The Nightmare Stacks – Charles Stross

nightmare stacks cover

“A vampire is haunting Whitby; it’s traditional.”

If you’ve not read any of the Laundry Files before, this might not be the best place to start. It’s not the worst, either, since we’ve got a new PoV character in Alex Schwartz, but you’ll miss a lot of background. For instance, Alex’s unfortunate infection with V-syndrome, turning him into a PHANG (aka vampire). Or why ‘Mr Howard’ is spoken of in such revered terms, or what put Mo in the hospital. You don’t *need* to know any of that, but it was a fun journey learning all of that information.

If you are up to date, then Nightmare Stacks alludes to events to date while being its own story. Alex is dealing with his vamp- urm, PHANG-ness, the loss of his high-paying City job, and his new government employer seeing fit to twist the knife by sending him back to his home town of Leeds.

Meanwhile, in another dimension, the last bastion of a suspiciously Elfish race is deciding that their only hope is to find another world to conquer as their new home. Guess where looks promising?

I’ve always enjoyed the Laundry Files and the mix of humour and supernatural and mundane. To be honest, I didn’t entirely take to the previous volume (although I said nice things about it at the time), thinking that Mo made a poor lead compared to Bob Howard. Here, I’m still missing Bob, but the omniscient narrator voice wasn’t as irksome.

Story-wise, I found this a mixed bag. I actually got a little bored at points, with the author showing a whole lot of research on tanks and artillery and other zzzz items. The story concept wasn’t at all bad, but the revelation in some of the darker, nastier bits didn’t seem to be as well balanced with humour as I was expecting.

Still. A good read, and I’m looking forward to catching up with the two volumes that have been published since.

Paperback: 385 pages / 19 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Laundry Files book 7
Read from 22nd November – 9th December 2018

My rating: 7.5/10

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Muse of Nightmares – Laini Taylor

muse of nightmares cover

“Kora and Nova had never seen a Mesarthim, but they knew all about them.”

Usual warning: it’s going to be really difficult to talk about this book without risking spoilers for book 1, Strange the Dreamer, so if you haven’t read that and think you might want to – back away slowly!! 😉

The first instalment begins and ends with a tragedy, and this picks up immediately from events of book 1. As the different groups – godspawn, residents of Weep, and ‘faranji’ outsiders brought in to help – reel from such momentous happenings, new and old dangers combine to ramp up the tension levels.

There have been so many questions raised in this series: who were the ‘gods’, why was there a nursery full of their offspring, why did they disappear. These and more are answered over the course of this novel, and full marks that it never felt like an info dump, or overdose on the flashbacks.

I was a little thrown initially by the introduction of some new characters, but eventually the story unfurls to join the main one. There’s also a little link to Laini Taylor’s other series, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, which made me smile to see.

Overall I really enjoyed this book. It tied everything up nicely enough without feeling to pat, and at the same time left scope for possible further tales in this world. While the whole teen romance angle did very little for me, the story is not eye rollingly adolescent, by any means, and the mix of very very dark events with magic and hope worked well.

Recommended, as a duology.

Hardback: 514 pages / 64 chapters
First published: 2018
Series: Strange the Dreamer book 2
Read from 8th-21st November 2018

My rating: 8/10

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

The Crimes of Grindelwald poster

I wasn’t particularly impressed with 2016’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. It was nice to step back into the world of Hogwart’s trained witches and wizards, it looked great, but… meh. The story felt too unfinished, and I could sense a lot of nods to proper Potter-heads that I wasn’t ‘getting’, and that was rather annoying.

The second instalment suffers from the same flaws and then some. It still looks gorgeous, and as a switch-the-brain-off bit of entertainment, it’s not half bad. But it suffers majorly from middle film syndrome, meaning I was mentally scrabbling to remember anything about the first (rather forgettable, in too many ways) film, and no more satisfied about the story being told.

It gets worse: apparently those ‘in the know’ about Potter lore are quite upset about some plot points that change history mentioned in other books. As less of a fan I just got utterly confused between things I half thought I might have heard about, and turned out I was on the wrong track. Confused much?

Taken aside from the massive background of story, though, it is possible to just sit back and try to enjoy this for what it is – and it is a visual spectacular. But, maybe don’t expect much from the characters. Especially the female characters. Coming from a female writer, I was particularly irate at the male-dominated nature of this movie. Every single female character exists to serve a male story line, or to be a love interest. Every damn one. There’s already much ranting about Nagini – yes, the snake from HP – both in terms of gender and ethnicity, but as well she’s just a red herring. There’s no reason for it to be a HP character, and not just a random new person. Of course, it might all tie up three to six films down the line, but…! And that’s before I mention the awful arc for Leta Lestrange. Or the way the Goldstein sisters are used to further plot rather against the characters created in film one. Argh!

To be fair, Jude Law does a good Dumbledore junior, but even his motivations have been played about with rather to the detriment of the character.

So… looks great, has some entertainment value, but overall didn’t feel very well thought-out or finished in any way. And I’ll still go see the next one, sigh.

Released: 16th November 2018
Viewed: 23rd November 2018
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 6/10

Outlaw King (2018)

Outlaw King poster

Cinema and history do not always go well together, and if Braveheart is your reference for Scottish history – oy! Let’s not start there. Going in to the story of Scotland’s other big historical hero, Robert the Bruce, I was then facing some trepidation.

From and Aussie William Wallace (was I the only one chuckling at the film’s passing reference to him being dead already? Maybe it wasn’t meant as a movie swipe, hmm!) to an American Bruce, let me first say that Chris Pine does surprisingly well on the accent (actually, Glaswegian Tony Curran’s attempt at an island dialect is far more distracting).

As for the rest of the movie… well, it’s no Braveheart (ironically, that title was more Robert’s than William’s) and I mean that in a good way – mostly. It’s still not 100% historically accurate (and as another aside, I’d suggest children in Scotland are shamefully not being taught most of this – our own history – out of, what? Anti-nationalism?), but it doesn’t take half as many liberties in the name of telling a more rousing story.

And that in itself is a bit of a problem. Bruce was not an immediate hero, but the film has to err on the side of likeability. To be honest, he’s not entirely charismatic, either: whether by design or not, there’s an attempt at a lot of ‘acting via long moody looks’ that has mixed success. Also, the story sort of muddies an attempt at an ending – which, historically, is sort of fair, but… hmm.

Best bit of the whole movie – no, not the blink and you’ll miss ‘full frontal’ that got so much press, for goodness sake! – is the absolutely stunning Scottish scenery. The movie set in it is decent if not as awe-inspiring. Take that as you will!

Released: 9th November 2018
Viewed: 11th November 2018
Running time: 120 minutes
Rated: 18

My rating: 7/10

Wild Magic – Tamora Pierce

wild magic cover

“Each year, at the end of March, a great fair was held in Cira, the capital of Galla.”

When horse-wrangling Onua takes on a new apprentice, she gets more than she bargained for in Daine. As the two travel towards the capital and meet some familiar faces from Tamora Pierce’s Tortall-set works (the Alanna aka Song of the Lioness series was written before this), it becomes apparent that Daine’s ‘way with animals’ is so very much more.

The Immortals quartet has been re-realised following the new Tortall book, Tempests and Slaughter, which I hadn’t realised until now was a prequel, telling the early days of Numair aka Arram Draper – who appears here as a fully-fledged magician. He realises that Daine has ‘wild magic’, and takes her under his wing as the trio face an influx of immortals – creatures from myth, trapped for centuries in the realm of the gods, and for some unknown reason making appearances all across the land. Some – gryphons, undines – aren’t unwelcome, but more are the stuff of nightmare.

Tamora Pierce writes for a younger audience, so this is a gentle tale, with a young lead I would have adored back in the day. Daine is more shy, more of an outside, than Alanna – the only of Pierce’s books I was lucky enough to find when I was a pre-teen. Wild Magic has aged well, often a problem with 80s and 90s fantasy fiction, although it might be a tad unchallenging for those who prefer George RR Martin or Lord of the Rings.

I enjoyed the light read. I could easily imagine younger me envying Daine’s way with animals, and the way that helps her be accepted by so many important adults.

The author has added an afterword which I really liked – not least because it shows she uses the same ‘casting’ for her characters as I do in my own scribbles: picking famous actors to serve as reminders for physical appearance and mannerisms. It’s rare to see with such clarity the visual the author had in mind – certainly, picturing Numair as Jeff Goldblum has changed my mental image entirely!

NetGalley eARC: 400 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 1992
Series: The Immortals book 1 (of 4)
Read from 29th October – 5th November 2018

My rating: 8/10

Legion: The Many Lives of Stephen Leeds – Brandon Sanderson

legion cover

“My name is Stephen Leeds, and I am perfectly sane. My hallucinations, however, are all quite mad.”

Many Lives… gathers the three Legion novellas together in one volume. I received the first of these, Legion, from NetGalley, and it worked: I was hooked, and had to go grab the full book and remaining two stories.

The first installment impressed me with the level of backstory that was revealed and/or hinted at in a very compact form, while still telling a very interesting story – that of a camera that can take pictures of the past.

The second novella, Skin Deep, sees Stephen aka Legion, the man with many ‘aspects’ giving him expertise in anything he needs, approached to find a missing corpse. Twist? The dead man was a scientist working on using human DNA to encode data, like the world’s biggest and most ‘handy’ computer storage drive. Again, this is a fairly short story, but feels much much longer, just with the amount that is crammed in.

The final installment, Lies of the Beholder, gives the keen reader (ie me!) a little more of a personal slant. Aspects ‘die’, Stephen is in crisis, and we might even get to find out a little more about the mysterious Sandra…!

The novella form works brilliantly for these stories. Each is a fairly slim case for Stephen, but the hints and teasers about the man’s life and amazing brain are keeping you hooked as much as the plot. Brandon Sanderson’s preface talks about his idea of “Psychology-as-superpower”, which is absolutely fascinating.

Thoroughly enjoyed this, and I hope there might be more Legion stories to come.

HB: 340 pages / 45 chapters over 3 novellas
First published: 2018
Series: Legion books 1-3 omnibus
Read from 22nd-10th October 2018

My rating: 9/10

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)

bohemian rhapsody poster

The first proper album I ever bought was Queen’s A Kind of Magic. I sort of remember the Live Aid concert (I was a little young!) which forms the framework for this bio-pic of, if not the band, certainly lead singer, Freddie Mercury.

I’m still struggling to completely have an opinion on the movie. I *loved* the 2+ hours in the cinema – I laughed, I sniffled, and I could not sit still with the fabulous music. Is it a good movie? I dunno, but it was fun. Is it an accurate biography? I have no idea – certainly the timelines are messed about a little for dramatic effect, but I have to assume that band mates and producers, Brian May and Roger Taylor, weren’t going to let anyone be too mean to the late, great Freddie.

Certainly it all starts well. Moving away from his parents’ traditional family life, Farouk Bulsara offers to replace the singer in Brian and Roger’s band. From the first moment, his showmanship starts to grow and we get a super-speed through Queen’s creation and rise to mega-stardom, with some nice scenes of certain songs being crafted.

The real focus of the plot, however, isn’t the band but the frontman. Freddie has to come to terms with fame, his family’s disapproval of his lifestyle choices, his sexuality, and how these things collide. Fame and fortune aren’t guards against loneliness. Adrift in his own life, he’s easy pickings for the unscrupulous. He does come across a little as a victim, with perhaps hints that the ‘scandalous’ lifestyle was more association and gossip than reality, which may or may not be true.

You can’t review Bohemian Rhapsody without heaping praise on Rami Malek. The climax of the movie – that Live Aid set – is played almost in full. As the camera pulls out over the massive audience, I actually wondered if the big screens at the side of the stage were playing the real footage, so spot-on is Malek’s physical performance.

Absolutely recommended. Make up your own mind on how well it all fits together, but you are guaranteed a foot-stompingly great soundtrack along the way.

Released: 24th October 2018
Viewed: 26th October 2018
Running time: 134 minutes
Rated: 12A

My rating: 8.5/10