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The cover to Claudia Gray's Star Wars: Lost Stars.

Star Wars: Lost Stars review

If Lost Stars by Claudia Gray is an indicator of the new Star Wars expanded universe, then I think we could be looking at something pretty cool.

I was a big fan of the old Star Wars EU. But when Disney bought Lucasfilm, they wiped the slate clean. No more Corran Horn, Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, Dash Rendar, Galen Marek, Ysanne Isard, or Grand Admiral Thrawn. The Star Wars EU had decades to build up success and history. There was a lot to live up to.

Lost Stars is a YA novel about two lovers, Thane and Ciena, both in the service of the Empire. Thane defects to the Rebellion. Cue tragic romance. I won’t lie, I really wasn’t sure about it. Could a couple of unknown, star-crossed lovers shoe-horned into the original trilogy really compare with the Thrawn trilogy?

Spoiler: it can’t. But it’s still good.

But by ending the war now, before it truly begins, the Death Star will save more lives than it took.

I wasn’t sure a YA tragic romance was a good fit for Star Wars, but actually the tone is almost perfect. That has something to do with what Lucas made, and something to do with Gray’s writing. She gets the feel of Star Wars. She captures that brisk sense of adventure so well you feel you could be reading a novelisation of deleted scenes. Almost

And the best thing Lost Stars offers is its fresh perspective. Thane and Ciena rationalise Alderaan as a necessary evil, a space opera Hiroshima. And the destruction of the Death Star is a terrorist act, a war crime that slaughters thousands of good officers. And these contrary viewpoints work well because Gray isn’t writing villains or ciphers. She’s writing complicated characters. Thane is a cynic, sure that no government is perfect, content to work with the one in place until he can no longer abide its methodology. Ciena is an idealist, seeing the order and the stability the Empire has to offer.

And who is this General Calrissian? Thane decided not to ask that question out loud. If the Rebel Alliance was happy turning over its two most critical missions of all time to a bunch of brand-new generals, okay, fine.

I’m always sceptical when a writer tries to weave new characters into an existing story. It smacks of a retcon. Why did we never see this guy? Why did they never mention her? But Gray pulls this off well. Thane and Ciena aren’t big players, and the only movie characters they meet are minor. Tarkin, Mon Mothma, Captain/Admiral Piet, and even they only have brief appearances. These cameos offer little glimpses and expansions to their characters and, by not leaning on the main cast of the trilogy, Gray builds a sense of a much vaster galaxy.

This also allows Thane to question who the Rebel heroes are, since he never sees them involved in any real military efforts, yet they always seem to be in charge. It’s funny, and a nice nod to the fact that both Thane and Ciena suffer from the same illness of Luke, Leia, Han and co.: they’re often in situations they don’t belong for the sake of the plot. Thane obviously becomes an X-wing pilot but is given ground assault duties. Ciena is a deck officer but gets sent out in TIE fighters. But this is Star Wars. Our heroes can’t be constrained by realism. Which is why a con man and a gas miner was allowed to lead the greatest Rebellion offensive of all time.

Sometimes we’re loyal to more than one thing. When there’s a conflict, we have to choose which loyalty to honor.

The biggest problem with Lost Stars is that it’s trying to serve two masters: the story and the hype. Released in the lead-up to The Force Awakens, the cover is splashed with promises of exclusive content that ties into the new film and never-before-scenes from the Original Trilogy. Thane and Ciena don’t just find themselves in situations they don’t belong. They find themselves shoe-horned into events. Events conspire, contort even, to bring both into contact with Alderaan, Yavin, Cloud City, Endor. And in order to fit all that in and get some post-Jedi events, the plot takes big jumps through time. Sometimes it feels like Thane and Ciena’s Greatest Hits, and the final showdown seems a bit rushed, slotted in with very little explanation at all.

Which is a bit sad, because there’s a good story in here. And if Gray had been given a bit more space and fewer marketing boxes to tick, there was the potential for a deeper, more meaningful telling to match a deep and meaningful tale. The story between set pieces shows a war more devastating than anything the films portrayed, and the galaxy she created was big enough that Thane and Ciena didn’t have to be at every movie battle. Personally I think it would have been stronger for it.

Lost Stars doesn’t always navigate its way around the Original Trilogy perfectly, but it’s an enjoyable story, well-written, with strong characters. Being YA it doesn’t have the heft of the Thrawn trilogy, but it’s got the fast-paced adventure Star Wars is known for. I’d readily pick up a sequel.

Poster for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Spoiler-Free Review

In the days leading up to The Phantom Menace I bought into the hype. Hard. I watched the Duel of the Fates music video almost constantly. I knew the soundtrack backwards and forwards. But, though I tried to love it, the film let me down. So this time around I played it cool. I watched the first two trailers a few times. Then that was it. No hype for me. No excitement. No expectations. Or low expectations, if you prefer. I wasn’t going to let The Force Awakens break my geeky little heart.

I needn’t have worried.

Warning: while I won’t spoil a thing in the words ahead, the truly spoiler-phobic should wait until they’ve seen The Force Awakens.

“Didn’t we just leave this party?”

There have been a few accusations that The Force Awakens is a remake of A New Hope. Those accusations are extreme and you can dismiss them. There are similarities, to be sure, certain elements that recur (super weapons, anyone?) But this is not the same film. And the stuff that looks similar has a new twist on it, keeping the call-backs fresh and familiar at the same time, so you smile when you see them instead of rolling your eyes. Abrams does play on your nostalgia, and I often got the feeling this film was made for those who saw the originals when they were young, rather than for the young themselves (unlike the prequels; there’s not one poo joke in The Force Awakens).

“Wonderful girl. Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her.”

Rey is my new hero. She was my favourite, not just a worthy successor to the strong female role of Princess Leia, but a layered, earnest character of loss and independence and capability. On the opposite side, Kylo Ren is my new villain. In one film, Abrams made Ren more interesting than Anakin was over six. Both Rey and Ren have typical Abrams twists in their stories. Rey’s tend to be either emotional or uplifting. Ren’s are mostly shocking. But both characters are strong and engaging, pillars on which The Force Awakens can rest safe.

Finn and Poe were, I thought, not as strong, but still great. Finn is a great mix of fear and decency and loyalty. Poe is a funny, capable character. And the two have a great chemistry. I want to see some more Finn/Poe bromance, please.

“I’m out of it for a little while and everyone gets delusions of grandeur.”

A sad, but good, side-effect of such strong new and central characters is that it sidelines the old cast. We always knew that Luke, Han and Leia would only be in The Force Awakens to pass the torch. Elevated to the status of legends and generals, they are supporting cast only, but the strength of the new cast means that isn’t a disappointment. In fact, sometimes it felt like Abrams was shoe-horning in some of the old faces. Han was a great presence, but poor Leia was woefully underused, and don’t get me started on the droids.

“Vader doesn’t want you at all, he’s after someone named Skywalker.”

And Luke. Where is Luke Skywalker? Absent from the trailers, posters, TV spots, toys, and et cetera, this is a question so important it’s actually addressed in the opening crawl. Luke’s role in The Force Awakens was, for me, the biggest flaw in the film because it wasn’t quite tied up. My wife disagrees; she says it’s all there on the screen. But I say, just as with the ending of Breaking Bad, that Luke’s story needed just one more moment. Something to tie it up and acknowledge the journey. Just two words would have made a huge difference. Ask me what they are once you’ve seen it.

The other big disappointment? A certain character is barely a presence in The Force Awakens. If they don’t return, I shall become angry and use my magic.

“Look at the size of that thing!”

I’ve written a lot about the characters. That’s my bag, I suppose. But as for the rest, well, there was no prequel-esque reliance on CGI. The Force Awakens has real sets filled with real people and costumes blended with computer effects where necessary. This is the lived-in, functional world of the originals that you felt you could touch, not the sterile CG fantasy of the prequels. But, despite that, The Force Awakens has a grander sense of scale. Scenes are bigger, unhampered by low budgets or green screens. The camera can move across enormous battles and the Star Wars universe feels bigger for it.

The Force Awakens feels different. That was natural, since Lucas isn’t calling the shots anymore. So there is more modern camera work, different techniques, more twists and turns in the storytelling. But it’s an evolution, not a revolution. Different doesn’t mean bad. This is still a Star Wars film.

“My ally is the Force. And a powerful ally it is.”

There’s a reason I’ve been quoting the original films throughout this review. They have a place on a pillar in my consciousness, seminal and influential and, yes, untouchable. Abrams et al realise this. The Force Awakens is their attempt to create something worthy of those films. It doesn’t always work; the plot has some holes as a direct result of that effort. But they use the original trilogy as an inspiration and a strength, and that lends strength to their film. I’ll never love The Force Awakens the way I love the original trilogy. But I’m not supposed to. I’m supposed to love it in a very different way. And I will. It’s a worthy sequel, one I’ll watch again and again, and I’m already looking forward to Episode VIII.

The title screen for the game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed

Why Star Wars: Force Unleashed Deserves to Be Canon

I’m seeing a lot of retrospective reviews of the Star Wars films in the lead up to the release of The Force Awakens. Given that it isn’t a film, it’s not surprising The Force Unleashed isn’t being included. But it really ought to be part of the Star Wars canon, for one reason alone:

The Force Unleashed is the Vader story we were promised by the prequel trilogy.

George Lucas asserts that the Star Wars series is the story of Anakin Skywalker, his fall and his redemption. But the originals are Luke’s story, not Anakin’s. So whilst the prequels chart the fall, the originals don’t deliver on the promise of a similar tale of the redemption; that’s relegated to a plot twist in the final film. To tell Anakin’s story, we should have spent time with him in the darkness and seen him fight his way back to the light. Which is exactly the story of The Force Unleashed, albeit via a different character.

Set between the prequels and the originals, the video game focuses on Galen Marek, Vader’s secret apprentice. Taken by Vader as a child, Galen was raised in the Dark Side to be Vader’s assassin and his ally in overthrowing the Emperor. The Force Unleashed is Galen’s time mired in darkness and his journey to the light. A journey that is, perhaps, more interesting than Vader’s own.

The key to Vader’s redemption is the relationship between a father and son. When Sean Williams wrote the novelisation of The Force Unleashed, he focused on the relationship between a man and a woman. But the key to Galen’s redemption is, in fact, that same father/son relationship, only reversed. After all, Vader is more or less Galen’s adoptive father. But Vader displays no paternal warmth or regard for his charge. He treats Galen no better than a tool. And, despite a lifetime of anger, hate, disdain and misuse, Galen is still loyal to his master, or his father. Like a dog whose master kicks him, Galen might sometimes hates Vader, but he can never bite.

Vader inadvertently sets Galen on the path to the light by urging him to stoke a rebellion, to distract the Emperor so Vader can overthrow him. In doing so, Galen is forced to commit acts of heroism to attract his newfound rebels. He is exposed to decency and good. He is given agency and space to grow close to his pilot, Juno. All steps towards the light, and all the more interesting because it tears him between his new friends and his old master. Whereas we have to rely on Luke telling us he feels conflict in Vader, The Force Unleashed shows us how torn Galen is, how he struggles to reconcile his growing goodness with his habitual darkness. But that darkness can’t be broken by Galen’s friends or his love for Juno; it can only be broken by the man who nutured it.

Because, again, it’s Vader that pushes Galen into the light by betraying him for the final time. When Vader casts him aside, you can see the anguish, the confusion and the hurt in Galen’s face. He is abandoned. Lost. It’s a beautiful, tragic moment, sold by great acting. A moment in which a character can find light in his darkest moment. His Sith father has disowned him. But he is finally free to disown his old teachings. To become a Jedi.

The Force Unleashed also has some great supporting characters (like a droid programmed to kill Galen yet also keep him alive), plenty of tie-ins with existing canon (Princess Leia, the Clone Wars, the birth of the Rebellion), and the aforementioned superb performances from Sam Witwer as Galen and Matt Sloane as Vader. But even if it didn’t, giving us such a fantastic journey out of the Dark Side is enough to earn The Force Unleashed a place in the Star Wars canon.

Plus it’s a darned good game to boot.

Cover to the UK edition Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb: Review

Sequels are tricky things. They suffer from anticipations and expectations. They promise more of what you loved, but there’s always a secret fear that the writer will have lost “it”, “it” being that magical touch that made the prior installments so good. Everyone has been crushed by a sequel at some point. Once you’ve experienced your own personal Phantom Menace, the prospect of a sequel is never the same. So it’s fair to say that I approached epic fantasy Fool’s Assassin with a mixture of hope and dread.

Worst still was the fact that this was the second time Robin Hobb had done this to me. The story of royal bastard FitzChivalry (or Fitz) began in the Farseer Trilogy and had a downbeat but definite end. That ending was opened up in the Tawny Man trilogy but, while it was something of a retread of the first, Hobb pulled it off and gave Fitz a happier ending. Now Fool’s Assassin would be the beginning of a third trilogy, a third attempt to open up a closed book. Would the law of diminishing returns strike? Could Fool’s Assassin be the book where she lost “it”?

We live in our bodies. An assault on that outside fortress of the mind leaves scars that may not show, but never heal.

To enjoy the Fitz books, you have to love Fitz. Stubborn, headstrong, sometimes maudlin, not always wise, with a strong sense of morality and rarely a sense of how to employ it. You feel less that Hobb has create the hero of an epic fantasy and more a real, flawed man to hang her story on. Fitz is not the same character he was in the first trilogy, though. His experiences have battered him, strengthened him in some senses, weakened him in others. He’s older, more mature, but in some ways he’s the same old Fitz. He’s not a bad analogy for the novel as a whole.

Robert Zemeckis once said that people like a sequel because they want to revisit characters and places they loved the first time around. Hobb understands this, and so Fool’s Assassin respects, recalls and revisits the previous installments. Thus there are visits to Buckkeep, and characters like Chade and Kettricken and Dutiful make appearances. Even absent characters are present through recollection or, in a sense, resurrection. Fans of a particular relationship they might think ended will not, I feel, be disappointed. In some sense, Fool’s Assassin is the same old Fitz story.

But just as Fitz’s new maturity and responsibilities are the most interesting things about him, Fool’s Assassin works best where it leaves behind all the old intrigue and politics of prior stories. Instead of trying to preserve a royal family and its kingdom, the focus of this novel is closer, more immediate: Fitz’s family. This by necessity creates a smaller story; so small the first map is of Fitz’s house. But though it is smaller in scope it is deeper in feeling, which is where Hobb’s novels always do best. And it’s a perfect way to open up Fitz’s world to new narratives. Yes he’s had a happy ending, but happy endings very rarely lack their own complications.

Hobb also takes this opportunity to open up the story to new narrative techniques. Fans of these books might think it heresy, but trust me: you will love reading the chapters written from a viewpoint other than Fitz’s.

You might be surprised to find that facing life can be much harder than facing death.

But, just as Fitz can’t let go of some of his old, poorer habits, so Hobb couldn’t quite let go of old story elements. So Chade inserts new intrigues into Fitz’s life (without any explanation for Fitz or reader) and, perhaps worse, too many old characters remain. Consider how much time has passed since the beginning of the first trilogy; some characters just shouldn’t be breathing anymore. I’m not usually so bloodthirsty, but Hobb only highlighted this by teasing a number of character deaths only to snatch them back from the jaws of death mere pages later.

Time is an unkind teacher, delivering lessons that we learn far too late for them to be useful.

Fool’s Assassin also made me realise something about Hobb’s books I’d never noticed before. Have you ever described a story in a single sentence? “Unassuming hobbit must destory a magic ring to defeat a dark lord”? “Young rebel must learn the powers of the mystical Jedi to topple an evil Galactic Empire”? “Royal bastard trains as an assassin to help save his kingdom”? Most stories make sure you can offer such a description early on. “Here’s the type of story you can expect”, they say, and either fulfill that expectation, subvert it, or disappoint it.

Fool’s Assassin doesn’t do that. And not just that, but all the Fitz books. Hobb writes a story that ambles its way through the plot. It’s certainly a pleasant amble, even an entrancing amble. But it leaves the reader in a sort of limbo. The reader doesn’t know what to anticipate, what to dread, what to attend to and what to be intrigued by. This is what makes Chade’s new intrigues frustrating. They seem so disconnected from the new world Fitz lives in and there is no explanation to them. So they stand out like a sore thumb and even seem like filler. Most readers of Fool’s Assassin won’t mind this, because they’ll have read prior trilogies and thus be happy to go where Hobb leads. But I suspect newer readers might not be willing to offer Hobb the trust she deserves.

Do not agonize about yesterday. Do not borrow tomorrow’s trouble. Let your heart hunt. Rest in the now.

But here is why I love Fool’s Assassin, and all Hobb’s work, despite those grievances: you don’t worry about them whilst you’re reading. Hobb’s prose is beautiful in its description, searing in its truth, compelling in its narrative, and it forces you to forgive all sins. It puts character before lore and it lets character drive plot. Her worldbuilding is not overbearing; it intrudes on the page only rarely, when it needs to. There is still the magic, the grand locations and action scenes that epic fantasy demands. But it’s all focused on character. And those characters are so well-drawn, so deeply developed, that you’ll love them by the end. It isn’t the plot that keeps you turning the page; it’s wanting to see your beloved characters delivered through that plot, safe and sound.

If you’ve read the previous Fitz books but you’re worried about Phantom Menace syndrome, set aside your fears. Fool’s Assassin is a worthy sequel to the series. If you haven’t read any Fitz books, don’t start here. Yes, you might enjoy it and, no, you don’t need to have read the others. But you’ll miss out on the history, the nuances, and the clever callbacks, and I like you too much to let you do that to yourself. So go read Assassin’s Apprentice and worth your way up to Fool’s Assassin.

You’ll thank me for it.

Get Fool’s Assassin from: Amazon US | Amazon UK | Apple iBookstore

Cover to Graham Joyce's Some Kind of Fairy Tale

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce: Review

To be honest, I got the wrong idea about Some Kind of Fairy Tale. I got the idea it was going to be an urban fantasy novel. I don’t know how; it makes no claims to be. In fact, I’m not sure I would call Some Kind of Fairy Tale a fantasy novel at all. At first I was disappointed but, once I recovered, I really enjoyed this book.

The modern superstition is that we’re free of superstition.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale‘s premise is that Tara was sixteen when she disappeared twenty years ago. Now she’s come back, looking not a day older than when she left, and claiming she’s been living with fairies for only six months. Her family and her old boyfriend now have to try to assimilate her back into their lives, and a psychiatrist has to determine what really happened to her. Because, of course, no-one believes her.

The thing is, when everyone is trying to persuade you that a thing you know to be true isn’t actually true, you start to believe them: not because it is true but because it’s easier. It’s just the easy way out.

Joyce has a way with a turn of phrase and he writes with a charming simplicity. Not in the sense that he uses small words but that he doesn’t beat around the bush. If there’s something he wants you to know, he tells you (or shows you). If there’s something he doesn’t want you to know, he makes that clear too. So the point of Some Kind of Fairy Tale is not the mystery of what happened to Tara. This is more of a character study. The different reactions to when someone you mentally buried (in the absence if a body) reappearing after twenty years, and what that does to a person.

Sometimes that simplicity of style does offer some jarring moments, some non-sequiturs as Joyce hauls dialogue or prose towards where he wants to be, which is usually a pithy line. But, on the whole, his writing is comfortable and comforting; his surety with language lets you know you’re in safe hands.

He said he preferred to feel the earth sing through his feet, and that shoes stopped you from hearing the song of the earth.

I said that I wasn’t sure if Some Kind of Fairy Tale was a fantasy novel. It does have a strong element of the fantastic to it: Tara actually relates some of her time with the fairies. I can confirm Joyce knows his fairy folklore (he even quotes Katherine Briggs), and he paints an intriguing picture of the Otherworld. A deep connection to a natural world unknown to us, a very physical and sexual spirituality, charts and maps that reveal a comprehensive understanding of the world.

But there is a question as to whether any of this is real. Some Kind of Fairy Tale also proffers the possibility that Tara’s narrative is an invention to cover some kind of psychological trauma. This is why I’m not sure I’d class it as fantasy; our only glimpse of the otherworldly is via Tara’s recollection. And both possibilities are given equal weight and credence; Tara’s family support the psychological explanation, but her still-youthful appearance supports the fantastical.

Jack had spotted something in the woods, as had the dogs. Someone had been watching him. But to reveal who had been watching him would be to reveal who has been telling you this story all along. And, as you were advised earlier, everything depends on that detail.

The ambiguity of Some Kind of Fairy Tale is perhaps the reason I enjoyed it so much. Some people hate ambiguity, but I think it’s great. It allows two conflicting stories to co-exist, simultaneously. As Neil Gaiman once wrote, nobody remembers the secret; it’s the mystery that endures.

If you’re looking for an urban fantasy with concrete answers, this isn’t for you. But if you’re looking for a well-written, character-driven story that mixes fantasy, psychiatry and ambiguity, Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a book I can absolutely recommend.

The Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses is a musical celebration of the video game series.

Why is the Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses So Awesome?

There’s something pretty special about the Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses. Go to any concert and the crowd is a sea of lights, camera phones held high to capture what’s happening on stage. The crowd at a Zelda symphony is full of lights too, except those lights come from Nintendo DSes, as the crowd play Zelda to the sound of the orchestra. It’s not that they’re bored. It’s that they are actively living the experience we’re all reliving.

It’s that shared experience that differentiates the Zelda crowd. Go to a regular concert and the crowd has shared a passive experience: we’ve all listened to the same album(s). But, at a Zelda symphony, we’ve shared an active experience. We’ve all swung the same sword, all sailed the same seas, all felt the damning frustration of that water temple. We’ve all been Link, and this is the soundtrack to our adventure.

And that adventure was the focus of the evening, not anything happening on the stage. The closest we got to rock stars were video messages from figures involved in creating the games. And while they received whoops and cheers, they were there to celebrate the games as much as we were. They weren’t taking credit for our adventure. They were sharing it with us.

Even the videogame footage shown on the screen wasn’t something for us to adore. It was more of a highlight reel, a reminder of the highs and lows we had all been through as we battled to save Hyrule.

Of course, the music was incredible, and we all had favourites we were hoping to hear (and even calling out for). If I’ve made the evening sound like we all came together in a transcendental, unified mind, we didn’t. We listend to a great orchestra play music we love. But I guarantee you’ll never have the same experience at another concert. Music might be the soundtrack to our lives. But each song means something different to each listener, and we react differently to hearing it. And there’s something awesome about an arena of fans having the exact same reaction to the same piece of music.

The Zelda Symphony of the Goddesses isn’t just about great music; it’s a collective recollection, and that’s pretty special.

Ready Player One is an ode to geek culture

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline: Review

Here’s the most important thing you need to know about Ready Player One: it’s a celebration of a geek culture. So if you know about video games and Star Trek and, yes, the Japanese live-action Spider-man show with the giant robot, this novel is for you.

It was the dawn of new era, one where most of the human race now spent all of their free time inside a videogame.

Welcome to the OASIS which is, in effect, what would happen if the Internet, World of Warcraft, and virtual reality all had a bizarre three-way love child. It’s a virtual video game where you can be whoever you want and do whatever you want. You buy virtual currency to travel, buy items, and you can even level up. The protagonist, Wade in the real world, Parzival in the OASIS, even goes to school there. And here’s the conceit: the creator of the OASIS has died and left control of his creation to whoever can solve his Easter egg hunt, resulting in a hunt that’s entrenched in 80s geek culture.

I was watching a collection of vintage ’80s cereal commercials when I paused to wonder why cereal manufacturers no longer included toy prizes inside every box. It was a tragedy, in my opinion. Another sign that civilization was going straight down the tubes.

The conceit means that Ready Player One would make an excellent drinking game, if such a game could be played whilst reading a novel. The number of games, books, films, TV shows and people named in this book is staggering, and they’re all written about with real love. Even things that get slated (Ladyhawke springs to mind) are done so with real love. Cline has squeezed in everything he loves and it’s nice to read a novel that loves the same things you do.

Being human totally sucks most of the time. Videogames are the only thing that make life bearable.

Unfortunately there’s a reason I used the word ‘conceit’. The truth is, the plot really is a conceit Cline uses to write about the things he loves and to vicariously do the things he’d love to do. And the story suffers. In fact, Ready Player One was, at times, downright disappointing. There’s no character development. No surprises. No twists, no turns. Just a straightforward normal-guy-becomes-a-hero-and-gets-everything-he-ever-wanted tale. Worse, because he overcomes his first obstacle so easily, it undermines every obstacle thereafter. I didn’t believe he wouldn’t clear any and all hurdles with ease. And I was right. Plans go without a hitch. Everything he hopes for comes true. It is, to be brutally honest, a boring story.

For a bunch of hairless apes, we’ve actually managed to invent some pretty incredible things.

But here’s the incredible truth. Despite the fact the story is boring (and it is), Ready Player One is compelling. Once I was finished I couldn’t put my finger on why, until I realised that the novel is as much an Easter egg hunt as it is about one. I loved picking up on the references big and small, the in-jokes, the little exaltations. For instance, I really enjoyed seeing Supaidaman get a reference. As Wade/Parzival goes hunting through geek culture, I found myself hunting along with him, looking for games and films and books I recognised.

But over the past few months, I’d come to see my rig for what it was: an elaborate contraption for deceiving my senses, to allow me to live in a world that didn’t exist. Each component of my rig was a bar in a cell where I had willingly imprisoned myself.

So can I recommend Ready Player One as a novel? No. But would I recommend it anyway? Yes. It suffers from the same problem as Austin Grossman’s You in that the headlong dive into its geeky world leaves behind things like solid plots and character development. But the dive is such an enjoyable experience, you’re willing to forgive.

Because sometimes we all need to sing a little ode to geek culture.

Cover to A Sorceror Slain by Dave Sivers

Review: A Sorcerer Slain by Dave Sivers

A Sorcerer Slain is a fantasy crime novel by Dave Sivers, the first in the Lowmar Dashiel series. I interviewed Dave back when he released the sequel and I must admit to making a terrible mistake: I didn’t read them sooner.

“I just happen to be a…” I clutched some appropriate-sounding words out of thin air, “- a Personal Inquisitor.”

And, just like that, I had embarked on a new career.

When I first heard that Sivers was writing fantasy crime, my first thought was that those genres were unusual bedfellows. But A Sorcerer Slain is proof they make an excellent match; it calls no attention itself, borrowing tropes from both fantasy and crime as it wills. So Lowmar Dashiel calls himself a Personal Inquisitor (a private investigator), he has a partner in the dwarf Grishen, and a poor relationship with true officers of the law. But the story takes place in the kingdom of Balimar, where magic is real and society resembles feudal England. At no point do these tropes clash and it was only when I was writing this review that I realised how good a job Sivers did in stitching together two genres with nary a seam.

I wanted to trust him – but I thought I’d better watch my back when I was around him. Just in case.

One of my favourite things about this novel is that Dashiel thinks like a real person. The crime committed is the murder of the Sorcerer Supreme (he would be the sorcerer slain), which threatens to topple the king and spark a civil war. With so many interested parties, no-one can be above suspicion. But I’ve seen too many crime stories where someone always is. There’s always someone the hero never suspects for a moment, and it’s always them that did it. Always. But Dashiel suspects nearly everyone at one point or another and I wanted to applaud every time.

“Good old Boxen,” I went on.  A little voice at the back of my head pointed out that my mouth was running away with my brain, but I was powerless to stop it. “How is his search going?”

“Search?” The militiaman eyed me suspiciously.

“For the ape that sired him.”

Dashiel is also a very likeable character. He’s a bit of a state at the beginning of A Sorcerer Slain; dishevelled, poor, hungover. His concern with this case is limited to his feelings for the main suspect. But he’s redeemed by an excellent sense of humour and the case changes him as the novel progresses. Instead of worrying about himself or the woman he longs for, he increasingly cares about the people he meets and the innocents who will suffer if he doesn’t solve the case. The change is actually quite dramatic yet gradual and it’s done very well.

You’re so busy looking at the so-called big picture, you can’t see the small one any more.

The only downside for me was the tangents. Dashiel is investigating a world-changing murder, with the potential to start a civil war and invasion from foreign states. Yet too many times Dashiel gets waylaid. Other investigations, attempts on his life, even a spot of epic fantasy battle. There’s always a good reason for each tangent, but after a while I started to wonder how Dashiel could let himself get so distracted with so much at stake.

I always say that highest praise I can give to a novel is that I would read the sequel. And this is an accolade I readily award to A Sorcerer Slain. The world and the characters Sivers has created are fun to read; I really enjoyed this novel and I can’t wait to read the sequel. If you like fantasy and crime, go and buy A Sorcerer Slain now. Trust me!

The incredible cover art to Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie.

2014: Year in Review

Is it me or years getting shorter and shorter? It doesn’t seem that long since I was last trying to remember what I’d read and which I should write about. For newcomers to the blog, I always jump on the “year in review” bandwagon, but I review my year. Everyone else is listing the best books released in 2014, I’m listing the most impressive books I read in 2014, regardless of when they were published.

The way I figure it, “the cutting edge” sounds painful and something to avoid; I prefer the comfortable middle.

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

So good it garnered a review of its own, this was one of the few instances when a book lived up to its hype. The main character used to be a spaceship and the society she comes from has no concept of gender. Original, imaginative and engaging, I’ve not read a space opera like this for a long while and I can’t wait to read more.

Unbroken Ties by M. Latimer-Ridley

The sequel to Legend Unleashed, which I reviewed a couple of years ago. There’s a world, under the one we know, of magic and wizards and werewolves. The war between the latter deepens in this installment and it also explores the ramifications of what happened to wizard Alastair Byron and werewolf Halvard Wolfram in the last book. Although it felt a little rushed at times, it was great to see that the Byron/Wolfram arc wasn’t tied up in a neat little bow; things get complicated for a while, which is how I like my fiction.

Min by Lola Rayne

A raunchy contemporary romance, I should state that I am totally not the target demographic for this novel. I would never usually pick up a book like this, but Rayne has an excellent style that’s filthy and funny and makes me smile; she could probably write a treatise on farming tools of the 1300s and it’d still be an enjoyable read. So although this type of book isn’t my cup of tea, I still enjoyed it immensely, and you should definitely give it a try.

You by Austin Grossman

You was a strange reading experience. The tale of a successful guy who quits his job to work at a video game developer set up by his schoolmates, I don’t think it works well as a novel; elements of the story disappear unresolved, some events have no reason for being other than the writer wanted to write about them, and frankly it’s all a little contrived. But I enjoyed it nonetheless, largely because it was the first time I’d read a novel that dealt with video games as if they mattered. So if you’re a video game geek, you’ll probably enjoy it, but otherwise you should probably read something else.

The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

If, like me, you thought The Da Vinci Code was a decent if over-hyped summer blockbuster book, do yourself a favour: don’t read The Lost Symbol. It appears to be a mere clone of its older brother. Langdon on the run from the authorities. A strange, unstoppable figure enmeshed in his faith, hunting Langdon. Even the same historical figures and books are recycled at times, and you can see the “twists” coming from the first page. I really wanted to like The Lost Symbol but I hear Inferno is a better read?

What books did you read this year? Leave a comment and tell me all about them; I’m always looking for more to read!

The Force Awakens teaser has garnered a lot of excitement.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Trailer – Review

Let me get this out of the way; I was somewhat underwhelmed by the Star Wars: The Force Awakens trailer. I know it was only a teaser. But I was hoping for a little more than some disconnected images. What can I say? I love Star Wars and I’m greedy.

That said, I’ve watched it a few times now and I’m cautiously optimistic. It looks like some of my wishes for Star Wars Episode VII have been granted but, alas, not all of them. So how did I do?

Bring Back the Original Cast

Well, none of them are in the teaser. I think that’s a bit of a shame; it suggests they’ve only got minor roles, which I think misses some great opportunities.

That said, we got lots of original props: X-Wings, the Millenium Falcon, TIE fighters and stormtroopers. Great to see the latter; the Empire wouldn’t roll over and disappear the moment Palpatine was gone. And it’s always good to see the Falcon. But it’s been thirty years. While I love X-wings and TIE fighters, surely they’d have invented some new ships?

Don’t Rehash the Originals

I think this wish has been granted, if only for the stormtrooper without a helmet. You know someone deserves support in Star Wars if you can see their face, so I’m hoping this guy is our hero. A sympathetic stormtrooper is definitely new ground.

But that’s Tatooine, isn’t it? Why is this desert backwater so important to this universe?

Tell the Saga of the Skywalker Family

The teaser neither confirms nor rules this out, but something tells me neither of these new characters are related to Luke. Again, a shame, but understandable. The “episode” moniker is noticeably absent from the title, so I don’t think this is a trilogy. If you’re opening up the films Marvel-style then they can’t all be about Skywalker sprogs.

Make Use of Those Force Ghosts

Again, no sign. With Luke in a supporting role, I don’t think Abrams is going to bother. Except maybe for Yoda. Because it’s a Star Wars film and Yoda sells toys.

Lay Off the CGI

Partially granted. All the ships and the speeder look CG, but there were no evidence of green screens; those were real locations. Huzzah!

Don’t Resurrect the Sith

Well that was always a long shot. And what’s going on with that new lightsaber?

Have More Female Characters

Well we got two characters and one was female. And the other was black. So I’m claiming this one as granted. Yay for diversity!

Was the teaser strong in the Force? Or was it a polarised power coupling? Let me know in the comments!

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