Saturday 30 August 2008

The Blood Knight by Greg Keyes

The third and penultimate book in The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series, The Blood Knight resumes the story where we left off in The Charnel Prince. Robert Dare, the late king's brother, has usurped the throne of Crotheny. He has imprisoned his brother's wife, Muriele, but has been unsuccessful in capturing or killing her lackwit son or youngest daughter, Anne. Meanwhile, Anne has overcome numerous obstacles and returned to southern Crotheny, which she begins the difficult task of winning some of the noble lords to her cause and raising an army. The monk Stephen's path leads him into the east to find knowledge that will aid in combatting the rising evil in the land, whilst the former royal holter, Aspar, will likewise find his destiny taking him into the wilds to a final confrontation with the mystical Briar King.

From the start, The Blood Knight feels a little uneven. The story takes a while to speed up again as we are, at length, reintroduced to characters from the previous books and what they are up to. This takes some considerable time. Once the plot gets going again, things get more interesting, paticularly as we get to the biggest battles in the series so far (although these are mere skirmishes rather than large set-piece engagements, which I suspect will be held back for the final volume). However, the writing feels a little less confident than in the first two volumes. Things are not as tight, whilst the inexplicable need to end every chapter on a cliffhanger gives the book a juddering pace which makes reading it at times mildly frustrating. Also, the extreme passivity of characters such as Aspar and Stephen becomes grating. They are both carried along by events outside their control, constantly second-guessing themselves and the people they need to trust. The moment when Anne, who was going the same way, breaks free and starts making her own decisions rather than blindly following some ancient prophecy, is extremely carthartic for that reason. One disappointment is that Leoff, given his importance to the second book, is extremely inert for this volume and doesn't accomplish much, whilst Muriele is pretty much absent, although given her conditions that is perhaps not surprising.

The Blood Knight is the weakest of the three books so far. The decline in quality of the series across its length was something I'd been pre-warned about, but is still regrettable. That said, even at this stage the core storyline remains interesting, the characters mostly sympathetic and, most importantly, the story remains intriguing enough to make you want to read on into the final volume, The Born Queen.

The Blood Knight (***½) is available from Tor in the UK and Del Rey in the USA.

Wednesday 27 August 2008

The Ten Thousand is now available

Just a reminder to let people know that Paul Kearney's very fine epic fantasy novel The Ten Thousand, is now available in both the UK and USA.

The Sandman: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman

The fourth Sandman collection finally follows up on the promise that Lucifer made to destroy Morpheus back in the opening collection. Destiny summons the Endless to a meeting, where we meet Delirium (who used to be Delight) for the first time and get some more information about the missing brother of the Endless. During the meeting Desire baits Dream about the treatment of his lover Nada, whom he banished to Hell for spurning him. Dream realises he/she is right, and resolves to travel to Hell and rescue his former lover, despite Lucifer's vow.

Season of Mists takes Dream on a journey into Hell and a confrontation with the Morningstar...but not the type of confrontation he was expecting. Dream ends up, slightly bemused, as the keeper of the key to Hell, and is soon being petitioned by gods and representatives from many pantheons (including the gods of Chaos and Order, and deities from the Egyptian, Norse and Japanese pantheons) anxious to get their hands on the finest plot of real estate in the multiverse, at the same time as he is also trying to find his missing love, and Death is attempting to repair the damage caused by countless legions of the dead suddenly being released back into the mortal world.

After the short story interlude of Dream Country, it's good to be back to a solid, long story arc. Although it's a reasonably long tale it's not the most dynamic story in the Sandman canon, and unusually most of it takes place in the Dreaming with only a few scenes set in the real world, and a longer chunk set in Hell. This allows us to see a bit more of the Dreaming and its inhabitants, but the meat of the story is seeing how the different pantheons interact together and who actually has the best claim on Hell.

As usual, Gaiman fills the story with neat little details and touches. The notion of there being a library in the Dreaming where all the books writers dreamed of writing but never got round to it is a fascinating one, and it's amusing to see books there such as Tolkien's The Lost Road (which was supposed to be a big story about his island kingdom of Numenor, but he abandoned it after a few pages). Elsewhere there are nods back to earlier stories: when Dream fears he may be destroyed in Hell, he decides to make time for a brief drink with his friend Hob Gadling, although they are not due to meet for another ninety-nine years. He also looks in on the newly-born son of Hector and Lyta Hall and gives him a name, Daniel, to Lyta's rage and horror. Elsewhere there's nice touches about the various gods, such as Chaos being personified as a young girl and Order as a carboard box, and Thor trying to impress some of the female deities present with his hammer, which gets bigger if you rub it (which is mythologically accurate)! Finally, we get a glimpse into the Sandman's collection of artefacts he has accumulated over the years, and see the skull of the Corinthian, a city trapped in a bottle and an old pocket watch, all of which are explored in future stories, in some cases years down the line.

As with previous collections, Gaiman interrupts the linear narrative of the story to give us a self-contained story in the middle of the collection which nevertheless comments on the action around it. A young boy left alone at boarding school for the holidays (after his father is among the hostages taken by Saddam Hussein in the build-up to the Gulf War) is suddenly joined by all those who died in the school over the previous century or so. It's a rather grim story, but ends on an interesting, optimistic note.

Season of Mists (****) isn't quite up there with the best of the Sandman collections. It is a tad overlong given its relative lack of actual incident, but for expanding our knowledge and understanding about Hell and the Dreaming, for introducing important new characters (particularly Daniel, Cluracan and Nuala) and for resolving the Nada storyline, it does a great job. The graphic novel is available from Titan in the UK and Vertigo in the USA, and forms the opening part of The Absolute Sandman, Volume II, available from Vertigo in the UK and USA.

Tuesday 26 August 2008

Top 48 SF&F Book-to-Film Adaptions

I normally don't do memes, but what the heck?

Lifted from Pat's Fantasy Hotlist.

The rules:

From Box Office Mojo's list of Top 48 Sci-Fi Films Based on a Book (or Story) (1980- present).

Here are the rules.

- Copy the list below.
- Mark in bold the movie titles for which you read the book.
- Italicize the movie titles for which you started the book but didn't finish it.

1. Jurassic Park
2. War of the Worlds
3. The Lost World: Jurassic Park
4. I, Robot
5. Contact
6. Congo
7. Cocoon
8. The Stepford Wives
9. The Time Machine
10. Starship Troopers
11. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
12. K-PAX
13. 2010
14. The Running Man
15. Sphere
16. The Mothman Prophecies
17. Dreamcatcher
18. Blade Runner (Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?)
19. Dune
20. The Island of Dr. Moreau
21. Invasion of the Body Snatchers
22. The Iron Giant(The Iron Man)
23. Battlefield Earth
24. The Incredible Shrinking Woman
25. Fire in the Sky
26. Altered States
27. Timeline
28. The Postman
29. Freejack(Immortality, Inc.)
30. Solaris
31. Memoirs of an Invisible Man
32. The Thing (Who Goes There?)
33. The Thirteenth Floor
34. Lifeforce (Space Vampires)
35. Deadly Friend
36. The Puppet Masters
37. 1984
38. A Scanner Darkly
39. Creator
40. Monkey Shines
41. Solo(Weapon)
42. The Handmaid's Tale
43. Communion
44. Carnosaur
45. From Beyond
46. Nightflyers
47. Watchers
48. Body Snatchers

(we'll ignore the fact that Children of Men, Total Recall, The Prestige and Minority Report should all be on this list as well, and as far as I can tell Cocoon was not based on a novel)

Well there you go. For what it's worth, Jurassic Park was a bad book but completely upstaged by The Lost World. Both books were so horrendous I've never been tempted to pick up a Crichton book since. On the other hand, David Brin's novel The Postman is a pretty good book. This may be down to the fact that all the novel and the movie have in common are exactly two scenes and a few character names and absolutely nothing else. Battlefield Earth is obviously a near-unreadably bad book as well, although I did nearly make it to the end before having to give up when nuclear bombs started blowing up and leaving the unprotected other nuclear bombs sitting right next to them completely unharmed. Carl Sagan's Contact is a good book and it's a shame he didn't write more fiction. 2010 is the first adult SF novel I read when I was ten years old and got me into the genre in the first place. Nightflyers is a very good story from George RR Martin's Dreamsongs collection. I left The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine blank as I'm pretty sure I read them when I was younger but don't recall much about them. A HG Wells reread may be in order!

Monday 25 August 2008

State of Play

Back in 2003 the BBC asked the award-winning scriptwriter Paul Abbott to write something 'big' for them. Abbott, who'd cut his teeth on the UK's biggest soap, Coronation Street, before creating his own shows such as Touching Evil, Clocking Off and Linda Green, was just about to become the superstar of British scriptwriting, with both his BBC project and another that was in development at the time for C4, Shameless, which was about to launch him into the stratosphere. The BBC project became the political thriller State of Play. To say the BBC pulled out the 'big guns' for it would be an understatement. Some of the UK's biggest and best actors, including John Simm and Philip Glenister (who would be reunited for the excellent Life on Mars three years later) and the mighty Bill Nighy were recruited, along with Polly Walker (Patriot Games, Rome), David Morrissey (Framed, Blackpool) and Kelly MacDonald (Trainspotting). The drama also gave huge boosts to the careers of several younger actors, most notably James McAvoy (now a big star thanks to the movies The Last King of Scotland and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) and Marc Warren (Hustle, Hogfather and a memorable cameo in what is widely regarded as the worst episode of the new Doctor Who, Love and Monsters).

The series opens with a young black man being gunned down on the streets of London. Initially the murder is dismissed as a drug-related killing, although his family are adamant he didn't touch drugs. On the same day Sonia Baker, the personal assistant and clandestine lover of rising Labour MP Stephen Collins (Morrissey), falls to her death on the London Underground. Collins' breakdown makes it clear to the press and Parliament that they were lovers, and soon his career and his marriage to Anne (Walker) are in danger. Ironically, the only friend he can turn to is Cal McAffrey (Simm), the chief reporter for the London Herald, the paper which is investigating both deaths. An examination of mobile phone records suggests that the two deaths are related. The Herald puts its top journalists on the trail which uncovers evidence of high-level corruption and manipulation. When one of his police officers is killed during the investigation, DCI William Bell (Glenister) takes a personal interest in the case, eventually resulting in an uneasy truce as the police and the journalists work together to find the real story behind the deaths, whilst editor Cameron Foster (Nighy) attempts to keep his superiors from shutting the story down.

State of Play is a stunning piece of work. Taking its cue as much from All the President's Men as earlier BBC political thrillers such as the House of Cards trilogy of mini-series, this is a gripping story with twists that somehow defy cliche at every turn. Misdirections crop up frequently and the extremely well-drawn characters follow through on them logically. It's nice to see a newspaper drama in which there isn't any 'lose cannon' operating on his own: the journalists act as a team, protected by their editor as long as the story seems worth it, and use contacts and modern technology to dig deeper into the facts in a very believable manner. The workings of Parliament, including how the independent committees function under pressure from lobby groups, are also laid out clearly.

Acting-wise, you couldn't ask for a better cast. Nighy gives a performance that may be one of the best of his career, including easily the funniest lines of the series. It takes some damn fine actors to hold their own and stop him stealing every scene, but Simm, Glenister, MacDonald, McAvoy and the rest rise to the occasion superbly, whilst Marc Warren gives a tremendous performance as the incredibly nervous, edgy main lead on the story who is fearing for his life. Morrissey, as one of our very best but underrated actors, makes Stephen Collins a believably weak but human character. Walker is also on terrific form as the wife who finds out her husband was having an affair and planning to leave her.

I don't think there's many more adulations I can pour on this mini-series, which was nominated for BAFTAs and other awards, and is now being mentioned in the same breath as Edge of Darkness among the canon of quality BBC drama serials. Filming has just been completed on an American film version, which casts Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck in Simm and Morrissey's roles (although if they do half as good a job, I will be shocked), and it will be released in early 2009.

State of Play (*****) is one of the best British drama mini-series of all time, period, and I would thoroughly recommend it to everyone. It is available on DVD in the UK (for the bargain price of £8) and USA.

Sunday 24 August 2008


Back in the mid-1990s, Neil Gaiman and British comedian and producer Lenny Henry decided to team up to work on a project for television. Having already conquered the comic book market with Sandman and produced a bestselling novel (Good Omens, with Terry Pratchett), TV was the natural next medium for Gaiman to move into. Henry had come up with the basic idea of 'tribes' of homeless people living in London, but Gaiman carefully refined the idea so as not to make the idea of living rough in London as 'cool' and brought a heavier element of the fantastical into play. The end result was the BBC mini-series Neverwhere, which aired on BBC-2 in late 1996.

Neverwhere had a somewhat troubled production. Gaiman had deliberately set the story in London with locations all in easy reach of the BBC studios on the reasoning that they could then use more of the budget for things like effects. In fact, this seems to have encouraged the BBC to simply assign a very low budget to the production. In fact, things were so tight they couldn't even film the series on 35mm, instead producing the series on video with plans to 'filmise' it later. They then couldn't afford to do this. To make matters worse, the sets and scenes had been lighted for film, meaning that many scenes look somewhat overlit and garish on video. This was a huge mistake for the BBC, who had been banking on Gaiman's popularity in the USA to help sell the show, but no US station would touch a series filmed on video with a barge pole. Another problem is the music: the haunting main title theme by Brian Eno is only heard over the end credits, whilst the atmospheric introduction (by long-time Gaiman collaborator Dave McKean) is only accompanied by some ambient sound effects. It doesn't work. Neither do the self-consciously odd 'story so far' sections at the start of each episode. And the least said of the Beast of London sequence, the better.

Another problem is that much of the cast was relatively young and inexperienced. Whilst Laura Fraser (Door) has gone on to become a fixture of British cinema and television over the past decade, this was only her third TV part and having to do things like talk to rats and assign dangerous missions to pigeons was obviously not where her talents lay. In other scenes, though, she nails the naive otherworldliness of the part just right. Gary Bakewell is simply not right for the central part of Richard Mayhew. He gets the out-of-his-depth stuff just right but a lot of the time comes across as passive and confused. Part of this is a problem with the character - the later novel version suffers from it as well - but Bakewell's performance does little to enliven things. The series' big find was Paterson Joseph, who gives a splendidly theatrical performance as the Marquis de Carabas, which is appropriate for the role. He perhaps goes a little broad at times, but he steals every scene he's in and his later turn to the dark side (after an encounter with the villains) is very well-played. It falls to the more experienced actors to show the young 'uns how it's done: Hywel Bennett and Clive Russell give deliciously evil performances as Croup and Vandemar, whilst Trevor Peacock's batty Old Bailey and Freddie Jones as the Earl are well-played.

There are issues with the script as well. After spending ten years writing comics for DC, you'd expect Gaiman to be a dab hand as a writer, but his script feels clumsy and obvious in some places. In other areas the script shines, with the very careful positioning and timing of events in the first part of the story setting up events later on quite nicely.

So, some dodgy acting, some dubious writing problems, some bad music and restricted production values. Does the series get anything right? Certainly. The central storyline remains compelling and the whole notion and idea of London Below (which was so great that China Mieville borrowed from it twice, for his novels King Rat and Un Lun Dun) is superb.

How much you enjoy Neverwhere (***) depends on whether you can overcome its numerous shortcomings to appreciate the story. If you can do that, there is much here to enjoy (for this reason, fans of old-school Doctor Who may enjoy it more than most). The complete series is available on DVD in the UK and USA. Gaiman adapted the series as a novel, which restores some ideas cut from the TV version, whilst a less-successful comic book version (adapted by others) followed a decade later. A movie version has been mooted for some time, with rumours of renewed interest following the success of the most recent Gaiman adaption, Stardust. Gaiman himself has occasionally spoken about a sequel to the story, most likely in novel form, but nothing has come of it so far.

Friday 22 August 2008

The Sandman: Dream Country by Neil Gaiman

The third Sandman collection represents a change of pace from the first two. Whilst the first two were unified by a central story arc that ran through each one, Dream Country is essentially a short story collection, featuring four tales that although self-contained, do illuminate parts of the backstory and the ongoing overall storylines of the entire series.

The first story is Calliope. A young writer, Richard Madoc, has a bad case of writer's block following the success of his first novel. In desperation he turns to the occult to find a way out of his problem and enlists the help of Erasmus Fry, an elderly author and successful playwright. It turns out that Fry owes his success to his imprisonment of Calliope, one of the nine muses of antiquity (and the former muse of Homer), and he passes control of Calliope over to Madoc. By holding her hostage and abusing her, Madoc gains the inspiration he needs and becomes a bestselling writer, churning out novels, a poetry collection, screenplays and even becoming a gifted director. Unfortunately for Madoc, he is unaware that Calliope is also the former lover of one of the Endless...

This is an interesting story. The notion of 'the muse' is explored here, although the literal personification of Calliope can be substituted for whatever a writer uses for inspiration. The abuse and over-use of the muse resulting in a horrendous case of writer's block, perhaps permanantly, is an interesting idea to use for a story, but it works well. We also get some intriguing backstory for The Sandman overall, including the tantalising revelation that somewhere out there Morpheus has a son (although those who know their Greek mythology will be way ahead of the game here). For those interested in writing graphic novels and comics, the complete script for Calliope is included in the book as well.

The second story is much more straightforward and fun. The Dream of a Thousand Cats sees a cat travelling the world, preaching a message to all the other cats, and we see the impact of that message on a young kitten. This story has been called 'cute' but it really isn't. The dream the cat is trying to bring into reality really isn't very nice (especially for humans) and the final line and image are brilliantly contrasted with what is going on in the cat's mind. This is as self-contained as Sandman stories come, and shows Gaiman's wit and imagination in full flower.

The third story is the legendary A Midsummer Night's Dream. Back in Men of Good Fortune (included in The Doll's House), Dream and William Shakespeare made a deal whereby Dream would give Shakespeare access to a font of imagination in return for Shakespeare writing two plays for him. A Midsummer Night's Dream is the first, written for Dream to show as a piece of entertainment to the real faerie king and queen, Auberon and Titania, who return to the mortal plane with their retainers for the occasion.

This is a splendid, clever story which rightfully won the World Fantasy Award in 1991. As the play unfolds events offstage are illuminated by it: Titania's enchantment of Shakespeare's son (who died several years later), Robin Goodfellow (Puck)'s irritation at being portrayed by a mortal and the running commentary provided by several of the faerie court viewing the play, with some disagreement about whether they should congratulate the mortals for their art or eat them. There's also some more scene-setting for later stories (an invitation is extended to Dream who hasn't followed up on it by four centuries later). The highlight of the collection, this is an amusing story, although probably of most interest to established Shakespeare fans.

The final story is Facade, about an extremely obscure DC hero who finds herself lost and lonely, living in her apartment with a weekly conversation with the guy who signs her pension cheques as the highlight of her week. This is a somewhat bleak story about a hero with the power to save the world but who loses herself in the process, but it is given an uplifting ending by the arrival of Death, who is fleshed out a lot more here than in her previous brief appearances.

Dream Country (****) is an excellent addition to The Sandman mythos, although it can be criticised for being on the short side (collecting only four issues, compared to the previous two collections' eight apiece) and only padded out to a reasonable length by the Calliope script. But the quality of the actual stories more than makes up for it. The collection is available from Titan in the UK and Vertigo in the USA, and rounds off The Absolute Sandman, Volume I, available from Vertigo in the UK and USA.

Thursday 21 August 2008

Broken Angels by Richard Morgan

Thirty years after his trip to Earth in Altered Carbon, ex-Envoy Takeshi Kovacs is fighting for the mercenary unit known as the Wedge in a dirty little war on the planet Sanction IV, between the ruling corporate cartel and the pro-democracy separatists under Joshua Kemp. After being killed and 're-sleeved' one time too many in the conflict, Kovacs is made an offer he can't refuse: to arrange an expedition to recover the most valuable alien artefact in history, a prize that people are willing to kill for, even commit genocide for...

Broken Angels is the middle volume of the loosely-written 'Takeshi Kovacs Trilogy', although it is a stand-alone novel. There are a couple of very vague references to the events of Altered Carbon, but not as many as there are to Kovacs' activities between the novels. Kovacs has been a busy lad, and the man we meet in Broken Angels, although still the same brutally efficient warrior, is somewhat more layered and interesting than the character we met earlier.

Broken Angels is an improvement on Altered Carbon, although it is also a rather different kind of novel. Whilst Altered Carbon was a hard-boiled detective story with elements of noir, Broken Angels is more of a war story, focusing on special operations and mercenaries. Kovacs has a number of allies and is a member of a team this time around, contrasted to the lone wolf operative of Carbon. Whilst the first-person perspective means we get less time with the other characters as we would in a third-person story, Morgan paints Kovacs' new allies quite vividly, giving them decent introductions and motivations.

As with Carbon, this is a hard-edged, violent story which lurks in a grey morass of conflicting morals and ethics. There are double-crosses, deceptions and murky allegiances aplenty. The story twists and turns but never feels contrived, a tribute to Morgan's writing skill. The book also brings some new ideas to the table. We get much more information about the mysterious aliens whose ruins humanity has spent five centuries picking through, and there is a 'big dumb object' in the finest traditions of hard SF which makes the final third or so of the novel fascinating.

Broken Angels (****½) is a fine SF novel, with a sophisticated and well-developed storyline featuring flawed and in some cases broken protagonists who are all too human. The book is available now from Gollancz in the UK and Del Rey in the USA. I have also reviewed three of his other novels: Altered Carbon, Black Man and The Steel Remains. The third and final Kovacs book is Woken Furies, which I hope to get to in the near future.

Sunday 17 August 2008

Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Seasons 3-5

There's a tradition in Star Trek that it takes three seasons for each series to really find its feet. Whilst Deep Space Nine's first two seasons had been entertaining, it still lacked a really notable sparkle to set it apart from both TNG and other SF series that were starting to appear at the same time, most notably Babylon 5. At the end of Season 2 DS9 was finally given the kick up the backside to really push it to become something more than the sum of its parts.

There's a dangerous new force in the Galaxy: the Dominion, an alliance of alien races unified under the rule of the Founders, shapeshifters who hold all other 'solid' races in mistrust after millennia of persecution by them. The wormhole in the Bajoran system directly links the Federation and the Dominion territories together, and Season 3 opens with a cold war between the two getting underway. A Federation attempt at peaceful negotiation is rebuffed, and Deep Space Nine is soon being reinforced with new weapons and a new defender in the shape of the first-ever Federation warship, the USS Defiant. However, whilst the threat is lurking in the background there is curiously little activity between the two sides, and after a while the series falls back into its traditional episodic structure. Luckily, the show delivers a series of solid stand-alone episodes here, ranging from the comedic to the dramatic. There's also the first appearance by Robert O'Reilly in DS9 as Klingon Chancellor Gowron, prefiguring his later, more prominent role in the series.

Whilst there's little action in the early season on the arc front, there's lots of background detail which comes together nicely later on, such as the growing momentum behind the Cardassian dissident movement and Garak's continuing yearning to go home to his people, whilst vague rumours of a Cardassian military build-up that even Dukat has no knowledge of hints of something cataclysmic to come. We finally get to that point in the epic Improbable Cause/The Die is Cast two-parter, which ends in the biggest space battle in Star Trek history to that point and the chilling line, "The only threats to us in the Alpha Quadrant now are the Federation and the Klingons, and neither are going to be a problem for much longer."

That line leads us into the magnificent Season 4. With the destruction of the Cardassian Obsidian Order, a full-scale revolution gets underway on the planet, triggering Klingon fears that the Dominion are masterminding events as a prelude to invasion. On that flimsy pretext, the Klingons invade Cardassian space, sparking a period of renewed tension with the Federation and even an abortive attack on Deep Space Nine itself. To deal with the Federation's belligerent former allies, Sisko recruits Lt. Commander Worf to join the station command crew. This shakes things up nicely, as Worf fits much better into the darker and more conflict-driven DS9 universe than he ever did on TNG. With the Federation and the Klingons at each other's throats, the Dominion has a free hand to get up to what they want to in the background and several key episodes address this. Season 4 is also the point that recurring actor Jeffrey Coombs hits his stride with the introduction of his two best characters, the Ferengi liquidator, "Brunt, FCA" and the Vorta Weyoun.

Season 4 is DS9 firing on all cylinders, delivering brilliant moments of drama, action and even comedy, something Trek has a mixed record on. Possibly the show's creative high point, although there is a the feeling that the introduction of the Klingon threat has taken the show away from where it was supposed to be heading.

That point is addressed at the start of Season 5 with the discovery that the Dominion have infiltrated the highest echelons of the Klingon Empire and masterminded the conflict with the Cardassians and the Federation for their own purposes. Having weakened the Alpha Quadrant sufficiently, the Dominion form an alliance with the Cardassians and start flooding Cardassian space with their warships. The parallel to pre-WWII Europe works extremely well. Whilst the episodes dealing with the main arc (most notably the In Purgatory's Shadow/By Inferno's Light two-parter) are magnificent, there are still many brilliant individual episodes here, such as the hilariously inventive Trials and Tribbelations and the extremely disturbing The Assignment. There are a couple of creative misfires, such as Odo's temporary transformation into a human that doesn't work quite as well as it should, but overall Season 5 maintains the quality of the season that preceded it. It ends on a high point, with the comical episode In the Cards (featuring some of the biggest laughs in Star Trek's history, such as the inherent ludicrousness of the Federation abandoning money in favour of 'a philosophy of self-enlightenment' and Ronald D. Moore's hilarious pisstake of technobabble with Dr. Giger's immortality device) preceding the monumental cliffhanger of Call to Arms, where the Federation and the Klingons feel compelled to launch a pre-emptive assault against the Dominion, with some jaw-dropping final moments as the Dominion capture DS9 and the Federation is forced to retreat.

Deep Space Nine Season 3 (****) is where the show finds its feet. It is available on DVD in the UK and USA.

Deep Space Nine Season 4 (*****) is where the show hits its creative highpoint, and is likewise available in the UK and USA.

Deep Space Nine Season 5 (*****) maintains the high quality of the fourth season and pushes the story arc forward and sets things up for an apocalyptic final two seasons, and is also available in the UK and USA.

Friday 15 August 2008

The Sandman: The Doll's House by Neil Gaiman

The second Sandman collection picks up from the last one, with the Sandman continuing the process of restoring the Dreaming to its proper state, and also introduces a whole slew of new characters and storylines that will continue to resonate within the series until its very end.

Rose Walker and her mother travel from the USA to the UK to mee an unknown benefactor who has paid for their trip. The benefactor turns out to be Unity Kincaid, a victim of the sleeping sickness that swept across the world between 1916 and 1989, whilst Morpheus was imprisoned by Burgess. Whilst she was sleeping, Unity was raped by an unknown assailant, and had a baby, who turns out to be Rose's mother. Rose and her mother are stunned by this revelation, but Rose also takes advantage of the financial largesse of her very wealthy grandmother to undertake a search for her brother Jed, who disappeared several years ago.

At the same time, Morpheus has detected the forming of a 'vortex', a dangerous focii of dream-energy that could disrupt the dreams of the entire human race and kill them. Before he can shut down the vortex, which takes the form of a person, he decides to use it as bait to lure out several inhabitants of the Dreaming who fled to the waking world during his imprisonment, such as the thoroughly amoral Brute and Glob, the personified dream-place Fiddler's Green and the Corinthian, created by Morpheus to be the 'ultimate nightmare'. This results in Rose and her family being placed in extreme jeopardy.

Several other stories are also wrapped around this one: we learn why the Sandman's former lover, Nada, was glimpsed in Hell in the opening volume. We learn that his younger brother/sister Desire is plotting something behind his back. We also meet arguably the Sandman's only true human friend, Hob Gadling, from whom the touch of Death was lifted in 1389, making him immortal. Once a century Hob and Dream meet at the same pub and compare notes on how their lives have unfolded over the past century. This story, Men of Good Fortune, is a stunning piece of work and one of the seminal chapters of The Sandman (alongside the likes of The Sound of Her Wings from the first collection and the forthcoming Midsummer Night's Dream, Three Septembers and a January, The Dream of a Thousand Cats and Ramadan). It also introduces Will Shakespeare, whose amazing writing skills are revealed to be the result of a pact made with Dream, in return for which Shakespeare agrees to pen two special plays for Dream. But more on them when they appear.

The Doll's House represents a quantum leap forward in Neil Gaiman's writing and storytelling abilities. So many storylines revisited in future stories are set up it's pretty breathtaking, from linking this version of the Sandman to the previous DC one (an ineffective, slightly bumbling human crime-fighter called Hector Hall) to the establishing of numerous characters we will meet again later (such as Lyta Hall) and the establishing of several new regular characters, such as Matthew, Death's new raven, and Fiddler's Green. It also features one of Gaiman's most effective moments of horror, with a convention for serial killers (inspired by the World Fantasy Conventions of the mid-1980s) giving rise to moments of both disgust and jet-black humour (panels on deconstructing the stereotypes of female serial killers or how to make money from your hobby). There's also some nice tributes to other comics: as well as the 1970s version of The Sandman we also get a pastiche of Winsor McCay's Little Nemo in Slumberland comic strips. As well as the obvious nod to Shakespeare we also get to meet Christopher Marlowe (who is dismissive of Shakespeare's first play, Henry VI, whilst his own masterwork Faustus is getting vast amounts of acclaim).

We also get some more clues as to what The Sandman is about. The legend of Nada shows that the Sandman has made some mistakes in his past and he needs to correct them, whilst Men of Good Fortune shows that the post-imprisonment Sandman is a slightly warmer person than before. A century spent alone has given him the chance to reflect on things and it's interesting seeing his cold, heartless side giving way more easily than before. The story ends with Dream confronting Desire and the immediate crisis solved...but Lyta Hall is living in mortal fear of what Dream told her (read and find out), which sets up events much later in the series.

The Sandman: The Doll's House (****½) is a radical improvement on the first Sandman collection, Preludes and Nocturnes, and gives the series a sense of purpose and direction. With the story Men of Good Fortune Gaiman's writing reaches a strong new level of maturity and intelligence, whilst Collectors may be among the most disturbing comics ever created.

The story is available from Titan in the UK and from Vertigo in the USA. It is also packaged with the first and third collections in The Absolute Sandman Volume I, available from Vertigo in the UK and USA.

Wednesday 13 August 2008

Some Wheel of Time News

There's been some interesting developments regarding Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in the last few days.

First off, Brandon Sanderson was at Worldcon this last weekend in Denver, Colorado, and there indicated he's roughly between one-quarter and one-third finished on his work on the final novel, A Memory of Light. He said the book will be longer than first thought, possibly as much as 600,000 words, and the chances of it being split in half are growing. That length is roughly what Tad Williams wrote for his final Memory, Sorrow and Thorn novel, To Green Angel Tower, so we may see a similar situation, with the hardcover coming out in one volume and the paperback being split in half. However, that's just a guess on my part. Sanderson said if the book is split in half the two halves should be published as close together as possible. More here from Worldcon and here from Brandon's own blog. Based on Sanderson's comments about Tor's deadline, we can expect A Memory of Light to be published, in whatever form, at the end of 2009.

Secondly, the big SF&F news roaring around the Internet today was that The Wheel of Time movie option has been picked up by Universal, apparently with the intent of making a single movie based on the first book, The Eye of the World, and see where it goes from there. The news has attracted mixed opinions. Robert Jordan himself was against a movie adaption, and said he'd only be happy with a TV adaption that would have time to incorporate most of the storylines and characters. In fact he rejected several movie offers for this reason and only agreed to a proposal for a sequence of TV mini-series based on each novel from NBC back in 2000, although this proposal never made it out of development hell and the rights lapsed. Some of Jordan's comments on this are noted here. The second major cause for concern is that Red Eagle, a rights development company that picked up the Wheel of Time resale rights several years ago and was involved in the unfinished New Spring comic adaption fiasco, is heavily involved in this project. In the last blog entry before his death, Jordan blasted Red Eagle and made it clear he no longer wanted to be involved with them, or for them to be involved in any Wheel of Time work.
Among other things they forgot an old dictum of LBJ back when he was just a Congressman from Texas, when he famously, or infamously, said “Don’t spit in the soup. boys. We all have to eat.” Worse, Red Eagle though they could tell me they spit in the soup, or pee in it, if they wanted to and there wasn’t anything I could do to stop them. You can’t apologize your way out of that with me, not that they tried. There isn’t enough money in the world to buy your way out of it with me. Not that they tried that either. So they get no further help from me. Once they are completely out of the picture, we’ll see what happens.
Whilst the reactions of most fans has been cautiously positive, there seem to be concerns over Red Eagle's continued involvement in defiance of Robert Jordan's wishes, and the adaption of the books into a series of films rather than a television series, again over the author's wishes.

My thoughts on the difficulties involved in adapting the series for film, as originally posted here:

So the Wheel of Time has sold 44 million copies (he's catching up with Terry Pratchett, slowly but surely). That's A Lot. Obviously a TV or movie adaption would be popular and make a lot of green, so some producers want a piece of the action.

However, you then hit a problem. This is a series of 12-13 novels which will cross 10,000 pages before it's done. The books vary from 700-1,000 pages in length. As a rule of the thumb, a 2-3-hour movie can be based on a book of about 300 pages without losing any material at all. So for a faithful adaption you're looking at 2-3 movies per book. Obviously that's not going to happen.

So now you're looking at cutting the material. A lot. You're looking at maybe 30% of the printed story making it to the screen even if you make 12-13 movies. And you're not going to make 12-13 movies, you're going to make 8, tops, as Harry Potter has shown that's about the maximum you can push it. So now you're looking at 15% of the story making it to the screen. And if you decide to go for a Lord of the Rings-style trilogy, that's 7% of the entire storyline on screen (compared to the LotR trilogy getting about 85% of the book on the screen). That's going to tick off a lot of fans. In fact, if you're going to do that, you may as well not bother.

So you start looking at it as a TV adaption. Say five 22-episode seasons. Season 1 is Books 1-2, Season 2 is Books 3-4, Season 3 is Books 5-6, Season 4 is Books 7-9, Season 5 is Books 10-12 (seriously, you can do a lot of Crossroads of Twilight, the tenth book, in 30 minutes, maximum). That gives you some excellent cliffhanger endings and gets more or less the complete story out in a reasonable timeframe (we may have to skip some bath scenes in order to spend more times with Mat scything down Seanchan troops with cannons, but that's probably a cross we can bear).

There is a slight problem there though: the budget won't be very big. $2 million to $4 million an episode, tops. Great for scenes of characters talking, small skirmishes and politics, not so great when you want to depict the Second Battle of Cairhien or the Battle of Dumai's Wells. Flashbacks to the War of the Shadow? Brief clips, at best. The Last Battle? Offscreen, probably. And fans will get annoyed with that as well.

This paradox is precisely why it's taken so long for the project to get on the screen. Looking at the other fantasy series and novels to make it to the screen, Sword of Truth (soon to hit our screens as Legends of the Seeker) is made up of self-contained books (apart from the last three) with a few ongoing story threads in the background. If it gets cancelled after a few seasons that's fine, as long as they get a few episodes' warning to wrap everything up. George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire is contained in length at 7 books, possibly 6 seasons (since the fourth and fifth books could possibly be compressed into one season since they won't want to lose half the cast for a year), and is being made by HBO with a giganormous budget. Guy Gavriel Kay's The Lions of Al-Rassan (still stuck in development hell) is one book which can be pruned down easily.

The Wheel of Time is one massive, ongoing story which starts in The Eye of the World and ends 12/13 books later with A Memory of Light. And that makes adapting it an absolute nightmare. Only Steven Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen - which is even more complex with even more characters and will be, probably, slightly longer when its finished - would present scriptwriters with an even bigger challenge.

I will be very interested to see how Universal proceeds, because I don't see any way it's possible to get the whole story on screen unless they go for a big-budget TV adaption, and the sources indicate it's going to be a movie series.

Monday 11 August 2008

The Hugo Awards 2008

This year's World Science Fiction Convention, held in Denver, Colorado, has spoken. The Hugo Awards, still the most well-known genre awards around, have been given and the results are the usual mix of the expected, the unexpected, the pleasent surprises and the ones that leave people bemused.

Full vote breakdowns can be found here.

Campbell Award: Mary Robinette Kowal

The initial reaction to this one was, "Who?" However, I think the Campbell did its job here. Of the other three well-known finalists, Scott Lynch is now a recognised genre name, Joe Abercrombie's trilogy has already found great success and critical acclaim and David Anthony Durham had an established fanbase for his historical novels before he made a well-publicised move into SF&F with his Acacia. So the Campbell going to the least-known name on the list is appropriate, and a great victory for the short story form.

Fanzine: Mike Glyer, File 770

Fan Writer: John Scalzi

Scalzi displaced David Langford's epoch-lasting run, although I doubt Langford was too disappointed since he's probably run out of places to put his Hugos. Scalzi's blog is undeniably fun and amusing, and he's a great commentator on the genre.

Fan Artist: Brad Foster

Professional Artist: Stefan Martiniere

A well-deserved win, although I share the bemusement of many that Alan Lee still doesn't do too well at these awards, despite the fact that via the number-one-gigaselling The Children of Hurin his artwork was far more highly distributed than others last year, and again of the highest quality.

Best Semiprozine:Locus

This is a bit of a running joke, with Locus wins pretty much automatically guaranteed every year. In fact, Worldcon seems a bit bored of it and put forward a motion suggesting the category be abolished. This has to be ratified by next year's Worldcon in Montreal.

Related Book: Jeff Prucher, Brave New Words, the Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form: Doctor Who, "Blink" Written by Steven Moffat, directed by Hettie Macdonald (BBC)

A well-deserved win for Doctor Who, with the BAFTA-award-winning Blink being the stand-out episode from the new show's third season. This is Moffat's third win in as many years and a great vote for confidence when he takes over as showrunner from Russell T. Davies for the show's fifth season in 2010. Although it is ironic that the best-received episode from the season was also the one featuring the Doctor the least. Battlestar Galactica's Razor came a distant second, but interestingly there was come voting confusion over this one, with it attracting votes for both Short Form (via the 80-minute TV edit) and long form (via the 116-minute DVD edit).

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form: Stardust

Season 1 was the favourite for this, but in the end the much shorter and more enchanting movie based on Gaiman's novel proved to be just too well-appreciated. Heroes' appalling second season may have also soured appreciation of the first season.

Best Professional Editor, Short Form: Gordon Van Gelder

Best Professional Editor, Long Form: David Hartwell

Best Short Story: Elizabeth Bear, "Tideline"

Best Novelette: Ted Chiang, The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate

Best Novella: Connie Willis, All Seated on the Ground

Best Novel: Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen's Union

As anticipated, although I've so far found Policemen's Union to be clunkily written and betrays its torturously long writing process. I am well-used to my personal favourite coming last, and Brasyl didn't let me down in that regard.

Overall, not as disappointing as some years, with most of the real bitching have already been done at the nomination stage (Black Man/Thirteen's absence was really irritating).

Once again, concerns over the voting process for the awards and how the awards can continue to proclaim themselves 'the most prestigious' awards out there when so few people continue to vote for them (barely 600 people voted for Best Novel, with substantially less for the other awards) have been raised, and once again roundly dismissed by most of the award's supporters, whilst the larger SF&F fandom seems to consistently care less and less about them with every passing year. It will be interesting to see how bad things will have to get before the need for change becomes undeniable to the award's organisers.

The Charnel Prince by Greg Keyes

Picking up where The Briar King left off, the second volume of The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone ups the stakes and pace significantly. The Kingdom of Crotheny is in turmoil and the capital, Eslen, seethes with those who would take advantage of the crisis to snatch some power for themselves. A composer, Leoff, finds himself elevated to the court after an unexpected act of heroism and made a pawn in the struggle between the Queen Mother and her sworn rival. Meanwhile, Princess Anne remains on the run with a small band of companions, and their flight back to Crotheny from the distant south is fraught with peril, whilst Sir Neil is sent on a quest to find her. Aspar, the king's holter, finds himself recruited by the Church and charged to hunt down and destroy the monstrous Briar King, but within the forest he soon finds that not all is as it seems...

The Charnel Prince is a solid continuation of this intriguing series. It's similarly as fast-paced and readable as the first book, and new characters and new storylines unfold that are mostly a match for those that have come before. A few storylines from the first volume are even concluded. Keyes' writing is fluid and well-paced, and the author's own skills at fencing and knowledge of composing come through in the writing, providing a solid backdrop for the story.

There are a few issues. Almost every chapter finishes on a major cliffhanger, which is frustrating as it's often not until several chapters later that we get back to that storyline, meaning that at any one time almost the entire cast of characters is in some form of jeopardy, which gets a little wearying after a while. Also, there are notably fewer twists around this time than in the first book and the second volume is a little bit more predictable than the first. Nevertheless the story ends strongly and leaves the reader eager to tuck into the third book, The Blood Knight.

The Charnel Prince (****) is available from Tor in the UK and from Del Rey in the USA.

Friday 8 August 2008

The Briar King by Greg Keyes

Greg Keyes first came to prominence a decade or so ago, with his Age of Unreason quartet and his duology consisting of The Waterborn and The Blackgod. There was some concern that spec fic had lost a very promising author to the siren call of media tie-ins, as Keyes then moved on to produce some of the better Babylon 5 and Star Wars tie-in novels, but in 2003 he bounced back with his take on epic fantasy, The Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone, a four-volume series of which The Briar King is the first novel.

The Kingdom of Crotheny is facing rising tensions with the great kingdom of Hansa to the north. In the King's Forest there are rumours of monsters and banditry. The royal court is infested with treason and intrigue. Even the church is tainted by the growing corruption. Rumours abound of the imminent return of an ancient god, the Briar King, whose resurrection will portend the end of the world. Several characters are caught up in the growing chaos, and we follow their stories as the world enters a great period of uncertainty and conflict.

It sounds like epic fantasy by numbers, but Keyes writes his story with refreshing enthusiasm and vigour. His characters are well-drawn and understandable, the storyline is told well and there's a strong infusion of both Celtic and Mediterrenean influences into the more traditional northern/western European medieval fantasy ideas on display here. The result is a book that in summary sounds like every other epic fantasy you've ever read, but in the reading turns out to be enjoyable, and a real page-turner to boot and some real shocks and surprises along the way. Keyes isn't afraid to kill off major characters or upset the status quo in a major way.

The Briar King (****½) is one of the best opening volumes to a fantasy sequence I've read in some time, and will be reading the sequels in short order. The book is published by Tor in the UK and Del Rey in the USA, and is followed by The Charnel Prince, The Blood Knight and The Born Queen, all available now.

Thursday 7 August 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2

Season 2 of the new Battlestar Galactica begins immediately following the events of the Season 1 cliffhanger. A Raptor has crashed on Kobol and the survivors are being menaced by Cylons. On Galactica, Commander Adama has been shot by a Cylon sleeper agent and lies at death's door, leaving the flaky, alcoholic Colonel Tigh in command. President Roslin has been deposed by a military coup and is confined in Galactica's brig. Meanwhile, Starbuck has, against orders, taken a captured Cylon Raider back to Caprica to find a mythical artefact. And that's just for starters...

Whilst Season 1 of BSG consisted of a long story arc made up of entwined threads that culminated in the season finale, the second season consists of shorter arcs which are much more heavily serialised across a smaller number of episodes. The first seven episodes of Season 2 are based around resolving the Season 1 cliffhanger and form an exciting, tense storyline which tests the characters to their limits. Colonel Tigh is put on the spot and found wanting, whilst both Apollo and Starbuck find their loyalties repeatedly tested and Baltar's acceptance of his destiny against the instincts of his more practical and scientific side results in an intriguing struggle. Once the aftermath of Season 1 is dealt with, we are barely given a pause for breath as the three-part Pegasus arc kicks off. There is a school of thought that Pegasus itself is the best episode of the entire series, perhaps challenged only by Season 1's 33 and Season 3's Exodus, Part 2, and it's hard to argue with that. As a bonus the DVD edition is the extended 56-minute cut, with far more character development and background information than we've seen previously.

Following the conclusion of the Pegasus arc in Resurrection Ship, Part 2, the show ill-advisedly takes some time out to do some stand-alone episodes. Roslin's reprieve from her cancer in Epiphanies is well-acted, but tremendously contrived, whilst Black Market is something of a mess, and is producer Ronald D. Moore's least-favourite episode (although frankly it's far better than Hero or the truly irredeemable The Woman King from Season 3). Black Market is a throwback to early Season 1 which dealt with the social, political and pragmatic challenges facing the fleet, but this late in the day with far more interesting stuff going on it feels like a waste of time, and the flashback sequences are unfocused and rather dull. Scar is better, as Kat and Starbuck compete to see who can take down an ace Cylon Raider, but again the flashback sequence makes the episode more confused than it needs to be. Sacrifice is notable for the highest-profile killing of a regular character to date, but is rather predictable.

Season 2 returns to form with The Captain's Hand, a no-nonsense action story which gives Apollo something to do after a prolonged brush with depression and we get to see what the Pegasus is really capable of when cut loose, resulting in some very nice CGI, although the continuously-doomed nature of the Pegasus COs is becoming a bit of a riff on Murphy Brown's secretaries. Downloaded is a pivotal episode, giving us the Cylon point-of-view for once whilst the fate of Sharon's hybrid baby is debated and nuked-out Caprica is revisited. The two-part season finale, Lay Down Your Burdens, is the series at its best, mixing politics (Baltar's run for the presidency receives a shot in the arm after the discovery of a habitable planet protected from the Cylons' sensors by a nebula), action (Starbuck's long-gestating plan to return to Caprica to rescue the resistance members is finally carried out) and genuine surprises (the last of the 'significant seven' Cylons is revealed) before we get to the final 15 minutes: a totally unexpected year-long jump forwards in time that ends on the biggest cliffhanger to an SF TV show since Picard got Borgified.

After debating about the final score for the season, in the end I opted to give Season 2 maximum marks. Yeah, there's four fair-to-middling episodes, but nothing that's actually unwatchable, and the overwhelming quality found elsewhere more than makes up for it.

Battlestar Galactica: Season 2 (*****) is Battlestar Galactica at its finest, and is available on DVD in the UK. In the USA the season was released in two volumes as Season 2.0 and Season 2.5.

201: Scattered (*****)
202: Valley of Darkness (*****)
203: Fragged (*****)
204: Resistance (****)
205: The Farm (***½)
206: Home, Part 1 (****)
207: Home, Part 2 (*****)
208: Final Cut (****)
209: Flight of the Phoenix (****)
210: Pegasus (*****)
211: Resurrection Ship, Part 1 (****½)
212: Resurrection Ship, Part 2 (*****)
213: Epiphanies (***)
214: Black Market (**½)
215: Scar (***)
216: Sacrifice (**½)
217: The Captain's Hand (****)
218: Downloaded (****½)
219: Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 1 (*****)
220: Lay Down Your Burdens, Part 2 (*****)

Wednesday 6 August 2008

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman

If Watchmen is the greatest graphic novel of all time, then a serious case can be made for Neil Gaiman's The Sandman to be the greatest on-going comics series of all time. Running from 1988 to 1996, the series incorporated some 76 issues, collected as ten graphic novels (and more recently, four large-format prestige collections). Although an ongoing series, it was bound together by a long-running story arc that spanned its entire length, and told the story of Morpheus or Dream, one of the seven Endless who are manifestations of universal concepts (the others are Death, Delirium, Desire, Despair, Destiny and Destruction). Preludes and Nocturnes is the first part of the Sandman saga, collecting together the first eight issues of the series.

In 1916, an English sorcerer named Roderick Burgess attempts to capture and constrain Death, so that all humans will become immortal. The spell goes awry, and instead he captures Death's younger brother, Dream. Dream refuses to help Burgess with his quest for immortality and is left imprisoned in a magic circle in the cellar beneath Burgess' home. The absence of Dream is soon felt, as thousands of people across the world slip into a 'sleeping sickness' and cannot wake up. One of these people, a young woman named Unity Kincaid, is even raped and bears a child without ever waking up. Years and then decades pass. Roderick dies of old age and his son Alex takes over as Dream's captor. Finally, in September 1989, Alex accidentally breaks the circle (by driving his wheelchair over it) and Dream is freed. After visiting an original form of vengeance upon his captor, Dream sets about reclaiming the 'tools' of his profession and restoring his realm, the Dreaming, to its former glory.

Preludes and Nocturnes opens the Sandman saga in style, introducing the titular character (who is unusually front-and-centre for the duration of the story: many Sandman stories are notable for not featuring him prominently) and the world he lives in. Gaiman weaves an interesting story here. The Sandman's quest to find his pouch of sand, his gemstone and his helmet is a traditional mythic device, as is the descent into Hell to confront Lucifer to find one of the missing artefacts (this in turn sets up the very end of the series, with Lucifer's vow that, "One day I shall destroy him," setting up future events). At the same time there's a lot of other things going on. Established DC Comics villain Dr. Dee abusing the Sandman's powers to torment a diner full of innocent people is one of the more disturbing things you're going to see in a comic. The story ends with a triumphant Sandman driven strangely morose by his success, and unable to think of something else to do, he goes to feed the pigeons in Greenwich Village, where he meets with his sister Death, probably the most popular character in the series. The collection ends on an upbeat note, as the Sandman begins the task of restoring his realm and his life.

Preludes and Nocturnes is a great story. It's clearly early days for Gaiman and the story creaks a bit in places. It's also rather more obvious than the later, more subtle collections, and the desire for a somewhat plot-driven narrative to hook in the readers means that a lot of the more reflective moments from the later collections are missing. At the same time, revisiting the collection reveals a host of details that crop up again later on, such as an early glimpse of Merv driving a bus (he doesn't reappear until The Kindly Ones, the penultimate collection) and the introduction of Nada, Dream's former lover whom he condemned to Hell for reasons that will later be revealed. The book also wears its influences a bit more obviously than later stories: The Devil Rides Out and the works of Alastair Crowley inform the Burgess sequences, whilst the gates of the Dreaming (the Gates of Horn and Ivory) are straight out of Homer and Virgil. Gaiman's use of established DC characters such as John Constantine and Dr. Dee was also an obvious strategy to attract other DC readers, but for those unfamiliar with the DC Universe, their appearance and the assumption of familiarity is a bit jarring.

Preludes and Nocturnes (***½) is an intriguing opening to the series, ranging from mythology to the occult to superheroes (and villains) and back again, taking in multiple times, worlds and characters. It is a powerful work of the imagination, but in places feels constrained by being part of the DC Universe and has a few rough edges, the result of a writer near the start of his career but already showing great promise. The collection is available from Titan in the UK and from Vertigo in the USA. The collection also forms part of The Absolute Sandman, Volume I, which is a handsome leather-bound edition of the first 20 issues of the comics series and comes complete with extra material. This edition is available from Vertigo in the UK and USA.

Tuesday 5 August 2008

The Sandman Companion by Hy Bender and Neil Gaiman

Back in the pre-Internet days, it wasn't uncommon to see 'companion' books to television series, movies, sometimes series of novels, taking up space in bookstores, providing episode guides or character biographies or A-Z guides. Since the advent of the Internet these books have been gradually disappearing. Why go and spend £7 on a book about, say, Lost when you can look up the same information online for free, and discuss it with other fans? To stay in the game companion books need to deliver far more original, exclusive information that cannot be found elsewhere, and The Sandman Companion is a splendid example of this.

The Sandman Companion consists of plot summaries of the ten graphic novel collections that make up The Sandman series, as you may expect. However, the meat of the book is an extraordinarily long interview between the author, Hy Bender, and Neil Gaiman. Divided between the ten collections and several shorter chapters on characters, the origins of the series and so on, this interview delves deep into each story, examining the motifs, themes and imagery that Gaiman wanted to explore, investigating what worked and what didn't. Gaiman goes into particular detail on the classic story A Midsummer Night's Dream, going through the issue line-by-line and panel-by-panel to show what he was try to accomplish with this one particular story. It's a fascinating read and an invaluable resource to have at your side when you next reread the series.

The book also features interviews with the artists that worked on the series (including several with iconic cover designer Dave McKean), as well as letterer Todd Klein and editor Karen Berger. Several other SF&F luminaries also chip in, such as Alan Moore, Gene Wolfe, Harlan Ellison, Samual R. Delaney and others, all offering opinions on why the series works and what has made it such an enduring classic of modern speculative fiction.

The Sandman Companion (****), originally published in 2000, is an invaluable resource for fans of the series and features the most extensive look yet into the minds of one of our best modern SF&F authors. It is available from Titan Books in the UK and from Vertigo in the USA.

Sunday 3 August 2008

Online Round-Up Part 3

Just a quick word about webcomics. Ah yes, those expressions of creativity and artistic endeavour written by people with sublime senses of humour. Or arguably gaming fanboyz making obvious jokes about Solid Snake looking having some sort of seizure whenever he has to crawl.

Penny Arcade has been the most popular webcomic out there for some time and it runs the gamut from genuinely hilarious to tumbleweeds-blowing-in-the-wind pretty regularly. Ctrl+Alt+Del hasn't been genuinely funny for about three years and a recent 'serious' storyline about abortion was distasteful and strange, but some of the earlier strips were vaguely amusing.

The only two I'm prepared to fully recommend here are both arguably quite lazy, as they involve no artistic skills at all but just tons of screencapping. DM of the Rings is genuinely hilarious. It retells Lord of the Rings as a D&D campaign, which explains some of the most inexplicable moments from the movies. It also has the virtue of being complete, so you can just binge on the whole thing. Great stuff.

The other one, which is ongoing, is Darths and Droids, which basically does the same for the Star Wars movies. They're still only about two-thirds of the way through The Phantom Menace so there's still some way to go, but pretty outstanding so far, with a reasonable explanation for Jar-Jar's goofy weirdness (he's being played by the young sister of one of the players who was dragged along one night due to lack of babysitting options). Both are well worth a look.