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A. Whitehead "Werthead" RSS Feed (Colchester, Essex United Kingdom)

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Orphan Black: Season 3 [Blu-ray]
Orphan Black: Season 3 [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Tatiana Maslany
Price: $14.99
37 used & new from $13.98

5.0 out of 5 stars A terrific return to form after the slightly weaker second season, October 24, 2015
Sarah Manning and her clone-sisters find themselves caught in the crossfire between their very uneasy allies, the Dyad Institute, and a clandestine military experiment involving a batch of male clones. At the same time, Sarah is closing in on finding the origin of the cloning experiments, a mission that will take her far from home, to London and the deserts of Mexico.

The third season of Orphan Black opens and expands the world revealed in the opening two seasons, a world where secret experiments in the 1980s have resulted in the creation of two batches of clones. Now adults, the clones are finding one another and trying to discover the reasons for their existence, and those answers are not happy ones.

The first season of Orphan Black was unmitigated brilliance, a tour-de-force of acting ability as Tatiana Maslanay moved between playing multiple but very different characters with convincing ease. The second season stumbled a little by introducing too many new players, new characters and new factions. Sorting out the Proletheans from Dyad from mercenaries from military groups from Topside could be a little confusing at times.

The third season opens with these elements very much still in play, now expanded with the introduction of a group of new clones played by Ari Millen. What feels like it could become a confusing morass is abruptly reversed by some very, very smart writing decisions. The number of factions and storylines is abruptly slimmed down, some relatively convincing retcons are used to keep the same characters in play without having to bring in too many new faces and, whenever things could get too out of control, the show reels the story back in and refocuses on the core triumvirate of Sarah, Cosima and Alison. Indeed, the show knocks it out of the park with an episode that focuses on Alison's attempts to get elected as school trustee and mixes up the clones pretending to be one another, old-school style. It's extremely unusual to see a series self-aware enough to realise it's running into a problem, and then decisively fix it with both verve and intelligence.

There are a small number of new characters, most notably Ferdinand, an eccentric (but lethal) enforcer for topside played with relish by the always-brilliant James Frain, whilst British acting legend Alison Steadman joins the cast in the last couple of episodes in a pivotal role. Otherwise the focus remains on Tatiana Maslany's typically compelling multiple performances. This time around Ari Millen also has to play multiple characters and does a good job at it, even if the show backpedals a little from giving them the same time and variations that the female clones have.

By the end of the third season, the show has done away with a number of long-running storylines and potential long-term threats, although the finale does open things up by hinting at new dangers. With two seasons remaining in the showrunners' plan, it will be interesting to see where the story goes from here.

The third season of Orphan Black (*****) restores the show to the heights reached in the first season and is compelling viewing, not to mention being genuinely impressive in how it handles a few structural and writing issues that other shows would have simply let fester.

Rapture: Book Three of the Bel Dame Apocrypha
Rapture: Book Three of the Bel Dame Apocrypha
by Kameron Hurley
Edition: Paperback
Price: $12.22
63 used & new from $1.91

4.0 out of 5 stars A book brimming with wit, attitude and intelligence, October 24, 2015
For centuries the nations of Nasheen and Chenja have fought a gruelling, deadlocked war. Millions on both sides have been killed by airbursts, poison gas and hostile swarms of insects. Now peace has come. Hundreds of thousands of young men and boys have returned home to the cities of Nasheen to find that their female rulers don't know what to do with them, but still expect them to obey. A movement for equality and representation is building, spearheaded by a mysterious figure. Retired bel dame Nyx is "persuaded" out of retirement to deal with the problem. Her mission will involve crossing a vast desert to unknown lands, a chance meeting with old friends and the final hope that she might find some peace at last.

The Bel Dame Apocrypha series has done increasingly interesting and original things with each volume. Overall, the series is a curious mix of fantasy and science fiction, set so far in the future that technology and magic have become indistinguishable and a "fallen" race of humans, divided internally by religion and ideology, must make use of them to survive on a hostile, only partially-terraformed planet. The SF elements work because they are subtle and kept in the background, and overall the "bugpunk" theme is sold because the author commits to it, making her weird concepts convincing due to how the characters treat them as ordinary.

God's War was an accomplished debut, benefiting from a razor-sharp sense of story but being a bit rough around the edges. Infidel was superior, a brutal (even traumatising) novel that was incredibly powerful but made you wonder if the author should be hauled before an international tribunal for the mistreatment of fictional characters. Rapture retreats a little from being that hardcore - although it's certainly not a happy novel - and instead shifts to being a more detailed and in-depth exploration of the world and history of Umayma and how it will develop going forwards.

It's a remarkable book, driven by anger and fury and burning intelligence. A lengthy crossing of a hostile desert made me draw comparisons with Mad Max: Fury Road (although Rapture predates that film by three years), not for the plot but for its sense of purpose. We learn more about the world and what's going on in remote areas, but the book remains focused on the characters and how they relate to one another. The final collapse of relationships long tottering on the edge is sad, but also inevitable and then horribly liberating, in a way that's true to life.

The book is mainly concerned with its own storyline, but finds time to wrap up long-standing plot threads from earlier volumes. Indeed, characters and arcs established in earlier volumes which felt a little disconnected from Nyx and her team are here tied into the main storyline with great skill. It's not a neat ending to the series - and there is at least one large dangling plot thread that potential sequels could pick up on - but it does bring about enough satisfying resolution to work if there is never another Bel Dame novel.

If the novel does have some weaknesses it might be that some of the desert sequences in the middle do drag on a long time when the book's finale (which involves crossing the entire continent) is squeezed into a few too few pages, feeling rushed to the edges of incoherence. But the author just about manages to carry it off, producing an ending that's epic, spectacular and wonderfully messy.

Rapture (****) is a readable, finely-characterised and highly imaginative novel, brimming with wit and attitude. It is available now in the UK and USA.

Stone of Farewell (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Book 2)
Stone of Farewell (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, Book 2)
by Tad Williams
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $8.84
234 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars A well-written but slow-moving second volume, October 11, 2015
Elias rules as the High King of Osten Ard, but his policies have triggered war between the provinces and civil war within some of them. The continent is slipping into chaos and the only hope may be the mad king's younger brother, Josua Lackhand. Escaping a devastating siege, Josua travels eastwards to find a new stronghold, gathering allies as he goes. Meanwhile, it is said that only three great swords of legend can defeat the machinations of Elias's puppet-master, Ineluki the Storm King. Simon Snowlock has recovered Thorn from a remote mountain, but two of his friends have been sentenced to death by the Qanuc, his own erstwhile allies.

Stone of Farewell continues the story begun in The Dragonbone Chair, and is less the sequel than the simple continuation of that story. Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is really one titanic, 1.2 million-word novel split into three (or four, depending on edition) for ease of publication.

Williams expands and deepens the story in this book, with a more thorough exploration of the various cultures of Osten Ard. In particular, the Qanuc, Sithi and Norns all get more screentime and we learn more about the meadow-people of the Thrithings, the political and religious intrigue in Nabban and how the Hernystiri are surviving in exile.

These elements are fascinating, but also come at the expense of critical plot development and incident. The Dragonbone Chair was itself a relaxed novel, but Stone of Farewell is even more chilled out. Simon spends a long time kicking back amongst first the Qanuc and later the Sithi, Josua's apparently desperate flight to safety has more of the feel of a holiday outing and Miriamele spends altogether too much time hanging out on a boat. It's more the stories inbetween that resonate, with Isgrimnur's increasingly fed-up journey into the south being enjoyable for its brevity and our glimpses into life in the Hayholt (effectively under occupation by Elias's troops) via characters like Rachel and the redoubtable Guthwulf.

There are moments of real horror when the story kicks into a higher gear, such as Pyrates's confrontation with the Lector or the Red Hand's assault on Jao e-Tinukai'i, but these are relatively few and far between. Instead, the novel expands itself on helping the characters (particularly Simon and Miriamele) grow into more interesting people.

Stone of Farewell (****) is well-written, richly characterised and features moments of real tension and horror. It arguably takes its hands off the throttle at the wrong moment, however, allowing momentum to dissipate a little rather than ramping up for the grand finale. But if you can forgive the slower pace, a fascinating, enjoyable and deeper fantasy novel than most awaits.

The Dragonbone Chair: Book One of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
The Dragonbone Chair: Book One of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn
by Tad Williams
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $8.21
223 used & new from $0.01

4.0 out of 5 stars An important milestone for the genre that has mostly aged well, September 10, 2015
Prester John is the unchallenged High King of Osten Ard, the ruler of all the lands from the Nornfells to the southern deserts. He has ruled wisely and well - but not without bloodshed - for seven decades. Now his health is failing and his son Elias prepares to inherit the throne. Elias is strong and a canny general, but is also mistrusted for his close relationship with the sinister priest Pyrates. There is also a growing rift between Elias and his younger brother Josua Lackhand that threatens the peace.

Simon, a simple kitchen boy in the High King's castle, the Hayholt, is drawn into events beyond his understanding. A cold winter is coming, things are stirring in the far north that have not been seen for centuries and the fate of the world will turn on three lost swords: Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

The Dragonbone Chair is the opening novel of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, a massive trilogy written by American author Tad Williams. First published in 1988, the novel was an important milestone in the development of epic fantasy. Previous fantasy novels had been split between easy reading versions of Tolkien (Brooks, Eddings) or insanely dark reactions to it (Donaldson, Cook), but Williams's novel was arguably the first to really engage with Tolkien on the same kind of playing field. It's a huge book (over 900 pages in most paperback editions, and only the first part of the story) filled with a complex backstory, numerous ethnic cultures and different races, lots of made-up names and maps. Lots of maps. And an appendix, just to show you that this author means business.

Of course, epic fantasy is a very different field in 2015 to what it was like in 1988, so does the novel hold up?

The answer is a qualified yes. This is a big, epic story which Williams tells well, with some colourful prose, some solid characterisation and development and a bit more depth to the story than it just being another Tolkien clone. The (relatively few) action sequences are well-handled and there are some evocative descriptions, particularly of the vast Hayholt and its Green Angel Tower, as well as the forbidding Aldheorte forest. The characters are a fairly diverse and interesting bunch, although Simon himself, at this early stage, is a bit too much of a wet blanket with a tendency to pass out (either from injury or magically-induced visions) every time something important happens. His companions, particularly the "troll" Binabik, are altogether more compelling in this first novel.

The book also constantly develops and restructures the stakes and the scope of the story as it goes on, bringing in more history, factions and people as it develops. This works in both the Tolkien-esque sense of starting small and branching out later on, and also in forcing a constant reappraisal of the world and the situation. It's telling to see how Prester John is viewed by his own people as a mostly just and benevolent ruler but people from other lands remember him as a conqueror.

There are some structural issues. The book can switch POVs several times in a conversation, which is a bit bewildering for those readers used to the modern convention of staying with one POV for a whole chapter, or for POV switches to be marked by at least a paragraph break. This is also not exactly the fastest-paced novel in the world. Compared to Lord of the Rings, The Eye of the World or A Game of Thrones, The Dragonbone Chair (which is only marginally shorter than the latter two) drags its feet a little. Williams is a good enough writer to make lengthy travelogues or conversations between two minor characters hold the attention, but you do realise from time to time that not actually a lot has happened in the previous hundred pages. Finally, the POV structure can be a bit jarring: much of the first half of the book is shown from Simon's POV, but the latter half introduces a ton of other ones, including some who have an important role to play but we only get a few pages with them because so much time is being spent elsewhere.

But these are both standard (for the genre) and forgivable problems, especially given that this was only the author's second novel. The Dragonbone Chair (****) may be slow to get off the mark and occasionally low-key given the scale of the events, but it's a well-written novel that is rather smarter than it first appears (this becomes more apparent in the sequels). It's well worth checking out ahead of the publication of the sequel series, The Last King of Osten Ard, due to start in 2017.

Fringe: Season 5 [Blu-ray]
Fringe: Season 5 [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Anna Torv
Offered by Mediaflix
Price: $11.50
57 used & new from $6.58

5.0 out of 5 stars Fringe ends on a high, September 2, 2015
2036. Earth is under the control of the Observers, time-travelling, genetically-engineered and cybernetically-enhanced humans from a distant future in which the planet has become uninhabitable. During their previous observations of the Fringe team and their investigations, they have confirmed that it is possible to rewrite the timeline and create a new reality, so now they plan to create a new world for their benefit...but not for that of the humans who are already there.

Frozen in amber for twenty-one years, the Fringe team awaken with one goal: to stop the Observers from fulfilling their mission. But with a vastly superior foe tracking them remorselessly, the team need every ally and every resource they can call upon in order to succeed.

For its final season, Fringe changes things up a lot. What had once been a procedural, investigative drama about the paranormal and pseudoscience has become a full-on nightmare dystopia, throwing in some elements of post-apocalyptic drama for good measure. These thirteen episodes form a tightly serialised drama (the writers deciding the sops to the casual viewer are no longer necessary) taking in questions about what it means to be human and how far you will be prepared to go to save your existence.

There are a few problems with the situation. First off, a fair bit of important stuff happens off-screen: four years pass between the end of Season 4 and the moment the Observers actually invade, including some important character development and also further developments involving William Bell. Bell's character arc simply disappears and we don't find out the fate of his character or what happened since the last time we saw him to explain his changed relationship with Walter and the rest of the team. Some hasty exposition from other characters doesn't really help. It's a problem that can be ignored for the most part, but the lack of resolution for this key character at a moment when pretty much everyone else gets wrapped up nicely feels a bit of an oversight.

More of an issue is that the compressed storytelling and the near-omnipotence of the Observers results in what feels like plot holes. The ability of the Observers to foretell the future and how far they can do their teleporting trick shifts episode from episode based on the requirements of the plot. It's not quite as bad as the tricks some shows go to in order to nerf overpowered villains (the Borg, anyone?) but it again feels a little too inconsistent even given Fringe's elastic standards of plausibility.

Fortunately, most of that can be ignored. The final season of Fringe is a bold, experimental one that throws out the standard format, changes dynamics all over the place and tries to be the biggest, most epic season on a reduced budget. Thanks to some excellent CGI (the paved-over Central Park is an impressive achievement), some very strong writing and some brilliant performances from the regulars and newcomers alike, the season is pretty gripping. By now it's gotten redundant to say that John Noble is fantastic in every scene he does (although a scene at the end of the first episode involving early 1980s electronica is particularly outstanding), but it's good to see Joshua Jackson stepping up to the mark. Jackson has pinballed between Plot Device and Exposition Giver for most of the previous four seasons (although always played gamely), but in Season 5 he gets a bit more material to play with and handles it well. Blair Brown also gets a terrific story arc as Nina this season, possibly by way of apology from the writers for giving her some pretty bad material in the Season 4 finale to work with. Georgina Haig also does some great work, stepping into the established cast as Henrietta.

The biggest success of the season, though, is giving a definite sense of closure to the series. Coming from some of the same creators as Lost and being heavily influenced by The X-Files, the fear was that Fringe would, like those shows, have a muddled and unsatisfactory resolution to a long-running and confusing story arc. It doesn't. Instead Fringe nails the landing more than satisfactorily, giving a good sense of closure as well as explaining most (but not all) of the show's long-running mysteries.

The final season of Fringe (****½) concludes the series with style, giving a satisfying resolution to the show, its mysteries and, most importantly, to the characters. Fringe, tragically, is one of the more obscure SFF shows of recent years which is a shame, as it is also one of the best.

Fringe: Season 4 [Blu-ray]
Fringe: Season 4 [Blu-ray]
DVD ~ Anna Torv
Offered by Anchor*Media
Price: $10.78
80 used & new from $6.51

4.0 out of 5 stars Fringe's weakest season is still better than most shows at their best, August 23, 2015
The Fringe team has saved two parallel universes from destruction but have paid a heavy price they are no longer even aware of. Peter Bishop, who as a young boy was saved from death, irrevocably altering the timeline, has been removed from existence. His Fringe team-mates have no memory of his existence and his removal has led to numerous changes, such as the continued existence of a very old enemy. But - somehow - Peter returns to find a world which he is no longer part of. Can he find a way "home"?

Fringe's penultimate season starts off in a difficult place. The timeline of both universes has been reset and although things are broadly similar, a whole host of details have changed. These include Olivia and her sister being raised by Nina Sharp and Walter, never having been brought out of his shell by Peter, still being a crazy recluse. It is fascinating to map these changes, and the way the writers cleverly use them to resurrect previously-slain foes and revisit past plot points, but it does cause some problems with the viewer not being sure how much to invest in this new universe. Is Fringe going to hit the reset button at some point and revert things back to the way they used to be?

If you can get over that issue, there is much to enjoy with this season. The notion that parallel universes can exist but time can also be rewritten within those universes is one that hard SF has played around with a few times, but this is the first time that an SF TV series has treated the concept with some seriousness and not gotten bogged down in technobabble. The timeline reset also allows the writers to drop a few storylines they developed earlier on which clearly they didn't know how to follow up on (particularly Fauxlivia's pregnancy). However, a late-season development allows them to revisit some of these plot threads and give them a more elegant form of closure.

Once the season sorts itself out, there is much fun to be had from having our characters (in both universes) pitted against a returning old enemy (who later turns out to be a front for another returning antagonist) who is a step ahead of them at every turn. The season does a good job of balancing out its share of characters, with Peter dominating mid-season but Seth Gabel's Lincoln Lee rising to the fore later on. Lincoln has always been an interesting character, but his early placement this season as Peter's effective replacement feels a little off. That said, the writers use the oddness of his position to inform the storyline and eventually his character achieves a destiny that is fitting.

A key subplot through the season revolves around the ongoing mystery of the Observers. Some fans thought we wouldn't get much, or any, explanation for these mysterious beings and their objectives, so it's a huge shock when we do get a detailed explanation for their origins and their ultimate goals. These ramp up in the nineteenth episode, Letters of Transit, which fast-forwards to the year 2036 and a nightmarish, dystopian possible future that awaits our heroes. Given that Fringe was going to be cancelled after the fourth season (the ratings were utterly diabolical) and was saved almost solely by the goodwill of fans at the network, this was an incredibly bold decision that could have left the series on a massive downer. As it stands, Fringe was reprieved at the last minute and given a final season to wrap up its storylines.

Unfortunately, Season 4 does run out of steam a little before its end. There's some wheel-spinning episodes and even Fringe's generously elastic notions of plausibility take a serious beating with some plot developments. The actual season finale is also extremely weak, with some bitty plotting and Blair Brown being given some hideous exposition to relate to the other characters (the writers seemingly later apologised by giving her an incredibly poignant and well-played storyline in the final season).

The fourth season of Fringe (****) is probably the show's weakest, although it's still eminently watchable, highly entertaining and, as usual, excellently played by a tight, capable cast.

Blood Pact (Gaunt's Ghosts Novels)
Blood Pact (Gaunt's Ghosts Novels)
by Dan Abnett
Edition: Hardcover
36 used & new from $10.01

3.0 out of 5 stars Solid, but not one of the best books in the series, August 12, 2015
Two years have passed since the ferocious battle for Hinzerhaus Fortress on Jago. The Tanith First and Only won a famous victory, but only at a horrendous cost in lives. Battered and bleeding, the Tanith First finally won a respite, being rotated back to sector HQ on Balhaut for a well-earned rest after ten years on the front lines.

However, two years of inaction has led to problems with discipline, training and morale. In the midst of these problems, Colonel-Commissar Ibram Gaunt is summoned to a clandestine meeting. An agent of the archenemy has been taken prisoner and wants to give up valuable intelligence...but the Blood Pact have been sent to silence him by any means necessary.

Blood Pact is the twelfth novel in the Gaunt's Ghosts series and marks the beginning of the fourth distinct story arc in the series, "The Victory". The opening of the book feels like Dan Abnett is taking a deep breath after the mayhem of the previous novels, which featured some of the bloodiest and most frenzied battles in the series to date, but it's not too long before the action kicks in again. Blood Pact is a short novel taking place over one single night and morning of carnage as the Blood Pact - the Ghosts' sworn rivals - arrive to carry out a suicide assassination task, succeed in splitting up the Ghosts and also take advantage of internal divisions as the Ghosts find themselves still under suspicion from the Inquisition about their mission to the Chaos-tainted world of Gereon years earlier.

As usual with a Gaunt's Ghosts novel, the pace is blistering, the action is superbly-handled and the characterisation shines. Gaunt's return to the world where he lost his former command but gained a new one adds new shades to his character. Background Ghosts nicely come to the fore, such as Maggs, whilst we touch base with a few key Ghosts who've been lower in profile in the preceding books. However, Blood Pact does feel like a lesser entry in the series. Perhaps it's due to the increasing frequency between novels (Blood Pact was released in 2009 and one more book, Salvation's Reach, in 2011 with nothing since), but Blood Pact feels a little like too much set-up at a moment in the series when it feels like it should be perhaps more decisively moving towards a conclusion. This can be seen in the fact that while a few key characters get a lot of time in the sun, numerous other Ghosts (including many who played key roles in the preceding few books) suddenly drop into the background. If Gaunt's Ghosts was a TV series (and we can but hope), this is the relatively low-key opening to a new season which is reacquainting you with all the characters before the big storylines kick in.

On that basis, Blood Pact (***½) does a good job of setting up its immediate sequel, Salvation Reach, and tells a rollicking good action story. Not one of the best books in the series, but still an effortlessly enjoyable slice of military SF from the best author in the subgenre. If you want to read the book, Blood Pact is currently only available as an ebook from the Black Library direct. However, the entire series is being rolled out in new editions, so it should be back in paperback in a few months.

A Civil Campaign
A Civil Campaign
by Lois McMaster Bujold
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: $7.04
107 used & new from $0.01

5.0 out of 5 stars An SF romcom, complete with butter bugs and political intrigue, August 11, 2015
Gregor Vorbarra, Emperor of Barrayar, is due to wed Laisa, an heiress from the (reluctant) Imperial client-world of Komarr. For the Emperor's diminutive cousin Miles Vorkosigan, the great social event provides the perfect cover for his courtship of the Lady Ekaterin Vorsoisson. Unfortunately, events are complicated by the complicated love life of Miles's clone-brother Mark, two landmark legal disputes in the Barrayaran Court...and a whole ton of butter-producing bugs.

A Civil Campaign (subtitled A Comedy of Biology and Manners) was originally conceived by Lois McMaster Bujold as the second half of Komarr. However, she separated the two books out for reasons of length (A Civil Campaign is the longest novel in the series by itself) and also for tone. Komarr is a serious book but A Civil Campaign is a romantic comedy that at times descends into flat-out farce.

It's hard enough to carry off romance or comedy or science fiction by themselves, so for Bujold to tackle all three genres in the same novel suggests either cast-iron confidence or outright insanity. After completing the book, the key to its success seems to be a bit of both. A Civil Campaign is flat-out crazy, a dramatic change in tone from the rest of the series to date. For starters, the novel has five POV characters, which is unusual given that most books in the series have just one, Miles himself. This novel adds Mark, Ivan, Kareen Koudelka (Mark's own romantic interest) and Ekaterin to the mix. This makes for a busier and more tonally varied novel than any of the preceding ones. Even more interesting is how Bujold mixes up the POV storylines: the normally frivolous Ivan gets the serious, political stuff to deal with whilst the emotionally-scarred, PTSD-suffering Mark gets the farcical butter-bug storyline to handle. Expectations are subverted throughout with great skill.

Most intriguingly, this is a novel about adults, relationships and how damaged people can help (or hurt, if they are not careful) one another or choose their own paths through life. Through comedy, tragedy, horror and humour, Bujold builds up each of her POV characters (and numerous supporting ones) and deconstructs them in a manner that is impressive and enjoyable to read.

That said, a key subplot revolves around a disputed succession between a dead lord's daughter and nephew, with Barrayar's laws of male inheritance favouring his nephew...until his daughter gets a sex-change. The resulting legal maelstrom is the result of a collision between fantasy cliche and common sense (and Barrayar has always felt it had more in common with Westeros than an SF setting) and signals an impending transformation in the planet's social order. It's also - arguably - the novel's sole misstep, with Bujold uncharacteristically more interested in the legal and political ramifications rather than the character-based ones. That isn't to say that Donna/Dono isn't a fascinating character, but it feels like Bujold did not engage with the issues raised by the gender reassignment with as much as depth as she might have done.

There is some action in the book (a single shoot-out, which feels a bit incongruous given the tone of the novel, and a more farcical, Bugsy Malone-esque battle sequence involving tubs of bug-butter) but primarily A Civil Campaign (****½) is a comedy of manners, a grown-up romance and a great big coming-together of almost every major subplot and character in The Vorkosigan Saga to date. It's a terrific read and is available now as part of the Miles in Love omnibus (UK, USA).

Half a War (Shattered Sea)
Half a War (Shattered Sea)
by Joe Abercrombie
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.99
69 used & new from $11.25

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An enjoyable conclusion to a very solid trilogy, August 11, 2015
Father Yarvi has brokered an unlikely peace between the formerly warring kingdoms of Gettland and Vansterland, bringing them together to stand against the forces of the High King. Still tremendously outnumbered, Yarvi is forced to rely on an untested young queen to help lead the way to victory and a last stand at the fortress of Bail's Point.

Half a War concludes the Shattered Sea trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, an experiment by the British author to write shorter novels aimed at a more general audience. How successful that experiment has been is quite debatable - the tone and feeling of the trilogy is really not far removed from his First Law universe novels - but it's certainly resulted in the impressive delivering of three very decent novels in less than eighteen months.

As with the previous book, Half a War revolves around three main POV characters: Skara, the young and untested queen of Throvenland; Raith, the bloodthirsty Vansterland warrior made into Skara's reluctant bodyguard; and Koll, the woodcarver turned minister-in-training who finds himself increasingly serving as Yarvi's conscience as Yarvi is forced into more and more desperate acts to try to save his people. Previous POV characters become secondary characters in this novel, which is both clever (showing how others see them) and frustrating, particularly when they don't all survive.

This is a war story, with the great fortress of Bail's Point changing hands as the fortunes of the conflict ebb and flow. Abercrombie has done big war stories and battle narratives before and does a good job of depicting the conflict here, helped by a map of Bail's Point. However, the limited POV structure means that a great deal of the details of the conflict are missing. This is effective in giving us a feel of the fog of war, with confusion and misinformation lurking everywhere, but it does occasionally make the conflict feel murkier than it should.

Abercrombie's razor-sharp characterisation is on top form here, with Skara developing believably into a ruler from humble beginnings and secondary characters like Blue Jenner and King Uthil getting outstanding and memorable moments. However, it's Father Yarvi who develops most fascinatingly in this novel. Yarvi's ruthlessness was on display in the second book, but in this one it pushes him into more and more dangerous decisions that even shock his allies. The development of Koll as his moral weathervane is nicely done; without Koll, it may be that Yarvi would have become another version of Bayaz from the First Law books (i.e. Unrepentant Amoral Bastard Gandalf). As it stands he comes pretty damn close, and it's likely any future Shattered Sea books will have to deal with the fallout from his actions.

Half a War (****) closes the Shattered Sea trilogy in style, with a war story that prioritises the characters over the action and ends well by not pulling a single punch.

An Ember in the Ashes
An Ember in the Ashes
by Sabaa Tahir
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $11.97
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A solid opening novel with some good flourishes, but needs to bring more originality to the table, August 2, 2015
This review is from: An Ember in the Ashes (Hardcover)
Laia is a Scholar, a member of the underclass subjugated by the Martial Empire in the city of Sarra. When her brother is abducted by the Martials and her grandparents murdered, Laia is reluctantly forced to ally herself with the Resistance. In return for their help in finding and rescuing her brother, Laia has to infiltrate Blackcliff Academy, where the Empire's most elite soldiers are trained.

At the same time, Elias is a Mask-in-training at Blackcliff. Sickened by the Empire's callousness, he contemplates running away but is instead compelled to remain when he is prophesied to become the next Emperor and could lead the Empire into a new golden age. However, first he must pass the Trials and win the crown for himself...and must defeat his best friend in the process.

An Ember in the Ashes made a bit of a stir when it was acquired by Penguin last year, winning a large advance and resulting in the film rights being sold for seven figures before it even hit the shelves. The novel also piqued my interest because it was apparently a stand-alone, with more books in the same world possible but apparently not necessary.

Well, that, it turns out, was not true. An Ember in the Ashes is the first volume of a multi-part story and ends on a series of cliffhangers, so those looking for a stand-alone book are directed elsewhere. The book also feels a bit overly familiar at times: the Trials that define Elias's storyline are more than a little reminiscent of The Hunger Games while the brutal regime brought down through a reluctant female double agent reminded me more than a bit of the Mistborn trilogy. Tahir mixes up the standard tropes enough that the book never feels like a rip-off, most notably by taking the standard YA central romance and turning it into more of a tragic story of betrayal and the promise of later all-out vengeance, which is at least something a bit different.

Elsewhere the book attempts a few interesting things: the novel is written in the present tense, which normally would have me hurling it out the window. However, Tahir's prose is good enough to overcome this stylistic quirk (one which a lot of readers don't have). The prose is readable but occasionally feels a bit more flavoured and distinct than the norm before settling back into something more generic. If Tahir could hold the quality of the prose at her best for longer, the sequels could be a lot better. The setting, which is more inspired by Rome than most medieval fantasy settings, also holds some promise.

The most disappointing thing about An Ember in the Ashes is how standard it is. It's reasonably well-written, the setting is interesting and the characters enjoyable enough to hold the reader's attention, but the book doesn't really bring anything new to the table. It's a solid story told in a solid way which is good but not outstanding. The story and setting are a little more brutal than is normal in a YA novel, including the frown-inducing appearance of almost-rape for no apparent reason, but it's not exactly going all A Song of Ice and Fire. Some of the ideas are also rather implausible: the training for the Masks is so insanely brutal that it's likely that the Masks simply wouldn't exist due to the rate of attrition among applicants.

That said, An Ember in the Ashes (***½) does hold enough promise to warrant a second look when the sequel appears.

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