Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Miles Cameron: The Fell Sword

The Fell Sword is what you might call the difficult second book. Some of the obvious reasons don’t apply. The Red Knight wasn’t Cameron's first published book, nor his first experience with extended narrative. So it’s not the problem you often see where a writer has had years to polish the first book and then has to get the second one out on a much tighter time frame. I think it’s the mushy middle problem, where a writer has an opening idea and a roughed in endgame, but isn’t sure about the pacing of the middle. But from the look of The Fell Sword, there could be a hell of a lot of mushy middle still to go; the book is full of false starts and unfinished thoughts in all the side plots. 

The main plot - the one big incident - is the Red Knight’s intervention in a palace coup in Cameron’s version of Byzantium (one of the more engaging aspects of Cameron’s fantasy world is the way in which he cavalierly wedges High Medieval England up against late period Byzantium AND a gunpowderless Last of the Mohicans). Tucked in around the edges we’ve got palace intrigue in Harndon and the big bad from the last book regrouping.

The regrouping; well, no matter what Cameron’s characters might say about good and evil being hard to figure, the big bad is definitely bigger and badder than anything else going on in the book. There’s a hint in the book of the idea that F Paul Wilson used all the way through the Adversary sequence; two powers squabbling over a world using catspaws whose actions may have no relationship with the real motives of their masters. I’ve never found that argument terribly persuasive; on the one hand, I don’t really care how good your intentions are when the outcomes are measured in atrocity, and on the other hand it’s giving rhetorical shelter to an all-too pervasive argument in the real world that we should leave it to those in charge to make the “hard” decisions which spread terror and death and hardship but which will somehow make the world a better place if we look at the bigger picture. 

The palace intrigue; well it’s not so much that I wanted to see more of it as that I wanted to see it resolved or come to some kind of climax. One of the better things in Robin Hobbs’ Farseer trilogy is the sense of hazard as the bad guys get the upper hand at Court and it looks more and more as though Fitz is just going to get quietly crushed without a fuss. Even though the reader has to know that a trilogy with a first person narrator isn’t going to fizzle out like that, Hobbs does a pretty good job of creating the menace and threat which small-time bullying by powerful people can create. Cameron’s court intrigues have much higher stakes and none of the safety net, so it’s frustrating to see the tension ramp up without any sense of closure by book’s end. I felt the same about the trading subplot, which gets set up as a big deal and then collapses without any apparent consequences.

It all still just about works. The Red Knight is becoming ever more annoyingly superpowered, and the core characters are too magical by half, but the stuff around the edges is still compelling and Cameron’s got a good knack for cooking up secondary characters to root for. And although I’ve complained about his preoccupation with details of armour, he’s better than most fantasy writers at conveying the sense of what’s supposed to be happening in a big battle. I like his willingness to steal bits of history from all over the place and ram them in where they oughtn’t to fit, even if a lot of the time he just leaves them sticking out of the narrative and never comes back to them.

The question in my mind is not so much where this is all going - big confrontation between good and evil, natch - as just how long it’s all supposed to take? Is this going to a trilogy or some big sprawling mess of books which takes forever to get to the endgame?

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Miles Cameron: The Red Knight

Although it didn’t turn out at all to be what I hoped it would be, I was still pretty taken with The Red Knight. What I’d been hoping for was an emergency fix of Joe Abercrombie to tide me over the wait until the next real Abercrombie book. The Red Knight had a nicely downbeat start, with down at heel mercenaries showing up to do a small contract at a big monastery. The characters were smart and self aware and they seemed to be facing a nice little human scaled challenge which would keep them busy for the length of the book, and involve neither quests nor the end of the world.

While the book remained blessedly free of quests, it turned out to have all kinds of apocalypse on its mind, and The Red Knight his own bad self turned out to be less hard-bitten mercenary commander and more golden child of destiny. However, by the time this became obvious, the book had its hooks in me and I stuck with it for the ride. Sure, there’s a destined saviour of humanity gumming up the foreground, but there’s a decent cast of other characters to root for and a nicely complicated background which Cameron sensibly doesn’t explain too much. I liked his approach to magic, which is usually a problem in fantasy novels, especially when it’s being used for combat effects. I got a bit tired of him endlessly showing his work on the high medieval armour and weapons. Yes, getting the details right can make your action seem grounded and authentic, but it has to be incidental, not the apparent point of whole paragraphs. 

The best thing about the book is that it’s solidly locked into a single incident; the bad guys are trying to take out the monastery, and the good guys are trying to keep them out, and everything that happens in the book is the escalation of hostilities as both sides throw more and more into the battle. It’s rare that a fantasy book holds such a simple focus; usually it’s a pile of incidents all over the landscape to ratchet up the tension for one big showdown three books down the line. Instead of incidents we get people, each being pulled in turn into the growing mess around the monastery. It’s a good idea, though Cameron doesn’t always pull it off as well as he wants to; several times I found myself switched back to a character we hadn’t heard from for a while and having no idea who it was or why it mattered. 

It’s shockingly proof-read, at least in the e-book version; this is one where hard copy might make for a better reading experience. Still a pretty solid book; I swept straight out of that and optimistically into the followup, which is as good a test as any of whether a book’s got its job done.

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Guy Adams; The Rain Soaked Bride

I was agreeably surprised by The Clown Service, not so much by the body of the book but by the clever punch of its ending, which exacted a heavy price for the heroes’ effort to outmanoeuvre the bad guys. The book had rambled a bit, but it really floored it when it got to the off-ramp. 

By comparison, The Rain Soaked Bride feels like the engine is idling. The book opens up by sorting out the cliffhanger of the first book as if it wasn’t even a thing. Hmm, I thought. Maybe you weren’t serious after all. And if I’m honest, it isn’t even as if I wanted Guy Adams to be serious. He’s very good at being funny. The opening chapters of the book play like those opening jokes you get in a TV show before they get down to the plot of the week, and in fact, that’s really what’s wrong with The Rain Soaked Bride overall; it felt like a good episode of TV instead of a book. The main characters are stuck in a country house, and a curse is knocking off the ancillary characters one by one. How well this works depends on how well the main characters work for you. You need a high quirk tolerance, that’s for sure. 

If you’ve got that, the August siblings and Toby Greene are fun to be around. August Shining, in particular, has the perfect deadpan of a man who has had a whole lifetime to get used to the knowledge that being right is not much use in a world which wants to believe something else.

Things end on a cliffhanger again, although this one seems almost to bottle the hard choices; it’s set up as an echo of the climax of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, so that anyone who’s read the book or seen the movie was waiting for it “We have all the time in the world.” We get the line, but not the closure. So now I have to wait to see whether there’s another fakeout in the next book.

Adam Sternbergh: Shovel Ready

Sternbergh has a lot of things going on in Shovel Ready. He’s got to concoct a hit man the audience can relate to, he’s got to sketch in a crippled New York and a world changed by ubiquitous but expensive VR, he’s got to find a plot of some kind for those ideas to anchor in, and he has to write well enough to overcome the fact that in his dystopian near future, the economic collapse has stolen all the quote marks.

I mean it as a compliment when I say that he does best with the quote marks thing. It’s incredibly annoying to read a novel which is first person narrated as direct speech and has nothing to differentiate between the narrator talking to the read and the characters talking to each other. It’s why I still haven’t read most of George V Higgins’ early books. Sternbergh pulls it off; you can tell who’s talking and who they’re talking to, with no more difficulty than I’ve experienced in conventional narrative. That’s much harder to do than Sternbergh makes it look. 

For the rest; he chickens out on his antihero, who turns heroic at the drop of a hat and has far too sympathetic a backstory. The collapse of New York is well thought out, though I imagine real New Yorkers would argue the point. Sternbergh gives us a New York where a dirty bomb and a succession of car bombs finally made New Yorkers cut and run, escaping either into the rest of the US or virtual reality. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s a novel angle on the question of what makes a citizen into a refugee, and the tipping point where you go from one to the other.

A world changed by VR? Sternbergh’s by no means the first person to make the point that if we had the holodeck, no-one would ever get out of bed again, so the question is what does he say next? The most unexpected thing is probably his notion that it sidelines the internet completely, making it as quaint and marginal as fax machines are now. The plot twist which drives the big reveal is far less surprising; of course the new technology is used for beastliness. The actual beastliness is quite clever; it’s surprising, and yet obvious in hindsight. And horrible, although that kind of goes without saying in a book where the narrator is a man who goes around killing people with a box cutter; you’ve got to up the villain ante a lot to make that look good.

The weird thing is the way that it’s treated as somehow notable that a new technology is used not just for pleasure, but cruel pleasure; that the premium product is based on suffering. To me, this seems almost obvious. On the one hand, you don’t need to pay people to share an experience which is genuinely fun for everyone. It turns into something you pay for when the people on the serving end would rather be doing something else. But the other angle is simpler, and perhaps more depressing. Rich people are the people with the most money. And to BE the people with the most money, they had to be the kind of people who enjoyed taking things off other people. Sure, some of them just don’t care that they’re getting rich by making other people poor. But there’s going to be a lot of people in that demographic for whom it’s not just about winning; it’s about the other guy losing. And of course those people are going get their kicks from other people suffering. It shouldn’t surprise us; it’s something we ought to be ready for. Yes, behind every great fortune is a great crime. And often, ahead of it too.

Friday, 12 December 2014

Sons of Anarchy: Endings

About a quarter of the hits on this blog are from one post from about four years ago where I vented about Irish accents on SoA and their location work in Nordor. So I guess, now that SoA is finally over, my page views are just going to tank. 

SoA should have ended about two years ago. If it had a point, the point was the conflict between Jax and Clay and Gemma, and the best they were ever going to get out of that was five seasons. SoA should have hit its crisis in Season Five and destroyed its world, just like Hamlet does in Act 5. I’m not saying that the result would have been perfect; I don’t even know if it would have been any good, but it would have been better than the long drawn out falling apart of Seasons Six and Seven. There comes a point when you’re learned all you can from a crapsack world, and everything after that is “This? Again?"

Art always collides with money. Even low art. Even TV shows. Especially TV shows. They outrun their welcome, because no matter what you wanted to do at the beginning, in the end you’ve got kids at college, cocaine habits, mortgage payments or just the aching knowledge that you’ve got nothing else in the tank and you need the money for coffee and cigarettes. It happened to Lost, it happened to the X-Files,and man, did it ever happen to Sons of Anarchy. And it sometimes seems like the only other possibility is getting yanked before you’ve even told the story, like Twin Peaks or Firefly. Or Rome. Or Deadwood. Man, don’t make me talk about Deadwood.

So let’s talk about endings. The Sopranos ended so abruptly half of America thought their TV sets had broken. Six Feet Under got all kinds of lost along the way, but pulled an ending out of the mess which is, in its own way, truly unbeatable. Dexter, having turned into possibly the stupidest show on TV, found an ending to carry it right over the line into unredeemable, a trick which would be truly impressive if I thought for a moment that it was the plan. Breaking Bad stayed for exactly the right length and pulled off an ending which was both perfectly judged and almost hypnotic in the way in which every loose piece of karma was tucked away where it belonged.

However, there is one show which stands head and shoulders above them all for the sheer punch of its ending. The Shield  was frequently a violent mess that made no sense at all from week to week, but it found the perfect ending as Vic Mackey was stuck in his own personal hell; a meaningless desk job where he could do nothing and be made accountable for every pointless moment of it. By the end of The Shield, the writers could have had Vic torn apart by wolves and the viewers would have said “Well, Vic DID kind of have it coming, and wasn’t it awesome?” Instead they found a punishment which left Vic with nothing. And considering that most of us watching probably had equally meaningless desk jobs, there was a certain karmic backlash for the audience. There we’d been, enjoying the exploits of a truly horrible person, paying our own tawdry dues to the myth of the ubermensch, the bully with the heart of gold, the man who only hurts us because he loves us. And then Shawn Ryan turned it right back on us; there you go. Mackey is one of you now.

Anyone who’s read this far will know where I’m going. Kurt Sutter worked on The Shield, and at one point it looked like he was running a shelter for former cast members down at Teller-Morrow. So when it came to the ending, that was the yardstick he was going to be measured by. Was Jax Teller going to have an ending that would claw the show back to the promise it had at the beginning?

Nope. Jax spends his last day trying to right the wrongs he’s done, mostly by doing a bunch of NEW wrongs, and then splats himself on the front of a truck, just like his old man did twenty years before. And at the wheel of that truck, that delivery system for Jax’s ending; the man who owns the best ending trashy American TV has ever managed. Vic Mackey his own bad self turned up to turn Jax off, and even he couldn’t save it.

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Black Sea; NEVER hire the psycho

Seriously. Never hire the psycho. That’s right up there with “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman.” And I don’t mean, don’t hire the buy who TURNS OUT to be the psycho. I mean, when you’re talking about who to hire, and you actually say “He’s a psycho, but ….” Kim Kardashian doesn’t have a but big enough to fill in those dots. The words which come after “He’s a psycho..” are “So we’re hiring someone else."

Jude Law missed that meeting, bless him. So he hires the psycho. To be one of the twelve guys he needs to drive a submarine to recover a load of Nazi gold from another submarine which sank in the Black Sea ferrying it from Stalin to Hitler. It’s a tribute to the overall competence of the movie that it wasn’t til afterwards that I started trying to work out how a U-Boat even got into the Black Sea in 1941 … Anyhow, it’s there, it’s full of gold, and Jude Law is going to use a rust bucket ex-Soviet diesel sub to loot all the gold in lieu of the redundancy money his marine salvage employers just stiffed him out of. A motley crew of losers trying to steal a fortune in dangerous circumstances; it’s just a matter of time before they fall out over the spoils and start killing each other, leaving one survivor at the end with nothing but his life, innit?

Mandatory Bechdel test; failed, level one; there aren’t even two female characters. And the one they’ve got only exists in flashbacks.

Highlights; Scoot McNairy in the role of Carter Burke from Aliens; it’s not that he’s actually any good, it’s just that he’s so Carter Burke that you spend the movie waiting for him to say “It was a bad call, Ripley, it was a bad call.”. All the doleful old coots on the British wing of the submarine crew, each more doomed than the next, and still making you care. Including the laugh out loud line early on when Scoot McNair looks around the rust bucket and wails “This is just going to sink!” “Wouldn’t be much of a submarine if it didn’t."

It’s not a bad movie; it’s not great, and it doesn’t make as much sense as it thinks it does (near the end, the sub is inching through an underwater canyon in the shallows, until the hull has a fracture, whereupon they’re suddenly sinking to crush depth…), but it hangs together largely on the strength of a bunch of charming British character actors who make you care when it’s all going wrong. Jude Law is a morose self-pitying angry presence in the middle of it, and I found myself wondering if the movie would have been better without him. But I suppose you have to have a star. 

The Imitation Game; Spectrum Propaganda

The Imitation Game is propaganda for Hollywood’s current favourite disability, autism/Aspergers. Naturally, it stars Benedict Cumberbatch, who I can’t remember ever seeing playing anything else. I am getting over my ‘Batch crush; if he doesn’t play someone normal soon, I am going to write him off as a guy who’s exploiting other people’s disabilities.

Mandatory Bechdel test; failed, at level two; there are two named female characters, and they have a conversation, but it’s about trying to pull the man they’re looking at. Arguably failed at level one, since the main female character seems to have been dragged into the plot screaming and kicking so that the move could avoid dealing in any meaningful way with Alan Turing being gay. The Imitation Game handles teh ghey as though it had been made in the 1950s; yes, I suppose there is such a thing, and it’s awful the way people with it get treated, but for the love of god, don’t show us anything about it for fear the horses might take fright. I grump about this because the movie goes out of its way in its last few minutes to rant at the audience about how terrible state sanctions against homosexuals were in the 1950s. I can’t imagine that this is a lesson anyone in the audience needed.

Meanwhile, there’s a lesson for everyone in the audience about Alan Turing the visionary, the guy whose thinking about machine intelligence started us on the road to the world we live in today, blogs included. It’s a fascinating story, though the movie has nothing new to say about it; if there’s anything in the movie which comes as a surprise to you, it’s because you’re at a ‘Batch movie and you don’t even care what it’s about. 

Not that the ‘Batch is terrible; he never is. It’s just that if you’ve seen the ‘Batch before, this is what you’ve seen before. And if you know anything about Turing, you know everything in the movie. So you wind up having your fun with the side characters. Keira Knightley is never not fun, even if her character is there to keep everyone from having to think about, well, gayness. Charles Dance is his usual saturnine self. Mark Strong is huge fun as the head of MI6, effortlessly the smartest man in the room in a movie which is supposed to be about a completely different smartest man in the room.

Worst of all, if you know anything at all about Turing, or about Ultra, or about Bletchley Park, the way they try to dramatise the struggle to get the Bombe to work will just annoy you. There’s an epiphany about two thirds of the way through which turns on the concept of the “crib”; cracking a code by using the predictability of routine messages against the coder. This is not the stuff of visionary thinkers; it’s how they were trying to crack Enigma from day one. It’s how codes have been cracked since there WERE codes to crack.

And yes, I get that it’s hard to explain cyphers and mathematics and make it interesting, but there’s a moment in the movie which shows a real drama which they could have milked for tragedy of all kinds and built a whole movie out of; once the British cracked Enigma, they couldn’t risk using the knowledge for fear that the Germans would change the codes. For the rest of the war, the British had to decide which things they would let happen - killing hundreds and thousands of people - in order to preserve the advantage of knowing what the Germans were going to do next. That drama is wedged into the back third of the movie, crammed together with the miserable story of Turing’s last days, when either story would have carried a whole movie that would have needed no explanations of anything.