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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Orphan Black - Series 2 [Blu-ray]
Orphan Black - Series 2 [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Tatiana Maslany
Offered by A2Z Entertains
Price: £18.53

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

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

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

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

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

Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC DVD)
Middle-Earth: Shadow of Mordor (PC DVD)
Offered by Future Gaming UK
Price: £15.07

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fargo - Season 1 [Blu-ray]
Fargo - Season 1 [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Billy Bob Thornton
Price: £13.49

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game of Thrones - Season 4 [Blu-ray] [2015] [Region Free]
Game of Thrones - Season 4 [Blu-ray] [2015] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Peter Dinklage
Price: £30.00

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not perfect, but the strongest season to date, 7 Mar. 2015
In the Seven Kingdoms, the War of the Five Kings is all but over. King Joffrey is poised to marry Lady Margaery Tyrell, placing the bulk of the military power of the continent under his command. Stannis Baratheon persists in his claim to the throne, but his lack of men, ship and gold forces his Hand, Ser Davos Seaworth, to seek allies in unusual places. Meanwhile, the forces of Mance Rayder advance on the critically undermanned Wall, whilst far to the east Daenerys Targaryen seizes the slaver city of Meereen, only to find that holding it will be more difficult than she thought.

The fourth season of Game of Thrones is the most ambitious to date. In terms of structure and plot it draws upon no less than three of George R.R. Martin's novels (A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows and A Dance with Dragons), features a battle sequence that dwarfs even the Blackwater from Season 2 and features much more extensive use of CGI for creature effects, establishing shots and even virtual sets.

In overall terms, it may be the strongest season to date. Previous seasons built slowly to massive 'Episode Nine' moments with an extended coda afterwards, but Season 4 features some massive moments and confrontations throughout its run. The Battle for the Wall in episode nine is indeed amazing and may be the best episode of the season, but there are other moments through the season which come close to rivalling it (the "Purple Wedding", Tyrion's trial and resulting duel and multiple moments in the finale). It's certainly a more compelling season than the preceding two, with more substantial moments of plot and character development in early episodes rather than just a lot of slow-building set-up.

Performances are, as usual, superb. The newcomer of note this season is Pedro Pascal as Prince Oberyn Martell, who brings all the deadly grace, measured debauchery, confident swagger and resolute vengeance of the book character to the screen. Other newcomers are less impressive, although this is more down to the writing than performances: the decision to reduce Mace Tyrell to a bumbling oaf only worth comic relief as Tywin ignores him is implausible given how badly reliant Tywin is on Mace's army and support. Peter Dinklage, Charles Dance, Conleth Hill and Rory McCann continue to provide superlative performances, and as usual Aidan Gillen's acting is undermined by his ludicrous Batman voice. Sophie Turner steps things up in the last few episodes as Sansa gains some agency and power of her own, but, disappointingly, it feels like Maisie Williams is treading water a little as Arya. She has a few good moments (such as her outrage as the Hound mistreats a family who has taken them in) but she often makes inertness Arya's response to threatening situations.

The stand-out performance of the season, in my book, must go to Gwendoline Christie as Brienne. A little stiff and awkward in the second season (where it fitted the character superbly) and more confident in the third, Christie really comes into her own this year with a series of humourous exchanges with Pod, some human ones with Jaime and a brutal confrontation with the Hound in the finale. These all serve to complicate her character and the actress more than meets the challenge. In a much more limited role, it's also good to see Kristofer Hivju nailing Tormund more as the character from the books (part man, part force of nature), particularly in his final discussions with Jon Snow (Kit Harington being effectively surly and northern, as usual).

So the series is well-paced, with some great storytelling moments and some wise decisions on when to follow the books religiously and when to move away and do their own thing. There are a few missteps when it comes to translating iconic scenes from the books, with them generally being made less powerful and resonant than what was in print. This may be down to a limitation of the medium (Tyrion thinks about Tysha fairly regularly in the books, whilst in the TV show it's unlikely viewers will remember a minor backstory point made three years earlier) but it also feels like sometimes there are changes for change's sake, which hurts the TV show by reducing the full potential impact of scenes.

Another problem in Season 4 is that the ugly spectre of sexual violence rears its head more noticeably than ever before. In the novels, there are certainly unpleasant moments of sexual assault or threatened violence against both men and women, but the TV show takes this to new extremes in the fourth season with an inexplicable (from plot and character terms) sexual assault in the third episode and the disturbing use of 'rape-as-wallpaper' in the fourth. Whilst this is a harsh and ugly world and the urge not to sugar-coat it must be strong, the writers go way overboard in these incidents and seem to be using the very real and distressingly common crimes of sexual violence for the purposes of drumming up controversy and media coverage. The presentation of one of the villains responsible for these scenes, Karl, as a corny villain who drinks blood from the skulls of his enemies (a character and scene not in the books) doesn't really help with the idea that these scenes are meant to be realistic in any way, shape or form. It also doesn't help that the show does sugar-coat the antics of other, more fan-favourite characters so as not to offend the audience. The events of A Storm of Swords pretty much destroy Tyrion as a character, reducing him to a vile-spirited murderer in the finale as he realises how his attempts to be (in his own way) honourable and fair have backfired on him. The TV show doesn't hold much truck with this, making Tyrion a killer only in self-defence and allowing him to retain the veneer of heroism rather than complicating and darkening the character as Martin does in the novels. It's a lazy and obvious choice for a show (and series of books) that shines the brightest when not doing the lazy and obvious.

Still, whilst some elements are hard to swallow or excuse (and nor should we), the fourth season of Game of Thrones is, when it is on its game, still highly watchable, entertaining and the most epic ongoing TV series ever made. The problem is that the series isn't hitting those best moments with the frequency that it really could with some cleverer and more subtle writing, and sometimes lets itself down by chasing controversy which it really does not need to do.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Mar 11, 2015 3:34 AM GMT

Breaking Bad - The Final Season* [Blu-ray]
Breaking Bad - The Final Season* [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Bryan Cranston
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A worthy ending to a great series, 7 Mar. 2015
Endgame. Walter White's identity as the crystal meth-cooking mastermind Heisenberg has been compromised, the law is closing in and his life is crashing down around him. White's only hope is an alliance of convenience with a criminal gang far more dangerous and ruthless than he is. But this move proves to be a mistake, leading to tragedy.

Breaking Bad's first fourth (and a half) seasons seemed to be based on one central pillar: Walter White's attempts to balance his 'public' life with his secret criminal identity. As the show approaches its finale that pillar is pulled away, leaving the show free and able to choose how it ends on its own terms. Many recent major serialised dramas - from Lost to Battlestar Galactica - have fudged their endings or (like Deadwood) been cancelled before getting there. Among its peers, only The Wire had really achieved the feat of having a satisfying conclusion that was true to everything that came before.

Breaking Bad shoots and scores. This final run of episodes is a triumph. Emotionally powerful, harshly-written and unflinching in following through the promise of earlier episodes. To borrow from another serialised drama, "If you though this was going to have a happy ending, you haven't been paying attention." And Bad delivers on that. As the clock counts down, Walter's plans for a happy ending become increasingly as crazy and outlandish as the theories of some fans anxious to see him somehow get away with everything and achieve what he'd set out to do, making enough money for his family to survive after he's gone.

There are few weak spots in this final run of episodes. Jesse gets a little lost in the mix in the first few episodes and the re-introduction of Elliott and Gretchen after an absence of four seasons is a little abrupt, but it does neatly bookend the series and help provide closure. Also, the bad guys now being white supremacist drug dealers feels a little cliched. The few times the show has faltered in following through on its premise is because it has always had a bad guy far worse than Walter hanging around to excuse his excesses (in the eyes of some viewers), and these new villains have you longing for the days of Gus Fring and his considerably better-written and motivated machinations.

Still, this is a minor issue. The central focus is on White as everything comes crashing down around him. Bryan Cranston gives a monumentally awesome performance, matched by Anna Gunn (as Skyler), Dean Norris (as Hank) and Aaron Paul (as Jesse). A huge amount of praise must go to Dean Norris, who has played his character's evolution from gun-toting lawman hick to a PTSD-suffering investigative genius over the course of the series with total conviction.

Vince Gilligan's writing team also have to be praised for coming up with an ending that is true to the series as a whole and delivering on it. The episode Ozymandias may be one of the most gut-wrenching episodes of any TV series ever made, astonishing in its dramatic power and focus. The actual ending that follows sacrifices any ambiguity for neatness and at least one unbelievable moment of cartoon ultraviolence, but the dramatic and emotional stakes are high and the show does enough to earn its ending. It is not a happy ending but it is an ending that stays true to the show and its themes, and that's rare enough in TV these days.

The final season of Breaking Bad (*****) is an unmissable triumph and a worthy conclusion to a remarkable drama series.

Star Trek:  The Next Generation -  Season 7 (Remastered) [Blu-ray] [Region Free]
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Season 7 (Remastered) [Blu-ray] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Patrick Stewart
Price: £38.78

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A poor run of episodes, but it bounces back strong for the finale, 6 Mar. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
The seventh and final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation aired under very different circumstances to when the show began in 1987. Back then it was a tremendous risk by Paramount, an attempt to bring the franchise back to TV and make lightning strike twice. Despite a rocky opening season, the show eventually succeeded. By 1994 there was already one spin-off TV show on screen (Deep Space Nine), with another (Voyager) on the way. Plans were also underway for the first TNG-focused featured film, Star Trek: Generations.

In retrospect it was probably a mistake to have done all of this, plus writing and filming the last twenty-six episodes of TNG, at the same time. The writers, producers and actors were all over-worked and you can see this throughout the season. Season 7 of TNG is the show running on fumes, especially disappointing after the generally excellent sixth season.

The season opens with the disappointing Descent, Part II. Aside from putting Dr. Crusher in command of the Enterprise and defeating a powerful Borg ship, the episode is a huge disappointment, wasting both the Borg and Lore and featuring a poor resolution. Episodes like Liaisons, Interface, Dark Page and Phantasms seem to forget that ST:TNG is a science fiction show and instead spend a lot of time messing around with dreams and illusions. Other episodes like Attached and Inheritance spend time changing character dynamics and relationships when it's simply far too late in the day to resonate strongly. In the midst of the disappointing and mediocre episodes there are also some outright stinkers, like the goofy Genesis and the quite spectacularly horrendous Sub Rosa.

Fortunately, when the show actually remembers it's a science fiction series with an action adventure quotient, things improve markedly. Parallels, which features Worf shifting between multiple realities, is hugely enjoyable. The Pegasus, featuring a pre-Lost Terry O'Quinn as a dubious Starfleet admiral, is a very fine piece of work which makes Starfleet a more morally dubious organisation than previously thought (something Deep Space Nine would later run with). Journey's End and Preemptive Strike do good jobs of both setting up Voyager (although it would later squander the promise shown here) and rounding off the story arcs of recurring characters Wesley Crusher and Ro Laren in expectation-defying ways. Fortunately, the actual series finale itself, All Good Things..., triumphantly pays homage to the seven years of the show and manages the tricky balancing act of engaging in both nostalgia and sentimentality without becoming too over-mawkish. The episode is rammed full of plot holes you could steer the three-nacelled "Super Enterprise D" through, but it's so well done and fun that you don't care. There's also the possible highlight of the season, Lower Decks, which breaks new ground by showing us our familiar heroes from the POV of their subordinates, who aren't always quite so enamoured of them.

The final season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (***½) finds the show struggling to break new ground and is in danger of becoming moribund when a late burst of quality turns things around and (just about) gives the series a good send-off.

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