Legion (season 1)

We meet David Haller as a patient in Clockworks mental institution, where he’s been for the past several years after being diagnosed with schizophrenia. But what if the voices he hears aren’t mental illness at all – what if he’s actually one of the most powerful mutants on the planet?

Legion is part of the X-Men universe (and similar but not quite to Brandon Sanderson’s Legion, at least in theme), based on the Marvel Comics (which I’ve never read, so no views on the adaptation). However, this bears little resemblance to the movies, and is all the better for it, in my opinion. The look is oddly old-fashioned – fashion, old-school tech – maybe 60s or 70s, but it’s not a period piece. It’s not about saving the world, or acting like superheros, but the far more personal story of one man fighting for a life worth living.

Story-wise, this needs a little attentioned paid. David’s life goes from boring routine to terrifying flight; the amazement of learning about his new abilities and the horror of his past. Things jump back and forth between the different times and memories, really brilliantly mirroring some of the confusion of David’s illness.

As things progress, everything gets that bit weirder. There are other mutants, and a shadowy quasi-government department. There is a lot of mystery around David’s abilities and ‘illness’ – who or what is the yellow-eyed demon, for instance?

I absolutely loved this first series. It makes so much sense that mutant abilities could be mistaken for mental illness, and being told it’s actually super-power is still greeted with so much doubt. But then – oh! Yeah, no spoilers ūüėČ I particularly liked the performances of Dan Stevens as David, on his journey from meek to figuring himself out, and Aubrey Plaza as Lenny who gets to run the gamut of unhinged, sexy, predatory and just out there.

If you can, it really works as a binge-watch, one episode flowing into the next, helping you as best as you can to keep hold of the twisty thread of things. Everything is very weird, from the deep sea diver in an ice cube to the various powers, and the style is very reflective of this: tilt-shift camera shots, a bollywood number, odd mental tricks and traps. But if you’re willing to go for the ride, I absolutely think it’s worth it!

First broadcast: 2017 – rewatched ahead of final season
Series: 1 of 3
Episodes: 8 @ ~50 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Ninth House – Leigh Bardugo

ninth house cover

“By the time Alex managed to get the blood out of her good wool coat, it was too warm to wear it.”

Alex Stern has a secret. It’s driven her to dark places in her life, but now she has the chance at a new life, a fresh start. Her special skills have caught the eye of the Lethe society, a secret group in Yale University, tasked with watching the other secret societies. Each of these not only spawns rich and powerful alumni, in fields from Wall Street to Hollywood to Washington, but uses occult arts to get there. Reading entrails to predict the stockmarket, glamours and potions – how far can things go before backfiring?

I’ve adored Leigh Bardugo’s work since stumbling across¬†Six of Crows, and with this she makes her first foray into adult fiction. And it is most definitely not YA: it’s dark and gritty, and a few scenes bear possible ‘trigger warnings’ – the attempted rape of a pre-teen had me put the book down for a little bit, not least because the trauma comes across strongly in the writing.

It’s still very worth it, however. Bardugo is herself a Yale alumni, and the sense of cliques within cliques, of a whole town thrown that bit out of whack, really adds to the story of Alex’s attempts to learn about the occult, train to be the watcher, as well as keeping up with her studies. As for a social life – well, she’d settle for just not alienating her roomates completely!

The story is told in flashbacks, building a huge sense of mystery. What dark things happened to Alex before we meet her? And the other major players? Layers of mystery kept me absolutely gripped, and that’s even before we get to the murder…!

Very recommended, with that once warning: it gets dark. But I am delighted that this is the first in a new series – I want more!!

Hardback: 450 pages / 32 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Alex Stern¬†book 1 (woo! More to come!! ūüôā )
Read from 19th October – 9th November 2019

My rating: 9/10

Joker (2019)

joker poster

From Cesar Romero through Jack Nicholson to Heath Ledger, Batman’s Joker has gotten darker and less comic-book-y as a character. The more recent films featuring Batman (either Christian Bale, or Ben Affleck) have been getting grittier and darker each time. And then we have Joaquin Phoenix, in director Todd Phillip’s new take on the villain’s origin story – which I can only describe as, imagine taking away all of the comic book. Imagine looking for murky reality, a believable, real-world take. Which is what makes it so damn chilling.

Arthur Fleck (Phoenix) struggles with mental illness(es), with society, pretty much everything. His life is grim and filled with tragic pointlessness. We see him dressing up as a clown for work, only to be brutally beaten by a group of kids. We see the hellish weight-loss the actor went through, each rib on bruised display. We see every human interaction tinged with dismissiveness, or cruelty, or just a sense that things aren’t right.

I was in two minds about seeing this movie: was it glorifying violence? Using mental illness as a scapegoat? Hmm. But those elements certainly add to the disturbing nature of the film, the thought-provoking aspects of it all. And then there’s a performance and a half from the lead actor – as excellent as Ledger was with the character, the unwavering focus here allows for so much more.

I said thought provoking, and I mean it. There is something dangerous about a film that has a person snap and get his own back on all the bullies and horrible people – a sentiment you want to cheer, but not the degree to which it quickly descends. It skirts so close to verite, the backlash against the rich as the poor suffer so much – Thomas Wayne personifying this well, even though the Batman links almost took away from the movie for me. Is it fair to use Fleck’s mental illness as a background to it all – or is it the constant failures and disappointments that break him?

I’m still not sure there aren’t more issues with the movie than good points, but as art and only art – wow. Edge of the seat stuff, even knowing (mostly) how the character turns out. You are waiting to see how far things are pushed, how awful they will get, whether that line will be crossed from ‘entertainment’, not just on screen.

And still – utterly worth seeing. Joaquin Phoenix disturbed me, which was the point – but also because I strongly remember watching him as a child (when he took the name ‘Leaf’) in¬†Parenthood, not much older than me, wearing every line on his face. I spent long moments thinking things were ‘off’, only to realise that yes, Arthur is an unreliable narrator. To be honest, there are a lot of parts of the film – the dancing, for instance – that don’t really ‘fit’, but somehow add to the character even if it’s just a visual awkwardness to match the personality. And, those moments allow a use of music that fits so perfectly, and the oddest moments – the all-over-the-net dancing down the steps, for instance – serve in lieu of the touches of humour we might expect from other ‘superhero’ movies.

It’s so not a superhero movie (which is why the Batman stuff didn’t work for me, I suppose), but as a backlash against the decades of superhero-fluff (even the ‘we’re much darker and more series’ ones), just… wow. Couldn’t have gone much further in the opposite direction! It’s a psychological drama, more¬†Taxi Driver than anything else (almost too much, some suggest?). It’s not an easy watch, it’s not ‘enjoyable’ – but it’s powerful and haunting and worth watching just for the performance.

Released: 4th October
Viewed: 11th October 2019
Running time: 122 minutes
Rated: 15

My rating: 9/10

The Ten Thousand Doors of January – Alix E Harrow

ten thousand doors of january cover

“When I was seven, I found a door.”

January Scaller lives as the ward of Mr Locke, a wealthy collector of fantastic items from other cultures, while her father roams the world in search of these objects. She’s not¬†unhappy, exactly, but on the other hand her life is as restricted as one of the items in Locke’s collection: she is a singular oddity, reddish skinned, out of place wherever she goes.

One day, January finds a book entitled¬†The Ten Thousand Doors. Instantly appealing to her huge imagination, it’s not long before she starts to wonder… what if this isn’t fiction?

Usually when a book comes with as much hype as this, I’d tend to shy away thinking it could only disappoint. But, the lure of the portal fantasy is strong, and I am so glad I went for this!

First, the few things I didn’t like: given the period setting (turn of the previous century), the treatment of women and those of colour is not good. I know it’s a big part of the plot, but I was actually tempted to abandon everything at the point where January’s autonomy is so utterly removed from her – apparently a bit of a trigger for me. But, stick with it.

And now the good: absolutely everything else! First the language: it’s got a poetry, but without being flowerly. I wanted to capture so many little quotes, just perfect turns of phrases and lovely descriptions. The period is captured very well, alongside all the more fantastical elements.¬†The world building is excellent – who wouldn’t want to live in a world with Doors, all those possibilities and wonders and magic? And the story itself is enthralling: believably nasty baddies, a fierce heroine, strong supporting characters.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is a rare beast: a book for adults that’s full of the wonder usually reserved for children, which catches you up in a whirl of story and possibility. All in all, a sheer joy to read – and very recommended!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 14 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 7th-26th September 2019

My rating: 9/10

Blade Runner – Vangelis

blade runner OST cover

If you’re talking about film scores, the name Vangelis really should come up eventually, and nowhere better than his ground-breaking work for Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic,¬†Blade Runner.

The movie has *the* sci-fi noir (practically-invented-the-genre) feel going on, and the score captures and enhances that perfectly. It includes dialog from the movie, heavy use of synthesizers (from when electronica was still rather new), clever ‘alternative’ percussion, but an underlying orchestral feel, too. And a random 1920s-esque ragtime jazz song, actually written for the movie, but totally jarring with of the rest of the mood – and yet somehow fitting perfectly because of that.

Different tracks conjure different moods. Blade Runner Blues is appropriately wistful and lonely, as is the nostalgic Memories of Green. Tales of the Future, however, has Arabesque-chanting that brings an exotic flavour married with unsettling windchimes and minor chords that just oozes atmosphere. The End Titles are sci-fi action series, dun-dun-dun-dun and everything, almost at odds with the delicacy of the rest.

Rachel’s Song,¬†for instance, features an ethereal voice, plinky almost water drip electronica, and I’d swear I’ve heard meditation music that sounds 90% the same. It’s one of my favourites on the album, full of pathos and very otherworldly, in a mystical kind of a way. It’s followed by the much warmer (bar a few chillingly electronica chords in the middle…!), more contemporary (saxophones, really?) Love Theme – but, when you remember the awkward ickiness of one particular scene of the movie, the sleazy lounge room vibe is all the more appropriate.

Oddly, most of the score doesn’t actually conjure up scenes from the movie for me – not surprisingly, I find, as it was written somewhat independently of the visuals (but not the themes and mood). But then the dialog inclusions tie it wholly back again, particularly at the end with the futuristic electronica rebuffed with the poignant¬†Tears in the Rain speech; a gentle, uplifting finale.

It took 12 years for an official release of the score to appear after the movie came out. There are now more special releases than I’ve counted, perhaps fittingly for a movie that also has so many versions. It still sounds futuristic, still utterly atmospheric, and still very worth a listen.

My rating: 9/10

Genre: sci-fi noir
Released: 1982 (movie) / 1994 (official score release)
Length: 57:53
Number of tracks: 12

Track listing:

  1. Main Titles
  2. Blush Response
  3. Wait for Me
  4. Rachel’s Song
  5. Love Theme
  6. One More Kiss Dear
  7. Blade Runner Blues
  8. Memories of Green
  9. Tales of the Future
  10. Damask Rose
  11. End Titles
  12. Tears in the Rain

The Trials of Morrigan Crow – Jessica Townsend

Trials of Morrigan Crow cover

“The journalists arrived before the coffin did.”

Morrigan Crow has a miserable childhood. She’s a ‘cursed child’, doomed to die on her eleventh birthday and bringing dreadful luck to those around her until that day. Her family keep their distance, leaving her feeling more than a little unloved.

Events transpire, however, to save her – hardly a spoiler, that the main character doesn’t die at the start, even if we do begin with a funeral! – and she finds herself in the strange land of Nevermoor. She’s entered into the annual competition to join the Wundrous Society – except, the lucky few must pass four trials, the last of which is to display a ‘knack’, a gift better than anyone else’s. And Morrigan does not have a knack…

I know I’m older than the target audience for this book, and yet it perfectly hits the sweet spot of whimsical but not talking down to the audience, making it perfect for grown ups, too. In fact, I loved it. There are nods to all sorts of possible inspirations – from Narnia to Doctor Who – but it’s brought together very nicely. Nevermoor is somewhere I’d like to visit, and sign me up for a room that alters itself to match moods.

The story of Morrigan’s trials (not quite Hunger Games level, don’t worry!) is perhaps less original than it could be, but again it’s told well. The mystery of her missing ‘knack’ is maintained throughout, keeping you guessing. The rivalry with the nasty girl is a bit of a cliche, but y’know what? It’s overall sweet and uplifting and entertaining, and well worth the read by kids of any age!

NetGalley eARC: 513 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2017
Series: Nevermoor book 1
Read from 17th-26th August 2019

My rating: 9/10

The Sword Saint – CF Iggulden

sword saint cover

“The boy crouched on a ledge, resting his chin on his knees, eyes bright as he watched the old priest pass below.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in this series,¬†Darien¬†and¬†Shiang, although felt that there was so much more to be explained about all the wondrous things: the powerful stones held by the ruling families of Darien, the few individuals with special abilities, and how the geography might or might not fit with our world as their history. Alas, the series closes out with few answers – and yet it’s still one hell of a ride!

The second book threw me a little, switching cities and focus (at least to begin with), so one of the things I loved here was seeing all those threads from the first and second books pulled together. Truly, this trilogy is meant to be read as a whole, not individual chapters.

We’re back in Darien for the finale, and a new neighbouring king looking to make a trade deal – or, is that really what’s going on? As names start to feel familiar from the prologue, we’re left to wonder just what was being guarded by a priest.

There are a few victories and a few heartbreaking defeats as we follow our band of misfits one last time. It might have been nice to learn more about all the ideas, but perhaps it’s all best shrouded in mystery as we enjoy the series’ final battles.

Start with Darien – but do start!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Empire of Salt book 3 (of 3)
Read from 31st July – 8th August 2019

My rating: 9/10