Saturday, 8 February 2020

Some recent screen productions


TV - The War of the Worlds (2019)

This BBC production of Wells's classic novel takes considerable liberties with the plot (if you really don't know it, I reviewed the book – and its recent sequel – in February 2018). First of all, the main character is a scientifically-educated woman (Eleanor Tomlinson in an impressive performance) who doesn't even exist in the book: in this world she is the girlfriend of the main character in the book who scandalously has abandoned his wife.  Secondly, the progress of the Martian invasion is spread out over a longer period and although it ends in a similar way, the after-effects last for years as the noxious red weed keeps spreading and killing off other crops, leaving a devastated landscape with few survivors.

The whole mood of the TV version is much more dark and downbeat than the book, with a high casualty rate among the main characters and the final setting deeply dystopian until a glimmer of hope is visible at the very end. The pace is quite slow, lingering over the people's (mostly negative) emotions, and it becomes something of a psychodrama. There is also an explicit reference to colonialism; that the Brits maybe deserved what they were getting, because it was more or less what they had been dealing out to the natives in their empire.

Having said that, it is a high-quality, atmospheric production with a top-level cast and is worth watching – once. Too gloomy for a repeat view in the foreseeable future.

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TV - His Dark Materials (2019)

This 8-part TV version of Pullman's His Dark Materials covers the first book of the trilogy, with the second series already commissioned. I have read the trilogy and seen the previous movie version of Vol.1 (The Golden Compass, 2007), but so long ago that I only had a vague recollection of events so can't draw direct comparisons.

One thing that did strike me straight away was that the introductory sequence is strongly reminiscent of the Game of Thrones TV series, in term of the music and the style of graphics. Perhaps an indication of what the producers are aiming for? Certainly the "eight hours per volume" (so presumably 24 hours for the trilogy) should provide ample time to explore the story and develop the characters, compared with the two hours of the movie version.

The other aspect I noticed was the choice of actors playing some of the main characters. The one clear memory of the film version I took away was that Nicole Kidman was perfectly cast as the beautiful but evil Mrs Coulter. This part is now played by Ruth Wilson, who is a highly-regarded actress but lacks the icy perfection of Kidman. The other is that the main character, Lyra Belacqua, initially came across as the kind of tiresome brat who I would avoid in real life. Fortunately, her character developed during the series, which was interesting enough for me to pursue. It kept on getting better so it was no problem to stick with it to the end, by which time I was eager to see the adaptation of the next volume.  What made me like it? The production values are excellent; this is a very high quality product in all respects; the acting is of a high standard; and the generous time allowance provided lots of scope for plot as well as character development.

I do hope that the producers don't fall into the trap of extending the story with indefinite sequels. A total of 24 episodes for all three volumes sounds just about manageable.

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Blade Runner 2049 (2018)

I decided to watch Blade Runner 2049, which I've had on Blu-Ray for some time. It lasted for over 2.5 hours and is relatively slow-paced for an action movie but despite this it held my attention to the end, which tells you something about its quality. While it lacks the raw originality of Bladerunner, it is a truly beautiful production, a work of art and an instant classic. Definitely one to keep - even at that length!

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Saturday, 18 January 2020

Three Recent SF Novels


The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This novel won the 2019 Nebula Award for Best Novel, the 2019 Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel, and the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Novel, and was nominated for the 2019 Sidewise Award for Alternate History. That's a somewhat intimidating list of endorsements to face a reviewer!

The story begins in a different 1952, in which the east cost of the USA is devastated by a giant meteorite strike. The first-person narrator is Elma York, a young pilot and brilliant mathematician who works as a "computer". She realises that the long-term impact of the strike will be runaway global warming, culminating in the Earth becoming uninhabitable. The only solution is to start colonies off Earth, starting with the Moon and going on to Mars, and nations combine in a maximum effort to achieve this.

The main plot driver is Elma's determination to become an astronaut, to achieve which she battles constantly with a misogynistic and obstructive bureaucracy. A secondary theme is the endemic racism of the time. The writing is very good, the characterisation oustanding for an SF novel (at a cost – see below), the details of the mission control centre and its operations highly convincing. I read the first 200 pages of this 500-page story in one sitting.

However, after putting it down, I found myself slightly reluctant to pick it up again, for reasons which took me a while to sort out. It is a rather old-fashioned story, reminding me in its style of nuclear-war novels I read in my youth, but that is not the main problem. One issue I had is that it is too detailed, in particular it dwells far too often on Elma's struggles and her problems with anxiety; I found myself becoming increasingly impatient with the focus on minutiae and the resulting slow pace of events.

Perhaps the main problem (which probably sounds rather odd, given the basic plot) is that it isn't particularly science-fictional. Once the meteorite impact and its consequences have been described (and then somewhat neglected thereafter), the rest of the book could almost be a mainstream novel mostly concerned with arguing how much better things could have been if women had been treated equally. I have no argument with that thesis, but it is hammered home relentlessly to the detriment of the balance of the story.

What I have always liked most about SF is the way it stretches my imagination, and this just didn't happen with this book. At any rate, my attention gradually slipped away and at page 400 I found myself asking the deadly question: do I want to finish it, or would I prefer to read something else? So I stopped. I can, however, fully understand why this book gained those awards: it's just not for me.

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Dogs of War, by Adrian Tchaikovsky

I acquired this one following enthusiastic endorsements from other readers, but I regret to say that the story failed to engage me. Alternate chapters are told from the viewpoint of a very-much-modified giant dog designed as a formidable war-fighting machine, but the animal's mental abilities and linguistic skills are those of a rather dim child. After five chapters I decided that I had read as much of such writing as I could take, so I stopped. Again, not for me.

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The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle, by Stuart Turton

This is a story with a rather strange beginning which becomes even stranger as it progresses. The story is unlike anything else I've read, and it is difficult to say much about it without spoilers. On the face of it, it appears to be a historical country house murder mystery (the author was a childhood fan of Agatha Christie) but has a couple of major twists which push it into SFF territory. The plot is fiendishly complex and if you are the kind of reader who has to have a clear understanding of exactly how the mechanics of the story are working out, you will need a large sheet of paper on which to record what each member of the fairly large cast is doing to whom; exactly when, and why. Furthermore, you'll need to read it at least twice to get a grip of events (after one reading, I haven't been able to answer all of my remaining questions). Fortunately, as well as a map of the scene (not particularly important) there is also a list of the main characters at the start (absolutely essential – I constantly referred to it).

I'll quote the back cover blurb on the grounds that the spoilers it contains are official!

At a party thrown by her parents, Evelyn Hardcastle will be killed – again. She's been murdered hundreds of time, and each day, Aiden Bishop is too late to save her. The only way to break this cycle is to identify Evelyn's killer. But every time the day begins again, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. And someone is desperate to stop him ever escaping Blackheath.

The book (a first novel) has collected many rave reviews as well as winning a Costa book award. Interestingly, these are all from mainstream reviewers, not the SFF crowd. Does it deserve such praise? Yes, it does, but it's not a quick and easy read; be prepared to settle down to some intensive study!


Saturday, 28 December 2019

The Riyria Chronicles, by Michael J. Sullivan


The Riyria fantasy series was recommended to me by several members of the Classic SF discussion group, so I took a look at the series structure and soon became rather confused. The first six volumes, under the general heading of The Riyria Revelations, were self-published during the 2008-2011 period. These were so successful that the author secured a publisher for the next seven (so far) stories, which appeared under the series title The Riyria Chronicles from 2013 and counting. However, instead of forming a sequel, they consist of one long prequel to the Revelations, featuring the same two principal characters. Next up comes The Legends of the First Empire, a planned six-book series (published from 2016) set in the same world but thousands of years before the events in Revelations and Chronicles. Finally (so far) The Rise and the Fall is expected to emerge from 2020 onwards (three books planned to date), and chronologically will fit in between Legends and Chronicles. Sullivan is clearly an author who believes in getting the most out of his world-building efforts!

The author is relaxed about the order in which the series are read, reckoning it works just as well either way, so I followed my usual preference of sticking to the internal chronology rather than publishing dates.

The first book of the Chronicles series is The Crown Tower, so that's where I began.

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As I understand it (those familiar with these works will no doubt correct me if I am mistaken) all of the Riyria books are focused on the adventures of their two contrasting young heroes: Hadrian Blackwater, a soldier of considerable fighting ability, and Royce Melborn, a skilled thief and ruthless assassin. The Crown Tower deals with the circumstances in which the two meet and (following a decidedly awkward start) gradually develop a partnership. Their world of Elan provides a fairly typical medieval-class background, the main distinctive feature by comparison with other such fantasies being the lack of anything magical apart from the ability of a few people to read the fates of anyone rash enough to ask; this is regarded as witchcraft and generally disapproved of. (More magic does feature in later books, while the fortune-telling sinks into the background.)

The story follows two individuals in separate threads: one is Hadrian (Royce also arrives in this thread) and the other is Gwen, a young girl forced into prostitution who gradually reveals some formidable strengths. The chapters alternate, the threads only coming together at the very end of this volume.

The descriptive passages and characterisation are both very good, but the book makes quite a slow start and while it engaged my attention, it didn't initially hook me. Once the story started motoring I was drawn in and thoroughly enjoyed the ride, so bought some more.

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The Rose and the Thorn is the sequel to The Crown Tower, picking up the story of Hadrian and Royce after a gap of about a year: they have recovered from their tribulations in the first novel and are slowly getting use to each other's very different personalities and priorities. A brief exchange between Hadrian and Royce provides an amusing flavour of their relationship.
Hadrian: "…that's what people do. They help each other. If you saw a man lying in the road with an arrow in him, you'd stop, wouldn't you?"
"Of course," Royce replied, "anyone would. A wounded man is easy pickings, unless you could see from your saddle that someone else has already taken his purse."
"What? No! No-one would rob a wounded man and leave him to die."
Royce nodded. "Well no. You're right. If he has a purse and you take it, it's best to slit his throat afterward. Too many people live through arrow wounds. You taught me that. No sense risking that he might come after you."

Gwen and her ladies of Medford House are now an integral part of the story rather than occupying a separate thread. A new character rather unwillingly joins the two heroes early in the book; Viscount Albert Winslow, a bankrupt alcoholic member of the nobility who proves most useful in aiding the various scams which the morally dubious pair now live on.

As in the first book, there is another plot thread featuring a different character, this time a poor stable boy called Reuben Hilfred who works at the castle at Medford and becomes involved with the royal family, especially after discovering a devious plot to kill them. These two plot threads run in parallel, alternating throughout the book, with the characters in both threads occupying the same place at the same time but never meeting – an intriguing literary tactic. The novel has a satisfactory ending but there is clearly more to come. The second novel confirms the quality of the story-telling: not quite as good as in Bujold's Chalion series, but then, what is?

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The Death of Dulgath is the third of The Riyria Chronicles. This time there is one single plot thread. Royce and Hadrian travel to the remote and little-known land of Dulgath with a curious commission: somebody keeps trying to kill the young Countess of Dulgath, and it is the task of the two adventurers to test their security to ensure that she is as well-protected as possible. When they get there, they find a very strange land: one of peace and plenty, where it never rains in daytime, the crops never fail, and pestilence is unheard of. There is an old legend concerning a demon who was recruited to protect the land, and Royce and Hadrian have their practical scepticism put to the test as the plot develops in unexpected ways.

One theme concerns religion: the old imperial church is trying to make a come-back by gaining influence over the various rulers scattered across the land, while the King is leading the resistance to this. Plots and betrayals follow, with the main focus being who controls Dulgath. Disaster threatens our two heroes unless they can work out what is happening, and sacrifices are necessary before the end.

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The Disappearance of Winter's Daughter is the fourth of The Riyria Chronicles, following on (in internal chronology terms) not long after the third. There is an unusual start; a duchess is attacked in the first chapter, while Royce and Hadrian experience a surprising ending to a bounty-hunting mission in the next. That raises some intriguing questions, which are not followed up (as yet) as our two heroes are given another mission: to find out what had happened to the duchess.

The city of Rochelle, where the duchess lives, is a fascinating place which is as individual as the characters. Much is made of its multicultural nature, although harmony between the four races is notable for its absence; the lesser races, or Pitifuls, are developing a resistance movement. In parallel with this, the church is still plotting to extend its influence.

I mentioned earlier that more magic appears in the later stories, and that is particularly true of this volume in which some spectacularly heavy-duty sorcery forms the climax of the tale. I have mixed feelings about this; the fun in these stories is focused on the developing relationship between the two heroes and the way in which they extricate themselves from dire straits in order to emerge (more or less) triumphant. Magic doesn't really add anything to that.

As well as the frequently humorous interaction between the two main characters, the writing is full of in-passing observations which add to the enjoyment of the tale. For example:

"Trying to keep up, Hadrian nearly plowed into a mother holding the hands of two children, but halted at the brink. All three looked up at him and smiled. He smiled back, concluding a silent but clear conversation that included understanding, forgiveness and a bit of humor."

I am beginning to be aware that the author likes to leave plot threads dangling in one book, to pick them up again in a subsequent one. This happens here, but I wouldn't like to spoil the fun by saying more.

After this, I will acquire The Riyria Revelations. It will be interesting to see if these earlier works (in publication terms) are as well-written as the Chronicles.


Saturday, 7 December 2019

Fantasy Roundup


An assortment of fantasy novels I've read recently.

The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

THotB was first published in 1908, and is regarded as an early classic of supernatural horror. It is not exactly my usual type of reading, but I'm trying to catch up with Books I Ought To Read, and this one kept popping up in recommendations concerning the history of SFF; it is regarded as highly influential. A check on Hodgson's Wiki page revealed an interesting character who published a range of stories, many of which are still available. He was killed in the First World War at the age of forty.

THotB is a story within a story. It is topped and tailed by an account of a fishing holiday undertaken in a very remote part of Ireland, in which the two fishermen do some exploring and discover the ruins of a great house, hidden in a huge overgrown garden which contains an enormous pit with a fast-flowing river at the bottom. In the ruins they find a book, hand-written by a former resident of the house to describe his strange experiences. The bulk of THotB consists of the resident's tale.

The resident lived in the house a long time ago, alone except for his sister and dog. He moved in because it was cheap, having already acquired a grim reputation for supernatural events. His strange experiences began with the sighting of hideous creatures, vaguely humanoid but with porcine faces, which instilled in humans a powerful sense of dread.  They came from the pit and laid seige to the house, during which the resident experienced his first out-of-body journey, arriving at a strange land. His spirit travelled to a place surrounded by mountains, in the centre of which was an exact replica of the house in Ireland, only much bigger and made of some glowing green material. In the surrounding mountains he observed vast beings, the old gods of the pagan religions, while a giant version of the porcine creatures was trying to get into the green house.

In subsequent out-of-body experiences he travelled in time at a gradually accelerating rate to the death of the sun (a sequence surely inspired by H.G. Wells's The Time Machine); a powerful and sustained piece of imaginative writing.

I found that finishing the book was no problem (assisted by the fact that it is a novella of only around 100 pages) even though it didn't really engage me. The plot lacks coherence, consisting of a series of loosely connected events, with the significance of the house never explained. Despite this, it is worth reading for the imaginative visions the resident described.


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In Search of the Shining World, by Mary Beth Melton

This is another kind of story that I normally don't read. It is a fantasy, featuring an unhappy fifteen-year-old girl who passionately believes in fairies, treasuring the memory of once having seen some, and would like nothing more than to enter their world. This she does, and finds a strange culture with its own rules and practices. She is sent on a mission to prove her worth, and encounters dangers that she had never dreamed of before the unexpected conclusion.

I am not the best person to assess this book, as I suspect that it is mostly appreciated by young teenage, or pre-teen, girls, with whom I have so little in common that they might as well belong to an alien race. However, I not only finished it, I read it in only two sessions. Which is a tribute to the author's story-telling ability.

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Limited Wish, by Mark Lawrence

Limited Wish is the second of the author's Impossible Times trilogy: the first volume, One Word Kill, I reviewed here on 24 August 2019, the final part, Dispel Illusion, being due out in a couple of months.

This continues the story of mathematical genius Nick Hayes and, as before, is written entirely from his viewpoint, in the first person. He is now a 16-year-old student at Cambridge University, working at the cutting edge of physics in order to develop the time machine which (he learned in the first volume from a time-traveller) he was due to achieve later on. Life is not simple, however; strange effects and manifestations keep occuring as the paradoxes of time-travel seem to be closing in on him. Two young women are to be involved, apparently in some kind of competition for his favour. To add to his problems, his leukemia has relapsed and he is pursued by a deadly relative of an old enemy. Fortunately, his Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends are there in support, along with more visitors from the future.

This book was just as much a pleasure to read as the first volume, and I am eagerly awaiting the third.

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Fallen, by Benedict Jacka

Fallen is the tenth of the author's Alex Verus series, following the fortunes of the maverick diviner living in a present-day London in which magic very much works (albeit unsuspected by the general, non-magical, public). The other nine books have already been reviewed on this blog, so I won't repeat the background; I'll just point out that the books are effectively telling one long story, so it is essential to read them in the right order.

At the start of this volume, Verus has achieved a degree of acceptance, being appointed to the magical Light Council with his friend (and now girlfriend) Anne also accepted as his assistant. Needless to say, this does not last and Verus's world comes crashing down around his ears, with the support he has enjoyed from various others being brutally kicked away. Almost alone, he has to take drastic, life-changing measures to acquire the ability to defend himself against his powerful enemies. He succeeds – at a cost. The story ends abruptly, so we'll have to wait for the next (and last) two volumes to discover what happens. This whole series is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys this kind of contemporary urban fantasy,