said everybody.

“That’s not how you write a novel,” said Jonathon Franzen.

“F_ck off, Jonathon Franzen,” said the Countess Moggymotheaten who then crashed a spaceship into the sun.