Profile for A. Whitehead > Reviews

Personal Profile

Content by A. Whitehead
Top Reviewer Ranking: 314
Helpful Votes: 6068

Learn more about Your Profile.

Reviews Written by
A. Whitehead "Werthead" (Colchester, Essex United Kingdom)

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20
1864 [Blu-ray]
1864 [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Pilou Asbæk
Price: £20.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and visceral, despite occasional moments of random weirdness, 28 July 2015
This review is from: 1864 [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
1864 is an eight-part TV mini-series, filmed in Denmark and is the most expensive television series ever made in the country. Many of the actors and crew are veterans of contemporary Danish noir series such as Borgen and The Killing, but 1864 stands in contrast to them as a sweeping, epic war story spanning generations and taking in the lives of soldiers, politicians and civilians during the Second Schleswig War of 1864. This war, obscure today outside of Denmark, marked a vital moment in the transformation of Germany from a loosely-allied collection of small states into a powerful empire, setting it on a course that would lead, six years later, to the Franco-Prussian War and eventually the First World War itself.

The so-called Schleswig-Holstein Question was a bewildering political/ethnic controversy of the time which reduced even ardent European politicians (well-versed in the most tedious minutiae of bizarre border disputes) to bemusement. Very wisely, 1864 avoids getting too entangled in this mess. Instead, it presents the story of the war in the impact it has on the population of a small Danish village. The local baron is incompetent and his son Didrich was a coward during the 1852 war, avoiding conflict and traumatised by the brushes with death he did experience. Returning home, Didrich wastes no time in taking his frustration and bullying tendencies out on the local population. Among those is a war veteran, Thøger Larsen. When he dies, his two sons, Peter and Laust, are forced to grow up and work hard to help their family survive.

Peter and Laust soon befriend Inge, the beautiful daughter of the baron's new estate manager. Their innocent childhood friendship is complicated when, as adults, Laust and Inge fall in love and Didrich's violent temper gets more out of control. When the war starts, the brothers join the army and find themselves under Didrich's command, whilst Inge discovers that she is pregnant with Laust's child. However, the brothers are soon separated as the Prussian and Austrian armies sweep north, smashing everything in their path. The Danish forces fall back on Dybbøl Hill, where the most decisive battle of the war will be fought against overwhelming odds.

The structure of the series is interesting. First of all, there is a framing device set in the present day where unemployed delinquent Claudia gets a job caring for Severin, an old man who lives in the same manor house as Didrich and his father, now fallen into disrepair. An initially hostile relationship is overcome when Claudia finds Inge's journal and begins reading it to Severin. The series then uses the first three episodes to establish life in the Danish village and set up the key characters (Peter, Laust, Didrich, Inge and Sofia, the mute daughter of a travelling band of gypsies) as well as establishing the political situation through a series of subplots involving Monrad (the equivalent of a Prime Minister) and German historical figures such as General Moltke and Bismarck. The series does a good job of setting the scene for the war, establishing Denmark's nationalism and parallelling Monrad's own personal life (he loses confidence in his skills of oration and has to be coaxed back to competence by an actress) with that of Denmark's growing confidence and then disastrous overconfidence.

These opening three episodes are a bit weird. The first episode, which has child actors playing Laust, Peter and Inge, is the weakest and the actress playing the young Inge is painfully wooden. Monrad's crisis of confidence and regaining it by having an actress walk on him is also strange. The idea here is to overcome the cliches of costume drama by showing the full range of human behaviour, including some eccentricities, and this is sometimes effective (Didrich is portrayed with more nuance than his one-note villain character summary may suggest). It's also sometimes just random, such as during a brief scene where a nobleman attempts copulation with a cow for no apparent reason. There's some brilliantly human moments in these opening episodes and they do set up the rest of the story well, but they're quite uneven.

Things take a massive upturn in the fourth episode. When the war finally erupts and the brothers reach the front, the series unexpectedly turns into Band of Brothers: Denmark. A host of supporting characters appear as other soldiers in both Peter and Laust's platoons, all very well written and acted. There's some very deft characterisation, so that when characters with only a few minutes of screen-time are killed the audience cannot help but feel sympathy. There's also Wilhem Dinesen, Peter's commanding office and a one-man killing machine whose stoic heroism stands in contrast to the cowardice and blustering of Didrich. The series also touches base with some recurring characters in the Prussian ranks, such as the Marx-quoting soldier who is dismayed at having to wage war on fellow working men.

The fourth through seventh episodes are all-out war stories, focusing on planning, sieges and visceral scenes of bloody combat that match anything ever done by HBO. Some of the cinematography and scenery in these sequences are breathtaking, as are the visual effects (with some very effective mergings of CGI and practical stunts). However, the series always brings things down to the human level and humanises everyone involved, even the generals (many of whom are horrified when they witness what modern artillery and rifles can do on the battlefield and start looking for a peaceful way out). The final episode catches everyone up on what's happened, explains the relevance of the framing story and generally wraps things up well, while still leaving room for tragedy and regrets.

1864 is certainly an unconventional historical series, but it's also a gripping, memorable one. The direction is uniformly excellent and the writing is effective, although sometimes the symbolism can be heavy-handed. The series sometimes meshes together spiritual and symbolic scenes (such as the prescient Sergeant Johan Larsen drawing ice out of the heart of a dying comrade) with much more literal scenes of combat in a way that is really confusing. The framing story also veers a little into cliche, especially the depiction of Claudia as a teenage rebel because she's mildly nihilistic and has piercings. These bumps in the road are overcome thanks to uniformly brilliant acting and strong, measured pacing that knows when to throw in a horrific battle scene and when to focus on the character drama. A special word must be reserved for the music, which is particularly excellent.

As a work of history it's a bit more of a mixed bag. The writer-director has taken a view rather different to the traditional Danish one, trying to show the conflict as a pointless one brought about by overconfident politicians in the face of reason. The German characters are depicted fairly sympathetically throughout (apart from the hard-headed and ruthless Bismarck), as are the generals on both sides. Monrad, a more complicated historical character, is reduced to a religious fanatic and buffoon in the series. This is more of a shame as the opening episode suggests he will be a more important and complex protagonist, but as the emphasis switches to the battlefield and he appears less, he becomes more of a one-note figure.

They're also fairly minor. 1864 (****½) is at times off-beat, weird and clumsy, and at others is funny, heart-warming and painfully human. But during its four-episode depiction of the actual war itself, it easily matches anything produced by bigger American or British studios and becomes unmissable.

Abaddon's Gate: Book 3 of the Expanse
Abaddon's Gate: Book 3 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, but restrained, 19 July 2015
A mysterious alien artifact - a gateway - has been constructed beyond Uranus's orbit. Its purpose is unknown. Representatives from Earth, Mars and the Belt are rushing to investigate, among them, reluctantly, Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante. The artifact holds the key to the future of the human race, an opportunity to spread mankind to the stars...but it is also a weapon that could incinerate the entire Solar system if it falls unto the wrong hands.

Abaddon's Gate is the third novel in The Expanse series by James S.A. Corey (aka Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck), which is expected to run to nine novels (and "Will soon be a major television series"). This book picks up after the events of Caliban's War, although unfortunately some of the more notable characters from that book are missing. Instead, we have a number of new POV characters joining the returning figures of Holden and the Rocinante crew.

The book initially opens with the different factions racing to the gate with their own agendas and goals in mind. There's a murderous character plotting vengeance on Holden in a (not very convincing) way of getting him involved in the plot. There's tensions on the Belter command ship between the psychotic captain and his more reasonable executive officer and security chief. There's a religious-but-non-fanatical leader who couples pious morality with hard-headed practicality. And so on. It's all reasonable enough, until the crew arrive at the gate and pass through it into a strange sub-pocket of space where physical rules can be rewritten and an ancient intelligence uses the form of Detective Miller to speak to Holden.

At this point things take a turn for the bizarre and it feels like The Expanse is about to break out into a fully-blown hard SF novel. The "slow zone" of the gateway space feels like a nod to Vernor Vinge, and the limitations of slower-than-light travel when the laws of physics keep changing is the sort of thing that would earn an Alastair Reynolds nod of approval. It's all nicely set up for The Expanse to move away from its MOR space opera roots and turn into something more than explosions and gunfights.

Except that doesn't happen. The novel soon falls back into its comfort zone of explosions and gunfights, with the major characters all forced into choosing sides between the psychotic captain of the Belter command ship and his other senior crew. This would have more resonance if we'd had the mad captain set up a bit better, but he isn't. It just feels like he's there and mad and antagonistic because, well, the book wouldn't have any conflict without him.

The action set-pieces are generally well-handled, there's some very nice zero-gee combat scenes and Abraham and Franck don't let up on the pace until the last page. There is no denying that there's fun to be had here. But it also feels a bit shallow, and it reinforces the feeling that The Expanse is SF with the training wheels left on. Abaddon's Gate feels like it should have been allowed to make a turn into crazy hard SF weirdness, but instead it's shoehorned back into being an action story. A very nicely-done action story, but there is military SF around that does this stuff a lot better.

As it stands, Abaddon's Gate (***½) ends up being just another readable, fast-paced and entertaining instalment of a readable, fast-paced and entertaining series. Which is fine, but there is definitely the prospect here, between the authors' excellent worldbuilding and solid prose skills, of elevating things onto another level. Hopefully later instalments will deliver on the promise of the series, which is so far tantalising but unfulfilled.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell [Blu-ray]
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Alan Bentley
Price: £17.00

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Elegant, bizarre and compelling, 19 July 2015
Published in 2004, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell was an unusual debut. Almost a thousand pages of faux-Victorian prose, the book was littered with footnotes and festooned with footnotes explaining about the world and characters. Championed by fans like Neil Gaiman, the book became a massive, international publishing sensation and Hollywood soon came calling. However, adapting the book for the screen and retaining its storyline whilst also honouring its length and commercial sensibilities (the book is not well-suited to be turned into an action blockbuster trilogy) proved too challenging and the film rights were allowed to lapse.

Enter the BBC. Unburdened by commercial considerations and with growing confidence following a string of recent hit series, the BBC took on the challenge of adapting this weird, strange and brilliant book and did so by turning it into a weird, strange and brilliant series. They have form here, having taken Mervyn Peake's supposedly unfilmably weird novels Titus Alone and Gormenghast and turning them into a compelling (if perhaps a bit too ahead-of-its-time) mini-series in 1999.

The TV series, of course, can't match the complexity and depth of the novel, even with seven hours to play with. Instead, it takes avoiding action by streamlining some of the action, removing much of the interminable second half of the novel (there's a lot less faffing around in Italy and Venice in the TV version), and refocusing the narrative on Strange and Norrell's relationship, on the situation with Lady Pole and the menacing activities of the Gentleman with the Thistledown Hair. Some of the losses from the novel are grievous - the loss in the particular of the witty footnotes is a shame - but in the event are survivable.

The TV show succeeds through the strength of its casting, particularly the genius casting of Eddie Marsan as Norell and Bertie Carvel as Strange. The two actors spark off each other brilliantly and Carvel embodies Strange perfectly as he moves from fop to gentleman to soldier to tragic hero. The rest of the cast is superb: newcomer Alice Englert is superb as Lady Pole and feels like a future Doctor Who companion in waiting. Charlotte Riley is likewise compelling as Lady Pole, aided by a script that gives the female characters a bit more to do than they do in the novel. Another absolute stand-out is Enzo Cilenti as Childermass, whose world-weary cynicism conceals a genuine sense of humanity that gradually comes to the fore (culminating in him giving excellent last line of the series). Marc Warren also imbues the Gentleman with requisite menace, although arguably he is less whimsical and changeable than the character in the book.

The series also has mind-boggling production values. It is, simply put, the best-looking drama series ever put out by the BBC. It has a confidence and swagger to its use of effects that outclasses the likes of Doctor Who, not to mention wit and imagination. A sequence involving a ghostly fleet, the famous scene where the statues in York Cathedral come to life and another scene where horses are summoned out of sand are all fantastically realised. The Battle of Waterloo is convincingly brutal and ugly, even on what was reportedly a fairly small budget. Another scene where Strange has to summon Italian soldiers back to life, only to find them speaking the language of Hell and having to find a way to get them back to speaking Italian, is both a stunning technical achievement and also a profoundly weird one. The book has a feeling of offbeat strangeness which I assumed the TV show would drop, but if anything it doubles down on it.

There are minor weaknesses: the key subplot revolving around the Gentleman's relationship with the manservant Stephen Black is not given a huge amount of development, and in particular lacks Black's interior characterisation. On TV, Stephen comes across as being far too acquiescent in the Gentleman's schemes rather than fighting against them more, and this makes some of his later character development feel a bit unconvincing. Norrell also gets a little lost in the mix as the emphasis moves to Strange for much of the middle and latter part of the series, although this is also the case in the book.

The BBC's version of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell (****½) is superbly-cast, well-written and faithful to the book even as it has to streamline elements from it and improve other elements. It is an elegant, bizarre and compelling adaptation of the novel, and is well worth watching. It is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray).

Komarr (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
Komarr (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.50

4.0 out of 5 stars An effective SF thriller, 12 Jun. 2015
Komarr, second world of the Barrayaran Empire, is slowly being terraformed over the course of centuries. Key to the terraforming effort is an orbiting soletta, a massive mirror which increases the amount of sunlight being directed onto the surface. When the soletta is damaged by a spacecraft collision, the future viability of the planet is put in jeopardy. Newly-anointed Imperial Adjudicator Miles Vorkosigan is sent to investigate whether this was an accident or deliberate sabotage.

Komarr is the first novel in the series to focus on Miles Vorkosigan in his new role as an Imperial Adjudicator. Bujold wanted to freshen things up by taking Miles away from his support network of thousands of loyal soldiers and a fleet of powerful starships and it's a move that could have been mishandled. The loss of most of Miles's supporting cast from the Dendarii Mercenaries (who only warrant cameo appearances and the occasional mention from now on) is a blow and it was initially unclear if Miles as a (mostly) solo investigator is a compelling enough idea to replace the military SF feel of the earlier novels.

Komarr lays those fears to rest. This a well-written, crisply-paced and masterfully characterised novel. Bujold develops a new POV character in the form of Ekaterin Vorsoisson, a young woman and mother married to a difficult husband involved in the terraforming project. Komarr has the reputation of being a "romance novel", with Ekaterin brought in as a serious love interest for Miles, whose relationships up until now have mostly been more like casual flings and friends-with-benefits arrangements. However, it would be a serious mistake to dismiss Komarr as a light or frivolous book because of this.

Instead, Komarr is a serious book about adult relationships, motivations and fulfilment, and it layers those themes into a thriller storyline involving betrayal, murder and intrigue. Bujold has said she enjoys writing about "grown-ups", and the romance in the novel is between two adults who have been through the wars (literally and figuratively) and find something in each other they like and respect, but have to overcome personal issues before they can turn that mutual attraction into something more tangible. It's an approach rooted in character that works effectively without overshadowing the SF thriller storyline, which has all the required twists and turns of a solid mystery before Miles and Ekaterin can resolve the problem.

Komarr (****) is a solid entry in The Vorkosigan Saga which sets the books on a new course and does so effectively. It is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).

Orphan Black - Series 2 [Blu-ray]
Orphan Black - Series 2 [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Tatiana Maslany
Price: £12.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A little weaker than Season 1, but still one of the best SFF TV shows on air, 18 May 2015
Sarah Manning and her 'sisters', Cosima and Alison, find their loyalties divided when Sarah's daughter Kira disappears. Sarah believes that the Dyad Institute, which Cosima works for, is responsible, whilst it appears that a group of fanatics known as the Proletheans may also be trying to hurt Sarah and her newfound family. Secrets from thirty years ago re-emerge as all the factions involved in this struggle try to find the secret to flawless genetic engineering, no matter the cost.

Orphan Black's first season was the undoubted SF TV highlight of 2013, with Tatiana Maslany turning in a powerhouse performance as multiple versions of the same character. Some clever writing and strong supporting turns, not to mention pitch-perfect pacing, made the show even better. This second season has a lot to live up to.

For the most part, it works. The pacing remains strong and the writers do an excellent job of answering past mysteries whilst making new revelations and setting up fresh puzzles. They also resist the urge to play "Clone of the Week", instead restricting themselves to exploring the character of Rachel (introduced at the end of Season 1) and briefly touching on the lives of two other clones (one solely, but still heartbreakingly, through video diaries). Other characters like Dr. Leekie, Alison's troubled husband Donnie and the ever-more-formidable Mrs. S are fleshed out further and there's some strong newcomers in the form of Michael Huisman as Cal (impressing more than his recent, underwritten appearance on Game of Thrones, it has to be said), Michelle Forbes as Marion and Ari Millen as Mark Rollins. There's still a rich vein of humour, particularly in Alison and Felix's stories, as well as tenderness. The romance between Cosima and Delphine is particularly well-handled.

Elsewhere, the show can't quite match the first season's near-effortless-seeming grace. Some characters get lost in the mix for long periods, with Art and Paul not getting very much to do. One character's return from the dead is highly unconvincing, although it does eventually lead to some of the best scenes in the series to date. The series also flirts with M. Night Shyamalanisms with the Village-esque scenes at the Prolethean farm going on for a bit too long. Also, the threat of Kira constantly being kidnapped gets old quickly and starts to get a bit too reminiscent of Hera in Battlestar Galactica. There's also a feeling that Vic gets parachuted into the show again when he doesn't really have much of a reason for being there beyond fan service, but given that his story is pretty funny we can forgive that.

If its second season is a little bit more inconsistent than the first, Orphan Black (****½) still remains the best SFF show on television thanks to its clever writing, dark humour (including the most wince-inducing death scene I've ever seen in anything) and its outrageously good performances, particularly from its leading lady. Roll on Season 3.

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC DVD)
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC DVD)
Offered by Gameseek
Price: £26.58

4.0 out of 5 stars A genius central mechanic is let down a little by a lack of variety and tiny maps, 18 May 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The history of Middle-earth video games has been patchy. Early text adventure The Hobbit was a classic of its genre and War in Middle-earth was a remarkable early example of a real-time strategy game. However, the Battle for Middle-earth series was highly inconsistent, and many of the tie-in action games with the movies were forgettable.

Monolith has produced something different with Shadows of Mordor. On the surface it's an action game borrowing a lot of ideas from other franchises. The game focuses on combat between Talion and a large number of opponents, relying on positioning, blocks, chains and special attacks to survive challenging fights. These mechanics are very similar to the Arkham series of Batman games. There's also an open world to explore with side-missions and towers you can rebuild to gain more intelligence on the surroundings, lifted pretty much straight from the Far Cry series. Although Talion is formidable in battle, he can be swamped easily in long fights so there is also a strong stealth focus similar to the Assassin's Creed games.

However, Shadows of Mordor rises above its influences to become more interesting than it first might appear. It helps that it was created by Monolith, a talented video game company responsible for some of the finest first-person shooters ever created: the FEAR and No-One Lives Forever series, the early and influential Blood games and the awesome (and sadly never resurrected) SHOGO: Mobile Armour Division, which mixed up the FPS and mecha-piloting genres fifteen years before Titanfall. Monolith handle the transition into third-person combat quite well and bring their formidable experience to the game in the form of visceral, solid and satisfying combat and a genuinely new and gamechanging mechanic: the Nemesis System.

Shadows of Mordor features a lot of orcs. An absolute ton of them, in fact. And they're not all mindless monsters. As the game progresses, the orcs gain experience and skill and climb up through their hierarchy of chiefs, captains and lieutenants, murdering and backstabbing one another as they try to gain personal power and influence. For the first third or so of the game, Talion's interaction with the orcs is limited to parting their heads from their shoulders. Later, thanks to his possessing elven wraith spirit, he gains the ability to magically take control of some of these orcs and swing them to his will. Apparently unwinnable fights can swing in Talion's favour by him reconnoitring enemy strongholds first and stealthily taking over multiple orcs. When the fight finally starts, he can unleash his own army of traitors. This becomes more complex when Talion starts taking control of lieutenants and captains, being able to arrange for them to turn on and betray their chiefs and putting Talion's own catspaws into positions of authority.

This system can be turned against Talion, however. An orc who "kills" Talion in combat (Talion is always resurrected thanks to the handy elvish wraith) gains experience and prestige, climbing the ranks and possibly displacing Talion's own minions. As the game progresses this interaction becomes quite elaborate, and Talion losing a single fight can push his entire web of alliances and betrayals out of synch. Adding a yet further layer of complication is that the orcs have different strengths and weaknesses: some are only vulnerable to fire or stealth and some are invulnerable to takedowns or finishing moves. You have to gain intelligence to find out an orc's weaknesses before either killing or enslaving him.

This results in a fascinating and - for a time - engrossing amd complex game of Orc Career Ladder Simulator, as you turn enemies against one another, sneakily arrange for massive Red Wedding-style orc betrayals and generally pull a lot of strings from behind the scenes. When your plans work you can't help but feel like a master manipulator. When they don't and you have to re-enslave half of Mordor's orcs just to bring down one annoying captain, massive frustration can result.

The Nemesis System is a genius idea, backed up by very solid combat, but after a while the game's other flaws come to the fore. The biggest problem is that this is an open-world game, but the world is tiny. There are two maps and both can be crossed from one side to the other in minutes. The spirit towers are so close you can almost jump between them and the massive number of orcs versus small number of locations results in multiple orc captains sharing the same strongholds. Ludonarrative dissonance (the clash between the game's narrative and actual gameplay) is a problem in most games, but, particularly in its second half, in Shadows of Mordor it becomes a near-constant problem. The maps should really have been four or five times their size to really sell the idea of Mordor as a vast, teeming network of competing orc clans.

The other problem is that the game prioritises planning, intrigue and betrayal but then relies way too much on luck. A simple stealth attack on an orc general might result in a fight against him and a dozen bodyguards, or three other captains might stumble on the fight halfway through resulting in what feels like the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, but with only one person fighting the orcs. This can also dramatically affect the game's length: I've seen people beating the main story in well under 20 hours but others constantly getting their plans thwarted and having to invest over 50. And the repetitiveness of the combat, the lack of variety in objectives and the tiny maps makes this a game that definitely needs to be shorter rather than longer.

There's also the storyline, which on the one hand embraces some of Tolkien's obscurer storylines (bringing in Celebrimbor, forger of the Rings of Power) and restraining the appearance of movie characters to basically one, lore-appropriate cameo (Gollum, although Sauron and Saruman have very brief appearances) but on the other embraces full-scale blood-letting and slaughter. Tolkien certainly wasn't above doing the gritty, dark stuff (more in The Silmarillion than the later books, it has to be said) but Shadows of Mordor wades through the grimness until it starts to get a little bit comical.

Shadows of Mordor (***½) is certainly one of the more interesting and smarter Middle-earth video games. The action is solid and the Nemesis System is engrossing (expect to see variations on it popping up everywhere soon). However, the maps are too small, the tone is far too grim and the game crosses the thin line between challenging and monitor-smashing frustration a few too many times. A sequel (which the game groan-inducingly teases in its final moments) with a bigger map and more variety could build on the systems here into something truly special, but for now Shadows of Mordor is a solid game with a genius central mechanic let down by some design problems elsewhere.

Sword Of The North (The Grim Company)
Sword Of The North (The Grim Company)
by Luke Scull
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £15.19

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A reasonable sequel to The Grim Company, 14 May 2015
The city-state of Dorminia has fallen to the forces of the Lady of Thelassa. Early celebrations at the fall of one tyrant become muted as it becomes clear that the people have merely swapped one yoke for another, to the fury of Eremul the Halfmage. Meanwhile, Davarus Cole labours in a prison camp and dreams of escape, whilst Brodar Kayne, the Sword of the North, must cross a thousand miles of wilderness to reach his homeland in the High Fangs.

The Sword of the North is the follow-up to The Grim Company, one of 2013's more interesting fantasy debuts. It's the middle volume of a trilogy in the Abercrombie mould, with hard and brutal events offset by occasional knowing nods and winks about the silliness of the genre (and the odd Skyrim reference).

On the negative side, it is definitely the middle book of a trilogy and falls prey to many of the classic problems of such a volume. The story doesn't really begin or end, instead just rotating the characters through a series of intermediary plot points, some of which feel vital to the overall story and others feel like they exist solely because they are expected to in a fantasy trilogy. Brodar Kayne's story involves a whole lot of walking, Eremul's involves a whole load of fairly unsatisfying politics and Davarus's involves a whole load of hanging out in a prison camp. As middle books of trilogies go, this is definitely one of the more standard.

The author, at least, recognises this and gives the book a more cohesive shape with the arrival of some new players, some substantial expansion of the backstory and a nice recurring flashback to Kayne's earlier life, which gives the novel a much-needed dramatic spine and sense of direction. There's nothing too excitingly original in these sections, but Scull's solid skills with action scenes and reasonable characterisation keep things ticking over nicely.

The Sword of the North (***½) is a reasonable successor to The Grim Company, although it lacks some of the more compelling storyline and character moments of the original novel. It sets things up nicely for the finale, but it suffers a bit too much from "middle book syndrome" to truly shine. But if you enjoyed The Grim Company, this follow-up should satisfy.

Fargo - Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2014]
Fargo - Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2014]
Dvd ~ Billy Bob Thornton
Price: £11.80

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars In short: brilliant, 2 April 2015
2006. Chameleonic assassin Lorne Malvo passes through the town of Bemidji, Minnesota. A chance encounter with a put-upon, stressed-out salesman named Lester Nygaard unleashes a chain of chaotic events, culminating in multiple murders. The local police force is eager to sweep the chaos under the rug, but Deputy Molly Solverson realises that there is more going on than first appears. When a Duluth police officer, Gus Grimly, has his own close run-in with Malvo, the two officers join forces to bring the assassin to justice.

At first glance, a TV series based on the 1996 movie Fargo seems like a crazy idea. The film, directed by the Coen Brothers, is idiosyncratic, unique and offbeat. Turning it into a weekly TV series sounds like a lunatic idea, which is why the Coen Brothers initially refused to have anything to do with it. After seeing the first episode, they changed their mind and signed on as producers. It’s easy to see why. The first season of Fargo, the TV series, may be the most genius single season of television produced this decade.

The connections between the TV series and the movie are slim. The TV series uses some ideas and tropes from the film and echoes a few of its ideas, but in terms of actual connective tissue the only element used is a briefcase of money left in the snow in the film, which a character stumbles over in the TV show. If you’ve never seen the film it’s not important whatsoever. It’s also a relief to learn that Fargo, like True Detective, is an anthology series. Each season will take place in a different time period with a different cast (Season 2 will take place in 1979 in South Dakota, for example). The series is set in the same “universe”, so if you watch the whole thing you’ll notice all the little connecting details, but broadly speaking it’s not necessary. You can enjoy this as a single, ten-episode mini-series with no major dangling plot threads.

One of the benefits of these anthology series is that they represent a short-term commitment for major film actors who might balk at a longer stint on a TV show. The result is that Fargo’s cast is peppered with famous faces from film and TV: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne and Martin Freeman as Lester are the main draws and most famous faces, but Colin Hanks also appears in the role of Gus and Breaking Bad’s Bob Odenkirk slotted in his appearance as semi-incompetent police chief Oswalt before filming Better Call Saul. Keith Carradine (Wild Bill Hickock from Deadwood and too many film appearances from the 1970s onwards to count) has a small but crucial role as Lou Solverson (a younger Lou will be a key character in the second season). The show also has time to turn up trumps with a new talent: Allison Tolman gets her big break as Molly and is absolutely brilliant, holding her own against the other actors and turning in a barnstorming mixture of resolve, frustration and not wanting to rock the boat but really going for it if she believes it’s the right thing.

Thornton gets one of the best roles of his career with Lorne, an assassin who likes to keep his targets off-balance with existential and literal-minded musings, an absolute absence of any kind of fear and a thousand-yard stare that has cops backing away from him at traffic stops. At different times he has to pose as other people, or go undercover for months to win over a target’s trust, and Thornton’s ability to spin his performance on a dime is astonishing. Freeman is also exceptional; inverting his usual performance as quiet nice guys to play a hard-pressed working man who initially wins the viewer’s sympathy, but by the end of the season has turned into a loathsome, murderous little weasel. Lester’s descent feels like watching all of Breaking Bad compressed into ten episodes, but never feels rushed or implausible.

What makes the show work is the way it channels the oddness of the Coen Brothers without feeling like a parody of it. Dialogue is written in the same slightly off-kilter way and there’s the same, understated and intriguing tone to the direction, occasionally punctuated by memorable set-pieces: Lorne’s one-man assault on a mafia-filled business is darkly hilarious, amusingly cost-conscious (they can’t afford the full shoot-out so we only hear it as the camera pans up the outside of a building, interrupted only by brief views of the carnage through windows) and extremely audacious. Not many directors or writers could take on the Coen Brothers and match them, especially over ten hours, but the team here manage it. It’s something that continues throughout the series, which is also not exactly reluctant to set up characters for episodes and hours on end and then kill them in off-handed, arbitrary ways that even Joss Whedon might balk at. This, coupled with the show’s short run time, adds a real sense of danger to proceedings which maintains the tension.

There are a few minor flaws. Some story points turn on the fact that the local police force and its new chief (counting the days to retirement) really don’t want to investigate the murders in too much detail, jumping on the most convenient story available to declare it closed. Whilst this closed-minded bureaucratic viewpoint is believable, it does get a little frustrating that supposed servants of the law seem to be extremely uninterested in finding out the truth if it is inconvenient to them. At the same time, it makes us empathise strongly with Molly as she also becomes incredulous at their intransigence, so it works on that level.

The first season of Fargo (*****) is, quite simply, brilliant. The writing is top-notch, the performances are flawless and the series can turn from being laugh-out-loud hilarious to gut-wrenchingly terrifying in the space of seconds. It’s offbeat, different and ambitious.

Wasteland 2 (PC DVD)
Wasteland 2 (PC DVD)
Price: £18.57

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Occasionally irritating, but mostly excellent, 27 Mar. 2015
This review is from: Wasteland 2 (PC DVD) (DVD-ROM)
AD 2102. The world is still basking in the afterglow of a devastating nuclear war. In Arizona, a law-enforcing militia known as the Desert Rangers is trying to bring justice and order to a land plagued by bandits, warlords and crazed cyborgs. When Desert Rangers start turning up dead, it becomes clear that someone or something has it in for the Rangers, and their attempt to find out who is responsible will take them to every corner of Arizona, and far beyond.

Wasteland 2 has an interesting history. The original Wasteland was a hugely successful, genre-defining roleplaying game when it was released by Electronic Arts in 1988, featuring a rich story and solid gameplay for the time. Brian Fargo and his team at Interplay later left EA to go solo. In 1996 they tried to get the rights to make an official sequel but EA turned them down. So they had to make a spiritual successor, a similar post-apocalyptic game with a nicely non-copyright-infringing, alternate-history twist to set it apart. The result was a game called Fallout. You may have heard of it, and its increasingly massive, mega-selling sequels.

Years later, after Interplay went down in flames and the Fallout franchise rights were purchased by Bethesda, Fargo and some of his team-mates regrouped as inXile Entertainment, purchased the Wasteland IP rights from a now-more-relaxed EA and raised over $3 million from crowdfunding. The game was finally released in September 2014. To say it represented a labour of love for its creators, who had spent a quarter of a century trying to get it made, is an understatement.

So much for the history, what about the game? Wasteland 2 is a top-down roleplaying title. You create a party of four characters from scratch who can then be joined by up to three additional companions as the game proceeds. You control the development of both the created and original characters, determining where skill points are assigned and what equipment they use. The game demands a fairly broad-based approach and it pays to split skills between party members, so making one a computer specialist, another a master lockpicker, another a medic etc is pretty much essential. All characters need to pour points into their fighting skills as well, with the game providing a nice variety of ranged (rifles, pistols, miniguns, laser weapons, sniper rifles, shotguns etc) and melee weapons. There are also non-violent skills, most notably the conversation skills which can dramatically change how conversations, quests and entire storylines unfold. Roleplayers will enjoy seeing how much combat in the game can be avoided by picking the right dialogue options and using either logic, determination or appeals to mercy as befitting the other character's nature.

Wasteland 2 is reasonably attractive graphically, although the first half of the game is very, very brown. You spend so much time zoomed-out it's not really a problem (the - fortunately very brief and rare - in-game cut scenes are a bad idea), and the game's excellent graphic design shines through at every point. The game employs the old Infinity Engine technique of having some well-designed maps and areas that aren't actually that huge, but cleverly-designed paths and well-placed enemies can make crossing them a lengthy challenge. There's also an absolute ton of them. Wasteland 2 is a massive game, taking most players north of 50 hours to complete (I did in 54, and that included rushing some late-game areas and not exploring every nook and cranny as it was no longer necessary) and does a good job of maintaining interest over that time. I certainly never found myself glancing at the time and wishing the game was over like I did through most of the second half of Dragon Age: Origins, for example.

The writing is pretty good, although inconsistent. Chris Avellone was parachuted in from Obsidian to help on several sections and his Planescape: Torment co-writer Colin McComb played a large role, resulting in a twisting and turning narrative which never shies away from asking hard questions and leaving players feeling that all choices are bad ones. However, some other sections of the game are more pedestrian and more easily resolved through combat. The writing is good but certainly not a major selling-point of the game (as it is for Pillars of Eternity, for example). Combat is more enjoyable, being turn-based and emphasising positioning and cover. XCOM fans will particularly enjoy the fights. As better weapons are secured and combat skills are levelled up, battles become more elaborate and enjoyable. However, towards the end of the game your party will start outstripping the enemies arrayed against it and tactics will become less important as you shrug off massive volleys of enemy fire like gnats.

Although your party does eventually become unstoppable walking tanks, it takes a while to get there. Unlike most RPGs, the game is pretty stingy with ammo and money. Looting items provides only a small return, while the cost of everything is absolutely astronomical. Late in the game I still found kitting my side out with enough bullets to get through a few fights without running dry to be ruinously expensive. It doesn't help that the game is also stingy with its vendors and their bank balances, sometimes necessitating large trips across the map stopping off at every merchant you know to stock up.

The other key weakness is the overly exacting use of skills. Having Safecracking and Lockpicking as separate skills felt like one step too far into pedantry, as was the splitting of Medic and Surgeon. It does force some hard choices in levelling your characters, which is good, but the gap between tough choices and unnecessary busywork is very small and the game does step over it several times.

Still, if Wasteland 2 repeats some of the mistakes of old-school RPGs, it also embraces some of the best bits. There are lengthy, branching storylines with multiple outcomes. Quests with three or four different outcomes which have associated subquests with their own branching endings. Entire storylines can be missed if you don't open the right door. Decisions made in the opening minutes of the game have huge consequences in the endgame. One wrong judgement during a particularly tense, dramatic confrontation with a bunch of warrior-priests can determine if a nearby town is enslaved, left alone or destroyed. Wasteland 2 gives every one of your decisions weight and consequence, and makes you care about those consequences.

Wasteland 2 (****) is occasionally tough, sometimes obtuse and perhaps overuses the brown texture colour a tad too much. It's also brilliantly designed, well-characterised and knows how to gut-punch the player when they're least expecting it. Amongst the recent surge of old-school RPGs it may be the ugliest (although this is very relative) but it's definitely one of the most rewarding. Wasteland 2 is available now on PC from Steam and GoG, with PS4 and X-Box One versions to follow later this year.

Memory (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
Memory (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £6.50

4.0 out of 5 stars A little slow, but well-written, 9 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
A horrendous error of judgement sees Miles Vorkosigan summoned back to Barrayar to face disciplinary measures from his superior, head of Imperial Security Simon Illyan. As Miles contemplates a future outside of the military, he becomes aware of a growing crisis in ImpSec. Things are going wrong and the cause may be to horrible to contemplate...

Memory is, chronologically, the tenth out of fourteen books in The Vorkosigan Saga and marks an important turning point in the series. For the previous eight volumes Miles Vorkosigan as been masquerading as Admiral Naismith of the Dendarii Free Mercenaries, carrying out missions for the Barrayan military with total deniability. In Memory that abruptly comes to an end after Miles - suffering the after-effects of his death, cryo-freeze and revival in Mirror Dance - inadvertently slices the legs off a fellow agent he is supposed to be rescuing and then covers it up. The result is the most game-changing novel in the series. Such long-running series tend to do well out of stasis, maintaining the status quo and bringing readers back each time to enjoy the same cast of characters and the same format. Whisking that away can be creatively liberating for the author, but dangerous if the change does not go down well with fans.

In this case the change is well-judged, although it takes a while to execute. At a bit less than 500 pages Memory joins Mirror Dance as one of the longest novels in the series, but it's also a lot less active a book than its forebear. Mirror Dance had multiple POV characters, clandestine infiltrations, full-scale combat missions and a huge amount of character development packed into its pages. Memory, fitting its title, is more relaxed and reflective a novel. It gives Miles a chance to dwell on everything that's happened to him and what he is going to do with his life now his default position has been snatched away.

This reflective mode works well for a while, but it starts to bog down the book. As amusing as seeing Miles tackling getting a pet cat, hiring a new cook or going fishing is, it goes on for a bit too long. When the mystery kicks in and Miles is granted extraordinary powers by the Emperor to sort things out, it's a relief and soon the mystery is unfolding nicely. However, the longueurs at the start of the book lead to the investigation and resolution taking place quite rapidly and a little too neatly. There also isn't much personal jeopardy for Miles. This may be the point, as the book is more about Miles's growth and maturing as a character, but there is the feeling that this story could have been told a little more effectively as a novella. That said, it does bring about some dramatic changes in the set-up of the series and is among the best-written books in the series.

Memory (****) opens slow but finishes strong and succeeds in its task of resetting the series and giving Miles a new job to do.

Page: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | 10 | 11-20