Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 1, Episode 2

The Harvest

This episode picks up directly from the end of Welcome to the Hellmouth (honestly, they should be watched back to back). Buffy and Giles introduce Xander and Willow to the world of vampires with a lengthy infodump session, before Buffy leaves to try and rescue Jesse who has been taken by the vamps. While she is away Giles and Willow try to discover more about the Harvest - mentioned by the mysterious stranger that keeps popping up when Buffy is alone. The end denouement sees the vampires take over the Bronze, while Luke (hench-vamp to the Master) becomes the Vessel in order to try and release the Master from his mystical imprisonment. Again, I would rate this as a solid entry in much the same vein as Welcome to the Hellmouth.

A few thoughts:

- nice little use of the cross that Angel gives Buffy when it saves her from Luke at the start of the episode. Intriguing that despite being frustrated by him and protesting that he is 'good-looking in an annoying sort of way' Buffy wears the cross he gives her immediately.

- I had some amusement at the fact you need to seriously suspend disbelief and ignore plot-holes to truly enjoy this series - the idea of one girl being created to handle *all* the vamps in the world is vaguely ridiculous. Will Europe be over-run by vampires while Buffy is the Slayer and stays mainly in America?

- that computer looks so dated! And Giles' self-conscious reference to the Net is slightly cringe-making - although it does fit his character of being a complete technophobe.

- once again Whedon throws in off-handedly a theme that will reoccur many times - in this case it is the way Xander doesn't really have a role to fill. Giles is the monster expert; obviously Buffy is the Slayer; and Willow slots right in with her computer knowledge - but Xander immediately feels like a spare part.

- I was oddly amused to see a vampire called Collin.

- when Joyce says: "if you don't go out, it'll be the end of the world" it is a lovely irony that it actually would be the end of the world if Buffy doesn't get out of the house.

- just a comment: never thought that Cordy would be the type to go in for rock music. Always saw her as preferring manufactured plastic pop. Just goes to show.

Most frustrating? A few candidates in this episode. The first is the Master - considering he is this evil ancient bad guy who holds Luke and Darla in thrall, he seems a little... whiny. I never really got in these first episodes why he was considered *so* bad. Xander is an annoyance in this episode as far as I'm concerned - first he takes on board all the vampire stuff a little too quickly and goes all gung ho, then he shows the ultimate stupidity by following Buffy when she explicitly tells him not to. Lastly, I have no idea why Angel tells Buffy she really shouldn't go into the lair of the vampires when he well knows that she is the best equipped to deal with them.

Quote of the episode:

Giles: For as long as there have been vampires, there has been the Slayer. One girl in all the world, a Chosen One...
Buffy: He loves doing this part.
Giles: This world is older than any of you know, and contrary to popular mythology, it did not begin as a paradise. For untold eons, demons walked the Earth, made it their home, their Hell. In time, they lost their purchase on this reality, and the way was made for mortal animals. For Man. What remains of the Old Ones are vestiges: certain magics, certain creatures.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 1, Episode 1

Welcome to the Hellmouth

This the the first part of the season 1 opener (the second part being The Harvest).

We are introduced to Buffy Summers, a blonde sixteen year old girl just trying to fit in at a new school in Sunnydale. Over the course of the episode she is revealed to be more than she first appears - a vampire slayer. This episode introduces the mythos of the Buffyverse and the recurring characters in a neat manner, using both snappy dialogue and action sequences to define them. Considering the episode is only 40 minutes duration, Joss Whedon effectively showed us a glimpse into Buffy's history (being kicked out of her previous school; evidently being popular at her old school); the quirky and cute relationship between Xander and Willow that will play such a huge part in future seasons; the fatherly attitude of Giles towards Buffy; the wonderfully realistic relationship of confused mother and hormone-y teenage girl in Joyce and Buffy. He also finds the time to shoehorn in the Master and Darla - two recurring characters over the course of the first season - and shows us Angel for the first time.

This episode is tremendous mostly for being the start of something amazing. Held up on its own, it is a solid but not wonderful entry into the world of Buffy. We are mostly shown glimpses of the brilliance that is to come, in some of the dialogue between the characters. In all honesty, if it were to be shown for the first time today, I would be interested enough to tune in for the next one, but not blown away and raving about it to all my mates.

Just a few thoughts:

- love that the first part before the credits subverts the usual cliche of the baby-voiced girl being weak and in trouble.

- the Buffster is wearing loads of make-up here! And could her skirt get ANY shorter?! I like that she is more curvaceous than in later seasons - is this a commentary in general on how women have become more and more obsessed with size zero over the years since BtVS was first aired?

- amusingly, this is the first and only time we see Xander on a skateboard (maybe because he is so bad at it?)

- it is lovely seeing Giles being patient but slightly exasperated and overwhelmed - this Slayer is definitely NOT what he expected. It is great that Whedon introduces from the get-go the conflict that Buffy faces as a Slayer who just wants to be a normal girl - this sense of reluctant duty will be taken through the whole seven seasons.

- Willow is so cute! I especially love the reference to her and Xander breaking up because he stole her Barbie.

- Wonderful foreshadowing when Buffy says: "It's not like I have fluffy bunny feelings about them" when referring to vampires.

Biggest frustration? Angel's introduction. Later we find out that Angel has already been watching Buffy for a while, so why act as though he's never even seen her? The mystery of who and what he is was handled quite clumsily at this early point. Honourable mention goes to Jesse, who is never referred to again after these opening two episodes, despite the fact that he and Xander seem to be quite close friends.

Quote of the episode:

Buffy: Dead?
Cordelia: Totally dead. Way dead.
Xander: It's not just a little dead, dead?
Cordelia: Don't you have an elsewhere to be?

Tuesday, 29 December 2009

Sherlock Holmes - A Film Review

I went to watch Sherlock Holmes the day after Boxing Day as an antidote to too much family time. I had been idly looking forward to the film, having a huge fondness for Robert Downey Jr (okay, let's be honest, a massive girl crush - I want to have his babies). I confess to a) not having read any Sherlock Holmes (despite the fact I live near Portsmouth and Doyle lived around here in his time) and b) not knowing much about the film before I went into the cinema, apart from those filling the starring roles.

I do believe that might have been a blessing, in retrospect. I have since been on the blogosphere and various websites to find out other peeps opinions on the film and there was a most definitely mixed reception. Many people were screaming about the fact that it wasn't a faithful adaptation and there was too much action and blah blah blah.

Personally I loved it! It was fun, and RDJ seemed excellent in the role - a quirky, hyper-intelligent, eccentric English gentleman. He was backed up ably by Jude Law (an actor I have never been fond of, but I enjoyed his spiky performance here). I also enjoyed the villain, Blackwood, who had gravitas and brought great menace to the screen.

I felt that it was definitely a buddy movie, and that the role of Irene Adler was under-used. McAdams tried her best with limited material, but did seem very much like a modern girl wrapped up in a Victorian dress rather than making the effort to fit into the surroundings of the film. The chemistry between RDJ and RM was excellent, though!

For me there was a lovely balance between action and dialogue, but most of my favourite scenes did favour the latter.

I loved the dreamy colour pallette used for the film, and the beautiful cityscape shots were just stunning - although I do feel the London geography was just a tad off!

I thoroughly enjoyed this good-natured romp and will definitely go to see any sequels, but I don't know how closely it did correspond with the source material. The film must have done something right, though, because I have picked up some work by Arthur Conan Doyle to find out more about Sherlock Holmes!

Monday, 14 December 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 2, Episode 5

Reptile Boy


Giles is pushing Buffy in her Slayer training, her mother’s rules are becoming more and more strict, and Angel is growing more over-protective. Buffy is feeling pulled apart. When Cordelia’s college crush shows up on campus with a friend who has eyes for Buffy, Cordelia convinces Buffy to come with her to the frat party. But the party soon turns sinister, and Buffy learns the connection between the fraternity and the local girls who have recently gone missing. Xander, Giles, Angel and Willow must crash the party before all Hell breaks loose.


This is not one of the stronger episodes of Buffy, especially in Season 2, when there was a string of unbelievably good storylines that dominated the latter half.

We have a Monster of the Week episode here, which barely deals with any of the ongoing issues of the Season - such as Spike and Drusilla's presence in Sunnydale, or Buffy and Angel's burgeoning relationship.

There is some clumsy commentary on the evils of drink - Buffy decides to take an alcoholic drink, which just so happens to be spiked and she ends up becoming the offering to a rather phallic-shaped demon. Kids, be warned what happens when you drink! This is not the first time that a Buffy episode handles the drink=wrong slant.

The over-riding theme of the episode is Buffy struggling to deal with the responsibilities of being a Slayer while attending high school and wanting to be a normal girl. This is handled sensitively with some excellent scenes between Giles and Buffy. Here we see Giles taking on the fatherly mantle for the first time - and there is a very lovely conclusion to their conflict at the end of the episode.

Quote of the episode:

Buffy: I told one lie, I had one drink.
Giles: Yes, and you were very nearly devoured by a giant demon snake. The words "let that be a lesson" are a tad redundant at this juncture.
Not a great Buffy episode, but still better than a many series on television even at its slowest points!

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

I won. That is all. Thank you.

Friday, 20 November 2009


Oh dear. The blog has slipped again. Apologies to my reader (s) out there!

There is one big reason: NaNoWriMo. Otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. Yep, that's right, November is the month where you can attempt to write a 50,000 word novel. It works out as 1,667 words every day during November. More info on the website here: Look out for my profile there, which is also magemanda.

I decided to jump on board about three days before the start of the month, and leapt in without plot, ideas or characters - just a vague idea about starting it on the run up to Christmas and using my real life experience of making a Christmas meal for the first time (I've volunteered to host my folks). Now I have a sprawling 30,000 words written and I'm on target to win. I'm producing something chick lit ish, which surprises me considering the amount of fantasy I read!

So excuse me while I scurry off and use the free time I have to continue struggling to force these words out while saying to myself: "Quantity, not quality!"

See you in December with more book reviews and I might even pick up my rewatch of The West Wing as well!

Friday, 30 October 2009

The Silver Mage - Katharine Kerr

The Silver Mage is the fifteenth book in the *very* long-running Deverry series. Here Katharine Kerr seeks to wrap up those last few plot points and bring the sequence to a resounding end.

Oh dear. I've followed this series faithfully, to the extent of doing a full re-read in preparation of the release of this final book, and I am more than disappointed with the way Kerr has finished things off.

To be honest, this series has been limping along for a while, but every now and again Kerr would produce a book that sparkled amongst the relative dross that made up the rest of the second two 'Acts' that the Deverry series comprised. This compelled me to keep on reading to see whether the same quality would be repeated, but sadly it was rare that Kerr would ever produce two decent books in a row and none of her books have lived up to the promise of those first four novels.

In this book we deal mainly with Rhodry's storyline - the other plot points are dealt with summarily and all too briefly. Kerr has been building the renewed threat of the Horsekin, but this is completed with no drama and almost slips past without the reader noticing.

In fact, the whole novel suffers from a lack of drama or incidence. There is no gripping final battle. No beloved character comes anywhere near to dying. The series really just slips out with a whimper and not a bang.

To be fair, the Rhodry plotline is emotional enough - especially in the moment where he realises that his time as a dragon has reduced Arzosah to something less than she should be. I was glad that his resolution helped to also resolve the situation with Avain, who has been hovering around in the background for a long while.

There was zero resolution to the shape-shifting otter people - I'm left unsure as to exactly why Kerr even introduced them in the first place! I disliked the way that *everyone* needed to be married off or partnered up in the end. And I believe Laz was treated unfairly by Kerr, considering that he had started to feel remorse for his actions in prior lives.

To be perfectly honest, I feel extremely dissatisfied and short-changed by this effort - especially after the long wait for the series to end. I can only hope that all of those other authors stringing out long series take note and learn how NOT to finish their own stories.

Thursday, 29 October 2009

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows is the last in the Harry Potter series, describing Harry's quest to seek the Horcruxes and his growing realisation that he and he alone has the means to defeat Voldemort. Harry begins to worry that trusting Dumbledore was a mistake, and loses heart in what he has to do. Everything leads to the Final Battle that takes place - where else? - at Hogwarts.

So here we are - the climax of the Harry Potter series. The book to beat all books. The one that people anticipated and queued for and devoured as soon as it became available. This one was supposed to tie up the loose ends and show us how the fight against Voldemort ended. It was known to be darker and bleaker than the others, and Rowling let slip on the run-up to the release that not all of our favourite characters would make it through.

Did this book achieve, in my mind, everything that I expected? Well, sort of. Of course, it was exciting and exhilarating and scary and full of compassion for these characters that so many of us followed eagerly. However, reading parts of the book I was... bored! This was something I certainly did not expect!

We start with an explosive escape for Harry from the Dursley's house - there is a distinctly odd and very touching scene between Harry and Dudley as they say goodbye for the final time. There is a massive sense of danger and Voldemort is really closing his grip around the wizarding community - with the death of a couple of characters, we (the reader) learn that no-one is sacred in this final book, and that really heightens the gloomy atmosphere.

However, there is then a few chapters which are a little dull concerning the wedding of Fleur and Bill. I can understand that Rowling is setting up a few things here, such as the sign of the Hallows, but it meanders somewhat. From here we have another escape scene that sends the pulse racing, but once Harry, Hermione and Ron are ensconced in Number 12, Grimmauld Place there is another period of slower time. During this I did love the way that Kreacher is redeemed - and certainly Hermione gets her opportunity to say I told you so.

The book continues in this vein all the way through - I found the pacing decidedly off. There were moments of pulse-pounding terror and huge excitement (such as the escape from the Death Eaters in the Malfoy mansion; the robbery of Gringotts; and, of course, the final battle) but these were small moments in a tapestry that included the Camping Trip of Doom (tm); planning in minutiae the trip to Gringotts; and many other quiet moments that seemed put in for no apparent reason. By this time, of course, the books had started being filmed for the big screen and I half-wonder whether Rowling wrote some of the Deathly Hallows with an eye for the film that would be made from this novel.

By far my biggest complaint about this novel is the rapid switch in concentration from the Horcruxes to the Hallows. I can see that Rowling wanted a comparison between dark and light, and the Horcrux idea did run out of steam a little, but the Hallows idea came straight out of left field. There has been not a hint or a tip that these would be important - they have never been so much as mentioned in the previous six books. Even the kid's tale that the Hallows are introduced in has not been used before this! And, with their introduction, Rowling suddenly has an awful lot to do and tell in the space remaining to her (which is why I object so vociferously to the period Harry and Hermione spent camping and trying to work out where they were supposed to go next - this was essential space that could have been used to flesh out the plot a little better and make it run more smoothly).

I also HATED the way that Dumbledore's back story was filled in during this novel, and how clumsily Rowling tried to bring in an element of doubt against the wonderfully strong character that has been the mainstay of the series. If we had seen this Dumbledore in prior books, then maybe there would not have been as much heartbreak evident at the end of the sixth book! Sure, Harry needs to feel conflicted about his quest and whether he would succeed, but does Dumbledore have to become so different?

My final issue is a more personal complaint - oh, how I missed Hogwarts and the characters we had come to know so well over six books! I believe there is a huge amount of mileage in Rowling writing the story of Hogwarts during that seventh year whilst Harry et al were elsewhere - I would love to have seen more of Snape in the role of headmaster, and the rise to power of the Carrows, and the way that Neville really came into his own and led Dumbledore's Army in revolt. I think this would make an amazing book and really fill in the gaps that were, of necessity, in the Deathly Hallows.

Obviously, there are moments of pure brilliance where Rowling really succeeds in writing a fitting finale to the series. The best of these by far is the chapter where Harry finally learns the truth about Snape. This is my favourite extract of the entire series:

" 'But this is touching, Severus,' said Dumbledore seriously. 'Have you grown to care for the boy, after all?'

'For him?' shouted Snape. 'Expecto patronum!'

From the tip of his wand burst the silver doe: she landed on the office floor, bounded once across the office and soared out of the window. Dumbledore watched her fly away, and as her silvery glow faded he turned back to Snape, and his eyes were full of tears.

'After all this time?'

'Always,' said Snape."

I was moved to tears when I learnt the true motivation behind Snape's behaviour towards others in the books.

Of course, the last few chapters where Harry faces Voldemort are excellent and fulfilling (although Rowling keeps in the big reveal between Harry and Dumbledore for one final book!) I also liked the contentious Epilogue of the Deathly Hallows as well, although I know a number of people who refuse to accept that it even exists.

Altogether and overall, my review of this book can be summed up in three words: a little disappointing. I was expecting fireworks and got a damp Squib (geddit?) However, this doesn't change my opinion of the series as a whole, and my opinion is thus: I have just finished reading a modern classic; a series that deserves read after read, and should be handed down to our children in the same manner as C S Lewis' Narnia books have done. They are no less than brilliant.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince is a breathless ride, from the first couple of sequences involving the Muggle Prime Minister and then Snape performing a mysterious Unbreakable Vow with Narcissa Malfoy to the heartbreaking funeral of one of my favourite characters.

It seems as though Rowling has achieved once again the tight plotting and exciting storyline that she managed in the Prisoner of Azkaban - this sixth book in the series is by far the best since that highlight.

Here we explore a great deal of Voldemort's back story through the use of memories that Dumbledore has collected from various people who had dealings with the Dark Lord. I loved delving into the why of Voldemort and how he became the pale and snakelike creature he now is from starting out as Tom Riddle.

As well as this, Rowling introduces the idea of Horcruxes - unlike some of the other items she has introduced into previous books just to fulfil some specific use, the Horcrux is much more than this and pulls together the plotlines that have gone before (e.g. the diary of the second novel). I enjoyed how Harry had to pursue Professor Slughorn in order to gain the final memory that would reveal Voldemort's plans.

Slughorn was an interesting addition to the cast of characters - a genial and rather shallow man, weak and somewhat cowardly. His arrival allowed Snape to finally take on the role of Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, and pushed Harry into taking Potions and thereby discovering the textbook that was once owned by the Half-Blood Prince of the title.

I adored the fact that Hermione was deeply jealous of Harry's newfound ability in Potions. I also liked the way that Harry used the notations of the Prince in his textbook - although this lead to one rather nasty and gruesome moment.

In fact, this book is heavy on the nasty events. It is emphasised how much the wizarding world has changed and grown more distrustful. Some pupils are no longer allowed to attend Hogwarts; each day Hermione scans the Daily Prophet to see who has died; and there are gory moments in the plot (such as when Draco and Harry face off against each other).

There are many moments that make this book one of the best in the series. For instance, I deeply appreciated the beautiful touch of Dumbledore saying, at the start of the book, that Harry would be safe because he was with Dumbledore - and then at the end of the book, Dumbledore says that he knows he will be alright because he is with Harry. It is a very poignant moment and reveals the deep feelings of love and respect that Dumbledore has for Harry.

I enjoyed finding out why Tonks' appearance and Patronus had changed, and I rejoiced when Harry and Ginny finally came together. Another paragraph that had me close to tears was when Harry realised that Luna and Neville were the only two members of the DA who had responded to Hermione's summons - very moving and honest.

Once again, the gloom of the book is disappated somewhat by some comedy moments - these included the Apparation lessons and test, and Ron's whole relationship with Lavender (pure comedy gold at times - Won Won!)

This book is excellent - thrilling and emotional in equal measure. And I defy anyone not to feel a tremendous sense of loss when they realise that the seventh book will not include Hogwarts, by now a character in its own right. I look forward immensely to the climax of the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

I have to confess that, on my first reading of the Order of the Phoenix, I was disappointed but, on reflection, I think that this might be because of the excitement on the lead-up to the book's release. Certainly on this read I found the book extremely gripping and exciting, with a great deal of plot progression.

Here Harry is dealing with the aftermath of the return of Lord Voldemort, and coping with the fact that he is kept very much in the dark about what is happening. While at the Dursley's over the summer, he has been relying on the Muggle news to see whether Voldemort has started the expected killing spree and reign of terror. When Harry and his cousin Dudley are attacked by Dementors, Harry is forced to do magic outside of Hogwarts - something expressly forbidden - and is summoned to a hearing. This is where he begins to learn that times are changing - his relationship with Dumbledore is strained and distant; the Minister of Magic refuses to believe that Voldemort is back and a truly chilling new character (Delores Umbridge) takes on the role of Defence of the Dark Arts professor.

Harry's fifth year at Hogwarts is dark, dark, DARK! He is reviled by many of his previously friendly classmates for telling stories to gain attention; he starts having dreams that leads him to believe that he is starting to feel what Voldemort is feeling (including his glee as he commits murder); and he suffers a massive setback in his Quidditch career.

A lot of characters really develop through this book and it is fantastic to read more indepth plotlines for Ron, Fred and George, Ginny and Snape amongst others. Here we have, for example, an extremely illuminating glimpse into one of the reasons why Snape hates Harry so intensely. Ginny becomes a feisty and very effective witch, while the Weasley boys provide much of the comic relief. I was rather pleased to see Ron, in particular, step out of Harry's shadow in a subplot about him joining the Quidditch team. Neville Longbottom, also, is treated well in this book and we finally learn more about him.

Two new characters really steal the show though. One of these is the dreamy Luna Lovegood - piercingly honest at times, but also believes in fairytale creatures and gossipy stories from the wizarding world. The other is the aforementioned Umbridge - for once Harry is struggling against a person who is not part of Voldemort's group of Death Eaters. Umbridge is cruel, vindictive, truly repulsive to read about. You feel like cheering when George and Fred take her on! There are some sickening moments in the story where Harry and Umbridge have quiet scenes together, such as his string of detentions at the start of the school year - these made me shudder.

Obviously there are faults with the book. This is the one where Harry develops teenage angst. For a long period at the beginning of the book he is sulky, sullen and often shouts in CAPITALS to make his point - I guess he is quite accurately written in terms of becoming a teenage, but it becomes tiresome very quickly.

The subplot with Harry and Cho's 'romance' goes nowhere fast, and fizzles out rapidly when Rowling decides who she would most like to see Harry with - a relationship that has been signposted since the second book, but is none the less welcome for starting to take shape.

The beginning of the book is slow and dragging, up to and including where Harry meets the Order in Sirius' house. Lots of names are thrown in quickly and some of the characters suffer from not being fleshed out at all.

Unlike the fourth book in the series, these are really minor quibbles. Considering that Rowling is now dealing with a large ensemble cast, each of them seemed to get enough 'screentime' in this book. It was an extremely long book to read, but here I savoured each page rather than skipping through filler as I did with Goblet of Fire. Even the owls Hedwig and Pigwidgeon are given enough character for us to grow ever-more fond of them.

The DA lessons were incredibly funny and heartening to read about in the midst of all the gloom. Rowling also writes very effectively about the heavy workload of the students as they study for their OWLs (I love that OWLs and NEWTs correspond to our GCSEs and A Levels). It is also fun watching the three leads start to think about life after Hogwarts.

I think the real high point of this book is the fact that Rowling no longer feels the need to explain every little detail of the past four books - it is as though she now assumes that those picking up the book have already devoured her previous novels in the HP series, and so she steams straight into the plot. And the plot leads us on a rollarcoaster ride that culminates in the most dramatic climax yet (although Rowling still can't resist the big reveal between Harry and Dumbledore - however, here I can forgive her much since Dumbledore's quiet and dignified explanation had me close to tears).

As I have commented on in prior reviews it is the little details of the wizarding world that, I believe, makes these books so beloved. I shall pull out here the example of the students having to write a certain amount of feet or inches of parchment for essays rather than using a page or word count.

Finally, I leave you with a quote that had me giggling from Ron's description of his practical Divination examination: "He (Ron) had just made Harry feel rather better by telling him how he had told the examiner in detail about the ugly man with a wart on his nose in his crystal ball, only to look up and realise he had been describing his examiner's reflection."

A great addition to the Harry Potter series.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire is the one where Harry takes part in the Tri-wizard Tournament. The one where hormones start flying. The one where Voldemort grows ever stronger. The one where J K Rowling decided everyone needed more door-stops...

I want it said right from the beginning of this review that I adore the Harry Potter series in its entirety, but I do feel that some books are stronger than others. And this is one of the weakest in the series in my opinion.

For some reason, Rowling decided that she could no longer write her story in a few hundred pages - instead, we're presented with a positive brick of a book that stretches on for many hundreds more than I felt it should be. If all of the book had been written with the tight plotting and efficient writing of the Prisoner of Azkaban, I would have been immensely happy. However, there are long periods of "filler" and subplots that seem to go nowhere.

I couldn't believe that the whole section concerning the Quidditch World cup took a couple of hundred pages to go through. There were a lot of "and then...." teenage-diary moments. "And then Harry and Ron went upstairs. And then they went to sleep. And then they were woken up. And then they walked up the hill to the Portkey. And then they found their place in the campsite". A lot of this details could have been glossed over and shown to us through better writing.

It took another hundred or so before the Tri-wizard Tournament was introduced! I know that Rowling was building in certain events that were only revealed in their importance later on, but none of it was done in the same accomplished manner she achieved in the previous novel.

We were also subjected to two of her most common flaws. The first of these is introducing new items into the wizarding world to suit where the plot is going - here we had two new wizarding schools in the form of Durmstrang and Beauxbatons, Portkeys and Veritaserum. I just felt that, if I had been in Harry's position, either I would have asked whether Hogwarts was the only wizarding school or Hermione would have volunteered the information at an earlier stage. But Rowling needed to have other competitors for the Tournament, and so into the book they came. Portkeys were introduced at the beginning of the book so that Harry could be whisked away using one of them at the end. It is disappointing to see an author with such a high profile use such a lazy method.

Her second massive flaw is giant dialogue-heavy sections where she, again, tells rather than shows. Here we have three! Firstly, Rowling uses Sirius to info-dump heavily about Voldemort and his Death Eaters (another phrase that we have never heard before this book). Then she "introduces" the Pensieve (although I am more forgiving of this since they do not seem very common in the world of wizards) to info-dump about the trials of the Death Eaters and shows the fate of Barty Crouch's son. And finally we have a long dialogue section with Barty Crouch Jr where he is under the influence of Veritaserum (mentioned as a throwaway line by Snape so that it can be used later in the book!) and explains his actions over the course of the novel. This, again, is incredibly lazy and leads to sections of information overload.

As I have said, I feel that the novel could have been shorter and snappier. We could easily have lost the whole Liberation of the House Elfs subplot involving Hermione - it didn't really progress at all. The lessons describing the Blast-Ended Skrewts were tiresome and boring - something I never expected from sequences with Hagrid. Although I could see the use of Rita Skeeter and the newspapers imparting stories, I felt too much page space was given to her.

This review is starting to sound rather scathing, but I genuinely liked the book other than those issues I have raised above. There is the usual charm and warmth you gain from reading a Harry Potter book. Seeing the pupils from the different schools and the wizards at the Quidditch World Cup added a new depth to the world.

The end play with Voldemort was thrilling and extremely dark. I loved the tasks in the Tri-Wizard tournament.

I felt that Dumbledore really grew as a character in this book - I especially appreciated the lines where Dumbledore explodes into Moody's office and Harry can finally see why he is the only wizard that Voldemort fears. He is stern and immensely powerful - this is very strong writing. I felt that Snape also gained valuable "screentime" and the start of his ambiguous relationship with both sides of the wizarding battle is explored.

There were moments of comic delight in the book - principally because of the increasing hormones evident in Hogwarts. Ron and Hermione are the main source of this, and it is a delight to see that their bickering is starting to reveal true feelings.

To sum up - the Harry Potter series is a tour de force and a marvel to read, but sometimes you have to slog a little, and this book is one of the slogs. Moments of brilliance as usual, but some rather laboured writing and wouldn't have suffered from being a couple of hundred pages shorter.

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

I have to say upfront that Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is easily my favourite of the Harry Potter books, so this review is likely to be extremely biased but I shall try to remain objective! Harry is in his third year at Hogwarts, and the big news is the escape of Sirius Black from Azkaban prison, a dangerous and deadly wizard. Harry learns that, for some reason, Sirius is after him. Due to the increased security at Hogwarts, Dumbledore has reluctantly allowed the Dementors - ghostly cloaked beings that suck the happiness from a person's soul and eventually drive them mad - to guard the castle. The book uncovers the mystery of who Black is and why he is so keen to find Harry at Hogwarts, while also dealing with the regular shenanigans of a Hogwarts school year.

This book is where Rowling tightens up her act, in my opinion. The plot is excellently written with not too many of the loopholes that characterised the earlier two books. The use of the Time Turner was not too much of a McGuffin, especially since Hermione had been using it already during the school year. It was sleek and not too long, a fault of her later books. I enjoy reading Harry Potter books, but the later books definitely suffer from being longer than a few hundred pages. Here Rowling is forced to be efficient with her story, and it is all the more effective for it.

By now the wizarding world is firmly established, but Rowling still manages to spice up the book with many lovely little details. We hear more about the lessons taken by the children, and some new classes are introduced, such as Care of Magical Creatures and Divination. Some of the little details are my very favourite moments in the book, such as when Hermione achieves over three hundred percent in her Muggle Studies class. I also love the throwaway line from during Ron and Harry's Charms exam: "Hermione had been right; Professor Flitwick did indeed test them on Cheering Charms. Harry slightly overdid his out of nerves and Ron, who was partnering him, ended up in fits of hysterical laughter and had to be led away to a quiet room for an hour before he was ready to perfom the Charm himself." This always makes me giggle.

The village of Hogsmeade is another charming addition to Hogwarts, what with the sweet shop and the pub serving Butterbeer (which sounds delicious!). I do wonder at the fact that Hogsmeade has never been mentioned in two previous books though! Sometimes Rowling decides to add in features that have never cropped up previously and it can be a little jarring.

And she does love the big reveal! Here we have Sirius and Lupin going over the events of twelve years ago AND covering some of their school days, including why Snape hates them so, in a long dialogue-heavy section. I feel that this could have been spread out across the book in a better way, so that it didn't come across as much as an explanation to bring us (the reader) up to speed.

There were some wonderful new characters, such as Professor Lupin - I have always wished that he could have continued as the Defence of the Dark Arts teacher. However, I did not like Professor Trelawny much at all - the scenes in her classroom were dull and dragged for me.

Finally, I would comment on the fact that Rowling cannot seem to write an exciting Quidditch match - they all seem to be Lee Jordan commenting on players throwing the ball to each other, and then Harry catches the Snitch in some weird and wonderful way. Mind, I don't think it would be easy to write an interesting football or rugby match into a novel either - they are just too dynamic for the written word.

These are very minor niggles. In my view this is a richly entertaining and imaginative story, in which the main characters really develop. I appreciated the strong plotline. I cannot wait to read the next one!

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry has had a miserable summer. None of his friends have written to him and he wonders whether Hogwarts and the world of wizardry that he discovered the year before is just a dream. Four weeks before he is due to return to school he has a visit from Dobby the House Elf who warns him away from returning to Hogwarts. And so we embark on another year at Hogwarts and another mystery - this time involving the Chamber of Secrets, of the title.

I still thoroughly enjoyed Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, but not quite as much as the first. The main reason for this was the clumsy need to recap that Rowling displayed. The worst instance was when Colin and Harry are walking to the Quidditch pitch and Harry has to explain how it all works - it isn't completely unforgiveable since Colin has only just started at Hogwarts, but I felt it was superfluous nonetheless, and this was not the only instance.

My other reason for the half star being dropped was Gilderoy Lockhart, a very tiresome character who boasts constantly about his achievements. I can see how some people might regard him as humourous but I begrudged any of his 'screentime' and wished he hadn't been introduced.

In this book the fright factor is increased. There is a spine chilling scene in the Forbidden Forest, especially if you are not that fond of spiders, and I still have nerves when Harry faces off against Tom Riddle and he reveals who he actually is. Some younger readers might well be scared by some of the moments in this story.

Once again, the characters are fleshed out fantastically, even minor characters such as Lee Jordan (who commentates the Quidditch matches in a very entertaining manner). All of them are extremely memorable and, even in just this second book of the series, very familiar to the reader. It is a tribute to Rowling's writing of these characters that I never mix up my Professor Sprout with my Professor Flitwick - each of the people who roam the wizarding world have their own characteristics and personalities.

The little details also charmed me. I love the fact that the students have to turn in essays of a certain length in inches on their rolled parchment, rather than word count or pages. I enjoy the Dickensian element of the story - the quills for writing, the clothes and robes. The descriptions of the feasts are unbelievable - they make you wish you could be transported to eat there.

This is not my favourite of the seven in the series for reasons detailed above, but it is still a great read!

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

I don't give out five star ratings very often. In my view a book has to be simply excellent to warrant it - it has to be a book that I return to again and again. In my opinion, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone falls into this category. It isn't as though it's a perfect book - the writing is pretty ropey at times and the basic story is not dissimilar to others I have read - but it is a warm, entertaining, and very inventive read.

Who doesn't know the story by now? Harry Potter is on the cusp of his eleventh birthday, living with the beastly Dursleys, when he is visited by Rubeus Hagrid who informs Harry that he is a wizard. From here Harry goes to Hogwarts, School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. He finds out that he is famous, thanks to events that occurred when he was just a child and managed to defeat Voldemort (or He Who Must Not Be Named). In this first tale about Harry, we are swept into the world of wizardry and straight into a first-class mystery about the object being guarded by a three-headed dog...

So why do I love this book so much? Well, I can tell you why I don't love it! The plot is straight out of other books - who hasn't read about the orphan child who discovers hidden powers, and learns to use them in order to defeat evil? When have we not met a kindly elderly gentleman with long white hair and rather formidable magic skills? I can name a number of authors who have written about similar ideas, especially in the field of fantasy. Rowling is writing nothing original here, in terms of plot.

The reason why I was so taken by this lovely debut novel is the 'surroundings' to the plot. The world of Hogwarts and the fantastic little twists on familiar items that Rowling adds in are simply superb. Right from the first time we hear about chocolate frogs that can actually jump, and portraits which the subjects sometimes leave, I was hooked and felt that every little detail of the world was delightful.

Rowling also writes with great humour and an appreciation for the minds of children, and what would appeal to them. My favourite moment in this respect is when Harry and Ron are being held by the Devil's Weed and Hermione is fretting about not having wood for a fire when Ron yells "Have you gone mad? Are you a witch or not?" The relationship between the three main characters is written beautifully, from the way they defend each other to the bickering that breaks out amongst them.

In fact, all of the characters are very solid - it is easy to see this when people who have read the series pick out different favourites! I enjoyed the sarcasm and quiet menace of Snape, and was keen to find out more about the reasons why he hates Harry so much. McGonagall reminds me of my old English teacher (stern, but with a heart of gold underneath).

The writing is reminiscent of both Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl. From the former, Rowling cherrypicks ideas from her various school stories (e.g. Malory Towers - castle-like school on a cliff, with four Houses, travel by train to get there). From the latter, she uses the sheer inventiveness and wit of taking common items or ideas and turning them on their heads. I have no objections to the hint of plagiarism since I love both authors and hence have taken this series to my heart as well.

Extremely good fun and a great way to encourage younger readers. Highly recommended.

Waiting, waiting, waiting....

I finished my Deverry read a while ago and pre-ordered The Silver Mage in anticipation of its release. I now have my grubby mits on a copy and I'm about 100 pages through (review will follow in due course). While I was waiting for The Silver Mage, I decided to whisk through the Harry Potter books AGAIN - my reviews will be in the next few (in fact, seven :-p) posts...

Friday, 16 October 2009

The Shadow Isle - Katharine Kerr

We're finally reaching the end of the Deverry saga with The Shadow Isle, the penultimate book in the series (the last is due to be published in October 2009). There is a sense of Katharine Kerr pulling together all those strands to finish off the series effectively, but some mysteries are still to be resolved. One thing I am glad of is that I don't actually know what Kerr will do to finish the story - although the Horsekin are currently 'evil', there has been enough switching sides and distinctions made between Horsekin and Gel da Thae for us to realise that no one is outright evil and everybody can be redeemed. In fact, this has been a theme running through the whole Deverry sequence - the idea that all beings (whether human, dwarf, Elcyion Lacar, Horsekin) have the ability to turn to good.

This book picks up where the previous left off - this is another feature of this last 'Act'. Each of the books drives forwards the plot and we rarely have any sequences now that take place in the past. We see Branna and Neb as part of the plot showing the Deverrians gear up for war and discover that the Horsekin are once again on the move. As part of this section, there is a subplot that deals with Neb and his fierce desire to become Nevyn once more. At times I felt like shaking Neb for his stupidity, but I found the resolution to be both sound and moving - the idea that Salamander has finally grown into a true dweomermaster and Wise One is very touching.

The main bulk of the book deals with the return of Haen Marn, and the introduction to the story of Rhodry's daughters Marnmara and Berwynna. Neither of these characters starts out as being someone I want to read more of - Marnmara is spoilt and Berwynna is envious and headstrong. As is usual, I do find myself warming to them over time though! This is one of Kerr's greatest strengths - she shows no fear in giving her characters real motivations and reactions, knowing that this may cause them to read in an unpleasant manner.

The last thread of the plot is concerning Rori and his mixed thoughts on whether he wants to remain a dragon. The book that may or may not hold the key to turning him back is currently lost, just one of the many plot points that Kerr will have to resolve in the final book. The others would include solving who or what Avain truly is, and uncovering the mystery of the otter shapeshifters that have stolen Kov.

Once again, a solid addition to the overall series. In my opinion Kerr has never reached the heights of her first quartet (starting with Daggerspell). The characters and events of those four books seemed to complete the series very effectively, and everything that has come after is just adding for the sake of it. Having said that, all the books are very readable. Still filled with details of medieval life, still characters that bring the events to life, still epic events. I look forward impatiently to the release of the final book.

The Spirit Stone - Katharine Kerr

The Spirit Stone is book five of the Dragon Mage sequence by Katharine Kerr. The events in this book follow on directly from those in the Gold Falcon - the joint armies of Westfolk, Deverry men and Mountain Folk are mustering in order to put Zakh Gral (the Horsekin fortress) to the sword. This time round we leave the stories of Branna and Neb, who remain behind at the dun. Instead Salamander and Dallandra come to the fore - dealing with a group of Gel da Thae who have been banished for using dweomer by those who follow Alshandra; finding and trying to discover the secrets of the black pyramid and the white; and trying to cure Rori's wounds.

I enjoyed this tale, finding a number of new story strands to enjoy and seeing where Kerr is filling some of the gaps from previous stories. For instance, we went back in time here to when Salamander was merely Evan (in his mother's language) and Ebany (in his father's) - a child of only a few years. It was a time where Dallandra had already gone to the Guardians and her son Loddlaen was growing up - where Nevyn realises that Loddlaen has suffered through being in Dalla's womb when she first travelled with Evandar and went to different worlds. It was interesting seeing how Loddlaen turned from an odd young man who struggled with dweomer to someone who was prepared to commit murder (eventually becoming the deranged mage we met at the time that Jill and Rhodry first came together).

Speaking of that, Branna and Rori also experience a heart breaking scene, where Branna only remembers that JIll was once friends with Rhodry before he turned dragon, and nothing more than that while Rori knows what truly passed between them.

Another fantastic scene was where Dalla tries to explain to Gerran the nature of war and the fact that no side will truly win since both commits atrocities in the name of what they believe in. Very strong and powerful.

In fact, there were only few bits to this novel that I found wearisome. One was actually the "war" against the Horsekin in Zakh Gral. It has been built up over the last book and a half to be something huge and menacing, yet was over extremely quickly and with very little loss of life or danger to the Westfolk/Deverry men. I understand the war is not yet over, but I did feel as though there would be more tension.

So, onto the next book in Kerr's neverending cycle - although I do see the finishing line now! In the next book I anticipate more of Rori and the rediscovery of Haen Marn!

P.S. I've no doubt that to anyone who has not read the previous books in the Deverry sequence this review is so much garbled mess, of characters and storylines that don't make much sense. For this reason I would urge people strongly to start with Daggerspell and move forwards in written order.

If anyone is trying to decide whether to read the Deverry books based on my review, I cannot recommend them highly enough. They are rich with details - realistic characters, political viewpoints, magic, adventure, romance, the Seelie, Elves, Dwarves, Dragons. Truly, there are few fantasy series that truly deserve the description "epic", but this is one of them. I believe that Kerr is enormously under-rated and has quietly put out one of the most accomplished long-running series in the field. Please don't miss out!

The Gold Falcon - Katharine Kerr

With The Gold Falcon Katharine Kerr is starting a new phase in the Deverry story. We move on fifty years or so from the climactic ending of The Fire Dragon, and times have changed. The Horsekin have started marauding the Deverry border, killing the men and enslaving the women. There is a fragile alliance between the Deverry folk, the Rhiddaer and the West Folk (Kerr's version of elves). And Alshandra's repute as a goddess is growing, Raena now considered a martyr to the cause.

Our main dweomer workers that hold the book together here are Dallandra and Salamander, who has fought hard to retrieve his sanity. The latter rescues two young lads from the slaughter of their village by Horsekin, and takes them to the sanctuary of Tieryn Cadryc's dun. Neb, the older of the two, is a very familiar soul to Salamander - finally the soul of Nevyn has been reborn. In the same Dun he discovers the reborn soul of Cullyn (now called Gerran) and Jill (now called Branna), and realises that important times are coming.

This book fits well into the overall sequence of Deverry novels, but on its own is not *that* entertaining, since it is mostly setting up future events. It was interesting enough seeing Neb and Branna be drawn to each other, and to discover their potential dweomer power. It was also frustrating and heartbreaking to hear about Rhodry's current plight (as the dragon Rori). Mostly we are being given hints as the extent of the doom that awaits if the Horsekin cannot be stopped.

Kerr writes fantastically well about the medieval life of Deverry. Every little detail reinforces the fact that she has enormous skill at world building, such as hearing about each gwerbret's hall having an honour side (for the nobles) and a riders side (for the common born). We hear about the women having to make marriages for the sake of bloodlines and needing to be above reproach so that no one can doubt the parentage of the heirs to come.

Equally, she gives us a completely different culture when we ride with the West Folk on the plainlands - here, the women have much more freedom and there is a casual approach to leadership. The marked difference between the two people is emphasised well by Kerr.

I did enjoy this book, but it took a good fifty pages before I relaxed into the new characters - especially with Nevyn and Jill carrying different names and essentially being fresh to the story. In some respects it is great having familiar characters turn up again in the Deverry novel - it lends the books a feeling of comfort - but in other respects it can be hard to invest in the new character as much as you did in the old. I like Neb, but I liked Nevyn more; on the other hand I far prefer Branna to Jill, so I guess it runs both ways!

To recap, a decent enough entry into the Deverry sequence, but certainly not a standalone novel and mostly set up future events. Slightly disappointing after the brilliance of The Fire Dragon.

The Fire Dragon - Katharine Kerr

The Fire Dragon is the third book in the Dragon Mage sequence. In this book we spend about half of our time in the past, concluding the storyline concerning Lillorigga, princess Bellyra, Maddyn the bard and the prince Maryn. The second half of the book shifts the plot forwards concerning Rhodry, Dallandra, Niffa, Raena and the dragon Arzosah.

In my opinion this is by far the best book written by Katharine Kerr in the whole Deverry series. I was gripped throughout. Of necessity considering the curse of the dweomer tablet, the first half of the story was bleak and heartbreaking. A number of my very favourite characters from this particular timeline came to fairly dire ends, which left me close to tears. Each of the various characters was treated with respect, except for Maryn and Oggyn - by the end of this section, it became very easy to hate both of them.

I was mightily relieved that Rhodry's story pushed forwards - but the ending to the book also left me near weeping with how sad, and yet how appropriate it was. Rhodry truly stepped forward to save the people he both cared for and had grown apart from. He and Arzosah became true soul mates in terms of how they viewed each other.

The other character that came into her own in this novel was Dallandra. I made no secret in my reviews of the previous Deverry books that I held a great dislike for this Elven dweomer master. Her treatment of Aderyn and the way she pandered to Evandar's every whim annoyed me intensely, and every part of her journey seemed particularly boring in comparison to the other threads of the story that were occurring. However, here she became a compassionate and wise teacher, someone who put others before herself and sought only to do what is right - including trying at the very end to redeem Raena.

This novel left a very powerful impact, and I sense that Kerr is starting to unwind the real crux of the Deverry tale. I look forward eagerly to more.

The Black Raven - Katharine Kerr

The Black Raven is the second book in the Dragon Mage sequence from Katharine Kerr. Once again, we spend the majority of the book in the past, exploring Lillorigga's burgeoning dweomer power and her relationship to the various souls who she is destined to encounter again when she becomes Niffa in the future. At the moment it is fairly confusing trying to keep straight who is who in both the past and the current incarnations. The only person who I can really keep straight is Maddyn the bard (in the past) becoming Rhodry Maelwaedd (in the current), and this is due to the silver rose ring.

Once again I would urge anyone interested in this book to trek right back to the beginning of the books (starting with Daggerspell). Kerr herself has explained that her books should be seen almost as three acts in a play, or as a Celtic knot, whereby the complicated pattern will only become clear once you have seen the whole.

Although I adore spending time in the past - particularly with Lillorigga, who I believe to be one of Kerr's strongest characters - in this instance I became frustrated with the fact that Rhodry's story has not progressed AT ALL in two books. He is still sitting in Cengarn, waiting for the longest winter in the world to end so that his plot can move forward. The only times we ever visit Rhodry is so that we can be introduced to a particular storyline from the past, such as why Raena and Rhodry feel such enmity.

Saying this, the book is still worthy of four stars in my opinion, because Kerr writes the past so beautifully. In fact, barring the few outright mentions of dweomer or Wildfolk, this could be a very strong historical novel about Celtic times. She brings to life the politics, the in-fighting, the heraldry, the weaponry. It is very easy to enjoy all of the little details that she adds. One I would mention is the fact that the characters only know medicine and surgery as much as though living in those times for real would know. So, when the princess Bellyra is suffering from postnatal depression, Nevyn talks about her humours being out of balance. I also love how he ponders why some wounds fester, while others don't, and why blood can be different colours depending on where the body is cut in battle. This is all matters that you would expect chirurgeons of the time to be frustrated by.

Nevyn was also a deeply welcome return to the Deverry books, both in this novel and the previous. During the Westlands cycle he was absent and I found Jill unable to fill his shoes. Despite his massive dweomer power, he is wise and compassionate and enjoys the details of people's lives. He takes apprentices willingly and with patience. He is definitely one of the strongest parts of the Deverry series and it is a joy to read more of him.

All in all, really enjoyed this and cantered through the rather slight volume (in comparison to prior books in the series). Looking forward to the next.

The Red Wyvern - Katharine Kerr

The Red Wyvern is the first book in a new cycle of novels set in Deverry by Katharine Kerr, and as such new readers can start out at this point. I would recommend vehemently, though, that they do not since a number of storylines from prior novels come together or are referenced in this novel.

For the first time we drift in time forwards rather than backwards, albeit for a short time, when we discover that Haen Marn is adrift in time as well as space. A soldier from a more modern Scotland is cast into the mythical isle for a night, showing us in the process that Angmar is pregnant with Rhodry's child.

The majority of the novel takes place in the past though, taking us to a continuation of the tale of the civil war that tore Deverry in two - where Maryn becomes the High King under Nevyn's tutelage. The story is concentrated on Lillorigga (who we know in the current times as Niffa, the ratter's daughter) and her mother Lady Merodda - the person who becomes Raena, the Black Raven, and causes Rhodry such heartache. Here we discover why Raena and Rhodry's Wyrds are so tangled.

This is a great return to form for Kerr. I was somewhat disappointed in the last few novels she turned out - she seemed very much to be writing by the numbers. Here her writing comes alive again - with intrigue, scheming, battle, fair maidens, dweomer mysteries, and high adventure. I loved the character of Lillorigga, who came blessed with good sense and honour.

I was somewhat annoyed with Kerr's descriptive passages that seem lifted from one book to another. On the one hand you could say that it reinforces the effect she wishes to create, but I find the copy and paste technique a little lazy.

Once again I sighed and slowed down my reading during each portion of the book that dealt with Evandar and his brother Shaetano, who has now taken over where Alshandra left off. I can understand that the Fae - as these Guardians seem based on - live in a dreamlike Otherland, and I accept that Kerr might well be writing about them in a capable manner, but it slows the book down and I find myself bored of their antics. I am particularly frustrated with Evandar's endless scheming that (as Dallandra says) brings naught but hurt to the people they affect.

In fact, all of the book that has dweomer in it directly, I find fairly tiresome. I strongly believe that Kerr's strongest ability is to bring to very vivid life the Celtic medieval world. She writes extremely capably about life in a dun; her battle scenes are fascinating and realistically chaotic; and her strong female characters are countered heavily by the responsibilities they hold in earlier times (e.g. never being part of councils, doing all the sewing for the people of the dun, always being above reproach in terms of producing an heir for their lord).

This book dealt greatly with that element of Kerr's writing and hence I award it four stars, and look forward again to the next in the cycle.

A Time of Justice - Katharine Kerr

With A Time of Justice Katharine Kerr wraps up the Westlands cycle. It is a fairly decent final book, bringing a number of ongoing stories together and finishing things decently. With that said, it felt a little soulless to me - with her first four books, Kerr made the characters come alive and I had a lot of interest in their doings. Gradually I am losing interest in Rhodry and co.

In this novel we head back in time for a time, and that section was by far the most gripping. We meet a previous incarnation of Raena, the raven-woman, known in those times as Lady Mallona. It is no accident that my favourite part of the book coincides with us reading about Jill and Rhodry while they rode the long road as silver daggers. I far preferred the two characters at that point.

Arsozah is fun to read about - the dragon seems to be the only character at this point that Kerr seems to have fun writing about.

So an almost anti-climatic end to the Westlands cycle. Kerr has continued writing about Rhodry (or Rori Dragon-friend, as he should also be known as now) but I find myself losing interest in where she can take the Deverry world.

A Time of War - Katharine Kerr

A Time of War is the third book in the second Deverry quartet. Here all the action takes place in the present - we meet the Rhiddaer folk and the Gel Da'Thae (in the form of Jahdo and Meer), who quest to Deverry in search of Meer's brother. When they find him, they discover he is part of a major plot dreamt up by Alshandra in order to regain her daughter. At the same time Jill charges Rhodry to find the only weapon that will help the Deverrians in their war against the Horsekin and Alshandra's evil followers.

So, I was disappointed in this book - I feel as though Kerr has lost her way a little. One of the high points of her first quartet is the fact that the storyline flits back and forth in time, deepening your affection for various characters in the different lives they have lived. Here, when she moves to a more linear storyline, I find myself less entranced.

Part of the problem is that I'm finding it hard now to care about ANY of the characters. In a previous review for an earlier book, I noted that Jill is far less likeable as a dweomermaster than as a silver dagger. The last character that I held deep regard for is Rhodry and in this book he seemed to descend into a unique kind of madness. He speaks often of courting his Lady Death and Kerr over-uses the beserker howl of laughter that had, up to now, been used effectively to build Rhodry's character.

I already didn't care for either Evandar or Dallandra, and here they crop up time and again in a very tedious storyline about Dallandra being kidnapped by Evandar's brother. All the time spent in Evandar's dreamlike homeland is slow and plodding and doesn't seem to advance the plot at all.

I would also like to complain that there were a number of scenes where Jill did etheric scrying, or changed into her falcon , which seemed lifted in their entirety from earlier books. There are only so many times I can read that without becoming bored.

I did like a number of aspects of the book. These included the touching scenes between Jill and Rhodry as they reached out in friendship and found a sort of reconciliation. Also, Kerr is extremely able at drawing distinctions between each of the different locations - in previous books, Bardek has been richly imagined; here we delve more into the homeland of the dwarves, which is given a very different feel to the other lands. Her world-building is on a more cosy scale than, say, the GRRM's of the world, but very effective nonetheless.

Despite the fact that the idea of a dragon is brought into the story in an abrupt manner (barring one brief paragraph two books ago), the introduction of Arzosah adds at least half a star to my rating. If you are as fond of decently-written dragon characters as I am, you will love Arzosah, who is both beautiful and slyly clever. The dialogue between her and Rhodry lends real vigour to the last part of the book.

This is a real lapse in form compared to the previous books, but I have high hopes of the last book in this quartet where a number of plot points should be resolved satisfactorily.

A Time of Omens - Katharine Kerr

A Time of Omens is the second book of the second Deverry quartet, and this is no more than a competent entry. For some reason, despite the easy reading, it took me days to get through and I really struggled at times to muster much interest in the doings of Rhodry.

In this book he spends a number of years wandering in the Westlands, integrating himself into the lives of the Elcyion Lacar. It is, for an ex-gwerbret and ex-silver dagger, an idyllic life, which is cut short by the doings of one Alshandra (one-time lover of Evandar who we met for the first time in A Time of Exile). Evandar himself advises Rhodry to seek protection in the land of Deverry and he takes to the long road once more.

At the same time Jill has gone seeking the remnant of the Elven race who fled south when the Hordes destroyed their homelands. She and Salamander spend some time in Bardek, where he meets and marries the reborn soul of his previous love. He also decides that the dweomer is no longer his path.

We get the obligatory visit to a past incarnation of Rhodry (this time a continuation of the timeline where Maryn is become High King of all Deverry), and the book finishes off with a quick canter to a few years down the line (approx 1100, when most of the 'present' storyline has been 1090's up til now). Rhodry is older, but still doesn't look it - he and Yraen rescue a young lass who turns out to be carrying a very important child...

So, all of this brief outline of the plot shows that we are essentially reading a number of different short stories in our path to understanding the overall tapestry. I love all the interwoven threads, but I have an ongoing complaint that this does affect the pacing of each novel. Just when you are enjoying the stories of one set of characters, you pick up with another set and have to learn affection for them. It helps that Kerr is dealing with reborn souls, so they are essentially the same character, but they have enough differing characteristics for them to jar slightly until you begin to pick up and follow their particular storyline.

I love the fact that Perryn is still hovering in the background and stepping into the story here and there. Kerr never forgets a character once they've proved useful and been introduced.

The ending is pretty abrupt, and, up to that point, not a great deal really happened! The title of the book is well-chosen - this book seems to be all about omens and bad tidings coming together. I'm sure they are a huge foretelling for the next couple of novels - we also have the issue of Rhodry's ring to deal with. But we did seem to tread water a little bit while Kerr put everything in place ready for us to move forward to the big reveal.

The other issue with the pacing came from more time being spent in Evandar's dreamlike world than in prior books. The Guardians really aren't my favourite characters at all, and they don't endear themselves to me any more here. Evandar is full of riddles, which is incredibly frustrating. Kerr does a good job in developing his character, being as he is supposed to be unable to feel compassion or understand human emotions. It doesn't help in making me want to read about his storyline.

So, a disappointing entry into the Deverry series, but a necessary one. Big warning here: new readers should not step into the Deverry series at this point! Go all the way back to Daggerspell!

A Time of Exile - Katharine Kerr

A Time of Exile is the first book in the second Deverry quartet. Disappointing in comparison to the first four books.

This book opens a number of years after the events in Daggerspell. Rhodry is getting older, but his Westfolk genes have given him long life and people are starting to mutter dweomer when they look at him. He stages his own death so that he is able to slip away gracefully from his life in Aberwyn. He meets Jill again when he heads into the lands of the Westfolk, the first time he has seen her since she left him for the dweomer. She is now a master, and refuses to consider the idea of a relationship between them.

Apart from those slim pickings in modern times, the rest of the novel takes place in the past. In this book the Westfolk and Aderyn take centre stage. I love Aderyn as a character - he is so calm and wise, and yet so very human. His doomed relationship with Dallandra was heart aching.

My average star rating for this book came from the fact that two of the subplots I found less than interesting. The Guardians are extremely fey, and I didn't particularly like either Elassario or Evandar. The periods of time that Dallandra spent with them was of necessity very dreamlike, but it affected the pacing of the story a great deal.

I also found the blue sprite that has hounded Rhodry through all of his many lives extremely tiresome. Jill's jealousy about his relationship with the sprite gave me hope that they could find a reconciliation, but it seems it is not to be, which saddens me. I liked Jill a great deal more when she was a lively, merry silver dagger following her love. As she has grown in dweomer, she has become hard and lacking in forgiveness and compassion. This is a shame - one of my favourite characters is now someone I don't really care for.

The final paragraph of the book was extremely intriguing and will guarantee that I read further!

Kerr's writing is still very competent, and her characters interesting to read about. I like the way that in each of the books you never know how much time you will spend in the present or in the past.

All in all, the poorer elements of this book would not be enough to discourage me from the rest of the series and I look forward to the next one.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

A review of Up - the latest Pixar film

Last night I went to watch Up - wow! I'm used to Pixar producing beautiful films, full of emotion, laugh-out-loud moments and adventure, but this one topped the lot, I think.
Within the first ten minutes I was sobbing like a baby and had total empathy for an animated character. Pixar have a rare talent.

The story concerns Carl Fredricksen, an elderly balloon salesman, who finally decides to pursue a life-long dream and flies his house to South America. His only issue is that he has a stowaway - Wilderness Explorer Russell.

The simple plot is raised above other films by the sheer imagination and heart on display. Once the unlikely duo (let's face it - this is a rather unusual buddy movie) meet up with Kevin - a large flightless bird - and Doug - a dog whose collar allows him to speak in many tongues, the film just sweeps along.

I love the fact that nothing is explained and everything is possible - for instance, the house being flown using thousands of helium balloons, and the dogs' collars allowing them to talk. Once you have suspended your disbelief for the duration, you just end up enjoying all the madcap moments.

There were some genuine belly-laughs from the audience while I watched the film, and I confess to crying with laughter when the Alpha Dog first speaks. I also loved any scene involving Kevin.

This has rapidly taken my place as 'favourite film of this year' (and I have watched some very good films). Almost more astoundingly, it is now my favourite Pixar film. Outstanding. Go see.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

Dragonspell - Katharine Kerr

For the first time in the Deverry series, all the action remains in the present day in Dragonspell rather than flitting back to fill gaps in the past, and the plot/pacing is all the tighter for it.

Rhodry has been sold as a slave on the Bardek islands, and one storyline follows his new life, intersected with information about Salamander and Jill chasing him down. Behind all this we discover more about the politics and machinations within the Hawks, the Brotherhood and, behind them all, the Old One - desperate enemy of Nevyn.

I really enjoyed the slow build and Jill's gradual realisation that the dweomer would be her future, no matter how much she wished otherwise. The climax to the Old One part of the story was very much D&D in nature (no real surprise considering Kerr's background in roleplaying games) and fairly purfunctory. No one was in any great danger, and everyone survived to live another day. What was more interesting was the final few chapters, where Jill makes the decision that releases Nevyn from his reckless vow and changes her life.

The sequence of four books are fairly generic fantasy, and certainly more groundbreaking fantasy has been produced since these. However, they should not be dismissed lightly. Kerr's writing is warm and welcoming. The characters are well-written and you care deeply about what happens to them. Kerr has told a fabulously rich story, which was improved immeasurably by the lack of a linear storyline.

I think that readers of any epic fantasy would gain a great deal of enjoyment from the Deverry series. Although I wish to all the Gods that the characters would stop tossing their heads to make a point!

Dawnspell - Katharine Kerr

Dawnspell is my favourite of the series so far! In this book the modern day plot follows Jill and Rhodry as they are forced apart by circumstance, and ends on a real cliffhanger where Rhodry vanishes, and it is up to Jill and Salamander to try and find him. In the past we meet another incarnation of Jill and Rhodry, at a time when the silver daggers are brought into being and Rhodry fights to bring the one true king of Deverry to power.

As I said in a previous review, because the flashbacks tend to be the bulk of the book, it is necessary to find them entertaining if the novel as a whole is to be considered a success. In this novel, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about Jill and Rhodry's previous life, especially the novelty of Jill being reborn into a man's body this time around. It was a gripping insert, and I loved to see exactly why the silver daggers came into being.

We saw a great deal more of modern times, and the politics affecting Deverry. Lovyan stepped onto centre stage, and I appreciated the fact that Kerr wrote into the story strong female characters. I got tired of Rhys' stubborn ways concerning Rhodry and was frighteningly indifferent to his plight.

One character I was genuinely curious about and repelled by was Perryn. His treatment of Jill, and the way he was able to entice women, was presented as extremely disturbing, especially because it was so involuntary.

Again, I loved the Wildfolk, and found it particularly amusing when Salamander used them to cow the pirate folk of Slaith.

All in all, a great book. Because of the extreme cliffhanger and the introduction of Taliesyn as a character, I am desperate to read the fourth in this sequence and think that Kerr is doing a fabulous job bringing the world of Deverry alive.