Review: Dancer’s Lament (Path to Ascendancy Book 1) by Ian C. Esslemont

 

Dancer's_Lament_cover

Review: Dancer’s Lament (Path to Ascendancy Book 1) by Ian C. Esslemont

Shorter Review:

A great fantasy novel that is quintessentially ‘Malazan’ but in a streamlined, more story-centred form.  The three main POVs give a tight focus to the first step of Shadowthrone and Cotillion’s legendary journey.  A brilliant entry point to the Malazan universe for new readers as well as established Malazan fans.

 

Longer Review:

When Ian C. Esslemont and Steven Erikson whiled away the hours on archaeological digs by creating the intricate fantasy world of the Malazan Empire and gaming adventures in it with the GURPS system, they also created the bedrock for one of the most engaging secondary world Epic fantasies in the genre.  It is rare that two authors share ownership of a world and continue to produce well-crafted stories that intertwine and overlap, but never repeat.  While co-creators they each possess their own writing style, and with Dancer’s Lament Esslemont demonstrates his command of both the fictive reality and a tightly focused, story-centric narrative.

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Review: The Skull Throne (Demon Cycle Book 4) by Peter V. Brett

The Skull Throne

 

Short Review:

An epic fantasy that is showing signs of runaway plot-threads.  Secondary characters are given full rein while the central characters and story of Arlen and Jardir are side-lined once again.  Also hints of unnecessary complexity added to an already full story at the expense of the core, magical story.  Despite this, it is an interesting and enjoyable fantasy that further expands the world and the broader narrative canvas.

 

Longer Review:

If you are reading this I am assuming that you have already read the first three books in the series (The Warded Man/The Painted Man, The Desert Spear, and The Daylight War).  If you haven’t, this book won’t make much sense to you at all.  As it is, even after having read the first three, there isn’t much of a continuation of the main story and this reads as overly complicated, needless filler or as a side narrative that sits as a companion to the main story.  Don’t get me wrong, it was entertaining and I enjoyed reading it, but I just didn’t care about a lot of the secondary characters who had suddenly leapt into prominence.  And I was one of those people that really liked The Daylight War.  But, before I go on about the aspects of the novel that I didn’t like, let me first say that it was a good book. It was readable.  There were some genuinely engaging aspects and more than one event that I didn’t see coming.  It was good enough that I will be buying the next one.

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Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant (Tor, 2015) by Seth Dickinson [also known as The Traitor]

 

 

 

Traitor Baru Cormorant

 

 

Review: The Traitor Baru Cormorant (Tor, 2015) by Seth Dickinson [also known as The Traitor]

 

Short Review:

Bold, challenging, brutal, and demonstrates the author’s total commitment to telling an amazing story. It might have an accountant as a protagonist, but this is first rate fantasy.  Few debut novels are as hard hitting and brilliant.  One of the best novels of 2015.

 

Longer Review:

Before I get started on this review I just wanted to say that you should read this book.  Seriously.  Just read it.  Stick with it from beginning to end.  Then, once you are done, take those few moments of quiet and think about what you just read.  This is a stunning novel, brutal and beautiful in equal measure.  Smart, intelligent and powerful.  Thought provoking and entertaining.  This will become known as one of the classics of fantasy literature, a feat made even more impressive because it is a début.  So, read it all the way through to the end.  Although, fair warning, you will probably love it and hate it in equal measure, but hate it in the way that means you were enthralled by it and it has gotten under your skin.  Love it because it is unexpected, unconventional, and has an emotional resonance that goes to your very core.  This isn’t a cosy fireside fantasy. This isn’t an easy ride of heroic quests.  This is the type of fantasy that challenges you, changes you, and leaves you wrecked, shivering, and wanting more.

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Review: Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller, 2016)

Deadpool Poster

 

 

Review: Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller, 2016)

 

Short Review:

Violent, quip-laden superhero film that indulges in self-referential meta-humour as much as it does crude, sexual humour.  Highly entertaining sophomoric juvenilia that revels in its nerd-dom and pokes fun at the very comics-based industry it celebrates and is part of.  Brutal, silly and joyful celebration of superhero geekiness.

 

Longer Review:

Adapting a character like Deadpool to the big screen didn’t go well the first time around in X-Men Origins: Wolverine (dir. Gavin Hood, 2006), but this time Ryan Reynolds got to indulge in a fairly accurate portrayal of the infamous ‘Merc with a Mouth’.  Rated 15 in the UK. Deadpool is a gratuitously violent superhero film with a penchant for off-colour sexual humour.   Ryan Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, a smart-mouthed former Special Forces soldier turned mercenary.  Wilson is diagnosed with terminal cancer, volunteers for an experimental treatment that gives him superpowers, and ends up going on a violent revenge rampage.

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Review: Orcs: First Blood by Stan Nicholls

Orcs Stan Nicholls

The Orcs Omnibus is the complete collection of the Orcs: First Blood trilogy by Stan Nicholls.

I was initially intrigued by the idea of a book written about and from the Orcish perspective. They are after all the much maligned evil cannon fodder of many a genre fantasy and it would be interesting to read a story from their point of view.

Unfortunately this is where I ran into the first let down of this series. The Orcs of this book don’t read like ‘real’ Orcs. Ok, Ok so no Orcs are actually real, but Nicholl’s Orcs are effectively ‘noble savages’, that is pretty typical fantasy barbarians who happen to have lightly green and clammy skin, brutish looking faces, and a propensity for physical violence. Unfortunately if you took out the visuals they would resemble half a dozen other barbarian races that inhabit fantasyland. There are occasional flashes of humour, especially when the Orcs joke about living up to their stereotypes (most notably early on in the opening sequence when they joke about eating a human baby… doesn’t sound funny when it is put like that but it is worth a short chuckle when you read it in context.) but ultimately there is little about them that distinguished Orcs from any other race. So rather than this being a book that redresses the balance and gives you the Orcish perspective, it is just one more quest trilogy about misunderstood noble/honourable barbarians.

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Review: Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments (Freeform, 2016 – )

 

 

Shadowhunters-TV-show-poster-1448056730

Review: Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments (Freeform, 2016 – )

 

Short Review:

A television adaptation of an urban fantasy, paranormal romance, YA series that matches ropey dialogue and uneven storytelling with some dubious production decisions and awkward action.   It wants to be the next Buffy, but lacks the heart, wit and self-awareness to do so.

 

Longer Review:

Time to be upfront and honest about this.  I am clearly not the target demographic for this adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series.   Just as I wasn’t the target audience for the books when I read the first few books and could not get into them.  Ditto for the film version in 2013 which I watched and disliked.  I didn’t like the story, the characters or the world.  So this television show was going to have an uphill battle to turn me into a fan.  On the other hand, I watched the first two episodes with very low expectations, and was disappointed to find that it didn’t even clear those.  So feel free to dismiss my thoughts on the show as coming from someone who will never ‘get’ this series, but I am a fan of fantasy literature, film and television, and I hate it when things are done badly.

 

Some general remarks first.  Shadowhunters: The Mortal Instruments is a live action television adaptation of Clare’s six book series, starting with City of Bones (2007).  The story initially revolves around Clary Fray (Katherine McNamara), a young teenage New Yorker, whose mother Jocelyn (Maxim Roy) disappears, apparently kidnapped, a discovery that she is a Nephilim (a supernatural race descended from an angel) and the world she lives in is part of a wider supernatural world of demons, warlocks, werewolves, and the extremely pretty, and yet horrendously understaffed, people who hunt them.[1]  There are secret societies, ancient prophecies, monsters and villains, and magical artefacts a plenty.  She meets up with a few other teenage demonhunters (the aforementioned Shadowhunters) and sets off on a quest to recover her lost memories, rescue her mother, and embrace her destiny to save the world, all while navigating her increasingly complex love life.

 

There are a couple of love triangles, some forbidden love, and lots of long, lingering looks.  There are some cool magical abilities, which may or may not be read as tattooing or self-harming depending on your perspective.   It grapples with issues of teenage angst, feelings of alienation, evil/neglectful parents, and the allure of being a teenage rebel.  So in many respects it follows the form of a typical YA paranormal romance.  So far, so Buffy.

 

I try to begin with some positives so that I am not simply laying on the negative criticism, so let’s focus on that.  The show has made a couple of changes to the original story which are actually fairly positive.  For a start the principals have been aged slightly to the 18-20s mark instead of being in their mid-teens.  Not much of a change, but it makes the story a tiny bit more believable and easier to watch.  The coming-of-age narrative is still possible, the characters are still young, and it doesn’t really change the fundamentals of the original source material.  So as far as changes go, that is actually a pretty good one.

 

The character of Luke (Isaiah Mustafa) has been made into a cop and is not a white character anymore.  Again, this is a pretty positive thing for the show.  It makes the cast slightly more diverse instead of a sea of pale, white faces, and it gives Luke’s character something to do in the episodes.  It brings a new element to the story of the supernatural/real world conflict and the overlapping of two realities.  Plus, bringing in the New York City police department angle attempts to ground the narrative and the conflict and bring it some much needed believability.

 

The main cast of actors playing Clary, Jace (Dominic Sherwood), Simon (Alberto Rosende), Alec (Daddario) and Isabelle (Emeraude Toubia) are all very pretty young things who look the part of the characters they are playing. The protagonist Clary is pale with bright red hair.  New to this supernatural world but blessed with extraordinary gifts she is meant to act as the audience POV.  McNamara plays her with energy, but there is little substance there yet.  Jace, the strong, silent love interest, is pale with unconvincing peroxide blonde hair and cheekbones you could cut glass with.  Tall, blonde and definitely not Spike.  Unfortunately he displays almost no sense of humour, and those few lines that could be delivered that way fall flat.  I get that he is meant to be broody and alluring, but without a reader’s active imagination to spin depth of character out of nothing, Jace is presented as cold, hollow and generally obnoxious rather than mysterious, broody and wounded.

 

Alec and Simon are pale with dark hair doing the brooding/nerd-chic thing respectively.  Linked by unrequited love storylines and the fact that they are a little superfluous to what is actually happening they are not particularly engaging on screen, with Alec playing it ironically ‘straight’ and Simon lacking Xander-level snark and quips.  Izzy is not quite as pale with dark hair and an extensive wardrobe.  As the sexually liberated one of the group, this has resulted in her appearing as eye-candy for demons and wearing a succession of impractical demon fighting garb.

 

The thing is, they all look the part.  The issue is with the characters they are playing, the dialogue and direction they have been given, and the lack of empathy or emotion in the show.  You can’t fault them for the enthusiasm with which they have seemed to throw themselves into this series.  But, as with so many shows aimed at the teen demographic, they are not, perhaps, the most experienced or talented actors in the world.  Their job is not made any easier by the fact that the dialogue is pretty awful, the story is a bit ridiculous and nonsensical, and the fight choreography depends on lots of jump-cuts and shifts in perspective to give it any life.  With better material it is entirely possible that these actors would shine, but given the source material and story they are forced to work from, they were pretty much doomed from the start.

 

The first episode is a mess of clashing scenes that try to ram the complicated exposition down the audience’s throat in the vain hope that info-dumping the world, history and character details, throwing in a few action scenes, and adding some sparkling effects will make you tune in next week to find out what the hell is meant to be going on.  If the dialogue and acting had been convincing enough to sell the story, this wouldn’t have been so much of an issue, but unfortunately because the story is from the books even the greatest actors in the world, in conjunction with the best screen writers and CGI effects teams would have been pushed to the limit to make this story work.  An alternative would have been to take advantage of the medium and tell the story a little more slowly, and allow the history to emerge over the course of the season, but, alas, this was not to be.

 

Like the actors, the show looks superficially pretty, but it lacks depth and substance.  It has the added issue that the prettiness is unevenly spread with some scenes and sets looking slick and polished, and others looking badly lit, cheap, and crude.  The CGI itself is not that bad for a TV show.  But the production team made some questionable decisions with the props that look like fantasy toys from the local store.  Plus, a secret old-world magical base in a gothic Cathedral should probably not have state of the art routers, flatscreen displays and the type of technology and background staff that would make CGI: Teen edition weep.  And shouldn’t magical tattoos look cool rather than a bad skin disease or a suspicious rash?

 

More troubling is that this lack of substance to the sets extends to the distinct vacuum where emotional resonance should be.  For example, when Clary first embraces her destiny as a Shadowhunter it is essentially used as an opportunity to give her a new wardrobe change into ‘sexy’ leather and not signal an empowering moment of seizing her own destiny and choosing to fight for her life.    When Jace reveals that he too has lost his parents the emotional impact is roughly the same as if he had just said that he too liked cheeseburgers.

 

It all just feels a little soulless.  A little superficial.   I mightn’t have been a fan of the books or film, but I wanted this show to do well.  I wanted to be surprised and entertained.  Instead, I was disappointed by a series that fails on almost every level.  But, as with any TV show, this is early in its run.  It may find its feet and go on to tell an interesting, adventure filled romp through a supernatural world… I just won’t be holding my breath.

 

[1] Why understaffed?  Well why else would a bunch of children/teenagers be sent out to fight the forces of evil if they had sufficient adult staff?

My 2015 in Film (Part 2)

 

Cinema Screen

 

My 2015 in Film (Part 2)

A continuation of my ramblings about the 2015 released films I saw.

 

 

Self/less (2015, dir. Tarsem Singh)

I was surprised by this film.  Admittedly it had Ryan Reynolds in it, and I can watch him in almost anything, but I actually enjoyed this film, even if it was fairly obvious where it was going and what was going to happen.  Anyone familiar with SF literature will recognise the story arc, old rich man downloads consciousness into new body… hijinks ensue, but it was well presented and acted, and pretty enjoyable.  And who doesn’t love Ben Kinglsey?

 

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

The M:I franchise demonstrates what the Bond movies are severely lacking, an ensemble cast and a sense of humour.  This is an absurd, fun, exaggerated action movie that provides chewing gum for the eyes and popcorn for the brain.  It doesn’t matter that the plot is ridiculous.  It doesn’t matter that both the hero and the villain are both over-qualified super spies.  The stunts are amazing, the action is glorious, and you get what was advertised.

 

Pixels (2015, dir. Chris Columbus)

What could have been a fun, nostalgia filled trip down computer memory lane turned out to be a fairly tedious and unfunny Adam Sandler film.  Who would have guessed?  The visuals were great, the references to the old arcade games were fun, but unfortunately it had Adam Sandler as a hero and contained all the annoying dialogue and unfunny jokes we have come to expect from him these days.

 

Fantastic Four (2015, dir. Josh Trank) aka Fant4stic

This one surprised me.  It got a lot of hate online before I had a chance to see it, and I was therefore pleasantly surprised.  As far as superhero reboots go, and they are all the rage apparently, this was actually pretty interesting.  Trank’s earlier effort Chronicle (2012) clearly had a strong influence on what he was trying to do here, and I found it a lot more engaging than most of the superhero destruction fests on offer.  Admittedly the last ¼ of the film was a bit of a let-down and felt rushed and skated over, the character of Doom was under-utilised, and the finale felt ‘meh’.  It could have been really engaging, as the acting was pretty good, the origin story was an intriguing update marrying the New 52 with older continuity, and the effects were pretty damn interesting.  I enjoyed this one.  So much so, that I would actually look forward to a sequel by the same director with the same actors.

 

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015, dir. Guy Ritchie)

I loved the trailer for this film.  Seriously, the trailer is great.  Watch the trailer.  What can I say?  This is a polished, stylish, smooth, hollow film.  I don’t have any nostalgia for the TV show, so there was nothing there for this film to build on.  It looked great, it seemed to have all the story elements that it should, it just felt soulless and cold to me.  It was like a pretty, empty, shell of a spy film.  The costuming was great though.  I really liked the suits that Henry Cavill got to wear…

 

Hitman: Agent 47 (2015, dir. Aleksander Bach)

Computer game adaptation sequels are never likely to be amazing works of cinematic genius, but this has some excellent fight choreography and some impressive action sequences.  The story trips along predictably, but entertainingly, the acting wasn’t offensive, and the dialogue wasn’t particularly cringe worthy.  It is a step up from the Uwe Boll films at least.  What more do you want from a computer game franchise film?

 

The Martian (2015, dir. Ridley Scott)

A film in which Matt Damon needs to be rescued … again… as an internet meme is currently pointing out.  This was actually a good film.  It was enjoyable, smart, interesting, and only slightly strained incredulity.  It was also surprisingly fun and some excellent moments of tension.  I had a great time watching it, and, unlike Interstellar (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan), didn’t come out of it regretting having listened to the hype.  Damon is brilliant in this, and it convinces me further that Elysium (2013, dir. Neill Blomkamp) being awful had very little to do with him and much more to do with the fact that Blomkamp is over-rated and not actually that talented.

 

The Last Witch Hunter (2015, dir. Breck Eisner)

Hey, Vin Diesel is great.  I will watch anything he is in (see Furious 7 above for proof… hell, I even watched The Pacifier (2005, dir. Adam Shankman)).  This film is part fairytale, part Urban Fantasy, and part Fantasy Epic, but seemed to be desperately trying to be a modern Sf action movie.  It felt a lot like Van Helsing (2004, dir. Stephen Sommers) and I, Frankenstein (2014, dir. Stuart Beattie), but was better than Seventh Son (2014, dir. Sergey Bodrov).  I don’t know why it is that so few Fantasy films actually work well.  Especially when there are so many great Fantasy works out there that prove that it can be smart, engaging, grown up, and riveting.  But this, unfortunately, is another one to watch when there is nothing else on.

 

Spectre (2015, dir. Sam Mendes)

Despite Mendes’  protestations to the contrary the opening shot of this was remarkably similar to Soy Cuba (1964, dir. Mikhail Kalatozov), and that was probably the best thing about this bloated, cold, sterile, humourless, dour, tedious instalment in the Bond franchise.  It was almost bad enough to make me want to watch the Pierce Brosnan Bond films again.  When did Bond get so boring?  Even Christoph Waltz (playing exactly the same character he always seems to play) couldn’t save this film for me because there was no intimacy between him and Bond, the threat and antagonism seemed so impersonal and distant.  The stunts were good but lacked the style and sense of ridiculous fun that the M:I seem to have cornered the market on.  It felt like this was a film going through the motions of being a Bond movie… Opening cinematic stunt sequence?  Check.  Under-used female co-stars?  Check.  Unbelievable romance sub-plot that won’t go anywhere?  Check.  Car chase?  Check.  Ridiculous villain with nonsensical plan?  Check.   Casino Royale (2006, dir. Martin Campbell) seemed to breathe fresh air into the franchise… but now that air seems to have gone stale at best, and as rancid as a fart in a space suit at worst.  But they managed to make Quantum of Solace (2008, dir. Marc Foster ) look better by comparison.

 

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015, dir. Francis Lawrence)

I am not a Hunger Games fan.  I am just saying that up-front so you know.  I am also not a huge fan of films that split a book into two in a desperate grab for more money.  Despite that, I thought that this was the least tedious and awful of the films.  It was certainly a lot darker and grimmer than I expected (I only managed to make it through the first book and couldn’t face the rest of them).  Jennifer Lawrence is a great actor and I love watching her films (hence forcing myself to watch this one), and Philip Seymour Hoffman will be missed… but I was left fairly nonplussed by this.  It hit me squarely in the ‘meh’ zone.  Just not for me I guess.  Everyone else seemed to really enjoy it.

 

Creed (2015, dir. Ryan Coogler)

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this Rocky/Not Rocky film.  Sure the story was predictably by the numbers but Michael B Jordan was pretty good in this and Sylvester Stallone plays the aged champ turned reluctant trainer with ease.  The boxing matches seemed a lot more convincingly choreographed this time around, and there was a decent human and humane element running through the film that only occasionally lurched into full bombast.   Not a bad film in my not so humble opinion.

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J.J. Abrams)

I have already reviewed this… twice, so don’t have much to add, except that, upon further reflection (and by this I mean that I have shamelessly stolen the thought from a friend), Kylo Ren is actually a pretty interesting and scary villain as soon as you start to think of him as one of the mass-shooter teenager types who rages through schools killing innocent children and teachers.  His lack of empathy, his dialogue, and his desire to re-enact the murderous acts of a previous monster matches disturbingly well with the profiles of those individuals who have shot up schools and universities.  But if you want a review you can easily click on the links to the right to find the two more detailed discussions of TFA.

 

The Hateful Eight (2015, dir. Quentin Tarantino)

I didn’t like it.  Cinematically it had some wonderful shots and some clever framing, but ultimately I didn’t care how or why any of the characters would die.  I am not a huge Western fan, so the homages to previous Westerns were lost on me.  The story was contrived and slightly tedious, and even though the dialogue was very sharp in places and some of the acting was great, this one just wasn’t for me.