Saturday 26 March 2016

Web of the Witch World, by Andre Norton

It's been about a year and a half since I first read Witch World, the first book of what became a long and complex series. This is the plot summary borrowed from my previous review:

"Simon Tregarth, an ex-soldier living on the fringes of the underworld and with a price on his head, is offered a chance to escape through a gate connecting this world with another better suited to him – which turns out to be the Witch World. This world has a fundamentally medieval society (what is it about medieval societies which makes them so common on other worlds?) with a few additions of strangely advanced technology. There is also sorcery, wielded by women in just one place, the land of Estcarp. Tregarth finds himself involved with Estcarp – and one of the witches in particular – in their struggle for survival against an inhuman enemy."

Web of the Witch World continues the tale a few months later. Simon Tregarth is now established in Estcarp as March Warder of the south, helping to defend the witch land against the purely human enemies which surround it. He is now married to Jaelithe, the former witch who had given up her status for him. A new threat is emerging, an inimical force with the ability to take over the minds of humans, turning them into enemies of their own people. It does not take long to identify the culprits as the alien Kolder, beaten at the end of the first story but now regrouping in their attempt to establish control over the witch world.

What follows is another exciting adventure, a tale of intrigue, battle and romance, during which it becomes clear that the belief of Estcarp's Women of Power – that magical powers could only be exercised by virgin women – proves to be wrong on both counts. Tregarth and Jaelithe, individually capable, become a force to be reckoned with when they fight side-by-side.

I must admit to wondering how the story was going to end as the remaining page count shrank almost to nothing while the battle was still raging, but the heroes finally manage the job in a rather abrupt ending which doesn't really explain exactly what the Kolder were up to. It's a fun ride, though, and well worth reading if you like Witch World. After this, the focus of the series switches to the heroes' children and to other lands within the witch world, but I think I'll bail out at this point – too many other books awaiting my attention!

Saturday 19 March 2016

TV: The X-Files Season 10 (2016), and Person of Interest Season 4 (2016)

The revival of the X-Files after a gap of fourteen years saw the story dive straight into alien conspiracy theories again in the first (of six) episodes. Scully and Mulder reappear along with Skinner and The Smoking Man, providing a certain "the gang's all here" nostalgic appeal.  One interesting change is that Mulder, who has retreated from the world until being recalled for further investigative work, has now become the sceptic, believing that the conspiracy is not to cover up the existence of aliens, but to obscure the fact that they don't exist. Curiously, I found it very difficult to recall any details of this episode even the day after I had watched it. Perhaps the aliens don't want the truth known – or maybe it's just my memory again!

I was initially a fan of the original series, but lost interest in the later seasons when the writers seemed to be concerned with making the plots increasingly horrific and yucky. Unfortunately, the second to fourth episodes of the new series rapidly follow the same track, with stand-alone horror stories and no more heard about alien conspiracies. This is a pity as the performances – especially by Gillian Anderson – are more nuanced and sophisticated than they used to be, which adds more depth to the stories. I would have much preferred the writers to develop a more consistent narrative thread followed through the season, rather than separate stories which can be seen in any order.

The season returns to top form in episode five with a relatively mundane plot concerning efforts to communicate with a near-to-death suicide bomber. It is remarkable for two reasons: it is superbly written, the philosophical discussion between Mulder and Scully at the end raising it to a new level, and it introduces a another pair of young FBI agents also concerned with investigating the paranormal: Miller and Einstein.

On checking I see that the first and fifth episodes were written and directed by series creator Chris Carter, as was episode six. This is a direct sequel to the first episode, although it's a messier story than the first. In this one, alien DNA injected into humans has an unexpected part to play as a pandemic sweeps around the world, and the final scene is a cliff-hanger.

Clearly the story is intended to continue. Are Miller and Einstein, who also have important roles in the final episode, intended to replace Mulder and Scully in due course? I would have no objections as they are very good – particularly Einstein who is even a red-head! I hope there's a Season 11 some time, it is good enough to continue with.


Person of Interest was also losing its focus (and worse, its sense of humour) at the end of the third season and I lost track of what was going on. So I wasn't feeling too optimistic about the fourth season, but fortunately it started off very well – it's got its mojo back! The usual team – including the Machine, the AI which identifies people of interest to the investigators – have been forced to go underground by the emergence of Samaritan, a dominant rival AI. At the start of the season, the Machine reactivates the team and they set up in business again, very much under the radar. The deadpan repartee between the very diverse characters is top-notch with more smiles-per-minute than many comedies – even their ferocious dog is funny. Very promising so far, and I'm looking forward to the rest of the season.

Saturday 12 March 2016

Libriomancer, by Jim C. Hines, and The Wrath of Angels, by John Connolly

I must admit I had never heard of Jim Hines before I added Libriomancer (published 2012) to my reading pile some time ago, probably as a result of an Interzone review.  On checking his Wiki entry I see that he has form when it comes to fantasy writing, with four novels in the Goblin Quest series, another four in the Princess series, four (to date) in the Magic Ex Libris series (of which Libriomancer is the first) plus a couple of other novels and collections. Not a bad output over a decade or so.

Isaac Vainio is a librarian – and a libriomancer, a magician who can mentally enter a novel he is holding and retrieve any object described in the book: a magic sword, a death-ray, a healing potion. A handy ability, but one with dangers if he becomes too involved with the magic, as a result of doing which Vainio has been banned from practising it by the secret society of libriomancers. This was orginally set up by Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, who is still around. Or at least, should be – but war has broken out between the magicians and the vampires, and Gutenberg is nowhere to be found. Isaac has to revive his magical abilities to survive, with the aid of Smudge his incendiary spider (who sets light to his surroundings when he gets worried) and Lena, an attractive dryad capable of some neat tricks with wood.

The concept of pulling objects out of books is not exactly original, featuring in the German Inkheart trilogy which also resulted in a film. However, Libriomancer is an enjoyable contemporary urban fantasy, although the entertainment is possibly too light: I read the book on consecutive evenings but still found that at the start of each session I had to re-read some of it to refresh my memory. Or maybe it's just my memory… There are three sequels so far, but I'm not sure if I'll get around to them, given the size of my reading pile.


The Wrath of Angels (published 2013) is also a contemporary urban fantasy, but that's where the comparison ends. Charlie Parker is a private detective working in the north-eastern corner of the USA, who is drawn into conflict with some decidedly inhuman beings over the wreck of a plane found in remote forest.  The story is original and well-written with good character development, but my enjoyment was reduced by two things. First, it is the eleventh book in a series so there is a lot of backstory I missed, and the series continues afterwards so this novel doesn't wrap everything up either. Secondly, it is a rather unpleasant story with strong horror elements and without any humour or appealing characters to lighten the mood. Not to my taste.

Saturday 5 March 2016

Film: Signs (2001)

I hadn't watched this film before, but Signs appeared on TV with a favourable review so I thought it was worth a look. It certainly has some cinematic firepower, with M. Night Shyamalan writing and directing (plus appearing in a minor role) and Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix heading the cast.

The story starts with the discovery of crop circles on a farm where Graham Hess (Gibson), his young son and daughter, plus younger brother Merrill (Phoenix), live together. There are also suggestions of something nasty lurking in the cornfield, the dog showing alarm and so forth, but nothing is seen. Graham, who we soon learn is a former priest who lost his faith when his wife was killed in a road accident and is now thoroughly sceptical, initially doesn't believe there is anything there. Meanwhile, the TV is showing films of lights in the night sky appearing over major cities.

The pace of the film is slow and deliberate, focusing on the atmosphere of growing menace and the confusion and, ultimately, terror of the family as their worst fears are realised. It is only relieved by a few moments of deadpan humour, particularly concerning tin-foil hats!

I found the second half of the film more disappointing than the first. It had seemed to be shaping up to be a psychological study of the nature of belief, in both religion and conspiracy theories, and the impact of this on an isolated group of people, while keeping the reality or otherwise of the threat uncertain. Handled differently, with the truth of the situation remaining unclear to the viewer, this could have been a landmark production. Instead, it turns into more of a routine horror film as the nasty aliens come into the open at last and besiege the family. Still worth seeing – once.