Saturday, 16 January 2077

Support The Wertzone on Patreon


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.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

JV Jones breaks silence, joins Patreon

Fantasy author JV Jones has joined Patreon and restarted her Twitter account, breaking over three years of total silence.

Jones is the author of the superb Sword of Shadows series, consisting (so far) of A Cavern of Black Ice (1999), A Fortress of Grey Ice (2002), A Sword From Red Ice (2007) and Watcher of the Dead (2010). A fifth book, Endlords, has been promised, with the series overall expected to last for either five or six volumes. The Sword of Shadows is a sequel to her earlier Book of Words trilogy, consisting of The Baker's Boy (1995), A Man Betrayed (1996) and Master and Fool (1997). She has also written a fine stand-alone fantasy novel, The Barbed Coil (1997).

Jones reports that the last few years have been very difficult but she is now getting her writing career back on track, with finishing her current novel in progress (presumably Endlords) a priority. She is also planning to release blog entries and articles via Patreon.

This is excellent news. It's good to see Ms. Jones back writing and hopefully we'll be seeing the end of the story she started over twenty years ago soon.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

Friday, 17 February 2017

HARMONQUEST returns for a second season

Dan Harmon's fantasy roleplaying/improvisational comedy show HarmonQuest is returning for a second season.

The first season of the show was one of the unexpected highlights of last year. It was very funny and revelled in showing the fun that people can have playing a pen-and-paper RPG. The season ended in an epic battle (where the regular crew were joined by Nathan Fillion) against the forces of evil and were triumphant, but at the cost of one of their number being sucked into a portal into an other dimension. It was a bit of a cliffhanger, which I assume will be addressed in the new season.

Guest stars this season will include Harmon's Community buddy Gillian Jacobs, Elizabeth Olsen (late of the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Scarlet Witch) and comedian and actor Patton Oswalt.

The second season will air on Seeso in the summer.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Neil Gaiman working on a NEVERWHERE sequel

Neil Gaiman has confirmed that he is working on a sequel or successor to his 1997 novel Neverwhere (itself an adaptation of the 1996 BBC mini-series). In an interview with the UK's Channel 4 News, he says he was sparked off by the idea of including refugees in the world he created. Gaiman spent some time last year in a refugee camp in Jordan.

Gaiman did not provide much more information than the following:
“I’m working on a new novel. For the first time in twenty years I’m going to go back to my novel Neverwhere. For me it’s taking not only the dispossessed, not only the homeless, not only those who fall through the cracks, but also the refugees. Also, people who are fleeing war, fleeing intolerable situations, barely getting out with their lives and then what happens to them next."
Neverwhere started off as a BBC TV series, developed with comedian Lenny Henry, before transitioning to a novel the following year. In 2013 it was adapted for the radio, starring James McAvoy, Natalie Dormer, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okenedo, Sir Christopher Le and Anthony Head, In 2014 Gaiman wrote a long-promised spin-off novella, How the Marquis Got His Coat Back, for George R.R. Martin and Gardener Dozois's anthology Rogues. This in turn was adapted for radio last year.

The new novel will be called The Seven Sisters. No date has been set for publication.

Neverwhere was hugely influential on the development of modern urban fantasy. China Mieville cites the novel as a major inspiration for his novels King Rat and Un Lun Dun.

Gaiman was speaking ahead of the launch of his new TV series, American Gods, which will air in the USA on Starz in April.

Gaiman is also writing the script for a TV adaptation of his collaborative novel with Sir Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. After almost twenty-five years in development hell, this has finally been greenlit for production by the BBC and Amazon.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

The Longest SFF Novels of All Time

With the recent news that Brandon Sanderson's Oathbringer is going to be very big indeed, I thought it'd be interesting to look at the longest SFF novels and series.

These lists are not exhaustive and consistency of reporting these figures can be quite variable. I have opted for word counts as the most accurate way of estimating length, as page counts can vary immensely based on page margins and font sizes.

Longest Novels

1. Varney the Vampire by James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest
667,000 words • 1845-47

This long novel was serialised in "penny dreadfuls" of the mid-19th Century and chronicles the adventures of Sir Francis Varney, a vampire. This book's genre credentials have been disputed (with the suggestion that Varney is actually a madman rather than a real vampire), but there seems to be a general acceptance that the book is a genuine work of the fantastic, and the longest SFF work ever published in one volume (which it was in 1847). The book was also influential on Bram Stoker's later Dracula (1897) and introduced many of the tropes of vampire fiction, including the "sympathetic vampire" protagonist.

2. Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
645,000 words • 1957

Highly debatable as a genre work rather than a political novel, although the story is partially set against a dystopian background and genre historian John Clute identifies the novel as SF (plus it inspired the very SF Bioshock video game series and fantasy Sword of Truth series), so okay, we'll count it.

3. Jerusalem by Alan Moore
615,000 words • 2016

Alan Moore's prose magnum opus is a massive, dizzying and baffling journey into the surreal. It's so huge that it is available in a two-volume edition in a nice slipcase.

4. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
545,000 words • 1996

Infinite Jest has primarily literary allusions, although the book's setting - a North American superstate consisting of a unified Canada, USA and Mexico - is a futuristic dystopia. The book could have even been bigger, with 250 manuscript pages trimmed for length by the publishers.

5. To Green Angel Tower by Tad Williams
520,000 words • 1993

The concluding volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is bigger than the first two novels in the series (The Dragonbone Chair and Stone of Farewell) combined. A titanic, shelf-destroying novel, it is only available in mass-market paperback in two volumes, subtitled Siege and Storm.

6. The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon
502,000 words • 2001

The fifth volume of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander historical romance series, spiced up by a time-spanning culture clash, is absolutely gigantic.

7. A Breath of Snow and Ashes by Diana Gabaldon
501,000 words • 2005

The sixth volume of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander historical romance series doesn't quite match its predecessor.

8. Ash: A Secret History by Mary Gentle
500,000 words • 2000

Mary Gentle's novel is a dazzling mix of SF, historical drama, fantasy, alternate history and generaly bizarrity. The novel was published in one volume in the UK, but the American publishers released it as four in the USA.

9. Oathbringer by Brandon Sanderson (estimated)
495,000 words (estimated) • 2017

The final word count could go up or down, but Brandon Sanderson has estimated that the third volume of The Stormlight Archive will be 25% longer than the already-huge second volume.

10. The Stand by Stephen King
472,376 words • 1978

Stephen King's biggest novel in a single volume, notable for also foreshadowing The Dark Tower series. The above word count is for the expanded and revised edition.

11. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
470,000 words • 1954-55

This book needs no introduction. The most influential fantasy novel ever written, often incorrectly cited as the biggest genre novel of all time. Due to paper shortages after the Second World War, the book was released in three volumes, inadvertently creating the classic fantasy trilogy at the same time.

12. The Naked God by Peter F. Hamilton
469,000 words • 1999

The biggest space opera ever written, even more remarkable because it was the concluding volume of an even bigger trilogy, The Night's Dawn.

13. It by Stephen King
445,134 words  1986

Arguably Stephen King's most famous single novel.

14. Sea of Silver Light by Tad Williams
443,000 words • 2001

This is the concluding volume of Tad Williams's fantasy/cyberpunk mash-up Otherland. Williams likes to end big.

15. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin
422,000 words • 2000

George R.R. Martin started his Song of Ice and Fire series being somewhat concerned about the word count and went to great lengths to keep the first two books down to a friendly 300,000 words or so apiece, dropping chapters back into the next volume if necessary. However, with Martin planning a five year time-jump after this book, he had no choice but to write the story to its natural conclusion. The result was a book that pushed the UK publishers to the limits of what they could publish in one volume. The paperback version, in fact, was released in two volumes.

16. A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin
420,000 words • 2011

The difficult-to-write fifth volume in A Song of Ice and Fire ended up being somewhat longer than A Storm of Swords, but Martin cut it down to slightly shorter in the final sweat and edit.

17. Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
415,000 words • 1999

Neal Stephenson's first gigantic book, but not his last (although this remains his longest book) is an interesting romp through WWII history, cryptography and weirdness. A stand-alone, but it also acts as a thematic prequel (and actual sequel) to his later Baroque Cycle.

18. An Echo in the Bone by Diana Gabaldon
402,000 words • 2009

The seventh Outlander novel is huge, but feels quite modest compared to the longest books in the series mentioned above.

19. Drums of Autumn by Diana Gabaldon
401,000 words • 1996

The fourth Outlander novel. Given the several books in the series that are just under 400,000 words, I can only assume that the author gets through a lot of keyboards.

20. The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
400,000 words • 2011

Patrick Rothfuss's sequel to The Name of the Wind is considerably larger. It remains to be seen if the final volume of The Kingkiller Chronicle, The Doors of Stone, will be bigger still.

21. Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson
400,000 words • 2014

The second volume of The Stormlight Archive is about to lose its record-setting status as Sanderson's biggest novel and the biggest novel in the series to Oathbringer. But it's still pretty big.

Below 400,000 words, the number of fantasy and SF novels in that size bracket shoots up massively. So rather than try to come up with an exhaustive list, here's some notable SFF novels with their word counts:

  • Lord of Chaos is the sixth and longest Wheel of Time novel, clocking in at 395,000 words.
  • Toll the Hounds is the eighth and longest Malazan Book of the Fallen novel, reaching 389,000 words.
  • Maia, by the late Richard Adams, is 379,130 words.
  • Magician, by Raymond E. Feist, is a relatively breezy 313,410 words (about 330,000 words in the 1992 extended edition). Which makes the decision to publish the novel in two volumes in the United States (as Apprentice and Master) all the weirder.
  • Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell is 309,000 words.
  • Temple of the Winds, the longest Sword of Truth novel, is a modest 307,520 words in length.
  • The Order of the Phoenix, the longest Harry Potter novel, is 257,045 words in length. That's over three times the length of the shortest novel in the series, The Philosopher's Stone
  • The Sword of Shannara, the novel that gave birth of the modern fantasy genre, is a relatively modest 228,160 words. It's also still Terry Brooks's biggest novel, by far; none of the other Shannara novels top 200,000 words and only three top 150,000 words.
  • SF is generally a lot shorter than fantasy, but the fact that Frank Herbert's seminal Dune is only 188,000 words - shorter than three of the Harry Potter books! - might be surprising.

The Longest SFF Series

This is a much more debatable list, since some series are more diffuse than others. The Riftwar books, for example, form nine distinct series, but also have narrative elements spanning all twenty-nine books in the series. The same is true of the Shannara series. The Discworld books I haven't even attempted to fit on here for this reason. This list is therefore a bit more speculative.

  • The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson (15 volumes): 4,360,000 words.
  • The Shannara Series by Terry Brooks (28 volumes, incomplete): 3,865,000 words.
  • The Riftwar Cycle by Raymond E. Feist (29 volumes): 3,831,670 words.
  • The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson (10 volumes): 3,274,000 words (5.5 million including all related works by Erikson and Ian Esslemont).
  • Outlander by Diana Gabaldon (8 volumes, incomplete): 3,227,000 words.
  • The Cosmere by Brandon Sanderson (11 novels/1 anthology, incomplete): 2,971,940 words.
  • The Sword of Truth by Terry Goodkind (11 volumes): 2,761,170 words (3,643,650 including the sequels).
  • The Wars of Light and Shadow by Janny Wurts (9 volumes, incomplete): 2,600,000 words.
  • The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson (10 volumes): 2,062,000 words.
  • The Belgariad/Malloreon by David & Leigh Eddings (12 volumes): 1,861,000 words.
  • A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin (5 volumes, incomplete): 1,749,000 words.
  • Worm by John McCrae (30 "arcs"): 1,680,000 words.
  • Crown of Stars by Kate Elliott (7 volumes): 1,622,720 words.
  • The Solar Cycle by Gene Wolfe (11 volumes): 1,368,000 words.
  • The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson (3 volumes, incomplete): 1,275,000 words.
  • The Dark Tower by Stephen King (8 volumes): 1,256,000 words.
  • The Night's Dawn Trilogy by Peter F. Hamilton (3 volumes): 1,247,000 words.
  • Otherland by Tad Williams (4 volumes): 1,189,000 words.
  • The Second Apocalypse by R. Scott Bakker (7 volumes, incomplete): 1,172,000 words.
  • Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams (3 volumes): 1,126,000 words (1,542,440 including The Heart of What Was Lost and The Witchwood Crown).
  • The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson (3 volumes): 1,125,000 words (1,540,000 including Cryptonomicon).
  • Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling (7 volumes): 1,084,170 words (1,183,370 including The Cursed Child).
  • Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson (6 volumes, incomplete): 1,077,560 words.
  • The Elenium/Tamuli by David Eddings (6 volumes): 1,006,000 words.
  • The Sword of Shadows by J.V. Jones (4 volumes, incomplete): 945,047 words.
  • Dune by Frank Herbert (6 volumes): 839,000 words.
  • The Expanse by James S.A. Corey (6 volumes, incomplete): 834,000 words.
  • The Acts of Caine by Matt Stover (4 volumes): 768,000 words.
  • The First Law by Joe Abercrombie (3 volumes): 618,000 words (1,216,000 including the stand-alone sequels).

Why Page Counts Vary

It's remarkable what difference shifting a margin over by a few millimetres can make. One-volume editions of The Lord of the Rings, for example, can vary from 750 pages (for tiny-font editions on onion paper) to the better part of 2,000 (for large-print versions for readers with bad eyesight). Back in 2001 Pan Macmillan were able to squeeze thepaperback of The Naked God (469,000 words) into almost the exact same page count as its predecessor novel, The Reality Dysfunction (385,000 words) despite being significantly longer, just by manipulating font sizes and margins.

This is why page count is a poor guide to working out a novel's true length, and word count is more reliable indicator.

Word counts can also differ, depending on the programme used (most modern word counts come from the ebook editions) and how they count punctuation. Some counters will also include cast lists, footnotes and appendices, others will disregard them. The publishers may even give differing word counts because they did a count before the last edits were finalised, or they forgot that the new edition has more stuff in it.


SFF blogger Abalieno has been keeping tabs on book lengths over on Looping World for many years and some of these figures come directly from there. Excellent work from him there.

Reading Length is a great site which extracts book lengths from multiple sources and then works out how long it will take to read the book. It tends to the conservative, so some of the above figures may actually be less than what is actually the case. However, it does make mistakes: its word count for Dune, for example, is for the 50th anniversary edition which includes several hundred pages of bonus material which isn't part of the novel.

Novel Word Count doesn't seem to be as exhaustive as it was planned to be, but its Stephen King page is pretty good.

Thank you for reading The Wertzone. To help me provide better content, please consider contributing to my Patreon page and other funding methods, which will also get you exclusive content weeks before it goes live on my blogs.

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Philip Pullman to publish HIS DARK MATERIALS sequel trilogy

Philip Pullman has - surprisingly - announced that he has written a sequel trilogy to His Dark Materials, and the first book will be published on 19 October this year.

Philip Pullman published his critically-acclaimed His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy (Northern Lights, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass) for young readers between 1995 and 2000. Regarded as darker and more challenging than the contemporary Harry Potter series, the trilogy has sold over 22 million copies and spawned an unsuccessful movie adaptation, The Golden Compass, in 2007. Since completing the trilogy he has published two further stand-alone novels, The Scarecrow and His Servant (2004) and The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ (2010).

Over a decade ago Pullman started working on a Dark Materials companion volume, called The Book of Dust. He made it clear this was not going to be a fully-fledged sequel, but a companion book expanding on some of the worldbuilding elements in the original trilogy (most notably, the nature of the substance "dust"). Pullman has occasionally mentioned it in interviews as something he was tinkering with, not giving any impression it was a major project.

That, it turns out, was a bit of an understatement. The book has ballooned into a fully-sized sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust, which will take place in two different time periods. It will incorporate elements from Lyra Belacqua's childhood as a prequel to the main trilogy, but it will also explore the life and times of a grown-up Lyra some thirty years later. Pullman confirms that other Dark Materials characters will also appear, making this simultaneously a prequel and sequel to the original trilogy.

David Fickling Books will released Book 1 - still to have its title confirmed - in October. It's unclear if Pullman has completed the entire trilogy (you'd hope so, given the length of time it's taken), but the publishers have said it won't take seventeen years for the next volume to arrive.

Excellent news. Although His Dark Materials lost its way towards the end (when people in gyrocopters started shooting down angels with miniguns), the trilogy was weird, offbeat and challenging. Here's hoping the pre-sequel is in a similar vein. And has more armoured polar bears!

Meanwhile, the BBC and New Line Studios have teamed up to produce a new TV series based on His Dark Materials. The series is expected to unfold over four eight-episode seasons. Casting is currently underway with production due to start in Wales in the next few months for a likely 2018 debut.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Brandon Sanderson may have written the second-longest fantasy novel of all time

Brandon Sanderson has confirmed that his new book, Oathbringer, the third volume in The Stormlight Archive, is very, very big.

In a Reddit update, Sanderson says that the novel is 25% longer than Words of Radiance, which came in at 400,000 words. That suggests that Oathbringer will be 500,000 words in length.

This would almost certainly make Oathbringer the second-longest fantasy novel of all time. The #1 spot is held by To Green Angel Tower (520,000 words), the third volume of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams. The #2 spot is disputed, but probably goes to Ash: A Secret History, which clocks in between 493,000 and 500,000 (depending on if you count the notes or not). Two of Diana Gabaldon's Outlander novels also exceed 500,000 words, but the genre these novels occupy is highly questionable (since they are historical romances with a time travel element).

The Lord of the Rings, often cited as a very long epic fantasy novel, is a relatively breezy 470,000 words in length.

Oathbringer will be released, presumably in a very small font, in November this year.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Vikings: Season 3

Ragnar Lothbrok is now the King of Kattegat, ruling over a host of lesser earls. He has also forged a strong alliance with King Ecbert of Wessex, enjoying more power and influence than any Viking king before him. Aware that his people still yearn for conquest and raids, Ragnar turns to his loyal Christian friend and advisor Athelstan, who tells him tales of a fabled city to the south called Paris. Ragnar becomes obsessed with tales of this city and soon has marshalled the might of the Viking nation against it. But his obsession comes at a very high cost.

The third season of Vikings does not hang around. Having chronicled the (allegedly) reluctant rise to power of Ragnar Lothbrok over two previous seasons and nineteen episodes, the third season asks a more interesting question: what is he going to do with that power now he has it? We know that Ragnar wants to be more than a brute and a warmonger, he wants to be a statesman, a builder and a farmer, the man who brings his people out of their rocky homeland to a warmer place where the soil is better. But he is also not a fool, and knows his people still like to raid and to fight.

The result of this is a clever two-pronged strategy. Invoking the alliance forged with Ecbert last year, he plans to set up a Viking colony in Wessex. He also plans to appease his more combat-hungry troops by mounting an assault on Paris and carrying off its immense wealth. It's a clever plan which, you'll be shocked to hear, doesn't entirely pan out.

This season sees Viking at its most expansive. There's scenes in Kattegat, several other Scandinavian locations, Wessex, Mercia and in Paris. As well as Ragnar and his extended family and allies, there's also the royal families in Wessex and Mercia to deal with, and a whole new cast of characters in Paris to get to know, including the weak-willed King Charles the Simple, the more formidable Count Odo and the strong-willed Princess Gisla. The rising scale is handled well by the show. The producers deftly interleave a whole series of complex storylines (including a subplot where a very strange man shows up in Kattegat and causes chaos) with verve and skill.

The show also continues to comment on larger-scale historical forces, religion and culture through some very personal character stories. There's the ongoing religious turmoil of Athelstan (and Ragnar's fascination with Christianity) and how this interacts with Floki's growing anger that the threat posed by Christianity to the Norse way of life is being ignored. There's Ecbert's ongoing clash between his acceptance of other cultures (there's a terrific and cynically honest exchange between him and Ragnar) but knowing that his priests and lords will not accept many concessions to the heathens.

The result is a rich tapestry of a show, with more going on than just the endless cycle of betrayal and counter-betrayal in the previous season. The last few episodes of the season then take things to the next level by depicting the full-scale Siege of Paris in all its glory. With lengthy, massive battle sequences that easily match anything in Game of Thrones, this season sees Vikings gain a scope and epic reach to match its already-impressive character work.

Season 3 of Vikings (*****) sees an already-impressive show become even better: grander, more epic, more brutal but also more human, more intimate and smarter. It is available now on Blu Ray (UK, USA) and DVD (UK, USA).

The Magicians: Season 1

Once upon a time there was a writer named Lev Grossman, who worked for TIME Magazine and had literary ambitions. In 2005 he gained some attention when he called George R.R. Martin "The American Tolkien" in his review of A Feast for Crows. A few years later, having covered more SFF books, he decided to write his own. Faced with the daunting task of creating an original setting, cast of characters, themes to develop and trying to do something new, he gave up and instead mashed together The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. For added literary street cred he threw in some rich, good-looking New York kids whose lives were painful and agonising because of their wealth and having to attend college lectures a couple of times a day and having to tiresomely have sex with other rich, good-looking people. The result was a success! The novel, The Magicians, sold a lot of copies and he was able to stretch his thin narrative out across two sequels.

Now, and slightly inexplicably (given the number of actually-good SF and fantasy novels still stuck in development hell), it's been turned into a TV show. I imagine Grossman had in mind that the show would be adapted by a massive cable company like HBO and filled with top-tier actors, with high-level production values and the best scriptwriters in the business on the job. Instead, SyFy have turned it into a quick-turnaround popcorn show whilst their main talent is working on the infinitely superior The Expanse instead.

The Magicians, as in the TV show, is quite spectacularly awful and incompetent on a scale you just don't see on TV very much these days. Some modern shows can be boring, or not appeal to a wide demographic, or have structural or tone issues, but in the Golden Age of Television it's rare to see incompetence on this scale. The Magicians has almost no redeeming features whatsoever and borders on the unwatchable.

For starters, the script is awful. No attempt is made to make these characters even remotely sympathetic or interesting. The worldbuilding is thin to the point of non-existence. How the wider magical world works, what happens to evil wizards, why more people don't know about the existence of the other worlds despite magic being around for thousands of years etc is stuff that simply hasn't been thought through (unlike, say Harry Potter). The pacing is dreadful and the structure, which follows two separate storylines that are meant to hook up later, is constantly undercut by the characters from each story constantly bumping into the others, making the world feel claustrophobic and small.

Characterisation is something that happens in other series, not this one. I have no idea what motivates these people. Quentin, our main character, is whiny, weak-willed, selfish to the point of lunacy and tone-deaf to anything going on around him. I get he's suppose to be a difficult college kid, but usually these kind of characters have a redeeming feature, such as being smart or charismatic or funny, or they have unexpected skills. That never happens with Quentin. He's just a self-centred incompetent who spends most of the show whining about things.

Most of the other characters are likewise despicable, or treated with contempt, such as Alice. In the books she's a terribly-written, shy-but-ridiculously-hot cliche (even down to wearing glasses to show she's intellectual, but when she takes them off she suddenly turns into a sex bomb), which remains the case in the TV show. Crassly, the character in the novels is often referred to by her bra size and, jaw-droppingly, this continues in the TV show as well, along with many of the female castmembers appearing in states of partial undress throughout the show (Arjun Gupta, the show's sole good-looking male character, gets the same treatment as well in a vague nod towards equality). For a show made in 2017 it's oddly regressive in this area.

The acting veers from terrible to baffled: many of the cast seem really stymied on character motivation and what exactly they're suppose to be doing. This extends to the more experienced and otherwise dependable hands, like Battlestar Galactica's Rick Worthy as the show's Dumbledore analogue, who also seems to not have a clue what he's supposed to be playing. The sole exception to all of this is Esme Bianco as Eliza. Previously known for playing Ros in Game of Thrones, a very small role that usually required her to appear naked and not much more, Bianco is a bit of a revelation as Eliza, putting in a very charming and charismatic performance. If one actor emerges from this wreck of a show with improved career prospects, it should definitely be her.

The show's production values are also terrible, with some very poor CGI for the magical effects. Things are not improved when the show moves to Fillory. A magical and otherworldly realm, instead it across like the deliberately terrible fantasy world that Angel spent four episodes in, only worse.

It is instructive that shows like this and The Shannara Chronicles (although that may be harsh; for all its problems, The Shannara Chronicles is more entertaining) exist. We live in the so-called "Golden Age of Television" with so many rich and compelling TV shows around that it's not physically possible to watch them all. It's easy to forget the sheer amount of work that goes into making these shows so good, and they don't just roll out of a production line of awesome somewhere. The Magicians shows that if you don't stay on top of this work, it is easy to produce something that is so sub-par it wouldn't have passed muster thirty years ago, let alone now.

The first season of The Magicians (*) is an absolute train-wreck. The casting is weak, characterisation feeble, the script and dialogue are execrable and the production values shockingly poor. Avoid.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

In 2002 Chris Columbus achieved one of the more notable achievements of modern Hollywood film-making. He started filming the second Harry Potter movie, The Chamber of Secrets, a fortnight after the first movie came out. He shot the entire movie, edited it and completed visual effects in time for it to come out a year later. By modern standards, where usually an entire year is given over to post-production and visual effects alone, that's an incredible achievement.

It was also clearly one that cost the film-makers dear, and it's unsurprising that the studio switched to an eighteen-month turn-around time for the later movies in the series. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is by no means a disaster, but it is the weakest film of the series.

The biggest problem with the film is the length. At 2 hours and 40 minutes it's the longest film in the series but it has the slightest plot. The book suffers from its relative slightness as well - being more important in establishing backstory than in telling its own story - but on screen the problem is more pronounced. The film runs out of steam a good half-hour before the undercooked epic finale is reached.

There are also some structural and plausibility issues, such people really thinking Harry might be a murderer and Dumbledore being removed from the school for no really convincing reason to try to inject fake drama into the series.

Moving away from that, there are many positives in the movie, but by far the most important is that Emma Watson, Daniel Radcliffe and Rupert Grint have all improved immensely as actors since the first film. They are more confident, more naturalistic and more relaxed. There's also been a major uptick in the quality of the effects. The Quidditch match is far better-realised than the first movie. Creatures also sit in the environment more convincingly. The film actually benefits now from being viewed as its own beast, whilst on release it was a bit more obvious that the film's effects were disappointing compared to The Lord of the Rings (most notably that Dobby, although effective, was simply nowhere near as good as Gollum as a CG creation interacting with human actors). The dialogue is also less grating, since the writers can get on with the story rather than having to unload huge amounts of exposition.

There's also some superb new additions to the cast, such as Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart, Jason Isaacs as Lucius Malfoy and Shirley Henderson as Moaning Myrtle, who expand the cast with charisma and skill.

The result is a bit of an odd film. In many ways a more relaxed and technically accomplished movie than its forebear, with more confident performances, but also one that is far too long for the story it is telling.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (***) is a watchable movie, but it's neither as charming as its predecessor nor as well-paced and constructed as the later films in the series. It's fun but ultimately too long, and too reliant on unconvincing plot turns. The movie is available now in the UK (DVD, Blu-Ray) and USA (DVD, Blu-Ray) as part of the Complete Harry Potter Movie Collection.