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Some time ago, in one of your guises and I think in a remark directed towards someone other than yours truly, you mentioned Lev Grossman's Magicians trilogy as a fantasy (more than) worth reading.

Well. I'm only two-thirds of the way through the first book and so, more than normally aware that my opinion is subject to change, but thus far (mind you), I just want to say a heartfelt Thank you!.

At this point I'm even more baffled than I was before that Tolkien doesn't speak to you, because Grossman is sure as hell speaking to me. The man knows his teenagers and (I think) a whole helluva lot besides.

Long story short, I've never read a book like this one, and for those of us who love fantasy, that is a kudos in monstrously short supply.

So, thank you.

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Dissing Death in Heaven

Image: Clara walks among gravestones.

Almost there. With only a Christmas "special" still to dread, the 2014 slog that was Doctor Who's 8th revived series has, mercifully, nearly come to a close (if not to a merciful close).

An an honest critic must give Steven Moffat his due. From Danny Pink's classroom tears in his introductory episode, to a payoff for television's Least Convincing Romance Ever, to the Doctor's query, "Am I a good man?", with which the series opened, at least this year, Moffat didn't drop any of the major plot points he raised during the series. (Well. Maybe one. Time will tell.) The answers were neither clever nor convincing, but at least they were provided.

Yes, that's faint praise; and probably too generous. For along with the answers, "Death in Heaven" slaps us with un-foreshadowed plot twists out of sketch-comedy satire, blatant emotional manipulation, a debate on moral philosophy whose sophistication would shame a class of 12 year-olds, and an entirely unwelcome appearance by a Magical Negro.

But tell us what you really think! I hear you cry. Of plots and themes and lies and agonies. Spoilers and cussing as usual. I think most of you know the drill by now.

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Throwing out the Doctor with the Dark Water

Image: Clara has regrets

"Dark Water," the 11th entry in a 12 episode series, trundles along with a certain amount of professional competence, but is very far from being good drama.

The episode bears almost all the flaws we have come to expect from Steven Moffat's latter oeuvre. A story with the density of rotten sea-ice that groans along at a glacial pace and tedious swaths of explanations that don't, actually, explain much at all.

The upside includes excellent performances by Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman and, especially, from Michelle Gomez as the mysterious Missy.

Want more? Throwing out the Doctor with the dark water includes spoilers as per usual, including a couple of Big Reveals; click at your own risk if you haven't seen it yet.

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In the Forest of the Blight

Image: The Doctor and Clara look out from the Tardis as it floats in space. Screenshot from 'In the Forest of the Night'.

Here we go again: interrupted for a couple of weeks by an influx of competence, Steven Moffat's Doctor Who is once more circling the black hole of creative bankruptcy. Moffat's name isn't on "In the Forest of the Night" — the official blame goes to one Frank Cottrell-Boyce — but his fingerprints are all over it.

Child in peril? Yup. Magic child in peril? Yes and yes.

Lots of expository dialogue? Oh, yes.

Completely implausible reactions to extraordinary events? You know it.

Magic Reverso-Babble TM to ensure story has no lasting consequences? Why not? We're in Moffat-land!

Truth is, there is so much wrong with "In the Forest of the Night" it's hard to know where to start — or where to stop. I made every effort to be parsimonious in my critique, to prune away the dying limbs the better to reach the rotten heart of the tale, but did I succeed?

You can judge for yourself by reading In the Forest of the Blight. Snark, spoilers and baffled vitriol behind the link, as usual.

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Flatline falls short

Image: The Doctor looks out through a tiny Tardis door. Screenshot from 'Flatline'.

I did it again. Made the mistake of watching a recent episode of Doctor Who a second time.

I really enjoyed "Flatline" the first time around. I barked delighted laughter and might even have gasped in surprise a time or two. I found Rigsy charming and Clara on her own a small revelation.

But when I queued up the story for a second go-through, things were not so good. Not terrible, but too obvious by half and derivative without improving on the inspiration.

My full review, as always, includes spoilers along with my keen analysis (or so I like to believe) and charming nervous exhaustion. This time, there's also a poll! Click here for the full story.

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Doctor Who takes the A-Minus Train

Image: Clara raises a glass to the last hurrah. Screenshot from 'Mummy on the Orient Express'.

I know, I know. This series' ninth episode aired yesterday and here I am, posting about the 8th. I have no excuses, except that of "Life got in the way."

To those who'd wondered where I'd gone (and missed me) I say, "Mea culpa and that I'll try to do better with 'Flatline'." To those who'd wondered where I'd gone (and hoped I'd stay away), I say only, "You can't get rid of me that easily! But if it's any consolation, my reappearance comes with a surprise: I quite liked 'Mummy on the Orient Express'!"

What a difference a good script makes.

I was all-too-ready to dislike "Mummy On the Orient Express" as much as I did last week's "Kill the Moon".

MOOE's title suggested only another tired homage to, or rip-off of, someone else's creation. But what do you know! MOOE was funny and intriguing (if poorly-directed), with a believable interpersonal drama and Peter Capaldi's best performance yet.

In just 45 minutes, Jamie Mathieson managed what Steven Moffat and his previous collaborators could not in seven episodes: to make Clara's doubts about the Doctor believable.

Was "Mummy on the Orient Express" a perfect episode? Not quite. But it was better than most and a lot better than we have become accustomed to in recent years.

As usual, my full review is spoilery. Not so usual, it is hardly angry at all (which might help to explain why I am so late in its delivery). Also not so usual, this might be the first time I find myself in fundamental disagreement with Patches365. Which kind of makes me wonder if I'm wrong.

Click here for Clara's Choice.

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Little care from The Caretaker

Image: The Doctor with sign reading 'GO AWAY HUMANS'. Screenshot from 'The Caretaker'.

The short version?

I really enjoyed "The Caretaker" when I watched it late Saturday night and into Sunday morning.

I'd been awake almost 20 hours when I hit Play, had worked 11 of those hours at the day-job and spent nearly two more riding to and from there on my bicycle.

I was tired, and I admit cracked a beer or three as I live-tweeted my first reactions.

To my regret, those tweets were an enthusiastic tailings pond spill I wish I could take back. But they do represent as "real" a reaction as my subsequent re-evaluation. And since I don't believe in censoring reality, they will stay on my Twitter timeline and live on also as a sidebar — pre-commentary, if you like — to my review.

The short version is that I thought the episode pretty awful when I watched it by sunlight. To paraphrase the blogger Patches365, it was a mean-spirited "tragedy of blunders" built on — not one — nor two, or even three — but four idiot plots. And it was an episode that tossed aside its best performer in favour of the cheapest of cheap laffs.

The long version? The long version lives on my site, of course, along with spite, spoilers and some thoughts on patterns as we reach the half-way point of what we can only hope will be Steven Moffat's farewell turn as Captain of the foundering ship Doctor Who.

Click here for Little Care — Take Two. Don't say I didn't warn you.

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Feels like a contractual obligation

Image: Clara looks resplendent in suit and tie.

No real rant, certainly no rave.

I had a busy weekend, back at soccer on Sunday and entertaining (and being entertained by) an old friend come to town after far too long.

Still managed to check in on the latest episode of Doctor Who, but I almost wish I hadn't. I know I'm sorry I watched the episode a second time.

But I've made a commitment and I'm not breaking it. I live-tweeted the episode on Sunday morning and have added a few thoughts now. For the record, and probably for Geoffrey Dow completists only (dare I dream such folk exist?), click here for Time Waste.

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Watching "Listen" (again)

Image: Detail of the Doctor at the new Tardis control console. Screenshot from 'Listen'.

The first time I watched "Listen", home after an 11-hour shift that followed an early rise, I wrote, "I definitely enjoyed it, definitely want to watch it again." I also wrote, "It sounds silly when I type it out, but [the story] gave me the shivers ..."

Well, hell. I did watch it again and now it seemed silly when I watched as well. There were no shivers to be found.

What was there was a mixed bag of an episode, combining Steven Moffat's still-effective skills at atmospheric scenes, with a show-runner's determined but mis-guided need to further place his singular stamp upon Doctor Who's cannon of mythology and back-story, and proof (as if any more were needed) that as a writer, he gives not a single damn for story-logic.

You don't have to read my review if you don't want your fun spoiled, you know. You really don't. Spoilers (in both senses of the term) ahoy!

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The Doctor and the Outlaw

Image: Clara asks for the impossible dream - Robin Hood. Screenshot from 'Robot of Sherwood'.

I don't know about you, but I can forgive quite a lot when I'm laughing. Plot holes, character inconsistencies, even magic arrows "Of Random Plot Resolution".

In other words, "Robot of Sherwood" was cracking good fun, a story that didn't take itself too seriously while still managing (mostly) to take the Doctor & Co. seriously enough. Our suspension bridge of disbelief swayed, but it did not snap and neither did it twirl.

Robot of Sherwood gifted us an episode rich with clever dialogue (banter, even), exciting and sometimes funny action sequences, good actors having a very good time performing a low-concept story (see its title) that far exceeded expectations.

Thank you, Mark Gatiss, for bringing fun back to the Tardis — and (oh, all right!) thank you, Steven Moffat, for staying the hell out of the way and letting it happen.

If you're old enough to remember (or like me, have travelled back in time to enjoy) "The Pirate Planet", you're almost sure to enjoy "Robot of Sherwood", and nevermind the lack of a tin dog or bird. Click here for the words of one critic clapping.

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Moffat's misogyny rales on

Image: The TARDIS lands by the River Thames outside of Parliament buildings in 19th Century London. Screenshot from 'Deep Breath'.

Doctor Who is blessed with a remarkable fandom.

Way back on the 12th of July, a black-and-white "screener" of the 8th series premiere, "Deep Breath" was released onto file-sharing sites, following a similar surreptitious (and — need I add? — thoroughly reprehensible!) release of the scripts of the first five episodes the week before. The Scot was out of the kilt, as it were, and anyone who wanted to could easily download a copy.

And yet, those of us who did encounter the samizdat seemed all to subscribe to a gentlefen's agreement that there would be no spoiling for those who preferred to wait for the final product in all its CGI glory. (At worst, some critics might have taken advantage of the incident to draft his (or her!) review ahead of time.)

Though I read a number of Who-related feeds, I didn't come across any unofficial spoilers, not even after the episode was aired in a number of movie theatres around the world. (I didn't look hard, but the point is, one would have had to look to be spoiled.)

Now, finally, the official broadcast is history and we're free to discuss that for which we've been waiting the better part of a year: a new season and a brand-new (if almost elderly) Doctor.

Was it worth it?

If you're able to forgive or justify its internal inconsistencies, tawdry fan-service, cheap laughs and a misogynist streak that holds on like a mysterious infection laughing at ever-stronger doses of antibiotics, well then, yes, I don't doubt for you it was.

If, on the other hand, you were hoping against hope for a story whose details and characterizations made sense and for a climax that didn't take from the show's companion every bit of agency she had, you will have been as disappointed as I was.

Read more/don't read more, it's up to you. But don't say I didn't warn you! In the world according to Steven Moffat, a woman without a man to tell her what to do is nothing ...

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Nightmare In Tedium

Neil Gaiman channels Stephen Thompson

(Which is never a good thing)

Screenshot from 'Nightmare in Silver', Doctor Who copyright 2013 BBC

On more than one occasion, the writer Harlan Ellsion insisted his name be removed from a movie or television program and replaced with that of Cordwainer Bird in place of his own. He did it when he believed his script had been butchered: changed to the point where the on-screen result would in some way make him look bad. It was his way of "flipping the bird" at those who had ruined his work and, more, of protecting his own reputation as a screen-writer.

If Neil Gaiman doesn't have a pseudonym for similar circumstances, he should get one — and apply it retroactively to his sophomore entry as a screen-writer for Doctor Who.

"Nightmare in Silver" isn't the worst episode of this year's often-dreadful half-series (far from it) but it isn't very good, either.

It is almost inconceivable that the the writer of "The Doctor's Wife" (not to mention of the Sandman graphic novels) could have handed in a script as dramatically disjointed, as illogical and as frankly boring, as that which showed up on our television screens this past weekend. And surely, it wasn't Neil Gaiman who closed the episode with the appalling spectacle of the Doctor almost literally drooling as he ponders the sight of Clara in a skirt just "a little bit too tight".

A nightmare in silver? More like pewter, or even tin. Spoilers and snark, as usual.

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Return to Middle Earth: The Hobbit

Believe it or not, Peter Jackson's latest film is only indirectly responsible for my decision to re-read The Hobbit (again). The proximal cause was Tor.com's (no-doubt entirely commercial) decision to ask the redoubtable Kate Nepveu to lead a weekly, chapter-by-chapter "re-read" of the novel in conjunction with the release of the first (of three!) movies based on J.R.R. Tolkien's 300 page children's story.

My intention had been to follow along at Nepveu's chapter-a-week pace and, perhaps, to contribute to the ongoing conversation she was (and is!) sure to inspire, but Tolkien's deceptively simple prose and thematically complex fairy story swept me away (as it has a number of times before). I finished the book in a couple of days.

The short version is that The Hobbit remains a delightful adventure story and fairy tale, even if it is the work of a writer who has yet to reach the full extent of his creative powers.

That said, it also a very strange book, that strays very far indeed from a typical heroic path in favour of wandering the fields of moral complexity and (relatively) complex characterizations. The protagonists are far from perfect and even the villains show surprising signs of humanity.

A lovely book to read aloud to a child, there is every chance that you will have to read it twice, since you'll likely treat yourself to the whole thing before you sit down for Chapter Two with said youngster.

The long version lives on my site. (As usual, there are spoilers.)

_______

 

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Drawing on myths from Jamaica to Russia, on folk tales of Coyote and Brer Rabbit, and maybe from sources as disparate as Chuck Jones, J.R.R. Tolkien and Mervyn Peake (not to mention Lewis Carroll), Nalo Hopkinson's "Young Adult" debut is as singular a creation as it has been my pleasure to read in a very long time.

All at once a surreal adventure, a subtle exploration of privilege in caste-ridden society and a daring push against the walls of narrative fiction itself, The Chaos has no villain and its (black, Canadian) heroine never wields a blade nor fires a gun.

Though questions of race and identify form organic parts of how the novel's characters view and interact with the world (none of the book's major characters is white), race is not what the book is about. Hopkinson is telling a story, she is not preaching.

Narrated by probably the most fully-realized teenager I have come across in fiction, The Chaos is always surprising, a thoroughly unconventional page-turner you owe it to yourself to read — to pass on to any literate young person you know.

For my full review, click, "When I cried, the tears were black."

 

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The prodigal blogs!

Truly, April was the cruelest month!

It's a little hard to believe how far I have fallen as a Livejournaler (Dreamwidther?). Oh hell, call it personal blogger and be done with it.

I have been extremely busy. The driving gig alone saw me hit Montreal 13 times in the span of two weeks, along with a trip to Trois Rivières in the same period. And I've been struggling with the Mystery Ghost-Writing gig, as well as a long-form debate about socio-biology (I am, largely, fer it) when time allowed.

And of course, prettying up True North on a weekly basis and trying to give my sweetie the attention she deserves have also kept me on my proverbial toes.

And I have, finally, finished a review of the conclusion of Ottawa indie cartoonist Von Allan's children's fantasy, Stargazer. I bought the book back in December, if memory serves, finally read it about a month ago, and have (yes, 'finally') finished typing up my thoughts. (And Von, if it's any consolation, I bought a copy of Eddie Campbell's The Years Have Pants in January and haven't read even half of it yet. Of course, if you'd comped me, I would have felt obliged to be speedier ... But I digress.)

A black and white comic book featuring three pre-pubescent girls in the role of unlikely heroines, Stargazer features a Magic Doorway in the tradition of Alice's rabbit-hole and Narnia's wardrobe (and the Starship Enterprise's warp drive, for that matter).

What I called a "gentle adventure" in my review of the first volume of the story, proves in its second and concluding chapter to be considerably more than that.

What seemed to be turning into an exercise in that hoary old "And then she woke up!" cliché becomes something very different — and very memorable — by the time the story is over.

A little rough-hewn, Stargazer nevertheless has considerable virtues. This story of friendship and loss just might be a gateway drug to comics for that young boy or (especially) girl in your life — but keep a kleenex handy. My full review is at my site: The monster, the robot and the Artifact".

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'Midnight in Paris' poster

It seems like the American cinema comes up with a good time travel film of a certain kind once every decade or so — Peggy Sue Got Married and Pleasantville come immediately to mind, as does Groundhog Day, in its own way.

Not strictly-speaking science fiction, these movies are more like fables, presenting time travel as an arbitrary fact which allows their protagonists to learn some life lesson, sometimes leading to acceptance of what is, more often leading to some sort of important life change.

That grand old man of American cinema, Woody Allen, is the latest to offer us a nostalgia-steeped visit to the past, along with a cinematic love-letter to a city that is not New York (for a change), but Paris. Paris now and, especially, Paris then.

The Oscar-winning Midnight In Paris has become Allen's most financially successful movie. Though flawed, it is the work of a master-crasftmen that tells its slender tale with style and efficiency, generating laughs and dramatic tension despite its decidedly old-fashioned pacing.

Does it deserve its awards and critical acclaim as Woody Allen's return to form? Click here for my full review (yes, with spoilers), Twilight of an auteur.

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Cover to Well of Sorrows, by Benjamin TateWell Of Sorrows
I hate coming down hard on books by relatively unknown writers; given my 'druthers, I'd much prefer to pass over them in silence. At the same time, if a writer goes to the trouble of sending me a review copy (even an electronic copy), it seems disrespectful to ignore it.

So I've struggled with this review, and not only because I have been "friends" with the author (or rather, with his pseudonym) on Livejournal for a while, but because it became clear in the reading that Benjamin Tate's heart is very much in the right place.

Well of Sorrows tries hard to play with, and even to reverse, many of epic fantasy's tired tropes. The protagonist is more peace-maker than warrior, and in plays of scenes of glorious battle we are given the blood and the shit and the brutality of hand-to-hand combat.

Unfortunately, good intentions alone don't make for good art. Well of Sorrows suffers from shallow characterization, structural confusion and world-building that is not remotely convincing. Click here for my full review (hardly any spoilers).

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Torchwood: The 19th Century is when everything changes

The sex columnist Dan Savage has recently been fronting a campaign to reassure isolated and often depressed queer kids that "it gets better."

I'm very sad to say that there's no getting better in Torchwood: Miracle Day.

Not for the people living in that world, not for the viewers in this one and certainly not for any attempt to offer us even a semblance of respectful story-telling.

As the saying goes, Fool me once, shame on you; fool me nine times, shame on me.

More fool, I.

Clearly determined to never give the suckers an even break, the penultimate entry in the Torchwood: Miracle Day demolition derby thumbs its nose at even the most modest expectations of its viewers.

Snark, sighs and spoilers galore but, I hope, not too much of a synopsis, all at Torchwood: 62 Days Later.

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Doctor Who: Trial of the show-runners

Teenage Mutant Time Lord Goofballs

All right, I've done it. I've watched "A Good Man Goes to War". Twice. And scanned through it a third time, all the better to take note of every twitch and quiver of the unsightly mess.

Quite a lot to my surprise, it's been worth it.

"A Good Man Goes to War" starts with its pretentious and falsely portentous title and then goes ... pretty much nowhere at all. As with most of Moffat's efforts since "Blink", the most recent episode is self-contradictory, visually static and burdened by huge amounts of expository dialogue, improbable monologues and capital-P profundity with all the depths of a sheet of glass.

Worst of all, I don't believe any of it. Not in the Eye-Patch Lady, not in the Penitent Sontaran, not in the Fat and the Thin Ones or even in the Knitting Marine.

But I think I get it. Not just what has gone wrong with Doctor Who, but why something that (re)started so well in March of 2005 has gone so badly off the proverbial rails since 2007 came to a close.

Here's a clue. Steve Moffat didn't make the mess, he inherited it.

Click here for the full review, with snark, spoilers and digressions galore. Be further warned: it's very long.

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For the record, my copy of N.K. Jemisin's The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms came courtesy of a contest conducted by the writer Tricia Sullivan, whose novel, Maul, I read a few years back and which which has since stayed with me far more strongly than most. I wish I could say the same about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. (Edited to fix typos. Thanks to shanaqui for the head's up.)

Stormwinds over a cardboard world

Nebula-nominated first novel is epic failure

I opened N.K. Jemisin's (now Nebula Award nominated) first novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, having occasionally read the author's blog and commentary elsewhere on the internet, and was well-aware the book had been getting a lot of positive attention since it was published last year. In other words, I was looking forward to reading at least a very good debut novel and hoping for even more than that.

Instead, I find myself obliged to discuss a first novel about which I can find almost nothing good to say whatsoever — except to note that, on page 222, the author offers a striking and (I think) original metaphor for the female orgasm.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a novel remarkable only for the lack of detail and verisimilitude of its world-building, the droning sameness of its characters (god or human — you can't tell them apart), the thoughtlessly anachronistic dialogue and banality of its prose.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not the worst novel I've ever read (there are lots of bad books out there), but it might be the worst highly-praised science fiction novel I've ever come across (I say "might" because it has been many years since I read Lord of Light).

The basics include a number of standard fantasy tropes. A world not quite our own, shared by humans and a more ancient and powerful race; a heroine with a Special Destiny; a society with a pre-industrial technology (plus magic) and a feudal political order with a cruel and corrupt extended family at the top of the heap.

There's nothing inherently wrong with re-using the familiar to tell a story, but there is a lot wrong with using those tropes so badly the reader never feels they are looking in on another world, let alone that they have actually entered into what Tolkien called a secondary creation.

For a fantasy to succeed, if must convince the reader of not only the reality of its narrative but of that narrative's background. The author must pay attention to such things as his or her world's history and culture, to its tools and technology, as much as to character and psychology.

To my ears, neither Jemisin's world-building nor her character-building convince, let alone provide cause to care. Worse, her prose is sophomoric and her dialogue painfully melodramatic.

I did not answer, and after a moment Scimina sighed.

"So," she said, "there are new alliances being formed on Darr's borders, meant to counter Darr's perceived new strength. Since Darr in fact has no new strength, that means the entire region is becoming unstable. Hard to say what will happen under circumstances like that."

My fingers itched for a sharpened stone. "Is that a threat?"

"Please, Cousin. I'm merely passing the information along. We Arameri must look out for one another."

"I appreciate your concern." I turned to leave, before my temper slipped any further ...

These are not words that sing, nor dialogue that breathes. Is there anything in this book that does? There is more on my website.

April 2017

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