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

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Thief (PC DVD)
Thief (PC DVD)
Offered by Digitalville UK
Price: £10.39

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Fun, but fails to capture the magic of the originals, 24 Jun 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Thief (PC DVD) (DVD-ROM)
Thief is a reboot and revival of the classic Thief Trilogy of video games: The Dark Project (1998), The Metal Age (2002) and Deadly Shadows (2004). These games were hugely influential in their introduction of stealth elements to video games, with importance placed not on combat and killing enemies but on the player sneaking past foes and 'ghosting' through levels to complete objectives with the enemy not even being away of their presence. The SF roleplaying game Deus Ex (2000) also followed a similar strategy, though gave players more tools to choose stealth, combat or other options as they wished.

When Eidos Montreal released Deus Ex: Human Revolution in 2011, they received praise for managing the difficult feat of making a game that honoured its predecessor's freeform choices and design whilst also making the title more accessible and approachable to modern gamers. Hopes were high that they could manage a similar balancing act with Thief. It is questionable if they have succeeded.

The newest incarnation of Thief is superficially similar to its forebears. You have a large hub area in the City where you can buy supplies, carry out opportunistic robberies or undertake minor side-quests for different employers. There is also a storyline that you can dip into and out of at will. Garrett is not very good at combat (although he does receive upgrades as the game progresses and can hold his own more effectively later on), so stealth is the order of the day. Hiding in shadows, moving quietly and making use of both the environment and tools such as rope arrows are all essential to avoid tedious fights which will usually end with Garrett's death. The game puts a large amount of importance on light, with enemies only being able to spot you motionless in well-lit areas. Water arrows can be used to extinguish torches and Garrett has a special 'swooping' move which can be used to move rapidly through lit areas whilst only briefly confusing guards, rather than fully alerting them to your presence.

All of this is theoretically good stuff, and the game is at its best in tense moments where you have infiltrated the heart of a dangerous location and one wrong move can spell disaster. However, it also feels stage-managed. Unlike the previous titles, you can only use rope arrows on specific beams of wood, which makes no sense. The game also discourages you from using certain lit routes by making the light sources indestructible gas lamps (which inexplicably can't be smashed by any of the tools at your disposal, including explosives) or oil lamps instead of torches. Exactly how oil lamps in the City work when they have no external controls of any kind is something the game leaves a mystery. The game then goes a step further into hand-holding by allowing you to jump and climb walls in certain contextual circumstances, usually by sign-painting climbable walls in white paint or sticking very large and obvious grills on them. Thief seems to delight in giving you an array of options and toys to play with and then arbitrarily places restrictions on how and when you can use them.

There's still usually a variety of different ways of accomplishing each task, but these boil down into two or three approaches per mission that everyone will experience. The original Thief trilogy was more of a simulation, which let you run riot with the tools and abilities in the game in large, sandbox-like levels, with dozens of viable approaches for each situation at hand. The new Thief never comes close to replicating that experience. Sequels should expand and improve upon their forebears, so for this game to be more limited than what came before is disappointing.

Even worse for Thief was the release of Dishonored in late 2012. A homage and love letter to the Thief series (amongst others), Dishonored featured a mix of stealth, combat and magic in a weirdpunk world that felt more like the original Thief games than the official reboot does. Dishonored did place more emphasis on magic and combat, but it was also extremely atmospheric with a well-designed world, a reasonably well-written (if not particularly original) storyline and a well-defined supporting cast of characters. Thief, on the other hand, features a wafer-thin backdrop, a badly-written and corny storyline and a largely forgettable cast of cliches. If you haven't played or are not interested in playing Dishonored, such a comparison may be meaningless, but between the two games Thief stands as the weaker.

None of this is to say that Thief is a terrible game. As the first title in a new franchise it would have gotten a much more favourable reception, and there is much to enjoy about it. The game is decently long: doing all the side-quests will take it well over 20 hours, and successfully 'ghosting' some of the trickier missions gives a real sense of achievement. There are a couple of missions, most notably the excursion to the lunatic asylum, which are chillingly atmospheric and well-designed. And, as superficial as they are, the game systems are intermittently effective at creating the illusion of being a master thief. It never really lasts very long, however, and in the endgame Thief loses whatever grasp it had on being a stealth title and turns into a linear action adventure with you dodging explosions, defeating your enemies in a series of boss fights and completing the game in the exact one way the designers want you to, to get a tediously predictable cliffhanger ending. I should probably also mention the mutant enemies who have super senses and can't be disabled with a takedown, which are a woeful game design decision.

Thief (***) is an enjoyable stealth game that fails to live up to the titles that came before it and is distinctly less accomplished than the similar Dishonored but, when taken on its own merits, is entertaining enough to merit a play-through. But the title falls way short of its potential.

Tomorrow People - Season 1 [DVD]
Tomorrow People - Season 1 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Robbie Amell

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Cheesy, disposable fun, 22 Jun 2014
The next stage of human evolution has begun. All over the world, individuals are developing the powers of telepathy, telekinesis and teleportation. A secret government-funded agency, Ultra, is tasked with keeping these individuals under control or removing their powers altogether. However, a small group of 'Tomorrow People' has taken refuge under the streets of New York and is preparing for the day when they can escape persecution.

The Tomorrow People is an SF franchise with some history behind it. It originally aired from 1973 to 1979 as a zero-budget children's programme in the UK. Although almost forgotten today, it remains the second-longest-running British SF show of all time in terms of episode count (just beating out Red Dwarf). The series was then revived in 1992 for a three-season run. The premise of both shows was that humanity is developing into another form of life - homo superior* - and that the new 'break-outs' (humans who have developed these powers) need to be helped by the existing Tomorrow People to deal with their newfound abilities. Both shows also used more overtly SF elements like aliens and robots, with the Tomorrow People using an alien spacecraft as their headquarters and relying on a powerful AI named TIM to help them.

This latest reboot is from the American CW network and is surprisingly faithful to the original show. Character names are reused, original lead actor Nicholas Young has a cameo and even TIM (now a human-built computer) returns. However, the premise is complicated, darkened and made a bit less hokey. There are no aliens or spaceships and the struggle is now presented as being between the Tomorrow People and those humans aware of their existence and who see them as a threat, not a symbol of hope. There are also internal struggles within the Tomorrow People, between those who seek to use their powers for good, those who just want to get on with their lives and others who actively want to use their powers to commit crimes.

Our main POV character is Stephen Jameson (Robbie Amell), who breaks out in the first episode and finds himself torn between joining Ultra (run by his uncle Jedikiah, played by genre-favourite Mark Pellegrino) and a group of rebels led by John (Luke Mitchell) and Cara (Peyton List). Relations are complicated by John and Cara's group having been founded years earlier by Stephen's missing father Roger (Jeffrey Pierce). Early episodes play up a cheesy love triangle between Stephen, John and Cara and rely on break-out-of-the-week plots in which Stephen, having joined Ultra to spy on it for the rebels, has to maintain his cover whilst also helping his friends. Some episodes show promise - Cara's back-story is surprisingly well-handled, with List playing the younger, more rebellious version of the character with more aplomb than the somewhat dull modern equivalent - but it's pretty disposable stuff.

The show shifts up a gear in the mid-season, when more people find out about Stephen's powers and the real main antagonist, the Founder (played with scene-destroying relish by ex-Spartacus actor Simon Merrells) shows up to complicate things. The ongoing story arc comes more to the fore and for a few episodes the show almost lives up to its potential. Particularly welcome is Luke Mitchell stepping up to the plate and impressing more in the role of John. The showrunners seem to be aware of this, with a move in the mid-season away from focusing on Stephen as the protagonist (despite bringing enthusiasm to the role, Amell's range is rather limited) and instead on the group as a whole. This works well until the last couple of episodes when the plot starts lurching in all kinds of random directions and the conclusion to the season-long arc ends up being a bit of a damp squib. The cliffhanger pulls it back a little by providing some interesting groundwork for the next season, but given there isn't going to be one (the show was cancelled after filming concluded) that doesn't really help.

The Tomorrow People (***) is watchable, cheesy and disposable fun which occasionally delivers some above-average performances and episodes. There's certainly a lot of mileage in the premise and it's a shame that the show won't be given a chance to improve with time and more episodes. However, the show is also predictable, frequently badly-written and some of the actors should really think about taking up other careers: Jeffrey Piece is particularly awful, over-acting to the hilt and making even his cornier young co-stars look amazing in comparison. Overall, the series is only worth a watch once you have exhausted the several dozen better series around at the moment.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 21, 2014 3:07 PM BST

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (PC/Mac DVD)
Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (PC/Mac DVD)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The best Transformers game ever made, 1 Jun 2014
The war between the Autobots and Decepticons for control of their homeworld, Cybertron, has resulted in the near-ruination of the planet. Its energon stores are almost gone, with the last few scraps being fought over at tremendous cost. The Autobots realise they have no choice but to abandon their home and search for a new refuge amongst the stars. To this end they have built the Ark, an immense starship, but it is under the threat of Decepticon attack. The Autobots have to power up the ship, protect it from attack and escape, whilst the Decepticons try to stop them and engage in their own internal conflict.

Fall of Cybertron is the sequel to the enjoyable-but-lightweight War for Cybertron and is an improvement over that game in almost every way. Like its forebear, it's a linear third-person shooter which tells a large-scale story involving many characters, with you playing different Autobots or Decepticons on different levels. Unlike its forebear, it's a bit more generous and smarter in differentiating the characters and allowing you to use their full range of abilities.

Part of Fall of Cybertron's appeal is that it takes what is usually the starting point for the Transformers mythos - the launch of the Ark from Cybertron, the subsequent Decepticon ambush and the crash of the starship on prehistoric Earth - and turns it into the grand finale. The build-up to this event is depicted through a series of missions where the Autobots try to get the ship ready for take-off, secure new fuel supplies and fend off Deception attacks, with a series of side-missions depicting the search for the missing Grimlock and his team (the future Dinobots, who get probably their most logical-ever origin story in this game). From the Deception POV, there are a series of missions about trying to defeat the Autobots whilst - as usual - there are internal conflicts and attempts by the treacherous Starscream to supplant Megatron as leader.

The game is heavily focused around combat, although some of the characters (Cliffjumper and Starscream) have more stealthy options available to them. A lot of the time you are fighting in robot mode, diving in and out of cover to exchange fire with enemies, but the game also provides many larger areas where you can switch to vehicle mode for a more mobile experience. The first game was guilty of neglecting the Transforming mechanic (which is a bit stupid), but the sequel makes full and vigorous use of it. Indeed, the one level where you command Grimlock has you limited in being able to transform only when Grimlock gets mad enough (represented by filling a bar by defeating enemies) and then giving you a ridiculous number of overpowered abilities in dinosaur mode. Another sequence has you controlling the gigantic Decepticon Bruticus and smashing your way to victory.

The game also maintains interest by providing a series of massive set-pieces. The game is limited in the freedom it gives you to change or alter the storyline (you get two slightly different endings depending on whether the Autobots or Decepticons get the upper hand in the battle for the Ark but that's about it), so it makes up for that by making the combat fun and by making the levels as memorable as possible. One sequence has you alternating between the Combaticons as they work together to take down a bridge to block an Autobot transport. Another features you as Cliffjumper infiltrating a ruined party of Cybertron and taking down enemies through stealth attacks. Jazz takes part in a combat mission using a physics-based energy grapple, whilst Optimus Prime has to fight his way through enemy lines by lighting up targets for the massive Autobot Metroplex to destroy. The designers work hard to provide big, epic moments at every point of the story (some shamelessly cribbed from the comics, TV series or, especially, the 1986 animated movie) and generally pull it off. Long-term Transformers fans will likely play through most of the game with a big grin on their faces.

The game's biggest success is the depiction of the battle for the Ark. Ususally depicted as a one-sided massacre, the game turns it into a furious battle in space, on the hull of the ship and inside its decks. The POV switches rapidly from Soundwave boarding the ship with his cassette warriors to take down its main guns to Jetfire shooting down grappling hooks outside to Bruticus smashing his way along the hull to Jazz trying to take him down, and finally to a brutal slug-fight between Optimus Prime and Megatron. As final missions go, it's exceptionally good, despite the massive cliffhanger ending.

The game still has some drawbacks. Whilst the stealth sequences and the sequences where you play as overpowered killing machines break up the third-person shooter scenes, you still spend a lot of the game exchanging fire with distantly-glimpsed enemies down corridors. It's also highly unclear what half the weapons in the game actually do (due to some uselessly non-descriptive names). There's also an upgrade system which never really feels that necessary to use.

The drawbacks are fairly minor, however. The game is fun, makes much more interesting use of the licence than its predecessor and has a great, pulpy storyline. More recent fans of the franchise may miss a whole host of Easter Eggs, but old-school Transformers fans will enjoy the tons of references to the many different incarnations of the franchise. If there is a major problem, it's that the game ends on a cliffhanger which is not likely to be resolved any time soon: the planned third game in the series has been turned into a tie-in with the upcoming new Michael Bay movie and won't resolve the story at all.

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (****½) is available now in the UK (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360) and USA (PC, PlayStation 3, X-Box 360).
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jul 21, 2014 3:06 PM BST

Community - Season 4 [DVD]
Community - Season 4 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Joel McHale
Price: £17.82

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars The weakest season, but not a complete waste of time, 29 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Community - Season 4 [DVD] (DVD)
Jeff Winger's time at Greendale Community College is coming to an end. Graduation, and a return to his former career as a hotshot lawyer, is now in sight. But standing in the way is a villainous English history teacher, his own (reluctantly growing) sense of community and events unfolding in another timeline altogether.

Every long-running series has its Attack of the Clones, Crossroads of Twilight or "Jack's tattoo episode" moment, when the creative engines misfire and things fall out of alignment. Characters don't gel like they used, lines are delivered with less conviction and everything just goes a bit wrong.

In the case of Community, this problem was inflicted on the show by the studio: creator and showrunner Dan Harmon was fired between Seasons 3 and 4 and the show had to struggle on without its primary creative force. Given that Community is a finely balanced mix of meta-commentary, comedy and character development and even Harmon couldn't get it right all of the time (see the uneven opening to Season 1 or the middle of Season 3), it's unsurprising that Season 4 is a bit of a mess.

The show remains entertaining, even though the moments of out-of-character behaviour and dialogue grate. The performances remain strong and there's some genius moments of casting, with Malcolm McDowell playing the hard history teacher and a reasonable turn by Matt Lucas as an Inspector Spacetime fan to rival Abed. There's also some nice follow-ups to earlier seasons, with the finale combining both the 'darkest timeline' storyline that began in early Season 3 and finding a way of bringing back the paintball game in a different way. Even Britta recovers from her Season 2/3 descent into ditziness and is a moderately more interesting character this year. There's also a clever episode - a puppet musical - which pokes fun at the whole idea of high-concept episodes and feels like it could have been made on Harmon's watch.

Unfortunately these high points only emphasise the lows: the over-reliance on the Dean and the now utterly-redundant Chang for cheap jokes, the mishandling of Abed and indeed the whole pop culture angle (often just referencing things rather than using them to highlight plot or character) and the total sidelining of Pierce until he basically just vanishes from the show altogether. The actors, directors and writers make a heroic effort to make up for Harmon's absence, but there is no disguising that the show is no longer operating on the same level. Fortunately, the studio saw sense and Harmon was reinstated for the fifth (and, for now, final) season, which has been much more positively received.

Community's fourth season (***) is certainly watchable, with its share of funny moments. It also does move the characters and storylines forward more successfully than I was expecting. However, there are too many moments which misfire, too many moments when characters say and do things that feel off and too many lazy references to previous, funnier episodes. There's some fun to be had from revisiting Greendale, but Harmon's absence is palpable. The season is available now in the UK and USA.

Batman: The Animated Series - Volume One [DVD]
Batman: The Animated Series - Volume One [DVD]
Dvd ~ Batman
Price: £6.10

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Terrific artwork, excellent writing and fantastic voice-acting, 18 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
In 1992 Warner Brothers Animation capitalised on the success of the Tim Burton Batman films with a new animated series which took its cue from those movies in terms of visual design. The result was one of the most acclaimed cartoon series of all time, Batman: The Animated Series. It ran for three years and spawned a number of spin-off films and sequel series, not to mention the entire DC Animated Universe.

The series was immensely successful for three key reasons. The first is its visual design, which moves away from the traditional primary colour aesthetic of cartoons to something much darker. This was achieved by painting light colours on black backgrounds rather than vice versa and setting most of the action at night. The art style also draws heavily from the Burton movies' mixture of art deco and retro design with modern technology. Stylistically, Batman may be one of the coolest and visually engaging series ever made.

The second key to success is the writing. Whilst the show occasionally fumbles with a fairly obvious cops 'n' robbers story or an episode more suited to the 1960s Batman series, for most of the time the writing is pretty smart. Whilst overt blood or scenes of death are avoided, the show also doesn't hold back on showing the psychological damage the characters have received and even manages to turn certain characters - Mr. Freeze most notably - into tragic figures. This extends to Batman himself, who suffers occasional bouts of trauma resulting from the murder of his parents. One episode imagines a fantasy world in which Bruce Wayne's parents lived and is appropriately tragic. The series also does a good job of hitting the right note of moral ambiguity, such as in Bruce Wayne's friendship with the doomed Harvey Dent and the depiction of Catwoman as both an ally and an enemy.

The third element of success is the voice acting. It's a remarkable feat given competition such as Jack Nicholson and Heath Ledger, but Mark Hamill's Joker is now widely considered definitive for his hitting of just the right note of demented insanity in his portrayal of the character. Kevin Conroy's Batman is also terrific, particularly his ability to adjust his performance so that Wayne and Batman have somewhat different voices and people don't recognise him immediately (an idea that carries on into the Nolan films and Christian Bale's performance). One-off guest stars are also excellent, with Adam West (who played Batman in the 1960s TV series) relishing a chance to give a serious performance as a childhood TV hero of Bruce Wayne's who helped inspire him to become Batman.

Episodes are fast-paced and engaging, action-packed enough to entertain children but with enough funny lines and smart moments of character-building to keep adults engaged. However, the show does suffer from a relaxed attitude to continuity. Aside from a few elements (Harvey Dent appearing several times before turning into Two-Face), the show doesn't have much of a developing story and characters appear and disappear randomly, particularly Robin. The show also mixes in-depth origin stories for some villains with others showing up and Batman apparently having known them for years.

The absence of heavy continuity means it's a lot easier to dip in and enjoy the show without having to pay too much attention to details, but it also means some of the much more complex character development of later animated series is missing.

Batman: The Animated Series is a highly watchable and enjoyable show with or without kids, with some beautiful artwork and terrific writing. The absence of more serialised storytelling means some storylines and characters are not fleshed out as much as might be wished, but overall this is an animated series that has aged very well and is worth checking out.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jun 29, 2014 12:34 PM BST

Alpha Protocol (PC)
Alpha Protocol (PC)
Offered by gameworld121
Price: £1.80

4.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, despite a premature release by Sega, 7 May 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Alpha Protocol (PC) (CD-ROM)
Mike Thorton is the newest recruit to Alpha Protocol, a clandestine American security organisation operating with maximum deniability. When an operation goes wrong and Thorton is targeted for assassination by shadowy forces operating within Alpha Protocol, he is forced to go undercover, expose a devastating international conspiracy and clear his name.

Alpha Protocol is a combat-focused, third-person RPG from Obsidian Entertainment, the developers of Fallout: New Vegas, Neverwinter Nights 2 and the recent South Park: The Stick of Truth. The game is more than slightly reminiscent of BioWare's Mass Effect franchise, with its reliance on cover-based combat and dialogue choices having a huge impact on how the game proceeds. Unlike the team-based mechanics of the Mass Effect trilogy, however, Alpha Protocol's hero Mike Thorton is a lone operator who has a wide array of stealth options to enhance his combat repertoire.

The game is structured around a series of missions in certain cities, including Rome, Moscow and Taipei. In each city Thorton has a home base where he can catch up on email, watch news reports (periodically updated to comment on the chaos caused by his latest operation) and buy new weapons and equipment. From each base he can rally out to do missions, which are sometimes nothing more than short cut scenes as Thorton tries to wheedle information out of someone else but are sometimes long and elaborate infiltration and combat operations. For each mission Thorton can attempt to achieve his objective through sneaking into locations without being seen, going in all guns blazing or attempt diplomacy (or some combination of the three). He also has the ability to hack security systems, remotely unlock doors or set traps. A levelling-and-skill system also gives Thorton a wide array of abilities he can upgrade to improve his chances of success.

The game is also heavily focused on characterisation. Thorton has a reputation with every character in the game, even enemies, and he can improve that reputation by saying the right things to them in dialogue. You can generally engage in conversations aggressively (inspired by Jack Bauer), suavely (inspired by James Bond) or professionally (inspired by Jason Bourne), with occasional extra options available if you have researched the right info about the character. Intelligence dossiers (bought through the black market or found on missions) hold clues as to how people will respond in certain situations, allowing you to manipulate them into helping you out. It's a clever system, enhanced by some satisfying dialogue (written by the mighty Chris Avellone) and some terrific, unexpected outcomes which radically change the way the story develops.

The game's reactivity is probably its best feature, with characters living or dying (sometimes taking entire storylines and occasional missions with them) based on your actions, or how you go about doing things. Alpha Protocol rewards replaying more than most games for this reason, with real consequences to your decisions.

Unfortunately, whilst the plot is excellent and the characterisation is strong, the actual gameplay is occasionally wonky. Infamously, the game was released by Sega in a highly unpolished state, as they had refused to give the game a full QA or testing pass after taking the initial build off Obsidian's hands. Minor bugs - clipping, jumpy camera controls, the physics engine occasionally going berserk - occasionally blight the game but are easily ignorable. More severe are problems with the game not reacting properly to your actions. For example, my usual approach to a mission was to attempt stealth but by around 50% of the way through each mission I'd given up on that and was resorting to gunplay. Yet my version of Thorton soon gained a reputation as a ghost, with other characters reacting to my ability to slip in and out of places undetected with awe. Considering I'd left a trail of blood, fire, chaos and bodies across most of Eurasia behind me, this didn't really make sense. There's also the fact that - especially on PC - the hacking minigame suffers from such poor and unresponsive controls that it's almost unusable.

Combat is reasonable, although pouring points into stealth soon makes you almost invulnerable, able to attack targets at will and hide almost in broad daylight. The stealth part of the game is fun but also made too easy by unconscious enemy bodies vanishing after a few seconds, meaning you don't have to worry about them being discovered. Instant takedowns (lethal or not) are also possible if you take the target by surprise. Played the right way, combat can be trivially easy. There's also periodic bossfights which, depending on the game's whim are either brutally hard or ridiculously straightforward: many areas have blindspots where the bosses can't see you, allowing you to shoot them with impunity.

Alpha Protocol does have a reputation for being heavily bugged, although I did not find this to be the case. Minor bugs abound, but on only two occasions was I forced to reload. Out of a 15-hour game, that's not too bad at all. It's a game clearly in need of a few more months of polishing, but it's still perfectly playable to completion.

Alpha Protocol (****) is a fun, clever, well-written and smart game hampered by minor-but-constant gameplay flaws and a few broken systems. The game is highly replayable and has some great ideas, but in many ways it feels like an early prototype of a style of game that would be achieved with considerably greater skill by Deus Ex: Human Revolution. Alpha Protocol is flawed and underrated gem that is definitely worth a second look.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: May 9, 2014 5:51 AM BST

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
The Ocean at the End of the Lane
by Neil Gaiman
Edition: Paperback
Price: £3.85

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Enjoyable, but slight and underwhelming, 6 May 2014
A middle-aged man returns to his home for a funeral, only to be drawn back into the long-forgotten events of his childhood, when he travelled through an ocean, visited another world and brought back something that did not want to leave.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is Neil Gaiman's first novel for adults for eight years. It started off as a novella and grew larger than he first intended, though at 250 pages it's still on the short side for a novel. This is a book that touches on a number of themes, such as nostalgia, memory (and how it is mutable) and how a child's perception differs from that of an adult's. The book also ties in with some of Gaiman's other work, bringing in the Hempstock family from Stardust and The Graveyard Book. This is a novel that operates primarily as a mood piece, evoking the feeling of a childhood idyll and then darkening it with a nightmarish intrusion from another place. It's a classic trope, taking the idea of childhood as a sacrosanct time of warmth, fun and protection and then violating it with a force of darkness and evil.

That said, it's a story that Gaiman seems to shy away from exploring fully. Our unnamed protagonist has a rather capable of group of allies in the form of the Hempstock family, who know everything that's going on and have a solution for every problem that arises. It's difficult to build tension when your main character has a group of powerful magic-users on speed dial (effectively) to call upon at every turn. The book's structure is also odd: the novel is short, but it's quite a long time before the evil force arrives and it departs some time before the end of the book. It's almost like Gaiman wanted to write a moody piece about childhood but then decided he needed some sort of existential threat to be introduced and defeated because, well, it's a fantasy novel.

It's all well-written, as you'd expect, and there's some very nice moments of humour, characterisation and even genre-bending (the Hempstock occasionally evoking atomic physics and dark matter to explain magical events). But it's also a slight novel, with an odd structure and some fairly straightforward plotting. Gaiman seems to have always struggled a little with plotting in his novels, oddly as it's something he does very well in his comic and TV work, and Ocean doesn't address that issue.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane (***½) is a readable, enjoyable and, ultimately, disposable book. It passes the time but does not lodge in the mind the way Sandman or Neverwhere did. So, the wait for the undisputed Gaiman masterpiece novel continues. Ocean at the End of the Lane is available now in the UK and USA.

Wild Cards (Wild Cards 1)
Wild Cards (Wild Cards 1)
by George R.R. Martin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb, without a weak story in the pack, 13 April 2014
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An alien species decides to use Earth to test a new bioweapon. An airborne criminal seizes the weapon and tries to use it to blackmail the city of New York. A former WWII flying ace tries to stop him. And, on 15 September 1946, the world is forever changed when the wild card virus is unleashed in the skies over Manhattan.

Ninety percent of those infected by the virus die instantly. A further nine percent develop crippling deformities or abnormalities, becoming known as 'jokers'. And one in a hundred of those infected develops a wondrous superpower. They become the 'aces'. As an alternative history of the 20th Century unfolds, the American government first tries to use the aces for their own ends and then, in a paranoid frenzy, turns against them, before they finally win some recognition for themselves. But for the jokers, forced to live in a ghetto in Manhattan, their road to recognition and respect will be much harder.

Wild Cards is the first book in the series of the same name, which of this time of writing spans twenty-one volumes with two more planned. This isn't a series of novels, but collections of stories written by many different authors. George R.R. Martin (of A Song of Ice and Fire fame) and Melinda Snodgrass provide editorial control, ensuring that each volume has its own narrative drive and point beyond just collecting random short stories together. The stories are set in their own milieu, with authors sharing ideas, using each other's characters and building up a consistent, coherent shared world.

The first Wild Cards book opens with a bang, with Howard Waldrop giving us the origin story for the entire setting in 'Thirty Minutes Over Broadway'. This is a terrific slice of fiction, with Waldrop fusing pulp energy with his own idiosyncratic style to give us something weird, resolutely entertaining and rather tragic in its own right. Roger Zelazny - yes, that one, the author of the Amber series and Lord of Light - then provides the origin story for Croyd Crenson, the Sleeper, one of the original aces whose powers shift every time he goes to sleep. Crenson's periods of hibernation provide a handy way of fast-forwarding through the immediate aftermath of the crisis, showing how New York, the USA and the world adapt to the arrival of the virus. Walter Jon Williams and Melinda Snodgrass then show us two sides of the same tale through 'Witness' and 'Degradation Rites', the story of the Four Aces and their betrayal by the American government. These opening four stories provide a quadruple-whammy of setting up this alternate history and doing so whilst telling stories that are well-written (superbly so in both Waldrop and Zelazny's cases, though the others are not far behind), finely characterised and as gut-wrenchingly unpredictable as anything in the editor's fantasy stories.

Later stories remain highly readable, though perhaps not quite on a par with this opening salvo. Martin's own 'Shell Games' is, perhaps unexpectedly, the most uplifting story in the book, the story of the bullied boy who becomes a superhero. Michael Cassut's 'Captain Cathode and the Secret Ace' and David Levine's 'Powers', two new additions for the 2010 edition of the book, are both decent, filling in gaps in the history. Lewis Shiner's 'Long Dark Night of Fortunato' introduces one of the setting's less salubrious characters and makes for effective, if uneasy, reading. Victor Milan's 'Transfigurations' shows how the anti-Vietnam rallies of the late 1960s and early 1970s are changed by the presence of the wild card virus (and gives us an ace-on-ace rumble that is particularly impressive). 'Down Deep' by Edward Bryant and Leanne Harper is probably the weirdest story in the collection (which in this collection is saying something), a moody trawl through the underbelly of New York (figurative and literal). It's probably a little bit too weird, with an ending that is risks being unintentionally comical, but is still reasonably effective.

Stephen Leigh's 'Strings' and Carrie Vaughn's 'Ghost Girl Takes Manhattan' (the latter being another new addition in this edition) return to the quality of the opening quartet. The former depicts the jokers' battle for civil rights, resulting in riots and chaos in Jokertown and New York that a shadowy figure is manipulating for his own ends. 'Ghost Girl' is a straight-up adventure with the titular character teaming up with Croyd Crenson to find her missing friend. 'Ghost Girl' could be a novel in its own right, with the battling criminal gangs and dodgy drug-taking rock bands providing a canvas that's almost too big for the story, but Vaughn's method of keeping the story under control and resolving it is most effective. Finally, John J. Miller's 'Comes a Hunter', in which a 'nat' sets out to avenge the death of his friend by going up against some criminal aces, is a superbly-written thriller which examines how 'normal' people can stand up against aces and jokers.

The book as a whole is excellent, with the stories entwining around real history and changing it in a way that is mostly organic and convincing. There are a few issues with plausibility here - most notably the way no-one seems particularly bothered about the proven existence of an alien race that has just tried to poison the entire planet - but for the most part the writers use the premise to tell stories about the changed history of the USA (from McCarthyism to civil rights to Vietnam) in an intelligent, passionate manner.

Wild Cards (*****) introduces the world, setting and many of its memorable characters through a series of well-written, smart stories. There isn't a weak card in the deck, and the best stories (those by Waldrop, Williams, Snodgrass and especially Zelazny) are up there with the best of their original work.

Labyrinth (Vorkosigan Saga Book 11)
Labyrinth (Vorkosigan Saga Book 11)
Price: £2.32

3.0 out of 5 stars Fun but slight., 31 Mar 2014
In his disguise as commander of the Dendarii mercenary fleet, Miles Vorkosigan is dispatched by Barrayaran intelligence to rendezvous with a defector on the anarchic world of Jackson's Whole. However, it isn't long before Miles is up to his neck in political intrigue between three feuding houses, with the defector, a mutant and a werewolf to worry about...

Labyrinth is a short novella featuring Lois McMaster Bujold's signature character of Miles Vorkosigan, once again up to his neck in trouble after a simple mission goes wrong (as they usually do). It's a fun little piece, featuring lots of Miles getting captured, smart-talking his way through interrogations and then escaping whilst throwing an entire world into turmoil but retaining deniability for Barrayar.

Whilst it's good, it's slight. There's some interesting stuff about genetic engineering, not to mention the first appearance in the Miles timeline of the quaddies, people who have had their legs replaced with arms to better cope with life in zero-gee. Between the quaddie, the werewolf (actually a genetically-altered super-soldier), the dwarf (Miles) and the hermaphrodite (recurring character Bel Thorne), the novella can be said to be about people who are outcast from some societies due to unthinking prejudice. Unfortunately, the novella's short length prevents Bujold from exploring any of the issues in any real great depth, especially as the fascinating sociological stuff is put on hold for most of the story as we instead follow Miles trying to break out of a prison.

That said, Labyrinth (***) is a fun read which cracks along fairly smartly and packs a fair amount of character development and action into a short page count. It's just a shame that Bujold didn't flesh the story out into a full novel, as it feels like the characters and issues being explored could have warranted it. Without that exploration, the novella ultimately feels too slight and disposable. The novella is available now in the UK and USA as part of the Miles, Mystery and Mayhem omnibus. Oddly, it is also reprinted in the Miles, Mutants and Microbes omnibus as well.

Words of Radiance: The Stormlight Archive Book Two
Words of Radiance: The Stormlight Archive Book Two
by Brandon Sanderson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.60

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Improved characterisation helps an overlong novel, 23 Mar 2014
Words of Radiance is the much-delayed second volume in The Stormlight Archive series (expected to last for ten volumes) and the sequel to 2010's The Way of Kings. Brandon Sanderson's work on this novel was delayed by his commitment to completing Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time sequence. With that accomplished, Sanderson is now free to focus on his own mega-epic and bring out future novels in a more timely fashion; the third Stormlight novel (working title: Unhallowed Stones) will likely follow before the end of 2015.

Like much of Sanderson's work, the novel balances traditional epic fantasy tropes with highly original and interesting worldbuilding, logically well-thought-out magic systems and hints of a much grander plan lying behind everything. Whilst only the second book of The Stormlight Archive, this is also the eighth novel set in his Cosmere universe (following on from Elantris, Warbreaker, the four Mistborn novels and of course The Way of Kings). Whilst previously the Cosmere links were fairly subtle and mostly of interest for Easter Egg hunters, in this series they are much more overt. Hoid (aka Wit), who only appeared in minor cameos in the other books, plays a much more important role here.

Words of Radiance is also big. At over 400,000 words, it's the longest epic fantasy novel published since George R.R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons, approaching 1,100 pages in hardcover (so yes, the UK paperback will be split for publication next year). It's an immense novel, not because an enormous amount happens but because Sanderson lets events unfold at a fairly relaxed pace. We only have four major POV characters (Shallan, Kaladin, Dalinar and Adolin) and a whole host of minor ones in remote parts of the world that we flit between. The minor POV chapters are highlights, with Sanderson crafting each one almost into a separate short story set in the midst of a grander tale. The story about the trader who has to make a bargain with a bunch of people who live on the back of a vast creature dwelling in the sea is effective, as is the story of a young burglar who turns out to be more than she appears. Whilst these stories are enjoyable, they also feel a little random sprinkled throughout the longer book, especially since their consequences may not be explored in full until the second half of the series.

The main narrative, unfortunately, is much slower. After we spent most of the first, 1,000-page volume on the Shattered Plains we then proceed to spend most of the second, even longer, volume in the same place. The first book had the advantage of introducing the location and its weird alien landscape, but by at least a quarter of the way through Words of Radiance the setting has lost a lot of is lustre. Fortunately, the end of the novel suggests that we have left behind the Plains and won't see them again, which is well past time. The interludes show that Roshar is a fascinating, well-designed and evocative location and getting to see more of it in future volumes rather than just one broken landscape will be a relief.

Whilst the story is slow to unfold, it does at least move things forward significantly. More Knights Radiant appear, we learn more about the world, its history and its cultures and there are some surprising and shocking deaths (although at least one of them turns out to be a disappointing fake-out). Readers of the other Cosmere books will also have a head start in working out what's going on, which is good for them but possibly a little unfair for more casual readers. Up until now - even arguably including The Way of Kings - the Cosmere stuff has been optional background only, with it not being necessary to read every book in the setting to enjoy the next one. Words of Radiance is the first time I felt like being familiar with the Cosmere was necessary to fully appreciate what the author was doing. This is made clear in no uncertain terms when the novel ends with an event which will won't make much sense unless you've also read Warbreaker.

On the character side of things, Sanderson is definitely improving novel to novel. Shallan, the least-developed character in the previous novel, takes centre stage here and becomes a much more rounded and interesting figure. Her forced humour and defensiveness, which was previously just annoying, is fleshed out a lot here as we get to know the reasons for it. Given it's not something he's known for, Sanderson successfully turns Shallan's story into an effective and unexpected tragedy. Adolin also graduates from 'heroic buffoon' to a slightly darker, more complex character (though not until quite late in the novel). Kaladin's unrelenting emoness continues unabated (despite his transformation into a fantasy version of Neo from The Matrix), but he's a much less dominant character this time around and he does lighten up as the book goes on, which is a relief. More problematic is the dialogue, which often feels clunky and sometimes incongruous. Roshar isn't Earth or even particularly reminiscent of any of our own time periods, but the use of modern language and terms ('awesomeness', 'upgrade') may be distracting for some readers.

Sanderson's signature magic systems are present and correct, though it's possible he's gone overboard in the Stormlight books. There are something like thirty magic systems on Roshar (even if they are variants on similar themes) and the relationships between Surgebinding, Lashing, Truthspeaking, the Old Magic and so forth are not very clearly defined. It also doesn't help that some of the magic systems of the other Cosmere worlds are also alluded to (one character is even a Misting from Scadrial, the setting of the Mistborn novels, though he barely appears). Whilst previously Sanderson has outline his magic systems with clarity, here it feels like he's been taking some lessons from Steven Erikson and just decided to drop the reader into a confusing maze which they have to work their own way out of.

Words of Radiance (****) is a good book beset by minor problems: dialogue issues, a languid pace and often irrelevant-feeling (though often individually fun) side-chapters. At the same time it features much-improved characters, superior worldbuilding and some impressive action set-pieces. I don't think Stormlight is ever going to be as era-defining an epic fantasy as The Wheel of Time, A Song of Ice and Fire and The Malazan Book of the Fallen are, with Sanderson sometimes definitely 'trying too hard' to match those stories for scale and scope and missing their strengths with character and plot, but it's still a readable and fun series. One thing I think Sanderson definitely needs to do with future volumes is make them smaller, trim the fat and give a more focused story each time. The novel is available now in the UK and USA.

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