Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Ah, Charles Stross. The exemplar of the writer who uses the internet effectively (unlike me). He’s a powerful man in these post-print days. He’s rightly popular, but aside from a couple of stories his work has failed to capture my imagination. (Note, this is not why he gets three stars rather than four or five. I try to put aside my personal preferences when reviewing). This is the second time I’ve tried to post this. The first time I got a very rare WordPress error message. Spooky. Stross controls the internet! From Death Ray #21.

Charles Stross/Orbit


Collection of shorts from the incredibly prolific Mr Stross, Hard-core nerd futures ahead!

Charles Stross is regarded by some as the Great White Hope of SF, a man whose imagination and expertise allow him to create the kind of story others cannot. Some of this is true, some of it simply isn’t.

There is no denying Stross’ credentials. He holds twin degrees, one in pharmacy, the other in computer sciences. This colours his work to a great degree, in a positive way. There are precious few writers out there who can convincingly utilise the terminology of both biology and IT; there’s deep science in what Stross writes.

However, there’s a degree of narrowness to his concerns. Many of his stories obsess over Cold War style spy-jinks, codenames clutter the prose whether he’s giving us a Lovecraftian pastiche or a straight-up SF tale. There’s also a cul-de-sac viewpoint to his protagonists, like they’re stuck at the end of a long a bag peering out at small circle of the universe, not really a part of it. The story ‘Unwirer’ (written with Cory Doctorow) is a good example, where the activities of one band of geeks in one branch of technical endeavour is paramount in shaping our world. You could look at today, from a certain viewpoint, and say the same, but what about all else that happens around it? There’s a sense of detachment to these stories, they feel ungrounded. Stross sets the stage for his ideas, then has mouthpieces deliver his point in long dialogues. Character is not much of a concern, nor is reader experience. These are lectures thinly coated in narrative.

Of course, Stross is not alone. Many SF writers have done and continue to do the same. SF is about ideas after all, but this focus on them to the exclusion of all else is peculiarly old school. While there is a lot to admire about Stross – and when he is good he is very good – his work is not for everyone.

This review originally appeared in Death Ray #20. Here’s my review of season one also.




Directors: Catherine Morshead, Ben Bolt, Nicole Taylor, Philip John

Writers: Mathew Graham, Ashley Pharoah, Julie Rutterford, Jack Lothian, Mark Greig,

Starring: Philip Glenister, Keeley Hawes, Dean Andrews, Marshall Lancaster, Montserrat Lombard

SPOILER!!! Eighties cop time travel sequel show comes to an interesting end. Be warned, we detail just what that end is at the conclusion of this review.

Ashes to Ashes continues to show us how interesting the whole Life on Mars conceit can be, even if this rock solid idea was sorely shaken by the far less accomplished Life on Mars US. Thankfully back in Blighty there are no surprise spaceships or dodgy puns in season two of Ashes to Ashes, sequel show to the original LoM, but a taut police corruption arc, and a pair of surprising time travel twists. As always with our superior domestic product, all aspects are well served: procedural, temporal and interpersonal. Way to go BBC, I for one won’t complain about my license fee.

It was not always so. The initial run of Ashes lapsed far too frequently into outright pastiche, not only of the decade where shot-in-the-head cop Alex Drake found herself (the 1980s are an easy target if ever there was one) but also of Life on Mars. It rallied somewhat towards the end of series one, if only because Alex’s mystery through-plot delivered a literally explosive coup de grace. Lead Keeley Hawes came under some fire too, though not in these pages. We’ve always found her portrayal of Alex entirely convincing, both in terms of her character, and the interplay between her and Gene Hunt (Phillip Glenister), especially with the element of sexual frisson unsurprisingly absent from Hunt’s earlier relationship with Sam Tyler. This foundation is pleasingly built upon in series two. Although this outing’s time-travel mystery is not so powerful as that in the first, it nearly is, the addition of an ‘Evil Leaper’ style counterpart to Alex’s good girl cop intriguing. Although this being Ashes, naturally nothing is quite as it seems.

Throughout this second run, we see growing roles for the other coppers. Ray (Andrews), Shaz (Lombard) and Chris (Lancaster) have plenty to do. Both the other carry overs from Mars become far more rounded, with Ray proving to be surprisingly complex, and Chris surprisingly compromised. Indeed, there are several others in Hunt’s little band (being a DCI he naturally needs more than just the three lackeys). Viv (Geff Francis) moves more and more out of a supporting role, while some of the other faces get so much screen time they’ll have to give them names and a few lines at this rate. It’s an ensemble show in the making.

Including LoM we’re four series in, and the franchise could perhaps be showing signs of flagging. The ultimate twist of series two presenting Alex with a similar choice to that which Sam Tyler faced, with a side order of double-dealing mystery. So here’s the spoiler. Alex is back in the present because she’s in a coma in the past, getting flashes of that past. Yeah, sure, it’s all a bit ‘Ahaha!’, a reflexive cheat, its squaring of circles almost unsporting. Still, with this show, it’s almost a certainty they’ll do something delightful with it.

Extras: A 30 minute making of, and an ’80s quiz. Not much, really.

This review comes from Death Ray #21. It is of the DVD release of the time.



Director: Zack Snyder

Writer: David Hayter & Alex Tse, Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (graphic novel)

Starring: Billy Crudup, Maliln Ackerman, Patrick Wilson, Jackie Earle Haley, Jeffrey Dean Morgan

Alan Moore’s masterpiece makes it onto DVD, via cinema.

Watchmen is the quintessential divisive film. Slavishly faithful to the comic upon which it is based, this is not your fluid, modern day capture-characters-essence-on-screen-and-go-its-own-way adaptation. This is not just any comic, of course, but the comic which, supposedly, heralded the maturity of the form. To many reared on the four-colour milk of comics-dom Watchmen is the Pride and Prejudice or the Moby Dick of the strips. According to such fans, to not be faithful to it (and director Zack Snyder definitely falls into this camp) would miss the point of filming it at all. But this is cinema, the fields provided by the big screen are smaller than those the comic book allows the imagination, and compromises have been made. (more…)

Avilion by Robert Holdstock
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A review published originally in Death Ray #21.


Robert Holdstock/Gollancz

Robert Holdstock has a special place in the hearts of serious fantasy lovers. Unlike the majority of the books nestled in the fantasy section of your local Waterstones, Holdstock owes little to Tolkien, but hearkens back to the tradition from which Tolkien himself sprang: our common mythic heritage. It’s a branch of the fantasy family tree that bore most of the fruit before the good professor set pen to paper, but which has since been almost shaded out by others trying to mimic what Tolkien achieved, more’s the pity.

Most of Holdstock’s books take place within Ryhope Wood, a three square-mile patch of ancient forest in Herefordshire. A fragment of the greenwood that once covered all of Europe, there’s deep magic within its bounds. It is semi-sentient, paradoxically huge inside, and can conjure legendary beings out of the minds of the humans who dwell near its boundaries. These ‘myth imagos’ gave the name to Holdstock’s first Ryhope book, Mythago Wood, published to great acclaim in 1984. Holdstock has revisited the wood many times since then, but Avilion is the first direct sequel to that first tale.

Stephen Huxley, Mythago Wood’s protagonist, has been living deep in Ryhope with a mythago of Guiwenneth, a celtic archetype whose historic personage gave rise to the legends of Guinevere and others, and who he claimed back from death. They have two half-human children, Yssobel and Jack. Jack yearns to experience the world his father left behind, Yssobel is being drawn into ever greater affinity with the magic of the wood and has unwittingly called Jack’s murderous brother, Christian, back into being. This so upsets her mother (whom Christian kidnapped, raped and murdered many years earlier) she departs on a quest for revenge. The dismayed Yssobel sets out to bring her mother home, changing all their lives forever.

The narrative of each successive Ryhope book has grown more impenetrable, like a wild thicket. The questions of who calls whom into existence and whether any of it has any kind of objective reality weave a tricksy glamour about Holdstock’s stories. But these are not books of easy answers, and his interlaying of psychology, myth, and ontology with raw emotion, sometimes falteringly conveyed in verse, conveys the messiness of real life. Like real life, like the bark of the trees he so loves, Holdstock shows us the roughness of magic and nature, bound up in blood and filth. Avilion is penetratingly honest, there is no idyll to be had, and happiness comes with its fair share of suffering, loss, and self-delusion. Wisdom in Holdstock’s world is bought with pain.

It doesn’t really matter that the reader is left struggling for sense on occasion, Holdstock’s ethereal prose is all encompassing, his use of language so affective that it swallows you whole. He’s one of the few authors capable of not only showing another world, but actively transporting to it. He writes of love and death in a shyly awkward way, a poet wrapped up in the privacy of his word-wood. Coming out of the end of one of his novels is to emerge from this private world feeling like you’ve been living another life, as fragmentary, chaotic and disordered and as bound up by story as a real one. It’s an immersive experience that few other authors can match, though the stories sometimes make as little sense as the dreams they resemble.

Avilion is not quite as potent as some of the other entries in the series, but it offers much as Jack and Yssobel attain adulthood in very different ways, and discover what ‘home’ really means. Good fantasy, like myth should transform. Much fantasy, despite its wars and intrigues, is really about maintaining the status quo, its vacuum-sealed kingdoms and shallow-worn paths from kitchen boy to king providing a cocoon of comfort for the reader. Holdstock cocoons you alright, but his twiggy bowers offer little comfort; his kings are the real deal, plucked bloody and raging from myth, all are remembered for their suffering as much as their success. It’s arguable that all myth and great fantasy, all great literature, even, employs loss as an engine for transformation. Ryhope Wood continues to provide both.

Did you know?

Avilion is the name Alfred Tennyson used for Avalon in his poem, Morte D’Arthur.

View all my reviews

From Death Ray #21.

2009/90 mins/18


Director: Tommy Wirkola

Writers: Stig Frode Henriksen and Tommy Wirkola

Starring: Vegar Hoel, Charlotte Frogner, Orjan Gamst, Stig Frode Henriksen, Jeppe Laursen, Evy Kasseth Rosten, Jenny Skavlan. Ane Dahl Torp, Lasse Valdal

Norwegian horror comedy(ish) that makes a bid for The Evil Dead territory and fails, though it deserves a distinction for effort.

Horror, what charms do you so possess that brings youthful directors flocking to you so? This is another entry in to the grand logbook of low-budget cinema, a passable though not excellent passage.

As usual: A small band (medical students) go on holiday (a remote mountain cottage) where their mobile phones don’t work. They encounter an unsettling old dude who tells them of monsters (the revenants of Nazi soldiery), said monsters then show up to party when the students unearth a box of their gold.

Peppered with good gore effects, a handful of jokes and some nicely staged action, Dead Snow is not without its moments. An opening sequence featuring one student chased across the snowy night has brio charmed from nothing thanks to some quick editing and the amusing application of Peer Gynt, for example.

But it’s rather let down by a bunch of characters who, while not interchangeable, have precious little to differentiate them (credit, though, to the actors, who at least work hard with what they’re given). And the script, despite cleaving determinedly to the standard horror formula detailed above, contains several missteps that could easily have been rectified.

Want to hear them? Okay, among them are: Why is the old giffer staying on the mountains if he is so sure there is evil there? Why has the box of gold the students find not been discovered before? If the gold is the catalyst, why are the monsters roaming about before it is discovered? Finally, a lurid story of Nazi occult experiments could have explained away why our German pals are running about like zombies, as the story stands we don’t get a reason for their corporeality. (The recent British film Outpost, also with a Hitlerian foe, managed that problem very well). Still, it’s a promising debut, we just recommend an extra set of eyes pass over the next story that pops out of Mr. Mirkola’s head.

A decidedly odd end to this strange remake. From Death Ray #19. Read more about the show here.


The US version on Life on Mars, cancelled, takes a rather literal turn. SPOILER ALERT! We really blow the whole thing here. Meanwhile, back in 1982 DI Drake has a new set of problems to tackle.

Either the finale of the US Life on Mars is a stunningly daring piece of television, or it’s bollocks. Jury’s out. If you plan to watch it, turn away now, because there is a gargantuan spoiler on its way…

…now. Okay, so the final episode has Sam under pressure. His younger self has been kidnapped by his criminal dad Vic. Meanwhile, the mysterious phone voice that has been bugging him throughout the series gives Sam three tasks to complete if he wants to go home. Vic is confronted and shot dead as he’s about to kill Sam, after revealing that he knows Sam is his son. Annie ‘No Nuts’ is promoted to detective, she and Sam kiss. Sam tells the phone voice to get stuffed, because he likes 1973. This transpires to be the final task, and Sam is returned home… to 2035! He’s been on board a spaceship to Mars all along. What?!

We’ll be honest here and say we did not see that coming.

Sam’s been in a VR dream for the trip to Mars. He chose to be a cop in 2008, but the ship was rocked by a meteor storm, so Windy (who is actually the ship’s computer) had to tinker with his adventure, er, by sending him to 1973. The space probe that Sam kept seeing is a ship-board minibot. The ‘gene hunt’ is that for Martian ‘genetic DNA ‘ (um, is there another kind?). Annie is in command of the mission, and Keitel turns out to be Major Tom(!), Sam’s dad.

No doubt the writers will one day come clean as to whether or not they planned this from the beginning. For now, in favour of this being the intended denouement is the regular appearance of the space probe, Ray calling Sam ‘spaceman’ consistently throughout and young Sam being fascinated by space. On the other hand, if the references to hospitals and inference of angels are red herrings, they are members of a suspiciously coherent shoal. The cast make the most unlikely band of astronauts ever, while NASA would never put a warring father and son on board a long-term mission together (Sam’s time in the ’70s is sold to us as a big metaphor for filial/ paternal conflict). It makes very little sense, especially with all the scenes where Sam is not present (who’s experiencing them, eh?). The tasks are weak. There’s a flashforward to 2010, out of place alongside the ultimate denouement, and lots of silly justifications for the slang used throughout. Most egregious is the feeble “I was supposed to be in 2008″ explanation for why Sam’s so au fait with the period, and that nearly breaks the concept. Wry Bowie quotes are shoehorned in quick succession to foreshadow the ending, only for Elton John to sing us out. As you’d expect, most of the plot points from earlier episodes are left guttering, like, well, candles in the wind.

It’s a brittle resolution, but to say they had to wrap it up all of a sudden, it does the job. A decidedly odd end to a mostly inferior remake.