Monday, 31 December 2012

Snow White and the Huntsman – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Oscar, Oscar on the wall, what’s the fairest sex of all? Snow White and the Huntsman, directed by Rupert Sanders.

It is not uncommon for the discerning movie-goer to bypass certain films on the big screen and instead proceed directly (if belatedly) to watching them on video (as those of us who remember wrist watches persist in calling it). Maybe the movie clocked up a mediocre score on IMDB and Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it merely appeared dubious through dint of an overzealous poster campaign, the proliferation of which hinted at some nail-biting desperation from marketers behind the scenes. But in either case, a small screen outing often can be more forgiving, and in rare and sometimes joyous instances can turn up an overlooked nugget (gold, not fluff-covered chicken) of movie-making par excellence.

Snow White and the Huntsman fits this bill rather well, scoring 6.4 (IMDB) and 5.6 (Tomatoes) and generally presenting as a plain-packaged, discount store, rather cardboard-tasting pastiche of Lord of the Rings. (Although – spoiler – there’s no giant spider; the eponymous “Huntsman” is just Chris Hemsworth looking large boned and somewhat better fed than the rest of the oppressed masses. Disappointing.) James Newton Howard’s orchestral score tries overly hard to emote where undeveloped character relationships and empty, would-be rousing speeches have provided no basis for pulling on the audience’s heartstrings. Medieval warriors gallop around in heavy armour that nevertheless seems incapable of mitigating – let alone shaking off entirely – the effects of arrows fired even at long range. The climactic battle for the castle clearly shows that, despite lugging around a budget of $170 million, nobody thought to spend even $100 in taking a historian down the pub and chatting about how to present something that wasn’t 100 per cent anathematic to military common sense. In short, although SWATH might have made for a decent enough computer game (director Rupert Sanders’ speciality prior to this, his first feature film), in cinematic terms it comes across as terribly clumsy, verging on incoherent. Little surprise that anyone reading the script – Tom Hardy, Johnny Depp, Viggo Mortensen and Hugh Jackman, for example, though apparently not Hemsworth or Kristen Stewart – would see fit to turn down the titular roles.

Snow White and the Huntsman is, of course, a retelling of the Brothers Grimm classic Snow White; and one that leans far more towards the original “grimness” than towards Disney cutesy and happy-go-hi-hoeing dwarves. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel, as the actors overplay their parts and the plot scratches around like several chickens hatching soft boiled attack plans in the dirt, that the film may at one stage have been envisaged as a straight fantasy, and that the fairy tale element came into play merely as an excuse for having a slop bucket full of plot points that didn’t really make sense even within the established confines of the world being depicted. A sense of darkness, however, does not automatically make for a gritty and serious film. If one were to remake The Smurfs, for example, to a backdrop of cold war communism and the mushroom cloud pall of nuclear holocaust, it would still be The Smurfs. Gargamel wouldn’t be sinister and ruthless so much as prematurely balding. Papa Smurf would be festively Christmas- rather than tragically blood-red. And yet, even though one member of Snow White and the Huntsman’s lounge chair audience felt justifiably compelled to pause the DVD and ask, “This is meant to be serious, yes? Not a spoof?”, a more canny and devious assessment of SWATH will indeed show it to be far more than first meets the incredulous eye.

Of course Snow White and the Huntsman is a spoof. From the moment that Kristen Stewart escapes from the tower and sloshes her way through an oddly placed sewer, finds a conveniently grazing snow-white horse on the beach and rides it to its NeverEnding Story-esque sinkhole death barely a minute later (“Artax!”), naturally one can assume that the film is having a laugh at the expense of epic fantasy in toto. Not only does the aforementioned proliferation of armour afford less than minimal protection against arrows (an inverse mortality relationship comparable to the ineffectiveness of rapid-fire guns in action films), it in fact proves unable to withstand even the pointed caress of a tree stump! And if a troll should appear and attack out of nowhere, only to break off its instinctive savageness and go moping away once Snow White gives it her sympathetic gaze and shows that she understands it to be just stereotyped and misunderstood, then it follows almost without saying that the movie is not presenting this as something the viewer is expected to take seriously. It is, rather, a knowing wink. A farce. And as with all good farces, behind its cringe-worthy outer layer a serious point may be found lurking.

Cue the singing, bearded feminists.

Anyone paying the slightest bit of attention (and not merely wondering whether or not to bother pausing the DVD when taking a toilet break) surely will note the revisionist nature of Snow White and the Huntsman – the fact, for instance, that there are eight rather than seven dwarves, and that one of them is wearing a strap-on Womble mask – and the thrust of this reworking is quite clearly feminist in origin. Charlize Theron’s evil queen, for example, maintains her youthful looks by feeding on the life force of others – much in the way that the historical countess Elizabeth Báthory is said to have done – and she perpetrates this parasitic gluttony very much by way of retribution for the constancy with which men have objectified and mistreated women throughout history. (Snow White’s father, as a case in point, though still grieving the loss of Snow White’s mother, remarries the day after meeting Theron’s queen, purely on the grounds of physical infatuation.) Snow White herself is feisty to the point of channelling Joan of Arc. She survives not through being spared by a kind-hearted huntsman and sheltered by dwarves, as in the original tale. Rather, she escapes (albeit with the aid of a nail she hasn’t spotted anytime in the previous eight years or so), and when she meets the dwarves she empowers them, inspiring them to “grow” from maleficent marauders into stout-hearted heroes. Snow White is a modern woman and, as such, refuses to put up with the heroic predominance traditionally afforded to males. She kills the queen through her own initiative. She refuses to fall for or choose as husband either of her prospective love interests. Even in matters of religion, although praying to her holy father (who art in heaven), she has no qualms about seemingly dying and then rising from the dead. Jesus, it seems, may well have been a woman, and for all its apparent mediocrity, SWATH in essence is doing no less than making a case for the overhauling of outmoded fantasy preconceptions. It is nothing short of a feminist call to arms.

And yet, one might wonder…

In the late seventies and early eighties, ancient historians Garthwaite and Ahl wrote several academic papers on a literary device that they termed “safe criticism”; which, in essence, allowed a writer who feared for his safety to offer up some negative viewpoint disguised as praise. Most of Ahl’s and Garthwaite’s fellows took this posturing to be facetious, but heretofore, with Snow White and the Huntsman giving rise to a proposed sequel, the concept is one that perhaps should be taken very seriously indeed. For there are elements to SWATH that hint at a very deliberate – and by necessity, very subtle – undermining of the feminist doctrine that the film presents in veiled form to its viewers. For a start there is the pervading “poorness”. Yes, the females are strong, but no matter how powerful and proactive their contributions, if these are made within the framework of a cinematic flop then surely the triumph resonates with the hollow echo of defeat? Furthermore, do the so-called feminist elements withstand closer scrutiny? Indeed, one might say not. Theron’s queen is afforded a sense of righteous justification for her actions, but was it really men who made her what she is? Yes and no. Through direct cause and effect it actually was her mother (who herself was a man-hater; this is taken for granted and the basis for that hate is left largely to the imagination). And when Snow White claims she knows how to kill the queen, her plan, in essence, is nothing more sophisticated than to charge mindlessly at her, sword pointed like a shish kebab; it is only by using the Huntsman’s knife trick (dropped rather blatantly into the plot earlier on) that she is able to end the queen’s evil reign (or, to pick at the nuance, relieve the poor woman/child of her voraciously bloodthirsty but ultimately unwanted burden). And what truly is the symbolism of Snow White’s not choosing a love interest to sit by her side as the credits roll? Is it a fierce independence and laudable detachment from doe-eyed swooning, or merely that she’s been locked up in a tower ever since she was a little girl? Perhaps, in the veiled but caustic appraisal of safe criticism, this beau ideal of feminism is simply the natural consequence of someone who’s yet to grow up.

Kristen Stewart, for those who’ve been living inside a black box, shielded from the explosive fallout of cinematic disaster, starred in the Twilight films – truly lamentable movies in their own right – and if we extrapolate from Garthwaite’s and Ahl’s treatise then her casting in Snow White and the Huntsman may well be seen as an insidious attempt to poison the film’s overtly covert feminism through recourse to the overly glossy red apple of teenage fanaticism. For every ounce that Snow White may purport to be a role model of female empowerment, Stewart replies in kind with her staple expression of toothy, lips parted, slightly baffled teen uncertainty; and if, perhaps, it is stretching the argument too far to suggest that her and Sanders’ off-screen affair was a deliberate stratagem by the latter to undermine and so safely criticise the feminist polemic (his eyes for her also blinding him to glaring deficiencies elsewhere in the film), nevertheless there is some analogous evidence to that effect. The casting of non-dwarf actors to play the dwarves, and the stereotyping of Sam Spruell as the queen’s unnervingly creepy albino brother, is precisely the sort of negative discrimination that, in contrast to the positively presented female empowerment, hints at the feminism in question being not the laudable, equal rights and equal treatment variety but rather the more militant product of a retributive backlash that has seen many a son doubled over and paying dearly for the sins of his father.

One vital but often overlooked aspect of safe criticism (ignored even by Ahl and Garthwaite) is that the “safe” element should give way eventually to a more overt criticism. In the telling of Snow White and the Huntsman this dénouement comes in the form of the huntsman’s blaming Snow White’s father for what has befallen the land. How stupid of the man, he says (in essence), to enrage and patronise the evil hag so much that she would bring his benevolent rule to a sticky end; how irresponsible to goad her into sucking the life out of the kingdom. Thus through absurdity the feminist take is both presented and ridiculed. Or is this line of reasoning perhaps akin to drawing fairy castles in the air? Could it be that when Wikipedia makes the claim that historians were consulted both as to the literary history of the Snow White story and the historical accuracy of the battle scenes, yet in the relevant footnote cites only an article giving dubious evidence to the former,1 there has simply been an error, not a deliberate effort to re-write and re-layer the film? Though not discounting this possibility, one surely must acknowledge that it would be a terrible shame; for, divested of these ingenious and conniving undertones, SWATH would have nothing left by which to judge it than what we see at face value – and is it not terribly reprehensible and shallow to look no further than surface appearances?

Just ask the moss-covered tortoise briefly seen plodding across the small screen and then covering its eyes, desperately trying to shield itself either from Snow White and the Huntsman’s shambling avatar or from the deeper implications of this home theatre tour de force.

1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Snow_White_and_the_Huntsman [note 19]; Clark, Nick, “Philip Pullman to publish new adaptations of Grimm’s Fairy Tales”, The Independent (March 20, 2012) [http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/philip-pullman-to-publish-new-adaptations-of-grimms-fairy-tales-7579274.html]

Monday, 24 December 2012

Looper – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Looper (dir. Rian Johnson). It’s not lupus. It’s never lupus.

In the world of 2044, economic collapse has given rise to social degradation and the predominance of organised crime, wherein the mob from thirty years further into the future abducts people and dumps them back in time to be executed. The men who carry out these hits are called “loopers”, so named because their job entails early retirement and a payout sufficient to keep them living the highlife for thirty years, whereupon each man will be strapped to his own bonus and sent back thirty years to be shot by himself – his final kill. So far, so good for Joe Simmons (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), but by the year 2074 a ruthless new mafia boss has emerged and is closing all the loops. Joe already has his future planned, but his older self (Bruce Willis), having lived that life, then decides that he’s not quite ready to die…

For those moviegoers who happened to see Moonrise Kingdom and Looper across consecutive sessions (is there a Facebook page for that?) the inevitability of Bruce Willis’s reversion to type may have offered an oddly disparate sense of reassurance during the popcorn-strewn shuffle from one cinema to the next. Nothing against Willis’s choosing to broaden his horizons in the former, but with the latter film offering the prospect of his bald eagle head in jaded action hero mode, with trademark cynicism, smirks and exasperated outbursts, many are those who would have crossed the foyer as if one-handing the wheel of a battered but faithful old car – one with roll-down windows and tapes in the glovebox. Bruce Willis! The man’s a walking comfort zone. And, of course, throw in SF time travel paradoxes and surely one cannot help but (p)reminisce about the quintessentially dizzying heights of 12 Monkeys.

Yet, for all of Willis’s charisma and on-screen presence, and for all that Looper presents as a serious feat of SF assemblage, it carries, too, a sleekness that seems at times forced rather than naturally elegant – not unlike the New versus Classic design Beetle. Specific instances of this over-shininess are difficult to pin down – after all, the future portrayed in Looper is dystopian gritty rather than polished chrome, and important plot elements actually are worked in quite naturally, rather than being signposted in ACHTUNG! capitals for those wide-eyed, empty headed, screen-addled peons whose lives are spend in faithful indenture to the Lowest Common Denominator – but nevertheless, something feels wrong. Perhaps it is the too-new smell of the film’s cinematographic upholstery; the overly diligent buff of its editing…

Or maybe writer/director Rian Johnson just hasn’t folded the map properly.

Looper takes the viewer on an absorbing, at times disturbing drive through a little explored variant of the time travel conundrum – neither an open nor a closed loop (can change/can’t change) but rather a concurrent loop (am changing/am being affected by change). Johnson’s exploration of this concept is enhanced by a carefully conceived though unobtrusively portrayed societal backdrop, and by a marked preponderance of human interaction over supposedly edge-of-your-seat action scenes. The mythology of the self-fulfilling prophecy is as compelling to audiences today as it was to the Greeks thousands of years ago; but regardless of whether or not the time travel causality logic holds traction (and, let’s face it, there’s quite a bit of frying pan fat spattered over the loop of fire), the film at its core contains several ill-fitting conceits that like a poorly adjusted seat tend to distract those of us too fidgety of mind merely to take in the view. Rather than retuning these parts to a logician’s specifications, Johnson’s maintenance policy seems to have been one of overtly acknowledging the use of scriptyard scraps (Bruce Willis: “I don’t want to talk about time travel, because if we start talking about it then we’re going to be here all day talking about it, making diagrams with straws”) and then sweeping them under the bonnet; and whereas this may in some respects be preferable to offering up the usual balderdash explanations, nevertheless it requires the viewer to take as read such concepts as: hitmen being called upon to kill themselves (unnecessary and, as history will show in most instances, rather asking for trouble); people being personally assassinated at all (as opposed merely to being time-deposited directly into the furnaces where they are dumped after being shot); a mafia boss so shadowy that even his/her gender is unknown, yet whose exact date and place of birth can be determined; and, underpinning the entire scenario to the point where no mechanic in his right mind would dare slide underneath, a future society devoid of a social welfare system, where the mob is powerful enough to monopolise time travel and make almost anybody disappear (quite literally), but where these all-powerful crime lords cannot dispose of a body without fear of some non-corruptible, super-powered forensics taskforce using “tracking technology” to scour the furnaces of the world and somehow bring them to justice.

Tracking technology? Even as a first draft placemarker that’s lamentably clunky. Why not call upon the statute of limitations? Or – Why, yes, ma’am: a tax dodge. There’s a nice tip of the fedora to poor old Al Capone. Or what about good old honest greed-mongering, where the silver and gold used to pay the loopers has become severely deflated in value across thirty years of being feedback-looped into the mafia-controlled economy? Granted, those are just off-the-cuff ripostes extemporised during the closing credits, and yet there must have been something more convincing; some other colour on offer; for it cannot be denied that a plausible scenario is facilitative of strong characters (which in the case of Looper they are) being afforded the means by which to put a film through its paces, rather than merely given the keys to an ice-cream van and then left to invest their performances in slow-trawling the streets. A lick and a promise is one thing, but tracking technology? That’s about as effective a burnish as shammying your Ferrari 250 GT with a morning star.

And so the twelve monkeys (see, hear, speak, and for the other nine, script no evil) are left to scratch their heads and wonder at what might have been.

Notwithstanding its somewhat laissez-faire approach to “science” fiction and the sanctity of the dialectic ecosystem, Looper does remain worthy of a test drive, either across the silver screen or via one of the more reputable small screen dealerships. Bruce Willis is Bruce Willis. Emily Blunt and Joseph Gordon-Levitt do what they do (although the latter perhaps lacks sufficient pathos to give real credence to the film’s ultimate dénouement – despite his being the wrong age relative to Bruce Willis, friends of the Moonrise Kingdom/Looper double may well have preferred Ed Norton). Looper’s pacing is good; its moral ambiguity bears up under scrutiny; the characters and their conflicting viewpoints demand consideration: but though all the parts thus seem in place for putting together a “sent from the future” classic (no Schwarzenegger, obviously, but Garret Dillahunt makes a suitably menacing appearance, echoing his role in The Sarah Connor Chronicles), SF fans ultimately will be left to lament that Looper has not turned out to be the Terminator it just possibly could have prevented itself from not becoming.

Hasta la vista, baby; or, as Herbie the Love Bug might honk out in Morse code while blinking earnestly with his headlamps, “Metallic paint has not yet been invented, but thirty years from now it will have been.” Well, quite – but it’s the engineering and bodywork that makes for an abiding place in cultural memory, not merely the cosmetics of here today, gone tomorrow, headstone to read:

LOOPER
2009–2013
Loop Closed

Monday, 17 December 2012

Dredd 3D – reviewed by Howard Watts

Dredd 3D certainly deserves its 18 rating. Now, I’m not a great fan of 3D – I find it false from a film POV, an augmented reality akin to Google’s project glass: https://plus.google.com/+projectglass/posts – a Sinclair C5 for the noggin, with apologies to William Gibson. Wearing those huge 3D glasses makes me feel like a participant at a Buggles convention, thankful for the darkness of the cinema. It’s not reality, and for me not how film should be presented. Dredd bears this out with abundance, many scenes not tailored specifically for the 3D effect suffering (as have other 3D films in recent years) from foreground distractions and blurry black artefacts.

Dredd is brutal, unrelenting, graphically violent on screen, implying it off. It’s full on – but lacks colour, favouring the grey tones of despair. The soundscape thunders around you, a marching drum of determination, punctuating its claustrophobic setting. Sight and hearing are bombarded – perhaps to the point of admitting, “too much!” Hardly a Buggles convention.

A triple homicide takes Dredd and his rookie mutant psychic, Anderson, to the Mega Block, Peach Trees – a gigantic self-contained town where they discover the culprit. Hoping to take him back to the Hall of Justice for interrogation, the perpetrator’s boss, Ma-Ma, puts Peach Trees into lockdown, cutting it off from the outside world. Dredd and Anderson find themselves pitted against every resident of the block that believes they have a chance against them. Anderson’s Psi powers learn that Ma-Ma is responsible for the manufacture and distribution of the drug, Slo-Mo, a drug that slows the user’s perception of the passing of time. Here’s where 3D comes into play, the bullet time effect championed by the Matrix movies given a respectful nod. This effect works well for the most part, but there is an element of “grain” to these scenes. I’ll admit I’m a fan of long locked off establishing shots, of which there are plenty, allowing the eyes to roam around the shot, picking out the details. Unfortunately these scenes are too long, and the eye (perhaps ruined by too many quick cuts in recent years) finds itself returning to parts of the frame already explored – in essence, we’re left waiting for a cut. Saying this, I found myself drawn in by these scenes, as they are needed amid the frenetic activity – a well deserved catch-your-breath break. During Dredd and Anderson’s ascension no punch is pulled illustrating Dredd’s determined removal of the obstacles in their path. The Slo-Mo scenes (how can the camera suffer the effect of the drug?) of various “Judgements” are paced perfectly. You know that bullet’s going to hit right there, but when it does… In contrast, some of Anderson’s combat scenes are shown in real time – to devastating effect. But I found myself thinking the 3D effect should have been utilised for Anderson’s “Psi” scenes, rather than the focus pull.

Karl Urban’s portrayal of Dredd is faultless. The “grim chin” expression from the comic is perfectly translated, his voice, a mixture of Eastwood’s Harry Callahan and the original (remember that?) Boba Fett, his walk akin to Robocop at times. Urban has said he researched Dredd’s voice, finding a description in 2000A.D. as “a saw cutting through bone”. This is perfectly realised by Urban, a self confessed SF fan.

In comparison to Dredd of 2000A.D. it’s a bit of a mixed bag. Production design’s budget seemed to have been spent mostly on VW camper vans, concrete scree and fibreglass body panels for unrecognisable modern day cars and motorbikes. Mega City 1 isn’t that mega, more embryonic. There are a few plot/common sense problems – Dredd telling Anderson to conserve ammo, then a few scenes later shooting a security camera. Anderson’s gun (as per the comic) explodes when used by a perp, when it should have simply electrocuted the user allowing the gun to be picked up again by its Judge owner. The choice of some words is strange at times, and out of character – the CGI repetitive – the opening of Peach Trees identical to that of the lockdown, with the same lighting, time of day and camera move used. These issues aside, Dredd is a ride from start to finish, and I can only hope if there is a sequel, Urban remains and the city grows around him.

Friday, 14 December 2012

Dreadstar Omnibus, Vol. 1, by Jim Starlin – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Dreadstar Omnibus, Vol. 1 by Jim Starlin (Dynamite Entertainment, ebook, 377pp) begins poorly, with a long recap of events that took place in the Marvel graphic novel Dreadstar (not included), as well as hinting at a bigger story that preceded it (explained more fully in chapter eight). Vanth Dreadstar is, as far as he knows, the sole survivor of the Milky Way, and arriving in the Empirical galaxy he did his best to ignore the two hundred year-old war between the Monarchy and the Instrumentality, found a wife, became a farmer, and lived a quiet life among peaceful cat-people until the Monarchy decided to wipe them out. His wife dead, Dreadstar decides there’s work be done, gathers a band of rebels, and that’s where we come in, ready to read twelve chapters originally published as the first twelve issues of Marvel’s ongoing Dreadstar.

It’s a shame that filling in that backstory takes up so much of the first chapter – when as I’ve shown above it could have been done rather more swiftly! – but that’s the last time the book could fairly be accused of moving slowly. It gets better with every page that follows, events moving at a breakneck pace. It’s much like the equally readable Star Wars and G.I. Joe comics Marvel were publishing at about the same time, but enhanced by the sense that these are the real stories of these characters, not just spin-offs. Our heroes are an interesting bunch – a cyber-psychic, a cat-man, a wizard and a rogue – but their leader, Dreadstar, is sometimes hard to like. For example, when he meets a vengeful survivor from the Milky Way, he fights him to the death, admittedly with good cause, but he doesn’t bother to explain that he didn’t destroy the Milky Way on purpose. He walks away from the fight happy to have vanquished evil, with little acknowledgment that he was in part responsible for its creation.

Dreadstar has a pair of good antagonists in the High Lord Papal, dog-collared dictator of the religious Instrumentality, and Z, scheming chief strategist for the Monarchy, whose appearance is so obviously inspired by Darth Vader it makes Dark Helmet look like an original creation. I don’t think that’s an awfully bad thing, though. The recent acquisition of Lucasfilm for $4bn made me reflect on how few attempts we see these days to copy Star Wars, and how much I’d like to see more. What was the last science fiction film to have anything of that feel? The Fifth Element, Firefly? Anyway, Starlin addresses this point with winning directness in chapter twelve, when we see four very familiar figures step out from the spaceship.

The artwork is clear and easy to follow, but with many clever touches, such as in chapter five, “The Commune”, where a long thin vertical panel down the right of the page is used to illustrate the brute Tuetun falling to his apparent death while cat-man Oedi moves on with his mission. Unusually, it’s well worth browsing the book’s pages in thumbnail mode to get a sense of how varied its use of panel structures is, always to serve the interests of the story. Originally writing in 2003, Walt Simonson in his introduction identifies the panel layouts as one of the things that makes Dreadstar feel very much of the eighties, but it’s a style that will win the comic new friends now, as the double page splashes and irregular panels of the last twenty years begin to feel like relics of another age. Nothing suits guided view better than rectangular panels. It’s worth noting also that the artwork, although not completely recoloured, has been scanned and retouched from the original film, so the colours are bright and unmarred by the vagaries of actual printing.

Dreadstar isn’t an entirely grown-up comic in tone and characterisation; more a typical comic of its time with a few touches of adult subject matter. In that sense it might suffer in comparison with, say, a modern comic like Saga, which in many ways is very similar, with its ongoing war between two great, unsympathetic empires and a small band caught in the middle. But then Starlin produced these comics at a time when the adult readership of comics wasn’t as well established as it is now. In some ways, it has the beating of more recent comics, in particular with regard to the density of its storytelling. Each chapter of this would take up at least a trade paperback of most modern comics. Even in just this first volume, major story arcs – things I took to be part of the comic’s ongoing premise – come to unexpectedly early conclusions.

That’s left me very curious as to where the comic will go next, and I could quite happily have read another twenty or thirty issues of this before moving on to something else; I’ll be sure to buy them as they appear on Comixology. The book is recommended to anyone with a taste for space opera and Marvel comics from the same period. Don’t expect too much from it and you should be able to pass a few enjoyable hours in its company.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

You say potato, I say Sir Francis Drake wandering off-course with a sack full of sprouting ideas. The Long Earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter (Doubleday, 2012).

When plans for Willis Linsay’s “stepping” device are posted online, humanity suddenly discovers the capacity to travel “east” or “west”, one world at a time (without iron but with quite some nausea) across a seemingly infinite number of parallel Earths, all of them untouched by humankind. For Joshua Valienté, a “natural” stepper who can traverse the Long Earth at will, this offers the chance to seek out the Silence that has called to him ever since his somewhat unusual birth, while for the rest of the populace it brings turmoil, upheaval and the bittersweet prospect of an endless frontier. Accompanying the ever-evolving super computer Lobsang, Joshua embarks on a voyage to uncover the cosmic significance of the many worlds opened up by Willis Linsay . . . and to find out what strange force is driving other humanoid life back towards the “Datum” Earth.

As a writer Terry Pratchett is best known for his thirty-nine (to date) Discworld novels, which in the modern world of pre-ordering seem regularly to become New York Times Bestsellers even before they are written. But while Pratchett’s comic fantasy made him by turn of the millennium the most shoplifted author in Britain,[1] the often satirical advancement of his Discworld civilisation (which at its behavioural heart bears many striking resemblances to the real world, despite resting on the backs of four gargantuan elephants who themselves stand stoically atop the shell of an astronomically large space turtle), has by very dint of its popularity kept him from traversing the science fiction path upon which he first embarked with The Dark Side of the Sun (1976) and Strata (1981). Pratchett does, however, find time for the odd non-Discworld novel – the masterful Nation, for instance, in 2008 – and with The Long Earth he returns at last to an idea he started working on twenty-five years ago, before the growing success of Discworld (by that stage at book three, Equal Rites) prompted him to shelve the project.[2]

Pratchett has on rare occasion collaborated with other authors – most notably with thentime fledgling novelist Neil Gaiman for the compocalyptic fantasy Good Omens (1990) – and in the case of The Long Earth and its as-yet-unwritten sequel, his teaming up with science fiction heavyweight Stephen Baxter clearly signposts an intent to pursue the quantum worlds scenario for its “hard” SF rather than humorous potential. Yes, there are unconventional nuns, and the stepping device used to travel between worlds is powered by a potato. True, the book features a Tibetan motorcycle repairman reincarnated within a computer and so legally declared the world’s first human being of artificial intelligence. But the scenario Pratchett and Baxter have posited does not lend itself to out-and-out humour, and so these absurdities are presented with something akin to a loss adjustor’s matter-of-factness – almost without exception the many worlds setting is used with utmost seriousness to explore the evolutionary and behavioural aspects of people and society. Anybody expecting The Long Earth to be “Pratchett” and, ergo, comedic, will instead find what humour there is to be wry and distinctly understated – more a faint watermark, in fact, than a text-spanning belly laugh.

Pratchett deserves kudos for stepping out beyond his (and his readers’) comfort zone, but for all that “Datum” Earth and the stepwise worlds offer scope for intellectual and imaginative exploration, The Long Earth as a novel presents itself in somewhat ungainly a fashion (beyond even the rather sic-ly possessive apostrophe mishap of page eighteen). One key aspect of Pratchett’s Discworld books has been their sense of unfolding mystery, whereas in The Long Earth, although various “what’s happening here?” breadcrumbs are dropped in with the usual Pratchett artfulness, they seem almost immediately then to be gobbled up by parrots who digest the scenario and subsequently exposit its erstwhile mysteriousness in squawking information dumps. The storyline is stop/start for much of the book’s first third, and even when it picks up momentum and, through Joshua’s and Lobsang’s dirigible exploration of the expanding westward frontier, takes on some of the unfolding intrigue of Philip José Farmer’s To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971) and sequels, there remains to the nonplussed reader a certain homogeneousness of character and dialogue, while the narrative itself drifts unconcerned past incidents of suspense, and continues to be broken up by the insertion of tangential and, in the case of one section that presumably is supposed to depict Australian Aborigines, rather incongruous vignettes. The overall impression one receives is that Pratchett and Baxter kicked around some (very good) ideas regarding what would follow in the wake of their hypothetical Step Day – indeed, that they went off separately and developed a set of one-off or minor characters – but that they couldn’t quite find a way to incorporate these as a cohesive part of the larger story. Perhaps it could be argued that the jumble of thoughts in some way evokes the confusion and disorientation that humanity experiences in the novel, but in all honesty this smacks more of an apologist’s devotion than an unbiased appraisal. In unvarnished truth The Long Earth is more of a prolonged literary brainstorm than a novel.

Notwithstanding this assessment, it remains clear that Pratchett and Baxter have put a great deal of consideration into their “what if...?” scenario. The Long Earth might well be worth reading just for its concepts, and now that its authors have taken the first step in exploring the consequences both of infinite resources and of the evolution of humanity and human society, further books in the series may indeed offer up properly boiled potatoes and a smoother voyage across the many permutations of stepwise imagination.

1. “Terry Pratchett’s fantasy world”, 27 May 1999, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/354117.stm

2. Flood, Alison, “Terry Pratchett enters parallel worlds of science fiction”, 16 June 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2010/jun/16/terry-pratchett-science-fiction-book

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Interzone #243 (ft. Theaker) – out on Kindle

The latest issue of Interzone is now out on Kindle. It features fiction by Jon Wallace, Jason Sanford, Priya Sharma, Chen Qiufan and Caroline M. Yachim, colour illustrations by Richard Wagner, Warwick Fraser-Coombe, and Martin Hanford, an interview with Adam Roberts, and much more.

But of course the very, very best reason to buy it is that it also features a review by me, of The Wurms of Blearmouth, Steven Erikson's latest Bauchelain and Korbal Broach novella.

Links:

Interzone #243 on Kindle UK
Interzone #243 on Kindle US
Print subscriptions to Interzone (and other TTA magazines)
The Wurms of Blearmouth on PS Publishing's website

Monday, 3 December 2012

The Super Barbarians, by John Brunner – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The first paragraph of The Super Barbarians by John Brunner (SF Gateway, ebook, 2655ll) sets the scene; it’s fifty years since our first interstellar war was lost, twenty-five since the Great Grip was loosened, ten since humans were accorded rights on Qallavarra, home planet of our conquerors. The Vorrish have an elaborate social structure and a convoluted language to match, but despite their military superiority they seem lacking in certain areas: their cars are imported from Earth, there are members of their nobility who cannot read or write, and superstition runs rampant. All are things that Gareth Shaw, a lowly human in the Household of Pwill, begins to realise he can turn to his advantage—and that of all humans.

Though The Super Barbarians is far from being one of Brunner’s masterworks, I would have enjoyed it very much had this particular edition not been such a mess. It’s interesting in that it’s a tale of the indomitable human spirit, of aliens who just can’t—at least in the long run—cope with our wiles, determination, hard work and technical know-how; not at all what you would expect from the author of dour, pessimistic novels like Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. One suspects it was written very specifically to appeal to Ace, its original American publisher. There’s no doubt that the storyline panders to our vanity as a species, but it makes for a fun, pleasant and hopeful book.

Unfortunately, this Gollancz/SF Gateway edition of the book was, like the previously reviewed Dumarest 4: Kalin from the same publisher, utterly dreadful, clearly having been scanned in and never checked, with ridiculous mistakes from start to finish. Typical errors included: “On the Vorrish side it was tempered with a land of puzzlement”, “This was another point they bore in mind when dunking of us”, “Where is he JIOW?” and an order “not to supply any more of this poison to my 8011” (meaning son). It’s clear that Gollancz only got all those thousands of books out so quickly by cutting all the corners. And it’s not as if the books are particularly cheap. I won’t buy any more SF Gateway books without checking the Kindle previews; wish I hadn’t pre-ordered so many before they were released.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Theaker's Quarterly Fiction #42 - out now! (Plus two free books!)

Not a dream, not an alternate reality, this is your real life and this is really happening: Theaker's 42 is here, at last!

Fiction: “The Powers That Be”, Sophia-Karin Psarras; “Drydock”, Mitchell Edgeworth; “Old Men Who Reach into Guitars”, R.M. Fradkin. Plus the Quarterly Review, by Jacob Edwards, Stephen Theaker and Howard Watts.

Books reviewed: Clementine, The Ebb Tide, The God Engines, The Long Earth, Mere Anarchy, The White City, The Yellow Cabochon, Dan Dare. Films reviewed: Dredd 3D, Looper and Snow White and the Huntsman.

There are two big changes this issue. Although Lulu and Feedbooks have been brilliant for us over the last few years, from this issue we’re moving the print version to Amazon POD, for the sake of improved distribution and cheaper postage for readers, and the ebook into the Kindle store, to give us a little more flexibility with the ebook formatting.

Delivery from Amazon is free with Super Saver delivery, or if you're a Prime member, effectively cutting three or four pounds off the cost of buying an issue.

Moving the ebook to the Kindle store does mean there's a minimum price for it, but our plan is to make each new issue free on Kindle for the first five days of its release, and then again whenever a new issue is released. If we end up accidentally selling a few copies in the spaces inbetween, we’ll tuck the money into Christmas cards for contributors.

If you are a fan of the epub and pdf formats of the magazine, our plan is to make them available as a bonus to anyone who gets the Kindle or print editions. Just send an email quoting the relevant code (see the editorial) to theakersquarterlyfiction@gmail.com and we’ll send a download link.

I hope that our next issue will be out in December, back on schedule, so see you again very soon.

Links:

Kindle edition (UK)
Print edition (UK)

Kindle edition (US)
Print edition (US)

Contributors

Howard Watts is a writer, artist and composer living in Seaford who provides the cover to this issue and a review of the film Dredd 3D.

Jacob Edwards is currently indentured to Australia’s speculative fiction flagship Andromeda Spaceways, editing #45 and (most merrily and in time for Christmas 2012) #55 of their Inflight Magazine. The website of this writer, poet and recovering lexiphanicist: www.jacobedwards.id.au.

Mitchell Edgeworth is a young writer living in the western suburbs of Melbourne, Australia. His fiction has been published in The Battered Suitcase and SQ Mag. He tweets as @mitchedgeworth and keeps a blog at www.grubstreethack.wordpress.com.

R.M. Fradkin currently lives and works in Italy. The one thing she expects to be constant in her life is writing: not doing so “would be like living with laryngitis for the rest of my life”.

Sophia-Karin Psarras is a sinologist who, through no fault of her own, has recently become inextricably caught in a web of doctors (and all secondarily-related species).

Stephen Theaker is the eponymous co-editor of Theaker’s Quarterly Fiction, and writes many of its reviews. He has also reviewed for Interzone, Black Static, Prism and the BFS Journal.

FREEBIES

To celebrate each new issue of TQF we offer a book or two free on Kindle. This time it's Michael Wyndham Thomas's extraordinary The Mercury Annual and my entirely ordinary Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting!

The Mercury AnnualKindle UK, Kindle US
Quiet, the Tin Can Brains Are Hunting!Kindle UK, Kindle US

The War of the Worlds (XBLA) – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

I’ve been meaning to review The War of the Worlds (XBLA) for quite a while, but to do that I felt I had to finish the game, and that hasn’t happened; in fact, I don’t think I’ve got anywhere near the end. Written by Christopher Fowler, and narrated by Patrick Stewart, this side-scrolling platformer sets the story in 1950s London, which puts a very interesting twist on the narrative. For example, the player hears BBC radio broadcasts announcing the invasion. Though it was a game I bought less to play than because I thought it would be interesting to review, I was surprised by how good it was, at least at first; a bit slow, maybe, but diverting, beautiful, and often quite frightening.

However, it has two huge problems. The first is that the game is far too difficult, with fiddly controls, tripod-high difficulty bumps, instant death, and widely-spaced checkpoints. The children were frequently in hysterics at my lacklustre attempts to escape the death rays. I doubt I’d have kept plugging away if it hadn’t amused them so much. The second problem is that the difficulty level turns its biggest strengths—the excellent animation, narration and writing—into weaknesses, as you get sick to death of seeing and hearing the same things over and over. If you’re a fan of games with old-school difficulty settings, this might be worth a go, but it’s definitely not recommended to more casual gamers.

Monday, 26 November 2012

Le Voyage dans la Lune, Air – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Le Voyage dans la Lune (EMI, CD, 32 mins plus DVD, 17 mins) isn’t the first soundtrack work by Air (that would I think be The Virgin Suicides (2000), an album so heartbreaking I could only listen to it once)—but it is nevertheless very special. The music began as pieces to accompany the restored colour version of Georges Méliès’ 1902 film, which is included here, and so, before discussing the music, a few words for the film. Though most right-thinking people have a natural abhorrence of the colourisation of black and white films, this is something rather different; it was made at the same time as the original film under the supervision of Méliès himself, with every frame of the story hand-painted: the debate at the academy and the preparation of the rocket; the journey to the moon; the hallucinatory sleep sequence; the battles with the insectoid lunar inhabitants; the triumphant return home. Every bit of it is visually astonishing, and the colour is amazing, the brush strokes clearly visible. The film has lost none of its interest or entertainment value: the only disappointment for my children was its short length. If someone made the same film today you’d be impressed by their cleverness; that Méliès did it in 1902 is beyond belief. Or rather, it would be, if we didn’t have the evidence on DVD. And what about that Jules Verne, eh? Inspiring hit films for over a century now! (Shame they’re not all as good as this one.)

The album takes a slightly different order to the film. It opens with the drums, spikes and querulous voices of the “Astronomic Club”, but ends with “Lava”, which begins like something from a seventies film and turns into the theme from Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (or “Journey of the Sorcerer”, as Eagles fans might know it), music that comes from the mid-point of the film. The “Retour sur Terre” takes place in track three, a short piano-led piece that could have been drawn from the Moon Safari sessions. It leads into track four, the exuberant, punchy Geoff Lovesque “Parade” which soundtracks the final sequence of the film, and then we’re back on the moon with “Moon Fever”—imagine an extended version of the ambient introduction to Fatboy Slim’s “Right Here, Right Now”—and the aggressive synth-funk march of the “Sonic Armada”. The rocket departs at last in track nine, “Cosmic Trip”, with a breathy glide that probably doesn’t quite replicate the experience of being shot into space in a huge bullet. Which is all to say that this isn’t a science fiction disco opera in the style of Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds (for all that it makes you wish Air would write one). But it works wonderfully as an album, the order of the tracks making musical, if not logical, sense, the shifting moods—from pleasant drowsiness to the bold loopiness of your very best dreams—constantly provoking interest. Where vocals appear, they tend to be slow, often spoken, mostly in English, usually with a sense of disorientation. The announcer of the countdown to ignition in “Seven Stars”, for example, sounds rather like a drunk Tom Hardy (and so of course that is one of my favourite tracks).

Easy listening for science fiction fans, perhaps, but I’ve listened to few records more often this year and anything new I buy will have to do very well to catch up. It’s the kind of album of which you simply cannot tire. Unless you get up and march around your office whenever “Parade” comes on. Which I don’t.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

As part of Portishead, Geoff Barrow has created four of my favourite albums of all time. Drokk: Music Inspired by Mega-City One (Invada UK, 56 mins), in collaboration with film and television composer Ben Salisbury, may be a side project, but it is very nearly as superb as his other work. This isn’t actually the soundtrack to the forthcoming Dredd, whose composer is Paul Leonard-Morgan. But it did apparently begin there, as exploratory sketches, and it says a lot for the music that although they didn’t end up working on the film, the musicians involved felt those ideas were too good to leave unexplored, and came back to finish them off.

The nineteen tracks begin with “Lawmaster/Pursuit” and end with “Helmet Theme (Reprise)”, the titles between having titles like “Justice One”, “Iso Hymn” and “Titan Bound”. It’s fair to say, though, that while one hopes the actual Dredd film matches the one this album evokes in your head, without a tracklist you might well think this the music for a new outing for Snake Plissken or MacReady, so closely does it stick to the template of a John Carpenter soundtrack. Track seven “Exhale” is an exception, but even that sounds like a lost track from Blade Runner. If that makes the album sound derivative, well, it is—but it’s also exceptionally good.

Musically it doesn’t seem to be very complex, most tracks simply contrasting ambient hums and noise with a repetitive synthesizer line or two, but it is extremely effective. I loved the parts of Third where weird sf sounds would poke through, so to have that element unpacked over a full album was for me an unexpected treat. One criticism I could make is that the short cover of the card case, while very dramatic, leaves part of the actual CD exposed, but that won’t be a problem until the CD leaves my stereo, and it seems to have settled in for a very long stay.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Super F*ckers by James Kochalka – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Super F*ckers by James Kochalka (Top Shelf, digital collection, 146pp) is one of the most puerile things I’ve ever read, and therein lies its charm. Its characters throw swears around like they’ve just learnt them, dumb teenagers who have realised they can make their peers laugh with mindless abuse despite a lack of wit. The book is a spoof on teams like the Legion of Super-Heroes, the Justice Society of America and the Teen Titans, with their club houses, rule books and membership try-outs.

Team leader, at least as long as Superdan and Percy are lost in Dimension Zero, is Jack Krak, the Motherfucker, a Steven Gilligan* in black tights who is slowly losing his mind, but gets most of the best lines. Almost everything he says is funny, for example (picking out a couple of the less offensive lines): “I’ve got a super thirst ’cause I am a super DUDE” or “I’m CHRISTIAN now, motherfucker! Check it out!” (*I know that barely anyone reading this knew our chum Steven Gilligan, but trust me, he talked exactly like the Motherfucker—and he would have loved this book.)

Jack Krak’s team-mates include sweet but unloved Grotessa, whose symbiotic partner Grotus achieves sudden popularity when the guys realise they can get high smoking his slime; Princess Sunshine, who has to brush her hair exactly one thousand times to charge her radiant beauty powers; and newbie Wilbur, a.k.a. Computer Fist, who survives the tryouts (wannabes fight in a pit and the survivor joins the team!) but makes the mistake of admitting he’s also used his CPU-enhanced gauntlets for beating a different kind of meat. Only Vortex ever seems to save the universe, and he doesn’t even wear a costume.

Definitely not a book for everyone, and certainly not for children (although any scamps who got their hands on it would love it—nothing kids like more than swearing and jokes about wee and fighting), but it’s bright, colourful, obscene and highly childish, and a great deal of fun if you’re in the right mood. Every few pages or so there was a panel I just had to show Mrs Theaker, the look on her face being very nearly as entertaining as the book itself.

Friday, 16 November 2012

The Cosmic Horror Colouring and Activity Book! by Jess Bradley – reviewed by Lorelei Theaker

The Cosmic Horror Colouring and Activity Book! by Jess Bradley (self-published, 28pp) is great for kids any age. They will love this book because it has fun activities and brilliant colourings of Cthulhu and his enemies/friends. At the end of the book there are some snap cards to cut out and play with. Also provided, two photos of Cthulhu, one of him graduating and a normal photo of him. One of the fun activities is doing a maze to move Cthulhu somewhere, but you could get trapped in a picture of Cthulhu or a dead end.

All kids will absolutely adore this activity/colouring book. It will be fun because they can do some of the activities over and over if they don’t write on them and the fun will never stop. And the pictures are great and the illustrator has done great detail. And again, every kid will adore it!

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The A to Z of your online life

Type each letter of the alphabet into your browser’s address bar and note the results to draw a self-portrait with your favourite websites…

Here’s my list...




I think the search engine ones are where I haven't been to a site beginning with that letter so it just threw up something random. That hipster quiz is just a random quiz link from Facebook that I never actually did…

Monday, 12 November 2012

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

The Bookman by Lavie Tidhar (Angry Robot, ebook, 4253ll plus extras), is the first in a series that has so far run to three volumes (the sequels being Camera Obscura and The Great Game). It’s set in a world much changed since Amerigo Vespucci landed on the island of Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. Caliban’s people, Les Lézards, have installed themselves as the rulers of our island nation, whales sing in the Thames, the police are supported by automatons, airships fly overhead, and Moriarty is Prime Minister. Orphan is a young poet given to literary mischief, rebel rather than revolutionary, but when tragedy strikes a mission to Mars his need to set things right throws him into an adventure that will take him from London to the Mysterious Island of Jules Verne, and leave the future of the planet in his hands.

The Bookman didn’t bowl me over to quite the extent that Cloud Permutations and Gorel and the Pot-Bellied God did (reviews of those two should appear in our next issue), and it wasn’t as challenging, but I had a good time with it. Part of the book’s appeal is that Orphan’s choices are not easy; there are few people he can obviously trust, and many factions battling to come out on top. Irene Adler—in this world, a police officer—seems honest and trustworthy, but isn’t her job to protect the status quo? Or the Mechanical Turk, the chess-playing robot: sincere and intelligent, but his ultimate interest is the survival of his own kind. Or the mysterious Bookman? The Turk says he “almost never deals directly”, but he takes a direct hand with Orphan, promising everything he wants if he succeeds in his quest. All this intrigue and mystery gives the novel an interest beyond the spotting of celebrities fictional and historical—though that is, admittedly, fun.

The ebook has a few small issues. Paragraphs are separated by a couple of millimetres, at least on actual Kindles (on Kindle apps it disappears)—hardly noticeable, but annoying once you’ve seen it. In a few places words are split by spaces, and other words are welded together; probably where they were hyphenated in print, and "may" appears for “might” in a few places. Unattractive straight quotes are used, and there are no chapter marks, only section marks. But I mention that stuff mainly because it interests me, not because it should stop you from purchasing this inventive, entertaining novel.

Friday, 9 November 2012

The Darkness Compendium, Vol. 1 – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Even James Kochalka’s Super F*ckers seems grown-up compared to The Darkness Compendium, Vol. 1 (Top Cow, digital collection), which is 1169 pages of anatomically incorrect pin-ups, misogyny and lumpy dialogue. Possibly the worst comic I’ve read, and certainly the worst comic of which I’ve read almost twelve hundred pages, it did become moreish after a while, in the sense that it never asked anything of my brain, except when it came to grasping the dangling strands of a bunch of daft crossovers. It’s telling that the book’s most significant events (aside from Jackie gaining his powers at the age of 21) occur outside its pages, in a Batman crossover that isn’t included here.

Jackie Estecado is the wielder of the Darkness, a supernatural force, one of three that battle for supremacy over our realm (the others being the Angelus, usually manifesting as a sexy woman in a Borat bathing suit, and the Witchblade, owned by Sara Pezzini). He’s young, dumb and full of you-know-what, and such an idiot that, after finding his new powers come at the cost (pun intended) of killing him the second he impregnates a lady, it takes him five hundred pages or so to realise that doesn’t prohibit non-procreational sexual pleasures. Some parts of the book would have you think he’s a hitman with a heart of gold, but to believe that you’d have to ignore some thoroughly unpleasant behaviour.

The best issues are those written by Garth Ennis, but even then the reader has to peer past the poster art to imagine what the book might have looked like in the hands of an artist who can tell a story—and with Ennis as writer, you can’t help wishing it was Steve Dillon or John McCrea, although to be honest their talents would have been wasted on this rubbish. So why did I read it? Because I’ll buy any comic if it’s cheap enough, and once I’ve started a book I like to finish it. A couple of issues towards the end feature Cervantes as a character, as if to mock the reader who made it that far: you read a twelve hundred page book and it was this one? Even though you haven’t yet finished Don Quixote? Idiot!

Along with this I bought a bunch of later books in the series written by Phil Hester, and they can’t be as bad as this, surely? I’ll let you know.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Jago & Litefoot: The Bloodless Soldier by Justin Richards – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Henry Gordon Jago is a theatrical impresario who has lost his theatre, Professor Gordon Litefoot a respectable doctor who helps the police when they have a body to examine. They met for the first time on television, in The Talons of Weng-Chiang, one of the fourth Doctor’s best-regarded stories. Jago & Litefoot: The Bloodless Soldier by Justin Richards (Big Finish, 1×CD, 50 mins) is the first in a series of audio adventures, sold in box sets of four stories. Their “investigations of infernal incidents” have been successful enough to reach a fourth series, but I’m starting at the beginning. Or almost the beginning; they were previously to be heard in The Mahogany Murders, one of the Companion Chronicles, but I missed that one. Christopher Benjamin and Trevor Baxter return as Jago and Litefoot, respectively, their full-blooded, plummy tones giving the story an instant gravitas. They play their roles with complete conviction, approaching the material with the same seriousness they might give to a Radio 4 adaptation of a classic literary novel. The relish with which they discuss the food and drink served up by Ellie at their favourite pub made this listener wish he was right there at the table with them. The word I’m looking for is gusto!

And that’s the way their characters approach this story, of an army captain brought back from India with a nasty wolfish infection. While his loyal men try to find a cure, one less loyal subordinate looks to exploit him for money—which gets Jago involved. In parallel, Jago is called to examine a clawed and bloodless body left by the captain’s feeding.

This was one of my favourite Big Finish dramas so far, despite the absence of the Doctor. The story is quite short, but works very well, and the emotional conclusion, where Jago and Litefoot are faced with the same terrible necessity but only one can go through with it, tells us much about their respective strengths, and why two such different characters should find such support in each other’s company. I wasn’t keen on Hari Sunil (an Indian Van Helsing who travels to England to stop the curse spreading) being played by a white actor affecting an accent—nor on his proving so ineffective when it mattered!—but had I not seen the cast list I doubt I’d have griped; the acting throughout is in fact very good, as is the sound: I’ve rarely heard such alarming noises emanating from my stereo’s speakers! Overall, a very good adventure, and I’m very glad of having another three stories in the series one box set to look forward to.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Prometheus – reviewed by Howard Watts (*spoilers*)

It was around 1980/81 when my mother sneaked me into a flea pit with her in Brighton to see Ridley Scott’s A L I E N, and I’d like to make it perfectly clear from the outset: I’ve been waiting for someone to address the origins of the “Derelict” and its occupant, the “Space Jockey”, for umpteen years since walking out of the cinema way back then. In advance of seeing the film I was familiar with the imagery from various books such as the Alien Photostory and The Making of Alien. Even then, Hans Rudi Giger’s “Space Jockey” seemed to me to be such a grand figure fused to his chair, peering into what seemed to be either a telescope, or perhaps a weapon. He appeared lonely, as if his proud appointment somehow involved a great sacrifice on his part. Despite the mystery surrounding his true purpose, I wanted to know more about him…

Monday, 29 October 2012

Doctor Who: The Essential Companion – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Doctor Who: The Essential Companion (BBC/AudioGo, 2×CD, 160 mins), written by Steve Tribe and narrated by Alex Price, stitches together snatches of dialogue from the fifth full season of new Who, from The Eleventh Hour through to The Big Bang. It introduces us to the eleventh Doctor and his companions, Amelia (later Amy) Pond and Rory Williams, and then introduces them (or the Doctor and Amy at least, Rory often being dead, left at home, or erased from the space/time continuum) to countries built on space whales, daleks serving cups of tea, crashed spaceships full of weeping angels, alien vampires in Venice, the dream lord, silurians, Vincent Van Gogh, football and the Pandorica: all the things that made season five so wonderful.

The two CDs do an excellent job of summarising the storylines and celebrating the best lines, and every now and again the narration has a nice take on what’s going on. Those who have seen these episodes, surely its target audience, will find it serves as a pleasant reminder of the fun we’ve had, although my children have never got very far into it before asking to watch the actual episodes instead. For those who haven’t seen the programme, it might intrigue them to give it a try, but would spoil all the surprises. It’s all a bit pointless in an era when you can just load videos of the episodes onto an iPod and listen to them, but I can’t bring myself to dislike anything so full of wonderful dialogue, not least the “Hello Stonehenge!” speech, included here in full.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Prometheus – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Ridley, Riddled, Didley, Diddled. In Greek mythology Prometheus was a trickster god who betrayed his own kind and allowed the Olympians to gain ascendancy over the Titans. He championed mankind (as then it was, prior to Pandora), not only saving them from destruction at the tempestuous, lightning-wielding hands of Zeus but also giving them (or giving them back) the secret of fire and—to pull further on the thunder god’s beard—duping Zeus in perpetuity out of the meat of all sacrifices offered to him. In punishment for his duplicity Prometheus was chained to a rock and had his liver torn out daily by an eagle, forever and ever until even Franz Kafka lost interest and declared this ongoing repetition to be thoroughly pointless.

Students of the cinema will note several key features of the Prometheus myth: firstly, that the protagonists (with the possible exception of the eagle) act almost entirely without motivation; secondly, that for its dramatic impact the tale relies heavily on the evocative, grandiose and (to a large extent) shocking imagery conjured by its narrative; and thirdly, that the story rollicks along quite shamelessly over plot holes and the rocky logic of convenience (most notably in the rough-as-guts abdominal surgery that is perpetuated upon Prometheus in the name of entertainment). For all its symbolism the legend of Prometheus remains perilously light on substance.

Cut to Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, which draws not only on the original Greek myth but also upon subsequent connotations of lone scientific endeavour and experimentation gone wrong. (Hence, the frequently overlooked “or” in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.) Scott is renowned for his cinematic creation of immersive science fiction worlds (Alien, Blade Runner). Indeed, he is a doyen within the genre, and it is little surprise, then, that he renders Prometheus with all the sensory grandeur and visceral suffering that is warranted by its mythically portentous subject matter. So far, so good, and as archaeologist Elizabeth Shaw and the crew of the spaceship Prometheus travel in search of the “Engineers” who bequeathed star maps to all of Earth’s ancient cultures, it seems that the film may indeed impart to the viewer much of the epic mastery it so undoubtedly promises.

And yet, it doesn’t take long before Shaw and company (surrendering their weapons to the goodwill and high spirits of Christmas) throw good practice to the wind and so charge on in to explore the caveat…

Prometheus is overly ambitious in its aims, seeking not only to symbolically embody two contrasting mythologies but also (unofficially) to prefigure Alien—the Scott and sf/horror archetype with all its innate expectations—and also (we might fear) one or two as-yet-unfilmed “prequel sequels” that, once bequeathed the Promethean gift of fire, will burn with little purpose beyond elucidating the specially created obfuscation of Prometheus itself. Where successive scriptwriters Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof fail (or succeed, depending on your viewpoint; but in either case, they’ve done it terribly) is that they’ve imbued Prometheus with all the structural integrity and narrative coherence of the original trickster myth. The paucity of logic that they’ve brought to the script—and let Scott’s complicity here be noted—must surely be worthy of some award, even within the moth-eaten wardrobe of Hollywood’s finest; for Prometheus on the big screen is a story with more holes than plot, and as the credits roll and the conspicuous absence of consulting logicians gives way to an innumerable flock of liver-ripping effects artists, one cannot help but voice the irreverent thought that each of these (doubtlessly talented) individuals must surely have in some way sponsored one of the film’s groundbreaking array of logical non sequiturs and effects-without-cause.

When Titanic was released in 1997, would-be viewers who knew of James Cameron were split into two factions: those who preached the word “Terminator” with great if indiscriminate fervour; and those who more cautiously adopted the stance, “Yes, but unless there’s actually a Terminator onboard the boat…” And upon this distinction, plot- and theme-conscious cinemagoers were saved while those who romanticised about an omnipotent director went oh-so-tragically down with the ship. Now, whereas Titanic was quite blatantly a trap, advocates of Ridley Scott may find Prometheus a more insidious lure to avoid. It is, after all, clearly Alien-esque as a prequel (although, so too did Predators pass as Predator-esque; at least long enough to ruin 2010), and in contrasting the masked humanity of Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron) with the monstrous evolution of the Promethean android David (Michael Fassbender) it draws obvious inspiration also from Blade Runner. Moreover, Prometheus is visually bountiful (a Scott trademark that may be enough for some viewers) and carries a cleverly dissonant score by Marc Streitenfeld, the measured dose of which evokes a sense both of majestic, space-faring enterprise and unsettling, best-left-alone secrets. Yet, where Streitenfeld succeeds in wielding the musical staff à la Jerry Goldsmith or Vangelis, the same cannot be said of Ridley Scott in reprising his own role as classic dark science fiction “engineer”. For all that Prometheus might carry itself as a sovereign majesty cloaked in nuance and mystery, hinting as if at some greater meaning just beyond reach, for the most part Scott merely rehashes Alien and Blade Runner themes—bringing nothing more to them than a cinemagoer would by heating up old popcorn—and while doing so presents a supposedly new, quasi-religious take on the SF universe, which, although overtly pursued, remains poorly developed and indeed deliberately unfulfilled. In stark reality, Scott’s touch is little more than the shambling and gratuitously exhibitionist gait of Hans Christian Andersen’s emperor dressed only in clodhopping moonboots.

Ultimately, the “Ridley-Scott-ness” of Prometheus is nothing more than a façade (or perhaps an enormous carved head that really has no business being there). The support cast might make the most of their screen time—particularly Idris Elba (Captain Janek), who is characterised astutely “against” his current small screen persona in Luther—but the lead actors are given either clichéd or cardboard cut-out roles (sometimes both), and in all other respects the movie suffers from the clunky chains and fearsome improbability of its script. Lines are dropped in with the subtlety of spanners, drawing attention (perhaps unwisely) to plot points that are significant only in that they further preclude any possibility of the story being taken seriously. Motivations are sacrificed to the sanctity of myth. Style, in short, triumphs over substance, to such an extent that Noomi Rapace (Shaw) subjects herself to an extemporised Promethean gut-rip so ludicrous that it can only have been inspired by too much red slushee and one of those “skill-testing” machines that can often be found in the cinema foyer—the ones where people enamoured with soft toys can attempt to snap one up by manoeuvring a dainty metal claw into position above a fluffed up pile of cuddly aliens. The individual gaffes perpetrated within Prometheus are too numerous to catalogue without comparative reference to a George W. Bush highlights reel, but suffice to say that Scott, Spaihts and Lindelof have chained their story to its rock without any input from bona fide cryptologists, archaeologists, anthropologists, astrobiologists, or even gastroenterologists—once seated the audience is force-fed such codswallop that it finds itself spattered not merely with plot vomit but with the actual, exploded remains of stomachs seeking to jack-in-the-box evacuate from their infected carriers.

Such is the epically shallow and turgid nature of Prometheus that even the characters themselves seem to find its script difficult to swallow, a highlight being when Sean Harris as Fifield (a geologist) realises he’s been scripted in by accident and spits the dummy, declaring, “I like rocks. I love rocks. Now, it’s clear you two don’t give a shit about rocks. All you do seem to care about is giant dead bodies, and I really don’t have anything to contribute in the giant dead body arena…” Whereupon he stomps off back to the ship; but of course, as the person in charge of mapping out the structure they’re exploring, loses his way and doesn’t make it. Pinned to their seats as the eagle twitches its beak, disgruntled ticket holders surely will empathise.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Worldsoul, by Liz Williams – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

Worldsoul is a city somewhat adjacent to our world, and the subject of a fine novel by Liz Williams (Prime, tpb, 312pp). A year ago the Skein left Worldsoul, leaving its inhabitants to fend for themselves, but so far, despite the burning flower attacks from unknown enemies, they haven’t found a way to work together. The factions are too busy battling each other to deal with the problems the city faces. Mercy works in the Great Library of Worldsoul, strapping on weapons before going into the stacks to fight anything that escapes the books. She’s worried about one of her mothers, who sails the Liminality in hopes of finding the Skein, but won’t let it interfere with her work. Jonathan Deed is the Abbot General of the court, performing magic with the aid of grimoires, demons and gods, who wants control of the city. Shadow is an alchemist, more involved than she would like with Suleiman the Shah, and then even more involved with an ifrit. Mareritt is an ice queen, perhaps the original ice queen, who rides through legends in a sleigh that carries the severed heads of kings. Ancient myths, the nightmares of our oldest ancestors, are escaping from the stories that held them, and though “the mind is the best weapon of all”, ancient celtic swords, powerful magic and ninja skills will come in handy too.

There are many things I liked about this book; one is that it didn’t dive straight into a pigeonhole. There are other books that share its themes—there’s a nod to Mythago Wood in the mention of the “Holdstockian layer”, and there are echoes of Thursday Next and Michael Moorcock—but I never had that sense of seeing a few key signifiers and thinking, right, that’s what we’ve got here, that’s what’s going to happen. The only way to get a hold of this world was to pay attention to the book (and I suspect I still don’t quite have it all figured out, not that I’ve let that stop me writing a review!).

It’s the first thing I’ve read by Liz Williams, so I can’t say how it bears up to her other work or fits within her oeuvre; that is a weakness of the review, but gives me lots to look forward to reading. This one had nearly everything I look for in a book; exciting action, interesting mysteries, striking characters, good writing and fighting librarians. As far as one can tell from a review pdf the book is nicely designed and typeset, and the cover art is excellent. Don’t be put off by the new-agey title; it seems less blowsy after reading the book and makes sense; fairy tales are “the engine that runs this city”—the Liminality is (I think) the physical manifestation of our myths and legends, what could be called the soul of our world.

Unlike a fairy tale, Worldsoul doesn’t end with a happily ever after. There’s a battle, and a heroic sacrifice, a surprising revelation, and then, just as it looks like there might be an ending, a major event, Paul W.S. Anderson-style, that promises a sequel and does much to make the reader want one.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The Dark Knight Rises – reviewed by Jacob Edwards

And whereand whereand where is the Batman? The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan, released July 16, 2012.

Gotham City is at peace and Batman hasn’t been seen in the eight years following the tumultuous events of The Dark Knight. With the vilification of his alter-ego and the financial losses suffered by Wayne Enterprises in pursuing then abandoning a clean energy project with unforeseen destructive potential, Bruce Wayne has sunk into a reclusive abstinence from society, mourning the life he could have lived with Rachel Dawes had she not been killed by the Joker. When Commissioner Gordon and rookie police officer John Blake uncover a villainous new threat lurking in Gotham’s sewers, and cat burglar Selina Kyle then allows Wayne’s fingerprints to be used to disastrous ill-effect, Batman must emerge to save his city from the fanatical machinations of Bane—a cogent, Herculean villain who trained under Wayne’s former mentor, Ra’s al Ghul. The menace is palpable but the Batman has aged and Wayne Enterprises is vulnerable. As Bane’s ruthlessly conceived schemes play out, both Gotham and her maligned protector will fall to new depths of despair and helplessness.

Many of Generation Z’s cinemagoers—indeed, quite a few of Generation Y’s—will have received their first live action Batman experience from Batman Begins (2005), rather than Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) or, going back to the 1960s, anything starring Adam West and Burt Ward. In this they have been fortunate. Sixties Batman was very much of its time and may have charmed the Baby Boomers with its colourful, slightly camp style, yet in many respects it formed the light-hearted nadir for a superhero who was born in 1939 under the hardboiled pulp star and then moulded by DC Comics with all the grit and dark overtones that characterised the early 1940s. Tim Burton rendered the Caped Crusader in his own, inimitably kooky style with Batman and then Batman Returns (1992), but then came non-Burton offerings Batman Forever (1995) and Batman & Robin (1997)—not to mention Catwoman (2004)—and with these pastiches all the quirkiness and menace suddenly gave way to parody and badly drawn melodrama. Generation X was horribly scarred; and yet, from their disillusioned and downtrodden ranks was born Gotham’s greatest hope: director Christopher Nolan.

Those who disavow the prevalent waft of overblown cinematic fluff—and there are some in every generation, surely?—will have tattooed Nolan’s name on their back-of-the-hand “remember to watch” notes after viewing his thriller/noir classic Memento (2000). The Prestige followed in 2006—and yes, Inception (2010), for all that it was hyped beyond the realms of its audacious designs—but before that there was Batman Begins, the “prequel” whose two sequels now show it to have been not a prequel at all, but rather a pulp-inked rewriting that blots out entirely those Kilmered and Jonesed, Clooneyed and Schwarzeneggered turkeys, and any other best-left-Berryed mistakes of the past. (And, collaterally, Tim Burton’s Batman; Vale, Vicki Vale.) Aged just 42, Christopher Nolan nevertheless constitutes an “old school” director in every sense that counts—shooting on film rather than video and taking an admirable stance with regard both to 3D movies (“It’s well suited to video games and other immersive technologies, but if you’re looking for an audience experience, stereoscopic is hard to embrace.”) and to CGI (“There are usually two different goals in a visual effects movie. One is to fool the audience into seeing something seamless, and that’s how I try to use it. The other is to impress the audience with the amount of money spent on the spectacle of the visual effect, and that I have no interest in.”)[1] Nolan crafted Batman Begins as an exploration of character, and although The Dark Knight (2008)—despite Heath Ledger’s much acclaimed portrayal of the Joker—may then have strayed too far into stony faced machismo and action sequences, The Dark Knight Rises concludes the eventual trilogy (Nolan didn’t set out with the intention of making one)[2] in a bleak yet uplifting, gripping yet down-to-earth manner—one that will be respected, hopefully, by any future purveyors of Batman on the big screen.

Batman Begins (140 mins) and The Dark Knight (152 mins) scored 8.3 and 8.9 respectively on IMDB. To some extent it is on the back of this previous success that The Dark Knight Rises (164 mins) has, at time of writing, been able to scale the heights of 9.1—in running for 2¾ hours (a considerable investment of screen-time for cinemas that could just as easily be selling tickets at the standard 90 min fare) the film takes the opportunity to develop characters and to play out a story that in more rushed circumstances could have presented as garbled and (an obvious risk) comic-book clichéd. There is a certain amount of comic-strip logic running through The Dark Knight Rises, but Nolan (who also co-wrote the screenplay) keeps it in check and ensures that the drama and spectacle remain, in large and at heart, both human and grounded. The musical score helps in this respect—courtesy of Hans Zimmer, a Prince in his own right—and of course the acting: Christian Bale spends less time as Batman this time around, and more as the physically frail and mentally anguished Bruce Wayne; Anne Hathaway looks for and finds her inner Hedy Lamarr in pussyfooting around as nascent Catwoman Selina Kyle; Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Inception) is believably earnest as officer John Blake (whose stature, looks and—spoiler—little-used birth name, hint cleverly—then a little too blatantly—at his involvement being, in fact, a backstory); old hands Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman and (in particular) Michael Caine provide excellent support; and Tom Hardy (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; Inception) deserves special mention for being able to bring presence and nuance of delivery to a lead villain who not only has his face mostly obscured but also his voice filtered. Bane, like Batman, has derived from his childhood suffering a single-minded strength both physically and of purpose; Hardy pitches his performances perfectly on the common ground between the two characters, and in doing so crafts an adversary as chilling in his self-control as either Jack Nicholson or Heath Ledger were in embracing their demented extravagances. Bane’s effectiveness is testament both to Hardy’s finesse as an actor and to Nolan’s determination to pursue new ideas rather than upsizing and rehashing with each instalment of the franchise.

The Dark Knight Rises is a grim film—even its occasional snatches of humour are more laconic than lightly buttered—yet this bleakness is what lies (or at least should lie) at the armoured heart of the superhero ethos. After all, Batman and his ilk are spawned ultimately of despair and need, not choc tops and frivolity. (Even the overtly comedic Mystery Men (1999) recognised this and so gave gruesome shading to its heroes’ hapless masquerading.) And if The Dark Knight Rises is, at times, a little heavy on its symbolism, well, then so be it; it’s no more than the consequence of Christopher Nolan’s shining the spotlight so brightly. So long as the Bat-Signal continues thus to cut its silhouette faithfully through the fog, citizens X, Y and Z of Gotham will have much cause to seek out and embrace the pervading, cinematic darkness.


1.   Christopher Nolan, interviewed by Jeffrey Ressner, “The Traditionalist” (http://www.dga.org/Craft/DGAQ/All-Articles/1202-Spring-2012/DGA-Interview-Christopher-Nolan.aspx/)
2.   “Nolan Talks DARK KNIGHT … And More!” (http://www.aintitcool.com/node/39348) [December 5, 2008]

Friday, 21 September 2012

Zenith Lives! ed. by Stuart Douglas – reviewed by Stephen Theaker

M. Zenith the Albino is from the rogues’ gallery of Sexton Blake, although a book with the variety and quality of Zenith Lives! (Obverse Books, pb, 2425ll, edited by Stuart Douglas, fourth entry in the Obverse Quarterly series), attracting such high quality contributors as Michael Moorcock and Paul Magrs, makes one wonder whether he might outlive his opponent. I won’t pretend to be an expert on Zenith: all I knew till reading this book was that he had inspired the appearance of Elric of Melniboné; I didn’t even know of his connection to Sexton Blake. Luckily, a couple of stories in, my interest piqued, I was able to refer to Blakiana, a superb website maintained by Mark Hodder, another of the contributors to this book. From there I learnt that the original conception was one that we might now think rather old-fashioned, in that Zenith turned to evil out of bitterness over his albinism, but that aspect isn’t one on which these stories particularly dwell. Unlike Elric, he’s not a weakling; in these stories we read of “his powerful muscles and extraordinary sense of balance”.

Michael Moorcock’s “Curaré” is the book’s main feature, a lengthy novella which begins with a zombie attack in a nightclub, French Tony’s, attended by M. Zenith, his long-term adversary Seaton Begg (standing in for Sexton Blake), and Dr Hoxton Ryman, a mad scientist who claims to have mended his ways, each of them with a smart, dangerous woman on his arm. Long, long ago Moorcock wrote a short Sexton Blake novel, The Caribbean Crisis, and he edited the Sexton Blake Library, and this feels like him having fun with a straightforward pulp action-adventure, the kind of thing he might have written for Sexton in the fifties, without the extraordinary science-fantastical elements that tend to characterise his recent writing; in fact I had a google at one point to see if it was a reprint.

In this story we learn of Zenith’s personal code: “Whoever had kidnapped Vespa had made an inexcusable mistake. / Up to now Zenith had joined in this adventure more for amusement than for profit. But no one attacked a man, woman or child, whom the Prince of Crime had chosen to protect. The game had become serious.” Zenith is a criminal with a raised eyebrow, but he becomes utterly serious when crossed; and is deadly whatever his mood. The story suffers from more typos than the rest of the book, but they are fairly insignificant and it was almost a privilege to see the kind of mistakes Moorcock makes.

What makes the anthology such a treat is that, hand on my heart, Moorcock fan that I am, I couldn’t say for sure that his is the best story in the collection. Another strong contender is “All the Many Rooms” by Paul Magrs, a more experimental, oblique and elegant story—albeit with a few sentences I didn’t understand at all (“We all knew it was going corridors, polishing everything in sight to a gleaming shine”)—in which Zenith makes a late, Christ-like appearance at a party at Ms Mapp’s house, with attendees such as “Ziggy and Alvin Stardust, Dick Turpin, Mrs Slocombe, Sheila Manchu, Eric Morcambe [sic], Eeyore, Mrs Wibbsey and Captain Marvel”. Later mentions of portals (opened by pinking shears) suggest it isn’t a fancy dress party. After having enjoyed Paul Magrs’ audio stories for the fourth Doctor, I couldn’t help reading this one in the voice of Tom Baker (imagine him reading the words, “Quickly, I brought myself off rather grimly, without much fuss, and headed out of there” and I’m sure you’ll be keen to read more), which perhaps gave it an unfair advantage over other stories in the collection.

Zenith’s ennui is a key part of his character, as is his opium use: sometimes shown as a response to boredom, and in others as a way of encouraging lateral thinking. “The Albino’s Shadow” by George Mann and “Zenith’s End” by Stuart Douglas both explore the effect of ennui upon his actions.

In “The Albino’s Shadow” a detective (presumably Sexton Blake, who I’d guess is unnamed in the collection for copyright or trademark reasons) explains to Rutherford, the story’s protagonist, how he has survived his encounters with Zenith:

“He might have killed me more than once, save for his unusual moral code and his desire not to forgo a worthy opponent. Zenith obeys only his own rules, and they are close to unfathomable.”

In this story Zenith has threatened the life of the prime minister, and Rutherford is the man set on his trail (Sexton Blake being otherwise engaged).

“Zenith’s End” sees him in the nineteen-seventies, a youthful ninety-year-old preparing to end his life, a trace of vanity leading him to the Black Museum to recover his accoutrements, that his corpse might be recognisable. They have been sold at auction. The only story told by Zenith in the first person, it begins with his declaration that “my most immediate problem has always been boredom, which deplorable yet apparently inexorable condition has plagued me more and more with each passing year”.

Though these two stories cover similar territory, both entertain and provide useful insight into Zenith’s character.

Overall, a very good collection of stories, and so one hardly envies Mark Hodder, whose “The Blood of Our Land” has the responsibility of going first. But it bears up to the challenge well. It’s perhaps the most conventional of the tales, a story of Zenith in his criminal prime, at the head of the League of the Cobblers’ Last. Not having read other Sexton Blake books, but knowing Mark Hodder to be a fan, I couldn’t help taking this to be the default type of Zenith story, the median from which the others diverge (or not). That aside, it was an exciting story, with lots of intrigue and gunplay, all smartly handled. Like the other stories in the book, it left me wanting to read more, both by this author, and—fortunately, given its position in this collection—featuring Zenith.

If anything, the biggest obstacle to reading this book was the way it sent me off, excitedly, again and again, to read more, learn more about the character, not to mention his enemy Sexton Blake, and then Blake’s other enemies. In that regard the book has to be considered a great success. It presents (or re-presents) us with a fascinating character, demonstrates the wide range of stories in which he can be employed, excites an interest in the novels of the past in which he appears, and works as a very fine collection in itself. My favourite Obverse book so far.