Continuing from yesterday, here’s one more awesome thing I’ve watched in a stupor of post-training fatigue..

I saw the trailer, more than once, but I wasn’t wholly convinced. I initially felt like this mini-series would be one of those melancholic, navel-gazing type shows where little would happen but much would be discussed. How wrong I was.

Maniac is anything but. Instead, it was a journey out of despondency and depression, spiralling upwards toward a kaleidoscopic expression of wholesome emotion. In a retro-futuristic world of robots and weird science, there’s an off-key, off-centre feel to its sci-fi background that is as intriguing as it is tricky to hold on to. Following the entwined stories of Owen (Jonah Hill) and Annie (Emma Stone) the narrative simultaneously converges and fractures around a bizarre pharmaceutical trial. Owen needs the money to strike out and find his dependence from his domineering and overly successful family; Annie is chasing the drug on trial and it’s particular effects.

Whilst Owen is anxious and withdrawn, Annie is brash and bold, and the pair are soon thrust together in the same group testing the drug. Adding more unique layers to the already unusual worldbuilding, the pharma Company is itself a story that unfolds in fits and starts, revealing a scientist exiled from his own research only to be brought back at a crucial time and a computer that is so self aware it’s sabataging it’s own experiment.

The drug works by dropping the user into old memories and visions, helping them realise a healthier and happy conclusion. However, each time Owen and Annie find themselves in each other’s visions, as different people, in different lives but always thrown together. Eventually both do escape their most negative aspects and find inner peace yet the journey there is a winding and fantastical path.

As a vehicle for the actors it’s a chance to play multiple characters within a narrative framework. This is where the uniqueness works, ebbing and flowing forward and rising ever upwards. It was surprising and fulfilling and hopeful, all couched in a thoroughly distinct and inventive worldbuilding. It’s odd, hard to categorise but excellent it’s own special and quirky way.

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I was recently looking for something to watch (in a state of post-training exhaustion) and it made me think about all the great things I’ve watched but not blogged about (because I’ve been training a lot and “recovering” on the sofa). It also made me think of all the things I stopped watching, though I’ll save that for another post. So, without further ado, and with thanks to Netflix and it’s great programming – The Umbrella Company.

Adapted from a comic book, this series was an instant hit with my wife and I. Drawing you in with great characters and a number of unanswered questions that are slowly and cleverly explained, The Umberlla Company is a bright, engaging piece of fantasy. Similar in style and feel to the Marc Caro/ Jean-Pierre Jeunet films, such as City of the Lost Children, there’s a mix of seriousness and comedy that seemlessly entertains whilst never losing sight of the story.

The ensemble cast of characters, each with their own deep, and sometimes dark, background are brilliant. Their wild abilities, their shared history of adoption and their sense of being cast adrift from any sense of purpose is thread through the narrative. Adopted as babies by an eccentric millionaire (himself a strange character) and nurtured to manage and develop their super powers, the children become poster boys and girls for the eponymous Umbrella Company. Saving the day and going on missions being all part of the fun.

However, little is normal here and when your name is a number and your surrogate mother is a robot, it’s no wonder things get weird. After one of the gang disappears only to return decades later looking just as he did, a twelve-year old, but acting like a fifty-year old, the mystery begins. It’s a wonderfully, tangly mix of time travel, apocalyptic prophesy and crime caper as secrets are unearthed and the bigger picture is slowly revealed.

The Umbrella Company does a lot of things right from it’s stylised worldbuilding to its witty and engaging characters. Fantastical and fun but with an edge.

Richard K Morgan’s latest novel is, without a doubt, an amazing read. His special blend of cyberpunk, crime thriller, sci-fi action is as unique as his voice and is put together so well, so seamlessly, that there was a point where I had to stop reading and acknowledge, out loud, just how great the author is at his trade.

Set on a colonised Mars, Thin Air is, however, more than the sum of its parts. Whilst the plot weaves and wends and the story grips from the opening gambit right up until the last sentence, there’s much to read within it about the human condition and all our meat-wrapped foibles. Yet, and yet again, it is the story that powers it all and Thin Air is a tour de force.

Following Hak Veil, a bio-engineered corporate soldier, we are shown a Mars decades into its colonisation, with a society largely separated from Earth, living under a massive atmospheric dome and etching out hard lives at the frontier of humanities technological expansion. There’s a neo-western edge to the whole premise and Veil is the perfect morally grey protagonist that stalks throughout. Corruption and cut-throat business prevail and, as a skilled and dangerous enforcer, Veil has seen it all since being dumped on Mars by his former employer.

Yet, though business and tech is booming in that wild and lawless ecosphere, Earth wants to keep a handle on its fractious brethren. An audit team is sent to investigate the rampant corruption all caught up in a lottery scheme that seems to be disappearing its lucky winners instead of giving them their prize of a trip back to Earth. And Veil is tasked with helping out a second string Earth official who very quickly finds herself in deep trouble. It’s the thread that unravels the whole mess but Veil has to work blind, against all manner of obstacles as he tries to run down the truth. The more he digs, the deeper the rot goes.

Hak Veil is a brilliant character; hardbitten, hardwired for combat and hard to kill. Gritty and mission driven ( due to his engineering) there’s no stopping the “Black Hatch man” once he’s unleashed and it’s a theme that powers the story along. Yet, this isn’t a fast read. There’s so much given in the prose and such amazing detail offered as the world is revealed around the cast of actors. Like his Takeshi Kovacs novels or his Land Fit for Heroes series, Thin Air manages, and succeeds, to create a stunning combination of elements into a book that will transport you to another place.

Truly remarkable, I sincerely hope Hak Veil makes another appearance.

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Published by Gollancz

Review – Life

Posted: March 5, 2019 in Film, Horror, Sci-Fi
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I caught this film on Netflix recently and, as a sucker for space horror, loaded it up and went in blind, not knowing what to expect. I was pleasantly surprised. The cast were headed up by two very talented actors with Ryan Reynolds doing his patented brand of goofy yet heroic and Jake Gyllenhaal giving another solid, emotional performance. The rest of the ensemble were equally restrained and believable in their roles as scientist/astronauts tasked with researching samples taken from Mars that showed signs of life.

From the tense opening scene where the samples might’ve been lost if not for Reynolds bravery to the consequential astonishment at the discovery of an alien organism, albeit a very simple cell, the film had an undeniable quality. The research and its consequences are astounding yet, as the scientists continue their observations, that simple cell begins to transform, displaying an intelligence beyond anything they’ve ever seen before.

The film captures the tension and claustrophobia of a space station brilliantly, and the special effects are on point. As things take a turn and the cell (miraculously and suddenly) begins to evolve into a creature, that sense of knife-edge existence which comes from living inside a space station comes to the fore. The fragility of the human body, the desperation to survive is, in Life, viscerally portrayed – none more so than with Reynolds’ self- sacrifice.

As the cell turned creature turned monster begins to pick off the crew and desperation replaces logic, the true horror of the astronauts choices are revealed; there is no exit strategy. The last ‘firewall’ is for the station to be ejected into outer space. The scientists try everything but the creature is smarter, more suited to the environment and, basically, unkillable.

It’s solid horror. The atmosphere was well wrought and the acting well done. For me the annoyance came in how the creature managed to evolve from a single cell into a fully-fledged vampiric octopus so quickly. But, accepting the suspension of disbelief, it is a badass monster. Yes, the ending was predictable. However, it was an entertaining movie that hit all the right space horror tropes and made for a fun watch.

The second in Ed McDonald’s series, Ravencry is, without a doubt, an astounding novel and one of the best fantasy books I’ve read in some time. Set four years after the end of Blackwing, Ed McDonald has created a work of epic proportions as Captain Galharrow is faced with yet another impossible task against a foe whose powers are growing all the time.

As the Range tries to rebuild itself after the Deep Kings’ attacks, Galharrow has found himself raised up and suddenly respected once more. Funded, comfortable and with a payroll of employees to do his biding, the Blackwing Captain is finally able to do the work the Nameless ask of him and the Range require of him. Yet, soon enough, events conspire to unbalance his new found position: a strange meeting out in the Misery (the wasteland of monsters and poisonous sand), a murdered navigator and a growing, newly established religion have Galharrow on the back foot. But, when an artifact is stolen from a god’s magically protected safehold, the Captain realises just how bad things are becoming.

The Nameless gods and Deep Kings continue to wage their war but Galharrow is faced with a different enemy, one who has wormed his way into the very fabric of the city, controlling and commanding minds and bodies to his whim. However, Galharrow is as tough as they come and fuelled by a power as equally strong.

Ravencry builds on the first in the series wonderfully, adding layers and layers to the world building and giving depth to characters already enthralling and engaging. There are tales within tales at play as the larger narrative ramps up the tension and excitement into a crescendo worthy of any finale – until you realise this is book two and there is, fantastically, more in the series.

Ed McDonald is another addition to the growing powerhouse of new fantasy authors working today and Ravencry is testament to that talent and imagination.

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Published by Gollancz

I’ve categorically failed to post a best of 2018 and I’m still struggling with all manner of other time consuming activities which have made a real dent into my reading/blogging time. But, I’m nothing if not stubborn, and with a number of great books on the shelves waiting to be read, I’m adamant that I’ll keep this blog alive.

The first book in Scott Reintgen’s series was thoroughly enjoyable, hitting all those satisfying tropes like the sci-fi military boot camp and the big-bad shadowy corporation behind everything. The cast of characters was novel for their diversity and their real-world problems but also very easy to empathise with as they fought and competed to ‘win’ their opportunity to visit an alien planet and make their fortune.

In Unleashed, the group have landed amongst the alien Adamites to a surprisingly warm reception. But, as ever with Babel, nothing is as it seems as the company continue to pull strings behind the scenes for their own nefarious purposes. However, unlike the opening novel, the tension here loses some of its power and the author is forced to rely on repetitive emotional confrontations to pull the story along. Don’t get me wrong, Unleashed is still chock full of excellent world-building and intriguing prose, and the author doesn’t shy away from treating his actors with the very real characteristics of the current, teenage generation’s attitudes and ideas. Where things seemed, to me at least, to stall was in the need to bridge the gap between the first book and the third, setting up a scenario that will clearly pay fruit but which felt a little too drawn out. It is perhaps a difficult ‘second album’ issue.

Unleashed is still a great read, especially for those invested in the characters and world (of which I am sure there are plenty). We see the protagonists grow and mature, dealing with difficult circumstances and relationships all the while navigating an alien world. Trust and truth are tested to the extreme as the group try to understand where they stand, though, in the end, they realise it is only together that they will survive the various honey traps set for them by Babel. The last quarter of the book explodes with potential, setting up the next novel perfectly.

Unleashed is a title that could refer to all manner of ideas explored in the book, from the substance the crew are sent to mine, to their own anger and frustration at Babel, or the plans of the Adamites themselves. Nyxia continues to be an intriguing series and the story of the teenage crew remains as gripping and fraught as ever.

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Published by Penguin

If you haven’t read the first book in Gavin Smith’s The Bastard Legion series, then beware of spoilers ahead….

In The Hangman’s Daughter, the first in the series, we met Miska Corbin and her army of prisoners, enslaved and forced to do her bidding as mercenaries via explosive collars and the threat of immediate death. As that book unfolded we learnt the real reason behind her piracy of the prison barge and what was behind her motives. The murder of her father and her subsequent deep, deep black op mission set her on a course of undeniable mayhem. Her father’s killers were on board the barge and her cover as a merc gone crazy was a ruse.

However, running that cover story requires her to take on contracts and, in Friendly Fire, Miska and her team are tasked with recovering an alien artifact. By recover, read steal using any means necessary. It’s another undercover mission given by her, frankly, misguided CIA handler yet the stakes are extremely high.

All manner of obstacles lay in Miska’s path not least being that the world on which the artifact has been found is home to a number of her prisoners. People whose family (and criminal fraternity) would very much like them set free. The mission, understandably, turns into a horror show as enemies come out of the woodwork from all directions, some who want Miska dead whilst others want her captured, not least of those her own sister. Added to that is the fact that the object isn’t what they thought it was and the people in possession of it are much more prepared than Miska was led to believe. Hunted and hated from all sides, Miska must try to balance it all whilst staying alive so that she can discover who killed her father and why it was covered up.

Smith weaves the story with his normal, casual brilliance blending action shootouts, weird technology, human problems and fantastic world building into one awesome package. His ability to add flavours from different genres – such as Italian mobsters, Yakuza gangs, alien tech and crime heists- into the mix, displays a clear sense of fun, something which oozes from the pages. Military sci-fi is in capable hands when Gavin Smith opens up the throttle of his imagination and Friendly Fire is an exceptional example of his skill as a storyteller.

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Published by Gollancz

So, once again, I’m back. It’s starting to sound a little repetitive, like an overly used catchphrase, but..I’m back reviewing. Suffice it to say, life gets in the way. Having said that, let’s get started.

The Bastard Legion is a fantastic way to fire this blog back up. It’s a fast paced, high action, blood and guts thriller of a ride. Like a lot of Gavin Smith’s (aka Gavin G Smith) books, the characters are brilliant, the dialogue tight and the world building epic.

Set four hundred years in the future, in the aftermath of an alien war, humanity has spread far into space. But, humans being humans, little has changed about our inner nature. Corporations rule, capitalism remains king and politics is still a subject best avoided. Smith’s novel opens with his protagonist, Miska Corbin, taking her enslaved penal legion on a mission both morally ambiguous and dangerous. As the action unfolds, we learn a much about the future world and Miska; a former space marine with a furious temper, an equally intimidating sister, and a father whose legend as one of the toughest sergeants in the force still holds true, all of which informs much of her decisions.

After stealing a huge prison barge full of some of the worst criminals, Miska sets about becoming a mercenary for hire. Slaved to her every whim by explosive collars, the prisoners are trained in virtual reality by the ghost of Corbin’s father and drilled into something resembling a fighting force. What happens next is a tale of deceit, double crosses and brutal action.

Underneath it all, we begin to discover the motive behind Miska’s decision to go from black ops marine to mercenary and, with Smith’s usual skill, the truths underlying it all reveal a greater, even more thrilling prospect for the series. It’s like the Dirty Dozen on steriods. In space. And it is awesome.

The Bastard Legion is a brilliantly fun read. Action, adventure, space battles and close quarter combat in equal measure all underpinned by a bigger mystery as prisoners become soldiers, lines are blurred between right and wrong, and Miska shows just how prepared she is to find the truth. This military-esque sci-fi at its finest.

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Published by Gollancz

Review – Bone Tomahawk

Posted: July 8, 2018 in Film, Horror, western
Tags:

Left to my own devices, my choice in films can be questionable (80’s action, anyone?). Whilst my wife has a gift for picking great movies that are either funny or feel-good, I end up watching stuff that,often, goes to dark places. Bone Tomahawk went there and went there hard.

It has a great cast, led by Kurt Russel as a no nonsense sheriff in a hardscrabble but tight knit frontier town. Opening proceedings with a pair of nefarious robbers murdering some sleeping travellers, the tension that runs through the core of the film begins to build. The bandits find themselves needing to escape a posse and stumble into a sacred burial ground, desicrating it in the process, setting in motion a tale of horror, sacrifice and survival.

One of the robbers shows up in the sheriff’s town and quickly finds himself in jail. Left under guard and with a local woman attending his wounds, the tale takes a sudden turn. In the morning all three have disappeared; the only clue an arrow.

A local Native American tells the sheriff that the arrow belongs to a tribe long shunned and best avoided. He, his deputy and a gunslinger decide to set off in pursuit. The woman’s husband, a tough cowboy (with a broken leg), refuses to stay behind but is soon struggling to keep up with the pace. The ensuing journey is one of hardships in a harsh environment which slowly reveals more about the ensemble cast of characters with each step. The gritty toughness of the pioneer spirit is on full display as the men push on even as the odds are stacked against them.

After their horses are stolen the cowboy re-injures his leg and is left behind, perhaps to die. The others carry on and are soon attacked by the tribe. The gunslinger is killed whilst the sheriff and his deputy are captured. The true nature of the tribe becomes clear and the horror of the situation is played out in front of them in graphic detail. It’s a scene that stuck with me for some time as the guard from town is ritually killed and consumed.

What follows is a battle of wits and determination as the sheriff, deputy and nurse fight to overcome their cannibalistic captors. The appearance of the nurse’s husband, once again displaying a show of heart and will-power, turns the tables. Bone Tomahawk is brutal at times but equally enthralling, visually and psychologically. It’s a brilliant take on the western genre taken to another level as the tension and terror that underlines the film bears impressive results.

Author of the exceptional debut Blackwing and the soon to be available Ravencry, Ed McDonald has been kind enough to write a guest blog. It’s an interesting insight into his creative process and well worth a read.

So where do you get your ideas?

If you want to raise a wry smile among a group of writers, this is the question that will do it. It’s a highly complicated question, and the truth is that often, we have no idea ourselves. For some novelists there may be a single theme or idea that inspired the writing of a book, such as an experience in childhood, but for me that’s not the case. In this wonderfully hosted guest blog, I thought that I’d showcase how certain elements of Blackwing and Ravencry came about, and the kind of insight they might give into my own rather chaotic, haphazard writing ‘process.’ Although I’ve said before that there’s as much conscious ‘process’ in what I do as there is to throwing a bunch of alphabetti spaghetti on a plate and expecting words.

There are a number of places that ideas come from. Some emerge at random, some are long held passions, and some are engineered for plot reasons. For those that consider themselves writing ‘Gardeners’ then some of these things may seem familiar.

I don’t really know where Galharrow came from.

Galharrow was never an idea. He never existed in the sense that I sat down and tried to choose character traits for him. Everything that he is, from the narrative voice he tells the story in to the actions he takes, to his appearance, was either pre-formed in my mind, or developed subconsciously without any active thought. I wanted him to be 6’6 and weigh 300lbs because I knew he’d have a lot of action to get into, and physical prowess was going to help him out. His size also allows him to carry other people around, which is really handy. But the alcoholism, his lack of sympathy, and his ultimate nobility and heart were just kind of. . . there. His backstory emerged mid-page as I was writing.

Nenn was an accident

Nenn was never a conscious decision. In Draft 1, there was a character called Shent, who was supposed to be Galharrow’s right hand man, but he split into Tnota and Nenn. Nenn was a throwaway, one-line character, whose missing nose was mentioned purely as a fun detail to show that Galharrow’s company were scarred and war-weary, but as soon as I’d written her first expletive filled line, I immediately knew who she was and how she acted. I didn’t expect Nenn to become a fan favourite, or one of my own, and at times she ends up stealing the show. She became the counterpoint to Galharrow’s regretful, grumpy, calculating, brooding exterior; Nenn is reckless, savage, always wearing a grin and is defined by how little she cares about other people’s opinions – or at least that’s what she wants to present. In Ravencry we see beneath that surface. I really love how she evolved through the pages.

But you did worldbuilding for the Misery, right?

Alas, no. In fact, I don’t do any worldbuilding in the sense that people would normally mean – there is no heaving file of notes. I prefer to create details as I go along. For the Misery, I needed there to be a wasteland that divided two kingdoms at war. I also needed a reason that the larger, more powerful kingdom wasn’t simply marching over to claim victory, and the Engine (early names for Nall’s Engine were The Lightning Web and The Storm Wall) was created to provide the stalemate. Once I knew what Nall’s Engine was, it made sense that it would leave some bad magic in its wake. As it happens, that bit of story crafting then became the key plot element in both RAVENCRY and the book that will follow it.

So nothing is inspired or deliberately plotted?

No, not so. Sometimes I need something for a plot reason, or sometimes I just want to write it. My grandmother told me her stories of life during The Blitz in the second world war. She lived in Coventry, a major manufacturing centre in the UK, and as a young woman she had to endure the nightly bombing raids. Some of her stories were too inspiring not to write them into RAVENCRY. I don’t think that you can really capture the terror of such a time, but I hope that I’ve done some justice to expressing the helplessness felt by the innocent during periods of industrialised war.

The trick of writing a book is to get all this randomness to work as a cohesive whole – thank goodness for editors. I’ll finish by leaving a piece of advice for any budding writers who might be reading:

If you are like me – and you probably aren’t – and if you find that you’re not sure where to start, then just start writing. Trust that your subconscious, silent mind: it probably has much better ideas than anything that your vocal inner monologue is going to push out. Let those ideas flow, and if they aren’t flowing, go and look at the world, go sit somewhere else, take a walk, and then just start writing. I’m seldom aware of my own ideas until after I’ve written them.