Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 3)

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 poster
The Amazing Spider-Man 2

After Kick-Ass 2 and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, it’s time for the last in my little series of disappointing comic-book movie sequels. I cared so little for The Amazing Spider-Man, I didn’t see it in the cinema and didn’t bother to compile my thoughts on it in its own post – I included it in a collection of reviews of DVDs, and I didn’t even give it the prominence its alphabetical status warrants. Obviously, I wasn’t first in line to see the sequel, or even rushing to watching it when available to view at home.

Although I enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, and particularly his chemistry with the always fantastic Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, I didn’t need any more Spider-Man films by Sony; however, because Marvel has proved that there is money to be made from superhero franchises, Sony was going to give us a sequel whether we liked it or not. And like it we did not.

The film suffers from money-grabbing instincts – it spends more time setting up sequels and spin-offs (does anyone really want a film about the Sinister Six? Really?) than it does concentrating on the job in hand – namely, making an entertainment film that would engender in people a desire to see more films about the lead character and implausibly minor characters from the small collection of supporting villains because that’s all Sony has to try to milk money out of comic-book fans.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a classic case of completely missing the point of the success it’s trying to emulate: Marvel built up the films slowly, drip-feeding the future and sneaking in Easter eggs (well, except for the heavy-handed tactics in the less-than-stellar Iron Man 2); Sony forces it down your throat in one go – it’s like they hadn’t learnt the lesson of Spider-Man 3, stuffing it with too many villains and making a film nobody liked (even if it made money). It’s sad to see the great Paul Giamatti slumming it here in the hope of something more in a spin-off that is never going to happen. It’s a shame to see Chris Cooper spending his limited time in bed, waiting for future promises of more screen time that are now dust in the wind. Don’t get me started on the ridiculous of the plotlines involving Richard and Mary Parker and the secret subway train nonsense. Having Electro develop the power levels the equivalent (and look) of Doctor Manhattan didn’t help matters, creating a truly bizarre finale in the electrical pylons. No wonder Sony had to face facts and work with Marvel from now on …

However, the worst crime in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is believing that because it happened in the comic books, it had to happen in the film. Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film (although you wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t), but Gwen Stacy dies in the film, and the only reason is because it happened in the comic book. I can’t begin to describe the disappointment I felt that a group of white men in control of a genre that is dominated by white males thought it was perfectly natural to kill off one of the few great female supporting characters, just to make Peter Parker even sadder.

When Gwen appeared in the first film, I hoped that this would be part of the Marvel trend of not being completely beholden to comic-book lore – Iron Man’s identity is not a secret, Thor is not pretending to be a doctor with a limp, Ultron isn’t created by Ant-Man, Captain America isn’t a humourless dullard – and using the comic books as basis not blueprint. Gwen, as portrayed by Emma Stone, is smart, resourceful, funny, independent, principled, believable – everything that comic-book movies are lacking apart from Black Widow (Mary Jane in the first trilogy wishes she had half the gumption of Gwen). Stone’s onscreen chemistry with Garfield is great, and it looked like there might be a female character in a comic-book movie that could be an inspiration, a role model, a woman who was more than accessory to the male superhero … until she was killed off in an updating of the famous scene from the comic book.

It’s mind-boggling to witness the decisions of white men who have ignored the concept of Women In Refrigerators while retaining a sensibility from 1980s action films (that women exist only to be captured or be killed to motivate the male hero) and who completely believe that Gwen’s death MUST occur only because it happens in the comic book and adds a layer of tragedy to Peter Parker. A character who constantly carries with him the guilt of responsibility for his beloved uncle’s death, so he is clearly in desperate need of even more guilty and tragedy … This level of misery porn is one reason why I’ve never been a big fan of Spider-Man, and I naively hoped that it wouldn’t make the transition to a film made in the 21st century. I was wrong. We’ll see what Marvel can do to help, but I’m not holding my breath.

And that’s everything off my chest about those three films. I hope I don’t have to do this again, film studios.

Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 2)

Thursday, 19 November 2015

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For movie poster
Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Yesterday’s Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie sequel was Kick-Ass 2. The next comic-book movie sequel that was a disappointment was Sin City: A Dame To Kill For – I can understand why it ended up on Netflix, like Kick-Ass 2 (Netflix UK does not get the best choice of films).

Unlike Kick-Ass 2, Sin City 2 has the same writer/director team as the first film; like Kick-Ass 2, it uses comic books as the source material, additional Sin City storylines from Frank Miller’s catalogue (plus two original stories he wrote for the film) as the basis of the film; another similarity is that Sin City 2 includes most of the original cast (including interesting new faces such as Christopher Lloyd and Ray Liotta). Yet another similarity is that I enjoyed the first film (see my thoughts on Sin City), which is another reason why the sequel felt even worse. Like Kick-Ass 2, Sin City 2 is not a good film in its own right and not a good sequel to the first film made nine years previously.

The first Sin City film was ridiculously violent, highly stylised, with a colour palette derived from the comic books and (at the time) a unique look, and it had a freshness, a vitality, a distinctive tone; the sequel is leaden, scattershot, pedestrian, a faded copy, the stories coming across as footnotes to the stories in the first film. I couldn’t believe that the sequel was made by the same creative team, who seemed to be genuinely making a proper Sin City film instead of some sort of parody film. As I said in my tweet, the last line of the film summed up the viewing experience: ‘It soils everybody.’

The first film managed a balance between the ‘realism’ of the setting with over-the top action, the verging-on-pastiche dialogue, the rather bleak view of women, and some clichéd aspects of hard-boiled fiction. The sequel decided to forget to bother with that and just go balls-out for unbelievable action – a young girl slicing off the heads of disposable gangsters while jumping impossibly high in the air; people standing across a courtyard from each other and firing machine guns and somehow surviving – and force terrible parodying dialogue in the mouths of good actors. It made me feel sad for people I like when they appeared in the film – poor returning Rosario Dawson, poor newcomer Joseph Gordon Levitt; the only person who comes out of it with dignity is Eva Green, a terrific actor who manages to generate the right insane intensity for the role within the movie so you can’t take your eyes off her.

Frank Miller’s comic-book work was entering into self-parody by the time he was only doing Sin City work (which was around the time I stopped buying any Miller comics), and it has a been a long time since he was a vital contributor to the form (the Dark Knight Returns sequel was hideous, and I’m not looking for the upcoming third instalment), so it’s unsurprising that this sequel feels uninspired. The film also suffers because Miller’s own directorial debut, the dire film adaptation of The Spirit (or, rather, Frank Miller does The Spirit as Sin City, completely missing the point), which destroyed a lot of affection for the Sin City film style by using the Sin City style inappropriately and making a truly horrible film (as I tried to encapsulate in my blog post about it).

Another thing: Robert Rodriguez hasn’t made a film as good as Sin City since, seemingly regressing to making films that are cinematic releases but look and feel as if they should have been released straight to video (and yes, I deliberately used the word ‘video’ because that’s how archaic they feel); this leads to a lack of strong directorial vision in charge of this sequel that nobody was clamouring for anymore. The only positive is that the film did not do well theatrically, so at least it brought us the possibility of no more Sin City films and, even better, no more films by Frank Miller.

Come back tomorrow for the final Unsatisfying Comic-Book Movie Sequel.

Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 1)

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Kick-Ass 2 movie poster
It used to be that, as a rule of thumb, sequels weren’t as good as the first film. The exceptions to this were so small that you could easily list them (The Godfather Part II, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens) and stay confident in the generalisation. However, there was a slow turnaround in the fortunes of sequels so that it was no longer a small list, and the rule of thumb was no longer a rule. In comic-book movies, this trend had significant outliers – Blade II was better than Blade, X-Men 2 was better than X-Men, and Captain America: Winter Soldier was exponentially better than Captain America: The First Avenger – but, unfortunately, there were still examples that seem determined to adhere to the original maxim. I wanted to use to talk about three of them.

I love comic books and I love films, so I love the combination of both (see my ‘comic book movie’ tag for evidence); I tend to see them mostly in the cinema and then blog about them. However, there have been comic-book films that I haven’t had the desire to watch on the big screen, and, when I’ve watched them at home, I didn’t have any desire to talk about them on the blog. Three comic-book movies that fit in this category all happen to be sequels, so it seemed sensible to jump on a theme and collectively bash them instead of doing ‘proper’ reviews (I use the sneer quotes to denote that what I do aren’t proper reviews).

Kick-Ass 2
I recently watched Kick-Ass 2 and Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For on Netflix, and I’m glad I didn’t see them in the cinema or pay money specifically to see them. Both films suffer from seeming like parodies of their originators, almost as if they are knock-offs instead of direct follow-ons (and I enjoyed Kick-Ass). In Kick-Ass 2, blame can be laid at the feet of writer/director Jeff Wadlow – instead of recapturing the specific tone of the first film, which mixed ultra-violence with style and a tongue firmly in its cheek, Wadlow thinks that lots of violence and Hit-Girl spouting clichés when she dispatches gangsters in action scenes scored to bizarre musical choices are all that is needed to repeat the success of Kick-Ass.

Jim Carrey, who actually gives a good performance, notably came out against the violence of the film before it came out, but it’s possible he’d seen an early cut and was using any excuse. The sequel also uses the casting decision of the first film of using British actors as Americans (Iain Glen pops up as a mafia boss, Steven Mackintosh and Monica Dolan as bereaved parents, Andy Nyman as a psychotic gangster, Daniel Kaluuya as an MMA fighter turned villain, and Benedict Wong as a Chinatown boss), and I still can’t work out why John Leguizamo decided to be in this.

The film suffers from the contradiction of pretending that it’s a film about superheroes in the real world but still having comic-book action that defies the laws of physics (the bit at the end where Hit-Girl gets an adrenalin shot and practically becomes Jesse Quick) and a plot that doesn’t make any sense. The only good decision made in the film is that it doesn’t opt for the horrific rape scene of the Mark Millar–John Romita Jr comic book, and the only bit I genuinely enjoyed was Hit-Girl using a shock baton to cause a bullying teenage girl to (digitally) vomit and shit her guts out. I may have a strange sense of humour …

Even though Matthew Vaughan was a producer, he seems to have taken a hands-off approach, and the film feels like a sequel for the sake of money, instead of being an adaptation of a comic book. This is something that connects the three films – come back tomorrow for the next Unsatisfying Comic-Book Movie Sequel.

Comic Book Review – Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor #1

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Cover for Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor #1
Written by George Mann
Art by Emma Vieceli
Colours by Hi-Fi
Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt
Edited by Andrew James
Published by Titan Comics

Josephine ‘Josie’ Day is painting in an empty cottage in a Welsh village when she’s disturbed by a noise, then a man: ‘I’m the Doctor, and I’d very much like to know what you’re doing in my house?’; her life isn’t going to be the same. The man is the eighth Doctor (as played by Paul McGann for one film, over a decade of audio adventures and recently wonderfully revived by Steve Moffat in Night of the Doctor), ‘a romantic soul wandering the universe in search of culture, companionship and adventure’, as accurately described on the inside cover.

The Doctor has returned to his home on Earth – it’s been several decades since he was last in the cottage – and he’s looking for a book. He thinks it’s important because someone left it for him – himself, ‘The other me. Old one, white hair and frills.’ – a copy of Jane Eyre (‘It’s one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century! Don’t they teach you anything these days?’). He’s distracted by Josie’s paintings, which have very unusual subject matter, only to be disturbed by a neighbour with a story of being attacked in the pub by a monster (‘I’m the Doctor – and I love a good monster story.’), a monster that was just like the one in Josie’s painting … When the monsters turn out to be Witherkin, creatures of living starlight that fashion bodies from fragments of drifting asteroids, and animated ones created by Josie because she is covered with Animae Particles (I do like a good pun), it’s up to Josie to save the day and finish the story …

I’d read a novel by Mann before but none of his comic books; he does a good job of capturing the voice of the Doctor in his eighth incarnation, the quest for culture and adventure, and the story is very much in keeping with the current approach to Doctor Who stories – quick to action, peril without heavy danger, humorous, a resourceful companion. It’s good to see this version of the Doctor getting a chance to shine in comic books, a good medium for the adventures because it has the necessary limitless budget. Vieceli is a good storyteller – the art flows naturally and dynamically – but the approach to likeness is more impressionistic than realistic; there are times where the art reminds me of Mark Buckingham and sometimes when it reminds me of Mike Deodato, particularly the late ‘80s, early ‘90s style, with less emphasis on background detail and more on the characters in the foreground. It has a charm that matches the Byronic tone of the Doctor and the adventure – light, breezy, playful, dashing – that overcomes any slight inconsistencies. The same playful and breezy tone is developed in the colouring, which channels the pastel end of the spectrum, taking it further away from the photorealistic style and placing it firmly in the cartoonier arena, almost with a hint of old-fashioned children’s book illustrations. It sounds like it shouldn’t come together, but it does in that wonderfully strange way that Doctor Who does. This comic book is a done-in-one story, setting up further adventures for the eighth Doctor and Josie as they investigate the strange circumstances behind Josie’s Animae Particles and her knowledge of unusual Doctor Who villains, which sounds like a perfect recipe for this particular time-travelling team. A good start to the mini-series.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.

Comic Book Review: Johnny Red #1

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Johnny Red #1
Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Keith Burns
Colours by Jason Worde
Letters by Ron Steen
Edited by Steve White
Published by Titan Comics

Tony Iverson is a young, wealthy man (he made his money in the dot com boom) who has come to Vintage Flyers in Suffolk so that they can restore P7089: the battered and beaten airframe of a Hurricane plane (‘the plane that won the Battle of Britain while the Spitfire got the credit’). It has a strange history and the wreckage was recently found in Eastern Germany – for more details, Iverson will have to go to Russia to make further enquiries with a specialist contact. The contact in Russia locates a veteran of ‘the Great Patriotic War’ who says he knows Iverson’s plane, a former sergeant called Rodimitz. After laughing himself silly at the price Iverson paid for the Hurricane, Rodimitz (‘I would been happy to burn that worthless, stupid, obsolete English shitbox to the ground’) tells Iverson that he was Chief Mechanic of the fighter squadron the Hurricane flew with, and proceeds to tell him the ‘secret’ story of that time.

With that, the story flashes back to Stalingrad during the Second World War, where millions of Russians have died and those who remain survive and fight, and all planes were drafted to drop supplies so that the Russian defenders could continue the fight. However, the better German planes with their better pilots were always waiting … Fortunately, there was one plane that even the German fighter pilots recognised, a British plane flown by an Englishman leading a Russian squadron of which there is no record due to the story Rodimitz is going to tell Iverson …

Ennis is a fantastic writer of war stories (in my thoughts on Punisher: Valley Forge, Valley Forge, I mentioned that the prose extracts of a factual book about the war were fantastic and that I would read non-comic-book war stories written by Ennis) as well as a huge war geek, as he has demonstrated in his various collections of his war comics. He is also a huge fan of Johnny Red, so this must be a dream come true for him. This comes across in the writing – he cannily starts the book in the present day so that he can slip in his war-buff knowledge before making the transition to the original era, but it also allows him to set the story up in a way to draw in a modern crowd, highlighting the unusual setting of a British pilot fighting with the Russians on the Eastern Front. The material at the back relates how a real event was the inspiration for the original Johnny Red stories (although the unfortunate typos take away some of the gravity: ‘… or make for distance [sic] Russian. He sensibly opted for the later [sic] …’); although this is fiction, Ennis grounds it in the reality of the war and all the horror it involved.

Ennis also uses the build-up technique before the reveal, which is a nice touch and works even though the reader knows that the character is Johnny Red – the deliberate hiding of his face in various panels until the final page reveal (where he is corrupting a 17-year-old boy: ‘It’s time you started smoking.’) is a handsome way to introduce and set up the protagonist. The art by Burns is a fine assist in this regard: using different camera angles to delay showing Johnny Red’s face while still making that seem natural and telling the story at the same time is a tough trick to pull off, but Burns does so with aplomb. There’s a certain rough line to Burns’ style, particularly in the faces, but his attention to detail when it comes to the aeroplanes is anything but rough, something I’m sure was important for Ennis in this collaboration. The aeroplane battles are also impressive, dynamic and vibrant yet clear and easy to follow.

I continue to be impressed with how effortless Ennis’ writing appears – each timeframe has wonderfully natural dialogue that advances the story while dropping in important information and maintaining different styles between the different eras, as well as identities for the different nationalities without needing linguistic tics to achieve it. I have read (and reviewed) some of the previous Johnny Red stories, so I know a little of what to expect, and this new comic book feels exactly in the same vein as the original material. I hope the modern comic book industry has room for a boys-own adventure, because Johnny Red is off to a flying start (and I don’t apologise for that terrible pun).

Disclosure: this book was provided in PDF form for review purposes.

Actors Gotta Act, Haters Gonna Hate

Sunday, 1 November 2015

Advice for watching Hector and the Search for Happiness
I’m a big fan of Simon Pegg: Spaced is one of my favourite sitcoms of all time, the ‘Cornetto Trilogy’ is fantastic, he’s a geek like us, I enjoyed his autobiography; we were at the same university at the same time. This means that I will watch most things he is in, which is why watched Hector and the Search for Happiness. As my reactionary tweets show, I didn’t enjoy it. Pegg stars as Hector, a successful psychologist in London, where he lives with his adoring long-term girlfriend, played by Rosamund Pike. For various plot reasons, he decides that he is not completely happy as a well-off white male, and that he must travel to China, Africa (I don’t think they specified which country in Africa he visits, which is offensive) and Los Angeles, where he eventually discovers that he loves his adoring girlfriend and his job and his comfortable life in a developed country. The triteness and naval-gazing aspect of the film became more clear to me when I discovered that it was adapted from a French novel … There are other actors in this film who I admire (Pike, Toni Collette, Stellan Skarsgård, Christopher Plummer, Jean Reno) but for some reason I feel most disappointed in Pegg, perhaps due to the fact that I watched the film because of him.

This reaction got me thinking about something that’s always bugged me: why is it that actors we like make films we don’t like? There are many actors whose work I enjoy but not one has a perfect CV (the only actor who can claim to have a perfect CV is John Cazale – he acted in only 5 films [The Godfather, The Conversation, The Godfather Part II, Dog Day Afternoon, and The Deer Hunter], which are all brilliant, but he died tragically young from lung cancer, soon after filming his scenes for The Deer Hunter). Every single actor who has made a handful of great films that endear him or her in the hearts of the audience has also made a handful of stinkers that make you wonder what he/she was thinking. I can’t fathom why Pegg would want to do a film where he was paid to travel to China, Africa and Los Angeles … (That reminds of the story Mark Kermode often trots out about Michael Caine’s decision to be in Jaws IV was based on reading the first line of the script: EXT. Day. The Bahamas. ‘I’m in.’)

There is a strange disconnect in our brains where a person who we like (‘like’ being a shorthand for admire a performance in a good film/TV show that we enjoy watching, perhaps again and again) in one thing should always be in films/TV shows that we like. We assume that the actor has the same excellent taste as we do and that all future choices will be excellent and we will be safe in our admiration because of the constant quality of the work. Because the quality of a film/TV show is based solely on the leading actor, right?

Obviously, this is absurd nonsense – there is no connection between actor and quality of the finished product. Yes, stars gain enough clout to develop projects and mould them when in production to their own requirements, but that’s no guarantee. Making films and televisions shows are a collaborative medium (but, as Richard Aoyade says, so is a profiteering psychic in Nazi-occupied France) that involves the input of many different people, from writers to directors to other actors to producers, not to mention all the technical people who actual make things happen – how can one person be responsible for the quality of the finished output? (Even auteur theory toting directors as the authors is stretching a thesis to its limits.) To expect your favourite actor to always produce brilliant entertainment is impossible.

Then there is another factor to take into contention, one that I understand more now that I am a freelance medical editor: actors are freelancers, with no guarantee of continued employment from one job to the next, so they have to take work where they can get it or they won’t get more work because people will have forgotten who they are. Job security in the acting profession is also flimsy when you’re successful: Olivia Colman, having won BAFTAs for drama and comedy at the same ceremony, didn’t work for six months after the end of the second season of Broadchurch, despite being one of the most respected and loved actors of the moment. There are far too many actors for far too few roles, so it’s astonishing that anyone can sustain a career (from a purely statistical perspective). The only way to survive is to act in anything when it comes along, even if the quality of the script might be suspect, or the director is untested, or the concept too unusual or too bland. Do enough films and the bad ones will be quickly forgotten …

Pegg is a writer as well as an actor – he co-wrote Spaced and the Cornetto Trilogy, and is co-writing the latest Star Trek film – but he’s also an actor, which means he has to be in films so that people still know he’s an actor, and he has to fit in the smaller films in between his regular roles in the blockbuster franchises of Mission: Impossible and Star Trek, which will limit the selection because of a variety of reasons (availability of other actors, funding, readiness of script, the right director, etc.), but he still has to work. He has a family, so he needs money.

[NB: I’m not picking on Pegg here – he has quite a good CV and I still have nothing but great affection for him and a lot of his work – I’m just using him as an example. Pick your own favourite actor and most of this is applicable.]

Acting may still be seen as a noble calling, pursuing artistic ideals of truth and humanity, but it’s still a job and it’s the same for many of the actors working today, including famous Oscar-winning ones: Nicolas Cage has been churning out films in recent years, most of them not well received critically or commercially, some even distributed as video-on-demand, and one can’t help but think that it’s due to his tax problems. He has an Academy Award, he was a respected indie actor who made the successful transition to action blockbusters and was the fifth-highest-paid actor in 2008, according to Forbes, yet he’s still a jobbing actor. He’s not the only one who makes seemingly inexplicable choices: Robert De Niro has been acting in a whole load of rubbish since his glory days; Tim Roth was Sepp Blatter in that awful film about FIFA, and let’s not get into the whole issue of what female actors have to slum in for the sake of continued screen acting …

I think that actors take work where they can get it because they know that the bad ones will be quickly forgotten – most people tend to remember the good things they watch a few times, not the stinkers they actively try to forget that they watched (I want my money back for Batman and Robin, and I had won free tickets for that, but I don’t hold it against George Clooney) – and the good ones will play on rotation on the likes of ITV2 (which always seems to be showing Hot Fuzz or Shaun of the Dead for some reason). Actors don’t feel bad about the ones that didn’t work (except for Bill Murray in Zombieland, perhaps) because they know how alchemical and unpredictable cinematic and televisual entertainments are, so why should we? Actors are human beings, just like us – not every job I’ve ever done has been amazing and worthy of return (particularly working as a cleaner in a mental hospital), so I’ve got to stop holding actors to an unattainable standard. However, it doesn’t stop me from hating Hector and the Search for Happiness

Book Review: An Ancient Peace

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

An Ancient Peace
An Ancient Peace (A Peacekeeper Novel)
Written by Tanya Huff
Published by Titan Books

I haven’t read the five-book Confederation series that follows the exploits of Marine Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr in a universe-spanning alien war (although I have read The Enchantment Emporium by Huff, which I enjoyed). The only problem with reading this enjoyable, well-written, captivating book is that it takes place after the events of that series, so I know what happens in those previous books and so would lose some of the tension in what must have been equally entertaining books.

In An Ancient Peace, we meet Torin and her team when they are on a freelance mission for the Justice Department, taking down a dangerous group of radicals (Human’s First – the erroneous apostrophe is the source of much derision) on a space station. Her team is made up of Werst (a male Krai ex-Marine), Ressk (a male Harask), Binti (a female human ex-Marine), Alamber (a male di’Taykan) and Craig (a male human and Kerr’s lover). I presume that this collection of characters has accreted over the course of the previous series, because they are clearly defined, three-dimensional and an interesting bunch of people.

After the successful completion of the mission, the team is called into a meeting – which turns out to be with military intelligence Chief of Staff, with a secret mission. The H’san are the eldest of the Elder Races, and were originally very violent. After a long and destructive war, they achieved enlightenment, pledged themselves to peace, founded the Confederation and turned their destroyed planet into a memorial/cemetery. Recently, H’san grave goods have been purchased by collectors; however, H’san do not sell grave goods. These items were looted, which indicates that someone is looking for the weapons buried by the H’san on that planet. If they found them, it would be evidence for Parliament that the Younger Races are not ready for civilised society and should be restricted to their own sectors of space. However, the military cannot be involved with this because if it leaks, it would lead to an investigation, and they can’t do it publicly because it would require a battle plan being filed with Parliament and all files made available to the press. The military needs deniability and a team that works freelance contracts for the Justice Department as a cover. The mission: find the H’san planet, the coordinates of which are secret, stop grave robbers from discovering terrifyingly powerful ancient weapons, and prevent a potential civil war …

Huff does a very good job of condensing the back story of the previous books, which involves Elder Races, the Confederation’s war with the Primacy, a sentient, polynumerous molecular polyhydroxide alcoholydes – hive-mind organic plastic – manipulating the Confederation and the Primacy into a centuries-long war, and the fact that Torin had seen a lot during her time in the Marines and had been pivotal in many famous events (as detailed in the previous books) and was responsible for the end of the war. This is tough to do at the best of times, let alone trying to set up a new spin-off series and making it sound natural. The ease with which she pulls it off means that you know you’re in the hands of an accomplished storyteller.

Another aspect of the book are the interesting details that Huff fills the book with regarding the various alien species and worlds she has created for the sake of her story. The di’Taykans have pheromones that work on all mammals and non-mammals more powerfully than on other di’Taykans, so they believe that this means that the universe wants them to have sex with everything (they are a tactile species who need touch as a basic part of their physiology); therefore, Parliament created maskers for the di’Taykans so that the rest of the universe would only do it by consent. Other Races include Trun, Niln, Rakva, Mictok, Ciptran, and Katrien, and Huff distinguishes each so that they stand out from each other. She does this in various ways to demonstrate the alien nature, such as in narrative/dialogue when referring to male and female Trun – Zi/Zir for he/she and his/her. There are insectoid aliens, water planets, arboreal planets, prehensile tails, hair that reflects the emotional state of the alien species, nasal ridges instead of noses, aliens who talk in a present participle tense (odd reading that first time) – these details make for a rich reading experience and a fully realised universe.

Huff is very good with characters and dialogue. In The Enchantment Emporium, she was able to use pop culture references for her humour, something she doesn’t have in this future sci-fi story; there isn’t much futurism to the dialogue, although there are occasional deliberate references to ‘oldEarth’ idioms picked up from a former platoon member, but she can still turn a line that will make me laugh out loud (“You can assume they fart rainbows, I don’t care.”) and this is a boon in a book that is definitely based around the characters. Torin Kerr is not the only interesting character, but she is the lead and deservedly so: she is a female character who can handle herself, but that is only a small aspect; she is driven, focused, detail-orientated, very capable at her job (as a Gunnery Sergeant, her task was to follow orders but also to get her marines back home again, something she maintains as an ex-Marine) but still haunted by the deaths she couldn’t prevent – she has to see a military psychiatrist as part of her continuing work with the Justice Department. She is also concerned with moral choices and the moral choices of others, which makes for conflict when she is used to acting on those decisions with guns and the authority of the military behind her. It’s easy to see why Huff has continued to write Torin’s adventures, and I hope this is the first in many Peacekeeper novels.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.