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.