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

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Cibola Burn: Book 4 of the Expanse
Cibola Burn: Book 4 of the Expanse
by James S. A. Corey
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars One of the stronger books in the series so far, 19 July 2016
An alien artifact has opened a wormhole nexus leading to a thousand different star systems, all of them containing at least one Earth-like world. A mass exodus, the greatest diaspora in human history, is threatening to take place but one group of Belter settlers have already staked a claim to a world they call Ilus, although the corporation granted UN settlement rights prefers to call it New Terra. As the settlers and corporate representatives resort to violence, it falls to Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante to mediate their dispute. This proves to be a lot easier said than done.

Cibola Burn is the fourth novel in The Expanse series by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey) and the first to take place outside the Solar system. The Expanse's big success in its opening novels was that it created a relatively restrained vision of the future, with humanity forced to employ slower-than-light travel between the worlds of the Solar system. After the events of Abaddon's Gate, the way to the stars has been thrown open, but it still takes months to get anywhere. For the colonists on Ilus and later the Rocinante crew, this puts them well out of the range of immediate help when things go disastrously wrong.

Each of the Expanse novels has taken a somewhat different tone, helped by Holden being the only continuing POV character, with the rest being exclusive to each novel. Cibola Burn feels like a Western (and more Deadwood than Gunsmoke), with the unruly settlers on the frontier being reeled back in by the mining company backed up by a reluctant sherrif with Indians and smallpox on the horizon. There's lots of hard moral questions and tough challenges posed by both the situation and the environment. This shift of tone is welcome and well-played as it allows a tighter focus on real, low-tech issues and solutions like the first (and still the best) novel in the series, Leviathan Wakes. The threat of the protomolecule, its creators and its even more enigmatic enemies does reassert itself towards the end of the book, along with a space-borne problem that feels a little too reminiscent of Abaddon's Gate, but it definitely takes a back seat for the most of the book.

The focus is on three new characters: a Belter settler named Basia, who is reluctantly drawn into becoming a terrorist; a security officer called Havelock on the orbiting corporation ship and a scientist named Elvi who just wants to be left alone so she can get on with cataloguing the planet's crazy flora and fauna. These are all well-crafted characters, if not particularly original. Havelock, as the company man who suddenly realises his corporate masters are useless, is an archetype that is looking dangerously overused at this point in the series. Other characters are less well-defined, and main villain Murtry is as cliched and uninteresting as they come: a rigid, dogmatic man unable to adapt to changing circumstances unless it involves shooting things. I get the impression that Abraham and Frank wanted to create a morally murky situation with sympathetic POVs on both sides, but Murtry's outright villainy soon means that the corporate side loses all sympathy and interest.

For a novel almost 600 pages long (in hardcover!) the pages fly past briskly and there's an interesting move away from the gunfights and set piece explosions of the previous novels. There's still a zero-G battle or three, but the writers dial back the more obvious shooting in favour of evoking the occasional SF sensawunda that represents the genre at its best. The social commentary on us bringing our baggage to the stars is well-handled, if a little obvious, and events run enjoyably up to a climax that hints at bigger things to come.

Cibola Burn (****) is the best book in the series since Leviathan Wakes, restoring focus and verve to a series that felt like it was becoming predictable. It'll be interesting to see how they adapt this book to the screen in later seasons of The Expanse, however. Although the producers will likely enjoy the far smaller scale (and hence budget) of things, I can't see viewers being too interested in taking a season off from the rest of the Solar system to see Holden and his crew dealing with frontier settler problems. But as a novel, it workers very well. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

The Expanse: Season 1 [Blu-ray]
The Expanse: Season 1 [Blu-ray]
Price: 29.22

4.0 out of 5 stars The best space opera for years, 17 July 2016
Two centuries from now, humanity has spread across the Solar system. Mars is independent, its population working together to terraform the planet and building a high-technology society whose capabilities are beginning to outstrip those of Earth. A tense cold war between the two is building with the miners and ice haulers of the asteroid belt caught in the middle.

When a rich heiress goes missing and an ice hauler is destroyed near Saturn, tensions between Earth and Mars threaten to spill over into war. It falls to the survivors of the ice hauler and a determined cop on Ceres to expose the truth: that all of the factions are being manipulated by forces unknown for a much more mysterious, and deadly, reason.

Space operas have been a bit thin on the ground since Battlestar Galactica and Stargate: Universe both ended half a decade ago. Since then TV SF has largely restrained itself to near-future techno-thrillers like Fringe and Person of Interest. However, SyFy is now leading the fight back. It has launched two new space opera shows, Dark Matter and Killjoys, but these are relatively low-budget affairs. The Expanse is different. It's a big-budget, flagship, tentpole show designed firmly to recapture the BSG audience with its take on politics, war and human nature. It's also based on a popular series of novels by Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck (writing as James S.A. Corey), which should minimise concerns about the writers and producers not having "a plan" for future episodes and seasons (a key criticism of BSG).

This is a tense and at times claustrophobic show, with our protagonists spending most of their time in tunnels inside asteroid colonies or in spacecraft. The only time we get a feeling of air and freedom is when the series cuts away to events on Earth, where UN Deputy Undersecretary Chrisjen Avasarala (Shohreh Aghdashloo) is investigating the events in space from the homeworld and using her canny political skills to work out how both Earth and Mars are being manipulated. This use of physical space cleverly ties into the sociological themes of the show, that the people in the belt are living in uncomfortable and unpleasant conditions for the betterment of people hundreds of millions of miles away who don't care about them whilst living off the benefits of their work.

The main cast consists of several intersecting groups of characters. The largest, and the group we spend the most time, with are crewmembers from the Canterbury who survive the opening episode: Jim Holden (Steven Strait), Alex Kamal (Cas Anvar), Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham). This core cast is a little different from the books: Holden is slightly younger, Alex is more of a family man and Amos is both younger and shorter than their book counterparts. However, in each case the changes work well. In particular, Amos in the books is big and beefy and loyal to a fault, but still has a coldly utilitarian attitude to violence which disturbs his shipmates. Despite his shorter stature, Chatham sells the same thousand-yard stare and air of barely-controlled danger simply through attitude and confidence, and inhabits the character completely convincingly (although he also has a moderately distracting resemblance to BSG's Aaron Douglas). Naomi walks pretty much straight off the page. Thomas Jane also does outstanding work as Joe Miller, the hardbitten noir cop who is so much of a cliche that even he and his bosses remark on it. But Jane's nuanced performance brings out Miller's humanity and his search for something good to live for in the world. The Walking Dead and The Wire's Chad Coleman also has a small but pivotal role as Fred Johnson, a different kind of role for the actor (an administrator and general) which he pulls off skillfully.

The casting is excellent throughout, even where they differ from the character descriptions in the books, and clearly the show has put a lot of thought into bringing out the belter patois as well as mentioning how those born in low gravity tend to be thinner and taller than those born on Earth. The show also makes concessions to the low-gravity environments of places like Ceres and Eros, by showing birds half-floating through the air, only having to flap their wings every now and then, or by having liquids move slowly through the air when being poured. However, the people themselves tend to move around pretty normally, as if they're in 1G. This is a decent compromise between showing the scientific reality of low-gravity environments without them having to spend 90% of the show pretending to walk through syrup. There is also no artificial gravity, so unless they're under thrust the ships also feature zero-gravity environments which are pulled off quite impressively.

The production values are stunning, with large, expansive and expensive-looking sets and some quite incredible CGI in places. The spacecraft are chunky and primitive compared to those in other space operas, with no FTL travel meaning that the action is restricted to the Solar system and it takes days or weeks to get anywhere even with their highly fuel-efficient Epstein drives. The Expanse has had a lot of money spent on it (it's apparently SyFy's most expensive-ever production) and most of it is firmly on screen. There is also a wonderful theme tune and fantastic opening credits, although these are only seen in full in the first and last episodes (the remainder just having a title card).

With great production values, amazing CGI, fantastic actors and some brilliantly-handled scenes, the show should be slam dunk. Unfortunately it's held back by several flaws. The first of these is pacing. The first season is based on Leviathan Wakes, the first novel of a planned nine in the novel series. However, it doesn't cover all of the novel and finishes about two-thirds of the way through the book. This has several issues. We can assume that they are not planning 13-18 seasons, so the structural implications of cutting off the plot are not necessarily an issue (especially as the next two books are quite focused around Holden and company, the TV series can use the Earthbound plot to open things up and use the remains of the much more plot-dense Leviathan Wakes to open the second season). However, what is an issue is the effect is has on pacing. The show moves fairly slowly for the first six or seven episodes, then the last three are fairly jam-packed with incident. Early reviews show that many viewers, in particular those unfamiliar with the novels, have found these early episodes a bit of a slog and turned off in droves; the show lost more than half of its audience over its run. Fortunately, SyFy have taken on board the very healthy online viewing figures and renewed the show for a second season regardless. But it's certainly a concern that the first episodes are a little too obsessed with worldbuilding and scene-setting over action. Another issue, although understandable from a budget standpoint, is that the show a little too obviously shares its asteroid sets between Ceres and Eros, which could also be confusing to some viewers.

What we get instead is a lot of fine characterisation, which space operas usually don't prioritise. But here we get quite a lot of building up of the characters, their motivations and what makes them tick. For those who enjoy character-building, the slower-paced opening episodes are excellent. For those who prefer to have the characterisation established through the plot and action, The Expanse's writing and structural choices may be initially challenging.

The first season of The Expanse (****) is the finest season of space opera to air since the second season of Battlestar Galactica, a full decade ago. It's well-written and finely-acted with excellent production values, effects and its own, unique atmosphere. The pacing is a little off and the first season doesn't so much climax as end (well short of the book's own much bigger and more climactic finale), but overall this is both an enjoyable season of SF and also a rare example of the TV show being better than the book.

Cold Fire: Spiritwalker: Book Two
Cold Fire: Spiritwalker: Book Two
by Kate Elliott
Edition: Paperback
Price: 8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Like its forebear, 17 July 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Turmoil is brewing in Europa. The legendary general Camjiata has escaped from prison and is now building up an army-in-exile. Cat and her cousin Bee are still pawns in the plans of the rich and powerful, but Cat's otherworldly sire also has plans for her. For her part, Cat just wants to escape these machinations and forge her own path. Events bring her to the Antilles, the home of the Taino Kingdom and the Europan colony of Expedition. There she meets the powerful fire mages and becomes embroiled in yet more intrigue and magic, as her father prepares to use her to draw a powerful soul into his grasp.

Cold Fire is the middle volume of Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker Trilogy, which picks up shortly after the events of Cold Magic. Like its forebear, this is a well-characterised novel which eschews the normal conventions both of the epic fantasy and steampunk genres (whilst borrowing from both). There are elements in this book of the Victorian comedy-of-manners (and occasional, intriguing echoes of the likes of Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) and Celtic mythology, as well as the northern European legend of the Wild Hunt.

Elliott's masterstroke here is moving the story to the Caribbean where a whole swathe of other influences come into play, especially the culture and nature of the Taino people. This gives the book a very different atmosphere, especially the much warmer climate which moves us away from the Ice Age-afflicted Europa of the previous novel.

The clash of cultures, with Expedition and the Taino Kingdom presented as in some respects more egalitarian and liberal in matters of the power of women and sexual freedom but still ruled at the whim of an unelected elite, gives the novel a source of tension and debate. However, these tensions are not explored in depth, as the book devotes a lot of time to Cat and Andevai's relationship. Given that the first novel established the situation - them marrying against their will, initially disliking each other but eventually falling in love - this second book does feel like it retreads a lot of the same ground. For a novel almost six hundred pages in paperback, it also feels like not a lot of ground is covered: the opening chapters are interesting and the grand finale is excellent, but the middle third or so of the novel indulges itself in elements which feel a little too soap-operaish.

In some respects this is a typical middle book-of-a-trilogy syndrome, with the pace faltering as the story switches from an introductory to a concluding mode. But Elliott is a fine enough writer - one of the best in modern fantasy - that she overcomes these issues and delivers a cracking finale in which all of the carefully-set-up elements come into play and sets the scene for the final novel in the series, Cold Steel.

Cold Fire (***) is an interesting and original epic fantasy novel which does things rather differently from the norm for the genre and is all the stronger for it. However, the pacing feels sluggish at times before returning to form in an excellent ending.

The Wolf in the Attic
The Wolf in the Attic
by Paul Kearney
Edition: Paperback
Price: 7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A compelling and rich novel from one of SFF's most underrated voices, 26 May 2016
This review is from: The Wolf in the Attic (Paperback)
Oxford, 1929. The Great Depression is looming. Anna Francis is a Greek refugee, one of many forced to flee the fighting between Turkey and Greece in the aftermath of the First World War. She lives with her father, who continues to campaign on behalf of his countrymen. Whilst Anna's father hosts meetings and writes to politicians, Anna explores Oxford and the surrounding countryside. One night she sees something in the fields that she wasn't supposed to, irrevocably changing her and the course of her life.

Paul Kearney is, very easily, the most underread author in modern fantasy. He has written epic fantasy with vast armies clashing, heroic fantasy about the tribulations of a flawed hero and several "slipstream" stories about people who cross from one world to another. He has also written a personal novel about the real world's intersection with the fantastic. He's even written a Warhammer 40,000 novel about Space Marines (although that's currently on hold due to legal issues). Kearney has an ability to switch gears and voices to tell many different kinds of story that is highly enviable.

The Wolf in the Attic represents another such gear shift. This is a story about a young woman coming of age in a country that treats her like a foreigner, despite her fluency in the language and her father's attempts to integrate. The notion of being a refugee and trying to find a home after your own is destroyed is a powerful one, and Kearney tells this part of the story extremely well. There is also an impressive mastery of POV and characterisation: Anna idolises her father whilst also being honest about his flaws, but even so the reader may pick up on things about him that Anna herself does not (or is in denial about).

These musings on identity, home and growth sit alongside a couple of scene-stealing cameos from C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. Lewis and Tolkien had met and become friends in the mid-1920s and would remain in contact for the rest of their life. They appear very briefly, but Kearney has clearly done his research about the two men, their characters and the times they lived in.

So richly and vividly drawn is 1929 Oxford that the reader may even forget they're reading a fantasy novel until the supernatural enters the fray. First slowly and then with a growing presence, Kearney presents a sort of magical shadow world intersecting with our own, with people and factions represented as one thing in our world but having another role in the other. A mid-novel twist brings the supernatural element much more to the fore and this transition is successful as the book becomes more of a quest or road trip that takes Anna from her comfortable life into something more mystical and primeval.

Kearney has always had an excellent grasp of character and no-nonsense writing, but his writing skills in this book reach new heights with easily the most accomplished prose of his career to date. He handles the transition from the earlier, more grounded chapters to the later, more fantastical ones very well and he makes Anna a compelling protagonist, young but not foolish, inexperienced but not naive. If there is a weakness it might be that some secondary characters are not developed as strongly (Luca most notably) but in a first-person narrative that may be expected.

Overall, The Wolf in the Attic is an unusual book. It has YA hallmarks but isn't really YA. It has elements of fantasy and mythology and history but is more than the some of those parts. The movement between realistic childhood issues and fantasy reminded me somewhat of Neil Gaiman's The Ocean at the End of the Lane, but The Wolf in the Attic is an effortlessly superior novel which has more to say.

The year may only be half over, but The Wolf in the Attic (*****) makes a bold claim to be the best SFF novel released this year (contested, at least so far, only by Guy Gavriel Kay's Children of Earth and Sky). It is a rich and unputdownable read and increases its already-talented author's range and capabilities even further.

The Shannara Chronicles : Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2016]
The Shannara Chronicles : Season 1 [Blu-ray] [2016]
Dvd ~ Poppy Drayton
Price: 21.99

5 of 10 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Stunning visuals cannot make up for a poor script, 4 May 2016
The Four Lands is threatened with a devastating invasion from demons. Millennia ago, the demons were imprisoned in the Forbidding, an alternative dimension warded shut by the Ellcrys, a giant magical tree. Now the Ellcrys is dying and the Forbidding is failing, allowing the demons to return. It falls to Wil Ohmsford (the half-elven descendant of the Shannara bloodline), Princess Amberle Elessedil and Eretria, a rover girl, to travel across the Four Lands and restore the Ellcrys and the Forbidding.

Terry Brooks's Shannara series holds an important place in the history of epic fantasy. The first novel in the sequence, The Sword of Shannara (1977), was the first big epic fantasy novel to hit the New York Times bestseller list since Tolkien, and along with Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series ushered in the modern era of fantasy novels. However, The Sword of Shannara has also become a byword for poor-quality fantasy that knocks off Tolkien rather than furthering the development of the genre. Given that the Shannara series (now encompassing twenty-eight novels) has sold almost fifty million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest-selling fantasy series of all time (only A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, Discworld, Narnia, Middle-earth and Harry Potter - if you count it as epic fantasy - have sold more), it's surprising that it's taken this long for someone to attempt an adaptation.

MTV, sensibly, have ignored the first book in the series (presumably for fear of legal action from New Line) and have instead picked up with the events of the second, The Elfstones of Shannara. These early books in the series were stand-alones, so it's not too much of a problem. It was also a good idea to start with Elfstones as it is possibly the best book Brooks has ever written. MTV also made the very wise choice to emphasise the fact that the Shannara books are set in a post-apocalyptic version of the United States's west coast. Unlike the books, where geography has completely shifted and only vaguely recognisable remnants of the prior age can be seen, the TV show is partially set in the still-recognisable ruins of Seattle and San Francisco and at times adopts a post-apocalyptic vibe far more reminiscent of The 100 rather than Game of Thrones.

These attempts to give The Shannara Chronicles its own character and atmosphere are both laudable and ultimately futile. No design work, exceptional CGI or occasionally inventive genre-bending can make up for serious deficiencies in the script and casting, and the show suffers from both. Dialogue is frequently awful and occasionally reduces the viewer to tears of laughter. Characterisation is deeply flawed, with characters goals and motivations being artificially obvious and change at the whim of the plot. A lot of time is spent on subplots that go nowhere, and there is significant wheel-spinning (a visit to a town called Utopia is total padding). There is also a lot more sex and violence (if mostly of a PG-13 kind) than I remember from the book (including a tiresome lesbian titillation scene) and a few "shock" twists that serve no purpose. The villains are charismaless, boring monsters who are more than slightly reminiscent of the orcs from Peter Jackson's Middle-earth movies.

Among the major actors, John Rhys-Davies brings his standard avuncular charm to the role of the elven king but it falls to the charismatic Manu Bennett to single-handedly raise the acting bar for the whole cast. Ivana Baquero builds on the early promise she showed as a child star in Pan's Labyrinth to deliver a good performance as Eretria, ploughing through terrible lines with admirable enthusiasm. Poppy Drayton overcomes early episode woodenness to deliver some better moments as Amberle, but both actresses feel a little wasted on the material. Austin Butler, on the other hand, delivers a flat, one-note performance as Will that never rises above the mediocre. Of the other actors the only one who really stands out is James Remar, a veteran American actor who can chew scenery with the best of them and makes the best of a bad script.

Visually, the show is stunning. Some of the scene-setting CGI is remarkable and the use of the New Zealand landscape is often very well-done. Certainly the show is worth catching in HD if you do plan to watch it. Unfortunately the same cannot be said for the music, which draws on a range of MOR American pop with the occasional more interesting track thrown in (Ruele's title song is, fortunately, very good and props to the show for dropping in Woodkid's excellent "Run Boy Run"). But those looking for an original, sweeping, epic score will be let down badly.

The first season of The Shannara Chronicles (**) isn't a complete waste of time. It's visually impressive and cleverly overcomes both the limitations of the so-so soure material and the inevitable comparisons with other fantasy works by playing to its main strength, the post-apocalyptic setting. But in terms of writing, dialogue, acting (a few honourable exceptions aside) and soundtrack, it's a major disappointment. It has, somehow, been renewed for a second season to air in 2017.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The Complete Season One [Blu-ray] [2009]
Star Wars: The Clone Wars - The Complete Season One [Blu-ray] [2009]
Dvd ~ Various
Offered by HarriBella.UK.Ltd
Price: 13.52

4.0 out of 5 stars Pulp SF fun, 3 May 2016
The Galactic Republic and the Confederacy of Independent Systems are at war. From one end of the galaxy to another, vast armies of clones (fighting for the Republic) and battle droids (fighting for the Confederacy) fight for control of key systems. The Jedi Knights play an important role in the war, moving from flashpoint to flashpoint as they try to bring about the enemy's defeat...unaware that they are being manipulated from behind the scenes by the Sith.

The Clone Wars is an animated, five-season TV series which fills in the three-year narrative gap between the Star Wars films Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. The Clone Wars have been a source for great speculation and discussion for fans since their fleeting mention in the original movies, and fans were disappointed that the movies only depicted the very beginnings and very end of the conflict. It falls to this CG show to fill in the bit in the middle. However, it's surprising how many Star Wars fans have avoided the series, possibly due to the prequel trilogy being a less-than-compelling series of films.

The Clone Wars actually works very well, and the first season by itself is far more entertaining than the entire prequel trilogy. One reason for this is that it taps into George Lucas's original vision for Star Wars, as an updated and more impressive version of the 1930s Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers movie serials starring Buster Crabbe. Like those old serials, The Clone Wars is a series of punchy, short episodes. Unlike those serials, The Clone Wars is not one big story. Instead, it mixes up stand-alone adventures with longer arcs and moves backwards and forwards in the chronology of the wars. This can be confusing. Several times I thought I'd missed an intervening episode, but the short run-time of the episodes (20 minutes or so each) requires them to move some scene-setting material into an opening flashback sequence, which is also used as a "Story So Far" device on multi-part stories. Just to add to the potential confusion, some stories in Season 1 are revisited in the third season and later.

You can mostly ignore this. In fact, the choppiness of the series does make it feel like a real war story, almost like a series of WWII news reports that flit from Stalingrad to the Pacific to North Africa in rapid succession. This feeling is helped by the show's willingness to change casts on the fly. Although Obi-Wan Kenobia, Anakin Skywalker and Ashoka Tano (Anakin's own padawan apprentice) appear in many of the episodes, the series is happy to switch to a story focusing on another hitherto under-represented Jedi character or on a bunch of ordinary clones trying to defend an outpost with no reinforcements. The series also moves through a strong variety of locations, from familiar places like Naboo and Kamino to completely new worlds to places mentioned before but not seen (like Ryloth and Rodia). In short, The Clone Wars has the entire Star Wars universe to play in and goes wild with it.

The result is a fun romp which, at its best, is pure pulp SF fun: dastardly robots, colourful villains and heroic Jedi clashing in often visually-stunning set pieces (and space battles far better-choreographed than the hideous messes in the prequel movies). But where The Clone Wars really wins points is how effectively it handles characterisation - especially Anakin's growing frustration and willingness to bend the rules, which is depicted with much greater subtlety than the films - and tonal changes. Some stories are surprisingly grim, like a detachment of clone troopers gradually being whittled down whilst defending an outpost to the last man, or the battle for the Twi'lek homeworld of Ryloth showing the shattered cities and destroyed lives of the civilians caught in the crossfire. The Clone Wars is a fun romp, but that doesn't mean it lacks depth or intelligence.

This first season is mostly a success, although early episodes feel a little hamstrung by limited art assets and budgetary issues. These mostly vanish by the end of the season, especially the gripping three-part story which depicts the liberation of Ryloth by first focusing on Anakin leading the space battle, Obi-Wan on the initial ground assault and then on Mace Windu leading the urban assault on the plentary capital. The quality of the stories is quite high, though a couple of Jar-Jar centric episodes are slightly tiresome. The episodes are also definitely aimed at children, but there are many nods to adult fans as well, and the series does not pull away from the harsher aspects of warfare (it's unusual for the good guys not to take casualties during their adventures, and the moral cost of the violence is always highlighted).

Season 1 of The Clone Wars (****) is available now as part of the Complete Season 1-5 box set (UK, USA). Note that the 2008 Clone Wars movie, which effectiely sets up the series (and the Season 1 finale is a sequel to it), is not part of this collection and needs to be purchased separately.

Cold Magic: Spiritwalker: Book One
Cold Magic: Spiritwalker: Book One
by Kate Elliott
Edition: Paperback
Price: 9.99

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An icepunk adventure set in a remarkable alternative history, 30 April 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The nations of Europa are struggling with threats from within and without. Vast ice sheets cover the north of the world and everyday survival can be a challenge. Technology is advancing, with the invention of airships and firearms, but the Mage Houses despise these developments and actively fight them. A would-be emperor, Camjiata, has been defeated but political turmoil has been left in his wake.

Cat Barahal, a young orphan growing up in the city of Adurnam with her aunt, uncle and cousin, is about to reach her majority when she discovers that a pact was made when she was younger. This pact means she must marry one of the feared Cold Mages. As she reluctantly goes along with this arrangement, she discovers secrets about her past, her family and her culture, and what this means for the future of Europa as a whole.

Kate Elliott has consistently been one of the most interesting fantasy authors working over the last twenty years. Her seven-volume Crown of Stars series, set in an alternate history version of Europe, was fascinating, well-characterised and offered fascinating commentary on religion and society. The Crossroads trilogy was much more complex and original, whilst also being tighter, and featured similar musings on both the individual and the larger scale of cultures and ideologies clashing across a continent, not to mention featuring one hell of a twist ending. Cold Magic is the opening volume of the Spiritwalker Trilogy and does some similar things but also brings some new ideas to the table.

The setting is vivid and fascinating, a steampunk/icepunk Europe where the sea levels never rose after the last Ice Age (because the Ice Age is still going on). Much of this book actually takes place in lands that were destroyed by floods tens of thousands of years ago, forming the English Channel. There is lots of detail on how people survive in a land where even the hottest summer days can still be chilly, most of it done organically. There's also a rich, unusual but convincing cultural backdrop, particularly the idea that the Mali Empire (one of the wealthiest in history before European colonisation) has been overrun by a plague, sending its incredibly wealthy upper classes to become refugees in Europa where they join forces with the Celts. But if Elliott is one of the best worldbuilders working in epic fantasy, she is also one of the best handlers of character. Cat, our central character, is a strong and confident woman but whose outer confidence and mastery of etiquette hides inner doubts, especially given her lack of knowledge about her parents and real family backstory. A major subplot of the novel is Cat piecing together her history from documents and accounts of the fate that befell her parents, rolling the story back even as it moves forward. Andevai, the Cold Mage that Cat is forced to marry, is painted in similar depths. Initially he appears unrelatable, remote, arrogant and selfish, but considerably more interesting nuances about him emerge as the story unfolds.

Cold Magic's greatest success is how it handles a striking tonal shift. The opening chapters are fairly grounded. Magic exists, but it is not prevalent and the world is dominated more by industry and the move to a steampunk(ish) existence. Then, about a third of the way into the book, Elliott hits the "Let's weird this stuff up" button and we have an explosion of otherworldly creatures, dalliances into the spirit world, animal spirits taking human form, dinosaur lawyers and prophetic dreams. Elliott foreshadows this quite nicely in the opening chapters so the shift is not jarring. There's also moments when the characters become aware of the existence of other worlds (possibly other timelines) and the world seems to teeter on the brink of fragility, recalling (if briefly) the malleable realities of Mary Gentle's Ash: A Secret History.

Cold Magic (****) is an imaginative, well-written and different kind of epic fantasy. There are some complaints possible about pacing (not a colossal amount happens in its 500 pages) but the slower pace actually allows the reader to take in the vividly-drawn setting and atmosphere more completely. Those looking for a pedal-to-the-metal action novel may want to look elsewhere, but for those who like imagination and immersion in their fantasy, Cold Magic is a very good read.

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

4.0 out of 5 stars A strange, strong and uplifting book about mortality, 31 Mar. 2016
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Kibou-daini is an obscure planet in a remote corner of the wormhole nexus, but one with a specialisation in cryogenic freezing and revival as a means of cheating death. With the planet planning to expand to Komarr, the Barrayaran Empire decides to take a closer look. This means sending in Imperial Auditor Miles Vorkosigan. Unfortunately things go wrong almost as soon as Miles arrives. Left lost and injured in a maze of cryo-tombs that extends for kilometres, Miles needs to call upon every ounce of his resourcefulness to survive.

Cryoburn is the most recent Vorkosigan Saga novel to focus on the series' erstwhile central figure of Miles Vorkosigan. The two more recent books (Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, published later although set earlier than Cryoburn, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen) have focused on other characters with Miles playing a much-reduced role. So this is the last ride, maybe for a while, we get to have with Miles encountering a problem and sorting it out in his own, inimitable style.

Cryoburn is satisfying on that level, but it also sees Bujold flexing her writing skills. A lot of the book is told from the point-of-view of an 11-year-old boy, Jin, whom Miles encounters on his travels. Given the labyrinth plotting, conspiracies and feints of the average Vorkosigan book, having it filtered through the understanding of a child is challenging but Bujold pulls it off to deliver something fresh, giving us a new perspective on Miles and his world (and makes me think that a YA-focused Vorkosigan novel could actually be a very interesting read). However, the book also give us something more evolutionary and adult as well. This book is set seven years after Miles's previous adventure in Diplomatic Immunity and he is now approaching forty. He has matured a lot in that time, becoming a father several times over and is now less manic, less prone to blundering straight into situations and is more thoughtful and analytical. This is all relative to his former self, of course, and he remains the same character, but an older, more seasoned and more wary one.

Indeed, Cryoburn feels like a musing on the passing of generations, with Jin representing a new generation of children growing up in a more peaceful period of nexus history and Miles spending chunks of the book analysing his father's and grandfather's lives and what they went through. The book's musings on death, mortality and legacy also feed into this, but Bujold expertly avoids making this a maudlin or depressing book. Quite the reverse, the notion of mortality and the precious commodities of life and time are joyously celebrated...right up to the final, startling moments of the novel, which may rank among Bujold's finest-ever pieces of writing.

Cryoburn, an upbeat and uplifting book about death, is one of the stranger but stronger books in the series (****). It is available now in the UK and USA.

War & Peace [Blu-ray] [2015]
War & Peace [Blu-ray] [2015]
Dvd ~ Paul Dano
Price: 13.88

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A clever and concise adaptation of the novel, 27 Mar. 2016
War and Peace is one of the greatest novels of all time, a rich and stunning evocation not just of its title themes but also of love, family, duty, economics, politics and patriotism. On publication its vast-ranging story and topics confounded and dumbfounded critics. In the 20th and 21st centuries, the novel's startling length and breadth has likewise stymied countless scriptwriters and would-be adaptations. Although the book has been filmed for the cinema and the television at least eight times, compromises have always had to have been made for expense (the Battle of Borodino, the bloodiest battle of the Napoleonic Wars, plays an important, central and budget-annihilating role), length (at 590,000 words the novel significantly outlengths even The Lord of the Rings) and, well, boredom (the book features massive and digressive essays by Tolstoy about numerous facets of Russian society).

The BBC's latest tilt at Tolstoy's windmill is lavish, with massive, CG-enhanced battle scenes and huge party and ballroom scenes. Crucially, the series was able to film scenes in Russia, Latvia and Lithuania where some of the real events took place to add some authenticity. However, this is compromised by brevity: the BBC adaptation clocks in at just six episodes and approximately six-and-a-half hours of screen time. Excellent for those whose patience is in short supply, but dubious for those hoping for a faithful recreation of the book.

Against the odds, the result is a highly watchable drama series. Andrew Davies is one of the BBC's oldest, most reliable and steadiest hands at adapting massive 19th Century novels for the screen and he came to War and Peace fresh, not having previously read it. This may cause howls of outrage from some quarters, but Davies' lack of previous experience with the book works in his favour in this case, as it allows more ruthless but practical paring back of the book's colossal cast (the novel has over 500 named characters) and subplots to focus on the book's core.

At its heart, War and Peace is not really about the war or the peace, but about family. The three central figures of Pierre (Paul Dano), Natasha (Lily James) and Andrei (James Norton) have their own struggles as they try to satisfy their families and their hearts, making compromises or decisions for the greater good that they later come to regret. One of the reasons the book has endured is that it is possible for anyone from any time or place to empathise with this central trio's life problems, such as feeling trapped by society into a role or job for which they are ill-suited, or trying to help their family survive a period of financial hardship. Both Davies' lean and economical script and the excellent performances from the central trio keep these elements intact on the screen. Dano, in particular, gets across Pierre's frustration and befuddlement across without it dipping into annoyance. Careers have been made on getting Pierre right (a role played by a very young Anthony Hopkins in the 1970s BBC mini-series) and Dano pulls it off well.

Where the show falters is its handling of the over-arcing political storyline. The novel features an early meeting between the Tsar and the Emperor which sets the tone for how the French and Russians relate to each other subsequently (later mirrored in a scene where Pierre - reluctantly - plays host for a French officer during the occupation of Moscow). However, the TV series dispenses with this scene, gives the Tsar only a couple of very brief scenes but then has Napoleon showing up to mutter pithy statements every now and then. It feels like either the entire high political/military story should have been ejected (save perhaps Boris Drubetskoy coming face-to-face with Napoleon briefly) or the TV series should have embraced the book conceit of featuring the historical figures more prominently. As it stands, Napoleon's invasion of Russia comes out of nowhere for the less historically astute viewer. Another slightly awkward element is the substitution of English for Russian (French stays in French), which becomes a bit bizarre when Russian songs are then sung in Russian.

More laudably, as it's an element that is easy to eject from the story, Davies tries to get to grips with Tolstoy's musings on serfdom and the betterment of the people. Tolstoy himself spent a lot of time trying to improve the lot of the serfs and peasants on his estate and Pierre can be seen as something of an author-insertion character in this sense. Although it's not a major storyline, it does provide two of the best moments of the series: Pierre stacking a couple of bundles of wood and then sitting down to enjoy the sun, apparently believing he is now a hard-working outdoorsman; and Pierre as a prisoner bonding with a poor peasant-soldier and his dog on the devastating retreat from Moscow.

Ultimately, the BBC adaptation of War and Peace (****) cannot hope to match the power and scope of the novel. But it does provide six and a half hours of watchable drama, well-played and with the core themes and storylines of the book kept intact.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: 6.50

4.0 out of 5 stars his path crosses of that of two fugitives from a coup on Jackson's Whole and his attempts to help only make things worse.., 6 Mar. 2016
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Ivan Vorpatril is one of Barrayar's most eligible bachelors and notorious rakes, but now in his mid-thirties he is finding his life of chasing women and partying is no longer as satisfying as it once was. On assignment to Komarr, his path crosses of that of two fugitives from a coup on Jackson's Whole and his attempts to help only make things worse...and change his life forever.

The most interesting thing about the Vorkosigan Saga has been Lois McMaster Bujold's willingness to experiment, switch protagonists and POVs and generally not sit still and bash out a load of action-adventure novels. Her willingness to put the series on hold for years at a time until she has a good idea for a new book has also helped it retain a high level of quality.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance is one of the lighter novels in the series. It is a romantic farce with an underlying adventure story and also dwells on the notion of ageing, growing up and maturing, a theme of Bujold's that she returns to repeatedly in the later books in the series. Using Ivan, Miles's womanising cousin with no interest in settling down, to explore this theme is extremely effective. It would have been easy to have done a "growing and learning" story in which Ivan suddenly mans up and accepts responsibility, but this would not have been true to the character. Instead Bujold develops Ivan's character (and, we realise, how she's been developing it subtly in the background all along) naturally and much more convincingly, by having him fall for a woman who seems to be right up his street (superficial and pretty) but whose hidden depths and complex background make her a lot more interesting.

These elements of growth and change are accompanied by some quite uproariously hilarious scenes, some nice catching-up moments with old characters who we haven't seen for a while (most notably Simon Illyan) and some more musings on the changing nature of Barryaran society, which are all handled quite well.

On the downside, the novel is a bit too long (over 500 pages) to support a slight premise and the lack of some well-motivated villains (we never even meet the bad guys who set the whole story in motion) and there are a few too many scenes of Tej's family scheming or Ivan feeling overwhelmed. A bit more of a serious editing pass to streamline the book would not have gone amiss.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance (****) is not one of the best books in the series and could be a bit better paced, but it remains well-written with a refreshing focus on the characters and how they have evolved over the years, with some nice SF flourishes and very funny moments.

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