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The cover to Ann Leckie's fantastic Ancillary Justice

Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie – Review

Or is anyone’s identity a matter of fragments held together by convenient or useful narrative, that in ordinary circumstances never reveals itself as a fiction?

If you have an ear anywhere near the ground you might have already heard of Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. It seems to have won every award under the sun and a lot of people are talking about it. With good reason: it’s a brilliant novel.

Thoughts that lead to action can be dangerous. Thoughts that do not, mean less than nothing.

Most of what I read about Ancillary Justice before I bought a copy was focused on the approach to gender. The main character, Breq, comes from a culture where gender isn’t very important and almost always uses the pronoun “she”. Because the novel is told from her viewpoint, it means it is always telling you everyone is female. It also admits that isn’t biologically feasible. So you know some of the characters are male. You just don’t know which ones. And while you could spend a lot of time trying to figure it out, I found it far more enjoyable to assume everyone was actually female. It removed the unpleasantness of gender stereotypes and, oddly, made the world feel more real and rounded.

To invade and take, what, half the adult population? And turn them into walking corpses, slaved to your ships’ AIs.

The approach to gender in Ancillary Justice means that Breq herself is also overlooked. That’s a shame because Leckie has created something wonderful in her. Once upon a time Breq was the AI of a ship. And that ship had ancillaries, human bodies that were connected and acted as extensions to that AI. Think of the AI as the queen and the ancillary bodies as mere worker ants. It’s a horrifying concept totally at odds with the notion of this culture being the harbingers of civilisation. Yet it is so casually accepted, even lauded at times, that it serves as a clever questioning of how civilised civilisation really is.

And then I fell to pieces.

It also means that Breq can be in many places at once and a number of scenes occur in different locations simulatenously. Such an ability runs the risk of confusing the reader, but Leckie pulls it off so artfully, so effortlessly, that I have to applaud her. I was never confused, never lost. Leckie managed to make the fragmented yet unified experience of many bodies feel intuitive without drawing attention to what she was doing. She also does a good job of using these many-bodies-many-Breqs to question ideas of identity without getting too lost in philosophy.

But I never paid attention to you, I’d never have asked if someone was One Esk’s favorite.

Ancillary Justice also has some of the best AI I’ve ever encountered. It seems most approaches to AI has them either as cold and emotionless machines or indistinguishable from humans. Breq is neither of those. She is meant to be completely reasonable, but her fall from grace comes directly from attachments. Breq-as-ship had her favourites; all AIs do. So, whilst Breq doesn’t weep or rage or laugh much, what emotion she does exhibit means all the more for its scarcity. Though Breq probably wouldn’t care either way, you end up liking her.

That said the central mystery wasn’t as compelling as I think Leckie wanted it to be; I kept reading because I was enjoying the experience rather than needing to know what happened. And while Leckie doesn’t spoon-feed the reader, sometimes she didn’t explain her world quite enough; there are a lot of new ideas the reader has to handle in the dark for chapters at a time.

But Ancillary Justice is still an excellent space opera, one of the best I’ve read in a very long time. A good story, a unique protagonist, and clever ideas. I can’t wait to read the second book, which is as high a recommendation as there is.

Smaug is the steroetypical treasure-hoarding dragon in The Hobbit.

Top Fantasy Novels: The Hobbit

If there’s one fantasy novel to rule them all, it’s Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. It has such a far-reaching influence that it’s almost impossible to find any aspect of fantasy fiction that doesn’t owe the trilogy some sort of debt. But, despite that, I think Tolkien’s earlier novel, The Hobbit, is unfairly overshadowed by it’s younger brother. I think The Hobbit might be the better fantasy novel.

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.

Certainly The Lord of the Rings is far grander, a battle between good and evil for the fate of the world and so on. It’s more serious in nature and therefore held in higher esteem. But if The Hobbit is more light-hearted than The Lord of the Rings, I say it is better for it.

We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!

The Hobbit sits much closer to traditional fairy tales in content and tone. It’s an adventure, a treasure hunt, with a dragon to vanquish and humorous events and coincidences along the way. The narrator speaks in a knowing tone, sharing asides and commentary intended to delight and surprise. A favourite is mine is the invention of golf, accredited to a Took’s fortuitous decapitation of a goblin.

I think this is why I prefer Bilbo to Frodo, too. Bilbo’s reticence to leave his home is funny and loveable, whilst Frodo’s seems confusing and naive. To want to stay in the warm because adventures make you later for dinner is cute. Refusing to help save Middle-Earth would have made Bilbo seem mean and selfish.

He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait.

But, though this might be “just” an adventure, there’s still peril. Giant spiders. Ancient dragons. And, of course, Gollum.

Poor Gollum wasn’t such a bad guy in the first edition. But when it came time for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien went back and made some changes to bring his character into line with the more mature tone of the sequel. Consequently, Gollum was no longer a fairy tale obstacle who happily bets a magic ring and parts amicably after losing. Now he becomes mean and violent and a very real danger. But the riddles remained and thus the real charm of their encounter.

So comes snow after fire, and even dragons have their endings.

And, of course, this is still a Tolkien novel and it’s still set in Middle Earth. So there is plenty of folklore and languages for the people who like that sort of thing (me). There’s plenty of poetry, too, and beautiful lines that could only have been written by J. R. R. Tolkien.

A beautifully written, funny, charming fairy tale adventure, set it Middle Earth. Tell me why it shouldn’t be one of my top fantasy novels.

Dream from Neil Gaiman's The Sandman

Top Fantasy Novels: The Sandman

Let’s address the elephant in the room: The Sandman is not a fantasy novel.

I was going to write about American Gods, which is a fantasy novel, but I realised everything I liked about it was done better in The Sandman. So, although The Sandman is an urban fantasy horror comic series, I’m going to explain why it’s actually a great fantasy novel.

She’s realised the real problem with stories – if you keep them going long enough, they always end in death.

First of all, I’m letting myself count it as novel for of one simple reason: it’s got a beginning, a middle and an end. While most comics are spandex-filled soap operas, The Sandman was written with an end in mind. And certainly there are issues and even arcs that don’t feature the central character, Dream. But these feel more like sub-plots and, more often than not, those stories do in fact feed into the finale. The Sandman had a cohesive narrative you don’t often see in comics, but you see all the time in novels.

Only the phoenix rises and does not descend. And everything changes. And nothing is truly lost.

Say what you like about Neil Gaiman, the man has an ear for poetical prose. Regular readers will have noticed I pepper my reviews with quotes from the text. The Sandman has been the hardest to pick quotes from. It’s beautifully, honestly written, with lines that will make you stop and think and even change the way you see the world. It makes The Sandman very easy to love.

Things need not have happened to be true.

But why is it a great fantasy novel? Well, for starters, the main character is Dream. He’s the living embodiment of, well, dreams. If that’s not enough for you, the setting ranges from modern day Earth to the past, to Hell, to other worlds, to realms like the Dreaming and even worlds in the mind. Still not enough? How about a cast of characters from myth and literature? John Constantine and the Martian Manhunter rub shoulders with Odin and Bast. Robin Goodfellow and Titania mingle with Remiel and Lucifer. Gaiman pulls in mythology and folklore and legend from wherever takes his fancy. He also creates a number of secret histories (a story that reveals an unknown cause or meaning to historical events). It turns out that Dream had a hand in Shakespeare’s genius as well as the fate of Emperor Norton of the United States of America.

I have no liking for prisons, Master Li. Sometimes I suspect that we build our traps ourselves, then we back into them, pretending amazement the while.

That’s why The Sandman is one of my top fantasy novels. Yes, it’s beautifully written and it’s got a cohesive story quite rare to comics. But it’s an epic far greater if not grander than The Lord of the Rings. It pulls in so much fantasy that it’s almost bursting at the seams. And yet it never feels like a jumble of myths and cameos. Gaiman makes it seem like all the disparate characters and settings were always meant to be part of the same story. If you’ve read it, you know what I mean. And if you haven’t, I can’t recommend it enough. After all, how many fantasy novels are told with pictures?

Mort meets Death in Pratchett's fourth novel.

Top Fantasy Novels: Mort

A key element in many fantasy novels is larger-than-life characters. They could be gods, heroes, dark lords, or anthropomorphic representations of concepts. Such as Death. Terry Pratchett plays with all in his satirical Discworld series, but Death is by far and away his greatest success. It’s not unfair to say that Pratchett’s characterisation of Death is one of the reasons Mort is one of my top fantasy novels.

I DON’T KNOW ABOUT YOU, he said, BUT I COULD MURDER A CURRY.

Death looks like the Grim Reaper we all recognise, the frightening skeleton in a black robe carrying a scythe. And in earlier novels he was closer to that stereotype. He had a cruel sense of humour and was doing his best to manoeuvre the wizard Rincewind into mortal peril. But in Mort, Pratchett expanded Death’s character by leaps and bounds, making him much more likeable, perhaps more hapless, and infinitely funnier. Now he’s simply performing an existential duty. He isn’t killing anyone. He’s just doing the job we gave him, which he’s very good at, and trying to understand people, which he isn’t good at.

Pratchett combines humour and an innocent curiosity to create a loveable character. Yes, fantasy and science fiction is filled with inhuman characters trying to understand humanity. But Pratchett does it so well you don’t mind the stereotype. So you enjoy watching him surround himself with the simulacra of life, a house and a horse and even human companions, without understanding any of them. And that’s where Mort comes in.

But at least the way was clear now. When you step off a cliff, your life takes a very definite direction.

Mort is Death’s new apprentice, just as hapless as his master but young and naive to boot. The plot comes from the hormonal mercy Mort grants to a princess due to die, the consequences of which are universe-shattering in scope. Despite that scale, Mort isn’t much more than a coming-of-age story, a fantasy bildungsroman, if you will. It’s a little simple, a little rough around the edges. But I find that makes the novel quite sweet and personal. Pratchett’s later works have the polish of a master craftsman with clever ideas and even intricate plots. But Mort is simpler fare with a story we can all identify. It’s also filled with Pratchett’s trademark wit, which makes this both a loveable and funny book.

As one man, the assembled company stopped talking and stared at him with the honest rural stare that suggests that for two pins they’ll hit you around the head with a shovel and bury your body under a compost heap at full moon.

I could write plenty about Terry Pratchett’s style of humour (and I did, a little, when I reviewed Pratchett’s Nome Trilogy). But the humour isn’t what makes this a great fantasy novel. It’s Pratchett’s inventiveness that does that. As mentioned before, Pratchett likes to indulge in all the tropes of fantasy, and play and lampoon them in clever ways. I enjoyed the idea that magical rites could be performed with very little but professional prestige is the motivator behind the pomp and ceremony. I also liked the way Pratchett incorporated the idea of morphogenetics, ludicrous in real life but fascinating “science” for a fantasy novel. And, of course, the way Ankh-Morpork reflects every major city is always insightful and hilarious.

Scientists have calculated that the chances of something so patently absurd actually existing are millions to one.
But magicians have calculated that million-to-one chances crop up nine times out of ten.

In short, Mort is the Discworld novel for a fantasy lover that hasn’t read Discworld. And, if you’ve read Discworld but not Mort, hop to it; you’re missing out! In the meantime, do you think this deserves to be one of my top fantasy novels? Or can you think of a better candidate? Let me know in the comments!

George R. R. Martin's Game of Thones is one of the most famous fantasy series.

Top Fantasy Novels: A Game of Thrones

Surprise, surprise, eh? Seems we can’t get away from Game of Thrones no matter where we go. But there’s a reason for that: it’s a very good fantasy novel.

The man who passes the sentence should swing the sword. If you would take a man’s life, you owe it to him to look into his eyes and hear his final words.

George R. R. Martin does a brilliant job with his characters. Ned, Jon, Tyrion, Cersei, Daenerys, Arya (and so many, many more), all very different and all very complicated. Evil characters have redeeming features, good characters do evil things. Martin does an excellent job of keeping you hooked as characters you hate prosper and characters you love stumble into doom.

Because there are no happy endings in Westeros.

Why is it always the innocents who suffer most, when you high lords play your game of thrones?

One of the reasons A Game of Thrones has attracted so much attention is that it is a fantasy novel like no other. It is brutal, it is coarse, it is harsh and it has no remorse. Martin doesn’t tip-toe around the truth of the story. Characters have sex, get hurt, get maimed, and die. Love that character? They’re going to die. Hate that character? Well, they’ll probably die too; everybody does. In this way the novel is very fair: nobody gets what they want. Especially the reader.

A mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep his edge.

The reader doesn’t get an easy ride, either. There’s no summarisation or recaps or clues to help the reader along. Which is great; too many fantasy novels spoon-feed their world to the reader. But A Game of Thrones has a lot of characters, intrigues, histories and storylines to keep track of. You’ve got to pay attention to this book. But whilst that can make for a reading experience that requires a lot of work, it makes too for a rich and realistic world. You could believe this was all true, if it weren’t for the magic.

Winter is coming.

But even the magic itself seems realistic. Because, while there’s a hint of it in the prologue, there isn’t much magic at all in this novel. Like so many great lies, 99% of the novel feels true so, when the 1% finally arrives, it’s so much easier to swallow. It’s masterfully done and a pleasure to experience.

You wear your honour like a suit of armour…you think it keeps you safe, but all it does is weigh you down…

And that is where I think the true strength of A Game of Thrones lies. It feels very real, even when it’s telling you about impossible things. Martin does a marvellous job of selling a fantasy novel as almost a historical drama and fills it with compelling character and constant heartache to make sure you can’t stop reading. I’m certainly addicted to this fantasy series. Are you?

John Howe's beautiful cover to Robin Hobb's Assassin's Quest

Top Fantasy Books: Assassin’s Quest

Quests seem as integral to the fantasy genre as eggs are to cake. But while I know at least one person who bakes without eggs, Robin Hobb didn’t break with tradition with her Farseer trilogy. But not only did she save the quest for the last book of the trilogy, it doesn’t feel like a stereotypical fantasy quest at all. That’s just one of the reasons it’s one of my top fantasy novels.

I healed. Not completely. A scar is never the same as good flesh, but it stops the bleeding.

So here’s the premise of this quest: Red Ships are raiding the Six Duchies and King Verity has disappeared trying to find help. Our hero, Fitz and the titular assassin, sets out on a quest to find his king.

So far so humdrum, right? But this is Robin Hobb. It’s never so emotionally straightforward.

You see, Fitz went through a truly traumatic ordeal in the second book. He was abandoned, betrayed and broken. And, by the time Assassin’s Quest begins, he’s still pretty broken inside. He’s a mess of a man. In fact, he doesn’t even want to be a man anymore, let alone get involved in the affairs of the realm again. He’d be safer if he just stayed away.

But Fitz is too damn loyal. It’s like he can’t help himself. So, despite how scared and broken he is, he has to find his king. He doesn’t want to defeat a great evil or save the realm. He very much wants to go home. But he goes all the same. It’s fascinating and admirable and even moving in places.

You are confusing plumbing and love again.

That loyalty is one of the reasons Fitz works so well as a character, because a lot of the time he’s being grumpy and mopey. The other reason is his interactions with the others characters; Hobb has a marvellous ability for drawing complicated relationships. For example, Fitz and the Fool are closer than brothers and yet they fight and they argue. Fitz doesn’t always understand the Fool and sometimes he’s even put off and repelled by his friend’s odd behaviour. But that doesn’t stop their relationship being one of the sweetest and strongest I’ve ever read.

Those relationships are the core to the book and the series as a whole. Whilst there is a grand plot this book, perhaps more than the others, is driven by Fitz. His unstinting and self-flagellating loyalty to his king, his queen and his friends. His faltering friendship with the minstrel Starling. His bond with his wolf Nighteyes. The physical and mental scars he bears, his terrors and his fears. Everything he does is motivated by these relationships and makes this a very personal and emotional book.

It is only cold stone, carved so well as to appear alive.

This extends to the dragons of Assassin’s Quest. Dragons and fantasy novels go hand-in-hand but Hobb’s take on them in this novel is unlike any I’ve come across before. Hers are made a stone, a strange mix between art, weaponry and self-sacrifice. They’re carved using magic and animated with memories, emotions and eventually life-essence of the carver. It’s a fantastic idea on its own but what takes it from fantastic to sublime is how well it fits with Fitz’s story of sacrifice. It’s a clear example of the plot being driven by the characters and I just love it.

Truth is often much larger than facts.

So, yes, there’s a quest but, no, it’s not like the quests you’ve seen in other fantasy novels. And while you’ll have to read the first two books to get the most out of this one, when you do you’ll understand why Assassin’s Quest is one of my top fantasy books. And I suspect it will be one of yours too.

Or will it? Let me know what you think of Assassin’s Quest or which novels you think should be one of my top fantasy books!

11 of Matt Smith’s Best Doctor Who Moments

I’ll miss Matt Smith. I make no bones about that. I’ve said before that he’s my favourite Doctor. He’s a young actor but played the Doctor very old. And very honest. Whether he was playing the Doctor’s childish glee, his bottomless rage or his unfathomable regret, you believed every moment. Smith never seemed to act. He just was.

So, to say goodbye, here are my favourite moments of Matt Smith’s Doctor. (Spoiler alert, by the way!)

1. “I am definitely a madman with a box.” The Eleventh Hour

The moment I decided Smith was my Doctor. It encompasses everything you love about the Doctor and it’s delivered with promise and a grin.

2. “Stormageddon, Dark Lord of All” Closing Time

The Doctor speaks baby. Of course he does. And when he speaks to a baby named Alfie, he reveals that Alfie prefers to be known as Stormageddon. Fantastic name and delivered so matter-of-fact.

He speaks horse too.

3. “No-one human has anything to say to me today.” The Beast Below

The first of Matt Smith’s angry moments. The Doctor’s just discovered that humans are torturing a space whale so they can ride it. His rage is palpable and he almost seems personally betrayed, as if he’s been let down by this behaviour. I wouldn’t want to upset him after seeing this.

Doctor Who made fezzes so cool they made it onto action figures.4. “It’s a fez. I wear a fez now. Fezzes are cool.” The Big Bang

Matt Smith’s Doctor had a tragic sense of fashion that you couldn’t help but love. Fezzes. Stetsons. And, of course, bow ties. All of these were cool, according to him. No-one around him seems to agree, but fezzes kept popping up nonetheless.

5. “The universe doesn’t care.” The Snowmen

The Doctor retreats after losing Amy and Rory. To be honest, this idea bored me a little. It’s been done before and it doesn’t last long (the format of the programme doesn’t leave much space for reclusive Doctors). But Smith saved it. He seemed honestly bitter, hurt, even laughing at his pain. I believed in his retreat and I believed in his return.

6. Good Things and Bad Things Vincent and the Doctor

“The way I see it, every life is a pile of good things and bad things. The good things don’t always soften the bad things, but vice versa the bad things don’t necessarily spoil the good things or make them unimportant.”

This whole episode is filled with lovely moments and it’s not just Smith that shines. But this little speech tops it off. It’s been a sweet episode and a very sad episode. And just when you get a bit too sad, Smith delivers these lines. And you feel good again.

7. “Oh, I always rip out the last page of a book. Then it doesn’t have to end. I hate endings!” The Angels Take Manhattan

Given that this episode is Amy and Rory’s last, this is beautifully prophetic. Many actors might try to add import or gravitas to these lines but Smith delivers it with a casual, throwaway energy. It gives the words all the more impact. That he’s desecrating a book is almost forgivable. Almost.

8. Finding out he has to go to Trenzalore The Name of the Doctor

The Doctor realises he has no choice but to go to the planet where his grave lies. Watch it. Just kills me.

9. “I’m not running away from things, I am running to them. Before they flare and fade forever.” Power of Three

The only logical reason why Smith never seems to be still. He portrays the infinite curiosity and enthusiasm for everything that the Doctor embodies. The universe is full of incredible things and Smith’s Doctor is excited by all of it.

10. “You’re always here to me. And I always listen. And I can always see you.” The Name of the Doctor

River Song was a fantastic addition under David Tennant’s tenure, but she shone with Smith. Their relationship developed so quickly but so believably. And, at the last, Smith shows just how much the Doctor really cares for her.

I thought of plenty more. I wanted to go back and rewatch his entire run. I still might. His madcap energy was a joy to watch, his darker moments never failed to move. Even in the worst episodes Smith had a great moment and he made the best episodes his own. So the last moment could only be Smith’s farewell speech, because it felt like he was talking to us and it’s certainly how we’ll feel about him.

11. “I will always remember when the Doctor was me.” The Time of the Doctor

Matt Smith takes off his bow tie for the last time.

The Best Books of 2013

Another year, another pile of books to reflect on. The Internet is awash with “year in review” posts and this blog is no different. But, as with previous years, I haven’t read many new books. Mostly because I usually only read paperbacks (it’s cheaper that way) but also because I let word-of-mouth lead me to books. And that takes a little while. So this is what I read in 2013 and what I recommend you read too.

Turin Shroud: How Leonardo Da Vinci Fooled History by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince

Don’t let the subtitle fool you. Yes, the authors try as best they can to draw a grand conspiracy theory around the idea that Da Vinci created the Turin Shroud to fool the world. The truth is that no conspiracy theory is needed. The notion the Da Vinci created the Shroud is fascinating enough, and there’s enough evidence to convince you that this might indeed be the case.

Bad Blood by Ginny Lurcock

I am very over vampire romance. Kind of over vampires in general. But Bad Blood was an absolute joy to read. It’s written incredibly well, with a tongue firmly in cheek and it pops the tragic vampire romance balloon before it can inflate. Even if you’re tired of vampires, trust me: you’ll enjoy Bad Blood.

A History of Ancient Britain by Neil Oliver

I watched the TV series and was fascinated. Ancient Britain isn’t taught much at school so it’s easy to be left with preconceptions perpetuated by lazy writers. Oliver’s book goes beyond the series and shows a remarkably advanced and civilised world that we’ve all forgotten about. Worth a read and great for fantasy writers!

A Clash of Kings by George R R Martin

I enjoyed the second book in Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series more than the first. While the first was a brilliant set up, the second kicked into high gear. Battles and intrigue and, of course, more Tyrion Lannister. What’s not to love?

My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher

A sombre entry, this. It’s written from the perspective of a ten year old boy whose older sister has died. The boy is living with his dad – his mum has left – and is starting a new school. He makes a new friend, but the shade of his sister means his dad might not let him be friends with a Muslim girl. Sad and heartbreaking but full of hope at the same time.

Rivers of London by Ben Aaronovitch

Friends and family have told me that Aaronovitch’s work reminds them of me for years so I finally read it. I see what they mean. It’s a bit facetious and sarcastic and weird. But it’s great for it. “Magic is real” is an old idea but Aaronovitch mixes it with the boring reality of real police work and it works. You can tell it’s his first book – the story wobbles in places – but I’ll definitely check out his others.

What were your best books of 2013? Anything I should read in 2014? Leave a comment and let me know!

Review: Day of the Doctor

In case you’ve been living under a rock, this year is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who. So there’s been a bit of a celebration on the old BBC all culminating in the special episode The Day of the Doctor. And it was pretty darned good. (Warning: spoilers ahead!)

The last time I wrote about Doctor Who I was bemoaning the sorry mess that was the last series. There wasn’t any mess in this episode. The Day of the Doctor was pretty solid, with two plots running side by side. A missing version of the Doctor (named the War Doctor and played by John Hurt) is just about to destroy Gallifrey and wipe out his own race, the Time Lords, in order to prevent a war that will engulf the universe. And the Zygons are trying to take over the Earth. Doctors War, Ten (David Tennant) and Eleven (Matt Smith) all get tangled up in events and manage to save the day. All of them.

First, let’s get this out of the way. The ending. What an enormous cheat. The Time War has been a big part of the revamped Doctor since he was brought back to our screens in 2005. Having to commit genocide on his own people gave him a darkness and a weariness to him. He was haunted. He was a survivor. It motivated everything he did.

“Not any more!” says Moffat. “Look, we did some timey-wimey stuff and it just looked like he killed everyone. But they’re all safe really.”

I hate retcons. They’re a flipping cheat. And the Doctor’s been cheating far too much lately.

One other gripe was Billie Piper’s appearance; it seemed gratuitous to me. She had no real need to be there. It didn’t make an awful lot of sense and it seemed like she was being shoe-horned in so the BBC had something else to build hype about.

But Hurt, Tennant and Smith shine too brightly for these flaws to really be seen. Smith, of course, is on his usual fine form. Tennant was a pleasure to watch again. And the two of them played their differences very well. Sometimes they were similar to comic effect, others at polar opposites to dramatic effect. Excellent stuff.

Hurt, of course, was always going to steal the show. And he was definitely the highlight. The War Doctor was what everyone wanted to see and Hurt delivered an excellent performance. He could have been a one-note character, simply playing the tragedy of the genocide he’s about to commit. But he was many things: wise, grumpy, tired, even funny. Whilst Tennant and Smith romp about, he asks them, “Must you speak like children?” Despite playing the old, tired warrior, he was still recognisable as the Doctor. He had his clever ideas and he even romped a little himself at the end.

And, despite my problems with the ending, it did address my gripe with the last series: the story, although it contained a few odd tangents, was strong. A beginning, a middle and an end. Whilst not appropriate for a first-time or even casual viewer, it was a self-contained story. And it does open new doors for the next series. It will be interesting to see where the hunt for Gallifrey takes the Doctor.

In short, if you’re a fan, you’ll love it. If you’re a casual viewer, you’ll enjoy it but need to visit Wikipedia afterwards to figure it all out. If you’ve never watched Who before, do not start here! Go watch series five. It’s the best one.

What did you think of Day of the Doctor? Leave me a comment and let me know?

Super Review: Woman in Black by Susan Hill

You’ve probably heard of The Woman In Black, no doubt thanks to the film starring Daniel Radcliffe. That’s how I heard of it. I saw a trailer for it that looked scary and cool. But mostly scary. So I decided to go see it. But before I could, I heard that the book was excellent. And that, if I enjoyed that, I should really go and see the play too. So that’s what I did. I resolved to read the book, then see the play, and only then would I watch the film. What I found was that they all form a triptych of stories, each with a similar core but also very different due to the medium itself.

For I see that then I was still all in a state of innocence, but that innocence, once lost, is lost forever.

I started with the book (because you should always start with a book). And I should start my review of it by saying the perfect ghost story is Henry James’ Turn of the Screw (for reasons I briefly mentioned here). Susan Hill has obviously read the book because her story displays nearly all it’s best qualities: it’s short, tense, filled with emotion. The pace is almost perfect. While a plot summary might sound dry or even slow, I was frenetically turning the pages. Sometimes it was obvious what was coming next but, in the best tradition of horror, the dread of waiting for it and the hope it wouldn’t come were kept alive in equal measure.

I was also pleased that the story wasn’t set in the modern age. We’re just too sceptical these days for a ghost story to have the same impact, whereas characters who can believe in ghosts give the reader permission to do so as well. Hill also made it easy to empathise with the titular Woman and that made her all the more believable.

If I were to recommend a ghost story, The Turn of the Screw would be it. But The Woman in Black would be right behind it.

The Woman in Black was adapted for stage in 1987.
Who is she? Your surprise?

The play came next as it did in life. I was surprised to learn the cast had only three members: Arthur Kipps (the protagonist), The Actor and The Woman. Interestingly, The Actor plays Arthur in the narrative and Arthur himself plays the supporting characters; the play adds to the story the premise that Arthur has hired The Actor to help him tell his story. It makes the play rather meta – it’s a play about putting on a play – and it intrudes a little on the narrative at the beginning, making the play slow to start. But once it gets out of the way, this gimmick allows the play a small cast, which lends a more intimate air to the play. Perfect for a ghost story!

Like all good plays a lot is left to the imagination. This area was easier for me because I’d already read the book; I went in with images in my head. But my girlfriend, who hadn’t read it, confirmed that the play evoked the necessary imagery with both words and effects. The latter, mostly restricted to lighting, smoke and the occasional yet still heart-stopping scream, were kept to a minimum and so more effective for it.

Far more effective, though, was when the Woman silently swept past me as she headed down the aisle to the stage. I’m not too proud to say I jumped!

The best thing to say about the play, though, is that it retained the tension of the book. That’s what makes it worth seeing. If you get a chance to go, don’t hesitate!

There will be a sequel to the Radcliffe-starring Woman in Black.She makes us, she makes us do it. She makes us! They took her boy away so now she takes us.

And so to the film. Last and, unfortunately, least. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a terrible film. It tells the core story with a few interesting changes, most notably that Arthur’s wife is dead, a haunting woman in white to contrast the darker, physical haunting. And the film explores more of the Woman in Black’s rage; you get a real feeling of the force of emotion that keeps this Woman’s spirit tied to this world.

Unfortunately Radcliffe couldn’t properly convey the age required by the role, leaving Arthur seeming a boy in a man’s clothes. And the film itself was more visceral than the book or play; we were treated to some of the typical ghost story tropes. Bodies rising out of pools of blood. Shadows flitting over doorways. Lights going out in a hallway. And so on. Some of them succeeded in making me jump. But Woman in Black was about the sort of fear that grows in your mind and then festers once the story is done. Moments that make you jump induce the sort of fear that is gone moments later. It’s not the same at all.

The film also added a malevolence to the Woman by making her directly responsible for children’s deaths and then trapping their spirits with her in a sort of grey limbo. This adds a quest element to the story that wasn’t there before with Arthur and supporting character Daley trying to pacify the Woman and free the children. Which is all well and good but it wasn’t in the original story and it isn’t needed. It also alters the ending dramatically and not for the better.

But, as I said, it’s not a terrible film. It’s very watchable. But this experiment has proven the hypothesis that we all knew to be true: the film adaptation is almost never as good as the original book. Despite being a solid film, it sits at the bottom of an ascending list of quality, in which the play sits in the middle and the book sits triumphant at the top.

So that’s it! Super review over. But now I want to know what you think. Did you like the book? The film? Have you seen the play? And what do you think of plans to make a sequel to the film? Leave a comment and let me know.