Comic Book Review – Dragons: Riders Of Berk Volume One Dragon Down

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Script: Simon Furman
Pencils: Iwan Nazif
Inks: Iwan Nazif (with Bambos Georgiou)
Colours: Nestor Pereyra & Digikore
Letters: David Manley-Leach
Publishers: Titan Comics

[Apologies for the absence in posting: I’ve been moving house, which I think it’s a legitimate excuse. At least it means that this connects this review with the arrival of How To Train Your Dragon 2 in cinemas.]

It is spring in the Viking village of Berk, and our heroes (Hiccup, Astrid, Snotlout, Fishlegs, Tuffnut and Ruffnut) are flying on their dragons, who are feeling full of energy. Some have more energy than others: Snotlout’s Hoofkfang is overheating and shedding scales that are setting the village on fire, so Hookfang has to be isolated from the village and the other dragons. However, he disappears and, after a search party organised by Hiccup goes wrong, Hiccup decides to take Toothless out in the storm to find Hookfang, unaware that Alvin the Treacherous, leader of the Outcast Tribe, is hunting Hiccup in order to acquire his dragon-training skills …

The film, How To Train Your Dragon, is one of the best non-Pixar CGI movies of recent times, and Toothless is one of the great animated animal characters of all time. This book is based on the computer-animated television series, which acts as a bridge between the first film and the sequel. I have never watched the television show, so it was a surprise to learn about Alvin the Treacherous and the Outcast Tribe – apparently, he was the main villain for the first season; it seems a very traditional villainous character to insert conflict into the story when the film was so unconcerned with such obvious concepts. I haven’t seen the sequel yet, but I hope that Alvin isn’t part of the story because I don’t particularly care for the character.

Because my frame of reference is the only the film, I couldn’t quite get into this book – I don’t know if it aligns more with the television series, but the feel of the narrative skews more towards a story that could be completed in 22 minutes of animation, with straightforward A and B plots, and missing the colour and characterisation of the film. Furman captures the voices of the main characters, particularly Hiccup, but the story doesn’t have the same magic as the movie (although that would be an impressive achievement considering the quality of the original film). The art has a cartoony vibe – Nazif is good with the likenesses in this pencil version, although it’s lacking in pizzazz and occasionally displays some confusion in panels, such as switching the orientation of the twins on their dragon from one panel to the next. The art was always going to come off poorly compared with the precision of CGI artwork (as displayed on the cover), so I thought that the artwork would take advantage of its comic-book basis; the first page has Gobber working at the smith across from a woman selling fish while kids run through the path between them, and for a moment it feels like a homage to a certain small Gaulish village holding out against Roman occupation … However, this is the closest it gets to an Asterix style, which is a shame, because it could have provided a nice tone for this book.

This is a slender volume – 48 pages of story – with a tale that aims towards the younger market, particularly the viewers of the television show. It doesn’t have the magic of the film but it does provide a solid dose of Toothless, Hiccup and the village of Berk.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Notes On A Film – X-Men: Days Of Future Past

Monday, 23 June 2014

(I saw this film on opening weekend, so this is very late but real life has intruded: we are in the process of trying to buy and sell a house, so at least I have a decent excuse.)

I still feel I have to pinch myself sometimes – I’ve been a comic book fan for a while now, but despite The Avengers being one of the most profitable films of recent history, I find it incredible that we’ve got really good films being made that are based on superhero comic books from my youth. Case in point: this film uses two issues of The Uncanny X-Men from 1981 (written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne, it’s one of those times that ‘classic’ actually applies) as the basis for an exciting, thrilling, emotional sci-fi action film that is as satisfying as the best blockbusters out there (with three Academy Award winners and four nominees in the cast). What a world we live in …

I didn’t read the storyline back then; it took me a while to get my hands on it: I was expecting it to be reprinted in Classic X-Men (which was reproducing the stories from Giant-Size X-Men #1 onwards, in addition to new material written by Chris Claremont and illustrated by John Bolton), only for the series to jump issues #141 and #142 and continue as if Days Of Future Past hadn’t happened. I finally picked up a reprint that collected the two issues, and was able to read the story that has defined and influenced almost the entirety of the X-Men line of comic books ever since. I never thought it would be turned into a film. Shows you what I know …

The film uses the central idea of the books: the future is bleak for mutants, kept in concentration camps guarded by Sentinels, so the X-Men decide to go back to the past and stop the inciting incident that would lead to this ‘darkest timeline’. Instead of the assassination of Senator Robert Kelly (well, he’d already been used in The X-Men), the film comes up with the murder of Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage), creator of the Sentinels, by Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) in 1973, which led to the full-scale development of the Sentinel programme. Instead of Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) swapping her psyche with her younger self, the film uses Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) – this makes sense on a star level, because Jackman is the bigger (biggest?) name and doesn’t have to be played by another actor in the different time period, but also on a story level with the explanation that Logan’s healing ability is the only way to survive the process.

The future part is set up well: the bleak concentration camps, the looming Sentinels, some future X-Men (Pryde, Iceman, Warpath, Blink, Sunspot, Colossus) being killed by Sentinels before discovering Pryde has worked out how to phase her consciousness a few days back in the past and warn her group. They meet up with Prof. Xavier (Patrick Stewart), Magneto (Ian McKellen), Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine to explain this; this leads to the plan to send Wolverine’s consciousness to the distant past, enlist the aid of the younger Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender) to prevent Mystique from accomplishing her mission. (I’ve read some reviewers write that the film’s plot is too complicated – how complicated is that? If you can’t understand something as simple as that, you shouldn’t be reviewing films in the national press.)

Obviously, things aren’t straightforward: Xavier, after the events of X-Men: First Class, is drinking heavily and using a serum created by Beast (Nicholas Hoult) that allows him to walk but removes his telepathy; Magneto is in a non-metallic prison cell beneath the Pentagon for his alleged role in the assassination of President Kennedy; and Wolverine is not the best diplomat. Wolverine must convince Xavier and break Magneto out, which will require the help of Peter Maximoff, a mutant super speedster. Then, things get complicated in 1973, while the future X-Men have to hold off a Sentinel attack to give Wolverine in 1973 enough time to succeed and eradicate the dystopian future …

I really enjoyed this film – it’s a welcome return to the quality levels set by X-Men 2, after the disappointments of the third X-Men film (about which we do not speak), the two Wolverine films and X-Men: First Class. It’s also a really good adaptation of the source material, capturing the essence of the tale while standing on its own as a film. This is particularly difficult to do because it has to bring together two sets of X-Men and contend with the hideous mess that is the X-Men movie chronology. Not only does the film succeed, but it also effectively solves the Gordian knot that is the movie timeline with an Alexandrian slice so that the films you didn’t like now don’t exist. Admittedly, it has to sidestep important plot points – Why is Xavier still alive? Where did Kitty Pryde’s time travel powers come from? – in order to get the ball rolling, but it’s easy to forgive when it’s all so enjoyable.

The film achieves this with some excellent action pieces, particularly the Quicksilver set-piece during the Magneto breakout – you can ignore the fact that he’s listening to his anachronistic Walkman while running at superspeed and therefore can’t hear anything because it’s such an exhilarating display of his powers, done with wit and pizzazz and a fantastic visual flair. Of course, it means that they have to remove Quicksilver from the story immediately after or he’d be able to solve all problems in the rest of the movie, but the humour (a perfectly judged clip from the original series Star Trek about time travel) and characterisation cover this up (even if they did the same joke as in Shanghai Noon, having someone say the James Brown lyric ‘I don’t know karate. But I know crazy’).

The action is good but it’s not all action – there is a lot of talk in the middle section – but that’s because the filmmakers remember that it’s about the characters first, and that the action defines the characters when it does come. Singer has created a film that has clarity, levity, energy, and understanding of the characters and the concept – it’s not just about what’s cool (although there is lots of cool stuff in it), it’s about making things work in the dynamics of a story with people who are engaging. Some people get to engage more than others – Stewart, McKellen, Berry, Page effectively have extended cameos (talking of which, a big geek smile jumped to my face when Chris Claremont and Len Wein briefly turned up as congressmen) – and the film is mainly about the young Xavier and Magneto, with some emphasis on Lawrence’s Mystique, so it’s mostly McAvoy and Fassbender who get the focus, but they’re both great actors so that’s not too much of a problem. McAvoy is good as a good man trying not to care; Fassbender excels as an imperious Magneto; Jackman is extremely comfortable as Logan, holding it all together. Dinklage isn’t given enough to do, which is a shame, but at least he got some scenes in the film.

The film works nicely as finale – there is closure and some happiness for mutants, something you don’t expect if you’ve spent a long time reading comic books, even though you know that this can never be the end for the franchise. I loved the coda, with unexpected cameos, in much the same way that I loved the ending given to the character of Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises – it indicated a genuine love for the X-Men and the characters in the team. As a long-time X-Men fan, I walked out of the cinema a very happy man.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

Book Review: Hot Lead, Cold Iron

Monday, 26 May 2014

Written by Ari Marmell
Published by Titan Books

This is the first story in a new series of urban fantasy about Mick Oberon; we first meet him getting beaten up by the hired muscle of a crooked committeeman of Chicago’s 34th Ward. Fortunately, it doesn’t matter too much because he heals fast and he has a wand: a Luchitaine & Goodfellow Model 1592, polished whitewood that the seller swore had a sliver of the raft that carried King Arthur to Avalon. Using magic (temporarily blinding the hired muscle, forcing luck to help him out, exerting his willpower on other people, all through the wand), he manages to accomplish his task (stealing some incriminating photos from the committeeman and serving him with a subpoena to testify) and extricate himself from any trouble.

This is all in a day’s work for Mick Oberon, private investigator in 1930s Chicago, and a former prince of the Fae (the aes sidhe, ‘the People of the Mounds’) – he is ‘among the last of the Tuatha Dé Danann, lords of the Emerald Isle, conquerors of the Firbolgs’ and has lived among mortals for many centuries (he’s seen woad-painted Celts, war-painted Indians, Vikings on longships, knights on horseback, French revolutionaries, Spanish conquistadors) when he walked away from the Seelie Court and his heritage. His hearing and sense smell is better than ours, he can detect auras, mortals cannot see the exact details of his facial features in the same way (although they can’t make out his pointed ears), he is stronger and faster and take more punishment than a human, and can understand all spoken human languages if he hears a few sentences of it. He has learned to blend in – he pretends to fidget, he remembers to blink, he speaks with the current slang no matter how ungrammatical it is – and lives in an office with no iron (the only thing that can hurt him) and no electrical or mechanical stuff: the reason why the Fae retired permanently to the Otherworld was the development of technology, which is anathema to their very being (Mick has difficulty using the elevated train, making his entire skin itch and his brain shudder, and he can barely cope with cars).

Oberon (not his real name – he took the name of the King, his third cousin on his mother’s side) works as a PI but doesn’t take money for the jobs – he doesn’t need it, because the only thing he consumes is milk (preferably warm) and he lives rent-free after he helped out his landlord; instead he takes ‘unusual’ items in lieu of payment. He also has some principles, which is why he turns down a job for The Outfit. However, when he has to find $300 to help his landlord save his building, he doesn’t have a choice – he has to seek out the man who came to his office, Archie ‘Echoes’ Caristo, a torpedo for Fino ‘The Shark’ Ottati, a capo who runs a local crew for The Outfit. He finds Echoes at the Lexington Hotel, where Al Capone used to live until he was sent to prison the previous year, but discovers that the meeting isn’t with The Shark – it’s with his wife, Bianca, who needs Oberon to find her daughter. The only problem: she’s been missing for 16 years because the girl they’ve raised is actually a changeling.

Mick needs to hunt down leads connected to Otherworld while avoiding it, so seeks out Four-Leaf Franky (who is mixed race, mostly aes sidhe, but also related to an old blood line of leprechauns [what is it with American writers and leprechauns?]), but when Franky doesn’t know anything about it – a changeling swap is pretty public in Otherworld – Mick works out that it must be a secret changeling. Therefore, Mick has to see Mrs Ottati for more information; he does so at her home, where he discovers that there are wards against Fae all over the house, created by Fino Ottati’s mother, Donna Orsola Maldera, who is also a witch (a Benandanti, a former fertility sect in 16th-century Italy that developed witchcraft as Catholics to fight evil spirits, although they were mostly eradicated by the Inquisition). It turns out that the Shark is in a feud with the Uptown Boys (bad things happen to the Shark’s enemies), but it’s not a feud that goes back 16 years, so Mick doesn’t discover any new leads, although he does meet the changeling, who is definitely Fae, who is suffering from being kept in the house with wards against Fae.

With no other recourse, Mick has to go to Elphame (the Otherworld version of Chicago – no sun or moon, impossibly beautiful, natural, more intense, where you are more ‘you’); he needs to go to the city, which is a reflection of our cities: the Fae are mimics, so the city looks like cities of the era but with Fae touches to the skyscrapers and the trains; the Fae dress in modern clothes, but with other accessories, and all armed with swords and daggers as well as magical revolvers and Tommy guns and wands. Most of the ‘civilised’ Fae are split into two factions: Seelie Court and Unseelie Court. The Seelie Court is the one associated with what we think of concerning the Fae, and titles have changed to reflect the modernisations (kings and queens are Judges and Chiefs; dukes and earls and barons are now aldermen and lawyers and captains); the Unseelie Court are the nasty side of the Fae (goblins, trolls, mari-morgan, redcaps, dullahan [headless riders on headless horses]), and take after the gangsters of our world, calling themselves the Unfit (Unseelie Outfit).

While Mick is in the city, staying at the hotel where he used to be house detective before he left for the mortal world (the Fae believe he was exiled from the Court and had his title stripped due to some sort of crime he committed; this is untrue, but he allowed the rumours to spread), Mick is attacked by a low-level torpedo. With evidence that the Seelie Court might be involved with the Ottati changeling and the attempted hit, Mick gets a meeting with Eudeagh, queen of Chicago’s Unseelie Court, Boss of Bosses of local Unseelie, which leads to him getting into a bargain with her and knowledge that will help him locate the missing daughter – who is back in ‘real’ Chicago – and try to solve everything …

The world that Marmell has created for his characters is rich and full of potential. This book has to do a lot of world-building to set things up, but he does it well, helped by the wealth of background to use. He talks about how Fae are the same, it’s just humans who differentiate: the tylwyth teg in Wales, the aes sidhe in Ireland, the elves in England, the Norse ljósálfar; they’re all the same but with different legends. This world is full of lots of different Fae: goblins, boggards, clurichans, spriggans, ghillie dhu, bean righe, gancanagh, leanan sidhe, brounies, coblynau, dvergr, pixies (and there is mention of ghosts, vampires, griffons, demons, dragons and basilisks); however, in Elphame there are more humans than Fae, people who got lost or stumbled into the wrong place or who made bad bargains. If you are human and eat the food or drink liquids or accept a gift, you never leave because you feel great and never age – the happiest slaves ever.

Mick Oberon is a great character with a classic private investigator’s sense of honour and doing the right thing, with the added advantage of being Fae; he’s got a sense of humour as well, and Marmell’s prose style is very enjoyable – the use of gangster lingo of the time never descends into parody and feels authentic at all times. The story is riveting, a page-turner that keeps you engaged as well as setting up this new urban fantasy with the scope for so many stories. Hot Lead, Cold Iron is a very good book and I can’t wait for the next story in the series.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Book Review: India Black

Monday, 5 May 2014

The first Madam of Espionage mystery, written by Carol K Carr
Published by Titan Books

Carol Carr is a former lawyer who decided to indulge her passion for history into writing, which led to this book. You know where you are from the preface: ‘My name is India Black. I am a whore.’ It is 1876. India Black runs a brothel on St Alban’s Street in London called the Lotus House (a deliberate reference to The Lotus-Eaters poem by Tennyson, because she caters for gentlemen – it’s more like a gentlemen’s club than a house of ill repute). She used to be a whore but prefers the independence and freedom of being a madam who owns her establishment.

At this juncture in history, Queen Victoria rules the British Empire, and there is sabre-rattling from the Russians, backing the Serbs against the Ottoman Empire. Prime minister Benjamin Disraeli (or ‘Dizzy, the novelist’ as India Black refers to him) is rattling back while having to contend with former prime minister William Gladstone writing evangelical tracts against the ‘Mussulman’ Turks and supporting the nominally Christian Russians.

India Black’s life is changed when a regular client, nicknamed Bowser and who worked in the War Office, dies in the Lotus House. She enlists the aid of a reliable urchin called Vincent (a14-year-old boy who lives on the streets but knows how to get things done) to remove the body; however, a dark and mysterious man arrives, who knows all about Bowser (actually Sir Archibald Latham) and wants to help move the corpse but want’s Bowser’s case. But the case is gone, as is the ‘bint’ Arabella who was with him at the time of his death.

India Black is brusquely fetched to a meeting with the prime minister and French, the mysterious stranger, where she is told that the case had important documents in them about the number of soldiers in the British army – due to the massacres of Christians in the Ottoman Empire, European countries want to attack Constantinople and the Russians want to join in, but Disraeli fears that the Russians will take Constantinople and then move on to Egypt and block the Suez Canal to India (the country, not the heroine of our tale) and the source of the wealth of the British Empire. Disraeli can’t fight a war with the Russians but Gladstone’s troublemaking might force him to an untenable position. If the Russians get their hands on the information in the case, then they will invade Constantinople knowing that the British can do nothing about it. So India Black is coerced into getting it back – she is to accompany French to the gala ball at the Russian embassy and use her ‘feminine charms’ on Count Vladimir Maksimovich Yuspov, the head of military intelligence for Tsar Alexander II, to retrieve the case, which is currently in the possession of his most trusted agent, Major Vasily Kristoforovich Ivanov. Of course, things don’t go as planned and India Black gets involved further in escapades with French to retrieve the documents, including incidents at Claridge’s hotel, a chase to Dover and a trip across the English Channel …

The story is told as a first-person narrative (which means that any sense of real danger to the lead character is moot) and there is a nice use of a Victorian style and vocabulary (décolletage, prebenderies, glissading, 'mandrake' as a Victorian term for homosexual), as well as a nice sense of humour (when writing about her bints, India Black says, ‘Next they’ll be unionizing. It was becoming increasingly difficult for an employer to exploit the workers in this country. I’d have to write to my MP soon.’) and a knowing wink (there is a nod to Inspector Morse in the mystery of French’s Christian name: ‘Endeavour, perhaps?’).

However, there is an anachronistic shadow in some places that throws the reader out of the book, such as using the term ‘the dog’s bollocks’, which wasn’t invented until much later. There is the unexplained contrast between a woman who spent ‘a lifetime of fending for myself in the streets of London’ as a prostitute and the huge breadth of knowledge she displays (in addition to the Tennyson reference, there is quoting from Shakespeare and Sam Johnson, a reference to Trollope, plus the geopolitics of the era), which might be a mystery for future novels but comes across as confounding in this book. There is also a lawyer-like tendency to over-explain every aspect of the story, to reiterate why the missing documents were so important to the various people and nations, which becomes quite wearisome; this is brought into amusing contrast with the phrase, ‘I won’t bore you with the details’, used at least three times to omit some parts of the story but is exactly what the narrator has been doing throughout the book. The worst crime is the fact that the entire reason for the adventure is completely pointless – I don’t usually spoil books but I feel compelled in this instance, because our protagonists do not stop the information in the documents from getting to Russia, but it has absolutely no effect on the outcome of history at all, making the entire adventure a waste of time in my opinion. This book might be for those who enjoy a breezily paced historical adventure, but it’s not to my tastes, I’m afraid.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Book Review: The Wild Ways

Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Written by Tanya Huff
Published by Titan Books

The Wild Ways is the follow-up to The Enchantment Emporium (which I reviewed here), focussing on Charlotte ‘Charlie’ Gale – she is a cousin of Alysha ‘Allie’ Gale, the lead in the first book, and was also a major character in the story. Unlike the other women in the Gale family (the aunties, who have certain magical abilities), Charlie is a rare Wild Power – she is not tied to any particular location, she has the ability to travel between places through the Woods, and can do her magic with music, which is perhaps why she enjoys a carefree life as a jobbing musician, travelling with bands and playing session gigs. However, since Allie took over her grandmother’s Enchantment Emporium in Calgary in the first book, Charlie has felt more at home there than anywhere else, something which has the aunties worried. Of course, this wouldn’t be a story if everyone settled down and was happy …

Amelia Carson is CEOof Carson Oil, turning around the fortunes of the company after taking over from her father, and is on the verge of acquiring the rights to one of the biggest oil fields in the North Atlantic, near Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. However, it is near a seal sanctuary, so environmentalist groups have started to protest, which means that Amelia has to turn to a woman who says she can do something about it; the only trouble is that the woman says she’s related to the Gales …

Independently of this, Gale family stuff becomes unbalanced and Charlie’s life is nudged towards Cape Breton when she receives an invitation to rejoin a Celtic band playing in a festival near the seal sanctuary; the fiddler in the band has girlfriend who is distraught because she has lost a family heirloom – except she’s not a normal girl: she’s a Selkie, a mythological creature who is a seal in the ocean but discards her sealskin to become a human when she comes on land and bonds herself with a human. The family heirloom is her sealskin, and she and several of her sisters have had their sealskins stolen as blackmail – the Selkies are behind the environmentalist group protesting against the oil company, and so will only get them back if they retract their protest.

Charlie gets involved because she realises who is behind it: her Auntie Catherine Gale, the other Wild Power in the family. Charlie takes with her Jack, the new member of the Gale family, who looks like a teenage boy but is actually a Dragon Prince from the Underworld as well as being a sorcerer (his father was a Gale man who had gone bad), and they go on an adventure that will affect their futures for ever …

Huff once again displays fresh and fun prose for a contemporary fantasy novel – there are geek references (Star Wars, Star Trek, Doctor Who, The Lord of the Rings) and a negative mention of Justin Bieber, and a wry turn of phrase (Charlie: ‘Wow. Her inner voice had gotten sarcastic of late.’) which make this a very enjoyable, breezy read. There is an expansion of the world she has created for the Gale women, and she has a great way with characters – the banter between Charlie and Jack is particularly delightful – and I really enjoy the way she mixes folklore in an modern setting. The focus on the Celtic music scene doesn’t really do anything for me – Huff plays folk music herself, so knows music and is able to convey a sense of the natural power of songs, but it didn’t draw me into the story the way that it obviously appeals to Huff. This makes the story a little slow to get going, but it’s worth keeping with it because the last third is exciting as well as resonant when Charlie and Jack realise things about themselves (she has a particularly good handle on the teenage aspect of Jack the Dragon Prince). It’s a very enjoyable story, although I think I prefer Allie to Charlie as my focus in the Gale women stories.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Book Review: The Fell Sword

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Written by Miles Cameron
Published by Gollancz

This book is the second part of The Traitor Son cycle, and it’s another huge chunk of medieval fantasy after the wonderful initially entry, The Red Knight (which I reviewed here). Cameron has written another epic story about the Red Knight aka the Captain aka Gabriel Muriens, as he expands the scope of the world he has created to include the machinations of other nations across the sea, civil war within Morea, and the higher powers that wish to destroy men and the world.

The prologue introduces things, including the Fell Sword of the title (it’s a weapon that will perform the same way in the real and the aethereal, forged inside a memory palace): there’s Morgan Mortirmir, a 16-year-old prodigy from Harndon, studying in the University in Liviapolis, the Imperial capital of Alba, situated in Morea. However, he can’t render potential into ops, which means he will be sent home. So he goes to a tavern to drink and think about killing himself because he doesn’t want to return to barbaric Harndon (even if he is the bastard son of a lord, he prefers refined Morea), but gets into a fight with Harald Derkensun, a Nordikan of the Guard (a giant of a man), although they end up friends after Derkensun beats him unconscious.

Meanwhile in Liviapolis, which is ruled by Emperor Andronicus, the Empire is in decline – there is no money for anything, especially the many unpaid soldiers, which is why there are plots … The Emperor rides out to meet his cousin, the Duke of Thrake, who is the Megas Ducas, commander of the Emperor’s armies, and the Duke’s son Demetrius, Despot of the North; when he does, Aeskepiles (magister to the Emperor) kills the guards, although he is stabbed by the Logothete (head of the Emperor’s spies), who is beheaded by Demetrius, and the Duke takes the Emperor prisoner. The Duke wants to take Liviapolis, but Derkensun was put on guard duty by the Logothete and spots trouble so raises the alarm and closes the gate. He goes to find someone in the authority in the city, but the Mayor and the Chamberlain are dead, as are the Scholae’s quarter guard, and assassins are trying to kill Lady Irene, daughter of the Emperor, so he lends his axe – Irene is saved and decides she needs an army to save the city, mercenaries like the ones already hired by the Emperor, led by a certain Red Knight …

The mercenaries are already on their way to Liviapolis – the Captain, Toby his squire, Mags the seamstress, Bad Tom, Ser Michael, Ser Gavin, Ser Alison, Gelfred the forester, Ser Alaceus the Morean, Ser Jehan – camped in Morea, having received word that their prospective employer has been captured. Meanwhile, the royal court of Harndon is busy: news has reached them that the Galles are counterfeiting the King’s coin, devaluing it; also they need money from those who don’t pay their taxes – the nobles, such as the Earl of Towbray and the Earl of Westwall. So Jean de Vrailly, the Gallish knight who came to the aid of the King at the siege of Lissen Carak in the first book, is sent to collect taxes while the armourer Master Pye is made Master of the Mint and commissioned to make new coins.

Near Albinkirk, the women are restoring the manor of Middlehill, with the help of Ser John Crayford the Captain of Albinkirk and Sister Amicia, clearing the corpses and avoiding Boglins still in the area. In Ticondaga Castle on the Wall, the strongest rock against the Wild, ruled by the Earl of Westwall and his wife Ghause Muriens, sister to the King of Alba and possessor of hermetical power of own. Their son is Ser Gavin, who sends news of the siege of Lissen Carak and the fact that Gabriel (the Captain) is alive – Gabriel is the bastard son of the Earl and Ghause, who they thought was dead.

We catch up with other characters from the first book: Bill Redmede, Jack of Jacks, is leading his men after the defeat at Lissen Carak, heading west into the Wild to possible salvation, when the Jacks are attacked by boglins, and they are saved by an Irk who calls himself Tapio Halfija, the Fairy Knight. Ota Qwan and Peter (now Nita Qwan) of the Sossag are in Squash County, having survived the siege of Lissen Carak, are deciding what to do best for their people. Meanwhile, Thorn, the villain of the first book, is in the north-west of the country, licking his wounds and pondering his next move, as something even more powerful circles him … Meanwhile, the King of Galle (de Vrailly’s cousin) is thinking about taking the north (Morea and Alba) but with a military force using a sellsword called the Black Knight, who had sailed to Ifrquy’a in the sought and conquered it, instead of his own knights.

Back in Liviapolis, after securing the title of Megas Ducas and all of the former Duke’s possessions as payment for his services, the Red Knight uses ars magicka to lead his men around the mountains and face down a force of the Duke’s army – the battle is described with Cameron’s usual excellent prose, putting you in the action and making you feel it all, alternating between the point of view of the Red Knight and the Duke, as well as the hermetical battle going on unseen between Aeskepiles and Harmodius (the magister of Harndon who died and took up residence in the Captain’s memory palace). The Red Knight’s mercenaries are joined by the Vardiotes (Eastern horse soldiers), who turn the tide of the battle and the Red Knight enters the city of Liviapolis while the Duke escapes. However, it’s not plain sailing – there are many attempts on the Captain’s life with poisons and magic, and there are the many different factions coming together for war and worse …

Cameron continues to impress with his ability to tell an exciting epic with a huge cast of characters and many different plotlines, and juggle it all with skill, passion, wit (‘Uh oh,’ muttered Harmodius. ‘I just kicked a god in the nuts.’) and intelligence. There is more of everything in this book – more characters, more countries (Etrusca, Iberia, Arles, Rhum), more bizarre creatures (Eeagues in the sea; hastenochs [monstrous armoured elks], Ruks [giants] on land), more history to the world he has created, more plot, more scope. I’ve tried to provide a flavour of the book, but it’s only a small taste – there is so much going on and yet Cameron keeps it all entertaining; he uses the same technique of telling the story from a character’s perspective under the heading of the character and location, with a small number of chapters compared with the (huge) size of the book. He has a great skill with briefly essaying characters in a vivid fashion, in addition to his talent for writing battle scenes (although there is nothing of the scale of the battles in the siege of the last book). The Fell Sword is a very good book, and I can’t wait for the next book in the cycle.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Notes On A Film – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Let’s start with the summary – Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best second film of the Marvel studio films so far. It is better than Iron Man 2, obviously, and even better than Thor: Dark World. It manages the trick of bringing out what worked well in the comic books (in this case, the modern espionage/conspiracy style of the recent Ed Brubaker/Steve Epting run) with what works best in film, namely massive action mixed with good acting and snappy dialogue.

The story is a good, modern-day conspiracy thriller, contrasting the post-Snowden whistleblowing world of the NSA spying on us with the 1940s mind-set of Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), who believes in a world of freedom and purer reasons for fighting. The thrust of the narrative is based on Operation: Insight – SHIELD has three helicarriers that will have the ability to target terrorists before they do anything and eliminate them. Rogers, who works for SHIELD, is not happy, as would be expected, questioning Fury’s decisions; when Fury discovers something that unnerves him and asks for a delay in the operation, his life is targeted by a group pretending to be police and a certain bionic-armed masked villain of the subtitle. When top SHIELD official, friend of Fury and member of the World Security Council, Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), confronts Rogers about meeting Fury and Rogers doesn’t comply, Pierce orders SHIELD to take him down. Rogers becomes a fugitive with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johannson), and turns to recently befriended Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) for help, a vet now offering counselling to combatants with post-traumatic stress disorder but who is a former paratrooper with more to offer – and together they discover a huge conspiracy at the heart of SHIELD …

One of the great things that this film does is showing Captain America as a badass. The fight scenes are really good with great choreography that display his unique fighting style (at the end, the film thanks Kieron Dwyer, which I thought was nice because I always thought he did a great job of drawing Cap’s style of fighting) and which were something new and dynamic – the infusion of Eastern cinema has forced Hollywood to up its game and do something different, and it shows here.

The action in general is great – there are great set pieces all along: the film starts with Cap, the Widow and SHIELD agents rescuing a SHIELD ship that has been taken by pirates (led by Batroc, who still uses savate and manages to look great); there is the murder attempt on Fury; the chase of our three heroes by the Winter Soldier and colleagues; the helicarrier action hinted at in the trailer. The film is over two hours long but it never drags and is an impressive action blockbuster debut from Anthony and Joe Russo, two directors better known for their creative input on Arrested Development and Community. Also because of the Russo brothers, the film is funny – there is sharp banter between Cap and Widow and Falcon (with Mackie getting the lion’s share) and snappy lines.

(A nice shout-out for Community fans: Danny Pudi has a cameo, as does Aaron Himelstein, who played the debate guy from City College.)

The film manages well with the characters in general. The Falcon worked really well, making a slightly goofy-looking character in the comic books look good and a nice updating of the character’s story; Mackie is really good, interacting well with Evans, and it’s great to see the first African American superhero finally on the screens. Black Widow continues work well in the Marvel cinematic universe and Johannson does a great job, mixing sass with vulnerability and action (the film also offers other strong female characters in Maria Hill and Agent 13, so that’s another plus for the film). Evans also does well with Rogers in what is a tough role as the boy scout of the Marvel books.

As a Marvel fan, I loved the references: Stephen Strange is name-checked, which was great; they made Batroc cool; one of the villainous characters is Brock Rumlow, who is Crossbones in the comic books; a well-played Stan Lee cameo; the way the story used elements from Secret War (by Bendis/Dell’Otto), the start of Secret Warriors and the Winter Soldier storyline (although not a Russian agent in the film, because we like the Russians now, but at least they still included a connection to the Black Widow); a lovely mid-credit teaser for Avengers: Age Of Ultron, and a coda scene that comes straight from the Brubaker/Epting comic book.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a very entertaining piece of Marvel superhero action with interesting characters, an interesting plot and great action. Although the final third is less complex and has to have a small band of heroes destroy a massive conspiracy in an action scene, it still does it with skill and verve. The writers and directors have signed on for the third film, which would presumably have Cap and the Falcon hunting the Winter Soldier (that’s not really a spoiler, is it?), but the end of the film also has ramifications for the Marvel cinematic universe and Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD, and I can’t wait to see more.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]