Wednesday 28 May 2008

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book I: Water

Whilst I've always quite liked the aesthetic qualities of Japanese anime, I must confess I've always found the plots to be nigh-on incomprehensible (based as many are on Japanese cultural tropes which have no analogue in the West), and the ones that seemed to be understandable seemed to only last a few episodes before being canned (the excellent Cyber City Odeo 808 being a perfect example of a great show with tremendously interesting characters, yet it lasted a mere three episodes). Having said all of that, my exposure to anime in recent years has been extremely limited and these older generalizations may not hold true.

An interesting and apparently successful approach has been to combine Western storytelling with the anime style of art to produce something of a hybrid programme. Robotech began this trend back in the early 1980s, with Carl Macek crafting an original story (albeit one heavily derived from Macross, one of the three contributing Japanese TV shows) to fuse three different Japanese shows into one continuity. A few years later, French writers and Japanese animators combined to create The Mysterious Cities of Gold and Ulysses 31, both notable for being limited series with definitive endings with much more adult themes than is usually encountered in animation primarily aimed at children. The latest such effort is Avatar: The Last Airbender, a Nickelodeon production currently in its third season hiatus in the USA.

Avatar is set in a heavily Japanese-inspired world which is divided into four forms of magic: Earth, Air, Fire and Water. Manipulation of each form of magic is known as bending. Over the centuries, each form of magic has attracted its own followers, and a powerful nation or tribe has arisen based around each element: the two Water Tribes live at the opposing poles of the planet, the Fire Nation occupies a huge volcanic archipelago, the Earth Kingdom dominates the largest continent and the various Air Tribes (at least three of which used to exist) occupy remote mountain chains. The four peoples lived in harmony under the protective guidance of the Buddha-like Avatar (who could combine the four elements and thus kept the tribes in balance) until, a century prior to the series beginning, he vanished without a trace. Without a check on their ambition, the Fire Nation launched a war of aggression against the other peoples, quickly overrunning and apparently destroying the Air Tribes, but then becoming bogged down in a lengthy war against the Earth Kingdom.

Avatar opens with two youngsters from the Southern Water Tribe, Katara and her brother Sokka, discovering the Avatar trapped in a magical block of ice. The Avatar is a 12-year-old boy named Aang, an Airbender who doesn't know anything about the war or the events that have transpired in his absence. His only companion is Appa, his magical flying bison, but Aang rapidly finds himself the target of Zuko, an exiled Fire Nation prince who is determined to capture Aang to restore his honour and prestige at the Fire Lord's court. With the Southern Water Tribe in danger due to Aang's presence, Aang decides to journey to the North Pole to learn waterbending from the more powerful Northern Water Tribe. Katara, a novice Waterbender herself, and Sokka agree to accompany him.

Avatar is a single, large story which is divided into three 'books' or seasons, with each episode a chapter of that book. Book I is named Water, as the focus is on Aang's journey to the Northern Water Tribe and what happens when he gets there. Along the way he and his companions have many adventures, including repeated run-ins with Zuko (whose backstory becomes more complex and intriguing with every appearance) and Zuko's rival, Admiral Zhao, who is determined to capture the Avatar for his own purposes. We also learn about the ongoing war on the Earth Kingdom's continent, although somewhat disappointingly we never see the front lines. Aang also finds time to visit two of the Air Temples in an effort to understand his own growing power. Events culminate at the North Pole where Zhao launches a concerted effort to destroy the Northern Water Tribe.

Avatar is, simply put, a tremendously enjoyable slice of television. It's definitely a kid's show (those looking for dark, gore-filled gritty anime best look elsewhere), but it never talks down to its audience and credits them with a fair bit of intelligence. The worldbuilding is impeccable, the stories are intelligent and logical and the writers clearly have the story mapped out ahead of time, resulting in tremendous coherence and continuity. These guys could teach the makers of Battlestar Galactica a lot. It's also quite funny and shows occasional homages to other forms of animation: one early episode featuring our heroes accidentally devastating part of a city with a mail cart even has a Wild E. Coyote-style freeze-frame shot so the audience can more thoroughly appreciate the destruction they unleash. In another sequence two prison guards report the appearance of a dangerous flying bison to the commandant (voiced by George 'Mr. Sulu' Takei), who delays acting on the news due to linguistic concerns over where the correct designation is 'flying bison' or 'flying buffalo'. The animation is also excellent, clearly inspired by Hayao Miyazaki (Appa, our heroes' mount, is a nod to the Catbus from My Neighobur Totoro) and is a step above practically every other US animated show in production today.

I'm struggling to find some negatives here. The show is fast-paced and funny. It isn't preachy and never indulges in, "I learned something today..." moral lessons. It's simply a very good show, enjoyable by all no matter your age.

Avatar: The Last Airbender - Book 1: Water (****½) is available on DVD in the USA. Annoyingly, it isn't available in the UK yet, although Region 1 copies can be purchased from Season 3, which is the final season, is currently airing in the USA on the Nickelodeon.

Monday 26 May 2008

Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

Back in 2001, a movie based on the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying game was released. It can charitably be described as, "Not all that it could have been." At the time many fans pondered why Wizards of the Coast had allowed an inexperienced director to adapt their best-known product using his own (not particuarly impressive) homebrew campaign world as a basis, rather than using some of their best-selling novels as a source, such as RA Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden books or, the more popular suggestion, the epic Dragonlance saga by Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. Well, in 2006 it appears that someone finally took the (rather obvious) move of licensing the Dragonlance world and series to be used as the basis of a movie trilogy.

For readers of a particular age (those who grew up in the mid-1980s), Dragonlance is as seminal a fantasy touchstone as Tolkien. The original Dragonlance Chronicles (Dragons of Autumn Twilight, Dragons of Winter Night and Dragons of Spring Dawning) is a traditional tale of a band of heroes who come together and get embroiled in the ongoing war between the armies of dragons, led by the dark goddess Takhisis, and the forces of light, represented by the god Paladine. Over the course of many battles and adventures, they eventually succeed and overthrow the Dark Queen. What is more interesting, however, is the internal journey many of the heroes undertake, most notably that of the extremely morally ambiguous mage Raistlin, who is torn between his loyalty to his friends and his own thirst for power, which forms the basis of the superior sequel series, The Dragonlance Legends (Time of the Twins, War of the Twins, and Test of the Twins).

That a film adaption of Dragons of Autumn Twilight has taken so long to arrive is surprising. The original trilogy sold well over 4 million copies in its first decade in print, and Weis & Hickman are often credited - alongside Stephen Donaldson, Terry Brooks and Raymond E. Feist - of helping to kick-off the post-Tolkien epic fantasy boom. At the same time, the demands of such an adaption are notable. The story features sequences involving armies of dragons attacking cities, lots of magic and enormous battles. Making a live-action movie would have been impossible before the advent of the CGI age, and an animated film would have disappointed most of the fans.

Which makes it all the more inexplicable that, in 2006, Paramount and Wizards of the Coast agreed to go with an animated film. And not a CGI movie or a high-quality animated feature employing the best Korean or Japanese animation houses in the business, but a cheap 'n' cheerful adaption by an unknown Indian company which employs less-advanced animation techniques than mid-1980s episodes of He-Man. The animation is somewhat stilted throughout and the character designs tend to be somewhat bland (with arguably only Fewmaster Toede really being a memorable design). Even more bizarre is the decision to use rather weak CGI to depict the dragons and their half-humanoid servants, the draconians, leading to a mishmash of styles which detracts from the story.

The other problem is that the entire 400-page novel has been squeezed into a 90-minute film, leading to severe compression of the story. Fan-favourite scenes such as the wicker dragon are thus lost, and climatic events in Pax Tharkas are simplified considerably. Lots of character development is also abandoned on the cutting room floor, and elements such as Tanis' continuing inner turmoil at being caught between the elven and human worlds but not a part of either are depicted clunkily. Raistlin's story arc more or less survives intact, and is enlivened by a decent vocal performance by Kiefer Sutherland.

That all said, the writer does do a good job of transmitting the background story to the viewer. A pre-credits, Fellowship of the Ring-style prologue gets the story across quite straightforwardly, and the adaption makes use of the fact that they're not making it up hurriedly as they go along (as the original writers of the novels did) to set things up ahead of time. High Lord Verminaard doesn't just show up out of nowhere as he does in the books, for example.

As a slice of entertainment for young children, the film works quite well (although a few scenes do contain blood, and Tasselhoff Burrfoot has become a psychopath in this adaption, stabbing a goblin repeatedly through the heart in one particular scene, so parental discretion is advised), and fans of the novels may get a nostalgic kick out of seeing their old favourite characters on screen. It's also notably a better viewing experience than either the live-action 2001 Dungeons and Dragons movie or its utterly horrific direct-to-DVD sequel (Wrath of a Dragon God, which may actually be the worst movie created in the history of humanity to this time, the works of Uwe Boll of course excepted). However, the adaption does have the feel of being a major missed opportunity. With better animation and a more generous running time, this could have been a very good adaption indeed, but instead it has to settle for being rather mediocre.

Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight (**) is available in the United States on DVD, and as a Region 1 import in the UK.

Thursday 22 May 2008


I recently received an ARC of a debut novel called The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. After getting about 50 pages into the book I decided to temporarily give up on it. It is extremely unusual for me not to finish a book, unless it's so dense I need a break (as happened with Neal Stephenson's genius-but-demanding The Confusion) or it's so bad that it enrages me to the point of violence (as with M.J. Harrison's Viriconium omnibus). For whatever reason Gone-Away World wasn't engaging me but I plan to get back to it, as it seems to be a major debut for this year.

In the meantime I am reading Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. Next up will be my review of Ian Cameron Esslemont's eagerly-awaited Return of the Crimson Guard. Lost is also concluding its fourth season next week, so a review of that will follow.

I recently watched the animated Dragonlance movie, Dragons of Autumn Twilight. It was a singular experience, to say the least, and I hope to marshal my thoughts to write a coherent review once I have sobered up.

Monday 19 May 2008

Long Way Down by Ewan McGregor & Charley Boorman

Back in 2004, actors Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman took off on a trip from London to New York, travelling the 'long way round' by motorbike. They started in London, crossed to France and then drove by road and dirt track across Europe, Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Siberia, from where they caught a plane to Anchorage, Alaska, and continued by road through Canada and the USA to New York City. A thoroughly entertaining documentary series (and DVD) and an interesting book were released to accompany the journey.

Three years later McGregor and Boorman regrouped to do it all again. This time their plan was to ride from John O'Groats at the northern-most tip of Scotland to Cape Angelhus, the southern-most point in Africa where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Indian, a journey of some 14,000 miles. Again it was all done by motorbike, a few ferry crossings excepted.

Where Long Way Round was entertaining from start to finish, Long Way Down feels a little off as a book. This is a huge adventure, involving the crossing of the most dangerous and unstable continent in the world from north to south, but it all feels a little slick and sanitised. The fun of Long Way Round was that Boorman and McGregor didn't know what the hell they were doing, and for all their preperations and precautions, the entertainment came from watching them grapple with the elements, deal with the people (friendly and not) they met along the way and exploring some of the remotest and least-well-known landscapes on Earth. Long Way Down is not really the same thing. Learning from the lessons learned on the prior trip, it feels like they've massively overcompensated. Their journey this time is timetabled almost down to the hour, and the constant need to be on time for ferry crossings or meetings with UNICEF charities takes a lot of spontaneity out of the trip, meaning less time for random stops or side-trips along the way. To be sure, the writers' highlighting of the excellent and eye-opening works being done by UNICEF in Africa is very worthy, but they aren't doing the cause any favours when it feels like 50% of the book consists of them whining about the timetable situation. In addition, because Africa is far more heavily populated and far more dangerous than the their prior trip across Asia, they tend to be accompanied by their support vehicles or even armed guards for long stretches, reducing the feel of 'two mates against the world on bikes' that made the first book a lot of fun. To be sure, no-one would want these guys put in danger for their entertainment, but the dynamic feels a little off. Maybe giving more focus to the other guys on the trip and making it more of a gang adventure rather than focusing on MacGregor and Boorman would have worked better.

Tellingly, it is in the second half of the book, once they're free of the ticking hand of the clock and can do their own thing, where the journey comes to life, more amusing anecdotes about the people and wildlife they encountered emerge and we get more of a sense of excitement about the whole trip. However, it comes a little too late in the day to make the book as good a read as Long Way Round.

Long Way Down (**½) is available now in the UK from Sphere Books and on 15 July from Atria Books in the USA.

Sunday 18 May 2008

Galactic North by Alastair Reynolds

Alastair Reynolds' previous novels and novellas in his signature Revelation Space universe have been almost unanimously excellent works, but at times the reader (or this one, at any rate) can feel that there's a lot going on that they're not in the loop on. Characters appear whose significance is initially unclear and their backstories remain resolutely unexplained, although frequently alluded to, whilst the ending to Absolution Gap was rather abrupt, to say the least. Galactic North, a collection of eight short stories set in the universe, finally fills in the blanks and finally allows the reader to fully appreciate the breadth of this author's imagination.

Things kick off with Great Wall of Mars. Two centuries from now, the cybernetically-altered Conjoiners have sealed themselves off inside a fortified region of Mars. The forces of humanity opposed to the Conjoiners, the Coalition, is planning a final all-out assault but have agreed to a last-ditch peace mission undertaken by Nevil Clavain and a Demarchist mediator, Sandra Voi. Needless to say, things go awry. Those familiar with the previous novels will have a big grin on their face as we meet characters such as Clavain, Galiana and Felka for the first time, and find out how they met and how they get out of the jam they find themselves in here.

Glacial picks up the story some decades later, as the Conjoiner refugees find themselves wandering from star to star at sub-lightspeeds searching for a new home. On an ice world they find a human habitation, one of the few successfully established by the USA's seedship programme, and evidence of a crime that took place many years earlier which Clavain dedicates himself to solving. Reynolds' skills at detective fiction (previously employed in Century Rain and Chasm City) are on full display here and the story is very well-told.

A Spy in Europa is a neat story of sabotage, revenge and severe hubris. It sets up one of the later stories in the collection and provides some background on the Demarchists, another of the major factions of the Revelation Space universe. The ending is absolutely stellar.

Weather is an absolute barnstormer of a story. Reynolds take on the difficulties of space combat carried out between ships maneuvering at hundreds of thousands of miles per second has always been superb, but gets its best demonstration in this story. We also get one of the biggest mysteries in the Revelation Space universe revealed in this story in a startling manner, but it's the somewhat tender relationship between the narrator and his Conjoiner charge which gives the story its heart.

Dialation Sleep is the oldest story in the collection and the style isn't quite as polished as Reynolds' later work, but it's still an intriguing story about love and the loss caused by years spent in interstellar travel.

Grafenwalder's Bestiary is a thoroughly twisted story that serves as a semi-sequel to both the novella Diamond Dogs (published seperately by Gollancz with Turqoise Days) and to the earlier story A Spy in Europa. It's an excellent story about a collector in search of the perfect creatures to put on display, but there are echoes of other authors and stories here, in particular George RR Martin's Haviland Tuf stories and his famous novella Sandkings, but the ending is brilliant, if horribly inevitable.

I thoroughly recommend not eating anything before reading Nightingale, a thoroughly sick and twisted story of genetic manipulation. The ending is horrendous, but there is no denying the macabre brilliance of the tale.

Galactic North gives the collection its name and the entire Revelation Space universe its spine. We start off in 2303 AD with a frantic attempt to repair a stricken starship before the story carries us forwards through centuries and then millennia as the war against the Inhibitors, the Melding Plague, the Pattern Jugglers and every other major event of the previous novels and stories plays out as the backdrop to a story of absolute obsession and we finally discover the nature of the new threat that emerged at the end of Absolution Gap. A spectacular story that rounds off the collection in style.

Galactic North (****½) is a superb collection of stories from one of our very best SF writers, and is thoroughly recommended to newcomers to Reynolds' work and veterens of his previous tales alike. It is published by Gollancz in the UK and will by released on 27 May by Ace Books in the USA.

Friday 16 May 2008

Wertzone Classics: Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Few books come as universally-applauded in the genre as this one. It was getting to the point where people seemed to be questioning my fitness to blog about SF since I hadn't read Hyperion, so I thought it was time to take the plunge. For those likewise ignorant of the book, Hyperion is the first in a four-volume sequence known as The Hyperion Cantos, consisting of Hyperion (1989), The Fall of Hyperion (1990), Endymion (1996) and The Rise of Endymion (1997). The sequence is heavily influenced by both the poetry of John Keats and the work of Geoffrey Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales is the clear structural inspiration behind the first novel.

The 28th Century. A war is brewing between the Hegemony of Man and the Ousters, a race of 'barbaric' humans living in arkships drifting in the depths of space. As the war drums sound, seven individuals are summoned to the remote frontier world of Hyperion by the Church of the Shrike, the godlike entity who roams that world killing people for unknown reasons or hanging their still-living forms on its giant mechanical tree. As the seven pilgrims journey through space to Hyperion, then on a gruelling ground journey across the planet even as the Hegemony and Ousters do battle in orbit, they tell each other the tale of how they came to this place and the reason for their interest in Hyperion and the Shrike.

It's a pretty straightforward structure, and indeed the book comes across as a collection of linked short stories with a prominent framing sequence. What is unusual is that Simmons varies his style slightly between each story, so the Priest's Tale is a mystery (albeit a mystery enlightened by electricity-spewing trees); the Soldier's Tale is a war story; the Poet's Tale is one of hubris; the Scholar's Tale is an almost heartbreaking tragedy; the Detective's Tale is a thriller; and the Consul's Tale is a romance told across decades. Simmons' writing skills here are extraordinary, with some stunning imagery and moments of emotional intensity transmitted through clear-cut but often evocative prose. Each story is a contained narrative in itself, but also contributes to the whole.

Hyperion (*****) is simply unmissable for anyone interested in the genre. It is available from Gollancz in the UK, either by itself, as part of the Future Classics range or in an omnibus with its immediate sequel, The Fall of Hyperion. It is also available in the USA from Bantam Spectra.

This Forsaken Earth by Paul Kearney

This Forsaken Earth is the second novel in Paul Kearney's Sea Beggars sequence, a planned four-volume nautical fantasy that was unfortunately cut short by Bantam's decision to drop the series. Whilst Paul Kearney has said the series will eventually be completed - the third book, Storm of the Dead, was well on the way to completion - that will have to wait until the rights revert to him from Bantam. This is a shame as this is an excellent series and the second volume does end on something of a cliffhanger.

Rol Cortishane is now a seasoned brigand, his ship - the Revenant - and its crew delighting in destroying vessels belonging to the nation of Bionar. However, Bionar is divided in a bitter civil war between Rol's half-sister and the incumbent king. When his sister calls upon Rol's aid, Rol reluctantly agrees to help her and embarks on a dangerous journey into the heart of a war-torn country.

This Forsaken Earth is notable for being a nautical epic fantasy where a good 90% of the action takes place on dry land (the source of much criticism for this novel). Well, yep, that's a shame for those expecting some Patrick O'Brien-with-wizardry antics, but on the plus side we still get a damn good story to make up for it. Kearney has lost none of his formidable skills for depicting large-scale warfare or bloody sieges, and his desperately flawed protagonists (Rol is not a very nice person at all) almost literally act like fishes out of water as they deal with the challenge of land-based combat. At the same time Rol's shadowy origins are becoming clearer and we get some hefty clues towards the end of the novel that Kearney was headed somewhere truly apocalyptic with this series.

I think that will probably be the deciding factor for many people whether they wish to read this book and its immediate predecessor, The Mark of Ran. This is an excellent book, not quite Kearney's best but still very solid, filled with action, some great plot twists and some decidedly twisted character development. But it is clearly the second act of a much bigger story, and we have an indefinite period of time to wait for the next part of the story. If you don't mind waiting, definitely check out these two books ASAP.

This Forsaken Earth (****) is apparently going out of print by Bantam, but copies can still be found in the UK and the USA.

Saturday 10 May 2008


I'll be moving back across to the UK from Ireland over the course of this week so I may be offline for a while. Hopefully I should be back on by Thursday afternoon at the latest. However, I hope to put up a review of Paul Kearney's excellent This Forsaken Earth beforehand.

Currently reading: Hyperion by Dan Simmons. A book generally considered to be the greatest slice of SF since Dune. It doesn't quite live up to that hype, but it is an exceptionally fine novel. Looking forward to reviewing this one!

Wednesday 7 May 2008

Galacticawatch 5: Season 4, Eps 1-5

We left Season 3 of Battlestar Galactica on a whole slew of cliffhangers. Gaius Baltar has unexpectedly been found not guilty of being a traitor and a collaborator, but his life is in danger from many of the people oppressed during the occupation of New Caprica. Some sympathisers have whisked him off to safety, but who are they? What is their agenda?

Meanwhile, the Galactica and its attendant refugee ships have finally reached the Ionian Nebula after a grueling trek of some thirteen thousand light-years from the Temple of the Five, but instead of finding a clearly-marked signpost on the way to Earth the entire fleet momentarily loses power. When it is restored, a Cylon taskforce is bearing down on them. Unable to jump due to the power outage, the fleet is forced to prepare for a grim battle against the odds.

Colonel Saul Tigh, pilot-in-training Sam Anders, Chief Tyrol and President Roslin's aide Tory Foster have suddenly discovered that they are Cylons, four of the 'Final Five' who are held in near-mythical awe by the other Cylon models (who don't know anything about them and are programmed not to think about them, which is why Three's obsession with them last season was seen as such a crime). They themselves don't know what this means, nor have they suddenly gained any new memories or knowledge. They just know now what they are, but not what they must do.

Finally, as the battle kicks off, Lee Adama is rather shocked to find himself flying alongside Kara 'Starbuck' Thrace, who was last seen being incinerated in a fireball far above a gas giant planet hundreds of light-years away. And a Kara Thrace who was claiming to have been to Earth.

Say what you like about the troubled third season, it sure as hell went out with a bang. And we come back in on one. The season opener, He That Believath In Me, immediately picks up the story where we left off. Starbuck's return has floored everyone, but Roslin is convinced it's a Cylon trap. There is no time to dwell on that as the Cylons launch their assault, and for the first time we see killer dogfights in and around the civilian vessels of the fleet (something that actually was more commonplace in the original series). Things look bad for our heroes, who are grossly outnumbered and unable to protect the six or seven dozen civilian ships in the fleet (the viewer winces as a tighly-packed refugee liner is blown to pieces by indirect friendly fire), until one of the Cylon Raiders scans one of the Vipers...and suddenly the Cylons call off the entire attack and jump out. Our heroes are left stunned, especially the pilot who was scanned: Anders.

It's an amazingly strong opening sequence featuring - and this is no hyperbole - the finest CGI ever assembled for the small screen. Some of the CGI last season was ropey to say the least, but the stuff in this episode blows it away. But, as always with BSG, the stunning visuals take a back seat to the drama. The rest of the episode focuses on Starbuck's predicament. Is she who she says she is? Is she a Cylon, resurrected and now back to lure the crew into an ambush? There are no easy answers here and viewers may feel frustrated as Starbuck responds to some very logical questions with just vague assurances that she knows the way to Earth. However, things perk up a lot more as Baltar discovers that his rescuers are part of a cult of monotheists who have been outcast from the rest of the fleet. His belief in the One Cylon God attracts their attention and he soon finds himself in the position of being their de facto leader. Given that apparently 80% of the cult consists of attractive, young, generous, sharing women aged between 19 and 25, Baltar obviously sees the advantages in his new situation. Although the viewer's suspension of disbelief may feel somewhat tested. Anyway, a great opening episode that really raises the stakes for the season ahead.

The second episode, Six of One, opens with Starbuck holding Roslin at gunpoint and, reasonably, asking why it is that Roslin's visions get treated with respect when Starbuck's are dismissed out of hand. Roslin agrees that life is unfair and tries to shoot Starbuck in the face. Adama thinks they may have misjudged Starbuck and gives her a ship (albeit a rubbish one) and some crew to go search for Earth. Whilst watching the episode, this feels like a credible plot progression, but when summarised it does appear to be lacking in the logic department. Once again, some rather obvious BSG plot holes are paved over by incandescently good acting from the cast, particularly Edward James Olmos on top form as Adama. Elsewhere, James Callis does some absolutely hilarious work when 'Head Baltar' (previously only seen with Caprica-Six) appears to him and encourages him to seduce Tory (who herself has been asked by Tigh and Tyrol to 'feel out' Baltar to see what he knows about the Final Five), which he does with aplomb. Then it's time to catch up with the Cylons, who are divided over the revelation that the Final Five are among the human fleet. Cavill, Doral, Simon and, shockingly, Boomer are all for lobotomizing the Raiders and forcing them to resume the attack against Galactica, whilst the Sixes (led by a new individual named Natalie), Leoben and the rest of the Eights are dead against it. The debate ends in a shockingly violent conclusion that has severe repurcussions for the rest of the series.

Given the magnitude of the revelation of the Final Five, it's a bit odd that the reactions of the Four to their predicament has taken a back seat to the Starbuck plotline. The Ties That Bind refocuses attention on this story, as Cally becomes suspicious over Tyrol's absences to meet with Tory and Tigh, who are all struggling with their revelation (Anders is on the Demetrius with Starbuck and co). This is a busy episode that also takes in Lee's burgeoning political career as the new spokesman for Caprica in the Quorum, the Demetrius mission and also the Cylon situation, which is now devolving into full-scale civil war between the opposed sides. It's also a seriously negative episode, delving into Cally Tyrol's slide into depression, with the brutal ending proving that at least one of the Four has embraced their Cylon nature a little too readily. Incredible stuff with haunting music.

Escape Velocity starts off with a funeral and ends with the birth of a new religious movement. Baltar's group is attacked by a fanatical group known as the Sons of Ares, leading to a massive debate in the fleet about religious freedom. Unfortunately, both the Sons' use of violence and Roslin's unsubtle attempts to use the attack to force through draconian new anti-assembly laws end up bolstering Baltar's position and popularity, especially when he is rifle-beaten by an overzealous marine in front of dozens of witnesses. Elsewhere, Caprica Six and Tigh find an unusual bond building between them. This is rather odd, offbeat episode. Baltar's increasing religious popularity seems to be developing quite quickly, but with only sixteen episodes to wrap up the whole season that may be unavoidable. The Six/Tigh stuff is downright bizarre, and hopefully a result of some unconscious Final Five stuff because otherwise it is seriously messed up and disturbing. To some degree, a quieter episode than others of late but without something more forceful driving it, the cracks in BSG's storytelling are more apparent than ever.

The Road Less Travelled refocuses attention on the Demetrius mission as it stumbles across a crippled Cylon Raider containing a Leoben, who wastes no time in getting into Starbuck's (and Anders') head. As the Demetrius crew contemplate mutiny, Starbuck finally realises how divisive her actions have been, but still can't seem to find a way of turning them around. Back on Galactica, Baltar attempts to reach out to Tyrol. This is a more dramatically satisfying episode, anchored by Tehomah Penikett's excellent performance as Helo. Helo has been badly served by the writers since early Season 2, with no real consistency as to where he is used or how, being bounced around from Raptor pilot to Galactica temp XO with no rhyme or reason. And the less said about his signature episode from last season, The Woman King, the better. Here he finally gets some good dialogue and development as his position as Starbuck's best friend and 'rock' finally comes under the strain. Very good stuff, and it bodes well for his forthcoming major new role in Joss Whedon's new project, Dollhouse. Back on Galactica things are less dynamic, but Callis and Douglas turn in solid performances during some very angry, intense exchanges that lead to an intriguing ending.

So, BSG Season 4 has opened very promisingly. The search for Earth is back on and now a higher priority than ever. Very subtle clues throughout the episodes (most notably the appearance of the constellation of Orion in several background shots) show that the search is indeed approaching its end, whilst the civil war amongst the Cylons was an inevitable new development which sets things up for huge confrontations down the line. In terms of dialogue, the show has found its feet again, with logical, obvious questions being asked and the actors all working at the top of their game. However, some plot developments still feel forced or illogical, and the choice of at least one of the Final Five, Tigh, still feels like a retcon too far.

401: He That Believath in Me ****
402: Six of One ***
403: The Tighs That Bind ***½
404: Escape Velocity ***½
405: The Road Less Travelled ***½

Forthcoming: Faith (09/05/08), Guess What's Coming to Dinner (16/05/08), Sine Qua Non (23/05/08), The Hub (30/05/08), Revelations (06/06/08)

Saturday 3 May 2008

Shadow Gate by Kate Elliott

This is the second book in the Crossroads series, and the middle volume of the first story arc, reportedly a trilogy (preceded by Spirit Gate, which I reviewed here, and to be succeeded by Traitor's Gate, due in 2009).

In Spirit Gate, a number of outlanders arrived in the Hundred to find the land beset by troubles. Armies of vagabonds and cutthroats have appeared out of nowhere to challenge the justice of the reeves, the giant eagle-riding police force who have ensured the rule of law in the land since the disappearance of the Guardians many decades earlier. The outlanders, led by Captain Anji and his wife Mai, joined forces with Reeve Joss and the militia of the city of Olossi to defeat one of these roving armies and build a safehaven in the south-west of the Hundred. However, all are troubled by rumours of beings wielding supernatural powers and riding winged horses - as the Guardians were said to have done - apparently leading the invading armies.

Shadow Gate is a worthwhile and enjoyable follow-up to the first book, mostly because it works on two levels. On the one hand, it is a direct sequel, following up on the adventures of Joss, Mai, Anji, Shai and others following the Battle of Olossi. On the other, it is also parallel novel to the first, explaining a great deal of the mysteries in the first volume. One of the key weaknesses in the first book, I felt, was that the nature of the winged horse-riding beings and some storylines, most notably that revolving around the wandering envoy-priest and the bizarre antics of the slave Cornflower, were decidedly under-developed, to the point where their inclusion seemed to be extremely confusing. In this second volume you get the answers to those questions, told in an accessible and intriguing manner. Any thoughts that this was going to be a simple good-versus-evil struggle go out the window as we learn more of the nature of the Guardians, the rules they operated under and some explanations as to why they disappeared (although the full story, I suspect, will have to wait until Book 3).

At the same time, we get to meet some new characters, such as Nallo, the refugee who is chosen to become a reeve but whose training is complicated when the main reeve base comes under siege, and Avisha, a simple village girl who attracts Mai's favour and has to sort out a complicated love life as well as caring for her family. The new additions to the cast generally give us new and interesting outlooks on the world and the plot, and don't slow the story down too much. The pacing is also good, but arguably the conclusion is not as strong as it might be. Just as the Battle of Olossi seemed to happen very quickly at the end of Book 1, so the two big set-piece battles at the end of Book 2 also get short shrift, but arguably this is less important this time around as revelations about characters and several dramatic scenes between major characters form the meat of the finale, which does a better job of leaving the reader wanting to pick up the next volume straight away.

Spirit Gate (****) is a notably superior book to the first one, and actually makes the first one more enjoyable as well (a full re-read of the first book after the series is completed will pay unexpected dividends, I suspect). The book is published by Orbit in the UK and by Tor in the USA.