Monday, 31 December 2012

Sons of Anarchy Season 5

Since about a third of the page views for this blog come from people wondering about the verisimilitude of SoA Season Three's trip to beautiful downtown Nordor, I feel like I owe it to my tiny readership to express some thoughts, no matter how cursory, about the short strange trip that was Season 5.

Season 4 was a bit of a mess - I tend to think of all of SoA as a bit of a mess, but apparently everyone thought that about Season 4, which scrambled around frantically trying to find things for everyone to do while Jax deliberated eternally over whether or not to schwack Clay. Having painted everyone into a corner with such gay abandon that he might as well have used a firehose instead of a brush, Sutter whisked aside the curtain and announced cheerily that it was all a CIA plot and that Clay would have to be kept alive so that … well, my suspension of disbelief doesn't get the kind of mileage it would need to get for me to try to explain how it all worked; obviously what's really happening is that Ron Perlman has Sutter's motorcycle locked in a basement somewhere, and to get it back intact Sutter had to think of something, anything, to avoid Ron needing to look for real work in 2012. My opinion; schwacking him and having him come back as ghost would have insulted our intelligence slightly less, but I suspect that Sutter was scared of being told that he was copying the Harry the Ghost schtick from Dexter the TV show.

Anyhow, from that unpromising start, Sutter had to assemble something in the shape of Season 5, and I was not that optimistic about how it was going to go. Clay was still sticking around, gumming up the works. The Sons were still operating in the alternate economic universe where it's possible to make money in the United States of Armed-error by IMPORTING guns from the least armed and least gun-friendly country in Europe, a universe which is co-located with the political fantasy land where the CIA is in any way interested in either Ireland or Mexico to the point where they'd make deals with domestic terrorists to keep a better eye on either of them. I had no idea what you could throw into the scales on the other side to balance that up into something I could watch without poking fun.

Well, fair dos to Mr Sutter, the man has got a couple of gears I hadn't suspected. Season five has finally settled Clay's hash. And the Sons are finally edging their way out of the guns and coke business. And a lot of the bad crazy stupid things they've done are starting to have real world consequences for them and the people around them, which is satisfying. I'm actually kind of looking forward to Season six, where all kinds of bits of plausible retribution are going to have to work their way through the system, schwacking guilty and innocent alike.

Not too dusty for a season which got going by burning Tig's daughter alive, introducing Jimmy Smits as a pimp and finally putting poor Opie out of his misery (though I don't discount the possibility that Sutter is planning to resurrect Opie in Season 6 so that something terrible can happen to his dead body. Opie is like the unluckiest Hell's Angel EVAR). Other fun things; bringing in Donal Logue as a ringer at the end of the season, undoubtedly so that he can terrorise the entire cast the whole way through the next season; bringing in Walton Goggins as a transvestite hooker, because Walton Goggins; and giving Harold Perrineau the best ever explanation of why kingpins need to take revenge - because otherwise they'll just brood on their grievances and lose focus on the big picture. And in a cheering testament to the way that in TV world chemo just works for good and bad alike, Ex-Sherriff Unser has lasted just as long with cancer as Walter White, without ruining anyone's life at all. Yay, Unser. There's a vocal constituency on the internet which want to see him get his own show called Unser PI, but if the money's out there for anyone to get a PI show it needs to be spent on ten more seasons of Terriers.

The Coldest War: Ian Tregillis

I read this in just over a day. For one thing, it's a nice short book that doesn't outstay its welcome, and for another thing, it's not the kind of book which is easy to put down. It took me the better part of a fortnight to get to the end of Dracula Cha Cha Cha, because it was all too easy to put that down and read something else. 

It's been about three months since I read Bitter Seeds, the first book in the trilogy for which The Coldest War is the middle bit. The middle bit tends to be where you get the measure of a writer. Middles are hard, and the second book tends to be the one where the publisher is piling on the pressure and you have to rush things. I had pretty high hopes for The Coldest War despite those worries, because Bitter Seeds had looked like part of something which had been carefully worked out in advance. And so it proved. Tregillis had thought through what he wanted to do and how he wanted things to unfold, and he'd also thought about how to keep his characters interesting when we check back in on them after twenty years. They're still not the most deeply drawn characters in the history of fiction, but they make sense in their own worlds. The things they do are consistent with what we've seen them do in the past, and they're also the kinds of things we could easily imagine ourselves sliding into if our own lives had unfolded in such horrible ways.

Bitter Seeds saw Britain winning the war against Germany by the skin of its teeth, but losing Europe to the Soviets, and with it all the German mad science which had sent Britain racketing over the edge of the dark side just to stay in the game. The Coldest War checks in on the consequences twenty years later, with a wall splitting Paris in two and Britain struggling in a world where it survived a war, kept an Empire and never gained its greatest ally; America is "in the fourth decade of its Great Depression". The Soviet Union is biding its time, twitching on all the borders of the Empire and building up its own versions of the super soldier technology it filched from Germany as the war ended. The team which gave Britain its magical edge twenty years before is disillusioned or dead, and it's only a matter of time before the Soviets make their move against an apparently defenceless empire.

Enter Gretel the mad seer from the first book, and the next stage of her inscrutable plan to do Tregillis-only-knows-what. The book opens with her finally fleeing from Soviet imprisonment and pitching up in Britain with an elaborate scheme to cash in on her manipulation of events in the last book by manipulating the British characters some more. Tregillis gets across the sheer frustration of trying to out-scheme a maniac who can actually see the future; how can her opponents know whether they're playing into her hands or not? Getting that across without spelling it out endlessly is a neat trick, but neater by far is the way in which Tregillis ruthlessly smashes every character into a broken bewildered state in which they're fair game for any kind of manipulation. Marsh has had a horrible time of things since the war; he's quit the secret service, his marriage has fallen apart and he's living from one odd job to the next. Beauclerk collapsed into alcoholism and drug addiction only to be saved by the love of a good woman and then sell out to his posho brother's pro-Soviet think tank. Both are riddled with hatred and self doubt, but very cleverly, everything that's broken about them is part of the bigger plan Gretel's working towards. Which makes for some very solid story telling and you can almost forgive the notion that the fate of the British Empire would rest on a couple of screw-ups who the entire high command has completely lost sight of. Of course, that's more plausible than it usually is, because it turns out that the Empire has a plan B these two deadbeats knew nothing about, and which on the surface looks like a brilliant - albeit utterly immoral - alternative that renders the antics of the first book completely obsolete.

It's all very well plotted, is what I suppose I'm trying to say. And the writing's actually kicked up a notch from the first book, as though Tregillis was settling into his groove with his characters and had sketched in all the background so that he was free to give us more of a sense of the personalities. All in all, Tregillis has actually pulled off the rather neat trick of living up to my expectations. The whole thing gets wrapped up with a bow in the spring of next year, and I'm looking forward to seeing how he gets everyone out of the fix he's left them in at the end of this book.

Sunday, 30 December 2012

Kim Newman: Anno Dracula, The Bloody Red Baron, Dracula Cha Cha Cha and The Hound of the d'Urbevilles. Dracula, Dracula, Dracula, STAHP.

I think I was still living in Greece when I read my first Kim Newman book, The Night Mayor. It's not a very good book, and I read it because in those days if you could find anything in English in Athens at all you just bought it and hoped for the best, and also because in those days you had to read a book to make your mind up about, not like today when you can check out a million internet reviews and have your mind made up for you. [Amazon's reviews are great for that; I read the reviews, which usually tell me far more about the critic than the book, and then ask myself if the kind of people who like the book are the kind of guys I'd go for a pint with….]. The Night Mayor was an early casualty of my 2000 books policy, and I think I'd actually managed to forget who'd written it when I tripped over Anno Dracula four or five years later. That, I thought to myself, looks interesting. 

Difficult though it might be to believe it now, when SFF shelves in bookshops are groaning with the stuff, but in the early 90s, Anno Dracula stood out from the crowd. There weren't that many vampire books about, and most of them were sticking firmly to the template still being mined by the likes of Twilight; yes vampires were veddy veddy real and ebber so ebber glamorous, but they were a gorgeous shadowy minority lurking round the edges of the real world, scaring the bejesus out of ordinary people but not really doing anything of note. Newman had the rip-roaring audacity to munge vampires into alternate history and ask everyone to ponder a world where Dracula got away with it in grand style, seeing off Van Helsing and those other puling weaklings and pulling none uvver than Queen Victoria 'er own blooming' self.

He's been riffing on the notion ever since, with uneven results. My last post was about Tim Powers, whose entire body of work has been variations on a theme of secret history. Powers has put together book after book in which fictional everyday people have bashed into the edges of the lives of the famous through the ages and discovered the supernatural weirdness operating at the edge of reality which made extraordinary lives remarkable. 

In contrast, most of Newman's work in the past twenty years has been about re-imagining the world of fiction if the bad guys got a better break or at least better press agents. In the Anno Dracula series, Dracula managed briefly to take over England and in the process make vampires almost respectable. In last year's The Hound of the d'Urbevilles, Newman set out to tell us the story of Professor Moriarty as seen through the eyes of his henchman Basher Moran. It didn't quite pan out, partly because the book is a collection of stories written at various times and partly because Moran becomes a very annoying voice if you have to sit through a whole book with him. Newman casts him as a much put-upon thug who feels he doesn't get the respect he deserves, which is a very funny thing for the length of a short story, but wearing for the whole evening - unless you can arrange to do what you'd do in real life with someone like that, which is to take another couple of pints every time he starts into another self-serving sob story about how he could have been a contender if it hadn't been for all the other guys who got in the way. As I've said before, flawed characters are the heart of great narrative, but you need bloody good writing or acting to make their company bearable for long.

Anno Dracula itself is actually a fairly nifty and nimble piece of work. Newman had the crucial insight that the best way to show life under monstrous tyranny is to look at something else rather awful and show how the tyranny overshadows even that. So the main motor of the plot in Anno Dracula is an attempt to catch Jack the Ripper. The helter skelter hamfisted investigation bounces off everything else which would be wrong with a world in which the all-powerful Prince Consort of the British Empire was a lunatic Carpathian bloodsucker, and so we're shown, rather than being told, which is the right way to do these things. Although the writing isn't that brilliant, there were a lot of good ideas in it, and sometimes that's as good as you can expect genre stuff to be.

Newman went back to the well briskly with The Bloody Red Baron, which hit the historical reset button slightly and let World War One kick off as it did historically despite the chaos which ended Anno Dracula. It's hard to blame him; even if you've never warmed to the thought of Snoopy's long struggle with the Red Baron, there's something irresistible about the whole notion of mashing together the winged terrors of the night and the winged knights over the trenches, and you can't really have the Red Baron without the conventional backdrop. On the debit side, the book itself isn't as good as the idea. Most of the surviving characters from the first book are dragged back in by the ears and given something to do, and then Newman has a high old time converting half the fictional Edwardian era into vampires in an exercise which was probably a lot more entertaining for him and his mates down the pub than it turned out to be for me. I don't know if I've actually chucked the book under the 2000 books policy, but it's definitely a candidate. Largely because it's relentlessly grim. A world in which vampires are running the show ought to be grim and World War One was not anyone's idea of a picnic, but even correcting for all of that, The Bloody Red Baron is just bloody hard going. 

And so to Dracula Cha Cha Cha, which appeared earlier this year in paperback after a lengthy break in the cycle. It includes a separate novella called Aquarius, which is set in the summer of love and is mostly devoted to ripping up early 1970s British TV cop shows and the general notion that hippies were idiots. Cha Cha Cha is set in 1959 Italy and is best seen as the consequence of the always pop-culture crazed Newman overdosing on Italian cinema for some reason. It is very, very wearing. On the one hand, there isn't a clear through line in the plot. On the other hand, there's an endless parade of cameos from fictional and re-imagined historical characters, which is actually the real reason the plot keeps disappearing; it gets kicked out of the way for yet another celebrity guest star. There are moments of real cleverness - the casting of Tom Ripley as a catspaw is clever, but what makes it work is that Newman imagines a Ripley who knows he's out of his depth without realising just how deep the water is, and puts us compellingly inside his slightly panicky mind. This very neatly turns on its head the structure of most of Highsmith's original Ripley books, where the protagonist is flailing around wildly as Ripley calmly exploits him. Newman can do good stuff when he gives himself the room to do it. But instead the novel is a clutter of references and asides which I knew had to be references I was supposed to get if only I were one of the elect who cared enough to immerse myself in contemporary pop culture. Instead I took comfort in the thought that there are people out there whose anoraks would blot out the sun, and felt ever so slightly more mainstream than I usually do. Also, a little of the annoyance that I suspect I provoke from time to time in people who care even less than I do. 

Newman intends to come back and tie the whole thing up in a bow sometime next year with a book called Alucard, which I am hoping/dreading will be set in Japan and be full of anime references and Godzilla. And yes, I will probably read it, completist that I am, but I won't be keeping it.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Tim Powers: Hide Me Among the Graves

Hide Me Among the Graves is a sequel to The Stress of her Regard, the first Tim Powers book which really felt to me like heavy going. Stress is a hard book, far more literary than his earlier, simpler works, and far more upsetting in its denouement. Powers has never held back when it came to putting his characters through the grinder, but Stress  kicked it up enough notches that I was almost in tears by the time I reached the end of the book, and I've only read it once since then. I've read most of his books three or four times since I discovered him by chance back in the 1980s, but Stress was always the one I skipped when I went on a Powers jag.

Either I've toughened up, which is unlikely, or Powers has started pulling his punches as he gets older, but Hide Me Among the Graves is nothing like as hard going as its predecessor. It's probably also not quite as good a book, but I've thought for a while now that sometime in the late 1990s Powers lost a step, and so I was not expecting him to be at the same giddy heights that I saw when I was reading him first. It is very well written, and the main characters are solid and memorable, but it lacks the drive and immediacy which made something like The Anubis Gates a page turner. Of course, when I read The Anubis Gates, I had a lot less really good stuff to compare it to, and it was a struggle to find anything by Tim Powers in Ireland in those primitive days when you found rare books by slogging around every bookshop you knew until you found one battered copy in the basement of some tiny shop in London. In contrast, I got Hide Me Among the Graves by downloading it from Took about forty seconds. Took me the best part of three weeks to read it, because I kept getting sidetracked, and it's a tribute to Powers' basic skills that I could keep coming back into the book after several days away from it and never lose track of what was going on; it's a comment on how he's lost some of his younger drive that I didn't just rush through it, ignoring everything else, as I would have back in the day when after months of slogging I would discover yet another Powers book (that was another thing about the good old days - you didn't even know whether a book existed until you came across it by accident).

I've always liked Powers' take on magic, because he makes it capricious and costly, a horrible force which you harness at terrible personal expense and which will only do what you want if it suits it to bother. The magic which runs through Stress and Hide Me is not even magic, but the side effects of unworldly creatures struggling to make a connection with individual humans despite the fact that neither can really understand the other. The theme running through both books is the way that such spirits possess humans who then become great artists, but wreck the lives of everyone around them. Stress played it out with Shelley and Byron's set, and Hide Me picks up the problem with the Rossettis and Swinburne some fifty years later.

Powers always tries to colour within the lines when he sets a book among historical characters, so the historical figures can only do what they did in real life, and somehow they never really come fully to life as much as the fictional characters he puts in among them. John Crawford and Adelaide McKee are much more interesting people than Christina Rossetti and the rest of her family, and it's not just because you can't google them to find out what will happen to them. Hide Me unfolds over such a long period of time (almost twenty years) that half the historical figures in it have met their historical deaths by the time the book's epilogue is over, so in Powers' scheme of things, everyone is at hazard. It's just that somehow he seems better at fleshing out a character when he has free rein over everything than when he has to stay carefully within the limits of what we know from their real lives and writings.

This is, at best, rather weak praise for a good writer, but it's not the book I'd recommend to people who were starting out on the Tim Powers project. The three you're going to come across at the moment (because he's perennially out of print for most of this books) are Stress, Hide Me and Stranger Tides, which as I've noted previously, was given a rather unsatisfactory film adaptation (but is at least back in print because of it). But I'd suggest starting with either his breakout book, The Drawing of the Dark, a magnificently bonkers novel featuring renaissance mercenaries and a mystic plot which depends on beer, or The Anubis Gates, which takes a mad rampage through Georgian London as time travel goes horribly amiss for a guy hired as the expert guide for a literary expedition. They're both rather easier to get into than anything being pushed at the moment, and they will get you bedded in for the full gotta-catch-them-all experience.

The Killing [Forbrydelsen] III; Sometimes, less is less

I posted briefly on the first - and I now realise, best - season of The Killing at the beginning of the year. Last night I watched the grande finale, and it crystallised something which nagged at me all the way through watching the second season and the third one; that seasons only ten episodes long weren't even half as good as the sprawling, character driven mess 20 episodes could give us. And re-reading my own post about the first season, I see that I was almost foretelling what might go wrong in the future. The first season is engrossing, even though the red herrings and indeed the whole final plot don't really hang together very well. What made The Killing work was the way it brought characters to life as they grappled with the aftermath of a single murder that - despite endless hints that it was part of some vast sinister conspiracy - came home to very simple and domestic miseries. The second season was a little disappointing after that; while Sarah Lund remained a hypnotic and charismatic presence at the heart of the action, the surrounding characters for the new murder - and the new murders themselves - never really came into focus in the same way.

For the third season, they tried to bring things back to family, with Lund chasing after the abducted daughter of Denmark's most important family of plutocrats, to discover that the abduction itself was driven by revenge for a father who'd lost his daughter. Meanwhile, Lund's own family relationships were falling apart as she simultaneously wrestled with becoming a granny and the problem of breaking up the marriage of an old flame. Over on the inevitable (and honestly never that interesting) political wing of the story, the Danish prime minister was wondering what more he could have done to stop his son from killing himself and how much he was going to need to do to stop his own brother from becoming a complete moral bankrupt. Could there have been more family to fret about? Probably not. But just by having so many family issues to deal with all at once in so short a time, they wound up not being able to work out any of them well enough to give us the same depth of empathy we had the families in the first season. It might be that this kind of thing is like cooking pasta; you've got to use a bigger pan than you think if you don't want everything sticking together in an indigestible clump of starch.

We live in a world where they brought back Dallas after almost 30 years, so I assume nothing from the insistence of the entire production team that the end of the third season of The Killing is the end, full stop. Mind you, given that the season ends with Lund straight up shooting the bad guy in the head rather than live with idea that he might just go on being the bad guy, it's going to be …. challenging …. to get a fourth season on the road. It will take more than one line of dialogue to get them out of that one. Maybe we can come back in 20 years, when they let her out of jail for murder. Although people have been shocked by Lund snapping, I have to say that there was a moment when a cold certainty crept over me that it was the only way things could go. I looked at Lund sitting there in the back of the car, staring at the man she knew had killed at least one young woman and almost certainly dozens, and I thought to myself, she's going to shoot that guy in the back of the head before very long. I was wrong. She shot him in the side of the head. I'm not sure if it was true to the character we've lived through forty episodes with, but I think that it was true to the character we were with in those moments; otherwise I'd never have seen it coming.

The weird thing is how closely the master plot in the first and third seasons coincided. A couple lose their daughter (to murder/to kidnapping). They struggle to get to grips with it, and to find some kind of justice. All the way through, they're supported by a long time family friend who's a core part of the family business and who they've always trusted, and in the end it turns out that he's the real bad guy. And he gets extra-judicially murdered by someone who's at the end of their tether. 

I have to be clear; if I've got a complaint at all, it's that there just wasn't enough of something I really liked. This was great TV. I just wish that there had been more of it. With more time, the third season at least could have been even more awesome than the first one.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Dexter is Delicious; albeit not in any way tasteful

Just now a friend suggested that since I was both hungry and surrounded by idiots, I could solve both problems by eating them. Like most advice, it was wretchedly impractical, not least because idiots are fatty and unappetising, and it would take far too long to cook one to the point where it was in any way palatable.

Still, it reminded me that I'd been meaning to say something about the last Dexter book but one, Dexter is Delicious, which is all about cannibals, to the extent that Dexter books are about anything other than Dexter's obsession with his own magnificence. Yes, let me rephrase. Tucked in and around the corners of the unending love story between Dexter and, well, Dexter, there's yet another improbably mass murder mystery stalking Miami, this time involving people who like to eat people.

Dexter is Delicious is the fifth book Jeff Lindsay has written about Dexter Morgan, and there's a sixth somewhere tucked around the third floor ops room if I can ever move myself off the sofa and look for it. I have to admire Lindsay for continuing to write the books; the first two got him a TV deal and a show which is now improbably in its seventh season. On the one hand, Lindsay never needs to do anything else again other than figure out how big a room he needs to store the royalty cheques, and on the other hand, it's got to be tough to keep working away at a character on the page when the TV show has taken the same character, made it three dimensional and ridiculously charming and then run off all over East Jesus in directions that have nothing to do with your original plan. 

I have to admire Lindsay for plugging away at it, but I don't have to admire all the books. Dexter is Delicious isn't that bad, actually, compared to Dexter in the Dark, the third book. The first two books had been pretty good, but the third one lost the plot in a big way, dragging the supernatural in by the ears and then not being very sure what to do with it. That whole angle got dumped sharpish in the somewhat less odd but otherwise unremarkable Dexter by Design, and I think it's pretty safe to say I wouldn't have bought any more Dexter books at that point were it for the fact that they tend to be discounted, and that I keep hoping that Lindsay will find his mojo again and amuse me the way he did with the first book (I like to think that if Lindsay is reading this blog entry he is very sanely thinking "Pah. He paid for the books, all of them. Let him hate, I've got his money. Also, bwahaha!" ). 

I'm not sure that Lindsay ever saw Dexter as a long running character; Darkly Dreaming Dexter gave us a very memorable anti-hero, but didn't exactly cry out for a sequel. Except that we live in a time where anything that makes money has to be done again and again until all the fun is flogged out of it. The initial notion is a good one; a serial killer who only kills people even more despicable than he is. And in the first book, Lindsay's deadpan self-aware narrator is a sly and crafty voice (it's perfectly captured by Michael C Hall in the first season of the TV show when some of the other other cops are talking about a vigilante killing of some scumbag and say they'd like to shake the killer's hand. "Ah, you say that now." muses Dexter to himself, and in that one line delivery Hall perfectly conveys a man who knows he's beyond redemption and isn't too bothered about it so long as no-one catches up with him any time soon). 

One problem is that archness gets tired after a while, and five books in, Dexter is starting to sound almost camp. The other problem is that Miami's supply of people who are actually worse than Dexter has crossed the line into ridiculous some time back; if there were actually enough lunatic killers running around Miami to keep Dexter as busy as he is, Somalia would be sending Florida peacekeepers. The TV show dodges some of the bigger problems of Dexter; in the books Lindsay doesn't make any bones about the fact that Dexter doesn't just kill people; he carves them up slowly over the course of the night, taking his time over it. There's only so much time you can spend hanging out in the head of someone who does that before the joke starts to turn sour. The show ducks this issue by having Dexter kill everyone quickly and cleanly, so it's not too challenging to come up with plausible fiends who are worse than Dexter, but Lindsay's really loading the bases against himself over the long run.

Hence the frankly daft front plot of Delicious, which is built round the notion of a batshit bananas cabal of freaks who like eating people, and just for the sake of upping the weirdness quotient, have tripped over a couple of people who want to be eaten, which is like, not weird at all. Anyhow, pretty much nothing to do with that makes a button of sense, and it mostly functions as a distraction from more interesting things, like whether Dexter having a new baby daughter will make him a reformed character (don't be stupid) and whether his sister will ever find love (again, don't be stupid) and finally, just what the hell his even-worse-than-Dexter brother Brian, last seen limping off scene to - apparently - die at the end of an earlier book, is playing at. Dexter's reaction to his brother trying to be a loving uncle provides most of the real fun in the book, before he comes in for the big finish and left me quietly dreading what might come next.

I've complained before about the problem of serialised detective characters needing to do horrible things, and conveniently having a complete sociopathic but weirdly effective best friend who will mysteriously do the horrible thing so that we can go on liking the hero and even adore him for having such a wide range of interesting friends. I've got a sinking feeling that in the sixth book, I'm going to see Lindsay roll out Brian in the role of the guy who does things that even Dexter can't quite bring himself to do. I may wait for the New Year to nerve myself up to that.