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

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The 100 - Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2014] [Region Free]
The 100 - Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2014] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Eliza Taylor
Price: £14.00

4.0 out of 5 stars Starts out corny, gets a lot better very quickly, 26 Feb. 2015
AD 2149. Ninety-seven years after a nuclear war devastated the Earth, more than two and a half thousand people live in refuge on an orbiting space station, the Ark. With life support beginning to fail, the ruling council of the Ark decides to see if Earth is survivable by sending down a hundred criminals. As adult criminals are executed to save food and air, this means sending down young delinquents.

As the hundred exiles fight to survive on Earth - and later against the other survivors they discover living in the woods - the inhabitants of the Ark also fall into an internal power struggle as it becomes clear that the station cannot support them for much longer, and not everyone can survive to make it to the ground.

The 100 is a post-apocalyptic drama that seems to take great delight in its inspirations: the show comes across as the result of a collision between Battlestar Galactica, Lost, The Hunger Games and Fallout. The show adroitly fuses its inspirations in fun and original ways and ends up being a lot more entertaining than it has any right being, but it does take a little while to get there.

The show is the product of American network The CW, famed its glossy productions featuring preposterously photogenic young actors engaging in life-and-death struggles whilst also trying to straighten out their elaborately complicated love lives. The 100 somehow manages to turn this tendency up to 11: characters angst about their personal relationships almost at the same level they worry about starvation, dehydration, being impaled by spears and radiation sickness, all of which are constant and simultaneous threats. This would risk being silly, except for the odd hints that the writers are deliberately sending up this aspect of the network's shows. The series also gets away with it because it is also one of the most surprisingly brutal television shows on air. Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead have made shocking main character deaths more accepted on cable, but for a more youth-oriented series The 100 is startlingly bleak. We get population counts for both the exiles on the ground and the survivors on the Ark and both numbers drop at a rate of knots as the season progresses and the writers gleefully take an axe (or gun, or airlock, or plague, or in one highly memorable moment, a giant metal shuriken thing) to the cast.

The show gets off to a mixed start, being both unafraid to kill over apparently major players from the off but also unleashing some of the most ham-fisted, expositionary and clumsy writing you'll see on television all year. Characters initially come across as being very archetypal (or, if you're less kind, cliched as hell) and the actors initially seem unsure how to handle the material they are given. Henry Ian Cusick, in his first major TV role since playing Desmond on Lost, is both saddled with a dubious accent and some poor characterisation and can only respond by hamming it up for the first few weeks. Dialogue is poor and little reason is given for us to care about any of these characters.

Fortunately, that changes and fairly quickly. By the sixth episode the writers have added a lot of ambiguity and (relative) complexity to the characters, the actors have much more layered material to work with and the show becomes a bit more experimental, not afraid to ditch half the cast for a week or two in favour of flashbacks to add depth and backstory. The writers also become quite good at creating internal conflict within the characters, giving them more to do than just stand around and look pretty.

This is helped by some fairly intense pacing. The series is uninterested in adopting a format and sticking with it, with shifts in factions, locations and motivations taking place on a near-weekly basis. The initial split between the ground and the space station is well-handled, despite it occasionally feeling like you're watching episodes of Lost and BSG that have been fan-spliced together (the presence of actors from both shows - particularly BSG - not helping). When our heroes on the ground find a mysterious hatch in the forest (albeit one that opens immediately and not after a tediously-drawn out 16-episode struggle) and characters in orbit wrestle with their consciences as they have to ration supplies and blast a traitor out of the airlock, The 100 feels like it is risking becoming a parody of those other series. However, the show then moves into other territory, becoming more confident and forging its own path. The season finale, which not so much changes the premise as drives a bulldozer through it and then burns down the remains, is the most game-changing cliffhanger in a series in recent times.

The actors are, for the most part, likable. The younger castmembers bring enthusiasm and gumption, although some are more experienced than others (Eliza Taylor did her time in the trenches of Australian daytime soap opera). More veteran actors are used to populate the Ark and, after that initial writing hurdle in the first few episodes, are great. However, the show's flirtation with killing off Chancellor Jaha gets a little old. Clearly they realised that Isaiah Washington is too good to off so easily, but it'd be better if they stopped putting him in near-death situations every other week. The weak spot is the handling of romance, which is trite. Octavia (Marie Avgeropoulos) and Lincoln (Ricky Whittle) fall in love without exchanging a word (although later on they do manage to earn it back), whilst the budding romance between Clarke (Taylor) and Finn (Thomas McDonell) is hamstrung by the utter lack of any chemistry at all between the two actors. Fortunately the writers seem to cotton onto this and use it to their advantage later on. As the season progresses there is also less time for teen stuff as the prospect of all-out war rears its head and some new, more enigmatic enemies enter the fray.

For its first season, The 100 (***½) starts off pretty poor but improves rapidly to become a solidly entertaining show. The writing starts out clumsy and the dialogue jarring, but it gets better. The characters become a lot more interesting and conflicted and the show gleefully subverts audience expectations at almost every turn. Certainly worth a look, especially as the second season so far has been a big improvement.

Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga Book 9)
Mirror Dance (Vorkosigan Saga Book 9)
Price: £5.49

5.0 out of 5 stars The best book in the series so far, 19 Feb. 2015
Mark is one of the most resourceful men alive: smart, cunning and trained in combat and subterfuge with a brilliant talent for information analysis. He is also weighed down by the knowledge that he is a clone of a more famous and more effective military commander: Miles Vorkosigan of Barrayar. Infiltrating the Dendarii mercenaries by posing as his 'brother', Mark embarks on a vengeful attack on the genetic laboratories on Jackson's Whole. This sets in motion a chain of events that will change his life, and that of his brother, forever.

Mirror Dance is, chronologically, the ninth novel in The Vorkosigan Saga and one of the most vitally important in terms of both the metaplot and character. It starts off in a rather traditional way for the series, with a mission for the Dendarii that appears to be straightforward and then rapidly becomes complicated. The difference here is that it is Mark who has set up the mission and it becomes painfully obvious that, for all his gifts, he is not Miles. Bujold plays a clever game here, since it would be implausible for the Dendarii (who know that Miles has a clone) to fall for Mark's deception so easily, so she has to set up a situation where they would plausibly go along with the plan in any case. Some dangling plot elements established as long ago as The Warrior's Apprentice are exploited ingeniously to do this.

The book opens with a structure that reflects the book's title. Chapters alternate between Mark trying to pull off his crazy scheme and Miles getting wind of it and trying to stop him. Events collide on Jackson's Whole, at which point the story takes a left-field turn that I don't think many readers were expecting. The scale of the book suddenly explodes, incorporating a return to Barryar, our first encounter with Aral and Cordelia Vorkosigan for many novels and some expert commentary on the changing state of Barrayaran society. Then there is a sprint for the finish, taking in explosive action sequences and an extraordinarily disturbing torture sequence that might even make Scott Bakker flinch (okay, probably not).

Mirror Dance is certainly the most epic book in the series to date, revisiting past plot points, characters and events on a scale not before seen (contributing to its unusual length compared to the previous volumes). But Bujold maintains a tight reign on the narrative and backs up the expanded canvas with some impressively nuanced character development. Around for the opening and finale, Miles sits out a large chunk of the novel as Bujold explores Mark's character in impressive depth. Even more remarkably, Bujold uses Mark to develop Miles and his shifting cover identities despite him not being around for a good third of the novel, and also to catch up on some characters we haven't seen for a while.

There's also the feeling of change in this book. The political situation on Barrayar, simmering in the background of many volumes, feels like it is now coming to a head with events in this novel confirming that the new generation - that of Gregor, Miles, Elena and Ivan - is coming into its own. The events of this novel seem to shake Miles's position as commander of the Dendarii, whilst the explosive changes on Jackson's Whole could reverberate across the galaxy. There's a feeling of Bujold loosening things up in this book, essential for any long-running series, and ensuring that readers will want to proceed into this book's direct sequel, Memory, immediately.

Mirror Dance (*****) is a remarkable book and easily the best in the series to date, more than deserving of its Hugo Award. It starts as another military SF adventure, turns into a combination of mystery and political thriller and then skews briefly into action overdrive before concluding with a bleak moment of horror that - apparently - is turned into a positive outcome. Bujold's enviable skills with writing and character make it all seem natural.

Far Cry 4 - Limited Edition (PC DVD)
Far Cry 4 - Limited Edition (PC DVD)
Offered by SeeDeez
Price: £30.00

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Honey badgers and lions and tigers...just shoot 'em, 8 Feb. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The Far Cry series has established itself over the past eleven years as one of the most reliably entertaining in the first-person shooter genre. The series has forged its own identity for setting its games in large open worlds instead of sequential levels (aside from the first game, which was a linear sequence of very large islands which allowed you to approach the objective however you wished). It has also experimented a little with narrative, particularly its focus in the second and third games on the nature of violence and the impact it has on people, particularly untrained civilians who turn into walking arsenals of death in order to complete the game objective.

The fourth game in the series is unusual in that it's the first game not to feature an abrupt shift in mechanics, tone or setting. Far Cry 2 introduced the large open world idea, whilst Far Cry 3 brought in radio towers, crafting and the notion of a free-flowing war going on outside of the storyline, with you able to fight in battles and take over enemy outposts at will. Far Cry 4 surprisingly does little to change this formula, instead refining what came before and, slightly awkwardly, stepping back from some of the things the previous game attempted. On paper the setting may sound very different, but a lot of the action takes place in the lower Kyrat valley which is extremely lush and you may forget which game you are playing until you look up and see the mountains.

In terms of gameplay things are less 'similar' than 'identical' to Far Cry 3. There is still a mix of focused story missions, optional side-quests and environmental challenges, alongside a whole host of other activities (like racing or escorting deliveries). It's just all happening in the Himalayas rather than the Pacific Ocean, so less sharks and more yaks and weaponised elephants. There's more variety in the design of the radio towers and enemy camps (which are now a lot more interesting and challenging to take on), and things are made more complicated by the introduction of fortresses. These larger, more heavily-guarded camps make for a more formidable challenge, introduced just at the point when your character is developing into an unstoppable one-man arsenal. All of this is still good fun to play, of course. If you want a really boring review, if you really liked Far Cry 3 you'll probably really like this. I wouldn't play them back to back, and there is a question if a glorified reskin of an existing game is worth full price, but Far Cry 4 is certainly enjoyable.

There are several problems with the game, although they seem to stem from a genuine desire to make up for problems in its predecessor. Far Cry 3 took some flak for its use of the 'white saviour' trope and for its storyline about how the main character was corrupted by all the death and destruction he caused, which felt a little like the game having its cake and eating it. Far Cry 4 uses a native main character, which is a nice touch if one that has absolutely no impact on gameplay, and dials back the moral erosion stuff. It's been done before and would have been redundant to do it again, but it does remove any kind of emotional or character arc from Ghale's story. Jason Brody from Far Cry 3 may have been an utter tool, but at least he had a storyline to follow. Ghale spends the entirety of Far Cry 4 in a state of vague bemusement at what's going on and ultimately becomes a total non-entity. They may as well have gone for an unnamed silent protagonist.

In terms of characters, the game struggles to come up with any that are interesting. The Golden Path leaders are fanatics and Pagan Min is entertainingly psychotic but a pale shadow of Far Cry 3's Vaas. The game does break with convention by bringing in returning characters (CIA agent Willis and inept mercenary Hurk both return from Far Cry 3) and referencing others (Jack Carver is mentioned, placing FC3 and 4 resolutely in the same universe as the original game, surprisingly). There's also a really weird subplot set in the mystical realm of Shangri-La which features a magical remote-controlled tiger, exploding arrows and gigantic bells which transport people between dimensions or something. These interludes feel like a completely different game has suddenly rammed itself into Far Cry 4 for no reason, but get points for just breaking things up a bit.

So, Far Cry 4 (***½). It has less interesting characters, a duller storyline and rather less innovation than its forebears. It's also still quite a lot of fun and allows you to shoot honey badgers up the backside with arrows (although they don't care). Playable, enjoyable but the first game in the series which is almost completely disposable. Pick up when it's going cheap.

PS No lions, I lied.

Elite Dangerous: Wanted
Elite Dangerous: Wanted
by Gavin Deas
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.98

4.0 out of 5 stars Short, punchy and a lot of fun, 8 Feb. 2015
The 34th Century. A routine bit of piracy goes badly wrong, leaving the crew of the Song of Stone wanted by both the authorities and the most lethal criminal gang in inhabited space. When a bounty hunter famed for being relentless and efficient gets on their tail, events rapidly spiral out of control.

The Elite video game series has always had a good relationship with its tie-in fiction. The original game, released in 1984, had very simple graphics so relied on the manual and flavour text to fit in a lot of the background. Key to this was The Dark Wheel, a novella written by Robert Holdstock (who won the World Fantasy Award the same year for his seminal Mythago Wood) which brought the setting to life with memorable characters and a focused storyline about revenge and family.

For the release of Elite: Dangerous, the fourth game in the series, a whole line of new books are being released from several different publishers. First out of the gate is Wanted, a collaboration between Stephen Deas (best-known for the Memory of Flames fantasy sequence) and Gavin Smith (Veteran, War in Heaven, Age of Scorpio). This novel focuses on pirates, bounty-hunters and the dividing line between the law and lawlessness, key features of the Elite games which can also be used to generate good stories.

Wanted has a simple but extremely effective structure: chapters alternate between Captain Ravindra of the Song of Stone and Ziva, pilot of the Dragon Queen and one of the most renowned bounty hunters around. The characterisation of these two leading figures is strong, with the authors setting up each captain's motivations (Ravindra's wayward son and Ziva's relationship problems) and using them to drive the story forward. For a tie-in novel the risk is always that the iconic setting will overwhelm the story and characters, but there Deas and Smith avoid that, putting the central characters front-and-centre.

That said, they do handle the setting pretty well. There's always been a conflict between the Elite universe being set so far in the future and the relative low technology of it all, with no artificial gravity and ship-to-ship combat being carried out at close range rather than with drones from thousands of miles away. The two authors do a good job of staying true to the game setting whilst throwing their own innovations and extrapolations of technology into the mix.

On the weaker side of things, some of the secondary cast could do with being fleshed out more. The motivations of the villains is also under-developed, especially as the maguffin the plot revolves around is never really explained. On one meta-level it's irrelevant, as it's simply the excuse for the story to happen, but on another it means that the stakes are never properly defined.

Still, Smith and Deas deliver more than what was expected here: a punchy, rip-roaring space opera with some clever bits of science, some nicely-handled character relationships and a book that leaves the reader intrigued to try both the game and the other books in the setting. Elite: Wanted (****) is out now in the UK and USA.

Brothers in Arms (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
Brothers in Arms (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £5.18

4.0 out of 5 stars Miles arrives on Earth and mayhem results, 30 Jan. 2015
The Dendarii Mercenary Fleet has pulled off its most audacious operation yet, a mass prison break that has liberated hundreds of enemies of the Cetagandan Empire. The furious Cetagandans have pursued the Dendarii across the known worlds, forcing them to take refuge and resupply at one world even the Cetagandans hesitate to cross: Earth. For Miles Vorkosigan it's time to resupply his troops and check in with his day job as an officer in the Barrayaran military...but it also brings him into contact with rebels determined to destroy Barrayar and have a most unexpected way of doing it.

Brothers in Arms is the fifth novel by publication order (or eighth, chronologically) in The Vorkosigan Saga, Lois McMaster Bujold's award-festooned series following the misadventures of the genetically misshapen and crippled Miles Vorkosigan as he tries to rise through the ranks of the Barrayaran military. This latest novel expands on the Vorkosigan universe by taking us to humanity's homeworld.

The novel is divided into two sections. In the first Miles has to confront the problems posed by his actual job as an officer for Barrayar's navy and how this conflicts with his cover role as Admiral Naismith, commander of the Dendarii mercenaries. There not being too many prominent genetically-challenged dwarfs around, the rising fame of Vorkosigan in both these roles has led many to conclude they are the same person. With the value of the cover unravelling, Miles faces the unpleasant possibility of having to give up the Dendarii, a role he has come to thoroughly relish. Miles soon comes up with a bonkers plan to allow his cover to continue...which then becomes insanely complicated when it turns out that his randomly-conceived cover plan isn't too far off from the truth. The wheels-within-wheels plans, deceptions and machinations that Vorkosigan comes up are hilariously over-complicated (to the befuddlement of his friends and crew) and it's great to see them in action.

As well as the comedy and some very effective action set-pieces, including a memorable concluding battle at a supermassive SF version of the Thames Barrier, there's also some major steps forward in character development in this book. Miles realises how much the Dendarii have come to mean to him and several moments where he genuinely trips up on what role he is supposed to be inhabiting are quite powerful. Maybe he's in too deep? There's also the anguish over Miles's lack of immediate family, and when this appears to be rectified Miles latches onto it with horrifying lack of forethought, but moved by a powerful emotional need for peers to relate to. It's fairly straightforward stuff, but Bujold's ability to tell familiar stories through a fresh perspective serves the narrative well.

Brothers in Arms (****) is a very solid novel, with some good action and laughs framing a more serious story that does a lot to advance Miles's character and the overall storyline of the series.

South Park: The Stick of Truth (PC DVD)
South Park: The Stick of Truth (PC DVD)
Offered by Game Trade Online
Price: £10.62

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The best TV show-to-game translation ever, 29 Jan. 2015
A new family moves to South Park, Colorado, a town noted for its odd inhabitants, idyllic scenery and occasional tendency to become involved in the fate of the country/world/universe. The family's son becomes embroiled in a complex live-action roleplaying game being fought for control of the "Stick of Truth", but this soon escalates with alien spaceships crashing into the mall, government agents showing up and gnomes invading homes to steal underpants. Also, Al Gore arrives in search of a mythical creature. Basically, it's just another day in South Park.

South Park is no stranger to video game adaptations. The earliest appeared shortly after the show's debut in 1997 and were soulless cash-ins revolving around racing or first-person action games in a horrible 3D version of the game's distinctive art style. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, unimpressed, approached Obsidian Entertainment with the idea of making a new game that employed the show's signature 2D art style and was also faithful to its satirical, biting (and occasionally very sick) humour. Obsidian rose to the occasion, putting together an RPG design which would involve Parker and Stone as the main writers and voice artists.

The result is a game that is so faithful to the source material that, unless someone spots you controlling it or you get into a battle, it can easily be mistaken for an episode of the actual TV show. For a studio whose often amazing artistic vision is too often compromised by budget or time, Obsidian finally managed to hit it out of the park on their first attempt, rather than after a lengthy patching cycle. If you are a South Park fan, there is simply no further need for further discussion: get ahold of this pronto. If you find South Park crass or offensive, however, then there's nothing here that will change your mind so steer well clear.

For those still on the fence, The Stick of Truth is a heavily narrative-based game set in and around South Park. You control "The New Kid" (later dubbed Sir Douchebag by the reliably foul-mouthed Cartman), a new arrival in town soon recruited by Cartman into joining a roleplaying game. You can navigate around the town and surrounding countryside, all faithfully animated in the same style as the TV show, and undertake missions for other characters whilst getting involved in combat with animals or with the elves, the rival faction in the game. This being South Park, things soon escalate and then you're fighting aliens, giant rats and gnomes armed with magic that can miniaturise you for no particular reason. Combat takes place in a turn-based, Japanese RPG style environment, with you being able to use both magic (based around flatulence) and special attacks associated with your character class (Fighter, Mage or Jew). It's straightforward but the interaction between different weapons, armour, magic, items and the ability to switch between ranged and melee attacks delivers a satisfying number of options to you. In short, the gameplay is superb.

In terms of length, you can polish off the main storyline in 10-12 hours with ease. What is slightly disappointing is that there are relatively few side-quests. The main activity outside of following the story is based around collectibles, going around the town looking for Chinpokomon toys (I got very excited when I finally found Shoe) or little kids playing hide and seek. This is mildly diverting and can extend the playing time out by a few hours, but overall this is not a very long game. It's still a lot of fun, but you may want to pick it up in a sale rather than pay full price.

In story terms, it's basically South Park's Greatest Hits, with Parker and Stone revisiting almost every concept they've come up with in the past two decades. So Mr. Hanky and his martial problems form a subplot, Al Gore shows up to continue his search for ManBearPig and the player can meet Terrance and Phillip in a quest that takes them to Canada (rendered as a primitive NES-style top-down RPG). This could risk being derivative, but Parker and Stone instead seem to relish re-using previous ideas and fleshing them out beyond the confines of a 20-minute TV episode. It's a pretty funny game, but Parker and Stone also don't hold back on using jokes that they wouldn't be able to get into even on the TV show. An anal probing sequence on the alien mothership is particularly gross, as is a later section set inside another character's colon, and a sequence inside an abortion clinic complete with foetal zombies goes through the roof of offensiveness to some other plane of WTFery. Some of the more offensive sequences can be skipped (or are cut out entirely in international versions of the game) but others can't.

The Stick of Truth is, on the one hand, a superb game. It's a pitch-perfect translation of a TV show into a game (maybe the best one ever done), with some excellent gameplay and mechanics. The characters and story are appropriate to the source material and it's genuinely hilarious in places. On the other hand, it's rather short for its genre and the game is mind-bogglingly offensive at some parts. For those who like seeing the boundaries of good humour and taste being stretched to their limits, this won't be a problem. For others, it will be. In that sense, this is a game more for established fans than newcomers.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers)
The Abyss Beyond Dreams (Chronicle of the Fallers)
by Peter F. Hamilton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

4.0 out of 5 stars Not his best, but still a very enjoyable SF novel, 29 Jan. 2015
AD 3326. Nigel Sheldon, the originator of wormhole technology and the person responsible for the creation of the Intersolar Commonwealth, is semi-retired and planning to leave this galaxy for a new one. However, his plans are interrupted by the enigmatic Raiel, the powerful aliens who guard the Milky Way from the expansion of the Void, the mysteriously growing mini-universe hidden in the galactic core. The Raiel need Sheldon to go into the Void and help recover one of their ancient warships. Sheldon agrees...but soon finds himself on the wrong planet in the wrong time and the only way out is to support a full-scale revolution.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams is the first novel in a duology, to be followed by Night Without Stars. This series, The Chronicle of the Fallers, is the latest work in Peter F. Hamilton's Commonwealth universe. Familiarity with the previous works in this universe (the Commonwealth Saga duology and the Void Trilogy) is recommended as this book contains spoilers for the earlier ones, but is not strictly essential.

As with the preceding Void Trilogy, this novel is divided into two sections and almost two distinct genres. In the opening sequence we have far-future SF, set thirteen centuries hence when humanity is immortal, can cross the galaxy in a matter of weeks and live any kind of life imaginable. The bulk of the book is set within the Void itself, where high technology does not work but the inhabitants gain the powers of telepathy and telekinesis. Whilst the Void sequence was set on Querencia, which was more of a fantasy setting, the Fallers books are set on Bienvenido. Unlike Querencia, where a lot of history was lost after the human refugees settled on it, Bienvenido has maintained more of a history and identify, as well as a slightly higher level of technology. This gives the novel more of a steampunk feel, allowing Hamilton to mix up some more genres.

The Abyss Beyond Dreams starts off by feeling a little bit too much like The Dreaming Void. One of our primary POVs is Svlasta, a soldier wounded in battle with the mysterious Fallers (hostile aliens who can assume human appearance) who soon becomes the architect of social change. The similarities with Edeard's story in the earlier books are uncanny. However, Hamilton is clever enough to subvert the reader's expectations and soon moves off in another direction. It's not long before we're meeting some clever (and very conscious) Russian Revolution parallels and seeing how all revolutions carry within them their own capacity for self-destruction.

As usual, Hamilton's prose is unornamented but highly readable. His characters are well-delineated, although they're all a little too prone to using British swear words and idioms. The book is structurally similar to the Void novels but this is deliberate and soon used to set up and then undercut expectations in an interesting way. There are a few complaints, however. One of these is how quickly the ending unfolds (bordering on the abrupt) and how rapidly one of our main characters descends into outright madness. Whilst foreshadowed earlier on, the actual transition feels a little too rapid.

Another is only an issue for long-standing fans. The Commonwealth universe is undeniably a fascinating place, but we've now spent four (out of a planned five) big novels on the subject of the Void. Given the size and variety of the Commonwealth, it would be nice to see more of it than this same bit of it. I can see the fascination, as it allows the author to experiment with different genres without having to fully abandon his SF roots to do it, but there is the feeling that it would be nice to wrap up the Void and move on. The next book in the series will hopefully do just that.

Otherwise, The Abyss Beyond Dreams (****) is a very solid Hamilton SF novel: big ideas, fun characters and affecting moments of gut-wrenching horror.

Breaking Bad - Season 4 (Blu-ray + UV Copy)
Breaking Bad - Season 4 (Blu-ray + UV Copy)
Dvd ~ Bryan Cranston
Price: £15.00

5.0 out of 5 stars The show just goes on getting better, 29 Jan. 2015
Walter White and Jesse Pinkman are continuing to work as meth-cooks for ruthless criminal Gus Fring, but they are now at loggerheads. As both sides try to find a way to get on top so they no longer need the other and can eliminate them, Walter also continues to draw his ex-wife Skyler deeper into his schemes.

The fourth season of Breaking Bad is arguably the one where it goes from being consistently excellent to staking a claim to the "Best Show on TV" title. Up until now the show has painted Walter White in - at least somewhat - sympathetic terms. White wants what is best for his family and has made occasionally ruthless decisions to back that up in self-defence, or when the alternative is the death of his family or Jesse. White has certainly been on moral slide (especially given his inaction in the Season 2 finale that led to a death) but he hasn't wholly moved past redemption. This changes dramatically in the fourth season, with White now pitted against a man far more ruthless and cunning than himself. This forces White to up his game, to close off his emotions and do whatever it takes to survive and to win.

By this point, it has become redundant to say that the actors are all spectacular, that the writing is tight, the dialogue quotable and the music choices all very strong. The show does have some near-vanishing weaknesses that continue: the tendency to completely drop story elements until they are needed and then bring them back abruptly later on is mildly grating. Remember Walter Jr.'s crowdfunding scheme which Saul co-opts as a money laundering operation? The writers don't, then do, then don't again. The writers also continue to be forever on the verge of giving Marie something to do and then pull back, so for most of the season (and indeed the show) she's just hanging around. Her interaction with Hank in the opening part of the season seems to be setting up a more interesting relationship between them and then goes nowhere.

To find even these criticisms some serious reaching is required. What the show does do brilliantly in its fourth year is finding ways of putting Gus and Walter at loggerheads and showing Walter 'level up' in villainy as he attempts to take on Gus at his own game. The establishing of Gus's own backstory in the episodes Hermanos and Salud (showing that Gus went through a similar process with his own nemesis, Don Eladio) cleverly adds depth to the character as well. The season then culminates in a three-episode run that is wall-to-wall tension, action and drama and ends on a note-perfect moment.

What is also well done is how Jesse becomes a pawn between Gus and Walter, with Gus discovering how to build up Jesse's confidence as a watch of stealing away his loyalty. Walter is forced into some pretty breathtaking and ruthless actions to get that loyalty back, and it's this relationship (sold by the actors with total conviction) that forms the backbone of the season.

The fourth season of Breaking Bad (*****) is the best to date and is the show at the very top of its game.

Breaking Bad - Season 3 (Blu-ray + UV Copy)
Breaking Bad - Season 3 (Blu-ray + UV Copy)
Dvd ~ Bryan Cranston
Price: £15.00

5.0 out of 5 stars Walt's life crumbles even as his meth business takes off, 12 Jan. 2015
Walter White's drug manufacturing sideline is taking over his life. He has separated from his wife (who now knows his secret) and has a new employer, Gus Fring, who is initially amiable but soon reveals himself to be ruthless and dangerous. However, Walter's colleague and friend Jesse is becoming unreliable, his lack of concern proving a danger to himself and to others around him.

The third season of Breaking Bad continues in just as confident and assured a style as the previous year. The show opens with the aftermath of the air crash over Albuquerque, a plot development that was a little too contrived and is quickly brushed under the rug (although not before Walter gives a startling and darkly humourous speech to his students about how it was "only" the fiftieth-worst air disaster in history). The following episodes set up Walter and a reluctant Jesse in their new "superlab" and show them now having a day job, with Walter even making himself his sandwiches before going to work. It's all funny stuff, contrasted with a more serious subplot in which two terrifyingly blank-faced assassins arrive in town to kill Walter.

The season takes a few episodes to really kick into gear, but then ups the ante with One Minute, when Hank is brutally attacked by the assassins in a parking lot, resulting in a stand-off and shoot-out that must rank among the more intense gunfights ever put on the small screen. Another episode, Fly, is remarkable in its attention to detail and character and moving the emotional stories of the characters along whilst being almost completely confined (for budgetary reasons) to the lab set.

But the season really triumphs with the last two episodes, in which Gus's relationship with Walter and Jesse moves onto a less friendly footing, an innocent man is killed and Walter's desperation drives him to increasingly ruthless and amoral acts. The writing is powerful and the acting is excellent, with Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks being promoted to regulars as Gus Fring and his highly capable fixer, Mike Ehrmantraut. Both actors deliver stand-out performances to match the already-established regulars.

The season also succeeds in showing the growing moral decline of Walter as he becomes more ruthless and starts the same process with Skylar, as she is initially disgusted by Walter's activities but later is happy to use his money to pay for Hank's medical bills, the start of her own gradual corruption by money. The way the subplots and themes all feed into one another and the characters so everything makes sense has become highly impressive by this point.

The third season of Breaking Bad (*****) improves on and evolves the story from the first two, becoming more epic and confident with every passing episode.

Infidel: Bel Dame Apocrypha
Infidel: Bel Dame Apocrypha
by Kameron Hurley
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An excellent improvement over the first novel, 12 Jan. 2015
Several years have passed since the devastating events of God's War. Most of Nyx's former team have taken refuge in regions distant from the ongoing war between Nasheen and Chenja, taking up new lives, starting families and trying to move on. Nyx herself is still working on the sly for the Queen of Nasheen. When Nasheen is rocked by a devastating attack on the capital city and it becomes clear that the bel dame assassins are fighting amongst themselves, Nyx is forced to travel across the continent to consult her former allies Khos and Rhys. But her arrival in their new lives has horrifying consequences.

Infidel is the second volume in The Bel Dame Apocrypha, following on from God's War and preceding Rapture. As with the first novel, it's a hard-arsed book fusing fantasy to science fiction by way of a whole lot of attitude and a lot more smarts. It's also the rare middle volume of a trilogy that builds and improves on God's War.

God's War was a great book, but one that ended up being a little too confusing for its own good, especially at the start. Infidel is much more coherently focused on its storytelling, building a parallel narrative contrasting Rhys's new, peaceful life in Tirhan with Nyx's ongoing life of mayhem. This structure worked well in God's War but is even better here, with the different locations and circumstances for the two characters allowing Hurley to even more strongly define them. The two strands are held separate for a large chunk of the book, building up tension so that when they come together the results are appropriately cataclysmic.

Hurley's writing is tighter than in the first book and also more empathetic, building up the new characters and relationships so that when the inevitable gut-wrenching betrayals and deaths come, they hurt. Infidel is a brutal book - more than the first volume - but one that earns its shocks rather than relying on them for a cheap emotional fix.

There are problems: the ending is extremely abrupt, an epic final confrontation over and done with in a blink of an eye. There's also the age-old trilogy situation of the first instalment being more or less stand-alone (in case it bombs) but the second volume being left wide open for the story to continue into a third book. Whether this is a bug or feature of trilogies is up for the reader to decide.

Infidel (****½) is an improvement over God's War, being tighter, more strongly characterised and with a better structure, whilst the 'bugpunk' weirdness is carried through and becomes even stranger. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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