Locke and Key (season 1)

locke and key poster

When their father is murdered, the three Locke siblings and their mother move back to his childhood home. For some mysterious reason, he’d never taken them to see their ancestral seat, but lost and grieving, the family grab at the chance to learn anything about him. And Keyhouse – the family obviously enjoying a pun or two – is a huge and intriguing place.

Oh yes, and it’s also hiding literal keys – magical keys that unlock various amazing powers. But the Lockes can’t just enjoy their new lives: someone – or something – wants those keys.

With everyone looking for more at-home entertainment in these lockdown days, if you’ve not tried this already I recommend giving it a go. I was curious; it sounded just my thing, but I worried about the ‘fantasy horror’ tag being heavy on the latter, and more about the main cast being teenagers and younger. Fears soon dispelled, though: it’s spooky rather than horrific, and the cast are all nice and un-annoying.

I’m very glad, as the story is well worth a look-see. Mysteries abound, about the house, about Mr Locke’s death, about the last time a group of Locke children experimented with the keys’ powers. Then there’s the sinister baddy, after the keys for their own nefarious purposes. It’s all drawn together to provide a massive ‘keep-watching’ reason.

Based on a comic book, there’s something quite computer game-y in the way the keys are hidden within other objects. Their various powers give rise to some pretty amazing visuals, too.

Recommended binge watching, and I’m delighted that there’s another series coming – even though we get a great ending, there’s so much more to explore.

First broadcast: January 2020 (Netflix UK)
Series: 1, with another announced
Episodes: 10 @ ~42 mins each

My rating: 8/10

The Witcher (season 1)

witcher poster

Welcome to a dark fantasy world of monsters and magic. Witchers, genetically modified  hunters of said monsters, are a dying breed. Here we follow some of the adventures of the legendary Geralt of Rivia (Henry Cavill), also known as the White Wolf and the Butcher of Blaviken – we’ll find out why in an early episode.

I knew very little about this going in, never having played the hugely successful games or read the books. I did buy the written series on offer last year, but struggled to get into it – I thought it might help to read before viewing, but actually the visuals helped me get into the first novel (The Last Wish) more easily.

The visuals really are great. Production quality is high, the action is very well done, and the actors are good. Cavill in particular (a big fan of the games, apparently) gives a gruff menace that is still oddly accessible – there’s something relatable in his general responses of either “Hmm” or “F-” and very little in between! His almost unwilling friendship with Jaskier (Joey Batey) – which is translated to ‘Dandelion’ in the books, but left as is in the TV show – is fun, if underplayed compared to the first book.

A parallel thread tells us about Yennefer (Anya Chalotra), a hunchback sold into service with a group of sorceresses. I think her story could have done with a bit more time and background, but then probably so could the rest of the series.

If there’s any complain from me it’s that the story telling is a bit muddled. I don’t just mean the two or more timelines – not made particularly clear, especially as several characters don’t age – but which actually get enough little hints as to be quite ‘cool’. Having now read the first book I can see that they’re trying to half-mimic the short story, incidents in a life retold kind of approach, but it doesn’t quite work as well as I think they’d’ve liked. Motivations seem muddy at times, and several changes from the books (why Geralt was fishing, for an obscure non-spoilery example) don’t really seem to add much. I’m not sure things come together enough in the end to make the format wholly work, instead leaving me with a sense of “Well, what story were you actually trying to tell?”

Still. It was very watchable and enjoyable, and I’m looking forward to the second season – although given production has had to be halted due to the Covid-19 woes, it might be a while before we can next ‘Toss a coin to (our) Witcher…’ 🙂

First broadcast: December 2019
Series: 1 (with a second in production)
Episodes: 8 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 8/10

Rewritten – Tara Gilboy

rewritten cover

“The problem with real memories, Gracie thought, was that they had actually happened.”

I enjoyed 2018’s Unwritten, about a girl who discovers that she’s a character from a book, escaped into the real world with her parents, but now having ‘glimmers’ of the story written for her. I wasn’t wholly expecting a sequel, but it works: there’s still a lot of aftermath to deal with from such a revelation, and Gracie’s attempts at a normal life might not go as smoothly as she hoped.

Indeed, her ‘normal’ life is less happy than any of us would want, especially with the constant suspicion over her former ‘villain’ status. She’s not the only one: the author of Gracie’s book, Gertrude Winters, is appalled that her writing lead to such misery – and worried that her other, unpublished, stories might have similar consequences. And when Gracie flicks through some of the pages, it’s not just her own story she’s having glimmers about…

This was a nice, easy read, just what the current times call for. It’s still got its moments of darkness, but Gracie learns a lot about herself and her purpose, and about her friends. It’s perhaps a little heavy on her inner woes, with other characters appearing a little flat or pantomine-ish (Cassandra), but overall the story works well.

There were many hints that there could be further adventures for Gracie et al – I kept forgetting this was a children’s book, and quite short, and thus kept expecting her to go into one of the other stories. I’ll be looking out for those adventures!

NetGalley eARC: 200 pages / 22 chapters

First published: 7th April 2020
Series: Unwritten book 2
Read from 15th-20th March 2020

My rating: 8/10

Good Omens

good omens poster

Throughout the history of the Earth (not as long as some scientists might have you believe), an angel – Aziraphale (Michael Sheen) – and a demon – Crowley (David Tennant) – come to a bit of an arrangement. Realising that their efforts largely cancel each other out, wouldn’t life just be easier if they didn’t… well, try so hard? I mean, as long as their respective Head Offices are getting all the right paperwork, will anyone really even notice?

The ‘bromance’ between these two characters is what lifts this story from fun to something a bit more special. Their friendship has formed over hundreds of years, each happily doing what they like on earth. Aziraphale loves human food. Crowley looks and acts like a rock star.

Everything’s great… until the birth of the Antichrist heralds the start of Armageddon…

I absolutely loved the book, co-written by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, and I think the reason this adaptation works is that Gaiman was brought on board to write the screenplay – something he has experience with, and also means that no one is straying too far from the beloved original version. The differences felt largely positive: the addition of a bullying Angel Gabriel (Jon Hamm), for instance.

Otherwise sticking quite closely to the book, I have to admit that the main plots – the switch-up at the maternity ward, an otherwise normal 11-year-old with the powers of the devil, and the ‘Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter (Witch)’ – were merely nice and totally overshadowed by how much I loved watching Tennant and Sheen having such fun with their respective characters.

As Crowley says, “I didn’t so much fall as saunter vaguely downwards.” Love it 🙂

First broadcast: January 2020
Series: 1 (and no, not likely to be more, it’s covered the whole book perfectly!)
Episodes: 8 @ ~60 mins each

My rating: 9/10

Highfire – Eoin Colfer

highfire cover

“Vern did not trust humans was the long and short of it.”

Vern might live in the Louisiana swamps, but he’s not short on luxury: vodka, cable tv, his beloved Flashdance t-shirts. The ‘gators bother him from time to time, sure, but any people who do likewise tend not to make it back out of the swamp. Which might be because Vern is short for Wyvern, Lord Highfire, last of the breed of dragon lords.

Still, even Vern might not be a match for 15-year-old ‘Squib’ Moreau, troublemaker and entrepreneur, constantly on the run from Louisiana’s most bent cop – who happens to be sweet on Squib’s mother. When these three combine, it might just get explosive…

Eoin Colfer is probably best known for the Artemis Fowl books. This isn’t his first book for adults, but it is for grown ups: yes, the main character is a talking dragon, but his language isn’t always clean and the violence is often spectacularly gory.

Still, if neither of those things put you off, then this book is huge amounts of fun. Well, there’s a sarcastic dragon with a passion for pop culture, for a start! Squib is also a great character, a bit surprising given he’s a teenager, and their developing friendship is done very well. Ooh, and I loathed the psychopathic Constable Hooke just as I’m sure I was supposed to – he’s a nasty one, but never pantomime-baddy.

Big shout out, too, for the descriptions of the setting. They plunge you completely into the mosquito-heavy atmosphere of the bayou, even if New Orleans seen from a dragon’s point of view isn’t exactly vacation-appealing!

Recommended – a full Squib-fingered score from me! 😉

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 21 chapters
First published: 2020
Series: none
Read from 22nd-28th January 2020

My rating: 9/10

The Unlikely Escape of Uriah Heep – HG Parry

unlikely escape of uriah heep cover

“At four in the morning, I was woken by a phone call from my younger brother.”

Charlie Sunderland has a gift. Not only is he a child prodigy – reading Great Expectations at 2 years old – when he gets engrossed in a good book, he can bring the characters out into the real world. He and his family – mother, father, and our narrator, his brother Rob – have carefully hidden this secret his entire life. But now Charlie is moving back to New Zealand after gaining an Oxford education, and Rob finds himself increasing called in to help mop up the mistakes.

One mistake is Uriah Heep, a slimy villain from Dickens’ David Copperfield, who ends up holding a knife to Rob’s throat…

Books about books are always a favourite for me, and the fantasy of being able to bring a beloved character into the real world has a great appeal. However, I must confess I almost passed on this book, as school left me with a strong dislike of Dickens, and I’m completely unfamiliar with Copperfield or Uriah Heep. Turns out, none of that matters – and I’m very very glad I took the chance with this!

As well as the fantasy plot, which is twisty and exciting, TUEoUH has extra layers. First, the love of literature shines forth brightly, and Charlie’s professor-ish insights – gracefully wound into the plot – are making even Dickens look more appealing. The other main theme is that of sibling relationships. We discover the story through Rob’s eyes, how he dealt with having a gifted younger brother both as a child and their different bond in adulthood. I’m not sure the big childhood ‘secret’ is worth all the build up it gets through the book, but at the same time, the way a small boyhood incident can loom over a whole life felt very authentic.

Overall, very recommended!

NetGalley eARC: 496 pages / 43 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 17th-25th January 2020

My rating: 9/10

Ash Princess – Laura Sebastian

ash princess cover

“The last person who called me by my true name was my mother, with her dying breath.”

Theodosia watches her as her mother’s throat is cut, then her kingdom occupied by the invading Kalovaxians. Their leader, the Kaiser, is particularly cruel, delighting in keeping Theo – renamed Thora via repeated torture – as a trophy of his conquest and whipping girl for any rebellious acts by the enslaved local population.

Meek and dutiful Thora, however, is pushed too far when the Kaiser forces her to execute the leader of the rebels and her last best hope for rescue. Soon, she’s neck-deep in plotting to free her people and become the queen she was born to be. But it’s not so simple to pretend to seduce a ‘prinz’ – that is, the pretense bit. Oy.

If you can think of a trope in a YA fantasy, chances are you’ll find it here. Young woman, possibly with untapped magical potential, going from rags to rising up to claim her true destiny? Check check check. Love triangle? Of course. Cruel pantomime villains starting to leer at the burgeoning womanhood? Oh yes. And a large shout out to the ridiculous fantasy names: Theodosia, Crescentia, and changing ‘prince’ to ‘prinz’, among other painful tongue twisters.

I’m a little amazed that I got past the opening chapters with all of that ringing large alarm bells, and I have mixed feelings that I bothered. On the one hand, this is a decent enough book – well enough written, good pace and holding of attention. On the other, it is so very very familiar. I hated the first-person narrative at the beginning, and only grew to be so-so about it. And I cannot, cannot stand the love ‘triangle’.

Oh – and then there’s the violence. Teenage girl gets regularly whipped, for a *decade*, with quite frankly too much detail at certain points – YA should not stray into torture porn, even briefly o.O

Urgh. It wasn’t awful. You might enjoy it a lot more. But I didn’t need another rehash of this kind of story, I’m afraid.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages
First published: 2018
Series: Ash Princess trilogy book 1
Read from 3rd-10th January 2019

My rating: 5/10