Wednesday, 14 August 2019


I've been catching up on well deserved classics that I haven't gotten around to reading yet, so in the dual interests of the mystery genre and my love of alternate history, I delved into the 1992 novel Fatherland. Written by Robert Harris, it explores an alternate world where Hitler's Germany did not lose WWII. Now, the Nazi colossus sits from the Atlantic to the Urals, holding all Europe, save Switzerland, under its sway. Having corralled the formerly independent nations of the Continent into a sham 'European Community' as well as engaging in a forever war along the long eastern frontier at the A-A line. Victory in hand, Hitler then turned his attention to creating his ultimate victory city in a garish redesign of Berlin.

The year is 1964.

Our story begins in the new Berlin, a body has been found washed up along the Havel River, near the heart of where the Nazi Party elite live. Detective Xavier March of the Kriminalpolizei (Kripo), and former U-boat sailor, is called to the scene of what at first seems to be the accidental death of an old Party member. Something of a recluse, the victim seems to have little connection to anyone other than being an original member of the Party. However, in an age of increasing terrorism at the heart of the German Reich, who can be sure?

The plot unfolds though as March, on a hunch, continues his investigations after the Gestapo claims jurisdiction over the case. He begins to unravel a disturbing conspiracy at the heart of the Nazi regime, one dating all the way back to the war and deals with the mysterious disappearances of all the Jews in Germany.

Along the way he meets American reporter Charlotte "Charlie" Maguire, while also dealing with numerous Nazi bigwigs and little men who are eager to dissuade his curiosity. But, he still has help in the form of his friend and partner Max Jaeger, who still aims to help him despite being a man not inclined to question the state.

Obviously, as this is a mystery thriller I won't be spoiling many details for you, but I think more than a few readers will be aware of the twist in this novel early on. I certainly was, but that did not mean I did not enjoy the book because of it.

While many fans of alternate history probably now find the idea of a Nazi victory story overdone, I still consider this to be a top rate novel. Rather than tell an exhaustive story of how the world got to where it was, the story is merely the setting for an intriguing thriller plot which uses that world as the background. It does of course, detail some of the alternate history leading to the Nazi control of Europe and the post-war Cold War with the United States.

Personally, what I found evocative of the novel was the setting. The premise is explained and partially justified but we are just told the story through these characters eyes as they live in this world. It is one where the Nazi Party reigns supreme over every aspect of German life, they remain constantly vigilant in attempting to police/purge the occupied territories of the East, while also struggling to catch up to a world where technology is moving quicker than men like Hitler and his cronies could anticipate. Terrorists are constantly targeting Germans, while the Germans themselves grow fat off the spoils of Occupied Europe, with Slavic laborers building their cities and English maids serving their tea.

March is a man who has grown up listening only to Party propaganda, and he still resents the Party despite the high standard of living he enjoys. Even with all that, his inquisitive nature makes him someone the Nazis would naturally be suspicious of. His interactions with Charlie, who has an outsiders perspective of Nazi Germany, are quite interesting. He uses this to ask questions he could never ask of another German person. He finds out about the horrible casualties incurred in the forever war on the frontier in the East against the Soviets and their partisans, and knows that much of the propaganda spouted against America is probably untrue, and even being toned down in light of the attempted detente with the United States.

These alternate 1960s are now defined by the interactions between the Reich and America. While we don't have as much of a global look as other stories might tell, the background to the story is fascinating and really establishes the characters and the world they exist in.

As for the plot, while many may see the twist coming, you are kept guessing as to whether anything will come of March's efforts to uncover the truth. He is constantly dodging a series of legal and lethal hurdles as the Gestapo seek to overcome any attempt to uncover the conspiracy at the heart of the Reich. It has all the good times of a spy thriller and a serial detective novel.

March himself is an engaging character. He has a policeman's sense of duty, constantly questioning and looking to solve crimes. He is also a former patriot. He loves Germany, and pursued a career in the navy because his father served in the Great War, but he has become disillusioned with what the Reich has grown in to. A man against his people as it were.

Charlie is a great sidekick, and as a kickass woman she deserves to be praised. An investigative journalist who is always looking for the next big scoop, she has German heritage and rebels against her family by carrying on in such a semi-dangerous career.

The somewhat forced attraction between the two leads felt, to me at least, as detrimental to the story. A love story (or lust story as the case may be) was not really necessary. Charlie would have been a stronger character without it, as there was not much chemistry between the two.

Fatherland though, is a deserved alternate history classic. Unlike the other stories I've reviewed, the spy thriller that was A Kill in the Morning and the war story which was Festung Europa, this one relies very much on its two leads to carry the story rather than increasing stakes or the drivers of history. It also shows you that stories set in one of the 'overdone' settings of alternate history, can, and most likely will, give you some great entertainment.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

The Dead Don't Die

As a long time connoisseur of the zombie genre, I was pleased to discover a few months ago that we were supposed to be getting an ensemble, all star cast for a new zombie comedy The Dead Don't Die. Looking like a big homage to the tropes and fun of the best the zombie genre had to offer, its' trailer played well and had me hooked from the first time I saw it. Starring, Bill Murray, Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Steve Buscemi, Tilda Swinton, Danny Glover and Selena Gomez, to name only a few! The cast is actually quite large and very likable, with what I thought were for sure going to be some stellar performances!

Did we get that? Well, we got something...

Set in the town of Centerville (A Nice Place) it follows the work of Sheriff Cliff Robertson (Murray), Ronnie (Driver) and Minerva "Mindy" (Sevigny) and others from the small town as they deal with some inexplicable changes caused by polar fracking. The day is longer, the moon emits a strange 'toxic' glow, and strange things are happening in the cemetery.

Robertson is first going after local Hermit Bob (Tom Waites) who Farmer Miller (Buscemi) has accused of stealing his chickens. We then have the the two policemen driving away and leaning very abruptly on the fourth wall when Ronnie comments that the song The Dead Don't Die, by Sturgill Simpson, is the theme song for the film after Robertson comments that it sounds very familiar. Get used to this song, this joke is gonna be overused a lot. There is a pretty cleverly done establishing shot done as the police cruiser goes by all the various locations we will be seeing as the film goes on.

We meet more of the town's denizens at a local diner, Hank (Glover), Farmer Miller, and a scene with some juvenile delinquents locked up in the county juvy center, Geronimo (Jahi Winston), Olivia (Taliyah Whitaker), and Stella (Maya Delmont). There's also local gas store/paraphernalia shop owner Bobby Wiggins (Caleb Landry Jones), motel owner Danny Perkins (Larry Fessenden) and travelling at the head of some 'city hipsters' is Selena Gomez as Zoe. Finally we have Tilda Swinton as the new local mortician, Zelda Winston.

The zombie weirdness begins one night as two 'coffee zombies' attack the diner and devour locals Fern and Lilly in a genuinely unsettling scene. It has some dark humor to it as the zombies recognize coffee and quit their mauling to ineptly swig some back before shuffling on. Now, these two zombies are played by Iggy Pop and Sara Driver, so you'd expect them to show up again. Other than a single scene where they are walking around with the coffee pots... they're kind of irrelevant.

Following this is an amusing sequence where we once again see some well done humor as a three part take with each police officer viewing the scene goes on. Then we finally get some delightful weirdness from Swinton's character Zelda as she wanders around in odd ways, speaks strangely (addressing people by their full names) and has jerky, almost planned moves when she isn't wielding her katana.

Next the zombies begin to follow in waves, and as the undead begin to slowly overwhelm the town. Madness ensues.

Something I should pause to praise is the zombies themselves. While they are the usual undead shamblers, the actors and extras who play them just dig into the roles and damn they do it well! And rather than big bloody sprays of gore, when the zombies are killed they instead shoot out these black dust clouds. It's a unique and very visually appealing touch that I think should be applauded.

From here we get intervening bits of well executed horror, some good bits of comedy, and a lot of flat jokes. Some of it is well executed, especially in the second act as I found myself laughing uproariously at Driver and Murray's banter with Sevigny, then Swinton just stole every scene she was in. But the first hour of the film tends to drag, with only a few well done jokes. Then the finale comes across as, well, confusing.

Now, past this cut there be spoilers, you have been warned. Sadly, it is almost impossible to do a good critique of the film without them.

Tuesday, 9 July 2019

Atlas Shrugged Part III

God alone knows how, but the producers managed to waste enough money to make three of these dumb movies. It took a small fortune to create these disasters, but it took them only an hour to drain my brain of any, even halfhearted, enthusiasm for watching this last film! As before, please check out the reviews of this film alongside my friend Andrew over at I Choose to Stand where he looks at all three like me!

After Part II bombed even more spectacularly than the first film, making less than a quarter of its stated budget back, the series seemed to be in some limbo for a while. There was even talk of optioning it for a musical (God wouldn't that have been annoying?) way back when. However, this fortunately (sadly?) did not come to pass and instead they did what they had done for the last two installments, scrapped the old cast and hired all new actors making things even more confusing for people.

In a now hilariously familiar story, the budget for this film was only half of its predecessors, with some 440,000$ of that being raised on Kickstarter. Really, this film should have been called Atlas Shrugged Part III: The Search For More Money. In should come as no surprise that from a budget of 5 million, the film made only 800,000$ back at the box office. Considering what this was, even in comparison to Part III of the book, there isn't any question of why it bombed even worse than it's predecessors.

Now as someone who had read the book I will admit full disclosure to being interested to seeing Part III of this film series. It was, in themes, set pieces and story, very different from the first two parts which can be very well described as "business people talking business" with some bland mystery coloring the background.

Part III of the novel however, had one large section of ideological screed, followed by some rather entertaining pulpy action bits and the close up examination of society collapsing. Trains stop running, harvests are left to rot, and sections of the country break into open civil war. It's actually rather gripping stuff as we see the United States collapse into anarchy as part of the plan by the megalomaniacs heroes of the story.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

Atlas Shrugged Part II

So we come to Part II of this nonsense, and let me tell you it just gets sillier from here. If you have missed it, my friend and fellow blogger Andrew Cowie has also done a review for this film over on his blog I Choose to Stand and it is well worth reading!

After the first installment of the Atlas Shrugged trilogy bombed fantastically. The idiots Randian heroes who had made this film decided rather than let the free market do the talking as their own philosophy would compel them to do, they were going to double down on their idea and decided the world must learn of the brilliance of their prophet's ideology.

The only problem was that now, after making less than a quarter of their budget back from the first film, the plan of financing it with profits was no longer feasible. The strategy? Hire an all new cast because keeping actors is expensive! Well, there was also a massive debt sale in order to keep the film afloat, and a big investment of personal funds. Apparently this film, when you tally up marketing and everything, cost as much as the first one. If that was the case oh boy did it have problems.

It seems that the other portion of the plan was to stoke the public's expectations by keeping it from being screened by critics pre-release so everyone would have to be surprised and appalled at the same time. This fantastically misleading article from Fox News in 2012 has the producer John Aglialoro stating "The integrity of the critics are going off a cliff...Why should I give them the sword and they are just going to use to decapitate me with?" The article of course blames the 'Liberal Media' for casting the movie down, but as a National Post review of Part I by Peter Foster notes: "Still, if it sinks without trace, its backers should at least be proud that they lost their own money."

Turns out, the film wasn't proud with just losing its own money, it didn't even need to give anyone else the sword to decapitate itself! The film made even less money than the first, and received an even lower rating from critics and audiences alike!

Why might that be you ask?

Thursday, 4 July 2019

Atlas Shrugged Part I

Years and years ago, my teen self made a monumental mistake. I discovered a supposedly great work of fiction which, according to some people I knew, would change my life. To their credit, they weren't wrong. However, the book I read Atlas Shrugged did not change my life for the better. Instead, it left me knowing what true evil felt like. The magnum opus of philosopher madwoman (and Superman arch nemesis)  Ayn Rand, it was written explicitly to solidify her economic, philosophical and political codes. Essentially, this is the Bible of the weird philosophy of Objectivism.

This strange little philosophy has had a disproportionate effect on world economics and thinking, especially in the United States of America. It has influenced politicians, philosophers, gurus, and most significantly, the head of the United States Federal Reserve who oversaw the disastrous policies leading to the 2008 Financial Crisis. Some would say that isn't a coincidence. Reading its long drawn out piece was misery personified.

Imagine then, to my chagrin, discovering way back in 2015, that after years of simmering in development hell some fanatic acolyte far sighted visionary John Aglialoro, had finally decided to bring Ayn Rand's creation to the screen.

God Help Us

Now, for a quick cliff notes version of Objectivism. Essentially it is be selfish for selfishness sake. To use the fancier terms, pursue your own enlightened self interest (rational egoism) and that laissez-faire capitalism is the only system which can allow you to pursue this. There's more boring 'metaphysical' stuff about how true reality can be expressed through art or human will, but its dull as watching paint dry so Rand wrote a book. Atlas Shrugged is intended to showcase how this life is to be lived. For a normal, sane person, it's pretty awful stuff.

Unsurprisingly, it has largely been roundly rejected by the civilized world and people at large, but, also unsurprisingly, rich right leaning white people tend to love it overwhelmingly.

Discussion over a movie adaptation has been in the works for decades, near since Rand first wrote it. However, while she was alive Rand was uncompromising with her vision and always demanded strict control over any script, something no producer or Hollywood exec was going to give her. Even after she died Objectivists still hoarded the story lest its purity be 'spoiled' by Hollywood elites. Eventually Aglialoro bought the rights, but numerous conflicts with writers and executives stalled the film from going anywhere. In the 2000s, there was talk of a two part series directed by Vadim Perelman, with people like Angelina Jolie apparently being considered to star. Finally, with the rights running out, in 2011 Aglialoro basically poured 20 million into this new film trilogy so he wouldn't lose them.

So what is there to say about this film?

Friday, 28 June 2019

Book Releases I'm Excited For

Summer and Fall of 2019 are so far looking like a good time to be alive for a bookworm like me. Why you ask? Well allow me to share with you some exciting releases coming out soon!

First up one of my favorite fantasy authors is continuing his long running fantasy series with:

A Little Hatred

Joe Abercrombie returns to the Circle of the World, picking up his stories some time after the events of his first trilogy The First Law and it's various outrigger novels. Now this story picks up years later following a new cast, but with some familiar faces in the background.

Set as the first in a new trilogy, this piece will be taking us back to the places we all know and love from Abercrombie. The Union, seething with new industrial technology and unrest, The North, as chaotic and war torn as ever. These new characters will be navigating the world so changed from how it first appeared in The Blade Itself and dealing with both old, and new, problems.

To avoid spoilers for the previous novels I will not mention much more here. But if you love gritty fantasy and some awesome action and characters, these are begging to be checked out. I highly recommend it.

Expect it September 17th 2019!

The Testaments

Ever since Margaret Atwood first published The Handmaid's Tale in 1985, people have been asking, what happens next? Many questions are left frustratingly unanswered by this book, and the postscript raises even further questions! With the run away success of the streaming series, and arguably the modern political climate, Atwood it seems felt compelled to write the answers to these questions.

Now in The Testaments we will get some (but if I had to guess, not all) of the answers we have been waiting years for. Whether you've been waiting since 1985 or (like me) the 2010s, this book is a no brainer for your shelves in 2019.

I think that the hook speaks for itself:
When the van door slammed on Offred's future at the end of The Handmaid's Tale, readers had no way of telling what lay ahead for her—freedom, prison or death.

With The Testaments, the wait is over.

Margaret Atwood's sequel picks up the story fifteen years after Offred stepped into the unknown, with the explosive testaments of three female narrators from Gilead.

"Dear Readers: Everything you've ever asked me about Gilead and its inner workings is the inspiration for this book. Well, almost everything! The other inspiration is the world we've been living in." —Margaret Atwood
Expect it September 10th 2019!


Marko Kloos returns with a new science fiction series, the Palladium Wars! Taking place in a new solar system far from Earth and with an exciting new cast of characters, it will be handling some tough stuff. Losing a war, occupation, and the aftermath of a brutal conflict. We have new characters like Aden, a POW who was part of the Gretian military forces and who is now going home finding himself facing a conflict he thought he had left behind.

While I myself have only read the first chapter from the preview (and only seen the character of Aden) there promise to be many more interesting characters to indulge in. As one reviewer on goodreads put it:
As the Expanse nears the conclusion of its nine book arc fans are going to need something to look forward to, and this more than fills the bill.
Unlike his long running Frontlines series, this one will be told from the third person perspective with multiple points of view, giving us numerous characters to see these fascinating new worlds through. Having been a huge fan of Kloos's previous work, I'm stoked to get my hands on this one as it promises to be just the thing I need to keep my sci-fi kick going this year!

Expect it on July 1st, Canada Day! On this one at least, you don't have long to wait!

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

We Already Had a Mad Queen

Something like 20 million people have not missed that this last weekend was an end of an era. The show, based on the best selling book series A Song of Ice and Fire, which had run for the last seven years, finally ended. Game of Thrones reached its conclusion.

Now there has been something of a consensus that the ending was awful, and many fans were disappointed. So disappointed in fact they started writing a petition demanding a redo. As silly (and unlikely) as that is, I'm not here to harp on the ending of the show, nor judge how the writing went or what the show runners did. No, I'm merely here to remind people of one salient fact.

Despite what many want to say/claim, Game of Thrones has had a Mad Queen since Season 1. That queen was Cersei Lannister.

Let me be clear here, Cersei has been a villain since the very start of the show. Whether acquiescing to the hurling of a small child out a window, plotting to kill her husband, being complacent in the beating and humiliation of Sansa Stark, or merely by undermining her own brother at every turn, she has - without a doubt - been one of the villains central to the series.

Sure, in the last few seasons she may have had to match wits with the Tyrells, suffered some reverses at the hands of the Faith of the Seven, but through all that she got a zombie bodyguard, a torturer in chief, and murdered hundreds of people. All while either allowing her children to die or driving them to suicide.

As a villain, she was pretty evil is all I'm saying.

So, with many discussing the end of the series, talking about what should or shouldn't have happened, I just want to write this reminder that, no matter what you may think, the show has always had a Mad Queen, and another one was never really necessary.

Thursday, 2 May 2019

Game of Thrones, Arya Stark and Mary Sues

The most recent episode of the long running and cultural milestone fantasy series Game of Thrones has, for many good and bad reasons, drawn lots of criticisms from fans. Much ink has already been spilled trying to justify or point out the flaws in the most recent episode. I think there are valid reasons for criticisms and invalid ones as well. However, let me just do a brief commentary on the show as a whole before diving in.

In case it isn't obvious SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!

Monday, 29 April 2019

Black Summer

If you have ever watched the fun/gory Z-Nation on television on Netflix, you'll be pleasantly surprised that the same team behind that have gotten together to put on a great little miniseries in a zombie filled world. However, this time we have a series which is not only terrifying, but an amazing testament to the zombie genre as a whole.

This is the eight episode series Black Summer

Set six weeks into the ongoing zombie apocalypse, we follow a diverse cast of characters who are struggling to survive and find somewhere safe to run. We are first shown a trio of people on the run, waiting for the end of a bombing run in order to be evacuated to a safe zone. On the way, we see many other refugees on the run, and get introduced to a colorful and diverse cast of characters.

Things quickly go to hell though as we discover one of the trio has been bitten. The military immediately bugs out and drives off, leaving a mother and father suddenly without their child. From there, we play catch up as other characters moments intersect and converge, with many unintended consequences and struggles. But as a warning, don't get too attached to any of these characters, the show plays for keeps.

From the cowardly survivor Lance, mysterious Spears, to the non-English speaking Sun, we have a great little cast of characters who are unique and clever. Though having little or no background they aren't completely well rounded. They're acted amazingly though, putting you in their situation rather than their story.

They're not prepared for the apocalypse, at all, and it shows. Rarely are the zombies killed easily, and often they cause lots of trouble and only fail to kill people by their limited intelligence. That the world seems to be in its death throes doesn't help, as soldiers are overwhelmed and it seems all civil government has essentially broken down.

With its short run time, it's an easy binge. Though, with how scary some episodes are you may find yourself not wanting to binge watch!

Each scene is well shot, usually from a close angle which puts you right in the characters head space. We see their facial expressions, and can really feel the terror they are undergoing. The subtle use of music and ambient sounds makes you cringe. Something as simple as the background noise of an air conditioner really got my heart pounding at one point as I just expected a zombie to come running out at the characters on screen!

The conservation of detail too, with characters facing only one or two zombies at a time early on, made it really terrifying. Even one monster was too much to handle for most, and was a totally life threatening situation, even when a character was armed!

One particularly jarring episode takes place in a high school, and let me just say, if you think children are innocent, you may not think so after watching this! The use of little details to perturb, scare, and crank up your expectations really pays off at the end. It culminates in bits of creeping fear and a series of non stop chases which keep you guessing at who will live or die until the very end.

All in all, there isn't too much overarching story beyond a mother looking for her daughter during the apocalypse. That allows for some scant meaningful plot and leaves very little in the way of meaningful details to be examined as the story goes on. It's meant as a short piece which will tug at your brain and leave you wondering when the zombies will show up, or who is or isn't going to make it out.

As a brief horror mini series, I'd happily recommend it. It has all the right scares and all the right tension. Worth a watch.

Friday, 19 April 2019

The Halifax Connection

Though I often talk about fantasy, contemporary politics, science fiction, and movies, I'm also going to review for you book from a genre that is close to my heart. That genre is historical fiction and the book is The Halifax Connection by Marie Jakober.

Set primarily in the city of Halifax, this story stretches from early 1862 to September 1864 and follows a colorful cast of fictional characters from all stations of life. Our main protagonist is Erryn Shaw, a disgraced aristocrat and former theater manager who has fallen on hard times. We also get a look into the life of a domestic servant Slyvie Bowen, with the supporting cast of Matt Claverly and Colonel Hawkins.

The backdrop of the novel of course, is the American Civil War. Not many know this but Canada was prime real-estate for Confederate spies and blockade runners. Halifax especially grew rich off the war as Confederate ships and blockade runners would often seek refuge there. Haloginians themselves came from a society which was fiercely loyal to the Mother Country and felt a certain kinship with the South at the time. To find men of high principles and ideals who would oppose them would have been a rare thing indeed.

That the novel chooses to do just that is very much to its credit.

Our story follows mainly Erryn and Sophie. Erryn is a failed theater manager (well, it burned down) who is falling on hard times while Sophie is a former factory worker emigrating to Canada to find work and a new life away from the horrors she has seen in the mill town of Rochdale.

The story kicks off when Erryn is asked by his best friend Matt, to spy for the Governor General. Halifax is full of Confederate agents and sympathizers, who wish nothing more than to involve Great Britain and her Empire in the war to hopefully tip the scales in favor of the cause of independence for the Southern states and their Confederacy. Sucked in to a vortex of lies, espionage, and mad schemes, Erryn finds himself on a twisting path of conflicting loyalties and friendships while publicly renouncing all his ties to his former life and friends who support the Union.

Slyvie meanwhile, is just crossing the Atlantic on the cheap when her ship is set upon by the Confederate raider Alabama. This gives her a lasting enmity for the Confederacy and all it stands for. However, she finds herself falling for a man she meets in Montreal, and that man is Erryn Shaw, who is playing host to the Confederate agents he can find.

Into this story we get something of a twisting love affair between two people who deeply care for one another, but who, ostensibly are on the opposite sides of an ideological divide.

I will admit that, as the piece goes on, it feels like more of a love story than a spy story. There is (to me at least) a decided effort by historical fiction authors to 'spice up' a piece by including a risque love story. Personally, I've never found that remotely necessary to engage with a piece of historical fiction. However, in this case we do at least get a very well written love story between two well fleshed out characters who portray life in the 1860s in pre-Confederation Canada quite well.

As a spy story I would argue the piece leaves much to be desired. Even though Jakober does her best to keep the spy drama going, I found the plot lacked an overall enemy, villain, or objective. Though it was true to life in the British authorities basically whacking Confederate schemes where they could be found, I might have felt more inclined to be hooked by an overarching adversary for the characters to be confronting. The story certainly had one set up in the person of an old enemy from Erryn's past!

That isn't to say though, that the book doesn't work well on its own merits. It does portray the events from Canada in the Civil War quite well, even making the Chesapeake Affair, a backdrop of one of the most pivotal scenes in the book.

Jakober has done her research, this much is clear. She understands life in Nova Scotia (Halifax specifically) quite well, and does a wonderful job portraying the divided opinions of the Canadian people in the 1860s. That she incorporates a number of real life events into the series is much to her credit, and she does it with a deft hand. Though her characters are fictional, she sets them up in real historical events and plots. She makes a very shocking revelation at the end which I simply cannot spoil for casual students of history or readers. You will be taken aback by it, all the more for that it is based on true events.

I liked the characters and I liked that Jakober did her absolute best to stay true to history. There is no embellishment on the side of action or drama, nothing which would necessarily conflict with history as we know it, and lots of emphasis placed on attitudes and ideals from the 1860s.

As historical fiction, I found this novel first rate. Definitely worth a read from fans of romance, historical fiction and Canadian and Civil War history buffs.

Monday, 15 April 2019

The Phoenix Empress

A few years ago I read the debut novel by K. Arsenault Rivera's The Tiger's Daughter and I discovered myself thoroughly enjoying it. Just this year I've read the sequel, the Phoenix Empress and found myself sucked into this world once more.

The story picks up shortly after the events of The Tiger's Daughter concluded. Shizuka has become the empress of Hokkaro, while her wife Shefali is struggling with her own affliction brought on by being infected with demonic blood. After eight years apart they have been reunited, but in those eight years much has changed with both of them.

Forgoing the original story's epistle format, it is told in the form of first and second person narration. Shefali is generally narrating her ongoing struggles with helping her wife cope with the problems she has come into while she was away, and Shizuka narrates her past eight years of struggle under her uncle's thumb when he was emperor.

In her story Shizuka narrates the terrible years she spent alone, while also having to deal with her uncle's mismanagement of the empire. Finally, he sends her off to war where she encounters horrors she could only imagine.

The novel started off very well in my opinion, seamlessly transitioning from the letter story style of the first book to a more first person and third person narrative which flowed quite nicely. There was more in depth description of the Hokkaran and Xia-lan societies than we received previously, and we got some better examination of the main villain of the series as a whole, the mighty demon known as The Traitor.

However, the pacing in this one suffered terribly.

I will admit that I was hoping for a more action packed epic, but in the beginning we get some good world building which was sorely lacking from the first installment, so this tided me over. This though, did drag on for a time introducing a new character who became vitally important at the end of the novel (though she has been called a dues ex machina, somewhat correctly) while also leading rather subtly into the things which are now terrifying Shizuka. But very little of note actually happens until roughly the half way point of the novel, but after that things pick up considerably.

Though the build up to the final reveals were nice and subtle, there were times where I got annoyed by the dancing around the issue, as well as Shefali not figuring things out as quickly.

We also see that, rather than be improved, much of Shizuka and Shefali's relationship is startlingly unequal. Shefali still puts Shizuka on a very much undeserved pedestal, and Shizuka still makes impulsive and selfish decisions for her own ends rather than consult with others about what might be the right decision since she just knows. Though this does improve somewhat by the end of the book, I felt very often like yelling at the characters since Shefali really needed to tell Shizuka off at least once, and many of Shizuka's decisions were terrible when you give them a good deal of thought.

This though, was Shizuka's book rather than Shefali's. In my previous review I griped that Shizuka was selfish, spoiled and arrogant, and while she remains spoiled and arrogant she manages to shed some of her selfishness by the end of this installment and go a long way towards earning the unconditional love her wife gives her. It was nice to see some legitimate character growth.

All that being said though, like the original novel overwrought declarations of love do come up and across far too often. The motivations and actions of other characters are often obscured through the cloud of almost teenage angst levels of inner monologues that pass for thoughts of love in this book. Grinding past that you found some fun reading, and a few clever twists in the plot as the story wore on.

Some things did bother me where the author had not done enough research (a naginata is not a stabbing weapon) while some characters still felt underdeveloped. Poor Shefali's brother was given the short shift throughout most of the story till near the end, even though he is earnestly trying to help.

All in all, it was a worthy sequel to the original novel. If you can stand some of the more eye rolling sections of the romance and power through to the well plotted reveals and surprises in the last half of the novel, you will see some great character growth and a promise of a good sequel in the future.

While this is not becoming one of my favorite fantasy novels any time soon, it is definitely one worth a read.

Wednesday, 27 March 2019

A Short Civil War What If

I should make no secret that I have been a fan of studying the American Civil War since I was very young. I blame my uncle for this as when I was younger he was also a big American Civil War buff, to such extent that for my 5th birthday my brother and I were taken to Gettysburg to watch a reenactment in 1997. Suffice to say I remember very little of this, but I am told my brother and I were weirdly knowledgeable for five year olds. I do fondly recall however, growing up seeing my uncles civil war memorabilia around and often playing with the figures he collected.

My dual interest in alternate history has led me to speculate often on 'what might have been' if different actions had happened. And so, I present to you a brief speculation for your consideration.

As history tells it, on November 7th 1862, George B, McClellan, who had commanded the Army of Potomac for 16 months, was dismissed by President Lincoln. In his 1864 The Army of the Potomac, General McClellan's Report of its Operations While Under His Command McClellan relates that he was preparing to deliver a great blow to Lee with his army in November. He had moved over 120,000 men in roughly two weeks towards Lee’s army in Virginia and by his own accounts was preparing to force a battle upon Lee. In his Report he relates that “I cannot doubt that the result would have been a brilliant victory for our army.”[1] 

Let us, for a moment, indulge McClellan and assume that, for whatever reason, Lincoln decides not to dismiss the general on November 5th, and instead allows him to continue in his tenure as commander of the Army of the Potomac. What then, might have been the result of McClellan’s cool belief in victory in 1864?

McClellan’s 1864 Report paints a far different picture from his personal correspondence in 1862. He told his wife on the 25th of October 1862 that he did not expect Lee to fight before Richmond[2]. He seemed to set his own objective as Culpeper Court House, and from there we have no clear idea of what he intended despite his later prediction of a great victory.

However, Longstreet beat McClellan to Culpeper comfortably, moving in half the time it took him to make the same march. Lee had nearly divined McClellan’s intentions by the 6th of November[3]. He wrote that if the enemy continued to advance he would unite Longstreet and Jackson’s corps through Swift Run Gap, joining at Madison through Gordonsville. From there he anticipated the ability to menace McClellan’s right flank. McClellan had fears regarding his army's ability to use the Orange and Alexandria RR and viewed its capacity as overrated[4], so he would most likely then have directed his army to Fredericksburg. In his forward movement however, he abandoned Ashby and Snicker’s Gap, this allowed Jackson to send men across the Blue Ridge Mountains on the 13th and harass the armies’ rear columns historically.

Jackson suggested advancing his corps to threaten McClellan’s flank and rear, which Lee agreed with should it be feasible. Should the enemy further advance, Lee directed him to be pulled back. In this instance, with McClellan’s slow advance still pushing forward, but leaving his rear open. Jackson most likely mounts an embarrassing attack on McClellan’s rear which gives him pause, and allows Jackson time to regroup with Lee. However, if McClellan’s forward momentum continued positively on the 10th and 11th, Lee might recall Jackson and continue to implement his planned withdrawal to Madison. It should be noted that in his Report McClellan believed Jackson was at Chester and Thorton’s Gaps, when in reality he was closer to Snickers and Ashby Gaps[5], some 18 miles north, and so his rear is actually exposed rather than covered. He had in fact, left his rear uncovered[6].

Delayed communications may allow Jackson’s raid on McClellan’s supplies to go forward, but this will most likely halt McClellan’s advance as he turns to meet this threat. Should Jackson receive Lee’s orders to withdraw on the 13th as he did historically, he would immediately make for the rendezvous with Lee. The timing of that can only be speculated, but we should not assume he tarries long, and unites with Lee at Madison.

In the face of a unified army, and an increasing supply line. McClellan’s most likely option is to move his force to Fredericksburg, which will make an advance of 35 miles. This movement would take at best, four or five days, and at worst weeks. This would allow Lee to discover the change of base, and either relocate himself for a defence on the North Anna or to attack isolated portions of McClellan’s command. Most likely, he does as he had done historically and moves to intercept McClellan at Fredericksburg.

McClellan is now faced with a prospect similar to that of Burnside in December of 1862. The question then is, what does McClellan decide to do? Does he cross in the face of what he believes to be superior numbers? Or does he sit and wait, planning a new campaign?

In the face of an entrenched enemy, it is likely the armies merely return to winter quarters. The upside may be that there is no disastrous Battle of Fredericksburg, as McClellan's dismissal and the obvious disposition of Lee's army make imminent action unlikely. From there though, it is anyone's guess as to how the campaign's play out in 1863. Does Burnside refuse the command and Hooker take over? None can say for sure.

In summation, I hope this lays out my reasoning behind my belief that even had McClellan been allowed to continue in his tenure of command, he would not have held it long. An extra month will not save him.


As a note, the letters referenced (unless otherwise specified) come from the War of the Rebellion: Official Records of the Civil War, Serial 28, available online through the Ohio State University.

[1] Report, pg. 652

[2] George McCllelan, The Young Napoleon, Stephen B. Sears, pg. 337

[3]Lee to Davis, Nov. 6th, 1862 (pg. 698): "General Jackson's corps is in the valley, his advance being at Front Royal. I do not think they will advance very far while he is in position to threaten their flank. Should they, however, continue their forward movement, General Jackson is directed to ascend the valley, and should they cross the Rappahannock, General Longstreet's corps will retire through Madison, where forage can be obtained, and the two corps unite through Swift Run Gap. No opposition has yet been offered to their advance, except the resistance of our cavalry and pickets. I have not yet been able to ascertain the strength of the enemy, but presume it is the whole of McClellan's army, as I learn that his whole force from Harper's Ferry, to Hagerstown has been withdrawn from Maryland, leaving only pickets at the fords, and but few troops at Harper's Ferry." See also, Lee to Stuart, Nov. 7th, 1862, pg. 703.

[4] George to Mary McClellan, Nov. 7th, 1862, The Civil War Papers of George B. McClellan: Selected Correspondence, 1860-1865, pg. 520

[5] Report, pg. 652

[6] Report, pg. 651. See also, Lee to Stuart Nov. 9th, 1862, pg. 706-707

Tuesday, 26 March 2019

A Short Mueller Postscript

While the news has been on fire for the past three days regarding the conclusion of the Mueller probe, and Donald Trump and his supporters loudly proclaim he has been 'exonerated'. We of course, should take none of this conclusion at face value.

The report, form what Attorney General Barr said, exonerates Trump and his campaign of collusion. However, Trump is still under multiple investigations, ranging from hush money paid to porn stars to improper use of finances in his electoral committee. At the state and federal level Trump remains under a cloud of suspicion. While the Mueller report was the most troubling cloud by far, the fact that no one will be satisfied until the full report is released means it hasn't completely been cleared.

Even though it exonerates Trump and his campaign from collusion, it does not exonerate his associates and unofficial advisers like Roger Stone from that crime. Whether this could in any way be tied back to the Trump family is an open question, and one people would do well to remember. This little graphic should help you with the particulars for the moment.

Most damning however, is the revelation that the investigation does not clear Trump of the impeachable offense of obstruction of justice. Considering that was potentially the most damning charge, and that it remains an open question which could be approached through many of the dozen or so ongoing investigations, Trump and his supporters would be well served to reign in their exultation.

Congress is continuing its own inquiries, alongside the other investigations. There's much more in the woodwork Trump and his associates might be liable for. For now he can crow about 'no collusion' but he would do well to think in terms of 'obstruction' and 'finance violations' which may come back to haunt him far more thoroughly than any charge of collusion ever could.

Sunday, 24 March 2019

The Waking Fire

This month has been a month of high fantasy for me. However, I have indulged myself by not just limiting myself to the regular fare of swords and sorcerer's, but have gone into the world of magic and flintlocks as well. However, recently I was able to read a book which has been catching my eye for some time now, and I took my first step into steampunk fantasy!

That book of course, was The Waking Fire, by Anthony Ryan.

Welcome to a world of rifles, steam power, electricity, and dragons. The Ironship Trading Syndicate, the largest and most successful company of the Corporate world, runs on drake blood. Controlling the largest sphere of influence on the foreboding continent of Arradsia, they hunt and capture drakes to fuel their society. From ships to long range communications the blood of drakes is a necessity for keeping the world going.

It also gives the Corporate world an advantage over their one great rival, the powerful but fading Corvantine Empire, which seeks to control this precious resource for itself.

Enter Lizzane Lethridge, granddaughter and daughter of famous inventors, and an extremely effective spy and assassin. She is being sent to Arradsia by the Syndicate to take matters in hand as war looms between the Empire and her company. All in pursuit of a mysterious device which may turn the tide.

Then you have Claydon Torcreek, a petty thief who dreams of nothing more than getting out of the slums of the great colony city of Carvenport. He just wants to make enough money to flee his past and bring his friends to safety far away from the ferocious continent of drakes and the grim tribes of Spoiled who inhabit the Interior. Little does he know that destiny has greater plans for him.

Finally, we have Second Lieutenant Corrick Hilemore of the Ironship Protectorate Vessel Viable Opportunity which patrols the worlds oceans to make them safe for commerce. Sent to hunt down pirates, he finds himself caught up in a conspiracy well beyond his pay grade.

Honestly, this book was awesome. It mixes the best parts of Brandon Sanderson and the Mistborn series, with all the things David Weber does right in his many series, and notably Safehold. But, for those slim similarities, it holds its own with a unique style, magic system, and unquestionably epic action and adventure. From high seas hijinks, spy vs. spy action worthy of James Bond, to amazing adventures in the Interior worthy of Indiana Jones or Crocodile Dundee. Honestly, its a blend of never let up action which will keep you engaged and subject to a new series of awesome adventures in each chapter.

The world is, quite frankly, one of the most unique in terms of world building I have come across since Brandon Sanderson. Forget the true and rightful king, it's one nation under copyright. The world our main characters hail from is one which knows no democracy, little true political freedom, and is one where contracts are as binding as oaths. Corporations run and own everything, but the most powerful of course has the most say. Shareholder is a rank of privilege, and the managerial class are as close to nobility as you get. Everyone else is a worker whose trying to scrape their way up the corporate ladder.

Then of course you have the Empire. Backwards, corrupt and decadent, but for all that still the most powerful and potent force not in the Corporate sphere.

With this little cold war going on, the magic system plays a big role. Though yes the powers are color coded for your convenience, you find it nice and simple to keep track of. Each user is not limited to one color of drake blood, and may use all of them. However, many become adept at one or the other, few can master all of them easily. It causes some fascinating action scenes as blood users square off against one another.

Of course, the author doesn't skimp on guns and ships either. The knowledge of weapons and warships reads well, and you can really believe that the people know their stuff, with rifles and pistols being the order of the day, while on the cannons blaze away at armored ships which run off blood burning power, giving them incredible speed. These are all thought out logically and given true advantages and weaknesses, which keeps things constant and quite exciting as you try and figure out who can win in what situations.

In this world though, you do get an idea that things really are shrinking. Though the Interior is vast and dangerous, you get the sense you are seeing the end of an era. Drakes are becoming harder to find and harvest in numbers, and are virtually extinct near the coast. One is brought to mind of the death of the buffalo on the Great Plains as they were hunted to extinction.

For the plot, I really can't say much for risking spoilers. It honestly goes at such a break neck pace with revelation after revelation that you'll be on the edge of your seat as the story progresses. As it goes on you realize nothing is as it seems, and many of the things our characters discover are downright unsettling. Heck, many of the finds later on seem like something straight out of H.P. Lovecraft!

None of the characters gets a short shift in these stories. Each has a good arc which they run with. Lizzane with her secret mission infiltrating Corvantine territory and Clayton with his run into the desolate and dangerous Interior with a crew of Contractors out for the ultimate prize. Perhaps only Corrick doesn't get as fleshed out as he deserves to be, but that's what we have sequels for of course!

If I had to say anything bad, maybe some of the revelations lacked proper foreshadowing, and one or two events were unceremoniously dumped on us, but with nary a slow scene and constant action paving the way forward, how can I complain?

A solid start to what promises to be an overall solid series. It shouldn't be missed!

Saturday, 16 February 2019

Two Moon Mysteries

Recently, I've been on something of a science fiction kick in my reading. Over the last two months I have had the absolute pleasure to read, among other books, the excellent Gunpowder Moon, by David Pedreira, and Red Moon by the modern futurist himself, Kim Stanley Robinson. Both are (obviously) set on the moon, and have competing images of Lunar life in the mid to late 21st century, and interestingly, each was released in 2018. However, both are linked by one of the oldest crimes known to man, murder.

Both stories begin with such a premise, whether it is a murder at an American Helium-3 mining base, or murder on a Chinese owned Lunar community, we have to try and figure out who is behind it. In between are a cast of feckless characters sucked into a power struggle beyond their pay grade. The poor souls.

Each book tries for relatively 'hard sci-fi' playing as close to our understanding of the realities and problems in working and colonizing the moon. In each work we can see some of the big differences in how the author approaches the various problems of Lunar-politics, industry, and resolving murder. A general review of each book follows.

Gunpowder Moon is set in 2072, as we see the dueling claims of Helium-3 mining on the Lunar surface heating up. The Earth is facing an energy crisis in the aftermath of a massive ecological disaster called the Thermal Maximum which caused famine, dislocation, and rampant resource wars as Earth is plunged into a climate changed world rather violently. The world is saved by breakthroughs in nuclear fusion tech, which requires enormous amounts of Helium-3 to make work. The United States, Russia, China, and Brazil, are all staking their claims and keeping one another mostly in check.

The story is told through the eyes of station commander and former Marine Caden Dechert. Escaping from the bloody memories of fighting in the Beqaa Valley, Dechert has come to the Moon for a fresh start. When a hotshot member of his own team is killed in mysterious circumstances, he has to grapple with the fact that everything he fought to escape from on Earth, might just be catching up with him on Luna.

Part mystery novel and part sci-fi thriller, it follows rising tensions between the US and China and the paranoia and mystery of just how someone would set up a murder on such a contained and controlled environment as the moon.

Dechert is helped in his search by his own crew, the most colorful of whom is the genius engineer Jonathan Quarles. An engineering and computer genius, he is invaluable to the station, which is how he gets away with growing hash in the hydroponics garden. His somewhat harmless attentions are often flung upon Dechert's second in command and only female member of the crew Lane Briggs. A no nonsense woman who knows she has to work twice as hard and be twice as serious to be respected or taken seriously by her companions and teammates in the mostly male field of Lunar mining. Secondary characters, from the fellow diggers to the government wet nurse and Marine officer who are introduced supply secondary stories to the plot. Dechert's Chinese counterpart commanding the Chinese stations is an invaluable yet only partially seen character.

The tensions between the rising power of China and the fading power of the US are what drives the story. It is as much a story about nations as it is about the one lone outpost on Luna. From the first murder, to the rising and chillingly well illustrated power grabs by the rival nations it ratchets up to a fast moving conclusion which will leave readers satisfied.

Pedreira goes into the realism quite well. From explaining the intricacies of the hypothetical Helium-3 mining to the difficulties of keeping out the fine Lunar dust and regolith from the crew's living quarters, to justifying the military build up on the moon. It all flows naturally and creates a sense of wonder even in an ostensibly dead rock which we all see on a near daily basis.

In fact, the sheer harshness and sameness of this Lunar landscape plays a significant background in the plot and understanding how the mystery unfolds. It's quite satisfying to see how our knowledge of how the moon works is incorporated. How can the killer leave no tracks from walking on the Lunar surface? How does someone sabotage something in a station which depends on keeping things closely monitored so the miners can live? Pedreira goes to great lengths to keep this consistent, and it works.

I think the only thing that bothered me was that the characters all felt a little flat. I never got a genuine sense of Dechert's implied PTSD, or really understood early on why he had fled to the Moon. Some things are well spelled out over the course of the novel, but we have too much time in Dechert's head with a bevy of unsatisfying thoughts. The only standout character was the engineer Quarles, whose class clown attitude and unusual habits set him apart from the group. The runner up was the government wet nurse who was sent to keep an eye on the situation, since his fish out of water character made for both a natural form of exposition and kept things at least fresh and engaging while keeping us up to date on all the goings on in the wider world.

Overall though, if you want a good sci-fi thriller with mystery and genuine suspense, the book is a good read. I heartily recommend it to anyone who likes either genre. You won't walk away

On the flip side we have Red Moon by the modern master of science fiction, Kim Stanley Robinson. Set in the not-so-distant future of 2047, it plays out against another backdrop of international intrigue. Once again, China is the undisputed growing power in the world, and the US isn't far behind. In fact, people often only talk about the G2, meaning only the United States and China have economies that matter.

Interestingly, the novel is setting itself up to predict some future history on at least a slightly more plausible scale. In 2047 Hong Kong will see the end of the one country, two systems, agreement which has been in place since 1997 when Hong Kong was formally handed over from the UK. The outcome of that has yet to be specified by either party, and what could happen remains a mystery. Here, that sets the background the the election of the next President of China and a shake up in the Party Congress, as an unpopular leader is stepping down and many are jostling for power. Amid all this, the large migrant worker underclass in China is clamoring for change and representation.

Enter Fred Fredericks and Ta Shu, both travelers to China's expansive Lunar community on the South Pole. Ta Shu, a popular poet and host of a cloud travel show, meets the awkward American working for a quantum communications company from Switzerland. The two bond over breakfast before Fredericks is sent to meet the Lunar governor. While there, the governor is assassinated by a clever ploy involving poison, and Fredericks, the man who shook his hand, is implicated.

Secret Service agent Valerie Tong is sent to try and extradite him, helped by the poet. Finally freed, a new problem is thrown at them as daughter of one of China's 'big tiger's' Chan Qi is to be extracted from the Moon along with him. Unfortunately for both, they have become pawns in a much larger game of politics and revolution which is unfolding around them.

Thus begins a series of chases, hiding, and escapes which will culminate once again on the Lunar surface in a race against the clock, not only because of potential revolution in China, but from the fact Qi is pregnant and getting worryingly close to her due date.

The story is a fascinating exploration of a potential future. Interestingly, it chooses to make its focus on China, Chinese problems and politics. Shown as a rising power with the fate of the Solar System potentially resting in its palms, the Party still rules with an iron fist hidden by the velvet glove of the Social Credit System and the Great Firewall, backed up by the expansive security system of the (so far) fictional Great Eyeball, watching the whole nation. These 'soft' methods of authoritarian rule are explored, analyzed, and critiqued, all while trying to navigate the byzantine nature of Party politics.

But it is also an interesting examination of the Chinese system, and what it might birth in the future. I found these parts of the novel enjoyable, and Ta Shu's reflections on his society and its triumphs and flaws are all fascinating reading. Even the brief glimpses into the future of China offered by Fred and Qi's flight from various factions make for interesting reading.

Sadly, the story meanders much from the beginning. Though not a bad premise, the mystery is dropped for a distressingly long time as we spend perhaps too much time inside the head of the socially awkward Fred Fredericks, and are forced into long interactions of their escapes and time in hiding, which is just as boring as it sounds. Despite some interesting scenes, and attempts to explain quantum computing these moments tend to drag. Poor Valerie is largely cast out of the story until near the end! There are also interludes with an unnamed Analyst and his pet project AI, which makes for one of the few genuinely enjoyable reads about an AI I have had in a while, and these add to the story quite nicely too. Though all these plot points seem as though the author is taking too much on.

While the final act from the novel is action packed, and leads to a few fun conclusions, I have to say it still fell a little flat with me. There's little resolution, as such, and many of the tantalizing hints given by the novel are dropped by the wayside in our protagonists final escape. While we do learn whodunnit in the end, and it is neatly wrapped up, dropping that plot point was frustrating and I felt there could have been a more solid conclusion, including more explanation of the oft referenced idea of blockchain governance. While it all sort of comes together, it never really meshes well.

If you like Robinson's work, I would recommend it, but novices in sci-fi might want to steer clear until they've read more of him.

Put together, these two novels represent a microcosm of the slow returning interest humanity has in going back to the moon, and a fun side by side comparison of its possible futures.

This adds to the interesting trend in the last year I've noticed in mankind returning to the Moon. Colonizing the Solar System, and finding a good reason for Lunar economics, has been a source of interest to laymen, NASA and other space agency scientists and billionaires from Jeff Bezos to Elon Musk, which is understandably filtering into our fiction.

These disparate views of the Lunar future, tied together by death, are each interesting in their own ways. Futurism and sci-fi have always interested me, and I think it is fun exploring what the stars have to offer in fiction form. I can only hope that we can see even some of the details read here realized among the stars.

For now though, let us hope that we don't have to worry about space murder or space pregnancies for a good long while!

Monday, 11 February 2019

Kingdom (2019 Netflix)

If you think that media has run out of ways to give us fun zombie stories, whoo boy are you wrong! If Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead had a baby, well it would look surprisingly less Caucasian than you think. I give you the period drama/zombie series Kingdom from Netflix!

This isn't actually the first zombie piece to make its way from Korea. That distinction in popular culture belongs to 2016's Train to Busan which premiered the South Korean zombie genre to Western audiences. Notable for lacking much of the intense gore that zombie films in the West would know, it focuses more on terror and the stress of always being on the run. Kingdom is a similar fair, but with a twist.

Set in the Joseon period, shortly after the the Japanese invasions of the 1590s, setting the story sometime in early 1600. We find the realm is in chaos. The king is deathly ill with smallpox, and his realm is run by his Chief Minister, Cho Hak-jo whose daughter is the young queen of the realm and is expecting a child. The chief ministers clan is unpopular, and events are kicked off by a series of notices proclaiming the king is really dead and Crown Prince Yi Chang should be elevated to the throne. Meanwhile, at a medical clinic at Jiyulheon, nurse Seo-bi is attempting to care for the multitude of sick and hurt while her master is away, and the political fall out of the capital effects her and the struggling populace.

The machinations of the Prince and Chief Minister culminate in the Prince fleeing the capital seeking out Seo-bi's master who was treating his father. Sadly, the master has intimate knowledge of the disease and the unsettling fact it brings people back from the dead. It also gives them a craving for human flesh, which Seo-bi finds out to her horror as the infection arrives at Jiyulheon.

From there the story takes a number of dramatic twists and turns, which will leave you both stressed and excited. The tension between the political drama and the encroaching zombie outbreak is well played, and compliments each story arc well. It also sends a brutal message about the ruling dynasty and elites compared to the poor peasants who begin to take the brunt of the zombie attacks. The aloof elites and haughty disbelievers think they can use the outbreak to their advantage, while the normal people are struggling to survive even day to day after a decade of war and high taxes. The zombies only make it worse.

Taking us away from the modern zombie outbreaks, you get a real sense of terror as you see people armed with only hand tools, swords, spears and bows and arrows struggling to cope with the zombie infestation. Every dead person adds to the ranks of the undead, and with only rudimentary firearms, its an uphill battle to contain the dead. Ratcheting up the tension as its always going to be hard to go for the brain perfectly when all you have is a pointy stick.

Aptly advertised by Joe Abercrombie on Twitter

It sums up the appeal of the show quite well.

The producers have gone all out to create an authentic feeling medieval Korean set and showpiece, with loving detail put into the costumes, sets, and characters. This, I think, adds to the power of the story by pulling us out of the usual modern setting and plunging us back centuries to when the world was less interconnected and familiar, but no less susceptible to the shuffling hordes of the undead.

That the characters are compelling and three dimensional also adds to it. The human element is more engaging, and feels less forced than anything you see on The Walking Dead, while giving deeper scope than regular zombie movies like Dawn of the Dead. The machinations of the politicians and lords add an extra layer of danger to the series. Ruthless politicians use the outbreak to try and contain their rivals while the Prince himself isn't above politicking and using people, and even those close to him might be giving him away in exchange for a price. You'll just fall in love with these characters and the stories they tell.

As historical fiction, with a zombie twist, it is superb. Definitely put this one on your to watch list!

Tuesday, 22 January 2019

IO (2019)

I mentioned, in a recent post other works coming out in the near future, that a Netflix film called IO was coming out on the 18th of January. This film had some gorgeous looking shots and a really good trailer. Not to mention a poster which made it look like it would be very entertaining.

So did IO take us to the Jovian system and back?

We begin on an Earth very different from our own, where, as explained by the overarching narration, the atmosphere has turned against us. People asphyxiated in their sleep or choked to death in the streets during toxic storms as the world changed. In response, humanity organized a massive exodus in 100 shuttles to a preexisting station that was built to harness energy from Jupiter's moon Io. Mankind had left Earth behind.

Not all of humanity though. One notable dissenter was Dr. Henry Walden (Danny Huston) who believed that mankind could learn to evolve and thrive, even on this new toxic Earth. He and his family stayed behind, establishing themselves at higher altitudes to escape the toxic weather and study the new world they found themselves in and try to adapt.

Thursday, 17 January 2019

Retro Review: Rebecca (1940)

Recently I had the absolute pleasure to watch 1940's Rebecca directed by none other than that supreme suspense shooter, Alfred Hitchcock. As perhaps is no secret, I'm a huge fan of retro films, whether colored or black and white. Alfred Hitchcock of course, is a film giant who is well known for his mystery and suspense. The book which Rebecca is based on is - criminally I am told - unknown by the greater public nowadays. Penned in the 1930s and published in 1938 by Daphne du Maurier, it tells the tale of all the tragic goings on at Manderly, the ancestral home of the de Winter family.

That the book was an amazing success would be an understatement. Going from smash hit to box office in two years is pretty exceptional in this time period. What was also exceptional was that Alfred Hitchcock, who wanted to make the film more 'funny' was told no. One just didn't do that to Hitchcock! With that in mind however, Hitchcock still delivers his classic thriller drama and shows off some amazing camera work in this film! It won two Academy Awards, and in 2018 it was chosen for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant."

Beginning in the South of France (as one does in the 1930s when dealing with the British upper crust) at Monte Carlo, we come across our nameless protagonist (Joan Fontaine) as she serves as a paid companion to the stuffy and overly chatty Edythe Van Hopper. One morning, while out for a stroll, she oversees a man she assumes is moments away from commit suicide, so she calls to him. The man, visibly annoyed, tells her to mind her own business, but does not jump.

She next encounters him with Edythe, and learns that he is in fact Maximilian de Winter (Laurence Oliviere) the heir of the great de Winter family. Our nameless protagonist is timid and used to being pushed around, and Max, as he likes to be called, is forceful in his ways. However, he takes her on a whirlwind romance and, unexpectedly, asks her to marry him.

From there, she is whisked away to the Manderly estate, the realm of the great de Winter family. There she is introduced to the eerie Mrs. Danvers, the matron of the household staff and begins to see that tragedy haunts the halls of Manderly. A specific specter lingers over her as well, that is the ghost of Maxim's former wife, the eponymous Rebecca.

The film does an excellent job of ratcheting up the tension from the opening shots, to the claustrophobic moments where we zoom in on a character's face to see their terror written plainly across it. The atmosphere and the acting is all geared towards making you fear for the poor nameless protagonist as she is thrust into a new world which is strange and alien to her, and one haunted by a vengeful dead woman.

Fontaine portrays her nervous and bewildered character well. She has nervous ticks, slouching and constantly rubbing her hands together when feeling stressed. Cringing away from others, but especially the terrifying Mrs. Danvers who proves to be her indomitable adversary.

Mrs. Danvers (played by Judith Anderson) becomes a horror in her own right. While outwardly severe and at least maintaining the facade of the new Mrs. de Winter being in charge, she bullies and cajoles Maxim's new wife and attempts to drive her away. She is fanatically loyal to her former employer, even after her death.

Rebecca is a phantom in this film. Having died one year before the events of the film we know her only by her reputation and the effect of even mentioning her to Maxim has. Her rooms in the West Wing are all off limits, and maintained by Danvers as a mausoleum to her deceased employer. Her grace, beauty, and effortless excellence is often commented upon in relation to our poor nameless protagonist.

Perhaps the best scene in the whole film is one where we are tracing Rebecca's last steps. Almost done entirely in narrative, with the rare presence of an actor, it uses the camera, props, and the rising and falling in the voice of Maxim to stage and follow the scene. In this scene, we get a sense of the never seen character, Rebecca. It is, put simply, a masterpiece of film. You are lead around and can practically picture the character there, even though you never once see her directly in the film. The narrative is so gripping and intense with revelation that you cannot look away.

Hitchcock of course, does an excellent job setting atmosphere with his work in the film. From creepy dissolves where Mrs. Danvers ghostly face fades menacingly into another object, to well cut footage of characters in states of shock, anxiety, or grief. With less camera angles than a modern director could manage without, he uses easy shots to capture your attention and fix you on specific points within range, all the points he wants you to see. His method of shooting the film "in camera" was designed to make the film one seamless production from start to finish. He rejected some of the more melodramatic suggestions of the producers and manages to create a grand spectacle of cinematography.

Of course, the film is not completely faithful to the novel. While there is heavy emphasis on the perfect nature of our ghostly Rebecca and the emphasis is on our nameless protagonist, each fall short of du Maurier's vision. Her work wanted to emphasize how different Rebecca was from the standard female protagonist (while also making her something of a victim) and using our nameless protagonist as a victim of her society, being dominated by her husband, who must have things just so. This sadly is not picked up on by most, and the protagonist becomes attached (perhaps from Stockholm Syndrome) to Maxim and hopelessly devoted to him.

Oliviere plays the forceful and haunted Maxim well. Blustering between goodnatured enthusiasm to temperamentally domineering, going into a frenzy when he is reminded in almost any way of the dead Rebecca. His brooding nature is revealed gradually throughout the film, but he is never anything but controlling in his mannerisms.

The supporting cast is well rounded, from Maxim's devoted servants and to his manager and friend Frank Crawley. They all bring their subtle and powerful moments to the story.

The score, while appropriate for a 1940s audience, will probably grate and frustrate a 21st century audience. Relying on string music to bring in the tension, it is appropriately discordant at times, while also seeming confusing and out of place at others. It was an issue in evolution and though I do understand how it is supposed to work, I find that my ears just don't like string music in supposedly comforting scenes vs tense ones.

Rebecca, though, is a great film if you're looking for something suspenseful and shocking. The twists are all amazing, and you will be on the edge of your seat as our poor nameless protagonist tries to unravel the mysteries of Manderly. Another retro film I encourage you to see.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Some Quick Streaming for January and February

Just in the last few days I've learned of some interesting series and films coming up. I'm hoping to share them with you so you too can enjoy what promises to be a fascinating few hours of Netflix and streaming.

Firstly, we have the History Channel. True to form, having moved on from history and WWII to aliens and conspiracies is broadcasting the historical drama Project Blue Book which will be a 10 episode series following Josef Allen Hynek who in real life was involved with the aforementioned Project Blue Book, one of several studies undertaken by the US to determine the existence of UFO's and whether or not they were real.

The subject of constant investigation and curiosity, it will I think, make for some interesting watching. Whether the History Channel will continue its proud tradition of mucking about with real history remains to be seen though. However, a perusal of the real Project Blue Book does make for some interesting reading all its own.

Secondly we have the Netflix film IO which premiers January 18th. Set on a post-apocalyptic Earth made toxic by global warming, humanity has largely evacuated their home world to colonize the Jovian System, specifically Io. Some however, have been left behind. We will be following the efforts of Sam (the daughter of scientist Henry Walden) and another survivor named Micah. They are hoping to make it to the last launch of a rocket leaving for Jupiter. The question is whether they can survive the toxic wasteland which used to be Earth to get there.

On January 25th we get the absolutely bonkers action flick (adopted from the graphic novel of the same name) Polar. A retired hitman, settling into a life in a remote Alaskan town, only for the assassin company he worked for to try and 'appropriate' his retirement policy by trying to kill him and kidnapping his one friend. He goes on a rip snorting bloody string of vengeance in a familiar trope, but one that looks like it will be simply epic.

In February we have two spooky ones coming out.

Firstly is one which I had the pleasure of seeing on Halloween a few years ago. Happy Death Day was Groundhog Day meets Scream, which was an admittedly amusing combination. Now we have a sequel just in time for Valentine's Day. Happy Death Day 2 U. With a similar premise, but now more people are effected by the Ground Hog Day like experience, and maybe this will try answering the weird issues which surround how it got started in the first place.

Though I'm not sure how I feel about this sequel, I'm very open to giving it a shot.

Secondly we have Velvet Buzzsaw which seems to be an intriguing look into the high art world through a horror lens. When an unknown artist is found dead, his works seem to come to life and exact grizzly revenge on those who used the art world for money. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal and other amazing people such as Renee Russo and John Malkovich, it looks like it will be an amazing romp through the high art world with some bloody massacres in between!

So there's some good entertainment, terrifying and action packed, coming up. Stay tuned for it!