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

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The Dragonbone Chair: Memory, Sorrow and Thorne Series: Book One (Memory, Sorrow & Thorn)
The Dragonbone Chair: Memory, Sorrow and Thorne Series: Book One (Memory, Sorrow & Thorn)
by Tad Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An important milestone for the genre that has mostly aged well, 10 Sept. 2015
Prester John is the unchallenged High King of Osten Ard, the ruler of all the lands from the Nornfells to the southern deserts. He has ruled wisely and well - but not without bloodshed - for seven decades. Now his health is failing and his son Elias prepares to inherit the throne. Elias is strong and a canny general, but is also mistrusted for his close relationship with the sinister priest Pyrates. There is also a growing rift between Elias and his younger brother Josua Lackhand that threatens the peace.

Simon, a simple kitchen boy in the High King's castle, the Hayholt, is drawn into events beyond his understanding. A cold winter is coming, things are stirring in the far north that have not been seen for centuries and the fate of the world will turn on three lost swords: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

The Dragonbone Chair is the opening novel of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, a massive trilogy written by American author Tad Williams. First published in 1988, the novel was an important milestone in the development of epic fantasy. Previous fantasy novels had been split between easy reading versions of Tolkien (Brooks, Eddings) or insanely dark reactions to it (Donaldson, Cook), but Williams's novel was arguably the first to really engage with Tolkien on the same kind of playing field. It's a huge book (over 900 pages in most paperback editions, and only the first part of the story) filled with a complex backstory, numerous ethnic cultures and different races, lots of made-up names and maps. Lots of maps. And an appendix, just to show you that this author means business.

Of course, epic fantasy is a very different field in 2015 to what it was like in 1988, so does the novel hold up?

The answer is a qualified yes. This is a big, epic story which Williams tells well, with some colourful prose, some solid characterisation and development and a bit more depth to the story than it just being another Tolkien clone. The (relatively few) action sequences are well-handled and there are some evocative descriptions, particularly of the vast Hayholt and its Green Angel Tower, as well as the forbidding Aldheorte forest. The characters are a fairly diverse and interesting bunch, although Simon himself, at this early stage, is a bit too much of a wet blanket with a tendency to pass out (either from injury or magically-induced visions) every time something important happens. His companions, particularly the "troll" Binabik, are altogether more compelling in this first novel.

The book also constantly develops and restructures the stakes and the scope of the story as it goes on, bringing in more history, factions and people as it develops. This works in both the Tolkien-esque sense of starting small and branching out later on, and also in forcing a constant reappraisal of the world and the situation. It's telling to see how Prester John is viewed by his own people as a mostly just and benevolent ruler but people from other lands remember him as a conqueror.

There are some structural issues. The book can switch POVs several times in a conversation, which is a bit bewildering for those readers used to the modern convention of staying with one POV for a whole chapter, or for POV switches to be marked by at least a paragraph break. This is also not exactly the fastest-paced novel in the world. Compared to Lord of the Rings, The Eye of the World or A Game of Thrones, The Dragonbone Chair (which is only marginally shorter than the latter two) drags its feet a little. Williams is a good enough writer to make lengthy travelogues or conversations between two minor characters hold the attention, but you do realise from time to time that not actually a lot has happened in the previous hundred pages. Finally, the POV structure can be a bit jarring: much of the first half of the book is shown from Simon's POV, but the latter half introduces a ton of other ones, including some who have an important role to play but we only get a few pages with them because so much time is being spent elsewhere.

But these are both standard (for the genre) and forgivable problems, especially given that this was only the author's second novel. The Dragonbone Chair (****) may be slow to get off the mark and occasionally low-key given the scale of the events, but it's a well-written novel that is rather smarter than it first appears (this becomes more apparent in the sequels). It's well worth checking out ahead of the publication of the sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard, due to start in 2017.

Fringe - Season 5 (Blu-ray + UV Copy) [2013] [Region Free]
Fringe - Season 5 (Blu-ray + UV Copy) [2013] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Anna Torv
Price: £16.90

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fringe ends on a high, 2 Sept. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
2036. Earth is under the control of the Observers, time-travelling, genetically-engineered and cybernetically-enhanced humans from a distant future in which the planet has become uninhabitable. During their previous observations of the Fringe team and their investigations, they have confirmed that it is possible to rewrite the timeline and create a new reality, so now they plan to create a new world for their benefit...but not for that of the humans who are already there.

Frozen in amber for twenty-one years, the Fringe team awaken with one goal: to stop the Observers from fulfilling their mission. But with a vastly superior foe tracking them remorselessly, the team need every ally and every resource they can call upon in order to succeed.

For its final season, Fringe changes things up a lot. What had once been a procedural, investigative drama about the paranormal and pseudoscience has become a full-on nightmare dystopia, throwing in some elements of post-apocalyptic drama for good measure. These thirteen episodes form a tightly serialised drama (the writers deciding the sops to the casual viewer are no longer necessary) taking in questions about what it means to be human and how far you will be prepared to go to save your existence.

There are a few problems with the situation. First off, a fair bit of important stuff happens off-screen: four years pass between the end of Season 4 and the moment the Observers actually invade, including some important character development and also further developments involving William Bell. Bell's character arc simply disappears and we don't find out the fate of his character or what happened since the last time we saw him to explain his changed relationship with Walter and the rest of the team. Some hasty exposition from other characters doesn't really help. It's a problem that can be ignored for the most part, but the lack of resolution for this key character at a moment when pretty much everyone else gets wrapped up nicely feels a bit of an oversight.

More of an issue is that the compressed storytelling and the near-omnipotence of the Observers results in what feels like plot holes. The ability of the Observers to foretell the future and how far they can do their teleporting trick shifts episode from episode based on the requirements of the plot. It's not quite as bad as the tricks some shows go to in order to nerf overpowered villains (the Borg, anyone?) but it again feels a little too inconsistent even given Fringe's elastic standards of plausibility.

Fortunately, most of that can be ignored. The final season of Fringe is a bold, experimental one that throws out the standard format, changes dynamics all over the place and tries to be the biggest, most epic season on a reduced budget. Thanks to some excellent CGI (the paved-over Central Park is an impressive achievement), some very strong writing and some brilliant performances from the regulars and newcomers alike, the season is pretty gripping. By now it's gotten redundant to say that John Noble is fantastic in every scene he does (although a scene at the end of the first episode involving early 1980s electronica is particularly outstanding), but it's good to see Joshua Jackson stepping up to the mark. Jackson has pinballed between Plot Device and Exposition Giver for most of the previous four seasons (although always played gamely), but in Season 5 he gets a bit more material to play with and handles it well. Blair Brown also gets a terrific story arc as Nina this season, possibly by way of apology from the writers for giving her some pretty bad material in the Season 4 finale to work with. Georgina Haig also does some great work, stepping into the established cast as Henrietta.

The biggest success of the season, though, is giving a definite sense of closure to the series. Coming from some of the same creators as Lost and being heavily influenced by The X-Files, the fear was that Fringe would, like those shows, have a muddled and unsatisfactory resolution to a long-running and confusing story arc. It doesn't. Instead Fringe nails the landing more than satisfactorily, giving a good sense of closure as well as explaining most (but not all) of the show's long-running mysteries.

The final season of Fringe (****½) concludes the series with style, giving a satisfying resolution to the show, its mysteries and, most importantly, to the characters. Fringe, tragically, is one of the more obscure SFF shows of recent years which is a shame, as it is also one of the best.

Fringe - Season 4 (Blu-ray + UV Copy) [2012] [Region Free]
Fringe - Season 4 (Blu-ray + UV Copy) [2012] [Region Free]
Dvd ~ Anna Torv
Price: £19.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Fringe's weakest season is still better than most shows at their best, 23 Aug. 2015
The Fringe team has saved two parallel universes from destruction but have paid a heavy price they are no longer even aware of. Peter Bishop, who as a young boy was saved from death, irrevocably altering the timeline, has been removed from existence. His Fringe team-mates have no memory of his existence and his removal has led to numerous changes, such as the continued existence of a very old enemy. But - somehow - Peter returns to find a world which he is no longer part of. Can he find a way "home"?

Fringe's penultimate season starts off in a difficult place. The timeline of both universes has been reset and although things are broadly similar, a whole host of details have changed. These include Olivia and her sister being raised by Nina Sharp and Walter, never having been brought out of his shell by Peter, still being a crazy recluse. It is fascinating to map these changes, and the way the writers cleverly use them to resurrect previously-slain foes and revisit past plot points, but it does cause some problems with the viewer not being sure how much to invest in this new universe. Is Fringe going to hit the reset button at some point and revert things back to the way they used to be?

If you can get over that issue, there is much to enjoy with this season. The notion that parallel universes can exist but time can also be rewritten within those universes is one that hard SF has played around with a few times, but this is the first time that an SF TV series has treated the concept with some seriousness and not gotten bogged down in technobabble. The timeline reset also allows the writers to drop a few storylines they developed earlier on which clearly they didn't know how to follow up on (particularly Fauxlivia's pregnancy). However, a late-season development allows them to revisit some of these plot threads and give them a more elegant form of closure.

Once the season sorts itself out, there is much fun to be had from having our characters (in both universes) pitted against a returning old enemy (who later turns out to be a front for another returning antagonist) who is a step ahead of them at every turn. The season does a good job of balancing out its share of characters, with Peter dominating mid-season but Seth Gabel's Lincoln Lee rising to the fore later on. Lincoln has always been an interesting character, but his early placement this season as Peter's effective replacement feels a little off. That said, the writers use the oddness of his position to inform the storyline and eventually his character achieves a destiny that is fitting.

A key subplot through the season revolves around the ongoing mystery of the Observers. Some fans thought we wouldn't get much, or any, explanation for these mysterious beings and their objectives, so it's a huge shock when we do get a detailed explanation for their origins and their ultimate goals. These ramp up in the nineteenth episode, Letters of Transit, which fast-forwards to the year 2036 and a nightmarish, dystopian possible future that awaits our heroes. Given that Fringe was going to be cancelled after the fourth season (the ratings were utterly diabolical) and was saved almost solely by the goodwill of fans at the network, this was an incredibly bold decision that could have left the series on a massive downer. As it stands, Fringe was reprieved at the last minute and given a final season to wrap up its storylines.

Unfortunately, Season 4 does run out of steam a little before its end. There's some wheel-spinning episodes and even Fringe's generously elastic notions of plausibility take a serious beating with some plot developments. The actual season finale is also extremely weak, with some bitty plotting and Blair Brown being given some hideous exposition to relate to the other characters (the writers seemingly later apologised by giving her an incredibly poignant and well-played storyline in the final season).

The fourth season of Fringe (****) is probably the show's weakest, although it's still eminently watchable, highly entertaining and, as usual, excellently played by a tight, capable cast.

Blood Pact (Gaunt's Ghosts)
Blood Pact (Gaunt's Ghosts)
by Dan Abnett
Edition: Hardcover

3.0 out of 5 stars Solid, but not one of the best books in the series, 12 Aug. 2015
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Two years have passed since the ferocious battle for Hinzerhaus Fortress on Jago. The Tanith First and Only won a famous victory, but only at a horrendous cost in lives. Battered and bleeding, the Tanith First finally won a respite, being rotated back to sector HQ on Balhaut for a well-earned rest after ten years on the front lines.

However, two years of inaction has led to problems with discipline, training and morale. In the midst of these problems, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt is summoned to a clandestine meeting. An agent of the archenemy has been taken prisoner and wants to give up valuable intelligence...but the Blood Pact have been sent to silence him by any means necessary.

Blood Pact is the twelfth novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series and marks the beginning of the fourth distinct story arc in the series, "The Victory". The opening of the book feels like Dan Abnett is taking a deep breath after the mayhem of the previous novels, which featured some of the bloodiest and most frenzied battles in the series to date, but it's not too long before the action kicks in again. Blood Pact is a short novel taking place over one single night and morning of carnage as the Blood Pact - the Ghosts' sworn rivals - arrive to carry out a suicide assassination task, succeed in splitting up the Ghosts and also take advantage of internal divisions as the Ghosts find themselves still under suspicion from the Inquisition about their mission to the Chaos-tainted world of Gereon years earlier.

As usual with a Gaunt's Ghosts novel, the pace is blistering, the action is superbly-handled and the characterisation shines. Gaunt's return to the world where he lost his former command but gained a new one adds new shades to his character. Background Ghosts nicely come to the fore, such as Maggs, whilst we touch base with a few key Ghosts who've been lower in profile in the preceding books. However, Blood Pact does feel like a lesser entry in the series. Perhaps it's due to the increasing frequency between novels (Blood Pact was released in 2009 and one more book, Salvation's Reach, in 2011 with nothing since), but Blood Pact feels a little like too much set-up at a moment in the series when it feels like it should be perhaps more decisively moving towards a conclusion. This can be seen in the fact that while a few key characters get a lot of time in the sun, numerous other Ghosts (including many who played key roles in the preceding few books) suddenly drop into the background. If Gaunt's Ghosts was a TV series (and we can but hope), this is the relatively low-key opening to a new season which is reacquainting you with all the characters before the big storylines kick in.

On that basis, Blood Pact (***½) does a good job of setting up its immediate sequel, Salvation Reach, and tells a rollicking good action story. Not one of the best books in the series, but still an effortlessly enjoyable slice of military SF from the best author in the subgenre. If you want to read the book, Blood Pact is currently only available as an ebook from the Black Library direct. However, the entire series is being rolled out in new editions, so it should be back in paperback in a few months.

A Civil Campaign: A Comedy of Biology and Manners (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
A Civil Campaign: A Comedy of Biology and Manners (Miles Vorkosigan Adventures)
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £6.50

5.0 out of 5 stars An SF romcom, complete with bugs and political intrigue, 11 Aug. 2015
Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar, is due to wed Laisa, an heiress from the (reluctant) Imperial client-world of Komarr. For the Emperor's diminutive cousin Miles Vorkosigan, the great social event provides the perfect cover for his courtship of the Lady Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Unfortunately, events are complicated by the complicated love life of Miles's clone-brother Mark, two landmark legal disputes in the Barrayaran Court...and a whole ton of butter-producing bugs.

A Civil Campaign (subtitled A Comedy of Biology and Manners) was originally conceived by Lois McMaster Bujold as the second half of Komarr. However, she separated the two books out for reasons of length (A Civil Campaign is the longest novel in the series by itself) and also for tone. Komarr is a serious book but A Civil Campaign is a romantic comedy that at times descends into flat-out farce.

It's hard enough to carry off romance or comedy or science fiction by themselves, so for Bujold to tackle all three genres in the same novel suggests either cast-iron confidence or outright insanity. After completing the book, the key to its success seems to be a bit of both. A Civil Campaign is flat-out crazy, a dramatic change in tone from the rest of the series to date. For starters, the novel has five POV characters, which is unusual given that most books in the series have just one, Miles himself. This novel adds Mark, Ivan, Kareen Koudelka (Mark's own romantic interest) and Ekaterin to the mix. This makes for a busier and more tonally varied novel than any of the preceding ones. Even more interesting is how Bujold mixes up the POV storylines: the normally frivolous Ivan gets the serious, political stuff to deal with whilst the emotionally-scarred, PTSD-suffering Mark gets the farcical butter-bug storyline to handle. Expectations are subverted throughout with great skill.

Most intriguingly, this is a novel about adults, relationships and how damaged people can help (or hurt, if they are not careful) one another or choose their own paths through life. Through comedy, tragedy, horror and humour, Bujold builds up each of her POV characters (and numerous supporting ones) and deconstructs them in a manner that is impressive and enjoyable to read.

That said, a key subplot revolves around a disputed succession between a dead lord's daughter and nephew, with Barrayar's laws of male inheritance favouring his nephew...until his daughter gets a sex-change. The resulting legal maelstrom is the result of a collision between fantasy cliche and common sense (and Barrayar has always felt it had more in common with Westeros than an SF setting) and signals an impending transformation in the planet's social order. It's also - arguably - the novel's sole misstep, with Bujold uncharacteristically more interested in the legal and political ramifications rather than the character-based ones. That isn't to say that Donna/Dono isn't a fascinating character, but it feels like Bujold did not engage with the issues raised by the gender reassignment with as much as depth as she might have done.

There is some action in the book (a single shoot-out, which feels a bit incongruous given the tone of the novel, and a more farcical, Bugsy Malone-esque battle sequence involving tubs of bug-butter) but primarily A Civil Campaign (****½) is a comedy of manners, a grown-up romance and a great big coming-together of almost every major subplot and character in The Vorkosigan Saga to date. It's a terrific read.

Half a War (Shattered Sea, Book 3)
Half a War (Shattered Sea, Book 3)
by Joe Abercrombie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.00

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A worthy conclusion to an enjoyable trilogy, 11 Aug. 2015
Father Yarvi has brokered an unlikely peace between the formerly warring kingdoms of Gettland and Vansterland, bringing them together to stand against the forces of the High King. Still tremendously outnumbered, Yarvi is forced to rely on an untested young queen to help lead the way to victory and a last stand at the fortress of Bail's Point.

Half a War concludes the Shattered Sea trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, an experiment by the British author to write shorter novels aimed at a more general audience. How successful that experiment has been is quite debatable - the tone and feeling of the trilogy is really not far removed from his First Law universe novels - but it's certainly resulted in the impressive delivering of three very decent novels in less than eighteen months.

As with the previous book, Half a War revolves around three main POV characters: Skara, the young and untested queen of Throvenland; Raith, the bloodthirsty Vansterland warrior made into Skara's reluctant bodyguard; and Koll, the woodcarver turned minister-in-training who finds himself increasingly serving as Yarvi's conscience as Yarvi is forced into more and more desperate acts to try to save his people. Previous POV characters become secondary characters in this novel, which is both clever (showing how others see them) and frustrating, particularly when they don't all survive.

This is a war story, with the great fortress of Bail's Point changing hands as the fortunes of the conflict ebb and flow. Abercrombie has done big war stories and battle narratives before and does a good job of depicting the conflict here, helped by a map of Bail's Point. However, the limited POV structure means that a great deal of the details of the conflict are missing. This is effective in giving us a feel of the fog of war, with confusion and misinformation lurking everywhere, but it does occasionally make the conflict feel murkier than it should.

Abercrombie's razor-sharp characterisation is on top form here, with Skara developing believably into a ruler from humble beginnings and secondary characters like Blue Jenner and King Uthil getting outstanding and memorable moments. However, it's Father Yarvi who develops most fascinatingly in this novel. Yarvi's ruthlessness was on display in the second book, but in this one it pushes him into more and more dangerous decisions that even shock his allies. The development of Koll as his moral weathervane is nicely done; without Koll, it may be that Yarvi would have become another version of Bayaz from the First Law books (i.e. Unrepentant Amoral Bastard Gandalf). As it stands he comes pretty damn close, and it's likely any future Shattered Sea books will have to deal with the fallout from his actions.

Half a War (****) closes the Shattered Sea trilogy in style, with a war story that prioritises the characters over the action and ends well by not pulling a single punch.

An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes, Book 1)
An Ember in the Ashes (An Ember in the Ashes, Book 1)
by Sabaa Tahir
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £9.09

3.0 out of 5 stars A solid opening novel with some interesting promise for the sequels, but feels a little too familiar, 2 Aug. 2015
Laia is a Scholar, a member of the underclass subjugated by the Martial Empire in the city of Sarra. When her brother is abducted by the Martials and her grandparents murdered, Laia is reluctantly forced to ally herself with the Resistance. In return for their help in finding and rescuing her brother, Laia has to infiltrate Blackcliff Academy, where the Empire's most elite soldiers are trained.

At the same time, Elias is a Mask-in-training at Blackcliff. Sickened by the Empire's callousness, he contemplates running away but is instead compelled to remain when he is prophesied to become the next Emperor and could lead the Empire into a new golden age. However, first he must pass the Trials and win the crown for himself...and must defeat his best friend in the process.

An Ember in the Ashes made a bit of a stir when it was acquired by Penguin last year, winning a large advance and resulting in the film rights being sold for seven figures before it even hit the shelves. The novel also piqued my interest because it was apparently a stand-alone, with more books in the same world possible but apparently not necessary.

Well, that, it turns out, was not true. An Ember in the Ashes is the first volume of a multi-part story and ends on a series of cliffhangers, so those looking for a stand-alone book are directed elsewhere. The book also feels a bit overly familiar at times: the Trials that define Elias's storyline are more than a little reminiscent of The Hunger Games while the brutal regime brought down through a reluctant female double agent reminded me more than a bit of the Mistborn trilogy. Tahir mixes up the standard tropes enough that the book never feels like a rip-off, most notably by taking the standard YA central romance and turning it into more of a tragic story of betrayal and the promise of later all-out vengeance, which is at least something a bit different.

Elsewhere the book attempts a few interesting things: the novel is written in the present tense, which normally would have me hurling it out the window. However, Tahir's prose is good enough to overcome this stylistic quirk (one which a lot of readers don't have). The prose is readable but occasionally feels a bit more flavoured and distinct than the norm before settling back into something more generic. If Tahir could hold the quality of the prose at her best for longer, the sequels could be a lot better. The setting, which is more inspired by Rome than most medieval fantasy settings, also holds some promise.

The most disappointing thing about An Ember in the Ashes is how standard it is. It's reasonably well-written, the setting is interesting and the characters enjoyable enough to hold the reader's attention, but the book doesn't really bring anything new to the table. It's a solid story told in a solid way which is good but not outstanding. The story and setting are a little more brutal than is normal in a YA novel, including the frown-inducing appearance of almost-rape for no apparent reason, but it's not exactly going all A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of the ideas are also rather implausible: the training for the Masks is so insanely brutal that it's likely that the Masks simply wouldn't exist due to the rate of attrition among applicants.

That said, An Ember in the Ashes (***½) does hold enough promise to warrant a second look when the sequel appears.

The 100 - Season 2 [DVD] [2014]
The 100 - Season 2 [DVD] [2014]
Dvd ~ Eliza Taylor
Price: £21.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A big improvement on the first season, 2 Aug. 2015
The Earth has been ravaged by nuclear war, with the survivors either being mutants ("Grounders") who have adapted to the radiation or genetically-enhanced exiles who have survived in space on an orbiting ark. A hundred delinquents have been sent down from the Ark to see if the ground is survivable, but they have also encountered both the Grounders and a society of survivors living in a massive fallout shelter under Mount Weather, west of the ruins of Washington D.C. The hostility and paranoia of the shelter-dwellers forces both the crew of the Ark and the Grounders into an uneasy alliance.

The first season of The 100 took a while to get going, being mired in tiresome teenage romance and lots of trekking around Canadian woodland for quite a few episodes before it cut loose and turned into a bleak story of survival and moral compromises. The second season of The 100 turns this up to the max and is a much stronger set of episodes from the off.

The second season benefits from a multi-stranded storyline which rotates through sets of characters and locations. The main storyline sees the youngsters from the Ark forced to team up with the survivors of the station's dramatic crash-landing in the Season 1 finale and then attempt to forge a peace with the Grounders so they can rescue their friends (from both factions) who are imprisoned under Mount Weather. This story is rich with drama, with both camps having internal problems and the kids from the Ark - who have spent months surviving on the ground - understandably refusing to relinquish authority to the very people who sent them to their deaths. There is the scope for melodrama, but the show largely skirts it through a relentless pace, stronger worldbuilding (the culture of the Grounders is explored a lot this season) and occasional harsh plot turns that manage to out-shock Game of Thrones.

The main subplot is set inside the Mount Weather shelter and explores what happens to the forty-odd kids taken prisoner at the end of Season 1. This story is also pretty decent, but becomes a little stretched out due to its obvious benefits as a budget-saving measure (since it uses just a few interior sets as opposed to the tons of exterior footage for the Ark/Grounders stuff) and a limited number of characters to explore. Another storyline follows Jaha, the former leader of the Ark, as he - quite randomly - survives the Ark's crash and becomes - even more randomly - a messianic figure who believes he can lead his people to salvation across the desert. This story is the most preposterous, but works because Jaha is played by the hugely enjoyable Isaiah Washington and purely exists because the producers were going to quite blatantly kill the character and then decided to keep him around because they liked the actor. Fortunately it does fulfil a purpose at the end, forming the bridge into the forthcoming third season which will up the stakes even further.

The series works thanks to some enjoyably spirited performances from an enthusiastic cast, a genuinely impressive desire not to wimp out on hard decisions and moral muddles, a plot that spins on a dime and some quite impressive action sequences. That's not to say it isn't perfect. Some storylines feel a bit random and the longer episode run (three more than in the first) feels like it was more accomplished with filler than because more episodes were needed to pack everything in. An episode featuring characters hiding from an escaped gorilla in a desolate zoo is rather pointless, for example. Dialogue also too often based around exposition, and the show does feel like it could do with more humour. More on the plus side of things, the forced romance elements have been dialled way back (and the few romances which do emerge feel a lot more plausible) and the characterisation is very strong. Particularly impressive is how Bellamy, the primary antagonist in the first half of Season 1, evolves into a heroic figure through a natural and believable progression of events.

A few hiccups aside, the season builds up to a genuinely startling finale (apparently based on the idea of what if the good guys were put in a position where they had to carry out a Red Wedding?) that leaves a lot of unanswered questions for the third season, due to air in early 2016.

The second season of The 100 (****) improves on the more variable opening season and soon becomes hugely enjoyable viewing.

1864 [Blu-ray]
1864 [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Pilou Asbæk
Price: £17.99

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Gripping and visceral, despite occasional moments of random weirdness, 28 July 2015
This review is from: 1864 [Blu-ray] (Blu-ray)
1864 is an eight-part TV mini-series, filmed in Denmark and is the most expensive television series ever made in the country. Many of the actors and crew are veterans of contemporary Danish noir series such as Borgen and The Killing, but 1864 stands in contrast to them as a sweeping, epic war story spanning generations and taking in the lives of soldiers, politicians and civilians during the Second Schleswig War of 1864. This war, obscure today outside of Denmark, marked a vital moment in the transformation of Germany from a loosely-allied collection of small states into a powerful empire, setting it on a course that would lead, six years later, to the Franco-Prussian War and eventually the First World War itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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