Spoiler Filled Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)




I have posted a spoiler-free review of Star Wars the Force Awakens already, so if you still haven’t seen it you might prefer to read that than read this spoiler-filled review.

If you have seen it just skip down to the bold title below.  This whole section is just to prevent people seeing spoilers.

Seriously, this one has spoilers in it.

For those that don’t want to read spoilers you need to look away.

Not kidding here.

There are spoilers below.


Alright then, I think I have done my due diligence in trying to prevent spoilers unknowingly ruining someone’s day.  If not, then at least I tried.

Spoiler-Filled Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)
<With more than a little snark… ok a lot of snark… and some ranty grumbling>


There is a line from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) that sum up the experience of watching the new Star Wars film.
‘I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?’
The Force Awakens just leaves you feeling whelmed.  Or, in modern parlance, meh.  In fact a friend of mine suggested it was really Star Wars: The Requel given its uneasy status as both reboot and sequel.  Alternatively, we could call it Star Wars: The Next Generation.  Part of this was due to the unsustainable hype and level of expectation built up before the film’s release, and partly due to the nostalgia tinted glasses with which we view the originals.  But the bottom line is, if you liked Star Wars: A New Hope you will like this… because it is the same film.

Or, as I more politely and tactfully said in my original Spoiler Free review:

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens JJ Abrams had a nearly impossible task, he had to please old fans and acquire new ones, pay homage to the old films, undo the errors of the prequels, and yet also create a new Star Wars for the new generation.  The film had to appeal to children and adults alike and therefore had to indulge the older fan’s nostalgia but not let it dominate the storytelling, have enough action and visual effects to entertain today’s jaded youth but refrain from the frenetic screen clutter that plagued the prequels making the actions sequences migraine inducing blurs of sound and light, and, above all else, launch a new mythic storyline.  Given that this was not just a film but also part of a multi-billion dollar media franchise and of one of the most beloved film franchises of the modern age, to say expectations were high is perhaps a bit of an understatement.

So because anticipation was so great, because expectations were so ridiculously high, it should come as little surprise when I say that The Force Awakens is a mixed bag.  It isn’t terrible, and it isn’t amazing.  It had its high points and it had its weak moments.  There were some great lines and some misses.  In Abrams’ defence, no matter what he produced it was not going to be able to please all the fans all the time, so I am actually surprised at how much I enjoyed this.  If we are measuring it solely against the prequels then in this regard Abrams cleared it with a parsec to spare.  Against the original Star Wars: A New Hope… that is a more complex comparison.


Let’s start with the good.  Sitting in the cinema, the screen darkens, the lights go out, the logos appear and then… STAR WARS accompanied by Williams’ iconic overture.  In that one moment of giddy excitement you relive the first time you saw Star Wars.  Get used to that feeling, well not the excitement part, because for the next two hours you are going to feel like you are, in fact, re-watching Star Wars: A New Hope with a dash of Empire and sprinkling of Jedi, but not in a good way.


But I said I would start with the good, so we shall carry on with that.  Firstly, it sounds fantastic.  It has the John Williams score so it sounds like Star Wars, and he has reworked some of the themes and tracks to give a Star Wars feel to the new characters.  But, perhaps more importantly, The Force Awakens has Ben Burtt’s sound effects all cleaned up for the modern audience.  The TIE Fighters engines scream, and their lasers whine, while the X-Wings have their own jet-engine roar and the blatt blatt of their blasters.  There is the familiar snap hiss of lightsabers followed by their distinctive crackle.  BB-8 has cutesy droid noises that are similar to, but separate from, R2-D2’s chirruping.  Stormtrooper laser blasts vie with the distinctive fire from the Rebel Alliance Resistance blasters.  These sound effects, more than anything else, really give you a sense of the Star Wars universe.  The ships and costuming can change, either dramatically or subtly, but as long as it sounds ‘right’ I can forgive a lot.

Actually the costuming was pretty great too.  The Stormtroopers have been revamped slightly but are still recognisable in their iconic white armour with black trim.  Rey’s desert robes are sufficiently desert-y.  The rebel Resistance pilots wear the familiar orange flight suits.  Han Solo has the same outfit on that he had thirty years ago.  Chewie still has no pants.  The First Order officers look sufficiently like Nazis/Imperial officers that we can’t fail to make the connection between them and EVIL™.   And Kylo Ren has the black helmet, the sweeping cloak, and clearly the best tailor in the galaxy.  No one says being evil means you have to dress poorly, and let’s face it the Sith have always been snappier dressers than the Jedi.


Speaking of how it looks, it is pretty.  It is by far the best looking of all the Star Wars films.  Abrams utilises CGI to enhance and supplement the practical effects and tries not to let them completely dominate the screen.  This is especially true in the action sequences, particularly the dog fights and the X-Wing trench run attack run (yes, another one, only this time the trench is a lot shorter) on the third Deathstar Starkiller Base to target a tiny over-looked weakness in the base design.

[Side note: At some point someone is going to execute all the structural and military engineers at the Sith Academy… or at least let them go with extreme prejudice.  Once is a mistake, twice is carelessness, but three times?  That is outright criminal negligence.]

While the digitally re-mastered versions of the original trilogy and the prequels were slathered in gobs of CGI that obscured or obfuscated the action, Abrams actually showed some real restraint.  Even the dreaded lens flare that blinded Star Trek audiences in recent years was scarce.  There seemed to be enough on the screen to denote action and ‘epic space battle’ but not so much flashing rubbish that you couldn’t follow the action sequences or run the risk of triggering photosensitive epilepsy.  Abrams also tried to have the camera follow one main actor or moving piece at a time so that the audience’s weary eyes could actually track the action.  For the most part he succeeds, and this results in far more interesting action scenes that engage the audience.


There were also some beautiful cinematic landscape shots, particularly in the early scenes of the young Luke Rey scavenging from the old AT-ATs and ruined star ships crashed around the desert planet of Tatooine Jakku.  As Rey enters Mos Eisley Niima Outpost Abrams has thankfully done away with the slapstick CGI comedy that cluttered the screen in the re-mastered New Hope and gone with predominantly physical effects to give a lived in and distressed look to the settlement.  It actually looks like a crappy outpost in the arse end of nowhere.  The move of the cantina Maz Kanata’s bar from Mos Eisley to the forested Yavin 4 Takodana adds a little variety to the landscapes depicted in the film.  As does the inclusion of the snowy wastes of Hoth Starkiller Base.  Unfortunately no equivalent of Cloud City and Bespin featured heavily, so I am sure they are saving that for the next one.


Another positive was the slightly more diverse casting of this film.  Rather than the usual selection of pale white faces intermixed with strange aliens, we get to see a couple of non-white actors… on screen… in potentially important roles… That sure is a lot of progress.  Huh, I think my sarcasm font isn’t working.  But seriously, it was great seeing John Boyega emerge from the blood splattered Stormtrooper helmet and show a human face inside the armour.  The weird way that a laser blast through a fellow Stormtrooper’s armour (presumably cauterising and burning a wound) allows him to smear his facemask with blood might seem an extraordinarily convenient way to mark Finn out for the scene, but it seems harsh to pick at such an unsightly and easy plot scab.  While the transition of FN-2187 to Finn might have felt a little uneven and rushed, Boyega was pretty good on screen and created a likeable and surprisingly complex character that had feet of clay.  Certainly Boyega has laid the groundwork for Finn to develop far more fully in the later instalments of the franchise.  Hmmm that might be a very useful phrase for this film… ‘lays the groundwork for the future instalments’ and the second part of that phrase, ‘rather than giving us a complete film in and off itself this time around.’


Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, the greatest pilot in the galaxy (as we are told at least three times) was underused in this film.  Isaac is clearly capable of great performances, but there was just no room in the script for him or his character apart from a couple of short scenes and the odd flight shot.  His torture scene at the hands of Kylo Ren, in no way reminiscent of Leia being questioned by Vader in A New Hope or Solo being tortured in Cloud City, wasn’t the best opportunity to showcase Isaac’s acting skills but he still manages to turn the scene into something memorable.  In fact, Isaac did his damndest to steal every scene he was in with infectious devil-may-care charm and some smouldering looks that may have been aimed at Finn rather than Rey.  Could Star Wars finally have an openly gay hero?  Probably not, but we can always hope.  But as the stand-in for the new generation’s Han Solo Isaac put in a good performance, and it bodes well for the future that Abrams kept him in instead of killing him off… ‘laying the groundwork for the future instalments’.  Admittedly, it would have been nice to not constantly be told that he was the greatest pilot in the galaxy and simply shown that, but perhaps such subtlety was lost on the editing room floor in order to carve out more space for needless fan service and homages to the original trilogy.


Rey, The Force Awakens’ Luke Skywalker stand-in, is ably played by Daisy Ridley.  Her initial wordless scenes demonstrated her ability to convey character and emotion without the need of dialogue, which says a lot about her acting chops and Abrams’ direction.  Unfortunately, for no real reason, she has a strong English accent, despite the fact that no character on the planet around her has a similar one.  Apparently some accents are just genetically predetermined.  She presents a fascinating character and it is great to have a female hero Jedi-in-training on the big screen and in live action.  If as much care had been given to her later scenes as those early ones, this would have been a far superior film, albeit with fewer scenes stolen directly from the original trilogy.  Given that Abrams was cramming so much into this film, Rey’s force sensitivity blooming into full-on command of the force felt rushed, not because of the character of Rey, or Ridley’s portrayal, but because Abrams didn’t give the character the room to breathe.


I am really looking forward to seeing her in action in the later films when she gains even more control over her considerable force powers as she clearly ‘laid the foundations for development in future instalments’.  For those that think she learned the Force far too quickly, there is a great scene when Kylo Ren is torturing her and you see her watch what he is doing and learn from it.  And, later, she attunes herself to the Force, giving herself to it, and we witness her channel it.  Again, Ridley portrays this wonderfully on–screen without unnecessary dialogue… then again, considering the number of people complaining about this maybe the dialogue laying everything out for the audience wasn’t completely unnecessary.  I liked it though.


Han, Chewie and Leia are back! Well sort of.  Don’t get me wrong, seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca stride aboard the Millenium Falcon (despite the absurd coincidence) was fantastic.  It made no sense and was completely out of place, but it was still a great moment.  Just in case fans didn’t get their A New Hope fill with that one particular moment we also have shots of the holographic chess game and a target drone.  And Rey and Finn hiding in the smuggling compartments.  And the earlier scene in which Finn fires the quad lasers at TIE Fighters which is clearly completely different to the almost identical scene in A New Hope because it is in a planet’s atmosphere and not space.  And a later scene of it needing repairs.  But seriously, those moments of fan service were not completely wasted, just a little redundant, and felt more like copies rather than homages.  Time on these scenes could have perhaps been better spent on more original content rather than re-hashing the plot and scenes of A New Hope.


So despite the ridiculously tenuous reason for the Millenium Falcon to be on Jakku, and apparently the only Corellian freighter still flying in the Galaxy, and the billion to one shot that Solo could track it as soon as it left the atmosphere from light years away… it was still great to see it.  I mean, it just wouldn’t have been the same if it had been a different junked up Corellian freighter on Jakku that Rey and Finn flew away, and that Solo and Chewbacca had found them and used parts from it to repair the Falcon.  That would have been close to believable and clearly believable, rational, or even ‘likely, have no place in this film.  It isn’t so much that the coincidences in this film are absolutely, mind-bogglingly, astronomically staggering, (it is a film that has science fiction wizards with laser swords after all) it is the fact that not a single person seems to think that the coincidences are at all noteworthy.  Plot convenience can excuse some level of quirky twists of fate, but some discretion or even half-hearted attempt at believability would have been nice.


Speaking of sins of convenience of ridiculous proportions, wasn’t it handy that Luke’s lightsaber turns up in Obi Wan Kenobi’s trunk in the one bar that Rey, Han et al decide to swing by?  It is not as if hundreds of Jedi were killed across the Galaxy during the Empire’s purge and that she could have found anyone’s lightsaber just then.  Or that Kylo Ren could have taken it and kept it as a keepsake on his nightstand next to the melted face mask of his grandfather.  Nope, Rey has to find Luke’s ancient lightsaber that has been knocking around for decades but is thankfully still fully charged and in excellent working order.  And it was helpfully stored in Obi Wan’s travel trunk, that at some point after his death, Luke had gone back to Tatooine to collect, then deliver to a bar owner on a different planet.  Uh huh.  That isn’t a fan Easter egg, that is a staggering series of unlikely events.  Plus, it was lucky that both a resistance informant and a First Order informant were drinking in that exact bar and had enough cell phone coverage to contact their various bosses, light years away I might add, in a manner that is coincidentally reminiscent of Garindian informing on Han and Luke et al in Mos Eisley.  I mean, in that case he just contacted the local guard post, so it made sense, but here we have interplanetary communications that result in both sides arriving at near identical times.  That is some grand happenstance right there.


The meeting between Leia and Solo was an emotional one that surprisingly missed the opportunity to reprise their famous exchange.  When Solo was leaving I was expecting him to say ‘I love you’ and for Leia to respond ‘I know’.  But clearly Abrams though that copying that scene would be stealing too much from the earlier film… either that or the inversion of the dialogue was too original.  Hard to tell.  But, seeing as Chewie does not go to comfort Leia after Solo’s death, nor she to him, it is possible that their estrangement was rougher than was shown.  It made far more sense for random people she doesn’t know and who didn’t really know Han to show emotion in that scene.  Although, this could possibly be foreshadowing the future films by laying a foundation that Rey is in fact Leia and Han’s daughter, the twin of Kylo Ren.  They just abandoned her on a desert planet to be raised by strangers because that actually worked out well for Luke.  Sorry, I am still meant to be on the good things about the film.  Han Solo and Chewie are in it.  We also get a couple of scenes in which Han tries out Chewie’s bowcaster gun that he has been carrying around for nearly over thirty years that apparently Han has never fired, or even seen fired.  It was cool to see though.


I was disappointed by how little Carrie Fisher got to do in the film.  Given the amount of time that Solo and Chewie were on screen, it would have been nice to see Leia be a bit more hands on, and show us what a bad-ass general she is.  But perhaps they are just laying the foundations for the future instalments.  As it is, her appearance feels like a wasted cameo inserted solely to appease the fans.  I mean they have a female Jedi-wannabe, why would they add another significant female character that could demonstrate strong leadership skills, a forceful (geddit?) personality and be a bad ass general to boot?   Instead she is pretty much relegated to Hans ex-squeeze, Kylo Ren’s ex-Mom, and has Mon Mothma level dialogue.  If Chewie needs a new co-pilot I am voting her.  Rey can hang out in back and fix the ship and shoot the guns.  I want Leia up front and calling all the shots.  But she does figure as part of the heart of this film for the older fans.  I am not sure what the younger and newer fans will make of her.


And oddly enough that that brings us to the bad ‘guys’.  Before diving in with the main adversaries, let’s have a moment to talk about Captain Phasma.  A bad-ass Stormtrooper Captain, who wears really cool chrome armour, leads Finn’s squad, and her… yes I said her… we have  female Stormtrooper everyone… and her main job is to tell Finn off.  That’s it.  But because she doesn’t chastise him enough, or send him to the naughty step, he runs away to join the Rebelllion Resistance, thus laying the blame for what happens almost solely at the feet of about the only female Stormtrooper we have ever knowingly seen in Star Wars.  To make matters worse, she is solely responsible for turning off the shields of the entire planet from that one tiny control room, that is conveniently located next to where Rey is being held, and near the thing the Resistance have to blow up… all on a planet sized base.  Is that lucky or what?  I sincerely hope that she turns up in the later ones, because she was criminally underused, and was definitely more intriguing than General Hux.  Is anyone else getting the feeling that female characters are getting short shrift in this series… again?  Although I should point out that there are a couple of female officers knocking around on both the First Order side and the Resistance side.  I don’t think we get their names, or even significant dialogue from them, but at least they are there.  The Resistance even has a couple of female pilots, although I am guessing that they earn about 70 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts.


Before getting to General Ranty McShoutyface we need to talk about Kylo Ren, Discount Vader Darth Vader Jr. Darth Emo Emo Vader AKA Ben Solo.  I thought that the prequels had cornered the market on angst ridden, overly emotional, mewling, whining, Sith teenagers.  Apparently I was wrong.  When we first meet him Kylo Ren is menacing.  The face mask, the breathing, the weirdly modulated voice, the scary lightsaber, the cool force powers, dressed all in black and flanked by the faceless Stormtrooper hordes in contrasting white.  Damn that guy was scary.  He was cold, cruel, pragmatic, and a galactic bad ass.  He orders the murder of civilians without breaking a sweat.  He freezes a laser bolt in time without blinking.  He was the villain we all wanted to hate and fear.  Then he takes off the helmet and lo and behold the worst helmet hair in history and has the self-control of a puppy in heat spotting a nearby leg, thereby becoming the villain we all simply hate.


Even long ago, in a galaxy far, far away they must have had conditioner.   Apparently the Empire’s First Order’s mission is to locate a hair products factory in order to sate the styling needs of their young Sitholescent.  Either that or the helmet has magical powers to tame the worst mane of hair and to regulate his emotionally charged outbursts.  I understand that the Sith are meant to be slaves to their emotions, or something like that, but really?  His temper tantrums and ranting delivery of spittle inflected lines made me long for him to put the helmet back on again and glue it there.  Admittedly it did lead to one of the best moments of the film when two Stormtroopers see the ranting down the hall and just turn around and leave him to it.  I like to think those troopers were called Steve and Bob and they headed off to have some coffee by the water cooler, talk about their day and complain about their psychotic boss… before being blown up by the Resistance.


I am not particularly familiar with Adam Driver, but I have to imagine that he has turned in more nuanced performances than this.  Actually, I know he can, because the scenes when he is wearing the helmet are great.  So I lay the blame for his scene chewing, whingeing solely at the feet of the director who apparently said ‘cut, that was great.’  In the original films we saw Vader use controlled anger and occasionally lash out.  We saw the Emperor cackle with evil, sadistic glee.  We saw how the dark side uses emotions and amplifies the negative ones.  We didn’t really hear about how Palpatine’s mum and dad never really loved him enough, or didn’t understand him.  I know, I know, he is meant to be evoking the brooding Anakin from the prequels, but why resurrect that mess?  Anger, rage, wrath, these are dark side emotions that can be channelled into a chilling performance as we see in the scenes when he is wearing the mask.  When the mask was off I kept waiting for him to offer to read some of his poetry about being misunderstood.  Poetry that he wrote in a black notebook, that had black pages, and that he wrote on in black ink.  And that he recites while he smokes some French cigarettes and drinks organic espresso.


And while the scene with Ren confronting and killing his father on the bridge over the giant pit was clearly completely and utterly different to Vader confronting Luke in Empire… nope, apparently the sarcasm font is not working again.  What would have made that scene better would have been if the outcome hadn’t been so heavily telegraphed.  I don’t think anyone in the cinema was shocked to see Ren kill Solo except for the fact that Solo is a hero and we are conditioned to expect them always to live.  I mean it is not as if a previous Star Wars film had an older mentor figure allow himself to be killed near the end by a Sith while the young Jedi apprentice watches…oh wait.  Well at least they didn’t follow that up with them blowing up the massively powerful, completely indestructible base by exploiting its one tiny flaw… damnit, not again.  And despite this Abrams couldn’t find the space for the ‘I know’ line.  Placing the scene in a bigger room, with a longer bridge and inverting the reveal to basically, ‘I am your son’ doesn’t really make it an original scene.  It barely qualifies as a fig leaf to cover the plagiarism.  I get it.  The whole of Star wars represents this cyclical problem that, until the Force is balanced, will keep repeating itself.  A bit like Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  I know that Ren is meant to be channelling Anakin, to be an echo of that character.  But just because it is a deliberate copy doesn’t excuse the fact that it is blatantly a copy and therefore unoriginal.   I know it is a story ‘cycle’ but that doesn’t mean you have to take it literally.


But Kylo Ren is not the only bad guy, we also have Grand Moff Tarkin Jr. General Shouty McNutbar General Hux, a man-child who can chew more scenery than an entire mound of termites in a sound stage, and has the ability to make sour faces at the drop of a hat.  It is like an evil Ron Weasley is in charge of the Deathstar.  It wasn’t that I didn’t find Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of Hux unwatchable, far from it, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  It was that I couldn’t believe for a second that he had survived long enough to be a general in an army and no one had ‘accidentally’ dropped a live grenade at his feet.  If there is a dark Sith Lord overmaster in control of all this and manipulating everything, why the hell would he put this clearly unhinged, whiney, adolescent, nutbar in control of a vast military force?  Not only that, but his best mate is a sociopathic killer with exceptionally poor impulse control and anger issues.  So the fact that Hux never got a lightsaber to the face/back/chest/vital organ of your choice, is even more ludicrous than the contrived plot device to get Han and Chewie back on the Falcon.


In Gleeson’s defence, he wasn’t exactly given many subtle scenes, and the whole Nuremberg rally scene begged for spittle-loaded ranting.  But when we compare him to the subtle menace and sadism of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, a very similar role… very similar… like really, really similar… Gleeson doesn’t really come off well.  But, again, I think that this one can be laid at the feet of the director saying, ‘awesome take. But can you do the next one with more insane, eye-rolling, ranting and perhaps a bit more spittle?’


To round out the baddies we have holographic Emperor Voldemort, Darth Gollum, mysterious Sith master and debunker of urban myths, Snopes.  Sorry, that should be Snoke. Supreme Leader Snoke in fact.  Not just any leader, but the Supreme leader.  Diana Ross being unavailable of course.  Apparently Emperor Snoke would be too on the nose… if he had one.  Unfortunately Andy Serkis is a bit of a victim of his own success.  You want a guy to hiss and cackle in a motion capture suit, call Andy.  Admittedly he has worked pretty hard to make Snoke completely different to Gollum, but the CGI department didn’t get the memo that said to stay clear of Voldemort rip-offs and so he ends up being less distinctive or mysterious as a villain than the Emperor was.  So his performance is perhaps influenced by things far beyond his control.  His character does beg the question though, just why is it that behind every bad guy there is another bad guy who is old, brooding, and spends all his time training up pawns?  If we go behind him is there another even older guy?  Rumours are, of course, flying around that this is Darth Plagueis or perhaps even a clone of the old Emperor.  To be honest, it doesn’t really matter.  He is the old guy pulling the strings behind the scenes.  The man behind the curtain, and the guy who will eventually be taken down in the last film.  Who he actually is, or what his name is doesn’t really matter.  Senator Palpatine, Emperor Palpatine, Darth Sidious, Darth Hideous, Darth Don’tcallus… doesn’t really make a difference.


I know the prequels introduced the asinine rule that there are only two Sith, a rule that makes no sense.  I mean, if the only way to become a Sith Master is to kill your own master, why the hell would you ever take an apprentice?  You know what they are going to try to do at the earliest opportunity.  Why would you train them?  To give them a fighting chance to take you out?  Maybe a Sith master can only have one apprentice, just like a Jedi Master, but that doesn’t mean that there is only ever one Sith Master.  I don’t imagine they all hang out or have a union or anything like that.  Maybe they meet up for the odd Ewok barbecue or casual slaughter.  But I doubt that the order would survive for very long if you could only have two members.  So I am holding out the slim hope that there are actually a whole bunch of Sith out there, of which Snoke is one, or the head of the order, or on the run from a band of bigger, badder Sith.  And do all Sith Masters have to be creepy old dudes?  I am fairly sure that there are canonical female Sith.  And there must be a couple of spry, youthful Sith knocking around somewhere.  Why is it that we are once again presented with a Sith Lord and his evil walking frame?


But as you might have gleaned thus far, I had some problems with the film.  Mainly in the fact that it so slavishly follows the originals, not just in plot, but in characters and action sequences.  Fan service, homages, excuse it all you want, but Abrams flat out copied entire sections of the earlier films, and repackaged them for the modern audience, just like he tried to do with Star Trek.  But it seems that everyone is going out of their way to excuse this, to rationalise it, or to forgive it as the price we pay for a new Star Wars film.  The thing is, this isn’t really a new Star Wars film, it is the oldest one all tarted up and hot to trot for a new audience.  Ok, so it is the first instalment of a trilogy and the whole story will eventually be revealed… but is it too much to ask that each film be its own film and not an extended trailer or foundational step for the next one?  We are seeing this more and more in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, in which each film seems to be there solely to lay the groundwork for the film that is to follow it.  Where each film is in essence an extended trailer and set-up to further the franchise.  Instead of doing that, can’t directors, studios, and producers trust that their audiences are smart enough to join the dots between films?


Almost as bad is the need to spoon feed the audience.  Seriously, we don’t need every single detail ironed out and neatly fed to us in a series of intrusive lampshading and heavy-handed foreshadowing scenes whose sole purpose is to sell us on the next film.  Admittedly, The Force Awakens is not as guilty of this as Marvel, but the big scene with Ren killing Han Solo was so heavily foreshadowed that it completely ruined the impact.  Why not have it come out of left field?  Why not have it shock the audience?  Why drop all these hints that this exact thing was about to happen?  Why have the deliberately ambiguous, clumsy dialogue that we know it ambiguous solely to tease the scene a few seconds longer?


Now, after reading all this you might think that I really hated the film, but I didn’t.  As I said at the start it was ‘meh’, it was ok, it was decent.  Neither atrocious, nor brilliant.  Certainly I was entertained.  And for those of you that think that being entertained is enough, then great, enjoy.  But I think of it more as being promised a steak dinner with all the trimmings and then being served a limp, cheap takeaway burger and someone saying, ‘Well you aren’t hungry any more, so what’s your problem?  It is food and you are full.’  My problem is that I was led to believe I was going to be getting a steak dinner and what I got was cheap, admittedly tasty, meal but far from the expected quality.  And this brings us full circle to the expectation game.


Hype might sell tickets, but, in my case at least, it really harms the viewing experience.  Added to that is being ‘force’-fed the marketing, products, interviews, promotional spots, trailers and TV-spots, the endless fan speculation that begins after the film is announced and continues practically unabated for the entire production time, post-production, pre-launch, launch and so on, before rolling seamlessly into speculation about the next one.  It seems to be a never ending machine that like the ouroboros feeds upon itself in an endless cycle of consuming and regurgitation.  In the cinema waiting to see this film I was treated to four separate advertisements that either directly referenced the film or were selling something tied into the franchise.  Come on.  I was already there.  I had already bought my ticket.  I didn’t need more Star Wars ads.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun movie that will no doubt attract new fans to the franchise, and it has already shattered box-office records, but it is not without flaws.  Some of which are pretty damning of how studios, production companies, and directors view their audiences.  Yet despite them serving us yesterday’s warmed-up left-overs we respond in the fashion of Oliver Twist and ask for more.  So it seems sour grapes to complain that the reason we keep getting such flawed, unoriginal films is because we keep supporting them with our wallets.  We know it will entertain and do well because it did so the first time it was released in the 1970s.



Review: The Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman with JH Williams III

Sandman Overture





Review: Sandman Overture by Neil Gaiman with JH Williams III (artist), Dave Stewart (colour), Todd Klein (Letterer) and covers by Dave McKean


Sandman Overture, like all the Sandman stories is a wonderful collaboration between Gaiman as author and the artists and comic professionals who bring the story to life and give it the distinctive visual vibrancy and immediacy one has come to expect from the series.  Indeed, despite my great admiration for a lot of Gaiman’s work, were it not for the artistic input from his collaborators this 6 volume story would have lacked a lot of its punch.


If you are already familiar with The Sandman you can skip this paragraph.  The central character of the series is Dream, one of the Endless.  The Endless are the anthropomorphised expressions of abstract ideals that through their existence define the universe.  Destiny, Death, Destruction, Dream, Desire, Despair, and Delirium.  Each of the Endless are immortal, for a given value of immortal, and each has enormous power, especially within their sphere of influence.  For Dream, that sphere is, of course, dreams, but more than that, it encompasses fiction, stories, narratives of all sorts, and, to a certain extent, reality.  Because by defining the unreal we know that the real exists as all else.  The Sandman series officially ran from January 1989 to March 1996, and was followed by anthology editions, and several spin-offs and related titles.


Sandman Overture is a prequel (what is with the popularity of prequels these days? Are we so afraid of moving on that we want more of the same?) and focuses on the events that immediately precede the opening of the first issue of The Sandman or the opening chapter of Preludes and Nocturnes.  So essentially it tells the story of what weakened the character of Dream so much that he could be caught in the spell of the Victorian occultist Burgess that began the series back in 1989.  Throughout its pages it drops hints and mini-reveals that add resonance to the main series, and, to some extent, explore the relationships of the Endless.  It is an essential purchase for The Sandman completist or collector, but in many respects it is a bit of a let-down.  Given Gaiman’s great strength as a short story author, and his command of this material, this universe, and this character, I have to admit that my expectations were high.  Perhaps too high.


Gaiman’s Sandman has never been afraid to eschew standard narrative conventions and a fair number of issues have been as experimental as any modernist novel, so it is somewhat disappointing that the story presented here, despite appearances, it actually fairly pedestrian and prosaic.  The plodding travelogue, barely spiced up by exotic locales, moves inexorably toward a climatic finish that is robbed of power through the use of a plot device already seen in the main series, a deus ex machina, and, reader foreknowledge of the outcome… it is a prequel after-all.  We already know that Dream wins out, albeit in a weakened state, so much of interest is in how he wins out… which, unfortunately, is why the already used and heavily foreshadowed plot device and the deus ex machina are so disappointing.


To be fair to Gaiman, in many respects his hands were tied about what he wanted to do with this story.  It had to fit existing continuity, it had to end a certain way, and, if he wanted to please fans, it had to contain nods and cameos of certain characters and story elements.  No matter how high he wanted to raise the stakes, no matter how cataclysmic he made the challenge to Dream, the story was still going to end up in the same place.  This is, unfortunately, one of the major problems with many prequels, particularly those set just before the events of a well-established series.  So it is hard to fault Gaiman here, as there was little he could do about this particular aspect.  Therefore, unless you have almost no knowledge of the main series, there is very little dramatic tension present, at best there is some curiosity.  But, if you have no knowledge of the main series, much of the detail, context and required knowledge for unpacking the story is absent as few characters are explained, few relationships are actively detailed, and context is a thing left far, far behind.


This lack of context for readers unfamiliar with the main series makes the story fragmented and disjointed, full of characters who appear and disappear without meaning or context, and therefore it doesn’t really function as an entry to the main series.  So for the un-initiated it paradoxically appears to be both a simplistically linear travelogue and a strangely broken and nonsensical journey that lacks context.  For the initiated it is both a strangely pedestrian story, and delightfully insightful in regards to the storyworld, as it caters to the encyclopaedic need to know more about the world, and yet moves inexorably to a known conclusion.


It really is a case of damned if you do, damned if you don’t.


However, for those familiar with the series there are lots of details and nuggets of information and context revealed in this volume that will probably make you want to re-read the whole series from start to finish yet again.  This is definitely a volume that is an addition to the main series, rather than a stand-alone story.  Small moments in this story are deliberate nods and developments (or pre-echoes, as it is a prequel) of moments and character revelations in the main series.  The story itself is the expanded version of something actually referred to in the main series, giving a feeling of deepening the diegetic reality and building the world and universe out deeper and wider.   Yet… and yet… the story remains deeply underwhelming, bland and prosaic.  Where the main series followed Dream on a gigantic character arc that fleshed out his character and revealed his fatal flaws, and it jumped around backwards and forwards through his timeline letting us see multiple aspects of Dream, this is a fairly static portrayal of the character, locked in the least sympathetic aspects of his personality.  The emotional resonance of the main series is missing, primarily because you cannot deliver the same impact in six issues that you did over a long running series.  But while many of the individual issues of the main series focused on the stories of other people with Dream as a character in them, this focuses almost solely on Dream, and as a result adds information and background, rather than depth to his character, because Gaiman cannot change him here, his future is already set.


This lacks the style and power of stories like ‘Ramadan’, or the historical meta-commentary found in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, it lacks the narrative cohesion of The Dream Hunters and seems more like the fragmentary stories of Endless Nights without the framing of a story anthology.  It is burdened with the need to live up to an epic story cycle and to do so in only 6 issues whilst touching on cameos and appearances that will delight fans of the series, and it is just a shame that it does so at the expense of the story.


Perhaps one of the most damning aspects of the whole story is that it reduces Dream’s main series arc into one of simple predestination devoid of freewill and character growth.  A ramification that may or may not have been intended.  Certainly, it was an aspect of the main series that inspired debate and posed the question about inevitability created by decision, and inevitability created by fate.  However, in this volume, Gaiman comes down heavily on the pre-ordained, fate aspect, and therefore robs Dream’s character of agency and freewill in the main series.  This might not be a big deal to some, but to me this diminishes Dream as a tragic figure and turns him into an empty puppet.


But the comic is collaborative effort, and it is the artwork that really sells this volume and makes it worthwhile.  JH Williams III along with Dave Stewart present the reader with intricate, varied, and stunning pages and panels, that run the gamut of artistic styles.  You will be hard pressed to find a single page that exemplifies the book, except in terms of quality.  The book really does look gorgeous and it leaves you wanting a massively oversized version so that you can really take in all the detail.  While some of the pages and panel organisations cause you to rotate and spin the book in your hands, trying to puzzle them out, other are simply visual feasts that your eyes can devour again and again.  So many of the pages play with lay-out, panel design, and eye-tracking, to make you look, read, and look again.  This book is worth the purchase price for the artwork alone.  This is a book that engages the eyes, that challenges the brain, and that makes you pore over every page to take in the detail and sumptuous colour.


In summary, unless you are already a committed fan and collector of all things Sandman or you are a fan of beautiful artwork , this isn’t a great graphic novel.  But if you love artwork, if you love The Sandman then I am assuming you have already bought this and added it to your collection and won’t care about this review.



Spoiler Free Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens (dir. JJ Abrams, 2015)



Short Version:

A new Star Wars for a new generation.  Plenty here to please old fans and new.  Finally an SF franchise that JJ Abrams’ sensibilities mesh with instead of clash.  No Jar Jar or midi-chlorians.  Better than the prequels.


Actual Review:

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens JJ Abrams had a nearly impossible task, he had to please old fans and acquire new ones, pay homage to the old films, undo the errors of the prequels, and yet also create a new Star Wars for the new generation.  The film had to appeal to children and adults alike and therefore had to indulge the older fan’s nostalgia but not let it dominate the storytelling, have enough action and visual effects to entertain today’s jaded youth but refrain from the frenetic screen clutter that plagued the prequels making the actions sequences migraine inducing blurs of sound and light, and, above all else, launch a new mythic storyline.  Given that this was not just a film but also part of a multi-billion dollar media franchise and of one of the most beloved film franchises of the modern age, to say expectations were high is perhaps a bit of an understatement.

So because anticipation was so great, because expectations were so ridiculously high, it should come as little surprise when I say that The Force Awakens is a mixed bag.  It isn’t terrible, and it isn’t amazing.  It had its high points and it had its weak moments.  There were some great lines and some misses.  In Abrams’ defence, no matter what he produced it was not going to be able to please all the fans all the time, so I am actually surprised at how much I enjoyed this.  If we are measuring it solely against the prequels then in this regard Abrams cleared it with a parsec to spare.  Against the original Star Wars: A New Hope… that is a more complex comparison.

Just in case anyone has missed the numerous plot summaries, speculations, in depth interviews, featurettes, spotlight specials and extensive trailers and cast videos, a brief detail-light summary of the set-up is as follows:
There is a new villain, a dark militaristic force in the galaxy the First Order, led by a slimmer and slightly more sartorially elegant Darth Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

There are two new young heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), who, despite their disparate backgrounds will undoubtedly turn out to be instrumental in saving the galaxy.

There is a new cutesy droid, BB-8, that is attempting to take the place of R2-D2 in our hearts, and comes close to doing so.  Adorkable is the word that springs to mind.

And there are X-wings, Tie Fighters and all the classic elements of Star Wars galore.  So rather than attempting to re-invent the wheel as the prequels did, Abrams went with tried and tested crowd pleasers.

So let’s start by discussing a couple of the really good points without getting into too many specifics as I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone.

The opening wall crawl.  There is something about the logo appearing and the wall crawl against the starry background while John Williams’ overture assaults the brain that will forever be ‘cool’ in my book.  When the music started I couldn’t help it but grin and feel excited.  What was even better was that there was no mention of a trade embargo, sanctions, disrupted negotiations or a diplomatic deadlock in a bureaucratic senate in the scrolling text.  It then pans down in classic fashion to a shot of a giant spaceship.  I hope no one regards that as a spoiler, not least because it is a bland and generic version of the events, but also it is the classic opening and it occurs in the first couple of seconds of screen time.  Not a single, horrendously racist caricature to be seen in the first minute.  So already it is well ahead of The Phantom Menance.

It was also great having new characters to carry on the story.  Star Wars: The Next Generation, if you will.  As much as I loved the story of Luke, Han and Leia… and was less enamoured with the prequels going back in time to set up the story of Luke, Han and Leia, it was genuinely nice to have new characters, about whom I knew next to nothing, who promised to lead the story into new territory.   Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a nice change of pace for the Star Wars cinematic universe in that we finally have a competent, intelligent, talented, and independent female character who is centre screen as a hero and not a spunky support or love interest to the main heroes.  Strongly reminiscent of the young Luke Skywalker (they clearly shop in the same desert paraphernalia shop) it seems that Rey is going to be central to the entire new trilogy.    Rather unkindly my brain automatically labelled her as Discount Keira Knightley and I haven’t been able to shake the comparison.

John Boyega’s Finn is a surprisingly complex character who wants to be a hero, wants to do the right thing, but is plagued by crippling self-doubt and more than a smidgeon of self-loathing.  A curious mix for a hero in training, especially as he veers from the super-competent to the blaringly incompetent in a violent see-saw fashion as the script demands, but it is certainly engaging to watch.  Both Rey and Finn promise to develop even more fully as the series continues, and that is only a good thing as they have an odd dynamic on screen, and it will be nice to see them settle into their roles and see what they can create.

Opposite them is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who, at first glance, appears to be a bargain basement Emo Vader.  Face mask, metallic voice, red light saber, dresses in black, temper tantrums because it is just so emotional, and will force choke you as soon as look at you.  However, he soon becomes a great deal more interesting and, as his backstory and motivations are explored, his character develops a depth and complexity that Vader never quite achieved in the original trilogy.  Admittedly, he is not quite as dominating on screen as Vader, nor does he have the gravitas of James Earl Jones’ voice, but in a number of regards he is a lot more chilling and arresting on screen.   Thankfully, unlike Tom Hardy’s Bane and Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight Rises you can actually understand what Driver is saying even when his face is obscured, something I was actually concerned about.

There are a couple of other characters, more in supporting roles this time around, that I sincerely hope get more screen time in the next one.  Not least the roguish Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who is the best damned space pilot around (as we are told on numerous occasions… so it must be true), the scenery-chewing, mewling evil General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), arch villain and champion of the galaxy sneering competition 7 years running Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, and the decidedly under-utilised Captain Phasma, Gwendloine Christie’s retro-futuristic chrome trooper.  Despite my desire that they all get more screen time, none of the characters feels entirely superfluous and each adds to the story in significant ways.

In terms of action, Abrams seems to have learned both from the mistakes of the prequels and from his experience on the Star Trek films, and provided something that had satisfying explosions, lots of lasers pew-pewing, and some good light saber action without the need for a warning about photosensitive epilepsy or necessitating chugging Dramamine in large quantities.  Hearing the metallic whine of the distinctive TIE fighter engines with their unmistakable laser blasts, and the roar of the X-Wings’ engines coupled with the more splat-like noise of their weapons was a glee inducing moment for me.  The screen never felt empty during the action, but was never so busy that you couldn’t actually track the action.  It was also thankfully free of omnipresent lens-flares.

As is to be expected of Abrams, there are some beautiful looking cinematic shots, some really vivid tableaux, and he uses many of these to establish the ‘lived-in’ feel of the Star Wars universe.  That distressed look that makes the ships look used rather than fresh off the assembly line, the clothes worn and frayed, the equipment chipped and nicked.  Little details like this throughout the film give a real sense of authenticity and greatly add to the believability and immersiveness of the story.  This becomes all the more necessary when the staggering coincidences start to mount up.  I mean, I am all for a million to one shot working nine times out of ten, but there are some really astronomically improbable coincidences cropping up in this film with frightening regularity.

For fans of the original trilogy, TFA is, at its heart, an attempt to re-make it and update it while pretending to be a new chapter.  And that is perhaps what I found least satisfying about it, there was too much of the old in this.  There were too many similarities to the original trilogy.  There were too many moments that were a mirror or echo of vintage Star Wars.   This is Abrams’ Trek all over again.  Not quite a reboot, and not quite a sequel.  Fan service and in-jokes litter the screen, and in-depth exploration of character and story are sometimes short-changed in order to move onto the next sequence, the next plot point, and the next ‘must-see’ moment.  At times the nostalgia was dripping so heavily I was surprised the camera didn’t suddenly switch to a sepia filter.  There were other moments that only really had impact or meaning if you were already deeply invested in the Star Wars mythos.  But in this I suspect that Abrams’ hands were somewhat tied.  He couldn’t not have those nods to the originals, but for my money, he spent a little too much time genuflecting at the altar of Lucas and not enough time carving his own mythic cathedral.

Related to this problem was the fact that the film felt liked it was rushing from scene to scene to hurry up and get to the good part… only to rush past that to the next good part… and so on and so on.  It was as if Abrams was so excited to be showing the audience all the different ‘cool’ things that he forgot we don’t need to see them all at once, or even at all.  In fact, some of the moments when Abrams pauses to take a breath were scenes that were probably not that necessary.  I have no idea why Hollywood has decided its audiences are so stupid that they need almost every element of backstory of every character belaboured and shoved in their faces.  This is compounded further by the relentless assault of action sequence after action sequence.  Consequently, we are less emotionally involved in many of the conflicts because we still haven’t gotten to know the characters or feel tension as they just seem to ricochet from one meaningless action set piece to the next.  Admittedly, superhero films tend to be a lot worse.

To be any more specific than this would be to dance merrily through spoiler territory, an area that I am already uncomfortably close to, so I will have to forgo discussing the most egregious scenes.  However, all in all it was a good film.  It was an entertaining film.  It sets up the next film to develop the mythos and storylines further.  There are some revelations that make for moments of high drama, as well as some unanswered questions and plot hooks that will have me seeing the next one as soon as it comes out too.  Who am I kidding, I am probably going to see this one again at least another four times before the next is released.

“Let’s hunt some Orc!’ – Re-evaluating the Monstrosity of Orcs

Orcs from Jackson's Adaptation of LotR

With the exception of Dragons, one of the most recognisable ‘monsters’ of genre fantasy is the humble Orc.  Orcs, commonly found in hordes™, are the disposable foot soldiers of every evil wizard’s army, and are useful opponents/victims for would-be heroes-in-training.  They are evil, barbaric, ugly, brutal and, above all, monstrous.  But given the trend of modern Genre Fantasy to move away from simplistic moral polarities to more complicated moral relativistic positions, can we still treat and react to Orcs in the same way?  With some notable exceptions, Mary Gentle’s Grunts (1992) and Stan Nicholls’ Orcs (1999-present), the treatment of Orcs has remained fairly consistent ever since Tolkien popularised them as the enemies of the hero.

Using established critical techniques already associated with the fantastic, in particular the Monstrous Other, Otherness, and the psychological readings of Monstrosity, the position of the Orc will be established in the context of the genre.  Then, by examining how the Orc has been used in related fantasy media, such as the RPG, it will be shown how the function of the Orc has changed into a ‘disposable’ monster.  Lastly, with the Orc as a cypher for almost every evil sentient monster deployed in Genre Fantasy, this paper will examine how we ‘read’ Orcs and suggest that the true monstrosity is the reader’s casual acceptance of racial genocide rather than the Orc’s position as Monstrous Other.

I took the idea of monstrosity as being constructed through a limited, subjective and external perspective and this therefore limits empathy with the subject.  By considering the narrative from the perspective of the monster we gain a new view of the story and of monstrosity.

With the exception of Dragons, one of the most recognisable ‘monsters’ of Genre Fantasy is the humble Orc.  Orcs, commonly found in hordes (Which I believe is the ™ term), are the readily identifiable disposable foot soldiers of every evil wizard’s or Dark Lord’s army, and they are the ever useful opponents for would-be heroes-in-training.    But given the trend of modern Genre Fantasy to move away from simplistic moral polarities to more complicated moral relativistic positions, can we still treat and react to Orcs in the same way?  Is it time to re-evaluate Orcs and as a result, the texts in which they appear?  Can we now view Orcs as the victims of the self-proclaimed heroes?  With some notable exceptions, Mary Gentle’s Grunts (1992) and Stan Nicholls’ Orcs (1999-present), the treatment of Orcs has remained fairly consistent ever since Tolkien popularised them as the enemies of the hero.

I am sure that everyone here is familiar with the Orcs of Tolkien’s world.  We could describe them as barbaric, evil, corrupt, treacherous, cannibalistic, and irredeemably evil.

In short they are ugly, snarling monstrous creatures.

Yet they are clearly also sentient, some are at the very least bi-lingual.  As Tolkien points out:

To Pippin’s surprise he found that much of the talk was intelligible; many of the Orcs were using ordinary language. Apparently the members of two or three quite different tribes were present, and they could not understand one another’s orc-speech.’ P.580 (The Uruk Hai – The Two Towers)

So clearly these Orcs speak at least two maybe even three languages: The black Speech of Mordor, their own Orcish language, and Common.

Therefore not all Orcs are the same.  There are different tribes with different languages, and given that language and culture are intertwined, we could at least argue that there may be significant cultural differences as well.  Certainly the most obvious example is made apparent between the Mordor Orcs and Saruman’s Uruk Hai, as the dispute between Grishnakh and Ugluk in The Two Towers clearly demonstrates.

But that conflict also proves that Orcs can evaluate social or group goals and needs in addition to their own personal goals and ambitions.  They have loyalties, can choose to follow orders and possess at least some element of free will.  They understand social and cultural hierarchy as well as individual positions of power.  Grishnak and Ugluk argue over what to do with the Hobbits, should they killed, should they be brought to Sauron, should they be searched.  There is tension between the Orcs as they struggle to assert personal dominance as well as the dominance of their respective allegiances and military hierarchies.

What is clear is that they can reason and explain their reasoning.  In effect, these are sentient beings, they are rational, thinking people… at least to some extent.

And while they appear cruel, at least by our standards, they feed Merry and Pippin their Orc-draughts to give them enough energy to keep running. In effect they demonstrate some level of compassion for their prisoners, minimal though it may be, and for which the motivations are not necessarily discernible or clear, as Tolkien does not investigate the Orcish perspective given his focus on the Human and Hobbit perspectives.  But these Orcs are not creatures, they are not monsters, and they are not dumb animals.

So where can we find stories that address this lack of Orcish voice, that give us the perspective of the Orcs, that tell the story from the Orc side of the war.

A book that purports to redress this balance is, of course, Mary Gentle’s Grunts!.

Gentle takes the Orcish perspective as a group of Orcs prepare for the great battle between the forces of good and evil.  However, this is not a ‘straight’ redressing of the imbalance of perspective, it is, from beginning to end a pointed satire or parody of a perceived stereotype of genre fantasy fiction, the great war.

Yet despite being a parody of the good versus evil cataclysmic battle/apocalypse, trope that appears in much early Genre Fantasy, Gentle does attempt to give voice to the Orcs, who despite being nearly ubiquitous in their appearance in diverse fantasy series, are a peculiarly voiceless and underrepresented fantasy race, narratorially speaking.

But this synopsis is slightly disingenuous.  While Gentle begins with a focus on the Orcish perspective she rapidly ‘alters’ the Orcs.  That is to say, by introducing an external magical factor, a geas or magical spell on the weapons the Orcs find in the dragon cache. She alters the Orcs, changing the Orcs from recognisable fantasy characters to caricatures of US Marines fighting a war in a fantasy world.

Barashkukor straightened his slouching spine until he thought it would crack. The strange words the big Agaku used were becoming instantly familiar, almost part of his own tongue. No magic-sniffer, he nonetheless felt by orc-instinct that presence of sorcery, geas or curse. But if the marine first class (Magic-Disposal) wasn’t complaining… He fixed his gaze directly ahead and sang out: ‘We are Marines!’. P.51

The introduction of an external force to ‘change’ the Orcs allows them to behave in different ways, to act contrary to their established fantasy characters and characteristics.  This is of course perfectly in line with Gentle’s focus and intention for the novel, to lampoon the ossified ‘Ultimate Battle’ motif that seems to recur with alarming regularity.

However, this means that the inversion of the Tolkien type Orc is used only for comic effect and does not actually attempt to give a voice to the Orcish world view, or attempt to actually investigate Orcs in anything other than parody.  In effect, Gentle’s work ultimately fails to provide the Orcs with their own voice, to represent their world view and it fails utterly to present the Orcs as an actual race of rounded developed characters.  Only their Marine characters and characteristics are given full voice.

Another narrative that purports to tell the Orc side of the story, is Stan Nicholls’ Orcs.  This is a series of fantasy novels which tells the story of a fantasy world’s battles from the Orc perspective, following the trials, tribulations and adventures of Orc Captain Stryke and his warband The Wolverines.  This series is not a parody, it is not a satire and it is not attempting to lampoon fantasy cliché.  For all attempts and purposes Nicholls appears to be writing the very thing I am talking about, a fantasy series from the perspective of the much maligned Orcs.

However, rather than using the narrative opportunity presented by Tolkien in The Two Towers, that is the rare insight we get to Orc internal politics and the tensions between Mordor Orcs, Mountain Orcs and Sarumans fighting Uruk Hai, Nicholls uses an old ‘bait and switch’.  In the first chapter the Wolverines are sacking a human village and come across a baby.

The cries of the baby rose to a more incessant pitch. Stryke turned to look at it. His green, viperish tongue flicked over mottled lips. ‘Are the rest of you as hungry as I am?’ he wondered.

His jest broke the tension. They laughed.

‘It’d be exactly what they what they’d expect of us,’ Coilla said, reaching down and hoisting the infant by the scruff of its neck. […] ‘Ride down to the plain and leave this where the humans will find it. And try to be … gentle with the thing.pp.13-15

Unfortunately the ‘gentle’ there is a coincidence.

Nicholls has done much the same as Gentle in that he has changed the Orcs to something much more sympathetic.  He has rewritten what an Orc is and in effect reduced them to another fantasy cliché, that of the noble savage, the barbarian tribesmen, the put upon native people who have an overriding sense of honour that has been abused by ‘evil’ masters. These Orcs are the unwilling servants of a Dark Power.

So again this is another attempt to redress the narrative imbalance of a widely used fantasy race that suffers from a seeming lack of ability to genuinely conceive of what Orcs are like, despite the fact that this is clearly evident from Tolkien’s work.

Yet there are examples in which Orcs remain Orcs and yet their stories are accessible, their point of view is articulated and they are given a voice.

While not exactly the most respected or critically examined areas of fantasy literature and narrative, D&D and the various worlds and fantasy series associated with it provide a fascinating perspective on the evolution of Orcs as a fantasy race.

What is interesting is that D&D had to confront an issue with Tolkien’s initial construction of the Orc.  If Orcs are sentient then why were they treated as monsters and not simply as enemies?  Early editions of D&D used Orcs in much the same manner as bad fantasy does, they were simply a stack of low level cannon fodder enemies to be killed off by the heroes to prove how wonderful Sir- Killalot and Princess Smack-them-in-the-head are.

However, as the game developed and grew increasingly more complex, in part to continue to expand the world so that players had greater variety and choice and therefore would keep buying more supplements and products, but also because as the fantasy world grew and the game developed it became increasingly more sophisticated and began to probe and investigate difficult areas of what is assumed to be a simplistic paradigm.  If you can have half-elves, half-dwarves, as playable characters etc… can you have half-orcs?

If you can have half-orcs as playable characters, can you have full blooded orcs as a playable characters?  How does Orc society actually function?  What are Orcs actually like?

In order to continually develop D&D for market, the company continued to add races and playable character types, including some that the confining ‘moral alignment’ rules describe as evil.  Orcs have gradually entered the game as a playable race, equal to and on par with Elves, Humans and Dwarves.

D&D is not the only game to do this.  Orcs appear as playable races in a number of Gamesworkshop products (Warhammer, Warhammer 40K, Blood Bowl, etc.)

However, the simple inclusion of something called Orcs (as Nicholls has proven) does not necessarily guarantee that they remain identifiable as Orcs.

So let us consider R.A.Salvatore’s Legend of Drizzt Series, a long running (and still ongoing) fantasy series concerning the adventures of a Drow (Dark Elf) and his companions.  In The Hunter’s Blades Trilogy {The Thousand Orcs 2002, The Lone Drow (2003) and The Two Swords (2004) (books 15-17 of the Legend of Drizzt series)} one of the major secondary narrative strings is a developing storyline about an Orc chieftain or warlord Obould Many Arrows.  Obould Many Arrows, is initially allied to a clan of Frost Giants and has amassed a massive horde TM. In other words he has called together a large military force or army… but as he is an Orc we are stuck with horde.

As the books develop his army manages to push the Dwarves back to the gates of the Dwarvish realm, Mithral Hall.  And the purpose of this conflict is to clear space in the foothills of the Dwarvish mountain range so that the Orcish clan can establish a genuine kingdom free from the interference of giants, dark lords, evil wizards etc. And so that Obould can open diplomatic relations equal to Elves, Dwarves and Humans.  In effect, to create a recognised Orcish sovereign territory.

What makes this interesting is not that there is an Orc horde, but that the purpose of their ‘invasion’ is actually to find a kingdom and land of their own.  They ‘push’ the Dwarves back to their own Kingdom… which without too much thought you realise means that the Dwarves can be redefined as evil imperialistic conquerors hell bent on wiping out another race in order to steal land and wealth.  Not that Salvatore does this, but the subtext is present.

The Orcs on the other hand are pushing the Dwarves back.  In essence containing an evil expanding army… The Orcs are not ‘stealing land from the Dwarves, the Dwarves live underground, they don’t need nor use the land above the mountain, the lower slopes of the mountain are free, unoccupied and not in use.

And the purpose of the Orc army is not to kill off the other races, it is not to destroy the forces of good, it is to create a consolidated home land where the Orcs can live free from persecution and being hunted down like animals.

In effect then, Salavatore has done something that Gentle and Nicholls could not, he has created a political, interesting and engaging storyline which considers and addresses the Orcish perspective without altering who and what Orcs are.  In hindsight it seems strange that no-one thought to do this before.  Yet the earlier examples given could not seem to conceive of the Orcs as anything other than monsters.

Returning then to the LotR with this new perspective of Orcs we need to reconsider them in this new light.  While Tolkien at least focused on the fact that Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas weighed their decision and chose to try and rescue Merry and Pippin at the beginning of The Two Towers, Jackson’s film adaptation is more revealing of my point.

When Aragorn turns to his companions and says with barely restrained glee ‘We travel light. Let’s hunt some Orc’[1] we can now see how this reduces a sentient and potentially ‘redeemable’ species to an animilaistic and monstrous fate.

But Jackson is not entirely to blame because aspects of this concept, this attitude, appear in Tolkien’s work.  At the battle of the Hornberg in Helm’s Deep Legolas and Gimli have a competition to see who can kill the greatest number of Orcs.  This friendly competition is presented in an heroic light and in the film adaptation is even a source of humour.

But if we consider this episode from this new perspective, counting the number of Orcs killed now appears as crass, distasteful and even malicious behaviour.  In effect it appears as a mis-guided glorification of the murder of enemies and rather than the joyous celebration of monsters put down.

Furthermore, in this battle the remaining Orc horde is herded into an indefensible position surrounded by the Ents and Huorns, who then, rather than letting them surrender, simply destroy them, off page, without a sound, without a murmur, without a second thought.   Tolkien describes this in fairly unambiguous terminology:

‘Wailing they passed under the waiting shadow of the trees; and from that shadow none ever came again.’[2]

Yet, while this is a cause for the heroes to celebrate, the Orcs were an enemy that need to be defeated, why do we as readers never once consider that this is the systematic extermination of a race.  That this is mass murder.  That this is attempted genocide.  The heroes might feel justified in their attitudes as such positions might be necessary in war and combat, but for readers, surely we should question the heroes’ actions.

The heroes do not take Orcish prisoners.

The heroes do not even set up forced labour camps or prisoner of war camps.  All enemy combatants, even if they are retreating or have surrendered, are slaughtered.

When it comes to honouring the dead, the heroes do not give the Orcish dead a modicum of respect or attempt proper funeral rites, rather they are stacked and burned or tossed into mass graves.

So if we have never questioned this it seems that we as readers, not actually involved in the war, tacitly or openly agree with the mass extermination of an entire species, we revel in the slaughter of a sentient race, we delight in the murder of surrendering enemy combatants, we never once treat Orcs as people, as a sentient species, as a race that may be on the other side of the war, but still deserve consideration and respect.

In short, Orcs aren’t monsters.  We are.

[1] The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (dir. Jackson, 2002)

[2] Tolkien The Two Towers Chapter 7 ‘Helm’s Deep’ p.707

(Originally delivered as a paper at ICFA 35 and a variant published in NYRSF)

Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn Book 1


Review: Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

Mistborn: The Final Empire is book one of the Mistborn series, and part of Sanderson’s expanding, and increasingly intriguing, Cosmere universe.  It follows the adventures and coming-of-age narrative of young street urchin Vin, and her participation in a rebel plot to overthrow the ostensibly immortal god-emperor of the land, the Lord Ruler.

On the face of it Mistborn has all the markings of a walking fantasy cliché.

We have a young hero who it just turns out has incredibly and unbelievably rare super-special magical powers, and not only that, but has an uncanny affinity for them and learns how to use them absurdly quickly and to an extent that puts all others to shame.  Not to mention a secret bloodline that has ramifications for the upper echelons of society.

We have a scrappy group of super-talented rebels (or quest group for those that are familiar with RPGs) faced with an impossible task that you know that they are somehow going to pull off.  Sort of like a million-to-one shot that works nine times out of ten.  Luckily each member of the group has one specific talent that adds to the plan and pretty much defines them as a character.  For example, Breeze can soothe people’s emotions, Clubs can hide their allomantic activity, and Ham is incredibly strong.

We have the slightly sinister mentor, Kelsier, who, it turns out, has a few dark secrets in his past.  Thankfully he is lucky enough to take a chance on rescuing a young orphan girl, the super-special hero mentioned above, who becomes essential to his plan succeeding.

There is an immortal Dark Lord™ that has been ruthlessly subjugating the masses for a very long time, is obscenely powerful, and appears to be definitively evil for the sake of being evil (ruling with an iron fist, being mean to puppies, and guilty of living alone in a large, foreboding, yet tastefully ostentatious palace which possesses no chamber pots or bathrooms).

The society of the fantasy world has not really evolved or changed in hundreds of years with technology, fashion, literature, and science all remaining relatively static, and made up of two peoples; The Nobles, privileged, spoiled, and decadent, and the Skaa, oppressed slaves.

There is an evil corrupt government bureaucracy and evil military religion that maintain law and order in the land in cruel and vindictive ways.

And lo, there is also an ancient prophecy knocking around that must be fulfilled.

Now if there was an awkward and unnecessary romantic sub-plot and a dragon you would have a full house in fantasy cliché bingo… ok so there is an unnecessary romantic sub-plot but there isn’t a dragon.  Maybe even Sanderson thought that dragons at this point would have been overkill.

It is to Sanderson’s credit that he utilises these stereotypes knowingly, and provides enough subversion so that they don’t completely weigh down the narrative in ever increasingly obvious ways.  But in terms of story there is little here that will be of any surprise to a fantasy reader, until the end, but to give that away pretty much spoils the story.  In this case, the end, at least, partially justifies the means… so to speak.

Mistborn is set on the world Scadrial, a secondary world that is plagued by nigh continual volcanic ash falls, nightly planet-engulfing mists, and orbits a weak red sun.  Despite the seemingly alien nature of the planet and the occasional reminders about the ash and the mists, most of the book feels like it is set in a fairly standard and familiar pseudo-medieval fantasy world.  The strangeness of the landscape never quite leaves the page to enter the imagination, and there is a certain feudal European feel to the entire planet.  Given that worldbuilding is something so important to many modern fantasy narratives, and is also a frequent point praised in Sanderson’s work, perhaps a closer look at the world of Scadrial is necessary here.

The world essentially has two classes of people, the nobles and the Skaa.  The Skaa, although they physically resemble the nobles, so much so that they can be easily confused for them, are a slave race.  Sanderson didn’t use anything as clichéd as colour or some sort of physical characteristic to differentiate the two races, actually, he doesn’t really use anything to differentiate the two races apart from the name.  But choosing a slave race name based on a word for a type of Jamaican music is perhaps a little too on the nose for me.  Regardless, despite the fact that the narrative insists on, and then actually explains how, the two races are physically different, the narrative also depends on the fact that there is no real physical difference between them.  Yes, it is indeed that contradictory.

Oppressed and subservient to the nobles, the Skaa’s only hope lies in the Skaa rebellion.  For centuries a small pocket of rebels has tried to overthrow the Lord Ruler (Dark Lord™) without success.  That is, until, Kelsier, the survivor of the prison quarry, the Pits of Hathsin, returns to the capital, Luthadel, to organise an uprising.  He rounds up a crew of magically talented individuals, and in the process rescues the protagonist of the novel, Vin, from her time in an evil criminal gang, by recruiting her to his good criminal gang…

But luckily for the reader there is never any doubt about who to support as the Skaa are treated as slaves, apart from those Skaa who own their own independent businesses or are semi-successful merchants, but we never meet any of those apart from two of the main characters who are in Kelsier’s crew.   But the vast majority of Skaa are treated as slaves and are horribly abused by the evil nobles and therefore Kelsier and his crew are undoubtedly good freedom fighters, thieves, murderers and conmen.  Sanderson makes sure to show the Lord Ruler and his minions killing people in cold blood to prove a point and to cow the public, just like Kelsier does to the nobles.  Have I mentioned that there are some issues with the worldbuilding?

The world of Sadrial possesses two major forms of magic, the first, and the focus of the first novel, is allomancy, while the second, feruchemy is more important in the later books.   Allomancers, those gifted with this exceptionally rare ability, can ‘burn’ certain metals to create amazing effects.  Essentially they ingest small pellets of specific metals that create reservoirs of power that they can tap to create very specific effects, such as the ability to pull metal toward them, or push metal away from them.

Only the rarest of the rare Allomancers (alloy-mancer, like necromancer) can ‘burn’ more than one metal, and those few are called Mistborn, hence the title of the book.  As it turns out, almost the whole of Kelsier’s crew are Allomancers, it is what makes them so special and effective, and Kelsier himself is a Mistborn.  It just so happens that Vin, our hero, is also a Mistborn.  Given the tight focus of the novel on Vin’s adventures with Kelsier’s crew this gives the unfortunate appearance that almost every character has this exceptionally rare magical ability and therefore it is not rare at all in the novel.  But we are also led to believe that despite the fact that this is rare, there are enough noble allomancers that a strong enough trade in allomantic metals exists, and that Skaa workers are trusted enough to run these businesses* and there are enough allomancers that noble houses have entire houseguard squads made up of low level allomancers who wield no political power nor hold positions of authority within the houses.

(*While never explicitly stated that the metallurgists who provide the allomantic metals are Skaa no noble would risk buying their metals from another noble house that they may be at war with, and if Sanderson had each noble house produce their own allomantic metals then, no matter how logical this would be for the world, Kelsier and his crew would have difficulty in accessing the necessary supplies)

Sanderson is at pains to lay out and explore the strengths and weaknesses of this fairly original magic system, and if you enjoy reading about how different magic systems are used, then this will be a major strength of the novel for you.  A good third of the novel is focused on Vin slowly training, experimenting with, and growing to command her powers.  To give Sanderson his due, these sections are much more entertaining and engaging than comparable training sessions found in a multitude of other fantasy works.  Indeed the action sequences detailing the use of allomancy, both the aspects of training and later in combat, are extremely well executed with cinematic flair.

So as long as you don’t think too hard about the actual ramifications of the rules of the world, the physical descriptions of the people and the landscape, and the fact that the rules of the magic system become flexible according to necessity, and just go along with the flow, the worldbuilding in this novel is great.

But… and this is an important but…

But while much of what I have said thus far has been a little damning, Sanderson does weave a fairly compelling tale.  His prose trips along in an amiable fashion.  The character of Vin is engaging and interesting, and it is genuinely nice to have a central female hero who exhibits depth and backstory, and also isn’t raped.  Kelsier possesses some elements of moral and character complexity that become more apparent as the plot trundles on.  The crew is made up of colourful characters that round out the story and give it some interest as their sense of camaraderie is explored and they grumble and gripe at one another.

More importantly, it is the events and the central mystery of who the Lord Ruler is and why the world seems so strange and yet incomplete, that provide the much needed intrigue and interest.  The reveal and twists at the end of the novel are enough, even after all that I have said, to make me like the novel and read more of the series, as it turns out that so many of the clichés, the tropes, the ‘mistakes’ and weaknesses of the worldbuilding are very deliberately constructed on Sanderson’s part.  So much of what seems contrived and artificial actually plays a part in the broader context that the novel reveals in its last few chapters.

Granted, I will never rate this as among the best fantasy novels I have ever read, but Sanderson weaves a compelling story by acknowledging and engaging with the flawed nature of his world building, even if some flaws are perhaps unintentional, and focusing the story on explaining how this came to be.  And it is this surprising plot thread that convinces you to keep reading.  So rather than being an epic quest or a standard story about overthrowing a Dark Lord™, this is actually a mystery, and if you aren’t careful some of the cleverer aspects of the world will sneak by you.

Review: Assail by Ian C. Esslemont

(Book 6 Malzan Empire) by Ian C. Esslemont

Assail marks the culmination of Esslemont’s Malazan Empire series and is the final chapter of a series that has significantly explored and expanded the narrative universe co-created with Steven Erikson.  In this volume Esslemont has set himself a foreboding task in that expectations are always higher for the final novel in a series, even more so if the book is set in the most mysterious land of the fantasy world that has only ever been hinted at.  Luckily for readers, Esslemont delivers, although not necessarily in the way some might want.

The impetus for the main story of Assail is the revelation that the glacial coverage of the mysterious continent has receded sufficiently that previously impassable terrain is now accessible.  In fact, vast gold-fields have been exposed, prompting a mass rush to the land in order to exploit the natural resource.  As a result, all manner of people and groups are making their way to and through Assail including Imass, the Crimson Guard, prospectors, private armies, and long absent migrants finally returning ‘home’.

focuses on tying up the story of Kyle, the young guardsman first met in Return of the Crimson Guard, the Crimson Guard themselves and the investigation of their mysterious vow.  Another significant thread concerns the story of the Imass and Silverfox, which has woven through both Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen as well as Esslemont’s series.  Lastly, there are two related threads directly concerning the continent of Assail itself.  The first is focalised through the perspective of Orman, a young warrior, and explores Assail from a native’s perspective, playing with perceptions of culture, tribalism, barbarism and honour.  The other is split between the various prospectors and outsiders hastening to stake claims and set up frontier stations and explores the foreigners’ perspective of Assail.  In particular the story of Reuth, a young navigator tasked with getting his uncle’s ship to the gold fields of Assail. Both the stories of Reuth and Orman parallel one another, while being neat contrasts of the different approaches to life, Assail, and the journey to adulthood.  They also create a strong resonance with the story of Kyle, both his introduction in RotCG, and as a reminder that even as one actor’s story ends, other agents in the world will continue.

However, each of these potentially disparate tales is interwoven and lends itself to a nuanced and balanced investigation of the continent and its cultures and forms a genuinely cohesive story.  Despite the focus on Assail itself as the setting and background of the story, Esslemont has included several sections that focus on the travelling to Assail, most notably the various sea voyages and what that entails for the prospective parties.  This brings a significant diversity of story mode, setting and even genre to the book that otherwise might have superficially appeared to be a fantasy travelogue of a Scandinavian influenced continent.

Starting with some obvious points that nonetheless need noting.  As with the other novels in the Malazan Empire series, the style is once again a narrative told through multiple point of view characters.  While several of these characters are key to the narrative, Esslemont also uses witness characters to provide perspective on the events from outside the key actors’ perspectives.  As a result there is a pleasing change of perspective as instead of always sitting on a hero’s shoulders, the reader now has access to a broader narrative palette.  This is particularly interesting when you consider that this allows Esslemont to demonstrate how the events of the story reach further than just those acting or being acted upon.  Such a broadening of scope has the effect of consolidating the world-building (diegetic reality) and adding to the impression that the story-world is ‘real’.  It also neatly dovetails with Esslemont’s own background as an archaeologist and anthropologist who sees history as an interlocking system of events and not solely the result of the actions of a few great men.

Structurally Esslemont writes true to form with most of the first third of the book being used in set-up and foundational work.  He carefully re-introduces old characters (from his previous novels and from the wider Malazan universe) while also introducing some new characters to the story and familiarising the reader with the new setting of Assail.  By creating a pleasant blend of the familiar with an enticing mix of the new, the leisurely pace means that no reader is left behind.  This is not to say that there aren’t some interesting set pieces and action sequences along the way, but both Erikson and Esslemont are known for their deliberate crafting and building in the earlier chapters of their novels in order to set the board for grand finales.  The second third of the novel starts moving the various pieces around as the characters reach and explore the continent of Assail, tracking their interactions and near misses, and building toward the last third of the novel which handles the convergence of events and the resolution of the story and series.

It is with the last third of the novel that Esslemont both conforms to and defies his standard structural approach.  The last third of the novel contains multiple scenes of battle, action and a convergence of events, but if it is an all-out battle ending that you are longing for, you will be disappointed.  What Esslemont delivers is, in almost every way, far more satisfying.  He brings home multiple story threads and characters from throughout the series in an emotional and narrative convergence that provides a sensitive and resonating narrative closure.  While this is probably something of a risk for Esslemont given the desire in many fantasy fans for blood, gore and battle by the ever increasing bucket full, that he pulls it off should mark his increased prowess and command as an author.

It is of no surprise that the world of Assail is exquisitely realised.  In Blood and Bone Esslemont depicted the sweaty, steamy closeness of a jungle landscape with such clarity that it became a character in and of itself that was integral to the story.  In Assail, the various landscapes, climates and scenic types deployed by Esslemont are rendered in a beautiful cinematic language that gives a visceral quality to the description and helps lift the narrative off the page.  The various landscapes and settings reveal several influences on the book and have been well tied to the various themes and plots running through the volume and series.  Notably, the Odyssey and Sinbad inspired sea and sailing sections, in which several different attempts to reach the continent are described and reveal the dangers of even trying to get to this part of the world.  The wind-blasted, desolate coastline that emphasises the unwelcoming and foreboding nature of the land, but also the isolationist nature of the population and how cut off this is from the rest of the world.  The long rolling prairies and plains of Assail that evoke a sense of Esslemont’s Canadian homeland, a land that appears lush and welcoming, but has hidden dangers, and, like the beaches, emphasises the unwise and unwelcome intrusion of people into a world and space that does not want them.  But it is with the Alaskan and Scandanavian inspired mountains and glaciers that the book really finds a defining landscape that evokes the true nature of Assail.  The terrible beauty of the biting cold, the virgin forests filled with snow, the blues, greens and whites of glacial flow.  This is a harsh, pitiless, unwelcoming world to the human invaders, but a beautiful, sublime home to those people who live in concert with the land.   Each of these landscapes has been rendered with an eye for cinematic description that evokes the transcendentalist sense of nature’s beauty, as well as the brutal reality of inhospitable climes.

This descriptive backdrop neatly fits with the detail of the wider world which is also superbly rendered, in part due to the early books in the series, but also due to Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen series which features the same world.   By building on what has gone before, and assuming the reader’s foreknowledge of the world, Esslemont has been able to focus on what lies directly around the characters and this has led to a style that creates a perception of the fictive reality as something witnessed and existing, without needing to utilise endless exposition or overly-long descriptive passages.   The assumed knowledge is not necessary to enjoying the story as it unfolds, but it does add significant depth, breadth and colour to the story that uninitiated readers might miss.  As the narrative builds on this realised world and weaves the characters and their actions into it in order to build a cohesive story that reads and feels ‘real’, ultimately, it results in an immersive reality that the reader witnesses through the perspectives of the various point of view characters and creates a believable, solid weight to the story world that helps sell the more fantastic elements.

Given that the impetus of the story is based on the revelation of suddenly accessible gold-fields, and that the glaciers have retreated and exposed hitherto impassable sections of this relatively pristine land, there is a strong element of the frontier gold-rush myth to some of the storytelling.  While frontier stories are not that uncommon, the parallels to the current attitudes to exploiting natural resources in Canada and the US certainly form a strong undercurrent to this aspect of the story.  Esslemont’s description of the frontier mentality has far less of the noble mythos that has surrounded American gold rush stories, and presents a vicious reality about the unscrupulous plundering of natural resources over the objections of natives and indigenous inhabitants.  There is a strong suspicion that his experience of current mining and oil drilling in Alaska may have influenced some of the elements in the story.

The matter-of-fact destruction of natives and native environments by outsiders, in the name of progress and financial greed, is contrasted and compared to the tribal conflicts of the native inhabitants perpetrated on one another in the name of tradition and blood feuds, which are anything but dispassionate.  Esslemont succeeds in creating a credible series of tribal cultures and relationships that balance the tropes of the barbarian and the noble savage with a more objective perspective in an attempt to convey the complexity of tribal and clan societies without overly venerating or damning them.  These violent, destructive story threads are held up in comparison to the logical extension of their core premises in the story of the Imass and their genocidal pogrom sweeping through the land in an effort to cleanse a perceived racial taint.

As a series generally conceived of as high fantasy adventure epic, these are weighty, divisive and loaded issues that one would not expect to find.  However, part of Esslemont’s talent as a writer is to weave these contemporary concerns into his fantasy narrative seamlessly and make them appear as part of the very fabric of the fictive reality.   Not only that, but many aspects of these issues are presented without authorial comment or overt bias, letting the reader absorb the facets of the conflicts and appreciate the factors that led to characters making these decisions.  There are few obvious antagonists or villains in the story.  Indeed many of the foes faced by the characters are sympathetically or realistically presented in an effort to show the moral complexity of world, while the characters themselves are not always on the side of ‘good’.  Assail is a book of characters, not a book of heroes and villains.  By not directly signalling good or evil, and steering clear of fetishizing violence and idolising dark anti-heroes it may be that Esslemont has created too realistic a moral universe for his readers and some will overlook the actual complexity of morality at play.

Over the last few years Esslemont has faced significant and vicious criticism from many fans of Erikson’s Malazan series.  His work has been viewed or even dismissed as a companion piece to the real series.  His portrayals of characters and places in the world have been dismissed as less than authoritative.  His strengths as an author have been overlooked and his weaknesses have been exaggerated.  Despite this, Esslemont has continued to produce fantasy novels that exemplify the best that fantasy series have to offer and has continued to improve as a writer, an author and as a storyteller.  With Assail Esslemont has written a fascinating, thoughtful, exciting and engaging read.  It is a fitting finale to the Malazan Empire series, and a great book.  He masterfully weaves myth, legend, character, land and story together to create something that fulfils expectations but remains engaged with concerns of our own world.  He has always stood shoulder to shoulder with his co-creator, Erikson, but perhaps now he himself will believe it.

(Originally reviewed in NYRSF)

Blog: Some Thoughts on the latest Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice Trailer



Blog: Some Thoughts on the Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice Trailers

To say that Zack Snyder’s Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) is hotly anticipated is an understatement.  Even the trailers for the film are being anticipated like a kid at Christmas barely able to contain the urge to unwrap presents in a flurry of destructive shredding and flailing limbs.  And, unfortunately for me, that is what the film promises according to this latest trailer. (see the trailer here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fis-9Zqu2Ro although imdb has helpfully gathered all the trailers together as well)

Sure there is some very cool stuff in there.  The first real glimpse of Jesse Eisenberg as a twitchy, glib Lex Luthor.  It is great to see a new interpretation of the iconic character, and it will be interesting to see what Eisenberg does with it.  Admittedly I was a huge fan of Michael Rosenbaum’s interpretation of Luthor on CW’s Smallville, as an unscrupulous but brilliant businessman obsessed with power and aliens, but clearly the film franchise wanted to go in a more over-the-top, villainy for villainy’s sake kind of direction.  But it is still early days and would be unfair to judge Eisenberg on such short clips.

Ben Afflek’s Bruce Wayne being formally introduced to Henry Cavill’s Clark Kent, a moment that will no doubt have fans grinning ear to ear, is a great moment highlighted in the trailer, as is their short exchange in regard to vigilantes.  On the one hand, the unadulterated hero worship of the god-like Superman, literally and figuratively above the law bathed in sunlight, versus the fearful and potentially sinister representation of Batman, a brutal vigilante operating in the shadows and darkness.  There is a lot here to like.  Potentially a really interesting film about how some heroes are worshipped and others feared, how some extra-legal activities are not only permissible but lauded, while others are criticised and deemed dangerous.

We even get a brief look at Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman, who, as far as I could tell from the briefest of glances, is not wearing entirely impractical armour for a change, although one would think that thigh guards protecting the femoral artery would be kind of necessary.  Maybe leather swimwear is in fashion in Themyscira this season, who knows?   It will be great to have Wonder Woman on the big screen, and I hope Gadot is given the opportunity to show how interesting Diana’s character really is and that she is not left as a supporting bit of female muscle backing up the big boys.  In the first trailer we also catch glimpses of her ‘undercover’, so hopefully she won’t just be a bit part in this film.

As with all of Snyder’s films, we know that this is going to be sumptuously shot, saturated with various colour filters to distinguish point of view sections, presumably cold, blue filters for Batman and Gotham, sepia and golden tones for Metropolis and Superman, and some hyper-saturation for the over the top action scenes to allow deep blacks and the vivid reds and yellows of the inevitable multiple explosions, fires and devastation of multiple buildings.   There is bound to be some fantastic coverage of exaggerated violence and destruction, some slow motion shots of powerful punches, maybe even a couple of explosions rolling slowly outward so that we can experience the time dilation of Superman moving quickly to rescue Batman.  Who knows?

But… and you knew there was a ‘but’ coming…

The trailers do reveal an awful lot of the story.  And by a lot I mean a huge amount.  From the latest trailer we have:
1.) Bruce is pissed off that Superman is worshipped and is an alien and potentially could turn on the world and destroy it, so he sets out to beat him a la Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (1986).  Hey, nothing says great original storytelling like re-using a well-trodden and exceptionally well known story that all the fans already know and has only been previously adapted into a two part animated film once.

2.) Superman doesn’t like Batman’s methods, presumably because he disapproves of vigilantes that aren’t him, so he is out to stop Batman for Batman’s own good. And hey, if the people of Gotham wanted to be safe from criminals they should move to Metropolis, because although Superman can move faster than a speeding bullet, he never actually gathers any evidence to put criminals away so he is busy re-capturing them every day and can’t be bothered to help the most crime ridden city in DC’s universe.

3.) Superman is not universally loved, presumably because he destroyed three-quarters of Metropolis, causing untold damage and loss of life to innocent civilians in a useless battle against pretty indestructible opponents who he could have easily lured to the countryside to battle in relative peace and quiet.  So rather than acknowledge his hubris, lack of judgement, and his view of humanity as secondary to his own needs, he will prove them wrong by fighting Batman and other villains in huge destructive battles that wreak more havoc in Metropolis and/or Gotham.  The court scene/hearing from the first 3 minute trailer shows a potential for Superman to be held accountable, but let’s face it, something will happen and he will save them, and therefore be completely exculpated and exonerated.

4.) Lex takes Zod’s body to create Doomsday, who will presumably be the big set piece final villain that brings the founding members of the Justice League together in a an epic, all-out battle in which hundreds of buildings will be demolished in hugely populated areas yet with seemingly inconsequential loss of life despite the massive scale of the devastation.  I mean if one hero battling a villain and demolishing a city is good, then three heroes battling an even bigger villain must be three times as good, right? Right?

So essentially, the rest of the trailer emphasises all those aspects of Snyder’s Man of Steel (2013) that I didn’t like.  Mass, wanton destruction as spectacle.  Because why try to tell a powerful story when you can just have characters blow stuff up repeatedly for 40 minutes while they relentless pound on enemies that don’t really show any sign of damage.

Seeing Batman fight Superman will be cool, I am looking forward to it.  But it unfortunately won’t exactly be suspenseful as we already know the outcome as it is in the trailer, the comic book, and the animated adaptation, as well as the fact that this film serves as a set-up for The Justice League Part One (2017) film.  Showing Doomsday in the trailer all but guarantees that the fight between Batman and Superman will have to finish at least 20 minutes before the end of the film to give them time to team up against Doomsday and have a short coda in which they talk to Wonder Woman and wrap things up.  If the fight with Doomsday is less than 20 minutes then fans will feel short changed, so it will probably move around quite a bit as the three heroes fight him individually and together.  Maybe have a few saves and protecting each other.  Throw in a couple of barbed comments from Wonder Woman and call it a day.

Which means that we will have about 15 minutes of Batman fighting thugs in Gotham as backstory to introduce Afflek’s Batman to the franchise.  Plus a couple of minutes with Alfred as we need to see Jeremy Irons version of Bruce’s ultra-capable attaché , so we will call this 20 minutes all in.  Hopefully we won’t see any flashback of Bruce’s parents because no one needs to see that origin story again… ever.  Oh not wait, we will definitely get that flashback … again, because there might be one person on the planet who in going to see this movie does not know about Batman’s origin story… maybe… two.

5 minutes of flashbacks to the Man of Steel to re-use the expensive footage, but from Batman’s perspective so that we understand Bruce’s anguish over losing people to the destruction caused by Superman and Zod et al.  Plus it gives motivation and brooding time to Afflek’s character.

10 to 15 minutes of Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent meeting each other and Lex.  Testosterone and glowering looks all round methinks.   Maybe some witty repartee and growled banter.  Perhaps a short meeting of Bruce and Lois so that Clark can look a bit jealous.

15 minutes of miscellaneous Superman saves to show how awesome and heroic he is.  Possibly a montage, but we will have at least one extended scene of an awesome save (probably the rocket shown in the trailer which will possibly be blowing up during the hearing and thus require him to leave and save the day).

5 minutes of Superman worship and anti-worship depicted to add some depth (the scene at the courtroom with the protesters where Superman will probably be called to account for his part in the destruction of Metropolis but ultimately will be praised for brawling in the city with his dad’s best friend).

20 minutes of scenes at the Daily Planet and in Metropolis in which we catch up with Perry and Lois, and have some awkward scenes with Lois and Clark as they negotiate the rushed relationship storyline from the last film and try to establish some chemistry this time around, and Lois uncovers deep dark secrets about Mark Zuckerberg Lex Luthor.

10 minutes of Luthor coming up with a ridiculous, over the top plan to destroy Superman for some flimsy reason, some mad science stuff with kryptonite from the bottom of the sea (which may explain Aquaman showing up) that will look cool and yet make no sense whatsoever.

5 Minutes of Luthor capturing and monologuing to Lois about his evil, nefarious plan.

10 minutes of Batman prepping to fight Superman and getting the scene set up.  Some Batcave action, some making equipment and training montages, you know the drill.

20 minutes of Batman and Superman fighting through the storyboard from Miller’s comic.  It will look cool, there will be plenty of explosions, but no tension or suspense as we will all be waiting for Wonder Woman and Doomsday to show up.  They will come to a halt eventually, probably because word has come in of something more pressing, like Doomsday rampaging around a suspiciously well maintained yet abandoned industrial park devoid of civilian workers.

25 Minutes of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman fighting Doomsday, destroying three quarters of the city and miraculously not killing thousands of civilians.

5 minutes of wrapping things up and desperately plugging the Justice League film.  I mean we have to add in some scene with Aquaman, Cyborg and the Flash, even if they are brief cameos, or help in the fight against Doomsday.  I am assuming that Aquaman will be peeved about the destruction the world engine did to the ocean in Man of Steel.

5 minutes of Batman and Superman grudgingly respecting each other and mooching back to their respective abodes.

So if the film comes in around 2hrs and 30 minutes we have a good idea of what the film will contain.

So the film will look great, have lots of things blowing up, plenty of destruction, and will be a fantastic 2 hr 30 minute trailer for the Justice League film.  Unfortunately it doesn’t look like it will be a cool film focusing on the alienation of superheroes, their actions outside the law, their disconnect from everyday reality and the cost of their battles on everyday folk.

I will still be going to see it opening weekend.



Review: Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015)

Jessica Jones Logo


Review: Jessica Jones (Netflix, 2015)

Short Version:
A brilliant, mature, dark show that investigates the personal cost of abuse, violence, and notions of justice, and clearly demonstrates the range the superhero genre can encompass, all wrapped up in compelling drama populated by fascinating characters. Well worth watching.

Actual Review:
A TV show about the survivor of an abusive relationship who is a hard-drinking, bitter, and emotionally scarred private eye trying to take down her abuser, seems at odds with much of the public perception of superhero television, and in a number of ways Netflix’s Jessica Jones is as far from a traditional superhero series as you can get, and is all the better for it.

Jessica Jones, a Netflix Original series, is the 13 episode, live action superhero show based on Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos Marvel comic series, Alias.  Like its sister show Daredevil, and two planned future shows Luke Cage and Iron Fist, Jones is set in the same New York as the Marvel Cinematic Universe and occurs after the events of Avengers (2012).  But Jones eschews the grand, epic battle of heroes against countless nameless and disposable minions, and focuses intently, and uncomfortably, on the personal human cost of living, and surviving, in a world of superheroes and villains.  Make no mistake, this is not a children’s show, nor is it a rip-roaring excitement filled adventurous romp with no emotional consequence, this is a powerful show that examines the darkest parts of the superhero genre and the human condition.


Jessica Jones and Kilgrave

Krysten Ritter plays Jessica Jones, a hard-bitten, cynical, PTSD-stricken, alcoholic, running a shady one-woman PI firm in a dilapidated office situated in a grubby, and well realised, section of New York city.  Eking out an existence serving subpoenas, photographing cheating spouses in the act, and the occasional missing person’s case, in order to keep a roof over her head and her liquor supply constant, Ritter’s Jones is a far cry from the costumed heroes we are perhaps far more familiar with, yet the strength of her performance is that Jones feels more real, more substantial and more believable than even the grittiest superhero portrayed thus far, even if she has super-strength.  While Jones drops barbed comments and snarky come-backs like a jaded stand-up, Ritter imbues her performance with a vulnerability and fragility that highlights the character’s struggle to hang on and survive as a victim of extreme abuse.  Her very humanity and brokenness give the story its touchstone and allows for the tension, horror, and sense of threat to feel palpable rather than nebulous or cartoony.

Ritter manages to convey the complexity of Jones’ character with consummate ease and makes her portrayal seem both effortless and natural.  On the surface Jones appears crude, cold, callous and pragmatic, distancing herself from the world and those around her.  She is tough as nails and a no nonsense survivor ready to face down any physical threat and isn’t shy of a verbal put down or a judgemental swipe.  But underneath that calculated swaggering exterior Jones is a bundle of contradictory emotions and feelings, including guilt, self-loathing, fear, and extreme pain.  Despite this Ritter manages to convey that in her heart Jones is driven by a need to help and save people, that she is loyal to and protective of those she loves, and that she is a true hero doing the best she can to survive.  It is an impressive feat, and one that allows the audience to feel for Jones, to forgive her mistakes, and to become deeply invested in Jones’ development arc.

The main story is launched by a missing person’s case as Jones is hired to find Hope Shlottman by the worried young woman’s parents, but soon focuses on the re-emergence of a shadowy and abusive figure from Jones’ past, the despicable Kilgrave.  Played by David Tennant, Kilgrave is a master manipulator with the insidious ability to absolutely control people’s minds and actions, and possibly the most sinister and frightening of any Marvel villain thus far portrayed on screen.  While previous villains have had the ability to blow things up, wreak havoc and let slip the dogs of war, the invasive and disturbing power wielded by Kilgrave is far more intimate, and far more devastating on a personal level.  While other villains destroy buildings and bodies, Kilgrave destroys the mind, the soul and the heart of his victims, leaving them scarred, broken and screaming in his wake.  He calls into question their sanity, inspires paranoia, and rips apart their ability to trust anyone ever again.  He uses people as disposable puppets, and exhibits no compassion, remorse, or even an iota of guilt about his rape of their minds, and their bodies, and his destruction of their lives, even if he lets them live.

As the series delves into Kilgrave’s past with Jones the audience gains new and horrifying insight into what he is, what he did and what he continues to do to Jones.  A result of this is building admiration for Jones’ strength of will and huge amounts of sympathy and empathy for her struggle.  If we were perhaps hesitant at first to forgive her more egregious behaviour, seeing the monster of her past puts it in perspective.  As the extent and horror of Kilgrave’s plans and manipulations become more and more apparent, Jones’ paranoia, fear and trust issues become profoundly understandable and we gain insight into how destructive Kilgrave can be.  The more people he manipulates, the more twisted and sadistic his games, the greater the fear and paranoia of Jones’ character is translated through the screen and we soon start questioning the actions of every character, feeling tension every time someone knocks at the door or approaches Jones.

An amazing strength of the show, the writing, and Tennant’s acting, is that despite Kilgrave’s clear villainy, despite his sheer disgusting, depraved and evil nature, he is made understandable, watchable, and even entertaining at times.  Similar to how Wilson Fisk (Vincent D’Onofrio) was portrayed in Netflix’s Daredevil, the audience is invited to understand Kilgrave, to see his motivations and to get into his head, without ever once excusing his abuse or absolving him of his guilt.   Kilgrave has motivations and reasons that run deeper than the standard villainy for villainy’s sake, and it is refreshing to see comicbook adaptations produce genuinely disturbing villains whose evil is traceable, believable, and recognisably possible.  It is a fine line to walk, and Jones accomplishes it effortlessly.

Supporting Characters

Grounding the entire story are the relationships with and around Jones with a host of beautifully flawed characters.  Rachel Taylor plays Jones’ foster/adopted sister Trish Walker, a former child star (with all the drama that entails) and now popular talk-show host, who also happens to be estranged from her manipulative, unscrupulous mother and former manager and agent, Dorothy (Rebecca De Mornay).  The dynamic between Jones and Walker is brilliantly realised, and the chemistry between Taylor and Ritter is fantastic to watch on screen as we slowly get deeper and deeper into their relationship and backstory, with all the complications and messiness of sibling love, exacerbated by the introduction of superpowers, child fame and an emotionally abusive parent.

Yet another of the complicated and flawed supporting characters is Jones’ main employer Carrie-Anne Moss’ calculating, cruel, yet polished and brilliant lawyer, Jeri Hogarth.  Easily viewed as villain, (she is a defence attorney after all) Hogarth is morally compromised due to being embroiled in an office affair with her secretary Pam (Susie Abromeit), while lying to her wife Wendy (Robin Weigert), she is willing to take risks at other people’s expense, is ambitious and wants to win at any cost, and yet, she is not all bad.  She takes on a pro-bono case at Jessica’s urging, and despite Jessica’s less than professional attitude, continues to hire her because she gets results.  Like so many of the characters on the show Hogarth has her demons and flaws but we are continually invited to understand her, even appreciate her.  The show is at pains to paint the characters as real people, warts and all.

Jessica’s life is made a little more complicated by bar man and fellow super-powered character, Luke Cage (Mike Colter).  While Cage acts as a love interest for Jones (or at the very least a lust interest), his character and relationship with Jones are deeper, more interesting, and certainly more involved than that.  A minor quibble, and something that rang as a little too neat and trite, is the convenient overlapping of Jones’ and Cage’s backstories and key events.  Despite this, Colter and Ritter have good chemistry on screen, and their halting exploration of a potential relationship, secrets and all, rings true, and seems far more believable and honest than most of the superhero fare out there.

The last two major supporting characters are Jones’ drug addicted neighbour, Malcolm Ducasse (Eka Darville), and tough cop Will Simpson (Wil Traval).  Providing something of a mirror of each other characters over the course of the show, Malcolm and Will explore the redemptive and destructive aspects of character development over the series, and how people deal with trauma, abuse and the aftermath.  How they each react to their experiences with Kilgrave is telling and provides a brilliant support structure to the main narrative.  (Personally I found both of their arcs a little too rushed with each character changing fairly dramatically over a short space of time, but this may be a side effect of binge watching the show and therefore not having the gap between episodes that would ease the transition.)

The greatest strengths of this show are the attention paid to character and the care with which realised, flawed and broken characters are portrayed on the screen.  No one person is without blemish, and those defects are genuine, deep, heartfelt scars, rather than glib or artificial flaws superficially grafted in an attempt to create slightly rounded characters.  Each of the characters on screen feels like a real person, and when the world portrayed contains super-powers this adds a huge element of believability and authenticity to the endeavour.  There is an honesty and integrity in how they are portrayed that grounds this reality and makes the tension palpable and resonate.  It is through the characters that the horror of the situation, the stakes, and the repercussions of the story find purchase.  Their misplaced guilt, their fear, the conflicting impulses of revulsion and desire, the self-loathing and blame, all these things become powerful hooks imbedded in each character that grab hold of the fictive reality and turn their characters into people.  People you care about.  People you are invested in.

As I said above, the setting is New York city, but rather than the glitz and glamour of the Big Apple Jessica Jones keeps its attention on the back streets, the alleys and the grittier side, much like Daredevil.  Given the detective noir beginnings it is also unsurprising that many of the scenes occur at night, or in seedy, slightly dilapidated surroundings.  The view is of the personal New York, the real New York, the lived in New York, and the people and individuals that create the story.  While there are moments when the bigger landscape swims into view, and some glimpses of famous locations, most of the time the show stays grounded in the characters and the importance of the people.  This is a story all about the individual and most of the locales are in keeping with this.



Jessica Jones is a superhero story, but it is one that uses the medium to do something more than recount a tired tale of derring-do or over the top action.  It uses superpowers and this modern mythic form to provide a lens to examine, explore, and understand the ramifications of abuse, to place the focus on how victims survive and the desperate plight that is created after the instigating event, and to illustrate the strength and heroism of survivors of trauma.  It does all this by providing a story set in an exaggerated world where allegory and symbolism take some of the shocking, debilitating horror away from a real world issue so that we can bear to look at it instead of turning our heads away with a sense of overwhelming helplessness.

Jones is great television, compulsive viewing, powerful and meaningful storytelling, and wonderfully demonstrates what a grounded superhero story can do.  Shows like HBO’s The Wire and The Sopranos took unflinching looks at real life issues to produce compelling dramas, and Netfilx’s Jessica Jones joins their ranks, shoulder to shoulder.  This is a show to watch and bodes extremely well for the future of Netflix and for superhero television.


Review: Willful Child by Steven Erikson

Willful Child

Steven Erikson’s novel Willful Child is a science fiction spoof and parody.  While the clear target and inspiration is Star Trek the original series, a good analogy for the tone, style and humor of the book is ‘Get Smart! in space’.  It is an over-the-top parody, much in the same vein as Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, and delights in its clever, and sometimes absurd, subversion of science fiction television’s clichés and tropes to hilarious effect.   However, there is also a dark undercurrent of biting social satire running beneath the entire narrative.  The novel is written with Erikson’s customary eye for weaving subtle social commentary into the fabric of the narrative that rewards careful and deep reading.

Some initial words of warning.

Firstly, this is clearly intended to be a spoof, a parody, and a comedy.  As such, enjoyment of this novel will probably come down to whether or not you enjoy this particular brand of humour.  There are plenty of clever jokes, insightful lampooning of SF cliché, Star Trek in-jokes and references, as well as gross out humour and some very dark comedy.  Some (myself included) may indeed laugh out loud while reading this novel, others may be entertained or groan at one of the many ‘bad jokes’, but ultimately not everyone will find it funny. Humour is a deeply personal thing, and one person’s belly-laugh is another person’s acid reflux, and this novel lives and dies on its comedy.

Secondly, this is not a science fiction version of Erikson’s 10 book epic fantasy series, The Malazan Book of the Fallen, nor a ‘Bridgeburners in Space’ story.  Anyone expecting this to be a deep, philosophical, science fiction space opera or military SF in the vein of Erikson’s fantasy writing is going to be sorely disappointed.  This is a fun romp through science fiction tropes and clichés with Erikson’s characteristic cutting satire running deep below the surface.

Thirdly, as the book appears brash and brazen, it is all too easy to overlook some of the subtler aspects of Erikson’s social commentary or to potentially misread them.  In part this is one of the potential problem areas of the novel, and conversely one of its most interesting aspects.  While the parodic characteristics are readily accessible on a superficial read, it is the pointed satire that lies hidden and can be unheeded without closer examination and thought.  Long a strength of Erikson’s fantasy writing, in this case some of the intelligent commentary is too subtle and, like Verhoeven’s satire Starship Troopers (1997), it could be destined to be misunderstood.

Weighing in at around 75,000 words, this novel is significantly shorter than the fantasy epic tomes that Erikson is better known for, but this does not prove a detriment in any way as the book feels full and complete, without any sense of being short-changed, even for those accustomed to door-stop fantasies.  The novel soon settles into an episodic narrative focalised on Hadrian as the point of view character, with several self-contained adventures and set pieces.  This episodic structure adds to the story’s mimicry of Star Trek and of SF television shows in general.  In fact, one can easily imagine that Erikson envisaged this as a teaser for television adaptation as the style is not so much cinematic as televisual.  There is a strong emphasis on dialogue, along with clearly visual gags and several references to sound effects.   An over-arching story arc, influenced by Star Trek: the Motion Picture, ties the whole narrative together and the conclusion provides sufficient closure for this to be a stand-alone novel while, at the same time, space is left for further volumes.

The episodic nature also raises some interesting issues about how we read, as this style may be much more appealing to those reading on e-devices and in shorter bursts, rather than the sustained focus one usually requires for Erikson’s more familiar fantasy fare.  Regardless, Willful Child picks up momentum quickly and soon, if you can forgive the obvious cliché, is hurtling warp speed.  While each of the episode closure events provides a little respite, the novel maintains a frenetic pace as the ship, the crew, and the captain, hurtle from one adventure to the next.

Comparisons are likely to be made to John Scalzi’s Redshirts, but the two are actually very different novels.  While they share a common starting point in the use of Star Trek as an inspiration, Scalzi focused on a meta-textual examination of the high death rate of ‘extras’ in the show to provide the kernel of his story, while Erikson has extrapolated several aspects of the show to ludicrous lengths and inverted others in order to create his narrative setting, including, but not limited to, characters, plot elements and iconic stories.  But Erikson goes further and takes aim at several other recognisable clichés of science fictional television, such as: the willingness of alien species to find human space captains attractive, no matter the differences in culture, species, and even physiology.  Advanced technologies that can be easily understood after only a few minutes of cursory examination.  The apparent ineptitude of all the space faring races when it comes to space battle.  And even the blustering admiral who, like the angry police chiefs in detective shows, seems to be a staple of the genre.

While Scalzi might have gone for the clever smirk, Erikson has gone for the full-on raucous laugh.

The story focuses on the maiden voyage of the A.S.F. Willful Child and her new captain, Hadrian Sawback, as he breaks in the new ship, the misfit crew and the universe itself, to accept his unorthodox style and approach to galactic conflict.  At first glance Hadrian appears to be an exaggerated parody of Captain James Tiberius Kirk and who may be confused with the character of Zapp Brannigan from Futurama, and certainly there are elements of that.  But, with slightly closer examination, it is clear that Hadrian’s character goes deeper than the one-note cartoon parody.   Erikson takes as a premise a boy raised by television.  In particular a single show that he has watched repeatedly, and his hero worship of the central protagonist of which has formed his entire world view and become his sole inspiration and role model.  Hadrian is therefore the most devoted disciple at the altar of Kirk, as much a wilful child as his ship.  He accepts as tenants of faith that you go with your gut, appearances be damned.  The only place for the rule book is out the airlock.  Never back down from a fight.  Believe in yourself and the crew will follow.  All women, alien or human, will want you.  Always do the right thing, no matter your orders.  In fact, orders are suggestions, not necessarily commands.  His guiding principle: What would Kirk do?  To Erikson’s credit he never shies away from the darker aspects that this premise creates in the character of Hadrian.

Before discussing Hadrian in further detail, some mention should be made of other aspects of the book, starting with the crew.  Erikson surrounds Hadrian with a fascinating cast, including an alien doctor, Printlip, who looks like a large ambulatory beach-ball, and is as far away from being able to be nicknamed ‘Bones’ as you can possibly get.  The formidable marine lieutenant Sweepy, who routinely pulls off the impossible and, with her squad of long-suffering marines, saves Hadrian when he gets into trouble.   Lt. Galk, the depressive, fatalistic combat specialist and Lt. DeFrank, an engineer with severe space anxiety, ably demonstrate the eccentric nature of Hadrian’s crew.  The bridge itself is ably run by Hadrian’s second-in-command, First Commander Sin Dour, the only character other than Lt. Sweepy who seems in any way competent.  She has the unenviable task of mediating Hadrian’s style of command and the expectations of the crew.   Her attempts to ensure the smooth operation of the ship by the numbers are constantly frustrated by Hadrian’s insistence to lead from the front and never explain his reasoning.  Hadrian also poses a similar problem for the Chief of Security and Political Officer, Adjutant Lorrin Tighe.

But ultimately the best crew member is the AI, Wynette Tammy.  Hadrian’s relationship with Tammy, at times conspiratorial, at others confrontational, is one of the cornerstones of the novel.  There is a dynamic there that mirrors the relationship between Kirk and Spock.  Tammy’s relentless logic pitted against Hadrian’s more emotional-based will makes them excellent foils for one another.  Indeed, Tammy’s mysterious origins and abilities form the crux of one of the central mysteries and story threads than run through the novel and form a driving force for the narrative.  Erikson’s use of a female name for an ostensibly ‘male’ AI is one of the many little moments in which he plays with clichés within the genre.  In this case, questioning the need to anthropomorphise a genderless, sexless, machine intelligence in order to make human crew more comfortable.  While Erikson does not draw attention to this fact, this thinking underpins many of the subtler commentaries on space opera and science fiction television.

A similar point can be found in Hadrian’s desire for ‘beam weapons’ despite their obvious deficiencies in terms of effectiveness and energy economy being explained to him.  He wants them because they will look cool in a space battle.  The actual armament of the ship, twin rail guns, seems much more feasible and believable weaponry for a spacefaring ship, if less flashy, demonstrates Erikson’s desire to walk the line between SF spectacle and a believable future setting.

There are times, however, when Erikson’s point is less subtly made as he cannot resist in creating absurd pseudo-scientific terms for many of the gadgets and technologies of the ship and crew.  A personal favourite being the ‘Insisteon’, the Willful Child’s version of the transport beam, which instigates an argument with the universe and insists that you aren’t on the pad, but in fact somewhere else, thus transporting you to that location when the universe finally gives in.  While one could pretend that this is an articulation of quantum entanglement theory or a comment on the nature of the universe as created through observation and collapsing probability waves, Erikson just seemed to like the concept.  This balance of realism and the absurd adds a great deal of enjoyment to the spoof as it produces a fairly believable, if ridiculous, future world.

Returning to Capt. Hadrian.  Part of the attraction of Hadrian is that he is an exaggerated form of the early Kirk, but is trying to implement Kirk’s character in a real world.  In effect, Hadrian keeps trying to put into practice traits drawn from a fictional commander.  Traits that were only successful because they were supported and dependant on the narrative logic of a television show.  As a result, Hadrian is an interesting character study that throws Kirk’s behaviour into stark relief, by calling attention to those facets of Kirk from the show that our memories have softened with time and nostalgia.  Kirk’s ‘devil may care’ attitude, his casual relationship with the chain of command and Starfleet hierarchy, and his absolute confidence in the fact he was doing the right thing, bar those pesky moments of introspection, are horrendous traits to have in a military commander in real life, yet they always work out on the show.  Kirk was a hero, but a fictional one, and Hadrian runs into problems trying to live Kirk’s life in the ‘real world’.  Hadrian’s insistence on his crew doing things his way, without explanation, ferments rebellion and confusion amongst his officers.  Luckily he chose well in his second in command and trusts in Sin Dour’s ability to manage them and run the ship while he is off on away missions having adventures.  His belief that aliens should be fought in honourable combat leads to severe injury on more than one occasion.  Even his desire to wear a uniform based on Kirk’s, using authentic 1960s fabrics, in lieu of more appropriate body armour has similar consequences.  Yet it is clear that his unconventional thinking and willingness to be different makes him a great captain, just like Kirk, as his universe is not used to such free-wheeling, illogical plans of action.

But Erikson seems to be a believer in not making life easy for his readers, as well as being an adherent of the idiom that science fiction is about the contemporary world.  Readers generally ask for characters with complexity and depth, and usually complain about characters that are paragons or flawless heroes, but in this instance Erikson chose one of the most problematic flaws for Hadrian’s character in that Hadrian is sexually aggressive.  While Futurama’s Zapp Brannigan exhibits much the same behaviour, in his case it is forgiven because he is a weak, pathetic excuse for a human being and the viewer holds him in as much contempt as the other characters do.  As a result his character defects are explainable and dismissed as a bumbling joke.  We are equally willing to accept that villains can exhibit any number of disgusting, depraved or abhorrent traits because they are villains and we are meant to dislike them.  When it comes to heroes, however, it seems that we are willing to accept violence, homicidal or sociopathic tendencies, and a casual disregard for property rights or sentient life, as the character flaws as long as they are paired with a ready wit and the ability to quip when killing enemies.  And this brings us to Erikson’s commentary on sexism, misogyny and ‘heroes’.

The sf, fantasy, gaming, and comic industries and fandoms have been rocked time and time again in recent years by sexual assault and harassment scandals.  Many of these were especially shocking because these were not villains or ‘evil’ people committing the deeds, but artists, writers, editors and creators.  Respected people.  Heroes.  Erikson throws this fact in our face from the very beginning.  We can forgive this behaviour in Kirk because it was the Sixties and there is distance between us and the culture from that time period, a similar justification is often trotted out in discussions of the television show Mad Men.  We can forgive it in James Bond because he is a lying, manipulative, abusive user as per his job description as an undercover agent, and again, as a character from a different time, this was how it used to be.  With Hadrian, Erikson makes us confront a very uncomfortable truth, that this is how things continue to be.  Reading a hero who has this character flaw is difficult and more than a little uncomfortable at times.  Beneath the jokes, the laughs and the buffoonery, Hadrian represents a very dark part of our society and culture.  Hadrian could have been a cold blooded killer, a devious or roguish thief, or a dark and brooding commander, and few would have complained, but his frat-boy like desire to get laid makes for a disturbing reality and goes very much to the problems in our fandoms and creative circles.

There are two instances in the novel that spring to mind as examples of very uneasy reading.  The first, when a young female officer is panicking and Hadrian kisses her unexpectedly.  This has the result of shocking her out of her panic.  It is easy to imagine a similar situation in Star Trek, although it is much more likely that Kirk would have either shaken the young officer very roughly, or simply struck her, something that Kirk did not shy away from.  Because of the comparison drawn between Kirk and Hadrian we are forced to confront the disturbing evaluation of their behaviour.  While neither action is praiseworthy, are they equally bad?  Are we more comfortable with physical violence against women than with a kiss?  Erikson doesn’t offer answers to this, but merely poses the situation and the question.

In the second instance, the adjutant is drinking heavily in the ship’s bar and Hadrian wants to go and meet her with the intention of seducing her.  He asks Tammy how drunk she is, trying to gauge whether she is drunk enough to want to sleep with him, not so drunk that she would be incapable of consenting, and not so sober that she would refuse him outright.  This exchange makes for very uncomfortable reading, not only because of connotations of date rape and predatory dating practices, but because it reflects every day, commonplace behaviour that we deem socially acceptable.  Namely buying alcoholic drinks in a bar for someone we deem attractive.  Hadrian does not want to sleep with Lorrin if she cannot or will not consent, he is not a rapist and has no wish or desire to assault her.  He wants her to willingly sleep with him.  But he also reasons that she is more likely to accept his proposition if she is a bit drunk and less inhibited.  This is a practice that we recognise all too easily, and shades of grey can separate socially acceptable behaviour and predatory practice.  Erikson consciously chose to include both these instances and while he ensures that Hadrian never has the chance to be genuinely predatory, it creates a very disturbing picture that we are all too familiar with from conventions and conferences.  This is a reality we live in.

Despite his lascivious outlook, Hadrian is far from a sexist or misogynist character.  Hadrian is more than willing to have senior female crew members in positions of authority.  His command crew features several female officers, none of whom are glorified space receptionists, a job in this case reserved for two different male officers.  In particular, the space marine contingent is led by the extraordinarily capable Lieutenant Sweepy, who proves more than a match for Hadrian’s advances leading to some great by-play between the two as equals.  Hadrian’s trust in Sin Dour to be the capable officer who can run his ship and protect his crew would also seem to be at odds with characterising him as misogynist or sexist.  Hadrian’s behaviour genuinely goes to valuing the strengths and abilities of the female members of the crew, he never disregards their input due to their sex, or overlooks their advice due to a biological determinant.  He may dismiss their advice because he thinks he is right and already has all the answers, but that is more to do with his Kirk worship.  He just happens to be an obnoxious, socially inept Neanderthal who seems forever in search of a woman willing to sleep with him.

Hadrian emerges as a much more complex character with flaws than a cursory glance would suggest, and Erikson has chosen a difficult path for Hadrian and for himself.  Perhaps this could be even termed a mis-step on Erikson’s part, including subtle and sharp cultural satire in an exuberant, absurdist parody leads to a lot of the subtlety of the commentary being lost in the loud fanfare of the overt humour, and a too-subtle satire can often be confused for a representation of the subject.  A prime example of this is when early in the novel Hadrian reflects on the wisdom of picking his bridge crew based on their photos.  On the one hand it is a slyly delivered criticism of casting practices in SF television but it is also too easily read as affirmation of the misogynist practice of hiring on looks alone.

What is clear is that this aspect of Hadrian’s character will be problematic or worse for a number of readers.  What is also clear is that this is only one aspect of the novel, and a minor if pervasive one.  The vast majority of the novel focuses on humor, on space battles, on adventures and on fun.  The critical satire and the social commentary generally plays second fiddle to the raucous farce that is Willful Child.

If you want to read a fun, silly, entertaining parody of Star Trek, this is the book for you. If you want an exciting space adventure with doses of humour, read this. If you want a politically aware, socially conscious investigation of current society dressed up in SF clothing, Willful Child has that too, but you have to be on the lookout for it.  Willful Child is a wildly inappropriate, roaring and unapologetic indulgence in SF Geekdom.  It is sharp, pointed, funny and very self-aware.  Hopefully a sequel won’t be too far behind.

(Variant of this review was published in NYRSF)