Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Year Of Our War - by Steph Swainston

The Year Of Our War is a tale of fantasy and war in the Fourlands.
The Emperor controls and maintains The Circle, a group of 50 immortals and the best at each skill useful in the war against the insects that have plagued the land for centuries, eating everything and everyone in their path.

All mortals dream of joining the Circle and becoming immortal and that place, once gained, must be defended against all challangers. Jant is the Messenger but he's confident in keeping his place among the immortals as he is the only man alive that can fly. Others are not so lucky and have their own rivalries and squabbles to content with. Meanwhile, the insects just keep coming and coming and no-one knows where from!

The Year Of Our War is Steph Swainston's first novel and, as such, it's a pretty accomplished work. However, there's a lot going on and it may get a little too surreal for some readers. It reminded me of the work of China MiƩville and his multi-specied world of Bas-Lag. There are the Plainslanders, who seem human, or at least we get no indication that they are unusual in any way. Then there's the Awians, who appear to be humanoids with wings but they can't fly and lastly the Rhydanne, who seem to be evolved from cats but I'm guessing there.

Character development of the main players like Jant and Lightning is quite good but we don't learn much about the Emperor or how he bestows immortality on his Circle. Jant is the main character of the story but I wouldn't exactly call him a hero. He's half Rhydanne, half Awian and, being so light because of his Rhydanne ancestry, he can actually use his wings to fly. As The Circle's Messenger, his place as an immortal is pretty secure; no-one is going to beat someone that can fly but on the downside, he's drug addict with a pretty shady past.

The book ends with no indication of a sequel to come and no obvious loose ends other than the fact that the war goes on. However, it looks like Swainston has decided to expand it into a series so there's No Present Like Time and Dangerous Offspring to be read next if the reader is sufficiently captivated by the first book. I might give the next one a try myself as The Year Of Our War was an entertaining story.

Genre: Action, Drama, Fantasy, Science-Fiction, War
ISBN: 0-575-07642-9
My Rating: 7/10

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Spider-Man 3 - "The battle within"

This third installment in the tale of Marvel superhero Spider-Man (Tobey Maguire) brings a couple of new villains and an old one into the storyline. It's quite a complex storyline so here's a brief taster of the plot…
Peter Parker's romance with Mary Jane Watson (Kirsten Dunst) is progressing well and he's planning on asking her to marry him. Also on the up is New York city's romance with Spider-Man. They've finally realised, despite J. Jonah Jameson's constant character blackening efforts, that he is a good guy and a big celebration is being planned in order to present him with the keys to the city. There's even a staff photographer's job going on the Daily Bugle. Everything is looking just rosy!

Into this happy scene comes trouble in the shape of a mysterious black goo from space, Flint Marko (Thomas Hadden Church), Harry Osborn (James Franco) and Eddie Brock (Topher Grace). Marko is an escaped convict that the police suspect of being the real killer of Peter's uncle Ben. Harry Osborn, once Peter's best friend, has taken on the role of his late father as the New Goblin and is seeking vengeance on Peter for his father's death. Eddie Brock is just a photographer but he wants that job at the Daily Bugle and he doesn't mind breaking a few rules to get it.

While the police are chasing down Marko, he blunders into the middle of a nuclear experiment site and is transformed into The Sandman, a being with the ability to transmute his body into any shape and density that sand can take. That black goo is actually an alien symbiote and it latches onto Peter, physically changing his Spider-Man costume and endowing it with special powers. It also bonds with him psychically, feeding off his darker emotions. The symbiote enhances his dark side and when he finds out about the connection between Marko and his uncle Ben, he's incensed and seeks revenge. Eddie Brock? Well, he's just unlucky enough to be caught up in all of the above.

Anyway, you can get the gist from that; there's loads going on in this movie, maybe too much for some. Spider-man has to contend with an alien symbiote, The Sandman, Eddie Brock and The New Goblin as well as try to keep his personal life and romance with MJ on track.

Personally, I really enjoyed it! Director Sam Raimi has done an excellent job of pulling all these threads together and Tobey Maguire is perfect as Peter Parker. Okay so the story isn't exactly true to the comic as Venom and The Sandman are from different tales but they did clash in a later one so it's not too far off the mark. Added to this, there's a good smattering of humour as well; the antics of the dark Peter Parker are so funny and there's still J. Jonah Jameson, who's always good for a laugh.

The special effects are amazing; you can see the difference in quality if you look at the first movie. The fact that the web-slinging Spider-Man is just some CGI is still noticeable but not so much and it's very much improved. Venom is an oily amorphous blob that can take many shapes and The Sandman has a huge repertoire of shapes and sizes to choose from and he can even fly. Then there's Harry Osborn and his arsenal of gadgets and bombs, all of which lead to an awful lot of very realistic looking onscreen collateral damage.

The only downside might be the fact that there is so much dependence on the storyline from the first movie, with only a little from the second one. If you haven't seen Spider-Man, then you might get a bit lost with the flashbacks to the circumstances surrounding Peter's uncle Ben's death. That aside, it still works very well and is a definite must-see for any Spidey fans.

Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Science-Fiction, Thriller
My Rating: 8/10

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

1632 - by Eric Flint

1632 is the first novel in a fantasy series where a six-mile wide chunk of West Virginia, USA is inexplicably transported to Northern Germany during the 17th century and in the middle of the Thirty Years' War.
Northern Germany, 1632, and things weren't going so well for anyone living there. Famine, disease and religious war were the norm and where, if you were a peasant, death was a merciful release. In Grantville, West Virginia in the year 2000, all is peachy and most of the town, including the local branch of the UMWA (United Mine Workers of America) are attending a wedding and having a great time. Suddenly, there's a blinding flash and thunder rattles the windows.

When Mike Stearns leads an armed group of the wedding guests out to investgate the source of the flash, they find the road into town cut as with a knife and, on the other side, a scene out of Hell. A man is being nailed to a farmhouse door while his wife and daughter are being attacked by a bunch of men in steel vests. Mike and his boys don't need to think twice and are in no doubt as who needs shooting, bringing good ol' American style justice into the middle of the Thirty Years' War.

Having read the summary while browsing through the books in Forbidden Planet and noticing that it was reduced in price, I thought it might be a light and mildly amusing read. While it certainly isn't that amusing, it is a decent work of pure fantasy and allows us to speculate on an alternate version of reality, a kind of "what-if" the path of history was changed by a visit from aliens with superior technology and completely different moral and cultural values.

I quite enjoyed it and the author has successfully meshed the story in and around a pretty true depiction of the known history of the period. To the eternal shame of Scottish education, I haven't previously encountered anything about the Thirty Years' War or indeed very much about European history of the period during my school years so it was even an educational experience and it made a very entertaining read. It's a pity that there's no sister story about what happened to the chunk of 17th century Germany that Grantville replaced but the prologue does try to explain a little about what happened after Granville vanished.

The idea of dropping a pretty much gun-crazy bunch of Americans into the middle of a historical war-zone is precious stuff and it works very well. I couldn't help wondering if the author had intended any parallels with Afghanistan or Iraq as, while the yanks have superior fire-power, the locals are a force to be reckoned with, regardless of their technological inferiority and they have an almost inexhaustible supply of cannon-fodder on their side.

1632 has spawned an enormous trail of books and spin-offs and a huge fan-base and it can be read or downloaded in various e-book formats for free from the Baen Free Library, where I noticed that they also have the sequel to it available so I might give that a try and save a few quid as well.

Genre: Fantasy, Science-Fiction, Historical Drama.
ISBN: 1-4165-3281-1
My Rating: 6/10

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Secrets Of The Witching Hour - The Crimea

We'd just come back from holiday last night and, while I was trawling through my backlog of mail, I noticed a message about Secrets Of The Witching Hour, the second album by The Crimea. What was unusual about it was the fact that the band have released the album for free over the internet. So off I went straight away and downloaded it as I already had their debut album, Tragedy Rocks, which I really liked.

If you want to download Secrets Of The Witching Hour just go to The Crimea official site and follow the obvious links. It's not a huge download, with 11 tracks and lasting just under 37 minutes, it comes in at under 35Mb and it even comes with CD cover artwork. However, if you want the better audio quality offered from a CD version, and of course the option to digitize it to a format other than MP3, it's on sale from the band's official site shop. Here's the track list…
  • All Conquering
  • The 48A Waiting Steps
  • Raining Planets
  • Man
  • Bombay Sapphire Coma
  • Don’t Close Your Eyes On Me
  • Loop A Loop
  • Light Brigade
  • Several Thousand Years Of Talking Nonsense
  • Requiem Aeternam
  • Weird

The band, who don't currently have a record label, have basically financed the album by themselves and are releasing it for free in a bold move to try and widen their fan base and in so doing increase sales of upcoming concert tickets and merchandise. They're the first reasonably well known band to do this and with the record sales industry facing serious changes, it may be a trend other artists follow if it proves successful.

As for the music, if you liked the excellent Tragedy Rocks, then I don't doubt that you'll like this too. My daughter saw them at T In The Park last year, bought the first album right away and got me hooked as well. I suppose I'd class The Crimea as a pop-rock band and Secrets Of The Witching Hour has a pretty catchy mix of beautifully melodic tunes with great vocals and lyrics. I'm listening to it (again) as I write this and my head's bobbing away.

It's one of those albums that grows on you as you listen to it more and more. Give it a try, it's free!