Saturday, 16 January 2077

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After much debate (and some requests) I have signed up with crowdfunding service Patreon to better support future blogging efforts. You can find my Patreon page here and more information after the jump.

Wednesday, 20 February 2019

The Bonehunters by Steven Erikson

The rebellion known as the Whirlwind has been defeated and now its last army is fleeing to the storied city of Y'Ghatan. The Malazan 14th Army, the Bonehunters, is in hot pursuit, keen to eradicate the last vestiges of rebellion on Seven Cities. But fate, the gods and the crafty general known as Leoman of the Flails have other ideas. Elsewhere, black ships from beyond the western oceans have set events are in motion that will engulf the greatest warriors in the world, Karsa Orlong of the Teblor and Icarium Lifestealer among them, and will see the Master of the Deck, Ganoes Paran, reluctantly take a direct hand in events.

Steven Erikson's Malazan Book of the Fallen series is initially made up of three interlocking story arcs: events on Genabackis, events on Seven Cities and events on the continent of Lether. For the first five books these story arcs have been broadly kept separate, but the sixth volume is when they decisively collide with one another. To put it another way, if Malazan was the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is the first Avengers movie where you get to see characters from all the previous sub-series meet up and rub shoulders with one another.

There is undeniably a visceral thrill to this, as it represents the shape of the over-arcing Malazan storyline starting to come into focus. We start getting a better idea of what the series overall is going to be about and where the final battles will take place, although much remains murky. The feeling that the series is - at last! - starting to coalesce into one coherent, cohesive narrative is satisfying.

That said, it is also not handled entirely well. Previous Malazan books have been relatively smooth and consistent in their tone. This book feels a lot more inconsistent, a side-effect of mashing together characters from rather different previous books and storylines. There's also a slight air of contrivance to the book. Characters meet up in unlikely coincidences and mysterious new allies show up having spent two years pre-preparing a ritual which will come in handy at a key moment. Characters portentously declare things to one another that will leave the reader baffled. At one point, apropos of Douglas Adams, the moon actually explodes for no immediately discernible reason (which gets an explanation later on that still feels rather random).

The book is also a bit on the over-full side. Some Malazan novels are overlong and have a lot of filler in them; others (particularly the first three) are super-lean and bursting out of the page limit with incident, character developments and intriguing themes. The Bonehunters instead feels like the plots of three separate novels have been pushed into it and the focus careens between them with the grace of a pinball machine. So much is going on that major events and characters are given very short shrift indeed (the incidental death of one major, long-standing character is disappointing). In particular, the rise of two previous confirmed villains into positions of supreme power and influence comes out of left field and is fundamentally unconvincing, even moreso on a reread.

But this is still a Malazan novel written by Steven Erikson, so that means we still get excellent and brutally tragic set-piece events, wonderful moments of prose and dialogue and some effectively powerful reflections of the human condition. At one point the book threatens to turn into a disaster novel, which would have been interesting (fantasy disaster novels are pretty thin on the ground), although the book then shoots off in a different direction. There's also a series of phenomenal action sequences paced through the book, with the Malazans and Whirlwind soldiers clashing in a burning city, a naval face-off between two mighty powers and, most impressively, a long-running battle through the streets of a major city as Kalam and the Claw finally settle their debts. There's a lot of good stuff in this book, it just doesn't necessarily hang together as well as it should.

The Bonehunters (***½) is one of the more divisive books in the series - I've seen people lament it as the worst book in the series (which I don't agree with) and praise it as the best (which I also don't agree with) - but it's also one of the most action-packed and is the one that brings the focus and ultimate point of the series into sharper relief, which is a good thing. In order to get there, an (even for this series) unlikely number of plot twists and coincidences have to take place, which makes the book feel more artificial than almost any other Malazan novel released to date. That said, it's written so well that you may not even care. The book is available now in the UK and USA.

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Amazon confirms first WHEEL OF TIME director

Amazon have announced that Uta Briesewitz will be directing the first two episodes of its Wheel of Time TV series.

The first two episodes, provisionally entitled Leavetaking and Shadow's Waiting, have been written by showrunner Rafe Judkins and Amanda Kate Shuman. It is believed that they will cover the first 300 pages or so of the first novel in the series, The Eye of the World.

Uta Briesewitz is a German cinematographer and director. Her TV resume is most impressive, including episodes of Orange is the New Black, The 100, Jessica Jones, Fear the Walking Dead, Iron Fist, The Defenders, The Deuce, Altered Carbon and Westworld. Her episode of Westworld, Season 2's Kiksuya, has attracted widespread critical acclaim and been cited as one of the best episodes of the series.

The first season starts shooting in September in and around Prague in the Czech Republic and is expected to air in Amazon in late 2020.

Monday, 18 February 2019


In the biggest non-surprise story of the year so far, Netflix has decided to terminate their four-year collaboration with Marvel. They have now cancelled The Punisher just after the release of its second season and Jessica Jones ahead of the launch of its third. This follows the cancellation of Iron Fist, Luke Cage and Daredevil last year.

Marvel pinned the blame on Netflix, saying the streaming service had the final say on whether to renew the show or not. Netflix in turn have blamed Marvel for trying to change their contractual agreement (most notably by reducing their seasons from 13 to 10 episodes, as every single viewer urgently wanted). However, it's hard not to see the real reason here: in autumn this year Marvel's parent company will be launching the Disney+ streaming service with a number of new shows, including mini-series focusing on MCU characters Scarlet Witch, Vision, Loki, Winter Soldier and Falcon, not to mention multiple Star Wars shows and Disney's immense back catalogue of TV series and films. Netflix decided it was not worthwhile to effectively be promoting a rival service's characters for them.

Marvel's statement is interesting, however, confirming that they will be exploring these characters again in the future. Whether that is directly continuing these shows with the same casts - which they can do after a two-year break - or some kind of full reboot is unclear.

Counting the still-to-air Jessica Jones Season 3, the Marvel/Netflix collaboration has chalked up 13 seasons and 161 episodes in less than four years, which is quite impressive. Some of the seasons were exceptional (in particular the first season apiece of Daredevil and Jessica Jones), although others were not, and the big team-up in The Defenders fell a little flat. Given the sheer speed at which the shows were producing episodes, which saw some fans fall off the bandwagon, and the increasing variance in quality, the cancellation of the shows is perhaps not entirely the disaster it would have been a couple of years back. Still, Daredevil had gotten his mojo back in the third season and Iron Fist's second season was a great improvement over the first, so there are some regrets about seeing where these stories woudl have gone.

The final season of Jessica Jones and the Marvel/Netflix universe is expected to be released in the next couple of months.

Friday, 15 February 2019

Amazon launches LORD OF THE RINGS website with a map

Amazon has launched a website and Twitter account for its upcoming Lord of the Rings prequel TV series.

The website so far only consists of a big, blank map of Middle-earth, one that presumably will get filled in with new information once the series starts. This map is notable for a curious feature: it extends further east than most previous maps, showing mountains and forests on the far edge of the lands of Rhûn. Whether this is an aesthetic choice or hints that the TV show might take us to this region remains unknown.

The Lord of the Rings TV series will reportedly explore a period between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, focusing on the adventures of a young Aragorn, son of Arathorn, in the time period when he travelled into remote regions of Middle-earth. Production is expected to start at the end of this year for the show to debut in late 2020 or early 2021.

Edit: The eastward extension of the map actually comes from a movie tie-in map released in 2001 for The Fellowship of the Ring (see above), so may not be particularly relevant to this new map.

Jason Momoa in talks to join the DUNE casting rollercoaster

Jason Momoa is the latest actor jump on the Dune casting train.

Momoa, recently a big draw in Aquaman and of course his turn as Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones, is apparently in strong discussions over joining the cast as Duncan Idaho. This is a highly significant casting choice as Idaho - or myriad clones of him - is the only character to appear in every one of the original six canonical Dune novels. If the movie is a big hit and the entire series is adapted for film, Momoa could be playing this role for a long time.

If the talks are successful, Momoa will be joining a star-studded cast consisting of Josh Brolin as Gurney Halleck, Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, Zendaya as Chani, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Dave Bautista as Rabban, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides. The two-part film will be directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has directed the two finest SF movies this decade (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049).

Wednesday, 13 February 2019

Amazon confirms GOOD OMENS release date and adds Benedict Cumberbatch to cast

Amazon have confirmed that Good Omens, a six-part mini-series based on the novel by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, will be released worldwide on Amazon Prime on 31 May this year. The BBC, who co-produced the series will also show the series in November.

Amazon have also released the title sequence in full (see above) and confirmed that Benedict Cumberbatch has joined the cast, voicing an effects-driven version of the devil who shows up in the final episode.

The series was written and produced by Neil Gaiman, fulfilling a promise he made to Terry Pratchett before the latter's passing in 2015.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 5

Things seem to be going well: Buffy and Willow are thriving at university, Buffy is enjoying a healthy relationship with an ordinary, living guy and Giles has found an exciting new job. A combination of family illness and the arrival of mysterious new threat in town soon leaves Buffy on the back foot and relying on her friends and family more than ever....even her little sister, Dawn.

The fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an interesting set of episodes. After the slightly mundane Season 4, the fifth season sets up a much more formidable villain in the shape of Glory, a hell-demon who was once a goddess, ruling an entire dimension of pain and suffering. Trapped in our world, she is plotting her return home, which would be fine if it the process wasn't going to destroy Earth along the way. Buffy and her friends conspire to stop the apocalypse. So far, so standard.

However, the season wrong-foots the audience and upends expectations almost straight away. The first episode sets up none other than Dracula himself as a nemesis for Buffy, to the point where the audience might be expecting him to be the season's big bad, but instead he turns out to be a bit of comic relief, one and done. Then we get our first real shock: Buffy has a 14-year-old sister, played with considerable charm by Michelle Trachtenberg. Of course, we know that Buffy doesn't have a sister but every character in the show reacts as if she's always been there. Unravelling this puzzle takes a few episodes, but so well does Trachtenberg fit in that you sometimes forget she hasn't been around all along.

The battle against Glory is fun, although perhaps a little too low-key: the threat recedes for several episodes in the back half of the season and the show struggles to explain why Glory - show to be effortlessly superior to Buffy in combat  - doesn't simply kill Buffy when it would be logical to do so.

The show balances the supernatural threat against a much more mundane one, a non-magical illness that strikes one of our regular characters. This is dealt with realistically and with grace, culminating in The Body, which is not only the best episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer but one of the greatest episodes of television ever written, a searing and beautifully-acted deep dive into grief, shock and loss that is genuinely upsetting to watch. Unlike one of the other all-time great episodes of the series, like say Hush or Once More With Feeling, this one isn't going to be getting lots of repeat airings because it is quite raw to watch, but it may be the show and director Joss Whedon's finest hour.

Season 5 (****½, except The Body which is clearly *****) has some weaker moments and episodes that don't gel quite as well as they should, but overall it contains a strong arc, the best individual episode of the series and a striking, shocking ending. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UKUSA).

Josh Brolin joins DUNE

Josh Brolin has joined the cast of Dune, makine one of the strongest-cast movies of recent times even better. Shooting is due to start in the next few weeks on the project, which will span two movies for a likely late 2020/early 2021 release.

Brolin is playing the role of Gurney Halleck, the Atreides swordmaster and tutor to protagonist Paul Atreides. Halleck was previously played by Patrick Stewart in David Lynch's Dune in 1984.

Brolin joins a star-studded cast consisting of Oscar Isaac as Duke Leto Atreides, Javier Bardem as Stilgar, Zendaya as Chani, Stellan Skarsgård as Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, Dave Bautista as Rabban, Timothée Chalamet as Paul Atreides, Charlotte Rampling as Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam and Rebecca Ferguson as Jessica Atreides. The film will be directed by Denis Villeneuve, who has directed the two finest SF movies this decade (Arrival and Blade Runner 2049).

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 4

Sunnydale High has been destroyed, the world saved (again) and now Buffy and her friends have to face a brand new challenge: college. As Buffy tries to juggle slaying and studying, a mysterious team of crack demon-hunting soldiers arrives in Sunnydale, and an old enemy returns.

American high school dramas seem to inevitably reach that point where it's no longer possible to keep the kids in school any more and send them off to college, which can also be a shark-jumping moment as the old, successful paradigm is dropped and the show struggles to adapt to a new one. In the case of Buffy's fourth season, the show adapts to the new order with surprising grace. It helps that there's also a turnover of cast to keep things fresh. Angel and Cordelia left for their own spin-off show at the end of Season 3 and it's not long before Oz is also out of the picture. Cue new regular characters Riley Finn and Tara, with returning villains Spike and Anya promoted to regulars as well.

This freshness also extends to a more realistic take on the "moving on from high school" trope. Only Buffy and Willow make it to college, with Xander entering the world of full-time employment and Giles taking the year off, effectively.

This change and growth is a good thing, which the show mostly handles well in terms of characterisation. Unfortunately, it leads to a somewhat underwhelming main story arc. After the battles against the Master, Angelus and the Mayor, Season 4's main villain takes an inordinate amount of time to emerge. We're well past the halfway point of the season when the main threat becomes clear and even then it feels kind of underwhelming. The stand-alone episodes also struggle to pick up the slack, with several of the show's worst episodes since Season 1 (such as the remarkably poorly-conceived Beer Bad) falling in Season 4.

Still, this is Buffy and the show refuses to let itself get dragged down by a couple of weak spots. The dialogue sparkles even in weaker episodes, the actors are all comfortable in their roles and the increased production value results in better effects (although less said about Adam's prosthetics the better). The new additions to the cast are mostly solid (although Riley is a very bland character) and the season gives the cast chances to show off their other talents, such as Giles's guitar playing and singing. But the season's triumph is in giving us two bold, unusual and experimental episodes which rank among the show's finest.

Hush may be the show's finest hour, or at least the finest hour you can show people without a lot of other context (unlike The Body, Once More With Feeling and Conversations with Dead People). A bunch of demons show up in Sunnydale and steal everyone's voices, leaving the cast having to fight an enemy without the ability to speak. Given how much TV writing is conveyed by dialogue, making a speech-less episode work is a monumental challenge but one the cast pulls off brilliantly.

The other such episode is Restless, the season finale which takes place in a shared dream experience. "Dream episodes" are ten-a-penny in SF and fantasy franchises, but few capture the lucid surrealness of a dreaming experience as well as this one. It's a busy episode with some very clever writing which addresses everything which has happened in the season and also starts setting up Season 5 (which opens with one of the biggest whiplash moments of surprise of any TV show).

Season 4 (****, but ***** for Hush and Restless) is not the best season of Buffy and may in fact have the weakest overall story arc. But that is saved by the strong dialogue, characterisation and performances, and two of the best episodes the series ever produced. The season is available now as part of the complete Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD box set (UKUSA).