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

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Fargo: Year 2 [DVD]
Fargo: Year 2 [DVD]
Dvd ~ Kirsten Dunst
Price: £18.99

6 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent, 3 Feb. 2016
This review is from: Fargo: Year 2 [DVD] (DVD)
1979. There is a war brewing between a drugs gang based in Kansas City and an operation run by the Gerhardt family in Fargo, North Dakota. The conflict unexpectedly spirals out of control after an innocent couple, Peggy Blumquist and her butcher husband Ed, accidentally kill one of the Gerhardt sons. The conflict escalates, with Minnesota State Trooper Lou Solverson left to investigate and find those responsible.

When FX announced they were making a TV series based on the 1996 movie Fargo by the Coen Brothers, a lot of people including the Coen Brothers thought they were insane. Instead, the first season of Fargo turned out to be, quite possibly, the greatest individual season of television since (at least) the fourth season of The Wire aired a decade ago. The bar was raised impossibly high for a second season.

Fortunately, writer/producer Noah Hawley had a trick up his sleeve. Fargo is, at least nominally, an anthology series where each season has its own cast and self-contained story. The seasons all take place in the same fictional universe (as each other and the film) so references and very occasional characters cross over, but overall each season stands alone as its own story. And throughout the first season, the character of Lou Solverson (Keith Carradine) makes oblique references to something horrendous that happened in Sioux Falls in 1979. Season 2 tells us that story.

That tale is nothing less than a war story, a clash for territory and control between the Kansas City Mob and the Gerhardt family based in Fargo, North Dakota. The situation escalates into all-out war when one of the sons of the Gerhardt family is inadvertently killed by Peggy and Ed Blumquist (Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons), a quiet, ordinary couple trying to live the American Dream in their own way. Ed is soon mistaken as a ruthless, murderous contract killer ("The Butcher") by both the Gerhardts and the Kansas City boys, with local law enforcement officers Hank Larsson (Ted Danson) and Lou Solverson (Patrick Wilson) having to try to protect the hapless couple.

That's not really the whole story. There's also Lou's home issues, with his wife Betsy (Cristin Milioti) suffering from cancer. There's the murderous gun-for-hire Mike Milligan (Bokeem Woodbine) who works for the Kansas City crew but finds his career prospects hampered by racial prejudice. And there's a very enigmatic Native American Hanzee Dent (Zahn McClarnon) who works for the Gerhardt family as an enforcer...up to a point. And that's not even mentioning the misadventures of local drunk lawyer Karl Weathers (Nick Offerman) and the fact that Ronald Reagan (Bruce Campbell) is hitting the campaign trail in the state int he midst of the chaos.

The second season of Fargo is busier than the first and, it has to be said, is not quite as good. However, it's still probably the single finest season of television you'll see this year. The second season is a little more diffuse, less focused and less finely-characterised than the first season. We don't have quite as finely-tuned a clash of personalities as the three-way battle of wits between Lorne Malvo, Lester Nygaard and Molly Solverson in the first season. But it's damn close. The second season feels a bit more inclined to pursue random tangents for the sake of character or even just a laugh (whoever cast Bruce Campbell as Ronald Reagan needs to be given a raise, immediately) before pulling itself together in the last few episodes to deliver the promised carnage at Sioux Falls and it delivers that with aplomb.

Plaudits can be poured onto the series freely. Kirsten Dunst and Ted Danson are two very familiar faces from American film and television, but here give career-best performances. Dunst plays Peggy as a somewhat self-obsessed (if not blinkered) housewife in a marriage to someone who doesn't entirely suit her, but then is unexpectedly able to capitalise on the carnage to help her "self-actualise" (to borrow her self-help guru's terminology), although fortunately not in as quite an evil direction as Lester in the first season. It's a tricky character to nail but Dunst does so with impressive skill. Danson also does excellent work as the sheriff trying to keep a lid on the chaos that is threatening to blow up in his town. In fact, all of the actors put in incredibly strong turns with Patrick Wilson being totally convincing as the younger version of Keith Carradine's character from the first season and Nick Offerman delivering a dramatic, powerful performance that shows his much greater range than just playing comedy, as he has done recently (although his drunk lawyer character does provide a few laughs as well).

Complaints? Well, the pacing is a bit odd. The central story is surprisingly thin, and unlike the first season this one feels like it could have had a few episodes shaved off it...until you get to the final three or four episodes which come after that peak and realise the genius of the writers in how they've structured the season. So that complaint is pretty quickly dispensed with. As mentioned above the show is a bit more willing to explore tangential subplots this year, but most of those subplots are excellent in their own right, so that's not really an issue either. Something that has sharply divided viewers is the emergence of science fictional elements in the story, which twice (in the first and ninth episodes) play a decisive role in events. My guess is that isn't really an SF element at all and is a result of the writers planting story seeds for future seasons, but in the context of this year by itself feels very random, although it does play into the 1970s theme quite well.

But it's still a gripping, intelligent and beautifully-written season of television, with an even larger hint of the weird about it. The series will be released on 23 February on DVD in the United States and on 25 April (because it takes two months to cross the Atlantic in 2016, clearly) in the UK. The show will be released on Blu-Ray as well but these editions have not yet been listed.

Starcraft 2: Legacy Of The Void (PC/Mac)
Starcraft 2: Legacy Of The Void (PC/Mac)
Price: £27.98

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Reasonable gameplay, but very poor writing and characters, 30 Jan. 2016
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
Years ago, the Protoss homeworld of Aiur was lost to the Zerg. Many of the Protoss survived by escaping into space and seeking refuge on Shakuras, refuge world of the Dark Templar, before fighting in the Brood War. However, the mighty warrior Artanis dreams of retaking his home and to this end has gathered the Golden Armada, the greatest fleet in Protoss history, to launch the invasion of Aiur. But the invasion is a trap baited by the Fallen One, Amon of the Xel'Naga, and only with the wisdom and assistance of Zeratul can Artanis and his forces escape, regroup and strike back.

Legacy of the Void is the third and final part of the StarCraft II saga, begun in Wings of Liberty (2010) and continued in Heart of the Swarm (2013). It's taken a very, very long time to get here. The original StarCraft was released in 1998, its expansion Brood War a year later and StarCraft II was formally announced in the spring of 2007. The fact it's taken almost nine years since that announcement to get the game completely out is faintly ridiculous, and has certainly sapped some of the excitement and momentum from the franchise.

But the game is out now and has several roles to fill: it needs to be a satisfying single-player game with a strong storyline that ties up plot elements that begun eighteen years ago in the original StarCraft. It needs to have exciting multiplayer that builds on the successful design established in the previous two games. And it needs to see out the franchise - as any StarCraft III is likely many, many years away - in style.

Its success in these fields is highly debatable. On the story front, Legacy of the Void is easily the weakest link in the StarCraft II saga. Its characters are pompous and unrelatable, the dialogue is overwritten, cliched and awful and none of the characters with the sole exception of Alarak (helped by superb voice acting from John de Lancie) have much of a discernible personality. It doesn't help that the game is very unfocused. The previous titles benefited from having a strong, personal through-line that helped anchor the massive battles and carnage around them: Wings of Liberty was focused on Jim Raynor's mission to redeem Kerrigan; Heart of the Swam focused on Kerrigan seeking out vengeance on Arcturus Mengsk. Legacy of the Void doesn't have that. Instead, the story is that the Protoss have to defeat Amon and don't know how to do that, so flit around from crisis to crisis until, inevitably, a plot twist reveals the Fallen One's hidden weakness, at which point you have to try to kill him in the face. It doesn't help that Amon is cut from the exact same cloth as Sargeras and the Burning Legion of WarCraft lore, an unknowable cosmic mega-foe who wants to kill everyone because why not? As an antagonist, he lacks the bite or personal edge that Arcturus Mengsk or Kerrigan herself had in previous games. It also doesn't help that the game is focused on the Protoss, but then in the three-part finale to the game we suddenly get a major return from characters like Kerrigan and Raynor, during which the Protoss are shunted off to the side and don't get much resolution. It's an awkward structural issue that Blizzard don't really know how to handle, although it does allow them to bookend the StarCraft II story by ending where it began.

So much for the story, what about the individual missions? Well, the gameplay is as strong as ever. The Protoss may be my favourite StarCraft race and they also seem to have been least modified from the original games, so in terms of actually playing the game I felt more at home with them than I had with the other two species. However, they may also be the most overpowered race in the game (this will be fiercely debated by other StarCraft players, but I stand by it) with their formerly formidable Archon/Carrier combo now being joined by units such as Void Rays, Stalkers and Immortals to make them almost completely unstoppable once you've moved a modest distance down the tech tree. The Protoss are immense fun to play and their missions are very well-designed with some genuinely thought-provoking strategic challenges. However, RTS veterans won't find much to slow them down here. With the exception of maybe the final epilogue mission and the final main campaign mission, nothing here is remotely on the order of difficulty of the original StarCraft missions, let alone the nightmare of Brood War's last few missions. But certainly in the moment the game is fun to play, either in single-player or the typically frenetic multiplayer modes.

The gameplay is also limited by the curious decision to control your access to units. So you can build Void Rays or Arbiters, but not both, which feels arbitrary. You also can't field-test the different variants on the battlefield like you could with Heart of the Swarm, which feels like a regressive step.

As an overall experience, Legacy of the Void (***½) certainly has impressive production values. It's polished to a fine sheen, there are monumental numbers of in-engine cut scenes (although only a tiny handful of the pre-rendered, beyond-movie-quality CG cinematics that Blizzard are best known for) and the game clocks in at around 15 hours in length, which isn't bad for a stand-alone expansion. The gameplay is solid, a very nice iteration over the standard StarCraft experience, but the storyline, writing and characterisation are all seriously subpar. You have fun playing the missions, but the game provides insufficient context or motivation to make you care a huge amount. The result is a game that is intermittently brilliant, rather less intermittently tedious and overall vaguely disappointing compared to what came before it. It's certainly a worthwhile purchase for fans of the franchise, but newcomers will be lost and it's a game that has fallen far short of its potential.

Fallout 4 (PC)
Fallout 4 (PC)
Price: £22.99

4.0 out of 5 stars A good action game, but lacks roleplaying features, 11 Jan. 2016
This review is from: Fallout 4 (PC) (Video Game)
2287. The sole survivor of a cryogenic suspension experiment stumbles out of Vault 111 to find their home city of Boston a blasted ruin, devastated in a nuclear war that took place two centuries earlier. The Commonwealth, as the region is now called, is divided between warring factions of raiders and mutants, all living in fear of the Institute and its enigmatic human-like robots, the synths. The sole survivor has to make their way in the world, survive...and find their missing son.

Fallout 4 is the fifth main game (and ninth overall) in the Fallout franchise of post-apocalyptic roleplaying games. As with the previous two games in the series (Fallout 3 and Fallout: New Vegas), the game is played from a first-person perspective. You create a character and set out to explore the wasteland. Although there is a main storyline to follow, you are free to ignore it and pursue side-quests, do jobs for various factions or simply explore and scavenge for loot and money. Fallout 4 also introduces the idea of settlement building, allowing you to construct entire new towns and outposts in the wilderness and establish shops, trading links and supply lines between them.

This type of gameplay, sometimes called "sandbox" or "open world", has become enormously popular. It gives the player the freedom to decide how to play the game and allows for huge amounts of content. It also personalises the experience: every player may encounter the same enemies and missions, but the order in which they encounter them and the degree to which they vary the story and their own activities will be unique to them. It's also something that Bethesda, who developed both Fallout 3 and Fallout 4 as well as the Elder Scrolls series of fantasy RPGs (their latest of which was the phenomenally popular Skyrim), have struggled to do in a really satisfying manner, especially compared to the team at Black Isle. Black Isle created Fallout, Fallout 2 and, in their current guise as Obsidian, New Vegas.

For a very easy review, if you enjoyed Fallout 3, it's very likely you'll enjoy Fallout 4. The game is similar, but the graphics are vastly improved, the settlement-building adds a new dimension to the game, there are a lot more quests, there are more factions with more complex interrelationships and the writing is stronger. The characters in Fallout 4, companions, mission-givers, vendors and random passers-by, are vastly superior to those in the earlier game. Companion characters are also vastly more present. They offer opinions about what's going on, will sometimes join in conversations with important NPCs if they have pertinent information and will interact with you more. Some of them can even be romanced, and all of their have their own personal storyline and missions to fulfil once you've earned their trust. Combat is much more satisfying, with chunkier, more viscerally satisfying first-person shooting and an improved VATs system (which slows time down and allows you to target individual body parts) for more strategically-inclined players. There is a new system for modding armour and weapons, resulting in a truly vast array of weapons and armour to compare and contrast.

The art design is also much better, with Boston being a more vibrant location than the burned-out remains of Washington, DC in Fallout 3. The sky is a glorious blue, the water effects are hugely improved (up close, anyway, from a distance or in the air the water looks distinctly odd) and character animation, long Bethesda's sore spot, is much better. For the first time in a Bethesda RPG, all your dialogue is voiced (as both a male and female player). Whilst some may hate this due to how it limits the writing (the need to record dialogue months in advance prevents late changes), others may feel it's more immersive, especially as Bethesda programmed several thousand names into your robot butler so it's possible you may actually get called by your real name (which is a bit weird the first few times it happens).

In terms of being a game in which there is absolutely tons to do, Fallout 4 ticks a lot of boxes. It will suck up enormous quantities of time regardless of if you focus on the main quest, the faction missions, random side-quests, combat or on settlement-building. An enormous amount of work went into the game and the attention to detail is sometimes breathtaking, such as the subtly anti-Communist posters dotting the ruins or the stories about ordinary people's lives which were suddenly ended on the day the Great War took place. Interrupted computer logs, skeletons of entire families slumped in front of televisions and hand-written notes subtly tell the story about a nation of individuals who tragically had their lives snatched away from them by politicians and generals in far-off cities.

Unfortunately, such subtlety does not extend to the primary game design or the writing of the quests. Bethesda's main achilles heel has always been the fact that, after crafting an amazing open world playground packed with stuff, they then completely fail to craft a reactive narrative that interfaces properly with it. The last time they did do this reasonably well was in Morrowind, released in 2002 (astonishingly, Fallout 4 actually uses the same engine - albeit upgraded - as Morrowind, and the occasionally stodgy movement and awkward area transitions are problems it inherits from it). Since then, their main stories have always been a bit on the tepid side and failed to acknowledge the open world design of the game.

This was most notable in Fallout 3, where the final mission of the game required you to enter a radiation-soaked chamber and sacrifice yourself, even if you had a radiation-immune companion with you. Later on they fixed this problem in expansions, but it was a good example of Bethesda's attitude to open world game design, which offers apparently limitless possibilities but boils down to "Save the world as a good guy or save the world as a psychopath."

Particularly problematic for Bethesda is that Obsidian showed with New Vegas that, even with the same clunky engine, they could deliver a game rooted in more mature themes which reacted ridiculously well to almost any decision the player could make, down to killing the main bad guy halfway through the plot just because they got a good enough weapon to get through the enemy camp, or rejecting all the options offered by all the factions and conquering the wasteland themselves. Fallout 4, on the other hand, offers only mildly differing finales despite there being four major factions you can align with, in varying degrees of opposition to one another. In fact, there's a rather nasty bug in the endgame which can prevent you from taking one particular faction to victory which is enraging if you've been working with that faction for dozens of hours.

This also interacts with the game's second major problem. The Fallout franchise has always been one about choice, about offering the player the option to solve problems through violence, wits, stealth or diplomacy, and facing the full consequences of how such decisions are made. Fallout 3 rolled this back but didn't dispense with it. The fate of the town of Megaton, for example, was well-handled and there were a few quests that could be completed without violence. New Vegas took this to the extreme of allowing you to kill every single person in the game (including vitally important quest-givers) or by allowing you to use your skills and charisma to virtually avoid combat altogether, apart from some forms of wildlife.

Fallout 4 has absolutely zero truck with this. Once in a blue moon you may be able to convince an enemy to flee or surrender with a dialogue choice, but it's insanely rare you are even given the option. Otherwise almost every single quest in the game involves slaughtering everything in sight with high-powered weaponry. This leads to repetition: you get given a quest to go somewhere and kill everyone there. Then the next quest tells you to go somewhere else and kill everyone there. And so on and on. When combined with the "streamlined" character levelling system (which now only gives you a single perk point per level, with virtually all of the perks being combat-related), the result is a game that is effectively a first-person shooter with looting, crafting and occasional dialogue choices. It's fun, for a while, but it's not really Fallout.

Then there's the third problem, which is a perennial issue with RPGs but Fallout 4 somehow takes it to new extremes. The game's levelling system (which, unlike previous games in the series, is uncapped) is slanted almost preposterously in favour of the player. By the time you hit Level 20, you're capable of taking on anything in the game with no issue. By the time you are Level 40 you're an effectively bullet-proof, radiation-proof demigod, able to walk through storms of bullets almost without harm and capable of one-shotting virtually everything in the game. The game is extremely generous with stimpacks (which replenish health), bobby pins (which act as lockpicks), currency and ammo, especially when you choose feats which make them even easier to find. A well-designed game will usually build to a climax where it presents its greatest challenge to the player in the finale, where they have to use all the skills and tools they have amassed to overcome the enemy. In Fallout 4 the final story missions are an absolute cakewalk with zero threat to the player's life.

This leads to an awkward game that, from moment to moment, is often great fun to play. Fallout 4 has a sense of humour to it largely missing from Fallout 3, although not to the riotous extent of the Old World Blues expansion for New Vegas. The game certainly has more personality and flair to it than any previous Bethesda RPG since Morrowind. The combat is great, the settlement-building and equipment modding gives creative players lots to do. The factions are all well-thought-out, and it's a tremendous relief to see the Brotherhood of Steel back to being techno-hoarding fascists rather than the inexplicable white knights they were in the previous game. The new additions to the game, such as the Institute, Minutemen and Railroad, "feel" like Fallout factions. Some of the locations are brilliantly-designed and hauntingly atmospheric. Some of the setpieces, whether designed by the story or encountered randomly, are epic. Some of the questlines, such as ascending a Super Mutant-infested skyscraper in a homage to Die Hard or helping out a crew of robotic pirates trying to convert a 17th Century galleon into a skyship, are original, amusing and memorable.

But the feeling remains that Fallout 4 has fallen far short of its potential. The decision to roll back the real roleplaying elements in favour of violence and combat is disappointing, taking away some of the much-vaunted freedom and flexibility of the game. Dialogue is often clunky and filled with infodumps. The game's "big twist" can be guessed within minutes of the start. And, after what can be a tough opening couple of hours, it becomes far, far too easy. Even as recently as Skyrim these problems could perhaps be overlooked due to a lack of real, credible alternatives. But now if you want an open-world game focused on combat, there are the likes of Far Cry 3 (and 4) and Just Cause 3 to consider. If you want an open-world RPG with much, much more emphasis on roleplaying, The Witcher 3 has Fallout 4 pretty handily beaten. More awkwardly, Fallout 4 falls short of the standards set by its immediate predecessor. It looks a heck of a lot uglier and is much less approachable due to a badly-designed opening area, but Fallout: New Vegas has a much more challenging, interesting and original storyline and narrative, offers far more reactivity and adapts to player choices in a more meaningful way than Fallout 4 does.

Fallout 4 (****) is definitely a good game. It's fun, it drains away the hours and it proves that Bethesda's game design paradigm, despite its age, is still effective. But it's definitely moving further away from the Fallout notions of freedom and consequence that made the franchise one of the most popular and critically-praised video game series of all time. For a lot of people, this won't matter one jot. For others, it will be a shame to see what could have been the greatest CRPG ever made merely settle for being "pretty good".
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 21, 2016 11:38 AM GMT

Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Blu-ray + Bonus Disc] [2015]
Star Wars: The Force Awakens [Blu-ray + Bonus Disc] [2015]
Price: £15.99

79 of 103 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A back to basics approach that pays off, 30 Dec. 2015
How do you go about resurrecting the most iconic movie series of all time, especially after its reputation has been tarnished by prequel films of, at best, mixed quality? It's a question that was confronted by a video game company called BioWare in 2003 when they made a game called Knight of the Old Republic. Their solution was to go back to basics, gathering a crew made up of new characters but riffing off familiar archetypes, visiting a couple of familiar locations and then fighting a strangely familiar final battle on a massive space station, but with a different context and their own unique, killer twist.

Whether J.J. Abrams ever played Knights of the Old Republic is unknown, but he certainly takes the same approach when it comes to resurrecting Star Wars. The Force Awakens is a film that cribs liberally from the original trilogy (especially A New Hope) whilst also establishing its own new, core cast of heroes and villains. This is a movie that sees the generational torch being passed from Luke, Leia and Han to a new trio of heroes made up of Finn, Rey and Poe Dameron, along with plucky helper droid BB-8, and does so with aplomb.

From the opening crawl - which doesn't mention tax disputes or politics - the creators of this movie are on high alert not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Character motivations are established firmly and communicated to the audience effectively. The villains and heroes are clearly delineated, action sequences are heavy on CGI but filmed with long, graceful shots which allow you to follow what's going on, and the music is evocative throughout. There are weaknesses, niggles and problems, some of them more pressing than others, but in the most general terms The Force Awakens is easily the best Star Wars movie since Return of the Jedi, both being a highly enjoyable stand-alone space opera film but also one that lays essential groundwork to be built on in the following movies.

The acting is strong across the board. The toughest job falls to Daisy Ridley and John Boyega as our new main characters, Rey and Finn, and both deliver credible, compelling performances (Ridley, in particular, not just steps up to the mark but smashes through it in several key moments). Oscar Isaac is also excellent as Poe Dameron, giving us a new, roguish pilot character but also one who is a patriot and professional soldier. Harrison Ford also excels as the older, more haunted and more conflicted Han Solo, driving the film on with his still-formidable charisma. On the villain side, Adam Driver takes a very different tack to Kylo Ren than some of the Dark Side antagonists we've seen in the past, one who is as nervous and occasionally uncomfortable in his training in evil as Luke was in training to be a Jedi. This gives Ren immense humanity and makes him an altogether more interesting (and dangerously unpredictable) villain. Andy Serkis gives a mocap performance as Supreme Leader Snoke which is downright weird and surreal, injecting a near-David Lynch's Dune level of bizarrity into what is a mostly straightforward action film. We'll presumably learn more about Snoke in future movies, but the hints we have here are of a rather different kind of evil than the Emperor or the Sith.

On the more disappointing side of things, Domhnall Gleeson is a rather one-note villain as the First Order's military commander, General Hux (I get the impression he was channelling Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin and falling rather short) and Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma is extremely under-utilised.

On the production side, the film has a lot of excellent design work, some phenomenal (if more subtle) musical cues from John Williams and some satisfying lightsabre duels. If the original trilogy's lacked scale and the prequel trilogy's relied too much on CG fakery, The Force Awakens's duels are earthier, more grounded and feel like they hurt a lot more. The space and aerial battles are also excellent: one long shot of an X-wing gunning down a series of TIE Fighters outclasses every dogfight in the prequel trilogy in the space of a few seconds.

As mentioned earlier, there are issues. Star Wars has always had a flexible attitude towards scientific realism (i.e. pretty much ignoring it) but there are a couple of moments where The Force Awakens seemingly abandons the most basic laws of physics and plausibility. These actually stand out because of the restraint and greater nods at realism elsewhere. There's also a couple of moments when the movie goes too far in its quest to avoid exposition. The film does a great job (as the original trilogy did and the prequels notably did not) of allowing audiences to fill in the blanks in the backstory themselves, but in one scene its refusal to explain what's happening led to some extreme confusion amongst the audience and made them think something far more apocalyptic had happened than actually had. There was also not a lot of explanation of the relationships between the Empire, the First Order, the Rebel Alliance, the New Republic and the Resistance. Some of this should be filled in upcoming films, but there was a bit too much left unexplained at this point.

Overall, however, The Force Awakens does exactly what is asked of it. It delivers an entertaining (but not disposable) two hours of entertainment, fun, humour and occasional, relatively deep character exploration. There's a couple of moments of real pathos and tragedy in this movie which I wasn't expecting, moments of humanity and a desire to wrong-foot and surprise the audience but always in a manner that is consistent with what has gone before. It's also, by far, J.J. Abrams's best movie.
Comment Comments (12) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Feb 2, 2016 5:29 PM GMT

Game Of Thrones S5
Game Of Thrones S5

27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The weakest season yet, but still shines with moments of real myth, 26 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Game Of Thrones S5 (Blu-ray)
Much will be written about the fifth season of Game of Thrones in the months and years to come. This was always going to be the season in which George R.R. Martin's novels and David Benioff and D.B. Weiss's TV show were going to dramatically diverge from one another, the near-inevitable result of both the needs of dramatisation (which would likely not bear the introspection and subtlety of the fourth and fifth books in the series) and the fact that the TV show is now outpacing the books, requiring both outright invention on the part of the producers as well as drawing on elements from books as-yet unreleased, or even unwritten.

This process has mixed results. In some cases, the adaptation continues to hit its sweet spot of getting complex stories from the novels across on screen in a simpler form, but one that is also clearer, more concise and retaining the thematic essentials whilst paring away unnecessary (if still interesting) supporting material and characters. King's Landing particularly benefits from this, with lots of minor politics involving new or vanishingly minor characters swept aside in favour of a more ruthless focus on Cersei's growing hatred of the Tyrells and the arrival of the High Sparrow, played with flawless passion by Jonathan Pryce. This culminates in the excellent, distressing "Walk of Shame" sequence, in which Lena Headey knocks it out of the park as Cersei is humiliated to the point where even the most hardened viewer may feel sorry for her, despite her many crimes.

Almost as well-handled (until its conclusion) is the story at the Wall. Lots of minor crises within the Night's Watch are jettisoned in favour of Jon Snow being given a more decisive story arc: becoming Lord Commander, leading a fleet to rescue the wildlings, getting in over his head at the Battle of Hardhome and then being forced to flee but at least having secured a new alliance.

Then we have the infamous Dornish storyline. This is botched, and botched quite badly. It's a waste of both superlative casting (Alexander Siddig is fantastic, but doesn't have much to do) and beautiful scenery (the result of Spain being added to the shooting locations), with the show delivering the feeblest fight sequence in its history, some of the most risible dialogue and, in the relationship between Tyene Sand and Bronn, who is old enough to be her grandfather, some of its most cringe-inducing flirting (despite the heroic efforts of both actors). There are moments where you can see why the producers thought it was a good idea, such as the "reasonable" negotiations between Jaime and Doran and the final scene with Jaime and Myrcella, but it could be argued that the producers should have followed their first instincts and simply not gone to Dorne at all. The fact that the story is also missing its key scene from the books (the one that made the whole story in the books make sense) also hurts it badly.

Then we have Meereen and the Winterfell/Stannis situation, which can both be described as "problematic". The Meereen story is simplified from the books, which might be a good thing, with less interchangeable characters, less factions and less politics involving minor tertiary characters. However, the TV series fails to replace these elements with anything more interesting. Instead we have repeated (and redundant) scenes of the Sons of the Harpy slaughtering curiously ineffectual Unsullied by the dozen and repeated (and redundant) scenes of Daenerys musing on opening the fighting pits or not. There are some golden moments here, such as a long-awaited meeting finally happening and the final, epic showdown in the Great Pit, but otherwise it's a story left spinning its wheels for too long.

The Winterfell story is even more variable. Combining the wildly disparate and disjointed Brienne, Sansa, Theon and Ramsay arcs from the novels into one storyline that fuses them together is a bold move and one that actually makes sense and almost works. It is sabotaged by again benching characters for long periods (Brienne's Season 5 storyline can be summed up as "The Woman Who Stared At Masonry"), running roughshod over motivations (Littlefinger seems uncharacteristically uninformed and stupid) and introducing controversy for controversy's sake (the ending to the sixth episode). Excellent acting by all involved does elevate the story and some scenes are genuinely brilliant. Roose Bolton's matter-of-fact recounting of Ramsay's conception seems to disturb even the unflappably demented Ramsay, whilst Alfie Allen sells Theon's internal struggle to become his old self again with tragic intensity. Sophie Turner also rises above some questionable story twists to deliver some of her finest moments in the role of Sansa to date.

However, it is Stannis's storyline that walks off with the prize for the most howl-inducingly frustrating. Since his introduction in Season 2, the show's depiction of the character has suffered in comparison to the novels, where he is one of Martin's most subtle and complex characters. His motivations are simple on the surface but more complex underneath and he is a character that is determined more by bad PR than reality (the common observation that Stannis humourless is undercut by occasional, very dry almost-quips). Fleetingly, the TV show has shown the same character such as during his determination at the Blackwater and in his first meeting with Jon Snow. But it's not until Season 5 that it seems to nail his character: correcting the grammar of the Night's Watch, nodding approvingly over Jon Snow's leadership tactics and being more fatherly with his daughter. Of course, it was a trap, all done to make his preposterous and utterly unconvincing about-heel turn towards the end of the ninth episode all the more painful to watch. Stephen Dillane was superb in the role, but it does feel like the TV show's producers and writers fundamentally misunderstood the character throughout the series and delivered a highly inconsistent and illogical substitute.

Almost as disappointing is the end to Jon Snow's storyline. In A Dance with Dragons, Jon gradually sends away his most experienced men to man the other castles on the Wall, inadvertently removing the Night's Watch officers who were at the Fist of the First Men and fought the White Walkers there. This leaves behind a cabal of men who haven't seen the true threat from the north and whom it feels convincing would be sceptical of their commander. In the TV series this does not happen, and Castle Black has many rangers present who have just seen thousands of corpses rise from the dead and the White Walkers themselves in the full terrible majesty of their power. The notion that the Watch would continue to question Jon under such circumstances is laughable, not helped by one climactic moment being staged in a manner more befitting Monty Python. Poor stuff.

There are other moments in the fifth season of Game of Thrones when it feels like the show is dealing with pure myth: the voyage through the ruins of Valyria is a genuinely awe-inspiring moment of magic that would do Tolkien proud and the Battle of Hardhome is the best action sequence conceived for the series so far, a full-on zombie rumble that would do Sam Raimi proud and which blows every single zombie action sequence in five seasons of The Walking Dead completely out of the water. The depiction of Braavos is pretty good, and the scenes in the House of Black and White are creepy. The scenes with the dragons are amazing, the more frequent use of CGI establishing shots gives the show a sense of scale that favourably compares with the best films and the production values remain jaw-dropping. The show still has the best cast on television. It remains, even in its weakest moments, watchable.

But there's also the feeling that the fifth season is a little too disjointed, more willing to lean on lazy coincidence and cliche than previous seasons. There's also a distressing lack of attention to detail, with Dorne's location on the title sequence map not being quite right, Jon Snow's fleet apparently landing on the wrong side of the Wall and the plausible military side of things being completely thrown out the window (if Stannis was really a master tactician, he would never do the things he does in the finale).

The fifth season of Game of Thrones is the weakest to date, delivering some of the worst moments and episodes, but it still manages to shine with some real moments of dramatic power. It certainly leaves things in an interesting place going forwards, even if it feels implausible that this huge story (even the TV show's truncated version) can be wrapped up in just thirty more episodes. But we will see how the sixth season handles things next year.

The Last Kingdom - Season 1 [Blu-ray]
The Last Kingdom - Season 1 [Blu-ray]
Dvd ~ Alexander Dreymon
Price: £24.99

10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Compelling and highly enjoyable, 13 Dec. 2015
AD 866. Uhtred, the Northumbrian Ealdorman of Bebbanburg, is slain in battle with raiders and his son, also called, Uhtred, is captured by Danes. Uhtred's spirit amuses one of the warriors, Ragnar, who decides to keep him and raise him as a slave and servant. When Uhtred saves Ragnar's daughter Thyra from another Danish boy, Ragnar adopts him into his household and teaches him the Danish art of war.

A decade later, Ragnar is betrayed and murdered by an affronted rival. Uhtred and a servant, Brida, escape. Learning that his uncle has usurped his father's seat, Uhtred decides to seek refuge in Wessex to the south. With Northumbria and Mercia overrun by the Danes and East Anglia under attack, Wessex is now the last surviving free Saxon kingdom in England. There Uhtred gains service with the king's brother, Alfred. Alfred is a visionary who sees a single great nation called England rising from the ashes of the Saxon kingdoms and the Danish strongholds...a nation that will need a great, first king.

The Last Kingdom is a television adaptation of the novel series of the same name by Bernard Cornwell, Britain's foremost and most popular writer of historical fiction. Cornwell's work has been adapted to the screen before, most notably his Sharpe series (starring a then-unknown Sean Bean) about a fictional officer raised from the ranks during the height of the Napoleonic Wars. The Last Kingdom is an earthier, harsher series where life is cheaper but also arguably more passionate. The series may have been inspired by the success of Game of Thrones, like so many others, but The Last Kingdom differs from them in one key respect: it's very, very good.

The first season adapts the first two novels in the series, The Last Kingdom and The Pale Horsemen. The through-line of the season is Uhtred's attempt to find a home where he can be accepted. Among the Danes, his Northumbrian birth causes some to look down on him, but amongst the Saxons his Danish upbringing is viewed with suspicion. His refusal to convert to Christianity also makes life difficult at the court in Winchester. Several times he offends his patron, Alfred of Wessex (the later King Alfred the Great), and he earns the enmity of several powerful noblemen, such as Odda the Younger. He does take an English wife, which helps with his image, but this causes further problems when their different backgrounds, religions and outlooks clash.

The series is clever enough to paint Uhtred as a deeply flawed human being. He is young and for all of the harshness of his times and the need to grow up quickly he can still be hotheaded, precipitous and foolish. His brashness and bravery is instrumental in achieving several victories and surviving ambushes, but also works against him as he blunders through the intricacies of court politics. Fortunately, various allies such as the priest Beocca and the great Wessex warrior Leofric are on hand to help him survive.

The series succeeds because of excellent writing, which borrows from the books but also mixes in other historical ideas, and tremendous performances. Alexander Dreymon's surly performance as Uhtred kind of grates until you realise he's supposed to be surly and arrogant, and this lessens over the series as he learns (more or less) humility. David Dawson is also nothing less than exceptional as Alfred, the bookish and quiet younger brother of the king who acts as his spymaster and chief diplomat who then unexpectedly is given the throne and crown despite a lack of charisma or battlefield skills. The fact that he somehow overcomes these problems to become the only English king in twelve centuries to ever be acknowledged "The Great" at first seems implausible, but his growth and evolution over the eight episodes leaves you in no doubt that this is a great man, a statesman who prefers reasoned dialogue but is prepared to use force when necessary. Adrian Bower gives an excellent performance as Leofric, and Leofric and Uhtred's "bromance" gives rise to many excellent moments of humour and comradeship. Female characters are also not forgotten, with Emily Cox giving a convincing conflicted performance as Brida, Uhtred's first love who cannot abandon her Danish ties. Charlie Murphy is also excellent as Iseult, the "Shadow Queen" of Cornwall, and Amy Wren gives a dignified performance as Mildrith, Uhtred's highly reluctant bride. Eliza Butterworth also has a tough role as Queen Aelswith, who initially appears to be very one-note, but later nuance is introduced to the character in a convincing manner.

In fact, all of the performances are excellent, helped by the quality script and great production values. The show is clearly made on a much tighter budget than Game of Thrones - the eight episodes in this first season apparently cost considerably less than just two episodes of Thrones - but delivers some impressive sets, visuals and battle sequences anyway.

If there are any weaknesses it's that the show can be a tad confusing at times, especially in its failure to show the passage of time. It's not made clear, for example, that months pass between some of the episodes, leading to the appearance of the Danes making peace and then breaking it almost instantly. There's also an issue with foreshadowing given that Uhtred is established as primarily wanting to retake his homeland of Bebbanburg but this ambition is then put on the backburner for most of the season. If the next season adapts the third and fourth novels in the series (as seems likely), this storyline should return to prominence then.

The first season of The Last Kingdom (****½) has a bit of a slow start but then transforms into a highly compelling, enjoyable slice of historical drama. It is available in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) now and will be released in the USA (on DVD only, controversially) on 6 January.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Dec 19, 2015 12:52 PM GMT

The Returned - Series 2 [Blu-ray] [2015]
The Returned - Series 2 [Blu-ray] [2015]
Dvd ~ Anne Cosigny
Price: £19.99

20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An emotionally satisfying conclusion to the series, but not everything is answered, 6 Dec. 2015
Six months have passed since a large number of deceased people enigmatically returned to life in a remote French mountain town, followed by part of the town flooding. Most of the population has fled and the army has arrived to investigate what's going on, but the local population is reluctant to help them. Meanwhile, the Returned (and a few living allies) are living in a suburb cut off from the rest of the town by floodwaters...but a second batch of Returned have arrived, including some of a more hostile and murderous bent.

The first season of Les Revenants aired on Canal+ in France in 2012. After a belated three-year delay, during which the series won over cult audiences in Britain and America via broadcasts on Channel 4 and Sundance, its second season has arrived. Surprisingly, as the showrunner indicated that they had a three-year plan during production of the first season, the final episode of the season does wrap up the story and most of the characters pretty well. That certainly doesn't mean everything is answered, but it does give a sense of closure in case the show does not return.

The second season comprises sequences sent in the present day, six months after the flood, and flashbacks to several points in the past. Most of these surround the collapse of the local dam in 1977 and the subsequent inundation that killed more than a hundred people. Unexpectedly for such a low-key show, at one point we actually see the accident take place in full force, with some astonishing CGI shots of the destruction. It's a moment that wrongfoots the audience in all the right ways, and more follow.

The second season is bleaker and more paranoid than the first. The army and a newly-arrived engineer are asking questions that none of the locals want to answer for fear of sounding like lunatics, or endangering their loved ones (living or dead). No-one is sure who to trust, especially as the floodwaters have broken up several families. However, the Returned themselves are becoming divided. The return of Milan, Serge and Toni's murderous and deluded father, causes significant problems, as does the birth of Nathan, the son of revenant Simon and the still-living Adele. Julie has dedicated herself to looking after the enigmatic child Victor, but when his mother and brother both return as well she finds herself shut out of his life.

There are many stories in the second season, but at its core it is the story of Victory, the unusual child with the terrifying thousand-yard stare, and Julie, the bruised, battered and defiant survivor of one of Serge's serial killer sprees. Julie is further devastated by the (apparent) loss of her lover Laure during the events of the Season 1 finale, but she tries to find redemption in Victor. When that is taken away, she is plunged into despair, but recovers thanks to a friendly nurse and an old man in the hospital who holds the key to Victor's past.

It's at this point that the series does what you'd never expect it to do: it unlocks the past and gives us lengthy explanations and flashbacks showing Victor's life before, during and after the flood. This rewriting of the backstory we learned in the first season could risk feeling forced or a retcon, but works beautifully. It both explains why the dead are coming back (if not quite how) and how the situation can be remedied, and what the consequences might be if it isn't fixed. The young Swann Nambotin has to do a lot of dramatic and emotional heavy-lifting to make these pivotal scenes and he delivers in spades. Céline Sallette's performance as Julie is heartbreaking, and remarkable as she has to portray despair and emotional numbness but still be compelling to watch.

Elsewhere the show falters a little bit, apparently having issues with returning castmembers: I get the impression in early episodes that they thought they could get Alix Poisson back later on as Laure and then realised they couldn't, so killed her offscreen, which doesn't really track with Julie's comments in early episodes. Other major characters from the first season also have limited screentime in the second (such as brothers Toni and Serge). But otherwise the show handles its cast extremely well, particularly the story of the twin sisters Camille and Lena which provided us with the emotional core of the first season and pays off well here. The only characters who do feel really short-changed are Adele and Simon, particularly the completely baffling ending to their story which feels like it goes against what is established elsewhere in the series.

It wouldn't be Les Revenants if characters sat down and gave us a long explanation about what is going on, and they don't here. But by the end of the second season enough information is given to put together a reasonable conclusion about what has happened and how it has been resolved...and how it might happen again, as a couple of minor plot threads are left dangling for a future third season. If that does happen it will be a very different show, and at the moment feels completely optional.

The second season of Les Revenants (****½) is wonderfully well-written, fantastically acted and beautifully shot, complete with stunning cinematography and an even better musical score than the first year, again by Scottish band Mogwai.

Bulletstorm (PC DVD)
Bulletstorm (PC DVD)
Offered by Games Heaven
Price: £6.23

4.0 out of 5 stars but it is quite a fun one. Dispatching vast hordes of enemies (occasionally this ..., 5 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Bulletstorm (PC DVD) (Video Game)
Space mercenary Grayson Hunt has been betrayed by his former commanding officer, Sarrano, who is now trying to kill him. Hunt tracks down Sarrano and forces his ship to crash on Stygia, formerly a pleasant colony world now overrun by mercs and the fercious wildlife. The battle between the two continues, with Grayson's obsession for revenge clouding all other priorities.

Bulletstorm is a first-person shooter with a fairly thin story (kill everything in sight) designed to support two fairly unusual gameplay mechanics. The first is the "Killshot" system, which awards you more points for the more imaginative, visceral and spectacular ways of killing an enemy. The game unlocks more controls, mechanics and way for doing this, resulting in an ever-escalating sense of mayhem to the game. The second is the fabled "Kick" mechanic. Previously seen in the underappreciated Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, the "Kick" mechanic sees you introducing enemies to your character's foot, delivered into them at apparently hyperkinetic velocities capable of sending a ten-foot-tall mutant clad in body armour flying about thirty feet in a given direction.

Bulletstorm is not a particularly subtle game, but it is quite a fun one. Dispatching vast hordes of enemies (occasionally this borders on Serious Sam levels of farcical numbers) with guns and The Kick is the order of the day, intercut by some spectacular vistas, some excellent graphics and a story that is basic but delivered very well. The game shows some amusing meta-awareness of its own status as a meathead bro-shooter, but doesn't go overboard with this. The game makes it clear that Grayson is an absolutely reprehensible idiot and seeing him called out on his stupidity by both his friends and enemies is quite satisfying. The other characters are well-drawn, particularly your constant companion Ishi who you have to half-lobotomise in the opening sequence of the game (to save his life) and he never really forgives you for it. In fact, the game's musings (restrained as they are) on violence and morality, combined with the rather Dubai-esque backdrops of the devastated cityscape most of the game occurs in, makes Bulletstorm feel like a very bizarre but appropriate companion game to Spec Ops: The Line. It's a comparison that weirdly works well.

The action is satisfying, the graphics are impressive and the story, characters and writing are all better and cleverer than they really have any right to be. However, it is a short game, there are quite a lot of cut scenes and also far too many Quick Time Events, where player agency is removed in favour of the designers frothing at the mouth to show you how awesome this bit they've planned is (but rarely is). The game is also ridiculously easy, which apparently is deliberate: the designers wanted everyone to be able to finish the game, show off their killstreaks and get to the (groan) cliffhanger ending. That's great, but it does make playing the game a bit of a mindless affair at times.

Bullestorm (***½) is certainly not worth paying full price for, but if you can find it as a budget release it's a fast-paced, fun shooter with a bit more depth than is normally found in games of this kind.

Orphan Black - Season 3 DVD (Region 2, 4, Aust Import)
Orphan Black - Season 3 DVD (Region 2, 4, Aust Import)
Dvd ~ Tatiana Maslany
Offered by TV Depot UK
Price: £19.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A terrific return to form after the slightly weaker second season, 24 Oct. 2015
Sarah Manning and her clone-sisters find themselves caught in the crossfire between their very uneasy allies, the Dyad Institute, and a clandestine military experiment involving a batch of male clones. At the same time, Sarah is closing in on finding the origin of the cloning experiments, a mission that will take her far from home, to London and the deserts of Mexico.

The third season of Orphan Black opens and expands the world revealed in the opening two seasons, a world where secret experiments in the 1980s have resulted in the creation of two batches of clones. Now adults, the clones are finding one another and trying to discover the reasons for their existence, and those answers are not happy ones.

The first season of Orphan Black was unmitigated brilliance, a tour-de-force of acting ability as Tatiana Maslanay moved between playing multiple but very different characters with convincing ease. The second season stumbled a little by introducing too many new players, new characters and new factions. Sorting out the Proletheans from Dyad from mercenaries from military groups from Topside could be a little confusing at times.

The third season opens with these elements very much still in play, now expanded with the introduction of a group of new clones played by Ari Millen. What feels like it could become a confusing morass is abruptly reversed by some very, very smart writing decisions. The number of factions and storylines is abruptly slimmed down, some relatively convincing retcons are used to keep the same characters in play without having to bring in too many new faces and, whenever things could get too out of control, the show reels the story back in and refocuses on the core triumvirate of Sarah, Cosima and Alison. Indeed, the show knocks it out of the park with an episode that focuses on Alison's attempts to get elected as school trustee and mixes up the clones pretending to be one another, old-school style. It's extremely unusual to see a series self-aware enough to realise it's running into a problem, and then decisively fix it with both verve and intelligence.

There are a small number of new characters, most notably Ferdinand, an eccentric (but lethal) enforcer for topside played with relish by the always-brilliant James Frain, whilst British acting legend Alison Steadman joins the cast in the last couple of episodes in a pivotal role. Otherwise the focus remains on Tatiana Maslany's typically compelling multiple performances. This time around Ari Millen also has to play multiple characters and does a good job at it, even if the show backpedals a little from giving them the same time and variations that the female clones have.

By the end of the third season, the show has done away with a number of long-running storylines and potential long-term threats, although the finale does open things up by hinting at new dangers. With two seasons remaining in the showrunners' plan, it will be interesting to see where the story goes from here.

The third season of Orphan Black (*****) restores the show to the heights reached in the first season and is compelling viewing, not to mention being genuinely impressive in how it handles a few structural and writing issues that other shows would have simply let fester.

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

4.0 out of 5 stars A book brimming with wit, attitude and intelligence, 24 Oct. 2015
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For centuries the nations of Nasheen and Chenja have fought a gruelling, deadlocked war. Millions on both sides have been killed by airbursts, poison gas and hostile swarms of insects. Now peace has come. Hundreds of thousands of young men and boys have returned home to the cities of Nasheen to find that their female rulers don't know what to do with them, but still expect them to obey. A movement for equality and representation is building, spearheaded by a mysterious figure. Retired bel dame Nyx is "persuaded" out of retirement to deal with the problem. Her mission will involve crossing a vast desert to unknown lands, a chance meeting with old friends and the final hope that she might find some peace at last.

The Bel Dame Apocrypha series has done increasingly interesting and original things with each volume. Overall, the series is a curious mix of fantasy and science fiction, set so far in the future that technology and magic have become indistinguishable and a "fallen" race of humans, divided internally by religion and ideology, must make use of them to survive on a hostile, only partially-terraformed planet. The SF elements work because they are subtle and kept in the background, and overall the "bugpunk" theme is sold because the author commits to it, making her weird concepts convincing due to how the characters treat them as ordinary.

God's War was an accomplished debut, benefiting from a razor-sharp sense of story but being a bit rough around the edges. Infidel was superior, a brutal (even traumatising) novel that was incredibly powerful but made you wonder if the author should be hauled before an international tribunal for the mistreatment of fictional characters. Rapture retreats a little from being that hardcore - although it's certainly not a happy novel - and instead shifts to being a more detailed and in-depth exploration of the world and history of Umayma and how it will develop going forwards.

It's a remarkable book, driven by anger and fury and burning intelligence. A lengthy crossing of a hostile desert made me draw comparisons with Mad Max: Fury Road (although Rapture predates that film by three years), not for the plot but for its sense of purpose. We learn more about the world and what's going on in remote areas, but the book remains focused on the characters and how they relate to one another. The final collapse of relationships long tottering on the edge is sad, but also inevitable and then horribly liberating, in a way that's true to life.

The book is mainly concerned with its own storyline, but finds time to wrap up long-standing plot threads from earlier volumes. Indeed, characters and arcs established in earlier volumes which felt a little disconnected from Nyx and her team are here tied into the main storyline with great skill. It's not a neat ending to the series - and there is at least one large dangling plot thread that potential sequels could pick up on - but it does bring about enough satisfying resolution to work if there is never another Bel Dame novel.

If the novel does have some weaknesses it might be that some of the desert sequences in the middle do drag on a long time when the book's finale (which involves crossing the entire continent) is squeezed into a few too few pages, feeling rushed to the edges of incoherence. But the author just about manages to carry it off, producing an ending that's epic, spectacular and wonderfully messy.

Rapture (****) is a readable, finely-characterised and highly imaginative novel, brimming with wit and attitude. It is available now in the UK and USA.

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